Baekhyun had strict instructions from his boss to go and collect the new kid from Quirindi railway station at 4.30 in the afternoon. “His name’s Chanyeol,” Tucker had informed him, “and he’s coming to work with us for a while. But he doesn’t have a car, so you’ll need to go pick him up. The train from Sydney arrives at half past four, so be on time — don’t leave the poor kid waiting around in a town he doesn’t know. And remember to be friendly. Wouldn’t hurt you to smile for once, either.”
Well, it was 4.48 now, and where the hell was he? Baekhyun had been parked across from the station for about half an hour, waiting for him to show up, with no clue as to what he even looked like. He knew next to nothing about this Chanyeol bloke at all, apart from what Tucker had passed on from their telephone interview: that he was 19 years old, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in every sense of the phrase, loved animals — but didn’t they all? A country boy like Baekhyun, he’d moved from Young to Sydney the year before to study agriculture, and was taking a semester off to do some work on a real life cattle station — a lifelong dream of his, apparently. Baekhyun had laughed when he first heard this, because it sounded so backwards; why would anyone go to the city to learn how to run a farm, when he could become a hotshot lawyer or an investment banker, or whatever the hell it was that young men moved to the city for these days. It made no sense to him at all.
But he figured he’d reserve his judgement until the time they actually met — which was now supposed to be 20 minutes ago, according to the clock on the dashboard. In the meantime he’d picked up a couple of newspapers, as he always did whenever he was in town, and was flicking through one of them while he waited. On the page spread open in his lap there was a small column to the side of the main article, ‘Man Killed In Bathroom Attack’, which got his attention. They’d listed the poor bastard’s injuries: throat slashed, his own nuts stuffed inside his mouth and held in with duct tape, beaten to a bloody pulp with a steel pipe. He was found in the last stall of the public toilet in some dingy little park in an inner-Sydney suburb Baekhyun had never heard of. He rarely ever ventured down there anyway, had no real reason to. As usual there was a photo of the victim in happier times, a handsome young man in his twenties, sandy hair in tousled waves falling over his forehead and a toothy, winning smile. Jack, his name was. They were always smiling in the photos.
Baekhyun frowned, scanning the rest of the article. Lately it felt like he read about this kind of thing a lot. It seemed to always happen in the same places, and always at night: public bathrooms in parks, narrow alleyways behind nightclubs, along the cliff-top promenades of the bays and beaches — gay beats, in other words. They always met up in places like that. Another poof-bashing for sure, Baekhyun thought grimly, not that he had anything against gays. But they weren't doing themselves any favours, lurking around in areas like that after dark. Anyway, that stuff happened out here in the middle of nowhere as well, except no one in the papers ever bothered to write about it; the days of Baekhyun’s childhood, when kids could wander around unsupervised and people left their doors unlocked at night, were well and truly over. Sad, perhaps, but times were changing, and you either rolled with it or got left behind.
Rolling down the window a crack, Baekhyun lit up a cigarette from the squashed carton in his back jeans pocket, and he left it dangling from the corner of his mouth while he moved on to the sports section; he didn’t really give a shit about cricket or football, but it was less depressing than much of the other stuff in there. The Baby Animals tape in the deck finished playing without him noticing at first, and he ejected it, flipped it over and pushed it back in. Then there was a knock on the window, making him jump, and he saw someone peering in at him― a man, by the look of it. A dried streak of bird shit on the glass blocked out part of his face; the rest of it was obscured by the brim of his hat.
Baekhyun blinked at the stranger, and then he looked down and saw that the cigarette had fallen from his lips. It had landed on the pile of paper in his lap and was quickly burning through it. He swore, picked the cigarette up and stuck it back in his mouth, then rolled the window down the rest of the way. “Wasn’t expecting you,” he said. “Scared the crap out of me.”
“Sorry about that… and about being late, as well. The train left later than it was meant to,” the boy replied, in a booming voice that in no way matched his face ― now that Baekhyun could see him properly, he was struck by how young he looked. Was Tucker sure the kid was 19? He looked like he was still in school. He stooped down a little lower to peer in at Baekhyun through the open window. He had a guitar case slung over his shoulder — probably fancied himself a bit of a musician as well. “You’re Baekhyun, right? I was told to look out for a white Hilux ute.” He at least had the courtesy to look apologetic.
Baekhyun looked him up and down, almost threw his neck out in the process. Man, was he tall. A good-looking young fella, too, although the way he held himself suggested he was perhaps oblivious to it. He wore tight blue Levi’s and a checked shirt (ironed, for fuck's sake) with the sleeves rolled up neatly to the elbows; there was an Akubra hat perched on his head, and unlike Baekhyun's, which had seen better days, his looked like it was brand new. He looked nice and clean and clueless, and Baekhyun was already betting he’d be running for the hills — or away from them, in this case — within a fortnight; the new kids often did, since Baekhyun could be hard to get along with, and usually ended up pushing them past breaking point before the season was over. But he couldn’t help it that he’d become set in his ways at the ripe old age of 29; he didn't have time to waste on people who’d probably watched too many Western films and had fallen for the 'romance and excitement' of the lifestyle. Cowboys in movies spent their time shooting at each other and sitting pretty in the saddle, when the life of a real stockman was meant to be all about the stock, even to the point of putting their needs and comfort before one’s own. Baekhyun had never shot at anyone before, ever. He had a rifle that he only pointed at dying or injured animals, and apart from that, the only stand-off he ever got into was between himself and the odd feral pig.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Baekhyun said at last, finally remembering to reply. “You must be Chanyeol, then.”
“Yep.” Chanyeol stuck a giant hand through the open window. “Nice to meet ya.”
“Likewise.” Baekhyun gave the hand a quick shake and jerked his head toward the passenger seat beside him. “Well, hop in, cowboy… we’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of us. Doubt that guitar’s gonna fit in here, but you can go and chuck it in the tray if you want.”
Chanyeol looked nervous at the idea. “Will it be alright there..?”
“Not to worry,” Baekhyun said, “I put my dog back there all the time. If I can manage not to send her flying, I’m sure your guitar will survive.”
Chanyeol nodded in silence and walked around the back of the ute to leave his guitar in the tray. Then he settled himself in the passenger seat, stuffing his backpack between his knees. His legs were so long that he looked too big for the car, even with the seat pushed all the way back.
“You spoke to Tucker on the phone, then,” Baekhyun said as they pulled away from the station, in a bid to make small talk. Spending a lot of his time alone with animals for the past several years hadn't done much for his conversational skills, but a forty-minute drive spent in awkward silence didn’t hold much appeal.
“Oh, yeah,” Chanyeol replied. “I had a phone interview with him. He seemed cool.”
Baekhyun snorted, finished his cigarette and flicked the butt out of the open window. “Well, he’s definitely… something else. But I guess I can’t bag him too much, since I’m kinda seeing his daughter at the moment. Don’t think he’s too happy about it, but she could do a lot worse than me.”
“I didn’t know he had a daughter. Is she pretty?”
“Mmm... and adopted, mind you,” Baekhyun said. “It’s a good thing. Means she hasn't taken after him in the looks department.”
Chanyeol laughed politely. "I see."
“So the old man probably explained to you what mustering is and why we do it… although we’ve just finished the actual mustering part for the season, so you’ve kind of missed all the excitement. Arrived just in time for all the hard work, though,” Baekhyun said, laughing through his nose. “Lucky you.” He predicted he'd be making another drive back to Quirindi fairly soon, but only time would tell.
“Yeah. Well, I had to sort a few things out before I just up and left for six months,” Chanyeol said. “You know how it is.”
Baekhyun nodded. “Fair enough. Anyway, we’ve got five hundred head of Angus on the property, so it’s very small as far as cattle stations go. But business is good. Several years ago I was up north-west, working on a station in the Pilbara — much bigger by comparison, six thousand head of cattle on four hundred thousand acres of mostly desert. Hours and hours away from anything remotely resembling a town. Lightning Creek’s not like that, so it’s a good place to start you off. Mostly the cattle just wander around the property grazing freely, and then we round them all up a couple times a year; now that that’s done, we’ll just need some help with drafting and processing them all. You know, sorting them into pens, giving them their shots, tagging, steering, all that fun stuff. We separate all the breeders and the weaners, and then Tucker goes around having a look at what’s left, deciding which are alright to go to market, then the rest go back out to the fields. I guess at least you won’t have to do as much riding. Are you alright on a horse?”
Chanyeol shrugged. “I’m pretty good… we have a few back at home. I rode a lot as a kid.”
“Good. One less thing you’ll need to learn, then.”
“This place is amazing,” Chanyeol said. Now he had his face pressed up against the window, much like Baekhyun’s dog Tess did whenever he let her sit in the front seat.
“I know,” Baekhyun replied, smiling to himself. They turned onto the long dirt road that would take them to Lightning Creek, passing the sign Tucker had painted years ago on an old piece of iron sheeting. “Welcome to God’s country.”
Chanyeol was quiet for a while, apparently too busy enjoying the scenery to make further conversation, and Baekhyun figured he’d leave him to it. “Nice house,” the boy said at last, when they pulled up outside the Lightning Creek homestead — a cozy-looking, single-storey weatherboard place with a flower garden out the front in full springtime bloom, which Mrs. Tucker considered her pride and joy. “Do you all live here?”
Baekhyun nodded. “The owners, myself and the rest of the staff all live here year-round. Staff have separate quarters around the back; no other temps so far this season, so you'll have a room to yourself, but bathroom and living facilities are shared. Tucker’s wife does all the cooking, and you’ll be very well-fed while you’re here. A lovely lady, she is. We have four female farmhands working here on a permanent basis, which means you’ll be plonked right in the middle of a group of pretty cowgirls, but I suppose that’s every young bloke’s dream. Their names are Amber, Krystal, Jessica and Victoria. Amber’s worked here the longest, and is a sort of second-in-command to me; they’re all very friendly, but they can all teach you a thing or two about working with livestock, so you’d be wise to learn as much from them as you can. And treat them with respect, or I’ll be giving you more than a good talking-to about it.”
“Yes, sir,” Chanyeol said.
“Alright. Well, I think that covers everything I wanted to say. I’m sure Tucker will want to speak to you himself.” Baekhyun gave the boy a friendly pat on the back. “Come on, I’ll give you a hand with your stuff. I expect we’ll be called to dinner soon.”
Dinner was a barbecue out on the verandah that night since the weather was good, and Chanyeol was a hit with the girls — which Baekhyun had expected, since he looked more like a fashion model than an aspiring cowboy. He looked on in amusement, wondering which one of them would rope Chanyeol in to dating her first. The poor kid seemed a bit daunted at being surrounded by beautiful women, and almost looked relieved when Baekhyun rescued him, pulling him over to the verandah steps for a beer and a manly chat.
“So where are you from, then?” Chanyeol asked him, when they were on their second beer each. “Around here?”
“Not quite. A bit further north,” Baekhyun told him. “I grew up in a tiny place called Wongwibinda, which is not too far from Armidale, if you’ve heard of that. That’s where I went to school.”
“I’ve heard of Armidale, but not Wongwibinda,” Chanyeol said. “What’s there?”
Baekhyun shrugged. “Not a lot. One main street with half a pub, a general store, a newsagent-cum-post office and a petrol station with two pumps. It’s a real nothing of a town… the kind of place that’s so small you’ll bump into the same people five times in one day. And everyone knows absolutely everything about you, including what time you get up to take a shit in the morning. I was glad we lived on a fairly big property; at least it put some distance between us and the neighbours.”
“What’s half a pub?” Chanyeol asked, frowning.
“Well, one half of the general store is the pub,” Baekhyun said. “So I suppose you could say it’s half a pub. Only one type of beer on tap last time I ventured in there, and it was Fosters. Would rather drink my own piss.”
Chanyeol laughed at that. “At least it’s free.”
“Yeah,” Baekhyun sighed. “Still, the town itself might be a bit of a dive, but you can’t beat the backdrop… right at the foot of the Range, and everything’s very green. But I didn’t give a shit about greenery back then. I moved out to Tamworth as soon as I was old enough, since there was a bit more going on there. I worked with horses for a bit, and then I moved up north and took that job in the Pilbara, which was an eye-opening experience. Then I got tired of the desert, I suppose. All that fuckin red dirt everywhere, sticks to bloody everything, you could have five showers a day and still be dirty. I was homesick for the hills, so from there I came back out this way, was in Gunnedah for a while. Then I guess I ended up here.”
“Cool,” Chanyeol said, lifting his bottle to his lips. “Well, it’s a hell of a lot more than I’ve done.”
“Got anyone back home?” Baekhyun asked him. “Girlfriend? Or boyfriend… no worries, I don’t judge.”
Chanyeol just shook his head. “Just my family down south. Other than that, no one special.”
Baekhyun took a photo out of his wallet and handed it over. “That’s Tucker’s daughter, Tiffany. The one I’m seeing.”
Chanyeol held the photo for a moment, studying it intently. His expression was hard to read. “Nice work… she’s a real beauty. Good pair of legs on her, too,” he said at last, and he passed the photo back to Baekhyun, who merely nodded to acknowledge the compliment. It made him feel like they were talking about a horse or something, but he didn’t mind. Anyway, it was true.
“So Tucker’s not happy with you two going out?” Chanyeol asked, and Baekhyun shrugged. He put the photo back in his wallet and slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans. He didn’t even know how it happened, really; for a few years she was nothing but his boss’s kid daughter, and then the next minute she was all grown up, and then a second later they were going out. She was the kind of girl who saw something she wanted and decided right there and then that it was hers, and was persuasive enough to make you agree with her 9 times out of 10. Even Baekhyun, as hard-headed as he could be sometimes, had found it difficult to fight her off.
“Dunno,” Baekhyun said; he took his smokes out and lit up, then offered one to Chanyeol, who politely refused. “He hasn’t actually said anything about it. It’s just a feeling I get.”
