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Fifteen Hundred Miles

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Thirty-three days and 292 miles in, David loses his tent off the side of a mountain.

It’s all set up but not staked down when a breeze catches it, somersaults it twice across the grass, and sails it over the cliff’s edge and away. David looks up in time to see it hang like Wile E. Coyote over empty air, then drop like it’s just looked down. The bag of stakes he’s just unknotted spills uselessly to the ground.

“No, no, no, no,” he babbles, scrambling to look over the cliff as if he doesn’t already know what’s down there. The FUCK he screams is more vowel than anything and multiplies itself in the echo of the mountain range. He returns to scoop up the stakes, then hurls these after the tent one by one, punctuating his words. “What. The. Eternal. Fuck!”

Patrick watches all this happen from just beyond the clearing, still on the trail. He planned to keep going another mile before making camp, and he still could. David hasn’t seen him. He could just walk away. That’s what this trail is here for, after all. That’s all there is out here. Walking away.

Patrick steps out of the woods.

“That’s not actually a required part of the experience, you know,” he says, forgetting David won’t get the reference. “At least it wasn’t your boots.”

David gives a quick glance over his shoulder, but his feelings about being joined by a stranger at this moment are unreadable. Patrick comes to stand next to him on the rocky ledge. The view is beautiful from up here, but it also lays bare how they’re surrounded by nothing but nothingness.

“What am I gonna do now?” David asks, in a voice that says he knows the only answer is: Quit.

Something about it squeezes a decision from Patrick’s heart. He steps back and starts taking off his pack. “I have an idea.”

His tent stakes are what he unpacks first.

Chapter Text

Patrick made the spontaneous decision to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail from his mom’s couch.

Three weeks had passed since he’d called off the wedding, left Rachel the apartment, and temporarily moved in with his parents while he figured out what to do. In three weeks, all he’d done was let his mom convince him to join her for a binge of her Reese Witherspoon collection (“She knows how to mend a broken heart, sweetie.”), and they were almost to the end of it when she put in Wild.

It was a beautifully written and shot film, the kind of thing Patrick would have asked Mateo to dissect during a slow afternoon at Rose Video back in the high school summers they spent working together. He would have argued that the nonlinear editing undercut the emotional impact of the story, and Patrick would have disagreed just for the pleasure of watching him double down. They hadn’t spoken in years, but it was funny how fresh Mateo’s opinions stayed in Patrick’s mind. Just one of the weird quirks of his memory.

The credits rolled and his mom started chattering about range, marvelling that Tracy Flick, Elle Woods, and June Carter Cash could do this, too. Be so believably broken and determined. Patrick agreed, but if he was honest, he hadn’t been focused on Reese at all. He’d been captivated by Cheryl Strayed, the real person who lost her mother to cancer, lost her marriage to infidelity, lost herself to heroin, who decided to walk over a thousand miles to get back to the woman her mother raised, and then did it.

It was an attractive thought, that changing your life could be as easy as doing a hard thing.

A week later, he made the actual decision to go. He ordered backpacking gear, set an itinerary, and let his freelance bookkeeping clients know he’d be taking some time off. He told his parents, who were supportive if a little stunned.

“If you’re going to model your life after a Reese movie, you sure you wouldn’t rather use Sweet Home Alabama instead?” His mother asked this in her teasing voice, but there was no mistaking why she offered up the movie where the high school sweethearts get back together in the end.

“I’m sure,” Patrick said and decided he was.

And now here he is, a month after that, actually going.

Well, the actually going technically starts tomorrow morning. For now he’s just standing in a motel parking lot somewhere in the Californian desert, trying to get cell reception so his parents can hear his voice one last time before he disappears into the wilderness. He paces to the edge of the gravel and tilts his phone up over his head, squinting into the setting sun. The “No Service” indicator remains resolute.

“Fuck!”

The word comes out fierce, precise, and not from Patrick’s mouth. He turns to see his motel neighbor crouched in the dirt, holding a lighter and fiddling with a camp stove. He noticed this guy when they were both checking in, both carrying backpacks and gear. He’s kind of impossible not to notice, tall and self-possessed and out-of-place on purpose. He asked the motel clerk if they had any Egyptian cotton sheets he could order as an upgrade, because he’d forgotten to pack his from home. His clothes are nominally correct for hiking—sweatpants, white T-shirt, black hoodie, boots—but something about them looks like a polished approximation of rugged. Like Hollywood’s idea of rugged.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

And he curses like it’s his native tongue. Patrick only realizes that he’s staring when the guy glances up and catches him at it. Now he has to go talk to him. It’s the only polite thing to do.

“Stove won’t light?” Patrick asks, trying to stand in the way of the sun so the guy doesn’t have to squint.

“Oh, is that what this thing is supposed to do?” He picks up the stove and brings it along for the ride as his hands wave around in exasperation. “I thought it was just something heavy to throw in case of bears.”

“No bears in the Mojave,” Patrick grins. “But you might want to rethink the projectile deterrent plan for the cougars. Harder to hit.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

It’s not clear whether this guy’s face can’t hide his annoyance or doesn’t want to, but either way there it is. It’s a dismissive expression. Patrick feels dismissed. So naturally he holds out a hand.

“I’m Patrick.”

For a second it looks like he might be left hanging. The guy scowls at the outstretched hand like he expects it to wilt under his gaze, but clearly he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. Never engage in a battle of manners with a Canadian.

“David.”

David’s handshake is like the rest of him; it makes an impression. It’s warm and enveloping and strong. It doesn’t linger.

“Can I see?” Patrick gestures at the stove, which David hands over. “Yeah, you’ve got the wrong kind of fuel for this, just a sec.”

Out of the desert sun, his motel room is dark and cool. He just finished laying out all his supplies on the dresser, desk, and small dining table, so he knows exactly where to find what he’s looking for. He comes back out and hands David two canisters of fuel along with the stove.

“Here, I packed extra,” Patrick says. “That should get you to Kennedy Meadows at least. I don’t know if you’re planning to go farther than that, but you can ask someone you know to mail you more there. I have the address if you need it.”

“Well, you’re very helpful.” Another scowl that makes this more criticism than compliment. “You probably think I’m way out of my depth, huh?”

“I wouldn’t dare try to guess what your depth is,” Patrick says, and it’s almost a lie. He prides himself on being a good judge of character, and he can already tell this is a person with a lot going on below the surface. “But hey, you thought to make sure your stove worked before you got out on the trail. So you’re a step ahead of Cheryl.”

“Cheryl?”

“Strayed?”

Almost every conversation Patrick has had since he first landed in Los Angeles—with Amber, his Lyft driver, with his rotating cast of seatmates on the Greyhound out to this motel, with both attendants at the gas station rest stop—has come around to Cheryl Strayed at some point. As soon as he mentions he’s traveled from a suburb of Toronto to hike the PCT all the way up to Cascade Locks, Oregon, she’s all people seem to want to talk about. They tell him about how they read the book or watched the movie and thought about doing what he’s doing, how they know someone who did it and loved it, who did it and hated it, who tried it and failed. They all take it as a given that Cheryl is the ghost in the machine of this undertaking. She’s already written this story, and Patrick’s just here acting it out.

He assumed he and David would have this in common, but the blank expression is telling him otherwise.

“Sorry, I figured you’d… You seem like someone who’s here because of a Reese Witherspoon movie.” Then, because he hears how this might sound judgmental, he adds, “I’m here because of a Reese Witherspoon movie!”

“Oh. No, I haven’t seen it. Reese and I have baggage.” David stands up and rocks a little on his feet. The knees of his sweatpants have patches of dirt from where they were pressed into the gravel. “I’m here because Lorelai read some book in the Gilmore Girls revival. But the less said about that the better.”

Patrick decides to take his word for it. “Okay.”

“Anyway, I can’t take these without a trade.” David sweeps him with a scrutinizing look, up and down.

Before Patrick even has time to get self-conscious, David’s gone behind the door to his room. When he comes back, he’s exchanged the stove and fuel canisters for a small tube of something.

“You’re pale,” David says, holding out the tube.

“Thanks for noticing,” Patrick says, taking it. It’s sunscreen, but there’s no label. Just a scrawl of black marker: SPF 35. “Oh, I already have–”

“Whatever you packed, this is better,” David insists. “The woman who makes it puts in fresh beeswax from her own hives, so you won’t sweat off the zinc oxide. If you’re applying it properly, it won’t last you to Kennedy Meadows, and you can’t order more of it, but. It’s what I have to offer.”

“I’ll take it,” Patrick says. “Thank you, David.”

“Mmm. It’s nothing.”

The heat settles in close around the silence, trying to force them back into the climate controlled indoors. David rocks on his feet again, looking ready to give in.

“Do you like card games?” Patrick asks.

“Um.” David’s face rearranges itself around the sudden subject change. “They’re not my first choice?”

“Well, Cranium wouldn’t fit in my pack.” Patrick isn’t sure why Cranium is what popped into his head. It isn’t even a two-player game. “Cribbage?”

“I, uh–” David’s eyes shift to the bushes, like he’s afraid someone’s about to jump out and tell him he’s on the lowest-rated episode of Candid Camera of all time. “I don’t know how to play.”

“Can you count to fifteen and thirty-one?”

David seesaws a hand. “It comes and goes.”

“I believe in you,” Patrick chuckles. He walks back to his door, but David still hasn’t taken a step in either direction. “Come on, this is the last human contact either of us is likely to have for a while. Play with me.”

David’s responding “Okay” is as quiet as breathing.

Every other flat surface in the room is still occupied with Patrick’s gear, so they settle on the bed, the deck of cards and small travel board between them.

“I mostly brought the cards for solitaire,” Patrick explains. “And because keeping my hands busy shuffling sometimes helps me think.”

David taps the hinged wooden board. He’s wearing four silver rings that match the silver set of pegs. “This doesn’t seem like an essential solitaire accessory.”

“I guess I hoped I might find a partner out on the trail.” Patrick shrugs. “I’ll be the gold pegs.”

They have a few false starts (Patrick keeps remembering, mid-hand, rules he forgot to mention before), but pretty soon they’re flying. David gets so intensely into it that he even stops giggling at the scoring terminology. (“Don’t forget to peg one for your knob—What, David, that’s what it’s called!”) Not that there was anything wrong with the giggling.

Patrick loves playing games with people he just met; he loves to see how different minds work a problem. He can tell David’s mind has a way of snapping around a problem like a mousetrap, decisive and lethal. If he was allowing himself to think about Rachel, it would remind him of her.

“Fifteen two, fifteen four, a pair for six, a run of three for nine—Fuck yes!” David’s eyes glitter as he counts his silver peg to the end of the board and across the finish line. “That was fun.”

They play again, and this time Patrick wins. He thinks about offering best of three, but it’s already dark outside, his cab to the trailhead is coming at 5:30 am, and his pack is still in a very unpacked state. He puts the cards away.

“As far as I can,” David says quietly, all competition instantly drained from his voice.

“Sorry?”

“You asked before how far I’m planning to go. As far as I can get before I quit. So probably not far. How about you?”

“Fifteen hundred miles,” Patrick says. “A little more.”

“Wow.” David’s eyebrows crease together then shoot up. His eyebrows are like his hands, Patrick’s noticed. Large, but deceptively agile. Expressive.

“Yeah, I kind of have this thing about never doing anything halfway. But it’s only seventeen miles a day. Every day. For ninety days.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“That’s all.” The air conditioning clicks off into silence. Patrick knows he should say goodnight. “Why are you doing this? Why walk as far as you can?”

Of all the conversations he’s had with PCT veterans and hopefuls over the past month, this is Patrick’s first time asking this question. He was afraid to before, afraid of the question being turned around and revealing him to be a fraud. Because he doesn’t have a dead parent or a divorce or a drug habit in his past. He doesn’t, on paper, have the kind of life you run from or reinvent. But he wants to ask David because he has a feeling that David, like him, isn’t quite sure of the shape of what he’s after.

“Um, independence, maybe? To prove I can do something on my own.” David’s eyes dance to every corner of the room, glancing at Patrick on the way. “Why walk fifteen hundred miles?”

“I don’t know. But I hope I’ll know in fifteen hundred miles.” Patrick laughs at himself. “Clarity, I guess you could say. That’s what I’m looking for.”

The air conditioning clicks back on, but the room is already freezing. David shivers, and Patrick gets up to turn it off.

“I should get some sleep,” David says, sliding off the bed. “Thanks for the game.”

“Thanks for playing with me.”

David’s halfway out the door when he turns back. “I hope you find it out there. Whatever it is.”

“I hope you don’t quit until you’re ready to be done, David.”

Then the door scrapes shut, and Patrick’s smiling to an empty room.

*

The first day was always going to be the hardest, Patrick reminds himself.

It shouldn’t be this hard. He’s an experienced hiker and wilderness camper. His family has canoed deep into the lakes of Algonquin Provincial Park every summer since he was a kid. He once carried a canoe on his shoulders for a full 1 km portage without stopping, while the mosquitos made hamburger of his ankles. He was sixteen, still the youngest of his cousins to do it.

But the desert isn’t the Canadian woods. Even with his early start, the sun hangs at a relentless angle almost immediately and never lets up. It leaves him so desperate for shade that he longs for a canoe over his head. He’s caught between the constant worries that he’s drinking too much and not enough of his water. Every shimmer in the path ahead could be a rattlesnake.

With the flat terrain, it takes two miles for the highway where he started to disappear when he looks back, and it makes him feel like he’s getting nowhere at all. The Fitbit strapped to his wrist, which is supposed to be counting him up to seventeen miles a day, starts dragging around mile six and withholds mile eight for what feels like an eternity. Three times it vibrates to warn him that his heart rate is too high, and he has to stop. He doesn’t want to put his pack down, and there’s nothing to lean against, so he just stands and breathes. The stillness is unbearable when he should be moving.

He pushes himself to make it to mile eleven, and then he wishes he hadn’t. He’s exhausted and there’s still so much to do to set up camp, to feed himself, to pack everything away again, and most of it happens in the dark, in the shallow puddle of his flashlight. And then there’s nothing to do, which is even worse. He lies in his sleeping bag and tries not to hear the noises that, no seriously, are definitely the footsteps of a large predator this time. He tries playing music in his head to drown them out, but can’t think of anything. Not soon enough, sleep puts him out of his misery.

The first day was always going to be the hardest.

*

The second day is the hardest.

He wakes up already sore, thinking of the princess and the pea. There’s a boulder of a pebble that spent the night making itself at home in his shoulder while still technically staying outside his tent.

Breakfast is a slightly more enjoyable meal than dinner, mostly because it happens by daylight, but everything from then on is compounded suffering. His back hurts before he even lifts his pack, his feet hurt before he takes a single step, and he’s pretty sure he’s getting a sunburn over a sunburn on his neck. Apparently he’s too pale for even David’s magic beekeeper sunscreen to save.

His brain is an endless loop of what am I doing, what am I doing and, inexplicably, the commercial jingle to a sea-life theme park his parents used to take him to as a kid.

In Niagara Falls, Ontario, Marineland is the place to go.

The Fitbit vibrates and he stops where he stands. He leans forward to ease the weight on his lower back at the expense of his shoulders. Everything is a negotiation. He’s only gone a mile and a half this morning, and he still has yesterday’s ground to make up. He already knows he’s not going to make it.

Everyone loves Marineland.

Except no one loves Marineland, a theme park where the theme is animal cruelty.

He stops with enough time to make camp and eat before dark, but that means he only hiked eight miles today. He tries to keep it in perspective. This is a marathon (more like fifty-eight marathons), not a sprint, and it makes sense to start off behind his ideal pace. Still, what’s the point of coming out here if it’s just to keep falling behind?

He pulls out his deck of cards when the sun goes down, shuffling them between his hands to stave off the cougar steps in his imagination and the jingle in his memory.

You know what you’ll say when you leave here today.

It‘s not working, so he clicks on his flashlight and tries to read the book he brought instead. It’s Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, a room-by-room portrait of the author’s house that investigates the artifacts that humanity has collectively decided mark a life well lived.

Patrick figured the middle of nowhere would be a good place to learn the stories behind all the mundane and important things that occupy the real world, from electricity to salt and pepper, but it’s tough to focus on. Two days removed from civilization and the everyday objects described in the book feel like fiction. His brain can’t quite conjure up the image of a house, of a home, and then he’s asleep.

*

The third day is the hardest.

*

On the fourth day, he stops promising himself that the hardest day is behind him.

*

I know a place in Ontario.

It’s the seventh day, and stupid Marineland still won’t leave him alone. He can’t tell which is more agonizing, the song or the images that come with it. The sloshing, the splashing, the blue-lit coolness of the underground viewing areas. All that water.

Where the sea lions kiss, so the story goes.

He got lost at the theme park once, when he was five or six. It’s one of those stories that stays alive more on the strength of his parents’ retellings than his own memory, but it’s still vivid in his mind. He and his older cousin Josh were allowed to go look at the sea lion tank by themselves while the rest of their family waited for the bathroom, and Patrick got lost in the crowd. By the time he found his way back to where he’d last seen everyone, they were gone. A park attendant picked him up shortly after that and let him play with a stuffed dolphin at a gift shop kiosk until his parents finally found out where he was. He didn’t get to keep the dolphin.

His mother still blames a lot of people for those few hours of panic—his uncle Gary for letting the boys wander off on their own, Josh for leaving his cousin behind, the teenaged park employees for not having drilled their lost child procedure to perfection.

Patrick has never told her what he remembers most clearly from that afternoon—how he made the choice to stay behind with the sea lions rather than follow Josh back through the crowd. How he got himself lost.

I just want to see one more, he remembers thinking as Josh’s tie-dyed shirt disappeared around a corner. He remembers turning back to the glass and the water behind it. Just one more, and then I’m done.

*

The ninth day is the first time he doesn’t ache all over when he wakes up. It’s the first day he hikes seventeen miles. It’s the first day that ends with him sobbing, getting the edge of his sleeping bag all damp.

