~ Going Home ~
by C. E. Gray



Top 25: Dec. 1, 2003
Top 25: Aug 6th 2004
Top 25: Aug 6th 2004
Standard Disclaimer: The plot line, characters, and other items contained within this story are mine. Therefore, this work is Copyright 1997-2004 C. E. Gray. Please ask before borrowing.

Time Disclaimer: I actually began this story several years ago, hence the 1997 bit in the copyright above. I wrote three pages of it, almost the exact same first three pages you have here, and then lost it. Nothing on my computer, nothing in a notebook, nothing but a hard copy drifting around somewhere that I'd typed on a whim. Six years later, I stumbled across it again, and managed to flesh it out. From three pages without a single line of dialogue, this is what my muse has come up with. *grin* Sometimes I scare myself.

Sex/Violence Disclaimer: There is mention of love between members of the same sex, though nothing extremely graphic (sorry Tina! Not this time.). If this notion bothers you, you're welcome to continue reading; maybe you'll gain a new perspective. Or, let me know, and I'll see if I can send you a few oatmeal raisin cookies, because I really do feel bad for you.

And, there is talk of self-injury, most specifically, cutting. This can be a strong topic, and if it bothers you, you may not wish to read this work. However, I promise I have tried to portray it as accurately as I can. Please let me know if anything is incorrect.

If you, or someone you know, is a cutter or struggling with self-injury, there is help. The hotline 1-800-DONTCUT (366-8288) is available, as well as the website http://www.palace.net/~llama/psych/injury.html.

Please see the final page, or click here for more information, and more phone numbers.

Location Disclaimer: While I have never been to Montana, I did consult a native for much of the information used within. Also, I have a terrible memory and have used many resources from the Internet for information about San Francisco. However, my muse likes to twist things for creative license, so it sounds better. If there are any glaring mistakes, blame them on me.

Other: I am not dyslexic, but a few of my friends and family are, and I have done some research, so I have tried to be as accurate as possible. Also, there is a wonderful story out there, Dyslexic Writer by Red Hope, which yields a first-hand perspective of dyslexia. Definitely a work to read over at least once, and thank you, Red Hope, for sharing your friend's story with us. Again, when my muse gets a hold of things, sometimes any sense of reason goes out the window. But if anything is too out there, please let me know, and I will attempt to correct it.

Special Thanks: More thanks than I can express to Lis for all her help and patience in answering my questions, and for poking me with a blunt stick to keep me writing, and to my former roommate for all her Montana knowledge.

And Finally: A thank you to all my friends (fans and readers and fellow bards are all included) for keeping this little bard going, and for keeping fan fiction going. I write because I enjoy it, but I'm glad other people have found some good points in it as well. To Amber, Char, Misty, Tina, and everyone else who kept bugging me to write. Any comments, good or bad, may be sent to y02mustang@aol.com. Please put "feedback" somewhere in the subject line, and note that any flames will be promptly extinguished and discarded.

This one is for Lindsay - for bringing me back, and Alex - for being there when I returned.

"I know that this ain't wrong, what we do. Only that the world says it is."
- From
Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters



"I can hear you laugh
When I close my eyes
I can picture your face
And the strength inside your smile
I can see the words
Dance across your lips
I'll remember forever
Something more than this

And you can't go farther
Than my heart can will go
Cause I'll still be loving you
Thought the sadness and the madness here
And I'll always be with you
In the distance
That has taken you
From me?"
         - Plumb,
Taken


Chapter One


I guess it makes the most sense to start at the beginning? but in order to understand everything I'm going to tell you, I'd better go back just a few days. Then maybe it'll be clear - why I did what I did, and why things are the way they are right now?



It was warm, and the sun shone down brightly across the flat, dry land that I called home. The land had been my home for all my seventeen years, and if I had any say in it, that Montana ranch-land would always be my home. The brush was dry, the sand had been scorched by the sun, and after the summer, rain was a cause for celebration; but it was home.

There were many, many people who could not wait to leave, to go on to the city - Livingston was the largest and just due west of us - and they called me crazy because I wanted to stay. I could never understand why they would want to leave the peaceful living they had in the country for bustling and noisy cities where people feared their neighbors and double-checked their locks. So I ignored the people who called me insane.

What did it matter, as long as I was happy?

My name is Annika Justine Mulligan, but those who didn't call me crazy called me AJ. Even my twin brother Bastiaan, my mother Susan, my father Justin, and my few close friends called me AJ. Well, unless I was in a heap of trouble, in which case I was Annika Justine in that tone of voice that makes me wince.

I had let my brown hair grow to near the middle of my back, and almost always held it back in a loose ponytail. I was fairly tall, for a girl, as I stood at about five-foot ten-inches. I doubted I would grow anymore, which was fine with me. The eyes I looked through were light blue, although they were often called gray, and I was blessed with the even smile of my mother.

As I stood overlooking the property of my father that day, the property that in a few short weeks would be mine, I smiled. The creek that ran through the land, part of Spring Creek I believe, shaded and partially hidden by trees that grew alongside, was almost too bright for my eyes as the sun's rays bounced off the clear surface. I saw birds of all sizes scatter themselves across the sky as I roamed, and even caught a glimpse of a hawk. There were patches of vegetation here and there, but where it grew, it thrived. I had been keeping a mental record of the size of the greenery, and noticed that every couple of months, it increased. And it increased at such a rate that in a couple of years, nearly half of the land would be overcome with grass and shrubs. Yes, those who wanted to go could go, but I would stay where you did not have to visit some park to find plant life.

I walked around, and climbed a small hill that I hadn't explored before. I'd only recently learned that the land would be mine upon my eighteenth birthday. Specifically, I would get just over a thousand acres, several hundred head of cattle - dairy and beef, nearly two dozen breeding horses, four herding dogs, two cats, and one very talkative parrot. I wouldn't be solely responsible for all of it until my parents passed on, of course, something I hoped was far off yet. My dad would help me learn more about just how the business end of it worked, but my name would be added to the deed for the land and ownership papers on the rest of the property, and that was enough for me to call it mine.

Cresting the hill, I had a very good view of the land below, and noticed that it had more lush grass than any other area. Looking at the hills surrounding the valley, I assumed the plants grew better because a lot of the water from the rain drained down there, and soaked slowly into the ground even after the rain had passed.

A noise caught my attention, and I looked to my right. The sight I saw made me reach down and pinch my arm, as what I was seeing then, I had only seen before in my dreams. A group of at least twenty horses ran past, and since I didn't see anything chasing them, I figured they were running for the pure pleasure of it.

The mighty black stallion in the lead thundered across the ground, leaving a trail of thick dust behind him. His muscles were visible, even from the hundred feet that separated us, straining as he pushed himself to run faster. The horse's immense hooves, which seemed to be made of steel, propelled him along at a speed so fast I could have sworn he never touched the earth. His tail was arched regally behind him, and he lowered his head, snorting as he exerted his energy. The animal was a beautiful sight to behold.

Many wild horses traveled through our lands, although they were rarely seen, and certainly their travels so close to a human were even less frequent. I just stood there, watching them. There were six or seven colts, I observed, but they seemed to keep up pretty well with the others. Two pregnant mares followed not far behind, though at nowhere near the speed of the rest of the herd.

I saw dark horses, white horses, golden horses, paint horses, grays and bays, but the one in the lead was the only completely black horse. I'm sure the only word resounding in my head was "wow".

The others followed the midnight horse, and he led them on an undetermined path, dodging this way and that, sometimes heading forward, sometimes going in a circle. Suddenly, he leapt up into the air and bucked. He was having so much fun! I couldn't help but laugh at how carefree they seemed, how much joy they got from just running.

I watched them for quite a while, and eventually they settled down, grazing in the valley. Watching the black one in particular, I noticed that each time I moved, the ear that was closest to me would quickly flick in my direction, but then resume its forward position. Even with distance between us, the horse could hear me step on a twig or shuffle the small rocks as I walked.

At first I was worried, because I thought, If they hear me, they're sure to run, either away from me or right at me. We had horses, sure, and I knew a lot about them; spent a lot of time with them. But these were wild horses, mustangs, free and untamed. I didn't feel I had any right to guess their reactions based of that of their domestic cousins.

Soon, however, I realized that they didn't think I was much of a threat, and the ear didn't move my way quite as often. It seemed that they got used to my presence and the slight noises I would make. Perhaps it was because I was so far away, or because I had yet to move any closer. I was positive that if I did, I would frighten them, so I stayed right where I was on top of the hill.

Besides the horse the color of coal, there was a young colt that got my attention. He had a golden coat, a silver mane and tail that shimmered in the sunlight, and a white sock on his left hind foot that went halfway up his leg. I knew the color pattern to be called Palomino, meaning a yellow coat and white mane, and I nicknamed him Moon Dancer. The colt was gorgeous, but he was also a trouble maker.

As I watched, Moon Dancer walked up to one of the other colts and butted his head against the smaller one's side. The small chestnut colored colt, with a diamond star on her forehead, tried to ignore Moon Dancer, but the head butting continued. Finally Little Star, as I called her, had enough, and was forced to return fire. Backing away, Moon Dancer tried to escape Little Star's reach, but she struck out with her powerful legs, and landed a direct blow to his chest. It was not meant to do any damage, as no blow followed, but it was enough to convince Moon Dancer to move on.

I looked around at the other horses, and named each individual amazing creature. There was Cuddle Bug, the bay stallion who just wanted to be loved; and made the rounds, giving everyone the chance to do so. He would walk up to each one, lower his head, and gently nuzzle them. A couple returned the affection, but most just turned away. Ever optimistic, Cuddle Bug went, undaunted, to another part of the flatland, giving the other a chance to cool off. A few minutes later, he would return, and repeat the process until one of the others allowed him to stay by their side. He was strong, and very large with no markings, but he was so docile it was adorable.

Rose was one of the pregnant mares, with a beautiful red coat and black mane, as well as a white streak that ran from the middle of her forehead down to her muzzle. She was very stand offish, unless Cuddle Bug or a colt came up to her, then she would nuzzle and nip and love them. I figured she would be more social when her colt was born, and from the size of her stomach, as well as the month, I didn't think it would be too much longer. I found Cuddle Bug snuggling up next to her most often.

Copper Wonder was a young colt, who was such a lovely shade of golden brown it was hard to believe he wasn't a Palomino. His black mane and tail proved him to be of Buckskin coloring, and I noticed that all but his right front foot had socks. He was spunky and playful, but seemed to enjoy the calm that surrounded his mother, and stayed by her side much of the time. The only time he left was to visit Rose or to teach some of the younger ones a lesson.

Those were the five that seemed to stick out from the crowd, so those were the five I named. The black stallion also hit me as unique, of course, but I couldn't decide on a name that sounded right for him, so I decided to give it more thought. I wanted it to be special, as names were important in my family.

For example, my first name was Scandinavian for "grace", and my middle name, besides being reminiscent of my father whom I loved dearly, meant "just" in Latin. My parents always told me the name is an indication of the person, not disregarding individual personalities of course, and I applied that to the animals in my life, whether it was the same or not.

I stayed there, watching the horses in the valley, until the sun began to set. I knew if I didn't start back soon, I wouldn't return to the house before it was completely dark, and while I didn't mind, I knew it worried my mother. And still, I was reluctant to leave. With a silent bid goodnight to the living legends of the west, I turned back and walked the way I had come, marking the place in my mind as somewhere to return often. Even if I was never able to see them again, I would always have the memory.

* * * * *

I entered the house through the front door, stomping my boots on the mat to get rid of all the dirt before I tracked it through the house and on the carpet, a crime my mother could pin on any one of us just by looking at the shoeprint. I wore cowboy boots, my brother wore tennis shoes, my father chose work boots, and my mother? well, she just never attracted dirt, so she was never a suspect. I had tried wearing my brother's shoes out once, but she still knew it was me. I didn't even try to get her to explain how she did it, I just started scrubbing.

Going so far as to take my boots off and placing them next to the front door, under the coat rack, I walked into the kitchen with socked feet, searching for dinner. Bastiaan would be in his room studying for his college tests, my dad was probably sitting in his recliner reading the newspaper, so it was with no surprise that I found my mother on her own.

I kissed her cheek by way of greeting, coming up behind her.

She turned from whatever she was cooking? smelled like minestrone soup if I wasn't mistaken, and smiled at me.

"Oh, AJ, go wash up. Then you can help me finish dinner."

I nodded, and walked up the stairs to my bedroom, peeling off my shirt and quickly removing my jeans. Pulling on a pair of flannel pajama pants and an A-shirt I had borrowed from my brother, I took off my socks, tossed all the dirty clothes in the hamper in my closet, and washed my hands in the bathroom on my way back downstairs.

I had been helping my mom cook our meals for almost as long as I could remember. It used to be that everyone took turns. Bastiaan would help cook one week, then my dad, and then me. Whichever sibling wasn't cooking would clear the table. It didn't taken long for the men to realize that dinner always seemed to taste better if I had a hand in it rather than them, and soon they "bowed to my superior cooking skills", to quote my brother. I think they just wanted to get out of the kitchen, personally. Bastiaan burned whatever he touched and Dad was much too prone to experimenting for anyone's stomach to handle.

They tried, I'll give them that. But if they wouldn't have said anything, I was about to. I don't know how long mom was prepared to handle burnt rice or cooked spinach in marina sauce with tofu meatballs, but she's a stronger woman than I am - by Dad's third week, I was ready to wave a white flag.

So, it became just me and my mom in the kitchen. That was how I liked it. I got to spend quality time with my mom, and dinner turned out pretty damned good, if I say so myself.

I tasted the soup briefly, and added just a bit more salt. My mom handed me the French bread, and I began buttering the slices as I worked, sprinkling garlic over the pieces before putting them in the broiler for a while.

"How far did you go today?"

"A little farther than I've gone before, but I've still got a ways to go before I see everything," I replied. "I did see some mustangs, though."

My mother looked interested. "Oh?"

"Yeah, almost two dozen. They were beautiful, mom." I told her of my experience, and she smiled gently when I was done, at my mention of wanting to stay around them longer.

"You always did prefer animals to keep your company."

I shrugged, and didn't say anything. I didn't have to. My mom knew I preferred my friends to be of the four-legged variety, mainly because they made no judgments against me, and because I hadn't spent much time in school to make many of the human kind. I was dyslexic; unusual for a girl, perhaps, but that didn't change things. When my parents investigated my problems in school and learned of the disability when I was in grade school, they searched for assistance in the form of special teachers, but my frustration mounted when I didn't improve. I was young, and though I wanted to be able to read like the other kids, I gave up quickly. They taunted and jeered, and made up names it still hurt to remember.

I left. It wasn't unusual in our town for kids to leave school early to help their parents with their property. Granted, sixth-grade was a little early even in that case, I didn't care. I tried, and failed. Normally I wasn't one to give up so easily, but I was young, and didn't handle the frustration well. I wasn't going to let the others rub my face in it for the rest of my life.

It was bad enough my brother was a straight-A honor student. He had always known he was going to a big-name college, and I was proud of him. But it had taken a long time to get over being jealous of his ability to read books so quickly.

Shaking my head, I removed the toast before it was burnt beyond recognition, and set it on the table. My mother had already set the plates out while I was lost in thought, and I finished by adding the silverware and the napkins and such. Then, calling for my brother and dad, I sat at the rectangular table, and my mother joined us with the pot of soup just moments later.

Bastiaan led us in grace, and my father dished out everyone's meal. We chatted idly, my father quite excited to learn of my time out on the land, not to mention my brother's high hopes of doing well on the SAT. It was early December, and if I remembered correctly, the next chance he had to test was sometime in late February. Nearly three months away and he was already locked up in his room with those books?

I always thought he studied too much.

While my brother cleared the table, my father settled back in his chair and placed his hands, clasped, on the table. He was a good looking man by anyone's standards, I thought. Barely forty, two years younger than my mom, he was still in fine shape. Strong with muscles cut from years of working the ranch, tan from the sun, and thin by nature, I didn't think he had a single gene that would lead to old-age. He took care of himself and ate well - despite raising cattle for the slaughter, we were all vegetarians - and showed no signs of losing any of his brown hair.

The deep green eyes in his patient face settled on me.

"George Ruskin told me someone finally bought the old Tops place, and moved in last weekend," he said, and I raised an eyebrow. The Tops land had bordered much of ours, I knew, and while the owners had died when I was still in diapers, my dad told me stories of their kindness. Our cattle liked to tear down some of the fences, and 'visit' the Tops' land. They didn't mind, but there was no way to tell if our new neighbors (if you can call folks that live more than two miles away neighbors) would be as amiable.

