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He thought he was swimming, which was weird because he didn't have a pool. Was he at his parents'? Ma and Dad had one in the new house.

It had been awesome, until he’d gotten assigned cleaning and upkeep. Every summer had been a lesson in practical chemistry. Testing the pH, remixing and balancing the chlorine levels, clearing out leaves or debris. Then for winter they drained it, and he’d spend a weekend scrubbing the liner with a special vacuum and brush. Too much work, swimming pools. And for what? Parties?

Was he at a party? He felt drunk. Too drunk.

Had he done a keg stand?

Did he have a deployment tomorrow?

Had he left home after swimming to drink with people?

Where was he going?

Gotoro?

No...that didn't sound right.  

New cadre of training recruits?

God, he was a mess. Max was going to kill him.

Only Max couldn’t kill him, could he? He’d died.

Then the truth resonated in William’s mind like a bell: he was sick from drinking. His mouth tasted like rotten meat, his tongue chalky and his lips cracked. His stomach lurched and he opened his eyes.

He blinked. Like beads falling onto a string, his memories clicked into place, and he reoriented to the who, what, when, where, and why of the last two hours. Someone else was in his bed. A solid and warm someone, who smelled like masculine shampoo. Shane. They'd hooked up after drinking. So much whiskey...

Vertigo hit like a train. His stomach rolled again and he realized he was going to lose it. Stumbling out of bed, he made it the three yards to the bathroom and managed to get the lid up before puking with a wet gush. After the first purge, he sank to his knees and ralphed again, coughing out the acidic sick.

He’d had way too fucking much.

What are you doing, Bauer? You got to eat when you drink a whole bottle of whiskey. Basic dumbass 101.

He leaned forward, letting another gush of ‘That’s What You Fucking Get’ drop into the bowl, his stomach cramping from the consequences of his past decisions.

Mixed memories tugged him from the present, back to places he no longer lived. His youth, blending with deployments: in both cases he’d been hugging some random hole, losing his lunch. In high school he’d been hiding for his reputation. In the military he’d been praying to live.

Odd to pray, when you were pretty sure God hated you.

He spit over and over before reaching for a wad of toilet paper to wipe down the splatters of sick from the white porcelain. Flushing, he pushed to unsteady feet, swaying with the horrible shaky feeling that always seemed to come after vomiting.

When he’d drifted off, he’d had Shane’s sighs in his mouth, his muffled cries in his ears. What a way to sour that sweetness.

He ran water in the sink. Gargled mouthwash. Splashed his face and beard, scrubbing any sign of weakness, anchoring back to the here and now. He had company tonight. Sexy, affectionate, attractive company. He wanted back in that bubble they’d made.

Shane was still in bed and William fell next to him, covering his eyes with a forearm, head throbbing. He debated rolling over and spooning against him, but Shane hadn’t stirred, and what was he going to say if he woke? His brain was a foggy swirl. Besides, as soon as he tried to move, the queases ran through him again. Checking in was going to have to wait.

You are not fucking cleared to evacuate, he told his stomach, with the same severity he’d use to hold off an order for air support.

Then the bedsheets pulled, and William lifted his arm.

Shane was awake. He sat up, his shirt bunching around his hips, exposing a stretch of lower back that was red with the impression of fabric wrinkles. He rubbed his eyes.

The familiar silhouette of his rounded shoulders added to William's anchor of reality. He reached over and traced the strip of skin, hot under his fingers.

Shane went rigid.

"Hey," William said, pulling his hand back. "You okay?"

“It’s late.”

The reply was as mechanical as his body. Shane stood, and with robotic arms straightened the blankets and pillow he’d laid on. It was as though he was trying to erase what had happened. The thought shot ice through William: that old familiarity of a regretful lover.

He sat up and clicked on the light, wincing at the sharp, bright razor of illumination cutting his corneas. Spots blurred his vision, but as it cleared he realized that Shane was now searching the floor, pulling his boots out from under the bed.

Keep it casual. Don't add more pressure, you shithead.

"So." He got up, keeping his back to Shane as he pulled on a shirt. "You want some water or something for the road? Coffee?"

"It's late," Shane repeated with an edge of panic.

You already said that.

"Yeah, okay,” William said, the syllables dropping like rocks. "I won't keep you if you have to go, Daniels."

