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Maybe camping isn't so bad after all

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“I hate everything.”  Pidge gripes, for what is probably the tenth time that day.  She is sitting hunched-over on a damp log, hands tucked into the pockets of her outermost coat -- she is wearing three -- with a knit cap jammed on her head and a scowl pinching her face.  

“Everything?”  Lance sidles up next to her, boots making a squelching noise in the mud. He leans into her space, resting his chin on her shoulder.  “Even me ?”  

“Camping was your stupid idea, of course I hate you.”  Pidge huffs.

“If you hate me, then why are you clinging to my arm like a koala?”  He challenges.  

“I’m stealing your body heat.”  Pidge grouses, pulling her sleeves over her hands to shield them from the chilly air as she tightens her arms around his.  

“Pidge, it’s really not that bad once you start moving around.”  Hunk points out, digging through the bag of food they brought with them.  “Lance even thought about going swimming, before it started raining.”

“Lance is certifiably insane.”  Pidge says.  “And it’s been raining since we got here.”

“I am not, and it has not.”  Lance tugs his arm out of her grip, only to wrap it around the back of her shoulders.  He rubs her opposite arm vigorously through her many coats.  “It was drizzling a little on the hike, but you could hardly feel it through the trees.  And it stopped once we got in the canoes.”

“Only to start raining again while we set up camp.”  Pidge grouses.  “My sleeping bag has a wet spot on it.”

Lance gasps in mock horror.  “Pidge!  Dig a hole and pee in it like a civilized person, you absolute heathen!”  

She shoves at him in retaliation.  “From the rain , you dingus.  From when you couldn’t figure out how to put the rain-cover on the tent as we were setting it up.”

“The rain made the instructions all blurry.”  Lance shrugs, unbothered.  “There’s always room in my sleeping bag, you know.  Provided there aren’t any more wet spots.”  

“Just for that, you’re gonna wake up with a big one.”  Pidge waves her little tin drinking cup in the direction of the nearby lake.  

Lance waggles his eyebrows at her.  “Is that a threat or a promise?”  He asks, clearly thinking of something other than getting a cup-full of lake water dumped on his face.  

“Guys, don’t be gross.”  Hunk makes a face at his two partners.  “And can you be helpful and go find some firewood?”

“Not it.”  Pidge touches her nose.  

“I meant both of you.”  Hunk tells her.  

“But everything’s wet.”  Lance jerks his thumb at the rain trickling down from the trees and onto the tarp they have strung up.  “How are we supposed to find anything to burn?”

“There’s a ton of balsam firs over there.”  Hunk points.  “They’re super flammable.  You should be able to find a few dry sticks, at least.”

The two of them leave the safety of the tarp and set off to find some firewood.  Luckily, the rain has lightened up again and has stopped for the time being, but the sky is still overcast and dark-looking, as if threatening to dump more moisture on them.  Pidge rubs her hands together to warm them up, mood sour as she picks her way over damp undergrowth.  Lance said a camping trip would be a fun and romantic getaway idea.  So far, it’s been nothing but rain and cold, and Pidge would much rather be inside with a cup of hot cocoa, watching movies together or getting in heated video-game competitions with her boyfriends.  

She spends what feels like about a half-hour -- although she doesn’t know for sure, as Lance and Hunk came up with some stupid rule that involved sealing their phones and watches in a dry-bag to ‘connect with nature’ or some dumb logic -- gathering whatever semi-dry tinder she can find.  Not wanting to wander too far and become lost, she heads back to their campsite, where Hunk is just finishing cooking some pasta and alfredo sauce over a small camp stove.

“If we have a stove, why did we need to collect firewood?”  She asks, ducking under the tarp.  

“So we can build a fire later.”  Hunk explains.  “Can you spread those out on the tarp over there so they can dry out?”  

She does so, making sure that water won’t drip on them from the overhead tarp.  Hunk leans over and plants a kiss on her cheek, making her smile despite the cold seeping into her bones.  

“Hey, guys!”  Lance calls out, jogging down the hillside.  He has a bundle of wood tucked under his arm and a small sprig of fir needles in his other hand.  “Guess what?  Balsam fir tastes like how Christmas smells!”

“Did you eat it?”  Hunk stares at him.  “Lance, you’ve got to stop eating plants!”

