“You’ll be all right?”
Pop leaned out the window of the pickup, his black Stetson almost tumbling off his head. The sunburned skin around his eyes crinkled up, the folds deeper than the last time Ro had been home. His steely blue gaze, however, was as sharp as ever.
Ro gave him an uneasy smile. “Nothing to worry about,” he said with false bravado. “I got it under control.” He felt like he was twelve again, being left in charge of the ranch for even just a couple of hours. He was twenty-six now, but that same sense of anxiety, anticipation clung to him. The shit he was going to get up to with the old man out of his way. He pressed his palms together, fighting down a grin.
Pop frowned. “You sure?”
“Never been more sure.” Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, could the man just leave already? Ro was about to start pushing the truck down the driveway.
Pop glanced away, then back at him. “That cattle rustler’s been around again, so you take care now, y’hear?”
Ro rolled his eyes. “Got it, Pop.” He knew all about the rustler. It was literally the talk of the entire ranch, the talk of every rancher within ten miles of Cloud Nine. They’d lost six cows already. And, well, Ro knew it was serious, but he didn’t think it was going to cause him any trouble. Rustler didn’t seem too concerned with people, anyhow. It might be trouble if he showed up and got another one of their girls on Ro’s watch, but it wasn’t like it would be the first time. Six had been lost on Pop’s watch, so how could he get mad at Ro for losing one? ‘course, it’d be better not to lose any at all, and better yet if they knew who was causing all the trouble. If Ro met him, he’d straighten that rustler around for sure.
“I mean it, Ro. You lock the doors at night, you get back here by sundown, and you let the boys handle anything, all right? Don’t answer the door for nobody, don’t talk t’ strangers, don’t—”
Ro’s patience snapped. He slapped a hand on the side of the truck. “Pop,” he drawled, “I ain’t six. I’ll be fine. Now, you get outta here. Don’t wanna make you late.”
Pop scowled at him but relented and put the truck in reverse. He twisted around as he backed down the laneway. Ro watched him go, gave him a wave before the truck disappeared around the corner, a cloud of dust rising into the air.
Ro sighed with relief, kicking at a stone or two, waiting. He wanted to make sure Pop was good and gone before he took off—it would be just like the old man to come hurtling back up the driveway with another last-minute piece of advice or a warning or even saying he forgot to check the gas was off on the stove or something.
Ro appreciated that his father worried about him, but it was stifling. He wasn’t a little kid anymore. He was just a hair shy of six feet tall, and he knew how to use several kinds of assault weapons, melee military-grade crap. Christ, he knew how to fly a goddamn spaceship, had bombed other planets. He could handle himself, he was sure.
Pop was the primary reason Ro hadn’t wanted to come back to Cloud Nine Ranch after the accident, and he felt like his old man had been worse since he’d returned six months back. He hadn’t had much of a choice though. He figured he ought to have been back to the base, basic training by now—his leg was just fine, but the doctors said his head still wasn’t healed up right, that there was no way he should be back out in the field. Truth be told, Ro was starting to think they were just pussyfooting around the fact that brass wanted him dishonorably discharged after what he did—after all, he’d gotten injured by pretty much disobeying orders.
Well, as far as he could figure, they hadn’t actually told him not to try and evacuate some of the people in that Piscean refugee camp, but he—and everyone else—knew it had been implied. They’d been told to leave, immediately, and he hadn’t because he’d be damned if he was leaving a bunch of defenseless people there to be slaughtered when those goddamn cats came through.
It wasn’t like he’d ever been brass’s favorite anyway; he’d always seemed to have a target on him, probably ’cause he was Hank Hirsch’s kid. The Hirsches had always been something of a force to be reckoned with in these parts; he knew a couple of great-grand relatives had been senators at some point, and he was pretty sure his grandfather had run for senator. A great-uncle had been a high-ranking member of the military, and his own mother had been part of several space missions, back in the early days of exploration.
Cattle ranching, land-owning had made them wealthy, and wealth had given them power. But those days were long gone, far as Ro could tell. Most of the land had been sold a couple generations back; the ranch today was a lot smaller, more manageable than it had been in the past. Oh, it had seemed boundless when he was a kid, but then, everything in Texas seemed bigger.
That had been so his great-grandfathers or great-uncles or whoever they were could focus on their other ambitions. Freed of the ranch and with the money from the land in their pocket, they turned their attention to politics.
