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The lake was preternaturally still. Treetops spiked a black silhouette against the darkness, and stars spilled like glitter across the sky.

The quiet here reached his bones.

It had started when Shane was sixteen years old, when one night his best friend suggested they take a drive to the city harbor.

“Why?” Shane had asked.

“Because. It’s the sort of place your mopey ass would like.”

They’d walked long docks of polished wood, and taken a seat on one of the abandoned benches under a glowing lamp post. Quiet, watching. Sleepy boats, rocking in the black water. A couple near the very end of the dock, their laughter echoing through the silence. The commercial port on the far side of the harbor, brighter and busier, the anchored ships lit from below in blue and gold.

Garrett had nudged him. “Not so bad, huh?”

They’d been close enough to touch shoulders. Shane had stuffed his hands in his hoodie pocket and stared at the distant city on the horizon, at the soft dome of peach light trapped between the water and sky.

“Yeah, it’s nice,” he’d replied, almost burning inside with how lovely it was.

The docks in Stardew Valley didn’t have the polish of the city ones. They were rustic, the wood old and the type to give splinters if one was careless. But being out here gave Shane the same sense of longing—the same deep ache in his heart he’d once felt on those other docks beside his best friend. Loneliness. And not like the loneliness of being in a crowd of people, when Shane disappeared. Out here, sitting on the splintered path that jutted into Cindersap Lake, he swam in the achy feeling rather than drown in it.

He tilted his head back and let a long stream of whiskey drain down his throat.

It was Tuesday night, his second day as farmhand complete. The work hours had slipped by, half in silence, half in zen-small talk that somehow didn’t grate on Shane’s nerves like most conversation. And when he’d approached the house at the end of the day, William was again on the porch—again offering an uncapped brown bottle.

Though Shane accepted, this time he was careful to only stick around long enough for two. He was used to sinking into his own head while drinking. Not talking to someone. Not growing easy, unguarded, and loose-lipped.

He wondered if William had any idea that those drinks were only the beginning. That whether it was five like yesterday or two like today, he went home and kept drinking hard through the night. Woke the next morning hungover, and tipped whiskey in his coffee to ease things until he could booze up properly again. He’d as good as told William he was an alcoholic, after all.

Yet what had he done?

Tapped Shane’s beer.

Toasted their fucking sobriety.

It had hit Shane at odd moments that day when mucking stalls, when filling troughs. He kept hearing that clink of the bottle necks. Kept feeling that nudge on his arm, with soft words telling him to go home. He’d pause with a pitchfork of manure, or with the feedbag half-tilted in his arms, and think of that unnerving moment when he’d touched William’s arm. How in that scarred, bumpy skin he hadn’t felt the unbearable loneliness of being around people, but the quiet ache of being alone at the docks in the dark.

The memories didn’t last long. They flashed like tiny bolts of lightning before disappearing again, leaving only the imprint of their brightness on Shane’s mind. He’d go back to tipping manure in the wheelbarrow, or letting the seed plink into the trough, blinking at the wall of the barn and reminding himself it was the middle of the day.

He downed another inch of whiskey.

Fuck that shit.

Never going to make that mistake again, getting drunk around his new boss. Wasn’t going to risk doing something else as stupid as what he’d done that first night.

He set down the bottle, staring at the black water and absently rubbing the back of his hand. His fingers passed over the knuckles. The skin was rough and red, healing over from the scrape against the tree.

There were other marks under the scabs. Ones he couldn’t feel anymore. Faint white lines, from when he’d first started learning balisong tricks and caught the wrong end of the knife too many times. He could still remember how the bite of the blade had felt. How sometimes, it even felt good. Just like his hand scraping against the tree, and the pain in his jaw the whole last week, and the soreness in his shoulder after William had twisted it.

Shane reached for the whiskey again. He took a long drink, then stared down at the silhouette of the glass, fingers flexing around its neck.

“You’re cracked too,” he whispered.

It was another fucking lifetime ago, those old scars. A lifetime he’d been sober in, because Shane’s last friend hadn’t drank with him. Garrett had been the one to help him quit drinking, and were he here now, his handsome face would be heartbroken to see that half-empty bottle in his freshly-scarred hands.

Yet still, Shane drank. He drank for a long time. Drank until that half-empty bottle was empty, his thoughts taking increasingly dark and winding turns the closer he got to the bottom.

