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Day 1

The sun rises behind the arching hills of the Wyoming wilderness. It cracks through the tree line, filtering down through foliage to create intricate patterns on the forest floor, sets the sky alight in a prism of radiant color; streaks of red, pink, orange, all blending sensually together into a breathtaking display as early dawn rolls into morning. The forest is vibrant with sound, the fresh air filled with birdsong, somewhere in the distance crickets chirp and all around leaves rustle quietly in the early morning breeze.

The serenity of the morning is quickly disturbed by a single set of footsteps crunching through the greenery, and a cry, loud and sharp.

“Get the motherfuck- off me!” A voice growls, “Christ, I’m here to help you, stop attacking me!”

Michael kicks at the vine that tangles around his foot, grumbling at the state of his life choices as the burning sun lights a fire on his back. The birdsong seems to increase in pitch as sweat drips down his back and brow. Michael stumbles away from the defiant vine, glaring at it even as he takes a few steps away. His noise and movement causes some kind of nearby forest creature to bolt away from the area, and Michael can’t blame it with the mood he’s in right now. The breeze assists him in pushing his damp hair away from his overheating forehead, providing some much-needed relief from the heat beating harshly down on him.

“Am I even-” he wrestles the map from his back pocket and sighs to himself irritably, “How much farther?”

His muscles are throbbing, continual aches from the previous days hike that haven’t been cured in the slightest by his night spent under the stars--not that he ever expected a sleeping bag on a rocky ground to support a steady slumber, but he would have happily settled for a little more than 3 hours and some genuine relief for the soreness that plagued every fibre of his being.

The air is unusually muggy for June, unusually muggy for Wyoming in general to be honest and isn’t that just Michael’s luck, the heat isn’t even that high but the humidity makes every pore clog with sweat and he finds himself swallowing globs of saliva  down his clogged throat.

He can’t bring himself to spit it out on the fresh mountain grass.

The scribbles on the map—circled contours and quick notes—tell him there isn’t much more to go, but even a few minutes easily feels like an hour with two days of hiking behind him.

As he passes under arches of branches that curve around him like a protective barrier he momentarily loses the sun. In the shade it is cooler, easier to breathe, he can almost feel his sweat chilling on his body.  His legs want to stop but he stubbornly refuses and presses on.

The relief is quickly over, and he’s soon back into the open, tugging aside branches and stray leaves to reveal a clearer path ahead. He could cry with relief as the sight rolls into view. Finally.

A tower looms over the rocks before him and Michael stops, panting terribly as he withdraws his map again and confirms, yes, that is his tower.

His home for the next 3 months.

The sign reads: Two Forks

---

By 2002 most Fire Lookout Towers in the country had been broken down and switched to steel for safety and durability but apparently Wyoming hadn’t quite caught up on the trend. Before him stands a log cabin-esque structure held up on tall, thick beams criss-crossing in support of the weight. Although the beams themselves look old, they don’t look particularly close to cracking--which, Michael assumes they would have sent him to another lookout had that been the case. Or at least he hopes so.

Weak legs barely carry him up the 40-something mossy, wooden steps leading to the cabin. He ascends with shoulders curled to support the weight of his pack that seemed to only grow heavier with every mile of wilderness he travelled. Creaks and groans accompany the climb as he approaches the top.

Practically hauling himself up the last 3 steps, he collapses to sit on the decking that surrounds the cabin. Breathing deep, lungs straining, and brain wishing he’d gone through with the gym subscription he’d signed up for as a new year’s resolution 5 months ago, he glanced around. And almost lost his breath at once.  

The view, he decides immediately, is worth any steady ache that’s burning through every muscle in his body. He leans his hands against the wooden fencing, pressing his face through the wooden bars, drawing in steady breaths of sticky air --it feels thinner up here, easier to inhale--and allows his pack to fall from burning shoulders.

From his tower he can see for miles, pure open forest that seems to go on forever. It’s glowing radiantly in the mid-morning sun, crashing waves of mile high pines pointing in arrowheads to the skyline. The density of the foliage ensures nothing can be seen beyond twisted hues of green and brown, stripped branches peeking out amongst thick greenery.

At the furthest point clouds, soft and wispy, gently brush the tips of the highest peaks, hiding the highest points on the distant pines.

It takes all of Michael’s effort to get his legs moving again but eventually he uses the railings to stand and chooses to drag the pack by its rubber enforced handle along the decking rather than hauling it back to his aching shoulders.

He takes a look at his lodge, his cabin, his woodland home.

Aside from one small pane of glass set into the door, all other windows are boarded up (most likely to protect the glass from the battering of nature while it sat unoccupied) panels of wood half painted, chipped at the corners and cracked. Michael absently hopes there might be a hammer supplied inside; he isn’t in favour of spending a day trying to pry out the nails with his fingers alone.

The door sticks, needs a good tug to free it from the frame. Michael’s hand burns.

The interior cabin is very reminiscent of the one time his mother sent him to camp. Two weeks with a cluster of kids from six to twelve (Michael was somewhere in the middle) living top-to-tail in wooden cabins alongside a slow-flowing river in the mountains. It had been a sticky summer, high heat and high humidity, hell on earth for a poor kid who was used to bundling up like a marshmallow man many months out of the year.

Inside, with a half-empty square footage of around 10 ft and a musty smell of brushed cedar, it’s clear immediately that the living space hasn’t been occupied in a while. Straight off the bat there’s smatterings of dust on the plastic basin set into a counter that runs the length of one side, following that it’s the musky smell, the kind of --door hasn’t been opened in a decade-- kind of musk, a thick scent that would take a couple of days of leaving the door open to clear.

A set of new linens sit folded on a cot against one wall-- they look like army surplus, khaki and red, and the thread count leaves much to be desired but the exhausted hiker can’t bring himself to care and he spreads the sheets haphazardly over the bed and sits down.

Oh God,” He groans gratefully as he sinks back onto the firm mattress lining the cot. It’s little more than a camp-bed but it feels like heaven. Anything horizontal and cushioned was more than welcome.

He’s ready to doze off, easily prepared to sleep away the rest of the day when a noise startles him out of his calm.

“Two Forks tower come in,” It’s a voice. A low voice, slightly husky and tired sounding.

Michael blinks up at the ceiling, groans again and twists his head towards the door.

A sigh, “Pick up the radio, Two Forks.”

Slowly, he rises, hissing as it stretches his sore muscles. The sound comes from the radio receiver docked on the desk next to the place Michael had dumped his bag upon entering the cabin.

“Radio. Pick it up.” A pause and then, “I know you’re there, I saw you crawl to the top.” There’s humour tucked beneath the frustration.

Goddamnit. He moves a little too quickly and staggers onto the desk rather ungracefully as his legs flood with pins and needles. His hands encloses around the radio.

“Hello?”

“Heeeey, Buddy,” The dragged out words carry a hint of a smile, a slight crack in the middle, and the rest comes out wheezy like a broken squeaker toy.

“Uh, Hi?” He replies sleepily, scrubbing a hand over his face in an attempt to wake up. It doesn’t work.

“You gotta give me some confirmation that they sent me someone with more than 2 syllables worth of brain cells.”

Michael scoffs grumpily, “Let me sleep for a year and I’ll give you all the syllables you fucking want.”

Barked laughter startles a little sleepiness from Michael’s head, “Aha! A live one, s’been awhile since I heard one of those,” The voice announces with annoying volume, “it’s Michael right?” 

Scrubbing at his eyes, he sits, feeling the weight of exhaustion tugging on his consciousness, “Check, and I’m guessing you’re my supervisor, the one Sorola mentioned in the email?”

The man hums in affirmation, “Geoff Ramsey at your service.”

“Nice to meet you, Geoff Ramsey, now shut up so I can go to sleep,” Michael groans. Between his eyes a headache is starting to form, blossoming unpleasantly within the soft tissue beneath his skull.

Geoff chuckles, it sounds just as raspy as before, “You’re making a hell of a first impression there champ.”

With a sigh Michael folds himself down onto the mattress, curling up on his side with the radio hovering inches from his lips.

“Don’t care. Sleep. Now.”

Another laugh. “The hike really took that much out of you?”

“I can’t feel my legs.” Michael whispers, eyelids drooping now, beyond his control. He thanks every deity out there that the panels across the window are acting perfectly in keeping out the mid morning sun.

Geoff huffs a breath, “I assure you they’re still there. Get some rest then, I won’t blame you for being out of commission for a little while.” Michael can almost hear the smile in his words.

The exhausted man grumbles something unintelligible into the pillow under his face.

“Can’t promise you a year though,” Geoff notes, but Michael doesn’t hear him, he’s too busy snoring softly.

---

Day 2

“If you aren’t awake by now I’m reporting you.”