“It smelled like gumdrops!”  

“That’s not a good enough reason to put it in your mouth!”  

~~~

By the time they ate lunch and had cleaned up, the sun was feebly trying to poke through the clouds and Lance declared it a good enough time to go swimming.  Pidge stares at him in abject horror, but Hunk seems to have taken a sip of the crazy juice, too, because he actually agrees with him.  Pidge tells them there is not enough money in the world that can get her out of her clothes right now, so she will not be joining them.  The two shrug and disappear into the tent for a few minutes to put on their swimming trunks while Pidge assumes her place hunched over on a log with her arms wrapped around her stomach.  

Lance comes tearing out of the tent moments later, wearing nothing but blue swim trunks with a gaudy flower pattern on them, and sprints barefoot down to the edge of the lake, shouting “ cooooolllldddd!

“Yep, certifiably insane.”  Pidge regards him with a raised eyebrow.  Hunk, more sensibly wearing his hiking boots with his yellow swim trunks, chuckles at the scene.  

“What are you going to do while we swim?”  He asks, and she doesn’t know how he can’t be shivering as he stands there with his hands casually on his hips.  

She lifts a shoulder in a shrug.  “Sit here, I guess?”  

A mischievous glint in his eye is her only warning before she finds herself scooped up over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry.  She lets out a shriek as he heads for the water.  “Hunk!  Put me down!”  

“If you’re just going to sit, you can do it over here.”  He says, kicking his boots off at the water’s edge.  “We want to spend time with you.”

“And I want to spend time without hypothermia!”  Pidge clings to him as he walks into the water.  Lance floats a few meters out on his back, laughing uproariously at her expression.

“She looks like a cat trying to get out of a bath!”

Just for that, she bares her teeth and hisses at him.  Hunk chuckles and sets her on the trunk of a downed tree, its top half submerged in the water while its roots stretch above them to the side, soil still clinging to the lattice-like roots.  She is dry, and the branch she is on is fairly wide and well above the water, but now she is trapped unless she wants to drop into knee-deep, freezing lake water.

“It’s not even that cold…” Hunk tells her, as if he can read her mind.  Lance corroborates his statement by taking a deep breath and ducking under the water completely.  Yep, insane, the both of them, she thinks as he pops back up, hair dripping into his eyes.  

“Hey, Hunk, race you to that island out there!”  Lance points to a small island -- really, it’s more just a pile of boulders with a single, scraggly tree perched on top -- and takes off.  

Hunk gasps.  “No fair!  We have to start at the same time!”  He dives after him.  

Pidge huffs, shaking her head fondly.  They brought her out here and now they’re running off without her.  She carefully swings one leg over the branch to straddle it, giving her more stability and less chance of sliding off.  Her hiking boots dangle only a couple of inches above the water.  She stretches out on her stomach and rests her chin on her folded arms to watch her ridiculous boyfriends splash each other out in the lake.  The water must be warmer than the air, she thinks, because if she looks carefully at the still surface, she can see little tendrils of steam curling up.  Curious, she sits up and hauls one foot up onto her branch, tongue between her teeth as she unties the knot of her shoelace.  She stuffs her thick wool sock into the boot, ties the ends of the shoelace together, and hangs the boot off another protruding branch.  After rolling the leg of her jeans up to mid-calf -- cold! -- she lays down on her stomach again and stretches her toes down, dipping them in the water.  Huh, not that bad after all.  She stretches a little further, submerging half her foot, then yanks it back out as soon as the deeper water turns chilly.  She will stay on the top two inches of water, thank you very much.

She stays like that, lounging on the log like a leopard in a tree, swinging her foot idly to drag her toes through the water, for several minutes.  Again, no watches, so she can’t be sure, but for the first time, she doesn’t really care.  Eventually, though, Hunk gets chilly and even Lance -- who will go swimming at the outdoor public pool right up to the last open day and then complain that they really could leave it open longer -- seems to be at his limit.  The pair of them swim back to shore and then splash their way through the shallows, the water churning around their knees.  

“Hey Pidge, how about a hug?”  Lance grins, holding his arms out.  Water droplets drip off his skin, leaving goosebumps in their wake.  

“Touch me before you dry off and I’ll smother you in your sleep.”  Pidge leans away from him, putting her sock and shoe back on.  

“Then how are you planning to get back to shore?”  Lance smirks.  “One of us will have to carry you, or you’ll have to jump into the water yourself.”

Pidge freezes.  She looks down the trunk of the downed tree, at the roots fanning out and blocking her path.  Quiznak.  She turns back to Lance and gives him a stern look.  “Don’t you dare drop me.”  

“As you wish.”  Lance sweeps his arm out as he bows.  She carefully scoots to the edge of the tree branch, braces her hands on his shoulders -- his skin feels like ice -- and hops down, wrapping her legs around his waist like a very water-adverse koala.  Lance chuckles and holds her under her thighs, walking them back to shore.  

On land again, they jog up the hill -- Lance hissing “ cold!  Cold!  Cold! ” the whole way -- and find Hunk wearing a fleece jacket and a towel wrapped around his waist, trying to start a fire with flint and steel.  While Lance dries himself off with another towel and puts on his hiking boots, Pidge helps Hunk with the fire and they manage to get a small one going through a combination of tinder, newspapers, and fervent prayers to the fire gods.  Pidge warms her hands over the flames while the two boys try to get as close to the fire as physically possible, sighing as it dries them off.  

“Your butts are steaming.”  Pidge announces when they turn around to warm their backs.

“Heck yeah they are.”  Lance flashes her a wink over his shoulder.  

“No, literally.”  She points to the thin curls of steam rising from their soaked swim trunks.  

“Ah, that glorious evaporation.”  Hunk chuckles.  

When they have gotten their skin dry, the two leave Pidge in charge of the fire while they get changed out of their swim trunks and back into their layers of wool and fleece.  Lance ties a rope between a couple of trees and hangs their trunks up to dry, Pidge keeps feeding the fire, and Hunk starts getting dinner ready.

“I still say you’re calling these the wrong thing.”  Lance says, crossing his arms as he eyes Hunk setting the aluminum foil-covered lumps in the coals of the fire.  “Pasties are definitely the little nipple hat things.”

“Pasties are a delicious baked pastry with meat and vegetables, and the fact that you think they have anything to do with nipples is frankly insulting.”  Hunk replies.  

“I think it’s a vowel issue.”  Pidge offers.  “PAH-sties versus PAY-sties.”  

“I think it’s just that there isn’t a lot of overlap between people who go camping and people who stick glittery adhesive to their nipples.”  Hunk snorts.  

“What the heck, Hunk, I’m here!”  Lance spreads his arms out.  Hunk gives him a mollified look over the fire and Pidge nearly falls backward laughing.               

