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Night Skies

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Waverly took a deep breath, dropping her shoulders and swinging her arms a little with the exhale, before she reached into the back of the Jeep and hefted her pack. Her nerves were higher than she’d thought they’d be, and she chided herself for her butterflies: the first day on trail was exciting, she told herself sternly, and she certainly had no reason to be anxious about spending the next week with people she’d never met before. Everyone liked her, why was she worried if they would like her? It was going to be fun. Fun, dammit, and she’d get a chance to make lots of observations, and anyway she was totally ready to get out of town for a while and do work in the backcountry. “Okay. Here we go,” she murmured to herself, mentally running through her pre-trip checklist one more time. Satisfied, she locked up the Jeep and began the short trudge over to the administrative HQ building, where she was meeting up with her group.

She spotted the small cluster of people shuffling around on the ragged-looking lawn by the front porch railing, their gear and tools piled on a nearby picnic table. A tall redhead looked up from the group and their eyes met; a moment later, she was striding over, a welcoming smile on her face. “Hello, you must be Waverly,” she said as she extended her hand, her grip warm and firm. “I’m Nicole, Nicole Haught.”

“Uh, hi,” said Waverly, a bit dazzled by the smile Nicole was still offering. “Thanks so much for letting me come along with your crew.” She looked the redhead up and down, in quick appraisal. She looked strong and capable and fit, and she was neatly dressed in the regulation summer work uniform, just like Waverly was, sturdy olive drab pants paired with a lightweight tan shirt, the emblem patch proudly displayed on the shoulder and nametape neatly stitched over the right breast, and no badge to get in the way of a backpack’s wide straps. While the regs called for all uniform buttons to be fastened except the top one, Nicole’s shirt had two buttons undone, and the thought flashed through Waverly’s mind: it was both a violation, and not a bad look on her.

“Glad to have you with us,” said Nicole, as she finally released Waverly’s hand. Waverly immediately felt a moment of strange, subtle sadness, like she missed the warmth of skin pressed into hers. She gave a tiny shake of her head as Nicole went on talking. “We’re just now waiting for Lonnie to bring up the van, he’ll give us a lift to the trailhead. The kids are all briefed.” Nicole lifted her hat, the lightweight straw Stetson some rangers wore in hot weather instead of the formal, familiar campaign hat, to run a hand through medium-short wavy hair, before settling it atop her head again. “Do you have any questions, requests, stuff like that while we’re waiting?”

“Nope,” replied Waverly. She hooked her thumb over her shoulder, gesturing at her backpack. “Got everything I need, ready to roll.”

“Great, that’s great.” Nicole waved her hand, a small let’s-walk gesture, and they started back toward the group side-by-side. “Let’s get you introduced to everybody, okay? And you can set your pack down on this bench. Here, let me help you.”

Waverly felt some of the awkward weight taken off her hips as she twisted out of the pack, as Nicole grasped and lifted from the top handle. Suddenly it was easy to shed the load and drop it gently to rest on the bench seat, instead of wrestling the full multi-day rig into submission like she usually did. She sighed, feeling a little spoiled by the assistance and not really minding. “Oh. Thank you.”

“No problem. I got you,” said Nicole, her thousand-watt smile blooming across her face again. Waverly grinned back, inexplicably filled with happiness at the sight of that dimple so charmingly unfurling, and those kind brown eyes. Yeah, okay, she thought, this trip maybe won’t be so bad.

*****

Nicole handled the introductions efficiently, with enough pause between each name so Waverly could commit it to memory while solemnly shaking hands with each young person. At least, she tried really hard to get their names in her head. Patti, April, Summer, Kath, Amber, Lindsay … she’d have it by the end of the day. As it turned out, they had driven up from one of the regional high schools, their class having won a small contest to secure spots in the park’s “Become A Trail Volunteer” program. They were eager and excited for the hard physical work in front of them, high on the promise of a new adventure.

Nicole’s introduction of her was almost enough to turn her suddenly shy. “And this is Waverly Earp, also a ranger at the park here, specializing in eco-research. She’s been leading a key study about recovery of at-risk animal species in the subalpine zone, and speaks internationally about innovations in conservation strategies. She’ll be accompanying us and working in the same areas we’re in, but while we’re haulin’ rocks, she’ll be doing important science.” Nicole’s eyes twinkled as she addressed her crew. “If she asks you for your help with anything, I’d like you to give her all the assistance you can, okay?” They chorused their assent.

Wondering how Nicole had managed to cobble together such a flattering intro, Waverly ducked her head and thanked the group, and by then the van had pulled up. Everyone set to loading up their gear and tools, and piling into the seats for the short ride. As the crew leader, Nicole took the passenger seat up front, while Waverly slid into the back with the teenagers. They immediately began to pepper her with questions.

“So, Ranger Earp, what animals are you studying? Is it bears?” Amber asked excitedly.

“Or wolves?” added Patti.

“Or maybe eagles,” threw in Summer from the back row.

Waverly chuckled that everyone’s first thought was for one of the obvious glamour species. Most of the questions in the visitor center were along these lines as well. “No, no, none of those. The big species are important as apex predators, but the smaller animals can tell you just as much, if not more, about the health of an ecosystem.”

“Besides,” said Nicole, swiveling around in the front seat, “we don’t have wolves in the park, and bears won’t be very likely where we are going, unless they are passing through. It’s not a highly food-rich area for them this time of year. We’ll take the normal precautions, hanging our stuff in bear bags, but,” Waverly watched as she pursed her lips, prettily, and asked the driver, “when was the last bear sighting up in that valley, Lonnie?”

“Must’ve been more than three weeks gone,” Lonnie replied. The young passengers seemed to relax a bit at that, maybe relieved.

“Well, there you go,” said Waverly, “and if anyone spots a bear, I’ll count it as lucky, so please report it to me.”

“But, anyway, what animal are you studying?” Amber pressed, undeterred.

“The study is multispecies,” said Waverly, “but this week in particular, I’ll be looking at frogs.”

“Frogs,” a couple of voices echoed, unimpressed.

“Yeah. Super interesting, these frogs,” said Waverly, warming to her subject. “The blue-legged creek frog, Rana andrasii, is a species heavily impacted by disturbances to the watershed, caused by - we think - building some of the high roads through the park. Biologists were afraid they were heading toward extinction, but with the environmental remediations done in the past dozen or so years, they’ve bounced back, and more quickly than expected.” She lifted her chin, her eyes flicking up, because science. Any question answered brought up three new ones, and lord, did she have so many questions rattling around in her head. She needed to keep this at the layperson’s level, though. “We’re trying to figure out why, and how to use that information to help other species that are in trouble.”

Her audience murmured in agreement, as Lonnie pulled to the side of the road. They’d reached the trailhead, and Waverly was glad that Nicole had taken her suggestion to let her park down in the staff overflow lot instead of here, when they’d emailed back and forth last week. There was barely enough room for two or three cars to squeeze onto the shoulder: her Jeep parked at this trailhead for a week or more would be somewhere between a nuisance and an outright hazard.

“Let’s pick it up,” Nicole urged gently, as the group shouldered their packs and got their trail-building tools evenly distributed and stowed for safe carrying. “It’s an easy day, we only have to hump our butts ten miles up the hill, and get to tonight’s campsite. The hard work starts tomorrow.” Everyone was carrying an extra ten or twelve pounds or so once the gear was taken into consideration, except for Nicole, who had taken a double share of the load. Waverly had tried to talk her into giving up some of the weight, letting her carry it, but Nicole had staunchly refused. “No way,” she said, her smile not unkind. “I know you’re carrying your own specialized gear for your job, Waverly. You don’t need to carry mine, too.”

“’Cept mine is barely more than a notebook and a mechanical pencil,” fibbed Waverly. She was also carrying sample vials that she’d be filling and stowing away for later analysis, as well as a number of calibrated measuring devices, but really, that was nothing compared to all this other equipment. Nicole was standing in front of her, all loaded down and confident and tall, with an axe strapped to her back and a short shovel lashed to the side of her pack, and a heavy, unwieldy digging bar balanced in her hands; in Waverly’s imagination, she looked like nothing so much as a proud warrior, a shield-maiden ready to march into battle. “You all look like you’re going to war,” she blurted out.

“Well, we’d better get to it, then,” laughed Nicole, and got everyone moving up trail. By previous agreement, they set a moderate pace, with Waverly in the front, as she knew this section of the park backwards and forwards, and Nicole in the rear of the group, where she could keep an eye on the rest of the crewmembers. They carried their radios but found they didn’t need to use them, as everyone settled into the hike, spacing themselves out along the footpath without any big gaps opening up, just grinding out the distance.

Parts of the trail were in rough shape. They encountered the first difficult pass only about two miles up, a tricky crossing of a moderately large washout with plenty of downed vegetation from the last round of storms. They picked their way across the damaged section, one part assisted by a handrope Nicole tied off between two sturdy trees. They saw no one else on trail; the park had temporarily closed this route, at least until the repairs they’d been sent to make had been completed.

Waverly found herself relaxing into the solitude of the hike. Sure, there would be conversations when they stopped to eat lunch, or take a water break, or work their way through a broken section. Idle chit-chat about the nature surrounding them, Nicole inquiring how a portion of the footpath compared with prior seasons, or the kids sometimes asking questions about the work they’d be doing soon, but really, most of the time spent on trail is time spent in silence, and Waverly liked that.

The act of walking, with nothing to do except walking, without phones or computers or walls or a to-do list a mile long, was calming. Waverly, always to her surprise, enjoyed not having to look up a hundred times a day, with a cheerful smile plastered across her face. The trail didn’t require it. The trail did not ask where the nearest McDonald’s was, or if a fee was really needed for a camping spot, or why didn’t the deer cross the road someplace safer? Out here, she was able to let all of it fall away, let her mind wander where it would as her feet easily negotiated the narrow path. It was the antithesis of her gregarious ‘smile-and-wave’ personality, and really, she did love all the people she had a chance to talk to as part of her everyday life, but she also relished the chance to step away from it now and then, to sink into unfocused awareness of her surroundings, and let quietness wash over her. It felt like recharging her batteries.

*****

They reached their campsite with plenty of time to spare before sundown, and Nicole set about organizing everyone into tasks, assigning who would pitch tents, who would haul water, and the like. Waverly nodded with approval as she eavesdropped on Nicole lecturing her charges about proper Leave No Trace ethics after someone suggested camping in the middle of a nearby meadow, where the ground would be softer. “We camp and we travel on durable surfaces whenever we can,” said Nicole. “To minimize impact. We don’t want to trample and compact any more ground than we have to, because it can take a long, long time for nature to recover.” She scuffed her feet and tilted up her chin, thinking. “Also, no fire on the ground, only in established fire rings, for the same reason. And you all know where your trowels are, right?” When the kids started snickering, she glared, and said, “I mean it. Dig a proper cathole, 70 steps minimum from water, camp, and trail, and cover up your business when you’re finished, got it? Trust me, everyone will be happier in the long run. If I catch anyone popping a squat and rolling a rock on top of it, there’s gonna be hell to pay.”

Well, thought Waverly with a giggle, everyone’s gotta learn how to poop in the woods at some point.

She had brought her solo tent with her, and with Nicole’s tacit approval, had pitched it nearby the others, so they were all arranged in a loose semicircle. Waverly was a little surprised when Nicole assigned sleeping spaces for the six crew members in the two larger tents, with the caveat that they would be changing up every night, and then hauled out her own sleeping arrangement, a hammock system. It was a pretty fancy one, too, sleek and bright blue, with a full-zip protection fly and deluxe straps that would leave the trees used to suspend it umarred. Waverly wandered over to have a closer look. “You like the hammock?” she said, curious. “I’ve never tried one.”

“Eh,” shrugged Nicole. “They take some adjustment. I haven’t had it that long.”

Waverly studied both the rig and Nicole, and wondered what it would be like to sleep suspended off the ground. Sounds cold, she thought. Then again, she generally slept cold, and was the first in any group to add a bag liner when the temps dropped. Nicole must be a gearhead, she decided. Always trying out the newest thing. Some rangers were.

“I know I look like a goofball getting in and out of it,” Nicole went on, “but man, I sleep like a rock. On the ground, I turn over a million times, but this … you get settled in and it’s like someone holding you all night.” She turned her bright smile toward Waverly. “C’mon, let’s go get the chow wrangled.”

*****

The comfortable sound of the hiss of gas stoves, heating up their meals, filled the campsite. Everyone seated themselves around the main cookpot, except for Waverly, who had set up a microstove to the side and was cooking her own, separate dinner. Lindsay, hovering over the large pot, started serving up for everyone, before she looked over. “Are you sure you don’t want any of this? Plenty here.”

It was beef stroganoff. “No thank you,” said Waverly. “I’m vegan, so I brought my own meals.” This information brought a whole new round of questions from the kids, like why did she decide not to eat meat, and was it difficult, and how could she possibly survive without a pepperoni pizza at least once in a while. Waverly joked and chatted with the crew, happy to feel accepted as one of the gang at least for this first night on the trail, and they stayed up later than they probably should have after the mess kits were all cleaned up and put away.

Nicole was mostly quiet. She didn’t participate much, fading into the background as she let her crew have their rambunctious conversation around the campsite, their excitement evident in their jovial voices and carrying laughter. Waverly noticed her, though. She noticed the quick eyes that followed the conversation around the circle, clever in the half-dark of a single tiny electric lantern. She noticed the wry smile that turned the corners of her mouth when someone said something funny. She noticed the long hands that idly smoothed over her knees, nimble fingers picking at the seam of her trousers. And a few times, Waverly noticed Nicole looking at her when their eyes would meet, locking for a long second, Nicole’s warm gaze intense and serious in the shadowed darkness, and Waverly could only wonder at what that gaze meant, and how it sent a frisson of frank curiosity, and maybe some other emotion she wasn’t ready to examine, traveling along her spine, before their eyes would slide down and they would both look away.

Finally, Nicole stretched and declared it was quiet time, and sent the crew to bed, saying they’d be getting up at first light tomorrow, so try to get some sleep and don’t stay up all night talking. The two rangers sat off to the side, conversing in hushed tones, while the kids got themselves tucked away in their tents.

“They’re young, aren’t they,” said Waverly quietly, finally speaking the question she’d wanted to ask all day.

“They are so young,” Nicole agreed ruefully. “The waivers we had to get from them and their parents, just so they could be here - yikes.”

Waverly laughed softly to herself at that, because hadn’t everyone had those sort of bureaucratic encounters with the park service administration?

“They’re all seventeen,” continued Nicole, “that was a requirement for signing up. They all have at least some experience with backpacking, but none of them have ever built trail before. I am going to have to teach them everything.” She shook her head. “So maybe we won’t get a whole lot done, with the learning curve, but god are they enthusiastic. And, like, most of ’em are gay, so I am going to have to watch ’em to make sure they don’t fall into some sort of backcountry showoff competitive thing and kill themselves with overwork.”

This last part was surprising to Waverly. She might have had her suspicions, but to just hear it spoken so matter-of-factly? That was not quite what she expected, and her eyebrows arched up in the darkness. “Really? Did they tell you that, or can you just tell?”

“Kind of both,” Nicole replied, tilting her head.

