Rachel adjusted the strap of her backpack, a larger bag at her feet as she tried not to glance at her watch for the millionth time. She pursed her lip and looked down the street, trying to spot Miles' red Challenger.
She wasn't surprised, not really, but you'd think that being in the Marines would instill a better sense of punctuality, though perhaps it's the forced discipline that causes them to let loose when they're on leave. She's saved from more armchair psychology by the sight of Miles' familiar car, rushing down the street. She took a deep breath and steeled herself, wishing not for the first time that she was driving with Ben... But Ben had a presentation in Minneapolis and there was no point in him coming to Chicago, rather than meeting them at Superior National Forest and she still had classes and couldn't join him, hence her carpooling with Ben's brother and his best friend who seemed to be joined at his hip.
Miles parked the car in front of her, didn't bother apologizing for his tardiness and said "hey Rachel, get in, we've got some driving to do before we can camp for the night."
Rachel mentally counted to ten and reminded herself that they were celebrating Ben's PhD and that this was an opportunity to get to know her boyfriend's brother and that Ben might not be too happy with her if she killed said brother. She twisted her lips into a grin and got into the back, next to some of their bags. "Hello, Sebastian."
"Bass," he corrected with an easy smile. "Hey Rachel, don't mind grumpy pants here, he'll mellow down once we get a few beers in him."
She gave him a genuine smile as he rolled his eyes in Miles' direction with a cheeky grin. She decided there and then that she liked Bass and wondered how on earth he put up with Miles; Ben mentioned that the two have been friends practically all their lives, but for that friendship to last all these years, there had to be more to it than just a long acquaintance.
Bass started up a casual conversation, asking Rachel about how her Masters was going, what her thesis was about and in return shared stories about Cynthia and Angela, beaming with older brother pride. Whenever Bass tried to involve Miles in one of these stories- "hey Miles, remember that time?"- Miles grunted or gave monosyllable answers and Bass gave up on trying to include him in their discussion. After about an hour- and for Miles, that might have been showing some restraint- Miles turned the volume way up and blasted AC/DC through the speakers, drowning out their conversation.
They made a few pit stops along the way, but for the most part they drove straight on for just over seven hours until they reached Lake Michigan. Rachel spent that time either dozing in the back or reading some of the research papers she brought with her, in case she had time to get some work done.
"Oh come on, you brought school work with you?" Bass asked incredulously.
Rachel merely shrugged, the tip of her pen in her mouth, as her eyes scanned the lines. "You really think Ben didn't?"
"Of course he would. Some people are just incapable of relaxing and having fun," Miles contributed, which Rachel found extremely hypocritical, given his usual demeanor, but he was actually putting whole sentences together and communicating with them, so she bit her tongue and didn't say anything.
They got the equipment out of the car and rolled out their sleeping bags. She told them she borrowed the sleeping bag from a friend, but she actually went out and bought one. Maybe that was too spontaneous, given that she wasn't sure if she'd ever get a chance to go camping again, but she liked the idea of it being a possibility.
"Ben said you used to do this with your dad all the time," Rachel inquired.
"Not all the time, just on special occasions," Miles corrected. "Birthdays, graduating high school, getting a PhD, that sort of thing."
"When was the last time you went camping with your dad?"
"When Bass and I enlisted," Miles said. "It's been a few years, dad hasn't been up to it since then and well, now it's too late." Their father died of lung cancer last year, but his health was deteriorating for a few years already. "I'm gonna go and get some wood to start the fire," he cleared his throat and ventured out.
"He needs to be alone for a while," Bass got the food out of the cooler, opened a bottle of beer for himself and then offered her one. She hesitated for a moment; she wasn't sure if she wanted to be drinking with these two- they were Ben's family, but she barely knew them and it was bad enough she was camping alone with them… She grabbed the proffered bottle with a muttered thank you and took a small sip.
"Am I in the way?" She asked hesitantly.
"What do you mean?"
"Miles seems… Agitated and if this is like a private family thing-"
"It's not that and you're welcome here," Bass said quickly. "It's a family tradition, not a secret society ritual- I was invited, after all, you can be a Matheson by association."
"You've known them all your life, Ben and I have been dating for less than a year," Rachel pointed out. "When Ben asked me if I wanted to come, I didn't know it would bother Miles."
"That's not- Miles isn't bothered that you're here, I promise," he assured her. At her dubious look, he continued. "It's the first time he's doing this since his dad died, this was his thing with them, he started it and now they're doing it without him. I think it just hit him harder than he thought and Miles isn't exactly the sharing kind, so-"
"He broods?" Rachel suggested.
"And drinks. Alcohol is the answer to any emotional problem," Bass said with a rueful smile.
"If you two hens are done gossiping, I could use a hand here," Miles came back with an armful of wood. Miles and Bass showed Rachel how to start a fire and they sat companionably around the campfire, eating their modest dinner, Miles and Bass side by side and Rachel across from them. Rachel opened up a bag of marshmallows she brought (it wasn't camping without marshmallows) and after giving her an amused look, Miles handed out skews and proceeded to burning his marshmallow to a crisp, on purpose, because of course that's how he liked his marshmallow.
After a few minutes of silence, Rachel licked the leftover marshmallow from her fingers and asked: "So... What now? Are we going to tell ghost stories?"
"Miles can narrate Stephen King books, if you'd like," Bass said with a smirk.
"Shut up," Miles said, though he was already on his second bottle of beer and the alcohol took the bite out of his words.
"You should get your guitar, it's been a while since we had a drunken jam session."
"Oh, I've been to one of those," Rachel grinned at the memory. "In fact, that was when I first met Miles."
