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Wayfaring Stranger

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“I am a poor, wayfaring stranger traveling through this world alone,
And there's no sickness, toil or danger in that bright land to which I go.
I'm goin' there to see my mother—
She said she'd meet me when I come.
So, I'm just goin' over Jordan.
I'm just goin' to find my home.”
Wayfaring Stranger, American folk song

“Hyah!” Teddy called, leaning over the dusty saddlehorn. The tempo of Inigo’s canter changed, smoothing out into a long-legged gallop as they passed the tourist trails that dotted the foothills and headed down into the wide basin of the valley. The winding path spread out before him, scattered with wildflowers as it bottomed out into rolling grassland. The shadow of the mountain fell across his shoulders like a cloak—he could feel the moment they broke free of it, sunlight beating against worn plaid.

And with a subtle fanfare that never ceased to amaze Teddy, Montana’s big sky opened wide and blue and impossibly huge above him.

Just look at this place, Mom, Teddy thought, tipping his face up to the endless blue. Beneath him, Inigo moved with a steady, trusting grace, hooves pounding against hard-packed soil. Can you even believe it’s real?

Shadows streamed across the colorful grasslands, cast by the huge white clouds twisting in a steady breeze. Teddy and Inigo were one of those shadows; it felt, Teddy thought, like they were racing the wind itself. Inigo’s black mane lifted in the air, twisting into elegant shapes as they thundered through the valley. Teddy curled his fingers in it, resting his weight on the balls of his feet and leaning so close he could hear the draw of Inigo’s breath, could smell the sweat rising on his withers.

He had an hour before he had to be back to the stables. He had an hour to pay his respects.

“Hyah!” he called, crouching lower as Inigo picked up speed. “Hyah! Hyah!” He would make it or be damned for trying.

Teddy fell easily into the rhythm of Inigo’s gallop, muscles relaxed as they passed through the valley. Birds rose at their approach, startling from the brush with warning trills. A grazing deer lifted its head, then bolted away. Teddy pressed his right knee into Inigo’s flank and felt the way his horse responded to his command, veering left. They passed through the shallow trickle of the mountain’s mighty stream, water rising in a sudden rainbow cascade. It pattered harmlessly against worn boots and the tooled leather of Inigo’s saddle.

A few miles away, nestled safely in the foothills at the base of a single improbable mountain miles away from the main range’s purple-blue ridge, the Lonely Mountain ranch housed dozens of staff and scores of guests. The hands put the horses and cattle through their paces for kids and their indulgent parents. Herding dogs panted in the hot sun; the crack of gunfire and clay pigeons shattering punctuated the hum of ranch life. A dinner bell would be ringing soon, he knew, calling the guests in to the huge, pseudo-rustic lodge, and while they ate, the hands would hurry to stable and feed the mounts tired from a long day of picking their way through winding trails. He could practically feel the angry hornet’s nest buzz of activity at his back; he could feel the creeping awareness of work that needed to be done.

But in the distance, straight as the crow flies, Teddy could see the pile of grey rock that marked his mother’s grave—and for the moment, nothing else mattered.

He pressed his knee against Inigo’s flank, but Inigo was already turning toward the familiar landmark. It rose up against the sky, perched on the crest of a rolling hill. Wild ghost juniper clung to the cracks and crags of the cairn, berries an unexpected burst of blue.

Teddy waited until he could make out the sharp leaves before he wound his fingers through the black mane, his other hand dropping to touch his horses’s neck as he murmured, “Whoa, whoa.” Inigo settled into a canter, then a trot, then a steady walk before coming to a stop a few feet away from where Teddy’s mother had been buried.

“Good boy,” Teddy murmured, rubbing his hand across the dark neck. “Good, good boy.” He untangled his fingers, gripping the saddlehorn as he swung a leg free, and dropped easily to the ground. The juniper bush spilled over the lip of the cairn and covered the grass in a low fog. Its branches crunched under his bootheels as Teddy stepped back, then paused to tug off his hat and toss it onto the horn.

He dragged his fingers through the longish ends of his blond hair, shaking out the drops of sweat beading his brow. No longer pulled by the wind, his plaid shirt clung to his shoulders and the dip of his spine; Christ, but it was a hot one.

Teddy squinted up at the sun, then moved across the blanket of juniper. He reached out to rest a broad, calloused palm against sun-warmed rock.

“Hey, Mom,” he said. His voice sounded small to his own ears; he cleared his throat and tried for a smile, thumb brushing over the pits and crags in an absent caress. There was no headstone here. No bits of wood lashed together to form a cross. His mother hadn’t been that sort of woman—she’d been the kind so full of wanderlust that they’d spent his short life traveling from state to state, crossing the wide belly of America as if their family of two was little more than tumbleweed.

This was the first time in all his life she’d ever settled anywhere.

“I just wanted to come tell you I was thinking of you today,” Teddy murmured, moving into an easy crouch. He leaned against the pile of rock the way he used to curl against her side when he was young. He tipped his head to rest against what he sometimes liked to imagine was a soft, welcoming shoulder. There was no arm to curl around his middle and pull him close, but that was okay—he’d had time to get used to the sting. “It was a good day. We’re expecting some more visitors later; they’ll be in just past dinner, probably. A family from back east. New York, I think. Isn’t that funny? I wonder if they’ve ever been to where we used to live.”

He didn’t remember the little Brooklyn apartment—he’d been too young back then to have more than vague impressions of color and sound—but his mother used to tell him about it. It had been their first home, before the travel bug had caught her. It had been, strangely enough, the only time they’d ever ventured to the coast.

Teddy closed his eyes as a low breeze ruffled his hair, dragging the too-long ends against his brow. A few steps away, Inigo whinnied and stomped his foot. Clouds raced overhead; he could feel their shadows kissing his skin.

All of Montana spread out before him and his mother, gold and green and heart-breakingly beautiful.

He stayed there for as long as he could, watching the grass bob in the breeze, breathing in the scent of crushed juniper and cedar. Finally, aware of time slipping quickly away, Teddy sighed and stood. He dusted himself off and whistled to Inigo; his horse, drifted several yards away in search of better grazeland, lifted his head and whickered.

“I’ve gotta get back before the dinner rush,” Teddy said. He reached down to touch the crest of the rock again, smiling against the wistful burn in his chest. It had been a good day. He needed to remember that. “I’ll come back to visit for longer soon. Once the new folks are settled, I’ll bring you stories of the city, okay?”

He stepped away and began to turn, then, suddenly remembering, swung back with a sheepish grin. “Oh yeah,” he said, digging into his pocket. Teddy pulled out a bit of carved wood, about the length of his thumb and shaped to look like an otter. It was more of an impression than a true likeness—he was getting better, but he was still learning—its tail lopsided and its little paws clutched to a too-bulky chest. “Here. I made this for you.” Teddy crouched and peeled back the ghost juniper, digging into the earth with his thumb before laying the otter into the shallow divot and covering it again. There were trinkets scattered all around the cairn—carved wood and shaped stone and colorful beads hidden in the earth. All the little bits of nonsense his mother had loved when she’d been alive. “Maybe someday it’ll actually look like something. Anyway, there you go.”

