A slightly extended version of the camping chapter from Liesmith, that ended up getting cut from the full book for length reasons. But I still like it, so here it is!
Friday saw Sigmund stepping out of Dad’s car onto the grass outside LB, carrying his tent and sleeping bag and flashlight and Swiss army knife and towel and compass and mosquito repellant and sunscreen and Jesus, Dad. I’ll be okay. It’s only for the weekend.
Except Dad had been so excited about it all. More excited than Sigmund, even. So Sigmund hadn’t had the heart to say anything.
Which was why here he was, standing on the lawn, weighted down with ten million packs like a huge nerd while everyone else was standing around clutching small gym bags.
“Sig! Hey, you’re here. Woah. You brought some stuff.”
And, suddenly, there was Lain. All freckles and bright copper hair, gleaming under January sun. Cool shirt and skinny jeans and one too-hip duffle.
“Uh,” said Sigmund, feeling like the world’s most influential loser. “Yeah.”
But Lain just smiled his bright smile and said, “Here. Let me take some of that.” And began helping himself to Sigmund’s burdens. Sigmund decided not to stop him and so, when the bus rolled up, the both of them were more-or-less equal in the shouldering of bags stakes.
Sigmund hated bus trips. They threw the luggage in underneath, then found a free seat somewhere near the back. Lain sliding in next to Sigmund, grinning and unperturbed, trendy-ugly sunglasses obscuring half his face.
“Free day off work,” he said. “Cool, huh?” His thigh was warm where it brushed against Sigmund’s.
Sigmund–whose stomach felt like a writhing pit of snakes–still managed part of a smile. “Yeah,” he said, trying not to think of kitchens or Katia. “Cool.” Did straight guys think about the warmth of each other’s thighs?
Lain’s grin split open into rows of shark-white teeth. “Still not convinced?”
“No computer, no internet, no showers,” Sigmund said.“For three days.” He grimaced, pushing all non-camping-related thoughts away for later. Or never.
“Aw, c’mon,” Lain said. “You’ve got your phone, right? There’ll still be reception.”
“Yeah, maybe. For the, like, ten minutes until the batteries die.”
They weren’t going very far. Just out to Woolridge Reserve, about an hour’s drive. There was a camp ground there. A river, some rocks, some bush. Nothing too threatening. Except emus, maybe. Sigmund hated emus. And mosquitoes. And flies. Probably redbacks too. Maybe funnel-webs. Did they get funnel-webs out this way? Sigmund didn’t know. Then there were the snakes. Browns, taipans, red-bellied blacks… he didn’t know if all those were local, either. He was sort of hoping to keep it that way.
Fuck. They were all gonna die.
The bus lurched to life. Between Lain’s warmth and his smile and thoughts of the poisoned fangs of death incarnate, Sigmund already felt like throwing up.
A fist connected with his shoulder. Playful, not violent. “Hey, man,” Lain said. “Relax. It’ll be fun.”
Sigmund exhaled, looking down to where his hands were busy fumbling in his lap. “Sorry. I’m just… kinda a buzzkill.”
Lain shrugged. “Nah,” he said. “You’re doing this for your dad. That’s cool. Making the old man proud and all.”
“Yeah,” said Sigmund. “I guess.” Then remembered Lain was, like, an orphan or a runaway or whatever, and the only family member he ever talked about was dead. So maybe Sigmund should try and be less of a spoilt, moping brat. Appreciate what he had and all. “I, uh. Dad took it pretty hard when Mum died,” he said. “So it’s just the two of us, you know?” The two of them, and the company. Dad’s only other love.
“I’m sorry, man,” Lain said, and meant it. “Did you, ah…?” He trailed off, as if suddenly unsure of the topic of conversation.
Sigmund got the question a lot, though. He knew what it was. Awkward, but better than warping himself into a panic over Lain’s romantic intentions (or lack thereof), so:
“I was pretty young,” he said. “And most of that Mum was in and out of hospital, meaning I don’t really remember her.” He tried something like a smile, but didn’t get one in return. “That makes me sound like such a dick, doesn’t it? Like I don’t care my mum is dead. But, I mean… I never knew her, you know? It was always just Dad. Mum was… she was like this sword hanging over Dad’s head the whole time. This thing he couldn’t get rid of, even after she died, and—” Sigmund stopped himself, teeth clicking shut, too-loud, even against the rumble of the bus. “Sorry. You didn’t need to hear that. I’m… I’m just a douche. Ignore me.”
