His form lay bundled beneath mounds of blanket, slowly expanding and contracting as he exhaled. The young dog that guarded the farm stood by his master's bed, keen eyes locked on me. He knew me well enough to allow me onto the grounds, but he was wary of letting me get too close to his owner.

It was fine by me. I just needed somewhere to rest while I nursed the stinging slap that adorned my cheek. It wouldn't leave a bruise, that much I knew from experience. But it hurt all the same. Grandpa, why can't I make you proud of me?

I knew full well why: we were the products of two entirely different generations. He had grown up in an age where an apprentice was truly no better off than a personal slave, fit to be used and abused as a master saw fit. The experience had taught him great discipline and mastery of the art, and likewise it had made him, at least by today's standards, rather cruel. He tended to punctuate his displeasure with blows.

I, on the other hand, had come from a world of litigation and lawsuits, a place where parents were no longer allowed to even spank their children for fear of government retribution. The culture shock to my senses during my training was intense, to say the least.

Tonight, over supper, our argument ended abruptly as he struck me. I stormed out, ignoring his commands for me to return, and walked as far as my legs would take me. I passed by the closed Seaside Shack, and down a moonlit path past Gotz' cabin. I turned and walked and walked and turned until I finally dropped onto one knee near the water mill of a farm.

Lying on the cold earth, I struggled to catch my breath before the sound of a stealthy tread made me sit up sharply. A wet nose snuffled my dirty hands, and a warm, slobbery tongue placed wet doggy kisses all over me. It was Nick. Which meant I was on Jack's farm.

Jack!… He was new in the village, but well liked and much admired. Every girl in the village had a soft spot for him, some significantly larger than others. As for myself, I thought very well of him. He was about my age, but it seemed as though he had done much more with himself in the same amount of time. His farm, which had previously belonged to his deceased grandfather, was flourishing. Even in the dim light, I could see the full eggplants beaming on the vine. There were two cows and several fluffy sheep securely penned away behind two rows of sturdy stumps; several thousand dollars on hooves. Nick kept guard over the timid chickens, eyeing me as I slowly struggled to my feet and made my unsteady way towards the main house.

He didn't lock his door, ever. Where I came from, that would get you a sparkling clean house overnight – and not in a good way either. Still, I was grateful as I slipped inside. Nick followed me in, taking the floor near Jack's bed.

I didn't dare to turn on the television, even down low, so I sat quietly in the darkness and stared up at the ceiling, wondering if I could drift off to sleep in the dusty chill that filled the room. Just then, the occupant of the bed sighed in his sleep and rolled over, leaving most of the sheets behind.

I suppose he does have the right to sleep nude in his own house.

It was about that point that I knew it had been a mistake to come. I stood to leave and reached for the door, but as my fingers touched the knob, Nick growled. And if there's one thing I'm not keen on, it's a large dog growling at me. With Teeth. And chasing me. With those same Teeth.

