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Wayfaring Stranger (YARBB mini-version)

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“It’ll be fun,” his mother repeated from the relative safety of the rental’s front seat. She had six brochures open on her lap, each of them variations on the same theme—wilderness, wilderness, and oh hey, yet more wilderness. “They have daily rides, fishing, marksmenship—”

“Which is off limits,” Billy’s father added before David and Andy could look up from their Nintendo DSes.

“Which is off limits,” his mother echoed easily, “of course. White water rafting, hiking, nature guides, trapping. Which, hm, doesn’t sound exactly palatable either; I should check with the owner to see what their stance is on catch-and-release.”

Billy had to fight not to roll his eyes. He’d been trapped in the car with his parents and younger brothers for going on thirty-two hours now, stretched over four days. That was thirty-two hours of squabbling over who was on whose side of the long bench seat, who had first dibs on the various electronics, who was a complete butthole and why…. Family vacation was seriously going to be the death of him. “It’s a working dude ranch, Mom. I’m pretty sure their stance is if we can catch it, we should serve it with beans.”

“Or make it into a hat,” David piped up.

“I want to catch a raccoon and make it into a hat!” Andy added.

“Maybe a raccoon with catch you and make you into a hat.”

“Maybe your butt is a hat!”

Billy groaned and tried to shrink down into his corner just as far as the seatbelt would allow. He drew up his legs and yanked his hood over his head, until only a slit remained for him to peer out through. When his father had first suggested they take a trip to Montana in an attempt to rediscover nature somewhere far away from apartment window boxes and rooftop herb gardens, he’d been thrilled; now, he was beginning to see the trap: family vacation in nature meant spending time with his family.

“They have badminton. You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever played badminton before.”

This was going to be hell.

**

“And this would be your cabin,” the overly cheerful young woman said as she sprinted up the steps to the wide front porch. Billy glanced up and blew a strand of dark hair out of his eyes. His suitcase weighed a metric ton and his limbs felt as if they had been folded up into complicated origami shapes. Even his mother’s enthusiasm was pale in comparison with the girl’s broad, beaming smile and relentless local color. “We’ve got you staying in the Bighorn Suite! And let me tell you, you’re in for a real treat! You can already see the wide open porch looking out toward the mountains—oh, here, let me help you with that, kiddo.”

She leaned over and plucked the suitcase from Andy’s struggling grip; there wasn’t a moment’s sign of effort on her face as she slung it up onto the porch as if it weighed nothing at all. It was incredible; there was no way she was for real.

“Now what was I saying? Oh, right, so—there are only three rockers, but heck, we can drag a few more down if you like. Just ring up to the big house and we’ll get someone to take care of that for you. The inside’s all pine, with a real working fireplace, a kitchenette, three bedrooms—”

“DIBS!” Andy and David cried as one, scuffling at the doorway before pushing past and into the cabin.

“—and two baths, including a clawfoot to die for,” the girl continued as if she’d never been interrupted.

Billy gripped the handle of his suitcase and hoisted it up the stairs as his mother paused on the porch. “That sounds lovely, Kelly, thank you.” Then, “My goodness, Jeff, would you look at this view.”

It was pretty nice, Billy had to admit. Probably not 36 hours of driving nice, but still. The mountains were a pale grayed lavender, ghosting white at their tips as they thrust up into the clouds. The sky was huge and open, so blue it was almost unreal. He felt a little like Dorothy in that moment where the world bled from black-and-white into full Technicolor: he was still blinking hard and barely believing his eyes.

The ranch was huge and gorgeous in its own way, too. It sprawled across green and gold land, rustic fences cording off various pastures. Their cabin was a good distance away from the others, near one of the U-shaped stables. Some of the horses were out in the field directly abutting the stable, Billy noted. He left his bag by his parents and wandered to the far end of the porch to get a better view.

In the nearest field, a black horse (mare? stallion? He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference even if he lifted up some skirts to check) shook its mane and began to rear up with an annoyed whinny. Billy watched as a boy in a cowboy hat and dark jeans—back to him—reached up to touch the tight muscles of the horse’s neck, the other lifted in a soothing gesture.

It was too far away for him to hear anything, but even at this distance, Billy could see the effect the boy was having. The horse dropped back to earth, tossing its mane again. It pawed the ground once. It went still.

It turned its head and bumped its muzzle into the boy’s stomach, sending him back a laughing step.

“Oh, hey,” Kelly said from just behind Billy. He startled and looked over his shoulder guiltily; his parents had already gone inside. “Are you into horses?”

I’m into cute cowboys, he thought, but he just smiled. “Sure,” Billy said, “yeah. Who’s that?”