After the girlfriend talk, the topic naturally shifted to their families, and what it was like for each of them growing up in the country. Chanyeol’s family’s business was in stonefruit, and he told Baekhyun all about their cherry orchard — how he used to pick them in the summer, and how more of them would end up in his mouth than in the basket. Beautiful cherries nearly the size of plums, he said — they grew plums too, did he know? One time, Chanyeol said with a sheepish smile, he ate so many cherries while he was meant to be harvesting them that he got the runs really bad for two solid days. He was a bit more careful after that. His mother made the best cherry pies in the whole country, he was sure of it, and tourists passing through the town would always stop past their house just to buy them, blah blah fucking blah… the kid had a motor-mouth on him, and Baekhyun was already half asleep at that point. He actually quite liked listening to Chanyeol rabbiting on, though, and he hadn’t really planned to talk much about his own family property, but then it all came tumbling out anyway. ‘Illa Langi’ his childhood house was called, which meant ‘home on the hill’; the place had been so old and rundown when they bought it that there wasn’t even a toilet inside, just an old dunny in a shed out the back, and when he was a kid Baekhyun had wandered out there to use it one morning, only to find a brown snake slithering up out of the blackness of the pit. He’d run away screaming bloody murder with his pants still around his ankles, and after that his folks finally had a real reason to invest in a toilet inside the house. The story made Chanyeol collapse against the verandah railing in laughter, and he had one of those funny, twitchy, whole-body laughs that made you laugh along with him, even if you were in a bit of a shit mood ― which Baekhyun often was, these days. But he always loosened up a little when he had a few beers in him, and it was nice to see that Chanyeol did too. The shyness from the drive to Lightning Creek earlier in the day seemed long forgotten.
Another hour flew by, and eventually Chanyeol excused himself with a smile, heading off to his room to get ready for bed. Amber had since come around to join them for a bit, and it was just her and Baekhyun left on the verandah, nursing their last beers before turning in.
“I think I like this one," Amber said. She knocked back the rest of her beer. "He’s a good one. I can already tell.”
Baekhyun shrugged. “Yeah, he’s alright. Seems keen and all that.” He glanced over at Amber and saw the look she was giving him. “What?”
Amber’s expression softened a little. “Be a bit nicer this time, hey? Would hate to see the poor kid doing a runner by the end of the week.”
“Well, you know how it goes.” Baekhyun picked his empty bottle up from the step below him, then stood up to stretch his legs. “I’ll be nice to him if he's nice to me. Maybe. Can’t make any promises, but.”
Amber laughed. “Yeah, yeah, we've all heard that before," she said. “Night, Baek.” Picking up her own bottle, she gave Baekhyun a pat on the shoulder and went back inside the house.
Towards the end of Chanyeol’s first week on Lightning Creek, Tucker called Baekhyun into his office for 'a chat' -- which, from prior experience, Baekhyun knew was usually not a good thing. He stuffed down his reservations anyway and took a seat opposite the old man at his desk, waiting for him to speak. Tucker studied him for a moment, flicking a ballpoint pen around in his fingers, and then he said, “now that this season's mustering is done and dusted, I've got a special project for you.” His leathery old face cracked into a cunning smile. “I reckon you'll like this one, too.”
"It's far from done,” Baekhyun said. “We still have to finish processing the cattle.”
Tucker waved him off. "Yeah, yeah, I know… but I’ll get to all that. Just hear me out, would you?”
Baekhyun looked at Tucker for a long time before he spoke. "Well, alright,” he said cautiously. “Hit me with it.”
“Right. So I’m sure you're aware that there's a small brumby colony living on the property,” Tucker said. “Well, maybe you’ve never seen one, but even if you haven’t, the evidence isn’t hard to spot. There's signs of 'em everywhere on the south side, particularly out in the hills where it’s forested — there’s a huge mob living in the national park, and now they’re starting to trickle through the forest reserve into Lightning Creek. When I was with Kris in the chopper during the muster, I had him fly me over that area, and I reckon there's at least twenty head of them hiding out in the bush, could see a few of 'em from the air. I counted fifteen head, but who knows how many more there are. They destroy everything, worse than the rabbits, and it’s only gonna get worse as they breed. So I want you,” — here Tucker paused, pointing a thick finger at the space right between Baekhyun’s eyes — “to go out there and catch ‘em all. How’s that sound?”
Baekhyun nearly burst out laughing at the idea. “You’re kidding, right?” he said. “I’m not roping them in, if that’s what you’re thinking. I don’t care if they’re feral… it’s cruel. I won’t do it.”
“You won’t need to rope them… if you see any wandering around then you can get on horseback and use a dog or two to round them up into the yards, but otherwise you can just trap them,” Tucker said. “Whatever you can catch, I’ll sell off to Kris's mate who breaks them in; he uses some as stock-horses, sells off the rest to tourist farms for pleasure riding. The really untrainable ones, unfortunately, will probably end up as pet food. But all of these options are better than me shooting them, and obviously more lucrative. So I want you to set out next week, while it’s still dry and relatively cool at night; once summer comes and the weather starts getting too warm and wet, it'll be no good. You’ll be very uncomfortable then, and you won’t thank me for it. Go and set up your camp near the forest, and you can take a helper with you. Take the big tent, horses, some dogs if you want. There are a couple of trap-yards in the area that you can use to lure the brumbies into, but check ‘em all before you start, make sure they're in good nick, repair anything that’s broken. Any gaps or weak spots in the fencing, they might get out. They’re clever bastards, I tell ya… but I’m sure you know that already.”
“Why me, though?” Baekhyun asked. “Why not bring in someone who actually does this sort of thing for a living?”
“I’m not going to pay through the nose for a bloody horse whisperer,” Tucker said, scoffing at the suggestion. “I’d rather the money go to someone I know and trust. You'll get a nice raise if you do it, plus a percentage of whatever I sell the horses for, so consider that an incentive. You're an excellent horseman, and I know you've worked with brumbies before. You’ll know how they think, to some extent. That's why I'm asking you to do this for me.”
Baekhyun sighed, leaning backwards in his chair. “That was years ago… and I was helping someone else to break them in. Someone with years of experience. I wasn’t doing it by myself.”
“You have plenty of experience with animals,” Tucker said. “Brumbies might be smarter, and they can be dangerous, but they’re no more dangerous than a mob of unruly cattle. I think you’ll manage just fine.”
Baekhyun chewed his lip. “How long would I have to accomplish this…?”
“A month should be plenty,” Tucker said. “You can drive back up here to have your Sundays off if you want, but for the rest of the time, I want you camped out there ‘round the clock. You can sprinkle the trap-yards with molasses to entice them in — no roping necessary. Once they walk into a trap-yard, they won’t be able to walk back out, unless they’re big enough to jump the fence… not much you can do in that case. Get as many as you can manage to catch in that time-frame, but whatever's left, I'm going in and shooting.”
“Alright,” Baekhyun sighed. “Well, I should probably take Amber then… I’ll go talk to her now.”
Tucker had other ideas. “I want you to take Chanyeol,” he said.
“What?” Baekhyun actually did laugh, this time. “No way, mate.”
“Why not?” Tucker said, frowning. “He’s a nice young fella… clearly works hard. Seen him following you around the cattle yards like a lovesick puppy. He’d probably be chomping at the bit to do it.”
“He's inexperienced,” Baekhyun said. “Being nice and hard-working has nothing to do with it.”
“He can ride well enough — you’ve seen him at it,” Tucker said. “He’s good with horses, too; maybe not as good as Amber, but good enough. What more do you need? Anyway, I’ll be needing Amber’s expertise in the drafting yards, so she’s a no-go.”
“Let me take someone else, then.” Baekhyun hated pleading, but this was dire. “Someone who knows his arse from grass, preferably.”
Tucker clasped his hands together in front of him. “Look — you're great with the animals, Byun, but I’m not so sure about your people skills, and I’m sick of you chasing off all my new jackaroos before they've even lasted a season. Consider this a bonding thing — an exercise in learning some patience. The girls are great workers, but I need some muscle around here, and if I’m gonna take this kid on, he’ll have to prove he can hit the ground running. What better way to show him the ropes than this? But if you don’t want to get him involved, then I can’t force you; let him watch from the sidelines if you want. Have him help you put the new fencing up. I’ve heard he likes cooking, he can be your little housewife back at the camp — whatever. That part’s up to you. Either way, you’re taking him with you.”
Baekhyun sighed heavily. He wanted to point out that whatever patience he did have was usually spent on Tucker's animals, but the old man currently had twice the leverage, being both his boss and the father of his lady friend, and so he held his tongue.
“Fucking hell… yeah, alright then,” he muttered, rubbing his forehead — it was probably karma biting him in the bum for making Chanyeol castrate his first bull calves the day before. And maybe it was a bit much, grabbing the still-warm testicles out of the horrified boy’s hands and chucking them to the working dogs, who’d gobbled them up in front of him without a moment’s hesitation. The poor kid had seemed a bit traumatised after that. And then asking him if he was allergic to nuts when Mrs. Tucker had called them to lunch was probably taking it too far as well, but how else was Baekhyun going to toughen him up?
“Or would you rather I just go in there and shoot them all?” Tucker said. His expression was stony now. “Because God knows that'll be a more efficient method. And I won’t have to pay you for it. No skin off my nose, Byun… I’m not the horse-hugger here. Choice is yours.”
Baekhyun stared out the window behind Tucker’s meaty old head, looking out towards the stables. There were few things he loved more in life than horses. His own beloved stock-horse, Chook, had been wild; she’d been caught and broken in by someone before Tucker bought her, and was now one of the most gentle and beautiful animals Baekhyun had ever worked with. “Nah,” he said in a quiet voice, “I can't let you do that. It wouldn't be right.”
Tucker nodded. “Good… I had a feeling the old conscience would kick in eventually. Well, I’ll sit Chanyeol down later today and fill him in on Operation Brumby. You two can set out Monday morning. Remember, I’m giving you fellas a month… four weeks should be enough to at least get most of them penned up. The more you catch, the more I pay you. For whoever’s left, it's bang-bang bye-bye. I’m sure the dogs would all love a bit of horse-meat with their kibble.”
“I’ll do my best,” Baekhyun said, making no effort to hide the irritation in his tone. Tucker dismissed him then, and he got up from his seat and left the room.
They got up early on Monday morning to prepare for the drive ahead, fitting the ute with the horse trailer, filling the tray with the tent and their sleeping gear and stacking up the boxes packed with food and other supplies. As expected, Chanyeol seemed a lot more keen about the prospect of Operation Brumby than Baekhyun did. Baekhyun let him spend time with all the stock-horses before they set off, seeing which one he’d feel most comfortable working with. But he’d already taken a shine to a chestnut mare called Banjo, whom he’d been riding around for the past few days, and seemed to have his heart set on taking her along.
"You sure about that one?" Baekhyun said doubtfully; Banjo was a hard worker, but she startled easily.
“Why?” Chanyeol rubbed the horse’s nose, planting a little kiss on the end of it. “I like her. She looks a lot like one of our horses back at home.” He seemed to have made up his mind, and Baekhyun exhaled loudly through his nostrils, but he didn’t argue.
"Alright, if you say so,” he said. “If she ever gets too much for you, you can ride Chook instead. She’s very calm, very easygoing. I’d put my own kids on her, if I had any.”
At last everything was packed, the horses were safely in the trailer, and they were ready to leave. Tess hopped in the front and sat in between Chanyeol's knees, looking up at him with doleful eyes while Baekhyun started the car and pulled away from the house. Amber was out on the verandah, sitting in one of the wicker chairs in her dressing gown, holding a cup of something hot. She waved at them as they drove away, and Baekhyun stuck his hand out the window to wave back.
Chanyeol cooed at Tess, scratching her behind the ears. “You’re a cutie, aren’t you?”
“Probably looking at you like that because she wants you to feed her,” Baekhyun replied, smiling. “You got a dog at home?"
“Three, back at the farm," Chanyeol said. "Haven't seen them for ages, so I miss them terribly. We’ve got a kelpie too, except she’s black, not red. Her name’s Shadow because she’ll follow you around like one.”
Baekhyun laughed. "I love dogs. Find it hard to pick between them and the horses, sometimes.”
“You must really like cows, too, to want to work with them all the time,” Chanyeol said.
“Cattle,” Baekhyun replied. “Yes, I do. They can be very sweet creatures, when they’re not distressed. And when you spend a lot of time with them, you come to realise that they have a lot more personality than people give them credit for; they’re not just steak on legs. Although I do love a good legless steak as much as the next person.”
“Sounds like you’ve been spending a bit too much time with ‘em,” Chanyeol said, and Baekhyun laughed again.
“Probably,” he said. “I like them better than most people I know, that’s for sure.”
They were heading toward the hills now, a view Baekhyun had seen countless times, but the effect it had on him — that prickly feeling in the corners of the eyes, the tightening of the chest — was always the same. Chanyeol rolled down the window and stuck his head out, his wavy brown mop flying about in the open air. “This is amazing!” he yelled, the rushing sound of the wind half drowning him out, and Tess barked and tried to climb up onto his lap, apparently wanting to look out too.
“Hey! Get your heads back in the window, you two,” Baekhyun growled at them. “One mutt in this car is enough,” he said to Chanyeol, his tone a little more friendly this time. “Don’t you have any hills where you’re from?”
Chanyeol nodded, muttered a quick apology and pushed Tess back down between his knees. “We do… but not like this,” he said, rolling the window up again. “I guess you’re probably used to this kind of view, but for me it’s a bit of a novelty.”
“Oh, it never loses its magic, even when you’ve been here for years.” Baekhyun looked over at the boy next to him, with his wide eyes and windblown hair, and his expression softened a little. “If only we were here just to enjoy the scenery, hey?”
They’d been driving for about twenty minutes when they reached the edge of the eucalypt forest on the south end of the property, where there were several empty trap-yards as Tucker had mentioned, all in varying states of disrepair. Baekhyun parked the car and let the horses out of the trailer, tying them up to a bit of old fencing in the shade, and they began to set up their camp a little way off from the tree-line. It was a beautiful spring day, still a bit crisp, but the air was so clear and fresh that a few good lungfuls of it woke Baekhyun up far better than a cup of coffee ever could. He stood there for a moment, taking it all in.
“This is fantastic,” Chanyeol said, grinning like a madman. He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out again, slowly. “I’m busting for a piss, though.”
“When nature calls, you go thatta way," Baekhyun told him, pointing towards the trees. "And if you need to do a number two, be courteous enough to take the spade with you and bury it. I’ll walk you down to the creek a little later, show you where the ‘bathing facilities’ are, if you can call them that.” He unhooked the canvas cover over the tray of the ute and rolled it up, hauling out the tent. “But for now, I’m gonna unpack, and then we’ll start putting this big mama up.”
When Chanyeol came back, he helped Baekhyun unpack the ute, and then they started on the tent. The kid made himself more than useful, at least until he gave his own thumb an almighty hammering, completely missing the peg he was meant to hit. “Damn it!” he muttered, sucking on his sore thumb. “Fudge. Sugar Honey Ice Tea. Shivers, that hurts.”
“You can swear on the job, you know,” Baekhyun said, watching him in amusement. “I don’t mind. I’m not the one who pays you."
