See? I'm not dead. And I still love you... kinda. well, I haven't forgotten you much, and you'll have to settle for that.

Outdoor Love (To Love a Hippy?)

Jeff had known coming was a bad idea. He'd known it from the very moment that he agreed to come. Nay, even before that he'd known he'd make a bad decision the moment he'd met Samuel 'Cougar' Gill.

In fact, if you considered that Jeff had always known that his attraction to hippies would lead him into trouble, then there was no time at which he did not know that going on this trip was a bad idea.

But Cougar's tousled brown hair and his scruffy almost-beard, the hemp choker and bone pendent at his throat, his threadbare wool sweater and pricey new outdoors-y pants, all of that added up into something so attractive that Jeff simply forgot that one thing he'd known all of his life, and had agreed to go on the trip.

The two-week backpacking trip, through a forest he'd never actually heard of before (and still couldn't remember the name of), with nine other people he'd never met. Well, eight people he'd never met, and one he'd just barely met and was extremely attracted to.

What was I thinking? Jeff asked himself as he carefully placed a foot to avoid falling into the mud—again. His only solace was that they'd all fallen in at some point. Well, all of them except for Cougar and his fellow trip-leader, a skinny sarcastic girl named Leah. They seemed to be descended from mountain-goats—or the mountain-goat's lowland relative, at least.

Jeff sighed and brushed a mosquito off of his forehead. "Fucking bugs," he muttered, slapping at the three on his arm as well.

No unrequited crush was worth this.

"Holding up?" Cougar called back to him as they walked.

"I feel like an all you can eat buffet," Jeff replied, trying to catch one of the bugs flying, but stumbling instead.

Cougar glanced back at him. "You okay?" he asked, pausing to make sure Jeff was alright.

Jeff nodded, wishing he could read more into their guide's comment than simple concern for the stupid city-kid he was dragging through the woods. Cougar showed them all the same concern, though. Jeff wasn't special.

"We'll have a break soon; there's a bit of solid land just up ahead," Cougar said, once Jeff had righted himself again. "We can drink some water and maybe put on some bug spray."

Jeff grunted, his attention focused back on his feet rather than the attractive man in front of him—which really wasn't something that happened to him very often. Still, in this stinking swamp, even besotted gazing had to give way to keeping ankles untwisted and knees unmuddied.

Cougar was right about the bit of solid ground, and Jeff happily sat down on a rock, leaning back on his pack to take the weight off of his shoulders and aching back. "Why am I here?" Jeff muttered to himself.

"You alright?" Leah asked, frowning at him.

Jeff summoned a smile. "I've been better," he said. "But I don't think I'm going to die just yet."

"Good," she said, smiling back. "Because there's a small mountain we're going up soon, and I'd rather not carry you up it."

Jeff groaned. "Do we have to?" he asked.

Leah laughed, apparently taking his comment as a joke, and wandered off to check on the other victims. 'Hikers', rather.

Jeff sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.

"Did you get some water?" Cougar asked.

Jeff opened his eyes to find the gorgeous man standing in front of him. He shook his head, and made the effort to move for his own water bottle. Distracted for a moment trying to untangle it from the backpack's straps, Jeff was startled when Cougar held out an open granola bar.

"Eat this," Cougar said.

Jeff took it warily. "Thanks," he said.

Cougar smiled at him. "I figure your blood sugar's a bit low."

"How-" Jeff started, snapping his mouth shut a moment later when he realized it was probably because of his whining.

Cougar chuckled at him. "Don't worry about it. Happens to the best of us," he added.

Jeff sighed, but ate the granola bar and drank some water without further complaint. Some of the girls in the group were whining as well, and they got offered the same snack and easy laugh. Jeff wanted to be jealous, wanted to care, but he was simply too exhausted. It wasn't like Cougar was his anyway.

Groaning, Jeff leaned back against his pack and shut his eyes, hoping they'd never ask him to move again.

--

They'd asked him to move. And then they'd kept him moving for several more hours, until the sky started to get dark and they stopped at their campsite for the night. Jeff had wandered around aimlessly until Leah had snapped at him. He hadn't meant to be unhelpful, he just hadn't known what to do, and was too worn out to figure it out himself.

