glasspaperclip: (Bob // Busy)
[personal profile] glasspaperclip
Clouds in Your Eyes
(7,932) // (NC-17)
Bob Bryar/Ray Toro
“Man, Bob’s going to tree-sit.”
The guys aren't mine, it never happened.
For [livejournal.com profile] bandomficathon and for [livejournal.com profile] anne_elliot, who sponsored me and asked for a surprise!fic. Here it is, dear ♥ Ilysm. Endless ♥ to [livejournal.com profile] atomichatred82, [livejournal.com profile] soloproject, and [livejournal.com profile] veecious, who cheerleaded the shit out of me, and to [livejournal.com profile] ky_betty who answered my SOS signals and did the beta duties.


*

November ’07.

“What did you learn? I mean, is there any rule to survive on the street?”

“Um.”

The lighter flickers, revealing for a moment the full curve of a lip, a strand of hair, some freckles sprayed on pale skin. The tiny flame is gone soon though, and the burning tip of the cigarette is the only thing that can still be seen.

“Well… every town has its Main Street, McDonald’s are everywhere, and it’s better to avoid hitchhiking.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Well, that’s the deep stuff.” A chuckle follows, together with the rustle of a blanket. It’s a cold night, and the wind smells of rain. The first drops are already starting to hit the tarp. “If you prefer, I’ll start talking about the state of public toilets.”

“Nah.” It’s little more than a whisper, and somehow it implies warm smiles, warm feelings. “Save it for tomorrow.”

**

Bob. September ‘08.

Every town has its Main Street, and this one is no exception, even if it’s so small that back then, Bob had hard times in finding it on the map.

Small town, unpretentious Main Street: there’s that bunch of stores gathered together like a group of women leaving church after mass, a gas pump, and a lonely restaurant that offers a whole meal for five bucks. No McDonald’s here, but just an anonymous fast-food with a broken neon sign and checkered curtains.

As he walks past it, Bob throws a peek inside. Despite the hour it’s almost empty, and for a moment he toys with the idea of going in and ordering himself some fries and an orange juice. He decides against it soon though: it’s darkening, the street lamps are already switching on, and he wants to be far from here before he has to stop for the night. Besides, he isn’t in the mood for junk food, not really, not tonight. Tonight he longs for peace and a silent place to sleep at – in the open, if possible.

Not that Main Street is particularly noisy. Every once in a while a car drives by, and a dog started barking at him from that courtyard, but for the rest, things are pretty much quiet. Even those kids whose laughter echoes in the distance are soon gone.

Bob is close to the town outskirts – the end of Main Street – when the car approaches him. From where he is, Bob can see that one of the lights is burned out, and that there’s a slight indentation in the hood, probably caused by a wrong maneuver in the parking lot. Hands deep in his pockets, Bob stops walking, waiting for the car to slow down and brake near the sidewalk.

The window goes down. It’s dark inside, as the driver hasn’t switched the small light on and the nearest street lamp isn’t working. Bob can barely distinguish the silhouette of the driver.

“Where are you going?”

“Oh well, I don’t really have a specific destination in mind.” Bob shrugs. “I’m just following the road. I’d like to see where it ends.”

The driver laughs. He has a warm laughter, almost contagious. “It’s peculiar,” he says, “it’s exactly where I wanted to go, too. Come on, jump in. I’ll give you a ride.”

Bob puts his backpack down. His sleeping bag is rolled up and tied on top of it. He meant to open it up later, once he reached a place he deemed safe enough to set up his tent, but right now it looks like it will remain where it is, untouched.

Well, at least for tonight.

Smiling, Bob pulls the handle.

**

Ray. March ‘07.

Ray likes to take strolls in the wood. The one that almost reaches the hedge of his backyard isn’t that big (a good thing, since the irrational fear of getting lost hasn’t yet abandoned him, not fully), but it’s still a nice place to spend a couple of hours during the afternoon, right after lunch.

Equipped with a book and his camera, Ray goes there every few days. He walks for a while, perhaps he takes some pictures too, until he sees a good place to sit down and read. Though Ray has three or four favorite spots to return often, he also likes to find new ones. Sometimes it’s next to a fallen tree, sometimes it’s over a boulder covered in moss, it depends.

Over the months he’s encountered a (relatively) large variety of people there. He saw his neighbors looking for mushrooms after a rainy weekend, young couples in search for secluded places to make out, many hikers, and birdwatchers with their calls and their binoculars. Once or twice, he even ran into hunters discussing deer and their effective chances to get one.

What Ray has never seen until now is someone… sitting in a tree.

“What?”

He lowers his camera and takes a step backwards, squinting. For a moment Ray thinks he’s hallucinated a guy sitting on the branch of a sequoia, several feet above his head, but no, a guy’s there for real. Half hidden among the leaves, sure, but unmistakably there.

Well, wow.

