the_water_clock: abstract painting (Untitled 1958 Coffee and Cinnamon)
[personal profile] the_water_clock
Author: Clio
Title: Couldn't Have One Without the Other
Pairing: Lydia Martin/Erica Reyes, Derek Hale/Stiles Stilinski
Rating: NC-17 (eventually)
Summary: The little town of Beacon that weathered the Long Winter is growing with the arrival of new teacher Miss Laura Hale, who's come to prepare ambitious students Stiles and Lydia for their upcoming college exams. Miss Hale's brother and sister, Derek and Erica, have also come to town to start a horse ranch. But is it their beautiful horses, or the Hale siblings themselves, who have turned Stiles and Lydia's heads?
Length: 68,000 words
Notes: If the summary doesn't give it away to you, it's a Little House-style AU, suggested by katemonster and verity on tumblr one day. Thanks so much to verity and heidi for beta'ing this beast of a story, and to them, evil_erato and stina for cheerleading me during the writing process!
Art in the second half by threelongsteps




(stiles)

"Stiles! Stiles!" Scott shouted, running into the depot office. "You have to see these horses!"

"Do I now?" Stiles asked, not looking up from his figures. Scott was often excited about horses, because Scott was a farmer all the way down to his bones. But Stiles had retained enough of his former city-boy ways to not be impressed by a particularly large or well-matched team of draft horses.

"I saw their heads peeking out of the boxcar window, and they're too beautiful to be working, that's for sure," Scott said, raising his eyebrows.

Stiles raised his in return, his interest piqued, and turned to Mr. Finstock, the station master, who waved them off. "You may as well get a good look at 'em," he said.

"Thanks, Mr. Finstock!" Stiles said, grabbing his hat and heading out to the just-arrived train. To be fair, Stiles had meant to casually look out the window as the passengers left the train, because he wanted to be the first to see their new teacher, who was arriving that very day with her brother. But he didn't want to seem too eager: it was strange for a boy in a Dakota farm town to want to go to college, and frankly there were enough things about Stiles that stood him apart from the other fellows.

Except Scott, of course, who was staying in school because Stiles was, and because his Ma said he might and that one more year of hired hands wasn't anything.

They turned the corner and saw a woman who had to be Teacher standing under the shelter, shading herself from the sun. She was tall, dark-haired and fashionably dressed—or at least, dressed as fancy as his classmate Lydia, which Stiles took to be fashionable because Lydia wouldn't be anything else. Several satchels and cases and a few trunks were piled onto a hand cart next to her, and she held a gentleman's jacket. When she saw Scott and Stiles, she turned to them with a warm smile.

"Hello," she said. "I'm Miss Hale. Will I be seeing you boys in my classroom this fall?"

"Yes, ma'am," Stiles replied. "I'm Stiles Stilinski and this is Scott McCall."

"Pleased to meet you," Miss Hale said, bowing her head slightly. "Are you the college-bound students I was told about?"

"Stiles is," Scott said, "but there isn't much call for a college degree on the farm. My Ma and I just reckon I should get in all the learning I can, while I can."

"That's very wise of you and your Ma," Miss Hale replied. "No reason at all you can't join my college preparatory classes."

"Thank you, Miss Hale," Scott said, and Stiles nodded.

"But I'm sure you're here to see them, and not me," she said, and nodded toward the train behind them.

Stiles turned, and coming out of one of the box cars was a young man in shirt sleeves, his vest and trousers matching the coat that Miss Hale was carrying. He was slowly and carefully leading a glossy brown Morgan down a ramp out of the box car and toward the stables. Horses were often nervous when they arrived at the depot, disoriented by their journey and the unfamiliar surroundings. But the man was talking to his horse, walking slow and steady, and the horse came along gentle as could be. Stiles had never seen anything like it—nor a horse as beautiful as that one, even back in Chicago.

The man trotted back from the stables to the car, likely to get another horse, and he waved.

"That's my brother Derek," Miss Hale said. "He raises horses. It's our family business."

"They're beautiful," Scott said, as they watched Mr. Hale lead a second, perfectly matched horse out of the car.

"We've only brought one team for now," she said. "In the fall our friend and our younger sister are arriving with the rest. No sense bringing them when we still need to build a house and stables."

Mr. Hale wore a hat with a wide brim, understandable on such a bright, hot day, so it wasn't until he was quite close to them that Stiles could make out his features. The family resemblance was noticeable—the siblings shared the same dark hair, bright hazel eyes, and bone structure. But while Miss Hale was all warm welcome, Mr. Hale's eyebrows were furrowed, his mouth pinched tight.

He was also infinitely more beautiful even than his fine horses. Stiles felt his stomach flip and his mouth go dry, and for once he couldn't think of a single thing to say.

Thankfully Miss Hale was laughing. "Derek, stop scowling! You're going to make these folks think you aren't friendly!"

Mr. Hale smoothed out his features, though it seemed to take some effort. "Sorry," he said.

"Scott and Stiles here were just admiring the horses," Miss Hale said. "They're going to be in my class in the fall."

"Good thing," Mr. Hale said, nodding. "Takes a smart man to raise a smart horse, our Pa always says."

"Yes, sir," Scott said.

"If you fellows could do me a favor and get out the word, we're looking to hire some help for the summer, get the house and stables put up. Seventy-five cents a day plus lunch."

"I could do for you, Mr. Hale," Stiles said quickly.

"You don't have to work your own claim?" he asked.

"No, sir," Stiles replied. "My Pa's the sheriff, so we just have a tree claim, doesn't take much minding. And Mr. Finstock only needs me a couple hours a week; he's taught me accounting so I come do his figures."

"Well, you are an enterprising young man, aren't you?" Miss Hale said.

Stiles shrugged. "Everything we can save for college," he said.

"You ever worked on a house?" Mr. Hale asked.

"Helped build your house in town," Stiles said. "And a bunch of the others, just after the Snowy Winter."

Mr Hale raised his eyebrows, and looked Stiles up and down.

Stiles stood up straight; he was nearly as tall as Mr. Hale and he'd put on some muscle in the years since he and Papa had come out to Dakota. Not as much as Mr. Hale, but more than he'd ever had in Chicago.

"Well, come to the house Monday at seven," Mr. Hale said, nodding sharply. "I should know what's what by then."

"Sure thing, Mr. Hale," Stiles replied, and tried to keep from grinning like an idiot.

Mr. Hale paused. "How old are you, anyway?"

"We're both seventeen," Stiles said.

"Well, I'm not much more than five years older than you," he replied, "so drop the mister, and just call me Hale."

"Derek!" Miss Hale said.

"Can't be answering to Mr. Hale all summer, Laura," he said, shaking his head. "Makes me feel like Pa."

She sighed. "You're as bad as Uncle Peter," she said.

"Well, I'd hope not," Hale said. "Now, if you'll excuse us, I'm going to get my sister out of this heat. Stiles, I'll see you Monday morning."

"You'll see him before that," Miss Hale said. "In church, on Sunday."

"Actually," Stiles said—and this was always the difficult moment—"since it's good weather, Scott and his Ma and my Pa and I will go to Mass over at the mission. Being as we're Catholic and all." He paused. "I hope that's not a problem."

"You'll have no problem with me," Hale said, without a moment's hesitation.

"Good," Stiles replied, relieved. "I'll see you Monday morning."

Hale shook both their hands, and escorted his sister around the side of the depot and into town.

"Gosh, Stiles," Scott said. "You're gonna spend the whole summer around those horses! Just think!"

"Yeah," Stiles said. "Just think."

Stiles went back to work, while Scott was off to the Argent general store. He'd timed his errand to the arrival of the train because he, too, was curious about the new teacher. Scott's girl, Allison, helped out at her father's store, but as her father was away for a week on business it would be a sight easier for Scott to talk to her. Not that Mr. Argent forbade their courtship, but he wasn't entirely pleased that the boy his daughter spent time with was a very young Catholic farmer whose mother's people were Mexican. Stiles would have been angry and resentful at such treatment but Scott pressed on, determined but cheerful, because Scott was an infinitely better person than Stiles was.

Stiles didn't have a girl; he'd never even been close to having one. Since he'd arrived in Beacon, he'd had a fancy for Lydia Martin, whose parents ran the hotel. But Lydia did not receive his attentions at all kindly. She'd had a beau all that time, a rich boy named Whittemore, but his family had sent him off to boarding school very suddenly. It should have left Lydia free and clear for Stiles to pursue, but somehow, that pursuit wasn't going according to plan.

Well, springtime in a farm town was busy anyway. Perhaps the summer, even with his new job, would provide more opportunities.

Stiles pocketed the fifty cents Mr. Finstock gave him for doing the accounting, and headed down the street to see Papa at the Sheriff's office. He was sitting alone on the porch, cleaning one of his guns while also keeping a watchful eye on the saloons across Main Street. Stiles helped himself to a cup of water and sat down next to him.

Papa glanced up, then back to his work. "Finstock is satisfied?" he asked, speaking Polish as they were alone.

"Yes, Papa," Stiles replied, in kind. "I have my fifty cents to put in the jar."

"Good, good," he said. "And you met your new teacher? They walked by a little while ago."

Stiles nodded. "She was nice. Some horses her brother's got," he said.

"Very handsome, I'm sure," Papa said, and for a wild moment Stiles thought he meant Mr. Hale himself.

"Mr. Hale hired me to help him build a house and stables out on their claim," Stiles said. "I thought it might help for college. Seventy-five cents plus dinner. I can pack your dinner in the mornings, I figure, and be home for supper."

Papa hummed, spinning the cylinder of his Colt, and then began to carefully reload it. "I'll want to meet this Mr. Hale first," he said. "If he spends too much time at the saloon, I'll not want you alone with him up at the claim."

"Brother of the teacher?" Stiles said. "He doesn't look the type, anyway."

"Can't always tell by looking."

"He didn't have the shakes from spending the day on the train," Stiles said. "And you should have seen him with those horses. Calm as anything."

"I'm sure he was," Papa said, slipping the revolver back into his holster and turning to Stiles. "When are you to start?"

"Monday morning."

"Then I'm sure I'll see him in town over the next four days," Papa said.

"Please, Papa, don't intimidate him. I can do the job and it's good money."

"Any man who would be intimidated by the sheriff looking into who his own son will be working for shouldn't be out on the prairies alone," Papa said, firmly. "I'd be irresponsible if I didn't seek him out."

Stiles sighed, and slumped back in his chair, biting his tongue to keep from reminding Papa that he was seventeen now, not ten, and might have developed some ability to assess people upon meeting them. He said only, "Yes, Papa. Reckon I'll go start supper now."

Papa clapped one hand on Stiles's shoulder. "I'm proud that you took the opportunity," Papa said.

"Thanks," Stiles replied, and they smiled at each other.

The small house the town gave them as part of Papa's salary stood next door to the sheriff's office. While he had a regular salary, because the county was still somewhat unorganized much of it was paid in kind—the house, a credit line at the Argent store and the drug store, milk and eggs and butter from a rotating set of farmers. Stiles tended a small garden plot behind the house, and the Widow McCall had shown him how to make and put up the preserves and pickles they kept in the cellar. Today Stiles picked some radishes and small, early tomatoes to go with the cottage cheese he'd set aside after dinner, and sliced a few green onions to scatter across the plate. That and some bread and butter would make a fine late May supper.

Maybe it was the prospect of work, of being grown-up enough to take a regular job for college money, or of the arrival of the teacher that was going to prepare him for that college, but Stiles felt a rare moment of reflection. It was a modest life that Papa and he had carved out for themselves on the prairie, after Mama died and everything had gone sideways in Chicago, but it was a good one. He was eager for what was next.

Then he looked out the window and saw Mr. Hale walking down the street toward the general store, his father following along behind, and the brief feeling of contentment shattered. He felt suddenly anxious that Papa would do or say something to put Mr. Hale off, and wondered when a simple carpentry job had become so important. He tried to be fatalistic; if it was to be, it would happen.

But oh, he wanted.




(lydia)

"Lydia," Mrs. Martin said, shaking her head, "I'm very sure that the yellow cotton would be perfectly serviceable for meeting your new teacher. There's no need to impress."

"There's every need, Ma," Lydia said, smoothing down the soft pink dress that was her third-best. "I want her to see that I'm taking my college preparations very seriously. I would think she would appreciate that."

"I'm sure she'll understand that from what you say," Mrs. Martin replied, shaking her head and walking into the kitchen as Allison came out, glasses in her hand.

"Don't be so nervous," she said as she set them down on the parlor table next to the pitcher of lemonade Lydia had just set down. "Scott said they were nice as anything, Teacher and her brother."

Lydia rolled her eyes. "They arrived three hours ago, and of course he's already met them and reported to you."

Allison smiled broadly, entirely uncowed. "I was just helping out at the store and he came by," she said.

"I don't see why you have to help when your father isn't even in town," Lydia said. "Surely he trusts Mr. Harris if he left him in charge in his absence."

"That's not the way things are done in our family," Allison said primly.

There was a knock on the door then; Lydia glanced at the mantel clock and noted that Miss Hale was certainly prompt. "I'll get it, Ma."

Outside were a young man and woman, obviously related. "Hello," the woman said, inclining her head, and the man raised his hat.

"Miss Hale, hello," Lydia said, extending a hand. "I'm Lydia Martin."

"Ah, another one of my students," Miss Hale said, smiling. "This is my brother, Derek."

Mr. Hale's smile was strained, and he carried himself a bit stiffly, but then, he had been traveling for the better part of two days. "Pleased to make your acquaintance," he said, and despite his demeanor, there was something about him that appealed.

"Likewise," Lydia said. "Won't you both come in?"

"My brother is heading to the general store," Miss Hale said quickly, "so he won't be able to join."

Mr. Hale breathed out and Lydia saw him relax slightly. "I am, but I thank you kindly for the invitation," he said.

Lydia gave him her most charming smile, the one just this side of coquettish, and said, "Some other time then."

He bowed. "I look forward to that," he said. To his sister he said, "I'll come by for you in an hour." He touched his hat again, said, "Nice to meet you, Miss Martin," and then strode away purposefully down the street.

Lydia closed the door behind Miss Hale. "I must apologize, if we forgot anything in setting up the house," she said, walking her into the living room.

"No, no," Miss Hale replied. "It's a charming little house and you've supplied us with everything we'll need to get started. But you know the men are just as much gossips as we are, and all of that occurs at the general store. Derek was eager to go and make connections."

"I can testify to that, Miss Hale," Allison said. "My Pa runs that store and in the bad weather it does fill up with gentlemen who seem content to sit and talk for hours."

"Miss—Argent, then? Was that the name?" she asked.

"Yes, Allison," she said, and they shook hands.

"I knew a family named Argent once," Miss Hale said. "But that was some time ago and some ways from here, so I'm sure it's not the same. At any rate, I've learned that it's never wise to keep my brother from whatever he's set his mind to."

"Please, have a seat," Lydia said. "Would you care for some lemonade?"

"You know, I would, thank you," Miss Hale said, taking off her hat and setting it on the cushion beside her. "It's so warm, for being so early in the year."

"Not for Dakota," Lydia said.

"Now, Lydia, you aren't talking down the town already, are you?" Mrs. Martin asked, bustling into the room with a tray of cookies. "Miss Hale, so good to see you again and be able to welcome to Beacon!"

"Formerly called Beacon Hills by the railroad developers," Lydia said, "despite the marked absence of anything even approximating a slight rise."

"I'm sure that makes it much easier for the plow," Miss Hale said. "It certainly seems good pastureland out here, which is what my brother has an eye toward."

"I heard about his beautiful horses," Allison said, and at Miss Hale's quizzical look added, "Scott came by the store after he met you."

"As I said, all the news can be had in the general store," Miss Hale replied. "My brother seems to have inherited the knack for breaking horses from my father. He's wonderful with them."

"We're very pleased that Beacon would suit you both," Mrs. Martin said.

Miss Hale nodded. "So, Miss Argent, will you also be in my college preparatory class?"

