When Rus first thought of going on a camping trip to prove to his brother and the rest of the world that he was a grown ass monster and could take care of himself, he was thinking more along the lines of a one- to two-night stay in a cabin somewhere. A place with wifi maybe. Somewhere that he didn’t need to worry about spiders and scorpions nesting in his shoes overnight.
He’d done his research. He had, and he would fight anyone who argued with him.
The thing was, the group he’d chosen to go with had several levels of camping difficulties, and Rus had made an error when booking his stay. Instead of the beginner’s level with two days spent in cabins with running water for showers and hot coffee from an actual coffee maker in the mornings, he’d accidentally put himself in the advanced group with a week-long stay, a full day of which was hiking out and then another full day hiking back at the end.
Rus didn’t realize his mistake until the bus parked in a remote campground somewhere in the dense trees of Ebott National Park. There were no cabins nearby that Rus could see as he stepped off the bus.
It was early in the morning, the sun barely starting to light the sky. Crickets and cicadas could be heard singing loudly among the trees as the people around him talked and laughed amongst each other. The air was a little chilly, as expected for the time of year. By midday, Rus already knew he’d be begging for the cooler air, but at the moment he couldn’t help but wish the sun was just a little higher.
Rus found his pack easily among the others; his was the smallest. Only as he started to put it on did he realize there was something weird about the people he was with. Their packs were all much larger than his, much more gear than he could carry if he tried.
Who needed that much stuff for a two-day stay in an apparently elusive cabin?
“You look a little shell-shocked,” a woman said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Are you here with Edge?”
“huh?” Rus looked down at her, so confused about everything. “who’s that?”
She smiled sheepishly, her freckles darkening a bit as she blushed. “Oh, he’s a skeleton monster like you. I guess I figured you guys were here together. My bad.”
Rus did his best to smile back. “uh, no worries.” Most of the people there were humans. That wasn’t uncommon; monsters who wanted to be on the mountain usually stayed on the mountain and the ones who didn’t stayed far away from it. The national park was on the far side of the mountain, extending up and around the peak where it ended and became city territory.
Nervous about what he’d gotten himself into, Rus found one of the coordinators and asked about what group he was in. The man explained what the group was and their trip, and Rus felt himself go cold as he told the man that he’d made a mistake. He wanted to ask to go home, to get out of it somehow, but he already knew that neither of the coordinators could leave the others unless it was an emergency. He’d read that in the papers he’d signed. He’d already agreed to this like the idiot he was.
“You’ll be okay, man,” the young coordinator said. The badge hanging around his neck identified him as Bradley. “You’re surrounded by a bunch of people who know what they’re doing, and I know any one of them would be happy to help you if you need it. We also have a few extra supplies, so we’ll get you a tent and some extra water and food, okay?”
Rus nodded. “okay.” He swallowed hard and followed Bradley to the other side of the bus where there were some things tucked in the cargo holds underneath. Several humans were getting their bags, along with another skeleton monster that Rus assumed was probably the Edge person the woman had mentioned. He was obviously from one of the rougher neighborhoods; if the glaring crack through his left socket didn’t give it away, the gleaming crimson of his eye lights sure would have.
Rus had to sigh in relief; at least he wasn’t the only monster on this whole expedition. While he knew he’d pretty much be with a bunch of humans even on the beginner trip, having another monster--another skeleton, no less--with him for something like this was reassuring. He could do this.
He watched dumbly as Bradley tucked the few belongings Rus had brought into a bigger pack and secured it, then helped Rus get it on.
He nearly fell backward with the weight of it, but managed to catch himself. He heard a few chuckles around him and decided to ignore them as best he could. Instead, he accepted Bradley’s help in securing the pack around his chest and hips to help distribute the weight.
“And this is what we call a camelback,” Bradley said, holding up an oddly flat, rubber-looking thing. “It’s a water bottle, and it’ll go in the top of your pack with a straw that comes around so you don’t have to keep digging your water bottle out when you need a drink. I’ll caution you to drink slowly; you will be able to get more water, but not for a while.”
Rus nodded. “thanks, man. i appreciate the help.”
Bradley nodded and helped him set up the camelback, then went to find the other coordinator.
As Rus struggled to keep his balance following the group with the pack strapped to him, another human walked up and nudged him. He managed to keep on his feet, but dammit if it wasn’t a close call. Rus looked over to see the older man who had elbowed him smirking.
“You don’t see many skeletons out here,” he said gruffly. “The ones you do are usually dead. A skull here or a rib cage there. Better hold on to your parts.”
Rus swallowed and tried not to take what he’d said as a threat.
“As I recall, you were the one begging for help last year, David,” another voice said on Rus’ other side. Rus looked over to see Edge walking beside him. “You didn’t take too kindly to getting mocked yourself; why then does it make it okay for you to mock others?”
David grumbled something incoherent and walked away from them.
Edge grimaced. “He likes to talk tough, but he’s nothing but a coward.”
Rus nodded. “yeah,” he tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a cough. “uh, thanks?”
“You’re welcome. A word of advice? The coordinators are paid to be your friends and you can trust them to a point, but I would caution you against trusting the other humans. Most of them are friendly enough if you’re talking to them one on one, but they don’t tend to stand up for monsters when in a group.”
Again, Rus nodded, taking Edge’s words to heart. “okay, thanks.”
Edge nodded once and then walked away, making his way up closer to the front of the group.
Beside him, Rus heard a sigh. It was an odd noise; not angry or irritated but rather lovestruck. He glanced over to see the first woman that had spoken to him walking about five feet behind him.
She looked up and blushed again, then hurried to get up beside him. “Hi again!” she chirped happily. “My name’s Hannah; this is my fifth time with this group. I take it, it's your first?”
Rus smirked. “it’s that obvious, huh?”
Hannah shrugged somehow, the heavy pack on her shoulders raising slightly. “The coordinators really are your best friends. Also, Edge is like an expert at everything. He helped me set up my tent on my first trip; I knew how to do it, of course, but it was just easier with help. And one time, I tripped and cut my leg pretty bad, and do you know what he did? The coordinators said I might need stitches, but he healed it!” She spoke in a loud whisper, her eyebrows raised high.
Rus hummed, surprised but not outrageously so. Monster magic wasn’t banned, but it was discouraged in most social settings where monsters and humans were together.
“If you need anything, I’m sure Edge would help you out. He seems gruff on the outside, but inside I’ll bet he’s a real sweetheart.”
Someone had a crush, it seemed. Rus couldn’t help but smile a little at the thought; human and monster relationships weren’t all that uncommon. He couldn’t even begin to guess what Edge’s thoughts on the matter were, but whatever they were, he wasn’t staying around the back of the group to be around Hannah.
It didn’t matter; Rus didn’t need to even be thinking about it past the information Hannah had given him. He had much bigger things to think about, like how he was going to survive the next week.
By midday, Rus was ready to collapse. His bones ached in a way he wasn’t sure torture could touch, deep down into his marrow. He was hot and sweaty, the sun having lived up to its potential and the forest was now a muggy sauna.
Several times he’d tripped and fell to his knees. Each and every time, he ignored the few stifled snickers and climbed back to his feet, determined to at least live through this long enough to make it back home to his brother. After that, he never had to set foot on a campground again.
But first, he had to make it through this trip.