The last name felt wrong, but so did the way Shane was acting. He’d not pegged him to run from a little cuddling, yet here he was, hurrying to get out.

Resignation settled next to the rejection. Wasn’t this what he’d promised? A secret? He’d said they’d figure it out. Hard to carry on a tryst if your partner was going to get you caught because he wanted to be a clingy asshole.

"You want me to, uh, call your aunt?” William asked. “Tell her we got caught up late?"

"No!" snapped Shane.

The word was a whip cracking through the air.

He bent over, tying the first boot with clumsy fingers. “That’s—she’ll think…”

William’s stomach gave another roil and he swayed, the whiskey—which had been such a brilliant fucking idea hours ago—now making him question what they were doing. Did Shane regret it? Was this going to be a new song, ‘Gay Until Sober?’

Shane tried to shove the other boot on. The tongue stuck when he put his foot in, and on his second try, the lace got caught up in his sock. He fished it out, cussing under his breath as he forced it into submission.

"Alright,” William said. “Cool."

Despite the calm he projected, a wave of stupidity mingled with the whiskey-induced nausea. He dug his fingers into his palms while Shane battled with the shoes. Part of him wanted to go over, slap the fumbling hands to one side, and fix it for him, but based on Shane’s imitation of a porcupine he was pretty sure it would result with a kick to the head. The other part was seeing a ghostly image of dozens of men who’d come before him, checking their watches or phones as they babbled excuses—anything to get out of William’s bed.

His eyes swam. He was pretty sure that was the vertigo.

"So..." He let the word stretch. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

Lame, he thought, as soon as the pitiful fucking question escaped his mouth.

Shane stood. His boots were finally on, and now he tugged at his t-shirt to iron out the wrinkles of where they’d slept.

“Yeah. Um. Six?” he said, fidgeting with the hem of a sleeve. Then he shook his head. “I mean. ‘Course it’s six. It’s work…”

He was definitely ready to bolt.

William slid on a mask of indifference, packing all his hurt, disappointment, and frustration behind the familiar expression. It wasn't like they'd planned to get intimate, but if Shane regretted this it was on his end alone.

Still, pressing would just make it worse. It had happened, so he needed to be a damn grown-up and let him go.

"See you then," he said, slipping his hands in his pockets. "Careful getting home and all that."

"Yeah. Okay,” Shane said.

Then he was gone.

William heard the front door open and close. He sank onto the bed, falling all the way onto his back.

Mistake.

He could smell them in the sheets. Shane's shampoo, their mingled sweat, and...

He pushed up and ripped the blankets and pillowcases off the bed with brutal efficiency. The whole mess—along with his dirty shirt—was shoved in the hamper and then hauled to the washer. Returning to the room with a bottle of vinegar and water in his fist, he misted the mattress and pillows before remaking his bed, tightening the fresh sheets as though expecting a bunk inspection.

Escaping the reminders of how he’d spent the last few hours, he fed Ingrid. Unlike some people, his cat was grateful, and ate like she'd never seen food before. He ate too, reheating leftovers and scarfing them over the sink, then poured a glass of water and went outside.

Another mistake.

The porch was further proof of their fooling around. The chairs were slid in an awkward set of angles, the whiskey bottle on its side. William replayed it, how they’d pulled closer and closer like a pair of magnets…then let the loud scraping of wood against wood erase the memory as he shoved the chairs back into place. He sat down on his side of the deck to clean his boots, drinking water intermittently, and at nine called it a night and went back to his room.

Only to stand there and stare at the tightly made bed.

It's. Not. A. Big. Deal. You. Pussy.

He snapped off the lights and headed to his generic guest suite.

If he slept in his own bed he’d only relive every moment, the same way he had on the porch. Those touches and kisses should have been blurred by the haze of drunken lust, but instead they were as sharp as a picture.

How unfair that for Shane it had been something to flee, while William felt trapped in the memory.

 


 

Frantic shoes scuffled through dirt on the empty country road. It was otherwise silent, a peaceful sunset glowing over the trees, but that backdrop of calm did nothing to quell Shane’s panic. It’d been hard enough coming home after the spa, and then yesterday with the black eye. How could he walk in this late—after so much more than a kiss or fight—and act like nothing had happened? Sure, farming was sweaty business, but that was damn different than sweating in William’s bed, rolling in his scent. Marnie was going to take one look at his crinkled t-shirt and know.