From where Ray stands, he looks so tiny that it’s impossible to tell how he looks like nor – and this is the important bit – what the hell he’s doing up there. That’s a giant sequoia, not an apple tree or something. Ray isn’t an expert of tree-climbing, but he’s quite sure that it must have taken him a good share of hours to go that far. It’s unlikely that that guy just wanted to enjoy the view.

Curiosity is starting to nag. Ray takes a step backwards, careful not to trip in the roots, and picks up his camera again. Too bad that his shitty zoom doesn’t let him see much else than leaves, leaves, some more leaves, and the guy’s back. At least he’s wearing a red windbreaker, it’s easy to follow him.

For a while, Ray doesn’t do anything but staring in the viewfinder: as odd as it may sound, Guy seems rather busy, moving around a lot and disappearing in the green. Sometimes, colorful spots pop up next to him, too, and that makes even less sense than all the rest. It’s fascinating though, so much that Ray’s still watching when the guy turns around, his helmeted head peeking through the branches.

“Gerard?”

The shout catches Ray by surprise, and the camera slips from his hands. Shit. God bless whoever invented shoulder straps, really. Shaking his head, he looks up and shouts back, “Hi! I’m not Gerard. I’m Ray.”

Silence. Ray can’t see Guy’s face, but he can easily imagine him frowning, wondering who the hell he is and what he wants from him. Then, Guy raises his arm and waves.

“Hi. I’m Bob.”

If this was a normal conversation between two people, at this point Ray would smile and hold up his hand. The one he’s getting acquainted with is hanging from a sequoia though, and that makes things a wee bit more complicated than the usual. Feeling a little uneasy, Ray shifts his weight from one foot to the other.

“Do you need anything?”

“What? I can't hear you.”

“I said,” and he puts both hands around his mouth in order to let Bob understand what he’s saying. Damn, this is awkward though. “Do you need anything?”

“No. I'm running short of nails, but I'll wait for Gerard. Thanks.”

“Nails?”

“Yes, nails. Who are you?”

Startled, Ray turns around. Another guy (Ray supposes this is the Gerard Bob’s in waiting for ) is standing there, carrying a pair of blankets and some bottles of orange juice in his arms. He looks wary, but not unfriendly, not really. Ray offers him a hesitant smile.

“My name’s Ray, hi. I was taking a stroll in the wood and I ran into your friend. Well, not literally. You got what I mean.”

“Are you a journalist? A policeman? Do you work for TLAC?”

“What?”

Genuine surprise is written all over Ray’s face. No one ever mistook him for a journalist or a policeman, and he’s never heard about TLAC before. He frowns, wondering for a moment if those two aren’t involved in some illegal activities. Ray can’t think of any criminal act that could be committed on a tree in the middle of the wood, but he isn’t so updated in that field. Who knows, perhaps they’re building a secret hideout over there? Maybe-Gerard doesn’t look like a criminal though, and Bob sounded pretty relaxed upon seeing him.

His hesitant smile shows up again.

“No, no. I live over there, I just come often to the wood to read. It’s a nice place, it helps me concentrate.”

“In March? You’re brave. And your camera?”

Shrugging, Ray picks it up and switches it on. “I moved here years ago, I’m used to cold weather. Look, my pictures.” Each time he presses the button, a new photo appears on the digital display. They’re all about nature, trees, various landscapes, a couple of squirrels, and some birds. “They’re rather crappy, but I can’t do much else with this camera, and I don’t bring the other one along when I just go out for a walk. I was trying to get a good shot of the trees and I saw your friend.”

“Okay.” Maybe-Gerard gives Ray a quick nod. “It’s fine, come with me,” he says, pointing to the sequoia with his chin. He looks more relaxed now, as if the pictures somehow convinced him that he’s got nothing to worry about from Ray.

They turn around the tree and stop on other side of it. Among the roots Ray sees two or three backpacks, some shopping bags full of food, and ropes. Ropes are everywhere, scattered on the ground and hanging from the branches, holding up things that resemble hammocks. Looking up, Ray manages to spot a platform built all around the trunk. It wasn’t visible from where he stood before, but right now he’s clearly able to see Bob kneeling on it.

“He’s securing the planks,” intervenes Maybe-Gerard. He’s putting the blankets and a couple of bottles in one of those hammock lookalikes. Ray guesses that they’ll be pulled up later. “He said he needed nails, didn’t he?”

“Yes. He’s running short of them, he told me he was in waiting for Gerard… you, I suppose?”

“Uh? Oh yes, I’m sorry. That’s me.”

Gerard is still busy with supplies, gathering them from the shopping bags. “We’re almost ready, you see. We just need a few more hours in order to fix the last things: the platform was set overnight, and we already tied the tarp to the branches. Once the fence on that side is done, we’re ready to go.”

“I guess?”

Ray’s face must resemble a big question mark, because when Gerard turns around, he starts laughing.

“Oh my god, you aren’t getting it, are you?”

“Well, not really, no,” admits Ray, embarrassed. He’s aware he’s probably failing to see the elephant in the living room, but if he tries to put together all the clues he has been given, the results make no sense, at least in his eyes.

