the_water_clock: abstract painting (Untitled 1958 Coffee and Cinnamon)
[personal profile] the_water_clock
part one

Art by threelongsteps




(stiles)

For over two months, Stiles thought about Derek's New Year visit, and despite priding himself on having the tools to be a very good detective someday, he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Actually, that wasn't true; he had figured out one thing. Derek Hale was an invert—or at least half invert, if such things existed. That night he'd looked at Stiles the way Scott looked at Allison, the way nearly all men looked at Lydia. Though, come to think of it, Derek didn't look at Lydia that way; perhaps that was why he treated her better than Jackson had. Likely better than Stiles had himself, and that was something to think on.

His friendship with Derek had deepened; heck, he was thinking of him by his given name nowadays. Derek came by the house most Saturday evenings after dinner, when the sheriff was off keeping a watchful eye on the saloon. Sometimes Scott was there, too; sometimes Derek brought Boyd along. But more often than not it was just the two of them, Derek sitting quietly while Stiles read from Persuasion. Tea, not whiskey, and Stiles only occasionally caught Derek with that look in his eye.

The rest of their lives went on as before. Derek still beau'd Lydia to Literaries on Fridays and sleigh riding on Sundays; at this point he might have been invited to dinner at the Martin's though he never talked about Lydia to Stiles.

Stiles never spoke of Erica, either; didn't tell Derek that he'd begun to seriously think of marriage. Stiles and Erica's queernesses fit together in some way, and he thought he could give her a good life. Besides, he worried about Erica not making a match and living with Derek as Lydia's sister-in-law and spinster aunt to their children, which didn't seem an appetizing fate. No, they didn't have that destined to love forever feeling that Scott and Allison, or Stiles's own Papa and Mama did. But not everyone found that and besides it never turned out well in books. They'd make good partners, was the thing.

What confused Stiles was his own reaction to Derek. He was flattered mostly, and in no way disgusted, which he supposed was the usual reaction and likely why Derek never did anything more than look. And why would Stiles be disgusted, when Derek was a handsome man with a strong athletic body, devotion to friends and family, and extraordinary skill with horses, who loved talking about books? Stiles wasn't sure what to call how he felt about Derek, so he just allowed it to take its course.

And then there was an unexpected blizzard in March.

Compared to the Snowy Winter any winter would be mild; this one had been about average. There had only been a few blizzards, though one came up on a Friday evening, stranding those who'd come to town for the Literary, who bunked down on floors. (One farmer joked that it was God's way to make sure they went to church, and indeed the storm finally let up just after Sunday services.) It was enough winter to feel like winter, but not so strong as to have caused much hardship.

Stiles, Lydia and Allison were traveling to San Francisco at the beginning of April to take the University of California entrance exams, so most of March found Stiles hunkered down at home, studying. Sometimes the three of them met at the Martin hotel on Saturday afternoons to quiz each other with the study guides Miss Hale had prepared for them. On this particular day Derek and Scott, who'd struck up if not a friendship then at least an acquaintanceship through Stiles, had gone out together to check on their claims, it being a clear day with no threat of clouds.

So when it very suddenly grew dark, and the wind began to howl, they looked up, surprised. Then they dropped their books and gathered at the window.

"Allison," Stiles said, "when did they leave?"

She glanced at the mantle clock. "About an hour ago."

"Plenty of time to get to the Hale place," Lydia said. "They were headed there first."

Stiles nodded. He didn't say that if there were any two men who could get to shelter it was Scott and Derek, nor that if there were any two horses fast and sure enough to outrun a storm it was David and Jonathan. They all knew that. Instead he said, "Well, let's hope they stayed put."




During the Snowy Winter you could set your calendar by the weather. Blizzards lasted three days, separated by one clear day, two if you were lucky. When Papa and Mr. Argent went to find the possibly mythical Greenberg and his wheat, they'd only had about seven hours of daylight to work with. Then, Stiles and Scott and his mother had sat quietly praying for the storm to hold off.

Now he wandered through the days in a fog, praying for the storm to end but knowing they would likely not see relief until Monday. He hadn't realized how very much he looked forward to Derek's Saturday night visits until there wasn't one. He couldn't even bear to see Persuasion sitting out on the table and hid it in the cabinet.

Miss Hale very kindly invited Stiles, Papa, and Mrs. McCall to Sunday dinner. It was an odd thing to sit in a room full of Protestants while Papa led them in prayer to St. Anthony, but the fellowship was welcome. Papa had sent a wire to the mission, so Stiles knew a special prayer was being said there, too, as well as candles lit in Scott's name.

Monday there was no school, of course, but Stiles couldn't concentrate enough to study. He just sat staring blankly out the window at the unending whiteness, waiting for it to die down. By the mid-afternoon he'd been so lulled by the wind and snow that when it stopped he couldn't quite believe it, had to rub his eyes and look again. Then he was up like a shot, grabbing cap and coat and his new scarf and rushing out, up and over the foot or so of snow piled at the door.

He ran down the street, just because he could. Not that he'd be able to run around the prairie on foot to find them, but still. He was just starting to feel a little foolish when Erica came running out of her door, trousers under her long coat, and saw him.

"Come," she said. "We can take Caesar and the Duchess; they could find Derek anyplace."

He followed her into the stables and they quickly got the two horses saddled up. Miss Hale came out and gave them water and some jerky, and made them promise to head back at sunset, though Stiles had already taken a lantern.

Luckily the soft snow had been blown off the road heading north out of town, so the horses galloped along easily, knowing the way back to the Hale claim as well as either of the humans riding them. Erica and Stiles were silent, and if Stiles had thought before that they were well-suited, today it was as though they had but one mind. They'd be able to see the Hale place once they were up over that rise near the slough, and they were both leaning forward in the saddle, though the horses needed no urging.

And then, when they could see the little house in the distance, they also saw two figures riding toward them on handsome brown horses.

Caesar and the Duchess broke into a run then, and Stiles and Erica didn't have the heart to stop them. They'd missed David and Jonathan, clearly, and likely missed their master's touch, but now they were as determined for a reunion as any of them. David and Jonathan had picked up the pace, too, and it wasn't long before the four horses and riders met in the middle of the road.

Scott was, typically, grinning from ear to ear. "Worried about us?" he asked.

"Worried if you two were shut up together only one of you would survive, more like," Stiles said.

Scott nodded. "Hope you bet on me."

"'Course," Stiles replied. "Taught you how to fight dirty, didn't I?"

Scott laughed but Erica scoffed. "Honestly," she said, rolling her eyes and climbing off her horse. She made a beeline for Derek who, having gotten the hint, was standing next to Jonathan, ready to pull her into his arms.

No sense in standing on ceremony, Stiles decided, and he too walked over to Scott, giving what he hoped was a manly hug and not desperately clinging to someone who'd once been his only friend. The horses were busy with their own greetings, the Duchess seeming to inspect every inch of David and Jonathan as though they'd been her own colts. Or maybe Stiles was projecting.

Derek looked at Stiles then, his arm still around Erica, and he quickly touched his own neck with his other hand. Stiles patted the bright red scarf around his neck, and Derek nodded. Then he smiled, that bright grin that Stiles had rarely seen, and Stiles felt the bottom drop out of—his stomach? His heart? All he knew was a strange gone-feeling in his midsection, an odd sensation of falling. Derek gave him one of those admiring looks, and Stiles found himself giving one right back.

Holy heck. He was in love with Derek Hale.

Of course all this happened in an instant, even if it seemed like a lifetime to Stiles. He wasn't even sure that Derek had caught what Stiles meant in that look, only his eyes had widened ever so slightly. Then Erica spoke, and Derek looked away.

"How did you manage?" she asked.

"We'd only just left for the McCall place when he saw the storm a ways off," Derek said. "So we hightailed it back to my house and hunkered down. Good thing we'd left a few supplies there just in case."

Scott shrugged. "Mostly we played checkers. Come to think, I probably should check up on the place—"

"Oh, no," Stiles said. "Your mama would skin me alive if I didn't bring you straight home and you know it."

"Probably should head back for town while there's still daylight," Derek agreed, and soon enough they were all riding back to Beacon.

Scott and Stiles left the Hales to their own reunions and Stiles was ready to walk Scott home when he said, "Let's see if she's at the hotel."

Meaning Allison, of course, and she was there, in the sitting room with Lydia. As soon as she saw Scott she ran to him, propriety be damned.

Lydia rose to her feet as well, with her usual grace. "Mr. Hale?" she asked.

"Safe at home," Stiles said. "Seems they never did leave the Hale claim and weathered the storm out there."

She nodded. "Good, that's good. Quite a relief."

"Yep," Scott said, still holding tight to Allison. "You should have seen the look on Stiles and Erica's faces."

"Erica?" Lydia asked.

"They took Caesar and the Duchess and came out to find us," Scott said. "Thank goodness we weren't in trouble, but if we had been, well, they certainly wasted no time."

"Stiles and Erica?" Lydia asked. "Had you arranged this?"

Now Stiles was beginning to get irritated, because why shouldn't he and Erica look for Derek and Scott? "No," Stiles said. "We just had the same thought at the same time—that we needed to get out there as soon as the storm ended."

"You two make a good team," Scott said.

"You do suit awfully well," Allison agreed.

"I like to think we do," Stiles said, smiling, because despite his recent revelation about Derek, his feelings about Erica hadn't changed at all.

He glanced over at Lydia, who was giving him the strangest look. If she were someone else, he'd say she seemed jealous, but that couldn't be. First, someone as near-perfect as Lydia would never be jealous of another human being; second, what would she be jealous of? Not Erica's claim on Stiles, since Lydia had always been clear that she didn't want Stiles for her own. Not Derek's feelings for Stiles, because she couldn't possibly be aware of them, nor Stiles's feelings for Derek. And not Erica and Stiles as a couple, because they were odd and the entire town whispered about Erica taking Stiles driving behind the colts, while Derek and Lydia were the envy of all who observed them. But perhaps it wasn't jealousy at all, just her attempt to hide her feelings about Derek, maintain her demeanor as the rest of them had failed to do.

"Well, I should go home and see Mama," Scott said, "but I can walk you back to the store, Allison?"

"Please," Allison said, and they went to get her coat.

Stiles wasn't sure what to do now; he supposed he should head home as Lydia was quiet and didn't seem to want him there, but leaving abruptly felt awkward. He fidgeted with the cap in his hands.

Then she spoke. "Thank you. For going. Even if you weren't needed."

"Of course we would," Stiles said, nodding. He shifted his feet. "I'm sure Mr. Hale will be over to see you the moment Miss Hale agrees to let him out of her sight."

Lydia tossed her head. "That goes without saying," she said, and there, that was the Lydia he knew and loved. Or perhaps, had once loved, and now considered a friend. At least, she was back to herself, and Stiles felt better about leaving her.

"Well, I should get on home," Stiles said. "Let Papa know. I'll see you tomorrow, at school?"

Lydia nodded, and Stiles left. Scott and Allison were already well on their way down the street to Argent's store. As Stiles crossed the street to his own house he heard his name shouted, turned, and there was Derek.

"Hope you're on your way to see Miss Martin," Stiles said, "or you'll have to pay a penance."

Derek said, "I am, but I wanted to thank you again. Mostly, for keeping Erica from going off alone and half-cocked. She has a tendency to do that."

"I've noticed," Stiles said, "but I'm not sure how much of a help I can be on that, considering how often I'm guilty of it. At least, according to Papa."

"Still, I'm glad she has someone like you looking out for her."

"I'd like to," Stiles said, "as long as she lets me."

"She seems to give you less of a fight than the rest of us," Derek said. "So that's a point for you."

Stiles realized it was the first time they'd really talked about Erica, and he didn't know what to say, precisely. "I'll take it," was all he could manage.

"Anyways, thanks," Derek said, and shook Stiles's hand. As he did so, lay his other hand on Stiles's shoulder.

And Stiles couldn't help himself—despite the fact that they'd just been talking about Erica and Lydia, he leaned into Derek's touch. Derek noticed; the grip on his shoulder loosened, became more of a caress. They started at each other, alone in the middle of the snowy sidewalk.

A team of horses drove by, seeming to snap Derek out of whatever reverie he'd been in. "Well, I'd better get along to the hotel," he said.

"Say," Stiles said, "be gentle with her. She's more vulnerable than she lets on and I think you frightened her."

Derek nodded, all sincerity and responsibility and upstanding masculinity. "I will," he said.

When Stiles got home Papa was there, cutting up potatoes and salt pork and cabbage. "Hey, that's my job," Stiles said.

Papa shrugged. "You had an adventure," he replied. "Thought I could have dinner for you."

"Thanks," Stiles said, helping himself to a cup of tea as the water was hot.

"You should invite that young lady of yours to dinner on Sunday," Papa said.

"I will," Stiles said.

"Good," Papa said, nodding. "She has a good spirit."

"She does," Stiles said, sitting down at the nearby table.

"Better for you than Miss Martin, I think," he said.

"Likely."

Stiles wondered what Papa would say about Derek, if Derek were a girl. Not that it mattered much; it couldn't come to anything, anyways.




Scott came by the next day after school to study, but he was unusually quiet. Stiles was, too; he was still getting comfortable with his feelings for Derek. Though oddly the idea that he could be a invert, too, didn't bother him. He knew the Bible said it was wrong, but then there were David and—

Oh. David and Jonathan. Stiles was an idiot.

Then suddenly Scott said, "Stiles, I need you to promise me something. Promise that you'll help Allison in San Francisco?"

"Help her with what?" Stiles asked. "I can't help her with her exams, you know that."

"No, no, that's not—I can't tell you, but she'll need your help with something, and you have to promise me that you will help her."

Stiles raised his eyebrows. "Have you two been scheming without me?" he asked. "Because you know how well that goes."

"Maybe, but it's not my secret to tell!" Scott said. "Well, some of it is, I guess, but not this part."

"Which part is?" Stiles asked, pushing back from the table and crossing his arms.

Scott sighed, scowling. "I guess I might as well tell you. I hate keeping secrets from you. You know that, right?"

"I know you're not very good at it," Stiles said.

"Well, so the claim proves up in June. Our seven years are up, and the land will be ours. Well, Mama's."

"Yes. And?"

"And Mama and I have talked, and we're going to sell."

"Sell the farm?" Stiles asked. "But—but you've always wanted to be a farmer, as long as I've known you."

"I may have found something else."

"You're serious about this?"

"Yes," Scott said, nodding.

"Well, okay." Stiles put his slate down, and thought for a minute. "Don't sell."

"I can't leave the farm for Mama to run on her own with a bunch of hired hands."

"No, but you can rent the land, and the equipment," Stiles said. "Plenty of folks want to be able to work some land, get in the crop themselves. It'll give your mother a steady income and keep the land in your hands. Finstock always says that money is income but land is wealth."

"But what if a tenant gave her trouble?"

Stiles cocked his head. "You don't think she wouldn't be able to rely on my father?" he asked.

"Well," Scott said, "I reckon that's true."

"You'd better believe that's true," Stiles said, taking offense on Papa's behalf.

"I'm sorry. I'm used to it being just the two of us, I suppose."

"It isn't. It hasn't been for a while. It isn't just me and Papa, either."

"No," Scott said, sighing. "It's not."

"And that is why you shouldn't scheme without me."

"I didn't mean to!" Scott insisted. "But Allison—I can't tell you that part. You'll find out in San Francisco."

"Does Lydia know?" he asked.

"She might. If not she'll find out when you do."

"Is it illegal? Because you know I don't do that anymore."

"No! Stiles, of course not!"

"Just making sure!" Stiles said, holding his palms out in surrender.

"All right."

"Is that all? I mean, all the secrets. That you can tell me, aside from Allison's and the fact that you two are running away together at some point?"

Scott's eyebrows shot up. "What?"

"Why else would you leave Beacon, Scott? Leave your mother? You'd never do that, unless you had to go someplace with Allison. So we'll get everything settled with the land, in a way that won't get around town, and I suppose whatever Allison's doing in San Francisco is part of—oh my god, are we helping her to run away? Are you two going to China?"

"What? No! No, we're not leaving America."

"But you are leaving Beacon."

"Yes, and you really need to stop asking me questions now. After you get back from San Francisco, I promise I'll tell you everything that Allison doesn't."

"All right," Stiles said. "But you know I do this better when I'm prepared."

"She'll probably tell you on the train or something," Scott said. "And believe me, you're plenty prepared. You know how to get around a city and I know the sheriff is making you take your gun, so you'll be fine."

"She'll need my gun?" he asked. "You realize you're not very reassuring?"

"Stiles. Please."

He sighed. "I'll try to be ready for anything. All right?"

"All right," Scott said. "Coffee? I think we should have some coffee."

"Go ahead," Stiles said, because Scott was as comfortable in Stiles's house as he was in his own. As Scott ground the beans and put the grounds into the percolator, Stiles thought about keeping secrets, and realized he didn't want to, either. Even if it was, well.

Small steps.

"So Scott," Stiles began, "what do you think about inverts?"

"You mean, like Derek Hale?" Scott asked.

Stiles hated that he forgot how perceptive Scott was; it kept sneaking up on him. "How did you know?"

Scott turned around then, the percolator filled with water and heating on the stove. "I've seen the way he looks at you, when he thinks no one else is looking," he said. "But you don't seem to mind, so I didn't say anything."

"And you don't mind that I don't mind?" Stiles asked.

Scott shrugged. "Some folks think white people shouldn't marry Mexicans, or Negroes, or Indians. Or that Protestants shouldn't marry Catholics. If they're wrong about that, they can be wrong about other things, too, I reckon."

"Well," Stiles said. "You're a better man than I am. But you already knew that."

"I know that you think that," Scott said. "But what about the ladies? What about Erica and Lydia?"

"Nothing can come of it anyway," Stiles said. "Why should it matter?"

"Do you love Erica?"

"Yes," Stiles said. "She should be family, is the thing. I feel responsible for her. I want her to be able to do as she pleases, and if she's married, that will likely go easier on her."

"Well," Scott said, sounding dubious, "if you think you know what you're doing."

"Not a bit," Stiles said. "Do you?"

Scott grinned. "Not a bit," he said, "but I'm doing it anyways."

"There you have it," Stiles said. "Well, that's all my secrets."

"Mine, too," Scott said, and turned off the percolator.

Stiles fetched the cups. "Papa will be out over dinner, said I should ask your Mama," he said. "But I say we fry up some of those potatoes and put a little whiskey into these cups."

"Sounds fine to me," Scott said.

And Stiles realized that all the time he'd been planning to go to college, he'd assumed that Scott would be right there in Beacon when he returned. Now, their time together was limited, and much more precious for that. "You should know that wherever you are, you need help and I'll come."

"You came running out to find me after a blizzard," Scott said. "If I didn't already know, I do now. And you should, too."

"I do," Stiles said. "I do."




(erica)

Erica wasn't an expert at needlework, to be sure, but she could sew. She'd made all of her own trousers and some of her dresses, and she could manage simple embroidery when sufficiently motivated. Stitching tiny horses onto linens was not sufficient motivation. But making something appropriately feminine for Lydia to take to San Francisco? More than enough.

She looked through the scrap bag, remembering the deep green shirt Laura had made as Derek's new Sunday best, and found a bit of that soft cotton that could be cut down into a dainty square. She edged it with precise, tiny stitches of violet thread, and at each corner she embroidered a tiny horseshoe.

She meant it to be for luck, after all. Nothing sentimental.

Erica tucked the finished handkerchief into a school book and meant to give it to Lydia at school, but each day something interfered—or rather, she didn't quite dare to give it to her in front of the others. She particularly felt wary of Stiles, and she wasn't sure what to make of that, because usually Stiles made her feel braver than anyone, was the most accepting of her eccentricities. Certainly he wouldn't blink at her giving a good-luck present to a friend.

As she walked home the Friday after the blizzard she knew she had to find the courage soon. They were to leave, Stiles and Allison and Lydia, on the morning train a week from Saturday.

In the meantime, she had been asked to have supper at the Stilinskis' on Sunday, which was enough for a girl to worry about.




Erica decided to wear her Sunday-best dress, a dark brown poplin. Stiles had never seen her in it, as he didn't attend their church and she'd always changed into trousers before taking him sleigh-riding. She'd been to the sheriff's home before, but that was just coffee and pie after their sleigh party, for which she'd quickly thrown on a school dress. Allison, Scott and Scott's mother had all been there; really it had been more Mrs. McCall's gathering than Sheriff Stilinski's. But this time it would be just the three of them, and she was terrified.

"You're nervous as a cat," Boyd said, watching her fuss with her hair in the mirror. "I'd think you'd never had supper with your beau's father before."

She scowled at him. "Don't be funny," she said, because of course she hadn't, and he knew that. She'd never even had a beau!

"Boyd, don't tease," Laura said as she walked back into the room. "Scoot on out of here."

He gave her a little smile, but he obeyed, as he always did when Laura was involved.

Laura stood behind Erica, and put her hands on Erica's shoulders. "Erica, you're pretty as a picture, and if you mind your manners you'll be just fine."

"You think so?" Erica asked.

"Stiles likes you for yourself," Laura said, "and of course he wants the sheriff to like you, too. I'm sure he'll show you in your very best light."

Erica nodded; she could trust Stiles. "Maybe I should wear the scarlet," she said, frowning. "He did compliment me on that dress."

"That is a dress for a dance and this is a dress for a supper. Now stop fussing."

Luckily, there was a knock on the door then. Erica leapt up, but Laura firmly pushed her back down in the chair, shaking her head. Erica could hear Derek invite Stiles in, close the door, make some brief chit chat. Then Derek walked over to the bedroom door.

"Erica? Are you ready?"

She turned to Laura, who nodded and allowed her to stand, smoothed down her dress.

Erica walked out of the bedroom she and Laura shared and into the front room. Stiles was still in his cap and coat and ever-present red scarf, Erica's coat in his arms. He turned to look at her and she had a sense, maybe, of what it was like to be Lydia.

"Wow. I haven't, um," Stiles began.

"You've made Stiles speechless," Derek said, his eyes twinkling. "Quite an accomplishment."

Laura and Boyd chucked, but Stiles didn't seem to appreciate the remark.

He pressed his lips together and took a breath. "You look very pretty, Erica."

"Thank you," she said. She tied on her hood, and let Stiles put her coat on.

"I'll walk her home," he said to Derek. "Don't worry; Papa won't let us go too late."

"She's in good hands," Derek said, nodding.

They walked quietly, Erica not wanting to show Stiles how nervous she was and Stiles seeming preoccupied with his own thoughts. But just before they reached his door, he stopped and took her hand.

"I'll be there, too," he said. "We're a team, right?" He smiled, and she smiled back, nodding, and could feel him relaxing as much as she did.

"Good," he said, and opened the door.

The Stilinski home was warm and inviting, if a bit sparse. She couldn't help but think what her mother or even Laura would do to "spruce it up" if given the chance—cheerier curtains here, perhaps a print there. It certainly smelled good, as the sheriff was taking a pan out of the oven when they walked inside.

"Don't worry, son," he said. "I haven't touched it, just took it out when you said."

Stiles hung Erica's coat just behind the stove. "Papa isn't the best cook," Stiles explained. "Mama wrote all of her recipes down when she got sick, showed me how to make them. She didn't want us eating like Americans after she was gone." Stiles paused. "Er, sorry."

Erica shrugged. "I look forward to whatever you've made, I'm sure," she said.

"Here, don't leave her standing around like that, Stiles," the sheriff said, and pulled out the chair closest to the fire. The table was already set, plates and flatware and a steaming pot of tea, even a little vase at the center with a ribbon wrapped around it that Erica suspected wasn't usually used as a centerpiece.

"Oh, sorry, Erica." Stiles had thrown on an apron and was bustling around the stove, using a spoon to taste what was in the pan, then nodding.