He stood again, dusting his hands off against his jeans. His mouth pulled into an unhappy smile. “Happy birthday, Mom.”

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe your butt is a hat!”

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

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

This was going to be hell. Pure hell. He really needed to start re-evaluating his life decisions. He could be back in New York right now, hanging around Cosmic Comics or bickering with his friends over whether Batman or Superman would win in a fight. (Batman, duh. Everyone knew that.) Point was, he could be doing something other than desperately trying to ignore his brothers as they squirmed in their seats and hogged all the best games. Jerks.

“I have to pee,” Andy suddenly said, setting aside his DS. No one paid him any attention. “Mooom, I have to pee.” Nothing. His little brother squirmed against his seatbelt, sneakered feet kicking out. One knocked against Billy’s thigh, and Billy glared out the window, doing his best to ignore him.

Until it happened again.

And again.

And again.

“Oh my God, stop it!” he snapped, rounding on his little brother and punching his shoulder.

“Ow!” Andy snarled, punching back even harder. David leaned over Andy and punched Billy too. His younger brothers fought like rabid wolverines, but the second one of them was threatened, they formed a unified front.

“Hey, stop it,” Billy protested when David hit him again. Andy kicked his thigh—hard!—for good measure, and Billy did his best to curl up against the door and make a smaller target. “Hey. Hey!”

“Andy, David,” Mother said, not looking up from the pamphlet. “Stop harassing your brother.”

Andy made an offended noise. “But he hit me first!” he protested. Then, remembering, “And I’ve got to pee!”

“He’s got to pee real bad,” David confirmed. “Like, super-emergency bad.”

“Super-emergency!”

Billy yanked his hood back into place. “Then you shouldn’t have had that Big Gulp,” he muttered.

“Then you shouldn’t have had a face!” Andy countered before leaning against the tightening band of his seatbelt to whine, “Daaaaad, I have to gooooo.”

David curled his fingers around their mother’s headrest. “Super-bad!” he chimed in. When that didn’t work, he turned to Andy, eyes going wide. “Heeeeey, you still have that Big Gulp cup, right?”

“Huh? Yeah, why? I— Oh!” Andy lit up, then wriggled around searching the floor for the abandoned cup. “Yeah! It’s there!”

Billy tried to kick it away, knee driving into the back of Father’s chair.

“Billy!” Father protested; the car swerved gently across the middle lane and back. “Watch your knees, please.”

“Yeah, Billy,” David sing-songed as Andy strained to grab the cup. “Watch your knees, please.”

Mother still didn’t look up. “Let’s not kick the driver; no one wants to be a statistic.”

“Oh for— Does anyone care that Andy is now hell-bent on peeing into a plastic cup?” Billy cried, exasperated. He wished this was not how family vacations usually went. He wished he could say this was some kind of aberration.

“Remember to aim,” Father said distractedly, but Mother whirled around with a fierce expression that had all three of them freezing in place. “You will not urinate in the rental car, young man,” she snapped…then paused. Sighed. Dropped her head and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Jeff,” Mother said, laughter and annoyed acceptance coloring her words, “pull over. The boys are going into the woods.”

“But we are almost there,” Father protested.

“But I have a Big Gulp,” Andy protested.

“I hope you get eaten by bears,” Billy muttered.

David just grinned. “Your butt is a bear,” he said happily as Mother turned her glare on Father and Father—wisely, Billy supposed—slowed the car and drove off onto the side of the road. He even turned on the hazards as they stopped, though Billy couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. They were already on a back country road heading up through the foothills toward a single mountain standing sentinel over the valley. There wasn’t a soul in sight.

Still, the hazards blinked. Father cut the engine. “Out,” he said.

His brothers tumbled out of the car happily. Billy sighed and wrest open his seatbelt, stumbling out onto the lush grass after them. Wildflowers grew in brilliant, blanketing folds across the rolling hills. Cedar and pine trees stood in silent witness as Andy and David went pinwheeling off into the underbrush, Mother calling for them to watch for snakes.

The sky overhead was a brilliant blue, like something out of a cartoon. A few perfect, fluffy clouds rolled past, and the sun itself seemed tiny as it stretched toward the west.

They called it Big Sky country. Billy guessed he could see why. He shoved his hands into his pockets and walked a little ways down the road, away from his family. The road curved here, riding the crest of a tree-blanketed hill that dropped off into murky forest, but if Billy stood on the edge and craned his neck, he could just make out what he guessed was the beginning of the ranch through a gap in the trees. There was a huge field just visible in the far distance, bracketed by a rustic-looking fence. If he squinted, the blurry movement he saw took the shape of…horses? Yeah, he was pretty sure those were horses.

They grazed lazily. A few loped across the field toward one of the gates where a tiny bright red spot moved. Feeding time? He moved closer, trying to make out the indistinct figures. It was strange; he was so far away, and yet it almost felt as if he was right there amongst the horses. As if they were moving around him, hooves tearing up the grassy field, manes flying.

Wow, he thought, the valley really make things echo like crazy. Even though the horses were far away, he swore he could hear the steady drum of their hooves. The echo grew louder and louder the longer he watched, thudding like his suddenly racing heartbeat, as if… As if they were coming nearer and…

A branch cracked just a few feet away, loud as a gunshot.

Billy turned, startled, just as a huge black horse broke through the nearby pines and came thundering toward him. He stumbled back with a cry, only catching an impression of a dark mane, sudden rearing, flailing hooves, and its rider’s startled blue eyes in an impossibly gorgeous face.

Billy flung up an arm to protect his head, gasping—and God, didn’t it just figure that family vacation really would kill him this time?

“Whoa, whoa,” a low voice cried. The horse snorted, and Billy heard the soft thud of hooves hitting the earth alarmingly close to where he was standing. It was so close, he could feel the muffled reverberations in the packed earth. Then, “Oh my God, are you okay?”

No, he wanted to shout. He was trembling all over, knees actually shaking. Billy slowly dropped his arm and dared to blink open his eyes. He looked up—and up—and up—until he met those blue eyes, just as open and bright as the whole damned Big Sky country in a face that was, oh God yes, really incredibly handsome. The sharp words dried on his tongue; the fear drained away. He could actually feel his brain derail. Holy crap, that was one hot cowboy. “Um,” Billy said stupidly. “I. Yeah. I think…yeah. Hi.”

“I am so sorry,” Hot Cowboy said. “I am so, so unbelievably sorry.”

“No, hey, it’s fine,” Billy quickly assured him. “No harm done. Um. Nice horse.”

Nice horse? He fought the urge to cover his face with his hands.