Jas, he realized, the whiskey dry and his head swimming. He needed to see Jas. He needed to spend time with her. Tonight, that was the only thing that mattered.

Moments later he was stumbling down the path home.

I’m sorry, he thought. I’m so, so fucking sorry.

His shoe caught on a rock in the road and tripped him, though he managed not to fall.

I’m so fucking sorry. It’s never going to happen. Ever. I promise.

He fumbled in his pocket for the house key, and jabbed it several times at the knob before hooking it in the slot.

He’s not you.

He’s not you.

He’s not you.

The lights in the kitchen were too bright after Shane had sat in the darkness so long. He squinted against the blinding yellow bulb as if it were the direct sun, leaning a hand against the door and kicking his shoes off.

They hit the wall. One clunk. Two clunks.

“Where’s Jas?” he asked, his words thick and loud.

There was a soft sigh from the couch in the next room.

“She’s asleep, Shane,” Marnie said, clicking off the television. “It’s after nine-thirty.”

Shane scrubbed a hand through his hair, blinking bleary eyes at her. “Asleep?” he repeated, then glanced at the static glow that lingered on the TV screen. “Oh…yeah…”

Marnie was already in pajamas, her hair braided for sleep. She stood. “Well, she missed you too,” she said, looking exhausted. “And if you’d stayed home after dinner, you could have spent time with her.”

She clicked off the lamp on the side table and the room went dim.

“Good night, Shane,” she said, and disappeared down the hallway.

He stood staring at the empty couch for a long time after she left.

After work on Wednesday—after another seamless day, and another two beers with William on the porch when it was over—Shane made the executive decision to stay home the rest of the night.

He’d spent all last week shuffling Jas to the back of the queue. But last night at the dock, he’d had clarity. Clarity that included getting his head straight on about her.

Again.

It was always a goddamn cycle. Like she was a library book he could pick up when he wanted to make progress, and set face down when he had no time. And he had to make time. Like tonight, sitting on the porch steps of the ranch after they’d just eaten supper.

“I’m never going to get it!” she cried, frustration crinkling a crease into her freckled nose.

“You will too,” said Shane.

Jas stared down at the practice butterfly knife in her hand. “Easy for you, you’re good at it.”

“Yeah?” Shane looked at her small glaring face. “Well how about I’ve been practicing longer than you’ve been alive, kid.”

“Longer than nine years?”

“Got it when I was eighteen. That’s thirteen whole years ago.”

“You’re so old.” She frowned, but then sat up straighter, determined. “Show me the ice pick again.”

Shane eased his legs out in front of him. Flicking open his own butterfly knife—balisong, was the technical term, but Jas liked using its “pretty” name—he smoothly pinwheeled the three-spoked weapon, first one way, then the other. At the last moment he released it with a spin then caught it by the handles, blade facing out.

Shane’s knife was expensive and solid silver. It was the first one he ever owned and what he’d learned on, slicing his hands up nicely in the process. Jas’s knife however was blade-less, with a rubber-gripped handle for easier catching. She watched him perform the trick with deep concentration, and when he’d finished she frowned again.

Biting her lower lip, she turned to her own knife and attempted the alternating pinwheel. The first half went well, but the second half got out of her control, stopping the trick in its tracks.

She flopped back against the porch, blowing a raspberry of frustration and glaring at the sky.

Shane held out his hand. She slapped her knife against his palm, crossing her tiny arms after.

“Like this,” he said, demonstrating again in slower motion. It would be dangerous to do with his bladed knife, but with hers he could at least attempt the slower speed for her to see better. “You’ve gotta roll your wrist after the first.” He did it twice more, then handed it back. “Try it.”

With a deep, determined breath Jas brought herself back to sitting, and Shane gave her an encouraging nod.

She tried again—and it worked.

Another crinkle scrunched the freckled nose, this time from the smile that blossomed across her face.

“I did it!” she cried, so excited she sprung to her feet and dropped the practice blade.

That smile. It fucking killed him sometimes.

Dusk was falling over the valley, the periwinkle of the horizon fading into navy above them. The air was cool, or at least the summer definition of it. They sat under the pool of yellow porch light, facing the back fields of the ranch and practicing their knife tricks. It was one of Jas’s favorite things to do together, ever since Shane caved and bought her the practice blade for her ninth  birthday a few months ago. In the past she’d been content to sit and watch him flip tricks on his own, but sometime between the ages of eight and nine, she’d turned adamant about getting one too—offended, even, when Shane insisted hers be bladeless.

