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Riding Lessons

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Awsten eyes the bay mare warily. She snorts in his direction.

“She’s not gonna hurt you,” Otto says, stroking her neck calmly.

Awsten makes an unsure sound in response.

“...Awsten,” Otto says, sounding incredulous, “You’re not afraid of horses, are you?”

“No! No, you ass,” Awsten snaps as Otto starts to laugh. “Don’t laugh at me, I’m not! Just, you know… They can kick really fucking hard, and when we were kids Gracie broke her arm from falling off one, and she had to be in a cast that whole summer.” He tilts his jaw up, trying to look serious.

Otto chuckles. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. Marigold’s real gentle, and I’ll be right here with you. Alright?” He holds Awsten’s gaze, waiting for a response.

Awsten ducks his head, scratching at the back of his neck. “...Alright,” he mutters.

Otto drags the mounting block around to Marigold’s side. “Okay, hop on up,” he says, patting at the horse’s shoulder.

Awsten balks.

“Um. I don’t know if I can.” The saddle is awfully far off the ground.

Otto follows his gaze, then turns back around, looking amused.

“It’ll be okay. Can you trust me?” He holds his hand out.

Awsten swallows. “I trust you,” he says, quietly, and means it. He places his hand in Otto’s.

Otto smiles. He helps Awsten up the mounting block. “Okay, now step into the stirrup and kick your other leg over. I’ll be here to steady you, okay?”

“Okay,” Awsten says, unconsciously holding on tighter. He puts his left foot into the stirrup and takes a deep breath. True to his word, Otto holds him steady when he braces himself on his arm and vaults up. Awsten lands heavily in the saddle with an ungraceful thump.

“Hey! I made it!” he says, and then the next thing he knows Otto is swinging himself up behind him in the saddle, hand on Awsten’s shoulder for purchase. Awsten freezes.

Otto’s chest is pressed tight against his back, hips to the base of his spine, thighs against the backs of Awsten’s thighs. His arms come around Awsten’s waist and he jumps and tries not to startle. But Otto just takes the reins, his arms cradling Awsten and making sure he doesn’t slip off.

“Sorry, the saddle’s a bit of a tight fit. But Marigold’s used to carrying heavier things than we are, so she’ll put up with us for a bit,” Otto’s voice rumbles right in his ear.

Awsten is no longer afraid of this horse. Awsten is currently experiencing a meltdown over something completely different.

“Uh-huh,” he squeaks, then clears his throat frantically.

“So, the way you hold the reins is important,” Otto starts, showing Awsten how the leather loops between his thumb and index finger. “This is how you tell the horse which direction to go, and when to stop. Most riders hold them in one hand, to keep their other free. Are you right-handed?”

“Yeah,” Awsten says, watching Otto’s fingers.

“Alright, then you’d wanna hold ‘em like this, with your left.” He gathers the reins in one hand, positioning them in the center of Marigold’s back, excess falling off to the same side. “But since you’re a beginner,” he continues, switching back to a dual grip, “it might make you more comfortable to hold them with both hands. Here, try putting your hands where mine are.”

Awsten reaches up and grabs the reins where Otto’s hands had been.

“Well, you’ll want your pinky finger out of the grip for better control. And you want to have your hands upright, for better posture,” Otto says, hands coming up to cup Awsten’s. His fingers slide along Awsten’s palms, gently nudging his pinkies off of the leather.

Otto’s hands are rough with calluses where they hold Awsten’s knuckles, bigger and redder than his own. They’re warm, too. Awsten swallows.

“Then you’ll use your hands and fingers to tell the horse which way to go. The movements don’t need to be big. See, like this,” Otto says, moving Awsten’s hands with his own. Awsten’s heart is going a mile a minute in his chest. He wonders if Otto can feel it.

“How do you stop?” he asks, hoping his voice sounds normal.

“You just pull back a little, like this,” Otto tells him, moving the reins slightly towards them. “Then, to tell the horse to move, you squeeze with your legs. Ready?”

Awsten nods. Otto nudges Marigold with his calves. His thighs flex against Awsten’s, and then they’re moving at a walk.

“Whoa!” Awsten exclaims. They’re not going fast, but the sensation of movement is new and he feels like he might sway off.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” Otto reassures him, arms still around his sides. He moves them from the reins to the horn of the saddle, letting Awsten get used to the feel. He gently tugs to the right, and Marigold turns slightly.

“Hey, it worked!” Awsten says, pleased.