Michael pulls his arm away from where it had been resting across his eyes for the better part of a half hour at the sound of Geoff’s voice.

Truth is he’s been up a while, pottering around his home away from home. He quickly found a stash of cleaning supplies hidden behind the sink a short time after waking, and every surface had been subsequently dusted and wiped clean. The now de-cluttered desk is free of sticky coffee cup rings, even the floor is a lot less gritty as Michael swings his legs down and ambles to the radio dock.

“I’m up, don't fire me yet. What time is it?"

“Well good morning, Michael!” Geoff greets cheerily, “It’s ten by the way, and you sleep like a log.”

20 hours? That has to be a record, someone call Guinness. “Oops.”

Geoff laughs, “Sleep well?”

“Too well,” Michael replies sheepishly. He pulls out the desk chair with a harsh scrape of wood and sits.  

“It’ll probably be the best you get for the next few months, if you’re anything like me so I hope you enjoyed it.”

“Bad sleeper?” Michael guesses.

“A lot of time with my own thoughts.” There’s a story there, the young man can feel it, but it’s too early to delve, too soon to be demanding years of life from someone he barely knows.

He drags the conversation into another direction, “Alright boss, so tell me, what do I do for the next three months? Just sit here and spot smoke?”

Geoff hums in affirmation, “Pretty much. Chill out, and hope your sector does the same.”

“And what qualifies as my sector?” He glances up but all he sees are the cracks in the wooden panels he still has to remove.

“Look outside,” Geoff says, voice low, “Everything the light touches is yours, Simba.”

Michael can’t help but smile as he groans over the seriousness in Geoff’s voice, “Oh god, tell me I’m not gonna have a whole summer of shitty movie references,”

“Excuse me?” Geoff gasps, “Shitty movies? The Lion King is not a shitty movie, it’s an emotional masterpiece of the twentieth century,”

Michael chuckles, stroking a finger along the wood grain and he coos, “Oh I’m sorry, didn’t realise they allowed five year olds to marshal fire towers nowadays,”

“You do not have to be a child to appreciate cinematic genius,” Geoff scoffs.

“Okay, I can see I’ve touched a nerve, forget I said anything,” Michael says through a smirk, “So what should I do then?”

“About offending my movie choices?”

Shaking his head in dismay, Michael sighs directly down the airwaves, “With my day, boss, you know...the job?”  

Geoff lets out a soft “Ohh,” and doesn’t remove his fingers from the button.

“Well I bet you’re hungry by now,” Michael stomach rumbles with perfect timing and he realises it’s been almost 24 hours since he’s eaten anything. He’d barely noticed all morning but now, thinking about it, his stomach ached.

“Uh famished, actually,” he says finally.

“Yeah well, unfortunately for you, the request for a supply drop for your tower wasn’t put in with enough time.”Geoff comments, “There hasn’t been anyone in Two Forks for a while you see.”

“And that means?”

“It means I took a walk down to a cache near you and donated a little of my own supplies to tide you over until they get their act together and feed you.”

It’s a nice effort, a great ice breaker between man and supervisor, but Michael can’t help but speak a little sarcastically when he answers, “Aw, thanks boss, how kind of you, couldn’t have just brought it to my door though?”

“Hey if you don’t want it I can always head back there and retrieve every-” Geoff sounds let down, probably just as sarcastically as Michael, but he can’t be sure.

“No!” Michael cuts in quickly, “No, thanks I’m grateful, promise. Just tell me where I can find these supplies that I am very thankful for and I’ll be on my way.”

Geoff wastes no time in informing him, “It’s on your map, cache 303 to the North," After a brief pause he tags on carefully, "you do know how to read a map, don’t you?”

Michael scoffs, “Of course I know how to read a damn map, I got here didn’t I?” Already he’s staring down at the paper, making sense of all the coloured lines and blobs. Rivers, creeks, forests - they’re all marked down in carefully measured squares.

“It’s a straight walk from the drop off,” Geoff says, “but sure, I’ll trust you.”

Michael stands, stretches, and backs up towards the bed before Geoff’s voice drags him back.

“Oh and Michael? Clip your radio to your belt or something; don’t wanna be left out there without it.” Michael does so immediately. It slides into place easily and feels relatively secure--he gives it a couple of test tugs to make sure.

“Sure thing boss.”

---

He doesn’t leave immediately. His stomach rumbles unhappily but he unzips his pack and empties it on the bed before he finds himself back out on the trails with half his own weight strapped to his back. He’s had plenty of that in the last few days.

Instructions on what to pack had been incredibly simple. Pack light, pack basic, pack smart. An email from Wyoming State Forestry Commissioner G. Sorola which Michael had followed up with ‘Okay but what do I really need to pack.’ The response had Michael wondering about the lack of professionalism in the WSFC.

 

I’m not your mother, this isn’t camp. Pack like the apocalypse claimed your family and all hope is gone.

 

G.Sorola

 

Surprisingly it hadn’t helped much. 

“Tell me about yourself, Michael.” Geoff says as Michael drops his toothbrush and the first of many toothpaste tubes into an empty tin mug.

“What do you wanna know?”

“Anything,” Geoff says, “Christ I don’t even know your last name.”

“Gus didn’t tell you?” Michael ponders; surely his supervisor should have a complete file on the person he would be...supervising. Although the questions had been sparse when he’d applied.

“Listen,” Geoff shoots back in a tired voice, “when you’ve been up here as long as I have you’ll start filtering messages from people like Gus. Michael, new, don’t let him die, what else did I need to know.”

Michael huffs a laugh and throws the roughly packed fold-out tent under the bed frame, wishing the damn thing a pleased goodbye. “It’s Jones,” he says.

“Jones, Michael Jones,” Geoff seems to be mulling it over on his end and Michael leans back in his chair, peering up at Thorofare, imagining that his supervisor is mirroring his position all the way up there. Eventually he speaks again. “Nice name, Jones, it’s got a good balance.”

“I’ll let my Mom know you approve,” He lets his finger off the button just long enough to hear Geoff chuckle before continuing. “About that not letting me die thing, is that a genuine concern?”

“You’re an eye for forest fires, it’s not exactly a risk free environment, especially if you decide to be one of those ‘I need to save the world’ types and try to tackle shit on your own,” Geoff muses. Through the static Michael hears a creak that sounds very close to a desk chair being tipped back. He imagines the other man more accurately now--as much as he can with absolutely 0 information-- leaning back, feet kicked up onto the desk; maybe his cabin is a mirror of Michael’s, probably more personal effects, possibly just as sparse. Maybe he’s looking out at Michael’s tower just as much as Michael was his.

“Uhh, no thanks. I do have some semblance of self preservation,” He says, even though he is balancing rather precariously on the two back legs of his chair barely leaning on the desk, on the tipping point between being upright and crashing to the floor.


“Good,” Geoff replies shortly, succinct, “you’re the best conversation I’ve had in months; I’d like to keep you for a while. 

Michael laughs at that then, finally pulling himself back to four-legged chair safety, “What am I, your dog?”

“While you’re under that roof you may as well be.” Michael can hear the smile in his voice.

Michael bites his lip and swings the now empty pack up to his shoulder, “You know what, I think I’ll go out and get those supplies now.” 

As he turns the handle and folds the map into his pocket, laughter crackles from the radio and a feeling akin to satisfaction bubbles in Michael’s belly.

 

---

 

He locks his door, though he isn’t sure why. It hadn’t been locked before his arrival and it didn’t seem a place to have a problem with squatters but he locks it nonetheless; they had provided him a key after all, may as well use it.

His pack gives him as best weight distribution as he could hope for, stopping him from having to lean too much forwards to carry himself back down the trail he’d passed through the day before. The ache in his muscles has --thank god-- dissipated to a dull soreness that proves to be a hell of a lot more manageable to both his body and his psyche, he even manages a little jog up a mound of dry earth.

“Are you from anywhere close?” Geoff asks as Michael pulls out his map, cupping the compass in his right palm as he struggles with the radio in his left.

“New Jersey but I spent the last few years in Texas.” He’s heading a little too much east but a quick turn sets him back in the right direction.

“Oh yeah? You into the whole being cooked alive eleven months out of the year thing?”

He has to wait a moment before replying, taking a drop about 3 feet as he continues on the path. Birds circle over head, eerily large creatures with wings that cut out the sun with each pass.

“Not really, I prefer a little frost on my mornings, never got a chance to acclimatise though.”

Geoff hums, “If you aren’t into the heat then why go?”

“Work,” Michael replies, cutting himself short and hoping Geoff won’t pry. He doesn’t. “What about you? Native?” he asks, softening up the conversation once more.

“Alabama born and raised,” Geoff declares, slurring in a dramatic accent.

