Thanks to misslj_author and empty_tea for the read through.
These Days, an Equilibrium short
Eleven o'clock was too early for lunch, but Ryan had been up since five and he was starving. There were no parks in front of the pub when he drove past, and the supermarket was his final destination anyway, so he parked there instead and walked down Burreela's main street to get back to the pub. It was a stupid decision, because it was stinking hot, like it always was in January, with the new year barely a week old. There wasn't a cool breath of air to be had, and he was only saved from the beating sun by his battered old Akubra hat and the shop awnings shading the footpath. Even with the shade, by the time he reached the door of the pub his face was damp and he could feel his t-shirt sticking to his back. He closed his eyes when he opened the pub door, stepped inside, and was hit by a blast of cold air from the air conditioners. He took his hat off and swiped the back of his arm over his forehead before walking toward the bar. At that time of day there was only a handful of patrons scattered around the bar, and there wasn't a single stranger among them.
"Well, well, Ryan bloody Mitchell."
"Jonesy," Ryan said as he took a seat at the bar. Peter Jones had played on the footie team with Ryan at school, almost ten years previously; when Ryan became a policeman and moved to Sydney, Jonesy had stayed to help his dad run the family pub. He was built like a brick shithouse, a volunteer fireman when he wasn't at the pub; he was also one of the most heterosexual men Ryan had ever known. Sadly. "How's it hanging?"
Jonesy grinned. "Down to my knees, matey, down to my knees."
At the other end of the bar, Alison, Jonesy's wife, made a disbelieving noise as she wiped down the bar.
Jonesy laughed. "Take no notice of my missus, she just doesn't want you to be jealous. What can I get you?"
Ryan laughed. "Just a Coke and a menu. The kitchen's open, right?"
"Yep," Jonesy said, and handed him a laminated menu. "Coke coming right up."
Ryan studied the menu until Jonesy brought him his drink. "Thanks." He picked it up and took a large mouthful.
Jonesy watched him. "You met the new vet yet?"
Ryan put his glass down and shook his head. "No. The only thing I've heard is that there is one." Ryan tried not to involve himself in gossip. "Girl or guy?"
Jonesy leaned on the bar. "Guy. I heard he came up from Sydney."
Ryan's stomach flipped, but he ruthlessly shoved down any spark of hope he felt. The likelihood of the guy being gay was slim. Not everyone from Sydney was gay, or even open-minded about gays. He took another mouthful of his drink. "What's he like?"
Jonesy shrugged. "Dunno. Okay, I suppose."
Alison, who'd moved closer with her cleaning cloth, rolled her eyes. "Honestly, babe, God help us all if you ever have to give evidence in a court case." She looked at Ryan. "His name's Michael, and he seems nice enough. A bit shy, maybe, and nervous, like he's just about to bolt for the door all the time, but I suppose it's hard moving somewhere like here when you're used to Sydney." Her gaze sharpened, turned calculating as she sized Ryan up. "He's a little shorter than you, I reckon, about six foot, and he's got dark brown hair and eyes that are that blue-grey colour. He's a little on the thin side, and kind of nerdy-looking, like he's done nothing but study chemistry all his life. Even if he hasn't, I don't think he's spent much time outside, because he's as pale as pale can be." She smiled. "He's pretty though. Really pretty. So he's just the sort of fresh meat we want around here." Her smile turned into a grin. "Anything else you want to know?"
Ryan felt a little wide-eyed, and when he looked at Jonesy, he looked that way too. "Ah... No. I don't think so. That's... Wow. He's only been here a few days, hasn't he? That's a lot to notice in such a short time."
Alison shook her head at him. "No, it's not, it's just that you men don't notice anything at all about anyone. If it were up to you lot, we'd have to get around in total ignorance." She gestured at the menu he held. "Decided what you want yet?"
"Oh. Ah..." Ryan looked down at the menu again, and chose the first thing that he saw. "I'll have the steak sandwich, thanks. Medium rare."
"Medium rare steak sandwich," she repeated, taking his menu and walking through the door to the kitchen.
