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The Woods

Chapter Text

“What about here?”

Ross glances around the clearing. It's probably a little small for three tents, but there should be just enough space for them and a campfire. “Looks good to me.” Honestly, he’s tired and hot and sweaty enough after hiking along ten miles of rocky, hilly cliffside that he’d probably agree to setting up camp in a bog. “Smith?”

Smithy glances around, then gives a nod. “Yeah, it’ll do. Ground looks level enough, and we’re far enough away from the cliffside.”

“Thank Christ,” Ross says with feeling, unstrapping his backpack and letting it drop. “Oh, that feels good.” He stretches, groaning appreciatively at the sensation of lightness that comes with shedding a twenty pound bag.

“What’s the matter, can’t handle a little light hiking, Ross?” Smithy says offhandedly, but Ross notices he’s equally quick to take off his own bag and stretch.

“I wouldn’t call today’s journey a ‘light’ hike,” Ross says. “Besides, my bag’s the heaviest.”

“And whose fault is that? Learn to pack lighter.”

“Guys,” Trott interrupts wearily, “How about we stop measuring our dicks and start setting up camp before it gets dark and we get eaten?”

“Eaten by what?” Smith asks derisively, “It’s the English countryside. Most deadly thing around is probably a loose cow.”

“What if I don’t want to put my dick away,” Ross mutters. “Who doesn’t love a good dick measuring competition?”

“Fine. You guys get your dicks out if you want, but I’m setting up my tent, and I’m warning you, I’m not letting either of you in if it gets dark and you haven’t got your own tent up.” Trott kneels down, and starts pulling things out of his backpack.

Ross and Smith exchange a glance.

“Probably should start getting the tents up,” Smithy mutters, scuffing a foot in the dirt.

“Great! I’ve got a lot of experience pitching tents,” Ross says brightly.

“Oh I bet you do,” Trott mumbles, from behind them.

“You could say I’m an expert erector.”

Smith snorts, getting out his own tent. “Really? I’ve heard you have trouble getting it up.”

“I can get it up in five minutes.”

“Yeah? Does it stay up?”

“Oh yeah. For days.”

“You two might want to get a move on. I’ve already got mine half-up.”

Ross glances around at Trott’s pitch. “Shit! You really have.”

“Trott’s got a semi,” Smithy says, sing-song, busy spreading out his groundsheet.

Trott smiles, busy attaching his flysheet. “It’s true, I have.”

“And he’s not just talking about the tent!” Ross frowns down distractedly at his own tent, or rather the components that will hopefully soon become his tent. “Shit.”

“What’s the matter, Hornby, having some trouble?” Smith jeers, busy threading together a tent pole.

“Maybe,” Ross admits, sitting back on his heels. “I’m not sure where to start. It’s been awhile since I’ve been camping.”

“I’ll give you a hand once I’ve got mine up.” Smith pauses, wrinkling his nose. “That sounded kind of wrong.”

“But somehow, also so right.” Ross gives up on his tent for a minute and turns around to watch how the others are getting on. Trott looks like he’s actually finished, and Smithy’s tent is starting to look less like a deflated balloon and more like an actual shelter.

“Shit,” Trott says. “Did anyone pack a mallet?”

“Yes,” Ross and Smith say in chorus.

“Both of you packed a mallet,” Trott says flatly. “Well done, that’s excellent planning.”

“For fuck’s - Ross, I told you I’d bring the mallet!”

“I forgot!”

“No wonder your bag weighs so much, what other useless shit did you pack?”

“It’s not useless,” Ross protests, rooting through his backpack. “Trott’s going to use it.”

“Yes, but he could have used the one I told you that I was going to pack.”

“Guys, it doesn’t matter. Just one of you pass me a mallet.”

Ross hands the mallet over to Trott, who takes it and crouches down to carefully and methodically hammer in the tent pegs.

“You know, we probably don’t need to bother with tent pegs,” Smith says, walking over. “This clearing is pretty sheltered.”

“Probably,” Trott agrees, shaking his hair out of his eyes, “But I’d rather be safe. Don’t want my tent blowing away.”

“Fair enough. I’m finished with my tent, Ross, if you want a hand.”

“Not going to peg your tent down?” Trott asks.

Smith shrugs, “Nah. Can’t be bothered.”

“Can’t be bothered with pegging? There’s a first,” Trott says drily. Smith nudges him in the back with a foot, nearly knocking him into the tent.

“Come on, Ross, let’s get you erect.”

“Can’t wait,” Ross says, following him over.

 

By the time all the tents are up and they’ve set up a firepit, the sun has started to sink below the treeline. The light is a warm, mellow gold, that spills over the clearing, lending a warm to the chill evening air.

“Fuck,” Smith says, swatting at a gnat that’s landed on his arm. “You were right, Trott, we’re gonna get eaten alive.”

“Maybe you two will, but I packed bugspray.”

“Wow, you really packed everything, didn’t you?” Trott says, carefully placing the sticks they’d collected for the campfire over the tinder blocks.

“I did, and I’ll even let you use some if you ask me nicely.”

“Please,” Trott says, batting his eyelids.

“Very nice - bit flirty, I like it.” Ross finishes spraying himself then tosses the can to Trott who fumbles the catch.

“Good idea guys, play with solvents near the campfire.”

“We haven’t lit it yet, Smith,” Trott says mildly, spraying himself.

“Yeah, but you’ve just sprayed yourself all over with it, and now you’re about to use a lighter.”

“I’m not going to catch fire.”

“Let me light it, I’m the only one who hasn’t sprayed myself yet.”

“Bullshit, you just want to be the one to light the fire,” Trott says, but he hands the lighter over and scoots back from the fire a bit.

Smith smirks a little. “Maybe.”

“Let him, Trott. He needs it to feel like a man.” Ross sits down on a patch of grass next to Trott.

“I’m more of a man than either of you’ll ever be,” Smith retorts, brow furrowed with concentration as he lights the tinder block.”

“Well I’m more of a man than you’ll ever have,” Trott quips, leaning back on his elbows and lazily watching as Smith bends forward to blow on the flame.

“Blow harder,” Ross catcalls.

They both snicker as Smith pauses to give them the finger.

“There,” Smith sits back, watching as the fire slowly starts to build, flames licking hungrily over the rapidly charring wood.

“Good job,” Trott comments. “Now which one of you packed the food?”

“I did,” Smith says, standing up and brushing the dirt off his knees. “Hope you boys are in the mood for hot dogs.”

“Who doesn’t love hot dogs?” Ross says. “Actually, I’m famished enough I could probably eat a real dog.”

“I mean, who knows what’s in a hot dog. There’s probably a bit of real dog in there somewhere.” Trott scoots closer to the fire, and starts prodding it with a stick.

“Fuck are you doing messing with the fire?” Smith says, returning from his tent and dropping two tins of hot dogs on the ground.

“I’m tending it, Smith. Making sure it doesn’t go out.”

“How about you cook the hot dogs instead, since I lit the fire.”

“The fire that I built,” Trott points.

“Yeah, but I lit it.”

“Because I let you.”

“That’s true, he did let you,” Ross interjects.

Smith wrinkles his nose, then gives Trott one of his disarming smiles. “Please?”

Trott can’t help but smile back. “Fine. But you’re doing the cooking tomorrow.” He grabs a can,

“That’s fair,” Smith says, taking Trott’s spot next to Ross. “You’re the cooking wench for tonight, though.”

“Fuck you.”

“That’s not very wench-like of you, Trott.”

“No, fuck you for not bringing a ring-pull can.”

“Oh, shit. Do you need a can-opener? Because Ross probably packed one.”

“It’s fine. I’ll use my pocket-knife.”

“I bet you’ve been dying for an opportunity to use that thing.”

“He has,” Ross agrees, “Gagging for it.”

“Hah! Got it.” Trott quickly saws round the lid of the can, then drains the water.

“Aw, Trott, you’re tipping away the best part. I could have drank that.”

“Ew,” Trott says delicately, skewering a hot dog on a stick and holding it over the fire.

“Speaking of drinks, who brought the alcohol?” Smith asks.

“I brought a couple of bottles of whiskey,” Ross says.

“Did you bring anything to mix it with?” Trott asks.

“Nope.”

“Cool.”

“Let’s get fucked up then, boys,” Smith says cheerily, clapping Ross on the shoulder.

 

A couple of hours, two cans of hot dogs, and half a bottle of straight whiskey later, the sun’s fully set and beyond the circle of light cast by the campfire there’s only darkness and the cold, distant light of the moon.

“Fuck,” Ross says weakly. His head’s spinning. It turns out two cans of hot dogs divided by three grown men isn’t the most filling of dinners, but he’s warm from the fire and the whiskey, and the ache of his feet and back have dulled to an almost unnoticeable level. Right now, sat by a fire with his two best friends, he feels pretty content.

Smith belches.

“Nice,” Trott says dozily, eyes half-shut as he stares into the fire.

“Anyone want any more whiskey?” Smith asks, holding the bottle out.

Ross grimaces. “I’ll pass.”

“I’ll also pass.”

“Pussies,” Smith laughs, tossing back another gulp. “Fuck! That burns.”

“Who’s the pussy now?”

“Still you, Trott. I need a piss.” Smith stands.

“Don’t get eaten,” Trott teases.

“By what, badgers?”

“You never know,” Ross says, seriously. “They might be rabid.”

Trott snorts. “Is that why we’re always culling them? Rabies?”