“You gonna be my sweet southern belle, Geoffrey?” it's surprising how easily conversation comes between them. Michael focuses on the directions laid out before him.

Geoff chuckles, “I’ll be whatever you want me to be sweetheart.”

 

---

 

The cache is locked when Michael comes across it alongside a babbling stream. It’s half a metre square, set back into the line of bushes, and while it may once have been a pleasant buttercup in color by now the forest has stained various parts of it mossy green. The small padlock is his only obstacle.

“2, 4, 6, 8” Geoff informs when he inquires the code.

“Secure.” Michael quips through a smirk as he nimbly spins the dial.

Geoff snorts, “Find me a raccoon that can count,” he says easily, adding, “Or can operate a padlock.”

The lock clicks open and drops to the ground, “Fair point,” he notes, barely paying attention as his mouth begins watering against his will.

Inside, neatly wrapped in plastic wrap and bagged up in a zip-lock sleeve the size of his chest, is a selection of bread, meats, and fruit. The bread looks fresh, not the packet, sliced loaf kind that you get off the shelves in the humdrum of everyday life--no this bread looks soft and crispy on top, golden brown and the length of his forearm.

Similarly the meats appear to be cut off the bone, not vacuum sealed. He must have a cooler to keep this okay in the heat but sure enough there’s a semi-frozen ice sheet beneath the food that’s obviously been keeping it from sweating under the heat of the June sun.

“Christ this looks amazing right now.”

“Well don’t pig out just yet, remember it’s gotta last you until the commissioners get their asses in gear and I’m not making assumptions on how fast that’ll be,” As he says it, Michael is already drawing out a vibrant red apple from the bag.

It’s the size of his fist and smooth skinned, he takes a bite and the juices slide down his throat, the crisp texture had a nice crunch to it and the taste is divinely sweet. Taking another look down into the box he grins.

“Root Beer?” he gasps in delight.

Geoff confirms with a high pitched “Yep!” and as Michael turns the bottle in his hand Geoff repeats what he’s reading, “It’s non-alcoholic, sorry, but I recommend letting it sit in the creek for a little while, I reckon it’s pretty warm by now.”

As tempting as a chilled beer -albeit a kiddie one- is, Michael can’t resist cracking it open and necking half the bottle in only a couple of swallows.

It’s unbelievably refreshing.

“Got another of those?” he says through quick breaths.

Geoff laughs and Michael can picture him nodding his head as he does, “Remind me to throw you one down if you’re ever up this way.”

Michael smiles, “I’ll hold you to it.”

---

That afternoon he stands out on the deck and wrenches out nails with a crowbar from the toolbox beneath the sink. Sweat gathers in pearls along his hairline, dripping and cooling in slow succession.

One by one the panels fall away, he sands the splinters left behind by the rough removal and soon the windows are pouring burnt auburn, late afternoon light into the cabin. It feels like fall.

As he works he can see Thorofare out of the corner of his eye and wonders if Geoff is watching him right now. Or maybe he’s actually looking out for fires. Maybe a little of both.

He wipes sweat from his brow, takes a sip of lukewarm water, and gets back to work sealing up the last few holes in the woodwork.

Maybe he should take a trip down to the creek Geoff mentioned.

 

Day 3

 

“So. What do you look like?”

Michael unclips the radio from his belt without taking his eyes off the view ahead. It’s dark, probably close to midnight, and besides the illuminated cabin across the trees, the world is in slumber. It’s funny, he’d expected the place to have a horror movie vibe; a literal cabin in the woods, miles and miles of empty forest, it could have easily become the spookiest place Michael had ever been. But it wasn’t.

In fact he felt more at peace with the blackness ahead than he ever had in the safety of his own home.

The sun had taken with it the sticky heat of the day, rolled in clouds of cool air that soften the breeze blowing through the curls on his head; he leans over the edge of the wooden barrier and presses in the PTT button.

“You’re up late.”

The response comes quickly, “So are you. So tell me, newbie, what do you look like.”

Michael sucks his teeth, “God it’s been years since anybody’s called me a newbie," he says after a moment, “What do you wanna know?”

“Like, hair, eyes,” he pauses, but his finger is still hovering over the button so Michael can’t reply just yet, “dick size, shit like that.”

A snort of laughter escapes in a quick breath, “You painting me like one of your french girls, old man?” he chuckles, grinning widely, fingers tapping out a familiar beat onto the wood.

“Now who’s playing with movie references?” Geoff laughs, “Nah, I need a roommate for my Sim and my creativity’s shot.”

Michael’s tapping pauses, his right eyebrow quirking upwards in amusement. The Sims? Really? He shifts his position slightly, relaxing more heavily onto the wooden barrier,

“Lemme guess, under normal circumstances you’re a regular Charles Dickens.” He drawls lowly into the radio, propping his head up in a palm.

“Pfft. Charles Dickens ain’t got nothin on me. So come on. Rents going up. What’s your eye colour?”

Michael rolls his eyes and turns his head to the far off tower, “Brown. And how are you even playing Sims? I was told to leave my laptop at home, useless around here.”

“That’s because I’m not a philistine. iPad dude.”

Michael gapes, head shooting up as his palm slaps against the wood in outrage, cursing himself internally for not thinking of doing the same thing, “Bullshit! I didn’t even bring my phone!”

“Sucks to be you.” Geoff sings, “Hey, you can play vicariously through me. I’ll even let you pick what Sim You’s job is.”

Still a touch stung over his self-betrayal, Michael grumbles to himself quietly and settles back down, dispersing a small ache in his foot by shifting his weight again, “You mean you haven’t thrown your sim into the deep woods to let life imitate art? Or I guess, art imitate life,”

“Nah. Even doing that to some computer code is just cruel and unusual punishment. Now do I have to pull out my telescope and creep on you or will you tell me your hair colour? At this rate my sim will be dead before yours is made.”

“There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that you do in fact own a telescope but I’m gonna go ahead and assume your drunk ass would drop it off the tower if you even tried, so,” Michael pauses, eyes flicking upward absentmindedly as he mulls over his options. A mischievous grin slowly spreads across his face, “I’m blonde. Think seven time surfing champion with the sun bleached hair of a Greek god.”

Geoff doesn’t say anything for a minute, neither of them are touching the radio, and then he comes back with a sly, “...Sure thing ginger. No. Brown. Just some red in there.”

Michael’s eyes snap down in shock, eyeing the other tower with raising eyebrows. His mouth gapes open for a few seconds as he leans forwards on the wooden barrier, blowing wisps of hair from his face as he squints into the distance. His short bark of laughter echoes deeply into the inky night,

“You have a fucking telescope, you actually do have one don’t you, holy shit it’s like you stepped right out of a shitty teen movie.”

“We’re in the middle of the fucking wilderness seeking out fires; of course I have a telescope. You do too, actually. Check the footlocker at the end of your bed.”

Rolling his eyes, Michael tears them from his new favourite view and steps back inside, immediately missing the soft air. The footlocker is more like a half-assed Boy Scout project, a wooden box with crappy hinges that’s tucked under the bed frame right next to the tent. Inside is where he finds a second compass, a couple of red sticks he assumes are flares, and...The telescope.

He immediately shoots for payback.

“You know, you don’t strike me as a Sims kind of guy,” he ponders as he clicks two pieces of the telescope together and examines the lens.

“Oh yeah? I don’t strike you as someone who needs to cure 7 years of boredom?”

“You’ve been here 7-” he shakes his head, huffing out a breath, “Okay, you can keep your sims, I suppose they’re your only friends.”

“Hey! I take offense, I have plenty of friends. I have you for a start.”

Swinging the telescope up to the North facing window he points the long tube at the tower across from his and squints. Thorofare tower stands proud as a speck in the distance. The telescope zooms far enough for the mountainside it's perched on to become visible, though the surrounding grounds are hidden under a layer of darkness. Through large, wide windows Michael can see the shadowed outlines of thorofares cabin interior, but no man. No Geoff.

Immediately he’s smirking, “Oh yeah, friend, are you hiding from me?”

“No...oof!” the radio cuts off amidst apparent chaos but before it does Michael heads some incoherent cursing and two dull thuds.

“That’s not fair! You’ve been watching me like a creep since I got here!”

Geoff holds down the button seemingly just so that Michael can listen to his maniacal laughter, suspiciously high pitched and dramatic.

“Geoff?” he ventures even though they are now both holding down the button and the stream of words cut out.

Alright, alright.” Geoff replies, sounding a little more...slurred than before, “Gimme a sec.”

“What did you do?” Michael asks in concern, had Geoff injured himself falling? Was he now lying on his tower floor concussed and hurt? He squints harder through the lens and considers putting a call in, but he's still faced with nothing more than the empty windows.

