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Pelican Town was so saccharinely wholesome it made William’s teeth hurt. 

He looked around the town’s homey pub and took a swallow of the deep brew Gus was famous for. Coffee and chocolate, blended with hops—a dark brew to fit his dark mood. The bitterness was a welcome contrast to the well-lit bar, and the peppy music streaming from the ancient jukebox in the corner. William took another drink, already on his fourth of the night. This cheerful and cozy place was home now.

Home sweet home.

Two years of work, two years of busting his ass, and he’d successfully driven out all of Joja Corporations methods of choking the town into a dried shell, the way it had done to Poplarville and Kasmina forty miles up the road. In Pelican Town, the bus worked. The clogged, polluted river was now sparkling and clean. The small quarry had reopened on the north side, and Pierre’s General Store was once again a bustling hub of commerce. He’d even repaired the old community center. Miss Penny finally had a real classroom in it, and wasn’t forced to tutor from a pair of pushed together tables in the library.

Two years into this grand experiment of rebuilding the rusty shack of his life and he’d done it. He’d reached his goals. He’d gone the distance and made this town what Pops always dreamed it could have been.

He should be happy.

Yet less than two weeks after meeting all those goals—less than fourteen fucking days—and he was sitting in the bar, drinking and trying to ignore the stretch of grey that had crept into his vision. Emptiness, its hungry maw a constant pain, ate at him. He hated it, the gnawing that consumed what satisfaction he managed to hoard, with little care for how the teethmarks felt against his spirit.

He closed his eyes and pulled at his hair. Something was missing. Something was always fucking missing.

It was Friday night, and anyone who was anyone was at the Stardrop Saloon, the small town’s watering hole. The chatter in the place was incessant. William opened his eyes again, soaking in his surroundings and the people those voices belonged to. Clint, the blacksmith, on his left. Robin and Demetrius on his right, dancing to a jukebox song, still in love after two kids and a business. He gave a nod of acknowledgment to Kent, who was standing to leave with his wife Jodi. His gaze rolled over people, naming them like he’d repeat the names of seeds he was planting. Leah. Emily. Sam and Abby, playing pool in the corner. Lewis and Willie. Elliott. Pam.

Finally his eyes settled straight ahead, to a man hunched on his barstool. Shane Daniels. William took another long swallow of beer, studying the town pariah.

As men went, he was plain. His hair was a bit greasy, his face ruddy with a permanent five o’clock shadow. He wore a ripped and frayed hoodie with the JojaMart logo on the back. As far as William could tell he had no spatial awareness; he just sat staring at the polished countertop, his fist tight against the glass tankard. William had ignored the guy ever since his first day in town, when a genial ‘hello’ had been met with a grunt and silence. He’d steered clear since then. No point in forcing conversation with a grumpy fucker when there were plenty of friendlier people around.

William looked down at his glass.

He knew them all now. He’d come through and sold produce to Pierre’s General store and to Gus, the barkeep. Swapped recipes with Caroline and Jodi. Gone to a few of the town shindigs, smiling and laughing with the populace like a good boy. After the community center had been completed, he’d even been given a damn trophy.

Town Hero.

His leg started to jiggle up and down, captive with pent up energy.

Hero.

What the fuck did any of these simple country bumpkins know about what made a hero?

He drank until his glass was empty and looked up at the beams that crossed the pub. His eyes followed the grain of the wood, wondering what he was even trying for.

How about just try to get another drink?

He stared ahead again. Shane was still hunched over the bar, oblivious to William’s internal frustration. Other than maybe Clint, he was the stockiest fucker in the joint. Broad shoulders and probably a little fat, though it wasn’t the obesity of the self-indulgent—just the extra weight that came with a lack of motivation. His fists were curled around his pint like it was a lifeline.

Just get your drink, fuckhead. Don’t shit where you eat.

It would be…wrong, he knew, to antagonize a stranger. Even worse to do it to a neighbor. The Daniels’ ranch was due south of his place by less than a mile. Seeing as Marnie had the best feed in town, and with calving season not too far off, it would be the worst idea in the world to poison that well.

Maybe it was the pent up frustration. Maybe it was because he’d not shared more than ten words with the guy in the two years he’d been here. Maybe he’d had too much to drink.

Or maybe he was just that type of fucked-up asshole.

He pushed out of his seat and crossed to where Shane sat. Leaning against the bar, he shoved his empty glass into the other man’s personal space, just past the point of politeness. When Shane ignored the gesture, William took another step over and deliberately bumped into his shoulder.

The contact of aggressive energy sent red sparks through his body, like a tap of steam on his pressure valve. He crowded closer, not looking, just letting his bulk take up space that wasn’t his.

The void was calling. The colors had bled out of the day. Those sparks of ego were the only thing keeping him anchored, and maybe a fight was exactly what he needed to cut the sweetness of this place.

 


 

The hell?

Shane frowned, sliding his stool down the bar.

Any other day and he’d have grabbed a fifth of whiskey after punching out of his shift at the grocery store, taking it to the dock to drink in private. Away from the jukebox. Away from the fake laughter, and assholes who didn’t respect his damn space.

Any other day.

The saloon felt distant. Mechanical, almost, like the inside of a clock. Shane sat in the middle of it, still and silent while bodies ticked around him on their preset trajectories, moving like parts rather than people. No one knew that for Shane, this wasn’t just any other day.

He stared into the inch of beer at the bottom of his mug, vision swimming. He couldn’t be alone. Not on the 18th of August. If he was alone he would do something stupid, and if he did something stupid it was Jas who would suffer. If anything he should be spending time with her, but he couldn’t do that either; not when her bright freckled face was like staring into a damned time machine.

He would’ve been thirty-one today, just like Shane.

Gus came around the front of the bar, bustling as always on a Friday night. Shane motioned for a refill, punching those thoughts into the back of his head to join all the other bruised and beaten thoughts of the night. He had no idea what number drink he was on anymore, but the goal was simple: get fucked up and forget. While he still could, at least.

He tried to knock that thought back too. JojaMart was closing, and there was nothing he could do about it. Three more weeks and he’d be out of a job, out of the pitiful paychecks that helped him drown the shittiness of his life in a pint. That was reality, but that was for later—another problem for his future self to deal with.

Dumb schmuck.

Cheerful sounds continued around him, distant and hollow. Shane gazed at the counter and waited on his beer, but he’d barely begun to zone out when the hairs on his neck began to creep. Following the ominous feeling, he turned. His face grew hot.

It was the same fucker who’d shoulder-checked him, once more standing too damn close. The local farmer, Shane realized. Not that he knew the guy, but Marnie sometimes did business with him. Big guy too, with one of those ridiculous hipster beards, and colorful tattoos all over his neck and arms. He didn’t look like a farmer to Shane. He looked like he belonged on a calendar page in some jerk-off’s shed.

Probably manufacturing steroids out in one of his barns.

And what the fuck was his deal, anyway? Leaning all casually against the bar, as if he hadn’t just forced himself into Shane’s bubble for the third time that night. Shane opened his mouth, ready to tell him to back the hell off, but at that same moment Gus reappeared with a foaming pint.

“There you are, son,” he said, plopping the ale down and rushing off to fill another order.

Shane glared at the farmer’s profile before turning back to the bar.

Of course it’d be tonight. After countless nights in the saloon with people giving him the berth of a fucking leper, of course it was tonight that someone would fuck with him. Sighing, he reached for his drink.

His hand was knocked out of the way by a set of tattooed knuckles.

Turning his head in slow disbelief, Shane watched as the guy grabbed his beer. He lifted it to his mouth, taking a confident swallow, then licked the foam off his lips. Setting it down—fist still wrapped around—he stared at Shane with piercing blue eyes.

Shane’s heart began to pound its own tattoo in his chest. His hand clenched in his lap, itching to connect. Though it’d been years since he last threw a punch, he was struck by an uncontrollable urge to jam a fist into that stupid bearded chin. Hitting this guy would probably be a deathwish, but since when was he a stranger to deathwishes?

Don’t do anything stupid. You came out tonight for a reason.

Stupid? Shane swatted back the thought. Because stupid was getting up in another motherfucker’s business and stealing his drink out of his hand. Stupid was messing with someone when you had no idea how little he cared for his own stupid life. And stupid was what he did next—because before Shane realized what he was doing, he’d reached over and flicked the guy in the forehead.

Hard.

A hand shot up through the space between them, lightning-fast reflexes snatching his wrist.

“Now that ain’t nice,” the farmer drawled, beer on his breath as he leaned in. “You wanna touch my face, you gotta take me to dinner first, sweetheart.”

Shane, stunned, sat perfectly still while the other man looked him up and down as if taking inventory. His heart pounded harder, adrenaline slamming into his body with each beat, and he braced himself, because the second this fucker let go he was going to yank that ridiculous beard and bash his head into the counter.

Then his wrist was released. Before Shane could go through with his plan, the man drew back, looking at him. An amused expression slid over his face.

He winked.

Shane shoved back with such force the stool gave a sharp squeak and went onto two legs, his face burning.

The universe hated him. That was the only explanation. It hated his pathetic existence, and that wink was the sick fucking cherry on top of its sick fucking joke of the night. The small gesture felt like a finger digging into an infected wound, and Shane’s chest seared with fresh hatred as he righted the stool. He yanked back his beer, mumbling, “Faggot.”

It was, he discovered, the wrong thing to say.

The temperature in the room dropped twenty degrees. Those blue eyes—already cold—iced over even more. The man they belonged to stood. He placed one hand on the bar, towering over Shane, his voice dangerously quiet. “What did you just say, asshole?”

“I said get the fuck away from me.”

“What’s wrong?” he crooned, growing closer. “You drink so much tonight you lost your memory, or you just too chickenshit to own up?”

“Fuck. Off.”

“Those who slur loudest are usually covering something. So which are you, pal? A homo or an asshole?”

“Just somebody minding their own business, fucking try it some time,” Shane snapped. He turned back to face the bar, and under his breath muttered, “Prick.”

The beer was slapped out of his hand. It crashed to the floor, the shattering of glass on hardwood ringing through the air. A hush fell over the pub as the amber liquid began to pool around the shards.

Pin-drop silence, but for the jukebox softly in the background.

The farmer crowded closer to Shane, all shoulders and clenched jaw. “You got something to say,” he hissed, “you say it like a man.”

Shane’s whole body seized up as he stared at the broken drink on the floor. He lifted his head, slowly, and bored into the man’s stare with his own.

“Prick,” he spat.

A wild, maniacal grin burst over the farmer’s face.

“Wrong again. My name is William. Now, you had something else to say. Say it again. Go ahead, call me that word one more time.”

Shane was too drunk, too stupid, and too pissed to back down now. He pushed his face right up into William’s.

“I called you,” he said through clenched teeth, shoving a finger into the broad chest, “a goddamn” —another shove— “motherfucking” —another shove— “PRICK.”

The word had barely left his lips when William reached out and hauled him up by the collar in one powerful movement, slamming him into the wood-paneled wall behind them. A light fixture rattled above Shane’s head, and several people in the bar collectively jumped to their feet. They were background noise though, barely registering as William’s hand twisted Shane’s collar so tight he couldn’t breathe. He struggled, his shoes barely even touching the floor, and a chord of real fear struck.

This guy was going to fucking kill him. He could see it in those eyes, ones that had gone from amused to hardened over like a goddamned psychopath in a matter of seconds. Without a doubt, he was going to get his face pummeled tonight, and, flinching, he braced for it.

What he got was a sheet of ice water.

The second it hit William’s grip released as if by spring. Shane dropped to his feet, choking in air and blinking against the drops that blurred his vision.

Gus stood behind the bar with an empty bucket, looking furious. Shane had never seen the jovial man with such an expression, nor had he heard such impatience as the voice that thundered, “THAT’S ENOUGH, GENTS!”

Shane steadied himself on the wall, gulping against the cold. William stood in front of him, soaked to the bone and gasping just as hard. His shoulders rose and fell, his blond hair wet and dripping in his eyes—eyes that still looked like they wanted to rip a hole in Shane. He glared him down eerily for a few more seconds.

“Yup,” he said at last, still panting. “Too much of a fucking coward.”

He spit at Shane’s feet, dug into his pocket to pull out some cash, and dropped it on the counter before stomping out of the bar.

The people inside, previously so silent, began to hum with low, anxious voices.

Shane couldn’t be fucked to listen to them. Couldn’t be fucked to look if they were staring. The word coward stampeded through his brain, trampling every other thought to dust. He stormed past the twittering patrons, knocking over the barstool in his way, and shoved through the saloon door so hard the bell—which normally gave a soft chime—reverberated violently through the air.

If he was going to die, it was a damn good night to do it.

 


 

William burst out of the saloon, furious and dripping. He squeezed his hair and growled. His shirt stuck to him, soaking into his jeans. He hated wet clothes—hated the too-soft fabric clinging to his skin.

It hadn’t been enough. It had been like fucking foreplay before getting off, all heavy breathing and posturing, but no actual release of the noxious energy that filled him.

It’d been a while since someone had been stupid enough to use his sexuality as an insult. Homophobia had been rampant in the armed forces, but a few punches and bruises usually fixed that right the hell up. The last derisive sniff had come from that Morris chucklefuck, and William had set him back a few pegs in the name of equal rights.

But he hadn’t even gotten the chance this time.

You’re losing it, the sane part of his mind warned him.

William blamed that stretch of consciousness on the six months he’d spent in addiction counseling. If he could’ve shot off that part of himself to make it shut the hell up, he would’ve swallowed the gun barrel in a heartbeat. He didn’t want to hear that logical blend of his mother’s loving voice tempered with his father’s patience. He was keyed up, knew it was wrong, and didn’t care.

Even if it was pointless. Egging that guy on? Pointless. Shaky and cowardly fuck had been too scared to really be a goddamned challenge. And where was he? Soaking wet with a long walk home for fucking nothing.

He’d been so close to something real, to something so good and visceral he could’ve sunk his teeth into it. But he’d seen Shane’s fear. It was like smelling cookies and then realizing it was only someone’s dainty-ass candle. He’d been kidding himself the entire time to think, maybe, there was someone with enough balls in the soft and sleepy town to give him a true break of this goddamned grey night.

He squeezed his shirt, leaving a trail of drips as he stalked towards home.

Tomorrow he’d go to Zuzu, he decided. He could put the animals on auto-feeders and go get fucked up at the Mirage for a night. Go find a real fight, and maybe a real fuck. He’d gotten out of his ban last month, so why the fuck not get re-banned? He clenched his fists, the plan in no way satisfying the needs of tonight.

“HEY!”

William froze. His heart slammed into his chest, the voice ramping him back up with an excited need as he turned his head.

“Asshole!” it shouted again.

Footsteps came up behind him too fast, gravel scraping underneath worn shoes. William’s mind could place his assailant with no trouble, and even though he knew the hit was coming he didn’t try to stop it.

If he’d known how hard it would land, he would’ve.

A fist driven with uncoordinated rage brought a burst of stars behind his eyes. William stumbled, stunned, one foot moving out to catch his balance. His lip had split against his teeth and he touched it, holding the blood up to his eyes. Heart pounding, he turned his head, slowly, unsure exactly what he was facing.

Shane stood there, eyes wild with fury, a twin spirit of frustration that had boiled over to violence. Whoever the scared fucker had been in the bar, something dark and ugly had taken his place. William rolled his head on his shoulders, a beacon of focus clearing through the chaos. With a driving force he aimed a fist back at Shane, letting it bounce off his face, giving him a taste of his own medicine, letting go of the leash on good manners, good behavior, and good fucking peaceful country living.

Shane took the hit with the acceptance of a man who was no stranger to beatings and expected to take more. It was breathtaking, and William didn’t intend to waste the gift. He closed with him, driving his shoulder into Shane’s stomach, and Shane retaliated by bringing his fists down like a mallet on William’s back. His aim was drunkenly bad, glancing off the ribs with a bloom of pain. William slammed him into the grass near the riverbank before he could re-aim his pile-driving punch onto an already fragile spine. He straddled Shane, pinning him with his thighs, and began to mechanically and methodically punch his face.

He jabbed him once in the eye, once in the jaw, and just as he was going for another eye shot in the name of matching bruises, since he was a considerate motherfucker like that, Shane head-butted him in the nose. It was another fire-blossom of agony and William reeled back, breathing out through his mouth.

As soon as he was free of the pin, Shane dove forward. The dive caught William in the solar plexus and knocked the wind out of him in a brutal rush. He managed a single kidney jab—hard enough to get Shane’s attention but not so hard that he’d be pissing blood in the morning.

Shane flinched back, shouting in either pain or fury.

William, wheezing, stumbled and held his fists at the ready. His nose was bleeding freely and his jaw was on fire. Despite it all he grinned, panting breaths flicking blood into a mist over his mouth. He was sweating, his muscles roiling, a heady cocktail of adrenaline-laced chemicals fueling the reactions.

“Didn’t think a faggot could hit you so hard, huh, Sadsack?” he taunted.

Shane swayed on his feet, one eye squinting at him, before he roared another challenge and drove forward like a gridball linebacker.

William anticipated the moment, bracing his knees and taking the hit, pivoting his hips to slam Shane up against the nearest tree. They were eye to eye now, breaths mingling as William planted his legs, pressing in at three points. Shane had one arm pinned behind his back, William’s forearm over his collarbone, and William’s other hand pinning an arm over his head. He stood close, very close, and could see his face.

The moon was above them, the forest around them silent, the only ambient noise the flow of the river as it made its way toward the sea.

For one, stupidly clear moment, William thought Shane looked intoxicating this way. Blood dripped over his brow, and his eye was swelling. This close, William could see the pulse pounding against his throat. It reminded him of the way he’d leave a lover, all worn and exhausted, delicious in the aftermath of their fucking. He sure as fuck was sore. He was going to have a black eye of his own, and be chewing out of one side of his mouth for days.

The silence stretched, Shane puffing hard to get his breath back. The guy hadn’t spoken at all in the fight; hadn’t bothered to give William any reason for his sudden decision to get his ass kicked.

“You just don’t give up easy, do you Daniels?” William asked, starting to ease up the hold, experimenting to see if maybe, their fight was over. “God…” He was impressed despite himself.

Shane shifted, and William pressed himself tighter. For a moment their hips were closer, their bodies nearly flush with one another. Shane wasn’t even that much shorter than him. His frame was masculine and tough, and god, what a bruiser. Why hadn’t he looked at this guy before now?

As William had the thought, he stiffened, eyes wide as he realized he wasn’t the only one getting hot from this.

Like he could sense it, Shane struck, exploiting the mercy, ripping his hand on the bark behind him to slam it into William’s abdomen. William groaned between grit teeth, the fist as hard as a damn hammer. Jerking, he twisted the arm he still had possession of, turning Shane around and kicking the inside of his knee. Shane was forced to the ground. Despite the violence of the move, William was careful—joints were delicate, and he wanted the big bastard down, not out.

“Impressive. Giving as good as you get, huh?”

Shane lurched once, trying to find purchase to wiggle out of the hold, but William twisted his thumb and slammed him back into the grass.

“Now,” he hissed, “let’s have a little chat.”

Shane did not oblige the request, only panting against the ground. William didn’t let up the pressure until his shoulders sagged.

“The fuck do you want from me?” Shane finally rasped.

William shivered at the sound, the feeling of power over another scratching an itch within him, one that had been ignored for over two years of his self-imposed exile. When was the last time he’d gotten into such a satisfying fight? 

“Say,” he said, leaning down, his chest now flush with Shane’s back, “I’m sorry I called you a faggot, William.”

He could feel Shane’s pulse from the thumb on his wrist. It was going rabbit-fast. Just like his own heart.

When Shane tried another half-hearted struggle William realized he’d relaxed his hold, probably out of appreciation for the body that was straining beneath him. He waited but Shane didn’t speak, just wheezed out hard, jagged breaths that created little ripples in the grass under his face. William held his pressure, though. He didn’t want to give the guy the idea this was over.

“How ‘bout this?” he said. “I’ll count. I’ll even go slow so you can follow me. I’m a nice guy like that.”

Face still in the grass, Shane bit out, “I didn’t do jack to you, man.”

“Words,” William drawled, “have meaning. Lemme lay out what you gotta answer for, Daniels.” He squeezed Shane’s shoulder, but only once, not yet willing to cut off all blood supply. “You took my beer—”

“—MY beer!”

William let him struggle, trying not to pull too hard on the arm. He wanted him pinned, not broken. The last thing he needed was to pay some other guy’s medical bills. Still, Shane would be sore on that shoulder for days, and William darkly wondered if he’d remember how he’d been pinned down like his little bitch when he felt it throb and pang.

“Rude,” he chastised. “As I was saying before you fucking interrupted me—you stole my beer, and then you called me a faggot. Guess you were out the day you townies learned manners.”

Shane surged up and William shoved him back down.

“Now be a sweetheart and apologize,” he said, breathing hard, anticipation ringing down his spine. “One… Two…”

“Three,” Shane spat, dropping his head. “I don’t fucking care.”

William could feel the shoulders shaking underneath the pressure of his pin. With his free hand he sank his fingers into Shane’s hair, rubbing them slowly but with pressure. He gave the scalp a gentle squeeze, the lesson clear—he didn’t have to be gentle.

“That’s not what your racing heart says,” he said, stroking Shane’s head one more time before gripping it hard. “And I can feel it. I can feel that beat like a bass drum.” He inhaled Shane’s sweaty hair, a smell that would haunt him. “You get off on this too," he whispered, leaning close. “You. Like. It.”

He held him for a moment more, waiting. But Shane was beaten. William let go of the arm and it flopped down next to Shane’s face, his dark eyes staring at the ground in surrender. The look was so deeply satisfying that he almost didn’t want to leave him there…but he would.

He pushed off, standing, and brushed the dirt from his knees.

“Until next time, Daniels.”

And with that he walked home, leaving Shane alone in the dark.

 


 

Shane was thirteen when he took his first real punch, and he deserved it. At least, that’s what his dad said. It’s what his mom said after with her silence, passing by his bedroom without a word of the eye socket that resembled a bloated prune plum.

He’d made his dad think he stole the last thirty dollars from the tin above the stove. He hadn’t, of course. But he’d made his dad think so, which was just as bad an offense. Shane had come home with a brand new backpack that day. He’d won it at a fair set up in the school gymnasium. It was his own dumb fault, tossing the dingy one he’d used since second grade in order to sport the new one home. When Corey Daniels returned from work to discover the flashy new toy—and the missing money that meant no possibility of bourbon that night—it was only natural he’d taken it out on his son.

It was just one hit.

“You fuck up, you pay the price,” he said after, when Shane, without crying, had crumpled to the floor. “I’m not an unreasonable man, but you’re old enough to know how shit works.”

Lying on the cold ground, smelling damp earth, his clothes soaked and his body beat, Shane thought he probably deserved this too. Probably deserved it more. He knew what he said—knew he’d been trying to incense the guy. But he hadn’t meant it. Shane might’ve been an asshole, but if people would just leave him alone then he really did not care what the fuck they did in their lives.

The leaves above him rustled. A few crickets chirped, echoing in the dark. Other than those soft sounds, the night around him was peaceful and almost silent.

Peace.

What a strange word. Before tonight, he would’ve said peace was a near-empty saloon, a crackling fire, and a brain that was drunk enough to forget. But right now the world was enveloped in a different sort of peace. Sure, it felt like his body had been snapped in twelve places and littered about the forest floor—but those snaps must’ve released something inside him, because now there was nothing left.

Nothing.

Just pain, and nothingness.

He wondered if anything was broken or ruptured.

His head was pretty quiet. That didn’t happen much.

Well, it wasn’t totally quiet. There was a splitting pain in his skull, and a tympani-like thumping between his ears. Better than the usual incessant chatter of his brain, though. Was he even drunk anymore? It didn’t feel like it, but neither did it feel like any kind of sobriety Shane had ever known. 

He pulled himself up, gasping at a sharp jab below his ribcage, and paused a moment to sit and adjust to the pain. Another dart shot through his shoulder as he lifted his hand, examining the bloodied back where it’d ripped across the tree bark. He wiped the blood on the front of his hoodie, staring into the darkness and taking slow, excruciating breaths. 

If only he could stay here all night, in this exact position. Walking home felt like an impossibility; the ranch might as well have been on the moon.

