Soundtrack: Dreaming In Colour, Black Lab; Free for A While, Newcomers Home; To Salt A Scar, Belle & Sebastian; Voodoo, Paul Gross & David Keeley; Wait, Sarah McLachlan; Bobcaygeon, Tragically Hip; Hard Times, Eastmountainsouth; By Way of Sorrow, Cry Cry Cry; Missile, I Am X; Wheat Kings, Tragically Hip; One Day I Walk, k.d. lang; Wide Open, Black Lab; Summer Song, Carbon Leaf; All You People, Seven Nations. And if this were really a CD, your bonus track would be "Ride Forever."

Written for aerye for BrooklineGirl's Midsummer 2006 fic exchange. aerye said, "I would still love to read something slashing one of CKR's (nice!) characters with Alex from GMiBJ." Well, hell, who wouldn't? So AuK emailed Kellie and said, "Hey! What are you doing for the next month?" Then theamusedone rose to the challenge by getting us both copies of PoS and BJ by priority mail; and (as if that wasn't already above and beyond the call of duty) has been a very patient read-through-er.

Crossover: Alex Bresnyachuk/Christy Mahon (Getting Married in Buffalo Jump/Paris or Somewhere). Slash (duh), NC-17 (double duh). Timeline's basically following GMiBJ, since you can never really tell how old CKR's supposed to be at any given time. This takes place, therefore, about five years after the events of GMiBJ.

Wide Open Space

©2006 Kellie Matthews and AuKestrel

Alex is a week late, at least a week behind everyone else. Ilya and Irina had caught the chicken pox and even though he'd been vaccinated, he got it anyway. Who knew vaccinations expired? Three weeks later he's still faintly spotty, but at least the fever's gone and he can function again. So here he is, racing the weather to get the hay baled and the cattle down from the higher pastures. The problem is, all the seasonal workers have already been snapped up by the other farmers and ranchers who are at least a week ahead of him.

On the off chance that someone has already finished up and released his crew, Alex pulls into the parking lot of Beulah's, which serves as a sort of unofficial employment agency this time of year. A quick glance at the benches on either side of the door where the workers usually congregate in the early mornings lowers his spirits. One lone figure is slouched against the arm of the left-hand bench, gimme-cap pulled down over his eyes, duffel bag at his feet. Even from the truck Alex can see he looks underfed. Probably not much stamina.

Still, beggars can't be choosers. He opens the door and swings down to the pavement, resisting the urge to scratch his crotch- the worst of the pox had hit his groin and it still itches like he'd been swarmed by mosquitoes - and then shuts the door again. The fellow on the bench looks up at the sound, squinting and shading his eyes against the sun that was rising behind Alex's back. As Alex approaches, he stands up, his posture tentatively hopeful.

"Looking to hire?"

Alex nods. "Need to get the hay in. Won't be easy, just two of us."

The other man smiles suddenly, an odd little half-wince, half-smile, and shrugs. "I'm stronger than I look. Can't be any harder than planting potatoes."

"Room, board, and twenty-five dollars a day. Three hundred dollar bonus if we get everything done before the weather turns. You had breakfast?"

"I could eat," the other man says, and sticks out his hand. They shake on the deal.

"Alex Bresnyachuk," Alex says, and motions toward the door of the diner.

"Christy Mahon." He picks up his duffel bag and falls into step next to Alex.

After they both order the breakfast special (four eggs, ham, hash-browned potatoes, biscuits and coffee) Alex studies his new employee, noting with some satisfaction that although he's rail thin, his arms are corded with muscle that hasn't come from a gym and his hands are callused, long, knobby fingers scratched and scarred from working. His eyes are bright, blue and fringed with almost womanly lashes and his sun-bleached hair is overlong and tends to flop into his eyes. Alex would've guessed him to be in his early twenties but the crows-feet beginning to fan the corners of his eyes makes him revise his estimate up a little. He reminds Alex a little bit of someone but he can't quite put his finger on who yet.

It'll come to him.

"Just passing through?" he asks, not because he's making conversation but because he knows everyone in town, and fifty miles outside it too. Christy puts sugar in his coffee, three packets, and stirred it before he answers.

"Don't know yet."

Alex nods, accepting the uncertainty. "We're a week behind so I'm looking to work seven days a week. If you go to church you're welcome to use the truck."

"What about you?" Christy asks.

"I'm not a churchgoing man."

"Seven days is fine by me."

Breakfast arrives and is eaten in a companionable silence, broken only by requests for refills on coffee. After fourth cups are drunk and plates cleaned of all but grease, Christy stands and picks up his bag. "I guess we'd best get working."

Alex nods, pleased, and starts out the door, only to hesitate. "You got a car?"

Christy shakes his head. "Crapped out on me in Shelby. That's why I'm late to the dance."

"Put your bag in back, then." Alex jerks a thumb at the truck. "If you need to go into town for anything while you're with us, let me know."

"Us?" Christy asks. "Thought you said just you and me."

"Just us working, but my kids live with me most of the time." He frowns. "Have you ever had chicken pox?"

"Yeah, when I was six. Itched like a sumbitch. I still have scars. I never was much good at self control." Christy studies him for a moment, then grins. "That's why you're running late, isn't it?"

Alex nods ruefully and Christy chuckles. "Put oatmeal in your bathwater, it helps. That's a trick I learned after I cleared a field of poison ivy. How many you got?"

"A hundred and fifty head. Charolais cross. Got to get them down from the summer pasture after we do the haying."

"Actually, I meant kids," Christy says, but then he whistles softly. "Man, a hundred and fifty head, and just you working them?"

"I usually have Bennie to help, but this year he's off to Calgary for university. And my dad's getting too old to lend a hand, and Luke's gone to Toronto." He realized he sounds defensive and shuts up.

"I should've held out for more money," Christy says, then winks. "We'll manage. I've worked cattle before. Sheep too, if you got any. And don't worry about the hay. My dad always said if you raise a lot of hay during the year, you're probably in for a bad winter, or there will be enough to hold over for the next year. But, whenever you got enough hay to hold over, it'll be a bad haymaking year, but the carryover hay will get you through the winter. There's always enough one way or the other."

"Your dad do a lot of ranching?"

"Nope, he raised potatoes. But according to him, he knew everything so you can take his word for it."

Alex finds himself grinning, and shakes his head. "Sounds like your dad and mine are related. Oh, and the answer's three, by the way."

Christy looks at him blankly. "Three?"

"Kids. Bennie's the oldest and he's off to college. The twins are four."

"And that'd be where you got the chicken pox?"

"That'd be where I got the chicken pox," Alex agrees.

"What about your wife?"

Alex clenches the steering wheel, then slowly lets his fingers relax. It's a natural question, after all. "Car accident," he says succinctly. "Drunk driver."

Neither of them says much after that. Alex makes sure to point out the fence at the property boundary, and Christy acknowledges it with a nod. At the house, after he parks and they get out, Christy squints up at the barn and gestures toward it with his duffel.

"'m I bunking there?"

Alex looks at him, startled. "Of course not. You'll have a room in the house, and take your meals with the family." He studies Christy, frowning. "Do many folks ask you to sleep in the barn?"

Christy shrugs. "Lots of people don't have a spare room or a bunkhouse. A barn's not so bad long as you can use a shower somewhere."

"You can use the shower any time you like," Alex says firmly. Even when he'd been a roughneck, no one had expected him to bunk in a barn.

Thinking about roughnecking makes him realize suddenly who it is that Christy reminds him of, and his breath catches. He hasn't thought of Tom Rothberg in a long time. A very long time. Jesus. Tom. It's weird, though, because Christy doesn't remind him of Tom at all personality-wise. Just, they have that same long, wiry body, and the same floppy dirty-blond hair. Christy's better looking though. Tom's square German jaw had always looked a little odd on his narrow face. Christy's face is narrow too, but his jaw's more pointed, more in harmony with the rest of him.

He's really almost... pretty, if you can call a man that. It's obvious that he smiles a lot, because smile lines are starting to groove his cheeks and the corners of eyes that are a blue-hazel mixture and bright with intelligence and curiosity. Alex wonders what he's doing following the harvest. Somehow he strikes him as a man who wants roots, not the rootlessness of seasonal work, although he doesn't know why he thinks that. Not from anything Christy's said so far, anyway. But he does.

Christy twists to look at the horizon, and once again the lean lines of his body and floppy hair make Alex think of Tom Rothberg. He gives himself a mental shake. No point in thinking about Tom. None whatsoever. He nods toward the house and Christy follows without a word, though Alex doesn't miss the quick, puzzled glance toward the barn. He wonders what that was all about.

* * *

Well, he hadn't expected that. But he hadn't expected any of it, from the truck crapping out in Shelby to the combine salesman on his way to points west to Alex Bresnyachuk, widower.

His dad was dead for real this time, stubborn old bastard. Christy still didn't believe it, even when they started shoveling fill dirt into the grave. He thought about throwing in a rock or two but the old man would have just laughed at him.

So Christy headed west, following the harvest, then broke north at Shelby like those rocks were still calling him. His dad left him the farm - well, what else could he do? - but Christy wasn't going to grow spuds, or anything else, not there, not any more. He hadn't done for the past five years, isn't going to now.

He thought about college, for a while, and the old man hadn't said no, but there was more outside than inside, except books, but books could go outside, inside, anywhere. His duffel was heavier than it should have been 'cause he had to cart them around: his rock and mineral guides, a battered copy of Dubliners, an equally battered translation of Wegener. He was working his way backward, but the Dodson library didn't have much that was more recent than 1930 anyway.

Two kids - no, three - and 150 head... when Alex points out the property line, he does some mental arithmetic, figures Alex has maybe 10 times more than his dad's 100-acre spread. He thought the house would look a little more broken down, but it has a fresh coat of paint, a straight roofline, even flowerboxes.

The barn's in even better shape but Christy'd been expecting that, at least after seeing the house. When he asks if he's bunking there, though, Alex looks like he's just stepped on a spider in the house or something. "No," he says, his voice rougher than it has been. "You'll have a room in the house, take your meals with the family."

Christy shrugs, more to put Alex at ease than anything else, but Alex is still frowning. "Do many folks ask you to sleep in the barn?"

What's "many," Christy wants to ask - this is the first time he's followed the harvest since his dad's stroke, and he still isn't even sure why he's doing it this time - but he shrugs again. "Lots of people don't have a spare room or a bunkhouse -" hell, he and his dad had a four room cabin and that only because his mother had insisted on indoor plumbing, "- so a barn's not so bad long as you can use a shower somewhere." Old bucket rigged up outside, in a couple of places, but the cold water felt damn good after putting up the hay or straw.

"You can use the shower any time you like," Alex says firmly, leading Christy to the house. Christy would have said to start with the barn, but Alex seems kind of put out over the whole barn question so Christy just shuts up and follows.

It's a nice house, a real house with a second floor and clapboard outside. Alex points out the twins' room and shows Christy a room on the other side of the hall, at the end, by the bathroom. He apologizes, even, for the room not being enough but it was as much as Christy ever had, more even: a four poster with a quilt on it, a chest of drawers, even a table by the bed with a lamp. No worries about setting the barn on fire here.

Alex shows him the bathroom too: hot and cold knobs are reversed on the tub. Alex says he'd meant to get around to fixing it but never had the time, and Christy just says as long as you know the trick there isn't much point to worrying. That gets a real smile out of Alex and the line between his eyes, there since Christy asked about the barn, smoothes out.

Christy wonders how old Alex is, with a kid in college and two four year olds. He doesn't look much older than Christy but it's hard to tell. Maybe the twins are from a second marriage... Alex must be older - maybe a lot older - than he looks.

"To be honest," Alex says, leading him down the back stairs to the kitchen, stopping to show him Alex's own room on the way, "some of the meals are taken as they come. I thought I'd pack some sandwiches for lunch. My mom usually brings dinner over when she brings the kids home. Hope you like cabbage."

"I like almost anything, even potatoes," and Alex grins, a real grin, better even than the smile. "Want me to make the sandwiches?"

Alex argues a little, but not much, and they have lunch made and packed lickety-split, with a big thermos of lemonade and another of tea too, and then Alex shows him the main barn. "I got the tractor there already," he says, seeing Christy looking over the equipment. "Haul the rake-tedder out with the truck on our way. Weather holds, we could start baling tomorrow."

Christy wants to ask how he got the tractor there himself, but a whinny answers him: should've known, cause horse and cattle go together like geodes and amethysts, and he hasn't rode a horse himself in some years.

"You ride?" Alex asks, frowning again, like he'd read Christy's mind.

"I have," Christy says. "Guess you don't forget."

"You can ride Bennie's horse, she's real well-mannered," Alex says, that frown smoothing away again. "Won't give you any trouble."

On the way out to the fields Christy figures his first estimate was probably a good one. Alex has a lot of hay in grass and he sees cows in the distance that are probably the ones in the summer pasture.

It's pretty clear, too, that Alex has hayed by himself, using the tractor to mow, then following with the rake-tedder on the pickup. He sets Christy to mowing, telling him the rake can be a mite testy. Christy shrugs: it suits him either way. He notices Alex watching him for a while but he pretends not to see and once Alex sees he knows what he's doing, driving clockwise in, he gets in the pickup.

Could be, too, he was just waiting for Christy to get that far ahead of him. Christy hasn't had much experience with that "benefit of the doubt" thing, and Alex has been nice, real nice, so far. Or, hell, maybe Alex is worried about the tractor, but Christy's seen (and driven) worse. At least this one's got a tight clutch.

The field's smooth so even though the mower's narrower than the disc blade kind Christy's used to he gets done faster than he thought, and Alex not far behind him. Alex shows him a creek in some trees at the back of the field and they break for lunch. Alex had packed up a loaf's worth of sandwiches, back into the bag the bread came from, which Christy thought was maybe overkill, but he's hungrier than he knew and between them they finish off all of them.

"Cut the west field this afternoon," Alex says from under his hat. "Maybe get it done before dinner. It's bigger than this one."

Christy just nods, then says "yeah" in case Alex couldn't see him, and watches, a little surprised, while Alex goes to sleep. He's not tired, himself, so he watches the birds around the creek, some fish rising in the shadow of the bank. He remembers after a while that Alex had chicken pox and he wonders if Alex ought to even be working.

Not his concern, after all, and Alex a grown man.

He lets Alex sleep for about an hour, near as he can tell, then kicks his boot gently. Alex wakes up fast but not startled, and when he knocks his hat back, Christy's kind of surprised to see Alex grinning. He thought he might be embarrassed or maybe even mad. He's never worked for someone who took a nap in the middle of haying.

"I needed that," Alex says, stretching and yawning. "Appreciate it."

"Nice break," Christy says, and it was: he's never minded being alone, figured out that he likes it better than being with people, overall, but being with Alex sleeping is just about the same thing.

They finish off the tea, saving the lemonade for later, and Alex leads the way to the "west field." It's got a killer view, cliffs Christy strains to see through the bright sunlight, and his mouth is suddenly watering at the prospect of the rocks there. He knows Alberta's rocks but when they get back to the house he needs to see if there's anything here he ought to be looking for.

This field is bigger and not as smooth: about halfway through Christy hears a crunch and a crack. Alex is out of the pickup, looking worried, almost before Christy gets off the tractor. Christy guesses that Alex's equipment is maybe second hand, or maybe he's just worried about the weather.

"Just a blade," Alex says, sounding relieved, and Christy nods, relieved just because Alex is. He watches, too, while Alex pops off the section and hammers off the broken blade, bolting on another one he got out of the truck in its place. "Used to be," Alex says, tightening the bolt with a grunt, "had to weld 'em on. Picked this up at an auction couple years ago and got my money's worth in time alone."

"Handy," Christy agrees, wondering at the same time if Alex is just tired or always this calm: when the old man's seed cutter threw a disc, he'd blow a gasket, wasting more time and energy stomping around yelling at God and the devil and everyone in between than it would have taken just to fix it.

He drives a little slower the rest of the field but he's surprised when Alex waves him down: the sun's lower in the sky but nowhere near sinking.

"Dinner," Alex says, waving him over.

He barely gets settled in the truck before they're bouncing away across the field. "My mom's taken the kids for the harvest," Alex says after a few minutes, like he's just remembered there's someone else in the cab. "But she brings them over for dinner."

"Can't be late," Christy agrees, wondering still: Alex isn't like any other rancher (or farmer) Christy's ever met.

The driveway's empty and Christy's sure Alex gives a sigh of relief. He offers to wash out the thermoses but Alex shakes his head: "Take a load off, wash up for dinner. We've got time."

So Christy hits the john, then gets his rock and mineral guide out of his duffle and goes back down to the kitchen. The thermoses are draining in the sink but Alex is nowhere to be seen. Christy remembers the horses all at once so he leaves the book on the table and goes out to the barn.

Sure enough, Alex is bringing the horses in. Christy snags one who comes over to check him out - friendlier horses than he's seen before - and Alex grins at him across the barn, nodding at a stall.

There's five horses in all, and Christy watches Alex to see where the feed is. There's a bale of hay by the ladder, broken open, so he distributes a couple flakes to each stall, then helps Alex haul water.

"Gonna put a line in," Alex says, swinging two buckets up. "One of these days. You were hired for the harvest, Christy, not farm chores. But I appreciate it."

"I was hired," Christy says, and he puts all the emphasis he can into the word.

"Well," Alex says after another long pause, "I do appreciate it." And, to Christy's surprise, he holds out his hand. Christy shakes again, unsure: this isn't like the business deal, somehow, but he's not sure what it is exactly.

"Now get inside, take a load off," Alex says sternly, but his eyes are dancing. "We start baling tomorrow you're going to need all that extra energy you got."

Yeah, that's true, been a while since he put hay up, so Christy goes back to the kitchen and sits down with his book. He's lost in it, so lost that a woman's voice calling, "Sasha?" has him jumping like a skinned rabbit, almost knocking the chair over.

Alex's mom, he guesses, although he doesn't see much resemblance, maybe in the eyes. She's quicker to smile than Alex - Sasha? - and she's got an accent: somehow that makes more sense of Alex, now, coming in early to have dinner.

"I'm, uh, Ch-Christy Mahon," he says, wiping his hand on his pants and holding it out. "Alex hired me to help with the harvest."

"Good!" she says, smiling even more broadly, shaking his hand as hard as the old man would have. "This is good! He thinks he can do everything alone, but for some things, you must have help, yes? I am Ludmila Bresnyachuk, and I am happy to welcome you. Are you hungry?"

"Starving," Christy says, and he means it; and this makes her laugh, which makes Christy laugh. "Can I help you with anything?"

"There are cabbage rolls on the front seat," she says, putting her basket on the counter and starting to unload it.

Outside, Alex is covered in what seems to be a tangle of arms and legs and a black-and-white dog. He's laughing, and when he looks across the grass at Christy he has to blink, because Alex... Alex is... beautiful. He looks like a real live movie star, guaranteed to make women sigh with lust and biological clock-ticking, and look at their husbands and boyfriends with discontent.

Alex untangles himself and brings the kids over, one at each hand, the dog frisking around all of them. "My kids," he says, and Christy could have guessed: dark curly hair, big blue eyes "put in with sooty fingers," his mother would have said, the girl in braids, both of them the spitting image of their father. "Irina and Ilya, this is Christy. He's helping bring in the hay."

"Hi," Christy says after a moment, and then he remembers to stick out his hand. The boy (Ilya?) looks at him gravely, then shakes it carefully; the girl (Irina?) hides behind Alex's leg and smiles at him, all dimples. The dog sits next to Alex and watches Christy with interest.

"Sorry," Alex says with another grin. "This is Nellie. She's bored if the kids aren't here so she's helping Mama watch them."

