Chris Owen

Bad Pennies

"Bidding's going to be high on that one," Jake said as he and Tor walked away from the pens.

 

"Yep." Tor nodded, his eyes distant as he thought. "But that's the bull we need."

 

"Need more than one," Jake reminded him. "Can't spend the budget on just one." They hadn't sold their own cattle yet, wouldn't take them to auction for another month, but the chance at new blood for their herd had come up and was too good to miss. The two of them had taken a three day round trip just to check out the bulls; if they could get a deal, they would, but Jake wasn't ready to go into debt for bulls they could find a little later in the season.

 

"Yeah, I know," Tor said, turning his head to grin at Jake. "Sure would be nice to take him home, though."

 

"We can try." Jake grinned back and swerved to avoid a group of cowboys who'd stopped to loudly discuss a lot of cattle, arms waving as they argued. There were more than a few people standing around, and still others gawking or hurrying to get somewhere; the narrow path between barns was getting congested. "Let's find some food," Jake suggested, pointing to the general area of the vendors.

 

"Think I saw barbeque," Tor teased. Barbeque was really all there was, aside from one stand that had chili and another that seemed to be supplying the entire auction ground with vegetables and fruit.

 

"Ribs," Jake agreed with a nod. They sped up a bit, swerving and having to force their way through more than one crowd of men until Jake wondered if it wouldn't have been easier to just go around the barns instead.

 

"Shit, sorry," a cowboy said as he backed into Tor, almost knocking him over. "Wasn't watchin'--oh. Hey."

 

Tor had stopped walking and Jake had instinctively reached for the stumbling cowboy to keep him from falling on his ass, but his hand stopped when he processed who it was. Floppy blond hair peeking out from under his hat, blue eyes that were just a bit too big.

 

"Travis." Tor's voice somehow managed to sound like a growl and a surprised statement at the same time, and Jake noted that he didn't sound even remotely happy.

 

"Tor," Travis said, nodding his head politely. "Jake. How ya been?" His voice was thin, the strain showing even if he did keep his limbs loose.

 

Jake blinked at him and shook his head, then started walking. He wasn't about to waste even enough breath to be polite, not to Travis. He didn't check to make sure Tor was with him, just assumed he was, even if Jake was going on a head start. By the time he'd gone ten feet, he was cursing and muttering to himself, ignoring everyone and damn close to shoving a path for himself through the pack of bodies in his way.

 

"Taggart, hold up," Tor said, grabbing his elbow.

 

Jake jerked his arm back, his face flushing. "Sorry," he said, looking away and starting to walk again. He slowed a bit, though, let Tor keep up with him. "Not your fault, I know. Just… the fucking son of a whore." He could almost feel the snap in his words, each one bitten off and sharp. "Could've lived the rest of my life never seein' his face again."

 

"Yeah, I know," Tor agreed. "Just don't… Christ, calm down a bit, okay? Let it go. He's back there and chances are we won't see him again in this crowd. Don't let it get to you."

 

Jake stifled a growl and tried to make himself relax, rolling his shoulders a little and flexing his fingers. Tor was right; there wasn't any point in going off. "Surprised me," he said, making himself slow even more as they broke through the crowd and approached the food stands. "Made it worse. No time to think."

 

Tor nodded, his mouth a thin line and the muscle at the side of his jaw jumping. "I know," he said again, and Jake realized it must have been just as much of an unpleasant shock for him. "Let's eat."

 

Jake wasn't sure he had an appetite anymore, but he ordered his food and waited while Tor got his. They walked around for a bit, trying to eat at the same time, and Jake concentrated on not looking at people's faces and not looking at Tor. He made himself eat, though the ribs sat like lead in his belly, and unsuccessfully battled memories. When he found himself picturing Travis on his knees in front of Tor, he gritted his teeth against bile and threw the remains of his meal into the nearest trash bin. "I can't deal with this right now," he said in a low voice. "I keep going back, and I can't stop it."

 

Tor stood next to him, not moving for a long moment. "It's over," he said, his voice just as tight as Jake's. "It's done and over and we moved on. Unless you've got something to tell me."

 

Jake shook his head almost violently. "Told you the truth. Forgave you for Travis a long time ago. Just can't seem to forget. Not when he suddenly turns up."

 

"Look at me," Tor insisted.

 

Jake glanced around first, not sure he wanted the intensity of what he'd see, not surrounded by strangers, people who were living their lives without a clue. But he looked, because he couldn't not, and he met Tor's eyes as honestly as he could.

 

"I know you're pissed," Tor told him. "At Travis, at the world, maybe even at me. But you've got to either deal with it, right now, or push it away. You dwell on the past, it'll get worse and bigger and it'll take weeks to get out of your system. I don't know how to help you with this, but I will if I can. I'm sorry for what I did, and I've made my amends to you. We're good now, yeah? Think on that instead, if you can."

 

Jake nodded, knowing the truth when he heard it. "I know you are," he said. "I do. And I ain't mad at you. Him, I can't say the same for. But I'll try to… Damn. Let's go look at bulls, all right? Give me some math or something to think about instead."