Way too quickly Geoff reports back “Nothing,” and dissolves into laughter again.

It hits Michael like a sledgehammer and his eyes widen, his mouth dropping open and the telescope hitting the ground as realisation crashes in,“Oh my god, are you drunk?”

“The state of Wyoming doesn’t support the consumption of alcohol in the workplace,” Geoff states, though his words smash together so that it takes Michael’s brain a few seconds to split them apart into a coherent sentence.

“You are drunk!”

A pause, and then, “I may have shooed off some unsavoury folks down by the lake earlier and maybe they had good taste in whiskey.”

“Red label?” Michael guesses with his very limited knowledge of the drink. He's always been more partial to a nice cold beer over hard liquor. His e- a friend of his was a fan of a single malt, but Michael had never acquired a taste.

Apparently he has made the wrong decision because Geoff splutters and says as though offended, “What are you, a frat boy? Bourbon, please.”

“Well aren’t you just a walking cliché.” he says, rolling his eyes. Unsure at this moment if his choice of words are only to annoy his drunken boss more.

Geoff hasn’t emerged from the floor, Michael notes as he squints through the telescopic lens once more.

“Hey!” The voice snaps, “Bourbon is not cliché, bourbon is a goddamn classic.”

"You're right, you're right. Getting shitfaced in the middle of a national park where the nearest help is laughing at your drunken ass." Michael says through a deadpan expression and wishing Geoff could see him, “Classic.”

“I’ll have you know I function perfectly well under the inflen- influn- effect of alcohol.” Michael creases up in laughter as the total descent into a drunken mess his boss has stumbled into becomes comically apparent. He tucks his hands into his stomach as he struggles to hold it in, the telescope dropping.

“You think it might be time to turn in sweetie?” he asks as he wipes tears from his eyes.

Geoff lets out a breathy hah and says, in the most childish of voices, “No you hang up.”

Rolling his eyes, Michael retreats to his bedside, “You are ridiculous and I’m gonna close off all my windows.”

Geoff hums in the negative, “Can’t. Rules. Regulations.”

“Mhm, sure.”

“Sorry, I don’t make the rules. Guess you’ll just have to sleep knowing I’m watching you while you jack off to Sasquatch.”

Michael falls onto his back on the mattress, “Excuse me, If I’m gonna jack off I can find better materials than a hairy mountain dweller.”

“I’ll have you know, people find me very attractive and I’m offended.”Michael snorts so hard his nose hurts, and Geoff can be heard giggling at his own joke like a five year old being cheeky at the back of a classroom.

Ridiculous.”He repeats, “Go to sleep, Geoffrey, I’ll message you at dawn. Wake you up properly.”

“Oh Michael,” Geoff whispers in what Michael assumes to be his drunken attempt at a sultry tone,  “You don’t need to try, you get me up easy enough.” The wink is so heavily implied that Michael almost performs the action but doesn’t.

He thinks about responding, honestly he does; he can play that game as well as anybody, but a familiar tug in his gut stops him and pulls him short. Everything had been going so well but there it was, holding him back...again. The fingers of his curled left hand hover over the button but pull away at the last second, tossing the handset somewhere towards the square rug in the centre of the room.

It connects with a thud.

Seconds pass by before Geoff’s voice filters out from the speaker--quiet, muffled by the rug, “Michael?”

He thinks about fetching it. He doesn’t.

Geoff mumbles a soft curse and the radio goes silent.

 

Chapter Text

The ‘drunken incident’ as Michael calls it, passes rather quickly and by the next day Geoff is sobered up completely and directing Michael towards a small bush fire in the east. It burns down pretty fast, the smoke is barely visible over the treetops, but Geoff uses it as a learning experience on how to spot a fire in the ignition stages. Michael won’t blame Geoff for his crude joke, and Geoff doesn’t seem inclined to comment either.

The job is a welcome distraction.

After that they fall into routine, and for the next week Michael hovers over the Osborne Firefinder (a topographic map laid horizontally on a table in the centre of the room; the circular rim is marked up in degrees) though he isn’t entirely sure how he’s meant to use the thing. He peers through the sight, fiddles with the degrees, and ends up spinning circles around the device like a circus top.

A few times he reaches for the radio to ask Geoff for a little instruction but stops short, deciding he’ll use his physical sight and hope for the best.

With the rest of his time he sits out on the deck with his legs suspended over the open drop with a battered copy of ‘To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf’  (he’s handed out hundreds of copies to students during school hours but has yet to actually read it himself) and munches on the remainder of Geoff’s donated supplies before his own drop comes five days after his first arrival.

He reads about the Ramsays --what irony-- and shoots back responses when Geoff inevitably radios him with the odd question or notification. He fetches his drop on Monday and takes a hike out into the forest with a stacked ham sandwich which he drops into cache 309 and buzzes up to his supervisor.

Geoff thanks him in the middle of the night and he smiles as he falls asleep to the lights dimming in the tower in the distance.

Day 9

The radio crackles as Michael flicks calmly through the next few pages of his book. It’s early, and true to Geoff’s prediction, he’s been up half the night. It’s hard to sleep when moonlight penetrates the pitch blackness and points directly onto his pillow and, subsequently, his face. But he finds there’s more to it than that. It’s a strange feeling, sleeping so high above the canopy, with creaking wood beneath him and the scurrying of critters feet pit-pattering on the deck out all around him.

It balances somewhere between calm and unsettling.

It makes for a rough first week.

“So, why are you here?”

Michael, once more reclined with his feet on the desk, reaches over his knees with one hand searching for a few seconds before he closes around the radio and pulls it free.

“To keep the State of Wyoming safe from the danger of forest fires.” He recites straight from the letter that peeks out under his bedside lamp without even looking up from the dogeared pages of To the Lighthouse. He’s engrossed in the story as death after death roll through the pages and a family is decimated before his mind’s eye.

He has no idea why the students have such trouble getting through the text, as far as Michael is concerned, it’s an absorbing read.

“Ha Ha,” Geoff replies dryly, “Come on, everyone has a reason for taking fire watch over literally anything else,” Michael folds down the corner of the page and sets it down on the desk, feeling a longer conversation blossoming, “You sound pretty young, you must have better things to do than spend a summer alone in a tower in the woods, with only a wretched old man to keep you company.”

Michael shrugs as if Geoff is right there in front of him. “I had to get a job to appease my probation officer; what can I say, it was either this or stacking shelves in Target, and I would rather step into a wild forest fire than do that shit for three months.”

Geoff hums and clicks the PTT three times before replying, “Funny, they don’t usually allow criminals into this job, pyromaniacs and all that, you must have been something special in your interview.”

Michael kicks his feet down, leaning on his elbows and huffs out a hot breath.

“Should I be offended that you didn’t even question the possibility of me being a felon? Do I really sound that bad?” He asks, coloring his tone with a slight resentment.

“You aren’t?” Geoff enquires casually.

“No! It was a joke!” Michael shrieks, his voice maybe a little too shrill but he isn’t one for keeping that in check. “I work in a school,” he explains, “for three months out of the year I have no income, jesus Geoff way to build trust.”

He realises quickly that he’s up and pacing by the window, and quickly drops down to his knees in case Geoff can see him.

“Well then, I’m going to be just as offended that you had nothing to say about me being a wretched old man.” Michael drops to his ass, legs sprawled before him and pauses before saying anything in return, hoping Geoff is joking as much as he is.

“You don’t exactly sound fresh out of the womb, boss,” He jokes nervously, pleased to hear the desired laughter come through following it rather than any sign of a potential snap in the developing friendship.

“Fair enough, Jones, fair enough.” Geoff concedes, and Michael relaxes a little. “But I know for a fact they don’t advertise for Wyoming fire rangers in Texas.”

Michael pauses, then. Geoff is right--at least partly so. The radio jumps between his hands anxiously before he settles on how much to offer.

“A friend suggested it,” Michael says eventually, and then nothing else.

“Is that really all I’m getting?” Geoff asks, his voice sounds pouty and miserable.

Michael shrugs again, “That’s all there is.”

“Okay Jones, you win this round but I will find out some time, we have a whole summer after all,” Michael exhales slowly, thankfully, as the interrogation stops. He isn’t sure how much longer he could have held out.

Michael’s stomach growls grumpily under his lightweight tee, and Michael rises to his feet to dig around for something to subside the hunger. He has one slice of bread left from the weeks drop, and he slaps a knife-full of blueberry jam across the surface, smearing it by squishing the sides together. He can mop up the overspill later, he thinks, shoving half the sandwich into his mouth in one bite.