"Uh, hi, Nellie," Christy says, which was apparently the right thing to say, because Irina comes out from behind Alex and flings both arms around the dog's neck, squealing and suddenly talking nonstop. Christy can't understand a word of it and he wonders if it's Russian or whatever Alex is, or if it's just baby talk: he's never been around kids.

"Dinner! Time to wash up!" comes a bellow from behind them. Alex swings the boy up to his shoulder and takes the girl by the hand, and Christy remembers the cabbage rolls.

He sees another basket on the floor so he grabs that too, and Alex's mom takes both from him with another broad smile. "Wash up," she says, and he feels six again.

Irina and Ilya are jostling each other at the sink, giggling, while Alex soaps all their hands at once, then helps Ilya rub his hands together. Irina rubs hers together too, giggling again, and Alex drops a kiss on her head.

Christy suddenly can't stand it: it's so different from his dad, they're so different from him, even with their mom gone, that he turns abruptly and goes back to the kitchen to wash his hands there even though that's something his own mom never held with.

He has no idea what cabbage rolls even are but they smell amazing and when he turns around, Alex's mom has enough food on the table to feed a small army. She's sitting at the foot of the table, looking at the pictures in Christy's book with interest. She doesn't have a place set for herself, and he guesses that she already ate, or will eat later, probably with Alex's dad.

Thudding and thumping and more giggling from the direction of the stairs heralds the arrival of Alex and his kids, Irina being carried this time and Ilya darting into the room ahead of both of them. The dog follows and goes under the table, clearly her accustomed place.

Christy somehow isn't surprised to see Alex take the seat at the head of the table: he imagines Mrs. Bresnyachuk insisted on it, the first time Alex ate dinner in his own house.

He isn't surprised, either, when Mrs. Bresnyachuk makes them say grace. It's in Russian or something, so Christy has no idea what they're saying, but even if it was in English he wouldn't: his father was godless, or so his mother always said: Christy's prayers were said at bedtime, at least until she died, and after that he stopped wanting to tempt God with the idea that he himself might die before he waked.

There's crusty homemade bread, glass upon glass of milk ("from my father's cows," Alex says, and his mother beams proudly), sweet butter, and, on top of the cabbage rolls, a pastry with poppy seed filling for dessert. Christy watches the kids tuck in the food, bemused: not a single complaint about "weird" food, and they even eat the poppy seed filling, which crunches not exactly unpleasantly between his teeth, with gusto.

"Story time," Alex's mom says, wiping their mouths and hands with a cloth. "Get your story from your father, then we go home for baths."

"Little Red Riding Hood," Irina squeals. Christy didn't know voices could get that high and it makes him smile: he bets a bat could hear her.

Alex's mom seems surprised that he helps her clear the table, but not upset; but when he offers to help wash up, she shoos him away just as firmly as she shooed the kids and Alex into the "parlor" for their story time. "Go read your book," she says. "Time enough to work tomorrow. I brought you breakfast. Sasha will want an early start."

Christy isn't sure what to say so he settles for "thank you," which seems to be all that's necessary, and he sits at the table with his book and listens with half an ear to the story in the other room. Alex imitates all the voices; Irina knows Little Red Riding Hood's lines by heart, and even Ilya, who seems to be the quiet one, chimes in when the wolf tries to coax Red Riding Hood nearer to the bed.

Mrs. Bresnyachuk sits down next to him and looks at him expectantly. "You find rocks here?"

"I hope so," Christy says.

"So pretty as those?" she asks, her eyes round; and suddenly Christy sees how Irina resembles her.

He wonders what their mother looked like.

"Yeah, they can be," he says, resolving to find her a "pretty" rock before he leaves.

"You are a scientist?" she asks next, and Christy has to laugh.

"No, I just like rocks," he answers and she smiles too.

"Rocks last a long time," she says after a few minutes. "Like the children of your children."

The kids and dog erupt back into the kitchen and there's happy chaos for a few moments as Alex tickles them to the floor, the dog running in circles and barking happily. Christy expects tears and protests when Mrs. Bresnyachuk says it's time to go. Irina looks sad, almost tearful, but she doesn't argue; Ilya turns his head away, burying his face in his father's shoulder.

"I'll take you to the car," Alex says in Ilya's ear. "I will see you tomorrow. And when the hay is in, we'll go riding."

"I want to go riding!" Irina shouts eagerly; Ilya just lifts his head and hugs his dad tight around the neck.

Christy feels like he's intruding, so he reaches down to pat the dog, who's leaning against his chair, tongue lolling. She doesn't seem to want to leave either but she follows Alex and the kids to the car like she's resigned.

Christy hears the car drive away but Alex doesn't come back in. For a while Christy thinks he might just want to be alone, but when he looks out the window he sees a light on in the barn.

Alex is tossing old hay down from the mow, moving other bales around. When he sees Christy poke his head up through the floor, he looks guilty.

"You were the one who told me to take a load off," Christy says. "And you're just out of the chicken pox."

"Just trying to get organized," Alex says, a grin that seems reluctant on his face.

"Let me organize this, you go get a shower. Your mom said you wanted to get an early start."

"Early to bed, etc.," Alex says. "Not much left, I'm keeping this over here, just stacking it up again. Don't forget the faucets are reversed."

"If I do forget I'll remember soon enough," Christy says, and is rewarded by Alex's laughter, full-throated and hearty.

He finishes stacking the hay in the corner, then stacks the bales Alex threw down where the broken-open bale was. He has to hunt around for the lights - by the side door, not the front door - and by the time he gets back to the house, the light's out in Alex's room.

He takes a long hot shower - it's been a while since he had one - and settles in with James Joyce. But he can't keep his eyes open - work and food and a hot shower - so he goes to sleep almost immediately and he could swear he doesn't dream, or even stir, until Alex's cheerful shout wakes him the next morning: "Breakfast's ready! You up?"

* * *

Alex wakes up before his alarm goes off at five and shuts it off, then gets up to use the bathroom. As he passes the guest room he notices with surprise that the door is open. He'd have thought Christy would close it for some privacy. He pauses in the hall just before he passes the door, hesitating, a little worried that he's going to find the room empty, the house denuded of all its valuables and Christy long gone, but after a moment can hear the soft whistle and sigh of someone else's breathing and he relaxes, feeling a little ashamed of his suspicions.

It's strange having another person in the house again, another person who's not a relative, that is. Since Christy was kind enough to finish up in the barn the night before, Alex decides to let him sleep a little longer, so he quietly pulls the door mostly closed and then takes care of his morning tasks. Once he's finished in the bathroom he taps on the doorframe of Christy's room.

"I'm starting breakfast, it'll be ready in about ten minutes. Up and at 'em, tiger."

A muffled and unintelligible response greets his words, followed a moment later by a bleary-sounding, "Yeah, okay," and he finds himself grinning as he heads downstairs to find the big glass casserole dish full of egg and sausage strata his mother had left in the refrigerator. Putting it in the microwave to heat, he starts coffee, and then has to stop it in mid-brew and add more grounds and water because he forgot about Christy. After re-starting it, he calls up the stairs.

"Breakfast's ready. You up?"

The sound of the toilet flushing answers his question, and a few moments later he hears feet on the stairs and Christy's coming down, wrestling a t-shirt on over his head. Before he tugs it into place there's a flash of muscular abdomen, bare almost to the hip where his too-loose jeans have slid down. The shadowy space there looks like it would be a perfect fit for Alex's thumb.

He feels his face get hot. Christy's his... his employee, not Tom, for God's sake. He forces himself to look away, grabbing up a towel to pull the casserole out of the microwave with. "Grab some plates, they're in the upper cabinet left of the sink. Forks are…"

"In the drawer left of the sink, under the plates. I remember from last night," Christy says, making a gun with his finger and thumb and firing it at Alex with a wink.

He quickly sets two places, grabbing paper napkins from the wooden holder by the toaster, and gets out the largest of the eight mismatched coffee mugs in the cupboard while Alex puts the casserole down and pours the coffee into the mugs. Christy's turning to grab the sugar, and then the cream from the refrigerator, putting both on the table. They dance the kitchen dance like they've been doing it all their lives. Christy puts his hands on his hips and lifts an eyebrow. Alex nods, and they both sit, scooping large helpings of the egg, bread, sausage and cheese mixture onto their plates and digging in. Christy reaches for the cream, and looks a question at Alex, holding the bottle up.

"This is the real deal, isn't it? Cream, not that half milk stuff."

Alex nods. "Straight from the cow."

"Must be nice to have a dairy in the family," Christy says, tipping a dollop into his coffee, then adding sugar and stirring. "I helped out on a dairy farm a while back." Finally he lifts the cup and sips, an expression of bliss on his face that makes Alex uncomfortable. Damn it, he really has to get a handle on this.

"You didn't use cream yesterday," Alex blurts out, just to distract himself.

Christy looks up, surprised. "You noticed that? Yeah, I don't use it at restaurants, 'cause most of them just have that non-dairy whitener stuff, and I'd rather take it black than use that. Who knows what that'll do to you? Probably causes mutations and stuff. Don't use artificial sweeteners either, just good old sugar. At least all that'll do to me is give me a gut." He pats his flat stomach, reminding Alex of that flash of skin.

It's been too long since Sophie died. Too long since he's touched anyone... a woman, he corrects himself. Since anyone has touched him. That's all this is. He thinks wildly about calling Annie for a minute, but knows she'd slap him across the face for even thinking about it if she knew. But he's never been comfortable with most women, always felt awkward and uncertain, always wondering if they liked him or just the skin he wears. Only Annie, and Sophie, and sometimes even with Sophie he'd wondered.

"Your mom's a great cook," Christy says around a mouthful of casserole. "It's been a real long time since I had home-cooked meals I didn't cook myself. Long time since I was in a house that felt like a home. Nice home, nice kids, nice mom." He sounds wistful, and the expression on his face can only be called envious. "You're lucky."

Alex thinks about what he has, and for the first time in a long time, he realizes he can agree. "Yeah, I am, aren't I?" He finishes his coffee, and picks up his plate to take it to the sink. "You about finished?"

Christy nods, stuffing a last fork full of casserole into his mouth, chasing it down with three swallows of coffee. "Let's hit it."

* * *

Turns out Alex's mom not only brought breakfast but packed lunches too - Christy's heard of pierogi but that's not exactly how Alex says it - and all they have to do is fill the thermoses, hook up the hay wagon, and load the baler on to it.

Probably a good thing there's a lot of work or he would be getting that gut he was joking about over breakfast, and he says as much to Alex, who looks startled, then grins big. "There's not much you can tell Ukrainians about feeding farmers," he says in agreement. "They come from the breadbasket of Europe, Mama'll be the first to tell you.

Ukrainian, well, that answers that question. Seems a lot more exotic than Irish potato farmers but he imagines Alex's reaction to being called exotic and that makes him laugh out loud.

Alex grins again, not getting the joke but willing to go along with it. "Give Mama another day or two and she'll be on about fattening you up," he says, clapping Christy on the shoulder.

"I wish her luck," Christy says, grinning back. "If potatoes couldn't do it..."

"Potatoes got nothing on my mom's cooking," Alex says, scoffing. "Thought we'd ride up, check on the herd. No point in turning or baling until the sun burns off some of the dew."

He says it like it's the most natural thing in the world but Christy swallows, hoping that horse of Bennie's is as well-mannered as Alex claims.

Turns out it was the horse who came over to him last night. She's a sorrel mare, Alex says, and Christy just nods: he knows it's a color and that's about it. "Her name's Gracie," Alex says while he's putting her saddle on. Christy watches closely. "He's had her out barrel riding, even, she's quick on her feet."

Alex's horse is mostly reddish-brown with a black mane and tail, and seemingly not so well-mannered as Gracie, but Alex says she just wants to be rode. He takes it slow for a while and Christy's grateful: the saddle's comfortable and his body picks up the rhythm but still he'd forgotten just how big a horse is.

"You're doing real good," Alex says over his shoulder. "I told you Gracie was a sweetheart. Bennie'll be glad you're giving her some exercise. With him and Luke both gone I'm running short on time. Ready for a little more?"

Well, he wasn't really ready for any of it, especially not Alex on horseback, looking more like that movie star than ever, but when has that ever stopped him? So when Alex's horse picks up pace, after Alex makes a clicking sound at her, he just relaxes into Gracie's pace too. He remembers that, that horses like to go as fast as other horses.

After a while, when his knees are used to clutching the saddle without him having to think too hard, he's able to look around and enjoy the scenery, the early morning light on the mountains, breathtaking reds, blues and greens offset by gold in the nearby fields. He's almost sorry when he hears the lowing of the cattle: he was starting to get used to it.

The horses are different around the herd: they seem to know what to do and where to go almost without being told. Alex clearly has a routine: checks the water, checks the gates, then opens up a paddock and tells Christy to hold the gate, count the heads. "Should've kept Nellie," he shouts over his shoulder, "this is her favorite thing, but she'd have been miserable the rest of the day."

And Christy gets the feeling he's seeing Alex in his element, not that he doesn't look good on a tractor but here, rounding up the cows without even a dog to help, his horse knowing just what he wants and where to go, it could almost be a poem, except words couldn't do it justice. He remembers to count just in time and he gets the gate closed behind the last cow as soon as Alex slips back through.

"Fifty seven," he says and Alex nods, motioning with his head to the water trough. The horses take a drink and so does Christy, from a canteen Alex passes to him. Alex drinks after him: manners Christy never saw before. And Alex doesn't take any of it for granted, the horses, the herd, even the land: when Christy lowers the canteen he sees Alex looking out like he's memorizing every part of it, looking happy like Christy hardly ever felt in his own life.

The horses sidle together so Christy's leg brushes Alex's and Alex looks down all of a sudden and color floods his face. Christy hands the canteen back to cover the moment over but he spends some time on the ride back puzzling that out.

Could just be Alex is prone to that, he decides finally. Or could be Alex forgot he was there, lost in his own private moment. Because it's not really likely that Alex would be blushing for the same reason Christy usually does. 'Cause guys who look like Alex, especially straight guys who look like Alex, don't look at guys who look like Christy and blush for that reason. If anyone was going to be blushing for that reason, it should be Christy, because Alex is just about the most beautiful man he's ever seen, and even if he's never thought that about a man before, he's thinking it now.

Which is all kinds of confusing.

Back at the barn, they rub down their two horses, then turn them all out. Christy helps tidy up the stalls and Alex puts down fresh straw, then leads the way to the house. When Christy comes back down from the bathroom, Alex's head is wet: he's splashed water all over himself or maybe just stuck his head under the faucet. It sounds appealing, so while Alex is pouring them both some iced tea he sticks his own head under the faucet too. When he shakes his head, he spatters Alex, who laughs and flicks some tea at him, and the only thing stopping Christy from a full-on water fight is the thought of the horror on Mrs. Bresnyachuk's face to come in and find this neat-as-a-pin kitchen turned upside down.

The sun's high enough that they decide Christy can rake the west field while Alex drops off the baler. He stays to help Christy hook up the rake, even though Christy knows his way around a PTO, then heads off to the north field. By the time he's back, Christy's finished and they take a break for tea, watching the sun burn off the fog on the not-so-distant mountains.

"Looks like the weather's holding," Alex says finally, screwing the lid back onto the thermos.

Early to be saying that, at least where Christy's from, but being closer to the mountains and all might mean a rain shadow, so he just nods.

Alex, who obviously works smart and hard, hooks the rake up to the pickup again and tells Christy he'll meet him in the north field. Christy expected Alex to be waiting for him, but the third field - he's not exactly sure where that is - must be out of the way because the pickup bounces up while Christy's hooking up the baler. Alex swings down out of the truck and comes over, leaning down to check the twine, and Christy looks up from locking the hitch and finds himself nearly nose-to-pockets with Alex's backside.

If Alex was a girl, he'd whistle, but he's pretty sure Alex wouldn't appreciate it. He does, though, and he looks maybe a minute too long because he's still looking when Alex glances over his shoulder and says "Finished?"

It's Christy's turn to blush this time and he turns away, making a show of grabbing his gloves off the bailer and pulling them on. "Yup, all done." He can feel Alex's gaze on him as he climbs onto the tractor and refuses to look at him as he calls back: "Ready?"

"Whenever you are." Alex starts the tractor up. He goes slow at first, giving Christy time to get used to the rhythm of the baler. Soon enough Christy yells up to Alex that he can pick up the pace. He feels the strain in his shoulders but not his back, and that's a good sign. He wonders how Alex was going to do this himself... probably the old fashioned way, the way most of the farmers around Dodson do it, spitting the bales onto the field and following after with a pickup truck to collect up the hay. Christy's done that and this way's a lot better.

For the first time he admits to himself that he's glad he was outside that cafe yesterday morning, not just because he needs the work, needs to do something, but because Alex sure could use the help.

Alex surprises him again, stopping for a break when the sun's almost overhead, then changing places with Christy like it's a given, like Christy's not the hired hand, like they're partners or something, splitting the work down the middle. There's a lot he could get used to about this, not just looking at Alex every few minutes, not just the food, not even the sense of family. No, this is what he could get used to, what he's afraid of getting used to. He had to up and kill his old man, twice, before he thought of treating Christy like a human being; and Alex treats a perfect stranger better than most people treat their dogs.

He tries to keep track of the time, calling a halt when he judges it's been maybe an hour. When Alex frowns, straightening up and rolling his shoulders, Christy wonders what Alex's skin would feel like under his thumb if he ran it up Alex's nose and smoothed out that frown.

But all he says is, "I'm starving," and the frown clears away, crowded out by a reluctant grin.

They eat in the same stand of trees, by the creek, where they ate yesterday, and Alex tells him about a swimming hole they'll hit if the weather holds or maybe, he says with a grin Christy has never seen on a farmer, if it doesn't and they have to wait for the hay to dry out.

Alex doesn't nap this time: weather's so good the hay's dried out in a day, not often that happens. He frowns again when Christy jumps up on the bale wagon, pulling the gloves on: "You doing okay?"

"I'm doing fine," Christy says, off-handed as he can, turning away so Alex doesn't see him going weak at the knees. He thought Peg was the prettiest thing he'd ever seen until... well, until yesterday, a little after sunup, when a battered pickup drove into the parking lot.

"You want to use the hook?" Alex says, still hesitating, one hand resting on a bale near to Christy.

"Nearly took my leg off with one of those a few years back," Christy says with perfect truth. "Me and baling hooks, not a good mix. 'm fine, don't worry."

"I could give you a lesson," Alex says, still looking up at him and it would be rude not to look back even if he feels like he's going to drown in those deep blue eyes.

Maybe it's just Canada, or maybe Christy and Canada's a bad combination, like he didn't already know that twice over now, because this path, narrow and dangerous, can only end in disaster.

"Might take your leg off," Christy says, shaking his head. "C'mon, saddle up."

Alex hesitates, then finally shrugs and goes back to the tractor.

Christy pushes them a little, knowing Alex is going to call a halt way before sundown. He's gotten into the rhythm of it - grab, pull, turn, stack - and he's almost surprised when he feels the wagon stop vibrating under his feet.

"We're about done," Alex shouts. "Let's get some dinner!"

Christy's suddenly sure that Alex rode the barrels too, if he doesn't still; and he decides that tomorrow it's his turn to drive the tractor most of the afternoon, chicken pox or no.

By the time they get back to the house, where Mrs. Bresnyachuk's car is already in the drive, Christy can feel his muscles stiffening up. He feels a little better when Alex hands him some aspirin on the way into the house and takes some himself: not like either of 'em's out of shape but there was some lifting and hauling going on today.

Mrs. Bresnyachuk's got a pot of something on the stove that smells amazing and the kids are sitting at the table coloring, the dog underneath. They practically bowl Alex over. Christy already knows it'll take a while for Alex to get untangled so he heads up to the bathroom.

When he comes back down, sure enough Alex is still on the floor with the kids, playing pony ride. Irina's got Alex by the hair and Ilya is clinging to his sister and shrieking with laughter, the loudest noise Christy's heard to date from him.