“They’re just babies,” said Waverly with mild astonishment. She wondered how anyone ever knew for sure, or if one’s heart could suddenly flip-flop and take a whole new, unexpected direction at any time. “Seventeen,” she mused.

“You’re only, what, five or six years older than that, Ranger Earp,” said Nicole, amusement chuckling under her words like a noisy brook.

“Yes, but five or six very important years,” shot back Waverly. Her mind drifted back over that time, with a flush of pleasure as she recalled the triumph she’d felt when the dean had pressed her diploma into her hand, the degrees she’d completed in near record time. Schooling had been her ticket out of her small-town existence, and she had applied herself with vigour, grasping at all the knowledge she could. It had made her into the person, and the scientist, she was today.

“Sure, I guess. But still,” Nicole went on, “I knew way before seventeen.” She shrugged, then stood, unrolling herself out of her crouched position seated on a rock. “Time for bed, for me. You okay for the night?”

“Yup, you bet.” Waverly yawned, and looked down at her shoes, to give Nicole a moment before she stood up herself.

“Good night, then,” came Nicole’s soft voice, as she stepped away from their rocks and toward her gear, stripping off her outerlayer jacket and tucking it neatly away in her pack. Waverly readied for bed as well, crawling most of the way into her own tent and removing her boots, setting them aside in the vestibule. She wasn’t exactly spying on Nicole, nope, she wasn’t a creeper, but she did have to agree - she did look like a doofus getting into her hammock, the way she just sort of flung herself inside, all awkward, flailing limbs before her weight sagged comfortably into the center of the rig. Then, a contented sigh reached Waverly’s ears, a sound that made Waverly feel warm and happy as well, and she just accepted it, her sleep-slowed mind not stopping to wonder at the why of it at all.

Chapter Text

Waverly woke to the muted sounds of movement about the campsite, as the sky was fading into its early soft grey. She pulled on her uniform pants and emerged from her tent, greeting those that were already up and about, and started her morning, her routine stripped down and efficient, no fuss. Likewise, the rest of the group ate breakfast and readied for the day.

“Everyone, come get your lunch. You are responsible for carrying your own lunch,” said Nicole as she handed out hearty-looking sandwiches, neatly wrapped and tucked into ZipLoc bags, to the crew. “Snacks in here, too, dried apples and gorp.” Once the meals had been distributed, she gathered everyone around. “We’ll be sleeping here tonight, so today’s a day you don’t have to break down the tents. Uptrail from here is the last big washout, so we’re going to go up there and rebuild the tread, and clear some trees.” Patti and Lindsay whooped at that, exchanging a high-five, which made Waverly giggle a bit. She’d be willing to bet that everyone was going to get a chance at lumberjack-ing under Nicole’s supervision, not just the ones who were excited about it. “So we’re bringing all the tools, of course, and bring whatever outerlayer you need for weather changes, but you can leave extra clothes and things here. Any questions? Okay, be ready to go in ten minutes.” They scurried to their tasks, filling water bottles, tucking gear into their rucksacks. Nicole watched them for a moment before turning to Waverly. “So are you going to camp here again tonight, too?”

“Might as well,” said Waverly with a shrug. Why wouldn’t you leave your tent set up if you could, instead of schlepping it around all day? She wasn’t a fool. “I want to get to four sites today, make a loop around the valley. I’ll probably be walking through where you’re working by late afternoon. Afternoon-ish.”

“Great, we’ll keep an eye out for you, then.” Nicole smiled wide, dimple popping.

Warmed by that smile focused on her, but not really knowing what else to say, Waverly turned to shoulder her pack, her research materials stowed carefully inside. She settled the straps and fastened the hipbelt, and picked up the trekking poles she liked for cross-country hiking. She looked at her topo, folded to the part of the quadrant she needed and stashed in a see-through map case, and took a bearing with the compass hanging from her neck. After that, there was nothing left to do but head out. “Okie dokie. See you later,” she said with a little wave, and walked away from the camp and the trail, toward the first creek she wanted to check.

Hiking cross-country was always slower. Waverly liked the challenge of navigating where there were no trails, but she had to frequently stop and take a bearing to prevent getting lost, and of course there was all the zig-zagging around bushes and trees. She clattered her poles and hummed a bit as she walked, wanting to give any small animals (particularly snakes) a warning that she was approaching. Her spirits rose along with the sun in the sky; the weather was fair, and it was a fine, fine day to be in the backcountry. There’d be science, there’d be frogs, there’d be a good dinner and a snug tent tonight, and she felt ready to take on the world.

The walk, when she wasn’t pulling out her map and studying it, also gave her time to think. About the redheaded ranger, and why she felt so unaccountably drawn to that kind smile. There was something so interesting about her, that Waverly wanted to pursue, to explore, get to know better. She didn’t know many details about her, yet. Just that she’d seen the name on a “welcome new personnel” memo a few weeks back, and that Nicole had transferred in from another park. That she and Waverly worked in different sectors: Nicole was assigned to the maintenance department, looking after the park’s aging infrastructure, whereas Waverly was part of the research and preservation team, while also handling visitor contacts, greeting people and answering questions and disseminating information, her duty making her one of the park’s many public faces. It was likely the reason they hadn’t managed to meet before this trip - their jobs were so different, there’d be little reason for them to interact on a regular basis. Waverly’s brain was already storing up a list of small items that she could report broken, starting with the shelf in her tiny, tiny office, just to see if Nicole would show up to fix them. She giggled as she trekked, amused by the thought.

She made good time and in less than an hour, Waverly had reached the first site she wanted to check - a medium-small creek, well-lined with rocks, trees along the verge providing shade. The greenery on the other side of the creek was quite a bit heavier, actually. It looked like an ideal spot for checking up on her frog population, so she dropped her pack in a handy spot and pulled out her ‘Rite In The Rain’ notebook. The first thing she did was to check her location on her GPS receiver, carefully noting down her coordinates.

“Okay,” she murmured to herself, at the creek. “Let’s see what’s going on with you.”

She wasn’t entirely sure what she would find as she approached the bank, but she walked slowly and placed her feet carefully, trying to disturb as little of the habitat as possible. The point was to collect data, not trample all over everything. Much to her joy, she heard frog sound right away, so there was an active population in this prime spot, a good sign. She crouched by the creekbed and made her observations. It was the wrong time of year for spawn, so there were no visible egg masses in the slack parts of the stream, and she jotted that down. She did see a number of adults, their glossy heads shining in the dappled sun as they splashed and peeped and perched atop the half-drowned wood that littered the stream, and she counted them and noted that down as well. Then, she set a light-coloured plastic board into the creekbed, about 30cm square and marked out with gridlines, an aid to seeing the tadpoles which were virtually invisible against the creek bottom. After giving the stream a few moments to settle, she began watching the square and the tadpoles swimming across it. The population here was in good shape, she thought, as she made her estimation of the count - they were healthy and active, a high density of individuals, and they were well into their development cycle. A good number of adult frogs would probably emerge later into this particular area.

“Awesome sauce,” Waverly hummed to herself, noting down the data. As a scientist, she had a certain impassivity about her findings, but as a person she couldn’t help rooting for the little guys, and was cheering them on. She pulled her board out of the water and set it aside, and got out her other measuring equipment. There were plenty of data points to collect. The temperature of the water, the ambient air temperature above the water, the rate of flow, the depth and the width of the stream in this location, on and on and on. She wrote down number after number in her book, grist for the mill of science, gathering the tiny pieces of the great puzzle so she and her colleagues could comb through them later, analyze them and learn what they could.

Finally, she popped open one of her collection vials, dipping it into the cool water to fill it, then capping it off with a distinct ‘click’ of the locking top. She dried the outside, then wrote on it with permanent marker - the date, the time, that it was sample #1 of the day.

Finished, she packed up her equipment and bade the frogs goodbye (“good job, guys, be strong”) and set out for her next site. Now Waverly traveled near the river, heading upstream. The navigation was easier, following a water feature, but the tradeoff was that the terrain got tough in places, and she’d have to swing around a few spots where the banks got steep or there were tricky tributaries to cross. She pushed on. She wanted to make the same measurements as the first site, but at different elevations, so she climbed up the valley, checking her map and compass as she needed. She found her second and third locations without any problem, and found lively groups of frogs pretty easily. It was at her fourth and highest location that she had some trouble finding a population to measure, but that was data too, and she wrote it all down carefully in her neat hand. After checking a few shaded pools, she was able to conduct her census, noting that the tadpoles were fewer and considerably smaller; they must have hatched out later. She didn’t have enough data yet to theorize why, but she hoped to repeat the observations tomorrow in the next valley over, and was already curious if the elevation changes there would follow the pattern here. She packed up her gear one last time, and set out cross-country again, looking to rejoin the main trail as her easiest route back to camp.

*****

She bushwacked across the flank of a broad hill, some of the way slick with crumbly shale. Waverly took her time on the descent, picking her way carefully and relying on her poles for balance, rocks rattling under her boots. Won’t do to sprain an ankle here, she thought. Thankfully, it wasn’t far until she met the trail, and now walking back was a piece of cake. She was ahead of schedule, and in no hurry, since she’d finished maybe an hour earlier than she had anticipated. She could spend the extra time in camp reorganizing her gear or something.

She found the trail-building crew again as she crested a rise, the path passing through a saddle amid sparse pine trees. Waverly paused; seven bodies were busily at work a short distance below her. Everyone was wearing their protective gear, gloves and safety glasses and hard hats, so at least she didn’t need to yell at anybody about that. They were close enough that she could hear the scrape of their tools, and their voices drifted up to her, the words not always clear. She watched for a moment, then stepped off the trail into a shady spot where a fallen log made a handy bench. Might as well take a bit of a break, she thought. Shedding her pack, she dropped it with a relieved sigh, and reached inside to pull out the last of her snacks, a baggie with mixed nuts and dried figs. She nibbled while she sat and watched the crew. There were good trailbuilders and there were bad trailbuilders, and Waverly was awfully curious to figure out which type Nicole was.

Half the crew was downtrail, digging and stamping and leveling the footbed with shovels and mattocks and the big square tool that Waverly knew was called a McLeod, sort of a combination of a heavy hoe and a rake. Above them, closer to Waverly, Nicole and two of the teenagers were clearing trees and brush that was blocking the way. As she watched, they finished hauling downed wood away from the trail on the downhill side, taking care to arrange the small piles some distance apart from each other. That was good. Waverly was always irked when crew just left great heaps of cut vegetation lying next to the trail; it was an eyesore, and depending on the watershed, or what animals made their homes nearby, could interrupt the environment enough to become a hazard. The tree crew looked like they’d mostly finished getting the way cleared, and now they were standing and puzzling out one final problem.

Nicole’s voice drifted up, bits of the conversation as she turned her head back and forth, examining their situation, pointing something out to April and Kath. “…roots won’t hold…can see how the…” Tipping her hard hat up above her brow, she gestured with the tool in her hand, a bow saw. “…but it’s too far…” Poor tree, thought Waverly. It had started to lean and would lose its battle with gravity someday if left untouched, but because it was doing so right next to the trail, they were going to circumvent the process and remove it before it could fall on some hapless park visitor. From where she sat, Waverly could see the big orange ‘X’ spray-painted on the trunk by an earlier survey crew.

“…will come down in this direction,” said Nicole, pointing with her whole arm, lifting her chin as she looked up, clearly visualizing how it would happen, and now her voice carried easily to where Waverly was sitting. “Tricky. Let me do this one.” She traded tools with April, exchanging the bow saw for the axe. She directed April to make a shallow cut with the saw, maybe ten inches above the ground, on the downhill side of the tree. Then, she waved them away a safe distance, and called out, “Clear the trail!” Waverly found herself almost holding her breath as Nicole made her final study, reset her feet, and lifted the axe.

With a ringing thud, Nicole made her first blow, and Waverly felt some sort of unknown, visceral emotion as the blade bit deep. Nicole wiggled the axe loose, lifted it, and struck again, and Waverly’s imagination embellished the details that she must be too distant to actually see, the way the muscles corded in her forearms, the grace of her hands on the hard ash handle. She heard the huff and the grunt of the effort Nicole put into each swing. There was power there, easy and flowing, as Nicole fell into the rhythm of it, thunk, thunk, thunk, large woodchips flying. After maybe fifteen strikes, Nicole paused. She examined the still-standing tree for a moment, then rotated a quarter of the way around the trunk. She settled her feet, and began again. Waverly watched, kept on watching, mesmerized by the way Nicole would twist from her waist, loading up like a coiling spring, then unwind into each hack. She marveled at the strength of those solid shoulders, the way they would drive, would heave and hurl with battering force, the language of the body beautiful to see. This time, it was less than a dozen furious blows before Waverly heard the groan of the tree giving way, and the branches started to shift.

“There it goes,” shouted Nicole. “Timber!”

The tree came crashing down at a stately pace, loud noise and a kicked-up cloud of dirt. Nicole scrambled back as fast as she could as it dropped, but she’d chosen well, and the tree didn’t bounce or carrom off any of its neighbors, didn’t change the direction of its fall unexpectedly. It seemed the entire world held its breath, and then the shudder and crack of shattering branches died away, and the kids were yelling “whoo!” with excitement, and Nicole’s smile gleamed. She stood, leaning on her axe and panting lightly, like some kind of conquering hero.

Well, thought Waverly, that was unexpectedly studly. It saddened her to see the tree taken down, of course, even though she understood the reason for it. But seeing it done with such undisguised competence, and the way her whole self responded to the display of prowess with lowkey, untrammeled pleasure … well, that was new, and something she’d have to think on later. What the hell.

Nicole had called her crewmembers back up, and they were obviously discussing how to go about clearing the detritus of the felled tree from the trail. Waverly liked how Nicole seemed to be soliciting opinions, listening to the teenagers in her charge, before deciding a course of action. The tree was not a huge one, but the mass of the trunk made it too heavy to drag away without chopping it in pieces. Most of the tree could be left where it had fallen, with some of the branches cut away for safety. The main decision, it seemed, would be to make one cut or two, and with the saw or the axe. There was much gesturing, and rapid conversation that Waverly could not distinguish. Finally, Nicole nodded, and took the axe and notched the trunk, marking where she wanted the cut. Then, she stepped aside to where she’d set her water bottle, as April and Kath started sawing away, taking turns with the large bow saw.

Waverly couldn’t help herself. She took out her radio, and waited until Nicole uncapped her Nalgene bottle and was taking a long drink. She keyed up and said in a loud, clear voice, “Ranger seven two four, this is ranger four five nine, over.” She hadn’t realized that she’d memorized Nicole’s radio call number - when had she learned that detail, anyway? - but there it was, dropping out of her mouth like it was no big deal at all, and she hadn’t even needed to pull her cheatsheet out of her pocket.

Nicole startled at the noise in the most comical way possible, coughing and spilling water down her front. She somehow managed to cap her water bottle without dropping it, and pulled her own radio. “Ff - cough - four five nine, this is ranger seven two four, go ahead, over.”