"What do we know about them?"

"All George could tell me was that they just have one child, and a lot of dogs. Said they moved from some city in California. What they're doing here on six hundred acres of land, your guess is as good as mine," he confessed, and I frowned slightly. Our family had started out with a few acres when my dad was small, and built up from there, buying pieces of land whenever they were offered, and sometimes even if they weren't. What a Mulligan wants, a Mulligan gets, my dad was fond of saying. Not that we were ever dishonest in our dealings, the few times we wanted an acre or seven of land and the owner was reluctant to agree, we offered them more than they could resist.

Either that or my dad turned on the charm. That had worked more than once, too, I was sure.

But new people from a big city? I'd heard enough of the folks in California to know they were invading our state in hordes, taking large chunks of land and turning it industrial, all the while claiming they'd come to get away from the city. Then why cover it with buildings that block the horizon and give off too much light in the evening they block the blanket of stars?

That wasn't what Montana was about, I felt. Montana was beautiful country that deserved to be seen as such. Trees growing towards the sun, rain pelting the earth, horses running free; that was all wonderful and beautiful and amazing. Pieces of steel and concrete were not.

The expression on my face must have said it all, because my dad patted my hand. "Don't worry so much on it, Annika. I just wanted to let you know what George had said. I'm sure they'll be fine people," he assured me, and I knew he wanted to believe it just as much as I did.

I went to bed not long after dinner, hugging my parents and choosing not to disturb my twin's studying, wishing him a good night as I passed his room on the way to mine. I could stay up late if need be, as I had no problem being a 'night owl' as my mother put it, but if I had nothing else to do, I chose to turn in. I enjoyed getting up early in the morning and watching the sun rise every chance I got.

That night, I dreamed of watching the sun rise over the land, giving light to skyscrapers and busy freeways on which the mustangs skid, having trouble running properly on the asphalt. Their legs gave way under them often, and I woke up in a cold sweat, recalling in vivid detail the large black patriarch watching, from the safety of the side of the road, as the last of his herd fell. Reality came crashing back in the form of the actual rising of the sun, and he turned a heavy head towards me just as my eyes flew open.



Chapter Two


I took a deep breath as I awoke, trying to calm myself. Throwing the covers back, I had a strong urge to see the mustangs again, and dressed quickly. Scarlett, the striped cat that had slept at the foot of my bed, opened one eye at me, showing her annoyance at being disturbed before going to back to sleep. Normally, I would soothe her with a gentle hand, but this time I ignored her.

Don't be ridiculous. The mustangs are fine, I told myself. Grabbing my warm flannel jacket, I fixed a thermos of coffee and headed out the door. The rest of the household was still asleep, and though my father would be getting up in just an hour or so to feed the horses, I was as quiet as possible.

Even the dogs knew not to bark as I passed, all four sleeping in a pile on the front porch, under the swing. Duke raised his head, and as much as I loved his company, I didn't want him to scare away the mustangs if I found them, so didn't call to the Border Collie. He watched me go, yawned, and settled back to sleep, dreaming whatever dog-dream I had interrupted.

The horses whinnied, and I promised I'd return to spend some time with them as soon as I found the others.

By the time I reached my destination, the hill from the day before, the sun had risen almost completely. The sky was still tinted with the pink hues of dawn, but that was rapidly fading into blue crystal, a few dark clouds gathering in the distance.

To my great delight, the mustangs were still in the valley. A quick count told me no one was missing, and I took a sip of my coffee with a steady hand. Chalking up my fears to a bad dream based off the news my father had told me at dinner, I sat down comfortably, and watched the herd interact.

Moon Dancer was picking on another of the colts already, but this time the filly's mother came to the rescue. Ears back, she walked with a purpose right towards the bothersome colt, and he fled. I noticed the mare kept an eye on him, making sure her flank was always showing. She seemed to stay perpendicular to him. When he tried to enter the loose circle of his herd again, she faced him and drove him away.

He moped around for a while, before trying once more. Moving slowly, this time the mare turned away from him a little, and his ears went forward. Dropping his head to the ground, his breath blowing small clouds of dust, he continued to approach her, and now was shown her shoulder.

I chuckled to myself when I saw his tongue a few times. Although his jaw was working as though he was eating, he was chewing nothing. He was apologizing. Careful movements, head bowed, I could almost hear the childlike apology.

'I'm sorry. I was just playing. Can I come back now?'

He was close enough to touch the other horse now, and reached out with his nose to rub her flank. She nudged him gently, all was forgiven, and he took off, romping and playing again.

The mare had been scolding him, I realized, rather like a time out. When she stopped looking at him, he could apologize and return.

My stomach began to growl, and I knew it was time to go home. Finishing the last bit of my coffee, I screwed the cap back on the thermos, and stood slowly. The horses glanced up at the sounds I made dusting myself off, but I turned and left before they could be frightened.

I decided I would go out again after breakfast, although not to Mustang Point, as I had started calling the hill. I would go on horseback, and just to explore more of the land, not to see the mustangs. They had given me plenty to think about already, I figured I would let them be for a while.

All right, so I admit it. I wanted to check out the new family on the adjoining land. I was curious as to whether they were a threat to our peaceful countryside, and intended to find out as soon as possible.

My dad was just finishing feeding the horses when I returned.

"Your mother's inside, she asked me to tell you there was a phone call for you," he said.

"All right. Do you want any help?"

He chuckled, and shook his head, tossing the last can of pellet feed into the final feed bucket. "No, I'm done here. They need to be groomed sometime this week, though, if you want to get started on that." He patted the thick coat of the nearest horse, and I nodded. The fuzzy winter coats were warm but the horses liked to roll in the dirt, and they needed to be brushed even more often.

Taking off my boots by the front door, I stopped by the living room on my way to the kitchen, and turned on the radio loud enough to carry into the other room. It was the easiest way for me to get caught up on the news.

"Morning," I called, smelling omelets.

"Morning, AJ. Stacey called for you this morning," she related, speaking of my close friend, and the veterinarian's daughter. "I think it's something about Rhett."

I nodded, and grabbed the phone eagerly. We'd had to take one of our cats to the vet just a few days before, and I was hoping Stacey had good news for me. Rhett, Scarlett's brother, had gotten into a fight with a rattlesnake. The rattler won. The snake struck him twice and slithered away, and when I found the cat, his left side was puffy and tender. I jumped in the truck and raced him down the road to the Telamons, the home of our vet, which was also her office.

So it was with slightly trembling hands that I dialed the number.

"Telamon residence," came the greeting.

"Is Stacey in, please? This is AJ."

"Oh, AJ, hi! This is Dr. Lisa. I had Stacey call you because I was on a house call this morning. One of Mr. Benton's dogs took sick."

I tried not to sound as unconcerned as I felt at the moment. "That's too bad. Is there any news on Rhett?"

"Oh, yes, I'm sorry, dear. Here I am rambling on about a dog and you're probably worried sick about your cat," she said, chuckling a little to herself. Dr. Lisa was an excellent vet, but sometimes I just wanted to shake her and tell her to hurry up. She was friendly and kind, but liked to talk. Everything she said began with "Oh?" as though she was telling you something you weren't going to believe.

"Is he okay?"

"Oh, he'll be just fine. He's resting now, and I'd like to keep him just a few more days to keep an eye on him, you understand. But he's doing much better."

I smiled, and waved to my mom that he was okay; she'd been watching my conversation from her place at the stove. Now she smiled, and turned her full attention back to breakfast.

"Thank you, Dr. Lisa."

"Oh, not a problem, glad I could help. He's just a sweet little thing. I'll have Stacey give you a call on Friday, let you know when you can pick him up and take him home, how does that sound?"

"That sounds wonderful. Thank you again. Take care." I hung up the phone, and rushed down the hall to tell my brother the good news.

"Bastiaan!" I knocked on the door to his room twice, and then opened it. As I expected, he had his nose stuck in a book. "Dr. Lisa says Rhett will be able to come home by the end of the week!"

He didn't look up. "That's great," was all he said.

I frowned, and straddled the chair at his desk, watching him for a moment. He was stretched out across his bed, lying on his back. He turned a page and kept reading, until my gaze got to him and he looked up, annoyed.

"What?" he demanded, his dark eyes meeting mine. His hair was a shade darker, his eyes were a deeper blue, but we were about the same height, and I was confident I could still beat him in a wrestling match.

"Come on, Bastiaan, I thought you'd be happy. I mean, Rhett is your cat, after all."

He sighed, and laid the book across his broad chest.

"I am happy, AJ. I'm glad he's going to be okay, we were all worried about him. I've just got a lot on my mind right now," he admitted, and I tilted my head. There was something funny about his book.

"What are you reading?"

Now he dropped his eyes. "Just stuff for school, you know. Studying." I would have believed that, if it wasn't for the fact that I caught the spine of another book under the first. He wasn't reading the textbook whose cover I'd seen and recognized by the calculator on the front as being math - besides, he had no scratch paper or calculator around - there was another book in the middle, a trick even I recognized as trying to hide the actual reading material.

Springing out of the chair, I reached for the books, but he clutched them tighter.

"What are you hiding?" I tried again, kneeling on the bed.

"None of your business!" he said, trying to push me away.

I laughed. "Ooh, I bet it's a porno."

"Bite me, AJ."

With a bright smile, I bit his shoulder. He yelped, and pushed me on to the floor as I laughed even harder.

"You're such a pain in the ass, Annika."

He was blushing. Whatever he was reading had to be good, but I let him go, for now. I'd find out later.

"Come on, bro. Mom says breakfast will be ready soon. Pull your nose off that grindstone, huh?" He looked relieved that I wasn't going to tell our parents he hadn't really been studying. I wasn't sure what it was, but it definitely wasn't school-related.

Tucking away the image of the two books, I patted my sibling on the back as he helped me to my feet. The books were still face down on his bed, and he made sure I walked out the door first, but I had no intentions of swiping at them again.

If it was one thing I was good at, it was waiting.

* * * * *

All through breakfast, I kept sneaking a smug grin at Bastiaan, who would then kick me under the table. I cleared the table, and raised an amused eyebrow at him as he returned to his room in a huff.

"Bastiaan's been studying too much," said my father, and I bit my cheek.

"Yes, I think he could use a break," agreed my mom. "AJ, didn't you say you were going riding today? Why don't you take your brother with you?" Looks like I wouldn't have to be patient on this one.

I grinned at the suggestion. "Sure, mom. I'll go tell him to put his boots on." I bounded up the stairs, happily planning on teasing the hell out of my twin.

With a quick knock, I opened the door, and found him in much the same position as before.

He looked up at me, immediately holding the books close.

I chuckled. "Come on, lazybones. You're going riding with me." I went to his closet to pull out his riding boots. He leapt off the bed and grabbed my arm before I could slide open the door.

"I'll change. Go tack up the horses, AJ, I'll meet you out there. Promise."

I paused. Was that desperation I saw in his eyes? Holy cow. First the mysterious book, and now this? Whatever was in his closet that he didn't want me to see was juicy with a capital O for opportunity. If I could find out what it was, oh boy could I have fun with my brother.

A slow grin crossed my face. "Sure. All right, Bastiaan. Ten minutes."

He nodded, smiled gratefully, and shoved me into the hallway. I walked into my room and fell against the door laughing until my eyes watered.

Oh, this was going to be great.

I had our gray, Leslie, and the bay, Shannon, saddled and ready to go in just under ten minutes. Both were mares who had not been impregnated that spring. The stallions were also capable of being ridden, but they had a tendency to be a little more headstrong, and I didn't want them trying to start trouble if we came across the mustangs. Typical males, I decided, they never listened very well.

My brother, however, was outside right on time, and closed the barn door behind me. I mounted Shannon easily, who was my favorite to ride, and then held Leslie so he could settle himself in the saddle. He'd changed into a pair of faded jeans and his boots, but still wore the same brand name T-shirt. The sun was out, and had warmed the land enough so we didn't take a jacket or long-sleeved shirt.

As we started across the property, he pretended to be interested in the location of the cattle, but I knew it was an act. He liked the ranch, but had never gotten anywhere near as involved as my dad and I. He was going to college to study law, or so he said, and had no desire to stay in a small Montanan town.

I reached out and lightly punched him in the shoulder to get his attention.

He glanced at me, and I got the feeling he was dreading whatever conversation he thought we were going to have. I may not have been able to read books very well, but I could read people. From the look on my parents' face, I could always tell if the letter my teachers had written was good news or bad, and I could tell if most anyone was lying to me. Facial expressions and body language meant as much to me as the printed words did to my brother.

"Bastiaan, what's going on? You look like you're gonna puke."

In a rare show of embarrassment, my twin, older by just four minutes, reached up and scratched the back of his head. "You're too observant, AJ." At my confused look, he sighed. "Mom and dad never guessed I was reading another book, but you got it right off the bat. Promise you won't tell?"

"Look, don't worry about that," I assured him. "I'm gonna pick on you like there's no tomorrow, but I'm not going to get you in trouble. You should know me better than that."

He nodded. "I do. I'm sorry."

The apology made me pull Shannon even closer alongside him. "Hey, what's going on?" I repeated. "How long have you been reading whatever that was, pretending to study?"

"I got it from the bookstore two weeks ago."

I blinked. "You've been lying to mom and dad for two weeks?" Then, it made a little sense. "I knew it was too early for you to be studying. Three months is too much, even for you."

"I've been lying to them for a lot longer than that," he muttered.

"What are you talking about?" I was beginning to feel a little less gleeful and a lot more worried. "You've been lying to me too, haven't you?"

He nodded.

I had no idea what was wrong, but judging by the body language, I had two guesses. Either my brother was dying or he'd gotten some girl pregnant. Whatever it was, he didn't look pleased to tell me.

"Listen, Bastiaan, you're my brother. I might knock you around a bit, but you're still my brother. Even if you feel like you can't tell mom and dad, you can tell me. I won't say a word if you don't want me to," I assured him, patting his back gently.

My brother and I hadn't always gotten along, as I think I said earlier. Even when I was jealous of him, though, I always loved him. Maybe it was the fact that he wasn't just my brother, he was my twin. Regardless of the why, even in our worst fights, I never doubted that he'd be there if I needed him. I hoped he knew he could count on me to do the same.

He took a few deep breaths as we continued on, Leslie and Shannon apparently oblivious to their riders' tension.

"The book I was reading wasn't for school," he began, and I nodded, deciding not to tell him I knew that. "I got it a few weeks ago, like I said, when I was out with Bobbi." Bobbi was this girl he'd been seeing for the past few months. We hadn't met her yet, but Bastiaan seemed smitten.

"It's a book on law." That made sense. "It's about the legal rights available to homosexual couples in different parts of the world."

I paused, sorting that one out. "Bobbi is gay?"

He nodded.

"Aw geez, bro. I'm sorry."

He looked surprised, if not a little hurt, by my apology. "For what?"

"That Bobbi likes girls. I mean, not that that's a bad thing or anything, but I know you really liked her."

Bastiaan shook his head. "No, no, AJ." He sighed. "That's what I've been lying about. Its Bobby, short for Robert, not Bobbi, the girl's name."

Now I understood. "So, Bobby is a guy. How long have you two been together?"

"Almost a year. It'll be a year in eleven days."

I grinned, before wrapping my brother in a strong hug. "Damn, Bastiaan, could you have waited any longer to tell me? I almost missed out on the anniversary!"

His smile was hesitant but hopeful. "You're not mad?"

"I wish you wouldn't have lied, but I understand why you did. I still love you, Bastiaan. Hey," a thought occurred to me, "since I know, does that mean I can actually meet him?'

"Sure. I'll call him and see if you can hang out with us this weekend."

I was excited. I'd wanted to meet the one that had my brother so happy.

"What do you think mom and dad would say?" he asked.

I had to shrug. "I hope they'll accept it, Bastiaan, but I really don't know. They grew up in a different school of thought, you know?"

Bastiaan nodded. "That's why I've told them Bobby is a girl."

"So what's up with the book?"

"The book I got has the most up-to-date listing in print of the benefits offered to gay and lesbian couples, which states have which rulings, and things like that. We need to know what our options are, and so far The Golden State of California looks like it might be the best bet.

"I'm going to be a lawyer, AJ, I know that much. I also know that I love Bobby, and wherever he goes, I'll follow. He's applying to a few schools out in California. Mom and Dad don't know it yet, but so am I. Whatever firm I find, I need to know if they have domestic partner benefits and such."

"So it's not just about finding work anymore, is it? It's about finding the place where you have the most chance of enjoying your life together," I stated, and my brother nodded.

"Sometimes you're so much smarter than I am, Annika."