"Perhaps, if it isn't too full," Allison replied. "Pa and I aren't sure about college for me."

"A class of three students is nothing like full," Miss Hale said. "And your friend Scott McCall also expressed interest."

Allison blushed and tried not to smile. "Did he?" she asked. "He didn't mention that."

"So long as we're focused on what Lydia, Stiles and—I haven't met Mr. Whittemore as yet—but on their needs for getting into college, we should be just fine."

"Oh dear, of course no one has told you," Mrs. Martin said. "The Whittemores have decided to go back east, and put their son in boarding school. Such a shame; he and Lydia were quite close."

Lydia smiled, trying to look as if this news didn't affect her in the least. "There are such things as letters, Ma," Lydia said.

"A book can be an excellent distraction from the absence of a friend," Miss Hale said, smiling back, and unlike the other women in town her expression had no hint of pity in it whatsoever.

Lydia knew what the women said when she wasn't there, how they had consoled her mother over "losing" the connection. It was insulting, as if their lives were a Jane Austen novel. Why, they were written over seventy-five years ago! She changed the subject. "Are there books we should read to prepare for the year ahead?" Lydia asked.

"If you're willing," Miss Hale said, sounding surprised. "The summer is a busy time on a farm."

Lydia nodded. "No sense in waiting, I say."

"Let me think on it, put together a sensible plan you all can fulfill despite your work." She paused, then gave Lydia a penetrating look. "You're very serious about going to college, aren't you?"

"Becoming a college woman is my primary goal, Miss Hale," Lydia said.

"Then allow me to be your partner in that goal, Lydia," Miss Hale replied. "Now, where are you planning to attend? I understand the territorial legislature here in Dakota has recently endowed an agricultural college in Brookings."

"Oh my, no," Mrs. Martin said, smiling. "Lydia will be studying the liberal arts, not attending some sort of trade school."

For her part Lydia wished that her mother could have expressed the sentiment about education without sounding quite so ridiculous; after all, they were in a tiny farm down in Dakota, so Miss Hale's assumption wasn't entirely beneath them. "Stiles and I sent away to various schools for information a few months ago," she said, "and the College of Letters within the University of California would suit us both quite well."

"Very well prepared, I see," Miss Hale replied. "And do you know what you would plan to study?"

"Higher mathematics," she said. "Not exclusively, but primarily. I'm rather good with numbers and concepts and such."

"She quite outstripped her previous teacher," Mrs. Martin said. "That's one reason Beacon contracted your services."

"What college did you attend, Miss Hale?" Lydia asked.

"Oh, Wellesley," she replied. "Have you considered a women's college?"

"I have," Lydia said, sitting forward slightly. "But the prestigious ones are so far away, and with Allison not sure—"

Mrs. Martin interrupted then. "Mr. Martin and I would rather that she attend alongside someone that she knows," she said. "Which would appear to be the Stilinski boy, now that the Whittemores have left us, and in either instance you can see the difficulty that a women's college would present."

"But the Dean at the University of California assured me that many women attend the College of Letters," Lydia added. "Being with other women in full use of their minds would be just so wonderful. Here, there's really only Allison."

"I'll be able to add another to that number," Miss Hale said. "My adopted sister Erica will be joining us in the fall. I hope that she will also want to take part in the college preparatory classes, but I would say that she is 'in full use' of her mind as you say."

"As are you, I'm sure, Miss Hale," Allison said.

"That goes without saying," Lydia said.

"Then I sincerely hope that I will not disappoint you," Miss Hale said. "I think we will have a lovely, cozy class and be able to prepare you well for your futures, whatever they may be."

"Of that we have no doubt," Mrs. Martin said. "Would you like a cookie?" she asked, picking up one of the trays.

Lydia allowed Ma to steer the conversation away from education toward more usual topics, such as Miss Hale's journey, ensuring once again that everything in the teacher's house was as it should be, the current minister, that sort of thing. Before too long Mr. Hale had returned to bring Miss Hale back to their home to continue settling in, but Miss Hale made sure to extend invitations to both Lydia and Allison to please call on her any afternoon.

Mrs. Martin hurried off to make sure all was well in the front room of the hotel, leaving Lydia and Allison to clear and clean the dishes from their tea.

"Oh Allison, can you imagine?" Lydia said. "Discussing intellectual issues with someone other than you and Stiles?"

"Well, thank you for that!" Allison said, but she was smiling.

"You know very well what I mean," Lydia said. "You're more than capable, but your extraordinary talents lie elsewhere. And with Stiles, I can't seem to ever keep the topic on intellectual matters and not, say, the color of my hair." She shook her head. "I wish he would stop reminding me that he's a boy. It would make our friendship much simpler."

"Poor Stiles," Allison said. She was inclined to be more sympathetic, but then he was her beau's close friend and also he'd never shown any signs of wanting to court her. "Maybe he'll find a girl at college."

"I hope so, if only so he'll cease in his attempts to court me," Lydia said. "But enough of that—you'll come with me to see Miss Hale some of these days, won't you? At least the first time?"

"If you insist. I did like her, but I suspect that if it's an intellectual discussion you want you'll be more satisfied if I'm not there."

"I've never met a woman who even hinted that she could converse on such a level," Lydia said, smiling widely. "It's really quite stimulating."

Allison raised one eyebrow. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that you have one of those 'pashes" that they write about in boarding-school novels."

"Why, Allison Argent," Lydia said, her face all innocence. "We're good upstanding Christian girls. What would we know about boarding-school novels?"

For just a moment, Allison looked shocked, and then they both laughed.

Lydia said, "Maybe I do have a pash. I don't know that there's a thing wrong with that."

"I don't think so, either," Allison replied, loyally.




(derek)

In the first week that Derek had Stiles working alongside him, he learned the following:

His given first name was not Stiles, but he categorically refused to say what it was, and apparently the only other person in town who did know was his father, who was respecting his son's wishes and not telling.

He called his father "Papa," and not only spoke Polish at home but had a tendency to say Polish words under his breath that Derek suspected were not, strictly speaking, polite.

He was a hard worker, careful and thorough, who only needed to be shown how to do things once but who would almost always question Derek's methods, suggest alternatives, and insist on trying them out.

He was possessed of no discernible physical grace whatsoever, and seemed to have no sense of where his body was in relation to the house they were building, Derek, or the space around him in general.

He knew nearly everything that had ever happened in Beacon, thanks to his tendency to eavesdrop on his father's conversations and his own ability to blend into the background when he wanted to.

His eyes, when the sun struck them, were of a deep amber that reminded Derek of very good Tennessee whiskey.

He talked more than any man Derek had ever met in his entire life.

Yet Derek didn't yearn for silence. He was used to a big family, to bustling ranch life, and there was no comfort in the company of his own thoughts. Also, Stiles didn't seem to much mind that Derek listened to him with only half an ear, but to expect it, and to alert Derek when he was going to talk about the work at hand rather than the gossip of the town. Never mind that Derek was grateful to be in on the news; he'd never much liked coming into new situations. So when Stiles offered to take advantage of the sunlight and work past suppertime for an extra dime a day, Derek was happy to oblige.

In that first week, Derek and Stiles had dug out the cellar for the small house Derek had laid out on the ground with line stretched between rocks. It wasn't until week two, as they roughed out the frame, that Stiles told the story of what he referred to as the Snowy Winter, back in '80-81, when the trains didn't come for seven long months.

"What did you do for food?" Derek asked.

Stiles shrugged. "Whole town nearly starved," he said. "Would have, if it wasn't for Greenberg."

"Greenberg?" Derek asked, and tried to remember if anyone in town had mentioned that name.

"Well I should say, Papa and Mr. Argent and Mr. Finstock," Stiles said. "Finstock's been here since they first laid the railroad tracks, and always said there was a settler some miles south of town, whom no one else had ever seen. Figured he'd be out there sitting on a pile of seed wheat, at the least. So in between blizzards, Papa and Mr. Argent went down there to see what was what."

"Could've been a wild goose chase," Derek said.

"Wasn't," Stiles replied. "They came back with enough grain to get everyone through until the trains finally came in May."

Derek's eyes widened. "The snow fell until May?" he asked.

"Off and on," Stiles said, then turned to him and laughed. "Don't worry! It's never like that. Some old Sioux told my dad something about it being the third times seventh winter? Like, every seventh winter is a hard one, and then every twenty-first winter is what we got in '80."

"So we'll have a hard winter in three years?"

"Apparently," Stiles said, "but I'll miss most of it, being at college and all. Which is good, as Papa gets concerned when I get too thin. Half the reason we came out here." Stiles paused, and then as he always did every time the conversation even glanced at his past in Chicago, he zigged. "We all got through it, anyhow."

"Thanks to your Pa and Mr. Argent," Derek said. "Must have brought the town together."

"Did," Stiles said. "Got more people trusting Papa, too, even though we aren't in the church and have a funny name. But plenty of newcomers since then, too. Though some of them wash out and go back east, like Allison's Aunt Kate."

Derek nearly hit his thumb with the hammer, stopped, took a breath. "Aunt Kate?" he asked. "Do you happen to know Mr. Argent's given name?"

"Chris," Stiles replied. "Why?"

"We, uh, we knew their family," Derek said, working around the tremor that came into his hand. "Back east. They lived in our town."

"Huh," Stiles said. "Well, small world."

"Yep." Derek looked up at the sun. "Time for a break, I think," he said.

It wasn't, not nearly, but Stiles didn't say anything, just nodded and set his hammer down. He looked at Derek for along moment, then said, "Race you to the creek?"

"You're on," Derek said, and they were both off like a shot, across the grassland to the small creek that ran across one corner of his claim. It wasn't a far run, five minutes at the most, but it was enough to work the jitters out of Derek's muscles. He was thankful to be overheated and out of breath, splashing water on the back of his neck, anything to distract him from the fact that Kate Argent had lived here, that her "beloved little niece" was in this very town.

Also, he won the race, though Stiles was more of a good sport than Derek expected from a boy his age.

"Always lose to Scott," he said, shrugging. "I'm used to it."

"You two are good friends," Derek said.

"The best," Stiles agreed.

Derek nodded. "My friend Boyd is coming, soon as summer is over," he said. "And my sister Erica and the rest of the horses."

"Another Hale? How many of you are there?"

"There are five of us children, but Erica isn't a Hale, strictly speaking. We took her in when she was little—consumption got her folks."

Stiles nodded. "Got my Mama, too," he said.

"Sorry to hear that," Derek replied. Books made it sound romantic and ladylike, but in real life it was a long, slow, bloody and painful way to go.

"Thanks," Stiles said, and they were silent for a while, letting the light breeze stir their hair.

"Well, I'm sure you'll be glad when your friend Boyd is here, and you won't have to deal with me," Stiles said.

"Nah," Derek replied, shrugging. "Boyd doesn't do what he's told, neither. And you'll be in school, anyways."

"Could work Saturdays," Stiles said. "That is, um, if you need anyone."

Derek raised an eyebrow. "You interested in horses?" he asked.

Stiles looked over to the field, where David and Jonathan were on a long tether, grazing. "Yours are awfully beautiful."

"They're matched well," Derek said. "Well, I'll think on it. Meanwhile we should get back to work on that house."

They walked back, easily staying in stride with each other, and for once Stiles was content to be quiet. Derek's thoughts drifted back to Kate Argent—surely she hadn't said anything about her "suspicions"—couldn't, without revealing her own tendency to sin. He thought they wouldn't have been appropriate to be shared with a young niece but then, since when had Kate ever been appropriate?

Derek picked up his hammer from where he'd dropped it on the ground. "Tell me another story, Stiles?" he asked.

Stiles looked surprised, then grinned. "Be glad to," he replied.

Derek settled back into the rhythms of working, Stiles's voice like a comforting hum at the back of his mind. Even with the unexpected break they managed to finish the work Derek had laid out for the day, and tucked into the supper Laura had packed for them with their backs leaning against the frame, watching the sun set over the slough.

"So, your sister went to college, but you didn't?" Stiles asked.

"Didn't need it to raise horses," he said. "But Laura and Tom—he's the oldest and a lawyer now in St. Louis—gave me their books, so I dunno. I got some of it." He paused. "Ma always said I was better outside the classroom than in it."

"You read all the books they read in college?"

"Most of them," Derek said, feeling a little shy suddenly. He was so used to people who knew him to always have a book in his hand, but of course Stiles saw him only with the horses and a hammer. "Literature and history and philosophy mostly. Some natural history, too. Didn't manage Latin though."

Stiles was staring at him now, which was unnerving, and Derek wanted to shrink back into himself. At last he said, "Hale, that's downright admirable. Clearly we need to be having intellectual discussions on a much higher level." He grinned.

"Clearly," Derek replied, rolling his eyes, because while he could tell that Stiles was smart as anything, he couldn't imagine him having a so-called "intellectual discussion." Or at least, not of the high-minded sort that Derek remembered Tom having with some of his friends.

"So who makes five?" Stiles asked.

"Five what?"

Stiles counted on his fingers. "You, Tom the lawyer, Miss Hale my teacher, your sister Erica." He held up his thumb. "Who makes five?"

"Cora," Derek replied. "She got married two years ago, at sixteen. Real young but she always was headstrong, and that's what she wanted. Her husband Isaac isn't much older, a tailor now out in California. They have a son already and one on the way."

"Gee," Stiles said. "She's really a grown-up, then."

"Yep. More than any of us except Laura, I'd say." He paused. "So it's just you and your Pa?"

Stiles nodded. "But Scott, he's really like a brother. We were always in and out of each other's houses and such, always together since I came here to live. It'll be a strange thing, going to college without him."

"After I finished school I went out on my own," Derek said. "Worked at some ranches, learned other ways with horses. But I wound up at my Uncle Peter's anyways. Don't know if I'd've left there if Laura hadn't suggested it." He didn't say that it was a damn good thing she had, because there was nothing in Kansas City for him. Oh he'd done well by the horses, trained a few teams and made some good money from his hard work, but the rest he was eager to leave behind. "Always comes back to family, I guess. Well, let's pack up these things and get you back to town before your Pa misses you."

Stiles grumbled, but he stood up nevertheless. "Did he really intimidate you so?"

"He's the sheriff," Derek said. "He showed me his gun. I'm sure he knows how to use it."

"I also know how to use a gun, because he taught me, and yet you don't seem intimidated by me," Stiles replied.

"That's because I'm not," Derek said. "Also you don't carry one."

"I might!" Stiles said. "I do when I check on the tree claim."

"You do?" Derek asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Jumpers," Stiles said. "Since we don't live out there."

"Ah," Derek said, looking around to make sure they hadn't left anything behind. "Well, when you show me your gun while telling me that you hope nothing happens to your father while he's in my employ, then maybe I'll be intimidated."

Stiles was putting his saddlebag onto Jonathan. "Is that what he did?" he asked. "Oh, Papa. Well, at least your horses like me."

"They seem to," Derek said, and it was odd, because usually David and Jonathan were standoffish with strangers, particularly Jonathan, but both had taken a fancy to Stiles on the very first day. "Home?"

"Yep," Stiles said. "Let's go home."




(erica)

Kansas City, July 30, 1884

Dear Derek,

In case you're thinking on it, yes, I'm still angry with you. A foal is a poor excuse for leaving Boyd and me behind so you can go be a grown-up and such.

I hope Laura is keeping you from your worse impulses. At least you have a hired boy to keep you company. Don't like thinking of you being alone too much. You know how dismal you can get, and it's no good indulging it.

As you care more about horses than people, I'll tell you that the Duchess's foal is just fine, coming along real well like we all knew she would. She's made of strong stock and has that gleam in her eye. Whatever your failings, you sure know about breeding horses.

But before you think I'm done being angry, let me tell you I am not. Why do I have to go to school with all the girls in the fall? Why can't I stay out and work on the farm like the big boys do? I'm not aiming to be a teacher nor go to college like Laura. I want to raise horses with you, and I'd learn a sight more from you than from her. No disrespect, mind. But I can read and write and figure just fine and I know history and geography well enough I think, and if I don't, why, I can read books on my own time like you do. I'd have to be in with the boys and girls who brought Laura in to get them to college, and you know they won't care for me at all. Laura's even set me books to read over the summer! (You can tell her that she was right; Uncle Peter has all of them.) It isn't a bit fair, just because I'm a girl.

