Kevin trekked through the forest, looking for good firewood and cursing himself for not finding a way out of this trip. He blamed Neil.
The other striker had made an offhand comment one day about how he had never gone camping recreationally, and of course, the Foxes latched on. A month later they had turned half-baked plans into bookings and rentals. They stuffed Matt’s truck bed full of gear, all piled into the three vehicles they had between them, and made the two-hour trip to the nearby campground.
Kevin was a bit surprised that everyone had agreed. Certainly at least Nicky and Allison didn’t seem like the type to enjoy four days in the woods with limited access to running water. But he had learned pretty quickly that most of the group would do just about anything for Neil, and he wasn’t about to be the only one protesting and face everyone’s wrath.
It wasn’t even that he had a problem with the idea of camping. He had never been camping either, but it didn’t seem like such a bad concept. No, the problem was that Erik was in the States for the summer, which meant he was tagging along for the camping trip, which meant almost all the Foxes were paired off for tents. Matt with Dan, Allison with Renee, Neil with Andrew, Nicky with Erik… which left Kevin with Aaron.
Kevin had lived with Aaron for the better part of a year before he moved out of their dorm room. They got along fine, didn’t get in each other’s way, rarely clashed. But Kevin had been learning some things about himself recently, now that he was open to exploring them. One discovery in particular that he was still trying to wrap his head around was that he was bisexual, and he wasn’t even smart enough to be attracted to the gay Minyard twin.
So with that in mind, he was not necessarily looking forward to sharing a tiny space with the newest subject of his affections. He would just have to keep himself in check, make sure he didn’t do anything stupid.
Kevin strode over to where Aaron and Nicky were watching Erik arrange something of a teepee shape out of little twigs and branches. He dumped his sticks onto the pile that some of the others must have started.
“What are you doing?” he asked Erik, unable to keep a derisive tone from his voice.
“Building a fire,” Erik replied cheerfully, either unaware of or unbothered by Kevin’s judgement.
“You’re doing it wrong,” Kevin pointed out. “You’re supposed to arrange the sticks in a square, to form a log cabin.”
Nicky frowned. “Erik’s been camping a lot, I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.”
“I’m just saying,” Kevin argued, trying very hard to sound reasonable and not bossy, “that looks like it would be knocked over if someone breathed too hard.” Based on the looks he received, he didn’t think he’d succeeded.
“The log cabin is also a perfectly good method of building a fire,” Erik said good-naturedly. “I’m just used to the teepee because it’s what my dad taught me growing up. We’ve already started with it, so let’s see how it goes for tonight and then you can build the fire tomorrow.”
Kevin didn’t know how he could be so diplomatic and agreeable. Still, he bit back another argument about why the log cabin method that he’d read about was better, and tried a smile instead.
Later that night when Erik’s fire was clearly a roaring success, Nicky recounted Kevin's comments to the rest of the group and they started placing bets on how his fire would compare the next day. Kevin groaned and made as if to get up and leave, but the Foxes all insisted that he stay like he’d known they would.
“Nice try,” Allison said with a smirk, “but you’re not getting out of the game that easy.”
Kevin knew he would regret it even as he sat back down and the words, “What game?” fell out of his mouth.
“Never Have I Ever,” she announced.
It was a testament to how far they had come as a team that no one protested. They knew each other’s boundaries, knew when not to push, and somehow in the time since they had first started to unite around Neil’s leadership, they had all developed a certain amount of trust in each other.
Allison started with a fairly innocent, “Never have I ever slept in a tent.” A few people drank, Kevin included. The game continued around the circle as Kevin tried to decide what he would say when it was his turn. They all learned that Neil and Kevin had both never done some fairly normal things, and that Neil, Renee and Andrew all had done some pretty horrifying things.
On Nicky’s turn he grinned and said, “Never have I ever kissed a girl.” Everyone except Nicky, Erik and Andrew drank.
Aaron was next, so he went with, “Never have I ever kissed a guy.” This time everyone except Aaron, Renee and Kevin drank.
Allison raised an eyebrow at Matt. “College is a time for experimentation,” he laughed, unashamed.
Kevin was next, and Aaron had just stolen his idea. “Never have I ever dyed my hair,” he settled on. To his surprise, both twins drank along with Neil, Renee, Allison and Matt.
Neil shot a look at Andrew, who deadpanned, “Halloween.”
Kevin turned to Aaron. “You too?” he asked.
Aaron said nothing, but Kevin thought he saw the tips of his ears turning pink. Nicky’s shoulders were shaking on the other side of him, and finally he couldn’t hold in his laughter. When he caught his breath Nicky announced, “Aaron had a goth phase.”
When Kevin woke up it was still dark out. He normally slept like the dead if he’d had anything to drink, but it didn’t take him long to figure out what had woken him. Aaron had rolled over and shifted into Kevin’s space, pressed against him through their sleeping bags, and he was shivering in his sleep.
Before he could think too hard about it, Kevin reached over and blindly dug through his duffel bag until he came up with the extra blanket he’d packed. He spread it over both of them, so that he would have the plausible deniability in the morning of pretending it had just been for him and that Aaron had been the one to move under it. A minute or so later Aaron’s shivers subsided, and his breathing evened out.