He stared at the lights of the ranch, wanting to puke.

Waiting until they were asleep wasn’t an option. That might’ve worked in his Joja days, when he’d spent most nights at the dock or saloon, but lately his family was used to him returning before dark. It was one thing to hole up in his room like some drunk feral creature, another to make them worry when he didn’t come home.

Fighting a dozen warning voices, he pushed into the house.

“Uncle Shane!”

Jas was doing an art project in the living room, and at seeing him dropped her glue stick and rushed over, ready to attack.

Shane lurched back.

He’d been with William. Under his shirt, he was still fucking there, and holy shit, she couldn’t touch him.

“S-sorry,” he stammered. “You don’t wanna hug me, kid. Got manure on my pants.”

Jas wrinkled her nose. “Grooossss.”

The kitchen smelled of rosemary chicken and fresh bread. The table was set, the food untouched and steaming under plastic covers. Shane’s stomach sank at realizing they hadn’t eaten yet.

“We waited for you,” Marnie said, retrieving the main course from the oven, where it’d been keeping warm. Her normally cheerful eyes were heavy, as if she’d not slept well, but she smiled at Shane while setting the dish on a hot pad. “You boys work overtime today?”

You boys fool around today?

More stomach rolling.

“Um. Yeah,” he said, turning to head down the hall. “Not hungry though.”

“Oh, no you don’t.” She held out an oven-mitted hand, blocking his path. “You’ve missed dinner for days. Jas and I waited an hour to eat with you, so sit down.”

Shane rubbed his chin, certain she knew William’s beard had been scratching all over it. “I just…need to shower.”

“Because we’re so afraid of you smelling like a barn at the table, Shane. Quite a shock for humble ranch folk like us.” She rolled her eyes, carrying a glass of milk to the table for Jas. “I know you love my rosemary chicken. Take a seat.”

Defeated, he dropped into a chair. He’d eat enough to satisfy her and then get the hell out.

Marnie carved into the chicken, dropping slices onto each of their plates. Jas plucked the tiny sprigs of rosemary off hers, complaining they ‘tasted like pine trees,’ while Shane stared at a spot on his napkin.

“Shane?”

Marnie’s voice startled him and he jerked up. “Huh?”

“I asked if you boys worked late because I’m stealing you this week.”

“Stealing me…?”

“The grange. Is it a problem for William, you cutting hours to help me?”

The grange. That was right. The annual Stardew Valley Fair was coming up. Tomorrow was a full work day, but Thursday and Friday he’d be leaving the farm as soon as the morning chores were done. Marnie had a display and animals to prep, and, as the mayor’s girlfriend, was also helping Lewis with the business end of things. She needed Shane’s help to keep on top of the ranch. They’d discussed it weeks ago, but he’d been a little preoccupied.

“It’s fine.” He scooped mashed potatoes, not meeting her eyes.

And it was fine. He and William barely saw each other in those first hours of morning. They wouldn’t even eat lunch together, let alone have to dance around the whole drinking-after-work thing. The only downside was having to deal with him all day tomorrow, which—even before talk of the festival—his brain had conveniently blocked out.

“Well,” continued Marnie, “with all the work you’re doing for the fair, did you manage to get any more progress on that fence?”

Shane stared at his plate. Poking the chicken with his fork, he muttered, “Fence is fine too.”

Marnie shook her head. “You see, Jas? You see the wonderful conversation we’d miss out on if Uncle Shane always worked so late?”

If Uncle Shane always stayed to get wasted and have sex with his stupidly magnetic boss. Who still calls him Daniels, even after getting off together.

“It’s farm work, Marnie,” he shot. “It’s a lot of damn stuff to do in not enough daylight hours.”

She put her hands up. “All right, all right. I was only teasing.”

Shane went silent again and she let the subject drop.

The rest of the meal passed in a haze. He crammed down chicken and vegetables while Marnie and Jas discussed a school project on recycling, and how Miss Penny might get them a class pet. Their voices slipped into white noise, and they were almost done eating before Marnie spoke to him again.

“Shane.” She speared her last piece of asparagus. “Go shower if you like. I’ll clean up and get Jas ready for bed. But please don’t run and hide after, there’s something I need to discuss with you.”