"Fuck a duck!" Chanyeol yelled out, and then stuck the injured thumb back inside his mouth. “Sorry,” he said, looking sheepish, but Baekhyun just laughed at him.
“You’re alright,” he said. “Better out than in.” He relieved Chanyeol of the hammer and did the rest of the dangerous work himself, just in case. The tent wasn’t five-star accommodation by any means, but it was more than spacious enough for two people, and with the addition of a couple of blow-up mattresses, it could even be quite comfortable. Baekhyun had slept in it many a time in unfavourable conditions, and the trusty old thing had never once flooded or blown away. At any rate, it would be home sweet home for the next couple of weeks, with the exception of the odd night spent back at the homestead.
“Well, there it is.” Baekhyun stood in front of the finished tent with his hands on his hips, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. “Not bad, hey?”
“You reckon we could go take a quick dip in the creek?” Chanyeol said, wiping beads of sweat off his forehead with the back of one hand. “I’m boiling.”
“You can, if you want. Not much of a swimmer, myself.”
This seemed good enough for Chanyeol, so Baekhyun led him through the trees, following the sound of running water. The creek cut right through the property like a jagged scar that flashed silver in the sunlight ― serving as inspiration for the property’s name, Baekhyun explained, since it looked very much like a bolt of lightning when viewed from above. As soon as they got there, Chanyeol began to strip off, unbuttoning his shirt halfway and pulling it over his head, and then he shucked his jeans, leaving both garments in a crumpled pile on the bank. Baekhyun just stood there and watched him in silent awe, thankful that he at least kept his undies on. He was slim but well-built, muscular in all the right places, and had the same farmer's tan that Baekhyun had, although slightly more faded. The kid was at least sensible enough not to go diving in headfirst, wading into the water carefully — although on someone that tall, the creek was only waist-deep, at best. He submerged himself completely and then came up again, shivering and spluttering, shaking droplets of water from his hair.
“Cold enough for you?” Baekhyun called out. He couldn’t help smiling.
Chanyeol nodded and wrapped his arms around himself. “It’s a bit fresh, but you get used to it. You coming in?”
Baekhyun waved him off. "I'm fine right here," he said. “You’re on your own.”
"Aw, come on, party pooper…” Chanyeol had taken to floating on his back, what was left of his modesty now bared to the sky above; his underwear left very little to the imagination when wet, and Baekhyun averted his gaze out of politeness. But Chanyeol seemed to have no qualms about being seen almost naked, and Baekhyun thought that was brave of him. He would have been a lot more hesitant to get his gear off in front of a relative stranger.
"The water's really nice," Chanyeol called out to him. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Alright, time to hop out… can’t have you spending all day in there,” Baekhyun said. “We’ve still got plenty of work to do. Day's only half over." Before they left, he pointed out the edges of the creek to Chanyeol and said, “see where it’s all eroded here? The brumbies come here to drink — it’s their hooves that do that. That’s why Tucker wants ‘em gone.”
Chanyeol got back into his clothes without bothering to dry off — it was hot now anyway, he said. They saddled up the horses and spent the rest of the day riding through the surrounding fields, checking all the trap-yards for wear and tear, making a note of any fences that needed mending. These were the yards they’d be shutting the brumbies into over the coming weeks, Baekhyun explained, and they needed to be pretty solid if they were going to actually keep the animals in; Baekhyun had brought timber and tools with him in the ute, and so they made plans to spend the whole of the next day fixing fences. Joy of joys, Baekhyun thought, but he knew Operation Brumby would be a definite failure if they didn’t do it. Broken fences wouldn’t keep in wild horses.
Back at the camp, Baekhyun dug a pit to build their campfire in, and then they tossed a coin to see who would cook that evening. Chanyeol won -- or lost, depending on how you looked at it. It turned out he had quite a talent for it, given that most of what he had to work with were non-perishables, things out of boxes and cans, powdered this and dehydrated that. They had a few vegetables and some meat in the cooler, but Baekhyun knew that wouldn’t last long. Chanyeol enjoyed the challenge, or so he said, and it seemed that all he did was mix a few things together to come up with the most delicious beef-and-bean stew that Baekhyun had ever tasted. He inhaled three bowls of it without even realising, and thereafter Chanyeol was gifted with the official title of Camp Chef, which he accepted gracefully. In return Baekhyun showed him how to make damper on a stick for dessert, and when the bread was cooked they pulled it off and poured golden syrup down the hole left in the middle.
After dinner, they sat on their camping chairs in front of the fire, cracked open a new bottle of rum and got pissed together, passing it between themselves. Chanyeol pulled out his guitar and played for a bit, mostly acoustic covers of popular country songs. Baekhyun soon discovered that he had a mouth organ as well, but the only songs he could play on it were a terrible rendition of Click Go The Shears and another tune that Baekhyun couldn't actually recognise, probably because it was so badly played. He had nothing against the guitar, but the mouth organ was something else entirely.
"Is that strictly necessary?" he asked, during Chanyeol's fifth Click Go The Shears attempt.
"Nope," Chanyeol said. He kept playing anyway.
"As soon as you're asleep tonight, I'm going to get that thing and bend it in half,” Baekhyun told him. "No more Click Go The Shears for you."
"Yeah? Well I can play it on a gum leaf as well," Chanyeol retorted. "What you gonna do about that? Burn down every bloody tree?”
"Smart-arse," Baekhyun muttered, rolling his eyes, but he smiled anyway.
"Let's see what else we can make instruments out of," Chanyeol said, getting up from his seat. He picked up a plastic bucket that they used for carrying water from the creek and turned it upside down. "This'll make a good shitty drum..”
"Your head would make a better one," Baekhyun said. "Would you like me to demonstrate?"
"I can teach you something on the guitar, if you want,” Chanyeol said, ignoring the remark. “Maybe. If you're a bit nicer to me."
"As long as it's not Click Go The Shears, we’re golden.”
Chanyeol laughed at that. "I can assure you my guitar repertoire is a little more extensive."
Baekhyun was happy that there was already a bit of back-and-forth between them now, since it made the prospect of sleeping in one tent together feel less awkward. Chanyeol seemed undaunted by the idea; he said it was just like the campouts he used to have with his mates, even getting all excited about unrolling his sleeping bag and blowing up his air mattress for the first time — which was cute, Baekhyun thought, if perhaps a bit weird.
"I swear, but — if you snore really loudly or fart even once while we're both in that tent, then I'm chucking you outside with Tess and the horses, sleeping bag and all," Baekhyun warned him. He was at least half-serious about it.
Chanyeol just grinned and gave him a little salute in response. “Yes, sir."
In springtime on the hills, the days were often mild and pleasant, but Baekhyun knew from experience that there were nights when the mercury could still drop considerably. That first night happened to be one of them.
“What on earth are you doing?” he asked; he’d been lying awake for a while — he was never able to fall asleep right away — and he could hear Chanyeol shivering and squirming and tossing about on the other side of the tent. “Do I need to throw something at you?”
“I’m just moving around a bit to warm up,” Chanyeol said. “Bloody cold in here.”
Baekhyun felt around for the torch next to him and switched it on. “Well, come on over, then,” he said wearily, blinking tired eyes in Chanyeol's direction. He patted the empty space on the groundsheet next to him. “There’s plenty of room near me. It’ll be a bit warmer.”
Chanyeol did as he was told, dragging his air mattress and sleeping bag closer to Baekhyun’s side of the tent — probably a bit too close, but Baekhyun didn’t care if it meant he’d get some peace and quiet. Soon the squirming stopped and Chanyeol nodded off, even snoring a little, although thankfully very softly. Baekhyun found it comforting to listen to, so it was alright.
Then Chanyeol started moving around in his sleep, rolling into Baekhyun's side; he began cuddling up to him, apparently unaware of how close he was getting. Sometimes Tucker bought poddy calves that had lost their mothers very young, and they'd follow Baekhyun around the yard and rub their heads against him, nuzzling him, trying to suckle on his clothes; he smiled to himself because Chanyeol reminded him of them, unsteady and bright-eyed and trusting, and he touched the boy's hair without thinking, brushing it aside to see his face. His eyelids twitched every so often, which seemed to suggest that he was already well on his way to dreaming. Eventually Baekhyun realised what he was doing, and he moved his hand away.
Chanyeol groaned softly in his sleep. He rolled over even closer, turning completely on his side, and then one of his arms flopped halfway around Baekhyun's body. Baekhyun's breath got caught in his throat — he waited to see if Chanyeol would wake up and notice what he'd done, but he didn't. He lay like that a bit longer, barely breathing, and then, when there were no further signs of movement, he gently unwound the arm from around himself. Nothing happened. Either Chanyeol really was fast asleep, or he was good at pretending.
Baekhyun switched the torch off and rolled over, facing the other way. Before he fell asleep, in those last seconds of being half-awake, he remembered thinking that it felt nice to be held for once, if only for a moment. Even if it was done unconsciously.
“Baekhyun! Baekhyun, wake up!”
Baekhyun groaned something unintelligible and rolled over. He was still half asleep, drifting in and out of consciousness, and some idiot was shaking him. “Piss off,” he muttered, burying his face in his pillow.
“There’s a horse,” the voice seemed to be saying. “In the trap-yard. We got one.”
Baekhyun’s eyes snapped open, and he sat up so quickly he saw stars. “What..?”
“A brumby,” Chanyeol said; he hovered above Baekhyun with a torch held up to his face, still wearing his striped flannel pyjamas. His hair stuck out in all directions and he was wide-eyed with excitement. He looked a bit like someone who’d escaped from an institution, Baekhyun thought. He noticed it was still half-dark in the tent, which meant the sun was probably only just coming up, and he rooted around for his watch to check the time — a quarter to six. He heaved out a loud sigh.
“God help you if there isn’t actually a horse in that yard when I get out there,” he said flatly, dragging himself out of his sleeping bag. The day before, they’d both given the yard a liberal drizzle with molasses, and then scattered around a few plastic containers filled with it, hoping it would coax a few of the horses in — “they love this shit, for some reason,” Baekhyun had explained to Chanyeol at the time. Sure enough, when he got outside the tent, there she was — a grey mare standing there in the middle of the yard, about fifteen hands high, licking molasses from one of the containers. A magnificent creature. She looked very rounded in the belly, and Baekhyun guessed she was probably, at most, a couple of months away from foaling. It was a magical sight.
“Fuck yes!” he turned around and gave a very ecstatic Chanyeol a high-five. “Although we probably shouldn't get too excited yet… she’s only the first one.”
“Well, it’s a start,” Chanyeol said. He was grinning from ear to ear. “Our very first brumby.”
“Look at the size of her… there’s definitely a foal in there,” Baekhyun said. “That's two for the price of one. Our first two brumbies..”
“What do we do with her?” Chanyeol asked.
“We’ll leave her in there for now,” Baekhyun told him. “I’d keep her on her own, though… don’t want any other animals stressing her out in her condition. In the meantime, we’ll just treat her like any other horse, make sure she always has plenty of water in the trough, and I can supplement the grass with some of the feed I brought for the work horses. The yard’s not massive, I know, but it’s big enough to run around in. She’ll be fine.”
They spent that morning riding Chook and Banjo around for a bit, giving them some exercise, and then headed out into the bush on foot, looking for signs of more horses — places where the undergrowth looked like it was trampled by hooves, nibbled vegetation, piles of horse-shit. They poured trails of sticky black molasses everywhere they went, and then followed them back to the camp. Late in the afternoon, a young stallion ventured out into the field, and Baekhyun quickly jumped on the back of Chook to round him up. Tess joined in, blocking the horse off when he tried to change direction, barking and nipping at his ankles. She was an expert dodger, but Baekhyun could see she only narrowly avoided a few kicks to the head. Together they managed to chase the stallion into one of the empty yards, and Chanyeol shut the gate, making sure it was secure.
“Nice,” he said afterwards, giving Baekhyun an enthusiastic round of applause. “Very skilfully done.” He looked a bit starstruck, which made Baekhyun glow with pleasure, and he smiled and tipped his hat in thanks. Two-and-a-half horses in one day — not a bad effort at all. Maybe Operation Brumby wouldn’t be a spectacular failure after all, if things kept going the way they were going.
That night they sat in their camping chairs in front of the fire again, drinking together to celebrate their good fortune and joking around with each other. From where they sat, they could watch the brumbies (whom Chanyeol had since named Starlight and Firebird respectively) grazing over in their yards; neither creature seemed to be distressed, which was a weight off Baekhyun’s conscience. Fingers crossed they were actually still there in the morning — a heavily pregnant mare wouldn’t jump a fence, but a leggy young stallion probably could, if he really wanted to. But soon the alcohol washed these concerns from Baekhyun’s mind, replacing them with a warm, contented feeling he hadn’t felt in a long time. There was something very romantic about it all, and if Tiffany enjoyed this sort of thing, Baekhyun thought he would have liked to bring her out here one day. But she wasn’t really the camping type.
"So many stars out here,” Chanyeol said, leaning back in his chair with his hands resting behind his head. “You hardly see any in the city, even on a clear night."
Baekhyun took a mouthful of rum and passed him the bottle. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t like going there.”
“Yeah. I need to get out of there, I think… once a country boy, always a country boy.”
“Don’t you ever feel like you want more than this?” Baekhyun asked, and Chanyeol looked over at him with both eyebrows raised.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Do you?”
Baekhyun shrugged. “Dunno. Wouldn’t know any better."
"Was this the kind of life you wanted to have when you were growing up?"
"I'm not sure I ever really thought about it," Baekhyun said. "I just didn't know what else I was gonna be. But I enjoy it. I suppose that's the main thing."
“I envy you, you know,” Chanyeol said quietly, and then he looked uncomfortable for a moment, shifting a little in his seat. “I mean, you seem to have it all figured out. And you've found someone you like. Someone who likes you back.”
Baekhyun wanted to laugh at that, but he didn’t. In his own mind, he didn't have anything figured out at all; but if he could fool the people around him into thinking he did, then he was surely doing something right.
"I’m sure there are heaps of ladies out there who would fall all over themselves to go out with you,” he said to Chanyeol. “I saw the way you got on with the girls back at the homestead… they all loved you.”
Chanyeol smiled. “You reckon?” he asked, passing the rum bottle back to Baekhyun.
“Sure," Baekhyun said, taking the bottle, lifting it up to his lips. He took a long, hot swallow and said, “why not? If I can bag a babe, you can too.”
Chanyeol was looking at him oddly now, and somehow Baekhyun knew what the look meant and yet had no idea, all at the same time. Then Chanyeol shifted his chair a bit closer, leaning towards Baekhyun, licking his lips.
