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Lem’s phone buzzes, startling him from where he’s been staring absently at his keyboard, trying to force out an ending to the current chapter he's working on. It’s an incoming call from Hella, and Lem leans back a little in his chair, feeling the ache in his back and taking the opportunity to procrastinate a little further.

 

“Hi, hey,” says Hella, “What are you doing in like a month’s time?”

 

“Uh,” says Lem.

 

He has no idea what he’s doing in a month’s time. He has no idea what he’s doing in a week’s time, other than buying milk because he’s almost out.

 

“I mean like, do you think you’re free for like a barbeque thing?” says Hella, “Fero’s finally back in town and I thought it’d be a fun way for him to see everyone again.”

 

“Okay,” says Lem. He pauses. “I don’t… I don’t know who that is.”

 

Hella laughs. “Right! Right, I always forget that you guys don’t know each other! He’s the guy who was on that boat trip that you couldn’t come with us on? He did walking tour stuff here for a while, but I think that was when you were in France.”

 

“Oh, right, yes,” says Lem.

 

The guy does sound kind of familiar, a name in Hella’s anecdotes about a wild boat trip. He vaguely remembers Throndir talking about hiking tours, or camping, giving the fuzzy impression of a man like Throndir but a little taller and a little more wiry, with long hair flowing in the ocean breeze or tied back for a long hike, like Throndir and Hella do with their hair. Someone good-natured, like Throndir. Someone good in a crisis, like Hella.

 

“You should come anyway,” says Hella, “You could actually meet him! I think you guys would get along.” She pauses. “Well, maybe. Probably. No, you would! Anyway, you’ll be there? Hadrian’s hosting since he has like, an actual backyard.”

 

“Sure,” says Lem, “sure, text me the details and I’ll be there.”

 

“Great!” says Hella.

 

Lem taps his fingers on the desk after he hangs up, trying to ignore the flutter of nerves in his stomach. He huffs a laugh, running a hand through his hair. He’s a little old to be nervous about making friends. Besides, he has plenty of friends already, he’s even managed to see some of them a handful of days out of a month. Even if this Fero guy is okay, he doesn’t need to be friends with him.

 

Maybe he’ll ask some of the others about him, subtly, so he can be prepared in case he gets stuck in conversation with this Fero guy.



“Yeah, we’re going,” says Hadrian, “I mean, we’re having it here so we can’t not go.”

 

“Right, right,” says Lem. He fiddles with the mug of tea that Hadrian made for him when he’d arrived.

 

“Hella said Red Jack’s bringing his kids, so Ben’ll have someone to play with.” Hadrian made a face. “And Rix and Rowe too, I guess.”

 

Lem nods, taking a sip of his tea. It’s a herbal tea, smelling of spiced apple, and Lem lets out a deep breath.

 

“Oh, this is nice.”

 

“Yeah,” says Hadrian, “Fero gave it to us when he stopped in the other day, he said he got it from some tiny place up in the mountains.”

 

“Oh.” Lem pauses, trying for a casual tone. “I’ve, uh. I’ve never met him.”

 

Hadrian frowns. “Oh, yeah, I guess you were away when he was here. He’s a good guy, helped me build Ben’s treehouse.”

 

Lem glances outside, into the back garden. He’s always thought that Ben’s treehouse, which is a sprawling, brightly-coloured construction stuck solidly in the old tree in Hadrian’s backyard, is a beautiful thing, like something out of a storybook. He can’t see it from this distance, but if he were up close he’d be able to see the curling design painted over the doorway and the windows, making the treehouse feel more like a real house that had been somehow dropped from the sky into the tree than a child’s playroom.

 

He tries to add that to his mental impression of Fero. Perhaps he wasn’t wiry at all but built more like Hadrian, someone big and kind, with hands rough from labour, bringing a steady presence as he lifted wood slats onto his shoulder or hammer nails into place.

 

“Yes, Hella said she thought we’d get along,” says Lem.

 

Hadrian makes a face. “You and Fero?”

 

“Yes?” says Lem. “Why?”

 

“Nothing,” says Hadrian, “I mean… I think you’d kill each other.”

 

“What, why?”

 

“He can be kind of…” Hadrian wrinkles his nose. “I dunno. I guess we’ll find out what you’ll think of him when you meet him.”

 

This did not help Lem’s nerves.