As far as Ro could tell, Pop didn’t have any interest in that sort of thing. He was the type who much preferred cows to people, it seemed, found them better companions. He liked the range, the wide open Texas sky above him—not feeling boxed in by the city, by protocol, by politicians and warmongers. Out on the ranch, you did what you needed to do to survive, and that was about it. No need to worry about what the folks in Austin, in DC, or even on some far-flung planet were doing. No need to stick your nose in anyone else’s business.
Having been to space, Ro couldn’t say he blamed the man much. He didn’t quite understand why they were meddling in the affairs of other peoples. What did he care if some crab-shifters from a place called Harriot, a bajillion lightyears away from him, had attacked some other aliens on another planet that was just as far, if not farther? Hardly seemed like his concern. But that was what brass had ordered. And they’d ordered him to leave behind those people in the refugee camp too, which didn’t make much more sense. Intervene when some innocent alien civilians needed bombing, then turn tail when they needed someone to protect them?
Ro had to say, he understood why Pop had left it all behind. Cows and cowboys made at least a lick or two of sense more.
At any rate, it was pretty clear to him that the higher-ups were unhappy with his conduct; disobeying orders did not a good soldier make. But they also knew they couldn’t quite toss him out with the trash, not when it had won the Pisceans—and their more powerful allies, the Thestians—to the Harriot Coalition. If Ro had gone to Harriot, he would have been treated like a hero. Instead, he was stuck back here on Earth, where he was some kind of pariah.
But then, that was nothing new either. His mother, Sally, had been one of the first space explorers, and he’d wanted to follow in her footsteps since he was little. It was strange to him, though, that nobody wanted to talk about her. They left her off lists, and if he ever mentioned her name, all it got him was funny looks or the occasional harrumph from one of the commanding officers.
He was sure if they actually wanted him back, he would have been cleared weeks ago. He felt fine. Great, even, and still they said no, no, no, that he didn’t have his head on straight, not after that knock to the noggin when he’d crashed the ship.
That had been six months ago. They didn’t want him on base, and he didn’t have anywhere else to go except home to the ranch.
These last few months had been rough. He and Pop had butted heads before he’d graduated high school and enlisted. He’d done it the second he’d turned eighteen. Pop had never made any bones about how Ro was going to go to school if he wanted to: on his own dime or not at all. Pop wasn’t about to foot the bill.
Pop had always been like that; he believed in hard, honest work. It was why he still went with the boys out into the field, to the rodeo, even though he was probably a bit too old now for it. Ro wasn’t afraid of work either.
But he’d had to figure out how he was gonna get any higher education, and the army had told him they’d pay his way to an engineering degree, so long as he stuck with them a little after. Pop had seemed satisfied with that solution, so Ro shipped off two days after his eighteenth birthday.
And he hadn’t been back since. He’d done his basic training and started studying, but Earth had already allied with Harriot, and the universe had been teetering on the brink of war for some time, it seemed. So when the conflict had turned hot—in Piscea, near Librae—he’d been moved to the space corps, then shot off into space shortly after that.
He’d been fine with that, actually. Even staying in the city was preferable to being home on the ranch here. There wasn’t much out this way for a gay twenty-something, especially not one with an overbearing parent like Pop.
He didn’t necessarily dislike his father, and he didn’t think Pop disliked him, really. It was more that he’d discovered so much more freedom once he was out from under the man’s thumb, and coming back was like being chained to a wall. He couldn’t do anything.
If they were going to give him the boot, then so be it. The sooner they did, the sooner he could figure out what he was gonna do and get the heck out of Cloud Nine. There was some rumbling about sending him teaching-track ’cause that would keep people (namely Pop) quiet. It was a prospect that didn’t thrill him, but it would be better than being discharged and unemployed. Nobody seemed in any big hurry to decide though.
The minutes dragged on. The sound of the truck had faded away; Ro couldn’t hear the engine any longer. He could hear the wind in the trees, the cattle lowing a little further off, and some of the ranchers shouting at each other in the yard.
He headed back toward the house, already breathing easier. This was the first time in months he’d have any space, any privacy—the house to himself for a whole week while Pop was off at the rodeo.
Which meant he could do anything he wanted. Or, more accurately, anyone he wanted.
And there was one fellow in particular Ro had his sights set on. He hummed to himself as he headed up the creaking steps to the verandah, strolling leisurely around the house. He paused briefly, leaning on the sagging, splintering railing, peering through the thick branches of the enormous oaks, to the barnyard.
