Chapter 1: It's Dangerous to Go Alone
Five days after winning the Frozen Four, Dex’s world flipped upside down.
Dex spent the day curled up on the green couch, wallowing in grief, with his laptop, researching, ordering supplies, and making plans.
“Why are you on discount hammocks dot com, Poindexter? Planning on moving into the backyard?” Nursery leaned over his shoulder and then leaned onto his shoulder as he climbed over the back of the couch to settle beside Dex. He lifted his right hand and shook a bag of chips and bowl of salsa towards Dex. “Should we celebrate the baby steps back to our room?”
“‘M not moving to the backyard.” It was a testament to how upset he was that he pressed back into Nursey.
“Hmm. Well, I’ll still share my chips.” He swung the chips towards Dex, but pulled them back immediately. “If you tell me why you’re looking at hammocks.”
“‘M gonna buy one.” Dex stared at the stats on the hammock he had pulled up. It was used and rated for 200 pounds. It was also only a bit bulkier and heavier than he’d prefer, and it was the best price. He added it to his cart.
Nursey pulled away slightly, leaning forward to set the bowl of salsa on the coffee table. Dex managed to not fall at the sudden loss of support. “That doesn’t count as an answer.”
Dex sighed and switched to another tab. He started taking notes on sleeping bags - down was right out, so he changed his filters.
Nursey settled back in against him. “Sleeping bags too? Where are you going?”
“I don’t think running away into the woods will save you from Bitty’s wrath or allow you to avoid finals.”
“Bitty will forgive me when he realizes he needs me to plug the oven back in. And I’m not going hiking until the summer. Stupid trail doesn’t open until nearly June.”
“Probably true. And he can’t stay mad at Bully or Chowder. That’s why I stayed out of it.”
“Good plan. He’d tear you to pieces without a second thought. Once offered to kill you for me.”
“And yet-“ He gestured down the length of his body, “alive.”
“Not for lack of trying.” Dex selected three bags to compare and stared at the specs. He was only going to be hiking for the summer, a 40 degree would probably work. He closed the tab, deciding to wait and check the Army-Navy Surplus first.
“Questionable. But if Bitty was trying, I’m pretty sure he would have succeeded.”
“Eh, I told him not to. Guess I wanted to keep you around for some reason. I was young. I can’t be held responsible for my poor decisions.”
“No sleeping bag, huh.”
“Where’re you going, Dexy?”
“Gonna hike the Appalachian Trail.”
Nursey handed Dex a chip. “Chill. Who you going with?”
“My dogs. I think they’ll like it.” Dex nodded. He hadn’t planned that until just then, but Fred and George would really enjoy it.
“Chill! That’s, like, a long way. You can’t do that alone.”
“Pretty sure I can.”
“Nah. I’ll go with. We’ll have a great time.”
Dex snorted. “We can’t even share a room. You want to share a camp? Yeah.”
“Ch’yeah. It’ll be fun.” Nursey twisted around as steps sounded in the hall. “Tell ‘im C. Tell him that he can’t hike the Appalachian trail with just his dogs. He should let me go with.”
“Oh! You’re gonna hike the AT? Swawesome! I wonder how it compares to the PCT. Oh! Can we make it a Frog thing?”
Dex didn’t have to see him to know he was smiling and hopeful, with an imminent threat of puppy eyes. He closed his eyes and sighed. “Fine. We’ll meet at Baxter State Park whenever they open the trail up Mount Katahdin. Usually it’s late May or early June. I can’t really give more info than that until closer to time.”
Chapter 2: Make It a Mile
The Hunt Trail opened on May 27. Dex had sent the info to Nursey and Chowder as soon as it was announced that it would be opening and they both agreed to meet at the Katahdin Stream Ranger Station that morning. Which is why he climbed out of his uncle’s SUV just after 7 am. There was already a lineup for permits, but he wasn’t too far down the line and it moved quickly.
Once he had a borrowed day pack, he moved off to the side to transfer the necessary items for the hike up the mountain.
He straightened up just in time to catch an armful of goalie. “Hey Chowder! You should probably get in line for your permit.”
“Nah. I got mine first thing. I’ve just been waiting. Where’s Nursey?”
Dex looked around to make sure he couldn’t see him. “I don’t know. He doesn’t seem to be here yet. He didn’t stay with you?”
“Nope. I stayed at one of the tent sites last night. Got it reserved for us for tonight too since they don’t allow dispersed camping. I bet he stayed in town. Haven’t heard from him since he texted Frog chat that he’d landed yesterday.” Chowder was rocking back and forth on his feet from heel to toe and grinning. “I missed you guys so much. I’m so happy we’re doing this!”
Dex smiled and let himself be enveloped in another hug. “It’s only been a couple of weeks. But I missed you too. Thanks for coming with.”
“Of course. It’s gonna be swawesome!”
Dex looked around before moving the three good size rocks from his pack to the borrowed day pack.
“What’re those for?”
Dex looked around again before answering in a low voice. “I’ll tell you later.”
Chowder’s eyes widened slightly and he lowered his voice in response. “Oh, ok.”
Once the necessary items were switched over to the day pack, Dex locked up the rest of his stuff and they found a spot to wait that gave a view of the approaching shuttles.
“I’d think he’d be here by now.” Dex picked at the side seam of his shorts while staring at the people disembarking from one of the shuttles. Most of the trails to Baxter peak were opening today, so there were more people than usual, though still not a ton.
Chowder nodded in response and they waited a bit longer.
“Maybe I should call him. What if something happened? Last we heard from, him he was at the airport. Something could have happened to his bus. Or maybe something happened in Millinocket. Did he even get to Millinocket? I’m going to call him.”
Beside him, Chowder hummed. “I doubt anything happened. You and I both know you kept the news on all night once we’d told you that we were taking off so that you’d hear any reports that might be about us.”
Dex had to concede that point. “I’m still going to call him.”
“Or you could wait about two minutes because I think that’s him now.”
Dex looked over to see Nursey climbing out of the back of a car. He had a starbucks cup in his hand and he leaned back in to drag out an overstuffed pack. Dex allowed himself the luxury of watching his bent form while he was reaching into the car. It wasn’t enough to rid him of the lingering worry and irritation that apparently the worry had been for nothing.
Dex didn’t bother standing up when Nursey approached them with a smile as he took a long pull from his cup.
“Hey guys. Let’s do it to it.”
Dex snorted and looked away. “Hour late with starbucks. Of course.” He jutted his chin towards the ranger station. “You gotta get a permit for the mountain. Make sure to get one of the loaner day packs too. No need to drag all that up and back down.”
Nursey nodded and dropped his pack by their feet before heading over for his permit.
“He had to have stayed in Bangor last night. That’s the closest fucking bucks. Did...Did he ignore my suggestions about the bus and shuttle? Or does he just not want to stay where I suggest?”
Chowder’s shoulder thumped into his, hard, as his friend leaned into him. “I’m sure he just didn’t think about how long it would take to get from Bangor to here.”
Dex grunted. It was true that to be here even this early from Bangor meant that he must have left before seven, but if he’d left that early from Millinocket, they’d be a fair bit up the mountain by now.
Thirty minutes later, they were finally starting up the mountain, carrying the lighter borrowed day packs full of water, trail food, and a small first aid and hygiene kit.
“Ok, sooner we get started, the sooner we get back and can rest.”
“Hey, Poindexter. You promised dogs. I see no dogs. You are the worst friend ever.”
Dex didn’t bother turning around to address Nursey, just started walking north on the Hunt Trail towards Mount Katahdin. “No dogs in Baxter State Park. We’ll meet up with them tomorrow.”
“Chill. I take back the worst friend thing.”
Dex snorted again. “Yeah, well, let’s get a move on. I’d rather this first ten miles take closer to eight than twelve hours because it means more time to recover at camp.”
“Poindexter, I’ve walked ten miles before. We’ll be done in plenty of time.”
At that Dex did stop and turn to stare at Nursey. From the corner of his eye, he saw Chowder do the same thing, mouth slightly agape. “Nurse. You realize there’s over a four thousand foot vertical to this hike today, right?”
Nursey’s eyes bounced between them, and then past and up the mountain. “Ch’yeah. Of course.”
“You did train for this, didn’t you? Like I suggested?”
“Ch’yeah. Of course.”
Dex scrubbed a hand over his face. “Ok, let’s just, try to make time where we can. Nursey, stay between Chowder and me.”
There were a number of beautiful scenic overlooks on the way up the trail and Dex used the excuse of giving Nursey a short break - giving all of them a short break - to pause and get photos and video capture on his cell phone. Honestly, they did all need the breaks, that was why it took so long to get up and down the mountain. That and having to go slower to pick out footing on the rough terrain. It wasn’t easy hiking even for Chowder and himself, but he knew that Nursey’s legs were going to be screaming the next day.
Finally, in the early afternoon, they finally managed to make it to the famous Katahdin sign.
“Okay, pics of everyone with the sign, let’s go.” Dex smiled as his friends found renewed energy to climb on top of the sign and lean on each other. He slipped the phone into video capture mode and zoomed in on them as they cheered - softly, they’d all been warned about loud noises damaging the fragile ecosystem - and grinned.
“Wait! We need pictures of you up here too, Dex!” Chowder scrambled down and took Dex’s phone from him before pushing him towards the sign.
Dex stared at Nursey’s extended hand for only a moment before clasping it and accepting the help up, which miraculously didn’t overbalance Nursey and bring him toppling down.
“We did it, Dexy! We conquered the mountain! It’s so chill!” Nursey plastered a slobbery kiss on his cheek and Dex started laughing so hard he had to grab onto the sign supports.
“We’re actually not at the peak quite yet. Come on. I’ve got rocks for both of you.”
He slipped down off the sign and recovered his phone from Chowder before swinging his pack back on.
“Rocks?” Nursey’s question was punctuated with a soft “oof” as he jumped off the sign and nearly rolled his ankle.
“Oh yeah! You said you’d tell me what they were for.”
“Well, Katahdin is Maine’s tallest mountain, but it’s not quite a mile high. So, we gotta add rocks to the top to make it a mile. It’s a tradition.” Dex took his time explaining while they finished the last bit to the twelve foot rock cairn. “Here we are. Baxter Peak. Highest point in Maine.”
He pulled his pack off and handed each of them a rock before taking his own to add to the cairn. “Make it a mile.”
The trip back down the mountain was somehow more grueling. Thanks, in large part, to having to convince Nursey that he couldn’t just rush headlong down the trail that was near vertical in parts and slick with mud for most of it. Still, they made it back to the ranger station before it closed - barely - and traded the day packs for their own packs full of gear.
“Okay, so we get a shuttle back to town for the night, then?” Nursey had his right foot in his hand and was rubbing at his calf when he finally looked up at their prolonged silence.
“The gates closed at eight, Nurse. Chowder got us a campsite, though. We’ll stay here tonight.” Dex turned to Chowder. “Which one did you get?”
“Oh! Seventeen. It’s just a bit down the trail.” Chowder strapped his pack on and Dex followed suit, waiting for Nursey to join them.
Chowder was correct. Campsite seventeen was only a short distance down the AT from the hiking registration station and it had some good trees for hammocks as well as the cleared tent space.
“Do you want to set up the footprint and Nursey and I can hang the hammocks?”
“Sure!” Chowder dug into his pack and pulled out a couple of stuff sacks. “Here’s my hammock and sleeping bag.
“Wait, where’s the cabin?”
Dex took a long, slow, deep breath in and held it for three seconds before slowly releasing it. “There are no cabins, Nursey. There won’t be for most of the trip. Please tell me that you brought a hammock or a tent.”
In the dim light of the camp lantern, Dex saw Nursey avoid his gaze. He took another deep breath.
“Did you bring a sleeping bag and pad?”
Nursey shuffled his feet and then winced, drawing Dex’s gaze down to his hiking boots. Dex cursed himself. He should have realized it earlier, but he’d been more focused on the rest of Nursey and Chowder when they were stopped, he’d been in the lead most of the way to make sure they stayed on the path. He just hadn’t looked at Nursey’s feet.
“You didn’t break in your boots.”
“Um, guys? I’ve got the footprint down. Are you going to hang the hammocks?” Chowder’s voice broke through the static in Dex’s brain.
“Didn’t you get my email with the gear list?”
“I, uh, I thought maybe you were making fun of me for being a city boy. I looked up some other gear lists for hiking and they all had different things. So I, I mean, I did my best.”
“Yeah. yeah. Okay. I mean. Look, just sit down on the footprint and get those shoes off. You did bring a change of warmer clothes, right? Let’s just, all get changed. I’ll set up the dog tent and you can use my sleeping bag and hammock.” Dex was just glad that he’d kept the ancient dome tent in his pack instead of leaving it with the dogs’ packs. It was still going to be cold as hell without a sleeping bag, but the tent would at least block the wind.
Nursey and Chowder both nodded and they all quickly and efficiently changed into long johns and leggings and hoodies and puffy jackets. Or at least Dex and Chowder did. Nursey changed into compression leggings and sweatpants and an underarmor and a hoodie. Dex closed his eyes and was thankful that Nursey was only one layer off.
“I’ll help go through his gear to see what’s useable. Maybe we can send the rest back when we pick up your dogs tomorrow? Or mail excess to a point further down the trail to make up some weight.” Chowder’s voice sounded hopeful, with a thread of steel that meant he was offering Dex way to keep the peace and if Dex didn’t take it then he’d go full goalie mode on them.
Dex couldn’t blame him. He wanted to blow up at Nursey. Didn’t he understand how dangerous it was to hike the AT? That was the reason Nursey’d given for wanting to join Dex, that it was too dangerous to go alone, but here he was with insufficient gear, tempting frostbite and hypothermia.
“Yeah. The Abol Bridge Store is only a limited resupply, but my uncle can give us a ride into Millinocket and Nursey can get anything he’s missing there.” Dex stopped and sighed. “We can even spend the night in town and start the trip down to the 100 miles of wilderness fresh. It’s fine. I should probably get some more gear for the dogs anyway.”
Chowder and Nursey finished going through his supplies, separating them into two piles and then repacking so that they could track what could be sent back without having to sort it again the next day. Dex finished setting up the tent a few minutes later, by which time Chowder had taken their gravity filter hydration bag over to the stream to fill up.
Dex threw his sleeping pad into the tent and then sat down heavily. “Gonna start dinner before I set up the hammocks for you two.” He pulled out his little alcohol stove and poured water from his last purified bottle into a pot “What do you want? I’ve got chicken and broccoli rice, chicken and fried rice, spanish rice, or herb and butter rice.”
“Uh, the broccoli rice.”
Dex nodded and tossed a couple of packets onto the footprint before pulling out the bags with his hammock and sleeping bag.
“You said that’s the dogs’ tent?”
“Why do the dogs get a tent?”
“They can’t just roam around the trail. They’d be a danger to wildlife, or in danger from it. And people have allergies or are scared of dogs. I mean, I could try putting them in a hammock, but it kind of freaks them out, to be honest. Plus, it gives us a rain shelter.”
“Ok, but then, why not just sleep in it all the time? If you have to go to all that effort of setting it up anyway.”
Dex shrugged, but didn’t look away from the little stove - he’d just lit the flame to bring the water to a boil and alcohol fires were dangerous. “Even with a sleep pad, the ground’s not exactly comfortable. Hammocks are better.”
“Then you should take your hammock and I’ll sleep in the tent.”
Dex snorted. “You’d freeze. You don’t even have a puffy jacket. Nah. I’m used to it. You just got introduced to hiking the hard way. And you didn’t complain, like, at all. I’ll be fine in the tent with my jacket.”
“Wait, Dex, you’d be relying on just your jacket to stay warm?” Chowder’s return was announced with his interjection.
“Ayuh. I hope chicken and broccoli rice is ok. If it isn’t, blame Nurse. He picked.”
“It’s supposed to get near freezing! We’ll share sleeping bags.”
Dex glanced up at Chowder, his brows drawn down, before looking back to the fire. “How are the three of us going to fit to share sleeping bags?”
“We’ll zip them together. And we can put our pads next to each other too, that way no one’s on the ground.”
Dex didn’t have to look up to recognize the tone of voice meant that Chowder had made up his mind and there was no convincing him otherwise. He tried anyway. “Even two sleeping bags zipped together isn’t going to be big enough for three guys our size.”
“We’ll just have to spoon. I call middle.” Chowder’s grin was wide and dazzling, and firm confirmation that he considered the matter settled.
It was a tight fit, but Dex had to admit that being spooned around Chowder who was spooned around Nursey was nice. The fact that it was something he’d dreamed about multiple times did not contribute. It was just because of the extra body heat.
Nursey couldn’t claim that sleeping on the ground with just a piece of foam for a cushion was the most comfortable night’s sleep he’d ever had. Except that falling asleep with Chowder tucked up behind him and waking up to Chowder very much pressed up behind him and also Dex’s hand on his hip was kind of super nice. It wasn’t a feeling he was going to forget, not if he could help it.
Unfortunately for him, Dex and Chowder were clearly super homophobic because they got out of the sleeping bag and made him get up too. They didn’t even stop to listen to his well formed argument for why they should just all stay in the sleeping bag for all of the summer break instead of hiking again. Well, it would have been well formed by the time he gave it. He was certain of that. It had very strong points like “hiking sucks, actually” and “we could do other things in the tent as well”.
Dex pulled the tent poles and let the tent collapse around him.
“Aw, Dex. Nursey was getting his beauty sleep.” Chowder grinned at him when he managed to crawl out of remains of the tent.
Dex snorted. “I think he’s had enough.”
“Thanks, Poindexter.” Nursey shook his head at Dex’s chirp as he rolled himself up to his feet. Chowder and Dex were already changed into their hiking gear, so Nursey did a quick change too while they got started on breaking down the camp and packing everything up.
“Hey, where are my boots?” He was sure he’d left them with his pack the night before, but they were gone.
“Oh yeah. Here.”
He looked over at Dex’s words and Dex was swinging his boots back and forth waiting for him. Once he had his hands in the air, ready to catch, Dex tossed them over.
“I put some insoles in that I had. Should help for today. You’ll probably want to get better ones at the store, though.” Dex’s ears started turning pink and he ducked his head and shuffled over to start packing the tent up.
“Keen’s a good brand, though, Nursey. You’ll probably be fine today. They break in real quick. Just, yeah, insoles make or break hiking boots.” Chowder dazzled him with a smile. It was seriously brighter than the morning sun but Nursey didn’t want to look away; instead, he returned it.
“Chill.” He watched them as he pulled the boots on and tightened the laces. “So, what do you need me to do?”
“Oh! Um, transferring the water from the gravity filter output to the individual hydration bags and bottles would be great. That takes a while, so it would be swawesome if you could do it.”
Nursey was about ninety percent certain that Chowder didn’t mean the unspoken “and you probably won’t fuck it up” that he heard in his head, so he just smiled and went over to the bag contraption hanging from a tree. He assumed this was the gravity filter since Chowder had filled the top bag with water the night before and it was empty now but the previously empty bottom bag was now full of water.
There were already a pile of hydration packs next to it. He recognized them because the top one was his. He’d filled that up the day before from the hotel, but he was sure he could figure out how this worked. It was water, not rocket science.
There was a hose on the gravity system going from the filter connected to the top bag to the bottom bag. It made sense to use the hose to transfer the water, so he balanced the bottom bag and unhooked the top of the hose carefully, quickly pulling over a hydration bag and connecting it. He wasn’t sure if he needed to do it quick or not, but better safe than sorry. Once he was sure it was secure, he held up the bag full of water and let the water pour down into the hydration bag.
It worked with minimal leaking and he repeated the process with the other two bags and a plastic bottle that was under the pile. Once all the water was transferred with no sudden showers or floods, he celebrated with a fist pump. Quietly, because he could hear Chowder and Dex still working nearby and they clearly hadn’t noticed his personal victory in hiking and camping.
Someone did though. A quiet chittering from the ground caught his attention. There was a little chipmunk. Dex always said there were chipmunks near the Pond at Samwell, but Nursey didn’t believe him because he’d never seen one himself. But here was a real, live, actual chipmunk. Nursey leaned forward. He was a junior chipmunk, he knew his duties. “Squeak squeaker squeak squeakity.”
The chipmunk squeaked back and sat up on its hind legs.
Nursey grinned and fumbled his phone out to get some selfies with his new best friend. “Say ‘Chill’, little bro.”
The chipmunk squeaked again and then turned and scurried back into the brush. Nursey suddenly realized that the camp had gotten a lot quieter. No more logistics conversation between Dex and Chowder, no more rustling of gear as they packed everything away.
He turned slowly to find them both staring at him. Chowder had his phone out like he was recording the interaction.
“Yo! Chill! You guys are just mad that Little Bro is my new bestie which means you two are out.”
“Sure, Nurse.” Dex rolled his eyes before turning back to the gear, but Nursey was pretty sure he was also blushing again.
And if he wasn’t mistaken, so was Chowder.
Dex was right. The insoles made a ton of difference. Or maybe it was the fact that the trail wasn’t up a mountain. It was almost flat in comparison, which meant fewer breaks were needed. Dex still religiously passed the sunblock around every hour, bless his ginger soul.
All in all, it was a pretty chill day. A lot of the hike was along a stream and they all got pictures at some cool spots. He’d even found a second to scribble a few lines of metaphors when they stopped to stretch and relieve themselves.
It was early afternoon when they left the park and only a short distance from there to the campground where Dex’s uncle was meeting them. He thought maybe Dex’s uncle was late or had abandoned them, because the only guy leaning against a vehicle in the parking lot was an old black guy. Then Dex made a trilling whistle and the guy broke into a grin before opening the door to his SUV.
Two of the hugest dogs Nursey had ever seen clambered out and scrambled towards them.
“Newfs!” Chowder gasped and dropped to a crouch with his arms outstretched. He was promptly barrelled into by the black dog.
The black and white dog pranced in front of Dex and got a head rub, then bounded over to Nursey. He barely had a chance to brace himself before the dog reared up on its hind legs and draped its front paws over his shoulders in a doggy hug. He grinned as the dog sniffled at the scruffy beginnings of a beard on his face.
Chowder’s laughs and sputterings rang across the parking lot and Nursey turned his head while trying to keep supporting the dog that was investigating his ear now. The other dog had Chowder laid out flat -his pack was off to the side, so he must have gotten it off first- and was licking his entire face.
“Fred! George! Heel!” Dex’s voice broke through, followed by another series of whistles. The dog hugging Nursey gave him one last sniff before dropped back to all fours and trotting to sit by Dex’s side. The other dog followed right after, sitting at Dex’s other side.
“Chill. They don’t really look like Weasley’s though. And much better behaved.” Nursey smirked at Dex.
“You, on the other hand.” Nursey cut Dex off so that he could complete the chirp, finishing with a shrug. Dex had earned a lot of chirping for not telling them he had two friendly, amazing, giant dogs.
“Nursey, Chowder. This is my Uncle Carl. Chowder’s the one still sitting on the ground. Nursey’s the one who is awfully cocky for a guy who didn’t bring a sleeping bag on a backpacking trip.”
Carl stepped forward and shook his hand, looking him up and down while he did so. “Where’d you think you were gonna sleep?”
Honestly, Nursey thought that where he’d ended up sleeping had been pretty great, but he wasn’t going to say that out loud, and definitely not to Dex’s uncle. He decided to go with the truth from prior to the night before. “I, uh, I read that there were trail community towns all along the trail and thought we’d be in hotels and stuff.”
“Oh lord. You are not going to like the next ten days.” He shook his head and patted Nursey on the shoulder before moving over to help Chowder up.
A few minutes later, they managed to all pile into the SUV with the gear and the dogs in the very back. Chowder, somehow, managed to call shotgun, so Dex and Nursey were in the second row seats.
“How’s David doing?” Dex’s voice was low, barely more than a murmur as he leaned forward towards Carl’s ear as he settled into the driver’s seat.
Nursey didn’t mean to eavesdrop, it’s just that he was right next to them.