“What? Oh. Thanks?” Hot Cowboy rested a broad palm on the side of his horse’s neck. The movement made him lean in, leather of his saddle—of his fucking cowboy boots, and holy crap, Billy was 100% done—creaking softly. The wide-brimmed hat shadowed his features, but that only served to make him look more perfect. “But seriously, I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have come racing up the blind like that. I’m just running late and taking a short-cut and it was really stupid.”

Billy shoved his hands into the pockets of his hoodie to hide their spasmodic clenching. “Oh, hey, no, it’s fine, I’m fine, it’s all—” stop spazzing out, weirdo “—uh, anyway. You’re late? So, um, should you…go now?”

Which was the last thing he wanted to say; on a scale of all the things Billy wanted, Hot Cowboy riding off into the sunset was literally just behind his brothers saying something excruciatingly embarrassing and ruining his life forever.

Which, of course, was their cue.

“Hey, check it out!” Andy called. “If I aim my peen just right, I can hit that knot with my whizz!”

Billy went very still. Hot Cowboy’s eyebrows climbed. The black horse whickered, as if laughing.

I’m glad someone finds my sucktastic life funny, Billy thought. “Please ignore him,” he said. “I’m pretty sure gamma radiation scrambled his head when he was a baby; very sad.”

The other boy slowly began to grin, dimples—dimples!—flashing at the corners of his mouth. “Lemme guess,” he said, “I wouldn’t like him when he’s angry? But hey, so, I really do have to go. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Hot Cowboy made Hulk jokes. Hot Cowboy was perfect.

Hot Cowboy was also frowning down at him with real concern now.

“What? Oh. Oh! Yeah, no, I’m fine,” Billy rushed to assure him. He dragged a hand free and gestured to himself—all skinny, awkward limbs and messy dark hair and baggy, oversized clothes. “See? Picture of health.”

“Okay, if you’re sure. Well, it was nice meeting you.” Hot Cowboy seemed reluctant, even as he tangled his fingers in his horse’s mane to go, but Billy refused to let himself think it was because he wanted to stick around and talk to him any longer. He was already teetering on the edge of a massive instant crush and he didn’t even—

“Oh, hey, I didn’t get your,” Billy began, but Hot Cowboy had already called, “Hyah!” and was swiftly moving away. His horse’s dark mane and tail flew behind him like a banner, like…like skywriting, drifting in coils as the wind snapped, and all Billy could do was watch him go, heart pounding in his throat, stomach twisting in secret pleasure because wow, wow. That was…

That was one hot cowboy.

**

He thundered down the road, hooves flinging up clouds of red dust, but the moment the Lonely Mountain crossbars came into view, Teddy had to slow Inigo to a sedate trot. No matter how late he risked running, he couldn’t just go tearing into the main yard. There were kids wandering around.

And, God, he’d already almost run down someone in his idiocy today.

Teddy flushed, trying not to think about the kid’s angular face, his messy snarl of dark hair, his eyes locked eagerly on him. He could have sworn there had been a frisson of…something…there between them in that too-short interaction. He’d certainly felt a stirring of reluctant awareness. The kid had been wearing a red hoodie and baggy jeans, both of which seemed set to swallow him whole. There were teeth marks in the hoodie’s pulls, and a handful of freckles across his nose.

There had also been a shiny, big, expensive-looking SUV parked some distance back, hazards flashing, which was the only cue Teddy needed to know Red Hoodie was way out of his league.

Still. Still. He wished he’d gotten the boy’s name.

But right now, he had more important things to worry about.

He pressed his knee into Inigo’s left flank, leading him through the small gate toward the main stable. He could just make out an anxious figure filling the doorway, hands on her hips and stone-washed jeans somehow spotless despite a full day’s work. Teddy whistled and Inigo picked up speed, chewing up the last few hundred yards until they were pulling up to the stable and Kelly’s usually smiling face was peering up at him with a worried frown.

“Teddy,” she began.

“I know,” he said, swinging a leg over and dropping lightly to the ground. “How bad is it?”

She checked her Mickey Mouse watch, stepping aside as he led Inigo into the cool dim of the stable. “Just eight minutes. If you hurry, you should be fine.”

Teddy nodded thanks and led his horse down the aisle to his stall. The stable was a long, high-pitched building with a T-crossing three-quarters of the way in. A center walkway was lined on either side with roomy stalls; above, two haylofts ran just above the stalls, connected by catwalks every few feet. Dim lights swung from rustic wagon wheel chandeliers—the same chandeliers that decorated the main lodge. It was a working stable, but here at Lonely Mountain, everything was dressed up just a little for show.

“Come on, boy,” Teddy murmured, hand on Inigo’s neck. Other horses slung their heads over the low stall doors to whicker at them as they passed. “Go on, you gossips,” he said with a laugh. “Whinny all you want, but I’m not telling you where I was.” He threw the bolt and slung open the door to Inigo’s stall.

And froze, meeting a pair of dark eyes.

Gael was leaning against the far back corner of the stall, just out of sight. Deliberately out of sight, a part of Teddy whispered. Waiting for just this opportunity. Teddy swallowed as Gael straightened, crossed arms falling to his sides, black brow arched in question. “Are you going to tell me where you were?” he murmured. “Or are you going to make me guess?”

Fuck.

“I’m sorry,” Teddy said immediately, stepping into the stall. Inigo followed, moving between the two boys and nosing for his feeding trough. “I lost track of time.”

“Out for a pleasure ride, I see. I hope you enjoyed it.” Gael moved to rest a palm against Inigo’s flank, and Teddy felt a ridiculous surge of possessiveness he had to quickly tap down. He couldn’t let himself rise to Gael’s bait. “Unfortunately, my dad doesn’t pay you to go haring off God knows where whenever you want and shirk your duties.”

You know exactly where I was, Teddy wanted to snap, but he bit the inside of his mouth. It would only be worse if he let himself lose his temper; he knew that. By now, he knew that deep down to his blood and bones. “I’m eight minutes late,” Teddy said, fighting to keep his voice even. “I’ll make it up tomorrow.”

“Twenty,” Gael countered. “And I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. What kind of an example would that be to everyone else?”

He wouldn’t beg. He knew he should—knew that’s what Gael wanted—but Teddy couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not with this kid. Not on this day. Not after everything they’d been through together.

Gael studied his face silently, brows drawn together. His full lips pulled into a frown. “Well?”

“I don’t know what you want me to say.”

That earned a scowl. “Here’s a hint, Altman: not that.” He pulled away, moving toward the stall door. “Go ahead and brush him down, then take him out to the main field for free running. There’s new arrivals set to come tonight, and Father wanted the yard looking lively.”

“The Kaplans,” Teddy agreed. “I’ve been assigned to them.”

Gael paused, then glanced over his shoulder. “Not anymore. You’re off the White family, too.”