“Man, Bob’s going to tree-sit.”

“…Oh.”

“Those TLAC fuckers,” begins Gerard, gesturing around. He has a water bottle in his hand, and the effect is a bit comical. “They want to cut your wood down. See this?” Wide arm movement to the left. “All gone. Vanished. They plan to build godknowswhat here, because they’re convinced that this area has a big, unexploited potential. Where did you say you live again?”

“At the outskirt of the town.”

Wide arm movement to the right. Gerard flails a whole lot, and Ray is pretty sure that if he ever were to give a speech, he’d cause headaches to the audience.

“Well, then you’re going to open your window one day and face a nice mall store. Or a parking lot. Or a cinema complex. Something huge and ugly made of reinforced concrete, with a couple of flowerbeds here, a group of trees there, environment friendly and shit. Sounds good, uh? And all that will happen for real, unless,” and this is the point on which Gerard grins, pointing at the platform with the bottle, “unless we do something to prevent it.”

Ray blinks. Something’s telling him that Gerard wasn’t just using the majestic plural. “We?”

The nod he gets is solemn. “We.

*

During the next few hours, Ray also gets to know the other components of the group. They don’t show up all together (‘We need to fly under the radar for a little while more’), but one by one, just as if they only had in mind to spend a nice afternoon in the open.

They’re a well-assorted group, consisting of Gerard’s brother and his girlfriend, a lanky dude who insists to be on a mission from the Cobra (and who probably smoked too much weed before coming over), and an insane little guy who first stared at Ray with open suspicion and then did the equivalent of pissing on his leg, permanently attaching himself to Ray’s hip like a mussel.

In all honesty, Ray has forgotten their names right after the handshakes were over, too overwhelmed by the amount of info Gerard kept on pouring in his ears. Ray is rather sure that he won people over that way, wearing them out with words. On the other hand, they all seem crazy enough to jump into projects like this without too much effort from Gerard’s side.

The craziest of them all is Bob, no doubt about it. More than once Ray finds himself with his nose up in the air, searching for a red windbreaker and wondering about how it must feel like to be on a platform 150 feet from the ground, all alone.

When Ray gets to leave it’s almost sunset, considerably later than usual. He hasn’t opened the small backpack in which he keeps his books once, but his afternoon didn’t go to waste. On the contrary, a tiny seed of the group enthusiasm has been planted in his brain, whether he likes it or not.

*

Ray goes to the sequoia the next day, and the day after, bringing something along each time. Once is a couple of spare blankets that were sitting in his closet for months, once is a full pack of cigarettes (‘Guilty pleasure,’ explained Frank – the one who decided that Ray needed to be his best friend for life on the first afternoon), and once with a handful of recharged batteries.

Now that all the dangling ropes are gone and Bob has officially started his act of civil disobedience – TV and newspapers are already showcasing it – mobiles are the only way to get in touch with him. That’s why each of them always has their own switched on, day and night.

“Shouting isn’t an option,” laughs Alicia one morning, before handing her mobile to Ray. “Here, he wants to talk with you.”

‘He’ is Bob, of course, and Ray’s palm feels sweaty in picking it up. It’s so stupid, really. They have already exchanged some words before, both by phone and during their first, quite memorable encounter, there’s no reason to get antsy. Perhaps Ray’s starting to experience the pressure of what’s happening around him.

Either way, his fingers shake a bit when he says hi in the mouthpiece.

“Hey man. How are you doing?”

Bob’s voice is rich, warm. It puts Ray at ease, making him wonder about how it’d sound like when it isn’t filtered by the phone line. He lies back, leaning against the trunk with his free hand on a protruding root.

“Quite fine. It’s cold today, but we have coffee, tea, and enough sleeping bags to make it through. What’s about you?”

“Everything’s alright. The wind almost tore the tarp apart tonight, but I secured it to the fence using a spare rope, now it shouldn’t come off anymore.”

“Oh. Is the fence strong enough to sustain it?” asks Ray, and he can’t hide a hint of concern in his tone. He knows that Bob set up a low fence all around the sleeping area (‘I move around a lot when I’m asleep, I’d rather not to fall over’), but… what if the wind knocks everything down? If it has been able to tear the tarp off, then it could also be able to knock the fence down.

Bob doesn’t seem worried though. He laughs and assures Ray that he’ll be safe, that he’s constantly wearing a harness, and that it takes him less than a second to attach it to the ropes tied around the main branches. Ray isn’t reassured in the slightest, of course, but he doesn’t push the subject. Besides, Bob has already changed topic.

“Are you guys having trouble down there?”

“No, no. There’s always the police around, and I think that those journalists took hundreds of pictures already, but that aside, we’re fine.”

Ray pauses for a second and looks around, fingers tapping against the bark. He and the others are gathered at the base of the trunk, sharing warm tea from their thermos and ignoring camera flashes the best they can. Gerard is the only one who pays attention to public relations, giving interviews out – and spontaneous consciousness raising speeches too – whenever he has the chance. Right now he’s asleep though, curled up against Frank. Mikey sits next to his brother, softly talking to Gabe while Alicia is looking at him, smiling.