Lain was silent for a moment. “My brother was an asshole,” he said finally. “Manipulative, selfish motherfucker. And I loved him. More than— Enough to give up everything, just because he asked. And he did. All the time. And I adored him for it. But I’m glad he’s gone. And I wouldn’t want him back.”
Sigmund nodded, bit his lip. It wasn’t the same, because nothing ever was. But… it was something.
“Feelings are hard,” he said when the silence began to itch.
Lain laughed at that, a sharp little razor to excise the choking angst. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, they are.” Then he shifted, and his thigh was gone. Sigmund’s skin felt colder for its absence.
The rest of the trip, they mostly discussed video games.
The Friday, Sigmund had to admit, was not terrible.
As far as civilization went, the campground wasn’t that far from it: a wide flat space of grass nestled within the trees, buildings and barbecues ringed around the edge. There was a shower block, a squat and ugly relic from the 70s, but walking into it didn’t make Sigmund fear for his health.
“See,” said Lain, “this isn’t too bad. Look, there’s even electricity. You can charge your phone.”
Sigmund thought he was going to have to fight off the rest of the IT department to do so. But it was still nice to have the option.
The first thing involved gathering in the hall for the Welcome To The Annual LBIT Retreat induction speeches. Some way too-fit and too-perky-looking course coordinators in bright blue hats smiled at them so much Sigmund’s own teeth started aching. Then they threatened the group with fun and team building, and also workplace safety regulations, and Sigmund leant over to ask Lain when the Kool-Aid was being distributed. That got him a grin and an elbow in the ribs, but also a choked laugh out of Dean from Storage.
The first “team building” activity, as it turned out, was to find a buddy or group of buddies with whom to share accommodations, which was easy. The second activity was to swap tents.
“I assume you all know how to put up your own tents,” said Perky Hat Lady Lisa. “So what I want everyone to do, if you’ve got a tent, is to line up here. Two-person tents, three, four, six… anyone over six?”
Everyone shuffled into position with the apathetic obedience of office workers. Sigmund ended up tent-swapping with Loi from Networking.
“Sorry man,” he said. “I think dad bought this surplus from World War II. I hope it doesn’t fall down on you.”
Loi grinned, hefting the enormous canvas bag. “Well, I only bought mine the other day,” he said. “If it comes back with stains, I’m sending you the receipt.”
Sigmund made it halfway back to Lain before it occurred to him he’d maybe just been… insulted? Or something?
He decided not to think about it, instead rescuing Lain from the attentions of three girls from Service Desk. They all sighed and looked at Sigmund wistfully when he approached, and maybe he tried not to think too much about that, either.
Then he and Lain found a likely patch of grass, and stared at each other.
“So,” Sigmund said. “You know how to do this?”
“Not a fucking clue,” Lain confessed. “Google?”
In the end, it wasn’t that difficult, thanks to the magic of instructional videos. The worst part was trying not to giggle every time someone said the word “erect” because, yes. Apparently they both still had a level of emotional maturity below that of schoolchildren on YouTube. When everything was done, they crawled inside to make their beds.
“Wow,” Sigmund’s mouth said, before his brain could stop it, “it’s kinda cosy, hey?” Two-person tents. Not exactly spacious, as it turned out.
Lain shook out his sleeping bag, smoothing big hands across the fabric. “Well,” he said, “if it makes you feel better, I don’t sleep much. So mostly it’ll be all you in here.”
It was supposed to be reassuring, but really it just made Sigmund feel like the world’s biggest jackass. Because it was a lie, and because what if everyone was right and Lain really was… a little bit Stephen Fry? And what if he now thought Sigmund was a homophobic jerk, as opposed to just a dorky loser? Sigmund should probably say something about that, right? Something cool and charming, like the sort of thing Lain would say if it were him, except of course it never would’ve been him because he was, well. Cool and charming. Unlike Sigmund. Except by the time Sigmund looked up to open his big loser mouth, Lain was already shuffling backwards out the tent door. Flap. Whatever.
