They were at the halfway point on the Sheep Canyon trail loop. The road to the trail head was blocked about two miles out, so the hike was two miles longer then they had expected. They had packed light, but still had about thirty pounds each. November was cold at these altitudes. Fortunately, no snow had fallen yet. They were only at about three thousand feet. Robert and his girlfriend had invited them. Robert was the only one of Donnie's colleagues to really make Justin feel like he belonged at Donnie's side. Justin was only a couple of years younger than Robert, who smiled when he and Donnie were affectionate with each other.
The four had hiked up to a ridge and set up camp just off the trail. Between Robert and Donnie, they were better armed than most third world countries. Justin had set up the lightweight tent, while Donnie set up the cook stove and started their dinner. Robert and Annabelle were doing the same.
Justin had survived the office party, and, although no one was overtly hostile to him, he thought that Donnie's office politics would never be the same. They were all cordial enough, but stiffly formal, as if they really didn't know what to do with Justin. Surprisingly, the women were cooler to him than the men, probably because they thought him a poor replacement for Lynn. Justin could understand that, but Donnie wasn't happy.
Only Robert had tried to make Justin feel truly welcome. A couple of the guys nearer Donnie's age had appreciated some suggestions he made about how to solve minor issues with their computers. Justin had thought that their I.T. support must be crap. Donnie had told him, the next day, that the guys suggested that the agency hire Justin. Donnie had told them that the agency couldn't afford him.
Here on the mountain, though, Justin felt part of Donnie's world. This feeling was what he had become used to after he started working at the clinic. Male couples were simply part of the normal landscape.
Earlier, when Donnie and Annabelle had gone for water, Robert had talked to Justin about his early days in the unit. Only Donnie had treated him like he treated everyone else, inviting him to work on cases. The others tried to indicate that he shouldn't get too involved in working with Donnie, as if he might become infected. But Robert learned that Donnie had the highest clearance rate, remarkable because he took more difficult cases.
Justin recognized that Robert saw in Donnie what he saw in Donnie, minus the sexual attraction. By the time Donnie and Annabelle returned, Justin thought that if Robert were gay, he'd never have had a chance with Donnie. Justin liked the way Donnie and Robert related to each other, with an unstudied familiarity that must form only when people did dangerous or intimate work together.
Robert had the dangerous work, and Justin had the intimate work. 'A fortunate division of labor,' Justin thought. He and Donnie were just another ordinary couple here on the flank of St. Helens.
After reconstituted, freeze-dried camp food, they bundled up under camp blankets and sat facing the top of the ridgeline. Donnie had promised Justin a wonderful sight, and as the sun dropped, a huge herd of Roosevelt Elk came over the ridge to graze. Justin looked at them through Donnie's field glasses for an hour; they were only a few hundred feet away. Donnie's arm was around Justin's shoulders.
"I see them every time I'm up here. It's reassuring to me. The herd keeps growing."
"Thanks for taking me up here, Donnie."
"W A, I don't want to see views like this alone. They're sweeter with someone you love."
They leaned their heads toward each other until they touched. "I think I would have ended up on the scrap heap if I hadn't been loved. I want you to feel well loved. When you're loved, nothing can undo you. There's no obligation in it."
"Shit, Donnie, I know you love me. If we could stay up here, I'd happily give up everything back there."
"These expeditions are little treats. I hope you feel loved back there, too."
Justin didn't have a reply, because he wasn't going to lie to Donnie. Eventually, the elk crossed back over the ridgeline as the sun set. The temperature drop was sudden and steep. He and Donnie said good night to Robert and Annabelle and, after taking their boots off, crawled into the three-man tent.
They heard Annabelle say, "Keep the noise down, you two. Robert and I need our sleep."
Donnie had warned Justin that they would probably be confined to blowing each other because the cold and the mess would make fucking a chore. Hiking in the summer would be fucking time. Then, Donnie had told him, they could sleep outside with no tent.
They unzipped their bags, using one for a ground layer over their pads and the other as a blanket. The camp blanket was a final layer. Justin was skeptical that sleeping naked would be warmer but it turned out to true, and it was a lot more fun. They took care of each other with their mouths. Donnie was getting much better at it. After their orgasms, they quickly cuddled under the covers and were asleep almost immediately, with the sound of the other two giggling away in the background.
For a change, Justin awoke earlier than Donnie. He carefully extricated himself from the bags, took his clothes, and stepped out of the tent.