So I settled down and began to count chickens to go to sleep, and he settled down after giving me a few more warning glances. And I fell asleep sooner that I'd given myself credit for – but the chaos of the day followed me into my dreams.

~~~~~*~~~~~

I awoke to Nick's tongue washing my face. His whining made one point crystal clear: he needed to go out. I fumbled with the door and he bolted almost immediately. Grinning in spite of myself, I followed him out, heading down to the creek near the water mill for a much-needed facial cleaning. When I finished up, I turned to watch as the sun first shed its light on the dewy farm. The head rooster strutted to his perch and let out the most ear-splitting racket I had heard since moving here. Clapping my hands over my ears, I practically ran back into the house, where Jack had apparently woken up, gotten dressed, made the bed, and prepared and eaten breakfast – like I said, the guy gets a lot of work done fast.

He only seemed mildly surprised to see me come barging in without notice. "Gray, what's up?"

"I…" I shoved my hands in my pockets and looked away; it was a defense mechanism and one that I used often. "I had a fight with Grandpa. I need to stay here for a few days."

The look of surprise lingered. Did he not know that Grandpa and I often didn't get along, or was he wondering about my choice of living arrangements? "I'll stay in the water mill, if that's alright by you."

"That's fine." He flipped the TV on and began to watch the Weather Channel, so I made my escape.

I stayed out of sight for that day, watching him from a distance as he oversaw the running of his farm. His attention to detail was immense. I never knew that cows and sheep needed so much TLC, or that chickens could make such a fuss just to see their master coming. And the amount of produce he shipped…! The guy was clearly prospering.

And what about me? I was just a kid who couldn't hack it in the city, and wasn't doing much better in the country. I had begun to find some level of solace at the library, but it couldn't make up for the nagging doubts that plagued me daily.

I spent the day on the beach, glaring at the boat that had lain dormant ever since I came there. It reminded me that I was stuck with the decision that I had made for myself. When evening fell, I wandered to the Hot Springs and soaked myself, trying to get rid of the accumulated dust. I hadn't seen anyone all day long, and I was okay with that.

I drifted back onto the farm as the moon rose.

The water mill lay on my left, slowly creaking and straining against the fantastic weight of thousands of pounds of water pressure. I opened the low door and crawled in, settling against the damp wood.

It was going to be a long night, full of restless dreams and anxiety. And grinding machinery. And the sound of clucking hens, and the odor of fish. And counting chickens. My bed was far preferable to this. I could very easily just go home and apologize to Grandpa, and we could try to put this behind us. But while he would respect my decision to return, he still would not approve of me.

And I needed approval…any way I could get it.

~~~~~*~~~~~

I woke up very early the next morning, armed with a hoe, and set about weeding the huge plot of land that Jack owned. Although he had cleared much of it and planted extensive fields of crops and grass, the weeds were just as keen on living as the rest of the foliage, and they were taking root rapidly. I struck into the earth with the hoe the way that I would have melded metal with a hammer. The ground gave easily, and with another swift move, I ripped apart the plant's roots. One down. 109 to go.

It didn't take quite as long as I thought it might, due to my aggressive technique. I uprooted the last few plants as the roosters began their shouting match. I washed my hands in the little creek and turned to face Nick. And Jack. He smiled at me, his eyes warm and kind. "You're up so early, Gray."

"I weeded your field."

"So I see." He nudged the muddy hoe with the toe of his boot. "Thank you very much. Do you need anything?"

I shook my head and he shrugged. "I suppose not. Well, the bee tree drops apples. Feel free to help yourself if you like. Just don't bother the bees. I'd hate to see you or the animals get stung." He strolled away, merry. I watched him go.

The day passed as uneventfully as the last, and I spent it wandering on Mother's Hill. I came back a little sooner than usual, having come across an ore that I had never seen even pass through Grandpa's shop. I wondered if I could make something with it. I turned it over and over in my hands, and decided to try making a mallet.

"Hey, Gray."

A shadow loomed over me. I looked up to see Jack nearly filling the whole door. He was drenched from head to toe; doing some swimming in that creek, I supposed. He began to come in. "Whatcha got there?"

"A secret." I hid it immediately and he stopped, looking down at me with a grin.

A person's smile is a curious thing. It can warm or chill, comfort or repel. This was a real smile, one that expressed pleasure. He was glad to see me? "Ah, secrets. I see. It's going to rain tomorrow, you know. Could I convince you to sleep somewhere a little more waterproof?"

"I'll be okay out here." I didn't look at him when I said that, mainly because he was nude from the waist up and my eyes had begun to latch onto the beads of water that trickled into his navel.

"Well, fine, then…if you want coffee, I've got it in the house. All you have to do is come ask for some." He drew back to lean against the door frame. "And if you'd like, you can have supper with me. It'd be nice to have company while eating for once."

"Thanks," I muttered. The dying sun threw intense shadows over his body as he blocked the entrance. I think that I remember what Jack looked like when he first came to town: kinda soft, kinda flabby. People muttered, "That's the guy who's gonna take over Birch Farm?" No one had said that for a long time now. A few months of field labor makes one hell of a difference.