“Oh, same ol’. Talked to him earlier on the phone. He really liked those videos you sent. Just don’t be using up your batt’ry on videos in case you need your phone for an emergency.”
“I won’t.” Dex sat back after that, but Nursey could tell from the set of his face that he was lying.
Whatever the reason was for sending videos to whoever David was, Dex thought it was more important than having a working phone in case of an emergency. Nursey blinked, and shifted his gaze before he was caught watching Dex. He couldn’t think of anything that Dex would think was more important than being prepared for an emergency. It was more than a little disconcerting.
It wasn’t a long drive to town, just long enough for his calves to really start aching about hiking the past couple of days. He winced at the pain and then winced again as scrunching his face made it hurt.
“Why does my face hurt?” He felt it and it felt warm, but not scraped or cut.
Dex was looking at him with his brow furrowed, leaning over as far as the seat belt would allow, which was a lot closer than Nursey expected. “You’re sunburned. How? How was 50 spf uva/uvb not enough? It should have been more than enough. It worked for me. I checked consumer reviews. Did I miss passing it around one time?” Dex pulled out his phone and started poking at it.
“Dex, chill. I can’t be sunburned. I’m black. Remember?” Nursey rolled his eyes, but that hurt too.
Chowder’s face appeared over the back of the front seat. “Oh man. You really are burned.”
“Seat belt on, face front.” Carl’s command broke through and Chowder flashed Nursey another sympathetic frown before turning back in his seat and buckling up again.
“Wait. Are you saying you didn’t put the sunblock on at all?” Dex had looked up from his phone and was staring at him strangely.
“When I handed you the bottle every hour, you just...didn’t put any on?” It was kind of weird and disconcerting how Dex was talking so softly and calmly.
“I passed it to Chowder. I figured that’s why you gave it to me.”
“So the sunblock worked fine. You just… decided not to use it. Because you know better.” Dex looked back to his phone for a few seconds before locking the screen and shoving it back into a pocket.
“I told you. I’m black. We don’t sunburn.” Nursey wasn’t sure why Dex was acting weird about this. He understood why Dex was concerned about sunblock. That boy had a ton of freckles. Not that Nursey would mind seeing more.
“Except you are sunburned. Because black people do sunburn. And if they get skin cancer, doctors don’t always know how to recognize it. So it’s super serious and that’s why I wanted you to wear sunblock.” Dex was staring straight ahead, addressing the back of Carl’s headrest. His hands were loose on his knees. It was possibly the calmest that Nursey had ever seen him. It was scary.
“Yeah. Chill. I’ll make sure to put it on when you pass it around from now on. Promise.”
Luckily, they arrived shortly after that and could pile out of the SUV.
“Ok, well, let’s see what we’ve got and what we need. Then we can hit the post office to mail back stuff and a few stores around town to get what we need.” Dex nodded to himself and opened the back of the SUV allowing the dogs to pile down and start bumping their heads into everyone’s legs looking for pets and scratches.
“Gotta get to the cabin in time to feed these boys too. I brought some water for ‘em, but not any food since you messaged you all would be needing to stay in for the night.” Carl tapped the side of the vehicle and then clipped leashes to the dog’s collars and lead them over to a grassy area.
“Ok! Well, actually, Nursey had a lot of really good stuff!” Chowder grabbed his bag and started pulling out the things they’d discussed the night before. “Like, ok, I hella don’t understand the ice axes. That’s true.”
“They said recommended for mountain climbing.” Nursey had told Chowder that the night before, but he thought Dex should understand, also. He hadn’t just bought things without thought. He had been considering the fact that they were going to be climbing mountains on this trip and wanted to be prepared.
Dex let out a slow breath. “Ok. Yeah. Well, if you ever go glacier climbing or climb a mountain during the winter, those might be handy. We can send them back for now, though. What else do we have?”
“Well, there’s the satin pillow, which is too bulky to carry the whole trip, sorry Nursey. But most of the rest of it is food! Some is canned goods, which we can’t use. Sorry. But there’s also a bunch of things we can use like freeze dried meals, and different things we can cook on the trail, and power bars and stuff. I think you had rice packets? And I’ve got some ramen packets. Maybe we can keep some of each of our stuff for the 100 miles of wilderness and then ship the rest ahead?”
Dex nodded. “I mean, we probably want the lightest, most calorie dense, stuff for this first bit just because we have to carry ten days of food plus ten days of dog food. But having a variety will hopefully keep us from getting burned out on any of them too quick. And will save us some money on resupply trips later on.” He picked up one of the packets and read the information on it. “Yeah, this is good stuff.”
Nursey inclined his head when Dex gave him a small smile. It was nice to know they didn’t think he was a complete idiot.
Dex and Chowder started comparing weights and other factors that kind of went over his head, but Nursey was still stuck on the idea of ten days in the wilderness, hiking a hundred miles. He rolled around to the side of the SUV and pulled out his phone to search for information about it. Most of the first results were about how pristine the area was and other stuff he didn’t care about, but one link looked promising, 100 mile wilderness dot info. He clicked that and found a guy who had cabins and a bunkhouse at the southern end of the wilderness and info about how shitty the cell service was and with claims that the guy knew all the back ways into the wilderness.
Nursey clicked over to the services tab and thought the resupply option for clients sounded ideal for their situation. Surely having food left in secure boxes part way through would alleviate some worry for Chowder and Dex. The Contact page had a phone number and an email along with a warning that with the shitty cell service, it was best to leave a message if the call didn’t go through.
He glanced around the end of the vehicle, but they were still busy, so he moved further away and tried calling. It must have been his lucky day because the guy picked up and after Nursey explained that they were hiking southbound with three people and two dogs and would like a cabin when they got through plus the resupply options, he was able to get them secured spots over the phone with his credit card.
He was grinning when he put the phone back in his pocket and strolled to the end of the vehicle. His grin faltered when he got almost to where the other two would see him and he realized that they were talking again.
“I’m just saying, Dex. It makes more sense if we split up. Doesn’t the post office close soon? And you said we might have to go to more than one store to get all the gear and clothes that Nursey needs.”
“You know as well as I do that those stores are in it for the money, not to help hikers. They will take one look at him, see dollar signs, and sell him the most expensive, least useful shit in the place. It’ll be the ice axes all over again. I don’t want them to take advantage of Nursey. Especially right before we go into the wilderness where we won’t even have cell signal for days. They could literally get him killed.” Dex’s voice was a low hiss, full of anger.
“Look, I know you’re worried, but sometimes-” Chowder stopped and sighed. “Your aggressive caring comes across more like judgement to him.”
Sputtering sounds and aborted attempts at protest followed that but Chowder spoke over it. “Let me finish. I know you don’t mean to be judgmental, but that’s how it seems to Nursey. He’s not trying to spite you, you know. He’s just a city boy. He doesn’t know that he needs a hammock, and sunblock, and to check for ticks.”
There was a few seconds of silence and Nursey almost coughed to announce himself, but Dex spoke up finally. “Well, I can’t just not care, okay? Sharing a tent is a fix for the hammock, and that was fine for last night. But I can’t fix it if he gets cancer from not wearing sunblock. Cancer doesn’t give a shit about him being a city boy or having a shit ton of money. Cancer just sneaks up on people and takes everything.”
“Ok, but now he knows, and we can get him aloe for his burn and help make sure he doesn’t burn again. I’ll go shopping with him so they don’t take advantage of him. You trust me to know what’s worth the price and what’s overpriced shit, right?” There was a pause which must have been filled with a nod because Chowder continued. “Ok. So you and your uncle take care of the mail while Nursey and I go shopping?”
And that, that seemed like Dex was pretty much at his breaking point. Definitely time for Nursey to act like he just arrived. He quietly backed up a bit and then strode forward, loudly and purposefully. “Yo! Guess what I found?”
He rounded the corner of the SUV and was greeted by Chowder’s grin. “What’d you find Nursey?”
“Found a guy with cabins down by, uh, Monson? And he has some boxes for resupply caches in the wilderness for people that stay there. I was able to get us the last cabin available for ten days from now and on the resupply list.” Nursey grinned at them and pulled out his phone to check his texts from the guy with the confirmation. “We’ll get a resupply at the Jo-Mary logging road and the KIW road. Whatever those are.”
“Thanks, Nursey! That’s swawesome that there’s someone that does that and you found them.” Chowder wrapped him in a quick hug.
Dex, on the other hand, gave him a measured stare before turning to the packs and rifling through his own before pulling out a guidebook and flipping to a map. “Ok, yeah. If that’s legit, that will mean we only need to carry food for four or five days. Maybe less, but, you know. To be sure. Thanks, Nursey. That’s a good find. How much do I owe for my part?” Dex didn’t look back up, instead resorting the food in the packs and pulling some out.
“Nah, it’s chill. It was the same price for one person or a group since I had to get the cabin instead of a spot in the bunkhouse. No need to pay me when I would have had to pay the same just for me.”
Dex’s hands tightened around the strap of one of the packs. “Nursey.”
“Chill, it’s only like $25 a piece by the time it’s divided up. There’s no need to worry about it.”
Dex nodded. “I’ll venmo you.”
Nursey looked at Chowder and sighed. Chowder just shrugged in response.
“Hey, we’re gonna go ahead and hit the stores. Text when you’re done and we’ll meet back up!” Chowder patted Dex on the arm and then took off down the street, leaving Nursey to follow hoping he knew where we was going.
“Ok, so for sleeping bags, down is lighter and warmer, but if it gets wet, it’s done for, so it depends on how good you are at keeping it out of water. We’ve got a tent for rain nights, so that’s good at least. Though, that thing takes forever to put together and is drastically increasing Dex’s carry weight. We’ve got a water filtration system, so you don’t need to worry about that, but I don’t know how worried you might be about viruses because filters can’t get those. But on the other hand, the UV bottles don’t filter for sediment and stuff so it tastes funky to me, but if you want one, that’s swawesome. I guess the most important thing is that lighter is almost always better. Not always, but almost always.” Chowder stopped when he got to the door of the store and flashed Nursey a smile before barging in.
“Ok, so, we’re going to be in the wilderness for ten days, and even after that, I’m getting the feeling that there won’t really be charge stations around for phones.”
“Nope! Once we get to the areas closer to towns and stuff, the shelters around might have charging stations. And areas where there aren’t probably won’t have signal anyway. It’s usually best to just leave your phone off and keep it for emergencies.”
Nursey thought back to what he overheard between Dex and Carl in the car. “Yeah. I can decide what goes in my pack right? Like, you said to keep it light, but I can keep my journal and stuff?”
“Oh yeah! Of course. Just for the basics. Hammock, sleep system - that’s bag and pad-, um, trek poles, clothes, we’ve pretty much got hygiene stuff and first aid covered, Dex has his little alcohol stove which is only somewhat scary. Hmm. If you want any special hygiene stuff, you should get that.” Chowder was staring at a wall of cooking supplies now. He picked up a long handled titanium spoon and put it in the basket before moving down the line.
“Yeah. Dex and I have a pot already. And like I said, Dex’s little scary stove.”
“Why is his stove scary?”
Chowder paused and hummed. “I just don’t really trust alcohol stoves? He made his, and that’s probably fine. If I trust anyone to make a stove, it’s Dex. But alcohol stoves take awhile to get to a boil and it’s hard to see the flames. And they can spill. I usually go with a canister stove or cookless, personally.”
Nursey nodded along. “So. How mad will Dex be if I replace his gear with better, lighter weight gear? Not like, all of it. Just. Like, you said the tent took forever to set up, and if we have to share it with the dogs when it rains… we barely fit just us. And why would he trust me around a dangerous stove?”
Chowder stared at him and he tried to look innocent and confident under the scrutiny. Finally, Chowder sighed. “He probably won’t kill you. Especially if we make sure he doesn’t realize it until we are in the wilderness. Also, I’ll help pay for it.”
“You don’t have to.”
Another sigh. “I know that. You know that. He probably knows that. But. He’ll probably take it better if it’s just that I upgraded some of my equipment and rendered his unnecessary. You know how he is.”
“Proud? Maybe? I don’t know. He wants to feel like our friend, our equal. Not like we hang out with him out of charity.”
Nursey snorted. “Okay, first of all, I don’t hang out with anyone out of charity, so jot that down. Second of all, that doesn’t even make sense. He’s basically single handedly kept us all alive for three years. Or at least me.”
“I know that; you know that.” Chowder pulled a pair of trek poles off the wall. “Try these. How do they feel?”
It was surprisingly easy to talk Carl into replacing the old, heavy, or dangerous gear with the lighter, safer stuff that Nursey’d purchased with Chowder. Carl had just given him a wink and then called towards the room that the Frogs were sharing saying he’d shake down their equipment for them if they wanted to take advantage of the last shower they’d have access to for a week and a half.
Dex and Chowder insisted that he should take a shower first, so he did. The hot water stung his sunburn, but it felt better after that, and he tried to hurry to make sure he didn’t use up all the hot water before the others got their chance. At the same time, it really did feel good to stand under the spray. Once he was out, he did a careful tick check like Chowder had mentioned, and put on his lotion and the aloe gel that Dex had found in the fridge for him.
The little bedroom had two sets of bunk beds and a small dresser and that was about it, so when he returned, there wasn’t a lot of room to get out of the way as Chowder hopped up from the lower bunk next to Dex to take his turn in the shower.
Dex looked up at him and then patted the bed. “Lay down, put your legs up here.”
Nursey was wary, but did as he said, laying down on the bed with his legs in Dex’s lap.
“On your stomach, you doofus.”
“Oh, right.” Nursey rolled over, though judging by Dex’s indigent squawk, he nearly kicked him in the face. Once he was laying down with his head pillowed on his arms, he stilled. “Better?”
“Yeah.” And then Dex’s hands were on his calves, slowly and rhythmically applying pressure and massaging the pain away.
Nursey honestly could have fallen asleep like that. But he forced his eyes open. “Hey, Dex? Thanks. And, uh, look in the top drawer of the dresser.”
Dex’s hands slowed and stilled. “Why?”
“Just do it.”
He felt as Dex shifted to pull open the dresser without moving off the bed and he heard the shuffle of the bag when Dex pulled it out.
Nursey swallowed. It was now or never. “I overheard you, in the car, talking to Carl. About the filming. And like, I saw your face. You intend to keep filming our trip, even if it means running your phone out of battery. But with a GoPro, you can film the whole trip a lot easier, and save the phone battery for actual phone stuff. And I got some lightweight back up power things too. For the camera and the phones.”
Dex didn’t say anything and Nursey was too scared to roll over and see what faces he was making, so he plunged ahead. “And, like, it doesn’t have to be a gift, it can just be you borrowing my GoPro, if that’s what you want. But I mean, you’ve probably already saved my life like five times on this trip, so I think you deserve for it to be yours.”
Dex finally huffed a laugh that sounded a little damp. “Probably more like ten, knowing you. Now get off my lap and pick your bunk.”
Nursey rolled over and onto the floor before staring up at Dex with a smile. “Like there’s any other bed I’d pick. You’re on bottom, then I’m on top.” He pulled himself up and then climbed into the bunk above Dex, ignoring Dex’s groan and rolled eyes.
“Silk scarf. For your hair.”
“You knew I’d pick this bunk.” Nursey ran his hand over the scarf. It really was silk, and a beautiful bluey green color.
“Ayuh. I know you.”
Nursey wrapped the scarf around his head and smiled. Yeah, he did.
Chowder having his phone out definitely means this won't come up again later. In case anyone's wondering what the video looks like, a lot like this picture of Chris Hemsworth with a quokka.
Chapter 4: Just Keep Swimming, er Hiking
Hair still dripping a bit from the shower, Chowder, stuck his head into the bedroom to let Dex know it was free before finding a quiet and cozy corner in the living room of the small cabin. He hadn’t had a chance to call the night before and he was really missing Cait.
Her face filled his screen with a big grin and he knew he was returning it because his cheeks hurt.
“Hi, sweetie. How’s your hike going so far?”
“It’s pretty good! We’re actually probably the same spot we would be if Nursey had the right gear. Measured out to nine miles today and ten yesterday. Did you get the photos I sent?”
“I sure did. That video of Nursey with the chipmunk is so cute.”
“I know! Squeakity. Heh.” Chowder quickly glanced around the room to make sure no one was listening to him gush about his friend.
“Also, that arch was spectacular. Please tell me you didn’t let that pass without comment.”
“Babe! You know they gotta work their stuff out first.”
“Oh my god. Christopher. You let the man you are crushing on pose like that right in front of you and you didn’t say anything? There’s no way he wasn’t trying to see if he could catch a comment.”
“No, I didn’t. Because Dex was right next to me. He didn’t say anything either.” He stopped and sighed. “It’s too delicate. I think they need to tell each other they like each other first before I can start suggesting polyamory. Otherwise it will freak them both out.”
Cait twisted her lips in that cute way she had when she wasn’t convinced but also wasn’t going to argue. “Okay. You know them best. I just want you to be happy and I know how much they mean to you.”
“I know babe. That’s why you’re the best. But I don’t want to lose them as friends because I couldn’t wait to ask them out. I don’t even know if they like me like that. I just know for sure they like each other.”
Cait snorted. Chowder could never understand how she made that sexy and beautiful, but she managed. “Of course they like you. They’d have to be even bigger idiots than they are to not love you.”
Chowder smiled at her. “Aw. I love you, Caity. But tell me about your day! How’s Lilah?”
Cait’s throaty laugh filled his ears as she started regaling him with a story about her day at the beach.
The next morning came hella early. It never seemed so bad when he was actually on a trail, because then the sun was waking him up, and there were bird songs, and, if the morning before was anything to go by, Dex would be waking up first thing and start shuffling around to get stuff ready.
But this time they were in a cabin, snug and warm, with limited light through the curtained window and Nursey snoring from the top of the other bunk. The only way it could have been better was if he’d woken up sandwiched between his two friends again.
He sighed and stretched. Even if they ended up in the tent again, Nursey had his own sleeping bag now, and had replaced Dex’s tiny pup tent with a pyramid that was plenty big enough to spread out a bit. Maybe he should take that as a sign.
Then again, he’d also noticed that the hammock Nursey insisted on getting was technically rated for three people and up to six hundred pounds. There were a lot of mixed signals. It was confusing.
Still, today they were going to start on the hundred mile wilderness! It was going to be hella swawesome.
Chowder rolled out of his bunk and managed to snag the bathroom first. When he emerged in his hiking gear, Carl was in the little kitchenette plating up eggs, bacon, and toast. Dex shuffled out of the bedroom and into the bathroom behind him and Chowder heard a thump as Nursey jumped from the top bunk instead of climbing down the ladder. A few seconds later, he leaned his head on Chowder’s shoulder and stared at the plates being filled with breakfast foods.
“Did I die and go to heaven?”
Chowder leaned his cheek against Nursey’s head. “I don’t think so. But I’m starting to suspect where Dex got it from.”
“You boys going to eat, or you gonna keep wasting daylight?”
They didn’t need Carl to ask twice, quickly shuffling over and sliding into chairs at the table. Then nudging the dogs out from under the table where they had been trying to beg inconspicuously.
“You have a big day ahead, so don’t eat too fast. Don’t need you getting sick. But lord knows you’ll be hurting for the calories soon enough.” Carl set the plates on the table and they didn’t waste time serving themselves. Dex sat down just a bit later and didn’t seem to mind serving himself from the remnants the other two had left.
Nursey excused himself to the bathroom and get dressed and Dex stared at Nursey’s plate for a long moment. Chowder thought that he was going to steal some of Nursey’s food, which probably made sense. He and Nursey had probably taken more than their fair share. He hadn’t even thought about making sure enough was left for Carl and Dex.
Instead, Dex moved a slice of bacon from his own plate over to the pile on Nursey’s.
“Why’d you do that?” Chowder nearly talked with his mouth full, too used to Haus manners, but luckily, he’d caught himself in time and choked down the food first.
“He likes to eat even numbers of things.”
Dex didn’t elaborate beyond that, instead taking a long pull from his cup of coffee and then raising the cup to his uncle in a salute.
Chowder decided to let it drop. “Thank you for making breakfast, Carl. This is really good!”
Carl did the same coffee cup salute back and then wandered over to the living room area, leaving the three Frogs to their breakfast when Nursey returned.
Chowder shrugged to himself and resumed eating.
“Wait. There’s too much bacon.” Nursey looked up from his plate and directly over to Dex. “Poindexter.”
“You gave me one of your pieces of bacon, didn’t you?”
Dex leaned back with his coffee again and gave a half shrug. “You like even numbers.”
“And you like primes and squares!”
Dex raised his eyebrows and then pushed away from the table. He dropped his plate into a sink full of soapy water and headed for the door, giving a series of whistles that caused the dogs to scramble after him -after one last longing look at the plates on the table.
“You guys are weird.” Chowder grinned at Nursey and then took his plate to the same sink that Dex had used before returning to the bathroom. He had to make sure and brush his teeth really well. He still sometimes had nightmares about his orthodontist hunting him down.
They still managed to make it back to the Abol Bridge Campground super early. Chowder knew, he knew, it shouldn’t feel super early because it was another day starting at eight instead of six or seven. But somehow it felt different from his trips backpacking on the PCT. He was pretty sure it was the company.
Also, the dogs had their own packs and it was possibly the best thing he’d ever seen in his life. He couldn’t believe that he was allowed to just pet them whenever he wanted to. They’d even let him use them as a pillow.
Dex had just shaken his head. But Chowder had seen the smile. He knew Dex enjoyed being with his friends.
They paused at midday for lunch. Which was a fancy thing to call power bars, trail mix, and beef jerky. But Dex wanted to rest the dogs. So they stopped by a stream and ate while Dex removed the harnesses from the dogs and dunked different harnesses in the stream before strapping the dogs into those.
“Whatcha doin, Poindexter?” Nursey was sitting on a rock but leaning over to watch. It was kind of cute, how they seemed to orbit each other without realizing it.
Dex had the GoPro on that Nursey had gotten and Chowder turned away before they caught him grinning and asked what he was thinking.
“They’re cooling vests. I don’t want the dogs to overheat.”
It made sense. Chowder wasn’t sure Dex had brought along anything to help with his own overheating - though he was passing the sunblock around again - but he’d made sure to have special gear for his dogs.
“Why do you have newfs anyway?”
“They’re trained for water rescue. We don’t get so many bad wrecks like they used to, but sometimes a boat will go down, or someone will be washed over. Sometimes we take one of them out on the boat with us just in case one of us goes over.” Dex shrugged. “They’re good dogs.”
“Yeah, they are!” Chowder turned back grinning. He’d managed to pull his field notebook out of his pack and settled onto a rock to flip through it to a clean page. He wanted to make sure and record what kind of plants were along the trail here.
He was sketching a small bush by the stream, his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, when a shadow covered the page.
“I didn’t know you could draw.” Dex crouched next to him, looking at the page.
Chowder resisted the urge to hide the notebook. He wasn’t ashamed of his skills. He knew he wasn’t as good as Lardo, but then again, she was an actual artist. And it’s not like Dex would make fun of him.
“I don’t really. But I like tracking the flora and fauna on my hikes. So I got some pictures, but I wanted to draw what doesn’t really show up. That way I can look them up later. I hope we see some cool animals that they don’t have in California.”
Dex rocked back on his heels looking pensive. “Huh. Cool animals? Just a minute.”
He stood up and looked around, pacing down the trail a bit before returning. “Ok, Nursey, do you want to see too?”
Dex wavered a bit. “It’s a surprise.”
“Oh!” Chowder scrambled back onto his feet, followed by Nursey.
Dex led them a little ways away to a fallen log and then paused. “Ok. I’m pretty sure this is going to work, so be quiet and don’t make any sudden movements. Get your cameras ready or whatever. If there’s nothing there, well, sorry.”
He waited while they pulled their phones out and got the camera apps ready. “Ok, crouch down so you can see.”
When they were in place, he gently lifted the log up, exposing a couple of salamanders.
“Chill….” Nursey barely breathed the word, clearly trying to be quiet.