Nicole was still coughing and wiping water from her face, and Waverly laughed, before admonishing herself for being a tad mean-spirited. Be nice, she thought. Even to rangers who are totally tall and hot and good at everything. She wrestled her oddly jumbled feelings down as best she could, managing to keep her voice in the neighborhood of professional. “Seven two four, this is four five nine, I am uptrail from you and observing your tree clearance, requesting if it is safe to walk down. Please advise, over.”

She could see Nicole raise the radio to her lips, before the reply hissed across the frequency. “Four five nine, no more trees are coming down at this time, safe to proceed.” She swivelled her head, looking at the crew below her, before looking back up again. “Trail is passable with a few rough spots we are finishing up. Be advised there is a tree trunk lying cross-trail, but,” and Waverly could practically hear the sparkle in Nicole’s voice, “I will be glad to provide whatever assistance you need to climb over it. Over.”

Hold up. Is she really flirting with me that hard? On the radio? What a big dummy. Waverly rolled her eyes, wondering if dispatch was bothering to listen to their back-and-forth. She keyed up again. “Copy that. Four five nine clear.” When Nicole signaled back with her own clear, she reholstered her radio, stuffed the empty baggie into her snacks pocket to reuse later, shimmied back into her pack, and set off once more.

In a very short time, Waverly was stomping up to the felled tree and the workers around it. Looking at the size of the tree as she approached - maybe a foot and a half in diameter, it was smaller than she’d thought - she felt her jaw clench and anger flicker through her chest, her fury bright and wispy. If she thinks I can’t get past THAT without help, I’ll give her something to think about. Nicole was still leaning on the axe, her sweat-dampened hair clinging to the back of her neck a little and barely curling under the edge of her hard hat. She was standing to the side, near where the kids were finishing their cut. “If you stick a good-sized rock right there,” she said, pointing, “it’ll hold the weight up and the saw won’t bind. Oh, hey,” she said brightly as she looked up, apparently unaware that she’d invoked Waverly’s wrath.

“Are you kidding me?” Waverly burst out. “You think I’m going to need help climbing over that?”

Nicole’s eyes went wide, and she held up a placating hand, surprised. “Hang on, I didn’t mean…”

“I don’t appreciate any cheap shots about being short,”  Waverly stormed on, but then her anger fizzled out as quickly as it appeared. She started to blush, because Nicole was staring at her like a deer caught in headlights, clearly startled, and the kids were whispering to each other. “Uh, I mean, um. Sorry.”

“No short remarks, got it,” said Nicole, the thousand-watt smile threatening to break out again. April and Kath went back to sawing, leaning into the work and pretending they hadn’t been eavesdropping at all. “For the record, I have complete confidence in your ability to get past this, or any other obstacle I throw on trail.”

“Well, good,” huffed Waverly, thinking she shouldn’t feel nearly as placated as she did, but there was something so calming about Nicole’s friendliness and warm, open manner. A thought came, unbidden. It’d be hard to stay mad at her for very long. Suddenly she found herself wondering if Nicole would ever get angry, maybe angry at her, and what making up would be like. She felt heat rise in her cheeks, because the concept was wholly unexpected and far less unwelcome than she would have thought two days ago.

“’Sides,” Nicole went on, blithely unaware of Waverly’s train of thought, “we’re about to clear this chunk, if you wait a minute or two. Right, guys?” She turned to see them finishing sawing through the fallen tree trunk, the wood parting with a distinct crack as the high end dropped away.

“Right, we got this,” said Kath, panting a bit from the work.

“Oh, stop already. This is so not a thing,” said Waverly with a low chuckle. She easily stepped over the trunk where it was widest, with no branches to interfere with her stride, and then made a little pirouette to demonstrate it was totally no big deal. “You need me to do anything in camp before you get back?”

“No, but thank you,” said Nicole. “We won’t be far behind you.”

“Okay,” said Waverly, as she resumed walking. She stopped and turned around again when she heard a thwack, thwack, thwack: Nicole was efficiently trimming down the crown of the tree with well-placed blows of the axe, as April and Kath carried the five-foot section of the tree trunk away from the trail. Waverly watched, seeing the flex of Nicole’s thighs clad in olive drab, and her muscles sliding under the tan uniform shirt, the way her biceps bulged with each neat, shortened stroke, and Waverly once more felt that curious warmth course through her, especially when Nicole looked up and caught her staring, and gave a little wave. She smiled and waved back, then turned and headed downtrail again.

She passed through where the other half of the crew was working, stopping and chatting for a few moments there as well. They had done a fine job rebuilding this part of the trail, showing Waverly one of the sections they’d spent much of the day digging, leveling and repairing the surface of the tread. She praised their work, and said she’d see them soon, before moving on.

*****

Back in camp, everything was looking neat and orderly. Waverly busied herself for a short while putting her gear away, then went to fetch water, deciding it was just as easy to haul for the whole camp as it was for herself. She found the Platypus system that Nicole had brought, and carried it down to the stream along with her own filtration pump. Once she reached the bank, she took a close look at the Platy - she knew it was a gravity system, and had seen one used in the past, she’d just never carried one. Basically, it was two bags, one marked ‘dirty’ and the other marked ‘clean’, with an inline filter on the quick-connect tube that joined them. She filled the dirty bag out of the river and found a handy branch to hang it, clicked the filter tube into place, then left it alone to do its thing. While she waited, she filled her two drinking bottles with her small Katadyn filter, which unlike the gravity system, required her to pump the water via a tiny collapsible handle. Waverly smiled to herself - how very ranger-like, she thought, to have dual and complementary water treatment systems. If one failed, one could act as back-up.

She waited a bit longer for the Platy to finish emptying into the clean reservoir, then she disconnected the bags, refilled the dirty bag so they’d have it ready to filter later, and carried everything back up to the campsite.

Nicole and the crew straggled in about forty-five minutes later. The kids looked beat, dusty and sweaty and dragging with fatigue, but Nicole was fresh as a daisy, as if she hadn’t been working hard all day. The crew got their tools stacked safely to one side of the camp, and Nicole praised their efforts of the day, saying they had gotten more work completed than she had expected, good job, then started issuing the orders for the night, who would cook, who would clean, etc. She had a way about her, Waverly noted, where she didn’t bark at the kids but used a gentle voice that was nonetheless persuasive. “Don’t sit down yet,” she was saying, “it’ll be hard to get moving again. C’mon, get washed up, you’ll like dinner better if you’re not wearing a pound of dust.”

Waverly laughed as she spoke up. “I brought some water up already.” She gestured to the two water bags, hanging in the place they’d been the night before.

The crew assigned to dinner prep was overjoyed. “Thank you so much. You’re a rockstar,” said Summer gratefully, as she was scrubbing dirt off her hands and face and neck with a microtowel, wetted down with the last of the water in her Nalgene bottle. “So, it’s cool if I use that to get started with dinner?”

Nicole looked at Waverly, so Waverly looked at Summer and said, “Of course, it’s for everyone.” The crew’s dinner that night was one of those pre-packaged freeze-dried affairs, chicken risotto, which certainly made things easy for the meal prep crew, Summer and Patti. They only had to measure and boil water, add the packages to the pot, and stir it a couple of times during the minutes it took to rehydrate. Waverly had a similar no-hassle packaged dinner - hers was a masala with chickpeas, and a brand she hadn’t tried before. She was pleasantly surprised with her first bite, finding it tastier than she expected. She dug in with enthusiasm.

Nicole, observant in her unassuming way, noticed she was enjoying her meal. “You like it? ’S good?” She leaned closer, her eyes quiet and wide in the growing twilight, to peek inside Waverly’s mini titanium cookpot.

“Really good,” Waverly confirmed, tilting the pot in offering toward Nicole. “Have a bite.” When Nicole hesitated, Waverly insisted, “Please. This is a bit more than I want to finish by myself.”

Nicole reached with her spork and took a sample, chewing thoughtfully for a moment. Then she broke into a wide smile. “Hey, that’s not bad at all.”

“More?” said Waverly as she gestured with the pot, but Nicole shook her head no. Feeling playful, Waverly pretended to take offense. “You aren’t one of those people who thinks that vegan tastes like cardboard, are you?”

In a honeyed voice that carried more than a hint of a drawl, Nicole replied, “I never thought that for one single moment.” She tipped the barest wink, along with a sly grin, at Waverly before turning away to rejoin other discussions in their loosely arranged circle, and Waverly found her cheeks growing unaccountably warm, again.

She thinks she’s such a charmer.

She’s kind of … right.

Shit.

The conversation in camp that night was lackluster, as one by one the day’s efforts claimed the crew and they all went off to bed, every step leaden with fatigue. Pretty soon it was just Waverly and Nicole, seated with the gentle sounds of the night all around them. Nicole lifted her chin. “Maybe we should turn in, too.”

“Maybe. I am totally not sleepy yet,” said Waverly. That part was true, but also … she wasn’t quite ready to stop sitting here with Nicole. Impulsively, she asked, “Stay up with me a little longer? We can talk some?”

“Sure,” said Nicole, her voice low and warm. “Let’s keep the noise down so they can sleep, though.” A rumbled grunt followed by a rasp of a snore drifted from one of the tents, contradicting the need for quiet.

“Of course.” Waverly giggled, and Nicole laughed with her, a loose and easy sound. “So,” she went on. “Tell me a bit about yourself? You were posted somewhere else before here?”

“I was,” said Nicole. “Back east. Seems like all I ever did there was write parking tickets, but it wasn’t all bad. I did learn to drive a boat.”

“That’s cool,” said Waverly. “I don’t know much about boats.”

“You’d learn plenty fast, I’m sure. So what about you?” Nicole asked. Waverly could see the hint of her smile in the starlight; the moon would not rise above the mountain’s shoulders for another hour yet. “Did you have a different posting before this?”

“Nope,” said Waverly. “This is my first park, been here a while now. I suppose I’ll move on someday, but not anytime soon. These mountains suit me.”

“Yeah,” grunted Nicole agreeably. “I like it here, too.”

They swapped lazy tidbits of stories for a while, Nicole telling tales of amusing equipment malfunctions both here and at her previous park, and Waverly supplying a little harmless gossipy backstory about some of the other rangers. It was nice to be sitting and talking aimlessly; Waverly felt calm and contented under the black velvet sky and the occasional shooting star. That is, until a yawn abruptly caught up with her, which of course set Nicole to yawning as well. Waverly laughed. “Guess that’s our cue,” she said.

“We’ll break camp first thing in the morning, move all the gear down,” said Nicole. “You gonna relocate tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” said Waverly. “You know. Places to go, frogs to see.” All she needed to do was get up, take off her boots and crawl into her tent, but still she was reluctant to move. Feeling companionable, she leaned into Nicole sitting by her side, just a little, until their arms pressed together and her tilted head rested on Nicole’s shoulder. She must be tired, more tired than she realized and imagining things as well, because her mostly-empty mind was telling her that Nicole smelled nice. Really, really nice, like somewhere warm and comfortable, maybe a sunny kitchen, a hint of vanilla that lingers long after baking, and god she just wanted to cuddle up and breath in that solid, safe, sweet place. And did she maybe hear the weakly startled intake of breath from Nicole, or was that her imagination too? Jeez, she got so muddy-headed when she was this tired. She sighed, and finally stood, shaking her head slightly. “Goodnight,” she murmured. “Thank you for staying up with me awhile.”

Nicole’s voice came gentle, after a pause. “Any time, Waverly.”

Minutes later, as Waverly was snugged down inside her bag, she felt herself sinking fast, sleep catching at her limbs. There were times when her racing mind kept her awake and far too alert, ideas noisily clattering for attention, but tonight wasn’t that bad, she felt calm and peaceful as she swayed along the edge of consciousness. She breathed deep, exhaling slow, quietly curious at the half-formed thoughts that drifted so effortlessly through her mind, of warm brown eyes and a silky voice sweet as honey, of soft red hair and even softer hands, and the untroubled ease the ideas brought. She curled her fingers around her tiny pillow, and smiled slightly as she hummed herself to sleep.

Chapter Text

“I just thought of something this morning,” Waverly said to Amber. They were finishing the washing-up from breakfast, since Waverly had insisted on helping out today, and stowing gear away as the rest of the crew packed up the camp. They would be leaving soon and carrying everything they brought with them on their backs; Waverly had been idly watching Nicole, and the way she supervised the work, and made sure the weight was getting evenly distributed. “You guys don’t have chainsaws, or any power tools at all, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trail crew like that. It’s kind of weird, you know?”

What she wouldn’t admit out loud was that she had woken from a dream, where Nicole again wielded the axe with the thunder of a skygod. The dream had been vivid, filled with the flex and power of her arms, the whipcrack strength in her body, before all of Nicole snapped into focus like a strange cinematic camera trick, an infuriatingly charming smirk on her lips and her flaming red hair uncovered, looking gorgeous and strong and capable of anything she damn well pleased. She had slowly turned toward Waverly, obvious intent written both in her wide, warm smile and in the sultry sway of her hips, and Waverly’s body had responded before her brain had even started to catch up. The flash of desire had been instant, and intense. Her hands had reached out blindly, only to meet the walls of her tent, startling her into full wakefulness. Wait. What? And the thought of why am I having such a vivid dream about Nicole with an axe had turned into why are they using axes, anyway? It was far from typical, she was pretty sure about that. Any way around, she’d stayed in her tent an extra few minutes that morning, trying to calm herself from the unexpectedly heated dream, her deep breaths smoothing away the ragged rough edges of her runaway thoughts.

“I know,” Amber replied with a prodigious eye roll. “I wish I could use a chainsaw, it’d be rad. But we weren’t allowed to bring any. At least that’s what Ranger Haught said.”

Nicole, walking up at the last part, caught the sound of her name. Plucking her water bottle out of the side pocket of her pack, she unscrewed the top, asking, “What’s this?”

“Why no chainsaw,” Waverly supplied. She tried to keep her glance sideways, worried that if she met Nicole’s eyes she’d turn into a blushing, stammering fool.

“Psssh,” said Nicole, sounding disgusted, waving a hand in dismissal. “Legal wouldn’t allow it. Said that liability wouldn’t be covered for underage volunteers.” She shrugged, an apologetic frown on her face, before she took a drink of water. Capping her bottle again, she went on, “We’re doing just fine with hand tools only, though, better than anyone thought we’d do.” She flashed her bright grin at Amber, who grinned back. Waverly read a little hero-worship in the exchange, thinking shit howdy, she’s good at this as she watched Nicole’s little nod of approval, and how much Amber lit up with the praise.

*****

They left the campsite and moved down the trail as a group, but once they had crossed a ridgeline and moved into the next valley, Waverly said goodbye to the crew and headed off on her own once again, cross country. Before long she’d located another frog-populated stream, and she went through her routine of counting and measuring and note-taking, hiking up the streambed to make her observations at several different altitudes, same as the day before. What she found seemed to align with her previous findings, that the tadpoles at slightly higher elevations were significantly fewer and less developed, and she itched to collect all the data and bring back her notes and start cross-referencing against weather records going back weeks or months, to test her initial hypothesis.

For today’s off-trail journey, she’d followed the creek’s course up from where it crossed the path, so she came back down the same way she’d climbed, enjoying the mild day and the solitude, and rejoined the main track where she had left it. Naturally, she caught up to the crew late in the afternoon as she continued down track. She spied their packs, neatly stacked to the side at the top of the area they were rebuilding.