He straightened, unable to hide an angry flush. “What?” Inigo whickered and tossed his mane, responding to the near-shout; Teddy reached out immediately to run a hand down the horse’s neck in soothing gesture. “You’re taking me off two gigs because of eight minutes?”

“Twenty minutes. If you don’t like it, take it up with my father.” Gael pulled the stall door closed behind him, triumphant smirk clear on his face—they both knew Teddy would never do that. “Enjoy your downtime, Altman: you had it coming.”

And then he strolled away, hands shoved into his jean pockets, whistling just to get under Teddy’s skin. Alone in the stall with Inigo, Teddy fumed…and quietly despaired. Gael had been just looking for an excuse to yank him off as many gigs as he could, and Teddy had given him a perfect opportunity, practically gift-wrapped and topped with a bow. Jesus fuck.

He should have known this would happen.

“Well?”

Teddy looked up, meeting Kelly’s eyes. She was leaning against the stall door from the outside aisle, arms crossed over the low wood. “I’ve been pulled off two gigs,” he admitted dully. “The Whites and the Kaplans.”

“That son of a biscuit. All because of eight minutes?”

He sighed and began to tug at the straps securing Inigo’s saddle. “Twenty, he said. He’s making an example of me.”

“Oh, twenty my eye! Unless he’s got his watch set to some sort of jerkwad time zone, you were eight minutes late at most. Two gigs; oh gosh, that’s so unfair.”

Teddy grunted in agreement, focusing in on the worn leather, the soft plaid of the saddle blanket. He got a wage no matter what, but the big money—the money he needed if he ever wanted to see his way into college and make something worthwhile out of himself—came from the generous tips left by wealthy guests. He’d been teaching the White girls how to ride; their mother had been so pleased with their progress (and the way they were out of her hair for hours at a time) that Teddy had felt sure he was in for a more than decent tip. A few more of those over the summer and maybe he could even afford to start community college in the fall.

It was something, at least. And now, with two paychecks pulled out from under him, it was looking more and more unlikely.

Kelly sighed. “I’ve got to get up to the big house to welcome the Kaplans,” she said. “But look. I’m not going to let Gael assign anyone new to assist me. As far as I see it, you’re my Number Two, Teds. I’ll find a way to get you back on the gig.”

He looked up. “I don’t want you to get in trouble for me,” he began, but she just waved him off with her trademark huge grin.

“Naw, I’m not afraid of Gael. He doesn’t know where any of my bodies are buried. Which, shit, that was a real insensitive thing to say today; I am so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Teddy said quickly, lifting the saddle off Inigo’s back. “Thanks. I mean it. I…really appreciate it.”

She smiled again, softer this time, and pushed away from the stall door. “You’re a good kid, Teds,” she said, “with one hell of a tough row to hoe. Take it easy tonight and I’ll get you back in the saddle tomorrow, yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said with a small, twisting smile. “Later.”

He watched her go, working to keep the smile in place, but the moment he heard Kelly take the left T-crossing and leave the stable, his shoulders slumped forward. Teddy slung the saddle to rest over the stall door and pressed his forehead against warm, familiar leather. The tears he’d managed to hold back all through the day were threatening now, burning against his lashes as he drew in slow, unsteady breaths.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair.

Life wasn’t fair.

He blew out a breath, then pulled back; Teddy wiped roughly at his eyes with the heel of his palm and forced himself to turn back to Inigo with squared shoulders and a lifted chin. It would all work out. Wasn’t that what his mother always said? No matter how grey the horizon looked, there was always a bend coming down the road.

He just had to keep looking ahead.

**

They pulled up at the Lonely Mountain Ranch half an hour later, bitterly arguing over whether does a bear whizz in the woods was 1) completely nonsensical and 2) appropriate to say in front of mixed company. (Mixed, in his mother’s mind, being anyone not Andy-and-David.) The second the car pulled to a stop in front of the main lodge, Billy flung open his door and went tumbling out. He only just kept himself from slamming the door behind him, fingers corded in the pulls of his hoodie to keep from throttling obnoxious younger brothers—Hot Cowboy was practically a fever dream now.

“Oh, this is lovely,” his mother said, climbing out of the car. Her voice was filled with real pleasure.

Even annoyed as he was, Billy had to admit she was right. The ranch was perfectly framed by the mountain it nestled against; the architecture of the main lodge effortlessly echoed its high peak with a central vaulted roof, exposed wood beams forming simple buttresses. The whole pitched wall was faceted glass—not like stained glass, but more like shards of a broken mirror fit together haphazardly and welded with thick strips of lead. They caught the fading light and reflected them back with coy, winking glimmers.

The lodge itself was massive, left and right flankers made of warm-colored wood. There were honest-to-god hitching posts just outside its main doors, and the gravel road stretched to a huge wooden crossbars with what Billy guessed was the Lonely Mountain sigil. It was like something out of a Wild West movie.

Stretching down the slope of the foothills and further into the valley were groupings of buildings and that wide field Billy had noticed before, filled with wildflowers and horses. Across the vast stretch of the valley, toward the east, the distant ring of mountains gathered together like gossips in the dusk.

It wasn’t a bad place to spend the next few weeks.

The main door swung open and Billy turned, curious. A pretty, dark-haired girl was headed their way, wide grin already breaking across her face. Billy caught an impression of very straight white teeth against dark skin, a cowboy hat tipped back to reveal a curved barbell in her right brow, and a massive ring of keys hooked to her belt, which made her jingle with each step. And then she was bounding up to greet them.

“Howdy!” the girl said. She reached out to grab his father’s hand and shook it enthusiastically, grin never once faltering. “You must be Mr. Kaplan. We’ve got your cabin all set up and waiting for you; why don’t we get you and your—oh gosh!—cute-as-a-button family settled in so you can finish watching the sunset on your new porch? It’s just fantastic today, isn’t it? I’m so glad you made it in time. Can I help you with anything? Aw, hey, these must be your sons!”

His dad cast a quick glance over his shoulder, as if searching for backup. Billy couldn’t blame him; the girl’s enthusiasm was like a falling hammer. “Ah, yes—that’s Andy, and David, and Billy. This is my wife, Rebecca—”

“Howdy, Rebecca! Howdy, guys!” She waved, keys jingling madly when she moved.

“Don’t we need to check in first, ah…?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, ma’am—Kelly! It’s sure a pleasure to meet you,” Kelly added, taking his mother’s hand and shaking it just as broadly. It was like meeting a cartoon character come to life, Billy thought, biting back a grin. Kelly was so bubbling with energy and excitement and…and boundless local color that it almost felt like the punchline to an elaborate joke. “And naw, you don’t have to check in yet—let’s get you guys settled first. We can worry about signing the lines and dotting the t’s after we’ve appreciated just how gorgeous the Montana sky gets at dusk; how does that sound? Is this your luggage?”

She was moving as she spoke, already pulling open the trunk of the rental and hauling out rollerboards.

