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Skeptic Believer

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<1> Willow Creek, California

“I can’t believe you think Nessie is more likely to exist than demons! Demons!”

“No. I didn’t say Nessie. Nessie’s bologna! I said Champ!”

They were speaking animatedly as they crouched down in the lush green moss of the forest floor. Ryan supervised as Shane repacked their filming equipment.

“That’s such bullshit! They’re practically the s--”

Snap! Crash!

Ryan stopped in mid-gesticulation.

“What was that?” Holding a hand up, Shane whipped his head around to try and assess the situation. His eyes were rounder than Ryan had ever seen them before as he tried to pinpoint the source of the commotion. At this time of day, with darkness already beginning to set in, it was impossible to make out anything through the dense trees.

It only took another snapping branch for them to bolt, stumbling clumsily through tree roots and scratching underbrush as quickly as they could manage.

At first, Ryan was sure he could make out stomping footsteps pursuing close behind, but as they ran further and further, the pounding of his pulse in his ears drowned out anything else.

By the time that they came upon the ancient Fir tree, they were both panting and out of breath. Wondering if the threat was really gone, they concealed themselves in a person-sized crevice in its giant trunk.

“The fuck was that?” Ryan hissed through gritted teeth. “Was that a real-life fucking Bigfoot?”

“I have no fucking idea,” Shane was just as quiet, just as urgent, but waiting as if checking for any hints that they’d have to start running again. His body was shielding Ryan from whatever it was that had been after them, his fingers latching forcibly onto Ryan’s shoulders. Shane was shaking with fright, which was somehow comforting. If Shane was as scared as he was, then there had definitely been something after them. “Bigfoot isn’t supposed to fucking exist, Ryan! Maybe it was a bear?”

“But that’s not any better!” Ryan insisted, sweat beading on his brow. He attempted to look over Shane’s shoulder and out into the trees, but he wasn’t tall enough.

“I think we lost it, though,” Shane said, as if he was attempting to appease himself. His breath had slowed, but the sigh that escaped his lips didn’t sound like one of relief. Something about the sigh was different, eerily calm, almost distracted.

The involuntary twinge that the sound provoked twisted in Ryan’s stomach. As they locked eyes, Ryan could not help but notice the way that Shane’s pupils, so large in the twilight, shined with concern and confusion.

“Yeah…” Ryan agreed, voice catching in his throat as he straightened his body. The sturdy tree trunk was firm behind him, preventing him from stepping back. Shane had him pinned up against a tree in the middle of the forest, tall frame hunched over his body protectively.

He was so close that their noses were nearly brushing against each other. His warm breath stung at Ryan’s mouth.  

If either of them moved forward just an inch, their lips would be touching. They were going to kiss.

Ryan’s eyes slipped closed, his lips parting as he waited.

When the pressure of Shane’s fingers disappeared from his shoulders instead, Ryan couldn’t fight back his embarrassed grimace. Fortunately, when he opened his eyes, Shane was not watching him. In fact, Shane had turned away completely, silhouetted as he steadied himself against the tree. His hand was clutching at his temple as if he, too, was trying to make sense of what had just happened.

Anger boiled up in Ryan’s stomach briefly, quickly replaced with shame. He felt his cheeks and ears begin to burn.

Shane had a girlfriend.

Hell, he had a girlfriend. He was not into guys . He was definitely one-hundred percent not into Shane .

The moment they’d just had was just the two of them reacting to their shared near-death experience. That was it.

Such a fleeting, insignificant thought was justifiable. It wasn’t like he’d ever thought about Shane that way before. He’d never imagined what it would be like to have Shane’s hands all over him, his mouth all over him, his--

He was already over it. Shane’s lips probably weren’t even that soft.

Ryan’s thoughts were interrupted when Shane sprang away from the tree, panicked. For a moment, Ryan thought that Shane had seen something in the woods. Relief filled him when he heard Shane swear dramatically, “Shit! I left the cameras somewhere back there. Fuck!”