Cougar sent him to gather wood.

Jeff couldn't find any sticks. Until one snapped under his foot and he realized that he was in a forest and it was full of sticks. Laughing and crying at the same time, Jeff crumpled into a small ball and took a few deep breaths. Dumbest decision of my life, he thought for the millionth time that day.

Slowly he began to pick up sticks and place them into a pile in front of him. He'd stand up in a moment and carry them back to the campsite. Really he would.

"Jeff?" Cougar's voice called through the trees. "Je-oh, here you are. Everything okay?" he asked, taking stock of Jeff and his stick-pile.

"Not- really," Jeff said. "I think I'm just not cut out for the wilderness."

Cougar laughed. "The others aren't doing all that much better than you," he said. "And it's only your first day out here. Plus, you said you'd never backpacked before."

"I haven't," Jeff said, feeling even more miserable.

Cougar ruffled his hair. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll make a hippy of you yet." He helped Jeff to his feet and the two of them carried the sticks back to the campsite.

--

They got the fire going, and the food cooking, and Jeff sat with his back against a tree and felt almost human again.

"Hey," Cougar said, sitting next to him. "I brought you something." He held out a flask.

"Alcohol?" Jeff asked, eyeing the flask warily.

Cougar laughed. "Don't I wish," he said. "It's water, and aspirin." He held out his other hand.

"Aspirin?" Jeff repeated, perking up instantly. He took both things on offer and gulped the medication down. "I love you," he said a moment later, looking Cougar directly in the eyes. The statement had surprisingly little to do with his crush, too.

Cougar laughed again; Jeff was really starting to like that sound.

"Are you coming closer to the fire?" Cougar asked.

Jeff shrugged. "The tree's over here," he said. "And if I don't have something to lean on, I'm pretty sure I'll fall over."

"You can lean against my back," Cougar offered, "Now come on."

You're not helping my crush at all, Jeff thought, though he obediently followed Cougar to the fire circle.

"Okay, okay, I know one," one of the girls was saying as they arrived. "Let's all say the worst job we've ever had."

"This one!" Leah called out, joking, to judge by her smile.

Everyone laughed.

"I worked at McDonald's once," offered one of the guys—Tim, if Jeff wasn't mistaken.

"Waitress," said the girl to his left—Jessica?

"Before and after school program," said the next girl, very bitterly.

"Filing at a law office," said Evan, the second-most attractive guy in the party. After Cougar, of course.

"Computer tech help," Cougar said, his voice rumbling his back as Jeff leaned against it.

Jeff nodded for a moment, then sat up straight so quickly that Cougar almost fell over. "You're a geek," he accused, twisting to look at his crush.

Everyone laughed.

"And here I'd hid it so well," Cougar said, twisting to look at him and leaning forward slightly. "I'd take trees over computers any day, although computer bugs take less blood."

There was more laughter, and Jeff settled himself cross-legged as the food was spooned into mess kits and passed around. Cougar settled next to him, close as they sat around the small fire.

"What's your worst job?" Cougar asked when everyone had settled back down, nudging Jeff to indicate who he was talking to.

Jeff frowned at the food in his hands. "I'm not sure; I haven't had many jobs. I guess the place I worked before—it was the same thing I do now, but my boss was an asshole, especially after he found out I was gay." Oops. He hadn't meant to let that slip. Ah, well, water under the bridge.

"God, I hate that," one of the girls—one whose name he still didn't know—said in clear sympathy. "I'm comfortable with who I am, don't hide it or whatever, but then my boss finds out, and BAM!--" she clapped her hands together—"It's like I'm a whole new person, ripe for discrimination."

Jeff just shrugged uncomfortably. He didn't usually make a big deal of his sexuality, didn't hide it, didn't flaunt it; but this was a touchy topic in partially unknown company.

"That's why I'm glad I work where I work," Cougar said, setting his empty bowl/plate/pan aside and settling in more firmly against Jeff's side, "easier to be yourself among hippies."