Mrs. Bresnyachuk's sitting at the table, chin on her hands, watching, and Christy feels like an intruder until she notices him and smiles. She doesn't interrupt them right away either, even though Christy kind of expects her to, and when she does she sounds reluctant. "Time now for dinner, little ones. Go wash."

Christy helps her set the table; she has him put the whole pot of soup on a trivet, something his mother never held with. "You okay?" he says finally when she sits down at the foot of the table again.

"I? I am fine," she says, frowning at him almost exactly the same way Alex does. "You are okay?"

"Just sore," and Christy grins and rolls his shoulders at her.

"Oh, I forget," she says, getting to her feet in a flurry. "I bring you some medicine, you and Sasha. For when you bale."

"We, uh, started today," Christy says, leaning in to sniff the bottle she's holding out to him. The next minute he wishes he hadn't: the food smells a hell of a lot better than that, whatever it is, but she's beaming proudly so he finds a smile from somewhere.

"Good, then you use tonight. Is not to drink! Sasha will tease you, he and his brothers tease always."

Brothers, well, there's another clue. "How many kids do you have?" he asks, specifying this time with an inward grin.

"I have three, three boys," she says proudly. "Viktor, Sasha, and Luka. And you, how many brothers and sisters do you have?"

"Me? I was an only child," and he's almost prepared for the horror on her face.

"And you are here alone?" she says, one hand on her chest. "You have no parents?"

"Not any more," Christy says, and he's glad to hear the rough and tumble of the kids on the stairs: somehow he figures killing his dad won't go over with Mrs. Bresnyachuk near the way it went over with Peg 'n them.

Dinner's a soup, almost a stew, with pieces of smoked sausage in it and lots of beans, and more of that amazing bread. Mrs. Bresnyachuk eats with them tonight: Alex's father and brother have already eaten, he learns, because they have to do something with the calves, and Christy's kind of pleased with himself that he figured it out the night before.

After dinner, she makes coffee, and he drinks some with her, hoping the caffeine will ease the ache starting in his head, while Alex reads not one but two stories to the kids tonight.

She talks about her boys: Viktor's the oldest, and married, but he and his wife have no children "yet," she says and crosses herself. "Luka" is studying in Toronto and Christy finally puts two and two together: "Luke's in Toronto," Alex had said, that first day.

She talks about Bennie, too, what a good strong boy he turned out to be, how proud his grandfather is of him, his way with horses, like his father. "Sasha's wife" wanted Bennie to go to university and Papa Bresnyachuk apparently couldn't believe it, the first one to go, which makes Christy wonder about Luke in Toronto. Alex - he has to stop himself from thinking "Sasha" now - didn't mention college and he wonders if Mrs. Bresnyachuk meant college or something else altogether.

There are no tears tonight when it's time to go: it's later than the night before, of course, and the kids seem pretty tired. Ilya clings to Alex again, but he seems more tired than sad, and Irina tells all of them something in whatever language it is she speaks.

Christy slips out to the barn while the kids are being loaded in the car. He's halfway through feeding the horses when Alex comes in with a full-bore scowl on his face.

"You were hired for the harvest," he says, almost angrily. "I can't -"

"I'm not angling for more money," Christy says, his head suddenly really aching and his neck and shoulders stiffer than a board: he's not really in the mood for a fight but he's not in the mood to be walked on either. "Just trying to help out."

"Last time I had a hired hand, it didn't work out so well," Alex says after a long pause, putting one foot up on a bale of hay and staring down at his boot.

Well, it's not the most graceful apology Christy's ever heard but it'll do. It's a long shot better than anything the old man ever came up with. "Call me something else then," he says with a grin just to show no hard feelings, but Alex looks up at that, looks up at Christy and stares at him for a very uncomfortable moment. Then he looks down, down and away, but not before Christy's been shaken to the core.

"Gonna hit the shower," he hears himself saying. "Guess it's your turn to finish up."

After his shower he stretches out on the bed with his book, bunching the pillow under his chin and trying to relax his shoulders. Now that he's off his feet he realizes his ass is aching too. He didn't forget how to ride, exactly, but his muscles sure did.

He's about dozed off when there's a light tap on his door. He'd been vaguely aware of Alex in the shower but thankfully was too tired and sore to think on it much, appealing as it might be.

Still, here's Alex in the doorway, shorts and a t-shirt, or maybe boxers or something, holding that bottle Mrs. Bresnyachuk left.

"I forgot," Alex says quietly. "Mama told me to make sure you got some of this."

"Magic potion," Christy says drowsily, closing the one eye he'd opened. "Something like."

"She makes it with vodka," Alex says, his voice nearer the bed. "I guess you could drink it but it tastes awful."

He sounds nervous, and Christy guesses he's still embarrassed about the barn, so he opens both his eyes this time and smiles at Alex: no hard feelings, honest. It doesn't seem to make Alex feel any better, 'cause even in the lamplight Christy can see how white his knuckles are on the bottle.

"Well, get it over with," Christy says resignedly, closing his eyes again, and a few seconds later the mattress gives as Alex sits next to him. "Stuff smells to high heaven."

"Yeah," Alex says, sounding sympathetic. "I know."

His hands are warm and callused and in spite of the smell Christy about melts into the mattress at his touch. Alex is talking and Christy wishes he'd just shut up so he could enjoy the feel of his hands on his skin, enjoy the warmth of his almost-bare skin near his, enjoy the way his cock's getting hard between his sweats and the mattress, but Alex seems determined to make up for the barn. He tells Christy how his mom makes the liniment - and there's a word Christy never heard outside a book before - and how she left the soup for dinner tomorrow because she goes to Mass on Wednesdays and of course the kids go with her; and then he tells Christy about the horses, how his wife wanted to breed quarter horses, how he's hoping he might be able to afford a stud fee from a ranch north of Calgary, breed Gracie, maybe, and Lara too.

When he shuts up, finally, Christy murmurs at him to keep talking. He doesn't feel drunk, never much cared for that, but he does feel like the liniment went to his head - oil of wintergreen, is that what Sasha said was in it?

"Any better?" Alex asks and his voice is kind of husky, like he's tired or maybe talked out.

"Lot better," Christy says dreamily, rolling his shoulders. "At least up here." He chuckles into the pillow and squirms down the bed, the friction feeling so good against his lazy cock. "My ass is sore too but I don't suppose there's anything we can do about that."

There's a quick intake of breath behind him, almost a gasp, and he suddenly realizes what that probably sounded like and his face goes hot. "Oh Jesus," comes tumbling out of his mouth. "I, uh... I mean..."

Sasha's hand comes to rest lightly on the small of his back, rubbing, fingers sliding just a fraction of an inch below the edge of the sheet that shields him from there down, and Christy shuts up, waiting, his whole body tense, but he's not sure if it's because he's scared, or turned on, or both.

"I worked the rigs for thirteen years. First at Leduc, then up north," Alex says, like that's supposed to tell Christy something. When Christy, still confused, doesn't respond, he goes on, his voice soft, rough, and low. "Wouldn't be the first time I've eased... sore muscles."

Christy can't believe his ears, or maybe he's drunk after all, or maybe he's fallen asleep and this is a dream.

Helluva dream, but he knows it's not. He's still trying to figure out what to say, what just happened or what's going to happen, and the next thing he knows Alex is saying he's, God, so sorry, he should never -

By the time Christy gets to his feet Alex's gone, gone but good, no chance he saw the hard-on tenting the front of Christy's sweats. He goes downstairs, making his way in the dark, but the door to Alex's room is open, the bed empty. He even looks outside - the upside of that liniment stuff is no mosquitoes are brave enough to come near him - but there's no light in the barn and it's the dark of the moon. He's got no clue where Alex could be. He calls, even, soft, once, twice; but there's no answer.

He's sore and tired but for all that he doesn't sleep much the rest of the night and when he does he's got dreams of running away from something, something that's about to catch him until he wills himself awake and stares at the black outside the window until he falls asleep again.

* * *

Weather might hold and Christy's turning out to be a hard worker, but Alex is still out of sorts. He could say it's from saying good bye to the kids: he misses them and they miss him and Ilya's breaking his heart, he's followed Alex around since before he could walk.

Could be something else, too, something he’s just not going to think about.

So it's not fair, and he knows it, taking out his mood on Christy, and he has to struggle for a minute, look for words and composure, find a way to apologize to a man who's been nothing but decent and then some.

"Last time I had a hired hand," he says finally, "it didn't work out so well." Which is an understatement: Alex kicked him halfway back to town and bought him a bus ticket 'cause he knew the asshole would just drink the money away, and made sure to tell Sarah not to cash it back in for him.

Christy's as quick to forgive as to smile: "Call me something else then," he says with a wink and a grin and there's no way he can know how much Alex wants to call him something else, to be something else.

Lucky for Alex, Christy doesn't wait for him to find his tongue: "Gonna hit the shower then. Guess it's your turn to finish up."

Alex takes his time, admitting to himself only when he gets to the house that he's hoping Christy's already asleep, that the temptation - getting harder by the minute to resist - has been removed for another night.

And this is only the second day.

Christ, what's he going to do in a week?

He thinks, again, more than half seriously, about calling Annie. She's divorced now, not like he'd be -

Well, not like she would, and he's got to be crazy to be thinking about any of this, whether it's Annie or Christy.

Mama left the liniment on the table, made him promise to see to Christy. She's taken a shine to him, not that he can blame her: Christy's got some manners, always goes a long way with Mama, and he knows how to eat.

After his shower he looks in reluctantly, tapping on the doorframe so quietly he can barely hear it, hoping Christy went to sleep with the light on, but Christy's eyelids flicker.

"I forgot," he says after struggling to find his voice. "Mama told me to make sure you got some of this."

The side of Christy's mouth he can see pulls up in a grin and Christy's eyes close again. "Magic potion," he says, sounding drowsy. "'r something like."

His skin is tawny gold in the lamplight, his hair bright and soft and shiny, and Alex hardly knows what he's saying: "She makes it with, uh, vodka. I guess you could drink it but it tastes awful." He doesn't tell Christy how he knows and Christy doesn't ask: maybe he knows about stupid brothers, stupid dares.

Christy looks at him again and grins and Alex has to hold onto the bottle so he doesn't make any more of a fool of himself. "Well, get it over with," Christy says, rolling his shoulders and closing his eyes again, shifting over to make room for Alex.

Alex is thankful for the smell: it doesn't bother him, he grew up with it, but it does bring him to his senses. Still he nods when Christy says, "Stinks to high heaven," but he'd probably agree to just about anything to keep his hands on Christy's skin, soft and warm and alive, just a few more seconds. He almost says it out loud, biting his tongue just in time, and he starts to talk, about anything, everything he can think of, just to keep the dangerous words away, keep his hands where they ought to be and not straying down past the long muscles of Christy's back.

And Christy doesn't help matters much: Alex can feel him relaxing, feel him going boneless, feel the warmth from Christy's skin where's it's turning rosy under his ministrations.

Alex's mouth is almost watering and he has to stop talking so he can swallow. He's got to go now. "Any better?" he says, fumbling for the cap on the table.

"Lot better," Christy says with a husky chuckle that goes straight to Alex's cock. "Least up here. My ass is sore too but don't suppose there's anything we can do about that." He's shifting downwards as he says it, his ass moving under the sheet, his body moving against Alex's thigh, and Alex...

Alex is lost.

Even Christy's attempt to pull back - "Oh, Jesus, I, uh... I mean -" doesn't deter him, not now. He slides his hand down Christy's back until his fingers are just under the edge of the sheet covering Christy to the waist, and he leans in closer.

"I worked the rigs for thirteen years. First at Leduc, then up north," he says, and he can almost taste Christy's mouth, he wants to taste it, wishes he could taste it, wonders if he'll ever be able to taste him, his mouth, his cock...

Since he's lost his mind he goes all the way. "Wouldn't be the first time I've eased sore muscles..."

Christy's frozen under his touch, tense, not moving, and Alex comes back to himself with that same sickening thud he's felt more than once in his life, that thud that reminds him, this time and way too much, of Tom.

"God, I - I'm sorry, so sorry," he manages, not near to being the kind of apology Christy deserves, not near enough to repairing anything close to letting them at least be friends - God, not even friends, he can't even fall back on that.

He walks to the pond, stopping only to pull on his boots, and he sits a while and listens to the frogs and the crickets, and tries to think if there's any way he can retrieve the situation, if there's any way Christy might forgive him. A while after that, when the sliver of moon that's in the sky sets, he finds himself in the far corner of the hay mow, near the little window; when he was a kid he went the selfsame place in his dad's barn, a place he could be alone, watch the stars, think or not think.

He sleeps a while, or dozes, at least, but he's awake before dawn. For the first time in a while he's dreading the appearance of the sun. It's like the morning after Annie said she wouldn't marry him, the morning after he'd made up his mind to head to Leduc, to try to support her and his kid somehow, to try to be a man after all.

The sun's rising fast, pink and red on the horizon, when he finally summons the courage to go back to the house, to face what he's got to face: he guesses Christy'll want a ride to town or maybe he can just let Christy have the truck, pick it up later.

He's wondering if he's got enough cash to pay Christy what he owes him when a familiar smell hits him like a smack to the face: coffee, and bacon frying.

Christy looks over his shoulder and Alex feels the heat climb his face: all he's got on is boots and his undershirt and shorts. He's even more stunned when all Christy says is, "Better get a move on, breakfast's ready."

For a moment he stands, trying to figure out how to ask... but there are too many things he wants to know and too many possible answers so he decides to let discretion be the better part of valor and leaves them all unasked. Instead he sidesteps to his room, grabs a clean pair of jeans and yanks them on, throws a shirt over his t-shirt, and heads back to the kitchen just as Christy is setting two plates on the table, each loaded with a half-dozen pieces of bacon, thick slices of his mother's bread dipped in egg and fried into french toast, and still more eggs scrambled on the side.

"You got syrup?" Christy asks.

He's still not operating on all cylinders and it takes him a minute to respond. "Syrup? Uh, yeah. In the fridge, hang on." He opens the fridge and moves a few things around.

"Already looked there."

Alex pulls out a Mason jar full of amber liquid. "Here it is."

Christy stares at it and blinks. "No wonder I didn't see it. I was looking for one of those bottles shaped like an old lady." He motions with his hands and Alex has to force himself not to look, watch, touch -

"Don't let Mama hear you say that." He holds up the jar. "This is from her brother in Quebec. He brings us gallons every year. We've got more in the cellar. When it snows, sometimes we boil it up and pour it on the snow to make candy."

A tumble of emotions cross Christy's face: he looks pained, and wistful, and envious all at the same time. Then he flushes and turns away, fumbling for the coffee pot. "Have a seat, I'll pour the coffee. What've you got planned for today? Finish up that field?"

Alex sits, and breathes a silent sigh of relief. Apparently Christy's willing to forgive and forget. It's more than he could've hoped for. "Same as yesterday, yup. Finish the north field, maybe start the west field or we can go mow that last field and get it turned."

"Sounds good," Christy says, and then gestures at Alex's plate with the coffee pot. "Dig in before it gets cold."

Alex complies, and the food's surprisingly good. The French toast has an unfamiliar redolence. Well, unfamiliar, but familiar too. He can almost place it but not quite. "What'd you put in the French toast?"

"Is it okay?" Christy asks, looking a little anxious. "I should've asked, but..."

"It's great," Alex interrupts. "Just wondered, so I can make it for the kids. I think they'd like it."

"Oh." Christy looks relieved. "A little coriander seed, some nutmeg. You've got a nice stock of spices, and I like 'em better than cinnamon. Everyone uses that."

Everyone but him, Alex thinks, bending to take another bite. He's pretty sure he never heard of cinnamon in French toast, let alone the other, but it's all good, and he can concentrate on eating for now while he tries to think how to apologize, how to make sure Christy knows it won't happen again.

But the time's not right during breakfast, or after breakfast either. He stops Christy from washing the dishes, only to have him start digging around for lunch fixings. "Mama left plenty of pyrohy, Christy," he says. "Give me a minute and I'll get everything together."

"Guess I'll go check the horses then," Christy says, and Alex honestly can't tell if he's mad or not. And it's his own fault it's like this, so complicated, the way it was the last time, and the time before that, the way it probably always will be, the way it's probably been since the Garden of Eden.

With Sophie he always knew where he stood: he liked that about her, her impetuousness, how straightforward she was. He never had to guess how she felt about something, but if he's having to guess now, if Christy's shutting him off now, doesn't he have every right?

Hell, that he's even still here speaks to a faith in human nature Alex can only admire.

He packs up lunch and fills the thermoses but Christy's already done, leaning against the truck, chewing on a piece of grass. The gaze he turns on Alex is friendly, friendlier than Alex deserves. He searches for words but comes up empty, and it's too late: Christy's already climbing into the truck.

At least on the hay wagon there's no time for awkwardness: he offers to let Christy drive (fair's fair) and Christy doesn't turn him down. It feels good to lose himself in the rhythm of the baling machine, watching the sun climb up higher than the stack of bales. He's almost sorry when they run out of field, and hay: it's back to thinking, trying to find the words he's never been much good at.

He takes refuge in the work, unhooking the wagon so he can hook it up to the pickup; instead of eating, Christy watches him, almost like he's curious. He waits until Alex is done to grab the basket with the pyrohy and the thermos out of the cab.

But he still doesn't say anything, and he doesn't even look at Alex much while they eat, just a sidelong glance or two and, once, a smile that almost looks shy.

Alex can feel himself flushing again and doesn't - can't - smile back. He scuffs the grass under the toe of his boot. When he looks back up, Christy's looking straight ahead. Alex is suddenly worn out, tired and hot and cold all at the same time.

It's what comes of sitting up all night, no one to blame but himself.

Christy volunteers to drive the hay back to the barn so Alex takes the tractor up to the west field. By the time he gets back down Christy's already got the loader belt going, which he figured on: he already knows Christy's not one to slack off.

He stops in the house and gets them mugs of lemonade before heading up to the mow himself. Christy stops the belt when he sees the mugs, pulling off a glove and wiping the back of his hand across his forehead, and they sit in silence, again more comfortable than Alex has any right to expect.

"Think the hay's dry enough?" he says finally, more to break the uncomfortable silence than because he's worried about it.

"Yup," Christy says, draining the last of his lemonade and getting to his feet.

Alex gives Christy the bottom of the belt: cooler than the mow, at least. He's still trying to make it up to Christy and he still feels like he can't, or like Christy shouldn't be making it this easy.

Christy comes up after about an hour with more lemonade. Alex is hitting a wall: he needs coffee or a nap, or both. The heat's going to his head and the lemonade tastes good. When Christy sits down next to him he's too tired to panic or even worry, and when Christy looks at him, he just shrugs and says, "Hell of a time for the chicken pox."

"Yeah," Christy says, but he's not really listening and Alex's stomach does an unfamiliar flip when Christy takes the mug out of his hand, his grin reflected in his eyes.

And it wasn't supposed to be like this, it was never like this, slanted, dusty sunlight and someone who tastes of lemonade, not rum, someone who kisses, someone who wants to kiss...

* * *

Christy doesn't know when he decided, only what: sometime in the dark of the night, or sometime before the break of dawn, it doesn't matter. Yeah, Alex is a guy, but that doesn't seem to matter to his dick. So he hugs it to himself, letting it flare up inside him now and then, like when Alex comes into the house in his boots and underwear, and when he catches Alex looking at him over lunch. He holds it inside and finally lets it bubble up and out in the hay loft, Alex sitting next to him, stretched out and tired and still - still! - worrying. He wonders what would make a guy like Alex so unsure of himself, so... selfless. It's kind of weird. He thinks Alex might be a hard man to convince - he was sure a hard man to even find last night, for starters - but Christy's going to try, 'cause it's not like he learned his lesson with Anna.

