Just One Starfish

by Grasshopper

Midnight Blue/Sunrise Gold
Gabriel/Brian
Their Struggle Story Begins
Chapter 11

Gabriel set his alarm for five, packed the usual gear in his backpack, with an extra of everything for Sam. When his alarm went off, he was already half awake, ready to go. He hadn't realized until last night how much he needed to get out in the mountains. Sometimes the world just stagnated him, made him choke for wanting to be what he never could. At least, out in the desert air, just Dog and him, he could breathe. He could put all the pain of his parents and his brother, all the shame of what he had done to survive, in that place in your brain where you hide ugly truths. He always felt like God wasn't judging him when he was out in the wilderness. He could just be himself and let all the fears and sadness go. It was amazing that he was comfortable with Sam going along. They'd gone hiking several times and she always just let him alone with his thoughts as if she knew he had goblin thoughts and the desert air cleared them away. She was good company that way.

Gabriel always missed his brother Dominic the most when he was out alone with just his thoughts. They had been close growing up and Dom had never been a big brother bully like so many other kids he knew. They had shared and laughed, joked and dreamed. Gabriel remembered, at six, wanting nothing but to be as good, as smart, as perfect as his big brother. For Dominic to hate him now was the deepest cut of all.

He hadn't heard Sam leave, but he'd probably been in deep sleep and just missed the noise she usually made. Too bad they couldn't have driven out together; it made the day more fun. But she was usually pretty good about times and he knew she'd be there by six.

Pulling on olive trail shorts, a stark white pocket tee and his black canvas explorer vest with a million pockets, Gabriel sat down to lace up his boots. "You ready, Dog?" As usual, Dog was already at the door, tail wagging furiously. Gabriel opened the front door and Dog dashed out to take care of business before jumping into the Jeep. Before starting the engine, Gabriel checked Dog's collar and tags. He never wanted to lose anyone else he loved.

Dog had turned into a real beauty, all shiny black fur and glowing green eyes. He'd come a really long way from that scraggly ball of dirty fur thrown out in the rest stop parking lot. He'd eaten his way from all skin and bones to a formidable 103 pounds of muscle and fun.

Driving the now familiar route out I10 toward Saguaro National Park, Gabriel stopped at Mickey Ds for two triple bypass breakfast sausage biscuits. He got Dog his usual cheese fries. The traffic was light and they made the drive from home to the Trailhead in less than twenty minutes. Gabriel didn't hear any other cars, so he figured he'd have to wait on Sam.

Pulling up into the clearing, his headlights flashed on metal. Squinting his eyes into the pre-sun gloom, Gabriel saw a bike leaning against the signpost. Driving the Jeep into the fartherest parking slot, he climbed out, Dog jumping down and racing toward someone sitting on the rail fence.

"Whoa, Dog. Get back here," he called.

"It's okay. We're friends," a familiar voice answered. Gabriel frowned. Who would be out here this early in the morning that knew Dog? Walking toward the fence, his eyes widened. The kid? Brian? What was he doing here?

"Hey," Brian said hesitantly, watching through the gloom of the dawning light. He stood up and awkwardly raised his hand to wave at Gabriel, suddenly feeling weird and out of place.

"Well, hey?" Gabriel replied, more a question than anything else.

"I um, I well, I," Brian cleared his throat, and tried again. "I got your note."

"My note?" Gabriel's mind was spinning. What note? He'd thought about what Sam had said that he needed to thank Brian for the birthday card, but the more he thought about it, the more time went by and the more time that went by, the more he decided not to reply.

"Yeah, thanks for asking me. I've never hiked, like really hiked, in the desert before."

Gabriel stood totally dumbfounded, "Huh?" Then it hit him..... Sam. Man, she was in total hot shit when he got home. He turned away for a minute, shoving his boot up on the fence rail, retying his lace, giving himself time to sort it all out. What to say?

Watching Gabriel's movements, Brian stammered, "Excuse me? I'm sorry, was there some mistake?"

Gabriel wanted to stomp off toward the Jeep, but stopped in his tracks when he heard Brian's soft question. Taking a deep breath, he squared his shoulders and turned back around to the confused young man. "No, no, of course not. Don't be sorry. I just..... I just....." Words failed him for a second.