 

Tor nodded and gave him a faint smile. "All right. Got a few hours before dark, we can look at bulls, talk to people. When we get back to the motel, I can find something else to distract you with."

 

"Reckon you can," Jake said, his smile just as faint. He felt a good way off from messing around, but if he could pretend to not be pissed off he could pretend to be horny. Wasn't like Tor didn't know how to get him there for real, after all.

 

They looked at bulls. The kept a running tally of the ones they were interested in, the stock they wanted to watch for a few seasons, and the ones they wanted to stay away from. They ran into a few people they hadn't seen in a while and got caught up on some gossip about which spreads were doing well, which were failing and why. They met a few new faces, talked up their own herd a lot, and through it all Jake felt himself letting go, bit by bit. His back relaxed, he laughed a few times, and when it started getting dark he steered Tor toward where they'd left the truck, ready to head to their room for the night and find out what was on TV.

 

"TV?" Tor asked, one eyebrow going up and his smile genuinely suggestive.

 

"Sure. Background noise," Jake shot back with a grin. "The walls are thin in those cheap motels." It wasn't quite back to normal, but it was getting there, and Jake kind of thought that making out while they ignored the news would get him the rest of the way to right. If not, sleep could take care of the rest.

 

He was actually bordering on eager as they walked through the parking lot, though he kind of ignored the differences between being eager for Tor and being eager to forget a little more. But as they walked, not talking and not taking their time, they heard the unmistakable sound of a fight off to their right. Boots scuffing on dirt, fists hitting skin, and voices panting curses.

 

"Shit," Jake breathed, turning toward the sounds. "Should we?"

 

Tor shrugged but turned as well. "Don't go wading in if it's just a couple of drunks," he said, leading the way between a couple of pick-ups. "None of our business."

 

Jake snorted; he wasn't one to go looking for a fight, and he certainly didn't go jumping into someone else's messes. But he didn't like to think that fighting could turn into something that would leave a man bleeding in his guts, maybe hit too hard on the head, either. So they walked up to where they could see what was going on, the dying light reflecting off truck windows and getting lost in shadows.

 

Two men rolling on the ground, one with fists flying. A third man, watching and hauling back to kick at soft spots. Between the fists and the steel-toed boots, someone was getting the shit kicked right out of him.

 

Jake turned his head as he heard more people running up, boots thudding heavy and hard, and he wondered if it was people like him and Tor, just coming to check things out, or if it was back up. His head snapped back to the fight when the one doing the kicking yelled, "Fucking queer!"

 

After that, things got a little busy; three or four others arrived, starting breaking things up by tossing the kicker against the side of a truck. He retaliated by throwing a few punches. On the ground, the two men were pulled apart, both of them kicking and lashing out, only to be whacked right back when their fists connected with the newcomers.

 

When Tor started moving into it, Jake made a grab for him. "Hey!" It was under control, after all, and there might be more bruises but he'd be damned if any of them turned up on Tor.

 

Tor threw him off and kept going, grabbing at the man who'd been the target. The queer. Irritated, Jake watched as Tor got hold of him by the back of his collar and yanked him to his feet, shoving him out of the way. It would have been a neat and tidy rescue except the others didn't really know what he was doing, and Jake winced as he saw Tor take a punch high on his cheek before he could back out of the scrum.

 

Jake gave him points for not hitting back and shook his head. Stubborn, willful cowboy. The points evaporated when he saw what Tor must have seen earlier; the man staggering to him, eyes glassy with drink and balance shot by the fight, was Travis.

 

"Whooeee!" Travis crowed, stumbling a little. "See that?" His clothing was torn, blood oozed from a half dozen scrapes on his face, and his eye was already swelling shut.

 

Tor came up alongside him as Jake stared and shoved Travis on the shoulder. "Get going before they try again," he said gruffly.

 

"Aw, no way, man!" Travis grinned at him, smacking his hands against his thighs. "You, like, saved me! Deserves a reward." He didn't so much as lean into Tor as try to attach himself to his side; he barely stumbled when Tor shoved him back.

 

"Fuck off," Jake said, ice in his veins. "Both of you." He turned, not knowing or caring what was the right way to the truck, just not willing to stay there at all.

 

"Always so cold to me, Jake," Travis laughed at him. "Now Tor, he was nice to me. Never got the cold shoulder from him."

 

Jake didn't even think about, and he certainly didn't try to stop it--he just did a quick pivot on his left heel, brought his right fist back and smashed it into Travis' face, almost smiling when he felt the impact. Travis went down with a squawk before Jake had even pulled his arm back.

 

Tor's fist hit Jake just as fast, splitting his lip, and Jake snarled, trying to keep his footing. He grabbed Tor's shirt and yanked him close, staring into his eyes. "You'd hit me for him?" he asked, reacting and letting go of the tangled reins he held on his anger. He didn't wait for an answer, just pushed Tor away with a hard shove and threw a quick right to his jaw before storming off. He barely landed the punch, but he'd done it, he could feel bone and stubble and the enormous weight of something inside of him snapping in reaction.