Bending over, she picked up the dropped knife and stuck it in her pocket. She sat close to Shane, their legs touching on the porch steps, and reached for his solid silver one. He let her take it.

The steel was heavy and sleek. Over a decade old, it was Shane’s most prized possession and still looked almost brand new, shiny from frequent polishing and with only a few light scratches. Jas opened it carefully, touching the blade in the soft, safe manner Shane had taught her. Then she folded it closed and examined the little rectangular package.

“My dad gave you this,” she said conversationally.

Shane leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and staring at the silhouette of a distant apple tree, at the long fences that kept the cattle in where they roamed.

Jas opened the knife again, letting the blade dangle upside down, swinging it back and forth. Shane knew she was experimenting; pushing her limits on playing with it. He kept watch from the corner of his eye but said nothing.

“Wish I could see him right now,” she said, watching the blade sway.

Just look in a damn mirror, kid.

She had her mother’s dark hair, true. But the freckles. The way her expression grew mischievous in an I know something you don’t know sort of way. The smile that came easy and free, and the way her eyes rolled into the back of her head when Shane said something ridiculous—that was all her daddy.

Shane stared at his hands, picking one of the scabs. “What would you say to him?” he asked quietly.

“I’d say…” She stopped to think, then cleared her throat and put on a deep, scolding voice. “What do you think you’re doing here mister? You’re a ghost!”

Then she broke into giggles.

Shane forced a smile as, still giggling, she closed the knife and comfortably settled onto his lap. He hugged her around the waist and rested his head on her shoulder, looking up to where a few pale stars pinpricked the blue sky.

The thing that made it hardest was knowing his ghost would’ve giggled with her.

 


 

William raised an eyebrow at the cards he was dealt and reclined in the high-backed chair. It was the last Wednesday of the month, which meant it was poker night—and that he was sitting around Kent and Jodi Clark’s kitchen table with a hand full of bullshit.

He and Kent had started hanging out once a month after Kent had returned home. The captain had been a POW in Gotoro, during the same war that gave William such severe injuries he’d been drummed out of the service like a broken marionette. Kent’s own disability was invisible to anyone who looked at him, but William had listened to Jodi give tearful confessions of her husband’s evening roaming and nightmares.

And William knew a thing or two about nightmares.

So without any warning, three weeks into Kent’s return home, William had shown up at his place with Marlon, Gus, Lewis, and Clint on the last Wednesday of the month, with a poker chip set, a few decks of cards, and a lot of snacks from Gus’s bar. The players in their little poker brotherhood had shifted over the months, but William knew it didn’t matter who came. It just mattered that Kent knew someone gave a shit to spend some time with him.

It was hard, he thought, when the people around you didn’t have a fucking clue about what was living in your head.

Not that the poker team was anything like deep therapy, but sitting around for three or four hours drinking beer and shooting the shit with other men was almost like being in the mess hall with some buddies. Almost like sitting in the barracks after a long patrol, and kicking back before your leave request was approved. And it sure as shit was better than nothing.

William tossed down his hand and sighed dramatically.

“You’re fucking counting cards, Captain,” he groused at Kent, who was smirking at his fold.

Tonight it was Marlon, Gunther, and Clint at their card game. Clint’s poker face was too good and William was starting to regret inviting the big quiet smith. Still, he seemed so damn touched that they’d wanted him around, he’d let the invite stand.

“You always bitch when you’re losing, Bauer,” Kent replied, sliding a handful of one dollar chips into his pile and stacking them neatly.

“And you brag when you win,” Gunther added, accepting the deck and shuffling the cards back together.

Clint stacked his chips too. “Haven’t seen you by the saloon lately.”

William shrugged. He hadn’t felt the need for extra company these days.

“I bent Gus’s nose out of shape a little bit,” he said. “But I figure he’ll relax once my Octoberfest blend comes in.”

“So.” Marlon raised one bushy brow. “You really were in a bar room brawl last week?”

“Hardly a damn brawl,” Kent snorted. “Some posturing and grunting before Gus dumped a big dose of Shut The Hell Up on both of them.”