The day was hot and bright, the barest of breezes rustling through the grasses. The sky was an endless blue expanse, and Ro was half-tempted to head out back with a book and tall glass of sweet tea, fling himself down under one of the big shade trees and lounge about for the afternoon.
But he had plans, plans that involved a certain someone, and he wasn’t about to back down now. They’d been pussyfooting around for months now, and Ro was more than pent up about it. It was one thing to like romance; another to act like a schoolboy when you were one; and another thing entirely to have months of stolen kisses and lunch dates that weren’t quite dates because other people were watching.
But that was all he and Ferrante had been able to manage, first on Piscea and then once they’d made it back here to Earth. He had no idea where the other man had come from, just that he’d showed up in the camp one day, wearing one of their uniforms. He spoke some kind of broken pidgin English—not much, really, and Ro had never been able to place his accent. Of course, Ro wasn’t too fussed about geography in school, and he’d seen more of outer space, other planets, than he had of Earth herself. So he figured he could be forgiven for not being able to guess where Ferrante was from.
At any rate, he was mostly compliant and helpful in a way a lot of the other soldiers weren’t. Ro had been taken with him almost immediately. Ferrante was tall, lithe, dark, and gorgeous, in Ro’s expert opinion. He was taller than Ro but built a bit like a twig. That belied his strength, because he was all ropey, wiry muscle. Nonetheless, he did a good deal of good work, usually whatever Ro roped him into. For a bit, Ro had been the most senior officer they had in that camp, so it made sense—although the other boys didn’t like to jump for him, but then, they knew who he was. Their attitudes had changed a bit when Jeevan, who’d just been promoted to major, arrived, which Ro had been thankful for.
But Jeevan had showed up until the tail end of their tenure there, so for weeks, Ferr had been the most reliable pair of hands he had, other than his own. Granted, he’d seemed to most be running on fear and desire to please at that point, and he was some strange—he hardly seemed to know how way around a weapon, which baffled Ro. Where the heck was he from, that they didn’t train their soldiers?
Didn’t matter, in the end. Ferr was a quick study and, despite the occasional awkwardness of the language barrier between them, seemed to be pretty dang sharp. Ro could admit he wasn’t always the sharpest tool in the shed, so he definitely appreciated a quick wit when he saw one.
More than that, though, Ferr had been the only one to stay behind with him, disobey orders to abandon the camp when they got wind of Scorpius’s forces moving in on them. Ro had argued with Jeevan ’til he was blue in the face, but the newly minted major wouldn’t hear of it.
Ro didn’t get it. He’d always thought of Jeevan as a fair guy, someone who believed in protecting the innocent, avoiding bloodshed. When they’d been cadets together, Jeevan had always wanted to diffuse situations, avoid the use of force.
Now he was arguing they should leave a bunch of defenseless refugees to a gruesome fate. That didn’t sit right with Ro—just blindly obeying orders like that, turning away from the destruction and loss of life it would result in. Jeevan had told him they were no use to the cause if they were dead, so they’d live to fight another day. Ro figured that was cowardice.
At any rate, Jeevan and most of the company had cleared out, Ro’s objections notwithstanding. He was outranked, outnumbered, outgunned. But they couldn’t outfly him, that much he knew, so he’d turned his craft back. Ferr had been acting as his co-pilot; he was the only other one who’d agreed that it wasn’t right to leave the refugees there.
‘course, that meant they hadn’t been able to take everyone, and that had been heartbreaking—parents offering up their kids, grandparents arguing for their children, spouses and lovers trying to convince each other to go and leave the other behind. They’d taken as many as they could—more, really, too many. And that was what had caused the crash; the craft had been overweight, flying low, and Ro had lost control of her when the bombing started. They’d taken too long loading up; they hadn’t been able to get away fast enough.
Ro didn’t understand how any of them had survived; he didn’t remember a heck of a lot of the immediate aftermath. He knew it had been a bit before anyone had come back to look for survivors. He was pretty sure it was a peacekeeping squad and aid group from Thestia that had rescued them. The entire incident hadn’t really improved his opinion of his own species, to say the least.