Alex seems frozen in place when Christy takes the mug of lemonade out of his hand, and he half-flinches when Christy leans forward, almost like he thinks Christy's going to hit him.

Christy's never kissed a guy before, doesn't know what to expect, but whatever he was expecting, it wasn't this. In some ways, yeah, it's like kissing a woman, but no girl he's ever kissed had this wide, soft mouth surrounded by rough stubble, none of them tasted like lemonade or smelled like honest sweat and sweet grass and motor oil and hempen twine. None of them ever gasped into his mouth and clutched at him like he was the only thing keeping them from falling off a cliff.

And the other thing he hadn't expected was the solid bulk of Alex's body, the sheer weight of him... or, after he pushes Christy down and back against the hay, the unfamiliar thrill of the erection against his thigh strangely intensified by the sharp prickles of dry grass poking at the back of his neck.

"Jesus," Christy whispers, pulling his mouth away to gasp in air. "Jesus."

The sound Alex makes is almost a whimper, and he cups Christy's face in his hands and kisses him again before he's finished catching his breath, so he strains to breathe through his nose instead and the sound he makes is desperate, just like he feels, and he has to push at Alex to get him to stop rubbing against him before he comes in his jeans.

At that Alex breaks away, pushing himself off almost violently, leaning on one arm, silhouetted against the brilliant blue afternoon sky outside the haymow door, panting, face twisted in what looks almost like pain. "Sorry," he whispers to the sky. "Sorry. I - it's been - I'm sorry."

"Stop," Christy barks, suddenly angry. "Just stop. I started it, not you. I wanted it. I want it. You want it, I want it, it's okay, it's okay! Got it?"

Alex looks up, his eyes wide. "Uh, yeah." He ventures a wry, crooked smile and there's a hint of apology in his eyes still, but this time it's for the freaking out, not for the kissing.

They stare at each other for a second or two, and then Christy snorts, and Alex chokes, and a moment later they're both laughing like lunatics. When Christy kicks over the empty mugs Alex snorts again and then starts laughing again and it's so endearing, and so... well, so cute that Christy starts laughing too.

It's good, it feels free and good, not even like with Gwen because there's no Peg this time, no Peg for miles (and miles and miles, if she ever even got to Vancouver), and there's no sick husband lurking neither, just him and Alex and the hard floor and elbows and knees and hay on the back of his neck where Alex is pushing him down again, kissing Christy like he's a whole entire jug of ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer day. It's just him and Alex, no ties, no guilt, just all kinds of good.

And it is good, kissing for a while, Alex moving against him and him moving against Alex, both of them hard, but the urgency from before gone. He finds out Alex is ticklish over his ribs and he finds out, too, that he likes Alex licking his nipples, and Alex sure's hell likes Christy's hands on his ass.

Likes it a lot, shoving his cock up alongside Christy's and moaning into Christy's neck when Christy squeezes his ass, shoving his cock right back up against Alex's. "I can't-" Alex says, then gulps for air, and Christy just pushes up harder and faster. He's past that point, no turning back now, even though this isn't what he expected or thought of when he took the mug out of Alex's hand. So he just holds Alex tighter and when he starts to come he grabs the back of Alex's neck with one hand and moans into Alex's shoulder.

Alex moans too, the heavy weight of him like nothing Christy ever felt before, the jerk of his cock hard and strong even through two layers of jeans. And the look on his face, like a fallen angel, leaves a twinge in Christy's heart: he did that to Alex, somehow, and he's not sure if that's right, that someone (someone who's not him, anyway) looks like that, heartbreaking, heartbroken.

He's not sure it's right, either, that Alex is holding him close, a hand in his hair, his breath hot on Christy's neck, like Christy's a precious thing and Alex wants to hold him like that.

Fun, free, he tells himself, and when Alex whispers something he can't make out, Christy has to bite his tongue, say something, anything but what he wants to say. "Jesus, these jeans were only two days dirty."

Alex laughs, a deep-throated laugh, one that vibrates from his chest to Christy's. "I got a washing machine." He leans up on an elbow and looks at Christy, the laughter still in his eyes, and Christy's heart catches in his throat. When Alex's smile fades, his eyes serious, Christy feels that damn heart start to pound, but Alex just traces Christy's bottom lip with his finger, like he doesn't quite believe it, and then leans in to kiss him again, quick and soft, before he rolls off Christy and levers himself up.

Christy takes the hand Alex offers: he was expecting that. Wasn't expecting Alex to pull him into another kiss, though, another kiss, long and sweet, and Alex studying him after it like Christy's got two noses or something. But all Alex says, finally, is that they ought to maybe get a shower too while the clothes are in the wash.

Alex lets Christy go first, saying he'll do the laundry, but Christy's hardly out of the shower when Alex is up there, not blinking an eye at Christy naked, stripping down himself. Since Christy doesn't know quite what to do or where to go, he settles for brushing his teeth, then handing Alex a towel when he shuts off the water.

They end up in Christy's bed, naked, still a little damp, Alex partly on top of Christy again and kissing him (again) like he can't get enough of it.

Well, Christy can't either, so it's fine by him, and when Alex falls asleep, in between one kiss and the next, or so it seems, Christy grins to himself and lets himself fall asleep in turn.

* * *

Alex wakes up with a start to the sound of a horse whinnying somewhere outside the open window. For a second he can't figure out where he is, or when he is, because while the room's familiar, the warm, sweaty press of another human being against his back is familiar but unexpected. He turns his head slowly, thinking he must still be asleep and dreaming, but instead of a wealth of thick, dark hair, and shallow, pink-tipped breasts he sees a long, flat, muscular torso and hair that's a tousled mess of ambers, every shade from dark honey through golden wheat to bright flax. As he stares, the light catches on the stubble on his bedmate's jaw and almost makes it sparkle, and he remembers.


Oh, God, Christy.

It's never been so easy, and it's never been so wrong, and at the same time right, and he hasn't got a clue what to do now. He wants to trace a finger down the hollow where his ribs meet, and follow that with his tongue, down to the thicket of sand-colored curls that frame a flaccid cock. Christy's cut, so unlike Alex he looks strangely bare and aroused even though he's not. Yet.

His mouth waters as he imagines the taste of salt and spunk on his tongue.

But this is wrong. Not wrong in the way that some people think, in that way that makes them purse up their lips primly and click their tongues and shake their heads. Alex has never thought it was wrong that way.

But Christy works for him, and damn it, he took advantage of him, never mind that he said he wanted to. He could've just said that 'cause he thought he had to if he wanted to keep his job. Alex needs to make sure... or just stop, now, or maybe not even start in the first place.

Disgusted with himself, Alex is about to get up when Gracie nickers. Christy's eyes open, focus on him, and a broad grin tips his mouth upwards.

"Hey," he says.

"Hey," Alex says back, awkwardly.

Christy rolls and stretches like a barn-cat in the sun. "You snore."

"No, I don't!" Alex is indignant.

Christy shrugs. "So do I. Especially during harvest. It's kind of cute."

There are a million things to say to that, and Alex shouldn't be getting his hopes up - Christy did start it, he remembers now - but all he can think to say is, "I am not... cute."

"Maybe not right now, jeez. You always wake up this grumpy? You need food?"

Alex realizes abruptly that he's starving. "Uh, yeah."

"Me too. There should be soup left, right? And bread. And more lemonade. And pierogies..."

"Pyrohy," Alex corrects automatically. "What time is it?"

Christy grabs his watch off the bedpost and squints at it. "Quarter of four or thereabouts.”

Alex nods and sits up, running his hands through his hair and then shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. "We should go eat, then unload the rest of the hay."

Christy snickers at him, gesturing toward his hair. "You look like one of those punk kids."

Alex snorts. "Right."

"I bet if you had some hair spray I could make it stay that way."

Alex feels his mouth curving into a reluctant grin. "We don't want to scare the horses."

Christy laughs and gets up, pulling a pair of jeans on, not bothering with drawers, and Alex is a more than a little disappointed when bare skin disappears behind worn denim. He pulls on another t-shirt then, and Alex looks around for his own clothes, only to realize all his clean ones are downstairs.

It feels strange to walk through the house naked without worrying that the kids might see, but kind of fun, too. Like he's a teenager again, and his folks are gone for the weekend. In a way, they are... and Christy really doesn't seem to have any problem with continuing where they left off.

That thought makes him grin as he grabs a clean shirt and jeans and dresses quickly, then joins Christy in the kitchen where he's already heating soup in Mama’s pan on the stove and slicing bread. Alex gets the pyrohy out and heats a couple in the microwave, and soon the only sound in the kitchen is the clink of spoon on bowl and the slurp of hot soup against lips.

They feed the horses after that, and then finish unloading the hay. It becomes a game, interrupted so often by what can only be called make-out sessions that it takes twice as long as it should and the sun has slipped below the horizon by the time they finish, lighting the sky with roiling fire fading upward to blue-green twilight. Christy points at the way the sunlight makes rays that shoot through gaps in the clouds and mountain valleys like dusty laser beams.

"The sun's drawing water. It'll rain tomorrow."

Alex shakes his head. "Weather report says not."

Christy smiles mysteriously. "Ten bucks?"

Alex considers that for a moment, and nods, reaching out to shake hands. "You're on."

They stand for a moment, hands clasped, then Christy looks at him out from under his eyelashes like a girl, then tugs hard. Alex, expecting something of the sort, doesn't resist, and Christy yelps at the unexpected weight. They both fall back against the hay, raising a cloud of small particles. Alex sneezes four times, and Christy grins.

"One less and you'd be going on a trip, that's what my mom always said."

Alex opens his mouth to answer, then catches his breath. Then he starts to laugh. Christy just watches him for a minute until Alex calms down enough to share the joke.

And it’s not really a joke: "Mama says, 'Sneeze on Monday, you sneeze for danger, Sneeze on Tuesday, kiss a stranger...'"

"Sounds good to me," Christy says huskily, leaning up and in, and Alex leans down too, suddenly forgetting nursery rhymes and everything else.

Christy's lips are soft and they part eagerly, and Christy's hands are rough as they slide up under Alex's shirt, stroking his back, callused fingertips soothing the itches hay-dust left behind, making Alex's body suddenly shake with need. He remembers waking up, looking at Christy's lean body, wanting to taste it, and he grabs the front of Christy's shirt, yanking hard. The snaps separate with a sound like a zipper, and he's glad it wasn't a button-front because the buttons would all be gone now if it had been.

Christy's still, watching as Alex yanks at his belt until it gives, then reaches for the button on his jeans, and only then does Alex hesitate, looking down into Christy's wide eyes.

"Is this all right?"

Christy gives a soft, husky chuckle. "You don't have to ask," he says, shrugging out of his shirt.

"I do," Alex breathes, but he heard the acceptance, and he comes up on his knees, the hard wooden floor padded by scattered hay and thin cotton. "I'm kind of out of practice..." he says apologetically.

"I was never in practice, but I'm a quick..." Christy's sentence ends in a gasp as Alex curls his fingers around the base of his cock, lifting it so he can lean in and let it slide between his lips.

Thick, heavy flesh, silky smooth, warm, pulsebeat close beneath the skin, tasting of salt, sweat and grass, and, faintly, soap. Smelling like Christy, rich and complicated and simple, too. So good. He licks, and sucks, measuring with his tongue, cataloging the stretch, listening to the breathless gasps, feeling Christy's hands on his shoulders, in his hair. For a time that's all he needs, and he loses himself in the rhythm, slow and soft, with a twist here or a flick there, until he needs more, needs it all.

He swallows, swallows again, leaning forward, taking more, feels tears spill from the outer corners of his eyes as the stretch burns and his jaw aches. Another swallow and he has it all, and he's breathing desperately through his nose, and Christy's hands on his shoulders clench tight as his hips surge helplessly, the muscled thighs under his hands trembling like a horse after too long a race. He feels rather than tastes the spill of seed, and doesn't let go until he feels Christy's knees tremble.

He pulls off, coughing, but Christy pulls him down, gasping and panting and trying to talk when he hasn't got enough air yet. Alex puts two fingers against his lips and Christy shuts up for a while.

"Jesus," Christy finally breathes. "Jesus, Alex. I'm really glad you're out of practice, 'cause that would like to've killed me." He pulls back, worry cutting furrows across his forehead. "I'm, uh, not gonna be that good, I'll say that up front."

"That's okay," Alex whispers, finding Christy's hand and bringing it down past his waist, cupping it against the soaked front of his own jeans.

"Wow." Christy's fingers rub softly against his softening cock through the damp denim, and then he grins. "Good thing you got that washing machine."

"I always thought so," Alex murmurs, closing his eyes for just a few seconds, Christy’s shoulder sharp under his cheek.

"Hey, Sasha, no, no sleeping,” Christy says, shaking him. “Not out here, anyway."

"Not sleeping, just resting my eyes."

"Fine, you rest your eyes," and the smile in Christy’s voice makes Alex smile too. "You're nice enough to give me a bed, Alex, I plan on using it."

"Me too," Alex says agreeably, pulling Christy tight against him. "Nice bed."

Christy laughs out loud, hugging Alex tight, and because right now everything's right with the world, Alex laughs too and lets Christy up, lets Christy pull him up, lets Christy pull them both out of the barn and back to the house and up to the "nice bed." He lets Christy pull his clothes off too, and push him backwards onto the bed, and he wishes he wasn't so tired when he feels a tentative lick at his cock. He manages to get his eyes half open: Christy's staring down at him with a look on his face that Alex hasn't seen before, wistful, maybe, one of those ten-dollar words Sophie always used, and he stretches out a hand.

Christy grins again, quick, and that look's gone like it was never there, and he shrugs: "Just, uh, testing. Tasting."

"Tastes good," Alex says quietly, his tongue coming out to lick his lower lip before he's even aware of it.

"Yeah?" Christy says, almost as quietly, pushing his jeans down and off.

"You don't have to do this," Alex says, his eyes closing again even though he wants to keep them open. "If you don't want to. Job's... it's not part of the..."

Christy's sliding into bed next to him, wrapping those long arms around Alex like he's always been there. "Yeah, Sasha, I know."

Or maybe Alex just thought he said that: no one but Mama has called him Sasha in forever, and Christy's right, it is a nice bed and he can't keep his eyes open.

* * *

Christy didn't see that coming, like a freight train heading down into the valley, scattering the cows far and wide.

He feels like maybe he's the cow that got caught on the front of that particular train.

Jesus, Sasha's hands, and his... his mouth , and the way he went after Christy's cock like he'd been wandering in the desert for forty years, and all from a - a kiss, just one kiss.

All told, the front of the freight train's a good place to be, and he traces his tongue around his lips again, then leans in to kiss the side of Alex's neck. He's not that tired, he's strumming high and fast like he could come again in five minutes. But he's only ever once got to just lay there and hold someone, look at someone, watch someone sleep, and Alex sleeps like the innocents, no, the sleep of the innocents, that's how it goes, on his back, one arm over his head, like someone threw a switch.

After a while Christy realizes he's dozing off too and he manages to reach over and switch off the lamp without disturbing Alex too much. When he settles back into bed, Alex rolls over and pulls Christy close and tight.

Christy never had that before either, and it's more comfortable than he'd have thought, especially the way Anna reacted.

It's more than comfortable when he gets up for the bathroom in the middle of the night. It cooled off a lot and he's just about cold when he climbs back in. And the bed's still warm, and Alex doesn't seem to mind when Christy backs against him and curls up.

Doesn't mind, in fact rolls over again and pulls Christy in close, skin to skin, snuffling into the back of Christy's neck.

Kind of stupid, getting hard over that , but, hell, not like Sasha's any smarter, still snuffling into Christy's neck, his hips pushing against Christy's ass and his cock starting to poke between them.

Christy panics for a second, then decides that's stupid, 'cause Alex is a nice guy and wouldn't do that without asking, not if he won't even suck Christy without asking, so he goes with it, pushes back against Alex's cock until it slides between his legs. Alex moans into his ear and one hand finds its way down Christy's chest to his cock.

And that doesn't feel stupid at all, in fact it feels great, and pretty soon Christy's grabbing at Alex's head and pumping his cock into Alex's fist, faster, harder, harder until Alex is holding him down and stroking him off and then holding him down with the full weight of him and coming, himself, in that dark warm space behind Christy's balls and Christy falls back asleep with Alex still on top of him.

A crack of thunder, close by, wakes him, heart pounding. Alex is sitting up too, looking confused, his hair sticking out all over. It's probably later than Christy thinks, after dawn, but the room's still dark.

"Shit," Alex says after a minute, combing his fingers through his hair and leaning back on his other elbow. "Guess I owe you ten bucks."

"Guess you do." Christy's not really sure what to do, not like he's actually slept with that many people (well, okay, two, but that's like comparing apples and oranges). But Alex flops all the way down, against his pillow, and pats the mattress with his hand.

"Rain's gonna put you behind some," Christy says finally, after staring at the ceiling for a good minute and a half. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Alex's eyes open, then close again, and Alex smiles, rolling over and putting an arm across Christy's chest.

"Already ahead," he says into Christy's shoulder. "Thanks to you." Then he shifts again and he's up above Christy, one leg sliding between Christy's and a whole new grin on his face. "Guess the horses can wait some."

Christy doesn't get a chance to agree or even to shrug: Alex's mouth's on his again, soft lips, warm tongue, slow and gentle, touching Christy's tongue with his, pulling back to lick at the corner of Christy's mouth, kiss his way down Christy's neck.

Sure knows what he's doing, making Christy moan under him, writhe like a garter snake in the garden. And Alex is laughing at him, but Christy can't not move, can't keep quiet. When he feels lips, tongue on his nipple he about comes up off the bed.

"That okay?" Alex says, up against his mouth, a hoarse whisper. "Some don't like it much."

"I like it fine," Christy says breathlessly, not caring when Alex laughs again. "It's-"

He doesn't get any more out 'cause Alex has moved to his other nipple, licking and sucking it like... like nothing Christy's ever heard of or felt before, and then Alex licks a broad warm stripe down the center of Christy's chest that makes him wriggle, makes him groan out loud.

Not that he should be all that surprised, he guesses, but Alex likes sex, sex with Christy, sex with guys, or at least that must have been what he meant about the rigs up north.

Alex isn't giving him much time to think about it, though, or him: mouth back on Christy's nipple, with teeth this time, and a warm, strong hand on Christy's cock. Christy's waiting, holding his breath, for Alex to pump him, take him up and over but Alex just holds him, holds him and licks some more, sucks like Christy's nipple is Christy's cock, from last night in the hay mow.

When he does finally let up, when Christy can't even breathe from moaning so loud, begging him not to stop, he doesn't let go of Christy's cock, but the next thing Christy feels is Alex's hair, brushing the inside of his legs, and then Alex's tongue, oh God, under his cock, licking and - and sucking his balls . "Jesus Christ!"

Alex hums back at him, the sound vibrating all the way from Christy's balls to his cock and even up to his nipples, and Christy nearly comes up off the bed. Alex lets go and laughs, putting his mouth right back down at the base of Christy's cock and sucking there, wet and loud, until Christy's got both his hands in Sasha's hair and he's begging Sasha not to stop, ever, please, please...

* * *

A thunder crack wakes him, sudden and startling, but this time he remembers where he is, who he's with, and he relaxes again almost immediately, telling Christy he owes him ten bucks after all before settling back down.

Christy, brought upright by the noise too, is still sitting, staring at him, so Alex pats the bed. Ought to feed the horses, later than he realised with the clouds and all, but it's not that late.

Christ lays back down, like he was waiting for the invite, and maybe he was: doesn't seem like Christy's had much in the way of experience, although Alex has known more than one field hand could tell stories that would put a long-distance truck driver to shame.

