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“Can you believe it, Gwen?” David slowly shook his head, letting out a deep sigh. “I’ve never thought I’d live to see Camp Cambell being shut down. It feels like a part of me is going missing and I find that feeling utterly horrible!” David sniffed, hugging himself tightly as the gusts of wind were getting stronger and stronger. It seemed like even the weather was against them that day.

“Now, now,” Gwen patted him gently on the shoulder, “I know you’ve been really attached to that camp, and your sadness is totally understandable, but hey, it’s not like it’s the end of the world!”

David turned to the co-counselor, his face suddenly darkened. “Maybe not for you, Gwen.” he said, unconsciously clenching his fists. “Maybe you’ve never liked Camp Cambell… But I did, and I won’t regret any minute spent here!” Gwen opened her mouth, but David didn’t let her speak just yet. “Listen, that camp was my everything. I don’t expect you to understand me, but please, don’t act like it’s no big deal.”

“David, I-“

“Camp Cambell was my special place, Gwen. It felt good, you know… It felt… familiar.” David paused for a second, his gaze fixed on some imaginary point in the distance. His green eyes started to water as he spoke again. “It felt like home.”

Gwen went silent for a while. Damn it. She’s forgotten that David was living alone and, as far as she knew, had no family left. A small lump of guilt started building up in her throat.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, okay? I know you had your reasons to love that hellish place and I should’ve respected that.”

David smiled slightly. “It’s okay, Gwen; apology accepted. I guess me guilt-tripping you wasn’t very fair either.” David ruffled his hair nervously. “Yikes, everything feels so overwhelming now.”

“Welcome to my world, sunshine boy.”

While they were talking, a few cars parked near the camp’s entrance; people pouring out of each.

“Oh, great,” Gwen groaned in frustration. “The parents are here.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll talk to them,” David offered. “You go and check if everyone’s packed and ready to go.”

Gwen nodded but then hesitated. She looked at David with a surprisingly gentle expression. “Hey, just so you know… I’m gonna miss you, you tall, over-excited bastard.” Gwen nudged him friendly with her elbow.

David chuckled. “Aww, how sweet of you! Can I give you a hug?”

“Hell no! I mean, I’m not particularly keen on receiving that much affection in public. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and do my share.” And Gwen headed to the tents, while David went to talk to the parents.

To his surprise, the talk didn’t go as bad as he thought. After having all the issues settled, and having said goodbye to the leaving campers, David realized he hadn’t seen Max around for quite a while. He was so busy handing the kids back to their parents that he-

Oh, no.

“Max?”

Silence.

“Maaax?!”

Still no answer.

“Oh gosh, oh gosh…” David started muttering anxiously. Calm down, Davey. Just calm down. Max has to be somewhere close. But… what if he wandered off into the forest? What if he got lost? What if he got HURT?

“Lookin’ for me?”

David jumped at the sound of that familiar, cynical voice, turning around quickly. Max stood right in front of him with hands tucked deep into the pockets of his inseparable hoodie. He tilted his head, glancing at David like a curious wolf pup.

“Max!” David exclaimed with sincere joy and relief. “God, I’m so glad you’re safe!” Then, a slight frown  appeared on his face. “Where have you been?”

The boy shrugged and kicked a small rock. “I have my secret hideouts – that’s all you need to know.”

“So, you’re not spilling the beans, are you?”

“Nope. That would spoil the fun of watching you gettin’ all desperate.”

David pursed his lips, looking more like an angry child than Max ever did. “Well, that wasn’t very nice of you. I was really worried, you know? You shouldn’t have ran off like that.”

Max snorted. “Oh, really? And what if I do it again, huh? What will you do, slap me?” Max paused for the proper effect. “Yeah, didn’t think so. You wouldn’t do that,” he said, a disdainful half-smile lingering on his lips, “because you’re a coward.”

David crossed his arms with a sigh. “No, Max. I wouldn’t do that because I think that child battering is very, very wrong.”

Max was still looking at him, but something in his face changed for a second. Even though the expression stayed perfectly indifferent, it was the odd flicker in his bright green eyes that gave him away. David opened his mouth to say something, looking sincerely concerned, but Max forestalled him. “Wow, you have morals, good for you,” he said with a sneer.

“Max…” David crouched, trying to make the boy meet his eyes once again. His voice was soft and soothing – Max both loved and hated that tone. On the one hand, it was dripping with a welcoming warmness, but on the other, that warmness was just too much to handle sometimes. “I thought we’ve made a breakthrough that day.”

Max looked away. “Maybe”, he said with a little hesitation, “but I told you we’re never talking about this and I’m keeping my word.”

“I just want you to know that you can always talk to me.”

“About what? My neglectful parents?” Max looked at the ground beneath his sneakers for a brief moment, then raised his eyes again, his gaze burning with a sudden rage. “Or maybe the fact that they’re not fucking coming for me?!” he snapped, furiously wiping his already wet eyes with a sleeve until they turned red. He promised himself that David would never see him cry again, but he wasn’t as tough as he thought and he hated it. He hated being weak and vulnerable.

“Oh, Max…” David tried to hug him, but the boy pushed him away. “Max, please…  I’m worried about you.”

“You don’t need to be,” Max said, his voice quieter. The rage disappeared as soon as it showed up. With a wave of dread, Max realized he shouldn’t have said that much… But his emotions were like a damn rollercoaster – up and down as they pleased.

“Well, of course, I do!” David stood up. “If there’s something wrong…”

“No, there isn’t!” Max cut off.  “Stop dwelling on that! I told you, they just don’t care. That’s all.”

