Chapter 1: Campe Diem
David’s always had a soft spot for rituals. They remind him of his mom, of camp -- of all the things that feel like home. They center him, clear his mind, get him ready for the challenges ahead.
He carefully dots the exclamation mark in the sand and takes a step back, tossing his writing stick to the side and putting his hands on his hips. The words written on the shore are a little crooked, the D a little crooked from when a sudden bird call startled him, but as he kicks off his boots (carefully rolling up his socks and smushing them into the toes to keep them from getting sandy) his chest is warm and light.
And lucky for him, because the lake is so cold he nearly jumps out of his skin. Clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering, he forces himself to wade out to his waist, and turns back to survey his handiwork. With the frigid water of Lake Lilac leaving his legs numb, the cool breeze making the trees rustle and the air smell like pine needles, and the sun already scorching everything it touches as it climbs into the sky, he reads back the words in the sand, letting his gaze move slow and deliberately over each swoop and wobbly line and tracing their mirror in the calm surface of the lake like sacred runes.
Campe diem. The words that make the summer begin.
Or . . . not quite.
The voice makes him jump, but a second later he smiles. “Good morning, Gwen!” he calls, splashing back to shore and subtly kicking away the letters. “It’s nice to see you up so early on such an important day!”
His co-counselor doesn’t look like it’s nice to be up, but aside from a baleful glare she shoots at the sunrise she doesn’t respond. She’s still groggy, dressed in her pajamas with her hair a messy tangle of knots that blend the two tones into a single warm burgundy. The sun makes her glow where it hits her face, warm and lit from the inside like a jack-o-lantern . . . only that sounds a lot less pretty than he intended, so he’s relieved that’s one of the thoughts he didn’t share out loud.
David wonders if people enjoy looking at their best friends this much, or if it means something potentially dangerous. The way he always does when this question occurs, he quickly banishes it from his mind. “How are you settling in?” he asks, fully aware of the answer. They share a cabin, after all, and Gwen’s spent enough years at Camp Campbell to have the routine down to a science; within minutes of hopping off the bus QM rented for the summer, she’s mostly unpacked, changed into her counselors’ uniform, and begun a critical sweep of the camp’s supplies and paperwork.
She makes a noncommittal noise, rubbing the sleep from one eye with the heel of her hand and trying to shield herself from the sun with the other. “Are you ready? The stores are gonna be full of families getting shit for the summer -- it’ll be like Black Friday, so we’ve gotta be in and out as soon as the Tradin’ Post opens unless you’re prepared to deck some soccer moms.”
He resists the urge to smile; she might not believe in the power of the beginning-of-summer rituals, but this optimistic plan for their camping supply trip is as much a staple of every summer as David’s sand writing. “Sounds like a swell plan, Gwen.”
“Yeah, whatever,” she mutters, but he catches a half-smile before she turns her back on the lake. “Come on, get dressed and meet me in the Mess Hall. I’ll start inventory.” As he falls into step beside her, she glances over at him, raising her eyebrows. “Morning swim?”
He shrugs, turning to survey the empty campground. “Basically!”
“Sure. Seems like something you’d do.” She dismisses him with a wave of her hand, already fixated on the task at hand. “Just hurry up so we can get out of here. If you think you’re gonna make me do all the hard jobs by myself, I’ve got a guitar with your face written all over it.”
David laughs before he can stop himself. “There it is,” he murmurs, causing her to glance over curiously.
“Nothing! I’ll meet you in the kitchen. Might as well start by seeing what food we have, right?” As he ducks into the counselor’s cabin, he catches a glimpse of her hair, glinting like copper in the early-morning light, and his heart lifts.
There it is.