“We’re fine.”

“Good.”

A soft creak can be heard. Probably Bob has shifted his position on the platform, sitting down or getting up. Out of sheer instinct, Ray raises his head: the base looks small in the distance, and from here he can’t see the red of Bob’s windbreaker. His grip around the base tightens.

“Hey Ray?”

“Yes?”

“Are you in, too? I mean, I know you got roped into this, Gerard’s always trying to recruit new people and shit, but… are you in? Is this what you want?”

“Well, the others are okay,” starts Ray, but Bob interrupts him.

“I’m not asking them, I’m asking you.”

Ray’s fingers flex and relax, flex and relax. He smiles.

“I’m in.”

*

They start exchanging phone calls with a certain frequency.

Alicia gave Ray Bob’s number, probably tired of having her mobile seized once a day, and after a brief hesitation – Ray has always been rather shy when it comes of things like that, and yes, it’s stupid – he added it to his address book, ‘Bob (Sequoia)’. Pressing the call key to laugh with him about it was the next, natural step.

Things escalate from then on, week after week. Ray phones Bob to check if he’s alright, if he needs anything, if the rain flooded the food box again, and if he liked the cake Ray’s mom made specifically for him. Bob phones back to ask for cigarettes and spare gas cylinders, to thank him for the books, and to tell him to check on the Bears. He’s from Chicago, a city Ray has never visited before; he’d love to, one day, and Bob promises to show him the most interesting places once he climbs down.

In exchange, Ray will take him to New Jersey, where he’s born, and invite him to the family lunch his grandmother holds every Thanksgiving.

“At least she’ll have someone else to feed to the bursting point,” laughs Ray. Bob laughs along, and Ray can’t help but think that their voices mix up well.

“Oh, now that sounds promising.”

“Hey, show some respect. My grandmother kicks ass, alright? She’s the typical old girl with balls of steel, she can knit a whole scarf while watching the news and smack your hand with the spoon if you dip a finger in the cake.”

It’s night, and Ray didn’t go to the sequoia that day. A client came over to buy some of his new pictures, that insane woman who only hangs Ray’s shots in her bar, and in the afternoon he had to go pick his mother up at his aunt’s place. That made him feel a bit guilty, which is the reason behind his late call.

“You’ll like her.”

“Of course I will. How did it go with Batshit Crazy Lady anyway?”

Ray smiles. He didn’t think that Bob would remember about it, he mentioned it just briefly during their last conversation. His job is interesting to him, but other people usually find it pretty boring after he explains them what’s behind the flash and the fancy framed pictures.

“She bought the whole set. I’m not even sure she watched them all, go figure. She just told me to pack them up and handed me the check, no ifs, no buts. Mark my words, she’ll be back in a couple of months, asking for more.”

“Well, perhaps she has a crush on you, what do you know?” Cautious.

“Nah, I’m not interested, sorry,” laughs Ray. “Besides, she could be my mother. Gross.”

“Oh wow. Well, I’d think twice before turning down an experienced woman, if I were you. You never know what kind of tricks you might learn.”

“Ha-ha. You aren’t funny, Bob.”

Mobile wedged between his shoulder and his ear, Ray reaches up and pushes the curtains aside. His bedroom faces the wood, and even if he knows he can’t see the group of giant sequoias from his window, he still searches for a tiny light in the distance. When he hears a soft chuckle, Ray puts his palm against the glass.

“I was joking,” says Bob, and Ray can tell he’s smiling. “Go to bed, it’s half past eleven.”

“My, you’re quite the mother hen, aren’t you? I’m not the one who sleeps in a sleeping bag under the stars.”

“Actually, it’s under the tarp. Far less romantic. Hold on.”

Some noises fill Ray’s ear, then Bob talks again. “Okay, switch to video calling and look.”

When Ray looks at the display, he sees the handle of a flashlight, Bob’s little finger… and not much else. He laughs.

“Alright, I got it. No dreamy sky, no moon, no stars. Just a dark tarp and a flashlight.” Ray coughs. “Nice finger, though.”

“Here’s the rest.”

Ray watches closely, while his heart rate speeds up. The image is grainy, the low resolution of the screen and the poor light are making it even worse, but he’s able to distinguish the pale skin of Bob’s cheeks, his blond hair. Perhaps he also has clear eyes. It’s too dark to guess their color though, and Ray is too distracted by the curve of his lower lip, by the ring he wears there.

Under Ray’s – maybe fascinated, or maybe just surprised – gaze, the corners of Bob’s mouth curl up. “Hi,” he says, raising a hand. It doesn’t fit in the display, not fully, and Ray’s imagination helps him, suggesting that it’s big and calloused in the right spots. Perhaps it’s warm, too.

“Hi,” whispers Ray.

*

During the first months or so – until late June, early July – TLAC tries to keep a low profile in dealing with the group of eco-activists. Neither the owners nor any representative of the company show up at the sequoia, preferring to let lawyers deal with them.