He froze mid-chew.

She knew. She didn’t want to call out his depravity in front of Jas, but she knew, and was going to corner him after, disgusted and disappointed, slapping down some law about how if he wanted to remain under her roof, he’d never fucking do it again.

His final bite of food felt like swallowing a fishhook.

In the bathroom, Shane turned the showerhead to its hardest setting, only one step down from ‘power wash the deck.’  He closed his eyes. The water pounded hot enough to strip skin, and he furiously washed his body over and over, concentrating most on his stomach. Finally, slowly, he moved lower.

It wasn’t his own fingers he felt wrapping around his cock, but William’s: thick, warm, and rough.

Then something smoother slipped into the memory.

Silkier.

Scalding as the shower was, Shane shuddered and began to scrub. Hard. Like a man possessed, he scrubbed until the washcloth turned abrasive; until it burned, hot water stinging against raw skin.

He dropped the cloth, sagging against the wall.

William had turned into so many firsts. The first person to kiss him back. To touch him under his clothes. To see him fucking cum. And Shane was too goddamn stunted at thirty-one years old to enjoy how good it had felt—because it was too much, and it wasn’t enough. Too much to walk among people knowing what he’d done, unable to run from it. Not enough to just be a convenient option for William in this dick-dry town.

How did this make sense? How could he feel so fucking awful for what they’d done, yet close his eyes and wish it was more?

He dried off and gingerly pulled a sleep shirt over his red, sensitive skin.

Marnie, he remembered, in the middle of stepping into his pajama pants. They still had to talk.

Walking down the hall, he regretted his extreme shower. He was too clean and exposed now, like he’d scrubbed a hole through his skin where his aunt could see everything he was trying to hide. But it was too late for hiding, wasn’t it? She knew, and was about to sit him down for the worst conversation he’d had in over five years.

He collapsed onto the sofa. Dropping his head back, he stared at the ceiling and wished he’d shoved his fingers down his throat in the bathroom; forced himself to puke it all out, so it wouldn’t come up on the carpet the moment she started talking.

A door clicked and Marnie emerged from Jas’s bedroom.

“Jas is settled in with her books,” she said, walking over.

Shane grunted in acknowledgment, afraid to open his mouth. The cushions gave a sigh as she sat next to him, and the clock ticked several seconds into the silence.

“My mother is sick,” she announced.

Shane blinked and turned to face her. She might as well have said, ‘Congrats, Jas is a grandpa!’

“Your mother,” he repeated stupidly.

“Is sick, yes.”

This new information fought against the waves of ‘you slept with William still rolling through his brain; it was like trying to juggle water.

His grandma. Marnie and Corey’s mother. How old had he been the last time he’d seen her? Thirteen? Maybe fourteen? He hadn’t fucking missed her. Trudy Daniels was a nasty woman, the embodiment of every awful, entitled customer Shane had ever dealt with in retail, all balled into one bitter old lady. Someone who believed people were born to personally inconvenience her, and ought to be punished for it. Like a harpy version of his dad.

Still jarred from the fact that she hadn’t sat him down to discuss William, Shane mumbled a hollow, “Sorry.”

“She’s got cancer. It started in her lungs, and is moving to her liver now. That’s on top of the COPD, high blood pressure, and arthritis she’s had for years.”

Bitch had it coming.

“Sorry,” he repeated, the sentiment still empty.

Marnie hesitated.

“The cancer is terminal, and we’re not sure how long she’s got left,” she said. “I just found out this weekend. Phone calls.” Another hesitation. “From your dad.”

She knew she’d dropped a bomb and stayed quiet, waiting for his reaction. What she didn’t know was the bomb came in two parts, and Shane felt so sick he immediately latched onto the one less likely to make him vomit.

“Phone calls.”

“Yes,” Marnie said. “He first called on Saturday, but it didn’t seem a good time to tell you.”

Saturday. Which came after Friday, the day of their kiss in the spa. His lips brushing William’s—the flap of butterfly wings to cause a landslide. Because that’s how it worked, right? Shane had desires, and acted on them, and then the world crashed down to punish him and whomever was unlucky enough to be in his circle. He had no love lost for Trudy, but this was on him. In some web of karmic retribution, it was his fault, his actions that had summoned not just his father, but her death.