Waverly remembered this portion of the trail from the trek up. An extremely steep section damaged by torrential rains, the face of the hill had given way and taken the switchbacks with it. On their way to the first night’s campsite, they’d all scrambled across loose rocks and dirt, guided by nothing but survey stakes. In parts, each of them had to keep as low as they could, to halt themselves from slipping back down the treacherous, broken trail, and it had been exhausting going. Now, Waverly approached from the high side, hearing the crew talking long before she was close enough to the brow of the hill to be able to see them. A little spark of gladness bloomed in her chest that she’d found them (particularly the redheaded ranger in charge) before she told herself she was being silly - of course she’d run into them on trail, where else would they be?

“Whoo! Good work,” Waverly heard Nicole say. “That should do it.” She also heard the sound of a heavy burden being unloaded, rocks thudding on dirt accompanied by low grunts of effort. Waverly reached the edge of the hill just then and peered down, seeing a group standing close by, at the highest hairpin of the switchbacks they’d carved out of the slope.

“Hey there,” Waverly called out, not wanting to walk into the middle of the group and startle them. There were no saws and axes in evidence today, as the face of the hill they were working on was largely rocky and bare, so no brush or trees to cut away. Just digging tools and a thick canvas square with lots of sturdy grab-handles, which she knew allowed multiple people to carry large unwieldy weight, like rocks and boulders. The crew had rebuilt and flattened out the footpath, reinforcing where needed to keep it from crumbling away in the rain. They were wedging a few last rocks into sort of a berm or short retaining wall where the trail took a sharp turn, a footing to hold the hill in place. They’d gotten a hell of a lot done today while she was out chasing frogs, thought Waverly.

A few of the kids waved back or called out their hellos. Nicole motioned her down. “Just the person I wanted to see,” she said. “I need your opinion on something.”

“My opinion?” squeaked Waverly in surprise. “I don’t know all that much about engineering a trail.” She had read about it, some, but calculation of angles and rates of slope was not the kind of science that appealed to her. She liked a little more mystery in her problem-solving, an elaborate puzzle that was asking to be pieced together, not a formula to solve in one fell swoop, thank you very much.

“That’s okay,” said Nicole. “How’s your memory? The tread is in a different location now, to follow the contour better. Since most of it was gone anyway.” She waved her arm, an expansive sweep. “So do you remember what it used to look like, before? You’re a lot more familiar with this section than I am.”

Waverly pursed her lips, thinking. April, Summer, and Patti leaned in closer, eager to hear whatever she had to say, which made Waverly realize it had probably been the hot discussion topic of the day. “Well,” she began. “The trail came up out of the flat down there, same as now, of course.” She pointed with her trekking pole. “But right there, it took off a lot steeper. This was always one of those bits that felt like climbing straight up a wall. Super strenuous.”

Nicole nodded eagerly. “And?”

Waverly’s eyes swept back and forth across the face of the hill below her feet. Her brain supplied the recollection of where the old footpath had been, juxtaposed it against what she was looking at now. “I see it. Yeah.” She turned, smiling, looking up into Nicole’s pleased face. “More switchbacks, huh? Be a whole lot easier to climb.”

Nicole grunted, satisfied. “A whole lot easier going down, too.”

Waverly nodded in agreement, looking over the zigzag path that wound its way up to where they stood. Adding a few more back-and-forth turns increased the distance, but took the difficulty of the elevation change of this section down a few notches, from punishing to moderately hard. Overall, it was a good trade-off and big improvement, she thought.

“It’s mostly for the runoff, though,” continued Nicole. “The rainwater needs to go somewhere, and with the trail too steep it’ll run straight down the footbed. This section had gotten badly gullied, right, all the rainfall carving out the center. They tried adding extra water bars to divert it, and that just sent it across the face of the hill, eroding everything.” Nicole sighed. “It was a mess; I’m not surprised it slid. But we got a chance to rebuild it better.”

“How long will it last now?” asked April. She was standing to one side, listening to the conversation with interest, lazily running the fingers of one gloved hand up and down her forearm. She looked a little sunburned and dusty; the whole crew did. Nicole paused a moment before speaking, lifting her hard hat and passing the back of her wrist over her brow, then settled her hat again at a jaunty angle.

“Longer than the last time they worked here,” she finally replied with a noncommittal shrug, a waffling answer which made Waverly giggle and the kids groan. “Hey,” she said, “of course it’ll last longer. It’s built properly, and in the right place now. That’s exactly what we needed here. You all are doing a great job. Be proud.” Smiling, the crew went back to building their reinforcing berm, tamping dirt and rocks into place, the work just about complete. Nicole turned to Waverly and said, “Where are you off to?”

“Going to make camp,” replied Waverly. “I’m good for the day.”

Nicole tipped up her chin and squinted at the sun, gauging how much light was left in the day. “Are you heading to that spot about a mile down? That’s where I was going to set up tonight.”

Waverly nodded. “Yup.” It was a well-established site about a quarter-mile off trail, a large flat area above a small stream. Nicole had planned her workdays and her overnight locations efficiently, it seemed. “I’ll see you down there, then.”

“Sounds good,” said Nicole, with a warm smile that made Waverly feel some kind of kin to a fluttering in her belly. She hefted the mattock that had been idle in her hand, and turned to rejoin her crew putting the finishing touches on the job. Waverly stared after her for a long moment, seeing the flash of red hair peeking under the edge of her hat, pale skin marred by the day’s dusty work. Even sweat-streaked and a bit grimy, Nicole still looked lovely, the regal arch of her neck rising over the strong line of her shoulders, a combination of elegant and powerful in a way that Waverly really hadn’t considered before. And damn, no one should look that sexy swinging a heavy tool, but there was Nicole, making the rise and fall of the mattock look easy as she dug, forming and shaping the earth to her will.

Waverly turned and walked, and when she reached the bottom of the newly-carved portion of the trail, she paused. The path swung into shade as it entered a small, narrow valley, foliage thick along the flat between hills rising to each side. Waverly knew it as a transition area between climate zones, shrubs and trees from both higher and lower elevations prone to mixing here in a sheltered fold of the mountains. She also knew it as a nice place to sit and take a break, so she hopped up on a boulder, dropping her pack by her side and tucking her legs underneath her. She slid her notebook from its flat pocket and opened it to the last entry, to check that she’d completed her notes. She had. She twirled her mechanical pencil around her fingers a couple times, then, thinking about all the effortless prowess she’d found so beguiling, impulsively doodled in the margin space - Nicole, chopping wood. A graceful line represented the arch of the back, the slender scribbled figure raising a sparsely sketched axe high overhead. Waverly chuckled at her whimsy, pleased with herself and her drawing, before she closed the book and put it away again with a small sigh, and returned to observing the world that surrounded her. Sunbeams slanted through the branches of the trees that whispered above, dappling the ground with shifting patterns of light. She held quiet for a moment, listening, but heard no animals besides the lazy buzzing of insects.

From where she sat, she could still see the crew, so she returned her attention to them. They were clearly done with their work and had climbed the short distance back to the top of the hill to retrieve their packs; now they’d started the descent, and even from this far Waverly could tell the group was in good spirits, carefree in their walk. She could see that Nicole had traded hats, the yellow of the hard hat bouncing clipped to the rear of her pack, the white Stetson once again perched on her head. Waverly wondered if it was functional, for shade, or more for reasons of vanity because that hat looked super good on her. Maybe it was a bit of both. Anyway. Waverly decided to linger a few more minutes, to let them catch up with her.

They came strolling along before much longer, Lindsay and Kath in the lead, and the rest of the group bunched up close behind them. Nicole was in her usual place at the back of the pack. “Hello,” Waverly greeted the group as they came walking up, “I thought I’d wait for you.”

“You stealth pretty well,” said Nicole with a chuckle. “I didn’t spot you ’til I was halfway down the hill.”

“I’m not stealthing,” growled Waverly, furiously trying to figure out how Nicole knew she hadn’t taken her eyes off the tall, lanky form of the redhead the entire way down. “I’m being nice. I’ll have you know I’m the nicest person in this park.”

Nicole winked. “Mmhmm. Very nice. And appreciated.” She gestured, a lift of her hand. “Would it be okay if you take the lead? I think that seeing the turnoff from this direction is a bit tricky.”

Waverly wasn’t sure if she was being mocked or not. Was this a nod to her knowledge and expertise in this part of the park, or was it a placating crumb? There was a sign pointing to the camping area, for cripe’s sake … but it was tiny and too low to the ground, that much she’d admit. Well, she decided, she might as well take it at face value. In the short time she’d known Nicole, she hadn’t been anything except pleasant, and she seemed to be a straight-shooter. Well, maybe not a straight straight-shooter. A gay straight-shooter? A straightforward gay? A gay of good repute? What the actual heck, brain, shut up already. Waverly shook the thoughts from her head, and hopped off the boulder where she was seated. Grabbing up her pack, she nodded, and said, “I’d be glad to.”

Nicole smiled her blindingly bright smile, dimples and all, and Waverly felt the slow swirl of warmth deep inside, the undeniable pull of pleasure that Nicole was smiling like that at her, the small thrill of joy because she had been the one who made Nicole happy. It was enough to make her spin quickly on her heel and go stomping down the path, lest she stand there blushing like a simpering idiot. Again.

*****

The days started to blend in to each other, in that funny way they do when things like clocks and walls are no longer handy. Waverly was enjoying the loose, disconnected feeling of the trip, where her tasks came to her with no pressure, where the only thing she really needed to do was walk around and look at things and make some notes about what she saw. How lucky am I, she thought, doing this work instead of being stuck as a small town barmaid, which she had once feared would be her lot in life.

The easy days had fallen into an easy pattern, as the week went on. Get up early, hike around until she found a stream containing frogs, write down her measurements, hike back. Run into the trail crew, and spy on them. Well, no. She wasn’t actually spying per se, but for four days in a row now, she had found herself seated in a shady, partly concealed spot, watching Nicole work and give instructions to her crew. She liked watching her, that was all. Nicole brought an upbeat positivity to her job, always leading by example. She was endlessly patient with her team, teaching them how to take a sighting with a clinometer, how to grub out roots and remove obstacles without wasted effort, how to safely lever rocks into position using the heavy bar. Waverly observed it all, fascinated.

They’d taken to sitting with each other as the day wound down, as well, chatting through dinner. The social workings of the group had just settled out that way, where the kids treated the two rangers mostly as sort-of chaperones. They weren’t impolite or anything, didn’t ignore them, but the teenagers naturally gravitated into their own group during down time, leaving Nicole and Waverly to enjoy each other’s company while they kept a low-key watch over camp. Waverly didn’t mind.

See, she’d discovered that Nicole Haught was polite, considerate, and kind of easy to flirt with.

“Hey,” said Nicole, as she walked over to Waverly, a beat-up bowl in her hand. “I have something special for you.”

Waverly was seated on one of the rough-hewn logs scattered around the campsite, finishing her dinner. She looked up as Nicole seated herself next to her. “Oh yeah?” she teased. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

It was fun to watch the way Nicole would blush at even the mildest innuendo. Here, her cheeks dusted pink and her chin dropped low, before she recovered herself with a crooked little smile. “Not exactly,” she chuckled, as her eyes slid up to meet Waverly’s again, a playful sideways glance that seemed to be saying, you got me, now what’re you going to do with me. “Anyway. Did you have dessert?”

That crooked grin was causing tendrils of warmth to go creeping through Waverly’s chest, and she kind of wanted to take the bowl from Nicole’s hand and twine their fingers together, but she stuffed the impulse down. Focus. On the question. “Um. Dessert? I have some fruit leather.” Belatedly, she fished the baggie out of the inside pocket of her jacket, to hold it up like a carnival prize.

“I have a blueberry crumble,” said Nicole. “I went through all the packaged stuff we brought and this was the only one that said vegan on the label, so.” Her free hand went to scratch at the back of her neck, as she gave a small shrug. “Would you like some? Maybe we could share?”

“Aw. That’s super nice of you,” said Waverly. “Can we split mine, too?” Nicole spooned half of the berry compote into Waverly’s empty bowl, and Waverly tore the dried fruit in two, and then they sat there savoring their treats. Waverly appreciated having a little extra variety to the menu, but even more, she was touched by Nicole’s thoughtfulness. Grateful for the gesture, she smiled up at Nicole once they were finished. “Thanks for sharing with me. That was yummy.”

“Of course. What are friends for?” Nicole replied brightly.

*****

It all became fodder for Waverly’s daydreams, the small kindnesses, the lingering glances, the way Nicole looked when she was working. As she spent her days walking from spot to spot, her busy mind churned with ideas, about any subject, really, but much of it focused on the tall redhead. It hadn’t taken Waverly long to figure out what she was feeling was attraction. From the moment Nicole had first introduced herself, Waverly had felt a sort of inexplicable draw, that somehow Nicole was going to be … important to her. It had only grown over time, entirely new territory for Waverly, and she felt a bit overwhelmed by just how powerful it was. She found herself, at any hour of the day, thinking about Nicole. About the elegant dip at the base of her throat, a place where her eyes liked to linger. About her easy laugh, her gorgeous smile, and her lips, and what it would be like to kiss them. What it would be like to touch that fiery red hair, and to trace her fingertips along the line of her jaw. What it would be like to touch … more.

Nonetheless, she restrained herself. After all, she was a scientist and a ranger and she had research to do. First and foremost, her duty was to her work, and that was what she told herself to concentrate on, the work. Nicole had duties as well; as the supervising official of the work party, she was charged with the care and safekeeping of her volunteer crew, and by extension the safety of all park visitors who would use the trail they were rebuilding.

It just wasn’t the right time. Dammit.

But despite the stupid bad timing of it all, Waverly found she certainly enjoyed thinking about the possibilities between her and Nicole, and found herself wondering what it might be like once the situation became, well, somehow different. Wondering if she could get close enough to Nicole to slake this burning curiosity at last. Wondering what clue would unlock this most intriguing puzzle of all.

*****

It was the group’s final night in camp, and Waverly’s usually meticulous planning had failed her. Disappointed, she sorted through her dwindling supplies, as if counting again would somehow change the result. It did not. She let out a heavy sigh, which made Nicole look up with a vaguely concerned expression, an unspoken question in the crease of her brow. “Well, poop,” Waverly murmured. “I’m gonna run out of food.”

Nicole immediately reached for her own food cache. “You’re welcome to anything I have left in here.” She held out the mostly-empty bag to Waverly, who declined.

“No, you’re going back tomorrow,” Waverly said, “but you don’t need to go back hungry.” She smiled to take the sting out of her words, because Nicole meant well. “Besides, you don’t have a lot of stuff I can eat, anyway.”

Nicole grunted, perhaps in agreement. “Maybe, uh, some of the energy bars? Are they vegan?”

“Maybe,” Waverly allowed. It was kind of cute how hard Nicole was trying to work her way through the problem, the way she scrunched up her face and set her lips in a tight line. “I’d have to check.”

“How much do you have left, anyway?” Nicole craned her neck for a peek at Waverly’s supplies.