“Oh, yes, but you don’t have to do that,” his mother began, moving to help.

“It’s no problem!” Kelly assured her. “If we get all hands on deck, we’ll have you set up in no time. Here you go, squirtle,” she added, passing a bag to Andy. “You think your muscles are big enough to handle that?”

Andy scoffed. “My muscles are bigger than Randy Orton’s,” he said, puffing up and lifting his arms to show her. “See? I’m going to be a wrestler someday, and I’m going to kick John Cena’s butt at Wrestlemania, and it’s going to be awesome.”

“That sounds awesome, oh gosh; you’ve gotta tell me all about that.”

Billy slipped in to grab his own bags, grunting at the weight. He hadn’t known what to pack, so in true Kaplan fashion, he’d packed everything. He was pretty sure he was going to bitterly regret that for the next ten minutes or so. Soon, they were all loaded down and struggling away from the main lodge, following a winding dirt path toward one of the distant buildings.

Distant, Billy thought, dragging the reluctant rollerboard behind him, being the operative word.

Kelly kept up a running commentary as they dragged themselves across the sloping field toward the cabin. The sun was sinking lower and lower as they walked, making their shadows into spindly giants that bobbed and swayed across the rolling grassland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was pretty nice, Billy had to admit. Probably not 30-something hours of driving nice, but still. The mountains were a pale grayed lavender, ghosting white at their tips as they thrust up into the clouds. The sky was huge and open, so blue it was almost unreal. He felt a little like Dorothy in that moment where the world bled from black-and-white into full Technicolor: he was still blinking hard and barely believing his eyes.

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

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

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

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

Hot Cowboy.

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

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

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

He flushed and looked down at his feet.

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

“Oh,” Billy said, and a hot curl of anticipation slowly began to uncoil deep in his stomach. “That’s— That’s cool.”

She lightly bumped their shoulders. “Yeah, I know you guys’ll love him; Teddy’s practically a horse whisperer, I swear to gosh. I’ve never seen animals more taken with anyone before. Oh hey, Mrs. Kaplan, look at how purple the sky gets this time of night. Isn’t it wild? Montana’s the prettiest place you’ll ever be, and…”

Kelly continued, bubbly voice fading into the background as Billy watched the other boy across the green fields, the last of the dying sunlight making him gleam golden and perfect and otherworldly. Hot Cowboy was like something out of a movie; he was like something out of a dream.

No, Billy told himself, wetting his lips. His skin felt itchy and too small stretched over his frame, electricity sizzling down his spine. He’d never felt so aware of another person before. Teddy. The cowboy’s name was Teddy.

**

At Lonely Mountain, the hands ate well after the guests had cleared out of the main hall, which meant dinner could be served anywhere from 9 to 11 at night. It was tough for anyone who had to hit the trails early—which, when it boiled down to it, was most of them—but by now it had become so routine that none of them thought to complain anymore. It was just another part of life here. It was the way things had to be.

Ever since Gael’s mother had died, Teddy mused darkly, there were a lot of the way things had to be.

The atmosphere in the mess was subdued; even Kelly was too tired to do more than push around her potatoes and listen to Len spin some yarn about his days back in the Marines. The old cowboy was weathered to the point of patina, face a map of leathery creases and teeth brown as old river rocks. He wasn’t allowed to chew tobacco anywhere near the house, but he was so in the habit that his jaws had to be working on something, so he’d taken up carrying pouches of Big League chewing gum. As a result, he smelled like horseflesh, sweat, and imitation watermelon.

“See, the thing is,” he said, pushing away his empty plate and patting down his shirt pockets for some gum, “there’s a certain kind of quiet the air gets when something’s fixin’ to die. It don’t matter if it’s a man or a horse or some kind of critter—the whole world just goes still, like it’s holding its breath.”

“Bullshit,” Carey snorted, leaning forward on her elbows.

“Languaaaaaaaaaaaage,” Kelly chirped playfully, swatting at her friend. Carey just grinned and flashed both middle fingers. “Oh hey, rude.”

“I’ll show you rude, princess. Why don’t I drag you back to the longhouse by your braids and—”

Trev leaned over and clapped huge, calloused hands over Teddy’s ears. “Ain’t you two got the manners of a tick?” he demanded. “There’s young minds here not fit to listen to your filth.” Teddy tried to squirm away, but Trev just clamped on tight, big fingers practically spanning his whole head; he was grinning, bristling red beard fanning about his chapped lips like a sunburst. “Come on, lookit him—he’s practically having fits, the poor kid.”

“That poor kid is three seconds away from belting you in the crotch, old man,” Carey pointed out.

“No way!” Kelly protested, leaning over the table. She met Teddy’s eyes, brows waggling playfully. “Teddy knows there’s nothing in that crotch but wishful thinking and sawdust; he’ll pop you one in the mouth instead.”

Teddy grabbed the older man’s wrists, caught somewhere between amusement and annoyance as he pried himself free. He was the youngest hand at Lonely Mountain by at least six years, and most of the others liked to take turns taking the piss out on him whenever they got the chance. Half the hall was watching in amusement, kicked back from the worn tables with grins wreathing their faces.

Trev laughed, finally relenting and letting go—but not before he mussed Teddy’s hair, sending it sticking up this way and that. “Listen to the kid growl,” he said, bumping Teddy’s shoulder. “What a fierce one. Like he’s fixin’ to come for my throat or something.”

Teddy dragged his fingers through his hair. “You hear that, Trev?” he demanded, fighting to keep the smile out of his voice.

Trev cocked his head. “I don’t hear nothing.”

Exactly.”

Len cackled. “Silence!” he said, swatting a hand at Teddy. There were bits of Big League chewing gum stuck to his gnarled old fingers. “We’re hearing silence before the kill; looks like someone here’s a gonner.”

Trev clasped his hands playfully over his big barrel chest while Kelly leaned against Carey, grinning. Teddy shook his head, grinning with them—his big, strange, extended family—as he pushed away from the bench and rose to his feet. “On that note, I’m going to turn in. Night, guys.”

There was a chorus of goodnights, and a few friendly calls following him as he bussed his tray, then grabbed his hat from its hook by the door. He slipped it on as he headed outside, the cool Montana night settling around his shoulders. Lights hung every few feet along the trail, even back here where the hands lived. Up along the foothills, those lit paths looked like lines of fireflies weaving up the mountain. Guesthouses were going dark one by one, but the main lodge overlooked them all with a shimmering, almost otherworldly glow.

He tipped his hat to the mountain, then turned and headed down the path toward the longhouse where the hands slept. The air was utterly still, and if there weren’t so many lights overhead, the sky would be a blanket of stars. Teddy tipped his chin up as he walked, thumbs slipping into his beltloops; the smile he’d been wearing for the others slipped away and he sighed as he sought out the bright trio that made up Orion’s belt.