He tried to picture William’s face. All the pieces were there, but he had trouble putting them together. The blue eyes. The full beard. The long wet hair on top of his head, hanging down over shaved sides. Even his mouth, bloody from Shane’s fist. But he couldn’t keep the image as a whole from shifting, from swimming around like some kind of surrealist painting in his mind’s eye.

Until next time, Daniels.

Maybe he’d do it again. Maybe he’d show up once more to pummel him, and that would be the way Shane went out—in a painful, peaceful haze on the edge of a dark forest, after all his energy was spent.

 

Chapter Text

In the two-and-a-half years since Shane moved in with Marnie on her ranch, he’d lost track of the nights he’d drunkenly stumbled home after dark. Weekends, weeknights; didn’t matter. Shane drank on every day that ended in Y.

It was, however, his first time drunkenly limping home.

Gravel dragged beneath the soles of his shoes, every few steps producing a wheeze from his lungs. The cold wet grass was a siren’s call. Hell, even the crunchy gravel looked inviting. Shane wanted nothing more than to stop, drop, and pass out on the road. When the twinkling porch light of the ranch finally came into view, he almost collapsed in relief.

Home.

Bed.

Sleep, which was as close to death as he was allowed.

The windows to the kitchen were dark. Shane was sure everyone was asleep by now, so after finagling painfully with his keys and pushing open the front door he was startled to see the light on in the living room.

“Shane?”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

It was Friday night, his lagging brain realized. And according to the glowing red numbers on the microwave, it was almost 11:00 pm—long past the time of 9:30 he was expected to be home. A reasonable request, once a week, for Shane to stay in with his goddaughter while his aunt grabbed a drink at the saloon with her boyfriend.

“I’d say about damn time,” came Marnie’s irritated voice, floating nearer and flipping on the kitchen light. “But you’re already too late for me to…”

Shane had been attempting to kick off his shoes without bending over, and as she entered the room he stumbled into the wall with the coat rack.

“Good heavens,” she whispered.

He squinted at her through his good eye—the eye that wasn’t swollen over from that first brutal punch. Frizzy auburn hair framed her face, braided to one side for sleep. Her lavender bathrobe was drawn shut, the knuckles of her soft wrinkled hands growing white as she gripped the tails around her plump waist.

She was going to freak out on him. Any second now.

“Shane!” The white-knuckle grip released her robe and she hurried over, knocking into a chair on her way. “What in god’s name? Are you okay? How—how did this happen? Are you going to faint? Here—don’t bother with your shoes, you need to sit down, let me help—”

…and there it was.

Shane flinched as she reached under his arm to help ease him to the table. “Watch it!” he rasped, her good intentions spiking fresh pain through his shoulder.

Tears pooled in her eyes, her voice now a whisper. “What happened?”

He pushed her hand off. Holding the wall, he walked himself to the kitchen table and sank slowly into one of the chairs.

“Shane Daniels, you tell me what happened!” she insisted, growing frantic.

“Walked into a door,” Shane said dully.

“I had a phone call from Lewis when I didn’t show, and he said you’d left the saloon after some kind of awful argument with Farmer Bill. An argument, Shane? An argument?”

“A door,” Shane repeated, closing his unswollen eye.

Bill, that was right. That was the fucker’s name, or at least the name he went by in town. Shane hadn’t been able to remember it earlier. He tended to just think of the guy as ‘the farmer.’

“A door?” Marnie cried. “You got into a fight!”

“Huh.”

Every word. Every word was so damn difficult right now.

“Don’t you do that! Don’t you act like this is nothing! You look like the living dead and you can barely walk. What in the world happened?”

Fuck talking about this tonight.

With great effort, Shane tried to push back up from the table. It wasn’t Marnie’s fault he’d been an idiot, but every syllable was pain, every breath making him wish he’d dropped cold in the gravel a half mile back. Except, he realized too late, this motion exposed the bloody gash from the tree on the back of his hand.

“Gracious,” she whispered, covering her mouth. She shook her head, eyes wide in disbelief. “Bill did this? Bill who runs The Bowery? Please, please tell me I’m wrong…”

Hearing that name again sent a dart of irritation through Shane. He pushed off the table and slowly began his way down the hall. His legs hadn’t been hurt, but that fucking kidney jab had practically collapsed one side of his waist, and he tried to disguise the limp as he walked away.

Why the fuck did they call him Bill? He’d introduced himself as William; William suited the asshole better.

“Shane.” Marnie followed him, as he knew she would. “Shane, I jus—”

“I started it,” he hissed.

She stepped in front of him, cutting him off. “Why would you start something like this? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s so unlike you, what could have possibly provoked—”

“Marnie!” he wheezed, the name coming out like air from a leaky balloon. “We were drunk. Okay? Drunk.”

“That’s no excuse! I know you, Shane, I know you can handle your liquor just fine without resorting to violence. What kind of fool do you take me for? Was it Bill? Oh, I hate that it was Bill. We do business together all the time, and he’s always so professional and charming. But then—well, he did have that altercation with Morris a few years back…”

Shane’s swollen eye burned. He leaned his head against the nearest doorframe, and through grit teeth said, “It was my fault, okay? Just drop it.”

“I won’t!” Marnie cried. “We need to clean up that hand, and that eye. We need to get ice on you, and then you need to tell me the truth.”

“We. Were. Drunk!” Shane shouted, lifting his head. The words were tight, his jaw unwilling to open very far. “It was a shitty fucking day, and yeah, I picked a fight. You happy now? For fuck’s sake, just let me go to be—”

“Aunt Marnie?”

They both stopped talking. Marnie whipped around, while Shane slowly turned his head as far as his neck would allow.

Jas stood at the end of the hallway, holding a ragged stuffed panda by one ear. She was in purple cupcake pajamas, her long dark hair in a side-braid like Marnie’s. Haunted eyes were glued to Shane’s face.

Her bottom lip began to tremble. “Uncle Shane?”

That look. Oh god, that look. That frightened tone in her voice, ripping through Shane’s chest like a strip of barbed wire, more painful than anything William had done with his fists.

Happy birthday, Garrett.

“Jas…” he whispered, dropping his head against the wall once more.

“Uncle Shane will be fine,” Marnie said quickly, dabbing her eyes with the sleeve of her bathrobe. “Sweetie, you should be in bed.”

“You’re hurt,” she whispered back.

Then she raced for him, flinging tiny arms around his waist. Shane wheezed like he’d been sucker-punched, catching her and trying not to cuss. Nine years old, less than seventy pounds, and like an anvil socking him in the stomach.

“Sweetie,” Marnie repeated, kneeling down, gently prying her off. “He’s in a lot of pain right now. Hugging him hurts.”

Jas dropped her arms like she’d been burnt.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said, her lip trembling again. She backed up, clutching her panda in both hands.

Shane breathed heavily. “You didn’t hurt me, kid. It’s oka—”

“Jas, you ought to get some sleep. You can see Uncle Shane in the morning.”

He glared at Marnie through his unswollen eye, but she was oblivious to his frustration. She smoothed Jas’s hair and bent to kiss her forehead—something, Shane realized, he was incapable of right now—and nodded her back down the hall.

Jas paused, looking at Shane a final time.

“I love you,” she whispered.

When Shane tried to say it back the words came out silently, just air through his open mouth.

Jas gripped her panda to her chest, turned around, and shuffled stocking feet down the hardwood floor to her room.

“We’re cleaning those wounds,” Marnie hissed when she was gone, and Shane was all out of energy to argue.

It was a haze, standing with his aunt in the brightly lit bathroom. He squinted against the blinding iridescent bulb above the mirror, watching his battered reflection. His bad eye was a deep berry color, the lid more than triple its normal size. The puffiness matched that of his ballooned lip and swollen jaw, and there was a split above his eyebrow covered in dried blood.

Marnie broke his gaze when she opened the mirror, pulling out the first-aid kit from behind it. She began cleaning the back of his hand, washing it in the sink and then wiping the cuts with something that stung. After laying on a triple-antibiotic ointment, she wound cotton gauze around it. The room was silent but for the buzz of the light bulb and his aunt’s soft breathing.

Shane shut his good eye, letting the wash of darkness bring relief. For the first time in over an hour, he realized he was still drunk.

It was good Marnie could only see the marks on his face, and not the bruises that surely covered him under his clothes. Not the shoulder that felt like William had twisted the bones in a circle and left them there. She kept working, focused on his cuts, at last slipping a small bandage over the one on his forehead.

“Now,” she said, pressing it down and looking straight into Shane’s face. “I’ll bring water to your room, and you rest for tonight.” She handed him the bottle of ibuprofen from the first-aid kit. “But Shane? This conversation isn’t over. And so help me, if you can’t lift those arms above your head come Monday you’re going to see Dr. Harvey.”

She stood on her toes and kissed his forehead, just like she had to Jas, and slipped from the bathroom.

Couldn’t just leave him be, could she? Couldn’t just let his wounds rot and fester and take him in his sleep, which was what he fucking deserved. No, she had to take care of him. Clean his cuts and kiss his forehead like a mother; a manner he’d gone so long without he still didn’t know how to accept it. And she’d had to comfort Jas. Had to pull the mother card on her too, because he certainly wasn’t fit to pull the father one.

After she brought his water Shane took the pills, drinking as best he could without being able to tip his head back properly. Then with the precision of laying eggs in a grocery bag, he got into bed, wincing to adjust his pillow.

The images took him before sleep could.

His bed morphed back and forth into damp ground, so real he could smell the dirt. He could see William’s face again, those blue eyes pinning him more powerfully than the physical hold. And when his body gave the final jerk of falling into sleep, he felt the shove of an arm on his collarbone—pushing him into that tree.

 


 

“William, my word. What on earth happened to your face?”

It was, William thought, a very fair question, if a bit rude. But if anyone had a right to ask rude and nosy questions it was Ma.

“Had a difference of opinion with a bulldozer,” he said mildly, sipping the pomegranate sangria.

Ma stared at him as if he’d grown another head.

He regarded her back. Angela Bauer, who was always Angie to anyone who knew her, was no stranger to her son coming home bruised and bloody as a kid. Admittedly, he probably should have grown out of it by now.

So I’m a slow learner.

“William, did you go to a doctor about this?” she asked, her eyes critical.

“Wasn’t that bad.”

“How many fingers am I holding up?” She held her hand to the side, out of the peripheral vision of his swollen eye. He started to turn his head and she dropped her arm, exasperated.

“I hate to tell you, Will,” Gretchen said from the prep station in the kitchen, “but I think the bulldozer won.”

He would have rolled his eyes, except that shit hurt too much.

“Nah,” he said, putting the empty sangria glass down on the marble countertop. “I totally left the bulldozer in the dirt.”

She raised her eyebrows, as if to say mmhmm, and continued piping filling into a deviled egg.

Gretchen was his mother’s college roommate, and ran the catering company that supplied labor and food to all Ma’s social events. He didn’t understand why the head cook to over fourteen teams of catering always personally oversaw Sunday mornings, but she’d been as much of an establishment in his life as any family member.

“William Joseph Bauer,” Ma declared, walking over to the freezer and coming out with a bag of peas. "You are the world's biggest idiot."

“Ma, these bruises are two days old. I already iced them. Just gotta let them fade.”

She sighed and threw the peas back in the freezer drawer, then kicked it shut before whirling on him, hands on her hips. “I can’t believe you showed up here today looking like the wrong end of an eggplant!”

Here was his parent’s house on the outskirts of Zuzu City, in their large and fancy mock-estate. Today was Sunday Brunch.

“I dunno,” he said, reaching for one of the piped deviled eggs. “I thought it would bring some colorful diversity to your shindig, Ma.”

Gretchen bit her lip, holding back a smile at the unamused glare that earned from his mother. William winked at her with his good eye.

“I swear,” Ma said, crossing her arms and stomping one heeled foot. “Your father dropped you on your head after birth and just let us all deal with the consequences.”

“What’s the point of that?” his dad called from the foyer. “He’s dropped himself plenty of times.”

William chose another deviled egg and took a bite. They were soft enough not to make the entire side of his face bloom into a flare of pain. Shane had smashed it so hard with that first hit, he was still feeling the aches three days later. When he looked up, his dad walked into the kitchen.

Unlike Ma in her pearls and sundress, with perfectly coiffed hair and expertly done make-up, his father, David Bauer, was more casual in a pair of navy shorts and a polo with the logo of Bauer Financial on the breast. He stopped when he saw William and let out a low whistle.

“Son,” he said, voice full of censure. “I thought that military boss of yours knocked stupid fights out of your head.”

“Don't be ridiculous, that implies he was discharged with a mind,” said Ma. “William, go play golf with your father today.”

“What?” both William and his dad said at the same time.

“I can’t have you here looking like that!” Ma cried. “You’re going to scare the children!”

“Angie.” His dad placed a hand on her shoulder. “William hates golf.”

“Geez, I can see when I’m not wanted.” William reached for his jacket. “I’ll just go home, guys.”

“No,” they both said at once.

He sighed and scowled.

“Check-in Sundays are sacred,” his dad said, frowning. “You know that.”

He did know that.

They’d been a tradition ever since he’d moved onto Pops’s old farm and rebranded it ‘The Bowery’—an organic powerhouse of produce, dairy, and canned goods that fed the demand for premium quality groceries in a practical food desert. His mother had demanded the check-ins after she came to see him three months into building the farm, and realized he’d been living off of MREs and pizza from Gus’s Saloon. He’d quit going to NA meetings years ago, so they used the weekly check-ins as a replacement.

Four years clean wasn’t enough of a security to them.

“You still have some clothes downstairs,” Ma said. “Go change so your father isn’t late for his first tee.”

William gave his dad an incredulous look. “Is she for real?”

His parents exchanged a silent look, the telepathic communication they’d used since he could remember. “Yup. Best go change, son.”

“I swear,” William grumbled, turning towards the stairs. “You two act like I’m thirteen instead of thirty.”

His mother didn’t bother dignifying that with a response, instead giving a sniff that said in no uncertain terms that if he was dumb enough to come home the way he had, he should’ve expected it.

Fifteen minutes later William, wearing khaki shorts and one of the spare company polos, was sitting with his leg twitching in the passenger seat of his father’s red sports car. The purchase had been a sign that he was ‘losing his middle-aged mind’ if you asked Ma. William just thought he was tired of puttering out in the slow eco-cars he’d always driven when William had been growing up.

“So,” his dad said, starting them up the drive towards the country club. “Who’d you fight?”

“No one,” William said, the lie a familiar taste in his mouth. It reminded him of his school days.

“So no one beat your face, and probably your ribs?”

William tried not to replay the fight for the five-hundredth time in his head. Tried not to remember the excitement and rush of Shane’s dark and furious eyes. Tried not to remember how fucking hot it had been to be so close to another person in a similar state of violence. He hadn’t let himself get into that sort of struggle in over four years. Any bar fight or shoving match he’d had between now and then…well, fuck if he could remember what those had been like.

“William,” his dad said, pulling him out of reminiscing and back into the tiny car. “I mean it. This sort of reckless behavior is troubling.”

“It was a blip,” William said, crossing his arms and then regretting it. He’d not gotten a really deep breath since Friday, because his back still ached where Shane had slammed his fucking bowling ball of a hit between the shoulder blades.

“Hmm,” said his dad.

William turned to look at him with his good eye. He was slimmer than he’d been when William was a kid, age thinning him out. His hair was silver, and unlike his son, his face was shaven. William wondered what the boys at the club were going to think when his clean-cut and proper father showed up with his tattooed and bruised-to-fuck son.

Just another piece of fodder to add to the fuck-up mystique.

“Look,” he said, trying to sooth the distrust in his dad’s grunt. “I was drunk. I picked a fight. I got what was coming to me.”

“Any broken bones?” his dad asked, suspicious. “Because it’s been five years since your last assault charge and Tony retired. I dunno if the new girl they’ve got on retainer could wiggle you out of trouble—”

“Dad,” William said, irritated. “I’m not being charged with assault. God. I look like I went one-on-one with a damn meat grinder, and you think that—”

“The other guy has to look worse.” His dad stared grimly at the road. “They always look worse.”

William looked out the window, feeling a pang of guilt.

Can’t argue with facts…

“You’d think at the age of thirty, you’d have started to grow the hell up, son,” his dad said.

William didn’t comment. There was no point.

“Who we playing with?” he asked, electing to change the subject.

“The Marshalls.” His dad turned through the metal gates of the club. “Probably the other reason your mother wanted you to come with me today.”

That’s ominous.

It didn’t take William long to realize what his dad meant though. The Marshalls, it turned out, were a gay couple who were meeting David to discuss their new bakery empire.

“Ooooh, David!” Nico Marshall greeted. “I didn’t know you had a body guard.”

William took the two of them in and sighed internally.

They were, he decided, definitely a bit on the camp spectrum of the rainbow.

William didn’t mind flamboyant guys, he really didn’t. Sometimes that’s just who a fucker was, and if being loud and cheerful while declaring things ‘fierce’ and ‘fabulous’ was what floated your boat, go on with your bad self. But the flirty, over-the-top ridiculousness was uncomfortable for anyone who wasn’t on the same wavelength.

“William, this is Nico and Tyrell Marshall. They are behind Marshmallow Baked Goods.”

William shook hands, noticing Tyrell’s flash of jealousy when Nico looked him over.

Great. One of those insecure couples.

“Nice to meet you both,” he said, not bothering with a smile. If he did that, it would split his lip back open for the hundredth time that weekend.

“William is my son,” his dad explained, as their caddies started to load the four sets of golf clubs into the cart.

There was a pause, then Tyrell blurted, “Cameron’s Will?”

Fuck.

Cameron.

Of-fucking-course these bitches knew Cameron.

Cameron, his ex-fiance, who his parents had kept in the damn divorce.

“Yup,” William said, grim.

“Oh!” said Nico in excitement. “Oh, we love Cam! We met him at the pride meeting last March! Oh my…” He looked William over again, much to the irritation of his partner. “Wow, we didn’t realize you’d be so—”

“William? You want to drive the golf cart?” his dad interrupted, holding out the keys.

“Sure thing.” William snatched the subject change like the life preserver it was, and privately vowed bloody revenge on his mother for putting him through this.

Despite Nico’s enamored flirtations and Tyrell’s curt responses, William managed, somehow, to help his dad steer them off the subject of him and Cameron’s disastrous engagement, and onto the accounting software and support that David’s company provided. It helped that they were both much better golfers than William, and after beating the Bauers, they seemed very sure of the work Bauer Financial could give them.

William endured it.

That’s what he did for these check-ins.

He endured.

It helped that he had something to distract his thoughts with. There was no need to do more than grunt and nod to the concerns of the company, while privately thinking about furious green eyes, and the way his blood had tasted when face-to-face against that tree. He spaced out during long discussions of market shares, replaying the way Shane’s hair had felt between his fingers, how hot his scalp had been…the sounds of his excited breathing matching William’s own pants.

“Well,” his dad was saying, pulling him back to the present. “Why don’t you boys come back over to the office this week, and we’ll finish up that paperwork?”

“It would be a pleasure,” Tyrell said, shaking his hand. Nico followed suit and finally, mercifully, they parted ways.

William didn’t bother speaking, just watched his dad’s cheerful step.

“Good work, Dad,” he said as they got to the sports car a few minutes later.

His dad turned and grinned, a wide smile that deepened the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth—lines of long laughter and cheer.

“You know, you don’t always have to go to your Mom’s brunches for Sunday check-in,” he pointed out.

“Ain’t no good at playing whack-and-chase, Dad,” William said, sinking down into the car. He waited until his father had ignited the engine and turned them back to the house. “And, you two could just…I don’t know, schedule a dinner or something at my place. I could grill some steaks. You could see the farm.”

His dad lost some of the jovial expression, his face pained. “Son, you know how busy we are. Your mother comes down when she can.”

“Yeah, I’m just saying, it wouldn’t kill you two to cancel brunch and golf one Sunday. I got cows that need feeding and care. It’s not good to leave them alone for so long.”

“So hire someone,” his dad said promptly.

William rolled his eyes. The ghost of needing help on the farm was a constant shadow since he’d expanded operations last season.

“Yeah,” he said, looking back out the window. “Because farmhands just grow on trees.”

 


 

Three weeks until the JojaMart doors closed, and it didn’t matter that the health inspector would never again darken their doorstep; Morris had a sudden, urgent need for the store to pass all non-existent inspections. Shane splashed bleach down the produce cooler drain. It was fucking busy work, but whatever. His boss seemed to believe his grisly appearance wasn’t fit for customer service, and if he thought the backroom of Joja was a punishment, Shane wasn’t about to correct him.

The bleach stung his eyes, and he wondered how badly it would burn going down his throat. What it would do to his insides once there, and how long it would take. Wondered what would hurt more—swallowing bleach or being crushed in the cardboard baler. He could hide at the bottom, waiting for someone to come around, close the metal door, and press the compact button. His body would be squished like a papaya before anyone noticed. 

Just some of the many fantasies Shane had during his time in this godforsaken store.

Some people called them intrusive thoughts, but intrusive implied they were unwelcome. To Shane, this morbid little game helped the long retail hours pass. Walking by the roll of industrial-strength plastic wrap, he imagined looping it around his neck and hanging himself from the attic above the meat cooler. Or standing in the blind spot of a delivery truck on the loading dock, bones crunching beneath tires before the driver even realized they’d hit a bump.

He unrolled the hose from the rack by the sink, turning the nozzle on high to spray down the floors. Bleach and soap foamed together in waves across the blue tile.

When he’d shown up Monday for work, Morris had sent his ass home for three whole days. Said Shane looked like death and would be a liability, working in his—admittedly still painful—condition. But Shane knew the store was slowing, there was little left to do, and that Morris would’ve latched onto any excuse to cut hours. Three days pay, gone like that.

Not that the loss had stopped him from spending his measly savings on bottles of whiskey. If ever there was a time to self-medicate, it was after your body had been beaten to hell.

But still.

It was Friday now, exactly one week from the fight. He and William were both banned from the Stardrop Saloon, but that part wasn’t so bad; it just meant drinking by himself at the dock, which he often did anyway. And what he probably should’ve done last Friday night. He’d been so worried about doing something stupid if left alone, but what about in public? What about when his drunken brain decided it was a good idea to flick a tattooed and muscled stranger in the forehead?

Garrett hadn’t liked violence. Sure, he threw a game controller at the wall now and then, when the system froze up in the middle of a save. And yeah, he’d enjoyed splitting a pizza in front of the theatrics of a good WWE match, or cheering on a hockey brawl.

But real brutality?

Booze and fistfights. Great fucking way to celebrate his life, you drunk asshole.

Shane himself wasn’t unacquainted with violence. He’d thrown and received punches. He’d dealt with black eyes, and his nose had healed bumpy from a break when he was fifteen. But he’d never in his life been pummeled into a pile of dirt, left to limp home in the dark. Fuck, he’d never tasted true violence before. That other stuff was horseplay. Friday night had been one wrong thump to the temple, one wrong jab in the organs away from ending up on Harvey’s exam table.

It’d been so fucking stupid.

And dangerous.

And painful.

Shane couldn’t stop thinking about it.

He didn’t want to. It felt like fucking betrayal. To his best friend, to everything he stood for. But when the fuck had he ever felt so alive? Overcome by such adrenaline in the moment that William’s punches felt like angry slaps, merely turning his head while his energy barreled on; while his brain drifted up somewhere in the sky, to watch from afar as he robotically kicked into survival.

Until the stupid fucker had to go and end it, all that pain and consciousness crashing back into Shane’s body like a big gay meteorite.

He tried not to imagine how William’s fingers felt in his hair when he’d been pinned to the ground. Tried not to hear the timbre of his voice when he’d leaned over, and in that bone-chilling whisper told Shane he liked it.

Of course he hadn’t liked it.

…had he?

Shane rolled his shoulders, still out of whack, stiff and sore this morning when he’d had to unload all the heavy boxes from the truck.

Yeah, fine, okay. So he had liked it—big fucking deal. Not like Garrett’s ghost could look into his brain and see what a sick fuck he was. And considering he still cringed to recall the painful walk home, it wasn’t like it’d been some pleasant stroll through the trees. No, this was about someone finally giving Shane his rightful punishment. No undeserved sympathy. No feigned ignorance, looking the other way or excusing his behavior. Just some asshole wailing on him, serving up penance for all the things he’d ever done wrong.

Like getting drunk on the birthday of the one person who cared to see you sober.

Shane grabbed the floor squeegee, attempting to pull his thoughts from the fight.