The group finally stopped for a break just after finding an end to the trees. They’d reached the top of a hill where one side looked down on the valley below and the other was a rocky incline with sparse trees littered throughout. It didn’t look too steep, but most of what they’d climbed so far had been much more level. Rus almost hoped they weren’t going to climb any further, but the alternative was an even steeper decline toward the valley and that didn’t sit right with him either.
Rus sat on a log and followed the example of the others by taking off his pack. He groaned loudly as it fell to the ground with a loud thud that drew more attention than he’d wanted. Instead of saying anything, Rus merely pulled the pack in front of him and dug around for some of the snacks he’d brought.
As he munched on a granola bar and sipped some more water, Rus looked around the group. Hannah was chatting with Edge about something or other, her face a bright red blush. Yeah, she was crushing hard. It was kind of cute.
The coordinators were standing to the side studying a map with some equipment that Rus couldn’t begin to identify. He just hoped it helped them to stay on course and not get lost.
The break was far too short in Rus’ opinion. Before he’d had much of a chance to get anything he could call strength back, they were all up and getting their packs back on. He once again wobbled when he got his on. He ignored the few snickers around him the best he could and only sighed in resigned disappointment when the coordinators started leading everyone up the rocky incline.
Rus had started the climb in the middle of the group, but by the time they’d made it halfway up, he was in the very back, panting as he struggled to keep moving. Nobody so much as looked back to make sure he was keeping up. He really didn’t want to feel bitter about that, but he couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he tripped and fell back down the mountain. Would anyone even notice?
“Take a break if you need one,” a voice said behind him.
Rus jerked around, nearly losing his footing in the process, to see Edge standing behind him.
“what are you doing back here?” he asked incredulously. This guy was obviously capable of being at the front of the pack.
“Making sure everyone makes it up,” he said as though the answer were the most painfully obvious thing in the world.
Maybe it was. “are you one of the coordinators?” Rus asked.
He couldn’t be sure, but he thought maybe that strange quirk to Edge’s mouth could’ve been a smile.
As Edge spoke, he bent down to pick up a large, sturdy stick. “No, I’m not, but if I left it to them we’d lose half of our group.”
Huh. Well, that wasn’t comforting in the least.
They both turned at the sound of someone coming back down toward them. Hannah was there with a concerned expression. She stopped a few yards away, reaching out to hold onto a tree for balance.
“Everything okay?” she asked, a little breathless.
Edge nodded. “Yes, Rus just needed a break. Are you ready?” He directed the question to Rus and reached out, offering the stick to him.
Rus was honestly surprised the guy knew his name. He didn’t call attention to it; maybe he made it his business to know everyone’s name in the group. Regardless, Rus just nodded and took the stick before he turned to start making his way up the mountain again.
Knowing that Edge and Hannah were staying back at his pace to make sure he made it felt good. He could do this. He wasn’t on his own, and he’d make it back to his brother soon enough.
Somewhere near the top of the incline, the ground leveled out into a picturesque meadow with grasses and flowers of all different sizes and colors. A half a mile or so in the distance ahead of them, the mountain continued its incline with dense trees highlighting the steepness. To their left, the meadow stretched out for what seemed like forever, as far as Rus could see. A large lake was off in the distance; he could see the sun reflecting off the water, and it only made the scene more magical. It was breathtaking. It was also a bit chilly with the altitude, sweat cooling on Rus’ bones as he took in the view. He tugged the sleeves of his jacket down over his arms.
To their right, the grass and flowers of the meadow tapered off to the rocky dirt they’d been climbing. There was a small incline of maybe half Rus’ height, and beyond it was a steep dropoff where the mountain overlooked the valley below.
Some of the other hikers were already climbing that small incline to take in the view, their packs all abandoned at the edge of the meadow, and Rus shivered at the mere idea of getting closer to such a high point. He almost felt dizzy at the thought of seeing the valley, let alone standing on the edge of the cliff.
“Hey, Rus!” Hannah called out. He turned to see her standing on the highest point of the incline. He swallowed thickly and shook his head as she beckoned him over. “Come on, it’s really beautiful!”
“i’m sure it is,” he managed to squeak, “but, uh...no thanks.” He took a few steps back toward the safety of the meadow, the ground not exactly even but close enough.
She laughed and waved her hand at him dismissively. “Suit yourself, then.” She turned back and put her hands on her hips, her chest rising as she sucked in a deep breath of the crisp mountain air.
With a sigh, Rus walked over to where everyone had stashed their packs and took his off. He set it down with a heavy thud and sat next to it. His feet ached like never before and all of his bones felt like noodles. He could honestly say he’d never exercised so much in his entire life, and the day’s hike wasn’t even over yet. They still had to climb the next part of the mountain to get to their final camping site where they’d be spending the next week. While he was looking forward to climbing into his tent and going to sleep, he wasn’t actually thrilled about sleeping in a tent at all. Nights at home got cold enough with a heater to help him keep warm; out here he was bound to freeze.
He looked up toward the others as they laughed and chatted together. He smiled sadly; a part of him wished he could join them, but there just was no way. Not only was he too tired to move, but he was scared of the height. He’d made enough of a fool of himself as it was.
“What the hell is that crazy bastard doing now?” one of the others, Rus thought his name might have been Rick, said, shaking his head. He was looking off into the distance, and Rus followed his gaze.
Out a ways, on another outcrop with another incline of rocks that likely led to another steep dropoff, Edge was standing on the furthest rock with his arms out to his sides. His clothes rippling was the only indication that there was any wind at all. He was looking up slightly, sockets closed and posture relaxed.
Rus’ soul twisted. It honestly looked like Edge was preparing to jump.
Hannah laughed. “He does that when we come here. He says it makes him feel free.”
That was something Rus could understand. Nothing like sunshine and a fresh breeze to remind a monster they weren’t underground anymore.
As if just standing on the ledge wasn’t dangerous enough, Edge crouched down for a moment before sitting and letting his legs dangle over the side. Rus suppressed a shudder; just because he himself couldn’t stand that didn’t mean he had to remind Edge to be careful or demand he get the hell away from there.
Edge did get up soon enough. His movements were graceful; he didn’t wobble or flail his arms or anything like Rus would have absolutely done. Instead, he got up and hopped down from the rocky incline to land in a crouch before all but stalking his way back to the group.
There was no other way to describe the way Edge moved when he walked. Except maybe swagger.
Either way, Rus was not complaining about the view.
When he returned to the group, Bradley and Mia, the other coordinator, clapped their hands to get everyone’s attention.
“Alright, guys,” Bradley shouted to be heard by everyone, “we’re going to get a fire started for anyone who needs to cook their lunch. We’ll stay here for about an hour and a half, then we need to get going to make it to our camping location before nightfall. We all want to have enough time to set up camp before we all get swarmed with mosquitoes, right?”
A few chuckles and hums of agreement ran through the group.
“Except I’m sure the two boneheads don’t care about a few mosquitoes,” David said with a sneer.
Rus smirked. “no bones about it, buddy.” Mosquitoes he could deal with. Spiders and ants and almost every other creepy-crawly out there? Not so much. At least mosquitoes had the decency to stay out of his skull when he was asleep.
The few chuckles at his pun actually felt good. David groaned; he’d obviously been trying to play at some sort of discount insult. Rus almost laughed at his grimace, but it probably wouldn’t get him anywhere good.