He stood there, as if expecting me to say more. But I had nothing else to say, and so with a final grin and a "see you later, then?", he left.

I sat alone in the dusk for a while longer, before pulling that ore back out of my pack. Making a tool would take time, and I wanted to have it done by tomorrow morning.

~~~~~*~~~~~

The new dawn came along windswept and rainy, but my face was glowing from exertion and pride. I had done it. The mallet was ready, if a little lopsided. Still, I thought that he might like it and come to treasure it in time. Grandpa always made several practice strikes with tools that he had refurbished, but I couldn't bear the thought of anyone but Jack using this hammer. I waited beneath the bee tree until he emerged, cheerful and whistling. "Hey."

"Hey," he replied, reaching down to scratch Nick's ears. "I missed you at supper."

"Sorry," I mumbled before pulling the tool from behind my back. "I was working on this." I held it out for him to take, which he did, hefting it and studying its balance. He eyeballed its dimensions the way one would a sword's.

Burning with impatience, I finally said, "Try it out, wouldja?"

He gave me another one of those smiles, but this one seemed more sheepish. And before I could think as to why, he smacked the hammer against the ground…and the head snapped directly in two.

He smiled at me again, and this time his smile was clearly sad. "You used a junk ore to make this, didn't you?"

Junk ore! No wonder I had never seen Grandpa work with that stuff before…I couldn't say a word, my heart was so full. Turning to walk away, I saw a dim blue figure in the teeming rain. So did Jack. "Mary?"

She didn't look at him; all her attention was on me. "What are you doing here? I've been wondering where you've been for a few days now."

I brushed past her and headed on into Mineral Town. Grandpa's shop loomed ahead, but it was Thursday and he would be busy in the mines, because unlike me, he actually knew what he was looking for. I could hear from the splashing noises behind me that Mary was following me, presumably to scold me. It didn't matter. I was glad for the rain that fell on my head and coated my cheeks, because no one would be able to tell that I was crying.

~~~~~*~~~~~

I returned to the main entrance of the Birch Farm at dusk, covered in mud. Jack was sitting on top of his shipping bin. "Oh, there you are, Gray. Have supper with me." He wasn't asking a question, so I didn't bother to answer.

I followed him in and kicked my boots in the corner, and seated myself at the table to watch him as he prepared vegetable stock to boil rice. He sliced a large fish, carefully removing bones, and stripped the firm meat from the skin before setting it aside. That done, he turned to a pot that I had assumed to be water and threw thin slices of potato into it. The liquid immediately popped and sizzled; it was oil. Within two minutes, he had hot fried potato chips sitting on the table. "I thought you might like those as an appetizer. It takes me a while to make good sushi rolls." He handed me a glass of wine. I recognized the bouquet instantly; it was a vintage from Aja's Winery. "Drink."

I sipped at the glass of alcohol and nibbled at the potato chips. Despite his earlier claim, he seemed to prepare food rather quickly. He cut the fish into slices, and then cubes, before adding it to the rectangular mat of rice and seaweed. He added a few slices of cucumber, and then neatly rolled it up, measured with his knife and sliced. Satisfied, he came to the table with two china plates bearing several rolls of yellowtail tuna and passed one to me. I looked at him, surprised, as he bought a cold mug of water for himself. "Aren't you going to have wine?"

"You're the guest," he answered impishly. "I drink it regularly enough, I don't need any tonight."

Fair enough. I ate my rolls in silence, and he maintained equal quiet for some time. Once dinner was over, he took the plates and set them in the sink. I watched, bemused. "You're not going to wash them?"

"In the morning," he said dismissively. "Did you and Mary work it out?"

"Nothing to work out."

"Do you like her?"

I looked at him sharply, but there was only a honest question in those velvet eyes. "I…don't know."

His eyebrow moved upwards, making him look younger than his twenty years. I found it positively charming. "Don't know?"