While they banter, Smith walks off, a little ways into the wood. Once he’s out of range of the campfire, he realises just how dark it’s gotten. It’s even darker under the trees, where the light from the moon and stars struggle to filter through the canopy. He also realises quickly that he’s more drunk than he thought, stumbling a little in the dark and over tree roots. “Shit,” he mutters, reaching his pockets for his phone only to realise he must have left it in his jacket back in the tent. He gives it up, and makes do, fumbling with his zipper. He’s close enough to the campsite that he can hear the low rumble of Ross and Trott talking. He finishes peeing, and zips back up. As he starts to walk away he hears a branch snap, somewhere in the wood ahead, not far from where he’s stood. He freezes for a second, heart speeding up. “Hello?”

Nothing responds, but he hears rustling, like something walking through long grass. He swallows, wishing he had his phone on him for light. The skin on his bare arms prickles in goosebumps that he tries to pretend are just from the cold. The rustling stops, after a moment, and Smith makes his way back to the fire, trying not to feel paranoid about turning his back on the woods.

“You were gone a while,” Trott says, glancing up as he rejoins them by the fire. “Did you get lost between here and the trees?”

“No, but I forgot my phone.” Smith decides then and there not to mention the noises to the others. By the light of the fire, the fear and the darkness feels distant, and there’s no point giving them free ammunition to tease him with.

“This was a pretty good idea,” Ross says.

“Thanks,” Trott says, smugly.

“Was it your idea?” Smith wonders.

“Getting out of the city,” Ross continues, ignoring them. “Back to nature. Back to basics. Whoever’s idea it was, it was a good one.”

“It was definitely my idea,” Trott mutters.

“Was it though?” Smith questions, sweetly.

“Yes.” Trott says firmly. “But Ross is right. It doesn’t matter whose idea it was, it was a good one. We could definitely use a break.” He yawns. “And I could do with some sleep.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Ross agrees, “Let’s put out the fire.”

“I’ll grab a torch,” Smith says, quickly, not liking the idea of being stuck without a light again.

Chapter Text

Ross sleeps like a log through the night, despite the cold of the ground seeping through his groundmat and the fact that his tent really wasn’t designed for a 6ft 3 man, his deep sleep probably aided in equal measures by the long walk of the day and the alcohol of the evening. He wakes, suddenly, at five am. After spending a futile fifteen minutes, lying on his back, legs awkwardly drawn up, he gives up on trying to get back to sleep. Besides, he desperately needs to piss.

He manages to get out of the tent without either him or it falling down, and squints blearily in the morning light. Both the other tents still have their doors zipped up and Trott and Smith seem to have managed to sleep through his noisy exit. Sitting on the dew-damp grass, he pulls his boots on and makes his way to the edge of the wood.

It’s still dark under the trees, the sun not yet high enough to pierce through the foliage, but the wood is alive with birdsong and rustling in the branches above him. Ross blinks sleepily, then takes a piss. Afterwards he checks his phone. It’s still way too early to wake anyone up, at least, not without repercussions, and after a slight hesitation, Ross starts walking slowly deeper into the woods.

It’s slow going; after only a couple of metres the trees start growing a lot closer together, and the floor of the wood becomes a tangled mess of roots and creeping plants. It’s slow enough going that Ross quickly stops paying attention to where he is in relation to the campsite, fully engrossed on navigating his way through the trees.

It’s only when he trips on a root that he realises how deep into the woods he’s gone, and that he isn’t exactly sure which direction leads back to camp.

His stomach twists with an initial burst of anxiety, but he quickly wrestles himself under control. It’s fine, he has his phone on him after all. He pulls it out. No signal, no wifi.

“Great,” Ross says, under his breath.

The sound of his own voice startles him, loud in the silence of the wood. He frowns. Hadn’t there been birdsong earlier? At some point, the birds must had fallen silent, along with all the scuttling, rustling little creatures that live in the trees above him. He swallows, suddenly aware of the sound of his own breathing and the way it’s starting to speed up.

“Well, this isn’t creepy at all,” he says aloud, hoping the sound of a voice, even his own, will help to break the unnerving stillness that’s fallen over the wood. It doesn’t help. He turns around in the direction he thinks the camp lies and starts walking back.

He thinks at some point, the birds will surely start singing again. Something must have spooked them. He tries not to imagine what. “Maybe a rabid cow,” he mutters to himself, trying to raise his own spirits. The birds remain silent and out of sight

It takes about ten minutes for the sensation of being watched to set in. There’s no reason for it; Ross doesn’t see or hear anything living in that time, not even insects, but still the skin on the back of his neck starts to crawl. He starts to hurry, careless of the thorns that catch at his clothes and skin, of the vines that tangle his feet. At one point he actually falls, skinning his hand on bark and staining the knees of his jeans a mossy green.

He’s pretty much convinced himself that he’s lost and is going to die in the woods, when he notices the trees getting thinner. He puts on a burst of speed and emerges panting into a wonderfully familiar clearing. Relief settles over him as he takes in the three tents, two of them still closed up. The sunlight is warm on his skin, and as he steps forward, somewhere in the trees a bird starts singing.

 

“So what’s the plan for today, guys?” Smith says, through a mouthful of protein bar. They’re all sat around the ashes of the campfire, eating whatever passes for breakfast and drinking the instant coffee they’d heated up on the portable stove.

Trott finishes chewing before answering. “Walk back to the cliff and try and make our way down to the beach?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Smith says, cramming the last bite of the bar into his mouth. “So long as we don’t fall down and kill ourselves.”

“We’ll be fine,” Trott says. He glances at Ross, “You alright mate? Bit quiet this morning.”

Ross jerks, and looks around, slightly dazed. “Fine.”

“Rough night?” Trott says sympathetically. “I heard someone walking around the campsite last night. Couldn’t sleep?”

Ross glances at Smith, uneasy. “Wasn’t me. I didn’t get up until daylight. Smithy?”

“Not me, mate.”

Trott scoffs, “Bullshit. I heard someone walking around.”

Ross feels his skin prickle, suddenly cold, as if, for a moment, he’s been transported back into the woods that morning. “I’m telling you, it wasn’t me.”

“And it wasn’t me!”

Trott looks from one of them to the other, trying to gauge from their expressions if they’re messing with him. “If you two are trying to creep me out, very funny.”

“Must have been an animal,” Smith says.

“Sounded big. And close.”

“Things sound louder at night, out in the country.”

“That’s true.” Trott shakes his head a little, in dismissal. “Whatever. You two ready to go?”

“Almost,” Smith says, emptying out the remains of his coffee.

 

They go back to their tents to pick up a couple of things, then join up and start walking. Smith brings out the map, although he barely glances at it, since they’re pretty much just retracing the way they’d walked yesterday once they’d diverged from the cliffside path.

For a while they walk in relative silence, only talking to point out obstacles or to make slight corrections to their course. The sun slowly rises higher in the sky. Smith starts singing something under his breath, and Trott and Ross join in after a couple of lines. After about an hour they rejoin the path they’d been walking along yesterday.

“Remind me why we decided to camp so far away from the path again,” Ross asks, bending down to tug his shoelaces tighter.

“Because it’s secluded,” Trott says, logically.

“Perfect place for a gangbang, or a murder,” Smith adds. The joke falls a little flat, as they all collectively remember then try to pretend they’re not remembering that morning’s conversation at the campsite.

Trott walks up to the edge of the cliff, and looks out over the stony stretch of shoreline and the vast, glittering, blue-green expanse of the sea. It’s beautiful, in a rather bleak way. Trott toes a pebble over the edge and watches it bounce down, from jagged outcrop to jagged outcrop, until it finally comes to rest somewhere at the bottom. “It’s not really a sandcastle beach, is it?” he remarks.

Ross comes and peers down the edge with him. “Blimey. It’s a long way down, isn’t it? Smithy, come see!”

“No thanks,” Smith says, hanging back a little way on the path. “Think I’ll just stick here.”

“Oh, but the view’s spectacular!”

“I can see just fine from here, cheers.”

Trott laughs a little under his breath, then steps back from the edge. “Come on, then. I think if we walk on a bit further we should be able to find a way down.”

“Cool,” Smith says, sticking his hands in his hoodie pocket. “Can’t wait. Climbing down steep, precarious slopes is my favourite thing.”

“What’s the matter?” Ross teases, “Scared of a little rock-climbing?”

“Reasonably cautious of a little rock-climbing without any kind of harness or safety equipment, yeah.”

“Aw, Trott, he’s scared. Don’t be scared, Smithy. If you fall, I’ll catch you.”

“If I fall, I’m taking you both down with me, mate.”

“No one’s falling,” Trott says briskly. “We’re going to be really sensible and take it slow. No messing around, right guys?”

“Oo, he’s using his serious voice, Smithy. Don’t you love it when he uses his serious voice?”

“I’m fucking serious too, Ross. Don’t come near me.”

Ross laughs, amused at Smith’s uncharacteristic display of nerves. “But Smith, I need you to hold my hand.”

“Here we are, guys,” Trott says, interrupting them to point at a break in the path. There’s a trail that’s been worn away by animals or people that leads to the edge of the cliff.

“You sure that leads down?” Smith says, doubtfully.

“Pretty sure. When I was looking over the edge, I could see that the cliff got a lot less steep over here,” Trott replies.

They walk together a little further, Smith still hanging back a couple of steps.

“I’m right,” Trott calls back to him, “There’s a way down.”

“Is it a safe way down?”

