They are going camping. The five of them, as a family: Robert, Edward, Morgan, Nancy, Giselle.
It’s Robert’s idea to go, sort of. It’s early summer in New York, and Robert can already feel the slow creep of the heat, the inevitable brown-outs when they’ll grump around the living room together because misery loves company. Morgan’s out of school for the summer and, really, Robert isn’t sure he wants her to spend all her time indoors, reading, even if it is mostly nonfiction.
Nancy picks Alaska, because she’s never been, and she thinks it’ll be entertaining to take Edward on an airplane. Giselle’s been, once, on Robert’s firm’s jet, and she had loved every minute of it; Morgan’s flown since she was a year old, when Robert moved to New York with her mother. Edward just shrugs and says that anyplace with mountains is fine by him. Morgan agrees because the length of the flight means she’ll have plenty of time to read.
Some phone calls and vacation time wrangling later, Robert has five tickets for mid-July. Two weeks together, he thinks. We can do that.
It is two-legged trip to Alaska, with a layover in Chicago that turns into a plane change and a frantic dash to get to the right gate. The first leg isn’t so bad, under three hours. The second leg is a grueling seven hours.
Flying does not agree with Edward.
Robert is very sure that the bed and breakfast Giselle chose is nice, and warm, and cozy, but he couldn't guarantee it. He’s only seen the cushions on its couch, and then only a handful of times, because Alaska does agree with Edward. The day after they land, Morgan, Nancy, and Giselle want to hike the glaciers. They make it as far as the outpost to meet with their adventure guide, who makes the mistake of ensuring that everyone present has signed up for the glacier hike, and not the glacier climb. Edward’s eyes light up like the sun. “Robert,” he says, “You must come climbing with me.” So Robert goes, because someone has to keep an eye on the guy, right? And Robert is reasonably sure that Edward is not as extreme as he thinks – after all, he’s known Edward for ten years, and Edward hasn’t so much as brandished his sword at anyone in the past nine.
Three hours, two sore arms, and one grinning Edward later, they meet up again with the others, and Morgan just rolls her eyes when Robert asks how long they’ve been waiting. “An hour and a half,” Giselle says, and Robert winces. At least they’re in time for the jet boat.
They rent a second car after that, and suddenly Robert’s three days a week at the gym starts to seem – well, puny. They go backcountry camping in the Denali National Forest, where Robert has heard there are bears and Edward just smiles and says that bears have nothing on ogres. They don’t see any bears, but they don’t see any people, either, and Robert finds himself immensely grateful for Edward’s constant prattle about troll hunting – not to mention his unerring sense of direction. They go sea kayaking, three days of paddling next to humpbacked whales in ice-choked waters and hiking to abandoned gold mines. Robert wakes up bleary-eyed on a beautiful, forgotten beach to find Edward already awake and staring at the dawn, his handsome face limned in sunlight. Edward wants to summit Denali's south peak, and Robert just barely manages to talk him out of it. Edward’s idea of settling is climbing the Suicide Peaks and everything along the way.
Robert tries to complain to someone in the few hours he manages to see anyone but Edward, but Morgan’s buried in a pile of new books that all have mountains on the covers, and Nancy and Giselle just smile. “Weren’t you a Boy Scout?” Nancy teases, and Robert grumps and grumbles and doesn’t mention that his merit badges are all in things like Public Speaking and Scholarship, not Orienteering or Wilderness Survival. (Or Edward Survival, not that such a one exists.)
And then there’s whitewater rafting on Six Mile Creek.
Okay, sure. It’s something Robert’s wanted to try. Some of the guys at the firm went a couple years ago in Chattooga and the pictures looked pretty cool, all of them in their short sleeves and lifejackets giving the camera a thumbs-up. But he’s pretty sure that their whitewater adventure didn’t have a swim test requirement for entry.
“These are class five rapids,” he hisses to Edward as their guide – some kid ten, fifteen years younger than Robert, he notes, named Nick – is showing them how to put on their gear and explaining the basic commands. “That’s like, one class below certain death!”
“Threat to life and limb, yes, certain death, no,” calls their guide, his grin only a little morbid.
Edward manages to look perfectly natural in his drysuit, helmet, and lifejacket. He claps Robert on the shoulder in a way that Robert supposes ought to be encouraging, and it is, a little, until Edward opens his mouth and says, “Don’t worry, Robert. I’m part merman.”