Chowder had to bite his own tongue to keep from exclaiming. It was seriously the coolest thing. He took a bunch of pictures before Dex finally, carefully, replaced the log.
“OMG! That was swawesome!”
“Yeah, Poindexter. Super chill. How’d you know they’d be there?”
Dex rubbed at the back of his neck - Chowder did not watch how that showed off his biceps. “I mean, I didn’t? I was pretty sure because it looked like a log they’d like and they tend to like to be near water. But, yeah. That’s why I warned you it might not be anything.”
“Ok. Well, you definitely have to show us all the swawesome animals.”
Dex ducked his head and looked at Chowder through his lashes. “Yeah? I can try.”
Chowder turned away and bit his lip again while smiling. Why were his friends so hot?
When they finally reached the planned camp spot, Chowder was really feeling the last three days. From the looks of him, Nursey was about to fall over. But they still had to actually make camp, so they found a spot a bit off the actual trail that looked good.
Chowder pulled the gravity filter out of his pack and held it up. “Hey Nursey, could you fill this up for us? There should be a spring a few meters, uh.” He stopped and looked around. “That way.”
Nursey looked at him for a long moment and Chowder slid his eyes towards Dex pointedly, trying to get the message across. Finally, Nursey let his pack slide off his shoulders, then shifted some things around to pull out the Camelbak UV bottles that he’d gotten the day before. “Yeah. I’ll treat it for viruses before we filter it. Be back in a bit.”
As soon as Nursey was away from the little camp, Chowder dug into Nursey’s pack for his new ultralight tent and started setting it up.
“Hey, Chowder, did you move my tent to a different pack? I can’t find-” Dex’s voice cut off and Chowder focused extra hard on getting the corners of the tent at a 90 degree angle. “What’s that?”
Finally, he looked up with wide eyes. “Oh! Nursey and I were talking at the store about how if it rains, we probably need a tent for the people and one for the dogs. Then we thought, if we’re buying a tent for us anyway, why not get one big enough for us and the dogs and since they had ultralight tents, we can save on pack weight too.”
“So, my tent?”
“Carl has it.” Chowder widened his grin and then focused on using the straps to connect his trek poles to use as the center pole for the pyramidal tent.
“And this tent is going home with…?”
“Nursey probably. Huh. I guess it depends on how much he enjoys this trip. If he decides to never hike again then I guess it’s mine.”
There was a long pause and Chowder moved on to setting up the floored insert.
“Ok. I guess I’ll put down the footprint and string the hammocks then.”
“Great! I’m almost done here. This thing goes up super fast! It’s swawesome. Then I can help with the hammocks and we can cook dinner.”
They ended up stacking the hammocks, with Chowder’s on top and Nursey’s on the bottom. It actually made it kind of difficult to reach to tie up Chowder’s hammock, but would cause the smallest impact on the area. And they’d both agreed that Chowder was the least likely to fall out of his hammock and Nursey the most likely.
When Chowder handed Dex the new stove and fuel canister, he watched carefully as Dex’s face formed a few different expressions.
“My alcohol stove is with Carl too, huh?”
“Yeah. I know this is heavier, but alcohol….”
“Is dangerous. Even without accounting for Nursey forgetting that he has limbs and two dogs trying to sniff everything.”
“Yeah.” Chowder looked over at the dogs in question, on tie outs that allowed them to explore the area a bit without allowing them to run off or chase wildlife. They were currently laying at the edge of the footprint having finished their own dinner.
“And the extra weight is made up by the lighter tent.”
“Yeah. That was my thinking.”
Dex nodded. “I think maybe tomorrow I’ll pack ahead. If that’s ok with you. I can take just enough food and water for the hike and then the tent, footprint, and hammocks. We’ve got two first aid and hygiene kits between us, so I can take the smaller one. It’ll give Nursey a chance to go a little slower but I can set up camp and get the gravity filter running and everything before you two get there.”
“Dex….” Chowder started and then trailed off.
“I’m not….” Dex sighed. “I’m not upset with him or anything. These were good gear purchases. It’s not about that. I just need some time alone with my thoughts, too. I’ll keep one of the dogs with me and the other can stay with you two.”
“You trust us with one of your dogs?”
Dex glanced at him from the corner of his eyes and gave a small, half smile. “I trust the dog to keep you two alive.”
Chowder couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up. “Ok. But, you need to not be alone too. So why don’t we rotate? You pack ahead one day. I’ll pack ahead one day. And then the third day we all hike together even if it means a longer day setting up camp.”
Chowder watched as Dex took a couple of slow breaths. “Yeah. Ok. We can do that.”
“Swawesome.” With a grin he held up a couple of packets from his pack. “Also, can we have spiced cider tonight?”
“Sure. I’ll boil some water for that before I start the couscous.”
“Oh sweet, couscous. What flavor we got for tonight? Wild mushroom and herb?” Nursey’s voice caused Chowder to turn around and wave at him. Nursey waved back, stopping long enough to finish setting up the gravity filter to run overnight.
“Well, first I’m going to boil some water for cider because Chowder asked nicely. Then I’ll make the couscous. Mediterranean curry.”
“Chowder, you can’t just do Dex’s palate like that. Poindexter, I am so sorry that C did you like that. Do you want me to get the wild mushroom? We can overrule him.”
Chowder was staring at Nursey with his mouth slightly open. “Wha-?”
“Seriously. It’s ok.” Dex broke in.
Chowder looked over to catch him shaking his head and rolling his eyes. He gave a shrug in agreement; it probably wasn’t worth trying to explain.
Chapter 5: Poetry, Propaganda, and Polyamory
It had been a long day and they got to camp later than Dex would have preferred. The sun was setting and dusk was settling in, but the trail had been rough. Dex wasn’t going to push either Nursey or George when there was no need to hurry.
Chowder had hiked ahead with Freddie and when they arrived the hammocks were strung, the tent was up, and Freddie was laying on the footprint like a giant floor pillow. Chowder wasn’t there, but Dex figured he’d probably gone to get water for the gravity filter.
He sighed and slid his pack off his shoulders onto the footprint, taking the time to turn off the GoPro. Then he added George’s lead to the tent stake they were using as a tie out and removed George’s booties and pack. After getting the dogs food and water, he finally changed into his camp clothes and moved the GoPro to the shoulder harness.
“What’s for dinner tonight, Poindexter?” Nursey had changed while Dex got the dogs sorted, so he was stretched out on the footprint. He almost looked like he was posing in the grey light.
“Not sure. Probably whatever’s left.”
He was just about to dig through the packs for the cooking gear and food when the dogs both scrambled to stand and stare into the woods, ears perked and alert.
“What do you see, boys?”
Whatever it was didn’t really matter, because then they started pulling against the stake. Dex trusted it pretty well as a tie down, but two newfs pulling against it would win eventually.
“Oh shit. Chill. Holy fuck.” Nursey started scrambling backward.
Dex dropped everything and whistled at the dogs. “Down! Stay! Leave it!”
Once he was sure they were obeying him and weren’t going to tear off through the woods harassing the wildlife, he turned to Nursey who was still frozen and staring. Dex dropped down behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Nurse. It’s Dex. I got you, ok?” He waited for the nod and then wrapped his arms and legs around Nursey, hooking his chin over a shoulder. “What’s wrong, Nurse?”
“There’s a goddamn porcupine. Gonna shoot quills.”
Dex looked over where Nursey was staring and saw the porcupine in question. It was waddling along, over twenty yards away and apparently unperturbed by the activity at camp.
“It’s ok. They’re chill guys. They can’t shoot their quills, that’s Hollywood propaganda.”
Nursey seemed to be settling against him slightly. “You sure?”
“Ayuh. They gotta hit you with the tail or something, close up. Then the quills have barbs to stick in. But if you don’t poke them, they won’t poke you.”
“I don’t know, Poindexter, he looks like he wants to start something.”
Dex was pretty sure that meant that Nursey was just about over it. He didn’t blame him for still being just a little bit ragged. Andover probably didn’t prep for what to do when you meet a porcupine in the wild.
“Nah. He’s chill. Probably a hipster like you, too. See, there he goes, waddling off, going out for the night. He’s got porcupiney things to do. Probably going to go read some poetry to Mrs. Porcupine.”
Nursey’s voice was returning to a normal timber and he was relaxing against Dex. “How do y’know he’s not a gay porcupine?”
Dex sighed, of course that’s what Nursey would focus on. “Well, maybe he’s reading some poetry to all his porcupine lovers of many genders. He’s the world’s preeminent polyamorous porcupine.”
Nursey managed a laugh as his breathing evened out and deeped. “Nice alliteration, Poindexter.”
Dex rolled his eyes, even though he knew Nursey couldn’t see. “You good?”
“Yeah. If he’s chill, I’m chill.”
“They’re just a bit introverted. Give them their space and they’ll be chill.”
Nodding, Nursey sat up a bit straighter, still keeping his eyes glued on the spot where the porcupine had been, even though it was out of sight now. “I can do that.”
Dex huffed a small laugh as he stood back up. Nursey didn’t have the best track record at giving space. He covered the laugh by checking the dogs and letting them relax again.
Finally settling back down to start cooking, Dex paused to re-sanitize his hands after he pulled out bags. “Looks like we actually have two options left. Red beans and rice or loaded instant mashed potatoes.”
“Hey guys! I thought I heard George with Fred. I’m so glad you made it. I was worried when you weren’t here by sundown, but I didn’t want to wait any longer to get the water.” Chowder looked back and forth between them. “Did something happen?”
“Ch’yeah, C. You missed the polyamory.” Nursey finally turned away from the woods, which were now shrouded in darkness anyway, to grin at Chowder.
Chowder, for his part, stumbled and nearly dropped the water he’d just spent so long collecting. “I what?!”
“There was a porcupine. The world’s preeminent polyamorous porcupine who reads poetry to his plethora of paramours.” Dex stared at the food options since no one else was chiming in on what they should eat, he’d probably have to decide.
“Nice, Dexy. I’m going to write that down. ‘Dear diary, today Dexy used alliteration. I think he’s trying to woo me.’”
“I think I’m going to make the red beans and rice unless one of you just really wants potatoes.”
“Aw man. I can’t believe I missed the porcupine.”
“Can check the camera if you want. Maybe it caught him.” Dex tilted his head towards his shoulder as he set up the little stove and got it lit. He didn’t react as Chowder came over and removed the camera from it’s mounts, his long fingers brushing against Dex’s ear and neck as he did so. He certainly didn’t have to suppress a shiver.
“Chill C. Wait until Poindexter finishes cooking and we can all watch it together.”
“Okay. Swawesome.” Chowder sat down and turned the camera around. “Oh hey, Dex. I found a stick that was downed? You’ve been picking those up sometimes right? Did you want it? Or I can leave it here.”
“That’s great. Thank you, Chowder.” Dex flashed a smile at his friend.
Once they had all eaten and were settled, Chowder turned the record off on the camera and fiddled with it, rewinding to see the earlier recording. Dex pulled out his knife and the stick that Chowder had brought him and started slicing strips off to rough out a shape while he waited.
“Does this look right?”
“Yeah, that’s the dogs noticing. Play it from there, C.” Nursey crowded in close to Chowder, their sides glued together as they both leaned in to watch the small view screen on the camera. “Come watch, Poindexter.”
Dex took in the scene and gave a small smile, shaking his head. “Nah it’s ok. That screen’s pretty small, actually. I saw what happened, so you two watch.” There wasn’t space for him to watch with them and he really didn’t feel like being a third wheel anyway, so he just kept carving while the video played.
By the time the playback finished making him cringe about how terribly, hopelessly fond he sounded talking to Nursey, he had managed to carve a pretty decent approximation of a porcupine from the stick. It could use some sanding and finishing, but it definitely looked like a porcupine. He closed his knife and tucked the carving into his pack with the others he needed to mail back when they hit town the next day.
“Ok, I’m going to sleep, tomorrow we get to town and I want to get there early enough to hit the post office if possible.”
“Dex, we’re staying the whole next day. There’s no rush, right?”
Dex rolled his shoulders as he prepped the packs for the night to keep them away from animals. “Just rather sooner than later.”
The next morning was rough going again. More mountains and downed trees on the trail and honestly, Dex was worried about making it to their scheduled extraction point at a reasonable time. When they exited the woods at a small road near midday, he nearly sagged in relief.
There were tables set up with three people behind them, smiling towards their little group. There was also a woman with a dog. Fred and George pulled on their leads slightly, with George briefly looking back towards him as though to question why they couldn’t go meet this other dog.
“Swawesome! Trail magic!” Chowder rushed past, knocking their shoulders together in his haste, as he made for the tables.
“Go on and get some food, Nurse. I’m gonna take care of the dogs.” He didn’t wait for a reply, just took the dogs over to the other side of the little road and pulled out the tent stake for a tie out. Once he had their packs off and the collapsible bowls of food and water out for them, he took some time to stretch.
He watched the other dog, trying to make sure his dogs weren’t causing it any distress. Nursey stopped to talk to the woman and Dex caught him pointing over at him and the dogs once, but he ignored it. Leave it to Nursey to wheel on the Appalachian Trial.
Chowder, on the other hand, scarfed his sandwiches down and then managed to find the energy to jog over to where Dex was sitting. He dropped his pack and found a spot to sit with his soda.
“Go get your food, Dex. No good wasting trail magic. I can watch the dogs.” Chowder smiled at him and Dex had to resist the urge to pull him up into a full body hug, and possibly a kiss.
He shoved the thought back into its box with a brisk shake of his head and went over to the tables. Nursey finally moved down to the coolers when Dex approached, but the woman was still standing there, so it seemed polite to introduce himself.
“Hey. I’m Dex. That’s a nice dog.”
“Thanks. I’m Xiaq. He’s Deacon. Thanks for keeping your dogs contained. So many people just let them run free.”
Dex stopped spreading peanut butter on the slice of bread he was holding and blinked before looking at her from the side of his eye. “Then they could harass the wildlife. Or someone else on the trail might be scared of dogs. Or allergic. I mean, Fred and George are well behaved in general, but why take chances? Especially with big dogs.”
“Exactly, it’s nice on designated off leash trails. But the AT?” She gave a look that summed up her thoughts on that. “They are really well behaved.”
“Thanks. Actually trained for water rescue. Which. Not expecting to need that out here, but thought they’d enjoy the trip. Are you thru hiking? How have you found hiking with the dog? Any problems?”
He thought she laughed at him, but he finally had his sandwich together and was busy trying not to shove it all in his mouth at once, partly because that would be rude and partly because he might make himself sick.
“Not really any problems, no. But I’m just doing some section hikes. Picked out a few spots I want to hit each year. Eventually we’ll get the whole trail. Question though, Nursey was it? He said the dogs are named Carlo and Boatswain.”
Dex swallowed the giant bite that he’d compromised with himself on and then took a second to clear his mouth and throat. “Freddie and George. Nursey thinks they’re named after the Weasley twins though. I guess he decided they weren’t good enough names. Leave it to an English major to think even dogs need to reference Dickinson and Byron.” He smirked and then had to stop and clear his throat again thanks to the thick peanut butter from the previous, ill advised, giant bite.
Xiaq tilted her head back and forth. “As an English Lit PhD student, I feel like I have to support your friend on this one.”
Dex started to laugh but ended up coughing instead. “I’m going to retain veto rights, I think. It was nice meeting you, Xiaq. I need to get something to wash this down with and make sure they haven’t decided to give my dogs beer or something. Good hiking.”
Xiaq nodded back at him and then he turned to look for the cooler, and to thank the family again for providing the food.
Getting a shuttle into town was a bit tricky. He took care to make sure he disclosed up front that they had two large dogs with them and that, yes, the dogs were coming with. He didn’t want the driver to refuse to take them, although, if it came to it, he’d stay on the trail with them and let Chowder and Nursey go into town to relax. But they were nearly out of food and he had enough little carvings that he wanted to send an actual package back to his uncles, not just upload the footage from the camera.
Luckily, they didn’t have any trouble that day, though it was also early enough that they could have called a second shuttle if necessary.
“Ok, so. Explain trail magic again?” Nursey had his hands buried in George’s ruff, scratching at his neck and Dex didn’t even fight the fact that his eyes kept falling back to Nursey’s hands.
“It’s just like nice things that people do for each other on the trail. Sometimes it’s stuff like that. A local family or someone local goes out and provides food and beverages to the hikers or something similar. Sometimes it’s hikers helping each other, leaving extra food in a resupply box at hostels, or dropping something extra nice like a beverage pack on someone’s pack. Providing some piece of gear that someone needs. Just helping out or being nice.”
“Yeah. It’s hella swawesome! Someone once left a packet of tea on my pack when I was hiking the PCT. I didn’t even see who to thank them.”
“I mean. There’s also real magic. The trail will provide. Coincidences and stuff. People break a piece of gear and find what they need on the side of the trail, someone is under on food and just happens to meet up with someone who has enough extra to share.”
“That’s really chill. You ever have that?”
“Nah. I don’t usually go out this long though. I’ve seen it happen to other people.”
Chowder nodded vigorously in agreement.
The shuttle stopped and they all piled out with the gear.
“Ok, I want to hit the post office before it closes. Can you two grab us beds at the hostel and then we can meet up there and go to dinner?”
“Ch’yeah. No problem.”
Dex nodded and headed to the post office. He had them check for mail that was held for any of them since he was there anyway, then exited a few minutes later, having sent the carvings off and collected a couple of boxes.
“Hey, Dex!” Chowder greeted him outside the post office and took one of the boxes from him before falling into step beside him.
“Hey, Chow. Thanks for the help but I could have just met you at the hostel.”
“Yeah. That’s why I came to get you. The hostel didn’t have any rooms where it would be just us and the dogs and Nursey decided that he didn’t want to share a shower with more than just us. So, he got us a room at the motel instead.”
“Oh. Ok.” Dex studied Chowder from the corner of his eyes and decided that his friend was studying the path too carefully. “So, what aren’t you telling me?”
“They only had king rooms left.”
Dex nearly tripped and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “Ok, well. I can just get a bed at the hostel or something.”
“Dex.” Chowder dragged the name out only a little. “It’s no big deal. We all shared the sleeping bags that first night and that was way smaller than a king size bed. It’ll be fine. There’s plenty of space.”
Dex searched Chowder’s face, but it was guileless. His smile reminded Dex of when Nursey and Chowder had huddled together the night before to watch the video, and Chowder offering to be in the middle the first night. Of course - it made sense, if Chowder liked guys and was polyamorous, that he’d like Nursey.
Who wouldn’t like Nursey, honestly? Then again, who wouldn’t like Chowder.
He turned away and started walking again, letting his mind roll over itself. He could get his own room with the dogs. Then they’d all still be at the same motel together. He was trying to save money, but Uncle David was funding the trip and had assured him that there was more than enough from the payout to cover everything. It’s not like he wanted to watch his two best friends, his two crushes, make heart eyes at each other all night and day or be some weird third wheel that kept them from hooking up.
“Thanks for setting up this Frog hike. It’s swawesome! It’s so great to spend time with my two best friends.”
Dex just nodded, still staring in front of them.
“You’re still thinking about getting a bed at the hostel, aren’t you?”
“Nah. Figured we should stay together-”
“Exactly! We can have a Frog pile and cuddle together and watch whatever trash tv is free.”
Dex blinked at Chowder’s interruption. “You sure you want me in the room with you two? I can get a second room for the dogs and me.”
“Of course, Dex. We love you.”
Dex gave Chowder a half smile. “Yeah. You guys are my best friends too.”
Luckily, Chowder had one of the keys to the room, because when they got there, Nursey was in the shower. Dex set the package down on the little table in the room and then removed his pack and set the GoPro where it had a view of the room. He was glad that he could trust the others to take the booties and packs off the dogs, they’d even set up their water bowls for them.
He’d just finished checking George over for ticks and sores when Nursey emerged from the bathroom, wearing nothing but his compression leggings, and flopped onto the bed.
“Chill. Everyone’s here. I ordered pizza delivery because I am not leaving this room again for at least twelve hours. I might not leave this spot.”
“My turn in the shower!” Chowder slipped into the bathroom and shut the door.
Hopefully he wouldn’t take too long. Now that they were back in town, Dex was reminded how much funk accumulates while hiking. Especially when faced with Nursey, clean shaven and still glistening from his own shower.
Dex wasn’t sure how he’d ended up in the middle of the bed. Nursey had stuck to his statement about not moving from where he’d plopped down, and Chowder...Chowder had claimed he couldn’t be near the window for some reason. He lay awake staring into the darkness as Nursey pressed his face into Dex’s shoulder.
The bed dipped and he heard panting before one of the dogs laid down beside Chowder. Probably Freddie, he liked to push the rules on where he was supposed to sleep.
Chowder, in turn, rolled closer to Dex, laying nearly on top of him. Dex closed his eyes and took a deep breath before wrapping his arms around his two best friends and pulling them in closer. It would be just like them to fall off the bed and get hurt in town after making it through rough trails with no injuries. He just wanted them to be safe, that’s all.
Chapter 6: One More Step
Hiking had grown on Nursey. Sure, he still wasn’t as good as Dex or Chowder, they had a lot more experience. But he was in good shape and weeks had passed and he thought he was doing pretty good.
He was still slowing them down. They didn’t say anything, but he knew it. If it had just been Dex and Chowder then they would be going a lot faster. They’d both independently told him that they were pretty much maxing out the distance they’d want to travel in a day so the only thing that would change is breaks and what time they made camp. And Dex had said that letting the dogs go slower was good for them too. He hadn’t even seemed grumpy when he said it, so it was probably true.
But most importantly, they hadn’t really had any fights.
He was thinking about how nice the trip had been when Dex suddenly stopped. Nursey nearly didn’t stop in time to keep from running into him even though he had been staring at Dex’s calves -stupid pack covered his butt.
“If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”
Nursey stared at the side of Dex’s face as he gazed down the trail. “Seriously?”
Dex turned and looked him strangely. “We were in Chicago two months ago for the championship game, Nurse.”
“I’m getting closer to home with every step!” Chowder pushed past them and continued down the trail, Fred trotting at his side.
Dex smiled and shook his head. “Come on, Nurse. Welcome to New Hampshire.”
“That was one of your nerd references, wasn’t it?” Nursey fell into step next to Dex now that the path allowed it. Since Chowder had pulled ahead, Dex was probably going to end up dropping back when it narrowed. Alas, no more calf gazing.
“You don’t get to call me a nerd while you actively try to change my dogs’ names because you want them to be named after Lord Byron’s dog.”
“And Emily Dickinson’s.”
“I know. At least Carlo lived a long and good life. Not a terrible namesake for a dog.” Dex idly reached down and rubbed at George’s head while he talked.
It was difficult to watch where he was going and also watch Dex from the corner of his eyes, but Nursey tried it. So he tripped after two steps. Luckily, Dex grabbed his arm and kept him from falling. “Didn’t realize you knew about Carlo and Boatswain.”
Dex glanced over and smiled again briefly. “I know all the famous newfs, Nurse. You really think I wouldn’t pay attention to the ones owned by people you quote at us?”
“Oh. Chill. Do you think Chowder remembers we’re all staying together today? Or is he just going to leave us?”
“Lunch is in George’s pack, so I think he’ll remember when he gets hungry enough.”
Nursey wanted to keep talking, but the trail narrowed again and Dex fell back. He tried to push himself to catch up to Chowder somewhat, but Dex called out not to strain too much and risk an injury. Dex was right, though, and Chowder slowed down a short while later and Nursey could focus on Chowder’s legs moving in front of him. The biggest problem with hiking was definitely the fact that the best scenery was covered by Chowder’s and Dex’s packs.
He was surprised when they stopped at a wooden platform that night. Not just because they hadn’t stopped at a platform before, but also because there was a tent already set up on it. There was a person sitting on the other side of the platform, feet hanging off the edge since it was built on a sharp incline. They seemed to be watching the sunset and didn’t move when the Frogs arrived.
“Are you ok with dogs? They’re well trained.” Dex passed George’s lead to Nursey while approaching the person slowly.