“Safe enough. Slow and steady, boys.”

Smith joins them, looking down. The slope of the cliff is less sharp at this point, and there’s a narrow, but fairly stable looking trail that leads along and down the side of the cliff. “Alright, that actually looks doable.”

“Last one down’s a rotten egg?” Ross quips.

“We are not racing,” Trott says firmly. “Do not make me put my first aid skills to the test.”

“You’re not even a real doctor, are you? I don’t think you even went to med school.”

They start making their way down the slope. It’s nowhere near as steep as the near vertical drop of the cliff itself, but it’s still steep enough they really do have to take it slow, testing each step.

“Shit!” Smith wobbles, putting a foot on a section of rockery that’s looser than it looks, sending small rocks skittering out from under his feet. He reaches out automatically, grabbing the top of Ross’s backpack, nearly knocking the other man off balance.

“Steady on, Smith!” Ross exclaims, spreading his arms wide .

For a second they both freeze, comically still, before relaxing, realising the ground is once again firm under their feet. Ross giggles nervously, “Maybe you really should hold my hand, Smith.”

“What did I say about taking it steady?!”

“I was, Trott! Not my fault this path you found doesn’t come with handrails.”

Trott breathes out heavily. “Fine. Let’s move on. And let’s be more careful. Seriously, guys. We’re miles out from anywhere.”

“We get it, Trott,” Smith says, clapping a hand on Trott’s shoulder. “Relax.”

“I just don’t want either of you getting hurt,” Trott says, a little sharper than his normal tone. He shrugs off Smith’s hand before the man can respond, and starts walking, carefully picking a path down.

It takes half an hour to make it down to the beach, but they make it with no further mishaps.

“Who thought shingles was a good beach material?” Smith says, wrinkling his nose disgruntledly.

“Put in a complaint,” Trott says, indifferently. He looks more relaxed now they’ve made it down, but there's a tightness to his mouth that suggests he's still a little on edge.

“Good for skimming rocks,” Ross comments, bending to pick up a rock and toss it, testing the heft.

“Good point. And there’s probably rockpools,” Smith says, swiftly regaining enthusiasm. He bends to collect a couple of decently smooth and disc shaped rocks. “Let’s have a little competition, boys.”

Ross watches the tension finally drain from Trott’s shoulders with silent satisfaction, then bends to pick up another rock. “What’s the prize?”

“Blowjob from Trott?” Smith suggests off-handedly. That gets a huff of amusement from the shorter man, and Ross watches Smith’s lips curl up just slightly at the noise.

“That’s not really a prize is it?” he replies, lightly. “A prize should be something we want to recieve, and Trott’s blowjobs are just awful.”

“Hey!”  

“Too much teeth,” Smith says, sadly.

“Like getting head from a piranha,” Ross agrees.

“It’s basically like getting circumcised.”

 

They reach the point where the water meets the shore, waves rushing in to break against the rocks. Ross tosses the first stone. It skips twice, then sinks. “Shit.”

“My turn.” Smith lobs his pebble, putting a lot of force behind his throw. It manages three skips before sinking. “Fucked it. Come on, Chris Trott, show us how it’s done.”

Trott takes his time selecting a stone, finding one that’s almost perfectly smooth and flat and oval. He chucks it with a deft flick of his wrist. It skips across the water five times, then sinks.

Smith lets out an appreciative whistle. “Not bad.”

“Trott, champion tosser,” Ross adds.

They spend a little longer skipping stones, then walk along the coast, looking for rock pools. Smith ends up scouting ahead, searching out the hidden pools, and dragging them over whenever he discovers something new or interesting. Ross watches him crouch down, expression delighted as he peers into one of the pools.

“There’s a crab in this one, boys. Did you see it go under that rock?”

“Mmm,” Trott says, hands in his pockets and an indulgent smile on his lips. “That’s pretty cool.”

“There’s anemones as well. Do you think I can touch one?”

“Some of them sting,” Trott says, ever the voice of caution.

“Ross, get down here mate.”

Ross obligingly crouches, to get a closer look at whatever Smith’s pointing out. He can’t say he’s as interested in the rockpools as Smith, but the man’s enthusiasm and curiosity is contagious. They watch as a couple of tiny fish, stranded by tide, dart through the clear shallow water. Ross glances over as Smith shifts, absentmindedly scratching at the back of his neck. “Shit, Smith, you are so burned.”

The back of Smith’s neck is bright red, and now that Ross is paying attention, he notices the pink flush across the bridge of Smith’s nose and cheeks.

Smith’s eyes widen, “Aw, fuck. How bad.”

“Pretty bad,” Trott says succinctly, walking over to inspect the back of Smith’s neck. “Did you not put any suncream on this morning?”

“I completely forgot about it,” Smith groans. “Shit. I am going to peel.”

“More like shed,” Trott says, flicking Smith on his sunburnt neck, “Like one of your lizards.”

“Ow! That hurts,” Smith growls, pushing at Trott’s legs.

Trott moves out of arm’s reach, smiling the smug smile of a man who tanned, never burnt. “You’re looking a little red too, Ross.”

“I put suncream on this morning, I just didn’t think to take it with me.” Now that he’s paying attention, Ross can feel it, the slight tightness across his checks where they've caught the sun.

“Let’s get back to the camp then, get you two into the shade before you get sunstroke.”

“I wanted to go swimming,” Smith grumbles, before sighing, recognising he doesn't want to spend the rest of the week camping burnt to a crisp. “Fine, let’s head back.”

 

They're half-way up the cliff when Trott slips.

Chapter Text

“Trott!” Ross doesn’t recognise his own voice, high with panic. Smith doesn’t waste time on words, just rushes to where Trott’s laid on his side, a metre or so farther down the path than he’d been seconds prior.

Smith skids to a stop, himself perilously close to the edge, and Ross can't breathe for a second.

“Trott, you alright?” Smith rests a hand on Trott’s side.

“Told you… not to run,” Trott grits out, voice tight with pain.

Ross takes a shaky breath, and closes his eyes briefly. Carefully, he picks his way down to them.

Trott’s sat up, one leg stretched out in front of him, hands clenched into white knuckled fists by his side.

Smith is crouched down beside him. “Trott, are you hurt?” His tone is surprisingly gentle.

“My ankle,” Trott manages.

Smith glances at Ross. “Did you bring the first aid kit with you?”

“No,” Ross admits, running a hand through his hair distractedly. “I left it back at the camp.” Along with the suncream, and his phone. He closes his eyes again, “Shit.”

Smith grimaces, looking down at Trott’s legs. “I don’t want to try and roll your trouser leg up, and hurt you, especially since you’re wearing skinny jeans, but the other option since we don’t have scissors is you take them off.”

“Got my penknife,” Trott says, reaching into his pockets and handing it over.

“Oh. Yeah that should work.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Trott jokes, a little weakly.

“Damn it,” Smith curses theatrically, before sobering, “This is probably still going to hurt a bit.”

“Just get on with it,” Trott says, face once again tightening in expectation of pain.

Smith starts slicing away at Trott’s jeans, carefully pulling the fabric up and away from his ankle. Despite the obvious care he’s taking, Ross can see that it’s hurting Trott, who’s gone pale under his tan. Moving round to Trott’s other side, he sits down and offers his hand. “You can squeeze if it hurts,” he offers quietly. After a second of hesitation, Trott takes his hand and starts squeezing tightly.

Smith finishes slicing up the lower of Trott’s left jean, and pulls it up so the ankle’s exposed. Glancing over Trott’s shoulder, Ross winces sympathetically. The ankle is swollen enough that he can barely see the bone, and already the bruising is beginning to come up.

Smith lightly touches it, and Trott hisses in a breath, tightening his grip on Ross’s hand. “That hurts.”

“Sorry mate. I need to try and check if it’s a break or a sprain.”

Smith prods it again, in a couple of places, and asks Trott a couple of question, which Trott answers with curt, one-word responses. Ross’s fingers are starting to go a little numb.

“Well,” Smith says, sitting back on his heels. “I don't think it's broken? But it's definitely sprained.”

“Great,” Trott says, through clenched teeth.

“Yeah, that's going to make getting back to the campsite fun,” Smith says, scratching at his head. “C’mon, let's get you up. Ross, a hand?”

Ross gives Trott’s hand a quick squeeze, then gets up. “How are we doing this?” he asks, happy to defer to Smith's judgment.

Smith makes a face. “I don't know. Let's try just each taking a shoulder and pulling him up for now.”

Ross nods, then reached down for Trott. “Sorry mate.”

They get him onto his feet, although not without Trott at one point having to bite down on a scream.

Once he's on his feet, they pause. “Right,” Smith says, as they look up the rest of the slope leading to the cliff top, “how are we going to do this?”

Trott tests his weight on his foot and hisses out a breath. “I can't walk it on my own.”

“Maybe if I give you an arm?” Ross suggests.

They all look at the path, narrow and winding, with loose rocks scattered underfoot.

“No chance,” Smith says. “Piggy-back?”

“Because that sounds safe,” Trott objects, but he sighs. “Still, it's probably the better option. Fine.”

“Okay, Ross, once he's up, you go ahead of us. If we fall, it's no use us all going down,” Smith says, moving round to crouch in front of Trott.

Ross has to bite back a slightly hysterical burst of laughter at the thought of them all falling down, to land at the bottom of the cliff. He thinks of the pebble Trott had kicked over the edge earlier, and the way it had bounced from rock to rock until it hit the bottom.