Ryan and Jonesy stared at each other for a minute. "Wow," Ryan said again. "Fresh meat, huh?"
Jonesy nodded. "Be afraid. Be very afraid."
Ryan took another mouthful of Coke, suddenly wishing it was beer. "Mate. You can say that again."
On his way back to the supermarket, Ryan slowed as he got closer to the vet surgery, shaking his head at himself as he strolled oh-so-casually through the car park out the front of it so he could get a better look through the large front window. His heart skipped a beat as he caught sight of a dark-haired stranger standing at the shelves of pet food with Astrid, the old lady who ran the St Vincent De Paul charity shop. As Ryan watched, the stranger reached out and picked up a small can, showing it to her, running a finger along the can as if he was pointing out ingredients. Something Astrid said then made him laugh, and he turned toward her more fully, his eyes sparkling with mirth. They were grey, just like Ali had said, but what she hadn't said was how striking they were against the dark of his hair. Ryan suddenly had difficulty breathing, but he still managed to make a ridiculous squawking sound when someone clapped him on the shoulder.
"Woolgathering in the middle of my car park's not the best idea, son."
Ryan hadn't even realised he'd come to a stop. He blushed as he turned and saw Bill, Burreela's vet —Burreela's original vet— grinning at him. "Ah... No. No, it isn't. I was just trying to remember whether I needed to get anything for Charlie."
"Uh huh." Bill had been a vet for longer than Ryan had been alive, and he knew that Ryan's horse Charlie was his most treasured possession, and that he would never forget anything she needed. "So you're not here seeing if the rumours that I've hired someone from the city are true, then?"
Ryan laughed, the sound completely unconvincing to his ears. "What? No, no, of course not." He tried for a smile, hoping that it would be more sincere than his laugh. "You know me, I don't listen to gossip."
"Right. Sure." Bill chuckled and then looked in at the surgery, tipping his head toward it. "Coming in, then?"
Ryan shook his head. "Nah. I'm sure I've got everything I need for her."
Bill rolled his eyes. "Okay, young fella, whatever you say." He started to walk toward the surgery door, turning his head to talk over his shoulder. "I've been taking him out on farm visits when I can. You'll all get to meet him soon enough, don't worry."
Ryan watched Bill walk into the surgery. By that time the new vet had taken Astrid over to the front desk to pay for her things; when Bill walked in he looked up and smiled, and again Ryan found himself caught by his eyes. But then Bill gestured over his shoulder, towards the car park, towards Ryan, and that had Ryan hightailing it out of there like his ass was on fire. Bill catching him gawking had knocked him off kilter, and the last thing he wanted was to meet the new vet when he was at less than his sparkling best.
He wasn't thinking about being at his sparkling best or meeting the new vet the morning he found Charlie with her leg caught fast in a vicious tangle of barbed wire.
He stood as close to her as he could without disturbing the wire, feeling her flank trembling under his hand as he pulled out his phone to call his brother, Andrew. He didn't bother with any niceties.
"Weren't the back paddocks supposed to have been cleaned up?"
"Yep," Andrew said. "Dad was going to hire someone to do it when we were away last Easter. Why, what's up there?"
Ryan gritted his teeth. "Barbed wire."
Andrew was silent a moment. "Who's caught in it?"
Andrew hissed softly. "I'll bring up a float and some wire cutters."
"Ring the vet before you leave."
Andrew paused again. "If it's not that bad, we could probably--"
"Andrew." Ryan's jaw was beginning to ache from him clenching it. "Ring the fucking vet, all right?"
"All right, all right, I'll ring the vet," Andrew said, and Ryan could practically hear him holding up his hands in surrender. "And then I'll come straight up there."
Ryan looked down at the blood caked around the coil of barbed wire digging into Charlie's leg and gritted his jaw even more against a fresh wave of anger. "Be as quick as you can."