They turned to size Dex and the rest of the group up before smiling. “Oh, sure. Love dogs.”
Dex visibly relaxed. “That’s great. We’ve been dispersed camping to reduce impact on people that don’t like them. But here…”
“Yeah. They hate that in the White Mountains. Designated sites only.”
Chowder and Nursey had approached slowly after the approval was given and Nursey got a good look at the other camper. They seemed a bit androgynous and a bit butch, but the puffy jacket they were wearing was also glittery, so it was all a lot to take in. That combined with the shaved sides and faux hawk was definitely giving Nursey an impression of “LGBTQ+ somehow” but he wasn’t exactly going to ask.
The best part, though, was they seemed to be about the same age as the Frogs, maybe a bit older. Some of the people they’d passed on the trail had been a lot older and that was chill and all, but Nursey wasn’t sure how it would go sharing a camp with them. They’d all also been almost exclusively white.
Another great thing about how long they’d been hiking was that Nursey knew how to set up a lot of the camp stuff now. He still didn’t mess with the camp stove. Dex seemed to feel everyone was safer when he had his eyes on the flame the whole time and it both made sense and made Dex more comfortable. Plus, Nursey didn’t really want to be in charge of cooking even if it did seem to mostly be about boiling water and adding spices.
No, the cool part was that he could string up the hammocks while Chowder set up the tent and Dex got the water. They traded off sometimes, but he really liked stringing up the hammocks. It was like making the beds for them. Which was entirely too sappy and domestic a thought to have about his friends, even if it was true.
He stared at his hammock after setting it up and stringing the ridge line. It would fit them all and save time, just like when they shared a room at the one town. That had been nice. He was sure that he’d woken up to Dex holding him. Or the first night when Chowder had managed to spoon even closer in the night.
He shook his head. It was probably unintentional. His friends were straight and Chowder had Farms. The last thing they wanted or needed was him thinking about them like that. Nursey grabbed Dex’s stuff sack and started stringing up his hammock next.
After everything was set up and Dex was back with the water, they ducked into the tent to change. It had gone through their group unspoken, through brief eye contact, that it would probably be rude to start changing right in front of a stranger, no matter how chill they seemed.
When they stepped back out of the tent in their camp clothes, the stranger looked up from their camp stove. “Damn. No show to go with dinner? Alas.” They paused with an amused smirk, then used a long-handled spoon to test their dish. “You can call me Fluffy, by the way.”
They all nodded but Nursey chimed in before anyone else could reply. “I’m Nursey, the grumpmeister is Dex, and the brilliant ray of sunshine is Chowder. Our two travelling floor pillows are Carlo and Boatswain.”
“Nurse. Seriously, why are you trying to rename my dogs?”
“They need trail names, Dexy. Everyone else has them.”
Dex actually looked up from the food he was preparing and stared at Nursey. “That…. That makes a strange sort of sense, I guess.”
Nursey beamed back at him before turning to Fluffy. “So, I notice you’ve got some ink there. Mind telling me about it?
They snorted in reply. “Sorry, you gotta be at least a level three friend to unlock that story.”
“Chill.” He pulled his arm out of his puffy jacket and pushed up his sleeve to show his own tattoo. “I got the first bit of this when I turned seventeen. Got a bit more added last summer. I think it’s nearly done. Maybe. Who knows, might end up being a full sleeve.”
There was a clatter as Dex dropped his spoon into the cook pot. “Shit.”
Nursey turned and watched him grab it back out, curious. Dex never lost focus while cooking, especially out here.
“Uh, sorry about cursing.”
“Please, you’re a few years late to be corrupting me.”
Nursey was sure that Dex was blushing, which was interesting. And not just because he always liked watching the slow creep of pink over Dex’s ears and down his neck.
After everyone had eaten and the dogs were snoring softly in the tent, it was still pretty early to go to sleep. Chowder was kind of moping about there not being a good enough cell signal to call Farmer, but they were all sitting around the camp lanterns and having a good time. Fluffy was super chill. Dex was carving another stick. It felt like the perfect time to work on his journal since he hadn’t had a chance yet that day.
The first part was easy, marking off that they’d arrived in New Hampshire and that the hike was harder because of the mountains, the weather and interesting things that happened that day. He was staring at the second page for the day, trying to decide if he wanted to write a short piece of prose about it or maybe a poem when Chowder spoke into a lull in the conversation.
“Whatcha carving, Dex?”
Nursey looked up at that, with his eyes narrowed. “Dexy…”
“Ayuh. To commemorate you trying to pet one.”
“I tried to pet a dog. You two are liars who don’t want me to pet the dogs and claimed it was a dangerous breed called a coyote.”
Fluffy leaned forward and broke in. “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that tall, dark, and beautiful here tried to pet a fuckin’ coyote?”
“He’s not just a flatlander, he’s from New York City.” Dex said it like it explained anything. Like what a flatlander was.
Fluffy sat back and nodded as though it had explained everything. “So, what else has he done to try to get himself killed?”
“Other than not bringing a hammock or sleeping bag the first day, that’s about it for dangerous stuff. So far.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dexy.” Nursey shot him a dirty look and returned to his journal only to be brought back immediately when Chowder spoke up again.
“Wait, he met a chipmunk the second day. It was cute. I’ve got video.”
That was not fair. He had not been told that he was being videoed or that the footage was still in existence. He lunged for Chowder’s phone, but C was too quick and pulled it out of his reach to show Fluffy.
Fluffy watched and raised their eyebrows in response. “Superb arch there. Whatever practice you’ve been doing has paid off.”
All he could do was stare in confusion. “Practice?”
They whistled low as they returned the phone to Chowder. “That’s natural? Damn. You boys are lucky.”
That did not help the confusion at all, and neither did the fact that he was pretty sure Chowder and Dex were both blushing again in the artificial light. The only kind of arch he could think of was sexual and it didn’t make sense for them to congratulate Dex and Chowder on that.
Fluffy looked between them all, well-maintained eyebrows climbing high on their forehead. “Wait, really? Damn.” They mimed locking their lips and throwing away a key. Then snorted. “Yeah, like that would stop me. Still, wouldn’t mind seeing how this show ends.” They twisted their lips into a thoughtful expression and tilted their head before slapping their hands on their knees. “Well, I’m going to sleep. You boys don’t get too rambunctious.”
Nursey wasn’t sure how he waited until they were all in their hammocks before he started chirping Dex, but he was pretty sure he deserved an award for it.
“Hey Dexy. How come you’ve never complimented me on my arch? Why do I have to hear about how great it is from someone I just met?” He grinned as he stared at the bottom of Dex’s hammock in the dark.
He wasn’t let down, Dex responded shortly with a grumble. “Go to sleep, Nurse.”
He opened his mouth to respond again but Chowder beat him too it.
“Dex! You’ve never complimented him? Nursey, you have an exquisite arch. Even Cait says so.”
Nursey let out a laugh at the thought of Chowder and Farmer discussing his fucking arch. “Thank you, C. Dex, this is how a friend acts. They compliment each other on their natural talents and hard-won skills.”
There was a soft rustle of hair against nylon and Nursey could just make out where the bump from Dex’s head disappeared and reappeared indicating he was trying to beat his head against the hammock. “Oh. My. God.”
“I’d tell you that you have an excellent arch. Show me in the morning. I’ll tell you how good it is.”
He was sure that he’d almost won his private game of getting Dex to try to scream quietly before he burst out laughing himself, but he never got to find out. A zipper opening scratched out in the night and Fluffy’s voice came out cold and stern. “Hey. Lover boy. Either suck his dick or go to sleep, but either way, shut up already.”
That kinda sounded like Fluffy was taking Dex’s side, but Nursey could still call it a win, so he laughed and reached up to smack Dex on the back through his hammock, acknowledging the chirping match as over.
So of course, as soon as his hand slapped against the fabric, there was the unmistakable sound of tearing nylon. “Oh shit.”
They say that time seems to stand still when things go wrong, that your life flashes before your eyes. That definitely did not happen. But Dex did seem to float in midair above him for a moment, a cocoon of sleeping bag topped with ginger hair, barely visible in the dark. Then he was falling through the air and Nursey was trying to react. Nothing had prepared him for Dex being the one to fall. Nursey couldn’t catch himself, much less Dex.
Luckily, Nursey hadn’t put up his bug net like he should have, which meant Dex didn’t get deflected onto the ground. He had put up the ridge line for it, though, so Dex hit that and kind of rolled. Which meant that he landed next to, kind of on top of Nursey, face to face. Which was, he was pretty sure, much preferable to Dex landing on him from a straight drop. Somehow, his hammock absorbed the impact, though Nursey himself grunted and Dex was groaning, probably from the combination of the impact with the ridge line and with Nursey himself.
Nursey watched him carefully until he was sure that Dex wasn’t seriously injured. “So, I guess that means you’re down for option one?”
Dex managed to crack one eye open to glare at him, so he responded with a winning smile. “Shut up, Nurse.” He paused and hissed in a breath before continuing. “Just give me a minute and I’ll go sleep in the tent.”
Nursey relaxed and let his face soften. It was probably too dark to see much anyway. “Hey, no. It’s chill. You know I’m just chirping you. Stay here. You said way back that hammocks are more comfortable for you to sleep in and this one is plenty big for two or even three people.”
At least, he was sure it should be since it had claimed as much.
Dex took a few more labored breaths, his eyes closed again, before rolling enough to be beside Nursey instead of on top of him. Nursey did not pout, but may have allowed a small frown at that development.
Nursey lay there for a few minutes, reveling in the victory of Dex agreeing to share his hammock. Hiking was the best idea ever. Forget baby steps, great big giant hiking steps. Except there was one small problem.
Dex shifted next to him. “Why are you wiggling so much?”
Nursey kept at it. He wasn’t sure how his sleeping bag had gotten tangled up around him already, but his arms were trapped and that was a problem. “Trying to get an arm out so we can cuddle right.”
Dex groaned and Nursey was sure he rolled his eyes. “I’m going to the tent.”
Nursey stopped moving. “I’ll stop. I’ll stop. No cuddles. That’s chill.”
Somehow, he woke up before Dex, or at the same time as Dex maybe. Maybe it was Fluffy leaving, because they were gone when he finally rolled out of his hammock. But what he knew for sure was that when he woke up, Dex’s hand was just out the top of his bag and resting on Nursey’s shoulder.
Chapter 7: How to Fake It Safely
Chowder felt like he should have figured out what Dex was going to do sooner. He wasn’t sure how he should have known. He hadn’t known that Dex knew how to do a handstand, much less anything more complicated. Given how frequently people wanted to see him do the splits, even though that was basically in the job description as a goalie, he figured anyone with similar skills would similarly be called on to perform.
So when Dex dropped his pack as soon as they reached a stretch of the trail that followed a fairly flat road, Chowder was nearly as shocked at himself for being surprised as he was at Dex for flipping onto his hands and walking on them down the road. Dex didn’t go far, needing to return for his gear, but clearly he could have gone farther.
He felt like he should have known that one of his best friends had that talent. He should know pretty much everything about them, right? He knew more about them than they knew about each other, he was sure of that. But still. He’d learned a lot about them on this trip too.
He chewed on his lip. Maybe he didn’t know them as well as he’d thought.
That thought was quickly erased as Dex arrived back at the tiny group and proceeded to strip his shirt off and shove it into his pack before putting the pack back on.
“Now that’s just rude.”
He probably wasn’t meant to hear Nursey’s mutter, but he nodded his agreement anyway.
That should have been the end of it - Dex inadvertently increasing the thirst for both Chowder and Nursey. When Nursey dropped his pack and removed his own shirt in retaliation, Chowder wasn’t surprised. He decided that maybe he did know his friends pretty well after all. Dex just didn’t share things he didn’t think were relevant, and he had a different concept of relevant from the rest of them.
They stopped for a break a couple hours later and they worked like a well oiled machine, mostly. Dex pulled out the cooling vests for the dogs and dunked them in water while Chowder made sure they had water to drink and Nursey took off their packs. Step one was always take care of the dogs. Dex would do it himself and hadn’t asked for help but Nursey and Chowder has come to an agreement that the dogs were actually all their responsibility, seeing that the dogs were swawesome and also couldn’t do these things for themselves.
This time there was a slight hitch, first because Nursey was moving a little slower. He dropped his pack and got the dogs still, but then he sat down hard and fanned himself while tentatively poking at the spots where his pack straps had rubbed.
“You didn’t get heat rash from friction did you?”
“I don’t think so. But also, there’s so much sweat. How is there so much sweat? And I feel crusty where it evaporated.”
Chowder made a sympathetic face. “Yeah. That’s why clothes that wick sweat away are so important.”
“Chill. But then how is he…” Nursey trailed off staring so Chowder turned to look too.
Dex had put the cooling vests on the dogs and then returned to the small stream and was splashing water over his chest and head. It was like a scene from a body wash commercial, and Chowder was definitely sold on the product.
“How is he even real?”
Chowder made a noise of agreement and then somehow managed to tear his eyes away and pull out food for them all. When he looked back up, it was to see Nursey stripping his hiking shorts off, leaving him in just his compression shorts that he had on underneath. At least he’d put his shirt back on, hopefully after wiping down with wet wipes, but still.
“You guys are competing to see who kills me. That’s swawesome.” He shook his head at Fred who tilted his head in sympathy.
Or maybe because he wanted Chowder to share the jerky and cheese they were having for lunch. It was hard to say. Sometimes he thought the dogs only loved him for the food. Then they’d cover his face in kisses and he’d feel reassured. If only his human friends could be so transparent.
Nursey really did hike the rest of the day in just his skin tight shorts and a shirt, and Dex managed the rest of the day without a shirt even though it meant more time reapplying sunblock. Chowder knew why Nursey was doing it, but he honestly wasn’t sure that Dex even realized that he was causing a stir. He literally loved his friends, but they were so oblivious sometimes.
At least once they settled for camp at the designated pad, both of them changed into full camp outfits instead of continuing to be half naked, or nearly so. Not that Chowder had a problem with it, but it still cooled down considerably at night, especially without the exertion of hiking to keep their temperatures up. Plus, he wasn’t sure how the other hikers would take it.
If they were like Fluffy, they’d probably enjoy it, but he didn’t see Fluffy’s tent. He felt his shoulders droop a bit. He really liked Fluffy. It was swawesome to have an older queer person around, just for the sense of community. Plus, they’d had some really good chirps for Nursey and Dex.
They’d just finished eating and stringing the gear up out of reach of bears when one of the other hikers at the site came over. Well, Dex had strung up the gear, Chowder and Nursey were laying on the ground using the dogs as pillows and pointing out constellations. Or making up new ones in Nursey’s case.
“We’re going to have a safety meeting in about fifteen minutes over on the cliff overlook if you boys want to join.” The guy didn’t wait for a response, just continued on to another group.
Dex flopped onto the footprint next to them and scowled after the stranger. Or maybe his face was just being like that tonight. “What did he want?”
“Invited us to a safety meeting.”
Dex snorted. “Wondered when that would start happening. Why I hate sharing a site.” He pulled a stick over and started carving into it.
“Chill, Poindexter. You can’t be in charge of safety for everyone on the trail.”
Dex gave Nursey an odd look that Chowder couldn’t decipher.
“Um, do you not want us to go?”
Dex turned and blinked at Chowder for a bit before squaring his shoulders and focusing on the wood in his hands. “I’m not in charge of you. You two can go if you want. I can watch our stuff or whatever.”
Chowder looked over at Nursey to find him looking back with raised eyebrows. They shrugged at each other and then rolled to their feet, heading towards the cliff that the guy had mentioned. There was a small group of hikers sitting around chatting.
“Guess it hasn’t started yet?” Nursey whispered in his ear but all Chowder could do to respond was shrug. Maybe they should find a spot to sit.
The guy that had invited them appeared suddenly and clapped them on the shoulders. “Hey, glad you could join us. This your first safety meeting?”
“Ch’yeah. We’ve mostly been setting up at our own sites.”
The guy, a white guy in his mid-forties if Chowder had to guess, grinned at them conspiratorially. “Ah, well, safety virgins can always join in without sharing. Come on over and sit by me.”
He clapped Nursey’s shoulder again and then squeezed it in a way that made Chowder narrow his eyes. When Chowder looked at the guy’s face again, he caught the look Chowder was giving and dropped his hand quickly.
When they sat down, Chowder made sure to sit between Nursey and the stranger, which is how the guy passed the joint to him first.
“Go on. You two are new so go ahead and take the first drags.”
Chowder knew his eyes were huge when he looked at Nursey for guidance, but Nursey seemed at a loss too.
He tilted his head slightly and mouthed “fake it?”
Chowder held the joint up to his mouth, carefully holding his hand to hide the fact he hadn’t actually put it in his mouth, and took a deep breath, then turned and coughed into his elbow to hide that there was no smoke. He passed the joint over to Nursey who did a similar act and then passed it back to the stranger.
Chowder looked around the small group, trying to hear what safety information people were sharing, but as near as he could tell, everyone was just chatting. A few seemed to be arranging hook ups. But mostly, they were all smoking something and talking. It was like being surrounded by a bunch of different versions of Shitty.
“So, where are you boys from?”
“Um, actually, we should probably get back. Our friend probably needs help with the dogs. Thank you for sharing with us.” Chowder stood up and pulled Nursey behind him. He flashed smiles and apologies but refused to stop until they were back at their own tent and hammocks and had flopped down next to Dex.
He looked up from the wood in his hands, which was starting to look like an owl. “Didn’t think you’d be back so soon.”
“Dex! They were smoking…” Chowder paused and looked around before lowering his voice. “Weed.”
“Ayuh. What did you expect?” Dex’s hand was gripped tight around his knife as he delicately sliced into the wood, making tail feathers seem to appear by magic.
“Uh, I think it was pretty clear that we expected to learn about safety, Poindexter.”
At Nursey’s words, Dex furrowed his brow and carefully set his knife and the carving to the side. “You mean, you two thought that it was going to be an actual meeting about safety?”
Chowder nodded vigorously in agreement with Nursey.
“And the fact that I would miss a meeting about safety?”
“That did seem odd, yeah. But…” Chowder trailed off.
“We thought you just figured you already knew it.” Nursey finished the thought, perhaps more bluntly than Chowder would have.
Dex leaned over until his head was almost touching the footprint, his entire body shaking. Chowder was concerned until laughs started bursting through, high and breathless. He slowly sat back up, clutching at his ribs.
“Shitty is going to disown you both.”
Chowder blinked. “He knows we don’t smoke.”
Dex sucked in a deep breath and managed to get control over his giggles. “Wait. Do you mean that neither of you even smoked at the meeting?”
When they both shook their heads, Dex’s giggles returned until he laid down with tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.
“Oh god. I can’t even chirp you appropriately. How? Chowder, you’ve been hiking before. They’re bound to use the same phrase on the PCT.”
“I don’t know! I never really paid attention.”
Dex finally stopped laughing and wiped his eyes while shaking his head. “I’m so sorry. I thought you knew what you were doing. I would have at least warned you before letting some white guy talk you into illegal activity.”
Nursey finally swung himself around so that his head was on Dex’s stomach. “It’s ok. We didn’t smoke. Just faked it.”
Dex’s clamped his lips and was clearly trying to hold in more laughs. He wasn’t successful and his body spasmed with them, bouncing Nursey’s head. “You good at faking it then, Nurse?”
“Stop shaking my pillow or you’ll never know.”
The mirth drained from Dex’s face and his eyes turned down. “Yeah, well. I guess I just have to take your word for it anyway.”
Chowder opened his mouth to try to redirect the conversation to the owl that Dex had been carving, but then his phone rang unexpectedly. He pulled it out and stared at it. “I can’t believe I actually have signal.”
“Are you going to answer it? Or…”
“Oh yeah!” He swiped quickly and rolled to his feet.
“Hi Cait!” He grinned at his friends and then moved a little ways away where they wouldn’t hear him. “I can’t believe I have signal and actually get to talk to you!”
“Me neither! Oh, today just got so much better.” Cait’s voice continued, but fainter, as though she was speaking away from the phone. “Chris actually has signal and answered.”
Lilah’s voice yelled from the background. “Hi Chris. Sorry we interrupted your makeout time!”
Chowder felt his cheeks heat. “Tell Lilah hi from me, but we weren’t making out.”
“Chris says hi and that they weren’t making out.” Cait’s voice returned to normal through the phone. “You better not have stopped in the middle of boning them to answer my call. I could have left a voicemail.”
“Cait! They have to work things out first.”
“Chris. Seriously. It’s been a month. How many nights have you shared a bed now?”
Chowder took a couple of moments to think back. “Three. The first night and then both nights in one of the towns when there was only a king size bed. And last week they shared a hammock when Dex’s broke until we got to town and he got a new one.”
“And they still haven’t kissed even a little?”
“No. But there is a new development. First, did you know that Dex can walk on his hands? I didn’t know that.”
“Um, ok. That’s interesting, I guess. Kinda cool.”
“Yeah. It was swawesome. Then he took his shirt off, so Nursey took his off. But then Nursey didn’t like how his pack rubbed without the shirt and how sweaty he got, so he put his shirt back on and decided to hike in his compression shorts instead.”
There was a long pause. “Sounds like you were spoiled for eye candy.”
“Do you think they’re doing it on purpose? They’re my friends. They wouldn’t actually try to kill me, right?”
“From the sounds of it, they aren’t observant enough to be doing it on purpose. I’m telling you, Chris. Just sit them down and lay it all out for them. They like each other. They like you. You like them both. The three of you should all date. You should continue to date me. I should continue to date Lilah. Everyone is happy.”
There was a kissing sound and then Lilah’s melodious voice sounded close to the phone. “And then you can kiss them. I might even let Dex help me build something for my bike if you three get it together. Tell him that. Maybe it will help.”
Chowder stifled a laugh. “I don’t know. It was going pretty well, but then we got invited to a safety meeting, which is apparently secret hike code for smoking weed. But Nursey and I didn’t know that, so we went. And we had to pretend we smoked some before we could leave and Dex was laughing about Nursey’s ability to fake it…” He trailed off.
Cait groaned. “And Nursey made a comment about him not knowing.”
“Nursey made a comment about him never knowing.”
“Why are they so predictable? Better question, why do you want to date them?”
“Ok, fine. I know why you want to date them, you don’t have to get offended on their behalf.”
“Lilah has decided she’s had enough of your boys’ inanity and she’s retreated to the other couch again. But seriously, something has to break them out of this cycle, and if they won’t do it themselves…”
“Did you know that I love you?”
Chowder loved how that always made Cait laugh deep in her throat before she responded.
“I love you too, Chris. I miss you. I know this trip is important for you, as a friend even if nothing else comes of it. But I wish I could be there with you, too.”
“Me too. I’ll skype you in town?”
Chapter 8: Side Pass and Sugar Push
TW: Moose charge
Dex knelt on the side of the trail, checking over George for any scratches or ticks while he lapped greedily from his collapsible water bowl. He heard a noise from the direction that Nursey had gone and stood up, figuring he was finally back from relieving himself.
He was technically correct. Nursey was walking towards him and actually only a few feet away. But Dex’s eyes locked on the figure behind him and Dex froze, his grip tightening on George’s lead. Beside him, George started emitting a low howl.
“Nurse. Stop.” He knew he was using his command voice for working with the dogs, but he was hoping it would impart the importance of listening.
Nursey did stop, giving him a quizzical look.
“Now, walk toward me, slowly, quietly, and carefully.” He assumed that Nursey was even more confused, but he wasn’t willing to move his eyes again to check, as long as he could tell Nursey was moving in his peripheral vision.
“There’s a moose.”
It was the wrong thing to say. He realized it almost immediately when Nursey turned, flailing and nearly shouting. “What?”
There was no time for thought or consideration. Dex had launched himself forward as soon as he’d seen Nursey start to turn, pulling George with him. He knew that he hit Nursey hard, harder than he’d ever checked someone on the ice. Still, he felt the air displacement as the moose charged by before they hit the ground with a grunt.