I was quiet for a moment, lost in my thoughts. I was thinking of my parents' reaction and found I was just as unsure as Bastiaan, and also very nervous for him.

"I'm glad you're happy," I told him, at last. "I'm just sorry we live in a world, in a time where you have to censor that."

We rode on for quite a while, talking. Bastiaan filled me in on all the details of how he and Bobby met in school, their first date, and all the disgustingly romantic things I wouldn't have wanted to hear regardless of who my brother was dating. But I listened. The way he talked told me how happy he was to have someone to share this with. I wasn't about to take that away from him.

When the sky darkened with heavy clouds, I suggested we turn back before it rained. I could already smell it, the clean scent clung to the air, and I knew it wouldn't be long until the sky opened up. I worried briefly for the mustangs, and then remembered they'd been through several winters just fine.

We didn't make it out to the old Tops' land as I had hoped, but I marked the day as a success, anyhow.

"So what's in your closet that made you freak out?" I asked, on our way back to the house.

"More books," he explained, and read off a few titles. "They're all gay fiction, and very good." From the descriptions he gave, they sounded interesting, and when I asked if he would read the back cover of one to me some time, he hid his surprise very well and agreed.

"Sure had you blushing," I teased, and he rolled his eyes.

"I was afraid you were going to find out," he admitted. I wouldn't have been able to know on my own what they were about, had I found them, but if I'd asked, I knew Bastiaan would tell me. He was too good about being honest with what he read to me.

"Are you going to tell mom and dad?"

He nodded. "Yes, eventually. I think."

"I'll be there with you when you do," I pledged, and he hugged me tightly, Shannon moving closer to Leslie to accommodate the embrace.

"All right, all right," I said, pulling back after a moment and poking his chest. "No more of that this close to the house. Mom might worry about us."

Bastiaan laughed, and I realized with a start that it had been a long time since I'd heard that. Oh, he picked on me, and chuckled when I did something stupid, but I hadn't heard that true deep-throated laugh since? well, I figured it must have been since before he was forced to lie about his heart.

With his help, Leslie and Shannon were quickly rid of their tack, and brushed until their coats were smooth. When we were sure they were comfortable and cooled down, we put them back into the barn.

The barn was large, with enough stalls for all twenty horses, plus their feed and tack. Special treats were kept in one stall, while the large silo outside held the daily feed. A door in the back of the barn was almost always open to let them out to run. A fence separated them from a much larger plot of land, where we kept the cattle. Another few structures could be seen within that fence, being where we milked the dairies, weighed those sent off to the slaughterhouse, and took any cows we needed to separate.

"AJ?" I looked up when Bastiaan called my name. "Thanks, for today. Thanks for understanding."

I shoved him in the direction of the house as we locked up the barn. "Don't thank me yet, bro. This just gives me something else to tease you about," I said, but we were both grinning.



Chapter Three



The rain continued off-and-on through the evening and well into the next morning, although it was more often than not just a drizzle, so I wasn't able to go out exploring until the following afternoon. Bastiaan and I had stayed up talking, and he used the phone in his room to call Bobby, who seemed just as excited by the prospect of our meeting. I talked to him for a few moments, and he seemed nice.

"Here," Bastiaan had said, "I want you to talk to somebody."

The phone was handed to me. "Is this Bobby?"

The voice was deep, and the answer was drawled uncertainly. "Yes? who's this?"

"I'm AJ, Bastiaan's sister. I got to warn you, Bobby, you've got your hands full with my brother."

Bobby laughed. "Oh, don't I know that."

"Feel free to pick on him as much as you like. He's very ticklish."

Bastiaan chuckled at that, as did Bobby. "I know, but thank you for the reminder."

I paused, thinking about what to say next. "Well, I guess I'll be seeing you on Saturday, then."

"I look forward to it."

"So do I. Here's Bastiaan," I said, giving the phone back to my brother. I was going to warn Bobby not to do anything to hurt Bastiaan, but figured that could wait until we could speak in person. Then I could take him aside and tell him exactly what I would do to him if he did.

Wednesday afternoon rolled around slowly, and the rain stopped. Anxious to be outside again, I asked my mom if she'd mind if I skipped dinner. She smiled, her blonde hair pulled back into a bun that made her clear blue eyes stand out even more, and nodded.

"Just be careful."

I promised I would, and raced out the door. Shannon looked just as anxious to ride, so I saddled her quickly, and called for Duke. He loped over happily, licking my hand. I scratched his neck, and asked if he wanted to go along with us. He barked his response, and by the wag in his tail, I took it to be a yes. Swinging up into the saddle, I clucked my tongue, and we were off, Duke by our side.

Although we didn't see the mustangs, both Duke and Shannon seemed to smell them, and I was sure not to stay near Mustang Point for very long, so as not to upset either of them.

Continuing on our way, I pulled Shannon to a quick stop when I saw another horse and rider in the distance. Duke sniffed, and growled. I wondered if this was our new neighbor, and why they were on our land. Squeezing my legs gently, Shannon walked forward, and I tried hard to make out who it was. Their back was facing me, so I didn't even know if I was dealing with a man or a woman.

When only about twenty feet remained between us, I pulled back on the reins gently, and Shannon slowed to a halt. The other horse's ears were flicking back towards us, but whoever the rider was didn't seem to notice. I was able to take in more detail from this distance, and noticed that the rider's shoulders were slumped, and from the hitches I could hear in their breathing, I assumed they were crying.

"Hey, there," I called, softly.

A gasp, and the form straightened. Duke stood stiff when the horse and his rider turned to face us. I could see now it was a woman, about my age if I were to guess, though not quite as tall, and tears marked her cheeks. Soft green eyes flecked with gold and some gray stared at me, wide with surprise. Her red hair was cut short, which was why I hadn't been able to tell from the back whether or not she was female, and her lips trembled as she tried to control herself.

"I didn't mean to scare you," I said, slowly moving Shannon closer, telling Duke to be nice. "My name's AJ."

"I'm Kevyn," she sniffled, wiping the tears away.

"Nice to meet you, Kevyn." I was close enough now that I extended my hand. She glanced at it, and then grasped it briefly. "Mind if I ask what's wrong?"

"Oh, I can't believe it!" she exclaimed, and I didn't change my calm expression. "I went out riding yesterday, and it started raining, and I got lost. My parents must be so worried! I can't believe I was so stupid to go out by myself."

I smiled as reassuringly as I could. "Let me guess, your parents just bought the land next to mine. The Tops'?"

She nodded. "Yes, that was the family my father said sold us the land."

"Come on, Kevyn," I urged, taking her horse's reins and looping them loosely around the horn of her saddle so they wouldn't drag on the ground, then clipping one end of a lead rope to the horse's bridle, tying the other end to the horn of my own saddle. "I'll take you home."

"Thank you so much!" She hugged me with a strength that surprised me, and I gently returned the embrace.

I moved forward in the saddle to give her room. "Climb on."

She looked at me in disbelief. "Excuse me?"

I pointed to her gelding. "You've been out since yesterday. Your horse is exhausted. Shannon is plenty rested, and can easily carry both of us. You ride with me, and let your horse follow," I explained, patiently. I assumed she didn't know much about horses.

"Come on."

With a look that said she had to think about it, she moved behind me, and placed her hands on my shoulders.

I chuckled softly. "Here," I said, taking her hands and moving them to settle around my stomach. The butterflies I felt there made me wonder if I shouldn't have let her keep them where they were, but Duke snapped at her, and that thought was gone.

"Duke," I scolded, "this is Kevyn. We're taking her home. You be nice."

He stared at me for a moment, before snorting and sitting down, seeming to agree. I urged Shannon into a walk, and we were on our way. Kevyn's horse followed easily, and Duke kept watch from the ground, casting a glance up our way every now and then.

"Your dog doesn't like me," Kevyn said, the first words spoken since she'd climbed behind me.

I shook my head. "He just doesn't know you yet," I countered. "How long have you lived here?"

"We just moved in last weekend. We're still unpacking."

"Where are you from?"

We made small talk like that for the next twenty minutes, and while I was only trying to keep her mind off how she'd been lost and upset, I found myself truly interested in what she had to say. She was from San Francisco, she said, and while she had taken riding lessons, she'd never actually had a horse of her own. She was nineteen, and taking college classes through the internet, so she could stay at home with her mother, who was ill. The doctors said there was nothing else they could do for her, the cancer was advancing in a delicate area that didn't allow for an operation; the only advice they had was to make her comfortable. That's why her father bought the land, she said, so her mother could have a quiet place to rest, on ranchland much like the area she'd grown up around.

I immediately felt bad for my initial distrust.

"Montana is an amazing place," I told her. "Your mother might just get better."

She smiled. She had taken up leaning her head against my shoulder, so I felt the corners of her mouth turn up. I didn't notice that my hand was resting over both of hers, but she would tell me later that she knew. Neither of us said anything.

"Thank you."

Her house was in view by then, though it was still some ways off.

"Are you in college?" she asked, and she must have felt me stiffen, because she instantly took it back. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to?"

I waved her off. "No, it's all right. No, I'm not in college. I left school early to help my parents with the ranch so I haven't graduated yet," I said, and although it was a lie, more of a lie by omission, it was only a small one.

Hell, I've only known this girl for less than an hour. Why does it feel so bad to lie to her? I have no obligation at all to tell her about the real reason I'm not in college, I told myself.

"Wow. Your parents must have a big ranch," she said, and I related exactly what made up our ranch. She was impressed, if her low whistle was any indication.

"You'll have to come over and see our land sometime," I told her, "and I mean all of it, not just the hills."

She laughed good-naturedly. "Thank you again for taking me home." I nodded, and dismounted, before reaching up and offering to help her do the same. I doubted she needed my help, but it just seemed right to offer. She smiled gently, and allowed me to grasp her waist as she climbed down, guiding her carefully to the ground.

She faced me then, and I realized my first guess had been correct. She was tiny. The top of her head came up to about my chin, and while I'd felt muscles under my fingertips when I helped her dismount, her frame was deceivingly small. Looking up to meet my eyes, I realized just how radiant her face was when she smiled, and found myself unable to speak for a moment.

That feeling confused me, and I took a small step back. "Well, I'm glad you got back okay." I unclipped the lead rope and handed her the reins to her horse. "Do you need anything else?"

Kevyn shook her head. "No, I can get it from here. Thank you, AJ."

I nodded. "Hey, um, the next time you decide to go for a ride, give me a call," I said, and recited my phone number. "Maybe we can go together, and that way you can learn your way around."

If her grin was any indication, she liked that idea very much. She pulled a pen from her pocket and wrote my number on her hand, and then went to write hers on my palm.

I folded my fingers down into a fist, stopping her, although she didn't move her hand from beneath mine. "I'll remember it better if you just tell it to me," I said, and then went on, "Phone numbers don't last long on my hands. I forget they're there and wash them off."

"All right," she laughed softly, and gave me her number, removing her hand. To be sure, she had me repeat it to her. When she was satisfied that I would indeed remember, I mounted Shannon once more.

"It was nice to meet you, AJ," she said, and I smiled at that.

"Don't forget to call." With a nod, she turned and led the gelding to the barn behind her house. I waited atop Shannon until she'd finished with the horse, and made sure she had the door open and one foot in her house before I turned and left.

"So, Duke," I told the dog, as we headed back towards our own house, "it turns out our new neighbors might not be so bad, after all."

He snorted at me. If a dog could roll his eyes to express their attitude, I was pretty sure my faithful friend would have followed it with, "Duh".

* * * * *

I didn't explore any more that day, I just returned to the ranch and put Shannon back in her stall, after removing her tack and brushing her down. She wandered out with the others, a few of the horses standing by the fence, conversing with the cows, which lowed appreciatively. The dogs watched this interaction carefully, though I knew none of them would bother the other animals.

When I walked inside, my mother called to me right away.

"Mr. Gibb called," she told me, "and wanted to thank you for bringing his daughter home. What happened?"

I related the story quickly, about how Kevyn had been lost, and that I had merely led her back to her house. Before I was done, my mother had embraced me in a warm hug.

"I'm so proud of you."

I squirmed slightly under all the attention. "Mom," I whined, "I didn't really do anything." I didn't deserve all this mushy stuff.

My dad came in, then, and before he could start praising me, the phone rang and I leapt to answer it, glad for the excuse.

"Hello?"

"Hi? is AJ there?" The soft voice was hesitant, and I smiled into the phone.

"This is AJ."

"Oh. Hi, AJ. It's Kevyn."

"I know," I grinned. "How are you?"

Her voice sounded a bit more certain. "I'm much better." She sniffled. "I think being out all night may have given me a cold, but I'm all right. I just wanted to call to thank you again, and to make sure this was the right number."

I chuckled. "It's the right one." My next statement was supposed to sound casual, but I think I failed miserably. "So, ah, when are you going riding again?"

"Probably not until this weekend. My dad is crazy worried about me and thinks I'm going to get really sick from being out in the rain. So, I promised him I'd stay in for a few days."

I nodded, and kicked myself for not asking her before if she was all right. Staying out all night in the rain would make anyone sick.

"Well, I hope you feel better."

Once again, although she was not leaned against me, I could feel her smile. It made me feel sort of funny, tingly-like. "Thank you. I'll call you if I go out on Saturday, to take you up on your offer. That is, if it still stands?"

"Of course, just let me know. I'll talk to you then, Kevyn. Good night."

We hung up, and before either of my parents could comment, I declared that I was going to my room and dashed up the stairs. First she gets me speechless, and then I start tingling all over? I attributed it to the excitement of perhaps having a friend, and shrugged it off as I turned on the radio in my room.

I listened to the news, but found that the only thing I could think of was Kevyn.

"Looks like the weather will be warming up for this weekend, just before a large storm front moves into the northern part of the state?"

That's good, I thought. At least Kevyn and I will get to do a little riding before the storm.

"This is the beginning of winter, folks. We can expect this storm to take us through to January, before it starts tapering off for spring?"

Hm? She's from San Francisco. I hope they know how to handle snow, much less a Montana winter. I don't think it snows too much in California. No, what did Bastiaan call it? The Golden State?
I snorted. No, I don't think it snows too much.

As the news continued on, I closed my eyes, smiling to myself when Scarlett climbed up next to me, curling up in a ball and sleeping against my side.

"Rhett should be home in just a few days," I told her, absently stroking her fur. "Dr. Lisa says he's doing better. I bet you'll be glad to have him home too, won't you, girl?" I got no response, except for a little louder purr. Chuckling, I scratched under her chin for a moment, and then drifted off to sleep myself.

* * * * *

The next day went by quickly. I got up early and helped my dad milk the cows, something I usually did every other week. This wasn't my week to do it, but I was up, so I figured I'd help. We talked a little, and I told him what I had learned about our neighbors, managing to slide out of explaining my meeting with Kevyn by declaring that mom needed me for breakfast.

If he thought my hasty departure a bit odd, he didn't say anything.

I couldn't understand it myself, except to say that I didn't think I deserved any thanks. I had helped someone when she needed it, nothing special about that. Now that I think back on it, I just didn't want to draw any unnecessary attention to my time with Kevyn. I didn't know why then, but I would come to realize in just a short time.

After breakfast, I groomed the horses instead of going riding. By the whinnies I got when I took the brushes from the tack shed, they were looking forward to the attention. I loved spending time with them, and so took the time to check their health as best as I could, cleaning around their eyes gently and using the hoof pick carefully. On the pregnant mares, I checked their heartbeat as well as what I could hear of their foals', and was pleased when I found them all to be doing fine. Dr. Lisa came by every month or so, but I liked to do my own amateur examination between visits.

That took me until dinner, and as my brother cleared the table after a delicious meal of vegetable lasagna, I fidgeted, wondering what to do. It was too dark, I couldn't go riding. I went into the living room and turned on the TV for about twenty minutes, until my dad said he was trying to read his paper, so I shut it off. Going up to my room, I sat at my desk, blank paper before me and pencil in hand, but nothing came. My mind wasn't clear enough to focus on any single thing to draw.

Walking over to my bed, I sat down on the edge, and picked up the phone. My brother and I shared the same line, though separate from the main house line. I rarely gave that number out to anyone, but I made calls out occasionally.

I was pretty good with numbers, as long as I didn't have to read them on a piece of paper or anything, and so had no trouble remember Kevyn's number as I dialed. A man, her father I assumed, answered and called for her when I asked.

"When Kevyn didn't come back the other night, we started worrying, and I was going to take the car and start searching for her in the morning. I'm glad Kevyn thought enough to take some food with her when she went riding, but I'm so happy you were there. Thank you again for all your help, AJ," he said, and I smiled a little.