Someone always had to die.

“Shane,” Marnie said, “I need to go see them. There are…things, to be resolved. With Mom. And Corey.”

Her words were delicate, clearly interpreting his silence as discomfort—or perhaps anger—about his father.

Which, fuck it. He could run with that.

“Money?” he shot. “Big fucking surprise.”

“What? No! Not like that. Just…he doesn’t want to leave things as they are.”

“Yeah, because he won’t get any money.”

“Because we all left on terrible terms!”

But Shane wasn’t about to let this go. The anger was a point of sharp focus amid the feelings trying to smother him, and it was easier to channel hatred toward his dad than let himself dwell on the dark swirl in his gut.

“And he wants to make things better now,” Shane said, his voice a taut wire, “so that he gets more fucking money.”

Marnie threw up her hands.

“Why are you talking about money, Shane? My mother is sick, in the hospital, and wants her children there. Corey’s been trying to get me to visit for days, but Mom’s health is so fragile. Every time we make plans the doctors change the script, saying no visitors allowed…”

Shane stared at her in disbelief. She wanted to know why he was asking about money? Oh, maybe because his dad didn’t give a flying shit about anyone in their family. Not him, not Marnie, and certainly not his dying fucking mother.

Shane hadn’t told her about the phone call two years ago. It was the only time he’d spoken to his dad since moving to the ranch. A single call: Corey trying to guilt Shane out of half his paychecks, saying he was about to lose the house. Cussing him out for ‘leaving his old man high and dry,’ as if Shane were making bank, rather than jack-fucking-minimum-wage shit.

What was this rose-tint Marnie was looking through? She’d grown up with the narcissism and abuse, too. She knew as well as Shane that Corey Daniels only cared about Corey Daniels.

The air in the room had turned ice cold.

“He wants you to visit,” Shane said, the words stretching slow over his roiling anger, “so he can benefit.”

“Yes,” Marnie shot back. “He’s trying to arrange a visit. So we can sort things out, and bring about some closure with our mother before she’s gone.”

Despite Marnie growing up as squeaky clean as a Daniels possibly could, Shane knew her home life had been rocky growing up. Just like his. In their family, it was a given that love flowed in complicated, conditional ways. He also knew the word ‘closure’ meant something very different to her brother, and that Corey wasn’t above using it to pull on her heartstrings.

“How many times has he called?” Shane demanded.

“I don’t know. Several? She’s in terrible shape!” Marnie’s face grew ruddy from her fluster. “The doctors are being difficult, and I imagine Mom isn’t making their life a picnic either. So if she has any good days coming up, I’m going to see her.”

And him. The unspoken truth, dangling at the end of that sentence.

If his dad was hanging around a hospital every day, doing the social bidding of a dying woman, there was something in it for him. Shane would’ve wagered the rest of the ranch’s meager savings on it.

“And what would you have me do?” Marnie asked scathingly. “Ignore them both?”

“Honestly, yeah, can’t see a fucking downside to that.”

She shot up, stalking to a box of tissues across the room, snatching one to rub under her nose.

“Excuse. You.The word was punctuated by the balled up tissue being chucked in the trash. “My mother is dying, and you of all people ought to know I am not doing this for Corey’s sake. If money does come up, then we will discuss it, end of story.”

Shane knew he was locking way too hard on this topic, but god—in all this mess, Corey’s greed was the one certainty, and he couldn’t help a cynical laugh.

“Yeah, right. Discuss it. Like adults. Bet he’s gonna be real reasonable.”

Marnie scowled. “I should not have told you.”

“No,” Shane said, standing. “You should have hung up the second you heard his stupid voice.”

He walked out, leaving her with a dozen unspoken protests on her lips.

In his bedroom Shane grabbed the bottle from his drawer. Standing over his dresser he took several long swallows, drinking as if he hadn’t drank in weeks.

Like he hadn’t just gotten piss-drunk with William that afternoon.

He flopped on his bed, open whiskey still in hand, heart racing as it all came flooding back.

They’d slept together. He’d rubbed his dick against another man’s, and fallen asleep on his sheets. And because the universe fucking knew and had to punish him, his grandmother was dying and his dad was sniffing around. Two years of radio silence and now he’d returned, on the one day his faggot son had ever seen a ray of gay sunshine. That’s what happened when Shane stupidly let himself believe he’d be allowed a bit of happiness.

