They’re here again – Sam and Alex and Abigail, all hanging off the fence while they chat amongst themselves. Shane pretends he doesn’t see them, wiping the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. It leaves a smear of dirt on his forehead. The fence is old, its wood starting to rot and warp from rain and heat, and Shane’s started digging holes for the new posts, to get a head start on the process. He’s been working since seven-thirty. If this were the ranch, Marnie would probably hiss at him for being rude and not greeting their guests, but she’s not here, and Shane’s not in the mood for a bunch of bullshit small talk. And it’s not like they’re there to see him, anyway. They’re there to see –
(The most beautiful man in the world, Abigail had drunkenly declared the other night at the Stardrop, and nobody tried to correct her.)
Theo raises a hand as he emerges from the golden expanse of the cornfields, and Shane can practically see the little hearts forming in Abigail’s pupils. He’d stripped down to his thin white undershirt, his flannel tied around his forehead to keep the sweat out of his eyes, and even at a distance Shane can make out his smile, bright against his warm brown skin.
“Hey,” he rumbles as he jogs past Shane, up to the fence, and Sam and Alex and Abigail all start talking at once in their rush to be the first to greet him, words jumbled into nonsense by the time they reach Shane’s ears. Sam’s practically got stars in his eyes, and Alex can pretend that he’s simply got a case of hero-worship, but Shane knows better. The look on his face is identical to Abigail’s. The less generous part of Shane thinks it’s kind of pathetic, the way they hang all over Theo, but the rest of him, the part that’s as pathetic as they are, gets it. Theo is the sun – wherever he goes, people turn their faces to him like morning glories.
See, the thing about Theo is that he’s nice. Genuinely nice, the kind of guy who doesn’t need a calendar to remember people’s birthdays or think twice to lend a hand; the kind of guy who sends all his neighbors baskets of fresh produce when the harvest starts and always has a sympathetic ear, who’s willing to name any flower or insect Jas or Vincent throw at him no matter how long his day has been. Not because he wants anything in return, or Yoba forbid, expects it, but because it’s in his nature to do it and he enjoys being a good neighbor. Quite frankly, it fucks with Shane’s head.
Look, he’d been – when you hear someone like Theo ‘Lightning’ Rosales is moving to your sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere, you don’t have high expectations. At least, Shane hadn’t. Everyone had been starstruck weeks before the guy even showed up, talking about how the late Emilio Rosales’ famous grandson was moving to Pelican Town after all these years, but not Shane. He was from the city, and he’d played gridball in high school and college. He hadn’t been good enough to go pro, but he’d done alright for himself, and he knew the kind of guys his teammates were. There was no way someone like Lightning Rosales wasn’t going to be a massive tool. Unfair, maybe, to judge him before he even showed up, but no one was going to catch him falling all over himself to impress some rich asshole who thought he was Yoba’s gift to mankind because he could run and throw a ball.
And then Theo had come to the Stardrop on a rainy Monday evening, wearing ripped jeans and battered old hiking boots with a leather jacket on over his hoodie, Lewis beaming at his side as he introduced them all to Emilio’s grandson. Theo had smiled and gone around to shake hands and offered to buy a round for the bar, and as soon as he’d passed Shane a beer with a nod, all dark eyes and callused hands and that fucking smile, Shane was screwed.
(Not that he’d wanted to admit it at the time, but he had been. He was screwed from the beginning.)
Abigail’s talking to Theo now, laughing at something he says, tucking her hair behind her ears. Shane’s never had anything against Abigail, but right now he hates her laugh and her clothes and her stupid purple hair, sparkling like amethyst in the sun. Theo loves amethysts – he keeps a chunk he brought back from the mines on his mantle, milky purple flecked with silver like a crystal galaxy. Shane jams his boot against the shovel until the dirt gives, and then keeps going, tearing a vicious hole in the packed earth.
Finally, finally the three of them leave – Alex has to get to the ice cream stand, Sam and Abigail to their part-time jobs at the museum and the Stardrop, respectively – and it’s just Shane and Theo again, out back of the farmhouse with the chicken coops and the rotting fence. Shane’s shirt is drenched with sweat, clinging to his armpits and back, and he can feel blisters forming on his fingers even through his thick gloves. It’s near one in the afternoon.
“You didn’t have to work through lunch,” Theo says, but he sounds impressed, and it makes something in Shane’s chest unclench. “I didn’t mean for you to do all that yourself.”
Shane leans on the shovel, panting, and shrugs. “Wasn’t hungry.”
“Alright.” Theo glances up at the house. “You hungry now?”
Shane’s stomach growls.
Lunch is a bean hotpot, with lemonade and cold blueberry tart for dessert. They eat it on the porch, watching Theo’s cat Lucky chase butterflies near the melon patch. From the outside, Honeyside Farm doesn’t look so impressive, but it’s not the sprawling garden or the chicken coops or the goat barn that makes it one of the most successful businesses in the Valley. It’s the dozens of apiaries Theo keeps in the greenhouse, lush and humid year-round with every kind of fruit and flower imaginable, including his prize-winning fairy roses and their equally coveted honey. An orchard grows in the field just beyond, its fragrant orange and peach trees flowering white for the summer. Soon they’ll be ready for the harvest. Shane never used to care much for fruit or for bugs, but now he eats peaches fresh off the branch and hangs out in the greenhouse while Theo tends to the bees, their dozy buzzing soft in his ears. It feels good to be part of something that’s thriving for once, like maybe he doesn’t ruin everything he touches. Like it’s okay for him to be part of this.
“You know,” Theo says, breaking the silence, and Shane looks at him out of the corner of his eye. “If someone had told me five years ago that I’d be the happiest I’ve ever been living on a farm, I would have said they were crazy.”
