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This Time Next Year

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Tyson bent over and picked up a clod of turf and at the pastor’s nod, threw it in atop the coffin holding his husband’s body. The pastor began to speak again and Tyson looked over at the crowd facing him across the grave. Everything had a hazy, dreamlike quality, although that might have been partially because it was the first time he had stood for more than a few minutes since the fever from the ague cleared. His eyes wandered over the men in the crowd, many of them staring back at him avidly. Only a few had the decency to look away when he caught them staring, and none could muster a convincing facade of sorrow. Why should they feel sorry? They had hardly known Alpha Landeskog, and none of them had ever spoken to Tyson. Most of them, he assumed, had come out to catch their first glimpse of the widowed Omega, untouchable and alone, his crown of braids marking him as separate and pristine.

Mrs. MacKinnon had come and brought her two oldest, her daughter Sarah and her son Nathan to the funeral, which was a kind thought. Mrs. MacKinnon, the local midwife who also tended the sick for a bit of pay in the absence of a doctor in Denver City, had been the one to find him insensible on the floor of their small farmhouse, and Alpha Landeskog dead in the backroom. She had nursed him back to life, organized the funeral, stripped the house bare of material that could carry disease, and then sat beside his bed for the last two days, alternately feeding him up and trying to convince him to return home. When that didn’t work, exasperated she switched to plain talk, laying out the new circumstances of his life as an Omega alone on the frontier - she had explained in some detail that he would not make it through the winter alone, that no one, man, woman or Omega could survive a Colorado winter alone and unprepared, and that he would have to marry if he was set on persisting in his folly of staying on the homestead claim his husband had made. He believed her, he just couldn’t work up the energy to care.

He remembered her talking about her children, and looked over at her son. Nathan was seventeen, newly returned from an apprenticeship, rawboned and spotty, but grown now to a man’s size. Grown larger than most men’s size, really, but he still had the awkwardness of the boy. Dully, Tyson turned his gaze away from them and stared at the earth covering the casket in front of him as the pastor droned on. There was nothing the pastor could say that was of use to Tyson now - had the Lord addressed navigating a second rushed marriage while violently unwilling?

He was going to have to marry one of them, though the very thought turned his stomach, and the pickings were mighty slim. How many, he wondered, knew about his father’s very recent reversal of fortune that had driven him and his husband out of the comfort and safety of their Observant religious community in Victoria and landed them here in this one horse town of a few thousand adventurers? How many cared? A young single Omega with no get, widowed or no, was a vanishingly rare thing out here where every man was an Alpha but Omegas occurred only once in a hundred thousand births. He didn’t necessarily need to be wealthy to be a prize anymore. Still, no matter how highly he was sought after, that didn’t alter the fact that he was currently gazing over the sum total of the marriageable men of Denver, and there weren’t enough of them to put on a respectable square dance.

He wondered how long it would be before the first offers would be made; it was Midsummers Day exactly, early in the season for deaths from the ague, although perhaps their shallow well had been contaminated, and everyone present knew Tyson could not make it through the winter alone. No single man could. Those who did not come with a spouse came with a brother or two to share the load. To leave the farm and winter with a family would be to lose the farm by the terms of the grant of sale from the state, even if Tyson had the coin to pay for it. It was distasteful to remarry so quickly, but the rules out here were different - all niceties flew by the side in the effort to survive.

The pastor finished droning on and reached for Tyson’s arm to lead him away - Tyson skittered sideways to avoid his contaminating touch. “Omegas don’t touch, pastor,” he said politely, but internally he added you idiot to the sentence. Did no one out here have any religious understanding? Tyson thought darkly. They were all uncouth unbelievers, the people he had known as the English his whole life, others the Observant community kept physical and socially separate from to preserve their traditional ways, and Tyson, as a cherished Omega in the Community, kept the most separate of all. Until Mrs. MacKinnon cared for him in his illness, he had never been touched by one of the English before - and it was only with the death of his husband that he was forced to first speak to a non Observant Alpha. Not a one of them understood Bodily Integrity and the absolute prohibition against physical contact with an Alpha other than his husband or how completely unimaginable remarrying was to an Omega. Religious concerns aside, how could he undertake to choose one of them without an Alpha to guide his decision? Still, decency meant he would have a little breathing room, a few months at least before he had to parlay with these strange, rough outsiders.

He watched numbly as they departed, and then let Mrs. MacKinnon usher him back into the cabin, her children waiting politely outside on the porch. “You sure you’re well enough to be left alone?’ she asked, and he nodded. He wasn’t sure at all but he was certain he had no more coin to pay her with for her attendance, and no more reserves to tolerate outsiders. Looking doubtful, she left and Tyson sank to the floor where he stood, finally able to cry unobserved. He had no plan for the future, no knowledge of how to run a farm, no idea of what to do next; he had never spent a night alone in his life. He cried himself to sleep and spent the night on the floor, hoping the Lord would provide.

*

The next morning, Tyson stepped out onto the porch and there was Nathan MacKinnon.

“Oh, hello," said Nathan, shifting from foot to foot at the bottom of the steps, as if he’d been hoping to get away unseen. “My Ma sent me with some eggs and milk - I put them in the dairy. And here” - he held out a small paper sack and Tyson took it automatically. “It’s sugar buns.”

Tyson looked down into the sack. It was indeed sugar buns, and a good weight of them too, a baker’s dozen, made with the finest milled flour he had seen out here, and lavishly sprinkled with sugar on top. “Thank you,” he said. “Why have you brought me sugar buns?”

“Oh, well,” Nathan said. “My Ma sent me, she said she knew your chickens wouldn’t be laying now, and your cow would be dry, so she thought the eggs and milk might be handy while you’re convalescent. And she mentioned what a fancy you have for desserts and such, and said I was to take a batch along to you.”

Nathan was right about both the animals and the sweet tooth, but Tyson didn’t know anyone had noticed. Alpha Landeskog had managed to feed the animals the first two days of the fever but then both he and Tyson had been first unable to leave the house, and then unable to walk at all. When Tyson rose from the day long faint on the kitchen floor where he had fallen trying to get water for both of them, the cow was dry, several chickens dead, and Alpha. Alpha Landeskog was also dead. Tyson could feel the tears coming, and he sat down abruptly on the top step.

“Oh, geez,” said Nathan. “Oh, geez. I didn’t mean to make you cry, Mr. Landeskog, I’m sorry, can I get you something, a cup of water, or a hankie, or a bit of chicken, or oh! I know the very thing!” He ran off, leaving Tyson to sit on the step, unable to stop crying. Nathan came racing back, clutching a tin cup of tepid water, and a shrivelled apple from last year’s store which he had pulled from his own saddlebags. “Alright now,” said Nathan, bustling around. He had clearly inherited his mother’s organizing ways. “You sit there, and you drink this up,” - he put the cup in Tyson’s right hand - “and you eat that apple, and you’ll soon be better.”