Ray gets to witness one of those encounters, and he soon learns why Gabe uses to call them ‘mindfucking matches.’ Gerard stands over a small mound with his hands in his pockets (these are the only times on which he refrains from flailing around) and a determined look on his face, while a woman in a Chanel dress is talking to him. From where he sits, Ray can’t hear what she’s saying, but he supposes she’s giving him a prepackaged speech, filled with empty threats and promises.

‘Blah, blah, if you cut with this petty shit right now, we’ll be generous and let you go with a pat on your head. If you don’t, instead, then we’ll have to spank you and it won’t be nice. We don’t want that, but we’re ready to if you keep on misbehaving, blah, blah, blah.’

Bullshit. Ray knows it, Gerard knows it, the Chanel-lover lawyer knows it. Gerard is also dying inside to tell her so, Ray’s aware of it, but when he opens his mouth, it’s only to reject her verbal assault. His technique consists in repeating the same things over and over, like a broken record. Simple but effective. At some point, he even dials Bob’s number and hands his mobile to her.

“Listen, he agrees with me. We all do.”

Upon hearing that, Ray nods without noticing. The message behind their words is clear, ‘we won’t give up, no matter what,’ and it’s the same concept Bob explained Ray in the first days, back when the project had just started.

‘I’m not giving up. I don’t care, I’m not climbing down until they step off their fucking pedestal and acknowledge us. I know I won’t be able to save the whole wood, I’m not that naïve, but I’m not letting them touch the sequoias. These trees have been here for ages. Should I let TLAC turn them into matches just because? Fuck, no. I’m not climbing down, and I don’t give a damn if it’s so cold that my fingers are about to fall off.’

‘Never give up.’

It’s written on sheets hung up on the trees nearby, it’s proudly displayed on visitors and supporters’ t-shirts, it’s on TV and in some pictures Ray took to promote their campaign. Sometimes it’s even shouted at the top of everyone’s lungs, and whenever Ray gets to join the chorus, he thinks that he really means it.

*

Things come to a head during one of those informal meetings they’re organizing with other activists from September on.

Ray can’t tell why that guy has attracted his attention from the very beginning. He seems quiet and harmless, even a bit lost while he wanders around like that, his eyes going from the sequoia to the people who came to show their support. Still, he gives Ray an uneasy feeling, so much that he starts following him.

Paranoia’s kicking in, that’s for sure. Lately, Ray’s been reading too many online articles, checking on too many blogs, and they’re influencing him in a negative way Other tree-sitters have been the target of violent acts, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that Bob is in danger as well.

Ray inhales, exhales, tells himself to stop being stupid, and keeps on tailing after the guy.

They’re near to the sequoia when the guy puts a hand into his sweater. He’s probably looking for a tissue, isn’t he? It’s just that tissues don’t have that shape, and that’s the point on which instinct takes charge. Without thinking, Ray launches himself at the guy, making him fall on the ground.

Earth and sky swap place a couple of times, and Ray hits his shin against a rock, hard. It doesn’t matter though, because when he raises his head, still a bit disoriented, he notices the gun abandoned on the ground, a few feet away from them.

Nauseated, Ray looks away. He was right, but there’s no satisfaction in knowing it, not this time. His mouth tastes bitter while his fingers dig into the guy’s skin.

“What the fuck were you thinking, you stupid asshole? What did you want to do?” he growls in a voice that sounds alien even to his own ears.

*

“What the fuck were you thinking?” is exactly the center core of the enraged phone call Ray receives from Bob as soon as someone tells him about what has just happened, right after two policemen shoved the guy, handcuffed and with a black eye, into the back of their car. Ray feels good knowing that he is responsible for that, even more than the hot coffee Alicia put in his hands and the rib-crushing hug he got from Frank.

It doesn't seem to help him in the slightest when he has to face Bob's anger though. All Ray can do is listen while Bob goes on and on, relentless. Apparently, he's able to insult people for five minutes straight without drawing breath. Another time Ray would find it amusing. Right now he’s only crushed by it.

Eventually, Bob runs out of epithets. Thank god.

“Hey, listen-”

“Shut up. Shut the fuck up, for Christ's sake, and bring your ass over here. Right now, I mean. Before you find someone else to play Fearless, Weaponless Hero with.”

*

Going up is both exciting and terrifying, despite the somber mood Ray's in. Having his arm almost yanked out of its socket as soon as he sets his first, tentative foot on the platform is - well - a wee bit more complicated to define. Too many emotions are troubling his mind, too thin are the lines that divide them. Besides, he’s still experiencing the effects of the adrenaline rush of before, and that cuts many logical thoughts off.

“Hi,” he tentatively stutters. His greeting is swallowed whole by Bob’s growling though.

“Idiot. You idiot. Do you always do stupid shit like that? What were you thinking? It’s a wonder that you survived this far, I swear.”

“Um, it’s… nice to see you too, I guess.”

“Jesus. You.”

