The gravel crunched beneath Vi’s boots as she loaded up the car with important provisions for their trip: a massive cooler filled with drinks and food, firewood, and tents. She rubbed her hands together when she finished and paused, wondering how the trunk filled up so quickly. She rummaged through various devices she had never seen before, picking up something that looked like an arm of a mannequin in fishnets holding a koozie.
“Hey! Get your fat fingers off the precious cargo,” her sister called from behind her, carrying an armful of even more questionable devices.
“Powder, what the hell is all this?” She dropped the arm and lifted up another machine that looked like a robotic head but had a winding vacuum tube protruding from each of the eye sockets, outfitted with an arsenal of sticky hands at the end of the tubes.
Powder rolled her eyes, grabbing the device out of Vi’s hand and placing it carefully back into the car. “You wouldn’t understand, it’s for science.”
“For fucking-” Vi closed her eyes and let out an even breath. Three seconds in, six seconds out, just like her therapist taught her. She took a moment to calm down before opening the backseat door where science spilled from the car all over Vi’s feet.
THREE SECONDS IN, SIX SECONDS OUT, she fumed.
She loved Mel. For as long as Caitlyn could remember, Mel was able to persuade her to do all manner of things she wasn’t originally keen on doing. So, she wasn’t surprised Mel had successfully convinced her to join this camping trip Jayce and Viktor had arranged. But it didn’t mean she was going to be civil about it.
Caitlyn sighed again, louder.
“Are you quite done pouting over there,” Mel asked, placing her sunglasses atop her head.
“Depends, are we there yet?” Caitlyn huffed.
Mel rolled her eyes. “We have literally been on the road barely half an hour. You are insufferable.” She turned the music louder indignantly.
Caitlyn sighed, placing the palm of her hand under her chin and looked out the window at the passing scenery.
“Oh, come, darling. This little camping trip is supposed to help you, remember? You’ve been so tightly wound - some nature and company will do you some good. You’ll get to meet Viktor’s childhood friends! Maybe being exposed to literally anyone outside of our friendship circle will be healthy for you.”
Mel laughed at that. “Goodness, listen to me. I sound like a proper friend, giving advice and such.” She began to shimmy to the song on the radio proudly.
Caitlyn rolled her eyes and sighed.
Vi walked through the aisles of the gas station while Ekko filled the tank, mindlessly examining each brand and flavor of chips, all manner of chocolate and candy, and every neon color of bottled drinks in the refrigerators.
“Sis, are you serious right now? Pick something!” Powder yelled to Vi as she dropped her pile of goods at the cash register. “You have twenty seconds before I buy all this without you.”
Vi snapped out of her thoughts and ran to the front with a few packs of gummy bears, adding to Powder’s already impressive pile.
“Listen, I know you’re moping or whatever but, sheesh, you need to get over,” she waved her hands vaguely in Vi’s direction, “whatever the fuck this is. You’ve been all kicked puppy-like for the past few months. Come on, Vi,” Powder took a breath and spoke evenly, “I just…don’t like seeing you this way, you know?”
Powder was right. Vi had felt like she was going through the motions for the past few years, balancing three jobs and feeling a little bit lost in general. By some miracle, she was able to have a free week without work and Powder insisted she come see Viktor again since it had been so long.
“Yeah, okay, Pow. You’re right.”
“Of course I’m fucking right, you idiot.” Powder turned to leave, tearing into her bag of twizzlers and dangling five of them from her mouth.
Caitlyn and Mel stood under the shade of a tall birch tree while Jayce and Viktor, who insisted they were experts in tent construction, scurried about the campsite.
“Should…should we help them?” Caitlyn asked, arms crossed, with her back against the trunk of the tree. She picked lazily at some lint on her shirt.
“Absolutely not.” Mel took another bite of her sandwich and they both stood there watching as a tent pole comically sprung from Jayce’s hands into nearby bushes. Jayce glanced back towards Caitlyn and Mel to see if they were watching - they were. He scratched the back of his head and shot them a smile, scrambling to retrieve the pole, determined to build a tent.
“God, what an attractive simpleton.” Mel shook her head at the scene before her.
After a few minutes, a car pulled into the campsite and Viktor went to greet the people piling out of it. Caitlyn watched the reunion carefully. “Have you met any of them?” she asked, as Mel took another bite.
“I went to laser tag with Powder and Ekko once…but never again,” Mel lamented. Caitlyn’s head turned to Mel. “What are you saying- Laser tag? Who are you?” Caitlyn asked, stunned.
“But, I have never met Powder’s sister,” Mel pressed on, ignoring Caitlyn’s questions and taking her sunglasses off. “Why, hello there. Chiseled body, hot undercut, scars galore. My, oh, my, did she just walk out of the catalog of your dreams?” She dramatically fanned herself, feigning a faint into Caitlyn’s shoulder.
Caitlyn punched her.
“OW- I guess so. Jesus, Caity.” Mel rubbed her arm, willing the pain to subside.
“Nothing comes out of your mouth anymore,” Caitlyn blubbered so eloquently, a twinge of red creeping onto her cheeks.