“I’m not your buddy,” David muttered under his breath.
Welp. Couldn’t win ‘em all, and Rus was pretty damn sure David wasn’t anyone’s buddy anyway.
As the others started rummaging through their packs for their lunches, Rus’ soul sank as he dug in his. He hadn’t packed for a week-long trip. The beginner’s trip offered the option to purchase a meal plan that included the three main meals for each day he was there. He’d only had to provide his own snacks, and that was what he thought he’d packed for.
In short, he didn’t have lunch or dinner, not for today or any other day, and he was going to die out here.
As if to add insult to injury, his soul pulsed hungrily. He sighed weakly and pulled his knees up to his chest as he focused his sights on the ground beneath his feet. He’d been through this before. Once, long ago, on the cold streets of Snowdin, he’d gone without several meals so that his baby bro would be able to eat. He hadn’t had to climb literal mountains back then, but he did have to keep himself and his brother from freezing to death in between meager meals of trash apples.
Movement beside him made him look up. Hannah plopped down beside him, her smile hesitant and her expression worried.
“Why aren’t you eating? You need to keep your strength up.”
How many times had he heard some variation of that same damn sentiment from Blue? He didn’t want to think about it, pushed back a wave of nostalgic misery and blinked back tears he refused to shed.
“yeah, i know,” was all he could manage.
She reached out hesitantly, her hand stopping just inches from his arm, before she drew back. “Do you have something for lunch?”
Dammit, he didn’t want anyone to pity him. This was his own damn mistake and he should be expected to deal with it. He was trying to prove that he could, for hell’s sake, and taking advantage of the first offer of support was not proving anything.
So he lied. “yeah, i’m just not hungry right now.”
His soul gurgled loudly in protest, and Rus only hugged his knees tighter to try to stifle the sound.
Hannah wavered a moment, her mouth opening a few times as she seemed to abandon several thoughts in a row. Rus half expected her to urge him to eat again, but instead, she ended up nodding and patted his shoulder before she stood up and walked away.
A part of him wanted to call out to her, to tell her the truth and let her help him figure out a solution.
Instead, he watched her walk away, her red hair pulled up in a pony shining in the bright sunlight. She approached one of the fire pits where Edge was roasting some sort of small animal on a stick.
Again, Rus’ soul reminded him of how hungry he was. He thought about pulling out another granola bar, but he had a week to get through and had to be careful with his rations.
Maybe he could have a half of a granola bar? It would be better than nothing, and truthfully, if he didn’t eat something, there was no way he was making it up the next part of their climb.
As he was digging in his pack, someone else sat beside him smelling like freshly roasted meat. He barely had a chance to even look up when Edge all but shoved a plump, juicy chipmunk at him.
“Eat,” he commanded.
But he didn’t have anything for himself, and Rus wouldn’t be the one to leave anyone else without a meal.
“i can’t take this,” he said, trying to hand the rodent back.
Edge glared at him, a look that had Rus actually cowering back. “You can, and you will. I can always catch another one.”
Yeah, there was no arguing with that tone. Hesitantly, aware of Edge watching him like a damn hawk, he bit into the animal and tried to pretend it was a chicken wing. It was actually pretty tasty, though Rus couldn’t say for sure that wasn’t just his hunger talking.
Edge seemed to relax after Rus had taken a few bites, as if he was finally satisfied that Rus wasn’t going to toss it back to him. He shifted slightly, sitting cross-legged next to Rus as he ate, still watching him but not as intensely.
“Why didn’t you bring meals?” Edge finally asked when Rus was almost finished with the chipmunk.
Rus looked at him sheepishly. “i, uh...it’s really stupid, okay? i just made a really dumb mistake.”
Edge only raised a brow at him. “I find it hard to believe that not packing any meals for an entire weeklong trip is as simple as a mistake.”
Dammit, why did he have to be perceptive like that? Rus kind of hated the way Edge was watching him, like he was seeing way too much.
“this isn’t the trip i thought i signed up for,” he admitted quietly.
Edge leaned in slightly. “What trip did you think you signed up for?”
Once again, tears stung in his sockets and he blinked them back. He’d been mocked and ridiculed his entire life for all the stupid mistakes he’d made, this really shouldn’t hurt so bad. It was just another in a long string of things he’d messed up. Blue was right. Everyone in his damn life was right. He had no business pretending to be a capable adult.
Staring down at the remnants of cooked chipmunk in his hands, Rus whispered, “the beginner one in the cabins.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Edge hissed.
Rus looked over to see him scowling deeply. Of course he’d be angry. Because of Rus’ incompetence, Edge felt like he had to take care of him. He didn’t know how to tell Edge it was okay if he just wanted to leave him behind. This was his own fault and he should be left to deal with the consequences. He couldn’t even begin to deny how much he hoped Edge wouldn’t do that, though; he wanted to make it home to his brother someday.
“i did,” he said softly. “to bradley when we first got off the bus.”
Edge growled, and Rus tried to keep himself from flinching from the sound. He hated making people angry with him. It was something he really should be used to by now, but it never got easier to handle.
“From now on, if you need anything, you come to me,” Edge said, stern as all hell, his deep voice only just this side of a growl. He reached out and caught Rus’ chin, making him look him in the eyes. “I mean that, Rus. I’ll get you home, but you need to think of me as your coordinator from now on. Don’t trust any of the others, don’t take their advice, don’t go on any side hikes with any of them. You stay here in the meadow or with me, understood?”
Bewildered, Rus nodded as best as he could with Edge’s grip still tight on his chin. Edge let him go, and he resisted the urge to rub the spot where it ached.
Edge’s demands brought up a few burning questions.
“do you think the others would try to hurt me?” he asked hesitantly. He wasn’t sure he wanted the answer, but he really did need to know how far he needed to take his avoidance.
“Not deliberately, no. But they don’t know your limits and you won’t know if they’re serious or trying to play what would be a harmless prank on any of the other hikers at their level.”
Well, that made sense. Rus nodded and picked at the remaining meat on the bones in his hands. He wasn’t even sure what to do with the rest of it. Should he bury it? Should he toss it off the cliff? That sounded so horrifically disrespectful, even if it was just a silly chipmunk.
In the end, he decided to just ask. He held up the mess of greasy bones. “what do i do with these?”
“Put them in the fire. It’ll burn off the rest of the smell so other predators won’t try to snack on them.”
Rus frowned at them. That sounded almost as bad as throwing them off the cliff. “but isn’t that...i don’t know...insulting or something?”
“Would you rather find a fox rifling through our packs and have to kill it as well?”
Yeah, no. Rus just shook his head and tried to stand up on still-shaky legs. Edge was up in a flash and held onto his elbow as he took a few feeble steps like a newborn deer. He stretched a little and then followed Edge over to the nearest fire. Solemnly, he dropped the remains into the flames and tried not to watch as they began to lick at the bones.
He looked over when Edge sat down on one of the folding chairs surrounding the fire. There was an empty one next to him, and Rus hesitantly took it, waiting for Edge to ask him what he was doing. This wasn’t his chair; he couldn’t even say for sure whose it was.
On the other side of Edge, Bradly and Mia were talking and quietly laughing together. They looked like a couple talking about secret things. Maybe they were just close friends.