The lead in his hand pulled taut as George moved at the other end of it and Dex squeezed his eyes shut. He should get up. He was still laying on Nursey, their cheeks pressed together. He just wasn’t sure if he was able to yet.
After several long moments and deep breaths, Dex managed lick his lips and speak.
“Remember when we saw the salamanders and I said to be quiet and not make any abrupt movements and we all did that and we saw them and they were cool and we didn’t upset them?” The words were tumbling out in a jumble, but he didn’t care.
Nursey’s breathy response took another moment to come. “Yeah.”
“And remember when we saw the porcupine and it was scary but we gave it room and didn’t bother it and it was chill and left?”
Dex nodded slightly. “Remember when we saw the coyote and both dogs were growling and Chowder and I were holding our trek poles like weapons and Chowder physically grabbed you to keep you from trying to pet it.”
There was another delay before Nursey’s soft “Yeah.”
“And you remember how two minutes ago I told you to walk towards me slowly, quietly, and carefully, and instead, you yelled and moved abruptly and then a moose almost killed us?”
“Yeah.” This one was very small.
Dex nodded again and rewet his lips. “Okay. Can we have a rule that we listen to me about how to act around animals? Like, I know you just don’t have experience with this stuff. If I’m ever in New York City and you tell me to act a certain way to be safe in an area, I will do what you say. Just. You are in charge of safety in the City. I’m in charge of safety in the woods. No questions asked. Can we do that?”
“Okay. Thank you. I’m going to get up now and check on my dog, then we are going to hike until I feel safe and then we are going to sit a bit. Okay?”
“Yeah. Get up. Hike until safe. Sit. Chill.”
Dex shook his head slightly. “Not until safe. Until I feel safe.”
Dex carefully pushed himself up, off of Nursey. He needed to check George, but he stopped and gave a quick glance over to make sure he hadn’t injured Nursey when he knocked him over. Nursey sat up and rubbed at an elbow, but seemed to be fine other than scrapes and bruises.
An image of the moose barrelling towards them flashed in his mind and his hand spasmed around the lead as he stopped himself from reaching back out toward Nursey to reassure himself again. Instead, he took a deep breath and turned purposely to check George.
George, for his part, was apparently over the situation. The moose was gone, somewhere in the woods on the other side of the trail. And George was snuffling at the underbrush and trying to rub his face in something. Knowing dogs, it was something smelly and disgusting, so Dex called him back over before offering Nursey a hand up.
By some twist of luck, the moose hadn’t trampled their packs, so after two miles of hiking, they found a spot to stop. Dex went through the motions of taking care of George; removing his pack, applying the cooling vest, getting him water. Then he sat down heavily at the side of the path and let his brain spiral.
Nursey sat down beside him so that their shoulders were pressed together. Dex was thankful for the contact, and the quiet. Logically, he knew how fast moose could run. They certainly weren’t far enough away to guarantee they were safe. But also logically, there was no reason for the moose to circle back. It had simply seen a threat and charged.
He wasn’t sure how long had passed while they sat there. But eventually Nursey moved enough to pull snacks from his pack and he offered Dex one of the Starbucks packets he’d been leaving on strangers’ gear ever since he learned about trail magic.
“Snickers? Or, uh, I’ve got some Bearded Brothers bars or some dried cherries?” Nursey tossed the different items into Dex’s lap as he named them.
Dex blinked a few times and focused on the items in his lap. He picked up the protein bar. “Ginger peach flavor?” He wrinkled his nose and handed it back to Nursey before tearing into the Snickers. “Thanks, Nurse.”
Dex finished the snickers and then popped a couple of dried cherries in his mouth. “Sorry I kind of freaked out on you.”
Nursey took a few cherries from the same bag before responding. “I’ve never seen a moose in person before.”
Dex didn’t know what to say to that so he just nodded. It’s not like he’d expected Nursey to have experience with any of these animals. Especially not ice age megafauna.
Nursey shrugged. “I guess I didn’t realize how big they are.”
Dex nodded again. “Fucking huge.”
“You’re okay though, right?”
“What? Oh, yeah. Chill.”
Dex nodded again and then pushed himself up. “Chowder will be waiting.”
Nursey stared at his outstretched hand for a moment before taking it and putting his pack back on.
It was late and dark before they got to camp. There were some washed out sections of the trail that would have delayed them even if they hadn’t had the other delays and meant that they were all feeling the strain. Even George was padding slower and sniffing less until they got close. Then he perked up a bit with his nose twitching shortly before Dex heard music through the trees.
It wasn’t very loud, so he only heard it for a short time before they reached the campsite where he was met with the image of Fluffy and Chowder dancing.
“Ok, try again. One, two, three, four..”
“Hey guys!” Chowder interrupted them when he saw his friends approach. “Fluffy’s teaching me to Lindy Hop!”
Dex smiled while he unclipped his waist strap and dropped his pack. All he wanted to do was eat and fall into his hammock, but he had to be a responsible dog dad, so he got George ready for the evening and made sure they were both fed before collapsing.
“Do we have any food that doesn’t require cooking? I’m done.”
Fluffy appeared over his head. “Get dressed for dinner and I’ll tell you.”
He blinked up at them before deciding that they were right. He couldn’t stay in his trail clothes. He was already cooling down rapidly now that they’d stopped.
Once he and Nursey were in camp clothes, he sat down more normally and Fluffy dropped beside him before pushing a container into his hands. “You boys were running late. Since we’re close to an access point, we decided to call one of the shuttle groups and see if some food from town could be delivered. We expected lukewarm hotdogs or something. What we received was homemade spaghetti and meatballs.”
Dex closed his eyes and inhaled the aroma. This must have been what George was sniffing at. To be honest, what George and Fred were still making eyes about needing.
Dex opened his eyes and looked over to see Nursey already deep into his own container and smiling as he chewed. Dex shook his head and focused on his own food. It was as good as it smelled, and he made a mental note to make sure they cleaned everything thoroughly and put anything that might have a trace scent of food up on a bear line.
He was vaguely aware of Nursey finishing his food because he talked Chowder into showing him what Fluffy had been teaching when they arrived. He wasn’t sure how Nursey could still have the energy for that, so Dex looked up and watched the two of them until Fluffy leaned even closer.
“What are you waiting for? Get your man already.”
“It’s….not that simple. Really.” He let his gaze linger on each of their faces for another moment before looking back at the food.
Fluffy snorted. “Then get both of your men. You know that’s an option, right?”
Dex nodded idly while stirring through the remaining pasta. “My Uncle David is legally married to Auntie Glenda, but Carl is just as much their husband. I wouldn’t….” He stopped and sighed. “I would actually love to be with both of them. But it’s no more a possibility than either one of them. Chowder’s straight and in a relationship with a great woman. Nursey’s… probably straight.”
Fluffy broke in with a snort. “Ok, you need to get your bi-fi and gaydar adjusted because, no.”
Dex shrugged. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Look at them. Even if they like men, they’d never like me. What kind of person even spends all his time pining after his best friends?”
“More than you’d think, apparently. Hard to believe the dogs have all the brains amongst you.” They clasped Dex’s shoulder as they stood up to head to their tent, but it was hard to tell if it was meant as comfort or exasperation.
Dex couldn’t make sense of Fluffy’s comment, so he finished up his food in silence and then cleaned up. He’d walked the dogs, strung up the food, and turned off the GoPro before he finally looked at the hammocks and realized there were only two.
“Hey, Chow? Where’s my hammock?”
“Oh! I forgot. I’m sorry, Dex. It wasn’t in Fred’s pack like usual. I was going to ask about it when you guys got here, but….” He trailed off.
Dex stared blankly at his concerned face while he processed that information. “Is it lost? Was there a tear in the pack or something? I just got the new hammock.”
He turned in a circle as though that would make it appear, but it didn’t.
“Yo. I, uh, I might have put it in the wrong pack.”
Dex looked over at Nursey. “What?”
“I was repacking some stuff this morning since we’re halfway between trips to town. You know, how we do each time?”
“I might have put it in George’s pack instead of Fred’s. I forgot you two switched who was hiking ahead which day and. Yeah.”
Dex turned at stared at the hammocks again. The thought of sleeping on the ground was really unpleasant. He’d survive, but after everything that had happened, he knew he wouldn’t sleep well. “Okay. Yeah. That happens. It’s chill. I’ll just, I’ll sleep in the tent.”
“I mean, you know my hammock is big enough for both of us. We could share again. It’s not a problem. Unless it is for you. But like, you carried George for part of the trail, which I still can’t figure out how you managed that. So, you should take the hammock and I can-”
“It’s fine.” Dex broke in before Nursey could get on a roll with his rambling. “It’s fine. If you don’t mind, then sure. We can share a hammock again.”
Dex nodded again and then shuffled over to the hammock in question and climbed in.
He must have drifted off before Nursey decided to turn in, because he jerked awake when the hammock shifted.
“Shh. It’s just me.”
“Yep. That’s me.”
Nursey finally settled into the hammock, bundled into his sleeping bag. The nature of hammocks meant they were pressed close together, but Dex couldn’t stop himself from reaching out an arm and wrapping it around Nursey. When there was no complaint, he relaxed into the comfort of being surrounded by the reminders that Nursey was still there, still alive.
Chapter 9: Family
TW: death of family member
TW: bigoted family members
Why anyone abandoned dogs in the woods was something Nursey would never understand. Especially the guy he’d just found. He was big and wiggly, probably going to be a big breed like Dex’s newfs. Not a newf though. The face was wrong. Nursey looked down at him and adjusted his grip.
“It’s okay, little guy. I’ll give you a good home.”
“Nursey, where did you get a bear?”
Nursey looked up at Chowder’s voice and realized he’d made it back to the trail without getting lost or tripping. “Hey, C. Someone dumped this puppy in the woods. I’m gonna adopt him though.”
Nursey stopped when Chowder used his actual name and finally took in the stricken expression on Chowder’s face. And the fact that Fred was growling really low.
“Where did you get a baby bear?”
Nursey looked down at the animal in his arms. “Baby bear.” He nodded. “Not an abandoned puppy.”
“Baby bear. Who’s mom probably wants him back and is going to come looking for him.”
Nursey sighed and rubbed the little guy’s ears. “You would have been a great dog.” He set the cub down and they left in a hurry before the mother found them with it.
“Please don’t tell Dex.”
Chowder snorted, throwing an incredulous look over his shoulder without breaking pace. “What? That I let you out of my sight and you managed to kidnap a baby bear?”
Nursey nodded. “Thanks. I’ve been trying to be better at this woodsman thing. So he can trust me like he trusts you.”
Chowder stopped and turned to face Nursey, eyebrows lost in his bangs. “You think Dex trusts me?”
“Ch’yeah. You hike ahead part of the time. And he doesn’t tell you not to touch wild animals.”
Chowder blinked at him and Nursey wondered if he’d said something wrong. “He absolutely reminds me not to touch wild animals. I hike ahead because he knows I have experience hiking and I told him he has to take turns on that. He just worries about you.”
“Because he thinks I’m stupid.”
“Because he worries. It’s what he does. He doesn’t want us to get hurt. When I hike ahead, do you think he sends Fred with me for Fred’s benefit?”
Nursey rubbed the back of his neck until the dog in question pushed his head under Nursey’s other hand, demanding to be pet. “I guess I don’t know why. Why is it always Fred?”
Chowder raised his eyebrows again and then turned back to start hiking again. “Fred’s a year older than George. He sends Fred with me, with us, to protect us when Dex can’t do it himself.”
“What? He doesn’t trust anyone but Fred?”
“He doesn’t trust anyone but maybe himself. Fred’s just the next closest he’s got available.”
“He knows we’re older than him, right?”
Chowder hummed. “Yeah. But he thinks he’s expendable and we aren’t.”
Nursey snorted. “He’s a dumbass.”
“Yeah well, he’s-” Chowder broke off as they approached a road and exited the tree cover. “He’s here instead of at camp.”
Dex must have heard them approaching, because he looked up and swiped at his eyes roughly. It didn’t hide the fact that they were red rimmed, or the salt tracks that tears had left on his cheeks.
“Hey. Sorry I didn’t get camp set up. I’ve gotta. I’ve gotta go back to Maine. I just wanted to make sure you had all the gear you’d need. Um. You can keep the dogs with you if you want. Or I can take them. I should call a shuttle.” Dex seemed out of sorts, his words coming slow and disjointed like he was having a hard time keeping the thought together the whole way through.
The dogs were pressed against his sides now and it looked like Chowder was trying to hug him from behind, but the pack was making that difficult.
“Dex. Stop. What’s wrong?”
Dex finally met his eyes and seemed to pull himself together through dint of will. “My uncle died. I need to go home for the service. I’m going to call a shuttle to take me into whatever the nearest town is, but I need to know if you two want to keep the dogs with you and just bring them back later. They help carry extra weight, but they’re also extra responsibility. So it’s up to you.”
Nursey pulled Dex into a quick hug. He wasn’t Chowder, who Dex would allow to hug as long as he wanted, and this was more than the one arm bro hugs he’d allowed in the past. So, he didn’t linger. “First of all, there is approximately no way that we are letting you go without us. Second of all, I’ll call the shuttle.”
“You don’t have to stop hiking on my account.”
Nursey had already pulled his phone out but he paused to look back up at Dex. “It’s chill. We’re hiking to be with you. Not being with you to hike.”
Chowder seemed to have managed to latch onto Dex’s side above Fred. Somehow. Probably secret goalie magic.
Dex continued to stand like he’d replaced his spine with a steel bar until the shuttle service arrived.
“Thanks. If the town has a motel, it would be great if you can drop us there. Or a hostel or something if that’s available.”
Dex started to open his mouth, and Nursey could see the protest coming in his eyes - so he beat him to it. “We’ll get to the bus tonight, but I figured it’s been five days since any of us showered, and before returning to polite society, we should probably try to look like we belong in it.”
Dex clicked his mouth shut and nodded.
Nursey straightened his shoulders in satisfaction. Dex wasn’t the only one who knew how to take care of things.
He even managed to buy them new clean clothes for the bus ride while Dex was in the shower.
They didn’t get to the bus that night. But it wasn’t Nursey’s fault. That seemed important. Apparently, southwest Vermont just didn’t have frequent public transportation. Luckily, they did have a car rental place, so Nursey was able to pick up an SUV.
Dex wasn’t thrilled, but since the next option seemed to be waiting until morning for a bus to get them to somewhere that had regular transport services, he didn’t argue. Overall, he was being far too agreeable. Except on driving. Nursey’d tried to insist on driving since the rental was in his name, but that hadn’t lasted long. Apparently, even after passing driver’s ed, it was important to stay in practice on driving, and there was a difference in driving in the middle of nowhere from driving in the city. So Dex drove.
It was after midnight by the time they pulled into a driveway and Dex shut off the ignition. He didn’t move, just sat there with his eyes closed for a moment. Nursey drank in how the glow of the porchlight highlighted his profile, turning his eyelashes golden.
Dex opened his eyes and caught Nursey staring. “What?”
Licking his lips, Nursey briefly entertained telling the truth. “Just. We got your back. We’re here for you. Anything you need.”
Dex gave a small smile. “Thanks.”
All he could do was nod and turn away. “Hey, Chris. We’re here.”
They tried to be quiet going up the steps, but the door still opened before they reached it. Fred and George barrelled past knocking Nursey off balance so he had to stumble to catch himself. They bounded the last few steps and reared back before returning to all fours and pressing against the woman who had opened the door. Tall and thick-bodied with her grey hair swept back into a bun, she looked kind and gentle but the words that sprung to Nursey’s mind were statuesque and amazonian.
“Yes, Freddie Mercury. I see you, George Michael. I missed you both too. And what good boys, not jumping on me. Now let me see my nephew.”
The nearly sing-songy Spanish accent surprised Nursey almost as much as what she said.
“Hi Auntie G.” Dex allowed himself to be enveloped into a hug that looked like it was cracking his back, but he just held on tight and rocked with it.
Nursey took the opportunity to mouth at Chowder. “Freddie Mercury and George Michael?” Chowder just shrugged in response.
“And you must be Nursey.” That was all the warning he got before he was pulled into a similar hug. He’d been right; he felt a couple of his vertebrae pop from the pressure before he was released so that Chowder could suffer the same fate.
“And Chowder. Oh, you boys must be hungry. I should have made something while you were on your way. What kind of hostess am I? I’ll just…” She stopped as Carl appeared behind her and wrapped an arm around her waist.
“Glenda. They understand that you just lost your husband. I imagine they probably ate on the drive and just want to sleep right now.”
Nursey found himself nodding and then had to cover a yawn.
“See. Come along now, dear. They are here and safe and we can all go to bed. There’s enough to do in the morning, no need to pile more for today.”
“I’m hardly the only one who lost someone.”
“No, you sure aren’t. So, why don’t you come comfort an old man and let him comfort you?” Carl seemed to deftly turn her further into the house and they disappeared down the hall with his hand on her back to guide her.
“Come on, you two can stay in my room and I’ll take the couch or something.”
“Bro, we are not going to put you out of your room.” Nursey was talking to Dex’s back at this point, because he’d already headed off to show them to his room.
He turned and looked at Chowder who just shrugged and followed., Nursey returned the shrug and followed behind, watching over Chowder’s shoulder as Dex held his shoulders strong and straight. Nursey frowned. Glenda and Carl were already in another room, there was no reason for Dex to keep trying to be strong.
Once they were in the room, Chowder dropped his pack and then collapsed onto the double bed. Nursey frowned at him. He was supposed to help talk Dex into staying in the room. He dropped his own pack and turned to Dex. The dogs kept butting their heads into him, making him stop and pet them.
“Come on, boys. Go to your rooms.”
They gave him puppy eyes almost as good as Chowder’s, but he didn’t seem impressed and they finally shuffled into crates that were built in under the bed. Dex finally turned and looked at him, stifling a yawn as he did so.
“Do you need anything before I go back down?”
“Dex, seriously. Chill. Just sleep up here. You know it’s fine.”
Dex avoided his gaze and pressed his lips into a thin line. “Ayuh. It’s fine. But you’ll be more comfortable with more space.”
“Sharing doesn’t make me uncomfortable and I’ve yet to see a couch more comfortable than a bed. No matter where Chowder takes his pregame naps. You’re tired. Just, you don’t have to sleep down there on our account.” Nursey watched Dex fight another yawn before adding on. “Plus, I think Chowder likes it when you spoon with him.”
Dex snorted. “Chowder likes to cuddle anyone that stays still long enough.”
Nursey just hummed, but he smiled when Dex nudged Chowder over and crawled into the bed. He hurriedly finished removing his shoes and wrapping his hair so he could turn off the light and join them.
They lay in silence for a few minutes, the rhythmic sound of Chowder’s breathing providing a relaxing background.
“I feel like Tango.”
Dex rolled towards him. “Wha?”
“I have, like, so many questions.”
“Seriously, Nurse? Can any of them wait until morning?”
“Yeah. Except. Freddie Mercury and George Michael?”
A groan stretched between them. “That’s their names.”
“You said they were named after the Weasley twins.”
“No. I just make it a point not to correct people who jump to that conclusion. Goodnight, Nursey.”
Dex shifted again and Nursey rolled in closer too. “Night, Dexy.”
When he woke up in the morning, he was cuddled up to Chowder. Which was nice, but definitely not what he was expecting. Unfortunately, waking up before Chowder meant needing to escape Chowder, who was apparently part cephalopod. Once he managed that, he found the bathroom and then padded downstairs searching for Dex.
He found him in the kitchen, spooning hollandaise sauce over fresh eggs benedict.
“Marry me, Poindexter.”
Dex looked up and gave a tight lipped smile before returning to the plates in front of him. “Auntie G taught me to make hollandaise. It seemed appropriate to make it for her today.”
“That makes sense.” He covered a yawn and looked around the kitchen while stretching. “Is there a coffee maker or something?”
Dex tilted his head to indicate a spot on the counter. “There’s the automatic machine there. Or she might have a French press in the second cupboard from the left.”
The machine was already spitting out caffeinated bean juice, so Nursey decided to get a cup of that to start. “So, Glenda and Carl?”
“Are my aunt and uncle. What about them?”
Nursey blinked and tried to think of how to phrase the question he wanted to ask. “Ok, it’s just, it sounded like Carl said that Glenda lost her husband?”
“Ayuh. Uncle David.” Dex stopped and braced his arms on the counter for a moment before pushing back up and moving plates over to the table. “He’s my mom’s uncle actually. He and Glenda were married.”
Nursey nodded. “Ok. And Carl.”
“Technically isn’t married to them, I guess? I mean. Legally, they still don’t allow that. I imagine he and Auntie G will probably get married now, though. They don’t exactly tell me everything.”
Judging by the smell of breakfast and the fact it was ready for everyone, Nursey didn’t have much more time to ask Dex questions in private. “They’ve been together as a thruple for awhile, then?”
“At least as long as I’ve been alive. I think they got together when Carl and Glenda were in college. I’m gonna go let everyone know breakfast is ready.”
Nursey was still staring at his coffee when everyone else showed up. He knew about polyamory of course; it was 2017. He just hadn’t ever known a triad that stayed together that long. Or anywhere near that long.
And Uncle David must be the David that Dex asked about the second day of the hike when Carl picked them up. He looked up and started eating, keeping a careful eye on Dex.
Until Glenda suggested that Dex should get a new suit for the funeral with her card, and Dex tried to argue against it while not arguing in front of guests, Nursey had assumed that Dex only had a problem with Nursey spending money on him. But Dex’s terse glances towards him and Chowder while insisting that his game day suit was still good seemed to indicate that might not be the case.
Dex must have thought that he’d neatly avoided a shopping trip by claiming that he was obviously more needed to help them with arrangements and to support them. But Carl shut that down quick.
“You really think David didn’t tell us exactly what he wanted? Hell, he made most of the calls himself. Stop hovering and at least show these boys around the town.” Carl paused and wiped his mouth with a napkin before continuing. “Get out of the house. I don’t expect to see you back here except to change clothes for the family dinner tonight at the cafe.”
There was another pause as Carl glanced at Glenda and then Dex. “Michael might be there.”
Dex’s jaw clenched and the tendon in his neck got tight for a second.
Then Chowder broke in. “Hey, are there any good suit stores in town? Or will we need to go back into the city? Nursey and I need something for tonight and the service, I guess.”
Nursey nodded emphatically as Dex turned to look at them. “Can’t wear trail clothes to a memorial service.”
Dex finally visibly relaxed. “Yeah. That makes sense. I can show you around, too, I guess.”
He stood up, collecting plates and taking them over to sink to wash them. Nursey was going to help but after a thorough rinse, he put them in a dishwasher, leaving no space for a nice domestic bonding moment.
“Come on, Poindexter. You might as well try on suits with us. You don’t have to get one yet, but when the NHL comes calling, don’t you want to have an idea of your size?” Nursey raised his eyebrows at Dex.
He might not have ever seen Dex grieving before, but based on how yesterday had gone, he was pretty sure that Dex was one of those people that needed to be distracted from his grief or he’d be overwhelmed by it. And Nursey was one hundred percent certain that Dex would hate being overwhelmed by grief in public more than nearly anything else on earth.
“We can pretend to be spies, like James Bond.” He gave a winning smile until Dex rolled his eyes and Nursey was pretty sure he’d won.
“You’re just trying to sneakily buy me a new suit.”
“When have I ever bought you a suit? Never. I have never once bought you formalwear of any sort, sneakily or otherwise. Not even so much as a floral print button up.”
Dex rolled his eyes again but went to pick out pants that would fit while Chowder and Nursey headed for the changing room.
“You know that he knows that you avoided denying that you were going to buy him a suit, right?”
Nursey looked at Chowder and smiled. “Yeah, but I know that he knows that I know that he let it go without pushing back too hard either.”
“He knows that I’m going to try to buy him a suit to replace his old, too small, game day suit. But he’s getting stuff to try on anyway.” Nursey shot Chowder a pointed look before closing the door to his fitting room.
