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“This movie is an absolute travesty to the art of cinema.”

“Dude, can you go maybe twenty minutes without saying something pretentious about ‘the art of cinema?’”

“It’s my lodge, I get to say whatever I want.”

“I’d appreciate it if you’d both zip your lips so I could actually watch this.”

The three of them had made themselves quite at home on the huge, cushy sectional in the great room, Josh laying sprawled out across an entire side, Chris reclining on the other with his feet kicked up onto the coffee table, Ashley nestled into the juncture between them. None of them had ever seen the movie before, and that was proving to be something of a blessing, because it truly was garbage of the highest degree. In the hour or so they’d been watching it, Josh had pointed out at least five times where the actors appeared to be reading their lines just off-screen. So sure, it was a train wreck…but it was a train wreck they were stuck with.

Getting the tv to work at all had been a miracle in and of itself. Whoever had wired Blackwood Pines Resort had likely been a moron, a sadist, or an unholy combination therein—there was no rhyme or reason to what worked or what didn’t. The lights? Nada. The heater? Nothing. The landline? Sure! The tv? Oh def, def, def.

The weekend was shaping up to be…interesting. Real interesting. Already the night had been bizarre, packed with more bullshit than you could shake a stick at, so it really wasn’t any wonder that none of them quite had the gumption to try and futz with getting the other channels to work. Somewhere between the day of bus rides and the séance-gone-wrong, whatever fight they’d had in them had been lost.

“I’m starting to think Sam had the right idea,” Ashley sighed, buried up to her chin in a thick afghan. “Hot bath then bed. Ideal.”

“You could go to bed, Ash,” Chris pointed out. “Stairs’re right there. No one’s stopping you.”

She heaved another long sigh, somehow managing to burrow even deeper into the blanket. “That would involve getting off the couch, though.”

“If you asked nice enough, maybe Cochise’d carry you.” From the other side of the couch, Josh slyly slid his eyes to Chris, cocking an eyebrow. “You can’t weigh more than what, like fifty pounds? I mean, it might be close, but I’m sure he could do it.”

Making sure it was positioned in such a way that Ashley couldn’t see, Chris covertly flipped him the bird, pointedly keeping his gaze in the direction of the tv.

A grunt, a groan, a dip of the cushions, and Josh heaved himself up off the couch, gracelessly hopping over the back of it. “Yeah, well, on that note, I’m gonna turn in. Bit of a chaotic start to the whole shindig, huh?"

Ashley managed to untangle one of her hands from her cocoon, sticking it up and cutting savage air-quotes into the air.

“Hmm? What part seemed chaotic to you?” Chris turned around to face Josh, favoring him with an inquisitive look over the frames of his glasses. “The catfight? The macho posturing? The Ouija board thing? Or like, just the general air of cafeteria politics we’re having to deal with?”

“To be totally honest with you, man, mostly I meant the whole ‘being chased through the basement by an asshole in a costume’ thing.”

At that, Chris shrugged. “Everyone’s a critic.”

“Not so fun when you’re the one getting spooked, is it?” She asked it innocently enough, but there was a self-satisfied little glint in Ashley’s eyes when she glanced over to him. “Who woulda guessed that?

Right? Totally weird!” Josh snickered before leaning down, his upper body looming between the two of them. “So, uh, we’re all buds here…”

“Besties,” Chris answered, not missing a beat.

Something like that,” Ashley joked, missing an entire measure.

Lowering his voice into a conspiratorial mutter only just audible over the movie, Josh craned himself even farther over the back of the couch, the corners of his mouth hooking into a mischievous shape. “So between us buds, then…what, uh…what’re we thinking my chances with Sam are, here?”

Chris and Ashley exchanged a long-suffering look, Ash going so far as to roll her eyes and shake her head.

“Something you wanna share with the class, Miss Brown?”

She angled herself on the couch so she could look him square in the eye, all the while still shaking her head. “I mean, you can try, but Sam’s kinda got…oh, what’s the word…standards.”

“Oh wow. Didn’t realize you were such a cheerleader for my cause. I’ll have you know we had a moment earlier."

“Oh yeah?”

“Mhm. She said she’s here for me.”

“Isn’t that why we’re all here, though? I mean, by that logic, you’ve probably got a pretty decent chance with Mike.”