(Have you met any of these college type students other than your Catholic hired boy with the secret name? Laura doesn't say as much as I'd want to know about the other two girls, especially that outspoken one, Lydia. I reckon if I'm to go to school with them you could at least tell me what they're like. Now that I have some female friends that aren't my sisters I've gotten used to it. I know that school girls heading to college won't be the same as the saloon girls but you're the ones forcing me to go to school.)

Anyways I do have a new dress which I'm dying to show you, and there's a story. Taking care of two horses and a foal isn't a full time job as you know, and Uncle Peter doesn't mind much what we do, so Boyd and I have been helping out at that saloon and hotel downtown. We get two dollars a day between the two of us to see to the horses and keep the stables tidy and we get dinner and supper besides. Plus the girls have been teaching me how to play poker. I know Laura isn't going to be too pleased that I'm sitting around with the saloon girls, but the idea of my ever being a proper lady went out the window the first time you and Pa got me near a horse.

The girls thought that I could clean up playing poker, on account of men thinking that a woman can't fleece them. They surely don't mind at the saloon if I sit at the table in my trousers and vest and shirt and hat. Some of the men don't realize I'm a girl until they get a good look at me—and sometimes that's after I've won some money off them! I only bet winnings, and I've won ten dollars so far this summer! Ten whole dollars.

Now don't worry about my becoming a gambler because it doesn't seem like steady work the way horses are. People always need horses, and they aren't mad at you when you make money off selling them one. Poker players, though, they can be powerful touchy and you know how good I am at not saying the wrong thing, which is to say, not good at all. Boyd and the regular fellows at the saloon take care of me, and the saloon keeper likes me, but I don't like worrying about such things. I am not planning on it for my future. But for now it's fun.

And it's nice to be able to give Uncle Peter a little present for putting us up, and have something saved other than our earnings. The girls encouraged me and I got a real pretty dress made for not very much at all. I can't wait for you to see it! It's shiny and green and has a black skirt and I won't bore you with the particulars because you aren't a woman and won't be able to picture it but the girls think I look real nice in it and I do, too.

Real eager to see you again even if I am mad. Send my love to Laura though I know she's reading this, too.

Your sister,

Erica

SECOND PAGE DO NOT SHOW THIS TO LAURA.

The other thing I'm mad about, by the way, is that you've left me here with Boyd and he is pining something fierce for Laura. You'd better get used to the idea because I'm pretty sure that he's going to arrive in town with courting on his mind. He's been saying that he's getting all the saloon out of him now because he's not sure Laura would like a man who plays poker all winter. He's saving up for a buggy so he can take your sister out riding in the spring and fall, and talking about making a little sleigh. And you know he's getting a claim, too.

I hope Laura either picks him up or lets him down easy. Boyd is a good man and out here none of us have to pay no mind to him being a Negro. You know he's smart and a hard worker and he'd take better care of Laura than anyone I can think of other than Pa. Better than you could, and you know that's true.

There's your friendly advance notice. I know how much you hate being surprised by anything.

Also since I have room on this page please do tell me more about the boys and girls I'll be at school with. One good turn deserves another. That's what Ma always says.

Miss you and still mad at you.

Your sister,

Erica




Kansas City, July 30, 1884

Dear Cora (and Isaac),

As you suspected, Uncle Peter is entirely indifferent to our activities. We've settled into the job at the saloon just fine, Boyd and I, and Uncle Peter doesn't mind much what we're up to so long as I'm not out and about without Boyd along. Which, Boyd is plenty protective and all, but being a white woman accompanied by a Negro can cause as many problems as it solves, frankly. Especially considering my inability to stay quiet when he's insulted, though I'm improving on that score.

The other folks who work at the saloon have taken us in pretty quick, though. They allow Negro clientele so Boyd can be in the room without too much fuss. Of course I wear my trousers to work, since Laura isn't here to stop me and Peter isn't inclined to, and this apparently fascinates the saloon girls, who let me sit with them. I've never had a group of girl friends before—you know, Cora—and the things they are teaching me! Not only poker, at which I am apparently a natural, but also about, well, intimate things that saloon girls know. Even some things that you hadn't told me!

Such as, did you know that some girls lie down with other girls, as a man might lie down with a woman? These girls do it often, they say, as a respite from the rough men they have to service, and two of the girls are as much sweethearts as you two ever were! Can you imagine? They said that they thought I was one of those sorts of girls—a "tom", they call them, like tomboy I reckon—because I wear trousers. I wouldn't admit this to anyone but you, but while I don't think I am (and you know why), I'm not sure I'm not, either. Is that scandalous to say?

And some men lie down with other men, too, apparently. They get rooms upstairs in the saloon, where the girls work, only they don't invite any girls in with them. Now the things those cowboys on the ranch were whispering about Derek make sense, about how he never seemed to have a sweetheart and one of the fellas had seen him drinking with some other fella. They always hushed up right quick when they realized I was listening, so I knew it was unkind, at least. But do you think that's why Derek and Laura left? Because I tell you what, it makes me livid to think about it.

I've made up my mind to say something to Derek when Boyd and I get up there. I still have yet to meet a man that appeals to me as much as he does. (Boyd comes close, but Boyd is sweet on Laura something fierce.) I need a husband who won't mind about the trousers and the horses, and he needs a wife to keep those cowboys from their whispering and get him out of those sulks. I know it'll be odd, with us having the same parents and all, but we don't really. We wouldn't have strange babies or anything like that, and that's all that counts. We're less related than cousins, and they marry all the time. I can be useful for him, is all, and besides he's awfully pretty to look at, you have to admit.

So I reckon Boyd and I will both be going up to Dakota with courtship on our mind. Which will make for a very cozy winter, two couples sweet on each other in the same house, don't you think? Anyways you'll be the first one I write with whatever news I have, as always.

Oh also, with some of the ten dollars that I've made playing poker so far this summer, I have had my own saloon girl dress made. It is green and black and flounces and I'm quite sure Laura wouldn't approve, but Boyd thinks it's real becoming and so do I. (Uncle Peter fell over laughing when he saw it, which I did not appreciate.) I might even wear it for Derek sometime; he's so used to seeing me in trousers and in proper dresses, but maybe looking like a saloon girl would catch his eye?

I've also enclosed this wooden toy for Zachariah. You pull the string and the arms and legs spring right up. I think it's clever. I hope it will keep him amused while you fuss over the new baby when it comes.

Miss you both. Isaac, be sure you take care of Cora in her confinement, and give little Zachariah several hugs from his auntie.

Your sister,

Erica




(lydia)

Lydia succeeded in convincing Miss Hale to give them a short reading list for the summer, four books that they rotated between them. The boys grumbled, but it wasn't as though Lydia and Allison didn't also have work to do; Allison was always busy in the store and Lydia moved back and forth between the claim and the hotel in town.

Mornings were early; Lydia got a quick breakfast for her parents to eat before they ran into town, Ma to the hotel to fix breakfast for the guests and Pa to open the deed office at the depot. Lydia stayed on the claim to tend to the garden and the cows, both her job now that her sister was married and gone to Colorado. Then she walked into town and picked up whatever dinner her mother set aside to bring to her Pa. Lydia either stayed and ate with him, or went to the store to eat with Allison. In the afternoon she headed over to their hotel to see if her mother needed any errands run and generally made herself useful before helping to make supper for the guests. After supper the handy man took over at the desk and Lydia and her parents went back to their claim to bring the cows in before sundown.

Sundays, though. Sundays were glorious days because after church and dinner at the hotel Lydia stayed in town and visited with either Allison or Miss Hale. Lydia knew Allison missed Scott, didn't even get to see him on Sundays as he didn't go to their church. But she was quiet about it, perhaps not wanting to make Lydia feel sad for missing Jackson, and Lydia appreciated it. They went for long walks through the fields, while Allison killed rabbits and fowl with her bow and arrow, game she often sold to Lydia's parents for the hotel.

"Today I'm going to ask Miss Hale about college life for women," Lydia said to Allison one summer Sunday.

"Are you really?" Allison asked. "Though you know you won't be attending a women's college?"

"Perhaps it is like that everyplace, in a way," Lydia said. "Perhaps the women who want that … find each other."

"Do you want that?" she asked.

Lydia looked at her, surprised that she could ask such a question so casually. "Would that be a terrible thing to want?" Lydia asked.

Allison shrugged. "You've never struck me as wanting to keep a house," she said.

"You've never struck me as wanting that, either," Lydia pointed out, "and yet you're likely going to, and on a farm no less."

"Well," she replied, smiling, "perhaps not. I do have another path available."

"You mean, you would take up Mr. Cody on his invitation?" Lydia asked.

During the Snowy Winter an antelope herd was spotted outside of town, and all the men hustled out to get some meat and fend off starvation. The others thought it odd that Mr. Argent brought along his fourteen-year-old daughter, but the Argents had the last laugh when Allison brought down three antelope with her bow while on horseback. The story spread across Dakota Territory like wildfire, though only Lydia knew that Allison's father had a letter from Buffalo Bill Cody himself, inviting Allison to join his Wild West Show.

"I'm eighteen now, and at the end of the school year I'll have graduated," Allison said. "Legally, Pa can't stop me from doing what I please."

"And Scott?"

"He'd rather I not go alone, of course," Allison said. "But he also worries about leaving his mother to come with me."

"He'd come with you? But the farm—"

"Plenty of animals at the Wild West Show. Buffalo, even."

"But he would go?"

"Are you so surprised?" Allison said. "You, who said that I'd marry Scott on the very day I met you both?"

"Not that he would want you with him, but that he would follow you and leave his own life behind, yes. We women are so often possessions for men, however much they might love us."

"Not every man is Jackson Whittemore."

Lydia sighed. "Jackson, /and/ my father, /and/ most of the men in this town! Stiles as well, come to think of it. It would be more accurate, mathematically speaking, to say that not every man is Scott McCall."

"Is that why you're going to ask Miss Hale about women who find each other?" Allison asked. "Don't think I didn't notice that you didn't actually answer my question. Is it more than just a pash, for Miss Hale? Do you think you could feel like /that/ about another woman?"

"I don't know about Miss Hale," Lydia said, honestly. "It might be more. But I … I think I could, yes, for another woman." She paused. "But don't be alarmed. I know where /your/ heart is."

Allison smiled, dimples showing. "I'm not alarmed in the least," she said, and took Lydia's hand in her own. "You're my dear friend."

Lydia could scarcely look at Allison, or even smile back, she felt so relieved and full of affection for her. "Who can say? It might all come to nothing. I might marry some much older farmer and not even go to college at all!"

"That strikes me as highly unlikely, mathematically speaking!" Allison said, laughing.

Later that very same day, Lydia went to Miss Hale's little temporary home. Her brother was building them a real house out on their claim, and Miss Hale was doing her part by getting ready all the linens and other such goods they'd need, not to mention planning her classes for the fall. As she'd planned, Lydia asked her all about college; she was excited to think of doing nothing but reading and studying and writing and discussing the deeper topics of the day.

"Some of the women I knew at college have decided not to marry," Miss Hale said. "Of course, they come from families of means and therefore do not need a husband to take care of them. They share houses with other women and devote their time to charitable works. Or they become professors at women's colleges, as those women cannot marry."

"Is that …" Lydia leaned forward, even though she and Miss Hale were the only ones in the room. "I have heard the term, 'Boston Marriage.'"

"Ah," Miss Hale said, and nodded.

"But are they—are they really like marriages?" she asked.

Miss Hale raised her eyebrows. "Some of them are," she said. "Some of them are merely companionship between two like-minded people."

"I might like to be a professor," Lydia said.

"You very well might," Miss Hale said, nodding. "You are likely capable of it. But, if I might speak plainly?"

"Of course," Lydia said.

"Perhaps the time to decide is not in the immediate aftermath of a romantic disappointment?"

Lydia paused. "I think that the extent of my disappointment has been somewhat overstated," she replied. "By my mother, at least."

"I see," Miss Hale replied.

"Do not misunderstand me," Lydia said. "Jackson and I were good friends—are good friends. And I may well have married him, and may or may not have gone to college, and then had a rather traditional life as a wife and mother. But he didn't throw me over."

Miss Hale cocked her head. "Oh?" she asked.

"No," Lydia said, and let herself smile; it was a triumph of a sort, even if she couldn't share it with many others. "Actually, his grandmother took him away because our marriage was only too inevitable. His father's family hadn't thought that a suitable woman could be found in a little town in Dakota Territory, but once they met me, they saw that in order to ensure that he married a nice eastern girl they would have to remove him from my company."

"Well, that is another matter entirely," Miss Hale said. "I must say, I cannot imagine many who could have standards which you would not easily surpass."

"Thank you," Lydia said, smiling, because while she knew it to be true it was still encouraging to have this validated by someone who'd gone to college in the east, particularly a woman as intelligent and beautiful as Miss Hale. "And you? Are you interested in an unconventional life?"

Miss Hale's eyes darted off to the side and she laughed a little nervously. "I might be," she said. "For the right person, I think."

Lydia's heart did a little flip. Surely Miss Hale didn't mean that she wanted that with Lydia? And yet, thinking about it now, Lydia could see it, an entire life filled with conversations like this one. Perhaps Lydia could train to be a professor and bring Miss Hale along with her. They could keep house in a picturesque little cottage and be the envy of all their students.

Just then Mr. Hale came into the house. "Hello, Laura," he said. "Miss Martin."

"Derek, how was your drive?" Miss Hale asked.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Lydia said. "Did I keep you from going out on a ride behind those beautiful horses?"

"Not at all; it was too hot for me today," Miss Hale replied.

Mr. Hale scowled. "The air is unsettled. Think there's a storm coming." He turned to Lydia. "Saw your folks at the hotel and they were eager to get back to the claim before it hit, so I told them I'd bring you back, myself."

Miss Hale smiled widely. "How thoughtful of you, Derek!" she said.

"Wouldn't want you to have to cut your visit short," Mr. Hale replied, a bit gruffly, which Lydia had long since learned was the typical reaction of a prairie man to having been caught doing something kind.

"Yes," she said, with her most charming smile. "Thank you so much, Mr. Hale."

He nodded, then said, "Mail came in on yesterday's train." He pulled two envelopes from his coat. "You got a letter from Boyd. Feels pretty thick, too." He set it down in front of Miss Hale and there was a twinkle in his green eyes.

"Derek!" she protested. "I'm sure it's no thicker than the regular letter."

"I don't know," Mr. Hale said, looking at the envelope in his hand. "It's definitely bigger than mine from Erica, and being as they're in the same place I can't imagine that Boyd has more news."

"I'll read it later," she said, tucking it away, but she was blushing and looking pleased despite her brother's teasing.

Lydia knew that look; she saw it every time Scott came into the general store to see Allison. "Is Mr. Boyd also your kin?" she asked.

"No, he's a friend," Mr. Hale replied. "Met him in Kansas City on my uncle's ranch. He and our adopted sister Erica are staying there for the summer, but are headed up here in the fall with the rest of the horses. Trying to get the house and stables ready for all of us."

"Erica will be at school with you, Lydia," Miss Hale said. "Boyd is a good bit older."

"I see," Lydia said, and her heart was flipping again but for very different reasons. "I'm sure you're looking forward to their arrival."

Mr. Hale looked about to say something, but Miss Hale quickly said, "I'm sure we both are," and Mr. Hale chuckled.

"I should leave you to read your letter," Lydia said, gathering her things.

"Oh, you needn't," Miss Hale said. "I can read it any time."

"Of course, but I wouldn't want the storm to catch Mr. Hale on his way back to you." She smiled her brightest, prettiest smile, the one that put people at ease. "Not after he made such a generous offer to drive me home."

"Well," Mr. Hale said, "I wouldn't mind outrunning it, and that's a fact."