It was fucking hard—fucking hard when the brute contact of his fist with William’s jaw had been the first thing in years to jolt the straight, dead line of his heart into something resembling the spikes of the living.

Should thank the guy, really.

He squeezed water across the tile, stopping to stare as it spun in a cyclone down the grates of the drain.

When his shift ended Shane exited the double-doors of JojaMart, yanking off his hat and stuffing the unflattering thing in his pocket. He scrubbed his hands through his hair to loosen it, walking with his head down as usual. It was a gorgeous summer day. While Stardew Valley had been going through a heatwave lately, the current temperature was pleasant with a warm breeze, seagulls cawing as they circled overhead in the late afternoon sun. There was a low rumble on one side of the store where a delivery truck waited in neutral, then the slam of metal as its door closed. The sound was oddly comforting; a signal Shane’s workday was over.

“Ey, Sadsack.”

Speaking of comforting sounds.

Shane froze, heart beating fast.

Hadn’t he just been in the produce room thinking about how much he’d enjoyed the fight? How he should thank the guy, even? So why the fuck were his lungs seizing up just to hear William’s voice?

Ignore him. Just ignore him.

Shane could feel him approaching from behind, though not looking back to confirm it. He just heard the slow footsteps, steady on the sidewalk, and when he finally remembered how to move his feet it was clear William continued to follow him.

Just as slow.

Just as fucking steady.

Shane’s heart raced even harder. Why couldn’t this fucker just say what he had to say? Why did he have to slink behind like some kind of apex predator, in no fucking hurry yet clearly with his sights on Shane as the particular target?

Right as his mounting anxiety couldn’t take it anymore, William fell into step at his side.

Shane focused hard on the passing lines in the sidewalk, wondering if William could hear his pounding heart through the sleepy afternoon air. “Whatever it is, don’t care” he said, eyes on the ground.

William’s voice was confident and smooth. “Thought you might be open to a peace talk.”

They walked in silence for a spell, until Shane finally braved looking over.

William’s right eye was yellow and green, a mirror image of Shane’s bruise, but the rest of him looked well put-together. Today, the long hair that had fallen over his face during the fight was pulled back in a sleek topknot. He wore a tight black t-shirt, and Shane did a double-take at the colorfully inked arms stretching taut the sleeves. Had he really taken a punch to the face from those things?

William was also, he realized, carrying a cooler in one hand. He opened the lid and tilted it toward Shane, revealing twelve dark bottles nestled on a bed of ice.

Shane almost snorted in relief. So this was the asshole’s catch. Taunt him into getting drunk again, then wait around to see what other idiotic behavior he’d pull out of the forehead-flick box. He faced forward, ignoring the beer.

“If you’re gonna pound my face again, wait till I’m out of uniform. Only get two more paychecks as it is.”

William didn’t look bothered. He closed the cooler and dropped it to his side again. "So with Joja closing, you’re losing your gig, huh? Sucks man, but can’t say I’m sad to see the backside of that eyesore.”

This time Shane snorted for real. As if some farmer cared about him losing his job.

“Listen,” William said. “About last week, I was outta line.” He looked at Shane sideways. “Bad headspace. Shouldn’t have been like, an asshole about it.”

Shane picked up the pace. “Don’t care.”

“Oh please.” Now it was William’s turn to snort. “Running like a fuckin’ rabbit. You kicked my ass too, man. You ain’t a little proud of this shiner? Besides, it’s free beer. Why you running from free beer?”

Shane stopped in his tracks. “Look,” he said, voice shaking. “Told you. Not interested, okay?”

William stopped too.

“Not interested,” he repeated, raising a brow. “Well that’s a shame. Because, hate to break it to you—I am.” He shoved the beer into Shane’s chest. “Bring back the cooler.”

Then he turned and started to walk away.

Paranoid, Shane looked around from where he stood in the middle of the sidewalk. The road was empty, no one to witness whatever had just gone down. He clutched the plastic container to his chest.

Bring back the cooler?

He was caught, and he hadn’t even known it was a trap.

His heart pounded harder.

“Fine!” he called, after William had gone only a few steps. “Gimme your peace talk or whatever, then take this shit home yourself.”

William turned, smirking. “Glad you came around to diplomacy.” He lost the smile and rolled his head on his neck, rubbing the shoulder where Shane had driven into him. “How’s your arm and stuff?”

Shane hugged the cooler. “It’s fine.”

Still rubbing the shoulder, William looked him up and down. He shrugged. “Let’s go to the docks. I’ve got to check some traps out there anyway.”

Without waiting for Shane’s agreement, he took off walking again. 

Shane glanced once more down the road. It was still deserted; still silent but for sleepy summer sounds. Hefting the cooler into a better grip in his arms he followed William, a doubtful feeling creeping into his heart.

 

Chapter Text

Step one of William’s plan was complete: lure the scared motherfucker out so he could smooth over his own bullshit.

It had been a week of long, hard thinking about the best way to apologize and make amends for the fight. And it wasn’t just the fight he had to make good on—it was the banning from the Stardrop, the rumors, and of course, being an asshole. There was no real reason to forgive him, so he was relieved Shane had agreed to follow him out. A bucketful of beer could only get his stupid ass so far.

The traps made a fine excuse to hang around the dock near Marnie’s place anyway. He’d kept a few of them around since realizing how good the crawfish were in the lake. His mom would have paid top dollar for what he could haul out for free.

He glanced sideways at Shane, taking in his appearance. It wasn’t that dissimilar to the way he’d looked last week in his ragged JojaMart hoodie, though this time there was a hat shoved in his back pocket. Clutched to his chest was the molded cooler that William had stocked with his home brews.

Guy needs some jeans that fucking fit, he thought critically. Those look like they were stocked in the clearance rack of the Joja shelves.

Not wanting Shane to think he was judging him or some shit, William pulled his gaze away. It wasn’t like clothes mattered in the grand scheme of things. Shane’s jeans didn’t keep his fist from slamming into William’s jaw. The ratty hoodie hadn’t made him slower when driving into William like a damn linebacker.

He pulled a mesh bag out of one of his cargo pockets to distract from focusing too much on his walking companion. The bag jingled the tools he kept in the large pockets, and reminded him of his other reason for smoothing things over with Shane.

He needed to see if the guy would be willing to get a job from the same shithead who’d kicked his ass last week.

Hello, HR? I’d like to file a complaint?

There was no getting around it. He couldn’t keep doing it alone.

This morning he’d had to bury a cow. Poor girl had been sick for days, and though he’d called the vet out and had been dosing her with medicine, she’d unfortunately given up the ghost. Burying her alone was a pain in the ass. Milking the herd took hours, and that was just his herd. He still had summer harvest coming up, and shuddered to think what he was going to do during calving season.

Each step reminded him of his multiple fuck-ups with learning farm life. Not having wire cutters when one of his yearlings had gotten her udder stuck in the fence. Not having a utilitool when his tractor died two hours before a rainstorm. Not having a decent pair of pliers or roll of duct tape when fixing the sprinklers. The first year on the farm had given him a crash course in being prepared.

He kept his attention forward, though listening to Shane's reluctant footsteps behind him.

Maybe he won’t even go for it.

He flashed back to a conversation he'd had with Marnie earlier in the day. The normally gentle livestock broker had been furious—scolding him for their altercation, citing Shane’s injuries as more severe than he’d expected. He’d never intended to destroy the guy, but then, he’d never been accused of rationality when his blood got too hot.

They arrived at the dock and William knelt down by his first crab pot. He surreptitiously observed Shane, who moved stiffly, though no obvious pain crossed his face.

"Whatever happened? It can't happen again. Shane doesn't exist in a vacuum, much as he'd like to think he does. He has a goddaughter, and if you'd seen the look on that little girl’s face when she saw her uncle Friday night…"

William looked back down, dumping the crawfish into his mesh bag.

It can’t happen again.

Shane lifted the lid of the cooler as William emptied traps, and he realized, like a dolt, he'd forgotten to include a bottle opener.

Smooth move Ex-lax, he groused, pulling himself out of Marnie’s afternoon lecture and back to the business at hand. He retrieved a coin-sized opener from his back pocket.

“Hey, heads up,” he called, tossing it towards Shane.

For a guy who was apparently beat to hell, his reflexes were quick and he snatched it out of the air.

William looked away, frowning down at the crab pots. Reflexes like that would be damn useful for manual labor. And hand-eye coordination was good. He popped open the next pot and tipped the crawfish into his net bag, trying to decide how to approach this.

Bet he’d rather walk through glass than take this job.

Shane put the opener to the side after catching it. At first William wondered if it was a rejection of the beer, but then Shane popped his thumb under the crown top and snapped it free from the bottle.

Tough bastard like that and Marnie was worried about his arms? How well did she even know her nephew?

William went back to work, letting him settle and make his way through that first beer. Might as well let the guy chill and get in a good mood before he laid down his offer. The minutes passed and he finished emptying all the traps, then wiped his brow with his forearm. Finally, after tying the last of the catch into the net bag, he let himself look over.

Shane sat, drinking, his eyes on the water. The lake was calm this afternoon, the warm breeze barely enough to ripple its surface.

“You mind sharing one of those?” William asked, hanging his bag on a hook along the side of the dock to keep his crustaceans submerged.

There was the sound of the cooler opening, then another cap being snapped off. He wondered if Shane had ignored the bottle opener again, and for some reason the little quirk made him smile. He shook the excess water off his hands, then pulled out a handkerchief to finish drying them. After he was done he stuffed it back in his pocket, and sank down slowly and a bit stiffly next to Shane. His back gave a warning twinge.

C’mon Spine. Don’t fail me today.

Shane must’ve been thirsty, a finished bottle already between them on the wooden dock. Watching William with those same wary, deep-set eyes, he handed over the open beer and grabbed a second for himself.

William nodded in thanks. He took a long drink, then made the plunge. “So. Marnie says you're good with animals and shit.”

Shane popped the bottle cap off with that thumb trick and pocketed it, as if it was a habit. “You talked to Marnie?”

William risked a look over and could see practically every muscle in Shane's neck bulging in tension. He leaned back on an elbow, casually giving the guy a touch more space, and for a moment examined the glass bottle in his hand. The brew had come out well, a blend of sweet wheat and hops. He weighed his words. Should he tell Shane that he'd been looking for him? Should he tell him  Marnie had reamed him out for that beautiful black eye he wore? Should he tell him he felt like shit, that he’d caused Shane to scare his goddaughter?

Nah. The dude was too squirrelly and on edge.

“Yeah, I talked to her,” William said, keeping his voice lazy as he rolled the bottle between his thumb and forefinger. “Needed to get a feed order in.” He took a swig and sat up, letting his elbows rest on bent knees, looking out at the lake.

Totally had nothing to do with imagining the way you sounded against that tree. Nothing to do with wondering if you were okay. Not a damn thing to do with your green eyes haunting my thoughts. 

Shane didn't speak, his foot jiggling slightly, as if agitated. Nervous tell. Or maybe an angry one. William kept his breathing even, the way he did when trying to line up a shot during target practice. Did Shane think that he’d been trying to mess with his family? Or worse, maybe he thought William was trying to justify his own damn behavior.

“I didn't say anything about, uh, last week,” he said, risking another explanation.

Shane still didn't respond.

Stoic motherfucker.

William drank another long swallow of his brew. “I figured that shit was private. Between us.”

Finally Shane shifted, his bottle tilting then going back to vertical. William wondered if his arms hurt still—wondered if those bruises brought the memories back to him whenever he strained or pulled himself. He knew that when he’d been loading hay, his back had screamed. Shane might’ve missed his spine, but the muscles around it were soft enough to have spasms for two days after the conflict. Playing whack-and-chase across half the green of the country club hadn’t done a damn thing to help either. Yet he didn’t regret a twinge, each pain flash a burst of color against the greyness of his days.

He drank, using the beer to hide his smile. They wouldn't be having this conversation if Shane had a single, solitary clue about the twisted pleasure William had taken in that beat-down.

“She had a fucking cow over my face,” Shane finally muttered.

His voice was so soft. William stilled, memories of being banished from brunch like a bad dog helpfully reminding him of how fucked up they’d both probably looked.

“Saw my parents this weekend,” he confessed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Told them I had a disagreement with a bulldozer.”

He glanced at Shane for his reaction, but Shane just continued to stare at his beer. Probably he figured William was going to slug him again. Yet that energy was long gone, and all he wanted to do was figure out what exactly had happened...why they'd connected in such an explosive way.

He tried one more time.

“They didn’t seem to take that as a good answer. Cue the lecture. Think I’d rather get that right hook of yours than listen to that bullshit again.”

Shane’s bottle was raised, and he paused before it touched his lips. “Told Marnie I walked into a door.”

So. He hadn’t wanted to give details either. Discretion was an attractive quality to have in a potential employee. His fingers tapped on the bottle in thought. If Shane wasn’t going to go around spreading the nature of their fight, maybe he could be trusted not to spread information about William’s business too.

“Look,” Shane added darkly. “You picked a damn good night to annoy me is all.”

William watched, fascinated by the sudden play of emotions that rolled across the other man's face.

Shane’s cheeks reddened. “I'm not…I mean, just—I don’t give a shit what people do on their own, okay?”

The words were hard won, and William turned them over in his head.

Interesting. So Shane had been thinking about it. But because he felt bad about calling William a faggot—not because he’d felt that lightning hot connection.

Not everyone is as twisted as you are, you psycho.

“Yeah,” William said, “don't worry about it. I was picking a fight.” He took a long, final swallow of beer. “I fucking knew it man. I started it.”

Shane only stared into his drink, foot tapping a more erratic pattern.

Keeping that restlessness in his peripheral vision, William flexed his grip on the glass neck of the bottle and added, “I'm an asshole like that.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Yeah, you kinda are an asshole,” Shane agreed. Another beat. “But so am I.”

The laugh escaped before William could keep it in. God, what a pair they made. Two assholes sitting by a lake. He reached out and clapped Shane on his back—and immediately felt a flash of guilt when Shane flinched from him.

Just fucking move into his personal space and build a damn house, asshole.

He pulled his hand back, letting the gesture move naturally.

The cooler was still full and William snagged a fresh beer, reclining again, icy bottle in one hand and giving Shane space. The opener lay on the dock between them and he fished it over to pop the cap. Shane might have thumbnails of iron, but William had enough busted spots on himself without having to impress anyone by opening a crown top.

“So. Now that's settled.” He looked at Shane. “You want a job?”

Shane had just begun to chug the last of his beer, and after finishing he dropped it and stared at William in disbelief.

“Charity?” Loathing dripped from his voice. “Yeah, fuck you.”

He shoved to his feet, empty still in one hand.

William had been prepared to be turned down for being an aggressive fuckhead. He’d been prepared for Shane to tell him to take the job and shove it, after their last encounter. Not once did it occur to him that he’d think William felt sorry for his pile-driving ass. Annoyance burst through whatever guilt he’d been feeling. Charity? Just because he had a beard didn't mean he was fucking Santa Claus.

“Man, fuck you!” William scowled. “Sit your ass down. It ain't charity. I've got over a hundred chickens to feed since last spring. They eat and shit a metric fuckton. Not to mention that it's summer, which means it's time to winter-prep the barns. Do you know how much work over fifty head of cattle are during the summer?”

Shane paused, but didn’t sit back down. William drank his beer and glared into the lake, unable to stop listing the problems he'd been quietly agonizing over for weeks.

“Gotta fix the drainage in the west field, or come winter it's going to be a mud pit. Two of my cows came down with mastitis last month and I had to bury one of them this morning.” He took another swig of beer, feeling stupid for even asking. “If you've ever had to drain a damn abscess, you'd understand it ain't no fucking charity to want an extra pair of hands out there. And if you’d ever had to bury one of the heavy beasts by yourself? You’d save me the trouble and go slap yourself, okay. Jesusfuck. Only reason I asked is because Marnie said you might be interested.”

William glared into the lake, mind roiling. Charity? Maybe charity for his own fucking peace of mind.

If Shane said no, maybe he could find someone in town to help him pour a new concrete apron. The flies were out of control this time of year anyway, but if he could improve the drainage system, next year they’d surely be better.

He drank, irritated. If not Shane, then fucking who? Kent’s boy, Sam? Well. Not that much younger than him, but the skater punk seemed more interested in music than putting in the hard labor a farm required. Alex, the sports-god wannabe? Maybe. He had the muscle for it. But William had an instinct about young men, and that one would swap salt for sugar and then become a defensive fuck about misreading the damn label. He’d trained too many fucking kids to not have a hunch about who would do well in a self-reliant job like farming, and who he’d need to constantly supervise. The point of a farmhand was to get some independent help who knew enough about what he was fucking doing that William wouldn’t have to babysit his ass.

The cows were starting to be more work than he could afford. And though he'd been thinking about expanding into sheep and goats next year, would it be more cost effective to just sell the whole herd?

He glanced back at Shane.

He was a hefty fucker. Getting soft from drinking at the saloon all the damn time, but William didn’t have a problem with having a few beers at the end of a long day. And besides, there was no way that Joja gave a body the type of full workout farming did.

With a sigh, Shane sat back down.

He pulled a fresh beer from the cooler and popped the cap again, this time not careful with his thumbnail. William froze for a second, eye on that single bead of blood that welled up on the dry skin.

“I need a job,” Shane said, pocketing the cap. “But like...that's the only reason. It isn’t to help you.”

Well. Talk about your backhanded compliments.

“Morris sent me home this week,” he continued slowly. “Said I’d scare the customers.”

He dropped words like he was measuring out gold coins, and William couldn’t help but watch him speak. He wondered if that would be the end of the conversation, and decided to count to three in his head. When he got to two, Shane said, “Three. Days. Pay.”

Damn, William thought, not daring to meet his eyes. Instead he drank, remembering an incident that had occurred two years before. He’d just moved to Pelican Town and begun cleaning up The Bowery. He’d gone into town and met with his first customer, Pierre, only to see Morris come into his place of business to drop off coupons for JojaMart like he was some sort of savings genie. It was the most bullshit, bullying act William had ever witnessed in his life.

Sometimes, William had moments where his brain wasn’t exactly in control. His instincts had taken over, and he’d threatened the guy. The threats had lead to Morris puffing up like a damn fish. So William had unpuffed him with his fist. It was damn neighborly, if you were to ask him.

Moments like this? Hearing how Morris had messed with Shane’s money? He felt like the only thing he had to regret from that incident was that he didn’t smash in Morris’s stupid froggy face harder.

He finished his beer and let his forearm rest on his knee, the bottle pinched between thumb and forefinger.

Tread lightly, you shit-kicking stupidass.

“That was shitty of him,” William said. “Not really Morris’s biggest fan. I, uh—” he rubbed the back of his neck “—got in trouble with Lewis a couple of years ago for punching him.”

Later, much later, he’d regretted the assault. Not that it mattered. Lewis, who’d known Pops, had slapped him with the barest of recriminations. His reputation on the other hand...well, Pelican Town’s rumor mill ground that into flour.

William took a long swallow. Wasn’t like reputations and him were good friends anyway.

“Man,” Shane said. “You got anger issues.”

And you’ve got eyes.

“I should add that to my ink.” William took another long pull of the home brew, then turned and met Shane’s gaze. “When can you start?”

Shane looked down at his lap. “Monday,” he said quietly. “If it means I can screw Morris over without a two weeks notice.”

Petty revenge. A guy after his own heart.

“I’ll drink to that,” William said, amused. “Pay? What you looking for payment wise?” He frowned. “I never hired no one before.” He hadn’t thought this part out. What was the standard rate for farm work?

Shane flushed.

Ah. He was embarrassed setting a pay scale. William waited, fingers sliding the bottle back and forth.

“Just…match the wage at Joja, at least,” Shane mumbled.

William shrugged. He’d look that up when he got home. Minimum wage with basic benefits for stocking shelves didn’t seem quite fair for the type of manual labor he’d need, but he’d figure it out later.

Then he realized there would be more to it.

“Listen, I know it’s a pain in the ass,” he said, staring out at the lake. “But during calving season, you’ll need to be like, on call. I have an extra room at my place. Last season I nearly lost one of my big milkers and her calf to a breach birth. It was pretty touch and go.”

“You can just call the ranch,” Shane said.

“Sure. As long as you don’t mind getting the call at 3 am. Calves like to be really considerate about when they’re born.”

Shane frowned. “Might wake my goddaughter up.”

“Look,” William said. “I’m not trying to jerk you off here.” As pleasant an activity that might be… “It’s serious work. More serious than I realized when I took it on from Pops.”

He glanced over, but realized the conversation was reaching a wall.

“Never mind,” he said. Calving season was months off, anyway. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

He finished his beer and put the dead soldier to the side, then reached across Shane to get another from the cooler. Shane pulled back, and for a second William wondered if he was afraid of him. That thought didn’t sit comfortably.

“Something wrong, Daniels?”

“Nothing,” Shane said, voice stiff. “Just, let me talk to my aunt. I’ve got responsibilities there too.”

Yeah…his kid.

William leaned back, popping the cap, and took a swig of his beer. “Fair,” he grunted. “Just let me know if there are issues. I’m flexible.”

Shane didn’t respond to that, which probably meant the flirt had gone over his head.

You’re going to be one of those deliberately obtuse motherfuckers, aren’t you?

William cast around for a change of subject and felt his back twinge from the hit Shane had laid on him the week before. In as conversational a tone as he could muster, he asked, “So who taught you how to hit like a jackhammer, Daniels? You box or something?”

Shane grew stiffer, only staring into the neck of the beer, eyes dark.

He swings and he misses…

“Alright,” William said, shifting to his feet. “None of my business. You wanna start Monday? Be there at 6 am.”

Shane nodded.

William regarded him for a minute, then looked at the beer in his hand.

He’d done it. He’d convinced Shane to take the job. And even if he looked as excited as a brick, William didn’t need him excited—just serious enough to show the fuck up on Monday.

He tilted his beer and chugged the rest, letting the thick brew slide down his throat. After finishing he sighed, contemplating the bottle. “That,” he said, wiping his bearded chin, “was a decent batch. I should charge Pierre more.”

Shane continued to peer into his own bottle. “It’s good shit,” he agreed quietly.

“The Good Shit. Maybe that’ll be the new name,” William said, unable to help feeling flattered at the compliment. He pointed his bottle out over the lake, as if he was directing a crowd. “That batch is Okay Shit. That one over there?” He pointed to the murkier side of the lake. “We give that to the relatives we want to fuck off. That’s the Bad Shit.”

He glanced to see if he was getting a reaction, but Shane was now staring the water—more than likely embarrassed by William’s theatrical gestures.

William looked back at his bottle, and in a less ridiculous tone said, “But this one? This is the Good Shit.”

He realized he wanted to linger, but he had a rule about striking out. Retreat and try again later. He leaned down and picked up his three dead soldiers, then the catch he’d gathered from the water. Slinging dinner over his shoulder, he nodded at Shane.

“You get the Good Shit, Daniels. Enjoy it. See you Monday.”

Then he started back towards his place. Just as he’d gotten to the gate that signaled the edge of his property, he turned his head and captured that image of the lone man sitting on the dock, his outline making William’s heart pound. He swallowed and turned away again, letting the gate swing closed behind him.

It was just professional business, after all. Just a job. And if he was smart, he’d keep it there.

Because, William thought ruefully, I’ve had so much fucking luck with being smart.

 

Chapter Text

It was like William knew his weakness already.

Shane took a drink, reluctant to admit the guy had both good taste and a talent for brewing. The heady, hoppy ale was as good as the craft beers Gus got in seasonally at the saloon, and blew away the cheap crap he used to buy at Joja. Strong too. He’d only emptied three bottles, but to his buzzing brain it felt like five.

Proper fucking apology, at least—if William had come to Shane with orangey pisswater, it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier to turn down the job.

Well. No. That was a lie.

Shane reached into his pocket and pulled out his balisong. The triple-spoked knife was like an extension of his arm these days. Any time he sat at the dock with booze in one hand, out came the knife in the other. He flipped a few simple pinwheels, staring at the water, the act as soothing and familiar as the beer washing down his throat.

Joja was closing in two weeks. Much as the job had sucked, it’d been his livelihood. It was the money that provided for Jas, and helped Marnie cover rent and utilities. It was the paycheck that made his nightly booze possible, and seeing as two bottles of whiskey was lucky to last him three days, that shit wasn’t cheap.

He flipped another knife trick.

He really needed this job.