Nursey was right, they looked really sharp in their black suits, once they all found cuts that fit their hockey butt and thighs. And Chowder was super helpful on pulling Dex over to the ties to help him search for a Sharks tie to wear while Nursey and the attendant pulled more of the items that Dex had ended up looking super hot in. The suits were tied up in bags before Dex managed to look over and narrow his eyes at the size of the bags.
He decided to go for innocence. “Ok, so. Macy’s has kinda business casual too, right? I assume that’s what we are going for for tonight?”
“Ayuh. They do. You could have waited and bought all your stuff together.”
Nursey slung an arm around Dex’s shoulder and steered them away from the suits. “But those registers might not have suit bags and I’d hate for mine to get all wrinkly. You know how I feel about my pants being wrinkly, Poindexter.”
“We’re headed towards lingerie, not sportswear.”
“Right.” Nursey turned them around and marched off the correct way.
Once they got back to Dex’s town from shopping in Portland, they cruised through town before heading to the house.
“That’s the school I went to. Glenda was the librarian there. She used to let me spend lunch period in the library even though students weren’t supposed to do that. A couple of times she had to tell the administrators that I was serving a detention for being disruptive so they’d let me stay.”
“But you weren’t actually in trouble?” Chowder sounded concerned, but Nursey kept his eyes on Dex as he stared out the window.
“Nah. And it’s not like it went on my record or anything, but a lot of them thought I was a bit of a problem kid because of it.” Dex shrugged. “The ice rink is around back, I’ll drive around. It’s where I first played hockey. All the local teams practice and play there, from mites on up. Carl was actually my mites coach.”
A few minutes later, he slowed in front of a row of old storefronts. “That’s J. R.s Appliance Store and Repair. Worked there on the weekends during school.”
“Guess we should thank him for teaching you to keep the Haus together.” Nursey nodded appreciatively at the little store.
“I’ll introduce you tonight if you really want to.” Dex restarted the engine and pulled back onto the street. “Last place worth seeing is Bryan’s boat, I guess. The Beatrice Dee isn’t much, but, she’s a good boat.”
“Who all is going to be there tonight?” Nursey shifted slightly, remembering how tense Dex had gotten when someone named Michael was mentioned.
“Just family tonight. Glenda’s and Carl’s and David’s siblings and their kids and grandkids. They didn’t have any kids of their own. My ma is, was, David’s niece, so my parents will probably be there. Bryan and J. R. and a bunch of others.”
Dex paused and Nursey thought he’d either have to ask about Michael specifically or let it go.
“And my brother, Michael. I don’t-” He stopped and ran a hand over his face. “I don’t think he’ll try anything at a memorial dinner. But he’s a dickbag and an asshole. Bigot of every sort. I’ll point him out to you so you can avoid him because he’s not worth it.”
Dex tightened his grip on the steering wheel and Nursey put his hand on Dex’s shoulder just as Chowder did the same on the other shoulder.
“Hey, we won’t cause a scene tonight.”
“I know. You’ll be polite and take the shit he says even though you shouldn’t have to. And he doesn’t deserve you being nice to him. He deserves a boot in his ass.” Dex sighed. “The rest tonight won’t be bad. Glenda’s and Carl’s families are great and supportive and they’ll stand up to him. It’s just my aunts and uncles and cousins. They may or may not agree with him, I don’t know. They won’t stand up to him, but they won’t join in either. Tomorrow might be worse if Uncle Stan shows up. He’s my dad’s uncle and him and all his kids are a bunch of douchecanoes.”
“Ok. We’ll avoid whoever you tell us to avoid, but we got your back too, so don’t forget that.”
Dex looked over and managed a small smile. “Just, after I talk to my ma, remind me that refusing to take a side is the same as taking Michael’s side, yeah?”
Nursey wasn’t sure what he expected the cafe to be, but something like Annies but better wasn’t it. There was a lending library and a corner with poofy seats for people to read in. An entire section of the books were marked out as LGBT related, divided into nonfiction academic, nonfiction biographical, and fiction. The menu board was full of LGBT puns.
He knew he was staring with his mouth agape but he didn’t care.
“Yeah. Guess I forgot to mention that one of the things David did with his life insurance payout was to buy this place for Glenda and Carl to create an LGBT safe space. Michael’s going to hate it.”
Nursey didn’t have to look at him to know that Dex was smiling at that. He was still too busy being overwhelmed by the place. “I think I’m in love. Can I live here?”
Dex snorted. “Ask Glenda.”
Nursey nodded slowly.
The gathering went better than Nursey expected. It turned out that J. R. was Glenda’s brother and Bryan was Carl’s nephew. Which meant technically neither were Dex’s uncles, but he didn’t seem to think that mattered and Nursey wasn’t going to comment on it if he didn’t. After all, an uncle doesn’t have to be an uncle to be an uncle.
He thought that he probably could have picked Michael out even if Dex hadn’t pointed him out for them. He looked like a weird caricature of Dex, like if someone took Dex and removed all the good from him and instead filled him with meanness and spite. He carried his body like he was looking for a fight and his face was in a perpetual sneer to start one. Which probably explained why his nose looked like it had been broken more than once.
“He looks like all my fears about Dex not being worth trying to reach rolled into one. If I’d had him to compare Dex to, it would have been a lot easier to see the kindness in Dex from the start.”
Chowder squeezed Nursey’s shoulder. “Oh Derek. Don’t act like you didn’t think Dex was good from the start.”
“Is there anything you don’t know?”
“Nope. But the wise Asian stereotype is hella racist, so I try to avoid pointing it out to you.”
“Alright then, keep your secrets.”
Chowder gasped and looked at him with eyebrows disappearing into his bangs. “I knew you knew what he was referencing.”
Ducking his head, Nursey grimaced. “Actually, I looked it up and downloaded it on my phone to watch while you guys were sleeping.”
Chowder shook his head and turned away while muttering something that sounded like “of course you did.” He couldn’t figure out what Chowder meant by that, so he shook it off and went to see if Dex needed anything.
The next day was long and tiring even though he wasn’t nearly as emotional invested as Dex. He was sad that David had died, of course. But he’d never met him and didn’t have a personal connection. So, his primary concern was with Dex’s wellbeing.
Meanwhile, Dex seemed to be pushing his own grief aside to try to support Glenda and Carl. It was stupid, useless, unhealthy, and probably the most Dexly thing he’d ever witnessed.
They’d managed to avoid having to deal with Stan much. When he arrived, Dex had stopped him and Nursey and Chowder had quietly moved in to stand behind Dex while he confronted him.
“This may be a public memorial service, but it will remain a civil one and I will personally show anyone out who upsets either Glenda or Carl.” Dex’s voice was tight and terse.
Stan looked them all over before replying. “Threats of violence? Really? We’re family, Billy.”
“You aren’t family here. This service will remain civil and I will see that it does.”
Stan gave them one last look over before nodding and moving past to find a seat.
“I thought I said I would handle Stan.”
“Yeah, but see. We got your back. And teeeechnically, you only said that about Michael.” Nursey was pretty proud of the fact that he remembered that loophole.
“The service is about to start. You should probably get to your seats.”
“Ok, bro. We’ll see you later then.”
They took turns giving him a bro hug even while he was looking at them oddly. Which didn’t make sense until the usher showed them to seats on the front row. Seats that ended up being right next to Dex after he came in with Glenda and Carl.
“Why are we on the family row?” Nursey tried to keep his voice low as he hissed the question to Chowder, but Chowder just shrugged in response.
They didn’t get an answer to that during the short service, or the more casual remembrance buffet that followed. After two hours of trying to make polite small talk with strangers, Nursey was pretty worn out. But when they got back to the house, Dex checked on Glenda and Carl and then headed straight for his room and barely took the time to remove his new suit before collapsing on the bed and falling asleep.
Nursey looked at Chowder who just shrugged and followed suit, so Nursey decided to join them.
Dex insisted on cooking dinner that night as well, even though Nursey was pretty sure at least fifteen casseroles had been delivered and shoved into the refrigerator and freezer. Nursey thought he was probably trying to save those for when Glenda and Carl were alone so they would last longer.
“I can give you guys a ride to the airport tomorrow. If you aren’t going to take the rental back and keep hiking, that is.” Dex made the comment between bites of food but Nursey nearly choked doing a double take.
Nursey opened his mouth to put voice to his shock, but Glenda beat him to it.
“Don’t be silly. They’ll go back with you.”
“Auntie G, I’m not going back. I’ll stay and help with things around the house.”
“William, why were you hiking the Appalachian Trail?”
Dex seemed confused by the question. “Because Uncle David asked me to when he couldn’t. So I could send back pictures and video that would let him feel a bit like he was there.”
Carl rested an elbow on the table and arched an eyebrow. “That’s why you agreed to start. Not why you’re doing it.”
“I packed about an ounce of ashes into one of the vacuum seal bags. It’s small and light. David had talked about, well, maybe if you could take it with you the rest of the way. I’m sorry. I didn’t plan to have this conversation at the dinner table.” Glenda shot Nursey and Chowder an apologetic smile and all he could do was murmur reassurances that it was fine.
“Dex, if you want to call it, then we’ll understand. But I’ve really enjoyed the last, what? Two months? Nearly two months, of hiking and I don’t really want to keep going without you there with us.” Nursey looked over at Chowder who nodded emphatically in agreement.
Dex looked around at all of them. “Ok. I guess we can keep going a bit. But if you need me back here, you’ve gotta promise to tell me right away.”
Glenda’s “of course” sounded a lot like disagreeing, but Dex seemed to accept it.
Chapter 10: Letting Go and Holding On
They’d been back on the trail a week and Dex was still pretty sure he should be back in Maine. Glenda and Carl might have said they didn’t need him around and that him finishing the hike in David’s memory was what he would have wanted, but there was probably a ton of stuff they could use him for. General support. Fixing the steps on the back porch. Taking David’s clothes to family members that could use them.
Nursey and Chowder seemed to think he was fragile and about to break at any moment. He’d had to insist on maintaining the rotation of hiking ahead, even though it was just logical to have camp set up earlier. Getting them to go get a room at the local motel while he did a quick trip for food was almost impossible.
Northwest Connecticut didn’t seem big on chain restaurants, at least not in the little towns near the trail, so he was taking a risk on a mom and pop restaurant that had a sign advertising fresh burgers and, more importantly, hand packed quarts of ice cream. Sure, it wasn’t on meal plan, but they were burning so many calories each day that he was pretty sure it didn’t matter.
His number had just been called when the door opened and Chowder waved at him. He took a deep breath and gathered the food bags before joining Chowder at the door. Chowder swept one of the bags from him without asking and then they fell into step beside each other headed toward the motel.
“So, Nursey got us all a single room to share again.”
“And it’s got a single king size bed again.”
“We have to stop letting him get the room.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“Yeah. I guess.” Dex could admit that. Sharing his double at home had been a much tighter fit and they managed that with no awkwardness.
“Besides, if he’s unsupervised in town who knows what he’ll do. He keeps talking about craving sushi. I think he’s convinced I’ll get it with him for lunches on the days you hike ahead.”
“... please do not let him take unrefrigerated raw fish on the trail and actually eat it. Or take raw fish into bear country at all.”
Dex paused for a moment. “He probably won’t be able to find sushi in these little towns, right?”
“Still best if we keep him on motel duty. Just to be sure.”
“Yeah. You’re right.”
Dex wasn’t sure how he ended up in the middle of the bed again, but he couldn’t find a reason to complain when it still meant waking up to Nursey and Chowder curled against and on him. He was pretty sure that Chowder had actually drooled on his shoulder a little bit, but he wasn’t too worried about it. Days in town were for doing laundry anyway.
He lay in the early morning light, listening to them breathe and trying to stay still so he didn’t disturb them. He must have fallen back asleep, because the next thing he knew he was opening his eyes again because one side of his body was cold. Chowder was still clinging to his arm, so he turned his head looking for Nursey and found him applying lotion to his legs on one of the chairs.
“Time’s it?” He blinked and tried to twist and see the clock, but there was a pillow in the way and Chowder wasn’t letting him budge.
“Nearly ten. I was going to wake you when I got done with this.”
Dex nodded and yawned. “Was up earlier but I must’ve fallen back asleep. Dogs bother you?”
“Nah. It’s chill. They’re good boys. Gave them breakfast and took them for walkies is all.” Nursey finished rubbing the lotion into his skin and then rubbed Fred’s ears.
“Thanks. I’m going to….” He trailed off and stared at his arm, still in Chowder’s vice like grip. “Figure out how to extricate myself and then check the post office for our town clothes so we can hit up the laundry room.”
“Sounds good. Maybe we can get more of those burgers from last night. They were excellent.”
Dex walked back into the motel room still staring at the box in his hands. Without looking, he passed the other box to Chowder and sank into one of the chairs in the corner.
“What’cha got, Dexy?”
He looked up to find Nursey staring at him curiously. Even Chowder was paying more attention to him than to the clothes and razors that he was pulling from their box. “It’s a package from David. Or at least, it says David. It’s Glenda’s handwriting. But it was also postmarked a week and a half ago.”
The room was quiet for a moment, then a shirt and pair of shorts hit Dex in the side of the face. “Get changed and Nursey and I will take care of the laundry while you see what they sent.”
A few minutes later they were all in the clean clothes and Nursey and Chowder had left him alone with just the dogs. He took his time opening the box, both anxious to see what was inside and worried that whatever it was would be a let down. It was probably just more homemade jerky or some other supplies that they’d thought he could use.
When he got it open, he was surprised to find a thin portfolio book and a memory card with a post it that said “Watch me first.” He wasn’t surprised at the return of the memory card. They’d been sending those back to him any time he sent one to them because there wasn’t a wifi option to transfer the data. But this was the first time it had indicated there was a recording on it for him.
He grabbed the GoPro and switched the cards out with shaking hands.
“William. Love you, so much.”
Dex bit his lip to try to keep from crying as he looked at his Uncle on the viewscreen. He’d clearly lost a lot of weight in the last few months of his illness.
“Thank you, for… my hike, with your boys. Almost like, I was there.” He stopped to cough and Carl appeared on the screen, holding an oxygen mask up to his face until he was breathing somewhat clearly again and waved it off.
“Know you don’t realize, but they are yours. Look, in the book. Love, you.” David sank back on the hospital bed and then the feed stopped. Dex stared at the black screen for a long while, letting the tears stream down his face again, his body shaking with the occasional sob.
Eventually, he was able to dry his eyes and only sniffle a little, so he took the memory card and put it in a pocket of his pack separate from all the others, someplace he’d be sure not to grab it and accidentally record over the message. Then he took time to go to the little bathroom and wash his face. He wasn’t sure how long he’d sat there sobbing, but he didn’t want Nursey and Chowder to return and see him like that. To know he really had been on the verge of a breakdown the whole time.
The book was full of photos that Dex had sent back, and grainier pictures that seemed to be screen captures from the videos. Shots of Nursey or Chowder looking at him, almost fondly. Shots of them all together, laughing and having fun. He wasn’t sure what David was trying to say with the images but he allowed himself a moment to imagine the image these collected photos conjured. That Nursey and Chowder could possibly both like him as much as he liked them.
He closed the book and buried it deep in his pack.
Chapter 11: Dogs, Frogs, and Logs
The very best part of the Appalachian Trail had to be the fact there was a zoo. It wasn’t as big as the zoos in California, sure. It was actually hella different from pretty much every zoo Chowder had ever been to before. But it did remind him of parts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium because it seemed like it’s main focus was rehabilitation for injured animals that were permanently disabled and couldn’t survive in the wild anymore and that was hella swawesome.
The bears and other mammals were pretty cool, and he caught Nursey looking at them a little wistfully so he leaned on his shoulder to whisper in his ear.
“No. You can’t adopt one of the puppies.”
Nursey’s indigent huff had left him in giggles for nearly five full minutes. But the absolutely most magical part were all the amphibians and reptiles they had. He stared into one of the terrariums for a long time. There were three frogs in it, all piled together and he can’t help muttering under his breath. “That could be us, but you playing.”
“What’s that, C?”
He didn’t expect Nursey to hear him. He’d thought that he was still over looking at the spotted salamander. He turned with a smile. “Oh, nothing.”
Fred stood up, suddenly alert with his tail wagging, and Chowder turned to see what he was looking at. He was pretty sure he remembered the woman and her dog from some other point in the trail, but it had been awhile.
“Fred! Dex said we might run into you.” The woman seemed to remember them. “Deacon, sit. Sorry, he’s got his vest on so he’s technically working right now.”
Chowder glanced down at the service dog vest and back up smiling. “All these dogs with jobs. Fred hasn’t had to work this summer though.”
“Yeah, Dex told me that they were water rescue dogs? Oof, way back at the trail magic tables.”
Nursey slung an arm around Chowder’s shoulder. “Yeah, Dex works really hard. One of those provider kind of guys. And he’s pretty protective of people too, so it makes sense that his dogs would be hard working and do a job that protects people. You’re in safe hands with Dex.”
Chowder turned and hissed in Nursey’s ear, “What are you doing?”
All he got was a shush in return. Chowder finally remembered the woman’s name was Xiaq as she cocked an eyebrow at them.
“Okay. Well, we got caught in a rain shower together around noon, so we tried to wait it out under shelter. He was telling me about your thesis? What was it….Closets and Queens: Homoeroticism and Queerness in Romance and Romantic Literature?”
Beside him, Nursey stilled. “Uh, yeah. That’s the topic I was considering. I wanted to do a comparative analysis of the homoeroticism in modern romance novels and Romantic literature.”
She nodded. “Yeah, a kind of ‘Fuck you!’ to the bias against romance novels. Your advisor and committee should really enjoy it.”
“Oh, uh. Chill. Thanks.” Nursey’s arm dropped from around Chowder’s shoulders and Chowder wondered if he should rejoin the conversation.
“He also told me that you were worried about what grad schools to apply to? My best advice is to talk to people actually in the grad programs you are considering.” She looked towards the door briefly. “Looks like the rain has let up again. We better get going. It was nice seeing you again, Nursey, Chowder, Fred.”
“Yeah! Hella swawesome, Xiaq. Give Deacon pets for me when he’s not working.” Chowder beamed at her and then headed for the other door out of the herpetarium.
“Bro, why would Dex tell her all that stuff about me? He’s never going to wheel someone if he keeps talking about me. Chill. I didn’t even know he knew about my thesis plans.”
Chowder rolled his eyes where Nursey couldn’t see and pressed ahead briskly. “I guess he pays attention to you, Nursey. Cares about the things that are important to you.”
Nursey made a disbelieving noise and Chowder had to stop himself from facepalming. “Sounds fake but okay.”
How could someone so smart be such a dumbass?
The rest of the hike that day sucked. There wasn’t really any other word for it. It kept raining on them and they couldn’t wait it out because the showers just kept coming. That wouldn’t have been so bad - they’d walked in the rain before, that’s why they had rain gear with them - but Fred found something super stinky and rolled in it before they could stop him. And they hadn’t found anywhere to give him a bath or even a rinse off. Which meant that he was going to be stinky at camp.
When they got to camp, it wasn’t what Chowder was expecting. Nursey’s hammock was set up with it’s tarp cover, but the other two weren’t set up, and in addition to their tent opposite the hammock, there was another tent between them and a bit back. Above the footprint on the ground, another one was tied up providing a kind of roof, with the tents acting as pseudo walls assisted by some additional small tarps. But most importantly, Dex and George weren’t in the small space alone.
“Fluffy!” He hopped a few times as he approached and then spread his arms out wide for a hug. Then he stopped and looked down at himself, remembering he was still covered in his wet raingear. “Let me get changed and then can I have a hug?”
Fluffy raised their eyebrows and nodded so Chowder grinned and ducked into the tent to change as Nursey followed with a smirk. “You planning on replacing Poindexter and me as your best friends?”
“Never! Fluffy’s just really cool.”
“Yeah. They’re pretty cool.” Nursey knocked their shoulders together and then started pulling his shirt off, so Chowder hurried to change too.
Once they were both in their camp gear, they exited the tent and Chowder was able to collect his hug from Fluffy. Then they were finally able to settle down and relax while feeling completely, one hundred percent, dry. It was nice. Right up until Dex looked up from where he was getting a pot of water boiling.
“Why does my dog smell like he rolled in something….” Dex trailed off and glanced at Fluffy before continuing, “questionable?”
Chowder glanced at Nursey, but Nursey was suddenly very interested in the stitching on his puffy jacket so there would be no help from him.
“He, maybe, a little bit, rolled in something...questionable. He at least rubbed in it. We didn’t realize what he was going to do. I thought he was just sniffing at the underbrush because, you know, dogs like to sniff? And he was sniffing and maybe he needed to go or something, but then he was rubbing his head and lunging to try to roll his whole body in it. Nursey and I got him away from there, but. Yeah. I’m sorry.”
He let his shoulders drop. He’d really let Dex down by not realizing what Freddie was going to do. And now the tent was going to be all stinky and with the rain they’d have to sleep in it too. At least Nursey would be spared the odor.
He looked up when he felt a hand on his shoulder to find Dex smiling softly at him.
“Hey, it’s fine. They’re dogs. That’s what they do. They love to stink. Tomorrow we go into town, so I’ll just give him a full bath once all us humans are done with it.” He gave Chowder’s shoulder another squeeze and then refocused on the little stove.
Dex stirred the contents of the pot and then spoke again. “Oh hey. Did you see Xiaq today? She’s got a lot in common with you, Nursey. I told her about your thesis and plans for grad school. She seemed interested in talking more with you.”
“Chill. Yeah, we saw her. She said you mentioned my thesis. Gave me some advice about deciding on a grad school. Pretty much it.”
Chowder watched Nursey’s face while he talked. That bland chill voice wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Oh. I’m sorry, bro. Seemed like you liked her. I was sure she was interested too.”
Fluffy leaned close to whisper, “Are they always this big of dumbasses?”
Chowder couldn’t really think of a response other than to nod.
“How do you put up with it?”
“I really thought they’d figure it out on this trip.”
With a soft hum, Fluffy straightened back up. “So, Dex. Before your boys here arrived and distracted you with their pretty faces, you were telling me about your uncle.”
Dex flashed Chowder a guilty look but Chowder just smiled reassuringly. He wasn’t sure why Dex would feel more comfortable opening up to Fluffy than to his best friends, but the important part was that he was starting to open up to someone.
“Ayuh. He was a logger pretty much all his life. Went to work for the lumber company right out of high school. Eventually he made foreman and then got into managerial positions. Ended up managing the whole site before he got sick. He was gonna retire next year, I think. But he always told me this story.”
Dex paused with a thick swallow, then took the time to portion out the food for everyone before continuing.”
“Back when he first started, he worked first shift which started at five thirty in the morning or something. And every day, this owl would fly by right as he was getting to the mill and it scared him really bad because it would kind of swoop just over his head. But after awhile he got used to it, so he started doing this owl call to it after it swooped by, and eventually it started hooting back to him.”
Dex shook his head and scratched at his chin a bit. “I don’t know why that story stuck with me. One time I asked him why he always told that story and he said that that owl wasn’t trying to scare him. It had a nest in one of those trees and was just going home. That sometimes we get scared of things or people we don’t understand, but if we take the time to talk to them in their language, we’ll probably realize we’ve got nothing to be afraid of and maybe more in common than we think.” He broke off with a self deprecating laugh. “A bit heavy handed, but I guess I was a particularly dense eight year old. But it took me another ten years to realize that sometimes I’m the owl, scaring people when I think I’m just trying to get home. So maybe I’m just dense.”
Dex shrugged and the camp was quiet for a couple of beats.
“So you’re the reason I keep seeing an owl trail mark, then? I wondered. It didn’t match any of the signatures in the trail books.” Fluffy reached over and ruffled Dex’s hair, breaking the tension a bit and getting a small smile out of him.
Chowder tried to stifle a yawn but couldn’t. “Oh my gosh. I’m sorry. I loved your story. I’m just tired.”
“It’s ok, Chowder. I’m pretty tired too. Guess we should brave the stinky dogs.”
Chowder looked over at Nursey who was tucking his journal back into his pack.