“Thank you,” said Tyson, still snivelling and feeling a fool, but the water did help, a little. He felt such an idiot, but he was still pathetically weak from the ague, and it kept taking him like this when he didn’t expect it. They hadn’t lived in this house long, but the few months had been enough that everywhere he looked he was reminded of Alpha Landeskog. Shamefully, it wasn’t that he was wracked with despair for a lost love but Gabe had been his Alpha and husband, and the only familiar thing in this vast new territory, and then, suddenly, he was gone. Tyson suspected that a large part of his sorrow was terror. He was all alone now, and his position was unsustainable, and there was no hope of going back, and he still felt so endlessly weak, and tired, and sick.

Nathan was hovering anxiously above him, tentatively reaching out to pat his shoulder but then withdrawing before contact as was right. Tyson assumed Nathan had never met an Orthodox Omega before and knew only he couldn’t touch him without grave offense. "There, there,” Nathan said, patting the air directly above Tyson’s shoulder. “There now. Are you any better? Has it passed?”

Nathan was not yet an Alpha, still shy of his eighteenth birthday that would mark him officially an adult able to claim the title, and it showed Tyson thought. Still, he was a sweet boy and he was trying. “Yes, thank you,” Tyson said, drinking some water. “That was very kind. I’m sorry to be so silly.”

“Oh no, Mr. Landeskog, I’m sorry to upset you,” Nathan said. “My mother sent me with some provisions for the week, just to set you up while you’re convalescent, and she’ll be sorry to hear I distressed you in any way.”

“Oh God,” Tyson said, jolted out of politeness by shame. “Don’t tell her, for Chrissakes. It’s bad enough having one person see me flopping about boo-hooing like a baby, I don’t need the tale spread further.”

“Oh,” Nathan said, sounding uncertain. “Well, of course I won’t if you don’t want me to, but I am sorry, all the same, to have upset you. I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. Landeskog.”

“Thank you,” Tyson said roughly. “He was... he was a good man, and very far from home. I’m sorry he was alone at the end.” And to his shame, Tyson burst into tears again.

“Oh geez,” said Nathan.

“I’m sorry,” said Tyson. “Sorry, sorry, I’m just going to go inside to get settled.“ Still crying, he rose to escape from this awful, embarrassing situation, made it to his feet, and felt a rushing sensation as his vision tunneled. He paused, swaying.

“Mr. Landeskog?” Nathan said. “Are you alright?” He was standing in front of Tyson, hands outstretched, but unable to actually touch him. A stray big hands passed through Tyson’s mind, he drew breath to reply and the black covered his vision completely.

*

He woke in bed with Nathan MacKinnon peering anxiously at him from a kitchen chair by his side. “Hello Mr. Landeskog. Are you feeling any better?” he asked. Tyson tried to sit up, but felt queasy and flopped back down. “Can I help?” said Nathan, reaching for him but not making contact. Tyson waved him away, and Nathan watched anxiously as Tyson heaved himself up into a sitting position. “D’you need a bucket?” Nathan asked. “No? Alright - let’s try a bit of water. Hold on, I’ll just get it.” There was a lot of banging outside the room, and then Nathan called out “One minute,” and finally reappeared at the doorway with the tin teapot and a mug. “I got tea,” he said unnecessarily. “My Ma thought you were well enough to be left alone, but I guess not. How you feeling?”

“Like an idiot.” Tyson said. “Like the heroine of a particularly florid novel.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know,” said Nathan. “Never read them. But have some tea, I thought it would be better than water, and I’ve put quite a lot of sugar in for shock. That’s what my mother does, anyway, and it seems to help.”

“Thank you,” said Tyson, taking the mug. The tea was hideously sweet, but he sipped at it.

“Oh, wait,” Nathan said, getting up again. “I forgot.” More banging ensued, (it sounded like he was belabouring the biscuit tin) and he returned with a plate holding several dry white crackers and a roughly cut up apple. “Can I get you anything else to eat?” he said. “You need building up. I carried you to bed and I think you must weigh closer to half what I do than not, even though you’re only half a head shorter than me.”

You picked me up?” Tyson said, appalled. What a liberty. No man’s hands had been on him since he was thirteen but his husband’s.

“Well, of course I did Mr. Landeskog,” Nathan said. “What was I supposed to do, let you fall down the stairs? I know you’ve got some funny ideas up North, but here we’re a deal more free and easy, especially as it regards preventing Omegas from tumbling down the steps. I hope you won’t take it amiss.”

Tyson didn’t know what to say. He did take it amiss, seriously amiss. Shamefully, this boy had had his hands all over Tyson, touching presumably much of his legs and upper body if Nathan had had to pick him up and carry him into the house. But even from the little contact he had had with the townspeople, he could tell Nathan was right, they did not follow the rigid conventions of his very traditional upbringing among the wealthy. And Alpha Landeskog, of course, had been rather more than traditional, Alpha was fully Orthodox and had expected Tyson to adhere to his beliefs. They had lived out here in this little house, observing the rules Alpha Landeskog had grown up with, an Orthodox community of two, never allowing any of the unclean English to enter the house or even see Tyson. Alpha Landeskog would have been horrified and enraged to discover Tyson had been sullied by the touch of a non believer; there would have been an extensive period of penance required and Tyson couldn’t say he was sorry there was no one remaining to force him through it. Still, Tyson thought. The rules were different here, although he wasn’t so clear on exactly what they were, and this baby Alpha obviously hadn’t meant any harm. Rather the opposite, thought Tyson, looking down at the tin plate with the rapidly yellowing apple on it. He couldn’t think of a time an Alpha had served him food, no matter how clumsily prepared. It was an Omega’s duty to serve, not be served.

“What would the other Mr. Landeskog have done if an Omega fainted in front of him?” asked Nathan.

“Let them fall then rolled them in a blanket and pulled the blanket into the house.” said Tyson absently. “Or called me. Why?”

“Oh,” said Nathan. “I never thought of that.”

“It’s alright,” said Tyson, picking up the plate and presenting it to Nathan on two flat hands with a slightly lowered head. Better safe than sorry, he thought. This boy wasn’t technically an Alpha yet but he was very close to it and very large. Best to treat him formally until he knew what the expectations were. “Alpha, will you eat?”

“What?” said Nathan. “No, it’s for you.”

“You’re supposed to say ‘Omega, eat.’” Tyson explained, and Nathan made a face.

“I don’t know those fancy rules, Mr. Landeskog, and I don’t think I care to learn them. There hasn’t been an Omega in Denver since I’ve been born, and I reckon we’re all just in the way of treating each other the same out here.”

Tyson considered the plate, and shrugged. There didn’t seem to be any point in arguing and he hadn’t had an apple since last year. He picked up a piece and bit in, and even though it was shriveled from the store room, it was still sweet and delicious. He looked over and Nathan was watching him. “What?” Tyson mumbled through a full mouth.

“You’re the first person to call me Alpha,” Nathan said. “I like it.”