“Be careful,” Trott warns, hopping toward Smith, still supported by Ross.

It takes a couple of tries and a couple of moments where they teeter too close to the edge of the path for comfort, but eventually they manage to get Trott on Smith's back.

“How’s that?” Ross asks anxiously.

“Not ideal,” Smith says, hoisting Trott a little higher, “but it'll work.”

“Trott?” Ross asks.

Trott still looks paler than normal but he nods. “I'm okay. Got a good view at least.”

Ross cracks a smile, stomach settling a bit. He lets out a deep breath slowly, then moves ahead on the path. “Let's go.”

They take it painfully slowly up the cliff. Ross carefully navigates them, calling out warnings to Smith of any loose patches. Finally they reach the top. Smith grunts, adjusting his hold on Trott's legs. “You're heavier than you look, you know that?”

“Are you calling me fat?” Trott asks, with fake indignance.

“No, just heavy. Fuck, are you made of rocks or something?”

“We’re lucky it was you who fell, Trott. I don't want to think about how we'd have got Smith up that trail,” Ross says, glancing at the man in question.

“Would have left him.”

“Oh, I think my grip is slipping.”

“Don’t you dare,” Trott warns, clinging on.

“Seriously though, I think we need to take a break if I'm carrying you back to the campsite.”

“I can probably walk, now we're on solid ground.”

“Not sure about that,” Ross says diplomatically.

“Yeah, no. So what we doing? Ten minute break?”  Smith shifts on his feet.

“I can carry him for a bit,” Ross offers.

“Yeah? Take turns?”

“Seriously guys, I'm fine,” Trott protests.

Smith rolls his eyes, bending to let Trott slide down to the floor. Even moving at a controlled pace, Trott hisses, pained as his foot touch the floor.

“Still reckon you could make it back to camp?” Smith asks, arms folded.

“Don't bait him, Smith,” Ross says hastily, recognising the mulish expression on Trott's face. “Trott, just let us help, okay?”

Trott frowns, and for a minute Ross thinks he's going to dig his heels in, but then the frown crumbles, leaving behind only a weary resignation. “Fine. Sorry guys.”

“Why are you sorry?” Smith asks.

Trott shrugs, looking away. “I made a big deal about being careful, and told you guys to not mess around, and then I was the one who fell.” He says it in a careful, controlled manner that doesn't fool Ross. He can tell Trott's beating himself up about this.

“You were being careful. It was just an accident,” Ross says, reasonably.

“Not careful enough,” Trott mutters.

Ross bites his tongue. There's nothing he can say when Trott's in this kind of mood.

“Too late crying about it now,” Smith says briskly. “Come on, let's head back.”

Ross gets Trott on his back. They start walking. The journey back to camp is quiet in contrast to their walk this morning. Trott’s silent with pain and what Ross suspects is an unhealthy amount of self-recriminations, Ross quiet with worry, and Smith, sensing the general mood, also mostly keeps his mouth shut.

The sun is starting to sink behind the trees by the time they get back to camp, and Ross is weary, sweaty, and probably very sunburnt to top things off. The back of Smith's neck is a painful shade of red, but Ross doesn't want to mention it, worried it'll worsen Trott's mood.

With a faint sigh of relief, Ross lets Trott slip off his back for the last time. Trott half-limps, half-hops to the campfire and eases himself down, stretching his leg out in front of him with a wince. Ross walks over to join him and after a moment Smith does the same.

They sit in silence for a minute, then Smith stretches and groans. “Right, what we doing?”

Ross looks at Trott, who's staring into the ashes of last night's fire. “I guess we pack up and leave. Probably not going to be able to keep camping if I can't walk.”

Smith nods, “Figured as much, yeah. Me and Ross can take turns carrying you back to the car.”

“What about the bags and tents?” Ross asks.

Smith grimaces. “I guess one of us carries the bags, one of us carries Trott. Once we get to the main road, you wait with Trott and the stuff, I’ll walk to the carpark and drive up to meet you two.”

Ross doesn't say anything, not wanting to point out that it had taken them the better part of the day to walk this far in the first place, and that when all of them were mobile and only weighed down by their own packs.

“That's going to be really hard,” Trott objects.

Smith shrugs, throwing his hands up. “Got any better ideas?”

“We could walk the other way, to the closest village. I saw one on the map. It's closer than where we started,” Trott says, sounding slightly more animated.

“Then what?” Smith says skeptically. “We've still got to get to the car.”

“No we don't,” Trott says. Smith frowns and opens his mouth, but Trott cuts him off. “I’ll get a bus to the nearest town, then get the train home.”

“Alone?” Ross asks.

“Sure,” Trott meets his eyes, face set stubbornly. “I can't keep on camping, but you two can.”

“Trott, mate -”

Trott shakes his head, cutting Ross off without a word. “It's a better idea.”

“Is it?” Smith asks, leaning back on his hands, head tilted back at an angle that Ross recognises as Smith getting ready to dig his heels in. Ross sighs privately, and settles back to watch. They're both more stubborn than is good for them. “Sounds like a bit of a shit plan to me.”

“How does it sound like a shit plan? Trott counters, tone flat.

Smith holds up a hand and starts ticking off fingers. “We don't know how far off the village is, you don't know how often the buses run, you don't know how far the next town is, or how regular the trains are from there -”

“It's worth thinking about, before we go and cancel the whole damn holiday!”

“ - and how are you going to get around from the village to the bus station, to the train station to god knows where?” Smith carries on levelly, ignoring the interruption.

“I can manage,” Trott hisses, dangerously calm.

“We don't mind going home a few days early -” Ross begins.

“I mind.”

Ross closes his mouth, unhappily, but aware that Trott's made his mind up. He looks at Smith, who throws his hands up again, this time in resignation.

“I’ll get my phone and check bus times,” Trott announces.

“I’ll -” Ross starts to offer to get Trott’s phone, but the other man is on his feet and moving awkwardly  towards the tents before Ross can finish speaking.

Smith shakes his head, imperceptibly, as Ross moves to go after him. “Leave it,” he says under his breath. “He's made his mind up.”

“Are we really going to let him go off on his own with a sprained ankle?” Ross asks, keeping his voice down.

Smith shrugs, expression irritated as he looks in Trott’s direction. “Can’t stop him.”

Ross chews on his lip, unhappily.

Smith sighs, not looking at him. “Look, the sun's almost set so we can't go anywhere tonight. We’ll go to sleep and hopefully in the morning he'll see sense.”

Ross tilts his head back to look at the sky. It's a brilliant vivid shade somewhere between indigo and black. Smith's right, they're not walking anywhere tonight. Before Ross can say anything else, Trott limps back to the campsite. “Are you alright?” Ross asks, taken aback by the odd expression on his face.

Trott frowns, wrapping one arm around his stomach. “I can’t find my phone.”

Ross’s eyebrows rise. “Did you take it with you to the beach?” He imagines it, lying smashed up somewhere on the path behind them,

“No,” Trott says, with a quick shake of his head. “I definitely left it behind. I left it in the tent pocket by the head of my sleeping bag.

Ross frowns, “And it’s not there?”

“No,” Trott says, with rising agitation, “and I checked my bag. It’s not there either.”

“You definitely didn’t put it in a pocket and it's fallen out somewhere?” Smith asks.

Trott shakes his head again. “I know I left it in the tent. And now it’s gone.”

“How can it have gone?” Ross asks.

No one wants to answer that question. Smith pushes himself to his feet. “I left mine in my tent too.”

“Same,” Ross says slowly, feeling a little sick. Wordlessly, they both go to check.

Smith pulls everything out of his pack, tossing it carelessly on the tent floor. He pulls the last items of clothing out, then turns his backpack upside down and shakes. He sits back on his heels, and finally accepts what he’d known as soon as he’d checked the pocket he’d left his phone in. It’s gone. He leaves the tent, exiting at the same time as Ross. One look at Ross’s face tells him everything he needs to know.

They go back to Trott, who’s stood staring into the trees with an inscrutable expression.

“Trott, it’s not just your phone. Our’s are gone as well,” Smith says. “Someone must have taken them.”

Trott doesn’t respond.

“Trott?” Ross tries.

“Shut up,” Trott says, lips barely moving. “Something’s out there, right now.”

Chapter Text

They freeze. Smith can hear the sound of his own breathing, loud in the silence. Beside him, he hears Ross swallow. Trott’s staring intently into the woods.

“Can you see someone?” Smith whispers, trying to follow Trott’s gaze.

Trott’s silent for a moment. “No,” he replies softly. “I thought I saw -” he cuts off, and Smith doesn’t have to ask him what he thought he saw -  the bushes at the treeline are rustling, branches shaking wildly as if something inside them is moving, something big.

Smith takes an involuntary step backwards, and sees the others do the same out of the corner of his eyes.

“Smith,” Trott says, sounding very calm.

“Yeah?”

“I need you to get stuff we can use as weapons.”

Smith glances at Trott, who isn’t looking at him, gaze still fixed on the spot in the bushes where something is moving. Ross meets his gaze, eyes wide and panicked.

“Smith, go!” Trott’s voice raises.

It breaks through the fear, and Smith moves, turning his back on the bushes with an effort. He hurries to tents, trying to remember what he’d packed, what could be used as a weapon. Their stuff is all strewn about from where they’d emptied their packs looking for their phones. Pants, tshirts, hoodies. Smith picks up a can of beans and tests the weight, before discarding it, tossing it aside. He snatches up a saucepan, and feels a desperate bubble of laughter rise as he takes a swing. He finds a torch, and adds that to his makeshift armoury, then finds one of the mallets they’d used for the tent pegs. He hurries back to Trott and Ross.

