Chapter One

Sometimes the sun shone on Churchville, North Carolina, and sometimes it did not. This particular August was hot and humid, but dark. Purple thunderclouds rolled across the sky and electricity zinged in the heavy air. Paul was traversing the wide earth tracks of his father's vineyard, picking grapes. He had a really heavy canvas sack that he had to drag along with him, and with each metre or so it only got heavier. He reckoned it was going to rain soon, and the storm would beat up the scent of leaves and earth and delicate fruit out of the ground. The thought made him morose.

Most of the other pickers were way behind him, at the farm end of the vineyard, and he was basically alone. He jumped out of his skin when he heard a familiar voice rattle out his name in the muggy air. "PAUL!"

He turned around, trying to see where it was coming from, and then a familiar form was barrelling up the track at him, too fast to stop and then- THUMP. The other boy's momentum knocked them both to the dusty floor.

"Fucking hell, Matthew!" Paul punched him on the shoulder, and Matthew punched him back. His other hand, though, was already sliding up Paul's ratty t-shirt, over the soft skin of his stomach. Paul laid his head down on the dirt and looked up at Matthew pensively, contemplating kneeing him in the balls. "One day, you'll get us caught."

Matthew sat up, weight fully resting on Paul's hips, and looked around at the verdant vines and bruise-purple grapes that hid them from view. "Nah," he said, "I reckon we're alright."

"Well, alright then…" Paul murmured, tugging Matthew down by the corners of his hand-me-down shirt. Their mouths met hotly for a second and then broke apart. Paul's hand crept ever-closer to Matthew's belt, devious and clever.

"You don't plan on having me right here in the vineyard, do you?" Matthew murmured suddenly, a hand clamping down over Paul's wrist. Paul used the anchorage to tug Matthew onto to the floor with him and roll himself on top.

"I do, actually."

He used his weight to pin Matthew to the floor and gently kiss the sweep of skin where his neck met his shoulder. Matthew's skin was a soft golden brown from being outside so often, always hot and slightly salty with sweat. It fascinated Paul, whose own skin was so fair that he burned if he didn't use really strong sun cream. He wondered if his own skin tasted of sun block, and almost asked Matthew. He decided not to, instead burying his face in the collar of Matthew's shirt. Everything Matthew owned had at one point belonged to one or more of his brothers, including the washing-powder-soft lumberjack shirt he was wearing. It was at least a size too big for him.

"What you are," Paul whispered in his ear, as a hand worked its way inside the other boy's jeans, "Is poor. Catholic and poor."

Matthew couldn't object because he'd lost the power of speech. "I… oh fuck, Paul…" In his head, he had comebacks ready, that he was going to withhold sex or something like that, but he knew he'd never actually say that. So he tried to stifle his noises by biting his lip and let Paul roughly and efficiently bring him off in the middle of the vineyard.

When it was over, Paul finally let him up, turned his back and wiped his hands on the inside of his grape-carrying sack, letting Matthew sort himself out in privacy. It was just what they did. No eye contact for a few minutes, not until they'd wiped out all the evidence of what they'd done.

"You gave me a fucking hickey," Matthew realised, suddenly remembering Paul's mouth clamped down on his neck, sucking, hard enough to hurt. He raised a hand to the tender spot.

"Hickey for a hick," Paul said dryly as he hauled his bag onto his shoulder again.

"Fuck you."

"If you can get it up again."

They exchanged a few not-really-meaning-it punches until Paul's arm started to hurt too much. "I give in. C'mon, let's go back to the farm."

"Already?" Matthew whined. "I just walked all the damn way up here. Further, actually, 'til I saw your redneck ass down here from the top of the hill."

Paul was already on his way back down, his feet kicking up dust and the scent of the scrubby grass that was just starting to grow again. "My bag's full, gotta go and get another one," he shouted back. It was beginning to rain, too. Fat, headily-scented drops splashed on their heads, beat on the ground.

"You're not gonna hand in your card?" Matthew shouted, having to jog to keep up. "We could go grab some food."

Paul shook his head, slowing down a bit to allow him to catch up. "Gotta get some more cash. Those hamburgers I keep buying you don't come cheap. Well, they do, as a matter of fact, you just eat a whole damn lot of them. And I need a new walkman."

The hamburger remark chastened Matthew slightly, and he fell into step with Paul to link their arms together, a rare gesture. "I'm sorry, Paul… Look, call me at home when you get off and I'll come meet you?"

Sighing heavily, Paul shook his head again, shaggy hair already drenched from the rain. "Sorry, babe, I'm going to be at least another two hours." The thought of tramping up the hill all over again, this time in the rain, depressed him. Especially when he could be out with his best friend instead.

"Why d'you pick your damn grapes so early, anyway?" Matthew grumbled, changing the subject.

Paul shrugged. "Dunno. Pa says we pick 'em when they're ready. Plus, this way, he gets me 'n' the other boys as cheap labour." Several of Paul and Matthew's friends signed up to do the harvest whenever it fell during their summer holidays. It was the only job going spare in Churchville, since all the rest were taken up by nomadic agricultural workers. It was all very Of Mice And Men, as far as Paul was concerned.

They reached the end of the vineyard and crossed the bright grass that separated it from the cobbled farmyard. Paul's family didn't keep any animals except a temperamental old mare and a rheumatic guard dog. In the middle of the cobbled courtyard, some labourers were crating up the grapes and lugging them into a truck. Paul's father stood there with a clipboard overseeing matters.

"Going well, boy, it's going well," he shouted when he saw Paul. "How're you doing, Matt?"

Matthew shook hands with him, almost wincing at the roughness. "Good thanks, sir. How's it going?"

"Not bad. 'scuse me- Hey! Be careful with them, they don't want them to arrive pre-pressed, y'assholes!" Paul's father jogged over to the labourers and started shouting at them.

Matthew rejoined Paul, who was depositing his canvas bag and getting a new one. By now, their clothes were soaked through. "I'm gonna head off…" Matthew said quietly. "Don't get a cold." It was possibly the most tender thing he'd ever said to him.

"I'll try not to," Paul replied, loping into the distance with his bag slung over his shoulder.