“Don’t get too het up.” said Tyson. “You’re not very good at it.” He would never have spoken to an Alpha older than him, or his Alpha like that, but, Tyson considered, this boy had no authority over him, in addition to having just explicitly rejected formal service. Being several years older than him, Tyson stood as an older brother to him.

Nathan just smirked. “I’m plenty good at it,” he said. ”I kept you from getting hurt, and I can mow an acre faster than any man in Denver, set a bone, break trail better than most, and last winter I took down an elk alone. What more is there?”

“That’s quite a resume,” said Tyson. “But that’s not what an Alpha is. An Alpha is the head of the household, and his authority rests in his wisdom. An Omega shelters beneath him and follows.” Nathan looked unconvinced and Tyson added, ”Wives, submit yourself unto your own husbands as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church. That’s Ephesians 22, you know. Can’t argue with that.”

Nathan pulled a disbelieving face. “You’re not a girl,” he said, although he didn’t sound entirely certain.

Tyson assumed the only other thing Nathan knew about him, aside from the prohibition against touch, was that Omegas could have babies. “Wives in the Bible means Omegas too,” he said, letting a little condescension creep in. “Everyone knows that.”

“Right, sure,” said Nathan in tones that suggested he was humouring an invalid. “Anyway, bossing their wives around is not what Alphas are for. Don’t the wives object none?”

Had this boy never heard of scripture, Tyson wondered. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection,” he quoted. “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Nathan looked at him blankly.

“Around here,” he said, “Alphas are for doing the heavy lifting and working in harness with their wives to care for the family. You got to pull together if you want to get anywhere out here. I don’t think just submitting silently is going to do the job; that seems like a very bad idea.”

“An Omega obeys sweetly and is decorative,” said Tyson, parroting his parents.

“Well, begging your pardon, Mr. Landeskog,” Nathan said, “but you don’t seem like you’re very good at being an Omega. You’re kind of argumentative.”

“No,” Tyson said, suddenly conscious of how he was talking to an Alpha and ashamed at his behaviour. “I’m not, that’s true. Sorry Alpha.” Even this raw boy could see he was useless at the gentle submission that befitted an Omega, although he didn’t know how Nathan could tell as Tyson hadn’t even got started up chatting, which was his besetting sin against keeping sweet.

“I like it,” said Nathan, surprising Tyson. “I like you just fine.”

He stood up to leave the room and Tyson was gripped with the fear that he was leaving and he would be all alone again. “Alpha, you going?” he asked, and Nate turned to him and smiled.

“I’m going to get you something more to eat,” he said, “and then I’m going to go fetch my Ma out here again, because you clearly aren’t well yet if you’re still fainting all over the place. That alright with you?”

Tyson was hardly going to argue with this Alpha who unexpectedly had not yet grown fed up with his contrary nature, so he just nodded and bowed his head submissively. “Thank you Alpha,” he said, looking at his hands. “Thank you for your guidance.” Nathan made a snorting noise but said no more and left the room. Tyson leaned back against the wall behind the bed, exhausted by navigating a conversation with an unfamiliar Alpha.

Nathan popped back in the room and handed off a plate. “Bread and cheese alright with you?” he asked. “That’s all I got in my bags right now that’s quick, since you don’t have the stove going.” Tyson nodded again, still uncertain about an Alpha waiting on him. Back home if you could stand you were expected to serve, not be served.

“Though you’re plenty decorative “ Nathan went on, continuing his earlier train of thought before heading back out. “Don’t know how much you care for my opinion, but there it is anyway.” He tapped the door frame with a large hand. “If you’re in an obeying frame of mind, I’d suggest you stay in bed til I’m back with my Ma in a couple hours.”

“Yes, Alpha,” said Tyson, relieved to have someone else making the decisions if only for a moment.

*

“Well,” said Mrs. MacKinnon, leaning back from where she had been poking and prodding at Tyson, “as far as I can tell you’re just starved and worn down and weak, but no worse than that. You look like you been hungry all winter, not just when you were sick. That right?”

“Guess so,” Tyson mumbled. He wasn’t going to tell this stranger that Alpha Landeskog had known nothing about farming or what provisions to bring for the first year on their homestead, and that they had barely scraped through the winter, but there was no point in lying either since she had made him take his shirt off and seen his ribs. She’d seen some of the old bruises on his back, too, and her hand had passed over them gently but mercifully she had said nothing.

“Alright, Mr. Landeskog, sit down and we’ll have a talk about what you’re going to do,” she said. “You need to listen to me this time. I don’t give you good odds lasting through the winter alone. Having been here the last few days, it’s plain to see you can’t manage at all. There’s no one in Denver can afford to take you on as a charity - we’d have you, but we’re full up and I mean that, no exaggeration. Since the fire we’ve got eight children in two beds and one room for us all. Anyway, if you leave the farm, you’ll lose the land, according to the terms of grant. Harvest is going to begin next month, and if you don’t make harvest, you won’t make it through the winter. And you won’t make harvest, as things stand now. You got the coin to hire farmhands?”

“No,” Tyson said. She could see he didn’t. His ribs told her that, and the bare interior of the cabin. There had been some quarrel between Alpha Landeskog and his family right after their marriage - as an Omega Tyson had never been privy to the details - and they had been cut off from the Landeskog wealth abruptly. Alpha had spent what little money he had of his own on this cabin and land sight unseen, and they had headed out to the western frontier, as poor as any other adventurers looking for a new life.

“That’s what I thought,” said Mrs. MacKinnon. “So as I see it, you’ll need to pick a fellow and marry him in the next two weeks to be ready for harvest.”

"In two weeks?” Tyson shrilled. “I can’t possibly," he said, horrified. "I just can’t. I … I’d have to get permission from my father, and Alpha Landeskog’s father, and the Community Board, at the very least, and it wouldn’t even be possible to get a letter to them never mind back in that time. And I’m Orthodox, or at least Alpha Landeskog was. My family is High Observant. They’d never give permission to marry so quick, or marry a man who wasn’t Observant.”

“You’ll starve," said Mrs. MacKinnon bluntly. "You’ll starve and die, or maybe freeze. And when winter comes, and you realise you’re dying, there’ll be no way to get in or out for weeks, and no help will come. We’ve had it happen before, to men far more able than you. Last year the Berniers died, all three of them. Do you hear me boy? There’s no time for letter writing out here, or religious qualms. You marry or you die. "

“I can’t,” Tyson said. “I can’t remarry.” Now that it came down to the reality of the thing, he panicked at the thought. He’d thought he’d had several months to come to terms with the idea, not next week.

“Then go back, you stupid boy,” Mrs. MacKinnon said. “Go back to your people.”

“I,” Tyson said, “I don’t . . . I don’t belong to my father anymore. I’d have to go to the Landeskogs in Sweden, and I don’t even know how . . . and the fare. The fare would be impossible.” This was all true enough but Tyson, and he suspected Mrs. MacKinnon, knew there were other, more compelling reasons to avoid Sweden.