Teddy remembered his mother tugging him up onto the saddle behind her to go see those stars. He’d been small then, scrawny-limbed and short for his age. The horse had barely noticed his extra weight, and his mother had felt so warm and solid in the fragile cage of his arms.

“Hold on tight, Teddy,” she’d murmured, one hand falling over his clasped ones as if to check his grip. “I’m going to show you something wonderful.”

There was a bend in the mountain trail halfway up its face, where the way started to get steep. If you dared to go there at night, when the sky was clear and cracked open before you, the lip of the mountain cut off the horizon until it was almost like the sky went on forever in all directions—like you’d somehow wandered out into the heart of space.

“Can you find me the hunter, Teddy?” his mom had murmured; they were astronauts together, floating in the black. Only the smell of her perfume and the shift of the horse beneath his thighs kept him tethered to the earth. “Find his belt and the rest will come clear.”

Teddy sighed and rubbed at his brow. It was strange how, after all this time, he could still feel her loss so plainly.

When he reached the fork in the path that led to the bunkhouse, Teddy hesitated, then turned right, away from bed. It was getting late, but he wasn’t tired. If anything, there was too much energy thrumming through his blood. After his visit to his mother’s grave, and his confrontation with Gael, and the way all the hands had pushed so hard for false gaiety knowing full well what today was…he just needed some quiet time away from the world. He just needed to escape, if only for a few hours.

He slipped into the stable as quietly as he could. Soft whickers greeted him, but none of the horses startled as he moved down the long aisle to Inigo’s stall. Inigo had his head over the door, body pressed close as if he’d been waiting for Teddy. When Teddy pulled open the gate, his horse nosed his stomach and gently pushed out toward him.

Teddy smiled, one hand rubbing down Inigo’s dark neck. He really shouldn’t have been surprised. “Thanks, boy,” he said, pressing his face into the thick mane. He drew in a steadying breath, filling his lungs with the sweet, familiar scent. Then, fingers tangled in the long hairs, he shut the stall door and led Inigo out into the night. He didn’t need a saddle or reins with this horse; the moment he pulled himself up with one fluid motion, Inigo was moving, heading toward the gate and the open field beyond.

The valley floor dipped toward the horizon as if flinging its arms out to the sky; overhead, away from the lodge lights, the sky was filled with stars.

Teddy tipped his face up, moving with the steady canter of his horse, and gave himself to the night.

**

He’d spent all of dinner subtly checking the room for Teddy.

After they’d all watched the sun go down, Kelly had taken them up to the main lodge again to officially check in and hand over their keys so the rental could be parked out of sight in the lot. Kelly had given them a tour of the main building and promised them a tour of the whole ranch the next morning, after breakfast.

“Will we be going riding tomorrow?” Billy had asked, trying to hide the way his stomach twisted in anxious pleasure at the thought.

His mother had cut in before Kelly could answer. “Not tomorrow, Billy,” she’d said. “We’re going to work our way up to galloping around the mountainside on horseback, I think.”

“It’s a lot different than the subway, that’s for sure,” his father had added.

Which meant there would be no matching them with horses tomorrow, which meant there would be no Teddy, which meant his creepy obsession was starting to get more and more, well, creepy the longer he scoured each corner hoping to run into him anyway.

Just let it go, he’d told himself, trying to enjoy the massive dinner they’d prepared. And, later, God, stop it, as he paused in the main hall and practically twisted his neck looking at everyone in a cowboy hat.

Teddy hadn’t been anywhere, and he was starting to freak himself out with just how much he wanted to see him. Billy had had his share of crushes in the past, but this felt like something new and exciting uncoiling low in his belly. Sitting around the campfire with all the other guests after dinner, watching the flames lick up toward the sky and listening with half an ear as some of the ranch hands told stories, he’d felt restless in his own skin as he fought and failed not to think of blue eyes in a handsome face, the quiet drawl of his voice, that Hulk joke. It just got worse as the evening wore on and they returned to the cabin for bed (the twins sharing despite their “dibs”, giving Billy the small blue room just off the kitchen.)

Now, all those hours later, his pulse was still fluttering at the base of his neck and the darkness felt disquiet; waiting. Outside his windows, the night sky was lit with all the stars he could never see in New York.

It was like they were watching him.

Billy shivered and kicked aside his blankets, sitting up. He was too restless to sleep. He pressed his fingers to his pulse, feeling the hummingbird-quick flutter, eyes locked on that too-big sky just outside his window.

He wet his lips, then slipped out of bed. He snagged his hoodie and shoes and keys to the cabin, tip-toeing through the main room and out onto the porch. The night air was cool but not unpleasantly cold. Across the ranch, only the main lodge and a small handful of other buildings were still bright—the rest of Lonely Mountain stood sentinel in the black.

Billy filled his lungs with clean air as he shoved on his shoes and locked the door behind him. A walk, he figured. He’d just take a walk and maybe everything would settle down inside him.

It was the most he could do, anyway. And besides…besides, God, the night sky was so big and bright overhead.

He hopped down the steps, face tipped up as he let his feet carry him. He didn’t bother paying attention to where he was going—there was no destination. There was no rush to get here or there. Billy felt as if he’d been unmoored, set adrift on a sea of black as he crossed to the gate and clambered over. The horses had been stabled for the night and the sloping hill stretched wide and free before him. Grass bent under his feet and the occasional wind blew, dragging up the ties of his hoodie to form absent shapes in the dim.

Billy kept his hands deep in his pockets as he walked, and the farther away from the cabins he went, the more open and beautiful the land seemed to become. After fifteen minutes, he could have sworn he was alone in the world. There was nothing but him here; a deep, impossible quiet had settled across his shoulders, and he felt—

He felt like doing something incredibly stupid just for the hell of it. He felt one with nature. He felt like a part of the land and sky.

He bit his lower lip against the strange impulse, then laughed and flung his arms wide—why the hell not? There was no one here to hear him. “The hills are aliiiiive,” he shout-sang, spinning in a big circle, laughing at himself; his heart swelled in his chest, and God, it felt cornily enough true. “With the sound of muuusiiicc.”

Not far off in the darkness, a horse whickered, as if laughing. Billy immediately froze; he could feel the heat creeping up his cheeks, mortification swamping the surge of pure joy—and that was before a bemused and already familiar voice added, “Well, don’t let me stop you.”

Shit. Hot Cowboy.

**

There was a long, awkward silence.

“Sorry,” Teddy added, moving up onto his elbow with a sympathetic wince. He’d been sprawled out on the grass, staring up at the night when the kid had come stumbling by. Inigo faded into the darkness, black form only a vague outline, but Teddy could make out the boy’s pale face beneath a snarl of messy hair. “I didn’t mean to stumble into your musical montage.”

Oh my God.”