Shaking his head, Bob pulls Ray along, far from the edge of the platform. Ray doesn’t protest, doesn’t fight. He lets him do what he wants, just wishing that Bob would loosen the death grip around his forearm before he cuts the blood flow off in it.

“Keep the rope tied to the harness and the helmet on, alright? You never tree climbed before, I’m not taking any risks.”

“Yeah, alright,” answers Ray, nodding and looking around.

The platform is smaller than he imagined, and half of it is covered by the tarp. That’s where Bob sleeps and eats, food boxes and his sleeping bag are stored there, next to a small camping stove. Blankets and books are in the back, next to the fence, and Ray smiles upon recognizing the ones he brought him.

“Here. Sit on the quilt.”

Said quilt covers the bare planks, Bob is probably using it to avoid freezing his ass off when he reads or eats. As he explained to Ray more than once, the wind bites hard during the night. There’s very little space to move though, even for a single person, and when Bob crouches down, their knees touch. Ray swallows.

“I’ll make coffee,” offers Bob, turning around to start the camping stove up. In a little while, Ray has a hot mug in his hands and a plastic box of apple cookies placed in front of him. He also has a windbreaker draped around his shoulders, because, ‘it’s cold here.’

They drink in silence, taking long sips from their respective mugs. Their knees keep on touching, rubbing against each other whenever they move, and when Ray’s done with his coffee, he’s experiencing the same feeling of before, that mix of dread and excitement that seems to dry his throat up.

He coughs, licking his lips. Did they feel that chapped before?

“You look less grainy than you did on the phone display,” he throws in, attempting to sound relaxed. He’s just trying to crack a joke, no? It’s weird that they had so much to tell each other before, while being on the phone, and now that they’re face to face at last, they’re barely able to string a sentence together.

“Well, you look shorter, but you don’t hear me complaining about it.”

Bob is… smiling? It’s perhaps the tiniest smile Ray’s ever seen in his whole life, but it’s there anyway, peeking through the nervousness and the dissipating anger. Ray smiles back, half embarrassed and half relieved.

“I’m not complaining either. Listen, I’ve been stupid, I know. I’m sorry.”

“Yes, you’ve been. You’ve been so fucking stupid it hurts. What if that dude shot you?”

“And what if that dude shot you?” retorts Ray. “I haven’t raided both my closet and basement just to have you dying on me like that. Up on a stupid tree no less.”

“Hey. Be nice to Bess. She’s providing me a good shelter.” Bob reaches over to pat the trunk. There’s genuine affection in his gesture, and his face softens a bit. “She’s been good to me so far.”

“Bess?”

“Yes, why?”

“Well, you never told me you named your tree.”

They laugh, easing some tension that way. A big, deeper part of it is still between them though, latent and ready to strike, and it’s causing knots in Ray’s stomach. He picks a cookie up, shifting his position. Again, their knees rub together once, twice, and that seems to have a direct effect on his groin, somehow. His jeans weren’t so tight when he put them up that morning.

Damn.

Holding the still intact cookie in his hand, Ray closes his eyes, inhales. When he opens them, Bob’s right there, in front of him.

“Bob.”

Ray’s brain stops functioning upon hearing his own voice, rough and raspy, or perhaps it’s because Bob’s hand is cupping his chin, pulling him forwards. When they kiss, something – a lump he didn’t even realize he had – loosens up in his chest, and he reaches over, grasping at Bob’s shoulders for support.

It’s so good to know that Bob’s lips are really as soft as they looked on the mobile screen, that his hands are calloused exactly in the spots Ray expected them to be. He shudders when they sneak under his clothes, feeling warm on Ray’s bare skin, and he spreads his thighs to make space for him, wanting to have Bob closer. Nearer.

They’re still kissing when Bob lowers him on the quilt, knocking mugs and the cookies box down. Neither of them care though, too busy in lifting garments, pulling at flies. Their respective harnesses are in the way, and Ray is painfully reminded about his own when Bob’s weight settles over him. He moans in discomfort, bucking his hips, and then he moans again as their erections grind together.

“Let me,” whispers Bob against Ray’s mouth before proceeding to unfasten the straps. He also gets Ray rid of the helmet, pushing it aside.

“Bob…”

“Shush. I’ll blow you.”

Dazed, Ray is only able to lie back and watch Bob kneeling between his legs. He’s so hard that he’s sure he's not going to last long and when Bob wraps a hand around his dick, Ray has to summon all his willpower to calm himself down. It’s worth it though, so fucking worth it. Under his heavy-lidded eyes, Bob licks the tip once, all the while putting a hand in his own pants.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for months,” he says before lowering his head and taking Ray’s dick in his mouth.

It isn’t the best blowjob Ray’s ever got in his life, but Bob is able to take him in without gagging, cheeks hollow and sucking him off in the earnest. Twice he decides to slows things down a little, running his tongue along the length and swirling it around the head before resuming his previous pace.