"Park…” Baekhyun said, in what he intended to be a warning tone, but it came out weak. He put the half-empty bottle down on the ground next to him.
“Byun,” Chanyeol said quietly, and then he smiled. And it felt like Baekhyun was finally conscious of how beautiful the boy really was, especially with the firelight dancing in his eyes like that, and to his own surprise it was he who got up from his chair and leaned in the rest of the way, softly pressing his lips against Chanyeol’s, one hand resting against the side of his neck. He pulled away again as soon as he felt Chanyeol kissing him back.
“I’m sorry," he said, stumbling backwards a bit. “I don't know why I did that.” He all but collapsed back down in his chair, leaning forward until his forehead connected with his knees. “God. I must be more pissed than I thought.”
He felt Chanyeol placing one of those giant warm hands on his back, giving it a gentle pat. It was a little awkward, but Baekhyun appreciated the gesture anyway. “It's okay, Baek,” he said. “Actually, I really wanted you to kiss me. I was gonna kiss you first, but you kinda beat me to it.”
Baekhyun lifted his head and looked at Chanyeol blankly. “You were…?”
“I’ve wanted to kiss you pretty much since the first night,” Chanyeol said, and then his expression grew solemn and he chewed his bottom lip. “I want it even when I'm not drunk." His voice had become so quiet now that it was like he was telling a secret.
"But you’re drunk right now,” Baekhyun said. “Otherwise you probably wouldn't be spilling all of this stuff to me.”
Chanyeol rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, a little, yeah,” he admitted. “But not so much that I don't know what I’m saying…”
Baekhyun sighed and got to his feet. “I think I'd better turn in,” he said. “You should, too. I'll be dragging you out of bed pretty early tomorrow, same as always.” He turned back and added, a little wryly, “and if you think I’m gonna go soft on you just because you’re a good kisser, then you’ve got another thing coming.”
Having said this, he went inside the tent, pulled off his boots and lay down on top of his sleeping bag without bothering to change his clothes. A minute or so later, Chanyeol followed him inside and lay down next to him. Then, a long silence.
"Baek..." Chanyeol began.
"It was a one-off, okay?” Baekhyun said, cutting him off. “It's not going to happen again."
“Then why did you kiss me in the first place?” Chanyeol asked quietly.
“I don't know,” Baekhyun said. It seemed silly to blame it on the booze. “I suppose… well, it gets a bit lonely out here, sometimes. That’s all. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Chanyeol said nothing in response to this. There was the sound of him rolling over to face the other way, and then it was quiet.
Baekhyun woke up a few hours later, only to find that Chanyeol was missing, and there was a dim light shining somewhere outside the tent. He crawled out of his sleeping bag and pulled his boots on, stumbling outside to find Chanyeol sitting on one of the camping chairs with his torch on next to him. He was in his pyjamas, his feet resting on the circle of rocks around the fire pit.
Baekhyun took a seat beside him, making sure to leave a bit of space between them. “Can’t sleep?” he asked. He could hear the horses nickering softly in the background. A waft of fresh horse shit hit him then, and he wrinkled his nose.
Chanyeol nodded, but didn’t look at him. “It just felt a bit cramped in there,” he said. “I came out to get some air.”
“I know the feeling,” Baekhyun said. He would occasionally sit outside at night for the same reasons, when his worries were too big to let him rest; sometimes it felt good to stare up at a sky full of stars and be gently reminded of your own insignificance. He usually found that sleep would come more easily after that. “Mind if I join you for a while?”
Chanyeol shrugged. “Free country.”
Baekhyun chewed his lip for a moment. Should he ask, or shouldn’t he? “You’re still sore at me about that kiss, aren’t you?”
“No,” Chanyeol replied, a little too quickly to be convincing. “Not at all.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Baekhyun said flatly, and Chanyeol sighed.
“It wasn’t like I was expecting this to happen,” he said. “And definitely not so quickly, either.”
“Expecting what to happen..?”
“To like you,” Chanyeol whispered. “As much as I do.”
Baekhyun was quiet for a while, choosing his words carefully. “I’m not… you know. Gay, or whatever.”
“Neither am I,” Chanyeol said, and then paused for a moment. “Well, I wasn’t before. Now I don’t really know what I am.”
Baekhyun sighed and rubbed his forehead. “What are we gonna do about this, then?” he asked. “Because if you think you can’t handle working with me anymore, I’ll understand. We can leave for Quirindi first thing tomorrow morning, you can get the train and be in Sydney again by late afternoon. I’ll make up some bullshit story to tell Tucker… a family emergency or something. If that’s what you really want.”
“I don’t want that at all,” Chanyeol said quietly.
“Well, look… maybe it’s just a little crush. I guess it happens sometimes, when you spend a lot of time with one person,” Baekhyun said. “But you know what? You’ll get over it pretty quick. I’m nothing special, I can assure you. There are lots of better people out there for you to be gay with, if that’s your thing.”
When Chanyeol finally looked up at Baekhyun, there was still a flicker of hurt in his eyes, but he at least smiled this time. “I think I can live with it,” he said. “At least for a while.”
Baekhyun nodded, and then, to change the subject, tilted his head up at the sky. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said quietly. “How many constellations can you name?”
Chanyeol looked up, pointed at one group of stars, and then another. “Southern Cross. Saucepan.”
“That's Orion,” Baekhyun said.
“Well, I call it the Saucepan because it looks like one,” Chanyeol said. “So deal with it.”
Baekhyun laughed softly. “I suppose it does look a bit like a saucepan..”
They sat together in silence for a while, listening to the magpies warbling to each other in the trees beyond them. And then, of course, the kookaburras had to say their piece as well. Baekhyun smiled to himself — ah, the pre-dawn chorus. The sky would begin to lighten soon.
“You know, I used to love being woken up at this time of morning by birdsong,” Chanyeol said, breaking the silence. "I always thought they sounded so nice, all singing together like that. Then one day I tell my dad this, and he laughs and says, ‘they might sound like they’re singing, mate, but they’re really just telling each other to fuck off’.” He paused for a moment and smiled. “Kinda killed the magic for me a bit. Still, I didn’t realise how much I missed it.”
Baekhyun laughed softly and stood up, placing a gentle hand on Chanyeol’s shoulder. “Well, I’m going back to bed,” he said. “Will you be alright?”
“Yeah. I’ll just sit out here for a bit longer,” Chanyeol said quietly.
“Okay. Night, then.”
When Baekhyun got back inside the tent he lay there for a while, eyes closed but mind and heart still racing. Eventually he heard the sound of Chanyeol settling down beside him again, and then he went back to sleep.
They drove back to the homestead the following weekend for Amber’s birthday, and after a celebratory dinner, the Lightning Creek crew ended up at The Pegasus, which was the nearest pub — a bit of a shit-hole at the best of times, but always lively on a Saturday night. Chanyeol spent much of the evening over near the bar, surrounded by local girls in colourful flannelette shirts with the ends tied at the front to show off their flat bellies, tight jeans tucked into their cowgirl boots, rhinestone-encrusted belt buckles glittering. Sometimes he would look over to catch Baekhyun’s eye, smile shyly and then look away.
“Who’s he, then?” Jackson, the bartender, asked when Baekhyun went up to buy the next round. He was eyeing Chanyeol with an expression that was either thoughtful or suspicious.
“Why?” Baekhyun raised an eyebrow at him. “Jealous, are we?”
Jackson shook his head and started pouring the beers Baekhyun had ordered. “Not at all — he’s bringing all the talent in. Look at all the hot girls hanging off him! You should bring him here more often, I’m making a fortune in tips.”
Baekhyun rolled his eyes and paid for the drinks, then took the tray back to the table where the girls were sitting. He resumed his seat next to Amber, and Tiffany immediately sat down in his lap, pulling both of his arms around her waist. They were all talking about something or other — typical girly chit-chat, which Baekhyun had no interest in — and slowly his gaze drifted back over to where Chanyeol was standing.
"How's Operation Brumby going, Baek?” Amber suddenly asked, stealing Baekhyun's attention away from the side of Chanyeol's head.
Baekhyun felt his cheeks warming up. He paused for a second before he spoke to avoid stuttering. "It's going reasonably well, so far,” he said. “Managed to trap number five earlier today. Would have been number six, but one of the buggers jumped the fence overnight.”
Amber nodded, then finished the last of her beer. “That sucks. Getting along with Chanyeol okay?”
“Yeah, no complaints so far. He’s got a bit more grunt in him than I expected.”
Amber smiled at Baekhyun, then ― a suggestive smile, and Baekhyun didn't like the look of it. “I think he's taken a real shine to you, you know… might even be a bit of a boy crush.”
"I'm heading over to the bar,” Tiffany announced, getting up off Baekhyun’s lap. "Anyone want another drink?”
The whole table answered in unison, apart from Baekhyun and Victoria, who’d volunteered themselves as the designated chauffeurs for the night. Jessica said "I'll come help you out," and the two girls walked over to the bar with their arms linked together. Baekhyun watched them for a moment, and then his eyes wandered back over to where Chanyeol stood, now leaning casually against the bar counter, talking to a pretty redhead whom Baekhyun vaguely recognised, but couldn't name. He felt like he was tempting fate to keep watching them in case he got caught, but Chanyeol didn’t look at him again.
That was fine, though. He wasn’t burning with jealousy or anything.
“What makes you say that?” he said, turning his attention back to Amber.
“Well, I was talking to him at dinner earlier, and you came up in conversation quite a bit,” Amber replied. She was grinning even wider now. “Must’ve been, what… like, ten times he mentioned your name? So sweet. I think you’ve got your very first fan.”
Baekhyun didn't know why his stomach lurched at this information. “Is that so,” he said absently, trying to sound unimpressed. He looked over at Chanyeol again, saw he was now talking to Tiffany and Jessica; Tiffany had a hand on the boy’s arm, laughing at something he'd said. The red-haired girl from before had wandered off elsewhere.
Bloody hell, Baekhyun thought. Moves quickly, doesn’t he..?
“Your new slave seems cute,” Tiffany said to Baekhyun, when she and Jessica eventually returned to the table by themselves. Together they distributed everyone's drinks, and then she reclaimed her place in Baekhyun's lap.
Baekhyun wrapped his arms around her waist again. "He’s not my slave,” he said.
Tiffany scoffed. “Yeah, only ‘cause dad’s paying him.” In protest, Baekhyun slapped her on the thigh and she squealed with laughter.
“What do you guys get up to in one tent by yourselves?” Amber asked. “Do you have deep conversations? It gets cold out there at night, hey. Perhaps a bit of manly spooning to keep warm..?”
Chanyeol came over to the table then, and Baekhyun hoped to God he hadn't heard the part about manly spooning. The kid pulled up a stool on Baekhyun’s other side and sat down. For some reason, Baekhyun felt relieved that he’d come over alone.
"So we've heard you and grumpy-pants here have been getting along like a house on fire," Amber piped up.
"Ah, well..." Chanyeol said, letting out a nervous chuckle. He looked shy again, and Baekhyun’s insides all melted into each other. God, it was cute.
No it wasn’t. It was dumb. Not cute at all.
"More like a tent on fire, since he nearly burned the bloody thing down,” Baekhyun said under his breath, and Chanyeol laughed and whacked him lightly on the shoulder.
"Oi! What do you expect when you make me do all the cooking..?!”
"They're like an old married couple already," Tiffany said, laughing at them both. "You'll probably get a ring out of him before I do, Chanyeol.”
Baekhyun pushed her blonde hair aside to whisper in her ear. “The ring will come, love. When I think you've earned it."
"Oooh!" Tiffany said in a mock scandalised tone, and she turned her head and pecked him on the lips, whispering, “you'll pay for that later…”
"I'm gonna buy you a beer, Chanyeol," Amber declared, getting up from her seat. “I know it’s not customary for the birthday girl to buy someone else a drink, but any kid that survives being in a tent alone with this prickly old pear — without showing any signs of psychological trauma — deserves one on me."
"I appreciate the thought, but I think I've had enough for one night," Chanyeol said politely. "Don't wanna be wrecked for tomorrow. It’s not so good for staying on a horse.”
Amber looked at Baekhyun incredulously. "Is this you rubbing off on him...?"
"The kid was already boring on his own," Baekhyun said, winking at Chanyeol. "It has nothing to do with me." The way Chanyeol smiled at him afterwards made his heart drop into his guts, and it stayed there for the rest of the night.
When they drove back to the homestead later that evening, Chanyeol bid Baekhyun and Tiffany goodnight, and then went straight to his room. Tiffany tugged on the sleeve of Baekhyun's shirt. "Come on,” she whispered, “let's go to bed."
Baekhyun followed her into his bedroom and flopped himself down upon his bed, limbs outstretched like a starfish. “I am absolutely fucked,” he said.
Tiffany laughed at that. “Um, not yet, you aren’t..”
Baekhyun lifted his head from the pillow, looking at her incredulously. “Now..?”
“Before you piss off out to the hills and I don’t see you for another week, you mean?” she said flatly, standing there with her hands on her hips. “Yes, Baekhyun — now. Besides, you only had two beers… are you going soft on me, or what?”
Baekhyun let his head fall back on the bed again and groaned — he knew she meant business when she called him Baekhyun, but he really was tired, and therefore not in the mood. What kind of man would pass up a bit of bedroom activity with a girl like her, anyway? Maybe there was something wrong with him. But Chanyeol was in the next room, too… that was awkward. This led Baekhyun back to thinking about kissing him by the fire the other night, and he quickly shook the thought from his head. But the memory of how Chanyeol’s lips had felt against his own kept coming anyway, and eventually he let it stay.
It was only a kiss, anyhow… it held no real significance, even if he’d really enjoyed it. With his eyes closed, they could have been anyone’s lips. Just a heat-of-the-moment thing.
“I’m sorry, Tiff, but I reckon I couldn't get it up for anyone right now,” he said. “I’m really knackered. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
Tiffany just sighed and began to unbutton her shirt, pursing her pink glossy lips at him. Then she unhooked her lace bra and shrugged it off, letting it fall to the floor, flipping her long blonde hair back behind her shoulders. “Changed your mind yet..?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow at him, doing that sexy lip-biting thing that always (well, usually) drove him nuts. For some reason it didn’t change Baekhyun’s mind at all, but he gave in and went along with it anyway, simply because it was easier than turning her down. He didn’t think about her much during the deed itself, but that was his own little secret to keep.