David felt like Max didn’t tell him the whole truth, but he knew he wouldn’t get anything more. The boy was used to keeping things to himself, and he was usually quite good at it. “Fine.” He sighed. “Still, I have to call them. Maybe they didn’t receive the information about the camp being shut down? Or maybe they forgot…”

“Or maybe they’re assholes,” Max muttered to himself, but out loud he said: “Fine, call them. But don’t be surprised if they won’t answer – just sayin’.”

David took out his phone with a sigh and dialed a number. Nobody picked up the first time. Nor the second. David was listening to the monotonous beeping for the third time when suddenly he heard a slightly distorted female voice.  “O-oh, hi! Yes, this is David, the counselor of Camp Cambell. Well, actually, the former camp counselor… Anyway, I believe you’ve been – or at least should’ve been – informed that the camp no longer exists. All the kids were already taken home and Max seems to be the only one left. Could you tell me when– Oh.” A small pause followed. “Oh, I see. No! No, of course not…” David frowned. “Yes, I understand. Will I–? Uh,well… I-I suppose I could. I mean… If it’s only a week… Yes, we’ll keep in touch. No need to worry. Goodbye, ma’am.” And David hung up, looking a bit confused.

“What is it?” Max asked, looking at him with eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Um… Well… It seems that your parents are on vacation.”

“Vacation, huh?”

“They said – actually, your mother said – that they should be back in a week or so. She asked if you could stay with me until then.”

Max’s eyes went wide like two full moons. “With YOU? For a WEEK? Jeez, I’ve never thought they’d torture me like that.”

Although David knew that Max was just teasing him, he wished the boy was a little bit more subtle sometimes.

“I know what you’re thinking and I promise I’ll try not to be so… overwhelming.” David smiled awkwardly, trying to be reassuring. “Besides, it’s just a week, Max, I’m sure we’ll manage.”

At first, Max didn’t feel quite enthusiastic about that idea, but something in the way David was trying to hide his obvious excitement made him change his mind. Everything was better than being home anyway. He was also kinda curious of how David’s place looked like.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll go get my stuff.”

Wow, David thought, pleasantly surprised. That went quick.

After a while the boy was back with his only backpack. In the meantime, David also fetched his baggage, now feeling a bit weird having two big bags AND a backpack in the trunk of the old camp car.

David looked at Camp Cambell for the last time. A feeling of melancholy washed over him. The place – once full of life – now looked empty, depressing even. And painfully strange. David shook his head as if it could help him get rid of all the nagging thoughts. “We should get going,” he said. There was no use prolonging the inevitable. Besides, Max looked pretty tired, even though he seemed determined not to show it. Poor boy… Probably haven’t slept much last night. Honestly, can’t blame him. “We have a long ride ahead of us.”

“And where exactly do you live?” Max asked after they both got into the car. (Of course, he insisted on sitting at the front.)

“You’ll see,” David said mysteriously, starting the engine. “It’s a four-hour drive from here.”

Max raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. Actually, he didn’t say much later on either. Each time David glanced at him, the boy looked deep in thought, staring blankly at the window with his forehead resting on the cold glass. As much as David wanted to make him smile, he didn’t really know how to do it.

Yet.

“Are you comfortable like that?” he asked, finally breaking the silence.

“Mmmhh…”

“I guess it means ‘no’.” David let out a short, quiet laugh. “There’s a throw pillow at the back seat. You can take it.”

Max frowned, quietly calculating, but eventually reached for the pillow and put it between his head and the window. David was right – it was much better. The pillow was very soft and even though it smelled like an old car, Max didn’t mind. “Uhh, thanks,” he muttered. It still felt weird saying such words to David.

“No problem, kiddo. Would you mind if I turned on the radio?”

“Nah. Play whatever you want. Just no country music or I’ll literally throw up in here and you’ll be the one to clean it up.”

“I’d prefer not to,” David said with a half-smile, turning the car radio on. The radio was old and the sound was terrible, but it worked just fine as a background noise.

As the time passed, the sun started slowly sinking below the horizon, painting the sky with colors. It was getting late and David felt truly relieved seeing the familiar shape of his cabin hidden among the trees. He imagined what Max would say – probably something like “Are you fucking serious? Have you ever considered NOT LIVING in the damn woods all the time?!”

“We’re here, Max,” he said, but no response followed. “Max?” David turned to him, just to find out that the boy was fast asleep. Looking at him, curled up on a seat with his head on the pillow, David immediately felt like someone has just spilled a cup of warm tea inside of his chest. He’s never seen Max looking so calm and peaceful. It was true what people were saying – that a sleeping child looks perfectly innocent.

No, David wouldn’t have the heart to wake him up. Instead, he carried Max to the house. He could already picture the boy’s confusion and – as far as he’d known him – probably some sense of shame as well, but it didn’t really matter now.

Today and tomorrow were two totally different perspectives.

Chapter Text

The moment Max opened his eyes, he knew something was out of place. First of all, he was lying in a bed that was suspiciously comfortable, and second of all, it definitely wasn’t a tent.

He lifted himself up, looking around. The room was rather small but it didn’t feel claustrophobic – it was pretty cozy, actually. Opposite the bed, there was a square window, allowing for plenty of morning sunlight to pour through and filling the room with golden beams. The sunlight revealed many tiny specks of dust floating in the air.

Now he remembered – he was in David’s house. Right. Judging by the wooden floor, the wooden walls… and well, the wooden everything, it definitely was a cabin.

Max jumped to his feet and looked through the window. He didn’t really know what he expected to see, but the sight of trees everywhere literally made him groan. “Are you fucking kidding me, man?” he muttered.”I escaped the woods just to go back in the woods? Oh, hell no!”. He rushed to the door, but then a thought struck him, making him freeze with his hand on the door handle. How did he get to that bed on his own yesterday? He didn’t remember doing so. Maybe he was so exhausted that his mind had just shut down at some point… Yeah, could be that.