Almost fourteen fucking years he’d worked at Joja. Ever since eleventh grade. And sure, he’d had to transfer to Pelican Town from one of the Zuzu stores, but it’d been a smooth lateral slide after filing a request with the manager. No interviews. No pressure. Minimal room for fucking up and falling flat on his face, like he’d certainly have done with a new job. Then there was Marnie, the goddamn safety net. Even if Shane was unemployed she’d never have the heart to kick him out, especially with Jas in their lives. And being the anxious, selfish moron he was, he’d taken advantage of her kindness to hide from the bitter truth: that he’d have to put himself out there for the first time in his adult life.

In his own pitiful way, he’d tried. Gone on Marnie’s computer, browsing the job listings within twenty miles. Wandered the town, an eye out for establishments that might be hiring. Accepting the tip-offs Marnie gathered from her gossip circles, about how so-in-so was hiring in Poplarville, and why didn’t he give them a call?

Why? Because Shane was a fucking idiot, that was why, and you couldn’t teach a dumb old dog new tricks.

The idea of interviewing at a new place made him want to hurl. The thought of phone calls or resumes was enough to make his anxiety implode. Some days he didn’t understand how his seventeen-year-old self had even had the balls to turn in that one-page application to get hired at Joja in the first place.

It’s ‘cause you didn’t do it, dipshit. Garrett did. He walked up to the desk and asked for the damn application when you couldn’t. He stuck the pen in your hand and told you how to fill it out.

These days it was so much easier to turtle in his bedroom, drink, and pretend the looming joblessness didn’t exist. Or better, that it’d take care of itself. And it kind of had; a shiny new job, handed over to him on a silver fucking platter. A job whose interviews he’d shown up for unknowingly. One that only seemed to care about where he’d learned his right hook, and whether he’d be on-call for cow duty. Even he wasn’t a big enough idiot to turn that down.

Well, no. That was a lie too. He was a big enough idiot to turn it down. Almost had, until William had brought up Marnie.

The ranch was struggling. She rarely talked about it, but Shane knew it was in trouble. If his paychecks disappeared for good, their household would snap under the weight of the two extra dependents.

He closed his eyes, drained the beer to the bottom, and when it was gone immediately reached for another. Cracking it open, he stared at the wisps of smoke curling from the neck, wondering if he was crazy. William had kicked the shit out of him a week ago. Now Shane was going to work for him? What kind of dumb fuck took a drunken beatdown from a guy one day, then put that same guy in a position of financial power over him the next?

A dumb fuck like you, obviously. Suckered in by good beer and smooth talking.

William could totally be pulling Shane’s leg. What about his ominous parting words that night? Until next time, Daniels. Maybe round one was to bruise the body, and round two would be for the pride. Maybe Shane would skip Joja on Monday, and when he arrived at the farm that fucking tattooed boulder of a guy would be waiting for him, laughing at what a gullible moron he was.

Except that didn’t feel right, and he knew it. He flicked his knife closed and took another drink.

William’s words had been too honest today. Shane hadn’t missed the frustration in his voice. Fuck, he’d lived on the ranch long enough to know how stressful and time consuming this line of work could be. The ranch’s chicken coop was his responsibility every morning before leaving for Joja. On the weekends he cleaned the barn and stable, mowed the lawn, and helped Hunter, Marnie’s part-time kid, bundle the feed orders. No such thing as a day off when you had crops to tend and animals to feed.

Shane sat and drank, gazing over the water, and when his current bottle was finished he opened another and drank some more. The sun was setting, a dusky, navy curtain pulling down on the world. Cicadas and crickets became musical in the grass. A breeze rippled the lake, and the traps that William had laid along the shore gave soft clanks as they bumped together. It was growing quite late when Shane finally reached in the cooler for another, only to come up empty.

Like chain-smoking in bottle form; he’d just polished off nine of William’s home brews in a matter of hours. Nine brews that felt more like thirteen.

Shane dumped the melting ice in the lake. He tossed his empties in the cooler with a series of clangs, then stood, grabbing it by the handle and swaying on his feet.

It was good shit, he’d give William that. He was, to put it mildly, as drunk as a goddamn skunk.

After a slow, stumbling walk home, Shane paused at the ranch door and looked at the cooler in his hands. He knew he’d have to tell his family about the job at some point this weekend…but maybe not tonight. He ducked into the chicken coop, tucking it behind the feed. It’d be safe until morning coop duty, and then he could find a better spot to stow it until Monday.

Monday.

He’d been brooding so hard about the legitimacy of William’s offer, he hadn’t stopped to think about what it meant. Not truly. Until that very moment it hadn’t sunk in, and now it did, like aloe on his burnt fucking soul.

Come Monday, no more JojaMart.

No more customers.

No more listening to some old lady prattle on about why she could eat only green bananas. No more being verbally abused when the bakery department ran out of a certain type of bread. No more being given the look, the one that said Shane was put on this planet to inconvenience people, his pallet of cereal boxes blocking their all-important sojourn to the Oaties.

No more unflattering, uncomfortable uniform. No more cleaning wads of toilet paper off the restroom floors. No more rounding up shopping carts in the sludge of winter.

Fourteen years later, no more JojaMart.

Of course, there would’ve been no more JojaMart soon regardless. But having another job lined up, being able to kick that shithole to the curb guilt-free? Shane closed the coop, grinning, and returned to the front of the house. He opened the door, his heart so light he was walking on air, drunk off one of the most delicious beers he’d had in ages, and nothing—fucking nothing—could piss on his night now.

“Evening, Shane!”

Whomp, whomp.

“Lewis,” said Shane, crashing back to earth.

Three people were gathered around the table. Aunt Marnie, Jas, and Lewis, who was the mayor of Pelican Town and Marnie’s steady boyfriend. By the looks of it, they’d been finishing up a late supper of chicken parmesan and green beans when Shane’s drunken ass wandered in.

He and Lewis had not gotten off to a great start when Shane first moved to the valley.

Lewis, for one reason or another, had chosen to keep his relationship with Marnie under wraps at the time. A sixty-year-old man, playing dirty little secret like a fucking kid in high school. And while Shane didn’t wish to devote any time to thinking about his aunt’s booty calls, it’d fired up something fierce and protective in him to know Marnie was visiting Lewis’s house midday, yet the asshole wouldn’t even hold her hand in public.

For months Lewis had filled his aunt’s head with promises about how, when the time was right, their relationship would go public. And Marnie believed him. Repeated those promises to Shane as evidence that things were headed in a good direction, while Shane believed she was being as naive as the ‘other woman,’ waiting on the promise of a man to leave his wife.

And then Lewis, the fucker, pulled through, forcing Shane to eat all his words.

Nothing said he had to like the guy.

“Was a last minute thing, Lewis joining us for dinner,” Marnie said. “He wanted to wait for you, but we didn’t know how late you’d be out.”

“Old Joja making you stay overtime until they shutter the place down?” asked Lewis.

“Something like that.” Shane opened the fridge, searching for the leftover pasta salad.

Marnie tsked. “Shane, you sit down and eat something at the table. We’re not done yet, and the food’s still warm.”

“I’m good with pasta salad.”

Shane.

He closed the fridge, sighing, and grabbed a roll as he plopped down at the table.

Marnie beamed. Christ, it drove him fucking batty, the way she beamed over silly shit. 

“How’s the job hunt going, Shane?” said Lewis conversationally, patting his moustache with a napkin.

Shane struggled to flatten a hard pat of butter against the roll. “Just ducky.”

Jas giggled.

“Is that so?” said Marnie.

Shane looked up. He’d expected scolding for his smartass answer, but instead she was looking at him inquisitively.

“Er—yeah.”

“So does that mean Farmer Bill found you today?”

Shane’s knife slipped and stabbed a hole in his bread. He’d already forgotten that William had talked to Marnie.

“Er…” He focused on the bread. “I guess.”

Marnie blinked. “You guess, Shane? Either he did or he didn’t.”

Shane sighed, giving up on the butter. “He did.”

“Ah!” said Lewis. “I’d heard Pierre say Bill was considering taking on help. He’s grown that farm into quite the operation these last two years.”

“Oh, it’s a monster of a business for one man alone,” Marnie agreed. “I’ve no idea how he’s done it so far, but wish he’d share his secret with me.” She looked at Shane. “You accepted?”

Only reason I asked is because Marnie said you might be interested.

How, exactly, had that conversation gone down? Because it didn’t matter if William said he’d kept hush-hush about the fight. Shane knew there was no way in Stardew’s green fucking Valley that Marnie had offered him up for employment without getting to the bottom of the violence. Not after the hard time she’d given him all week. Not after the hand that had covered her mouth that night, the ‘It can’t have been Bill!’ falling in disbelief from her lips.

“Um. Yeah. I accepted.”

“You’re gonna work on the farm?” Jas’s interest was finally piqued. “Aunt Marnie says he’s got way more cows than we do!”

Marnie peered at him critically. “You really accepted?”

“Yes,” he said, annoyed at having to repeat himself.

Her expression was hard to read. Shane couldn’t tell if she was pleased or not.

Lewis cleared his throat. “Well! Congratulations on the new job, Shane.”

“Yeah.”

“Though…” Lewis hesitated. “That scuffle in the saloon last week.” He chuckled, sounding nervous. “No bad blood? I mean, if you’re accepting a job from the man…?”

“Now, Lewis,” said Marnie, touching his arm. “Bill and I had a long talk. Cleared up a lot of misunderstanding there.”

Another wave of irritation darted through Shane. Why couldn’t they just call the fucker William? It was like they weren’t even talking about the same damn person.

“A long talk,” he repeated, glaring at Marnie.

“Yes. He paid me a visit this morning. Brought those melons you see on the counter, actually. Beautiful things. I have one cut up in the fridge for dessert.”

Shane stared. “He visited to bring melons.”

“To put in an order for feed, Shane. The melons were just to butter an old lady up, I think. He was…concerned, after your incident.”

Great. They were going to talk about the fight in front of Jas, when she’d been terrified by it. In front of Lewis, when it was none of his goddamn busybody business.

“So you talked about me,” he said flatly.

Marnie waved her hand. “I sell to the man. My relationship with him long precedes yours. I think he wanted to make sure there was no bad blood between us, as business partners.”

Shane glanced at Jas to see if she was following the conversation, but she was busy lining green beans into the shape of a stick man on her plate.

“And?” he said, irritated. “You get that sorted, yeah?”

Marnie’s eyes narrowed. “Why, yes. We did.” A pause. “I was wary when I first met him too, you know. He had that reputation, after the altercation with Morris. But then he started doing all those things to help the community, just really turning things around for folks here. And of course, learning he was ex-military. Not to excuse the violence, but goodness—doesn’t that just do a number on a man? The things one sees out there…” She shuddered. “Look at poor Kent. Hasn’t been the same since he returned home.”

In a place the size of Pelican Town, gossip flowed in a steady and constant stream. Voices at Joja while Shane was stocking the aisles, which apparently made people think he was deaf. Voices in the background of the saloon, while he nursed a beer or whiskey neat and attempted to drown them out. Until the night of the fight, he’d only known William by sight and reputation. Big old farmer. Had a temper, but proved himself a ‘hero,’ saving the community center and helping drive JojaMart to the ground. Stand-up fucker at heart.

And now, Shane remembered, ex-military.

It made so much fucking sense.

The things William had hissed while pinning him to the ground. The preternatural control during his peace-talk, and the sudden flare of ‘Sit your ass down!’ when Shane doubted his intentions. That temper, coupled with that sense of command…he wondered for a moment what William’s ranking had been. Guy like that? Surely he hadn’t remained some scrub at the bottom of the chain.

“—for years now, so friendly and professional in business,” Marnie continued, when Shane finally tuned back in. “Never had a problem with Bill before now, and it’d be a shame to start because of ‘a couple guys letting off steam after a long week.’” Marnie shook her head. “Lord knows if he wasn’t so stressed by the workload, that steam might’ve come off in a healthier way.”

Shane paused with his fork halfway to his mouth.

William had said that? A couple guys letting off steam? And Marnie fucking believed him?

He crammed the chicken in his mouth, suddenly wanting to extract himself from the table as soon as possible. How many conversations had he had with his aunt this week, trying to convince her the fight meant nothing? And she’d pressed and released, pressed and released, never satisfied with his answer. Then in waltzes hipster farm boy, probably puffing up his chest and delivering that that line with some stupid charismatic smile, and she accepts it.

Of-fucking-course.

“Yes, boys will be boys,” chuckled Lewis. “Got into a few scrapes myself as a young man. None quite so impressive as yours, Shane, but a few scrapes all the same.”

Marnie swatted his arm. “Just because we’re choosing to look past this doesn’t mean we condone violence, you cad. And don’t be sexist.”

Lewis stopped chuckling, but when his aunt turned her head, he looked at Shane and winked.

Shane—suddenly envisioning William’s wink at the bar—stared down at his chicken, reddening.

“Anyway,” Marnie continued. “He mentioned how badly he needed to hire someone, and what was I to do? Ignore the one person whose got both experience and need of a job? So yes, we talked, Shane. After everything that happened I was hesitant, but Bill put my mind at ease. Seemed more concerned that you might not be interested.”

Shane’s eyes flickered up.

She shook her head. “I truly hope this hasn’t happened to him here in Pelican Town, but he says some men have a problem working for a gay man. I told him you’d be just fine, of course. That you’re a hard worker and a good boy, and you leave people’s business to themselves.”

A good boy? She’d told William he was a good boy?

Well, great. Now Shane wanted to hurl.

Jas, it seemed, had grown tired of making pictures with her vegetables. She’d also apparently grown tired with the conversation, looking up and saying, “Vincent is jealous that I have two last names. He told me so today.”

Marnie turned, a look of amusement crossing her face. “Did he, now?”

“He should be jealous,” Lewis said, as if they were in on this together. “Jas Prevost-Lorie. Gosh, what a beautiful name for a little girl.”

Shane stabbed his chicken, an even greater darkness stealing his mood.

“I’m not little,” Jas protested. “And I told Vincent you get two last names if your parents die.”

“Jas!” Marnie chided. “That’s not the reason.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t know tha—”

“I’m finished,” Shane declared, shoving his chair back from the table with a squeak.

He walked his dishes to the sink. Jas and Lewis continued their conversation, but Marnie got up, following him. She frowned.

Shane knew that frown. It was the frown that replaced the smile when, after he’d been drunk in a social setting, she’d finally gotten him alone long enough to show her disapproval. He waited for it, the shake of her head, the passive aggressive comments. But this time they didn’t come. She only touched his shoulder.

“Come sit back down for dessert. Bill’s melon…”

Shane’s jaw tightened.

“I don’t want,” he said, “his goddamn melon.”

He rinsed his plate, shoved it in the drying rack with soap spots still on the back, and left for his room without saying goodnight.

 


 

When William opened his eyes every morning, he came to consciousness in a kaleidoscope of pain. There were colors of cramping and throbbing that swirled his vision, and locked him on his back while he processed the daily trial.

He took stock of the aches and their sources. Scar tissue in his back muscles caused stiffness. Spasms made his shoulders tight. He could picture his spine, one long string of stacked cuffs along a curve. The doctors had warned that he was at risk for degenerative disk disease, tapping fancy screens with the white bones against a black background.

William clenched his teeth, then forced his jaw to relax. He inhaled and exhaled, each breath a raft over the wave of aching. Slowly, so slowly, he pushed up, rolling to get vertical. There was a familiar churn in his stomach. He reached over and dumped a few antacids from the bedside table into his hand, chewing the chalky disks. A flat burst of fake berry coated his tongue, but the tablets eased his stomach of the morning queases. He didn’t rush, letting his body settle, and looked at the clock. A few minutes after five.

With a groan he got to his feet and padded into the bathroom to shower, letting the hot water loosen the last of the morning pains.

Shane starts today.

Saturday he’d spent the entire day laying out how he’d utilize the extra help, making a list of things that someone else could do, and separating out the tasks that would take more training. On Sunday he’d made another appearance at his mom’s. His bruises had finally faded enough that she deemed him acceptable company.

William shoved those memories away, firmly not in the mood to replay that particular discomfort. Today had enough discomforts without borrowing yesterday’s.

He stared at the mirror. The black eye was almost completely faded, just a light yellow tint over his temple. Any bruising left on the jawline was hidden by the beard. He turned his face left and right, then pulled out his grooming kit and unrolled it on the counter. After putting his hair up in a topknot, he combed and trimmed his beard, and rubbed in a conditioner that kept it neat. Then came two touches of sandalwood cologne. A watch dug out of a box. A fresh handkerchief, tucked in his pocket.

Minutes later the shower was wiped down, the bed was made, and his space was straightened. He headed into the living room and snapped on the weather station.

“—and it’s another hot and sunny day in the Stardew Valley,” the weatherman chirped against a map of the Ferngill region.

William relaxed a touch. Sun was good. A farmer should love rain, but he had reasons to dislike those days.

After making coffee and feeding Ingrid he stepped onto the porch. It was still dim outside, the sun creeping up the horizon. He sat and pulled on the work boots he’d cleaned the night before, then started towards the barns, going over the list of tasks he’d made for Shane.

In the last two years he’d expanded his farm, from the small dirt garden his grandfather had left behind into a sizable working machine. Half of the acreage were fields, his summer harvests close to being ready. His blueberry bushes were fat and heavy with fruit. It had taken him all his time and energy to keep ahead of the crop.

Still, the summer profits were worth the effort, and his animals took care of him financially during the winter. The surrounding area was starving for artisan cheeses and mayo. Slap the ‘organic’ label on his produce and boom—it was like printing gold. His recent brewery forays had also helped make last year extra profitable.

William paused at the barn door and looked over the dim countryside.

Solar-powered lights lined gravel paths that he’d laid down himself, and fences delineated the fields. He’d gotten a tractor last summer that cut down his tilling and sowing by a ton. It was parked in one of his barns, and he had a whole system of those. One barn for his tools and supplies. One for milking, one for calving. One for his cow’s winter quarters and overnight area. They all opened into the huge pastures where his herd spent their time. There was also his massive chicken house, up to almost a hundred birds.

Maybe…it was impressive. But William could only see all the work that needed doing.

Well, Head On, he thought, when he realized he was waffling on whether to wait for Shane or start his normal routine. After all, it was work. Not a social club.

William cut on the lights, stepping into a huge space of musty cow smells and moos. No matter how clean he kept it, that distinctive, earthy smell of livestock infused the very wood. He pulled open the doors and then the pens, funneling the herd towards the milking barn. The cows, heavy with their morning milk, started down the shoot. There was a battery-powered radio on a hook in the corner and he snapped it on, country music filtering into the big room as he hauled the milking lines used to collect the day’s dairy.

He glanced once at the door but then turned away, determined to focus and not be caught staring at it.

He’ll get here when he gets here.

With that thought firmly in mind, he got back to work.

 


 

The kitchen was dark and quiet. Shane, freshly showered, stood in the shadows of the humming refrigerator while the coffeemaker gave its final sputters. He pulled out the carafe, and by the light of the glowing blue button on the machine’s front, poured himself a mug, listening to the sizzle-hiss of the final drips on the hotplate.

Marnie bustled into the kitchen and flipped on the light. It was like she’d pulled back curtains over his dark bed to let in the sun. Shane groaned, squinting.

“First day!” she said cheerfully.

He grunted, shoving the carafe back on its plate.

She crossed to the cupboard and grabbed a mug for herself, along with a loaf of bread. “I was thinking you ought to drive the truck up to the farm.”

Shane warily watched her. “Just gonna walk.”

She held the loaf out, silently asking if he wanted some too. He shook his head.

“Well,” she said, shoving two pieces into the slots of the toaster. “It’s just that I plum forgot—Bill placed a feed order on Friday. Hunter’s working this morning, and he should have it ready by ten. Might be more convenient just to drive back and pick it up for him at that time.”

“I’ll walk.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Shane. It’s a twenty minute walk, or a two minute drive. You’ll be on the clock remember. And I don’t need the truck today.”

Shane closed his eyes. He had his own reasons for never driving to work, but there was no good argument for this. Screw her stupid logic.

“Fine, whatever.”

Marnie rolled her eyes. “Careful not to dish out too much of that morning charm on your new boss.”

A cold spread through his body.

He’d spent all damn weekend thinking about this job. Thought about it while scrubbing the troughs of the coop and sweeping the stalls of the horse barn. While sitting through dinner conversations he couldn’t seem to follow, and after, when holed up in his bedroom to drink. All weekend twisting his stomach in knots over this damn job, over realizing he’d have to spend the day working alongside William…

…and he’d never thought about the fact that William hadn’t just given him a job. He was indeed Shane’s new boss.

The new Morris.

Shane scrubbed a hand through his hair. Coffee in hand, he turned down the hall before the conversation went on any longer. Marnie was a morning person, bouncing out of bed as if she’d spent the night prepping how many words she could fit in during the first ten minutes of the day. Even without the hangover it was maddening.

Once in his room, Shane set the mug of coffee on his dresser.  He stared down at it.

What are you gonna do now, you idiot?

When living in the city, he’d taken the bus to JojaMart. After moving to Pelican Town, he walked. He didn’t even mind walking, as it gave him an extra half hour before and after his shift to be alone before dealing with people. But what both methods had in common: Shane was not behind the wheel of a vehicle, and so his morning routine could go undisturbed.

The routine being spiking his coffee with at least three shots of whiskey.

It ironed out the cramps in his head. It eased the nausea in his gut. And on a day like today, it would’ve done a hell of a lot for his nerves.

Shane looked into the black surface of the coffee, seeing his own wavering reflection.

The shakes were coming on.

He twisted his hands in his hoodie sleeves; a forest green one today. It was that and jeans, an unusual outfit for a Monday in Shane’s world. For the first time his week was not going to be spent in the ratty blue Joja jacket and dockers, which were currently wadded up at the bottom of his hamper. If this new job was the real deal, Shane was going to chuck them into the wood stove when he got home.

If this new job was the real deal, that meant he was officially farmhand at The Bowery.

With William.

His new boss.

If, you know, he managed not to puke and chicken out in the next ten minutes.

With one hand Shane grabbed the knob of his dresser drawer. Slowly he tugged, and it glided open to reveal a jumble of underwear and socks. Tucked into them were a few glass bottles, shimmering under the harsh iridescent light of the room. There was one brand new fifth of whiskey, another with only a few inches left, and an empty pint.

He pulled out all three and unscrewed their caps. With shaking hands, he filled the little pint container full. He hid the big bottles back in the drawer, while the small one was slipped into the baggy side pocket of his jeans, where it was slim enough to be invisible. In case of emergencies. Because Shane knew himself well enough to know anxiety and panic were, categorically, emergencies. Ones he was better off not experiencing too deeply his first day.

Turning to leave the room, he caught a glimpse of his reflection above the dresser. His heart sunk.

Too bad you can’t spare William. Sorry fuck’s gonna see a lot of your ugly mug if you keep this job.

Shane resisted the urge to tear it down, with a silent promise that he’d burn the stupid mirror with his Joja uniform later.

“Have fun!” Marnie called, when he walked through the kitchen.

He scooped the keys off the counter, making a noncommittal noise in return.

The countryside was quiet and peaceful before sunrise. Marnie’s pickup was parked out front and Shane turned on the engine, a mechanical roar piercing the silence, headlights illuminating dark bushes. He sat staring into that light for several minutes with the exhaust sputtering. Finally, talking himself down from driving straight through those bushes and into the trees beyond, he shifted the truck into gear.

The dirt road was bumpy, the old pickup creaking as he drove.

He thought of the fiery burst of William’s fist in his eye.

Bounce, rattle, rattle.

William stalking Shane from behind, and the bribe of long brown necks in a cooler.

Bounce, rattle, rattle.

The scent of warm cologne, lifting from William’s skin when he leaned across Shane at the dock to grab a beer. The tight black t-shirt around his arms. The sleek blond hair, pulled back in a knot.

Bounce, rattle, rattle.

Shane’s own sorry reflection, dark bags beneath tired eyes.

Bounce, rattle, rattle.

The drive was less than a mile, over before it began, and Shane was soon parked in the gravel on the north side of the property. He cut the engine, looking over fields lit by the faint rays of dawn. It was the first time he’d ever seen it up close, despite the farm being one of the ranch’s closest neighbors. Marnie said the property had belonged to William’s grandfather, but once William took over he’d turned it from overgrown flower gardens into a booming business.

Still, nothing prepared Shane for the sheer fucking size of it.

I was right. This guy is fucking crazy. No one in their right goddamn mind would take on this much on their own.