“Here.” He passes the odd assemblage of items out. Trott takes the pan without comment, leaving Ross the mallet.

“What’s the plan?” Ross asks, turning back to face the woods.

Trott lets out a short bark of laughter. “Haven’t got one. Just thought I’d feel better with something I could fight with.”

There’s the crack of a branch snapping underfoot, and their eyes snap back to the bushes. The rustling and shaking stops. They stand still, waiting. Sweat drips down the back of Smith’s neck, the sensation like crawling insects.

A minute passes, and then another. The sun sinks lower, and the shadows of the trees stretch out, as though reaching for them. There’s still an unnatural hush, no sounds of birds or insects, only their breathing.

“Someone should go check,” Trott says quietly. His voice sounds loud after the silence. Smith grimaces, tightening his grip on the torch as he prepares to go.

“I’ll go,” Ross says suddenly, and starts moving, taking long, fast steps towards the bushes. Smith takes half a step after him before remembering Trott. He glances at the shorter man. Trott’s stood with his weight resting on his good foot. He looks exhausted, like he’s minutes away from total collapse. Smith swallows, looking after Ross, then stays put.

Ross slows down as he gets closer to the spot where the rustling had been coming from. His feet feel suddenly heavy, and he has to force himself to keep moving forward. He stops a couple of feet away from the bushes. Within arm’s reach, his mind helpfully supplies. He forces the thought aside and takes a good look. It’s getting dark, but he can see the litter of fallen leaves and broken sticks on the ground by the bushes. He peers into the bush, but it’s all impenetrably black. Slowly, he inches closer, heartbeat speeding up, and pushes aside some of the branches with shaking hands.

Nothing. He lets out a ragged breath of relief. As he does, something small falls past his face. A leaf, slowing drifting down from the boughs of the tree that spread out above him. With a sense of doom, Ross looks up.

 

Smith shifts on his feet, restless, straining forward to watch Ross. His hands tighten on the handle of the torch. Trott reaches over and grabs his shoulder, squeezing lightly. “Relax,” Trott says, though Smith can hear the tension in his voice.

They both go tense as Ross steps closer to the bushes where the rustling came from, under the shadow of the trees. Smith’s heartbeat picks up, as he prepares to move. Trott’s grip tightens, grounding him.

They see Ross by the bushes, see him reach out, move the branches aside. Nothing happens, and Smith breathes out, shaky. Trott squeezes once more comfortingly, then lets go. “Lets -”

Ross looks up, and screams.

Smith’s moving before the scream finishes bouncing round the clearing. He sprints through the grass, not feeling the whip of the grass blades against his legs or the prickle of nettles on his hands. He’s at Ross’s side in an instant. Ross had fallen backwards, onto his arse in shock, and Smith grabs him, yanking him up.

“Smith,” Ross says, the sound almost a whimper, clutching at him, “in the trees -”

Smith doesn’t look back or reply, just drags him back towards Trott. Ross staggers, then starts running.

They reach Trott, who grabs Ross by the shoulders. “Are you alright?”

Ross nods, still clearly shaken. “I’m not hurt.”

“Smith?” Trott doesn’t let go of Ross, but turns to Smith.

Smith nods, glancing to look behind them. There’s nothing, just an empty clearing, and trees. Somewhere to the left of them, a cricket chirps. In the woods, a bird caws, the sound lonely and strange. “You hear that?”

Trott nods. “It’s gone.”

“For now,” Smith says, running a hand through his hair. “What the fuck was that?”

They both turn to Ross, who doesn’t meet their eyes. “It looked like a person.”

Trott meets Smith’s eyes. “What do you mean, looked like?”

Ross shivers, although it’s not yet cold, the heat of the sun still hanging in the air. “It was in the branches, looking down. It was smiling.” Ross swallows. “It  - it had a lot of teeth, and its eyes were wrong.”

“Wrong how?” Smith asks, an edge in his voice.

“They glowed,” Ross says quietly. “Like a cat’s eyes, reflecting the light.” He looks at them as if expecting them to laugh at him, but neither of them laugh.

“Fuck,” Smith swears suddenly, turning away. “Fuck. We need to go. Come on Ross, I’ll take Trott, you grab some water, if we keep walking we’ll be at the carpark by before dawn.”

“You want to go out there?” Ross asks, incredulously. “Smith. You didn’t see this thing.”

Smith shrugs, helpless and angry. “What else can we do? Wait here for it to come and, I don’t know, eat us?”

“I don’t know,” Ross says tightly, “I just don’t think going into the woods at night is a good idea!”

“Have you got a better one?” 

“Guys!” Trott limps forward, between them. “Stop yelling. Look, Smith, Ross is right. I don’t think going into the woods is a good idea, but Ross, I don’t know what other options we have. Let’s take a minute to think about this.”

“Who says we have time to sit down and think about this?” Smith argues.

Trott shrugs. “Maybe we don’t. Maybe the monster or whatever the hell it is Ross saw will be back in a minute. Maybe it won’t. But I don’t think our odds are any worse in this clearing than out there in the woods.”

Almost against his will, Smith feels himself start to calm down in the face of Trott's quiet control. “Alright. Let’s make a plan, then.”

“First, lets make a fire,” Trott turns, and starts hobbling towards the ashes of last night’s fire.

“Maybe that’ll keep the monster away,” Ross says, half-joking, half-hopeful.

 

They light a fire quickly, then sit down. Last night they’d sat spaced out around the fire, but tonight by unvoiced consensus, they all sit close. The warmth of the fire helps dispel more than the evening chill, even if it does make the shadows outside the circle of the campfire’s light seem darker. A couple of minutes pass where nobody talks, not wanting to break the brief calm.

“Right,” Smith says, finally. “What are we going to do, boys? I still say we leave. I don’t want to sit around here, waiting for whatever it is to pick us off.”

“The way I see it,” Trott says, stretching his injured leg out with a grimace, “We have two options. One, we kit up, and go out into the woods. It’s dangerous, it’s dark, but we’ll be heading towards help. Two, we kit up, set up defenses and hole up here until morning. We won’t have to travel in the dark, which is a prospect I'm not thrilled at, but on the other hand, we’ll have to last until morning. What do you two want to do?”

“Leave,” Smith says immediately.

“Ross?” Trott asks.

Ross shrugs, picking at his shoelaces. “I don’t want to go back out there, but it’s not safe here either. I don’t know. Trott, you decide.”

“I’m with Smith,” Trott says, after a pause. “Let’s get what we need and go.”

“Good thing we had the map and compass on us,” Smith says, grinning without much humour. “Or we’d really be fucked.”

“I guess there’s one other option,” Trott says, thoughtfully.

“Yeah?” Smith asks.

“Take the fight to it. There’s three of us, and one of it.”

“As far as we know,” Smith argues, dubious.

Ross shudders. “No. Vetoed.”

Trott shrugs, “It wasn’t a serious suggestion.”

They get ready. Smith volunteers to take the first turn carrying Trott, which leaves Ross as the one guarding and guiding. There’s an cold pit of fear in Ross’s stomach that feels like it’s radiating a chill right through him, numbing him and slowing his limbs. He folds the map into a neat square after double checking the direction they need to head in, and tucks it away in the front pocket of his jeans. He holds the torch, which is going to double as light source and weapon, and walks towards the edge of the woods. They’re leaving in the opposite direction to the bushes where Ross had seen the thing stalking them, but that doesn’t stop Ross’s heart rate from picking up as they draw up to the treeline.

“Ready?” Smith asks, close behind him. Ross doesn’t answer, not trusting his voice but nods.

“Let’s go then, boys,” Trott says softly from Smith’s back.

Smith snorts as he starts walking. There’s a moment of tension as they take their first steps into the woods, Trott’s hands tightening slightly on his shoulders, the slight hesitation of Ross’s steps, then they’re under the trees. It’s dark, the beam of the torch cutting narrow strips through the darkness, illuminating black tree trunks and the tangled, knotty mass of roots that lie underfoot. Ross’s heart hammers as he holds the torch, expecting to see the light reflecting off a set of eyes everytime he moves the beam. The sound of Smith walking close behind him is a comfort, the knowledge he’s not alone keeps him walking forward, checking on the compass.

“Hey Trott,” Smith says after a couple of minutes.

“Yeah?”

“You know, it’s customary in these kinds of situations for the injured person to tell the others to go on without them. Not wanting to slow them down or anything. Can’t help but notice you didn’t even offer.”

Ross hears Trott’s huff of amusement. “Bastard.”

“I’m not saying we would have left you -” Smith cuts off with a grunt. “No need for that. Ross, he hit me, right in the ribs.”

Trott chuckles, low and quiet, and despite everything, Ross feels his lips curl up in a smile. 

Chapter Text

They keep walking, deeper into the woods and further from the campsite. After a while, fear gives way to tiredness, and Ross stops jumping at every noise and every shadow. At one point he hears Smith stumble.

“Shit!” Trott yelps, sounding alarmed.

“Sorry,” Smith grits out, bracing himself against a tree trunk.

“Are you alright?” Ross asks.

“Yeah. Maybe we should swap for a bit.”

Ross nods.

“Pass me around like a sack of potatoes,” Trott grumbles theatrically.

“I’ll drop you like a sack of potatoes in a minute, you little -”

“No!”