But Ferr had stuck with him through it all; recuperation on Thestia, until they could get transferred to some Earth-bound supply ships. It was then Ferr had confessed he wasn’t from Earth at all—made sense, given that there was no record of him anywhere in the military personnel databases. The captain of the supply ship convoy had been easy to bribe though, and Ro had managed to smuggle Ferr home with him. That had seemed just fine with Ferr; he wouldn’t say where he was from, and he didn’t seem like he missed it all that much.
Ro had convinced Pop to hire Ferr on as a cowboy. They were always in need of help, and Pop was the kind of guy who hired all sorts. The white supremacist Ro had punched out after he’d started haranguing Luis when Luis had tried putting him in his place. This was a job, fer chrissakes, you had to listen to the boss, and if you couldn’t, what good were ya?
The gay-bashing bigot that Luis had punched out for Ro in turn. The lesbian who’d bitched about trans folks. God, there had been some real gems over the years.
Ferr fit right into that MO, but he had to be leagues better than some of the people Pop had hired. Ferr was quiet and unassuming, generally mild-mannered. He just went to work, no bellyaching. And he was a joy to watch in the yard, whether he was lassoing a steer or saddling up his horse, and he was so gentle with the critters, it almost broke Ro’s heart to see.
Needless to say, he’d been rapt with the tall alien since he’d first laid eyes on him back on Piscea. But they hadn’t had any time, because there’d always been someone watching, something to do. Ro was pretty sure everyone in the yard had bets on when the new cowhand was going to get the boss’s boy into bed. They all knew what cowpokes got up to, and none of them made too much of a fuss about that. Ro was a bit different, ’cause he wasn’t actually a cowboy himself and he was the boss’s kid, which, given how protective Pop was of him, was a bit like flirting with danger
Cowboys liked danger though; they wouldn’t have signed up for the job if they didn’t, Ro was pretty sure.
At any rate, Pop had been like a thorn in Ro’s side for six months straight. It had been suffocating; Ro had wondered if the man had anything better to do than fret over him. Luis, the lead cowboy, had been a bit surprised too—apparently Pop had been out on the range a lot more after Ro had gone to the military.
Ro had thought about going down to the bunkhouse, where most of the cowboys stayed when they weren’t out on the wilds of the range. But he hadn’t particularly wanted to risk getting caught; he hadn’t come out to his father, and he didn’t know how Pop would take it. It wasn’t like Pop dressed the place up in rainbow flags every June, although he’d hired a few queer people. Ro had no idea if he even knew they were queer or not. He figured the man had to know what the cowboys got up to, spending all that time out there. But Pop was also a Christian man; he didn’t go to church often, but he listened to the telecast and read the Bible, and Sunday was a day of rest and worship and so help you if you took the Lord’s name in vain. Ro had learned that lesson a little too well. Even with Luis’s assurances it would be all right, that Pop would understand, Ro wasn’t sure.
And he definitely didn’t want to risk getting caught sneaking down to the bunkhouse if Ferr wasn’t even there. Luis had shrugged and said Ferr wandered off sometimes; he seemed to like to be by himself, to be out under the stars.
Pop had wondered if Ferr was the rustler when Luis said the alien refugee didn’t stay in the bunkhouse all the time, but Luis had just laughed. “Wouldn’t hurt a fly,” he’d said, his locs swinging to and fro.
So that left Ro with not much choice except to see Ferr when other people were around. It was rare that they could steal a moment or two alone, locking lips down the laneway, where the trees hid them or in the shadows of the barn. It was tricky to even spend time with Ferr, try to get to know him better. He was a quiet soul; Ro hadn’t worked out if he was shy or embarrassed about his accent or just a man of few words. But when they were with a group of folks, he rarely talked. So when Ro did meet up with him, for lunch or dinner or even just hanging around by the fence, he did most of the talking.
Part of the reason he was excited to be able to invite Ferr up to the house now, while Pop was out. Sure, he was itching to get in Ferr’s pants—and if what Ferr did with that forked tongue of his when they kissed was any indication, Ferr wanted in his—but he was also looking forward to maybe prying more than four words out of the guy. Maybe he’d be less shy, less concerned about the state of his English when it was just him and Ro.
Ro liked to listen to him talk. He liked the way Ferrante pronounced things, dragging out an “ess” here, landing the stress on a strange part of the word, producing a rattling rhythm that was almost hypnotic. Like a snake charmer or something.
