A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Ponyboys on Parade
Puck stared out at the lake, his knuckles white where they grasped the edge of the dock, as I waited for him to say more.
“His name is Elijah. And he’s in the hospital with a fractured spine. He may never walk again.”
A chill ran through me, and it wasn’t just the water drying on my skin. I almost said I’m sorry again but I kept my mouth shut. There was nothing I could say, as an outsider, that wouldn’t sound clichéd, or ring hollow. But I could sit silently and listen.
As a photographer, I was used to quietly observing things, listening to conversations and judging when to give input. Often, I decided it was wiser to wait and watch, and simply record what was happening. I found the photographs I’d taken when I’d kept myself removed from what was going on evinced truth and immediacy. It was a useful skill.
Puck turned and I met his gaze, trying to show with my expression that, even though I couldn’t possibly understand what he was going through, I cared and wanted to take some of the weight of it off him. Even if it was simply as a sounding board—a way for him to say these things out loud, instead of keeping them hidden inside him.
“I’m just so—so fucking angry. Because I told him this kid was dangerous, and was going to get him killed. And he didn’t fucking listen to me!”
Puck’s breath hitched and he made a noise like a sob that he strangled as soon as it tried to escape.
“I know that’s the wrong thing to be thinking. I should be sympathetic and helpful, When all I want to do is kill this stupid kid that did this to him, but I can’t because the kid is already dead from his own fucking stupidity. And Elijah is never going to be the same. And neither am I.” He turned to me, his gaze filled with anger and despair. “And it’s just not fucking fair, Oliver.”
I reached out, because it was the only thing that seemed remotely appropriate. There was nothing to say. I wrapped an arm around him and pulled him against me.
He stiffened for a moment, and I thought I’d made a mistake. But then he melted against me, nuzzled into my neck and shuddered, gasping deep breaths and shaking with some violent emotion. It didn’t matter if it was rage or hopelessness or grief. Whatever it was he’d pushed it down for so long it was killing him from the inside.
“I don’t—“ he gasped. “I’m sorry—“ he said, before a sob wracked him and he struggled to get away. “Fuck!”
I relaxed my hold and watched him pull from my embrace. He seemed startled to be allowed to break free. His hand flew to his face as his shoulders heaved.
“No, hold onto me. Please,” he moaned as he reached out and grabbed me, lurching into my willing arms.
A surge of emotion overcame me and I pulled him tight into my embrace, held him firmly around his bare waist and whispered nonsense into his ear. “It’s okay. Puck, I know. You’re okay.” His skin was goose-pimpled and still slippery with lake water.
I half expected him to pull away again, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to let him this time. He felt so good in my arms, and it pleased me to hold him while he fell apart.
Strange, forlorn sounds broke from his throat as he let his pain out. I had no idea what it was like to see your best friend so damaged and bereft. Especially if you weren’t able to talk about it with anyone. Until you found yourself at a kinky pony play ranch, confessing to your latest conquest, who would let you cover him in your tears and snot while sitting naked on clammy wet wood if it would only make you feel better.
I held him tight while he shuddered and keened, keeping him close until, after what seemed a very long time, he quieted, sagging against me like there was nothing left.
We listened to the lapping of water against the dock and the calls of birds from the lakeshore.
“You okay?” I asked after awhile. I genuinely needed to know if he was still conscious or if he’d fallen asleep against my shoulder. His breathing was long and even and he hadn’t made a sound for a while.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, don’t be. Something tells me you’ve needed to do that for quite some time.”
He moved against me. “Maybe. Probably.”
I let him sit up. He seemed shy and embarrassed, avoiding my gaze and swiping his cheeks with the back of his hand.
“I probably got you wet.”
“I was already wet.”
He nodded, gazing over the water.
“Can I ask you something?” I said.
“Your brother in Munich. He knows where you are?”
Puck swung his head to give me a skeptical look. “What? No.”
“But, you didn’t just not show up. He knows you’re safe?”
“Oh. Shit, yes. Of course.” Puck laughed softly and it was a relief to hear. “Except he thinks I’m at some kind of yoga retreat.”
“When I told my buddy I was leaving for a few weeks, that’s what he thought, too.”
Puck’s eyes went wide. “Did you tell him where you were really going?”
“I did. He was jealous.”
Puck chuckled. “Yeah, well. I signed up for this gig and then forgot all about it. The BCR just happened to email me with an available spot shortly after the accident happened, when I’d already promised my brother I’d visit him. My family could tell things were getting to me. But, then, this place and this experience, seemed like the best way to forget everything. At least for a little while.”
“Is it working?”
