It did actually smell like pine trees. Jared had thought that was a New England myth, but all of Camp Mahina smelled like a car air freshener.
It was a week before camp started, and the counselors that had arrived rattled around the campgrounds, unpacking their stuff. Jared propped his foot up on his trunk and stared out of the window in the cabin. From here he could see all the way down to the lake—the swim docks and canoe docks dark lines out into the water. Below him on the hillside were the green canvas roofs of the tents most campers stayed in, interspersed with pine trees. Jared had been lucky enough to have been assigned to one of the few cabins. He'd been soaking in the rolling hills of Vermont all the way up in the bus from Manchester, enjoying the sunshine and greenery. It was rather like a Garrison Keillor postcard, pastoral American summer in all its glory.
A sleeping bag dropped onto the mattress in front of Jared, startling him out of his reverie. "Newbie gets the bed closest to the campers," a voice said from behind him. "I get the view." Jared turned to see a guy in his mid-twenties with brown hair brushing his shoulders. "I'm Chris," he said. When he smiled, only half of his mouth lifted. "You must be Jared, right?"
“Yeah,” Jared said.
“They always pair new counselors with old hands,” Chris gestured to himself, then bounced onto the cot, making a small frown. “We’re supposed to keep you from getting into too much trouble.” He moved around Jared and bounced onto the bed he’d just assigned to him, then made a so-so gesture with his hand.
“I thought that was my bed,” Jared said, confused.
“First lesson, grasshopper,” Chris said, then moved into the main part of the cabin and flopped down onto the lone cot in between the two bunkbeds. “Counselor gets first pick of mattresses. Some of these things have been here since the camp was founded.” He lifted his feet off the ground and sunk into the middle of the cot like he was sitting on a hammock. “But some are new this summer. Our job, should we choose to accept it, is to find two cots that won’t turn our backs into pretzels.”
“But won’t the campers get stuck with the crappy beds then?” Jared followed Chris as he stepped out of the cabin, down the makeshift pile of rocks that acted as front steps, and headed towards the nearest tent.
“I’m so glad I found you. You’re still thinking of putting the campers first.” Chris whirled to point a finger at him. “Absolutely, under no circumstances, put their needs first. They’re little bloodsuckers. They’ll bleed you dry if you let them.”
“Uh…” Jared was a little taken aback. True, he’d never done the camp counselor thing before, but wasn’t the camp’s motto in loco parentis—in the place of the parents? Taking care of the campers was kind of the point, right?
“Repeat after me,” Chris said. “They are twelve. They can suck it up.”
Jared laughed. “I suppose that’s why you keep coming back to be a counselor, then, huh? So you can ignore all the kids you’re supposed to take care of?”
Chris shrugged and started his bed-testing on the four cots in the tent. “Call me a masochist. I’m a gym teacher during the year—at a middle school. At least here there are no girls around to make the boys act even more stupid than usual.”
Jared helped Chris swap their two cots for the two firmest in the unit. He had to admit it made a difference. As it was, his feet stuck out over the metal bar at the foot. If he’d been sleeping in a sling for the next eight weeks, too, he would probably have given up and just laid out his mattress on the floor, which would mean Chris would have to step over him every morning to get to the entrance of the cabin.
When they were done, they headed down to the dining hall. For the rest of the summer, Jared’s days were going to be completely structured—first the training at pre-camp and then the regiment of camp life. He supposed the camp director had decided at some point that the only way to deal with one hundred and twenty boys between the ages of nine and sixteen was not to give them any free time to get into trouble. But today, as the counselors trickled in one by one, he was relatively free to explore.
Chris pointed out the main buildings as they walked down the hillside—the office, the arts and crafts building, the Campcraft department, where he'd be working, the sailing and swimming docks. The day was storybook beautiful, early June and not too hot or humid. There was a stiff breeze across the lake, cresting the water into ripples.
As Jared looked out over the lake, he spotted a lone sailboat, tacking back to shore, not too far out. The man on board was holding onto the sail, leaning backwards out over the water, almost horizontal, calves braced against the edge of the boat, allowing the wind in the sail to hold him up. He was stretched taut, shirtless, back bowed with effort, staring towards the shore from behind his sunglasses. He seemed to be floating, perfectly still, caught in mid-flight, the light refracting off the water behind him.
Jared didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone so beautiful in his entire life.
Chris crossed into his line of sight, startling him from his stare. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted out at the sailor, “Quit showin’ off!”
He turned to Jared, forcing him to take his eyes off the boat unless he wanted to get caught ogling. “That’s Jensen,” Chris said. “Head of the sailing department. Total show-off. Don’t ever let him get you in a boat or you’ll find yourself holding onto the mast for dear life.” Chris grinned.
Jared looked back out at the lake, but the boat had turned, just disappearing behind the outline of the boat house. Jensen now stood with his back to them, directing the boat like a windsurfer.
"It's about an hour to lunch," Chris said, looking at his watch. "I have to head over to swimming. Think you can find your way back to the Woodchuck Hole?"
"The w—" Jared started, confused.
"Campcraft. Start getting used to not knowing what people are talking about. There are a lot of nicknames around here."
"Got it," Jared said, then nodded. Chris headed down towards the waterfront, and Jared turned back towards where he thought the Campcraft building—Woodchuck Hole—whatever—was. Though he'd never been to camp before, he had (briefly) been a boyscout and knew enough about starting a campfire, identifying constellations, and reading a trail map to be assigned that department. Better that than something like canoeing or archery, departments he knew nothing about.
Now that Chris had left him alone, he felt adrift. He'd never been to Vermont before, had hardly been out of Texas. He hadn't gone to sleepaway camp when he was little, either—his mom had complained that if she never got to see him during the school year, the least he could do was stick around and be helpful during the summer. But this fall he was heading off to college, and, frankly, he needed to break his mom in to the idea of his leaving the nest. He loved the outdoors, liked hiking, was good with kids, so camp counselor seemed like the perfect thing to do with the summer. Clearly he'd gotten in way over his head—the campers hadn't even arrived yet and he was completely lost in the bizarre customs of the camp.
He found the Woodchuck Hole, a squat building, half-dug into the hillside. He timidly descended the two steps into the main room. There was a table in the middle and bookshelves with trail guides along the walls, the room dominated by the big stone fireplace at the end. There were only two people in the room—a young-looking bald guy by the fireplace and a dirty-blond with a scruffy beard sitting with his feet propped up on the table, eating what looked like Cheerios from a large white tub.
"Uh…hi," Jared said.
"You look lost. You sure the bus didn't drop you off at the wrong camp?" The bearded guy said. "You look more like the Ohana type to me." The bald guy stood, smacked the other guy over the head, then walked over to Jared. He extended a hand.
Jared accepted the hand. "Jared."
"That asswipe is Chad. Ignore everything he says. Welcome to Campcraft."
Looking only slightly apologetic, Chad extended the tub. "Want some gorp?"
Jared hung around Campcraft for an hour, but there wasn't a whole lot to do. Mike pointed him at some trail guides for the White Mountains, where they often took the older campers. "You'll be spending some days on the trails, some here teaching wood chopping and fire building and whatnot," Mike explained. They couldn't get anything settled until all the counselors arrived, so Jared just poked around the books, while Mike inventoried. Chad seemed intent on eating down the summer's supply of trail mix.
Lunch was a mess of old friends greeting each other—it seemed like most of the counselors were coming back. Many had been going to this camp for years, starting out as campers. Jared ended up eating with a bunch of Brits; it was their first summer, too, but they at least knew each other. Jared's eyes were drawn to Chris backslapping the sailing counselor when he walked into the room. Was it just his imagination, but was everyone else looking at them, too?
The rest of the counselors trickled in through the afternoon, until it was a full house at dinner. The camp director, Jeff, dragged them into the assembly hall—called the Barn for obvious reasons—and gave them a short pep talk after dinner, then sent them back to their tents.
When Jared hit his cot, he could feel his eyes shutting. It was only eight—not even dusk yet—but he'd been up since four that morning. Just as he was drifting off, he felt a sharp slap on his shoe. "What're you doing Sleeping Beauty?" Chris asked. He was by Jared's cot, stuffing things into a knapsack.
"Didn't Jeff tell us to get plenty of rest tonight?" Jared asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Are you kidding me?" Chris looked aghast. "Thank god you got paired with me dude, or you'd have no chance of scoring with the Ohana chicks this summer at all."
Jared could feel himself blush, but didn't feel like pointing out Chris's misconception. He'd figured out he was gay a while ago and his parents knew, but he'd never tried to act on it back home in Texas. He was hoping this fall, when he got to college, he could start wading into the dating waters. In the meantime, he just kept his head down and let people think what they wanted to think—all-boys sleepaway camp was not the best place to be out and proud.
"Grab this," Chris said, and handed him a plastic bag with two six-packs.
Jared looked at the beer, a little taken aback. "I'm pretty sure we're not allowed to have alcohol on camp property. I don't really want to get fired on my first day."
Chris just laughed at him. "Oh, that is fantastic. I'm going to have so much fun this summer." He grinned wickedly. "Now quit your whining and come on."
Jared grabbed the beer and followed Chris as he headed out of the cabin. They cut through the tents, Jared stumbling slightly on the jumbled rocks that made up the path. As they turned onto a path into the woods, Jared asked, "Where are we going?"
"Winships," Chris said, then turned so he was walking backwards. "Camp Ohana, the all-girls camp, is only a mile that way." He pointed off into the woods. "We're owned by the same foundation, and they also own all these lovely woods in between. Winships is…halfway," Chris said with a leer.
Jared shook his head and trailed after Chris as they crossed a brook and headed up the far side of a glen. They were joined by a few of the other counselors, some also carrying supplies. As they hiked up, the sun started to set, casting shadows over the narrow trail and making it difficult for Jared to see his footing. Just as Jared was about to ask how long this half-mile hike could possibly be, the trail ended in a clearing, and Jared realized they were up on the bluff. He could see the far side of the lake from here, though trees obscured the camp. He stopped for a moment to admire the red sun disappearing over the tops of distant mountains before turning to the growing crowd of counselors.
Mike was already there, helping a dark-haired guy start a campfire. "Hey," an already grating voice called out. "Is that booze?" Jared reluctantly headed over to Chad, bringing his plastic bag.
"Yeah," Jared said, depositing the bag.
"Excellent." Chad dove in, breaking out the first beer of the night. To Jared's surprise, Chad tossed it to him, before grabbing his own. "To Woodchuck pride!" Chad said, clinking their bottles, then plopping down in front of the fire.
Other counselors were settling down in clumps around the fire. Jared twisted around, looking for Chris, to find that he'd gone over to a group just coming out of the woods and had his arm wrapped around the sailing counselor—Jensen, was it? The other counselors all seemed familiar with each other, so Jared resigned himself to sitting next to Chad.
When Mike and the other counselor had gotten the fire blazing, he and Chad joined them. Mike introduced his companion, Tom, who was the head of the canoeing department. Pretty soon they'd settled into a friendly debate over the relative merits of their departments, with Chad chiming in rudely. Jared felt a small grin spread over his face as he listened. He sipped his beer slowly, and couldn't help glancing over at Chris and Jensen, sitting across the fire. He couldn't quite catch what they were saying, but they were talking animatedly, smiling and laughing and nudging each other. They looked so comfortable together, Jared couldn't help be a little wistful.
As Jared stared, Jensen glanced up and caught his eye. Jensen's lips twisted wryly and Jared looked away, hoping it was dark enough now to hide his blush. He was startled out of his embarrassment by Chad leaping to his feet beside him. "Welcome ladies!" he shouted, then bowed at the waist, almost spilling his beer over Jared's head.
Jared turned to look and saw a line of girls entering the clearing from the far side. These must be the Ohana counselors Chris was talking about. "What took you so long?" Chad asked.
A group of girls joined the circle around the fire, which quickly expanded to accommodate them. A particularly tall counselor who introduced herself as Karin plunked down next to Jared and challenged him to an arm-wrestling contest. Jared noticed a bunch of the girls hung back, talking in clumps, as if this were a middle school dance. But then, some of the guys (like Jensen, Jared couldn't help noticing), didn't seem particularly interested, so maybe it was like a middle school dance.
Karin turned out to be stronger than she looked, and before Jared knew it, she had her legs across his lap, propping herself up on Chad's shoulder. Jared found himself staring at his beer bottle, nodding occasionally, as Chad and Karin talked at him.
"I know what we can do to welcome you to the Ohana family," Karin said, turning to wink at Chad. Jared didn't really like the look in Chad's eye.
"Right," Chad chimed in. "There's this game called Moo—"
Before he could get any further, he was interrupted by a smack on the head. "Stop picking on the newbie," Chris said, reaching past him for another beer. "You start making him look like an ass, how do you think that reflects on me?"
"That's alright," Jared said, extricating himself from Karin's long legs. "I'm gonna head back, now, anyway…"
Karin looked disappointed. "Suit yourself," Chris said. Chad made a half-hearted attempt to pants him as he walked past but only managed to knock himself over backwards. Jared rolled his eyes and headed for the tree line, where he remembered the path being.
As he walked away from the fire, he noticed how cold it had gotten. He'd brought up a flannel shirt, but he was getting goosebumps on his legs. He also realized he'd made a slight oversight—he hadn't brought a flashlight. Now that the sun had set, so far away from the lights of any city, it was completely black. Perfect for stargazing, not so good for picking your way through the woods. With his luck, he'd trip and break his neck falling down a ravine. He stopped, peering into the woods, hoping for some indication of where the trailhead was. He'd feel like an idiot if he had to go back over to the fire and borrow a flashlight, but that was starting to look like the only course of action.
A hand on his shoulder startled him out of his thoughts. He was thankful, at least, that he'd managed to swallow his yelp. "You look like you need a hand," a warm voice said. He'd never spoken to him before, but he'd know it anyway. It was Jensen. A light clicked on next to him, making the rocks and trees jump out in stark relief.
"Oh, thank god." Jared said. "I thought I was going to have to find my way down by feel." Jensen laughed. "You don't have to leave, you know, if you were having fun…" Jared trailed off.
"Naw, I was going to head out soon anyway. And I can never resist a damsel in distress. You looked so sad, standing there, looking at the woods." Jared smacked him on his shoulder, glad he hadn't missed in the dark. "Go on, start down first so you can see." Jensen pointed the flashlight towards the trail, and Jared picked his way down. Jensen held the beam out to the side, so both could see where their feet were going, but it had the unfortunate side effect of making Jared's shadow loom like a giant into the pitch black trees.
"Take my advice," Jensen's disembodied voice came from behind him. "You don't want to stay out late every night. If you lose sleep here, you never get it back. You've got eight weeks before you can sleep in again; you're going to be running on fumes by the end anyway."
"What about days off?" Jared said, his voice sounding too loud in the silence of the woods.
"They make you get up at reveille anyway."
They made it the rest of the way down to camp property accompanied only by the crunch of their boots over leaves. Jensen, and his handy, handy flashlight, followed him through the tents until he could see the dark outline of his shack.
"Thanks, dude." Jared turned to look at Jensen's silhouette in the dark. There was a little more light here, reflected up from the lake, but the flashlight had completely shot his night vision.
"Uh, one more thing." Jensen said. His voice sounded a little odd and Jared wished he could see his face. "If you're gonna hook up with the girls from Ohana, everyone's gonna know about it."
Jared blushed. "No, I—"
"No, no, it's fine, everybody does it, but just don't think it'll be a secret, right? Anything that happens on camp property, sooner or later, everyone knows about. No such thing as privacy, here."
Jared wasn't quite sure what to make of this. "Um…okay."
"Okay. Good," Jensen said. "Well, I'm off," the beam of his flashlight swung around behind him. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Right," Jared said. "Goodnight."
Jensen turned around, and it looked like he waved, but Jared couldn't be sure. He turned back towards his shack, stumbling a little on the steps. He wasn't quite sure what to make of Jensen. Maybe he just thought Jared needed the advice, like everyone else had today. He flopped onto his bed. They could probably all tell he was hopeless.
Pre-camp wasn't a whole lot of fun. Counselor training, he discovered, consisted of sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Barn for hours listening to lectures on child psychology. Then they'd have to pair up and roleplay what to do in different scenarios, from bullies to homesickness. Inevitably Chad would pick him to partner with and use it as an excuse to act like a complete brat. Why this guy was being made responsible for the well-being of other people, Jared didn't understand.