Tell him? Explain what Sam had done? Why? What good would that do? Just make the poor kid feel like shit. God, he was so gonna kill her. That's all he needed right now, this kid with his ever-hovering death wish. Not wanting to make this any worse, he said, "You've never been hiking before?"

"No, not real hiking like I guess you do. Um, Gabriel, I can tell you changed your mind or forgot about it or something. I'm gonna just go, okay?" he moved toward the chained bike.

Gabriel sighed, then it registered: the kid, the bike, the morning darkness.

"You rode that bike out here?"

"Yeah."

"All the way from school to go hiking?" and he added silently, 'With me?'

How could you see to ride down this dirt road?"

Brian giggled, "You'll laugh." He pulled the cap out of his backpack, tugged it on his head and switched on the light. Gabriel blinked in the bright light and felt a grin cross his face.

"See, I told you, "Brian laughed, 'It worked good though." Then the laughter faded away. "I better get goin'."

"No, no you're not. We're gonna go hiking up into the hills. I'm gonna show you what Arizona really looks like. You got boots?" He'd take the kid hiking and that would be the end of this. There wasn't time in his life for what this cute kid wanted from him.

"Yeah, in my backpack." Brian looked down at Gabriel's boots and thought about the ones Alan had loaned him. He was probably gonna die out on this trail, but he'd die hiking with Gabriel. What a way to go.

"Well, get them on and I'll put your bike in the back of the Jeep and chain it. It'll be safer there."

"You sure? I don't want to be any trouble." He watched as Gabriel lifted the bike up and chained it in the back of the Jeep. Brian had had trouble just maneuvering that old bike away from the bike rack. He made a promise right then to get to a gym and build some more muscles.

Gabriel heard the doubt in Brian's voice and groaned. He had the distinct feeling that today was somehow gonna screw his life over in ways even he didn't understand. Sighing, he was shaking his head as he walked back over and leaned on the railing. "Let's start this whole thing over, okay? Brian, you want to hike up the trail and watch the sun come up?"

Dog decided for them both. Running to the path start, then back to Brian, back to the path and back to Brian, making little whining sounds and wagging his tail furiously. "You're being invited," Gabriel said.

Brian scratched Dog's head, "Okay, wait one sec while I get these boots on." Sitting down on the ground, he pulled off his sneakers and started to pull on Alan's boots. Tying the laces, he hopped up and smiled shyly, "I'm ready."

Gabriel had been watching Brian as he struggled into his boots and shook his head frowning. Why had Sam done this? He didn't need help finding friends. He didn't want anyone to be close. He didn't need anything. He'd just take Brian up the trail, watch the sunrise and take him back to campus and that would be that. Sliding his arms through his backpack straps, he started off up the path, leaving Brian to catch up. They had walked over a mile, Dog trotting along beside Brian, when Gabriel stopped. "The sun's getting ready to top that range, watch."

"It's like we're the only people on Earth," Brian sighed. He glanced out of the corners of his eyes to watch Gabriel's reaction.

The silence surrounded them and the soft morning breeze held the desert fragrances. "Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. You up for a climb to that rock formation over there?" Gabriel pointed off into the distance ahead of them.

"Sure, this is great. I didn't realize the desert was so big."

"That's what makes it such a great place to hike," Gabriel said, "All this land and no people."

"Where else have you hiked?"

"The Appalachian Trail, the Smokey Mountains. I really want to get up in the Rockies, but for now I'm really lovin' the Rincons."

Brian was making a mental list of pertinent facts. So far, he'd learned that Gabriel hadn't asked him to hike today; that he worked out; that he actually could smile; that he had been in the South. He still didn't know much.

Chattering away about school and dogs and the mountains and life and music, Brian realized after about forty-five minutes that he was the only one talking. Shit! He was blabbing just like a girl. Here, look at me! Blah Blah Blah. Shit!

About an hour of the sun warming the air and walking faster than he usually did, Brian was finding it harder to keep up. There was no way Gabriel was gonna know he was getting tired, but when he stopped by an outcropping of rocks and pulled his backpack off his shoulders, Brian gladly sat.