He opened the door and went down the stairs. He stopped halfway, sniffing. What was that delicious, sweet smell? Was it vanilla and maple syrup? Max followed the smell, which led him to the kitchen. David must’ve heard his footsteps since he turned to him quickly, smiling like an idiot – meaning: as usual.

“Hello, Max! Good that you’re up already. I’ve made you some breakfast!”

Max blinked with surprise. “You– you’ve made me breakfast?”

“Well, I–I thought it would be nice. What’s so weird about it?”

“It’s not weird, I just… I’m not used to having any food made for me.” Oh, fuck. Will he ever learn to keep his damn mouth shut? There was something about David that always made him say more than he should and he didn’t quite like it. It was too much of a risk. “I mean, my parents are busy people, you know.”

“Oh.” David frowned slightly. “If you say so…”

Max just noticed the plate on the table. PANCAKES! Gosh, he knew the smell was familiar. But somehow David’s pancakes smelled twice as good as the regular ones and Max wasn’t sure if it was even possible. They also looked much better – perfectly round and golden brown, topped with loads of maple syrup, whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles. It was literal food porn, as Gwen would say. Max took the first bite. Man, they tasted as heavenly as they looked!

David sat on the other side of the table, glancing at Max with a little smile. “How did the pancakes come out?”

Max looked up from his plate. “Eatable,” he said with his mouth full. And then, he noticed something else that has somehow escaped his attention before. “Excuse me, but WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WEARING?!”

David looked down on his sweater in the shade of pastel pink, slightly confused. “What’s wrong with it? Also, language!”

“Seriously, David?” Max groaned, rolling his eyes, clearly ignoring his remark. “Nobody ever told you?”

“Told me what?”

“That pink is for girls! Or for gays. Are you gay?”

“Max!”

“Wait, no, you were dating Bonquisha for a while, so not gay. Bisexual maybe. But you look more gay to me.”

“Max!!” David was now blushing heavily. “We’re not going to discuss my sexuality during breakfast! … Nor any time later! It’s– It’s a private matter.”

Gotcha, Max thought with a hint of satisfaction.

“Besides,” David continued, wishing he hadn’t lost his cool like that in front of a kid. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay, and – if you ask me – I believe that colors should be gender-neutral. The only thing that matters is what makes someone happy and there’s no reason–”

“Jeez, okay! Got it. But try to make me wear something pink and I’ll bite your fingers off!” Max quickly finished his food and jumped off the chair. He wanted to take a look at the rest of the house.

The cabin generally wasn’t big, but somehow it seemed to have enough space for more than one person. The kitchen was actually connected with the living room, only partly separated by the countertop. The living room itself consisted of a couch, in front of which there was a fireplace with a big flat screen TV above it, and a few bookshelves. Honestly, Max didn’t even think that David would have a TV at all. Maybe not all hope is lost, he thought, bitterly. Maybe I won’t bore myself to death.

 “What’s in there?” he asked, pointing at the door on the right side of the fireplace.

“Oh, that’s just my bedroom. You can check it if you want, though!”

“I would’ve checked it anyway but thanks.” Max smiled ironically, opening the door. The room was a bit bigger than the one Max slept in. There was – of course – a bed, covered in colorful, fuzzy blankets and many knitted throw pillows, a single wardrobe, some potted plants on the windowsill, and a guitar leaning against the wall. Oh, and there were fairy lights LITERALLY EVERYWHERE. Although David’s bedroom looked like a picture from an aesthetic blog, Max had to admit that it was extremely cozy.

“Well, I can’t believe I’m saying it, but your place seems... quite nice,” he said, coming back to the living room. “There’s just one teeny-tiny problem, you know… IT’S IN THE MIDDLE OF SOME DAMN NOWHERE!” Max tugged at David’s sleeve angrily. “I order you to take me to civilization!”

“Well, that’s actually my plan for today,” David answered with a smile. “There’s a town nearby aaand I happen to have a café there.”

“Wait.” Max’s eyes went wide. “Wait, wait, wait… You’re running a café?! Like on your own?!”

“Um… Yeah.” David blushed a little, scratching his back nervously. “Actually, my friend James is helping me – honestly, he’s a much better manager than I am, even though he refuses to admit it. He was taking care of the whole business while I was away at camp. He always does.”

“Wow, that’s… That’s actually pretty cool!” Max was utterly yet pleasantly surprised. David owning a café, who would’ve thought? He still couldn’t believe that David really had a life outside Camp Cambell. Man, what a wild concept.

“You really think so?” David beamed. Having heard such words from Max meant so much to him! “You know what? We can go there right away!”

A few moments later they both went outside. Max automatically headed to the camp car, but David stopped him. “No, no. We’re taking my car this time.”

“Okay, and what other car could you possibly– OH, HOLY FUCKING CRAP, YOU HAVE A JEEP?!” Max rushed to the car that looked as if it had barely even been used.

“Yeah! I’ve always wanted to have one! That’s why I’ve been saving up for years for this beauty. I’m glad you like it!”

“Like it?” Max repeated, flushed with sudden excitement. “I ADORE it.”

David just laughed, opening the car and soon, they were on their way. The ride wasn’t very long – they’ve reached the town square after about half an hour. David’s café was just around the corner. The letters above the entrance formed the name “CAMPER’S DEN”.  It was so obviously camp-themed that  Max couldn’t help but groan loudly.

“I know what you’re thinking,” David said, opening the door and letting Max go first “but people really seem to like this place. They say it’s “innovative” or something. Oh, hey, James!” David exclaimed cheerfully, approaching the guy behind the bar, who, as far as Max could tell, was a literal walking “cute barista” stereotype.