He’d have to learn to ration the supplies a little better over the next few months. Cheese was a first or second day pleasure, any longer and he runs the risk of it spoiling in the cabin heat, he slices it thinly over a chunk of bread and nibbles at the rest as the day goes by. Canned food was pretty much useless unless he found the effort to set up a contained fire to cook it--so far he hasn’t, but he’ll have to get his ass in gear if he wanted to eat before Monday now that the fresh foods had been consumed.

“So, you a teacher?” Geoff enquires suddenly as Michael laps up a dribble of jam from his lip.

He hums in response, swallowing down the last mouthful, “In training.”

“Subject?”

“English.”

“You like it?”

He doesn’t even need to consider it, “About as much as anyone can like inner-city tweenagers.”

A whistle, low and sympathetic streams forth, “Ouch, got stuck with the mobs.”

“Only position available,” Michael huffs. “If I had more of a choice I’d go for College, at least they made somewhat of a decision to be there.”

Geoff laughs at that, “Nothing worse than a gaggle of cornered kids with no desire to attend a single class,” he agrees as a twinkling sound cuts across him, “One sec, dude.”

His end muffles, but doesn’t cut out, Michael hears him through the rough channel, ears pricking as he hears his name.

“Really? I have to--” he moves a little too far away, returning in patches, “But I’m so lonely Gus, Michael keeps me-” he cuts away again and Michael groans out in frustration, I keep him...what? “Fine, fine, you’re the boss,” he finishes, sarcasm dripping from his tongue.

“Ugh, I’ve gotta head out for a while,” Geoff reports, voice clear once again as he returns to Michael’s frequency, adding “Don’t miss me too much,” with a sly grin clear even through nothing but a radio.

Michael grins too, “I’ll try.”

Geoff barks a laugh but goes silent a second later as Michael tries to quell the fluttering butterflies doing somersaults in his stomach.

I can’t, not again.

---

Day 14

“Someone’s popping firecrackers by the basin.”

Michael swallows his mouthful of barely cooked hot dogs, sucking the food from his teeth as he responds to the call, “Uh, Good afternoon Michael, how are you today?”

“Yeah yeah,” Geoff dismisses quickly, “look I need you to head down there and tell ‘em to fuck off in the nicest way possible.”

“Kids?” Michael says with a frown. He squints in the direction of Thorofare as if he could see the offenders for himself. In the warm light he’s even less likely than normal, though, and all he sees is the usual dense foliage.

“Who knows,” Geoff replies, “Could be anyone, I’m just losing my goddamn mind listening to these fucks and their howling.”

Michael laughs, “Howling...are you sure it’s not Wolves, Geoff?”

“You find me a wolf in your territory and I’ll let you kick back until your three months are over.”

“Is that a promise?” He asks as though the thought of having even less to do with his time isn’t the exact opposite of favorable. He’s already bored after 2 weeks with no sign of a significant blaze to occupy his mind.

“No,” Geoff replies bluntly. “Go get the fuckers.”

“Should I be questioning the howling?” Michael asks, hitching his pack high onto his shoulders.

“Probably drunk.”

“It’s three in the afternoon!”

“Nothing wrong with a nooner, Jones.”

He concedes slamming the door behind him as he makes for the stairs, “Alright mister don’t drink on the job, you didn’t hand them your whiskey did you?”

“You think there’s whiskey left? Wow we really need to get to know each other better.”

Michael chuckles and keeps moving, stopping just short of the first turn around the tower.

“Wait, isn’t the basin your territory?” He enquires, “Why am I shooing them off?”

“Because I’m your boss,” Geoff replies smugly, “And with seven years seniority over you, I get to use you as my errand boy every once in awhile.”

Michael mutters an agreement and bounds his way to the next turn, another thought crossing his mind as he slows to a walk as the steps met ground.

“When you say as nicely as possible, what are we talking about?”

“Don’t hit them,” Geoff says, blunt as a butter knife.

Michael nods. “Got it.”

He tries not to sound too disappointed.

---

 

It takes a good couple of hours to hike to the basin, Geoff would have been infinitely closer and may have been able to stop the morons from lighting up the bank of the body of water like a flare. Definitely kids--probably between 16 and 18-- sloshed on cheap liquor that is only adding fuel to the crackling fire spreading slowly down the edge of the basin. Five of them, two stood with the aforementioned firecrackers in hand, lighters at the ready to release another batch; the other three laid out on the sandy foreshore, lazily laughing at the antics of their friends.

Michael freezes in place just behind the treeline trying to decide what to do first. Report the fire--but to who? Geoff? The rangers? He didn’t even have a contact with the rangers, bad place to start. But if he allowed the kids to continue then the blaze could become out of control rapidly. He’s seen enough Smokey the Bear infomercials to know that.

“Fuck it,” he murmurs, steeling himself for confrontation. His shoulder square up, he puffs his chest, and musters up his deepest, more booming voice.

“YO, FUCKHEADS, PISS OFF BEFORE I SMASH YOUR TINY DICKS IN!”

The kids startle as much as their liquor thick brains will allow. The boy closest, a short kid with a beanie covering thick blond hair and pants riding so low on his hips they almost slip to his ankles, spins on his heel looking about as spooked as a baby rabbit and scurries over the rocks and into the trees.

“Nick, what the fuck?” one of the others yells from the ground while the boy standing swaggers over and squares up to Michael.

The stench of alcohol on his breath almost chokes the lookout but he thrusts his chin out and forces himself to stand strong. The others approach now, minus the boy who took off running.

“What you want, asshole?” The kid says. He has a couple of inches on Michael but the alcohol in his bloodstream is clearly altering his stance and he sways.

“What do you think, punk? You wanna get the fuck out before I make you.” He thickens the latent, thick Jersey accent that he’s spent a few years toning down. He finds it comes in handy during moments of confrontation.

He isn’t afraid. He can take a hit after growing up where he did, he can roll with the punches and he knows how to handle a drunk-ass kid. Four? That might be pushing it, but hell if he’s gonna give up now.

“I’d like to see you try, pal.” The boy says, sickly sweet and eyes fogging as he tries to glare.

If not for Geoff’s one rule, the kid’d be on the ground clutching his face in seconds.

Michael’s still ready to sock him one, his fists are clenched and so are this boys, but neither make a move to complete the strike. His nose is so close to Michael’s he almost makes a joke about cutting the sexual tension but suddenly the boy is moving back, being tugged away by the back of his shirt.

“Let’s just fuckin’ go,” a voice says from behind. “He ain’t worth it.”

The kid lets his fists loosen and his stance drop but he continues sneering as the others back off.

They leave, but not before tossing their remaining bottles into the growing blaze, spitting globs of saliva onto the bank at Michael’s feet.

“Dicks.” Michael mutters but when Michael reaches to click in the button on the walkie-talkie to report back, he’s surprised to hear nothing short of manic laughter flooding through from his supervisors end.

“Good lord, I heard that even without my radio! That was fucking impressive, man.”

“Yeah thanks, really appreciate the encouragement.” Michael says, “The little shits lit a fire out here, it’s burning pretty low but it could spread down the bank pretty soon.”

It's been a long time since he's been this close to such a raw, free fire. The heat is intense, the summer air pushing it closer to Michael and it only adds to the heaviness weighing down on him.

“Shit,” Geoff curses, low. “Alright, I’ll call the rangers and get a crew down there pronto. I don’t need to remind you not to get close, right?”

Michael, already backing up towards the trees, scoffs, “Yeah no kidding.” As he turns to leave the scene he pauses, “Need me to wait for the rangers? In case this thing gets worse?”

“No, no,” Geoff dismisses quickly. “Nothing you can do now but get to safety. Hopefully we’ll get some luck and it won’t strike up to anything bigger.”

“So...just head back?”

“Just head back, you did good, kid.”

Michael shivers with pride, “Thanks,” he grins.

He begins the hike back, following the trail of dribbled booze that the assholes have left in their wake, it’ll be dark soon enough and he’d much rather make it back to the tower in time for the sunset.

He briefly considers taking the much shorter trek further north to find his boss, even going as far as to stop and take a few steps in the other direction. But the urge passes by just as quickly as it appeared and he continues south with a sigh just as Geoff’s voice comes back to him.

“Oh, Michael,” he says, “While that display was impressive...As your boss I have to issue you a warning that shit needs to be dealt with a little more...delicately in future but to be honest I’m so blown away I think I might let you off.”

Michael chuckles, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll keep it in mind.”

---

By the time he reaches Two Forks again, the sun has entirely disappeared behind the soft line of the horizon and his tower is in darkness. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with sleeping that night, though, and drifts off the moment his back hits the soft pad and with the sight of the remaining tendrils of smoke from the basin drifting into the clear sky out of the corner of his eye.

