Chris and Darren waved goodbye to Trent (who was looking much more cheerful than when they’d first met him) and continued along the path they’d been following earlier. The midday sun shone brightly in the cloudless sky, and the air was filled with butterflies.
“Well, they may call this the Warbler Kingdom, rather than the Fairy Kingdom, but either way, it sure is magical,” Darren said, gazing about in awe.
Chris just nodded, at a loss for words. Up ahead, they could see the source of the little stream that ran beside their path – a crystal lake, fed by a towering waterfall. Each drop of water acted as a prism, casting rainbows in every direction.
Once they reached the bank of the lake, Darren quickly stripped off his clothes and dove into the shimmering water. Chris only hesitated for a moment before joining him. Darren swam smoothly across the lake and hauled himself out on the rock ledge under the waterfall. As he stood there, wet and gleaming in the sun, Chris was glad that the cold water was effectively tamping down his body’s natural reaction to the sight.
Of course, Chris and Darren had been naked together before, but only while Chris had their relationship firmly placed in the “friend” category in his mind. His newfound (or newly rekindled) feelings put a whole different spin on the situation. The last thing on earth he wanted was to do or say anything that would jeopardize their friendship.
Treading water in the middle of the lake, Chris tried to give himself a stern talking-to. Get a grip, here, he admonished himself. Darren is one of your best friends in the whole world. And whatever this is – lust, or a crush, or character-bleed – it’s not worth the risk. If Darren knew how you felt about him, things would just get awkward. He’d feel bad about not being able to reciprocate, and then he’d start being careful not to lead you on. And that would be the end of the open, affectionate, flirty, playful Darren you know and love. So you’d better suck it up and act like everything is fine.
Steeling his resolve, Chris swam over and joined his friend under the waterfall. The cool water felt heavenly as it pounded down on his head and shoulders. Darren slung an arm around him, raising his voice to be heard over the thundering stream:
“Don’t you just love it here?”
Chris smiled back into his expectant face, willing his voice steady. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
They stood for a moment in reverent silence, which was suddenly broken by a rebel yell from Darren as he launched himself back into the lake, dragging Chris along with him. In mock outrage, Chris splashed water in Darren’s face, and Darren retaliated by dunking him under.
Chris, no stranger to swimming pool games, dove even deeper, grabbing Darren’s ankle and pulling him down, as well. They grappled underwater, then surfaced together, spluttering.
“Race you to the shore!” Darren cried, pushing off against Chris’s thighs with both feet.
Chris tried valiantly to catch him, but Darren had too much of a head start. He emerged from the water and did a little victory dance, pumping his fist in the air and wiggling his ass in Chris’s direction. “I am the champion!” he crowed.
“What you are is a dirty, rotten cheater,” Chris huffed as he joined Darren on the bank.
“Cheating implies that there are rules, Chris. And everyone knows that all’s fair in love and war and ‘race you to the shore.’”
Darren grinned. “Don’t be a sore loser.”
“Well I wouldn’t be sore if someone hadn’t kicked me in the thighs in order to get a head start in the race.”
“Oh, poor baby. Do you need me to kiss your ow-ies to make them better?”
Chris turned away quickly, blushing. He decided their banter had gone on long enough. “It’s going to be a long walk to the Sleeping Kingdom, and I’m beat. How does a nap in the shade sound?”
“It sounds perfect. I think I’ll wash out my t-shirt and socks and undies first, and lay them out in the sun to dry while we sleep.”
After taking care of their clothes, Chris and Darren lay down on their blanket under a nearby tree. Chris was worried that having Darren so close (and so naked) would make it difficult for him to fall asleep, but the past few days soon caught up with him, and before he knew it he had drifted off.
There must truly have been some magic in the Warbler Kingdom, because Chris and Darren both awoke an hour later, feeling fully refreshed. They pulled on their clothes, which were not only dry, but also blissfully soft, with a delicate, sweet-spicy scent, like lemon cake.
Darren buried his nose in the hair at the nape of Chris’s neck, inhaling deeply. “You smell delicious. It must be something in the water. Here – smell me.”
Chris tentatively sniffed at Darren’s curls, which held that same intoxicating scent. Damn, he cursed silently to himself, this is so not fair.
Out loud he said, “Yep, it’s making me hungry. Let’s have lunch.”
“I’ll eat you up, I love you so!” Darren teased, mouthing at Chris’s neck.
Shoving Darren away, Chris finished the quote from Where the Wild Things Are. “And Max said ‘No!’”
“Awww… Do I need to roar my terrible roar and gnash my terrible teeth?”
“No. And don’t roll your terrible eyes or show your terrible claws, either. Just pretend you’re not a wild thing for a moment, so we can eat our lunch like civilized people.”
With a dramatic sigh, Darren walked dejectedly over to get their sheepskin satchel. His demeanor changed completely once he opened it up. “Oooh – look what Trent gave us!”
In gratitude for their support, the Warbler had restocked their provisions. Darren pulled out a cluster of red grapes, a wheel of Brie, and a soft, fragrant baguette that was miraculously still warm. Conversation was momentarily suspended, as they tucked in to the delicious food.
Once they’d eaten their fill and packed away the leftovers, Chris and Darren continued on their journey. They spent the rest of the day walking mostly in silence, content to just soak in the beauty of their surroundings.
When night fell, they lay down on their blanket, side by side, gazing up at the star-flecked sky. Darren reached over and interlaced their fingers. “G’night, Chris.”
Chris gave his hand an answering squeeze. “Night, Darren.”
Darren quickly went to sleep, but Chris lay awake for a long time, searching the night sky for any sign of a shooting star. If only he could spot one, he knew exactly what he would wish for…