"No." I felt his eyes on my face, and my cheeks began to burn. He couldn't know…he couldn't know…

His hand touched my own, and a shock of agony shot through me as I heard a tinkling sound. His face changed at once, horror mirrored in his eyes. "Goddess, Gray, you've cut yourself! Don't move." He jumped up from the table, returning quickly with strips of clean cloth and hydrogen peroxide. "Why were you squeezing the glass that hard, anyway?"

I looked down at the bloody hand that he was busy picking shards out of. Sure enough, there was the stem of the goblet, laying abandoned in a puddle of wine. I dropped my head, mortified. "It's just a scratch. I've gotten worse than that trying to make the forge fires."

"It's more than 'just a scratch'. You can't stay in that water mill tonight. You're staying in here with me."

Jack sleeps nude! Jack sleeps nude! Jack sleeps…

…with me.

I looked up; he was looking down, all focus centered on my hand. "Okay."

~~~~~*~~~~~

He wore a shirt and boxers that night.

The warmth from the blankets was well nigh suffocating. I wriggled from beneath them three times, and all three times Jack rolled in his sleep and shoved them right back onto me. Smothering, I lay awake, counting chickens. Eventually, I fell into a half-sleep.

Ever since I came to Mineral Town, I had had dreams of embracing a woman, nestling against soft breasts and being shielded in a pair of loving arms. I had no clue who she was, as I never saw her face. It was probably just a physical form to the overwhelming desire to be loved and accepted. All the same, I saw my phantom lover nearly every night, and I clung to her for dear life. I saw her tonight, and succumbed to her closeness.

I woke up with a start, warmer than ever. Brown hair tickled my nose, and the weight of a head rested on my chest, because Jack was hugging me.

It had been so long since I had felt such a genuine clutch, I couldn't bear to make him move. Slowly, so as not to awaken him, I put my arms around his shoulders, running my fingers through the warm silky mass of hair. It felt good and sweet, and best of all there was no bitter aftertaste of guilt. And right on cue, he snuggled even deeper into my arms.

A smile slowly began to break out on my face, despite the sting in my palm and that wretched rooster's crowing.

~~~~~*~~~~~

When I woke up for the second time, Jack had a glass of mixed fruit juice ready for me, which I drank gratefully before going to wash up in the creek. I dressed quickly and carefully bandaged my palm. I had some things that I needed to do, and I had to get an early start. But first, I had to say goodbye.

"Thanks," I murmured as he and Nick walked me to the edge of his property. "You were…really great to put up with me."

He smiled and shook his head.

I turned away to look towards the village. The path was covered in a cloud, echoing the uncertainty of my mind. "Grandpa's disappointed with me…Mary's disappointed with me…I'm just a failure as a man, I suppose."

"Hey." Jack placed a hand on my shoulder. "You can never be a failure if you have friends. Besides," the look on his face turned playful again, "if you're a failure as a man, you make one heck of a great pillow."

A huge smile popped out on my face, so big that it made my cheeks ache. I spoke through a lump in my throat. "You're a great guy, Jack." I extended my hand to shake.

He took my hand and pulled me into a bear hug. "You are too, Gray. And one day, everyone will see that, clear as day."

I went home after that. Grandpa was gruff as always, but he made my favorite dinner as a surprise. When I went into my room, I found a small basket with eight pieces of prime ore. Grandpa, who was looking over my shoulder, grunted his approval. "That Jack fellow brought those for you, though he wouldn't say why. I hope some of him rubbed off on you while you hid out in his water mill. You could learn a lot from him, you know."

I knew it full well. Grandpa clapped me hard on the shoulder and left.

Tonight, as I dreamed, I was confronted with the slim, strong body of a young man with brown hair. I didn't even bother to wonder why, choosing instead to go to him without protest.

I never had to count chickens again after those three days.

fin

A/N: Sorry, I just thoroughly enjoyed seeing Gray stumble around my farm for three days making an ass of himself. As you've probably guessed, I have no clue what Gray's favorite food is or what he and Mary argue about after he leaves the farm on the second day. I hope that you enjoyed it all the same, though.