"Then please come back soon," Miss Hale said, rising as Lydia did. "I had a lovely afternoon."

"As did I," Lydia replied, because she /had/, really. Even the realization that she wouldn't be sharing a cottage with Laura Hale wasn't the worst news she'd heard lately. It had only been the dream of a moment. Besides, Mr. Hale had just shown a flash of humor that she'd never seen before. And his sister had come to town expressly to help Lydia get to college, and had been to college herself, so he might not be like all the other farmers, wanting a docile young wife to keep house for him.

At least, she had an entire mile-long buggy ride back to the claim behind the loveliest horses in town to find out.




(stiles)

It seemed odd, to Stiles, to be in the depot in the middle of the day once again. Hale's house was all but finished, and his friends from Kansas City were coming in on the train that very day, so he'd given Stiles the day off—with pay, which was awfully generous. So he was taking advantage by coming in and doing Finstock's books, rather than doing them late at night or in the early morning as he had for the past two months.

It was just a coincidence that those friends of Hale's, as well as his other horses, were coming in on the twelve-thirty train.

Scott arranged his errands in town around Stiles's day off, not only because he was a pal but because of course he wanted to see those horses. So Stiles made a lunch for him, too, when he made one up for himself and his dad. Just past noon Lydia came in to see her father, Allison in tow, and Stiles let himself hope that Lydia had come to see him, rather than being convinced by Allison so she could spend time with Scott.

But Lydia's first remark upon seeing him was not to notice how muscular and manly he'd become thanks to a summer of physical labor. No, instead she looked him up and down, and then said, "My goodness, Stiles, how tanned you are!"

It didn't sound like a compliment.

"Stands to reason," Stiles replied. "Been building a house."

"So I heard. Mr. Hale mentioned he was very impressed with your work."

"When did you talk to Hale?" Stiles asked.

Allison giggled. "When he beaued her home from his sister's house on Sunday," she said.

"He did not beau me home!" Lydia said. "He was simply doing Pa a favor."

"Yes it was very generous of him," Mr. Martin said, but he sounded amused.

Stiles glanced at Scott, who was looking at him sympathetically. But what could he do? It wasn't as though Lydia had come to Stiles and cried on his shoulder after Jackson was sent away. And he certainly couldn't compete with Hale in any way that mattered. Hale was intelligent and well-spoken, when he did speak; while he was serious he could see a joke; and then there were those infamous horses, and if they didn't make the ladies swoon then his handsome face would.

Stiles didn't have a team and buggy; the sheriff had a fast horse for himself and a slower but reliable one for Stiles. Scott was making himself a cutter in his free time, so he could take Allison out for sleigh rides in the winter. Stiles wasn't sure what he was going to do about that. Walks weren't nearly as nice in January—not that Lydia was really the walking sort.

He hoped that courting at college would be a little less complicated.

Stiles had tuned out of whatever conversation Scott and Allison were having, but he did hear the train in the distance. "Here she comes," he said.

The Hales had gone straight to the little shelter on the platform, as Stiles could see out the window of the depot. Hale was in his working clothes, no doubt because it would be easier for him to wrangle the horses that way.

"All right, boys," Finstock said. "Go ahead out but don't get in the way. That Hale knows what he's doing."

"Yes, sir," they said, and made their way out the door to the platform. The girls stayed inside, of course, but even they moved to the window to watch the proceedings.

A man and a young lady got off the train and moved quickly toward the Hales. Hale had told Stiles that his friend Boyd was a Negro, and Stiles had said that since the town doctor was a Negro, it probably wouldn't be any more of a problem than anything else. This was the west: there were lots of different sorts of folks up against each other. Scott's mother was Mexican and they didn't get too much gruff for it, really. Sometimes a new person came to town and tried to make something of it, or of Papa's accent, but that got put down by the other townsfolk right quick.

What was more surprising to Stiles was the young lady. She was wearing traveling clothes, a dress and hat, but as soon as she got off the train she handed her satchel to Miss Hale and made her way down the platform to the other car where the men waited. As they led the horses out and into the nearby stables—there were two more teams, plus a foal—she showed that she was easily as good with the animals as any of them, and was the only one other than Derek that the dam allowed near her foal. She was carefully leading that foal out along the platform to the stables when she looked up and caught Stiles's eye, and smiled at him. Stiles found himself smiling back without thinking, even though they hadn't yet been introduced.

Scott and Stiles went inside after that, to finish their lunch. The Hales and their friends came in sometime later, likely after having loaded Derek's wagon with the trunks and other luggage. Hale introduced his friend Vernon Boyd and his adopted sister, Erica.

"Erica will be in your school," Hale said; hearing that, she made a face, and Stiles couldn't help but snicker behind his hand.

"It'll be nice to have some more folks in the class," Scott said.

"Thank you," Erica said. Thick, honey-blonde curls were arranged in a sort of pile atop her head that reminded Stiles of the ladies at the saloon at whom he wasn't supposed to be looking. Her brown eyes were warm, but she wasn't smiling now, her mouth pressed into a firm line, and one curl behind her ear had escaped and draped down to her shoulder. Stiles noticed that she was standing quite close to Hale, her hand firmly clasped in his.

"Yes, it will," Lydia said, moving forward, her head tilted just slightly, wearing a smile that Stiles recognized. "I wanted to thank you again, Mr. Hale, for bringing me home the other day. I'd thought that David and Jonathan were gorgeous, but I saw just now that you were holding back your most beautiful team."

Allison raised her eyebrows and glanced over at Stiles, who was doing his best not to react. He wouldn't have thought, from the way Lydia was speaking just moments ago, that she would have raised the subject with Hale, but clearly he'd misread the situation.

Hale shuffled his feet slightly, and Stiles wanted to laugh at that familiar mixture of pride and slight embarrassment that came over him any time someone complimented his horses. "If you're referring to those two black horses, Caesar and the Duchess are the best team I've ever had," he said. "But the Duchess is still nursing her foal, and Caesar doesn't drive so well without her."

"Oh, a horse romance!" Lydia said. "It's like a fairytale."

Stiles had to avoid even looking at Allison, who was probably the only person in the room who fully understood what Lydia was up to. But then he saw the glare in Erica's eyes and felt rather badly; he knew what it was like to get trampled under Lydia's machinations.

"I reckon it is," Hale replied, though he sounded a bit surprised by the comparison. He turned to Erica, lifting up their joined hands, and Erica's face immediately changed to a more pleasant expression. "Erica's taken care of that foal like it was her own. I could come here with Laura knowing I was leaving them in good hands."

Erica's fair skin flushed as she beamed with pleasure, her smile even brighter than the one she'd given Stiles earlier. "Thank you, Derek," she said.

Hale smiled back. "Anyways," he continued, "we'll be weaning in a few months, so the Duchess should be eager to come out once the snow falls."

"Just the right time," Mr. Martin said. "Sleighing parties are real popular here in Beacon."

Lydia smiled and nodded.

Stiles remembered the previous winter, when Jackson would take Lydia and sometimes also Allison around in a sleigh big enough to seat four, smirking at Scott and Stiles as he drove by them. Hence Scott working so hard on his cutter.

Hale glanced at Stiles, who shrugged slightly. "Well," Hale said, "I'm sure Caesar and the Duchess would want to join in, if Miss Martin would oblige." He looked as though he were surprised that those words had come out of his mouth.

Lydia's eyes flashed in triumph, which was always when Stiles secretly considered her at her most beautiful. "I would be happy to," she replied.

Stiles pulled his eyes away from Lydia, because there was little more pathetic than mooning over a girl just after another fellow had offered to take her sleigh riding. Allison's lips were pressed together as if she were trying not to laugh, and even Miss Hale looked amused. Boyd seemed more confused than Hale, but Stiles gave him the benefit of the doubt as he had only just met Lydia.

Erica's eyes were flashing too, but not with anything like triumph. She turned to Stiles, and he tried his best to look sympathetic but not pitying, even though he wasn't sure why a girl wouldn't want her brother courting Lydia. He'd known her for less than an hour, but already he wanted to see the carefree, confident girl from the train platform. He smiled at her, just a little, and she smiled back, though she grasped Hale's hand just a little tighter.

"Well, we should go settle in," Miss Hale said.

Hale nodded. "Stilinski, I'll see you in the morning?"

Stiles blinked; he realized that he'd just assumed that working for Hale would end once his friend had arrived. "If you need me," he said.

"Still got the stables to finish, and some of the interior work," he said.

"Sure thing, Hale," Stiles replied, and with that, the Hales and their friend left the depot.

Scott turned to Allison then, and said, "I was keeping it for a surprise, but you'd do me a real favor if you didn't accept any sleigh ride invitations until I finish making my cutter."

Allison smiled. "Made and not boughten?" she asked. "Then I'd be happy to wait."

And that, there, was why they suited. Stiles couldn't even be jealous of them, or maybe he was so jealous he didn't even notice anymore.

"We should be getting along," Lydia said.

"I'll walk you back to the hotel," her father said, and they packed up their things.

Then Scott said: "You know, Lydia, Stiles has been riding behind those horses nearly every day all summer. He'll probably meet Hale's new team long before you will, too."

Lydia pursed her lips. "It's not the same thing at all, Scott," she said, and followed her father out the door, Allison close behind her.

Scott sighed. "Sorry," he said. "Just, watching her tricking Hale like that, and right in front of you!"

"It's all right," Stiles said.

"I don't know," Scott said. "That new girl, Erica, she was kinda pretty, wasn't she?"

Stiles had to smile at Scott's loyalty. "I liked her," Stiles said. He thought of her on the platform with the horses, and that he'd see her tomorrow. Then he thought of Hale, and that even clouded with confusion his eyes were finer than Lydia's triumphant ones.

But Lydia was right. It wasn't the same thing at all.




(derek)

Settling in to Beacon life wasn't as difficult as Derek had worried that it would be, even with the Argent complication. When he first visited the general store after Chris Argent returned to town, he was remembered, given a cool but cordial welcome, and Kate wasn't mentioned. Derek could manage polite coexistence if Chris Argent could.

The stables were finished, and any other work on the house could wait until after the hay was in. Erica was more than capable of doing for the horses on her own, so Boyd, Stiles and Derek were free to make hay while the hot late summer sun shone down to cure it. Between Boyd's claim and his own they'd have plenty of food for the horses that winter. Two men were best for haying, so at Stiles's suggestion they traded work with his friend Scott McCall, though the teams broke up not with Stiles working with Scott, but working with Derek. Stiles had said it was because they'd been working together all summer; Derek tried not to ascribe any other meaning to it.

Stiles told stories of the people of Beacon burning twisted hay to keep warm during the Snowy Winter, after the trains stopped bringing them coal. He didn't talk nearly as much during haying as he did during housebuilding. Haying was a breathless sort of job, with stamping the hay down and raking and climbing up and down the tall sides of the hay wagon. Stiles's white work shirt was soaked through with sweat and all but transparent, clinging to chest muscles that Derek was fairly sure hadn't been there at the beginning of the summer.

Derek whacked himself in the shin with the pitchfork to remind himself that he shouldn't be having such thoughts, as they only led to trouble.

"What are you doing?" Stiles asked, because Stiles was always watching.

"Slipped," Derek said, sighing. "We're about done with this load, anyways." He pitched up five more forkfuls, then climbed up to the top of the wagon and drove back to the stable.

"Thanks for keeping me on, after your friend came," Stiles said. "Every little bit helps and there hasn't been as much construction work in town as there was in past years."

Derek blinked; he'd never even considered telling Stiles to stay home once Boyd arrived. They had enough to do to get Boyd's claim in some kind of shape before winter, and besides, Derek had grown used to working alongside Stiles. "Wasn't a problem," he said.

They were quiet for a bit, and then Stiles said, "If you have more work in the fall, Papa says I might go to school late, with the other boys."

"You don't usually?" Derek asked.

"College," Stiles said. "We aren't farmers, and Papa doesn't like me to help him with his work. But if we study at night I reckon Scott and I can keep up with Miss Hale's class on our own, for a month or so."

"That's what I did," Derek said, nodding. "You're welcome to stay. I'm sure there'll be plenty to do."

"Thank you," Stiles said. Then: "You'll be wintering on the claim?"

"No, so I'm glad we've moved out here now; we can get three months in before snow and that's enough for Uncle Sam. I would stay, but I don't want Laura and Erica to worry about going back and forth to the town school."

"Storms can come up fast and that's a fact," Stiles said. "But that's good; easier for you to join in on those sleighing parties."

"I reckon," he replied, gritting his teeth against the idea of Stiles, cozy under the furs next to him in a sleigh and laughing. He needed to get a handle on this. And yet, he couldn't bear to not have Stiles working with him. Well, Laura always said there was no one like Derek for self-torture. At least they were at the stables now, and the time for talking was done.

"All right," he said, hopping down and leaving the pitchfork with Stiles. Work would burn this out of him, surely. "Send it down, and let's get it stacked."

"Sure thing," Stiles said, hopping to his feet and nearly knocking himself in the head with the pitchfork. "Ow."

Derek sighed. It was going to be a long autumn.




Derek knew there was an argument brewing as soon as Erica got to Beacon, and in typical fashion it boiled over on a Sunday afternoon, when there were no other distractions. After church, Boyd rode out to his own claim to take a walk around. Thankfully Erica waited until he'd left before she said anything.

"I still don't see why I can't go back to school in the winter, with the boys," she said.

"Because you're a girl," Laura replied, not even looking up from her book.

"But I could be helping Derek with the horses, like I always do."

"I'm sure he can get along without you."

Derek nodded. "I went to school until I was eighteen. And you know what Pa always says."

"Takes a smart man to raise a smart horse, I know," Erica replied, sullenly.

"No matter how good you are with the horses, we can't have you living like a man, like some Calamity Jane," Laura said. "What would Ma say?"

Erica scowled, and looked like she was struggling to hold her tongue. "It's true that I'd rather wear good work trousers than hoops. But I did get a new dress."

"I saw that dress," Laura said, closing her book and putting it on the table beside her. "And I can't fathom what Uncle Peter was thinking, allowing you to spend time in a saloon and you only seventeen."

"I guess I made out all right," Erica replied. "Boyd was there, and he wouldn't let anything happen."

"He shouldn't have been put in that position," Laura said.

"Which would you rather, Laura?" Erica said. "That I stay on the farm and work, or go to town and work?"

"I'd rather that you behave like the young lady you are."

"Well, we both know that ain't gonna happen."

"Isn't!" Laura shouted, leaping to her feet. "When you turn eighteen you can do as you please, but until then you are going to stay in school and make some respectable girl friends this fall, even if I have to drag you kicking and screaming. And don't think I won't." She took her poke bonnet from the peg on the wall. "Talk some sense into her, would you, Derek? I'm going for a walk." And with that, she was out the door.

Erica turned. "Derek—"

"Don't," he said, holding up a hand. "Even if I didn't agree with her, which I do, I wouldn't go against her. This is her lookout and you know it."

"But what will it matter?" she asked. "I'm just going to stay here and raise horses with you, and maybe we can be married—"

"Married?' Derek asked, and stood.

"Oh," Erica said, sounding surprised. "I didn't—I didn't mean for it to come out like that. I meant to get you used to the idea, with us working alongside each other again. Now that I'm old enough."

"Old enough for what?"

"Cora was younger than me when she got married," Erica said. "I know you've always seen me as a child, but I'm not anymore. My hair is up and I have a corset and a long dress and all of it. I thought I might, well, court you."

"But, but you're my sister!"

"Not really," Erica said, smiling. "Not in the way that matters for marrying. Uncle Peter thinks you might be waiting for me, and that's why you haven't had a sweetheart."

Derek felt as though all the air had left his lungs. He slumped against the doorframe. "I didn't realize people were speculating. So many unattached men out this way."

"You're a young man, handsome enough, and you have Pa's knack with horses which makes you a good provider," she said. "People wonder why you aren't courting. Or at least, they did in Kansas City."