Chanyeol quickly gained confidence over the coming days, and Baekhyun was impressed by his ways with animals, particularly his horse; Banjo could be a scaredy old thing, but seemed to really thrive under Chanyeol’s gentle-yet-firm guidance, and with her co-operation, he even managed to help Baekhyun chase a few young brumbies into the yards. Sometimes Baekhyun wondered if the kid would end up giving him a run for his money; if some people were born to do this kind of work, then surely Chanyeol was one of them. It was a shame he’d only signed up for a summer stint, Baekhyun thought. Maybe he could talk him into coming back next year as well.
Seeing how capable he was with animals, how good he was on a horse, and how he was willing to tackle even the most trying of tasks without complaint, sometimes it was easy for Baekhyun to forget just how young Chanyeol was, and every now and then, there would be a harsh reminder of his innocence.
“Did you hear that?” Chanyeol burrowed deeper into his sleeping bag. Tess was barking outside, over where Baekhyun had tied her up. “What the fuck is it..?”
"I'm sure it's nothing to be worried about," Baekhyun said. “No lions, tigers or bears around here. Anyway, I told you not to leave the food boxes open, didn’t I? This is what happens when you don’t do what I say.”
“Could be a yowie,” Chanyeol whispered, ignoring him. His voice was muffled by layers of bedding. Baekhyun could only see his outline in the darkness; he fumbled around for his torch and switched it on.
“Turn that off!” Chanyeol said, in a harsher whisper than before. He lunged forward, wrenching the torch from Baekhyun’s hands and switching it off again. “Do you want the yowie to see us..?”
“It's not a fucking yowie, Chanyeol," Baekhyun snapped -- albeit quietly. He took the torch back off Chanyeol and, just to be contrary, turned it back on.
Chanyeol burrowed inside his sleeping bag again. “How do you know…?”
Baekhyun sighed. “Because they’re not real,” he said. “It’s probably just a fox, or a pig or something. Could even be a possum, I suppose… we get those around here too.”
“That’s a big fucking possum, if that’s what it is,” Chanyeol muttered, and then Baekhyun rolled on top of him, using a hand to cover the boy’s mouth. Chanyeol seemed surprised at first, but he didn’t struggle. His own hand moved to the back of Baekhyun’s head, his fingers tangling up in his hair. He tugged on it a little, but not enough to hurt.
"You're right ― we should keep quiet," Baekhyun whispered. "I mean, they might kill us, you know… those giant, man-eating possums out there.” He smiled at the look on Chanyeol's face, at the way the fear in his eyes seemed to soften for a moment, and then was gradually replaced by irritation at being made fun of. He licked Baekhyun’s palm in retaliation, making him utter a ridiculous angry sound in surprise. Baekhyun moved his hand away and kissed Chanyeol on the lips instead ― a quick, playful little peck. And then that was followed by a slightly longer, softer kiss. And then another one that was longer and softer still, because why the hell not? They were both still a little drunk, as usual, and he was past being able to help himself at that point.
“What was that for..?” Chanyeol asked, his eyes still half-closed when Baekhyun eventually pulled away. He licked his lips, and Baekhyun felt the first stirrings of arousal at the sight. God, he was gorgeous. For a moment, at least, the creature rooting around in the food boxes outside seemed long forgotten.
Baekhyun smiled down at Chanyeol, and with his thumb he wiped a thread of drool away from the boy's mouth. “it just seemed like a good way to shut you up," he whispered, and the way Chanyeol looked up at him through his eyelashes, beautiful and helpless and adoring, gave his stomach that lurching feeling again, like being on the back of a galloping horse he had no control over. “And now that I know it works, I think I’ll keep doing it. If that’s alright with you."
Chanyeol just smiled and pulled him closer, kissing him again. They kissed until they fell asleep in each other’s arms, and woke up late the next morning with their faces mere inches apart, limbs and blankets all tangled together. Remembering what had happened the night before, they looked at each other with raised eyebrows and got up, yanking their boots on and scrambling out of the tent to inspect the damage.
When they got outside, they found the food boxes with their contents spilled all over the ground. Packets had been torn open, fruit and vegetables nibbled at, bread and biscuits demolished into crumbs. Baekhyun walked around the mess, kicking at a trail of dry brown pellets he found in the grass, scattering them. “Hmmph. Definitely possum shit,” he muttered. “Little bastards… well, it was probably about time I drove back to pick up some more supplies anyway. Think I’ll do that now, if you don’t mind holding the fort. What do you reckon?”
Chanyeol nodded. "You go do what you need to do. I can stay here with Tess and the horses until you get back."
“Alright,” Baekhyun said. He contemplated walking over and giving the boy a kiss goodbye, but then thought better of it, waving him off instead. “See you in a bit.”
The drive back to the homestead was pleasant, although not quite as enjoyable when he was on his own. On the way there, Baekhyun put the window down and played the radio at full blast. He craved a newspaper ― some sort of written evidence that the world outside still existed. You could go loopy being cut off for so long, even if it had only been a couple of weeks. He pulled up outside the house and switched the engine off, then sat in the car for a moment, burying his head in his hands; he hadn’t really had that much to drink the night before, but he felt hungover anyway. Maybe he was drunk on something else ― infatuation, perhaps, or even love, although he still wasn’t entirely sure he even knew what that was. If this was the way it made you feel, he was probably better off without it.
He was packing more supplies into the ute a little later when someone came up and dug their talons into his waist from behind, making him yelp in surprise. Baekhyun’s knees buckled and he dropped the tin he was carrying, spilling instant coffee granules on the gravel and all over his boots.
"Gotcha." Tiffany let out an evil little laugh.
"Look what you made me do," Baekhyun said gruffly, but her smile made his expression soften, as she had a way of doing.
“Don’t be like that,” she said, pouting up at him. “I came all this way just to see you..”
“Bullshit. How would you even know I was gonna be here?”
Tiffany rolled her beautiful eyes. “Alright, fine — I came to talk to Mum about something. Bumping into you was just a happy accident. Satisfied? Now let’s go inside.”
“I’ve gotta get back out there,” Baekhyun said. “I’ve left poor Chanyeol out in the hills by himself with a bunch of wild horses, two tame ones, and a dog who’s been farting something chronic since yesterday.”
"Just give me fifteen minutes," Tiffany whispered, reaching up to straighten the collar of his shirt. She winked at him. "Enough time to say a proper hello.”
Baekhyun looked at her, chewing his lip. He could take her into his room, tend to her quickly and then get back to the camp… that seemed feasible. "Alright," he said quietly.
Tiffany took his hand, led him into his room and shut the door. Wasting no time, Baekhyun pushed her against the wall, kissing her, feeling her immediately go limp in his arms. He had one hand on her breast, teasing the nipple through the thin fabric of her blouse, and it made her sigh with appreciation, a sound that had always brought him to his knees before. But kissing her didn’t feel the same anymore, for some reason ― all he could think about now was kissing Chanyeol. The taste of him, the smell of him… his roughness and earthy vitality, the sweet sincerity of his smile. “God, what are you doing to me,” Baekhyun whispered into her mouth, and he could hear the plea in his own voice, felt her going even weaker ― but he wasn’t talking to her. She was right there in his arms with her shirt unbuttoned, one of her perfect tits spilling out of her white bra with the pink roses on it, and his mind kept drifting back to the boy waiting out in the hills, probably sitting at the camp with a cup of billy tea, perhaps thinking of him too. What blasphemy. How could he say that all of a sudden he preferred the scratch of stubble beneath his lips and fingers, the smell of horse and leather and sweat ― that he was in this state of agony and desperation because of someone else, someone who wasn’t her — wasn’t even a ‘her’ at all. Right now, Tiffany didn’t smell like anything much. Her hair was soft, and her skin was soft too, and Baekhyun thought that maybe softness was something he’d outgrown sometime within the past few weeks. Chanyeol wasn’t soft anywhere, except, perhaps, the eyes and heart.
“I’m sorry, but I really have to go,” Baekhyun said quietly, and he gave her one last kiss on the corner of her mouth, then walked out of the room and headed back to the ute, doing up his belt buckle on the way. She didn’t call him back, which was a bit of a surprise, but he could feel her eyes burning into the back of him — she could make him pay for this if she wanted to, but only if he hung around long enough to let her. Once inside the car, he heard a crashing sound and realised she'd thrown something after him -- probably one of her mother's terracotta flower pots from the verandah, he thought -- and it had hit the back of the tray, smashing to pieces against it. He ignored it and drove back out to the hills, to where she could neither call nor find him, and he told himself that she wasn't a bad person, really… she just didn't like losing, and that was understandable. He couldn't think of anyone who did.
When Baekhyun pulled up back at the camp, he found Chanyeol sitting on one of the camping chairs in front of the tent, facing away from him, watching Chook and Banjo grazing in the shade nearby. Tess sat on the grass between his knees, and he was absently rubbing circles over the top of her head with one hand. As Baekhyun got out of the car and walked closer, he realised Chanyeol was talking to the dog. He paused for a moment to listen, standing at a safe distance behind them.
“I like your master, you know, but I don't think he likes me,” Chanyeol was saying. “Well, he kissed me and it was really nice and all, I was really into it. I even got hard from it, which I don't get at all with girls… I mean it was really turning me on, but then he stopped. I kind of wish he'd be my master too. And the arse on him... I'll tell you what, that arse was born to wear tight jeans, Tessie. Man oh man, what an arse. Just wanna touch it so bad… I wonder if he knows how often I stare at it. Well, if he didn’t know then, he probably knows now.”
Baekhyun had to clamp a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing.
“Did you just fart again?” Chanyeol said to the dog. “Fucking hell, you little stinker.”
“Hey,” Baekhyun called out, interrupting their one-sided conversation. Chanyeol turned his head around, grinning at him.
“Oh, hey,” he said, feigning innocence. “I didn't notice you back there.”
“Sure you didn’t,” Baekhyun said. He felt his mouth twitching at the corners. “Were you just talking to the dog about my arse?”
Chanyeol shrugged. “Yeah, well, you know… she’s a good listener. And the horses weren’t that interested.”
“I suppose I’m flattered. Kind of,” Baekhyun said, smiling. He jerked his thumb back towards the ute. “You gonna help me unpack that, or what?”
“Oh, right. Of course.” Chanyeol got up from his seat and hurried over, almost tripping over his own feet in his haste. Tess trotted alongside him, standing next to the ute with her tongue hanging out of her mouth, tail wagging. Waiting for a treat, no doubt. Baekhyun tossed her a dried pig’s ear and she ran off with it, settling down under a tree. That’d keep her busy for a few hours.
“Actually… you know what?” he said, “let’s do this later.” He dumped the cardboard box he’d packed up with supplies on the camp table, and then he grabbed Chanyeol’s hand, pulling him towards the tent.
“Where are we going..?” Chanyeol asked.
“I need to talk to you in here for a minute,” Baekhyun said, herding him inside. “It’s important.” When they got in there, they pulled their boots off and sat cross-legged on top of their beds. Chanyeol looked wide-eyed, perhaps a little worried. “What’s this about, then?”
“While I was at the house, Tiffany came and paid me a visit,” Baekhyun said quietly. “And things got a bit friendly between us... so I was kissing her, as you do. But all I could think about was kissing you. Do you see my problem?”
“Oh,” Chanyeol said, eyes widening again. “Uh, I guess.”
“Uh-huh," Baekhyun said, nodding. He felt breathless for some reason. "So what am I supposed to do about that, then?”
“I’m… I’m not sure.” Chanyeol looked like he was having a hard time keeping the smile off his face.
“God, don't try so hard," Baekhyun said, rolling his eyes, but it was hard not to smile back when Chanyeol finally gave in. "You'll bust something.”
"Sorry… I don't know how else you want me to respond,” Chanyeol said. “Do you want me to say I’m not happy about it? Because I’m not really the lying type.”
“If I try to kiss you now,” Baekhyun whispered, “what will you do?”
Chanyeol licked his lips and swallowed loudly. “I’ll let you,” he said.
“You won’t kiss me back..?”
“Of course I w―” Chanyeol began, and wasn’t allowed to finish. “Baek…” he murmured, but Baekhyun only kissed him again, shutting him up. Then he pulled away.
“If you want it, go with it,” he whispered, panting into the thread of space between their mouths. “Or else I might come to my senses again, and then all bets are off.”
“I know I want it,” Chanyeol said quietly, “but if you’re only going to stuff around with my feelings, then that’s not fair on me.”
“I want to see where this goes, for now,” Baekhyun said. “The choice is yours. That’s the best I can offer you.”
Chanyeol nodded and whispered “okay”. Then he whispered “come here”, and let Baekhyun kiss him again.
“Where’d you learn how to kiss like that…?” Baekhyun asked; he pulled away, started kissing Chanyeol’s neck instead. Soft little kisses, all along the length of it; it was long and beautiful, just like the rest of him.
Chanyeol’s cheeks were flushed. “I’m not twelve, you know,” he said. He sounded flustered and indignant in equal amounts, and Baekhyun couldn’t help laughing. He pulled the boy closer, kissing the side of his head and holding him tight, whispering into his hair. “When did you get so cute, huh?” His hair smelled like it needed washing, but Baekhyun didn’t mind. If anything, he quite liked it.
Chanyeol laughed softly, burying his face against Baekhyun’s neck instead, kissing him there. “I learned from the best.”
“Ha! I’m about as far from cute as you can get.”
“Who said I was talking about you..?” Chanyeol said, laughing. “Aren't we supposed to be working right now? I mean, I’m happy to make out and all, but we’ve still got brumbies to trap.”
"I think we deserve a rare day off,” Baekhyun said. “The brumbies will still be there tomorrow."
Chanyeol seemed convinced enough by this, so they went back to kissing.
“I don’t like what you’re doing to me,” Baekhyun whispered, in one of those rare moments when their mouths weren’t pressed together. “I mean, I like it… but I don’t like it what it does to my head.”
“We’re just passing the time,” Chanyeol replied, with a note of innocence.
Baekhyun laughed. “Surely we can pass the time in other ways..”
“Yeah, probably,” Chanyeol said. He was laughing now, too. “But this feels good, right..?”
Baekhyun couldn't argue with that. He thought about Tiffany again for a moment, and there was a twinge of guilt, but it didn’t last long.
That evening was spent sharing a simple meal together, and then drinking around the fire as they usually did, and then they crawled back inside the tent to find new ways to get to know each other instead of sleeping. It occurred to Baekhyun then that it was always in the darkness, the smallest hours of the morning, that he wanted the most; boundless wanting with nothing to pin it to, desire in its rawest form. He briefly thought, while Chanyeol hovered above him, kissing him senseless, that maybe this was what he’d been wanting all that time, without ever really knowing it. And he could hate himself all he liked tomorrow, when his head wasn’t fuzzy with sleepy yearning, but for now he was going to have what he wanted, at least just this once.