That’s because I know how to handle my business outside, William thought, reordering his cards and watching the men around the table stare at him.

Gunther chuckled. “I’d have thought you’d leave the bruising back on the front lines. Fighting doesn’t seem like a good feature in a farmer, Bill.”

That fucking nickname.

William had ignored it for so long, but Shane’s observation had highlighted how much the damn thing grated on his nerves. Normally at poker night he and Kent slipped into calling each other by their last names—the formality comforting, and a damn sight more accurate than the shitty moniker Gus had dubbed him with his first week in town.

“Farmers are mysterious motherfuckers,” he said loftily. “We live alone and coax life from dirt. I got my secrets, Gunther.”

“Yeah, well, you’ve got at least half my money too,” Kent said, tossing a dollar chip at him. “So shut up and play.”

William caught the chip and threw it back without any heat. Shut up and play sounded like the best thing he’d heard all day. They fell into silence as they viewed their hands and tossed money into the pot, and then trashed talked for a few minutes before William’s straight beat out everyone else at the table.

Clint chuckled as William pulled the chips his way.

“What’s so funny?” Marlon asked.

“Just the gay guy using a straight to kick our butts,” Clint said, shaking his head.

“Careful now.” Kent stood to toss his empty and get another beer. “Last guy who made fun of who Bauer liked to bone got half his teeth knocked out. Jodi said Shane Daniel’s face looked like hamburger meat when she was shopping the clearance rack at Joja last week.”

William stilled, the casual observation slicing into his good fucking time. Especially since he hadn’t been remembering the fight as ‘that time he ruined Shane’s face,’ but as ‘best night ever’.

“Don’t let him fool you,” William said, stacking chips. “Daniels hits like a damn steam engine.”

Kent came back with fresh beers but William waved him off. He usually kept to one drink when hanging out with these guys.

“I dunno,” said Marlon, accepting his. “Marnie’s nephew is a quiet one.”

“It’s always the quiet ones,” Kent and William said at the same time.

“Had a guy in my unit,” Kent continued, sitting down. “Silent as the fucking grave. Right when we’re running the crucible? Dude hauled up one of our guys who’d broken his leg on the trail. Dragged him right to the end.” He sipped his beer. “The rest of us were running with our normal kit and weight, and this stupid-ass finished the trail with his kit, our unit-mate’s kit, and the unit-mate. Probably broke his back to do it, but man. After that we all just stared at him like he was a fucking mule.”

“Leave off of Daniels,” William added, taking the deck. “I started that shit anyway."

No one seemed to question the assertion, though Kent looked at him sideways.

“Bauer, start shit?” he asked sarcastically. “Surely you must be thinking about another farmer with a reputation of hitting people he doesn’t like.”

“Oh,” Gunther said, snapping a finger, “that’s right! Morris and you tied up last year.”

William rolled his eyes and started to shuffle. “He deserved it.”

He tried not to remember the look of irritation on Shane’s face when that had been brought up the other day; how he’d thrown his hay bale harder at the mention. This town just couldn’t let a single thing go, could it?

“Deserved to get cold-clocked for handing out coupons?” Clint asked.

William began tossing cards at them one at a time. “He went onto private property and was soliciting rival business. Joja would have had Pierre arrested if he’d done that. Besides, what does it matter? Morris and his entire eyesore are gone now.”

This earned grunts of agreement around the table. Kent mentioned that they might have to tear down the old Joja building soon, unless perhaps they could convert it into something. Marlon added an observation that William didn’t quite catch. He focused on doling the deck out, and when he was done flipped through his hand without really seeing the cards.

Violence.

That was what he was known for. Kicking asses and causing trouble. It had been the same at home, old skirmishes that turned into gossipy fuel for his peers, and his mother’s social circles. And here it was, happening again, like a wheel of repeated mistakes he couldn’t stop spinning.

The subject at the table changed to the different types of trails that were in the valley, and how they compared to boot camp. William’s chest eased, his neck relaxing.

He didn’t come to poker night to think about things that bothered him. He came to lose himself in interactions with people who barely knew him.

At the end of the game he lost half the money he’d won, and everyone was near the same level of poverty they’d started at. It was a good feeling, that no one was better off than anyone else. Then Gunther, Clint, and Marlon all gathered their things around 10 pm, and trooped out while William lingered behind to help clean after the party.