“Kind of?” he laughed bitterly. “No. Not really.”
I put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“When I’m in the paddock or the arena with Kamal,” he said, shaking his head. “I love every minute of it.”
“Really? It doesn’t seem like you—“
“But I feel guilty every minute that I’m loving it.”
“Because I get to play sexy ponyboy for my super-hot trainer slash Dom, who, by the way, is much more attractive than I’d anticipated. And Elijah gets to lie in his hospital bed,” he cleared his throat, voice thick with emotion. “Gets to lie there, and contemplate never being able to walk again.”
It all made sense now. This explained why Puck fought Kamal so relentlessly in the paddock. How must it feel to trot around at the whim of his sexy and dominant master, trying to be the most graceful, gorgeous ponyboy, when his best friend might never have use of his legs again?
“Awe, Puck,” I said, taking his chin in my hand and kissing him gently, then pulling back. “You’ve been through alot.”
“But that’s the thing,” he said, shaking his head. “Nothing I’ve had to go through compares to what Elijah’s going through right now. And I’m not there to, like, help him or talk to him, because I can’t fucking bear it.”
“It’s okay to take a break and get away for a bit.”
“Elijah can’t take a break. I mean, his family’s there, and they’re wonderful. I can’t even think about how hard this is for them.”
“You aren’t Elijah. Thank God you aren’t Elijah. Thank…whatever you want—the universe, fate—but instead of feeling guilty for enjoying your life, feel grateful, maybe?”
“Easy to say.”
“Yeah. You could talk to Adam.”
Puck stared at me. “You think I need therapy?”
“Puck,” I said gently. “Anyone who’s gone through what you did could use some counselling. It’s not a four-letter word.”
“Have you ever?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
His eyes widened. He gazed at me silently, probably too polite to probe for more information, so I gave it to him.
“I had issues with anxiety when I was about fourteen, fifteen. Like, major issues. My parents tried to address it but they signed me up for some counselling and it helped so much. And, yeah, I was resistant initially. But the anxiety got so bad it was interfering with school and social activities. Therapy made a world of difference.”
“Hmm. I don’t know if I—“ He stared into the distance. A loon called across the shimmering water. “I came here to escape all of that.”
“Sure, but you said it wasn’t really working?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look, I’m not telling you to talk to Adam. Just that the option is there. I’m really glad you talked to me. Did it help?”
“I think so. Yeah.” He laughed and bumped my knee with his. “Even though I’m so embarrassed I don’t know if I can ever see you again.”
A lead brick fell into my stomach until I noticed the sparkle in his eye and his soft smile. “Joking. I’m joking.”
I put a shaky hand to my forehead. “Don’t do that. I thought you meant it.”
“Is it that important to you?”
“What? This?” I gestured between the two of us.
“Puck. Yes. I love what’s happening here. I don’t want it to stop.”
He nodded, blushing. “Good. Me either.”
The sun was close to setting, so we swam back to shore, got dressed and headed back to the bunkhouse. We were quiet as we walked through the darkening woods. I felt a real intimacy between us as our footfalls landed in the grass and dirt, and the chirping of crickets and frogs surrounded us.
As we neared the bunkhouse, human voices from inside the panelled walls joined the cacophony of small animals. I took my leave, kissing Puck on his stubbled cheek and squeezing his fingers, before I strode back to the main house in the glistening moonlight.
I didn’t see Puck again until the pony show the following day.
I’d planned to photograph the men being tacked for the show, but I’d had a software issue with the Nikon camera that took me all morning to sort out. It delayed me so that I barely had time to get to the paddock and set up my tripod and camera by the fence.
It was strange to see the bleachers filled with people of all types; some in fine clothes similar to those worn to an actual equestrian event, others in fetish gear, still more in jeans and T-shirts. They spoke and laughed amongst themselves as they waited for the show to begin, the air filled with excited anticipation.
I was just as eager to see the ponyboys strut their stuff for the crowd. Especially one particular ponyboy. Because the afternoon shift were first on the rotation this weekend, I knew Puck would be performing today. There was no way I was missing that.
I turned to see Lincoln in tight jeans and an Imagine Dragons T-shirt, at my elbow.
“Hi. How’s it going?”
He cocked his head, giving me a grin. “Good. You?”
“Well, despite having a cock-up of a morning with my camera equipment, fine.”
“Oh shit. Got everything working I hope?”
“Yeah. Just in time.”
Lincoln appraised me with his gaze. “I know you’re supposed to take photos of all of us, but I think you’re here to see a particular person.”
I tried to appear confused. “Hmm? What?”
Lincoln laughed. “I saw you together last night, when you got back from,” he waved his hand in the air, “whatever you were doing.”