“Hey!” Ryan started to reach for Shane’s sleeve, but stopped himself, not sure if he was more afraid of further rejection from his friend or what would happen if they looked directly at each other again and Shane decided not to back down. “Whatever that thing was, it’s still out there!”

His words had no effect on Shane, who waved his hand dismissively, but Ryan couldn’t help but notice that when Shane replied, the words sounded forced. “You know, I bet it was just one of the crew playing a trick on us. If I don’t find the stuff, I’m toast anyway. Stay put, I’ll be back.”

Ryan watched helplessly as Shane took off into the woods without another word or look behind him, disappearing from view. Hopefully Shane was right. Rubbing his fingers over lips, Ryan knew somehow that the real danger wasn't out there at all.

He made himself disappear into the safe shadows of the tree.

 

<2> London, England

They’d shared hotel rooms before plenty of times. It wasn’t a big deal. They’d slept side-by-side in sleeping bags on the floor of a rat-and-ghost-infested stateroom aboard the Queen Mary, and again in the same bed on a muggy summer night in New Orleans. That time, there’d been little between them but a couple of strategically placed pillows. This room even had two separate beds.

So why did the space seem so small? He’d never been claustrophobic, but recently being alone with Shane made Ryan feel like he might suffocate.

He sat on the edge of his bed, which was still covered in the heavy camera bags that he’d hastily thrown down when they’d first come in. Before him was a large window through which spread the London skyline, illuminated warmly in the last of the evening light. The red horizon accentuated the egg-shaped St. Mary Axe and the London Eye spun merrily in the distance. Tomorrow, when they’d be reunited with the Unsolved crew he’d be able to enjoy it. Now, with his steepled fingers pressed against his chin, he couldn’t wait for an excuse to go to bed early.

Across the room, Shane was facetiming animatedly with the colleagues they’d left back in Los Angeles, showing off their hotel room with his unique flare for the dramatic. This involved a myriad of Mr. Bean styled silly faces and Monty-Python-esque terrible jokes, and produced laughter that flooded Ryan’s ears from across the ocean. Ryan hoped that the call would end quickly, before he strangled Shane.

Shane was just explaining how low the ceilings were (“No problem for our Little Ryan, but I hope my traveler’s insurance covers head injuries I’ll get tomorrow morning when I slam my head into a doorframe!”) when someone who Ryan thought sounded suspiciously like Jen piped up:

“Where’s Ryan?”

Whirling, Shane flashed him a grin, which only broadened as he acknowledged the dead, cold eyes that Ryan was purposely sending his way. “Oh, he’s right here! He’d love to talk to you!”

Shane rounded the bedside and plopped himself down next to Ryan on the bed, one arm trapping him securely and pulling him into frame. They were touching shoulder to hip, ear to ear.

In his vigor, Shane seemed to be unaware of just how close together they were.

Ryan was aware. Ryan was acutely aware.

He held up his hand half-heartedly, forcing a smile for the benefit of their friends, but definitely not for Shane. “Hey, guys,” he greeted.

“Ryan!” Jen returned, but her expression clouded when she sensed Ryan’s lack of enthusiasm. “Everything okay? How was the flight?”

He was glad to be able to give an excuse. “This guy,” Ryan cast his eyes to Shane for emphasis before looking back to Jen, “slept through the whole flight. Me, on the other hand. Stuck in the aisle seat wide awake. I’m ready for bed.”

“Well, then,” Curly, who was sat next to Jen, spoke up caddishly with an exuberant wave. “Better let Mr. Bergara get his beauty rest!” He stuck out his tongue playfully and winked at Ryan. “Shane,” Curly continued, “don’t let him be a grump the whole trip!”

When Shane laughed, Ryan could feel it reverberate into his side. He attempted a laugh, too, but he just sounded tired.

Shane moved himself back into the focal point of the picture. “I guess we’ll let you go,” he agreed, and Curly and Jen wished them both a good night, demanding lots of text and photo updates over the course of their trip, but Ryan was only vaguely taking in the conversation. Goodnaturedly, Shane promised them that he’d send plenty of Snaps before he ended the call.