"It's really all right, Mr. Gibb."

"Well, here's Kevyn. Good night, AJ."

I echoed the same, and then Kevyn was on the line.

"Hi, AJ."

"Hi, Kevyn," I replied.

"So, what's up?"

"Not much."

There was silence for a moment, and then she laughed softly. "You called me, silly. Do you need something?"

I blushed, glad she couldn't see me, when I realized that I truly had nothing in mind when I called her. Thinking quickly, I said, "I just wanted to see if you were feeling better."

"My throat hurts a little, but Dad's been pouring orange juice down my throat since I got up this morning, so I'm sure I'll be fine by tomorrow," she said, and I chuckled. "Thank you for calling to ask, though. You're sweet."

I was sure that was one of the last things I was, but if she wanted to think that, who was I to argue with her?

"Well, um, I'll let you get some rest then, let all of that vitamin C do its job," I said, and she laughed again, though I couldn't tell what was behind it this time.

"All right. Have a good night, AJ, I'll talk to you soon."

I blinked. Soon?

"Okay." I can work with soon. "Good night, Kevyn." We hung up, and I heard my brother laughing from his room. I growled when I realized he must have been listening in, and ran down the hall, throwing open his door. He was lying on his bed, making no effort at controlling his laughter.

"You jerk! You were listening to our conversation, weren't you?"

He took a deep breath, his shoulders still shaking with silent amusement as he said, "I picked up the phone to call Bobby, and heard you talking. I didn't do it on purpose, honest." I glared at him. "Do you always call random people for no reason?" he asked, and I lunged for him.

We wrestled, and he was laughing so hard anyway, it wasn't very difficult for me to roll him onto his stomach, taking his left arm and twisting it behind his back. I put my knee against his spine and leaned against him with all my weight.

"Ah! I give, AJ, let me up."

With one final tug on his arm, I stood, and let him go.

"That wasn't nice," he scolded, rubbing his shoulder.

"Neither was eavesdropping," I countered.

"All right, fine. Geez, relax, will you?"

Reaching out to poke him in the forehead, which I knew annoyed him to no end, I turned and left. I believed that it was an accident, but it was so much fun to pick on him. It had been a while since we'd wrestled. I realized he seemed to be much more at ease around me now that I knew about Bobby. I was glad.

It was good to have my brother back.

Even if he was a pain.



Chapter Four


Dr. Lisa had Stacey call the next morning, and I thanked her with all the enthusiasm I could manage before I'd had my morning coffee. She said I could pick Rhett up anytime, and I promised I'd be back before lunch.

I asked Bastiaan if he wanted to go with me, but he declined, claiming that he was waiting for Bobby to call. I teased him about being whipped, snapping my wrist complete with sound effect and ran from the room. As I closed the door behind me, I chuckled when I heard the pillow hit just a split-second after.

"You missed," I taunted, and ran back downstairs to help my mom with the blueberry pancakes.

"I'm going shopping this afternoon, AJ, do you want to come along?" I smiled at the offer, but shook my head, pouring myself a cup of coffee. I planned on making sure Rhett was comfortable. Also, I had to warn our parrot, Hamlet, about his return. He didn't like Rhett, and had been much calmer while Rhett was gone. He'd start squawking like a maniac as soon as Rhett stepped paw back in the house, I knew it.

Breakfast went well. Mom was pleased with herself, I could tell. Even after all the years of cooking for her husband and family, seeing us take second- and third-helpings made her smile, and whenever Dad looked up from his plate and nodded how everything tasted wonderful there was no mistaking the pride in her soft "thank you".

After Bastiaan had cleared the table, and I'd finished washing dishes so my mom could rest, she kissed my father on the cheek and left for the store. It was about a fifteen or twenty minute drive to the nearest grocery store, so I didn't expect to see her back for at least two hours. Dad was also going into town, to get some more feed for the horses, making sure we had enough once the storms of winter hit. I assumed Bastiaan would be going out to see Bobby, since he was awaiting the phone call, so I would have the house to myself.

I wondered briefly what Kevyn was doing for the day.

As my family went their separate ways for the next little while, I went into the den, adjacent to the living room, where Hamlet's cage was located. That way he could still hear us when we were in the house, but usually didn't get loud enough to bother us if he decided to get noisy.

"Hey there, Hamlet," I greeted.

"Pretty Hamlet," he recited, and I chuckled.

"Yes, you are a pretty bird, aren't you?"

And he was. The markings of the Scarlet Macaw, or Ara Macao, are quite pretty, and Hamlet was no exception. His lower beak was black, but the upper beak was a much lighter color, almost the same as the white skin around his eyes and facial area. Most of his coloring was red, although his wings darkened from the yellow coverts to a dark blue on his flight feathers (the ten feathers closest to the wing tip, the ones that we clipped to make sure he could only glide and not fly), and his long tail was much the same. From head to tail he was nearly three-feet long, and weighed almost three pounds. Hamlet was one big beautiful bird.

He fluffed his feathers for a moment, and then I gently scratched the red feathers under his neck. He preened them when I was done, but then reached out to taste my finger, running his tongue and beak gently over the skin. I smiled at the bird-kiss, and clucked my tongue at him. He repeated the sound, tilting his head at me.

"Rhett will be back today," I told him. He blinked. He blinked again. I made the sound of a meowing cat, and he screeched loudly.

"Rhett," he shouted, as best as he could. Then, calming down as I stroked his back, he spoke, "Here, kitty. Here, kitty."

I laughed softly. He could call Rhett, Scarlett, all the dogs, and my brother. It wasn't often he said my name, but when he did, I gave him a little more time outside his cage than usual. Other phrases and words were fairly common, though I'll admit it was quite funny when he decided to meow.

Sometimes I swear he understood what we were saying to him. He was very intelligent, and loved playing with the toys in his cage, although he preferred his humans.

"Want to come out for a little while, hm? At least until I have to go get Rhett?"

He ducked his head at me, nodding. Bobbing his head and spreading his wings a bit, doing an impression of what I called "buzzard", he called, "Pretty Hamlet. Good bird." I decided that was his way of saying that he deserved to be allowed around the house. If he could state any other qualities besides "good" and "pretty", I figured he'd be spouting them out in rapid fire if it meant some time outside.

My dad let him out at least two or three times a week. I let him out more often than that, if I had the chance, although his cage was plenty large and he had lots to keep him occupied. Clean water several times a day, nuts and fresh fruits and vegetables to munch on, large branches thick enough for him to chew on, and several hanging toys with bells and mirrors to entertain both the bird and any spectators. We took him outside for a bath about once a week, unless the weather was too cold, in which case he was treated to the bathtub and an extremely delicate session with my mom's hair dryer.

He cooed gently when I opened the door and reached in.

"Come on, Hamlet," I urged, and he climbed onto my arm easily, walking up to my shoulder. He began preening my hair, and I chuckled. "Silly bird."

He echoed the nearest thing to a human laugh that he knew, bobbing his head up and down again, as though he knew that he was being funny. He nibbled on the edge of my ear, fluffing up a bit when I squirmed, rubbing my ear with my hand.

"That tickles, Hamlet. Don't do that."

He kissed my nose.

"Aw, I can't stay mad at you when you do that." He knew that, and kissed me again. "All right, all right," I relented, and stroked the feathers on his back.

I walked him around the house for more than ten minutes, his bright tapered tail moving automatically as he kept his balance on my shoulder, before grabbing a bag of macadamia nuts from the cabinet. They were his treats, and he immediately began trying to get in the bag. I pulled it away.

"Hamlet, want a snack?" I prompted.

"Pretty Hamlet."

"Want a snack?"

He nodded his head eagerly, trying to slide down my arm as subtly as he could to reach the bag. I moved it to my other hand, and he stopped moving.

"What do you say?" I held one up in my fingers. "What do you say for the snack, Hamlet?"

"Please."

I raised an eyebrow at him. He knew what came next, and was eyeing the treat so intensely I was afraid he'd just forget about the tricks and snatch it from my hand.

"Please?" I hinted.

He stretched his neck towards the nut, but I moved away again. "Please. Thank you," he recited. I smiled, gave him the nut, and patted his head as he cracked it open, deftly eating the treat from within, dropping the hulls on the floor.

"Good bird," he declared, proudly.

I laughed, and echoed fondly, "Good bird. Hamlet's a good bird."

I'd had the Macaw for several years? almost eight, I believe, which would make him about nine years old; quite young, for a macaw. I'd trained him to say most of the phrases and words he knew, though he picked up a few on his own? like the way he said my or my brother's name. I think he'd just heard my parents calling us so often, he eventually learned how to repeat it. He learned quickly and loved doing tricks, regardless of whether treats were involved. I think he just liked showing off.

"AJ."

I was sitting on the couch with him on my lap, watching the news, stroking his back gently. "Yes, Hamlet?"

"AJ."

I chuckled. "Yes?"

"I love you, AJ."

"Well, I love you, too." I'd taught him "I love you" and "I love you, AJ" quite a few years ago. I used to spend at least an hour a day with him, just talking to him, saying key phrases over and over. He learned quickly, and had an extensive vocabulary, though whether he knew how to use it was another matter.

We rambled to each other for the next half hour, trying to follow a line of conversation that left us both wondering why the other didn't understand what we were trying to say, before I decided it was time to put him up so I could go get Rhett. I turned off the TV, not having paid much attention to it anyhow, and returned Hamlet to his cage.

"Pretty Hamlet. Pretty Hamlet."

I smiled softly, and kissed his beak. "Yes, honey, I know you're a pretty bird. But I have to go pick up Rhett, remember? I can't let you stay out when I go, and I can't take you with me, so that means you have to go back in your cage," I explained.

He tiled his head, and kissed my nose. "Good bird."

Ah damn it, why does he have to look so damned heartbreaking when he's begging to stay out? I wondered, and kissed him again.

"Pretty Hamlet," I soothed, tilting my arm. He refused to walk down my forearm to one of the branches in his large cast-iron cage. Clicking my tongue at him, he repeated it, before sullenly moving to his branch. He squawked at me when I closed the door, and I told him how pretty he was once more, before turning away.

I turned on the radio before I left so hopefully he wouldn't be lonely, and was on my way to pick up Rhett.

* * * * *

Stacey answered my knock at the door, and smiled when she saw me. She was tall, with hazel eyes and blonde hair. We were the same age, and had I been in high school, we probably would have had a few of the same classes our senior year. She had lived in Montana since she was a few months old, and we shared a love of the land, among many other things.

She was one of the few people outside of my family that knew about my dyslexia. She knew, and didn't care in the slightest. We'd been friends for seventeen years, to hear our parents tell it.

"Muffin!" she greeted, throwing her arms around me. I chuckled. I never understood the reasoning behind half the random names she called me, but I usually replied similarly. It was a banter we'd started years ago.

I returned the hug. "Hey, cookie. I hear you've got my cat."

"Sure do. Come on in." She closed the door softly behind me. "Mom's out with Mr. Benton again, I swear he worries worse than you do about his animals." I chuckled, and followed her through the house to the room where the animals were kept once they were healthy.

I smiled upon seeing the golden ball of fur that was Rhett. "Hey, guy," I said, crouching down to stare in the cage. Yellow eyes blinked back at me as he yawned, getting to his feet when he sensed that he was going to be let out.

"Here, I'll get him," Stacey said, opening the door to the cage and gently pulling him out. I held open the door to the cat carrier and she placed him inside, but only after I'd ran my hand down his back, assuring myself that he really was healed.

Setting the carrier on the ground by the front door, I asked, "How much do I owe your mom?"

Stacey laughed. "Oh, AJ, don't you worry about it," she said, imitating her mother perfectly. "Really, though, it's all right. Just come over and have dinner again some time, okay? It's been too long since we've just hung out together."

I nodded. "Yeah, it has. I'll call you next week and we can get together, all right, schnookums?"

"That sounds great. Hey, did you hear about the new family that bought the Tops' land?" When I nodded and mentioned that I'd met the daughter, she prodded me into telling the tale of how and when and what happened, and then gave me a half-grin.

"AJ, you sweetheart, you," she teased.

I rolled my eyes. "Please. I took the girl home. Everyone's acting like it's something to celebrate. I keep expecting my mom to make me a medal or something," I sighed, and my friend smiled a bit at my discomfort.

"You just can't handle that you're the center of attention for once, huh? You did something nice, AJ. I'm so proud of you," came the mock praise, and I shook my head as she hugged me again.

"Don't forget to call, hon," she reminded, seeing me out the door. "I'll come and hunt you down if I don't hear from you by Thursday."

I chuckled. "We don't want that, do we? I'll call you later, Stacey. Thanks again." She waved as I pulled away, Rhett safely in the passenger seat of my truck. I talked to him on the ten minute drive back, telling him that Scarlet would surely be glad to have him back, as we all would. I mentioned that Hamlet missed him, too, though he would be the last to admit it.

I spent a few minutes with Rhett before releasing him to the rest of the house, laughing to myself as I heard Hamlet screech his own greeting to the cat. Scarlet sniffed him animatedly, interested by all the new smells. Except for two small patches where he was missing some fur - it had been shaved by Dr. Lisa, I assumed, to better view the bites - he seemed just fine.

The phone rang, and I jumped, answering it quickly.

"Oh, hi, mom."

"Hello, AJ. Have you brought Rhett home?"

I smiled. "Yes. Actually, Scarlet is welcoming him back right now."

I could hear her repeat the news to my father, who replied he was glad to hear it. "Your father and I are going to have dinner in town, and your brother will be staying out with his girlfriend, so you have the house to yourself for most of the night. Sure you don't need anything, honey?"

"I'll be fine. I'll feed the horses tonight, and see you two later. Have fun," I grinned, and hung up. It had been quite a while since my parents had gone out on anything that could even be remotely considered a date, and I was glad they decided to take some time for themselves.

The phone rang again just a second or two later, and I wondered what my mother had forgotten to tell me. "Whatever it is, I'll take care of it," I said, and was met with a gentle laugh.

"Promises, promises," chuckled Kevyn, and I flushed.

"Oh, I, um, I thought you were my mom."

"Now that's the first time I've heard that one."

I swallowed, embarrassed. "I mean, she just called and I thought, you know, maybe she'd forgotten something," I explained, trying to calm my stammering.

"Uh-huh. Well, I was just calling to see what you were doing tonight. I think my dad wants to invite you over to dinner, and then maybe we could go riding tomorrow."

I grinned. "I've got to take care of the horses tonight, but after that's done, I'm sure I can come by," I said. "I'd love to stop over for dinner. Tell your dad thank you."

She laughed again, something I began to realize she did often? or maybe I just amused her. I found I didn't mind either way.

"He didn't actually invite you, yet. I just figured I'd beat him to the punch."

"I suppose I should thank you, then. Thank you."

She smiled - and there was that damned tingling sensation again, coming from where I couldn't pinpoint? and over the phone? damn! - and said, "You're very welcome. So I'll see you at seven-thirty?"

"See you then." I set the phone back on the receiver and sighed. "Two dinner invitations in the same day. Lucky me."

I was looking forward to the dinner, and yet dreaded it at the same time. I had a feeling that even if I could manage to go without making a fool out of myself, I wasn't sure if I could handle all the attention I was going to receive.

Seven o'clock rolled around quickly. I'd already called my parents to let them know where I'd be in case they needed to get a hold of me, fed the horses, and now stood in front of the mirror in my room. I was suddenly nervous about what to wear? that was new to me. I normally didn't care what I wore so long as it was comfortable.

Standing there in my black jeans, white T-shirt, and black long-sleeved over-shirt, I braided my hair, and looked again. Still not good enough. I grabbed the black cowboy hat from my dresser and grinned. Much better.

Then I remembered my boots were still by the front door, a bit dirty from my time in the mud.

"Crap," I muttered, and ran downstairs. Taking a brush from under the sink, I cleaned the dirt off as best I could, and slipped them on. It was seven-twenty. I had to go! I rushed out the door and climbed into my truck, driving towards the Gibb house. It was no longer the Tops' land, not to me.

I pulled up five minutes early, and stole a quick glance at myself in the rearview mirror. I couldn't figure out why it was so important that I look good, except that I wanted to impress my new friend and her parents? as if helping her find her way back home wasn't enough.

Kevyn opened the door and met me at my truck as I stepped out, and no less than a half-dozen dogs followed.

"AJ, you made it!" she smiled, and hugged me briefly, startling me with the gesture. The dogs sniffed over my shoes and at my pant legs.

"Of course," I said, speaking to Kevyn although I had my hand outstretched to the nearest dog. "I wasn't expecting such a welcome."

"I'll introduce you to these guys later. Come on in, my parents can't wait to meet you." She took my hand and led me inside, as I gave a little mental sigh.

