Steph was still in the same position she’d been in the night before, when Alex woke up. Her girlfriend was curled against her under the blanket, breathing easily as she laid her head Alex’s shoulder and slept.
It was a little odd to not wake up in her bed. The night had quickly gotten chilly, so they’d zipped their sleeping bags together and laid the blanket on top of themselves before drifting off. Using her rolled-up sweatshirt as a pillow wasn’t nearly as comfortable, but it hadn’t been as bad as Alex worried it might’ve.
Maybe next time we can bring an air mattress. They fold up small enough.
She sighed, closing her eyes as she tried to go back to sleep. While it wasn’t pitch black, like it had been when they finally went to sleep, she could tell that the sun wasn’t fully up yet. So Alex relaxed, trying to let the soft pattering sounds around her lull her back asleep.
Then she frowned.
What is that? It sounds like…
“Ah, crap,” she muttered softly.
“Mm?” Steph shifted sleepily. “Wuzzat?”
Alex reached out towards the zipper of the tent door beside her, slowly opening it about six inches. Enough to see the rain outside, which became louder as she held the flap open. “It’s pouring.”
Steph opened one bleary eye as she lifted her head, looking out the tent flap. “… fuck.”
“The storm shifted last night. It was supposed to miss us entirely, but it turned south instead of continuing east.”
Alex sighed, closing her eyes as she held the phone to her ear. “Great.”
“Sorry. Are you guys okay?”
“Yea, we brought our backpacks into the tent with us. But we didn’t bring any rain jackets.”
“Well, it wasn’t supposed to rain, so why would you.” Ryan paused. “I wouldn’t start walking back until after it stops. And even then, I’d be careful. That part of the mountain gets pretty muddy, and you don’t want to lose traction and go sliding down a hill.”
“That sounds like a bad time. How long is it supposed to last?”
“According to the news, a few hours. You guys can still make it back in time for dinner.”
Alex shook her head. “Lovely. I guess we’ll call you later.”
“Yep. Have fun.”
She hung up, looking at Steph as the brunette watched the rain come down through the half-open tent door. “Ryan says it’s not gonna stop until after lunch.”
“Bummer.” She re-zipped the screen, leaving the interior flap open so they could see outside. “This was not the kind of nature I was hoping to enjoy.”
“Could be worse.” Alex opened her backpack. “We’ve got one can of chili left, plus the beef jerky you brought.”
Steph cracked a smirk. “What a nutritious breakfast.”
“Hey, we’re camping. Nutrition is a secondary concern at the moment.”
“Maybe, but I was really looking forward to brunch at the Brown Bear.” Steph sighed as she retrieved her mess kit. “We can’t even heat it up in here. Cold chili sucks.”
“It’s this or go hungry.”
“Well, I’m sure as hell not doing that.”
Alex smirked as she opened the can and divided the contents between them. They ate quickly, supplementing the meal with her beef jerky. “Feels like we’re on the Oregon Trail,” Steph commented as she tore at a strip of jerky with her teeth.
“Yea, except we have cell phones,” Alex reminded her.
“Cell phones without data reception. Though I guess we should be grateful enough to have service at all.” Steph checked her screen again. “Yea, I’ve only got a couple of bars. So streaming a show or something is out. Unless you have anything saved on yours, because I didn’t think to.”
Alex shook her head as she closed up her mess kit, shoving it back into her backpack. “Would’ve been smart, because it’s about to get really boring otherwise, unless we want to keep watching the rain.”
“Not really.” Steph leaned back, bracing herself on her hands as she glanced up in thought. “We should’ve bought a deck of cards.”
“We… hmm.” Steph looked at her, taking a slow breath. “I have an idea that could be fun.”
Alex smirked. “I’m sure it would be, but I’m not really in the mood right now.”
“Not that, you degenerate. Get your mind out of the gutter.”
“What’s the idea?”
“It’s a game I used to play with another girl back in high school.” Steph crossed her legs, getting comfortable. “It’s called ‘two truths and a lie’. You ever heard of it?”