Edge cleared his throat loudly, enough to get not only Rus but also the two coordinators and the other two hikers around the fire to look at him. From seemingly out of nowhere, Hannah appeared on Rus’ other side, a chair of her own dragged behind her, and she sat to look at Edge as though he were about to start preaching something she desperately believed in.
“We’re not going up the rest of the hike,” Edge said loudly, no doubt making sure everyone could hear him. “We’ll set up camp here in the meadow; there’s plenty of room and the mountain to the west will be a good shield against the coming storm.”
Half the group looked up at the bright blue skies, hardly a cloud to speak of. None of them challenged him, however, and Rus secretly wondered how he could possibly know there was a storm coming.
“Now hold on a second,” Bradley started, “you can’t just--”
“I can, and I will,” Edge interrupted. “You failed to follow basic procedure and put one of our group at great risk on this trip, so yes, I am taking over command.”
Rus felt his cheekbones heat up, but he was grateful that Edge hadn’t called him out by name.
“Who?” Bradley demanded.
Edge only glared back at him, and Rus completely understood the look on Bradley’s face as he swallowed and nodded.
“We have everything we need to make this our camp for the week,” Edge continued. “All of the usual rules apply; follow the buddy system on all adventures and report to either myself or one of the previous coordinators anytime you are coming or going. We need to know where you plan to go and when you plan to return so we can make sure everyone makes it home. Any questions?”
The silence that followed was proof that Edge was trusted enough to take the lead, which really shouldn’t have surprised Rus. Not even David challenged him.
With a nod, Edge stood. “I would recommend you figure out your places and set up your tents before exploring.” He walked away then, and Rus watched as he made his way back over to their packs, picking up his own with ease before searching out a spot for himself.
Hannah almost tripped over herself and her chair in her haste to get up and run over to get her own pack and catch up with Edge.
Absently, Rus wondered if they might share a tent. He sure as hell couldn’t blame Hannah for her attraction; Edge was only proving himself to be exactly what she’d said about him: gruff on the outside but caring and accepting on the inside. He heard himself sigh and quickly covered it with a yawn. He wasn’t going to let himself develop a crush on the guy who was going to help him get home.
He found himself watching as Edge set up his tent with military-like precision and ease. There was no denying that he was nice to look at. Even if he’d turned out to be an asshole, he’d still be easy on the sockets. He was ruggedly handsome, tough and brawny. He had no idea if the humans could even tell the difference between the two of them, but Rus sure could see how strong Edge was. No doubt the scars he sported were earned underground, maybe a few on his mountainous adventures after the barrier broke, but they only added to his allure. They didn’t tell any onlooker that he was weaker for having them; rather, they proved that he could fight and win.
And to top it all off, something about him just screamed born leader.
“He’s a cutie, isn’t he?”
A voice beside him made him jerk back, sockets wide. It was one of the other hikers he hadn’t talked to yet. He looked fairly young, maybe in his late twenties with thick black hair and eyebrows, blue plastic glasses enhanced the color of his sky blue eyes.
“uh…” Rus wasn’t sure what to say. He’d just told himself he wasn’t going to crush on Edge and then promptly listed all the reasons he should.
“I mean, you could have been giving the scenery that salacious look. Nature turns me on, too.” The guy winked, and Rus just chuckled nervously. He was all for getting to know his hiking companions, but that was a bit too much information.
He suddenly held out his hand. “I’m Darian. What’s your name?” He gave Rus a once-over that almost left him squirming uncomfortably.
Not sure if he was really okay with this, he shook Darian’s hand and introduced himself.
“Nice name, Rus,” he purred. “Y’know, you and Edge kinda look alike. I struck out the first time I tried to flirt with him, and apparently he doesn’t allow seconds. What about you?”
“uh...” he wasn’t sure what to say. “i’m, uh...no, not really.”
Darian’s arrogant smirk suddenly fell. “Dude, am I making you uncomfortable? I’m sorry, I know better than to come on that strong, dammit.” He seemed to transform into what Rus might call a boy next door. “Can we forget any of that happened and just ogle Edge together?”
Rus’ laughter was a little easier. “he is pretty hot.” His face flamed; had he really managed to say that out loud? What the hell happened to not developing a crush? “but, uh, are he and hannah...y’know...a thing?”
They both looked over to see Edge helping Hannah secure the tent pegs into the ground. Her tent was only a few yards away from his.
Darian snorted. “She wishes. I’ve only been with this group a few times, this is my third, and she’s always buzzing around him like a fly to honey. Can’t blame the girl for wanting to jump those bones, but he’s never once shown an interest.”
Rus nodded along as Darian spoke. As he watched Edge and Hannah interact, something about her reminded him of some comic book heroine always stuck in a maybe-relationship with her chosen hero. Maybe Mary Jane Watson or April O’Neil with her striking auburn hair.
Edge was absolutely a hero, but which one? With the way he was hanging out on the ledge of a cliff, he could make a mean contender for Spider-Man Noir. He seemed so much bigger than that, though. Not that Spider-Man wasn’t a great superhero, but Edge was more...Superman's aesthetic with Batman's temperament.
Rus smirked at himself. He had to remember this to tell his brother. He’d get a kick out of the mix of all the universes he collected action figures from.
Darian elbowed him and smirked, speaking like he was revealing some great secret while still eyeing Edge in the distance. “Maybe you’ll have better luck. Maybe he’s just not into humans.” He raised his brows and nodded suggestively. “You should give it a shot.”
Yeah, except there was no way Rus could do that. The guy already had to deal with him plenty, he didn’t need to add some pitiful attempts at flirting on top of everything else he was throwing at Edge. His face warmed with a blush just thinking about it.
As they continued to watch Edge as he checked on other hikers, he began making his way over to them. Rus tried to make it look like he hadn’t been staring this entire time.
“Rus,” Edge called as soon as he was in earshot, “Please come with me.” He didn’t stop to check that Rus was actually coming.
He didn’t need to, honestly. Rus was up and jogging to catch up before he’d even finished speaking. He was nervous; Edge had likely noticed him and Darian ogling him and he might just be about to get a lecture about manners or something similar.
Instead, Edge reached down and picked up Rus’ pack before turning to look at him. “Do you know how to pitch a tent?”
There was a joke there that Rus was not allowing himself to think of, let alone say out loud. He swallowed his own amusement and shook his head.
Edge nodded as though he had expected that answer. “Come on. I would prefer you to be set up near me in case you need something in the night. Is that all right?”
There was some part of him that really wanted to cringe away from all this protectiveness, but this was not the same situation as with his brother. This wasn’t Blue taking over making his bed because Rus had been stupid and drank a little too much the night before. This wasn’t Blue sighing in exasperation as Rus tried for the third time to get the gravy right and just taking over for him. No, this was Edge making sure Rus made it home alive.
And besides, it wasn’t like Edge was making them share a tent so he could literally watch over him. Rus wasn’t entirely sure he’d say no to that either.
“yeah, probably a good idea,” Rus finally agreed.
Edge didn’t ask about his hesitance, only walked on with that eerie grace of his towards his own tent. Thanks to a few stubborn, sharp rocks and uneven patches in the ground, he wasn’t able to be as close as Edge wanted him to be. He ended up further away than Hannah was on his other side, almost ten yards, and for a brief moment he kind of wished Hannah had waited for him before she picked her spot. That wasn’t fair, though; she had every right to pick a spot first, especially since Rus hadn’t done a damn thing to find a spot until Edge was doing it for him.
