Not everything about John is wonderful, and that's a relief.
He doesn't have many flaws, but the ones he has are pretty dire, and you're okay with that. Because without them he'd be too perfect to exist, way too perfect for you.
His obliviousness, for starters. There are days when he just goes around kicking over your sand castles one after another, and then he's like, gosh Dave, what did I do?
Well, it's not like you're going to tell him.
Rose thinks it's pathological, of course. That's Rose for you. Thinks everyone should bleed feelings at all times -- except her. She gets to be the observer. She thinks you play your cards close because you're scared and fragile or something. Uh-huh, because confident, strong people talk about their feelings all the time -- oh wait, no they don't. You know who talks about their feelings all the time? Insecure adolescent girls.
Whereas you are eighteen, and the dudest of dudes, even if you do want to ride John Egbert like a mechanical bull.
Which is not a thing you have told him. He spooks too easily as it is. It's his favorite way to snap your last nerve, stab you in the heart, kick you in the balls, and yet paradoxically make you love him even more. Things start getting a little too hot and heavy and suddenly he can't handle it. So basically he's the world's worst cocktease. Except that he's so fucking sweet about it, he's honestly sorry for frustrating you, it's just that he gets overwhelmed by your sexiness -- come on, are you going to get mad about that?
No. Of course you're not, Christ. Just a few weeks ago you thought he was asexual. You thought you'd never even get to kiss those soft, sweet lips -- properly, you mean, not just a guilty brush while he was sleeping -- and now you manage to get your tongue in his mouth almost every day. Lots of couples your age take it slow, and John being freaked out by his own hormones is a big improvement over John not being interested at all. A huge improvement over the thing where you had to pretend it didn't turn you on when he snuggled up to you, because that kind of made you feel like a pedophile.
It just... sucks have to keep yourself on such a short leash with him. It feels like you don't trust each other. And like you don't trust yourselves. And like any time you're weak enough to show how you really feel, he shuts you down. He doesn't need to know he's doing that to you. Showing that it hurts would be an asshole move and might well ruin everything.
Because... he says he loves you, but he could still change his mind.
You could still screw this up.
* * *
"We've discussed it," Dad says out of the blue at dinner, "and we've decided you kids can go anywhere you like for spring break."
John perks up on principle. "Seriously anywhere?"
"Seriously anywhere," Mom says. "Even," she adds with a telling glance at Bro, "one of those dreadful party beaches where the girls do nothing but try to get their bikinis on MTV."
You and Bro smirk in unison, but you're pretty sure it's not for the same reason. He probably thinks you took the hint and are going to go for the coolkid option, bang some college chicks, get over this embarrassing homogay. You're smirking because he would think that.
Grandpa clears his throat, looking at Jade. "Do consider political realities, though, my dears. I doubt even I could get you into the cave temples of Nepal within the time frame indicated."
"Aww," Jade says, like that was number one on her list.
"Anyway," Dad says, "think it over and let us know, all right?"
* * *
"I have my heart set on Paris," Rose declares, misty-eyed with mental postcards. "I must see the Louvre."
"I guess Paris is interesting," Jade says doubtfully, "but we could go anywhere. I can only handle so many art museums, and I don't even like French food. Maybe the Smithsonian instead? I hear you can spend weeks there and not see everything!"
You've all gathered in Rose's room for a summit. Rose is perched in her afghan-draped armchair with a bit of after-dinner knitting, Jade is sprawled on her stomach on the bed, and you and John are sharing the knit pile with Rose's mutant cat. Since the thing you all call the knit pile is actually mostly pillows and blankets, this is more comfortable than it sounds.
"I've already selected my tour destination," you say, squirming yourself a little more comfortable across John's lap. "This is it right here."
"My pants?" John grins.
"Yeah pretty much."
Rose's smile has something of the smug about it. It's not that she takes credit for your relationship, exactly, but she just about sprained her brain staying out of it until John was ready to talk, and now she kinda pats herself on the back every time she sees you guys acting like actual boyfriends. "But where will John's pants be?" she prompts. "Aside from, presumably, at least some of the time, on John."
"Well... see... here's the thing." John leans back on his hands and chews his lip thoughtfully. "Normally, the four of us going on vacation together would be the best thing ever and I'd be all over it, but --"
Jade interrupts. "You guys wanna go get gay-married in Vegas!"
"Is it legal in Nevada yet?" you put in. "I should look that up."
"Why, Dave," John chuckles, "is that a proposal?"
"Are you kidding? Do you spot the ironymantic trappings of a thousand cheesy movies? Am I down on one knee, offering you a diamond the size of a lima bean to prove I'm capable of providing for your offspring? Pay attention, Egbert."
Rose makes a sharp sound with her scissors as she switches colors. "It's not as if we need to cluster continually to preserve our family bonds. You don't have to look so apologetic, John. Jade and I seem to be gravitating toward a museum theme, in any case, which I doubt excites you grizzled action heroes." She tilts her head to Jade. "Would London be an acceptable compromise? There's the British Museum for you, the Tate for me..."
"Ooh! Throw in that Bronze Age village they've got in Cornwall and you've got yourself a deal."
"Do you suppose they do textile demonstrations there?"
While the girls hash out their plans, you lift your shades to give John the best puppy eyes you can manage in a room this well-lit. "Babe, tell me you're not planning a study trip like those grinds over there. We're supposed to be off school."
The way he smiles down at you makes your heart feel swollen with loving him too much. It always does. He looks so fond and comfortable, like he could just keep this up indefinitely. Like he'll never get tired of seeing you. He absently rearranges your bangs with his fingertips. "How do you feel about camping?"
"Camping?" you echo skeptically. Spending a week without internet access isn't something you're eager to volunteer for. And you're not exactly the outdoor type. Sunshine is not your friend. Why he would think you'd want to spend your spring break in the middle of nowhere, out in the open, sleeping in a tent...
... in a tent with John Egbert, in the middle of nowhere, just the two of you... sharing a sleeping bag for warmth... no one to hear his doofy giggling... or any other noises he might happen to make...
A slow smile spreads over your face. "Whatever you want, baby."
"Are you sure? I mean if you really want to do something else --"
"I already told you my plan. Where your pants go, I go."
Jade, hanging her head upside down off the bed, pretends to gag herself. "Urghk, you guys are so soppy."
"Well, we'll just take our mushy business out to the woods, then," John beams.
"Be sure to hang it in a tree so the bears can't get it," Rose deadpans.
* * *
When you announce your decisions, your guardians all look a bit surprised that you'd split up the foursome. Rose derails any questioning by asserting that she is most certainly not going to go camping, particularly not in the mountains in March. As if John's choice of Yosemite Park is immutable, and she and Jade are going to England in defiance of it.
After dinner, Dad tells John he'd like a word in private. John throws you a wry look before following him into his study. You return it, heading the other way out of the dining room.
The moment you're around the corner and unobserved, you dust off your flashstep skills, racing up to John's room and into his closet. There's a hole in the floor where the radiator pipe goes through. Annoying when Dad's soupy taste in music leaks up to baste you both when you're trying to sleep. Handy when you need to know what Dad thinks of you and John pairing up so obviously.
Because you guys never made any kind of announcement. It just would've felt weird. So you're not really sure if Dad's alongside the idea. He hasn't said anything. He hasn't been acting differently. Maybe he doesn't even know. As far as you remember, all you've done in front of Dad is hold John's hand, ruffle his hair, sporfle a laugh into his neck when you're watching TV together. The same stuff you've been doing for months.