Writing the camp’s motto in the sand and water is important to him, a silly little consecration ritual that marks the line between his life outside of Camp Campbell and the endless, magical months of summer. He’s done it ever since he was a junior counselor; it feels like staking a claim on the only perfect place that’s ever existed, like writing his name on the heart of the earth. Even if he technically owns the camp now -- something that felt too bizarre and wonderful to make sense last summer and if anything is only more strange after an entire year -- no amount of signatures or invoices capture the simple power of the words “campe diem” on Lake Lilac.
But for David, the summer doesn’t really begin until Gwen tells him she needs him. Never in those exact words, of course . . . but he’s gotten pretty good at reading between her lines, and she’s never exactly been subtle.
He tightens his bandanna around his neck, smiling at his reflection. Get out there and help your CBFL, David. Campe diem.
The wheels that help spring become summer begin turning.
“Okay. This is okay.” Gwen runs a hand through her hair, grimacing as her fingers get caught in tangles. She’s still in her pajamas, a smear of dirt along her thigh from crawling around the supply shed, but she’s so single-minded David isn’t sure she’s even aware of what she’s wearing. (He makes a quick mental note to remind her to change before they leave, because when she gets hyperfocused like this, it’s easy to see her blasting down the shelves of the Sleepy Peak Tradin’ Post in bare feet and oversized paisley boxer shorts.) “We can’t afford literally anything we need. Just like every summer. This is gonna be a disaster, but that’s okay.”
He puts his hand on her shoulder, figuring now isn’t a good time for a hug. “It’ll be fine,” he tries. He scans over their shopping list and tries to imagine a way they can stretch their budget to cover it all; then he remembers that he doesn’t know what their budget is, because Gwen takes care of that, and feels a faint spike of panic jam itself between his ribs. “Let’s ask Mr. Campbell if --”
“Don’t even think about it, kiddo. The government already cleaned me out.” Mr. Campbell slouches into the room, tugging at the trapdoor in the Mess Hall ceiling that leads to the attic. “Those brothers found every last hiding place I had. Apparently it’s being used to repay my ‘debts to society,’ if you can believe it.”
“I can,” Gwen mutters, gaze darting around the Mess Hall as though hoping a sign saying “Free Money Here” will appear out of the blue. She hurries into the back room, where they’ve managed to convert a closet into something resembling an office.
David’s distracted by something else, though. “Brothers?” he repeats, hurrying to help Mr. Campbell lower the spring-down ladder from the ceiling.
“Yeah, those suits from Washington. You’ve met them a hundred times -- sunglasses, terrible fashion sense. The secret agent guys.”
“Um, sir --” he’s not supposed to call Mr. Campbell “sir” anymore, since he’s technically the boss now, but it’s a surprisingly tough habit to kick, “-- if you mean Agent and Agent Miller . . . they’re not brothers.”
He frowns down at David, frozen halfway up to the attic like he’s scaling a mountain. “Of course they are! Or are you going to tell me it’s a coincidence that they have the same last name?”
David shrugs awkwardly, kind of wishing he hadn’t said anything. “They’re married, sir.”
“Really?” His brows furrow. “And that’s legal here now?” David nods. “Go figure. Well, good for them.”
Gwen bursts back into the Mess Hall with a scrap of paper, snatching her phone off one of the tables. “Agent Miller?” she says after a moment, and her tone abruptly melts into honey. “It’s Gwen Santos! You know, from Camp Campbell? Yeah, it’s great to hear from you, too! How’s the weather over there?”
The rattling sound of the ladder being drawn back up into the attic startles David, making him jump and glance away from the conversation. He frowns up at the closed trapdoor -- he’s pretty sure Mr. Campbell is telling the truth about his stashes of money, but it’d be nice if he at least tried to help -- then crosses over to the safe in the corner. (It’s empty, of course, but he wants to feel like he’s doing something useful.)
Meanwhile, Gwen’s voice still sounds like it’s made of spun sugar: “Things are wonderful over here! We’re taking good care of everything. Actually, that’s part of why I was calling . . . I noticed Ered’s coming back this summer?” A moment of silence, then a bubbly laugh. “Well, we’re certainly excited to have her here! The thing is . . .”