He's sure of it when Christy tries to make conversation: "Rain's gonna put you behind some." Alex grins, partly at Christy and partly at himself, and rolls over to give Christy some idea what they ought to be doing now instead of talking. He kisses Christy's shoulder and tells him that they're already ahead, thanks to him, and they are: he was working by himself, he wouldn't even have the second field cut by now, probably, let alone the first field safely, thank God, in the barn. And just so Christy doesn't bring 'em up, he climbs up onto Christy and tells him the horses can wait too before he leans in to kiss him again.

Christy's mouth is eager, his lips soft, his jaw strong, everything Alex could want. His hands are eager too, eager and restless, touching Alex everywhere, pulling Alex against him, like he maybe never got to touch much either.

Not that Sophie didn't like it - hell, Sophie loved it - but it took Tom a while, and sometimes more'n half a bottle, before he'd lay back and let Alex do more than suck.

But this is now and he's got Christy under him, lithe and sleek as a corn snake in the stubble. Whole lot louder though: Christy about brings the roof down when Alex tries out a nipple. "That okay?" he asks up against Christy's mouth, more to kiss him again - God, the kissing alone! - than because he's that worried. "Some don't like it much."

"I like it fine," Christy gasps, and Alex laughs into Christy's mouth because it feels so damn good, and takes hold of Christy's other nipple then, just to be fair.

And was that just yesterday he couldn't - wouldn't - lick Christy's chest, that hollow where his ribs come together, before his belly caves in, and all of Christy smelling like a man should. He finds Christy's cock with his hand and holds onto it, holds it up, while he tries out teeth. Christy loves the teeth, loves the hand too, pumping up into Alex's grip so Alex doesn't even have to move, his balls hitting the side of Alex's hand.

Too much temptation and Alex goes for it, holding Christy's cock up out of the way, finding Christy's balls by smell and taste alone, salty and bitter here too, where Alex came all over him in the middle of the night and Christy didn't say a word, just moaned and shuddered and came too, all over Alex's hand.

Now Christy's talking, though, "Jesus Christ!" and then, when Alex starts to suck at the base of his cock, begging, "Please," and "oh God, Sasha." And the sound of his name on Christy's lips, in Christy's husky voice, makes Alex suddenly aware of the ache between his own legs, not enough friction against the sheets to satisfy him.

He sucks Christy's cock down, hard and fast and pumping where he can reach with one hand; the other he reaches down, stroking Christy's balls. Christy jerks up and Alex goes with him, pressing behind and down. Tom never let Alex touch him there, not after the first time, but Christy's not Tom and Alex knows it.

And sure enough, Christy about pulls Alex's hair out, fucking Alex's mouth and saying his name over and over again while Alex sucks harder and presses a knuckle up against Christy's hole, up and even in a little ways.

Christy's spunk hits the back of Alex's throat like a bull out of the gate. And Christy doesn't freeze up when he comes, Alex already knows that, but this time Christy's still pumping up and down, against Alex's finger and into Alex's mouth, like he can't get enough. When his hands finally gentle in Alex's hair, he's trembling under Alex's touch, like he did last night in the barn, and Alex gentles him, kissing where he can reach, trying to ignore his own racing pulse for a few seconds.

Then he gets one of the surprises of his life when Christy hauls him up so they're face to face, grabs Alex's ass and pushes his own soft cock up against Alex's hardness, kissing him too, his tongue eager and curious and his hands strong and even knowing. A few thrusts, Christy holding tight, and Alex closes his eyes and shakes against Christy, letting Christy's strong arms hold him safe.

Sometime later, neither of them are watching the clock so it's hard to say how long, Christy sighs and turns his head a little, propping his chin on his fist so he can gaze out the window at the rain coming down, and the purple-white lightning flashes. "I always loved thunderstorms when I was a kid."

That piques Alex's interest. "Why's that? Lightning seems to scare most folks."

Christy chuckles. "Nah, I figured if anyone was gonna get struck by lightning it'd be my dad; before she passed, my mom always said God would strike him dead for all the lying, cheating, and cussing he did, so I felt safe enough. I liked storms 'cause it was the only time my old man didn't care if I was sitting and reading. Any other time he'd come by and tell me I'd better get off my sorry ass and do a lick of work before he got out the belt."

Alex nods, almost involuntarily, and for a few minutes there's just the sound of rain and thunder to break the silence. After a while, lulled by the rhythm of the rain, Alex finds his voice. "My father never used a belt. He only ever used his hand, said otherwise he couldn't tell how hard he was hitting. But he didn't have much use for reading or schooling. Thought we should be in the field, or taking care of the cows or doing chores around the house. Or he'd hire me out to another farm for some extra cash. Viktor learned to do the books since he was oldest, and Mama wouldn't let him send Luke out because of the asthma."

Christy snorts. "Your old man and mine definitely would've got along."

"Let's not introduce them," Alex says, making a face.

"Couldn't even if I wanted to. Dad finally kicked it a couple of months back. And don't feel like you need to say sorry," he adds, cutting off Alex's instinctive response. "Guess your dad changed his mind about schooling?"

Puzzled, Alex shakes his head. "No, not really. Why?"

"Your mom said Luke's in Toronto, so I figured he was in college, that your dad must've agreed to it."

"No, he was pretty mad, but Luke got scholarships, and he works, and I help whenever I can."

Christy turns his head sharply to study Alex intently. "So you're sending your brother and your son off to college?" Alex nods, and Christy regards him solemnly. "You're a good man, Sasha."

"Where'd you hear that name?" Alex asks, embarrassed, trying to change the subject.

"Your mom," Christy says after a minute. "I liked it. It suits you." He hesitates again and looks at Alex a little worriedly. "Is that okay, for me to call you that? It's not, like, something only girls do or something?"

Alex laughs out loud, shaking his head. "No, I don't mind. It's kind of nice. I grew up being Sasha, and sometimes Alex feels like… somebody else."

"I know exactly what you mean," Christy says, sitting up and nodding vehemently. "When I was in 7th grade I tried to be a Chris, because everyone said Christy was a girl's name, and a couple of years ago I tried to be Mike, that's my middle name, Michael, but half the time I'd forget what name I was using and none of those guys are really me, so I always end up back to Christy. That's just who I am."

A sudden brilliant flash of lightning followed almost instantly by a thunderclap loud enough to rattle the lampshades punctuates his words. They're both startled for a second, and then Christy laughs, and Alex has to join him. Christy pushes the covers away and swings his feet over the side of the bed. "I'm starving. Let's get the chores done, have some breakfast."

Alex rubs his eyes and untangles himself from the sheets. "Great idea."

By the time Alex is dressed, Christy's standing by the back door waiting for him, swathed in a cheap clear-plastic raincoat like you can get for a couple of bucks at Canadian Tire for emergencies but that nobody really ever wears. Except Christy, apparently. He hides a smile and reaches for his duster where it hangs on a peg in the mudroom. After shrugging into it, he settles his hat on his head: its coated, close-woven straw keeps out the rain and the brim dumps any accumulation fore and aft. He hesitates, seeing Christy struggling with the hood on his raincoat.

"Here," he says, snagging Sophie's old hat off its peg. It's dusty, but he never could quite bring himself to get rid of it. Perfectly good hat, after all. Practically new when...

He pushes away that thought and hands the hat to Christy. "See if this fits."

Christy puts it on, adjusts the angle, bobs his head up and down and then grins. "It's good, thanks. Way better than the hood."

Christy helps Alex turn the horses out, then starts on their stalls while Alex sees to the hens in the coop built onto the side of the barn. They're peevish partly because of the rain that's got them huddling in their covered nesting boxes instead of out in the chicken-wire enclosed run, but also because he'd been so involved with Christy the night before that he forgot to feed them. He can tell they're mad by the way they peck at his ankles and cock their heads to eye him with evil intent in their beady black eyes. It's a good thing they're not bigger.

He remembers hearing that some scientist thinks birds are descended from dinosaurs, and imagines a flock of chickenosaurs bearing down on some hapless prey and grins as he scatters extra feed, hoping they'll forget about his lapse.

While they're distracted, he collects eggs from the nests, and then slips back through the door into the main barn, latching the screen door behind him to make sure none of them decides to follow him on a rescue mission.

"What're you grinning about?" Christy asks, putting the feed scoop back in the bin and banging the lid shut.

"Just imagining what a chickenosaurus would look like."

For a few seconds Christy looks at him like he's a few bricks short of a load, but then he must get it, because he starts to chuckle. "You know, there's lots of fossils around these parts. Maybe we'd get lucky, find the world's first chickenosaurus fossil and make a million bucks selling it to a museum."

" You got any ideas where we should look?" Alex breaks open another bale of hay, then looks up to see Christy grinning. No, smiling, eager, his eyes alive and happy.

"Yeah, I do. I got lots of books, I know what kind of matrix to look for. Fossils ought to be easy to find, pretty thick on the ground in these parts, and there's a lot of petrified wood that could shine up nice. Be fun to do some rock-hounding before I go. If nothing else, I want to find something pretty for your mother."

"For Mama?" Alex asks, startled.

"Yeah." Christy distributes the last two flakes to the last stall and dusts off his hands. "She was looking at my book and wanted to know if there were any pretty rocks around here. I figured I'd try and find her one."

"Don't know where to tell you to look," Alex says. "Guess it depends on the rain, for one thing. Always a chance it'll clear up by this afternoon."

"Well, I know where to look," Christy says, still with that…bright look about him, easy and confident. "Start with a riverbank, go on from there. You said something 'bout a swimming hole."

"Yeah," Alex says, feeling his own mouth stretch to a grin that might match Christy's. "I sure did."

"Then we can kill two birds with one stone whenever we get around to going."

"If the weather clears up this afternoon, we'll go then."

"That'd be great! We done here? You want eggs?" Christy looks at the eggs in the wire basket in Alex's hand. "I can cook. I'm good at breakfast."

"I remember," Alex says. "Best French toast I ever had. But it's my turn today. I'm not too bad a hand with a skillet myself."

"So that's not why your mom always brings dinner over?" Christy asks with feigned innocence.

"No," Alex says indignantly, then realizes that Christy… is teasing him.

It feels good.

Christy laughs at him and grabs the Stetson off the bale where he'd put it and they dash back to the house. Christy heads off to shower while Alex pulls two thin-cut rib-eyes out of the chest freezer along with a zip-lock bag of grated potatoes. Putting the big skillet on the stove, he thunks the steaks into it, turns the burner on, and covers the pan with a mismatched lid. Then he puts a colander in the sink and dumps the frozen potatoes into it, setting lukewarm water to run over them. While they're thawing he grabs a second skillet and throws a dollop of lard in the bottom. Once it's melted he tosses the potatoes in on top and adds salt, a dash of cayenne, and a handful of dehydrated onions.

While the steak and potatoes sizzle he puts coffee on, then cracks a half-dozen still-warm eggs into a bowl and beats them with a little milk. He's just turning the steaks when Christy reappears, buttoning his shirt up and sniffing the air like a bloodhound scenting its prey.

"That steak I smell?"

"Sure is. I figured it was about time you got to try the house special. How do you like it cooked?"

"Pretty much mooing," Christy says fervently.

Alex laughs. "Good, then we can eat sooner." He lets the steaks brown a little on the second side and then flips them onto a plate. He adds a dollop of butter to the drippings, pours the eggs in, and stirs them around to pick up the pan juices.

"Man, I'm drooling here. I can't wait." The coffee maker sputters and hisses, and Christy gestures toward it. "You want coffee?"

"Does a bear shit in the woods? "

Christy fixes two mugs, adding cream and sugar to his own, leaving Alex's black. He puts both mugs on the table and then sets out plates and silverware, one place at the head, one next to it on the right.

It's where Sophie used to sit, but Christy can't know that.

It's strange that it isn't stranger to have him there instead of her.

While he's thinking that, the eggs almost burn and he turns the burner off, grabbing a towel so he can take the pan over to the table and turn the eggs out onto the plates before they get any more over-done. That done, he puts the pan on the back of the stove and hands Christy the plate with the steaks on it. "Here, put these on the plates."

"You mean I don't get both?" Christy asks.

Alex waves the spatula at him threateningly and Christy laughs, dumping out the steaks while Alex turns the hash-browns one last time and then dishes them out too. The plates are crowded, steak juices running into the hash-browns and eggs, and his stomach is growling like a stray dog when he finally sits down to eat.

For a while the only sound is that of cutting, chewing and swallowing. Finally Christy stops and pushes his plate away with a sigh, only a few crumbs of scrambled egg and a few shreds of potato left on it. " You're right, you're not a bad hand with a skillet. And if that steak's a sample, you ought to be getting premium prices."

"I told you. Mama cooks a lot, especially when things get so busy she knows I can't manage it myself. The rest of the time I'm on my own."

"Must be a lot of work, all this, and the kids too."

"They're good kids. And Bennie was around a lot to help, plus Luke would usually babysit if I needed him."

"But they're both away now. You coping?"

Alex just manages not to sigh. "Mama's helping, and they start preschool soon. That'll help."

"It's a lot for one person."

"Yeah. You done?" Alex reaches for Christy's plate, only to have it moved out of his reach.

"You cooked, I'll clean up."

Alex knows better than to fight him on that, so he surrenders without a battle. "Fair enough. Give me a chance to work on the books some, anyway."

As Christy collects dishes and starts to wash up, Alex gets the ledger book and the envelope of receipts out of the drawer under the phone, and sits down at the table to start entering them, keeping a running tally.

"You keep the books by hand?" Christy asks, sounding surprised.

"Yeah, why?"

"Well, I noticed the computer in the other room and just figured you'd use that."

Alex feels his face heat, unaccountably embarrassed by his own ignorance. "Haven't had time to learn it, so I just do it the old way. When Bennie comes home he'll be over to transfer the stuff for me."

"I could look at it if you want," Christy says tentatively. "I'm pretty good at figuring things out."

Alex hesitates for a moment, not sure he wants Christy to see how close to the edge the ranch runs, but then again Christy's pretty bright and has likely figured that out on his own by now. You can't work in agriculture and not know most family farms and ranches run right on the edge and often over it. He pushes the stack of receipts across the table toward him. "Knock yourself out. Bennie's already entered everything up to these, so it should be pretty current."

Christy beams like Alex just gave him a prize and scoops up the receipts. "Shouldn't take too long. There's only a couple or three programs that do this kind of thing, and they're all pretty similar. Come on, you can help." He heads for the parlor Alex has been using for an office back since before Sophie died; with Mrs. Ware gone, all they'd ended up using it for was to listen to the piano. After a moment, Alex drains the last of his coffee and then pushes back his chair and follows.

Christy's already sitting down in front of the computer and waiting for it to warm up by the time Alex drags a chair over and settles in next to him. "I hope you weren't serious about me helping," Alex says, eyeing the machine warily.

"Yeah, I was."

The main screen finally appears, and Christy leans closer to look at the assortment of little pictures on it that show the different things you can do on the computer. Alex has pretty much only ever used the one that lets you play Solitaire.

"Ha!" Christy says, moving the mouse so the pointer-thing is pointing at one of them. "There we go." He clicks the mouse and starts the program. "Now, it should be one of the most recently used files, so let's see…" He clicks a few times, and suddenly the screen shows a familiar-looking document.

"That's it," Alex says. "Leastways it looks like what Bennie's always working on."

Christy nods. "Thought so, since the file's called 'ranch-expenses.' Okay, now that we've got the thing up, why don't you take the receipts and you can tell me what each one is called, what kind of expense it is, and how much it is, and I'll start typing stuff in."

Since that was help he can actually supply, he sweeps the stack of receipts off the desk and they get to work. For some reason, as he watches Christy and listens to his running commentary, the program makes more sense than it had the half-dozen times Bennie had tried to explain it to him. He isn't sure if Christy has a natural flair for teaching, or if he'd just been too damned stubborn to learn it from Bennie. If that's the case, it doesn't reflect very well on him, and he makes a note to be more open to learning new things. He doesn't want to end up like his father.

After twenty minutes or so, they've gotten to the last receipt and Christy runs the totals, which match his expectations pretty closely. They're doing okay. The sale of six head to the Burton place the week Bennie left for Calgary made all the difference. He suppresses a sigh of relief, feeling more comfortable about giving Christy that bonus he'd rashly promised, while Christy saves the file, closes the program and then shuts down the computer. He stretches like a cat, cracks his fingers, and glances at the window.

"Hey! Sun's out!"

Alex looks too. "So it is."

"Guess we could go turn the hay in that second field," Christy says, sounding a little forlorn.

"Nah, we can let the top dry a while," Alex says, feeling more relaxed than he's felt in a long while, and he's suddenly really grateful to Christy for being so open to... everything. He knows from experience that sex can give a lot of perspective, some of it dangerous. But there's no edge here, no worry about what tomorrow might bring. "We can take some time off."

Christy brightens visibly. "Nice. You, ah, want to go check out that swimming hole?"

Not so much, Alex wants to say, but that might be rude, or might be imposing. What he wants is to lick a stripe up Christy's back, suck the knob on top of Christy's left shoulder, taste the scrape of stubble at the sharp angle of Christy's jaw.

Christy catches him staring and Alex flushes, dropping his eyes. Christy's voice, intimate and husky, brings them back up: "Or we could maybe wait for the day to dry off a little."

His eyes are half closed and Alex feels a thrill of anticipation ride his spine, pricking the hairs at the back of his neck: Christy might know it, or might not, but he's seductive as hell and Alex couldn't hold back if he tried, slipping one hand around the back of Christy's neck and bringing them together for a kiss, a slow one this time, Alex relaxing into it, letting Christy guide them both, letting Christy tell Alex what he wants.

Which is pretty much everything, Alex discovers a few moments later, Christy's hands, eager and callused, sparking every nerve in Alex's body when Christy slides them up under his shirt, rubbing his thumbs in tandem across Alex's nipples, already taut.

"Is it always like this?" Christy asks breathlessly, leaning back to look at him. Alex stares at him, puzzled, until Christy adds, "Being with a guy, I mean. It's so easy… so fun."

Alex stills, and shakes his head. "No," he says a little gruffly. "No, it's not."

Christy looks at him, head tilted like a curious bird. "I put my foot in it, didn't I?"

Alex shakes his head again, trying to get his heart to stop pounding. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"Just the same, I spoiled the mood." He slides his hands out from under Alex's shirt. "Come on. Let's go swimming, poke around the rocks a little, and you can stop thinking about whoever it is you're thinking about."

"Christy, I..."

Christy holds up both hands. "You don't gotta say anything. Just come on." He grins, and there's not much shadow in it. "It'll be fun."

* * *

Christy's determined to make it fun, to chivvy Sasha out of his mood. He doesn't know why someone as nice, and good-looking, and hard-working as Sasha acts like a stray dog expecting to get kicked, and, what's more, he doesn't much like it. Someone didn't treat him right, and Christy'd like to change that if he could. He figures even Alex, though, will be hard put to keep a bad mood through a day as perfect as today's turned out to be.

They take the horses down to the river and ride along the bank and today he's a lot more comfortable in the saddle. The side they're on is a lot lower than the far bank, and it's clear to Christy at once from the striations he can read in the soil and rock that this is going to be good fossil territory, as if he didn't know that already. A recent washout down the side of the far bank glows with rich reds and yellows, and he heels his horse across the shallow water, jumping off on the other side to examine the tumbled stones at the base of the washout.

"Oh yeah!" he shouts, picking up a fist-sized hunk of rock and brushing dirt off it. It's broken almost cleanly across the grain, and he leans down to rinse it clean before crossing back to where Sasha's waiting for him, looking curious.

"Look," he says, holding out his prize. "Petrified wood. This is a really nice piece, you can see the tree rings." He points at the alternating bands of color. "Each color's a different mineral. The greeny-blue could be cobalt, maybe chromium or copper, hard to tell without testing. The red, yellow and brown are iron oxides, that pinkish band is probably manganese, those dark grey parts could be carbon or manganese oxide, and the greyish white is silica."