His clothes rubbed against skin he’d scrubbed raw to get William off his body. It hurt.

He drank until it didn’t.

 




At 5:00 am, William woke up feeling like the world's biggest idiot.

The cloud of stupidity lingered as he left his guest room. Like a specter, it followed him down the hall. It hovered over his shoulder in the kitchen while feeding Ingrid. It settled against his skin, making him ache for a shower.

He drank water to combat the heavy fog in his brain, and tried to make sense of the last twenty-four hours. Nothing about his current behavior made any damn logical sense. In high school, he’d chased so much tail his friends had dubbed him the whore of Zuzu. In the army, he’d followed the trend. Coming back alive from the front lines wasn’t the miracle—it was not bringing home a string of STIs along with his war injuries. William wasn’t a stranger to momentary lust. One night stands? Check. Weekend hook-ups with guys who forgot his name later? Double check. He didn’t even remember the sea of strangers he’d partied and gotten high with during the height of his heroin usage, and tried not to think about the other bullshit decisions he’d made during that disaster spiral of his life.

But there was nothing momentary about Shane.

He turned his water temperature to two shades shy of boiling and stepped under the spray. The pounding shower burned through his hangover and morning aches. He scrubbed and examined the truths that lay stark against his clearing mind.

One, it had been more than a fucking hook-up, whatever had gone down. They’d shared things. Important things. Putting a sick dog out of his misery might seem like a one-off anecdote, yet William had felt hot blood coating his hands in a Gotoro jungle. He remembered the taste of fear as someone came at you for doing the right thing. That story brought a solidarity between them that William had not had with anyone outside the forces.

Two, the frotting? Yeah, okay, maybe last night the whiskey had made it feel like a wonderful idea. But maybe it'd been a wonderful idea for weeks. Maybe they needed the alcohol as a push; a way to break through the barriers of whatever the fuck scared Shane, and William’s own boss-employee hangups.

Three, there’d been plenty of chances to stop. Instead, Shane had returned his kisses. No matter how quickly he’d hurried home, William was positive it had been mutual. If Shane hadn’t wanted it, he could have done what he’d done in the spa: run the fuck away. Kissing back, pulling close? Exact fucking opposite of running away.

William gave an unamused glare down at his upright dick, which was remembering exactly how good they’d felt rubbed together. He turned off the water and ignored the hungry bastard. It wasn’t like listening to the head in his pants had ever led him in a good direction.

He stepped out of the shower and wiped the fog away from the mirror. The face looking back was an illusion. On the surface, his beard was a mask of wholeness. Underneath, he had deep scars from old shrapnel injuries. It was why he kept it so long. Cropping it short would reveal the furrows of white, puckered flesh. Breathing in the steam-laden air, he ran his thumb over his neck, finding the welts with long practice. Then he poured oil onto his fingers and massaged the coarse whiskers into silk.

Hiding who he was? Well, it wasn’t like Shane could judge him.

After dressing, he went to the kitchen and stared pensively at the double batch of coffee he’d brewed.

Coffee after sex. Trying a little too hard there, Bauer.

Still, if he could rekindle even a fraction of the warmth between them last night, it might make up for the fact there’d been no time to check in. And maybe it was overkill, but what did he lose by trying? They’d had a true connection. The sex had been dynamic and intense, Shane a silent but expressive partner. It was as though his very breaths had painted a road map of what he’d wanted. William could still remember the shudders and gasps. He could, if he let himself, relive the way they’d melted into one another.

He chewed his lip, tightening the lids on the travel mugs. He’d bring it up. Allay his fear that Shane was regretting it. Which was silly; what did he have to regret?

Yesterday’s muggy oppression had turned into a chilly, damp morning. When he got to the barn he placed the coffee on an overturned crate, snapped on the radio, and got to work.

Shane arrived a little before six, and William immediately felt relieved he’d brought caffeine. He looked as though he’d slept on a bed of rocks. The bags below his eyes were darker than usual, and if he’d run a brush through his hair it didn’t show. He wore the same hoodie as yesterday, streaks of hay dust and evidence of a hard day's work on its front. With a small, non-committal noise that could have been hello, he hopped onto the line to hook up cows to the milker.