It starts?

* * * * *

Her parents were altogether very nice. Mr. Gibb, though he asked me to call him Patrick, was an art dealer before he moved to Montana. He was middle-aged, with the slightly rounded stomach to prove it. No gray hair yet, and his thick brown hair didn't show any signs of receding any time soon. His deep green eyes gave an excellent indication of his mood, lighting up whenever he looked at his family, clouding with the fight of a masked pain when his wife's illness made itself known.

Kevyn's mother, Diane, had worked as an elementary school teacher until the cancer got too bad. She explained that all of the random cards I would see around the house, made of construction paper with colored stamps or macaroni and a generous amount of crayon for decoration, were from some of her students. They were all get well cards, and some continued sending them, even after they'd moved to Montana.

I repeated what I had told Kevyn of Montana being an amazing place, and received three smiles that said while they appreciated my generous attempt, they didn't believe it for a second.

If it weren't for the telltale signs of chemotherapy, I almost wouldn't have noticed that Diane was sick. She ate very little of our meal, a fact which seemed to bother Kevyn, and although it was plenty warm in the house, wore a sweatshirt and never removed the knitted cap from her head. Her skin was pale and I'm sure her golden-green eyes, a beautiful color combination that she'd shared with her daughter, were bright and sparkling at one time. Now, however, most of the sparkle had dimmed. When she spoke, her voice was soft and gentle, and she shared loving glances with her husband and daughter.

Everyone seemed to feel her time was near. So strong was the atmosphere, I wondered if I'd been invited for the last supper.

I offered to help clear the table and wash the dishes after we'd all finished eating. Initially, Patrick said he wouldn't hear of it, and Kevyn agreed. Then, Diane asked her husband to help her back to bed.

"I'm sorry I can't stay, I'm just so tired lately. It was nice to meet you, AJ," she said, and I smiled gently, mildly concerned as Kevyn darted into the kitchen with her plate.

"Not at all, Diane. You get some rest. And the pleasure is all mine, believe me. Have a good night." The stout Mr. Gibb led her slowly down the hall, her frame thin and fragile beside his own, and I found my way into the kitchen.

Kevyn didn't seem to hear me approach, so intent she was on scrubbing the dishes.

"Do you want some help?" I asked, turning my hat in my hands nervously before setting it on the counter. What was it about her that always got me so flustered?

Though the red-haired girl shook her head in the negative, I saw her shoulders shake and heard her breathing hitch.

Aw, damn. She's crying, I realized, biting my lip as I wondered if there were any way for me to make her feel better, or if I should just leave.

Moving beside her, I began rinsing the dishes she had washed, saying nothing. We stood like that for a few moments before she glanced up at me, giving me a watery grin. I returned the smile, and gently bumped her shoulder with mine.

"I'm sorry," she sighed, wiping at her eyes when the dishes had been dried and put away. "I just always seem to be crying around you. You always manage to catch me at my worst."

I shook my head, taking a seat on the edge of her bed, just a few inches from her. We had moved to her bedroom where she was telling me the names of all her dogs, and I hoped I wasn't going to be expected to remember them all.

"No, not your worst," I corrected, gently, "there's nothing wrong with crying. I just wish there was something I could do to help," came the admission, before I could stop it.

She reached out and took my hand in hers. "You are helping, AJ." When I looked doubtful, she continued, "I'm glad you're here. Really."

I smiled, and she squeezed my hand. Then she interlocked her fingers with mine, and I blinked when I realized we were holding hands. I was tempted to pull back, if only for the sudden increase in my heart rate, but stopped. She needed my presence, I knew.

Kevyn saw my hesitation and interpreted it another way.

"I'm sorry," she said, starting to take her hand back, but I held fast. Green eyes met mine slowly.

"It's all right," I said, and attempted to reassure her with a soft smile. "It's all right. I don't mind." I got another smile for that, and then we fell silent, both lost in our own thoughts. I suppose that's why I hadn't realized we'd drifted closer, our shoulders now touching. Nor did I take in the fact that her thumb had begun tracing light patterns across the back of my hand. Even if I had, I'm sure I would have shrugged it off to her need to be comforted, to feel close to someone. What was wrong with that, right?

"So, tell me about yourself," she said, and I took a few breaths as I brought myself out of my thoughts.

I chuckled softly. "Not a whole lot to tell. I've lived here all my life, worked on the ranch with my dad when I wasn't in school, and tried to survive sleeping in the same house as my brother."

She smiled. "Must be nice to have a brother," she commented, and I snorted.

"Yeah, he's all right. He can be a pain, but all around, I can't complain too much. But what about you? I've never been to California. What's it like?"

Her voice gentle and low, she told me of her life. She was born in California, she said, an only child. She'd been raised in San Francisco, and loved the bustle of the city, but quickly amended that statement by adding 'but I could get used to the quiet of the country, too' when she saw my raised eyebrow. It was an interesting place to grow up, from what I gathered, all the activity and diverse population. And that bridge sounded wonderful.

"But then my mom got sick," she continued, "and we moved out here. The doctors, they told us there was nothing they could do for her, so it was best just to make her comfortable, until?" She sniffled, and I didn't even have to look at her to tell she was crying again. She turned, burying her head in my shoulder, and I wrapped my arms around her before I could even think about doing anything otherwise.

Kevyn tucked her head under my chin as if it were the most natural thing in the world and snuggled closer. I clenched my jaw, praying she couldn't hear how fast my heart was beating, and gently rubbed her back in slow circles. I couldn't figure out why having her so close was sending my pulse through the roof, but I didn't want her to leave. That much I did know. She needed me, needed me to be strong. The last thing I wanted was for her to worry that she was freaking me out and pull away.

"Shh," I soothed, holding her close. I never said any real words, I don't think, I just muttered nonsense phrases that I hoped were comforting. Her breathing steadied out eventually, and I took a quick glance at her to see if she'd stopped crying.

Oh, yeah, she stopped crying, all right, I smiled to myself.

She had fallen asleep in my arms.

Not stopping to ponder why that statement sounded so nice, I moved away from her gently, lying her back on her bed. Hoping she was asleep enough for my movements not to disturb her, I removed her shoes, and then covered her with a blanket from the foot of her bed. The dogs raised their heads at me when I left, the five that were in the room, and I walked past on my tiptoes.

I wanted to write a quick note thanking them for their hospitality and a fine dinner, since I didn't run into Patrick on my way out the door, and growled again at my inability to do so. I didn't want to let on that I was dyslexic? Kevyn was smart, that was sure to make her feel pity towards me, and I didn't want that at all. So, I let myself out quietly. I drove back to my house without so much as the radio on, concentrating instead on the thoughts and images running through my mind, too numerous to catch one and bring it into focus. My brain and my heart refusing to work anything out that night, I fell into bed with a sigh, noticing my parents had yet to return, and slept peacefully.

I dreamt of beauty, of a large bridge out in the middle of my land, Kevyn on one side with me on the other. She was calling to me, but I couldn't figure out how to get across. I was scared, I realized. I'd never crossed a bridge before. I don't think I'd even seen one. But I heard her words, and they gave me courage, and I took my first step onto the structure, shaky as my legs were.

I awoke gradually as it faded away, anticipating our ride later in the day with much enthusiasm.



Chapter Five


If my mom could tell that I seemed a little distracted during breakfast, she didn't say anything. Until I poured syrup on my fruit instead of my pancakes, that is. Then she spoke up.

"How was dinner last night?" she questioned.

I swallowed my bite of pancake, wondering briefly why they tasted a little dry, and replied easily, "Fine. Mr. and Mrs. Gibb seem like nice folks. And George was right," I added, looking at my dad, "they do have a lot of dogs. I don't even remember all their names."

"What are you doing today? More exploring?"

I shook my head, wiping my mouth after finishing a mouthful of too sweet cantaloupe. "No, I told Kevyn I'd show her around so she wouldn't get lost again." Suddenly, I realized something, and shot a hopeful look at my mom. "I'm not sure how long we'll be out. Is it okay if I miss lunch, and maybe dinner?"

My mom answered with a small chuckle. "Of course, AJ," she said, and I smiled brightly, wondering only briefly at the look my father gave her for that response.

As if on cue, the phone rang and I leapt up to answer it.

"Hello?" I greeted, though I knew who it was.

"Hey, AJ. It's Kevyn, are we still on for today?"

I grinned. "Definitely. Whenever you're ready, I can ride out to your place and meet you there," I said, keenly aware of my family's eyes at my back, making me a little uncomfortable.

"Now is fine. I'll see you in twenty?" she guessed, sounding quite excited.

"Sounds good. See you in a bit."

Knowing Bastiaan would take care of the dishes, I ran out the door, ignoring the intrigued look from my twin. I saddled Shannon quickly and we took off at a trot, the bay enjoying the ride very much, if her proud neck and high-held tail were any indication.

It took me a little longer than I anticipated getting to the Gibb's land, so I wasn't very surprised when Kevyn met me near the barn, already astride her gelding; their only horse, as far as I could tell.

"Sorry I'm late," I said, and the redhead shrugged.

"That's all right. I was going to give you three more minutes and then start looking for you."

I smirked. "I don't get lost."

She grinned, and nudged her mount a little closer. "I never said you'd be lost, I just wanted to find you," was the low response, and after a moment to wonder why my brain was having trouble remembering exactly how to get oxygen, I clicked my tongue and turned Shannon around.

We rode side-by-side in silence for a short while, and I was still trying to figure out what she'd meant by that statement, when she reached out and quickly squeezed my hand. I caught her fingers and didn't let go.

"I just wanted to thank you," she said, gently. "When I woke up this morning and was covered up in bed, I knew it had to be you. You are sweet, AJ."

This time there was no phone line to hide my blush, and she chuckled at the color in my cheeks.

"I'm not, but thank you."

She squeezed my hand, and there we were, holding hands again. The horse moved underneath me, but the only thing I was aware of was the young woman beside me, more specifically, the hand that was enclosed in mine.

So involved was I in the sensation, I didn't realize she'd been talking to me until she tugged on my hand and I looked up at her.

"Where'd you go?" she questioned.

I could feel my flush again. "Nowhere."

She laughed softly. "You know, red really is a good color on you," Kevyn teased, and I tried to smile but ended up feeling even more heat in my face. "All right, all right, I'm sorry. I'll leave you alone."

"I don't usually blush," I said.

"Well, you certainly do around me. Guess I just have that affect on you, don't I?"

"More than you know," I muttered, not meaning to say it aloud. She didn't pick up on it, however, and soon I managed to clear both my throat and my thoughts, beginning to tell her which landmarks were where, and what that meant in regards to finding her way.

We continued through the day, slowly making our way around her property, moving on to mine. Lunchtime came around, and I led her to the creek, dismounting as I left Shannon to graze. I went over to Kevyn's gelding, who I'd learned was named Frances, and reached up. She bit back a small smile and slid into my arms as I helped her down.

"I did take riding lessons," she reminded me, "and believe it or not, I think dismounting was taught in there somewhere."

I stepped away from her quickly, and faced the gently running water. Even I didn't understand the constant urge to be near her, to help her, just to talk with her. We'd only met four days before and I was acting like I'd known her for years. There was no reason for it, but I couldn't help it any more than I could explain it, and that frustrated me.

She came up behind me, and hesitantly placed her hand on my back. I sighed, and she moved to stand at my side.

"I'm sorry."

I didn't look up. "For what?"

"I'm not sure, exactly. But I know something's made you uncomfortable, and I'm sorry for that."

"I don't even know what it is," I admitted, and she moved her hand up and down my back, slowly. "I just don't have many friends, I guess, maybe I'm not used to being around anyone but my family this often."

She nodded. "Living in such a small town, I can see where that might be true." I didn't correct her. "Do you want me to go?"

"No," I said, sternly, perhaps a little too quickly. "I like hanging out with you, and I like talking with you. I don't want us to stop being friends just because?"

"Then we won't," she promised, as my voice trailed off. She rubbed her hand across my shoulder one final time, and then removed a few sandwiches from Frances' saddlebags. I turned to see her leaning against a tree, holding out the second sandwich to me.

I sat down beside her, and we ate quietly. That was more uncomfortable than my uncertainty, I decided, and tried to start up a conversation.

"Your father's not worried about you getting lost out here today?"

She chuckled, and shook her head. "No, my parents adore you. If I told them you wanted me to jump off a cliff, they'd probably strap a parachute on my back and push."

I finished the last bite, and tilted my head at her. "Why? I'm not doing anything special."

"You're being nice," she said, as if that explained everything.

"And most people in California aren't?"

She raised an eyebrow at me, something I hadn't realized she could do. "Not most of them," she replied. "Even though we lived in San Francisco, there were still a lot of people that had a problem with me."

I blinked. What did living in San Francisco have to do with anything? Maybe I'd ask Bastiaan if he knew. At any rate, both she and her parents thought I was nice. That worked for me.

We finished lunch and traveled until we reached Mustang Point. They were there. The young ones played actively while their parents grazed and kept an eye on us, quietly. Shannon and Frances kept their ears forward, and neighed occasionally to the others, but I wasn't too worried. To be safe, I tied them to a nearby tree, and we sat down in the shade, though the sun was beginning to set.

I told Kevyn what I knew of them, and pointed out those I had named.

"I haven't thought of a name for him, yet," I admitted, referring to the lead stallion.

Kevyn took only a few moments to think, then offered, "Cloud."

"What?"

"Cloud," she repeated.

I took a minute to consider that, and then decided that I liked it. Clouds were usually soft and gentle, but they could become heavy and dark; strong, yet comforting. It fit the large black steed.

"Cloud," I agreed. "Thank you."

We had drifted closer again during our conversation, and when she laid her head on my shoulder, my arm came around her waist almost without any thought at all. I considered moving, but eventually decided not to, as that would draw attention to the fact that I knew we were touching.

This is different. I wasn't clear as to how, exactly, but it was different. I'd held Stacey before, when she was upset, or just when we were sitting together, relaxing. It was just comfortable, and friendly. But with Kevyn? I noticed every breath she took, whenever she changed positions even slightly, and after a time, I distinctly felt her hand as she rested it on my stomach. I was sure Stacey had done the same at some point, but why was it so obvious to me now?

And why was it so important to me that I keep her there?

"What does AJ stand for?"

"Annika Justine," I answered, calmly, though her voice had startled me. I'd begun to wonder if she'd fallen asleep on me again.

I felt her smile. "That's pretty."

"Thank you. It means graceful, and just," I added, and then wondered why I had. She'd probably think it was silly to know such a thing, much less volunteer it.

She didn't. She merely cuddled closer to me, an action I realized I enjoyed, and held her even tighter. "That sounds about right. Does Mulligan mean beautiful, then?" When I said nothing, she patted my stomach. "You're blushing again, aren't you?"

What could I do? She was right, I was blushing. I nodded, ignoring a small voice that told me she was being quite flirtatious. That was ridiculous. What reason could she possibly have for flirting with me? Unless, of course, she liked me, and was interested in me? but that entire idea seemed humorous.

And yet, I wondered if I wasn't right.

She yawned, and I chuckled softly. "We should start back," I said, though neither of us moved for a moment, loathe to break the closeness. Then, she sat up and stretched, yawning again. I got to my feet and walked over to Shannon, mounting easily, holding Frances' reins as Kevyn swung her leg over the saddle, settling comfortably.

"Hey, Nikka," she said, and I raised an eyebrow at the shortened form of my name. The only nickname I'd ever had was "AJ", unless you counted the hundreds from Stacey, which sometimes I swear she pulled out of thin air. But Nikka? One that only Kevyn used? I could handle that, I decided.

"Is that okay?" she asked, noticing my silence.

I nodded.

"Thank you for coming with me today. I had fun."

"You're welcome. Anytime you want to go riding again, just give me a call. Oh, yeah, let me give you my other phone number." I had started to feel a little uneasy about my parents staring at me as I talked with Kevyn. It made me feel like I was doing something wrong.

She wrote it down on her hand again as I read it off, and shot me a sideways grin.

"Hey, I'm just getting all the digits."

I chuckled. "That's my brother's number too, just so you know," I warned her, and she raised her eyebrows.

"Ah, that's right, your brother," and if I thought she sounded interested, I would have laughed.

I nodded, again. "Yeah, we're twins."

"Wow. I always wondered what it would be like to have a brother, but a twin? Is it true what they say, that you have a special connection or something?"

"Sometimes. I mean, we get along really well, and that can be pretty unusual for siblings I guess. But there was one time, when I broke my arm, my mom said my brother started crying about a pain in his arm. They were shopping in town at the time, and didn't find out that I'd broken my arm until my dad called her from the hospital," I added, and Kevyn looked intrigued.