Sigmund hurried to follow, just in case Lain was, like, upset or something. By the time he’d wormed his own way out, Lain was standing, hands on hips, peering down. The sun caught in his hair and turned it into a crown of flame around his shadowed face.
“I think,” he said, “that we need a rule.”
“Oh?” said Sigmund’s traitor mouth and, Jesus, Lain was kinda tall. He didn’t seem like the type—some people didn’t, something about personality or posture, maybe—but Sigmund thought the guy had to be over six feet at least.
And Lain said: “No shoes in the tent.”
“Right. If you’re going in the tent, shoes come off. Otherwise we’re gonna be sleeping in mud within an hour.”
“Oh,” said Sigmund. “Okay.” That sounded reasonable. Except his own shoes were totally still hanging over the threshold. So he dragged them out quickly, and stood up.
Lain grinned, punching Sigmund gently in the arm. “Cool,” he said, and it was.
The rest of the day was activities. If pressed—with a gun to his head, possibly while intoxicated—Sigmund might even have admitted to having some fun.
The first game was an icebreaker. Perky Hat Guy Brad handed out cards and pencils and told everyone to write down two true things about themselves, and one lie. The objective was to mingle, chat, then try and figure out which of their coworkers’ statements were which, all while obfuscating their own answers.
On his cards, Sigmund wrote:
My favorite color is green.
When I was a kid, I had a kangaroo for exactly one afternoon.
I can’t lie.
Strictly speaking, the last one was the “lie”. Sigmund could lie, he was just pathologically awful at it, with blushing and giggling the least of his problems. It gave him a headache, scratched at his soul. The same feeling he got when other people did it, except a thousand times worse, coming from the inside.
So he could do it. Just not very well.
Mingling time was downtime, questions Sigmund didn’t need to ask. Instead, he had fun watching everyone else scramble for clues and tells and answers. After about twenty minutes, they got called back to their seats for voting. Everyone read out their statements, then everyone else cast ballots as to which one was the lie. The best guesser, according to Perky Hat Lady Lisa, would win a handful of Fantales.
So would the best liar.
Sigmund was looking forward to his chewy chocolate-caramel Fantales. He was also looking forward to Lain’s statements. They hadn’t spoken at all during the icebreaker. Which was odd, now that Sigmund thought about it.
When it was his turn, Lain said:
“One: My parents are from Iceland. Two: I don’t know my birth name. Three: I’ve been married, and have kids.”
And what Sigmund thought was:
The first statement was the lie. Sigmund already knew that one. The second… okay. Maybe it made sense, given Lain’s somewhat-dodgy background. But the third…
Funny thing, but Sigmund didn’t really know how old Lain was. He’d sort of assumed early twenties, a la Sigmund himself, except that would be very young to be married, with children.
Or to have been married, because Lain had used the past tense. Not about his kids, though. Who he never spoke about. Nor his apparent ex-wife. (Husband? No, wait: kids.)
Most people voted number three for Lain’s lie, a couple more on number two. No-one chose one, because who would? It was right there in the guy’s notoriously unpronounceable surname, in his stories about hiking up the equally unpronounceable Mt. Eyjafjallajökull.
Sigmund voted number three. His mind itched from it, but it felt… He couldn’t admit to knowing the real answer.
When Lain sat back down, Sigmund was up. He read his questions, people voted. Everyone chose number three, much to the room’s amusement and Sigmund’s embarrassment. So much for mind games.
When Sigmund sat back down again, Lain winked at him. “Never play poker,” he suggested.
The rest of the room wasn’t nearly so interesting. Loi was scared of birds (Sigmund sympathized). Dean had once peed himself in front of the whole class in primary school. Hien had never seen Star Wars, but had seen Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home twenty-seven times. There was a lot of laughter, and blushing, and it was fun.
Then came the prizes. Sigmund could already taste the caramel.