"Huh." Sasha squints at it. "All that in one rock?"

"Yeah. It's got layers. Like you." Christy winks, then he glances across the river before looking back at Sasha. "You know, we should bring your kids here, show them what to look for. It's like, educational and stuff."

Sasha looks startled, even taken aback, and Christy backpedals fast, 'cause he didn't mean to make Alex look like that stray dog. "I mean, when they're older, like, you could bring 'em."

"No!" Sasha says, fast and quick. "No, it's a wonderful idea. I'd love that. I'd like to learn, too. I never knew we had this kind of thing on the property. I don't think Sophie or her mother knew. And it would make a nice family outing."

Something warms inside Christy at the comment, even if he doesn't mean Christy's "family," since Sasha clearly intends him to come along. It's the kind of thing that families are supposed to do, be together because they want to be, not because they have to be. It's something Christy has always wanted but never had, and he'll take it second-hand if he has to. "I'd like that," he says. "Your kids are nice."

Sasha snorts. "You've only seen them with their company faces on, the little hellions. Once you're not a stranger any more, watch out."

"I'll keep my eyes peeled," he says, secretly thrilled by the idea he might be around long enough to stop being 'company' to the kids.

The only problem is, he knows Sasha can't afford to keep him on long. Helping with the books today had shown him that.

He feels kind of guilty, even, taking Sasha's money when he doesn't even need it. He'd really only followed the harvest as a way to clear his head, give himself time to figure out what he wants to do now that he doesn't have to take care of the old man any more.

But Alex is not the kind of person who'll let him work just for the pleasure of his company, and besides, that would put a spin on what they're doing that's all wrong.

And - so far - it's been much too right to make it wrong.

He wants to stay, and he realizes that all in a rush as Alex swings down from his horse. He wants this, whatever this is that he's building with Sasha. And, no, he won't call it love because twice before he thought it was love only to find out it wasn't, so he's not going to make that mistake.

Whatever this is, though, it's good. And it might just be the closest he's ever gotten to having what he wants, even if he's just on the outside of the candy store looking in.

Water splashes as Sasha leads both horses across the shallow spot and tethers them under a tree. "Swimming hole's right around the bend," he says to Christy, even though Christy didn't ask. "Tree's the only shade for a bit."

"Lucky," Christy says, tossing the rock in his hands back and forth. Now that they're here he's torn: he wants to look for more rocks but he wants to watch Sasha strip his shirt off too.

And his pants, he realizes suddenly, feeling his face heat. Of course he didn't think they were going to swim in their pants and all but he didn't expect Sasha to take to being naked out here in the open air quite so readily.

"C'mon," Sasha says over his shoulder, wading into the slow moving river. "You can swim and look, can't you?"

"Uh, yeah," Christy says, swallowing hard, glad Sasha's got his back turned. It's not that he's worried about his hard-on, just that he's not sure what happened before with Sasha and he wants to try to keep it easy for now. "I can look just fine."

Sasha's too far away to hear him, really, his smooth arms cleaving the water, his hair already wet. Christy strips out of the rest of his clothes as fast as he can and puts the rock on top of them so he won't lose track of it.

Water's cold, but he figured it would be, and after he goes under once and comes back up it feels good, 'cause the day's trying to make up for the rain, seemingly.

"This your land too?" he asks when he catches up to Sasha at the bend in the river.

"Yup," Sasha says, looking out at the sky. "Property line's about another half mile from here. Lucky for us the swimming's the best on this side of it." He looks at Christy and grins, friendly and open again. "Fishing too."

"Fish makes a nice change," Christy agrees, looking at the rock wall on the other side of the river now. It's widened out into a lazy pool with hardly a current, a sheer wall raising on the other side, and he can see the striations from here.

"More rocks?" Sasha asks, closer than Christy knew he was, but he's looking at the cliff face too, not looking at Christy or even touching him.

"Might be," Christy says, his heartbeat speeding up when Sasha takes his hand in the water. "Fossils, looks like."

"Chickenosaurs?" Sasha says, turning onto his back and pulling Christy along with him. "If we're lucky?"

"You never know," and Christy really isn't paying attention to anything either of them's saying right now 'cause he's got Sasha smooth and wet up against him and the shadows are gone out of his eyes like the sun and the river just washed them away.

Yeah, he thinks hazily when he lets Sasha up for air, the petrified wood'll shine up nice for Sasha's mom, maybe find a piece of jasper here or there too, fossils aren't all that pretty and it can all wait, because just now Sasha's moving against him, more urgent than just a minute ago, one leg winding around behind Christy's.

"Not too cold for you?" Sasha says in his ear, turning them around and around in the water, in and out of the shade cast by the rock face.

"Not now," Christy says. "Not much worse than the river where I'm from."

"I figured you for a prairie boy," Sasha says softly, one hand skating down Christy's belly, and it's not just his hand that makes warmth snake through Christy's gut but the idea that Sasha was thinking about him.

"Mon - oh, yeah, God - Montana -"

"You're a Yankee?" Sasha says, still in Christy's ear, yanking Christy's cock right at the same time. Christy chokes and grabs at Sasha and just about comes then and there from the mischief on Sasha's face, wicked grin and all.

The hell with swimming and the hell with breathing, Christy decides, pulling Sasha up close, wrapping both legs around him and kissing him for all he's worth.

Sasha kisses back like he doesn't care about breathing or swimming either, even though Christy can feel his legs moving, keeping them afloat. Then Sasha spins them around again and Christy can feel him stop, puts his own legs down and his feet find purchase, an underwater ledge, probably a layer of basalt or something, sloping up and out of the water with the folds in the rock. He can see it now that he knows to look for it.

Not that that matters either except it's a place to stop, a place to stand, a place to kiss Sasha with both hands all over him and get kissed back, get groped right back too, Sasha just as hard as Christy is already.

"So I guess that means I'm paying you cash on the barrel," Sasha says in his ear, his voice husky and soft and about making Christy's knees go weak, because naked Sasha's enough to do it but this is naked, hard, fun Sasha, nothing like the stray dog that he was kissing in the kitchen just an hour ago.

And the words are out before he can stop 'em, just 'cause he's so happy, and so fucking stupid: "You don't have to pay me at all."

But this Sasha, happy and free, just laughs and licks his tongue up Christy's throat. "Gonna talk yourself out of a job, you keep that up."

"Keep it all up," Christy says, about wild with relief and, yeah, lust, and he humps Sasha's leg, bites Sasha's shoulder, 'cause it is easy, it is fun, and Sasha is just really, really hot, naked and warm against him. "Keep on keeping it up."

And Sasha's hands are on Christy's ass now, holding Christy hard against him, mouthing words on Christy's shoulder while he pumps up against Christy and Christy pumps back, their cocks meeting, rubbing, hot and cold and up and down and up into a mindless spiral…

"God," Sasha says throatily, biting Christy's neck. "Jesus, Christy, I want to fuck you, I want you so bad, I want you to fuck -"

"Jesus!" Christy says, almost a yelp, and he's coming all over Sasha and all in the water between them and Sasha's got a tight hold on him, his fingers spreading Christy's ass and his hands holding their hips together.

"God," Sasha says again, quiet and hoarse, right in Christy's ear, rubbing himself on Christy's belly. "Mean it, Christy, want you so fucking much, want -"

"You got me," Christy whispers, holding tighter to Sasha than Sasha's holding him, so tight he can feel his fingers touching bone under flesh. "You got me, Sasha, you fucking got me, fuck, I'll fuck you and suck you, too, watch you come and swallow you down, every drop, like you did me."

And he means it, too, which is almost more of a shock than any of the rest of it: one thing to notice Sasha's ass in a nice pair of jeans, another to think about Sasha spread out in front of him -

Jesus, he could come all over again just thinking about that.

The rock wall is rough against his back but it feels good anyway, feels about perfect when Sasha pushes him back against it, and it gives him something to grab onto, gives him an idea.

He pushes Sasha back, around and back, up where the rock slopes so Sasha's half-lying on the ledge, his cock just below the water's surface. Christy finds footholds, finds a handhold on the ledge under Sasha too, bracing both of them, then takes a breath and takes a mouthful of Sasha's cock.

Doesn't taste like it did last night, tastes like river water now, but he sucks harder, sucks until he gets a taste of Sasha, then comes up for air. Sasha's staring at him, wide-eyed, and he grins, 'cause now is really not the time to be thinking about Sasha's mom, takes another breath, goes down again.

Sasha gets with the program about three seconds later, bracing his own hands on the wall and the ledge and pumping his cock up into Christy's mouth. It feels good, it's a good rhythm, enough for Christy to breathe without letting go. Awkward, too, 'cause he doesn't dare let go to steady Sasha's cock with his hand. Hell, he already told him he wouldn't be any good, told him up front, so he stops worrying and just sucks, sucks hard as he can, trying to get the flavour of Sasha instead of the river water, warm flesh in his mouth and salt now and then on the tip of his tongue.

And Sasha's got his head back, the tendons in his throat standing out, look on his face like the Archangel Michael. Christy drinks him in for a few moments, then puts his mouth back down, working Sasha's cock, licking, sucking. Sasha starts to shake, one hand flailing out to grab at Christy, and Christy can hear it plain as if Sasha'd said it: you don't have to do this, you don't have to -

Nice guy, Christy knew it already, but he wants to taste Sasha, wants all of it: who knows when he'll get this chance again?

There's a lot of it, or it feels like a lot, and he chokes on it. Salty, yeah, and a little bitter. And it's kind of exciting to think he's sucking a guy off, that he's swallowing a guy's come, makes him feel kind of proud, even, that he can do this too, can do what Alex did for him and even like it.

"God," Sasha whispers above him, a hand in Christy's hair. He smoothes Christy's hair back, then runs his fingers through it, and it feels oddly intimate, more intimate than almost anything else they've done, which is kind of crazy. But Christy never said he wasn't crazy, so when Sasha pulls at him, he balances his way up to let the water cradle him against Sasha and the rock wall. The ledge is too narrow to be really comfortable but the water buoys them both up.

After a while, after Sasha's combed that hand through Christy's hair more times than he can keep track of, Christy tells him straight out. "I thought I killed my old man once. Tried to kill him after that, too."

Sasha's hand stills for a few seconds but then starts combing again. "Couple months back?"

"Few years back," Christy says, and he feels like he got two bales of hay, at least, off his chest all at once.

"I'm guessin' you had a reason," Sasha says after a while, and maybe it was three bales of hay 'cause Christy's never felt like this before, never had someone just think he was maybe a good guy after all, or even a good guy from the first, not like this.

He doesn't trust his voice so he just nods, and Sasha's hand, big and rough and warm, cradles Christy's head against him, holding him pretty tight. Christy tightens his own arm where it's braced around Sasha and on the ledge. If the water wasn't lapping at his face he could about go to sleep, and sure as he's laying here he could stay here forever.

When he feels Sasha's chest tighten, getting ready to say something, he braces himself, but all Sasha says is, "You like this?"

He's not really sure what 'this' is but there's nothing not to like, not so far, so he just nods again.

But that's not good enough: "You said fun and… easy," Sasha says, real quiet.

"Yeah," Christy says against Sasha's neck, closing his eye where the water's getting in it. "Never did this with a guy, if that's what you're wondering, but it's good, Sasha. It's real good."

"Yeah," Sasha says, his voice far away again. "Always thought so myself."

Christy wants to know but at the same time he doesn't want that stray dog back, sends a cold shiver up his spine that unseats the both of them. Sasha gets the worst of it, going all the way under and coming up spluttering, but he's laughing too, so Christy laughs with him.

They play in the water a while and then Sasha asks him about the rocks, what kind they are in the cliff face, and Christy didn't think Sasha could get more gorgeous but Sasha, shy, is about the hottest thing Christy's seen since… well, since Sasha, naked and wet.

He explains it as best he can, babbling on about ancient seas and sedimentary layers and boundary layers and stratification and Sasha listens to all of it intently, nodding, asking questions, smart questions.

Christy's about to get into and mineralization and compression, when he's stopped by the expression on Sasha's face, sort of bemused and maybe a little overwhelmed, and he trails off. "Uh, sorry, I guess I got carried away," he apologizes.

"No, don't apologize," Sasha says. "I was enjoying it. It's funny, when I was working the rigs, the geologists would come and make us sit in a room and draw on a whiteboard and tell us what we were drilling through and why some parts were easier than others, all that kind of thing, but I never thought it might be interesting on top of useful, and I for damned sure never thought it'd be interesting in my own back yard."

"It's interesting everywhere," Christy insists. "Anywhere you go, there's something interesting. You just gotta look for it." Sasha's gaze makes a deliberate, slow journey down Christy, a tiny smile curving his lips, and Christy looks at him sternly. "I don't mean me. Look around you! I bet we can find something interesting right here."

He turns in a slow circle, waiting for something to catch his eye, and . . . something does. A flash of blue-green-red, startlingly bright, gleams in a water-worn hollow in a boulder near the bank. "There," he says, pointing. "See that? That shiny thing?"


"Want to guess what that is?"

"Could be broken glass," Sasha says with a shrug. "Or a dragonfly, could be an old can..."

"I bet it's something better," Christy says, sloshing through the water, Sasha at his side. Whatever it is, it's sort of rounded but uneven, and up close their shadows mute the bright gleam that had caught his eye. He reaches down and picks it up, his fingers closing around something unmistakably natural: he knows the feel of a rock in his hand. He rinses a little sand off the back and then opens his fingers to display his find, turning it so the sun falls on it.

Colors burst and ripple across the surface, opalescent and mesmerizing highlighting a fluted, almost corrugated spiral pattern. "Oh my lord," he whispers, stunned. "Oh… I never thought to find something like this!"

Sasha's looking at it curiously. "Pretty. Looks kind of like a snail shell. Excepting we don't really have snails around here, and for sure none that size. That's got to be two, maybe three inches across."

"It's a shell, all right," Christy says. "Or, well, it was once, about seventy million years ago. That's an ammonite, a fossil shell."

And it's ammolitic, beautifully so. The iridescent colors in the thin, gem coating ranging from the rarest blue-green to the more common red and orange. Christy knows you pretty much never find an ammolitic ammonite that's intact like this. Usually you just find little bits and pieces, shapeless and broken after seventy-million years in the ground.

Jesus. This is worth real money. And if it isn't a fluke washed down from somewhere else, if Sasha's got more like this on his property, he probably won't have to worry about money any more, or at least for a while.

"Seventy million years?" Sasha asks, sounding as floored as Christy feels.

"Yeah. Maybe even seventy-five. Hard to know, but that's when these things were laid down, according to the books..."

"Huh. Pretty wild," Sasha says.

"Yeah," Christy agrees, wondering if he should tell Sasha, or if it would be better not to get his hopes up yet. Probably not. Wait and see if he can find the source before he tells Sasha just what he's got.

"Seventy million year old snail. That's hard to wrap your mind around, eh?" Sasha asks, reaching out to touch a fingertip to the shimmering surface.

"Not a snail, actually. More like a squid." Christy holds up his free hand and wriggles his fingers like tentacles. "Calamariosaurus."

Sasha laughs at that, a full, open laugh. "We find that chickenosaur, we're gonna have a regular dinosaur banquet. Little hard on the teeth, though."

He's still staring at the fossil, and Christy impulsively grabs Sasha';s hand and drops the ammonite into it. "Here. You keep it."

"Isn't this for Mama?" he asks, looking doubtful, but tracing a gentle finger along the outer edge.

"That one's all yours. I've got the petrified wood for her. I can lacquer it, make it shine real pretty."

Alex smiles a little uncertainly, and ducks his head. "Obliged."

Christy’s fingers curl into a fist, and he hides it behind his back. He really wants to punch whoever made Sasha this way. It’s not right. Just not right. "Not obliged at all," he says roughly. "Never."

* * *

Alex helps Christy fish around a little more to see if there are any more shell fossils near where they’d found the one, but they only come up with a few small shards of iridescent rock, nothing as spectacular as the ammonite. Christy’s excited though, that’s pretty clear.

"I need to get a map of the area, and plot out where the known deposits are, see if I can figure out where the stuff’s coming from," he says enthusiastically as he follows Alex back to the horses and Alex looses the blanket he'd tied up behind Lara's saddle.

"Dry off a while in the shade," he says when Christy looks at him funny. Yeah, they're both tanned but the summer sun, high in the sky, isn't something to mess with, not when they've got hay to bring in and all. "I'll see if the horses want a drink."

Christy puts down the clothes and the rock he's carrying and gets Gracie without a word. Alex can take two as easily as one but he appreciates the thought, so he just leads the way down to the bank.

Horses aren't that thirsty; he didn't think they would be, but still best to give them the chance now. He's thinking on riding up to the far pasture, checking on the rest of the herd, as long as they're out this way, even though he'd thought on keeping Nellie tonight so he could do it tomorrow.

And in the back of his mind, tucked away behind everything, he's trying not to think about Christy sucking him off. He'd kind of thought Christy was being polite, before, and didn't think to tell him he didn't have to. Didn't think at all, really, and that's relaxing in its own way.

Between the breeze and the sun, he's about dry when they get back to the tree, and he guesses Christy is too, but it's not quite lunch time yet, and he figures they got some time, since they're taking the morning off anyway. Christy's been thinking hard, not saying much while the horses thought about taking a drink, but still and all he doesn't look surprised when Alex lays back on the blanket and tucks his hands under his head.

"Thought we'd ride up, check on the rest of the herd," Alex says, closing his eyes. "After a while. Maybe have a late lunch, go turn that field."

He wants to touch Christy, wants to see if the bubble's burst yet, maybe, or maybe just wants to touch him because he can, but he hasn't found the words - probably never will - to ask things he can't put a name to.

Under his eyelashes he sees Christy put down the petrified wood he'd been staring at intently, and settle down on the other side of the blanket on his stomach, turning his face towards Alex. Alex closes his eyes all the way before Christy sees him looking: he hasn't felt this way since he realized, back in Grade 9, that Annie Black Rabbit was smiling at him and not the other guys.

"You're not like any farmer I ever worked for," Christy says after a while.

Alex rolls onto his side, reaching out for Christy's hand. "You're not like any almost-murderer I ever met."

"You met a lot?" Christy says, his grin cockeyed.

"A few," Alex says, rubbing his hand down Christy's arm. He can't help touching him: maybe he's just pushing him, seeing what Christy'll take and what he won't. He doesn't want to think about Tom, but he can't help it, not right now. He pushed Tom a lot, even near the end, when Tom said he was done with the rigs, done with all of it. Especially when Alex realized he meant he was done with them. He pushed Tom a lot, back then, and some of it was good but most of it was bad, and it isn't something he wants to do now, 'cause Christy's not like that.

Christy's not like any of 'em, come to that: not like the guy who sucked Alex off, that first time, in the back of the drill cabinets at Leduc. Guy wouldn't leave him alone until then and after that, after he made Alex come twice (he'd been all of seventeen), he'd up and ignored Alex the next six months.

By that time it hadn't mattered, though, 'cause there were other guys, not a lot but once in a while, and no danger of babies either.

Once he'd hit the rigs, he'd thought about women more than he had in a while, but it didn't stick. And then he met Tom, an ex-merchant marine and an American from Seattle. It started out just buddies, the two of 'em, inseparable for a long while, and then one night Tom got drunk and Alex had a few too many and they ended up in Alex's bunk with Alex on his knees and Tom's cock down his throat.

Tom avoided him after that, avoided him for a few weeks, and Alex felt guilty, 'cause he knew Tom was three sheets to the wind. He tried to apologise, once, but Tom got mad enough he looked like he was going to take Alex down, so Alex left him to simmer down and get over it.

He did, too, and for a while things were back the way they had been, until another payday came and Tom got drunk again. That time he begged Alex to suck him off, even put his hand down Alex's pants for a few minutes, enough to get Alex off, and the next day he was hung over but not mad.