"You're sure you don't need any help?" Erica asked.

"Not from the guest," the sheriff insisted, and so Erica sat down in the offered chair. "Tea?"

"Yes, please," she said.

"So I understand from my son that you're in the college class but not going to college?" he asked.

"Papa!" Stiles said. "She's going to raise horses with her brother. I told you that. You've seen her with those colts."

The sheriff waved an arm at Stiles as he sat down. "I meant, why are you still working hard in the college class then?"

"Scott is in the college class," Stiles said.

"Scott is wherever you and Allison are," the sheriff said.

"My Pa says it takes a smart man to raise a smart horse," Erica said.

"See, there, that's a good answer," the sheriff replied, smiling at Erica.

Stiles, scowling, set the pan down on a trivet at the empty place at their table. "I made stuffed cabbage, anyway," Stiles said.

"A real treat," the sheriff said.

"May I serve you?" Stiles asked Erica, and at her nod he took her plate and dished out what did, indeed, look like a cooked cabbage leaf wrapped around a lump of filling, with more cabbage underneath. Stiles served his father and then himself, and sat down.

After the sheriff said grace Erica cut into the parcel and saw forcemeat and bits of rice inside. She took a small bite. "Oh, this is lovely," she said, trying not to sound surprised.

Stiles looked proud of himself, at least. "Thanks," he said.

"Ah," the sheriff said. "She likes Polish food, this is good. You can teach her the dishes, maybe."

"No, Papa. Erica doesn't cook."

"My mother and sister tried and failed to teach me," Erica said, "but we decided my talents lay elsewhere."

"With the horses," the sheriff said.

"I hope so," she replied.

"I wouldn't let my son ride behind those colts of yours if I didn't think so," the sheriff replied.

"Thank you," Erica said, smiling a little. She caught Stiles's eye and he was smiling, too. Laura was right; she was fine.

"I understand you're quite talented with the playing cards as well," the sheriff said.

Erica coughed and reached for her tea, surprised by the question.

Stiles's eyes widened. "Playing cards?" he asked.

She swallowed, and cleared her throat. Her hands dropped to her lap, where they could wring her napkin out of sight. "Well, as you know, Stiles, Boyd and I worked in the stables of a saloon over the summer, back in Kansas City."

"Yes," Stiles said, nodding.

"And when there wasn't much to do, sometimes we went inside, and the other girls taught me how to play."

"The saloon girls?" Stiles asked.

Erica nodded. "I wasn't going to sit with the men and they were awfully kind to me. They taught me how to do my hair and such."

"It's very becoming," the sheriff said. "But you didn't just play with the girls, I've heard."

She took in a deep breath. "No. After a while I got quite good and they thought I should get something out of it, so I started sitting in with some of the men. With Boyd nearby, of course."

"And while wearing men's clothing," the sheriff said.

"Erica always wears trousers when she's working with the horses," Stiles said. "I think it's very practical of her. Likely safer, as well."

The sheriff turned to Stiles, one eyebrow raised. "So you've seen her in these trousers?"

Stiles cleared his throat and sat up a bit straighter. "Yes, sir," he said. "Up at the Hale place."

"And?"

He looked around the room, and then at Erica, who shrugged. "And in the sleigh, but I don't really see her, Papa, what with her coat and the furs and all."

"I see," the sheriff replied.

"You can't expect her to handle the colts in a corset!" Stiles said, and then groaned when he heard how that sounded.

The sheriff grunted. "I reckon not," he said. "You're a practical girl then, Miss Hale?"

"I try to be," she replied.

"Right, so, the poker?" he asked.

"I was good at it, and sometimes I won," she said.

"Not sometimes," he replied. "You should know, there are men that have come through this town talking about a blonde girl in trousers back in Kansas City who fleeced them out of their money. I wouldn't go near the saloon without an escort, if I were you. Of course, you shouldn't be doing that anyway."

"No, sir," Erica said, feeling chastened. "At least, you should know that when my sister found out what my uncle had permitted, she was none too happy."

"I expect not," the sheriff replied. "Your uncle should have been paying better attention."

"Oh, he knew everything," Erica said. "He thought it was funny."

The sheriff grunted again, and shook his head, then turned to his son. "Don't you even think about it."

"What?" Stiles said. "I would never!"

The sheriff said nothing.

"Because of this!" he said, waving his hand at Erica. "Because you always find out!"

"I do," the sheriff replied.

Stiles shook his head and sighed, looking remarkably like his father. "Papa was a Pinkerton," he explained. "One of the best detectives out of Chicago. That's why he has no accent."

"Worked hard, got rid of most of it," he said.

"But after Mama died, well, we didn't stay in Chicago very long."

"Stiles," the sheriff said, looking at him seriously. "You should tell her, yes? Why we left the city?"

"What about it, Papa?" Stiles asked, smiling. "I was just—"

"Or I will," the sheriff said, and he sounded sad.

Stiles's mouth was set in a firm line. "Fine," he said, sullen. "We left Chicago because I was arrested for breaking into a house."

Erica blinked, not knowing what to say to that.

The sheriff broke the silence. "Starting from the beginning is usually how these stories are told, I think," he said.

Stiles took a sip of tea, stalling, but at another glance from his father, he began his story. "There was a woman downstairs, looked after me after Mama died. She thought I read too much, thought that was why I was so scrawny. She wanted me to go out and play with the other boys more. That's how I learned to play baseball—stickball really, but I wasn't very good at it. Sometimes there were fights, and I wasn't very good at that, either."

"Told me he got the bruises because he couldn't catch the ball," the sheriff said.

"It was so," Stiles said. "That was why, just, it wasn't always the ball that hit me."

A feeling came over Erica, almost like she felt when the foal was born. She could imagine Stiles, little and alone and trying to get by on his own, too stubborn and independent to say anything that might make his father worry.

She wanted to get on the first train to Chicago and slug those boys.

"Then this older boy, he saw how small I was and said he could keep the other fellas away from me if I did something for him. See, my shoulders were much narrower than they are now, which meant I could fit through a window."

"Specifically, the basement window of one of those fancy houses," the sheriff added.

"It was easy," Stiles said. "We'd slip out at night and I'd shimmy in and then open the front door. Lots of times no one was even there. Summer time, rich folks aren't in the city." He made a face. "And they had so much! So much and they didn't even work, just owned things. So we took some of their things."

"My son the socialist burglar."

"Papa—"

"You really think those other boys were thinking about redistribution of wealth?"

Stiles was silent.

"A messenger came to the house one night, late," the sheriff said. "Courtesy of a friend at the Chicago police, Stiles wasn't charged with anything. Still, didn't think I'd ever have to come get my own son out of jail."

"I am sorry, Papa," Stiles said, looking down at the table.

"I'd already been planning to leave the city for his sake, already taken this job, but thought I'd move us in the fall, tie up some loose ends with Pinkerton. Instead we packed up that week and left as quick as we could."

"I'm a thief," Stiles said, "and I can't even spell it correctly."

"You were a thief," the sheriff corrected. "Not anymore. And I figure you two delinquents might be able to keep each other out of trouble."

"That's what all this was about?" Stiles asked. "You think we might suit because we've both done some disreputable things?" He paused, then said, "Well, illegal in my case."

"No. I think people who are courting should know these sorts of things about each other," the sheriff said.

Erica regarded the sheriff, and her eyes narrowed. "Would you have investigated me?" she asked.

"Didn't have to, as it happened," he replied, shrugging. "Or at least, not much."

Stiles put his head in his hands. "I am never introducing you to another young lady," he said.

"No, I don't think you will," the sheriff said, patting him on the shoulder as he stood. "There's still some of the vinegar pie Stiles made yesterday. Would you care for a slice, Erica?"

Erica looked from the sheriff, who was smiling, to Stiles, who looked like he'd appreciate the floor opening up beneath him, and all she could do was laugh.

The sheriff sat down again with the pie pan and some plates and forks. "I like this one," he said.

Stiles looked at her, confused, and then his shoulders relaxed and he smiled. "Me too," he said.




Erica didn't manage to give the handkerchief to Lydia over the next week. Stiles was even more attentive after the dinner with his father, not that Erica blamed him or really even minded in any way. It was actually quite nice, the way things were going with him, and she wondered if he would propose to her before he left for college or ask her to wait for him. She thought she'd likely say yes to either one. But she realized why she was reluctant to give the handkerchief to Lydia in front of him. It seemed disloyal, somehow, even though she'd already given Stiles the pen for Christmas.

Not that it was, of course. That wouldn't make any sense at all. That day after the storm, when she rushed outside and saw Stiles just down the street, both thinking so much alike that they scarcely had to talk, she could have melted with relief. She'd never felt so in concert with anyone, not even Derek. Besides, Stiles had the kind of face a woman could look at for the rest of her life—if his father was any indication, it might even improve. He was on his way to college, so he'd be a good provider, and seemed not just happy to let Erica continue with her horses but encouraged it. She would find no better match.

Especially since Stiles didn't make her feel nervous the way Lydia did. She wasn't anxious to please—far from it—but she did want to know what Lydia thought of her actions. If Lydia was in the same room, Erica's eyes found her, and if she wasn't, Erica wondered what she was doing. The boys all wanted to curry Lydia's favor, but Erica wanted to get a reaction from her, get cracks to form in that smoothly polished surface she presented to the world. Sometimes she even succeeded.

By Friday the situation was desperate; Lydia would be leaving the next morning. Erica let Stiles walk her home from school, gave him some final good wishes. But no sooner had she come inside, taken off her coat and hood, then she knew she needed to leave again.

Luckily only Derek was home to see her fidget in her chair. "Restless?" he asked her.

"Yes," she replied. "Think I might take a walk, just down to the store if you need anything."

He looked up from his paper. "No, but I was thinking I might go to the depot tomorrow morning, see Lydia off, if you'd like to come along and say good-bye to Stiles."

She smiled. "I'd like that very much," she said. "Thank you."

But she still put her coat on; giving Lydia the handkerchief in front of Stiles, Allison, Derek, Lydia's parents, possibly Mr. Argent and Scott, was even worse than if she'd just done it at school. Trying not to think too much, she walked straight to the Martin Hotel and asked the clerk at the desk if Lydia was at home, and was shown into the ladies' parlor. Too nervous to sit down, she paced in front of the fireplace so she wouldn't just walk out of the room.

A few minutes later Lydia came into the room in a green calico work dress covered by a large blue apron, on which she was wiping her hands. "Oh, Erica," she said. "I wasn't expecting you—he just said a young lady so I thought you would be Allison."

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm afraid I'm interrupting."

"Just starting in on dinner," Lydia said, then cocked her head. "Is something wrong?"

"No, I just—" Erica cleared her throat. "I suppose I never thought of you as having chores."

She laughed at this. "I milk the cows every morning," she said.

Erica nodded, but still couldn't believe her eyes. It was all so domestic, so ordinary, and she realized that even she was guilty of putting Lydia on a bit of a pedestal. But then, that was probably as Lydia wanted it. "Anyways, I meant to give you something." She pulled the little packet out of her pocket and handed it to the other girl.

"My goodness," Lydia said.

"It's for luck, for your exams," Erica added.

Lydia opened the bit of muslin to reveal the neatly pressed and folded handkerchief inside. "How lovely," she said, examining it closely. "You made this for me?"

"Yes," Erica said. "Embroidery isn't my strong suit, but—"

"No, this is fine work," Lydia said, holding it up to the light. "It must have taken some time."

"Well, it is the winter," Erica said. "Long evenings."

"Such a pretty green."

"We had some, from one of—"

"Mr. Hale's shirts, yes, I recognize it now," she said, and smiled. "And the violet stitching ..."

"I remembered your dress, from the School Exhibition." Erica paused, then said, "You should wear more violet. It suits you."

Lydia smiled at her. "And you should wear more scarlet, as you did at the dance."

"Oh!" Erica said, then before she could think better of it added, "I didn't think you'd noticed."

"You think I was noticing Stiles?"

"Stiles is worth noticing!" Erica said.

"And believe me, he was," Lydia said, a mysterious smile on her lips.

Lydia was hinting at something, Erica knew, but she was too muddled in that moment to work it through. "Well, I shan't keep you," she said.

"You have me at a disadvantage," Lydia said, as though Erica hadn't spoken. "Now that you've seen me in my work clothes, it's only fair that I come to your home sometime when you're in yours. Or whatever you wear when you're working with the colts that doesn't include a corset."

Erica didn't gasp—she didn't—but her eyes widened. Though why she was surprised, she didn't know; if Stiles had worked it out of course Lydia had. "I wear men's trousers and a shirt," she confessed. "Skirts get in the way, I've found, and I've never much liked riding sidesaddle. Harder to break a horse riding that way."

Lydia didn't look shocked, as Erica might have expected from a girl who'd once sniffed at her playing baseball, but intrigued. "I look forward to seeing that," she said.

Erica was emboldened by those words, by the idea that Lydia looked at her, had looked at her, enjoyed looking at her. "Then come by the claim some Saturday this spring," she said.

"I'll do that," Lydia said. Then she walked up to Erica, taking both of Erica's hands in her own. "Thank you for this present."

Lydia's hands were tiny in Erica's, but warm and strong, the skin toughened by work. Somehow that was reassuring, that they weren't so different. They were leaning into each other, as if being pulled together, as if the way they spoke to each other had been transferred to touch. Erica wanted more, and she realized that not only did she want to kiss Lydia, but Lydia wanted to be kissed by her.

"It's not so much," Erica forced herself to say, as the proximity to Lydia made it a little hard to talk. She was so small, and her eyes were so green, and—

"But you made it for me," Lydia replied, with more feeling than she usually allowed herself to show. Her thumbs were moving softly over the back of Erica's hands.

"Then, I'm glad you like it," Erica said, and her voice was a little shaky with all of it, with knowing that she was important to Lydia. She felt like they were the only two people in the world, and oh, she wished she could just lean forward a bit more, touch their foreheads together. She settled for smiling, and was rewarded with a smile in return.

How long they stood there, Erica could not say, but then there was a crash from the kitchen, and a shout. Lydia turned toward the noise, then back to Erica.

"I'm sorry; I really should get back to my chores," said Lydia.

"Of course you should," Erica said, nodding. "Good luck on your exams."

"Thank you," Lydia said. "I'm so—thank you."

Lydia let her go then, and Erica felt the loss, busied herself by putting her coat back on. She didn't mention that she and Derek would be at the train the next day; then she'd be there for Stiles, Derek for Lydia. This time, now, belonged to the two of them, together.

Erica waved her good-bye and left. But she couldn't help looking back, and saw Lydia staring out the window after her.

She came home, helped Laura with dinner, even participated in the conversation, but she was only half aware of her surroundings, didn't even care if her family noticed. After, she went out to the stables to do her chores, but when she was done found that she didn't want to leave. She stood in the stall with the foal she'd helped raise, hoping that would ease the fluttering in her stomach.

"Are you all right?" Boyd asked, and she started, as she hadn't even heard him come into the stables. "I can take over—maybe you need some rest?"

"I've finished," she said. Then: "Boyd, what do you do when you want to kiss a girl?"

He looked surprised. "You mean, instead of kissing that girl?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Well, sometimes I do some physical work, like breaking up a hay bale," he said. "Sometimes, well, sometimes I go to the outhouse and I—do girls touch themselves? I know that's rude but—"

"Yes," Erica said. "I do, anyway."

"All right, well, that," Boyd said. "And sometimes, I just want to be around her. It might be torture but it's the sweetest torture, you know?"

"Yes, I do," Erica said, smiling.

"You've really got it bad, haven't you?"

"I suppose."

"Stiles is a lucky man."

Erica pictured Stiles, and Derek, and Derek and Lydia together, and she and Stiles, and Stiles's ever-present scarf that Derek had given him. And suddenly, all at once, she realized what Lydia had meant, by there being someone who'd noticed Stiles. She remembered the whispers about Derek among the ranch hands in Kansas City, wondered if when she'd thrown herself at him, she hadn't just been trying to save him. Maybe she'd also been trying to control herself, after a summer spent with saloon girls.

"Erica?" Boyd asked.

"Sorry," she said. "You're right, Stiles is a lucky man. I think we're all lucky, really."




(lydia)

Lydia woke early on Saturday morning, too nervous to sleep. She bathed (so odd to bathe on Saturday morning rather than Saturday evening), checked again that everything she needed was packed neatly in her satchel, that her money belt was secure underneath her dress with a few coins for the journey in the purse that hung from her wrist. Ma had made her a quick breakfast of eggs and potatoes, which she ate while Ma fixed up sandwiches for all three of them for the train.

The exams, to be honest, were the least of her worries. She was very well prepared, thanks to Miss Hale and her fellow classmates, and knew that all three of them would easily pass and gain admission to college. But there were other items on the schedule for the weekend, most of which they'd have to inform Stiles of on the train, and despite Allison's assurance that Scott had prepared him, one never could predict how Stiles would react to anything.

Not to mention the situation that she, Erica, Derek and Stiles found themselves in. Lydia wasn't sure that Stiles understood the full extent of it, as Lydia did; she wasn't even sure that Erica did. But after the storm, and with the changes coming in the next year, she didn't want to leave the status quo. She wanted what she wanted, and she meant to get it.




She stepped outside with her parents to see Derek and Erica standing just outside their door.

Derek tipped his hat. "We thought we might see you off," he said. "May I take your bag?"

"Thank you, Hale," Pa said, smiling in that conspiratorial way he had that made Lydia cringe.

"Lydia?" Ma asked.

Lydia smiled. "Such a pleasant surprise!" she said, looking past Derek at Erica.

"Oh," Derek said, glancing over at his sister, "yes, well, when I told Erica I wanted to see you off she thought she might want to say her good-byes to Stilinski as well."

"Of course," Lydia said. "He'll be pleased to see you, I'm sure."

They said nothing more as they walked to the depot, shoes crunching on the hard-packed snow. The sheriff and Mr. Argent were already there with Allison and Stiles, and of course Scott had come along, too.

Stiles spotted them first. "Erica!" he said, and she trotted smartly to him. "Thanks, this is real nice."

"It was Derek's idea," she said.

He turned to Derek and nodded slightly. "Hale," he said, and then, as he'd done since Christmas, he stroked the free end of his red scarf.

"Stilinski," Derek replied, and pressed his lips together.

It was ridiculous, and Lydia felt a rush of overwhelming irritation. She huffed.

"Now, Stilnkski," Pa was saying, "I'm putting my daughter in your hands. I trust you'll be able to take care of both of these young ladies."

"Of course," Stiles said.

"No reason to worry," the sheriff said. "Stiles knows what he's about."

Mr. Argent grunted, which earned him dirty looks from both Derek and the sheriff.

"I'm sure we'll be just fine," Lydia said. "We don't need that much protection, do we, Allison?"

"Not at all," Allison said. "We're modern ladies."

"Of course, of course," Pa said, though Lydia knew he didn't have the faintest idea what they meant. Which was good, because now was not the time for another frustrating conversation about The Vote.

The train pulled in then, thank goodness. Many good-byes were said and wishes of good luck given, hugs from parents and the hint of tears from Ma, before Stiles managed to get them all onto the train and thence to some rather comfortable second-class seats.

"Good-bye Beacon," Lydia said, waving to their friends as their train pulled away.

"Until Wednesday, anyway," Allison said.

"I heard it might be longer for you, Allison," Stiles said.

Allison gave him a sharp look as she sat down in her seat, but she said nothing.

"You'd better tell me," Stiles said, "if you're counting on me to help you."

"Oh honestly," Lydia said, sitting down next to Allison so that Stiles would stop looming. She'd had about enough of all these secrets, and her irritation with the various surprises she'd been presented with already that morning bubbled over. "Allison has an appointment on Sunday with Buffalo Bill Cody."

"Lydia!"

"Well when were you going to tell him? When we got to San Francisco? When we left for the arena on Sunday afternoon?"

"I was hoping not to tell him at all!" she said. "Surely he could have escorted us to the arena without having to know."

"This is Stiles, Allison," Lydia replied. "Do you really think that was possible?"

"Not to mention if the Wild West Show is in town, there'll be posters all over, especially at the arena," Stiles said. "You really never have been to a big city, have you? How do you think they get folks to come to the show?"

"The same way folks find out about the Literaries?" Allison asked.

"There's nothing else to do in Beacon! Believe me, there are plenty of amusements in San Francisco." He shook his head. "So your plan is to join up with the show?"

"If they want me."

Stiles waved his hand. "With aim like yours? That's a given. What's the rest of the plan?"

"I won't join now," she replied. "I'll wait until the summer."

"And Scott?"

"We're getting married."

"So he's coming with you. And doing what, exactly?"

"We inquired, and they said he could take a position taking care of the animals. You know, all the horses and cattle in the show?"

Stiles made a face. "See, this is why you need me. You never think about the details, either of you. Are you going to have that put in your contract?"

"Contract?"

"You know, the one they'll want you to sign on Sunday?"

Allison blinked, and turned to Lydia. "I told you to tell him," Lydia said.

"This is why you shouldn't scheme without me!" Stiles said, throwing up his hands. "All right, start at the beginning, and I'm sure between the three of us we can work out a better plan."

Lydia sat back and folded her arms. Stiles always had been good at plans. Once they had Allison squared away, and had finished their exams, they could spend the train journey back to Beacon scheming about their own lives.




They stayed in a perfectly nice hotel not far from the college, and Lydia was impressed with the ease with which Stiles was able to get them and their bags from Union Station to the trolley and thence to the hotel. There was so much hustle and bustle around them, so many people, but Stiles seemed perfectly calm, even energized by all of it. And now that she was in the city, Lydia could understand—there was something new to look at every instant, around every corner, so much vying for one's attention. To be honest, she was a bit dizzy when they got to the hotel, but she knew that after a while she'd become every bit as accustomed to it as Stiles was. She looked forward to that.

The kitchen had kept a bit of supper back for them and they ate hungrily, then spent some time in the sitting room with the other guests, some of whom were students who also hadn't wanted to travel on the Sabbath. Well, that was the reason Allison and Lydia had given to their parents, anyway.

Stiles was in a tiny single room down the hall. The girls shared a larger room, with two narrow beds and a nightstand in between, upon which sat a pitcher and basin. A chamber pot sat on a lower shelf, behind a small door. Two towels were draped over rods on either side of the nightstand, and a mirror hung above it. Lydia poured some of the water from the pitcher and quickly washed her face and hands in the basin, dismayed at how black the water turned. She wondered if there were any tips in Godey's Lady's Book for how a lady could keep her complexion fresh in an urban environment. Perhaps that new magazine Ladies' Home Journal would have something, it being so modern and all. She drained the dirty water into the chamber pot and wiped the basin clean.

"You have a new handkerchief?" Allison asked, spotting the green fabric atop the dresser.

Lydia wiped her face and hands with the towel. "Erica made it for me, for good luck."

"She made it?"

"That's what I said. Why?"

"Only that you've told me, on numerous occasions, that the only people who've ever made things for you are your mother and your sister. And me, of course."

"I'm not sure I would characterize giving me the pelt of a rabbit you shot so I could make a muff out of it 'making me something'," Lydia replied.

"Nevertheless," Allison said, "she made you a handkerchief in the colors of your two prettiest dresses."

"Indeed she did."

Allison cocked her head. "Lydia, is there something you need to tell me?" she asked.

Lydia cursed herself for ever having said anything to Allison about Boston marriages and her brief pash for Miss Hale. "There honestly is not," she replied.

"Do you wish there were?"

"How could there be?" Lydia asked. She picked up the handkerchief, ran her fingertip over a small horseshoe.

"That wasn't what I asked," Allison replied, walking over to the stand to wash her own hands and face.