 

He’ll need to consult someone else, then. Get their opinion on just what this Fero was like, in case he really does need to avoid him. Lem paces a lap around his small apartment before he flops down onto the couch.

 

Hella likes the man, so he can’t be all bad. Perhaps he’s just very outdoorsy, boisterous in the way that Lem found tiring. Lem taps his fingers on the arm of the couch. Maybe that’s it, he’ll find someone to ask who’s a little less outdoorsy than Hella, and ask them what they think.

 

“I just… Hella is a good friend,” says Lem quietly, as though Hella can hear him from where she’s outside, “and I don’t want to cause any problems. Not that I would, obviously I can be an adult when I don’t like someone.”

 

“So you’re worried that Fero’s going to cause a problem,” says Adaire, not at all speaking below her usual speaking level.

 

“Well, Hadrian said-”

 

Adaire snorts.

 

“-that he could be a little… well, he didn’t say,” says Lem, “He didn’t seem to think we’d get along.”

 

“That’s just because he and Fero didn’t really get along for awhile,” says Adaire, waving a hand. “He kept thinking Fero was going to make trouble, which, he sort of did, but it was fine, and then he helped Hadrian finally finish that treehouse for Ben.”

 

“So you like Fero?”

 

Adaire shrugs. “When I made the dresses for our engagement party, he helped me with the embroidery so I could get it done in time. He has a good eye for detail work and he's a good haggler at the market. He’s alright.”

 

The Fero of Lem’s imagination changes again, a little shorter than before, a little softer, with kind eyes and a quiet laugh, a charming wordsmith type of guy. Perhaps they would get along then.

 

“I suppose Hella did say she thought we’d get along,” says Lem.

 

“Well, there you go,” says Adaire, certainty in her tone.

 

Lem keeps thinking about it off and on until he’s actually at the barbeque, helping set up as more people arrive with more tables and chairs, taking plates of food to the kitchen where Rosana and Adelaide are chatting and directing what food goes where.

 

“Fero?” says Red Jack, with a laugh, as Lem helps him carry extra folding tables from the back of his van to Hadrian’s backyard. “He’s a solid little man! A good storyteller too, keeps the kids entertained!”

 

“I see,” says Lem.

 

This does not really help Lem picture him at all. Everyone seems small compared to Red Jack, and Red Jack loves to hear anyone’s stories.

 

Fero, when Lem finally meets him. Isn’t at all like he’s pictured. He’s so unlike it, in fact, that Lem doesn’t quite know what to say when confronted with the man himself. The Fero in front of him is short, with sharp features and an even sharper grin as he looks up at Lem.

 

"Oh," says Lem, "I thought you'd be taller."

 

"Wow, okay," says Fero.

 

"No, wait, I didn't mean it like that I meant-"

 

"No, that's fine," says Fero, "I thought you'd be less of a jerk."

 

Excuse me?” says Lem.

 

“What you can’t hear what I said from all the way up there?” says Fero, “Hella told me you were supposed to be smart.”

 

“Yes, well, Hella told me she thought we’d get along,” says Lem.

 

Fero lets out a sharp bark of laughter. “That’s what she told me! And she’s usually such a good judge of this stuff!”

 

“I know!” says Lem. He pauses, growing. “Wait, are we still arguing?”

 

“We can be if you want, but we’re going to have to pick another topic,” says Fero, “I’m pretty firmly pro-Hella.”

 

“Yes, well, me too, obviously,” says Lem.

 

“Obviously,” says Fero, shooting Lem a grin.

 

“So,” says Lem, “What are we going to argue about?”

 

Fero shrugs. “Why don’t you tell me about your hobbies or something, I bet I hate them.”

 

Lem splutters, which makes Fero laugh his loud, bright laugh again. Despite Fero’s words, there’s no malice to the laugh, no sense that he’s secretly sneering at Lem for anything. Fero laughs with his whole body, as though the flash of delight cannot be contained. He grins up at Lem, hopping up to sit on the low bench under the big tree in Hadrian’s backyard, gesturing for Lem to sit next to him.

 

“Hadrian said that you helped build Ben’s treehouse?” says Lem.

 

“Your hobby is asking Hadrian about me?”

 

“No, I-” Lem huffs. “I’m making conversation.”

 

“Okay,” says Fero, sounding skeptical. “Yeah, I helped him. I do carpentry sometimes.”

 

“Oh,” said Lem, “I thought Hella said you do hiking tours?”