"How did you break your arm?"

I gave her a half-grin. "I was climbing a tree when I was six, trying to follow my cat Rhett, who'd gotten out. He jumped down and I tried to do the same, but didn't land quite as gracefully," I chuckled.

She laughed a little, but then seemed concerned. "I've never broken a bone, but I assume it would be painful. Did it hurt very badly?" She placed her hand on my bicep, squeezing lightly.

I reached up and removed her hand from my arm, taking it in my own as I spoke. "I don't really remember, but I'm sure it hurt some. I'm fine, now," I assured her, and she smiled, her eyes back to their usual stunning brightness.

"I'd definitely agree with that."

I willed myself not to blush this time, and we rode the rest of the way in a comfortable silence, hand-in-hand. I escorted her to the barn, helped her dismount, and helped put Frances' tack away, all without a single blush. Of course, she was quiet, but still, I was proud of myself.

When we were finished in the barn, I walked beside her, leading Shannon close behind, up to her house.

"Thank you for all your help today, and for showing me the mustangs."

I smiled. "No problem. Maybe we can do it again sometime," I said, leaving the offer open, but Kevyn snatched it up in an instant.

With her usual sly confidence that seemed to disarm me, she stood on her tiptoes to place a kiss on my cheek, whispering lowly in my ear, "Count on it," before walking into the house and closing the door behind her.

I stood there for a full minute, I'm sure, staring. Shannon nudged me gently, and I mounted in a daze, letting her take me home, my hand resting on my cheek for some time.

"She kissed me." Shannon nickered softly; she'd seen that. "It was a friendly kiss, right? I mean, because she had a good time, right?" The mare snorted. It may have been a friendly kiss but that wasn't how Kevyn had meant it, I realized, thanks to the imagined comments of my horse.

So maybe she really is flirting with me, I thought. Maybe she really likes me. What do I do?

I passed by the mustangs again but didn't stop. I was too deep in thought, wondering what I should do about Kevyn. Did I like her? What if I did? What if I didn't? Would that affect our relationship?

Those musings kept me occupied and silent even after I arrived home and took care of Shannon, putting her in the stall. I discovered that my parents had already eaten dinner, as I suspected, declined an offer by my mom to reheat a plate for me, and climbed the stairs to my bedroom. Scarlett was on my bed, and Rhett was in my brother's room, I assumed.

I wanted to be around Kevyn because we had a good time, and she was fast becoming one of my few friends. I was convinced that was my only reason. And surely Kevyn had the same reasons, she just expressed it differently. Of course, that's what was happening. I'd just never made a friend so quickly.

With that settled, I slept easily, looking forward to spending the day with my brother and his boyfriend. I hoped that would give me an idea of what to get the two for their first anniversary.



Chapter Six


Bastiaan was up earlier than I was the next morning, which was unusual; the one who didn't have to get up to milk or feed took the opportunity to sleep in as long as they could. He must have been quite anxious.

He was dressed and ready to go by the time he came downstairs for breakfast. He wore khaki slacks with a black wide belt, a tucked-in black polo shirt, and had his hair combed nicely. My parents teased him incessantly about getting all 'spiffed up' for his girl, and I joined in as well, so as not to let on that I knew anything different, though I did notice a small muscle in his forehead that jumped every time they said "she".

My brother urged me to get dressed quickly while he cleared the table, and I moved with exaggerated slowness towards the stairs, until he growled at me. Then I laughed. He made a move as if to lunge for me, and I bounced up the stairs.

I turned on the radio as I got dressed, listening to the weather as I decided what to wear with my jeans. From the report I heard, I gathered that a jacket might be a good idea, just in case the expected nightly rain moved in early. I tucked in my gray T-shirt and pulled my leather jacket off the hanger just as Bastiaan shouted my name, threatening to leave without me.

"Oh, keep your pants on, bro," I replied, grabbing my hat as I walked out. "I'm coming, already. Geez, you'd think you were excited or something."

"Annika, let's go!"

If he whined any more, I would be forced to make a comment about offering cheese.

"Oh, AJ, there's a letter for you on the table," my mother called before I could follow Bastiaan out the door, and I frowned slightly. A letter for me? Anyone who knew me well enough to send me mail knew better than to write me? Any letters I received were read by my mother, mostly.

Taking it in my hand, I kissed my parents on the cheek as I left, stuffing the letter in my pocket. I'd have to get Bastiaan to read it later, I decided. Maybe when he wasn't so hyped up about his date.

I got a lecture in the truck that I never expected to receive from my brother. He told me all about Bobby, how I wasn't to ask about his parents, as it was a sore subject. Smoking was not allowed, not that my brother or I smoked. If we went to a bar for teen night, it would be a gay bar, so I couldn't tell mom and dad. If they asked, we went to a movie. And above all, I better not do anything to embarrass him.

"Well, you just take away all my fun," I mocked, and he glared at me. He'd been rambling for the past ten minutes and I had only half-listened, knowing he was just blowing off some nervous steam.

"Holy shit, Bastiaan, get a grip. You know I pick on you. I'm gonna enjoy picking on you in front of Bobby, too. He'll help, I have a feeling. But I'm not going to bring out the baby pictures or anything, all right?" He looked relieved, so I grinned and added, "At least, not until your anniversary."

"AJ!"

"Hey, a sister can only promise so much."

* * * * *

The day went quite well. I found that I liked Bobby very much, we seemed to get along extremely well, and had a great time ganging up on Bastiaan. Bobby told me little things that Bastiaan had done or said, either before or just after they'd gotten together, small events that were cute and dripping with saccharine. I, of course, was hard-pressed to respond with a few embarrassing moments of my own, ignoring the daggers my brother was shooting at me.

Bobby was well-dressed, wearing dark slacks with an olive sweater and loafers, so it made a little more sense why Bastiaan had gone to the lengths he had earlier that morning. He was built well, just slightly less muscular than my brother, with sandy-blonde hair and dark brown eyes that lit up every time he glanced in the direction of my twin. He would be nineteen in just three weeks, Bastiaan had told me, so he was only about a year older than my brother and I.

We spent the day at a coffee shop known for its gay crowd, and I could sense the relief from Bastiaan as he and Bobby were able to hold hands and kiss occasionally without fear of the other patrons. It was good to see him so relaxed, so happy, so in love, so? free. Bobby loved him just as deeply, I could tell. There was nothing false in the gentle words he'd speak, or the warm looks, much less the caring touches he would place on Bastiaan's arm or thigh. And he enjoyed making my brother blush with his words and looks, to my delight. I didn't think it would be necessary for me to threaten him with pain of death if he hurt my brother? Bobby seemed like the kind of guy that would do all he could to keep from hurting someone he loved. I liked him.

Hm, they remind me of me and Kevyn, I thought, and then blinked as it registered. Where had that come from? Me and Kevyn? Did we really look like that when we were together? If so, then, my god, it would seem to anyone watching that?

Bobby called my name, drawing me from my thoughts as I sipped at my coffee, having doctored it properly with French Vanilla flavored creamer.

"So, AJ? What do you do?"

I grinned, and gave a small shrug. "I just help my dad, mainly, and take care of the horses. But in a few weeks, I'll have my name on the papers of our near-thousand-acre ranch." He looked impressed, and showed defined dimples as he smiled.

"I'm going to have to see this ranch of yours sometimes."

Bastiaan looked over at his boyfriend, quickly, reaching out to take his hand. "Honey, you know what I've told you about?"

"I know." Bobby smiled gently, giving my brother a brief kiss. "And it's fine that you're not out. But I would like to see that ranch some day, no matter what pretense it's under."

They talked quietly amongst themselves about the idea of Bobby visiting the house, and I let my gaze wander out the window, people watching for a few moments before looking up at the sky. Clouds were gathering in the distance, though still a ways off, and not very dark. The weather report was wrong, it might be another day or two before the storm hit. This was good, as it would give me another day or so to ride with Kevyn before the weather got too bad and I figured she'd opt to stay in.

We left not long after, Bastiaan and Bobby embracing for a long moment, and sharing a soft kiss that was anything but chaste, and I looked away, feeling very much like a third-wheel, invading upon a private moment. Bobby left in his own car, and I climbed in the truck beside my brother.

I gave him ten seconds before he asked.

He fiddled with the radio dial for a few moments, and then glanced at me from the corner of his eye. I was quiet. I knew what he wanted, but I was going to make him ask.

"So, what do you think?"

I grinned. Twenty-three seconds. Longer than I expected you to last, bro. Still, I couldn't resist torturing him a little. "I think the rain won't hit us until maybe Tuesday or Wednesday," I said, casually, and he slapped my arm.

"Annika! You know what I mean."

I chuckled. "I like him, Bastiaan."

"Really?"

"No, I'm just saying that for your benefit. I can't imagine what you see in him."

He looked at me, and I saw he was honest-to-god wondering if he should believe that. I rolled my eyes. Oh, yeah, he had it bad.

"For crying out loud, Bastiaan! Yes, I like him. He seems like a nice guy, and he likes you very much. I think he's good for you. Good enough for you, might be another story, but we'll see," I said, appreciating the gesture when he smiled warmly and patted my knee.

"Thanks, AJ. That means a lot."

I smiled. Somewhere along the way, I seemed to have forgotten that my brother did look to me for help, for advice, and even for acceptance. It was nice to be needed.

* * * * *

That night, during dinner with my parents, they both commented numerous times about the glow coming from my brother's general direction. I grinned, and gave him as much crap as I could manage without giving anything away. He cleared the table, then, and went to his bedroom. I passed his door, and paused, touching the envelope that I still had stuffed in my jacket pocket.

"Hey, Bastiaan," I called, knocking on his door. He called for me to come in, and I closed the door behind me.

"What's up?"

He was on his bed, but he let me see the book he was reading, now, not afraid to hide. That made me smile a little. I felt good, that he trusted me.

"The letter mom said came for me?"

I didn't have to say anything more. He put the book aside and sat up, reaching his hand out for the letter. That was one thing I could always ask Bastiaan to do, read for me, and he'd stop whatever he was doing to help. It embarrassed me at first, but I got over it, and he usually remembered not to tease me until he'd finished reading whatever it was I had given him.

Tearing open the envelope, I gave it to him, and he looked at the envelope first.

"There's no return address," he noted, and removed the letter, raising an eyebrow slightly at the length. "A little over two pages," he muttered.

Clearing his throat, he began,

"Dear AJ, this is Kevyn. It's almost eleven at night, and I'm up, writing you a letter because I can't sleep, and it's entirely your fault. Even in one night, I got so used to you holding me until I fall asleep, and then tucking me in." Bastiaan raised an eyebrow at me, but went back to reading when he got my impatient look. "I can't seem to fall asleep without it.

"I'm glad you were here last night. It may not have seemed like it to you, but you really helped. Just being with me, letting me cry... I'll admit something to you, AJ, it has been a long time since I've let myself feel anything about my mom's illness, much less cry. I needed that. And I appreciate that you stayed. It means more than you know. And yes, this just cements my belief that you are a sweetheart. Don't deny it. I have proof. I know, and I'll tell anyone who asks.

"Despite my little breakdown, I hope you had a good time. I know my parents really like you, they were glad to meet you, to know we have such nice neighbors. Of course, it's my opinion that my father has just adored you since that first day we met and you led me back home. I told them all about it. Yes, even the things I know you'd leave out, or disagree with, for the sake of modesty. You were so calm and strong. I was a wreck. I'm sure if I'd been thinking clearly, I would have just let Frances lead me home. But I kept trying to find the way myself, and ended up hopelessly lost. There, I said it.

"I was scared, and cold, and sure I would never find my way back. And then here you come, all helpful and nice, gentle and safe. My knight in shining armor.
And there's a little smiley face drawn here," Bastiaan added, pointing to the page, laughing at my blush. Damn it, that girl could get my face all red just by a letter. It just wasn't fair. I motioned, irritated, for Bastiaan to continue.

"And I know I already said that I had a good time today, but I want to tell you again. Thank you for showing me the land, it really was fun, and I learned a lot. I'm not nearly so terrified at going off on my own any more. I have less of a chance of getting lost, but just in case, I hope I can convince you to come with me again. You know, for protection. All right, and I like hanging out with you. I'm caught, what can I say? Except that I hope the feeling is mutual.

"Well, I'm going to take a walk to stick this in your mailbox, I think, and maybe by the time I get back I'll be too tired to notice that you aren't with me when I fall asleep. You really are spoiling me, Nikka."
Another glance from my brother at the nickname, but I gave him a glare that told him it was healthier if he ignored it. "So, here's hoping you have a better night's sleep than I have so far, though there's no telling what dreams may bring, is there? All bets are off there. I remember you telling me that you're spending the day with your brother. Have fun. I'll be thinking of you. Good night.

"And it's signed 'Kevyn'," finished Bastiaan, folding the letter again and putting it back into the envelope before handing it to me. "Kevyn, that's the new neighbor girl, right?" I nodded in the affirmative, since I didn't think I could speak yet. "Seems like she's quite taken with you, sis. Very open about it, too. She likes you."

I shook my head, fiddling with the envelope. "Don't be ridiculous, Bastiaan," I told him, and he didn't say anything further, but he didn't have to. My own mind was running ahead at ninety miles an hour with plenty of the same ideas. I thanked my brother, and wished him good night, walking down the hall to my own room.

It wasn't that late, so I picked up the phone and dialed Kevyn's number. She answered the phone on the second ring, not giving me nearly enough time as I'd hoped to get my thoughts together, much less my words.

"Hello?"

"Hi."

"Oh, hey, AJ. Did you have fun with your brother today?" she asked, and I smiled.

"Yeah, it was fine. Nice to spend some time with him, you know." She agreed, and then laughed softly.

"You're doing it again."

I blinked. "What?"

"Calling me and then not saying anything. Now, tell me the truth, Nikka, do you really just like hearing my voice?" she asked, with a chuckle, and I found myself nodding, glad she couldn't see me.

"I got your letter," I said, to avoid having to answer her question.

"Ah?" she drawled, apparently unsure of what I would think. I wondered if I should stay quiet, teasing her for a while, but decided against it. But then, what could I say? 'Thanks for the letter, I'm glad you like hanging out with me'?

"Nikka? You there?"

I cleared my throat. "Yeah. Um, the feeling is definitely mutual," I said, before I was even done thinking about my response, filtering through the choices. I bit my lip, but that tingling feeling that came over me told me she was pleased by my statement.

"I'm glad." Her voice was low and sensual, if I had to describe it in words, and it sent shivers over more than just my spine. "I just couldn't sleep, and the only thing on my mind was you, so I thought I'd let you know."

"Yeah, um, thanks. I was really surprised to find it this morning. What time did you actually get to sleep?"

She thought for a moment. "Probably around one, I think. I didn't have to be up until seven, though," she added.

I shook my head. "You need more sleep."

"Well, it's not my fault I couldn't sleep, you know."

I knew what she meant. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell her that if her getting a decent amount of sleep came down to me driving over every night and tucking her in, I'd do it. An image of that flashed in my head, complete with Kevyn in her pajamas and me kissing her forehead as I covered her up, and I swallowed. What the hell was that, and where did it come from? I ran a hand through my hair, and said nothing.

"You're quiet tonight? are you okay?" she asked, her gentle voice bringing me back to reality, chasing the image to the back of my mind.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," I assured her, though I'm not sure she bought it. I didn't even believe me. "Just tired."

"Well, I'd better let you get to sleep, then." I was going to protest. It wasn't really that late, and I wasn't honestly tired at all, and I didn't want her to hang up? but, I relented, I had no idea what to say, or what we would talk about. I just wanted to hear her voice. It was the next best thing to being there beside her. And I missed her.

"Good night, AJ," she said, and I sighed quietly.

"'Night, Kevyn. Sleep well."

I heard her chuckle softly. "I'll try. Oh, and Nikka? Sweet dreams." She grinned into the phone and hung up, leaving me to stare dumbly at the wall, phone still in hand. I knew she was referring to her letter, when she'd said that there was no telling about dreams? Did that mean she was dreaming about me, or had dreamt of me? Or that she was expecting me to dream of her? Did she somehow know of my dream the night before?

I was so confused. Here I was, thinking of kissing her good night, tucking her into bed, being with her constantly, warming at the very thought of her smile, much less her voice? and why? This had to be more than just being happy about making a new friend. Stacey and I had teased each other, sure, we'd been friends for all our lives. But neither of us meant anything by it, and we knew that.