Lydia sat on the bed; perhaps this would be easier without Allison looking at her. "Erica came over to the hotel Friday after school, special, to give this to me," she said. "I think she wanted us to be alone when she did. She didn't even mention that she and Derek would be seeing us off the next morning; she said good-bye to me as though she wouldn't see me again before we left. When I did see her the next day, she spoke only of Stiles. She seems to think of me and of Stiles entirely separately, or at least, is trying to keep us separate. Do you see what I mean?"

"I'm not sure," Allison replied. She turned to look in her satchel. "I don't think of you and Scott entirely separately, at least."

"That is what I mean," Lydia said. "It's the way one might treat two suitors, particularly if one of them doesn't know about the other."

"Oh," Allison said, nodding. "Yes, I suppose, if one were in a novel."

"Where else would one have two suitors?" Lydia asked.

"You, at college," Allison said, smiling enough to make her dimples show. "You last year, for that matter, if you count Stiles."

Lydia waved a hand. "Now that there's Derek, I doubt I will have many suitors here."

"Do you still care for Derek?"

"I do," Lydia said. "But—oh Allison, when she was at the hotel, I was thanking her and I took her two hands in my own and it was—" She stopped, cleared her throat, tried to work out what to say because she hadn't said this part aloud, even to herself. "What you said, about when Scott touches you, even just when he brushes his hand against yours? That's how I felt, I think, and I've never felt that with anyone. Not Jackson, not Derek, not anyone. I even—I even wanted to kiss her."

"My goodness," Allison said, and her eyes were wide open. She sat down on the bed next to Lydia.

"Yes," Lydia said.

"So will you still marry Derek, if he asks? And see her marry Stiles, who, if Scott is anything to go by, probably will ask? And live on adjoining ranches or even in the same house together? Could you do that?"

"I don't know!" Lydia said. "I'm hoping—I'm hoping there might be some other solution."

"A solution where you and she could—like the Boston marriage you told me about?" She shook her head. "Poor Stiles. Poor Derek, too, I suppose."

"Not as such," Lydia said.

"Why not?" Allison asked.

"You know that red scarf of his?" she asked. "The one he likes so much? Do you know who gave that to him?"

"I'd assumed Erica," Allison replied.

"No," Lydia said. "It was Derek."

Allison sat quiet for a moment. "My goodness."

"I'm hoping that Stiles can figure a way out of this, for all of us," Lydia said. "I'm telling you now because I'm going to ask him, on the train, on the way home."

"And I thought my life was adventurous," Allison said.

Lydia laughed. "You are eloping and then running away to be in show business! I think you still have us beat."

"Speaking of which," she said, "we probably should get some sleep before tomorrow."

"Can you sleep?" Lydia asked.

Allison had stood and was pulling her nightgown from her satchel. "Are you concerned about the exams?"

"Not a bit," Lydia said.

"That's how much I'm concerned about tomorrow," she said. "They want me or they don't, and Scott and I are getting married either way."

"Hmm," Lydia said. "Good."

Later, after they'd changed into their nightgowns and said their prayers and crawled into bed and turned out the lamp, and Lydia realized sleep wasn't coming, she said, "Thank you."

"For what?" Allison said, sounding no sleepier than Lydia felt.

"For not thinking me strange, what with Erica and Miss Hale and the Boston marriages and all," she replied. "For still being my friend."

"Why would thinking you strange keep me from being your friend?" Allison asked. "That's why I am your friend. You're strange, like me. I gave you a rabbit pelt from an animal I'd shot and you made a muff of it. You even thanked me."

"What girl wouldn't want a muff of rabbit fur?" Lydia asked.

"You're helping me join the Wild West Show. You solve math puzzles that no one else can even understand. Why would loving someone different be more strange than any of that?"

"You have a point," Lydia said. She turned to the window, which glowed with the light from the gas lamps on the street below. So odd, how the city was never entirely dark. She supposed she'd have to get used to that.




Stiles's plan was, in essence, to pose as Allison's agent. He and Lydia sat in the stands of the arena as Allison did various tricks, such as shooting at targets from a galloping horse. Despite the necessity of using a borrowed bow, she hit nearly every target dead center. She wasn't even intimidated by the large arena, which by Lydia's estimation must have been able to hold an audience of three thousand people. Lydia had never seen a building so large, and she knew Allison hadn't either. But then, when Allison was shooting things it was as though nothing existed but her and her target; Lydia had been out on the prairie with Allison and her bow enough times to witness that.

"Well, well," Mr. Cody said when they were finished. "You live up to your reputation, Miss Argent. We'd be very happy to take you on." He handed her some papers. "This is just a formality. If you could sign here?"

"May I?" Stiles asked.

"Of course, of course," Mr. Cody said.

Stiles sat and read, and when he was done he turned it around. "We have some stipulations."

"Do you now?" Mr. Cody said, sitting back in his chair.

"Miss Argent should have control over her costumes," he said. "Nothing too revealing."

"This is a family show," Mr. Cody said. "We would have no problem with that."

"I see no mention of the position for Mr. McCall in here."

"Well, of course we'll have to wait until we can assess his abilities. And that is entirely separate—"

"By the time she joins you, Miss Argent will be Mrs. McCall. I'm sure you understand that her husband's position would be in no way separate."

"Arrangements can be made at that time—"

"And Mr. McCall has been raising cattle and tending to horses for five years now, on his farm. I'm sure that is experience enough."

"We'll see about that, Mr. Stilinski."

"We ask for nothing more than fair wages for Mr. McCall. So little we ask, I'm sure you'd agree both are worth it for a talent of Miss Argent's calibre."

"So little? We are the only game in town, I think you'll find."

"Ah, but that presumes that Miss Argent needs to play that game. I assure you, she'd be perfectly happy to attend college and then go back to Dakota and be a farm wife. Her only requirement is Mr. McCall, which I'm sure you'll agree is right and proper. If you want her for your show, those are our terms."

Mr. Cody sat back, his eyes narrowed. Stiles had such an air of nonchalance that Lydia wondered if he actually believed his own words to be true. For her part, Lydia tried to look as unconcerned as he.

At last Mr. Cody spoke. "Very well, Mr. Stilinski," he said. "Come back tomorrow and we'll have a revised contract for Miss Argent's signature."

"Thank you," Stiles said, getting to his feet and shaking Mr. Cody's hand.

Outside, in the trolley, Stiles said, "Sorry I had to lay it on pretty thick back there, with the whole farm wife business."

"That's all right," Allison said, "but how do you know so much about contracts?"

"Finstock used to be a theatrical agent back east, showed me a few of them. I can show them to you and Scott—then you can negotiate your next one." He paused. "Might be best to have Scott do it, actually."

"Because Mr. Cody would have more respect for a man?" Lydia asked, shaking her head.

"That, but mainly, Scott comes across as so guileless they'll probably think they can pull one over on him, and you can use that to your advantage."

Allison looked at him as though she'd never seen him before. "Stiles, you have all the makings of a scoundrel! I'm glad you're on our side."

"See, I keep telling people they should include me in their schemes, and they never listen!" he said, throwing his hands up in exasperation.




The exams were as simple as Lydia had predicted. On Monday morning they wrote essays on passages from Shakespeare and Tennyson, and after lunch had a long, detailed examination on American history. Lydia was glad of the School Exhibition in that moment, as history was her worst subject; her memory of Stiles and Allison's recitations kept her from getting into any muddles.

Immediately after, they once again took the trolley to the arena, where Allison signed a contract with Mr. Cody that agreed to all of her stipulations of the previous day. She also received an immediate bonus to cover traveling expenses and such, which was more than welcome. She was to join up with them in the summer, and once they'd agreed on the date Lydia could almost see the gears beginning to turn in Stiles's head.

That night, as Sunday, the sitting room was near-empty, their fellow prospective students having apparently decided to do some last-minute studying. But Miss Hale was firmly against such actions, and in fact had forbade Allison, Lydia, and Stiles from bringing any schoolbooks along with them to San Francisco. So the three sat quietly, even Stiles, as though they needed to save all of their words for the exams.

Tuesday they had math in the morning, algebra and geometry and one or two questions beyond, nothing that troubled Lydia in the least. Geography and natural history came next, and were easily dispatched. Now they could do nothing but wait; the results would be mailed to them in a week's time.

That evening dinner was a good deal merrier, what with everyone having finished their exams, and there was even an impromptu dance in the sitting room that evening. Lydia of course was asked to dance by every fellow there, but she was proud to see Stiles's dancing remarked upon positively, and Allison getting some attention, as well. Not that any of this made them miss their hometown sweethearts any less, but it was good to know that just because one was a big fish in a little pond, one needn't be a little fish in the big one. They were, apparently, big fish wherever they went.

Lydia would have accepted nothing less.




Lydia had been thinking of a way to talk to Stiles about Erica and Derek without letting any of the other train passengers know what they were saying. It had been on her mind frankly more than the exams, but it wasn't until she was packing her satchel on Wednesday morning that she saw her way to it.

They had once again easily found three seats together, even though of course the train leaving San Francisco was more crowded than the one leaving Beacon had been. Once again Lydia and Allison sat next to each other, and Stiles opposite. When the train began moving, Lydia pulled the handkerchief out of her small purse.

"Isn't this lovely?" she asked Stiles, handing it to him.

"Did you make this?" he asked. "I'm not one for evaluating stitchery but it does seem very precisely done."

"I didn't make it, as it happens," she said. "It was a gift, from Erica. For luck."

"I see," Stiles said, scowling slightly because no, it wasn't the done thing.

Boldly Lydia reached across and touched the end of Stiles's red scarf. "Those Hales have a real knack for gift giving, don't they? So personal."

Stiles started at her, his eyes widening. He looked from her, to the handkerchief, and back. "Oh my gosh," he said.

"So, Stiles, I need to ask you—"

"Oh my gosh!" Stiles said again.

"Stiles!" Lydia said sharply, and nodded toward the people sitting in the banquette across the aisle.

He lowered his voice, almost to a whisper, and Lydia and Allison leaned in to hear. "But this explains so much! After the storm—you really were jealous, but of me. Of me and Erica together."

"If you want to look at it that way," Lydia said.

"And at the dance—you weren't staring at me."

Lydia raised an eyebrow. "You weren't staring at me, either," she pointed out.

Stiles sat back and laughed. "Well, don't this beat all!"

"I'm glad you're amused, but we have to figure out what to do about this!" she said.

"What do you mean, what to do?" Stiles asked.

Lydia leaned in again, and so did Stiles. "I mean, I don't intend to go on like this. Handkerchiefs and secret scarf signals, it's ridiculous. I want what I want. You have to work out how I can get it."

Stiles nodded. "You ladies read your books," he said. "Leave me to think about this. By the time we're back in Beacon, I'll have a plan."

"Which I will of course improve once you tell me of it," Lydia said.

"That goes without saying," Stiles replied.




(derek)

With the spring weather came the move back to the claim. The school was in recess that first week of April, so Derek had Laura and Erica's full-time help packing up the house in town they'd had the use of for part of Laura's salary. The house Derek and Stiles had built over the summer had weathered the winter quite well, and if it weren't for the suddenness of blizzards in this part of the country (something Derek now understood all too well) they might have been able to winter there. But he was glad they'd stayed in town, even beyond assuring that Laura and Erica would be safe going to and from school. The Literary Society had made him feel part of the town, a man and not a boy, which he would never have been able to achieve in Kansas City under Uncle Peter's condescension. Being in town also made it much easier to court Lydia Martin.

There were plenty of reasons besides Stiles, was the thing. Stiles was just the main one.

When Laura started up the school again, she'd be teaching an eight-week session through the beginning of June. The college class was finished, of course; its reason for existence was past and all its students had been graduated from high school via the practice exams they'd taken in late March. Erica would now be able to devote herself full time to farm work; she'd been eager enough to get to the horse business in the fall, so now nothing would stand in her way. Pa had wired a hundred dollars to Derek the week before, so he could buy a horse to be Erica's own, just as Pa had done for Derek years ago.

Well, he could postpone that for a week. Stiles would likely make his intentions to Erica known once he was sure of college. And once Lydia was sure, it would be a simple thing for Derek to let her down easy, with no shame on either side.

He was deep in these thoughts of the future while arranging the tack room when Boyd came by.

"Seems strange, now, to go all day without seeing you," Boyd said. They'd put up a small claim shanty on his land, and while he still came to the Hale claim for supper he bedded down at his own shanty more often than not.

"Without seeing Laura, you mean," Derek said.

"About that. I wrote to your father a couple of months ago," he said, holding up an envelope. "Just got his reply today."

"He gave you the go-ahead, I'm assuming."

"He did," Boyd said. "Can't quite believe it."

"I can. He took his time because he wrote to ask me, and, I assume, to ask Uncle Peter. Of course we both put in a good word for you. Heck, Erica wrote to him without his even asking—"

Boyd laughed at this. "Of course she did."

"Well, she wanted him to know how Laura felt, and a woman's perspective on how you treat her, and all that sort of thing. Besides, it isn't as though he and Ma haven't met you."

"That's so , but—I plain can't believe it."

"Why?" Derek asked. "You know my family's history."

"And you know same as I do that plenty of abolitionists who were happy to help a slave escape to Canada wouldn't let their pretty white daughter marry a Negro."

Derek shrugged. "Guess we aren't like plenty of abolitionists. Anyways, Laura is twenty-six, more than old enough to know her own mind, and she'd elope with you if she had to. I think Ma's just relieved she's marrying at all."

"Maybe so," Boyd said. "Well, Laura's made a picnic for us, so ..."

"I never worry about Laura when she's with you." He shook Boyd's hand. "I'd wish you luck but you already made it, yourself. I'll be proud to call you my brother."

Boyd nodded. "Thanks. I'm—well. Thanks. It'll be you, in not too long, I reckon."

"Maybe so," Derek said, nodding.

After Boyd and Laura left, Derek kept himself and Erica busy getting the horses situated. There certainly was plenty to do, but he also was trying not to think about Stiles having returned from California the night before, about when he might see Stiles again. Could they even continue with their Saturday evenings, with Derek out on the claim and Stiles in town?

He was just walking inside to see if Laura had left them anything for lunch—it would be like her, given Derek and Erica's lack of comfort in the kitchen—when he saw two riders approaching on the road from town.

"Erica?" he called out. "You expecting anyone?"

Erica came around to the house from the paddock. "No?" she said, walking up to him.

"Wonder who it could be, then," he said, and they stood there for some minutes watching.

"Is that—is that Stiles and Lydia?" Erica asked.

"Looks like," he said, though he couldn't imagine what on earth had possessed them to come up to the claim less than a day after returning from San Francisco. Surely they had other duties to attend to?

When they arrived there were the usual pleasantries, general questions about their trip and how things were in Beacon while they were gone, and then Derek said, "Well, Erica and I can take care of your horses, and we can all sit in the house."

"Actually," Stiles said, "if we could leave the ladies to the house, and you and I go …"

"Um," Derek said, a little at a loss. "We could sit in the stable, I suppose."

Stiles nodded to him, while next to them Lydia led Erica into the house. Erica looked back at Derek, confused, and he shrugged; all he could think was that Erica didn't seem to be worried that Lydia was seeing her in trousers, when usually Erica was a little insecure about her dresses compared to Lydia's. Or at least, she certainly went on about Lydia's dresses a good deal, and Derek would try to reassure her that she was perfectly lovely, always.

Stiles and Derek tethered the horses and went into the stables, where Derek led Stiles to the mostly-empty space where the hay had been stored. Now there were only a few bales left of the loads that Stiles had helped Derek put up early last fall, and they sat down on two of them.

Then Stiles almost immediately hopped to his feet. "I'm going to say some things now, and I want you to just listen, all right? And talk after?"

"All right," Derek said, trying not to smile because Stiles looked very serious, but really: he loved being able to just sit and listen to Stiles talk.

"All right," Stiles said, nodding. "Because Derek, you gave me this scarf. You gave me this scarf and you look at me."

Derek could feel the panic coming, dug his fingers into the hay, because he'd gone too far and ruined everything, just like Kate always said he would—

"Oh my gosh, I'm scaring you, no, Derek, look at me."

Derek blinked and willed himself to meet Stiles's eyes.

"I love the way you look at me. I want you to look at me like that. I love how your face gets when I look at you and I touch this scarf and I want to wear it all the time and think about you."

Derek swallowed, because this couldn't actually be happening, except it was, except he couldn't see anything other than sincerity in Stiles's eyes.

"But the thing is, I don't want to spend my life sending you secret signals with my scarf. Lydia says it's ridiculous and she's right. I want to kiss you and lay with you and love you, and sure we can pretend for others but not between us. I want to go to college and write you love letters and have you to come home to."

He couldn't help it; Derek glanced toward the house.

"The ladies, yes, the ladies are actually sorting themselves out right now," Stiles said, smiling a little. "And you know as well as any of us how Lydia gets when she wants something. Apparently Erica made her a handkerchief and it's really pretty and for some reason I couldn't quite understand that has her all excited. What I mean to say is, Erica is what Lydia wants, and I think the other way, too."

"Oh," Derek said, because, all right.

"So what I'm thinking is, for the outside world we just go on as before. We marry and we can all live together and you and Erica can raise horses and Lydia will sit around solving math problems or whatever it is she'll do and I'll find something, writing maybe or being a sheriff like my dad, maybe. And it will be good because I love Erica and I want her to be able to wear trousers all the time and you love Lydia, I know you do, and you're excited for her to go to college, and of course you love Erica and you know I think Lydia is the most incredible person on the planet so I just, I think this could actually work. Anyway I'm going to be eighteen on Tuesday and I know what I want and what I want is this." He paused. "What I want is you."

"You mean that?" Derek said, because he felt like his brain hadn't quite caught up to everything that Stiles had just said.

"Oh, I forgot to say: You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. And I know Lydia. And yes, I mean that. I mean everything I just said and it's taking all I've got not to kiss you right now, but you should be able to figure out how you feel without being molested. That's what Lydia said." Stiles stopped, and then he sat down, close enough that Derek could reach out to him if he wanted to. "So take the time you need. I could go, but I don't want to leave Lydia. All right, I'm going to stop talking now."

Derek looked at Stiles, wondering if he could get his head and his heart to catch up to the strange gone-feeling in his stomach, the way everything had been tipped upside down. He wanted to say yes, knew he was bound to say yes, but he had to know, had to make sure.

"Come on," Derek said, taking Stiles's hand and pulling him to his feet and out of the barn.

"What? Derek?" Stiles said, walking quickly behind him.

He turned the corner, heading for the house and there, in the road, was Erica, doing exactly the same thing, with Lydia just behind her.

"So," he said.

"So," she said. "Can we do this?" She looked excited, but unsure. Lydia, behind her, was as determined as ever.

And finally it all caught up to him, and he grinned at her. "Yes," he said. "Yes, we can do this. We're going to."

She walked closer and he pulled her up into his arms. She wrapped around him, arms and legs, and tucked her face into his neck just like she did when she was small. "I think, I think when I wanted to marry you?"

"I know," Derek said, because he did, finally.

"But this is better."

"Yes. This is better." He kissed her on the forehead and set her down.

"Don't stay out there," Lydia said, heading back into the house with Erica. "You should come inside."

"But—" Stiles began.

"Laura and Boyd are off having a picnic and getting engaged," Erica said. "They won't be back 'til suppertime, and it isn't even noon yet. And if you're worried about anything else, well, we'll have to get used to that part, won't we?"

Stiles grinned. "Looking forward to that."

Lydia was shaking her head, arms crossed. "We're going to spend all our time keeping them out of trouble, aren't we?" she said.

"Yes," Derek said. "Yes we are."

It didn't feel awkward at all after that to go into the house, to bring Stiles into his bedroom even though as Erica had said, it was only just past eleven o'clock. It didn't feel strange to close the door behind them knowing that Erica and Lydia were on the other side of the wall. They sat down next to each other on Derek's bed.

"Have you ever, you know, with another fella?" Derek asked him, though he was sure of the answer.

"No, have you?" Stiles said.

"Yeah, a few times. Not back home, but in Kansas City. Big city, you can find people who might share any predilection, I'd expect. But it was strangers, and only one time, never more, so I didn't care for it that much. I could do that much on my own. Anyways, we can do whatever you like, or not do, or … I don't have any expectations, is what I'm saying."

"Well, you should know," Stiles said, "because Papa told Erica and I told Scott a long time ago, but when I was a kid back in Chicago I got in with a bad gang of boys and we broke into rich folks' houses."

"Is that why you came here, to Dakota?" Derek asked, because he'd wondered, and he knew it was something because Stiles never talked about it.

"Somewhat," Stiles said. "I think Papa was worried about me growing up in the city, and wanted to leave for his own reasons, and missed Mama and all of that. But I'm telling you so you know. I don't do that anymore, but you should know."

"You couldn't have been that old," Derek said.

"Eleven," Stiles replied.

"Well, then. I know how that can be."

"Anyways, I also was telling you because on one of those nights we broke into this house that had a library, so they put me there while they went through the place looking for things they could sell, you know, jewels and the like. They knew I was bookish and would sit still."

"I can imagine," Derek said, because he could: curious little Stiles wandering around getting into things, and the bigger boys wanting to put him someplace and make him stay put.

"And one of those books I found, well, it had pictures, I could tell, which is why I took it off the shelf but those pictures." He paused, blushing a little, then said, "They were naughty pictures. Of men and women. And women and women, and men and men. Fornicating."

"I see," Derek said, not even trying to hid the little shiver that came over him when Stiles over-enunciated that ridiculous word.

"I stole that book," Stiles said. "I put it in my bag and the other boys didn't care because it was some dumb old book, right? And I kept that book, managed to get it here from Chicago, have managed to hide it in my room all this time. Guess I'll bring it here, at some point. Because see, eventually? I want to do every single thing in that book, with you."

"Oh," Derek said. "All right. We can do that."

"Right now, though, I just—will you kiss me? You may kiss me. I've never kissed anyone, though."

"Neither have I," Derek confessed. "Those men—it wasn't kissing, we didn't kiss." He leaned forward, pursing his lips, and so did Stiles, and they kissed.

"The people in the books, they open their mouths," he said.

"All right." Derek mostly wanted to put his tongue and hands all over Stiles, but this was good, the way Stiles's mouth opened just a little, the way they overlapped their lips at first, Derek's upper lip between Stiles's. So wet, or so he thought until they made their tongues meet, opened their mouths wide to each other, licked into each other's mouths. Derek felt dizzy with it, hearing Stiles's breathing and his own. He pulled back.

"We should take our boots off," he said.

"Boots?" Stiles asked, blinking, eyes unfocused.

"I want to lie down on the bed," he said, "so take your boots off."

"Oh, all right," Stiles replied, and immediately kicked them off.

Derek did, as well, and then they lay down on their sides facing each other, both heads on the pillow, barely fitting until Derek put an arm around Stiles, pulling him closer. They started kissing again and it was even better, feeling Stiles's body long and muscled against his. Stiles pushed closer still, slipping one leg between Derek's and—

"Oh," Derek said, because Stiles's cock was as hard as his own, and even thinking about that, he needed to close his eyes.

"Maybe we should get naked now," Stiles said, sitting up. "Can we get naked now?"

Derek nodded, because he wanted that, and because maybe that was good to stop kissing for a little bit, catch their breath. He pushed Stiles's jacket off his shoulders, unbuttoned his shirt, the union suit beneath it, and seeing Stiles's chest and the dark hair running down it made him feel greedy for all that skin. As Stiles shrugged out of his suspenders and shirt and union suit Derek unbuttoned Stiles's trousers, pushed all that fabric off Stiles's hips when he lifted them. He was trying not to think about Stiles's cock, hard and flushed dark and leaking; the second thing he should be kissing after Stiles's mouth probably shouldn't be his cock, but it was right there.