I cleared my throat, pretended to fiddle with my camera. “We were at the beach. Swimming.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Did Puck say anything?”
Lincoln laughed, shaking his head. “Nope. He just got ready for bed. Went to sleep. Easier than he has since he got here.”
“Usually he tosses and turns all night. But he was out like a light and slept through for once. At least, I think so. Usually, I wake up at least a few times because of his noises.”
“I guess the swimming did him some good.”
I smiled, aware that Lincoln knew there was more going on where Puck and I were concerned. “Yeah, I guess so. Look, we’re trying to keep it quiet…”
He grinned. “So there is something going on.”
I blinked. I couldn’t believe he’d got me. This ranch was hell on my defenses.
“Oh, you’re good.”
Lincoln preened a bit. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. I’m glad for Puck. He may be a headcase with Kamal but he’s very cool with all of us. He’s well-liked.”
I was pleased to hear it, although a tiny stab of jealousy hit me in the chest. I wanted to claim Puck. I wanted everyone to know he was mine. Which was such a caveman thing to want I could hardly process it and simply pushed the feeling down.
“Good. And, thanks.”
“No problem.” He gestured to the paddock. “Looks like they’re getting started.”
Adam came into the ring, dressed in slacks and a white button down with a bow-tie, looking so sexy and put together he took my breath away. As my employer, he was hardly a suitable subject for a romantic attachment, but I would have been sorely tempted if Puck hadn’t trumped every other man for whom I’d ever had romantic thoughts.
“Good afternoon, everyone! Welcome to the first pony show of the summer session, here at The Braided Crop Ranch. We have three lovely ponyboys to perform for you today. In a moment, their trainers will bring them out and have them parade around the ring for you.”
Cheers and whistles sounded from the bleachers.
Adam announced the ponies with their show names, saving Puck for last.
“And now, for our final ponyboy, Tempest, with his handsome trainer, Kamal!”
Tempest. It suited Puck perfectly. Even though it referenced the wrong Shakespeare play, since Puck was a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it certainly fit his fiery nature.
When Tempest trotted out with Kamal, wearing the red rope halter and a fantastic, elizabethan-type mask in burgundy with gold filigree trim, my mouth went dry. The crowd whooped louder than ever, and Puck carried himself with grace and an effortlessness that spoke to the training he’d received.
“He looks amazing,” Lincoln commented. “Seems more comfortable, too.”
“Yeah. Jesus.” I lifted a trembling hand to my forehead.
Lincoln glanced at me, then laughed. “You can’t hide what you’re feeling for him, you know.”
I nodded, blushing. “I promised I’d try.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Good luck.”
The inaugural pony show consisted of the trainers having the ponyboys show off their figures and their gaits, by prancing around the ring, and eventually jumping over some low oxers. Afterward, the ponyboys paraded around the ring a last time as Adam requested applause from the captivated audience.
Then the ponyboys were brought outside the paddock to pose for photos with any of the guests who paid for the privilege. A lineup quickly formed in front of Tempest in his golden mask and I couldn’t get anywhere near him.
I ended up hanging back and watching from a distance, to make sure he was doing okay. Kamal stayed close to Puck and ensured the rules were followed. Nobody was allowed to touch a ponyboy, although they were permitted to stand close for a photo.
How people were able to be near Puck in that get-up, and be forbidden to touch him, seemed like torture, but I was very glad those rules existed.
He caught my eye several times and we stared at each other while he had his photo taken with various enthusiastic men and women. He looked so majestic and beautiful and this was only the beginning. In future shows, he and the other ponyboys would wear the full bridles with the metal bits, and the flowing tails. I swallowed thickly, recalling how Puck had looked with the black horsehair cascading down the backs of those strong and shapely legs. I wasn’t sure I could handle him in full show gear, when seeing him like this was like a physical blow to the heart.
I was thankful I had the use of the tripod during the show since my hands had only recently ceased trembling. It had been a relief, in a way, to be able to capture the sexy ponyboys in full without worrying about identifying features, since they all wore the beautiful masks that disguised their faces and transformed them into fantastical creatures from another universe.
By the time the audience had thinned to only a handful of people speaking with Adam, Kamal caught my eye and beckoned me over. My gut wrenched at the thought of going closer to the object of my extreme desire whilst keeping my true feelings suppressed, but Kamal was difficult to ignore.
When I got there, cradling my camera in sweaty palms, Kamal gestured to Puck.
“So? What do you think of Tempest?”
I cleared my throat. “All the ponyboys looked amazing.”
“Yes, but Tempest, my sweet scene-stealer. What do you think of him?”