 

“Are you sure your hobby isn’t asking people about me?” said Fero.

 

No ,” splutters Lem.

 

“Are you sure you’re sure?” says Fero.

 

“How old are you?” says Lem.

 

“Three months older than you,” said Fero.

 

“How did you- ah- HA !” says Lem, “So you’ve been asking after me too!”

 

Fero shrugs, apparently not embarrassed at all by this revelation. “Well I’d never met you, so. I’m kind of surprised you exist, every time Hella’s said you’d be at a thing, you were like, working too much or in another country or something. Not that you missed much on that stupid boat trip.”

 

Lem frowned. “Wait, didn’t Hella meet Adelaide on that boat trip?”

 

Fero waved a hand. “That was after we got off the boat. Nothing good happened on the boat, because nothing good ever happens on boats.”

 

“I quite like boats,” says Lem.

 

“You would,” says Fero, poking Lem in the side for emphasis.  

 

Lem laughs, half-startled as the sound escapes him, and Fero laughs too, leaning back against the tree. Lem tries to copy the casual position of it, misjudging the space a little as their arms press together. If Fero minds he doesn’t say anything, his arm relaxed and warm next to Lem’s.

 

“So you travel a lot but not on boats,” says Lem.

 

“Not if I can help it,” says Fero, “I kind of prefer walking anyway.”

 

“You can’t walk across the ocean.”

 

“Not yet, but I bet I could figure something out if I had time,” says Fero.

 

“You could not -”

 

Fero laughs again, bright, and something warm curls through Lem’s chest.

 

“So,” says Fero, “Since you already know so much about me, what about you?”

 

“Well there’s not much to tell,” says Lem, “I’m a teacher, I teach music and english sometimes, when they need a substitute for the day.”

 

“Hella said you were writing a book.”

 

Lem groans, tipping his head back against the tree. Hella, wonderfully supportive though she is, has a tendency to oversell his half-finished book manuscript to people who never in their life want to hear about music theory. Fero laughs again, bumping their sides together.

 

“Come on, tell me about it,” says Fero.

 

“It’s… it’s not very interesting,” says Lem.

 

“Probably not,” says Fero, “Tell me anyway, let me see if there is.”

 

Well ,” says Lem, because if it’s a challenge .

 

Fero, shockingly, has enough familiarity with music that he at least knows which questions to ask, or when Lem is being rhetorical and when he’s not (even if, sometimes, he pokes at Lem anyway and then gives Lem his sharp grin, the one that’s started making Lem’s stomach flutter). They continue that way until the food’s ready, when Fero is pulled away by Ben to help serve the food and ends up herding Red Jack’s kids through the process.

 

Lem hangs back, watching him for a moment. Fero’s easy with the kids, letting them hang off him as he parcels out scoops of potato salad onto the kid’s plates, lifting the smaller ones up so they can see what’s on the table. The muscles of Fero’s arm flex as he does so and Lem feels his face flush, looking hurriedly down at the plate in his lap.

 

“So,” says Hella, sitting down next to him, “I was right about you and Fero getting along, huh?”

 

Lem feels the heat in cheeks deepen and desperately hopes that the shade of the tree is enough to hide it. “Uh, yes. He’s very… he’s interesting.”

 

Interesting , huh? I get it,” says Hella.

 

Hella ,” says Lem.

 

Hella laughs, bumping their shoulders together. “You’re allowed, I mean, I know he’s not dating anyone, and I know for sure that you’re not dating anyone, so…”

 

“We just met ,” says Lem.

 

“So?” says Hella, as though it’s the easiest thing in the world. “I can tell you like him.”

 

Lem looks down at his plate again. He's too old to have something as youthful as a crush , and certainly not on someone he just met. His thoughts do not respect this, pulling his  attention back to where Fero has hoisted one of the kids onto his shoulders. He laughs, carrying them easily as he adds things to their plate.

 

Hella bumps their shoulders together. “I’m just saying. It’s okay to, y’know, to go for it.”

 

“I don’t want to go for anything,” says Lem.

 

“Uh huh,” says Hella.

 

When Fero finally finishes sending the kids off with food, he comes right back over to sit next to Lem. Hella stands up.

 

“You don’t have to,” says Fero, “I could get another chair or something.”

 

Hella waves a hand. “I’m done, plus I think I need to go stage a rescue.”