They didn't return to the homestead at all the following weekend, preferring to stay in the privacy of their little camp. Baekhyun decided he’d only drive back when they needed more supplies; no one could call him out here, and he only had to answer to himself. He wondered if this would arouse any suspicion, but if it did, he'd worry about it when he came to it. Tucker wouldn't argue if he thought he was getting an extra day's work out of them, anyway, and was probably too busy to give a thought to their whereabouts.
That morning, Baekhyun opened his eyes at a little past eight o'clock (if his watch was still correct... who really knew out in the middle of nowhere?), and the air blowing through the half-open tent flap was cool and heavy with the scent of eucalyptus — and a trace of horse shit, as usual. He stuck his head outside, breathing it in with relish, knowing the heat would come later in the morning.
He went inside the tent again and crawled back into their bed, which they’d made by pushing their air mattresses together; Chanyeol was still fast asleep, and Baekhyun smiled to himself, watching him for a while. He loved Chanyeol the most when he was like this. It had been a mission trying to free himself from that tight embrace to get some fresh air, but it was sweet how Chanyeol needed to hold on to something in order to sleep, always clinging to Baekhyun like a koala. Baekhyun moved closer to the sleeping boy and felt those arms instinctively wrap around him once more; it happened almost as soon as their bodies touched, without Chanyeol even opening his eyes, and he let out a little sigh of contentment that made Baekhyun's heart melt like chocolate left out in the sun. In the mornings, while it was still cool, having the time to spend holding each other like this was his newest idea of heaven. And where the hell had it come from? He’d never been a cuddler before, ever.
But there was a whole precious Sunday still ahead of them, and only so much time one could spend in bed. Baekhyun woke Chanyeol up with a few soft kisses along his brow. "Come on, sleepyhead," he murmured, "time to get up..”
Chanyeol groaned and rolled away from him. "Just give me five more minutes."
"No deal. If I let you have five more minutes, you'll be saying the same thing in an hour. Next thing you know, we'll have slept the whole day. That means less time for naked sunbathing."
Chanyeol turned around to face Baekhyun again. "You had me at 'naked sunbathing'," he said, pushing his lips out cutely. "A kiss, then..?"
Baekhyun gave him a soft, sweet kiss on the lips and then rolled him onto his stomach, slapping him on the bare rump like a horse. There was no wobble in the firm flesh at all. "Alright, No-Arse, you've had your kiss. Now get up."
Chanyeol pouted at him. “Why are you calling me that..?"
"Because you've got no arse,” Baekhyun said, and slapped it again to make a point.
For breakfast they made pikelets in a pan over the fire ― which of course meant that Chanyeol did most of the work while Baekhyun watched, stealing a couple as soon as they were nicely browned. It made Chanyeol yell at him, but he was only half-serious about it. They spread the pikelets with honey and Mrs. Tucker’s homemade strawberry jam from the jar she'd given them, folding them over and feeding them to each other, sticky fingers leading to even stickier kisses. They'd only just finished washing up when there was an unexpected spell of gentle rain, and they scrambled about, quickly covering everything important with the tarp from the back of the ute. The poor animals would just have to deal with it. They waited the rain out inside the tent, where Baekhyun went on a tour of Chanyeol’s body with his hands and mouth to pass the time, branding him with little bruises that he made with his lips. He left them on any place that could be hidden by Chanyeol’s clothes: on his chest and stomach, over his ribs, the insides of his elbows and the back of his neck, just beneath where his shirt collar would sit. Little secrets just for the two of them. The cicadas were quiet for once, being rained out of their daily performance, and for a while the only sounds apart from the rain pattering against the canvas were those inside the tent ― their whispers to each other, their hushed laughter, their breathing. When they weren't laughing or whispering, they were kissing, and Baekhyun was sure that up until he’d met Chanyeol, he'd never wanted to kiss someone so much in his life. He could never get enough of Chanyeol’s kisses. They let Tess inside with them while it was raining and she fell asleep in the corner; her tail twitched and her legs began moving like she was running in her dreams -- chasing wild horses, no doubt -- and they both dissolved into quiet giggles over how cute it was. Then she farted so loudly she woke herself up, and was promptly exiled from the tent again.
“I love the sound of the rain,” Chanyeol said sleepily. He lay on his side facing Baekhyun, gently stroking his hair. Sometimes he'd smile for no reason, and when Baekhyun asked what he was smiling about, he'd just shake his head and keep quiet about it. But it didn't stop him from smiling anyway.
“If it gets any heavier, we might have to get in the car ’til it stops,” Baekhyun whispered. The canvas was waterproof and strong enough to withstand a decent downpour, but he knew they would have to take refuge somewhere if it got too heavy. But it never did. It only sang them to sleep again while they held each other tight, their arms and legs all tangled together. Their faces were so close that their lips nearly touched, even when they were asleep.
When the weather cleared up again, the humidity in the air made it feel hot and sticky in the tent, and they went down to the creek for a quick skinny-dip. Chanyeol convinced Baekhyun to join him this time, and splashed him with cold creek water when he stood there shivering in the shallows instead of launching himself right in. Baekhyun splashed him back, and in retaliation Chanyeol took mouthfuls of water and sprayed it through his teeth like a fountain. Kookaburras cackled in the gum trees above them.
"What do you reckon they're laughing at?" Chanyeol asked. He was floating on his back, staring up at the light filtering through the canopy above. He looked incredible, like a figure carved from marble that had come to life, and Baekhyun watched him in silence for a moment, captivated by the sight of him. It was an image that would probably stay imprinted in his mind forever, that beautiful sun-dappled body floating on the surface of the creek, water droplets glistening on his skin.
"Probably laughing ‘cause they’ve seen you naked," he said at last with a wicked grin, and he laughed and shielded himself with one arm when Chanyeol yelled out "rude!”, splashing more water at him in revenge. They walked back to the camp, wet and naked and without any shoes, and sat around the dead remains of last night's fire to dry off in the sun, picking bindies out of the soles of their feet while they talked about everything (but mostly nothing), occasionally flicking the tiny brown prickles at each other. Then they lay down together in the grass, and Baekhyun lay half on top of Chanyeol, trailing kisses down over his body, flicking his tongue over the remaining droplets of water that had collected on his chest and stomach. How bold he was now, how fearless, lying here with this boy in the open air, unclothed, with nothing to protect them. Someone could come along and find them at any moment, but Baekhyun found he didn't care. These should have been the carefree days of his youth, he realised, but instead he had let them slip by, throwing himself into work as soon as he left school, hardly ever stopping for fun or laughter, certainly never stopping for love. Now he was living those days the way they should have been lived ― doing it right the second time around, just shy of his thirties, while Chanyeol himself stood teetering at the precipice of adulthood. Baekhyun knew from experience that he was facing a long drop, and he looked at the boy lying beneath him more tenderly than before, wondering how much he knew about what lay ahead of him.
But no matter how perfect their time spent together was, it would never be enough, and for every day that passed, he knew he would only want more. Those days were idyllic, but they were numbered; soon they would have to go back to the homestead, and time alone would be a thing of the past. And then, when summer was over, Chanyeol would be gone again, to a place where Baekhyun knew he couldn’t ever follow him.
“Tell me a secret," Chanyeol whispered, snapping Baekhyun out of his daydreams. He nuzzled the side of Baekhyun's neck, beneath his ear, and his lips and breath were warm.
"Like what?" Baekhyun asked.
Baekhyun lifted an arm to shield his eyes from the sun. It hung directly above them, and sunburn would be a problem if they didn't move into the shade soon. But for now he was too comfortable to care. The grass tickled his skin, and he wriggled around a little, trying to scratch an itch. “I’ve been thinking that I might be a bit gay after all..”
Chanyeol laughed into the side of his neck. "That’s not a secret,” he said.
“What were you expecting?”
“I’m not sure, but something better than that. Tell me something else.”
“I'm worried that you’re too young for me,” Baekhyun said quietly.
Chanyeol laughed again. "Mate, you're crap at telling secrets..”
“Why would you want me, anyway?" Baekhyun swallowed hard. "That's what I don't get. Don't you want someone your own age? A nice girl…?”
“Nuh-uh.” Chanyeol kissed Baekhyun softly on the corner of the mouth. “You’re very sexy," he whispered, "sexier than any girl I’ve met. If I wanted a girl, I'd go out and find one, but I don’t want one. I want you.”
“Stop it. I’m blushing,” Baekhyun said, laughing. He'd never been told any of this before. But better late than never.
"It's true, but!" Chanyeol pouted at him again. He was good at that, looking all cute and pouty and beautiful to get his way. Baekhyun wondered how many people it had worked on before he came along. Tiffany was good at it too.
“I think my sexy days are long behind me,” he said. “If there ever were any to begin with."
Chanyeol's arms were around his waist now, holding him tight. “You'll always be sexy to me," he whispered, kissing Baekhyun's shoulder. "Even when you're an old fart.”
“I already am an old fart," Baekhyun said. He rubbed his chin. "An old fart who needs a shave.”
“29 isn't old, you idiot.”
“What would you know? You're 19."
“I’ll be 20 soon,” Chanyeol pointed out. “Then we'll both be in our twenties together. For a little while, at least.”
Baekhyun laughed softly. “Yeah, right. You’ll have one toe in the door while I’m still hanging on by a hair.”
“Mmm. Maybe. But a very strong hair,” Chanyeol said, laughing softly. “You’re hanging on by a pube.” He was kissing Baekhyun's chest now, and then he stopped and lifted his head. “It’s okay for you to want me too, you know,” he said quietly. “It doesn’t make you weird, or creepy, or defective. Just means you’ve got good taste.”
“I'm not going to admit that I want you,” Baekhyun said. He rolled his head back against the grass, enjoying himself. “You’ll only get a big head about it.”
“You don't need to admit it. I already know you think I'm hot stuff… I can see it in your eyes,” Chanyeol said. He lifted his head up from Baekhyun’s chest, grinning, and then the smile faded away, replaced by a solemn expression. He whispered, “the eyes never lie.”
"What about my hands?” Baekhyun asked, trailing his fingers along the curve of Chanyeol’s bicep. “What are they saying right now?"
"They're saying 'this is the second hottest body we've ever touched’.”
"Whose is the hottest?"
Chanyeol laughed softly. ”Yours, obviously… If I had a body like that, I'd have my hands on myself all the time. I'd never leave the house."
Baekhyun said nothing, just grabbed Chanyeol’s face in his hands and kissed him. "Who has the time to be that vain? Besides, I like it better when you do it."
They kissed a little longer, and then Chanyeol lay down next to Baekhyun on the grass again, one arm around his shoulders.
"What if I don't go back to Sydney at all?” he whispered, breaking the silence. “What if I stay here with you? Fuck agriculture... I think my heart's in biology, if you know what I mean."
"Why would you do that?" Baekhyun whispered back. He was looking up at the clouds, trying to find shapes in them… anything to distract him from the thought of Chanyeol going home.
"I just want to,” Chanyeol said. “I really like it out here. And I think I can love you the way you need to be loved. Maybe Tucker will offer me a permanent gig, if you put in a good word for me.”
Baekhyun turned his head to look at Chanyeol. “What makes you think I need to be loved?” he asked.
“You call out my name sometimes, in your sleep,” Chanyeol said quietly; his gaze flickered down to Baekhyun’s lips, and then back to his eyes again. “At least, I think you’re asleep. And then when I hold you, you stop.”
Baekhyun was silent for a while. He'd dreamed about Chanyeol the night before, he suddenly remembered; he'd had his hair dyed blond for some reason, and he'd looked a bit like Jack from the newspaper article. He swallowed, drew a shaky breath and said, “we would have to keep it hidden..”
"That's fine… I'll just be another one of your little secrets. I don’t mind,” Chanyeol said. He was quiet for a moment, and then added, “anyway, I kinda need you too. To protect me from yowies and giant man-eating possums, and shit like that.”
Baekhyun laughed breathlessly. “I have another secret for you, then.” He rolled on top of Chanyeol again, kissing him softly at first, and then a little harder. “I think you're the most beautiful thing I've ever laid eyes on, and I want you so much it drives me fucking crazy.”
“That’s not a secret either,” Chanyeol whispered, smiling into the kiss. “Not a secret at all.” He smiled so much that they kept bumping teeth while kissing, and the thoughts in the back of Baekhyun’s mind were sweetly bitter. How beautiful it was just to be there with him; not to do anything much, but just lie there in each other’s arms and kiss for hours, and in between, just breathe, just be ― how good it felt just to be, to simply exist together. And oh how perfect it was, and how wonderful, and how long could it possibly last?
They closed the gate on brumby number fifteen — a chestnut mare with four white socks — on the Thursday of the fourth week, a few days before Tucker’s deadline. Baekhyun knew the old man would be coming down on the weekend with the truck, ready to start loading the captured horses into it. They’d separated the few stallions among the bunch to keep them from fighting, but all the mares and the young ones seemed to get along well together. Probably all came from the same mob, Baekhyun thought.
“I can’t believe we did it,” Chanyeol said; he was standing next to the gate of the trap-yard, leaning against it, looking in at all the wild horses grazing inside. “We really did catch them all.”
Baekhyun shook his head. “Not necessarily,” he said. “We’ve only got the same number Tucker counted… there could be many more out there. But we have a few days left, and then if he wants to shoot the rest, well, that’s his problem. At least we’ll know we did what we could.”
Chanyeol nodded. “It was fun, you know,” he said quietly. “Doing this with you.”
Baekhyun smiled and wrapped his arms around the boy’s waist from behind, resting his head against his back. “I think so too.”
The weather had been hot and dry that day, a real sizzler; but now it was cooler, and they stood like that for a while longer, watching the last of the sun setting. When it was almost gone, Baekhyun moved his arms away and Chanyeol turned around to face him. He leaned down a little, kissing Baekhyun softly on the lips.
“What was that for..?” Baekhyun asked, whispering into Chanyeol’s mouth, kissing him again.
“Nothing,” Chanyeol whispered back. “Just felt like kissing you.”
Baekhyun kissed him one more time and then patted him on the chest. “Come on. Let’s go back to the camp.” He kept his eyes on the boy’s broad shoulders as he walked ahead, his thoughts both tender and red-blooded at the same time. Chanyeol stopped when they reached the camp, turned around to see Baekhyun looking at him and smiled, standing there with his thumbs through the belt loops of his jeans.
Sexy and he fucking knows it, Baekhyun thought.
"What's on your mind, cowboy?" Chanyeol asked softly.