Ray cannot see it, but he knows that Bob is jerking himself off at the same time, fist pumping around his own cock. He’d love to help with it, but he’s too close to tell him to stop and come up. Besides, he finds it awfully hot. His hips thrust forwards: he’s fucking Bob’s mouth now, fingers pulling at Bob’s hair, thighs spread as far as his jeans allow him to.

They’re so worked up that it ends soon, Bob coming first and moaning around Ray’s cock while his entire body stiffens up. It takes Ray a couple of thrusts more to orgasm as well, coming in thick spurts within Bob’s mouth. He’s still keeping his eyes on him, wanting to see him swallow and lick his cock clean. It’s damn arousing, and it largely makes up for the fact that they lasted less than a couple of horny teenagers.

“Whoa. If I had any doubt left about how welcome I really was...”

“Told you.”

Still breathing heavily, Bob sits on his heels. His pants are lowered to mid-thigh, leaving him bare, but he doesn’t seem to feel any cold yet. He grins.

“I've been thinking about doing this for months. It doesn’t mean that I’ve forgiven you for the scare I got before though. You’ll have to work harder for that.”

“I’ll do my best,” replies Ray, and he’s grinning as well.

*

Ray remains on the platform with Bob for a week before climbing down. They spend a good part of it hidden under the tarp, sharing blankets, coffee, and the last box of cookies.

It's weird to play house on a platform 150 feet from ground level, weirder than Ray ever thought it possible. It obliterates every concept of privacy one could have, because privacy simply doesn't exist when vital space is almost reduced to zero.

Surprisingly though, it isn't a bad experience. Yes, having to shower with a sponge and a bucket of water isn't that comfortable, just as bumping into Bob each time he moves, but in the end, those are minor issues. It's worth going through them if the reward consists in evenings spent reading a book together with the help of the flashlight, naked shoulder pressing against naked shoulder whenever Bob turns a page.

For a little while, Ray wonders about staying – really staying, joining Bob in his campaign until he’ll climb down. Soon it’ll be a year from when he’s started living in the sequoia. At this point, it’s clear to everyone that he won’t give up, and that’s why that guy with the gun has been sent there, to solve things the hard way. TLAC must be pretty desperate. They’ll deny having anything to do with him, of course, but Ray is sure that the failed attempt will speed the negotiation up.

It could be a matter of mere weeks. Even days, perhaps.

It’s easy to be optimist while lying under a mound made of blankets, with Bob’s breath tickling at the skin of his neck.

When Bob mentions about going down, they’re they’re sitting on one of the main branches. He’s been teaching Ray the basics of tree-climbing for the past couple of days, showing him tricks and techniques he’s learned over the years.

“Do you want me to?” asks Ray after a few moments. He’s busy with a knot that keeps on loosening. He’s probably doing something wrong, but his fingers are frozen and it’s rather hard to secure the rope the proper way.

“Well, it’s not a matter of wanting it. Rather, it’s that you should go down.”

“Okay. Why?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.” Sighing, Bob reaches over and hands him a carabiner. “What about your family? Your friends? I mean - alright, now wrap the rope end around it - you’ve moved here, sort of, without a word.”

Bob is right, of course, and Ray would lie if he said that such thoughts never crossed his mind once. Still, he wants to play stubborn for a little while more, turning a deaf ear to Bob’s voice of reason. He shrugs, pulling at the rope to redo the knot again. Stupid thing. He should probably give up and let Bob handle it. They can’t spend the whole day up here just because he’s unable to tie a knot.

“Um, it isn’t that I knew that a random jerk wanted to use your ass as target.”

“You have a job. You can’t neglect your clients, can you? You don’t sell bread and milk, you sell pictures.”

This time it’s Ray’s turn to sigh. “It sucks, uh?”

“Hm, not really. There’s another reason for you to climb down, you know. Actually, that’s the one I’m interested in.”

Ray frowns. Bob doesn’t look like he’s joking, but Ray can’t think about what he’ll gain from him leaving the platform. “Oh. And what would it be?” he asks, a bit wary.

“Condoms.”

Blinking, Ray looks up. “Condoms?”

“Yeah.” Bob – that fucking asshole – is grinning. “Get down and buy us a pack.”

**

Ray goes up often during the next months. He climbs the sequoia in January, right after a snowstorm, twice in April, and then again at the beginning of July.

He’d do more if he could. At least he’s happy when he’s there, away from the uproar that their campaign keeps on generating. One would think that after all that time, mass media would pretty much ignore Bob and his little group of eco activists but no, it isn’t so. Cameras are still on them, still filming, documenting. It’s tiring to Ray, despite being the one who never spoke to journalists nor posed for a picture. It’s awfully tiring, and sometimes – only sometimes – he finds himself wishing that Bob would just give up and climb down that fucking tree.

**

Bob. August ‘08.

“Bob.”

Bob freezes. He picked up as soon as he saw Ray’s name appearing on the display of his mobile, expecting to hear him all pleased for having sold his batch of pictures to that magazine he told him about on the other day. Instead, the way Ray pronounced his name is making the hair on his neck stand up.