It doesn’t make sense, but there’s no one around for miles—not Rachel, not his parents, not a stranger through a thin motel wall—to explain himself to, so he lets it happen.

*

The physical strain keeps getting more and more bearable as his body catches up with the work, building muscle and callus and stamina wherever it’s needed. His Fitbit goes a full day without vibrating and the miles are ticking by faster than ever. Without the pain to distract him, though, the boredom keeps getting worse and worse.

The days bleed one into the next, the constants of sand, sun, and thirst making them impossible to distinguish. Patrick can’t decide if he should have prepared more for this or if he needs to accept that nothing could have prepared him for this.

He thought nature would be enough to entertain him. It always has been in the past. But then in the past, he’s always had someone to share it with. It turns out it’s not as exciting to see a herd of bighorn sheep when there’s no one beside him to point it out to, no one to go home to and tell all about it.

He brought a journal because it felt like he should. So far he hasn’t written a word.

*

By the twelfth day, he’s forced to admit that he’s just not very good company for himself.

*

It’s not until the thirteenth day that the desert starts to look beautiful. Then it starts fading away to grassland.

*

On the fourteenth day, he makes it to Kennedy Meadows.

*

There are people at Kennedy Meadows—fellow thru backpackers, day hikers, the so-called “trail angels” who spend the whole season there, tending to the campground and running the general store—so that helps. It helps kind of instantly, in fact. Patrick snaps back to himself in conversations about nasty dehydrated meals and even nastier earworms. He tells one couple about the bighorn sheep, and they trade him a story about thinking there was a snake in one of their sleeping bags only to find out it was a caterpillar. The re-enactment is priceless.

Everyone congratulates him for taking on the trail up through Oregon by himself, and he doesn’t tell them how much dread he’s feeling for the lonely miles ahead.

He goes to the post office and picks up the fresh box of supplies he had his parents mail to him. There’s a card inside with more congratulations. It’s shaped like a graduation cap, and Patrick opens it to find his dad’s familiar handwriting:

Sorry, Hallmark hasn’t come out with a “You made it 100 miles through the desert!” line yet, so I had to make do.

His mom has just written:

We miss you. We’re proud of you.

He sends them back a postcard of a desert sunset with “I’m alive” written on the back. He’s not sure what else to tell them.

His plan was to only spend one night at the campground before starting the trail into the Sierra Mountains, but he stretches that to two, then three, even though he’s days behind schedule as it is. This is the time to do it, he reasons, when he can still restock on whatever he needs from the store. There’s no denying his body could use the rest. He’s started succumbing to naps in the afternoons, when his tent is shaded by the long shadow of an old oak tree.

On his fourth day at Kennedy Meadows, he’s awoken from one of those naps by a thud and an unmistakable “Fuck!”

He must still be half asleep when he unzips the flap of his tent and finds David standing there, his pack and a post office box at his feet. That’s the only explanation for the first words that leave his mouth.

“There you are!” Patrick shakes his head and rushes to correct himself. “I mean, you made it. Congrats!”

David gives him a tight smile that suggests he feels about as deserving of any congratulations as Patrick does. “Thanks. I made it. Barely. You didn’t apply my sunscreen often enough.”

Patrick doesn’t intend to laugh at this, but he does. He kind of forgot that could happen. He wants to return the favor, to point out that David also looks like he’s been through hell, but… he looks sort of fantastic, actually. He’s tan and scruffy, and his black clothing has collected dust in artful swirls. There is the matter of what he’s wearing on his head, though.

“Please tell me you didn’t hike over a hundred miles in 35-degree heat wearing a toque.”

“I run cold,” David says, giving the edge of his knit cap a defensive tug. “Please tell me you don’t wear those cargo shorts in your real life.”

“Only for special occasions, like when I want—”

David holds up a finger, his nose catching on something in the air. “Oh my god, is that food?”

“The trail angels are making chili for anyone who wants it.”

“Me,” David snaps, decisive. “I want it.”

Patrick smiles. “Let’s get your tent set up, and I’ll go with you.”

*

“Okay, if I’d known this was waiting for me, I would have walked faster,” David says, deep into his third plate of chili.

The sun has gone down, and there’s a bonfire going. People are scattered across the picnic tables under the stars, eating and talking and laughing, and the two of them have one to themselves. Being around David brings Patrick a more specific kind of relief than being around people in general. It’s good to know he hasn’t quit yet.

“How’ve you been doing out there?” Patrick asks. “All alone, I mean.”

“Um. There was a point in my life when I was alone a lot.” David pushes beans around on his plate. “Kind of a long point, actually. I don’t prefer it? Necessarily? But I’m used to it. I’m good at being alone.”

“God, what’s that like?” Patrick gives a joyless chuckle. “It’s been awful for me, to be honest. I’m terrible by myself. I’m good at being around other people.”

“God, what’s that like?”

“I can show you, if you want.” Patrick tosses his deck of cards and travel cribbage board out onto the table.

“Uh, where did those come from?”

“Cargo shorts, David. Spontaneous cribbage is one of those special occasions I mentioned.”

“Well that’s just incorrect.” David’s grimace twists in on itself as a smile tries to break through. “But I guess I wouldn’t mind finally breaking that tie between us.”

“No, David. Other people, remember?” Patrick waves over to the next table, at the couple with the sleeping-bag caterpillar story. “Hey, Sarah, George, want to play a game with us?”

There isn’t really a lot of teamwork involved in being cribbage partners, but Patrick finds he and David are good at it anyway. Between the two of them, they manage to explain all of the scoring rules the first time, without forgetting any. (“Just remember to peg one for your knob, if you have it,” David says seriously, and this time it’s Patrick who giggles.) Sarah and George are focused but defeatable opponents, which saves Patrick from getting too strident or competitive. He can tell David likes to win as much as he does, and they do. Everyone has a good time, and then they say goodnight.

“So that’s what meeting new people is like for you, huh?” David says as they make their way back to their tents. “Does it always involve a deck of cards?”

Patrick stumbles, remembering the field trip in Grade Ten when Rachel took the empty seat next to him on the bus, asked his name, and offered to teach him Texas hold ‘em. In a single bus ride, she went from the new girl in school to the girl who’d bluffed him out of his whole box of Smarties with a pair of twos, and he was already smitten. It’s a story he’s always loved telling, even when he and Rachel were broken up before. It feels like he needs a new one now.

“That’s just a trick I picked up from a friend,” he says.

They don’t speak again until they’re back under the old oak tree, when David switches off his flashlight and turns to him in the moonlight.

“Journaling helps me. To be by myself.” David shrugs. “You might try it.”

Patrick does try it, after they say goodnight and get into their tents. He pulls out the journal he packed because some list on the internet told him to, and sits with it open in front of him for a long time before he falls asleep.

When he wakes up the next morning, all he’s written is:

David

There’s a sound outside his tent, and his sleep-hazed brain reminds him that, unlike the desert, there are bears in the mountains. But bears don’t curse like that.

David is just strapping his red tent bag to his red pack when Patrick pokes his head out to greet him. He’s dressed in new clothes, black shorts and a blue-and-white plaid flannel, unbuttoned over a fresh white T-shirt.

“Mornin’,” Patrick says. “Nice flannel.”

David rolls his eyes. “It’s a prank from the friend who mailed my restock package. She thinks she’s funny.”

Patrick’s about to tell him he looks like Paul Bunyan when he catches up to the fact that all of David’s stuff is repacked. He feels the familiar squeeze of loneliness back around his throat.

“You’re leaving so soon? Most people take a few days to rest up.”

“If I don’t keep moving, I’ll quit.”

There’s a determination behind these words that’s impossible to argue. It makes Patrick feel a little ashamed of himself and the days he’s been enjoying here.

David hauls his backpack up onto one thigh before swinging it around and over his shoulders. Patrick reads the wince on his face as David clicks the buckle around his hips and makes an educated guess.

“Is your pack chafing a lot on your lower back?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Yeah, you want to make sure the hip strap is really—Here.” Patrick stands up, the dewy grass tickling his bare feet, and steps over to him. “Let me help you.”

Patrick braces one hand on David’s hip and pulls the strap tight with the other. David inhales sharply as Patrick looks up into his eyes, and that’s the moment Patrick realizes this is a person he wants to kiss.

The force of the shock is physical. It knocks him back a step and drops his hands, heavy to his sides.

David’s still standing there, ready to leave, and Patrick wants to kiss him.

“It…” Patrick grasps after what he was about to say. “It’ll loosen up as you walk, so you’ll want to keep tightening it.”

“Okay.” David takes a couple of steps, testing. “It feels better, thank you.”

Patrick nods, his mind blank, his mouth somehow still full of words. “I hope I see you again out there, but if not, good luck.”

“Good luck, Patrick,” David says, and sets off in the direction of the mountains.

*

Patrick leaves Kennedy Meadows the next morning.

He ditches his journal in the “Free” box at the general store, after tearing out the first page, the one with David’s name written on it, and zipping it into the top pocket of his pack. He hopes someone else can use it; he’s done trying to do things because it feels like he should. At least for a little while, he’s done.

He checks the trail register at the start of the path up into the Sierras, and the latest entry reads:

I’m a survivor, I’m not gon’ give up
     - Destiny’s Child (and David Rose)

So far Patrick has just been signing all the registers with his name, but this time he takes inspiration from somewhere else:

If I don’t keep moving, I’ll quit.
     - David Rose (and Patrick Brewer)

Chapter Text

The mountains find new ways to make him hurt. At first Patrick feels welcomed by the trees, the shade, the breeze in the leaves, which makes it all the crueler when he keeps climbing and they abandon him. Once again he’s surrounded by nothing but rocks and sun, only now it’s not just his skin that’s burning. The incline of the earth burns in his shins. The thinning oxygen burns in his lungs.

His memories burn him in a new way, too. During the day they pounce uninvited, a series of artless, empty flashes that, like the Marineland jingle, have no good reason to still be lodged somewhere inside him. An argument he had with a girlfriend in university who wanted more time alone together than he was willing to give. Falling asleep watching Spaceballs with Mateo in the back room of Rose Video and missing a date with Rachel. His mom gasping at a twist in her favorite soap opera, covering her mouth and muttering at the TV screen, “I knew it. I knew he was gay.”

At night, it’s what he can’t remember that tortures him. He can’t remember how he and that university girlfriend broke up. He can’t remember the name of the boy from his summer camp who taught him to whistle, who pressed his fingers to both sides of Patrick’s lips to make them pucker. He can’t remember the first time he wanted to kiss Rachel.

He remembers the first time he did kiss her, of course, in the dim glow of a movie theater as the credits rolled. He remembers the first time he kissed her during sex, careful and reassuring. He remembers the first time he kissed her after he proposed, enthusiastic and relieved.

He remembers the last time he kissed her and how it tasted like tears.

These were all kisses he’d approached with a plan but no intent, like he was navigating someone else’s map with no compass of his own. He can’t remember ever having a moment with her like the one he had with his hand pressed to David’s hip, where he wasn’t thinking about kissing until suddenly he was. He can’t remember a moment like that with anyone.

It takes a while for his brain to do the math, to reduce this fraction of a realization to its simplest terms. It comes to him one blinding day out on the trail, when he’s staring off at a distant snow-capped peak that he knows isn’t on his path:

He’s never, in all his life, kissed someone because he wanted to.

*

He still gives himself a break to catch his breath whenever his Fitbit vibrates, but he’s stopped looking to it to measure his pace and progress. He loses track of how far he’s come. He expects to catch up with David on the first day, then the second, then the third, then he remembers not to have expectations out here, and then he forgets again.

He expects the path to get easier coming down the other side of the mountain, but the descent brings its own kind of treachery. He has to brace himself against the steep decline and the loose rocks keep shifting beneath his boots, beneath his fingers. They throw him forward on the trail, sending him off balance and, once, dangerously close to losing his grip on solid ground, to plunging into the open air beyond. His dreams, already haunted by question marks, start ending with the exclamation point of falling. His body has never been so desperate for sleep, and his mind won’t stop poisoning it.

When the first mountain ends, there’s another.

*

But first, mercifully, a valley.

He descends back into the trees and green, and it starts to feel familiar again.

It’s late enough in the season that most of the thaw has passed, and the river that runs alongside this part of the trail is more like a creek. The crossing point, when it comes, is shallow and easy to ford. He spends an extra day there anyway, fortifying himself. He stands in the water barefoot, up to his knees, thinking of how his grandfather taught him to fly fish. Even without a rod, the motion of casting feels calm in his limbs. He tickles the surface of the current with his imaginary line and waits for the tug he remembers feeling once, when he caught something big.

He waits and waits and feels his patience returning to him.

The forest sticks around longer up the side of the next mountain and that helps, too.

*

Two days after he finally gives up on catching David on the trail, Patrick almost walks right past him.

He has his eyes pointed at the ground, guiding his feet through the last mile of their day, when the movement of something red catches his peripheral vision. Through the trees, he recognizes David’s tent as it tumbles inevitably toward the edge of the mountain.

Patrick can see what’s happening before it happens, before David even looks up, but there’s nothing to do but watch. Once the tent drops out of view, there’s nothing to do but swear, and David’s got that covered on his own. Then Patrick steps out of the trees, tries to make a joke, and hears the helplessness in David’s voice when he asks, “What am I gonna do now?”

Patrick says, “I have an idea.”

He gets to work setting up his tent, not giving himself the chance to think through what he’s offering. There’s no reason to think it through, really. It’s the only right thing to do.

“We should be out of the mountains in a week or so,” he says, “and you can get to someplace to buy a new tent. Until then, you can share mine.”

“Oh. Um.” David eyes the pole that Patrick’s stacking together. “You don’t have to do that.”

“You want to take your chances with the next guy?” Patrick slides the pole through one tent sleeve and starts working on the other. “What if he’s wearing something worse than cargo shorts?”

David’s lips disappear between his teeth, and Patrick wants to kiss him. It feels a bit like seeing trees again, coming back to a context where he makes sense.

“I can’t imagine anything worse than cargo shorts, but yes, okay.” David gives five short nods, rapid fire. “Do you need any help?”

“Not anymore.” Patrick presses the last stake into the ground with his boot. “Your generous offer was impeccably timed.”

“Mmm, yes, but you still admit it was generous, so. That’s really all I care about.”

Patrick chuckles and tries not to look as entirely charmed as he feels. With the tent all set up, he doesn’t have anything left to do with his hands. He slides them into his pockets.

“Thank you.” David’s face strains for a sincere expression, which somehow makes it look even more sincere than if it had landed there outright. “I appreciate this.”

“It’s—” Don’t you dare say my pleasure, Patrick, come on. “It’s fine, David.”

A breeze kicks up, and Patrick feels it at his back, just the slightest pressure nudging him forward. He could take three steps and have David in his arms. Three steps and he could be kissing him. Maybe two steps, if they’re big ones. It would be so simple to do, if the physical distance were the only thing standing in his way.

“And uh, don’t worry,” Patrick continues. “We can still solo hike during the day. Stagger our start times or something. We’ll just find a pace that’s comfortable for both of us and meet up to make camp. I know we both came out here to be on our own. I’ll stay out of your way.”

David nods slower this time, dragging out each one. “Yeah. Okay.”

They each have their own evening routines, and they fall into them.

*

Patrick’s tent is supposedly for 1.5 people, whatever that means, but from the outside it looks plenty big enough for two.

It’s not.

David expressed a preference for not sleeping closest to the door, so Patrick let him climb in first and get settled in his sleeping bag. That meant he assigned himself the impossible job of trying to arrange his own sleeping position so that he’s touching David as little as possible, without being overly obvious about how keen he is to avoid contact. Of course, he’s not actually all that keen to avoid it, but he can’t let that on either.

Patrick’s normally a side sleeper, but that’s tantamount to spooning in these close quarters, so he ends up on his back. David’s also on his back, in a space not much wider than a twin bed, which means their shoulders and ribs and hips and thighs have nowhere to be except pressed right up against each other. Even through two layers of sleeping bag, Patrick has never been more aware of the feel of someone else’s body. It’s making it very difficult to focus on sleep.

Minute after minute goes by and it’s glaringly apparent, even in cover of full darkness, that they’re both still wide awake. Patrick clears his throat.

“I think this might be less awkward if we knew a little more about each other.”

“Oh, is this awkward?” David replies. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Sorry, I’d put you up in the guest room, but I’m renovating in there.”

David’s shoulders shake a little with silent laughter.

“How about a game?” Patrick asks.

“I don’t think there’s enough room to maneuver in here for cribbage.”

Patrick almost asks what maneuvering David considers required for cribbage, then realizes that might accidentally invite a demonstration. A demonstration of David’s body maneuvering. Maneuvering very, very close to Patrick’s body. So. He doesn’t ask.

“I’m thinking more like a game with zero… maneuvering. Like an ice breaker. A getting to know you kind of thing.”

“Oh god,” David groans. “Pass.”

“Ouch.” Patrick mimes being wounded in the chest area. “I’ll try not to take it personally that you’d rather sleep next to a stranger for the next week than get to know me.”

“Oh no, getting to know you is fine with me. It’s the reverse I have a problem with.”

“I’m not going to grill you on where the bodies are buried, David. It just might be nice to have something to talk about while we’re here?”

David turns his head and Patrick can feel his stare more than he can see it. He wonders what David sees, looking at him in the dark.

“Okay fine,” David says after a beat. “But no Never Have I Ever. Not without booze. And no Truth or Dare. Absolutely not.”

“Two Truths and a Lie?” Patrick senses this is about to be slotted in the Absolutely not category and rushes on, “If you want, you could just tell three lies and make me think I’m getting to know you. Be whoever you feel like being. I’ll never know the difference.”

“Mmm, tempting, but I’m not actually that good a liar? My mom’s an actress, and she once told me I had ‘too honest an instrument’ to believably play a tree in my third grade play.”

This seems like something worth unpacking, but now Patrick’s too focused on making this game happen.

“So your mom’s an actress, there’s one. Give me two more.”