There were some highlights. They had department meetings every afternoon, and Jared was discovering that Mike was a great boss. He managed to be entertaining but stern, when warranted (generally by Chad's wandering attention). And every evening, almost everyone headed up to Winships. It wasn't as awkward as the first night, thankfully. Sure, most of these guys knew each other from way back, but once he started talking to them, they all seemed cool.
His favorite part of pre-camp, though, came on the last day. That's when the counselors got to visit the other departments, just to get a flavor of what their campers would be doing. Mike grumbled about not getting to head over to canoeing, since department heads had to stay put. Jared spent most of the day in the sailing department. He didn't get to go out on a sailboat, though; Jensen insisted he had to pass the drown-proofing test first. This involved being chucked out of a rowboat and having to climb back in, presumably to show he could do so without swamping the boat. Jared suspected Jensen was just messing with him. But as he watched Jensen wrangling the other counselors and gleefully pushing Chris off the docks, he wished he was a camper so he could come here every day.
Jared was looking forward to the campers arriving. The last week had been busy—according to Chris, it was nothing compared to when their charges arrived—but it all felt like preamble. He was sick of training and planning. So he was already feeling a thrill of excitement the night before opening day when Chris dragged him towards the Barn. As they approached, Jared could already hear the bass of an impromptu sound system shaking the old oak beams.
There were only a handful of counselors there, most either helping set up snacks and beer or gathered around the DJ station. Jared wasn't surprised when a song was cut off during its first few bars, followed by shouts of both complaint and gratitude. Though no one was dancing yet, Jared couldn't help getting his groove on. He knew he looked like an idiot—some of his friends in high school had told him so, repeatedly—but he enjoyed it and decided that for today, he didn't care. Pretty soon, Chris joined him, then Mike and Tom. By the time Chad made his way out, Jared had stopped feeling bad about his dancing; he was not the worst on the floor by a long shot.
Just as the party really started to get going, a pack of counselors from Ohana made their way in. It was the last chance to cut loose without having to worry about the noise waking up the campers. Jeff even grabbed a mike for an impromptu rap about Camp Mahina. It was terrible, and had a few more swear words than he'd get to say for the next two months.
Jared spent most of the evening dancing. Everyone danced in loose circles, with only a few couples. Chris was making a pretty good show with Karin, Jared noticed. He scanned the floor, hoping to get a glimpse of Jensen. He'd been pretty scarce so far.
His eyes caught on a blonde, standing by herself by the speakers. She was smiling and moving slowly, holding a plastic cup. Jared was surprised to see her alone—the Ohana chicks tended to stay in packs. Intrigued, he made his way over. "Hey," he said, having to lean down to be heard over the music. "I'm Jared."
"Alona," she said, smiling.
"So…" Jared cast around for a topic of conversation. "This your first summer at Ohana?"
Alona looked amused. "Mahina. And no, this is my fourth year."
"Uh… But isn't this a boys' camp?" Jared said, stupidly.
"I'm the nurse, but thanks for the heads up." She looked like she was holding back a laugh. "Can't you tell how the Ohana girls all stick together?" She gestured at the crowds.
"Yeah, it had occurred to me. Kind of like sushi rice." Alona raised her eyebrows. "You know, all clumped up together?" Alona laughed.
"I think they're just jealous I get to spend the whole summer looking at hot shirtless guys," she said with a wicked glitter in her eye.
Jared laughed. "You wanna dance?"
"Oh, hell yeah," she said, placing her cup on the speaker and grabbing his hand.
Pretty soon, Alona was dancing surrounded by a crowd of Mahina counselors. She seemed to enjoy being the center of attention. Maybe Jared was imagining it, but he thought he saw the envious glances of some of the other girls. Seemed that Alona hadn't been wrong about that.
"Yo, tell you what I want, what I really really want," blasted from the speakers, to a round of groans from the crowd. Alona grabbed Jared's hand and pulled him out to the center of the circle. Jared's younger sister had subjected him to the Spice Girls enough that he knew all the words. He couldn't help miming holding a mike and singing along. He started getting into it, closing his eyes and pretending to be Scary Spice. When he opened his eyes again, it was to see Jensen right in front of him with a bemused expression on his face.
"Oh, god," Jared groaned, blushing to the roots of his hair. Jensen burst out laughing at his embarrassment. He ducked off the dance floor for a much needed glass of water and was surprised and pleased when Jensen followed him, though he worried it was just to rib him for his performance.
"You must think I'm an ass." Jared hoped his flaming cheeks looked like they came from exertion.
"Not at all," Jensen laughed. At Jared's dubious expression, he amended, "Well, actually yeah. But that's cool—you should save that for the talent show. The kids'll love you."
"There's always a goofball counselor. Guess this summer, that's you. Though with Chad a counselor now, you've got some tough competition. You fight for that crown." Jensen punched his shoulder. "Looks like the ladies loved your performance, too," Jensen said, pointing over Jared's shoulder.
Jared turned around to see Alona heading towards them. "No quitting on me now," she said, then grabbed his hand to drag him back onto the floor. Jared thought he heard Jensen say something else, but it was lost over the music.
Chris and Jared got the names of their campers the next morning at breakfast. "What's this?" Chris said, looking at the index cards. "Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve and Steve? Oh, screw that."
Jared grabbed for the cards. "Wait—all five of our campers are named Steve?"
"It's Jeff's sense of humor," Chris said, tilting his chair back on two legs. "Last year he put all the Johns in the same tent." Jared's mouth quirked up, but before he could say anything, Chris rocked his chair forward again, landing with a thump. "Not a word! You know, as soon as they arrive, it's no more cuss words until they leave in August. Get used to saying, 'freaking' and 'shnikes.'"
"'Shnikes?'" Jared said, failing to contain his laugh.
"Shut up. It's a perfectly good word."
"Shnikes," Jared said again under his breath. "How about 'shizzle?'" Chris just whacked him with the cards.
Chris dealt with the Steve problem pretty quickly. They arrived one by one. Each time, Chris and Jared's names were called so they came pelting down the hillside to the main driveway where they crowded around the car and whisked the camper away from his parents. As Chris greeted each one, he christened them with a nickname, with no seeming logic behind it at all: Turtle, Lizard, Frog, Gecko, and the last one, who arrived on a bus from New York City at five o'clock sans parents, Gila Monster.
Jared thought it was hilarious, and each of the kids seemed to think it was cool, except for Gecko, who complained that his name was a subphyla of lizard, so really gecko and lizard were redundant. Lizard threw a pillow at him. Jared immediately liked Lizard. It was going to be a great summer.
The first few days of camp were a blur. Chris hadn't been kidding when he'd said it would be busy. Bugle calls woke him up and told him when to go to breakfast, when to go to assembly, when to go to activities, when to put the campers to bed. It was all highly regimented, for which Jared was profoundly grateful. Though he hated being at the beck and call of a bugle, he couldn't imagine what his campers would get into with more free time and less supervision.
"The Steves," as they had already been dubbed by other campers, were all twelve years old and enough of a handful by themselves. Jared had already caught Lizard trying to teach the others to build a campfire in the middle of the shack. If Jared hadn't confiscated the matches that Lizard must have stolen from Campcraft, the hillside would probably have been ashes by the time the fire department got there.
Lizard spent most of his time with another twelve-year-old, Chas, planning each morning out on their activity cards so they spent every period together. Chris informed him that the two had been tentmates when they were nine and had been best friends ever since. Jared wondered if they were pen pals during the year—somehow, he couldn't really picture Lizard sitting down for long enough to write letters.
He couldn't take campers out on hikes yet, since the first week was orientation. He was stuck in the Woodchuck Hole with Chad staring at star charts and plant identification books. Lesson number one: Leaves of three, let it be.
Chas learned that the hard way, to Lizard's endless amusement, and Jared had to bring him to the infirmary. "Stop touching it! You'll make it worse." The only response was a pout.
Alona greeted them as they pushed through the screen door. "What have we got?"
"Poison ivy," Jared said. "On his leg. I don't think he's had a chance to spread it around." He looked at the kid, whose eye seemed to be twitching with the effort not to scratch. "Yet."
"Okay, well hop up here," Alona said, digging through a cabinet for hydrocortisone. She applied it gently, and Chas seemed to immediately calm down. "You know, only one in three people are actually allergic to poison ivy? The other two thirds can touch it all they want and nothing will happen."
"Lucky me," Chas groaned.
Alona gave him a couple of antihistamines and sent him on his way.
"Thanks," Jared smiled at her.
"Bet you must get a lot of those."
"Yup, lots of poison ivy, scrapes and bruises. It's an exciting life I lead."
"Just wait till the first lice outbreak happens. That's always a highpoint." Jared laughed at her. "Don't laugh too hard—you're going to be the one doing the lice checks. And not every camper washes his hair."
"You know, they didn't warn me about that when I signed up."
"You never went to camp as a kid?" Alona asked.
"Nope. My mom's a little overprotective. Didn't want me at overnight camp. I don't know what she's going to do when I go to college in the fall."
"Ah. Well, welcome to the jungle. If you ever have any questions…"
"Sure," Jared said. "Well, I better be heading back."
When he stepped out of the infirmary, Chas was standing there waiting for him with an expression of pure mischief on his face. Jared groaned inwardly, wondering what he'd done to cause that and what the fallout would be. Sometimes he hated kids.
Jared usually spent his free time before dinner in the counselor room, like most counselors. A few were still on duty, and there was the crowd of smokers that always congregated by the docks, but most hung around on the dingy sofas of the counselor room. It wasn't swank, but it was the one place on camp property where they were guaranteed not to be bothered by campers.
Jared had noticed, though, that the department heads and unit heads usually had to spend their free time on administrative tasks, so he was surprised when Jensen plopped onto the couch next to him, leaning his head against the cushions. "Have you seen Chris?"
"No," Jared said. "It's his day off."
"We can take those already? Lucky bastard." After a moment, he leaned forward and looked at Jared. "Well, I might as well tell you. You know Steve Bergman?"
"Steve Berg…? Oh, you mean Lizard."
Jensen's mouth quirked up. "Right. Lizard. Well, I caught him teaching some of the other campers how to tie a hangman's knot."
Jared rolled his eyes.
"Just thought someone should sit him down for a talk."
"Right," Jared sighed. "Thanks for the warning. Chris said he's been lobbying to be able to shoot at the squirrels on the archery range. I guess I should be grateful he's too young for riflery."
Jensen laughed. "You two've definitely got your hands full." He was quiet for a bit. He looked like he'd forgotten Jared was there, just enjoying a moment of relaxation. If Jared stared at him any longer he knew Chad, who was across the room raiding the stash of confiscated candy, would notice, and then he'd never hear the end of it. He had two choices—leave, which he definitely didn't want to do, not with a rare chance to sit next to Jensen, or make conversation and hope it wasn't too inane.
He went for option b. "You've known Chris awhile?"
"What?" Jensen jerked like he'd been on the verge of falling asleep. "Right. Yeah." He chuckled to himself. "Believe it or not, he was my counselor when I was a camper."
"Whoa. That must be weird."
"It was the first time he offered me a beer, yeah." Jensen smiled and it made Jared feel warm in places he didn't want to acknowledge.
He stumbled awkwardly on. "He seems like a good guy."
"Oh, he is. He's really great with the kids. You're lucky to be paired with him. This is your first time at camp?"
Jared just nodded.
Jensen got a wistful expression for a moment. "Well, enjoy the ride."
Before Jared could ask what Jensen meant, the bugle blew, signaling that it was fifteen minutes to dinner and the campers and counselors on K.P. had to head down to set the tables. "Just what I want to do right now—K.P. Well, at least I'm getting it over with early in the summer," Jensen said as he heaved himself to his feet. "See you round. Oh, and you'll talk to Lizard?"
"I think I'll wait till Chris is back," Jared said warily.
Jensen laughed. "Probably a good idea."
The first trip Jared led was a group of nine-year-olds, so they hiked up Mount Palisades. Unfortunately, Chad was his co-counselor, and managed to hang up the entire group for a half an hour by pointing out a bunch of slugs, which led to a series of escalating dares between the campers. Jared put a stop to it when they got to licking—he wasn't sure that was a good idea.
"Party pooper," Chad said. "God made dirt, so dirt don't hurt."
"Yeah, and god made Ebola too," Jared said, shooing the campers up the trail. "Besides, they wanted to lick a slug."
Without really intending to, Jared had found himself spending an awful lot of time with Chad. He was up at Winships every night and always had a bit of log and a beer open. He was starting to grow on Jared. Kind of like fungus. It was surprising—Jared couldn't see himself hanging out with someone like Chad back in high school.
Despite the slugs, they managed to make it to the peak, and nobody fell over the cliff's edge, so Jared counted the trip a success.
On the way down, they let the campers run ahead to burn off some energy for the van ride back. "You were a camper here, right?" Jared asked. When Chad nodded, he continued. "Which is more fun, being a camper or a counselor?"
"Camper. Definitely camper. Are you kidding me? I had no idea how much work this was." Chad groaned. "I always figured it would be awesome, getting to leave camp property, drink beer, see the chicks every night. They didn't tell me about all the reports and meetings and—I'm supposed to make sure my kids take showers every couple of days."
"Dude, I've got one kid who gets into the shower, then gets back out, and I swear he's got the same amount of dirt on him after as before. Last year I could have just made fun of him. This year I have to have meetings and plan something to do about it."
"I kind of like getting to plan things, being in charge," Jared said. "The campers have so many rules, you know? What activities they can go to, when they can shower, mandatory swim lessons, only one cookie for dessert…" The counselors ostensibly only got one cookie, too, but Jared had learned pretty quickly that if you popped into the kitchen, you could grab any of the leftovers.
"You don't notice it," Chad said, stepping around a fallen tree trunk. "I'll tell you the weird thing, though. There are a ton of counselors here that were counselors when I was a camper. And they treat me totally differently now."
"Yeah, they expect you to be responsible."
"Dude, I'm totally responsible." Chad wrinkled his nose. "It's not that. It's like some counselors have an act they put on for the campers, and you look up to them and think they're awesome, then you find out they're not like that at all. Man I was bummed to find out the letters my counselors sent me were mandatory." Jared had heard about this—counselors had to write to their campers' parents a few times during the summer, then write a few letters to their campers during the year. "I just always thought they liked me."
"Oh, come on," Jared said. "What's not to like?"
When they got back to camp property around dinner time, Jared noticed a bunch of older campers building something in an open area behind the dining hall.
"That's the bonfire. The Rousters build one for the Fourth of July every year," Chad explained, referring to the camp nickname for the sixteen-year-old campers. Rouster year was the last year before these boys would come back as counselors. They were the camp equivalent of rock stars—Chad had been one last summer. "They tore down the old kitchen in the winter, so they've got a ton of lumber. It's going to be awesome."
"Yeah," Jared said, noticing that, judging by the tree trunks acting as pillars, it would be at least three stories high.
"Not as awesome as mine was, of course."
Jared swung past the bonfire again once he'd dropped off the backpacks and water bottles from the hike at the Woodchuck Hole. This time he noticed a familiar head helping out. Jensen had his shirt off, balancing a piece of lumber across his shoulder, seemingly oblivious to splinters. Jared watched as he handed it up to a camper perched on the precarious second story. When he turned back to grab more, his eyes caught Jared's. Jared felt like an idiot staring, and was temporarily frozen between walking up and pretending he wasn't looking. Jensen just smiled, waved, then went back to what he was doing, not noticing Jared's terror.
God, this was ridiculous, Jared thought. Aside from that first night, Jensen hadn't really talked to anyone but Chris when they hung out on Winships. He'd seemed nice whenever Jared talked to him, but not all that outgoing. If Jensen noticed his rather obvious crush, maybe he wouldn't be so accommodating. He had to cut this out. He'd had crushes on straight boys before. They were fun as idle fantasies, but anything more than that could only end badly.
The Fourth of July was a big event at Mahina. There were red, white, and blue ice cream cones, and carnival games, and everyone was allowed out of uniform. Most importantly, the girls from Ohana spent the whole day over. This was the first time the campers of both genders would be meeting. Jared watched in amusement as the Steves tried to prepare, Gecko wetting down his hair to flatten the cowlicks, despite Chris's assurances that they would come right back. Lizard affected a nonchalance about the whole thing, but still spent quite a while digging through his trunk for the perfect shirt. Frog was the only one who really didn't seem to care. He'd become fast friends with another camper and Jared had heard them plotting to dominate the bean bag toss.
