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Beginning-of-Summer Rituals

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David takes a step back, holding up his phone and fiddling with the zoom. This is another important part of beginning the season; the supply room will never be this full or tidy for the rest of the summer, and their hard work deserves to be documented before it all gets undone. “Looks perfect!” 

So perfect, in fact, that it needs to be uploaded to Instagram. Right now!

“Yeah?” Gwen huffs, slumping against a pile of unmade tents nearly as tall as they are. She must’ve dragged it out of the shed while he was sharing his photo. “I’m so glad you’re doing the important stuff while I slack off.”

If that’s sarcasm, he chooses to ignore it. “Don’t say that! You’ve done a great job today!” She groans loudly -- so it was sarcasm, good to know -- but takes the other end of the tarp holding all the tents and helps him drag it out to the field. The sun hovers just above the trees, golden-yellow and almost thick enough to touch, and his stomach grumbles as they survey the campgrounds. “Do you want to have dinner first, or . . .”

“Fuck that.” She grabs a tent and slings it over her shoulder. Her face and neck glisten with sweat, and she impatiently brushes the strands of hair that’ve escaped her ponytail out of her face. She looks unkempt and beautiful, like a lumberjack, or a viking. “If I sit down, I won’t be able to get back up. Let’s just finish this shit.”

Her language leaves a little to be desired, but her logic is sound. The tents are meant to be put up by and for children, so they aren’t too difficult to set up, but most of them have taken damage between the last summer and storage, so the process keeps stalling to fix broken rods and quick-sew patches over holes in the fabric (David’s job, mostly; Gwen isn’t much of a seamstress). The air is a gloomy indigo by the time they finish, cooling down just enough to make their sweat-damp clothes miserable. “Why don’t you take the first shower?” he offers as they walk back. “I’ll start dinner.”

“My hero,” she quips, veering off toward the counselors’ cabin. David shrugs off his discomfort and exhaustion, forcing a skip into his step as he heads into the Mess Hall.

This is their final ritual before the campers arrive tomorrow, and he wants everything to be perfect.


“Okay.” Gwen groans, rolling her shoulders; there are some ominous pops and cracks, but she doesn’t look like she’s dislocated anything so David assumes everything’s fine. “I’ll admit, this is exactly what I needed.”

“Hmm?” He cups his free hand around his ear, gently twirling his stick over the fire. As much as he wants to look over at Gwen, he has to keep his attention on roasting his hot dog. The last thing he wants is to deal with another exploded dinner. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

She snorts and throws a marshmallow at his head. “Oh, fuck off.”

“No, I’m just not sure I heard you correctly! Because it sounded like maybe you were saying you were wrong about something --”

“Very cute,” she mutters, rolling her eyes.

“-- and that, consequently, I was right!” He grins at her, removing his (cooked to perfection) hot dog from the fire and transferring it to a bun.

“Sounds like you’re saying you wanna be hit in the face with a flaming hot dog, Greenwood.”

He leans forward and gently takes the stick from her hand, saving her food from its fiery doom. “I just think it’s swell that you’re willing to admit when you’re wrong, Gwen.”

“Give that back! It’s not done cooking.”

“It’s over cooking!”

“And that’s how I like it!” She snatches back her stick and holds it to the center of the flames, shooting him a defiant glare. A moment later there’s a loud pop ; they throw themselves to the ground to avoid the burning shrapnel of the exploded hot dog, which light up the air like fireworks before sizzling harmlessly out in the dirt.

They both sit up, brushing themselves off, and take their seats around the campfire again. David waits a minute before saying, “This might be another good opportunity to practice owning up to your mistakes.”

She shoves his shoulder, laughing. “Let’s see you do it better.”

He does, knowing and not caring that she’s gotten him to do all the work for her. The fire is a lovely contrast to the chilly night, and he feels warm and glowing all over.

After dinner they crowd themselves into one of the campers’ tents, rolling out sleeping bags on the floor next to the child-sized cots. Gwen sprawls out across hers, stretching like a cat. “Hell of a last supper.”

He knows what she means, but he isn’t comfortable sharing her dread over three months of meals cooked by the Quartermaster. At least, not out loud. Instead he crawls back outside, recovering the two steaming mugs he pilfered from the Mess Hall and bringing them into the tent. “Here you go!”

She sits up and takes the hot chocolate, curling both hands around it despite the heat. “Well, since I’m apparently on a roll here,” she says, taking a sip and sighing happily, “I guess I have to admit that this is a really good way to start the summer.”

David quickly takes a drink as well, hiding his smile behind the mug. “So I was right about that as well?”

“Okay, don’t milk it,” she snaps, but there’s no real malice in her voice. She leans back against one of the cots, wincing at the screech of metal shifting, and tilts her head up to the ceiling, as though she can see through the fabric to the stars beyond. “I had a lot of fun today,” she says after a moment. Setting her drink to the side, she tugs the elastic out of her ponytail; in the white light of their lantern, with her hair falling in loose, fluffy waves down to her shoulders, she looks soft and almost ethereal, like a princess in a fairy tale. “Thanks, David.”