Jeff sat up stiffly, not sure what to do about this change in positions, let alone the ambiguous comment. He relaxed after a few moments with Cougar leaning on his shoulder, listening absently to the conversation as it drifted along to other topics.

--

"Are they asleep?"

"Aww, that's so cute!"

"You have got to be kidding me."

"Wake them up."

Jeff opened his eyes and blinked into the darkness at that last comment. The fire had burned low, and a couple people we poking it apart with sticks, preparing to put it out for the night. "Wazzat?" he asked.

"Wake up, it's time to go to bed," Leah said from somewhere nearby.

Jeff tried to send a sleepy glare in her direction, but all he got was an amused chuckle in response. Raising one hand to scrub at his face, he nudged Cougar with his elbow to wake the man up.

Cougar sat up slowly and looked around. "Long day," he muttered, rubbing an eye.

Leah laughed at him for a moment before sobering. "We have a problem," she said.

Cougar squinted at her. "What kind?" he asked.

"The guys don't want to share a tent with pretty-boy here."

Jeff sighed, hanging his head. He knew it would cause something like this. He should have kept his mouth shut. Or better yet, never come on this stupid camping trip anyway.

Cougar rubbed his eyes and yawned. "It's only a four-person tent anyway," he muttered. "Where does that leave us?"

"Well, the girls said they wouldn't mind him being in the other four-person with them, or I can share with the girls and you can sleep with Jeff in the two-person."

Jeff felt a ridiculous smile cross his face at the double entendre. It wasn't what she meant, of course, but what if…

There was a pause while Cougar ran his hand through his hair and yawned again, clearly thinking about his options. "So I either get to share with you and your smelly feet, or with someone who won't kick me in my sleep? You've got to ask?"

Leah rolled her eyes. "Just wanted to make it official," she said, before wandering off to try and help the giggling girls who were trying to put their food up in a bear hang.

Cougar moved off to have a word with the guys, who were putting out the fire by catching small sticks on fire and flicking them at each other.

Shaking his head, Jeff sleepily offered a hand and was gently rebuffed. After they sent him away from helping with the bear hang, too, Jeff simply wandered over to sit in front of his tent. The tent he was sharing with the man of his dreams. "Shit," Jeff muttered as it suddenly sunk in. He glanced behind himself at the tiny tent, and then looked over to track Cougar with his eyes.

Cougar noticed and waved, heading over a moment later. "Why don't you just go to bed?" he said, "You were pretty tired today, and tomorrow's going to be just as bad."

Jeff groaned and buried his face in his hands for a moment before following Cougar's advice.

He'd expected Cougar to stay outside and…help with the bear hang or something, but the guide followed him inside the tent, and zipped the flap shut behind them. "It lets fewer bugs in this way," he said, something odd in his voice.

Jeff frowned, trying to puzzle it out for a moment. He gave up too quickly, far too exhausted to even care. He'd worry about it in the morning.

Ignoring his tentmate as best he could, Jeff dug through his stuff until he found his flashlight, quickly converting it into a tiny lantern and starting to pull off a few of the layers he was wearing.

A slight cough from the other side of the small tent drew his attention to the fact that Cougar was sitting and watching him.

"What?" Jeff asked, distracted enough that he tangled himself in his sweater.

"Nothing," Cougar mumbled, turning bright red and looking away. Then again, maybe it had just been the poor light from Jeff's flashlight-lantern.

Pulling off another layer, Jeff caught Cougar looking at him again. Just weird, he thought. I hope he's not homophobic. He'd pretty much said he wasn't out by the fire, but befriending a gay was probably somehow different from sharing a tent with one. "No, really, what?" he asked. There was a pause. "If you're uncomfortable, then I'm sure Leah'd still be willing to switch-"

"Sorry," Cougar said. "I just- sorry."

His eyes stayed firmly away from Jeff for the rest of the night, which was good because Jeff was angry at him. There was something, even if Cougar tried to brush it off. He doesn't think I'm going to rape him in his sleep or something, does he? Jeff wondered to himself, settling into his sleeping bag. He caught a whiff of himself as he tried to get warm.

"Phew, I need a shower," he muttered, rubbing at his nose.