All of his campers seemed to have formed fast friendships, surprising since they'd only been here a little over a week. Turtle was always hanging out with a nerdy looking boy who was one of Tom's campers. Gila Monster hung with a group of other New York kids who frequently had to be warned about the four-letter words. Only Gecko seemed to be a bit of a loner. Part of his job, Jared had discovered, was to be his kids' social directors. Maybe he could get Gecko to come out of his shell a little during the celebration.
After dinner and a patriotic sing-a-long in the Barn (led, ironically, by the British counselors), everyone crowded out towards the bonfire. It was just after dark, and Jared could see fireworks displays going off across the river. All the campers pushed forward in anticipation, the returning campers whispering to the new ones. Chris and Chad had been given the duty of patrolling the underbrush in case any of the older campers decided to sneak off together, which left Jared and a few other counselors the duty of corralling the twelve-year-olds. Jared soon saw why.
Suddenly a pounding jungle beat started up from tinny boom box speakers. The Rousters appeared at the back of the throng, holding torches in front them. The crowd parted as the Rousters marched solemnly towards the unlit structure, to loud cheers. Jared thought the machismo was a bit absurd, what with the cheap sound system, but everyone else seemed to be buying into it.
When they reached the front of the crowd, as the music swelled to the top of its limited volume, they let out a roar and lobbed their torches at the structure. Jared was amazed at how quickly it went up. Pretty soon, standing in front of it felt like standing in the noonday sun. He could see the excitement of his campers in the reflected light from the fire. He had a feeling this would be going down as the highlight of the summer for more than a few them. How to win a twelve-year-old boy's heart: set a huge pile of crap on fire.
After an hour or so of milling around and watching the fire, the Ohana campers left and he had to haul his kids up to bed. They weren't at all pleased to go. "Come on, guys," Jared cajoled. "You can probably see it from the cabin."
They reluctantly followed. On the way, Jared walked next to Gecko, whose hair had completely surrendered to the cowlicks. "You have fun?"
Gecko shrugged. "I guess."
"Oh, come on. You can do better than that."
Gecko rolled his eyes at him, but couldn't help a smile.
"There you go." Jared walked beside him for a moment. "Hey, I noticed you don't talk to your cabin-mates a lot. They not cool enough for ya?" Jared tried to keep his tone light. Jeff had given them a lot of coaching about drawing campers out, but Jared didn't feel very comfortable doing it yet.
"Whatever." Gecko said. Then after a moment, he continued. "They're all fake. Everyone here. I told my mom I didn't want to come back this year but she said I had to."
"Whoa, hey, that's not a very nice thing to say. I bet if you talked to them and they got to know you they'd like you."
"Yeah, but—" Gecko frowned. "It's like someone's your best friend and then when you're not at camp they're not anymore." Jared made a mental note to ask Chris about Gecko's mysterious ex-best friend. "Everyone's fake. Even the counselors. I know you guys are paid to be nice to us."
Jared stopped him. "Believe me, they do not pay me enough to pretend I like people I don't." Jared tried to look him seriously in the eyes, despite the dark. "Okay?" He thought for a moment about his paycheck. "Really, not nearly enough. I'm not even getting minimum wage here. And I'm not supposed to tell you that," he said with a conspiratorial grin. "Look, I know being this age totally sucks, but believe me, when you get older, you'll find people who like you for you." Gecko rolled his eyes. "Right. That was corny. But I'm serious. It does get better. And if you were friendlier with the kids here, they'd be nicer to you, too."
"You really suck at this."
Jared laughed. "Yeah, I do. First time, can you tell?"
"Do you think I'm fake?"
Gecko looked at him for a moment, then shook his head. "Well, then. Why don't you try to find some other not fake people to hang out with? As a favor."
"Fine," Gecko said with a huff.
They'd made it back to the cabin. Jared wasn't sure he'd made any progress—it was kind of disturbing finding a twelve-year-old that jaded. He'd have to talk to Chris later. Maybe they could tag team and make some progress by the end of the summer. When he walked away from the cabin, he could hear Gecko joining in the excited chatter about the bonfire and the Rousters with his cabin-mates, though, so maybe he hadn't been as inept at talking to the kid as he'd thought.
When Jared got back to the bonfire, all the campers had been packed off to bed. Now that it was just counselors, the booze came out. Jared looked around hoping to spot Chris, but no luck. He wandered for awhile, looking for Jensen. Maybe he could compliment the guy on the bonfire (for three stories of flaming wood, it looked surprisingly unlikely to fall on anyone), get a conversation going. Jared couldn't find him, though. The Rousters were allowed to stay out past taps just this once, though, so Jared figured he must be keeping an eye on them.
He grabbed a beer and stood away from the crowd, just watching the fire for a bit. The heat made his front warm and tingly, though his backside was rapidly getting cold in the evening chill. After a while, he noticed a few shadowy figures walking through the brush on the far side of the blaze. Intrigued, he made his way over, giving a wide berth to the fire.
When he got closer, he saw that one of them was the absent Jensen. He had his shirt off, tucked into his back pocket, and some weird contraption that looked like a Ghostbusters gun strapped to his back. As he watched, he realized it must be a tank of water. Jensen was wandering around and putting out brush fires whenever the strong wind blew a spark into the tall grass.
He walked up, noticing the way the firelight played over Jensen's skin. He could see the sweat standing out, and quickly realized why. Jensen was standing much closer to the fire than he had been, and it was uncomfortably hot. "Hey!" he called out.
"Hey," Jensen said, looking up startled.
"How'd you get stuck with this?" Jared asked, sweat making his shirt stick to his back.
"Traditional duty of the Rouster counselors. Do all the work building the thing, then make sure it doesn't burn down the camp." His eyes were still scanning the brush, occasionally letting out a burst of water at smoldering weeds. Jensen holding the pump-action end of the hose looked like—well, he didn't really want to say what it looked like, though the phrase "compensating" came to mind.
"The fire wardens must love you."
"Tell me about it. Mahina's been doing a bonfire every Fourth of July for the last eighty years, though. Regulations have tightened up since then, of course, but now I think they're just too scared of Jeff to tell him he has to quit it."
Jared laughed, glad for once that he had an excuse to feel flushed around Jensen. He felt sweat start trickling down from his brow, and flipped his shirt up to wipe it away. As he pulled it back down, he thought for a second he caught Jensen staring at him, but Jensen looked away quickly. Jared shook his head. He had to stop imagining things. He tried to think of something cool to say about the blaze, but the only thing his brain could come up with was "some fire," and he didn't think that would wow Jensen.
After a moment, Jensen turned to him. "Hey, what time is it?"
Jared tilted his wrist so he could read his watch in the flickering light. "Uh…just past midnight."
"Awesome. My shift is up." Jensen swung the tank off his back and Jared could hear from the hollow sloshing that it was almost empty. "Give me a hand, huh, Sasquatch?"
Jensen handed him the tank. Though it was light now, Jared could see the red lines on Jensen's shoulder where it had dug into him. He tried not to watch too obviously as Jensen rolled his neck to get the kinks out.
As they headed back to the dining hall to hand off the tank, Jensen nodded at another counselor going on duty.
"Time to enjoy the fruits of my labor." Jensen said with a smile.
"How long is it going to burn?" Jared asked as they headed towards the throng of counselors around the beer cooler.
"Morning, at least. If I did my job right, tomorrow evening."
Jensen grabbed a beer and a bag of marshmallows liberated from the kitchen. They plopped down on an open stretch of grass, Jensen sighing happily. Jared quickly discovered that it was hard to toast marshmallows in front of a bonfire, but he found he didn't mind all that much.
Jared asked Chris about Gecko after taps the next evening. "He wasn't in my unit last year, so I didn't know him too well." He looked at the fire on Winships for a moment, concentrating. "He came up to archery a bunch with another kid—Davie, I think. They'd spend half their time shooting, and the other half, Davie'd be trying to teach him swear words in Spanish. I always had to keep an eye out to make sure their bows were pointed at the targets."
"Davie didn't come back this year?" Jared asked.
"Naw. There are some kids who are here every summer, some only come one or two. It's always tough when people don't come back."
"Well, that could explain a lot. They probably didn't keep in touch."
"They were eleven," Chris said. "Of course they don't keep in touch. They're very out of sight out of mind at that age."
"It's kind of hard to believe, though," Jared said. "Some of the kids seem so close."
"You know kids, they meet someone and five minutes later declare them best friends for life."
Jared laughed. That was certainly true.
"Some friendships last, though." Jared thought of Jensen and Chris. He didn't think they'd been campers together, but they seemed to be good friends. "I'll keep an eye out for him at archery. Force him to share a bow so he has to talk to the other kids."
"That's evil," Jared said.
"And yet, at the same time, brilliant."
Jared got used to the rhythm of camp life pretty easily, though he thought he'd have gone insane if he didn't have the chance to leave camp property on hikes every couple of days.
Jared quickly discovered that a camp as old as Mahina had a ton of traditions, from a backwards day, with dinner for breakfast (which was revolting), to a celebration of Mahina's birthday, where reveille was played ten minutes after taps and all the campers came running down to the Barn in their pajamas. One of these was Counselor Hunt—like a giant hide and seek, with the counselors hiding and the campers seeking. Chris had warned him to look for a spot early on. Points were awarded based on how difficult each counselor was to find in previous years. Jared, like all the new counselors, was only worth ten points.
When the evening came, Jared went straight to the Barn. There was a corner of the Barn that was lifted slightly off the ground, and Jared figured there was just enough clearance for him to wriggle under there. He'd scoped it out earlier—there were some cobwebs, but nothing too nasty, and he figured that the spiders would be enough to keep many of the campers from looking. Jared was determined to be worth high points next year, and this seemed perfect.
As he crawled in on his stomach, though, he bumped into a foot. "Ow," a voice came out of the dark. Jared couldn't see any of the person other than the feet, but it sounded like Jensen. "What're you doing?"
"Hiding!" Jared whispered back. "Now shove over."
Jensen kicked at him, causing a little cloud of dust to fly into Jared's face. Jared sneezed. "You can't hide here! This is my spot!" Jensen said. "I've hid here every year for the last five years! Last year only one kid found me. I'm worth five hundred points! You're going to wreck it for me."
Jensen stopped as he heard the bugle blow, signaling the beginning of search. "Fine." He growled, and Jared scooched up so their heads were level. "But you're legs are too damn long. They're going to see them."
Jared flopped clumsily onto his back, accidentally poking Jensen in the side. There wasn't much room up here—the floor of the Barn only a couple of inches from his nose. Jared was suddenly glad he wasn't going to be lying here by himself for an hour. When he looked over at Jensen, Jensen was glaring at him. "Quit moving around."
"They'll hear," Jared said, giving Jensen a thumbs-up. "Gotcha."
He consciously slowed his breathing, trying to relax into a zen-like state where he wouldn't notice that his arm was pressed against Jensen's. He lasted five minutes. Then he started snickering. Jensen shoved his shoulder which just made him laugh more. Jared shoved back and soon Jensen was laughing too, though he looked like he was fighting hard to stop it.
"I can see you!" They both froze. Jared tilted his head so he could see the sliver of daylight down past his feet. Sure enough, there were two campers crouched there, peering up at them.
"You suck," Jensen said with loathing. He reluctantly handed the camper two slips of paper with his name on it, which they would use as proof of who they'd found when they tallied points.
When they'd wandered away, Jensen glared at him again. "I only brought five slips of paper. If I run out, I'm going to kill you."
"I've got a ton more." Jared handed them over, feeling the laughter bubbling up again.
Jensen squinted at one. "These say Luke Skywalker."
"Oh, sorry," Jared said and took them back. He handed Jensen a different stack.
"These say Darth Vader! You're supposed to use your name, you idiot."
"Where's the fun in that?" Jared laughed.
"Haven't you ever heard of rules?"
"Haven't you ever heard that rules are made to be broken?"
They were interrupted again when Jared felt a tap on his shoe.
"You just wrecked my perfect streak, you know that?" Jensen said when that camper had left, too.
"Anyone ever tell you you're a sore loser?" Jared said.
"What about my reputation! My legacy!"
"So, we'll find a new spot for next summer. Ooh—can you climb trees?" He looked over at Jensen, but he was staring up at the floorboards thoughtfully.
"Hey," Jared said, poking him.
"Figures you'd find my hiding spot," he said with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "You're such a loser."
"I'm a loser! Who's the one worried about preserving their legacy of hiding under the Barn?"
Jared snorted. "How not to be seen. This is Jensen Ackles. He cannot be seen."
"Oh, please, shut up."
In the end, almost every kid in the camp found them. It turned out to be a ripple effect—once enough campers spotted them, other campers saw the crowd crawling under the Barn and came to investigate. Jared was highly suspicious that some campers were trading information on hiding spots, too.
One of the fifteen-year-old campers crowed when he saw that he'd found Jensen. Apparently he'd been trying to for the last four years. After Jared watched his jaunty step disappear, he looked at Jensen to see Jensen's hands covering his face. "You've ruined me," he groaned.
"Clearly you've been cool far too long, it's starting to make your head soft. Welcome to the goofball side." Jared patted his chest. Turned out Jensen was ticklish, too.Part Two
The next day was Jared's first day off, for which he was extremely grateful. Unfortunately, he didn't have a car, so instead of spending the day hiding in the counselor room watching Better off Dead on the crappy TV—which had no reception and only one VHS tape—he bummed a ride with Chad.
Chad, it turned out, had a girlfriend at Dartmouth—some chick named Sophia. She was there for the summer semester, so despite Chad promising that Hanover was a kick-ass town and they'd have an awesome time, he ditched Jared as soon as they got there. Jared was glad to be away from the constant demands of his campers for a day, but he only had a couple of days off and was kind of pissed to spend one of them wandering around Hanover, where, it turned out, there wasn't a whole lot to do besides go to Dartmouth. There was only so much time he could spend in the Dartmouth Bookstore, after all. He ate lunch at EBA's and watched both movies playing at the Nugget, which only had two screens, then spent the rest of the day dozing on Dartmouth Green.
By the time he spotted Chad's car pulling up sometime around midnight, the relaxation of the day had dissipated and he was just pissed. Chad didn't look at all bothered by this. Judging from the smile on his face, short of leaping from the moving car, Chad probably wouldn't notice anything Jared did.
When he got back to his shack around one, he collapsed onto the bed. His pillow crinkled when he put his head on it. Feeling around underneath, he found a note with "Jared" written on it in flowery writing. He opened it.
I could not help but notice your smoldering gaze in the dining hall. You are the most divine specimen of manhood I have ever seen. My love, I cannot wait any longer! Meet me in the infirmary tonight at midnight. I will wait for you.
Jared rolled his eyes. All the i's had little hearts over them, and there were badly drawn flowers around the edges. His campers must have left it for him—it was traditional to prank the counselors on their day off. At least they didn't steal all his underwear, like they had Chris's.
Jared reread the note, laughing at the twelve-year-old boys' conception of what girls talked like. One of them must have stolen their mother's Harlequins. They were in for a surprise in a few years when they tried to talk actual girls into going out with them.
He wondered if his campers had planned to stake out the meet-up—even though it meant breaking camp regulations about curfew. It was already past midnight, though. After a quick check, he determined they were all in bed. He tucked the note into his trunk and went to sleep.
In the morning, he noticed Lizard eyeing him. "So…" Lizard said. "You have fun last night?"
"Last night?" Jared made a deeply thoughtful face. "Not sure what you mean."
"You know. Last night."
Jared suppressed a laugh. Of course Lizard couldn't say anymore without admitting to writing that note. "Well, I did have this crazy dream about Godzilla."
Lizard squinted his eyes in disgust and headed off to the bathroom to brush his teeth. Jared saw him conspiring with Chas as they headed back.
After lunch, he found a bunch of goldenrod—pulled up by the root, it seemed—sitting on his pillow. He picked them up gingerly, brushing the clumps of dirt off his sheets, and had to suppress a sneeze.
"Oooooh!" Lizard crowed when he entered the tent. "Do you have a secret admirer?"
Chas's head popped in at the window. "I bet someone likes you!"
"Chas, you have to be in your tent, now. It's only a few minutes till rest hour." He shooed the boy away, still wondering what he should do about the flowers.
Chris arrived while he was still examining them. "Oh, that's…nice."
Jared flicked his eyes toward where Lizard was pretending to write a letter. "I think someone's trying to set me up."
"Ah. Say no more."
"They wrote me a fake love note, too," Jared whispered. "What should I do?"
Chris heaved himself back on his bed and flicked his hat over his eyes. The hour after the lunch was ostensibly a time for campers to write letters or read, but it was mostly an excuse to let the counselors take a nap. "You're on your own, dude."