“The first thing you want to do is make sure that the area is free of any sharp rocks or twigs that can pierce your tent or make it hard to sleep,” Edge explained. Together, they cleared a small spot. “Next, we need to lay down the ground cloth.”
Rus had no idea what that was, but he still started to unpack the tent. It had to be one of these things, right?
Edge helped him to lay everything out, and if he was waiting for Rus to get the ground tarp or whatever he’d called it, they were going to be here a while. He could at least manage to tell the difference between his sleeping bag and the rolled up tent, but that was about as far as he could identify the spread before him.
Edge swore under his breath and walked away, leaving Rus staring after him. He sure hoped he was going to come back, otherwise Rus was sleeping under the stars tonight.
Thankfully, Edge did come back with a thick blanket folded over his arm.
“This isn’t the same as a ground cloth, but it will have to do,” he explained as he shook out the blanket. Rus helped him spread it out over the ground.
“so i don’t have the cloth thing?” Rus asked hesitantly. It was obviously a dumb question, but he had no idea what was supposed to be in the pack Bradley had assembled for him at the bus.
Edge shook his head. “No, this is one of the older tents that really should have been thrown away two years ago. It should hold up if you’re careful. If I wasn’t using my brother’s tent this year, I’d suggest we switch.”
Rus perked up, a smile spreading involuntarily across his face. “you have a brother?”
It was the only answer Rus got before they moved on, Edge giving curt instructions that Rus hurried to follow as they set up his tent. Once it was up and the stakes were driven snugly into the ground, Rus ventured another question.
“so why do you have your brother’s tent this year?”
Edge wiped his hands on his jeans and leaned down to pick up the hammer he’d used on the spikes. “Mine was stolen the day before I left for this trip and I didn’t have time to get a new one.”
Rus could only nod. He’d said that so calmly like having a tent stolen was no big deal. The hassle of having to borrow one was what seemed to be upsetting. Perhaps Rus was wrong.
Edge smirked. “Indeed. If you’ll excuse me, I need to check on the others. I don’t have any extra blankets, so you might want to check with Hannah. Your sleeping bag may not keep you warm enough on its own.”
With that, he walked away, flipping the hammer as he did.
Rus sighed to himself and made his way over to Hannah’s tent. She was inside, and he wasn’t sure how to knock, so he crouched down.
“knock, knock,” he said, hoping he wasn’t disturbing her.
“Who’s there?” she responded. Whether she was playing along with the joke or genuinely asking, he wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Ima who?” she asked without skipping a beat.
“ima gettin’ pretty chilly out here, you got a spare blanket?”
He heard her shuffling inside a moment before the flap drew back and she smiled up at him with humor sparkling in her green eyes. “As it so happens, I always bring a spare blanket or two. You never know how cold it can get up here in the mountains. Did you ask Edge already?”
Rus smiled sheepishly. “he’s the one who told me to ask you.”
She nodded and disappeared back into her tent for a second before she produced a warm-looking wool blanket. “You have a sleeping bag, right?”
That, at least, he’d managed on his own. He nodded and she handed him the blanket.
“If that’s not enough, you might want to ask around to some of the others. Don’t ask David, though; he can be a bit of an ass sometimes.”
Yeah, he’d noticed that.
That first night was long, dark, and cold. Rus had stayed out by the fires for a few hours, awestruck by how clear the night sky had become. Patrick, a burly man who was likely in his fifties, had brought a miniature telescope and let the others who were interested take a turn looking at the stars and planets.
Edge and Hannah made sure he had something for dinner, and he was going to have to figure out some way to thank the both of them.
Once he’d gone to bed in his tent, he laid awake for a few more hours. He was cold and uncomfortable, wishing he’d had a space heater and an outlet to plug it into.
Eventually, exhaustion won out and he fell asleep.
Waking up in the morning was an experience Rus never wanted to repeat.
For one, every bone in his body was stiff and ached from not only the climb up but the supremely uncomfortable sleeping arrangement. Some of the other hikers had brought air mattresses, and Rus was once again beating himself up over the mistake he made. He could have slept in a real bed.
The moment he slipped out from the sleeping bag, getting up seemed even more horrible. The chill of the morning air hit him like a ton of bricks and he audibly shivered as he hurried to get dressed. He had only brought a few changes of clothes, but he made sure to wear the thick socks and put on both a long-sleeved shirt and his oversized orange hoodie.
He sighed as he slipped into it; he loved this damn hoodie and he was grateful that he’d listened to Blue when he insisted it should go. Rus was worried about it getting lost or torn, but he could be careful with it.
Slipping into his shoes, he went out to greet the others. The air smelled a glorious combination of campfire, cooking food, and coffee. Sure enough, between the two fires going, a lovely breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee was being made.
Rus’ soul twinged in hunger, but he wasn’t sure how to ask if he could have some. Edge and Hannah had just kind of thrust food at him yesterday, and he wasn’t sure if he should keep waiting for them or if he should be more proactive about it.
Edge and Hannah, along with a few others, were gathered around what seemed to be the coffee fire while most of the rest of the group was around the food fire. Almost everyone had a plate of something either in their hands or next to them. He wasn’t sure which way to go; he didn’t want to make it look like he was trying to get close to Edge. Although he really wouldn’t mind sitting right next to him just to hear his voice as he spoke.
“Good morning, Rus!” Hannah called out, waving him over to the coffee fire before he could make up his mind.
He smiled and offered a small wave before heading over.
“How did you sleep?” Hannah asked as Rus sat down stiffly. He had to fight with himself to choose the spot next to her instead of the one on the other side of Edge.
Rus grimaced. “felt like i was sleeping on a pile of rocks. oh, wait…”
Hannah chuckled and handed him an empty mug. “You get used to it. Coffee?” Rus nodded, and she took the percolator off the fire to pour some of that heavenly coffee into his mug. “There’s sugar and creamer, too, if you want some. Just over there.” She pointed to a small table set up on the other side of the fire.
Rus nodded again and got up to doctor his coffee.
“thanks,” he said as he sat back down. “for everything.”
Her smile was bright and genuine. “You’re welcome, but you don’t need to thank us. Are you hungry? There’s eggs, toast, and some rabbit bacon-y stuff over there.”
He was hungry. Starving, actually, but even if he had permission from Hannah he still wasn’t sure how to ask.
She stood up and tugged lightly on the shoulder of his hoodie. “Come on, silly. You need to eat.”
With a sigh, Rus got up and followed her over to the other fire. There was a bigger group here, all of them talking and laughing about something. Hannah interjected smoothly, somehow not even actually interrupting as she got him a plate of breakfast.
“Rabbit is easy enough to hunt and has a lot of protein. Eggs are a nice treat, but Jackson only had so many and wanted to share with all of us, so this might be the only breakfast we have with them.”
That was sweet of Jackson, Rus thought.
He followed her back over to the coffee fire and this time sat next to Edge.
“any plans for the day?” Rus asked, trying not to sound like he was eager to hear how Edge planned on spending his time.
“Bradley and I are going to stock up on firewood. We secured the fire pits a bit better yesterday and we don’t plan to keep them going, but we also don’t want to run out. Later this afternoon I’ll go set the traps back back up and see what kind of edible vegetation I can find.”