Shane nods. Five years ago, Theo had been ranked third in the Western League. He’d had everything, right up until his ACL tore on the field and sent his career up in smoke. Shane had watched that match on his shitty old television set, heard the collective gasp in the stadium, seen the medics carry Theo’s writhing form off the field. If someone had told him five years ago that he’d be eating lunch with Lightning Rosales, he probably would have told them they were crazy too.
“I really hated myself, back then.” Theo says it casually, like he’s talking about the weather, but his hand is tight around his glass. “After it happened, I couldn’t accept it, you know? I thought there had to be some way around it, or some way to prove the doctors wrong. Something. I almost – “ His gaze flickers to Shane, and he falls silent. Clears his throat after an awkward beat has passed. “I was in a bad place for a long time.”
“Yeah,” Shane says, because Theo knows better than anyone what Shane has been through. This, though, is new. Theo’s never opened up about this part of his past before. Doesn’t like talking about it, which Shane gets – he’s not exactly keen to resurrect the skeletons festering in his closet, either. He takes a sip of lemonade. “It sucks.” It’s stupid, he knows, but he feels like he has to say something, and it’s the best he’s got. “That that happened to you. It really fucking sucks.”
“Yeah,” Theo says, and his eyes soften a little around the edges, expression turning thoughtful. “Even so. I don’t think I’d give this place up for anything.”
“Anything, huh?” Shane leans back, squinting up into the cloudless blue. “Even if someone offered you a chance to go back in time and fix it so you never messed your leg up?”
He instantly regrets it. It’s too personal, and he’s afraid for a second that he pissed Theo off, but Theo tilts his head and chews his lip like he’s actually giving it consideration, neat braids falling over his shoulders. “Yeah,” he says after a minute. “Even then.”
There’s no reason to feel this good about his answer, Shane reminds himself. It's not about him. Theo has plenty of reasons to want to stay in the Valley. Even so, he's warm in a way that has nothing to do with the weather. He nods, staring down at his lap so Theo won’t see the smile threatening to break out across his face. “Didn’t realize you liked this place so much.”
“What can I say? It’s really grown on me,” Theo says, and sets his empty plate aside. “C’mon. Let’s get back to work.”
Shane’s Theo problem has grown teeth.
The compassion, the genuine concern, he’d survived. The smiles, the laughter, the jokes and casual touches, he can handle – it makes him want to die, sure, but he can handle it. Even working for him is manageable, though sometimes Shane longs for the Joja days. He’d never been in danger of falling for Morris. No, all of that was – well, not fine, but tolerable. Better than nothing, if he’s being honest with himself.
No, the problem is Jas. The first time she came up to the farm after Shane started working again, she’d hidden behind him and refused to say more than three words, as shy at ten as she had been at seven and brand-new to Pelican Town. He’d started to apologize – it’s nothing personal, she gets like that around people she doesn’t know very well – but Theo had shrugged him off and squatted down so he was eye-level with Jas, elbows braced against his knees.
“Hey,” he’d said softly. “You like chickens?”
Jas loved chickens, and once Theo had taken her around and let her collect the day’s crop of eggs and pet the goats and showed her the flower garden in the greenhouse, promising to grow her a fairy rose when autumn came, she’d decided she loved him too. It still kind of blows Shane’s mind, the way she comes out of her shell whenever he’s around. She’s so much happier than she was even a year or two ago, curious and clever like her dad, temperamental and headstrong like her mom, and it makes Shane sad and proud and a thousand other emotions to see her trotting after Theo whenever she comes to Honeyside, asking if she can help water the flowers or chattering about the latest bug facts she’d learned from Miss Penny. It hadn’t been so long ago that she could barely walk without someone holding her hands; now, she can barely stand still. Marnie’s always doing old person things lately, like saying ‘where does the time go’ and ‘they grow up so fast’ while she watches Jas and Vincent play through the kitchen window, a wistful look on her face. Shane always rolls his eyes at her, but deep down, he's starting to understand what she means.
So, yeah. His kid likes his best friend-slash-boss, big deal. It shouldn’t be anything, it doesn’t mean anything, but he can’t help the thoughts that crop up in his head when he watches Jas play with Lucky or feed the chickens – that Theo clearly likes kids, he’s good with them, that a farm like this would make a decent place to watch one grow up – and then his chest hurts and he feels like he’s going to barf up his heart because the only thing worse than no hope is false hope, and if he fucks this… thing up, whatever it is –
“What makes them glow?” Jas is asking Theo now, huddled between him and Shane on the docks. The sun set long ago, the night sky awash with stars, and the pier has been decorated with paper lanterns, their reflections twinkling on the water. The whole town is there, but it’s surprisingly quiet, the susurrus of the waves mingling with their hushed voices as they all gather on their pier. They’re waiting.
“Bioluminescence,” Theo says. He and Shane both have little Styrofoam cups of coffee, while Jas is drinking hot chocolate – Willy’s handing out both at the shop while they wait for the jellyfish to come in on the tide. It’s an unusually cool night, with autumn just around the corner, and everyone’s wrapped up in jackets and blankets and each other, huddling for warmth against the ocean air. If Shane turns his head slightly, he can see Marnie and Lewis sharing the old flannel picnic blanket, the mayor’s arm around his aunt’s shoulders. He still thinks Lewis is kind of a dick, but if she’s happy, the least he can do is try to be happy for her. Jas’s eyebrows wrinkle.
“It means something that makes its own light.” Theo taps his chest. “From in here.”
Jas looks suitably impressed. “How do they do it?”
“You’d have to ask Demetrius. He’s the jellyfish expert.”
“How come people can’t do it?”
Theo shrugs. “Didn’t evolve that way, I guess.”
“That sucks,” Jas says. “I wish I could glow in the dark.”
“Me too,” Theo says, and holds out one enormous hand for Jas to high-five him. She giggles and smacks his palm, and he turns to Shane, extending his hand. “How about you? Ever wish you could glow in the dark?”