 

"God damnit," he yelled. "This the way it's supposed to be? You protectin' that piece of shit?" He didn't wait for an answer, didn't bother returning the looks of the men who were still standing around, watching them warily. "I'm goin'."

 

He heard Tor tell Travis to be somewhere else and walked steadily into the growing dark. He hoped he'd picked the right direction, hoped that he and Tor wouldn't wind up getting the shit pounded out of them in some other hidden spot; nothing like picking a fucking cattle auction to air dirty laundry. That they were together was hardly a secret, but there was a difference between being 'those two queers who bought Gillian's' and 'those two queers who look for trouble'.

 

Jake kept his head down, but he could hear Tor walking behind him, pacing him. He could hear the others finally scattering, yelling and calling out insults to each other, some of them good natured and some not. He couldn't tell where Travis went.

 

When he got to the truck he unlocked the door with only a vague sense of being grateful he'd headed the right way, and then rummaged around behind the seat for the first aid kit. He could still taste blood, feel it trickling on his chin, down from the corner of his mouth. He found cotton and a water bottle; a clean up was about all there was to do.

 

Some things cleaned up easy. Some, not so much.

 

Tor leaned on the side of the truck and watched him as Jake rinsed out his mouth and spit water out. "You done being an idiot yet?"

 

Jake glared at him and aimed the next mouthful of water nearer Tor's boots.

 

"Yeah, okay." Tor didn't move, but his voice got harder, a richer shade of dark. "You listen to me, Taggart, 'cause I'm only gonna say this once. Don't matter if it was Travis or not, I wasn't about to let some guy get killed just for being what we are. And you wouldn't either, if you were thinkin' right. You ain't that way, no matter what you tell yourself."

 

"He wasn't getting whipped 'cause he's gay," Jake said, dabbing at the corner of his mouth with the cotton. "He was getting whipped 'cause he's a stupid shit who doesn't know when to keep his hands to himself."

 

Tor moved, lunging forward and pinning Jake to the side of the truck with his body. "You saw the start, did ya? You heard them talkin', heard Travis make his pitch and not take no for an answer? You got better ears than me, baby."

 

"Get off 'a me," Jake said, pushing on Tor's chest.

 

"Nope." Tor leaned in even closer, his face next to Jake's, his breath tickling at Jake's ear, warm and moist. "You might want to start thinkin' on what this is really all about."

 

Jake stopped trying to push Tor away, a useless battle. His breath was coming in gasps and he suddenly realized that the pain in his cheeks had been from his jaw clenched tight against the stinging in his eyes. "I hate what you did," he whispered. "Forgiveness doesn't mean condoning."

 

"Of course it don't," Tor whispered back. "And it doesn't have to mean burying the last of the anger, either. You never once yelled at me for it, you know. You threw a bottle at a tree. You listened to me tell you about it. But you never got to… to release the pressure."

 

Jake snorted, his head falling back on the truck with a thump. "Don't want to fight you."

 

"And I don't want to keep paying for the rest of my life," Tor said bluntly. "If you pounding on me would kill the last of this--"

 

"It won't," Jake growled. The thought of hitting Tor made him feel faintly sick, and he lifted his hand to touch Tor's jaw, where his knuckles had glanced off. "It won't." He followed the touch of his fingers with his mouth.

 

Tor went still against him, and Jake dragged his teeth over the spot he'd hit. "Don't like hitting you," he mumbled against the roughness of Tor's cheek. "Don't like hurting what's mine."

 

A shudder passed through Tor and Jake realized he was vibrating himself, unable to keep from moving as anger turned to something else, dark and demanding. When Tor fit himself against Jake's hip they both shuddered again.

 

"Thank god," Tor said under his breath and he kissed Jake hard, reopening the split in his lip before Jake could ask if the thanks was for Jake not hitting him or for the fact that they were both hard like stone.

 

It didn't matter, though; nothing mattered, other than the way they were rocking together, Tor thrusting him up against the side of the truck, his hands buried in Jake's hair and tilting his head precisely. There were bites and grunts and Jake pushed back, one leg hooked around Tor's so he could get the angle just right, rub on Tor's thigh just like he needed it.

 

"Mine," Jake said again, as if there was any doubt.

 

"Mine," Tor said back, pushing hard and biting down on his neck. "God damn it, gonna make you believe it."

 

"Do." Jake's eyes had closed, unable to focus on anything at all. All that mattered was the body between his legs, the mouth working up a mark on his neck. "Love you."

 

"Fuck!"

 

He felt Tor come, the jerk and crash of it spilling right over the one and into the other, and he could feel the stain soaking into denim. He laughed with it, his soul soaring as he followed, the sound of Tor panting out the words ringing in his ears.

 

"Love you back."

 

There were some things that you had to learn the hard way, Jake knew that. He knew that some things came back again and again and that sometimes exorcisms didn't take. But he also knew, standing there in a parking lot with a mess in his pants and tears on his face, that there were some things that were untouchable, places no one could reach and damage. Tor was his salvation and he wasn't ever going to let him go again, no matter how many times Travis turned up. Bad pennies were just bad pennies; Jake and Tor, they were worth more than that.

Sometimes love is complicated. 

Copyright 2016 Chris Owen