Stiles kicked off the clothes and his socks, pushed all of it off the bed into a pile on the floor, and he was naked now except for the scarf. He must have seen where Derek was looking because he said, "The men suck them. In the book, I mean. Have you done that?"

"Yes," Derek said.

"Has anyone done that to you?"

Derek nodded. "This fella—"

"I don't," Stiles interrupted, then stopped. "How many fellas were there?"

"Three."

"What did you do with them?"

Derek sat up, put his back against the headboard. "The first, we just, you know, what you do to yourself, only, we were looking at each other while we did it. The second, the sucking I was mentioning. The third, we used our hands but on each other."

"All right," Stiles said, rolling so that he was straddling Derek's lap. His hands went immediately to the buttons on Derek's shirt. "We're going to do all three of those things right now, today, and then you're going to forget about those men."

Derek smiled. "I already have."

"No other men," Stiles said firmly. He'd gotten off the shirt and was working on the union suit now. "I mean that."

"Nor you."

Stiles rolled his eyes. "I don't think—"

Derek took Stiles's face in his hands, his thumbs tracing those sharp cheekbones. "You don't think other men are going to look at you in San Francisco?" he asked. "You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And I know Erica."

Stiles laughed a little, but Derek could see that he believed him—at least believed that Derek meant what he said, even if he discounted the larger truth of it, that men of their sort would look at Stiles and see something they wanted. But they'd never have it, not if Derek had anything to say about it.

Which, now, he did.

He lifted his hips as Stiles had for him, let Stiles put all his clothes in that same pile at the foot of the bed. "I was never naked with them," Derek said. "So you know."

"Seen a man naked?"

"Swimming," Derek said. "Not like this. Tried not to look anyway."

"You can look now."

"I am looking," Derek said, because he was, and Stiles was as pretty, naked with just the scarf on, as Derek had imagined he would be. But he also wanted to see that neck so he slowly unwound the scarf from Stiles's neck, hung it carefully on the headboard.

Stiles ran his hands along Derek's legs, his thighs, and up his stomach and chest. "They never saw this?"

"Never," he replied, and he could feel Stiles's eyes burning paths along his skin.

"God, you're so …" Stiles's hands were still moving, all around until they finally landed on Derek's cock. "Gonna do this now."

"All right," Derek said, and reached for Stiles, too. He put his other hand behind Stiles's head, pulled him in closer. They kissed some, but mostly they looked down, watched their hands on each other's cocks, their breath coming faster.

Just then there were sounds from the other room, girlish moans and giggles, and Derek had to bite his lip. He didn't know whether to laugh, or—

"Hearing them makes me feel hotter," Stiles said.

"Yeah," Derek agreed. "Yeah."

"We can make them hot, too," Stiles said. "Don't—don't hold back anything."

Derek shook his head, because by now he couldn't. He was glad to have the headboard at his back, glad he could help Stiles brace himself while they did this, because he couldn't have held himself up now. Stiles was moaning now and so was he, though they could still hear the ladies, and it was so perfect.

"Oh god, oh god," Stiles said, and then he was spurting, white stickiness landing on Derek's stomach, dribbling down his hand.

Stiles's grip grew tighter and Derek spent quickly after that. He couldn't even form words; all he could do was catch Stiles as his legs and arms went out, pull them both down to lay flat on the bed.

"Holy moly," Stiles said, and Derek chuckled. "You needn't be smug just because you've done that before."

"S'not why I'm smug," Derek said. "I'm smug because I'm with you." He was stroking Stiles's back, and let his hand drift down, get a handful of Stiles's ass.

"You like that?" Stiles asked, and Derek hummed. Stiles pushed himself up, resting his arms on either side of Derek's chest, and looked at him. "Hey, I did that."

"What?" Derek asked.

"Put that smile on your face."

"Like you don't have one," Derek said, and leaned in to kiss it, and again, and some more because he could now. It was warm in the room and he felt a little lazy, not wanting to move but to just slowly kiss Stiles as much as possible.

Then, because he felt warm and safe and good, and because Stiles had told him something earlier, he said, "When I was young, younger than you, there was a girl. Her name was Kate."

"Oh?" Stiles asked. "You made that cutter for her, didn't you?"

"I did. She was older, in Laura's class. She was so pretty, and she liked me, and I thought—I thought maybe she could turn me."

Stiles nodded.

"And after Laura left for college, I took Kate out in that cutter, and it was nice. I wanted to marry her, and I asked her to wait for me." He shook his head. "She told me that she'd been watching me, letting me take her around because she saw something in me. She could tell, she said. She could tell I was an invert." He paused. "Only, that wasn't the word she used."

Stiles made a face. "Unkind," he said.

Derek smiled, ruefully. "She said I'd better not be trying to use some poor girl to hide my urges. She said I could never love or be loved because I was perverted, that I needed to go out west with the other perverts, get away from good family life."

"You're the most—you take good care of your family," Stiles said. "You are good family life."

"Well, I thought, I'd probably leave after I finished high school anyway. I'd promised Ma and Pa that I would stay in school until then. But that wasn't soon enough for Kate." Derek looked up at the ceiling. "She set fire to our barn. Started it right in the stall with my own horse, because Moonlight knew her so well."

"Oh my god," Stiles said. He took Derek's hand in his own and Derek squeezed hard against the tears forming in his own eyes.

"We rescued most of the stock," he said. "Folks figured it was someone who was jealous; Pa did pretty well with horses. But I knew. I knew, and when I saw her in town she said, 'Next time it'll be your house.'"

Stiles said nothing, just shook his head.

"Pa wanted to move anyway," Derek said. "He wasn't impressed with how the town reacted to the fire. And Uncle Peter was already in Kansas, had been talking up the pasturelands out here. So we took all the stock we had left and we moved out to Nebraska. Folks are still there."

"And Kate?" Stiles asked.

"I don't know," Derek said. "Back east someplace."

Stiles swallowed, and then he said, "She's Allison's Aunt Kate, isn't she?"

Derek nodded.

"But she was wrong, Derek. She was so wrong."

"That's why I can tell you," Derek said. "Because I know that now."

Stiles smiled then. "Good," he said, and they were kissing again.

Then there was a bang on the door. "Gentlemen," Erica said, "Lydia's making lunch so if you want some you should put some clothes on and come out here."

Stiles turned to the door. "How many clothes?" he asked.

"Cover your bits!" Lydia said.

"Aww," Stiles said to Derek. "I was gonna go out there in just a shirt."

And Derek had to laugh at that.

They put on the bottoms of their union suits, leaving the tops hanging from their waists. Derek found a dirty shirt in the corner and used it to clean up their stomachs from where they'd spent. Out in the front room, Erica was slicing apples—she was wearing her shirt and just a pair of bloomers. Lydia was in a chemise, cutting the bread.

"Wash your hands," Lydia commanded, pointing at the basin with her knife.

They did as they were told, and then sat down to bread and apples and cheese. Derek watched Lydia and Erica together, and they were all secret little smiles and giggles, looked how he felt. He was glad he and Stiles had made such a sound little house, or it might explode with all this happiness.

"So," Lydia said, when the lunch had been eaten and Stiles and Derek had washed the few dishes. "Not until suppertime, you said?"

"Well, until Laura would want to be back to fix supper," Erica said. "Say, four o'clock?"

"I'm certainly not going to waste any of that time," Stiles said. "Are you?"

"Not a minute," Derek replied.




(erica)

Erica had heard people talk about spring as a time for new beginnings, and while she understood that for the land, she'd never felt that way about herself until that spring of '85. Her fancy had certainly turned to thoughts of love, and not lightly, either. Everything smelled green and fresh, buds on the trees tiny and brave in the chilly, wet April weather.

She was glad for that nip in the air, because she needed her big coat to hide what she was wearing. Erica was driving the small buggy over to Lydia's, her sewing in a bundle next to her on the seat. As soon as Laura's engagement was announced, Ma had sent a list of what Laura would need for her trousseau, and as Laura was still teaching, she needed Erica's help. Erica wasn't good with fine work, but she could cut a pattern and baste fabric together, at least, and sewing with Lydia and sometimes Allison out at the Martin claim gave her more of a sense of companionship. At home, she'd be resentful to be inside rather than out with Derek and the horses.

Besides, Stiles was working for Derek again, and with the Martins in town at the hotel and Laura teaching both couples could get the privacy they craved during the day. Still got some work done, too.

As she neared the little house, Lydia watched from the door, workaday pretty in her calico dress and large apron, her hair pulled back at the sides but not put up. "You're wearing a dress," she said.

"One you haven't seen," Erica replied, careful not to reveal it as she got out of the buggy with her bundle and tied the horses to the hitching post.

Lydia raised her eyebrows. "How could I have not seen it?" she asked.

Erica smiled, she hoped mysteriously, and escorted Lydia back into the house, where Lydia wasted no time in relieving Erica of her coat.

Underneath, she was wearing not her usual mannish work clothes, but the dress she'd had made in Kansas City, the one she hadn't worn since then. Emerald green sateen, trimmed in black, was cut low in the front to the tops of her breasts; short cap sleeves covered her shoulders, leaving her neck and arms bare. The bodice was tight and self-corseted, with the black corset-strings visible both across her stomach and up her spine, leaving her breasts more on display than in anything else she wore. The skirt came only just past her knees, flaring out over a black petticoat. Under it she wore matching bloomers, green with black lace trimming and tiers across her rear end. Having only one layer of fabric between her and the world was strange, almost like being naked, but her saloon-girl friends had dressed like this every day.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"You're dressed like a harlot," Lydia said, then put her hands to her mouth. "I'm sorry, no. A saloon girl."

"You'd never wear a dress like this, would you?" Erica asked. "A nice girl like you wouldn't even go into a saloon, much less work in one and use her poker earnings to buy a dress."

Lydia tossed her head and straightened her spine. "I might go in," she said, "if you were there, dressed like that."

"So you do like it," Erica said, raising her eyebrows.

"The color suits you. The dress—" she paused, running a hand along the shiny fabric—"certainly fits you nicely."

Erica could feel herself blushing. "Still like the trousers better."

Lydia hummed, which Erica took to mean yes because Lydia had a habit of not answering questions she felt you already knew the answer to. "Who laced you into it?"

"Derek." Which had been funny because even though he was one of the very few people who'd already seen the dress, that day in Kansas City when she brought it home, he was shy about helping her on with it.

"So it must be simple." Lydia had a predatory gleam in her eye, like a stalking animal, as she took up the end of one of the corset strings in the front. "I just untie this?" she asked.

"You can," Erica replied, and she couldn't quite breathe, even though she'd started this with the dress and all.

Lydia pulled the knot loose, then kept pulling, leading Erica into the bedroom. Not that anyone else was there, but Lydia was a lady and didn't even like to kiss unless it was behind a closed door. She let go of Erica long enough to pull off her own dress in one quick motion, and Erica's fingers immediately went to Lydia's corset-strings. (Once they'd been kissing while still fully dressed and Lydia had almost fainted, which was not an experience Erica wanted to repeat.) Corset and petticoat came off quickly, leaving Lydia in her chemise, and then Erica shrugged out of her loosened dress.

"Here," Lydia said, pulling her down onto the bed. They rarely said anything when they were in bed together, preferring to kiss and stare and do, to move the other girl's hand to where it felt best, perhaps moan with appreciation. Erica had Lydia's chemise rucked up around her waist and after a last kiss she slid down, put her head between Lydia's legs. They hadn't done this very many times—to be fair, hadn't done anything very many times—but this was Lydia's clear preference, to have Erica kiss her there, where she was wet and smelled of sex and womanliness and things that could make Erica dizzy even without having a corset on.

Erica looked up from her task from moment to moment to make sure Lydia was still with her, even though Lydia certainly had no problem letting Erica know when she wasn't getting it quite right. She was now, though; she'd always been a quick learner. Now Lydia was moaning, eyes closed and head thrown back, clearly enjoying Erica's ministrations. Erica kept her lips and tongue on the special spots she'd discovered, ran her hands along Lydia's shapely thighs, until Lydia spent, grunting in the most delicate way possible, and pushed Erica's head away.

Erica sat up, licking her lips and grinning, and kicked off the green and black bloomers. Lydia looked like a faerie or one of those ethereal Tennyson women, her titian hair spread around her head and her cheeks flushed. Though, Erica wasn't sure Tennyson had ever written about the kinds of things that had made Lydia grow pink and breathless as she was now.

"Come here," Lydia said, arms open, and Erica lay down atop her. Lydia slipped one knee between Erica's legs and put her two hands on Erica's backside, pressing her down, until Erica rut like a cat against her. "That's right."

Erica could feel Lydia beneath her, breasts soft and yielding while her thigh was firm. Lydia's hands were strong, and Erica let herself succumb to the sweet friction of flesh on flesh, the tremor that had started low in her stomach when she walked into the house becoming greater and greater until she spent.

They kissed again, soft at first but growing bolder, and Erica was wondering if they were going to go again when there was a knock on the door. They startled, staring at each other, until they heard a familiar voice call out, "Lydia!"

Because of the people who might find the two of them alone together, Allison Argent was definitely the safest.

"One moment!" Lydia called out, and threw on her work dress over her chemise so she could go open the door, having pulled in the latchstring when Erica arrived.

Erica put her own dress back on, expecting Allison to have some reaction to it, but the other girl just stared and then said, "Would you mind terribly if I borrowed that dress sometime?"

"I think Scott is fairly clear on liking the looks of you no matter what you're wearing," Erica said saucily.

Allison blushed just slightly. "It wasn't for that reason," she said.

"Then why?" Erica asked, pulling her boots back on.

"And may I say," Allison went on, as if Erica had said nothing, "that it is highly unfair that you needn't worry about babies and so can do whatever you like, together? I know you can't marry—"

"But that's just it, we can't marry," Lydia said. "We have to marry someone else. Also you're early, so it's your own fault that you caught us in dishabille. So you must have a reason?"

"Oh, yes!" she said, reaching into her pocketbook and pulling out three envelopes. "This. Scott and I were in town and checked at the post office just in case. I didn't think the postmaster would let us have Stiles and your letters, but you know how it is when Scott asks nicely."

"From the college?" Lydia said, her eyes wide. It was the first time Erica had seen Lydia look anything but supremely confident in that matter.

"We thought we could all open them at once?" Allison said. "Scott's gone to the Hale claim and I'm to bring you back there, so go get your corset on."

"Of course," Lydia said, and stepped back into her bedroom.

Erica turned to Allison. "You're welcome to borrow the dress, but why do you want it?"

"I have some … things I need to do, some physical things, and I wonder if they might be easier in a shorter dress. Or if I would need trousers."

"You know I have trousers as well?" Erica asked. "Which you're also welcome to borrow, though I'm still curious as to what these physical things are."

Lydia called out, "You may as well tell her, you know. It's only fair."

"I'd need to ask Scott first, I think," Allison replied, scowling slightly.

Lydia emerged from the bedroom then, rolling her eyes, and looking so much like Derek in that moment that Erica wasn't sure how she felt. "Shall we go, then?"

Allison had rode over, and went out slightly ahead of them on her horse. Lydia came with Erica in the buggy, but she was quiet, restless, twisting a curl of her hair endlessly in her fingers. Erica held the reins in one hand, picked up Lydia's with the other, looking to give her a distraction.

She tensed, her guard up. "I'm not nervous about college, if that's what you wanted to say. I don't need comforting." But she didn't take her hand away.

"Of course not," Erica said. "I just wanted to say, I respect that you haven't broken Allison's confidence by telling it to me. Many wives tell their friend's secrets to their husbands, and I suppose that's what we are, wives to each other, and that you didn't tell me means you're a good friend. I admire that."

"Thank you," Lydia said, relaxing slightly. "I wouldn't betray yours, either. Not even to your husband."

Erica smiled at that. "I don't know," she said. "I wonder, if we follow through with Stiles's plan of marriage and such, won't we have to all be truthful to each other? It's almost as though we're all marrying each other, really. Isn't that what you said, that day at my house?"

"Maybe that's true," Lydia said. "I suppose we'll find out, anyways."

They were silent after that, until they got back to the house, where Scott, Stiles and Derek awaited them.

"Oh for—you could at least have combed your hair!" Allison said when she walked in.

"How would that matter?" Derek asked, but he ran a hand through his hair anyway.

"Never you mind," Allison said, pointedly not looking at Scott, and handed out the envelopes to Stiles and Lydia. "All at once?"

The boys had stood when they came in and now they made a rough circle in the kitchen, watching as envelopes were opened and letters scanned and small, slow smiles appeared on three faces.

"Yes?" Lydia asked.

"Yes," Stiles replied.

"Yes!" Allison shouted.

It was chaos after that, hugs and handshakes and excited laughter all around. Then Derek said, "So that's good, the three of you will have each other at college. And I suppose the three of us will have each other back here at home."

Scott and Allison looked at each other, slightly guilty.

"All right, I'll say it," Stiles said. "I don't much like being asked to keep secrets from whom I suppose is my husband, nor my future wife. Particularly as the four of us are burdened with secrets enough of our own, which you share, I think you should let them share your burden, too."

Scott sighed. "Allison isn't going to college," he said. "At least not now."

"I'm going to be in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show," she said.

Erica and Derek stared, surprised. Erica had known that Allison was talented, had heard the rumors about Buffalo Bill's letter, so she couldn't say it was unexpected, just that she'd never thought this sort of thing happened to real people.

"Of course you are," Derek said. "But Scott, what will you do?"

"Take care of the animals in the show," he said. "I've always liked raising cattle more than raising grain anyway."

Allison added, "We're to be married in July, out at the mission, and then instead of going on a wedding tour we'll be going on a much longer trip." She smiled at him, and he took her hand.

"And your farm?" Derek asked.

"Stiles suggested renting it," Scott said, "but it's difficult without Allison's father finding out."

"What about Boyd?" Erica said. They all turned and looked at her, which made her a little nervous, but she went on. "He's been making some noise about getting an additional claim. No one would think a thing of his going up to help you this spring, Scott, being as you're friends and all. Then he could just take over once you've left."

"You know," Scott said, "I think I'll do just that. Thank you, Erica."

"Yes, thank you," Allison said. "It's the perfect plan."

Lydia was smiling at her, and she smiled back. Then she noticed Stiles, out of the corner of her eye, gaping at her. "What?" she asked.

"I'm going to marry that woman," he replied.

Derek shook his head. "You are the most ridiculous person," he said, not without affection.




The Martins threw a supper party for the entire graduated college class, their parents, and their teacher in celebration. Derek being invited wasn't surprising, given that he was Lydia's beau and had been to supper at their home a few times over the winter. But for Boyd to be extended an invitation by Mr. Martin to eat at the same table as the sheriff and Mr. Argent was a statement even if he was Laura's fiancé. That Beacon had a Negro as its town doctor was one thing; that they approved well enough that their teacher was marrying a Negro farmer to ask him to dinner was another.

"Do you know Martin asked if I'd like to be on the Literary Society next winter?" Boyd said as they made their way home in the large buggy. "Can you imagine?"

"I can," Laura said. "Before you know it, you'll be one of the upstanding members of this town."

Erica giggled. "If Derek can do it, you certainly can," she said, which earned her a cuff to the back of her head from her brother, who was driving.

"Don't make me regret this graduation gift I was going to give you," Derek said.

"Gift?" Erica asked, turning to him. "What gift?"

"Well, since Pa couldn't just give you your first horse as he did me, he sent a hundred dollars."

"Oh my goodness!" Erica said.

"But," Derek continued, "I did just sell those colts the other week. Three hundred dollars, a hundred dollar profit, and fifty of that is yours. You earned it, fair and square."

"A hundred and fifty dollars, to buy a horse," she said. She thought about this, looking out at the night and the stars, and then said, "You know, what I'd like to do? I'd like to wait a bit and find a horse to team with Queenie." Caesar and the Duchess's offspring, a yearling now, was growing into quite a fine filly.

"Well, since we're going to be partners in this," Derek said, "we can take a trip come the fall, see if we can find a horse worthy of Queenie."

Erica didn't miss the timing of that trip, just when Stiles and Lydia would be leaving for college. "I'd like that very much," she replied. "Maybe we can get another filly; after all, you have David and Jonathan."

"We'll see," he replied, but he was smiling.

When they got back to the house, Laura invited Boyd to come in, which was surprising given the late hour. She put on water for tea and coffee and they all sat down at the table.

"We wanted to let you both know, before Ma and Pa get here, that we know," Laura said. "And we support you both. All of you, really."

Derek and Erica looked at each other, because surely she didn't mean that. "You know what?" Derek asked.

"About who you really care for, of course," Laura said. "Don't panic, Derek; I don't imagine anyone else could tell."

Derek took Erica's hand. "But how could you? Tell, I mean?"

Laura smiled a little. "Remember that day Lydia came to tea and you were teasing me about my letter from Boyd?"

"The day I took her home, because of the storm?" he asked.

"She'd been asking me about Boston marriages and what might happen between girls in colleges," Laura said. "And she was just a little put out when you started talking about Boyd. Oh, she turned her attentions to you quickly enough—she's a sharp one; she knows her appeal and how to use it—but I think she might have had a little pash, even if I do flatter myself."

"I see," Derek said.

"When Laura told me about these Boston marriages," Boyd said, "I thought back to that summer in Kansas City, and how Erica was around those saloon girls. I hadn't been worried about Erica in that saloon because none of the men could even get near her; it was as though the regulars and the folks running the place had adopted her. She didn't need much of my protection, to be honest. But those saloon girls treated her almost like boy. Maybe just because she was in trousers, but they flirted with her a-plenty. All that poker playing, too. They damn near fought over her."

Erica blushed a little. "It wasn't like that," she said. "I didn't have a pash for any of them."

"But you do now?" Laura asked. "For Lydia?"

Erica looked to Derek, who nodded. "Yes," she replied. "More than that."

Boyd put his hand on her shoulder, rubbed it a bit.

"And me?" Derek asked, sounding so woeful that Erica wanted to hug him, remembered why she'd been so fixed on marrying him.

"Oh, brother, don't you think Kate Argent came to bother me, after you all moved out west?" she asked. "Why do you think I came to see you once I'd been graduated, rather than going back to Ma and Pa?"

"You were looking after me?" he asked.

"Well, someone had to. Peter certainly wasn't. There were whispers about you in Kansas City; I couldn't stand it. And that was just because you didn't have a girl and they couldn't see why not, with you being so … oh, eligible is such a terrible word, but there it is. That's why I applied for this job. I wanted to get you away from so many prying eyes, back to the countryside where people just live and let live."

Derek nodded, but he was staring at the table. "I was trying—"

Boyd held up his hand. "It ain't you," he said. "You can't keep everything under a lid all the time, is what my Pa always says. Sooner or later, it's going to boil over. You think I don't know what folks say about me being with your sister? But I just take it out on the work, until they don't have anything to say. Until I get invited into the Literary Society and sit down at dinners with the sheriff. Doesn't always work, of course, but it helps."

Derek turned to Laura. "So when you said that I'd been broken-hearted?"

"Yes, I meant Stiles," she said. "I knew. He just makes you so happy, Derek. I haven't seen you this happy since before I left for college. Since before the fire and whatever Kate poisoned you with. And watching you struggle so hard with it, and hate yourself for it—how could I think you were wrong? You weren't hurting a single person."

"You mean you wouldn't say I'd corrupted Stiles?" he asked.

"Nobody can get that boy to do anything he doesn't want to do. I'm sure you know that better than anybody."

Boyd nodded. "And we aren't in any position to judge about what love is right and wrong. Both of you have never been anything but happy for me and Laura. We wanted to return that favor."

"So," Derek said, squaring his shoulders. "What happens now?"