The next Sunday Jared woke up before reveille. Sundays were "Lazy Breakfast," which meant the kids got to sleep in a little and go to breakfast in their pajamas. Jared looked at his watch and decided he had enough time for a run. Though he'd gone on plenty of hikes over the last two weeks, he'd always been going at the pace of nine-year-olds. He wanted a chance to really push himself, and this was the only time he could do it. As long as he got back before breakfast, Chris would cover for him.
As he got out to the main road that ran through camp, he noticed Alona stretching out. "Hey," he waved. "Looks like you've got the same idea I do. Mind if I join you?"
"If you can keep up," she said with a wink.
After Jared stretched, too, they headed out. The plan was to circle the lake, a five mile loop. Jared let Alona set the pace and they ran in silence for a while. For most of its stretch, the road was surrounded by trees, but they passed the occasional house, all with quaint little names on signs, like "Harrington's Nook" or "Benson's Retreat." They must all be summer homes, Jared thought. He wouldn't mind having a house up here someday. Vermont was truly gorgeous in the summer. The road wound closer to the lake in parts, giving them a view of the sun, still low on the horizon, sparkling off the water.
"Alona," Jared said, drawing even with her. "I think my campers think we're going out."
"Really?" Alona asked with a slightly breathless laugh.
"They sent me a love note from you on my last day off. It was all flowery—darling, and smoldering gazes and stuff. Told me to meet you in the infirmary at midnight."
"How do you know I didn't send it? I might have been waiting up all night for you."
"Darling?" Jared said and Alona burst out laughing. "I suppose it was also you that left a clump of uprooted weeds on my pillow. Very romantic."
"God. And like I'd want to get it on in the infirmary. They try and set me up with somebody every year. Hazard of being the only chick at camp. Bit of a perk too—sixty to one, those are pretty good odds."
Alona looked at him and he noticed a sparkle in her eyes. She looked speculative. He suddenly felt a little flustered. To cover his discomfort, he said, "Race you to the next turn."
"You're on," Alona replied, and took off without waiting for him to start.
Alona was fast, he had to give her that, but in the end his longer legs won out and he beat her, but only by a little.
When she drew up, they were both laughing. "Give me a sec, Speedy." She said.
Jared leaned against a tree, while Alona rested her hands on her knees. There hadn't been much traffic this early, so Jared looked up when he heard the sound of an engine. He touched Alona's shoulder to draw her a little further off the road. A van drove past them, and Jared could see a bunch of campers in uniform inside. He realized it must be the van that took the religious campers to church for services. He was a little perplexed to hear cat-calling from inside, distorted by the Doppler effect as it disappeared down the road.
"What do you think that was?" he asked Alona as she straightened up.
"Boys," Alona said, rolling her eyes, and started on the last stretch back to camp.
Jared had just enough time to shower before heading down to breakfast with his hair still wet. When he got there, Chris had goaded the Steves into a powder donut eating contest, and all their faces were caked with powdered sugar.
It was subtle at first, but later in the day, Jared noticed that some of the campers stared at him, or stopped talking when he walked up. He felt like he'd landed back in middle school, which wasn't surprising given the age of some of these kids.
He sat at Jensen's table at dinner, and as he plopped servings of stew into dishes and handed them out, he noticed a knot of campers at the far end of the table whispering to each other and giving him furtive looks. "What," he said, and they broke apart faster than roaches when the light turns on.
After a few more minutes of silent looks passing between them as they ate their stew, Lizard turned to Jared. Jared looked to Jensen for support; Jensen just looked bemused. He looked back at Lizard.
"So…" Lizard said. "Did she spit or swallow?"
Jared's jaw dropped open. "What?" He couldn't possibly have meant—
A little bolder, he started again. "Alona. Did she—"
He was interrupted by a hand slamming down on the table. Jared looked over at Jensen, who had risen and looked angrier than Jared had ever seen him. "Did you just say something?" he asked.
Lizard got a cocky look in his eye. "I just asked—"
Jensen hit the table again. Jared noticed a couple of campers at nearby tables craning their necks. Counselors, too. "Cause I just thought I heard something that might get someone kitchen duty. So—did you say something?"
Lizard looked cowed. "No. Didn't say anything."
"Good." Jensen sat back down. "Didn't think so."
Jared was impressed. He'd been trying to rein Lizard in for weeks. He had to admire Jensen's technique. He still couldn't believe it, though. Who knew twelve-year-old boys had such nasty minds? He didn't think he would've thought of that when he was twelve. Though, actually… Well.
After dinner had broken up, Jensen pulled him aside. Before he could say anything, Jared patted his shoulder. "Thanks, man. I don't know where that came from."
Jensen looked at him seriously. "Did you go out running with Alona this morning?"
Jared was confused. "Yeah."
"Well, next time try being a little more discreet. Remember what I said about doing stuff on camp property."
Jared still couldn't make Jensen's words make sense.
Jensen, sensing Jared's confusion, continued. "The church van saw you, man. There are rumors flying all over camp. Now I don't really think she gave you a blowjob on the side of the road, but whatever you were doing—"
"Blowjob?" Jared sputtered. "What? We just went running."
"Really?" Jensen sounded relieved.
"Yes, really. Alona's a nice girl, but—"
Jensen slapped him on the back. "Well, okay then. Kids, you know, at this age they—"
"Yeah, you know—"
"They're just exploring—"
"Okay then. Well. See you round." Jensen slapped his back one more time and headed off. Now Jared was even more confused. And he didn't know how he was going to handle any more questions like Lizard's. Maybe it was too much to hope for that Lizard and Chas would try to set Chris up instead.
Jared was woken up in the middle of that night by Turtle, who was feeling sick. Why Turtle disturbed his sleep and not Chris's, he didn't know. He blearily shoved his feet into his sneakers, grabbed his flashlight, and headed off with Turtle for the infirmary. Wouldn't you know it, Alona was on duty.
Jared watched as Alona examined his camper. He tried furiously not to blush. After a little bit she declared that Turtle just had an upset stomach, gave him some Pepto-Bismol, and sent him to sleep in one of the infirmary's cots. She came back through the creaking door to the infirmary's answer to a ward quietly after tucking Turtle in. "He went out like a light," she said conspiratorially.
"He's okay, then?" Jared asked. Despite still being cranky at being woken up at three a.m., he was a little worried.
"He's fine. Sometimes these kids are just feeling homesick and want a little attention. Come morning, it'll be like this never happened." She smiled up at him with her sweet smile and Jared couldn't help blushing harder.
"Yeah, um, so…" He looked down at his feet.
Alona laughed. "You're embarrassed because of the rumors, right?"
"You heard those?" Jared looked up aghast.
"Gossip's practically the only thing to do around here. Chris told me."
"I am so sorry. I just didn't expect— I would never— God."
"It's fine," she said with a wave. "You think this is the first time this has happened? Last year everyone was saying I slept with Jeff up on Winships." Jared almost swallowed his tongue. "It's no big deal."
"No big deal?"
She raised an eyebrow at him. "I work at an all boys camp. You think I'd keep coming back if this sort of stuff bothered me? I'm a big girl, Jared, I can handle a few rumors. The people whose opinions I care about are old enough not to listen to them, anyway."
Jared smiled. "Yeah—it's just so—embarrassing."
"You're cute when you're embarrassed, you know?" Alona said, then turned back to her desk. "At least it was in their heads. If you actually give them some real ammo, watch out."
At the end of the next counselor meeting, it was time to sign up for his next day off. He stared at the calendar for a moment, sharpie in hand—between trips he'd already scheduled and Chris's day off, he only had one possible day left. And he still didn't have a car. Chad was signed up for that day, too, but he didn't really want to spend another day doing nothing in Hanover. He noticed another name on the list and got an idea. Before he could talk himself out of it, he turned.
"Hey, Jensen," he called.
Jensen, already at the door, turned. "Yeah?"
"You've got a car, right?"
"Uh, yeah." Jensen started meandering back towards Jared.
"Well, I noticed we've got the same day off next week. Can I bum a ride off you? I got stuck in Hanover last time, and believe me, Hanover's not exactly a happening place."
Jensen looked amused. "What did you have in mind?"
"Oh, I don't care. We'll think of something."
Jensen shrugged. "Sure. Why not."
Jared turned to write his name on the calendar, hiding his smile.
They pulled into the parking lot at nine. It was a later start than Jared would have liked, but with the two hour drive, he didn't think Jensen would have gone for getting up at five a.m.
Jensen climbed out of the car and looked up, shaking his head. "I can't believe you talked me into this. Isn't hiking your day job? You have to do it on your day off, too?"
"Going up and down thousand footers with middle-schoolers is not the same thing. This—this is a true challenge, and its own reward."
"Yeah, it's going to be a challenge. When you have to carry me down from the summit. You know I picked sailing for a reason. I haven't been on a forced march since I was a camper."
Jared just tossed him his pack. "Quit your whining or I'll sing camp songs all the way up."
"Oh, god," Jensen groaned, then headed for the trailhead. "You do that and I'll leave you here. You can explain to Jeff why you went AWOL on your day off."
They were at the base of Mt. Washington—the tallest peak on the East Coast, and a peak Jared had been wanting to hike all summer. It seemed a shame to spend the summer in Vermont and not come out to the Presidentials.
They started from the Cog Railway station and headed up the Jewell Trail—Mike had assured him it was the easiest ascent, though easy was a relative term when talking about 6,000 vertical feet over a ten mile hike. Jared was a little worried about dragging Jensen into this, but as soon as they got going, Jensen seemed to be enjoying it.
They took the trail at a light jog, watching their footing carefully over the roots and jumbled rocks. Pretty soon, Jared called a stop so he could peel off his t-shirt, mopping his brow with it before tucking it into the back of his shorts. Jensen was smiling at him when he looked up, slightly flushed. He turned away to grab his water bottle out of his pack. Jared grabbed a bandana to wrap around his forehead as a sweat band. He was sure he looked like an idiot, but having his sweat-damp bangs flop into his eyes was beginning to drive him crazy. He was glad when Jensen didn't make any cracks at his expense. After a moment, he just smacked Jared on the shoulder and headed off again.
When they broke the tree line, Jared had to put his shirt back on to protect from the chill. They broke out their windbreakers soon after. It may have been July, but without the protection of the trees, the wind cut across the mountain, stealing the heat of the day. They passed a lot of hikers on the trail—groups of friends, fathers and sons, and one guy with a very put upon-looking girlfriend. When they'd crossed out of hearing range, Jared and Jensen couldn't help snickering at each other.
When the trail crossed the Cog Railway tracks, Jared insisted they stop until a train chugged past. "You want me to what?" Jensen asked.
"C'mon, mooning the Cog is a tradition." Jared whined. Plus, it would be a chance to maybe sneak a glance at Jared's cute ass without all those clothes in the way.
"If you want to get arrested for public indecency, you go right ahead. Bare that lily white ass. I'll be up there laughing at you." Jensen started towards the peak.
"Oh, fine." Jared said, jogging a few steps to catch up with Jensen. "I didn't peg you for a prude."
"I am not a prude. Having the maturity not to moon people does not make me a prude."
"Does that mean we can go streaking later?"
Jensen just shook his head.
They made it to the weather station at the summit a little after one o'clock. Mt. Washington was high enough that they were actually in a cloud at the top. This was cool in concept, but in reality, meant they were hiking through mist that covered their skin in little water droplets and made Jensen's hair stand up in spikes. Though the whole of the valley was stretched out below them, they couldn't see anything but the mountain itself. Jared could see how it had gotten the nickname "The Rock Pile." The whole summit was jumbled granite boulders, covered in lichen and made slick with the mist. Even if there had been a view, they would have had to focus on their footing or risk twisting an ankle.
When they stepped inside the summit building, Jensen said, "Now I see why you chose Mt. Washington. Where else could we get hot chili at the top?" He looked a little haggard, but he was smiling, which Jared took as a good sign.
The summit was crowded with an interesting mix of sweat-soaked hikers, tourists who had taken the Cog Railway up and were covered in a fine layer of soot from the coal-burning engines, and a few pristine visitors who had driven up the auto road. There was a reason driving up Mt. Washington in your car was considered heresy to true mountaineers. Jared couldn't help but laugh at the hairy eyeball some of the drivers were getting from the hikers.
"Hey," Jared said, smacking Jensen with his spoon. "Don't wolf down too much. We still have to get all the way back down this thing."
"Don't tell me that!" Jensen said, sliding down in his chair. His leg brushed up against Jared's. Jared thought it must be accidental, Jensen was just tired, but that didn't stop the goosebumps Jared felt all over his skin. Jensen looked gorgeous like this, flushed and sweaty, mouth a little slack with exhaustion, hair spiky with sweat and rain. Jared breathed deep and could smell him, the clean scent of Jensen's sweat, mixed with the smell of the mountains. As he stared at Jensen, feeling the brush of their calves together, he felt a stirring in his shorts.
Abruptly he pulled his leg away and coughed to cover his indrawn breath. "We should head back out."
"Right, right," Jensen said, straightening. "Just let me hit the head."
They headed down the other side of the summit. This section of trail was more crowded, as some of the more adventurous railway riders explored. Just before they reached Lakes of the Clouds, the mist cleared away. Jared grabbed Jensen's shoulder; he was intently looking at his feet as he leapt from rock to rock.
Jensen turned to look out at the view. "Wow," he said.
"Yeah," Jared replied.
They could see green covered mountain peaks spreading out before them, folded like wrinkled fabric. It was still hazy, with clouds overhead, but sunlight was piercing the clouds periodically, reflecting off the humidity in the air like beams of light in a Renaissance painting. Mist still clung to folds in the mountain. Jared shaded his eyes and craned his neck to look down. "Hey, you see your car? I think that's it waaaaaay down there."
Jensen snorted. He laid a hand against the back of Jared's neck for a moment, and Jared could feel the heat seep all the way through him. Then the hand was gone. "Let's get going."
They stopped for a moment at Lakes of the Clouds to look at the sky reflected in the perfectly smooth surface of the lakes cradled in cowl of the mountain. It was strange to see lakes up here, above the tree line, surrounded only by scrub brush and rocks. Jared was pretty sure they ended up in the background of some tourists' photos as they made their way back to the Ammonoosuc Trail.
The path down was grueling—so steep, the rocks seemed less like steps than like a ladder, straight down.
"My legs are turning to Jell-o," Jensen said from behind him.
"We're almost there," Jared called back, though he wasn't too sure about that.
"You said that an hour ago. I'm not sure I believe you anymore."
Luckily for Jared, the trail opened up to a small pond and a waterfall soon after. Jared pulled out his map for a moment. "This is the Gem Pool," Jared said, looking up. "Not much further back."
"Great," Jensen said, continuing down the trail.
"Hey, wait a sec. Stop and enjoy the beauty."
Jensen rolled his eyes, then looked on in surprise as Jared pulled off his boots and soaked-through socks, then stripped off his shirt.
"What are you doing?"
"Going for a swim!" Jared waded out into the water. The cold knocked the breath out of him. It was the sort of cold that made the marrow in your bones ache, but he couldn't back out now, with Jensen watching.
Jared made his cautious way to the edge and dipped a hand in, then quickly jerked it out. "Are you insane?"
"Yup!" Jared said. He made it out to waist deep, then took a deep breath and dunked his head. Despite the numbing cold, it actually felt nice to wash away some of the grit of the day. "Come on in! It's refreshing!"
"You're nuts," Jensen said laughing. He took a seat on a rock and watched as Jared made his way out of the water. Once back on dry land he was hit with a full body shiver. "Refreshing, huh? Then why are you all goosebumps?"
Jared grinned mischievously and approached Jensen, who was looking at him warily. When he got in range, he leaned over and shook his head, spraying Jensen with water from his hair.
"Hey!" Jensen shot up. Jared chased after him, not easy on the uneven footing, and grabbed him into a hug, making sure to transfer as much water as possible. It was a juvenile thing to do, but he figured it was better than trying to throw Jensen into the pool. Karmically speaking.
Jensen laughed and made a half-hearted attempt to escape. "Did anyone ever tell you you're like a giant puppy?"
Impulsively, Jared licked a stripe up the side of his neck. He could taste the salt of Jensen's sweat, feel the tendon there under the skin. He froze, suddenly realizing he was completely wrapped around Jensen, pressed up against his front. He'd been rubbing his bare chest against Jensen's shirt a moment ago, trying to get him wet. Shit. It had been such a good day, and now he could just see how badly this could end. In a minute, Jensen wouldn't have any doubt what Jared was thinking about.