 

She looks across the yard, directing their attention to where Adaire and Hadrain are standing next to each other.

 

“Who’s being rescued?” says Fero.

 

“Both of them,” says Hella, with a laugh.

 

Fero laughs too, sitting down to take the spot she’s just vacated. His body feels extra warm from being in the sun, radiating heat onto Lem’s skin.

 

“You’re pretty good with kids,” says Lem.

 

“I guess,” says Fero, “I did some nanny work for a while, sort of.”

 

“Is there any job you haven’t done?”

 

“Teacher,” says Fero quickly.

 

It startles another laugh out of Lem. Fero grins up at him, bright and clearly pleased, and Lem feels the flutter in his stomach again.

 

They chat through the rest of the afternoon, into arguments and out of them again. Time seems to race by, Lem feels as though they’ve just eaten and then the sun is setting, Hella helping Hadrian tidy up around them as people say their goodbyes.

 

“Thanks for coming,” says Hella.

 

“Well it was in my honour, so,” says Fero.

 

Hella laughs.

 

Lem follows Fero out, still talking, until they reach the door of a beat-up green car he doesn’t recognise. Lem pauses, trailing off as he looks at Fero.

 

“Well, do you want a ride or not?” says Fero.

 

“I...I guess?”

 

Fero gives him a look. “Then… get in?”

 

They argue on the way to Lem’s place, about the best routes to take, about how to avoid traffic. It’s a fun kind of argument, the kind they’ve been having the entire afternoon, where Fero will make a joke or smile at Lem, taking all of the sting out of whatever he’s saying. Fero, of course, was a taxi driver “for a while”, although he laughs as he says it, so Lem’s not sure whether he’s joking or not. 

 

“So,” says Fero, when they’re parked in front of Lem’s building, “I’m testing out this walking trail next weekend. You should come with me, let me know what you think of it.”

 

“I- yes, sure,” says Lem, “I’d love to.”

 

He can faintly make out a flush across Fero’s cheeks, highlighting the freckles on his cheeks. Lem swallows.

 

“Great,” says Fero, “Great, cool, I’ll text you the details.”

 

“You… don’t have my number?” says Lem.

 

“Right,” says Fero, “So you should... give it to me?”

 

Lem feels his own cheeks flush, tapping his number into Fero’s phone.

 

Fero texts like he talks, rapid-fire information and jokes and questions. He sends through links to maps and times and potential starting spots and Lem does his best to give his opinion, even though the last time he went hiking was… Lem frowns. Years ago. Before Ben was born, maybe. He has a vague memory of Hadrian and Throndir dragging him along on some day trip. He can’t even remember if he liked it.

 

It’s another layer of nerves to the whole thing. What if he goes and he hates it? What if he goes and they don’t have anything to talk about? What if he goes and they’re attacked by a mountain lion? Anything is possible, he doesn’t know anything about hiking.

 

He does his best to think about it a normal amount, failing utterly every time he thinks of Fero’s bright laugh. Work helps distract him a little, although it feels like there are reminders everywhere - a poster in the staff room advertising a national park, someone bringing some kind of spiced apple tea to have with their lunch, walking past the workshop and smelling the fresh wood.

 

And then, it’s the weekend.

 

Fero picks him up in the morning, as bright and cheerful as he was at the barbeque despite the early hour. Lem feels himself smile as he opens the door, and Fero grins back, bouncing in his seat a little while he waits for Lem to put his seatbelt on.

 

Despite Lem’s fears, there’s no mountain lion. It’s possible the noise keeps them away, since it turns out that his fear about their lack of conversation is also unfounded. He doesn’t think he’s spoken so much to another person in years , but Fero pulls the words out of him. He wants to tell Fero as many anecdotes and thoughts as come into his head and Fero listens to all of them, asking questions and poking Lem into arguments and out of them as they make their way along the trail.

 

“So,” says Fero when they stop for lunch at the half-way point, “what do you think, is this one good for a tour?”

 

Lem looks out across the spot they’re picked for lunch, tall pine trees protecting them from the wind of the cliffs. He can see a glimpse of the view they passed through the trees, the city spread out below them. He glances at Fero, only to find that Fero is looking at him intently, so genuinely and openly interested in Lem’s opinion that it makes Lem’s chest feel tight.

 

“Yeah,” Lem manages, “Yes, it’s quite nice. I like it.”