“God, I hope so. Mike’s dreamy.” Josh pushed himself up from his lean, taking a moment to none-too-gently tweak Ashley’s ear through her beanie. “Mk, you know what? I don’t need this negativity in my life.” He started for the staircase, turning to add over his shoulder, “Hey, make sure the lovebirds lock the door behind ‘em when they get back. Last thing we need is another wolverine getting in. Cochise might literally piss himself.”

On the couch, Chris bristled. “Y’know, I’m sooo glad that me almost getting torn apart by a wild animal is so amusing to you assholes. I’m totally psyched it’s made your weekend.”

Josh snorted a loud laugh before disappearing up the stairs, leaving them to their own devices in the great room.

“It’s not funny,” Chris muttered as he sank back into a slouch. “It could’ve had frickin’ rabies or some shit!”

“…it was kind of funny.”

He turned to her, brow furrowed in obvious betrayal. “I could’ve died, Ash!”

“Oh come on, it was a baby—”

“Baby wolverines are still wolverines! I-I-I could’ve been gutted!”

“Uh huh.”

“It coulda taken my head clean off! You ever seen the claws on those things?! Could cut right through steel! I think I saw that on Nat Geo once.”

She watched him for a moment, face scrunched up as though she suspected she hadn’t heard him right. “Are…are you mixing up the animal with the X-Men character?”

“He got the name for a reason.”

“Oh my God. I’m gonna pretend you didn’t say that.” Ashley laughed even as she turned back to the tv, pulling her legs up onto the couch. “Love how we get stuck like, waiting up for Matt and Emily.”

“Hey, it just means that we’re the responsible ones.”

There’s a horrifying thought.”

“Tell me about it. But shit, they have been out there for a long-ass time.” Chris got up and approached one of the massive windows, prying the blinds apart with his fingers, actually seeming a little surprised when he didn’t simply find Matt and Emily standing outside. “Think something ate them?”

“Don’t even joke about that!”

“What? Bears gotta eat too…”

Chris!

He held his hands up defensively, grinning and plopping himself back down on the couch—maybe just a bit closer to Ashley than he had originally been. “No, no…you’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’ve said that. It was mean, it was cruel, and it definitely wasn’t funny.” He paused for effect, grabbing his phone off the coffee table and pretending to scroll through something. “Really shitty thing to say. No bear deserves to choke Emily down.”

At that, Ashley dropped her head into her hands. It was meant to make it seem like she was disappointed, tired, exasperated…but there was no hiding the way her shoulders shook with quiet laughter.

Chris high-fived himself in his head. “Imagine how bitter she’d be.”

“Chris—”

“How…salty? Eh? Ehhh??” When he realized she was peeking at him through the spaces of her fingers, he made a point to waggle his eyebrows.

She reached over to shove him, still trying very hard to not appear as amused as she actually was, lest she encourage his behavior. “Don’t be mean.”

“Honestly, I’m insulted. Trust me, when I’m being mean, you will know it. All this? Just the facts. Cold, hard facts.” He chuckled, setting his phone down and grabbing his beer before settling into the cushions again. He took a drink, stretching his free arm across the back of the couch. Not that it was intentional—not that it mattered—but stretched as he was, the tips of his fingers only barely rested behind Ashley’s shoulder.

If she noticed, she didn’t show any outward signs; she blinked sleepily towards the tv and pulled the blanket more tightly around herself, sighing as she watched the generic protagonist say something suitably dramatic directly into the camera. “They probably got distracted.” She said it after such a long pause that it took Chris a second to remember who they’d been talking about in the first place. “I mean, with the snow and the stars and all that…they probably ended up…I dunno…”

“Making out in a snow bank?”

Ashley laughed, shrugging weakly. “Could be.”

“Does Emily really strike you as the kinda person who finds nature romantic, Ash? Cold nature? Cold nature full of hungry, hungry bears?

“Could you please stop saying ‘cold?’” Shooting him a withering glare, she made a point to melodramatically shiver and curl further into herself. One of her hands poked out just long enough to rub some warmth into the tip of her nose. “Kinda hard to ignore it when you keep yammering about it…man, luxury resort with no working heat…” Her eyes flit back down to the fireplace and the flames crackling in the grate. “I want my money back. Gonna leave the worst Yelp review.”

“We’ll get it fixed up tomorrow, once we’re not so tired and pissy.”

We?