Gabriel had been enjoying the hike so much that he hadn't really judged Brian's condition. Now he did. "Here, drink. You gotta keep your electrolytes workin' for you." He handed Brian a bottle of grape G2. "How you doin'?"

"Fine, just great. I love this. I could go on all day," Brian enthused. "Man, this tastes good. I was really thirsty." He drained the bottle, and rolled his shoulders.

"You really shouldn't have on that black sweatshirt. It's really gonna warm up soon and you'll get overheated. I think I've got my jogging t-shirt in here," Gabriel said as he rummaged thru his backpack, pulling out a wadded up white tank top.

"Um, I'm fine, really, I......," Brian tried to say, even though he was sweating like a pig under the heavy black UA sweatshirt.

"C'mon, Brian, I know you must be hot as hell. I'll stuff your sweatshirt in my backpack and you'll feel a lot better in this." He tossed the tanktop over and waited. Brian fumbled around, not wanting to take his sweatshirt off while Gabriel was staring at him. It wasn't that he was skinny or anything, but Gabriel... well, he was really tight and Brian was..... Not.

Skinning the heavy shirt off over his head, he felt the cooling brush of wind across his chest and embarrassingly, his nipples just boinged out. Keeping his eyes down, he grabbed the tanktop and yanked it on.... And things just got worse.

"How tall are you?" he asked as he stood up and the shirt came almost to his knees and the armholes drooped down almost to his waist. Not wanting to look at Gabriel, Brian said, "Well, if I get lost, I guess I could make a tent out of your shirt." He had no idea what horrible thoughts Gabriel could possibly be thinking right now.

'Damn, don't put the shirt on yet. Don't.... Oh! He looks adorable in my shirt.'

"Um, it's fine. Tie a knot in the bottom part or something. You'll be cooler and that's what counts. I'm 6'1" to answer your question."

"Well, I'm obviously not that," Brian said, rolling his eyes, "You've got five inches on me." How could he possibly think for a minute that someone like Gabriel could ever be interested in him. He was a shrimp.

The walking did get easier after he'd had the G2 and taken off that hot sweatshirt. Walking behind Gabriel, he lifted the front of the tank top up and covered his nose with the material. Oh dear lord! It smelled of sweat and Gabriel. He felt his body begin to burn from a low heat in his belly and he tried to look anywhere except at the gorgeous guy's spectacular butt right in front of him.

It wasn't working. He started counting backwards from 100 by 7s, muttering the numbers to himself, willing his body to stop. "100, 93, 86, 79,......" concentrating on a spot just to the right of Gabriel's left shoulder.

"What?" he heard Gabriel call over his shoulder.

"Nothin', I'm good." Good... 'Yeah, right, I'm dyin' back here.'

Gabriel frowned. Maybe this was enough. Brian wasn't a hiker. They'd save the Larendo Rocks for another day. They'd stop right up here where the path sloped upwards. Glancing at his watch, he realized they'd been walking at a really fast pace for four hours. Aw, dang, the kid was probably exhausted. "Brian, we're gonna stop right up here and take a break."

"Sounds like a plan," Brian just barely kept the moan out of his voice. They sat down in the shade of a huge boulder just off the path. Leaning up against the cool stone, Brian closed his eyes for a second, popping them back open when he heard Gabriel's voice.

"You did great, Brian. I hope we didn't move too fast or too far."

'I did great? Me?' he sighed to himself. A broad smile spread across his face. "Thanks. It's fun."

"Okay, now don't get the idea I have a foot fetish or anything," Gabriel smiled, "But I want to see your feet. You were limping that last quarter mile."

Brian unlaced the boots slowly, not wanting to see the blisters he'd felt building for the last two hours. He had very quickly realized that Alan's boots didn't fit him very well and that something was rubbing painfully on the backs of his heels. He didn't want Gabriel to see, but he didn't think he could walk all the way back either.

"Jesus, Brian, why didn't you say something?" Gabriel growled as he saw the torn skin, the blood and the huge water blisters. "I've got to fix you up so you can walk." He pulled his backpack over and dug in to find his ziplock bag full of first aid stuff.

"I'm sorry," Brian mumbled.