A few minutes later she ends the call, immediately jumping into the air and spiking her phone into the couch. “That’s how it’s done!” she crows, dancing in a circle. “I -- am -- the -- best!” Each word is punctuated by punching the air, and then she twirls around again.
Her eyes land on David as she finishes spinning. It’s like a bucket of water was dumped on her head -- her shoulders slump, her arms fall to her sides, and it even seems like the brilliant violet of her eyes turns duller.
“Oh. Hey, David.”
He forces a smile, rising to his feet and wincing as his knees crack. “That sounds like good news!” he says, wondering if there’s a way to tell her he doesn’t mind seeing her happy without it making everything awkward and weird.
She brightens a bit, rescuing her phone from where it lodged itself between the couch cushions. “Yeah. Turns out the Millers are really happy with you for taking care of Campbell all year. They’re Venmo-ing the camp some cash. Probably not enough for most of the stuff we need, but we can cut it down to the essentials.”
“That’s amazing!” He doesn’t entirely know what she accomplished, but it sounds encouraging. “Gwen, you’re incredible!”
She shrugs, her cheeks flushing pink. “Whatever,” she mumbles, then raises her voice almost to a shout. “It’s crazy what great things can happen when you’re not breaking the law all the time!”
Mr. Campbell’s voice is muffled by the closed door: “Give it a rest, Gina!”
Gwen rolls her eyes, but her attempt to look annoyed is dampened slightly by the smile that keeps tugging at the corner of her mouth. “What a dick. Come on, David, let’s get out of here.”
When she emerges from the cabin, dressed like a Camp Campbell counselor for the first time this summer, he looks up from his phone with a smile. “Campe diem , Gwen!” he says, giving her the Camp Campbell salute. Her response is just to shake her head, which is about all he expected. “You look great!”
She gives him a strange look as she slides into the driver’s side of the campmobile. “I look like this all the time, David.”
And she looks great all the time, but he knows better than to say that out loud. “Camp Campbell has a Venmo?” he asks instead (he looked it up while she was getting changed).
“Yes, Brother David. It’s one of those boring grown-up things I did while you were playing in the dirt last summer. No need to thank me.”
Well, she said he doesn’t need to thank her, so he chooses not to. That’s just the kind of thing Gwen does, after all, and once again he wonders how they’d get by if she was able to find a better job.
We’d figure it out, he tells himself, looking out the window as the camp falls behind them. But not this summer.
He has one more year of grace, anyway.
She’s here, and he might as well enjoy it while it lasts.
None of these have been proofed, by the way. Probably should've mentioned that earlier.
Even though Gwen says she doesn’t have any rituals, there are a few things that they have to do every summer, the day before all the campers arrive. Inventory coupled with a panicked last-minute shopping trip is one of them. Listening to strange music at earth-shaking volumes on the drive to and from town is another.
“Yeah, girl, it's true, I'm into you, but these benzos, they got me feeling loose --”
David’s tempted to cover his ears -- it cannot be good for his eardrums; he didn’t even know the volume knob went this high! -- but if he does that, he might block out Gwen’s voice. There are very few situations where she’s willing to sing with an audience, and the car ride into town is one of those rare occasions.
He sits back, watching her shimmy her shoulders in time to the music, painting the air with the hand not on the steering wheel in strange gestures that are half conducting and half gang signs --
“Why don't you come through, before I Goku -- fuck this white pill and go super xan!”
-- and decides, like he does every year, that this is worth the risk of moderate hearing loss.
As they pull up in front of the store (despite Gwen’s dire warnings, the street is as empty always), she switches the music off. David tries to convince himself the ringing in his ears is all in his head, and that he isn’t going to suddenly wake up deaf. He mostly succeeds.