---

Day 19

Sunday is an airy end to the week; the breeze is light and cool, a welcome change from the sticky heat he’s been dealing with. At least in Texas the majority of the weather was dry, humid sometimes sure, but less often than this damn forest.

He celebrates the breeze with an early morning walk and wanders aimlessly for a couple of hours (if he ends up just outside the entrance to the Thorofare trail then he isn’t about to report about it) before heading back to his tower with the sun overhead and a thirst in the back of his throat that he soaks up by opening the water faucet beneath the tower right into his face.

The water is ice cold. A pleasant difference.

As he crouches over the Osborne, elbows digging into the raised markings, his gaze drifts to the tower in the distance. And he finds himself pressing in the button on his radio.

“Something’s been bugging me, Geoffrey,” The act of speaking first always comes with a wave of nerves. Nerves that Geoff isn’t listening, that he isn’t there, or that Michael isn’t meant to talk first unless there is genuine fire danger.

He knows that he must have the radio close to hand--it’s still his job too after all, but if he decided not to answer, Michael could do nothing about it.

Luckily for Michael’s sanity, the answer comes quickly, “Shoot.”

Michael leans onto his elbows, cradles his chin in one hand and peers over at Thorofare as he says, “We’ve covered the fact that you watch me through a telescope instead of doing your actual job but you seem averse to showing me your face.”

“What do you mean, averse?” Geoff fires back almost immediately, “You never asked!”

“You hid from me!”

“That was like, two weeks ago bud, and I was drunk!” a pause and then, “and flat on my ass.”

Michael grumbles. He’s right, of course he is.

“Need I remind you that you could have spied on me at any time?”

Michael hesitates, staying quiet; should he tell his boss that he’s tried on multiple occasions to see him? Sat out on the deck with his scope pointed high to Thorofare but from that kind of distance it was hard to pick up details and, although he seemed always available across the radio waves, he actually barely spent any time in his own tower.

“You’re being quiet,” Geoff whispers, “too quiet.”

Michael laughs inwardly at the reference and gathers his wits, “Just wishing you’d tell me you are in fact Hawley Griffin and put me out of my misery.”

Geoff chuckles, “The invisible man, you continue to impress me, Jones.”

Fucking butterflies...again. He’d pay to evacuate the blighters from his stomach as they fluttered and flitted through his bloodstream. The praise feels good, the tone of Geoff’s voice striking up a need for more. Before he can sink too far into the pit he realises that his boss it talking again.

“Grab your scope and get out here,” he says briskly.

Michael freezes, “You’re there?” he asks dumbly.

“Of course, check me out,” Geoff says, “I’ll stand out on the deck and you can get your peepers on this hunk of alcoholic dreamboat.”

Although Michael doesn’t need telling twice, at the risk of Geoff seeing him pounce up like an excited schoolgirl, Michael takes his time. He grasps the telescope with shaking hands and takes a steady breath before exiting to the deck.

He doesn’t know why this moment feels so heavy, but it does.

Angling himself, feet locked in position to stop his knees from trembling like a nervous child in the school show, he presses the scope to his glasses, closes one eye, and squints.

And then there he is. A figure standing proudly atop the Thorofare mountain, his own scope in his hand, taking in Michael before clocking his attention and pulling both hands away from his face.

He stands there a lot more confidently than Michael feels. He poses and waves, and then just...stands still. For Michael to view, to appraise; allowing him the voyeur moment without making it awkward.

Skinny, tall, his hair looks like a dirty birds nest but there’s been an attempt at brushing it through. Finer details are lost with the distance but one thing stands out in the sunlight way more than anything else. Tattoo’s. A lot of them. They spiral up and down his bare arms, disappearing beneath the cuff of his rolled up tan shirt sleeve; he wears the uniform a lot more casually than Michael has done, shirt open, revealing a plain blue tee across the compact expanse of his chest.

He has tan shorts identical to Michaels, rolled up past his knees, and hiking boots that hold the ends of even more tattoo’s that curl to his ankle an into the woolen socks hanging loosely over the boottops.

Geoff disappears from sight for a moment, waving a hand before turning the corner back into Thorofare. When he reappears he has the radio, and -fuck- does it feel strange to see Geoff speaking just as the voice filters through Michael’s open door.

“So,” he says, and Michael can see him smiling, “Do I meet your expectations?”

“You know what, Geoff?” Michael chokes out, “You aren’t nearly as wretched as you suggested.”

---

---

July takes over for June with a wave of heat that knocks Michael on his ass. He cracks the moss-bolted windows, flakes of a decade old paintjob dusting the deck below, folds an old map into some semblance of a fan, and lays like a ragdoll on his bed as the sticky heat bleeds the sweat from his back through the sheets.

Geoff informs him that fire danger goes through the roof when the heat reaches these sorts of highs, so instead of laying out of commission as he wants to, he has to work.

“What were you expecting?” Geoff taunts through a laugh as Michael groans which wiping a stream of sweat from his eyes.

---

Day 24

“Hell of an application you submitted, Jones.” Geoff mulls over the radio as Michael hikes slowly through the underbrush, holding branches and thorny bushes out of his way as he ducks into a clearing near Cottonwood Creek.  

After almost three weeks in the Shoshone he’s slowly developed a list of his favourite spots on the map. Although the relation is ridiculous and Geoff makes stupid jokes every time he heads that way, Michael loves Jonesy lake. The calmly shifting water and peaceful quiet make for a pretty sweet lunch spot, and the trail that leads that way is beautifully clear--no need for hacking away at stray vines and tree branches across his path.

He hasn’t explored the North since the incident at the basin, he travels once a week to the supply drop point but other than that his feet carry him only as far as the highest peak of Thunder Canyon, which is barely halfway to the basin.

Cottonwood Creek was a late discovery of Michael’s, and one of the last places he checked out from his map. Geoff suggested it, told him he should check out the remains of Pork Pond and the ranger camp that was shut down a number of years ago and now stands only two cabins proud and a dug out well that’s full of more dirt and muck than water.

The creek itself is beautiful. Especially in the evenings. The water catches the setting sun at a perfect angle, the foliage glowing with a color reminiscent of the fires Michael aims to prevent. Due to the intense summer heat the majority of the surrounding grass has tipped brown, dried into rough, sharp peaks, but the line directly attached to the creeks bank is lush and vibrant, being kept refreshed by the constant flow of clear, cool water.

Swallowing against the sticky air, Michael raises the radio.

“Where’d you get that?” he asks, not doubting the other man’s ability to obtain the pathetic drivel he had submitted two months prior.

“Had Gus read it out to me,” Geoff says, and the rustling of note paper crackles through the frequency. “Your cover letter is especially creative.”

“Oh god, why,” Michael groans. “I’m not the best at that shit, Geoff, I just needed the job.”

“My name is Michael Jones, I’m 24,” Geoff reads in a booming reporter-style voice, “You sound like you’re entering some shitty local newspaper coloring contest, dude.”

Michael screws his fist into the space between his eyes, “I was answering the application!” he defends weakly.

“Uh huh… I’ve always been a fan of nature,” Geoff scoffs softly, “and it would be my pleasure to fill my time giving support to the rangers keeping the forest safe.”

Michael bites back his response while Geoff gasps laughs like a dying hyena.

“Oh man, oh I love this Michael, this is fantastic.” To Michaels dismay his supervisor refuses to take his hands off the button, continuing to cough through hysterics as he no doubt runs through the rest of Michael’s shameful drivel. “Christ you’re great.”

“Tell me you’ve never pandered to a potential employer, Geoff,” Michael spits sourly, “I told my school's principal that I had always dreamed of providing education to the great minds of tomorrow, it’s all bullshit.”

Geoff’s still calming down, his speech broken and croaky as he replies, “You know you probably got this job because Gus took pity on this gibberish.”

“Then it worked,” Michael grins smugly.

A pause.

“I...guess it did.”

---

“So, Jones, you get a million dollars but you have to switch your mouth and your asshole for a year, would you do it?”

Michael sits out on his deck in nothing but cargo shorts rolled up way past a victorian sense of decency and a forestry commission cap he found hanging from a rusty nail just inside the door of his home tilted down to shade his eyes from the sun.

“What the fuck are you on about, Ramsey?”

“Come on, hypotheticals, they help pass the time. You gonna do it?”

Michael shakes his head at the absurdity but finds himself considering the question.

“Depends,” he says after a minute, “Do I literally get an asshole on my face? Am I gonna be talking out of an anus?”

“Some may say nothing would change.”

Michael snorts, “You have not known me long enough to make that judgement, just answer the question!”

“Fine, fine, your mouth acts like an asshole but you get to keep the normal look of your face.”

Giving it a moment to contemplate the absurdity Michael grins, “Alright, fair enough, what about taste? I don’t wanna feel like I’m eating my own shit, boss.”