"Wait a week," Cougar replied, even though the absent comment had clearly been rhetorical. "Then you'll really need a shower."

--

Jeff didn't have to wait a week. He only needed to wait for two more days, when the sky, grieved over the misery of the foolish hikers below, opened up the clouds and poured the rains down onto their head, increasing their misery tenfold.

Jeff hunched his shoulders, trying to eliminate the trickle of water that had finally found its way between his shirt and his back. Any movement of his just made the trickle worse.

"At least there's no bugs," he muttered to himself, not worried about being overheard. He could hardly hear the others walking on either side of him, there was no way they'd have heard him talking to himself.

The girl in front of him gracefully picked her way across and around a puddle. Jeff paused for a moment to brace himself, and then just walked through it. His socks were already soaked; walking through another puddle wasn't going to make a difference.

"I wanna go home," Jeff hummed to himself. "Let me go home. This is the worst trip I've ever been on…" he hummed his way through the verses, and then just repeated the chorus, using it like a mantra to stay sane until the words lost all meaning.

Actually, the last few days of the trip—before the rain, hadn't been as bad as the first day, and Jeff had started to understand why people did this for fun. Fun, as opposed to doing it for masochistic reasons like unrequited love.

Finally a break was called, and Jeff settled himself onto the driest spot he could find. He pulled out his water bottle and some trail mix without even needing to be told.

Evan wandered over and nodded at the space on the rock next to Jeff. "May I?" he asked.

Jeff nodded absently and shifted over to give Evan a bit more room. If they hadn't been living out in the woods, carrying everything with them and eating out of the packs they were carrying, the space on the rock would have been too small to fit more than one person. As it was, Jeff didn't mind Evan being in his bubble, since it gave him some extra warmth.

The other guys had never changed their minds about not sharing a tent with Jeff, so Jeff never quite knew what to think about them. He didn't really know what to think about the girls, either. There was an assumption that he'd know all of these people better by the time this insane journey ended, but for now Jeff was still very unsure about them.

"How are you?" Jeff asked, to fill the silence.

Evan, gnawing on his own soggy granola bar, shrugged. "Well as can be expected, I guess. My pack-strap is busted, though. Cougar says he can fix it, but not until we stop for lunch. I'm getting a set of blisters on my shoulder, but at least the weight's distributed differently for a change."

Jeff winced in sympathy. "Our tent was leaking last night," he said. "My sleeping bag is soaked. It should still keep me warm, but I am not looking forward to tonight."

Evan gave him a weird smile. "You could just share Cougar's bag," he suggested.

"What?" Jeff asked, staring at him blankly. Did he just imply…

"What what?" Evan asked. "Aren't you two-" he trailed off.

"No!" Jeff said, aghast. "Why would you even-"

"But that's why we manipulated it so you two were sharing."

"You what?!" Jeff exclaimed, jumping up.

Evan's eyes darted from side to side. "Nothing! Nothing!" he said. "Look, it's time to go!" he pointed at the others, who were getting strapped back into their gear.

Jeff groaned, vowed to himself that he'd learn more of Evan's story later and started squirming back into his own pack.

--

It stopped raining around lunchtime, but the weather became hot and humid instead, so nothing dried, and everything smelled. Jeff decided he preferred the rain, but slogged onwards nonetheless.

He was watching his feet and listening absently to the buzzing of insects as he walked. Someone started to walk past him, an event that happened depressingly often, since Jeff was a fairly slow walker.

He nudged over to the side of the trail to let the other by, but instead of passing, Tim adjusted his speed until he was walking comfortably next to Jeff. "So you and Cougar, huh," he said.

"What?" Jeff asked, stopping suddenly and turning to look at Tim. Tim just kept walking and Jeff stumbled to keep up.

"You and Cougar," Tim repeated, as though Jeff hadn't heard.

"What about me and Cougar?" Jeff asked, trying to watch both Tim and the rocky path, and nearly failing at both.

"You know," Tim said. "You and Cougar." He loaded his voice with innuendo in lieu of meaning.

"I really don't know," Jeff said.

"But—we set it up so you two were sharing a tent!" Tim insisted.

"We are sharing a tent!" Jeff snapped. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"You know," Tim said.