“Well. Josh. Josh will get it fixed up. He got the hot water up and running, didn’t he?”

Ashley snorted, “Yeah. For Sam."

“And by tomorrow, I’m sure her buns will be just as frozen as the rest of ours, so I don’t see a problem.” He followed her line of sight, taking a slow sip of his beer while looking into the fire. Unbeknownst to Ashley, his mind was hardly on the cold, or the movie, or Sam, or hell, any of the others wandering Blackwood Pines. Much to his chagrin, there was really only one thing Chris could think about in that moment—the aside he’d had with Josh earlier that night. It played back in his head like a bad recording, some of Josh’s more, uh, colorful turns of phrase floating unpleasantly to the top (‘bone zone,’ for one…‘dripping with erotic possibilities,’ for another). Eugh. Those he shoved away. Far away. But when he glanced from the fireplace, the bright flames tattooing his retinas, the moral of the (admittedly shitty) pep talk remained.

With everyone else in bed or exploring the grounds, he and Ashley were, for all intents and purposes, alone. Together.

Josh’s very abrupt disappearance from the couch suddenly made too much sense. Chris bit back a groan, resisting the urge to actually smack his forehead. Of course. Of course. That scheming little fuck.

Chancing a look in Ashley’s direction, he drummed his fingers anxiously against his bottle. Maybe it was the chilly moonlight filtering through the blinds. Maybe it was the ambient crack-and-fizzle of the fire. Maybe it was the dim, unimportant drone of the movie. Maybe it was the power of suggestion. Maybe it was some other vaguely poetic piece of bullshit. For all it mattered, maybe it was goddamn Maybelline, but all at once he was seized by an impulse to act. To move. To do…something. And after a day of travel (not to mention unending social discomfort), he found his inhibitions had been drained to the dregs. “Oh shit, hang on—you’re over there talking about being cold and I’m sitting here like some kinda dick…”

She looked up in time to see him fumbling with his sweatshirt. It took a moment for her to realize what he was doing, but when she did, Ashley felt her face light up with the telltale tingle of an oncoming flush. “Oh, it’s no big! Really, I can go upstairs and grab my pjs from my bag and layer—”

“Uh huh. And risk walking in on Sam and Josh having an uncomfortably emotional heart-to-heart about the twins? Please.” Chris wriggled himself out of the sweatshirt, holding it out to her. “C’mon, I’ll never forgive myself if your scrawny butt freezes to death out here.”

For a second—and that’s really all it was, a second—it hung between them, a tangible totem of something else entirely. It was apparent in the way the air in the room changed that both of them recognized the gesture was somehow larger than itself. The tv continued to drone on in the background.

You’ll be cold,” Ashley insisted, even though one of her hands had already moved to take it. She didn’t actually grab it, not just yet…and yet there didn’t seem to be any question that she would.

“Nah, I run pretty warm.”

She seemed to consider it. “…are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Positive?”

“Ash, I’m literally wearing two other shirts, I promise you I’m gonna survive this one."

Her eyes flit from his hand to his eyes and then back again, almost too quickly to be noticed. Then, shrugging as if to say ‘whatever,’ Ashley took it from him, shimmying her way out of the blanket so she could pull it on. Never before had she been so thankful for the dark as she was in that instant, feeling her cheeks and ears burning as she zipped herself into the still-warm sweatshirt. “Don’t complain to me when you freeze…” She’d wanted it to come out in a joking singsong. It didn’t. Her throat, it seemed, had other ideas, suddenly going tight and making her voice sound small and strained.

“Yeah, you know, now that you mention it, I think I can already feel hypothermia setting in.” Chris busied himself with his beer, pointedly avoiding looking right at her. Even over her hoodie, the sweatshirt was adorably large on Ashley, and to be quite frank, there was something about seeing her wearing it that proved immensely difficult to refrain from reacting to.

Had Matt and Emily chosen that precise moment to make their grand (re)entry, they would’ve found themselves walking into a real-life example of social anxiety in action.

There was something nearly comical in the way they just kept staring straight ahead at the tv, perfectly silent, perfectly still. It was like the same thought had struck them at the same instant, flashing across their eyes in the same bright, blinking capitals: DON’T MOVE!