Lowering his arm, Shane rested his phone in his lap, but he didn’t move otherwise. He continued to hold Ryan close to him.

The awkwardness was palpable in Ryan’s pounding chest. His hands grew clammy. Ryan knew he should push Shane away, but he didn’t want to. Shane was so warm, and somehow, even after an intercontinental flight, he still smelled nice. Goddamnit.

Shane was looking out the window, Ryan noted as he watched from the corner of his eye. Most likely, Shane had just gotten lost in the same scenery that Ryan had tried to enjoy earlier. It wasn’t like Shane had another reason to stick so close to him otherwise, was it?

Stop , Ryan warned himself. It’s just his first time to England .

Just as this excuse had clicked into Ryan’s mind, Shane seemed to come back to his senses. He glanced at Ryan, causing Ryan to cast his eyes down to study his knees, not wanting to supply any ammunition for Shane’s sarcastic external monologue.

Shane dropped his arm and for a moment, staying uncharacteristically quiet.

“You going to call Sara?” Ryan asked when he couldn’t take the silence any longer.

Another pause and Shane exhaled slowly.  When Ryan turned his head to see if something was the matter, the taller man heaved himself up from the mattress with a dry chuckle. It was completely different than the laugh just moments before on the phone. It echoed as hollowly as Ryan’s attempt had.

“Yeah, I probably should,” Shane said, tugging down the edge of his shirt.

Shane didn’t have to ask Ryan if he was going to call Helen. He’d gotten dumped a month ago.

Since then, Shane had gotten so private about Sara, like mentioning her would somehow make Ryan uncomfortable. Truth was that talking about Sara did make Ryan uncomfortable. “But you’re tired. Go ahead and get showered and stuff. I’ll go out to the lobby.”

“Um,” Ryan tried to find the right words. “Tell her hi from me?”

“Yeah, for sure,” Shane nodded, already walking away.

The click of the door closing firmly behind Shane put an end to the discussion.

 

<3> Los Angeles, California

“You still here?” Shane asked, placing a hand on the back of Ryan’s office chair to check out Ryan’s computer screen.

“Yeah, man, the deadline’s tomorrow afternoon,” Ryan reminded him. A sardonic, self-pitying smile twisted over his mouth, fixed there until the pressure Shane was exerting made his chair almost tip backwards. A wave of panic seized him until he realized that he wasn’t going to fall over.  “W-what are you doing?”

Leaning down, Shane’s right arm covered Ryan’s. His large hand moved to take over his mouse. Inhaling, Ryan felt his body tense. He tried to suppress his shiver as just a tickle of Shane’s half-grown beard ghosted the side of his face.

Clicking the “save” button, Shane minimized Ryan’s video editing software in one fluid movement. “Making you take a break. Have you had anything to eat since this afternoon?” Before waiting for a reply he amended hastily, “Popcorn doesn’t count.”

“Shane, you have two functional computers on your desk that are literally less than a foot away.” Ryan reminded him, voice cracking awkwardly as he tried not to let his mind race.

Ignoring Ryan’s grimace, Shane’s other hand moved over Ryan’s other shoulder, and Shane was typing something into Google.

“Do you remember what I told you last week when we had that talk about personal space?”

“I know, I know,” Shane said in a tone that told Ryan he wasn’t going to be bothered to move, “but my computers are sleeping and this one works just fine. Do you want Thai or Mexican?”

“I’ve had Chipotle like three times this week,” Ryan admitted.

“Thai it is.” Shane opened up GrubHub and started to order.

“No, I want Pad Thai, not Green Curry,” Ryan pouted, then, remembering that he was supposed to be angry, he batted Shane’s big, stupid hand away. “Let me do it.”

“Oo-kay, whatever man,” Shane’s exasperation was plainly feigned, his fingers waggling in an exaggerated display of defense, and Ryan almost couldn’t help wheezing. Shane moved away and found his normal spot his chair next to Ryan’s.