“It’s not that,” confessed Waverly, “I still have a day of food, kind of light but that’s okay.” She huffed, irritated that she’d failed to give herself a sufficient buffer. “But since I wasn’t able to get anything done today, I was hoping to stay out two more nights, up by Crow Lake.” A rockslide had obliterated the entrance to the valley she’d wanted to travel today. She had spent a lot of time searching for a safe alternate, but eventually had to give up and return to camp without taking any usable measurements. “And I really don’t have enough food for that. I could do one night, pushing it.”

“Crow Lake,” Nicole mused. “Show me on the map how to get there?”

Waverly hopped up from the log where they were seated, scampered over towards her tent, pulled the map case from where it was stashed in her pack’s top pocket. Bringing it back, she said, “It’s an ungroomed trail, but marked on this topo. It’s not that far.” Nicole took the map in both hands and unerringly turned it until the north edge of the paper lined up with real-life north, probably without realising she was doing it, thought Waverly. “Do you remember where the ford is, a little ways up from here?”

Nicole nodded vigorously. “Uh huh.” The river ford was only about five minutes walking from where they were camped.

Waverly’s fingertip traced the route on the map Nicole held. “Once you’re across the river, you come up into a wide meadow and the path isn’t obvious. Look for a solitary oak; that’s the best way to pick it up again. From there, it’s mostly ups and downs, but easy to follow. It’ll take you directly to the south end of the lake.”

Nicole studied the map for a moment longer, then looked up. “And, that’s where you’ll be?”

“There’s a good campsite if you walk around to the southeast side. Right about here,” said Waverly, tapping the map. “That’s where I’ll be.”

“Tell you what,” said Nicole briskly. “If you want to head up there tomorrow, and stay an extra night or two, I’ll make sure somebody brings up some additional supplies for you.” She smiled warmly as she returned the map.

Waverly smiled back. It was a generous offer, unexpectedly so. And, jeez, would it solve a huge problem for her. A spark of hope flared in her chest, small and bright, and she thought, Yeah, okay. This will be okay. “You’d … you’d do that for me?”

“Yeah. I’d be glad to do … that,” Nicole answered in a soft voice. Her face was awash in some kind of fondness, and maybe wry indulgence too. Waverly could read that much into the redhead’s crooked grin. “So. Vegan chow, huh? Do you need anything else besides food?”

“Nope,” said Waverly. “I can’t tell you how much of a help that’d be. Thank you.” She was going to have to think of a way to repay Nicole’s kindness, once she got back to her lodgings. Maybe bake something - hmm, she could whip up a batch of her special banana-nut muffins.

“No thanks required,” Nicole said in her easy way. “Just lookin’ out.”

*****

In the morning, Waverly donned her pack and trudged uptrail before any of the others were ready to go. She’d kept the goodbyes as brief as she could, even while profusely thanking Nicole for her offer of resupply. She’d been feeling antsy ever since she’d woken up, keyed up and overflowing with nervous energy. Part of her - a substantial part - wanted to fling her arms around Nicole and squeeze tight as part of the thanks, and that wouldn’t have been a super awesome idea, what with her being a supervisor of an underage volunteer work crew who would all have been watching. She chose escape instead, fleeing before she could do anything stupid. Soon she’d settled into the sound of her boots scuffing through leaves underfoot, and the steady pace of her walk. It was a bright, sunny morning.

It took just half the day to reach the campsite beside the lake. Waverly dropped off her tent and sleeping bag, lightening her load, and set off with her measuring equipment, following along the edge of the lake, looking for streams that seemed like good candidates for frog research.

Crow Lake was large, too large to circumnavigate in less than a day; Waverly figured she wouldn’t even try. She could use her campsite as base, and travel in one direction today and the other direction tomorrow, collecting useful data that way. Camping by the lakeshore had the added bonus of being able to get some dawn observations with relatively still water, a condition that highly interested her. Waverly hummed happily. A lot depended on whether the promised resupply would actually happen. Worst case, she’d head back to HQ a day early, a bit hungry on half-rations, but that wasn’t the most awful thing in the world. Nicole had insisted she take two of her energy bars, so she wasn’t anywhere close to desperate.

Nicole. Waverly’s thoughts wandered back to the redheaded ranger, as frequently happened these days. I wonder what she’s doing now.

She’d heard Nicole on the radio early in the morning, calling dispatch to let them know the work crew would be coming in sometime around midday, then raising her supervisor to request permission to coordinate the details of the resupply. Nedley had answered that he’d put Robin, another ranger in Nicole’s unit, in charge of whatever was needed, but then they’d all switched to another channel and Waverly couldn’t eavesdrop after that, being out of repeater range. These handheld radio units were always a little twitchy in the hills, anyway.

The remainder of her day was spent in the pleasant solitude of her work, making counts. It was pretty, up here by the lake, and by the time Waverly had returned to her campsite and set up her tent, the sun was sinking low, soon to slide behind the rocky massif that edged the lake’s valley, casting golden light and lengthening shadows across the clearing. Waverly used what daylight she had left to prepare her meager dinner, the last of a Mexican rice/TVP meal she liked to make for backpacking. By the time she’d cooked, eaten, and cleaned up, it was close to full dark.

Well. Not much reason to stay up with no one to talk to; Waverly most often let sundown dictate her bedtime when she was solo camping. She had her good flashlight handy, but why burn batteries if you didn’t need to? She quickly got ready for bed, and soon she was zipping her tent closed and stretching out as she wiggled into her bag.

Slumber wasn’t going to find her quickly tonight. Waverly didn’t feel tired yet, so she contented herself with closing her eyes and relaxing, letting her mind wander as she listened to the hushed noise of the gathering nighttime all around her. There was the constant murmur of the water, a gentle lapping of the restless current against the rocky shoreline, and the night breeze sighing through nearby trees. She could hear the rustle of some animal in the distance - the nighttime creatures were out, perhaps a raccoon searching for its meal. Far off, an owl hooted.

She wasn’t sure how much later it was, but Waverly’s ears picked out another sound, crunch, crunch, crunch, of something walking steadily up the trail. She’d started to drift off a little, so her first confused thought of maybe it’s a bear but it probably isn’t a bear wasn’t dispelled until she saw the flicker of light wash across her tent wall. Oh! Hiker. Flashlight.

Waverly scrambled out of her bag and unzipped her tent just enough to peek outside. She squinted against the painful brightness of the hiker’s headlamp as it swung back toward her dark-adjusted eyes, and the unknown hiker stopped their approach several yards away. A moment passed. Then the hiker tipped the lamp downward, no longer blinding, and a soft voice called out, “Waverly?”

“Nicole?” Waverly answered, giddiness starting to rise in her chest. She … she came back for me. “Is that you?” She unzipped the tent door the rest of the way, and located her boots by feel.

“Oh, good. I found you,” said Nicole with a chuckle.

“It’s late. Why are you coming up so late?” Waverly blurted out. “I sort of didn’t expect anyone ’til tomorrow earliest.” She shook out her boots and stuffed her feet in them, and rose from her crouched position in the tent door.

“Not that late. I tried to get here before dark. Missed by a bit.” Nicole was unbuckling the hipbelt on her pack, easing the weight from her shoulders. “Anyway, I brought you goodies. Want me to cook you something for dinner?”

“That’s sweet,” Waverly grinned, “but you don’t need to, I finished off what I had left.” She paused, carefully watching Nicole, who seemed to be moving stiffly. Probably running on fumes; she’d made a round trip, after all, and had been doing god knows whatever other crazycakes things today. “You need help setting up? I don’t know if there’s a good hammock spot here.” Waverly mentally kicked herself for not scouting in the daylight; it simply hadn’t occurred to her.

Nicole was shaking her head, making the headlamp jiggle back and forth. “No, no. I dropped all the heavier shit off so I could make decent time up here. I have my ultralight tent, just need a flat spot.”

“I knew it!” Waverly chirped, triumph flashing brightly through her. “You are a gearhead. You have one of everything, don’t you?”

“What?” said Nicole.

“What?” echoed Waverly, wondering why her train of thought would just go off the rails at random times. She did know where the good flat spots were, though, having carefully selected her tent’s location that afternoon. “Over here is best.” Nicole unlashed her tent from her pack, and together they made quick work of getting it set up and staked down. By now Nicole was just about stumbling with fatigue; she took off her headlamp and hung it from the tent’s peak, dimly illuminating the campsite. Waverly figured it was yet another example of Nicole’s unfailing courtesy - it’s hard not to blind everyone near you when you have a flashlight strapped to your forehead, so of course Nicole would take it off as soon as she could. “Listen, I’ll make you dinner if you want,” she offered. “You look kind of beat.”

“I kind of am,” Nicole admitted, swaying on her feet. “I don’t need to eat, breakfast will be fine. Just wanna sack out for now.”

“I’m gonna get up early, but I’ll be quiet so you can sleep in a bit,” said Waverly.

Nicole gave a grateful nod. She leaned into her tent, shaking her sleeping quilt flat and stashing a last few bits of gear safely in the corners, before standing to her full height once more. Stretching, she rolled her neck and shoulders with a relieved-sounding groan. “Thanks. It’s been kind of a long day.”

I bet, thought Waverly, as she stood rooted, watching Nicole. Her breath felt short as her mind raced in ridiculously tiny circles, thinking she’s here, she’s here, and the longer she watched, the higher her emotions swelled. It was half-part exciting, half-part terrifying, and it was happening here. Right here in her campsite. She had barely dared hope that Nicole would be the one to come, had mostly convinced herself that someone else would bring the resupply to forestall disappointment, but the woman who had been enthralling her for days was here in her campsite and it was making her heart stutter and her hands tremble, just a little. Waverly’s eyes ranged over the long frame of the redhead, feeling entirely uncertain what she should say or do next, but also feeling the beginnings of desire, the warmth stirring her belly. I don’t know what this is going to be. I don’t know yet.

Nicole must have noticed her staring, because she came to a full stop, turning to face Waverly. “What?” she asked hesitantly. “Is everything okay?”

Waverly hoped that the nighttime hid the blush that rose in her cheeks, fierce and hot and immediate. “I, um, uh,” she stammered lamely, before taking a breath and starting again. “Yeah. I’m okay.” They stood in front of each other, a mere arm’s length apart, and the moment hung long between them. Waverly took a half-step forward, barely aware she was doing so, as her fingertips reached out and lit upon Nicole’s chest, resting delicately just under her shoulder, brushing the collar of her shirt. How am I so bold and so cautious all at once, she thought, trying to prop up her courage which guttered and flared like an old candle. She murmured, “I’m just super glad you came back up here.”

“You are?” husked Nicole.

“Yeah,” Waverly replied, surprised how low and whispery her own voice was, “I … I really like you.” She leaned forward, and up, and placed a kiss on Nicole’s cheek, more the corner of her mouth, really.

The look of wonderment on Nicole’s face was plain even in the darkness, as they pulled slightly back. She’s beautiful, thought Waverly, beautiful in these shadows, beautiful always. Nicole’s lips were parted and the tip of her tongue barely peeked out to wet her upper lip. Then, Nicole was leaning in to return the kiss. One hand slid around the curve of Waverly’s waist, exquisite in its gentleness as it came to rest on the top of her hip, barely pulling her closer. The other hand lifted to brush Waverly’s hair back from her face, and cupped her cheek, her thumb sliding under the line of her jaw. “Oh, I really like you, too,” she breathed out, before her lips met Waverly’s.

It was a lingering kiss, full of sweet promise. Waverly thrilled at the warmth of Nicole, and the silk feeling of the slide of their mouths, delicate in first exploration. She felt the hint of Nicole’s tongue flit against the curve of her lip, not seeking entrance yet, a small, tender tease. The moments that the kiss lasted set Waverly’s entire body humming before they pulled apart once more. Nicole stood, swaying and eyes drooping halfway shut, and Waverly dropped her hand from Nicole’s shoulder, reaching out and twined their fingers together instead. What have I done, what have I done, ran through her head, panic rising as she worried she’d been entirely too impulsive. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I shouldn’t … I didn’t mean … I’m sorry.”

“No. Don’t be. God, don’t be,” Nicole said, the words low and rough with emotion, the sound of them flooding Waverly with relief. She leaned forward and pressed their foreheads together, and Waverly could feel the weariness flowing off her like a sluggish river. “Damn, I wish I wasn’t so dead-ass tired.”

“I know, I know,” said Waverly soothingly. “I’ll be here tomorrow. It’s okay if you get some sleep now.” She reached up to give a dazed-looking Nicole one more peck on the cheek. “Go. Sleep. You’re just about out on your feet,” she said. They stepped slowly away from each other, their linked hands parting last, and retreated to their respective tents.

“Goodnight, Waverly,” Nicole said, her voice sweet and husky, before she crouched and crawled through the low entrance doorway, zipping it closed after her.

“Sleep well,” Waverly replied softly. She closed her tent and wiggled back into her bag, willing her heart to slow from its gallop, and thoughts of the brush of Nicole’s lips swirled in her head for a long, long time before sleep finally came to her.

Chapter Text

What were you thinking, silly? The frog-checking sure had been disappointing this morning, Waverly mused, awash in grumpiness. She’d been getting great data on this trip, scads of information that had sent still more questions tripping through her mind. It occurred to her by midweek that most of her observations were taking place during periods of higher activity for the animals, and she’d wanted to contrast it to their low-activity times, but she kind of hadn’t expected it to be that much of a big fat zero. She made a few notes, took a few samples, and trudged back to camp in the early morning light.

Nicole was up by the time she arrived, busy filling a cookpot with water and setting out some containers. She’d arranged the stove on a bare patch of earth ringed by flat rocks, good places to sit. She looked up when she heard Waverly approaching. “Good morning,” she called, warmth in her voice. “Want some breakfast?”

“Sure,” replied Waverly, setting her gear down in the vestibule of her tent. “I hope I didn’t make too much noise when I headed out.” She’d set off as the first hints of light had begun to stain the eastern sky, cringing at every little sound she’d made.

“I think I heard you, then went right back to sleep. No bother,” said Nicole. “How was it this morning?”

“Pretty much crap,” Waverly ruefully admitted. “No activity this early in the day, so nothing to see.”

“I could have told you that,” Nicole chuckled. She pulled a disposable lighter from her pocket and flicked it, and the stove fired up with a whoomp. Compressed gas roared for a second, until she turned the flame way down.

“Right,” Waverly huffed. “I was curious if maybe I’d be able to see any behavioral adaptation with either the frogs or their main predators, the mountain garter snake, but no, nothing. No movement at all.”

“You were expecting some?” Nicole’s eyebrows arched. Waverly, having retrieved her mess kit from its stash place, had turned back around just then. She was struck all over again by that wonderfully expressive face. Open, and engaged, and so, so pretty. Plus, Nicole’s hair looked still mussed from bed, rumpled red-auburn shot through with gold in this light, the shoulder-length curls only mildly tamed by the hand run through them. Jeez, she thought, unable to put the huge jumbled swell of admiration and blatant attraction into words, even to herself. Jeez. She blinked, trying to steady her thoughts, struggling to stay on track with the conversation.

“No. Yeah. Maybe,” Waverly said, starting to chuckle. “I think I was kind of hoping for something, but I got ahead of myself and forgot the basics. I mean,” she said, waving her hand in the air with frustration. “We’re talking about amphibians and reptiles here. I shouldn’t be surprised that they’re inactive when there’s no sun to warm them up enough to let them move.”