Rus nodded. It seemed like Edge’s day was all planned out, and wasn’t it stupid of Rus to think otherwise? Only an idiot like him would come out to the woods with no plan.
“What had you planned on doing in the cabins?” Edge asked.
Rus did his best not to blush from embarrassment. “i probably would have explored a bit, taken some pics for my bro, and generally wasted time on wifi.” He shrugged, because wasn’t he just super interesting?
Edge leaned slightly closer, and Rus looked up to see him watching him closely.
“I’ll remind you that you shouldn’t go anywhere by yourself or with any of the others,” he said softly. “You are more than welcome to go exploring, but please let me come with you.”
Yeah, Rus hadn’t forgotten. He nodded just to let Edge know that he’d heard and, as much as he hated it, he agreed. He didn’t want to go off somewhere alone only to get lost or hurt or fall down a cliff somewhere. Wouldn’t that just suck?
“We can go in a few hours if you’d like.”
Rus looked at him again, surprised. “but you have plans.”
Edge nodded. “So did you. Besides, exploring with you won’t stop me from searching out good places to put the traps or seeing what kinds of plants are around this area. I know what can be found a bit higher up on the mountain where we usually camp, but I haven’t explored this area as much as I would have liked to.”
That made sense, and Rus felt a little better about hijacking Edge’s time.
After finishing his breakfast, Hannah showed him how to clean his dishes. It was a long, complicated process, but he supposed it was necessary to keep things clean and not attract unwanted attention from wildlife.
For a few hours, Rus hung around the meadow. He was nervous about using his phone too much and wearing down the battery, but he took a few pictures of the scenery and some of the insects he found before turning it off again. He talked with some of the other hikers, getting to know them a bit better.
Jackson and Darian asked him to go hiking up the mountain with him, but he declined. Ashley and Heather asked him if he wanted to go fishing with him, and he almost agreed to that. It would be in the meadow, and he didn’t know how much longer Edge would be gone.
Before he could make up his mind, he saw Edge and Bradley coming back with their arms loaded with wood for the fire.
“thanks for the invite, ladies, but i already agreed to go exploring with edge.”
Heather smiled knowingly. “I hope you have fun.” She gave him a wink. “Explore him well.”
Ashley giggled and smacked her wife’s shoulder.
Rus’ face was still bright orange when Edge came up to him.
“Are you okay?”
“uh, yeah, i’m good. nothing’s wrong. why?”
Edge raised a brow. “Because you’re blushing. Is anyone making you uncomfortable?”
Rus coughed. “no, nothing like that. i really am fine, promise.”
Seemingly satisfied, Edge nodded. “Alright. Are you ready to go exploring?”
Was he ever.
“don’t you want to rest up a bit first?”
Again, that brow rose as Edge watched him with humor in his eye lights. “You’ll learn soon enough that I don’t rest. I like to keep moving.”
His mind couldn’t help but translate that into meaning Edge had a great deal of stamina. It wasn’t surprising, not in the least, but it was also something Rus found himself wanting to test.
Instead of saying any of his thoughts out loud, he simply gestured for Edge to take the lead.
They headed out into a small section of woods back by the lake on the downhill side of the mountain. The hill wasn’t steep by any means, and venturing into the unknown was a thrill.
Not to mention the scenery was beautiful. Sunlight came easily through the trees, dappling the forest floor with light. Edge showed him different types of plants, some to be wary of and some that were safe to eat.
Almost an hour in, Rus was considering asking Edge if they could go back. His legs were starting to hurt again and he was hungry again.
Before he could say anything, Edge grabbed his shoulder and crouched down, forcing him to crouch with him. His soul immediately began pounding with fear of whatever danger might be around. Edge held a finger to his teeth in a gesture to be quiet, and Rus nodded emphatically.
“what’s going on?” Rus whispered.
He was confused when Edge smiled and pointed. Instead of the danger Rus thought was imminent, a family of ducks was crossing the forest floor.
It took longer for his brain to catch up than Rus would have liked to admit.
“ducks?” he asked, confused. Weren’t they supposed to be in wetlands?
“The mother is leading her ducklings to the lake,” Edge said softly. “This is the only time they’ll be away from water for any real length of time. It’s also the most dangerous journey of their little lives.” He looked at Rus. “Should we follow them to make sure they get there safely?”
Rus nodded without a moment’s hesitation.
“We have to be careful. These are not city ducks; that mother likely hasn’t seen many people in her life and will abandon her babies if she panics. We’ll let them pass first, then we’ll follow them from a distance.”
This was like a secret mission, and Rus was suddenly full of energy.
Together, the skeletons watched the ducks waddle past where they crouched in the tall grass. Rus’ soul gave a mighty effort to leave his body and cuddle up to them. The mother was beautifully colored with different shades of brown, and each duckling was as fuzzy as could be with brown and yellow feathers.
Once they were a good distance away, Edge stood only enough to walk in a slightly crouched position and gestured for Rus to follow him. As they walked, Rus managed to count each of the ducklings as they stumbled over each other and themselves. The mother gave them several breaks along the way, feeding on insects she’d find and grooming her feathers. The ducklings followed suit.
There were thirteen ducks in total; twelve babies and one good mama.
The trip was uneventful and soul-splittingly adorable up until they came across the remains of a fallen tree. The mother got over it with ease, but all of the babies struggled.
Rus looked at Edge, and he shook his head. “This is just an opportunity for her to teach them how to get over these types of obstacles,” he explained.
As Edge probably expected, the mother hopped back over the log again to her babies, groomed them a little, and then showed them again how to cross the log. It took a few demonstrations, but soon enough the ducklings were able to make it.
All but one.
The last little duckling continued to struggle no matter how many times mama showed them. A few of its siblings even came back to try to help, but it wasn’t working.
“She’s going to have to leave that one behind,” Edge said softly.
Rus’ soul clenched tightly. “can’t we do something?” he didn’t realize he was begging until it was too late.
“Of course; we’re following to make sure they all make it. It would be better if only one of us approaches them.”
Rus nodded. “you do it.”
Edge nodded once before slowly moving toward the ducks. Rus watched as he crouched down again the closer he got. The mother opened her beak at him a few times, and he slowed his approach. She even charged at him, but he didn’t stop. He held out a bony hand and gently assured her in a soft voice that he was only there to help. She nipped at his fingertips and he didn’t even flinch.
Rus could only stare in awe as he reached the ducklings and very gently lifted the last one over the log. The mother then ran to be with her babies and hurried them along. Edge stayed right where he was until they were far enough away that the mother wouldn't get stressed when he stood up.
He gestured for Rus to come to him, and he did.
“look at you, being all snow white,” Rus teased.
Edge smirked. “Snow White was a gentle soul. I am not. If an old crone tried to give me a poisoned apple, I’d slit her throat.”
Well then. “good to know.”
Edge chuckled and patted Rus on the shoulder. “Come on, they’re getting a little too far ahead of us.”
Rus nodded and followed behind. There were only a few more difficult obstacles for the ducklings, but none that they couldn’t all overcome by themselves. They made it out to the lake, and Rus watched with wonderment as they each just plowed right into the water. He wasn’t sure why he thought they’d have to take a minute to learn how to swim, but it seemed they were born with that knowledge. Soon they were all swimming around with their mama, ducking their tiny little beaks into the water to both drink and snack on tasty bugs.
“Thank you for letting me help them,” Edge said softly.
