The first moment it occurred to David that maybe he hadn't thought this through was when they pushed off from the bank and got around the first curve of the canyon. The base camp disappeared, and all of a sudden it was just him, and Archie, and not another damn person in the world.
The river was moving pretty fast, if not in whitewater territory. 19E had nixed that plan, because apparently the insurance companies wouldn't sign off on it. "Look, we've been in a plane crash," David had tried. "I think we've used up all our freakish luck for the rest of our lives at this point. There's got to be some kind of statistics about having something else crazy happen to us."
Yeah, no. So they'd found a canoeing gig instead, down at the lower end of the Canyon, late in the season, and they'd had to fight hard to get that much–which was maybe why David hadn't had time to give a little more thought to the actual awesomeness of the plan before they were actually out here, on their own.
"This is cool?" Archie said, sort of determinedly, looking around at him.
"Yeah," David said, and flicked water on him with the paddle. All right, they had a goddamn tent in the bottom of the canoe, plus two sleeping bags, enough food for a small army, a water filtration system built by the U.S. Marines, a beer cooler–totally worth the extra two grand the outfitters had charged–and the fucking hand-crank satellite phone their moms had ganged up to insist on. They weren't going to wimp out.
And it was pretty awesome out on the river. They'd done the tourist part of the Canyon before going on to the base camp, but this part was almost as spectacular, with the water flat turquoise and the walls in striations of orange and red climbing up, nothing but a narrow slice of sky overhead. After a little while, Archie started singing, and the echoes came back off the walls, so it was almost like having a whole crew of backup singers in a boat somewhere behind them.
Then they pulled over for the night–for the afternoon, really; David's plan for a camping vacation was a beer in his hand before the sun went down, not a rowing marathon–and there was a hell of a lot of work to do just figuring out how to get the tent up, since neither of them had ever done one before, much less one apparently designed by a team of NASA scientists with advice from Dali.
"Um," Archie said, after a while.
"So it leans a little bit," David said, and got down and crawled inside. "It's fine, check it out."
Archie ducked in, doubtfully. "I don't think–" he said, and then the tent fell in on their heads.
Attempt number nine stayed up, finally, just in time for David to not miss his deadline, even if he had to put the beer aside right after popping the top to help get the fire going. They had vacuum-packed Kobe beef jerky to snack on while the gourmet TV dinners heated up, and after they ate, they got out the acoustic backpacker guitar and played with the chorus of echoes until the fire died down low and burned itself out.
So that left just them, and the crickets, and the low rumbling sound of the river. A few glowing red-orange coals. Archie had gone quiet and was poking at the fire with a stick. David picked at the guitar a little more, cracked his shoulders back, stretching, and said, "We should turn in, we'll probably wake up whenever the sun comes up."
"Oh–yeah," Archie said, a little hollowly, and they got inside and crawled into their sleeping bags and turned off the flashlight. David stared up into the pitch dark and counted Archie's completely not regular breaths, until Archie whispered softly, "Cook, are you awake?"
"No," David said.
"Oh," Archie said, and went quiet.
"Wait, you're actually taking that as an answer?" David said.
"Well–I thought maybe you meant, you want to be!" Archie said. "Or, you know, people talk in their sleep sometimes, and–"
"Uh huh," David said. "Come on, get over here."
Archie hilariously just rolled over in his sleeping bag across the tent floor–it took three full turns, this thing was big enough for eight people–until he landed up against David's side. David unzipped his bag enough to tug him in close and let him pillow on his shoulder.
"Night, Cook," Archie said, snuggling in, already sounding half-slurred with sleep.
"Night," David managed, and he was out like a light.
David cracked an eyelid around dawn when the weight lifted off his shoulder. Archie was propped up on one elbow, rubbing his eyes and squinting at the sunlight streaming in through the cracked opening of the tent. He looked down at David sort of blearily. "Half an hour," David muttered, and tugged him back down.
They didn't wake up again until noon.