“Argh, get off my neck, Trott, you’re choking me!”

“What was that? Choke me harder?”

“You two! Shut up!” Ross hisses, shining the torch at them. “Do you want to attract that thing’s attention?”

They blink in the beam of the torchlight, sobering up. “Sorry, Ross,” Trott says, slipping down off Smith’s back.

“That was pretty dumb,” Smith agrees, taking the torch.

“It was,” Ross agrees. “It was pretty dumb. Just like you two.”

“Hey,” Trott says, laughing. Smith jokingly swings at Ross who steps back, raising his hands in defence.

It feels good to laugh. The smile fades off his face as he remembers how far they have left to go before they can really relax. “Come on, Trott,” he sighs, already dreading having to carry him through the forest.

Trott gives him a considering look. “You sure mate? You look dead on your feet.”

Ross shrugs, “I’ll manage. It's not like we’ve got a lot of options.”

Trott opens his mouth.

“You're not walking,” Smith says flatly.

“But -”

“Ross, grab him.”

Ross reaches for him.

“Wait,” Trott protests, holding up his hands to fend Ross off. “Okay! Fine. I’ll accept a piggy-back. Just let me keep my dignity.”

“What dignity,” Smith scoffs at the same time as Ross asks, “Sure you don't want me to carry you bridal style?”

Trott rolls his eyes. “Just bend over and let me mount you already.”

“Oi, oi sailor,” Ross says with a wink.

Trott sighs, clambering up him. “Let's go,” he says grumpily, voice loud in Ross’s right ear.

Ross hefts Trott higher up his back, just to hear him yelp.

It’s hard to keep track of the time without phones, and the patches of sky visible through the canopy seem to remain the same inky velvet black. Ross is too tired to be scared at this point, and there’s a gnawing hunger in his belly. He hasn’t eaten since that morning when they were all sat around the camp together. It feels a lot longer ago than just earlier today. His eyelids feel heavy, hard to hold open. His steps slow and he catches himself swaying.

He’s not the only one to notice. “That’s enough,” Trott says. “Smith. We need to stop.”

“What’s wrong?” Smith demands, swinging the torch around.

“Nothing,” Ross says, letting Trott down with a groan. “I’m just falling asleep on my feet.”

Smith sighs, “Right, you want me to take Trott again for a bit?”

“How about we stop and take a quick break?” Trott says, leaning on a tree trunk.

Smith looks uncertain. “Is that a good idea, mate? We want to get out of here as quick as possible.”

“Agreed, but we’ll move faster if we’re not exhausted.”

Smith still doesn’t look sure.

“We haven’t seen anything in ages. It might not have bothered following us,” Trott presses.

“Alright,” Smith says, “We’ll take a quick break.”

“Great,” Trott says, lowering himself to the ground. Ross joins him, sitting so they’re shoulder to shoulder, the warmth of Trott’s body spreading comfortingly through his side.

Smith shifts on his feet, looking around. “I’m going to check the area. I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Smith, don’t go off on your own,” Trott protests. “Come on, Ross’ll go with you.”

Ross forces his head to raise so he can nod, even though the thought of getting up doesn’t appeal at all.

Smith grins, teeth a flash of white in the gloom. “Nah, look at him. Besides, can’t be leaving you on your own, can we?” He starts moving before Trott can argue anymore.

Trott lets his head drop back against the tree trunk with a sigh. “Idiot.”

Ross grunts in sleepy agreement. His eyes had fallen closed almost as soon as he’d down, and he’s drifting, half-asleep.

“Going off on his own like that,” Trott grumbles, mostly to himself, “Hasn’t he watched horror movies?” Trott isn’t surprised when Ross doesn’t respond to the mostly rhetorical question, and he hears the shift in Ross’s breathing as the other man falls asleep.

There’s a rustling noise, that has Trott tensing, but it’s just Smith, returning.

“Nothing out there that I can see,” Smith says with a shrug, settling himself down against the tree trunk opposite Trott and Ross. He stretches his legs out, tangling them with Trott’s, the contact comforting. “Ross asleep?”

Trott nods, careful not to disturb Ross, whose head has lolled over to rest on Trott’s shoulder. “Out like a light,” he says softly. “You can get some rest if you want. I’ll keep watch.”

Smiths shakes his head. “Nah, I’m good.”

Trott raises his eyebrows. “Not tired?”

“Knackered,” Smith admits. “But…” He shrugs, wrapping his arms around himself.

“Afraid,” Trott says quietly, “I am too.” He looks down at the top of Ross’s head. “Worried I’m slowing you two down.”

Smith makes a dismissive noise. “Don’t start that. I was only messing around earlier when I talked about leaving you behind, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” Trott says. “And don’t worry, I’m not going to make some big heroic speech about how you should. We’re not that desperate, yet.”

“Yet,” Smith repeats. “You think we’re going to get to that point?”

Trott lifts the shoulder Ross isn’t leaning on in a one-sided shrug. “Who knows. We’re not in the clear yet, and it’s a long way to the carpark.” Trott sees the way Smith’s mouth sets in a stubborn line. “All I’m saying is, if it comes down to it, you guys should leave me behind. Better two of us make it out than none of us.”

“Fuck that noise,” Smith says, hard and angry.

Trott smiles, and kicks Smith's foot. “Aw, Smith. I didn't know you cared.”

“I do.”

Trott’s smile drops, caught off guard by the sincerity in Smith’s voice. He meets Smith’s eyes.

“I care about both of you,” Smith continues, eyes still fixed to Trott's, still uncharacteristically serious.

Trott swallows, unable to look away. “I know. I do too. Care about you and Ross.”

There's a pause where they’d normally make a joke, laugh it off. I care about you, but not that much, dickhead. Neither of them make a joke this time.

Trott swallows again, throat suddenly dry for some reason. It feels like a relief when Smith finally looks away, breaking eye contact.

Smith wakes up with a jolt. Sunlight pierces through the canopy in irregular, jagged shards. Somewhere overhead a wood pigeon coos, the noise relaxing and repetitive. Smith untenses slowly. The wood feels peaceful this morning, free of the creeping, crawling being-watched sensation that he’d experienced last night. He hadn't meant to sleep, but he feels refreshed for it, even if he is stiff from falling asleep leaned up against a tree trunk. He glanced over to the others, “Hey -”

He stops short, blood running cold. Ross is lying opposite him, head slumped at an awkward angle from where it had been resting on Trott’s shoulder. Trott is gone.

Smith is on his feet in a flash. “Trott!” He takes a step forward and shouts again, uncaring of what attention he might attract, “Trott!”

“Smith…” Ross groans, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “What’re you yellin’ f’r?”

“Trott’s gone!” Smith shouts, too angry and scared to lower his voice. “Fuck!”

Ross jolts upright, eyes wide. “What? Where?”

“I don't - I don't know!” Smith says, managing midway to lower his voice. He swivels round, peering through the trees for a familiar flash of white-blonde hair. “He's just gone.”

“For a piss?” Ross asks, getting to his feet.

“He wouldn't have gone far,” Smith says. “Especially not on his bad ankle.”

Smith can see Ross pale, implications setting in. “He didn't go…”

“He was taken,” Smith finishes grimly.

They look at each other silently. Ross swallows, rubbing the back of his hand over his mouth. He looks stricken. Smith feels the same, just sick to his stomach.

Ross sinks back down against the tree trunk, as if his legs have given way under him. “Oh god.” He buries his face in his hands. “Trott.”

Smith's fists clench in helpless rage, and he aims a kick at the tree trunk, biting his lip at the shock of pain that jolts through his foot. “Fuck!”

“What do we do?” Ross asks, lifting his face from his hands.

“I don't know!” Smith aims another kick at the tree, hissing out a curse as his toes connect. The pain isn't enough, doesn't drown out the fear, or the rage, or worst of all the uncertainty. “I don’t know what to do!”

“Should we leave the wood and find help?” Ross asks, hesitantly..

“I don't know,” Smith repeats. The rage suddenly fades away, leaving just fear and doubt. He sits down, heavily. “I don't want to leave him.”

He hears Ross take a shaky breath. “Me neither. If we get the police out -”

“How are we going to explain this?” Smith interrupts. “You saw that thing last night. You said it wasn't human. Do you know how crazy that sounds?”

Ross swallows. “Maybe we don't tell them what I saw. We say we saw a person. That our stuff was messed with. Our friend is missing. That should be enough for them to take it seriously.”

“Maybe,” Smith agrees. “But it'll take most of the day to get to help without our phones. In that time, anything could happen.” Could have already happened, he doesn't say. Doesn't need to. He knows they're both worrying the same thing, that it's too late for Trott.

Ross kicks his lips nervously. “So what should we do?” He looks at Smith, pale and anxious.

Smith wants to say he still doesn't know, but Ross is looking at him with a kind of desperate hope, like Smith knows what he's doing, and Smith can't bring himself to take away that hope. He drags a hand through his hair, feeling his curls tangle and snag on his fingers. “We find him ourselves.”

Ross looks at him doubtfully. “How?”

Good question, Smith thinks. Aloud, he says, “Track them. If that thing has taken Trott, it's encumbered. It'll have left behind signs of whichever way it went.”

“And what do we do when we find it?” Ross asks, sounded unconvinced.

Smith shrugs, trying to look more confident than he feels. “Two of us. One of whatever the hell it is.”

“Fight it,” Ross says flatly. “You want to fight it.”