“Why haven’t you gone home yet?” Ryan asked, still staring straight ahead at his computer. “I thought you had a meeting and then were out of here?” That was usually how Shane’s Wednesday afternoons functioned. Not that Ryan had Shane’s weekly schedule memorized. Okay, no, he did.

“I figured I’d stick around and bug you. Well, and maybe do a little work. Answer some of those ‘pesky emails’ that I’ve been neglecting.” There was an unusual chipperness to his tone that caught Ryan’s ear immediately.

Turning to get a good look at Shane’s face, Ryan stopped. Was it just his imagination or did Shane look... sad? It wasn’t uncommon for Shane to have days that he’d seemed to have rolled directly out of bed and into the office, but this was different. His eyes were undercut with pink. This was weird. Something was wrong.

“Hey, is everything alright?” he asked instinctively, and was immediately rewarded by the non-committal shrug of Shane’s shoulder. Nope, something was definitely up.

“Yep,” Shane extended his legs and sunk into his chair, but Ryan saw right through this attempt to be casual.

“Liar…” Ryan narrowed his eyes, then started to fish around in his back pocket for his wallet.

“No,” Shane protested, getting to his credit card faster and handing it to Ryan. “Dinner’s on me this time. You paid last time.”

Ryan decided to pick his battles. He’d let Shane cover dinner, but he was not going to let Shane weasel out of talking until he’d further assessed the situation.

“You’re being too nice.”

The words came out more sharply than Ryan intended. He’d wanted to sound funny, but his delivery hadn’t quite been there. He knew he’d done damage when Shane clammed up, corners of his small mouth turning down almost imperceptibly.

“Shane, what’s wrong ?”

The reply was so quiet that at first Ryan thought he had imagined them.

“Sara’s moving out tonight.”

Ryan froze. Was this some sort of joke?

“And I don’t want to be at the apartment while she’s getting the last of her things.”

Everything about Shane indicated that he was telling the truth. Shit . Shane and Sara? The same Shane and Sara who had everyone convinced were the most adorkable power couple at Buzzfeed? “D-do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

Ryan’s mouth was dry. He hadn’t been expecting this. Shane and Sara had been a thing for ages. They’d been living together for like two years.

His mind was re-hashing his last few office interactions with Sara. She’d seemed shy and distracted when he’d last greeted her in the hallway, but then again although they’d always gotten along Ryan would have never really considered them to be especially friendly.

“You said ‘the last of her things,’” Ryan prodded gently. “Shane, has this been, like, a thing that’s been happening…?”

“Well,” Shane shrugged again, “We decided to stop seeing each other a couple weeks ago and she moved out last week. It was a mutual. Look, Ryan. I am fine. She is also fine. We didn’t fight. Nothing terrible happened. We’re getting through it like the rational adults we are… it’s just… I don’t want to be there while she packs. I want her to be able to take her time.”

Ryan nodded, taking a moment to put Shane’s credit card information into the fillable fields on his screen. He kept messing up because his fingers were suddenly shaking. Why did he feel like crying?

“There must have been some reason?” Ryan didn’t know why he was asking. They were close, but most of their conversations dodged relationship-related discussion after Shane had unmercifully ribbed him about his last few unsuccessful Tinder dates and Ryan had gotten too defensive about it.

He struggled to type in the office address. Ryan needed the food to arrive as soon as possible. Not because he was hungry— his stomach was swimming and he felt nauseous— but because the faster it arrived, the faster they could use it as a distraction.

“Reason? I guess because I’m not in love with her, and she’s not in love with me. We make great best friends, but… things hadn’t been right for a long time. I...” Shane looked like he was about to say something but changed his mind. “Yeah,” he concluded.

“Oh,” was all Ryan could manage, struggling to identify what he was feeling. Guilt? A small part of him was somehow relieved, which was awful.

Was he going to pretend that he hadn’t been hoping for this?