 

Fero smiles. It’s softer than his usual grin, and he ducks his head. Lem feels a swooping sensation in his stomach. He swallows, looking back towards the trees.

 

“Good,” says Fero, “Because we still have to go back down, so if you hated it you’d be kind of stuck.”

 

Lem laughs. Fero’s grin brightens and he bumps their shoulders together. They stay touching as they finish eating, warm skin pressed together under the shade.

 

It’s getting late by the time they get back to the car, the sun just beginning to set.

 

“You want to have dinner at mine?” says Fero, “My place is closer than your’s, and if we eat in then we don’t have to worry about dealing with other people being weird about, y’know. Post-hiking smells.”

 

“I don’t smell,” says Lem.

 

Fero laughs. “Okay, sure. You want to come over, or what?”

 

“I- Yes, okay,” says Lem, “But because you’re offering , not because of… odor reasons.”

 

“It’s not a bad thing,” says Fero, “I mean, I think you smell pretty good, but other people can be weird about that stuff.”

 

“Right,” says Lem faintly, trying not to get too caught up in I think you smell good .

 

Fero’s apartment is even smaller than Lem’s, although much less cluttered.

 

“I’m basically never here,” says Fero, “I mean, I sublet it when I travel so most of my actual stuff is in Hadrian’s shed.”

 

Lem nods, watching as Fero flutters around the kitchen, throwing together something in a pot. It smells amazing, and he tells Fero so.

 

Fero, to Lem’s delight, blushes. “I, uh- thanks.” He clears his throat. “I was kind of a chef for a while.”

 

Lem laughs.

 

They eat together on Fero’s couch, something heavily spiced and amazing. Lem stays there, after, relaxing back onto the couch as Fero bounces up to take their dishes to the kitchen. When he comes back he flops down, their bodies pressed closer together. Lem thinks of their first meeting, sitting close together on a bench in the shade, feeling more comfortable around a near-stranger than he has in years, maybe ever.

 

The darkness outside makes the room feel cozier, more private, making Lem feel a little braver than he would otherwise. He clears his throat. Fero’s body turns towards him, their sides still pressed against one another’s. Fero’s hand is on top of his, between them.

 

“Hey we should go hiking again sometime,” says Fero.

 

“Is this a date?” says Lem, at the same time.

 

They blink at each other. Fero raises his eyebrows.

 

“I- you- Well how was I supposed to know?” splutters Lem.

 

“I don't just ask anyone to help walk trails with me, you know,” says Fero.

 

Lem blushes, hotly pleased. “Well, I- I’m flattered, I suppose.”

 

“Is there a but?” says Fero.

 

“No,” says Lem, “should there be?”

 

“I don’t know,” says Fero, “You’re the one who didn’t know this was a date!”

 

“We just met!” says Lem, “And you didn’t do any… you know. We didn’t do. Date stuff.”

 

“Date stuff,” says Fero, laughing a little.

 

“Hiking can be platonic!” says Lem, his hands fluttering as he gestures. “I’ve been hiking with friends! And you said you do it for work! How was I supposed to know!”

 

“Okay, okay,” said Fero. He catches Lem’s hands in his, tangling their fingers together. “Lem, just so you know, you are on a date right now, this is a date.” He pauses. “Is that- Are you okay with this being a date?”

 

“Yes,” says Lem, a little too fast. He feels himself flush.

 

“Well, okay,” says Fero. He pauses again. “I’m going to do some date stuff now, so you can be sure you’re on a date, since me asking you out and then taking you on a date wasn’t clear enough.”

 

“You-”

 

Fero cuts him off with a kiss. Lem makes a sound of surprise as their lips meet and he can feel Fero pull back a little. He chases after Fero’s lips, putting a hand on the back of Fero’s neck. Fero makes a pleased sound, leaning forwards to press Lem backwards, giving Fero room to straddle him.

 

They break apart after a moment, breathing heavily.

 

“Okay,” says Lem.

 

“Okay?”

 

“Okay, I believe this is a date,” says Lem.

 

Fero laughs, a beautiful bright sound, resting his forehead against Lem’s shoulder for a moment. He leans back, looking at Lem, the smile on his face no less bright for its softness.

 

“Good,” says Fero, “because I’m going to want to ask you out again.”

 

“Okay,” says Lem, “Just be a little clearer next time.”

 

Fero laughs, and leans down to kiss him again.