“You know my hammock is technically a three person hammock right? It’s rated for six hundred pounds. We could all share it since it has the tarp.”
Dex and Chowder exchanged a look.
“I mean, the way it squishes, it won’t be very comfortable.”
“But it’s gotta be better than sharing a tent with the stinky dogs, right?”
“Fine, but I’m not sleeping in the middle and having both of you squish me.” Dex turned away and started cleaning up the remnants of the meal so that he could string up the packs against bears.
“You know what, I take it back. I’m not sure I want to share my hammock with you two.”
Chowder flung himself over to hug Nursey. “Aw, Nursey. You know we love you. You can have the middle if you want it. Dex and I will be happy to squish you.”
He didn’t miss the way Nursey’s eyes flicked towards Dex, or the way Dex’s ears turned pink in the light of the camp lanterns.
Chapter 12: It's Not the Fall
TW in this chapter for near drowning
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The day had started out beautifully. It wasn’t an easy hike for most of the way, but Dex was happy with the time they were making, even with the slower pace they kept while Chowder hiked ahead. Nursey was being uncharacteristically quiet, but he had been for a few days and Dex figured he’d just finally run out of things to talk about. Eventually they all had to deal with their thoughts alone, right?
He nearly fell when Nursey finally decided to talk.
“Okay. I don’t get it. You were wheeling Xiaq, but then you just kept talking about me?”
Dex turned to look at him, mouth agape. “I wasn’t. Shit.” He stumbled over a loose rock and turned back around to watch where he was going. “I wasn’t wheeling her. I was trying to wingman for you.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Um, because you seemed wicked into her at the trail magic thing? And she told me she was doing her doctoral whatever for English Lit, so you have that in common. I don’t know, Nurse. Because I’m your goddamn friend?”
“I never asked you to do that.”
Dex didn’t speak, purposefully pressing his lips together and taking a moment. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” It’s not like Nursey needed his help wheeling anyway.
“It’s chill. Whatever. I just. I mean. I’m not even sure if I want to go to grad school, or where. And I didn’t realize you knew I was considering it.”
Dex rolled his eyes even though Nursey couldn’t see it. “You’ve been talking about it for over a year and a half.” He didn’t add on that he’d have to be a pretty shitty friend to not have picked up on it; he figured that was implied.Then again, maybe that’s what Nursey was implying. He tightened his jaw momentarily before forcing himself to relax.
“Oh. Yeah. I guess I have. I just. I mean, there’s factors still….”
Dex listened as Nursey’s voice faded off and it suddenly occurred to him that he’d just assumed that Nursey didn’t want to go pro just because he’d never mentioned it when Chowder and Dex had talked about the possibility happening. But Nursey was superstitious, so maybe he was just one of those people that think talking about it will keep it from happening.
“Yeah. Of course. I shouldn’t have assumed.”
Dex kept his head down, focusing on his steps as they started across a wood plank bridge. The handrail was shaky in his grip and the planks looked like they might have been hit by some debris during recent flooding.
“How’d you even have my thesis title memorized when I haven’t even-”
Nursey’s words cut off suddenly as a loud crack rang out.
Dex was already trying to move back towards him as he turned, reaching out and grasping.
Nursey met his gaze. “Chill.”
And then he was gone, along with the plank he’d stepped on, and Dex’s hands were closing on nothing but air.
Dex unhooked his pack and whistled a command at George, dropping his lead.
Nursey hit the water, going under instantly. Dex started counting as he threw his pack past the bridge.
Five seconds after Nursey went under, Dex entered the water in a dive. He drove himself through the water, searching and counting. Three minutes until loss of consciousness. Five minutes until brain damage.
Thirty-four seconds after Nursey went under, Dex felt something and grabbed hold. Nursey kicked and broke his grip.
Thirty-eight seconds after Nursey went under, Dex got a grip on Nursey’s arm and nearly laughed in relief as Nursey’s hand clasped onto his wrist in response. He pushed his way towards the surface.
Forty-two seconds after Nursey went under, Dex broke the surface with Nursey right behind him. Between the weight of his clothes and boots, Dex was having a hard time staying above the water, and Nursey had it worse with the pack, but then George arrived, nosing him in the back and searching for an anchor to pull them.
“Back to me. Lay back on me.” Dex managed to yell in Nursey’s ear so they could get him positioned. Once Nursey was pressed up against his chest, Dex wrapped George’s lead so that it was anchored on Nursey, and then grabbed onto the harness itself with one arm, and Nursey with the other.
The whistle probably wasn’t necessary. Once George felt that he was pulling the rescue, he would head for shore. Dex still gave the command. Once George had them close enough to land that he could walk, Dex stood and helped drag Nursey the rest of the way out of the water on the banks of the river.
“Stay on your side for a minute. Did you breathe any water?” He unhooked George’s lead and then removed Nursey’s pack.
As soon as the pack was out of the way, Nursey rolled onto his back. “N-” He stopped abruptly, coughing, and Dex pushed on his shoulder until he rolled back to his side. “No. I realized what was happening and managed to hold my breath.”
Dex ran his hands over Nursey’s arms, chest and back. “Are you injured?”
“Um, my ankle rolled when the board snapped? I’m not sure. I’m kinda….”
He poked at Nursey’s ankle; it was already starting to swell. More than just a twist, but hopefully only a sprain and not a break. He finished checking Nursey, who kept trying to roll onto his back, inspecting his face a second time just to be sure, looking for signs of injury to the lungs in discolored spittle or hemorrhaging of the eyes.
Dex let his head drop against Nursey’s. Nursey was alive. Nursey was alive and hadn’t breathed in any water and his larynx was open so he wasn’t going to dry drown, probably. Dex hadn’t been too late. He hadn’t.
He pressed his lips to Nursey’s before he stopped to think about what he was doing.
When his brain finally caught up to his body, he started to pull back, but Nursey grabbed hold of his shirt and pulled him back down. A few seconds later, they had to break apart as Nursey started gasping again, still trying to catch his breath.
“Why do I like you? Why?” Dex closed his eyes and let his head drop as he pushed himself back up to sit on the bank. There was no use denying it now. Nursey would chirp him and then promptly be upset and leave the trip.
Having feelings for his friends was one thing, but he’d gone and made it weird and there was no going back from it.
He pushed himself to his feet and then reached down to Nursey. “Come on. We need to get back to the trail and we still have nearly a mile to camp.”
“We’re not going to talk about-”
Nursey looked at him for a long moment while Dex continued to hold out his hand. Finally, he took Dex’s hand and allow himself to be hauled into a standing position. Unfortunately, as soon as he tried to put any weight on his right leg, he hissed in pain and had to lift it up again.
“I don’t think I can walk it off, coach.”
Dex nodded and looked up the slope towards the trail. “Ok. Well. The first aid kit is in my pack. Which is hopefully still up by the trail. So. We just need to get you up there and then I can wrap your ankle and….” He trailed off considering. “The trek poles can be used as a cane. That should work. It’s not that far.”
He swallowed as he said the last. Not quite a mile on paved roads and in good health would be nothing for them. On the trail, in the mountains, with an injured ankle? It was going to be a rough last stretch to camp.
“Okay. So, are you going to carry me?” Nursey reached for Dex and lifted his leg like he expected Dex to sweep him up into a bridal carry.
“Ayuh. Actually. I am.”
Dex paused to fasten Nursey’s pack to George for the short trip. Once he was sure everything was taken care of except for Nursey, he took a deep breath. Grabbing Nursey’s arm, he bent into it and swung Nursey into a fireman’s carry across his shoulders. He paused to make sure Nursey’s weight was well distributed and then pushed through the woods towards the trail, whistling for George to follow.
Once they were back on the trail, Dex set Nursey down on his good foot, and then watched as he promptly dropped down to sit. He shook his head, but it made sense. Once he got the first aid kit, he’d need to tape and wrap Nursey’s ankle, and it would be easier with Nursey sitting.
George had, thankfully, pulled them out on the western side of the river, so Dex wouldn’t have to figure out how to get Nursey across the damaged bridge. He removed George’s pack and made sure he had water before leaving them to go back for his own pack. Retrieving it was simple, it was still where he’d thrown it; even the GoPro seemed to have been undamaged.
When he was back by Nursey and George, he dropped to the ground beside them. George needed to be thanked for his good work, but Nursey’s leg was the more pressing issue at the moment. Usually rescues had more people on the shore and Dex wasn’t responsible for both dog handling and first aid, but he was sure George understood.
He pulled out the first aid kit and handed Nursey a packet of anti-inflammatory pain meds. Twisting his mouth in thought, he stared at the chemical ice pack for long moment, but decided it would probably get knocked loose on the trail and would be best used at camp. They didn’t have a lot of KT tape - it worked great, but not being reusable made it unwieldy to keep on hand - but Dex pulled a few strips out of the kit along with an ace bandage. Better to be safe than sorry.
Nursey watched him work and it was kind of disconcerting, but he didn’t say anything, so Dex was grateful. With his ankle wrapped up, Nursey’s shoe had no chance of fitting, so Dex tied it to the side of Nursey’s pack.
“Now the fun part, I guess.” Dex looked up the trail.
He was surprised to see a flash of color and movement. A few moments later, a couple came around a bend and waved at them.
“Hey there! Problems?”
“Ayuh. Bridge just ahead suffered some damage in recent floods it looks like. At least one of the boards was damaged enough it broke clean through. Be careful where you step.”
Nursey nodded beside him. “There’s a me size hole now and I can’t recommend the swimming.”
The other hikers stopped next to them and looked down at Nursey’s wrapped ankle. “That looks rough. We passed a road about four or five miles back, but this late, I’m not sure you’d make it ‘afore dark.”
“Night hiking with an injured ankle is definitely not in our plans. Our friend hiked ahead to set up camp on the ridgeline. We’ll try for the road in the morning.”
“Not to sound pessimistic, but….how do y’all reckon on getting up there?”
Nursey leaned over to look past Dex at the steep grade up the hill. “Chill.”
“Ayuh. That’s what we are about to check.”
He pushed himself to his feet and then helped Nursey up onto his good leg before passing Nursey’s good trek poles to him. Thankfully, they’d been lashed to his pack when he fell or they probably would have been lost in the river.
“Can you use these like canes to support yourself while you walk?”
Nursey looked at them dubiously but gripped the poles and tried to take a step while shifting his weight mostly to the poles until he could return to his good foot. He hissed through his teeth and muttered something that Dex couldn’t quite hear.
“Nope. No. Don’t think that’s going to work.” He closed his eyes and bounced a little bit with his lips pressed together.
“Damn.” Dex turned to look up the trail again. “Guess I’m carrying you. Just gotta figure out a way for George to carry our packs.”
He knelt down next to the dog and got the harness and pack back on him. He figured the trek poles might work like a travois, he could duct tape them to the harness, and then he’d just have to hope that they didn’t get caught on anything and trip George up.
“Hon. Hon. Get that thing we found. Maybe they can use it.” One of the strangers was tapping the other until he pulled his pack off and pulled out an axle with wheels.
It was about fifteen or eighteen inches wide and looked like it used to belong to a hand cart of some sort when Dex took it and gave it a look over.
“We found it earlier today on the side of the trail. No clue how it got there, but ‘Leave no trace’ you know? So we picked it up and figured we’d throw it out in town.”
“This is. Yeah. I can use this. It’ll make it easier on Hairy Man here. Thank you.” He patted George and then started working on rigging up a frame to hold the packs so that George could drag them without being over encumbered.
He probably should have noticed when the strangers left, but they were gone when he looked up after getting George sorted.
“Are you really planning to carry me the whole way?”
“I weigh 200 pounds. Same as you.”
“I’m aware. Not in practice, so I’ll probably have to take a few breaks.”
Nursey sighed. “Can I at least ride piggyback?”
“No. That messes with the center of gravity, and going uphill? We’d both fall. My luck, this time you’d break your neck.”
Nursey looked at him for a long moment and Dex thought he’d have to remind him that the fireman’s carry was used by soldiers for long distance transport because it was the most stable method when there weren’t internal injuries. Before he could open his mouth to explain, Nursey lifted his arms and Dex was able to bend in and swing him into position.
A whistle got George started up the trail ahead of him and Dex set his focus on getting as far up as he could before taking a break.
It was after dark before they made it to camp. The last time Dex took a break, he had to dig through his pack for his headlamp. It’d managed to end up at the bottom of one of the pockets because they’d avoided night hiking on the trip. He was thankful he even still had it with him.
He wanted to collapse as soon as he saw the camp, but he forced himself to keep going until he could gently set Nursey down by the tent. There was simply no way Nursey should be getting into a hammock with his ankle. Besides, Dex wasn’t completely convinced that Nursey wouldn’t end up sick during the night.
He collapsed next to Nursey while considering if he should insist on hiking to the other end of the ridge and down to the next road. It was only about three or four more miles. But if the downgrade was as sharp as the incline he’d just hiked, doing it in the dark would probably be dangerous.
“Oh no! What happened?” Chowder’s voice sounded concerned, but when Dex just lifted a hand to indicate he needed a minute, Chowder seemed to understand.
He heard gear moving around and duct tape ripping and opened his eyes - he wasn’t sure when he’d closed them. Chowder had managed to get the little trailing cart off of George, along with his pack and booties and Dex was relieved to see him getting out the food and water.
He could tell that Nursey was staring at him, but he resolutely kept his gaze towards Chowder.
Dex cleared his throat before he finally responded. “Nursey hurt his ankle falling through the bridge over that last river. It must have been damaged during a flood recently or something.”
The worst part about not carrying his pack was that it meant he didn’t have his hydration pack on him. He managed to roll into a crawling position and shuffle over to the packs so that he could get some water.
“Chill, Poindexter. Tell him the important part.”
He wasn’t sure what Nursey was talking about, so he rolled his eyes and pulled out Nursey’s water to toss over to him.
“Dex likes me. He kissed me.”
His hands stilled on the packs. He knew it was too much to hope that Nursey would just ignore what happened, but he didn’t think public chirps were in order. Slowly, he raised his head to see how Chowder was reacting.
Chowder’s eyebrows were going through a series of complicated movements as he looked back and forth between them. He must have seen how Dex was feeling, or maybe he just decided that Dex’s statement was the more pressing one, because he finally responded, “Wait, he fell in the river? Is that why you’re both all wet?”
Dex let his breath out long and slow as he finally pulled Nursey’s stuff sack with his camp clothes from the pack in his hands. He tossed it at Nursey. “Ayuh. We should get changed before we get sick. I probably should have had Nursey change back by the river, but there were other hikers around.”
“He’s very concerned about my modesty now, so no looking.” The sound of the zipper opening interrupted him. “But if we’re telling this part, I should tell it. So, I fell in the water and the last thing I saw was Poindexter about to jump in and save me. Then I was under water for like, ever. IDK. Ten minutes at least.”
Dex looked at him incredulously. Nursey had managed to pull his shirt off but was clearly having trouble figuring out how to get his shorts off without putting weight on his injured ankle while he was still sitting. With a sigh, Dex grabbed the chemical ice pack and shuffled back over to help Nursey stand up and change.
His words were barely more than a mutter and might not have even reached Chowder. “You would have passed out at three minutes. It was less than a minute. I was counting.”
It didn’t seem to matter because Nursey just leaned on Dex for support while trying to get his good foot out of the wet clothes and kept talking.
“But Dex grabbed my leg and I freaked out like ‘Chill! Grindylows!’ So I kicked him off and he had to grab hold of my arm. That’s when I realized it was him and he pulled me up to the surface, so finally, I can breathe again. And then he’s like ‘lay on me’ and I did but it wasn’t as much fun as I imagined. Because I’d just nearly drowned and my pack was on his chest, not really me on his chest, you know? But it was still pretty chill. Then George dragged us out of the water because he’s a bro and had our backs.” Nursey paused and Dex squeezed his eyes shut as he maneuvered the dry clothes over Nursey’s feet. “And then Dex kissed me.”
Dex waited until Nursey had the boxer briefs and leggings in place and helped him sit back down, arranging the ice pack on his ankle, before fleeing back to the other side of the footprint with the packs to get changed himself.
“Oh wow. What are we going to do?”
Dex’s shirt was over his head when Chowder finished speaking, so he wasn’t able to respond right away, which was how Nursey beat him to the punch, again.
“I’m thinking a summer wedding. I mean, yeah, autumn wedding to match his hair would be super chill. But if he gets NHL offers, and he will, then he’ll probably be playing again by then. So yeah. Summer’s better.”
He knew his ears were red by now, and it was probably spreading down his chest in the dim lantern light, so Dex yanked the dry shirt on quickly while setting his jaw to ignore Nursey’s chirps.
“We’ll have to figure something out to get to the next road so we can get a ride into town. It’s only like three or four miles and most of that’s on the top of the ridge. Maybe we can find something that will actually work as a crutch, something better than the trek poles. Or I can try to rig up some kind of cart or sled for the dogs to drag him together.” Dex shrugged. Worst case scenario, he’d carry Nursey again.
Dex focused on setting up the stove and preparing their food to try to distract himself from watching Nursey out of the corner of his eyes. He only caught his hands shaking a few times, more often they clenched up suddenly like he was trying to grab something. He was pretty sure he shook it off and no one noticed.
They were eating before anyone spoke again.
“Nursey, are you ok?”
Chowder’s soft question made Dex’s head snap up as he searched Nursey for signs of dry drowning or pneumonia or any other complications. He should never have allowed himself to be distracted; he knew the dangers of drowning weren’t over when the person was out of the water. But he’d been too wrapped up in worrying about how he hadn’t caught Nursey before he fell. How he was too slow, too slow, too slow. What if he hadn’t been able to find Nursey in the water? If a current had pulled him in a different direction.
Dex clenched his hands until his nails dug into the palms and forced himself back to the present.
“Nah, I’m chill, C.”
“It’s ok to not be ok. You nearly drowned.”
“Seriously. I’m chill. I knew Dexy would save me.”
Dex nearly swallowed his tongue. Nursey had no reason to have been that confident in him.
He was still staring, wide eyed when Chowder caressed Nursey’s cheek and leaned in close.
“Well, I’m glad you’re alive.”
And then his two best friends were kissing. Well, Chowder was kissing Nursey, but Nursey was definitely kissing back. He found himself nodding. He felt slightly empty, but altogether okay. It made sense. Like he’d thought before, if his friends liked guys, they’d like each other. They’d make a good couple. Or maybe thruple with Farmer. Somehow it didn’t really matter.
He wondered if this was how Nursey felt when he claimed to be chill.
Finally, they parted, Chowder pulling away. Nursey licked his lips and swallowed and Dex turned away to clean up the food so that he wouldn’t be intruding.
“Um, chill. That was real nice, C. But, like, Dex kissed me first. And you’re dating Farmer. So. yeah.”
Before he could question what he’d heard, Dex’s chin was cradled and tilted around so that he was face to face with Chowder.
“You are so amazing.” Then Chowder’s lips were on his.
Dex felt like his brain was rebooting. Chowder’s kiss was sweet and nice and felt full of promise and he wanted so badly to return that, but all he could think was that nothing was making sense. Finally, Chowder pulled away and smiled at him.
“Um, C. Maybe I wasn’t clear earlier. See, Dex kissed me first….” Nursey trailed off, his eyes darting between them.
Dex kept staring at them both wide-eyed and confused, the pots and spoons from supper forgotten.
Chowder gave them each an odd look and then threw his hands in the air while sitting back heavily. “Oh, come on! I thought you guys had this part figured out by now! I like you both and I thought you both liked me too, and you just needed to work out the stuff between you and the rest would make sense to you. I’m polya. Like Carl and Glenda. Farmer is too. She has a girlfriend. I thought the only block you two had was about each other. I mean…” He trailed off and visibly deflated. “If I’m wrong and you guys aren’t polya, I’m hella sorry.
Dex blinked and waited for the world to make sense. Maybe he’d fallen asleep at some point, that would make sense.
“Um, chill. I mean. Dex?”
Nursey’s question made Dex refocus. “What?”
“What do you want to do?”
“Wait, you aren’t chirping me?”
It was finally Nursey’s turn to look confused. “No?”
Dex took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I need to compile.”
He nodded once to himself and turned his attention to cleaning up the camp for the night.
“What does that mean?”
“He’s trying to put everything together so it makes sense in his head. Like, he’s processing.”
Nursey’s and Chowder’s whispers reached Dex, but he ignored them while he worked. Finally, all he had left to do was repack everything and string up the packs to keep them away from bears. When he started to put the stove back into his pack though, his eyes landed on the album that David had sent. He pulled it out and sat down to look through it again.
Picture after picture. Nursey and Chowder, looking at him fondly. Looking at each other fondly. The night with the porcupine when Dex was holding Nursey.
Chowder had thought it was obvious. David seemed to have picked up on it from miles away. Maybe it was really true.
“You both really want to date me?”
He looked up, catching Chowder’s vigorous nod and wide, sincere grin.
“Chill, Poindexter. Pretty sure I said marry. But we can start with dating.”
Dex took another deep breath. “I’m sorry. I know I’m kinda freaking out, it’s just, this is beyond the best case scenario that I considered and prepared myself for. I mean. Fuck. Polya takes wicked loads of work and communication.”
“Yeah. That’s true. But we can try, right? I mean, if we can’t make it work, we would still be best friends, but we could try?”
There really should be a law against Chowder wielding his eyebrows like that. How he managed to have better puppy dog eyes than either Fred or George was a mystery. But, most importantly, Dex wanted what he was asking. “Yeah. I’m in if Nurse is. I mean. We need to talk about it more, but. Yeah.”
Nursey grinned and flung himself at Dex, or fell towards Dex since he was still sitting down and ostensibly trying to keep his ankle immobilized. “And you’ll cuddle me tonight?”
“If you mean will I share the tent with you to make sure you don’t get sick overnight from breathing in water that we didn’t know about? Yes.”
“Hmm. You’ll cuddle me.”
“Swawesome. I’m going to take down the hammocks since we won’t need them.”
Somehow, Dex was the last one into the sleeping bags that night. Chowder was already tucked up against Nursey’s back and snoring softly when Dex ducked into the tent, trying to cover a yawn. At first, he thought that Nursey was asleep as well, but then Nursey opened his arms and smiled at him without opening his eyes. Dex allowed himself a small smile in return. It still felt unreal, getting everything he’d never dared to hope for.
As quietly as he could, so as not to wake Chowder, he climbed into the sleeping bags and wrapped his arms around Nursey, bringing their foreheads together.
“Shh. Go to sleep, Nurse. I gotta watch your breathing.”
“Mmhmm. If that’s what you gotta do.”
Nursey leaned forward, pressing their lips together gently before relaxing back onto the stuff sack he was using as a pillow.
George is a Professional.
Hairy Man is the name of a Newf who helped save 152 people when a ship full of immigrants went down off the coast of Newfoundland in 1828. Dex uses it as a nickname for his Newfs when they complete a rescue.
Chapter 13: New Paths
Offering the shuttle service extra cash to take them by an ER and then Chowder and the dogs on to a hotel got them all the way into Allentown. Nursey used his phone to reserve the biggest suite at the best hotel in town, such as it were, and then sent the reservation information to Chowder. He was pretty sure that Dex was going to want to go to the ER with him, and more than that, he wanted Dex to be there. And not just because it would stop him from being able to argue about the room until it was too late.
He was pretty sure that even if they weren’t boyfriends now that Dex would have gone into the ER lobby and gotten the wheelchair for him and then wheeled him in and up to the registration. When they called him for triage, Dex acted like he was going to stay in the waiting room until Nursey grabbed his arm and pulled him to come with.
But the best part was watching him with the doctors. His ankle wasn’t hurting as much as long as he didn’t move it or try to stand on it, and he kind of expected the usual response of ER doctors to a black guy complaining about pain. So when the doctor poked at it and declared it a sprain and to follow RICE protocols, like they had been trying to do, he was chill with that.