“Ugh, Uncle Shane,” Jas complains, leaning into him. “Don’t be so boring.”
“What, I’m boring just because I don’t want predators to see me coming from a mile away?” He pokes at her side, and she shrieks with laughter, twisting away from him. “At least I won’t be shark food.”
“You’re so weird,” Jas says gleefully, still giggling. “Uncle Theo, tell Uncle Shane how weird he is.”
Theo’s expression changes, just for a second, and Shane catches it before it’s gone, his heart stuttering. It’s so surprised and soft, so unlike any expression he’s ever seen on Theo’s face, that he has to look away before he can even begin to formulate a response.
“Uncle Theo, huh? You trying to replace me now?” He’s mostly joking.
“No, silly,” Jas says patiently, looking between them. “You can both be my uncle.”
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
“Easy. If you married him, then he’d be my Uncle Theo for real, right?”
She gets him on the intake, and Shane’s coffee goes all down his front when he splutters, coughing. Jas bursts into delighted laughter as he wipes his mouth and shakes off his hands, swearing internally. She looks so pleased with herself that he can’t quite find it in himself to be angry, but then Theo chuckles and Shane rounds on him. He’s ready to be pissed, but then those dark eyes meet his, glittering green and blue and gold like the lights hanging from the pier, and anything Shane might have come up with recedes from his tongue with the tide.
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess I would be. Right, Uncle Shane?”
“Right,” Shane mutters, his face hot, and stares at the brand-new coffee stains on his sleeve. He really is hopeless.
URGENT: HELP WANTED
Calling all harvest superstars – offering first pick of produce for experienced harvesters and all willing hands to come help reap the bounty at Honeyside Farms. This year’s crop is the best we’ve ever seen, and we need you help to bring it in. Opportunities this week, Monday through Friday, experience preferred but not required.
“Did you write this?”
The ad flutters in Shane’s face, torn where it was ripped from the bulletin board in the town square. He puts his hand up, pushes it away. “Emily did.” He’s no good at that kind of thing. Bringing people together is more Emily’s specialty. “I asked her to help me.”
Theo doesn’t say anything. He’s pissed. Shane had vaguely assumed he might be, but it’s one thing to assume and another to have it right in his face, eyes narrowed and mouth flattened, screwed down at the corners. He crumples the ad up and shoves it in his pocket, the paper tearing. Shane flinches.
“You should have checked with me first.”
“I did,” Shane reminds him, trying to keep his own irritation in check. “You kept saying we didn’t need the extra hands.”
“We don’t.” Theo crosses his arms. “I’ve managed the last two harvests on my own just fine.”
“Yeah, maybe, but your crop yield is triple what you normally come up with at the end of the season.”
“So, what? You think I can’t do it or something?”
He gets like this sometimes, Theo. He’s a generous guy, patient and caring, but he has a stubborn streak wide as a river, and there’s no budging him when he digs his heels in. Shane groans.
“Yeah, asshole. That’s why I put up the ad.” Theo opens his mouth, scowling, but Shane beats him to the punch. “Look, I know you think you don’t need anyone’s help and you only gave me a job because you felt guilty for putting Joja out of business, but you also yelled at me for twenty minutes once while I was in the hospital about how everyone needs help sometimes and we need to support each other as a community. So maybe… fuck, I dunno, shut up and take your own advice for once, okay?”
It’s not the most elegant speech, but it gets the point across – he’s been working on it all week. He’s said worse in the course of their friendship, back when he was still trying to hold the guy at arm’s length, but this is the first time he’s ever really put his foot down on anything. He feels like shit, gut churning when Theo’s lips part soundlessly, unguarded surprise plain on his face. It only lasts for a second. The glower deepens, and he turns his back and stalks off toward the field without a word. Shane sighs. Presses the heels of his hands into his tired eyes, biting his tongue so he doesn’t call after Theo. Or scream.
“Is it ever really worth it?” he’d asked Miranda at the end of his last session, sunk into her squashy faux-leather couch with his knees practically touching his chest. He hates that couch, but he likes her. “People, I mean.”
She’d looked at him evenly, and he’d found himself suddenly ashamed, though he couldn’t say why.
“That’s for you to decide,” she’d said. “Isn’t it?”
The morning isn’t off to a great start, but the harvest is. Theo’s adamantly against automating the farm outside of his grandfather’s antique sprinkler system, for reasons Shane still can’t fathom; all it does it lead to more work. This year, he’d decided to experiment with some new fertilizer, some blend he’d ordered in special from the shop in Calico, and his crops had exploded into a patchwork quilt of color – rows of orange and green from the pumpkin patch, deep red cranberries plump on their bushes, tawny yams and glossy purple eggplant, beets and artichokes peeking up from the dirt, and of course, the endless golden fields of wheat and corn. Emily keeps trying to tell him that he’s been blessed by the Fae Folk, whatever that means. All Shane knows is that it would have taken weeks with just the two of them, and he isn’t inclined to let all that produce go to waste.
“Hell of a turn-out,” Lewis had commented upon his arrival, and Shane had just grunted and handed him a basket, trying not to look too pleased. Marnie and Jas had already shown up and were currently out in the field, helping Vincent and Sam harvest berries. Everywhere he looks, there’s someone, the farm crawling with bodies young and old and everywhere in-between as they all hoe and reap and till and pluck, singing traditional songs of bounty and joy beneath the brilliant blue sky. At this rate, they’ll be done before the week is out. He feels pretty good about it, though he’d feel better if Theo would quit sulking inside, pretending he’s not watching the proceedings through the kitchen window. But there’s nothing Shane can do until he decides to come out on his own, so he sets it aside for now and starts in on the eggplants, snapping each one from where it dangles on the trellis and placing it in the wicker basket he’d set aside. It’s simple work, easy to let his mind wander while his hands keep busy. He even finds himself humming along to the harvest songs.