“Right,” said Perky Hat Lady Lisa. “So we’ve done the adding up, and I’m afraid to say that, despite the two categories, we’ve only got one winner.” A general murmur of disbelief around the room, as she continued, “There is one person here who’s such a good liar that not a single one of you guessed his lie correctly. Yet he’s also so good at picking lies that he guessed every single one of yours right. Double 100% percent scores. So come up and get your double reward of Fantales, Lain!”
It felt like a punch in the gut. It shouldn’t have, but it did. Because Sigmund had known. He’d guessed wrong on purpose.
When the applause died down, Brad added, “Also special shout-out to our next best lie-guesser—though not lie teller—with only one wrong, and guess who’s?”— laughter in the room, Sigmund bit his lip —“So a big round of applause for Sigmund!”
He got his applause, and tried to be a good sport about it. But he still felt odd inside. Cheated. He’d lied on purpose. For Lain. He thought he’d been doing the right thing, but—
Sigmund blinked, turning to look at Lain. Lain, who didn’t look pleased with Sigmund’s near-victory at all.
“Why did you lie?” Lain asked, scowling.
“You know my folks weren’t born in Iceland. So why’d you get it wrong? You should’ve won that.”
Sigmund bit his lip, pushed his glasses up his nose. “I, uh…” Forgot would be the easy answer. It would also be a lie. So, instead, Sigmund blurted, “You have a wife and kids?”
For a moment, Lain’s face was… strange. Sharp somehow. Dark and alien in a way Lain’s face never was. Then he blinked, and it was gone.
“Had a wife,” he said. “She, uh. She died.”
“Oh.” Now who felt like a jerk? “I’m sorry.”
Lain nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I am too.”
“And… and the kids?” Maybe he shouldn’t ask, but…
“Complicated,” Lain said. “It, uh… it’s not a good thing.”
“I’m sorry,” Sigmund said again. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
Lain lifted one shoulder, then dropped it again. “I brought it up,” he said. “I guess I, uh. Guess I’m gonna be getting even more questions about it, now. Genius move, Elle.” He rolled his eyes. “But hey. At least I won Fantales.” He hefted his handfuls.
“They are pretty good,” Sigmund said, trying for a wry grin and maybe getting halfway. Then wondered if it sounded like he was angling to get some of Lain’s Fantales for his own. Which, truth be told, he totally was.
Pretty transparently, if Lain’s expression was anything to go by. “Here,” he said, handing Sigmund half his yellow-wrapped caramels. “Take them. They should be yours, anyway.”
Sigmund wasn’t sure about that—at best, he and Lain would’ve tied for the guessing round—but it was Fantales, so he wasn’t going to argue. “Thanks, man,” he said, and meant it.
They were reading each other quizzes from the wrappers, cheap toffee sticking in their teeth, when Lisa re-emerged to announce the next game: Mafia.
They were pretty badass at that one, too.
Tents, icebreakers, dinner. Then sitting around the campfire with his coworkers, nursing a beer, watching Lain tell more outrageous stories.
Maybe it was the day talking–Sigmund was tired from activities and muzzy from the beer–but there was something about Lain in the firelight. Something about the way his hair caught the glow, seemed to burn all on its own, loose curls dancing around cheekbones that were very high and very, very sharp. Lain’s skin was clear and smooth and freckled, and, just for a moment, Sigmund found himself wondering what it would feel like to touch. Warm, probably. And soft.
Lain really was terribly handsome.
Sigmund was staring, he knew he was. Eyes glassy while his mind danced like the flames, a strange and flickering heat, fueled by Lain’s easy grins and Katia’s office gossip and the width of a too-small tent.
Sigmund had seen Brokeback Mountain. He knew how these things went.
Except they didn’t.
The campfire burnt down and the crowds began to vanish. Sigmund followed—not the first to go, easily not the last–then spent a good twenty minutes fighting tinea in the shower block.
When he got back to it, the tent looked smaller than he remembered, cut in harsh chiaroscuro from the flashlight on Sigmund’s phone. He crawled inside, kicking his shoes off as he went, settling onto his bedroll and inside his sleeping bag.