Laura said, "What I want to know is, are you still looking to get married?"

"Yes," Erica replied. "Stiles made a plan. I marry him, and Derek marries Lydia, and since Derek and I are going in on the horses anyways no one will much notice all of us being together in this house. Unless you think—we thought we were doing pretty well, fooling folks."

"You are so far," Laura said. "You'll probably continue to. You have more unforced affection between you than most married couples show, and that helps."

"Are you going to tell the folks?" Derek asked.

"I don't see why," Laura said, "but they should meet Lydia and Stiles, shouldn't they? Are you planning on waiting until after college to get engaged?"

"Stiles and I have been talking about it," Derek said, "and I didn't want to take anything away from you and Boyd. I thought we might announce it after the wedding. Though he wants to ask Pa for permission while he's here. Then we'll marry next summer maybe? See how college treats everyone."

"At least you'll all have each other to lean on," Boyd said. "And you'll have us."

"I'm awfully glad you said something, Laura," Erica said. "I'm glad you know."

"Me too," Derek said. "I hated keeping anything from you, Laura. Guess I couldn't, anyways."

"No," Laura said. "You never could."




And then there were the wedding preparations. Ma and Pa came up from Nebraska as soon as Laura's school ended, and Boyd's people came in from Colorado. Before they arrived, Erica worked hard to get the sewing done, the house cleaned. Derek made a new large straw mattress for Ma and Pa in his room, and put his small bed out in the kitchen. It was tight quarters for everyone, but it was just for two weeks.

Stiles was around all the time, of course, as there was still farm work to be done, and once the Hales had arrived he had just taken to doing all of the cooking since Laura was busy and no one wanted Erica to be in charge of that task. And there were many suppers—with Lydia and Stiles, with Lydia's parents and the sheriff, with the reverend and Boyd's people. Erica thought she might fly apart what with not being able to see Lydia alone, but then remembered that Lydia would be gone for so much of the next four years that she might prepare herself now.

The wedding itself, as any event planned by Laura, was beautiful. Laura wore a simple white gown with a lace fichu at the neck, and Boyd had a new suit, too; they made a very handsome couple. Erica stood with Laura, and Derek with Boyd, and Boyd looked so happy and amazed that everyone else had to grin, too. Erica wore a bright blue bridesmaid dress, meant not to cry but did anyway. When she walked back down the aisle with Derek she spotted Lydia and Stiles sitting together. Stiles winked at them, bold as anything, so Derek and Erica were laughing as they left the church.

They had the wedding party back at their own claim. Stiles and Lydia had made the wedding cake in the big kitchen at the Martin hotel, and brought it up to the Hale claim that morning, where it sat at the center of the big table. The dishes that Erica and Ma and Laura had been cooking were laid out, too, as well as the pig that Boyd's people had brought from Colorado and roasted, slowly, for the past day. It was a day for feasting, and much of the town came to see their teacher wed. It spoke well for how accepting they all would be of Boyd and Laura and their future children, that they came to bless the wedding day.

There was even dancing, eventually, and though Erica thought she was too full to move she had to take a turn with Boyd.

"I'm so glad for you," she said to him. "And that we're friends."

"Family now," Boyd said. "Gives me even more of an excuse to try to keep you out of trouble."

Of course, once Stiles saw that she was dancing he had to keep her dancing, and she realized this was her future, too: endless dances and weddings with Stiles wanting to be up for every song, learn the latest steps from the city. He was grinning at her, so happy, and she wasn't sure there could be a better sweetheart for her. Other than Lydia, of course, who was gorgeous in her violet dress and yet kept looking at Erica appreciatively.

"She loves you," Stiles whispered, smiling, and they laughed with the secret shared.

Boyd's family was kind, but understandably a bit standoffish and proper. Boyd and Laura were going back with his folks to Colorado, staying in Denver for a few days to see plays and go to restaurants and such before a brief visit further into the mountainous countryside where Boyd was from. Erica was sure that Laura would have no trouble charming her way into that family's good graces, especially since Boyd was so happy with her.

It didn't even hurt too awfully much to see Boyd and Laura off at the train station the next morning. Sure, she and Laura would likely never share a room again, but they wouldn't be far, and Erica suspected that she and Derek would probably be spending a good deal of time with Laura and Boyd over the winter, while they tried not to miss Stiles and Lydia too much.




Pa came out to the barn to see her that next night, when she was busy seeing to Queenie. "She's a nice one," he said. "Hear you want to pair her up with another filly."

"I'd like to try," Erica replied.

"Make breeding complicated," he said. "Take out your whole team."

She shrugged. "Doubt they'd both be down at the same time," she said. "And then it's no different than Caesar and the Duchess. Besides, don't want David and Jonathan to have another rival for her."

"Maybe so, maybe so," he said, nodding.

Erica cocked her head. "Did you come to ask me about Stiles?" she said.

"Don't have to," he replied. "Your young man's been up here every day save Sunday, making himself useful and charming your Ma. He's a smart, capable lad who's going places, and he clearly adores you. I was often worried you wouldn't find a man to live up to your standards, as much as you idolized your brother, but I can see you think Mr. Stilinski just about walks on water."

She couldn't help but grin; she did like Stiles an awful lot. Loved him, probably. "I might," she said.

"And Derek considers him a friend. That's important, with you two going in together and all. He and Derek shouldn't have much trouble sharing a household."

"Indeed they shouldn't," Erica said, trying not to laugh.

"Well, I reckon he'll come to me now the wedding's over, and I'll be happy to give him my permission."

"Thanks, Pa," she said. "I'm glad you like him."

"He doesn't worry me. But I wonder about this Martin girl. Do you like her?"

Erica put her attention back onto Queenie, not wanting to give anything away in her expression. "She's a good friend," she replied.

"I mean for Derek," Pa said. "She just seems so cool and proper. Smart as a whip, and that's good for him; he could use a push sometimes. Knows how to get her own way. Charming little thing. But she seems to accept his affections, rather than seeking them out at all. And she isn't easily pleased."

Now that she was called upon to defend Lydia, Erica wasn't sure at all what to say. "She isn't, that's true," Erica said. "But she's been pleased by Derek. I think she needs his support, Pa. She is such a smart girl and he's steadfast in wanting her to go to college. He admires her for that, and there's not many men that would. She's so beautiful, but he sees more than that. Just for that alone, she knows she's very lucky."

"I can see that would be a blessing for her," Pa allowed.

"She isn't pushing him to be something other than what he is, either. She's often expressed her admiration for his way with horses." Erica paused, and then said, "I think she just isn't a person who can easily express her feelings, straightforwardly. She's more like Derek that way, less like Stiles or me. You're just used to Derek and his ways, but think how he might look on the outside."

"You certainly like her," he said. "You think she's worthy of your big brother?"

"More than worthy," Erica replied.

"Well, then you ease my mind," he said, walking toward her. "Laura's been singing her praises, but she so wants her brother to be happy, and she can be blind to some things."

Erica had a wild terror that Pa might know, that Kate Argent might have said something, or that Uncle Peter had conveyed the rumors from Kansas City. "He loves her, Pa, and she loves him," she said, and didn't even have to lie.

"Your Ma wants to give him her Ma's ring," he said. "Think Lydia Martin would accept an old, small emerald?"

"If it was from Derek, I think she very much would," Erica replied.

He put an arm around her shoulder, and smiled down at her. "You're a good girl, Erica," he said, kissing her on the forehead. "You've grown into a fine young lady. We were blessed, the day you came to us."

Erica felt herself tearing up, and buried her head in Pa's shoulder to hide it. "Thank you, Pa," she said.

"Three children, settled all at once," he said. "Who would have thought it?"




(stiles)

The elder Hales were staying in Beacon for a few days after the wedding, to visit more with Derek and Erica, and while Stiles knew that he'd have no better opportunity to ask Mr. Hale for permission to marry his daughter, he was terrified of the conversation. Mr. Hale was genial, but Stiles could see where his son's impatience with stupidity had come from. Stiles knew he was clever enough, but he also knew that he could come across as a fool and he wasn't entirely sure which side he'd shown over the last two weeks.

"Just go ahead," Derek said one day as they worked on a bit of the fencing that had weakened in a recent storm. "He likes you; I can tell."

"You like me," Stiles said. "I think that colors your perceptions."

"Not a bit," Derek replied. "You never see yourself clearly, even though you can see everyone else. It's the darnedest thing."

"I suppose," Stiles said.

But this time Derek was right, because when Stiles went inside near the end of the day and said, "Mr. Hale, I wonder if we might—" the other man held up his hand.

"Young man, if you're asking for my daughter's hand, you may have it without any reservations from her mother or me," he said.

Mrs. Hale nodded. "You make her happy, you have planned for the future along with my son, and that's good enough for us."

"I think it's the horses that make her happy," Stiles said. "I just want to make sure she's always close to them."

"That's just what I mean, son," she said, smiling.

Stiles heard Derek coming in the door behind him. "And you don't mind that I'm a Catholic? Erica and I haven't discussed this yet, but—"

"I'm not sure if you noticed, but my daughter just married a Negro," Mrs. Hale said. "Our grandchildren will be Negroes, or mulattos I suppose, and they aren't going to have an easy time of it, neither. So long as you believe in something outside of yourself—Jesus, God, nature, what have you—that's fine."

"Should have told you," Derek said, plucking an apple off the shelf, "Ma's a Transcendentalist."

"Good enough for Mr. Emerson is good enough for me," she said.

"The Hales are Unitarians going way back," Mr. Hale added.

Suddenly so many things about the Hales made sense—sending a daughter to one of the new women's colleges, Derek's vague allusions to abolitionism before the war. Why, Mrs. Hale was probably even for The Vote. "Well," Stiles said, at a loss.

"I suppose we should ask what your plans are for after college," Mrs. Hale said.

"I might like to be a newspaper man," Stiles said. "I wouldn't have minded being a Pinkerton like my Papa, but they're beholden to the money men, and now they've gotten into strike-breaking. Wanted Papa to infiltrate the union on account of his being Polish, which is why he quit them."

Mr. Hale nodded toward Derek, who'd settled into the corner to eat his apple. "Something amusing you, son?" he asked.

"First day Stiles came up to work for me," he said, "he declared himself a union man and made it clear that he expected a full half hour for lunch."

"I just wanted to set expectations," Stiles said.

Derek started to laugh, open and easy, and Stiles couldn't look away, hoped that all the fondness he felt wasn't showing on his face in that moment. Derek certainly didn't laugh like that on Stiles's first day working for him, no matter how much Stiles had joked around. But now he did often, and Stiles liked to think part of the reason was him.

Aloud, Stiles said, "I'm so glad I can amuse you."

"It's a good thing," Mr. Hale said. "You'll be brothers soon enough."

Derek looked in danger of bursting into laughter all over again at the weirdness of that idea; Stiles didn't dare make eye contact. "Well," he said, "I should go talk to my Papa."

"Welcome to the family," Mr. Hale said, extending his hand.

"Thank you, sir," Stiles said. "I'll take real good care of your daughter."

"I know you will."




"So, Papa," Stiles said that night. "I know that Mama—"

Papa held up his hand and went into his room, emerging with a small box. "I think this will suit your Miss Hale real well," he said.

Stiles peeked inside, and had to smile at how well Papa understood Erica after only speaking with her a few times. "This will do just fine," Stiles replied. "Thanks."

Papa waved his hand. "She'd want your young lady to have it. No use sitting in a drawer." He paused. "But you're sure?"

"We just sort of fit together," Stiles said. "I couldn't imagine marrying any other girl."

"I just don't want you to settle, and then get to college and see you might have wanted something else. Your Mama and I—we didn't have long, but what we had ..." He turned and looked out the window, blinking his eyes.

"I have that, Papa," Stiles said, glad he could reassure him honestly. Then, thinking of all he'd seen of Lydia and Erica together, he added, "We both do."

Papa nodded. "All right then," he said. "On that subject, well, Mrs. McCall and I thought, what with you and Scott leaving home soon—"

"Scott? Leaving?" Stiles asked. "This is the first I've heard of—"

Papa put his hand up. "This plan with Boyd coming in so they don't have to sell their land, and not coming back from the wedding trip is your work all over, so do me the courtesy of telling me the truth, yes?"

"All right, yes," he said, sighing. "But Mr. Argent can't know."

"They're both over eighteen and as far as the law is concerned, they can do as they please. At least they aren't eloping, is the best that I can say for it."

Stiles nodded, glad Papa didn't ask for specifics. "You were saying?"

"Well, Mrs. McCall and I, we thought it would be ... convenient to combine households. She wants to leave the house at the claim for Boyd and his new Mrs., and she could also rent out the building in town full year. With you gone I'd probably be there nearly every night for supper, anyway."

"But this isn't just convenience, is it?" he asked.

Papa smiled. "I can't complain at having my question asked back to me," he said. "But no, it's more than just convenience."

"Well, I admit that makes me feel better about going away, myself," Stiles said.

"Don't you worry about me," Papa said. "Let me worry about you a while longer, all right?"

Stiles nodded.

"So we reckoned, we could all take the train out to the mission at Christmastime, when you're home from school and Allison and Scott will have a few days rest. Father James said he'll oblige. Bring your young lady. And her brother, since he's such a great friend of yours."

He blinked because—no. Surely there were some secrets he was successful in keeping from his father. The less said, the better, likely. "I'll do just that," he said.




The very day after the elder Hales left Beacon, when the four of them were sitting down to eat lunch, Stiles pulled the box out of his pocket and put it on the table. Erica and Derek stared at him, and there was silence until Lydia finally spoke.

"What is that, exactly?" she asked.

"It seemed wrong to do this without everyone here," Stiles said, tapping the top of the box with nervous fingers. He opened his mouth to say something, but wasn't sure what was next. He sighed, then started again. "When my parents were married, Papa didn't have the money to buy a ring. But by the time I was born, he was with Pinkerton and he got her this, as a present." He slid the box over to Erica.

She opened it, and her eyes went wide.

"The stone's a garnet," Stiles said, watching her carefully lift the necklace from the box. "Red, well, you can see it, obviously it's red, but it's not a ruby or anything. The gold's real, though. I thought, you wore that dress? And a ring might get in your way while you're working. Papa wanted you to have it, too, so."

"It's beautiful," Erica said, staring at it.

"So I reckon if you want it, then we'll get married. I know we already said, but I thought, anyway, you should have that. For when you're a Stilinski."

"Erica Stilinski," she repeated. "Could you help me put it on?" she asked.

"Sure," Stiles said, taking it from her, and as she lifted her hair he placed it on her neck and closed the clasp.

She was wearing working clothes, a plain pale blue shirt and trousers, but the shirt was open at the neck, showing the garnet that sat just below the hollow of her throat.

"It even looks nice with your shirt," Stiles said.

Erica took his hand. "Thank you," she said.

"If things were different, I guess I'd be kissing you right now," Stiles said.

Lydia cocked her head. "I think you should," she said. "Wouldn't you agree, Derek?"

He paused for a moment, looking at Erica, then said, "Stilinski, you told me you loved my sister, didn't you?" Which was exactly the kind of sideways approach that Derek would take to it.

So Stiles and Erica leaned in and kissed, quick on the lips.

"There," Derek said, nodding his approval. Then he abruptly stood and went into his room, emerging with a handkerchief in one hand. Without ceremony, he lifted Lydia's hand, put a ring on it, and when she looked up, kissed her quickly.

"Well," Lydia said, holding up her hand.

"It's an emerald," he said as he sat. "Belonged to our grandmother. Ma thought it would go nice with your hair." He looked at her. "She's right."

"She is. I love green," Lydia said, reaching across the table to take Erica's hand.

"I suppose now we're all engaged people," Erica said.

"I suppose so," Stiles said, and felt oddly surprised by this. He'd been so focused on the plan, on the hiding, that he hadn't really thought all the way through what they were hiding behind. He'd thought of marrying Erica and practically marrying Derek, and how they were all interlaced together, and how proper they'd look to outsiders. But what all this meant to him, in a romantic way? He looked at Derek, and his heart came up in his throat.

"What?" Derek asked.

"Can't get rid of me now," Stiles said, trying to smile though he felt shaky all over.

"Good thing I'll never want to," Derek replied.




On Independence Day, Stiles stood in the stands with Erica and Lydia and they all cheered David, Jonathan, and Derek on to victory in the buggy race, which had a very nice five dollar prize.

"Someday soon," Derek said to Erica, "that'll be you, and your team."

"I can't race with a corset on," Erica said.

Lydia looked at her, considering. "We can work something out," she said.

"Definitely," Stiles added, and he got that same little thrill up his spine that he'd had the day they got engaged, the thrill of a future where the four of them were together, where he had Derek and Lydia and Erica had each other. They could do this. He was good at plans.




It was coming on for midnight and Stiles was riding the Duchess, not just because she was black, but also because they'd bonded since going out to find Derek and Scott after that spring blizzard, so he knew that if he told her to stay quiet, she'd stay quiet. A dark, quiet, fast and sure-footed horse was important when a person was on a spy mission.

He pulled up at the back of the Argent place, grateful for the noisy distraction of a fight at the Jungle Saloon. Allison popped her head out of the window, and Stiles doffed the dark wide-brimmed hat he'd borrowed from Derek and looked up at her.

"Thank goodness," she whispered. Then, seeing that Stiles was ready, she tossed down a large bundle. "Take care of those."

"Don't you trust me?" he said with a grin. He secured the bundle to the saddle, then pulled the hat back on, low over his face. "All right, Duchess, let's go home."

Duchess walked slowly and quietly down the alley behind Main Street, but once she hit the road that led north out of town she broke into a full gallop toward the Hale claim. Boyd was in the stable caring for his own horse when Stiles rode up.

"Did I get the timing right?" he asked, grinning.

"Perfect," Stiles replied. "Looks like you made it out unscathed."

Boyd shrugged. "Those two fellas have been itching for a fight for weeks now," he said. "All it took was a whisper in each of their ears and they were at it, and I was out of there right quick."

Stiles shook his head. "How'd my father react?"

"He just sighed. I think he decided to let them have it out since they'd got themselves going. He encouraged them outside so they wouldn't break anything or get any other fellows involved."

"That's what they pay him for," Stiles said, unfastening the bundle Allison had thrown to him and leading the Duchess to her stall.

Inside the house, Lydia was busily sewing on the skirt of a dress, while Erica and Scott were packing various things into a trunk.

"You got them?" Scott asked.

"Yep," Stiles replied, putting the bundle on the table, "and no, no one saw us, thanks to Boyd here."

Scott opened the bundle, checking that all of Allison's bows and arrows were inside. "You're sure we can do this?" he asked.

"We got all this out, didn't we?" Stiles said, pointing to the trunk they'd snuck out of Allison's room the day before when Mr. Argent was manning the store, covering it with hay in the back of Derek's wagon, and the personal items that Allison had been taking up to Lydia's house when she was supposedly sewing her college wardrobe. She'd already packed her favorite dresses in the bottom of the trunk, and now the bundle of bows and arrows were carefully placed in the lid of the trunk, cushioned by muslin. Some additional clothing of Scott's had also been packed into the trunk. "Is that nearly done?"

"I'm just finishing the embroidery," she said. Lydia held up the buckskin dress that Allison was bringing as her first costume. It was modeled after Erica's saloon girl dress, though it was more modest with a slightly higher collar and longer sleeves. The laced-in nature of the dress meant that Allison could go without a corset, and the shorter skirt allowed for even more freedom of movement. "Now, can we go over tomorrow again?"

"All right," Stiles said. "Here's the plan."




Stiles had started calling Mrs. McCall "Ma" almost immediately after Papa gave him the news of their engagement. Mama would always be Mama, but it felt right to call Mrs. McCall Ma; maybe she'd always been Ma in the back of his mind. The four of them in Scott's buggy, all together, to bring Scott to his wedding day felt right, too.

Though, by the time they got to the mission the next morning, Scott was approaching advanced levels of nerves. Stiles had never seen him like this.

Papa and Ma went to talk to Father James while Stiles steered Scott into one of the anterooms. "Be still," he said.

"Be still?" Scott asked. "You be still! You're practically vibrating!"

"Because everything is going to plan and it is brilliant!" Stiles replied. "You let me worry about all of this, and you just get yourself married."

Scott sighed, frowning.

Thankfully Derek and Boyd came into the room. "Did you do it?" Scott asked.

"Of course they did," Stiles said, smiling and patting Scott's shoulder. He turned to Derek. "You did, didn't you?"

Derek rolled his eyes. "The trunk is safe and sound at the depot," he said, "and they're expecting you for the four o'clock train."

Scott relaxed, just a bit. "Thanks," he said.

"See?" Stiles said. "Nothing to be worried about."

"Other than her father, you mean," Scott replied.

"Other than that, yes," Stiles said.

Erica knocked on the door a few minutes later. "The bride is ready," she said.

The wedding, at least, went off without a hitch. Standing next to Scott and watching first Lydia, then Allison and her father come up the short aisle, he was reminded of another life he'd wanted not so long ago. Allison and Scott radiated happiness, and Stiles hoped it meant that the later events of the day didn't weigh on their minds or distract them from what was important. Walking Lydia out, he winked at Derek and Erica, because he knew that it would make them laugh as it had at Boyd and Laura's wedding.

Ma had had Scott, Stiles, and Papa making tamales since sunup, which was why Stiles couldn't help with any of the more nefarious preparations, and the small bundles of masa and corn husks had been steaming in the rectory kitchen during the ceremony. There were other dishes too, familiar to Stiles from the many meals he'd eaten in Ma's kitchen over the years—rice and beans, spicy stewed beef, several sauces—that had been brought by the other Mexican ladies in the parish. And instead of a big white cake, there were nutty little cookies rolled in powdered sugar. Stiles didn't want to get married at the mission himself, mostly because he wanted to have a double ceremony with Derek and Lydia, all of them married at once, and three of them converting seemed a bit much. But even if he was walking away from his mother's faith, the banquet convinced him that he absolutely had to make his own mother's food. Continuity was important.

As they left for the depot, Stiles whispered to Scott, "You have the envelope?"

"Right here," he said, patting his inside jacket pocket.

Allison had changed from her wedding dress into a traveling suit, and Scott was carrying both of their satchels as they boarded the train. Stiles snuck away to make sure their trunk was in the luggage compartment, safe and sound.

"Well," Mr. Argent was saying when Stiles walked back to the little gathering, "I suppose I'll see you in a week."

Allison shook her head. "I'm sorry, Pa," she said. "I'm not coming back in a week."

"What?" he asked. "What are you saying?" He turned to Scott. "What is she saying?"

Scott just nodded in Allison's direction.

"Remember, you and Ma said you wanted me to see the world?" she asked him. "Well, I'm going to." She reached into her purse and pulled out a handbill for the Wild West Show, and gave it to Mr. Argent.

"I don't understand," he said. "I thought we discussed this."

"You talked," Allison said, "but you didn't listen. I want to do this. I want to go. I auditioned for Mr. Cody when I was in San Francisco and he's putting me in his show."

"But college—"

"Will still be there," Allison said. "But right now I have a contract with Mr. Cody—"

"Who no doubt cheated you," Mr. Argent said.

"I had Stiles act as my agent. He was very good—made several demands I wouldn't even have thought of. And Mr. Cody acquiesced to all of them."

Mr. Argent humphed.

"I want to travel while I'm young." She pulled Scott closer. "While we're young."

"And you, will you just be living off my daughter?" Mr. Argent asked him.

"I have a job of my own with the show," Scott said. "Taking care of the animals, and Allison if she needs me. Though, she takes care of herself pretty well." He looked at her smiling. "And that's thanks to you, Mr. Argent."

"Me?" he asked.

"You trained her. You encouraged her talent. Other fathers might have stopped her, for being unladylike, but you didn't. And you raised her to be independent."