Nicole pursed her lips for a moment, then nodded. “Well, makes sense. I’d never thought about it exactly that way, y’know, warm-blooded versus cold-blooded. I just know you don’t hear frogs until midmorning.”

Waverly scoffed, still disgusted with herself. “Big fail.”

“Hey. Not a fail,” Nicole gently retorted, “you just had to check it out for yourself, right? Empirical observation.” Her kind brown eyes flashed in the soft glow of morning light, and Waverly pretty much forgave herself for her intellectual faux pas then and there. Nicole fiddled with the breakfast setup a bit, setting out bowls and adjusting the burner under the water. She fidgeted with her spork, and asked, “Do you like blueberries? I have some dried blueberries and almond slivers. And maple syrup.” She moved a tiny plastic bottle, decorated with a prominent red leaf, to the front of the containers, as if to prove the truth of her words. “For the oatmeal.”

“That sounds amazeballs,” said Waverly. She suddenly felt shy, dropping her eyes, as the memory of last night’s brief kiss flooded back to her for what felt like the millionth time that morning. “I can’t believe you did all this.” There it was, the small voice of doubt that nibbled at her when things started going too well.

“I had some help,” Nicole confessed. “A guy in my section, Robin, got all the food items together for us, while I was bringing the work crew back to HQ. His boyfriend is vegetarian.” Her chin dipped, hiding her smile. “I just walked it up here.” She paused for a moment, then added, “Sorry I came headlampin’ in, and woke you up.”

“God, no! I should be saying sorry to you,” said Waverly. “You’re going to all this trouble for me.”

Nicole just shrugged, like it was no big deal at all, and the tiny crooked smile was back, the smile that made Waverly want to lean in and test if her lips would still be as soft against hers as she imagined. That was some empirical observation she’d like to continue. Instead, she shuffled closer and seated herself on the rock next to Nicole, perched on the edge like a bird unsure between staying or taking flight.

“Um. You sure were tired last night,” she offered, hesitation tingeing her voice. She wanted to slide closer to Nicole, the draw she’d been feeling for days exponentially stronger after last night, the tug-of-war between desire and uncertainty making her breath catch.

“Rested now,” rumbled Nicole. She’d turned to face Waverly, their knees jostling together slightly.

“I know, I sent you to bed,” said Waverly. Her hands twisted in her lap, and she looked down at them, wondering what they were doing, and why. Twisting ‘round and ‘round and ‘round.

“After you kissed me,” Nicole said, low and warm. Her hands reached out to cover Waverly’s, finally stilling them. Waverly looked up and met Nicole’s eyes, the beautiful caramel depths swimming with restrained emotions, and she wanted to drown in what she saw there.

“After I kissed you,” Waverly husked out. “I hope you didn’t mind.”

Merriment lit up Nicole’s face for a moment, and she drawled out, honey-sweet with a tinge of laughter, “Mind? The kissing, or the being sent to bed?”

“Both,” said Waverly, her own impulse toward laughter twisting her mouth into a modest smile. “But mostly the kissing.”

Nicole grinned, slow and bright. “Oh, I didn’t mind.” Her voice came as a rough burr, warm and inviting. Her hands gave a small squeeze, almost a twitch, and Waverly’s skin tingled where Nicole’s thumbs brushed against the sides of her wrists.

Waverly swallowed, hard. “Really?” she managed to squeak out. A wild joy was stampeding through her body, ricocheting across every limb and making her pulse thunder in her throat. Everywhere, she felt warm, so warm. “Because I think I would like to kiss you again.”

Nicole’s eyes sparked as she leaned in slightly. She murmured, “You’re allowed.”

Waverly paused, another half-second that felt like an eon, trembling. Her eyes flickered down, caught the gleam of a wide smile, flickered back up. Then, she was closing the distance between her and Nicole all at once, leaping into the kiss with abandon, their mouths meeting with a roaring swell of pleasure. It was sudden, and hungry, and overwhelmed all; Waverly thought her heart might burst of it. She felt more than heard Nicole’s gasped breath, as she felt the electric response in her own body, every nerve humming with elation. Her hands escaped Nicole’s gentle grasp. Now one crawled up to rest against the front of Nicole’s uniform shirt, her fingers beginning to twist into the fabric, while the other hand curled around the back of her neck.

The sweet friction of their lips was exquisite. Waverly felt the muscles of her back stretch and lift, as she arched into the kiss. She leaned all of her body into Nicole, as far as she could, wanting to touch more of her.

Nicole was somehow tugging her, lifting her, and Waverly clambered up while barely breaking the kiss and found herself sitting astride Nicole’s lap. Oh, shit, this was even better, face to face and Waverly could feel the heave of Nicole’s breast under her, the movement of her body, the way her hands slid up her ribcage to palm the curve at the side of her breasts with exactly the right amount of pressure.

Nicole’s lips parted, inviting Waverly to do the same. Her body flared with want as she felt the redhead’s tongue slip against hers, slow and sexy, just insistent enough to send raw arousal sparking all along her spine, settling like liquid fire between her legs. Fuck. Waverly pressed forward, her curled fingers tangling into Nicole’s hair. A moan came rising out of her chest, unbidden, muffled into Nicole’s mouth. All the world was spinning, dizzy with the unadorned lust that crackled the air between them, and Waverly felt somehow transfigured by the untamed magic Nicole’s strong hands worked as they traveled across her body.

The fierceness of the embrace would ebb and flow, hunger giving way to exploration both firm and tender, only to flood back again. Waverly couldn’t get enough, feel enough, taste enough. Nicole’s lips against hers, and the touch of silk skin beneath her fingertips, became the only thing that mattered in the universe. “Oh, god,” she groaned, ravenous with desire, gulping ragged breath.

Nicole shuddered and pulled back slightly, and dropped her face so she was speaking into the tender skin at Waverly’s throat. “Wait,” she panted, shakily. “Waverly, wait. Hold up a minute.” Her hands slid down to Waverly’s waist, drifted lower to her hips, held there with a trembling tension that urged them both to stillness, or at least tried. They paused, breathing heavily into each other, nowhere near calm.

“Huh,” Waverly rasped out in question, dazed by the halt. It was about the most articulate word she could manage at the moment.

“Hold up,” Nicole repeated, her voice thick and gravelly. “It’s not … we gotta … not now, not like this. I, we … we’re still in uniform.”

Waverly sat up, putting space between them, and looked down, as if she had forgotten that, yes, both she and Nicole were wearing the duty uniform of a park ranger. Crap, crap, crap. Crap. She fought against her urge to laugh and failed, a manic giggling that bubbled up and spilled out, making Nicole start to laugh, too. “Jeez,” she said with a rueful chuckle. “I’m sorry. I got carried away.”

Nicole hummed, looking only moderately repentant. “Yeah. Anyway,” she said, “we’ve probably just about wrecked breakfast by now.”

“Oh, shit!” yelped Waverly, leaping up from Nicole’s lap. She’d forgotten the pot had been set to boil. Thankfully there was still an inch of water roiling away at the bottom, so at least the cookware hadn’t been boiled dry and ruined. Nicole handed Waverly a waterbottle; Waverly unscrewed the top and replenished the level, then seated herself again on the rocks, this time apart from Nicole, the breakfast items between them now. “Oh my god, oh my god. I distracted you and wasted half your fuel,” she giggled, burying her face in her hands for a moment.

“No, I’m just as responsible as you are,” Nicole said, with a conspiratorial smirk. She took a deep breath and dipped her head, looking up again with that ridiculously attractive dimple unfurling, and Waverly thought, oh, great, how am I not supposed to kiss her now. Nicole waved a hand, indicating the space between them. “But this isn’t … this is … just … not yet. Okay? Sorry.”

The not yet spiked happiness through Waverly, causing her heart to skip a little. “In my defense,” she murmured, “this is a closed area of the park, and no one should be walking up here and seeing us, but,” she shrugged, “you’re right.”

“Like you don’t chase people out of the closed areas of the park all the time,” Nicole shot back with a smile.

“Yeah, I know.” Waverly held up her hands in mock surrender. “Anyway. Are you heading back down after breakfast?”

“Nope,” said Nicole. “I’m working today.”

That, she wasn’t expecting, but it did explain why Nicole was wearing the uniform instead of civvies. “Up here?” Waverly asked, surprise making her voice rise sharply.

“Mm hmm,” Nicole nodded. “Today was my day off, but when I volunteered to bring the stuff up, Nedley asked me for a favor and said he’d comp me a day later.”

“What did he want you to do?” Curiosity immediately floated to the front of Waverly’s mind. She wasn’t familiar with Nicole’s usual schedule, and wondered what skills Nedley would be asking from her today.

“He needs a survey at Broom Beach, the higher-ups want to know how the recovery is going.” Nicole tipped her head to the side, considering. “That’ll take me the best chunk of the day, so, um, I was hoping to stay here one more night.” She paused. “That is, if you don’t object to me being here.”

“Object?” Object? thought Waverly, who in their right mind would object to a gift like that? “Of course not, please stay,” she murmured. “I’m working that side of the lake today, I can come down to the beach by afternoon if you’ll still be there.”

“Good, good, that sounds like a deal. So,” Nicole eyed the cookpot, which had come to a boil once more, “can I interest you in some breakfast now, Ranger Earp?”

“You most certainly may, Ranger Haught,” said Waverly, the playful mock formality lilting in her voice. “Should I have the blueberries, or the almonds?”

“Both,” answered Nicole without hesitation, as she handed her a bowl and a plain oatmeal packet, and reached for the hot water. “You can have anything you like, Waverly.”

That warm, sweet rumbled voice sent heat swirling in Waverly’s belly, all over again. Oh, my, she thought. I still don’t know what this is yet. But I’m going to find out.

Today was going to be a very good day.

*****

After breakfast, they walked out of camp together, sharing the trail for a couple of miles. As they hiked, Waverly filled Nicole in on the details of the work that had taken place at Broom Beach over the last few years. It had once been a popular camping, swimming, and party spot with weekenders and local teenagers, and had consequently been badly damaged by massive overuse. The park had finally closed the area to visitors and diverted precious resources toward cleanup (“We hauled out an ungodly amount of trash,” Waverly grumbled, and Nicole grimaced with an appropriate level of distaste.) Then, the park had brought in a botanical specialist, to oversee the revegetation efforts. So far, the restoration had been highly successful, and if things stayed on the right track, the area would eventually be reopened with permits issued to limit the number of visitors each day.

“And this was your project?” Nicole asked, clearly impressed.

Waverly shook her head. “I only directed a part of it,” she said. “There were a lot of specialists involved in a lot of different ways.” She smiled, remembering it as her first big chance to shine in the conservation work she’d trained for. “They pulled me in for the aquatic species habitat questions, of course. Then I got to stay on the team. It’s still ongoing.”

“Nedley told me the lake is nice and clean again, and I should have a swim in it. For the survey,” said Nicole.

“Are you going to?” asked Waverly. She’d swam in Crow Lake only once - the water was too cold for her taste.

Nicole laughed quietly. “I have to see what it looks like first. But I didn’t put on any sunscreen today.”

Waverly glanced back, again noticing that Nicole was clad in the long sleeved version of the lightweight summer duty shirt, the sleeves rolled all the way down and buttoned at the cuff. The wide brim of the Stetson shaded her face. Of course, Waverly thought. Clothing to cover up from the sun, instead of sunscreen, that way Nicole wouldn’t be carrying skin-borne chemicals into the lake with her if she chose to swim. “Well, let me know if you hear the brooms,” she chirped happily.

“The brooms? What?” said Nicole, her brow starting to wrinkle in confusion.

“There’s an old story, why it’s called Broom Beach.” Waverly launched into her tale with relish, as they walked along the path, weaving in and out of stands of saplings. “Probably apocryphal, but: when Europeans first came to this area, a mountain man arrived, looking to trap beaver and fox. He built a shelter near the lake, stayed there a few weeks. But a funny thing happens when the wind changes direction and comes in from north-northeast. It pushes the water into a wave series, which carries sand and gravel to shore. It’s why the beach exists; it gets replenished on the reg by this weather pattern.”

Nicole nodded, entranced, as Waverly swooped and swirled her hands in the air, mimicking the patterns of the wind-driven waves.

“So. After the mountain man had been there a few weeks, the wind changed, and it’s at night when he’s trying to sleep. He hears this sound, schrrch, schrrch, and he’s terrified, he doesn’t know what it is. It’s the sound of the gravel tumbling, being moved around by the water, but he doesn’t know that. He runs outside, and it’s even louder!”

“Oh, no,” Nicole chuckled. “This dude wasn’t so smart.”

“He shouts, ‘You will not have me, witch!’, shaking his fist,” Waverly continued with an elaborate flourish, “and then he jumps on his pack mule and rides hell bent for leather to the nearest town, many miles away. And once he gets there, he gets shitfaced drunk and tells everyone that there are witches, trying to sweep him into the lake with their brooms.” Waverly shrugged, amused. “I doubt it’s true. I’ve never heard a real name associated with the mountain man, anyway. But it’s a fun local legend.” She paused from walking and lifted her chin, gauging the breeze. “Wind is out of the west now, you’re not going to hear it today. But come back up here in two months, you’ll have a good chance at it.”

“I’ll have to do that,” Nicole murmured. Eyes sparkling, she caught Waverly lightly by the wrist and drew her in for a quick kiss, before Waverly playfully pushed her back.

“Hey,” she said, with a little whap to Nicole’s shoulder. “You’re the one who told me to behave myself this morning.”

“I am behaving myself,” said Nicole. “Mostly.” They both laughed warmly as they started walking again.

*****

They split not long after that, Nicole following the main path downhill, Waverly veering off in search of shaded, frog-laden creeks. The undergrowth was thicker on this hillside and it was slow going for a while, but she pushed on. She found three good locations, lively with activity, and she took her notes and collected her samples. Satisfied with the work, she headed back down to the lake.

Waverly didn’t know how long it would take Nicole to do her survey, or even what Nedley had asked her to look at. Probably soil erosion. The foot trails pounded into the ground during the heavy usage years had turned into weaknesses in the embankments, bare of plants whose roots served to stabilize the soil against the endless work of the water. Much of the revegetation had been directed toward slowing the earth’s crumbling. Anyway, depending on how many measurements she needed to take, Nicole might already be finished. Waverly figured it couldn’t hurt to swing by and check, though; if she didn’t find the redheaded ranger here, she’d find her in camp.

She followed the semi-overgrown trail down to where it suddenly emerged into open space above the shore. The beach was a shallow crescent shape that sloped abruptly into the lake, made up of dark gravel that glittered slightly in the sunlight, granite and basalt and schist that had fractured off from the mountains above, and had been tumbled and carried by the waters to come to rest here. Waverly stood at one end of the crescent, scanning the area, mildly disappointed when she didn’t see Nicole right away. Maybe she was too late.

But, wait a second, she spied a neatly folded pile of clothes stashed well above the waterline, a Stetson sitting on top. Guess she did go for that swim, huh, thought Waverly, as she walked closer to the center of the beach, bringing all of the lake into view.