Rus was confused. “why wouldn’t i?”
Edge shrugged. “I don’t know, but thank you.” They both sat near the water’s edge to watch all of the animals swimming about. There were some swans and geese along with the many ducks. “A few years ago, I came across some ducks heading to water for the first time like these guys,” he raised his chin toward the lake, “but I didn’t follow them. I figured they would be fine. On our way back down the mountain, I found half of the ducklings dead. They’d gotten stuck somewhere, similar to that one, and the mother had abandoned them.”
That must have been horrible. Rus reached out and gently curled his fingers around Edge’s. “you know it wasn’t your fault.”
“I do know that, but I still felt guilty for a few weeks after that. I have to remind myself that mother nature can be a cruel bitch sometimes.”
Rus nodded, but he couldn’t help but smile a little. Edge claimed he didn’t have a gentle soul, but here he was remembering how nature had fucked over some ducklings a few years ago. He definitely wasn’t as crusty as he seemed to believe he was.
They sat there mostly in silence for a while longer, taking in the sights and sounds around them.
Soon enough, Edge declared it was time for him to go set some traps for dinner. He invited Rus to go along, but he declined quickly. As much as he’d like to spend all of his minutes with Edge, he really didn’t want to know how he planned to kill some more rabbits.
Back near their camp site, Rus accepted a sandwich from Hannah and then decided it would be a great afternoon for a nap.
The chill in the air had doubled by the time he woke up, and Rus shivered as he tried to huddle further into his sleeping bag and blanket. The hard ground under him wasn’t much help for retaining heat despite the layers between him and it.
His brow furrowed in confusion when Edge called his name. He recognized now that hearing his name had woken him up in the first place. How long had he slept? How many times had Edge said his name?
“yeah?” he called out before sucking in a huge yawn.
“Dinner is ready. You should get up and eat something.”
Damn, he must have slept a lot longer than he’d intended.
“okay, yeah, thanks for letting me know.” He sat up and shivered again before getting up enough to put his shoes on. Unzipping the tent, he crawled out to see Edge was gone. He hadn’t heard him walk away, but that wasn’t too surprising; the guy could be a damn ninja when he wanted to be.
The sun was still mostly up, the sunset casting gorgeous orange and pink hues across the sky. Just over the mountain to their west, storm clouds were starting to roll in. Seemed Edge had been right after all.
He joined the group as everyone was filling their bowls with some sort of rabbit stew. It was thick and meaty and reminded him of some of the stews his brother had made. It smelled delicious. He took a seat next to Edge and took a careful bite so he didn’t burn himself.
“so is this a pretty common thing then?” he asked, looking around at the group.
“What?” Edge asked, scooping a large spoonful into his mouth.
“uh, community breakfast and dinner?”
Edge shook his head and swallowed before speaking. “No. The first full day of these trips is something of a celebration for all of us, and most people bring something to contribute.”
Rus felt a jab of guilt as he stared down into his bowl. If he’d known, he could have--
“Looks like you were right,” Hannah interrupted his thoughts as she plopped down on the other side of Edge.
Edge smirked. “I usually am. What was I right about this time?”
Her smile was downright lovestruck. “The storm.”
“Let’s just hope it’s not as bad as my shoulder thinks it will be.”
“your shoulder?” Rus asked.
Edge rolled his right shoulder. “It aches with changes in the weather.”
Oh. That kind of made sense. Rus wasn’t sure how or why, but he’d heard some humans say similar things. He’d never had any major breaks to know what they felt like.
Edge snorted. “Indeed.”
“I could give you a massage,” Hannah blurted, “if you want. I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it. But it’s okay if you don’t...I mean, if you’re not…” Her face was almost as red as her hair as she struggled with words.
“Hannah,” Edge said calmly, interrupting her sputtering. Her mouth snapped shut and she looked up at him with wide, green eyes. “Thank you for the offer, that was kind of you. However, I’m afraid I have to decline. It’s nothing against you personally, please believe me. Humans don’t typically know how to massage bone and I’d rather not make it worse.”
If her smile was a little wobbly, she did her best to hide it with a nod and genuine acceptance. “I believe you, and it’s okay.”
As they finished their dinner, Rus listened to Edge talking with some of the other hikers about their plans for the week. Some were going to explore, either around the area they were in or further up the mountain. Some were going to fish or swim or seek out any caves nearby.
The sun had fully set by the time the first few raindrops began to patter around the group. Rus half expected to hear some sizzling from the fire, but he was strangely disappointed when it didn’t happen.
He helped the others clean up for dinner, yawning the whole time. He was ready to be back home and in his warm, comfy bed, but for now he supposed the not-so-warm-or-comfy tent would have to do.
“Goodnight, Rus,” Edge said as he fastened the lid over the container holding their stew. “Sleep well; see you in the morning.”
Rus couldn’t help but smile. “yeah, you too.”
He wandered back to the tent in darkness, shivering in the cold. He should have thought to grab a flashlight. It didn’t much matter; he could see well enough to know there were no spiders or other creepy critters trying to steal the warmth of his tent as he climbed in.
The rain had started to come down harder by the time he zipped up, thankful he was out of the cold as he slipped his shoes off and scooted into the sleeping bag and curled into himself to try to warm up. The sound of the rain against the tent wasn’t as soothing as people seemed to think it was. It was a reminder that he was stuck out here in the wild mountains for a whole week.
Granted, his situation was much better than it could have been. If it weren’t for Edge and Hannah, he didn’t know where he would have ended up. At least with those two, he had a decent chance of making it back home.
Something tickling his nasal aperture woke him up again. He reached up without thinking to swipe it away, only to bolt upright when he felt something large and fuzzy on his face. Flinging it away on instinct, Rus sat up straight and looked around in a panic. On his lap was a tarantula, but that wasn’t what caught his attention.
He was wet. His sleeping bag was soaking down by his feet, and his tent was filling up with water as the rain and wind battered down on his little tent. The sound of it was deafening, and Rus honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if the walls ripped open with the force of the storm.
Maybe they already had? Where was all the water coming from? Wasn’t the tent supposed to be waterproof? Then again, Edge had said it was old and should have been thrown away. Rus had no idea if waterproofing wore away, but it didn’t matter much at the moment.
He was honestly freezing, his clothing soaked and only allowing the air to chill him further. He pushed the sleeping bag off of him, spider and all, and stood up to slip into his shoes. At the last second, he thought better of it and reached in to feel tentatively for anything living. The first feel of a leg darting away from his touch sent him staggering back. It could have been anything, but Rus wasn’t going to find out for sure.
A bright flash of lightning illuminated his tent for a brief second, and Rus felt the weight of every single nightmare he’d ever had descend on his soul. Inside and out, insects were finding their way to his tent to try to get away from the water, which meant there were probably more all over him. He shivered in earnest and nearly cried out in panic as he tried to brush himself off.
Quickly unzipping the tent, he burst out and stopped in his tracks. The storm was raging and the force of the wind and rain nearly toppled him over.
Bugs forgotten once again, he fought the storm to trudge his way over to Edge’s tent. The part of him that stored his manners tried to tell him to find a way to knock or something, but he was beyond that. Instead, he fought with the zipper of Edge’s tent to all but fall inside.