“You’re a real dick sometimes, you know that?”
Shane looks up from where he’s squatting in the dirt, squinting into the sun. Theo’s standing over him, shadow slanted long and thin across the churning earth. Shane can’t make out his face in the light.
“Yeah,” he says, and sets another eggplant in the basket, already starting to overflow. “I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.”
“No, dumbass.” Theo squats down next to him, reaching out with one long arm and snapping an eggplant off the vine. He doesn’t look angry anymore. Just weary, and a little sheepish. “I didn’t hire you because I feel sorry for you.”
“Oh,” Shane says. The singing carries on in the background without him. He stares down at his dirt-caked hands. Theo shakes his head and passes Shane the eggplant. Neither of them says anything while they finish the patch, but his heart feels lighter than it has all week. When he straightens up, basket in hand, Theo rises too, and they look at one another, the tension starting to take shape between them. Shane shifts his weight; Theo clears his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “About how I acted earlier. You were just trying to help.”
Just beyond them, past Theo’s shoulder, Jas and Vincent are laughing, darting in and out of the corn as they chase some of the other kids through the field. Shane chews on the inside of his cheek.
“Everyone loves you,” he says finally. “All you had to do was ask.”
“Or have you ask for me, I guess,” Theo says, and Shane’s pretty sure they’re okay now, if he’s joking about it. The smile is back in his eyes, warm and dark, crinkling at the corners. Shane’s gut lurches, pathetic and hopeful all at once.
“That too, I guess.”
“It was a pretty good ad.” Theo glances toward the pumpkin patch, where Emily and Abigail are chatting while they wrestle one of the biggest specimens into the truck bed. “Maybe I’ll get her to write me another one next year, if this is going to be a trend.”
“She will,” Shane says. His arm is starting to get tired, but neither of them move. “I’m, uh. Sorry too. For going behind your back and all.”
Theo shrugs. “You were just trying to help.”
“Why did you hire me?” Shane blurts. He can’t help it. He’s weak. “If you don’t feel sorry for me, why – “
“Shane,” Theo says, and it’s so unexpectedly gentle, the way his name sounds on Theo’s lips, that it startles him into silence. “You’re my best friend. Who else you think I want hanging around all day?”
“I’m your best friend,” Shane repeats, and Theo reaches out and punches his shoulder gently, somewhere between exasperated and fond.
“Yeah, man. How did you not know that?” Before Shane can even begin to formulate an answer, he drops his hands to his sides, shoving them in his pockets. “Just… don’t think I do nice shit for you because I feel bad for you or something, alright? It’s not like that.”
“Alright.” For once, Shane doesn’t try to stop himself from smiling. “Yeah.”
Theo looks at him for a minute longer, like there’s something else he wants to say, but in the end he appears to decide against it, because he takes the basket of eggplants from Shane like it weighs nothing and jerks his head toward the farmhouse. “I’ll drop these with the rest. Then cranberries. I’m gonna be making cranberry jelly for the next decade, trying to get through this shit.”
“But you won’t plant an extra hot pepper plant for your best friend in the summer. I see how it is.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Theo says, but he’s laughing as he sets off for the house, and Shane can’t see any other choice but to follow him, grinning so wide his cheeks hurt.
Best friend, best friend, best friend, in time with every unsteady beat of his heart.
In winter, everything sleeps but Shane.
It’s not for lack of trying. Yoba knows he tries. Melatonin, laying in a dark room with his eyes covered and a white noise machine next to his bed, not dwelling – Miranda was very specific that he not dwell as the seasons changed. None of it makes a difference. He’s lucky if he gets three hours a night. He’s only working half-days at the farm for the winter, since there’s not much to do once the animals are seen to and the greenhouse tended, which should make it easier to rest, but so far it hasn’t helped. Pelican Town’s winter-white silence is suffocating.
The real problem, of course, is deeper than sleep. He knows why he can’t sleep. Miranda can advise him against dwelling on it all she wants, but it’s right there, hovering over his shoulder. Theo knows, too, which is why he shows up at eight AM on a Saturday with the truck and two thermoses full of black coffee, tires crunching their way up the gravel drive.
“Come with me,” he says when Shane shuffles outside ten minutes later, having been summoned by Marnie. “Bring your trunks and your gym bag.”
There’s no point in arguing with him. Shane digs up his trunks and gym bag from the floor of his closet, grabs his jacket off the hook by the door, and goes.
Theo’s truck is a hand-me-down from his grandfather’s time, its frame battered but its engine still humming like new. They rattle along the outskirts of town, the landscape blurring white with bursts of evergreen from the pines. He hasn’t told Shane where they’re going, but the spa seems like an obvious choice, given the gym bag and the fact that the truck is now turning onto the dirt road that leads up to Robin’s. They park near the shop and hike up the little incline to Pelican Lookout, where the bathhouse and train station are, but Theo strolls right past both to the old brick tunnel that yawns ahead of them, the snowy mountain path opening up on the other side. Shane hesitates, surprised, and Theo glances over his shoulder.
“Come on,” he says. “I want to show you something.”
Shane’s never been this far up the mountain – hiking isn’t really his forte. Cold air nips at his cheeks and claws the breath from his lungs as he lurches up the hill, snow crunching under his boots. Theo keeps pace ahead of him easily. Long-legged bastard. It’s one thing to feel the background radiation of inadequacy in his every day life at a low hum, and another to be confronted with it while he struggles to match his friend’s strides, puffing and red-faced. There isn’t even much of a view to distract him – the Valley is starkly beautiful in the winter, but it all looks the same, trees stripped bare and everything blanketed in snow. He’s so busy wondering what could be up here that he doesn’t realize they’ve stopped, and walks right into Theo’s broad frame, colliding with his back. They both stumble forward.
“Sorry,” Shane mutters, steadying himself, but Theo just shakes his head and motions Shane forward, putting a finger to his lips.