“Okay, David.” Gwen stops directly in front of him, putting her hands on his shoulders. It suddenly feels like there’s a snake constricting around his chest, and his next breath stutters and doesn’t seem to pull in enough air. She doesn’t notice, narrowing her eyes at him as though he was one of their poorly-behaved campers. “We have a list.” She waves it between their faces for emphasis.
He swallows, nodding. “We do.”
“We’re sticking to the list.”
David nods, resisting the urge to laugh. “Of course we are,” he says; he hadn’t intended for his remark to sound sarcastic but can’t be entirely disappointed that it does.
“We’re not buying anything unless it’s on this list, got it?”
“Got it, Gwen!”
“Good.” She takes a step back and punches his arm lightly. “Let’s go, CBFL.”
As he follows her into the store, he couldn’t keep from smiling if he tried.
“Wasn’t that fun?”
Gwen groans, shoving the last of the bags into the car (David reminds himself yet again to put his reusable shopping bags in the campmobile so they don’t spend another summer gathering dust under his bed) and slamming the door shut. “Swear to god I’m gonna get a leash for you,” she grumbles, putting her forehead on the steering wheel for a moment before starting the car. “I’ll order one from a kink website or something and you’ll only have yourself to blame.”
He doesn’t roll his eyes, but it’s a close thing. “I don’t think that’s necessary . . .”
“Oh, yeah?” She lifts her head to give him a sideways glare. “How many knives did we buy?”
“And how many knives were on the list?”
Okay, she’s made her point. “But Gwen, one of them is specially engineered for whittling!” He digs through the bags until he recovers it, holding it up to her. “I’ve always wanted to try whittling!”
“‘Specially engineered’ is a bullshit term used to sell stuff to idiots, David. And the other one . . .”
“Is . . . well . . .” Okay, so he doesn’t have an exact use for it yet. But he likes being prepared, and it’s important to have tools on-hand. “The box says you could shave with it! Isn’t that cool?”
She taps on the steering wheel impatiently. “Are you planning on shaving with it?” she asks, deadpan.
“No.” But he could .
Gwen snorts, starting the car. “Well, you’re gonna have to explain to the campers why we’re using the same old watered-down paint as last year.” She pulls an imitation of him that’s disturbingly accurate. “‘Golly gee, sorry about that, kids! But look at this cool knife I got instead!’”
That hardly seems fair, but he doesn’t have a good comeback. Knives aren’t cheap, it’s true, and he hates the thought that the camp will suffer because of him. “I mean, when you put it like that . . .” he mutters, looking out the window to avoid her accusing gaze.
There’s a moment of silence. Then her arm lands heavily around his shoulders, pulling him into a sudden half-hug. By the time he’s registered what’s happening, she’s taken her arm back and gently shoved him back to his side of the car. “It’s fine, David,” she says with a sigh, her face slightly pink. “I didn’t have to buy Nights with the Wolf Queen , either.”
He doesn’t point out that a grocery-store paperback is hardly as much of an expense as two wilderness knives, mostly because he doesn’t want her to realize it herself. So he takes the olive branch and smiles at her before reaching to the dashboard and turning the music back on.
Noise explodes through the car, making both of them jump even though they knew it was going to happen. Gwen’s surprise immediately dissolves into delight, and even though she doesn’t thank him outright, she bobs her head and drums on the steering wheel to the beat, and that feels like thanks enough.
“Robbing banks, knock it off! Not saying thanks, knock it off!”
David perks up, tilting his head to hear better (not that he needs to, since the music is currently drilling its way into his skull). “Hey, I like this one!” he says. Why didn’t they start with this song?
Gwen glances at him for a second before returning her eyes to the road, clearly trying not to smile. “Would it even matter if I tell you this is sarcastic?”
It wouldn’t, and they both know it.
Guess who's been listening to a shitload of TMG lately? Me -- which means so has Gwen, because she's the bag of holding I shove all my hyperfixations and personal issues into.
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) --
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.
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.
Apologies for the length on this one, but there's no good place to cut it. Hopefully the teeth-rotting fluff will make up for how long it is.