He was so cold. He didn’t register Edge’s voice asking him what was wrong. He didn’t register Edge’s concerned hands pulling him. All he knew was that Edge was warm and safe, and he all but collapsed into him.
“You’re freezing,” Edge said softly, the first words that Rus could understand.
He could only nod as he trembled from both fear and chill.
“You need to get out of these clothes, Rus. Come on.”
He didn’t fight with Edge as he undressed him, only let him manhandle him until he was naked and laying next to him in the sleeping bag.
As warmth began seeping into his bones and panic slowly gave way to coherency, Rus finally realized where he was. He blushed deeply and pressed his face into Edge’s chest, thankfully covered in a soft cotton shirt.
“i’m sorry,” he whispered.
Edge’s arms tightened around him, his hands rubbing his back both to soothe and to warm.
“Don’t be. It’s hardly your fault the storm is this bad and your tent has an obvious leak. I should have realized we needed to check it better.”
Rus didn’t know what to say to that. It wasn’t Edge’s fault, not in the least, but it also didn’t sound like he was blaming himself. He sounded as if he was simply stating a fact.
“it’s okay,” he finally said.
“It will be.”
They were both silent for a while as Edge worked to warm Rus’ bones. His hands never strayed into uncomfortable territory, though Rus wasn’t sure he would have minded.
“How are you feeling?” Edge finally asked a while later.
Rus sighed happily and snuggled a little closer. “so much better.”
He half expected Edge to push him away, to tell him to get dressed, but instead, he only hugged Rus tighter.
“I’m glad to hear that. Will you tell me what happened? Was it just the leak in your tent that scared you?”
Shaking his head, Rus explained his fears and what he’d experienced. He shivered again as he recalled the scene when the lightning flashed. Edge hugged him tightly.
“They won’t hurt you, Rus,” he said softly. “They’re just as scared as you are.”
He highly doubted that.
“In the morning, we’ll clear out your tent and make sure they’re all gone before we set you back up. Or, if you would rather, we can move you in here. This tent is only intended for one person, but I think we can make it work.”
Rus couldn’t help but smile a little. “we’re both pretty thin. just skin and bones, without the skin.”
Edge rolled his eye lights. “Yes, you’re hilarious.”
A moment of silence later, Rus squirmed a little closer and looked up to meet Edge’s eye lights.
“hey, edge? thanks. for, y’know...everything.”
Edge’s mouth quirked in a small smile. “It’s been my pleasure.” He leaned in and quickly pressed a peck of a kiss to Rus’ forehead.
They stared at each other for a moment as Rus tried to think of any reason Edge would have to kiss him like that. As he did, Edge’s eye lights burned with so much heat he could almost feel it. He swallowed and pushed himself marginally closer, the desire to kiss him for real burning hotly in his soul.
Edge leaned in as well, so close their mouths were nearly touching.
“Rus?” he breathed.
Rus could only hum in response.
“Can I kiss you?”
Meeting his eye lights again, Rus nodded. “please.”
They finally closed the distance. Edge’s mouth was warm, his tongue inviting, and his arms so comforting as they kissed. Rus heard himself whimper as he tried to get closer, to deepen the kiss further and hold Edge as close as possible.
Edge pulled back a moment later, both skeletons panting.
“Fuck me,” Edge breathed, an exclamation rather than a request.
Rus smirked anyway. “okay.”
Edge’s eye lights darted to Rus’, but they didn’t hold the fire he’d expected. He swallowed and tried not to shrink back out of embarrassment.
“i mean, not if you don’t want to, but--”
“Rus, I can’t take advantage of you like this,” Edge said sternly. “You came to me for help, and even kissing you was out of line.”
Well crap. Rus felt his soul shrivel a little at those words. He didn’t want to agree, he really didn’t. He wanted to tell Edge that he’d wanted this before the storm and that his vulnerability had nothing to do with it. He just didn’t know how.
“i’m sorry,” he finally said.
Edge hooked a finger under his chin to make him look up. “Why are you apologizing, Rus? I’m the one who should apologize.”
“but i don’t want you to,” Rus said, too much pleading in his voice, and he cringed. “really, i don’t want you to be sorry. i know i’m vulnerable or whatever, but i know what i want, and i know how to say no to things i don’t want. you’ve saved my life multiple times already just by feeding me and not making me climb that other part of the mountain, but i don’t feel like i owe you anything. i want you because you’re damn sexy, not because i feel indebted.”
Edge watched his face closely for a moment before he nodded.
“Are you sure?” he asked, his fingers on Rus’ chin turning to caress rather than hold. “We don’t have to do anything.”
Rus smiled. “i know we don’t, edge. but we can, if we want to. i heard some of the others last night; i know it’s allowed.” He let his hands gently feel out the lines of Edge’s ribs. “but i’m not gonna push, either. if you want me, i’m offering.”
He felt Edge shiver under his touch.
“I want you,” he breathed as his hands began exploring down Rus’ spine. Tentatively, he settled his hands on Rus’ hips and pulled him in, careful to be mindful of his nakedness.
Rus let him take the lead, let him work through his unexpected uncertainty.
He didn’t get cold again that night.
The storm calmed down by morning, but rain was still coming down in a light drizzle as Rus poured himself a cup of coffee and went to sit on Edge’s waiting lap.
A few things had been damaged in the storm, and after breakfast Edge and the others had a plan to fix them up.
Rus was a little concerned when Hannah came up to the fire and got herself some coffee. She sat next to him and Edge and smiled just as brightly as ever.
“Good morning, guys,” She said, sending a wink at Rus.
“Good morning, Hannah,” Edge replied. “Are you okay?”
She blinked a few times and looked at him with a furrowed brow. “Why wouldn’t I be? Oh, after the storm? Yeah, I’m fine.”
Edge shook his head. “I’m glad to hear that, but it’s not what I meant.” He hugged Rus a little tighter and kissed his cheekbone.
“Oh!” Hannah cried out, laughing a little. “Of course I’m fine; you guys are adorable together.”
Rus could swear he felt Edge relax under him. And he said he didn’t have a soft soul.
As the morning progressed, it was easy to see that Hannah still harbored a major crush, but honestly, Rus couldn’t blame her. He was just happy that she didn’t seem to harbor any resentment toward either of them.
Later, as the others were working to fix what had been damaged, Rus and Hannah and a few others went to wash the dishes.
“you’re really okay with this?” Rus asked, keeping his voice low.
Hannah smiled at him, no trace of falseness in it at all. “I really am,” she said, “I’ve known for a while that I’m not his type. I can’t help feeling all fluttery near him, though. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
They both snickered. Yeah, Edge was a sexy guy.
“But really, I admire him for so many reasons other than how handsome he is. I try to stay as close as I can to him because I always learn valuable things from him. He’s always open to teach and help, and some guys are not so open to help a woman learn how to survive on her own in the wilderness, y’know? Some guys say a woman just can’t do it, that we have to rely on the ‘stronger sex’ and I say that’s bullshit. Edge seems to agree with me.”
She smiled again and pushed him gently with her shoulder. “Besides, it's really good to see him so happy.”
They both looked over to see him chatting with some of the other hikers, and he did look more relaxed than he had previously.
Dishes washed and broken things mended, the group dispersed to do their own things. Rus and Edge salvaged what they could from Rus’ old tent and set out what they could to dry once the rain stopped, then they retreated to Edge’s tent--their tent--to wait out the rest of the storm together.