He couldn't think of how he'd even got himself into this position, let alone how to get out. He knew well enough why he hadn't been courting, but he'd hoped that he'd been hidden in the crowd. And now with Erica, what could he possibly do? He could take advantage of her, have a life of a sort—but she deserved much better than he could give her.

He shook his head, slowly. "I'm not waiting for anyone."

There was a horrible silence after that, the two of them still looking into each other's eyes. He worried that she would think he didn't love her enough, when actually he loved her too much to marry her.

Erica nodded, and threw her head back. "Well, that's all right," she said. "I shouldn't have got so far ahead of myself." Her voice quavered, and she cleared her throat.

Derek stood up straight and held out his hands, because Erica looked about as miserable as he felt. "Come here," he said, and when she hesitated he beckoned her until she walked into his embrace.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice muffled by his shirt.

"Me, too," he said. "But I'll always be your brother. That won't change, ever. And you'll always have a home with me if you need it."

"I probably will," she said, and her laugh was shaky. "Where am I going to find a husband who doesn't mind seeing me in trousers or that I spend the day with the horses instead of in the kitchen?"

"Any man who's had your cooking," he said, and her laugh was more steady, now. "I think you'll be surprised. Out here there's a lot more women doing men's jobs and folks don't look down on it too much. Once you stop looking at me I expect you'll find him."

"Maybe," she said, though she didn't sound too convinced. "And what about you? Are you really going to court Lydia Martin?"

Lydia Martin! For whom even a handsome young horse rancher was likely a step down, but who was forward and restless enough to goad him into taking her sleighing this winter, and who was leaving for college in a year's time. Perhaps that was the way out he was looking for.

Aloud, he said, "She's an interesting young lady. I wouldn't mind getting to know her better. Would that upset you?"

"I doubt I have any right to be upset," she said.

"I don't know about that," Derek said. "What I asked was, would you be?"

Erica sniffled. "Maybe I'd better go to school if just to see if she's worthy of you."

"That's the ticket," Derek said.

Erica lifted her head from his chest. "Think Laura would be pleased if I started dinner?"

"I'm sure she would," he replied.

She walked toward the kitchen, then turned and said, "What about Stiles?"

"What about him?"

"Do you think he'd let me wear trousers and raise horses?" she asked.

Derek was taken aback for the second time that day, though he managed not to show it. But he'd seen how Stiles had looked at Erica over the past few weeks—admiring and a little afraid. "I think that Stilinski would probably let you do any damn thing you put your mind to," he replied.

"All right," Erica said, and left the room.

Derek sat down in his chair and picked up his paper, though he wasn't reading it. This would be good. Kate had lied to him in many ways, but the one truth she'd told him is that he'd never find love, that hearts and flowers weren't for him. Having Stiles for a brother-in-law was honestly more than he should have hoped for, and courting Lydia and having her leave him for some college fellow would provide enough cover for him to age into perhaps paying some attention to a respectable widow who wouldn't ask too much of him, would just be grateful to have a husband. There, now that was a workable plan.

And he'd put that plan into action, just as soon as his chest stopped feeling quite so tight.




(erica)

So, Erica went to school.

She and Laura would be riding to town every morning with Derek, as he was coming in to get Stiles and do any errands that needed running. Erica sat in the back of the wagon, and couldn't help but sigh as she watched the stables recede into the distance.

"Stop worrying about that foal," Derek said. "You'll be home morning and evening to feed her. I'll begin to think you don't trust me with her."

"You likely don't remember this because you were so small," Laura said, "but when Pa gave Derek his first horse he didn't want to come to school, either. Cried the whole night before the first day of school."

Erica turned around. "Did you really?" She couldn't imagine it. She'd seen Derek broody and out of sorts, frustrated, even unhappy, but nothing close to tears.

"I was eleven!" Derek said. So Erica would have been five, not old enough yet to be paying close attention to what he did. That didn't start until after the barn fire, when she was eleven herself, and they had to let her help with the new horses because they were working hard to rebuild Pa's stock. Derek's first horse died in that fire, Erica remembered.

"Of course I trust you, Derek," Erica said.

"I know," he replied, and they were silent for a while after that.

Then Laura turned in her seat to face Erica. "I meant to say how proud I was that you kept up with the college class by reading those books over the summer," she said.

"Oh," Erica said, surprised. She couldn't remember the last time Laura had said anything of the sort to her. She'd thought herself something of a disappointment as a sister, what with her tomboy ways and her attachment to horses and general dislike of fancy ladies' work like embroidery. "Thank you."

"There you go, then," Derek said, patting Laura on the hand, and they said no more until they arrived in town.

The schoolhouse was a good size for the bustling town, all whitewashed boards and a bell just outside the door. Small boys and girls were playing in the yard, and two big girls stood on the porch, their books and slates nearby. Erica recognized them both from their brief meeting at the train depot: the brunette Allison, friendly but wary, and titian-haired Lydia, bold but charming.

"Hullo, Miss Hale!" the girls said as Erica and Laura came up the steps.

"Hello, girls," Laura said, smiling. "You remember my sister, Erica."

"Hello," Lydia said, looking her up and down carefully. But Erica had no worries about that; Laura was a harsher judge than any girl in town could be. "Welcome to Beacon."

"Thank you," Erica said. Laura nodded and went ahead into the schoolhouse, unlocking the door with her key.

Allison leaned forward. "Won't it be difficult to have your sister as Teacher?" she asked.

"She's nine years older than me," Erica said, smiling, "so I'm used to her bossing me around."

"Are you also looking to go to college?" Lydia asked.

"I doubt it," she replied, "as college isn't going to make me into a better horsewoman."

"Well," Lydia said, picking up her books and slate, "see that you don't fall behind. Some of us have greater ambitions." She walked into the schoolhouse in a swirl of skirts.

Allison looked apologetic. "Lydia's very serious about her studies, is all."

"Understandable," Erica replied, because she knew a thing or two about people who took things too seriously.

The best part about Lydia being so snooty was that Erica had the chance to prove her wrong, which was one of her favorite activities. Usually it happened in the matter of horses, such as someone declaring a horse untrainable and she and Derek showing otherwise, or a man questioning why a girl was in the stables. Erica didn't have Laura's quick mind, but she could hold her own.

Allison and Lydia sat together, of course, so Erica took the seat in front of them and watched the other students coming in after Laura rang the bell. By the time Laura had finished asking students their names and grouping them into classes it was time for morning recess. Lydia and Allison sat in the window talking quietly, but the day was so nice that Erica left them to it and went outside.

The boys, most of whom were four or five years younger than Erica, were putting together a quick game of baseball. They only had time for a few at-bats before Laura was ringing the bell again, but watching them Erica could see what was missing.

"You need a pitcher," she said to the boys as they walked past her into the schoolroom.

A boy named Charley gave her the once-over. "You volunteering?" he asked.

"I'm better than what you've got," she said with a shrug.

"Dinnertime," Charley replied, then rushed to his seat while Laura called for them all to settle down.

Lydia, who'd been watching the exchange, sniffed disapprovingly before turning forward in her seat, and Erica had to smile at that.

In the late morning, the three big girls were called to recite geography and history, and Erica answered every question set to her. Allison and Lydia did too, of course, and Erica could tell that she'd have to work hard to hold her own. Lydia in particular was very quick, and had apparently surpassed even Laura in mathematics. But at least Erica had proven to Lydia that Laura was right to have faith in her abilities to be in the same class. Lydia could sniff at baseball all she wanted.

At the dinner break, Lydia and Allison went to the Martin Hotel, while Erica and Laura shared their lunch at Laura's desk. When Erica went outside, Charley spotted her and tossed her the ball.

She jumped and caught it. "Still need a pitcher?" she asked.

"Sure do!" Charley said, apparently impressed by Erica's catch.

She nodded and walked to the center of the small field next to the schoolhouse that served as a playground. The boys had laid out a rough diamond, marking the bases with empty feed sacks, but they weren't really on teams, more one boy at bat while the rest fielded. Charley was the leader, getting the other boys into place before taking the first at bat for himself.

"All right," he called out.

Remembering that they were small town boys playing for fun, Erica threw her first pitch straight down the middle. Charley hit the ball squarely and it flew over Erica's head and landed near the back edge of the playground. He was so stunned he stood still for a second before throwing down the dowel they used as a bat and running the bases; he was easily able to make it to home before the other boys got the ball back to the infield. Of course, the fact that the boys were too busy cheering for Charley to field properly had something to do with that, too.

"Can you pitch that way for all of us?" Charley asked.

"Yes," Erica said, "but only so you boys get better at catching the ball!"

By the time each of the boys had taken his turn at bat, Erica was breathless and had to re-pin a strand of hair, but it was worth it. She came back inside a bit before the bell was to ring.

"Where did you learn to play baseball?" Allison asked, and at least she was smiling.

"My brother Derek," Erica replied. "He's quite a good player, even had some thoughts of playing for one of the local teams, but he wouldn't leave his horses, so."

"That shows good sense," Lydia said, "not to leave one's profession for a game that boys play."

"I suppose," Erica said. "But he still plays, from time to time. He does love the game. I'm surprised he hadn't mentioned that to you, Lydia, with you being such good friends and all."

Lydia flushed and looked uncomfortable. "I don't believe I ever said that," she said, and sat down in her seat.

Erica bit her lip to keep from grinning; if Lydia was going to be this much fun to provoke, Erica might not mind if Derek courted her.

When school ended a few hours later, Erica was surprised to see David and Jonathan hitched up not to the wagon, but to the buggy—and Stiles had the reins.

He hopped out of the buggy to help them in. "Hale had a few more things to take care of and didn't want you ladies to wait."

"That was very thoughtful of both of you," Laura replied as she slipped into the back seat.

"And he gave express orders that I'm to hand the reins over to you, Erica."

Erica grinned: it was like Derek to give her a nice surprise for her first day at school, and then not be present to be thanked. Stiles was helping her into the buggy when a girl behind them spoke.

"Hello, Stiles. Seems strange to be in school without you."

"Lydia!" Stiles said, surprised, and turned to her. He let go of Erica, leaving her slightly off-balance, and she wobbled before stumbling into the seat.

"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry," Stiles said, flailing to help her as Lydia snickered behind a hand.

"I think you'll find that Stiles can be a little unreliable," Lydia said. "He loses focus."

"Stiles is all right," Erica said, more annoyed that she could feel her cheeks heating up than anything else. "And I guess I can get into a buggy by myself."

Lydia raised her eyebrows. "I wouldn't know," she said airily. "I've never had occasion to."

"Of course not," Stiles said, smiling at her.

"Well, we should move along," Erica said. "Where are we to meet Derek?"

"At the depot," Stiles said, getting the hint and climbing into the buggy himself. "Nice to see you, Lydia. You too, Allison."

"See you soon," Allison said, waving as Erica drove them away.

Stiles must have noticed that Erica was still scowling, as he started to talk nervously. "Sorry about that," he said. "Lydia's right; I do lose focus."

"I've never known you to," Erica said, but she knew what men could be like around girls they fancied and she was sure she'd just seen that with Stiles. What it was about this girl that got the boys is what Erica wanted to know. Well, no matter how pretty or smart or charming she was, she couldn't have Derek and Stiles. That plain wasn't fair.

They were quiet until they arrived at the depot, where Derek waited outside.

He climbed straight into the back with Laura. "And how was the first day?"

"Eventful," Erica said, turning the buggy north on the road to their claim.




(stiles)

By mid-November, most of the folks who'd been living out on their claims since the spring were coming into town, setting up house in offices and the backs of stores. They wanted to winter where supplies were more readily available and their children could come to school without fear of being stranded in a blizzard. The big boys were back at school, and this year that included Stiles, who'd been working at the Hale place all fall to save as much money as possible for college. Scott had got his corn and wheat in, and he and his mother had a small place on Second Street, only a few steps away from the Sheriff's house. The Hales were renting the Teacher's house they'd stayed in during the summer, before Stiles and Hale had finished their house on the claim, and Boyd was with them. It was nice, not being the only one living in town.

But winter Sundays were the drawback. The Stilinskis and McCalls didn't chance the trip to the mission for fear of storms, so there was no Mass, no Sunday School with the other Catholic children in the area, no hearing other adults speaking Polish with Papa or Spanish with Mrs. McCall. Being in town and hearing the bell ring for a church that everyone else belonged to, Stiles couldn't help but feel his exclusion, and yearn for the community surrounding the mission. The two families still gathered for Sunday dinner, but it wasn't the same.

What made it worse on this November Sunday was that instead of sitting around with Stiles and their parents after dinner, Scott brought out his new handmade cutter and took Allison sleigh-riding. Stiles left Papa with Mrs. McCall and walked back to his own home, hoping God wouldn't mind if he got ahead on some of his reading for school. After all, they weren't Presbyterians. (Or was that Congregationalists? Protestant denominations confused Stiles; he couldn't keep them straight.)

Turning onto Main Street, he saw the sleigh-riding party that he'd only been able to hear at the McCall house. Several teams decorated with strands of ringing bells pulled sleighs down Main Street and then out onto the open prairie for a half mile or so before looping around and coming back. Stiles lifted his cap to Boyd and Miss Hale, Scott and Allison, and some other couples he knew from around Beacon. It wasn't humiliating, as it had been the year before; none of them were showing him up, as Jackson tried to do (and so often succeeded).

But when Derek Hale passed by in his new, shiny, boughten sleigh behind Caesar and the Duchess, Stiles could feel himself deflating. Hale was as handsome as Stiles had ever seen him in his wool coat and hat, and Stiles's heart did a little flip. But he was no doubt on his way to fetch Lydia from the hotel, so that was just the usual Lydia-related jealousy, like with Jackson. It didn't feel quite the same, but maybe that was because Hale wasn't nearly the terror that Jackson was, so Stiles couldn't hate or even resent him.

Well, he told himself, one more year and he'd be around college girls who might allow themselves to be courted with walks around the campus. Then a set of sleigh bells came to a stop right next to him, and Stiles looked up, startled.

There, in a bright blue cutter as small as Scott's, sat Erica Hale under a pile of furs. "Here you are!" she said. "Get in!"

He only wondered for a moment about the propriety of a girl driving a sleigh and asking a boy to ride along; he and Erica were friends, and she was the one with the horses. "Thank you!" Stiles said, and got in under the furs. A hot iron sat wrapped in blankets at their feet.

"You made this?" he asked as Erica started the horses again.

"No, no," she said. "It's Derek's old cutter. He built it when he was sixteen, and I think it's pretty nice, but you know Lydia."

Stiles nodded. It was doubtful Lydia would deign to ride in a six-year-old handmade cutter. "Nice of him to let you take it out."

"David and Jonathan need the exercise. But," she said, her eyes lighting up, "if you're willing to risk it I could bring the colts out next week."

Hale had sold two teams before moving to Beacon, and just last month bought a pair of colts that still needed to be broken to drive as a team. Stiles had never before known anyone working with horses, so the process was new to him, but he'd seen Erica with them and trusted her more than anyone. Except Hale himself, of course.

"Sounds fun," Stiles said, smiling.

"I think so!" Erica replied.

"But why wouldn't Hale take them out himself?"

"He doesn't think Lydia would much appreciate it," Erica answered, shaking her head.

"Her father probably wouldn't, at least," Stiles said.

Erica hummed. "Anyway, it's nice today, with David and Jonathan."

"Oh, David and Jonathan and I are old friends!" he said. "I'm always glad to see them."

Hale passed by them in the other direction, Lydia snuggled under the furs next to him. She wore the green hood that made her hair look brighter, and she was laughing. They made quite a striking couple, in that fancy sleigh pulled by the most elegant horses in town, like a Currier and Ives print. Stiles supposed it was inevitable; they just seemed to go together.

He turned back to Erica, who was also looking toward that sleigh but with an unreadable expression. Stiles suddenly felt a little guilty; here Erica had taken him out for a sleigh ride and they'd spoken of nothing but other people. So he looked at her, trying to think of something to say that had nothing to do with school, or Lydia, or Hale.