Ashley was the first to drop her eyes, looking down at the bulky sleeves covering all but the very tips of her fingers. Chris wasn’t the only one who’d received an unspeakably uncomfortable pep talk outside the lodge. Nope. No sir, no ma’am, he was not. And sure, maybe she was the suspicious sort, but she was quickly coming to wonder whether Sam’s vehement insistence of taking a bath (upstairs) and then immediately going to bed (upstairs) was less a personal choice and more a ploy—a ploy to leave her and Chris alone. Together. She pulled her lower lip into her mouth, chewing at it while debating with the nasty little voice in the back of her head. Slowly, she glanced up from her hands, looking just long enough to get a glimpse of the movie reflecting in Chris’s glasses.

She could do this. She could absolutely do this. Right? Right. Right?! Sam certainly thought she could, and if Sam had faith in her, then by God, she could dig deep to find some sort of belief in herself, too.

Real deep.

Like…real, real deep.

Before she could talk herself out of it, Ashley unraveled herself from her makeshift nest, scooting closer to him as casually as she was able to. “It’s like ten friggin’ degrees in here,” she said, sure to put on her best lecturing voice, “Here, take this and just…”

“What?”

“Just…ugh, quit moving!” With very little help on Chris’s end, she somehow managed to drape the blanket around both of them. “See? Better.”

Chris let out an incredulous laugh, hoping it didn’t sound half as nervous as the butterflies in his gut were making him feel. “How is this better? The whole point was for you to get warmer—”

“Yeah, but now I have two sweatshirts, so…”

It was at that moment that they realized just how big the blanket was. Or rather, how big they’d thought it had been. Ashley had been able to wrap it around herself with room to spare, sure, but with two people under it…it became apparent they were going to need to get, uh, creative to both fit. Or at least ‘creative’ was the word Ashley found herself repeating over and over again in her head to justify sitting right up against Chris’s side.

It was the only way for them to both fit! That was all. That was all. It wasn’t like she was tucking herself against him—nonono, just sitting. Just…sitting particularly close together. But…but friends could sit close together! Friends sat close together all the time!

Under the same blanket, even!

Alone!

Hardly ten seconds passed between them like that before she spoke up again. “This movie is horrible,” she said, knowing full well she’d said it way too loud. Maybe if she talked about it enough, he wouldn’t notice how close she was.

“Sure is.” Chris’s reply came just as quickly, just as loudly, trying to distract from the fact that they were now sitting in such a way that his arm was definitely almost around her. Impossible as it seemed, he hadn’t even really realized how close Ashley was sitting to him at that moment, so completely and wholly absorbed by the idea that he could move his hand from the back of the couch and—

“Why are we even still watching it?”

“It’s the only channel.”

“No, I get that. It was like, hypothetical.”

“Oh. Right.” He cleared his throat before taking another long drink, trying not to audibly sputter as one of the more impassioned parts of Josh’s earlier speech came back to him (‘You gotta go in FOR THE KILL!’). Okay. No more liquids. Chris set the bottle down on the coffee table and grabbed the remote, turning the volume down a couple notches so the blather wouldn’t be as obvious. “We could, uh…do something else while we wait?”

Ashley turned, remembered how very, very close they were, and promptly looked to the fire instead. “Something else? Like…?”

“Like, um…” Chris tried not to grimace, still trying exceptionally hard to shake Josh’s voice loose from whichever fold of his brain it was stuck in. “Uh…oh, wait, no, okay, I got it. Knock knock.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he felt himself cringe. Hell, he felt Josh cringe from wherever the fuck he was upstairs. Go in for the kill. Yeah. Right.

Even Ashley paused at that, the tension momentarily leaving her body. That time it was much easier to stare up at him, eyes narrowed and forehead crinkled. “Seriously? Knock knock jokes? Are we six?

“Um, I said, knock knock.”

She eyed him warily. “Who’s there?”

“Turnip.”

“Turnip who?”

Chris finally steeled himself enough to turn to her, grinning widely. “Turnip the volume, I can’t hear the movie.”

Whatever anxiety she’d been dealing with flew out the window into the icy landscape beyond. All at once, it didn’t matter how close they were, or that they were alone, or that his arm was aro—okay, she didn’t have the resources to process that just yet, not when she had to devote all of her mental faculties to defending herself against the onslaught of dad jokes. “…I can’t put into words how much I hate this.”

Oh yeah, it was much easier to deflect like that. Time to dial the bullshit up to eleven. He cocked an eyebrow in an attempt to appear slick, “Knock knock.”