The farmhouse was dark, but there were lights on in one of the bigger barns, and its door was wide open. Shane glanced at the watch on his trembling wrist.

Still a few minutes early.

Getting drunk on his first day would be stupid. But it’s not like his three morning shots ever got him that far. Beyond their warmth smoothing his nerves, he never even felt them. Besides, William was nowhere to be seen yet, and he was parked now, with over four hours before he had to drive again.

He slipped the whiskey from his pocket, uncapped it, and took three steady shots. Just to ease his twisting stomach—make himself fucking presentable and shit.

Shaking his head after it went down, he tucked the bottle into the center console, then rubbed his palms on his jeans to wipe away the sweat settling into their creases. He had to get out of the truck and walk over to that barn. All there was to it. Showing up late wasn’t going to make day one any easier.

Shane took a deep breath and got out of the vehicle, slamming the door behind him.

 

Chapter Text

Shane stepped onto the farm to a chorus of soothing country sounds. Chickens clucked. Cows lowed, and the metal from their containment rattled. There was one barn lit up, and assuming that’s where William was, he headed that direction. As he grew closer a radio playing country music began to drift through the air, layered atop the steady swish of milking machines. The noises grew louder and louder until Shane was standing anxiously in the doorway of the barn, looking into the bright interior—and right at his new boss.

William stood beside a line of cows, attaching a milker to one of them. When he was done he stepped back into full view, and Shane saw he was dressed similarly to how he’d been at the dock. Clean jeans, navy tee. Well-groomed beard and topknot.

Asshole.

Shane reached up and flattened his hair, knowing it’d probably dried funny after his shower. William hadn’t noticed his arrival yet, and even with a few shots in him his stomach was doing cartwheels. He hated being this nervous. Christ. In a moment he was going to have to speak, and when had he ever been good at doing that?

Just as he finally gathered enough courage to cough—because that was easier than forming actual English syllables—the cow William was leading into support gave a hard jerk. He dodged back, narrowly avoiding the several-hundred-pound headbutt she’d thrown his way. Scowling, he cussed and swatted her on the backside before shoving her in again.

She retaliated with a vicious tail whip that smacked him in the face.

Shane leaned against the doorframe of the barn, heart pounding.

“That, uh…” He cleared his throat. “That where you learned to fight?”

William turned and midway his scowl broke into a smile. He chuckled, patting the cow on her hindquarters, then pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe his hands.

“You mock, but one of these ladies knocked me on my ass a few weeks ago. They hit like a brick.” He jerked his head toward the stalls. “You can help me muck out. When that’s done, we’ll get in the next batch.” Snagging a pitchfork, he crossed over to hand it to Shane, then pointed at the wheelbarrows. “Manure goes in the back pile, and then we’ll have to move it for composting.”

And that was it.

That was the introduction to this whole thing? Shane waited for him to say more, but William only grabbed another pitchfork and got to work himself.

“Okay,” Shane said quietly, joining him.

For the first few minutes he kept a close eye on his boss as they filled the wheelbarrow, sure he was going to start a conversation or give more instructions. But no; except for the radio, it was silent as the grave. It was too easy. After the anxiety he’d bathed in all weekend, there had to be some catch to all this. Instead, the pitchforking softened his nerves. There was even a stretch where, side-by-side in a steady peaceful rhythm, Shane forgot how much he’d wanted to throw up that morning.

The stalls took twenty minutes. Shane was moving the last load when William nodded him over.

“Marnie use electric milkers?” he asked.

Shane eyed the machines, which were similar to the ranch’s. “Yeah. Might be selling her cows, though.”

“Huh.” William cocked his head. “I’d have thought she’d rather break off her fingers than do that. She’s so proud of them.”

Heat traveled up Shane’s face.

Why had he said that? Marnie’s personal finances at the ranch were not his business to discuss.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, trying to recover. “Just, she mentioned downsizing the herd…”

William raised a brow, but didn’t press.

“You’ll be doing this by yourself tomorrow,” he said, pointing to the other side of the line. “But I’ll show you how I like it done today. Start on the end and unclip. And keep an eye out on the teat, I don’t need mastitis.”

Shane nodded. William demonstrated—pointlessly, as it was another task he’d done hundreds of times, but he supposed every job had at least one set of pointless instructions—and then they took to opposite ends of the row.

As they worked a new song came on the radio, and William began to sing along.

He kept below the volume of the actual singer, but he had a good voice, Shane realized. Deep and able to match pitch. Between the singing and the memorized movements of the task, Shane couldn’t help but find it soothing, as if William’s lack of self-consciousness made it easier to put aside his own. Just like with the rhythm of the mucking, his nerves unkinked a little bit more.

They moved from girl to girl, unclipping, and once the current group was done ushered them out and brought in the next.

“Looks good,” William grunted, checking over Shane’s shoulder as he attached a milker. “You’ve got this. I’m going to start on the coops. When you’re done, come meet me.”

See, dumbass? All that fucking worry for nothing. He’s giving you chores you can do in your sleep, and you barely even have to talk.

Shane finished up, and then as instructed headed to the coops. A few of the more curious chickens strutted over to peck near his boots and he bent down to scratch them, knowing Marnie’s birds liked that. One in particular seemed to love it, pushing her way through the clucking crowd, and Shane scooped her up.

William stood in the back of the coop, packing eggs into cartons. 

“Figures you’d like that one,” he said, rolling his eyes. “She’s mean as sin.”

The little feathered head sank into Shane’s scratch, as if it had a tranquilizing effect. He shrugged. “Seems alright to me.”

“Yeah, tell that to the fingers she’s tried to eat.”

Shane held his finger in front of the chicken’s beak. She opened her red-rimmed eyes and blinked blearily at him.

Yep. Downright satanic.

William closed a box and pulled a clipboard down, jotting numbers for the eggs. “You clean the coop. Let the chickens out. Feed ‘em. After I get these eggs dealt with I’m going to be in the north field, as one of my fences seems to have grown a hole.” He made a final note, then rehung the clipboard and nodded toward the wall. “Tools are over there. Hose is behind the coop.”

“Okay.” Shane set the mean-as-sin chicken free and stood, biting his lip. “Your, um. Your feed order. Should be ready by ten. Brought Marnie’s truck, so I can go pick it up or whatever.”

William nodded. “Silo’s on the south side of the farm, closest to the ranch. Makes unloading easy. Holler at me and I’ll help you with it.” He patted Shane on the back as he passed. “Good job so far, Daniels.”

The pat sent up another faint whiff of that warm scent Shane had first smelled at the docks.

Cologne to do farm work?

He shoved the thought out of his head.

The morning passed, busy but uneventful, and at a few minutes to ten Shane wrapped up and headed to the truck.

If Marnie could’ve afforded to pay someone full-time on the ranch, she’d have hired Shane long ago. As it stood, Shane helped out where he could, taking care of the coops each morning, on the weekends letting the horses run and cleaning their stable. But out of sheer necessity she had to keep at least part-time help around, and two days out of the week her fresh-out-of-high-school hire, Hunter, came by. He’d just finished loading the hay bales onto a trailer when Shane arrived.

He hooked it to the pick-up, trying not to think about how when he returned, William was going to be working side-by-side with him again.

Stop being a fucking pussy. You survived the morning. It went well.

He drove back with one hand on the wheel, the other tapping the center console where the whiskey was hidden. He pulled in next to the silo and peered around for any sign of William.

Jesus.

Across the field, his new boss was standing with his head under the water pump. Shirtless, because why the fuck not. Even with the distance Shane could see that the tattoos he’d thought were sleeves actually covered William’s whole torso, an entire shirt of colorful ink. He was running blue-stained hands through his hair, and there were fifteen bushels of blueberries lining the fence next to him.

Shane was supposed to call him over like that?

Ducking his head below the dash, he pulled out his whiskey and downed three more shots. He stowed the bottle and sat back up, staring at the steering wheel for several seconds.

Taking a deep breath, he laid a hand on the horn.

William looked up at the honk. He shook his wet head like a dog, wiped his hands on his jeans, and started walking over.

Shane had removed his hoodie at the ranch, the mid-morning sun too hot, but as he slipped out of the truck he regretted it. His old gridball tee was damp and spotted with sweat, and he felt terribly self-conscious climbing onto the trailer.

William got within throwing distance and held up his arms. “Toss ‘em.”

Straightforward, same as before. Just because he’d wandered over like a wet shirtless dog didn’t mean this had to be any different than the previous work together, Shane told himself, grabbing a bale and throwing it down.

William caught it, dropped it on the conveyor belt that rose up the silo, and kicked the machine into gear. Once again there was no pressure of small talk, and the job became like clockwork: Shane tossing, William catching, the belt carrying a steady supply of feed to the top. He’d ordered several hundred bales and it was sweaty, itchy, tiring work, constant bending and lifting.

Shane leaned down to grab one of the bales at his feet, hefting it up with a grunt—and when he twisted around William was watching.

Of course he’s watching, dumbass. He’s waiting on the hay.

Shane threw it into the waiting arms, his pulse hammering in his throat.

“So this,” he said, determined to change the invisible subject. “It’s all you?” He jerked his head toward the fields. “Seriously got no other help?”

William nodded. “Not a lot of people around here are good at this kind of thing. And this season sort of snuck up on me.”

As he turned to drop the bale on the belt, Shane caught sight of the fading bruises on his back, between the ink of the tattoos.

It felt strange to know they’d been put there by his fists. The fight had been less than a week and a half ago, but if it weren’t for his own bruises—and the twinges of leftover pain in his shoulder—Shane would’ve sworn it’d been another lifetime.

“Not judging,” he said, bending to pick up another. “Just saying, you’re cracked.”

“Cracked?” William chuckled. “Like in the head?”

“Yup.”

“Not the first time I’ve been accused of that. Still. Glass houses, Sadsack.”

Shane slowed as he stood.

That stupid nickname.

That stupid. Fucking. Nickname.

He chucked the next bale with a lot more force.

William caught it with a step back, smirking. “Looks like you’re recovering from our last discussion.”

“Slipped out of my hands,” said Shane.

“I’m sure.” He cocked his head, looking toward the fields. “You know, with your help I’ll be done before dark today. Been a few months since that happened.”

Shane paused to look at the fields too. They were damn impressive, honestly. He reached slowly for the next bale. “So this is like, all you do.”

“What? Throw hay?”

“Just wake up, work till dark, sleep?”

William shrugged. “Yup. It’s a boring-ass life, but it’s mine.”

Shane closed his eyes for a moment. He hadn’t meant it like that. Not as an insult. He’d meant to point out the dude’s obvious dedication to his land, but of course—of course he’d fuck up a basic compliment.

“Not judging, man,” he mumbled, throwing the hay. “Better than what I do.”

“Well,” said William, catching it. “Sometimes I like to go into town and pick fights with the locals.”

Shane grunted. “Swear it fucking blew Marnie’s mind, learning it was you.”

“What, her poor nephew, beaten up by the big, bad, gay?”

Shane hoped he was already flushed enough from the sun and exercise that William wouldn’t notice the new heat in his face.

“Nah,” he said, throwing the next bale too hard again. “Just, she kinda worships you. Acted like I was telling her some sick joke, learning it was you.”

“For someone who worships me, she sure did give me an earful Friday about it.”

Shane felt his face darken, drowning out the previous flush.

“I’ll fucking bet,” he muttered.

Just like Marnie, spinning the truth of a story to fit her own goddamn narrative. All that talk of William wanting to make sure there was no bad blood…Shane would’ve bet his whole first paycheck Marnie had given him the earful first.

“It’s fine,” said William. “I’m used to it. Ever since that shit went down with Morris a couple years back…ain’t like I’m not stupid enough to bring it on myself.”

At hearing Morris’s name, Shane’s mood grew even darker. “Yeah. Thanks for the reminder that me and my old fuckwad of a boss got our ass kicked by the same guy.” He grunted, bending for another bale. “Feel good shit right there.”

William chuckled. “That piss you off?”

Shane said nothing, chucking it at him and turning to pick up the next one.

“Damn,” said William slowly. “It really does. Well, lemme tell you this. It won’t happen again, okay?” He dropped the bale on the belt. “And what about you? Without the town bruiser to let off steam, how you gonna blow off that mess of fuckshit you’ve got going on?”

“Same as always.” Shane snorted. “Except Gus banned us, so now I gotta buy Joja’s pisswater.”

“Aw, now you’re hurting my feelings sweetheart. I thought you liked my home brew.”

Shane ignored the endearment. “If you ever sell your stuff to Pierre, I’d fucking buy it. Right now he only gets that fruity shit in.”

William laughed, wiping his brow. “He just ordered four cases of my blueberry shit once it’s fermented.”

Shane’s eyes flickered to the fence lined with berry bushels, then back to William’s stained hands. “Figures,” he muttered, realizing he’d probably just insulted him.

“I make it. Doesn’t mean I drink it. It’s fucking girl beer.”

“It’s fucking Marnie beer.”

“Well maybe I should send you home with some then. She might forgive me for your black eye.”

Shane shook his head. “She has a drink at the saloon sometimes, but she doesn’t bring shit home.”

William became oddly quiet. Three bales later he said, “It’s, uh…‘cause of that kid, right? Jas? Don’t want her around that shit.”

Yeah. Nothing to do with the fact that her entire fucking family is raging alcoholics.

“Something like that,” said Shane, even quieter.

He stopped to stretch, his shoulder practically screaming now. William took the opportunity to stretch too, placing a hand on his lower back and leaning into it. They watched the bales creep up the conveyor belt, one by one.

When they’d been working and talking Shane hadn’t noticed his buzz much, but at a standstill, the softness of the liquor sank in. The summer day deepened around them, the sun’s heat beating down on his exhausted body and making him sleepy. Eventually his gaze was drawn back to William, who faced the belt.

Shane pulled his shoulder across his chest in a gentle stretch, eyes settling onto the colorful skin. For the first time he realized how much of the ink was military-themed. Across his back, bombs and fire went off above a verdant green field, and on his chest was an eagle with its wings spread, just two parts of the tapestry covering his whole torso. Some designs even crept into the waist of his jeans. The artwork was vibrant and detailed, with clear thought behind the placement of each piece. Rather than feeling like patchwork, the images flowed.

There was a trail of bullet casings raining down one bicep, and as Shane stared at them he heard Marnie’s words from dinner.

Poor Kent. Hasn’t been the same since he returned home.

He wondered how old William had been when he joined the military. They had to be close to the same age, though Shane was pretty sure William was a few years older than him. He wondered what he’d been like going in; whether he’d changed a lot. Whether he’d been on the home front, or sent out to Gotoro.

Then Shane saw them again, on a section of uninked skin between the sky and field of William’s back piece: the purple bruises he’d put there.

His stomach twisted in a knot.

“Damn animals eat too much,” William muttered, hand still rubbing his lower back in slow circles.

Shane determinedly refocused his gaze, reaching for the next hay bale. “Your, um. Your back okay?”

William turned, that easy, predatory smile sliding over his face. “Recovering nicely.”

He pulled down the bale Shane had moved forward and hauled it onto the belt.

The work resumed in the same sweaty, steady rhythm as before. There was no more small talk. No more stretching or staring. Just heavy breathing on top of silence. Shane forced himself back to the present, back to the task at hand—away from the danger of everything that played in the background.

 


 

The day had, William decided, gone better than he’d had any right to expect. His silo was full. His animals were cared for and handled by seven that morning, and Shane had cleaned out the auto-milker with the same quiet efficiency he had in everything William asked of him. Now here they were, before dark, looking at the beginnings of the fence repair that had been necessary since he’d first inherited the trash pile of a farm.

This…is going to work.

He looked at his watch. Five-thirty. Shane was pounding a mallet on a post, its bright wood looking like gold against the grey weathered ones. When he finished he stepped back, wiping a brow.

William pushed to his feet. The effort brought a stab of pain through his lumbar, his spine protesting the prolonged bending required to attach the connecting rails between the posts.

"I'm bushwhacked, Daniels," he said, slipping the hammer into his tool belt.

Shane looked at his watch too. "Early day for you, isn't it?"

"Well, looks like my new farmhand was a damn fine investment.”

William glanced sideways as he stacked the posts in the wheelbarrow. Shane’s shirt was soaked with sweat, patches down his neck and sides, and his hair was plastered against red cheeks. William appreciated the look. He liked men. He’d never made a secret of that to anyone who knew him past the age of coming out. The military had taught him that not only did he like men, he liked men who knew how to work. Seeing Shane all sweaty was a brand new flavor he wanted to try, even if he knew he didn’t dare.

As he gathered the tools, he cast around for something to say that might, just might, tempt Shane to stay longer than the average work day.

“Since it's my fault Gus threw you out of the Stardrop, why don't you stay for a beer before you go home?"

Shane, who was putting away tools in the same way they’d been taken out, paused for a moment.

William found that he liked that. He’d noticed it all day, Shane’s eye for detail. He copied William’s moves and instructions, like he had a diagram in his head that let him replace things exactly the way that he’d found them.

Shane carefully closed the toolbox. "You, uh…you sure we should be drinking together?"

Oh no you don’t, you nervous fucker.

William stacked a bag of nails and screws on top of the closed lid. Cocking his head to the side, his words came out in an almost purr of taunting. "Afraid you're gonna catch cooties, sweetheart?"

"Fuck off.” Shane wouldn’t look at him, shifting the posts so that none would fall when they pushed the wheelbarrow inside. “Just don't need a fresh black eye to explain."

William snorted in disbelief. "Oh, so now you're scared? Here I am, offering you the finest of alcoholic ambrosias and you're turning me down?"

Shane hesitated.

William waited.

Finally, each word looking as though it cost him something, Shane muttered, "Only cause the saloon is dead to me right now."

"Yeah. Sure. Uh huh. Go put those in the shed for me, and latch the door. I’ll meet you at the porch."

William didn’t wait for him to change his mind. He turned back towards the house, reaching up to unfasten his hair tie and rub fingers through the sweaty strands, then scratched the buzzed parts all the way to the longer top section. Once up the stairs he made quick work of kicking off his boots and fetching a towel. Giving himself a quick wipe-down, he cast a look around the room. He wanted to change his shirt. The fabric was just this side of uncomfortable, clinging and sticking to his chest, and worse, his back.

For a moment he debated leaving the front door open, but that seemed too intimate.

You can hold off on a dry shirt for a half hour, he told himself.

He grabbed a second towel, then a bucket, a bag of ice, and a twelve pack. He stuck the bottles in the ice, little metallic caps sprouting from the snowy white stuff like boozy daisies. Once outside he set the bucket on the porch, popping the tops and dropping them in a smaller one kept for recycling.

It didn’t take Shane long to walk up. William tossed him the towel, watching as he rubbed his face and arms. When he was done he draped it on the rail and William handed him a beer.

"Good work today, Daniels. It's more than I can usually get done."

Shane shrugged, taking a long, hard swallow. William felt a twinge of satisfaction; it was deeply satisfying to watch someone enjoy something he’d made.

After coming up from his drink Shane said, "Didn't do that much."

Humble? Or just oblivious to how much help he was?

"Yeah, okay. Whatever." William leaned on the porch rail, sipping his own bottle. He rolled his neck and stared out at the fields, shifting his weight between knees and hips. The new fence looked like a golden line of progress on the horizon.

Not that much my ass.

He looked at Shane, who was absently pulling on the collar of his shirt, fanning the fabric.

William felt a pang of sympathy. He couldn’t stand to be stuck under wet clothes. He probably had about fifty more t-shirts than any man needed in his lifetime, but he couldn’t help it—sometimes they got changed out three or four times a day.

"You know, if you want,” he offered, “I've got some spare sweats. We could go to the bathhouse down the road and get cleaned up. Least I could do after working you so hard is send you home smelling fresh."

And damn, would a soak be good on my back.

Shane took another hard swallow. He shook his head, rubbing his neck. "Nah, man. I'm good."

"Suit yourself. Offer stands."

Watching Shane rub his neck made William suddenly conscious of the way his own shirt was plastered to him. It was like the reminder made it all the worse, and he put his beer down to pull off the damp thing.

His heart rate slowed, relief as the sweat began to cool his skin instead of cling to it.

"I swear I go through more shirts in a day than most people go through Kleenex,” he said, draping the shirt next to Shane’s towel. "I just fucking hate that sticky-ass feeling. Fabric all wet and shit? Ugh."

Being near dead in the middle of a jungle will do that to you.

"Picked a good job then," Shane said.

"I got fucking luckier than I deserve is what happened."

William turned back to the field, just as Ingrid, his orange cat, came onto the porch and stalked over to Shane. The little traitor body-bumped into his ankles, and Shane leaned down to scratch under her chin, right where she liked best. He was good with the monster; Ingrid’s languid purr was long and soft as she settled next to him.

Took near a month to let me touch you without trying to take off a hand, he thought, amused.

He took that moment, where Shane seemed to relax a bit, to sink next to him on the porch step.

"So,” he said, leaning back on an elbow and stretching out the lower lumbar. “You always live in Pelican Town?"

Shane stiffened at the closeness. He focused on Ingrid, petting in slow, careful strokes. "During our fight you called me a Townie, but I only moved here a few months before you. I'm from Zuzu."

William sat straighter. "No shit? What brought you out here then?"

Shane shrugged. “My goddaughter. Long story."

“Yeah?” William leaned over, sliding the bucket of beers between them. " Well. What if I told you I liked stories, Daniels?"

After a long, final scratch, Shane let Ingrid be. He sat up, pulling out a second bottle and popping it open with his thumb trick. "Not good at telling them."

Wouldn’t mind listening to you try.

"You know, you're not what I thought you'd be,” William said.

Shane sighed, then leaned an elbow on his knee and rubbed his forehead. "Look. What I said, in the bar? I was drunk and pissed off, but like...that was low of me. Don't actually care, what people do on their own. Doesn’t fucking affect me.” He looked into his beer. “So yeah, a week late, but there's that apology."

William paused, his beer halfway to his mouth. He frowned.

“It's whatever, man. I was being an asshole on purpose. I wasn't having a good night last week either." Not that it was an excuse, but it was true. He turned the bottle up, finishing it with a long pull, then tossed it in the bucket where it made a satisfying crack. He reached for a third without hesitation. "Nights like that I shouldn't be around people. You got caught up in it."

"I know those kinda nights," Shane said, eyes on the horizon.

Why do people always say that? No. No you fucking don’t.

"Yeah, no. I don't think you do," William muttered, his grip tightening on the bottle.

Shane shrugged. “You know yourself,” he said quietly. “I know me.”

The response was mellow, not rising to the bait of his defensiveness.

Don’t pick a fight, Bauer. You promised to behave.

William took a swig of the fresh beer, icy and sharp against his tongue. “What does anyone really know, man?”

Shane looked at him. "So you’re one of those philosophical fucks when you drink.”

The guy was level, despite William’s undercurrent of agitation. It was calming, and he let out a breath.

What was he like when he drank? Usually a fucking idiot. It’s why when he decided to let himself get shitfaced, he stayed the fuck home or went into the city.

"I'd rather be one of those busy fucks when I drink,” he said, “but this pissant town is a bit short on my preferred methods of entertainment.”

No clubs. No real LGBT community to speak of. Just a sea of heteronormativity that weighed like a heavy blanket over everything he said or did.

Shane nodded. "This pissant town's short on everything.”

"Some days,” William said wistfully, “I really miss Zuzu.”

He missed the people he knew. Missed being able to walk down the corner and get different flavors of food, instead of relying on the Stardrop for his pre-cooked dinners. If it wasn’t for his mother packing his truck full of leftovers every Sunday, William might actually have to learn how to cook something that didn’t come in a box. And wouldn’t that just add one more thing to his to-do list?

“Me too,” said Shane. He kicked his feet out on the porch, and nodded vaguely at the farm. "Some of it’s okay though."

He was definitely mellowing. Instead of the shifting eyes and tense posture he’d held all day, he was looking out at William’s land, contemplative. William wondered what he saw when he gazed over the long stretch of blueberry fields and melon patches. Yet, the way he said it…he appreciated the view.

"Like, fucking peace and quiet sometimes,” Shane added slowly. “If I could live in Zuzu for the most part, but step in my backyard to this…"

So that was the trick to this guy, William decided. Give him space to talk, and if you were patient enough he’d give you his words.

It felt surreal, how less than ten days ago they’d been at each other’s throats, aggression and bullshit all roiled up into a spilled-over boiling pot. Yet, in that one moment against the tree, face to face, eyes meeting…the silence of that look felt like this. Like somehow they understood each other.