“What happened?” he asks, meaning 'Are you well? Are you home? No missing limbs, no impending disasters?’

“You did it.”

Bob’s heart skips a beat.

“You, you big wonderful idiot, you did it. Gerard’s just called me with the news, and he wanted me to tell you first. TLAC agreed to revise the plan. They won't cut everything down as they meant to, they’ll leave some acres of wood untouched, just like it is. No one is going to lay a hand your tree. No fucking one. You did it.”

Blinking, Bob looks at his mobile. The video option is turned off, and Ray's voice sounds distant, even a bit strangled. He's bringing good news – hell, he’s bringing fucking good news – so what's wrong with him?

“Bob? Did you hear me? You did it. You can climb down now.”

“Yes.” Bob’s throat feels dry. “Yes, I suppose so.”

Again, silence stretches. Over the last year they’ve lived on the phone, sharing important confessions and silly jokes while their relationship grew, but it never ever felt so awkward. Not even the very first time they got to talk together, face to face. Closing his eyes, Bob leans over and puts his cheek against the trunk. Sunlight warmed it up during the day; it’s comforting.

In the end, it’s Bob who gives up first.

“Ray?”

“Yes?”

“Where will you be?”

A soft sigh fills the earpiece. “I’ll pick you up once the uproar dies down. I hope it won’t take too long. Just wait for me.”

Bob nods, which is stupid because Ray can’t see him this time. “I will,” he says, tightening his grip around the phone. “I’ll wait. Don't be a dick. I love you.”

“I know,” and Ray hangs up.

**

Bob. Semptember ’08.

True to his word, Ray doesn’t show up when Bob climbs down, nor is he there during the next weeks, when journalists camp in front of the hotel Bob’s staying at and talk-show producers keep on phoning him while he’s asleep.

It’s… weird. Really weird. He’s getting hundreds of calls from people he doesn’t give a fuck about, and the only one who he’d love to hear from has apparently fallen off the face of Earth. Sure, Ray stated that he was going to fly under the radar until mass media would forget about Bob and the sequoia he saved from loggers, but the sad truth is that Bob misses him all the same.

Besides, it isn’t that he airs his private phone calls on the radio, for fuck’s sake. One thing is avoiding the spotlight (and Bob knows that Ray has already been in the spotlight long enough during the last seventeen months, with the group and all), another thing is disappearing like that.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

‘What the hell is going on? It’s over, I’m tired. I’ll leave in a while, sneaking out from the backdoor.’

Bob considers for a moment the text he’s just entered on his mobile. Those words sums up what’s on his mind, and he’s confident about Ray understanding what he avoided saying, too. His question contains other questions, his statements other statements, just like those Russian nesting dolls he once saw at a thrift store.

He presses the send key soon after, and then he puts his mobile back into his pocket. Whatever, really. Whatever. Perhaps Ray will answer and ask him where he should come to pick him up, perhaps he will just delete Bob’s text without sparing a thought over it. It doesn’t matter. Bob’s ready to face whichever decision Ray will make.

**

“So. Where are we going?”

“Hm.”

Ray looks in the rear-view mirror – an automatic reflex, since the road is still desert - and turns the wheel.

“I still want to see Chicago, you know,” he says, speeding up a little. From where they are, they can already see the road sign with the town name stroke through, lit up by the last street lamp.

“You could show me all those places you told me about: the Art Institute, that small pub that serves cold beer, the spot in the park from which it’s possible to take pictures of the lake. We could check on the Bears, too. From what I’ve heard, they're kicking some ass this season.”

Bob smiles. “Yes. And then we could head to Jersey, maybe? I want to try to steal a bite of your grandmother's cake and see if I can get away with it.”

“Well, you're most welcome to try, sure. I'll stock up on band-aids, just in case.”

They start laughing, and it feels so good it almost makes Bob's heart ache. While they pass the road sign, entering into the clear cone of light, he gives Ray a light punch against his shoulder. “What, don't you trust my ninja skills? I'm deeply hurt.”

“You don't know my grandmother yet. She's fierce.”

“Uh-uh.”

Sliding down a little on the passenger seat, Bob closes his eyes. He's tired. Happy but tired, and he knows he'll probably doze off well before they reach the highway. Truth be told, he doesn’t even recall where the highway is supposed to be, since it was Mikey who drove last time he’s been there.

“Wake me up before we cross the border, we’ll check for directions together,” Bob says, yawning. “We have quite a long way to go, I don’t want to get lost.”

“Hey, it was an accident, I told you! I just took the wrong route. It happens.”

“And you ended up in California rather than in Oregon. Yes, yes. It happens.”

Ray brakes, coming to stop at a red light. Bob is half asleep already, the seatbelt digging a little in his neck when he slouches down and his head starts to lull. Still, his eyelids flutter open when Ray draws close. Warm breath heats up the skin of Bob’s ear, making him shiver.

“Don't be a dick,” whispers Ray, and his lips touches Bob’s earlobe. “I love you.”

Bob smiles. “I know.”
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