“Davey!” James smiled. “Good to have you back!” Then he looked over the bar, noticing Max. “And that is…?”

“Max. His parents couldn’t pick him up from the camp, so he’s staying with me for a week. Honestly, I wanted to ask if you– if it’d be okay for you to–”

“… to look after the place for one more week? No problem.”

“Oh, thank you so much! You’re a blessing, James, you know that? Now, Max, find some nice place to sit and I’ll make us coffee. How would you like it?”

“Black and bitter like my soul.”

James raised an eyebrow and let out a short, quiet laugh. David just sighed. Max’s attitude was a bit… unsettling sometimes.

Max chose a seat in the corner. He rested his elbow on the table, propping up his chin, waiting. David came back soon with two cups. Max’s coffee was exactly as he wanted – perfectly black. It was very good, too. He glanced at David’s cup – he wasn’t sure if that slightly brownish liquid topped with loads of whipped cream and some sort of syrup could even be called coffee at all.

“What did you get?” he asked, sipping the hot drink carefully.

“Double chocolate and vanilla latte. Decaf.”

“You’re an abomination, David.”

 


 

“Hey, I have a question,” Max said during their way back home.

“Go on.”

“If your bedroom is downstairs… what about the room upstairs, like the one I sleep in?”

“It’s a guest room,” David said, focused on the road. “Or at least it was supposed to be.”

Max frowned a little. “What do you mean? Don’t you have any guests? Or like… family?”

David shook his head. “No. My family’s long gone and well… I don’t really have many friends. Honestly, I don’t have any close friends, apart from James, but we hardly ever meet after work, so… I don’t really know if that counts.”

The moment of uncomfortable silence followed. Now Max was truly shocked. He looked at David as if he could get more answers just by directly staring at his face long enough. “But… But you’re all so…”

“Positive?” David smiled at him, but that smile seemed a little forced and in that moment Max felt as if a small, invisible needle stung him in the chest against his will. “Yeah, I am. Or at least I try to be. Sometimes it’s the only option left to keep us going. But I’ve told you that some time ago, didn’t  I?”

Max looked down on his shoes. It felt weird suddenly knowing all that stuff about David – and by stuff he meant both the good and the bad facts. He wouldn’t have thought that David could actually be... lonely. Nor that he could have such a nice house and such a great car, or some silly café.

“You know what, David,” Max said after a while, “maybe this week won’t be completely terrible. I… I’ll try to enjoy it… to some extent! Because you know, there are limits. But I’ll try. I can handle any nonsense if you promise to always make me coffee. And pancakes.”

This time David’s smile was as genuinely happy as ever. The spark lost about a minute ago appeared in his eyes once again. “Okay, Max,” he said. “You have my word.”

Chapter Text

Max woke up to the sound of rain tapping gently on the roof. There was no sun to light up the room and the colors around seemed bland and faded. The funny thing was, Max felt exactly the same – bland, faded, empty.  

He rolled onto his back, staring blankly at the ceiling. He knew that coming back home was inevitable, but throughout this week he somehow managed to forget that. David made him forget that. It took surprisingly little effort to repress that thought, which now seemed to be coming back with twice the force. Jesus fucking Christ, it was so damn easy to fall into a pleasant routine. And it was even easier to get used to all the good things – to the lazy mornings, to the delicious pancakes, to the smell of a freshly brewed coffee, to the lingering scent of wood, to somebody just being there for him. Oh yeah, the last one. The last one was the worst.  

No matter how many times Max reminded himself not to get attached and not to care too much, David would always come and ruin everything having his fucking heart in the right fucking place; it took him only one damn week to make Max long for all the things he’d never had, to smooth the sharp, uneven edges of his feelings. And Max couldn’t forgive him for that. David has made him feel safe, he’s allowed him to create an illusion of having a place that he could call home, the illusion of life being good and gentle with him just for once and then, he’s decided to let these illusions fall into pieces right in front of his eyes. How fucking cruel was that.  

David probably had his own theories justifying Max’s bad behavior. As far as Max knew him, he must’ve had some; he just obviously wouldn’t share them. His assumptions were most likely correct – at least partially. But he didn’t know everything. He couldn’t have.  

It took Max much longer than usual to get out from bed and go downstairs. He felt sick at the thought of seeing David’s stupid face. He felt even more sick at the thought of never seeing that stupid face again. Everything seemed terrible. And all the terrible things were inevitable. 

They didn’t talk much during breakfast and didn't eat much either. Max wasn't hungry anyway –  his stomach felt like a tight knot and the sudden wave of anxiety has made him nauseous. Coming home should never feel that bad. And yet.  

An elegant, black car parked next to David's Jeep. David looked through the window, then turned to Max. The boy could almost sense all the emotions that were written all over David's face but still, his voice somehow remained calm when he said: "Your parents are here." 

Max only nodded. He didn't want to talk; he just wanted to get it all over with.  

They went outside, Max holding his backpack so tight as if his whole life depended on it. He took a few steps towards the car. Then, he heard a sad voice behind his back: "Don't you wanna say goodbye?".  

Max stopped, but didn't turn around. He had a strong feeling that if he did, he wouldn't be able to hold back tears which were now hiding in the corners of his eyes. Max was now doing his best not to give David another reason to miss him. He didn’t want David to miss him at all. "Shut up, David," he said through gritted teeth. "Just shut up!"  

Oh, how he loved the way his sadness and anxiety melted into blind rage, into pure, uncontrollable anger. His feelings were always too intense. He didn't even know how to react properly to many things – especially the good ones. He felt so damn confused and overwhelmed lately. He was always too much, like a glass overflowing with boiling water.  