Jensen didn't seem to notice Jared's sudden lack of movement. "God, Jared," he said, then pushed Jared's face away. But he was still laughing. He swiped at his neck, making the kind of face eight-year-olds did when they talked about girl cooties. "Clearly the endorphins have gone to your head. Time to get you home." Still smiling, he headed down the trail.
Jared took a moment to put his boots back on and collect himself. Well, that hadn't gone as badly as it could have. He'd had visions of Jensen punching him, taking off in the car and leaving him. But a small part of him hoped that maybe Jensen had been feeling the same way he had. Instead, Jensen had just thought he was horsing around. He thought he had been, too. But maybe he'd really been making an offer.
Jared shook his head. No use getting crushes on oblivious straight boys, he reminded himself. He forced himself to regain the laughter they'd shared a moment ago and took off after Jensen.
Jared didn't mean to, but he couldn't help falling asleep on the ride back. Even though they got back only a little bit after taps, Jared hit the showers and went straight to bed, mumbling something to Jensen about seeing him the next day. He had a vague memory of Jensen laughing at him, but Jensen headed straight for his bunk, too.
Breakfast the next day was in an uproar. Apparently, on the one day he was gone, Chad had peed out of the side of his tent and now all the eleven-year-olds, under the mistaken impression that Chad was cool, had started to do it, too. Chad claimed it was just because the bathrooms were so darn far from the tents and it was treacherous getting there in the dark (which was what flashlights were for). It only took one moment with Chris out of earshot of the campers to confirm that Chad had just gotten wasted two nights ago. Jeff made a special announcement in that morning's assembly about appropriate and inappropriate times to use the great outdoors as a bathroom.
Jared sat at Jensen's table again at lunch. He couldn't help but feel a bubbling exuberance every time he looked at Jensen. From the way Jensen was smiling, he felt it too. Unfortunately, the campers must have picked up on some of the excitement, and Jared and Jensen barely managed to quash a food fight before it spread to neighboring tables. When Jared had made sure that all the tater tots were back on the table and staying that way, he looked up to see Chris giving him a measured look.
Jared was stuck on camp property for the next few days. He'd been chosen to head one of the five-day trips in the second half of the summer, so Mike decided he needed to rack up some time in the Woodchuck Hole teaching campers how to light fires and look at star charts. Jared was secretly thankful to have the time to coordinate with Tom on the details—they were doing a canoe trip. On the plus side, that meant they didn't have to carry everything in packs, they could put it in the canoes instead. On the minus side, there would be a few overland stretches where they had to carry everything, including the canoes.
Jared was also maybe not so upset to be seeing Jensen more frequently.
A few days later, just as morning activities ended for a stretch of free time before lunch, Jared headed towards the docks. As he approached, he saw there was some sort of commotion going on. Normally at this hour, everyone was out of water, heading back to their tents. Right now it looked like every lifeguard in the camp was in the water. A few more counselors were standing around the swimming docks, making sure the campers all headed to their tents.
Jared broke into a run, and spotted Chad. He looked uncharacteristically serious—and worried. Jared felt a knot form in the pit of his stomach. "What's going on?"
"Camper didn't turn their tag," Chad explained. To make sure everyone was out of the water at the end of the period, each camper had a numbered tag. As they went onto the docks, they hung their tag on a pegboard, showing that they were swimming. At the end of the period, they moved it back. Apparently at the end of the period today, the board showed that one camper hadn't come back. By the reaction, Jared guessed he hadn't just been doing laps and not heard the whistle.
At first, the swimming docks looked like they were in chaos, but once he looked more closely, Jared realized it was actually regimented. The lifeguards were searching the lake in sections, each one diving all the way down to the bottom before moving a little bit forward and diving again. With the water as murky as it was, that would be the only way to find the camper if he'd drowned. Jared shivered. His eyes scanned the water and he could see Jensen's head bobbing out beyond the lane lines.
"Who is it?" Jared asked.
"Derek Johnson." Jared closed his eyes for a moment, picturing the quiet ten-year-old that was always hanging out with Turtle. "Chris checked the changing room and his tent, but couldn't find him."
Jared opened his eyes again. "Thanks," he said, taking off for the tents. It took him a few minutes to make it up the hillside to where the ten-year-old campers stayed. There were a few things he'd learned since he'd gotten here about what campers did with their free periods. He'd had more than one occasion when a camper took off a little before the bugle.
Rather than going to Derek's tent, he headed instead to the bathroom. The campers only had the free periods before lunch and dinner to take showers (the mornings were reserved for the counselors), and there were only two stalls in this bathroom. All except for the first few campers back to the tents had to suffer through cold water straight from the lake if they wanted to clean up.
Sure enough, Derek was standing there in line for the shower, glasses off, towel wrapped round his waist, holding a little basket with his toiletries. Jared took a deep breath in relief.
"Derek," Jared said. Derek looked up, startled. Though Jared tried not to let it, some of the gravity of the situation seeped into his tone. The other campers were all looking on curiously. "Come with me."
Derek held his toiletries a little closer to his chest. "You're not in trouble. You just have to come with me. Right now."
Jared hustled Derek to his tent to throw on his clothes. He debated dragging the poor kid down the hill in his towel, but even though the matter was urgent, he knew what boys could be like. This would be embarrassing enough for Derek as it was. If he got dragged in front of the whole camp in just a towel he'd never live it down.
When Derek had stuffed his feet into his sneakers, Jared set off with him for the docks. He had to hold himself back from running flat out, knowing Derek wouldn't be able to keep up with his longer stride.
"Hey!" he yelled as they approached. "I found him! I found Derek! He's fine."
He saw Chad turn to pass on the message, a smile breaking across his face. Pretty soon whistles were blowing and heads were popping up out of the water.
"What's going on?" Derek said. He still looked a little worried that Jared had dragged him down here as some sort of punishment.
"You forgot to turn your tag," he said, and watched comprehension dawn over Derek's face.
"Oh." Derek looked like he might start crying. "I'm sorry."
Jared leaned down to look him in the eye. "It's okay. It's okay. You're not in trouble. We're just glad you're safe."
By this point, the lifeguards were emerging from the water, rushing towards Derek to make sure the boy they were looking for was indeed okay. Tom broke through the crowd. "Hey, Derek," he said. Jared could tell he was going for casual—and failing. After a moment he gave up trying and hugged Derek. Something clicked in Jared's head—Tom was Derek's counselor. Jared couldn't imagine how tough it would be looking for one of his kids.
"I'm sorry. I forgot," Derek said again. He looked like he was trying to use Tom's shoulders as a handkerchief.
Tom pulled back quickly. "It's okay, kiddo. You just gave us a scare." He roughed up Derek's hair, then turned to triumphantly move his tag off the board.
"Oh, thank god," Chris said, then spread-eagled out on the grass. "That's it—I'm done for the day." After a moment he raised his head to look at Jared. "Hey, where'd you find him?"
"He was in line for the shower."
Chris laughed. "Of course. Why didn't I think of that?"
Jared could feel a palpable sense of relief as the counselors who'd been searching headed to the changing rooms to dry off. Jared noticed that a few of them who didn't work in the swimming or boating departments were wearing just their shorts—they must have run straight for the water, not bothering to change.
Jared scanned the crowd, looking for Jensen. He wasn't one of the ones heading to the changing rooms. His eyes flicked back out to the lake in a moment of fear before he could stop himself. Then he spotted the back of Jensen's head disappearing around the side of the Barn.
Jared jogged to catch up to him. "Jensen!" he called, but didn't get an answer. When he rounded the corner of the Barn, he could see Jensen had taken a seat on a bench. Now that the commotion had broken up, it was deserted here, as all the campers were up in their tents, and the counselors who didn't have other duties were in the counselor room. Jensen was sitting in a grove that had been set up as an outdoor auditorium, with rows of log benches interspersed with birch trees. On Sundays when the weather was nice, Jeff usually held assembly out here where they could look out over the lake.
As Jared approached, he could see Jensen's shoulders were slumped. He was drawn into himself, toes pointed towards each other in the pine needles, making him look oddly young. He didn't look up when Jared sat next to him.
"Hey," he said. Jensen half nodded his head in acknowledgment. "You okay?" This close to him, Jared could see goosebumps raised over his bare arms. It was a hot day, but still wet from the lake in nothing but his swim trunks, Jensen shivered at a light breeze. "Hey," Jared said again, resting his hand between Jensen's shoulder blades.
This seemed to startle Jensen out of his reverie. He swallowed quickly. "Yeah, yeah. Fine." But he didn't pull away from Jared's hand. Jared risked running it up to the base of Jensen's neck, fingertips brushing his hair, hoping it would feel like a gesture of comfort. Jensen was usually the king of composure—it was unnerving to see him so rattled, but Jared had a guess as to why.
"Derek's fine, you know. Just a little embarrassed."
Jensen laughed at that, a quick bark which didn't leave a smile in its wake. "Yeah, I know."
Jared sat there, completely still but for his fingers brushing tentatively at Jensen's neck, afraid to do or say something to break the strange tension he felt between them. He felt like he was Jensen's anchor, and he didn't want to pull away and set him adrift. Jensen took a deep breath before continuing quietly. "It's just—I wanted to find him. But I really, really didn't."
"Yeah," Jared breathed. He pulled Jensen toward him, not thinking about what he was doing. Jensen tucked into his side, took a shuddering breath, then let his head rest on Jared's shoulder. Jared could feel some of the fear and worry leech out of his friend as he gently rubbed his shoulder. When he looked down, he could see that Jensen had shut his eyes, blond lashes resting on freckled cheeks, his mouth slightly open as he took deep, slow breaths.
They stayed there in silence, Jared giving Jensen the shelter to put himself back together. Jared looked out at the sunlight glinting at the ripples on the lake, no less beautiful now that he knew what it could do. But his eyes kept being drawn back to Jensen. The sun had dried him off now, but the occasional droplet made its way from his hair down his neck and chest. Where his arm wrapped protectively around Jensen's shoulder, he could feel the soft, smooth skin and the strength of the muscles beneath. He felt the tickle of Jensen's hair against his neck and couldn’t help leaning his cheek against Jensen's head.
He'd had crushes before, but he'd never been allowed so close—or never allowed himself to be. He'd never held someone like this, felt their skin stretched out underneath his touch, felt the trust he did from Jensen right now. His breath sped up—he couldn't help it. He knew he was tensing up, his fear that Jensen might notice the change in his thoughts almost guaranteeing that he would. He swallowed against his suddenly dry throat.
Jensen pulled back, looking up at him without dislodging his arm. Jared felt trapped—he knew his thoughts, and his fear, were written all over his face. Jensen would have to be blind not to see it. And on Jensen's face—he couldn't tell. He expected disgust or, if he was lucky, a joke, but Jensen looked just as transfixed, staring into his eyes, lips parted. Jared's eyes wandered to those full lips, so close to his own he could feel Jensen's breath.
The camp bugle blew, announcing that it was time for lunch. Jared started at the sound, and in that moment Jensen pulled away, turning to look out at the lake. "Guess I better change," he said, tugging at his still wet trunks. "Jeff might think I was a bad example, going to lunch out of uniform."
"Yeah," Jared agreed, his voice strangely unsteady. Jensen wasn't looking at him. He was looking at the lake, or the ground. He wished they could go back to that moment just a little while ago. He wasn't sure what had been about to happen, but he was sure it would have been incredible.
Jared noticed pine needles sticking to the seat of Jensen's swim suit. He thought about brushing them off; wondered what Jensen would do if he did.
Jensen turned to look at him, quick, and Jared felt like his skin was on fire under the gaze. He must be bright red. Jensen was smiling and for a moment Jared thought he was going to make fun of him.
"Aw, sorry dude. I got you all wet." Jensen patted Jared's chest where he'd left a wet spot. Jared sucked in his breath, remembering Jensen pressed against him there.
"No problem." Suddenly both of them were smiling at each other, and Jared felt like maybe the moment hadn't been lost at all, just…postponed.
They heard the sounds of campers approaching on their way to the dining hall. "See you later?" Jensen said, setting off in a jog for the changing rooms.
"Yeah," Jared called, then added quietly, "definitely."
When Jared got up to Winships that evening, he didn't see Jensen. That wasn't surprising—as head of the sailing department and of the Rousters, he often had meetings to finish up at the end of the day and arrived later.
Jared felt jittery and nervous, like anyone must be able to look at him and tell, which they probably could. Chad was there, poking the fire and talking to Mike. Jared didn't feel up to keeping up a conversation right now, unless they wanted to know everything about Jensen's freckles.
He detoured away from the fire before they called him over, heading for a secluded part of the clearing, up the hill and closer to the tree line. From up here, the campfire light barely carried enough for him to see the looming shape of the trees. He turned off his flashlight, hiding in the darkness—the closest thing to privacy here—and hoped he didn't turn his ankle on any rocks. The five-day canoe trip left in two days, and he would be bummed to have to sit it out after all this planning.
He sat down, trying to slow his breathing and soothe the butterflies in his stomach. It was a clear night—a welcome break from the hazy humidity that had been hanging over the camp for the last week. He laid back, resting his head in his hands, and looked up at the vast expanse of the sky. He could see the stars back home in San Antonio, if he drove away from the city a little bit, but it was nothing like here. So far away from city lights, the longer he stared up, the more stars he could see. At first it was just the big constellations, and the dimmer stars in between, but as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could make out sprinklings of light in what had at first looked like only blackness. He let his eyes go unfocused, picking up more stars on the edges of his vision that disappeared when he looked at them.
It was meditative, letting himself fall into the sky above him. He felt a momentary flash of vertigo at the immensity of it, as if the Earth's gravity would give him up to it if he didn't concentrate on staying on the ground.
The crunching of twigs alerted him that someone was approaching. Without being able to see more than a shape in the darkness, he still knew it was Jensen. In his contemplative mood, he felt sure he could smell him as he approached.
"Chris said he saw you disappear up here," Jensen said quietly, as if sensing Jared's mood. He lay down beside Jared, letting out a quiet "ouch" as he sat on something, before shifting and throwing it off into the woods. "So, Campcraft boy, what constellations are up there tonight?"
Jared lifted a hand to point, only visible as a void against the stars. "Big dipper, little dipper, Cassiopeia's Chair, uh…" Jensen laughed quietly. "Hydra?"
"That's all you got?"
"Hey, that's all the campers need for their first rank. If they pass that, I hand them off to Mike."
"Just remind me never to get lost at sea with you," Jensen said. Jared heard Jensen shift beside him. Jensen laid a gentle hand on his chest, and Jared shivered. He felt vulnerable, laying beside Jensen. He felt the hand brush up his chest until it was resting over his heart, which beat faster like it was struggling to reach Jensen. The touch was just hard enough to avoid tickling. Even now he felt the urge to laugh, but he didn't want to end the moment. He didn't know if he should reach out to Jensen or just lie there—did Jensen think he wasn't interested because he wasn't responding? Was Jensen even interested, or was he just being friendly?
Before Jared could get too lost in his own doubts, a shape appeared above him, blocking out the stars. It hung there a moment and Jared could feel Jensen's breath on his lips, smell his sweat. Then it moved and Jared felt the brush of Jensen's soft, chapped lips against his own. Jared was caught between the heat of the hand on his chest and the mouth pressed, unmoving against his own. He couldn't think, just react when the lips moved. Oh, god. He was kissing Jensen.
He managed to summon enough thought to bring a hand to Jensen's head, wrapping around the back of his neck, thumb resting on his cheek. A tongue brushed gently against his lips, sweeping his teeth as his lips parted on a gasp. All he could feel was Jensen's mouth, his hand, his hair ruffled beneath Jared's fingers, and then he was pulling away.
Jared was lightheaded—it was a good thing he was already lying down or his knees might have given out on him, and that would have just been embarrassing. "I thought you said no nookie on camp property?" Jared said dumbly, then could have kicked himself. Of all the things to say in a moment like this, instead of "I've been wanting to do that," or "Don't stop," he had to make a veiled reprimand?
He felt Jensen's cheek move under his hand, guessing that must mean he was smiling. A moment later, the tone of Jensen's voice confirmed it. "Well, I guess that rule has a special Jared exemption. Rules are made to be broken, right?"
He moved away, Jared's fingers brushing across his neck and shoulders, until he was just a shape in the darkness. He sat there for a moment and Jared wondered what he could see in the faint starlight that Jared couldn't. Then he wordlessly got up and headed towards the fire and the sounds of other counselors, suddenly intrusive now, though a moment ago Jared would have sworn there was no one else around for miles.