Kevin was about ready to take back his previous thoughts on not having a problem with the idea of camping. It was so bright in the morning. It couldn’t be later than 6 or 7a.m., and Kevin was wide awake because the tent did basically nothing to block out the light of the sun. Aaron was still fast asleep, curled up against his back. At least the early wake-up call gave Kevin a chance to escape before he could be caught allowing the almost-snuggling that had gone on in the night.
When he crawled out of the tent and into the much too early morning light, Kevin saw that he wasn’t the first one up. He didn’t see any movement in the upperclassmen’s site across the dirt road, but in their own site Erik had something going on the camp stove, and Neil sat nearby looking like he had already gone for a morning run. They were talking quietly in German, but switched to English for Kevin’s sake when he walked over.
“You’re up early,” Neil observed.
Kevin sat down next to him at the picnic table and put his head in his arms. “Too bright,” he grunted.
“I’m boiling water for hot drinks,” Erik said. “We’ve got instant coffee in the food barrel if you want to dig it out.”
Coffee sounded like the best idea in the world to Kevin at that point, so he dragged himself back off the bench and over to the food barrel. Fortunately all the items for drinks were near the top, and it wasn’t long before the three of them were all sipping on coffee and tea.
Once they were all getting to the ends of their drinks Erik put another pot of water on the stove for the others. When it boiled he and Neil started fixing drinks for their partners, and Kevin mindlessly went through the motions with them, making a coffee the way Aaron liked it before he fully realized what he was doing. He tried to tell himself it wasn’t weird; Aaron would have been the only one on their site without a drink otherwise and would have to boil water again just for himself. Nevermind that now Kevin had to wake him up so he could have his coffee while it was hot.
“Aaron?” he called, wandering over towards their tent. He got a grunt in response. “There’s hot coffee if you get out here in the next couple minutes.”
There was a bit of shuffling and then Aaron’s head poked out of the tent, followed by the rest of him. Nicky and Andrew weren’t far behind in exiting their own tents, and Kevin was quietly amused at how unintentionally in sync the cousins were. Aaron shuffled over to the picnic table and stood staring at the camp stove for a moment until Kevin nudged him over to the bench, setting his coffee in front of him.
“Thanks,” Aaron said, sounding grateful if a bit confused. He kept stealing glances at Kevin as he sipped it, but Kevin pretended not to notice.
So, it turned out starting a fire was harder than Kevin had anticipated. He and Andrew had stayed back to read while several of the others went off on a hike, and after a while Kevin got bored and started working on the fire he was supposed to impress everyone with tonight. Every time he lit the kindling it just burned through and fizzled out before anything else caught. He had been at it for twenty minutes already when the others started to trickle back, not that anyone besides Andrew needed to know that.
The worst part was, Kevin was still pretty sure the log cabin was superior or at least equal to the teepee in terms of fire building strategies. The problem was his execution.
Another ten minutes went by with no progress.
“So,” Nicky began hesitantly, “should we have a fire at the others’ site tonight?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the fire I’ve built,” Kevin said, a bit defensively. “It just won’t light.”
“Can I try lighting it?” Erik offered. Kevin stepped back and waved him ahead in a be my guest gesture. Erik kneeled down and did what was probably literally magic, fiddling with the fire for a couple seconds and then lighting it again. He blew gently, feeding the flame until it caught some of the smaller branches. Soon the fire was crackling happily, and Kevin decided to count it as a win.
“See?” he said to the others. “I knew the log cabin would work.”
Aaron rolled his eyes but Kevin thought he caught the beginning of a grin on his face before he looked away.
That night, Dan was the one who insisted on a game at the campfire. “Truth or dare,” she insisted, “it’s been ages since I played.”
When she had everyone’s agreement, Dan surprisingly turned to Aaron first. “Truth or dare?” she asked.
“Dare,” Aaron said decisively.
Dan didn’t even hesitate. “I dare you to kiss Matt.”
Shit. Kevin wasn’t sure if he was prepared for Aaron kissing men to be a possibility in his world. He had accepted the fact that he had a tiny crush on a straight man, and it felt safe this way.
He didn’t get long to decide how he felt about it, because Aaron was rolling his eyes and standing up to walk around the fire already. He grabbed Matt’s hand and dropped a kiss on his knuckles before Dan could put any stipulations on the dare. It was maybe the sweetest gesture that Kevin had ever seen from Aaron, and it wrecked him more than he felt was fair for something that took less than a second to witness.
Then Aaron was walking back to his spot beside Kevin, calling out, “Nicky, truth or dare?” as he went.
“Truth,” Nicky picked and Aaron smirked.
“What was your favourite book in first semester of first year?” he asked.
Nicky’s eyes widened comically. “You swore to take that to your grave!” he accused.
“I did,” Aaron agreed. “And I’m not telling anyone. You have to tell them yourself, or take a forfeit.”
“Twilight,” Nicky mumbled. “Now we’re even,” he added to Aaron a bit pleadingly. “Truce?”