"Max." The boy flinched, hearing his father's voice, usually harsh and deep – now full of fake sweetness that made Max even more sick. "Get in the car, will you?" 

Max only nodded and got inside with obedience that utterly surprised David, but that feeling vanished as soon as Max's mother spoke, smiling widely through the opened car window: "Thank you so much for taking care of our son. I know he might be pretty... difficult to deal with." 

"Well... It wasn't always easy, but I can assure you ma'am that I will never regret any minute spent with Max." Max caught a glimpse of his face and immediately regretted that. David's meaningful gaze was fixed on him as he spoke and Max just couldn't stand it. He quickly looked away from the window, unconsciously biting his lower lip. "Deep inside, Max is a truly good boy," David continued. Judging by the breaking voice, he must've looked really sad and pathetic. But his eyes were probably still full of that stupid hope, as always. "You just need to spend more time with him and learn more about him. I'm not lecturing you, heavens no! I just think it's... it would be good for you to know." 

David couldn't read the face of Max's father since his expression remained perfectly still. His mother, however, kept her smile on. "We'll keep that in mind. Now, if you'll excuse us, we should get going." 

The car drove off, leaving a cloud of dust and coughing David behind.  


 

Max was standing in the doorway to his bedroom, looking at the room that was supposed to feel familiar and safe, but somehow it didn't. The white walls felt even colder than before, giving the vibe of a hospital. Only now Max was able to fully compare it to the blissful coziness of David's cabin. It was too obvious which one he preferred. 

Stop thinking about David, he scolded himself angrily, throwing his backpack on the floor. Then, he looked around one more time. If some random person just walked into the room, they wouldn't say it belonged to a kid. It wasn't only about the sickening sterility of those white-painted walls, no. There were barely any toys or books; the shelves were half empty, covered in a thick layer of dust. No fluffy carpets, no colorful blankets, no throw pillows... His parents have even forbidden him to hang any posters since he could potentially damage the paint. This room had no soul at all.  

Max felt like an unwanted guest in this house and his parents seemed to be doing everything they could to make that particular feeling true and valid.  

The boy returned to the living room just to see the adults putting their shoes on again. "You're leaving already?" He shouldn't have been surprised, not after all this time. But he felt like he was slowly reaching his breaking point. 

 "Don't ask stupid questions," his father snapped. "You don't need a nanny to stay with you, do you?" Max thought that the irony was unnecessary, but he wouldn't dare to comment.  

"We're visiting some friends tonight," mother explained kindly, though with visible impatience. "I need a new dress and your father's old suits are pure garbage." 

"So, you're going shopping? Maybe I could help..." 

His father frowned, reaching for the door handle. "You'll help by shutting your mouth and minding your own business. Let's go." 

Max suddenly felt really worthless. And really angry. Who does he think he is to talk to him like that?! Also, why does mom never say anything to him? She should react somehow... Isn't that what mothers do? Protect their children? 

STUPID! FUCKING! PARENTS! Max mindlessly kicked the table leg. He failed to notice a whisky bottle standing on the edge of the tabletop. A second after, he heard a dreadful sound of breaking glass. 

His heart stopped. 

Oh, fucking hell. No. No, no, no, no!! 

He was reaching to pick the shards when the front door swung open rapidly, crashing into the wall.   

"What was that noise?!" Max's father ran in through the door. He looked down, noticing the broken bottle. A spark of anger flickered in his eyes, igniting the fire of blind fury.  

A sudden wave of crippling, sharp pain shot through the boy's nose when he got hit in the face with full force, knocking him down. The world went black for a moment and then, he felt something warm and sticky dripping from his nose. He wiped it with his sleeve, leaving gross, red smudges on the material. Ugh, blood. But he couldn't care less. He only hoped that his nose wasn't broken – that would be a little bit problematic.  

"Do you have any idea how expensive that was?!" Now his father was standing over him, all the bubbling hate almost visibly swelling inside him. Max didn't answer. "Of course you don't." The man snorted. "How would you? You're just an ungrateful brat. You know what, I wish I had convinced your mother to get rid of you when we actually had a chance." 

Max could feel his heart drop the very moment he heard those words. It was the first time his father admitted that Max was never wanted, and it was the first time he did it so openly. Max knew he should've watched his mouth, and yet, the words just blurted out, leaving a bitter aftertaste on his tongue: "FUCK. YOU." Oh, he was going to regret this. He was going to regret this so fucking much. 

First, there was another punch. And then came a kick right in the stomach. That one hurt a lot more. Max felt like all the air had been taken from his lungs; he stated coughing. Then he got kicked once again. His vision started blurring, and he felt like he'd vomit right there and then. He failed to recall if there was a third one since all of a sudden everything went pitch black.  

The only thing his mind has acknowledged was the soothing nothingness. 


 

Max slowly opened his eyes. The first thing he noticed was the fact that he was lying on the floor in his room. Someone must've carried him here –  mother, probably.  But, apparently, she wasn't worried enough to take him to the hospital... Max found it very ironic, how humans would proudly state they're not animals, and yet be so oblivious to the fact that a wolf mother would rather die protecting her young ones than flee into the woods acting like nothing has happened. Neil would probably try to explain it with biology and instincts and stuff, but honestly, Max wouldn't care.  

Suddenly, the boy got struck with some kind of a sensory overload – the daylight felt too bright, the weird buzz in his head started turning into the sound of a plane taking off, and there was that dull, throbbing pain radiating in his abdomen. He felt weak, dizzy and terribly nauseous.  

Max somehow managed to crawl into his bed, letting the nothingness swallow him once again.  