Jared stayed propped on his elbows, watching Jensen go, as he tried to recover his breath. He didn't remember feeling this winded when he climbed Mt. Washington. But Jensen, Jensen was another force entirely. His lips tingled with the thought. When he finally got up to rejoin the others, he knew he was grinning like a maniac and couldn't bring himself to care.
He plopped down next to Jensen, who was regaling Chris with some story from college. Chris spared a sideways glance at Jared, and Jared hoped he couldn't see the blush in the dim light. He knew he had to be circumspect, couldn't wrap an arm around Jensen's shoulders and tug him closer the way he wanted to, couldn't give in to the desire to touch Jensen, didn't matter where, just to feel the warmth of his skin. But he couldn't feel anything but joy when he thought about whatever this thing was that was happening between them.
The next morning Jeff pulled Jared aside as he was leaving breakfast. Jeff was like a giant teddy bear most of the time—warm smile and dimples—but he could terrify misbehaving campers when he had to. Jared had always thought of that as an endearing quality, until Jeff asked if he could step into his office for a few minutes.
Jared's heart-rate skyrocketed as he headed over to the office building. Jeff was too circumspect to drag him off in front of the whole camp, but that only meant that he ended up standing in Jeff's office, waiting for him to show. He'd only been sent to the principal's office once as a kid (for throwing sand in someone's eye, which was totally not his fault) and he didn't think he'd been this terrified then.
He could only think of one reason why he was here. Jeff had to know. Jensen had been right—camp property had some sort of magical power that made sure everyone knew everything he did, particularly things he did in the pitch black on top of Winships. With Jensen. But how could he know? It had been less than a day. Somebody must have told him. Could Chris? That didn't make any sense. Chris was Jensen's friend and, Jared liked to think, his as well, but there had been something in that look he'd given Jared last night—
Jared was jerked out of his thoughts as Jeff walked into the office. He sat behind his desk and gestured for Jared to sit as well, which he did, though he couldn't keep his leg from jiggling up and down. "Jared, I just wanted to talk to you for a minute. I think you know why you're here—"
"I'm gay," Jared blurted out before he could think. Stupid mouth.
"Ooookay." Jeff looked a little confused.
Jared squeezed his eyes shut in mute horror, but then once he thought about it—why should he be pulled aside like a child and reprimanded for kissing Jensen? He straightened in his seat. "I'm gay, and I'm proud of that fact, and if you have a problem with it, then that's your problem. Maybe I should have told you before you hired me, but I'm a great counselor, the kids love me, and maybe that's not the right way to put it, but being gay doesn't make me a pervert. If you're so close-minded that you can't handle that, and think that who I'm attracted to has anything to do with whether I can teach boys to light campfires or identify poison ivy, then I can pack my stuff up right now—"
"Whoa, whoa, wait a sec," Jeff said. He looked a little steamrolled, but his expression quickly changed. It looked like he was trying to hold back a laugh. "It's great that you're gay, thanks for telling me, but I actually wanted to talk to you because you were late to the last counselor meeting."
Jared felt all the blood drain from his face. He'd just blown his chance to stay here, maybe see where things with Jensen would lead, and it wasn't even about that? "Oh."
Jeff's laughter quickly faded. "Jared, honestly, I don't care that you're gay. You don't have to leave unless you want to, though I'd prefer if you didn't. It's very disruptive to the campers to have their counselors disappearing."
"But—this is a sleepaway boys camp. Don't the parents mind?"
"Fuck the parents," Jeff said gruffly, then rolled his eyes self-deprecatingly at the obscenity. "The parents mind if their kid doesn't get the lead in the play or if their little monster can't have his Game Boy no matter how many pleading letters he writes. The parents are always going to mind about something. But that's my job, to deal with them. I'm not going to let some close-minded parents tell me how to run my camp, especially when their kids could use some exposure to a viewpoint different than their own."
Jared could feel his nerves slowly calming. He nodded.
"I'm actually glad you told me, though I would never have pressed you about it."
Jeff gestured out at the camp. "The boys that come here each summer, they're transitioning from being children to being adults—it's a very difficult time for a lot of them. And I guarantee you that there are kids out there who are just starting to figure out that they maybe don't like girls as much as they think they should. It could be a tremendous help to them to have someone like you as a role model. You may think I'm out of touch, but I've heard the rumblings—you're one of the most popular counselors here. A lot of kids look up to you. Now, I don't want you to start broadcasting your sexuality—like you said, it has nothing to do with your job as a counselor—but keep your eyes open and you might find someone you could help feel more comfortable with themselves. You think you can do that?"
"Yeah," Jared said, smiling.
"Great." Jeff sat back. He'd been talking to Jared as a peer a moment ago, but he was now back in his role as camp director, all business. "About being late…"
"It won't happen again."
"Alright." Jeff smiled. "Get outta here."
Jared wanted to see Jensen. He didn't know what he wanted to say, just that he needed to see him, be with him. Maybe not touch him, though—Jeff may have been surprisingly tolerant, but Jared wasn't going to push it. He waited all morning for the free time before lunch to try to find him.
Unfortunately, Chris had to call a shack meeting. Frog and Turtle shared a bunk and Frog had taken to kicking Turtle's mattress in the middle of the night. When Chris pressed him about it, he claimed it was an involuntary action in his sleep. Jared thought that was bull, but it might not have been, given some of the stories the other counselors told about sleepwalking campers.
Either way, it took a whole hour of discussion (and yelling, and sulkily slamming trunk lids) to work out a new sleeping arrangement so Frog wouldn't be able to kick anyone in their sleep, intentional or not.
The trumpet blew, signaling it was time to go to lunch, but Chris held everybody back for a moment. "Guys, I know it seems like you've been stuck with these ugly mugs for an eternity, but there's only two weeks left before y'all go home. And believe me, you're going to miss this when you're back in school. So don't waste it fighting, huh?"
They all nodded in assent, then took off for the dining hall. Only two weeks left before he went back to Texas. Two weeks to figure out this thing with Jensen. And he had to spend the next five days away from him.Part Three
Jared didn't catch Jensen until after taps, up on Winships. He couldn't stay long—he and Tom were leaving with six campers, a van, and a trailer with two aluminum canoes before dawn tomorrow—but he had to see Jensen before he left.
Jensen was at the fire with Chris. When Jared approached, Jensen scooted over to give him room to sit on the log. There wasn't quite enough log left, though, and Jared ended up pressing his thigh against Jensen's. Maybe that had been the point. He couldn't help brushing a finger against Jensen's leg with the pretense of finding his balance.
Jensen smiled at him, but turned back to Chris. Chris was giving him that look again and Jared couldn't help looking away, even though he knew that, even if Chris suspected something, he hadn't told anyone.
They hung out there for a little bit, Chris giving Jensen a blow by blow recounting of the drama with Frog and Jensen riposting with the Rousters' failed prank attempt on the campers at Ohana (something about spray paint and duck footprints—Jared wasn't too clear on the details, too distracted by the sound of Jensen's voice), but Jensen made no move to drag Jared off alone. Maybe that was for the best. They would hardly go unnoticed tonight. But Jensen wanted to tell him about talking to Jeff. He wanted to ask him about what they would do after camp ended—but maybe that was too clingy, like asking for a ring on the first date. All Jensen'd done so far was kiss him. Jared looked at Jensen's mouth, currently engaged in talking to Chris, and really wanted to kiss it again.
When it got close to eleven, Jared knew he had to pull himself away from the fire and the warmth of Jensen's body. "Alright, dudes, I gotta head out."
"Kay," Chris said, "I'll try to keep Lizard from burning down the shack while you're gone."
"Gone?" Jensen asked.
"Yeah, he's got the five-day with Tom."
"Gotta get up at the ass-crack of dawn tomorrow. At least Tom's driving so I can sleep in the van." Jared said lightly. That must be why Jensen hadn't made an attempt to get him alone—he'd forgotten Jared would be away for a while.
"Well," Jensen said, turning his gaze fully on Jared for the first time that evening. "Have fun, then. Don't crash any canoes."
Jared was caught in that gaze for a moment. It was like Jensen was trying to tell him something, but Jared didn't think he was on the same frequency. "I will. And I don't think you can crash a canoe."
"Stranger things have happened," Chris interjected. "Remember that one time with Mike—"
"Yeah," Jensen said, glancing quickly at Chris. He looked back at Jared and for a moment Jared thought he would say something, company be damned, but then he just chucked Jared in the shoulder and turned to Chris. "I can understand running one canoe aground in the rapids. But how'd he ever manage two?"
The sound of his voice faded as Jared headed back down the trail. Whatever Jensen had wanted to say, he'd have to hold the thought. Jared knew he'd be thinking about it.
The trouble with portaging, Jared thought, was that he was too damn tall. Usually each canoe was carried by two people, splitting the weight, but Tom was carrying their tent and all the food and none of the campers were even close to his height. Which meant that he was carrying one aluminum canoe all by himself on the mile stretch where the river's rapids were too difficult to navigate.
If he got it properly balanced, it wasn't so bad, despite the weight. As long as he didn't have to turn. Or change speed. Or go uphill. Or downhill. Or step over anything. Or avoid any low-hanging branches. Okay, so maybe it was so bad.
In deference to his heroic efforts (and sore shoulders), Jared didn't have to paddle for the rest of the day. It was actually quite peaceful, sitting in the middle of the canoe, leaning against the thwart, using the life jackets they'd long since stopped wearing as cushions, and letting the sun soak into him. He couldn't help wishing that Jensen were here to enjoy it with him.
"So," Jared said that evening, as he and Tom were using a trickle of their precious water supply to rinse off the pots. "You and Jensen go way back, huh?"
"Yeah. Me, Jensen, and Mike. We were all campers together, then Rousters together. Now we're all department heads—kind of a camp dynasty." He wiped his hands on his shorts to dry them. After a few days without running water, they were all looking a little worse for wear. "Man," Tom continued. "It's gonna suck next summer without him around."
Jared had lost the thread of the conversation. "What do you mean?"
"Jensen's swan song, man." He looked up at Jared. "You didn't know? Yeah, it's his last summer. We all just graduated college in the spring. I'm starting Teach for America in the fall, I don't think Mike has a clue what he's doing. And Jensen's got some sweet consulting job waiting for him. Those types of places, they don't let you take off two months every summer." He sat back, relaxing now that the chores were done. "Obviously he's the only one of us with any brains."
Tom laughed at that and Jared joined him, but he didn't feel like laughing. He'd been hoping that whatever happened between now and closing day, at least he'd see Jensen next summer. Some part of him had been hoping he'd see Jensen every summer, though he knew they couldn't stay counselors forever. But now it looked like two weeks was all the time he had—less than a week and a half once they got back. And that wasn't any time at all.
"I mean, we still get together during the rest of the year sometimes, but it's not the same as here. Nothing's ever the same as here, you know?"
"Yeah," Jared said. "I know."
They got back to camp right before dinner. Jared stank. He'd always thought that a person would get used to their own smell after being exposed to it constantly, but apparently not. After five days of carrying canoes and paddling and setting up and striking camp and no showers at all, he reeked. He hadn't even been able to wash his hands other than by dipping them in the freezing river and scrubbing them with biodegradable soap. He hadn't shaved either, and now had a full, scruffy beard. He felt sticky and gritty and gross, and knew that if the sweat smell wasn't bad enough on its own, he'd also gotten a pretty thorough coating of mud on the last night when it had rained.
At least he wasn't the only one. They were all looking pretty ratty.
When they pulled up, a small crowd was waiting, and they erupted into applause when the beleaguered campers climbed out. A few raised their fists in triumph—even by camp standards, going on a five-day trip made you hardcore. Jared grinned through his fatigue. He really had enjoyed himself; these types of trips were part of the reason he'd applied to this camp. He wanted to push himself, and develop the kind of camaraderie that only came from scrambling to set up the tarps before their campsite turned into a puddle.
As Jared stretched his back from the long drive, he scanned the crowd. There was Jensen, smiling at him and clapping his hands. "Hey, Jensen!" Jared yelled, then charged him.
"Yuck, dude! You're completely nasty." Jensen tried to dodge Jared's outstretched arms, but it didn't seem like he was trying too hard.
"Yup," Jared said, then engulfed him in a full body hug. A chorus of "ew!"s broke out from the surrounding campers, pitying Jensen's stinky fate, but Jensen didn't seem to mind. For a moment, it felt almost like he was nuzzling Jared's neck. "You're scratchy," Jensen whispered, as he rubbed against Jared's face fur.
Jared didn't want to, but he pulled back, knowing that holding on any longer wouldn't look right to their audience.
"Glad you're back, man," Jensen said, clapping his shoulder. "Now shower before you kill someone."
"What," Jared said innocently. "I smell bad?" He raised his arm and dramatically sniffed his armpit. This got another chorus of ew's from the campers. "Nope, smells like roses and baby powder. Want a sniff?" The effect was somewhat ruined when Jared couldn't get through the whole sentence without a small cough. Wow, it really was overpowering.
"That's okay," Jensen said, backing away.
Jared smiled, then turned again to head to the showers.
"Oh, hey," Jensen called him back. "We had counselor meeting while you were gone. I put us down for the same day off. That cool with you?"
"Yeah," Jared said, a little hoarsely. "That's…that's awesome."
Jensen wouldn't tell him where they were going. They'd hit the road shortly after reveille. Jensen even ran up to Jared's tent to make sure he'd gotten out of his sleeping bag on time, which he hadn't. When they got to Jensen's car, Jared saw that he'd tucked a cooler in the back, probably stuffed with cold cuts stolen from the kitchen. They drove on local roads for an hour and a half, only stopping at a liquor store for a couple of six-packs, until they pulled up to a small landing on Lake Champlain.
"Hey," Jensen said. "This place rents sailboats. I thought we could take one out for the day."
Jensen looked so eager, but Jared couldn't help ribbing him. "We drove all this way to go sailing? Don't you do that every day?"
"Well," Jensen said, suddenly unsure, "I mean, we could go to Burlington, instead, or—"
"Relax. It sounds awesome. Show me your stuff, sailor boy."
Jensen led the negotiation for the boat. All they could get for the day was a Hobie, which judging from Jensen's expression, was not what he'd wanted. "I was hoping we could get a sailfish, or something. Small, maneuverable, really get some speed going."
"With racing stripes up the side?" Jared joked.
"Hobies, though. They are the minivan of small sailboats." Jensen looked disapprovingly at the blue boat tied to the dock. It looked fine to Jared—small, but big enough to fit three or four people. There was a sunken area in the middle of the boat with benches. "See," Jensen said, pointing out at the lake. "That's what I'm talking about." Jared followed the direction of his finger and saw a small one man boat skimming along the water. It didn't look much larger than a surfboard. A strong wind blew across the lake, cresting the water into waves—a perfect day for sailing. Jared could imagine Jensen guiding the small boat gracefully, as he had on that first day of camp. He could also imagine himself wrapped around the mast like a limpet, holding on for dear life. No, the Hobie was fine by him.
It took a little while for Jensen to get the rigging set up. At first he tried to enlist Jared's help, showing him a few knots with his elegant fingers, but soon gave up. If Jared helped, they might not get out on the water before sunset.
When everything was finally ready, Jensen reached to throw off the painter, then stopped and squinted his eyes at Jared. "Something's missing," he said, then lifted up one of the bench seats to search underneath.
"What? We've got enough beer and sandwiches in the cooler. I brought the sunscreen, I don't think we're missing any—" Jared was cut off as a bright orange object hit him in the chest. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me."
"Put it on." Jensen gestured to the life vest.
"You're not wearing one!" Jared whined.
"I'm an experienced sailor. You're not. No life vest, no sailing."
"I passed your stupid drown-proofing test at the beginning of the summer, remember? You can't be serious." Jensen just raised an eyebrow. Jared huffed, reluctantly slipping his arms into the vest. "If I get weird tan lines I'm blaming you."
It wasn't until Jensen turned away to loose the boat from the dock that Jared saw his sternness crack and a smile slip through. "Oh, you jerk!" Jared thought about throwing his shoe at Jensen, but could easily picture losing it over the side and limping all the way back to camp. He slipped off the life vest and grumpily sat on it as Jensen pointed them out towards the center of the lake, letting the wind pull them along.