William shook the thought and pulled himself up to lean on the rail, creating space between them again.

"I guess I haven't fucked it up too bad,” he said, looking back at the fields.

They drank in silence, lost in their own thoughts. Shane’s relaxation, in a way, made it easier for William to relax too, reaching that good spot where his mind slowed enough to appreciate the aches in his shoulders and back. Not just as flairs of his chronic pain, but as signs he’d gotten a lot of work done that day.

Shane tossed his third beer and reached for a fourth. It was an improvement on the stilted way he’d drank with him at the dock over the weekend, and William risked probing some more. He wanted to know his new farmhand. If today was any indication on how well they worked together, they’d be spending a lot of time around one another. Maybe they had more in common than he’d initially thought.

“So what are you doing with yourself outside of the daily money grind?” he asked.

Shane shrugged. “Don’t do shit worth noting.”

“C’mon, Daniels. What kind of shit ain’t worth noting? What are you doing at home, just fucking watching paint dry all day?”

Shane rubbed a hand on his eyebrow. "I hang out with my goddaughter. I piss off on my console. I get wasted. It's a full fucking life and you should be jealous.”

William crossed an arm over his chest, resting the fingers inside the elbow of his beer hand. "Sounds like a rollercoaster. You know what? I think I am jealous. No one I know would let me raise their kid. That's a pretty deep fucking gift, man."

He knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say.

Shane's back stiffened and he held himself as though he’d been punched. His fingers tightened over the glass bottle, whites showing against the stark half-moon of dirt under his nails. He lifted the beer and drained it, then chucked it with William's empties.

The clatter of glass cracked across the silence that had fallen between them.

"Look,” he said, punctuating the word by snapping off the top of his next drink. “I shouldn't be raising a kid either. Those fucking lunatics that handed her over to me should be shot."

William watched Shane’s lips lock on the bottle, like it held the magic potion to deal with this problem of life. He retrieved another beer to match him, and sat back down on the steps, leaving only three or four inches of space between them.

"Life is fucking wild, man. Never thought I’d be here either.” He nudged Shane. “Look at me.” He waved a hand over himself in the most sarcastic manner possible. "Boss man William Bauer. Farmer of Farms. Drinker of beers."

Shane stared at him for an indiscernible moment.

“The fuck is with the Farmer Bill shit?” he asked. “Nobody's going around saying Bartender Gus. Grocer Pierre. Suicidal fucking Stockboy Shane.”

The laugh burst out of William and he leaned back. "It's that goddamned Willie, man! That fisherman who lives on the docks?" He shook his head. "Gus said, ‘Oh we can't call you Will. We already got a Willie.’" William waved a hand, then shrugged. "So here I am. Fucking Bill."

Shane shook his head at the stupidity of the nickname, and William reached for a fifth beer. After popping the top with his bottle opener, he caught Shane’s eye.

"And don't you go off and kill yourself before like, winter, at least. I've got to get some work done around here."

Shane looked away from the gaze, into the distant fields.

“Winter’s probably better,” he grunted at last. “Shit won't stink as bad when they find you."

At least the motherfucker has a plan.

"Joking," Shane added flatly.

It was a tone that told William not only was he not joking, but he’d probably had the thought multiple times.

William nodded seriously. "Yeah. Sure you are,” he said, then paused. “I tried to before. I don't recommend it. People get all wigged out ‘n shit."

He held his hand out, turning it towards Shane so he could view the underside of the arm. It was wrapped with a barbed wire tattoo, the spokes creating an almost three-dimensional illusion that he was bleeding out around the little digs. Each metallic twist had been carefully placed to cover the scars from his copious and reckless use of heroin four years ago.

"Hard to see, but you can feel 'em,” William said. “Go ahead."

Shane looked at the arm, hesitant. Slowly he lifted his hand and ran one callused thumb over the first barb, along the most prominent bulge of scar tissue.

His fingers were cool from holding the beer, and when he stroked over the braille map of marks William’s heart began to race. He held his breath while Shane touched the skin, and watched his face. It was gentle in a way one wouldn’t expect when first looking at him. There was empathy there, and solidarity in his caress. He lingered longer on some scars than others, following his own fingers, as lost in the touch as William.

Then, realizing what he’d been doing, he drew his hand back sharp.

Silence dropped.

“I almost did too,” Shane said at last, quietly. “Never that far though. Too chickenshit.”

William’s hair fell over the side of his face and he left it there, a curtain to half-shield himself.

It was a raw confession. He was sure Shane rarely spoke so casually with anyone about the time he’d considered checking out. William let his eyes drop to his arm, to the places he’d soaked with ink.

"I took almost 100 mg of heroin one night, after being out for two weeks. My tolerance had dropped. I knew the risks, but I’d gotten a big score. I remember mixing it and thinking, ‘No one gives a fuck.’" He let his arm drop, and took a drink of beer. "I was a fuckwit."

Shane paused. "How long you into that shit?"

The question hit William hard. It wasn’t a response he was used to getting when he told people about his stupid near-death attempt. Shane didn’t say ‘Well of course they cared’ or ‘You know it’s never that bad, man’ or even ‘It gets better!’ Not that those things weren’t true, but no—Shane cut right to the heart of the issue.

How long were you on the H.

"Too fucking long,” William said. “And not long enough."

Shane nodded as if he understood.

William had never hidden his past. The motto was Head On. But as he closed his fist, he felt weirdly…vulnerable. He crossed the barbed arm against his chest and leaned forward, eyes on the sky.

What was he doing? He and the guy were supposed to work together, and here he was, unloading his closet of dirty fucking laundry like Shane was the new dry cleaner.

Fix your face Bauer, he told himself. Reel it back in.

"Been clean over four years," William said. He shook his beer slightly. "Substitution helps."

Shane turned his bottle, watching it spin for a long time before speaking.

“Got sober once too,” he said, then shrugged. “But beer ain’t heroin.”

Sober? Huh.

So his poison was booze. Fair enough. A weakness for a weakness.

William tapped his beer against Shane's. "To Sobriety."

They drank. The sun was setting, shadows falling across the porch. The colors of summer evening were rich and welcoming. Shane stretched his legs out, his knees falling languidly open.

William was struck with a lightning hot bolt of desire.

It was so fast he bit the inside of his cheek to hold it in. He drank in the sight of the man beside him. When he’d first looked at Shane in the bar, he hadn’t thought he was particularly good looking, what with his red-flushed face, sunken eyes, and hunched shoulders. And he’d been so closed off, uninterested in speaking. Normally that would’ve killed any spark of interest before William could think twice about it. Yet now he let his control slip for a moment and stared, fixated.

Shane’s shoulders were broad and the old grid ball t-shirt pulled as he rested. William could picture his hands over those shoulders, Shane’s back flexing and moving if the shirt were stripped away. He’d thought about it briefly today, when they were filling the silo. Thought about what Shane would feel like bent over the tailgate of his aunt’s truck. Thought about the grunts of exertion he’d made when tossing hay bales, and how they would translate to having that ass on the spit of his cock.

He works for you. You sick. Perverted. Fuck.

The thought snapped a leash on his fantasies.

William let his arm brush against Shane’s, and in a soft voice, one full of dark promises said, "Probably you want to head home. Before I do something stupid."

Shane blinked hard. William watched as he came to focus—and as understanding slammed into him like a fucking train.

Immediately he scattered in his limbs.

"Yeah,” he said, scooting down the porch, looking around as if making sure he had everything. “I—I gotta go. I gotta go."

William smiled and closed his eyes at the not-at-all subtle escape, feeling bitter.

Congrats, you dickhead. You scared him.

He pulled himself up, unsteady, the fifth beer in less than an hour starting to hit. "I'll see you in the morning, Daniels,” he drawled, and dropped his empty in the bucket.

Shane slowly stood. He dug in his pocket and clumsily drew out a set of keys. Then he paused, looking back and forth between them and Marnie’s pick-up. His fist closed and he shoved them back in his jeans.

“Leaving the truck here,” he mumbled. “I’ll get it tomorrow.”

He turned and began walking home with his head hung, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

William couldn’t help himself. He licked his lips, watching him go.

With slow, relaxed movements he closed the cooler and gathered the draped towel and shirt. It occurred to him, as he cleared this evidence of their happy hour off the porch, that he might’ve gone too far.

In fact, he might have borked things completely.

William stared down at his arm. His fingers curled into a fist, and when they did he could see the tattoos flex.

He’d button it down, he decided.

He’d be better so the next time, Shane might not run away.

 

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

William had been in plenty of stupid fucking fights when he was growing up. Stupid fights that never ended with more than a fleeting sense of victory or wound-licking failure.

Victory tasted like copper pennies in his nose and throat.

His earliest memory was sitting sullenly on the corner of the tub with his mom kneeling in front of him. She wore a white skirt suit, her hair pulled up in pearl combs. There was an alcohol-soaked cotton ball between manicured nails, her soothing voice whispering, “Words, son, words are better than fists,” as she dabbed a wound he’d gotten over his eye.

Fast-forward to twenty-odd years later. He was the winner of a word fight, and it felt like all he’d accomplished was swallowing a hive full of bees. It buzzed in his stomach as he drank a six pack of his newest brew. It rolled under his skin as he milked the cows, and hauled the weekend milk into the dairy. The bees tingled as he slammed buckets and smashed doors behind him. They were a droning roar in his ears as he collected eggs. When Hellfire bit him he felt their stingers, and he glared at the bird’s beady eyes as she clucked and flapped her wings.

The frustration drove him to grab a chainsaw and load his four-wheeler. From nine to six, William murdered trees.

The hum of the chainsaw drowned out the buzzing in his ears. He sliced branches, splinters flying as he let his weapon of war bite into the wood. Sap and pollen filled the air, coating his hair and beard, covering his shirt to create an itchy layer of wood chips.

No matter how many chops he made, no matter how loud the buzzing in his head, none of it drowned out Shane’s stupid fucking voice.

Just because we’re sitting down with a few beers doesn’t mean we have to bond.

More branches. More Leaves. More sawdust.

Was that all they were doing?

Bonding?

Shane had reached his hand out to touch those scars. William hadn’t asked him to understand the bullshit in his life. And hell, he’d said no, hadn’t he? Scrambling away that day...the panic so clear in his face when William had told him he might do something stupid.

Stupid, like reach for more than any employer had a right to ask of his employee.

Did Shane just want to hang out and drink? Maybe that’s why he’d brought the damn beer—so he didn’t feel guilty about drinking all of William’s. Maybe that’s all William was. All any of this was. A paycheck. Beer. A break away from people.

Nothing real.

His chainsaw slowed and he panted, realizing the shadows were getting long. He leaned back on the ladder, holding it with one hand, then kicked the machine off and threw it to the ground.

In the past the movement might’ve made him sore, but now it sent screaming pain through his spine from the overextension. Shouting, he clung to the ladder.

He took a deep breath in.

Exhaled.

Then, moving like an old goddamned man, he climbed down and looked at the carnage of felled trees.

It hurt to move, but he couldn’t stand there and rot, now could he?

He limped to his four-wheeler. Around him the wind kicked up and he could smell moisture in the air, the clouds starting to darken to a murky gray.

I know you’re not scared, asshole! So what the fuck is it?

What was it, William? What was it that stopped you? Were you afraid?

Did you know that if you pinned him again you’d do something fucking stupid, you hungry psycho?

Shut up.

William missed the bees. They didn’t talk to him about this bullshit.

He looked at the logs. He’d have to get them before the storm hit or they’d rot, and he wouldn’t have time before going to Ma’s tomorrow.

If he went to Ma’s.

Groaning, he rolled and loaded each one into the back of the wagon, stacking the heavy chunks while his spine creaked and throbbed. There was relief in the pain. Worrying about his back distracted him from how Shane had trembled, practically asking for one more taste of violence.

He weighed his own deferred need as he started the ATV. Just because he’d managed not to throw a punch yesterday, did not mean his head was screwed on tight enough to keep from introducing a new dance step tomorrow. He’d call it the Brunch Room Blitz. The signature move would be smashing the crystal punch bowl into twenty thousand pieces. The papers would write it up as an exclusive event, only offered by registered members of the Fuckwit Society.

The jostling of the four wheeler was agony, but he managed to get the machine parked. It was dark by the time he limped to his house, forced to stop several times to lean on fence posts. The goal was simple: get inside so he didn’t pass out in the yard.

As he neared the porch something crunched under his boot. Shards of broken glass, scattered under a tree. A pang hit him.

With a curse he kicked the pieces to the side. He’d have to get a damn broom out here to clean it up. Later. When his back wasn’t being a twisted piece of shit.

A shame rest and a shower wouldn’t untwist his head.

 


 

Marnie was the one bright light of the Daniels family.

When Shane looked down the line of crap humans littering his family tree, disguised as adults, the difference was stark. For all the headaches she gave him through her cheerful, chatterbox ways—all the moments she could ‘be a fucking pain,’ as he’d so graciously told William—Shane knew Marnie Daniels was good. Truly good. She refused to be dragged down by her blood.

Unlike Shane, who was just as shit as his lineage.

Saturday morning he made an entire pot of coffee and dumped it in a massive thermos, along with a generous helping of whiskey—enough to carry him through the whole morning and afternoon. That was how he survived his weekends.

Usually.

Saturday was different.

It’d started at ten that morning. The coop was cleaned, the horses out grazing in the pasture, and Shane had just started sweeping stalls when Marnie bustled into the stable.

“Shane,” she’d said nervously. “The radar just showed a nasty storm coming in tonight.”

“Got it,” he’d answered, not looking up.

“We need that huge feed order ready for Monday afternoon, and if the hay isn’t off the fields by tonight it’ll be ruined. I tried calling Hunter but he never picks up on the weekend. Could you—would you, please, handle that today?”

Shane could do a lot of chores drunk, but driving the tractor was not one of them. Collecting hay meant cutting himself off now while he barely had a buzz. He’d wanted to say no. Wanted to tell her the storm was not his fucking fault, and he wasn’t about to let it interrupt his day-drinking.

Except that would be biting her head off, just like last night.

He’d grunted in affirmation.

“Thank you,” she’d said softly, then paused to add, “I truly hope you know how much I appreciate all you do.”

After she’d left the stable, Shane stared at the door for a long time.

The large fields were covered in a fluffy layer of pale gold, the cut hay having dried in the sun over the last three days. Shane spent hours gathering it, Marnie’s decrepit old baler hooked up to the tractor, spitting out messy bundles that would have to be tightened and retied before being shipped.

He tried not to think how much it would piss William off, dealing with such a shoddy baler. The Bowery ran like a well-oiled machine. By comparison, the ranch barely chugged along.

Once done, the trailer parked in the storage garage, he’d grabbed gloves, twine, scissors, and his thermos from the stable. The coffee was cold, but it was a fucking waste to dump that much whiskey, and Shane had downed far worse things in his life. He’d spent the next few hours drinking, tightening loose bales, and repacking the ones that had busted open during the drive.

It was late afternoon when the air became damp, and suppertime when the first clouds rolled in.

The wood of the trailer creaked and sighed under Shane’s boots. He cut a line of twine, slipped it around a rectangle of hay, and glanced out the window as he jerked it tight.

The clouds were stormy and grey, creeping over the setting sun.

“Shane?”

Marnie stood in the entrance of the storage barn, fingers on the doorframe. Her auburn hair was extra frizzy, another reminder of the coming rain.

“You skipped dinner last night and lunch today. Please come in for a decent meal? I’ve made a casserole, and Jas helped me bake cookies this afternoon.”

Shane looked down and yanked another cord of twine. “Still got a lot to do.”

“But you’ve been working so hard today…” She sounded nervous and hesitant again.

Asshole. Putting her on edge.

He tied a knot. “Thanks,” he said, in a softer tone. “But I’m good.”

She didn’t leave, and Shane felt her eyes on him as he stacked three more bales to the side. The hair on the back of his neck raised, and he was unsure whether from her gaze, or just the electricity in the stormy air.

“Something else?” he asked, shoving a fourth bale into place.

Another hesitation. “I just—I wanted to make sure you were all right.”

“Yep.” He lifted a fifth bale. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

She took a few steps inside, standing next to the long table that lined one wall of the barn. Her hand brushed over it, dusting off a snowy layer of hay particles that had floated down.

“Your first week on the new job,” she said. “It went well?”

Oh, yeah. I got this great new boss, and decided to impress him by throwing a fucking tantrum on his porch yesterday. It went swell.

“Yup.”

Marnie leaned against the table, crossing her arms and watching him. It wasn’t an angry cross; merely one that said she was settling in for a conversation.

Great.

“Bill must appreciate it,” she continued, “having an employee who already knows so much of the business.”

Shane dropped a bale of hay. “He goes by William,” he said quietly, adjusting it on the stack.

“He does?” It was apparently not what she expected to hear. “You mean to tell me I’ve been calling him wrong all these years?”

“Gus started the Bill thing. He prefers William.”

He ignored the odd feeling that rolled through his stomach at saying William’s name aloud to his aunt. He also ignored the voice that whispered, You’re drunk and saying things you wouldn’t say sober.

“Heavens,” Marnie said. “That’s embarrassing. Well, Farmer William it is then.” Another pause. “But you two get on well? I mean, I know it was a one-off…but considering…”

“That we kicked the crap out of each other?” Shane said, testy. “Yeah, we get on fine. Really made things level and shit, and now we’re best friends.”

“Shane—”

“Marnie, I swear. I work, he’s happy, I leave. End of story.”

“Alright” she said, just as testy, raising her hands in mock surrender. “Excuse me for asking, I won’t make that mistake again. Now tell me—will you come in for supper? Or would that be too intrusive? I can always bring it out here instead. You can eat with the cows, use one of the hay bales as a table. Perhaps this as a fork?”

She grabbed a three-pronged garden tool from a canister, holding it up.

Shane grunted as he yanked another cord tight. “Yeah, right. Use one as a table, and watch the food end up on my lap when it falls the fuck apart.”

He threw the bale on the stack with too much force—and seconds later Marnie followed suit with the tool, chucking it back in its tin. Shane flinched as metal-on-metal rang through the barn.

“Because it’s so simple,” she shot, “to go buy a new baler. I’ll cut a few items off the grocery list next week, shall I? Pick one up with the saved pennies?”

She crossed her arms again, anger and hurt in her tearful eyes.

Shane paused with the bale he’d just stacked, leaning into it with his weight against his forearms.

You. Fucking. Jackass.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

For a moment nothing but damp silence hung in the air. It was darker than when Marnie had come in, the sky now blanketed in grey clouds.

“Yes, well, me too,” she whispered. “Because it’s either the horses or a baler this year, and I’ll give you one guess which of those the ranch can survive without.”

He lifted his head. Even in his partially drunken state, this caught Shane off guard. William had been surprised to learn Marnie was downsizing her herd, but Shane knew losing the cows would be nothing compared to the horses.

She once told him she’d lived and breathed them as a girl. That she’d checked out stacks of horse books and equestrian magazines from the library, and dreamed how one day she’d grow up to have her own. And with that same quiet, resilient strength that had kept her out of the clutches of hereditary alcoholism, she’d made her dream a reality—moved to the country in her thirties, and spent all her hard-earned savings on a ranch. And horses. Horses she groomed and talked to and loved. Horses that she’d ridden daily, until hurting her back the previous year.

And now if Shane was hearing her properly, she was going to sell them.

It made sense; the cows brought in regular money. The horses existed purely for her company and pleasure. And for Jas, who loved them just as much. Who, like a young Marnie, checked out talking horse stories from the library, and who begged Shane to take her riding every weekend.

He glanced out the window to the pasture, where the four horses still roamed beneath the gathering clouds.

“You have to?” he said quietly.

She rubbed the corner of her eye with a sleeve. Her anger was gone, leaving only a sad, weary woman in front of him. “I’m well aware of how much worse that baler has gotten, Shane,” she said. “I know it won’t last another season.”

Shane knew the underlying message: if they couldn’t fill feed orders, they might as well board up the whole damn ranch.

He nodded.

She wiped her eyes again, gave a sniff, then stood up straighter. “So,” she said, strengthening her voice. “Supper?”

Shane shook his head. “Gotta finish up. I’ll eat later.”

“Yes, I figured.”

There wasn’t any heat in the words. She spoke with resigned understanding; her nephew was no stranger to avoiding meals when he had an excuse. She simply gave the table a few pats of her hand and turned to walk out of the barn.

“You’ll bring the horses in?” she asked, pausing in the doorway.

“Yeah.”

She nodded and left.

Once her figure had grown small in the distance, Shane grabbed his thermos and swigged the rest of the cold coffee and whiskey, shuddering as it went down. The damp air was growing chilly, and goosebumps crept up his arms and under the sleeves of his t-shirt.

His head swam. It swam with the refresher of booze, and the whole conversation that had just happened. It swam with memories of last night—shouting at William, snapping at Marnie, ignoring Jas. It swam with the weight of realizing how much worse Marnie’s finances were than he’d thought, and how if he cut back on drinking, he could set aside enough money to make a difference.

Swam with the knowledge of how un-fucking-likely that was to ever happen.

He jumped off the trailer and dug in one of the toolboxes for the electronic moisture tester. Even though the hay was bone-dry when he’d collected it, this bought him a little more time, and he went bale by bale to get a beeping read on each one.

A few minutes later, thunder rumbled low in the distance.

“Shit,” Shane muttered. He looked out the window, where the grey sky was growing black.

Marnie had mentioned the rain wasn’t to hit till after midnight, but with thunder it was dangerous to leave the horses out any longer. He chucked his tools into the bin on the table, grabbed his thermos, and closed up the barn. The hay was safe and dry till Monday, and Hunter could deal with whatever was left.

The horse round-up went fast. For three of them, at least. Daisy did not like storms. The thunder had spooked her, as Shane knew it would the moment it hit. He managed to snag the harness over her head, and attempted to coax her restless, back-stepping hooves forward.

“C’mon, Daisy Dukes,” he murmured, using Jas’s favorite nickname for the chestnut horse. “Sooner you’re inside, better you’ll feel.”

Daisy jerked her snout as if looking for thunder behind them, her tail giving a few nervous flicks. It took several minutes of stop-and-start before Shane got her into a steady walk at his side.

He patted her neck. “Good girl.”

Once in the stable, the horses tucked safely—and in Daisy’s case, anxiously—into their stalls, Shane paused and looked around, a slow, sinking feeling in his heart. He closed his eyes and wished he could just sleep out here.

Well, you never did finish cleaning this morning.

That was right. The stables had been abandoned when Marnie asked him to collect the hay. And it’d be irresponsible not to finish, wouldn’t it? He just had to brave his family for a quick but necessary stop inside, and then he could easily make the chores stretch until bedtime.

Ignoring Jas a second night in a row was shitty, but he had no fucking energy for anyone right now.

When he entered the kitchen she was at the table, art supplies out, markers and crayons scattered in a rainbow around a paper canvas. She looked up.

“Uncle Shane, are you done with work?” Her voice was hopeful. “Can we play a game tonight?”

“Maybe tomorrow, kid,” he said quietly, washing his hands while his eyes adjusted to the bright room.

She popped a cap off a red marker and sighed, grumpy. “It’s always tomorrow.”

He cut himself a piece of the dinner casserole and shoved it in the microwave, listening to the sound of her furious marker on the page as the timer ticked down. “Where’s Aunt Marnie?”

Jas didn’t look up. “In the shower.”

“Why don’t you see if she wants to play a game?”

“Because,” she said, now uncapping a yellow marker. “She won’t play video games.”

Fair enough. Marnie liked cards. Old Maid, Go Fish, Crazy 8s. It was Shane who played the console with her. Shane who let her trample his ass on the gridball field, and set off remote-control nukes in her favorite shooter.

The microwave beeped and he pulled out his food. “Look,” he said, grabbing a fork that wasn’t a garden tool. “Tomorrow we’ll play something together. Promise.”

He was almost out of the kitchen when he heard her mutter, “It’s always promise.”

Like a papercut—sharp and precise.

Shane forced his mind from the stinging sensation and went to his room. From the back of his closet he dug out a heavy fall jacket. He tucked the half-full bottle from his sock drawer into its zipper liner, then scarfed down the casserole before heading back to the kitchen.

Jas’s art supplies were abandoned. She must’ve gone to her room.