Mrs. MacKinnon sighed and nudged the bowl of soup and dumplings she had made towards Tyson. “Don’t have a spasm,” she said. “I knew you were going to say that and I got a suggestion. I’ve spoken with my husband and we’ve decided we could send you Nate for the season, long enough to get the harvest in and get you through the winter. But we’ll need a trade for the loss of his labour, and that would be all your hay.”

“Done,” said Tyson. He didn’t need to think about it, he would take any option that meant he didn’t have to remarry. “And thank you, missus, I’ll take good care of him.”

“Well,” said Mrs. MacKinnon, “I don’t know that you’re in a state to care for anyone right now. Reckon it’ll be Nate taking care of you, but he won’t mind. But tell me - you can’t remarry or touch another Alpha, but you can allow our Nate to live in the house with you?”

"It’s acceptable,” Tyson said, “so long as we maintain Bodily Integrity. He’s very young, he’s not anywhere near what we would consider a marriageable state. Back home, a widowed Omega would have the youngest family Alpha to speak for him, so Nathan would fill that role. Nathan would be my Little Brother.”

“Would your husband have allowed him to live in the house?” she asked shrewdly, and Tyson scowled at her.

“No,” he admitted.

“We never saw you at all,” Mrs. MacKinnon pointed out. “I only found you last week because I came by the house on the way back from Johnson’s as I wanted to see you since you were such a mystery. You been here nine months and no one’s caught sight of you before. I get the idea Omegas are kept away from anyone outside your religion.”

“We’re cloistered, yes,” Tyson said, since this was common knowledge and he didn’t see why he should deny it. “But that’s for our own protection. Alpha Landeskog didn’t do nothing wrong.”

“Who said he did?” Mrs. MacKinnon asked mildly.

She’d seen those bruises on his back, Tyson remembered, and hurried on to change the subject. “We’re violating no religious law, and anything else is just custom, so I don’t see why not. A Little Brother can live in a home with a widower, that’s certainly better than marrying a non-believer.” He crossed his arms and tried to look decisive but it didn’t seem to have much impact.

Mrs. MacKinnon just looked wryly amused. "I’ve got to tell you, Nate does not look at you like you’re his older brother. Nature made young Alphas for only two purposes, Mr. Landeskog, and the second one is work, if you take my meaning. But our Nate is a good boy, I wouldn’t send him if I had any doubts. Now you need to understand, this is only a stopgap. I know you don’t want to hear it, but you’re going to have to remarry. The most we’re buying you here is an extra year, so you need to be aware the bachelor Alphas will be calling on you, and they’ll be coming soon. You’ll need the goodwill of the neighbors to get the harvest in, even with Nate, so you’d be well advised not to burn any bridges. Receive them civilly and tell them straight out you are not open to courting now, but that it may change after the winter.”

*

Nathan arrived early in the afternoon of the next day, carrying two large bags of supplies, a bed roll, and his saddle bags. He tapped on the door and headed into the front room where he dumped the lot onto the table.

“Afternoon, Mr. Landeskog,” he said. “Hope you’re keeping well.”

“Thank you for coming, Alpha MacKinnon,” said Tyson. It won’t be so bad, he thought. This boy was no threat, surely. Better than remarrying.

“Call me Nate,” Nathan said. “I’m glad to be here. I been sleeping in the hayloft at home, and there ain’t no damn hay in there. Plenty of rats though, a gracious plenty of rats. The floor of the kitchen here’s going to be a sight better.”

“You’re going to sleep on the floor?” Tyson said, aghast. He’d never entertained the possibility.

“It’s the floor or share the bed with you,” Nate said. “You wanna share the bed? Cause I’ll gladly share the bed. Before the hayloft I shared with my three little brothers and unless you piss yourself regular I reckon you’re an improvement.”

“I could sleep on the floor, and you take the bed,” Tyson said tentatively.

Nate gave Tyson a condescending look. “I ain’t making a convalescent Omega sleep on the damn floor,” he said. “I’ll be fine. Once we get the first of the hay I’ll make myself a pallet.” He kicked the bedroll under the table and straightened up from the bag he’d left on the table.

“Now,” he said, eyeing Tyson. “Let’s talk important things. One, Mr. Duchene came by last night and read me chapter and verse on the subject of Orthodoxy and Bodily Integrity, not that I asked, and what I take from that is that you aren’t to be touched, not no way, not no how, and that I need to apologize for picking you up last week when you fainted so I want to say I’m sorry, and I won’t do that again.”

“Oh,” said Tyson, taken aback at an apology from an Alpha. “That’s alright.”

Nate went on. “Mr. Duchene also said you think I’m your little brother?”

“Not my little brother, but a Little Brother,” Tyson explained. “It’s a title, like Uncle, or Father. It means you’re taking on the role of the youngest Alpha in my family. Back home he’d move in with me to speak for me and guide me if my husband died, or had to be gone for a spell.”

“So you have to do what I say?” Nate asked, grinning, and Tyson flared up.

“You’re not my Alpha,” he snapped, but then shrank back, afraid of Nate’s response to his sass.

"What would it mean if I was?" Nate asked.

"If you were my Alpha, you’d have charge of me and I’d have to serve you formally,” Tyson told him, cringing at the thought.

Nate must have seen that on his face because he grimaced and reached one hand out towards Tyson in an aborted gesture of comfort. “You think you do, don’t you? Well, never mind. How about I talk for you if you need me to, but you go ahead and guide yourself?”

This was a better, though terrifyingly unfamiliar, deal than Tyson had ever considered possible and he leapt on it. This boy didn’t understand anything about proper Alpha/Omega relationships and Tyson didn’t see why he should enlighten him. Anyway, he comforted himself, there was a certain amount of leeway within the Little Brother relationship, unlike marriage. He had spoken quite freely to Jordie Benn while he was Jamie’s Little Brother, even though he was an Alpha.

“Yes,” he said, trying to sound decisive. “Let’s do that.”

“Now my Ma says to tell you I’m awful bossy, so you just tell me when you don’t like my plan, and we can argue it out,” Nate added, and Tyson goggled at him. Agreeing to not receive constant direction about every tiny action of daily life was one thing, but proposing that Tyson argue with an Alpha, even one so young, was another.

“Oh, well,” he said, falling back on a familiar response that any Alpha within the Community would have understood meant he had no intention at all of following Nate’s suggestion, but Nate missed the subtleties entirely.

“Right!” he said, clapping his hands. “Now second, Mr. Duchene says you’re mostly a girl?”

"I’m not a girl," Tyson said, scowling. He winced when he realised his commitment to not arguing with Nate was paper thin. “Sorry Alpha,” he said, looking down. “I meant to say, I’m Bund, not a girl, if it pleases you.” He couldn’t believe he was having to discuss this with Nate. Everything he had heard about the apostasy of the English was apparently true.

“I don’t know if it pleases me,” Nate said. “What’s Bund?”