Lain was still outside, entertaining. Sigmund could hear him, bright voice a muffled crackle, surrounded by the laughter of his audience.
Charming and handsome and popular. Katia had to be wrong. Otherwise Lain would be here, surely? Tucked in beside Sigmund, close enough for his heat to radiate through nylon and through down, eyes bright discs of green within the darkness.
It was easy to tell secrets, in the dark. Sigmund knew that from experience, from a hundred sleepovers with Em as kids, whispering things they’d never dare say under the sun.
He’d ask Lain The Question, voice barely a breath. Do you, y’know. Like like me?
Lain wouldn’t answer. Instead, he’d grin his sharp white grin, shifting a little closer as he said, Why? Do you, y’know. Like like me?
He wouldn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he’d lean closer, until his warmth ghosted across Sigmund’s lips, parted but not touching, waiting for Sigmund to close the distance and—
Sigmund’s eye shot open, fantasies blown open as the tent shook around him.
“Lain?” he called.
“Yeah,” came the voice. Outside, silhouetted against blue RipStop, Sigmund could make out Lain’s shadow, stumbling across the grass.
A second later, Lain’s head appeared inside the tent, grimacing. “Yeah. Yeah, I just, uh. I tripped over the ropes. Sorry. Did I wake you?”
Sigmund relaxed, propped up on his elbows. “Nah,” he said, since I was just fantasizing about kissing you was probably the wrong response. “Didn’t kick the tent down, that’s good.”
“Hah, yeah. It’s dark out there.” Lain crawled inside, just enough to rummage through his pack. “I’m gonna have a shower. I’ll try not to wake you up again.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Sigmund, settling back down.
Lain’s light disappeared, taking Lain with it. “Night, man,” he said as he went.
“Night,” said Sigmund, and tried to banish all thoughts of grins and kisses.
“Dude. Are you sure it’s this way? I think we’ve been here before.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Jesus.”
“Look, the map says… It says… Shit. There should be a trail just up here, and we might even be able to find it if the compass would just fucking work!” Sigmund shook the object in question. Ungently. The needle spinning and spinning and spinning and refusing to settle.
(think it’s broken. how the fuck does a compass break, anyway?)
Day two, Saturday. Sometime in the afternoon. Sigmund didn’t know when exactly because his fucking phone had run out of fucking batteries and all the other fuckers had been using the power outlets so Sigmund had decided to leave it back in the tent and then they’d gone on this fucking orienteering course and that had been hours ago except it felt like they’d been trekking around the fucking bush for fucking aeons and Sigmund had the fucking map except he could’ve sworn it’d stopped looking like any of their fucking surroundings way back and Lain was right that rock was totally familiar and—
“We’re fucking lost!”
“Yeah, man. I’ve been trying to tell you for—“
“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!”
“Dude. Calm down.”
Sigmund spun, and suddenly he was there. Right up in Lain’s face. Or, well. Underneath it. Because of course Lain was a fucking giant skinny motherfucker. “We’re lost. In the bush, Lain,” he said. “People die in the bush!” With the snakes and the spiders and the emus and the fact it was one hundred fucking million degrees in the shade. People died! Stupid fucking over-perky Lisa and Brad and their team-building orienteering death march bullshit and, Christ. Sigmund had gotten them lost. Because he couldn’t read a fucking map. Parading around all proud with his dad’s broken fucking compass like a big fucking bush expert. Like they were in press-M-to-display-the-minimap territory instead of the Really Fucking Real World where loser wannabe video game skills didn’t fucking apply.
“Sig, we’re not gonna die. We can’t be that far from camp…”
Except Lain didn’t believe that, and the lie taunted Sigmund’s already humiliated nerves. “We’ve been walking for hours. Who knows where we are!” Deeper and deeper into the fucking bush, like fucking idiots. Until the trees had closed in overhead and the ground looked like it hadn’t been walked on in a thousand years. “I don’t have my phone,” Sigmund added, “you don’t have your phone. We’re going to die.”
“You know,” Lain said, all stupid little sharp-toothed smirk, “people have been around a lot longer than phones. I think we can probably make it back without.”