“Are you—ugh. Fine.” She knew better than to fight the cheese. There was no fighting the cheese. Groaning, she sank further into the cushions; she wouldn’t say the movement qualified as tucking herself against Chris’s side, but she wouldn’t say it didn’t qualify, either. “Who’s there?”

“Aida.”

Oh God. “Aida who?”

“Aida sandwich for lunch earlier today. Knock knock.”

No!

Knock knock, Ash.

“You can knock all you want, I’m not answering. I looked through the peephole and didn’t like what I saw.”

“Knock knock.”

She rolled her eyes up to the ceiling and its strange hanging sculpture. It took everything in her to keep from laughing. “…who’s there?”

“Distracted owl.”

“…distracted owl who?” Ashley stared helplessly up at the sculpture, bracing herself mentally for whatever stupid punch line he was working towards…and then paused when none came. Shooting an expectant glance his way only to see him staring at the tv screen again, Ashley frowned. “Chris,” she sighed, raising her eyebrows expectantly. Still no answer. She clucked her tongue, “Chris!

Hoo?” He looked back down to her, blinking innocently.

It took a second for it to register, but when it did, the expression on her face was worth money. “You’re the worst. You are absolutely the worst. I—no, you know what?” The blanket rustled around them as she threw her hands up to either side of her face. “Knock knock.”

“Ohoho! How the tables have turned! Who’s there?” The dopey grin he’d had to force earlier was quickly becoming genuine. He hunched himself forward a bit, making a big show of giving her his full attention.

“Thermos.”

“Thermos who?”

“Thermos be a million better ways for us to pass the time than this.”

“Oooh, good one!”

“No! Incorrect response!”

“Look, I don’t know what your problem is…I think this is pretty fun. Better than the movie, at least.”

“Speak for yourself.”

Pressing his free hand to his chest, Chris pantomimed deep insult. “Wow! Harsh! Okay, okay, if knock knocks aren’t your style, then how about, uh…hmm…” He hemmed and hawed for a second, both completely aware that it was a sham. If there was one thing—one singular thing—that Chris Hartley excelled at, it was producing horrible joke after horrible joke without having to come up for air. “Okay, okay, you’ll love this one. What did the chip say to the other chip?”

Her body sagged against his, and she dropped her head into her hands. “This is absolute torture.”

No, it said, ‘Let’s go for a dip!’” He guffawed at her reaction, poking the back of her shoulder teasingly. “Get it? Dip? Because they’re chips? And you put chips into d—”

“If there is a God, please take me now.”

“I think you’re being a little dramatic. Here, how about this…what did…the teddy bear say when the waiter brought the dessert menu?”

Ashley didn’t respond—she just lifted her head from her hands, staring unblinkingly up at him.

“No thanks, I’m stuffed!

There was a beat where the only sound between them was the whisper-soft babble of the tv. Then, twisting her mouth into an exasperated wince of a smile, “What did Ashley say to Chris?

“Oh man, uh…I don’t know. What did Ashley say to Chris?”

“Stop. Just stop. Please. Stop.” Before he could say anything else, she stuck her hands up into his face, palms pressed together as though in prayer. “Remember that vow of silence I mentioned earlier? That would be…so ideal, Chris.”

He narrowed his eyes with a contemplative hum, bobbling his head side-to-side. “Hmm…not really your best material, definitely not bringing your A-game, but it’s been a long day, so I’ll let it slide.” When she groaned, he poked her again, getting the spot right between her shoulders and making her squirm. “Don’t take it personally. Comedy isn’t for everyone.”

“Yeah, clearly!” She nudged his ribs with her elbow, trying to wiggle herself away from his poking. It quickly (and unsurprisingly) devolved into a shove-fight of childish proportions, neither wanting to move enough to risk sending the blanket sliding off the back of the couch. They only stopped when Ashley’s phone clattered noisily to the floor, knocked from where it’d been nestled between the cushions. She pretended to roll her eyes in disgust, folding her arms across her chest, “So immature…”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

Ugh.”

As soon as their laughter tapered off, the old anxiety problem reared its head again. Cold air was usually clear air, crisp and thin and brittle, but between them it had grown thick and heavy with anticipation. Each second that passed without them talking only made it worse; it was like they were two shaky lapdogs waiting for a clap of thunder. And shit, that would never do…not when they’d already come so far (…and not when they both still had Josh and Sam’s voices ringing in their heads).