For a while Alex hoped it could just be that way, but Tom didn't see it the same as Alex did. To Tom it was wrong, a sin, even, and Tom wasn't "like that," didn't want "that," like Alex's mouth was somehow different than some woman's.

Hard part was that they were still friends the rest of the time, and finally Alex started to dread payday, started to think up reasons not to go drinking with the rest of 'em, even started looking into finishing up high school then, just to have an excuse. But then Tom started to come back stumbling drunk, ending up at Alex's door, and Alex wasn't man enough to say no, enjoyed it most when Tom was really drunk and didn't mind getting more than a blow job, didn't mind getting licked or touched or any thing else Alex could think of to show him it wasn't so wrong after all.

He'd finally gone, back to Seattle. The night he told Alex he was leaving, he put his cap on Alex's head and smacked Alex's cheek with a cupped hand that hardly hurt. Alex didn't offer to give it back the next day and Tom never asked for it, either, even when Alex wore it that last day, one last push even when it was already over.

He'd never answered any of the three letters Alex sent him, and the fourth came back marked "no forwarding address."

Somehow he thinks, when Christy leaves, that if Alex wrote him he'd answer, and he'd probably make sure Alex had his address if he moved.

The thought of Christy leaving puts a hollow feeling in his gut that he knows isn't hunger. Seems like leaving is too big a part of his life. Either he's leaving or he's being left. Gets old.

He opens his eyes, trying to distract himself, to see Christy watching him soberly. He's a beautiful man, especially close up, his eyes kind and clear, his mouth sweet, his lips softer than any man's have a right to be.

"You're a fine-lookin' man," he says before he thinks about it, then feels the heat rising in his face. Christy's been awful agreeable about all this but he probably wasn't figuring on being crushed on like Alex's still a teenager or something.

But Christy smiles, all the way to his eyes. "You too," he says, his voice husky, and he's closer than he was just a second ago. "Guess I never saw guys this up close and personal."

That thought takes Alex aback: sometimes he feels like his life's mostly been spent with other guys from the time he was old enough to know the difference. "You don't have brothers?" he asks before he can stop himself: not his business, and Christy'd tell him if he wanted him to know.

But Christy, up against him now, shakes his head. "Nope, just me and my mom and dad." He looks down Alex, then up again, one side of his mouth twisting up; and Alex watches, fascinated, while a red flush climbs into Christy's cheeks. He's so intent he almost doesn't hear what Christy's saying, halting, even stammering a little. "Your, uh, your d-dick, it's, uh, different. From mine, I mean. I didn't know…"

Alex looks down at himself, then at Christy, the both of 'em half hard and rising, then back up at Christy. He doesn't think he's ever met anyone so open and he wonders if he can be too, for just this little while. So he ignores the heat in his own face. "You're, uh, cut," he says, trying to remember the word: he and Sophie'd talked about it before the twins were born. "Circumcised, I mean. My parents never heard of it and they didn't bother with us, me and my brothers. Me and Sophie didn't bother either. But most folks do, least the ones who aren't Ukrainian, I guess. Most Americans, right?"

"Cut," Christy says slowly, like he's trying the idea on for size.

Alex reaches down: showing's always been easier for him than telling. "They pull this bit up," he says, pulling his foreskin up as high as he can. "Then I guess they cut it off. Ends up looking like you."

"It wasn't all there before," Christy says, still slowly, and his tongue comes out like he maybe doesn't even know it, and Alex feels his cock pulse in his hand.

"It's mostly gone, pulled down, when you're hard," Alex says, and he can't believe that's his voice, so husky and dark all at once.

"Show me," Christy whispers, but he's not looking at Alex's cock now, he's looking at Alex, so close they're almost cross-eyed, and his breath is warm on Alex's lips.

No point in pretending he hadn't been hoping, so he leans back just a little and pumps his cock a few times. It doesn't need much coaxing, not now, not with Christy so close and Christy's own cock just inches from him.

"Can I?" Christy whispers, his hand hovering over Alex's.

"Please," Alex groans, and the word's not even out of his mouth before Christy's hand is wrapping around his, then slipping down his cock. Alex lets his own hand fall away, lets himself thrust up into Christy's grip.

Next thing he knows Christy's straddling him, cock to cock, looking down at the both of 'em just as hard as he was looking at Alex before when they were laying side by side on the blanket. He's got their cocks lined up together, holding both of 'em in one hand, and his fingers are long enough to almost wrap around 'em.

Couldn't have dreamed anything like this, another man atop him, fingering both of 'em, wanting to, wanting to touch him, them; and Alex squeezes his eyes shut 'cause he's not going to think about Tom, or anyone but Christy, not right now.

"I get it," Christy's saying and when Alex looks up at him again he's grinning, looking just as happy as he did when he found that shell… fossil. "This is pretty hot, Sasha."

"Yeah," Alex says, swallowing hard, trying to keep a hold on himself, not push up into Christy's fist, not roll over and beg Christy to fuck him, not just come all over the two of 'em like he's fifteen again.

"Feels so good," Christy whispers, his mouth on Alex's, his hand still on both their cocks but trapped between their bellies, and Alex can't help thrusting up into Christy's hand now, thrusting his tongue into Christy's mouth too.

He's as breathless as Christy, more breathless, even though Christy's riding him, pushing hard against him, hard and fast. "Wanted to suck you off again," he says into Christy's ear, his body making a liar out of him, pushing back against Christy just as hard, just as fast as Christy's doing to him. "Please..."

"God, Sasha, you like it," Christy breathes, but he doesn't sound shocked or mad or anything but hot, hot and bothered, hard and pliant all at the same time. And his next words leave no doubt, no place for Alex's mind to go: "That's so hot, you are so hot, you know?"

You are, Alex wants to say, but he can't. He lets his hands talk for him, his hands and his body, pushing Christy over and down, swallowing Christy's cock whole and having to back off, lick his way down it again once, twice, before he sucks him in.

And Christy doesn't seem to need words either, just pushes up into Alex's mouth, his thighs falling open with a sweet abandon that leaves Alex shaken.

Yeah, he likes it, he loves it, always has, probably always will: the smell, the taste, the silky feel, the strength of another man in his mouth; and maybe it's the trust too, the trust, simple and wonderful and so damn good, the two of 'em here, out in the open, in the daylight, wind rustling the leaves and no shame as far as the eye can see.

He loses himself a while, enjoying the feel of Christy's cock in his mouth, Christy's balls pushing up against his hand, Christy's moans soft on the breeze, Christy's hands on his chest, his stomach, his leg… and then, oh God, Christy's mouth on his stomach and, a breath later, on his cock, licking soft, then sucking soft, too.

Never thought of this either, not with another man, although he would have, hell yeah and then some. He feels broken open inside even while he's got a hand groping down for Christy's head, even while he's pressing his lips to the base of Christy's cock, broken wide open, broken up and coming apart like he hasn't since he was fifteen.

He's pushing too fast, too hard: Christy slurps and loses Alex's cock but he pushes Alex over before Alex can think to say or do anything, climbs on top of Alex and goes down on him again like he knows just what he's doing, his hair brushing the inside of Alex's thighs and his cock poking Alex in the throat until Alex thinks to grab it, put it back in Alex's mouth where he fucking belongs.

And he's too close, didn't mean to be, can't help it, can count maybe on the fingers of both hands the times his cock's been in someone else's mouth, someone who wanted it there, wanted it seemingly as much as Alex does. He lets go Christy's cock, reluctant, and tries to warn him: first time might've been just to see, he knows that's the way it was for him, might not -

Christy pumps him hard, moaning something around Alex's cock, grabbing Alex's ass with his other hand and holding him down so Alex couldn't get his cock out of Christy's mouth if he wanted to. So Alex gives it up to him, lets the white hot joy rip through him, pulse out of him into Christy's willing mouth, coming harder than he thought he could just from hearing Christy slurping at his cock again, drinking him down.

He's still breathing hard, his muscles as limp as his cock, when he realizes Christy's pumping his own cock hard against Alex's chest, probably only seconds away himself. Since the whole point was him drinking Christy down, Alex summons strength from God knows where and hauls Christy up his chest, gets Christy's cock in his mouth again. Christy collapses on Alex, full length, and Alex feels Christy's soft hair brushing his thighs again just like when he was sucking Alex off. He feels tears start to his eyes and he sucks Christy in, sucks him down, swallows, even, and then Christy's jerking into his mouth, moaning his name against the inside of Alex's thigh, holding onto Alex for dear life.

And he can't stop himself from pulling Christy around, running his hand through Christy's hair and then holding him tight, like Christy's going to disappear if he lets go. Christy doesn't seem to mind, just holds him back, breathing hard against Alex's neck, saying things like, "God, so good," and "Jesus, Sasha…" Alex doesn't know what to say back so he just holds onto Christy, says Christy's name a time or two, letting his eyes close, letting himself enjoy the feel of Christy all along him and the breeze across the both of 'em and the sound of the horses moving around a few yards away.

Can't let you go, he thinks, almost saying it out loud but stopping just in time. Stupidest thing he's thought of in a long while, stupider even than letting his good sense be run flat over by his dick, sleeping with a hired hand who's just following the harvest.

Stupid on so many counts he can't start to total 'em up. Christy's gone next week or the week after, east or west, maybe north or south: who knows?

And if he could stay, not like Alex could afford to hire him, and not like Christy would: Christy's not the kind of man to sell himself for money no matter what kind of man Alex is.

It's just sex, he reminds himself. Just been a long time, too long, and he's taking it all way too serious, way more serious than he should, and it's not like he's never done that before, got a kid at university turned out way better than Alex could have hoped from making that mistake once, and once's enough for any lifetime.

"'S matter?" Christy mumbles, lifting his head where Alex has his hand way too tight in Christy's hair. "Sasha?"

He could tell him or not; and what's it matter when Christy's gone in a week or a month?

"My kid, Bennie," he says, fast, so he won't change his mind, "he was born when I was sixteen. I didn't marry his mama."

This time when Christy gets up on his elbows, Alex doesn't try to stop him. "Yeah?" Christy says, his forehead wrinkled. "'M I supposed to hate you for that or something, Sasha?"

"I guess not," Alex says after a minute, remembering only then about Christy's dad.

"Don't see why," Christy says. "You got a kid, you're taking care of him. You're a sight better dad than mine was."

"Now," Alex says. This is harder than he ever thought it might be, he never even talked to Sophie like this. Never had to: Sophie did the talking for both of 'em and between her and Annie, Alex like never to have opened his mouth. "I wasn't here when Bennie was a kid."

Christy studies him for a minute, still frowning. "You… you, uh, worked the rigs?" he asks finally. "To get money for your kid?"

Alex shrugs: wasn't like that, exactly, but when Annie wouldn't marry him he didn't know what else to do. "Yeah, I guess."

"You didn't knock him around, call him worthless, call him trash, work him down and trample him into the ground," Christy says, and it's not a question; and his eyes are dark. "Sight better'n my old man."

That's one way to look at it, Alex supposes. He feels like he took a couple to the gut, feels too like putting up a field himself would be easier'n this.

For the first time he wonders why Sophie talked so much. She didn't get it from her mama, that much was certain, and for all Alex knew of Mr. Ware, he wasn't one to talk either. Was it easier for her than staying quiet? He can't imagine; he was never one to speak up, not when it was safer, better to stay quiet, unnoticed.

Christy didn't seem to look at it that way either, though, and Alex wonders if he was quieter before, if maybe after his dad (finally) died he started talking some, or if he talked before that too, like Viktor and his own dad. Viktor never took any of it, talked to his dad like his dad talked to him, the two of them shouting every Ukrainian curse ever invented at the tops of their lungs in the kitchen some nights. Luke hadn't been like that; he was quiet, like Alex, with his own places to hide.

"World's a better place without him," he says to Christy, who's still staring at him without really seeing him. He's not saying it to comfort Christy, either: he's saying it 'cause he means it, 'cause there's no need to treat people that way, treat 'em worse than you might treat a stray dog. There's no point to it, and maybe that's why he's just never understood most people. "You can get a lot more done if you're not fretting and yelling all the time."

Christy's mouth went sullen for a split second, a startling change, maybe the kid Christy was, time ago; but when he registers what Alex said, his eyes light again, his mouth softening. He'd been waiting for a lecture, Alex realizes tardily, just like Bennie. And Alex never was one to lecture, any more than Annie was, which was maybe why he and Bennie'd managed to hit some kind of stride after a while, to the point now where Bennie calls him 'Dad.'

"Yeah," is all Christy says, but then he leans in to kiss Alex, and he murmurs something against Alex's mouth that sounds just as soft and sweet as the kiss.

They could stay here all day, Alex thinks after a few minutes. Could. Would. But Christy saves him from himself once again, pulling up and away, seemingly as reluctant as Alex himself feels. "If we're riding up to check on the rest, make sure you pack that ammonite up careful. They can be kind of fragile."

"We can head back, have lunch," Alex hears himself saying. "I was planning on keeping Nellie tonight anyway, we can go up tomorrow just as easy." He hesitates, too, looking at Christy looking at the fossil. "You sure you want me to have it?"

Christy looks back at him, fast and determined. "Yeah," he says. He seems like he wants to say something more but he shakes his head instead. "Yeah," he says again. "Let's go have lunch then, check my books, get that field turned. You have any stamps? I'd like to send a letter to a friend who's keeping my mail for me, let her know where I am."

"You can call her if you want," Alex says, standing and stretching.

"Nah, too expensive," Christy says. "She's the librarian in Dodson. Letter'll work just as well."

Alex shrugs, but inside he can't help feeling a little shine of hope: Christy's counting on being here long enough to let someone know, maybe even get some mail.

On the ride back to the house he finds himself wondering if he sold Dapper, especially now that Bennie and Luke are both gone, if he might be able to afford to hire Christy for the fall. It doesn't solve the problem of sleeping with him, of course, but Alex is tired of problems and he thinks maybe he can just handle one at a time for a while.

"I know what's missing," Christy says while they're rubbing the horses down, working in that easy, comfortable silence that Alex has gotten way too used to, way too fast. "Barn cats."

"My dad's got enough for the both of us," Alex says, looking over Lara's back at him.

"Yeah, I bet," Christy says, winking at him over Gracie's back. "Just never saw a farm without cats somewhere.

"My wife's dog didn't much care for them," Alex says with a shrug. "Ran 'em off whenever she could."

"Nellie?" Christy says, a world of astonishment in his voice, and it makes Alex laugh.

"Not Nellie, no. Nellie likes just about every critter she comes across, even if it makes her crazy when they won't go where she wants 'em to."

"I thought maybe she was a border collie, but she's pretty big for one," Christy says over his shoulder, leading Gracie out to the paddock.

"Yeah, she was an accident, border collie bitch and a German shepherd down the road, they said," Alex says, turning Lara loose too. "We went to look at a two year old, didn't end up buying him but we ended up with a puppy. The kids were just starting to walk and she wouldn't leave 'em alone. I never saw 'em laugh so hard before or since. They were taken with her and she's been a real smart dog. She doesn't mind cats though. They drive her nuts when she tries to round 'em all up, but she doesn't mind 'em. I never thought about it. Guess I ought to ask Mama for kittens next time she's got some. Kids'd like it."

"Give Nellie something else to do around here," Christy agrees with a grin, and it strikes Alex that he's remembering Alex's useless chatter, that first morning, when he told Christy Nellie gets bored without the kids around. "Sorry about your wife's dog, though."

He hasn't even thought about Digger since Sophie died.

"He was a heeler," he says slowly. "Great with the cattle. Loved Sophie, not much to do with the rest of us. He was, uh, with her…"

"Yeah, I figured," Christy says, his voice quiet. "Sorry."

"He's better off. Wouldn’t have been happy without her."

"And Nellie can have some kittens," Christy says, a hand on Alex's shoulder all of a sudden.

Alex is pretty sure he hasn't talked this much in years.

Decades, maybe.

* * *

They eat lunch, canned tomato soup thinned with milk instead of water, the way Christy's mother used to make it when he was a kid, and grilled cheese sandwiches made with thick slices of Mama Bresnyachuk's homemade bread, sharp cheddar, home-grown tomatoes, onions, and lettuce for garnish.

For some reason, maybe the sultry post-rain heat of the afternoon, or the swimming, or all the sex, Christy finds himself nodding sleepily over his plate.. The beer they wash lunch down with doesn't help matters. Sasha starts chuckling as he yawns for the fifth time in as many minutes, and tugs Christy to his feet. "Come on, let's go take a nap."

"We should go turn the hay," Christy objects half-heartedly.

"Relax, we've got hours of daylight left. We can take a nap. Forty-five minutes, max. I'll set the alarm."

"You're the boss," Christy says, letting Sasha pull him toward the master bedroom.

A slight frown wrinkles Sasha's forehead. "Not here," he says slowly. "Not now."

Christy's too sleepy to get it. "Huh?"

"I'm not your boss. I can't be your boss, not here. It's not right."

Christy stops, which makes Sasha stop too. "You're worried about that?"

Sasha, his eyes anxious, finally nods and Christy sighs. "Come on, Sasha. You're a smart guy. You think I think that? I don't. And I know you don't."

"I don't know what to think," Sasha says quietly, almost like he's being careful. "I've never done this before."

Christy stares at him. "I thought you said you'd done this. You know, up north."

"Well, I've done this." Sasha waves his hand between them. "But not like... this. And I don't want you to think you have to do it. This. And I... I like you. I mean, I like you. And I just... I want you to know that."

Christy shakes his head and reaches out to rest his hands on Sasha's shoulders, pulling Sasha forward until they're practically nose-to-nose. "Nobody's made me do anything I didn't want to do since the day I shot my dad. If I didn't want this, I wouldn't be here. Got it?"

Sasha swallows hard and then finally nods, taking a step back, but for once his eyes aren't on the floor, they're on Christy, and the relief on his face is almost painful to see. Christy feels that urge again to find out who did this to Sasha, to go back in time and make sure they learn that it's not the way you treat a man as fine as he is.

Then again, if he did that they might not ever meet, so maybe he just needs to get over it and move on, just show Sasha that he doesn't have to worry about that with him.

He reaches out and finds Sasha's hand, laces their fingers together, calluses catching and rubbing. "C'mon. Nap's calling."

Neither of them speaks as they go into Sasha's room and strip down. The furniture is good, heavy maple, well made, and the curtains and spread are plain dark blue. Christy glances around, looking for evidence of Sasha's wife, but there's not much to find. Just one photograph on the tall dresser, Sasha dressed up, with a pretty, dark-haired woman in a wedding dress, both of them seeming happy. She looks older than Christy expected, and stronger too. He thinks she probably made Sasha a good wife, and for a moment feels a little jealous, until he realizes he's being jealous of a dead person which is kind of… weird. And, lucky for him, he guesses, Sasha doesn't seem the pining sort.

Sasha's not paying any attention to Christy, bending over to turn back the covers, and Christy stares at his naked ass, rounded and firm. "I want you so bad, I want you to fuck-" he remembers Sasha saying, and knows suddenly, with a flash like heat lightning inside him, that he wants that too, wants to find out what it's like to bury himself inside Sasha. And maybe, even, to find out what it's like the other way, to have Sasha in him. He knows that's what men do. Even in a school as small as Phillips County High, he'd heard it whispered about. Ran across it once or twice in magazines - he'd read a lot of those waiting for his dad at one doctor or another, and the magazines in Malta and, once, that week in Billings, had been a far cry from anything Verna'd have thought of getting at Dodson's little library. After that he'd even touched himself there a time or two, out of curiosity. It had felt surprisingly good.

Maybe he'll get a chance to find out for real, if he stays around a while.

Sasha's sitting on the bed with the alarm clock now and Christy wills his half-formed erection away. The nap was sounding like all he wanted up to about fifty five seconds ago and now...