Jared relaxed, watching Jensen expertly work the sail. He didn't lean out over the water as he had that first day, but Jared took the opportunity to admire the muscles in his arms and back as he strained against the wind. Once they were far out from the shore, no other boats in sight, Jensen encouraged Jared to lie on his stomach on the prow. Now, when they turned into the wind, he felt like he was flying, inches above the water, a fine spray peppering his cheeks. He closed his eyes and just enjoyed the sensation of speed.
Jared turned his head back towards Jensen and yelled over the wind, "I think I know why you enjoy this!"
Jensen was staring at him as if he couldn't bring himself to pull his eyes away. "Hey, come back here a sec," he said. "You're starting to burn."
Jared wiggled his way back to the other side of the mast, skin sticking uncomfortably to the skin of the boat. Jensen tied off the sail so they could just float for a little bit, rocking at the water's mercy. He pulled the sunscreen out of their bag. "Turn around," he said and Jared obediently turned to face the front of the boat, resting his chin on his arms, torso twisted sideways on the seat. He heard Jensen open the bottle and squirt some into his hands. After the roar of the rushing wind as they'd sailed out here, the sudden silence felt awkward, drawn tight.
He startled a little bit at the first touch of Jensen's fingers. "'S cold," he murmured, thankful that Jensen couldn't see his nipples hardening. Jensen applied the lotion slowly, rubbing it into his skin with more attention than strictly necessary. As he worked his hands down Jared's back, brushing the top of his swimsuit and sweeping up his sides, Jared's breath hitched. The hands paused, resting gently against his back, fingers paralleling his shoulder blades. Jensen must be right behind him, barely a breath away; Jared could feel the heat from his skin, and the awareness raised gooseflesh on his arms.
The next few moments could change everything. Jensen could pull his hands away, turn back to the sail, grab a beer, pretend that this was just a day hanging out with a buddy. Even though that would be fun, Jared thought back to that kiss on top of Winships and knew that, more than anything, he wanted Jensen to keep touching him.
He pushed himself back into Jensen's hands, slowly, like he was trying not to startle an animal. He felt Jensen release a small puff of air against his neck when he reached back to take one of Jensen's hands and guide it to his chest. To his nipple. Jensen ran a finger across the tight nub and Jared felt a bolt of sensation go straight to his cock. He felt like his heart was trying to beat out of his chest. Jensen had to feel it, too.
Jensen left his hand there, brushing slowly, then reached around with his other hand, pressing himself into Jared's back until they were caught there in an awkward embrace, perched on the bench. Jared had never felt bolder in his life, or more terrified. He couldn't believe he'd had the guts to move them this far, and he knew he wanted to take it further, but he had no idea how.
Jensen pressed lightly on Jared's shoulder, turning him. He had to pull back slightly to manage it in the cramped quarters. For a moment he felt hopelessly awkward, all gangly limbs as he had been when he'd hit his first growth spurt and spent months stubbing his toes on doorways and chairs. Then he saw the fire in Jensen's eyes, still so close, and forgot everything else.
Slowly, Jensen pulled up Jared's thigh so it was propped on the bench, cradling his hips. Jensen pressed a hand to his chest, still holding himself a millimeter away. Jared wanted to lunge up at him but even more he wanted to see what Jensen had in mind. "Lay back," Jensen whispered. "The boom." He indicated the metal beam at the base of the main sail. Jared had completely forgotten about it. Facing into the wind as they were, the canvas of the sail only rippled loosely. But if a sudden gust caught it, it would send the sail across the ship, fast enough to hit someone sitting there in the head, maybe even knock them overboard.
His thoughts were soon drawn away from the sail as Jensen lowered his weight onto him. They were pressed chest to thighs, all heat and sweat in the afternoon sunlight. It was extremely awkward—Jared had one leg jammed into the floor to support Jensen's weight; Jensen must be using his toes to brace himself against the rudder—but Jared didn't care.
This kiss was completely different from the last one. Jensen tasted like beer and wind; when Jared wrapped his hand around Jensen's head, brushing through the golden strands, he felt like he was kissing the sun, heat and light and fire.
They lay, tangled, pressing against each other, stroking tanned skin, exploring. The only sounds were the waves lapping against the hull and their mingled panting breaths.
Jensen fumbled his hand between them, brushing Jared's cock. Jared couldn't help thrusting with his hips, letting out a choked groan. The motion felt exquisite, pushing him against Jensen through two layers of nylon.
Jensen hooked his fingers under the elastic band and pulled back from the kiss. "Lift up." He smiled wolfishly. "You're going to enjoy this."
Jared lifted his hips and Jensen yanked the swim trunks down, catching mid-thigh on his splayed legs. He sank down till he was crouching in the boat, the motion pushing the cooler aside with a scrape.
It felt decadent, insane, lying there, exposed, in broad daylight where anyone could see. But the only gaze he cared about right now was Jensen's, and Jensen was staring up at him, eyes full of want and joy, sharing this moment of connection, completely suspended.
Then heat engulfed his cock. Jared wanted to watch, to see his cock disappearing into that perfect mouth, but he couldn't help arching his back, eyes squeezed shut. "Oh, god," he groaned. Then as Jensen pressed his tongue to the underside of his cock, he said it again, loudly echoing over the open water.
It was over far too fast. He barely got out a warning, stuttering Jensen's name, but Jensen didn't pull back, swallowing over him, then gently pulling off. He had a moment, staring at Jensen, spit and come glistening over his chin, to be overwhelmed by shame. What had he just done? Lying out here, exposed, coming too quickly, Jensen must think he was so foolish.
Then Jensen was lunging up his body, covering his mouth in a sloppy kiss that tasted of Jared's cum, and rutting against his hip frantically, threatening to capsize the boat.
Jensen grabbed Jared's wrist, pushing it toward his own cock, still hard beneath his trunks. Jared pushed his hand under the waistband, wrapping his fingers around the hot flesh. He felt completely overwhelmed again, no idea what he was expected to do. Then Jensen let out a whine and pushed himself through Jared's loose fingers. This Jared had some idea how to do—had done it on himself enough times—but it took some getting used to, doing it for someone else. Whatever he was doing seemed to be working, though. Jensen thrust against him, two, three times, then came with a groan, splattering cum all over Jared's stomach. Jared watched his face as Jensen gasped out his release. He'd never seen anything so beautiful.
They lay for a while, slowing recovering their breath. Then Jared's foot cramped where it was pushing against the side of the boat and he noticed how his shorts were cutting off circulation in his legs. Jensen looked at him with returning awareness, then slowly pushed himself off Jared's chest so he was sitting, legs still tangled with Jared's.
He looked at Jared expectantly. Jared had no idea what the post-friendly-blowjob-on-a-sailboat etiquette was. Like he always did in such situations, he said the first thing that popped into his head. "My ass is in a puddle."
Jensen looked shocked for a second, then burst out laughing. "Your ass is in a puddle? Oh my god, you're such a doofus." Jensen lunged at him, and before he knew what was happening, Jared found himself being rolled overboard.
The water was a shock to his system, finally bringing back on board all the senses made hazy with sex. He made a panicked grab for his swim suit, which was slowly making its way down past his knees. "Hey!" he yelled. "I could've lost my shorts! Then I'd've had to return the boat buck naked!"
"That'll teach you to be grateful after a blowjob!" Jensen reached to the back of the boat, un-looping a coil of rope.
Jared's eyes widened. "Don't you dare sail off and leave me here!"
"No?" Jensen said coyly. He moved toward the front of the boat, then chucked Jared's much hated life vest at his head. "I told you you should keep that on."
"Thanks a lot," Jared groaned, grabbing onto the life jacket. It actually made it harder to tread water while keeping a grip on it as it tried to bob away. He noticed some blobs of white on the nylon and quickly rinsed them off. He hoped the rental place wouldn't notice. That would be awkward.
"Grab on," Jensen said, tossing him the painter he'd used to tie the boat to the dock. Jared pulled himself back towards the boat and chucked the life vest on board, trying to hit Jensen in the head, and missing. Now that he'd had a moment to get used to it, the water was actually wonderfully refreshing, cutting through the heat of the day. It also gave Jared a chance to wash away the evidence of what they'd just done, for which he was grateful.
He grabbed onto the side of the boat, using his arms to pull himself up. Jensen leaned against the other side to counterbalance him and keep the boat from tipping over. As fun as that would be, Jared didn't really want all that beer to end up at the bottom of the lake.
As Jared swung a leg over the side and maneuvered himself back into the relatively dry boat, Jensen watched him. "You're gorgeous, you know that? Like some kind of renaissance sculpture."
"David with a farmer's tan?" Jared tried to brush off the unexpected compliment.
"No, seriously. I think you're the hottest guy I've ever seen."
Jared ducked his head. "I'm just a big dork. You, though, first time I saw you sailing, you looked like a Greek god."
"Seriously?" Jensen laughed. "I'm not too scrawny-looking?"
"Do you own a mirror? God, your arms alone."
"My arms, what? Don’t I get an ode out of this?"
"Shut up," Jared said and swung the wet life jacket at him, connecting with a wet smack.
They settled in for the sail back to the mainland. Jared felt sleepy and content, his release still humming through his body, combining with the heat from the sun to make him feel warm all over. He didn't think he'd ever had a better day than this one. He wanted to tell Jensen that, but thought he might sound stupid.
Jensen sat next to Jared, leaning against his chest, drawing Jared's arms around him in a loose embrace, one hand on the rudder. "What," Jared said, idly stroking his arm. "You don't have to stand this time?"
"That?" Jensen said with a shrug. "That was just showing off."
Jared jostled him slightly, not willing to dislodge him. Holding Jensen just felt too good. "If you only knew, man," he said with a yawn. "I've wanted to get in your pants since the first day of camp. Didn't think I even had a shot though."
Jensen turned to catch his eye. "You kidding? I've been restraining myself from jumping you for weeks. You with your hugging, and hiding in enclosed spaces and licking! Seriously, licking! You're lucky I didn't assault you right there where any passing hiker could see."
"Really?" Jared said. That should've been enough, but the sun and beer and sex loosened his tongue. "When did you first…you know. Know that you wanted me?" As soon as he said it he wished he hadn't. Mostly because he was suddenly afraid of what Jensen would say, that he hadn't wanted Jared, that this was some sort of game. And maybe a little because he'd wanted to end that question another way entirely.
"Okay. It was at the dance, last night of pre-camp. You were dancing to the Spice Girls." Jared burst out laughing, shaking Jensen against him. "You were dancing with Alona. Man, I was so jealous."
"You wanted to be making an ass out of yourself dancing to the Spice Girls?"
They returned the boat mid-afternoon. The owner didn't even give them a second glance, even though they couldn't stop laughing and brushing against each other.
"Ah," Jensen sighed, stretching, as they made their way back to the car. "Now that's what I call christening a boat."
Jensen pointed the car back towards camp, but it was far too early to return yet. He pulled off at what looked like a little shack on the side of the road, but he assured Jared it was the best ice cream place in Vermont. The sign over the solitary window declared it the "Whippy Dip."
Jared ordered a large chocolate and vanilla soft serve swirl, despite Jensen's protests. Sure enough, when it arrived, it looked larger than Jared's stomach. Possibly larger than both his and Jensen's stomachs combined. They grabbed a stack of napkins and two plastic spoons and sat on the hood of Jensen's car to eat the monstrosity. It was sweet and cold and perfect after a day in the sun—despite the sunscreen, Jared could feel a tightness in the skin under his eyes and across his nose that usually meant sunburn. He gulped down the first couple spoonfuls too quickly and gave himself a brain freeze, which Jensen helpfully laughed at.
When they finished it, Jensen had a little bit of ice cream at the corner of his mouth. Jared couldn't help licking it clean—chocolate—then licking his way into Jensen's mouth. Jensen had pulled the car behind a copse of trees, shielded from the road and the parking lot of the Whippy Dip. Pretty soon Jared had Jensen pressed up against the side of the car, one hand down his pants, the other guiding his head so Jared could taste the ice cream flavor in every corner of his mouth.
Jensen used the stack of napkins to clean them up after while Jared sagged limply against him. "You comfortable?"
"Yeah," Jared sighed. He pressed his smile into Jensen's neck. This was so new, so exciting, he couldn't get enough of touching Jensen, tasting him, breathing him. He didn't think he ever would. "I've never felt this way before," he breathed into Jensen's skin.
Jensen shifted against him, causing a frisson to pass through Jared. "I never knew you felt that way about ice cream," he said lamely, but Jared laughed anyway.
Jared straightened so he could look at Jensen. "It's just…"
Jensen looked pinned by the gaze, open and vulnerable. "Just what?"
"I'm glad. That you were my first." He breathed deeply and let all the joy he felt show through in his smile. "I'm just glad my first time was with you."
Jensen froze for a moment, but then pulled Jared into a quick kiss. "We better get back on the road," he said, pulling away. "It'll be dark soon."
Jared watched him walk around the front of the car, making a quick detour to the trash can. "Man, this has been the best day of my life. Thanks."
Jensen stopped, one hand on the handle to the door. "Yeah," he said quietly, then climbed in.
The rest of the drive back to camp was made in silence. Jared lounged in the passenger seat, basking in the glow of the day, still smiling every time he thought of him and Jensen, together. Jensen seemed to feel it to, leaving the radio off. Jared wished they'd never make it back to camp. He'd be happy, just staying here with Jensen beside him.
They turned onto the lake shore road, Jensen's headlights illuminating the frost heaves in the asphalt. Only a mile back to camp, and back to treating Jensen just as a friend, at least until camp ended. Then a whole realm of frightening possibilities opened up between them.
"Hey, Jensen," he said, tapping Jensen's leg. "Pull over."
"Huh? We're almost back at camp."
"Yeah, I know. Just pull over."
Jensen looked at him, his face a blank in the dark, then pulled the car onto the gravel shoulder. "What do you—"
Jared cut him off by grabbing his shoulders and dragging him into a kiss. At first their teeth clashed—Jensen was clearly startled—but then he sagged into Jared. By the time they pulled apart the windows had fogged.
"What was that for?" Jensen said, still sounding stunned.
"Just cause," Jared shrugged. "'Anything that happens on camp property, sooner or later, everyone knows about,' remember? Just wanted something to remember for when I can't kiss you senseless every time I see you."
Jensen stared at him in silence, then pulled the car back onto the road.
The last week of camp was notoriously hectic, so at first Jared thought it was just that. Or maybe that Jensen was being discreet—Jared doubted he could control his urge to touch Jensen the next time he saw him; maybe Jensen just wanted to preserve a pretense of distance, which was fine. As long as it was actually pretense. But after a few days Jared was forced to come to a different and completely unwelcome conclusion—that Jensen was avoiding him.
It wasn't obvious at first. Aside from the regular activities, they had to spend the last week starting to clean and close up the Campcraft department, getting it ready for winter. Jared had to write up evaluations of his campers—the Steves—and the campers that spent the most time at Campcraft. This was to help Jeff with tent assignments for the next summer, though if the Steve cabin was anything to go by, Jeff didn't read them. He also had to fire off a letter to the parents of each of his kids, assuring them that they were wonderful and having a great time (despite what they might say for themselves) and should definitely come back next summer.
In addition, there were the preparations for the Banquet, the big farewell dinner the night before everybody headed for home. Jensen was in charge of decorating the Barn, which seemed to involve hauling a forest's worth of pine boughs into it and blanketing the walls with them. This was supposed to be top secret, but Chris assured him it was like walking into another world, surrounded by the deep scent of pine and lush green. It was one of the highlights of the summer, according to him, though Jared thought it sounded more like a fire hazard. So he couldn't really blame Jensen for not being around during free time when he had to spend that time on a step ladder in the Barn getting covered in pitch.
At the Banquet, every camper also got a little booklet with signatures from the counselors—inane little messages like you'd write in a yearbook. "See you next summer!" "Remember the kayaking!" Jeff had issued an edict, though, that every counselor had to sign every camper's book so no one looked more popular than anyone else. This meant Jared spent the evenings he would like to have spent on Winships, with Jensen, in the counselor room drawing smushed little sketches of hiking boots on 120 books, some for campers who hadn't been to Campcraft since the first week.
But even so, Jensen always seemed to be just leaving when Jared walked into the counselor room, or on some super secret Banquet-related errand when Jared tried to catch his attention after meals.
With only three days left, Jared played hooky from Campcraft and headed down to the sailing docks at the end of first period. If he timed it right, he should be able to grab Jensen for at least ten minutes before the campers for next period started arriving.