Deer and squirrels are abundant in the Valley, but predators are rare. It’s always been that way, if what Marnie says is true. Peace reigns, and carnivores tend to make their homes elsewhere. The trail plateaus ahead of them into a snowy meadow, surrounded by half-dead bushes and jagged pines. A herd of deer grazes peacefully at its center, nibbling on the bushes and the long grass still poking up from the drifts. It’s small, a few does and a couple of half-grown fawns, and as Shane watches, a buck materializes suddenly, out of the trees. He’s never seen one that big, probably close to sixteen points, its great antlered head raised toward the sky. The buck eyes them for a moment, then lowers his head to graze, clearly having decided they aren’t a threat. Shane looks at Theo, who shrugs one shoulder and smiles.
“Linus says this herd has been living here for generations,” he tells Shane while they sit on a fallen log, gazing out over the meadow. The fawns frolic, kicking up snow. “I come hang out with them when I’m tired of people.”
“You get tired of people?”
It’s genuine curiosity that prompts the question, but Theo just sort of chuckles and nods, like Shane had said something funny. “Sometimes, yeah.”
Silence falls. They watch the deer a little bit longer. It’s nice enough, but Shane’s restless; there’s a tension in the air, like things left unsaid, and it’s itching at him. He tugs at a loose thread on the sleeve of his jacket.
“So, this is why you woke me up at eight AM? To look at deer?”
“Yeah.” Theo nudges his shoulder against Shane’s, nearly jostling him off the log. “And to get your sorry ass out the house.”
“I leave the house.”
“To go to work.”
Shane doesn’t have an answer to that one. He shoves his hands into his coat pockets, wishing he had a beer. That’s the thing he misses most about drinking, sometimes – not the taste, not the sea of oblivion that came to claim him at the end of the night, but always having something to occupy his hands. He’s never sure what to do with them anymore. So he watches the deer instead, and to his left, Theo sighs.
“It’s okay,” he says. “That you’re not over it.”
“I’m over it,” Shane says automatically, hunching in on himself, and Theo just gives him a sad smile and shakes his head.
“Nah, man. You’re not.” Shane bites the inside of his lip, teeth digging into the soft flesh, and tastes iron. Theo leans back with his hands in his own pockets, staring up at the overcast sky. “And I think part of what’s messing you up is that you feel like okay, it’s been two years, you should be over it, and you’re not. But that’s okay. You don’t ever have to be over it. You can just… be fucking sad sometimes, you know?”
The deer move on, disappearing into the trees. They stare at an empty meadow, and neither one of them says a word until Shane puts his head in his hands.
“I want to be over it,” he says, muffled. “Want to pretend it never happened.”
“You tried to kill yourself.” It comes out shaky – not that Shane can blame him. After all, Theo had been the one who brought his unconscious body to Doc Harvey’s in the middle of the night. “That’s not something you forget.”
Shane grunts. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean he wants to hear it. “Don’t know why you’re still friends with me sometimes.”
“So I can keep hanging with Jas and Marnie,” Theo says, and grins when Shane scowls at him. It only lasts for a second. “And because I’ve been there.” Shane eyes him, wary, and he sighs again, scrubbing a hand over his beard. “After my ACL, and the surgery and everything, I was… I was just lost, man. One day it was all there, and the next…” He opens his clenched fist to reveal an empty hand. “Poof. Gone.”
Shane nods. What else is there for him to say?
“I did some shit I’m not proud of. A lot of shit. It didn’t feel like anything mattered, so I didn’t give a fuck. All I did was pop pills and think about dying.” Theo’s shoulders sag. He lets out a long breath. “And then I found this letter from my grandpa.”
“The deed to Honeyside?”
Wind whistles through the meadow, bushes shivering in its wake. It’s probably stunning in springtime, Shane thinks absently, watching Theo out of the corner of his eye. Theo doesn’t notice. He’s lost in some memory Shane’s not privy to, staring down at his hands.
“This place changed me,” he says. “The farm, the Valley, you and Jas… I never thought I’d want this kind of life, but once I had it, it was everything I needed. You know?”
Shane nods again. He does know. A smile flickers at the corner of Theo’s mouth.
“Everything I am today, I owe to this place. And to you.” He puts out a hand to stop the protest before Shane can even open his mouth. “Whatever you’re gonna say, hold that shit, alright? You and Marnie and Jas are family, which means we look out for each other. You’ve been there for me. That means something, and I’m not gonna let you downplay it. Not this time.”
Shane’s heart pounds so hard he can feel it in his throat. This isn’t a side of Theo he’s used to seeing, so sincere, without smiles or jokes to lessen the blow. His palms are damp and his ears are hot and here’s where he would normally say something like it’s nothing or I didn’t do anything, except Theo’s still looking at him with that weird, defiant expression, and it’s all he can do to clear his throat and mumble some incoherent thanks. It’s not good enough. It’s never enough, because then Shane would have to tell him, really tell him, and it’s selfish and shitty but if he tries and Theo doesn’t – if Theo isn’t –
No. Better to fold than risk showing his hand.
“That, uh. Means a lot.” He really is pathetic, more than Abigail or Alex or Sam or any of Theo’s other adoring fans will ever be. At least they’re not afraid to show him how they feel. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, he could say. You put up with my bullshit and you saved my life and you’re fucking amazing, and sometimes I want to kiss you so bad it makes me sick. But the words congeal in his throat, and so he swallows and gives Theo a weak smile. “Pretty sure I’m the one who owes you, though.”
“Nah.” Theo hesitates, like he might say something else, but then the wind picks up, and they both shiver along with the trees. Theo whistles and heaves himself to his feet, a gloved hand extended to help Shane do the same. “C’mon,” he says instead. “Let’s go somewhere warm.”