“I’ll be easy on you, no taste, totally shit-taste free.”

“Wait, wait,” he blurts, “No, I’d never be able to go out to eat! I’d be known as that guy who’s shoving food up his asshole in the middle of a restaurant.”

“Only for a year!”

“A reputation only takes a single ass-stuffing incident to ruin it for life.”

A damn near inhuman sound explodes “Good to know, Jones.”

Michael groans, “You know what I mean!”

Hearing only choked laughter in response, Michael flips it back, “Well would you do it?”

“Hell no,” Geoff shoots back with barely half a second of thought, “I love spicy food, man, I’d be fucked two ways to Sunday.”

It takes a moment for the implications to hit the young lookout but when it does he almost gags. Almost. Spicy food was bad enough going in, let alone the generally forceful exit, and with the switch in-

This time he does gag.

Oh God,” he moans, desperately trying to get the image out of his head while Geoff sniggers over the sound of his stomach turning. “I don’t think I’ll ever get that thought out of my head now, thanks a lot, Geoff.”

“You are welcome.”

Michael swallows hard on the taste of rising bile, Fuck you absolutely suck.”

The silence is thick as Michael imagine Geoff creasing up with laughter at his expense but he hasn’t clicked in his radio so there’s no way for Michael to know. Instead he swishes a mouthful of warm root beer around his mouth, letting the taste dance over his tongue and clear the disgusting ghost-taste from his tastebuds.

“Your turn,” Geoff reappears abruptly--he breathes heavily, obvious laughter dying in his throat.

Michael frowns, “To do what?”

“Hypothetical! Gimme the good stuff.”

“I can’t just-on the spot,” He splutters.

“Come on, Mikey, dig into that creativity.”

“Don’t-” Michael has to force himself not to snap at Geoff. Don’t call me Mikey, he called me Mikey. But Geoff couldn’t know, he’s oblivious to the connection clicking into place as the name is spoken. So Michael bites back his snippy retort and says, “I need to think about it.”  

Geoff hums disapprovingly, “I don’t wanna hear a single peep from you until you can give me a question back.”

“What if a fire is faster than my wit?” Michael asks nervously.

“Wrong kind of question.”

Any further attempts at contact with his boss are met with a disappointing, awkward silence.

---

Day 25

The answer comes to him at around 2am, it wakes him up from his restless slumber.

“Million dollars but alcohol no longer affects you,” he moulds the words around a tongue thick with sleep.

“Cruel, Jones, real cruel.”

Michael might have started laughing but something feels...off about Geoff’s voice. The response is much too clear. The static not so thick, the echo a little too familiar.

“Are you…” he shakes his head, feeling stupid, but the sound of his own voice below is obvious now. “Are you outside my tower?” He asks suspiciously, flinging himself out of bed as Geoff coughs.

“No.”

The rustling in the trees to the left doesn’t support his words. Nor does the sound of footsteps rapidly retreating into the forest that are much easier to hear in the dead of night.

Sleep claims Michael quickly, and he’ll soon wonder whether the exchange had been a figment of his broken-dream imagination.

---

When he wakes again it’s to the sound of rumbling in the distance. A violent growl that gives way to a sharp flash of light that breaks through the clusters of cloud. Barely a few seconds later Geoff’s voice comes through the radio.

“It’s a dry storm,” he says briskly, he sounds like he’s panting, “I’ve alerted the rangers but we’re gonna have to cut beauty sleep short tonight, all eyes on guard for this one.”

“Dry storm?” Michael wonders to himself. He’s heard of them, sure, precipitation that dries up before it hits the ground so all the earth gets is the occasional crack of lightning directly onto dry ground but they don’t normally hit Wyoming of all places.

“You think I should vacate the tower?” he says to Geoff, “Maybe I can come bunk up with you.”

A beat of silence and then, “There’s still a good distance between us and the strike zone, if anyone’s gotta be concerned about vacating, it’ll be up towards Spruce. You should be fine.”

The rejection stings, even if he was joking. “Uh..Should?” He bites out through a lump in his throat.

Geoff scoffs lightly, “You’re the one who took a job as a fire lookout, did you think you wouldn’t see a single fire?”

It’s just after four when Michael sets up camp on the deck--his radio at the ready and attention only half focused on the vibrant colours flashing across the sky.

---

A fire does strike up; eventually, with a crack that shakes the very ground Two Forks stands upon.

Michael sees the smoke before he sees flames-- he reports it in but Geoff’s already got it covered, conversing between the other lookouts and the rangers as the storm finally wears down to nothing with that last vengeful strike.

“They’ve set out to contain it but we’ll probably be stuck with this one for a while,” he says-- a little too calmly for Michael’s liking.

Michael frowns, “We just let it burn?”

“For now, yeah.”

Michael watches the plumes of smoke spiral upwards into the sky as the first flickers of a flame appear over the trees. The scorching heat casts a burning glow over the surrounding canopy, an amber blush over the leaves.

“What do you think we should call it?”

Michael tears his eyes away for a second to grab the radio and then he’s glued right back to the sight.

“Call it?” he enquires incredulously. Absentmindedly his fingers drum against the wooden beam, his eyes track parts of the black smoke dancing high into the air, clashing so horribly with the blue sky.

“Well it’s gonna be our friend for a week at least, so I think it needs a name.” Geoff reasons, as though it’s perfectly logical to be naming wild and potentially dangerous forest fires as though they were pets

“You name every fire you see?” Michael scoffs, rolling his eyes briefly but he’s grinning slightly and knows Geoff has picked up on it when he hears the laughing undertone in the other man's reply

“Only the big ones.”

There’s a short pause between them, enough of a silence for Michael to realize his fingers are still nervously tapping out a quick beat onto the weather-beaten wood. He stops. If Michael listens carefully enough he can hear the crackling of scorching greenery, the rush as flames lick the adjoining woodland.

“How about The Ignis Fire,” Geoff suggests abruptly.

“That’s,” Michael pauses to think about it, “the..latin... for fire, you wanna call this the fire fire?”

Geoff chuckles, “I’m impressed, last guy didn’t-uh didn’t know any of the latin I spewed.” The break in his voice pings questions in the furthest recesses of Michael’s mind  but he easily ignores it.

“English teacher remember? I’ve picked up one or two things during my trips into the rabbit hole that is ye olde literature.”

Geoff hums thoughtfully and Michael can hear him clicking something against the desk. A pencil maybe. He leaves the comms open for Michael to interject.

“How about The Ignis Inferno?” Michael suggests after a minute, “It’s both accurate and annoyingly pretentious.”

Geoff huffs a laugh through his nose, “Perfect. I love it.”

Day 27

A month into his stay, Michael decides he hates Wyoming wasps even more than he hates regular wasps. He pokes at the lump that has bubbled up on his forearm seconds after the vengeful shit stuck it’s stinger through his skin. With no ointment or cream in sight he’ll have to deal with the burning and he adamantly refuses to apologise to the insects that he’s swatted on his trek down to the water, they can turn his skin to bubblewrap, the forest hasn’t driven him to that just yet.

The lump is accompanied by mosquito bites and a rash from some stinging thorns he’d been unfortunate enough to kick out of his way.

He fucking hates nature.

“Tell me about the first dick to break your heart,” Geoff’s voice succeeds in startling him enough to stagger as he grumbles to himself over being singled out by the Wyoming insect life.

“What a lighthearted conversation topic, Geoff,” Michael comments, giving his arm a quick scrub with some cool water from his pack, the placebo effect soothing the burn quickly.

“An independance day question for you, I assume you’ve broken a few in your days, so who’s broken yours?”

Independance day.

Time feels like nothing in the tower. He’s counted 27 days since arriving but July 4th hadn’t even registered in his mind. Independance day has always been such an affair in the past, even from the earliest memories he can piece together, and now it almost managed to sail past unnoticed.

A year ago he’d spent the day with friends. Schools were out, he had no responsibilities to account for; he consumed a keg of beer and danced under the fireworks with… that’d been before everything fell apart.

This year he’ll be celebrating with the wildlife.

“Didn’t even realise it was July,” Michael admits, and Geoff chuckles.

“Yeah, this job’ll do that to you, like time doesn’t even exist here.” Michael hums his agreement and drops down to sit on the bank.

“I’ll take a guess that fireworks are out of the picture?” He jokes after a moment in silence.

“If you can find ‘em, you can set ‘em off all you like,” Geoff offers, “But I’ll blame you 100 percent when you get caught, I value job security.”

Michael clicks his tongue and pulls his knees to his chest, “I don’t like fireworks that much anyway.”

“Good answer.”

Over the lake, a bird perches on a rock. It stares at him. He stares back.

“So come on, Jones, tell me your tales of loves long lost.”