The boy had half-turned, sunlight catching on…earrings? Yeah, it looked like earrings, a lot of them, running down the shell of his ear. He was probably around Billy’s age, battered wide-brimmed hat shielding much of his face, but Billy could see the ends of golden hair at the nape of his neck and impossibly broad shoulders that narrowed down into a trim waist. His worn jeans hugged him like a second skin; a green kerchief hung out of his back-left pocket, smudged with dirt and bits of hay. It drew Billy’s eyes unerringly to the perfect curve of the other boy’s ass.

He flushed and looked down at his feet.

“Who? Inigo? Oh! Oh, no, you mean Teddy. He’s one of our guides—you’ll be meeting him when we tour the stables. He’s going to help me match you guys up with your horses.”

Teddy. Maybe family vacation wasn’t going to suck after all.

**

Kelly, to the surprise of absolutely no one, took the whole horse-matching thing incredibly seriously.

“Yes,” she said as she led them across the yard to the stable, “but would you consider yourself more of a thinker or a doer?”

Billy’s parents shared bemused looks. The cheerful blonde had already quizzed them on levels of introversion, whether they preferred change or constancy, how they dealt with challenges… It was hard not to ruin his mother’s fun and admit that all five of them had taken so many personality tests over the years that they could game the system without a second thought.

“But I took the Meyers-Briggs last week,” Andy whined, only to be shushed by their father. Their mother shot Kelly a wide, toothy grin.

Billy just snorted and shoved his hands into his pockets, trailing the group by a few steps. He glanced around as the stable loomed up ahead of them, but the hot cowboy—Teddy—was nowhere to be seen.

“Okay, yeah, so, would you say you were unbiased even when…” Kelly continued blithely, leading them through the huge double doors. The stable was dim, slats of light painting everything in hazy, romantic strips of gold. The air smelled of hay and oats and pine. Horses nickered as they passed down the main aisle, a few ambling over to swing their heads over the low-slung gates.

Billy tipped his face up, squinting toward the high, lofted ceiling. He could see movement up there, bits of hay occasionally drifting down to the stalls below. Wooden floorboards creaked.

“The real question,” a distractingly gorgeous voice interrupted from somewhere just ahead, “is actually pretty simple: Batman or Superman, and why?”

Billy stumbled over his laces, flushing and catching himself against a stall door. The horse—completely white, with a coral pink muzzle and what could only be called a bitch please expression—whickered and tossed its head in protest.

“Sorry,” Billy mumbled, straightening, flushing. He glanced over, blush trailing down his neck and across his collarbone, because (of course; of course) that gorgeous voice belonged to Hot Cowboy. He was standing just a few feet away, arm looped through what looked like worn leather straps (leading reins, his sluggish brain supplied after a stuttering false start), hat tipped back to reveal—

Just—

Billy let out a slow, uneven breath, feeling his stomach beginning to twist. Hot Cowboy was the kind of gorgeous usually reserved for the trashy teen shows he refused to admit to watching: golden-tanned and blue-eyed with a wide smile and a pair of utterly devastating dimples. He glanced up as if he could feel Billy’s eyes on him, and that grin flashed wider in question.

Billy looked down immediately, scuffing his foot.

“Come on, then,” Teddy said. “Batman or Superman, and why?”

Andy rolled his eyes. “You sound like Billy. They’re both stupid—neither.”

Teddy immediately pointed to a small brown horse. Pony? “Congratulations, that’s your horse. How about you? Batman or Superman, and why?”

David shot Andy a smug look. “Batman, because he can kick your butt without any stupid powers.”

“Fair enough. You’re stall six.”

“I’ve got Rebecca and Jeff,” Kelly added with a wry grin, leading Billy’s parents away. “You got this under control?”

“Sure,” Teddy said; he was looking at Billy again. Billy swallowed against the uncomfortable feeling of nervous excitement and attraction swirling together low in his belly. Teddy had a casual grace to him that made him look completely natural in this wild setting. At home in his own skin. Billy couldn’t imagine ever feeling that way, but God, it looked good on the other kid. “How about you…Billy, wasn’t it?”

He wet his lips. “Billy, yeah. Hi.”

“I’m Teddy.”

I know. “Hi.”

Andy snorted. “Lame,” he said, going to stare down his petite horse. “Hi. I bet you don’t think much about stupid comic books either.”

“So,” Teddy said, cocking his head. David was already trotting off to find stall six, and Billy fell in step beside Teddy, feeling gawky and awkward and shockingly aware of the space the other boy took up. “What’s your answer? Batman or Superman?”