Ryan hesitantly slid Shane’s credit card back across their cluttered desk.

The openness of the office, the way that anyone could walk by any time, was usually something that Ryan appreciated. Tonight, however, with just the two of them there, the space seemed too huge, too empty.

It was going to be a long night.

 

<4> Chicago, Illinois

There’d been a mistake with the rental car, so by the time they reached the hotel it was nearly midnight and they were both exhausted. It was Friday and they would be spending the entire weekend shooting, even though they’d both been busy with projects all week.

“I need a shower,” Shane announced, throwing his winter coat over one of the uncomfortable looking chairs in the entryway. Chicago was cold and snowy.

“Tell me about it,” Ryan said, unable I keep the humor from his voice. Dramatic sigh escaping his lips, eyes circling to the ceiling, Shane accepted the quip gracefully. His shoulders slumped in relaxed defeat.

Ryan wheezed temperately. They may have been sarcastic assholes to each other most of the time, but the long hours they’d been forced to spend together recently had actually been pretty great. They were chummier than ever.

“Shut up, Ryan,” Shane warned without any real animosity. Then with a smile and shake of his head, he began to unbutton the top buttons of his flannel shirt. Stripping his sweater off over his head, Shane further exposed his lean frame. He headed towards the bathroom.

Trying not to let his stare be too obvious, Ryan removed his coat as well. When Shane turned back to switch on the light, he raised an eyebrow. Ryan turned away, flustered, taking a sudden interest in anything else but watching his friend. When he noticed balcony curtains were open, and he moved to close them as if somehow this would protect Shane’s modesty.

He next adjusted the thermostat, turning up the room’s heat. Ryan was a California boy, and though he would have appreciated the changing fall colors if it hadn’t been too dark outside to see them, he disliked the cold.

Finally sitting down on the far bed, Ryan flipped on the news and worked at getting his boots off.

A moment later, he was caught off guard when Shane, still pre-shower but clad only in a towel, emerged from the bathroom with a cloud of steam. The sound of the shower running in the background, together with this imagery, stopped Ryan mid-shoelace.

He flushed, mouth falling open. Shane seemed oblivious as he ruffled through his bag.

“Forgot my contact case,” Shane explained distractedly, one hand doing a relatively bad job at holding his towel around his waist.

“Oh,” Ryan said, eyes following the edge of the towel, wondering just how much of the pale curve of Shane’s hip would be exposed before Shane realized he was giving a peep show.

Not that it mattered. It wasn’t like Ryan hadn’t seen another guy naked before. He’d never been shy in the locker room growing up, never flinched when his college roommate would insist that their dorm-room was a pants free zone.

Why was this any different? Why could he feel the blood pumping through his body as his heartbeat quickened?

Come on , Ryan chided himself, you know why.

At that moment Shane looked up, catching Ryan off guard. They gawked at each other before Shane, standing up straight and motioning with his contact case said, “the bathroom’s actually pretty big… so if you need to brush your teeth or wash your face or something while I’m in there, go ahead.” Then, dark eyes twinkling, he added, “But no pooping!”

Then, not waiting for Ryan to reply, he hurried back inside, leaving the door open a crack.

Was that an invitation?

Ryan glanced down at his lap, embarrassed at how easily Shane was able to make him feel like his world was being turned upside down.

Well, shit .

He hesitated, tucking his boots at the foot of the bed, trying to analyze the situation. It was an invitation, but an invitation for what, exactly?

You know what? Fuck it, he decided and plucked his travel kit from his luggage before joining Shane. The bathroom was large, and the shower was a fancy glass one. This meant that, even clouded with hot air, Ryan got a pretty good view of Shane’s naked backside as he entered.

Yep, this was a thing that was happening.

Flustered, Ryan made a beeline for the sink. He opened up his kit and took out his manly face wash, ignoring the nagging voice that was whispering for him to do things that would definitely cross the barriers of any normal friendship. Hesitating, he set down the kit on the sink next to where Shane had already dumped a bunch of his own toiletries.