“What other option do we have?” Smith says, patience fading. He gets back on his feet slowly, feeling every stiff and aching muscle this time. “We can’t leave him, and getting help will take too long.” His hands clench into fists, nails cutting into the palms of his hands. He looks at Ross, waiting.

Slowly, Ross nods. “You're right. We have to find him. Before anything can happen to him.”

“Anything else,” Smith says bleakly, then regrets it as Ross's face crumbles. “Shit.” He moves to Ross's side in one quick stride, and grabs him in a hug. Immediately Ross's arms wrap around him, squeezing tight, and he feels Ross start to shake. Shit.

He gives Ross an awkward pat on the shoulder, not sure how to deal with one of his two best friends breaking down into tears.

Ross makes a noise, a broken sob. Instinctively Smith wraps his arms around Ross and squeezes back. “It’s alright, mate.” He can feel Ross’s tears soaking through his tshirt.

Ross says something, muffled into Smith’s shoulder.

“What?”

Ross lifts his head slightly. “It's my fault.”

“How is it your fault?” Smith asks, mystified.

Ross shrugs, still not looking Smith in the eyes. From this close, Smith can see the tears still clinging to his eyelashes. “I'm the reason we needed to stop.”

Smith frowns at Ross. “What, because you needed a break from carrying Trott?”

Ross nods.

“Well,” Smith says, putting on a bracing tone. “Isn't that more Trott's fault, for getting himself hurt and needing to be carried?”

Ross pulls away from Smith, out of his arms. “That wasn't his fault!”

Smith can't help but smile a little at the indignance in Ross's voice. “Yeah, well, what happened to Trott wasn't your fault either, alright? I fell asleep too. If you want to blame something, blame whatever took him.”

Ross looks at him, mouth open slightly as if he wants to argue but can't. “Fine,” he sighs, rubbing his eyes dry. Smith has the odd urge to rub a thumb over the teartracks that still show on his cheeks. “Fuck. Let’s do this. Let’s find Trott, and get the hell out of these woods.”

“You fucking said it.”

Chapter Text

Smith falls asleep before him. They'd both gone quiet, too tired to talk. Trott had turned the torch off to save the battery, and they'd sat in the dark until their eyes adjusted. Trott had watched Smith's head slowly drop then jerk as he forced himself awake.

“You can go to sleep, Smith,” Trott says quietly.

Smith shakes his head. “I’m fine. Don’t let me fall asleep.”

“I can keep watch,” Trott presses.

“No,” Smith says, grouchily. “You're hurt. What are you going to be able to do if that thing finds us?”

“Wake you up?” Trott suggests. “Hit it with the torch? I'm not completely useless you know.”

“I didn't say that,” Smith grumbles. It's too dark to see the expression on his face, but Trott doesn't need to be able to see to know his face is set in obstinance.

Trott blows out a breath, but says nothing. It's not worth arguing, when he knows he just has to wait Smith out. Sure enough, he watches Smith catch himself twice more before finally his head drops forward, hitting his chest. He'll have a stiff neck in the morning, but at least he'll be rested.

Trott eases his bad leg up so his knee is drawn against his chest and gingerly rolls up his trouser leg. Even in the dark with his walking boots still on, he can see the puffy swelling of his ankle. He presses against it with his fingers, biting down on his lips at the shooting pain. He sighs, loosens his laces and stretches his leg back out. It's looking unlikely that he's going to be able to walk any easier on his leg tomorrow.

He leans his head back against the tree trunk and gazes into the shadows between the trees. Something moves, but it's only a leaf, bobbing in the breeze. Trott stares at it, unfocused. He can see a patch of sky through the leaves, and a single solitary star. The star seems to twinkle in his vision, flashing, mesmerising. Trott keeps staring. His eyelids seem so heavy. The branch bobs, up and down. The star flashes, communicating in some unknown code. Trott’s eyes burn. He wants to look away. He can't. The branch bobs. The star twinkles. He blinks, eyes sawdust dry, and the spell breaks. His vision clears, bringing the rest of the world into focus. His breathing catches.

It’s there. Less than a metre away from him, crouched silent and absolutely still next to Smithy. It's the first look he's got and his first thought is that it isn't human.

It's roughly human in size and shape, the right number of limbs, right features, but everything else is wrong. The way it holds itself, the unnatural angle it cocks its head as it looks at him. The teeth it bares, in a parody of a smile, all neat and white and sharp. Trott starts to move to wake Ross, then freezes as the thing casually wraps a long, spindly fingered hand around Smith’s neck. It doesn't start squeezing, just rests long, dirty nails against Smith’s neck.

It looks at him and gives him another not-smile, and cocks its head and waits.

“Please -” Trott begins, then stops, swallows. This thing doesn't have pity, is incapable of mercy, he's sure of it. He licks his lips, mouth very dry, and asks, “What do you want?”

He meets its gaze, and jerks back as a wave of foreign emotion and memory crashes through him; dirt under his nails, ingrained in his skin; water dripping in pitch black; the taste of blood on his tongue, hot and coppery as he tears apart something small and furry; hunger cramps so intense he wants to curl into a ball and cry, a terrible need; Ross, seen from above, through the leaves; a strange, horrible excitement; he sees himself from behind, carried on Smith's back, feels the patient lurking stillness of the creature, and all the time that terrible, aching hunger.

Trott manages to wrench himself away again, breaking their locked gaze. Immediately the flood of the creature's emotions and memories stop, as abrupt as if hitting a dam. He sucks in a breath, distantly aware he's shaking. He glances down at Ross, chest clenching at how young and vulnerable he looks in his sleep, then over at Smith, at his bare throat ringed by dirt-stained fingers. “Take me,” he croaks, begs. “I won't fight. Just leave these two alone. Let them go.

The thing doesn't move, head still tilted at that uncanny angle. Trott's vision begins to blur, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. It crosses his mind that maybe the thing doesn't understand human language, and he's trying to bargain in vain but then it inclines its head in what is unmistakably a nod of agreement.

“Thank you,” Trott gasps, and the tears spill over then. He eases Ross off his shoulder, careful not to wake him, all too aware that his little pact with the monster would be broken if either Ross or Smith woke. Slowly, painfully, he gets to his feet, then looks at the creature. “Let's go.”

 

“So,” Ross says, running a hand through his hair, “What’s the plan?”

Smithy’s pacing, wearing a path in the dirt. Ross watches him, strangely calm. He can feel his panic, but it's trapped under a layer of numb. After another minute of pacing, Smith comes to a stop. “If Trott’s gone, that means the creature’s taken him.”

Ross creases his forehead. “I mean, yeah, I'd figured that out on my own.”

Smith flips him off. “Think about it, dickhead. There’s no sign of him here. The creature’s taken him somewhere. It must have some kind of… den, or something.” He rubs his beard. “I know it’s not much…”

It’s nothing, but it’s all they have to work with. “Right,” Ross says, trying to sound positive. “So we just need to find its den.”

Smith looks around. “Maybe we can track it?”

Ross glances around doubtfully. “Maybe? I don’t know. The time I saw it, it was up in the trees.”

“But there’s no way Trott’s going to be climbing around like a monkey, and I doubt even that thing could carry him through the trees,” Smith points out.

“So its probably on foot,” Ross says. Somehow Smith’s reasoning is making him feel better.

“Probably,” Smith says. There’s something strange about his tone.

Ross looks up, blood going cold. “What’s wrong?”

“What?” Smith says blandly, avoiding Ross's eyes. “Nothing.”

Ross narrows his eyes at him. “I can tell when you’re lying, you know. What’s wrong?”

Smith rubs his beard again, a nervous tell. “They might both be on foot?”

“What do you mean?” Ross asks.

Smith crouches down next to the tree where Ross had fallen asleep next to Trott last night and beckons Ross over. Hesitantly Ross joins him, crouching down beside him. “What are we doing?” Ross asks.

“Look about,” Smith says, “What do you notice?”

Ross tries his best, but all he sees is a tree in the middle of a fucking wood. “Nothing. Why, what have I missed?”

“That’s it,” Smith says, spreading his hands. “There’s nothing, no signs of a struggle, no blood.”

Ross shifts a little, losing his balance, one knee brushing against Smith’s. His knees are starting to complain about this position. “So what? Did the creature sneak up on Trott? Maybe he fell asleep as well.”

“Even if he did,” Smith says, “I don’t see how the monster could have snatched him without him waking up or you waking up in the process and some kind of struggle happening.”

“What are you saying?” Ross asks, with a terrible sense he knowas what Smith’s about to say.

Smith takes a deep breath. “Maybe Trott wasn’t taken. Maybe he left.”

 

Trott falls down for the third time. The first time he hadn’t been looking where he was going and had tripped over a root, the second time, and this time, his ankle had just given way. Gritting his teeth, he pushes himself to his knees, then slowly, painfully stands. A couple of paces ahead, the monster crouches, waiting, eyes glittering and strange in the daylight. Trott limps forward. He’s already learnt that if he takes too long to get moving after a fall, or if he’s just moving too slowly in general, that the creature won’t balk at grabbing him around the wrist with one bony hand and dragging him faster. “I’m coming,” Trott calls. “No need to get handsy.”

The creature doesn’t react, just stares until Trott draws level, then turns and starts moving. It walks on its hands and feet, bent over to reach the floor, and moves faster than should be possible, fast enough that Trott has to hurry to keep up. Each step he takes sends a sharp jolt of pain through his entire body. He bites down on his lip. His ankle is beyond pain right now, it’s just the throbbing epicentre from which the pain radiates out. He doesn’t like to think about the damage he must be doing walking on it.