“What’s Bund?” Tyson said in disbelief. “Bund is the Räajenboagen, the covenant the Lord made with Noah, and every living creature, for perpetual generations. What do you think I am? Can’t you see my crown? I’m Bund, I’m Omega, both male and female just like the Lord, his covenant that the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

“I see you’ve got an awful lot of hair up in braids, if that’s what you mean,” Nate said carefully. “And I know that marks you as Omega, and I know Omegas can have babies. But are you telling me you actually think you were chosen by God to be a physical copy of him?”

“Of them, yes,” Tyson said, fed up. “Can’t you read the Bible? So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he him.”

Nate glanced involuntarily at Tyson’s crotch and then away quickly, and the unspoken question lingered between them. Tyson didn’t feel any need at all to assuage Nate’s curiosity. “I’m Omega,” he said again. “I’m not a girl, and I’m not a boy.”

“Alright then,” Nate said, still in the tones of a man humouring a lunatic. “You want me to call you Mr or Mrs, or what?”

Snackst du Platt?” Tyson asked hopefully.

“What?” said Nate, looking puzzled.

“Nevermind,” Tyson said. It had been a stupid question and he’d used the informal du which would have earned him a smack from any Alpha that had understood it. Of course no one out here spoke Plautdietsch or could understand the correct terms to address him with. “In English you would say he because the English Bible uses he for the Lord.”

“Well,” Nate said, ”if you say so, Mr. Landeskog, but Mr. Duchene says Omegas only do girl work, cooking and raising the babies and so on. That right?"

“Well, yes,” Tyson said. Surely that was obvious? He knew Nate would never have met an Omega before, only heard of them, but surely he knew that much. “That’s all an Omega can do,” Tyson added. “We’re called on to serve gracefully within the home, as the Blessings of the Community.”

“Right,” Nate said, still sounding doubtful. “If you say so. I’m not sure there’s a lot of call for graceful service out here in the West. You know anything about farming?”

“No,” Tyson answered. “Of course not. Why would I? I’m from the Victoria Observant Kolonie. We sell cheese, barrels and horses; but Omegas don’t get involved in that. An Omega is beautiful, and pure, and brings Blessings on the Community.”

"OK, but what does that mean in terms of actual work?" Nate wanted to know.

"We marry old rich men and have one or two babies,” Tyson told him. “Omegas come from Omegas, and it’s our job to keep the Bund alive.” Evidently nothing but plain speaking was going to get through to Nate.

"Oh great, that’s real useful," Nate said, collapsing into the chair as if exhausted by the job he was realising he’d undertaken, "How the hell did you end up out here? Was Mr. Landeskog rich, because he sure wasn’t old?"

"Gabe’s family was rich, yes, and he would have been if we had stayed, but they cut him off when he came out here." Tyson didn’t want to explain to Nathan the complex series of political and social maneuverings that had seen him married to the Landeskog scion. He had thought he’d wanted it, at the time.

“Can you ride, or manage the dairy, or chop wood?’

“No?” Tyson said. “Why would I know how to do that?”

“What can you do then?” Nate asked.

Tyson was feeling annoyed at having his uselessness so clearly exposed. “I can cook,” he said stiffly, “fancy and plain. I can bake. I can sew, but I hate it, I can launder, plain only. I can read and write, English and German, better than most and I can do accounts as well as a clerk of 5 years. I can play the piano, draw, and talk nicely about local events in the paper. I can arrange hair and serve tea formally.” He wasn’t going to add that his primary skills, beauty and absolutely unassailable purity, had already been exploited. That wasn’t what Nate was interested in and he liked it that way.

Nate looked horrified and unwillingly interested. “What’s fancy laundry?” he asked, leaning forward on his elbows.

Tyson was nonplussed. “Like cuffs, and ruffs and such,” he explained. “Starching and tongs.”

“I don’t even know what that is,” Nate said. “Like Sir Francis Drake?”

“I guess so,” Tyson said, shrugging, but Nate had already moved on to another point.

“And that’s it?” Nate asked. “No farm chores, no animal husbandry?”

“I can feed the chickens,” Tyson offered. After much pleading, Alpha Landeskog had agreed to this and Tyson had jealously guarded this right as it got him out of the house daily. In time he had hoped to persuade Alpha to let him keep the egg money.

Nate was visibly searching for something positive to say. Finally, he spoke. “Well, that’s better than nothing. Did you say accounts?” Nate asked and Tyson nodded. “You can do accounts, not just adding up?”

Tyson shrugged and answered, “Sure.”

“They never taught you to do anything useful, but you can do accounts like a clerk?” Nate pressed and Tyson shrugged again.

“I was always going to marry a wealthy man,” he explained. “It’s useful in running a large house and makes you of better use to your husband in his business. My father wanted me to learn so I did.” He considered further. “It was accounts or fancy laundry,” he added. “Anyone would have chosen accounts.”

Nate made a ‘fair enough’ face and rose from his seat. “Well,” he said, “we might find a use for that yet. In the meantime getting in the hay is the first step - at least the other Mr. Landeskog got it planted in time. Then we can get you familiar enough with the animals that you can run the house properly, and if you lend a hand at the field work you’ll have some idea of how to direct the hired men if you can afford them. How’s that sound to you?”

“Sounds good, Alpha, thank you,” Tyson said very genuinely. He’d never been offered a fairer deal, and even though Nate had something of the condescending older brother about him, never been spoken to more civilly either. He couldn’t believe Nate had just blithely suggested Tyson go about freely among other Alphas, doing field work. More shocking than that, Nate seemed to be assuming that Tyson would keep ownership of the farm, managing it himself once he knew enough. It occured to Tyson not only did Nate not know anything about Omegas, he also had no interest in enforcing Observant rules on him. Clearly he was prepared to allow Tyson to do anything he wanted. Whatever these new rules out here on the frontier were, Tyson resolved to grab at them with both hands. He wasn’t going back to Sweden to be the Landeskog’s pitied, widowed auntie, lingering in the family with no money or say, his only role to serve sweetly, or worse, to serve as a broodmare.

Nate interrupted his reverie. “Now you said you know how to cook?”

Do I know how to cook?” Tyson scoffed. “I think I do, I’ve done nothing else since I was fourteen.”

“Well, thanks be for that, because I can’t cook squat. I’m happy enough to teach you to turn your hand to whatever you need to learn, but that I can’t help you with,” Nathan said.

“Well,” Tyson said, “I wouldn’t expect you to, a very young man like yourself, still living at home.”

Nate looked at Tyson askance. “Yeah, I ain’t that young, Mr. Landeskog.”

“You’re not an Alpha yet,” Tyson pointed out. As large and confident as this boy was, he was still only seventeen, not legally an adult, and it was important to Tyson that Nate understand that. Tyson was the adult here, and as such, there was no call on him to obey Nate.

“I’ll be eighteen first of September,” Nathan told him. “Near enough as makes no difference.

"Well," Tyson said, "That’s still very young. You’re my Little Brother, not a full grown man.”