Ro jaunted down the steps along the other side, then hopped the fence to let himself into the barnyard. There was an old, gnarled tree there, right near the fence to the corral, and he stood under its leaves so his pale skin didn’t turn beet red in the late summer sun. He leaned over the rail and watched. He listened to cowboys holler at each other; seemed like they were trying to catch a steer this afternoon, which meant he had popped over at exactly the right time to watch Ferrante at work.
Ro was taken with his awkwardness, the way it transformed into some kind of grace as he swung the lasso. The muscles in his arms strained as he reined in the steer; Ro could see the veins on the cowboy’s hands. He ducked his head down, trying to convince himself it was the heat of the sun on his neck making him flush, not the thought of what he might get those hands to do to him later, how they might feel on him.
Ro had always appreciated the cowboys before, but Ferr … he was different. Like a magnet, or maybe like a moth to a flame. At any rate though, Ro liked to watch him, so he did. Made a bad habit of it even.
He risked another glance up, found Ferrante staring right at him, soulful copper eyes fixed right on Ro, the vaguest hint of a confident smirk on those lips, and Ro wondered if he could blame how lightheaded he felt on his supposed head injury.
Though, if he swooned, maybe he’d get to wake up in Ferrante’s strong arms.
Now, there was some romance novel nonsense. Now, Izzy, she’d known him since they were in school together, and they’d done some training together. She’d even loaned him vampire books and stuff, although she hated romances (maybe she just liked dead bodies more, ‘cause she was a doctor). She’d always said he had too much imagination about it anyway, and she would have mocked him mercilessly for it, he knew. But then, what she didn’t know …
Surprise crossed Ferrante’s face. That was quickly followed by a look of understanding, and Ro knew he was blushing now.
“Hey,” Ferr called across the yard, and Ro started, nearly banged his head off a low-hanging branch. “Luis! Seen my hat?”
Ro practically melted in relief; he’d been sure Ferrante was going to call him out, and then Luis would know he was there. Luis would probably make fun of him for how much he’d been hanging around recently. He watched appreciatively as Ferr crossed the yard, lasso swinging at his hip, drawing Luis’s attention to himself. It was all fun and games with Luis—he didn’t mind much at all—but Ro wasn’t in the mood to be harassed. He was too strung.
Ro was so ready for tonight. He didn’t like to think of himself as hard-up or desperate, but …
He really, really was. He’d been waiting too long now to get the beautiful alien into bed. Anticipation was going to drive him around a bend.
A rustle in the grass to his left made him glance down, but there was nothing there. The last thing he needed was to get bit by some old rattler or something. Pop had tried telling him there were even cottonmouths around, but he didn’t believe that.
A shadow fell over him, and he glanced up. A cloud had rolled over the sun, another hot on its heels. The horizon was hazy, and the wind was picking up.
Well, if it had been a snake, it probably had the right idea—getting back home before the storm blew up.
He clapped his hands on the rail boards, drawing both Ferr and Luis’s attention to him. He nodded once. The cowboys glanced at each other. Then Ferr clapped his hat to his head and jogged over to the fence.
“Hey,” Ro said, tilting his head up to look into those copper eyes.
“Hello,” the tall cowboy said, tilting his head down so far that his hat almost tumbled off his head. He started, then clamped it to his head with a hand.
“Pop’s gone,” Ro said with a wink and a grin, pleased when understanding blossomed across Ferrante’s face. “Got the house to myself for a bit. Why don’t you swing on by when you’re done here?”
“That sounds very nice.”
Ro nodded, clapped his hand on the railing again. “I’ll go get some dinner on then, huh? I bet you’ll be mighty hungry—work always works up an appetite, hm?”
Ferrante glanced him up and down, blatantly appraising. “Yes,” he replied at length, “I would welcome a good meal.”
Ro grinned raucously. He’d never been with anyone who made it so clear they appreciated him so much. “Sounds good then,” he offered, pushing away from the fence. “Don’t keep me waiting too long—don’t want it to go cold.”
“Of course” was the ready reply, and Ro suppressed a shudder. The way the cowboy looked at him, that copper gaze full of simmering heat, he didn’t think he could go cold if he tried. All he’d have to do would be think of those eyes, that look.
He drew a sharp breath, then nodded solidly to himself. He took a stumbling step or two. “Well, I,” he started, then pointed vaguely at the house.
“Go on, Ro!” Luis called from the barn door. “Git! Can’t ever finish work if you’re holding the man up!”
“Right,” Ro almost laughed. Then he trotted back across the yard, up the dusty path to the veranda.