Mel walked off after glaring at Caitlyn to greet the woman with long blue braids using some sort of handshake involving wiggling fingers, bumping elbows, fake gunshots, and a lazy dab.
Caitlyn took a moment to watch the other woman. At some point, she caught Caitlyn’s gaze. At some point, Caitlyn faltered.
Vi was instantly drawn to Caitlyn. She tuned out Jayce’s long, useless introduction as she watched Caitlyn make her way towards her.
“-and that’s when the lab blew up and why I never got to finish my Master’s and, yeah, that’s me!”
“Huh, well, nice to meet you, pretty boy. Viktor talks about you a lot,” Vi responded, having zero clue as to what Jayce said. He made space for Caitlyn when she approached, waving shyly to the group, “Hi, I’m Caitlyn, pleased to meet you all.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked at Vi.
“Yes, hey, I’m Vi. I like your um…” Everything, Vi wanted to say. She looked down. “...shoes.”
Everyone cast their gaze down simultaneously to look at Caitlyn’s shoes. There was absolutely nothing special about them.
“Oh. Thank you.” Caitlyn said, looking down at her old boots, and shifted awkwardly. “I like your arms- I mean, sleeves. Your arm sleeves. I like your shirt. Yes.” Caitlyn covered her face with one hand and missed the way Vi’s eyes crinkled as she smiled.
Mel snorted and Viktor and Jayce exchanged knowing glances.
Powder looked between Caitlyn and Vi, scrutinizing the interaction. “Wow, this is some kind of torture. I’ve never seen Vi-”
“Fishing!” Vi exclaimed nervously.
“What?” Powder laughs, “fishing? What are you-”
“Yes, shouldn’t we go fishing?” Vi insisted, emphasizing her resolve by slamming her fist into her other hand. “That’s what you do when you go camping, right? We go fishing.”
Vi had never fished in her life.
Fishing was a disaster. After many failed attempts at casting her line, Vi accidentally hooked onto Jayce’s ear and almost threw her fishing pole forward before Jayce squeaked out a, “please…don’t?” After that, Vi went to sit by the nearby picnic benches to watch the rest of them fish. Soon after, Caitlyn excused herself and slowly made her way over to Vi.
“I am quite familiar with Jayce’s ability to talk one’s ear off, but your method of retaliation was quite literal.” She sat down next to Vi.
Vi groaned and put her head in her hands.
“If it makes you feel any better, he likely deserved it.” Caitlyn continued, moving to straddle the bench, facing Vi.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Vi mumbled through her fingers, face still buried in her hands.
Caitlyn hummed in response.
“I’ve never been fishing before.”
“Yes, see, that's not exactly a secret. You made that fact known to everyone as soon as you wielded the wrong end of the fishing pole like a flopping lance.” Caitlyn chuckled.
Vi picked up her head, “In my defense…”
Caitlyn waited for Vi to continue. She fidgeted her fingers nervously, wondering if she had teased her too much. Vi’s face remained impassive, staring out to where the others continued to fish. Caitlyn waited a moment longer.
“...In your defense?” Caitlyn prodded, encouraging her.
“Oh, I hoped that somehow we would collectively forget it all happened if I waited long enough.” Vi flashed her a goofy smile.
Caitlyn studied Vi curiously. “I think it would be difficult to forget someone like you.”
They spent most of their days together after that - hiking, cooking, kayaking, and playing card games. Vi reasoned that it was perfectly normal for her heart to pound over the excitement of meeting new friends. Wasn’t it?
Caitlyn’s eyes snapped open a few hours after dozing off. It was their last night at the campsite and her thoughts were mired with the dread of returning to her life. She felt the sudden urge for space, for room to hold her flood of doubt. Quietly as she could, Caitlyn slipped out of the tent and into the night, donned in her hoodie, and headed to the lake. She sat there, lazily skipping rocks out into the water when a voice startled her.
“Mind if I join you?”
Vi stood here, sleepily rubbing her eye in her palm, wearing a black v-neck and loose boxers patterned with little boxing gloves on them.
Caitlyn swallowed. “Of course not.” She scooted over to make space and Vi sat down next to her, shoulder-to-shoulder, and Caitlyn could feel the warmth of her skin even through all the fabric between them. They sat in silence for a few minutes and Caitlyn tried to take Vi in without facing her - the light of the moon reflecting on her skin, the ruffles of her hair, the smell of smoke and honey. She could feel the slow inching of a feeling too familiar to her, the level of it rising in her gradually, despite her earnest attempt to stop it from climbing up her chest.
“When I was a kid, my dad used to get all the blankets in the house and set them up in our bedroom,” Vi broke the silence in a quiet voice, “He’d make a tent out of them and called it camping. We would make shadows and shit with a flashlight, stay up way past our bedtimes or whatever.” She let out a small laugh, one that made Caitlyn feel the dam she was trying to build crack. “Things were easier then.”
Caitlyn eyed the soft ripples of the lake water licking the patch of grass at her feet. She didn’t dare try to steal a glance at Vi. The dam broke fully and the feeling washed over her, slowly drowning her.