“I’m your Alpha, for the harvest and winter seasons,” Nate said evenly. “My Ma and Pa sent me here as a favour to you, and I’m more than a hired man - that hay isn’t going to come near to covering what my wages are worth, and I reckon you should understand that. No one of sense thought leaving an Omega out here alone was a good plan, and one of the jobs I got is standing between you and the rest of the town. I stand in the place of your husband, just by being here; I accepted responsibility for you when I agreed to come. Now I don’t undertake to demand all his rights, but I do undertake to meet his responsibilities to you, and that’s not a job a boy does. I’m a real Alpha.”

Tyson didn’t know what to say to that so he said nothing. He didn’t care for all this talk of husbands, and rights.

"Good enough," Nate said, and clapped his hands. "Now Ma sent some provisions to get us started, and there’s a pie in here. I vote we make a start on that."

"Oh, pie," said Tyson longingly. He hadn’t had pie since they were preparing to entrain for Denver. He vaguely remembered a time when he had been so fussy that he rejected pie with fruit in it, but that time was long gone.

"Yeah, I thought so," said Nate, smug. He withdrew it from the bag and put it on the table with a flourish. "You got a knife here?"

"I’ve got better than that," said Tyson. "I’ve got a pie slice. It was a wedding present."

"What the hell is a pie slice?" asked Nate as Tyson rummaged through the box of kitchen supplies. "Oh my God," he said when Tyson found it. "Is that just for pie? It don’t do nothing else? Fancy."

"It’s a bit pointless out here, I suppose," said Tyson, a little embarrassed at having such a frivolous item while Nate proposed to sleep on the floor.

"No, no," said Nate kindly. "We got a pie here, we got a pie slice, what could be more to the point? Give it over and I’ll serve."

Tyson handed it to him, bemused. In his experience Alphas did not serve, but if Nate wanted to serve the pie he wasn’t going to argue. Nate took the slice, looked at it for a moment and shrugged, turning it on it’s side and using it to cut the pie in half. He levered an entire half pie out with the slice, holding it precariously balanced. “Doesn’t really seem big enough, does it?" he said. "Hold your hands out."

Tyson, accustomed to obeying, did and was surprised when Nate placed the half pie into them. Nate turned back and lifted up the other half into his own free hand, and carefully put the pie slice down in the empty tin. He toasted Tyson with the pie half and applied himself to it. "Ohhh, apple," he moaned. "The King of pies. You not eating yours?"

"No, I’m eating it," said Tyson, protective. “I’m eating it. You always eat half a pie at a time?"

"Not if my mother’s watching," said Nate frankly. "You sure you eating it? Because I don’t see you eating it."

"I’m eating it!" said Tyson. "You can’t have it."

"Alright, alright" said Nate. "Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I ain’t attacked an Omega yet for pie, no need to worry."

Nate didn’t seem to find anything strange about it, and so Tyson shrugged. Why not eat half a pie with his hands? He took a tentative bite and it was delicious. "You never even met an Omega before me," he said, enjoying the argument. It reminded him of his sister, or time spent with the Benn brothers back home.

“That’s true," said Nate, smiling. "And I did attack my older sister once over cake, so I reckon your risk is just rising and rising. Better eat fast."

"Did you really attack your sister?" Tyson asked.

"I did,” Nate said, “but I was five at the time, so I guess I can be forgiven. Though she’s still got the fork scar to this day, so I don’t know how forgiving she feels on the matter." He grinned and mimed trying to stab someone with a fork, a ridiculous gesture, but as he did it he also growled, a full throated, real Alpha growl, and Tyson shivered.

"You sound like a real Alpha,” he said.

Nate smirked and looked him straight in the eye. He suddenly seemed bigger and more intimidating. "I am a real Alpha, Mr. Landeskog,” he said. “I’d be happy to prove that any time, that’s why they sent me. Now finish up, I’m going to teach you how to kill a chicken.”

*

It appeared the freedoms Nate promised came with some costs. Over the next few weeks, Tyson learned to clean out a chicken coop, start his own fire, feed, clean and milk the cows, slop the pigs, and plant the kitchen garden.

On the other hand, although Tyson had not realised how much animal manure would be involved in his new liberties, Nate had virtually no expectations regarding how Tyson kept the house. In fact, he was a willing participant in labour saving ventures, suggesting early on they stop using the tablecloth and napkins, cease changing shirts daily as Tyson was accustomed to and stop ironing entirely. The reduction in the laundry was phenomenal. Tyson had half his Monday and all Tuesday free. Tyson knew his mother, and probably Nate’s as well, would suggest they were disgusting slovens but he didn’t care. All Nate cared about were large meals, well cooked, twice a day and although it was staggering how much Nate could get through in a sitting, he didn’t care what Tyson made so long as there was plenty of it. The first time Tyson burnt the dinner, still somewhat unfamiliar with the vagaries of cooking on a western stove meant for heating, Nate took one bite and then paused. Tyson cringed, waiting for his anger. “Hand slipped a mite,” Nate said mildly, and stoically plowed through the rest of the meal. He had no more to say than that, no recriminations, no punishment, no suggestion that Tyson apologize for failing in his duties.

Tyson could feel himself unfolding over the few weeks, opening like a flower under the freedom of Nate’s rule and his robust, bracing way of expecting Tyson to work alongside him. He was eager to go further afield; he learned to chop wood, tack up the team, and ride a horse.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Nate said when Tyson balked at riding a horse astride like a man. “I mean I heard about fancy ladies in England riding side saddle, but I don’t even know where we would get one. Why you got to be so fussy?” This was a common refrain. Every suggestion Tyson made of complying with Omega rules was knocked aside with a condescending allegation of fussiness. Everything Nate thought was stupid was fussy. “Anyway,” Nate went on, “you already been married, so what’s the problem? Get on the damn horse.” Tyson got on the damn horse. Who was he to argue with Alpha, especially when Nate’s inclinations were in line with his own.

Gradually he grew stronger, the hard work outside building his appetite. He slept deeply at night for the first time in a year. When the day’s work was done and supper eaten, they would sit outside on the porch; sometimes Nate brought him tea in an enormous tin mug. It was nice to be outside, Tyson thought, good to feel the sun beating down on him, good to smell the summer flowers carried on the wind without worrying about how long he had before Alpha came to tell him to get back inside. Often he caught Nate looking at him, but it never occurred to him to look back. Nate had never been less than respectful of his Bodily Integrity and Tyson was accustomed to being stared at. This was the best bargain he had ever made, thought Tyson.

Then the suitors began to come.

*

When Mr. Johnson rode up to the house, Nate was in the barn caring for the horses which meant Tyson had to get the visitor settled on the porch and trudge out to the barn himself to get hold of Nate so they could all go in the house, properly chaperoned. "Alpha!" he called, "Nate! I need you in the house to chaperone!" He really didn’t know why this enormous stranger had troubled to appear at all, but here he was and Tyson would have to deal with him. He still found talking to English Alphas unfamiliar and worrying and he wanted Nate with him both for propriety and comfort.