"Nothing. I just..." Baekhyun paused and scratched the back of his head, feeling shy all of a sudden. He took those last few steps forward and reached out to grab Chanyeol by the hand, pulling him closer. He'd always had a hard time admitting his feelings in the past, but he was just going to bite the bullet and be done with it. “I want you."
Chanyeol smiled again, biting his lip. He looked rather shy himself. "Right now?”
Baekhyun nodded. “I always want you," he said quietly, “but yeah. Right now." It was one of their last few nights alone together, after all.
“Okay,” Chanyeol whispered, and Baekhyun began to lead him inside the tent, but then he said, “no, not in there. Let's stay out here."
Baekhyun turned around and shot him a blank look. “Out here…?”
“Out here,” Chanyeol repeated, grinning at him. “Lay me down by the fire, mister. Beneath the twinkling brilliance of Orion's Saucepan."
Baekhyun couldn’t help laughing. “You corny bastard,” he said ― but if staring up at a sky full of stars was what Chanyeol wanted, then he would give that to him. So they built a new fire, and then went and dragged one of the sleeping bags out of the tent and unzipped it all the way around, spreading it flat out on the grass like a rug. They lay down on it together, waiting for the sky to blacken and the stars to come out. With the fire crackling nearby, it made for a rather romantic little setting, Baekhyun thought, and he was pleased with himself. He hummed a happy little tune while he unbuttoned Chanyeol’s blue cotton shirt, very slowly, gradually revealing his chest and stomach; he was smooth and toned and perfect, and the warm blaze of the campfire did something magical to his skin, making it look like he was glowing.
“You're a tease,” Chanyeol whispered, laughing softly. “Can’t you go any faster..?”
Baekhyun smiled. “I’m just taking my sweet time with you.” He gave Chanyeol's tummy a playful pinch -- not that there was anything much to grab on to. “Starting to get a bit of a six-pack, are we? When did that happen?"
“What can I say? All that hard physical labour must be paying off," Chanyeol said drily. "All those hours on horseback. All that running around after half-crazed wild animals. All the new fence posts you made me put up..."
“Well, give it a few more years of that,” Baekhyun said, picking up Chanyeol's hand and kissing his palm, moving down to his wrist. "And then maybe — if you’re lucky — you’ll have a body as amazing as mine."
“Oh, piss off,” Chanyeol scoffed, but it didn’t stop him from reaching over to unbutton Baekhyun’s shirt too, little by little. When all the buttons were undone he ran his big warm hands over Baekhyun’s stomach, fingers tracing the outlines of his abs, so gently that it tickled. It made Baekhyun shudder a little at first, but he loved the way it felt, how there was always that same electricity in Chanyeol's hands whenever he touched him.
“I’m sorry,” Chanyeol whispered, moving his hands away. "Is that uncomfortable?”
Baekhyun shook his head. “No,” he said softly, “I like it.” He took Chanyeol's hands in his own and held them against his stomach again, giving his blessing to continue, smiling at the love in the boy's eyes as those hands wandered over his body. There was wonder in Chanyeol's gaze, as though he couldn’t believe who he was touching, how this man he had his hands on could ever belong to him. They'd seen each other unclothed enough times by then, but somehow things looked different in the firelight, Baekhyun thought, and he’d never seen Chanyeol looking more beautiful than he did that night.
When the touching became too much for him, Baekhyun shrugged his shirt off, leaving it neatly folded on the grass, and he lay down on his side, rolling over until he had Chanyeol pinned beneath him. Chanyeol looked up at him, his eyes wide and shining, licking his lips in anticipation. "Hey, beautiful," Baekhyun whispered, and with a smile still on his lips, kissed him on the mouth at last, very soft and slow; one of his hands found Chanyeol’s, their fingers intertwining.
Baekhyun had a familiar song on his mind, singing softly between kisses. “I believe in miracles… where you from, you sexy thing?”
“Young, New South Wales,” Chanyeol whispered, smiling into the kiss. "Cherry capital of Australia.”
Baekhyun couldn’t help laughing. “I was singing to you… you didn’t need to answer.”
“I know. Just being an idiot, as usual,” Chanyeol said. He had one hand on Baekhyun’s face, callused fingers lovingly tracing his cheekbone, then down along the line of his jaw. “You have a nice voice, by the way. I think you should sing to me more often.”
“Mmm,” Baekhyun hummed, lowering his head to kiss his way down Chanyeol’s neck. “I will, if you want me to, but right now I'd like to make you sing, first. And no holding back… let all those stars hear you.”
“Maybe I’ll scare a few more horses out of hiding,” Chanyeol said, and Baekhyun laughed again, murmuring his agreement. His fingers danced across smooth belly skin, stroking the trail of soft fuzz beneath Chanyeol’s navel, teasing him, making him shiver with longing. He loosened the copper button at the top of his jeans, slowly pulling the zipper down. Chanyeol wanted him, he could tell; Baekhyun felt his desire in the heat between them, heard it in his breathing, how his whole body seemed to quiver with it. Chanyeol wanted him much more than anyone else ever had. He and Tiffany had just used each other because they were both lonely and it was convenient, but the way Chanyeol looked at him ― and the way he kissed him ― was different. It had always been different. It didn't matter who he was, or what he was, or even how old he was; Baekhyun was in too deep to care about any of those things anymore.
"If you keep going the way you’re going,” Chanyeol whispered, panting a little, rolling his head back to accommodate Baekhyun's wandering mouth, “then I might fall in love with you..”
“Is that a threat…?” Baekhyun asked, mouthing the words over Chanyeol’s pulse, which was beating very quickly, he noticed. He was joking around, but the response he got was dead serious.
“No,” Chanyeol said softly. “I’m just telling you how I feel.”
Baekhyun paused for a moment, his lips now pressed against Chanyeol’s shoulder. He wanted to ask him if he actually knew what love was, and what it felt like -- not to be condescending, but because he’d always been unsure, at least until recently. Looking down at Chanyeol and the state he was in, that look in his eyes, he felt he had a better idea of it now. The boy had just handed Baekhyun the power to destroy him completely, and yet seemed willing to trust him not to. If that wasn't love, then what was?
“I think I'm gonna break it off with Tiff,” Baekhyun said quietly, after a moment’s silence.
Chanyeol’s eyes, half-closed in pleasure only moments before, fluttered open to look at him; they began to widen, and he whispered “what the fuck” ― which was not quite the reaction Baekhyun had expected, admittedly. But then he registered the sound of a vehicle approaching from somewhere behind him, and Tess barking in the background, and his head jerked around to see what the hell was going on. Bright headlights shone in his eyes, making him squint, and when they adjusted it was Tucker’s monster of a ute he saw, coming to a halt mere metres from where they lay. Tess was still barking, and Baekhyun could hear the rattle of the chain as she strained against it, her paws scrabbling on the dirt and the roots of the tree she was tethered to. Swearing quietly, he and Chanyeol rolled away from each other, smoothing down their messed-up hair and double-checking that their jeans were zipped up, trying to make themselves as decent as possible. It would only look silly if they tried to put their shirts back on now, Baekhyun thought, but he was relieved they at least still had clothes on where it counted.
Tucker parked the ute but left the engine running while he hopped out. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, staring down at them with expressionless eyes. His mouth was shaped into a vague frown. “Came out at dusk to shoot a few rabbits, and then I saw the smoke,” he said in a gruff voice. “Thought I’d pop down to warn you fellas the fire danger alert’s been set to high on account of the dry heat; can’t be lighting any more outdoor fires until it’s back down to moderate, or this whole forest might go up.” He was silent for a moment ― a moment so long that it was excruciating, and all they could hear was the roar of the engine. Baekhyun felt sick; beside him, Chanyeol sounded like he’d stopped breathing altogether. Then Tucker finally added, “looks like I might’ve caught you at an inconvenient time.”
Baekhyun swallowed thickly. “Not at all,” he said. “We were just having a chat. You know how it is… when it gets warm out, we boys tend to lose our shirts…” He forced a laugh after saying this, but Tucker didn’t look too convinced.
“You know, I don't pay you to molest the jackaroos, Byun,” he said.
“He wasn't, sir,” Chanyeol cut in, and Baekhyun gave him a discreet — and hard — pinch on the arm to silence him. If Tucker had gone rabbiting, then his rifle was sure to be somewhere in that ute, and Baekhyun didn’t believe in arguing with a man who was armed.
“I wasn’t talking to you, son,” Tucker replied, with barely a glance in Chanyeol’s direction. “Anyway, you'll get your arses back to the homestead by morning,” he said. “Tomorrow I want you packed, and then you’ll report to my office to get your pay settled, because you’ve done the work and fair’s fair ― but then I want you gone. Both of you. And I don’t want to see either of you around here again. I don’t give a rat’s what you do in your own homes and on your own time, but I’ll be damned if I’ll sit back and let any of this deviant behaviour happen on my property. And you,” he said, to Baekhyun this time, “you’re to leave Tiff alone. But then maybe it’s a good thing you’ve decided to become a poof now, since you were punching well above your weight with her anyway. She’s too good for you… always will be. You understand?"
Tess was still growling in the background, pulling desperately at her chain. She’d never liked Tucker, was Baekhyun’s dog through and through. Baekhyun thought about telling her to be quiet, but he didn’t.
"Yep," he said quietly. “Understood.”
Tucker stood there with his hands on his hips and nodded. “Good. Well, I’ve said my bit, so I’ll be off,” he said. “I’ll see you both bright and early tomorrow morning. Try to keep the snakes in their cages until then, if you can manage it.”
Tess was barking again now, and Tucker swung a kick at her, but thankfully missed. She lunged at him, but was stopped short by the chain.
“Stop it, Tess,” Baekhyun said. “Settle down.”
“For fuck’s sake, learn to control your stupid mutt,” Tucker snapped — Baekhyun saw the spit flying from his mouth, he was that filthy. He got back in his ute and slammed the door, then began backing away from the camp. It was then that Tess gave the chain one almighty pull and one of the weakened links opened up, setting her free from her restraint, and she ran behind Tucker’s ute, but Tucker didn’t stop. Baekhyun thought he'd heard her scream when Tucker backed right over her, and he was surprised at how oddly human it sounded; then he realised, belatedly, that the sound had come from him. The taillights of the ute glowed a demonic red in the darkness as Tucker drove away, back down the dirt road on which he came. And then it was quiet.
Baekhyun hurried over and dropped to his knees next to Tess on the grass, pulling her into his lap. “Oh god, Tess… what did he do to you?” She appeared to be in one piece, but her breathing was raspy and shallow, a terrible sound. She was bleeding from the nose and mouth.
Baekhyun heard Chanyeol crouching down next to him. “Will she be okay…?” he asked, in a shaky voice.
“Dunno. I highly doubt it.” Baekhyun couldn’t find the strength to say anything more. He felt Chanyeol’s hand on his bare shoulder, warm and gentle. Slowly and painfully he got to his feet, still carrying Tess in his arms.
"Where are you going..?” Chanyeol asked.
"Taking her down to the creek. Gonna have to finish her off.”
Chanyeol just stared at him, his eyes widening in horror. “How…?”
“By drowning her, obviously,” Baekhyun said wearily. “Unless you can think of a better way, in which case, I’m all ears.”
Chanyeol shook his head. “Baek, don’t,” he whispered, “please, you can’t…”
“She's dying,” Baekhyun said, cutting him off. The dog was heavy, and his arms were starting to feel tired. “Even if she could be saved, the nearest animal hospital’s in Quirindi, so I don't have a choice. Do you think it's the first time I've had to do this? I had another dog once who got trampled by a mob of cattle, and I had to put her down too; was just lucky enough to have my pigging rifle handy at the time.” He let out a long, loud sigh. “Fucking hell… that stupid prick. Can’t believe he’d just run her down like that. Whatever, it is what it is. Come with me, and bring that torch with you.”
While Chanyeol followed close behind with the torch, Baekhyun took Tess down to the creek. When he got there he crouched at the edge of it, holding her in his arms, pressing his nose and lips to the top of her head. As though acknowledging this last gesture of love, she made a sound, halfway between a wheeze and a whimper, and then Baekhyun lowered her into the water and held her under. She was already so weak that the struggling was minimal, but every second it took for her to die was excruciating, and for a while Baekhyun felt like he was dying with her. When the air bubbles eventually stopped surfacing he lifted her out again and squatted there on the bank, hugging her wet body for a while. He didn't cry. He'd already buried several good working dogs over the years without once shedding a single tear; that was just the way it was, and so there was no point in getting weepy over this one. Still, he’d loved her the best.
“Sorry, girl,” he whispered. “So sorry." He couldn't help smiling a little into her fur, though. "God, you stink when you’re wet."
And now where was he meant to go, after he packed himself up and pissed off out of Lightning Creek? He could move back to Gunnedah, he supposed, or Tamworth, but then what he was going to do when he got there, he didn’t know. Word got around quickly enough in these parts, and if Tucker and his daughter were its vessels, then for sure it would be twice as quick. He briefly thought of Tiffany and her perfect tits and her blonde hair, those threads of finely-spun sunshine, and how he was probably never going to see her again. And then he wondered if he really cared that much, anyway. It seemed a comparatively small loss, just one of many, in the grand scheme of things.
Baekhyun lay Tess down upon the bank and slowly got to his feet. He could hear Chanyeol crying quietly behind him; Baekhyun turned towards him and saw him standing there with the torch still in his hands, his face covered in tear tracks and snot. Suddenly he looked very young, younger than he ever had before; too young, Baekhyun thought, too young. Far too young for me. He charged past the boy without a word, heading back the way they came. Chanyeol followed him with the torch.
“You're not gonna bury her…?” he said at last, still sniffling, when they were walking along the dirt road, heading towards the camp.
“She's dead… not as if she cares,” Baekhyun said quietly. “Foxes'll probably dig her up anyway, so burying her's pointless.”
“You can't just leave her there like that. It's not right,” Chanyeol said, and Baekhyun stopped, spinning around to face him. “What do you want me to do, send her down the creek on a burning boat?” he snapped, and Chanyeol flinched a little in surprise. He looked as though he’d been hit, and Baekhyun sighed, rubbing the tension from his forehead.
“I loved her, but working dogs aren’t people,” he said, more quietly this time. “They’re not even pets. None of the animals here are ― they all have a purpose, a part to play. If I projected my feelings onto every creature I met, I’d never work another day in my life. And you think you know it all, don’t you… but you don’t know the half of it. You’ve never watched animals you helped raise from birth die from drought, or from disease, or from difficult labour. Have you ever had to pull a dead heifer out of a bog hole with a rope after she got stuck? Probably not, hey ― but I have. And I might not have seen it all, but I’ve seen a hell of a lot more than you. So if you thought life on a farm was gonna be all cute and happy and Disney-like, then you were dead wrong, but I guess you won’t have to put up with it any longer. And for that matter, neither will I.”