"I would have left for college in a month's time anyway, Pa," she said.

"But you'd have come back!" he said.

"I still will! This isn't forever; it can't be. After, well, we'll see."

Mr. Argent scowled. "I never should have let you marry this boy!" he said.

"If you hadn't," Allison said, her voice as firm as his, "we would have eloped, and you would have found all of this out in a letter. You wouldn't have seen us marry." She put a hand on his arm. "Isn't it better this way?"

"What about your college money?" he asked. "Think they'll just send it back to me when you fail to arrive?"

"It's right here, Mr. Argent," Scott said, taking an envelope out of his pocket. "You'd asked me to wire it to the college and instead I put it under my bed."

Mr. Argent took the envelope. "You really have this all thought out, don't you?" he asked.

She nodded, and they all stood silently, waiting for what Mr. Argent would do. Then his shoulders relaxed, and Stiles knew they had him. Allison seemed to know, too, because she slid her hand from his arm up to his shoulder and squeezed lightly.

He sighed. "You have your bows?"

"My trunk is on the train," Allison replied.

He nodded. "I'm not happy about this, Allison."

She smiled and hugged him. "I love you, Pa," she said, kissing him on the cheek. "I'll write as soon as we get to Kansas City."

"You'd better," he said. Then, to Scott: "You take care of her."

"I just promised to do that forever, sir," Scott said, and shook Mr. Argent's hand.

"Well," Mr. Argent said. "All right, go."

There was a lot of hugging and handshaking then. Stiles was glad that he and Scott weren't too old to properly hug, or at least, didn't care if they were. And they were soon to be real brothers, after all.

Stiles was heading back to Beacon with Lydia and Erica in Derek's buggy. Lydia had started crying at the train depot and showed no signs of stopping; she and Erica were in the back so she could huddle in Erica's arms. Stiles couldn't blame her; at least he'd had the plans to distract him from the idea that he and Scott wouldn't be living out of each other's pockets ever again. It was sobering, like a signpost that said, "Your childhood ends here."

"Are you all right?" Derek asked him.

"I'm leaving in a month, anyways," Stiles said. "Now that we've seen Scott off, I have more time to have sex with you."

Derek rolled his eyes, but he was chuckling. Lydia, however, smacked him in the back of the head.

"I'm just looking for the silver lining!" Stiles protested. "We saw them off to their adventure, happy and healthy. We'll all get letters. In September we'll be at college. I think things are working out pretty well for all of us, don't you?"

"I suppose," Lydia said. "But I want that without having to say good-bye to anyone! I want it all!"

"That's nothing new," Derek muttered, and got his own cuff to the head from his sister.

"Be nice to her," Erica said. "She's sad."

Stiles said, "All right, how about, when we get home I'll make us some tomato salad and some strawberries and cream, and maybe some biscuits?"

"Okay," Lydia said, still sounding a little watery. "Thanks."

When Stiles looked back at Derek, he was smiling, and Derek didn't just smile over tomatoes. "What?" Stiles asked.

"You said 'home,'" he said. "You said home when you meant my house."

"Huh," Stiles said. "I did, didn't I?"

"Yeah," Derek said. "You did."




A week before he was due to leave Beacon for San Francisco and college, Stiles went out to the Hale place. He had been staying overnight off and on all summer, as now that Papa and Ma were setting up house he liked to leave them be. Papa didn't say much about Stiles spending the night in the same house where Erica lived, which he supposed was because they were engaged, and because Papa had never really been one to stand on propriety.

(The Martins were, though, so more often than not Erica took Lydia home after supper, and stayed overnight there, particularly now that the Martins stayed in town much of the time.)

On this particular day, Stiles had a plan—one final plan for the summer, before they were separated until at least Christmas. Stiles was trying not to think about that, to focus on his new life in college and all the stories he'd have to tell in his letters home to Derek.

He walked into the house and Derek was at the table eating breakfast, which as neither Stiles nor Lydia nor even Erica was around to cook for him consisted of a leftover biscuit and a piece of cheese. Stiles reached into his satchel for a jar, which he set down on the table.

Derek, in mid chew, raised his eyebrows, then took up the jar. "Vaseline?" he asked. "You have a cut?"

"No," Stiles replied. "I just, I wanted to do everything in the book, and the thing we haven't done, Erica says you need Vaseline for." He set his satchel and hat on a nearby chair.

"And she knows this from?"

"The saloon girls. Who else?" Stiles replied. "Apparently some men liked to do it to them, too. Avoid babies and all that."

"Huh," Derek said. "So you want to sodomize me? You want me to sodomize you?"

Stiles blinked, because he'd never heard those words said aloud, and hearing Derek say them so casually gave him a little thrill. "Either. Or, both, actually."

"At the same time?" Derek asked, smirking. "Because I don't think that's physically possible."

"No," Stiles said. "Both before I go."

"Why?"

"Because I want to remember it," Stiles said, walking over to sit in Derek's lap. "Because I want to be able to think about it when I'm alone in my bed in San Francisco. Because I want to be able to write you letters about how I'm thinking about it when I'm alone in my bed in San Francisco."

Derek put his hands around Stiles's waist, his breakfast abandoned. "You're gonna be the death of me," Derek said, but he didn't sound all that unhappy about it.

"The life of you, you mean," Stiles said, mostly to be contrary, but also because he didn't like to think about Derek and death. He wrapped his arms around Derek's neck. "You want to?" he asked, trying to look appealing.

"You know I do," Derek replied, pulling him closer, so close that their lips nearly touched.

"Who goes first?"

"I don't care."

"We can flip a coin."

"Draw straws."

"Which is the short straw?"

"Neither," Derek said, and kissed him. Then, "We'll need to get clean first, though. Remember—"

"I remember," Stiles said, and got up, because he was likely to never forget that … incident. "I'll take the pail out."

"I'll get out the tub and the soap," Derek said.

When Stiles returned from the well with water, Derek had already stripped down. Stiles was still trying to get used to Derek's casual nudity when they were alone; he suspected that Derek would be nude all the time in the house if he wasn't worried about someone coming by or Lydia telling him to cover his bits. But even though it was a commonplace sight, his body was still beautiful to Stiles, like a Greek statue only with a good deal more hair.

"Leave it cold," Derek said. "It's so hot already; it'll feel nice."

Stiles poured the pail into the tub, where it filled to about three inches deep. He disrobed while Derek stepped into the water, getting a washcloth wet and soaped up. Derek ran it cursorily over his upper body and legs, then concentrated between his legs, scrubbing himself well. Stiles just stood there, transfixed, clothes in a pile at his feet; he could feel his prick reacting to the sight before him.

Derek turned to him, casual, as if it was nothing. "I got you one, too," he said, indicating another cloth draped over the side of the tub.

Stiles took it up, wet it, got soap on it. "We can't both—"

"You go," Derek said, rinsing himself quickly and then stepping out of the tub. "And I can just watch you now."

He was rolling his eyes as he got into the tub; him staring at Derek and Derek staring at him were not the same thing in any way. Stiles didn't even understand why Derek liked to stare at him, other than that they weren't going to be together for a few months and he wanted to remember.

Derek was right about the cool water feeling good against his skin, especially between his legs. After he got out Derek handed him a towel, wrapping his own around his waist so he could empty the tub out the back door. Stiles dried off and grabbed the Vaseline on his way into the bedroom.

"So," Stiles said, sitting down on the mattress.

"So," Derek replied, walking in behind him, "I've been thinking that I should go first. On the receiving end, I mean." He let the towel fall to the floor and hey, Stiles was apparently having an effect on him, too.

Stiles cleared his throat. "Reason?" he asked.

"You become sleepy after you've spent," Derek said.

"This is so." Stiles knelt up, making room for Derek to kneel on the bed, and scooped some Vaseline out of the jar with two fingers. This much they'd done before, but just with spit and sometimes their spending. Stiles slipped a finger into Derek and with the Vaseline it felt different, all slick and slippery; still tight, but easier. "All right?"

"Yeah," Derek said, and breathed out, slow and a little shaky, when Stiles slid in another finger. "I guess we have to—"

"Stretch it, that's what Erica said," Stiles replied. "The girls said it could hurt if you don't."

"That's what I would have reckoned," Derek replied, and didn't sound unhappy at the prospect.

Stiles spread his fingers apart carefully. Derek was up on all fours, head down, pushing his behind out to Stiles, and gosh, he was pretty. He'd said he wanted it, and so Stiles stretched him, hoped it felt good, became less worried about how to get his prick inside. Stiles put his clean hand against the small of Derek's back and Derek pushed into that, too.

"Put some on your prick, too," Derek said, and Stiles was surprised to hear how breathless he sounded already.

"I will," Stiles replied. "Concentrating on one thing at a time."

Derek nodded and dropped down onto his elbows.

"You like it?" Stiles asked.

"Mmm," Derek said, pushing back again, unashamed. "Like it a lot."

"More fingers?"

Derek turned his head and looked first at Stiles's prick, then up to his eyes. "That's bigger than two fingers," he said.

Stiles used more Vaseline, and got another finger in. He was rewarded with a groan from Derek, and could feel the muscles relax.

"That's it," Stiles said. "Like your throat when you take my prick into your mouth."

"Mmm," Derek said, panting a bit. He was resting his forehead on his hands now, weaving slightly as Stiles pushed in and out. Stiles remembered there was a spot that felt good, and he tried to find it again. The angle was different—they'd done this before laying on top of each other or on their backs, not like this.

"Oh," Derek said suddenly. "That's—"

"The good spot?" Stiles asked.

"Yeah, damn," Derek said, swearing. "You should do it now."

"Now?" Stiles asked.

"Yeah, I want it now," Derek said. "Want to spend with you inside me."

Stiles pulled his hand out of Derek, but before he wiped it on the towel he said, "Look at me."

Derek did, and Stiles had thought he just wanted to see his face, confirm his state of mind, that he actually was ready. But Derek's eyes were like fire on him, burning him, which was the only explanation he could think of for why he did something so bold in that moment as to rub his Vaseline-covered fingers on his prick. Derek's eyes fell to the movement, and as he watched Stiles slick himself up he bit his lower lip.

"You want it," Stiles said.

"Yeah," Derek said. "Want you."

Stiles wiped his hand off quickly, then leaned in for a kiss, needing that bit of contact again. "All right," he said.

Derek nodded, and watched as Stiles stood behind him, lined up his prick. Stiles pressed in, slow and easy, and Derek was still nodding. "Yeah," he said.

The channel was slick, but tight and so hot, hotter on his prick than it had been on his fingers. He pushed on, past where his fingers had gone, gripping Derek's hips for balance and to help him maintain that slow steady pace. Derek was quiet, calm, relaxing under him. When he was fully seated, he checked and Derek was still with him, still watching.

"Still all right?" Stiles asked.

"Yeah," Derek said. "You going to—"

"Yeah," Stiles said, and pulled out a little, testing, a few slow in and out thrusts. Derek moved with him, pushing back as he pushed in, so he went a little faster, and faster yet again. It was so hot in the room, and hard for him to catch a breath. Sweat trickled along his temple and he could see it across Derek's back and neck. But he couldn't stop, wouldn't stop, almost shouldn't stop as Derek was moaning and humming beneath him. Everything was hot and slick and wet and so, so tight, and he was glad Derek was enjoying it because he certainly was, hadn't even finished and couldn't wait to do it again.

"Bugger me," Derek said. "You're buggering me."

Those naughty words sent a thrill through Stiles, that they were doing something they oughtn't, and yet it felt so very good, and he felt so much love for Derek that how could it actually be bad? "Yeah, I'm buggering you," Stiles said. "I'm—I'm fucking you."

"Yeah," Derek said. "Please, need you to touch me."

Stiles reached down to find Derek's prick quite full and leaking. At Stiles's touch, he clenched, making his passage tighter, which was all to the good.

"This is going to be quick," Stiles said, doing his best to make Derek spend first. And he did, spending all over Stiles's fingers, wet and hot. Then Stiles thrust harder and faster until he had spent deep inside Derek, and all but collapsed atop him.

Derek rolled onto his side, knocking Stiles off his feet and onto the bed, and Stiles's spent cock slipped from Derek's now-loose channel. They were both panting, as though they had run a race.

"Well," Derek said. "You were right."

"Always," Stiles said. "About what?"

"Doing that before you left," Derek said.

"Other way next?"

Derek scowled. "Let a man rest, Stiles," he said.

Stiles smiled at him, feeling no sting at all, but at peace with everything—Derek, the world outside, the horses, the prairie animals, all of it. "I love you," he said.

"I love you, too," Derek replied, "and if you are kind and kiss me sweetly and are patient, when I'm hard again, I'll show you how good that felt."

"I can do that," Stiles said, smiling, and immediately set to the task assigned him.




(derek)

Three days before Christmas, Derek and Erica stood in the Beacon train depot, staying out of the cold until the last possible moment. Derek was grateful that both the sheriff and the Martins had decided not to meet their newly returned children at the station, even if it made him feel a little bashful to know they were giving the "young lovers" some privacy. He wasn't entirely sure that, seeing Stiles after four months of letters, he'd be able to entirely close his expression, at least to anyone who might know him.

Erica was standing next to him quivering with excitement, which wasn't especially ladylike but neither of them much cared. Derek loved all his siblings, but he and Erica had become a unit over the months since—well, he called it "since it all happened," which Stiles poked fun at, but when called upon he could come up with no better term for it. Derek's entire life had been upended back in April and he was fairly sure his feet still had yet to touch the ground. Maybe never would.

He thought the engine in the distance was his imagination, but then he heard a whistle. Erica rubbed the frosty window clean and there was the train, small and black against the setting sun. Behind them, Finstock put on his coat and hat and went out to the trestle.

Erica grabbed Derek's hand. He took a deep breath.

"Don't be nervous," she said. "They're the same people."

"Stiles isn't the same person two days running."

"He's the same person who's been writing you those fat letters for months," she said. "It'll be fine."

They waited until the train was slowing down to come out into the cold of the open platform. Once they spotted that tell-tale flash of red hair there was much joyful waving. Derek felt too impatient for someone to come with the steps, so he simply reached into the train and took Lydia by the waist, setting her down next to Erica.

"I'd forgotten your aversion to stairs," Stiles said, laughing, and it was so good to see him that Derek could scarcely breathe, certainly couldn't speak. He took the two satchels from Stiles and then put out an arm to help him down. He quickly realized his mistake when he didn't want to let him go.

Lydia talked a mile a minute as they headed back into the depot to warm up, Stiles adding details to her tale of their last days at school, mostly exam taking and paper writing. Erica asked questions, enthused generally, but Derek couldn't even focus on the words, could only stare.

"Don't you have anything to say?" Stiles asked him, grinning.

"I—I can't believe you're here," he replied.

"Where else would I be?" Stiles asked. "Everyone I love is here." Stiles gave him a look, and Derek had to clench his fists to keep from pulling him close.

"Speaking of which," Erica said, "Scott and Allison arrived yesterday and I'm sure they're anxious to see you both."

"Yes," Derek said, feeling like he could speak now that they were back on safe ground, "let's stop being selfish and get you home."

The four of them stopped at the Stilinski place first, where not just the sheriff but also the McCalls were waiting. After much handshaking and hugging they all promised to return that evening after dinner for coffee and pie, as there wouldn't be a Literary so close to the holiday. Erica stayed, while Allison put on her wraps to accompany Lydia and Derek to the Martin hotel.

"Is it my imagination," Allison said as they walked, "or does Stiles seem thinner?"

Derek blinked. He'd been so overwhelmed with Stiles's mere presence that it hadn't registered, but his eyes had seemed a bit larger in his face, his cheekbones sharper, his shoulder blades more prominent when Derek had put a hand on his back to help him off the train.

"He's been working so hard," Lydia said. "His classes, but he also joined the newspaper and he ran the freshman campaign in the competition against the sophs. The freshers hadn't won in ten years."

Derek couldn't help but grin, proud that Stiles's deviousness had found a legal and respectable outlet. "My understanding from Stiles is that you were a great help in that campaign, Lydia," he said.

"Of course," she said.

"And you're at the top of all the classes Stiles isn't," Derek continued. "Yet, you're all right." He paused, looking at her. "Aren't you?"

Lydia bit her lip. "You must promise not to tell my parents."

They stepped into the large doorway of the drug store, to shelter themselves from the wind. Allison put one hand on Lydia's shoulder. "What haven't you told us?" she asked. "Does Erica know?"

"No," Derek said before Lydia could speak, "because if anything truly important had happened I know she would have told me."

"I'll tell her," Lydia said. "And I'll let Stiles tell this story tonight, but—" She paused, visibly gathered herself, then continued. "Some of the so-called gentlemen are not entirely pleased to be bested at their studies by a lady, particularly in mathematics and natural science. And with my participation in the competition, there were some ... incidents."

Derek leaned in closer, putting his hand on Lydia's other arm.

"See, that there!" she said, looking at Derek. "That's what Stiles and I hoped to avoid. There were incidents, I handled them. If I had any trouble, Stiles was there to help. We were fine. But if my parents find out, they won't allow me to go back and I have to go back, Derek."

Derek worked his jaw, trying to calm down and choose his words before he spoke. He certainly understood why Laura had attended a women's college. "Of course you have to return," he said. "Hales don't back down from a fight, and you'll be a Hale soon enough."

"Neither do Martins. Or at least, this one."

"But neither of you should have to bother with that," Allison said. "There's plenty of folks think a lady can't be handy with a bow, but Mr. Cody keeps them away. And Scott, of course."

Derek nodded, but he also noticed how red Lydia's cheeks were becoming. "Here, let's get inside. We'll leave this for tonight."

"Don't worry," Allison said. "We won't say a word."

The Martins were all gracious hospitality as usual, insisting that Derek stay for supper. And while he'd always found the Martins a bit formal, especially for a prairie town, it wasn't until that night that he realized how very cold they could be. To be sure, they were clearly proud of their daughter and pleased to see her again. And perhaps no welcome would benefit from comparison to the one Stiles received from his father, future stepmother, and best friend upon his return. (After all, they were Catholic, and allowances must be made.) But when Derek thought back to the Christmases and summers when Laura and his brother Tom came home from school, he felt the difference.

And if he was more solicitous to Lydia, a bit more demonstrative with his affections than usual, well, that was all to the good.




Laura and Boyd were invited to the impromptu after-dinner gathering as well, so of course Laura insisted on whipping up a quick brown betty with some bread and leftover stewed fruit from her holiday cake-making because she couldn't go to the Stilinskis' empty-handed. It was a homey little party, everyone talking and laughing and just glad to be back in each other's presence. Allison and Scott were full of tales of the big industrial cities east of the Mississippi, where most folks had never seen a buffalo and the smoke from the factories hung low in the air, especially in the steel towns where men literally worked around the clock because the giant furnace could not be allowed to go out.

Stiles nodded, and they remembered that he'd lived it. "These robber barons, they don't care about human life," he said. "The Negro and the serf are free, but now we're making all the people into wage slaves. Farm life is tough, but we have sun and fresh air and how hard you work is your own look-out. But the factory men and the women who bring home piece work and the children in the mines—it's a shame, is what it is." He paused. "Sorry. I promised Papa no political talk tonight, and here I am."

Lydia leaned forward. "We saw William Jennings Bryant speak, back in October. Electrifying."

"Wish I'd been there," Boyd said. "The Grange is getting more political and I say it's high time, with the money men in the east betting on wheat prices like it was a horse race and not a man's entire year's work. Cattle, too. Damn hard to escape it, but at least we can sit on our land and raise what we need, sell what we don't, and get by just fine. And we have Laura's earnings that we're saving up for a rainy day. We're luckier than most."

"Certainly fired you two up," the sheriff said. "My son, the radical. Well, at least we have the paper proving that you were born in Chicago, U.S.A., so whatever you might get up to they can't send you away."

"Progressive, Papa," Stiles said. "I've met radicals at school. As Boyd says, there's plenty of progressives out here on the prairies, too. Anyways, I say, it makes what you're doing even more important, Allison, that you can give these folks a night of entertainment."

"They certainly seem glad of it," she said. "A dime a person and twenty-five cents gets in a whole family. And the little girls—when they see me, don't their eyes go wide! I sign their autograph books and some of them even have my picture postcards!"

Stiles's eyes narrowed, but before he could speak Scott said, "Yes, we're being compensated for them."

Derek couldn't help but laugh then, at the way they anticipated each other.

"What's so amusing?" Lydia asked.

Derek waved his hand between Scott and Stiles. "The wedding can't make these two brothers any more than they already are," he said.

"We do appreciate your coming out to the mission for it," Mrs. McCall said. "Interrupting your Christmas and all."

"I'd say it extends it," Erica replied, and Derek nodded in agreement. Now that Stiles was back he felt greedy, wanting to spend every second with the man that he possibly could; he was a little jealous of Erica, of Scott, even of the sheriff.

But maybe Stiles felt the same, as when they were all getting ready to leave he pulled Derek aside. "Tomorrow night is Saturday, so Papa will be over at the saloon. You and Erica and Lydia should come for dinner."

Derek raised his eyebrows. "Scott and Allison?"

"Having dinner at the McCall place with Mr. Argent," Stiles said, making a face. "Trying to mend some fences there."

"No chaperones?" Derek asked. "Won't people talk?"

"We're engaged people. What can they say?" He leaned in closer and whispered, "And there wouldn't be any too-early babies coming to give us away, at least."'

Derek pulled back, and must have looked as stunned at Stiles's bluntness as he felt, for Stiles just laughed.

"Anyways, it will be good to cook again, and Lydia will probably be glad of an excuse to get away from her parents."

He looked over at Lydia, who was talking to Allison, and then back to Stiles. "Yes," he replied, "I think she will."




Saturday afternoon was blank and dull. Lydia was visiting with Allison, he knew, and Scott with Stiles, which left he and Erica alone as they'd been all fall. Derek was reading another of those Austen novels, this time Mansfield Park, only he was finding it not to his tastes. He knew he'd grown up in a relatively liberal family, but honestly, were folks so fired up about amateur theatrics seventy-five years ago? Perhaps he'd put a query about that in the next letter to Pap.

"You think it would cause a scandal if we went to the saloon?" Erica asked. "Seeing as I'm an engaged person?"

Derek looked over his book at her. "Yes," he replied. "But the weather's clear. Let's go for a sleigh-ride. The colts need some exercise anyway."

Once they were out, she said, "Stiles is working awfully hard, isn't he? He's so pale. I don't think he's been getting that fresh air he was talking of last night."

"No," Derek said. "And apparently Lydia is having a harder time than she let on, too, with the fellas out there."

Erica was scowling. "That's what Stiles said. Makes me want to sock them right across the jaw."

"Me, too," Derek admitted. "I've been trying to think of what we can do, but there isn't much from this far away."

"Why don't we go there?" Erica asked. "Horse ranches in California, same as here, or that's what Cora says."

"True," he said, and felt a weird sort of relief, that Erica had read his mind, felt as he did about wanting to get closer to their sweethearts. "Haven't proved up on the claim yet."

"No, but this team are nearly ready to sell, and we could get another team to train and sell before the spring," she replied. "After last year, we're getting a reputation for runaway teams."

"I suppose we are," he said.

"That's two hundred dollars right there. Plus I still have fifty from last year's colts, being that we got Ruth so cheap."

Ruth was Erica's first horse, a filly they'd bought in Oklahoma during their trip in the fall. Or at least, they'd said it was a trip to buy a horse, but everyone knew that it was a necessary break, a distraction from missing Lydia and Stiles. Not for the first time, Derek was grateful for their ruse; they got all the sympathy that was due them, even if their well-wishers were slightly mistaken.

"Two hundred fifty dollars ought to get us something," she said. "Not to mention the house out on the claim."