"You have got to be kidding me," said Nate, popping up from where he was working on Molly’s forefoot. "I’m supposed to sit there and watch?"

"You’re supposed to sit there and chaperone!"

"Godalmighty, Mr. Landeskog," Nate groaned. "You can see I’m busy here, just don’t do nothing stupid and I’ll leave you to it."

"I can’t go in the house alone," hissed Tyson, scandalized. "What will he think?"

“He won’t think nothing of it,” Nate said dismissively. “Don’t be so fussy - just go on and talk to him and leave me to the horses.”

"You know what I mean," said Tyson. "I can’t be alone with him!" Nate just shrugged and continued picking stones from Molly’s hooves. "He brought store bought cookies," Tyson offered as enticement.

"Hmmph. What kind?" said Nate, leaning over Molly’s broad back.

"Garibaldi biscuits."

"Nope,” Nate said, ducking back down behind the horse again. “Not worth it, you just carry on without me. Anyone shows up with ginger biscuits or those little almond ones, you come and get me.”

Tyson stomped his foot but Nate just laughed at him. Tyson turned around to leave, muttering. “I don’t know what Mr. Johnson’s going to think,” he said, and Nate popped back up abruptly.

“Whoa now,” Nate said, emerging from behind Molly and stripping off his leather apron. “Did you say EJ Johnson is out there? Tall man with blond hair, no teeth?”

“Yes?” Tyson said, unsure why it mattered.

“Jesus Christ, he’s got some nerve,” Nate said, scandalized. “He’s got an understanding with Marnie! What’s he doing out there?”

“I don’t know,” said Tyson, but Nate was already storming out of the barn, moving awful fast. Tyson trailed behind him to see what he was going to do. Apparently what he was going to do was stomp up the porch steps and stand menacingly in front of where Mr. Johnson was seated. When Tyson caught up to them, puffing, they were locked in a glare. Mr. Johnson broke the glare to smile unconvincingly at Tyson. It really displayed his lack of teeth to disadvantage, Tyson thought.

“Don’t you smirk at him,” Nate said warningly, and Mr. Johnson moved to a flat out leer. Tyson inched to one side so he was largely behind Nate.

“EJ, what the hell are you doing here?” Nate demanded. Mr. Johnson stretched pointedly and examined his absolutely filthy fingernails.

“I come to court,” he said smugly, nodding at Tyson. Tyson cringed. Ewww.

“You come to court?” Nate said, incredulous. “With what? Your natural charm? I know you ain’t got no money, you were just bitching last week about how you was going to have to wait at least another three years to marry Marnie. She know you’re here?” Mr. Johnson scowled and Nate went on, “She’s going to kick your ass.” Mr. Johnson looked murderous.

“I can court,” he said. “I’m a free man and an Alpha, a grown man, not like some.” Nate’s face slowly turned red. Tyson hadn’t met Mr. Johnson previous to this, but even so he was getting the impression he had shown up largely to annoy Nate. It was working.

“He’s not going court with someone like you,” Nate snarled, and EJ leapt to his feet.

“He can do what he likes!” he yelled.

“Well he don’t like you,” Nate yelled back, clearly nettled by the mention of his age. He settled his feet on the porch and sort of puffed himself up, arms still crossed over his chest, growling slightly. Tyson shuffled further to the side, away from both of them. He could hear Mr. Johnson’s growl building.

p>“He can court if he likes; you going to tell him he can’t? You planning to keep him for yourself?”

“He’s his own thing,” Nate said, “but I’m his dog, and if he points me at you I’ll gladly go.”

Mr. Johnson lunged at him. They fell to the ground grappling, evenly matched, Mr. Johnson taller and heavier than Nate, but Nate quicker and stronger. They were well paired, Tyson thought; like he and Jamie had been when they were still boys and allowed to wrestle and play fight, but with two blond heads instead of dark.

Tyson picked up the Garibaldi biscuits and unwrapped them. He ate a couple contemplatively while watching the two of them wrestle. Mr. Johnson’s horse leaned over the porch railing looking interested so Tyson fed him a couple biscuits too and then patted the blaze on his forehead. Nathan and Mr. Johnson finally wrestled themselves out and laid in the grass, sweating and blowing, and Tyson leaned over the porch and looked down at them “You two want supper?” he asked, and Nate sat up and pointed a finger at Mr. Johnson..

That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” he said to Mr. Johnson. “You want a free supper cooked by someone who knows what they’re doing!” Mr. Johnson looked caught out, but he didn’t deny it, just swatted at Nate’s finger, hard, and they were off again, wrestling more seriously in the grass. Tyson ate the rest of the biscuits, watching, one arm slung companionably over the horses neck. The horse was also watching them wrestle but he didn’t seem to have a favourite. Tyson hoped Nate won; he found himself all in on Nate’s side, somehow, these days. Nate finally pinned Mr. Johnson and after a few tries to escape, he subsided and tapped out.

“I think he likes Crosscheck better than you, anyway,” Nate said, nodding at where Tyson and the horse were happily cozied up. The Garibaldi biscuits seemed to have won the horse’s good favour.

“Everyone likes that horse better than me,” Mr. Johnson said, betraying no resentment about it. “He’s a quality horse, as fine as you’ll find in Colorado.”

“That’s so,” Nate agreed, and peace was restored. “How’s that shoe I did last month holding up?”

Nate’s suspicions proved correct - Tyson didn’t know what courting consisted of among the English, but Mr. Johnson didn’t direct a word to him throughout supper except to grunt “More beans” once, and he doubted that kind of behaviour drew the girls anywhere in the world.

“Good chaperoning,” Tyson said that night, as they prepared for bed. From his perspective it was, anyway, and Nate laughed.

*

Tyson came in to start the water for oats and froze, startled. Nate was still sleeping, spread out naked on the blanket in the corner. He was deeply asleep, limbs flung out and mouth slightly open, and his thing was hard. Tyson had never seen an aroused Alpha naked before. He and Gabe had had a traditional marriage, and they mated traditionally, so he had never seen Gabe naked. He peeked at Nate and then looked away quickly. He peeked again, checking to see if Nate was waking. Nate slept on, snoring lightly so Tyson, conscious he shouldn’t but too curious to look away, stood and stared. Nate, he was interested to see, was long and thick all over. No wonder it had hurt, he thought; look at it. Despite having been married, he still wasn’t very clear on the difference in construction of an adult Alpha and his own body, and he was interested to have this chance to look without censure. Nate’s cock was much larger than his, which he assumed was natural; he knew Alphas had a knot, and he moved down by Nate’s feet to get a different angle. From there he could see Nate’s sack and at the base of his cock, the larger ring that must be his knot. Nate’s body hair was darker than Gabe’s, his entire torso tanned, with a sharp cut off where the waist of his pants must fall. His legs were much hairier than Tyson had imagined, and this, rather than his cock, became the focus of Tyson’s interest.