It's kind of embarrassing.

Sasha finishes with the alarm clock and looks over at Christy and Christy feels himself blush, hot and heady. But Sasha just looks him over, head to toe, then reaches one hand to the alarm clock again without taking his eyes off Christy, turning it off, Christy guesses.

All the words are dried up in Christy's throat, so when Sasha says, "Nap later?" with a grin just this side of shy and wicked - and how's he do that? - Christy can only nod.

It takes just a few seconds, though, for Sasha to come to his feet and meet Christy halfway, and it's pretty obvious Sasha's suddenly not all that tired either. So Christy relaxes and takes Sasha's face in his hands to kiss him, sort of an apology. And Sasha kisses him back the same way, almost like a promise.

And this time there's not that urgency Christy's felt before. Something's changed, or maybe Sasha's just finally clear on the fact that Christy wants this too, that Christy's more than happy to be here, so Christy lets himself indulge, running his hands over Sasha's body, his taut abdomen, his smooth back, his tight, round ass, pulling Sasha close against him and throwing his head back so Sasha can suck harder, just there, at the base of Christy's neck. But when he starts to slide to his knees Christy comes back to himself, manages to catch Sasha by the elbows, push him back onto the bed. "You wanna fuck?" he whispers into Sasha's neck, not sure he can actually look him in the eye, not sure if he's supposed to ask or even remember what Sasha said before, but wanting to know all the same.

Sasha goes still beneath him and Christy raises his head just enough so he can see Sasha's face. His eyes are closed and he's swallowing hard, and Christy figures that's a 'yes,' more or less.

So he's surprised when Sasha rolls them over, dumping Christy on the bed and disappearing out of the room. He's up on one elbow, rolling onto his stomach to get up all the way, when Sasha comes back into the room with a jar, stuff they use on cows in the winter.

"You got to… grease up," Sasha says, turning about fifty shades of red and each one hotter than the last. Christy doesn't laugh, doesn't even smile, just pulls Sasha back down onto the bed, rolls the two of them over so he's on top again and sets to making sure Sasha knows Christy's not laughing at him, far from it, let him know Christy's on board with the whole thing.

And it works: Sasha kisses him back, licks him too, and soon he's relaxed again under Christy, moaning when Christy licks a nipple the way Sasha licked him before, flipping the two of them over so he can get Christy's arm up over his head, licking there and even using his teeth, makes Christy shudder all over. He tells Sasha please, and Sasha says it back to him and then goes still again.

Well, Christy's not going to back out now, it's the farthest thing from his mind, and he says that to Sasha, point blank: "I want this."

"Good," Sasha says, swallowing again. "Me too."

But then he starts to roll over, leaving Christy kneeling up on the bed staring at both of them like someone just handed him a potato fork and told him to go empty the river. "Uh, Sasha…"

"Just grease it up," Sasha whispers, the back of his neck going red. "Stick it in." He spreads his legs too and Christy doesn't know whether to come already or try to do what Sasha says. But it's not what he thought. Maybe he knows less than he thought he did.

"Can you turn back over?" he asks, touching Alex's ass, rubbing his thumb against the hollow at the base of Sasha's spine. "I sort of thought…"

Sasha rolls half onto his side, his face and chest beet red. "I never…"

"It's all in the same place, pretty much," Christy says, pushing Sasha's hip for all the world like he's coaxing him. "Least I thought it'd work like that."

"Yeah," Sasha says slowly, as slow as he's turning onto his back. "I s'pose…"

"And I want to see you," Christy whispers, leaning down and onto Sasha to kiss him again, feel his hardness pressing up against Christy, wondering for a few seconds what it'd feel like to have that hardness pressing up inside him. "Better that way."

"Yeah," Sasha says, a hitch in his breathing, one hand in Christy's hair and holding Christy down and close. "You're the boss."

And is that all it takes? Christy thought it'd been love, yeah, twice before. And now he knows it wasn't, not even close. 'Cause this is love, has to be, Sasha uncertain as hell but leaning out to take a chance - again - and teasing Christy about the very thing he'd been afraid of not fifteen minutes ago.

Christy could walk one end of the world to the other and not find a man the like of Sasha's heart and courage. He's not sure how he knows it but he does.

Sasha's still holding him close; Christy feels like he just took a turn around the paddock but he wasn't even gone long enough for Sasha to notice. He feels tears wet on his eyelashes and he rubs his face deep into Sasha's neck, licking him and tonguing him up and down so Sasha doesn't notice.

"Christy," Sasha whispers to him after a while, his legs fallen open and Christy between them like it's the most natural thing in the world. "It's okay...;"

Christy pulls back onto his knees, reaching for the jar Sasha left on the night table and putting his finger on Sasha's lips for a second. "Damn sight better than okay," he says deliberately, twisting the lid off and letting it drop to the table top, then pulling out a fingerful of the stuff. "Me and you?"

"Guess so," Sasha says, his eyes dropping. "You, mostly."

Christy looks at the two of them, Sasha tilting his ass up and Christy's cock shining. And his cock never looked so big, and Sasha never looked so... vulnerable. "You sure?" he says doubtfully, putting his cock there but then stopping. Sasha pulls his knees back, but the hole's still awful small.

Well, he's the boss. So he grabs another finger of the stuff and pushes it into Sasha's hole. Sasha jerks like he's been shot and Christy pulls back right away. "God, no," Sasha says. "Please, God-"

So he goes back to what he was doing, working it in a little with his finger, then his thumb. And it's softer than he thought it would be, softer and smoother. He thought maybe it'd freak him out, when it came down to it, but it's not. He wants to grease up, stick it in, just like Sasha said.

"It's good," Sasha's saying somewhere above him. "Christy, it's s..."

He listens to much more of that and he won't last long enough to get it in there. "Okay," he says, more for himself than Sasha, and he puts the head of his cock back there, right there, and pushes a little.

He has to push harder: it's not like a woman after all. Too hard, maybe; the head slips in and Sasha gasps. But when he looks up at Sasha, Sasha's eyes are closed, his teeth in his lower lip, and his ass is still moving towards Christy, pushing up and down, taking Christy's cock in bit by bit.

So Christy grabs hold again, pushes in again, and this time his cock slides in part way. It's all too much, suddenly: pressure around him, behind him, under him, and he squeezes his eyes shut and pushes hard, harder, Alex giving way under him until he's all the way in.

Fucking hell, better than any woman, smooth and tight and strong, and he can't stop. He's moving out, then back in, and Sasha's moving with him, groaning under him, his hands gripping Christy's ass like he'll never let go. A few more thrusts and Sasha's pulling Christy down, arching up off the bed, his mouth wet and open and gasping words Christy doesn't understand against Christy's collarbone.

It's working, working, the two of 'em together and face to face, and he can even feel Sasha's cock between them, still hard, even wet, and he pushes in hard again, wondering how it all feels for Sasha. Must feel good, can't feel as good as this, as good as he feels, caught and held inside Sasha, so tight and warm and deep that he never wants to leave.

And then it gets even better, and he doesn't know how, or why: Sasha wraps a leg around him and moans into his ear and then convulses, his cock is pulsing between them.

Too good, so good, so fucking good, and he drives in over and over until he goes over, head over heels, spending himself in a glorious burst inside Sasha.

His face is wet, or maybe it's Sasha's; and maybe he needs to learn Ukrainian because he's pretty sure it's not English Sasha's murmuring to him; and he burrows down, wrapping himself around Sasha even though he can feel his cock, wet and soft, slipping out when Sasha puts his legs down.

And then there's a sheet over them and Sasha wrapped around him again and Christy goes to sleep with Sasha all around him.

When he wakes it's still light, but he's cold, the bed's cold. And he doesn't know where he is for a few seconds until he remembers: Sasha's room. Sasha's bed.

And no Sasha.

He untangles himself from the sheets and finds the floor with his feet. He feels kind of sticky, but he's more concerned with how Sasha's feeling. Maybe he's having second thoughts, or maybe it was the bed or something.

He stands in the doorway, listening. Could be Sasha just went for a shower. But then he hears Sasha's voice, pitched low, coming from the kitchen. He comes through the door to see Sasha on the phone, a towel around his waist, his back to Christy. He'd gotten a shower, figures; Christy could use one too. He's about to head up to the bathroom, unaccountably relieved, when he hears what Sasha's saying.

"Yeah, I was just thinking," he's saying, sounding uncomfortable. "He might be better off with you with Luke and Bennie both gone. Kind of stupid to keep him around when you want him and the twins nowhere close to being able to ride."

He listens a few seconds and nods even though he's on the phone and the other person can't possibly see him. "Yeah, I'll just see how it goes when they're older. I'm thinking on breeding Lara or Gracie anyhow."

"No, no, Mr. Pierson, we already agreed on a price and I'm not going to take more. That's not neighbourly. You'd be doing me a favour, I told you."

"Yeah, Saturday'd work. I could bring him - oh. Well, yeah, that would work just great, Mr. Pierson. Much obliged. Much obliged to you."

It takes Christy a few seconds to understand what Sasha's doing, and a few more to figure out why. Selling the horse, a horse, not one of the two they've been using, one of the others. To pay Christy? He's running close to the edge but not over it. Maybe he's worried about the bonus, and maybe Christy ought to set matters straight. He ought to have set matters straight to begin with, he guesses, or at least as soon as he saw Sasha's books.

Sasha hangs up and turns around and sees Christy. And he doesn't look guilty or afraid or even self conscious, so Christy guesses that he's not worried about Christy overhearing him. Which is good. He thinks.

To be honest, he doesn't know what to think.

"We kind of overslept," Alex is saying, coming over closer to Christy, his smile warmer and more intimate than Christy's seen on him. He kind of hates to break the mood, but -

"You're selling one of the horses?"

"Well, yeah," Alex says, frowning a little. "Got to thinking without Luke and Bennie to help out, he's just going to be eating his head off. He's a real nice horse, quiet enough. They asked about him for their grandson and I told them I'd think about it. I thought about it." He shrugs. "It's no big deal."

Christy's unsure but he's got something inside him telling him that there's more to it than Alex is saying and that he, Christy, is at the root of it. "Are you selling the horse to pay me, Alex?"

"No," Alex says, setting his jaw. "I'm selling the horse because they want him and they'll take care of him and it's one less worry off my mind. If I get some extra money to hire help, that's a bonus."

"Sasha, listen," Christy says earnestly. "I don't need the money. Don't need the bonus especially, but it was nice of you to think of it. And -"

"Christy, out there I am the boss, and I can't not pay you -"

"Alex, I have my own money!"

That gets through and Sasha steps back, looking uncertain again… uncertain and even sad, or maybe something more. "You just… this is just… fun?" he asks quietly and as sure as Christy's standing there he can see the wheels turning in Sasha's head, how Christy told him he helped out on a dairy farm and such.

"No," he says firmly, wanting to shake Alex good and hard. "My dad gave me the farm some years ago. When he died, I sold it and lit out. I wasn't staying there another second. I got that money, Sasha, that's all I meant. I'm just… I didn't know what to do after he died, I didn't want that to be my home any more, so I up and sold it. And I knew the harvest, that was something I could do while I was figuring out what I was going to do, where I was gonna go."

"Oh," Alex says, but he's looking Christy in the eye again, and he doesn't look as sad as before.

"And I didn't want - I should have told you but I didn't want you to start thinking on something I couldn't guarantee, but that ammonite we found is worth some money, Alex. Real money. Twenty or thirty thousand dollars, maybe more."

"I don't want to sell it," Alex says swiftly, almost like it's a knee-jerk reaction.

"Yeah, but if I can figure out where it came from, there could be more, Sasha. There could be a bed of 'em on your land somewhere. I don't know for sure, I need to look around and read up, but the one we found, that's like money in the bank for you right now."

"I was going to ask you to stay a while," Sasha says after a minute, all quiet, turning so his back's to Christy. "I guess there's… well, I can give you a lift to town -"

"Jesus, Sasha," Christy says exasperatedly. "Look, I told you I'd help you for the harvest, first off. I'm not going anywhere. And I'm not going anywhere after that either, if you don't want me to. And if you do, I might just get a place in town and poach off your fossil bed until you get so tired of me hanging around you give me some chores to do just to get me off your back."

Sasha turns back and looks at him for a long moment, then one corner of his mouth lifts. "Apparently I hired a crazy man."

Christy grins back, almost too relieved for words. "Yeah. You'll never be rid of me now."

It's not true, of course. If Sasha really wanted him gone, he'd go, but he's learning to read him now and he's pretty sure he doesn't. Not yet anyway. Christy's not going to make assumptions this time. But he'll stay as long as he's wanted. And he's hoping right now that that's a long time.

Almost like he read Christy's mind, Sasha puts a hand over Christy's, his expression solemn. "I don't think I'd, uh, mind. That. If you stayed on a while."

Christy's about to respond when the sound of wheels on gravel makes them both jump. Their eyes meet.

"Mama," Alex breathes.

"Shit!" Christy, realizes he's standing naked in Sasha's kitchen and Sasha's mom is about to walk in. Not only is he naked, but he looks, and smells, like he's been doing exactly what he has been doing. "Shower!" he gasps, dashing for the stairs. Behind him he hears Sasha making a beeline for his bedroom and, most likely, clothes. Which reminds him to duck into his room long enough to grab some clothes before he skitters into the bathroom. He clicks the lock in place just as he hears Mama and the twins calling out for Alex downstairs.

He leans against the door, heart pounding, and glances at himself in the mirror to see he's got three or four hickeys, fortunately in places that won't show if he buttons up his shirt. He snickers, shaking his head. They've been acting like a couple of teenagers– high on hormones, running scared from the parents. While it's fun - well, fantastic, to be honest - what he really wants is something a little quieter, a little surer.

And he thinks it might just be in the cards.

He showers quickly, dresses with care, in pants, not jeans, and his good shirt, and a string tie he made from a trilobite fossil he found in South Dakota. He combs his hair neatly, and dusts off his boots with a damp rag, then finally heads downstairs, feeling like he ought to have flowers or chocolate or some other sort of gift for Sasha's mom, since if Sasha was a girl Christy'd be courting him. Then he remembers the petrified wood, still in the mudroom where he'd left it when they came in, and smiles to himself.

From the front room - he's willing to bet Mrs. Bresnyachuk calls it a parlor - he hears Ilya and Irina chattering on about sailors and scouts and cats and something about a tuxedo, and hears Sasha asking bewildered-sounding questions, so it's not just him being confused. He slips quietly down the hall, not wanting to interrupt their reunion, and goes through the empty kitchen into the mud-room. The lump of petrified wood is right where he left it, on the ledge of the laundry-sink, which is convenient.

A few minutes with soap and a scrub brush and the fossil is clean enough to eat off of, not that you'd want to. Still, he won't feel weird showing it to Mama Bresnyachuk now. He still wants to put a coat of lacquer on it, or, even better, get it polished by a real lapidary, but for now it'll do. He turns around to go back in the kitchen and is a little startled to find Sasha's mother standing there watching him, a towel in her hands, and a thoughtful expression on her face.

"Uh, hi," he says.

"Hello, Christy," she says back.

He's nervous, palms sweaty, and he has to hold the stone carefully so he doesn't drop it. "I, ah, found this... it's for you, if you like it." He holds it out, and she bends closer to look. "It's petrified wood. See the rings? Used to be a tree, a few million years ago. Now it's a rock. It's g-got nice colors. I'll get it p-polished up if you don't mind, uh, leaving it with me for a bit."

"For me?" she says, looking up at him, eyes wide.

"Yes. Yeah. For you. All yours. It'll be real pretty once it's polished up. But if you don't like it, I might be able to find a better one." He starts to pull it back, but she stops him with an upheld hand.

"No! No, this is lovely!" She takes it carefully, like it might shatter, and traces the rings of color with a finger. "It was a tree? I did not know a tree could turn to stone."

"Takes a long time, and special circumstances, but yeah, a tree can turn into a rock. We found it in the river today. Sasha's river."

She looks up at him sharply and he feels his face burn. "Many things can become other things over time." The look on her face makes him wonder if she's talking about fossils. Then she reaches out and takes his hand, turns it this way and that. "You have good hands. Capable. Steady."

"Um, thanks?"

She studies him a long moment, and then pats his hand. "When I come tonight, I look at Sasha. He seems different."

Christy tenses, suddenly worried. What did she see? Can people tell just by looking? He was pretty sure they couldn't, but maybe she can, especially with Christy calling her son by her own pet name.

"I see something in him I have not seen in a long time,' she continues, oblivious to his inner turmoil. "He is like he was when he was a boy. He seems… happy. And the only different thing around is you. So I think it must be you who bring this to him." She stops, thinks for a moment, then looks at him again. "It is good he has a friend."

Christy feels his face fire up again, and he can't think of a single thing to say, but he nods. She seems satisfied by that and nods too.

"Come, you set the table, yes?" she asks, turning away.

"Sure." Grateful for something to do, he follows.

Dinner is delicious, beef and mushrooms and onions in some kind of sour-cream gravy, served over thick, homemade noodles. The kids are beginning to lose their shyness around him, and they include him in their deep discussions of what they'd done that day, and a new television show they're very excited about. From what he can gather, it's about some kind of magic princess who thinks she's a schoolgirl and who fights bad guys from another universe. It's a little hard to figure out the details, especially since Irina keeps holding up her spoon and yelling "Moon Prism Power!"

He notices Mama Bresnyachuk watching Sasha when he's not paying attention, an intent, quiet look, but she looks satisfied too.

He also notices that every time Sasha gets up to get more of something or clear a dish, when he sits back down he does it kind of carefully. He sends an apologetic look Sasha's way when Mama B. has her back turned, but Sasha just grins and winks.

After dinner Mama Bresnyachuk seems again in no hurry to rush off and asks if they want coffee. Christy says sure, and Sasha winks at him and then his mama and says he'll get the bottle. Christy's not sure what that means but Mama's grinning just like Sasha so he starts clearing the table and running water to wash up.

"I would have made the coffee myself," she tells Sasha when he comes back from the parlor with a bottle of vodka. "You should tell me before."

"It'll be fine," Sasha says, dropping a kiss on his mama's head. "Just a little celebration, Mama, you can make the real thing on Sunday. I sold Dapper today and Christy's agreed to stay on a while."

"That is good," Mama B. says enthusiastically, taking the bottle from Sasha. "I make the coffee."

Sasha shrugs and grins at Christy, then says to the twins, "You want to help me get the horses in?"

Christy, washing up, watches Mama B. make the coffee. It entails cream and sugar and some of the brewed coffee along with the vodka, and she's cooking it all on the stove. He's not sure what to think about it but he guesses they know what they're doing, even if it's not exactly Irish coffee.

And he grins to think of that. He'll have to get a bottle in town, see what Sasha - and his mom - think about Irish coffee, if they get this excited over some vodka. And while he’s there, he needs to set up a bank account, and get a library card. And find out what he has to do to start becoming officially Canadian. Because whether or not this thing with Sasha is what he thinks it is (and he's amazingly sure about that, for once) he's found where he wants to be.



Feedback: Kellie and/or AuK

AuK: I have to say thanks to Kellie for agreeing to do this in the first place and then putting up with my PMS (and non PMS) freakouts. She found the heart and soul of this story so we could write it.

Kellie: And I have to say thanks to AuK for getting me writing again after nearly a year drought.

Lyrics! Hey, would it be us if it didn't have lyrics?

Wide Open

Sleeping on your doorstep is killing me
I was king of the world now it's killing me
Can you lift me up somehow
Show me what I'm feeling now
In this wide open space
On these wide open faces
In your wide open eyes
I can see
See you all around me
Get myself an island on the sea
Get myself a jetplane to carry me
Can you lift me up somehow
Show me what I'm feeling now
I believe in luck
I believe in fate
I believe that love will find a way
--Paul Durham/Black Lab