The whiskey sloshed in his pocket as he walked outside. He focused on the sound, imagining moments from now when it would warm his throat and smooth the sting of that papercut.

Selfish dick.

Yeah, well, maybe once he was drunk his brain could tell him something he didn’t already fucking know.

Shane spent his whole evening with the horses. One by one he led them into the spare stall so he could clean, all the while draining shots from the whiskey and trying to keep his mind off anything outside the stable walls. He grew drunker and drunker, until—in the middle of sweeping—he stumbled, at the last second catching himself on the wide broom.

He pressed it into the floor to keep steady, staring down at its rectangular bristles and swaying side to side.

He was a piece of shit, he realized, with sudden profound clarity. He was a piece of shit, wrapped inside of a piece of shit, and topped off with—yep, that was right—another piece of fucking shit.

A clap of thunder hit. Shane jerked up just as Daisy gave a whinny, prancing backward, her eyes shiny and terrified.

He set aside the broom and went over to her.

“Won’t leave you, girl,” he slurred, rubbing one hand under her chin, the other on the side of her nose. “I’ll stay here tonight, if you’re scared.”

And Shane did. Maybe he was a selfish dick to people, but he could at least do right by the horses. He spent the rest of the night speaking soothing and increasingly thick words, sitting on the bench with one of the stable blankets pulled over his legs.

The rain came just after midnight. It pounded hard on the roof, and when Shane leaned his head back against the stall, its rhythm lulled him to sleep.

 


 

William could swear he smelled mud. He thought, for a moment, something crawled and bit him. Something small. And there was pain...so much pain.

Thunder slammed through the house like a bowling ball knocking down pins in an echo chamber.

His eyes opened.

Movies and television shows always made waking from a nightmare look dramatic. Sitting up in bed. Panting like you’d been running a mile rather than laying on your back for hours. William, still with his head on the pillow, tried to remember what he’d been dreaming of. Horrible flashbacks never occurred more than once or twice a year; times like this, he’d only get the vague impression of wetness. Of discomfort. Of heat.

He pushed up on an elbow, rubbing his face, running a hand down his beard. He realized that he’d sweat through his shirt, shorts and sheets.

Feline purring cut through the disorientation. Ingrid, his ungrateful and often recalcitrant cat, was curled in a hot little ball on his lap, her paws kneading through the sheets, sharp claws digging into his thigh in protest of his movement.

He relaxed, the sound of her purr louder than the bees he’d had in his ears. Louder than the half-remembered dream, a dream he already couldn’t fully touch. Louder than the storm that raged outside. He leaned back and closed his eyes, focused on petting the cat, her soft fur anchoring him to the present.

For a half hour he tried to doze, but his sheets had become clammy. Ingrid began to insistently walk up and down the mattress, slamming her shoulders against him, demanding food. William grumbled but got out of bed, stripping himself and, much to Ingrid’s protest, the sheets as well.

“They’re wet,” he told her, tossing the whole sweat-soaked bundle into a basket. “C’mon Ingrid, have some standards here.”

She responded by grooming her inner thigh, one leg up over her head.

William changed clothes, moving stiffly. His back was pounding, and his head kept tempo, pulsing on the downbeat—a regular concert of aches.

Ingrid forgave his bed-making after he poured crunchy cat food into her dish. While she ate, he picked up the white plastic handset he’d inherited from Pops. He dialed his parent’s house number by memory while rubbing through the stiffness of his back, eyes on the dark sky outside. The sun was completely hidden in clouds. A grim haze lingered over the farm, a light, steady rain falling, though thankfully the thunder was soft and distant. The fiercest part of the storm had moved east.

“William?”

“Morning Ma,” he said, watching as Ingrid ate.

“It’s six am,” she said.

“Yup. Wanted to give you a heads up that I’m staying home today.”

She was silent so William waited her out. She expected him to explain, but then again, she was used to disappointment. He won the game of silence-chicken less than thirty seconds later, when she let out a cloud of static against his ear.

“Well for heaven’s sake, why not?”

“It’s raining today. Don’t wanna make the drive in the wet.”

“Your father could come and get you.”

“Ma. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a two hour drive. Look, I’m not coming today but I’ll be back up next week.”

“Are you alright?”

He hesitated. The question was soft. Intent. He didn’t want to lie to her. She had a way of figuring out the blatant falsehoods. Yet what was he going to say?

Sorry Ma, I’m put out that the guy I hired doesn’t want to ‘bond’ with me, even though I’m sure he’s lying to us both. Also, was a moron and threw my back out yesterday. And the peanut on the shit sandwich is that this fucking weather makes me want to sleep for one hundred years. So yeah, not feeling like spending time with you and your posse of petty bitches today. Ta.

“Feel fine,” he said, trying to infuse a smile into his voice. “Just...not up to the drive.”

If sighs were neon signs, the one she gusted out would’ve flashed dissatisfaction.

“Son,” she began, and William’s shoulders tightened at the familiar lecture in her tone.

“Anyway,” he interrupted, his voice sing-song, “gotta go get the milking done. I’ll see you next week. Love you. Bye.”

He hung up.

She rang back immediately. Sliding his finger down, he snapped the ringer off. It was a fantastic feature.

He turned away from the silent phone and went outside to face the rain.

 


 

Shane woke with a cold body, stiff shoulders, and a kink in his neck.

Why was it so cold?

Why was it so hard?

Why wasn’t he on a pillow?

He opened his eyes to see arched rafters high above him.

The fuck…

Groaning, he turned over—and promptly rolled off the bench he’d been sleeping on, landing with a thud on the stable floor.

“Godfucking…”

Clearly you made some genius decisions last night.

Once the shock had passed he pushed himself up, noticing the empty fifth of whiskey on the ground. He rubbed a hand over his face. Ignoring his pounding head, he checked the watch on his inner wrist.

6:42 am.

The horses were at standing rest. It was still dark outside, a steady rain pounding on the roof. Shane closed his eyes, listening to the wet patter. He weighed the risk of going inside for coffee. Marnie milked the cows every day at six, but she was often in and out of the house during that period, and he didn’t particularly care to explain that he’d slept with the horses.

His need for coffee won.

With the empty bottle tucked into his jacket, Shane trudged out of the stable. He was in luck; the light to the cow barn was on, and walking through the rain he saw a silhouette move past one of its windows. Marnie was probably unhooking the cows from the milking machines now. He dropped his bottle in the recycling bin next to the house and went inside, where his luck continued, a pot of coffee already made and waiting in the carafe. He quickly poured himself a mug, went to his room to drop the usual wake-me-up inside, and ducked back out to the coop before anyone saw him.

Much as Shane didn’t love mornings, and much as he’d woken every day for the last five years with a hangover…he had to admit that mornings on the ranch were better than any he’d had in the city. The chicken coop, which started as one of his daily chores, had quickly turned into an escape. It was a short, blissful time each morning that Shane spent with animals who didn’t care how much he drank, or how crappy he treated the people around him.

The chickens only knew he was the guy who gave them food, and they seemed to fucking like him for it.

He stepped into the coop and flipped on the light, met with the bright smell of hay, barn wood, and feathers. The flock of birds immediately strutted toward him, clucking louder, and much as it should’ve grated on Shane’s headache he found it soothing.

Noises helped. The patter of rain, the clucking and shuffling. They massaged away some of the self-loathing thoughts.

The earthy smell was a comfort too. He remembered visiting the ranch in the summer as a boy, when he’d made the trip with his dad in their rusty black truck. The moment they pulled down Marnie’s road, Corey Daniels’ lip would curl and he’d make some snide comment about manure. But Shane had always liked that part of the countryside. They were smells associated with the couple of weeks each summer when he didn’t have to walk on eggshells for once. They were smells of relief; of waking up to breakfast and “Good morning, Shane!” instead of a thwap on the head with a newspaper and a growl of, “You miss the bus and your sorry ass is walking to school, you hear me?”

These days, it was Shane doing the grunting. Shane being the abusive dickhead who made his family walk on eggshells.

Shells created from the same eggs that made him breakfast, no less.

One of the chickens stepped on his boot, knocking into his shin. Charlie. Shane always knew Charlie by the little nick on her red comb, and the way she pushed to the front of the crowd. He bent over, offering his hand, and she nudged into it the way a dog or cat might.

“You just want food,” he said softly, scratching her. “But at least I can’t fuck that up.”

He went to the shelves with the feed, then paused, staring at the bag. Turning back around, he looked at the coop.

It was clean, or at least as clean as it could be first thing in the morning. The birds were healthy, the nesting boxes full of eggs to be collected. The coop was the one thing in his dumb life he’d ever taken pride in, but now, having worked on the farm, Shane realized how homely it looked.

Part of that was unavoidable. William’s coop was newer, the wood fresh and the beams bright. Short of telling Marnie to rebuild with non-existent funds, the shabbiness couldn’t be helped. But there were other things; things he’d not noticed until this week.

Though he’d bought them used from an auction, William’s feeders were clean and uniform. Marnie’s had been collected over the years as her flock grew, and were a ragtag bunch of shapes and sizes. While they didn’t harm the chickens, they didn’t utilize the space well either. Not like William’s, perfectly lining one side of his coop.

It was poorly organized here too. Marnie’s ledgers and logbooks were in a messy pile in a crate, and the tools and cleaning supplies were thrown haphazardly on the shelves in a way that would’ve made William’s eye twitch.

Shane fed the birds. Refreshed the wood shavings on the floor. Grabbed a bunch of egg cartons and clean rags, and went to the nesting boxes. Wiping each egg with a cloth, his focus remained critical. There was space along the back of the coop, he realized. Room for a shelf to run perpendicular to the nesting boxes, so the cartons could be stacked conveniently until the job was done. He could install hooks for the logbooks, and to hang bags for the clean and dirty rags.

He spent two extra hours in the coop that morning, sorting tools, rearranging supplies, stacking crates. He organized everything as much as possible, and thought about his paychecks. 

Being a jerk to Marnie was one thing. Doing nothing to apologize was another.

No, he couldn’t afford a new baler on the spot. He couldn’t yet hand her a check that would turn their fortunes around. But he was going to be making time-and-a-half what he’d made at JojaMart. He’d even questioned the amount, when William first brought it up—but his boss had simply raised a brow, saying “Man’s work? Man’s pay,” and had refused to discuss it further.

Maybe he could ask William to keep an ear out for more auctions. Find Marnie some good deals, stuff that was affordable.

Except you were a jerk to William too. Bet he can’t fucking wait to jump at a chance to help you.

Was there anyone in his life he wasn’t a jerk to?

William, check.

Marnie, check.

Lewis, double check, considering Shane had decided two years ago not to even give him a chance.

Jas, triple check. Because she had the least understanding of why he was such a douche all the time.

Shane went back to the house before noon. He shoveled down some of last night’s casserole, then showered off the overnight filth. Once clean and in fresh clothes he walked to Jas’s room.

The door was open. She was inside, sitting on the floor and playing with her dollhouse, her hair in neat pigtails that Marnie had clearly done.

 Shane rapped his knuckles on the doorframe and she looked up.

“You ready for that game?” he asked.

She gazed at him, skeptical. “Right now?”

He paused. “Only if you ate lunch already.”

“Aunt Marnie made me peanut butter and banana,” she said, lowering her doll.

Of course she did. Because she’s actually a decent thoughtful human being who takes care of the people she loves.

“Then yes,” Shane said. “Right now.”

The dolls were abandoned in an instant as Jas jumped to her feet. Stopping in front of him, she looked up with glowing eyes.

“Last one there’s a loser,” she said, then tagged him.

She tried to race off, cackling, but Shane knew this game and snagged her around the waist at the last second. He lifted her off her feet and tossed her over his shoulder, carrying her to his room like a sack of potatoes while she squealed injustice.

Today he’d make it better at home, and tomorrow he’d make it better on the farm.

 


 

When William had something to focus on, he could ignore the wet. If he had a reason to put one foot in front of the other, it wasn’t different from marching patrol. While staring at eggs and writing numbers down in little boxes, he could ignore the way the damp rubbed him. Hosing down floors and laying out fresh straw staved off flashbacks. When inspecting cows, he wasn’t thinking about the smell of his own fear-sweat, or how the rain drummed on the roof.

The fact was, rainy days happened, and for a farmer they meant good crops and a lower water bill. Focusing on the necessary work got him through the unpleasant haze, and William used every single ounce he had left to get his girls milked, the eggs collected, and all creatures fed sans mental breakdown. When done he went inside and stripped off his wet clothes for a second time that morning, then dug out more beer from his fridge.

Today was a good day to be drunk.

He decided to play a game. Every time his traitorous brain started to remind him of something inappropriate, he drank. Whenever he felt frustrated about said forbidden topic, he drank. When he began to regret his decisions, both in the last few weeks and in the last few months, he drank some more. One by one, he dropped brown bottles into the glass bucket, until he had a little army of dead soldiers. Hour by hour, the tightness in his joints loosened and the focus in his head blurred.

After his last beer he wandered around his empty house, swaying from door to door. He stopped in the guest suite, flicking on the lights and glaring at the beautiful, tastefully decorated space. The double bed had a grey and blue blanket, and the neutral window curtains were tied back to reveal dark skies. He walked in—nearly tripping over the fancy-ass rug his mom had bought to ‘pull the room together’—and snapped them closed.

The bathroom was next, but it was just as impersonal as the guest room; another space he’d let his mother loose in after expanding the house. He returned to the kitchen instead and poured a glass of water, and after shutting off the lights took it into his office where he sank into a chair and tried to work.

His vision was so blurred he slammed the ledger books closed.

Admitting defeat, he stumbled to bed and passed out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

He’d barely closed his eyes when the alarm ripped through him like a knife—his head throbbing in time with the ‘beeep beeep beeep’.

Groaning, he turned it off.

The daily aches were compounded by a hangover. It took twice as long to get ready; twice as long for his body to warm and stretch. He waited while the coffee brewed, and after it was poured stared into his mug as if the dark brew could give him some answers. Only he wasn’t sure of his questions, and one long swallow later, he stepped outside to meet the day.

He froze in place at the sight that greeted him.

Shane was there, picking up the glass he’d smashed on Friday afternoon. He didn’t look up, quietly gathering the broken brown pieces.

Each one felt like a shard pulled out of William’s chest. He couldn’t draw his eyes away as Shane crossed over to the porch, stopped at the empties bucket, and dumped the glass into the bottom. The sound was loud in the still early morning, those little pieces tinkling in the metal pail and ringing like a clarion bell to clear the air between them.

He raised his eyes and William stared back.

I’m sorry.

There was no more blatant way Shane could have said it.

William felt the tightness un-knot in his chest with the silent apology. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out the good gloves he usually used, and tossed them over.

Forgiven.

Shane caught them, as if by accepting them he was also accepting the forgiveness. William’s neck and shoulders relaxed.

“I’ll get the south barn,” he said. “You can start at the coops.”

Shane nodded and silently headed out.

William went to the milking barns. When he stepped inside, he turned on the radio and let country music play into the silence.

 


 

It was a few hours later when the attack hit.

William had been pushing fertilizer in a wheelbarrow, mind on the melon patches. A reading taken on the soil that morning showed that the nutrient level was low. When he walked under a tree, heavy with rain from the night before, the birds in the branches launched themselves into the air, shaking the leaves so hard a burst of water fell right over his head.

It was so sudden, the rustle of the tree, the surprise of the wetness, the shock of the cold.

He lost his grip on the wheelbarrow, jerking his head up and staring into the empty branches, for a moment—just the shortest of moments—seeing those hateful Gotoro faces as they dropped…

Nothing.

Because nothing was there.

William’s heart raced.

His shirt was soaked, the cloying moisture choking him. As if splashed with acid, he ripped it off, and trembling despite the warmth of the summer morning, flung it into the tree.

It should have been worse yesterday, with the constant rain, the thunder and lightning. Today was sunny. But the sudden surprise was too much like that day.

Sucking in air, vainly attempting to ground himself, he looked up.

Tree.

Not jungle tree. Just a regular tree.

Pull it together. You are losing your shit over a bit of water.

He hauled the wheelbarrow up and shoved it ruthlessly towards his goal. If he just kept working, he’d be fine.

And he did keep working, mixing soil, checking the plants. After several hours of hot sun to dry up any residual moisture, William knew he was back on saner ground. It was almost lunch time, and—fertilizer supply exhausted—he turned back to the house, needing to clean up and get dry clothes.

He was at the porch before he saw, folded neatly on the top step, the grey t-shirt he’d flung on the ground.

William stared at it, then glanced at the east side where Shane was working the morning’s dairy haul. He couldn’t see him, just hear the sound of the pasteurizing machine as Shane monitored the milk’s process from raw to regulation.

Swallowing, he looked back down at the square of fabric.

What was this fucker’s deal? He was a scared rabbit if you so much as winked at him. Yet picking up the glass…folding his shirts…how the fuck was William supposed to ignore this attraction if he was going to be so fucking sweet and thoughtful all the time?

He snatched the shirt up and went inside.

He’s not playing fair, William thought darkly as he dumped it into a hamper. He pulled a fresh one out and put it on. I’m trying to make things freaking professional, but if he keeps acting this way…

What way? Like a decent fucking person?

Shut up.

He glared at himself in the mirror.

“You will control your fucking feelings, Bauer,” he growled, pointing a finger. “He’s your employee. You owe him a level of goddamned space.”

The bastard in the mirror didn’t really seem to be listening, but he’d done his best.

He went out to the dairy barn where Shane was working, and tapped on the doorframe.

"Lunch."

Shane glanced up. “Almost finished.”

Wary, William waited. Was he going to say something about the shirt? Was he going to ask why the fuck William had spazzed out like a crazy person?

Instead Shane turned back to cleaning the hoses, his eyes locked on the task like it was the only important thing in the world.

William returned to the house…leaving the door open.

The open door was more than a lunch invite. It was a brick on the foundation of trust. He had, unwittingly, shown a slice of his crazy, and Shane had responded with that same discretion he'd demonstrated after their first fight. Maybe, much as Shane said he hadn't wanted to bond, he at least understood.

William built sandwiches, opened a bag of chips, and laid the plates out. Just as he was sitting down, Shane appeared in the doorway.

He hesitated. After what felt like an uncomfortably long time, he finally stepped inside.

William dug into his sandwich so he wouldn’t unconsciously reveal the relief on his face. He’d been worried Shane was going to just grab his lunch and go eat on the porch. Even now, as Shane sat beside him, the thought of that rejection made the food in his mouth go down like chalk. It was too easy to mess this up. Too easy to move too fast towards, God forbid, friendship.

Just as he was debating whether to break the silence, Shane spoke.

"I do this thing sometimes, where I'm a jackass,” he said, and took a bite.

William looked up. He regarded him a moment then shrugged, shoving over the bag of chips.

"It's whatever man. Off day."

Shane accepted, sprinkling a few chips on his plate. He set the bag aside after and picked one of them up, but didn’t eat it. “Hey, so…” He flipped the chip over in his fingers, inspecting it. “You, um. You doing okay?”

William paused mid-bite.

He thought through his options. Settling for the course of least resistance, he relaxed, smiled, and gave a shrug.

"Of course," he said, taking another bite. "Just another fucking day, right?"

His foot twitched under the table from the lie. It felt as though he’d stuffed the truth into a ball and it was vibrating to get out. He tried to lock it down, but the traitorous limb just bounced harder.

"Look,” said Shane, dropping his eyes back to his plate.  “I can, like…leave you alone today. Go home when the work’s done. You don't have to entertain my sorry ass after."

You can be alone again.

William’s hand snapped out, locking onto Shane’s wrist. He couldn’t handle any more solitude today. He’d met his limit. The shit in his head was too loud when he was alone.

They both froze. Shane stared at the wrist.

His eyes flickered up but William couldn’t meet them, too startled and shaken by his act of desperation. Because, despite his intentions, grabbing Shane was the exact opposite of giving him space.

William released him, each finger peeling off with a surge of willpower.

What was he thinking? It was so stupid, to reach like that. A fucking crazy-ass move. Yet, just as he was sure Shane was going to get up from the table and back away slowly, he reached into the hoodie he’d draped over his chair. From inside he pulled out a small bottle, and placed it next to William’s plate.

"Dunno if you like whiskey,” he said quietly, “but the beer wasn't such a hot idea last time.”

William looked at the bottle, then at Shane. He slid out from the table and crossed to his cabinet to retrieve two crystal-cut rock glasses, which made a heavy, solid thump as they were set down. The bottle squeaked as the lid was twisted off, and two shots of amber relief settled in the elegant cups. William tapped their glasses together.

He swallowed it whole. Shane did the same.

Leaning back in his chair, William watched the man across from him.

This was Shane’s appeal. Simple actions. Simple solutions.

He held up the glass, regarding it. "Mom bought me these. Said I needed something with class in my man cave.” He put it down, and revived by the burn of whiskey, reached forward to finish his sandwich. "Like your mom buying you glasses makes something classy."

“I guess." Shane shrugged. "I mean, you can tell your mom she has good taste or whatever. That shit makes ‘em happy."

You make me happy, William thought, as Shane went back to eating.

He knew he was staring and reluctantly pulled his gaze away. They could pretend as though nothing big had happened. As if Shane hadn’t seen William’s desperation. As if he hadn’t, in his way, reached right back.

"Yeah,” William murmured, eyes locked on the plate. “Happy.”

The silence that settled was companionable. As if nothing between them had changed.

Even though William knew, everything had.

 

Chapter Text

Ever since Shane brought out his liquor at lunch two days ago, he and William had switched up their afternoon routine. Instead of beer, they sat down with a few carefully poured shots. It was something he’d always pictured for lawyers, stock brokers, or other white collars schmucks—people who didn’t allow themselves the pleasure of drinking straight from the neck of a bottle. Yet here he sat with his farmer boss, in a low wooden chair that had unspokenly become his, sipping whiskey neat from a rock glass.

Even stranger was not drinking it alone. Whiskey was, in Shane’s eyes, meant to be a lonely drink. Not something you casually split after work.

Your boss, he reminded himself firmly, staring down into the amber liquid. Not your friend.

Because everyone drank with their boss. If he squinted, it could’ve been Morris in that deck chair. Or Phillip, from the Zuzu store. The one that used to berate employees for a crooked name tag, and gave instructions to Shane as if he was mentally slow and hard of hearing.  

Right.

During those porch drinks, Shane looked at William and tried to picture the guy who had grabbed his wrist in that moment of unexplained terror. Who’d been so startled by a bit of water, he’d flung away his wet shirt as if it were a snake. It was really damn difficult. William was at ease after work. He drank slowly. He’d tell Shane something that happened in the fields, dragging tattooed fingers through his hair, laughing loud.

Solid. Steady. Miles away from whatever had shaken him under that tree the other morning.

Not that it was any of Shane’s business.

Wednesday started off as usual; the milking, the coop, the normal routine. Except when Shane emerged from the storage barn, wiping his hands on his jeans, William called him over to the parked truck.

“Going out for delivery this week,” he said when Shane got close, nodding at the crates of blueberries lining a nearby fence. He opened his tailgate. “Help me load ‘em up.”

Shane climbed on the back of the pick-up, sliding and stacking crates as William handed them over. For a moment they existed in that silent, rhythmic stride that sank into place when working side by side. Then Shane saw it: a cloud of dust billowing over the gravel road, and the little silver car responsible for kicking it up.

Whomever was behind the wheel honked several times as they zipped up the drive.

“Shiiiiiit,” groaned William.

The vehicle parked near the house, and Shane’s mouth went dry when the engine cut.

Does he get real estate agents out here?

The woman inside held a compact, expertly applying lipstick in the little mirror. When finished she snapped it shut and dropped it in her bag. The door opened. A dark blue pump stepped out, making a neat hole next to the car.

The lady who emerged was in her middle years. Her creamy red lipstick was a bright contrast to her blue dress and shoes, and the white pearls resting on her collarbone. She pushed sunglasses on top of her head, looking around the farm with approval. At seeing William she broke into a big smile.

“Well thank goodness, you’re actually alive out here! After you didn’t answer your phone this morning, I was worried.”

William gave a frustrated sigh, dropping his crate of berries on the tailgate. He crossed over to the woman, giving her a peck on the cheek. “Mother. What a surprise.”

Shane froze with the crate he’d just picked up.

Well, shit.

She accepted the kiss graciously. Then—

“Who is that?”

Of course it couldn’t be a real estate agent. No, it was someone he’d actually have to meet, to once again demonstrate how much he sucked at social niceties.