He was sticking a clothespin on a bag of chips when Kent spoke up.

“You started it, Bauer?”

It took a moment for William to pull his mind out of the random shit-talk they’d been spewing for the last hour, back to the topic of the bar fight.

“Yup.”

“Not like you to start fights at the saloon,” Kent observed, stacking containers of dip to the side.

“Yeah well, felt like blowing off some steam and the asshole got in the way,” William said lightly. “Look. I apologized. We buried the damn hatchet and he’s been working over at the farm to help me get through summer.”

He could feel Kent’s eyes on him, and knew that if he made contact he’d have to address it.

Not today, Captain Clark.

Instead of giving space for unwelcome words, William stacked chip bags, the racket of foil packets creating a chaotic static that made words difficult. He opened up the cabinet to put them away and paused. A smile broke over his face, the need to distract Kent forgotten. 

“You’re letting Jodi make popcorn again?”

About three months into Kent’s return William had witnessed a panic attack triggered by the sound of the popping corn, and Jodi had refused to bring it into their house for almost a year after.

Kent’s face flushed at the subject change. “Well,” he said, fidgeting with the cards, stacking them neatly into the poker bin. “It’s dumb to never eat popcorn again.”

William shut the door to the cabinet firmly and clapped him on the back, a feeling of relief in his chest.

When Kent had first come home, he’d worried the fucker might hang himself from the tree behind the house. William had passed him sometimes, smoking and staring up at the branches. The first time he’d seen that look had been on the face of a platoon-mate who’d stared too hard at his own weapon, and two days before deployment, the guy had slipped out of the bunks and tried to eat a bullet. The intense gaze had haunted William for the rest of his day. It was a feeling that was too damn familiar, a look of focus that he’d seen in his own eyes after his accident. But unlike William, who had no one to miss him, Kent had a wife and two kids who thought the world of him—so William had intervened in his way, unwilling to see another soldier fall to the fucking demons in his head.

As if summoned, the front door opened and said wife and kids trooped in.

Vincent, Kent’s youngest son, was asleep in Sam’s arms. William nodded at the older boy. He’d briefly considered offering him the job on his farm, but Sam was obsessed with building up his band, and Kent often complained he was gone every weekend trying to get musical performances in neighboring towns. Then came Jodi, loaded with beach bags and towels. She and William had bonded a few weeks into his relocation to Pelican Town. The savvy-eyed military wife had recognized a soldier without a washing machine, and invited him to stay for dinner at least once a week while he was getting his land established. She was a good woman, and William didn’t miss how Kent’s body relaxed at the sight of his family home safe. He ignored his own pang of lonely jealousy.

He didn’t belong here now. Time to go.

“Hey, William,” Jodi said, while Sam slipped away to put Vincent to bed. She began to unload her bags and Kent crossed over to help.

William turned away at their gentle greeting kiss.

“Evening, Jodi,” he said, sticking his hands into his pockets. “I was just about to head out.”

She beamed at him and looked around the kitchen. “You are always so helpful at cleaning up after your little He-man Woman Hater’s club.”

“Hey,” Kent protested, poking her shoulders. “Only one of us is a he-man woman hater. I happen to think you girls are pretty neat.”

She laughed and William gave a small smile.

“You two take care,” he said, nodding at them. “I’ve got an early day tomorrow.”

They waved goodbye and William stepped out of the cheerful house into the quiet summer night.

It was warm, despite the darkness. The river seemed to run slower as he walked home. The cicadas sang and chirped in the air, and the humidity of the season made it easy to start sweating even with no sun. He went all the way down the path, turned a right at Marnie’s ranch, and started up through the farm.

The solar lights were still on, a glowing path towards his home.

His empty. Dark. Lonely home.

William turned on the light to the porch and Ingrid blinked at him from the deck chair. She slowly sat up, extending one front leg and then the other, walking through the stretch as if she were made of rubberbands—then trotted to his ankles and gave him a body slam.

He reached down to scoop her up.

“You’re gaining weight, girl,” he muttered, opening the front door.

He didn’t bother locking his doors this far out in the country. She climbed up his shoulder and gave a loud purr in his ear as he walked into the dark kitchen, snapping on a light so he could fish out her cat food.