“There you go!” Otto encourages from behind him. His breath tickles the back of Awsten’s neck. “Just be careful not to hold the reins too tightly, or she’ll stop; it’s easy to do by accident at first,” he warns.

They walk around in circles like that for a bit, Awsten directing Marigold left and right, as he learns his balance.

“I think I’m getting the hang of it,” he says.

“Right on. I’m gonna tell her to move into a trot, then,” Otto says, and then Marigold is speeding up. Awsten flounders, tensing his legs and moving forward reflexively.

“Don’t lean forward too much; it’ll throw off your balance and make the horse more reactive,” Otto tells him. Awsten makes himself lean backwards until his back is flush against Otto’s chest again. He’s sturdy and solid behind him, reassuring.

“...That’s better,” Otto says, voice suddenly quiet. Awsten grins to himself.

Once Otto is satisfied with Awsten’s balance and posture, he leans them both slightly forward for a moment, bringing his legs up under Awsten’s.

“Hold on real carefully for this. You’re gonna want to rock with her, okay?” he says, and at Awsten’s nod, he kicks Marigold up into a slow canter.

“Whoa! Ahaha!” Awsten yelps, wind in his hair. “Whoaaa!”

“You good?” Otto chuckles, one hand on the saddle and his other arm looping loosely around Awsten’s middle.

“Yeah! Haha, this is crazy,” Awsten laughs, gleeful. Otto laughs too, body rocking in the same motion that Awsten’s is.

Awsten tugs Marigold into a stop at Otto’s signal.

“That was really good,” he says, kicking his leg over and sliding smoothly off. “Let’s give Marigold a break.” He takes the reins, holding Marigold still, and gestures to the saddle. “Grab the horn there and you can dismount the same way you got on,” he instructs.

Awsten swings his leg a little too fast and stumbles when he hits the ground, losing his balance. Before he can tip over, Otto’s arm is around his waist, holding him up and pulling him against his side.

“You alright?” he asks.

“Yeah, thanks,” Awsten gasps. He feels the loss when Otto moves his hand from his back.

“Do you want to give her a sugar cube to say thanks?” Otto asks, ducking his head to rifle through the pack he hung on a fencepost.

“Only if you don’t think she’ll bite me,” Awsten says cautiously.

Otto just laughs. “She won’t. C’mere, hold your hand out flat.” When Awsten stands next to him by the horse’s face and does as instructed, Otto places a sugar cube on his palm. His fingers linger for just an instant, brushing across Awsten’s skin. He gently takes Awsten’s wrist and lifts it to Marigold’s mouth.

Marigold takes the cube with her lips. Awsten giggles at the sensation, and Otto smiles at him. Marigold watches them with her big brown eyes.

“She’s a nice horse,” Awsten says, petting her neck hesitantly.

“She is,” Otto nods, and Awsten looks over at him.

The setting sun catches in his curls, illuminating the plane of his cheek as he glances back at Awsten, a soft look in his eyes. Awsten’s heart skips several beats.

Awsten drops his gaze to his sneakers before he says something he might regret, and Otto clears his throat awkwardly.

“Wanna head back in and see if my mom’s rustled any grub up for dinner? I’m starving,” Otto says. As if on cue, Awsten’s stomach growls loudly, and they both chuckle.

They fall into step together as they walk back to the house. Sunset cools the farm, soothing the fields scorched by the heat of the day. Out by the pond, frogs start to croak.

“Thanks,” he speaks up. Otto looks over, confused. “For teaching me, I mean,” Awsten continues.

Otto just gives him that secret little smile of his. “Don’t mention it. You caught on really quick, I’m impressed. You’ll be riding by yourself in no time.”

Awsten wrinkles his nose. “Yeah, I’d rather you be there if I’m coming within ten feet of a horse. What if I get kicked in the head? Our band career is as good as iced without this Tiger Beat coverboy face of mine,” he says, framing his cheeks with his hands and batting his lashes.

Otto rolls his eyes and baps him on the shoulder, but Awsten knows it’s out of love.

“Race you to the house!” Awsten yells, taking off sprinting before he’s even finished speaking.

“I’m giving you a two second head start so it’s fair,” Otto calls from behind him.

“Okay, fuck you, as if I need—fuck you! No! No!” Awsten hollers as Otto effortlessly overtakes him, sailing across the lawn.

Otto waits for him on the porch, not even having the good grace to taunt him as Awsten flips him the bird and climbs the steps. “Better luck next time. Come inside and help me set the table,” Otto says, holding the door open.

Awsten bumps their shoulders together and follows him in.