Fucking smug-ass Lain I’m-So-Good-At-Fucking-Everything Laufeyjarson. “Fine,” snapped Sigmund, “you get us back, then.” And kinda… threw the map and compass Lain’s way.
“Woah. Sig. Sigmund! What’s gotten in to you?”
He was hot and tired and his feet ached and they would’ve been back by now if he wasn’t such a fucking failure at life, that’s what had gotten into him. Except he couldn’t exactly yell that at Lain in the middle of the bush. So Sigmund took the manly option, and stormed off instead. Because that was totally what they needed: Sigmund getting them even more lost because he was a stupid child who couldn’t read a fucking map and who’d been tromping them around in circles. Because he’d been too proud to admit to Lain it’d been a thing. Lain, who’d known it was happening, because of-fucking-course he had. Humoring Sigmund like a fucking—
It was about that time the ground dropped away.
One moment it was there, the next Sigmund’s foot broke through leaves and roots and twigs and onto absolutely nothing underneath.
And then gravity.
—agony, tearing down his arm, lancing through his shoulder, into his ribs.
“Give me your other hand!”
Sigmund blinked. Someone was yelling at him. Someone was yelling at him, his arm ached, and he was swinging. In mid air. Nothing below his feet.
He looked down.
Then… he didn’t.
“Sig? Your other hand, c’mon man!”
He looked up. And there was Lain. Half of Lain, his face and shoulders protruding through the leaves. One hand open and reaching forward, the other gripped tight around Sigmund’s wrist.
Lain had caught him. Sigmund had fallen off a fucking cliff and Lain had caught him.
“Yeah, I gotcha man,” Lain said. “But I need another hand here, okay?”
Moving felt… strange. Painful and thick. Slow. Like his limbs belonged to someone else.
He raised his hand. Lain grabbed it, then he pulled.
Later, it would occur to Sigmund to wonder how, exactly, Lain managed it. Sigmund wasn’t light. Lain wasn’t holding onto anything. He should’ve been dragged off the edge too, surely? But he wasn’t. He hauled Sigmund up instead.
Later, Sigmund would wonder. Not yet.
Not quite later enough yet, he was sitting on the ground, back against some huge wall of weathered rock.
“Jesus. Jesus fuck. Jesus. Fuck. Jesus…”
Someone had been saying that for a while. Using Sigmund’s voice.
“Fuck. We gotta— we gotta get back, man. The compass. Gotta get Dad’s compass. Get— get back to the camp. It’ll be dark, man. Gotta get…”
He’d stopped trying to stand. Every time he did, huge hands pushed him back down against the rock.
They were very, very strong, those hands. Very strong, and very big, and very gentle. Where they touched him, Sigmund felt hot enough to burn.
Lain’s hands, their owner sitting on his haunches nearby, like some skinny hipster bird. Watching Sigmund with eyes as green and endless as the forest.
A part of Sigmund knew what this was. He’d nearly died. This was shock. He’d felt it once before, when he was younger and had fallen off the monkey bars and snapped his arm. Just shock. It’d pass. Lain was here. Lain was A Good Guy. He’d saved Sigmund’s life. He’d make sure Sigmund didn’t do anything else mortally stupid.
“J-jesus. I nearly d-died.” Lain was getting kinda blurry. Almost like Sigmund was looking at him from underwater.
“Yeah,” said Lain. “Nearly. But I got you.”
“My arm h-hurts.”
“I bet it does.”
“I th-think it’s dis-dislocated.” He was having trouble moving his shoulder. When he touched the skin, it felt stiff and hot. And not Lain-hot. Lain-hot was nice. This was… not that.
“It’s not dislocated,” Lain said. “I should ice it, but…” His expression was strange, hands drumming against each other as if turning some difficult thing over in his mind.
“’S okay,” Sigmund said. “You d-don’t have a-any ice.” He couldn’t seem to make his voice stop shaking. Or his body.
Lain nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. I don’t have any ice.” It wasn’t a lie, exactly. But it did sound like maybe he was trying to convince himself.
“I’m p-pretty sure it’s disloc-dislocated, though.”
That got him the thin edge of a grin, then a sigh. Then Lain, turning around to sit beside Sigmund on the ground, back against the rock.