He remembered a Saturday in the early fall when Hale had said Stiles might borrow David to check on his own tree claim. Erica was in the stables and decided to come along, saying David and Jonathan just rode better when they were together. She'd been wearing her usual clothing for working with the horses: some rough men's trousers, a blue work shirt, and a hat, though despite the garb she never looked like a man, what with her blonde hair only loosely pinned back from her face and flying out every which way. They'd raced for part of the four miles to the claim, Erica winning of course, and he'd never seen her laugh so much. For her part, she was surprised by the revolver he wore at his hip, but there were claim jumpers sometimes, and anyway his father had taught him not only how to use it but how to not use it as well as how to keep the other fellow from getting his hands on it.

There weren't any jumpers, but they wandered around the tree claim for so long that the sun was nearly set when they returned to the Hale claim, and Miss Hale was furious that Erica had left their land with her work clothes on, only slightly relieved when Stiles said that they'd been quite alone and hadn't run into anyone else while they were gone. Hale had raised his eyebrows at that, and Stiles had blushed furiously. He still wasn't sure why.

Then, suddenly, he realized why he'd thought of that day. "Are you … are you wearing your trousers?" he asked.

She flushed, though that might just have been from the cold. "I'd already changed out of my Sunday dress and gone to see to the horses when Derek said I could take out the old cutter."

"Did he know you meant to come get me?" Stiles asked.

Erica nodded. "He was glad of it," she replied.

Stiles didn't know what to think about that.

"Anyway," Erica continued, "the only reason Laura approved is that she reckoned with the furs and my coat no one would see, so long as I stayed in the cutter. How could you tell?"

"You sit differently than when you're wearing a dress."

Her eyes twinkled, and she leaned in closer, so Stiles leaned in, too. "No corset," she whispered.

"Well!" Stiles replied. "That certainly explains it."

"You aren't scandalized?" she asked. "You don't mind that I wore trousers and I'm driving the sleigh and I asked you to come along?"

He saw how comfortable and confident she seemed, like that day on the tree claim or the first time he saw her with her horses. "I don't mind at all," he said, and she smiled.

Stiles sat back in the little cutter, feeling satisfied about that big smile on Erica's face, and life, and everything.

A bit later he spotted Papa rounding the corner from Second Street, likely coming back from the McCall house. He was headed to the saloon to do his usual check in, and when he saw Stiles he raised his eyebrows.

Stiles waved, knowing Papa would be full of questions when he got home. So he decided to make them worth something. He took a deep breath.

"So, the Literary Society is starting up again next week," he said. "Spelling bee's always first."

"Derek mentioned. Seems fun, having an entertainment every Friday night. Laura's encouraging him to get involved."

"Really?" Stiles asked. "He just—I'm sure he'd have plenty to offer, but it doesn't seem like him."

"He is shy with strangers, but he's better here in Beacon than he was in Kansas City."

"Smaller town," Stiles said, though he sensed that Erica was alluding to something more than that. "Since you'll be attending anyway, I wonder if I might walk you there, and home again?"

Erica smiled again then, not the exuberant grin he'd hoped for, but a shy little curve of the mouth. "I'd like that very much," she said.

"Good," he replied.

When the sun began to set the sleighing party broke up, Erica bringing Stiles home before going home herself. And it wasn't twenty minutes later—just long enough to bring Allison home and put up his horses—that Scott was coming into the Sheriff's house through the side door in the lean-to.

"Stiles!" he called out.

"How does Allison like the cutter?" Stiles asked him, hoping to distract Scott from any Erica-related questions. Or, worse, any Lydia-related ones.

"She seems very pleased!" Scott said. "She said she likes that it's so small."

"She likes having to press up against your strong body, you mean," Stiles said. "And since that's why you made it so small in the first place ..."

"It is not!" Scott protested. "And anyhow I noticed that cutter you were riding in wasn't any bigger. Did Erica like pressing up against your manly body?"

"Calling my body manly makes me doubt your observational skills," Stiles replied. "And I wouldn't know, because she didn't say."

"But she did come for you, specifically," Scott said.

"She did," Stiles replied, and then decided well, Scott was his friend, so he might as well tell him what he wanted to know. "And I'm escorting her to the spelling bee on Friday."

Scott's mouth dropped open for a second, and then broke into a wide grin. "Stiles! That's ... that's really—"

"And now you're hugging me," Stiles said. "Does asking to escort a girl I already know across a street really require hugging? I used to ask Lydia all the time."

Scott pulled back, but kept a hand on Stiles's upper arm. "But you knew Lydia would say no. Everyone knew Lydia would say no. You didn't know what Erica would say."

"I reckon that's so," Stiles replied.

"Lydia's going around with Hale, apparently," Scott said, with that little note of concern in his voice that he always had when he was talking to Stiles about Lydia.

"Lydia and I are friends now," Stiles said. "Friends who might go away to college together. It's good, that this all happened before we left. And they look so good together, who can deny them?"

"And that sleigh," Scott said, shaking his head. "I could never."

"Hale made that cutter Erica and I were in, when he was our age, just like you," Stiles said. "So maybe when you're his age, you'll be able to have a big fancy sleigh, too, to take Allison around in."

"Maybe I will," Scott said, rallying. "We can let him have that, and Lydia. We're doing all right, ourselves."

Stiles nodded his agreement. Erica was fun to be with, and he couldn't wait to ride behind the colts next weekend. It was normal to feel a little twinge of jealousy when he thought of Hale driving Lydia around in that beautiful sleigh behind that fine team, if even Scott felt that way. Though, he knew that Scott was just jealous of the sleigh and the team pulling it, not the people riding in it.

Later that night when he was in bed and letting his mind wander, Stiles was picturing himself in that handsome sleigh behind that handsome team, laughing and joking, but to his surprise his mind stubbornly insisted on putting Hale next to him, instead of Lydia. Well, perhaps he really was finally moving beyond his interest in Lydia. He tried picturing Erica instead.

It didn't work.




(erica)

"Laura, he just saw me a few hours ago!"

"All the more reason to put your hair in a different style, don't you think?" Laura replied, smiling at Erica in the mirror. "I'm sure the other girls have changed and redone their hair as well. I have, and Vernon is right in the next room!"

Changing her hairstyle for the Spelling Bee on Friday evening when she'd just spent the day at school with Stiles was just the kind of female thing that Erica usually felt uncomfortable participating in, not only because it seemed silly and unnecessary but also because she wasn't very good at it. But Laura wanted to help and besides, she was right. Lydia Martin did her hair differently every single day, and that was just for school; certainly it would be in some elaborate style this evening. And yes, Erica had noticed, because Lydia Martin had beautiful hair; everyone knew that. Lydia certainly knew that. Erica's hair was all right, though she wished it was that golden color she'd seen on ladies in the saloons. Hers was just … yellow.

Laura was undoing the two long coiled plaits that Erica kept her hair in when she put it up for school, until it hung down her back in six long thick wavy ropes. Then, with a mouthful of pins, she looped each rope of hair around itself, linking it with the others, until all the hair was pinned back on top of Erica's head in an intricate, almost woven design.

"There," Laura said, smiling again. "Now, stand up so I can tighten up those corset strings, and we'll put on your blue poplin."

Erica didn't protest, even though the corset was still painful to wear again after a summer of men's clothing. The corset made her dresses look better, made her stand up straighter, made her like the other girls. She was getting used to the way men's eyes moved across her body, and found that she didn't mind, after all. She'd thought she would, seeing how they looked at the girls in the saloon, almost menacingly. But now that she was in a farm town she could see why Laura had been so displeased with Uncle Peter letting her and Boyd take that saloon job. Erica's summer spent playing poker among the gamblers and roughs had given her a cock-eyed view of courting, because what Derek was doing with Lydia, what Boyd was doing with Laura, was nothing like the way those men had stared hungrily, menacingly at the saloon girls.

Boyd and Derek were full of compliments for both Erica and Laura, which Erica thought was just awfully sweet, and then there was a knock on the door.

Derek opened it, and there was Stiles, a lantern in his hand. "Hello!" he said. "I'm here for—"

"Erica, yes," Derek said, nodding. "Come in out of the cold."

"Thank you," Stiles said, taking off his cap. "Erica, you—you changed your hair. It looks nice."

Erica smiled. "Thank you, Stiles," she said.

"Oh, and you too, Miss Hale," he said. "Gee, did all the ladies change their hair?"

"In my experience," Boyd said, "they take every opportunity to do so."

Derek was taking their coats down from where they hung just behind the stove to keep warm.

"Here," Stiles said, "I'll take Erica's."

Derek raised his eyebrows, and handed Stiles Erica's long brown coat. She was already tying on her deep blue hood, and then he helped her into her coat.

"I'll walk out with you," Derek said, and for a moment she wondered if he was going to walk with them to the schoolhouse, and realized she didn't want him to. But he only went with them as far as the stoop before nodding to them and heading off in the direction of the Martin Hotel.

The schoolhouse was only a few minutes' walk down the packed snow of Main Street. Erica could see lanterns appearing all up and down the street as the townsfolk congregated at the schoolhouse, which was ablaze with light.

"To be clear," Stiles said, "I'm a terrible speller. In English anyway. Polish is easier."

"But you're near the top of our class," Erica said.

Stiles shrugged. "We don't have marks in spelling anymore. History and literature, I'm much better."

"Your essays?"

"The dictionary is a good friend," Stiles said. "And I can spell the words I use. It's when I'm asked to spell other words that the whole thing falls apart. What about you?"

"Laura's my sister," she replied, feeling that was explanation enough.

"We'll need you," he said. "Lydia has won the bee the last two years and since Miss Hale will be giving the words it's up to the rest of you to challenge her."

Erica was glad for the corset; it stiffened her spine. "I like a challenge," she said. "And I like winning."

"I've played baseball with you enough to know that!" Stiles said. "Well maybe I'll put my finger on the scale. Give Finstock a tip on who he should be picking for his side."

"Who is the other leader?" Erica asked.

"Argent," Stiles said, "and he always picks Lydia."

Erica nodded—of course he did; his daughter was her best friend.

"Anyway, we're here," Stiles said, hand out to help her up the steps of the schoolhouse. And once inside he did as he said he would, bringing her over to Mr. Finstock and insisting that he choose her when the time came. When Derek and Boyd arrived they sat down, Stiles with them while Lydia had gone to sit with her own parents and Allison once Derek had escorted her into the room.

The Sheriff, Laura, Mr. Argent and Mr. Finstock stood on the platform at the front, and after a bit the Sheriff waved his arms and the room quieted down.

"Welcome to the first Literary," he said, "and thank you for coming. As is our custom we'll begin with a spelling bee, and as is also our custom I will be abstaining from the bee as I might launch into Polish spelling at any minute." Some laughed and the sheriff added, "After all, I am not asking you to spell—" and then he said a strange-sounding word that Erica didn't think was English.

Stiles, who was sitting next to her, stood up and repeated the word. "P-r-o, pro, m-y-c-z, mitch, pro-mitch, k-u, coo, pro-mitch-coo."

The sheriff nodded, smiling, and the others applauded.

"I'll accept your applause only because it might be the only word I spell correctly all night," Stiles said, sitting down as everyone laughed.

The teams were chosen after that, mostly adults first though of course Lydia was chosen by Mr. Argent early on. Derek, and then Erica, were both on Mr. Finstock's side, as was Boyd. Scott, Stiles and Allison joined Lydia on the other side. Even the smallest schoolchildren were eventually chosen—Erica smiled to see young Charley a bit down the line from her—and the two lines snaked around the rows of desks in the schoolroom. Then Laura opened the speller at the beginning, the primer words for the littlest children, and they began.

Most everyone could spell the first word given to them, but they got harder quickly with such a large group, and at the second word children and adults alike began sitting down. Stiles, true to his word, was caught on "thief" and sat down among the children. The rounds began to go faster as the numbers declined, but Erica knew words well into the back of the book and felt relaxed and easy.

Relaxed, that was, unless Lydia was spelling. Of course Erica had seen plenty of evidence of Lydia's intelligence during the school day, seen her answer every question asked to her, listened to her read her essays aloud. Laura was using a new teaching method with the college class, one she said they would see more in college. Instead of just memorization and answering questions, they pulled chairs around her desk during the first recess and discussed the books they'd all read over the summer. It was certainly different, being able to talk without answering a question. Naturally Lydia and Stiles took to it immediately.

But whether due to the performative aspect or the confidence of past victories, now Lydia was like a woman lit up from within. Her hair shone orange-red in the lamplight and there was a spark in her eye. Lydia looked tiny standing next to all the adults, but what she lacked in stature she made up for in presence. When she put the toes of her button shoes in a crack in the floor and spelled every word put to her, Lydia was as big as any of the men—perhaps even larger.

"Sensualize," said Lydia. "S-e-n, sen; s-u, shoo, senshoo; a-l, ul, senshooul; i-z-e, eyes, sensualize."

Erica was beginning to understand why first Stiles and then Derek were so fascinated by Lydia. Not that she hadn't found Lydia pretty and interesting before, but this was something beyond that. Maybe it was because for once, Erica was competing with Lydia directly, and holding her own. It was on her fourth word that Erica got Lydia's attention, saw her eyes widen slightly as she realized that Erica might be able to beat her.

"Chivalry," said Erica. "C-h-i, shi; v-a-l, vol, shivol; r-y, chivalry."

She was glad she'd changed her hair and her dress, because every time she was given a word she could feel Lydia's eyes upon her, moreso than anyone else. Even more than Stiles, who'd been loudly cheering her own since he sat down. And while she could sense Derek's presence alongside her, the person Erica was looking at was Lydia.

"Assignation," said Lydia. "A-s, as; s-i-g, sig, assig; n-a, nay, assignay; t-i-o-n, shun, assignation."

After eight rounds the two teams were down to only a few members—Derek, Erica, and a farmer named Greenberg against Mr. Argent and Lydia. The words came thick and fast now, Erica having almost no time to rest between turns.

"Halcyon," said Erica. "H-a-l, hal; c-y, see, halsee; o-n, on, halcyon."

Greenberg and Mr. Argent went down on the same word, portmanteau, that Derek thankfully spelled correctly because Erica didn't think she could have. More than once she looked to Stiles in the audience and Derek next to her; it helped to clear her mind and remember her words.

"Sacrilegious," said Lydia. "S-a-c, sac; r-i, ri, sacri; l-e, le, sacrile; g-i-o-u-s, sacrilegious."

When Derek went down he gave her arm a squeeze and sat next to Stiles, who with Boyd had become Erica's own little rooting section. Which she needed, as the next word that Laura said, obeisance, she was sure she'd never heard.

"Obeisance," Erica repeated, and thought of its parts. "O; b-e-y, obey; s-a-n-c-e, obeisance."

Laura shook her head.

Lydia was thinking, too, and she took a deep breath. "Obeisance. O; b-e-i, obey; s-a-n-c-e, obeisance."

The townspeople applauded as Erica walked over to shake Lydia's hand, wanting to be the first to congratulate her. Lydia looked up at her, assessing, and it was so different than that first day at school.

"You have ... unexpected talents," Lydia said.

She couldn't begin to tell what Lydia meant by that, but felt that now was not the time to back down. "Or you haven't been paying attention," Erica replied.

It didn't matter as they were both rushed by well-wishers after that, townspeople whom Erica had not yet met coming to shake her hand, saying that no one had ever pushed Lydia as far as she and Derek had. Derek was deflecting the attention to Erica, and both of them declared that if Laura had been spelling instead of giving words she would have had them all beat. Throughout, Stiles hovered nearby, smiling. Of course Lydia was surrounded by her own adoring throng, as well she should have been, and she smiled and inclined her head, accepting their praise like any gracious lady. Like a queen, really—like what Erica had read about Victoria when she was a young queen, tiny and formidable. As the crowds around them thinned their eyes met and the look Lydia gave her was thoughtful.

Maybe being a good speller changed people's mind about a person.

Stiles appeared at her elbow, her coat and hood in his hand. "Boyd and Miss Hale just headed back," he said. "Didn't want to walk you back to an empty house, but we don't have to leave now."