"Here, drink this other G2. This is gonna sting a little." He cleaned the open cuts with alcohol wipes and smeared on Neosporin before he covered them with heavy gauze bandages and tape. Brian tried to sit still, but couldn't help making little squee noises. "I know it hurts. Just a bit more," Gabriel said gently. Covering the blisters with squares of moleskin, he put the ziplock bag back in his pack and picked up one of Brian's boots. "This is what cut your feet. Feel right here along the inside back. There's metal support and it hit you right under your ankle joint."

'He thinks I'm an idiot,' Brian groaned for the millionth time.

'Poor guy, he walked all that way and never said a word,' Gabriel felt so guilty for not paying more attention. "Well, here's some trail mix and when you're ready, let's head back. I think you've had enough for one day."

"But you wanted to go further. I don't want to mess up your Saturday."

""You won't. I've got mountains of editing and typing to do for Professor Parrish. I'm way behind."

Dog came over to lay his head in Brian's lap. "How long have you had Dog?"

"He found me in a parking lot along the Interstate last summer. Some asshole dumped him out and took off. Dog just kinda stuck with me."

Gabriel sat on a low rock, drawing lines in the dirt with a stick.

Brian had a zillion questions he wanted to ask: Where are you from? What's your family like? How many brothers and sisters? Is your dad as cool as you? Do you know how gorgeous you are? Where do you live? Is Sam your steady girlfriend? Do you like me at all? Were you The Man in high school? Can we be friends? Can I touch your hair? How did you get that little scar in your left eyebrow? On and on and on....

Gabriel just continued to draw in the dirt, little wavy lines, circles and stick figures. If he looked at Brian, he'd want to know about him and that wasn't part of his plan. He only wanted quick sex, nobody close. He just knew that if he raised his eyes and looked at the freckles the sun had created across Brian's face, he'd start to talk and that way led to trouble. Damn it, Sam, why did you have to go and do this?

"Well, we better get started," Gabriel said as he stuffed empty G2 bottles and trail mix bags into his backpack. Brian reached for his boots.

"Nah, you can't put them back on." Gabriel stood up, flexed his shoulders and stuck out his hand. Pulling Brian up, he held out the backpack. "Put this on."

Puzzled, Brian frowned. He had to walk barefoot AND carry the backpack? Gabriel must be really angry with him for ruining the day. He slid his arms through the straps and felt the weight that Gabriel had been carrying all morning. Dang! This was gonna be hell cause the sun was getting hotter and he was sweating just standing in the path.

Gabriel came around behind him, found the last G2 and drank some. "Keep this out in the side pocket for now," he said. He pulled off his vest and stuffed it in the backpack. Brian felt like he was about to fall over backwards. Jesus, this thing was heavy, heavy and hot. He didn't say a word. This was his fault and Gabriel was really pissed at him.

"I'm really sorry, Gabriel. I didn't mean to ruin your day. I borrowed Alan's boots and I guess they aren't the......................................"

"Hush, how were you supposed to know this would happen? It's my fault for not checking everything before we left. I got distracted and forgot. You were doing fine, Brian." He stepped away and looked off down the path that led back the way they'd come. "Okay, I'm gonna try to get you as far as I can, then I'll go back for the bike." He flexed his back and neck and sat down on one of the higher rocks. "Climb on."

OMG! Gabriel was gonna carry his weight plus the backpack. "No, there's no way I can let you do that," Brian yelped.

"Well, you can't put those boots back on and there's no way you're walking back barefoot with those blisters and those open cuts. Come on, Brian, you can't weigh that much. It'll be fine. Trust me."

Brian approached Gabriel cautiously and slipped his arms around the strong shoulders in front of him. He felt Gabriel start to stand up and he jerked his legs up to press against Gabriel's hips. Strong arms slid under his knees and he held on tightly. Gabriel stood up slowly, his shoulders rounded to support the weight with 160 or so pounds on his back. Brian was held firmly as Gabriel started off at a slow pace down the path the way they had come.

'Okay.... I'm sweating bullets and my feet are all torn up and I'm gonna have a sunburn to beat all sunburns, but I have died and gone to heaven riding on the Angel Gabriel,' Brian thought giddily to himself as he tried not to giggle.