Sure enough, the surface of the water was ruffled by more than just the light afternoon wind. As Waverly watched, red hair broke the surface, and there was Nicole, treading water a ways out. She spun around, orienting herself, and immediately spotted Waverly.

“Coming in?” she half-shouted with a friendly come-on gesture, her voice easily carrying across the water.

“No, thank you,” Waverly shot back easily. “I know it’s not even a tiny bit warm.”

“No, it is not,” said Nicole agreeably. “I’m ready to get out.” With long, powerful strokes, she pulled for shore, quickly reaching the point where she could touch bottom. She momentarily struggled for footing against the shifting gravel slope. When she’d found her balance, she dunked her head once more and pushed her hair back from her face with both hands, then emerged from the water at a steady pace while Waverly stood, politely waiting.

Oh. Wait. Wait, is she …

Because of course she didn’t have a bathing suit. Of course Nicole Haught would be walking out of the lake’s clear waters, looking like some lithe, slender goddess in a painting from another century, wearing nothing but a tight-fitting sports bra and low-riding boy shorts.

Waverly gaped, before she realised she was doing so and closed her jaw with a comical snap. Because holy hell. If she’d been thinking earlier about how attractive Nicole was, this was next level. Waverly’s eyes ranged over the strong, lean thighs, and the flat planes of Nicole’s stomach, how the curve of her hips was accentuated just so by dark maroon of her undershorts stretched across them. How her skin gleamed in the sun as water cascaded from her shoulders and torso, flawless as alabaster, as Nicole dashed the water from her hair, droplets and red strands flying as she gave her head a quick shake like a happy dog. Waverly’s fingers involuntarily curled into fists as she felt heat race under skin, flustered as a teenager by the vision on display before her. Even more, her reaction hadn’t gone unnoticed, and Nicole’s stupidly alluring smirk was not helping matters.

Shit. Somehow almost naked seemed even worse than entirely naked and Waverly didn’t know what to do, what to say, where to look. It was all she could do to remember to breathe, as her eyes dragged the length of Nicole and her yearning flamed hot and bright, and her throat bobbed with an involuntary gulp. Maybe she should stop staring like she had no manners at all. Waverly pointedly turned around and faced away from Nicole, folding her arms tightly over her chest.

She tried to ignore the lilt of laughter behind her. “You okay there?”

Waverly ground her teeth. “Fine. I’m fine.” As Nicole continued to chuckle, she elaborated. “Not looking. I don’t want to be rude.” Heat rose in her cheeks, as her brain conducted elaborate arguments whether or not to stay faced away or to spin back ‘round again.

“Rude?” came Nicole’s easy voice. “Not exactly the word I’d use.”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to stare, like a … like a …” Waverly trailed off, unable to find a suitable comparison.

“Like a kid at Christmas?” Nicole supplied.

Waverly huffed, laughing at her own helplessness. “No! Jeez! I mean, it’s polite to avert one’s eyes, right?”

“Depends on the eyes, and where they’re averted,” said Nicole, with an unmistakable tease in her tone, before it softened. “It’s okay. I didn’t mind.”

“Nope. Not turning around yet. Not looking,” muttered Waverly. It was better, she thought, that she stand her ground here. Because if Nicole was going to insist on parading around in a state of undress like that, she was pretty sure she’d soon be doing more than just looking.

She heard the rustle of clothing, Nicole obviously getting dressed, and then she heard the crunch of gravel behind her. The redhead’s soft honeyed voice drifted close to her ear, half whisper, half rumble. “All clear. I think you’re safe now.”

Waverly whirled around, catching Nicole leaning in close with her brilliant smile and dimple on full display, buttoning her shirt with the illicit second button left unfastened, as usual. “Shithead,” she giggled, amused now that the crisis had passed.

Nicole chuckled in return. “So, did you find your frogs?”

“I did. It’s been a good day,” said Waverly, bouncing on her toes as she grinned. She impulsively reached up and snuck in a kiss on Nicole’s cheek, payback for being flustered, which only made Nicole’s smile bloom wider. “Sorry,” she said, not one little bit sorry. “I know I shouldn’t, but now I kind of want to break all the rules. Since we’re both back in uniform and all.”

“Good thing I’m off duty soon and heading back to camp,” Nicole said, one eyebrow arched, and the sly warmth in her voice sent an undeniable thrill through Waverly’s body.

*****

They would have returned to camp sooner had they not paused a few times, to linger close to each other while their hands tangled together. They made it back, though, with light to spare. Nicole set aside the pile of dry downed wood she’d picked up on the hike back, near their sitting area on the rocks. Waverly looked at her, puzzled.

“Why firewood?” she asked. “There’s no fire ring.”

“I have a little surprise for later,” Nicole answered. “Just wanted to make sure I wasn’t collecting anything near the campsite.” They parted for a few minutes, modestly concealing themselves behind covering bushes at opposite ends of the clearing, while they both washed up and changed their clothes. Waverly replaced her uniform shirt with a black t-shirt emblazoned with the MSR logo. She laughed aloud when she returned to the center of camp and saw the ringer t-shirt Nicole had donned: a perfectly ridiculous picture of a unicorn rampant, framed by an overarching rainbow.

“Where on earth?” she groaned in amusement. “I cannot believe anyone owns a tee that cheesy.”

“Laugh all you want! This is the softest shirt in history,” retorted Nicole.

Waverly closed the space between where they stood, and slid into the embrace. Their hips pressed into each other as Waverly’s arms looped behind Nicole’s waist, and her fingertips started to trace lines along the length of Nicole’s spine. “You’re right,” she murmured. “It is soft.” Even more, the different clothing served as a marker, that the time now belonged to them. It was true that, as rangers, they were never entirely free from their responsibility to the park, but here, now, there were no tasks to finish, no crew to supervise, only the two of them and the nascent attraction that had been unfurling for days.

It was Nicole who gave a little sigh and loosened her arms from where they encircled Waverly, and broke away. “I’m going to make dinner,” she said, “while there’s still some light. Okay?” Waverly nodded, only partly reluctant. Standing here close to Nicole was definitely nice, but so was the thought of supper, and she was pretty hungry.

*****

The meal was accomplished without much fuss, as they’d been camping together enough days to become accustomed to each other’s routines. For tonight, Nicole handled the prep duties while Waverly took cleanup, and hauled water. The sun slid quickly down the sky as they worked.

For the resupply, Nicole had carried up generous portions of a dehydrated vegetable and barley stew, rich with mushrooms and carrots and finely chopped leeks, and some tortillas to eat along with it. It had to simmer for ten minutes or so, and by the time it was ready, Waverly was just about jiggling with impatience, it smelled so delicious. Nicole served it up with an apology. “I’m sorry it’s not anything fancy, it was all last-minute. Hope it’s okay.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” said Waverly. She quickly amended her opinion after her first taste. “Oh my god. This is so good.”

“I’ll tell Robin you like it.” Nicole smiled, her eyes sparkling in the fading light.

“Tell Robin I’m going to steal his recipe,” Waverly said with a mischievous giggle.

They sat side-by-side on the largest rock as they ate, the conversation only moving in fits and starts as they both devoured their dinner. Waverly scooted as close to Nicole as she could, happy to feel the warm body pressing into hers, shoulder to shoulder, letting the communication flow without words. Now and then she would lean into Nicole, and look up to catch Nicole’s glance, a playful smile flickering across her face that must have matched her own.

Dusk enveloped them by the time Waverly stood and collected their empty bowls and the cookpot. She washed and dried everything, a quickly managed chore, and put the mess kits away. While she did, Nicole retrieved something from her pack, something flat and about the size of a notebook in a heavy duty canvas pouch, and some goodies from the bear bag, before hanging it up again.

“Ready for your treat?” she asked as they sat down again.

“It’s funny how excited you look,” said Waverly, and it was true. Nicole had a Cheshire-cat grin that wouldn’t quit, delight dancing in her eyes, like she was ready to burst with the best secret ever. “Whatcha got there?”

Nicole pulled items from a paper lunch bag: a baggie crammed with white puffy bits, another with graham crackers, and a candy bar. “I didn’t even know vegan marshmallows were a thing until yesterday, but turns out they’re actually kind of easy to find.” She laughed, a low, rich sound. “Vegan chocolate, I knew about already.”

Waverly squealed in excitement. “S’mores!” She clapped her hands together. “I love s’mores! How are we going to make a fire?”

“That’s the next part of the surprise,” said Nicole, handing the ingredients to Waverly. She pulled flat metal plates from the canvas bag, slotting them together with a practiced hand, until she’d assembled them into a free-standing cube, about the size of a coffee can. “I brought a firebox.” She set the box on the ground in front of them and passed Waverly a couple of metal skewers, before she reached for the wood she’d collected earlier in the day. “Behold. Safe, compact, won’t scorch the ground.”

Waverly just shook her head, smiling. Nicole really did have one of everything. Gearhead.

Nicole stacked kindling inside the box, lit it, and carefully fed in twigs and progressively larger sticks, until a merry little fire was crackling away in the enclosed space. Waverly split the chocolate bar into four pieces, and they set to work making their sticky, tasty morsels, good-naturedly arguing about the best method to roast a marshmallow.

“You have to get it evenly browned,” insisted Waverly. “And dark. Like, a couple of seconds away from catching on fire. That way, it has a little crispity-crunchity to it.”

“No,” said Nicole. “You have to hold it further above the fire, toast it slower. So it gets all super gooey, and squishes between the cracker and the chocolate.”

They lingered over the sweets. There was laughter, and a little feeding each other bites of s’mores, and Waverly felt bold enough to boop Nicole’s lips with a dollop of ‘mallow, then kiss away the evidence. The way Nicole’s mouth curled into a smile against hers was intoxicating. Everything was intoxicating. The sweet of sugar mixing with the savory bitter of dark chocolate, the light of the tiny fire flickering across the lovely angles of Nicole’s face and throwing her caramel eyes into shadowy, intriguing highlights, the stars emerging one by one as they sat under night skies, the soft evening breeze and the susurrus of trees all around them. Her heart swelled with unadorned happiness, Waverly imagined that not even Paradise could compare with this day, this camp, this feeling.

“Is this our first date?” Waverly murmured, as Nicole wound a long arm around her shoulders, her palm stroking tenderly along the top of her arm. Waverly shivered slightly, not from cold, from the sensation the movement sent trilling through her body.

“If you want it to be, yes,” Nicole answered softly.

“Best first date ever,” sighed Waverly.

“Oh, yeah?” said Nicole, her half-whispered voice rising.

“Mm hmm,” Waverly purred, her fingertips tingling where she was running them over Nicole’s hand and forearm that lay across her thigh. “Only one thing to make it better.”

Nicole’s question came breathless. “And what’s that?”

“This,” said Waverly. She lifted up from her seated slouch and, turning, took Nicole’s face in her hands, before leaning in for a slow, deep kiss.

Nicole hesitated for the barest of moments, before angling her body and pulling the two of them closer together. Her nimble hands smoothed over Waverly’s waist and rose up the sides of her torso, fingertips curling against her back, as she breathlessly returned the kiss. Waverly sighed with delight, eager to feel those fingers wandering everywhere, sure in the pleasures Nicole would bring. The dance of lips was making her head spin.

Waverly’s palms cupped against the contours of Nicole’s jaw, before sliding down to the front of her chest. It was surely the most delicious thing in the world, to feel the way Nicole arched against her touch, the heat that swam and swirled between them, how Nicole responded to the unalloyed hunger of her lips and returned it to her, magnified. Now Nicole’s clever fingers were tracing patterns against the small of her back. Waverly growled, a low, soft note.

Nicole backed off and waited, her mouth ajar, panting. “Okay?”

Completely okay,” Waverly husked out, and when Nicole leaned back in, she surged into the kiss. She felt the sly prod of Nicole’s tongue part her lips, and sucked her into her mouth, flying with the enormous swell of sensations. Nicole’s hands were everywhere, somehow gentle and fiery and insistent all at once. Waverly thought she could not possibly be any more maddened with desire, until she felt Nicole’s hands tracing across the curve of her breasts, her thumbs brushing over her nipples, a light tease that brought them to immediate stiffness. Waverly groaned. “God. You feel, just, crazy good.”

Nicole smiled into the kiss, an obvious mix of happiness and pleasure, along with the unveiled lust that was making Waverly’s heart pound. She pulled back after some moments, her gaze ranging over Waverly’s face. “Tell me what you want,” she murmured, reverence in her velvet voice.

“Take me to bed,” Waverly immediately replied, her fingers tangling into red hair. They had let the small fire die to embers as the moon had started to rise; the way Nicole’s eyes flared in the darkness was a thrilling charge, curling and coiling in her belly.

“Are you sure?” Nicole said. “We, uh, we don’t have to do anything more than what you’re ready for.”

“No, Nicole,” Waverly rasped, urgent. “If I come to your tent it’s not going to be for cuddling.” Nicole stood, apparently needing no additional coaxing, offering a hand. Waverly giggled as she was raised to her feet, their bodies pressing close again. “Though I kind of wish you’d brought the hammock.” The thought of Nicole, hanging suspended and weightless, had been teasing the back of her mind for days.

“Oh, no,” Nicole laughed gently. “That totally wouldn’t work. But maybe bring your bag and your sleep pad?” At Waverly’s curious glance, she added, “It’s a two person tent, there’s room. Solo tents are almost always too short for me.” Waverly stood on tiptoes to leave a lingering kiss, then hurried to her own tent. It took a minute to move gear, and the handling of the logistics of simple comfort barely cooled the need between them. They arranged everything, Waverly’s sleeping bag and Nicole’s quilt side by side, and Nicole zipped the door shut and laid back, Waverly sitting beside her with her legs folded. “So. Where were we?”

In response, Waverly trailed her fingertips down Nicole’s front, tracing along her sternum and between her breasts, coming to rest above the button of her trousers. “There’s so much I want to find out about you. I don’t even know where to start.” She bit her lip. It was undeniable, the nervousness she felt, giving a sharp edge to the hunger that overwhelmed her. Would Nicole be able to tell? That she didn’t know what she was doing?

“Come here,” said Nicole, beckoning her down in the darkness. Waverly carefully laid herself down, pressing her body next to Nicole’s long form. The way their limbs began to tangle together was sublime. “Start wherever you like.”

Waverly breathed out, the undulation of Nicole’s torso against hers feeling like some beautiful revelation. She let her hand drift, down to Nicole’s hip and then across the strong, sleek muscles of her thigh, as Nicole turned to face her and draped one leg over hers. Belly to belly, they kissed, deep and leisurely, the heat building with the roll of their bodies. Waverly’s nerves slowly faded, and desire, the plain raw need to touch every part of Nicole, rose and flooded through her, unstoppable as the tide, and she began pulling at Nicole’s shirt, wordlessly begging for skin, to explore what wondrous secrets she could find there.

“Let me help you,” Nicole rumbled. Twisting, she allowed Waverly to draw the t-shirt up and over her head, then sank back down while Waverly was halfway sitting above her, tugging at the hem of her own shirt. “Can I?” she whispered, and at Waverly’s urgent nod, lifted the garment off in one smooth motion. Waverly, emboldened, reached behind and quickly unclasped her bra, tossing it behind her.