"Oh, let's do," she said, having had her fill of talking to strangers. She took her hood and tied it under her chin.

After Stiles helped her with her coat, they nodded to Derek and Lydia, who were across the room, talking, and then walked out into the cold, guided by Stiles's lantern.

"That was well done tonight," Stiles said.

"Oh! Thank you," she replied. "Though Lydia was better than any of us. She won, after all."

"True, but she's always like that. You and Derek—it was good for her to have a challenge."

"Stiles, you challenge her every day at school."

"Maybe," Stiles said. "In some things."

"In history certainly. I'm glad Laura chose you to recite history in the School Exhibition."

"You'll cheer me on, won't you?" Stiles asked. "Usually I just have Papa and Scott."

"Of course!" she said. "May I ask, that word your father set you to spell?"

"Promyczku?" Stiles asked, rolling the "r."

"Yes," Erica replied, not daring to repeat the word. "What does it mean?"

"Oh," Stiles said, and smiled, though his eyes suddenly looked a little sad. "It means sunbeam. It was—what's the word for the names sweethearts have for each other?"

"Pet name?" Erica offered.

"Yes, it was Papa's pet name for Mama," Stiles explained. "Unlike me or Papa, she was a very good speller in English and Polish. I think it's his way of having her there."

Boldly, Erica reached out for Stiles's hand and squeezed it. He squeezed back.

"Well, here we are," he said as they reached her door.

"Sunday afternoon?" Erica asked. "I'll have the colts, so be ready."

"I will be," he said. "Oh and I meant to say, this dress, your hair and all, it's very pretty, but ... I like the trousers, too."

Erica smiled, relieved somehow that Stiles wasn't just putting up with them. "Good, because I'll need to wear them with the colts. Can't have my corset restricting my movements."

Stiles glanced up behind her, and Erica turned to see that Derek was returning from walking Lydia home, though he was still some distance away. "Of course not," he said. "I will see you on Sunday, then. Good night."

"Good night," Erica said, and watched him as he first walked, then ran and slid down the snowy street.

"Just going to stand here?" Derek asked, and opened the door.

Laura and Boyd were in the front room, talking. "You look like you had a nice time," she said. "Aren't you glad we changed your hair?"

"Yes," Erica said, though it wasn't because Stiles had admired it, but because she felt that she could stand up in front of the entire town and hold her own against Lydia Martin. Lydia Martin wouldn't approve of her trousers the way Stiles did, and that's why Stiles was the one she was going to pick up in the cutter on Sunday.

Not that she'd bring Lydia Martin around in a cutter, of course.




(lydia)

"She is going to kill Stiles with those colts," Lydia said.

Derek—for how could he still be Mr. Hale when he was taking her on sleigh rides and beauing her home from Literaries—looked up from his own horses to where Erica and Stiles were headed out to the open prairie behind the galloping young colts. "They're not running away," he said. "They're just running. See?"

At that moment they team turned, pulling the small cutter back toward the town.

"We spent all yesterday and half the morning tiring them out," he went on. "Erica can handle them just fine."

Lydia hummed. "If you say it, it must be so."

"I do," he said, "but I'm sure Stilinksi would appreciate your concern for his safety."

"I'm not heartless," she protested, though she saw his eyes twinkling. "Anyway, don't you think it's unusual, a young lady driving a fellow around?"

Derek shrugged. "Wouldn't let Stilinski drive 'em, at least not now. David and Jonathan, sure, but not the colts. And Erica's an unusual young lady. Always has been."

Lydia nodded. She'd noticed that when Erica went driving with Stiles she didn't seem to be wearing a corset, and wondered in what other ways Erica was unusual. But she said none of this to Derek; he mightn't have noticed and she didn't want Erica to get into trouble. "And why haven't you asked me to ride behind those colts of yours?" she asked.

"We…ell," he said, "I didn't reckon your Pa would be too keen on the idea. And we'd have to trade this sleigh for the cutter; big thing like this might spook them. With the cutter they barely know they're pulling anything. Didn't think you'd much care to ride behind a pair of scarcely broken colts in a cutter I made six years back."

"Not when there's Caesar and the Duchess and this lovely sleigh, no," she admitted. "But a lady appreciates being asked."

Derek inclined his head. "I'll remember that, in future," he said.

Despite her own wishes, the pleasantness of this Sunday afternoon sleigh ride and how much she'd looked forward to it in the last week, her mind drifted to the letter she'd recently received from Jackson. As usual, it was filled with his adventures with his boarding school roommate, some Hawaiian prince. And as usual, it had reminded her of how hard she'd worked to keep his attention.

Before she could stop herself she said, "Actually, I wasn't certain you'd be by today, what with the spelling bee and all."

"What do you mean?" he asked. "Why wouldn't I want to take the young lady that spelled down the whole town out for a sleigh ride?"

"Some fellows don't much like it when a young lady is better at some things than he might be," she said.

"Then those fellows are foolish, short-sighted, and don't know what they're about. Probably too young to know."

"Probably," Lydia agreed, feeling tremendously pleased.

"You're an unusual young lady, yourself," Derek said. "Wouldn't ask you, otherwise."

"Well!" she said. "I'll remember that, in future."

"Do," he said. "Speaking of the Literaries, I hear tell there's to be a dance in a month's time," Derek said.

"I've heard the same," Lydia replied.

"Well, if it'd please you to save me a dance or two, that'd suit me just fine," he said.

Lydia didn't think she'd ever had an invitation given quite as awkwardly as this; even Stiles's attempts were done with more finesse. But she couldn't deny Derek's sincerity. "I'd be happy to," she said, smiling, and he gave her one of his tiny, rare smiles in return.

Then he cleared his throat, a sure sign of the subject being changed. "Laura has you reading Dickens?"

She nodded. "Great Expectations."

"Pip was easily led," Derek said, making a face.

Lydia laughed, and decided to push Jackson out of her mind once and for all. He couldn't compare to Derek, who worked with horses but still wanted to talk about books, and apparently didn't mind if a young lady out-spelled him in front of the entire town.

Maybe she'd save him more than just a dance or two.




During the weeks after the spelling bee, the Literary Society put on two musicales, charades, and an evening of poetry. Miss Hale's classes were more challenging so Lydia found herself studying harder than ever before. On Sundays there was church and Sunday School and the sleigh ride parties. She was glad that she didn't have to make the trip out to the claim, or tend the garden; she wouldn't have had time.

And on Saturday afternoons, Allison came over and the two of them sat in the big sunny ladies' parlor of the hotel and remade their dresses for the upcoming dance. Lydia had her old Sunday best green dress which had begun to fray at the buttons and hem, which she was pulling apart and putting new copper buttons on. She was using her old summer dress of sprigged yellow lawn as the underskirt, and covering all the worn fabric edges with ruffled trim. Allison was doing much the same, sewing brown and red plaid panels and trim onto her deep blue dress, including a large border all around the bottom to hide that she'd grown too tall for the blue dress as it was. The latest Godey's Lady's Book lay open on the table between them, mostly so they could study the latest fashion in hairstyles.

"Miss Hale was in the store this morning," Allison said.

"Was she?" Lydia said, and girded herself for some teasing from Allison regarding Derek. Good-natured, to be sure, but still. Teasing.

"Yes, along with her sister. Apparently their entire household is planning to attend the dance."

"I'm sure Miss Hale deserves some recreation," Lydia said.

"Don't be coy, Lydia," Allison said. "Scott already asked me to save as many dances for him as possible."

"Which means all of them," Lydia said, smiling.

"Well, one for Pa," she said, "and ordinarily I'd save a dance or two for Stiles, but apparently he and Erica have an understanding."

"Do they now?" Lydia said. "How ... traditional of them."

Allison snickered. "Lydia!"

"You must admit that their sleighing arrangement is out of the ordinary. I understand that Der—Mr. Hale only trusts Erica behind those colts, and that Stiles doesn't own a sleigh, but still."

Allison cocked her head. "You discussed this with Mr. Hale?" she asked.

"I merely expressed concern for Stiles's safety," Lydia said. "He may be quite annoying but that doesn't mean I want to see him break his neck."

"Of course not."

"After all, who would challenge me in my studies?"

"Who, indeed?" Allison said, but her eyes were twinkling merrily, which Lydia did not appreciate. "I think I'll save a dance for Stiles anyhow, as he's such a good dancer."

"Inexplicable, but true," Lydia said. "I look forward to his asking me."

"If he has the chance," Allison said. "The sheriff very kindly invited us for coffee and pie last Sunday, after our sleigh rides, and I really think that Erica and Stiles suit each other quite well. They just go together, don't you think?"

"I hadn't noticed that, particularly," Lydia said. "I suppose they do talk to each other during recess at school."

"Oh Lydia, you aren't jealous, are you?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Lydia replied, though in her mind she was rapidly cycling over all the times that Erica had caught her eye over the past months, whether anyone might have thought she was looking a little too long, whether—horrors!—the entire town had thought that her regard for Erica during the spelling bee was as anything other than a respectable competitor. Well, Allison knew of her … occasional predilections, so she'd be sure to tell her, being a friend.

But then Allison said, "I know you're quite used to having all of Stiles's attention for yourself, but isn't it better for him to move on to another girl who happily accepts his affection?"

"Of course," Lydia said, relaxing. "Better for everyone. And Erica's family approve of the match, if Mr. Hale's reaction is anything to go by. Good luck to them."

"Perhaps Stiles will go to college a married man, with a bride alongside him. I hear that many college men are already married, and after all, he'll be eighteen in April and Erica soon after that I believe."

And this was another surprise; Lydia hadn't realized how much she considered college to be an adventure for her and Stiles and hopefully Allison, particularly after Jackson's departure. For him to have Erica as his bride—she couldn't quite picture it. "Then you'll have to come as well, to keep me company," she replied, smiling.

"We'll see," Allison said. "I did gain permission to go with you and Stiles to San Francisco to take the entrance exams in the spring."

"Good. I would not have accepted any other outcome," Lydia said, but she was smiling.




On the morning of the dance Allison came by the hotel before school to leave behind a satchel with her finery for that evening, and they rushed back as soon as school ended to begin their preparations. Lydia thought their dress alterations had come out rather well, all things considered, and they were rather successful at recreating the hairstyles they'd seen in Godey's Lady's Book. At the very least, Ma approved of their appearance, and that was rare.

As the Martins were heading over to the dance a bit later, once dinner service was completed, Mr. Argent came to walk the girls over to the schoolhouse. He called them lovely young ladies and Lydia giggled and said that he looked very handsome himself. No harm in a bit of flirting with a widower, even if that widower was your own friend's father.

It was remarkable how thoroughly the schoolhouse had been transformed in just the few short hours since they'd left it. It always looked different by lamplight for the Literaries than it did for their lessons during the day, but now fabric bunting hid the plain boards. Much of the furniture had been removed, with some chairs dotted around the edges for old-timers and wallflowers, and two desks on the dais at the front covered in crisp starched tablecloths and topped with a punchbowl and bites to eat. Lydia was glad they'd had a good dinner in the hotel and therefore she wouldn't have to be seen eating, which was always awkward.

The musicians were just starting up, early arrivers milling about and talking. Scott immediately came to Allison's side, and he and Mr. Argent exchanged their usual forced and somewhat cold greetings. Mr. Argent didn't entirely approve of Scott, thought Allison could do better than to marry a simple farmer, never mind the complication of their differing religious faiths. Lydia realized that this had never come up in what Derek said about Stiles beauing Erica, but then, his other sister was likely to marry a Negro before another year passed so she supposed these differences were of less importance to the Hales.

Once Mr. Argent left to speak to the other men, it was less than a minute before Derek came to Lydia's side. She knew that there was some sort of family history between the Argents and the Hales, that they'd started out in the same town back east, but they were cordial to each other if not warm. Scott always seemed to regard Derek warily, which Allison said was because he was so much older than Lydia, but Lydia didn't think six years was so much. Anyway, boys were so often immature; perhaps six years was just the right age difference.

The music started in earnest and the couples began to dance. Jackson had always made fun of the kinds of country music and dancing that went on, implied that in the city both were more refined, but Lydia didn't mind so much about that now. Derek was a careful but confident dancer, easily moving her about the floor, and Lydia was good at following a man's lead at least where dancing was concerned. Derek was quiet, which didn't surprise her; he didn't talk that much when they were on their sleigh rides, and now with the distraction of music and dancing there was no need to fill any silence. And anyhow they were comfortable enough with each other at this point to allow the conversation to lag; such a refreshing change from Stiles's incessant babbling. Derek's arms were strong, his hand firm against her waist, and looking around she was sure that they were the most handsome couple on the dance floor.

After the first song Derek said, "I wouldn't have expected Stilinski to be such a good dancer. He's so awkward, usually."

"He's actually quite good," Lydia said. She turned and found him across the room, with Erica laughing in his arms.

Erica's dress was deep garnet, with pale gold buttons that nearly matched the hair piled high on her head and held with a large black comb studded in ruby-colored crystals. Lydia had always thought there was something of the saloon girl about Erica when she dressed up, something maybe slightly vulgar and certainly a bit flashy. With the comb and the bright buttons and the dress color she certainly stood out from the relatively drab dresses of the farmers' wives and daughters that surrounded her. Lydia wondered how she'd missed seeing her, earlier.

After that, Lydia was always aware of where Erica was and who she was dancing with—mainly Stiles, to be sure, but also Scott, Mr. Boyd, and the Sheriff. There wasn't a single dance she sat out, and Lydia wondered if Stiles made sure of that. It would be like him.

Not that Derek was anything less than attentive. He danced with Miss Hale while Lydia took a turn about the floor with her father, but other than that did not leave her side. She was also certain that he was scowling to keep the other fellows away, though she never caught him doing so. It was ... nice, particularly as she had no interest in dancing with those other fellows in any case.

Near the end of the evening, though, Stiles and Erica approached them on the floor and it seemed only natural to switch partners so that Derek could dance with his younger sister. She realized, as Stiles led them across the floor, that she'd actually missed his usual asking her to dance several times over the course of the evening, even if she generally declined.

"So I couldn't help but notice that you've been looking my way all evening," Stiles said with a sly smile.

"I was merely surprised anew at how well you dance, considering how bad you are at walking," she replied.

"Sure I don't look better now that another young lady has shown interest?" he asked.

"This isn't a novel, Stiles," she said with a sniff.

"All right," he said, though he didn't sound like he believed her—and considering the truth, which she couldn't even explain to herself, she found she didn't mind. "But—may I ask a question? A serious one?"

"You may, but I reserve the right to refuse to answer."

"I just—I hope you're taking this thing with Hale seriously."

Lydia blinked, as this certainly wasn't a topic she'd expected Stiles to raise. "Do I give you any indication of not doing so?" she asked.

He pursed his lips and sighed. "Hale is a very sincere, earnest fellow," he said, "and I know how you can be, Lydia. The little games you played with Whittemore, even with me—he deserved them and I allowed them. But Hale doesn't, and he won't."

She raised her eyes and saw the determined look on his face, the same one the Sheriff wore when he meant for something to happen. "I wouldn't," she said. "I won't."

"Good, that's—that's good," he replied, nodding.

"I'm sure he'd be glad to know he's made such a good friend in town," she continued, smiling.

"Lydia, please, do not tell him I said anything. I don't think he would appreciate it, actually."

"Very well, I won't," she said. "After all, I could be asking you the same question about his sister."

Stiles shook his head, smiling. "I would have Hale and Boyd after me if I did her any wrong, and I'm fairly certain that Scott wouldn't lift a hair to assist me," he said. "Not that I would do anything of the kind, of course, but it's a strong incentive. Besides, she likes baseball."

And how could Lydia reply to that except to laugh?




Derek walked her home, as usual, the lantern in his hand lighting their way. After having been in his arms for most of the evening, she was more aware of his physical presence; before he'd just been taller and dark and lightly scowling, but now she knew the touch of his hand on her waist or the small of her back. It wasn't as electrifying as she'd always thought it would be—as Allison described Scott's touch as being—but it was solid and comforting without being smothering, and she decided she wouldn't mind more of it.