William brushed his hands off on his jeans.

Sleep deprived. Silent. Straight to business?

Was this his new M.O.? Rock a guy’s brains out, and saunter in the next morning like it was no big deal? Running home to stay under the radar was one thing, but acting as though it hadn’t been more than a handshake…

He wants casual? Follow his lead then, asshole. Don’t tip this boat more than you already have.

William snagged the coffee mug and leaned against the last stall. In the background a woman crooned about lost love on the country radio station, her hopeless notes of longing winding around the silence. He watched Shane make his way down the end of the line, and once he was within arm’s reach William held out the mug.

"Morning," he said.

Shane glanced over his shoulder. “Uh. Morning.”

Though he accepted the offering, his face was a blank wall. He opened the thermos but didn’t drink, staring at the steam swirling out.

Unease coiled in William’s stomach.

Did Shane think if he avoided meeting his gaze, he was somehow invisible? Could he smell the desperation of ‘please still like me’ the coffee had probably been brewed with, or did he think it was just a friendly morning gesture? Or worse, was this yet another misread experience—a doomed, one-off experiment ending in ‘No thanks, not for me’?

He knew he was procrastinating. Shane was all set here and didn’t need him around. William lingered anyway, the disconnected expression pulling at him. The bruise on his cheek was vanishing fast, turning yellow, as though the impact they’d made on each other was fading.

"So," he said, slipping a hand in his pocket. "You, uh...feeling okay?"

Because last night we had a really fucking good time, and I want to do it again.

“Um. Yeah.” Shane stared at the mouth of his cup, tracing it with a finger. “The usual, then? Work. Just…want me to do the usual stuff?”

William squinted at him. It was an odd question. Did he think yesterday was going to mess with his job?

This is what you get for mixing business with pleasure.

"Yeah. Animals, then come finish up the milk processing." He fiddled with the latch on the cow enclosure. "You still going to be leaving early tomorrow to help Marnie with her grange?"

Not what he wanted to ask. Not at all. He wanted to find out if Shane was really fine. If he'd hurt him somehow. If he had a headache this morning, or regretted what they’d done. He wanted to touch him, but every word of his body language was a neon-colored ‘not interested.’

Shane continued to focus on the thermos. “Yeah. Get my morning shit done, then go back at ten or eleven."

The stiffness between them chafed William’s nerves like sandpaper. He rubbed a hand over his neck.

"Shane," he said, serious. "You don't seem okay."

Shane shook his head, putting the lid back on his mug. “Just…weird night,” he muttered, struggling to line up the grooves. "I'll start on the coops."

He walked past, still fiddling with it.

William closed his eyes.

A weird night. What could have possibly been weird about it? It’s not like we were just, you know, together or anything.

"Right,” he said, the word sharp against his tongue. "Well. See you after you get done, I guess."

Shane left the barn, letting his silence answer for him.

Thoughts swirling with sick disappointment, William headed for the tractor.

How many times was he going to do this? How many times was he going to think someone he got intimate with was willing to care about him beyond the initial hook-up? How many times was he going to put himself out there, let himself be used, and then be discarded?

He climbed up the seat and turned on the big machine, driving it towards the misty fields.

He'd been doing this his whole dating life. Meeting guys. Falling hard and messing it up. Not being enough.

Last night ran across his mind like a worn record, rewinding, replaying, as he tried to pinpoint when he’d ruined things.

Was it the sex? Was it after?

He bit his lip and scowled at the rows of cranberries running up the harvester, red beads sliding through the shoot. Each one was a bubble of memory, a tiny drop in a bucket destined to be jam. Just like his judgment. Smashed into a red paste. Bloody and thick, like the consequences of his choices. It would stain and leave marks. He'd scar them both when this was said and done, all because he'd tried to predict a goddamned relationship.

Too close. Too tight. Too attached.

Cool it, he decided. Let him know just because you two got off, it doesn't have to be like, marriage or something.

He gripped the wheel tighter.

Yeah. Good plan. Back off. Let it settle. Prove he could give him space. Maybe it wasn’t too late to salvage whatever fuck-up he’d made.

Because losing Shane wouldn’t be something he’d bounce back from. Not by a longshot.