Dex on the other hand. “You aren’t even going to send him to radiology? What if there’s a bone fragment? He’s a D1 NCAA athlete. He’s a starting defenseman.” Dex ran his hands through his hair and gripped it. “Can we transfer to a hospital that doesn’t have people who barely passed medical school? Like, can I see your transcripts or something because he has a major joint injury and you diagnosed it by poking it. And I told you that he suffered a near drowning and you haven’t even done anything to check his lungs. CT, ultrasound, not even a chest x-ray. Are you sure you’re actually a doctor? Or do you just play one on tv?”
Nursey schooled his face into one of quiet concern and chill instead of giving in to the urge to laugh. He was pretty sure that Dex was going to get them thrown out, yelling at the doctor like that, but the nurse was covering a smirk as well when they all filed out of the room. They must have checked his insurance and found it good because they did end up taking him for an ankle x-ray and some lung imaging. Nothing turned up and the doctor seemed haughty about it.
“Yeah. Well, wicked good thing you double checked with the actual technology to be sure instead of relying on your gut instinct and biases.” Dex folded his arms and refused to be intimidated until they left and the nurse gave them the discharge papers.
Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get a prescription for pain meds, but the ibuprofen was working well enough and since it was just a sprain, he’d probably be fine after five days or so.
“I can’t believe you yelled at the doctor like that.”
“Yeah well. Doctors are biased. Everybody knows it. You go in poor and they’re supposed to give you the same treatment, but they don’t. Wasn’t a difficult leap to figure they do the same based on race and gender and shit. I texted Ransom and asked what diagnostic tools they should be using so I could call them on their bullshit if they didn’t do it.”
“Lean down here and let me kiss you until the uber gets here.”
“Why does our room have a separate living room and dining room? And, what’s this, ok, another den? What is this? An apartment? This might be bigger than the Haus.”
“Oh Dexy. It’s a suite.”
“Nurse, we’ve had suites before. They were chill, a little sofa with a pull out bed I could sleep on. This…. This is huge.”
Nursey swung past Dex staring around the suite in disbelief and into the bedroom on his new crutches. “Those were baby suites. This is the real deal. The kinda suite you get for your two boyfriends the first time you share a hotel together.”
“We’ve shared a hotel room plenty of times.”
“Not as boyfriends.” He raised a brow at Chowder as he settled himself onto the bed next to him.
“Does this mean we finally get to Netflix and chill? Swawesome!”
Nursey turned his body to look at Chowder. “Wait, what? When’d you learn what that meant?”
“He always knew what it meant. He’s Californian, not an idiot.” Dex’s voice came from the doorway, so he must have followed Nursey into the bedroom.
“Wait, so when you said that you love Netflix….”
“Yeah, I was hitting on you. It didn’t work very well.”
“I thought you were straight!”
“I guess we all got carried away with the heteronormativity.”
Nursey fell back against the pillows. “I think...did we all like each other in frog year?”
Nursey’s foot was lifted and then set back down higher up, so Dex probably put a pillow under it, but he was too busy staring at the ceiling and having an existential crisis to check.
“We are the world’s biggest dumbasses.”
“Well, you two, hella.”
“Nah, Chowder’s right. You and I were the ones who couldn’t get past what was right in front of our faces.”
“By the way, Cait is super happy that you two got your shit figured out finally. If you hadn’t by the time school started again, I think she was going to take drastic measures.”
Nursey wasn’t sure what that meant and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He told himself that she would have just started meddling instead of sticking to Chowder’s wait-and-see method.
“Guys, you never answered about the Netflix and chill…”
“Seriously, Chris? Nursey’s ankle is hurt and he’s supposed to keep it elevated and rested. Do you really think now is the time to bang it out?”
Nursey looked at Chowder and raised his eyes. Chowder returned the look and they both started nodding while turning back to Dex, who, for some reason, was still standing at the end of the bed. The look he gave them was unimpressed and a bit disappointed, so Nursey slowly started changing from nodding to shaking his head.
“Okay. But we can still Frog Pile, right?”
Nursey held up his fist for a bump from Chowder, that was an excellent suggestion. Not as good as Netflix and chill, but cuddling, and maybe some making out…. Yeah, that would be a chill night. They still needed to discuss all the intricacies of how they’d do the polya thing, anyway.
Dex dropped his head into his hand with a sigh. “Fine, but Nursey’s ankle has to stay elevated and we have to keep up the ice rotation.”
Nursey reached out and made grabby hands at Dex. It was cuddle time and they all needed to participate.
“We’ve all got to be starving and once I lay down, you aren’t going to let me up. This place has room service right?” Dex turned and left the room, presumably to make their order.
“He really knows us, huh.”
“Chill.” Nursey paused. “That means he won’t be surprised if we start without him, right?”
Dex came back in the room about an hour later with a cart loaded with food. Nursey extracted himself from Chowder’s arms enough to look over and catch Dex’s eyeroll and he grinned in response before pulling away further so they could both sit up to eat. In his defense, his ankle was still on the pillow and he was pretty sure the ice pack had fallen off around when he was supposed to remove it anyway.
Dex settled in next to him and started passing plates over.
“Yo. I forgot to grab my scarf for the pillow.”
Dex nodded and set his plate on the side table and then stretched out to reach into his pocket, pulling the scarf out and laying it on the pillow behind Nursey so he could keep eating.
“Where are Fred and George?”
“Room service had dog treats, too. So I got them ones that should last a couple of hours and then set them up in the smaller den with the tv showing deadliest catch. They’ll nudge open the door and come find us if they need to go for a walk or something.”
Nursey nodded. “They’re gonna get used to the suite life before we get back to the trail.”
Dex set his fork down and swallowed. “Actually, I was thinking we should probably call it.”
Nursey tried to protest, but he’d just shoved a bunch of food in his mouth. Thankfully, Chowder spoke up for them.
“But we just got together.”
“I know. I don’t want to split up either. But it’s only like two weeks until we’re supposed to be back for preseason practice. We’ll be back at the Haus in no time and your rooms are right next to each other. Plus, Cait deserves to get to spend some time with you too, Chris.”
Nursey finally managed to swallow his food. “Hey, our rooms are only separated by the closets. Dex-”
“No. I am not knocking out those walls. I’m pretty sure at least one is load bearing. Just, like, move both of your desks into one room and put a king size bed in the other.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea, Dex!”
Nursey agreed with Chowder, but there was a detail that was tripping him up. “Wait, both of our desks. Where is yours going to be?”
“In my bungalow, with me. Where it’s quiet and soundproofed.”
A quick glance at Chowder confirmed he seemed to be thinking the same thing as Nursey. “Chill. You think a king size bed would fit down there?”
He wasn’t sure how Dex would take it. Dex had been pretty protective of his personal space since he’d moved down to the basement. Dex just finished chewing slowly before responding.
“Ayuh. I think it could. Sometimes.”
Nursey was pretty sure he understood what Dex was trying to say. “Well, with three rooms, any time one of us needs space, we should be able to do that, right?”
Chowder leaned his head on Nursey’s shoulder. “Yeah, communication and work, right? That means respecting when we need space.”
Dex nodded slowly. “We can try it.”
“Dex…. If you don’t want us to stay down in your room, that’s ok. You can just visit us upstairs.”
“No. I want to try sharing a room. I just don’t want to get frustrated with little things and ruin it. Again.”
“Well, this time will be different. Because I won’t be trying to run you off, I’ll be trying to get you to stay. And, like we said, Chowder and I can always go back upstairs when you need time alone. Or you can go if we don’t get the hint. Whatever works.”
Dex laid his head on Nursey’s other shoulder and Nursey had to take a minute to close his eyes and enjoy the moment.
“Yeah. Okay. I’d like that. Just don’t. Don’t let me fuck it all up. Promise if I get to be too much, you two will just tell me and move on.”
Nursey couldn’t help but snort at that. “Poindexter. Dex. Will. We are all too much. That’s the whole point of it requiring work and communication. And if you think I’m going to stop planning the wedding, you’re wrong.”
“Hey, what was the best case scenario that you prepared for?” Chowder’s question seemed to come out of nowhere.
“Last night. Dex, you said that this was beyond the best case scenario that you had prepared for. What was that scenario?”
Dex sat back up and Nursey tried not to pout about it as he resumed eating and his ears turned pink. “It’s nothing.”
“Chill, Poindexter. Now I’m curious, too.”
Dex mumbled something into his plate that Nursey couldn’t hear, even sitting right next to him.
“That doesn’t count.”
Dex sighed and closed his eyes before repeating himself more clearly. “I said, you guys hadn’t been hooking up with anyone that I was aware of, so my best case scenario was if one of you decided you wanted like, a one night friends with benefits thing. And the other one wasn’t into it, then maybe you’d ask me. Like for real and not just chirping because Fluffy chirped us.”
“Come here.” Nursey used his knuckle to turn Dex’s chin towards him and kissed him. “You gotta stop selling yourself short. ‘Cause now when you do that, you’re talking shit about my boyfriend. And I don’t take that lightly.”
Dex’s response was kind of breathy. “Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it?”
“I’ll sick Chowder on you. He doesn’t take kindly to people talking shit about his boyfriend either.”
“Guys, no fair kissing without me.”
The book he was holding might has well have been blank; he hadn’t read a word. It was just there to be camouflage. Nursey’d grabbed it when he realized that sitting in Glenda and Carl’s cafe while Dex worked was not conducive to writing. Oh, he had plenty of inspiration. He’d even jotted down a few lines here and there.
He’d also played out an entire romance novel in his mind involving a grumpy short order cook slash baker with a heart of gold sweeping a wandering poet off his feet. He was pretty sure it would do well as a mass market paperback if he ever dragged his eyes off his boyfriend long enough to write it down.
Dex looked over and he dropped his eyes to the book, pretending to read again. He was about to decide the coast was probably clear and look up again when there was a clink of ceramic on the table next to him and a shadow fell over the book. He looked up just in time to watch Dex lean in close to his ear.
“You haven’t turned a page in nearly an hour. Stop undressing me with your eyes.”
“First of all, it’s not my fault you look so attractive in a rainbow apron. Second of all, I was doing no such thing.”
“Sure, Nurse.” Dex nudged him until he scooted over and Dex could slide into the booth next to him. He ran his hand down Nursey’s forearm until he could lace their fingers together and Nursey had to turn to hide the smile that brought out.
“It’s really not my fault that my boyfriend is super attractive in a rainbow apron.”
“Hmm. Is that so?” Dex was rubbing his thumb over the back of Nursey’s hand idly. “My shift ends in a couple of hours. If you’re finished with that book by then, wanna go back to my place?”
It was criminally unfair that Dex had decided that them dating meant he got to actual use the wheels Nursey hadn’t known he had. It was clearly a line since they’d been staying at Carl and Glenda’s together all week. He was sure that Dex knew exactly the effect that he was having from the thumb brushing over his skin, to the half lidded gaze, to the low question breathed into Nursey’s ear.
Nursey swallowed hard. “What did you have in mind?”
“Something hot but tender.”
“Chill. Yeah. I’d be interested. Sure.”
“Ok, but we gotta be quick. I’m supposed to call my boyfriend.”
When Dex had said hot and tender, Nursey had not imagined they’d end up in the kitchen. Cutting the onions had been a little scary, but Dex had wrapped his arms around Nursey and guided his movements. Somehow, they’d managed to get the onions cut and fried in butter with no injuries to Nursey. He was trying really hard to keep focused on where his hands were in relation to the stovetop and the pan and the knives, because as much as he could get lost in the pure domesticity of watching Dex cook, he knew that Dex was really opening himself up by putting aside his overprotective instincts to share this with him.
“Undercooked chicken is really dangerous. So make sure it’s cooked all the way through when you pan fry it.”
Nursey nodded. He might not do any real cooking with a stove usually, but he’d watched enough Masterchef to know that undercooked chicken was a guaranteed way to get Gordon Ramsay to yell at you. It actually went pretty quick and then they had butter fried onions and rice and peas and pan fried chicken for dinner.
“Thanks. For showing me how to make that. I know that it worries you. Me and knives or me and fire.”
Dex got quiet for a moment and Nursey thought that he might have said something wrong. But, finally, he responded, “I mean. You’re an adult, Nurse. You’re perfectly capable and I know that. I just, yeah. I worry about you. I’m always going to worry about you getting hurt because I never want to see you hurt. Especially if I could have prevented it.”
Dex was staring at his plate, so Nursey reached out and covered Dex’s hand with his own. “You always do everything you can to prevent me getting hurt. You got my back. I got yours.”
Dex finally looked up and gave him a smile which Nursey returned with a grin.
“Hurry up and eat this delicious meal I worked so hard on. It’s almost time to facetime with C.”
Nursey insisted on sitting on Dex’s lap while they chatted with Chowder. It was the best seat in the house, no contest.
“I can’t wait to see you guys again. What time do you get in tomorrow?”
Nursey tried to telepathically tell Chowder to stop talking.
“Uh. I work until five again, which is two your time. Same as all week.”
Nursey could tell that Dex’s face looked confused in the little screen that showed them.
“Oh! Are you working before the flight?”
Nursey groaned. His telepathic message definitely didn’t go through.
“Nurse. What is Chowder talking about?”
“Um. Surprise? We’re going to go spend the last week of summer vacation with our boyfriend in California.”
“I have to work.”
“Yeah. See. I talked to your bosses already and they’re super chill with it, actually.”
Dex refocused on Chowder’s face on the screen. “Your boyfriend can be really aggravating.”
“Hmm. But he’s cute.”
“Yes. He is that.”
Nursey smiled when Dex kissed his cheek after that comment.
“It’ll be nice to see Chowder, and I guess California, too. We better make it back to the Haus before the beds are delivered though.”
“Chill. We totally will.”
“Swawesome. I can’t wait to see you guys again!”
After they ended the call, they cuddled in Dex’s bed. Nursey focused on brushing some strands of hair from Dex’s face while he built up the courage to speak.
“You know. We have a layover in Vegas tomorrow.”
“Okay. Did you want to gamble or catch a show or something?”
“I was serious when I said I want to marry you. It wasn’t a chirp.”
“I’m not going to marry you in Vegas tomorrow, Nurse.”
“Chowder would kill us if we got married without him there.”
“C would never hurt either of us.”
“No, he’d do worse. He’d use the sad eyebrows on us.”
Nursey shivered involuntarily. “Ok. Chill. No wedding tomorrow. But on the way back….”
“Let’s try graduating first.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Will Poindexter.”
Chapter 14: The End of the Road
When Dex opened the door to the suite and let them in, Chowder tried not to be disappointed. He wasn’t disappointed at seeing his boyfriend again. It had been a whole week, so he was definitely glad to get a quick kiss as he and Cait entered the suite and dropped their packs.
Before he could put voice to his question, there was a sudden scrabble and thundering noise and he turned with a grin to catch an armful of Fred. The dog’s entire body was wagging with his tail and Chowder was quickly covered in slobbery kisses.
Beside him there was a “meep” sound that was cut off. Chowder turned to help his girlfriend, but Fred took that as a sign to leave him and greet her as well. She was sitting on the ground laughing. Her hands were buried in George’s fur, but she wasn’t trying to push either of them off as they sniffed her and gave big drooly kisses.
That went on for about a minute before Dex whistled at the dogs and they went to sit beside him.
“The good news is, they mostly only do that the first time they meet someone. The better news is, this place has some really great showers and tubs. The first time Nursey and Chowder met them, they had to just deal with drool face for most of the day.” Dex stepped forward and helped Cait up and gave her a quick hug.
“In here, getting prepared!” Nursey’s voice drifted from the room the dogs had emerged from.
“Nursey ordered pretty much everything on the room service menu, so I hope you two are ready to preload some calories for tomorrow.” Dex shook his head with a half smile and then led them into the room where Nursey was sitting at a table completely covered in food.
Chowder made his way over to collect his hello kiss while Dex and Cait took seats and started getting portions of the food for themselves.
“Hey, Nursey? Not to sound ungrateful, but don’t you think this is a bit excessive?”
Chowder smiled at Cait’s question and then sat down beside her.
“Um, chill? Do you realize how long I craved sushi last summer? They do not have sushi on the trail. Like, anywhere. Eat up because this is probably the last chance we get to satisfy any specific cravings for awhile.”
Dex snorted. “If Nursey had his way, he’d probably take sushi on the trail. Which is not something I want to see him try without refrigeration much less in bear country.”
Chowder smiled at his plate. “Yeah. Nursey knows about the bears.”
“Did….Did you try to pet a bear?”
“What? No! Of course not. Chill, Poindexter.”
Chowder watched as Dex narrowed his eyes at Nursey. “Did you try to kidnap a bear cub?”
Nursey turned an accusing look on Chowder. “You promised you wouldn’t tell!”
“I didn’t! I never! I wouldn’t!”
“You knew?” Dex put his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. “My boyfriends have been keeping secrets from me. Holy crap, they tried to steal a bear cub.”
“Hey, it’s okay. They survived the experience.” Cait reached over to rub Dex’s shoulder comfortingly, then turned to glare at Nursey and Chowder. “And they know better than to try it again. Right?”
“See, nothing to worry about.”
“You say that now. But trust me, they will find things to make me worry about them.” Dex scrubbed his hands over his face one more time before shaking his head and picking his fork up again.
It seemed like a good time to change the subject so Chowder cleared his throat. “So, I’ve been thinking.”
“A dangerous pastime.”
“I know.” Chowder grinned at Dex. “Last year we took turns hiking ahead to set up camp and then had a day where we all hiked together. Maybe we should do that again this year, but instead of one person hiking ahead it could be like Cait and Fred and me, and you two with George the next day. Then all four of us, six counting the dogs, together the third day.”
Dex stared at him for a moment while he chewed and Chowder watched him with an innocent look. “You just want to get there early and set up camp so you two can bang before we get there.”
“What if we do?” Cait was staring Dex down.
Dex tilted his head. “Seems fair. Just remember to leave no trace.”
“Uh, chill guys. Shouldn’t we all hike together until we get our trail legs?”
“Nursey’s got a point.” Dex was staring at Nursey with a small smile.
“Ok, so we’ll hike together the first few days. But it really did make it nice to switch off, so we should do that.”
He waited for everyone’s confirming nod and then reached over to grab another plate of food he wanted to try.
Even with the daily hikes he and Cait had gone on between graduation and meeting back up at the Trail, the first day was grueling. By the time they were done eating and had stashed all the gear, Chowder just wanted to climb up into his hammock and cuddle his girlfriend until he fell asleep.
Luckily, that’s what he got to do at that point. Even more luckily, Nursey had suggested that they upgrade to double wide tent hammocks, so not only did he get to cuddle with Cait, but they weren’t being smushed together by the hammock and forced into uncomfortable positions. It wasn’t quite like the bed they’d shared at the hotel the night before, but it was nice to cuddle together in the dark.
Even though it was pretty comfortable, Chowder found he couldn’t go to sleep because of all the noise. Not from nature, that wasn’t too bad. There was a lot of shifting around and fabric rubbing against nylon and murmured voices coming from below them.
“You guys! Don’t have sex right below us!”
The movement stopped and there was a loud snort before Nursey replied, “Don’t have sex right above us, and maybe we won’t.”
He felt Cait shake her head as she nuzzled even closer to him. “How about everyone sticks to worrying about what’s going on in their own hammock?”
“This is why you’re my favorite, Cait.”
“I know, Dex.”
“Seriously guys. Sleep.” Cait reached up and put her hand over Chowder’s face, sliding around until she could cover his mouth. He kissed her palm and then she pulled it back down into her sleeping bag.
“Nurse, just be the little spoon and stop wiggling.”
“Not happening, Poindexter. Give in to being the little spoon. You know you like it.”
Chowder couldn’t stop himself from giggling which made the hammock shake and Cait growl.
“Chris, I just want to sleep. Please.”
“I’m sorry, baby. I love you.” He kissed her head and wrapped his arms around her tighter.
They’d only been back hiking about a week and a half when Dex had them stop at a little store right off the trial. Chowder figured it was just to eat and resupply, but then Dex paused just outside the store and looked at the ground while rubbing the back of his neck.
“I know we aren’t thru hiking, so this doesn’t really make sense and isn’t really a tradition we have to do. But I’d kind of like to do the half gallon ice cream challenge if that’s ok with all of you?”
“Yeah! Swawesome! What’s the half gallon ice cream challenge?”
“Oh, uh, well. This is pretty much the halfway point between Baxter Peak and Springer Mountain and a few years back it started being a kind of tradition for thru hikers to stop here and eat a half gallon of ice cream in one go.”
Chowder looked at Cait who responded by raising her brows.
“He had me at the words ‘ice cream’.”
“Chill. I call dibs on leftovers from anyone who can’t finish theirs.”
Nursey pushed past to enter the store and Cait followed on his heels. Chowder grinned at Dex and grabbed his hand, pulling it up for a quick kiss. Nearly a year together and he still hadn’t really internalized that he could ask them for things, even things he thought were frivolous and silly.
“It sounds swawesome. I’ll get you chocolate if Nursey and Cait don’t eat it all before I can, okay?”
Somehow, by the time he got into the store, Nursey and Cait were still standing in front of the scrounds. Nursey was shuddering slightly, his hand tight around the freezer door and Chowder followed his gaze to see moose tracks and midnight caramel river flavors.
“Should I get strawberry or try teaberry? Oh, or maybe black cherry?”
Nursey relaxed his hand, meaning his diversion worked. “Really, C? You want to try that now?”
“Hmm. You’re right. I’ll stick with teaberry this time.”
Nursey nodded and paused before grabbing his scround. “Nobody get.... It’s just. Dex….”
Once they had all their selections, they went outside where Dex was waiting with the dogs at a picnic table. He ended up across from Cait, which was swawesome because then they could play footsies. Beside him, Nursey popped the top off of his scround and scooped up a big spoonful which he started licking really slowly. Chowder tried to cover his mouth so he wouldn’t laugh at the obvious display that Nursey was putting on.
"Don't you just love the taste of banana cream? I mean, banana ice cream?"
Dex groaned and rolled his eyes at Nursey’s comment and Chowder was fighting off laughing even harder.
“Banana cream is good. But sometimes you can't beat cookie cream. I mean, cookies and cream.”
Chowder looked over at Cait but she was focused on her ice cream. She took one slow spoonful, and then grinned.
“But seriously, this is too good to waste on dirty jokes. Flirt on your own time.” And then Cait was digging into her scround with fervor.
Chowder had seen her eat before, of course. He’d even seen her demolish an entire pizza on her own. He wasn’t the sort to really care one way or the other what his datemates ate as long as they weren’t allergic to it. But watching the pure enjoyment she was getting out of eating a half gallon of ice cream after ten days on the trail, Chowder was besotted.
He still hadn’t even touched his own ice cream, but he turned to his pack and started digging around for the stuff sack that Ford had sewn a little pouch into. By the time he found it and sat back up, Cait had finished the scround and moved on to the hand packed pint.
He waited until she finished and then held out the ring. “Cait, will you be my nesting partner? Will you marry me?”
Cait just stared at him for a moment and he started to get worried, but then she smiled. “Of course, sweetie. I thought I was going to end up having to ask you.”
Chowder had just about given up on Nursey ever pulling the ring from his own secret Ford-provided pouch when he finally saw him trying to inconspicuously retrieve it from his stuff sack on the top of Springer Mountain.
He quietly pulled out his phone and nudged Cait so she would see what was happening as he put it in video mode. They were actually a bit away, so they might not pick up the audio, but he figured that Dex and Nursey would want the video anyway.
“Oh, finally. I was starting to think he’d never get around to this.”
“Wait, how did you know he was going to propose, too?”
Chowder looked over at Cait but she just raised an eyebrow at him.
“Oh right. Because you’re as smart as you are sweet and sexy.” He let his grin take over before remembering that he was supposed to be filming Nursey’s proposal.
“...how much? You had it with you the whole time?!” Dex’s voice rang out over the mountain, probably too loud for the environment and he quickly self regulated as Nursey stood back up and pulled him into a hug, clearly talking in his ear until he relaxed slightly.
Chowder switched off his phone. “You know, they probably don’t need us anymore. We should go get a hotel room.”