Derek hummed. "I'll write to Cora," he said.

"I already did," Erica said, and at Derek's look she continued, "I just miss them, is all. Miss them both. It's only been a few months and—I can't have four years of this, Derek. I know Laura is family, and I'll miss her and Boyd, but—"

"It's not the same," Derek said.

"No. Cora thinks we can get a nice place, smaller than here but big enough, for three hundred. Maybe a little more if we're closer to the city."

"All right," Derek said. "Let me think on it. Can't go until spring, anyhow. Plenty of time to sit on it."

"All right," Erica replied, but she had that little determined edge to her voice, as when she hadn't wanted to go to school, and Derek knew he'd have to come up with quite an argument to do anything else.




Later, he saw the sheriff at Argent's General Store.

"Understand my son's making dinner for you three tonight," he said.

"Yes, sir."

The sheriff nodded. "Here, walk with me to the saloon, would you?" he asked.

"Of course," Derek replied, though he couldn't think what the sheriff would need to discuss with him.

Once they arrived, the man behind the bar poured out two glasses of sarsaparilla—professional courtesy, Derek supposed—and they sat at a table in a hidden corner that provided a good view of the room. Derek wondered how Boyd had been able to start that ruckus back in the spring without the sheriff noticing.

"So, Hale, I need to ask you for a favor."

Derek blinked; he couldn't imagine what he could do for the sheriff. "Whatever you need, sir," he said.

"Not for me," he said. "For my son. I'm sure you've noticed the change in his appearance."

"I have," Derek said.

"And, well, he's an adult now, as he reminds me, and I suppose that really the responsibility for him has transferred to you, now."

"To me?"

The sheriff cocked his head, the hint of a smile on his face, and looked so much like Stiles when he was scheming that it made Derek a bit uncomfortable. "Stiles likes to forget I was once a detective," he said. "Or that I know anything about young people in love. I've said nothing, because all of you have been so very careful, and I thought Stiles might tell me in his own time. But now. Well, a father worries, yes? I am worried."

Derek wasn't sure what to say; he felt as though the earth had been turned upside down. Perhaps it would be best just to deal with the matter at hand. "Erica and I have been talking about pulling up stakes and moving to California. We have a sister out there—my younger sister Cora married young; she and her husband have an orchard. We need to save a bit more money but—"

The sheriff waved his hand. "The tree claim proved up three months ago," he said. "I can get a good price for it, and Stiles did all the work on it, so I always meant to give him a good half of the money now, anyhow. We have plenty saved for his four years at college."

"But you and Mrs. McCall—"

"We have her claim," he said, "and we figured we'd probably move by and by. Closer to wherever the boys settle, since I can't imagine them being apart for very long."

"Neither can I," Derek said.

"Two claims and two houses for two old folks is too much," the sheriff said. "Take the money now. And don't be surprised if we end up not far from you, once Scott and Allison are finished going around the world. More missions in California, after all."

"I think we'd all be real pleased to have you nearby," Derek said.

The sheriff lifted an eyebrow at this. "I'll remember you said that. I admit, you aren't what I ever would have pictured for my child. It will not be easy for any of you, even with these marriages."

"I know, sir," Derek replied. "We're as ready for that as we can be."

"That, I believe," he said, nodding. "Well, you are a good man. I hope you enjoy Polish food."

"If you mean Stiles's cooking," he replied, "very much so, sir."

"Good," the sheriff said, satisfied. "That's good, then."

Derek walked home in a daze, not entirely sure that any of that had actually occurred. He went straight to the stable, figuring Erica would be there, and he was right.

"We're going to California," he said, firmly, and went back into the house without waiting for her reaction.

Not that he couldn't hear her shouting from the house, anyways.




The sheriff's wedding to Mrs. McCall was a small, quiet affair. They took the train to the mission, where Father James and some of their other friends from the parish that Derek remembered from Scott and Allison's wedding were also in attendance. The church was decorated for the Christmas season; Stiles had explained to Derek that they observed those old-world Twelfth Night customs, keeping the Christmas holiday until Epiphany. Derek had originally thought it was awfully kind of them to include him and Lydia in the proceedings, but now he knew that the sheriff considered all of them family. Derek thought he did, too, and wondered that all of these people he had known for less than two years had become so important to him.

"Just think," Stiles said. "This will be us in a few years."

Derek had had every intention of having this plan as a surprise for Stiles and Lydia, but looking at him—well, if they were going to be spending a life together, then perhaps they should make decisions together, too.

"Maybe sooner," he said.

Stiles looked at him, quizzically.

"Come with me," Derek said, leading him away from the revelry. He caught Erica's eye—she was talking to Lydia—and nodded to a passageway to the courtyard.

When they were all there, Derek turned to Erica and said, "I think we should tell them."

"Tell us what?" Lydia asked.

Erica nodded. "Derek and I want to move out to California," she said. "There's plenty of ranch land, and maybe we can even find something close enough that you could be there on the weekends. Might make it easier on you, to have more time to rest."

Derek could see in Stiles's eyes that he wanted to fight, that his instinct was to insist they were getting along. Even Lydia was looking stubborn. So he headed them off. "Don't tell us you're fine," Derek said. "You're not. And to be honest? We're not, either."

"Laura calls us the glum chums," Erica said. "And in winter, there isn't even much work to distract us. We came back from the horse buying trip and Christmas was all there was to look forward to. I want more than that."

"But your claim," Stiles said. "No homesteads in California."

"We have some money saved, and we'll have more before the spring. Your Pa probably told you he wants to sell the tree claim."

"Land is wealth," Stiles said.

"So buy some land with your share," Derek said. "Buy into the horse ranch."

"I have a dowry," Lydia said. "Money my grandmother left me. I'd like to buy my share as well."

"Stiles?" Derek asked.

"Don't build the house without me," he said.

Derek grinned. "Wouldn't dream of it," he replied.




It was Erica's idea to go out to California in February. They went first to San Francisco, of course, visiting with Stiles and Lydia for a few days around St. Valentine's Day. The college had a dance, at which Erica took Stiles's mind from his work by keeping him on the dance floor as much as possible.

Meanwhile, Derek did his best to seem intimidating and inscrutable and scare off the fellows who'd been giving Lydia such trouble. He had a sense of what Stiles had been dealing with, as a couple of the fellows were impudent even to him, implying that any girl as smart and accomplished as Lydia couldn't truly get a man to marry her, however beautiful she was.

"I don't know," Derek said, slowly. "I reckon I have ways to feel like a man other than being smarter than a lady. Plenty of others, to be honest. But then, I never needed to make other folks smaller to be big."

"Couldn't have said it better myself," Lydia added, holding his arm just a little tighter, and they watched with satisfaction as the fellows slinked away.

"On that note," Stiles said, "we could go home." Home meaning the boarding house, where the landlady had been kind enough to allow Stiles and Lydia's fiancees to stay, so long as the boys shared one room and the girls, the other.

Erica grinned. "I think we've earned it," she said.




After sending inquiries over January to their horse-raising friends and whatever names Cora could give them, they heard about a man not far south of the city who was looking to sell but had been particular about the buyer. They made this their first stop, noting that it was only three and a half hours away from San Francisco by train.

"Hale?" the old man said. "I've heard of your Pa. You taking up the family business?"

"With my sister, here," Derek said, indicating Erica.

"Well, let's take a look around the place," he said. "We're right up against the sea but the horses don't seem to mind that. Never had any of 'em try to get too near the drop off. Saves on fencing, I say."

"It's beautiful," Erica said, walking right over to the paddock.

"Careful of that bay," the old man said. "He's an ornery one."

But it was still a horse, and Erica was still Erica, so it trotted over to the fence as if drawn to her, nosing her coat. She laughed, patting him. "He's all right," she called out. "Just finicky, I expect."

"Well, don't that beat all." The old man shook his head. "Skip never liked anyone but me and my wife. I buried her last year, sold most of the stock after that. My son's a lawyer up in the city, wants me to come live with them, and they do have a real nice place and a few kids not much younger than your sister there. I could be of use to them. But I couldn't find anyone to take in Skip except the glue factory, so I've been hanging on."

"And the mare?" Derek asked of the white horse just beyond.

The man looked up. "Ah, Princess," he said. "She's been with ol' Skip for years now. They're good breeding stock still, the two of them. Why're you smiling?"

"I have a mare, the Duchess, one of the first horses I ever owned," Derek said. "She foaled two springs back—Queenie, she's more Erica's horse. I suppose it was just a matter of time before we'd have a horse named Princess."

"Well," the man said. They stood silently in the ocean breeze, Derek almost holding his breath, hoping. Erica was still talking to Skip, though Princess's curiosity had finally gotten the better of her, and she was walking over to where Erica stood. The water beyond the drop off was dark blue, crashing against the shore, and went right out to the horizon. It was like a vast blue prairie—only on the other side was China.

"You're to be married, you say?" the man asked.

"Our fiancees are in the city, at college," he said. "That's why we're looking for something closer. Decided we don't want to wait so long."

"Never was much for long engagements," the man said. "I'll tell you what. You want Skip and Princess, I'll give you the whole kit and caboodle for four hundred."

Derek stared. "Four hundred?" he asked. The team alone was worth at least two-fifty, though perhaps not if no one would buy the difficult Skip.

"You seem like fine young people trying to get ahead," he said. "I got a few lucky breaks when I was your age."

"Don't mind my brother," Erica said, having walked back up from the paddock. "He isn't used to having good luck."

The ranch wasn't quite as big as a claim, but it was plenty large enough for their needs. And the small house would do until he and Stiles could build a larger one. "I'd like to bring Mr. Stilinski and Miss Martin down from the city to see it—perhaps Saturday? But I can't see why we can't take it all off your hands."

Erica was grinning from ear to ear, and while Derek did want Stiles and Lydia to see the place before saying yes, he couldn't imagine that they wouldn't fall in love with it, too. Oh, Stiles might try to find a hidden problem that would explain the low price, and Lydia might fuss over the cottage they'd be starting out in, but he could see all of them here. It just felt right.

This was home.




(lydia)

When Lydia's class ended, late Friday morning, Stiles was waiting just outside the door.

"You have my satchel?" she asked.

He held it up.

"You have your satchel?"

"Yes," he said, holding that up. "And our lunch."

"And whatever work still needs doing?"

"Only this novel," he said, noting a book in his case.

"All right then," she said, nodding, and he followed her out of the building to the cab stand near the entrance to campus.

From there a hansom cab took them to Union Station. They sat in their usual compartment, Lydia next to the window, and Stiles stowed their satchels overhead.

The conductor came by to pick up their tickets and said, "Ah, it must be Friday," smiling down at them, and it was easy to smile back.

Once their journey was underway, they ate their lunch. Lydia started the problem set she'd just been assigned in her last class, Stiles opened his novel, and they sat on the bench, close and companionable, not unlike when they did their work in the sitting room back at the boarding house. Of course, Stiles inevitably fell asleep, mouth open, leaning against Lydia's shoulder. It was symbolic of the changes in her life that she'd found this less irritating and more endearing as the weeks went on. His slow, steady breathing was soothing, and at least he didn't snore.

Lydia, too, eventually abandoned her work for the scenery, watching the train move slowly through the small towns that dotted the California coast. She could tell time and distance by the landmarks; the large blue barn meant they were less than twenty minutes from home. That was her cue to wake Stiles so he could be less mush-mouthed and more alert by the time they arrived in Paxville.

Derek and Erica stood right near their compartment when they arrived, Erica beaming and Derek with that small, pleased expression that wasn't quite a smile. David and Jonathan pulled the buggy home, by now knowing the route well enough that Derek barely had to drive, and could listen to everyone telling of their week. They saw a few other townsfolk, but their time was precious and best spent alone, together, out on the ranch. Derek had hung a little sign marking the turnoff from the main road to their place, and it was really when Lydia saw that sign that she felt she was home.

(Months before, when the paperwork was finalized and the deed in their hands, Stiles said, "I think we should call it 'The Dels.' You know, after each of us since we all own it."

"But it isn't in a dell," Lydia replied. "It's on a crest overlooking the ocean."

"Well, it's better than 'Smhh'," he said, saying, "smuh." "That isn't a word at all."

Derek said, "If it's initials you want, we can make, 'sled.' Seems more connected to our actual courtship and all."

They all smiled at him—despite outward appearances Derek was the most sentimental of all of them—and it fell to Erica to pat his hand and say, "That's very lovely, brother, but having a ranch named after something that moves doesn't seem quite right."

"I reckon not," Derek agreed. "I like 'dels' just fine."

"I do, too," Erica said, and turned to Lydia.

"Well, I suppose it is a mathematical term, when you spell it with just one L," she said.

"For what?" Erica asked. "Or would we—"

"It's an operator in calculus," Lydia said. "It stands for different things depending on how and where you use it."

"No, that doesn't sound like us at all," Derek said dryly.

"Del is symbolized by a namba, like this," she said, and drew: ∇.

"But there are four of us," Erica said. She cocked her head, and then put a dot at the center of the triangle, with lines connecting it to each of the three points.

Stiles asked, "Who's at the center?"

"Whoever needs to be," Derek replied, and that was that. Derek put the symbol under the name on the sign at the turn off from the road.)

The cottage was small, but two small bedrooms were enough for two couples and it was bigger than a claim shanty, anyways. Over supper there was even more conversation, and laughter, and then after a last few chores they went to bed, sometimes when it was still quite light outside. Not that they were sleeping, of course.

Even in her dreams of Boston marriages, Lydia had never pictured herself indulging in the carnal pleasures as much as she did now that she had fallen for Erica. This was nothing like the confessions her sister had made to her, that first Christmas after she was married, about being kissed there and kissing her husband there in return. Thanks to her sister, Lydia had also known about the "little death" and that a woman could have needs as well as a man, even look forward to the necessary act. Lydia's idea of a "true" Boston marriage had never gone much beyond kissing and perhaps some soft caresses. Of course, she touched herself in the night on occasion, but it was nothing more than a bit of pleasure.

Now she knew, thanks to her and Erica's explorations, precisely where and how she wanted to be touched. Now she had pictures in her mind that made her want to put a pillow between her legs, pinch her breasts, writhe against the mattress like a cat in heat. Sometimes she could feel every nerve in every inch of skin, and just how her clothing brushed against her. She wondered how she'd lasted through the fall, when she'd had to go months without Erica after that long summer of lazy days spent in a kissing haze, but she supposed the letters had helped. And as with anything, they were improving with weekly practice.

Saturday, while Erica and Derek worked with their new teams, Stiles and Lydia tended their garden. The previous owner had abandoned the plot after his wife passed, but they'd bought the place early enough in the spring to bring it back to life. They'd also inherited two barn cats, Gog and Magog, who prided themselves on keeping other critters out of the vegetable patch and the stable. The orange and brown beasts stretched out lazily in the late spring sun, scratching their backs in the soil between the rows of plants.

Derek and Erica had brought seeds from Beacon when they moved, which Stiles and Lydia supplemented with some experimental hybrids from the horticulture department at their college. Vegetables grew well here, better than they had in Dakota most years, and there would be plenty for preserving in the fall and eating now. While Erica and Derek could handle picking what was ripe, the rest of the work fell to their fiancés. After a week spent with pencil and chalk in dusty classrooms Lydia felt joy sinking her hands into the good, clean soil. Stiles insisted on planting flowers, too, or really sowing them across their land and letting them grow wild, and Erica had taken to putting them in her hair on Sundays, when she had to abandon trousers and hat for dress and corset.

Lydia thought she was beautiful either way.

Inside the cottage, the week's bread was rising under a tea towel. Lydia kneaded it on the counter in front of the kitchen window while Stiles bustled around behind her, putting beans to soak for Sunday baking and changing the water of the corned beef brisket he was putting in to roast for their supper. The window looked out onto the paddock, and Lydia could indulge her love for watching Erica and Derek work. Their movements with and around the horses were like dancing, familiar and beautiful, both of them so suited to their jobs and so sure of how to do them.

Stiles came up next to her, to chop onion and carrots to go with the roast, and caught her sighing. "Ogling your girl in her trousers?" he asked, winking.

She wanted to protest, but the sudden flushing of her cheeks likely gave her away, as Stiles started to chuckle.

"It's all right," he said. "No one would blame you. After all, if it were up to me, Derek wouldn't own a single shirt."

Lydia looked back out the window, seeing that Derek was working in his shirtsleeves, though his shirt was soaked through with sweat and he didn't appear to be wearing anything underneath. "I think he's aware of that," she said.

"Maybe so," Stiles said, unrepentant and smirking. "And maybe Erica's trousers have been a little more close fitting this spring?"

"Maybe so," Lydia replied.

After their corned beef supper, Stiles read to them from Mr. Twain's new novel about Tom Sawyer's friend Huck that was causing such a ruckus. Lydia and Erica were working on the mending and some new curtains for the bedrooms, where now simple muslin hung in the windows, while Derek was sharpening all of their knives on his whetstone. Later, they took turns in the bath, Stiles still reading to them all the while. It had quickly seemed silly to put up a curtain for bathing, and was more convivial to all be together, some of them drying before the fire while the others drew more water and heated it on the stove. Stiles took the final bath, and then they all went to bed, clean and cozy.

Sunday morning they had a quick breakfast and then dressed for church. Paxville's church was Unitarian, having been founded by some Bostonian free thinkers who'd come out west during the Gold Rush to experiment with collectivist living. With those kinds of roots, the living arrangements of the future Hales and Stilinskis didn't even raise an eyebrow. Even Stiles's politics weren't at all out of place in a town which still attracted more than its share of radical types. Derek and Erica had been raised Unitarian, and Stiles and Lydia had begun to study seriously with an eye to converting and joining the church themselves. Whether that came to fruition or not, Reverend Samuels had happily agreed to marry them in late June. It really was as if they'd been fated to live there.

They visited for a bit with the other parishioners after services, Mrs. Samuels making sure that Stiles would make his stuffed cabbage for the church supper next Saturday. Then they went back to the ranch for dinner, a thick bean stew that had been cooking slowly on the back of the stove since early in the morning. And it was at Sunday dinner that this particular early-May weekend moved outside of the routine.

Stiles and Derek were sketching out their future home on a rough bit of scratch paper at the table. They'd all been sad to leave the house that Stiles and Derek had built two summers before, though Laura and Boyd had moved into it when they took over Derek's claim, so at least it was in family hands. With the purchase of the ranch they didn't have the funds to build a new one quite yet, and the cottage did them just fine even if it was a bit worn down from forty years of weather and life. So the house would have to wait, likely until Lydia and Stiles had graduated and Stiles could devote all of his time to carpentry.

They were discussing bedrooms and whether they should go ahead and save for a two-story house when Stiles said, "Well, but are we having children, or aren't we?"

The table fell silent, and Derek and Erica looked at each other in a slightly guilty way that made Lydia think they might have discussed it between them, but not with Stiles or Lydia.

At length, Derek said: "I reckon it's up to the ladies, since it falls so much harder on them."

"Agreed," Stiles said.

"I would like to?" Erica said, uncertain. "I could find a way to do so and still see to the horses, I'm sure, if Ma could run a house with five children and still do her writing for the newspaper and those Unitarian circulars."

Lydia looked around the table. "Did you all presume that I wouldn't want to?" she asked.

"But you spoke of wanting to teach at a college," Erica said. "You couldn't do that and have children."

"I couldn't do that and be married, either," Lydia replied. "But I could do my own work, couldn't I? Mary Shelley had children, as did Margaret Fuller and the Countess Lovelace, and they still wrote and published and corresponded with the thinkers of the day. I know they were wealthy, but I reckon we can find a way." She smiled a little to herself and then continued, "Who's to say that Stiles might not be the best to care for our children? Don't you say, from each according to his ability?"

"I'm not a socialist," Stiles said, "but yes, that has been said. By people."

"After we've been graduated, we shall make a plan, as we always do," Lydia said. "After all, characteristics such as ours should be preserved into the next generations, shouldn't they?"

"I fully agree," Derek said, taking her hand.

"Well, that's decided," Stiles said. Then: "I hate to bring up trivialities, but how, exactly, are we to accomplish this? You know, as a practical matter?"

Erica shrugged. "If we're all there—we were all there for the engaging, and we'll all be there for the marrying. We can all be there for the baby making."

Derek scowled slightly. "You make it sound like breeding the horses," he said, "with all of us there."

"Given how thin the walls are between our bedrooms," Lydia said, "we're practically all in the same room at night, anyways."

"I told you they listened," Stiles said. "I told you I spoke to Erica, but no, you wouldn't believe me."

"Lydia seemed like such a good, upstanding young lady when I met her," Derek said.

"Don't think you've corrupted her," Erica said. "I don't think even I've done that."

Stiles shook his head. "Do you really think I would have fallen for an upstanding young lady?" he asked. "Knowing me so well?"

Derek looked at them all for a long moment, then said, "No."

"No. You're going to be a father by and by, so perhaps it's time to stop deciding that you're such a terrible influence on everyone."

"All right," Derek said.

"Good," Stiles said, nodding and getting up from the table. "Because Lydia made a pie and you won't appreciate it if you're brooding."

Lydia and Stiles took a train back to the city very early on Monday morning, as they had no classes until Monday afternoon. Stiles was thoughtful, staring out the window over Lydia's head, and then at last he said, "Maybe I should learn how to knit. You know, baby booties and such."

"You would knit," she said, smiling. "You would sit on this train and knit, wouldn't you?"

"Well, now I'll have to," he said, smiling back.




Once they moved to California, it was clear that the folks wouldn't be able to be at the wedding. It was too far for so many people to travel, especially in early June, when Stiles and Lydia were home for the summer. Instead, they promised to come out to Dakota over Lydia and Stiles's Christmas holiday, when everyone would have more free time. Scott and Allison couldn't get away from the Wild West Show, but would be able to have a nice long visit in October, when the show was in residence again in San Francisco, not to mention that they'd also once again be in Beacon for Christmas.

But Lydia felt, oddly, that it was better that no one could come than some and not others. They were starting a life together, and they might as well begin it by relying on themselves. A few days before the wedding they went to the photographer in town, and after some back and forth discussion, Erica wore her trousers and hat—though Lydia did get Derek to shave off his ever-present scruff. They had several copies made for the folks.



That morning, Lydia made a white cake, and Erica fried a chicken, and Stiles made dumplings filled with cabbage. Derek went to the field and picked wildflowers for bouquets, and for his and Stiles's lapels. Erica wore her garnet dress and Lydia her violet one, while Stiles had a vest of just the same red as his scarf and Derek one of deep green. They piled into the buggy and let Caesar and the Duchess take them to Reverend Peter's home.

And so they were wed.

At home they changed before eating dinner, so as not to spoil their finery, but just didn't bother getting dressed again. This should have been stranger than it was, but they had been taking baths in front of each other for a few months now, so Lydia supposed eating their wedding dinner in their underclothes wasn't so odd. After they'd had their fill of cake and completed their evening chores, Stiles went into the bedroom and pulled out the small case he'd hidden under the bed.

"I know we said no presents," Stiles said, "and truly this home is present enough for all of us, but Lydia and I thought of something that, well, it might make things special today. I found this special shop, you see, that sells books like the one I stole that time. You know, with the pictures?" He took from the back of the case two more books and set them down on the table. "These are stories rather than pictures, but since we're finished with Huck Finn …"

Erica immediately reached for one of the books.

"But they also sold, er, implements. Which I thought might be interesting. Lydia did as well."

Derek scowled. "You didn't take Lydia to such a place, did you?" he asked.

"I wore a veil," she said, "and Stiles had his gun, and we changed cabs midway going and coming."

"Would I endanger her?" Stiles asked. "But if you don't want to see—"

"Of course I want to see," Derek said quickly.