The jingle of kibble cascaded into her dish and William set it down, not bothering to tell her to eat on the floor like a proper cat. Ingrid did what she wanted, and gave bloody payment to anyone who thought to tell her otherwise.

“You’d miss me if I were gone, wouldn’t you, Ingrid?” he asked.

The only answer was the crunch of kibble.

While she ate he went outside to the porch, and sat down on the step with his boots.

The steps he’d sat on while Shane had touched his arm with tenderness and curiosity.

Button it down.

William focused on his first shoe, taking the brush to the side of it, knocking off dried mud. Each stroke was like brushing away the moment of softness. He wiped it clean after, rubbing a microfiber cloth over the metallic eyeholes.

He’d been good at buttoning those feelings down for days. Buttoning them down when he’d see Shane walking, or when they had to work together side by side. It was ridiculous to feel so in tune with a person he barely spoke to. Stupid and self-sabotaging to crave that closeness.

He put the boot down and reached for the other. The swish of the brush was meditative and it lulled him, as did the crickets and other nighttime summer sounds. Lulled him into a daydream, where, for a moment, he let himself picture it.

His front door opening and someone coming through with children, excited to see him.

His traitorous mind supplied a face on that masculine form. A face that had a look of softness when it saw him, just as it had when it touched the marks under his tattoos.

William let the shoe drop and sighed.

Dream on, Bauer, he thought grimly, pushing to his feet. Dream on.

 


 

For a guy who had crappy sleep at night and a hangover each morning, 5:00 am should’ve been a bitch. And well, it was. The pounding head and grogginess. The awful tasting mouth. Sometimes Shane even woke with sharp pains in his side below his ribcage. He’d roll out of bed, toss an NSAID down his throat, and wait for the coffee to brew—coffee he’d spike with three shots of whiskey.

That was how he survived those mornings. Pills, caffeine, and booze.

But waking at 5:00 am for William’s farm wasn’t anything new. It was when his stupid body always woke up, even all those years working at Joja when he could’ve slept in longer. He was simply unable to fall back asleep, tossing and turning pointlessly if he tried. And unlike retail, farm work really agreed with Shane. He was going to be hungover regardless, and the fresh air sure as fuck beat the smell of mop detergent and stale truck exhaust in Joja’s back halls. And hooking up fifty cows? God, if that didn’t beat dealing with customers.

Shane would’ve gladly hooked up three hundred cows rather than deal with a single fucking customer.

The only person he had to deal with at work these days was William.

William didn’t require service with a smile, nor write Shane up for swearing when he stepped in manure. His voice was deep and calm, rather than that annoyingly high, chirpy way people in customer service spoke. He knew how to use small talk in a way that didn’t bother Shane at all, and even better—he knew how to use fucking silence. He never insisted on filling every gap with conversation. William was, outside of beating Shane to a pulp on their maiden voyage, a really easy guy to be around.

Well, except for his apparent allergy to shirts. But at least this week he’d stopped with the winks and sweethearts.

On Friday at quitting time, Shane wandered off to the side of the house where he’d hidden a six-pack that morning. Not the cheap-ass Joja cans he used to buy by the case, but actual stout that was best drank at room temperature. His boss never served him shitty beer, and Shane wasn’t about to look bad returning the favor. He came around the house again and dropped his offering on the porch rail.

William let out a low whistle of appreciation, tilting the carton to the side. “Good shit, Daniels.”

“Least I can do after drinking yours every night.”

“Complaining?” William hauled two heavy wooden chairs from the back of the porch, then set the drinks between them. He plopped down and cracked one open, and after a long drink gave a sigh of satisfaction. “Nice. This one your favorite?”

Shane shrugged, sitting down and grabbing one for himself. “It’s okay. Nobody here’s got the selection Zuzu does though.”

Contemplative, William leaned back in his chair, staring over the sleepy afternoon fields. “Guess I’m going to miss having the company this weekend.” He frowned. “It’s been awhile since I knew someone was coming around every day.”

Shane looked into his beer.

It made sense. Shane knew he hadn’t been the most stimulating of company, but when he wasn’t ‘having a bad week,’ William seemed like the type of guy who enjoyed other people. Maybe after working all this time alone, anybody would’ve done it for him.

Still, it felt like a kind thing to say.

“This week has beat the fuck out of working at Joja,” said Shane, attempting to return the kindness.