It was stupid—so fucking stupid—but Chris could feel his heart lurch up towards the base of his throat as he made his decision. “So, uh…” Again, he cleared his throat, “What did the ocean say to the beach?”

Ashley sighed loudly through her nose. Her tone was flat with resignation. “I don’t know. What did the ocean say to the beach?”

“Nothing. It just…waved.”

“Oh come on.”

“What did the traffic light say to the car?”

She released a quiet breath that might’ve been a laugh. “What?”

“Don’t look at me, I’m changing over here.”

“This is so bad.”

“What did…” he took a deep breath to steady himself, trying to play it out in his head. “…the nerd say to his crush?”

Unlike with his other quote-unquote jokes, the pun was not immediately apparent to her. What that usually meant was it was gonna be bad. Just…real bad. Ashley sighed again, bracing herself for what she was sure was about to be a real doozy of a flop. “Um…I don’t know. What did he say?”

She was right on one account, at least. It was gonna be a hell of a doozy.

There sure as hell wasn’t any going back now—he’d already said it, put it out into the universe, and even if he’d wanted to backtrack, Josh was the improv guy, not him. So he swallowed hard enough to worry she’d be able to hear his cartoonish gulp, squared his shoulders, and uh…went for the kill. “Can I kiss you?”

Ashley’s head cocked to the side slowly, brow knit, mouth twisted uncertainly. She stared into middle space as she wracked her brain, desperately trying to figure out what was supposed to be so funny about that. The more she thought on it, the less sense it made; when she accepted that she had no idea what she was missing, her shoulders rose and fell in a loose shrug. “I don’t get it. How’s that a jo—” There was a sudden misfiring in her brain when she looked up to him, expecting a doofy grin but instead finding an uncharacteristically serious, almost apprehensive expression on Chris’s face. And…oh. Oh. Realization widened her eyes and numbed her tongue, leaving her to just sort of gawp.

Not exactly the response he had been hoping for, honestly. Chris sucked a tense breath through his teeth, immediately averting his eyes and shaking his head, all at once a ball of frantic energy. “Yeah, I just—not funny, right? Yeah, yeah, uh. Just go ahead and forget I even—”

“I, uh…” She tried to say something, anything, but none of the muscles of her face seemed to want to work the right way. How had she ever been cold?! In that moment, Ashley wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if she spontaneously combusted on the spot, leaving nothing more than a smear of soot in her place there on the sectional, only inches from where Chris was attempting to untangle himself from the afghan.

“It’s been a long night,” he continued to babble, hands noticeably shaking as he pulled the blanket off of him. “And I’m obviously tired, so let’s just pretend I didn’t say anything, and uh—”

Though she didn’t know how, Ashley managed to get ahold of some deeper part of herself, ignoring the racing of her heart long enough to force out a stunned, “Chris.”

He winced. “Uh huh?”

In her lap, her hands had balled up into tight fists around the fabric of his borrowed sweatshirt. The words were there, just out of reach, choking her at the very back of her tongue. Ashley jawed at the air for a second before regaining the use of her voice. “Yeah.”

“…yeah…?” Somehow, he able to stretch the word into four-syllable territory.

She took a deep, deep breath, tentatively nodding her head. “Y-yeah. Yeah, you can…” Hoo boy. Sam believed in her, she reminded herself. Sam Giddings believed she could do this. “…you can kiss me.” It came out in a rush of breath, not entirely unlike a sigh of relief, and knowing full well she’d never, ever, in all of her life, be able to wrangle up that much courage again, she made herself look back up to Chris. “…you should kiss me, actually…”

Also not exactly the response he’d been expecting. Chris froze, scanning her face for a sign that she was pulling his leg or cracking a joke of her own. There were no signs to be found. “I—are y—wait, I—yeah?”

Smooth. Smooth as creamy peanut butter, baby.

Her nodding became more decisive, if not jerkier. “Yeah.”

“I—um, okay?”

“Okay.”

There was a terrible, horrible, positively unbearable instant where neither of them could quite figure out what to do with themselves…but it passed as quickly as it came. They were already so close that it was nothing to close the space between them, their lips meeting in a kiss so soft, so tentative, that it threatened to melt away like spun sugar. It only lasted for a second (albeit a long one) before they pulled back, startling as though reacting to a crack of static electricity.