As part of Shane’s ongoing ‘try not to be a piece of shit’ regime, he’d started letting Theo drag him to the gym. Not all the time, and usually not before noon, but in this case, it’s better than being trapped in his room with his thoughts. He jogs on the treadmill, puffing and red-faced while Theo lifts weights on the bench in the corner, and tries not to stare. It’s easier than it normally is. Probably because his lungs feel like they’re going to explode. He’s been out of shape for a long time, he reminds himself, and it’s not about losing weight or looking impressive (good luck on that front, asshole, a voice in the back of his head mutters). It’s about trying to establish a pattern of making healthier choices, or whatever it is that Miranda’s always saying whenever he gets down on himself. And he does feel better when he’s done. It’s just the actual ‘doing it’ part he has an issue with.
Theo doesn’t share Shane’s issues – he actually enjoys exercising, the sociopath. He’s not a gym rat like Alex, but gridball and farm life have left him with a solid, muscular frame that speaks to years of hard work and manual labor, rather than vanity. Not that he isn’t entitled to it, but Shane’s careful not to look too hard. Not unless he feels like sporting the world’s most conflicted, self-loathing boner. Behind him, Theo grunts, exhaling, and starts in on another set of bicep curls. Shane turns the speed up on the treadmill another notch and wishes for death, or maybe just temporary unconsciousness. Neither one comes.
Between their mountainside excursion and the session at the gym, Shane’s muscles are little more than pulp by the time he’s done, legs and feet screaming in agony. He hasn’t run that much since he played gridball. It feels weirdly good, but not as good as the humid atmosphere of the bathhouse, and he breathes in deep as he eases his sore body into the water, steam enveloping him. Theo sinks onto the ledge across from him, water sloshing.
“’Good’s a strong word,” Shane says, and Theo chuckles. “Feels better than earlier, though.”
“See? It gets easier. You just gotta keep coming back.”
“You know what profound means?”
Shane throws a towel at him.
They don’t go to the bathhouse together very often. It’s one of those invisible boundaries Shane has drawn so he doesn’t do something stupid (it would be way too easy to do something stupid). But this time, his muscles are sore and it’s freezing outside and there’s something about the way that Theo keeps smiling at him that makes his insides feel goopy, and all of that makes it easy to follow when Theo heads for the locker room. They sit in silence now, steam hanging like a curtain between them, and Shane lets his head loll back, closing his eyes. He’s not comfortable, exactly – he’s never really comfortable – but it’s nice, being here like this, not having to worry about filling every minute with bullshit small talk instead of just enjoying the quiet. When he opens his eyes again, he finds Theo watching him, expression unreadable.
“What?” he asks, sinking into the water until he’s submerged to his chin. It comes out more defensive than he’d like.
He’s sort of expecting Theo to look away, but he doesn’t. Just keeps on staring at Shane with those dark, heavy-lidded eyes, a little crease in the center of his brows like he’s trying to puzzle something out. It’s like having a layer of skin stripped away, having that undivided attention, and Shane ducks his head, glad his face is already red from the heat. “Why are you looking at me like that, then?”
“I dunno, like… that. Weird.”
“I’m not – “ Theo breaks off, shaking his head. “Never mind. Sorry.”
Theo hesitates. It’s not something he does often – he’s always carried himself with a kind of easy confidence that Shane envies – and the odd tension hanging between them thickens, mingling with the steam. “I’ve been thinking lately,” he says. “About the future, where I see myself in ten years, shit like that. Trying to figure out what I want out of life.”
Shane’s heart has a vice around it, squeezing, squeezing, squeezing tight. “Uh huh.”
“I’ve got a good thing going with Honeyside, and it’s made me realize that I really want to build something here. Something long-term. You know?”
“Back in Zuzu, growing up, I always thought I’d want a family someday, but it was an abstract kind of thing. I just figured I’d know when I was ready, and then everything would magically fall into place.” Theo’s not quite meeting his eyes, but he’s still looking at Shane with that same strange, inscrutable expression, like he’s trying to see if Shane is really listening. “I don’t think I’m ever gonna be ready, but I want it anyway.”
“Nobody’s ever ready,” Shane says. Blue and red sirens flash through his memory, washing over Jas’s sleeping face. She’d been so tiny then, when she’d first come to live with him. Some nights he’d just sit by the side of the bed after she’d fallen asleep and stare at her, wondering how he was supposed to care for something so breakable.
“Is it worth it?”
“Every day,” Shane tells him honestly. Theo’s expression goes soft around the edges.
“Shane – “
The door clangs, hinges groaning, and they both start as Alex comes strolling in, coat tucked under his arm and his gym bag over his shoulder. He looks taken aback to see them, but recovers quickly, giving Theo a wave; Shane grunts, and Theo nods at him, a quick jerk of the chin.
“What’s up, Mullner?”
“Just getting in a quick workout before I go help my grandma with some stuff.” Alex is trying way too hard to sound casual, but then again, Shane can’t really blame him. The sight of Theo’s bare chest on display would have distracted almost anyone. “You guys gonna be here for a while, or…?”
To Shane’s undying relief, Theo shakes his head. “We were actually just getting ready to head out.” Alex’s face falls, to which he amends, “We still on for Wednesday?”
“Yeah,” Alex says, brightening again, and they chat for a minute about last night’s game before he excuses himself to the locker room. As soon as he’s gone, Shane looks at Theo, who shrugs.
“Ready to go?”
It’s a weird feeling, to be relieved and disappointed at the same time. Shane hauls himself up onto the side of the pool, reaching for a fresh towel. “You busy today?”
“Don’t think so. Why?”
“Jas has been bugging me all week to remind you that you ‘promised to watch A Junimo’s Tale’ with her again, and she’s not gonna drop it until you do, so…” He’s still damp, but he tugs his shirt on anyway, the fabric clinging to his skin. “Wanna come entertain my kid for a few hours? It pays absolutely nothing, but I’ll order pizza.”