“I’m an id-idiot,” Sigmund said.
“Yeah. You are.” Sigmund could feel Lain’s warmth through his shirt. Even in the middle of summer, sitting next to Lain felt like sitting next to a bonfire.
“I got— got us lo-lost. ‘C-cause I was too pr-roud to— to admit…” Except his voice hitched, and the end of the sentence wouldn’t come.
Lain heard it anyway. “Yeah,” he said. “You did. And obviously you’re the first person ever in history to do something like that and should therefore feel hideously ashamed forever until the end of time.” Except he was grinning, and elbowed Sigmund gently in the ribs.
When Sigmund laughed, it was a wet and broken sound. “Oh god. I’m su-such a di-dick. We’re g-gonna die out h-here. You shou-should’ve let me fa-fall.”
Lain snorted. “If we’re gonna die,” he said, “we’re gonna die together. That way, I can eat you when we run out of Fantales. But I don’t think it’ll come to that. The Hat People will be searching for us. LB will sue the shit outta them if they lose its staff.”
“We’ll ru-run outta w-water. And dehydrate. Or get— get p-pecked to death by e-emus.”
“Mate, emus won’t come near me. I’m a redhead. They’re superstitious about that sort of thing. And there’s a stream not far back. I’ll go get us water when you’re done with your freak out.”
Sigmund laughed again. A gross explosion of snot and tears. “Je-jesus. Y-you have a smug-ass answer to ev-everything.”
“True,” said Lain, all sharp and bright and wild. “It’s kinda my thing.”
Sigmund bit his lip, then looked down. “And you— you know how to g-get us ba-back, too? D-don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Lain admitted. “More or less. We’re a bit further out than we should be, but… I’ve got a good sense of direction. If no one finds us tonight, we can start walking back tomorrow.”
Sigmund nodded, trying not to let shame swallow him whole. “I’m su-such a f-fucking idiot.”
“Hey.” Heat against Sigmund’s uninjured shoulder, and when he looked, Lain was very, very close. Hand on Sigmund’s bicep, strange gaze stripping Sigmund raw. “We’ve done that already. Time for something else, okay? Sig’s a cool guy. No talking crap about him.”
And then, because—despite Lain’s protestations to the contrary—Sigmund was and always would be a total loser, he heard himself say: “Are you hitting on me?”
“It’s just people at work say you like me, like, like like me, and I just thought we were kinda friends maybe, yeah? But they’re pretty convinced you’re gay—even if you were married—and that you like me and you’ve been hitting on me and I thought they were just gossiping, y’know, but I nearly died and you saved me and I kinda just wanna know… are you?”
Lain’s eyebrows had gotten very high, his eyes very wide. When Sigmund fell silent, Lain exhaled. Big and loud, puffed out cheeks and all. Then he lifted his hand, and moved away. Not far. Just… not right up in Sigmund’s personal space.
“I, uh. Maybe this isn’t the best time to be having thi—“
Lain was silent for a moment, then, “Yeah. Yeah, a bit. Does it bother you?”
“Yes!” Then, because that made him sound like a dick: “No! I mean, why would you? No-one ever… with me.” Let alone handsome cool-kid hipster types like Lain.
Lain, who snorted. “Ah, that’s not true, man. You’ve just conditioned yourself not to see it. But, trust me. They do.”
“Why? I don’t… I’m not…”
“You’re kind,” Lain said, “and funny, and smart—“
“—when I’m not falling into holes.”
“Well, we all have off days.” Lain leant back against the rock, eyes closed and smiling. “Believe me, some of mine have been, ah. Legendary. But you, you do this… thing with your mouth when you concentrate. It’s really fucking cute. I guess no-one’s ever told you.”
Lain chuckled. “And you’re honest. Always. Even when it hurts you, makes you vulnerable. There’s strength in that, you don’t realize it, but there is. It makes the rest of us—makes me—want to be… better.”
“I don’t… I don’t really think—“
“And you love things, wholly and unashamedly. Video games or comics, and you think it’s trivial, that it’s silly. But you’re wrong. The topics don’t matter. What matters is the passion and the joy. You can’t see it, but I can, and it burns so brightly. Like the fires of— like the sun. It’s life, it’s beauty.”