That wasn’t to say that they moved away from each other—oh nonono. Au contraire, now that they were that close, it seemed unlikely they’d ever be able to fully pull away again. The closing credits of the movie scrolled up the television screen while an off-tune cover of a pop song played, absolutely unnoticeable over the sound of the blood racing in their ears, the uncertain intake of breath.

Ashley found herself inexplicably worried that she was going to smudge Chris’s glasses. Foreheads together, they were just so close; she could feel the shape of his arm, still stiffly stretched across the back of the couch, could feel the weight of her own hands pressing hard against her knees, and all at once realized the gravity of what had happened. The plunge had been taken. That was it. That was it. It was out in the open, no takesies-backsies, meaning…well, meaning there wasn’t really any point in fretting about it now.

In one fluid movement, she brought her hands up to either side of his face, the fabric of the sweatshirt scratchy against his cheeks. Her eyes fluttered closed as she pulled Chris into a kiss significantly more spirited than the first. And in a twist that surprised no one more than himself, Chris barely missed a beat, bringing his arm around her to pull her closer.

That was when the front door slammed.

Ughhh next time we decide we have to just get away for a weekend, remind me that ski resorts are nothing like what you see on Instagram.”

“Uh huh.”

“Even my eyelashes are frozen, I swear to God.”

The front hall filled with the sound of snow being stomped off of boots, providing the perfect cue for them to spring apart. It was hardly a moment later that Emily stormed into the great room, mouth and posture tight with displeasure; a visibly deflated Matt followed after her, eyebrows drawn impossibly high in a long-suffering expression.

Chris cleared his throat, flicking them a brief two-fingered salute from the couch. “You guys find the, uh…” Aw shit. There was no way he was going to be able to pick through the mad buzzing in his head to remember what they’d ventured out into the snow for. He shot Ash a look, only to find her covertly pantomiming…something. He squinted to try and make sense of it before everything clicked into place, “The bag?”

In lieu of actually answering, Matt held the offending item up into the air. One little pink bag from Rodeo: Check. He didn’t seem particularly relieved by their success.

“Where’d everyone else go?” Emily asked, glancing around the great room as though expecting Sam and Josh were waiting to leap out and scare them. “I—wait a sec. Is the heat still not working?”

“Uh…”

“This is typical. So typical.” She threw her hands out to her sides, letting them drop with an exhausted petulance. “You know what? I don’t even care. I’m going to bed. I’m not giving tonight another opportunity to fuck me over.”

Ashley turned towards them in time to see Emily starting up the stairs. She tried to make her grimace look more like a smile when she met Matt’s eyes, lifting her shoulders in an awkward shrug, “Um…Josh said he left the door open to your room so you’d be able to find it. It’s the one with the blue bedspread, I think.”

“Cool.” Matt sighed, looking towards the veritable mountain of suitcases Emily had brought along with her. He seemed to contemplate loading himself up with them…and then clearly decided against it, shaking his head and mumbling something under his breath. “You guys have a good night,” he added over his shoulder, taking the stairs two at a time to catch up with Emily.

“You too,” they muttered, more or less in unison. Only once the sound of a door closing echoed down from the third floor did they move again, turning away from the staircase.

“Well…” It really wasn’t a shock that Chris was the one to break the silence, but there was a distinct lack of tension in his voice that certainly came as a surprise. “I guess that answers the bear question, huh?”

She made the executive decision to finally turn off the tv, setting the remote down on the coffee table with more force than was entirely necessary. “Guess so.”

“She’s gonna be real mad when she realizes Josh put them in the antler room. Maybe if we stay super quiet, we’ll be able to hear her yell.”

Every room in this place is an antler room.” To prove her point, Ashley gestured vaguely around the lodge.

“…a good point. What do you think Mr. Washington told the interior designer? ‘Hey, I’ve always had this dream to—now, follow me on this one—live inside a LongHorn Steakhouse. Can you help me with that?’”

“I mean, I’m sure it wouldn’t be the weirdest request they’d ever gotten.”

“Yeah, probably not.”

For what felt like the millionth time that night, Ashley looked down to her hands, the corners of her mouth doing a strange little dance to fight against the sheepish grin she could feel taking shape. She pretended to be particularly interested in the ribbed fabric of the sweatshirt’s sleeves. “Sooo…yooou…have a crush on me?”