He considers it, contemplates the truth, “Only had a couple of- boyfriends,” Why did I hesitate? “They aren’t worth commenting on.”

It’s nice talking to his supervisor. Geoff’s a good guy, he can’t blow it yet -- or at all. He’ll keep his mouth shut.

Geoff hums, “They end it?”

“I’m a big boy I can handle a little rejection,” For some reason Michael bristles, and he snaps without meaning to.

Geoff backs off immediately, “Down boy, it’s all cool here, not being judgy,” he pauses, then adds, “Just surprised, thought you’d have some great break-up stories to tell.”

“Not easy finding out gays in New Jersey,” Michael notes, running his fingers through the sandy bank distractedly.

Geoff sighs, “I grew up in Alabama, I’m 100 percent on your page.”

Flutter.

“It might be hard to believe,” Geoff offers, “but in highschool I wasn’t the dashing godsend I am today,” he pauses for Michael to laugh before continuing. “I had these massive ears, we’re talking dumbo levels I swear to christ, and- you know that bean pole, gangly teen that everyone tries not to make eye contact with?” Michael hums confirmation, “yeah that was totally me.”

Michael crumbles a lump of dirt between his fingers as he listens to his boss, the specks dusting his pants and bare lower legs that are starting to pink up nicely under the sun.

“So you can imagine I wasn’t the target of many affections, and seeking out boyfriends when everyone already thought I was a bit of a freak didn’t end well for me. I didn’t have a single date until I was seventeen and joining the army.”

Michael raises his eyebrows at that and asks in shock, “You were in the army?”

Geoff chuckles, “For all of fourteen weeks, it wasn’t for me.”

“The danger?” Michael guesses.

Geoff hums in the negative, “The work, man, being in the army is hard work.”

The bird across the water startles as Michael barks a rough laugh and it zips off into the sky, “They should really put that on the posters.”

"Point is,” Geoff breathes, the creaking of a chair leaning back loud and clear, “Stick with me, kid, I'll treat you right."

Michael’s heart leaps into his throat and he feels his hands shake a little.

He hopes the laugh that he lets out sounds more relaxed than his heartbeat feels.

No, Michael thinks, Not again.

He somehow manages to dredge up a reply that doesn’t shake like a leaf as it flows out.

“I’ll hold you to it.”

---

 

Day 33

Another blurry Sunday arrives out of the woodwork and Michael’s boredom takes a turn to the creative side. He twirls a large paintbrush around his hand like a baton, eyes the chipping paint across the windowsill, the pots of vibrant green and white that rest under the desk, and alerts Geoff.

“Hey Geoff, what’s the forestry commission's opinion on painting the lookout towers?”

The response is instantaneous, barely a second passing between clicks, “Depends, you planning on pulling a Jackson Pollock on the classic landscape of the Wyoming wilderness?”

“I’m just sick of looking at the same damn walls every day.”

Geoff coughs, “You could try spending more time outside, buddy. It’s not against the rules for you to go on a hike every now and again. In fact it would be pretty helpful to your cause.”

“If I don’t get lost?” Michael guesses with a roll of the eyes.

Geoff hums in affirmation, “If you don’t get lost.”

“Even if I did go out on the trails every day --which i practically do, by the way-- I’d still have these four walls and a bunch of windows to look at for hours and hours. The paints all cracked and I don’t wanna describe the questionable stains on the floorboards.”

“Knowing who was there last, you don’t need to describe them.”

“So what do you say?”

Geoff pauses for a brief moment, static crackling in the space between them, “Inside?” He questions soon after.

“Inside,” Michael confirms.

“Where’d you get the paint?”

“Found it.”

“You need me to put in a request for a brush?”

“Nah, that’s here too,” Michael says while spinning said brush over his head.

Geoff hums, “Huh, Gav was planning…” He trails off and cuts away

“Gav?” Michael asks, perking up. “Is that the guy who was here before?”

“You can paint the interior if you really want, but keep the paint off the outside,” Geoff’s voice sounds tight, pinched, almost pained. There’s a crack in the middle that sounds less like his typical break, and more like a choke.

“You alright there, Geoff?” Michael asks with concern.

“I’ve gotta check up on a blaze East,” Geoff offers instead of an answer, “Keep your eyes peeled while I’m gone.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Michael scrambles to draw out his scope and focuses the lense on the tower in the distance. Geoff’s there, his silhouette hunched over what Michael assumes is his desk, but he doesn’t move. He isn’t moving to check any fire that Michael can tell.

He isn’t making a move to do anything at all.

---

 

Day 37

On a daily basis, Michael begins to crave conversation from Geoff. Maybe it was boredom, maybe it was the lonely solitude that crept in easily whenever they weren’t talking; maybe it was a little bit of a crush that he hadn’t wanted but had snuck up on him and crashed into his being like a tidal wave.

Maybe it was a twisted combination of all three.

He couldn’t have stopped it. Geoff’s nice, he’s funny and sarcastic and everything Michael is drawn to. He knows stuff about history and language that Michael only ever gets to discuss with the pompous teachers who never let him get a word in edgeways because, hey, they know best. He’s a comfortable addition to the daily routine and Michael finds himself lost on the days when his supervisor is too busy for banter.

Those days are luckily few and far between, however.

The one thing he has travelled halfway across the country to escape...

“So, Jones, when are you gonna tell me the real reason you’re here?” Michael’s been focusing so hard on the final glowing embers of the Ignis Inferno that has finally decayed at the hands of the rangers containment team, that he almost falls from his flimsy deck chair as Geoff’s voice rings out loud and clear from the ledge beside him.

“Still hung up on that, huh?” Michael replies, placing a calming hand over his chest.

Come on I know there’s something more. I’m not giving up until you tell me.”

Geoff is absolutely watching him. Michael doesn’t even need more than a single glance in Thorofare’s direction to know that. “I told you, I needed a job to cover the off period,” he says, squinting in Geoff’s direction.

“Nope, I’m not falling for it, everyone’s got a reason.”

“Oh yeah, and what’s yours?” Michael flips back, waving a little and hearing the desired reaction in the form of a snort.

“Don’t deflect this onto me, Jones, you’re gonna tell me!”  

He gives in with a sly grin spreading over his lips, “Okay fine, you wanna know why I’m here?”

Duh.

Michael blinks slowly, gathering his thoughts. His voice is soft and reminiscent when he speaks,

"When I was a kid... I didn't have a lot of heroes, growing up in New Jersey didn't leave much to look up to if I'm honest." He starts, a dry chuckle spilling from his lips, "But there was this one guy - he visited the school once in third grade - worked for the forestry commission, and he gave this incredible speech."

He pauses, a small fond smile dancing on his lips now, “We spoke after the assembly." He enthused, the memory coming as clear to him now as it was when it happened. He could almost feel the handshake the man had given him.

"It was a real eye-opener for me, he taught me a lot about how much went into keeping the wilderness safe -- did you know that some ecosystems actually depend on fires because it burns away all the dead plant material and give new stuff a chance to grow instead? He told me that."

The words tumbled from Michael's lips now, eyes alight with a burning passion, a true grin gracing his lips.

"And - and after that I was just hooked! I wanted to be this guy when I grew up. I wanted to be the one travelling around the country with him, a protegee of sorts if you will."

Michael laughs again, the light sound lingering pleasantly in the air around him.

Geoff is silent on his end, captivated.

“Want to know his name?”

“Yeah,” Geoff breathes. Hook line and sinker.

Michael grins widely, “Smokey the fucking bear, goddamn Geoff I had you, totally had you!”

His response is met with a displeased groan, “You’re a damn asshole, Michael! I thought we were having a real bonding moment!”

“I wasn’t lying exactly,” Michael defends with a pleased grin, “We really did get a visit from discount Jersey Smokey the Bear, he smelled like the grease trap at Burger King and stale old cigarette smoke. He hugged one kid and the principal almost had him arrested,” he screws up his nose with the memory and, despite the deception, Geoff laughs, “It was an experience so I wasn’t lying.”

Geoff sighs deeply, “You really aren’t gonna tell me why you took the job?”

“Boredom and a little adventure, I swear,” he almost crosses his fingers, feeling bad for lying to Geoff. He’s a good guy, a good friend, but instead he shakes his head, clears the thoughts pulsing there, and adds, “Scouts honor.”

“You win, Jones.” Geoff concedes, though there’s something playing there that sounds almost like disappointment and it pulls at Michael’s heart like the snap of elastic.

Michael allows the silence to sit for a few moments.

“You know, Geoff, you never told me if you’d give up the booze for a mill” he says once the silence wears on a little too long for his liking.

Geoff tuts slowly, “Honestly, Michael, it’s like you don’t know me at all!”