He can do this. He’s not cured, and it’s never really gone, the thing that lives marrow-deep in his bones, but he can keep going. For days like this, he can be better.
“Oh, well,” Theo says, and grins. “If there’s pizza.”
“What do you mean, you don’t celebrate your birthday?”
“Shane,” Theo says, amused, and his name escapes in a plume of white. “I’m almost thirty. I’m a grown man. I don’t need a birthday party.”
Shane burrows deeper into his hoodie, wishing he’d brought his scarf. “You celebrate everyone else’s.” The Night Market is crowded, but body heat is nothing compared to the wind rolling in off the sea. Jas and Marnie are somewhere ahead of them on the pier, cooing over the decorated boats bobbing in the harbor, their rigging festooned with lights. “Emily talks about that loom you had Robin build her all the time.”
On the one hand, he gets it. He’d never cared much about his own birthday growing up – presents were an uncommon occurrence at best, and rarely anything worth getting excited over – and he’s never lived anywhere so communal. The calendar in the town square still makes him uncomfortable. On the other hand, he’s had to suffer through three years of Theo finding him the perfect birthday gift, and never once letting him return the favor. So really, fuck him.
“This place is obsessed with birthdays,” Theo says, picking up a miniature replica of a Junimo, a starfruit clutched in one of its little stick arms. “Do you think Jas would like this?”
“Smooth.” Shane swipes it out of his hands. “And yeah, she’ll love it. Don’t change the subject.” Theo glares at him, but Shane’s had a lot of time to get used to Theo’s glares, and underneath that tough exterior beats the heart of a marshmallow. He remains unmoved. “If it’s not a big deal, then just tell me when your birthday is, and I’ll drop it.”
“Yoba. Fine.” Theo swipes the figurine back, digging around for his wallet. “It’s Winter Star.”
Shane blinks. “You were born on Winter Star?”
“That’s generally what a birthday means, yeah.”
“Fuck off, you know what I meant. You never said anything before.” He’s celebrated three of Theo’s birthdays, and gotten someone else a present each time. Shit. Theo shrugs.
“Holiday birthdays suck when you’re a kid. You’re already getting presents for Winter Star, so most people just double up and count it as a birthday gift, and the day is never really about you, so I just kind of… stopped as I got older. I barely even think about it anymore.” Shane must not look convinced, because he stops what he’s doing and drapes his arm around Shane’s shoulder, pulling him into a loose side-hug. “Seriously, if I cared, I would have told you before now. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not,” Shane lies.
He believes Theo. He does. It just doesn’t seem right, now that he knows, not to do something about it. The following night, he goes back to the market alone and wanders the pier until he finds the woman who runs the merchant caravan and her pig, dockside in her jaunty purple skiff. She has a knack for knowing what people need, even if they don’t, and as soon as she sees him, she holds up one finger and winks.
“Wait just one second.”
Shane doesn’t question it. He doesn’t question a lot of things about Pelican Town. Just shoves his hands into his pockets and waits until she surfaces with a little cloth bundle, holding it out for inspection. Shane takes it. There’s a green ribbon tied around it in a neat bow, and it’s lumpy beneath his fingers, the insides shifting when he squeezes. “What’s this?”
“Periwinkle Queen seeds. They’re a rare variety of fairy roses that only bloom once every seven years. The blossoms are sort of a blueish-purple color, lovely in the fall.” Her smile is knowing. “Just the thing for an experienced gardener, I’d imagine.”
Shane pulls out his wallet, heat crawling up the back of his neck.
Lewis is a cheap bastard nine times out of ten, but even he spares no expense for the Feast of the Winter Star. The town square looks like something out of a storybook, garlands wound around the lampposts like ivy and trimming every rooftop and doorframe with snow layered thick on the ground. A quartet of musicians play a holiday carol next to the Wishing Tree, harp and flute fluttering over the stately voices of the cello and viola, and even Shane has to admit that Lewis really went all out on the decorations this time – its boughs drip with ornaments, silver and gold tinsel glistening amidst the pine needles, and the star on top sparkles in the wintry sunlight. Gus and Emily are busy supervising the rush to get food out onto the banquet table, platters of roasted root vegetables with cranberry sauce and wild mushroom risotto piled next to bowls of stuffing and roasted hazelnuts with five different kinds of dessert, including Caroline’s homemade blackberry cobbler and Gus’s famous pumpkin pie. There’s even hot pepper preserves that have been curing since summer, Shane’s favorite, but right now the thought of eating makes him queasy. He’s been nauseous all day, and the feast hasn’t even started yet. Marnie’s by the Wishing Tree, fussing with the tinsel, but she waves when she sees Shane, beckoning him over.
“Gorgeous, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he says, glancing impatiently at her handiwork. “Look, I have a favor to ask.”
“I might need to leave the feast a little early. I, uh… have somewhere to be. Could you take Jas home for me?”
He’s half-expecting her to decline, or at least argue about having her evening with Lewis interrupted, but she just hangs another ceramic star from the nearest branch and gives him a knowing smile, almost identical to the one the traveling merchant had been sporting when she’d sold him the seeds.
“Oh, I think I can manage that just fine.” Her glance strays, pointed, to where Theo is chatting with Granny Evelyn while they hang holly wreaths in the shop windows. “Don’t worry about us. You enjoy your night.”
“Thanks, Aunt Marnie,” Shane mumbles, wondering exactly when he became so transparent. To his unending mortification, she leans over and kisses his cheek.
“Don’t mention it, dear.”
It’s almost evening before he finally manages to excuse himself – the feast is in full swing, music and voices chiming out merrily across the square, and he’d finally gotten over his anxiety long enough to choke down a piece of cobbler before Emily swoops down on him. She’s his secret gift-giver this year, and Shane’s obliged to sit through several minutes of her tearing up while she tells him how proud she is and how far he’s come since he moved to the Valley. It’s both excruciating and weirdly nice. She’s knitted him a scarf out of soft wool, dyed by hand to a deep forest green, which he loves enough that he doesn’t protest when she throws her arms around his middle and hugs him, squeezing tight.