Like all Omegas, Tyson had very little body hair. He had seen his own father’s forearms on a few occasions, he had seen Gabe shirtless once, and Tyson wondered what it would be like to touch Nate, to feel the coarse hair on his legs, to circle his cock with his hand and see if it felt the same as his. He must have made a noise, because Nate woke with a start and sat up. He rumbled at Ty, the Alpha noise of contentment, and scratched his chest. “Morning," he said. "What you up to there Mr. Landeskog?"

"Aaaah, porridge." said Tyson, flustered. "Making porridge."

Nate wasn’t buying it. "‘I can’t touch your hair, but you’re allowed to stand there and look at me naked?" he said.

"There’s no shame in nudity." Tyson said. "I beg your pardon if I offended you, but there’s no proscription on the body, simply on the violation of Integrity via touch."

"Well, that sounds like bullshit to me," said Nate sceptically. "But it don’t bother me none if it don’t bother you. Look your fill, it’s nothing to me. I gotta piss, you want to come watch that?"

Tyson giggled and turned back to the pot. He had been taught that Alphas, once aroused, were dangerous and insatiable until they were provided relief, but Nate didn’t seem to be in the grip of an uncontrolled passion. He simply headed out the door, naked. Tyson surreptitiously looked at his bum as he went.

Nate came back in wearing only his pants, half undone and perilously low on his hips. Unselfconsciously he reached into the open fly to adjust himself.

"Where you been keeping your pants?" said Tyson, unable to suppress himself. "Why were they outside? They’re going to be full of spiders and such if you keep them out there."

"Oh, spiders" said Nate loftily. "Spiders ain’t nothing to me. I don’t pay them no mind, if they’re in my pants they’d better look out for themselves."

"That’s not what you said when you found that one in your boot last week," said Tyson. Nate never seemed to mind when he contradicted him - in fact, he seemed to enjoy it.

"That was an unusually large spider," said Nate with dignity. "It would have taken anyone like that."

"You threw the boot out the door and spooked the horse," Tyson pointed out.

Nate started to laugh. "I know!" he said. "It was huge, and it was peering up at me with all it’s horrible spider eyes, and I thought what if it jumped up at me out of there, and I panicked."

"And then you made me go get the boot," said Tyson, also laughing. He made a jumping spider motion with his hand at Nate and Nate yelped and dodged. Tyson continued, stopping just before contact every time, and they laughed, trading spider swipes and insults.

"I think we better stop," Nate said regretfully, and Tyson paused to look at him. Nate adjusted himself in his pants again, where it was evident he’d stiffened back up.

"Guess so," said Tyson a little sadly, and they just held each other’s gazes for a long minute.

Finally, Nate looked away first. "Left my pants outside as they smelt rather strong of manure," he said. "Don’t know they’re any improved."

"Maybe that’s just you," said Tyson, and they were back on their usual footing. There was a jingle of horses tack from outside and Nate spread his legs out underneath the table.

“Might be Pa,” he said hopefully. “He said he’d come by today or tomorrow to bring some seed. Maybe he’s brought cream and we can put it on the porridge.” Tyson stepped out onto the porch and it wasn’t Nate’s Pa, but a unfamiliar Alpha standing at the foot of the stairs.

"Hello," he said in accented English and tipped his hat politely. "You Orthodox or Observant?"

"Observant," said Tyson, puzzled the man knew to ask.

"Great, great," the man said and started climbed up the porch steps.

"High Observant," said Tyson, and the man hopped backwards back down in one jump.

"Why you not say in the first place?" he said from the ground. "I don’t want to offend."

"How did you know to ask?" said Tyson. "No one here knows the difference."

"I grew up in Yakutz,” the man said. “Large community of Yakutzi Orthodox there."

"You Orthodox?" Tyson asked suspiciously. If so, this man shouldn’t even be here - he should have made advances through the Community.

"Pfff, no! “ the stranger said. “We are Muslim Tartars, but I know the rules, of course.”

“Of course,” Tyson echoed, and Nate appeared on the porch behind him.

“Hello, Yakupov,” Nate said pleasantly, but Alpha Yakupov scowled at him.

“Why aren’t you dressed, MacKinnon?” he demanded. “You can’t just walk around naked in front of the Räajenboagen.”

Reckon I can do whatever Mr. Landeskog finds acceptable,” Nate said mildly, but Alpha Yakupov just turned his glare on Tyson.

Bund,” he said, and Tyson crumpled. He hurried off to find one of Nate’s shirts, and when he returned, Nate and Alpha Yakupov were in a face off, standing with their arms crossed, glaring at each other.

“You courting?” Nate asked, totally ignoring the shirt Tyson was trying to give him.

“I come,” Alpha Yakupov said, irritated, “to make sure the Räajenboagen is safe. And I’m not convinced of that.”

“He’s fine,” Nate said dismissively, but Yakupov ignored him.

“You only need to ask,” he said to Tyson. “My mother lives with me, and we still remember the Räajenboagen. You ever need anything, you send for us.” He nodded to Tyson, remounted and rode away without another word to Nate, who stood on the porch watching him until he was long gone.

He was nice, Tyson thought.

*

"Do all Omegas faint as much as you?" asked Nate, staying seated on the porch railing but leaning away from where Tyson was bent over it, vomiting.

"Of course not," said Tyson crossly, wiping his mouth. "And anyway, I’ve hardly fainted at all, just the couple times getting up too quick. It’s the chucking I could do without. Do you think your Ma would have anything to say? It just doesn’t seem to go away since the ague.”

"I heard of fancy ladies fainting from wearing stays too tight, but that ain’t the problem," Nate mused. "Do you think the well’s bad?"

"No," said Tyson, "Don’t be stupid. If it was, then you’d be sick too."

"Not if you just got a weak city boy stomach."

"Haven’t got hardly any stomach at all," said Tyson. "Everything seems to set me off. Threw up yesterday when the pig yawned at me."

“Do you think,” Nate said hesitantly, “Do you think it could be that you’re, ahhh …” he trailed off.

What?” said Tyson.

“I don’t know how it takes Omegas, but sometimes the girls, when they’re, you know … My cousin Annie, she fainted once.” Nate looked uncomfortable but determined. “And then of course, a few months later, there was a little stranger."

"A little stranger?" said Tyson, puzzled.

"A baby!" said Nate, exasperated and having exhausted his very limited tact. "She had a baby."

"A baby," said Tyson wonderingly. "Oh, no, I doubt that."

"Well, it’s not so out of the possible, is it, being as you were married."

"We’d only been married a few months."’

"Still," said Nate. "Could be? I don’t know if you have courses like a girl, so as to tell if they stopped, or?"

"No," said Tyson, blushing. "No courses. I ain’t a girl."

"How do you know if you’re going to have a baby then?" said Nate interestedly.

Tyson looked at him like he was thick. "You get all fat and then the baby comes out, same as a girl."

Nate looked back at Tyson like he was thick. "That ain’t exactly how it works," he said condescendingly.

"How would you know?" said Tyson in the same tone. "You an expert?” and they left it there.