~~~

“Mmm, those were some tasty nipple hats.”  Lance pats his stomach after dinner.

Hunk chucks his ball of tin foil at him.  “Stop calling them nipple hats.”  

Lance ducks and the foil ball goes over his head.  Pidge reaches around him to pick it up.  “Stop littering.”  She throws it at him and it bounces off his chest.  Lance rolls his eyes and stands up to go deposit the foil in their trash bag.  Pidge leans her head on Hunk’s arm and holds her hands out over the fire.  

Suddenly, a shriek from behind them startles them both, and they turn around just in time to see Lance jumping away from the food bag as a large field mouse hops out of it.  The mouse dashes off into the woods.  

Lance has his hand pressed over his heart.  “It… it…” He points wildly in the direction of the trees.  “ Mouse !”  

“We saw.”  Pidge cranes her neck, but the mouse has disappeared into the underbrush.

“What did it get into?”  Hunk asks worriedly, digging through the food bag.  His brows pull together.  “Everything seems to be sealed up still… oh.”  

“What?”  

Hunk holds up a block of cheese with the plastic shredded at one end, little teeth nibbles clearly visible.  “He ate… a quarter of a pound of pepper-jack.”  

Pidge’s eyes widen.  “ One mouse ?”  

Lance looks off in the direction the mouse ran.  “His little mouse tummy is not going to be happy about that tomorrow.”  He says, shaking his head.  

Hunk cuts off any cheese that might have been touched by the mouse -- “let’s name him Platt.”  “He’s not a pet , Lance…” -- and seals the rest of it up carefully, then they string the food bag up into a tree on the off chance any bears came stumbling by (or any other devious mice).  After everything is cleaned up, they sit around the fire while it burns itself down.  Lance tries to get everyone to tell ghost stories, but Hunk just hides behind Pidge until he promises to stop.  They chat a little bit, but mostly just sit in comfortable silence, listening to the crackle of the fire and the hush of the wind blowing through the trees.  