Heart racing, he adjusted his final crate on the stack. He briefly recalled what William had said on the porch last Friday, before the fight. Something about his mom throwing brunches, being on charity committees, and forcing fruity drinks on you. It’d been difficult to picture at the time, but now Shane had no trouble at all. She was the kind of person you looked at and thought: society.

Yet despite how obviously related William and his mother were, seeing them now side-by-side—the same blonde hair, same complexion—Shane struggled to wrap his mind around the fact that this refined little bird of a woman had given birth to his big tattooed boss.

William rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s my new hire, Shane. Mother, you can’t just—”

“Hello!” she said enthusiastically, waving.

William groaned. “Ma. Maaaaa. Stop. He’s busy.”

“Oh nonsense, I want to meet him. It’s about time you got some help around here.”

Shane bit his lip. He knew he ought to get off the truck and go introduce himself, rather than stand around like an idiot, but he wasn’t sure he could. He was too aware of his own body. He was going to trip getting down. He was going to make a damn fool of himself.

“Daniels,” said William, pinching the bridge of his nose. “C’mere a minute.”

“Daniels?” his mother repeated, smacking his shoulder. “Goodness William, you’re not a soldier anymore.”

Shane was miraculously able to climb down without mishap. He walked over, palms sweaty.

William rolled his eyes. His expression was aggravated, yet tolerant of the tiny woman next to him. “Daniels, this is Ma. Ma? This is Shane Daniels. Now will you stop—”

“Shane! Angie Bauer. So good to meet you! Could you help me with something?” She shot a reproving glance at William. “Since my son isn’t offering to assist his mother.”

Shane blinked. “Oh, uh. Yeah.” He rubbed his neck. “S-sure.”

“Excellent. Clearly you have manners.”

She turned toward her car, and Shane turned to William.

I am so sorry, William mouthed.

Shane glared at him.

Angie popped open her trunk, grabbed a box, and walked over to shove it into her son’s hands. “You skipped Sunday, Will. It’s rude.”

He groaned, marching toward the house as Angie returned to sort through more boxes in the trunk.

“Um,” Shane said, hating how dry the word came out. “It’s nice to meet you too.”

She flashed a brilliant smile. “Has my son been a good boss? I’ll spank him if he’s bad, you know.” She turned her head toward the house. “YOU’RE NOT TOO BIG TO TURN OVER MY KNEE, YOUNG MAN!”

“MA!”

“He’s good,” Shane said, his face roasting pink. “It’s good work.”

She gave an approving nod, stacking a few boxes into his arms. Through the crack in the flaps Shane saw a couple of pies, their delicious warm scent wafting up.

“You, er, made these?” he asked, scrounging for something polite to say.

Angie softened. “I did!” She closed the trunk and crossed to the passenger’s side, pulling out an elegant little clutch. “Would you like to take one home?”

“Oh. I didn’t mean—”

“Because I made enough for an army.” She rolled her eyes toward the house. “That glowering behemoth of a son can’t eat them all anyway. Pick one out, I insist.”

“Okay,” Shane said quietly, not wanting to insult her by refusing. “Thanks.”

Angie walked up the porch, Shane following. She sighed at the can of empty beer bottles, pushing it with her toe. “William! For heaven’s sake, son, I didn’t raise you in a barn.”

“I’m a bachelor, Ma!” he called from inside. “You don’t like the way my house looks, call first.”

She stepped into the kitchen, giving it a once-over. “Have you boys eaten lunch yet?”

William leaned against the fridge. “No. We were working. It’s what happens during the daylight hours.”

“Did you put away—”

“I put away the food.”

She crossed her arms. “Don’t sass me, William Joseph.” Then she nodded at the table. “Shane darling, over there is fine.”

Feeling slow and stupid, Shane set the boxes down. He wondered if Angie knew that he and William had eaten lunch together in the kitchen the last two days. Most people would probably consider it a better break to eat on the porch, but after toiling in the hot sun, eating indoors was refreshing. They’d even talked a bit more yesterday…

Because she can totally tell that your ass sat in his chair, just by looking at it.

William, as if sensing his discomfort, waved a hand. “Daniels, if you wanna go back—”

“What, you’re not going to feed him? Shame on you, Will.”

At that William looked to the ceiling; the look of a man who would rather die here and now.

“I—I’m okay,” Shane stammered. “Not hungry.”

“Shane, you ignore him honey. I’m making lunch,” Angie insisted.

“He said he’s not hungry,” said William.

“Oh, you boys are always hungry!”

William threw up his hands. “Fine. Whatever. Cook. Do your woman thing. I still have to finish what I was working on.”

She put her clutch down and began to pull out pans and utensils.

“C’mon,” William groused, stomping outside, nodding for Shane to follow.

He felt a plunge of relief at the direct order. Not an open-ended introduction, which he was expected to respond to. Not an offer of food that would make him feel greedy to accept, or rude to turn down. Nothing that required improv on his end. No, it was just instruction. Beautiful, soothing instruction, that saved him from standing awkwardly in the kitchen.

As soon as they were out the door Angie called, “AND THROW OUT THOSE BOTTLES!”

William snatched the bucket up.

“Daniels, I’m sorry,” he said in a low voice as they headed down the porch. “She does this. Just sort of pops up like a goddamn pimple.”

Shane wasn’t sorry—he was only relieved to be out of the house. It felt good to be alone, just the two of them. So good he even felt a little bold.

“It’s cool, William Joseph.”

William, opening his recycling bin, froze for a moment. “Ha, ha,” he said sarcastically, tossing the bottles inside.

Shane flushed. Maybe that was too familiar of him.

“Guess I’ll, um. Get back to my shit?”

“Yeah.” William sighed, scrubbing his hand through his hair. “Just…don’t make her wait for you to get to the table, or she’ll be screaming holy hell later. Best way to deal with Ma is to give her what she wants. She won’t stay long. Just enough to embarrass the shit out of me.” He gave Shane a pained look. “Unless you want to knock off early today, and leave me to her tender mercies.”

The offer was tempting, but something stopped Shane from accepting. Maybe it was that look on William’s face—the one that suggested Shane was leaving him to be devoured by rabid wolves.

He shook his head.  “Don’t wanna be rude…she wanted to give me a pie and shit...”

William clapped him on the shoulder. “Dude. Her pie is pretty fucking delicious. I don’t blame you.”

His hand remained there, and Shane glanced nervously at the farmhouse. “So what,” he said, trying to ignore the slight squeeze it gave. “I do this lunch, I get credit or something? Can skip out on the next one?”

“Yeah. Fuck, I’d owe you. She’s always less intense if she has an audience.”

When William finally pulled his arm away, Shane let out a breath. He nodded.

“Okay,” William said. If he noticed the squeeze made Shane uncomfortable, he didn’t let it show. “The battle plan. Do whatever. When she starts hollering, we go wash up. We eat, and I’ll try to get us out of there as soon as possible.”

His face set as if mentally girding his loins, and he started back across the field.

For a moment Shane only stood watching after him, the warmth on his shoulder lingering.

 


 

William worked as if harvesting the tomatoes would somehow make his mom go away. She was always pulling this bullshit, randomly popping up as though she half-lived there. It felt too damn much like being spied on.

When he’d first moved out to Pops’ land, his parents had celebrated his independence by giving him blessed and appreciated silence. It had lasted a whole three months. Then, to ‘surprise’ him, Ma had dropped by—just in time to witness a slap across the eyes by an errant cow tail. In an effort to stop her fussing, William had steered her out of the barn, into the house that Pops had left as a ramshackle and unrenovated shack.

Compared to her cathedral ceilings and shining hardwood floors, Ma told him that he was only a step above homelessness. She’d flown into a lecture over all the work that needed to be done, as if William didn’t fucking know what a giant load he’d taken on.

Still, Bauers didn’t shy away from a challenge. His first winter had been a flurry of visits, measurements, and new decor. At the end of Wintersday, she’d taken pictures of his cozy and rustic house and put them in the family newsletter.

Like all battles engaged in with his mother, annoying her was a game. Starting that spring he’d begun expanding his house, sending her into stitches over each disruption. She’d come in with design ideas and sweep over the place like an interior decorating Napoleon, and then he’d change the territory like Duke Wellington.

Unfortunately he’d run out of room to expand unless he wanted a second floor, and his back injury made any extra stairs an accident waiting to happen. He settled with games on a smaller scale now. Like putting things where his short mother couldn’t reach them, just to see the looks of exasperation on her normally perfectly poised face. Once, when he’d been living at home and she’d been particularly tyrannical, he’d found all her step stools and hidden them in a fit of pique. Her voice had rung through the house to come reach things for her. She’d not found it funny at all.

Just as he was wondering how much she’d disrupted his kitchen today, Angie came outside. She dragged one of his deck chairs over to a metal triangle hung high on the porch, and climbed up to whack her spoon against it.

William glanced over to see Shane put aside his shovel, giving the house the same look one might give the gallows.

He felt inclined to agree.

He turned on the outdoor spigot and began to suds up his hands, scrubbing off dirt. The scent of pot roast, veggies, and Gretchen’s yeast rolls wafted from the house. If Ma would just bring Gretchen, then at least someone else would be around to help punch her persona as Queen Bee. His mom might like to give the illusion of being a domestic goddess, but all the food she’d brought was part of the catered meals that his parents subsided on.

When Shane joined him at the water pump, William put on his ‘social’ goggles, taking stock of his appearance.

Shane’s t-shirt was a low-quality fabric, sweat-stained and with hay dust clinging to it. His dark hair—which hadn’t seen a pair of professional shears since God knew when—stuck to the sides of his head. His face was ruddy, his chin dark from its five o’clock shadow. The cheap jeans he wore every day had darker stains on the knees, where he’d likely been crouching to scrub the chicken coops.

It was, William thought, a normal-ass look for anyone who had real fucking work to do. But his mother was a wild card in what she’d seize on, to hit a fucker with weeks later.

"Take off your shoes or she'll take off your head," William warned, eyes falling to Shane’s feet. His boots were caked in mud and shavings, bird droppings spotting the tops.

"Damn,” Shane muttered, stepping back from the pump. “Some leash she's got.”

He wiped wet fingers against his pants, leaving long, dark streaks on the denim before walking towards the house, not giving William a chance to say anything else.

William glowered after him as he made his way to his fucking doom.

Fine, he thought, scrubbing up to his elbows. Go forth and drown, you ungrateful shit.

While washing he slowed, his eyes drifting to his forearm, up to the stylized angel sitting on a marble pillar wrapped in roses and thorns. The face was hidden by a shining halo, and her hand held a sword dripping with red, each drop forming a flower in the thorny briars.

Poe, his tattoo artist, had created the piece when he was clean, a tribute to his parents who had supported him during recovery.

Did he come off as a momma's boy? Well, shit, what was Shane supposed to think? His mom showed up out of the ether like a damn tornado in pearls, and William just did whatever she asked him to.

Still. She was his mom. She’d gotten a superintendent fired when he was in elementary school, after an unfair ruling had suspended him for two weeks. She’d been on every booster club and PTA possible. She’d stayed up with him the night before boot camp, and probably was the only person he could cry in front of without shame. When in the hellhole that was the Gotoro frontlines, his care packages came like clockwork: warm, dry socks, a plate of his favorite cookies, and letters of news from home in every box.

Let Shane think he was whipped. His mom knew the truth.

William dragged behind him, stopping at the steps to untie his boots. Half to make his mom wait, and half because he wasn’t quite sure what the battle plan was for this visit.

From inside, he heard her asking Shane when he’d been hired.

“Uh.” Shane’s voice hesitated. “Last Monday…”

It’d only been a week and a half, he realized, putting his boots to the side. It felt like longer.

William walked into the kitchen, taking in the scene with a glance. His mom had, somehow, found the stupid, lacy apron she’d bought last year. He thought he’d hidden the damn thing better. Yet it was another game the two of them played—whenever she left after one of her self-imposed improvement sprees, he rearranged her set-ups, hiding things in obnoxious places.

She carried a dish to the table, sporting her costume of domesticity. She’d laid out a huge feast, completely out of proportion to the three people in the house. William leaned down and brushed another kiss over her cheek, skin that had been conditioned with three different types of moisturizers and a dusting of powder. She smelled like Paris, her favorite scent.

He squeezed her shoulder once, tugging on the apron and casting her a raised brow.

You found it.

She gave him a smug smile, subtle and easily missed if someone hadn’t been raised to see that slight turn of her eyes.

Of course I found it, the look said.

Satisfied that the apron had proved her point, she took it off, and sat down at the table.

William glanced at Shane, who was doing his best imitation of a silent robot. He didn’t meet eyes with anyone as he scooped helpings onto his plate, and then began to eat as though the act of consuming the food would give him invisibility. William sat catty-corner to him, following his example. The sooner the food was gone, the sooner his Ma would head home.

He counted to ten in his head while he ate. At three, she tutted.

"When was the last time you had a decent meal, son?"

William swallowed his bite. "Last night. Leftover frozen pizza."

This did not make her smile.

William knew she wanted him to say something. Wanted him to introduce Shane. Wanted to open up the floor to questions. She practically vibrated with the need for him to speak. She moved with deliberate grace, cutting potatoes and taking exact sips of tea as if the ghost of her finishing school teacher were watching, instead of her goading son and his silent farmhand.

William let her twist on the vine.

He’d almost finished his plate when she finally gave a soft cough. Her ankles crossed then uncrossed under the table, the soft soles of her pumps rubbing the tile.

"So," she said. “We missed you Sunday."

Oh no she didn’t…

William paused in the middle of scooping out a fresh helping of garlic potatoes. He felt her laser beam focus, and like any good warrior who sensed a weakness, she pressed.

"I called you back and you didn't pick up, Will."

He sighed, replacing the spoon.

"Yeah, sorry. Was raining. Makes the signal bad out here."

She stiffened, catching the lie. William narrowed his eyes at her, and flicked a glance at Shane, the message loud as he could make it: Not. Here.

She followed his gaze, then as if uncocking a gun, softened her shoulders.

William didn’t trust her retreat. Before she could try another verbal volley of attack he went on the offensive. "What kind of pie did you bring?"

"Apple, blueberry, and peach," she said, frowning.

"Cool.” William stabbed a piece of beef. “Thanks."

He focused on his meal, not his mother. She wasn't fooled, her eyes on him like weights. He knew she was scrutinizing. He felt her assessment on his face while he ate. Were the lines there new? Had he been staying clean? She looked at his fingers, nails, and clothing, then rested on the inside of his arm.

After a moment she pulled her gaze away. Like always, when she thought too hard about what he’d done to himself once upon a time. She glanced around the room, casting for a subject, and he’d just started a new bite of pot roast when she found one.

"I’ve invited Henry this week."

William choked. As he coughed, he saw the cool triumph in her eyes.

"Ah ha! You were avoiding Henry!"

He grabbed his tea, swallowing it down, glaring at her through his sudden asphyxiation tears.

"No, Ma," he managed to wheeze. “No one wants to hear about Henry."

He didn’t need this today. He didn’t need Shane, who’s status in his life was blurred enough, to get a whiff of his mother’s matchmaking.

"Well, I don't see why not. He's a lawyer, you know. Very accomplished."

A headache began to bloom. "Ma…"

"What?!” She made the word over-the-top, then pouted. “You're all alone up here. I worry."

It was a bullshit pout. It was a fucking show. And it wasn’t even for him—it was pure goddamned theatre because she had an audience. And here he’d thought she’d be more discrete if there was a relative stranger about. So this was her game? Ignore me and I’ll make it so painful that you will never do it again?

There was only one way to deal with her stupid fucking games.

Head on.

"I am not going on a blind date with Henry.” William leaned back, and nodded his head towards Shane, who had been glued to his plate during the entire mortifying exchange. "Besides, this is embarrassing. Don't make Daniels sit through your matchmaking."

Shane’s knife scraped his plate with a squeak. His face reddened.

Instead of backing off, she doubled down, focusing on Shane.

"Fine. Shane? You interested in a nice lawyer from Zuzu? Because William is apparently going to throw away opportunities."

"Ma!"

"What?"

William groaned into his hand. Did she also think Shane was gay? Could she sense something else too? That maybe it was not just William’s wishful thinking, but a kernel of truth?

"I'm uh, good, thanks,” Shane mumbled, before taking a hard swallow of iced tea.

No defensiveness. No saying he didn’t like guys. Just that he was good without Henry The Lawyer tossed at him like an out-of-season handbag.

It doesn’t mean anything.

"He's good,” William snapped, irritated at his errant thoughts. “Leave him be."

She lowered her eyes to her plate and with false contriteness said, "My apologies, Shane."

"No need.” Shane gave a small, uncomfortable shrug. As if grasping for a lifeline, he nodded at the food. "This is really good. Thanks."

She paused, caught off guard by the compliment. Probably, William thought, because unlike some of the idiots she liked to surround herself with, Shane’s sincerity was obvious.

Defeated at last, she shoved her chair back from the table. Her heels clicked a frustrated staccato into the kitchen with the empty roll plate.

Was is possible? Was she done?

William glanced sideways at Shane, then turned back to his food and rubbed his forehead. He was almost finished. Soon he could wash the dishes and pack her into the car—

"Cameron asked about you Sunday."

Ice hit his chest. He felt the creeping fingers of that name tighten around his throat.

"Thank goodness his divorce is almost finalized,” Ma said, scraping leftovers into a tupperware. “Poor dear. It's been very hard on him."

That was an understatement. His ex-fiancé had nearly been beaten black and blue by his then-husband Roy.

When William had gone home last Wintersday, Cam had been staying at his parent’s place while the beginnings of his divorce went through. The last few months had been strange between them. It was clear that Cam was looking for a damn rebound, yet William’s feelings about his ex were…complicated.

Could Shane see that Cam’s name was like a damn knife?

William flicked his eyes over, but Shane was looking away.

"Cameron is an old friend of ours, Shane,” Ma continued, opening aluminum foil over the pie tins. “It's so sad when these things don't work out."

William let out a slow breath, packing all that shit back into the damn box his mother kept trying to kick. He smoothed his face, pushed back his plate, and asked the one question that nagged him.

"Did that restraining order go through?"

"I believe so. He's getting most of the estate."

"Good,” he said. Cam deserved it after putting up with Roy’s bullshit. “Good for him."

William glanced over at Shane again. He was clearly uncomfortable, his back hunched as if trying to put space between himself and the table, all without moving his chair.

Ma swept back in, laying out pie; a tiny piece on her plate, versus the huge chunks that she’d cut for both himself and Shane. An idea hit William as she sat down.

"You should introduce Cam to Henry," he said. "Lawyers are good for divorced guys."

Ma cocked her head, thoughtful.

"Huh,” she said. “Maybe you're right." Then she pointed her fork at him. "You know, you don’t call enough, William."

The argument was familiar, the complaint as common as gripes about the weather.

"Sorry,” he said.

She turned to Shane now, as if looking for an ally in her exasperation. "I swear. He just goes off for days and no one can find him! What is a mother supposed to do?"

William ignored her and figured Shane would too. Except apparently not. The fucking Sadsack, who couldn’t do more than grunt most days, finished chewing his bite of pie and bit the inside of his cheek, the hollow visible. He caught William’s eye, saying, “Call your mom, William.”

He said it casually. Mr. Didn’t Want to Bond, except for willingly hanging out and doing shots after work. Mr. Not Going to Let You Catch Me Looking, except William knew he totally did. Mr. It’s All Just Business, except here he was, teasing and sucking up to his mom. And it was starting to bother William, how the small things were making him so drawn to Mr. Never Gonna Happen.

He shivered as Shane looked back down.

Ma beamed, and William resisted the urge to drive his foot into Shane’s chair to knock him over.

"You? You I like," Ma declared. “Bring him with you next time you come home, William."

He and Shane both choked on their pie.

"Boys,” she chided. “Small bites."

William swallowed, eyes watering from near death-by-pie.

"Sure! Sounds great." He raised an evil eyebrow at Shane. "Doesn't it sound just peachy Daniels?"

Shane, the little shit, ignored him.

"This is really good pie,” he said.

Ma was thrilled to have a new ally. "Well good. That's settled." She turned her wrist to the side, the mother-of-pearl in her delicate watch flashing. "I've got bridge tonight or I'd stay longer."

William stood. "Well, thanks for the food, Ma."

“Yeah,” Shane echoed. “Thanks a lot.”

Oh, so now you're on my side.

Ma walked past them to retrieve her purse from the kitchen. She looked dubiously at the food she’d brought him to last the week.

"I could at least—"

“Nope!” William stepped in to cut off that line of thought. “Nope. I'll clean up."

She smiled, and pulled an apple pie out of the box, handing it to Shane. "There you are. I hope to see you again!" She leaned over and, to William’s complete surprise, kissed his cheek.

Shane froze underneath the gesture.

Great Ma, William thought without any amusement. You broke my farmhand.

She headed for the door. Shane remained a statue, holding the pie with the same befuddlement as if someone had handed him a baby.

Ma approved. She had Shane marked as an easy target for the future—of that, he was sure.

"Be good boys!" she said, breezing out.

William followed her through the door. So quietly that he didn't think she could hear, he muttered, “Call before you drop in next time.”

Turning, she raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “What is the point of calling when you don’t answer your phone?” She pressed a farewell kiss to his cheek, and with a hmm of pleasure swanned down the steps.

William stood at the top of the porch and watched her go. When satisfied that she was far enough down the road, he went inside, letting the door swing shut and beelining to the fridge. If anything would drive him to drink, it was his mother and her fucking surprises.

He pulled out two beers, tossing one to Shane without looking. 

"We. Survived.” He cracked the top off on the handle of the fridge. “Thank fuck."

Shane popped the cap with his bare thumb. "And I thought Marnie was bad." He paused with the beer halfway to his mouth, as if rethinking the statement. "Not like—not that your mom's bad or anything. She seems nice..."

He drank to cover up the lie.

"Dude. She's a terror. It's fine.” William leaned a hip against the counter while he drank, regarding the mountain of food she’d left. He let the buzz of carbonation and alcohol settle in his system, and scrubbed his face with his free hand. "I didn't think she'd just appear like that."

“Yeah,” Shane agreed quietly, rolling his neck from side to side.

For one moment, the thoughts William had been suppressing surged up. The way Shane’s shirt clung to him. Four week’s hard labor were already hardening his chest and shoulders. His jeans, cheap as they were, hung looser on his hips, and…that was exactly where he needed to end that particular line of thought.

He looked away, taking a long swallow of beer before beginning to gather his leftovers.

This was all so stupid. It could have been avoided completely.

"Should have just gone Sunday," he muttered, stacking tupperware and crumpling up the tin foil.

Shane sank back down at the table with his beer. "Why'd you ghost on her?"

William froze.

Did he really want to know? Since Friday’s quarrel, William had kept all conversation strictly on work or sports. They’d talked a few times about what needing doing the next day, while unwinding on the porch. But this? It felt dangerously close to bonding.

Yet, as quickly as the offer was extended, Shane pulled it away. "Nevermind. Not my business."

Yup, William decided. Dangerously close to bonding.

“After you finish that, go ahead and start cleaning up the dairy equipment,” he said, letting the subject drop like a hot potato.

Shane hesitated. “You want any help in here?”

“I got this.” William focused on separating out the sides from the main courses.

“Okay.”

Shane shotgunned the final two thirds of his beer before walking out, closing the door softly behind him. A few seconds later there was a hollow bang on the porch, when he dropped his empty bottle into the bucket.

William stared down at the plastic tubs, then let out a breath and opened the fridge.

He rolled his eyes.

His mom had pushed his beers to the back, moved the condiments, and thrown out perfectly good leftovers from last week. He grimly stacked the rest of her meals, and because he couldn’t stand it, rearranged the condiments the way he liked: most frequently used at the front, less common ones in the back.

Why’d you ghost on her? Shane had asked, as if it were a simple question with simple answers.

Because, he thought. I was too busy feeling like a spurned asshole after you threw your goddamned temper tantrum.

Which was part of the truth.

Out of habit, he snapped on the weather channel, letting the forecast of sunny days and high temperatures sooth him as he worked. Stacking plates. Putting trays and serving spoons in the dishwasher. Wiping down surfaces. Once everything was done and the lights turned off, he stared for a moment through the front window, his eyes resting on a tree in the distance.

Pulling what was left of his beer, he put on his boots and went outside—where he saw the bottle that Shane had dropped.

He could still hear the ring of glass as he took the steps down, back to work.