 

He woke up late in the evening. It was already getting dark and it seemed like his parents still weren't home. The pain in his stomach was still noticeable, but not as intense as before.  

Max reached for his backpack and took out Mr. Honeynuts. He hugged the bear tightly, squeezing him. A single tear rolled down his cheek. Something inside him was breaking. His mind was like an ice sheet that has finally started cracking after having been stomped on too many times. Was it really his fault that his parents didn't love him? Maybe it was true... Maybe he was unlovable.  

Don't cry, he told himself, trying to hold back tears. Don't you fucking cry! Ironically enough, halfway through the thought, he was already sobbing uncontrollably, taking in big gasps of air. He didn't quite know how long he'd been crying, but when he stopped, he suddenly felt empty, wrapped up in a blanket of odd numbness.  

Although being sucked into the void sounded really appealing, Max knew it wouldn't do any good. He had to do something. Anything.  

He got up and checked the door. They were closed, just as he expected. But the window wasn't. 

He quickly threw Mr. Honenuts back into his backpack and put it on. He opened the window and looked down hesitantly. It's just the first floor, Max, he reassured himself. You'll manageIf not... well, at least you tried.  

And then, he jumped.  

Chapter Text

Well, probably 'jumped' would be a huge overstatement. At first, Max actually wanted to just jump out, but, although he agreed that drastic times call for drastic measures, he didn’t want to end up with broken limbs because of some reckless impulse. Instead, he pushed his bottom to the edge of the windowsill, grabbing onto it, then he let go and jumped down. 

The landing was a tough one, but at least Max has somehow managed not to get hurt more severely than he already was, which – by the way – was a big achievement. Still, although his feet had absorbed most of the impact while hitting the ground, it couldn't have stopped the sudden wave of pain that shot through his whole body. The sensation struck him hard, even with the adrenaline rush numbing it a bit. Max gritted his teeth. If it hurts, it means you're alive, huh? 

Now, the plan. Did he have a plan at all? The only thing he knew was that he had to get as far away from home as possible and never ever look back. And he knew who was his only hope right now... 

He needed to call David. But where was his phone? He searched his pockets nervously only to find out they were all empty, except for some old candy. He looked around, but nothing phone-shaped was lying on the ground. But if he didn't drop it, then what happened to it? Maybe... maybe his father took it... Maybe he didn't want Max to call anyone – like David, for example. Or a child abuse help line. Yeah, it was more than possible.  

What a dickhead . What a cunning fucking beast.  

No. There was no time to think about it now. Without a phone, he had no way to contact David and ask him to come and pick him up. The only option left was getting to David's place on his own. 

Max took a deep breath. Shit. Even breathing hurt. Everything hurt. But he decided that he'll worry about it later – now he had to find the nearest bus stop and a bus that would take him as close to the forest as possible. Or at least to that town... what was it called? Pine Peaks? So, to Pine Peaks then. 

The bus stop turned out to be about a street away. Max saw the sign from a distance, and the moment he saw it, a random bus drew up. Without a second thought, he ran up to it and got inside quickly. The bus was pretty old, empty and smelled weird – no wonder his parents so fiercely despised public transport. Well, to be honest, they actually despised surprisingly many things, including their own son, apparently.  

The bus driver was a middle-aged, hard-faced, balding man. He turned around in his seat to look at the boy with a frown, a bit suspiciously. "Hey, you! Where are you off to?"  

"Does this bus reach Pine Peaks? Or anywhere near?" 

"Pine Peaks is my last stop. Seems you're lucky today, kid." 

Oh, am I? "Yeah, I suppose..." 

"But first things first – where's your ticket?" 

Shit. With all that's been happening, a bus ticket was really the last thing to think about. "I don't have it." 

The driver raised his eyebrows, then frowned again, getting visibly irritated. "If so, then stop wasting my time and get out!"  

"But–" 

"I said, get out!" 

 "Ugh, fine!" Max snorted, trying to hide a hint of desperation that slipped into his voice. "I'll get there on foot, no fucking problem! I guess lettin' a kid wonder alone at night in a common thing to do." Max tucked his hands into his pockets and fixed the driver with an accusatory glare, then moved towards the exit. 

"Wait."  

The boy turned around, already feeling the sweet taste of an unexpected victory.  

The driver sighed deeply. "I'll get you to Pine Peaks. Being responsible for some kid getting lost is the last thing I'd like to end my day with, especially that you look like you've had enough trouble for today." 

Max froze for a moment, realizing that he must've still had some blood under his nose. And probably a few bruises here a there. So, that's what all the suspicion was about... "Yeah... It's that bad, huh?" Hey, he was actually getting better at fake confidence! "Well, you know how it is, boys don't always get on well with one another. One minute you're making a joke about someone's mother and the next you're choking on your own teeth."  

"Okay, enough with the vivid explanations," the driver said, a bit unsettled. "Just sit down already." 

Max went to the back of the bus and chose a seat by the window while the engine coughed into life. Now he had some time to rest and collect his thoughts. Leaning his head back against the headrest, he realized how terribly tired he was, how extremely physically and mentally exhausted. Of course, he could rest for a bit as the bus slowly made its way to the next stop, but it would only take part of the tiredness away – the black veil covering his mind would still remain, dusty and heavy, making it difficult not to give in to all the repressed hopelessness. Life was so fucking unfair. Did he really deserve to have his childhood stolen from him? Maybe so. And maybe not. He couldn't tell anymore. 

He must've drifted off again because when he opened his eyes, the bus was just approaching Pine Peaks. It stopped somewhere near the town center. Max could already see the forest edge from there. If he remembered correctly, David's cabin was located about a mile away from a river, so as long as he's able to follow it, it should be just fine. He needed to find it first, though. 

The forest was gloomy and gave off a slightly spooky vibe. It's not like Max hadn't been in a forest at night – it was just the fact that nature had the tendency to become even worse in the dark then it was in the daytime. Man, he really hated nature.  

"Man, I really fucking hate nature," Max muttered angrily to himself after having tripped over a root for the second time in a row.  

Although the forest was full of weird noises, Max has soon recognized the sound of flowing water. There it was – the river he's been looking for! Now, all he had to do was to go along the river bank and trust his memory.  

He's been walking for who knows how long. The river seemed to have no end; it looked like it went on forever. Was he getting any closer to the cabin? He slowly started to doubt if he remembered it all correctly. Maybe the river wasn't as close to the cabin as he thought. Maybe he fucked everything up again, as he always did.  

Max kicked a rock lying near his shoe, realizing it was a mistake a second after. As he kicked it, his foot suddenly slipped. With a splash and a scream, he fell into the cold water. The boy swallowed a large gulp of water, panic taking control of him. He started moving his arms, but his moves were too chaotic and actually made things worse. The water was everywhere, filling his nose and mouth as well as his backpack, pulling him deeper down. His lungs started burning with pure fire as he struggled for breath. He was so tired of fighting... 

And then, an odd, soothing calmness appeared. It was cold – as cold as the water he was drowning in, but felt much warmer when he welcomed it. A sneaky, quiet voice appeared in his head: Just give up. And for a moment, for a very dreadful moment, he was ready to do so. But then, out of the blue, he remembered the look in David's eyes when he said that he had no family and barely any friends. He remembered how happy David was to have somebody to care for... And how utterly devastated he must've been after Max had left. Did he miss him? After all he'd done to him? 

Of course he missed you, silly, the second voice gently whispered as it pushed the first one away.  He loves you, you little idiot, even if you've failed to notice. But I bet you could at least FEEL it. Can’t you see? You're just what he needs to feel fully alive again. And vice versa. So, the voice kindly teased, do you still want to die miserably? 

No, Max thought, forcing his aching arms to move once again, struggling towards the surface. 

Couldn't hear  ya  

NO!!! Max echoed as he got his head above the surface and gasped for air, finally being able to breathe again. A few moments later, he was lying on the river bank, coughing, spitting and shuddering, but certainly very much alive.   

Suddenly, he heard footsteps and saw a light from a flashlight, followed by a deeply worried and shocked voice: "Max?" 

"David..." Max coughed. His voice was so terribly hoarse he could barely speak. "I–" 

"Shh." David rushed to him, taking off his sweatshirt and covering Max with it. "You'll explain it later. Now we need to get you to the hospital." 

"I'm fine," Max mumbled. 

"No, you're not. We're going to the hospital, period!" 

Max didn't protest when he felt David's arms wrap around him as he carefully lifted the boy from the ground like a small, wounded kitten and carried him all the way to the car. Nearly subconsciously, Max nestled up to David, breathing in the scent of pine from his sweatshirt which gave him an immediate sense of safety and calmed him down like nothing else ever could.  

How did it happen that from all the guardian angels, Max was actually given a guardian camp man?  

Chapter Text

The way back home from the hospital was painfully long for both of them. For Max – because he anticipated all the questions David wanted to ask him, and for David – because he didn't know how to ask these questions – not after what he's heard from the doctor examining Max.  

"Will he be okay?" he remembered asking. 

"If you want to know whether there'll be any severe consequences of him falling into the river, well, there might be – having water in one's lungs, even for a little while, can be very dangerous. We'll have to keep him for observation since, to be completely honest with you, his accident isn't the only thing that requires medical attention." 

"What do you mean?"  

The doctor looked him straight in the eye and said the words which David was so afraid of hearing: "Are you aware that the boy has obvious signs of recent physical abuse?"  

These words felt like a drill going straight through his heart, but it was the realization that came after that rubbed a spoonful of salt into the wound – he WAS aware, at least to some extent... Or maybe "aware" was too much of a big word there. But he DID suspect that something was off, he could almost sense it... But then, after seeing Max's parents, he wasn't sure anymore – only more confused. Eventually, he repressed all the darkest suspicions, finding it extremally convenient to rationalize everything in his usual, optimistic way. He wanted to believe that Max's parents were a bit better than it seemed, and that there was no need to worry. He was basically lying to himself, mostly because Max's absence felt as if a part of his soul got ripped off, or like a missing limb, like a terrible absence of a sound that you were used to hearing each and every day until it stopped, filling your heart with ridiculously intense longing. David needed reassure that Max wasn't as unhappy as he acted the day his parents came.  

Lies, lies, lies.  

David glanced over his shoulder at Max curled up at the backseat. Max didn't choose the front one for quite obvious reasons – he wanted to avoid any possible conversation, plus he couldn't stand David looking at him with all the guild building up in his eyes. David wasn't the one responsible for what happened – he wasn't the one who had hurt him and forced him to run away. So, why would he blame himself? It's not like Max had been very open and honest about how fucking awful his parents really were. He wanted to hide the truth because he was scared of what his father would do if he found out that Max dared to talk shit about him to some camp man. Besides, he wanted for David not to worry about him. Damn, he was acting so terrible while leaving (like refusing to say goodbye and all) because he hoped that David would just forget about him – it was his way of making it easier for David to move on.  

Funny how things turned out precisely the opposite. 

"Max, we're home." David said, finally breaking the silence. His voice was soft and gentle, but there was also sadness in it, which made his words feel heavier than they should. Still, he forced that reassuring smile of his.  

Max mumbled something in response as David helped him get out of the car. Max fought the urge to brush his hands off – there was no point playing tough guy now. It wasn't easy to stop though. Max hated showing weakness, or rather letting somebody know that he was vulnerable, so instead, he always acted like a wolf pup that he actually was deep inside – he tried to bare his fangs and growl. The problem was, that defense mode soon became his default one. He was all for biting the hand that feeds you because, who knows, maybe that hand will hit you some day? But Max now knew for sure that David's wasn't going to exploit his vulnerability – and that was only one of the many, many things about David that he just couldn't understand. And also, one of many, many things that somehow made him feel even worse about himself. 

As soon as they got inside, Max said that he wanted to go to sleep. Sleep has always been the best possible escape from reality – it was like being dead for a couple of hours without actually dying. Yeah, definitely a win-win situation. Unless you couldn’t fall asleep, and that happened to him maddeningly often. Then, all he could do was lie alone in the dark and listen to his own thoughts. Was there any more exquisite kind of torture? Max didn’t actually want to know the answer.  

"Of course, Max," David said, looking at the boy worriedly. "I know you need more rest. You'll stay in my room until you feel better, so you don't have to walk upstairs. You shouldn't strain yourself." David heard Max snort quietly. "Doctor's orders," he added, emphasizing every syllable.  

"Whatever..." Max mumbled. There it was again – that sickening buzz in his head. It felt like a hive full of bees right in the middle of his brain. Why was he feeling so anxious? Everything turned out just fine, didn't it? He made it, he was safe now. He should be happy – or at least relieved, but, for some reason, he couldn't feel either. What the fuck was wrong with him? 

Max got into David's bed – hesitantly at first, but then the softness of sheets and pillows, and the subtle, yet noticeable, scent of pine made all his doubts disappear right away. The fact that every inch of the fabric smelled exactly like David seemed... awkwardly comforting, as if Max's brain has attached a "safety" label to it. No take backs.  

David looked at Max, his heart warm as a cup of hot cocoa, but also aching twice as much. He didn't understand how could anyone hurt a child, even a misbehaving one... And he didn't want to understand. For him, it wasn't understandable at all. Each time he caught a glimpse of those terrible bruises, he felt as though a dozen of tiny knives got stuck in his throat. He could've done more to prevent that. He could've trusted his gut... No. There was no point in self-loathing now. Even if he failed, now was his chance to make up for it and make things right – most importantly, make certain people pay for what they did. 

David fluffed one of the pillows and placed it under Max's head once again. "Max..." he said as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Before you go to sleep, I need to ask you something. Only one thing. And you need to be honest with me this time, okay?" 

Max pursed his lips and covered his head with a blanket. He knew that David wanted to hear the truth from him. And he deserved to hear it. It was just that Max felt uneasy even thinking about it.  

David let out a deep sigh. "Max, please... I know you don't want to talk about it and I promise I won't push you again, but I need to hear it from you just this once. It's very important." 

Max slowly uncovered his head. "You already know everything, don't you?" he said, struggling to hold his irritation in. "Yes, I lied to you about my parents. Yes, I forgot to mention that they're a pair of desensitized assholes and yes, that fucking man who happens to be my father likes to beat the shit out of me when he loses his temper, is that what you wanted to hear?!" Max cried it all out in one breath, not even realizing that he had started shaking, nor that David hugged him a second after. Now, nothing could stop an overwhelming wave of guilt that washed over him. "I'm sorry," he mumbled into David's shirt. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sor–" 

"Max, stop." David cupped the boy's face gently in his hands, making him silent. He met Max's watered eyes. "It's okay. You don’t need to apologize." 

"Yes, I do!" Max cried. "I've always been awful to you... Teasing you, hurting you, laughing at you, insulting you, causing all the problems I could cause... Always using you as a punching bag, because I couldn't ever deal with my fucking emotions and you were the perfect target. But you didn't deserve all that... You... How can you not hate me?" 

David lowered his hands. "Oh, Max... I could never hate you. I was angry with you sometimes, yes, but never hated you. It's not your fault that you react the way you do. We both know who's to blame." 

"And what if it's not entirely their fault? What if I was like this from the very beginning? What if I deserve everything that's happened to me?"  

If a breaking heart sounded like a glass breaking on the floor – that's how David's heart would sound like. "Max, no..." He hugged the boy tighter, letting him wrap his arms around his neck. "No one ever does. It's good to be aware of what you've done wrong, but don't be so hard on yourself. Don’t feel like you need to be punished – even if that's... if that's what you're used to." 

Max looked away, avoiding David's eyes. "Yeah, it would be easier if you'd just hit me. But you do the exact opposite and it's... confusing, you know?" Max sniffled, trying to collect himself. "It feels almost surreal that someone would genuinely care for me... and... and..." 

"… love you?" David helped him finish, smiling a tiny bit.  

Love. David loved him. Well, Max's near-death experience kind of helped him acknowledge that, but... He was desperate then. He just needed something to hold on to, something that would convince him that he shouldn't give up, so he was surprised to actually hear it from David. 

"Are sure you won't get tired of me?" Max asked, almost ashamed of asking such a question. But he needed reassurance.  

"I'm totally sure I won't." David got up from the bed. "Now, I really don't want to leave you, but there's something that needs to be done." 

"Wait!" Max grabbed his hand. "Where are you going?" 

"I'm going to have a little chat with your parents." David's face immediately darkened, but just for a brief moment. "I'll call James. He'll stay with you until I'm back. I hope that's okay with you... I don't want to leave you alone now." 

Max blinked several times. "You're going to do WHAT?" 

"Don't worry, Max. Maybe I don't look very tough, but I can handle an... intense conversation. Just trust me. Can you do that?" 

Max didn't know what to say, so he just nodded, still staring at David in disbelief.  

"I'll be back as soon as I can. There are some things that require rearrangement."