She meets his eyes, the light turning them a silvery lavender, and looking at her is suddenly too much so he turns his attention to his drink. “No problem, CBFL,” he says, taking a deep breath and wishing his heart wasn’t beating so fast. He opens his mouth to say something else but it turns out there’s nothing else he has to say so he shuts it again, feeling stupid.

For a few minutes they’re quiet, drinking their hot chocolate in companionable silence. At least, David hopes it’s companionable -- he’s not exactly sure how to measure companionableness, but it seems friendly enough so he’s going to do his best not to overthink it. That’s what Gwen would tell him, he knows, and she has a degree in psychology so she definitely knows what she’s talking about more than he does.

Thank goodness he’s not talking out loud; it’s embarrassing enough that he’s babbling in his own mind . . . oh no, what if he has been talking out loud this entire time? What has he said?!

“David?” His gaze snaps up to her, but she doesn’t look annoyed or creeped out so he probably hasn’t been saying anything too weird, at least, and probably hasn’t been talking out loud at all so that’s good but her expression is alarmingly serious and she hasn’t said anything else and it’s been at least ten seconds that they’ve just been looking at each other but he’s not sure what she wants so -- “Let me know if I’m reading this wrong.”

“Reading?” he manages weakly. He feels strangely disconnected from his body as he watches her set her mug aside and cross the small space to kneel in front of him. Her hand alights on his shoulder, fluttery and weightless as a hummingbird, and she seems a little close and a lot beautiful and if he’s not extremely careful she’s going to figure out all the things he’s put so much work into not letting her figure out -- try not to feel at all, but it’s hard to keep his composure and not look at her mouth when it’s so close and there’s no camp activities or pre-camp activities or post-camp activities to distract them both with, just quiet and breathing and soft white lantern light and her hand on his shoulder, and he’s always considered himself able to multitask pretty well but this feels like too much so he squeezes his eyes shut . . .

The kiss takes him entirely by surprise. One moment he’s bracing himself for a confrontation, questions he doesn’t know how to answer, and the next moment is filled with Gwen -- her lips soft and slightly chapped against his and her fingers tightening on his shoulder and the coconutty smell of her shampoo all around him and he’s a little worried that he’s having a heart attack but gosh, jeez, fuck it , he kisses her back.

And she doesn’t shove him away or demand to know what in the name of fun he thinks he’s doing; she lets out a weak little huff of air that lands somewhere between a laugh and a sigh, her mouth opens just slightly, and she shifts forward, her arms twining over his shoulders. One hand slides into his hair, the gentle scrape of her fingernails shivering from his scalp down his spine, and it occurs to him that he can touch her as well, that he’s not only apparently allowed but actually probably should. Slowly, both so she has plenty of him to stop him and in a futile attempt to stop his fingers from shaking, he lifts his hand to her neck, gingerly cupping around the base of her head and running his thumb along the space behind her ear. She gasps against his lips, but she doesn’t pull away so he assumes it’s a good gasp and repeats the motion, and when her tongue flicks against his bottom lip like a question he opens his mouth, because he’s never been very good at saying no to her for anything and he sure as sugar has no intention of starting now.

David’s not sure how much time passes before she pulls back, but even though he feels cold and bereft everywhere they’re no longer touching it’s probably for the best, because he doesn’t realize how lightheaded he is until he opens his eyes and has to wait for the world to shudder into place. She sits on her heels, biting her lower lip; he lets his hand fall away from her, and in a second they’re disconnected, apart.

“Well.” She chuckles weakly, tucking her hair behind her ears. “That was . . .”

A mistake, his brain finishes, and his stomach drops in miserable anticipation.

In fact, he’s so prepared for those devastating words that he almost misses what she actually says: “unexpected, huh?”

It takes him a moment to register that, to recalibrate, so his response is a bit too late, just a little bit awkward: “I -- definitely didn’t see it coming.”

“That’s because your eyes were closed,” she says with a grimace, like she regrets the lame joke even before she’s finished saying it; but it melts so seamlessly into a smile, small and self-conscious and unexpected and perfect, that he forgets what words are, let alone that he’s supposed to say some to continue the conversation.

With a nervous glance at him, Gwen scuttles back to her side of the tent, picking up her mug of hot chocolate. 

“Sorry, was that totally inappropriate?” she asks, responding before he can. “I mean, of course it was, you’re technically my boss, I don’t know what -- I just thought I was -- there were some signals -- weren’t there? Was that . . . okay?”

The enormous stupidity of the question finally surprises him into speaking. “Okay? That was . . .” the best thing that’s ever happened in my life . “Very. Okay -- it was completely okay. Better than okay, it was . . . you know, good. Nice. I’m going to stop talking now.”

Her smile widens, visible even as she covers her mouth with one hand. “Really?” she says, suddenly like she’s blurting it out. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” He’s so sure that he shuffles forward on his knees, most likely looking like a total idiot, until he’s in front of her again. He doesn’t have the courage to kiss her so he takes one of her hands, turning it over and examining how beautiful it is, how lovely it looks contrasted with his pale fingers. He strokes the backs of her knuckles, marveling at how soft her skin is even after a day of hard work, and tries to remember how to breathe.