"Seems it left quite an impression on you," Miles said with a cocky smirk. "I was that good, huh?"
"Well, you left an impression at least," Rachel said teasingly. "Even kids can learn to string a few chords together, so don't give yourself too much credit." She didn't want to admit that he had a soothing single voice or that the searing look in his eyes across the room momentarily stole her breath away or how her heart fluttered when they shook hands at Ben's introductions. Luckily she was very good at compartmentalizing and Miles was very good at being anti-social and abrasive, so she was able to put that momentary lapse in sanity behind her over the past few months of their acquaintance.
Miles stared at her long and hard, before he chuckled and took another sip of his beer. "Cute. You know, you're kinda funny when you're not being a stuck up brainiac."
"Well, coming from such a comedian as yourself, that's really high praise."
"OK, you two, knock it off," Bass said with a grin. "And Miles, get your damn guitar before I beat you over the head with it, you're killing my buzz."
They sat around their campfire for an hour, as Miles went through his repertoire of Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses and surprisingly some Beatles and Bob Dylan. Miles and Bass could carry a tune, though they tended to shriek over-the-top for any high notes and while Rachel was normally too self-conscious to be dragged to a karaoke night with her friends, she allowed herself to sing a few bars, knowing the two of them were so loud, they'd probably drown out her voice if she was off key. Bass went off to relieve himself, not quite swaying, but definitely walking carefully with his flashlight leading the way, leaving Rachel and Miles alone. The fire was burning low and Rachel finished the beer she was nursing, so she dragged herself over to Bass' sleeping bag to get another one. She grabbed another beer and just sat there, enjoying the warmth emanating from the fire and being slightly tipsy, which helped quiet her overactive mind.
"This is nice," Rachel said with a huge smile on her face. "God, I've been so swamped with school, it's been a while since I've really had any fun."
"Getting drunk around a campfire with people you don't really like?" Miles asked with a twist of his lips. "If that's your definition of fun, then you really need to get out more."
"That's not true, I don't not like you," Rachel said, earning herself a snort from Miles. "I just hardly know you and you're not exactly Miss Congeniality, you know."
"Yeah, well, trust me, getting to know me more doesn't help with the liking me part," he said with a self-deprecating shrug. "Ben couldn't even imagine spending a weekend with just me and Bass, he had to invite his girlfriend to help him survive the ordeal."
"I don't think- look, I don't know what the deal is with you and Ben and it's none of my business, but I know Ben and I don't think he invited me to be a buffer for you guys."
"No? Why then?"
"I think…" Rachel swallowed, as she picked her words carefully. "I think this was important to him, this tradition that you guys have and I think he wanted me to be a part of it and he wanted me to get to know you and Bass, because you're important to him."
"Maybe," Miles said, putting his bottle down and rubbing his weary eyes. "We were never that close, growing up. We were just too different, you know? If dad hadn't organized these camping trips, I'm not sure how much time we would have spent together. Maybe that's why he did it, to make sure we'd always have something that connects us and now that he's gone… It's what we have left of him too. Sorry, I don't mean to ramble like that."
"It seems you do have feelings, you just need to get drunk to let them out," Rachel tried to diffuse the awkward moment.
"Damn, you discovered my secret," Miles said, before becoming serious again. "Just... Don't tell Ben about any of this, ok?"
"I won't," Rachel promised. The two of them shared a long look, a quiet understanding passing between them. The flames from the fire cast dancing shadows on Miles' handsome face and suddenly she found herself a breath away from him, not sure how or when she got so close. He gave her a questioning look and she wasn't sure what he read on her face, but he leaned in slowly, tentatively and kissed her with a gentleness that surprised her. Her mind froze and she released a breath she wasn't aware she was holding, before she started to kiss him back.
They both heard a loud stomping from the trees and broke apart, her eyes flying open in shock and her heart hammering in her chest. She watched Bass walk towards them casually, his demeanor as friendly and easy going as ever, but his sharp blue eyes betrayed him. 'He knows, oh my God, he knows', Rachel thought to herself, swallowing thickly and stopping herself from wiping at her lips guiltily. The guy was a Marine, he wasn't this loud when he was walking away, he was announcing himself and what the hell was she thinking?
She avoided looking at Miles, instead focusing on the dying flame. Bass told Miles he wanted to show him something, which she figured was just an excuse to get him away so the two could talk alone. This was not happening to her; Rachel has had her share of terrible decisions, especially when it came to the guys she dated, as her father loved to remind her, but Ben was different. Ben was sweet and considerate, he shared her passion about science, they fit together- they made sense and she truly loved him. They were happy together and this was just a mistake; they had one too many beers and they were talking about feelings and got carried away. It was stupid and it didn't mean anything and it'll never happen again, she vowed to herself.
She saw the two returning a few minutes later, their body language tense and Miles wouldn't even look in her direction, while Bass kept giving her calculated looks. Rachel turned in for the night and tried not to think of haunted dark eyes or gentle, hesitant lips, or how she felt an electric jolt pass through her body, like she was being brought back to life and drowning at the same time.
The next day they joined Ben at Superior National Forest and she tried to put the whole incident behind her. She stuck close to Ben the whole time and as far away from Miles as possible; Miles stayed glued to Bass side or maybe it was Bass who was glued to Miles, making sure they'd never have an opportunity to be alone again. She enjoyed watching Ben around Miles and Bass and imagining what he was like when he was younger and hearing their embarrassing stories of one another. They smiled and laughed and had a good time, but in the back of her mind, she was consumed by guilt and while she promised herself it was a momentary lapse in judgment and would never happen again, all it took was one moment when Miles' eyes met hers to know that this thing between them, whatever it was, wasn't over and that she was in serious trouble.