Jeff wondered if he could get away with tripping the other man into a passing puddle. "Why did you think we needed to share a tent?" he asked.

Tim glanced over at him. "Not needed, you know, wanted."

"Wanted…not to put up with Steve's snoring?" Jeff suggested.

Tim huffed. "Like you couldn't hear that through three feet of concrete, let alone through two thin layers of nylon," he said.

Jeff was amazed. He didn't think Tim could say that many words at once.

Before Jeff could monopolize on this unprecedented deluge of words, Leah called a break and Tim vanished to the other side of their group.

Cougar materialized next to him, and he sized the man up. 'Wanted', eh, Jeff thought. There was an awful lot of want on his part, and it was probably slightly obvious, as Jeff had been told before that he had all the subtly of a rampaging elephant when it comes to such things. Did the guys just figure that out, and then assume that two men sharing a tent, with at least one of them attracted to the other, couldn't possibly share said tent platonically? Because if that was what they were thinking, then they were dead wrong. Jeff had never felt this platonic in his life. Even, he suspected, if they were together, he'd be too exhausted to do more than look before bed.

"Alright?" Cougar asked, turning and catching Jeff still staring at him.

Jeff, unable to help himself, blushed. "Yeah," he said.

"Hold in there," Cougar said, clapping a hand on his shoulder.

And did that hand linger a bit too long? Jeff wasn't sure. It would be nice if it had, of course, but it was probably just the possibilities that talking with Tim and Evan had planted in his mind.

--

Somehow Jeff suddenly became hyper-aware of Cougar. He'd noticed the guy before, sure, but now it was as though he constantly knew where Cougar was, like a tracking device, or radar or something that kept track of where things were. And, as he watched Cougar with an unintentional obsessivness, Jeff realized a few things. One; he was starting to turn into a certified stalker, and two; Cougar really did pay a bit more attention to him. Not a whole lot, but enough that Jeff was convinced Cougar either was interested or thought Jeff was going to emotionally explode in a moment.

It could be either, but Jeff preferred to pretend that it was the first option.

--

Jeff managed to get the tent up all by himself that evening. It was only the two-person tent, but getting there from not even knowing how a tent went up, Jeff felt was a fairly big accomplishment. Cougar clapped him on the back and congratulated him over it, too. And this time his hand really did linger a bit longer than it should.

Jeff settled down next to the fire later, while they all waited for dinner to cook properly, and Cougar sat next to him, so Jeff settled comfortably against Cougar's side.

Cougar tensed up for a moment before relaxing and putting an arm around Jeff.

It was every bit as comfortable as Jeff wanted it to be.

That night, as they settled in in their tent, Jeff caught Cougar watching him again. "What?" he asked.

Cougar coughed. "Um," he said, still watching.

"Yeah," Jeff said, returning to unbuttoning his shirt.

"Need a hand?" Cougar finally asked, rising to his knees and helping Jeff slide his shirt off. There was another shirt, but Jeff didn't think that was why he was suddenly too hot.

Cougar pulled him forward and down, falling backwards himself so that Jeff landed on top. "Yeah?" he said, sounding unsure for a moment.

Jeff laughed, nervous and delighted. "Oh yeah," he said, rising enough that they could sort their legs into a more comfortable position.

He finally settled back down on top of Cougar, feeling the solid body beneath him rise and fall gently as Cougar breathed.

Burying his nose in Cougar's neck, Jeff inhaled the scent of trees and woods and unwashed man, which he probably shouldn't have found quite as intoxicating as he did. Flicking his tongue out, Jeff hesitantly licked and kissed his way up to Cougar's chin, the salt sharp on his tongue. He hesitated over Cougar's mouth.

Cougar bit his lip and shifted around. Jeff thought for one panicked second that Cougar was trying to- to- undo what they'd just done, but then the flashlight went off. "They don't need to see it," Cougar muttered, pulling Jeff's head down that last little bit to bring their lips together.

They really don't, Jeff thought, before giving himself over to Cougar's distracting kisses. One last thought bubbled up out of the morass that his mind was becoming; This is the best trip ever.

--

End

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