"Fuck, it's freezing," he said aloud.
He quickly dressed and only afterward noticed Annabelle eyeing him from a fallen trunk about thirty feet away.
He blushed and walked over. "Morning."
"Great views, this morning, some magnificent tree trunks. You better pee so you can get rid of that," she said pointing to the bulge in his pants.
"Gee, thanks, Mom." He went downhill a ways and emptied himself.
When he returned, he sat next to Annabelle. "You sleep okay?"
"Oh yes. Orgasms are sedating. We were quieter than you guys."
"Yeah. Donnie cuts loose a bit more than he used to."
"Living with him must be difficult for you."
"No! What do you mean?"
"Well, Robert thinks he's a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Saint Francis. You and I know he's pretty fragile. I don't think he'd do well alone. I like him a lot and he's really treated Robert well, so I'm happy to see him with you. Just don't get fooled into thinking he's the center of the universe."
"I guess I have begun to think of him as the one who takes care of us."
"That just happens naturally with him. I don't think he's even aware of it. He never condescends to Robert, and he sure doesn't give a shit about what the troglodytes in his unit think, but I'm telling you that I've watched him for a long time, and he needs to be taken care of, too. So, help him."
"I guess I better start looking at him a little more objectively, pulling my weight a little more."
"Just remember that being married to a cop can be a hell hole, but these two are real winners. If you ever need to talk, let me know. I may be the only one who really knows what you're going through."
"Thanks, Annabelle, it would be nice to have a colleague in the fray. You and Robert aren't married, are you?"
"All but the ceremony, sweetie."
The tent flap unzipping announced that Donnie was up. He came out already dressed.
"What are you two up to?"
"I'm trying to take Justin away from you. I've grown bored with Robert."
"Sorry, I don't think you have the right equipment for the job."
"So he tells me, but you better keep your eyes open. You know, you're not the best of the litter out there."
"Well, thanks for that insight, Annabelle. But I know who has the good deal here."
Justin noticed Donnie smiling at him. 'Fuck, he must think I'm really squirrely. I couldn't even tell him I felt loved at home.'
They let Robert sleep. When everyone was up, Justin and Robert cooked breakfast, and, after they ate, they brushed their teeth and broke camp. On the way down, Justin lagged behind the other two.
"Yeah, I just want to talk with you while we walk."
"Go." Donnie said.
"I owe you an answer to your question about whether I feel loved at home."
"You don't owe me anything, W A, except honesty and living up to our agreements."
"That is so much bullshit, Donnie. For me, love isn't about hanging out together, with no strings. I've been feeling as if I can't fit into your world and you can't fit into mine."
Donnie started to reply, but Justin cut him off. "Hear me out. Do you ever look at other guys, I mean and realize that it would be fun to fuck them?"
"It's like you're one man short of being heterosexual. I know you look at women that way."
"Yes, I suppose I do. I never fucked around on Lynn and I'll never fuck around on you with another guy or a woman."
"Old man, I know that. I wouldn't stay with you if you could do that, and I trust you. You're not hearing what I'm saying."
"All right. Try again, please."
"It's hard for me to be in a relationship with a basically straight guy who happened to fall for me when he was hurting." He saw genuine pain in Donnie's face.
"Please, understand. I know you love me. I'm happy you love me. I love you, and you treat me so lovingly. You've learned so much about living with a guy. I'm not trying to dump you. I just want you to know it's hard for me sometimes. I feel like we're so perfect when it's just us, but we can't run away from the world. And when I have to live with others in that world, I don't quite know where I stand with them. There. Right now, I'm torn between wanting to be sure I haven't hurt you and being a big boy in an equal partnership."
"You are the most self-aware person I've ever met. How do you do that?"
"Oh, nice. That's cute."
"I mean it, W A. I have to think about this, because I suspect that we can't change the parameters, so we're going to have to figure out how to live and love within them. I seem to have had my head up my ass because I've been so happy with you that I lost sight of your struggle."
"Fucking Sherlock Holmes and St. Fucking Francis." Justin was smiling.
"Never mind. And, I do feel loved when we're home. I just feel a little lost, as well."
As they came down through the narrow shoot toward the trailhead, a morning cloud of fog lay below them against the warming ground. A thousand feet further down, they entered the fog.
'Perfect metaphor,' Justin thought.