Alex frowned. “No.”
“It’s easy. I tell you three things about me, but only two of them are true,” she explained. “Your job is to figure out the lie.”
“Hmm.” Alex leaned forward. “What do I do if I don’t guess it?”
“Uh…” Steph thought for a second, then brightened, turned around, and pulled the bottle of Fireball from her backpack. “If you don’t guess right, you take a drink. If you do, then I take a drink.”
“It’s eight in the morning.”
“So what? You gotta drive somewhere?”
Alex snickered. “Good point. You going first?”
“Sure.” Steph closed her eyes as she thought for a minute, then opened them again. “Okay. So… I hate sushi. I like venison. And I’ve never had Brussels sprouts.”
Alex hummed, leaning back on her hands. “Tough one.”
“Yep. Now, which one is the lie?”
Okay… well, I don’t know who could hate sushi, it’s delicious. Though I guess some people do. Alex thought hard. People hunt all the time out here, she’s probably had venison. But I haven’t, I have no idea how it tastes. And I don’t know when the last time I actually saw someone get served Brussels sprouts.
Stab in the dark it is.
“You’ve never had Brussels sprouts,” Alex stated. “That’s the lie.”
Steph grinned and held out the bottle. “Drink up.”
“Damn it.” Alex sighed as she took the bottle, opening it and taking a sip. “Which one was it?”
“That I like venison.” Steph shivered. “Duckie gave me some to try once. It tasted gross.”
“Right.” Alex closed her eyes, taking a breath as she tried to figure out her statements. She opened them back up after a couple of minutes. “I’ve never driven a car before. I don’t like cinnamon rolls. And I’ve always wanted to visit New York City.”
Steph leaned forward, tapping her lips in thought. “… okay, well, you don’t have a license, so I buy the car thing. And New York City is one of those places everyone wants to see once. So I’m gonna go with you actually liking cinnamon rolls.”
Alex smiled smugly. “I borrowed somebody’s car once, when they didn’t ask if I had a license. They didn’t find out until after I’d hit a curb and fucked up a rim.”
“Ah, crap.” Steph accepted the bottle, taking a swig. “How the hell can you hate cinnamon rolls, by the way?”
“They’re too sugary,” Alex replied with a shrug. “They make me feel like my teeth are rotting.”
“Yea, but that’s the point.”
“Then you can get dentures before thirty. It’s your turn.”
An hour later, Steph giggled as she handed Alex the bottle. “Sorry, babe.”
“Damn it.” Alex took a drink. “I thought you’ve known you were gay forever. When did you kiss a boy?”
“When I was seven.” Steph sighed as she lay on her side, resting on an elbow. “Robby Tanfield. He gave me a dandelion in the second grade, and all my friends told me that I owed him a kiss, so I pecked him on the cheek.”
“Aww. That’s adorable.”
“At the time. Now… I mean, being pressured into kissing a boy is so not cool, man.”
“Yea, well, we’re all woke in our twenties.” Alex smirked as she tried hard to think of some new statements. “This is getting tricky.”
“Maybe. But it’s a really good way to learn the little things about you.”
“True.” Alex took a few breaths as she tried to come up with some responses. “Last night was the first smore I ever had. I’ve never been on a plane. And I’ve never held a knife on someone.”
Steph snorted. “Well, I know you’ve never been on a plane before.”
“Because you said you grew up in Oregon, and didn’t leave until you came here. And Gabe told us when he bought your bus ticket.”
“Yea. There’s no way you’ve ever held a knife on someone.”
Alex shook her head as she set the bottle down in front of Steph. “Drink up.”
Steph blinked. “Wait, what? Are you serious?”
“Yea. Last night was my first smore.” Alex shrugged. “I told you that I’ve never been-”
“I don’t care about that!” She pushed herself upright, staring at Alex with wide eyes. “When the hell did you pull a knife on somebody?”
Alex bit her lip. It hadn’t occurred to her when she’d picked it that she might have to tell the story behind her statement. “It’s not important.”
“Bullshit. I wanna know.”
“It’s a bad story.”