“Hey, look,” Lance points up.  “You can kinda see the stars.”  

They look up, but most of what they can see is just the branches of the trees spanning overhead.  They can see only a few stars through the branches.  

“Hm, all these pine trees in the way…” Lance frowns.  

“They’re hemlocks, actually.”  Hunk says, peering up at them.  

“Really?”  Lance picks up a sprig of needles that must have gotten knocked down in the rain earlier.  

“Mhm.  They’re picky trees, and like to grow in the shade of other hemlocks-- Lance do not put that in your mouth !”  

Pidge snorts in amusement while Hunk wrestles the branch away from Lance.  “Still,” Pidge leans back on her hands and looks up.  “It’s too bad we can’t see the stars more.”  

Lance pauses, then flashes them a wicked grin.  “I know where there aren’t any trees in the way.”  He lifts his eyebrows and nods toward the lake.

Hunk gasps.  “Brilliant, Lance!”  

“What?  Wait, no,” Pidge shakes her head.  “No, no, no, I am not going out on the lake in the middle of the night--”

“Too late, decision’s made!”  Lance hauls her up to her feet while Hunk grabs the canoe paddles.  

“You guys have fun, I’ll, uh, make sure the fire doesn’t light up again.”  Pidge says quickly.  She lets out a yelp when Hunk picks her up again.  

“The fire is dead, we’re fine.”  He tells her.  

Lance pushes the canoe into the water and hops in the bow.  “Come on!”

“This is the worst idea ever.”  Pidge hisses, as Hunk sets her down in the middle.  “What if we capsize?”  

“We won’t go out far, we have life-vests, and we’re not going to capsize.”  Lance assures her while Hunk pushes them off and hops into the stern.  She grumbles but accepts the paddle he hands her.  

They paddle only a few strokes to get away from the edge, then just drift on the still lake.

Now look up.”  Lance points, barely visible in the pale light of the sliver of a crescent moon.

Still grumpy about being put in a boat in the middle of the night , Pidge crosses her arms and tips her head up.  She blinks, her breath leaving her in a rush.  There are more stars in the sky than she ever knew existed.  Thousands upon thousands of them, so many that she can hardly spot the familiar constellations among all of them.  Even the pale spill of the Milky Way is visible, stretching across the sky at an angle.  

They don’t speak, all of them too in awe of the sky above them to think about vocalizing it.  Pidge leans back against Hunk’s knees, Lance props his hiking boot up on the bow of the canoe, and the three of them just sit in comfortable quiet, marvelling at the sight above them.  A comet passes overhead, and Pidge finds herself wishing that this moment would never end.  A puff of air leaves her nose in the barest hint of a laugh; and to think, a few hours ago, she wished she could be anywhere else.  

None of them pay attention to how long they sit out there, floating on the completely-still lake, watching the stars.  Time ceases to matter; it hasn’t, for awhile now.  As long as they are together, and enjoying themselves, that is all they need.  

Eventually, Pidge finds herself leaning back more fully against Hunk’s knees, her gaze dropping from the stars to the dark, moonlight-dappled lake, to her lap, before her eyelids close completely.  

“I think Pidge fell asleep.”  Hunk whispers.  She is somewhere in-between; awake enough to hear him, too asleep to respond.  

The boat shifts a little, then Lance speaks up.  “Aw, precious.  I wish I had my camera.”  

She lets out a sleepy grunt to tell him what she thinks of that idea.  He chuckles.  They take up the paddles and make their way back to the shore, the water lapping at the sides of the boat and dripping off the paddles lulling her off to a dozing sleep.  Hunk carries her out of the canoe, then gently wakes her up enough to set her on her feet and hold the paddles while he and Lance turn the canoe upside-down.  The trio trudge back up the hill to their campsite, take off their boots, and climb into the tent.  The air is so cold that they don’t even think about changing fully into pajamas, and just take off as many outer layers as they can bear before huddling under their sleeping bags, one spread out under them and the other two spread out over them like blankets.  Pidge sighs happily, warm and cozy between her boyfriends.  Maybe she does like camping after all.