“Things were easier then,” Caitlyn said, her voice gravelly, wet with it, already reaching her throat. She didn’t have this type of time with her parents, with them always being busy, with her being raised by an onslaught of different nannies. Yet, she had been filled with their expectations - to be powerful, to be sharp - to become mirrors of her parents. She had been filled with so much, she hardly had space for herself, for things she enjoyed, for people who made her heart lunge with the gravity of their presence.
“I can’t let go,” Caitlyn gulped, her hands at her chest, ready to catch her leaping organs, “of everything, anything. Most days, I don’t feel like myself. Or, I can’t feel like myself. Like I shouldn’t.” It didn’t make sense, but Caitlyn hoped it did.
“What do you feel like?” Vi whispered. The question brushed with the wind along Caitlyn’s skin as goosebumps spread across her forearms.
Like I’m suffocating, she thinks, like I’ll never be good enough for the Kiramman name, like everything would fall apart if you come close to me, like your touch could ruin everything I’ve been conditioned to build…like I’d be okay with all of that.
“Like a misfit.”
Caitlyn and Vi left it at that for a while, each of them lost in their own thoughts, enjoying the presence of the other in comfortable silence. The moment lingered like a dense fog, growing in opaqueness, obscuring the plain truth in front of them.
“Oh, yeah? Prove it,” Vi said teasingly. Something in her tone made Caitlyn relax, despite being filled to the brim with the feeling, pulling the stop in the bathtub.
“I dare you to go skinny-dipping in this lake right now.”
Caitlyn snorted. “Why would I do that? Wait, don’t I get an option for ‘truth?’”
“Truth? You dying to spill some secrets, cupcake? What would I even ask you - what’s your top three favorite drinks or something stu-”
“Coffee, beer, and water,” Caitlyn replied definitively.
“Water- Are you- What?” Vi spluttered. She laughed and Caitlyn smacked her across the shoulder.
“What? Those are perfectly fine beverages!”
“Yeah, if you’re a 75 year-old man, maybe,” Vi cackled.
“I’ll start us off.” Vi stood up and took off her shirt in a swift, easy motion, then slipped out of her boxers. Caitlyn looked away, blushing. She heard a quiet splash in the lake and looked back to see Vi coming up for a breath, moving her hands through her wet hair, pulling it back against her scalp and towards the back of her neck.
“Come on, misfit, your turn.” Vi flashed her a toothy grin as she swam closer to Caitlyn. “The water’s surprisingly nice and warm.” Vi splashed away, giving Caitlyn space. She watched Caitlyn for a while, sitting there with her legs bent and her chin laying on the tops of her knees.
Vi swam away and Caitlyn fell into her thoughts, scouring them for a time she was given an opportunity like this - to let loose, to feel free, to shed the burden of her birthright via sleepwear onto the dirt-stained rocks and dew-kissed grass. Caitlyn plucked a blade of grass from beside her and rubbed her thumb along the moisture on it. How long was too long? And how much longer would she let her life slip past her?
Steadily, Caitlyn stood up, removed her pajamas, and dove into the water.
“-CK!” She was already yelling before she broke the surface, Vi cackling beside her. “ You little shit, it’s freezing!”
“In my defense, I thought you would check the temperature of the water before you jumped in like a maniac. You should have known it was cold,” Vi smirked.
Caitlyn stared at her in disbelief, shivering. “You-” Caitlyn swam her way to Vi and tried to dunk her head underwater, giggling all the while, the weight of her burdens sinking to the bottom of the lake languidly. Caitlyn’s hand found Vi’s, and held it curiously and shyly beneath the surface of the water, fingers curling around her callouses. She brought her other hand up, brushing Vi’s hair away from her eyes, and rested it on her cheek. They leaned into each other slightly.
Then, there was a sudden disruption in the air - a loud, disgruntled sound, rippling through the calm of the night - the sound of Mel fake-clearing her throat. Vi and Caitlyn turned to look towards the shore, where Mel was holding Caitlyn’s underwear by her pointer finger, letting gravity weigh on the lacy garment.
“Are you two skinny-dipping?” Mel’s voice boomed out, unabashedly, much to Caitlyn’s chagrin. Behind her, Powder, Jayce, Ekko and Viktor stood, grinning like idiots, dressed in their assortment of pajamas. Vi and Caitlyn stood frozen, holding onto each other for a bit longer, before the moment could break them apart. Then, as quickly as Caitlyn’s dropped panties fell, they all began tearing off their clothes and jumped into the water. A discordant mess of “FUCK!” and “ARE YOU FUCKING ME?” and “ARE YOU ALL INSANE?” followed.
Their laughter echoed into the night sky under the moonlight. Caitlyn felt something dislodge from her throat then, the ichor of responsibilities sloughing off her, the last bit of that feeling, the one of guilt, dissipating in the cold water. She looked at Vi, and with the movement and chatter of their friends between them, Vi caught Caitlyn’s eyes. They smiled at each other.
“Misfits, you and I,” Caitlyn mouthed to Vi, knowing she wouldn’t understand. Vi shook her head, laughing and pointing to her ear, confirming Caitlyn’s thought.
For the first time in a while, Caitlyn wasn’t worried, wasn’t engulfed in the feeling of guilt.
She knew they had time.