“I know sometimes you think I’m annoying,” she whispers in his ear, “but I’m still glad you’re my friend.”
“Emily,” Shane says, startled, and she lets him go.
“Ooh, look, they’re breaking out the cranberry candy. I’m gonna go get some before Jas and Vincent eat all of it.”
Shane isn’t sure what comes over him then, but he reaches out and grabs her wrist before she can bolt. “Emily.” She looks at him expectantly, head cocked, and he gives her hand a squeeze. “I’m glad you’re my friend too.”
Emily beams like the sun. This time, when she makes to leave, he lets her go. As soon as her back is turned, he wraps the scarf around his neck and hurries away from the square, toward the road out of town.
Decorating, as it turns out, isn’t Shane’s forte. Not that there’d ever been a question, but he’s never really tried before – Marnie usually takes over decoration duty for Jas’s birthday parties and lets him clean up after. Theo loves setting the farm up for the holidays, though, so Shane figures he should at least try. The man builds an actual corn maze for Spirit’s Eve – the least Shane can do is try to set up the living room. It’s way harder than it needs to be. Theo doesn’t strike him as a ‘confetti and streamers’ kind of guy, and most of the local shops only sell Winter Star-themed decorative crap around this time of year, so he’d been forced to get creative. In the end, he’d picked up some of the nicer bouquets from Pierre’s, deep purple crocuses married to primrose and snowdrops, and put them around the room, high enough that Lucky can’t get at them. There’s a fire crackling in the hearth, and he’d even found some purple and white balloons, to match the flowers. The seeds have been wrapped in some silver paper he’d found in the hall closet (the only one not explicitly labeled for the holiday). It’s not exactly pretty, but it’s the best he’s got.
Oh, fuck, he thinks, with the sudden clarity of an incoming panic attack. He’s gonna hate it.
But there’s no time to panic, because the door is opening, a gust of cold air curling across the living room, and there’s the familiar tromp of boots on the welcome mat, followed by Lucky’s chirrups as the door shuts and heavy footsteps. They stop abruptly in the hallway, and a bewildered voice says, “Shane?”
Here goes nothing. He turns around, hands shoved deep in his pockets, and forces himself to meet Theo’s eyes. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Theo echoes.
Shane’s palms are sweating now. He wipes his hands on his jeans and gestures around, clearing his throat. “So, uh… happy birthday.” Theo’s quiet, taking all of it in with that same strange expression he’d worn in the spa a few weeks ago, and sweat’s already staring to gather in the small of Shane’s back. “Got you something.”
Theo seems to notice the package for the first time. It’s tiny in his broad, work-worn hands, its wrappings flimsy and uninspired. Shane has a bizarre impulse to snatch it away and beg for a second chance, to give him another day to come up with something better, but there’s nothing he can do about it now. Theo peels the tape off with meticulous fingers, and the paper falls away to reveal the little cloth bag, bulging at the seams. He looks up at Shane. “What is it?”
“Seeds. They’re a type of fairy rose… Periwinkle Princess or something.”
Theo goes very still. “Periwinkle Queen?”
“Yeah, sorry. That.” Shane shrugs helplessly. “She said they were rare, and I know those are your favorites, so…”
It’s an eternity before Theo speaks again. He sets the pouch down on the table, hand lingering, and his voice is strained with something dangerously close to emotion. “I’ve been looking for this breed for over a year. No florist or nursery within a hundred-mile radius has seeds, and if they did, they’d be stupid-expensive.” When Shane doesn’t say anything, he clears his throat. “Where did you – “
“Merchant caravan.” Shane rubs the back of his neck. “Guess I just got lucky.”
This time, the footsteps are faster, and then Theo’s right there, invading his personal space in a way that’s too deliberate to be anything but intentional, right before he crushes Shane to his chest in a giant bear hug, his nose pressed into Shane’s hair.
It’s not the first time they’ve hugged, but it doesn’t happen often, and Shane can’t help leaning into it just a little. Theo’s warm, his body pouring off heat like a furnace, and he smells faintly of woodsmoke and cologne. When he tilts his head back, their eyes meet again, and a jolt crawls down Shane’s spine, something like panic again but infinitely sweeter.
“Just so we’re clear,” he says, “this is a birthday gift. Not a holiday gift.”
Theo kisses him.
It’s cautious at first, like he’s waiting for Shane to pull away, but then Shane balls Theo’s shirt in his fists and yanks him down into the kiss, and then Theo’s backing him up against the wall, pushing balloons out of the way so he can press himself all the way against Shane and bury those rough fingers in his hair, kissing him slow and deep. It’s something Shane’s wanted for longer than cares to admit – he’d almost kissed Theo at the gridball game they’d gone to last year, when the Tunnellers won the play-offs, but chickened out at the last minute – but he’d never let himself think about it. Expectations only ever led to disappointment. But this, this moment, this man, this path he’s starting to carve for himself, is the antidote, and he melts into the kiss, arms tightening around Theo’s neck. The fire burns, Lucky purring on the rug by the hearth, and neither of them says anything for a long while. Shane loses any words he might have to Theo’s lips and teeth and tongue, hands in his hair, on his waist, clasping the back of his neck.
“Stay,” Theo murmurs, forehead pressed against Shane’s, one thumb stroking his temple. “I’m tired of watching you go.”
Shane’s entire body feels like it’s burning up from the inside out. He turns his head, presses his lips to Theo’s palm.
“Stay,” Theo says again, softer this time. Like a prayer, or a wish.
Outside, the wind scrapes at the windows with icy nails, and high on the horizon, the Winter Star itself shines, a diamond on the black velvet sky. Inside, the fire burns down to embers, then ashes.