William looked over, cautious, as if expecting there to be a catch at the end.

Face heating, Shane immediately stared back down into his beer.

But he was going to miss it too. He liked the quiet out here, no crowded aisles or beeping registers. Just animals and nature and the sounds of their labor. The work itself was fucking satisfying. Shane liked how it slowed down his mind for once, and how it made his body exhausted and muscles sore. And he liked finishing the day on this—relaxing with a beer, and company that wasn’t a little girl or a nosy aunt.

They never spoke of the first night on the porch. Shane wondered if William thought the same things he did. About how weird it was, to go from violently throwing fists, to softly touching scars, to sitting around like two average guys, pretending they’d done neither.

Conversations were lighter now. They discussed work, William pointing to the fields with the neck of his bottle, telling Shane what was to come the next day, the next week, the next month. Discussed sports, batting back and forth about the previous night’s recaps, hating on the same announcer who never swallowed his spit before talking. They swapped stories of animal rearing, and talked of William’s home brewing process.

Business with a little pleasure, was all.

It was peaceful at this hour, full of late summer warmth. The flies droned. The leaves rustled softly. Shane couldn’t stop thinking about how well the first week had gone. He kept waiting for the catch, but William seemed pleased with how much experience he already had from the ranch, and even more pleased with how quickly he picked up on new tasks.

This was, Shane realized, his foreseeable future.

William absently rolled his neck, then reached up and scratched his hair, dirty and matted with the grime of the day. “I’ll be gone Saturday night. Going to see my parents for Sunday brunch or whatever.”

“Oh…” Shane said. This was a topic they hadn’t touched on before.  “You, uh. You guys do much family shit?”

William nodded. “These days, yeah. Mom and Dad…well, I owe them a lot. They’re good people.”

Decent parents?

Apparently they did exist.

“So what the hell do you do at a brunch?” Shane asked, feeling dumb. “I mean, is it fucking breakfast or lunch?”

William laughed. “You sit quietly and try not to break anything, while everyone my mom knows comes by and tuts over you.” He took a drink, shaking his head. “Mom’s on like, every fucking charity society known to god.”

“Oh,” said Shane. “You’re talking about hell.”

“Fuck yeah it’s hell. Last week it was save the penguins. Week before that, we were saving Gotoro orphans. Who knows what it will be this week.” He tossed his empty, going for a second. “I wanna know,” he said, cracking it open, “when it’s gonna be Save the William from Tittering Morons and Stupid-Ass Fruit Drinks.”

Shane almost spit out his beer.

“Used to think a normal family would’ve been nice,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “But glad as shit I don’t have to deal with stuff like that.”

“Yeah?” William said, voice curious. “You got Marnie. She’s pretty normal.”

Shane stopped laughing.

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “Marnie’s good. Dunno why I said that.” He tossed his empty too, the glass clanging hollow in the metal bucket.

The noise sent a wave of irritation down his spine.

For a moment, Shane saw all the times after first moving into the ranch when he’d carefully hidden his whiskey bottles in the trash. Burying them under the top layer of garbage so they wouldn’t be seen. Cushioning them with plastic bags or paper towels, so they wouldn’t make noise if dropped to the tile when changing the bag.

Yet his dumb ass hadn’t fooled Marnie. She wasn’t fucking blind. Not six months had gone by when he caught her filling a box with empty jars—spaghetti sauce, salsa, jam—and right alongside them, the fifth of Jack he’d tried to dispose of the night before.

“Pierre recycles glass now,” she’d said, not looking at him, nesting in the final jar. “Your bottles can go in the bin under the sink.”

Which meant Shane started storing empties in his spare drawers or under the bed, until collecting enough that it was worth making a stealthy trip to dump them off. Which was just a fucking farce anyway—both pretending they didn’t know that the other person knew.

“She can be a fucking pain though,” he added.

William shook his head. “Fuckin’ straight women, man,” he said, as if this had been a long-standing complaint in his life.

Shane took a long drink, staring moodily across the fields.

More like, fuckin’ ungrateful piece of shit.

What was he doing, shit-talking his aunt to his boss? Marnie was a saint. Shane was the one who’d crashed into her life with a backpack full of issues, stuffed so tight that when it unzipped they exploded all over her life. So he had to put up with her nosiness. Boo-fucking-hoo. It was her fucking house. It was her free time being stolen to take care of his damn kid, while he worked and drank and passed out early with a bottle at his side.