An awestruck exhalation came from Nicole’s throat, as her hands lifted to cup her breasts, and Waverly leaned down, delighting in the warmth of their bodies melding. Nicole’s hands were calloused and rough with work, but somehow perfect and gentle as she stroked and slid over Waverly’s sensitive flesh, nipples erect now and aching for Nicole’s touch. She felt Nicole slot her thigh between hers, smoothly drawing her on top of her body. The flex of powerful hips under hers matched her own motion, sparked like prairie fire in her belly. She ground down, chasing the delightful friction building between her legs, and trailed her mouth along the edge of Nicole’s jaw, and down her neck, tasting, exploring. The carnal little moans that flowed from Nicole in response only spurred her forward. Waverly wanted, she needed more, and still there were far too many clothes between them. “Off,” she mumbled, her lips pressing to the point below Nicole’s ear. “Take them off.” She pulled at the waistband of Nicole’s pants, the button giving way with a muted pop of fabric.

Nicole’s voice was an amused hum. “Eager,” she murmured, her nose nestled into Waverly’s hair, her hands busy with their own explorations. She rolled them to the side, fingers steadying at Waverly’s waist as she repositioned their bodies, gaining the room to start wriggling her pants down from her hips. She kicked them off of her feet, along with her underwear, then rose to her knees, her head brushing the tent’s low ceiling. She undid her bra and quickly shucked that off as well, and then she was above Waverly, naked and glorious on her hands and knees, pale skin glowing in the moonlight that filtered through the thin fabric walls. “Now you,” she whispered.

Waverly’s hands were already fumbling at her pants, clumsy and hurried, as Nicole reached for her. She lifted her hips as Nicole helped her slide them off, toss them into one of the corners of the tent. Then they were bare to each other, and time stopped for that moment, as they looked at each other in plain awe.

“You’re beautiful,” Waverly breathed. It was true, all true, she had never seen beauty like this in all her life, the exquisite form of this woman on fire who had ignited her as well, willing and wanton as she was herself. No words yet uttered could describe this magnificence, how expansive Waverly felt at that moment.

You’re beautiful,” Nicole replied, her face awash in ardent zeal. She lowered herself and the length of their bodies pressed together again.

Waverly gasped, a huge shuddered gulp of breath, because oh jeez, the silk of all that flawless skin sliding against hers was almost unbearable in its intensity, a shock racing through her body. She arched into it, amazed, wondering how it was even possible, to be on the brink from the beginning like this. Nicole’s groan rippled through her as well, rumbled thunder’s answer to lightning’s dizzying strike, and then Nicole was moving, riding over her, her muscles sleek and powerful, her hand grasping and kneading into the curve of her ass. One strong thigh had nestled between hers, pressed up and in, and Waverly lifted her hips into the grind that was exactly what she needed. She moaned, holy sweet fuck, she felt the heat of Nicole’s center slick against her leg, and the delectable friction of how they moved together, rise and fall and flex and it all felt so fucking perfect. Waverly’s hands danced over those fine, broad shoulders and across Nicole’s back, and now Nicole was trailing kisses all down her neck and back up again, murmuring little pleased noises into her mouth. They slipped into a powerful, endless kiss, Waverly delighting in the give and take, the way Nicole’s tongue glided against hers and skimmed past her lips, seeking pleasure, and the way it left them both breathless as their bodies continued to sway, and writhe, and roll.

It felt like forever until Nicole finally broke and backed away slightly, panting hard. Waverly could see, in the shadowy darkness, how wild and dark Nicole’s eyes were, or maybe that was a trick of the moonlight. A beautiful, wild face, full of heat, and questions. “How?” she breathed out.

Waverly wasn’t even sure how to answer, her brain swimming in sensation, uncooperative with words. “Don’t stop,” she managed to husk. “So good.”

The cue was enough, apparently. Nicole smiled briefly, and shifted her position a little to the side. She bent down and took Waverly’s breast in her mouth, rolling the nipple against her tongue in broad strokes, then sucking, then flicking with a teasing rhythm that had Waverly trembling. Her hand drifted with purpose to Waverly’s other breast. A calloused palm brushed across her tightened nipple, all shivery thrill, then cupped against the curve of her breast, fingers toying with her pebbled flesh. A whine rose in the back of Waverly’s throat; overwhelmed, she didn’t know if she should beg for more or beg for less, she just knew she was so, so sensitive, and Nicole was some kind of magician, riding right under the line of too much. “Holy fuck,” she gasped, ragged. “How. What.” Her fingers wound into the hair at the nape of Nicole’s neck, silk strands weaving through her curled fist, and she pulled probably a little harder than she meant to. Her hips jolted, electric pulse of pleasure shooting straight to her core.

Nicole let out a small rising moan, and then she was twisting and arching as she moved against Waverly, her mouth and her fingers exploring again. Waverly felt lips against the base of her throat, breath coming fast and warm, and a strong hand stroking over the jut of her hipbone. When Nicole slipped between her thighs, Waverly sighed, eager and panting, her legs falling open.

Clever fingers parted her, slow and infinitely gentle. Waverly felt like every muscle in her body was stretched taut, thrumming with desire, as Nicole’s pelvis pressed into the side of her hip and her body draped halfway over hers, all sway and ripple and undulating heat. Lips traveled across the line of her jaw, settled at her neck. Nicole’s long fingers slid into her slickness, drawing a ragged whine from somewhere deep within her, and the exploration grew apace, bolder now. Nicole’s voice buzzed into her pulse point, a sotto voce whisper. “Ohhh,” she murmured, “so wet. God, you’re beautiful.” Her fingertips dipped, and circled over Waverly’s clit, as Waverly twisted under her, growing more and more maddened. “Good?” Nicole whispered. “Is this good?” Waverly’s laugh came out as a throaty rasp, as some still-functioning portion of her brain considered how many words went way way way beyond good and how long she’d have to spend with a thesaurus to find them, before Nicole slipped into some particularly urgent, inventive pattern of motion and thought spun away from her, lost once again.

Waverly tipped her chin all the way up, exquisite shivers coursing the length of her body, as her fingers found the curve of Nicole’s waist and dug in, grasping for dear life. She rocked against the delicious glide of Nicole’s hand, the coil of tension ratcheting up now. “Please,” she whimpered, not even knowing exactly what she asked for. Head spinning, pulse pounding in her throat, she could only gasp a single word. “Please.”

Nicole delivered. She sank deep inside, her mouth falling open in delight, her lips brushing against Waverly’s cheek. Waverly felt a pleasured keen rise from her own chest, and Nicole responded, added a second finger, steady and strong, curling forward. “Uhhn,” she groaned, an animal noise that flashed hot through Waverly, making her clench tight which just added to all the rapturous sensations flooding her. Nicole picked up her head, paused, her voice soft and thick. “Okay, baby?”

Waverly opened eyes she hadn’t realised she’d closed, her breath hitching at the sight. Nicole was hovering above her, limned in moonlight and crackling with intensity. “God yes. Just like that.”

Nicole started again, her lithe body rolling in sleek, sinuous motion. She leaned in to take Waverly’s mouth in a rough kiss, her fingers slow at first, deliberate in their thrusts, Waverly sinking into a sea of superheated arousal. Then, Nicole shifted, propping herself up on one elbow, a look of fierce determination creasing her brow as Waverly watched her. The moon was riding high now, the light pouring in through the tent’s mesh windows, flooding them both in silver; Waverly was transfixed, the roll of Nicole’s shoulder and the strength of her hand, those hands, those devastatingly competent hands, as she twisted and curled and pressed deep. Waverly was calling out, sounds tumbling like a waterfall from her in wordless joy, because jesus it was so fucking good and she wanted to go on forever and she was gonna come so fucking hard and look at her look at her this is the Nicole she wanted the Nicole who knew exactly how to use her hands and her body and it was a lot it was so much it was perfect oh my god don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop…

Nicole growled, as her forearm flexed. “That’s it, baby. C’mon. That’s it.” Her face above Waverly’s was twisted into a joyous scowl, awash in the furious elation of her work, her hair dark and shining in the colorless light, falling loose to frame her lovely face. Waverly gulped in ragged howling breaths, somehow aware that she was crying out, shouting many, many variations of yes oh my god Nicole yes, and Nicole grunted back, driving Waverly higher, yeah, uh huh, yeah. Her peak raced toward her, and her back arched and all her muscles pulled rigid and shaking, arching up into Nicole as her orgasm broke open and swept through her, shattering heat taking her completely.

The heartbeat pounding in her ears and the loud panting from both their lungs was the next thing Waverly knew. The world was spinning, she was spinning, everything was a thousand little pieces and all floating, drifting, coalescing into a shiny new reality. Nicole was still above her, her tousled head hanging low over her chest. Waverly could feel the heave of her breast against her belly. She could feel the rumbles of pleasure still echoing, shimmering like sunlight on water, and the twitch of Nicole’s fingers - holy shit, she’s still inside me. “Wait. Hold on,” she rasped out.

“S’okay, you’re okay,” came Nicole’s quiet voice, low and smokey. “You’re fine. Just gotta let go of me.”

The strange floaty, otherbody feeling slipped away as Waverly came back to herself, and her body sagged with release, her entire form going limp and boneless. Nicole withdrew with all the gentleness in the world, and Waverly exhaled, a long sigh. She picked up her head slightly, feeling like it took all the strength left in her, her eyes focusing once more. “Hey,” she said.

Nicole looked up, locking eyes in the silvered darkness. The slow, sexy grin across her face was a glory to see. “Hey,” she returned. She shifted her position, to place a smiling kiss on Waverly’s lips, then snuggle in next to her. Waverly curled into the warmth of her body, and Nicole draped half of her sleeping quilt over the two of them.

Waverly’s fingertips were tracing idle designs across the contours at the base of Nicole’s throat. “Wow,” she said with quiet fervor. “Wow.”

Nicole chuckled. “I agree.”

“I mean. I don’t … I didn’t … I haven’t …” Waverly waved one hand, helplessly. “I don’t know how to say it.” I don’t know how to say that I have never, ever, ever felt anything close to that, before.

“Shh. You don’t need to say anything, baby,” hummed Nicole, wrapping her arms around her. Waverly laid against her shoulder, breathing her in, the safe, sweet scent of her.

She must have drifted off a tiny bit, because Waverly felt herself startle awake, her body giving a sudden jerk. Nicole mumbled, huh, stroking a gentling hand across her hip. Maybe she’d been drifting, too, but her eyes were open and studying Waverly’s face now. Waverly stirred, lifting herself and leaning in, still in the grip of lassitude. “Uh, wait,” she said, “what about you?”

“What about me?” said Nicole. The corner of her mouth lifted with just enough twist of a smile to let Waverly know she was being teased.

“I, um,” Waverly stammered, “I can, um, you know. If you want me to.” It was ridiculous, she thought, to be a grown-ass woman and still feel this quick flush of embarrassment trying to figure out how to ask do you want me to do you now. She didn’t know exactly what Nicole would like, but by god she was willing to figure it out. Her hand slid down, drifting across the expanse of Nicole’s strong thigh, before Nicole caught it, and stilled it, with a quiet laugh.

“Darlin’, it’s okay,” she rumbled, “there’s always later. I think you were falling asleep there?”

“I think I was,” Waverly admitted.

“Well, you were up before dawn. Let’s get you zipped up properly,” said Nicole, in the honey-sweet voice that Waverly could listen to forever.

*****

Later, it turned out, was the next morning. Nicole had gotten Waverly tucked into her sleeping bag, but had left the zipper halfway down, and covered them both with the quilt. Waverly gratefully snuggled into Nicole’s warmth, and soon drifted into sleep, listening to the rise and fall of Nicole’s breath along with the comfort of the quiet night noises that surrounded her. Also, Nicole made a much nicer pillow than the tiny inflatable one she usually used.

When she woke, Waverly had a half second of confusion about why she was in a tent other than her own, before happiness flooded through her along with last night’s memories. She lifted her head, checked the sky: still pretty early. She sat up, and Nicole stirred, mumbling, “Good morning.”

“Morning,” replied Waverly. “Is my hoodie in here?” She was pretty sure it wasn’t; they’d moved both packs and most of the extra gear into her tent to make room for the two of them in here.

Nicole regarded her sleepily. “Why?”

“I gotta pee,” shrugged Waverly, “and it’s too cold for a t-shirt.”

Nicole rooted around in the gear tucked away at the edge of the tent, came up with a flannel shirt. “Here. Use this.”

Waverly put on the flannel, the sleeves hanging comically long on her, and exited the tent. She was back in a short time after taking care of business, shivering with the chill of the morning air, crawling back into her sleeping bag. Of course Nicole had to go, too, so she reclaimed the shirt. She returned to the tent just as quickly. “Do you want breakfast, or stay in bed a little longer?” she asked.

“Stay in bed, of course,” said Waverly, “so get under here and help me warm up.” Nicole grinned as she tossed the flannel aside.

They stayed in bed for another hour or two, and the chill did not last long at all. Waverly took her time exploring Nicole’s body, learning what made the redhead sigh with pleasure, what made her arch, what made her cry out so beautifully. And then Nicole’s hands were sliding over her again, slow and gentle compared to last night’s inferno, rocking Waverly up and up until she was molded of nothing but molten desire. She came on her knees above Nicole, hearing her own breathless gasps and Nicole’s murmured words of praise.

*****

Eventually, it was time to rise and break camp. They dressed, Waverly in the uniform and Nicole in civilian clothing (“it’s my for-real day off now,” she said) and they set off on the short day’s walk back to civilization.

Waverly’s mind whirled with excitement at this new beginning. Well, sure, part of it was probably endorphins, but she was positive it was more than that. Nicole fascinated her. She was fascinating, and a little bit complex, and Waverly wanted to find out everything she could about her. She hummed as they walked along, floating on an undercurrent of euphoria.

About two miles into their walk, Waverly blurted out, “So, how is this going to work?” She turned around in time to see Nicole elaborately shrug her shoulders, which raised her pack enough to bump the Stetson askew. Waverly giggled.

“I dunno,” answered Nicole, fixing the hat properly on her head. “I need to look at my schedule, to see when I can ask you out for dinner.”

“No, silly,” said Waverly. “I mean … are we girlfriends now?” She scuffed her feet in the dirt as she slowed her walk, holding her breath for the answer.

Nicole came to a complete halt, which made Waverly trail to a stop as well. The bright, blinding smile was breaking across her face, rivaling the sun that climbed the sky. “Waverly Earp,” she said, “are you asking me to be your girlfriend?”

Waverly walked the few steps back to stand directly in front of Nicole. Crazy, she thought as her nerves flared again, now I get butterflies. She took a deep breath and looked up at that smiling face, as their fingers tangled together. “Um, yes? I am?”

Nicole grinned wider. “Then, yes. I would love to be your girlfriend.”

Waverly squeaked out a little noise of delight, before rising on tiptoes to plant a sound kiss on Nicole’s lips. Then she was spinning away and practically skipping down trail, Nicole following after her with a fairly lovestruck look on her face. “Girlfriend,” she hummed to herself. “I have an awesome girlfriend.”

This trip totally had been the best backcountry trip in the history of ever.