He cut away as much of the wire from Charlie's leg as he could, and loaded her into the float so that Andrew could take her down to the front stable to wait for the vet. He took his aggression out on the rubbish strewn around the paddock, hauling it to his ute and throwing it into the back; by the time he'd driven back to his house, parked the ute and started walking down the driveway to his father's stable, he felt almost calm. Which was good, since when he rounded the corner of the stable and got a clear view of the yard, he could see Bill's new vet walking back across it to the vet surgery's ute.
His stomach lurched, but he must have looked fairly normal when he entered the building and walked up to his father and brother, because Andrew only said, "Did you get it cleaned up?"
Ryan nodded. "Yes. Finally."
Andrew didn't take the bait, his gaze moving to over Ryan's shoulder instead. "So. New vet's here."
Ryan nodded again, keeping his expression neutral. "Yep. Saw him."
Their father frowned. "I don't know why Bill didn't come out. What's he need another vet for, anyway?"
"Dad, come on, lay off the poor guy. It's not his fault he's new," Andrew said, rolling his eyes at Ryan from over their father's shoulder.
Ryan grinned, but didn't get a chance to say anything, because then Andrew was cocking his head at the stable door, and Ryan shifted to watch the new vet approach them. When their eyes met, he smiled. "Hi. I'm Ryan."
The other man's eyes widened slightly, and Ryan watched as he broke eye contact, his gaze skittering over Ryan's face, his throat, his chest. When his eyes came to rest on the area exposed by the open collar of Ryan's shirt, he swallowed, his Adam's Apple bobbing as his cheeks reddened slightly, and Ryan thought, Yes. Thank you, universe.
When their gazes met again, Ryan raised an eyebrow, and the new vet dropped his eyes to Ryan's throat again as he said, "Oh. Sorry. I’m Michael. I’m the new vet. In town."
Ryan smiled. "Yeah, I thought so, what with you carrying a fancy bag and all." He nodded toward the stall. "You going to go back in there, Doc, or were you going to use voodoo to fix her up?"
Michael's blush deepened. "Right. Yes. I’m going back in."
Ryan went in with him, crooning to Charlie under his breath and holding her steady as Michael got to work. Alison had been right about him never going out in the sun, because the skin of his hands was very pale, but his fingers were long, his movements sure as he unwrapped the wire from around Charlie's leg and cleaned the wound. His instructions were clear and confident, even if he could barely meet Ryan's gaze as he spoke them, and Ryan suddenly felt sorry for him, for being the new bloke in the sort of town where he'd always be an outsider.
Sympathy or no sympathy, Ryan couldn't help testing Michael again when he finished and stood in front of Ryan ready to leave. He stuck out his hand. "Thanks Doc. Michael."
Michael fumbled with his bag and reached for Ryan's hand, and Ryan was watching carefully enough to see his quick intake of breath as their palms touched. Ryan held the handshake just a little longer that was strictly necessary, sending up another thank you to the universe as Michael's flustered gaze met his own.
"That's no problem. Just doing my job, right?"
“Right.” Ryan finally let Michael's hand go, and stepped to the side to let him out of the stall. “But thanks anyway.”
Michael headed for the stable door, and Ryan ignored Andrew's dry look as he followed. He stopped, leaned against the stable door and watched Michael walk to his ute, so he saw when Michael turned to look at him as he opened the car door and got in it. Ryan's heartbeat sped up as they stared at each other, but then Andrew managed to neatly break the spell.
"Don't even go there. This town is way too small for that."
Ryan straightened, looking over his shoulder. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Andrew slapped him on the shoulder as he drew level with him. "Yeah right, little bro. Whatever you say."
"Fuck off," Ryan said with a smile as they started to walk toward the main house. Ryan couldn't help but linger behind as Michael started the ute, grinning and tipping his hat as Michael took a last look at him before turning the car around and accelerating down the driveway. Ryan stood in the yard smiling to himself until Murphy, the family's Labrador, brushed by his legs and snapped him out of his reverie. Murphy nuzzled at Ryan's hand, and Ryan smiled down at him as he scratched his ears.
"Stuff the town, Murph," he said softly. "I'm going to do what I want. And what I want is that new vet."
Copyright © 2011 by Meredith Shayne – All Rights Reserved