“So,” William said, waving a hand. “She’s a pain, you don’t have a normal family. Sorry I interrupted. Continue.”

Shane stared down the neck of his beer, irritated with himself for even bringing it up.

“Marnie’s good,” he said darkly. “Puts up with a lot from my dumb ass.”

“Yeah?” said William. “Like what?”

Of course William wasn’t about to let it go.

Why couldn’t this guy be like most people, and just keep talking about himself?

“Forget it,” he snapped. “Didn’t mean to start down some horseshit memory lane.”

William frowned. He leaned forward, elbows rested on his knees, bottle between his fingers. “Didn’t mean to poke a sore spot, man,” he said, looking into the beer and swirling it.

Fuck yeah it’s a sore spot.

“Not a sore spot,” Shane argued. “But just because we’re sitting down with a few beers doesn’t mean we have to bond over shit.”

The words were a boomerang. They sailed out of his mouth and then flew right back, socking him in the stomach.

What was his problem? Like he’d shown up today with the gift of beer in one hand and a shotgun in the other, shooting up the place. And not just any place. His fucking workplace. Snapping at William, his boss, who’d done nothing to deserve Shane’s ire and could probably fire him for being a bad drinking buddy if he wanted to.

Shane drank the remainder of his beer, irritation with himself ramping. When it was empty he forced a look at William, unsure what to expect.

He was glaring at Shane, his tattooed fist clenched around the neck of the bottle. “Well at the rate you’re going, sweetheart,” he said coolly, “we really don’t have to bond at all.”

Shane grunted. He chucked his bottle in the bucket with a bang, then grabbed a fresh beer and stood up, stalking across the porch as he cracked it open. 

William tossed his own empty in the bucket. “Don’t bite my head off because you cant keep your shit straight, man.”

Shane froze.

His heart slammed in his chest as he saw the image again—eyes, searing into him like a branding iron at the bar. Those same eyes, looking softly between a lock of fallen hair on the porch.

His heart slammed harder.

“Been fucking waiting to say that one, yeah?” He spun, stomping down the steps and into the yard, where he tipped his head back and drained the full beer in one pulsing swallow.

Slow down. What the fuck are you doing? Slow down, just breathe, you’re throwing a fucking tantrum, what the fuck is wrong with—

William paced to the other side of the porch. He took several long, hard swigs, glowering at Shane over the bottle. When it was empty he set it on the railing, eyes still pinning him down. In a very, very soft voice he said, “Go on home, Daniels. I’m not doing this with you today.”

Adrenaline raced through Shane like wildfire.

The gall—the fucking gall of this asshole’s calm. Like he wasn’t thinking the exact same shit as Shane right now; like he wasn’t thinking how much they should end this week in another fucking beatdown. The soreness of the last fight was long gone and something in Shane—something clearly fucking demented—needed to feel it again.

“Yeah?” he taunted, emboldened by his own need. “I know you’re not scared, asshole! So what the fuck is it?”

William slammed both his hands on the railing.

“MAYBE, Sadsack,” he boomed, “I promised your fucking aunt that I wouldn’t put you in the hospital, because apparently that fucks with your goddaughter. But you wanna go, baby boy? We can fucking dance!

The words rang through the silent afternoon.

Shane’s heart continued to race, the deep voice echoing in his ears.

Jas.

The one person whose name could cut through his bullshit.

Shane strode several steps forward, and with a wind-up from his gridball days, pulled back his arm and sent the empty bottle sailing into a tree trunk twenty yards away.

It hit dead center and shattered.

He stalked across the farm, refusing to look back at William, knowing if he did he’d lose control just like last time. And it was that particular fucking knowledge that did it. Knowing what real intensity tasted like—having it smashed into the side of his face until he tasted its blood. Shane knew it, and William did too. And now they sat around on porch chairs drinking beer after an honest day’s work, chatting mildly about mild things, pretending they didn’t.

He was halfway across the field when William’s voice boomed again.

“I BETTER SEE YOU MONDAY AT SIX!”

Shane flipped him the bird without looking back, then jammed his hands in his pockets.

It wasn’t enough to pretend they hadn’t, for one violent moment, been really fucking alive together.