"You're right that my Pa wouldn't approve of my riding behind the colts," she said, "but if you wanted to give them a rest, I wouldn't object to riding in the cutter one Sunday."

"It's an old sleigh," he said. "Color's faded. Runners aren't quite as smooth as the big sleigh, being handmade and all."

She shrugged. "It looks cozy."

"Then that can be arranged," he said, nodding. "I'm sure that Erica wouldn't mind taking out the big sleigh for a change."

"Good," she said, slowing as they approached the hotel. "I'm not as concerned with appearances as everyone thinks I am. Or at least, not in the way everyone thinks I am. I'm just ... particular."

"I'll keep that in mind," Derek said, inclining his head.

"I had a very nice time tonight, Derek," she said, smiling. "Thank you so much."

"I'm so glad," Derek said, smiling slightly. "I did too, of course. I—well—good night," he said, awkwardly.

"Good night," she said, opening the door and going inside.

As she got ready for bed she remembered that the year before, when he'd walked her home, Jackson had tried to kiss her. She'd rebuffed him, of course—they weren't engaged! But she'd been secretly thrilled that he'd tried, not because she wanted to kiss him, but because he wanted to kiss her.

Derek was a perfect gentleman, and of course hadn't even tried to kiss her. Yet, she wasn't sure if she'd wanted him to, or was glad he hadn't. She wasn't disappointed, exactly, but she couldn't help feeling that there was something missing.




(derek)

"So," Boyd said one morning over breakfast, grinning in the manner of a true friend, "what are you going to get Miss Martin as a Christmas gift?"

Derek looked around the table and realized that yes, he would be expected to get a present for a girl he'd been beauing for months now. His eyes settled on Erica. "Could you help?"

"You should be asking Allison Argent," she replied, but when he sighed at her she went on, "but I suppose I could accompany you to the drugstore, so long as you do me a favor in return."

"Which would be?"

"Telling Stiles what I particularly liked?"

"All right," Derek said, trying to sound put upon but actually relieved that she'd wanted so little. Despite his presence as an almost constant temptation in Derek's life, a reminder of what he wanted but could not have, Stiles had proven to be quite useful, really. He'd neatly replaced Derek in Erica's dreams of marriage, which had been a great relief. And he was a good friend. Derek just had to be mindful not to ruin things.

He blinked, realizing the conversation at the breakfast table had gone on without him. "I'm sure all your students will be just fine," Boyd was saying, and Derek realized they were talking about the School Exhibition that Laura was putting on that very Friday.

"We won't let you down," Erica said, loyally. "And you," she continued, pointing at Derek, "have to promise to cheer for all of us equally."

"All of you?" he asked.

"Me, and Lydia, and Stiles, even though he's really your favorite."

"No one is my favorite," Derek said, willing himself to stay calm and not blush. "You're my sister."

Erica hummed, but she was still grinning, and Derek was about ready to sink under the table.

"Gotta admit, never thought I'd see the day you'd be going courting," Boyd said. "Thought you'd be more the dying a skinny old bachelor type."

"Derek got his heart broken when he was very young," Laura said. "Apparently he's finally recovered."

The odd thing was, what Laura said was both true and not true—Kate had ruined him for any kind of romance, just not in the way Laura was implying. And he had recovered, but that wasn't Lydia's doing. But it was a good hedge to hide behind, if he could keep it up.

"That may be," he replied.




The School Exhibition was ... a challenge. Derek and Boyd found seats in the back, leaving the front for parents, and he was glad that his sisters were both involved so he had an excuse to be there that wasn't Lydia—or really, Stiles. McCall still eyed him strangely, even though six years wasn't really that much of a gap all things considered, and Derek could only imagine McCall's reaction if he knew who Derek was actually thinking of.

The younger children went first, in their classes, reciting pieces and spelling and doing sums, but of course it was the soon-to-graduate college preparatory class who were the centerpiece of the evening. They also recited poetry—mostly Tennyson and Longfellow of course—and did sums, but then Lydia graphed a math problem so complicated that Derek wasn't sure a single person in the room could grasp what she was doing. McCall talked at length about the taxonomy of various local fauna and their relationship to more familiar animals back east. Erica presented an essay about the independence of characters in Dickens. Allison Argent, with the help of a map and the portraits of presidents that lined the walls of the room, began a narration of the history of the United States, beginning with the explorers and ending with the Monroe Doctrine. And Derek showed no favorites—he applauded for all.

Then Stiles stood, taking the pointer from Allison, and began to take the audience through the period from John Quincy Adams forward, detailing the country's long, slow slide into the Civil War, Reconstruction, and ending with the election of Grover Cleveland two years before. Derek was grateful that Stiles was so engaging that every eye was on him, because it meant no one was looking at Derek. He couldn't have hid his admiration and deep affection for Stiles if he'd tried. A few times during his recitation Stiles made eye contact with Derek, who smiled and nodded at him, though Stiles needed no encouragement. In his own way he was as brilliant as Lydia, if more comprehensible. Stiles set down the pointer to a wave of applause, and as he was the closing presentation, the entire college preparatory class joined him on the dais for a final bow.

Derek was glad it wouldn't look amiss at all to congratulate his sister first, as the entire School Exhibition had been orchestrated by her. And indeed it was a shining endorsement of her teaching; every pupil was given room to shine and the school shown to best effect.

"To be honest," Laura said, low enough that others couldn't hear, "I'm awfully glad it's over."

"We'll make sure that you enjoy your Christmas vacation," Derek said, "even if that means eating Erica's cooking."

"You should be real proud," Boyd said, his eyes shining, and Derek slipped away to leave them to it.

Lydia was surrounded by a crowd of admirers as usual, so Derek went to where Erica and Stiles stood with some of the other students.

"Did you enjoy yourself, Mr. Hale?" Miss Argent asked.

"I did," Derek replied. "It was good to see what my sister has been working so hard on come to fruition. I know she's very proud of all of you."

"Me especially?" Erica asked, grinning.

Derek rolled his eyes. "Yes, Erica, you especially."

Stiles's eyes widened. "I didn't rate?" he asked, but he was smiling, too.

"If you hadn't noticed before now," Derek said, "you'll soon realize that my younger sister is quite the troublemaker, and should not be encouraged."

"Oh, I'm well aware," Stiles said, smiling at her, and Derek had to work to keep his own smile from faltering.

Derek cleared his throat. "Anyways, congratulations to all of you. Stilinski, I assume you'll be getting Erica home safely?"

"If I may," Stiles said.

"You may," Derek replied, and with a nod he went over to Lydia, who was still accepting plaudits from the other townsfolk. He stood by her as the others shook her hand, wished her luck in her college entrance exams in the spring, and it was a bit like being Prince Albert. He didn't really mind so much, actually; he liked not being the center of attention.

When they were finally alone—well, not really alone, but walking down Main Street together—Derek said, "I'm real glad you're going to college. Your way with arithmetic, I've never seen the like of it."

"How interesting that you compliment me on my mind rather than on my new dress."

"It's very … pretty?" Derek said, and it was, a deep purple that set off Lydia's green eyes and copper curls.

"You misunderstand me," Lydia said. "It's better."

"Oh," Derek replied. "All right then."

They'd reached her door in silence, and she looked up at him, smiling. "Thank you again," she said. "Until Sunday?"

"Yes," he replied, doffing his hat to her and waiting for her to go inside before he left. And for the first time, he felt a bit guilty for what he was doing. Would any man who really wanted to marry Lydia feel the same as he did, or would his attraction be in the way? Well, if any man would, she'd find him at college, surely. And then she'd forget all about the horseman who'd beau'd her around town one winter.




New Year's Eve found Derek restless. He and Boyd had gone to the saloon briefly after supper, but there was nothing to be found there but expensive whiskey and women neither of them wanted, so they came home. The rest of the household was in bed; Laura had a special breakfast planned to usher in 1886. But the book he was reading wouldn't quiet his mind, so Derek put his boots and coat on and went out into the cold.

It was quite late, nearing ten o'clock, and most of the town was dark, with a second-floor window lit up here and there along Main Street. Derek ducked into the saloon briefly, nodded to where the Sheriff sat watchful in the corner. A little ways down he realized that the light at the Stilinski place was on, and through the window he could see Stiles reading. So Derek dashed back to his house for some packages that needed delivering, and headed for the Sheriff's house.

"Hale!" Stiles said when he answered the door.

"I saw your light on," Derek said as Stiles ushered him in. "Wanted to bring you a few things."

"Here, let me have your coat," he said, smiling. "Sit by the stove, that chair there is warm. Papa will be out all night, I reckon; New Years can get a little wild. Men drink and start thinking about the year they had, turns some of 'em violent."

"And you're still up because?" Derek asked.

"If I don't have school the next day I often wait up for him," Stiles said. "Want to make sure he's all right. Would you like some tea? Just about to put the kettle on anyway. Or there's a bottle of whiskey in the cabinet."

"Not sure your father would look too kindly on me coming to his house and drinking with his young son."

"I'm seventeen, and I'm not gonna get drunk off one glass of whiskey. 'Sides, we should drink to the new year with something stronger than tea, I'm thinking."

"Well, if you're sure it's all right." Derek looked around the room, and then down at the table next to Stiles's chair. "Jane Austen?" he asked.

"It was at the lost and found at the depot. Romance story, but I dunno. I'd rather have a good romantic story than a poor adventure story, I think."

"Laura sent me Pride and Prejudice to read when she was at college. I liked that."

"This one's called Persuasion," Stiles said, getting some glasses from the cabinet. "Long-lost lovers reunited, that sort of thing. Along the way the fellow ends up getting some other girl's family thinking he's going to marry her, though."

"Oh really?" Derek asked. "Why would they assume that?"

"Guess he paid her too much attention. You know, olden days, there were more rules about those sorts of things."

"Good thing we didn't live then."

"Isn't it?" Stiles said, smiling. "We'll see this century out. I'll be thirty-three. Imagine! Wonder where I'll be then."

"In some big city, I expect, with one of those important jobs."

"I don't know about that. And you? Still raising horses?"

"Only thing I've ever wanted to do."

"Well," Stiles said, handing Derek a glass full of whiskey, "here's to exercising our talents."

Derek clinked Stiles's glass, and took a sip. "This is damn good whiskey," he said. "You sure the Sheriff isn't going to mind?"

"Papa doesn't drink whiskey," Stiles said. "Makes him miss Mama too much."

That, Derek could understand.

"So, you said you had some things for me?" Stiles asked.

Derek reached into his jacket pocket. "If I'd thought about it, I would have realized that you wouldn't be at the church Christmas Tree," Derek said, putting two flat packages on the table.

"We went to the mission for a few days," Stiles said. "Took the train so we could go to Midnight Mass. If Papa wasn't worried about the New Year we would have stayed until Epiphany, probably."

"I'm sorry we didn't plan ahead as you did," Derek said. "How did you get your present to the tree?"

"Miss Argent. She's been bringing my presents to the tree for a few years now."

"For Miss Martin?"

Stiles nodded. "Not this year, though," he said, a little sad, and Derek regretted bringing it up.

"Well, Erica was very well pleased with her brush and mirror, I can tell you that," Derek said.

And there, Stiles was smiling now. "Did she? Her hair—" He stopped, perhaps thought better of extolling Erica's physical virtues to her brother, and then said, "I'm glad she liked it."

"She got this for you," Derek replied, sliding one of the packages across the table.

"She didn't have to do that," Stiles said, surprised. "What I mean to say is, usually, well, you know."

Derek nodded. Young women didn't generally give gifts to men until they were engaged. He hadn't received anything from Lydia, nor had he expected to. "But, well, Erica."

Stiles unwrapped the package; inside was a small, flat case holding a silver-plated fountain pen. "This is, wow," he said, picking up the pen.

"She thought it might bring you luck, for your entrance exams."

"I'll be sure to bring it with me," Stiles said, and carefully put it away. "Please thank her for me."

"Of course," Derek said. "This one is from me."

"Oh!" Stiles said, taking up the other box. "But I didn't—"

"Consider it a thank you for your work this summer," Derek said, waving his hand.

"Work that you paid me for."

Derek looked Stiles in the eye. "You know you did more than that," he said.

Something flashed in Stiles's eyes, an understanding of some kind, though Derek hoped that Stiles wasn't too perceptive. "Maybe," he allowed. He opened the box to find a machine-knitted woolen scarf of bright red. His eyes widened, and he ran a finger along the soft fabric. Then without word he wrapped it around his neck. "How does it look?" he asked, his voice not much more than a whisper.

"It's real becoming," Derek said. It was actually everything that Derek had thought it might be when he saw it in the shop. Red was certainly Stiles's color, and Derek imagined him wearing it when the cold had colored his cheeks and nose red as well. He tried not to be distracted anew by the long, strong lines of Stiles's neck, how much he'd wanted to kiss it over the summer, still wanted to more than six months later.

Stiles was just sitting there, absently petting the long end of the scarf and staring at Derek, but he was strangely silent. Derek didn't know what to do with a silent Stiles; he wasn't good at filling the spaces in conversations.

He cleared his throat. "I hear San Francisco is warmer than here but damp, with the fog and all. Figured a scarf would come in handy when it's too warm for an overcoat. Can't have any illness impeding your studies, after all."

"No," Stiles said, and now he was smiling just a little, a dreaming sort of smile, and Derek couldn't take his eyes away. "Thank you."

"Of course," Derek said. He could feel himself drifting into dangerous waters, what with their being alone in the house and the late hour and the whiskey, but he couldn't think of what he could do to stop himself, other than remaining absolutely still and not rising from his chair unless it was to leave the house entirely. Which, that might be a good idea. "Well," he began.

"I hope you're staying to see in the new year," Stiles said. He looked up at the clock. "Only twenty minutes left. Seems silly for you to go now."

"I reckon."

"Only we seem to have run out of conversation."

"I've never known it to be a problem for you before," Derek said, smirking.

Stiles laughed then, and Derek yearned to touch him, but he kept his hands firmly on the table. "I could read aloud, from my book?" he said.

"I would like that," Derek said. "I'd like that very much."

"All right," Stiles said, taking the book into his hands. "But it's your job to watch the clock. I'll start at the beginning for you?"

"Please," Derek said.

Stiles nodded and began reading about the vain Sir Walter Eliot, who had little love for two of his daughters, and Derek was good and kept an eye on the ticking clock on the far wall.

When Derek cleared his throat, Stiles set the book down and held up his half-full glass. "Well, here's to the new year. I'd say may it be better than the old one, but I already think it's going to be."

"So do I," Derek said, clinking Stiles's glass, and they drank the rest of the liquor down, their eyes not leaving each other's. "Well, I should go."

Stiles stood up, nodding. "Papa should be back in a while," he said. "I'm not hearing much ruckus from the saloon." He fetched Derek's coat from where it was keeping warm on the peg behind the stove.

"Thank you," Derek said. "I reckon I'll sleep now."

Stiles shook his hand. "Any time, truly," he said. "If you see the light on, feel free to knock."

"I will," he said.

"And thank you again for the scarf." Stiles smiled, a little bashful. "Almost don't want to take it off."

Derek tried and failed not to picture Stiles in his night shirt with the scarf around his neck. "I'm glad you like it. Merry Christmas."

"Happy New Year," Stiles replied.

The cold air felt welcome on Derek's overheated skin as he walked down Main Street to his own house. He had no clear idea what had just happened, but he knew that something had shifted between them, that possibly Stiles had seen Derek's feelings and had not run away from them, even if he didn't return them. It gave Derek a strange sort of hope, not for anything like romance, like Austen, but that possibly he would have a friend who would accept him and his ways.

It was something, anyway.




part two
From:
Anonymous( )Anonymous This account has disabled anonymous posting.
OpenID( )OpenID You can comment on this post while signed in with an account from many other sites, once you have confirmed your email address. Sign in using OpenID.
User
Account name:
Password:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
Subject:
HTML doesn't work in the subject.

Message:

 
Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.
Page generated Oct. 17th, 2017 11:13 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios