“So, what do you think?”
Andrew appraises the notes Ryan has been writing out over the last few days, scanning through the agenda and the schedule again with narrowed eyes. And then he nods, a slow, satisfied grin spreading across his face. “I approve.”
“Great,” Ryan replies, feeling infinitely relieved. “Do you think the kids will like it?”
“Ryan, our kids are going to lose their fucking minds. This is the coolest shit to snotty-nosed ten year olds who just want to go outside and roll around in the dirt.”
“But we’re going to have to make them do some school work, too, or we’ll get rejected immediately on the basis of this just being a poorly-disguised exhaustion tactic via making ten year olds walk a 5k for no reason.”
Andrew stops and reconsiders. “Well, we’ll bribe the boss with worksheets and we’ll bribe the kids with letting them touch worms and eating cookies at lunch.”
“Good call. Let’s go see Daysha.”
When they present Daysha with both the agenda and the schedule, it’s with confidence and a stupid amount of pride. She reads through it just like Andrew did, but when she’s done, she gives them both a raised eyebrow instead of a smile.
“You two,” she says, pointing at Ryan with her pen, and then at Andrew, “want to be in charge of taking forty fifth graders out into the woods for a day?”
“Yes,” Andrew agrees proudly.
Daysha stares at him, waiting for an explanation; when she gets none, she turns to Ryan, the other eyebrow joining the first.
“Daysha, we already wrangle twenty a piece Monday through Friday. We deal with scraped knees and he-said-she-said drama and flipping cards forty hours a week. And we’ve successfully handled plenty of field trips before, as you are well aware of. We can handle this.” At her kind but no-nonsense look, he adds: “We have a few chaperones who volunteered to go if it became a thing. And I already called the nature center and confirmed we could schedule to have some park rangers with us on the actual hike.”
Daysha stares at them both for another moment, and then sighs, moving to sign off on their field trip request. “Please do not lose any of the kids in the woods or I’ll have you both sent to Mars on a one-way trip, no refunds or exchanges allowed.”
“We won’t let you down!” Andrew exclaims, and then turns to give Ryan an enthusiastic fist bump. “Dude, we are gonna be the best Bear Grylls team for a whole day. The kids are going to be most impressed.”
Daysha points her pen at them again without looking up, rereading through Ryan’s paperwork. “And you’re not allowed to use Bill and Ted lingo on this trip either, or you’ll be giving the lunch ladies foot massages for a month.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they say in unison, and then fist bump again when Daysha gets up to photocopy the signed agenda.
They’re with a cluster of other teachers at lunch when news about their field trip breaks. Ryan is recounting the finer points of the Lakers’ latest game when someone walks into the break room and announces, “Hey, I heard Wayne and Garth got the green light for a field trip together.”
It’s TJ, one of the fourth grade teachers, and Ryan points his sandwich at him threateningly, something that is lessened when a hunk of lettuce falls out of it.
“Fuck you, Marchbank. Andrew and I are going to be incredible field trip supervisors. Daysha’s gonna be begging us to plan all future field trip locations and timeframes, down to the exact coordinates and seconds we arrive and depart.”
“I think that’s pushing it,” Sara, the art teacher, disagrees. “She’s probably hoping, at the very least, that you’ll manage to get your kids on the right bus and arrive at your destination within the half an hour mark.”
“Ye of little faith,” Andrew says scathingly, shoving some Cheetos into his mouth. “Bergy and I have never made a field trip mistake throughout our entire careers here.”
Jen, a first grade teacher, points out: “What about that time we went to the natural history museum downtown and you both got reprimanded for petting the taxidermied mammoth in the Ice Age exhibit? In front of all of your kids?”
“We’ve made one mistake,” Andrew corrects. “Look, we’re not taking them to the goddamn Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg—we’re taking our gremlins on a lowkey stroll through the woods so they can throw bugs at each other and dare their friends to touch some moss. We’ll be fine.”
“We’ll be fine,” Ryan repeats, still brandishing his sandwich in a threatening manner. “Just wait and see. Our kids are going to come back and grow up to be botanists and environmental conservationists.”
Annie, the music teacher, rolls her eyes. “Your kids are going to come back with poison ivy and heat stroke.”
Andrew protests, “They’ll be wearing long clothes! Because it’ll be sixty degrees! Which rules out heat stroke!”
Curly, a kindergarten teacher, nods unconvincingly. “Yup, I bet. We’ll be holding our breaths.”
When they all part to resume classes, Andrew stops and tells Ryan, “Don’t listen to them, man. We’re gonna rock this shit, and our kids are going to beg us to take them hiking every week. We’re gonna rock this shit.”
“I know we are. We’ll show the others just how totally rad and down with the kids we are, and how we can positively influence their outlook on Earth Science.”
“Absototally,” Andrew says, and they share one more fist bump before disappearing into their respective classrooms, excited to share the good news with their students.
Their field trip occurs on a beautiful, mild day in October, a blessing if there ever was one. The only easy blessing the two of them get for this whole outing, besides from unconcerned chaperones and their eager fifth graders. Ryan shows up in full explorer gear, complete with khaki hiking pants, a khaki vest, and a khaki-colored sun hat with strings, all with various amounts of pockets on them. He also comes with a backpack that is stuffed to the gills with things like sunscreen, bug spray, a first aid kit, his lunch, and for whatever reason, an actual, real compass, like he’s ever been trained to use something like that. He feels a little silly when all of his kids show up in things like track pants and butterfly t-shirts, but then Andrew shows up in something just as ridiculous as him and their kids ooh and ahh like they’re experienced explorers and it makes him feel oddly proud of himself. The chaperones, who are all wearing things like jeans and windbreakers, smile in amusement and compliment their matching whistles.
Roll call goes smoothly, Andrew checking his kids onto the bus first, and then Ryan, and then they’re cruising along to the nature center. Some of the kids have their windows down, and almost all of them around where Ryan and Andrew are sitting up front together are chattering excitedly about what they’ll be doing for the day.
“Mr. Bergara!” One of his kids, a girl named Helene, leans out of her seat to get his attention. “Do you think we’ll see any animals today?”
“Gee, I hope so!” Ryan enthuses. “We might get lucky and see some squirrels or some birds! Nothing big, though, since there’ll be so many of us—we’ll probably scare the other animals off.”
“Aw, really?” Another one of his kids, a boy named Isaiah, frowns at this piece of news. “I was hoping we’d get to see some deer.”
The boy sitting next to him, Will, says, “I wanted to see a bear!”
Ryan feels his stomach drop, his face going with it, and to his right, Andrew doesn’t pretend to hide his laugh.
“Kids, I promise you that we do not want to see a bear today. They’re very dangerous.”
“They’re so cute though,” Helene argues, and her best friend/seat buddy, Fiona, nods in agreement. “I love bears. Like the Care Bears. And Paddington!”
Isaiah points at Ryan. “Mr. Bergara, are you trying to trick us? You have that Paddington stuffed animal on your desk that you let us keep if we can answer your Daily Riddle!”
“Paddington is special,” Ryan tells them, trying not to show how much he fears the thought of encountering an actual bear. “He helps people. Real bears try to attack them.”
He cuts Will off with a raised hand. “Sorry, kiddos, but we’re not looking for bears today. The park rangers are going to tell you the same thing, and they’re going to make sure we don’t run into any, okay?”
“Okay,” they all reply, deflated, and Andrew is still laughing his ass off next to Ryan. He lowers his voice and hisses: “What’s so funny, Mr. Ilnyckyj?”
“That the guy who regularly goes Bigfoot hunting is afraid of bears.”
“I don’t! And Bigfeet haven’t exactly been known to separate heads from bodies, or tear out peoples’ throats, have they?”
“That’s because they don’t exist,” Andrew says, gasping for air. “Also, did you just say Bigfeet? I’ve never heard someone pluralize Bigfoot before. I think there’s a law against that somewhere.”
“There’s also a law against throwing teachers out of a moving bus, but what the law doesn’t know won’t hurt it.”
Andrew eventually lets it go, moving back into their conversation about when to break for lunch, but not without muttering: “Bigfeet!” to himself one last time.
They reach Wildthorn Nature Center at almost 9 o’clock on the dot and while the chaperones are keeping the kids contained, Ryan and Andrew head to the Welcome Center to check in. There’s an older woman behind the front counter entering something into a computer, and she smiles warmly at them when they walk through the door.
“Good morning!” she greets, and when they get to the desk, Ryan sees that her name tag reads: Vivian. “I’m assuming you’re Mr. Bergara and Mr. Ilnyckyj for the 9 A.M. tour?”
“That’s us!” Andrew confirms.
“Great! I’ll just have you sign in while I radio the park rangers, and then you can be on your way.”
They fill out the necessary forms while Vivian fiddles with a walkie talkie and informs whoever is on the other end that Ryan and Andrew are there for their hike. There’s a few moments of silence, and then a staticky: “Copy, we’ll be there in five,” filters through. Once Ryan gives her the completed paperwork, she informs them that they can go wait with their students, and that the rangers will be there shortly to start their tour.
“What kind do you think we’ll get?” Andrew asks as they’re heading back to their kids. “Just graduated college or been walkin’ the trails since TVs were only in black and white?”
“God, I hope we get some old fuckers. They know everything there is to know about what kind of bird is in that tree and what kind of fish you’re most likely to catch on this end of the river. It’s incredible.”
“The kids would go wild for it.”
The five minutes come and go in a blink, Ryan too busy updating the chaperones and Andrew too busy entertaining the kids to keep track of the wait. Ryan doesn’t even hear them come up until one of the kids asks: “Mr. Ilnyckyj, are you sure we can’t see some bears today?” and another voice replies, “Not in this neck of the woods, buddy!”
Ryan turns to the voice, surprised, and finds himself dumbstruck. The voice belongs to one of their assigned park rangers, and his face is just as friendly as his tone. He’s decked out in the typical park ranger gear—pressed khaki field shirt tucked into a pair of pressed army green pants, badge pinned above the left breast pocket of his shirt and nametag pinned to the right, ranger hat perched perfectly on the top of his head—in addition to a simple wristwatch and a beautiful pair of brown leather boots. He also has a neatly trimmed beard and a beatific smile that both make Ryan go weak at the knees.
“Thank God for that,” he manages to say, instead of ‘Where have you been all my life, Ranger Rick?’ “I already warned them that we should not, under any circumstances, wish to run into a bear.”
“As someone who has run into several, I would have to agree,” the man says, laughing. He walks closer and holds his hand out to Ryan, who somehow takes and shakes it without humiliating himself. “Shane Madej. I’ll be one of your park rangers-slash-tour guides today.”
“Ryan Bergara. I’ll be one of your fumbling teachers-slash-beach devotees today.”
“Fumbling?” Shane asks, and then carefully touches the edge of Ryan’s sun hat. “I think you’re off to a great start, if I do say so myself. You got some sunscreen in that pack of yours?”
“I sure do,” Ryan tells him, and when Shane says, “See, you’re a regular Bear Grylls!” he feels like he might have made a very terrible miscalculation in planning this field trip, after all.
He goes to say as much to Andrew, but stops when he finds his colleague staring moonily up at their other park ranger. Though he’s shorter than Shane, he’s still pretty tall and sways above Andrew, who looks like he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but underneath this ranger with the round glasses and sweet smile. Ryan thinks that they should just probably pack it up and go back to school before things get out of hand here.
Instead, he troops over to the other park ranger to introduce himself.
“Hi, I’m Ryan Bergara,” he says, cutting off Andrew’s babble about almost drowning while white water rafting in high school. They make brief eye contact, and Andrew looks well on the way to a conniption fit. The other ranger turns that sweet smile onto Ryan, seemingly unfazed, and shakes his hand. “Thanks for agreeing to be our guides today. And thanks in advance for your patience and good will.”
“Nice to meet you! I’m Steven Lim! And it’s literally our jobs to help you guys out with tours like this, so we’re just doing what we signed up to do. But we don’t mind—teaching kids how to tell what berries and mushrooms are okay to eat and what kinds will cause them fatal bodily harm is always a great time.”
“Oh, so what about those red berries I snagged on the way in here? By the Welcome Center?” Andrew asks, and for a beat, Steven gapes down at him in horror. Then Andrew grins goofily and winks at him with a: “I’m just kidding, I’m not that much of a yuppie.”
And when all Steven does is laugh brightly, with Andrew staring at the lines around his mouth, Ryan resigns himself to experiencing the longest and gayest day of his life.
Andrew eventually pulls himself away from Steven to shake hands with Shane, and after the rangers say hello to the parents and kids, too, they’re officially off on their hike.
“Who’s excited to learn about nature today?” Steven asks the kids, still with that same sweet, calm tone of voice. All of their students cheer enthusiastically, something that makes Ryan’s heart clench despite being exposed to it for so long already. “I’m so happy to hear that! But before we get into our hike today, we need to make sure we go over some rules, okay? First rule: everyone needs to find a partner to stand next to and stay with on our walk!”
He waits patiently while all of the kids partner up, some of them linking arms or hands, others pulling playfully on their backpacks or coats.
“Great job, everyone! Now, the most important rule when walking today is that you stay on the path unless myself or Shane take you off of it, or you go with your chaperones or teachers. We don’t want anyone getting hurt or lost because then we’ll have to cut the hike short, and that wouldn’t be fun, would it? So stay with us and stay with your buddies so we can all have a good time today.”
Shane steps in to add: “And make sure if you see any animals that you don’t try to touch them, no matter how friendly they seem. Most animals out in the wild will bite you if you go near them, okay?”
They received a chorus of “Okay!” from all of the kids, and then Steven and Shane lead them into the entrance of the forest. It’s well guarded by a hulking thicket of trees, so that the actual forest itself has the aura of being enchanted or forbidden, but once Ryan steps fully into it, his breath catches in his throat. It’s like entering an entirely different world: the sun, so brilliant out by the Welcome Center, is muted and filters softly through the thick branches of the trees around them; the softness of the sunlight makes the brilliant red, orange, and yellow tones of the changing leaves glow like hundreds of gemstones, like a ceiling made entirely of stained glass; the air is much cooler in here, and gives off a more subtle scent of earth and live foliage than if it had been in direct sunlight; the sound of the birds chirping and various animals scampering up the trees is more amplified in the contained stillness, away from the sound of cars passing on the backroad or the quiet noises coming from inside the Welcome Center.
From their position towards the back of the line, Andrew whispers to Ryan: “This is stunning,” and then holds his hand out for their signature fist bump. Ryan bumps him and replies: “Best idea ever, dude.”
They follow Shane and Steven down the path and listen as they teach the kids about the finer aspects of life in the wild. Steven does most of the talking, pointing out various types of trees, plants, and birds as they go. He explains how to identify each based on their specific characteristics and what the various trees and plants may have benefits for if used properly.
“Man, that guy’s a just graduated college and a been walkin’ the trails since TVs were only in black and white,” Ryan tells Andrew, elbowing him in the side. “That’s genuinely so impressive. I’m here for you in your time of need.”
“Bergara,” Andrew says, without taking his eyes off of Steven’s delighted smile, “I am going to marry that man someday.”
Ryan then looks at Shane, who is holding out some kind of rock to the kids and explaining what it is with a similarly delighted smile on his face. “Buddy, I sure know that feeling.”
Their students, who really all do have some weird fascination with bugs, get incredibly excited when the rangers stop and let them poke around in an open area for worms and other creatures.
“Are you going to come look at them, too?” Steven asks them both, but he’s only looking at Andrew when he does so, much to Ryan’s amusement.
Andrew holds his hands up apologetically. “You know, I’m actually not a huge fan of insects, so I think I’ll just stand here—”
Without warning, one of Andrew’s kids, a boy named Gideon, comes and grabs him by his upturned hands, pleading: “Please, please, please come look at the worms with us, Mr. Ilnyckyj! They’re so cool, wait until you touch them!”
Andrew lets Gideon pull him away, putting on a falsely cheerful voice. “Actually, I love insects! Insects are my favorite little dudes to interact with, just go ahead and call me insects’ number one fan!”
Ryan laughs openly at him, until he’s also trapped by some of his kids. One of his arms is commandeered by Helene, his class firecracker, and the other one is commandeered by Isaiah, his (secret) class favorite, and they work together to drag him over to their group of friends. Helene insists, “Mr. Bergara, you should come look at the worms, too! They’re so slimy and cool!” and Ryan is helpless but to tag along and do as he’s told.
He winds up crouched down by a collection of rocks with Helene, Isaiah, Fiona, Will, and another girl in his class named Emoni, and they flip up the rocks and dig through the dirt with joyful, reckless abandon, trying to find some of the best earthworms in town. Fiona is the first to find a worm, and she pulls it out of the ground with a gasp. “I got one!”
Despite his lack of love for worms and insects, Ryan plasters on a proud smile for her. “That’s a nice one, Fi!”
She gives him a gap-toothed grin. “Thanks, Mr. B! This one’s for you!”
Fiona deposits the worm into Ryan’s empty palm without further comment, so he’s forced to sit there and let the worm wriggle around and act like he’s enjoying it immensely. Only the undying love he has for his students keeps him from shoving it back under the rock it came from.
He startles a little when someone else crouches down next to him, and turns to find Shane looking at the worm in his hand. Ryan can tell, by the expression on his face, that he knows Ryan is not having the time of his life and also thinks it’s absolutely hilarious.
“Ah, Lumbricus terrestris,” Shane starts, sounding fond. He glances up at Ryan, and begins laughing at his strained smile; when he holds his hand out to take the worm, Ryan passes it over gladly, resisting the urge to shudder. “Otherwise known as the good ol’ earthworm. You kids are right to think that earthworms are the coolest things in the forest—they do a lot of good things for it, like breaking down dead organisms to enrich the soil and improve and encourage plant growth, and making tunnels in the ground that help with allowing the soil to drain whenever it rains.”
“Woah,” Isaiah breathes, touching the worm in Shane’s hand. “Super cool.”
“The coolest,” Helene echoes Shane’s word choice, and finally manages to get one out of the ground for herself. “Worms are my favorite.”
“Did you know that some earthworms have superpowers?” Shane asks, making his eyes go all wide and wonderstruck. The kids’ faces change to match his, and they lean in closer, desperate to hear what he has to say. Ryan, who has never taken an interest in worms past the age of five, also finds himself completely enraptured by the easy way Shane falls into Teacher Mode. “Depending on what kind of species it is, some earthworms are able to regrow their tails if they’re cut off.”
This elicits a round of gasps, varying from shocked to amazed. Will, who is looking up at Shane like he also has superpowers, announces, “That is so sick!”
“But,” Shane continues, setting the worm carefully back into the soil, “you shouldn’t ever cut the tails off on purpose to see if they will grow back. We always want to protect and care for the organisms that live in the forest or else we might not have a forest to explore someday. You should treat wildlife just like you’d treat your friends: with love and respect.”
This earns him a round of nods, and after bidding their acquired worms a loving farewell, the kids put them back into the soil and let Shane set the rocks back on top of them. After thanking him for telling them about worms, they skip over to some of their other friends, and Ryan turns to Shane with an incredulous look.
“I cannot believe you made worms seem like they’re the next generation of Marvel characters. How is that possible?”
Shane’s eyes are like two shining discs of gold under the brim of his ranger hat. “All I did was tell the truth, Mr. B. Worms are definitely superheroes for the environment—they help plants grow healthily, they break them down after they die, they help water drain into the soil, and use their worm slime to add nutrients into it all at the same time. They do a lot of upkeep on the green bits of Earth. What’s not heroic about that?”
Ryan snorts, still in disbelief and also highly endeared. “I still think they’re gross.”
“Some of the grossest insects are found inside, if you want to have an honest discussion here. Have you seen a house centipede?” It’s all in good humor, and they’re both laughing as Shane stands again and holds a hand out to help Ryan up. He doesn’t let go right away once they’re both on their feet, just smiles down at Ryan and says: “You never would’ve survived in my neighborhood with that disdain for worms. We used to live for the days it rained and they all showed up on the sidewalks so we could have worm races.”
“I bet you were that kid who always walked around with dirt on his knees and elbows and had a pet spider.”
“Actually, it was a pet frog,” Shane corrects, and when Ryan replies, “Oh, that’s much less abhorrent, good for child-you,” Shane beams like Ryan just told him he won a million bucks.
Ryan reluctantly lets go of his hand when Steven calls the kids back together so that they can continue the hike, and Shane’s small, private smile makes him stupidly think (beg, hope, pray) that he feels the same reluctance.
They must walk through the forest for close to two hours, but between keeping track of the students, taking in the glorious, endless stretch of trees, earth, and plants, and subtly staring at Shane, it goes by for Ryan in the blink of an eye. Two hours feels like barely half an hour, trickling by in an awestruck haze, and then suddenly the forest trail leads them all to a wide open stretch of grass, and beyond that, an elaborate dock that juts out into an endless stretch of water.
This is when Shane takes over and does most of the talking, and it occurs to Ryan that Steven probably took charge of the forest portion of the hike because Shane is the Lakes and Oceans Guy, and he suddenly regrets his embarrassing ‘beach devotee’ comment from earlier.
“All right, kids, it’s very important that you stay on the dock for this part of the hike! I don’t want anyone getting hurt or falling in, okay?”
The kids, who all absolutely hero worship him at this point, give Shane a unanimous affirmation. They press up against the wooden railing of the dock to peer into the water as he begins to explain all of the different bits and pieces of waterlife and why it’s important to the ecosystem. At some point, the kids get to see an enormous catfish swim by and go wild for it, and Shane proudly states that that’s his best friend, Pringles. At Ryan’s raised eyebrows, he elaborates: “Because his mustache makes him look like the Pringles guy,” and that is the very moment Ryan feels himself fall head over heels in love with a park ranger he only met at 9 A.M. that same morning. It’s very embarrassing and tumultuous, but he takes comfort in knowing that Andrew is in the exact same boat as him and will be there for mutual moral support.
Which is a boat that all of their coworkers/friends would rather face the dangers of the sea than be in, something they’ve made a point to tell Andrew and Ryan repeatedly over the years, but he chooses not to dwell on that part.
When signing up for their tour, Ryan was instructed to have all the kids bring along a magnifying glass in their backpacks, and Shane asks them to get them out after he’s introduced them to Pringles and talked about what kinds of things live in Wildthorn’s lake. While the students are pulling out their magnifying glasses, Shane and Steven go to a shed sitting at the end of the dock and come back holding several kid-friendly dip nets in a rainbow of colors.
“One activity that we love to do on hikes is examine the organisms that are swimming around in Lake Opal,” Shane explains, giving a cluster of kids a net to share. “What we’re going to do here is have you guys put the nets in the water and pull them back out so we can use our magnifying glasses to take a closer look at what, exactly, is swimming around.”
Steven gives a net to another cluster of kids. “We only have so many nets, so you’ll have to share with your classmates. And we’re going to ask that the teachers and chaperones help supervise the students while they’re dipping the nets in the water, just so no one falls in and tries to go swimming with the fish!”
The kids playfully whine about not being able to swim, but agree to stay on the dock or stick by a chaperone if they go off to explore other parts of the lake water.
Isaiah comes up to him with a bright blue dip net and an impressive set of puppy dog eyes. “Mr. Bergara, will you come hang out with us?”
Ryan feels his millionth helpless smile spread across his face. “Sure, kiddo. Lead the way.”
Isaiah pulls him along the dock to where his other friends are waiting, chattering excitedly about what they might be able to catch and find in the lake. Ryan dutifully supervises them as they take turns dipping the net into the water and inspecting it with their magnifying glasses, talking at length over whatever they find. At one point, Helene excitedly announces, “Look, Mr. B, you can see all the bacteria moving around just like the worms!” and Ryan, despite whatever disdain he has for insects, makes sure to enthusiastically respond with: “Woah, that’s super cool!”
He gives them any tidbits of information he can on water ecosystems, looks into their magnifying glasses when asked to do so, and generally has a blast hanging out with his kids. He even takes a turn dipping the net into the water, able to go out farther and a little deeper with his reach, and they nearly fall over themselves to get a look at what he pulls out of the water.
The sun eventually crawls into the center of the beautiful, clear sky, and they decide to break for lunch. The kids keep to their clusters when they spread out across the field to eat, parents find their kids and help them get their lunches ready, and Ryan finds himself sitting down in a little cluster with Andrew, Shane, and Steven while they all eat through their own lunches. Ryan takes his hat off for the occasion and tries not to feel ridiculous as he spruces his hair up and sneaks glances at Shane to see if he notices. He also gets a major kick out of watching Andrew do the same and Steven stare kind-of-covertly-but-mostly-obviously at the way his freed hair flops over onto his forehead.
“So,” Andrew starts conversationally, “how did you two end up as park rangers? We’re dying to know.”
“Well, how did you two end up as teachers?” Steven fires back, but then flashes Andrew his sweet smile. “I’m sure our answers won’t be that different.”
“Oh, Bergara and I definitely have the same basic teacher story,” Andrew confirms, hitting Ryan’s bent knee. “We both grew up in big families, we both have a knack for wrangling kids and giving them beneficial life lessons, blah blah blah. Getting into park ranging is much more fascinating.”
Ryan hits Andrew back. “He’s exactly right—nothing new or interesting to see here.”
Shane turns to Ryan and looks at him for a beat, before saying, with much more sincerity than one should be on the receiving end of without prior notice: “I can’t imagine there being anything uninteresting about you.”
While Ryan is trying to think of something witty to reply with that isn’t the vague outlines of a marriage proposal, Steven begins to delve into his backstory on becoming a park ranger.
“Shane and I have pretty similar stories to both of you and to each other, so maybe this meeting was destiny. I grew up in Ohio, which generally isn’t that great of a place to live, but my family and I spent several weekends exploring hiking trails and traveling around in the car to sightsee and visit national parks. I actually got lost on a trail when we visited Yellowstone one summer and a park ranger found me and told me all these amazing things about being a ranger to keep me calm on the ride back to our campsite. I think I was only like eight or ten, but I knew right away I wanted to be a park ranger when I grew up.” Steven spreads his arms, gesturing at the forest behind and the lake in front of them all at once. “And now here I am, doing exactly that. It really is the best job in the world.”
“That’s incredible,” Andrew says, smiling soppily at Steven. Ryan would be laughing if he wasn’t in danger of making the exact same face at Steven’s partner. “It’s awesome that you found your calling at such a young age. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do officially until I met Ryan and he led me to the light of teaching.”
“What he means,” Ryan clarifies, nudging Andrew again, “is that I saved him from a lifetime of meaninglessness via obtaining a business degree, and convinced him that he was meant to teach elementary-level kids about fractions and the Jurassic period instead.”
“A true bro in shining brarmor.”
Shane asks, clearly entertained by their behavior, “Were you two in a frat together? You’re giving off strong frat boy vibes.”
“Oh, absolutely not,” Andrew proclaims, looking both elated and disgusted at this implication. “We were nowhere near that cool. All we did in college was hang out with other teaching majors and drink lots of spiked lemonade and have weekend-long 80’s movie marathons with alarming frequency.”
“There were also many, many discussions of biblical and Greek myth allusions in modern literature, and why Jack Kerouac is a completely overhyped author for no good reason. All in between the drinking and our fifth run of Top Gun . Nothing to write home about.”
Shane seems ready to disagree, but Ryan is eager to hear his life story, to learn every single thing he possibly can within the short time he has with this enigma of a park ranger, and tries to flip the conversation back to him.
“What about you?” Ryan, feeling braver than usual, reaches out to tap on Shane’s badge. “How did you come to walk the walk and talk the talk?”
“Well, Steven was definitely right about us having pretty similar stories—I grew up in Illinois, so we’re just a generic pair of Midwestern boy scouts.” Even as Shane says this, Ryan can see the moment his face goes all warm and soft thinking about being a park ranger and what brought him there. “I spent all my time outside with my brother and cousins, and we’d just wander around the woods and down by the creek for hours and hours, coming up with games to play and different methods for catching fish, since our parents wouldn’t let us use fishing poles unsupervised until we were at least ten.”
Ryan, who also spent hundreds and hundreds of hours wandering around with his brother and cousins as a kid, finds himself smiling at Shane with the same kind of nostalgic fondness. “That was the best part of growing up—just going outside with everyone and finding random shit to do.”
“One hundred percent,” Shane insists, a truly beautiful grin taking over his face. This close up, Ryan can see the honeyed amber in his hazel eyes, and the freckles that are dotted across his nose and cheeks. “I can’t tell you how many hours I spent just trucking around the woods behind our house with my brother. Scott and I built an entire world back there, like Terabithia but without the traumatic plot twist.”
Andrew makes a wounded noise. “Dude. Not cool.”
Shane shuts his eyes for a few seconds, not long enough to make it obvious that he’s daydreaming but long enough for Ryan to undoubtedly see it, like there’s sunlight pouring straight from behind his grinning lips and his endearing crow’s feet. “I have family members up in Michigan that we’d visit in the summers, and I can remember all the sand dunes we chased each other across, all the waterfalls we just decided to get in the car and go look for, all the fish we’d catch in the lake my cousin’s family lived on—the outdoors is in my blood. Becoming a park ranger just seemed like a logical next step.”
Ryan knows he’s staring, but he can’t help it. He’s never seen someone talk about where they grew up with such an expression of love on their face. Like they’re talking about a person instead of a stretch of land and the rocks and rivers embedded into it.
“You loved growing up in the Midwest, didn’t you?”
“With my whole heart,” Shane replies, face like the sky itself. “Yeah, it’s got lots of corn, and yeah, it’s got Ohio, but the Midwest is gorgeous. It’s like living on an island full of nothing but hidden pockets inside of Wonderland.”
“Hey, leave Ohio alone,” Steven tells him, smacking Shane’s arm. “We’re trying our best.”
“Okay, Number Fifty.”
Andrew, in an attempt to make Steven fall in love with him, begins to tell him a story about a decent time (see: the best that one can have) he had in Ohio, so Ryan takes the opportunity to ask Shane the question that’s burning a hole in his pocket.
“So, I have to ask, just because I’m really curious—how come you moved out to California if you have such an attachment to the Midwest?”
“I almost didn’t,” Shane confesses, chewing thoughtfully on some grapes. “But my family and I all have the same wanderlust gene and ended up splitting off and going different places. My brother actually moved to Germany, and a lot of my cousins are scattered around the U.S. and even up in Canada. I was planning on moving to some place like Wyoming, or maybe Oregon, but I chose to come out to California instead.”
“Any particular reason?”
At this, Shane shrugs, and says: “I’d never been anywhere like California before and wanted to give it a shot. I’m always looking for new places to explore, and California’s terrain and atmosphere are wildly different from little ol’ Illinois, so I thought it would be a good way to challenge myself.”
“What’s your review? Better than Illinois, worse than Ohio?”
“Anywhere is better than Ohio,” Shane laughs, and then laughs harder when Steven smacks him again without missing a beat of his and Andrew’s conversation. “I’ll always love Illinois the most, but California’s been really great. It’s so much different than I thought it would be in the best way possible. The Midwest is like a hundred pockets of Wonderland, and California is like waking up from a dream for the first time.”
The way Shane talks about the outdoors and all the places he’s been makes Ryan’s chest hurt, both from feeling the same ache of love for California that Shane speaks of, and from wondering if Shane will be gone from here before Ryan can think to ask what Michigan’s summers look like, or Illinois’ autumns.
Against better judgement, Ryan inquires, “How long does your wanderlust keep you in place somewhere?”
“Oh, I’ve been in California for a few years now. The wanderlust doesn’t really make me want to move to new places often, just go visit them and come back home when I’m done.” He stops for a moment, a long moment where Ryan waits for him to keep talking, waits to cling to any sliver of Shane Madej’s secrets and dreams. Then he says, while looking directly at Ryan in a way that feels more on purpose than for polite conversations’ sake, “I’m not in any rush to leave. California is full of many beautiful sights that I haven’t gotten the chance to fully take in yet.”
Ryan swallows, hope fluttering in his ribcage like a light-hungry moth. “Beautiful, huh?”
And Shane’s eyes, two golden discs, two gems of timeless amber, the sun and moon respectively, are all light when he confirms: “Absolutely breathtaking.”
Ryan says nothing for another long moment, mildly overwhelmed by the fuckin’ Romeo of pioneers he just happened to meet on some random day in October, and on a class field trip of all things. He thinks long and hard about offering to show Shane those beautiful sights, maybe even one that is located somewhere in his apartment, down the hall from the front door and to the right, and thinks long and hard about saying that Shane is one of the most beautiful sights to see in all of the state. But, remembering that he’s still at work, and that Shane is also still at work, he simply clears his throat and knocks their water bottles together in a wordless ‘Cheers, dude.’
“If you want to move something to the top of your list, I highly suggest driving upstate to Sleepy Hollow State Park before the month is out. They’ve got amazing trails to walk where all you can see for miles is the leaves changing. And they have a Headless Horsemen statue at the front gates to the park for your entertainment.”
“Thanks for the recommendation,” Shane says, still with that subtle fire in his eyes and voice. “I’ll check it out.”
Ryan spends the rest of their lunch hour trying not to act like he’s in elementary school as well, but between the hair touching, the ridiculous giggling, and the googly eyes he definitely makes at Shane, he absolutely fails. He’s too embarrassed to even think about succumbing to the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ rule of thumb, and based on the way Andrew keeps finding excuses to push at Steven’s shoulder or make a fool of himself to make Steven laugh, it seems he’s not doing much better.
Their friends are going to eat them alive when they get back to school.
The remainder of their hike goes by even faster than the first half of it did, much to Ryan’s displeasure. Shane and Steven spend the last hour and a half talking to the students about ways to keep both themselves and the wildlife around them safe whenever they’re out in the woods. Shane emphasizes the great importance of steering clear of animals like bears and mountain lions and preventing forest fires, especially while living in California. Steven gets to have his fun over teaching the kids which plants are safe to eat and which plants will make them sick if ingested, and includes a throwback to the beginning of their hike into the conversation.
“Before we started our walk, Mr. Ilnyckyj thought it would be funny to joke about eating some of the berries here that will make you really sick. I bet he’s changed his mind about that now, yes?”
Andrew looks properly chastised, for his kids and Steven, when he replies, “I do sincerely apologize for joking about that. Kiddos, it’s always best to be honest about when you eat something that is dangerous or made you sick, so that someone like Steven can help you out. Especially if it’s someone so knowledgeable about the thing you might have eaten.”
It’s hard to tell, with the blinding sunlight and the shade that Steven’s ranger hat casts over his face, but Ryan thinks his cheeks might be turning red at Andrew’s subtle compliment.
They continue forward, Shane talking about how to spot poison ivy plants and what exactly happens when bears hibernate for the winter, Steven talking about the best remedies to treat poison ivy if contracted and why birds fly south for the winter. Ryan hates that the wonder of the hike has now been slightly dampened by the fact that he never wants it to end but knows it’ll be over in no time at all. He puts on a brave face when they stop to listen to some birds calling out to each other, and while Steven whispers to the kids about it being a pair of mourning doves trying to project their location, Shane swoops down to whisper in Ryan’s ear that they’re actually flirting heavily with each other and will probably be married by the end of the season. The rich, humored sound of his voice makes Ryan’s blood sing sweeter than the mourning doves’ trilling. But when he follows it up with the fact that mourning doves mate for life, a bond that can even extend beyond death for the surviving bird, Ryan can’t look directly at him for fear of what will come out of his mouth if he does. Watching Shane walk away to the front of the line again after hearing the soft way he spoke of the doves’ devotion to each other is like stepping into a body of water and immediately sinking to the bottom.
And then, after walking for a few more minutes, Shane and Steven both reminding the kids that it’s important to protect the wild throughout their lives if they want to keep the planet healthy, they’re back at the beginning. When they step through a large thicket of trees, similar to the one they walked through at the start of the hike, Ryan catches sight of their school bus and tries to keep the obvious disappointment off of his face.
“All righty, kids,” Shane says, sounding exactly like a Midwestern dad. “That’s it for the nature walk today! Did you have lots of fun and learn lots of cool facts?”
The students all practically scream from how excited they are to let Shane and Steven know how much they enjoyed their hike. It makes them both grin, a pair of smiles that stretch across their whole faces and up into their eyes, and makes Ryan’s heart ache desperately.
“We’re glad you all had a great time,” Steven assures them. “Be sure to go home and tell your parents all about your walk and the things you saw on it, okay?”
The kids reply with another scream and take some time to individually thank Shane and Steven for being “the super coolest” before lining up for roll call. Andrew gets his kids on the bus first again, and then Ryan, and then the parents are thanking the park rangers before getting on the bus, too.
Andrew seems as reluctant to separate from their guides as Ryan is, if his lackluster, “We better go say goodbye to just graduated college and been walkin’ the trails since TVs were only in black and white before they think we’re trying to sneak off,” is anything to go by. They approach Shane and Steven last, who are both waiting for them with twin looks of calm acceptance, the opposite of the feeling pushing up against Ryan’s sternum.
“Well,” Shane starts, almost making it sound like Welp! “I’d call that a successful nature walk. We had a great time today.”
Steven says, “Your kids are great. We’ve had lots of groups come through here, and very few of them have been as well-behaved and engaged as yours.”
Ryan is absurdly touched by this statement. “Thank you, Steven—that means a lot for both of us to hear.”
“Yeah, thank you so much,” Andrew agrees, sounding just as touched. “We both really appreciate a vote of confidence like that.”
Shane laughs at their awed tones. “That really can’t come as a surprise to either of you. You’re fantastic teachers, and we can tell your kids adore you. That does wonders for your classroom attitude and the way your kids receive and interact with learning situations like this. We’d love to have your classes come back at any time.”
Andrew extends his hand to Shane, who shakes it warmly. “Most definitely. You guys are also incredible teachers and we learned just as much as our students. We’ll definitely be bringing our classes back here in the future!”
Ryan takes Steven’s hand while Andrew and Shane are shaking theirs. “Thanks so much for agreeing to the nature walk today and for teaching our kids so much. They had a blast, and I bet they’ll want to do more field trips like this whenever we can convince our principal to let us. You two are fantastic at what you do.”
“You’re welcome any time,” Shane promises, and then they’re holding hands again, moving them up and down in a convincing shake, and Ryan is trying to rapidly memorize the calluses on his fingers and the warmth of his palm, and he kinda sorta suspects that Shane’s thumb just brushed carefully over his pulse point but he can’t say for sure. “Just give Ms. Viv a call and set ‘er up.”
“We’ll let the school know.” The four of them stare at each other for another beat, Ryan trying to take his fill of the gold and earth in Shane’s eyes without making it weird, Andrew clearly wanting to reach out and hold Steven’s hand again, before Ryan takes a deliberate step towards the bus. “Thanks again for everything, guys. We hope to come back really soon.”
“Please do,” Steven says, his gaze following the line of Andrew’s back as it turns on him. “And get home safe!”
“Thanks, you too!” Ryan feels Andrew sling a friendly arm around his shoulders, a signal and a pillar of support all at once, and gets one last fill of Shane’s freckled cheeks and honeyed eyes and his brilliantly white teeth peeking out from behind his smiling mouth before he turns away for good.
Once on the bus, they check in with their students to make sure everyone is good to go and collapse in the front seat together to head back to school. As they’re pulling out of the parking area, the kids gather by the windows to wave to Shane and Steven and call out to them, and Shane and Steven wave back with those same face-splitting grins on their faces. They make sure to wave at Ryan and Andrew, who both wave back like they’re riding off to their executions.
When the bus is officially on the road, Ryan sinks back into the seat and lets out a quiet sigh.
“Me too,” Andrew mutters, low enough for just them. “You get the feeling that we just made the biggest mistake of our lives, leaving them there?”
“Oh yeah,” Ryan mutters back, amused and maudlin and so, so forlorn. “I don’t know if I believe in love at first sight, but I think I believe in it enough.”
Andrew tips his head onto the seat, and then looks over, face full of the same wry amusement as Ryan’s. “They were literally the most down-to-Earth guys we’ve ever met and we just let them go, Bergara. We’re the worst.”
“We were there on business,” Ryan reminds him. “But I agree. Several mistakes were made today.”
Andrew releases a long breath, pressing their shoulders together. Ryan faces the front again and presses back, trying to wind down from the best five hours of his life thus far.
“It’ll work out,” Andrew insists, soft but confident all the same. “The universe wouldn’t be cruel enough to lead us to those two and then take them right back. We’ll see them again, and it’ll be off the clock this time, so I can make it very clear how beautiful Steven Lim is in his park ranger uniform and when he laughs at my stupid jokes.”
Ryan hopes and prays and wishes with everything inside of him when he repeats: “It’ll work out.”
Their coworkers don’t get the chance to properly ask them about it until the following afternoon, when the students are out for the day and they’re all waiting to start a faculty meeting.
“So, how was your field trip?” Annie asks, mostly genuine but also in a way that indicates how ready she is for any and all disastrous tales. “We’re curious to know if anyone broke a bone or tried to take a bobcat home as a new pet.”
Ryan, full of righteously earned pride, tells her: “It went fantastically, thanks so much for asking, Ms. Jeong.”
Andrew, however, folds immediately. “The tour guides ruined our lives.”
“The park rangers?” TJ clarifies, taken aback. “Were they mean old geezers? A couple of know-it-all twenty year olds?”
“Worse,” Andrew cries, putting his head into his hands. “They were two beautiful men our age who ate lunch with us and told us our kids were great as a result of us being great with them.”
There’s a moment of stunned silence, and then Sara drawls: “Ohhhh, so you two majorly fucked up, huh?”
“Yes,” Andrew simply says, miserable, and then their friends turn to look at Ryan for confirmation.
“It’s not that bad,” he tries, but at Curly’s knowing expression and Jen’s satisfied smirk, finds that there’s nothing else to do but tell the truth. Ryan deflates and also puts his head in his hands, ready for the sweet release of death, or maybe moving to the east coast. “Okay, it’s that bad. They let the kids play with worms and one of them named his pet catfish Pringles because of his mustache. We’re both in love with two tall ass park rangers against our entire wills.”
“Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you in your time of suffering,” Annie says, audibly thrilled by their bad luck. “We’re here for you both.”
“What I really need,” Andrew announces, “is for Steven Lim to become my lawfully wedded husband within the next twenty four hours.”
Sara makes a sympathetic noise. “Ah, I'm afraid we can’t do much about that. What we could do, though, is publicly shame you and take great pleasure in your sorrows and regrets. That’s basically the same thing, right?”
“Where’s Daysha?” Ryan asks. “I’m submitting my two weeks ASA-fucking-P.”
Curly says, “Oh, she’s actually finishing up a report on how wonderfully your field trip went for the meeting today. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to hear about your additions when we get to that later on.”
Under his breath, Andrew begins to badly hum the tune of “Amazing Grace” while Ryan thinks long and hard about fleeing into the forest and never returning, since he now has all sorts of knowledge about poisonous berries and bird calls in his life skills repertoire. Unfortunately, before he can act on this plan, Daysha sweeps into the room with the front office staff and the meeting begins without further delay. Her presence doesn’t prevent their colleagues from shooting them smug smiles during the chat about the field trip, and when they all snicker at Andrew’s: “It was a great time, we’d love to take the kids back in the near future,” Ryan vows to fill all of their desks with water balloons and fake beetles. He thinks about it hard enough that he doesn’t even have the opportunity to accidentally tell all of his coworkers about how attractive Shane Madej was when talking about worms regrowing their tails or mourning doves mating for life.
Ryan doesn’t last a week before heading back out to Wildthorn Nature Center all by himself. It’s the Saturday following the field trip, and the early morning sun and cloudless sky feels like as good an omen as any to try his luck. He likes Andrew’s sentiments about fate and meeting the guys again sometime soon, but Ryan handles his hopes and desires best by taking direct control of them. And there’s something about Shane Madej that makes him hope desperately, makes him want to grab Shane Madej with both hands and hold onto him if he can.
He heads into the Welcome Center when he gets there, dressed in casual hiking gear and with a much smaller bag across his shoulders. Vivian is puttering around behind the desk again, but there’s no sign of Shane or Steven, and Ryan tries not to notice when his heart sinks all the way down.
“Hi there,” she says, brightening further when she notices it’s Ryan. “Mr. Bergara, right? Already coming back for seconds?”
“Just Ryan is fine, Ms. Viv,” he tells her, smiling widely. “And I thought it’d be great to take the trail in without having to supervise forty kids at the same time.”
“I hear your kids were terrific on the walk, so I hope it was still enjoyable for you.”
“Oh, absolutely. The rangers were great, and the kids and I had a great time. But there’s nothing quite like a long walk by yourself through the woods, you know?”
“Absolutely,” she repeats, sliding a map over to him. “Just in case you get turned around, honey. I hope you have a good hike this morning.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that! I hope you have a great rest of your day!”
With one more grin and a wave, Ryan heads out of the Welcome Center and to the trail they took on the field trip. When he steps through the thicket of trees, the sunlight dimming and the sound of the outside world going with it, he feels the general stress of the week melt away into instant bliss. It’s true that he adores his students, and had a fantastic time on the nature walk with them, but there really is nothing more serene than hiking through a beautiful forest alone with his thoughts and nothing else.
Not having to watch over forty kids and not having Shane Madej distracting him in between gives Ryan plenty of time to survey the woods as he hikes. He gets to take in the gorgeous jewel tones of the changing leaves, the sharp scents of dirt and dewey vegetation, and all of the sounds the forest makes that fill the silence: the wind pushing through the leaves, the muffled thud of his feet padding along the trail, the sound of mourning doves cooing at each other. Ryan realizes that it’s been a long time since he went on a hike by himself and just took a moment to appreciate one corner of his life that always brings peace when everything else is hectic or roaring by. It heals most of the disappointment of missing Shane at the Center and brings plenty of tranquility.
He reaches the lake quickly again, lost in the haze of his own thoughts and the wonderland of Wildthorn’s forest. The first thing he does is take a seat on the sun-warmed dock where they saw Pringles swim by to see if he can catch the fish again. It takes some time, but Pringles must be attuned to knowing when there are humans nearby, because he eventually putters by and swims a few circles in front of Ryan before disappearing again. Then he remembers the drip nets and heads over to the shed they’re kept in to see if they’re available for public use. He finds no lock, and that the door creaks open without protest, so he snags one of the nets and a spare magnifying glass they must keep in case a kid forgets theirs.
Feeling absurdly happy at the prospect of dip netting (despite the less than desirable organisms he knows he’ll pull out of the water), Ryan loses track of how many times he sticks the net in the water and examines it. He finds the usual suspects, like the ones all of his students showed him, but puts the net in over and over again just to see what happens.
At one point, Ryan thinks that he might be able to get a new sample with his adult reaching ability, and hooks a hand around one of the dock’s wooden beams so that he can lean out farther across the water. He’s going as deep as he dares, knees balanced precariously on the edge of the dock, when he suddenly hears a voice call out:
“You digging for gold over there?”
Ryan startles and jerks forward, way too far over the side of the dock, so far that he’s in immediate danger of falling into the water if he doesn’t regain his balance. He yells something nonsensical and holds onto the beam for dear life, trying to pull himself back upright, and feels the pound of the stranger’s feet vibrating across the dock as they hurry to him.
A pair of big, strong hands wrap around Ryan’s ribs and haul him backwards, so that he ends up on his ass in an unattractive sprawl. He looks up to either thank the stranger or tell them to sincerely go fuck themselves for scaring him, but stops when he sees that it’s Shane. He’s dressed to the nines in his park ranger uniform, is still unfairly beautiful for someone wearing khaki and army green, and he is also trying not to laugh and failing spectacularly.
When Ryan calmly states, “You’re a piece of shit, Shane Madej,” Shane bursts into loud peals of laughter, a similarly beautiful sound that echoes out across the lake. It only takes Ryan a few seconds to break, and then he’s laughing, too, settling back onto his palms in delayed relief at not falling into the water.
“I’m sorry,” Shane says, once he catches his breath. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Yes you did.”
He concedes, “Okay, maybe a little. You just looked like you were trying to find Captain Hook’s treasure out in that there lake and I had to come investigate. It’s part of the job.”
“What, tricking people into falling in the lake for your amusement?”
“That, and then rescuing them afterwards,” Shane says, winking. It should look ridiculous, but it makes heat curl in Ryan’s gut, underneath the lingering adrenaline.
“Do you often sneak up on unsuspecting citizens of the trail and try to rescue them from a trap of your own creation?”
“I don’t kiss and tell, Mr. B.”
He holds out one of his big, strong hands and Ryan takes it, letting Shane pull him to his feet. Like before, when Shane helped him stand up after giving the kids a lecture on earthworms, his touch lingers, doesn’t immediately drop from Ryan’s like he thought it might once he’s upright. They look at each other for a while, Ryan relearning the flecks of gold in Shane’s eyes, and Shane’s eyes lingering on the lack of safari explorer clothes Ryan is wearing, before Shane asks, much like Vivian, “Decided to come out for another walk all by your lonesome?”
“Yeah, I wanted to see what the experience would be like without corralling forty children who all like to pick up worms and dare each other to touch morel mushrooms.” Ryan smiles, surfacely casual but otherwise flirty as hell. “I love my kids to the moon and back, but there’s something magical about this place when you can just be alone with your thoughts. And when one of the park rangers scares you, and you almost fall into the lake trying to catch crawdads and become BFFs with Pringles the catfish.”
“I am sorry about that,” Shane says, this time with much more sincerity. “But I’m glad you had a nice hike this morning by yourself. And that you’re becoming close with Pringles—he could use more friends.”
“He’s a cool dude, just like his first BFF. Except for his habit of endangering visitors in Pringles’ neck of the woods.”
Ryan punctuates this with a friendly shove at Shane’s chest, which is just an excuse to touch him more and see if it’s welcomed and/or he can get away with it. The way that Shane’s hold tightens on his hand says yes, as does the way he shifts closer to Ryan, so that he’s basically towering over him, so that Ryan has to tip his head back to meet his eyes.
“You know,” Shane starts, surfacely casual but otherwise flirty as hell, “I’m thinking of initiating a rule where every time a California lily such as yourself comes out on a hike, they should personally assign one of us rough and tough Midwestern park rangers to walk with you and make sure you don’t get into any trouble.”
Ryan snorts. “Are you offering to be mine?”
“I would be honored,” Shane professes, free hand coming up to cover his heart.
“Well that’s too damn bad, because us ‘California lilies’ can take care of ourselves. And you’re the one who got me into trouble in the first place!”
Shane laughs again, a sound that is softer than before but no less beautiful to hear. “I hate to break it to you, Mr. Bergara, but you definitely set yourself up for trouble today. It was just a matter of time before you got too excited trying to catch something in the lake and accidentally went in after it.”
“Bullshit,” Ryan insists, but then says, “I guess I better thank you for saving me anyways, since it kept me from being soaking wet for the next two hours. Even if you were the cause of my near-demise.”
Shane leans down closer, drops his voice when he asks, “I said I was sorry. Are you ever going to let it go?”
“I don’t know,” Ryan teases, and then, feeling braver by the second, strokes a finger over the soft skin of Shane’s wrist. “Something just doesn’t sit right with me about a park ranger nearly drowning one of the innocent hikers on his trail, and then trying to blame the hiker for it.”
“All I want is some accountability for your actions, nothing more, nothing less.”
“I find that very hard to believe.”
“Okay,” Ryan agrees, breath catching when Shane steps even closer to him. “Maybe I want a little more groveling, too.”
Shane shakes his head, but he’s still fighting a grin, the follow-up statement of ‘You’re unbelievable’ going unsaid but not unheard. “If you want to file a complaint about my ranger skills resulting in your near-demise, you can have a chat with Ms. Viv about that at the Welcome Center on your way out.”
“Perfect. Consider it done.”
“As far as the groveling goes, I’m not sure what exactly you’re looking for from me here.”
The tension between the two of them surges tangibly. It pulses from where their hands are joined, and where Ryan’s chin is nearly propped up against Shane’s collarbones, and where their mouths would touch if he leaned up on the balls of his feet or Shane leaned down just a few extra inches. Feeling overwhelmed in a good way, and like being a little shit until the end, Ryan bats his eyelashes and says, “I hear getting on your knees is a good place to start.”
Shane makes a low noise, maybe a groan, maybe a growl. He replies: “Call it outdoorsmans' intuition, but I have a strong suspicion that you’re going to be the death of me, Ryan Bergara,” and then he slides his free hand into the back of Ryan’s windswept hair, and stoops down and kisses him right on the mouth. It’s hot and sweet and absolutely perfect, something that has felt inevitable from the second they shook hands and Shane called him Bear Grylls, from the second Shane blew all of his kids’ minds with fun facts about earthworms and petoskey stones and bluegills. Ryan pushes into it greedily, empty hand clenched into the perfectly ironed material of Shane’s field shirt, the hand still caught in Shane’s pulling him closer, closer, closer, until Shane eventually backs him up into the railing of the dock and kisses him some more.
His lips are just as sweet as the words and the laugh that often come from them, and Ryan, in between licking into his mouth and thinking nefarious thoughts of Shane getting onto his knees for one reason or another, gives himself a mental fist bump for planning the field trip that led him to this moment.
And when they lean away from each other to breathe, Ryan makes sure to let him know, “Actually, I think I should be the one saying that you’re going to be the death of me, since that almost just came true.”
“You are relentless,” Shane says, giving him another scorching kiss. “I think that you should let me take you to dinner tonight, if you’re free. Consider it compensation for the emotional turmoil I’ve apparently put you through.”
“That’s an acceptable starting point,” he agrees, pulling out his phone. While Shane is programming in his number, Ryan studies the spatter of freckles across his nose and the slick, bruised look to his mouth that Ryan caused and does his best to remember that they’re still, technically, in public, and Shane is still, technically, on the job. Looking at the way Ryan has also wrinkled his immaculate field shirt does nothing to help. “If you include dessert in this deal, I won’t file a report with Vivian.”
Shane gives Ryan his phone back by sliding it directly into the pocket of his joggers, eyes like the gold Ryan was supposedly fishing for in Lake Opal. His voice is humored and rough when he suggests, “What if I told you we should go stargazing afterwards so I can say that no star will ever compare to the constellations in your eyes?”
Ryan laughs wildly, so absolutely and totally enamored by this park ranger and his surprisingly smooth game. “That’s on your knees material right there, sir. Take note.”
“Well, in that case,” Shane begins, and then says: “I actually know all sorts of facts about constellations and how to find your way home using the North Star, so we could be out stargazing all night if we wanted to squeeze in some on your knees time—”
Ryan yanks him back into a kiss, one that is full of too much teeth from them both laughing and is horribly, terribly sloppy and messy and the most wonderful thing that he has ever felt in his life. While Shane presses him back into the dock railing and proceeds to wreck his shit, Ryan thinks to himself: Shane Madej is absolutely going to be the death of me, and then thinks: Shane Madej is absolutely going to be the best thing that ever happened to me.