“Neither,” Billy said, daring a quick glance up; Teddy was still looking at him, and the other boy actually blushed and looked away as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t have. “I mean, they’re both awesome but…Captain America all the way, you know? No contest.”

The slow, pleased grin that spread over Teddy’s face practically made his toes curl. “Good pick. Why’d you choose him?”

Billy shrugged a shoulder. “I dunno. I mean. Batman’s a bit too dark, and Superman’s great and all, but Cap’s just this kid from Brooklyn who— He wants to do everything he can, for everyone he can. He’s just a man, like Batman, but he’s the purest kind of hero, like Superman. He’s everything good from both of them.”

Not that he’d given it a lot of thought or anything. Oh, no, only complete nerds would do that.

He startled when Teddy lightly bumped their shoulders together. He was smiling, but it was smaller, softer. Appreciative. “Yeah, I get that,” Teddy said. Then, “Come on; your horse is in stall nine.”

**

“My horse’s name is Buttercup?”

“What’s wrong with Buttercup?” Teddy grinned, dimples—dimples—flashing briefly. “I think Buttercup’s a great name.”

Billy studied him thoughtfully. “You’ve never had two younger brothers, have you?”

“Well, not that I’ve noticed.”

“Then you have no idea.” Some distance away, David was trying to stare down his own horse, a gorgeous gray with speckled white and black on its withers. “What’s his name?”

Teddy glanced over, one hand braced against the corded muscles of Buttercup’s neck. Billy took the moment to watch the way Teddy’s own muscles shifted and bunched beneath his white cotton Henley. God, he was so gorgeous; Billy’s stomach twisted in a series of anxious somersaults at the sight of his biceps, at the elegant arch of his neck. “What, your brother’s horse?” Teddy looked back with a quick grin and Billy fought to keep his expression blank. “That’s Dread Pirate Roberts.”

“Wait a minute,” he protested. Buttercup butted her nose against his chest, nearly knocking Billy a step back. He touched a hand to her velvety-soft muzzle, rubbing up to her forelock as he fought to keep back the bemused grin. “Your boss asked you to match us to our horses.”

“Yup.”

“And you gave my little brother Dread Pirate Roberts.”

Yup.”

“And you gave me Buttercup?”

Those dimples flashed again, making something deep in Billy’s stomach twist in reflexive pleasure. “Yup,” Teddy said, lifting a hand to stroke up the horse’s muzzle, fingers inches away from Billy’s.

“All right, kids!” Kelly called. She was already mounted, million-watt smile dazzling. “Who’s ready to ride?”

“That’s our cue,” Teddy said, stepping back. “Here, I’ll give you a hand up.” He crouched, cupping his hands together; a long fall of blond hair covered one eye and sunlight caught on his row of earrings, twinkling like distant stars.

Billy hesitated—it didn’t feel right somehow to slide his muddy sneaker into Teddy’s cupped hand, to let the other boy hoist him up—but he inched forward when Teddy looked up with an expectant expression.

This is his job, he reminded himself fiercely, grabbing hold of the saddlehorn and sliding a foot into the cradle of Teddy’s palms. Billy swung a leg as Teddy hoisted him up, other arm pinwheeling briefly before he managed to snag hold of the reins. He slid forward awkwardly, half sprawled over Buttercup before he could push himself into a more dignified seat.

Teddy helpfully snagged one of his feet and slid it into the stirrup.

“Thanks,” Billy said. Then, “I mean it. I was just joking about the whole Buttercup thing. I mean, my brothers aren’t going to let me live it down, but…”

“Andy got Humperdinck,” Teddy said helpfully. “I told you: we make an effort to match our horses to people as much as possible.”

Billy rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that’s a pretty good fit. So what are you saying about me?” he added, trying to keep it casual. “Are you saying you think I’m a spoiled princess or something?”

“Nah,” Teddy said, one hand on Buttercup’s flank. He looked up to study Billy, squinting against the brilliant Montana sun. “It’s just…Buttercup’s the sweetest horse I’ve ever met in my life.” A pause, then, “Your guide’s leaving you.”

“Wha—” Billy began, head spinning, utterly stunned. His body was throwing off sparks and he nearly listed in the saddle with the sudden wave of flushed pleasure. Kelly, his parents, and his brothers were already beginning a leisurely walk away. “Oh.”

Teddy’s voice was pitched low and warm. “I’ll see you when you get back,” he said, lightly tapping Buttercup’s rump. “Hyah!”

Buttercup took off after the others at a quick walk. It was all Billy could not to fall as he twisted around in his saddle to cast the other boy one last, stunned, hopeful glance.

He thinks I’m sweet, Billy thought dizzily. That single thought kept him warm all through the long ride.