Was it possible for a human being to physically feel their soul try and claw its way out of their body? Anyone staring at Chris in that moment would’ve been tempted to say yes. His head lolled back onto his shoulders, posture going lax, “Jesus. Christ. Ash."

“I’m just asking…”

“I think that shit’s been like…pretty openly established at this point, don’t you?! I mean, I-I-I think I made it pretty clear—”

She snorted, shaking her head and dropping it into her hands, fingers curling around the band of her beanie. “Oooh man oh man oh man…this is…oh, this is…a lot.” Heaving a sigh, she propped her chin up on her hands, elbows poking into her knees. “Aaaa lot.”

“You know, you really don’t have to say it like that.”

There was a dull noise as she swung one of her legs to the side, knocking her foot against his. “Whaddya mean, don’t say it like that? You don’t even know what I’m saying, doofus.” Ashley rolled her eyes, tucking her hair behind her ears to give her fingers something to do. “For your information…I’ve, uh…kinda got one on you, too.”

Considering what had just happened, it probably shouldn’t have registered as a shock. But then again, when had logic ever factored into their relationship? “Wait. Waitwaitwaitwaitwait. What? S-since when?

She shot Chris a disbelieving sidelong glance. “Since pretty much ever.”

“…nuh-uh.”

“Yeah-huh."

The cogs in his head whirred, trying and failing to connect the dots she had so kindly presented to him. If nothing else, at least Josh’s insistence made a little more sense, but…shit. “Then…why haven’t we—”

“I don’t know! I don’t know.” Ashley let her arms drop to dangle between her knees defeatedly, “We’re always just…talking around it. So I figured…well, I don’t know what I figured, really. It seems real dumb now, doesn’t it?” Her feet turned inwards towards each other as she looked down at them. “Real dumb. Like…like there’s all this time we wasted being scared, when—”

“It wasn’t…don’t…it wasn’t wasted, Ash.” Suddenly aware of the heat of her gaze, Chris picked up his neglected beer and shrugged, staring down into the bottle as he tried to sort out what he wanted to say. “Cuz like…” Oh it didn’t even sound good in his head. There was no way it was going to work out loud. Then again…the joke had kinda worked, hadn’t it?

Fuck it. In for the kill.

“Every second I get to spend with you is just…the only thing I want to do with my time. So. Not a waste.” He shrugged again, trying to take a drink; he prayed to every power above that she couldn’t see the bottle was actually very empty. She didn’t respond, but he could still feel her watching him, making his face burn hotter and hotter until he was fairly positive he was glowing in the dark. “We should make sure the doors are locked now that they’re back,” he muttered, standing abruptly from the couch. “Josh’ll freak.”

Ashley’s eyes followed him as he stood, her cheeks aching from how hard she was beaming. “Uh huh.” She got up as well, absently rolling the sweatshirt’s sleeves up to her wrists as she collected herself.

“I can get the front door if you get the side one Mike and Jess used.”

“Mhm. You should probably double-check that window you climbed through earlier, too.”

“…oh shit. I wouldn’t’ve even thought of that. Good idea.”

“I’m full of ‘em.”

Splitting up made the job quicker, sure, but it offered another sort of benefit on top of that: The second they were separated by a wall or two, both Ashley and Chris had their own private (silent) freakouts. It was a good thing the lodge was so dark—and an even better thing that everyone else had already locked themselves away into the rooms upstairs. Had any of the others caught sight of Chris’s mad gesturing or Ashley’s little dance, well, they’d never hear the end of it.

“All clear,” Ashley said, pulling herself together in record time. “No more wolverines getting in.”

“Well thank God for that. This place has way too many doors.” Chris nodded his head towards the stairs, “Think we should hit the hay? It’s been a—”

“Long day, yeah,” she finished for him. “I think sleep sounds perfect.”

“Tell me about i—oh, hey, okay.” He couldn’t help but grin when she sandwiched one of his hand between both of hers, cozying up against his side as they headed up the stairs. “Oh shit, know what just hit me?”

“Hmm?”

“Okay, so…bear with me. Knock knock.”

She clucked her tongue and made to drop his hand, trying to wrench herself away from him. “Don’t—don’t! Don’t you dare start up ag—”

“No, you gotta trust me!” Chris laughed, lacing their fingers to keep her from pulling away. “You’re gonna love this one.”