But Kevyn? it was different with her. I got a feeling that even if she was just teasing me, flirting with me even, she meant it more than I understood. Her words and looks were nothing like the ones I got from Stacey. And I had never reacted to anyone like I did around Kevyn. This was all new, and frightening, and I hadn't the slightest idea what to do about it.

I called Stacey, remembering that I needed to do that before she came knocking on the door wondering when I was going to spend dinner with her. She'd said she'd come hunt me down if I didn't? I wasn't going to put her up to it. I knew she'd follow through.

"Hello, Jell-O brand gelatin?" she greeted, and I laughed in spite of my earlier thoughts.

"What'd you have for dinner?"

Stacey squealed into the phone. "AJ! So, when are you going to come over? You promised, remember."

I grinned. "Yes, Stace, I remember. I spent the day with Bastiaan or I would have called you earlier. How's Wednesday night? I'll beg out of helping mom with dinner that night," I said, to Stacey's delight.

"That's great! I'll tell mom." With that line of conversation settled, she asked, "What have you been up to, cupcake? How was your day with the braniac?"

I chuckled. "It was fine." I knew she was teasing. Although she had a boyfriend, whom she'd been with for a few months, she was quite attracted to Bastiaan, something I found humorous considering the circumstances as I knew them to be. "We had fun."

"And?? How's Kevyn?"

"What makes you think I know how she is?" I asked, with a raised eyebrow, and my friend snorted. "Oh, that was attractive."

"I thought so. I know you. I saw the way you talked about her, I know you're set to be friends. So I figured you must have talked to her since Friday." I briefly wondered if Stacey knew more about what was going on than I did.

I sighed softly. "She's fine. I just got off the phone with her, in fact," I admitted, and Stacey laughed, proud of herself. "She, uh, wrote me a letter last night. I got it this morning."

Stacey's voice was kind but interested. "Did you want me to read it?" she offered, and I smiled, but told her no.

"Bastiaan read it to me tonight."

An impatient sigh came from the other end of the line. "Well, what'd she say, for crying out loud?"

I cleared my throat. Twice. "She said she was having trouble sleeping because I wasn't there, so she decided to write me a letter," I said in a rush of breath, and Stacey was quiet for a moment.

"Because you weren't there?" she repeated, slowly, as if she didn't understand. Then it dawned on me - of course she was surprised, it wasn't as though I spent the night at any one's house. In fact, as far back as I could remember, hers was the only house other than my own that I'd ever slept in.

"A sleepover already, AJ?"

"I went over there Friday night because her dad invited me to dinner," well it was sort of true, "and she was upset. She was crying, and she just fell asleep with my arm around her. I covered her up and left." Why did I feel like I had to explain? Stacey's questions made me nervous and uneasy. What was I afraid of her thinking, or knowing?

"Gee, you just sleep with all the girls. I don't feel so special anymore," she joked, and I let out a relieved breath, realizing she didn't suspect anything. What could she have possibly suspected? I asked myself. Then, my mind took me back to earlier in the day with Bastiaan, when I had made the mental comment that he and Bobby reminded me of Kevyn and I?

"Hey."

I shook my head. "Oh, sorry. I'm here."

"You okay?" Now she sounded concerned.

I took a deep breath, and sighed heavily. "Yeah."

"Doesn't sound like you're okay."

"I am. I'm just tired," I lied? again.

"O?okay," she drawled, obviously not believing me for an instant. "I'll talk to you Wednesday night, okay? See you around six-thirty?"

I nodded. "Sure. Sounds good. Good night, Stacey."

"'Night, hon."

We hung up, and I fell back on my bed, staring at the ceiling.

God, I'm so confused. I had all these feelings and thoughts about Kevyn, but I did everything I could to explain myself so that it sounded like there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. And there wasn't. But, oh, if Stacey could just see inside my mind? she'd probably get dizzy. I sure as hell couldn't keep up with everything.

Argh!

Frustrated, I kicked off my shoes and curled up beside Rhett, falling to sleep with some difficulty, resting fitfully.



Chapter Seven


I didn't get to see Kevyn on Monday or Tuesday, though I talked with her every night on the phone in my room. She said she needed to catch up on some homework Monday, and her mom had to go the doctor on Tuesday for a checkup, so she wanted to be with her. I told her that was perfectly all right and completely understandable, and she was in my thoughts more often than usual on Tuesday. I worried about her, and missed her. Even talking with her every day, I had to admit to myself it wasn't enough.

Our conversation Tuesday night was short.

She called me, and I turned down my stereo as I answered quickly.

"Hey, Nikka," she said, and her voice was sad.

"Hey," I replied, softly. "Are you okay?"

She sniffled. Damn, she was crying? I wanted to just hang up and drive over there, hold her tightly until she fell asleep. I didn't know if that would do any good, but it would make me feel better.

"The doctors said there was no change. I didn't really expect there to be, you know, but every time her checkup comes around, I always hope a little. Maybe it'll suddenly be in remission." She sighed. "But that's stupid."

"No," I corrected, immediately. "You have to keep hope, Kevyn. There's nothing stupid about that." I swallowed, and asked, "Do you want me to come over?"

She laughed sadly, and I heard her breath catch, and I knew for sure there were tears falling down her beautiful face. Just two miles away. Even if I had to walk, I could be there in?

"No, it's all right," she said, and I blinked. "I think I'm just going to go to bed, anyways. But thank you."

"Of course. Call me, Kevyn. If you need anything, even in the middle of the night, you call me, all right?" I told her, evenly, and was going to continue, but she spoke.

"I will," the redhead promised, gently. "Thank you. You're so wonderful, Nikka. Good night."

"'Night, Kevyn."

I spent the two days riding around the property some more. I stopped by Mustang Point on Tuesday, and spent a few hours just sitting under the tree, sketching a little. I couldn't write very well, but I'd always had a talent for drawing, and found the horses to be beautiful subjects. Drawing relaxed me, as it allowed my mind to focus on one thing and one thing only, tuning out any other worries or concerns in my life.

I sketched Cloud and Little Star easily, spending a bit more time on Rose, trying to get the marking on her face as accurate as possible. When I had done all the shading I could do with pencil, I decided it was time to head back so I could color them in before dinner.

Wednesday morning, just after I finished clearing the breakfast dishes, I had to dash up the stairs into my room, hearing the ringing of the phone. It stopped just before I reached my door, so I figured Bastiaan must have picked it up.

"AJ," he called, "it's for you."

I picked up the receiver by my bed. "I've got it," I told him, and a voice full of sleep mumbled "Okay" as my brother hung up. He'd gotten up to help my father with the cows and the horses, and all through breakfast I could tell how tired he still was. He'd been up all night on the phone with Bobby, was my guess, so it was no surprise that he had plans to go back to sleep.

"Hello?"

"Hey, Nikka."

I smiled. "Hi. What's up?"

"Ceiling."

I paused, and then smirked. "Funny."

Kevyn chuckled. I was glad that she seemed to be in a much better mood than the night before.

"What are you doing today?"

"Um? I just finished helping my dad, so I don't have anything else really planned for the day. I do have dinner with a friend, but not until later tonight. Did you want to go riding?"

"Yeah, if that's okay."

If it's okay? Definitely!

"Sure. I can saddle up Shannon and be over in just a little while."

I heard her let out a breath, as though she wanted to say something but then changed her mind.

"What?"

She sounded a little unsure. "Frances got into the tack shed and scared herself, and she kicked a hole through the side of it. Tore up her left hind leg pretty good. The vet says she'll be all right, but I won't be able to ride her for a few weeks, until it heals. But I'd still like to go riding? can we ride double?"

I swallowed. "Sure," I agreed, clearing my throat when my voice squeaked, and trying again. "Sure. Not a problem. I'll see you in about twenty minutes."

We hung up, and I took a deep breath. Oh, boy. The idea of riding with her that close to me, moving against me, feeling her smile against me again? this was getting ridiculous. She was my friend. What was up with my hormones, for Christ's sake?

I didn't see Duke when I walked out, and assumed he was out chasing rabbits somewhere. Perhaps with Shanahan, since I didn't see our Corgi, either. They often went out to play after helping with the cattle in the morning. I called to the Australian Shepherd, Kelman, who leapt off the porch towards me, happily wagging his tail.

"Come on, boy, let's go riding, hm?"

Ramya raised her head, and got to her feet slowly, the wolfhound looking at me, hopefully. She and Kelman got along well, and were often inseparable. I whistled. "Come, Ramya. You can run with us, too."

She raced over, jumping up on me playfully, nipping Kelman's ear in her excitement.

I saddled Shannon after brushing her down, tightening the cinch and swinging my right leg over to the off-side stirrup. "Hup, hup," I called, and squeezed my knees against the mare's side. She took off at a trot, the dogs following faithfully behind, jumping and playing as they ran.

Kevyn was waiting on her front porch, sitting on the steps, and stood when she saw me arrive. She was wearing tight blue jeans with a bandana-like shirt which tied in the back, and hung loosely, the point ending at the button of her jeans. I could clearly see the muscles in her arms and the taut stomach I'd always suspected she had, watching the muscles in her abdomen play as she walked towards me. I swallowed, hard.

Oh, god. There go those damned butterflies again, I thought, not to mention my hormones. Wow, she's beautiful.

"Hi," she smiled, brightly.

I returned the smile, hoping I didn't look as frightened as I suddenly felt. "Hey. Ready to go?"

"Yep." I offered her my hand, scooting forward so she could climb up behind me, and she paused. "Mind if I drive?" I blinked, and moved back, pulling her up in front. Automatically, my arm went around her waist, hand resting on her stomach as she leaned back, settling against me.

Unbidden, my mind flashed back to Bastiaan and Bobby, and I removed my hand from her bare stomach, grabbing the reins instead. The position we were in, I had to lean forward to hold the reins, my chin nearly resting on her shoulder. This would never work. The butterflies in my stomach would eat me alive. Wrapping the reins around the saddle horn, I decided now was as good a time as any to see if Shannon remembered how to be lead by knee commands.

"What are you doing?" Kevyn asked, confused as I moved back a little ways, now that I didn't have to hold the reins.

I thought quickly. "I can lead Shannon with pressure from my knees," I stated. "That way we can both just relax."

She gave me an odd look, and then faced forward again. "Uh-huh."

We rode around areas that I hadn't even been to yet, chatting idly, Shannon doing extremely well with my commands, considering I had put her on the spot. Kelman and Ramya enjoyed the outing, scampering after anything that moved, splashing through the creek when we passed it, making my friend laugh.

I asked about the classes Kevyn was taking for her college over the internet, and she told me that most of her prerequisites had been taken care of, since she took some college during high school, and a few advanced classes helped with that, too. She tested out of English, and honors programs managed to get her out of history and math. Everything else she had managed to do her first year in college while she was in San Francisco, so the only ones she was really taking over the internet were electives, like psychology and art appreciation.

"I only have a few more units left until I can get my associates," she said.

"That's good. Do you miss being at an actual college?" I questioned, forcing myself to move back again. I kept leaning towards her involuntarily, not realizing it until I was pressed up against her back. Not knowing what to do with my hands, I rested them on my thighs, drumming my fingers in time with my nervous energy.

She thought about that for a moment. "Sort of," was her reply, at last. "I mean, I like doing the work online, that's nice. And the size of the class really doesn't matter since it's just me and computer, ultimately, so I like that. But I do miss some of the people. The GLBT club on campus was full of great people? we had some fun times."

Not wanting to sound even more obtuse than I already felt, I decided to wait and ask Bastiaan if he knew what 'GLBT' stood for, rather than making a fool out of myself and asking Kevyn.

I brought my mind back to the present, as the redhead in front of me was still speaking.

"But, do I regret moving out here? Not at all." She reached back and squeezed my hand, locking her fingers over mine, our joined hands resting on my thigh. "I think it's been a good change for my parents, and I've met you. More than San Francisco can even dream of competing with."

I was glad she didn't turn around so she missed my blush. I really needed to try to get a handle on that certain reaction. Taking a slow breath, trying not to pay attention to the way she was gently rubbing my knee, I tilted my head back, and frowned at the gathering storm clouds. They weren't far off. I must have been concentrating too hard on Kevyn, I missed the smell and the telltale sign of a slight increase in wind speed. It wasn't very late, maybe one in the afternoon, but it was rolling in early.

Guiding Shannon to turn around, it didn't take Kevyn long to figure out what was happening.

"We're going back? So soon?" I nodded, and was about to explain, when she said, "Nikka, I'm sorry if what I said bothered you, but please?"

I interrupted her, gently, my left hand reaching around to her stomach, hugging her back against my chest for a brief moment. "Look," I urged, moving my arm quickly to point up into the darkening sky. "The rain clouds are moving in. We've got to turn back before it hits."

Her response was a quiet, "Oh."

I rubbed her shoulder. "You okay? I didn't figure you'd want to stay out in the rain." As it was, she looked cold, and I slipped my long-sleeve flannel shirt over her shoulders. She tried to protest, but I held it there for a few moments. Finally, she put her arms through the sleeves and pulled the front closed.

"Thank you. Yeah, you're right. We don't want to get caught in the storm. Wait, won't you be riding back in the rain?"

I shrugged. "It's all right, I'm used to it. Don't want you getting sick again." She smiled at my expression of worry, squeezing my knee, and I tensed. She must have noticed, as she went back to holding my hand. I was glad, because the butterflies in my stomach seemed to have grabbed hold of my hormones and were flitting around with them like crazy. I had the sudden urge to lean forward and just bury my face against her neck, pulling her close to me and kissing her shoulder.

I was leaning forward to do just that, when the first drop of rain hit me, running down the back of my shirt. I arched my back in surprise, successfully pulling back from Kevyn, shaking slightly at the realization of what I had nearly done.

"Too late," Kevyn chuckled, holding her hands out to catch the drops as they fell. We were nearly back to her house as it was, and the rain was slow, a bare drizzle, even as I slid to the ground and helped my friend dismount. Her hair was damp, what was left of the sunlight made her seem to glow, and the water trailing down a firm stomach and a shapely neck made me take a step back, startled by the throbbing sensation in my gut.

Though I stepped back, she stepped closer, and all I could do was watch her come near. My eyes widened. Why was she looking at me like that? Her eyes were a darker green than I had ever seen, and it seemed as though she was biting her cheek to keep from smiling. What the hell was she up to?

She kissed me. I felt her lips on mine as though nothing else existed. There was only her mouth, her warmth, her unbelievable softness, her closeness, and the feelings of surprise and fear and desire washing over me, the pounding in my throat and in my belly, and? well, there was a lot of pounding.

Her hand on my neck brought me out of my shock and I took a half-step back, then another. I must have looked as scared and confused as I felt, because she didn't reach out for my hand, nor did she move towards me.

"I?"

She looked afraid now, too. "Nikka?"

"I? Kevyn?"

Lids closed slowly, and when she opened her eyes again, emerald pools were cloudy with regret and tremendous sadness, as though realizing she had just made a terrible mistake.

"Oh, god."

"Why? why did you do that?" Oh, look, I could form a whole sentence.

Kevyn's expression was one of masked pain. "I've been flirting with you since the day we met. I won't lie to you. I really, really like you, Nikka," she said, and I looked down for a moment.

When I glanced back up, I caught the crestfallen look before she could hide it that said I wouldn't have to speak a word; my gestures had told her everything. But I couldn't do that. She deserved some sort of explanation, though why I thought I could give her one when I hadn't come up with one myself is still beyond me.

"I like spending time with you, Kevyn," I told her. "I really like hanging out with you? but I'm not gay."

She bit her lip, softly. "I see. I'm sorry I've made you uncomfortable, tonight and every time before. It won't happen again. Good night, AJ." With that, she walked into her house as I tried to figure out why I was dying inside, and why I had to bite my tongue to keep from calling to her.

The rain continued, and I urged Shannon to take me home, the dogs whining up at me, sensing my mood. I realized I would have quite a bit to tell Stacey that night at dinner.

* * * * *

I called Stacey not long after I got in and asked if I could come over earlier than we had planned. I caught her eating lunch, and she offered for me to join her, since she didn't have any other classes that day. I told my mom that Stacey had asked me to come over a little earlier, and she said that was fine. I think she was glad to see me spending time with Stacey again.

I thanked Ramya and Kelman for going with me on the ride as I walked out the door, climbing into the truck and heading down the road before I realized that Kevyn still had my long-sleeved shirt, so I was clad in only my T-shirt. I was cold. But I didn't really notice it; I was lost in my own thoughts, too busy to pay attention to what was going on with the outside of my body.

Stacey greeted me at the door, throwing her arms around me, her voice worried when she noticed that I was holding on much tighter. "Hey, hon, what's going on?"