Despite the fact that this was a hotel bathroom, the situation felt domestic somehow, intimate, different than sharing desks, even if just as cluttered.

This is not your freaking honeymoon, Bergara. Ryan talked himself down. This is a business trip. For work. With the co-host of the show you produce, who, admittedly, is also your friend. Stop. Just wash your goddamn face.

He did.

His eyes were closed, face lathered, when he heard the shower shut off and the shower door swing open. Presently, there was the sound of Shane rustling around beside him. As he washed the soap from of his face, Ryan felt something soft land on his shoulder. He reached for it: a washcloth.

“Thanks,” Ryan said, using it to dry his face. He opened his eyes. Shane stood next to him, sharing the mirror. This time, his towel was much more carefully wrapped around his waist.

“No problem, looked like you could use it. Scoot over.”

Ryan scooted. As he patted his face dry, he studied Shane closely. His wet hair was plastered against his head, but a couple strands had escaped and hung over his forehead. Though he his body was mostly dry, his usually pale skin was mottled red across his neck and shoulders, after-effect of hot water.

“Your turn?” Shane offered helpfully. He reached across the sink for his toothbrush, and then stopped short. “Well, I seem to have I forgotten my toothpaste.”

This did not come as a surprise to Ryan. Shane forgot something on every trip they’d ever made together. Last time it had been his phone charger, the time before that was clean socks. Luckily, Ryan was a check-list packer and very dependable.

“Use mine.”

Ryan rummaged through his toiletries for the toothpaste tube. He produced it victoriously, but the smirk dropped off his face as he caught Shane’s protracted gaze through the mirror. His hand stopped in midair. Shane wasn’t blinking, so neither did he, but his cheeks were turning a rather vivid hue of pink.

When Shane reached to intercept the toothpaste, though, it clattered down from Ryan’s hand. They both attempted to catch it at the same time, and in their haste, their hands ended up together in the basin of the sink. The toothpaste must have been trapped under Shane’s palm, because Ryan only felt the skin of Shane’s hand under his own. It was warm and smooth.

They froze, Ryan caught in Shane’s eyes, which were focused directly at him. “Thanks, I got it,” Shane said, wetting his lips.

Instead of letting go, though, instinct told Ryan to hold tight to Shane’s hand. He did, and it was inexplicably lifting out of the sink, toothpaste forgotten. Ryan guided it to rest on the side of his face, or maybe Shane had drawn it there himself, Ryan could not tell. What he knew is that all of a sudden they were kissing.

Oh god, Ryan was for a moment terror-stricken by what he’d initiated, but Shane’s tongue brushed against his and all was forgotten.

He’d been waiting for this kiss since even before they’d gone Bigfoot hunting, had been so certain that it was never going to happen. Now that it was, Ryan couldn’t figure out why it had taken so long. Why hadn’t he been the one to kiss Shane that time, why had they wasted much energy ignoring what had always been there between them?

A small, frustrated sound emerged from deep in Shane’s throat. Ryan agreed, and they stumbled sideways to steady themselves against the bathroom wall,  separating as they resituated themselves.

“I never--” Ryan murmured, but at the same time, Shane was saying:

“I always--”

They stopped. Ryan’s hand was on Shane’s toweled hip. “What?” he demanded, face upturned.

“I always hoped that you’d finally figure it out.”

Ryan’s face scrunched up, “What do you mean, that I’d finally figure it out?”

“I’ve been, like, throwing out hints for you for months, man,” Shane looked amused. Ryan couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic.

“What do you mean? That’s what I’ve been doing!”

“No, you’ve spent this whole time ignoring what’s been right in front of your face!”

It would have been ironic under any other circumstances. Ryan was the skeptic? Wasn’t he always the one who was angry at Shane for not believing in the metaphysical?

“Shut up. I’m going to kiss you again,” Ryan threatened.

“By all means, shut me up.”

They were both wheezing with relief as they went in for their second kiss.