"100, 93, 86, 79, 72,..." he counted as he tried desperately not to pop a gigantic boner against Gabriel's back. His nose was nestled in the damp black curls; his arms were clutching hot skin and his crotch was pressed against the muscles of Gabriel's back as they worked. It was heaven and hell at the same time. I hope he can't feel.....................................

Now, there was something Gabriel hadn't thought of when he came up with this plan. He wasn't feeling the weigh anywhere near as much as he was feeling the pulsing rock hardness pressing against his lower back. At every step, Brian's obvious erection was rubbing up and down against his sweat soaked shirt.... Up and down, up and down. God, save me or kill me now.

He could hear Brian counting weirdly backwards. Oh! Gabriel groaned. Serve the kid right for wearing those godawful boots. If he wasn't going to keel over from an aneurism any minute, he would have been more excited than the kid, but carrying Brian and the backpack was enough to take any thought of sex far far away. It was all he could do to keep breathing. How could hiking five miles feel like so great, but hiking five miles while carrying a cute guy be torture?

They made it, Gabriel stumbling the last few feet, to an outcropping of cactus and rocks a few steps off the path. Brian scrambled off as Gabriel sat, then stretched out flat on the sandy ground.

"You okay?" Brian asked, his face about three inches from Gabriel's.

Eyes closed, breath slowing, he nodded. He could feel Brian's breath on his face and thought about begging for mouth-to-mouth. Instead, he opened one eye and squinted up into the full blare of the sun. Brian's bottom lip was right there. All Gabriel had to do was move a quarter of an inch to lick it.

'Parelli,' he yelled at himself, 'He's a great kid. Don't even think about it. He deserves so much better.'

"Yeah, I'm fine. Give me a minute and I'll go get the bike so you can ride it back." He saw the flicker of disappointment in Brian's eyes, but he was doing the right thing. Keep him at a distance. "Dog, stay with Brian."+

Brian watched Gabriel walk off at a fast pace. He wished he could read people, but Gabriel was a total blank. Just for a second, Brian had seen something in his eyes, but then they just clouded over like the sky on a stormy day, and it was gone. He sat down in the little patch of shade from the huge saguaro and waited. His feet felt like aliens. Damn boots.

The minutes ticked by and Brian waited, shifting all the ways Gabriel had taken care of him through his mind. Nothing had changed about the way Brian felt curious and excited about him. If anything, Brian wanted to understand him more than ever. "I wish you could help me, Dog. You know him better than anyone."

Gabriel thought non-stop about the boy he'd left behind. There was only a couple of years difference in their ages. Why did he feel so old? Why did he insist on thinking of Brian as a kid? He had two choices: he could do what Brian thought he wanted, empty sex, right now, today. Get it done and move on. Or he could stop it today.... Nothing.... Leaving Brian to find his way just like everyone else. He just knew he couldn't be Brian's friend. He wanted more than that. Admit it, you ass. He flashed back to Mitch's face and remembered feeling innocent and young. Of course, once he'd told Mitch about his past, it would have been all over. Just like it would be with Brian.

Better not to start anything that would hurt.

When he got back to the Jeep, Gabriel let the back down and dragged the old Dawes 24 speed out and propped it against the rail fence. He stuck his head under the water faucet at the side of the public restroom and shook his head letting the water drip down onto his hot shoulders. Ah, better. Now for the ride back. This time, the trip was easier with warm wind in his face.

He waved when he saw Brian watching for him. Slowing the bike, he put one foot down to steady himself. "You ready to go? Cool old bike, yours?"

Brian snorted, "It belongs to Mr. Blood. Let's just say that I'm glad it was me that got hurt, not this bike."

"Mr. Blood?"

"I'll tell you on the way back. I wish I could tow you or something." They both looked at the back tire lacking a fender.

"Don't worry about it. Let's just get back to the Jeep."

"I know, you've got work to do."

"No, I'm starving. Aren't you?"

"Well, yeah, now that you mention it. I was considering gnawing on Dog there for a minute," Brian grinned.

"And he probably wanted to gnaw right back," Gabriel laughed.

'Gabriel laughed..... His whole face lights up when he laughs. It's almost like he doesn't do it very often,' Brian thought to himself. 'Note to me, make Gabriel laugh.'