His lips twitched. “Hey, no, it’s cool. Seriously. Just a few days ago, half the hands caught me singing Let It Go with a trio of tweens. I’m pretty sure one of them got it on his cameraphone. On the scale of lifetime embarrassments, video proof of just how much I was getting into the power of Elsa trumps a little Maria Von Trapp any day.”

The boy covered his face with his hands. He was wearing pajama bottoms and a hoodie, Teddy noticed. Even in the darkness, his outline was familiar.

“We met before,” Teddy added, sitting all the way up. “When I almost ran you down on the road in. Come on, sit. I’m safely on the ground, so I’m pretty sure I won’t trample you.” He watched as the other boy hesitated, then slowly shuffled his way toward where Teddy was sitting. The grass was flattened out where Inigo had been laying less than half an hour before, and Billy nudged aside a little clump of sod with the tip of his Chucks before dropping into a self-conscious sprawl. The wind picked up, blowing loose strands of dark hair into his face, and his eyes were lowered, lashes long and thick.

Neither of them said anything.

Teddy cleared his throat and forced himself to look away. “So,” he said to break the silence.

“…a needle pulling thread. Okay, wait, ignore that,” the boy added quickly, practically squirming where he sat. “You’ve got to think I’m the biggest dork that ever existed.”

“A trio of tweens. Singing. Let It Go. Complete with some—not to be full of myself here—pretty sweet dance moves. All of it? Caught on film to be played at every single Christmas party from now until I die. There are seriously more embarrassing things in the world, and I promise I’ve done half of them.”

The other boy snorted, knees drawing up, arms wrapping around his shins. He rested his cheek against the crest of his knees, eyes on Teddy’s face. The focused, intent look in those dark eyes was enough to make Teddy’s skin prickle with awareness. “Um,” Teddy said.

“It’s nice to meet you from this angle,” the kid said suddenly. “You’re not half so intimidating when you’re not rearing ten or so feet in the air.”

“Crap.” He winced. “Yeah. I really am sorry about that. I’m usually not that reckless, I swear.”

“No, hey, it’s okay. Seriously.” He shrugged a shoulder, one thumb digging into the dirt in a strangely anxious gesture. He dropped his eyes, and the dark fan of his lashes rested against flushed cheeks. “No harm done.”

“Well. Still, anyway, I should have been more careful. I’m Teddy, by the way,” he added.

The kid looked up, wide mouth quirking. “Oh, I know who you are,” he said immediately…then paused. “Shit, that sounded super creepy.”

Teddy laughed. “I dunno about super creepy. I mean, I guess I’ve heard worse.”

“It puts the lotion in the basket?”

He pointed. “See? That would definitely be worse. Who told you, though? I’m pretty sure I was so frazzled from nearly running you down that I forgot to introduce myself. Wait,” he added. “Actually, I bet I can guess. Was it an aggressively friendly girl named Kelly? If so, you must be one of the Kaplans.”

“Billy, yeah.” Billy gave a half-wave. “Hi.”

“Howdy.”

**

Howdy. Like that was something people said outside of movies.

“Yeah,” Billy said, fighting to keep very still. “Um, howdy back at you.” His fingers wanted to twist together nervously—in the laces of his shoes, in the long grass, in the pull of his hoodie. It was so hard to keep still. He could hear Teddy’s horse occasionally huffing a breath and shaking its mane just a few paces away, and each wind whispered like a Greek chorus across the wide open fields. In the distance, the mountains were a deeper shade of black against the horizon.

And he was letting the silence stretch awkwardly again. Crap.

“So,” Billy said, at the same moment Teddy said, “Well.” He glanced over, crooked grin stretching his face, and his heart gave a ridiculous flutter when Teddy grinned back. It was gratifying to know the other boy felt as flatfooted as he did. It felt real, in a way Kelly—as nice as she was—didn’t. Teddy wasn’t putting on an act, at least right now. He was sprawled back on his elbows, face tipped up to the sky, dimples flashing at the corners of his mouth.

He was ridiculously gorgeous, and Billy hated how attracted he was even as he subtly shifted closer.

“You go first,” Billy said, dragging his fingers through his messy hair.

Teddy leaned in, lightly nudging his knee with his shoulder. “Naw,” he said, face tipped toward his. “You go on.”

“…I seriously have nothing to say. I was just nervously trying to fill the silence. No, really—it’s too quiet out here. I’m not used to being able to hear so much nothing.” At Teddy’s soft, inquiring noise, Billy added, “I mean, there’re cars pretty much all the time, just outside my window. People calling to each other, or music drifting from the wall we share with the brownstone next door. It’s pretty cliché to say it, but they don’t call New York the city that never sleeps for nothing. Out here, though, it’s so…still.”

“It’s not that quiet. C’mon, just listen.”

Billy cocked his head but did as he was told. He listened, and… “Yeah, nothing.”

“Yeah?” Teddy sat up, tipping his hat back to look at him. His expression was mock gravity itself. “Don’t worry. After a few weeks, you’ll be able to hear it thrumming through your blood no matter what you do. This place gets under your skin fast; it echoes in your ears like a drumbeat. Don’t make that face,” he added with a laugh, and Billy flushed at being caught out. “I know you think this is some mumbo-jumbo cooked up for the tourists, but I’m serious—there’s a tempo to this place you’ve got to strain to catch, but once you’ve got it? There’s no shaking free. Mom used to say her heart kept time with the Montana song.”

Used to say. He didn’t mean to repeat the words out loud, and Billy couldn’t hide his wince when Teddy ducked his head. “Oh my God, I am so sorry. It’s none of my business, seriously.”

“No,” Teddy said. “No, it’s okay. It’s been a few years.”

“Still, crap. I have ridiculous foot in mouth disease, and I— Anyway. Um. I look forward to it? To being able to hear it, I mean?” That sounded completely lame, so he rested his elbows against his knees and leaned forward, trying to catch the other boy’s eyes. “Maybe you can show me.”

“Yeah. Yeah, maybe. Do you want to start now?”

“…sure.” Billy had a deep-seated suspicion of anything that smacked of mysticism, but he was willing to play along. If he was being honest with himself, he was a lot more than willing. He’d have agreed to just about anything Teddy suggested if it meant being allowed to sit with him for just a little longer. “Okay, so, what do I do?”

“Just listen.”

“Okay.” He folded his hands and fell silent.

Teddy tipped his chin. “Are you listening?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Do you hear that?”

He actually strained, as if that would do any good. “Um. Sorry, no—what am I listening for?”

“It’s very, very quiet,” Teddy assured him. “Barely a whisper, actually. Just a soft, breathless call saying Billy… Billy…the hiilllls are aliiiive, with the sound of—”

Billy squawked in protest and Teddy cracked up, eyes crinkling shut, face open and sweet and so, so very evil. “Oh my God,” Billy muttered, trying not to laugh with him. Teddy had the best laugh—it was so infectious it brought a huge grin to his face. “You set that up.”