Aaron gave him a nod, and Nicky moved on.
Neil was dared to show off his pickpocketing skills by walking around the circle and picking someone’s pocket. He made one round and came up with Kevin’s wallet, Allison’s car keys, a clip out of Renee’s hair, and Erik’s pocket knife. After he’d returned his loot he asked Andrew, who also picked dare. Neil dared him to show them a skill no one knew he had, and Andrew promptly stood up and did a cartwheel. The game continued, some of the questions and dares innocent and others much less so.
When it was Kevin’s turn Allison was the one asking him, and he was wary. The look in her eye told him she either knew or thought she knew something, and if he picked truth she would use it to confirm and cash in on a bet. He couldn’t risk it, so he picked dare.
“I dare you to go skinny dipping,” she said.
“Now?” he confirmed.
“Obviously now,” she said, smirking. “Unless you'd rather go tomorrow during the day when the beach is crowded.”
Kevin groaned and stood up to grab his towel. He didn't really expect anyone to bother following him to the beach down the road, so he figured he could just make it look convincingly enough like he'd been in the water.
Of course, Allison wasn't going to let him off that easy. “Aaron,” she called, and Kevin could hear the grin in her voice. “Go with him and make sure he follows through.”
“Why me?” Aaron asked, but apparently it was rhetorical because he was already standing up.
Once they were out of earshot of the camp, Kevin glanced at Aaron. “So, I don't want to do this and you probably don't want to see it. How about I just splash some water on my head and we tell them I went in?”
“Not a chance,” Aaron said. “Don't think I've forgotten that you were complicit in everyone finding out about my dark past. So far you've made it through both campfires relatively unscathed; I need to bring you down to my level.” He couldn't contain his grin as he finished, “It's only fair.”
They got to the beach fairly quickly, and Kevin only hesitated for a moment. “Now’s the time to look away if you don’t want to see anything,” he said.
Aaron kept his gaze fixed coolly on Kevin’s face, which was unfairly hot. He handed Aaron his towel and began to take off his clothes. Once he was down to his underwear he finally turned away. As quickly as he could, Kevin took those off too and ran into the water.
It was freezing . He went in just far enough to bend over and dunk his head, and then ran back onto the beach.
It was hard to tell with the moon as the only light source, but he thought he might have seen Aaron’s eyes dip down and back up as he was running back. He wordlessly handed Kevin back his towel, and actually averted his gaze this time as Kevin dried off and got dressed again.
It was as they were walking back that Kevin thought to ask, “Why didn’t you bring Katelyn on this trip?”
He knew that Andrew had gotten better about Katelyn’s presence throughout the past year, and Aaron had been bringing her to more and more team events by winter semester.
“We broke up two months ago,” Aaron said.
That wasn’t what Kevin had expected to hear. Aaron didn’t seem very upset, so he didn’t drop the subject. “Shit, man, I’m sorry. What happened?”
“It’s okay,” Aaron assured him. “We’re on good terms, we just both had some things to work out.”
“Like what?” Kevin found himself pressing.
“Well, I think she has a crush on her friend Marissa,” Aaron said wryly. “As for me,” his eyes skittered across Kevin’s face and away, “I’m still figuring things out.”
This is it , Kevin thought. Say something now .
But they turned the corner and the campsite came into view, and he lost his nerve.
The last night of their trip found the Foxes stargazing, another bucket list item that many of them had never done. They had trekked out to a clearing in the forest with all the spare blankets and sweaters they had. Kevin was lying next to Aaron because at this point he had given up on trying not to do anything stupid. No one questioned it; it wasn’t weird for the two to hang around each other especially when the rest of the group was paired off into couples.
Erik was pointing out a few easy to find constellations for the rest of them. “If you look straight up from that tall tree,” he said, pointing, “you can see the handle of the big dipper. And then follow it over to the right, and you’ll see the bucket.”
Kevin tried to look where he was pointing, but it was hard to pick out anything. There were just so many stars, more than Kevin had ever seen before.
He felt Aaron’s eyes on him. “Do you see it?” Aaron whispered.
“Yeah,” Kevin lied, pointing in the same direction as Erik.
He heard Aaron huff a laugh that was more breath than anything else beside him.
Then he lost his ability to focus on anything, because Aaron’s hand was guiding his to the left and up. When he stopped, Kevin followed his finger and saw the bright constellation Erik had described. “Oh,” he breathed. He felt undone suddenly, like if he so much as glanced over Aaron would be able to read everything on his face.
So he didn’t glance over. He kept his eyes on the sky, and he never saw the fond look in Aaron’s eyes as he watched Kevin marvelling at the stars.
Slowly, the group trickled back to their tents to sleep. Kevin and Aaron were at the back of the group as they walked back through the forest, following the footpath out to the dirt road.
“Hey,” Aaron said quietly as they reached the road. Kevin glanced over and saw that he had stopped, letting everyone else get well ahead of them.
“What?” Kevin asked.
Aaron stepped a bit closer. “I figured it out,” he said, and reached up to pull Kevin down into a kiss.