What if he forbids it? Shit. John would be so bummed. He has his heart set on this Yosemite thing. For Johnnish reasons of his own that you're not entirely clear on.
"Son," the hole in the floor says, "there's something I've been meaning to tell you. It's... well, first, I should make sure I understand the situation. You're no longer simply -- what was it, cuddle-friends? -- are you?"
"Dad." You can hear John's eyeroll in his voice. "It was snugglebros. And yes, we're actually dating now. If you try to give me the sex talk, I swear I'll plug my ears and scream."
Dad chuckles indulgently. "All right. I'll trust that you have that aspect of your relationship well in hand."
"Oh my God, Dad."
"Oh. Goodness. That was unintentional."
"It's gonna haunt me anyway. Just so you know."
"I'm sure you'll recover eventually. But in all seriousness, now -- John, I want to tell you something I wish I'd known when I was your age. Maybe it's not possible to know it so young. But I'd be remiss not to try." A pause. You can imagine him perching on the edge of his desk like a school principal trying to look less threatening; you don't know if he does that, but it seems like his style.
"Okay," John says at last. "I'm listening."
"Love... is like the weather. It's changeable, unpredictable. It comes and goes. One day you'll be so in love you think you'll explode, and the next day you hardly feel anything at all. But friendship won't fail you. If friendship is the foundation you build your love on, you can weather any storm."
Another long pause. Then John laughs softly. "Dad, what are you even thinking? Me and Dave have been friends forever, and we only started dating a couple weeks ago. Maybe I could've used the opposite advice before then -- except I don't know what that would be -- but anyway. I'm not gonna forget he's my best friend just cuz I'm. In. Love with him." It takes him a couple hesitations to get that out.
You remind your heart that if it explodes right now the bits will drip through the hole under the radiator and give away your position.
"Of course you won't. I'm being a pompous silly old goof, aren't I? I suppose what I'm trying to say is, you have my blessing. I can see how happy you make each other." A huglike rustling. "I'm so proud of you."
That's about all the parental sappiness you can take. You stealthily remove yourself from your listening post. By the time John comes upstairs, you've got your homework spread out on his bed and you're prepared to act casual, but there's no need.
"Tell me you heard that," he says as he shoves some papers aside so he can flop down next to you. "Because even my best Dad impression can't approach the maudlin sentimentality of that..." He wrinkles his nose and waves a hand, giving up on finding a noun for it.
"Every word. Accidental handjob pun and all." You lean over to capture a quick kiss, which isn't as smooth a move as it could be since he's grimacing a bit at the memory. "Worse things have happened, Egderp."
"It was embarrassing."
"You want embarrassing, try telling Bro what you told Dad."
"Ugh, no thank you. Just when Mom's got him trained not to trash-talk us at the dinner table? I'm not about to give him another outlet for his homophobic slurs."
"He's not seriously against us," you remind him. You kinda thought he got that. "He just thinks it's funny. He likes to get a rise out of people."
"He needs to grow up," John grumbles. "I don't like how it makes you shut down."
Surprised, you sit back, gathering your books and papers into a stack. This is turning into a conversation you need to pay attention to. "What do you mean, shut down? It doesn't bother me. I know he's just running his mouth."
"Nuh-uh. I am well-versed in the nuances of your poker face, Dave."
"I don't poker-face with you."
"You do, though." He points at you as you're about to argue. "See? You're doing it right now."
"This is just my normal face."
"I know. Your normal face is various shades of blank. It's kinda hard on me, dude."
You're not sure what to say to that. "Oh." It's not something you can really change. "Sorry."
With a short sigh, he moves to sit next to you and lean your shoulders together. "It's okay, Dave. I'm not trying to change you. I just think it's gotta be tiring keeping everything on lockdown all the time. And I guess I worry I'll misinterpret you. You don't always give me much to go on. But it's not like I'm going to stop loving you if you don't change it."
Rather than get into a discussion of your psychology, you just say, "I love you too," and kiss him.
Before it can turn into a proper makeout, he pushes you back and gives you a serious look despite the color in his cheeks. "Let's get this homework out of the way so we can plan our trip!"
* * *
At first it's cute how much he's into it. He downloads every single trail map from the park's site and makes endless notes on elevations, distances, and previous years' snow closures. He sends you link after link to pictures of gorgeous scenery, as if you're not capable of googling these images yourself. He muses aloud on how far you can comfortably hike with a thirty pound pack, and whether you should bother learning to snowshoe.
But as January wears on into February, his intentness starts to irritate you. It's not that he never talks about anything else, it's just that he manages to bring it up at least a couple times a day, and you weren't all that excited about it to begin with.
Sleeping in a tent with him, you're excited about. Foam pads versus air mattresses, not so much.
Eventually you realize that your quips and sarcasm are not getting the point across. Neither is changing the subject. You are going to have to actually tell him.
You're where you usually are between school and dinner: on the couch, sitting any old way but upright. In this instance, flopped on your stomach, one arm trailing down across John's chest as he sits on the floor. He's ignoring the television while he sperges over the REI catalog on his laptop. Rose is in the recliner, Mutie doing the sphinx pose across her shins, balls of wool arranged in two neat rows between her thighs and the chair arms as she knits ridiculous socks with one color in each hand. Jade is the only one actually watching the TV; something about ancient trade cities in Africa. You only bother looking up from John's screen-lit profile when there are buff Zimbabwean dudes dancing shirtless. You're considering making a quip about Jade's real motives for watching this show.
Then John says, "I don't know if we even want to pack in the weight of a twig stove. Do we? Fires are prohibited above like 9000 feet, but we're totally not going that high. But what if the wood's wet? I dunno, this alcohol stove only weighs fourteen ounces --"
You know you've heard this exact same waffle word-for-word at least twice before. You kinda snap.
"Christ on a crack binge, John, will you get it through your cast-iron thinkskillet that I do not care? Not even a little bit. Not one tiny little proto-fuck is given."
He turns those big blue eyes up to you all round and hurt, and now you feel like you killed Bambi, but you still prepare yourself to lay on a further helping of 'hell no' if he starts in with the fucking camp stoves again.
"But Dave," he says -- oh shit, lip wobble -- "what if our gear's so heavy we can't carry all your swag?"
You blink. "What?"
"What if we have to leave your swag behind in the car, Dave? What if bears smell it and break into the car and eat your swag?"
All the breath goes out of you. You swat him across the head, then flop back so you can blankface at the ceiling. "You can be a real asshole when you wanna be, you know that?"
"I totally got you," he giggles.
"Yeah, laugh it up, prankmaster, you finally got on the scoreboard."
"You seriously thought I was going to cry over camp stoves."
"Because you've been obsessed with the damn things lately."
"Shut up, fuckasses," Jade commands. "I'm missing stuff."
You grumble, "Spoiler: they dig up some pottery and then some dudes with cool scars do another dance."
Rose clears her throat delicately. "I have decided to make only one pair of Space Invaders socks, so you'll have to fight over it."
"Dibs," John cries, beating you by a quarter of a second.
* * *
She makes Mario socks for you. John begs you to trade with him, but you refuse. If he wanted you in a good mood, he shouldn't have used fake wobble-eyes on you. Karma is a bitch.
* * *
For Valentine's Day, he wants to take a practice hike. Visions fill your mind of making unrealistically non-awkward love to him on a hillside awash with spring flowers. Instead you get shivery makeouts under a dripping pine tree, both of you caked with mud to mid-thigh.
But dear God he's adorable all shaking and grinning with a raindrop hanging on his nose. And for once, you actually tell him.
"I never saw anything so fucking precious," you confess, forehead to forehead, hands in each other's coat pockets. He had to give up on his spattered glasses half an hour ago, and there's water caught among his eyelashes. "I mean it, babe. How the hell are you so cute?"
He beams and rubs noses with you, teeth chattering. "N-natural t-talent!" Then he pulls reluctantly away. "I'm c-craz-zy about you t-too. Also hypoth-thermic. L-let's go back."
Once you're home and warmed up, he's back on his laptop, comparing waterproof parkas. You wait for him in his bed, but you fall asleep before he gets there. So much for Valentine's Day. He probably wouldn't have been willing to go past a bit of groping anyway.
Still. It wasn't such a bad day. If being wet and muddy makes him that happy, you guess you can put up with it sometimes.
* * *
The night before your trip, he's as hyperactive as a five-year-old mainlining pixie stix. You don't think you've ever seen him this excited. It's kind of contagious; not that you'd admit it. But you put up with way more of his list-checking and repacking than you thought you would.
Jade is every bit as excited for her trip to England. She's never been on a jetliner before. She and Grandpa took one of those little commuter planes up to Vancouver one time, for some explorer conference or other, but apparently that's not the same thing at all. She shows you three times on the map how the plane's going to go up over the arctic circle. She plans to wave to Greenland. She cannot understand why this doesn't fascinate you.
Rose presents you and John each with yet one more pair of socks, plain brown, thick enough that they'd cramp your feet inside your boots.
"Keep them dry and only wear them to sleep," she explains. "They're handspun qiviut. It's ninety dollars an ounce."
You stare at your pair in horror. "What have I done to anger you?"
"It's the warmest fiber in the world," she says, and gives you her patented creepy doll smile. "If you get snowed in and have to eat each other to survive, at least you won't have to deal with frostbitten toes."
John seems to think that's the funniest thing anyone ever said. You mutter something about how maybe you should burn a Donner party mix, and stow the kivvy-whatsis socks in one of your bear-proof food canisters. You are really starting to have second thoughts about this, but it's kind of too late to back out now.
At last John can't find any more fidgeting to do. He stands looking at your baggage -- just two frame packs and a bag of road trip snackage -- as if he can't believe that's all he has to show for his orgy of overpreparing.
"Dave," he says in a mischievous stage whisper. "What if we left tonight? What if we drove overnight and got there tomorrow morning? We'd have a whole extra day!"
"You want to drive all night and then hike all day," you say blandly.
"We could do it!"
"After a school day you want to do this. We got up at seven-thirty this morning, brainiac."
"We're young and fit! We could totally do it!"
"John." You take him by the shoulders and make him look at you. "John, John." You give him a solemn look over your shades. "I choose to believe that you are trying to prank me, because I don't want to think you would actually inflict that shit on me."
He tries on a pout, but when it doesn't move you, he gives up. "I'm just really excited, that's all."
"I never would've guessed. You hide it so well."
"Stay in here tonight. I'm not going to get a wink of sleep otherwise."
You're not going to get a wink of sleep if you do, but you give in. You can sleep in the car tomorrow. "Sure. Now will you quit flipping your shit and getcher damn jimjams on, or do I have to cadge something lethal off Mom to sedate you with?"
As usual, as soon as he's snuggled in under your chin, he's off to dreamland. And as usual, you lie awake far too long, as if you're keeping watch. As if it's your job to protect him from the dark.
* * *
Twenty-four hours later, you're unrolling your sleeping bags in the back of the car (Mom's station wagon, borrowed for precisely this reason) in a rest stop parking lot. John was all for driving the last few miles up to the park just in case the entrance was somehow open after dark after all, but it was your driving shift and you called it, then shoved the keys in your inside pocket so he couldn't dispute your decision.
"Because even if some rule-bending ranger decided to leave shit open a little longer just in case a wild John Egbert appears, I tell you what, he went ahead and closed it at --" you pretend to check the watch you're not wearing -- "fucking eleven PM."
"I know," he says sadly, hip-checking you aside so he can unroll his bag too. "I just wanted to sleep in the backpackers' campsite tonight. You know, talk to people, see who else is going to be on our trail."
"So we can avoid them."
"No, so we can make friends with them!"
You sit down on the tailgate to get your brand new hiking boots off. "Next time on 'Camping With My Little Ponies', Dave Strider learns that friendship is the kind of magic that causes zombie hordes." You stuff your socks in your boots, wedge them in a corner, and wiggle your toes in the breeze.
The weather is, to your surprise, really goddamn nice, at least at highway altitude. A little breezy, but after your years in Washington you're not about to call California cold. Fresh, maybe. Anyway, it's looking like all that ominous talk of snowshoes and kibble socks and how to stake down your tent in a blizzard was just talk.
John leans over, puts his head on your shoulder, and heaves a happy sigh. "I can smell the mountains."
"I mostly smell teriyaki beef jerky, but I'll take your word for it."
He rears back in exaggerated dismay. "Even after I brushed my teeth?"
"The whole car reeks of trip snacks, Egderp. You must have selective smelling. Okay, c'mere, lemme check." You coax him back in and try to kiss him, but he flinches away. Hurt, you turn to figure out how this damn sleeping bag works.
"There's other people here," he says apologetically.
"Oh, okay, now suddenly that bothers you. You need to memo me when you change the rules."
"No! It's just -- truckers -- maybe I'm stereotyping? Dave --" He crawls atop his bag as well, and pulls the hatch shut, cutting off the night breeze. "Dave? Dave... Dave Dave look at me Dave stop sulking Dave Dave --"
You give in with a groan, because you know he'll go on like that as long as it takes. "What, Egbmmf." He kisses his name off your mouth, then grins at you.
"I want everyone in the world to know you're mine," he says. "But I'm too tired to deal with strangers being jerks tonight. Okay?"
"... You just wanted to close the door first."
He rolls his eyes and doesn't answer. He wriggles down into his sleeping bag and sets his glasses aside.
Then he inchworms his bag over until it's nearly on top of yours and nuzzles his face into your neck. "Stupid stupid dumb," he mutters. "Stop being a stupid pessimist doubterpants, Dave. I feel like you're always waiting for me to run away."
Several possible answers run through your mind. Things like, Only because you pull away when I get too close. Or, Only because you're obviously way too good for me. Or even, You never promised you wouldn't. But those are bullshit feelings-bleeder emotional-blackmail answers and you don't seriously consider giving any of them.
Instead you say, "Someone has to balance out your ridiculous optimism."
"Doesn't have to be you," he yawns, and before you can think of a reply, he's asleep.
* * *
It is possible your aesthetic priorities are a little bit screwed up. You're standing in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, on one of the most beautiful mornings you've ever experienced, but all you can look at is John in sunglasses. Well, it's a novelty. Anyway, he's doing enough gawking for the both of you.
"I can't believe we're really here!" he beams, turning in a slow circle, absently trying and failing to get his regular glasses into the plastic case the prescription shades came in. "Oh my God it's so gorgeous oh my God."
"Yep, prettiest parking lot I ever saw. And would you look at that ranger station, it must be a thousand years old."
He laughs. "You can't pretend to be unimpressed forever, Dave. I picked the most scenic hike we can do without skis or climbing equipment. You are going to be so amazed you'll actually show it, betcha anything."
"Anything?" You waggle your eyebrows.
He turns his blinding grin on you. "Nope. Figure of speech."
"I don't want you spraining your face just to win a bet. Oh hey, you should get your camera out before we start, or you're going to end up trying to unpack it somewhere awkward and drop the tent down a ravine."
"Now who's the pessimist?" But you take his advice. While you're trying to get your camera without destroying John's scientific packing job, you catch sight of the two of you in the ranger station window.
It's amazing the difference clothes make. You hardly recognize yourself. When John insisted that you bring a hat with a brim, you picked up a desert camo boonie hat at the army surplus store, telling yourself it counted as ironic macho-hunter-outdoorsman cosplay. You demanded a horrible deer-camo jacket to go with it, but John pretended not to hear and got you a red high-tech parka with a fur hood instead; it's rolled up and tied to the outside of your pack right now. He wouldn't let you bring jeans either, insisting on these nylon cargo pants because 'cotton kills' somehow, and of course they didn't come in any decent color, so yours are khaki. Apparently dressing in layers is the key to success or something, so you've got one of John's plaid shirts -- red lumberjack check -- on over a red wifebeater.
So basically you look like a hippie douche, squatting over your red lego brick of a backpack like a caveman digging into a deer carcass.
John is wearing almost the exact same thing in blue and gray, with some stylistic variation in the hat -- orange bucket hat, possibly stolen from Jade -- and shades -- wire-rimmed, square, of the 'we at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we're aware of' variety. And yet somehow he doesn't look douchey at all. He looks fresh and gorgeous and alive.
Obviously it's not the shades. It might be the smile.
"Stand up," he commands as you zip the bag. "Turn around." He steps up behind you and smears cold wetness on your neck. You jump away with an annoyed yelp. He giggles, catches you, and does it again. Oh yeah: sunblock.
"I'm capable of sunblocking myself, you enormous goober," you grumble.
"I know," he says cheerfully, but he doesn't stop. He anoints your ears, the backs of your hands, your cheekbones and your nose, finishing with a blob right on the end and a "Boop!"
"You know what you just let yourself in for," you say ominously as you reach for the bottle.
He dances back, holding it out of your reach. "I already did mine!"
"Spoilsport." You rub the boop blob around until you're pretty sure it's invisible.
"Come on. Let's go. Oh my God, I can't believe we're here!"
As you settle your pack on your shoulders, you take a moment to mentally prepare yourself for five days of pain and boredom. You're not dreading it as much as you probably should, though. Because it's also clearly going to be five days of John being as happy as Mutie in the yarn bag, as happy as a monkey in a banana tree, as happy as -- naw, it's no good trying to think up comparisons. Right now, John is probably the happiest living thing on Earth.
The fact that you're here together is part of why he's so happy. No matter how unsure you've felt lately, you can't deny that. You'd put up with a lot worse than a scenic hike for that result.
You gesture at the sign marking the trailhead. "Lead the way, babe. Let's get this hippie train rolling."
"Let's go hug some trees," he laughs, and practically skips down the trail ahead of you.
* * *
He does, in fact, hug a tree.
Actually, what he does is spread his arms wide and press himself to the thing like it's a wall, because a giant sequoia is definitely more of a group hug target. But he seems satisfied with the result. You get several pictures of him laughing, as well as the obligatory up-the-trunk shot that can't possibly capture the immensity of the thing.
He refuses to pose in the dead tree with a hole cut through it. "What kind of jerk would do that," he says angrily, deliberately walking around it.
You, naturally, go through. You want to touch the dead wood of the core. You get what might be a nice textural shot of slanting light on the wall of the cut. When you come out, you find him lying on the ground, gazing upward, enraptured. You take that picture too.
"You have to try this," he says, beckoning.
"Yeah, I was just thinking there aren't enough bugs in my clothes," you drawl, but even while you say it you lie down beside him.
The ground is cold and damp. Despite the warm sun, there's still a little snow in the shade. Far above, absurdly far above -- kind of unnervingly far above -- the forest canopy waves like kelp against a sky that isn't quite as blue as John's eyes.
"I've always wanted to touch a giant sequoia," John says happily. "They're individuals, you know? You get used to thinking of trees as like... this generic... like a substance. Like grass. But each of these trees has a history. It's just so amazing. Not to mention, I mean... how can anything so huge be alive?"
You consider making a dick joke, but you don't. Let him have his special mystical tree time. It's not like he's going to turn into a bliss ninny. He's seen real magic. He knows a tree is just a tree, no matter how big it is. But you aren't really feeling it, so you just keep quiet.
Eventually, to remind him that time's passing, you say, "Is it going to be like this the whole way? I mean... boardwalks and info signs?"
"What? No. No way!" He scrambles up and dusts himself off. "We're not even on our trail yet! I just wanted to see these."
"This isn't our trail?"
He whips out the map. "No, I told you, look, this loop here --"
"Put it away, Survivorman. I don't need to know." You stroll off toward where you set your packs down.
"You really should at least know where we are," he says skeptically, trotting beside you, trying to show you the map again.
"Nope. That's your job. You're enjoying it so much, I couldn't take that away from you."
He throws you the skeptical sidelong as he shrugs his pack on. "That's not like you, Dave."
"What are you talking about?"
"I dunno, just... deciding not to know things."
"You're the friendleader. So lead."
He gives you a baffled look. "If you say so."
* * *
Sure enough, after an entire morning's walking, you find yourself back in the parking lot. Sitting down at a picnic table to eat your lunch feels extremely weird. You expected to be out in the wilderness by now.
"Couldn't we have left our packs in the car?" you ask as you poke ham and cheese down into a pocket of pita.
"I wanted to give them a test run. See if we needed to repack or something. Mine feels pretty good, though. How's yours feel?"
"Feels like I'm carrying thirty pounds on my back, dude. What's it supposed to feel like?"
"Well... I mean, the straps aren't cutting into your shoulders or anything?" He reaches to squeeze your shoulder, and smiles as you lean into it. "Okay."
"You could keep doing that if you want."
"Make me a sammich too and I will."
You make John a sandwich, John massages your shoulders, the sun shines, birds sing, and time... shifts gears.
Time is still your thing, in a way. You can't change it anymore, but you can still feel it. You still have perfect rhythm, still don't need a watch; checking your bare wrist has become a sort of private joke. You don't really talk about it, just like John doesn't really talk about the way he always knows when to bring an umbrella to school even if the weather report says sunshine. Time is just there for you, an engine driving you along smooth endless rails, an infinite stairway descending, step by step.
This thing that's happening right now... you haven't lost your time sense. And it doesn't feel like time slowed down or anything. But just now it doesn't feel like it's driving you. It feels like everything is drifting along together -- which means, in a sort of relativistic way, that nothing is moving at all.
You hold up the bottle of juice you got at the vending machine by the bathrooms. "Check the label on this for me," you say dreamily. "I thought it was cran-apple but I'm pretty sure I got cran-apple-peyote by mistake."
"Why, do you feel sick?"
"Nah, I just went all navel-gazy suddenly."
"Oh, okay." He kisses the side of your neck for punctuation and then takes a huge bite of his sandwich. "Thaf norml," he says. "Naffral effec offa enfironmen."
You consider trying to make a Thoreau reference. You consider telling him it's adorable when he talks with his mouth full. You wonder if this is how he feels all the time. In the end, you just eat your sandwich.
* * *
A couple hours down the next trail, the sense of being in a groomed and maintained human place begins to fade. The track narrows from something wide enough for park vehicles to a mere path. You start having to navigate tricky bits of slope that haven't been made into stairs with little wooden retaining beams. You encounter a creek with no bridge, and have to cross by stepping from rock to rock.
You stop there to take a few macro shots of rocks under water. John finds some blue flowers growing in cracks in a granite slab. He stops you from picking one. "Take only pictures, leave only footprints," he recites pompously. You shrug like you don't care, but secretly you're kind of bummed. You wanted to put it in his hair.
The trail starts to climb after that. Your calves burn with exertion, but it feels good. When the climb tops out in a rocky meadow, you both stop to take off your outer shirts and knot them around your waists. John puts sunblock on your shoulders. The hair at the back of his neck is damp with sweat. You wonder how that can be so sexy. You remember your cheesy field-of-wildflowers fantasy, and it makes you grin wryly to yourself; this spot would be perfect, if that were a real thing that could happen.
"Think you could stand to pick up the pace?" John says, and squints off across the valley like he sees something that troubles him. "The wind here is tricky to read, but I think we might get a bit of rain."
There's nothing in the sky but a few cotton balls, but you're not going to question him. "Your legs are shorter than mine, dude," you retort. "You tell me."
"You're only like an inch taller. It's hilarious how much it matters to you."
"I'm just saying."
"You're gonna be devastated if I get a growth spurt."
"Macho speed hiking, Egbert, let's go."
Grinning, he takes your hand, and you go on like that as long as the trail is wide enough.
* * *
Setting up the tent is easier than you expected. You're done long before John finishes making a fire in the little foldable metal doodad he brought for the purpose. Supposedly the thing will allow you to cook over pinecones and twigs, but so far all it's doing is wasting matches. You look up from watching him fail Caveman 101, stretch your arms over your head, gaze across a stream-threaded rock field to the granite peaks on the far side of the valley. Whaddaya know, actual purple mountains' majesty. So apparently that's a real thing.
It occurs to you that you haven't seen another human being since about two this afternoon. The pair of you might as well be the only people in the world. It's kind of an amazing feeling.
The clouds caught on the mountains' teeth are scarlet and gold at the edges, thickening to bruise black beyond. "Rain?" you prompt.
"Bout an hour," John says absently as he wastes another match. "Dammit."
"Nuh-uh, I called dibs."
You try to elbow him aside. He holds the matches out of your reach. It turns into a bit of a wrestling match, both of you laughing so loud it echoes. Of course you end up kicking over the fire-holder widget. You call each other ridiculous names while you regather the wood and pile it back up. When John tries to stuff a wad of grass in, you yank it out again.
"Well, there's your problem right there," you drawl. "This stuff's wet as a fangirl's panties."
"How would you know?"
"Well, feel it. Just cuz it's yellow doesn't mean it's dry."
"No, I mean when did you ever encounter wet panties."
"Not all science has to be experimental, Egbert. I worked it out with math. On a huge chalkboard. I used so many Greek letters, you don't even know." You shield a match with your hand and apply it to twigs and pine needles sans grass, and chuckle smugly as it catches.
"I thought you never did it with any girls, but I wasn't sure."
You turn to give him a questioning look. You can follow this conversational zigzag, but do you want to? It looks like a minefield. "Let's see if that freeze-dried crap is any good. It sure cost enough."
He relinquishes the topic with no sign of disappointment, going to dig one of the bear-proof canisters out of your pack. "I know, it's a total gouge, but I was curious. I sorta hope we don't love it, because I only brought a couple. Then it's instant refried bean burritos til doomsday."
"Bean burritos and ham-and-cheese are what I grew up on, dude. All that fancy shit Dad makes --"
He sounds so dismayed, you turn half expecting to see him holding an empty canister. But no, there's food in there. There's also a long chain of condoms, which he's pulling out with pinchy-fingers at arm's length as if it might bite him.
"Did you pack these? Because I sure didn't."
You groan. "Bro, Jesus."
"Oh my God, did he seriously sneak into my room while we were sleeping and booby-trap our packs?"
"If by 'booby-trap' you mean 'put condoms in', then apparently yes. But you can check for punji stakes if you want to."
"So it doesn't... bother you at all."
"It's not as funny as he thinks it is, but no, should it? Why are you flipping your shit, John? Explain it to me."
"Because... Bro. Who hates me for infecting you with The Gay. Left us a little latex surprise." He drops the condoms and tilts the canister until he can see into it by what little daylight is left. "And a tube of what I am almost sure is cherry-flavored lube. Haha, Bro, cherries, I get it, very funny."
"John, he doesn't hate you," you sigh. You reach over and grab the packet of freeze-dried whatever. "Well, we brought it in, we have to pack it out. That's the rule, right?"
"I don't want it in with the food."
"I think it counts as 'scented toiletries'. Those go in the bear can."
"But I don't want it in with the food." He looks up at you, and aw hell, he's got his stubborn face on, the one that's one lip-wobble away from dissolving into tears.
Supper can wait. You take everything away from him and set it aside. Then you wrap your arms around his shoulders and pull him against you. "Okay, explain it to me, babe, cuz obviously I'm missing something."
"It's skeevy. It's gross."
"What is?" You have a sinking feeling in your stomach, because you're afraid what's gross to him is the idea of sex. Still, he has to be the one to say it. "Flavored lube? Never tried it. Maybe it's secretly delicious."
He shakes his head slightly. "Bro thinking about us needing that stuff. Why does everybody have to be up in our business all the time? Did I tell you, the other day Grandpa asked if we were 'being safe'? I almost threw up!"
It's hard not to laugh at that mental image, no matter how much it obviously bothers John. "It's kinda their job, I guess. Embarrassing us, I mean."
"I'm not embarrassed, I'm creeped out! Every time we start getting -- you know -- in the zone --" even in his distress he has to smirk at himself for that one -- "I feel like Dad's watching or something. It kinda ruins the mood! And now, just when I was finally not thinking about anybody but you, up pops mister 'lol gay' with the pervy care package, God, it's like he tried to climb in bed with us!" He pushes you back so he can scowl at you. "And we don't even need condoms! Because we're both virgins! And we're both boys! What does he think, I'm going to get you ass pregnant?"
This is the last straw. You can't keep from laughing anymore. And as soon as you lose it, John loses it too. You laugh so hard you fold in half and rest your forehead on your pack, slapping the ground. John falls over on his back, kicking his feet in the air.
And just when you start to catch your breath, you wheeze, "Ass pregnant!" and it all starts over again.
* * *
You're still trying to figure out how to wash dishes in a stream two inches deep when the rain starts to fall. You settle for giving them a quick scrub with a handful of gravel, then dash for the tent. John's already inside with the packs. He holds the flap open for you, grinning at your haste.
"It's just a little rain, Dave."
"You want these washed better, you do it. I know my sleeping bag is going to end up soggy sooner or later, but why hasten the... inevitable..." You trail off as you realize that instead of two bags side by side, there's one big rectangle. John zipped the sleeping bags together.
His grin turns shy. "We're going to snuggle up anyway. We might as well share body heat."
"Look at all the objections I'm raising," you deadpan. You try very hard not to think Is that all we're going to be sharing? because you know it would show on your face.
The light is fading fast, but it's still way too early to sleep. You both strip down to shirts and boxers and get into the conjoined sleeping bags. Your heart rate's been gradually accelerating since he unbuttoned his fly, but he doesn't seem to be thinking about the possibilities here. Instead, he busies himself cranking up the little LED lantern, then gets out a book of crossword puzzles.
"You're kidding me," you drawl.
He gives you an innocent look. "Didn't you bring anything to do?"
"I brought you, dude."
John chuckles uncomfortably. "It's only like seven. When do you want to go to sleep, ten? We can't make out for three hours. Our lips would fall off."
"Seven twenty-one," you confirm with a defeated sigh, and get out your book reader. It's one of the grayscale digital-ink ones, the battery will probably last longer than your sanity.
Silence falls, seasoned only by the tapping of the rain.
You're finally starting to get involved in your book when John interrupts you with, "Camel's house, nine letters. What the fuck. Camels don't live in houses."
"Gaugamela," you supply absently.
"Ooh." Pencil scratchings. "Wow. What even is that?"
"Place where Alexander trashed the Persians. I know my badasses. I could teach a course. Great Queers of History." You glance out of the corner of your eye to see John chewing his eraser. Shit that's distracting.
"Should I be objecting to the word 'queer'?" he muses.
"But it's pejorative, isn't it?"
"You start trying to put the clamps down on my vocabulary I'm just going to get worse to spite you. Where did this come from all of a sudden?"
He rolls over on his back, gazing unfocused at the low curve of the tent ceiling. "I have no idea how to be gay."
"You're in bed with a dude, dude. I think you got it covered."
That gets a weak chuckle. "You know what I mean."
"Not really. I mean. Jesus." You turn off the book and prop yourself on your elbow to watch him. "It's not a skill, John. It's not like you can do it wrong. 'Whoops, I failed at gay and accidentally became pansexual!' You don't even have to be gay. You didn't used to have a sex drive at all. Maybe it doesn't matter that I'm a guy."
"But it matters to everyone else."
"So? Since when do you care what people think?"
He shoots you an incredulous look. "Since always, Dave!"
"No way, not even. You're the Original Prankster, right? And Captain Oblivious, also, and you never minded looking stupid. So what is this really. Because it's not about Doing It Wrong."
His eyes go vague again and refix on the ceiling. "I never had something I could lose by being wrong before."
"Whoa." Your stomach does a fairly unpleasant sinking thing. "John, you're not gonna lose me."
"I almost did, though, didn't I? I didn't even know I was being a tease, but you almost cut me off for it. What else don't I know?"
"Shit. Well, for starters, it wasn't for being a tease."
"That's what you said."
"No it wasn't. It was because I couldn't take it anymore."
"No! Fuck, how do I explain this." It feels so weird to be lying side by side, not looking at each other, and talking about things that make you queasy with anxiety. Like you could fix everything just by moving over a few inches, except you know you couldn't. "You didn't do anything wrong, John," you say slowly. "It was all me."
"It's not you, it's me," he says with a dry laugh.
"It was my fucking self-control, okay? I was afraid I was going to snap and molest you! I didn't want to 'cut you off', or be farther from you in any way, or like... stop touching you. Ever. Which was the problem. I thought I was saving our friendship. It wasn't a breakup."
"Oh!" That's a happy noise, so you aren't afraid to look, and you find him smirking at you. "I'd apologize for being irresistible, but I can't turn it off. It's okay to feel intimidated, Dave. Sometimes I even awe myself."
"So I guess I don't have to be sorry for turning the tables," you grin, and now you're sure it's safe to close the gap. You spread your hand on his stomach and lean down. "You just let me know when when my swag gets too magnificent for you."
"You're such a dork," he says fondly, and his arms settle around you.
There's something different in the way he kisses tonight. Something exploratory. Thoughtful. He isn't losing himself in it the way he sometimes does. You don't know if that's a good sign or a bad one. Maybe he's just tired. You're not exactly feeling turbocharged yourself.
Eventually he settles his head on your shoulder and gives a long, soft sigh. The lamp is running out of charge. Rather than wind it up again, you turn it off.
"I'm really happy," he whispers.
"Feeling pretty okay myself," you return, and feel him smile.
It's way too early to go to sleep, but it's only four and a half minutes until he's boneless and breathing slow. And you only spend eight and a quarter trying not to think about bears before you follow him.
* * *
It's still raining when you wake up, so cold the sleeping bags are clammy with condensation everywhere your combined body heat hasn't evaporated it. John is the little spoon. You don't remember dreaming at all.
Much as you'd like to lie there breathing into the back of his head indefinitely, you have to piss and you're starving. You try to slip out of bed without disturbing him. Of course he wakes up as soon as you move.
"Looks like I get to practice lighting a fire in the rain!" he says happily, like it's extra dessert. It is too early to process this insanity. You just grunt.
By the time you're done getting dressed, relieving yourself, and stumbling around blinking at things, John has somehow, miraculously, amazingly, actually started a fire. How he managed this in the wet when he failed at it before it rained, you cannot guess. Windy powers, possibly.
"Dibs apple cinnamon," you say as he gets out the oatmeal.
"That's the only kind we brought, Dave," he says indulgently.
"Whatever," you mutter. You perch on a damp stone, hunched into your red parka -- which still reeks of New -- and watch the rain drip off the front of your hat brim. It's so gray this morning, you're not even wearing your shades. "Please to create hot gooshyfoods with your fire voodoo, stat. I'm freezing my nads off here."
"I can't rush it or it'll go out. I didn't pack so many wax starters that I can waste any."
Oh, so that's how he did it. "Cheater."
He throws a grin over his shoulder at you. "Aww, look at you all grim and miserable. Let's see if we can put a smile on that face."
About ten minutes later, he hands you the most delicious instant oatmeal you've ever tasted. It's still not enough to make you smile. But after he washes the dishes he sticks his hands inside your jacket to warm them up, and knocks his hat off trying to bump noses with you, and you have to grin at that.
* * *
Once you get moving, you warm up pretty fast. Which is fortunate, because early in the afternoon, the rain turns into sleet.
John stops to consult his map, unfazed by the chunky slush-drops that land on it. It takes some willpower not to try reading it over his shoulder. This is John's adventure; he gets to lead.
"It's macho speed hiking time again, I'm afraid," he says apologetically as he folds the map away.
"You're shitting me."
"Nope. The wind's going to pick up, and it's going to come blasting right down this valley like a wind tunnel. And the trail goes up that ridge, so the farther we go the worse it'll get, unless we can make it over the ridge and down the other side, which takes us into a nice woody bit that'll block it off somewhat."
The distance is a gray blur. You pull out your shades long enough to get a better look. Of course a sideways gust immediately cakes them with ice bukkake. "You seriously wanna do that in this weather? It'll be dark before we get there. And slippery and shit. This is the kind of decision that leads to broken legs and airlifts and you know nobody in those stories ever gets choppered out until after they've lost half their face to frostbite and eaten their best friend --"
John gives a you're-just-being-difficult sigh. "I'm not eating my best friend until we get to the campsite. I'm gonna doubletime it up that ridge now; are you coming or not?"
You discover that sleet is not as cold as you previously thought it was. "Most persuasive double entendre ever." It is time to step lively. Hell fucking yes.
* * *
The sleet turns to snow. The path is steep and slippery. It gets dark before you reach the top, and it turns out the orangey-purple glow of snowlight is something that only happens in cities; out here it's dark as fuck. You have to navigate by crank-lamp light, and the gizmo doesn't work so great in the cold, not to mention it's a bitch to crank with gloves on.
You're wet. You're freezing. You're tired. You're hungry. You're hiking blind. You don't even have the breath to complain. Your feet are dragging. You don't know if you're going to make it. But there are no alternatives, are there? You can't stop here. John would try to help you, and he's plodding head-down and panting just like you are. You reach deep inside yourself in search of some last shred of energy --
-- and suddenly you are so fucking alive, it's ridiculous how much badass you have left.
What were you doing, moping and feeling sorry for yourself like some... some tourist? You used to be a god. And so did John, and it's going to take more than a little snow and a six percent grade to defeat a shit-stomping power couple like you.
"Let's have the cajun chicken and the chili tonight," you say, doing a pretty good job of not wheezing.
John pauses in his stubborn trudging to throw a weary grin back over his shoulder. You see it as a gleam of teeth in a silhouette against the lamp it's his turn to crank. "I thought we agreed on cannibalism."
"You gotta buy me dinner first. What kinda girl do you think I am?"
He doesn't have a comeback for that, but he chuckles, and it seems he's got a bit more spring in his step when he strikes out again.
It's almost disappointing when you top the ridge a mere six minutes later. Your second wind is itching for a bigger challenge than that. Getting down into the wooded valley beyond is no stroll in the park, but when you reach John's chosen campsite you still have plenty of energy for setting up the tent.
John uses another wax firestarter. You zip the sleeping bags together like he did last night. He makes both chicken and chili. You surreptitiously locate the canister with the condoms in it and make sure it's accessible from your side of the bed, just in case. Not that you honestly think he's going to want to go directly from first-time-touching-another-guy's-junk to assfucking, but what if.
You sit together on a de-snowed log, pressed together at hip and shoulder, and eat reconstituted cajun-chicken-chili-rice-and-carrots-cheese-and-onions all mushed together, gloved hands gripping clumsy forks. Food has never tasted so good. The tiny fire is just a lava glow in its little metal ring; you can hear fat wet snowflakes sizzling as they land on the coals.
The night is huge, black and hostile, and the two of you are so utterly alone here, you couldn't get a parental nagging if you wanted one. It's really starting to sink in now.
No one knows exactly where you are. If you needed a rescue they'd have to snowmobile or fly over the whole trail to find you, and they wouldn't even start until you failed to show up at home almost a week from now. There's no service on your phones. No city lights on the horizon. You are totally.
"God," you say softly, your breath a blur of reflected firelight on the air. "It's just you and me and the fucking trees here, isn't it? I mean we're just so... I meant just utterly fucking..."
"Free," John finishes for you, and leans his head on your shoulder. Then he goes on eating like that. Chewing makes his head wobble, and you laugh.
The sleeping bags are icy. As you cling together, shivering, you wonder if maybe you should've left more clothes on. At least socks. This is the kind of circumstance those kivver-whatsis socks are for, right? But John was hinting that tonight is the night, and you'll be damned if you have your first time while wearing wooly booties.
Gradually, the space between you begins to warm up. John pulls the sleeping bag over your heads, and you nuzzle at his face in the dark, but after a few minutes you pull the edge down a bit to let in weak crank-lamp light.
"Guess we can either see or be warm," he bites out between chattering teeth.
"We'll be warm pretty soon," you promise. "I wanna look at you."
He gives you a shy grin you'd hate to have missed. His lips are cold when you kiss, but they don't stay that way long. Your tongues tangle; your hearts accelerate. He works his fingers into your hair. You run your hands down his back, hesitate, continue, cup his ass. His breath hitches, his hips twitch, your blood boils.
Then he tenses, plants his palms against your chest, and hides his face in the crook of your neck. "Wait. Wait. Sorry."
A groan of protest escapes you before you can control yourself. Goddammit. This again. You thought -- but he didn't promise anything, did he? Just made a couple of jokes. "It's okay," you force out.
He shakes his head slightly. "It's not, though, is it?"
"It totally is. I just." You take a deep breath, trying to think yourself calm. You stroke his hair soothingly. "Not trying to pressure you, honest. I just. Well, I mean, fuck. You're so fucking sexy."
"Right." He breathes a self-deprecating laugh. "The nerdy kind of sexy."
"Yes, goddamn it, you are nerd sexy. You are sexier than all other sexy nerds combined. You make Charlie Eppes look like Spongebob. You make Sherlock look like Squidward. You're the hottest dork ever to snort-laugh himself into a lulz coma at self-inflicted injuries on Mythbusters."
That makes him prove your point by snickering into your shoulder until his shoulders shake. "Dave, jeez."
"No kidding, babe, you're gorgeous. Are you aware you're gorgeous? Your eyes blow my train of thought right off the tracks. John... okay, look," you say patiently. "I've pretty much totally adored you for years. I'm not about to get mad at you for being scared to get naked just yet."
"But you want to."
"Well... yeah. But it's not just because I'm horny, you know? I don't like there being a line we don't cross. Not that I'm saying 'no boundaries ever, let's leave the bathroom door open' -- just, you don't seem happy stopping here either. Are you?"
"I guess... not really? I don't even really know why I do this. Freeze up. It doesn't even make sense. Because... shit." He breathes a long, shuddering sigh that washes across the hollow of your throat and plucks your self-control like a guitar string tuned an octave too high. "I want you too, Dave," he whispers, like it's a secret. "I think about it when I... you know, in the shower or whatever."
You swallow hard. Self-control. Self-control is a thing that exists.
"But when reality happens I just get so nervous and it's like... it means so much and I don't know what to do at all and I'm just so sure I'll ruin everything."
"John, Jesus." You hug him as hard as you can. Tight enough that he has to put his arms around you or get his hands squished between you, and after a moment he picks option one and hugs back at least as tightly.
"You're not the one pressuring me," he admits. "I am."
"You can't ruin it. I swear you can't ruin it."
"But like, what if I do something gross or stupid or --"
"Doesn't matter. If it's you, it's adorable. That is the full equation. John equals adorable, full stop. The set of Things John Does fits fully within the set of Things That Are Totally Lovable."
"But what if there's something everybody knows that's so obvious to everybody and I don't know it and you're like, how could you not know that? What if it's a deal-breaker?"
"John, goddamn it --" Not that you want to let go, but some things require eye contact. And his are so round and scared, they melt your heart until it's sloshing. "This deal cannot be broken. It's not just a deal, it's a motherfucking covenant. You want me to marry you? Because I totally will."
"Dave, I'm not even eighteen yet," he sputters.
"What I'm trying to say is, basically, I'm yours for the rest of my life. If you want that in writing, fucking hand me a pen."
He blinks fast a few times. There's wet on his lashes. A smile breaks across his face like dawn and grows until he's beaming. "I. Yeah. Ditto. I love you completely forever, no takebacks, times infinity. You can't get rid of me either."
"Awesome." Your smile's a bit blinky as well, and there's no point trying to hide it.
Maybe you don't even want to hide it. Maybe you actually want him to know how what he does to you. Even if he stomps this sand castle in the next ten seconds, you're pretty sure you won't regret letting him see you tear up. Because now is not the time for fronting.
He slides his hands under your shirt and tentatively pushes it up. You strip it off, then reciprocate the gesture. Light slants across his chest as he stretches to set his shirt aside. You lick your lips, starting to feel short of breath again. This isn't the first time you've seen him shirtless, but it's rare enough that you're always surprised how much muscle is under there. He's not wiry like you, he's got a little softness around his belly and ass. Unbearably cute. You run a thumb along his collarbone, follow it with your tongue. His hands tighten on your hips.
You trade tentative kisses until they run together into something certain. You can feel the moment when he stops being scared. His body just melts against yours and oh. When he's not holding back there's more passion in him than you dreamed in all your hopeless fantasies. He tangles around you like every inch of him needs to be touching you, even his ankles, and he makes breathy little hungry noises against your lips, and the hardon he's grinding against your hip feels like hot iron.
When you go to get rid of your shorts, he grabs the waistband and just about rips them off you. Shucks his own with clumsy, wriggling haste. Welds himself to you and writhes, you can feel his ass muscles flexing in your hands, his dick rubbing against yours side by side and his breath hot on your cheek and holy shit he bites your shoulder and you're gone, whimpering John God John like it's all one word while his hips jerk against you.
Coming down, you're all breath and pulse, and he's shaking. You kiss salt from the corner of his eye; sweat or tears, doesn't matter. Somewhere in there the top sleeping bag got shoved down to your waists. In what's left of the lamplight, you can see his skin steaming faintly.
You pull the covers up around his shoulders, cradle the back of his neck, kiss his cheekbone again. It's beginning to dawn on you that he might be having second thoughts. Because that was not the perfect John's First Time you had planned. You wanted to drive him insane with bliss, take your time, make him feel cherished, and probably go down on him and swallow it so he wouldn't have to deal with the mess. Not blow your load on his stomach after a minute and a half of squirming.
"Wow," he says shakily, and there's a bit of a laugh in it. "I have a new theory why I was so nervous. Part of why, anyway."
A more audible laugh. "I must've known the second I touched you I'd go boom."
You chuckle too, relieved. "Don't pull the pin out unless you plan to bang, kinda thang. Yeah, well, in case you didn't notice, you weren't the only short fuse in this tent tonight."
"Mm," is all he says, but his kiss is a pretty clear communication that he is okay with this turn of events.
"Where'd you pack the washcloth? We should deal with this incestuous slurry before we fall asleep."
"Sleep? Dave." He shakes his head and tsks at you, smirking. "What's your refractory period, fifteen minutes?"
You feel your eyes widen, and you stammer a bit. "I uh, I haven't timed it?"
"Really? But you're time guy."
"I haven't gone for the multiple consecutive jerkfest since I was like fourteen. Not enough privacy. But we're kinda made of privacy now, huh?"
"We should gather new data. In the spirit of scientific inquiry."
"I thought your sexy nerd factor was at maximum before, but I was wrong, because it just fucking doubled. So. Washcloth."
He reaches between you and drags a finger through the cooling slickness on your stomach. "But we're only going to make more. And besides. I think I have a use for something slippery."
"Whoa. Babe. Wow."
"Er... was that gross?" He bites his lip, suddenly uncertain.
"No way. I mean yes kinda but also very, very hot and uh." You catch your breath as your pulse heads south. "Think it might be time to collect that first data point."
* * *
Long before you get around to using the washcloth, it's clear that the sleeping bags, the both of you, and all your belongings are going to reek like sex by the time you get anywhere you can wash. The prospect is oddly appealing.
It also becomes apparent, as you share a naked midnight snack with the covers hooded over your heads, that if you were going to make a habit of banging like bunnies after a hard day's hiking, you really needed to pack more food. When you suggest rationing your calorie expenditure somewhat after this, John actually pouts.
"But it's going to be so awkward at home," he complains. "The walls are so thin and we all take turns on laundry. Locking the door might keep us from getting interrupted, but for all the privacy it provides we might as well be doing it on the kitchen table. No," he adds sternly as you open your mouth to endorse that venue. "People eat there."
You're not about to call him a prude, not after being lab assistant for his exacting research into the nature of the handjob. "There's plenty of places to camp closer to home," you point out.
His eyes sparkle. "Oh hell yes. Every weekend."
"Hey John. How many hippies does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
"They don't screw in light bulbs, they screw in sleeping bags. That one's ancient, Dave."
For some reason, the only correct response to that is, "I love you."
He kisses your shoulder and feeds you the last bite of his sandwich.
You notice ice crystals forming low on the tent wall, and realize they're made out of your sex; John's gasps and whimpers, his name from your mouth, your sweat and breath and come, your laughter, frozen into frost on the orange nylon. Pheromones and oxytocin. Maybe a forensic tech could analyze the crystals and conclude, 'The occupants of this tent were head-over-heels in love.'
* * *
You wake at 6:12 the next morning, sore and cold and half-squished under John and absolutely content. You gaze at the dim glow of the tent ceiling for a few minutes before the thing that woke you happens again: a drop of melting frost gathers on a seam overhead and falls on your forehead.
A series of thoughts collides in your head, and the multi-inspiration pileup galvanizes you out of bed. Camera. Clothes. Need dry socks. No, camera first.
John sleeping. John's hand curled by his mouth, gonna crop that one to just lips and knuckles, that is sex on a rocket holy shit. John burrowing into your warm spot, half smiling. Tug the sleeping bag up to protect him from the melt drips. John's fingers clutching the hem of the bag, nothing else visible but a few locks of hair, so black against the red of the lining.
Clothes. Boots. Etcetera. Outside. Perfect timing. Jesus Christ, that sky. Dawn pink-yellow like mango sherbet on the mountain peaks. Snow, ice, meltwater, crystal droplets all along a fir branch -- whoa, ravens. Huddled, rustling, muttering, one preening a wing while another hunches close and glares at its toes, like best friends who just embarrassed the shit out of each other.
Rocks, hell yeah rocks, snow overhang on rocks, thank God for digital because there's no way you could pack in this much film. Light dripping down the trees. The tent half-drifted in blue snowshadow while the trees beyond it glow like they're on fire.
John poking his head out of the tent, squint-smiling at you, shoulders bare. He lets you take a few shots, catch his dawning grin. "You look happy," he comments fondly. "No hurry. It'll take me a while to get breakfast on anyway."
"This place," is all you can say. You raise your camera just in time to shoot a snow plume blowing off a mountain peak, iodine purple against a mango sky.
"I knew you'd like it," he says quietly. He sounds utterly satisfied, like he's accomplished something no one else could've done.
Which... he kinda has, hasn't he? That's what this is all about. It's just dawning on you now. Maybe not why camping, but why Yosemite. He picked it for you. Because he knew this was going to happen. This inspiration, this wild unjudging joy in image after image, captured not because they're art but because they're there.
Maybe he couldn't have known all this solitude would break your poker face -- or rather, render it obsolete, because you just plain don't have any use for it here -- but it's something he wanted. And maybe he wanted it because he guessed what a relief it would be to drop it for a while.
The point is, you're beginning to realize you've been on John's mind a lot more than you thought. That he's been trying to make you happy. Planning to give you the things it would never even have occurred to you to get for yourself: a space away from judging eyes, a time when you don't have to be the calm one, beauty you don't have to pretend doesn't impress you.
And a chance to channel the ghost of Ansel Adams, that's a pretty nice gift all by itself.
You don't take a picture of his soft smile. That one's yours alone.