They made it back to the Jeep, Brian pedaling as slowly as he could without falling off and Gabriel, reallllly tired of this path, walking along listening to the chatter that was flowing out of Brian's mouth. He knew pretty well everything that had happened to Brian since he had arrived at the university by the time he set the bike back in the Jeep.

Gabriel cranked up the Jeep and backed out of the parking lot to drive down the dirt road that Brian had maneuvered what seemed like days ago, but was just this morning in the dark. "What you want to eat?"

"Anything. I don't care. You pick. Pizza? Burgers? You pick."

"Do you ever say just the answer to a question?"

"Well, yes, I do, but I was just thinking that you probably have a favorite thing and I didn't want to......................"

"Brian. Food."

"But what do you........."

"Brian!"

Brian heard the exasperation in Gabriel's voice. He didn't know what was wrong with him. He couldn't shut up. "I'm sorry. I know I'm being a dork. I just want you to pick cause I............"

A hand covered his mouth. A large rather dirty hand. Brian had the instant desire to lick Gabriel's palm. He knew he'd taste sweat and Gabriel.

"You have got to shut that pretty mouth for one second. If I take my hand away, will you tell me in as few words as possible what you want to eat?"

Brian's eyes darted back and forth over the top of Gabriel's hand and he nodded his head. 'He said *pretty*. He did. I heard it.' He kinda wanted the hand to stay, but when Gabriel moved his hand back to the steering wheel, Brian said happily, "Burger."

Triple burgers, cheese fries and giant sodas later, sitting at a table outside Mac's Tasty-Burger in the shade of a gnarled cottonwood, Brian said, "I had a great time today. I know stuff went way wrong but it was all kinda neat and, and.........................." he let his words drop off.

"And what?"

'Oh the hell with it' he thought. "I liked being with you." he looked down at the tabletop.

'Shit, how do I answer that?' Gabriel argued with himself. "I have something to tell you."

The tone of his voice told Brian it was something bad. Damn!

"I didn't write that note. I want to be honest with you, Brian."

"I didn't think you were expecting me," Brian said softly. Damn it, he could feel tears burning his eyes.

"Sam wrote it. You know how girls like the sneaky stuff. She was the one who was supposed to meet me this morning. That's why I looked so lost."

Well, shit. "I understand. Thanks for telling me. I should have known that you wouldn't have sent me that.................................."

A hand covered his mouth. A large rather oniony ketchupy hand. "But, I need you to know that I'm very glad she did. It was neat and I.... I liked being with you too." He took his hand away and waited for Brian to start talking.

Nothing happened. Gabriel cocked his head and tried to look in Brian's eyes.

"You okay?"

Am I okay? Yes, indeedy do. I am so way past okay that okay has fallen off the side of the planet and is spinning its way toward Jupiter as we speak. I am...................... Hmmm......... I don't have a word yet. I will but not yet. "Yeah, I'm cool." His smile just about knocked Gabriel's perfect for hiking boots off.

Dog settled in the back under the bike and they drove back toward the campus. Gabriel grabbed his dark glasses and looked over at Brian. "You got a lot of sun. Make sure you get lotion on so you don't peel."

"K," Brian nodded, "I guess this is another "Gabriel saves Dumb Brian" incident, huh?"

Gabriel laughed, "No, this was more like a 'Brian needs the right kind of boots if he wants to go hiking again' incident."

'Did he just say we were going again? Or did he mean if I went hiking someday?

'Okay, Parelli, you're making a BIG mistake. Do NOT open your mouth. Do NOT say this. Do NOT...... "If you can get your folks to fork over some money for a good cause, we could go to the Cabella's store in Tucson and find you the right ones."

'WHAT? What did he say? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes!!!! I would go to the store in Nome, Alaska. I would walk there barefooted. I would limp there on the stumps of feet cut off by the Saw guy. OMG!!!'....... "Um, I can ask them. I'd like that."

Gabriel: 'Damn that Sam. I'll just take him to get new boots. That's all.'

He could still see that smile and he knew he was losing this war.

"See ya, Brian."

Brian: 'He doesn't hate me. I still have his tanktop! He likes me!

"See ya, Gabriel. Oh and Gabriel? The word I wanted was

SPECTACULAR !!"

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