“There’s no such thing as a GOOD story when part of it involves holding a knife on someone. Now tell me.”
Alex sighed, scratching at her knee. “It’s not a big deal,” she muttered, her eyes down. “It was… one of the group homes I was in had this kid, and he was kind of dangerous. I think he’d just gotten out of juvie or something.”
“Why was he there?”
“He was still a ward of the state.” Alex shrugged. “It was when Gabe was in jail, and the supervisors weren’t around. He’d already tried to push one of the girls down the stairs, so we were all on edge. And… they were supposed to lock up the sharp stuff, but I found a box cutter they missed, so I started carrying it. He was freaking all of us out really bad.”
Steph listened carefully, not speaking.
“I was in the kitchen, grabbing a granola bar, and he came in asking for some money.” Alex glanced up. “We each got some cash every month as a stipend, to do whatever we wanted with. He usually spent his on pot, and it was gone within a week.”
“The group home let him get away with that?”
“They were state employees, weren’t paid that well, and didn’t want to deal with him. He got away with a lot of shit.”
“What the fuck?”
“That’s the system at work. Anyway, I was saving money for something… my headphones, I think, but it was so long ago I don’t remember. I told him to fuck off.”
Steph raised an eyebrow.
“Yea, I know, but I wasn’t in a good mood either.” Alex played with her fingers. “Next thing I knew he was throwing me against the wall, yelling in my face. So I grabbed the box cutter from my pocket and cut him.”
“You… cut him?”
“His arm.” Alex extended hers, pointing at a spot near her wrist and a spot halfway up her forearm. “From here to here.”
“I… didn’t have a lot of control over how other people’s emotions affected me, back then. His anger hit me quick.” She dropped her hand. “He let me go, though. I held the box cutter at him and told him that if he touched me again, I was going to slit his throat.”
Steph absorbed the story, an unreadable look on her face. “… how old were you when this happened?”
“Jesus,” Steph breathed. “Please tell me that he left you alone after that.”
“He did. I think I was the only one who ever actually stood up to him.”
“Like I said, he freaked us all out. I slept with the box cutter under my pillow until the police finally arrested him again for setting a dumpster on fire. Never saw him again after that.”
Steph sat silently, staring at her. After a few seconds she scooted across the tent, wrapping her girlfriend in a bone-crushing hug. Alex patted Steph’s back after a couple of seconds. “It was a long time ago, babe.”
“I know. I don’t care.”
“It wasn’t a big deal.”
“Yes. It is.” Steph let her go, an upset look on her face. “When I was fourteen, I was playing video games while trying to convince my parents to let me go to Pride parades. And you were sleeping with box cutters under your pillow. You’re so amazing that I keep forgetting about all the fucked-up shit you’ve been through.”
Alex bit her lip as she looked down at her lap. “… like I said, it was a while ago.”
“Is that why you don’t talk about your time in foster care?”
“… among other reasons.”
Alex looked up at her. “Babe, it wasn’t a good time in my life.”
Steph reached out, clutching Alex’s hand. She started softly rubbing her girlfriend’s knuckles with her thumb. “… when did you go in? After your dad left?”
I guess we’re doing this, then. Alex met her gaze. “A few days later, when the social worker took me and Gabe to our first group home. I was ten.”
“They couldn’t put you with a family?”
“They tried. I met with a bunch of families. Even lived with a couple of them for a while.” She shrugged with one shoulder. “None of them worked out.”
Alex looked away as she remembered her time in the system.
“I just don’t know if we’re prepared for a troubled girl…”
“She’s sensitive? What does that mean?”
“This is the kid that’s been in all those fights, right?
“She’s awfully old, isn’t she?”
“I’m sure she’s sweet, but she’s not for us…”
“… a whole bunch of reasons,” she finally muttered. “And after a while… well, most people only want to adopt little kids, so once I turned thirteen, I was pretty much expired product.”
She felt Steph’s hand on her chin, forcing her to turn her head back and meet the brunette’s eyes. “I told you before. You’re not allowed to talk about my girlfriend like that.”