“I did not!” he protested. Teddy laid a hand over his heart and fluttered his lashes; Billy just snorted and looked away, flushing again. It was a marvel how easily Teddy could make him do that. “I would never do such a dirty, underhanded thing as that.”

Billy twisted until he was sprawled out across the grass. He felt like his cheeks must have been as red as his hoodie and his lips kept twitching up at the corners. One hand rested on his stomach as he stared up at the sky, fingers curling reflexively against the worn cotton. “I hate you,” Billy muttered, not meaning a word of it.

Teddy moved down to sprawl by his side, close. Almost close enough to touch. Billy could feel his heat in the scant inches that separated them. Stop it, stop it, stop it.

“Naw,” Teddy murmured. Overhead, the sky stretched huge and dark above them, stars winking in a strange, distant canopy. “I don’t reckon you do.”

Reckon. Okay, Wyatt Earp.”

And the incandescent grin Teddy shot him was bright enough to outshine Venus herself.

**

Billy was in love.

No, wait, that was stupid. That was really, really stupid, and also really, really wrong. It was impossible to form attachments to people with that kind of speed. An hour (two? More? It was hard to tell how much time had passed when it all tumbled together in a happy blur) wasn’t long enough to establish real points of commonality, to grapple with key differences, to understand another person down to the bone the way he thought had to be necessary to call something love.

But he was sure feeling something, because his heart went all fluttery and his skin broke out into gooseflesh when Teddy moved easily to his feet, reached down a hand to help him up, and murmured, “C’mon. I’ll walk you to your door.”

Billy reached out to take Teddy’s hand, letting himself be tugged up. The night had gotten chilly and his legs were surprisingly sore from laying out on the cool grass for so long. He tried to hide the wince as he subtly shifted from foot to foot, stretching.

“Thanks for hanging out with me tonight,” Billy said, curling his arms around his waist when Teddy whistled for his horse. Inigo lifted his head and shook out his mane before ambling over to them, idly nosing at Teddy’s stomach before turning to bump against Billy. He grinned and reached out—a little tentative—to brush his fingers over the velvet-soft muzzle. “I had a good time.”

“Thank you,” Teddy countered seriously. He reached out to rest his hand on the crown of Inigo’s head before sliding down in an absent caress. His fingers paused so close to Billy’s that he couldn’t help but shiver, aware. “It was a pretty crummy day, and you made it not quite so bad. I owe you for that.”

He flushed. “That’s me—a one man band of good cheer.” Billy started to pull away, turning toward the distant dark outlines of the cabins, but Teddy caught his sleeve before he got more than a step. He glanced over his shoulder, fingers twitching so close to the other boy’s.

Teddy tipped his head toward Inigo. “When I said I was walking you back,” he murmured, “I didn’t mean on foot. Come on.” He tugged on Billy’s sleeve, drawing him back to his horse’s side.

“…oh God, I don’t know,” Billy said. This close, Inigo suddenly seemed very tall, and there was no saddle or bridle or stirrups, holy crap. “I’ve never even been on a horse before. What if I fall off and die? I’m pretty sure I’d be that kid who fell off and died his first time on a horse.”

Teddy grinned. “You’re not going to die,” he promised. “Come on, I’ll be right there. It’s easy, I swear.”

It was easy for him to say, but Billy was still too dazzled to put up much more of a fight. He relented, flushing hard when Teddy gripped him by the waist (big, strong hands, thumbs pressing into the expanse of skin just above his hipbones, face breathlessly close) and lifted him up onto his horse’s back with barely a flicker of effort.

“Holy crap!” Billy said, feeling himself instantly flush a brilliant red. Oh God, Teddy was strong. Teddy was strong, and Teddy was manhandling him, and he really really shouldn’t like that, but he really really did. He was trembling all over, skin too tight and hot and aching.

“Swing your leg around,” Teddy murmured, hands still on him to keep him braced, and Billy did, blindly obedient. He would have done anything Teddy said in that moment.

Still, the minute he was straddling Inigo properly and Teddy let go, Billy felt another flash of panic. “Oh crap,” he said as Inigo shifted beneath him. “Okay. Okay. Crap. What do I hold on to?” His hands fluttered uselessly in the air.

Teddy laughed and placed a hand on his horse’s flank. Then, in a single easy move, he hoisted himself up, one leg swinging over the dark rump, until he was settled just behind Billy—front flush against his back, warmth surrounding him in a dizzying, incredible way. Billy’s toes curled in his sneakers as muscular arms went around him, Teddy’s fingers tangling in the black mane. His breath was hot against Billy’s cheek, and he could feel the words reverberating in his broad chest as Teddy murmured, “You can hold on to me if you want.” Then, a little louder, “C’mon Inigo: giddyup.”

Inigo immediately shifted into a slow, steady walk. It was bizarre feeling the powerful muscles moving beneath his spread thighs, but really, all Billy could focus on was Teddy. The smell of him, clean and welcoming and indescribable, like hay and sweat and the wide Montana valley itself. The feel of his thighs pressed intimately against Billy’s. His arms, around him. His breath tickling the dark hairs at the nape of his neck.

His stomach was a mass of butterflies, and he was mortifyingly turned on—just a little—coils of heat churning low in his belly as they moved toward the silent mountain.

They didn’t say anything on their way back to the cabins. Billy wasn’t sure he could get his voice to work, and Teddy seemed content to soak in the silence. A new flush of pleasure sparked every time Teddy moved against him, though, and the silence didn’t seem awkward or empty. If anything, it was heavy with some hidden meaning he was dying to unravel. It felt like the super-charged moment in a movie right before the hero and heroine kissed.

God.

God.

He really shouldn’t be thinking like that right now.

They reached Billy’s cabin faster than he could have thought possible, time and distance falling away until they had no meaning. Teddy said, “Whoa,” as they pulled up alongside the porch, and it was easy to reach out and grab the railing, pulling himself off Inigo and over onto the porch’s wide planks. He straightened, hands curled tight around the rail, and looked down to meet Teddy’s eyes.

“Thank you,” Billy said again, breaking the silence all in a rush. “I really… Just. Thank you.”

“Yeah,” Teddy murmured; his voice sounded suspiciously choked with some emotion Billy couldn’t name. “You too. G’night, Billy,” he added, reaching up to tip his hat like a proper cowboy. And then Inigo moved off into the darkness, picking up speed as they passed the cabin and carrying Teddy up the winding path to the stable.

Billy wrapped his arms around his middle and watched him go, heart beating out a mad staccato. They were a dark shape against the brilliant stars—boy and horse one creature—and in that moment, Billy couldn’t think of anything, anyone, he’d wanted more in his life.

There was something sweet about Teddy Altman. Something good. Something warm, and open, and…and hurt inside.

“Good night,” Billy murmured, heart unexpectedly fully, watching with everything he had as the dark shape dwindled, then disappeared against the vast Montana sky.