Not that it’ll matter, the little voice in his head whispers, not when you'll soon be dead. Trott swallows, which in turn makes him aware of how dry his throat is. All the discomforts of being still alive. He snatches another look at his captor. It’s not even watching him, but he knows its keeping track of him, and he has no chance of running off. He shivers even though the sunlight falling through the trees is warm, and lifts a hand protectively to his chest. The ripped remains of his tshirt hang off his body like shredded skin where it isn’t stuck to his skin with dried blood. Five parallel gashes stretch from one side of his chest to the other. They’re long but thankfully quite shallow, although they’d bled profusely. The creature had licked his blood from its fingers after the blow, chewing the bits of skin and flesh from under its nails.

Trott closes his eyes involuntarily at the memory. His imagination fills in the blanks, lets him picture the creature when its eating him. He’s initially assumed it’d kill him first, but now he can imagine it eating him bit by bit, forcing him to watch as it peels strips of flesh off of him, those sharp, carnivore teeth cutting through flesh and sinew. Bile rises in his throat, burning. He sways, and then he’s falling again, with a cry, sprawling flat on his face.

For a minute, he doesn’t want to get up, just lies on the ground, miserable and exhausted. The thing’s gonna kill him one way or another, what difference does it make where it does it, other than the brief extension of his life? Smith and Ross, he thinks instantly. His face pressed into the dirt. He remembers Ross's head on his shoulder, Smith's arms, pulling him close. Each minute that the creature spends leading him somewhere is another minute they have to leave the woods, to escape. Trott’s not dumb enough to think that once he’s been made a meal of that the creature won’t be hungry for seconds. He forces himself up.

Not fast enough. The creature crosses over to him in the space of a single blink, and hits him round the face, knocking him back to the ground

“That was… counterproductive,” Trott says, forcing himself back to his knees. His hair hangs over his face, and he can feel blood running down his cheek. The creature missed his eyes, but he can feel the blood running down his forehead as well. He doesn’t look up to watch the creature taste him, just tries to push himself back to his feet.

Apparently not fast enough. He cries out as the creature grabs him by the shoulder and pulls him up, sharp nails digging in and puncturing skin. He manages to stay on his feet this time just about. The creature reaches for his face, and he flinches back, but not fast enough. It grabs his face and forces eye-contact. This time there’s no flood of memories, just a hunger, so intense he ends up bent in half and gasping. That breaks the eye-contact though, and after a moment the hunger pangs fade. He straightens up warily. The creature bares its teeth, reaching out a finger to wipe at some of the blood on Trott’s cheek, and lick it off.

“Running out of patience, huh?” Trott says.

As expected, the creature doesn’t reply, lowers itself back into its odd crouch and starts loping forward.

After a brief hesitation, Trott limps forward.

Chapter Text

“So how are we going to find Trott?” Ross asks, looking at Smith like he's got a plan.

Smith doesn't have the heart to break it to him that he doesn't, not this time. “We don't know where that monster has taken Trott, but we do know it was here at some point. So let's look around, find some tracks or something.” Smith forces himself into a semblance of his normal confidence. Realistically, he's aware that neither of them have any experience in tracking, but he's also aware it might be thier only shot.  

Ross swallows, looking daunted, but nods. Smith reaches over and squeezes his shoulder.

Trott almost doesn't notice when the creature stops walking. Some self-preservation instinct kicks in and keeps him from walking into the back of the creature. He looks around. The trees have thinned out a little. Up ahead, he sees a rocky ledge rising out of the ground, not much higher than his head. “Don't tell me we have to climb that. You'll have to kill me first.”

As expected the creature doesn't reply, or give any indication that it's even registered the sounds coming out of Trott's mouth.

Apparently the creature had known about this obstacle in advance, as it gives no indication of surprise or frustration. Indeed, as it starts moving again, up to the base of the ledge and then scurry along the side, Trott realised that they might have reached their destination.

The creature crouches, pulls apart the brambles that are growing at the bottom of the ledge, and part them to reveal an opening.

The opening's not large, about half as tall as Trott, and only a little wider than he is at the shoulders. He can see about a foot into the cave, before the darkness grows too thick to penetrate, leaving him no way to see how far in or down the cave extends. The creature grabs him by the wrist and pulls him forward, shoving him toward the opening.

Trott stumbles, catches himself on the side of the cave. He swallows, looking into the pitch black of the interior, dread pooling in his stomach. He's not much of an agoraphobe, but the thought of having to get on his hands and knees and crawl into that darkness, creature at his back, has him breaking out into a cold sweat.

There's another shove at his shoulder, creature growing impatient, and Trott crouches down and takes his first, hesitant step inside. Instantly, the chill settles over him, a clammy cool that drains the sunlight warmth out of his skin. He blinks, eyes trying to adjust to the sudden dark. Slowly, he starts to make out the dim outlines of the cave walls. The cave seems to extend further back, and he can tell from his next faltering step forwards that the floor of the cave slopes down. A tunnel, leading him in deeper. Another step, and he quickly gives up on the idea of trying to stay on his feet, his back already aching. He gets down on his knees and starts crawling.

“Smith,” Ross calls, “I found something.”

Smith spins round, heartrate picking up. He crosses to where Ross is crouched in two quick strides and leans down to see what Ross has spotted. His heart sinks. There's blood on the leaves. He touches it, then rubs the residue between two fingers. It's still a little tacky, not quite dry. They can't have left too long before him and Ross woke up.

“Do you think he's still alive?”

The question has Smith's head jerking up. His immediate instinct is to say of course he is, but the words die soundlessly in his throat when he meets Ross's gaze. He looks so tired, blue-grey shadows under both eyes. “Don't lie to me, Smith. You don't have to protect me.”

“Not like I've been any good at that anyway,” Smith says, and instantly regrets it. Ross needs reassurance, not self-recriminations. He forces a smile, trying to laugh it off, but he can tell Ross isnt buying his act.

“I dunno,” he says honestly. “I think so. I hope so. I don't see why it would take him alive, but it did so I think we have a chance. We just have to find them.” He pushes himself to his feet and offers Ross a hand, “So let's go.”

 

The light from the cave entrance is soon left behind, forcing Trott to crawl forwards into perfect undiluted blackness. It's the kind of darkness so intense that the human mind isn't equipped to deal with it, and he starts to be convinced that he can see the ghostly outline of his own hands. When he spots a faint glow up ahead he thinks it's his mind playing another trick at first. Then he gets closer and he realises he can now make out dimly the sides of the cave walls.

He crawls forward. The glow doesn't get much brighter, but he can tell the tunnel ahead is starting to widen, and the ceiling is getting higher. The floor begins to level out as well, and within a few metres it's high enough that he can get to his feet. The light, he discovers, is coming from the walls, or rather, from what's growing on the walls. A bioluminescent lichen that gives off a pale sickly light. At first, the lichen is patchy, but soon it's covering the walls almost without gaps. It's beautiful, in a spectral kind of way, and for a moment Trott almost forgets to the pain and fear, and the fact he's going to be killed and eaten. He trails a hand over the wall as he walks forward, taking in the papery texture and the glowing dust that comes away at his touch.

Something clatters under his bad foot, and he stumbles, catching himself against the wall. The object he tripped over is a bone, long and quite thick. Trott has a feeling that if he held it up against his upper leg it would be roughly the same length. He keeps walking, but the sense of wonder is gone. More bones are scattered on the ground, some small ones that crunch under his feet or skitter across the floor when he inadvertently kicks them, other’s bigger that he walks around. After a little while, the tunnel takes a turn, and around the corner he finds where the creature had been leading him this whole time.

It's a natural room, a dead end to the tunnel which is wide and tall enough for Trott to stand in and walk about. Lichen grows all over the walls and ceiling, lighting the space with a pale but usable light. It might be the creature's den, although there's no bedding or any kind of indication that the creature spends time here other than the cage with the human remains in the far corner.

Trott takes a step back, and stumbles into the creature itself, feeling its moist breath against his neck. He recoils away from it, which places him closer to the cage and it's grisly occupant.

This time he notices a couple of strange things about the corpse that hadn't registered at his first, horrified glance; the body is missing all its limbs, the arms at the shoulders and the legs finishing in two bloody stumps above the knee. The torso seems mainly intact, although at some point the stomach has been disemboweled, leaving the intestines to spill out into the lap to putrefy. The head hangs forward, a greasy mop of hair obscuring the face, but as well as Trott can tell in the light, the head seemed almost untouched.

“Why did you leave the rest to rot…?” He says it aloud, almost to himself because he doesn’t expect an answer from the creature. Absently, he reaches up to brush his hair out of his eyes, and feels the tug of dried blood crusting strands to his face. Pulling the hair free, the blood begins to flow sluggishly from the cut on his face again, and he wipes the blood away. As he makes to wipe the blood off on what’s left of his jeans, the creature lets out a noise half -groan, half-growl and grabs his hand, lifting it to its mouth and licking.

Trott tries to recoil, disgusted, but it holds him firm. As he watches it lick the blood from his fingers, he remembers earlier the way it had picked his skin out from under its nails to eat. He looks back at the remains of the body, and thinks about all the bones he’d seen in the tunnels, and how he’d never found a skull among them. A horrible suspicion begins to form as he looks at the body in the cage.

“You ate him alive, didn’t you?”