Nick looks at him a little strangely, so Robert just shrugs, and then it’s into the raft with them. While the river is open it’s a beautiful thing to behold, all lush forest and endless acres of blue sky, but then the canyon walls close in and the river drops, and the guide is shouting “All forward!” like their lives depend on it, which maybe they do, and there’s water everywhere. Robert can hardly think over the roar of the hydraulics and Edward whooping like a mad thing, the guide shouting at him to shut up or he’ll miss the next instruction. They pull into an eddy for a breather, watch a couple more rafts go by, and then they’re off again.
It’s the most exhilarating thing Robert’s ever done, and by the time they hit the third canyon his blood is pumping fast and hot, his eyes trained on the river. He glances across the raft at Edward and imagines that the fierce look of steely determination and pure thrill on Edward’s face matches his own. A shout of “Here comes The Staircase!” and they’re plunging into the next set of rapids, down and up and down again, water pouring into their raft and Robert’s sure they’re going under, and then away it sluices, back into the churning froth of the rabid river around them.
The river is relentless here, one rapid right after the other, and Robert’s arms are straining at the paddle when the unthinkable happens. A shuddering jolt and water’s roaring into his side of the raft, his sinking side of the raft, and he just has time to think that they’ve caught up against something when he hears Nick screaming “HIGH SIDE LEFT, HIGH SIDE LEFT!” and Edward's hauling him up by his collar to throw as much weight as they can onto the left side of the raft before the whole thing flips. Robert’s giddy with adrenaline and shaking and he lunges for the left side anyway like he’s been told, only to realize it’s not enough and the river is ripping at him, the current swift and strong, and before he knows it he’s in and the water is closing over him.
It’s so cold, Robert doesn’t remember ever having been this cold, but he keeps his wits somehow and up he pops again, floating the best he can as he’s banging around, keeping his feet up and his head above water. He hears the guide before he sees him, and spots Edward first, standing up in the raft and waving madly at him from the safety of their eddy. Robert paddles hard for him, awkwardly – feet up, feet up – and then Edward’s got him by the shoulder straps and it’s under and up, back into the relative safety of the raft. Edward grins at him like he’s caught a prize bass and Robert coughs, and shivers.
“I thought you were part merman,” he says, and Edward smiles with an apology in his eyes.
“I don’t care if he’s part whale,” Nick cuts in. “You don’t jump in after a swimmer unless you’re prepared to drown with them.” His breath is a huff on the exhale, which Robert figures is just nerves, and then he’s motioning for them to sit again because they’ve still got one last rapid before the pull-out point.
It’s a bit anti-climactic, really.
Robert realizes later, as he’s looking through the seven hundred photographs Nancy ordered online, that there are only two photos of him and Edward. Plenty of Nancy, plenty of Giselle, plenty of Morgan. Plenty of the three of them in various combinations: all of them posing in front of a team of sled dogs, Morgan’s finger pointing at a pair of bull moose, Nancy and Giselle looking serene and comfortable in what Robert assumes was their room at the bed and breakfast, Morgan and Giselle at the docks.
The first photo is one of him snoring open-mouthed on the plane, and Robert reminds himself to return the favor. Nancy, probably.
The second photo is one of him and Edward passed out on separate couches at the bed and breakfast, on what Robert thinks is probably the fourth or fifth day, judging by the packs partially obscuring their heads.
Robert turns a little as Edward drapes a casual arm around his shoulders. Edward’s smile is warm and inviting, and Robert can feel his mouth quirking up in response. Still. “I can’t believe we’re only in two pictures,” he says, waving them at Edward. “And we’re sleeping.”
Edward studies them, and his gaze flicks toward the stacks of photos that are not of them. “Don’t your people have a quote regarding the worth of a photo?” he asks.
“A picture is worth ten thousand words?”
“But the memories,” Edward intones solemnly, “are priceless.”
Robert smiles, because it’s true, and although his muscles will be complaining for weeks he has Edward to thank for the adventure. He’s even about to say so, but then Morgan walks in wearing a tshirt of Robert’s snoring face captioned with I WENT TO ALASKA AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS STUPID SHIRT and a grin the size of Texas.
“It’s on Facebook too, I think,” Edward says helpfully, and laughs as Robert curses and makes a dash for his computer.