"Can I talk to you?"

She kept her arm around me and led me to her room. "Sure thing. Come on." We sat down on her bed, and I immediately grabbed a nearby stuffed animal, hugging it to me as Stacey sat beside me. She stroked my arm. "Hey, you've been out in the rain for a while. You should get out of those wet clothes," she said, and set out to finding me a pair of dry clothes that would fit.

I changed right where I was, knowing Stacey didn't care. She took my clothes and hung them over the rod in her shower to dry, and then joined me again, putting her arm around my waist.

"What is it, AJ?"

I took a deep breath, and said, "Kevyn kissed me."

She looked at me, evenly. "What did you do?"

"I stepped away from her and told her I'm not gay."

Stacey flinched in sympathy. "What'd she say?"

"She just walked into her house, after apologizing for making me uncomfortable. I really hurt her, Stacey. I think she's mad at me."

"Do you like her?"

I clutched the small elephant tighter. "I? yes."

"So then why don't you tell her?"

"I'm scared," I confessed, and leaned against her. She held me close, and before I knew it, I was crying. Why, I'm not sure. Maybe because I'd hurt Kevyn. Maybe because I was so confused. Maybe because I'd hurt myself. Whatever the reason, I kept Stacey occupied rubbing my back and kissing the top of my head for quite a while, until I calmed down again.

Stacey tried to soothe me, running her fingers through my hair gently. "Honey, you've never been around people our age, have you? Not very often, I mean?"

I shook my head. "No, I spend most of the time at the ranch."

That seemed to be the answer she was expecting. "I think you're more scared about these feelings that you have, not who they're about. You've never had a relationship, AJ. You left school before you were at the age of having serious crushes and dating experiences, things like that. You missed out on so much more than just reading, my friend. I think that might be what really has you running."

"Really?"

She nodded. "That's what I think."

"So, then, what do I do?"

"I don't know on that one," my friend admitted, softly. "Maybe let her talk to you when she's ready, wait for her to call. Or talk to her if you want. But get your feelings in order, first. You should know what's going on in that head of yours before you let anyone else in on it," she advised, and I hugged her with all my strength.

"Thanks, Stace," I murmured, and she kissed my cheek.

"Anytime, baby doll. You ready for dinner?"

"Is it that late already?"

She grinned. "Mom called us a few minutes ago. Come on." She took my hand, and let me compose myself before we walked into the dining room, Dr. Lisa greeting me warmly. She didn't look quite old enough to be Stacey's mother, I'd always thought. She had light brown hair with gentle waves, and hazel eyes that never seemed to invite anything but warmth and compassion for every living thing. A nearly constant smile was proof of the depth of her heart. She and Stacey were about the same height, which meant I was taller than both of them, and my friend had a slightly thinner frame than her mother.

I enjoyed the company, but ate little of the delicious meal, contemplating my many choices until they began churning in my stomach and not just my mind, effectively erasing my appetite. Stacey and her mother didn't say anything about my mood, but kept me involved in the conversation as subtly as they could. I loved them both for not prying, though Stacey knew what was going on. I changed back into my clothes after dinner, smiling slightly when I realized Dr. Lisa had thrown them into the drier at some point, so they were now warm.

By the time I drove back home, after receiving a long hug from Stacey and a request to call her right away if I needed to talk anymore, I was no closer to finding an answer. I had no idea what to do. I didn't know what was best, to let Kevyn call me, or to call her. I figured if she was mad at me, maybe it wouldn't be good to call her. She might not like that. When she was calm enough to want to talk to me again, she could call my phone.

Though I had decided to wait for word from Kevyn before I did anything, my thoughts were still all muddled; nothing had been solved on that front. I had hurt Kevyn, and I had hurt myself. I liked her, but I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, or what I was supposed to do about it. What would she expect me to do? What if I couldn't do it? What if I failed, and let her down?

God, even hypothetical relationships were a lot of work.

* * * * *

Two days passed and I hadn't heard from Kevyn. She hadn't called, she didn't write, and I'll admit I actually checked the mailbox each morning, hoping. It's a good thing it wasn't my week to help dad, because I don't think I could have done it. I helped mom cook only because it was habit, I answered every question monosyllabically, and made no attempt to engage anyone in conversation. I was moping, and everyone knew it. I didn't even have a desire to go out riding, or to watch the lightning streak across the sky during the storm, things I normally jumped at the chance to do.

Finally, my brother pulled me aside, dragging me into his room one night after dinner.

"I don't know what's going on with you, AJ, but you've got to snap out of it. What happened?"

I sighed heavily, and sat down on his bed, drawing my knee up to my chest. I wasn't sure I really wanted to talk about it, about everything, but if I couldn't turn to Bastiaan, than I had nothing.

"Bastiaan, how did you know you're gay?"

His eyes widened, and I heard him mutter, "Oh, boy", under his breath. He gave me a gentle look as he asked, "Why?"

Slowly, I told him everything. All that had been said and done since I first met Kevyn, in detail. The things she would say, how I felt around her, every blessed thing. More than I had even admitted to myself, I think. He grinned a little when I told him how often I'd blushed, and then winced at a few things, such as when I'd told her "? but I'm not gay".

"You're sending her mixed signals, AJ."

I blinked. "I'm what?"

"Think about it. You're holding hands with her, hugging her, spending every possible moment with her. Then when she touches your knee, you tense up. It wasn't a forceful kiss, and I'd guess she probably just wanted you to know how she felt. And she thought maybe you felt the same way, since you were always so physically close, but you pull away. It doesn't surprise me at all that she was upset," he said, and I hung my head.

"What do I do, Bastiaan? I think she's really mad at me. I hurt her."

I felt his hands go to my shoulders, supportively. "You like her?"

That much I had become clear on in the past days. "Yes."

"And because you like her, you're worried that you're gay?"

I nodded hesitantly, explaining, "It's not that I'm really afraid of being gay, that's not a bad thing. It's just?" I struggled to find the right words to tell my deepest fear. I thought about what Stacey had said. Finally, I just met his gaze and said, "Part of it is I don't know what to do, and that scares me a lot. And part of it is? mom and dad."

I watched as understanding dawned in his eyes. "Go with your heart, AJ," he instructed, firmly. He put his finger to my forehead, "Don't listen to your head. Don't pay attention to the fears of what other people might say or think," and then to my chest, "Follow your heart. In the end, that's all that matters.

"As for mom and dad? if they find out, or if you decide to tell them, I'll be there. We'll get through it together. Just go with your heart. It doesn't matter if you're scared or confused when you speak, just tell her how you feel. Ignore any labels or stereotypes. When it comes down to it, we're all human and it's all the same emotion."

I smiled softly, hugging him warmly. "Thanks, bro."

He pulled me close, kissing the side of my head. "Nothing worth getting or doing is easy," he whispered. "Listen to your heart, Annika. If you get lost, let it lead you. Be yourself."

"I'll try," I promised, and pulled back. "I was going to wait for her to call, but I think I'm going to go over there right now."

"Wash your face, first, and you might want to change clothes. You look terrible," he cracked, and I rolled my eyes.

I did as he said, however, and washed my face until my eyes looked slightly less puffy. Then, I ran a brush through my hair, put on a clean shirt, and walked out the door. My stomach was in knots, made by the butterflies, which seemed to have brought a lot of friends to tangle my nerves. I was scared out of my mind, and shaking like a leaf, and I'd never been so sure I was doing the right thing.

I pulled up and took a deep breath, stepping out of my truck and greeting a few of the dogs that came my way. I walked up and knocked on the door before I had enough of my wits about me to pull my hand away.

Patrick answered, but didn't smile.

"Um, is Kevyn here?" God, even my voice was trembling. Bastiaan had better know what he was saying, telling me to follow my heart, because just then my head was screaming at me to run.

Now I got a small smile. "I'll get her. Come on in, AJ, have a seat in the den." He closed the door behind me and walked down the hall to Kevyn's room as I made my way into the den and sat on the couch.

Kevyn appeared in the doorway a few moments later, and I jumped to my feet.

She didn't smile, either, and I noticed a haunted look to her normally vibrant face. "What is it, AJ? I have your shirt; I'll get it, if that's what you came for."

I swallowed. This was it. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry, for what I said the other day."

Kevyn shook her head, waving away my apology. "You don't owe me anything, AJ. Don't apologize for how you don't feel."

"But, I hurt you."

Her smile was forced. "I've liked you for as long as I've known you, which feels like so much longer than just a week, but I shouldn't have been upset when I found you didn't feel the same. It's all right."

"It's just? I love being around you, Kevyn. When we hold hands, or when I give you a hug, I feel it all over, warm and tingling and? awesome. You make me feel good, and happy, and special. You know me so well?"

She nodded, again dismissively. "I know? I feel that, too, but it doesn't have to mean anything."

I looked at my hat, which I was touching nervously, and then gathered the courage to raise my head, looking at her again. "I know it doesn't have to, but can it?" She turned her head slightly, but kept her eyes on me, as if she was afraid to answer, afraid to believe? afraid to hope. "I like you, Kevyn. A lot."

"Just because I said it doesn't mean you have to say it back," she told me, and I frowned.

"Damn it, that's not what this is." Finding my voice, I let my heart dictate my words. "You're all I can ever think about. I don't know about being gay, I don't know what I'm supposed to do here, I don't know much of anything except for how I feel. I want to be with you all the time, I want to make you happy when you're sad, I want to hold you when you're tired, I want to be the one you turn to for anything.

"And I don't know what that means for me, or what it means to you, but I'd like to find out what it means for us. Together," I finished, and I was still trembling. I'd just rambled on nervously, and it would be a miracle if she understood what I was trying to say.

She was still cautious. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I've been miserable without you, and I just wanted you to know."

She took one step towards me. "Are you sure?"

I nodded slowly. "I've never been this sure of anything in my life."

Another step closer. "I couldn't take it if this was just an experiment," she said, evenly, her tone begging me to say anything but that.

"I would never do that." I licked my lips. An experiment? As though I would just use her and be done with it? No. I had to convince her that wasn't going to happen. "I may not know what to do, or say, but I know my heart. This is real, and this is true," I promised.

The next moment she was in my arms. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close, holding her against me with all my strength, eyes shut firmly as I absorbed the feeling.

"I missed you so much," I confessed, and she squeezed me gently before taking a small step back.

"I've missed you too, AJ." With a small grin, shyer than I'd ever seen her, she asked, "Can I kiss you, again?" I swallowed my fear and nodded, leaning my head to meet her lips, feeling that same delightful warmth as before, savoring every moment, knowing I would never stop the soft caress of her mouth on my skin ever again.

Only the sound of Patrick clearing his throat for the third time broke us apart, and I jumped, looking down at Kevyn with wide eyes full of panic at being caught, my heart hammering from more than just the kiss.

Kevyn took my hand and said soothingly, "Relax. It's all right, AJ."

"So I take it you two worked things out?"

I blushed as Kevyn beamed. "Yes, we did. Now, be nice, dad."

Patrick chuckled, mentioning casually before he turned away, "Thank you for bringing back her smile, AJ." Then, the stout man turned and padded down the hallway towards his wife.

Kevyn tugged on my hand and urged me to sit beside her on the couch. "What brought on that deer-in-the-headlights look?" she asked, and I glanced at her.

"He knows?"

"Yes," she replied, slowly, as if not understanding right away what one had to do with the other. "Both of my parents know."

"And? they're okay with it?"

Now she seemed to realize what I was getting at. "You were afraid they'd be upset, and you'd be in trouble," she stated. I nodded. She squeezed my hand. "I'm lucky; my parents have always been very supportive. As long as you're here, you don't have to worry. I promise."

I sighed. "I don't think my parents would be very pleased if I tell them," I admitted, beginning to comprehend the dread my brother must have felt.

"So don't tell them. At least, not right away," the redhead added, seeing my look of disbelief. "You don't have to say anything to anyone, unless and until you're comfortable."

I agreed, reluctantly. It wasn't as though I was looking forward to telling my parents, but I didn't like the idea of keeping things from them. I sighed mentally. I definitely needed to talk with Bastiaan again.

We stayed on the sofa for nearly another hour, Kevyn finding what seemed to be her favorite place against my shoulder, lying against me until my right arm fell asleep. This was a completely different tingling sensation, and while not entirely pleasant, I didn't want to mention it, for fear she'd move.

"You should have told me," she said, sitting up, and I blinked. "That your arm fell asleep, silly. I saw you rubbing it," she elaborated, and I shrugged.

"Didn't want you to move." The confession came forth of its own accord, and I blushed.

She smiled, leaning close and kissing my cheek. "I tell you, AJ, you are a sweetheart."

As she began gently rubbing my arm from my bicep to my wrist, getting the circulation flowing again, I cleared my throat to try to ignore the interesting sensations that caused, and asked, "Call me Nikka."

I got a hug for that one. "I wasn't sure if you liked me calling you that," Kevyn said softly, but I pulled her closer, assuring that I did in fact like it, very much.

When my watch beeped the ten o'clock hour, I decided it was probably time for me to start heading home, comfortable as I was sitting there with Kevyn securely in my arms. I had merely shouted my destination down the hall as I ran out the door, so my parents were sure to be worrying at least a little. Unless maybe Bastiaan had talked to them, assured them that I was fine, I just needed to talk to Kevyn. Maybe I could stay a little longer.

The form beside me snuggled closer, and I kissed the top of her head softly. Yes, maybe I could stay.

"Your heart is beating fast," she reported, and I wasn't surprised in the least. I was no less nervous than I'd been at my arrival. I didn't know what I was expected to do, what she wanted from me. I was going purely on instinct, which was obvious by the fact that my hand had been rubbing her side for the past twenty minutes and I only then realized it, and only hoped that I wouldn't do anything wrong.

"Are you okay?"

Honesty, Bastiaan said. Even I know she deserves honesty from me.

Quietly, I whispered, "I'm afraid."

She sat up, at that, taking my hand in both of hers. "Of what?"

I looked in her eyes, letting my emotions come to the surface, hoping she could read them and understand more than I could. "I don't know what to do. I keep thinking I'm going to do something wrong."

Kevyn smiled softly, putting her hand against my cheek. I closed my eyes and leaned into the warmth. "Nikka, listen to me." Her words drifted over me and I smiled to myself as the warmth of her light Californian accent surrounded me. "I promise you, we're not going to do anything that you're not comfortable with. You do what feels right to you. I'll let you know if you ever do something I don't like, all right? Trust me," she said, in a voice so steady and so open that I could do nothing less.

I sighed softly, and pulled her close again. She rested her head against my shoulder, and I brought my hand up from her shoulder to stroke her short hair, the way she cuddled in deeper to my side telling me I was doing something she liked. I liked it too.

"Kevyn?"

"Yes?"

"Have you really been flirting with me since we met?"

She laughed. "Guilty as charged, I'm afraid."

"Why?"

I felt her hand on my stomach, and she patted gently. "Because I like you, Nikka. I've been attracted to you since I first saw you," she said, and I found myself smiling. "You are a wonderful person, and don't let anybody tell you different."

"I don't know if I'd go that far."

"I would. And I'd defend that to anyone who asked, as well." I didn't doubt that for a second, and kissed her forehead.

"It's late," I sighed. "I've got to go, honey." When I heard my own voice say the word, I blushed, and Kevyn chuckled softly.

"You keep turning red like this and I'm going to have to change your name from Nikka to Tomato," she teased, gently kissing the tip of my nose. "Whatever you're comfortable with, remember? Whether it's conscious or not."

I nodded, taking that in mind, and pressed my lips against hers lightly. She returned the kiss carefully, smiling warmly as we pulled away.

"Come on. I'll walk you to your truck."

I shook my head, and took her by the hand, walking her down the hall.

She raised an eyebrow at me. "What's this?" I took her into her room, and lead her to the bed, telling her to get changed and climb in. She glanced at me as she took her pajamas, going to the bathroom to change, deciding it was best not to tease me now, though there were definitely plenty of opportunities, and I was grateful to her for it.

Kevyn came back a few minutes later, wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a tank top, tossing her dirty clothes in her closet. She walked over to me, kissing my shoulder, and climbed into bed, going to pull up the covers, but I stopped her. Moving the blankets myself, I pulled them over her, and placed a soft kiss on her forehead, as I'd been thinking of doing for days.

She smiled when she realized what I was doing. "Good night, Nikka." She kissed the back of my hand before I stood back up. "Sweet dreams."

I grinned, happily, squeezing her hand. "You too. Sleep well. I'll call you tomorrow," I promised, and turned out the light as I left the room, closing the door softly behind me, floating to my truck.



Continued in Part 2



C. E. Gray's scrolls
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