Somewhere, deep inside his chest, Sigmund’s heart began to pound. This time, it wasn’t shock. Not that kind, anyway.
“That’s what I see, when I look at you. Strength and honesty. Joy. Life. So, yeah, man. They’re right, I like like you. How can anyone not?”
When Sigmund dared look over, Lain was still smiling, eyes closed. Seeing the Sigmund that lived inside his head, maybe. The one he’d just described, that strange and alien thing. The one who didn’t sound like Sigmund at all.
But Lain… Lain hadn’t been lying.
“Oh,” Sigmund said. “Oh… man.”
Lain opened his eyes. Sigmund couldn’t meet them.
“Too much?” Lain asked.
“Um. I just… No-one’s really… ah.”
“Well. That’s their loss.”
Sigmund’s hands turned over in his lap, fingers rubbing against his palms, against each other. “You… you’re a really good guy. A good friend.” Then winced. Because, wow. Great response to the guy who’d basically just declared his love and adoration.
Lain snorted. “Mate,” he said, “I’m a hustler and a liar and a thief and you don’t even know the half of it. But…” And here he paused, just for a moment, before confessing, “sometimes, in the past, not very often, I have been accused of using my powers for good.”
Like saving Sigmund’s life, and sitting with him and talking through the shock. Giving him something to think about that wasn’t dying.
Pretty much the opposite thereof, actually.
Sigmund still didn’t know what his answer was. Lain was… he was really cool. Really, really cool. And funny. And fun to be around. And apparently good at everything. And looked like a rock god movie star supermodel, and had saved Sigmund’s life and apparently like liked him, and…
And had huge, warm, gentle hands. And Sigmund hadn’t minded when they’d touched him, not at all.
He’d never been in love with a guy before. Never even thought about it. Except…
Except, if Sigmund was being honest with himself, maybe he’d have to admit he’d never been in love with a girl, either. Had always just sort of assumed that was The Thing To Do. And he liked girls, in the Ladies of the Internet way, as it were. But… so what? That wasn’t that unusual, right? Sigmund was pretty sure Em was into both. Heaps of people were. It wasn’t like someone was standing in front of him with a contract he had to sign in blood swearing to only like Sex A or Sex B forever and ever amen. Maybe sometimes it wasn’t about that. Maybe sometimes it was just about people.
Maybe. Sigmund wasn’t sure.
He looked up.
“How ‘bout I go get us some of this water, you hang here and nurse your arm, and when I get back, we have a badass afternoon tea of Fantales and almost-certainly-potable liquids?”
Sigmund smiled. Because Lain was cool, and fun to be around, and Sigmund’s arm hurt like motherfucking hell and he’d think about the rest of it later.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, that sounds cool.”
The Hat People didn’t find them, not that night. It might’ve sucked, but for the fact Lain didn’t just come back with filled up water bottles: he also brought a rabbit.
“What the hell, man?” Sigmund was laughing, not sure if he should be grossed out or impressed.
The rabbit was dead, and not exactly small. Lain was holding it up with the skill of someone who’d done exactly that on many previous occasions.
“I dunno about you,” Lain said, “but I plan on getting hungry in an hour or so.”
“Dude, it’s got, like, fur. And it’s raw. And how did you even kill it? You did kill it, right? I mean, it’s not roadkill or something?” Sigmund had been asleep, flat-out exhausted, when Lain had returned. Lain had been gone a while, judging from the way the sun was starting to kiss the edge of the mountains.
“Sig, please,” Lain said, pulling something out of the waistband of his jeans. A knife. Not a small one. “I told you, I used to do this stuff with my brother, way back when.” He flicked the knife up into the air. It spun, over and over, and Lain caught it again by the blade without even looking. “I have mad survivalist skillz.”
Sigmund tried not to stare. “Yeah,” he said. “Well. You still suck at third level support.”
Lain laughed, and went to gut the rabbit.
He also magicked up a fire out of somewhere to cook it.
Sigmund would figure out the pieces, eventually.
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