I blinked, scrambling for something to say that wouldn’t betray my true feelings, but would express how stunning Puck really was. Apparently, my wordless answer was enough.
Kamal laughed. “Yes, I can imagine it’s difficult to find the words. He performed beautifully. I’m very impressed with how he did today.”
I risked a glance at Puck to find him staring at me. Our gazes locked as my body responded to the intensity in his green eyes.
Kamal’s gaze drifted back and forth between us.
“Hmm. Something going on here that I’m not aware of?”
I tore my gaze away and acted dumb. “Hmm?”
Kamal examined me and smiled slowly. “That’s a good act, Oliver. But you can’t fool me.”
I shrugged, the heat in my face betraying to Kamal exactly how I felt about his prized ponyboy.
Then Puck said, “Leave him alone. Please.” in such a soft voice that we stared at him in surprise.
“I don’t want everyone to know. Not yet,” he continued.
Kamal lifted a hand to touch the edge of Puck’s pretty mask and glanced my way.
“So, there is something going on between the two of you.”
I looked at the ground, feeling guilty, although I had every right to pursue something with Puck. “Yeah.”
“Kamal, please don’t tell anyone. Let us keep it quiet for a little while.” Puck said.
“Why? You’re not violating any rules.”
“I think,” I said, glancing at Puck who seemed uncomfortable with Kamal’s scrutiny of, and interest in, his private dalliances. “I think that Puck wants us to fly under the radar for a little while.” I ran a hand through my hair, recalling Lincoln’s comments from earlier. “Even though I’m not sure we’re fooling anyone, to be honest.”
Kamal grinned and chucked his ponyboy under the chin. “I hate to tell you, but anyone who watches the two of you together can see the chemistry. And I can fucking feel it.”
Puck and I swivelled our heads to gape at Kamal, who laughed and passed me pretty Tempest’s lead rope.
“Here. Have a moment with him, then take him to the grooming barn. I’m going back to the house.”
I stood there, staring at the rope in my hand for several moments as Kamal walked away. Everyone else had gone into the arena or were headed back to the resort, so Puck and I stood alone together in the field.
I looked up and into the prettiest pair of green eyes I knew. Puck watched me from out of his golden mask, his cheeks flushed from the sun and exertion and probably something else.
“What are you going to do with me?” he said, tongue flicking the silver ring in his lower lip.
All the blood drained from my upper body and into my lower half, as I tried to adjust to the dizzying arousal.
“I’ll tell you what I’d like to do with you,” I said, barely giving the words volume. It was almost as if a thought came right out of my head and into the air between us, like magic.
I wasn’t sure he’d heard me. He stepped forward, so close I smelled leather and the musk of perspiration.
“Say that again.”
Puck’s soft breath feathered over my skin as I struggled to remain coherent in the face of a tsunami of lust that washed over me.
“I’ll tell you what I’d like to do with you,” I repeated, slightly louder. He was so close now.
We gazed at each other, emotion and need flaring up between us like a firestorm.
“What do you want to do with me?” he whispered.
“I want…” I almost choked on the words. “I want—everything.”
“I’ll give you everything. But we’re in the middle of a field right now. It would cause quite the scandal if I gave it to you right this minute.”
I smiled briefly at his joke, aroused beyond measure.
“A kiss, then?” I said.
Our faces were only inches apart. Puck seemed like an otherworldly apparition in his golden mask. He nodded once, then his lips found mine and we kissed softly—so softly, that I gasped with the tender heat of it. I clamped down on the part of me that wanted to devour him, and instead, cherished the gentleness of this moment.
The kiss rocked me to the core, so much so that, when Puck pulled away and gazed at me fiercely, I stood paralyzed and breathless.
“I know a place where we can—“ Puck swallowed and licked his lips. “—have some time alone. Undisturbed.”
I nodded, afraid to speak.
“Meet me tonight? Outside the bunkhouse. Around eleven?”
I nodded again.
The hint of a smile emerged on his face. I think he was amused at my tortured state.
“You going to be okay?”
“I don’t think so.”
He laughed and I wrapped trembling fingers around his bicep, feeling the strength of his sinewy muscles.
“I need to take you to the grooming barn.”
“Yeah. I’m a mess.”
I shook my head. “No. You’re not. But I can’t fucking deal with the way you look and feel and smell right now. So I’d better take you there before I make a really bad decision.”
He laughed again. “Oliver…”
“Puck. I’m in way over my head, here.”
He sobered and gave me such an intense and tender look, I felt it in my bones.
“Take me to the grooming barn, Oliver.”
“And meet me at the bunkhouse tonight.”