“You clearly haven’t seen many Disney films,” Chanyeol said quietly.
Baekhyun ignored him. He crouched down on the ground, resting his head against his knees. “Fuck. Fuck. This was all a huge mistake.”
“What was?” Chanyeol asked.
“This,” Baekhyun said, looking up at him coldly. “You.”
Chanyeol couldn’t possibly have looked more destroyed than he did then, and Baekhyun instantly felt awful ― so awful he actually felt nauseated. But it was too late to apologise for it now.
And now, just like that, it seemed, the one place where they'd felt safe and happy together was gone. Every tree felled, the creek sucked dry, the hills all crumbled to dust. We were never here.
“You don’t mean that,” Chanyeol said quietly. He was shaking his head vigorously, as though doing so might erase Baekhyun’s words from his memory.
“Just leave me alone,” Baekhyun said. He stood up and continued on his way to the camp.
“Baek, please. Wait.”
Baekhyun turned around to look at Chanyeol, but said nothing.
“I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen.” The kid was crying again — blubbering. Sobbing so hard Baekhyun thought he’d choke. “We shouldn’t have been outside the tent. I―”
“It’s done now, so… that's life, isn't it?” Baekhyun said. He was surprised at how unfeeling his own voice sounded, how robotic. “Shit happens, and you either lie down and roll in it or you keep going. Anyway, I’ve had enough… I'm going to sleep. You can have the tent if you want. Don't really care either way.”
“Baekhyun, please, just listen to me,” Chanyeol said, grabbing hold of his arm, and Baekhyun, having had more than enough, yelled “get off me!”, turned around and swung at him, his fist connecting with Chanyeol’s face. The torch fell from Chanyeol’s grip, hitting the dirt. He stood there for a moment with a hand over his bloodied nose, gasping, winded from the shock of being hit. “Baek, what the fuck..?”
"I said, leave me alone,” Baekhyun said, in a voice so quietly poisonous that he saw Chanyeol flinch from it. But he recovered soon enough, and if he seemed to be an unusually placid person on a normal day, then it was surprising how quickly that could be turned around when he was provoked. His face twisted into an expression of unbridled rage before he threw himself on top of Baekhyun and pushed him down onto the dirt, gripping both his shoulders and slamming him hard against the ground.
“Not gonna go for the face, then..?” Baekhyun said, and he was asking for trouble, really ― Chanyeol was a fair bit bigger than him, after all ― but he was too riled up to think of self-preservation right now.
“Don't fucking tempt me," Chanyeol replied through gritted teeth, and he carried on slamming Baekhyun against the dirt, one time doing it hard enough that he nearly bit through his own tongue, swearing from the pain. He could taste blood in his mouth. The torch was still shining on the ground next to them, but the sky was completely black now and he couldn’t see very well. He spat in Chanyeol's face, getting him right in the eye; then, seeing the opportunity this presented, he kneed the boy in the groin, so hard he cried out and rolled away. Chanyeol curled up on the dirt next to him, groaning in agony.
Baekhyun turned his head in Chanyeol’s direction. “Truce..?” he said, so short of breath he could hardly speak, but Chanyeol didn’t reply. He let out a choked sob and nodded in silence. After getting slowly and painfully to his feet, Baekhyun leaned over and patted him on the back. "You'll be right," he whispered, still breathless, and then he staggered back towards the camp, leaving Chanyeol where he was to cool off for a bit. He had blood on his jeans, and whose it was -- Tess’s? Chanyeol’s? -- he had no idea. It was probably both. He collapsed on the sleeping bag they’d spread out on the ground next to the now dying fire, falling asleep without thinking to put it out; he’d meant to leave the tent for Chanyeol, but he found it was still empty when he woke up in the morning.
Baekhyun had already packed up half the camp on his own by the time Chanyeol rocked up, dressed in a clean shirt and jeans. His hair was wet beneath his hat.
“Where have you been..?” Baekhyun asked, trying not to sound irritated — even though he was. He was in the middle of pulling the tent down, levering the pegs out of the ground.
“Buried Tess by the creek, then went for a swim,” Chanyeol said. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, coldly staring Baekhyun down. From where he knelt on the grass, Baekhyun could see there were traces of dried blood still in his nostrils.
“Well… I was worried,” he said. “You should have told me.”
“Oh,” Chanyeol replied. That was all he said, and Baekhyun knew better than to push him, so they finished packing up the camp in silence, loading Chook and Banjo into the trailer, only exchanging very few words when it was absolutely necessary. Baekhyun couldn’t help thinking about how much things had changed between them in the space of about twelve hours. But it wouldn’t do any good to dwell on it.
After settling things with Tucker and a tearful goodbye from all the girls — with the exception of Tiffany, whom he noticed was absent — Baekhyun packed up the last few years of his life in the tray of his ute, spent a few last moments with Chook, and then he drove Chanyeol to Quirindi. They were both still sore, in body and mood, and neither of them spoke. Baekhyun concentrated on the road ahead, and Chanyeol stared out the window. Half the journey in, he still hadn’t said a single word. Crowded House was playing on the radio. Hey now, hey now. Don’t dream it’s over.
“Hey Chanyeol,” Baekhyun said, when the silence became so thick he couldn’t stand it anymore.
Baekhyun paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “I’m sorry I hit you,” he said quietly. “You really didn’t deserve that. I guess I was just reeling from my whole world collapsing within a few seconds, but that’s no excuse for how I treated you, and I feel really bad about it.”
“S’alright,” Chanyeol said, after another lengthy silence.
Baekhyun sighed and shook his head. “No, it’s not. I led you blindly into this mess in the first place, but none of it is your fault. I’m a lot older than you, and I should’ve known better. I shouldn’t have led you on. And I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I kind of hope you will anyway.”
Chanyeol was quiet for a long time. When he spoke again his voice cracked a little, and he cleared his throat in a futile attempt to cover it up. “Don’t you feel anything for me at all…?” he asked.
“Of course I do,” Baekhyun said quietly. “Not that it helps either of us.”
“I was thinking…” Chanyeol said, and then stopped in the middle of his sentence.
“What were you thinking?”
Chanyeol seemed to be too busy looking out the window to respond. “I was thinking maybe we can go somewhere,” he said at last. “Where it can just be you and me.”
Baekhyun’s expression softened. “Yeah? Like where?”
Chanyeol didn’t reply; he just rubbed his nose on the back of his hand and winced. Maybe he didn’t have an answer.
“Please, tell me,” Baekhyun said quietly. “I want to know.”
“I was thinking… maybe we could get jobs at another station somewhere, save some money. Maybe get a little property of our own someday,” Chanyeol said. “I don’t care about last night… I’m not mad. I just want you. I don’t want to ever be without you.”
“Are you serious…?” Baekhyun said, laughing at the idea. He didn’t mean to be rude, but he couldn’t help it.
“I try to be,” Chanyeol said angrily, “but you seem hell-bent on shutting me down at every opportunity.”
Baekhyun sighed. “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you, because you’re 19 years old and you still think the world is a happy wonderful place. It’s not a happy wonderful place, Chanyeol. Not for…” — he paused, checking himself before he said for people like us. He was thinking about Jack from the paper again. “Not for people like that.”
“This is the ‘90s, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol said, with a trace of quiet irritation. “You can like whoever you want to, now… it’s not against the law anymore.” And Baekhyun almost laughed right in his face, because what the hell did the law have to do with it? Maybe he was a small-town boy at heart and not the most worldly person, but he knew what went on, how many versions of Jack there were out there. You’d read about these things happening from time to time, and Baekhyun guessed that most people just flipped to the sport section like he’d once done and forgot about it within a few minutes, because it wasn’t their problem. He could even hear their thoughts inside his head. Bloody poofs are their own worst enemies, of course they get themselves killed. But Jack had probably once been someone else’s Chanyeol, and that was the part that fucked Baekhyun up the most.
"I really think it's better that we let this… fling we had die a natural death, now that there’s no means for us to keep seeing each other,” Baekhyun said, after they’d been quiet for a while. “You're fantastic and all, don't get me wrong. I don't think I've ever liked being with someone this much before. Certainly no girl I’ve ever met has been as great as you.”
Chanyeol let out a puff of air through his nose, a kind of derisive snort. “Right. Is that supposed to make me feel better..?”
Fair enough, Baekhyun thought. He probably had that one coming.
“I’m always going to feel something very special towards you, Chanyeol. Something I’d never be able to put into words,” he said. “Maybe you think people are more accepting now, maybe you’re right… I’m sure that’s the case, in some places. But I can tell you now, it’s not like that around here. Tucker’s not the only one who thinks the way he does, and I’d rather break your heart now than see you ever get hurt by someone else, for something you can’t help. If that happened, I’d never forgive myself.”
“How can you say it was just a fling?” Chanyeol muttered. His face was still turned towards the window, and he rubbed his eyes; Baekhyun couldn’t see if he was crying, but his voice wavered a little when he spoke again. “It was never just a fling to me.”
“I’m not saying it meant nothing to me. I loved every minute of it. I just don't see how it could ever be more than what it was.”
Chanyeol turned his head, and although Baekhyun had his eyes on the road, he could feel the boy looking at him. “How will we know for sure,” he said quietly, “if we never try..?”
“You can call me gutless all you like. God knows you wouldn’t be wrong,” Baekhyun said. “But tell me this — where would we go? Tell me one place where we can be who we really are, the way we were on Lightning Creek, without hiding — with no repercussions whatsoever. Tell me where it is, and I’ll go there with you. I’ll take you there myself.”
Chanyeol just shook his head, muttered something else and looked away again. “Forget it.”
Baekhyun nodded. “I didn’t think so,” he said quietly. “Anyway, I’m not you. I can’t just get up and leave all of this so easily.” He waved one hand toward the endless fields outside the window. “That out there, that’s all I know.”
Chanyeol was quiet again for a moment. "Would you mind letting me off here?” he said at last, and Baekhyun quickly glanced over at him with raised eyebrows. They were still a few kilometres out of town yet.
“I’m heading in that direction anyway,” he said. “You sure you don’t want me to take you the rest of the way?”
“Nah,” Chanyeol replied. “Got over an hour to kill before my train’s due, so I may as well get the exercise. A good long walk’ll help me clear my head.”
Baekhyun chewed his lip, unsure of what to do. There was only one daily service to Sydney from Quirindi, and it arrived at 11.30 on the dot; if Chanyeol missed it he was stranded, stuck there until the next day. But he was tired, and couldn’t find it within himself to argue.
“Okay,” he sighed, “if that’s what you want.” Slowing down, he pulled over by the side of the road to let Chanyeol out. Chanyeol picked up his bag, closed the passenger door behind him and got his guitar out of the back. Then he walked around to the driver’s side, where he bent down next to the half-open window, peering in at Baekhyun from beneath the brim of his hat. His expression was completely blank for someone who usually wore all his feelings so openly, and something about it made Baekhyun feel infinitely sad.
“Alright. Well, it was nice knowing you,” Chanyeol said stiffly, and he stuck his hand through the window, presumably for Baekhyun to shake it. Baekhyun grabbed it and kissed it instead, holding it against his lips for a moment before he let go.
“It was nice knowing you too,” he whispered.
Chanyeol looked taken aback, but he nodded, and his lips quirked at the corners into something that might have been a smile, maybe, if things were different. He stepped away from the car, and Baekhyun tipped his hat at him before he drove away. While he drove, he watched Chanyeol in the rearview mirror as he walked along with his guitar case slung over his shoulder and his hands in his pockets. Every now and then he stumbled a little, slipping on the loose gravel along the side of the road.
Baekhyun kept driving — very slowly, so he could keep Chanyeol in his sights as long as possible. Several cars and a road-train overtook him. There was an awful tightness in his chest that only seemed to get worse as he got further away — he briefly wondered if it was a heart attack or something — and the lonely figure in his rearview mirror got smaller and smaller. Then he saw Chanyeol stop and put the guitar case down on the ground; he dropped down next to it, squatting by the roadside with his head in his hands, and something inside Baekhyun snapped. He let out a weird sound — whatever the hell it was, it sounded more animal than human — braked suddenly and chucked a quick U-turn without bothering to indicate, tyres scraping on the gravel. The ute had a shitty turning circle, and he almost took out someone’s fence post in the process. Then he roared back the other way.
When he pulled up beside Chanyeol again, the boy lifted his head from his hands, blinking wet, red-rimmed eyes at Baekhyun in a blank stare. Slowly, he lifted himself up from the ground and walked towards the car. “What are you doing here…?”
“Just get in,” Baekhyun said quietly.
Chanyeol looked at Baekhyun for a moment, saying nothing. Then he wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt, and without a word he went around the back to dump his guitar case in the tray again. He opened the passenger door and hopped inside, shoving his backpack down in the footwell between his knees. "Where are we going?" he asked, as Baekhyun pulled away from the side of the road.
“I’m giving you a lift. Whether you like it or not.”
“Quirindi’s back that way,” Chanyeol said.
Baekhyun heaved out an impatient sigh. “Yes, I know… but I’m not taking you to Quirindi, dumb-arse. I’m taking you to Sydney.”
Chanyeol was silent for a long time. “That’s like, a five-hour drive, at least..”
“Ah, well, that’s alright. It’s my pleasure,” Baekhyun replied, and then he smiled. “Anyway, it looks like I’ve got some time off for once, a fair bit more than I was expecting. Should probably make the most of it, hey.”
Chanyeol laughed softly and nodded his head. He reached across to put one hand on Baekhyun’s leg, rubbing it gently. “And what’ll we do when we get there?” he asked, in a soft voice.
Baekhyun didn’t reply for a while. He was too busy looking at the road ― everything he knew was in one direction, and in the other, nothing much at this point in time, just a long strip of asphalt eventually swallowed by the cloudless sky. But there was a good song playing on the radio, and he had some cash in his pocket and a warm hand on his thigh to sweeten the uncertainty.
“I’ve got no fucking idea,” he said. He put one hand on top of Chanyeol’s and curled his fingers around it, moving it away only when he needed to change gears, and then he’d put it back again. “But I suppose we’ll work it out.” The sun was in his eyes, and he pulled down the visor to see better. The old head was still a mess and it would be for a while, but now the heart was calm.
There's a battle ahead
Many battles are lost
But you'll never see the end of the road while you're travelling with me