"Hey, Jensen," he called as he approached the boat house. Jensen was on one of the docks, near the shore, doing something that looked complicated with a coil of rope. He had his shirt off. Jared swallowed at the sight of all that tanned skin—skin he'd touched just a few days ago, skin that now seemed off limits.
Jensen looked up at the sound of his name, a smile tugging at his lips. Until he caught sight of Jared. "Hey, yourself." He went back to the ropes, turning away from Jared.
Jared looked at the few other counselors around and the scattered campers. This wasn't quite the venue he'd been hoping for, but Jensen had made it effectively impossible to corner him any place more private. "Hey, uh…" He cleared his throat to try to clear the tremor he could hear creeping in. "Uh, can we talk for a minute?"
"I'm kinda busy, right now," Jensen said flatly. "Catch you later?" He didn't even turn around.
"Sure. Sure, later." Jared pasted on a smile and headed back towards Campcraft.
That was—Jensen had just blown him off. Completely. Like he didn't even know Jared at all. As signals went, that was a pretty clear one. One that said, "I got what I wanted, now fuck off."
Jared stopped to lean against a tree, thankful he had cut through a section of tents, deserted at this time of the day. He had to gulp in deep breaths—he felt like he was drowning. Jensen'd never said anything about after, never promised anything. Just told him he was hot, and that wasn’t any kind of promise at all. If Jared had assumed things that weren't there, well that was Jared's fault. Naïve, stupid Jared, assuming sex meant something. He ran a hand over his face. He'd never felt like such an idiot in his whole life.
When the trumpet blew, signaling the beginning of second period, he pushed off from the trunk and took a few shaky steps. He got steadier every step he took until by the time he got back to Campcraft he felt fine.
"Hey," Mike said, catching sight of him as Jared ducked his head through the door of the Woodchuck Hole. "You doin' okay, man? You look a little sick."
"I feel fine," Jared said, then headed to the stone fireplace to supervise as a camper tried to build a fire.
He went straight to bed after taps that night. He hadn't finished signing all the books for the Banquet but he didn't think he could lift a pen right now. He was exhausted. That whole lack of sleep thing Jensen had warned him about at the beginning of the summer was catching up with him all at once. Jensen. God. He pressed his face into the pillow.
Jared groaned when Chris poked him. "You coming down to the counselor room?" he whispered.
Jared made a negative sounding grunt.
"You look like shit—pardon my french. You need to see Alona?" Jared rolled over to see Chris crouching there, looking at him appraisingly.
"Sure," Chris said, standing. "Of course you are." There was a hard edge in his voice, but it didn't feel like it was directed at him.
Jared roused himself a little. "I'm just tired."
Chris grinned at him. "Just hold on a few more days. Then you can sleep for a week. On an actual mattress, somewhere with air conditioning and bug screens." Chris stared at him a moment, then patted his shoulder . It made Jared feel like one of their campers. "Okay, then."
Mike had to let Jared out of his duties the next morning so he could finish signing the Banquet books for that evening. He wasn't the only one in the counselor room, frantically trying to finish. Jared suspected the others felt a little more sentimental about their "Have a great year"s than he did. Catch you later. Right.
Just as he was finishing the last stack of books, a point he'd thought he'd never reach, he looked up to see Alona walking in. "Hey," she smiled.
"Don't tell me you have to do these, too," Jared groaned.
"Only if I want to. There are just a few campers I want to leave notes for."
"Help yourself." Jared gestured to the box of disorganized piles of books. "They used to be in alphabetical order. I don't think they stayed that way."
"I can see that," Alona said, and started to leaf through the pile. "So, how've you enjoyed your first summer at Mahina?"
Despite himself, Jared found himself saying, "It was great." And it had been. It hadn't ended that way, but he wouldn't trade the rest of the summer, even knowing the outcome.
"You don't look like it was so great. Bummed about the summer being almost over?"
"At this point all I can think about is a king size bed and twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep."
"I hear you. I always end up crashing when I get home. It's worth it, though." She pulled a couple of books out of the morass and set them aside. "You gonna come back next year?"
Jared frowned. This he hadn't really figured out. Each of the counselors had an exit interview with Jeff where they discussed what they'd like to accomplish the next summer. Jared's was in a few hours and he had no idea what he was going to say. For most of the summer, he was sure he'd be coming back. But now, he thought about how he'd be spending the whole school year away from Texas, it didn't seem right to spend the summer away, too. Or that's what he told himself. He knew it had more to do with a certain counselor who definitely wouldn't be back. Maybe Jared should count that as a plus, but he missed Jensen already. He didn't want to spend a whole summer here being reminded of him. "I don't know," he said finally.
"You're a natural with the kids. I know a lot of them will be bummed if you don't come back."
Jared smiled. "Yeah. Who would they set you up with then?"
"Oh, they'll find somebody. You ever find out who sent the love letter?"
"I'm pretty sure it was Lizard. He and Chas weren't very subtle. You know the sad thing? That's probably the only love letter I'll ever get."
"Aw. Give me your address—I'll send you something a lot more sincere." Alona looked at him again and Jared finally recognized the look in her eye. It was the way Jensen had looked at him.
"That's okay—I don't think I want any more love notes for awhile."
Alona nodded. "Worth a shot, anyway." She smiled, and Jared could tell that she knew he didn't feel the same way.
He grabbed a slip of paper. "This is my address, though. No hard feelings?"
"You kidding? Of course not." Alona finished signing the books she'd pulled from the stack. "Well, you can say you're not sure, but you'll be back next summer. It's really hard to say goodbye to this place, you know?"
"Yeah," Jared said. He waved to her as she left, then opened the last book. "I know."
Chris had been right about the Banquet. The Barn was unrecognizable, like a woodland glen, with a giant "M" made of Queen Anne's lace over the fireplace. For a moment Jared smiled, imagining Jensen arranging the flowers, then squashed the thought. As one hundred and eighty people gathered to celebrate the two months they'd spent together, Jared couldn't help but be overwhelmed with a wave of nostalgia. Whatever else, he was going to miss this place when he was back in Texas. He thought he understood what Tom was saying—that nothing was ever quite the same as it was here. It certainly had gotten its hooks into him.
The Steves surprised Chris and Jared by singing "Time of Your Life" by Green Day. They'd rewritten the lyrics of the verses to be about camp, recounting with fondness everything from peeing on the hillside to Frog's spree of midnight kicking. They huddled around the rumpled piece of paper they'd written the lyrics on, stumbling occasionally before pressing forward. Jared even thought he saw Gecko's eyes shining suspiciously brightly. Jared felt a warm affection constrict his chest, and looked over at Chris to see him watching with rapt attention. When they finished, both Chris and Jared gave them a standing ovation. For a moment, Jared caught Jensen's eye across the room, felt that old connection between them, then Jensen looked away.
Jared felt wrung out. The last of the campers had departed on the New York bus just a few minutes ago. The whole day had been a series of goodbyes—Jared had never thought he'd see so many guys un-self-consciously crying, campers and counselors both. Even Gecko looked sad to go, despite his many protests that he hated it here. Every time parents pulled into the camp driveway in their station wagons and minivans, the remaining campers would gather round to sing them off, until the last few were just sung to by the counselors. If he had to sing "May the road rise to meet you" one more time he'd shoot someone.
The counselors had the rest of the day off. They'd spend the next morning taking down the canvas tents, dry-docking the boats and generally cleaning away the detritus of the summer, then they'd be free to leave. Jared flopped down in the grass, closing his eyes against the cloudy sky.
He was roused by someone kicking his shoe. "Fuck off, I'm sleeping." He threw an arm over his face. One of the best things about the campers leaving was the return of the four-letter word.
"Just thought you'd like to know, newbie, that Jensen's over by the tennis courts."
Jared squinted up at Chris, the sudden light making spots dance in front of his eyes. "Why should I care?"
"Oh, give it a rest. You guys have been making goo-goo eyes at each other all summer." Jared's jaw dropped. "Just thought you'd want to know he's sulking, too. By the tennis courts." Chris emphasized the last two words by making little shooing motions with his hands. Then he walked off with a shake of his head.
Jared sat up, rubbing his eyes against his exhaustion. He turned his head towards the tennis courts and could just see a lone figure, outlined against the lake. The petty part of him thought, good, let him sulk, it's his own damn fault. But most of him wanted to find out what the hell had happened to make Jensen pull away. They'd been really good together. It was worth at least one more try.
Jared rolled to his feet then loped off towards Jensen. "So," Jared said, dropping into the grass beside him. "You've been avoiding me?"
Jensen looked at him, startled, clearly lost in his own thoughts, then his eyes danced away. "Why would you think that?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because you haven't talked to me in a week? What happened a week ago? Oh, right. I lost my virginity to some asshole who didn't call the next morning." Jared toyed with the grass, pulling up blades convulsively as he talked.
Jensen cringed, gratifyingly, but he still didn't look up. "What did you expect? It was just some stupid summer fling."
If Jensen had sounded convinced, Jared might have believed him. He'd've walked away right then and written the whole summer off as romantic training wheels. But Jensen sounded tentative, almost like he wanted to be talked out of it. "You don't believe that, do you? Jensen, we were—are—great together. I don't just mean the sex, though that was…whoa… I mean us. This whole summer, I've been so comfortable with you. You can't tell me you don't feel a connection, here. Look at me!" Jensen did, and Jared could see everything there. Yearning, fear, maybe even love. For the first time, Jensen was completely exposed. "I just don't understand why you've been trying so hard to piss it all away," Jared finished quietly.
"You don't mean that," Jensen said savagely.
"What don't I mean?"
"This whole connection thing—you don't know. I feel it too, but it's not us, it's just camp. Camp is this intense…thing. We live in each other's pockets, share every moment of every day, no privacy, you know someone for a week and feel like they're the best friend you've ever had."
"So—" Jared tried to cut in, but Jensen wouldn't let him.
"—so when you leave here, it all goes away again! Right now you think you feel this 'connection' to me, but you'll go home, go to college, meet new people, start new classes, and you'll forget this whole thing." Jensen held up a finger, stopping Jared from interrupting. "You don't think you will, but you will. You'll think about writing a letter or giving me a call but stuff will get in the way and next thing you know it's June again and you haven't kept in touch with anyone. It's your first summer, Jared, you don't know what this place does to you." He leaned back on his hands with a sigh, as if saying this had released something he'd been holding inside for far too long. "And it's my last summer. So I won't be around to pick up where things left off next summer when you get back here and remember. So tomorrow you get on a bus and I get in my car and it's over. The end. Next summer you'll find someone new to crush on."
Jared looked at him for a long time. "That's why you've been so weird about this? You think when I say I've never felt this way about anyone before that I'm lying?"
Jensen looked at him pleadingly. "I didn't say you were lying."
"No, just that this whole thing," he gestured between them, "is a figment of the camp." Jensen nodded. "Like the camp has some magic fairy dust that made me fall in love with you." Jensen's eyes widened. Jared took advantage of his moment of surprise to lean in close, practically growling. "Bull. Shit."
"What did you just say?" Jensen asked quietly.
"That's complete bullshit!" Jared waved his hands, narrowly avoiding whacking Jensen. "I'm going to get to Texas and forget you exist? That's crap! How do you feel about me?"
"Just answer. How do you feel about me?"
Jensen looked into Jared's eyes, voice filled with wonder. "I'm crazy about you."
"Oh my god," Jared couldn't keep the laughter out of his voice. "You are such an idiot." Then he grabbed Jensen behind the neck and pulled him into a deep kiss. Anything that happens on camp property sooner or later everyone knows about? Yeah, he wanted everyone to know about this.
They broke apart when they heard a wolf whistle behind them. Jared turned his head to see Chad applauding their performance. Jared flipped him the bird. Beside him Chris just shook his head and muttered, "Finally."
Nine months later
Jared grabbed the phone on the first ring. "Hey," he said.
"Hey, yourself. How was finals?" Even though he knew Jensen was going to call, it was always a relief to hear his voice.
"They're over. I don't want to think about them anymore."
"That bad, huh?" He could hear the laugh in Jensen's voice.
"Oh, shut up mister 3.8 GPA." Jared looked around his dorm room for a place to sit down. His options were limited. This being his first year at Duke, he'd been put in a one-room double with a guy that insisted everyone call him Trés, "like the French," which definitely wasn't the name on his birth certificate. Trés's stuff was all over every available surface of the room, with boxes of Jared's stuff taking up the rest. He not only had to pack up everything in the next twenty-four hours, he had to decide what to ship to Texas, what to put in storage for the summer and what to throw out (the chemistry textbook was definitely going in that pile). He shuffled across the floor, pushing Trés's clothes with his feet, and yelped when his toe hit a textbook hidden under the wreckage.
"You alright?" Jensen asked.
"Yeah," Jared replied, hopping. "Fuck. Just stubbed my toe on all the crap in here. God, it's a disaster area." He looked around forlornly. "Man, I'm going to have to pull an all-nighter. I was looking forward to sleeping in." He pouted.
"Poor baby," Jensen said with a distinct lack of sympathy in his voice. Jared smiled. It had been almost a year since they met and he still felt flutters in his stomach. Jensen had been wrong about them, Jared liked to point out—frequently. What he felt hadn't changed, even with going to college and meeting all sorts of new, interesting people. Nobody held a candle to Jensen. They'd only managed two visits over the year, between Jared's studies and Jensen's travel schedule for his job, but they talked on the phone almost every day. They were planning on spending a week together backpacking in June—Jared had been holding onto that thought all through finals.
He was going back to Mahina for the summer, and had heard from Chris and Tom and Mike (even Chad) that they'd all be back, too. It would be strange being there without Jensen, but Jensen had made him promise to go back. He even promised a surprise visit during the summer sometime. "Man, I can't wait to see you," Jared said.
"Yeah, about that," Jensen said with that tight little cough that always meant he was holding something back.
Jared felt his stomach drop like a stone. He slumped onto the bed, roughly pushing aside a stack of CD's. "Something came up at work," he said tonelessly. "And you can't get the time off."
"No, actually. This whole jet set consulting thing? I've decided I'm not really a fan."
"What? I thought you loved it?"
"Well, I'm going to miss the paycheck—but I gave my two weeks notice yesterday. Any chance we could go hiking for two weeks before camp?"
Jared broke out into a grin. "Oh, definitely. My mom's going to hate me, though."
"She's still got Megan to dote on, though, right? She's going to have to get used to the empty nest."
"You are a cold, cold man. You know this means she's going to make me promise to stay home next spring break, right?"
"Oh, ouch. I know how much you wanted to go hit on chicks in Tijuana." Jared wished Jensen was next to him so he could hit him.
"So what are you going to do now that you're gainfully unemployed?"
"Well," Jensen said and Jared could imagine him scratching his head in that way he always did. "I called Jeff and it's too late to sign on this summer."
"Oh, that sucks." Jared said feelingly.
"Yeah, but it got me thinking, you know? I love working with kids. So I thought I'd get my teachers certification. Be the crazy physics teacher, with the glasses."
"And the sweater vests."
"Uh, yeah, no." Jensen took a deep breath. "But anyway, I was looking around for good programs, and Duke—"
"Shut up!" Jared leaped to his feet. "Seriously?"
"Yeah, well I've always liked college basketball, and it just makes sense—"
"Shut up!" Jared stood in silence for a moment, just enjoying the thought of being around Jensen all the time next year. No more of this long distance insanity. It was too good to be believed.
"I thought you'd like that." Jensen said quietly.
"You're a bastard for not telling me sooner."
"Well, I wanted to make sure I got in before I got your hopes up."
"Oh—have you gotten an apartment yet?"
"No, I hadn't really started looking…"
"Excellent. I've signed up for housing here next year, but I can yank that pretty easily. We are going to have the sweetest apartment. I know this complex where a girl in my English class lives—you remember Lucy?—so I'll ask her if there are any vacancies, and I'm sure something will open up by September. It's pretty near the campus, and there are a couple of bars down the street, so it's perfect—"
"Wait, wait." Jensen paused. "Are you asking me to move in with you?"
Jared stopped. Shit. He was, and that was kind of a big thing. "Um…yes?" Maybe Jensen wanted to keep it more casual.
"Are you sure? I mean, this is your only time at college. Wouldn't you be missing out, living off campus?"
"Are you kidding?" Jared said. "Nobody lives in the dorms here. The only reason I signed up again is because I can't afford a one-bedroom. And you've heard all my horror stories about Trés. You think you'd be a worse roommate?"
"You've got a point. Okay."
"Okay? Is that okay okay?"
Jensen gave that laugh he got when he thought Jared was being dense. "Yeah. Okay."