"Just open the case, Stiles," Erica said.

He did, to reveal four leather phalluses, of slightly different colors. "There's a harness, too, for the girls."

"My goodness," Erica said, setting the book aside.

"We thought it might be nice to have something special for our wedding day," Lydia said.

Derek looked confused. "I understand for the ladies," he said, "but we already—"

"I'd been thinking of when we were apart," Stiles said, "that we could each have one to, you know. Think of each other. But I'm fairly sure we can find something to do with them when we're together, too."

"You would," Derek replied.

"Is there a difference between them?" Erica asked.

"Other than the color, no," Stiles said. "And that's just so we can tell them apart."

Erica boldly the buff colored one, and the harness. "Shall we?" she asked.

"Let's," Lydia replied, taking the deep brown phallus and following her wife—wife!—into the bedroom.

Erica held the harness up to her hips, then set it down on the chest. "I don't want to wear this tonight," she said.

"No?" Lydia asked.

She shook her head and pulled Lydia down onto the bed next to her. "Sometime though. Maybe when I'm wearing my trousers?"

Lydia couldn't help herself; she pictured this and her heart started beating just a little faster. "We could do that," she replied, trying to keep her voice even.

But Erica laughed, putting a hand on Lydia's hip. "Sounds like we'd better," she said, nuzzling into Lydia's neck. "You could wear the saloon girl dress."

"It's a bit long on me," Lydia replied, pulling herself more fully into Erica's lap.

"Doesn't matter if it's pushed up to your waist," Erica said, and thrust against her as punctuation.

"You have a point," Lydia gasped, clinging tighter to Erica's shoulders. "So instead?"

"Get these off," she said, pulling at Lydia's drawers.

While Lydia stood up and did as Erica wished, Erica reached for the phallus.

"I can just use my hand," she said. "If you still want this."

Lydia stared at it. She knew that ladies used them with each other in the pictures in Stiles's book, and in the stories, but those pictures and stories were created by men. But she'd wanted it, wanted to buy it, maybe wanted this tiny bit of traditional experience even if everything else was as nontraditional as it could be.

Also, the idea of Erica in trousers with the harness still made her want to bite her lip.

She took a breath. "It's our wedding day," she said, hoping Erica would understand.

Erica smiled, or really, had that predatory grin that curled up at the edges, the one she often had when it was time to go to bed. "Let's see if we get any blood on the sheets," she said, and pulled Lydia back down next to her. "Or if I've already defiled you sufficiently." Erica said "defiled" like her tongue was caressing the word itself, the way Stiles sometimes said naughty things, and Lydia shuddered to hear it.

She could already feel herself wet with anticipation, with just having been able to stare at Erica's barely clothed body during dinner. They really needed to eat unclothed more often. Unashamed, she spread her legs and pulled up her chemise. "Do your worst," she said.

Erica slid in just the tip, then looked up at Lydia. "All right?"

"Yes, please," Lydia said, nodding. She was leaning back on her elbows, and pulled the bunched fabric of her chemise out of the way so she could see the phallus entering her.

Erica, though, wasn't looking at it, but at Lydia's face, as she slid the phallus in slowly and carefully. Looking at Erica was too much for Lydia now; it was easier to watch her hands, to see how well Erica could work by feel. Besides, watching the leather phallus disappear between her own strawberry blonde curls was undeniably hot, kept her from thinking too much about the slight … discomfort.

"Bigger than fingers," she gasped, when it was in as far as it might go, the knob at its end protruding from her. "Longer, too." She felt Erica's knuckles brushing that particularly sensitive little nub of flesh. "Don't distract me."

"Wanted to make it better."

Lydia shook her head. "I just want to feel this. You could move it? Like the men do."

Erica pulled it back, thrust it in again, slowly at first but then faster. "It won't spend, though," she said. "There's no ending. How does it feel?"

"Good," Lydia said, spreading her legs more. "Full. All filled up. Here, stop, I can do it for you."

Erica lay down, having already removed her drawers at some point, and Lydia knelt up. The phallus stayed inside her but she found herself gripping it with her inner muscles as she took up the other phallus. She could hear the boys now, in the other room, and wondered what they were getting up to with their phalluses. Lydia had seen Erica's private places many times before, of course, but now she imagined she could see it as a man would, not as a pretty thing in itself to be licked and petted but as a hole that needed to be filled, a soft, wet place that needed something hard and strong pushing into it. She did so, slowly as Erica had, saw her nether lips grasp the phallus and take it in, as her own had.

"Yes," Erica said, wriggling a little. "Make it move."

She did, but she could understand even more what Erica had been doing; there was something slightly dissatisfying about the endeavor.

"Here, let me," Lydia said, but before she could move Erica was sitting up and pulling the phallus out of Lydia. Lydia felt empty, suddenly; she'd grown used to having it inside her.

What Erica wanted with it was, apparently, to put it into her mouth. She licked a stripe up the phallus, then sucked the tip of it. "If you had one," she said, "it would taste like this."

"Oh my," Lydia said, staring. She thought of the women in the pictures, and men for that matter, kneeling before men and taking their members into their mouths. She wanted Erica's, and so she took it, and they sat there on the bed sucking each other's wetness from the leather phalluses, staring at each other all the while.

"You're so pretty like that," Erica said. "Your lips stretched around it."

"When you come to me, in your trousers, with the harness," Lydia said, "you should put this inside you first. Then I can suck you, before you put it into me."

Erica stopped and threw the phallus down. "I will, but now," she began, then unceremoniously pulled Lydia down atop her.

Lydia cast her phallus aside, too, in favor of putting her hands on Erica, and kissing her. They slotted their legs together in the familiar way, bending so they each had a knee and thigh to rut against as their breasts pressed against each other, all softness where the phalluses had been hard. This is what she wanted, feeling Erica's tongue against her own, moaning into each other's mouths, so sweet and perfect and hot and every good thing. They'd gotten themselves so excited with no relief that they spent again and again, not wanting to stop, not tiring, rutting harder and harder until it seemed to engulf them, until they were nothing but wetness and engorged flesh and hunger trying to satiate itself. Then the wave crested over their heads and they slowed, breathing heavily, smiling against each other's lips.

"My wife," Erica said, and Lydia sighed and snuggled in closer.

"Not a proven virginal one, apparently," Lydia said. "No blood at all."

"Suppose I already defiled you then," she said, smiling. "Ma said I shouldn't expect it for myself as I never did ride sidesaddle."

They lay there for a good while, Lydia wasn't sure how long, and then there was a tap at the slightly-open door. She turned to Erica, who nodded. "Come in?"

Stiles poked his head around the door. "Can we come in? All the way, I mean?"

Lydia sat up, nodding, and Erica pulled them both up to rest against the head of the bed. Their chemises were rucked up from the bottom and sagging at the top, showing flashes of breast, but that was all right. These were their husbands after all.

Stiles and Derek, both in their drawers, settled onto the foot of the bed, and Lydia put the discarded phalluses atop the nearby trunk.

"You liked them?" he asked.

"I think so," Erica said, looking to Lydia.

"Yes. I agree," Lydia said. "You?"

"We, um, we found a use for them, I'd say," he said, grinning and turning to Derek, who smiled back, nodding.

"Use your words, Derek," Erica said, reaching out and shaking his outstretched foot by the ankle.

"We got married," he said, smiling. He leaned sideways against the wall, his arms wrapped around Stiles who practically sat in his lap. "All of us, together. I thought we should, I don't know. Be together now, too."

"I brought a book to read," Stiles said.

Lydia saw it was one of the books they'd bought in the little shop in the city. "Oh, Stiles, that will just get us all going again."

"And?" Derek said. "We can hear each other anyways. I was thinking, maybe we could be all in one room. Not together, but, together."

Lydia was surprised at how good even she had become at deciphering the other meanings that always lay beneath Derek's words. She could feel Erica nodding behind her, see Stiles looking hopeful.

"All right," she said. "As you say, we're married now."




(allison and scott)

"And are there any plans for ringing in the new century?" Cora asked. "Other than our usual baseball?"

Lydia said, "Actually, the new century doesn't begin until 1901, as there was no year zero. Bad decision not to have that as part of the Gregorian reform, I say."

Cora rolled her eyes, reminding Allison so much of Erica that it was hard not to giggle.

The three women, with Stiles, were in the big kitchen at The Dels, putting the finishing touches on Sunday dinner. There were some additional flourishes on the usual roast and vegetables, it being New Year's Eve.

"No more of that," Stiles said. "I gave you a column in the newspaper to speak your peace, and that is the end of it. Folks like big round numbers. Let them have their illusions."

At that, Allison did laugh.

"I didn't mean to stir up a hornet's nest," Cora said. "Clearly this has been the topic of some conversation."

"I merely wanted my loved ones to have the correct information, and not remain in ignorance," Lydia said with a shrug. Seeing Allison still smiling, she pursed her lips. "What is it?"

"It's nice to see you speaking your mind," Allison said. "You didn't know her until she'd been at college, Cora, but back in Beacon Lydia tended to hide her light under a bushel basket."

"How could she even have managed?" Cora replied.

"To answer your question," Stiles said, "Derek and Erica got some fireworks and after dinner I'm going to make one of these new chocolate cakes for tomorrow. But we'll have sausages and sauerkraut as usual, with our game."

Just then a strongly built teenage boy with freckles and a head full of sandy curls poked his head into the kitchen door. "Say, Uncle Stiles, watcha makin'?"

"Mustard sauce," he replied, and when the boy frowned he added, "and there's ketchup cooking on the back of the stove."

The boy brightened. "Is it done? Can I try it?"

"May you try it, Zachariah," Cora corrected.

"Yes, Ma. May I, Uncle Stiles?"

"You may, but use a spoon and not your fingers and do not tell me it needs more vinegar. That is what your Uncle Derek always says and your Uncle Derek is wrong."

"Did you come for something in particular?" Lydia asked.

Zachariah dipped a spoon into the pot slowly bubbling at the back of the stove. "Ada Margaret tried to eat a crabapple out of the bin in the barn so Uncle Scott sent me in to get some reg'lar apples. Guess the little ones are hungry."

Allison sighed. "You tell your uncle Scott that dinner will be on the table shortly and that instead of eating apples you all might set the table."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, placing the spoon in the sink. "I think the ketchup tastes real nice, uncle stiles."

"There's a boy after my own heart," stiles said.

A minute or so later, Melissa came inside, the children in tow. "Now, who can tell me how many plates we need?" She reached into the pantry for the big checked tablecloth and handed it over the heads of the little ones to Zachariah's younger sister Amy.

Caleb, who was five, grinned at Allison. "May I try, Ma?"

"Go ahead," she said, nodding.

Caleb counted on his fingers. "Ma and Pa and me and Marianne and Cecilia. Uncle Derek and aunt Lydia and Ada Margaret and Lizzie and Sam. Uncle Stiles and Aunt Erica and Jamie and Abby and Billy and Baby Ellie. Uncle Isaac and Aunt Cora and Zachariah and Amy and Daniel and Tim. Grandma and Grandpa makes twenty-three, only I reckon baby Ellie doesn't need a plate so twenty-two."

"That's very good counting, Caleb," Lydia said.

Caleb grinned broadly, the bright, happy smile he shared with his father and grandmother. "Thanks, Aunt Lydia!" he said. "I've been working on my sums."

"Math is wonderful and nothing to be afraid of," she said. "You children remember that."

"Yes, ma'am," they mumbled, and followed their grandmother into the pantry.

Cora shook her head. "You are bound and determined to make one of those children into an engineer, aren't you?"

"It is the future," she replied. "That's what I tell my students at the college, at least."

Out in the other room, there were tables and chairs and benches crammed into every inch of available space, and the children, under their grandmother's watchful eye, were setting the table as the grown-ups bustled around putting out the food. Stiles and Derek had built the house with just these sorts of gatherings in mind, with the big room used as a sitting room or a dining room as needed. There were as many bedrooms upstairs as they could fit, including one large one with two beds that Derek, Stiles, Lydia and Erica all shared. (Given the unusual living arrangements of some of the other families in the still-radical town, the children didn't fuss over that too much.) The original cottage still stood, now used more for storage and a guest house than anything else, and was where Allison's in-laws would stay when they came up from San Luis Obispo, or Cora and Isaac would stay when they visited from their place down near Santa Barbara. Boyd and Laura had even visited a few times with their children in tow. But with the full house for the holiday, there were simply mattresses all over the floors upstairs.

It took some time to settle everyone in around the tables, but once they were, Mr. Stilinski stood up, glass in hand. He'd grown more wiry in his later years, now that he and his wife had followed their children to California.

"Just wanted to make a little toast for the new year," he began. "Not the new century, of course, and thank you, Lydia, but a new year all the same, and the new century coming soon enough. The folks in Washington said the frontier was gone a good ten years back, and that's easy to believe out here in such settled country. The children at this table are going to inherit an entirely new country, so let's all pray to the Lord that it will be a good country that treats them well." He paused, then, "Amen."

"Amen," they all replied.

After dinner Erica corralled the men and children into clean up duties, so Allison and Lydia were able to slip out for a walk along the ocean path before the sun set. The water was almost black, as it often was in the winter, the one time that "wine-dark sea" description in Homer made any kind of sense to Allison. They walked in silence; they saw each other often enough, with living in the same town, that there wasn't much to say.

Except.

"So what is it you need to tell me?" Lydia asked.

Allison turned to her. "How did you know?"

"You keep taking in a breath, as if to say something, and then you stop."

"Well." Allison pressed her lips together. There was no reason not to say anything to Lydia; certainly she was interested in any number of possibly frivolous subjects. "You know that Mr. Edison, that makes the Kinetoscopes? He's a friend of Mr. Cody, and he's written to ask me to come to his workshop in New Jersey so he can make one of me."

Lydia's eyes widened. "And you're going to do it, aren't you?"

"You think I should?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

"Oh, I don't know. They're somewhat low, these kinetoscopes."

"Lower than being in a Wild West Show?"

"I suppose not," Allison allowed, smiling.

"But do you want to?"

"I keep thinking of those girls who used to come to my shows with their picture postcards of me to sign, and I think how many more of them might see the Kinetoscope."

"An excellent reason. Every time I am assigned a female student I feel the same. They're surprised to see a married women with a PhD in mathematics. I hope it encourages them. Not to mention my own children, and not just the girls, either. If Derek could have his mother and sister and be in favor of women's colleges, who's to say what Sam and Jamie and Billy will be like."

"Which is why we'd want to leave the children with you."

"Think nothing of it; they're certainly here often enough as it is. Though that's more Erica's lookout than mine. While I'm sure she'd happily agree, she'd likely appreciate being asked."

"And Scott will have to check with his partner at the practice."

"Who I'm sure is perfectly capable of looking after the animals in this town for a week or so. You two deserve a little trip; I don't think you've traveled at all since you left the Wild West Show, have you?"

"No further than San Francisco or San Luis Obispo. After college, we just wanted to make a home. We hadn't had one, not really."

"Then you can think of this as the wedding tour you never really had. Traveling with so many people and animals and entertaining a large crowd nearly every night does not a wedding tour make."

"I suppose not, but you never had one, either, Mrs. Hale."

"Actually, we've been discussing going to Europe. The four of us, when the children are a bit older. Derek and Erica's parents have said many times they'd love to have them all for a summer, since they don't see them nearly as much as Boyd and Laura's children. Given that we will have sold a few horses before making such a trip we might be able to coerce them into looking after the stock as well. I have some colleagues and correspondents in England and Germany I'd like to meet in person. And Stiles would write anyplace, so he'd be filing some stories as we go, perhaps even make a book of it. So you'll have to tell us about all the places you visited when you were there."

"How exciting! Of course we will." Allison took Lydia's hand in hers. "I can't wait to hear what you make of Europe. Don't leave all the writing up to Stiles."

Lydia squeezed back. "When have I ever let Stiles, or any man, have the last word?"

Allison laughed. "But Erica?"

"Well," Lydia said, looking back out toward the sea, "one must make some concessions for matrimonial harmony."




Hale holidays always centered around baseball. Well, Hale-Argent-McCall-Stilinski holidays, to be more accurate. Stiles always wanted to call the family "hams" in the manner of "The Dels" but the name wouldn't stick despite his efforts.

Whatever they were called, when the family gathered baseball tended to break out, particularly now that so many of the children were old enough to need the kind of distraction that allowed them to run off excess energy. And as California Januarys were nothing like Dakota Januarys, they were able to do so nearly year round. Derek, who'd become a good deal more patient when the children were born, was the de facto coach, teaching each child the basics of the game. Erica pitched, so the two of them weren't on either team. And now that the children had gotten older, the rest of the adults had taken a step back. Which was just as well, as they'd all been up until midnight to ring in the new year with the help of some whiskey and playing cards, then rose early with children excited for their New Year breakfast. Scott didn't mind sitting this game out.

But now that Caleb McCall was old enough to be in school he was old enough to play, and Scott thought his heart might burst with pride. They'd been practicing at home, hitting and catching, and Caleb had a pretty good eye if Scott did say so himself.

He got that from his mother, of course.

Stiles served as catcher now that he wasn't playing. "Who taught you to hold the bat, Caleb?"

"My Pa," Caleb replied. His scowl looked too charming for words on his tiny, round-cheeked face, but they all knew from experience that Caleb liked to be taken seriously.

"He taught you well." Stiles nodded to Erica.

Erica nodded back, and threw the ball. It was an easy pitch, to be sure—straight down the middle and not too fast—but it was still a real pitch, and Caleb swung just an instant too late.

"Swing and a miss, strike one," Stiles said, throwing the ball back to Erica.

"All right, Caleb!" Allison shouted, then put her fingers in her mouth and whistled.

The next pitch was outside, and Caleb didn't swing.

Derek clapped. "Good eye, Caleb!"

Caleb nodded solemnly, and got back into his batter's stance. He swung at the next pitch, and missed.

"One and two," Stiles said.

Allison clapped. "Go out swinging, Caleb!" she said.

He shook his shoulders a bit, then settled down. Erica pitched, Caleb swung—and hit the ball.

Scott and Allison sprung to their feet. "Run! Run!" they shouted, and Caleb did run just as fast as his legs could take him toward Zachariah and first base.

But Ada Margaret, who was playing shortstop and who at ten was showing all the signs of having inherited her father's baseball talent, scooped up the ground ball and threw it to Zachariah before Caleb reached the base.

Caleb ran back toward his parents, still scowling.

"I'm sorry you went out on your first at bat," Allison said, squatting down to eye level with her son.

"It's all right, Ma," he replied, patting her hand. "Next time I just won't hit toward Ada Margaret."

"I'm very proud of my daughter," Lydia said, "but how, precisely, did I end up in such a baseball-mad family?"

Isaac smirked. "You married into it, fair and square, just like I did," he said. "And don't tell me skill with a ball wasn't part of the appeal, because Cora and I have letters that imply otherwise."

"Perhaps," Lydia said, tossing her head.

Scott leaned into Allison. "Does she know that she looks like a mare when she does that?"

"Whether she does or not," Allison replied, "I think it's best not to tell her."

After a few more "innings", when all the children had had the chance to both field and hit, Erica said, "Uncle Derek gets last turn!"

Derek trotted over to home plate and picked up the bat.

"Strike him out, Erica!" Stiles called out.

"Hey now, be kind," Derek said. "He might be your husband but remember your brother."

Erica shook her head, grinning. "All right outfielders, get ready," she said, and then she threw a pitch—not the easy tosses she'd been giving the young ones, but the kind of proper pitch that Derek had taught her when she was younger.

Derek was ready for it, swinging hard and hitting it past all of them, past the stables even, and the kids all ran off to get it.

All except Ada Margaret, who just stood and stared.

Derek grinned at her. "Should I run the bases?" he asked.

She smiled back, the same Hale smile that Derek, Laura and Cora shared. "Doesn't count as a run if you don't," she said.

Derek had rounded third by the time the other children came back, and Stiles stood up from his catcher's crouch.

"All right!" he shouted. "Time for sausage!"

If possible, the children ran even faster toward the house.

Jamie Stilinski, who was eleven and therefore starting to know things, asked, "The boys at school said they eat hot dogs at baseball games."

Stiles raised an eyebrow. "Well, we are Stilinskis, and we eat Polish sausage."

"I think they taste better anyway," Erica said, tousling his hair as she walked by. "Don't you?"

"Yes, Ma, but hot dogs are American," Jamie said.

"Your grandmother's tamales aren't American, either," Derek said. "Do you want to give those up?"

His younger sister Abby was busy dousing her sausage with ketchup and sauerkraut. "Why can't we have both?" she asked.

"That's what I do," Scott said.

Jamie sighed. "I guess," he said, and took a sausage.

"Good," Derek said. "Scott, if you have a minute, could you come to the stable and just have a look?"

"Of course. I'll just get my bag." Queenie and Jonathan's first foal, Lady, was carrying a foal of her own, and Derek and Erica had been unusually nervous about her. True, Lady had never been a particularly strong horse, but she was healthy as they all could make her. But placating Derek and Erica made Stiles and Lydia happy, and that meant they weren't worrying at him and Allison, which was all to the greater good.

Lizzie was there, too, because she followed her father everywhere she could. She had her mother's red hair but when she wasn't at school insisted on wearing trousers like her Aunt Erica and spent as much time in the stable as she possibly could. But she knew how to stay out of the way, standing just outside while Scott gave Lady a quick look-over.

"She'll be just fine," Scott said, standing. "Lady's heartier than she looks."

"Of course you are, aren't you?" Erica said, stroking her neck.

"Thank you for checking her, anyways," Derek said, his eyebrows back to something like a normal position. "I don't know. I just keep having a bad feeling."

"That's because things have been going well," said Stiles from the doorway. He was holding a tray with a few sausages on it. "And you'll feel better if you eat something."

"For me?" Derek asked.

"I've got one with mustard and sauerkraut for Erica, and one with ketchup and mustard for Scott, and a little one with ketchup for Lizzie," he said. "And just plain, for you."

"Thank you Uncle Stiles!" Lizzie shouted, taking her sausage.

"You'd better get back to the house quick, before everyone else eats up your Aunt Cora's cookies!" he added, and she obeyed, running out of the stable with the sausage firmly in her hand.

"I should go, too," Erica said. "The children—"

"Other people can look after our children for a few minutes, Erica," Derek said. "Besides, they owe you from the card game last night."

"I suppose," Erica said, but she didn't look convinced.

"Oh, while we're here," Scott said, "thank you for having Lydia convince Allison to do the Kinetoscope."

Stiles looked surprised. "I didn't actually get the chance to talk to her," he said.

"I know Stiles likes to think otherwise, but we do occasionally do things on our own," Erica said.

"Do we?" Derek asked, but he was grinning.

Scott looked up, hearing someone at the door, and saw Allison and Lydia. "Hello there."

"We wondered why you sent Lizzie back," Lydia said. "Thought we'd come investigate."

"Your parents are playing some sort of game with the children," Allison said as she walked toward Scott. "I think they're trying to tire them out even more to get them to bed early."

"I remember those games," Stiles said.

"Cora and Isaac have wandered off someplace," Lydia added.

"They do that," Erica said. "Always have."

"So we thought we'd bring out some wine, have a little grown up party," Allison said.

Scott took the bottle and the opener, and got the cork out while Allison and Lydia handed out glasses. "What are we drinking to? The new year?"

"The new century?" Stiles asked.

Lydia rolled her eyes. "Oh all right," she said. "I give in, so long as we do it again next year."

"Where else would we want to be?" Erica asked.

Scott divided the bottle among them, and the three couples drifted toward each other, as they tended to do.

Derek wrapped an arm around Stiles's shoulders and held up his glass. "To friends, and family, and the new century," he said, and they all drank, together.


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