“It’s just how it is in foster care.”
“I don’t give a shit. I love you, and I’ll be a motherfucker if I let you call yourself ‘expired product’.”
Alex bit her lip as she let Steph take her hand, the brunette kissing the back of it gently. “… why do you love me?”
“I’m just curious. I mean, with all my mental shit, and neuroses, panic attacks, a legitimate superpower… there have to be easier girls to deal with.”
“I don’t WANT an easier girl to deal with,” Steph said forcefully. “I want you.”
“I have no idea why.”
“Because you’re amazing.” Steph placed her hand on Alex’s neck, rubbing her cheek with her thumb as she continued. “You’ve been through ten levels of hell, between your past and getting thrown down that fucking mine shaft. Nobody in the world would blame you if you flipped everyone a middle finger and told us all to go fuck ourselves.”
Alex found it within her to give Steph a small smirk. “Don’t think I haven’t thought about it.”
“But you didn’t. And you’re still one of the nicest, kindest people I ever met,” Steph emphasized. “You forgave Ryan for not believing you at the town hall, you helped Ethan after Gabe died when you were still grieving… I mean, holy fuck, you forgave Jed for getting your dad killed.”
“Wasn’t like condemning him was gonna make him feel worse.”
“It doesn’t matter. Nobody else in the world would’ve done that.” Steph slid closer, until she was resting her forehead on Alex’s as she stroked her cheek comfortingly. “I don’t love you in spite of your mental stuff, babe. I love you because of it.”
Alex blinked quickly against the moisture collecting in her eyes as she looked up at Steph, trying not to cry as the brunette softly kissed her.
“… I must’ve done something really good in a past life do deserve you,” she muttered as they broke apart.
Steph smiled, squeezing Alex’s hand tightly. “Some days, babe, I feel the same way.”
They spent most of the next hour laying together, waiting out the storm. The rain finally let up around noon, and they quickly packed up the camp, called Ryan, and started back down the mountain. The hike downhill was much easier on them than the trip up, so they made better time.
The park ranger was waiting at the trailhead, as promised. They both tossed the backpacks in the bed of the truck as they climbed inside.
“How was it?” he asked as they pulled away.
“It was fun,” Alex allowed, scooting over on the bench seat to give Steph more space. “I mean, the hike up sucked, but the rest of it was pretty good.”
“And the view up there was worth it,” Steph added as she buckled her seat belt.
“So you guys think you might do it again?”
“Yea, I could get behind another trip.”
“Same.” Alex nodded. “Though maybe one with an easier hike up. Or an escalator, you should totally get an escalator put out here.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “I’ll put in a request to get an escalator company out here ASAP,” he promised dryly. “I’m sure my bosses will sign off on it.”
“How about you?” Steph turned to look at him, a mischievous look on her face. “How was your date night?”
“Yea, did you guys enjoy Umbrella Academy?” Alex asked coyly.
Ryan shifted in his seat, pointedly not looking at them. “We did. It was really good.”
“How far into it did you get?”
“Three or four episodes.”
“Dude, that second episode is my favorite.” Steph winked at Alex. “When Vanya’s mother shows up looking for her? That conversation was a trip.”
“Yea, it was,” Ryan agreed. “Definitely something.”
Ryan glanced at them, noting the wide smile on Steph’s face. And how Alex was barely holding back laughter. He sighed heavily, sagging in his seat. “… Vanya’s mother isn’t in the second episode, is she?”
“You DOG!” Steph punched his shoulder. “Way to fucking GO, man! Look at you, getting a piece of hottie engineer like a CHAMP!”
“Jesus Christ, please don’t call her that.”
“How was it? How long did it last? Were you happy? Was SHE happy?” Steph fired off her questions rapidly, one right after the other. “How were the vocals? Is she into any freaky shit? Did you guys make it to the bedroom, or just go wild right there on her couch?”
Ryan shot her a look. “I am absolutely not answering any of those questions.”
“On a scale of one through ten, how flexible is she?”
“Steph, I swear to God…”