“No, that’s not one of them! I told you that before the game, so you already know it’s true. Stop trying to cheat.”

It’s wrong, probably, that Patrick enjoys David winding himself up this much. It’s wrong for at least three reasons he can think of.

“Okay, I’ve got it.” David holds up a hand, and Patrick can just make out the outline of three of his fingers as he counts them off. “I have a closet full of designer clothes at home. I own my own business. I live in a motel.”

Patrick considers. “I think designer clothes is the lie.”

“What?! Why?”

Patrick shrugs against David’s shoulder. “I just can’t picture you in designer clothes.”

“Oh my god.” David’s hands fly to his face. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life.”

“Does it help if I tell you that I don’t really know what designer clothes look like?”

“No it does not help!” The hands are in the air again, gesturing at something intangible and infuriating. “And by the way, these shorts I’m wearing are Neil Barrett.”

It feels like Patrick might be safest not admitting that he doesn’t know who that is. “I take it that’s one of the truths, then?”

“Yes, it’s the truth! Do I really seem like a person who lives in a motel?”

“Ah, so that’s the lie.”

“No, that’s also the truth! I do live in a motel, I just didn’t think I seemed like I live in a motel. I didn’t think I seemed more like someone who lives in a motel than someone who wears designer fashion, and now I’m having an existential crisis, so thanks! Fun game!”

The number one reason it’s wrong for Patrick to enjoy David winding himself up is that it keeps happening, with ever increasing intensity. And Patrick keeps enjoying it, with ever increasing intensity. He’s in such trouble.

“You thought I was capable of running my own business?” David’s voice is suddenly small and oh, that feels like trouble, too.

“Sure, why not?” Patrick gives a gentle laugh. “David, we’re three hundred miles into the wilderness and halfway up a mountain. I think you’re pretty capable of anything.”

David’s quiet for long enough that Patrick starts to worry he said the wrong thing.

“I did run my own business once,” David says eventually. “Or—I thought I did. I owned a series of galleries in New York, but it turns out my parents were paying off all my patrons, so I never actually sold any art to anyone. And I thought I might get another shot at it recently, but I couldn’t even get my own mother to back my idea over a national Christmas store chain.”

David heaves a deep breath in and lets it out like he’s willing the conversational winds to change.

“So, um, yeah. That was a lie. Your turn.”

Patrick thinks of the night they met at the motel, how David told him he came out here to prove he could do something on his own. This feels like part of the story behind that. There’s more, Patrick can tell, but he’s not going to push for it. He counts off on his fingers.

“I’m a middle child. I once carried a canoe on my shoulders for one kilometer without stopping. Up until three months ago I was engaged, but now I’m single.”

“Well that’s easy,” David scoffs. “That last one’s a lie. You practically have ‘marriage material’ tattooed on your forehead; no woman’s dumping that.”

“What makes you so sure—” Patrick thinks he’s about to say I was the one who got dumped. He really, really does. “—it was a woman?”

Oh shit. Now he actually has said the wrong thing.

“I mean,” Patrick scrambles, his heart thundering in his ears. “It was a woman, just. Don’t assume. And, uh, I was the one who broke it off. For the record.”

The silence filling the tent is thick and unreadable. So much for making things less awkward.

“I’m an only child,” Patrick offers, as if that will help anything.

He clamps his jaw shut and waits for David to speak. When he does, his voice is smooth and light.

“To be honest, everything I know about broken engagements I learned from The Notebook? But I’m sorry, that must have been hard.”

The words are straightforward and kind, and Patrick decides he overreacted. Of course someone like David, who doesn’t make himself a secret, wouldn’t think it’s a big deal if Patrick’s not exclusively into women. He recalibrates.

“Not as hard as it should have been. That was the hardest part, I guess. It was so easy to give up.” Patrick feels like he just stumbled across a sliver of that clarity he told David he came out here looking for. He grabs hold of it. “I’ve started a lot of things in my life, but I haven’t seen very many of them through. Maybe that’s why I wanted to do this. Hike the PCT. Take on something where once you start, you just keep going, and that’s it.”

“Just keep going,” David repeats. “You say that like it’s easy.”

“It’s definitely not easy. But it is simple. And that’s something.”

David hums in agreement.

Neither of them says goodnight, but there’s an understanding that they’re both done talking. Patrick falls asleep wondering if David’s still awake.

*

Patrick wakes up curled on his side, his face pressed into David’s shoulder. His hands, thankfully, are to himself.

He leans up and over David just long enough to confirm he’s still sound asleep, then zips himself out of the tent before things can creep into the territory of longing gazes.

He takes his time making breakfast, and David’s still asleep. He props his pocket mirror up against a tree to shave, and David’s still asleep. He gets everything except the tent strapped to his pack, and David’s still asleep.

The only paper he has for a note is the page he tore from his abandoned journal, David’s name already at the top. He adds a little more, leaves it under David’s stove where he knows it will be found, then sets off.

David,

I’m hiking twelve miles today. Catch me if you can.

Actually, please catch me, and bring the tent, unless you want to explain to my parents why their only child froze to death.
     - Patrick

*

Patrick only makes it ten miles according to his Fitbit, but it’s his best day out on the trail by far.

The landscape gets steadily more jagged and gray and treeless as he approaches the peak of the second mountain. He loses two hours and his favorite baseball cap trying to navigate around a steep, rocky ravine. No matter which way he turns, there’s a ceaseless headwind.

It’s the kind of day that he’d normally have to drag himself to the end of, but today it’s different. It’s easy to push through to the end of today, because at the end of today he’ll get to spend time with someone he has a crush on. Because he has a crush on David. He feels sort of silly admitting it, but he’d feel even sillier if he didn’t.

Anticipation has a way of sharpening his appetite for the current moment. He passes by a purple wildflower growing out of a cracked boulder and thinks about how David will see the same one when he comes through. When he watches his hat tumble down into the ravine, he can already hear David telling him it was hideous anyway. He takes in the great big world spread out at the foot of the mountain range and feels glad to be in it.

It won’t last. He knows it won’t last. In a week, David will get his own tent again, they’ll part ways, and that will be that.

All the more reason to indulge this feeling for as long as he has it.

*

Patrick has no plan to turn this feeling into action. Not a big action, at least. There are a lot of little actions.

That first night David doesn’t show up until almost sunset, blaming the oversleeping and the ravine from hell, relieved to have found Patrick two miles sooner than he expected so he doesn’t have to keep going in the dark. As soon as David has his pack off, Patrick hands over the soup he’s been keeping warm in his insulated mug.

“I made extra,” he says with a shrug, omitting the part where he made extra on purpose.

The second night David stumbles into camp with a broken bootlace, and Patrick produces a spare from his pack.

David asks, “Has anyone ever told you that overpreparation is a symptom of anxiety?”

Patrick replies, “Weird way to say thank you, but you’re welcome.”

The next morning Patrick uses his pump to filter water for both of them from a nearby spring while David is still asleep. By the time he lugs the four full bottles back up to the campsite, David is awake and eating breakfast. He raises an eyebrow as Patrick thunks the liquid evidence of his labor on the ground.

“Yeah, they’re, uh, very heavy.” Patrick remembers they’re not in the desert anymore. They’ll hit another water source before tomorrow, and they’re carrying enough weight in their packs as it is. “You may want to dump some of that out.”

David twists his smile almost out of view and gives his attention back to his oatmeal.

They keep playing Two Truths and a Lie, and on the third night David is even the one to initiate it. They tell each other the kinds of things that are easy to share—David has a sister, Patrick plays guitar and piano—and the kinds of things that are only easy to share with someone you know you’ll never see again—David has what sounds like a pretty horrifying string of bad exes, Patrick has only ever been the bad ex in his relationships. Patrick takes silent note of the pronouns David uses for his past partners—he, she, they—and avoids using pronouns in his own stories, when he can help it. Every detail revealed by night is a new puzzle piece, and Patrick spends his days alone trying to fit them together.

On the fourth day Patrick rounds a corner of the trail and sees a hawk suspended at eye level, not fifty meters away. It spreads its wings against the powerful air current whipping down the side of the mountain, and Patrick’s first thought is he knows how that must feel. For days he’s been leaning into this new swell in his heart in just the same way. Gliding for the thrill of it, not trying to get anywhere.

He has no plan to turn this feeling into a big action. Until he does.

*

By the fourth night they’re far enough down the northern side of the mountain that there’s wood again, and they find some dry enough for a fire. After dinner, they linger outside the tent longer than they normally would, soaking up the heat after a day in the wind’s chill. David asks for Patrick’s cards and announces he’s going to teach him a game called Slapjack.

“So let me get this straight,” Patrick says, once David’s done walking him through it. “The rules are just that we keep dealing cards from our piles until we see a jack, and then we slap it?”

“That’s correct.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Except for the part where Patrick is terrible at it, the game is actually a lot of fun. David’s strategy seems to be to keep his opponent too distracted with conversation to see the cards in front of him, and he’s very good at it. He nabs the jack of spades while inquiring after the logo design of the Toronto “Blue Janes,” sneaks the jack of diamonds while chatting idly about the secret sex appeal of high school theater nerds, and snatches the jack of clubs after an off-handed mention of how fly fishing doesn’t qualify as a sport. Patrick rises to every bit of this bait and can’t keep his focus on the game. Even with his competitive spirit eating him up inside, he has room to feel flattered that David has clearly been listening just as carefully to Patrick’s truths and lies at night.

David’s mid sentence describing an impossible cribbage hand when Patrick sees a flash of the jack of hearts and pounces. His slap lands a split second before David’s and gets pinned there, held beneath a large, soft hand. He looks up into David’s face and sees, unmistakable even through the shadows dancing across it, how much he’s hoping to be kissed.

And it occurs to Patrick that he’s not obligated to let this moment pass him by just because it’s fleeting. He won’t have to wake up and face anyone who thinks they know him tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that, or for many days after that. Right now there’s no reason to be any version of himself other than the one who wants to kiss this man and does.

So he does. He wraps his free hand around the back of David’s neck and wants to kiss him. He leans in and wants to kiss him. He kisses him and wants to kiss him. David’s lips are warm with laughter and firelight. His mouth lets out a little hum. His skin smells like smoke. It’s a short kiss and even as it’s ending, the wanting doesn’t let up. Patrick’s throat burns with it and keeps on burning. But he pulls back, straining against his own longing before it drags him under.

He blinks his eyes open and expects one of them to say something, but David’s on him again immediately. He gets one arm around Patrick’s shoulders and, with a whispered “Oh, thank god,” brings their lips together.

This kiss is more of the same. It’s more of the same of everything Patrick never knew he could have in his life. It’s more, there’s so much more.

It’s like the inverse of standing on top of a mountain and feeling the vastness of the universe pressing in all around him. There’s a vastness trying to burst out of him, surging through every one of his muscles, and his body feels too small for it. He feels too small.

His Fitbit vibrates against his wrist and he ignores it. He feels David’s hand press into the center of his back and it vibrates again. David’s tongue slips inside his mouth and the vibration won’t stop. He breaks away from the kiss to catch his breath and finds he can’t.

“Patrick?” David’s voice sounds very far away.

Patrick gasps, but can’t feel any air getting to his lungs. A tightness around his chest prevents it from expanding.

“Patrick, I think you’re having a panic attack.” David’s hands flutter across Patrick’s shoulders, down his arms, then back up. “At least, you better be having a panic attack, because if it’s a heart attack, we’re fucked. There isn’t even a vet out here.”

Something about the look Patrick shoots him must convey how little this is helping.

“Right, no, it’s definitely a panic attack, don’t listen to me,” David continues quickly. “Except, wait, do listen to me, because here’s what you need to do.”

David talks him through closing his eyes and breathing deeply, and rubs circles into his back until Patrick manages to communicate that he would have an easier time calming down if they weren’t touching. They end up side by side, both staring into the fire. With the panic gone, there’s nothing left for Patrick to feel except bone-deep embarrassment.

“That was—” he starts, but David’s already talking.

“Why don’t you go to bed? I’ll take care of things out here.”

Patrick is caught between the desire to disappear and the desire to explain. He settles for trying to make himself useful. “Let me show you how to put out the–”

“I once had a thing with a firefighter who really liked to talk shop in bed. Like, very detailed, um—” David wafts a hand. “And then another of my exes was eventually arrested for arson but not before practicing on my kitchen twice. So. Trust me. Fire safety is basically the only camping skill I have. Let me use it.”

Patrick tries to swallow these thoughts up in his mind, but it’s already crammed full in there. He watches as David stirs the fire, spreading the embers apart so dousing them will take less water.

“Yeah. Okay,” he says.

David doesn’t look up, so Patrick goes to bed.

*

The problem with Patrick going to bed first is that, once the fire’s out and all their gear is stowed away, David has to climb over him to get to his side of the tent. There’s no way for that to happen gracefully or without making Patrick’s heart take a sidestep in his chest.

“Sorry,” David whispers as his knee lands on Patrick’s thigh instead of the ground.

“You’re good,” Patrick whispers back, resisting the urge to reach for him as he passes by.

The moon is out tonight, almost full, and so bright it’s like a third presence in the tent. It bathes David in light as he wrestles into his sleeping bag and settles on his side. Patrick can’t take his eyes off him through all of it, which means they end up face to face more by default than intention.

“I thought you’d be asleep,” David says.

“Yeah, not a chance.” Patrick lets out a tight, humorless laugh. “Too busy thinking about—stuff. You know, tonight.”

David’s mouth quirks into half a wince. “Regrets?”

“What? No.” Even with the tangled awkwardness between them, Patrick is acutely aware of how much he wants to kiss that half wince. “Why would I have regrets?”

“I don’t know, I think it’s just a habit to ask.” David’s eyes glance away and then back, away and then back. “But also. In my experience, people don’t tend to hyperventilate from joy.”

“Yeah, can we pretend the hyperventilation was just a nightmare I had? Because that’s what it felt like.” Patrick scratches his knuckles along his own jawline as he weighs his next words. “But for the record, I’m pretty sure it was. From joy, I mean.”

The “Oh” that falls from David’s mouth is mostly just the shape of his lips, barely any sound at all. It’s a shocked, delighted, gorgeous shape. Patrick feels an indescribable lurch somewhere inside him and has to close his eyes against it to keep speaking.

“My body is just… processing a lot right now and got kind of overloaded, I think.”

“Mmm, processing,” David says. “I’m trying to take that as a compliment.”

When Patrick opens his eyes, David has rolled halfway onto his back to stare up at the tent ceiling. In the steady glow of a moonbeam, David’s fingers fidget with the zipper of his own sleeping bag, and his eyes scan back and forth as though reading his own anxious thoughts from the air in front of him.

“Okay, see if you can spot the lie.” Patrick counts off on his fingers, starting with two truths. “I’ve never done that before, with a guy. That felt like the first real kiss of my entire life. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

David turns to him again, and his mouth takes on several more silent shapes. “Okay.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s fine.”

“It doesn’t feel very fine to me.”

David smiles one of his half-concealed smiles. Patrick wonders if his own anxious thoughts are also written in the air. If they are, the handwriting is probably not very legible.

“You’ll get there. I mean, you’ll figure it out. You’re—” David bites his lip, then releases it as he seems to find the right words. “I think you’re pretty capable of anything.”

“Thank you, David.” Patrick clears the sudden roughness from his voice. “And I’m glad you think so, because I can’t promise I’m done having breakdowns for the next few days, and like it or not, you’ve got a seat right behind home plate.”

“Um, I don’t really know what that means?” David squints with one eye. “But you should know that behind a plate is my favorite place to sit.”

“I’m just saying it’s gonna be tough to have space from each other.”

“Oh, if it’s space you need, I can give you—” David wiggles himself as far back into the wall of the tent as he can and smirks down at the gap between them. “—three whole inches of space.”

The thing is, Patrick isn’t actually worried about the lack of space. It’s somewhat worrying, how not worried he is.

“Can I kiss you again?” he asks.

David shakes his head. “No, I want to kiss you. I got kind of interrupted before.”

David puts a hand on Patrick’s chest, but there’s no weight behind it as he leans down and into the kiss. It’s gentle and deliberately slow, and Patrick might feel patronized if he weren’t so busy enjoying it thoroughly. David’s fingers tap an unhurried beat just to the left of Patrick’s sternum. His heart gets the message; his Fitbit keeps its trap shut.

This time when the kiss ends, Patrick is breathless the way you read about in books. Nothing clinical.

“How was that?” David asks. “Processable?”

“Very.” Patrick nods. “Though I do think we can pick up the pace a bit. Just keep in mind that you can’t take me to a hospital anywhere out here. Or the… vet? That sounded like a stor—”

“Oh, I don’t think we have time for that tonight.”

To make sure the interruption sticks, David kisses him again. It works.

*

Patrick wakes up to the sound of his own brain doing calculations. He’s thinking about the distance to the next checkpoint, and his average hiking pace, and David’s average hiking pace, and how long his food will stretch, and it takes him a minute or two to catch up to the fact that he’s trying to figure out a way to make this time last.

As usual, David’s still fast asleep. What’s unusual is that he’s stretched out against Patrick’s side, one arm thrown across Patrick’s chest. It’s unusual, and Patrick gets used to it almost immediately. David’s cheek is right there, and Patrick thinks about running a hand over it—that seems like something he can do, now—but he really doesn’t want to wake him.

He allows himself another minute, then extracts himself from the tent and goes to take inventory of his rations. David comes blinking out into the sunshine just as Patrick’s packing up from breakfast. He’s rumpled and stretching, and Patrick can’t look directly at him.

“Oh, you’re still here.” David rubs at his eyes as though wanting to make sure.

“Yeah, I’m heading out in a minute.” Patrick adjusts and readjusts the shoulder strap on his pack, just for the excuse to look elsewhere. “I’m thinking I might ease up on the pace if that’s okay. Give us a bit of a break. Now that we’re through the hardest part of the mountains, I mean.”

There’s no way this isn’t transparent. Patrick curses his sunburn for fading and leaving him with nothing to cover the blush he can feel washing over him.