Gwen puts her other hand under his chin, forcing him to look up, and kisses him again.

It’s a bit less gentle than the first time, both her mouth and her fingers hot and insistent as they press against him, and he loses his balance, falling onto his back with a small yelp of surprise. She follows him down without breaking the kiss, lowering herself to her elbows and covering his body with hers. He’s distantly aware of a dull ceramic clunk, but he doesn’t really take notice of what it means until a few moments later, when something lukewarm and wet seeps into the hem of his pajama pants.

“Shit!” She rolls off of him, righting the mug of no-longer-hot chocolate and scrambling for the napkins left over from dinner. “Fuck, it’s everywhere.”

He tugs her sleeping bag away from the spill, but it’s already soaked. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to knock it over!”

She shakes her head, sitting back and surveying the damage. “No, I think I did it. It’s fine, the dirt’ll soak it up. But it’s gonna bring ants, so we’re going to have to give this tent to the campers we hate the most. I vote Max.”

“Gwen!” He can’t quite make that sound as disapproving as he should. He scoops up the wet napkins and drags her wet sleeping bag outside. “I’ll go put this in the wash right now.”

She glances at her watch, then back up at him. “It’s almost midnight, David. I’m not staying up until that’s clean, it’ll take all night.”

He knows she’s right -- the machine they rely on for the camp’s laundry is the same one they’ve had since he was a junior counselor, and runs extremely slowly -- and disappointment makes his shoulders slump. “We can sleep in the cabin, then. That’s no problem.”

When he returns from the laundry, yawning, Gwen isn’t in the counselors’ cabin like he expected. She’s not by the dying embers of the campfire, or in the tent. The sleeping bag, it turns out, isn’t in there either, nor are the lantern and the mugs of hot chocolate. He opens his mouth to whisper-call her name (it’s spooky with the fire out) --

“David!”

He jumps, covering his mouth to muffle a noise that was definitely not a scream, and turns to see Gwen leaning out of one of the other campers’ tents, half-hidden by shadows. She gestures him over and disappears back into the tent.

Shaking off his alarm, he ducks inside to see Gwen bundled up in the sleeping bag on the ground, with the other supplies well out of reach. “Oh,” he says, not sure exactly what he’s looking at. “Um, should I . . . sleep on one of the cots?” It’d be uncomfortable, but he’d rather shiver through a night curled up on a too-small bed than go back to the cabin alone.

She rolls her eyes at him and wriggles to the side, unzipping the bag halfway. “Get in before you let all the warm out.”

Oh . His face flushes hot and he has to look down at his feet for a moment to compose himself.

Well, he’s hardly going to refuse , is he?

It’s a bit of a close fit, but he manages to slide in alongside her. She turns onto her side, slinging one arm over his waist and resting her cheek on his shoulder. “Is this okay?” she mumbles, already sounding like she’s halfway to falling asleep.

He has to swallow twice before he can answer. “Y-yes. This is fine.” He can already tell that it’ll get unbearably warm soon -- Gwen’s pressed against his side and radiating heat like a furnace -- but her weight on his chest is solid and comforting and he knows he won’t be moving an inch until the sun rises, not unless she tells him to.

She’s quiet for long enough that he thinks she’s fallen asleep.

“Sorry.”

It’s so soft he freezes in the darkness, trying to figure out if that was his imagination or not. When she lifts her head, nothing more than a black vaguely-Gwen-shaped blob, he recovers and says, “Why?”

“I know this whole pre-summer hot chocolate thing is really important to you. It kinda sucks that I ruined it.”

“You didn’t ruin anything!” He sits up on his elbows, tentatively reaching out to stroke her hair. His fingertips brush against her forehead and she ducks slightly, letting him pet her hair without poking an eye out. “I know it hasn’t exactly started yet,” he says, flopping back down so she can rest her head on his shoulder again, “but I think this might be the best summer ever.”

“You say that every summer.”

He smiles up at nothing. “And I mean it every summer.”

There’s silence for a moment, then he feels her press a light kiss against his neck. “Call me optimistic, but you might be onto something this year, anyway.”

“Wow,” he says, blowing out a huff of air. “Admitting I’m right three times in one day. I hope it doesn’t keep up like this or I’ll get a swelled head!”

He doesn’t have to see her face to know she’s glaring at him, and that small knowledge makes him indescribably happy. “No danger of that happening.”

“I know.” It’s one of his favorite things about her.

Her breathing evens out as she falls asleep, soft and slightly nasal. It’s another sound he associates with his time spent at Camp Campbell, although never so close, never with her hair tickling his cheek and her hand splayed over his heart like she’s protecting it. He’s used to letting her breathing lull him to sleep from across the room -- but he thinks he could get used to this, if he has the chance.

(He’d like the chance to get used to this.)

David closes his eyes and enjoys the last moments of peace they have, before the kids arrive and the camp explodes into a delightful frenzy of sound and chaos.

Let the summer begin.