“Um, yeah,” David says slowly. “I guess—I guess that would be okay.”

“I don’t know how much food you have left, so you should check to make sure you can go a couple more days before restocking.”

“I’ll do that.”

Patrick lifts his pack to his waist, then gets it around his shoulders. The movement is fluid by now, practiced, but it still takes effort. As he buckles and tightens the straps at his chest and hips, he feels David’s eyes on him, and when he looks up, they’re full of hesitation. Patrick feels caught out.

“Okay listen, David–”

“No, you listen.” David flinches away from the sound of his own voice. “Sorry, that came off way harsher than I wanted it to. I haven’t had a real shower in more than a month. I sweat and sleep in the same clothes every day because that’s all I have. I had to leave all but three steps of my skincare regimen at home. This beanie is the only haircare at my disposal–”

“Why do I feel like you’re about to start singing something from the first scene of My Fair Lady?”

“I’m not exactly feeling my sexiest. So in case you’re angling for more days together to—” David’s hands approach some kind of gesture together but shake themselves out of it before they can get there. “To sleep with me, or whatever, um. I just want to say. I’d feel more comfortable if we kept things... PG-13?”

Patrick has been so busy panicking over panicking over a kiss that he hasn’t even considered panicking over what might come after. He pencils it in for later.

“Because you know,” David continues, sounding a bit panicked himself, for some reason, “PG-13 movies are still very—I mean, all the best romantic comedies are PG-13. Not—” His eyebrows ratchet up a notch on his forehead. “—that I’m saying there’s anything romantic going on here.” Another notch. “Or comedic! I just—” He squeezes his eyes shut and balls his fingers into a fist. “I think—I think we could still have a good time.”

Patrick has to bite his lip to keep from laughing, but it only stifles the sound. The convulsions are a dead giveaway. “David, I’m already having a good time. Aren’t you?”

“Oh,” David exhales. “I mean, yes.”

“And just so you know, I wasn’t thinking—I mean, not that I wouldn’t—” Patrick clears his head with a shake. This doesn’t need to be hard. He can just tell the truth. “I would appreciate taking things slow, too. You know, for the sake of my cardiovascular health.”

David looks relieved first, then flattered. “Okay.”

“Good, glad we could settle that.” Patrick starts backing toward the trail, grinning. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“See you tonight, Patrick.”

Chapter Text

For the next few days, Patrick doesn’t do much thinking out on the trail, but he touches his lips about a thousand times. This far into the hike, he’s used to the constant hyper-awareness of whichever part of his body is most tender and raw from exertion, and this is different, but it’s almost the same. It’s the ache of having done something he didn’t know he could do, the discomfort of discovery. He wants to keep feeling it. He can’t bear to let it fade to memory.

It’s lucky that he’s out of the portion of the mountains where he needed to watch his every step, where distraction would have been deadly.

He wonders what David is thinking during his days alone.

*

“David,” Patrick mumbles, and it ends up half in David’s mouth.

“Mmm?”

David moves to pull away, but Patrick grabs him back again, nips gently at his bottom lip.

“Nothing.” Patrick nips a little less gently. “That’s all I wanted to say.”

“Okay.” David gives a small, pleased smile.

The smile means that David’s lip slides from between Patrick’s teeth, and that’s not allowed. Getting it back again means leaning up against David’s weight pressing him down, which means remembering that he’s here, half inside his sleeping bag with David half on top of him, and god. What a delicious thrill that is.

The nights are still chilly, but they’ve started sleeping with the tent flaps thrown open to the cross breeze (but not moths; David checked and rechecked the mesh for rips), letting it cut through the haze of breath and body heat between them. This is definitely making out, not just kissing, and that’s a distinction Patrick hasn’t cared about since high school. Even then, he was mostly pretending to care.

Patrick strokes his hands down the broad muscles of David’s back and, intent on pressing them to warm skin, slides them up under the hem of his long-sleeved T-shirt.

“Um,” David protests, writhing away from the contact.

“Sorry,” Patrick gasps. “Is this—?”

“My back is just in no shape to be touched right now.” As if sensing where Patrick’s headed next, he quickly adds, “Neither is my chest! My pack has basically destroyed me all over.”

“All right.” Patrick withdraws his hands from under David’s clothes and uses them to cradle both sides of his face instead.

David seems happy with that, sinking deeply into the kiss that follows. He sneaks a hand around Patrick’s waist and just under his shirt to scratch lazy circles there. It hardly seems fair, but Patrick isn’t about to stop him. He arches his back, offering David more skin to work with, and David takes it gladly. His fingers skate over a bruise at Patrick’s hip, courtesy of a fall three days ago while trying to climb over a dead tree trunk blocking the trail. Patrick swallows a wince and needs something to hold onto. He thrusts his fingers upwards, seeking David’s hair beneath his toque, and gets swatted away immediately.

“Okay, no. Absolutely not.” David hitches his hat back into place.

“David,” Patrick growls, rolling them over so now he’s the one half on top. “I’d like to put my hands on you somewhere. Can you offer me some acceptable options?”

“Let’s just focus on you, okay?” David rakes his nails all the way up Patrick’s side under his shirt, hitting at least five sensitive spots and making them sing like marimba keys.

“No,” Patrick grits out, sensing the doped-out look on his face and doubling the determination in his voice to compensate. “That’s actually not okay with me. I want to touch you. Please?”

This seems to stop David in his tracks. For just a second. His lips disappear between his teeth, suppressing some expression Patrick can’t quite catch in the dim light, and reemerge slanted with smugness.

“Anywhere?”

“Anywhere,” Patrick confirms.

David holds out his hand, limp at the wrist like a queen waiting on an offer of fealty, a dare sparkling in his eyes. The smartass thinks he’s calling Patrick’s bluff, so Patrick calls it right back. He takes the hand, flips it over, and bites directly into the center of David’s palm.

The breath David sucks in is vindicating. The way his eyes go wide is damning. The lip he catches between his teeth should be illegal.

Patrick wants to memorize everything about this moment, to sock it away for the lonely days ahead, but he imagines all he’ll remember is holding David’s gaze as it turns from surprised to impressed. He can’t bear to look away long enough to take the rest of it in.

“Okay,” David says after a bit, tugging on his own hand. “That’s enough.”

“Wait.” Patrick tugs back. “I’m ramping up for a whole Gomez Addams thing.”

And he does a whole Gomez Addams thing. He presses an ardent kiss to the back of David’s hand, then peppers them up the length of his arm. It’s silly, he knows, but being silly in bed is Patrick’s comfort zone. It’s what he’s good at. He got good at being silly because it made more sense than being sexy, and sometimes if he could keep Rachel’s laughter coming, then she’d forget to want anything else.

“Morticia!” Patrick sighs against David’s throat when he gets there and feels a giggle burbling through it. He presses his tongue to that spot, just to savor the vibration.

David’s laughter isn’t a diversion. David’s laughter is part of the wanting.

“One of my more successful Halloween costumes, actually,” David says, wistful. “I won Best Dressed at the party of the year as Morticia.”

“In your twenties?”

“Kindergarten.”

“Ah.”

This inspires David to list off two of his childhood costumes that are true and one that’s a lie (“Mary Shelley. Lestat de Lioncourt. The seven deadly sins.”), which of course Patrick has to answer with his own set (“Green Power Ranger. Nolan Ryan. Woody from Toy Story.”), which leads to a rant about how costumes must be horror-adjacent to be correct, and the make-out portion of their evening slips away into squabbling and, eventually, yawning.

Just before Patrick drifts into a dream about a five-year-old boy in a long black dress and wig, he thinks about what a shame it is. What a shame that he won’t know David Rose long enough to learn everything about him.

*

Their last full day in the mountains is a disaster.

A surprise afternoon thunderstorm forces Patrick to stop early, and he ducks under what little cover there is to find while he waits for it to pass. It doesn’t. By the time David finds him at nightfall, they’re both soaked and shivering through their rain gear, and there’s no choice but to let the tent take on water as they set it up. The window flaps are still zipped open from the inside.

Patrick has exactly two pieces of dry clothing in his pack, and he has to sacrifice the sweatshirt to finish mopping up the puddle on the floor of the tent. He hopes it’s enough to prevent wet sleeping bags or else they’re really in trouble.

They’ve both run out of food that doesn’t need to be cooked, and there’s no way to light a stove in the downpour, so the only thing left to do is get out of their dripping clothes and go to sleep. It’s the kind of scene that would be tense with the promise of sex and romance in a movie, but the reality is miserable to the core. They strip down with their backs turned to each other, then crawl into their separate sleeping bags hungry, teeth chattering, not saying a word.

Patrick wakes up alone the next morning, and he’d forgotten what that felt like.

The rain has stopped, but his clothes from the day before are still damp. He has to put them on anyway. There’s no other option.

David’s perched on a rock outside, journal spread across his knees, pen flying. He offers Patrick hot water so he can eat and tells him to take the tent today.

“In case you decide to stop before Tuolumne Meadows,” he explains. “I’m powering through to civilization if it kills me.”

Patrick wants to ask if he’s headed to civilization to buy a tent and keep going or to return to his real life, but is afraid the question will sound too leading. If David’s done, then he’s done. It’s not really Patrick’s business.

If these were normal circumstances, Patrick likes to think he would know how to ask for what he wants next. It must be easy to say I want to see you again when there’s a bar or a restaurant or a cafe nearby where you can make that happen. There’s no possible way to say I want to see you again, but I’m going to be in the middle of nowhere for the next two months, and also where exactly do you live? So he doesn’t try.

Instead he packs up his things, puts on his wet boots, rolls up his own tent for the first time in over a week. He has his head bent over the chest strap of his pack when he feels David’s hand on the back of his neck.

“Hey.” David tilts Patrick’s face up with a knuckle under his chin and kisses him. It’s long and sweet and over too soon. “Thanks again, Patrick. You helped me survive out here.”

Patrick kisses him back, deeply and just as slow. “You’re welcome, David. It was... fun.” The word feels slight in his mouth, but it means something to him. It means a lot. “I wasn’t having any fun with all this. Before you.”

He takes one last look at David’s delighted, disappearing smile. One more for the road. And then Patrick leaves.

Neither of them says goodbye.

*

Patrick reaches the campground at Tuolumne Meadows just after noon. He could retrieve his restock package from the general store and keep going on the trail—he has that kind of energy—but he doesn’t. He pays the $30 to get a spot for his tent and drops his pack in the grass.

Just one night, he decides. No lingering this time. He can admit, now, that that’s what he was doing all those days at Kennedy Meadows, too scared to face the uncertainty ahead. He doesn’t want to do that anymore. He’s starting to change his mind, a bit, about the kind of things uncertainty can bring.

It helps that he doesn’t feel as welcomed here. It’s a more commercial campground, with a parking area for RVs and a playground for kids. There are no trail angels, but people are everywhere, trying to make conversation with him. He remembers how that helped before, but maybe the company of people isn’t what he craves anymore. Not now that he’s had the company of a particular person.

He stashes his pack in a locker at the visitor’s center and walks the kilometer to the general store without it. Every step feels light, insubstantial, like he could float away on the wind if he’s not careful.

The guy behind the counter has trouble finding Patrick’s box at first, and as he’s shifting some things around to dig for it, Patrick sees a package with David’s name on it. He feels the jolt of a familiar impulse, the desire for action, but there’s nothing to do except watch as it gets buried again.

He buys an iced tea, a can of Pringles, and a postcard to send to his parents, then sits down on the porch to open his package. It contains exactly what he remembers packing, sitting on the floor of his childhood bedroom: new boot laces, replenishments for his first aid kit, more of the same joyless, weightless food he’s been eating for weeks. There’s a fresh set of clothes, thank god, pulled from the back of the closet his mom asked him to clean out for Goodwill. He unfolds the T-shirt and smooths the Rose Video logo under his fingers. Even in 2003, it was pure 80s nostalgia, and it still has an inelegant way of yanking the past into the present.

The card from his parents is more thematically appropriate this time, with a picture of a mountain climber on the front and “Hang in there” printed on the inside. His mom, repeating herself for emphasis or because they’re the only words she can manage, has written:

We miss you. We’re proud of you.

His dad has written:

If you’re reading this, then you’ve climbed every mountain, forded every stream. I hope you follow every rainbow till you find your dream.

The tears come sudden as a thunderstorm, soaking his vision in an instant. They’re pointless, an overreaction; Patrick knows his dad doesn’t actually mean these words that way. He’s just doing his dad thing, using a lame song quote to make his son roll his eyes from across the continent. And instead his son is crying, because his son is—his son is having feelings for a man. His son isn’t quite ready to put a label on that. Except maybe one:

I’m happy, he writes on the back of his postcard. He chose one with a picture of a glacial lake framed by snowy peaks, cool and serene.

His dad probably would mean those words that way, Patrick thinks, if he knew what was going on. He hopes so, at least. His parents are good people. He’ll tell them. When this is all over, he’ll tell them, and then he’ll find out.

He pictures sitting his parents down in their living room and telling them about David, about meeting David, about noticing David, about wanting to kiss David, about hyperventilating in front of David, about trading truths and lies with David, about waking up next to David, about getting his hands on David, about waiting all day to see David, about walking away from David without even asking for more. That’s way too much, obviously, but it’s also not enough. If he’s going to tell his parents anything about David, he wants it to be that he tried his hardest to see it through.

“Do you sell tents here?” Patrick asks the guy behind the counter when he goes back inside.

“Sold out,” is the grunted reply.

Patrick pulls another postcard from the rack, a campfire throwing sparks into the darkness, and writes a message:

I’m in lot B13 at the campground tonight, if you need somewhere to stay.
     - Patrick

“You have a box back there for David Rose,” he says, handing over the postcard and the seventy-five cents to pay for it. “When he comes to pick it up, can you make sure he gets this, too?”

*

David finds him at sunset.

Patrick’s sitting on the ground, right about ready to cheat at solitaire, when there’s a small kick against his boot. He looks up, and David is a silhouette against the red and orange glow of the sky. There’s no mistaking him.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hi.” Patrick stands up, trying not to scramble. “You found me.”

“Yeah.” David shifts his resupply box in his arms, and it makes a restless rattle. “Guess you’re not rid of me yet.”

The amount of relief this statement sends washing over Patrick should probably embarrass him. It hasn’t even been a day.

“That’s fine,” he understates.

“The thing is,” David continues. “According to the proprietor of the general store, buying a tent right now means getting on a bus to some nearby… tent emporium? I don’t know, I wasn’t really listening, because I don’t do busses. Not after everything they put Sandra Bullock through.”

Patrick bites back a smile. “I take it you don’t do spaceships, either?”

“Correct, but that’s a Lance Bass-related issue.”

“Naturally.”

“Anyway. I think if I have to drive away to get a tent right now, I’m probably staying away, going home, and I—” Each of the next words twists David’s face in a new direction, as if he’s trying to say them and disavow them at the same time. “—don’t, want, that?”

Patrick slides his hands into his pockets, shrugs his shoulders. “So don’t get a tent.”

Nothing in all the boundless beauty of nature compares to the way David’s whole body relaxes into a smile. They should put that on a postcard.

“Yeah?” David asks.

“Yeah,” Patrick answers.

“Okay.” David puts his box down in the grass, unbuckles his backpack, then freezes. “You know I’m asking to stay with you, right?”

“I don’t think you technically asked, but yes, that’s what I’m agreeing to.”

“Well.” David shrugs out of his pack, lets it drop with a thunk. “Don’t worry, it won’t be for long. I’ll probably quit soon.”

“Stay as long as you want.”

“See, you say that, but I’ve been told my welcome wears out very easily. Like georgette. Not very durable. They wouldn’t sell it at the Blouse Barn.”

Patrick has no idea what this means or why it’s making David spin out, but he’s determined to help anyway. He steps forward and puts his hands on David’s shoulders.

“David. It’s fine.”

He can’t stop saying that word, apparently. He can’t stop saying fine when what he means is I want you here. It shouldn’t be that hard. He shifts his hands down to David’s waist, pulls him closer, and hopes that gets the message across somehow.

“Um.” But David’s distracted, plucking at Patrick’s shirt. “What is this?”

Patrick looks down to see his fingers pinched right at the center of the Rose Video logo. “Oh, just an old T-shirt I sent myself from home. It’s a place I used to work in high school.”

“Well, this isn’t going to work for me,” David says. It sounds like he means it, but the way he wraps his arms around Patrick’s shoulders, and smiles down into a kiss, kind of muddies the waters.

*

The shirt comes off that night.

David does it slowly, pushing it up with his hands, following behind with his mouth, until it’s off and tossed in a corner of the tent. Patrick has been shirtless in front of plenty of men. He’s been more naked than this in every locker room he’s ever been in. He never knew it could happen like this, that he could be unwrapped and exposed until he’s complete, full to the brim. His body is covered in welts and bruises and scars, but they disappear from his mind. Under David’s touch, he’s whole.

Just when he thinks there’s nothing left to reveal, David nudges him to roll over and keeps going. No one’s ever kissed Patrick’s back before, and it quickly becomes a challenge to remember there are other tents nearby. It’s a challenge to hear the noises he’s making before they get too loud.

David’s stubble scrapes a path down Patrick’s spine, his hands brace themselves on Patrick’s hips, his tongue finds a favorite spot between Patrick’s shoulder blades. Through it all, Patrick tries to remember the word for it, for moment after moment of knowing where he is, who he’s with, what he’s doing, and why.

Present. So this is what it means to feel present.

Patrick tries again to say it, I want you here.

“Right there,” is how it comes out, over and over. “Right there, right there.”

*

They keep hiking separately during the day.

“So we don’t get sick of each other,” David explains as they’re packing up to leave Tuolumne Meadows.

Patrick has a feeling this insistence is at least equally about David making sure he can still claim this as something he did on his own and doesn’t push it.

If he’s honest, which he’s trying to be now, Patrick appreciates the days alone, too. He spent most of his life leaning into his natural extroversion, preferring to place himself around people who wanted very clearly defined things from him—family, teammates, bandmates. Girlfriends. That was always easy. Well, it was easier than being alone. It made him miss a lot about himself.

So he tries to get better at it. He practices, placing one foot in front of the other on the trail, keeping his eyes on the unspoiled landscape stretching out to the horizon. He’s in the northern foothills of the Sierras now, and everything looks miniaturized, diminished. Just the memory of mountains, only the promise of level ground. He tugs his thoughts back in whenever they get too far ahead or behind him. Mindfulness, Rachel would’ve called it when she was in her yoga phase. He never understood the point of it, back then. It’s about finding comfort within yourself, and that never seemed like a real thing.

It helps when nature feels more like an ally than an adversary. One day he stops to make camp near a stream and ends up following the sound of rushing water to its source, a thin waterfall spouting from the hillside and down a small cliff. He spots a route of footholds to a wide shelf in the rock, so he strips off his clothes and steps up and under the spray. The ice cold shock of it on his skin delivers a moment of instant, absolute self-awareness. Then he’s aware of nothing but the whistling of a nearby bird, the translucent shine of the sun through a leaf overhead, the smoothness of the stone beneath his feet. Then he goes gradually, gloriously numb.

When he gets back to where he dropped his pack, David’s there.

“There’s a waterfall about two hundred meters that way,” Patrick says, pointing. “You should go stand under it. Trust me.”

David is gone for twenty minutes, and returns pink and radiant, mumbling, “Well that was… restorative.”

Patrick just smiles and keeps unpacking their tent.

The physical demands do their part, too. Patrick feels measurably stronger than when he started back in the desert, but endurance is a constant struggle. Nothing keeps you in the moment like thirst, hunger, and a need for rest that never lets up. And then there’s the pain, which long ago stopped being an on/off switch and is now a dial of degrees.

His body is so desperate for so many things that his sex drive is usually forced to take a number, and that’s a relief. Otherwise it might be unbearable that he and David have used their endless privacy for nothing more than making out. But Patrick isn’t impatient about taking things slow. He has no trouble enjoying being half naked in David’s arms almost every night. It’s the best place he’s ever been.

He doesn’t need more, but David gives a little more, a little at a time. He lets Patrick push off his hat and bury his fingers in his hair, and they whisper in the dark about how hard to pull. David’s shirt never comes off, but he guides Patrick’s hands under it one night.

“You can—” David murmurs, half an offer that he restates as a full one. “You can.”

Patrick spreads his palms over David’s wounded skin, cherishing this tiny gesture of trust, grateful for every minute of going slow together.

*

Some nights they’re too busy talking to make out, and that’s good too. They keep playing Two Truths and a Lie.

“No way!” Patrick props himself up on his elbows to better register his shock. “I don’t believe your family used to own Rose Video.”

“It’s the truth,” David insists, but he’s not happy about it. “The lie was that I saw A League of Their Own six times in theaters. It was seven.”

“Wait, how old were you when that movie came out?”

“Oh, let’s not bring math into this.” David waves a hand in front of his face, like math is winging its way toward him on the air and must be stopped. “Anyway, yes, that’s me. The crown prince of the disgraced video rental empire.”

Patrick remembers reading about the collapse of Rose Video, something to do with embezzlement and a corrupt business manager. His mom had taken a photo of the story in the newspaper a year or two ago and texted it to him. She didn’t believe in internet news.

“What was that like?” Patrick asks.

“Losing everything? Oh, it was fantastic. Everyone should try it at least once.”

“Sorry, I guess I mean… What did you do?”

“Started over.” David shrugs. “I didn’t really have a choice. I think I’m still figuring out what it means, you know? To have grown up assuming I was meant for one kind of life and having to build a different one.”

Patrick can’t help chuckling at that. “I’m, uh, familiar with that concept, yes.”

It’s an incredible thrill having someone like David, who’s so different from Patrick in almost every measurable way, look at him with eyes that say, We’re the same.

“You’re thinking of your fiancée?” David asks.

“Rachel is part of it, yeah. But mostly… I had this whole life that made sense to everyone but me,” Patrick says. “I always had a strong picture of who other people wanted me to be. Now I’m realizing, pretty late in the game, that’s not the same thing as an identity.”

“See, I always had my identity, more or less. My life always made sense to me. It was just… empty. And now I have to fill it with something other than money and that’s—” David takes a deep breath in, then lets it out. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll never figure it out.”

There are a lot of things David shares easily—opinions about things he hates, stories that make him sound just ridiculous enough, practically every emotion that passes through his body, whether he likes it or not. He hasn’t shared a lot of details about his life back home. Patrick knows David has a family, parents and a sister, but not what they’re like. There’s the motel he lives in and the friend who keeps pranking him with flannel (the latest is red and black, like the Brawny paper towel guy) and that’s about all that David has let him learn.

But there’s also what Patrick has seen with his own eyes, and that’s enough for him to respond.

“I’m sure you will, David.”

“Thanks,” David says. Then, after a minute, he adds, “You will too, you know.”

*

Patrick starts having some fun when signing the trail registers, leaving little taunts and teases that he knows David will read when he follows a couple hours behind:

Patrick Brewer, Rose Video store 785 employee of the month, July 2003

Patrick Brewer, newly minted brand loyalist to Brawny paper towels

Don’t believe Tom Hanks. Crying technically is allowed in baseball.
     - Patrick Brewer

*

David stops talking about quitting, but his complaining about how well he’s doing out here gets more intense.

“I’ve never felt l so betrayed by my body,” he says when he catches up with Patrick one day, dropping his pack and flopping dramatically to the ground. “Like, intellectually I hate everything about this, but physically I’m full of endorphins. I resent it.”

Expressing discontentment seems to be his default method for acknowledging success.

David stops talking about quitting, and Patrick, little by little, stops bracing for it to happen.

*

Just past Sierra City, fifty-six days and 653 miles into their hike, Patrick accidentally says three truths.

“You’re gorgeous,” he begins, pressing one fingertip to the back of David’s neck.

“Mmm,” David hums, noncommittal, where he’s kissing Patrick’s clavicle.

Patrick counts with another fingertip. “You make me feel so good.”

This gets a hum of agreement, and David sinks his teeth into the ache of Patrick’s shoulder.

Patrick lets his eyes drift close, and then it just floats out: “I’m falling in love with you.”

For a moment, nothing happens. Patrick tries to hold onto that moment for as long as he can, tries to make it stay, but it slips past him. It slips past him and David rolls off him, and Patrick’s alone in a new, precarious moment of his own making. It’s dark in the tent, and Patrick does and doesn’t want to turn on his flashlight. He does and doesn’t want to see how much of a mess he’s made. He knows he should say something, should explain, but he’s not sure which clarification to offer: that he didn’t mean to say it, or that it’s not a lie. Both sets of words stick in his throat.

It’s David who speaks first.

“Well, that’s not true.”

Patrick expected him to sound angry or agitated, but his voice is calm and kind, and that’s somehow worse.

“I—I think it is.” Patrick’s own voice sounds small in his ears.

“I know you think that,” David soothes. “It’ll pass.”

“What?”

David rolls on his side, but Patrick can’t face him. He stays staring up at the pinpricks of stars he can see through the mesh ceiling above him.

“It’s normal to feel this way, with your first guy,” David says. “I don’t want you to feel bad about it. It’s normal. But it’s not real.”

“It feels pretty real to me.” Patrick glances at him, then glances away, not ready to see David’s wordless honesty, even as just a shape in the darkness.

“It’ll pass,” David says again, waving a hand over both of them. “Look at where we are right now. This isn’t real life. None of it’s real. It’s just a moment-in-time kind of thing. It’ll pass.”

Patrick can’t deny the logic of this. They haven’t even known each other for two months. They each have separate lives to get back to. It’s not like they’re in a relationship. He shouldn’t let his feelings get carried away just because it’s been an intense experience.

“You’re right,” he says after a while, and cocoons himself in his sleeping bag. “You’re right.”

*

“You’re wrong,” Patrick says the next morning.

He’s been watching David write in his journal, the way he does every morning. Patrick’s not always around to see it, but whenever he is, he can’t take his eyes off the process. He’s never gotten a glimpse of the pages—he would never pry—but the way David’s hand sweeps across them, it’s clear he’s filling them with more than words. His motions are bold, precise. Patrick likes imagining what kind of vision of the world those motions create. It’s beautiful, how David’s ideas move through him, take shape, and become something real.

By the time the spoonful of oatmeal in Patrick’s hand reaches his mouth, it’s cold. He’s been watching David write in his journal for so long that his breakfast got cold. That’s the kind of thing that only happens for one reason.

“Wrong about what?” David asks, not looking up from his work.

“I’m in love with you.”

David’s hand goes still.

“I know you don’t believe me, and that’s fine,” Patrick continues. “But I don’t want to pretend it isn’t true.”

“Patrick—” David starts, in the same soft, patient tone from last night. Patrick appreciates it, he loves it, even more in the daylight, but he refuses to listen to it.

“Wait, let me finish,” he says. “If this is just a moment-in-time kind of thing, if it is going to pass, like you said, I want to enjoy it for as long as it’s here. So here’s the deal I’m offering: I’m going to let myself be in love with you, for however long that lasts. And if you don’t try to convince me I’m wrong, I won’t try to convince you I’m right.”

David’s emotional unraveling happens in a quick succession of gestures: a squint, a nod, a grimace, another nod, clapping his journal shut, more nodding, standing up, shaking out his hands. Patrick loves him so much.

“I don’t understand how you’re so sure about this.” David starts to pace. “We haven’t even had sex yet.”

“You think I should wait to sleep with you before I decide whether I’m in love with you?” Patrick smirks. “Are you that bad in bed?”

“No, I—” David stops short, looks him dead in the eye. “No. I’m really not.”

“I didn’t think so.” Patrick stares right back until David has to hide a smile between his teeth. “See, this is why you shouldn’t try to convince me I’m wrong. You’ll lose.”

“Okay,” David flails some more, and then his mousetrap mind snaps down on the problem. “Okay. Fine. But no future talk. No using the word ‘always’ or saying things like ‘When we get out of here.’ No promises. I mean it. We’re on the trail together, and that’s it.”

“That’s all I’m asking for, David.”

“And for the record, I still don’t believe you.”

“I already said that’s fine.”

“Well. Then.” David’s annoyance loses traction, and a tiny smile bursts through. “Do what you have to do.”

When David goes back to his journal, he flips aggressively to a new page, and Patrick grins into his breakfast. Cold oatmeal never tasted so good.

*

Patrick tries to shave every other day, but he’s gotten lazy with it recently. The next time he props his pocket mirror in the crook of a tree branch and gets a glimpse of himself, he almost doesn’t recognize what he sees.

It’s not the facial hair, which couldn’t grow thick enough to meaningfully change his appearance if it tried. (And, pathetically, it is trying.) His hair has grown long, dropping curls along his forehead and into his eyes, covering his ears. His cheeks are a little leaner and slightly less pale, though that’s mostly patchy whiskers and faded sunburn. But that’s not quite it either.

David stirs inside the tent behind him, groaning out his usual sun protestation to greet the day. Patrick catches his own eye in the mirror as it crinkles into a smile for no one but himself to see.

Love looks good on you, says his mother’s voice in his head.

It’s what she said to him when he first tried on his wedding tux for her. She rubbed his shoulders, looked him in the eye through the full length mirror in her bedroom, and said this, “Love looks good on you.” He chastised her for being sappy but gave her the smile she was fishing for.

So much of his life with Rachel had happened that way, through other people’s eyes. He asked her out on their first date because his dad had been teasing him about his crush. He decided to sleep with her shortly after he overheard a whisper from one of her friends: “I see the way he kisses you. It’s time.” When his first girlfriend in university dumped him, accusing him of still being hung up on his ex, he called Rachel and they got back together. He loved her, he did, but the way he expressed it tended to start as other people’s ideas.

He believed what everyone saw because they could see it. He put their words to his feelings and made sure to give them something worth looking at. He never considered they were only seeing what they expected to see.

This time it’s different. No one expected this.

Now he can tell his mom she was right. Love does look good on him. It looks good on him, it feels good in him, and no matter what, now he’ll always know it.

*

Cruelly, the trail doesn’t go any easier on him.

In a movie, this is the part where he’d be skipping through the trees to a soundtrack of birdsong, seeing all the colors of the clouds for the first time, smelling wildflowers on every breeze. The entire world would unfurl itself to him, a Man in Love. Maybe he’d get a butterfly for a friend.

Instead he gets stung by a wasp and drenched in clammy, blinding fog for three days straight.

They’re still wonderful days.

*

Most of their kisses start as laughter.

Tonight it’s Patrick’s repertoire of “sexy” voices (John Cusack, Lumière, and, for some reason Columbo) that gets David going just after dinner, until he’s wheezing with his head thrown back, and Patrick is powerless to resist kissing his neck. From there it’s kind of a blur.

They don’t even make it into the tent before they succumb to the need to get horizontal. Dishes scatter and someone rolls over a stove and thank god it wasn’t lit. They end up making out in the dirt, Patrick on top with the night sky stretched out above him. David is lit by starlight, his mouth tastes like heaven, and their hips are flush together at this angle. Of course Patrick’s turned on, but that’s not the half of it.

A wild feeling grips his chest, and it isn’t panic this time. It’s a rush of calm, weightless and inevitable, a dream about falling with no jolt awake to spoil it. He’s shaking. Certainty pounds through him like a heartbeat, alive and resilient and real. It’s real, it’s real, it’s real.

“Can I tell you I love you?” he gasps.

The words are all but crowding out of him, so dense in his lungs that it feels like there’s no room for oxygen, but he wants to make sure, first. He needs to be sure what’s allowed and what’s too much.

The shudder that goes through David seems like pleasure, but he hesitates. “I—I’m not—I can’t—”

Patrick shakes his head. “I don’t need anything back from you. I just want to say it.”

“Then, yeah. Yes,” David pants, his eyes squeezed shut. “Please.”

The Fitbit died a week ago, drowned in a particularly cursed river crossing, but the sound of that please sends the ghost of it vibrating against Patrick’s skin.

“David, I love you.” He presses his lips to David’s ear, to his jaw, his pulse, every inch of him he can reach. “I want you here with me. Just be here with me.”

“Yeah,” David agrees. “Patrick, I’m here.”

Patrick holds him a little tighter, just to make sure.

Chapter Text

In Patrick’s next resupply package, the card from his parents is handmade, a folded rectangle of construction paper with a photo of Jon Bon Jovi glued to the front.

Whooooa, you’re halfway there , his dad’s handwriting says inside. Stay livin’ on a prayer.

“Oh my god, dad,” Patrick chuckles, bringing his palm to his face.

“What?” David asks.

They’re sitting side by side on the steps outside the post office in Old Station, a tiny town almost eight hundred miles from where they started on the trail. David is wrestling with the tape on his own box from home, but takes the card when Patrick hands it over.

“Lame jokes are, like, 80% of his personality,” Patrick explains.

David spends a minute looking at the card, longer than it takes to get the joke, but he doesn’t laugh. His eyebrows scrunch together slightly.

“Hm,” he says finally, and hands it back. “Your parents seem sweet.”

Patrick reads the message from his mom:

I worry about you all the time, out there all alone. I hope you’re staying safe, sweet boy. Keep sending postcards, and I can’t wait to hear about your adventures when you come home.

It is a sweet message, yes, but it brings a familiar churn to Patrick’s gut. It’s the same guilt he feels whenever he remembers staying behind to see that one last sea lion at Marineland and letting himself get lost. A part of him can’t help but think he owed it to her not to make the selfish choice, and he let her down.

David finally tears his box open, and the first thing he pulls out is a black flannel shirt with thin white plaid stripes.

“Well. This one isn’t so bad,” he says and reaches for the note clipped to the collar. Once his eyes scan across it, he hisses, “Oh for fuck’s sake, Stevie!”

Before Patrick can even ask to see, David thrusts the note at him. The handwriting is just this side of chicken scratch.

If your first thought seeing this shirt was that it isn’t so bad, then my work here is done. Welcome to team flannel, buddy! Now come home. Things aren’t the same here without you.
     - Stevie

“So that’s Stevie, huh?” Patrick asks, half-hiding a smile behind his hand. “I like her.”

He feels a prickle of annoyance at her, too, for telling David to come home, but keeps that selfishness to himself. It’s not like he can blame her for missing him.

“She’d like you, too, unfortunately.” David keeps digging through his package. There don’t seem to be any other notes from anyone else. “The two of you together would create a very imbalanced social dynamic for me.”

Patrick’s postcard back to his parents shows the same monotonous view he’s been staring at for weeks now: mountains on the horizon, nothing but flat dirt and scrub grass between. The sight makes Patrick ache with boredom, but to fresh eyes it will look beautiful.

I’m safe, he writes on the back. Please don’t worry.

When he comes back out from posting it, David is shouldering his pack and pointing down the road to a restaurant called JJ’s.

“That place has bacon,” he yelps, bouncing from foot to foot. “I can smell it.”

Patrick laughs and lifts his own pack.

“Come on, let’s get lunch.”

*

It feels almost like a date, sitting in a booth across from David, devouring a BLT each and sharing a plate of mozzarella sticks. Patrick wonders if the other people in the diner think it’s a date, then feels silly for wondering. Of course they don’t. They must think he and David are exactly what they look like: two grimy hikers who haven’t tasted real food in a month and a half.

“I can’t tell if I’m just starving,” David says, swallowing half a mozzarella stick in one bite. “Or if these are actually really good. I don’t think they even came from the freezer!”

Patrick desperately wants to hold one of David’s big, expressive hands, but they’re too busy, as always. Gripping his sandwich, drifting to smooth his hair under his toque, punctuating the air as he talks. Patrick settles for watching them instead, and that must be just as obvious. He hooks his ankle around one of David’s underneath the table and gives it a tug. David tugs back, without looking up from his plate, and the smile on his lips doesn’t seem to be entirely about bacon.

Patrick isn’t even sure what there is to communicate about who they are to each other. We make out a lot, maybe. Or, I’m in love with him; he’s not convinced. Whatever there is, though, he wants everyone in this restaurant to see it. He wants them to know.

“So this is halfway for you, huh?” David asks abruptly. “Where exactly are you going?”

“Oh, uh.” Patrick has trouble shifting his focus. The end still feels like a long way off. “Through Oregon to the Washington border. A place called Bridge of the Gods.”

“Hm.”

“What?”

“Oh nothing, I just figured you’d want to go all the way up to Canada. Nice Canadian boy that you are.”

Patrick hadn’t considered this. He decided on Bridge of the Gods as his endpoint for the same reason that he chose Tehachapi Pass as his start point—that’s the path Cheryl Strayed took, the path the movie followed. He needs to get better, probably, at not fitting his life around whatever seems like the default option. Too late on this one, though. His resupply boxes are already packed, and they will run out by the time he reaches the Washington border.

“Well, maybe I’m not so Canadian,” Patrick offers.

David snorts. “Okay, no. I’ve heard you say ‘toque.’”

Patrick prepares a wicked grin, planning to rejoin with a Maybe I’m not so nice, then, but David keeps talking.

“Anyway, I’ve decided,” he says, laying his palms down on the table. “Wherever you’re going, this Bridge of the Thing. That’s where I’m headed, too. That’s as far as I want to go.”

Patrick doesn’t respond right away, his mind frozen in place, calculating what it means to have almost eight hundred more miles of David to count on. It’s more than he’d allowed himself to hope for.

“If that’s… if that’s okay?” David prods.

“Of course, yes, it’s more than okay, David. I want you to stay as long as you want.”

The words come out all in a rush and then stop short. If Patrick continues, he’ll say something like always or forever, and he promised David. No future talk. Instead he takes David’s right hand in both of his, twists a couple of his silver rings back and forth like he’s cracking a safe, and lets that fill the silence for him.

When David goes back to eating, it’s with his left hand only.

*

After they pay their bill, David uses the bathroom, and Patrick waits outside the diner with both their packs. He should have waited inside where there’s air conditioning, but it’s too late to lug everything back in now. He leans against the warm siding next to the door, his eyes closed, submitting to the bake of the midday sun.

“Hey, I know you!” says a voice. “Patrick, right?”

Patrick blinks his eyes open and sees a man and a woman standing in front of him, fellow hikers he almost recognizes.

“George and Sarah,” the man says, pointing between them. “You taught us to play cribbage back in Kennedy Meadows.”

That night is still vivid in Patrick’s memory, playing cards next to the bonfire, sitting across from David and not knowing, yet, what he was seeing. It feels so long ago now.

You don’t know me, he’s tempted to say. You’re thinking of a different person.

“Ah, right,” he says instead. “George and Sarah, with the caterpillar-in-the-sleeping bag story.”

“I’d rather be remembered for losing at cribbage than losing my shit over a bug,” Sarah chuckles. “But sure.”

David bursts through the door, out into the sunshine and heat, and bends down for his pack.

“Ready to go?” he asks Patrick, not noticing anyone else is there.

“Oh,” George says, clearly recognizing David, too. “I didn’t realize you two were hiking together.”

“We weren’t.” Patrick can feel a softness overtaking his expression and doesn’t try to suppress it. “It just kind of happened.”

“Well, it’s good to see both of you still out here,” Sarah says with a smile, opening the door to the restaurant. “Keep going, we’ve got to get some food.”

“Order the mozzarella sticks!” David shouts after them and gets a friendly wave in return.

When he turns back around, Patrick is close enough to pull him in by the waist and does. David’s hands creep up to Patrick’s shoulders. They kiss, sweet and brief and cozy.

Patrick wonders if George and Sarah can see them like this, through the window. He wonders if it might change the stories they tell about him. If Patrick, the hiker who taught them to play cribbage will become Patrick, the gay hiker who taught them to play cribbage. He weighs the difference that one word might make, tries to decide how much it matters to him, whether it fits.

He wonders what stories David will tell about him, back home.

*

The next two hundred miles of the trail, through Hat Creek Rim and Burney Falls to the start of the Trinity Alps is intermittently used as grazing ground for cattle. Patrick has shared the trail with plenty of wild animals by this point, but it’s jarring to come across a herd of the domesticated variety, placid and indifferent to his presence. Even without any other humans around, it feels like an intrusion of civilization, a reminder that he’s headed back to it now. His real life is officially closer ahead of him than behind him.

He’s not sure how to feel about that. From this distance, he’s learned to see the seams and cracks in it, learned to question the parts he thought he understood. But it’s still his life, shaped by the choices he made, full of people who care about him. He can’t keep walking away from it forever. He’s loved being the person David expects him to be out here—dependable, funny, free. Who knew that being the person someone expects you to be could feel right, and not just good? He’ll have to see, when he gets back, what still feels right to him and what doesn’t.

In the meantime, his body gets more broken down with every mile. It’s been so long since he walked on feet that didn’t hurt that the memory of it seems like a myth, like a story he read once that was never meant to be mistaken for reality. He keeps himself going by imagining he’s giving a pep talk to David, a constant internal chant: You can do this, I know you can do this.

Somewhere along the way, believing in David starts to feel like believing in himself.

*

“I need a break,” Patrick says the first night they camp in the foothills of the Trinity Alps, at about the thousand mile mark.

“Oh.” David raises his head from where it’s resting on Patrick’s shoulder, unwinds his fingers from Patrick’s curls. “Okay. Sure.”

“From the trail, David,” Patrick says, hauling him back down and kissing his temple. “Not from you.”

“Oh,” David whispers, snuggling in again. “Good.”

“Come here.”

Patrick rolls onto his side and draws David into a kiss, lets his hands roam under his shirt and up his back, across his chest. He forgets that he was about to say something until, a while later, he remembers.

“Ashland is about two hundred miles up ahead, just over the border into Oregon.”

“Uh-huh,” David responds, with a mouth that’s not ready to be done with the kissing.

“I was thinking of getting a motel room for a couple nights,” Patrick says, the next chance he gets.

“Mmm,” David hums against Patrick’s jaw, down his neck.

“I don’t know how familiar you are with motels—”

David pinches Patrick’s side, hard enough to make him squirm. So at least now he’s listening.

“—but they have these things called—”

Patrick threads his fingers into David’s hair and pulls until he feels a moan vibrate against his own skin.

“—showers, and—”

Patrick sucks David’s earlobe into his mouth, holds it between his teeth.

“—beds.”

“Hold on.” David pulls back far enough to study Patrick’s face. “Are you seducing me?”

“Glad you’re finally getting the message.”

“Are you seducing me two hundred miles ahead of time?”

“What can I say?” Patrick shrugs. “I play the long game.”

“Whatever sport that is, I don’t watch it.”

“I’ve been seducing you for one thousand miles, David. What’s two hundred more?”

Patrick rolls onto his back, pulls David on top of him, sinks into the feeling of being weighed down, pinned in place, by someone he wants. The moment closes in around him, immediate and endless. He doesn’t worry about losing any of it to memory. He’ll never forget what it feels like to love this, David’s hands and David’s mouth and David.

“It’s just that two hundred is so many miles.”

He even loves David’s whining.

“You can make it,” Patrick whispers. “I believe in you.”

*

Compared to the High Sierra, the Trinity Alps are nothing. Or they should be, at least. They’re less than half the elevation, heavily shaded throughout, with very few treacherous cliff-side paths. Getting through them is still torture.

Patrick tries to push himself further and further, extending their pace to twenty miles a day and paying the price. The soles of his boots are almost worn through, and he can feel the jagged slice of rock beneath every step. The pain and tedium of walking are so persistent that they bleed into each other and become indistinguishable. He starts singing to himself all day, anything he can think of, usually more melody than words, just for something else to do.

With the promise of Ashland looming, touching David at night becomes almost as unbearable as not touching him. Now that they’ve agreed, between them, on the motel room and what it means, Patrick is on fire with the wait. He burns whatever energy the day’s hike leaves him with in the blaze of desire between them, then douses it with exhaustion and sleep.

It would be so easy to stop waiting, to let their rolling hips go too far, to let their hands drift. There’s a moment one night when David almost does, before Patrick stops him. It takes all his willpower.

It’s not that Patrick is holding onto romantic notions of the perfect first time, candles and rose petals like he did for Rachel. He knows there’s no special magic in those kinds of details. But he keeps thinking about what David said the morning after they first kissed (“I’m not exactly feeling my sexiest”) and everything he’s learned about him since. He thinks about how important David’s appearance and fashion sense and self-image are to who he is. He thinks about how he still hasn’t seen David without a hat in the daylight or without a shirt at all.

He’s only interested in having sex with David if David gets to feel like himself, or as close as he can get out here. He wants David, but he wants him comfortable and confident. And if that means waiting until they have a couple of days with a real shower and a real bed, then he wants to keep waiting.

*

They return to familiar distractions.

“What did you think about me the night we first met?” David challenges, brushing his fingertips up and down Patrick’s throat during their cool down period one night. “Two truths, one lie.”

Patrick brings himself back to that AC-chilled motel room in the Mojave desert, when he had no idea all that the trail would bring to him. All it would bring out of him.

“I thought you were beautiful. I loved the way you said ‘fuck.’ You seemed like a guy really at home in a motel setting.”

“Okay, that last one better be the lie.” David’s glare shines bright through the darkness. “But I don’t believe the first one, either.”

“The first one is true,” Patrick says. “I wouldn’t have used the word ‘beautiful’ at the time, but it’s what I thought. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. I still can’t.”

David lets his smile persist, too pleased or too tired to make it disappear, and closes his eyes.

Patrick wonders if this is what people always mean when they say love at first sight. Not necessarily that you see someone and fall instantly in love, but that when you look back, you can see the love in your first sight, clear as anything.

“Same question,” Patrick prompts after a bit.

David inhales like someone pulling himself back from the brink of sleep, but he answers.

“I hated that you helped me. I knew I liked you. I really didn’t want you to beat me.”

“At cribbage?”

“At anything. You told me how many miles you were hiking and I just thought—” David yawns. “—I can’t let this guy get farther than me.”

Patrick laughs softly. “So now the real reason for you following me to the Bridge of the Gods comes out. You just can’t stand to lose.”

“Mm-hm,” David agrees, but he’s already half asleep.

By morning, Patrick forgets to ask which of the first two statements was the lie.

*

When they reach Oregon, at first it feels great to leave the trail behind.

It takes surprisingly little convincing to get David on a bus to Ashland (it helps that the only alternative is hitching, which has made an even more terrifying cinematic impression on him than Speed), and then they’re watching the signs of civilization sprout up around them through the big pane windows. Roads and telephone wire and houses and shops and sidewalks and people living their regular lives. Nature recedes until it’s just a backdrop. It feels like rest.

But then it keeps going. Those people and their regular lives get denser, busier, as they cross the city limits. The buildings get taller and closer together until they block the view of the mountains at the horizon. When the bus drops them off downtown, they’re no longer hikers, just two absolutely filthy people with backpacks who don’t blend into the normalcy around them.

By the time Patrick turns the key in the motel room lock, and they step inside, something about the four walls feels like reality closing in. He’s not sure he’s ready for that. He’s not ready to feel out of place again.

David sets his pack down next to the dresser and hovers. “Do you want the first shower, or...?”

“No, you go ahead.”

“Okay, thank god.” David spends some time digging through his pack, then takes a step toward the bathroom, cradling an armful of supplies. “I may be kind of a while.”

“That’s fine.” Patrick smiles. “I can wait.”

David flashes a smile back before closing himself behind the bathroom door. Normally Patrick wouldn’t lie down directly on a motel coverlet, but in his trail clothes it’s tough to say which of them is getting the worst of it, so he calls it a wash. He stares up at the ceiling, listens to the sounds of David in the shower, and sinks into the absence of rocks and tree roots beneath him until it wipes his mind blank.

He doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but he must, because then he’s waking up to the click of the bathroom lock releasing.

“Um,” David says, and he’s just a face in the crack of the doorway, black hair wet and falling loosely over his forehead.

“What’s up?”

“Now that I’ve stepped in front of a mirror, I’m having second thoughts about letting you see me naked.”

“Oh?” It’s the most eloquent response Patrick can manage to this statement.

“I’m pretty wrecked. All over.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” Patrick says, but the words fail to soften David’s expression. He tries a different tactic. “Anyway, I’m sure I’ve got you beat for trail wounds.”

“Okay,” David snorts. “I don’t think so.”

“Well.” Patrick stands and strips off his T-shirt without any second guessing. “Only one way to find out, right?”

“That’s not—I mean—”

Patrick crosses to the bathroom door and gives it the slightest nudge with his palm. “Can I come in?”

For a second it seems like David might refuse. Then he steps back and Patrick is standing in a tiny room with him, both of them half naked. David’s wearing a pair of sweatpants, cinched just below his waist, the rest of him dusted with the thick body hair that Patrick already knows the feel of and freckles he never would have guessed were there. Every inch of him is shaped by muscle, all firm curves under his skin. The mirror along the wall behind the sink doubles the effect, and it’s too much to take in at once. It was worth hiking twelve hundred miles for this view.

Patrick swallows and forces himself to say words. “Come on, show me your worst.”

“So there’s this one.” David twists his right arm, prodding at a yellowed bruise that stretches from his shoulder down to almost his elbow. “Pretty ugly.”

“Not bad,” Patrick admits. Then he points to his own smaller, but fresher bruise, a screaming slash of purple around the left side of his ribcage. “But this is uglier.”

David pokes at almost the same spot on his own ribs, where there’s a scrape the length of his middle finger, healing in an angry shade of red. “This happened a week ago, and it still looks this bad.”

Patrick traces down the pink line on his own right forearm, where he sliced himself open trying to cling to that first and toughest of the Sierra Mountains, as his feet slipped away beneath him. “I think I’m going to have this scar forever.”

“Okay, well. I really didn’t want you to have to see these, but…” David turns around and shimmies his sweatpants slightly lower. “They’re from the first part of the hike, before you showed me how to get my waist strap tight enough.”

The twin discolored patches of skin just above David’s hips are healed over now, but at one point they must have been rubbed completely raw from the friction of his pack. Patrick recalls the pain and heat of those first hundred miles through the desert and then tries to add this to it. David must have been in agony. And he didn’t quit.

Before he knows what he’s doing, Patrick drops to his knees on the tile and presses his lips to these old wounds.

“You should be proud of these,” he whispers across David’s damaged skin. “I’m so proud of you for these.”

David makes a sound that’s halfway between a yelp and Patrick’s name, and leans forward to steady himself on the sink. Patrick adds his tongue to the next kiss, squeezes a hand down one of David’s calves.

“Hey.” David gets a hand on Patrick’s shoulder, pushes him back, catches his gaze through the mirror. “I need you to shower, like. Right the fuck now.”

Patrick half-hides the curve of his smile against David’s hip. “I can do that.”

The hot water runs out part way through Patrick’s shower, and that’s probably for the best. It’s no mountain waterfall, but the cold spray freezes out the anticipation buzzing through his brain. The half-educated guesses about what sex with David will be like can’t help him anyway. By now he’s learned not to assume he knows what his body is capable of. He dries off in front of the mirror, savoring the sight and sensation of being clean, ready to share it. He drops the towel next to his dirty clothes on the floor and steps out of the bathroom naked.

David is naked, too, stretched out on his stomach on the bed sheets, his face turned away toward the curtained window, possibly asleep. Patrick spends the three steps between them reminding himself to breathe. Back in his real life, he probably would have approached a moment like this one armed with research, preparation, a plan. It’s hard to say for sure, because he can’t picture David showing up in that life. Or maybe it’s this version of himself that he can’t picture there.

Three steps is all the planning he gets, and when they’re over all he can say is, “I don’t know where to start.”

Stirred by the sound of Patrick’s voice, David rolls over, reaches lazily toward him.

“We started a long time ago,” he says and pulls Patrick down on the bed. “Now we just keep going.”

It turns out to be that simple. David kisses him, pressing one hand to Patrick’s jaw, one hand to his lower back. After the first grind of their hips together, Patrick’s body takes over to chase its own pleasure. He lasts like that, rocking close and insistent, holding David with him through every second.

“I want this so much,” David breathes.

“I love you,” Patrick breathes back, unable to hold it in.

They keep their eyes open until they can’t.

In the post-orgasm haze, Patrick decides that the best part is that it was a little clumsy, too quick, and he knows it can only get better. He’s going to have so much fun getting better at this.

Patrick sucks kisses into David’s chest, leaving new marks among the old, until David declares things too sticky and drags him into the shower. When it turns out the water is still cold, they spend an appropriately patient amount of time making out against the tiled wall, waiting for it to warm up again.

*

“Okay,” Patrick says a while later, slapping David on the hip. “I’m taking you out.”

After showering off together, they found their way back to bed and got tangled up in each other. The touching led to teasing led to more touching. Patrick kissed his way down David’s body, dove eagerly into giving his first blowjob and got so turned on that he finished himself off ninety seconds in. David laughed with him, tried to pull him back up the bed, but Patrick resisted, saying, “Remember, I said I had a thing about never doing anything halfway?” Then he sucked David back down until he came.

Now they’re both warm and elated in the fading daylight, dozing and close to drifting off to sleep for real.

“Mmm.” David drapes himself across Patrick’s chest, presses an uncoordinated kiss to his lips. “Counteroffer: Let’s stay here forever.”

“That’s a tempting option, for sure.” Patrick swirls a finger through the hair behind David’s ear. “But if I may counteroffer your counteroffer: Food.”

The growl of David’s stomach decides for them.

While David gets ready in the bathroom, Patrick flips through the motel’s binder of nearby restaurants, then pulls on the only clean clothes he has, fresh from his resupply box. The T-shirt says “Runners-up” across the front. Everyone on his high school baseball team got one of these for losing the league championship in Grade Twelve. From now on he’ll always remember it as what he wore after fucking David for the first time, and it will make him feel like a winner.

“Burgers?” he asks, leaning against the open bathroom door. “We’ll have to walk a few blocks.”

David pauses whatever he’s doing to his hair and glances sideways at him, smiling. “If we can’t handle walking a few blocks to burgers, there’s no hope for the next three hundred miles.”

“Good point.”

“Okay!” David says into the mirror, flinging his hands out of his hair in frustration. “It’s too long, and I don’t have the right product, but I refuse to put that disgusting hat back on while I’m clean. So this will have to do.”

Patrick isn’t sure how much his opinion matters on this kind of thing, but David looks incredible. His hair is swept up and back from his forehead, parted so it falls loosely to one side. The black long-sleeved T-shirt and dark gray sweatpants he’s wearing aren’t especially form fitting, but Patrick still finds it impossible not to think about his body under there.

“At the risk of putting more pressure on your hair situation,” Patrick says, “I want to be clear that this is a date. I’m taking you on a date.”

The pleased smile stealing across David’s face looks more incredible than the hair and the sweatpants combined.

“And if it makes you feel better, this—” Patrick points to his T-shirt and jean shorts. “—isn’t my normal date look, either. So we’re both working from a disadvantage here.”

“I think you look very cute.” David grasps Patrick by the shoulders, caresses them a little with his thumbs. “Besides, I already put out. Twice. So what do you have to prove?”

That this feels real to you, too.

Patrick catches this thought before it becomes words, just in time.

“Can you blame me for wanting to go three for three?” he says instead, adding an eyebrow waggle for good measure.

“Oh my god, your enthusiasm is exhausting. Let’s go.”

*

They’re still three blocks from the restaurant when David stops on the sidewalk, putting one hand on Patrick’s arm. “Can we go in here for a minute?”

It’s one of those boutique catch-all shops that sells organic produce to locals and overpriced twig pencils to tourists. A bell above the door rings when they go inside, and a woman behind the checkout counter looks up to greet them.

“Welcome to Ash & Arrow! Can I help you guys find anything?”

“No, thank you,” David says, his voice tight with an unfamiliar politeness. “Just looking.”

Patrick trails behind David as he wanders for a bit, picking up a jar of hand lotion and studying the label, straightening a stack of sweaters, rotating a small potted rosemary plant by ten degrees. He’s looking closely at everything, but his attention seems far away.

“Hey.” Patrick bumps shoulders with him. “Something wrong?”

“This was my idea,” David says. “Well, this but better. They don’t even have a unified color palette in here. It’s like, are we doing warm neutrals or cold neutrals? Pick one. And half this stuff is only pretending to be handmade.”

Patrick isn’t quite keeping up. “Your idea for…?”

“My business idea.” David gives him the barest eye contact as his gaze flits past. “When the old general store back where I live went under, I had this idea to take over the lease and turn it into a shop kind of like this one. It was gonna be a... general store, but also a very specific store? Sort of a branded immersive experience that would support local artists by curating a selection of their products and selling them on consignment in a one-stop-shop retail environment that would benefit both the vendor and the customer.”

This whole speech started out tentative, but by the end David’s speaking passionately, waving his arms in circles as if he’s digging each word out of the air around him by hand. Patrick remembers this now, the business idea that even David’s own mother wouldn’t vote for.

“Sorry.” David drops his hands. “That probably just sounds like a bunch of buzzwords.”

“Not at all. I think it sounds like a great idea, David.”

“Yeah. Well.” David sniffs. “You probably feel like you have to say that to keep getting in my pants.”

“No,” Patrick says, “actually, that’s my professional opinion.”

“Your professional opinion, sure.”

“Yes.”

David squints at him and cocks his head to the side. Patrick mirrors the expression. Then he starts cycling back through the hours and hours of conversation they’ve had by this point, because surely he must have mentioned–

“Have I never told you what I do for a living?” Patrick asks when he comes up empty.

“Um. No, I don’t think so.”

“Well, I have a degree in business management.” Patrick leaves out the part where all he’s using this degree for at the moment is freelance bookkeeping. “So, yeah, my professional opinion is that rebranding local products and crafts is very inventive. And sustainable, if you do it right. When you’re supporting local businesses, there are usually grants you can apply for, which would be good startup money.”

“Hmm, well. I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

David looks around at the shop again and Patrick joins him. He tries to imagine a version of this room where every single thing on the shelves was something David put there. He pictures walking through the door under the bell and finding nothing but products and furniture and artwork that David has ideas about and opinions about and has found a place for, and if you ask him about any of it he will tell you, for hours. He can’t imagine what it would look like—he can’t even tell the warm neutrals from the cold—but Patrick knows what it would feel like.

It would feel like a place where everything makes sense.

“Anyway, it’s a Christmas World now,” David says, breezing toward the door. “Come on, I’m starving.”

*

The thing that the motel binder didn’t mention about the burger place is that it’s a karaoke bar. Or maybe that’s just on Tuesday nights. The burgers are slightly overdone, but the margaritas are delicious and strong, and after they both drain their glasses they’re no longer regretting their decision to stay. Someone named Tammy does an engaging rendition of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and they join in the applause. A scrawny bespectacled kid who looks barely out of high school absolutely slays “You Oughta Know,” and they order another round, settling in at their table in a back corner.

“I’d forgotten what it’s like to be around people,” David says as they clink glasses. “It’s not as bad as I remember.”

“Is that opinion going to change if I get up and sing something?”

David chokes into his drink. Patrick’s only joking, and he’s pretty sure David knows he’s only joking, but he keeps his face straight, because unpredictability is the spice of life.

The woman on stage singing “Desperado” is doing a lovely job, slow and melancholy. They’ve somehow managed to stumble into the only karaoke bar on the planet where everyone knows their wheelhouse and stays in it. One of the lyrics catches in Patrick’s ear, “Your pain and your hunger, they’re driving you home.” It makes him remember the five days he spent in Kennedy Meadows, and how he almost never left.

“I’m glad we’re doing this now,” he says. “I think if I’d stopped to rest any sooner than this I would’ve wanted to quit.”

“And you don’t want to quit now?” David asks.

“No. Do you?”

“Mmm, no. Not really.” David twists his drink in his hands. “But I’m lucky that I have so much spite to fuel me.”

They don’t say anything for a while, just listen to the woman’s voice as she begs her desperado to come down from his fences, to open the gate.

“When I’m out on the trail, I keep thinking about everyone who’s ever doubted me,” David says before the song is over. “Exes, friends back in New York, my—my parents, I guess? It’s a pretty long list, all the people who think I’m a joke. I don’t want to let them be right.”

“You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late.”

The song ends, and the singer accepts her applause and leaves the stage. Patrick can’t stop hearing what David just said.

“Hey, tell me honestly.” He leans in and puts a hand on David’s knee. “Am I going to ruin this date if I sing something?”

The question makes David visibly flinch, but he at least tries to temper it. “That depends. Are you going to embarrass me?”

“Only on purpose,” Patrick grins. “I promise I can actually sing.”

“Mmm.” David nods up at the ceiling.

“I’ll make you a deal. There’s a particular song I’m thinking of, and they probably won’t have it. If they don’t, then you’re off the hook. But if they do, then I kind of have to, right?”

“Oh, is that how that works?”

Patrick kisses his cheek as he stands up. “Trust me?”

David looks at him long enough to mean it when he says, “Okay.”

As he weaves through the tables, Patrick thinks about how he would never do this if he weren’t a tiny bit drunk. Or if this were a first date that actually felt like a first date, with someone he still didn’t know how to impress. Or if it didn’t seem like the only way to make David see what he sees. There are a lot of circumstances under which Patrick would never do this. It just happens that none of them are in effect at the moment.

The songbook is a binder with laminated pages organized by title. Patrick thinks it would probably make more sense to organize by artist, but he finds what he’s looking for in the short list of Js: “The Joke” Brandi Carlile. He taps his finger over the listing and has to laugh, then he shrugs an insincere apology at David from across the room. David’s face briefly disappears behind his hands and the glint of silver rings.

Patrick gives the emcee his request and gets the microphone and the stage in exchange.

“I’d like to dedicate this song,” he says as the intro kicks in, “to someone who’s doing a very hard thing right now and could use some encouragement.”

He doesn’t say David’s name or point him out in the crowd, but the few people who twist around in their seats don’t have any trouble following his gaze.

“You're feeling nervous, aren't you, boy?”

Patrick has sung this song before. He filled an empty afternoon learning it on the piano just after he moved back in with his parents, but he doesn’t remember all the lyrics to the first verse. As they appear on the screen in front of him, he’s surprised by how much they remind him of David, with phrases like “impeccable style,” “your gentle ways,” and “the way you shine.”

The chorus he does have memorized, so he looks up from the monitor and finds David’s eyes. They evade at first, then hold steady.

“Let 'em laugh while they can
Let 'em spin, let 'em scatter in the wind
I have been to the movies, I've seen how it ends
And the joke's on them”

Patrick felt like a joke when he first started learning this song, sitting in his parents’ living room at the upright Yamaha where he took lessons as a kid. He’d just sent a mass email officially uninviting his and Rachel’s entire guest list from a wedding that wasn’t going to happen. Picking out chords from the black and white keys distracted him from imagining all the forwards and replies flying around behind his back and what they might be laughing about. The thought that the joke would end up on them was a comforting fantasy. Now it feels like a prophecy coming true.

He hopes David can feel it, too. He hopes they can share it.

There’s one more verse, two more choruses, then he’s done, and the roar of applause is loud in his ears. He ducks through it, to the table in the back corner where David is already on his feet, his face bursting with too much emotion to read.

“Thank you,” he whispers, grabbing at Patrick’s shoulders as soon as he’s in reach. “That was—You are—”

The rest of the words, if there are any, disappear inside a bear hug that starts out vicelike and only gets tighter. David sways them on their feet and doesn’t let go. He doesn’t let go. It feels solid and affirming until a desperate edge creeps in. Then there’s a splash of tears on Patrick’s neck and a hitch in David’s breathing that isn’t laughter.

“Hey. David.” Patrick wants to lean back to see his face, but he’s being held too tightly. “David, it’s okay. I’m here.”

For three hundred more miles. Patrick realizes, all at once, that he forgot there’s a problem with proving this is real.

The problem with it being real is that it’s ending.

Chapter Text

They spend the next day almost entirely in bed, pushing everything but each other from their minds.

It’s the first day since they’ve known each other that they don’t talk much. Their conversation grows minimalist, reduced to questions like “Is this okay?” “Does this feel good?” “More?” on one side and answers like “Yes,” “God yes,” “Yes, I’m sure” on the other.

But they communicate. Somewhere along the way, they learned how to read each other without speaking. David moves his hands across Patrick’s skin like it’s written in Braille, like he knows how to extract meaning from all its ridges and grooves, and it leaves Patrick’s body prickling with things to say. Patrick navigates David like a map, following his twitches, his taste, the sounds he makes, and keeps landing in new territory, discovering corners of himself he never knew existed. They keep pace with each other without needing to try.

It’s the first night since they’ve known each other that they fall asleep exhausted by more pleasure than pain.

They stretch their time in Ashland into the third day, and then they have to move on.

*

The bus drops them off outside Fish Lake, and they stare at the trailhead side by side.

“Um, you go on ahead,” David says.

“Or do you want to go?”

They could go together, but neither of them offers that.

“No, I think I’ll… journal for a bit?” David unzips his pack and looks around for the least dirty place to sit. “I have, uh, a lot to catch up on.”

“Sure.” Patrick feels himself blushing. “I’ll see you later.”

He signs the trail register:

Welcome back.
     - Patrick Brewer

*

Oregon is flat and wet and green and cool. Patrick fills up on the breeze and sunshine during the first stretch of meadow, then lets the tall trees swallow him whole. For the first time in a long time, he can see the beauty around him without needing to filter it through someone else’s eyes first. The rest did him good.

He intends to make it a short day, but the ground passes more quickly under his feet than he expects. A trail marker tells him he’s gone twelve miles before he knows it, and he finds a good campsite in the crook of a stream.

When David catches up an hour later, Patrick is sitting on the bank, his bare feet submerged up to the ankle. David frees himself from his pack, and Patrick reaches for his hand.

“Join me,” he says.

David does. Then he drops his head on Patrick’s shoulder and sighs, “Is it weird that I missed all this?”

Patrick decides this question doesn’t need a direct answer. “I missed it, too.”

*

They’re setting up for dinner when there’s a rustling in the trees nearby. It’s something bigger than a squirrel, and David’s eyes dart around in a way that says he’s appraising all nearby objects for heft and accuracy of throwing. Before he can settle on the best option, though, the rustling becomes a person. Then two people.

“Oh, sorry.” The first person says when she sees them. She’s a black girl in her early twenties, her hair done up in a colorful wrap. “We were just following the stream looking for a campsite.”

“Hope we didn’t scare you,” says the second person, a white girl around the same age. The blonde bun on top of her head is streaked with teal.

A third person emerges from the bushes, wearing a pair of square-framed glasses under a crew cut. The eyes behind the lenses are bright green and grow wide. “Oh my god, are you David and Patrick?”

“That’s us,” Patrick says. He’s never seen these people before, but there’s something about them he recognizes. Probably the backpacks and grime. Fellow PCTers.

“We’ve been behind you since Sierra City,” continues Glasses. “We never thought we’d catch up to you.”

“Well, they never thought we’d catch up.” The girl with the bun says, bopping Glasses on the shoulder. “Cherise and I are optimists.”

It takes Patrick a few blinks to realize that she’s referring to a single person with that they. All three of them have enamel pins clustered on their pack straps, among them rectangles of rainbow and pink-purple-blue, black-gray-white-purple, purple-white-green. He can’t place all the color schemes, but he knows they’re pride flags. Something inside him sits up a little straighter. So to speak.

“Personally I’m with them,” David says, waving an easy hand at Glasses before using it to indicate introductions. “David, the pessimist. Patrick’s the optimist.”

“I’m Bex,” says Glasses. “My two insufferably cheerful companions are Anya and Cherise.”

“My condolences,” David winces.

“Ouch. I don’t know about you two,” Patrick says to Anya and Cherise, “but I’m feeling a little attacked.”

“Aw, that’s just Bex being Bex.” Cherise plants a big kiss on Bex’s cheek. “It’s why we love them.”

“Sure is!” Anya chuckles brightly as Bex scowls. “We’ve found that’s the best revenge.”

The warm knot of camaraderie between these three reminds Patrick of his university days, being with his teammates on a field or his cast mates on a stage, but it’s also not like that at all. Whatever connection they share is deeper than any roles they’ve been assigned to play. He doesn’t think he’s ever had friends like these.

“Anyway.” Bex wipes their cheek. “Reading your entries in the trail register has been keeping us going for a long time.”

“Yes!” Cherise gives an emphatic nod. “Especially David’s Beyoncé lyrics. Truly an inspiration.”

“Your last one, though, we couldn’t place,” Anya says. “I don’t think this is a moment-in-time kind of thing. What song is that?”

Patrick’s brain is still piecing together what’s happening, but his heart is already pounding.

“Oh, it’s—It’s not from a song.” David looks down at his fingernails in a way that seems nonchalant, unless you know better. “That one was just me. Working through something.”

The chatter between the three friends continues, but Patrick keeps his attention fixed on David’s downturned face. He pictures David where he left him back at the trailhead, filling his journal pages with Ashland, then writing a confession in the register that Patrick never would have known about. Except now he does.

“Do you mind if we camp with y’all tonight?” Cherise asks. “You found a nice spot.”

“Please.” David looks up then, but not at Patrick. He gestures around at the little clearing in the woods. “There’s plenty of room.”

The moment to acknowledge the accidental revelation gets lost in the bustle of unpacking gear, setting up tents, cooking dinner. Cherise declares it a good night for a fire, and once she builds it, the five of them gather around to eat their separate portions of rehydrated goop and exchange trail stories. The three friends are students at the University of Oregon, and they’re stopping in Eugene, about a week ahead, just in time for the new quarter. This reminder of time passing weighs heavy in Patrick’s chest. He doesn’t remember reaching for David next to him, but he ends up stroking a hand up and down his thigh.

“So how long have you two been together?” Anya asks, scraping the bottom of her mug.

The fire crackles into a silence that drags a beat too long.

“Oh, we’re just—”

Patrick squeezes a hand on David’s knee to interrupt him. Needing to not hear how that sentence ends, he grasps onto the first thought he has.

“Five years.”

“Five years?!” David wheels on him.

“I know, it’s crazy to think it’s been that long, right?” Patrick truly has no idea what he’s doing, but he keeps talking. “We met out here on the trail, five years ago.”

David gapes at him like he’s lost his mind, and maybe he has. But he’s pretty sure he can take David down with him.

“You met out here?” Cherise asks.

“Yeah, it’s a cute story, actually.” Patrick looks David right in the eye, his voice steady as he tells almost the full truth. “We both came out to solo hike, but then my tent blew off a cliff in the mountains. He invited me to share his, mostly because he wanted to jump my bones.”

David blinks at him. Patrick remembers an improv class he took once, back when he used to host open mic nights. It was all about being in the moment with your scene partner, taking what they gave you, accepting it, and building on it by saying Yes, and. He can’t imagine David ever setting foot in an improv class, but he thinks David has it in him to say Yes, and all the same. Yes, Patrick, you’re choosing to tell this unnecessary and elaborate lie, and I will join you, because why not?

“Well.” David shakes his head, but a slow grin spreads across his face. “I sure took my sweet time, uh... jumping your bones.”

Patrick’s laugh is equal parts relieved and giddy. “The way I remember it, that had more to do with me feeling insecure about my gorgeous, perfect body.”

“Mmm.” David squints. “That doesn’t explain why it took me almost a week to even kiss you.”

“You needed to work your way up to it!” Patrick hooks a thumb at him and turns to their audience across the fire. “He had a panic attack the first time we kissed.”

“Which you found incredibly adorable and flattering!” David objects.

Anya is looking at them with round and shining eyes. “I love that you’ve told this story so many times that you can fill in each other’s side of it.”

Patrick feels a charge go up his spine. He turns to David and sees something similar in his expression. Permission. A challenge. Patrick remembers, belatedly, that David is a terrible liar. It’s one of the first things he ever shared about himself. But he’s able to sell this charade, because the lie is only on the surface, with nothing below it but the truth. They can keep this going.

“At first we thought it was just temporary,” Patrick says. “A few nights together before I could buy a new tent.”

“Except after a few nights together, he didn’t want his own tent anymore.”

“And yet I still kept saying I was gonna quit.” Patrick bumps David’s shoulder with his own. “He really, really didn’t want me to quit.”

“But he never really planned to quit.” David says the next part straight to Patrick. “He made his friend back home pack a dozen new resupply packages just so he wouldn’t have to quit.”

“Oh my god,” Bex says. “This is the most romantic thing I’ve ever fucking heard.”

Patrick, still looking into David’s deep brown eyes, can’t help but agree. “Yeah, it was pretty romantic. Or at least David thought so. He told me he loved me after like a week.”

“Okay, I think it was closer to a month?” David defends himself. While actually defending Patrick. “And anyway, you—You couldn’t get enough of hearing me say it.”

“I guess I did end up believing you, huh?” Without dropping his gaze, Patrick finds David’s hand and threads their fingers together.

David presses his smile between his teeth for just a second, then lets it out, nodding. “I can be very convincing.”

“Jesus,” Bex groans. “I’m obsessed with this.”

“So what happened when you finished the trail?” Anya has her knees drawn up to her chin. “What did you do?”

Patrick takes a sip of his soup, knows he’s about to push his luck, and does it anyway.

“David, why don’t you tell them what happened?”

The fire crackles. David’s mouth takes on several silent shapes, conveying shock, delight, a hint of betrayal, before settling on a sort of quiet helplessness.

“I don’t know,” he says. “We just… knew each other by then. Saying goodbye was too hard.”

It’s not a logistical answer. It does nothing to solve the problems of separate geography, separate families, separate careers, separate lives. But it’s enough to build on.

“So we didn’t say goodbye,” Patrick finishes.

“Oh my god, look at Anya,” Cherise cackles. “She’s literally swooning.”

“Shut up.” Bex waves her off. “Someone needs to buy the movie rights to this story.”

“Seriously,” Anya sighs.

Before he lets go, David squeezes Patrick’s hand.

*

“I thought you promised no future talk,” David says once they’re tucked up in their tent together. Their younger companions are still giggling around the fire.

“Technically that wasn’t future talk,” Patrick replies. “It was talk about an imaginary past where I was you, and you were me. Totally different thing.”

“Mmm. Nice loophole.”

“Thank you, I was proud of it.” Patrick brings David’s hand to his lips. “I’m very happy for that alternate universe David and Patrick. Sounds like they made things work.”

Patrick spends the next minute kissing down each of David’s long fingers, feeling the silver rings grow warm under his lips. He gets a little lost in the familiarity of it, until David’s voice brings him back.

“I’ve never had a relationship last for five years.”

Patrick glances up at him. “Okay, there’s one truth. What else you got?”

“Um, my longest relationship lasted for five months.”

This seems like it’s probably a lie, but Patrick waits to hear the third statement.

David takes a deep breath in then angles his eyes skyward before letting it out. “I don’t think this is a moment-in-time kind of thing. I don’t think it will pass.”

Patrick doesn’t give him a kiss so much as it explodes out of him. He closes the short distance between them and finds David’s mouth on the other side, ready to meet him. He pulls back eventually, using the last of his breath to whisper, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Well.” David smirks. “That’s three truths.”

“Yeah.” Patrick smiles. “You have a way of making me do that.”

*

Oregon continues to slip by quickly. Patrick chalks it up to the easier terrain, the more bearable climate, his hard-earned endurance. Or maybe his feet are just ready to be done. Maybe they’re ready to find out what’s next.

He and David still don’t talk about it. They don’t make plans or promises; they don’t waste time worrying or sulking. They spend their days hiking alone and their nights laughing together, like always. And that’s enough. Patrick feels ready anyway. This might be almost over, but it’s not the end. He’s pretty sure.

Before he knows it, he’s tearing open his last resupply box just outside Crater Lake, about two weeks from when he should reach the Bridge of the Gods. He’s immediately glad he did it alone, without waiting for David to catch up, because there’s an envelope with familiar handwriting sitting right on top. A letter from Rachel.

His stomach drops into a small moment of disorientation, like it thought there was one more step at the top of this staircase, but there isn’t. It’s not like he forgot about her. He’s thought about her a lot out here, about all the time they spent together, all the times they split up, all that they meant to each other. But until this moment, he’s been thinking about her in the past tense. He forgot that while he’s been out here with David, she’s been back home on her own, trying to make sense of a life they thought they were meant to share.

He packs up his new supplies, slips the envelope into his back pocket, and keeps going on the trail.

Crater Lake is exactly what it sounds like, a lake formed by a crater. Sitting on the rim feels like teetering on the edge of the world, dangling your feet over some alien planet made of water, deep and impossibly blue.

Patrick twirls the letter between his fingers. Rachel still writes her lower-case As as tiny capitals, just like she decided to do one bored afternoon back in Grade Eleven. Once she put her mind to it, it only took a couple hours’ practice to retrain her hand. He catches himself half-wishing the envelope might accidentally slip from his fingers, sink unread into the watery depths below, and that’s when he tears it open.

Patrick,

Congratulations on reaching the last checkpoint! Your mom says you’re doing well. We’re all really proud of you.

I’ve rewritten this letter about ten times, and I can’t find anywhere else to start except to say that I miss you. I keep thinking about where we left things, and I’m sure we both said things we didn’t mean. Can we talk about it when you get home?

Yours,
Rachel

Reading through it again, he gets stuck on that I’m sure in the second to last sentence. He traces those two words with his fingers, remembering a time when he would have latched onto them, run toward the promise behind them. Rachel always was so sure about him. About them. It was hard not to want to be a part of that.

The impulse is gone now. He has his own certainty to run toward.

Searching the side pockets of his pack for paper, all he finds is the copy of At Home that he hasn’t picked up in months. He has to laugh at the Patrick of four months ago, the pre-PCT Patrick, who thought reading about the history of candlesticks and coffee tables would make him feel more at home in the wilderness. By now he knows that being at home isn’t something you build out of stuff. Being at home starts with yourself.

There are a few blank pages at the end of the book. He tells himself that he has no choice, that it’s for a good cause, and begs forgiveness from the ghost of Mrs. Langston, his elementary school librarian, as he tears one out. Then he writes.

Rachel,

I’m going to start this by saying that I only have one sheet of paper, and this probably isn’t going to come out right the first time, so I’m sorry that I can’t try again.

I’ve changed out here. Or, I’m the same as I always was, but now I see myself more clearly. I think I spent a lot of my life afraid to be selfish. I was afraid people would get hurt, but people got hurt anyway. I hurt you anyway.

Sorry, this is cryptic, but there are things I don’t want to say in a letter.

Let’s talk when I get back, but you should know I’m not planning to come home. Not for good. I think I need to build my life somewhere else. For a little while, at least. For now.

Take care of yourself (I know you will),
Patrick

He sits with the letter open in his lap for a long time. Then he folds it up and tucks it away in his pack. He’ll post it at the Crater Lake visitor’s center before he moves on. It will mean going backwards a bit on the trail, but it has to be done.

*

By the time David sits down next to him on the rim of Crater Lake, Patrick isn’t crying anymore, but it’s probably obvious that he has been.

“Everything okay?” David asks, his careful tone a confirmation.

“Rachel wrote to me.” Patrick looks out across the lake, at the cliffs ringing the opposite edge. If there’s anyone over there, he can’t tell from here. “Nothing bad, she just said she misses me and wants to talk when I come home.”

David shifts restlessly next to him but doesn’t speak.

“I’m pretty sure she’s counting on us getting back together. We always have before.” Patrick looks down at his hands. “It occurred to me that maybe she feels about me the way I feel about you, and I… broke my own heart a little, thinking about that. That’s all.”

Patrick feels David’s hand at the back of his neck, and the pressure of it refocuses his thoughts.

“Anyway, I wrote her back saying I’m not coming home. Well, I’ll go home. I’m not going to live out of this pack forever. But I’m not staying.”

“Where will you go?” David asks.

“I’m not sure yet.” Patrick gets his first look at David’s face. “Hey. Everything okay with you?”

“Hm? Yeah. It’s just. Heights.”

There’s some truth to this statement, but there’s something else, too. The wind rustles through several sheets of paper clutched in David’s hand.

“What’s that?”

“Um, a letter from my sister.” David leafs through the pages absently, not reading them.

“Looks like a long letter.”

“Yeah, she finally graduated high school English and thinks that makes her a master of the epistolary form, I guess?” David gives him a sideways glance. “Literally, that was her thesis statement. In this letter, I intend to show that I am a master of the epistolary form. She underlined it and everything.”

Patrick isn’t sure if he’s allowed to laugh at this. He’s always had a hard time judging sibling dynamics, never having had any himself. His cousins don’t quite count when it comes to things like this. Either way, he runs out of room to laugh when David keeps talking.

“She did get around to the point eventually, though, which is that Christmas World backed out of their deal. For the general store,” David clarifies. “My mom’s on town council. They’re going to hold the lease for me.”

“David, that’s great news! Congratulations.” Patrick reaches for David’s arm and squeezes it. The smile he gets in return is too small for his liking, so he adds, “I know you’ll make it beautiful.”

“Yeah, that’s not the part I’m worried about.” David shrugs. “It’s more the part with the forms and taxes and write-offs. And grants, apparently, which I didn’t even know I didn’t know about until you mentioned them. So who knows what else.”

David gazes out across the water, and Patrick joins him. A breeze ripples the surface of the lake, reminding Patrick of what his dad taught him once, the hard way, about paddling a canoe into a headwind. You can use all the strength you have, but if you don’t have a partner who can match you, you’ll never get anywhere.

“It’s a really nice letter, actually,” David says. “Alexis got quotes from everyone in town, saying how they look forward to shopping in my store. I’m sure she made half of them up—I mean, who the fuck is Gwen?—but still. It’s nice.”

Clouds swirl overhead, puffy and nonthreatening. David leans back on his hands, squinting up at the clouds like he can interpret some message from their shapes.

“It made me think about what it would have been like to meet you back home, with all those people around,” David continues. “My sister can be good at reading people, so she probably would’ve known you were interested in me before I did. Stevie definitely would’ve known I was interested in you before I did. The only person my mom ever thinks about besides herself is my dad, and she’s convinced that makes her good at giving relationship advice. Sometimes she’s even right. Though if I have to hear that John Cougar Mellencamp story one more time…”

Patrick has lost the thread of the conversation, if he’s being honest, but it’s clear David’s ramping up to something. He waits.

“Anyway um, it’s nice, knowing that all those people... care about me, or whatever, and would’ve helped me be happy. But I think I’m glad I did this on my own.”

“Did what?” Patrick asks.

“Fell in love with you.”

The words aren’t a shock or a surprise or a revelation. They’re better than that. They’re just the truth. David looks at him with a steady gaze, and Patrick feels like he could float right off the edge of the world. It’s like one of those perfect moments that you dream about. He can’t let it end.

“Listen, David—”

“Let’s not, okay?” David interrupts, waving a hand toward the trail, indicating a direction he probably thinks is North but is actually East. “Let’s just finish this. Let’s finish this first. And then we’ll see about the rest. Okay?”

Once David brings his hand back to cradle Patrick’s jaw, it’s impossible to object. Finding the right angle to kiss as deeply as they want to without tumbling over the rim of the crater is tough, but they manage.

“Hey.” Patrick pulls back just far enough to lean their foreheads together. “Say it again.”

“I love you, Patrick.” David’s mouth curves into a smile, and Patrick has to kiss it.

“Mmm,” he hums as they break apart. “Now say it fifty more times.”

David laughs. “Don’t get greedy.”

“I’m just saying, you have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Okay.” David scowls.

Patrick kisses that, too.

*

On their last day on the trail, Patrick wakes up with David in his arms. He’s a surprisingly capable little spoon; his long body knows exactly how to fold itself up small when it wants to be loved. Patrick spends a few minutes alone with the feel of David’s heartbeat under his palm, and then they’re both awake.

“Are we ready to do this?” David asks without turning over.

“Let’s do it together,” Patrick answers into his ear.

They roll up what needs to be rolled, pack up what needs to be packed, and strap down what needs to be strapped, all for the last time. When they set off for the trail, the four holes their tent stakes left in the ground are the only signs they were ever there. They have just seven miles left to cover today. It’ll be over before they know it.

Patrick’s surprised to find that having David beside him on the trail isn’t that different from being alone. Or maybe he isn’t surprised. They don’t pressure each other for companionship or force conversation. It comes easily.

“So what do you do out here alone?” David asks at one point. “How do you usually fill your time?”

“I sing a lot.” Patrick shrugs. “Like, the same things. Over and over.”

“Like what? Give me a taste.”

Patrick doesn’t have to think it over. He knows exactly what he’s going to sing. “This one has been in my head a lot lately. Remember the Reese Witherspoon movie that brought me out here? This was the last song on the soundtrack.”

The folk song has a well-worn melody, and his voice settles right into the groove of it:

“From this valley they say you are leaving
We shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For you take with you all of the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while

Then come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy that's loved you so true”

When he’s done, David steps in front of him on the trail, takes Patrick’s face between his hands, and kisses him. It’s the first time they’ve kissed like this, Patrick realizes, standing in the midmorning sunshine with their packs still on their backs and the wind rustling the trees all around them. There are still so many circumstances under which they haven’t kissed, and Patrick wants to discover them all.

They hike in silence for a while after that, and that comes easily, too.

*

The last mile before Bridge of the Gods is a road walk through the town of Cascade Locks. They leave the cover of the trees and have to readjust to the feeling of pavement under their boots. The bridge is in sight up ahead when they pass by a post office.

“Hey,” Patrick says, pulling up short. “Give me a second, okay?”

He ducks inside without even taking his pack off. The postcard rack is bursting with photos of the bridge, and he pulls down the closest one without scrolling through them.

I made it, is the message he writes next to his parents’ address. He writes it small this time, because he has more to say:

I met someone out here. His name is David. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope you get to meet him someday.

He thinks about his parents adding this postcard to the others already hanging on their fridge at home—I’m alive, I’m happy, I’m safe. He hopes they can see how these pieces assemble into a full picture. The cap is back on his pen before he decides to add something else:

I’m sorry for doing this in a postcard, but it couldn’t wait. I have a lot to tell you when I get home.

One more pause, and then he squeezes in a final line:

P.S. Please don’t say anything to Rachel. I’ll tell her myself.

When he comes back outside, David is standing in front of the diner next door, staring longingly at a sign advertising Pancakes All Day.

Patrick chuckles and tugs him away by the arm. “Later, David.”

“Sure, you got to make a stop,” David grumbles.

“We’re almost there.”

Compared to all the spectacular scenery they’ve had laid out in front of them the past few months, the view from the Bridge of the Gods is nothing special. It’s a valley with wooded hills on either side, like dozens of others they’ve seen by now. The Columbia River is wide and powerful, but they don’t need to ford it. They don’t even need to cross the bridge. They come to the middle and stop.

They stop.

Just like that, in this somewhat arbitrary spot halfway over the border to Washington State, Patrick has taken his last step on the Pacific Crest Trail. The next step he takes will be the start of something new.

He leans into his palms on the railing of the bridge and feels David do the same next to him.

“This is where the movie ends, you know?” Patrick says. “Cheryl Strayed makes it to the bridge, and then says in voiceover that she didn’t know it, but she would get married near this spot, four years later.”

David’s question is just audible over the rushing water below. “What do you think you’ll be doing in four years?”

“No idea,” Patrick says, the words a wild thrill in his veins.

He used to have nothing but plans for four years from now. A wife, a house, a dog, kids. They were four-year plans that used to comfort him, that used to make sense, as long as they stayed at the four-year distance. Patrick doesn’t need that kind of comfort anymore. It had taken so much effort to build those plans and almost nothing to shed them, in the end. He dropped them a while back, like dropping a pebble from this bridge, just let go and trusted gravity to do the rest.

He turns to David. “But I know what I’m gonna do right now.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to buy you pancakes.” Patrick slides one arm around David’s waist, then the other. “And then I want to hear all about this town where you live.”

A smile blooms on David’s face, from his mouth up to his eyes, and it keeps going, spreading outward, overtaking his whole body. He presses his fingertips into Patrick’s biceps, his shoulders, his neck. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Patrick beams. “I may have mentioned it, but I’m looking for a new place to call home.”

“So you figured you’d exile yourself on my island of misfit toys?”

“I know this guy there who’s also starting over. Seems perfect.”

And that’s the first time they kiss on a bridge, the first time they kiss to the sound moving traffic, the first time they kiss not as fellow hikers but as something new to each other. They get so caught up in it that they almost forget to celebrate the other thing.

“Hey,” Patrick says when he remembers, making a broad gesture at everything around them. “We did it.”

“We did it,” David agrees.

On their way to pancakes, they stop by the foot of the bridge to sign their last trail register. Patrick gets out his pen, then passes it to David, saying, “It’s your turn to go first.”

David’s hand spends a minute swooping across the page, and when it’s done, Patrick steps up and reads:

Things David Rose is ready for after fifteen hundred miles, two truths and one lie:
     Sleeping on Egyptian cotton sheets
     Answering my family’s questions
     Wearing bespoke knitwear

A smile tugs at the corner of Patrick’s mouth as he writes:

Things Patrick Brewer is ready for:
     Finding out what bespoke knitwear is
     Never eating oatmeal ever again

He glances at David beside him, bouncing impatiently to soothe his empty stomach, and decides—why not?—to make it three truths:

     The life I want