David crawled out on all fours, blinking, and Archie stumbled after him. "I guess we should've set an alarm," David said.
"We don't have to rush, do we?"
"No, except if we get in thirty seconds late, I think they're sending a SWAT team out with helicopters," David said, and yawned most of his head off. "Man, I haven't slept like that in a year. Maybe two."
Breakfast was supposed to be vanilla-cinnamon french toast with organic strawberry jam and applewood-smoked bacon, except neither of them was really awake yet, so they burned it, plus the fancy-label OJ was still from concentrate and instant coffee was instant coffee even if it had originally come from Kona or wherever. David's shoulders and arms were sore as if he'd been helping somebody move, his palms were hot and chapped, and he still couldn't stop grinning. The world was full of color, red and gold and blue, and he was more awake than he could remember being since the auditions.
"Okay, Archuleta, time to put a little muscle into it," he said, after they'd finally managed to squash all the gear back into the canoe–the guitar neck was poking up out of the middle of the canoe, David had given up on figuring out how the outfitters had packed it in the first place and he'd hung one of his t-shirts with a skull and crossbones off it instead. "Let's see if we can make up some time."
They kept going almost until they hit a marked campground just before dark. The fire pit was a little warm from whoever had been there yesterday, and there was a stack of dry firewood piled up, but the stars were coming out, and it still felt like the rest of the world was a million miles away.
They tried to sing the solitude away again while their dinners heated up, and got caught up trying to drown out the echoes. "I know, oh my gosh," Archie said. "They're kind of–I mean, they're cool, but it's kind of, um, creepy."
"Yeah," David said. "Come on, you can belt louder than that," and by the end they were glory-noting louder than David had known he could get without an amp involved, and then Archie stopped abruptly and said, "Did you hear that?"
"I'm sorry, would you mind turning down the radio–oh my God." A woman had come down through a trail leading back into the brush, and her voice went from annoyed to stunned in thirty seconds when they turned around.
"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry," Archie said. "Were we bothering you guys? We didn't know anyone was there."
No, not at all, it was great, they were amazing, her daughter had their CDs on repeat all the time, and then she went down the trail and called the rest of the family down, her and her husband, two boys and a girl. David signed autographs and took photos and talked baseball with the dad, who was a big Cubs fan, and somewhere in there he looked over and Archie looked back at him from where the fifteen-year-old daughter was gushing at him, and for two seconds he got to be Dave from Tulsa again instead of David Cook, American Idol. He grinned at Archie and shook his head a little, because yeah, his life was so hard, and said, "Sure, man, no problem," and smiled for the camera again.
It went quiet again after they left, except now it felt more like the quiet of being alone in your hotel room after getting back from a show. Dave let himself sprawl out backwards on the ground and shut his eyes, and Archie gave a little relieved sigh and came over and sat down next to him, humming softly under his breath.
"You know," David said, after a little while, "you ever get the feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something?"
"Um, like, don't travel without matches?" Archie said.
David cracked up and rolled him over and tickled him while Archie yelped and squirmed and tried to fight back. "I was thinking more along the lines of, 'be grateful for what you've got,' " David said, when he finally let Archie escape.
"That was so unfair," Archie panted, collapsed in a little heap next to him.
They did set an alarm that night, on Archie's iphone, and woke up to his Life on the Moon ringtone in time to pack up and get on the river before the neighbors could show up again to invite them to breakfast.
They made good time that day and avoided seeing anyone closer up than another canoe sailing past their lunchtime stop, a couple of guys who waved at the anonymous guys on shore and got a wave back in return. A little piece of a song started to work itself up in the back of David's head about it, all of them in separate boats drifting by, catching glimpses of each other on different shores, and he played it for Archie that night, something in a minor key, while Archie hugged his knees by the campfire and sang soft backup with him on the second run through.
David didn't feel all that tense going to sleep that night, but Archie had already put out the sleeping bags together, unzipped all the way with one on top, one on bottom. What the hell, it was a lot more comfortable than being sausaged into the thing, and maybe it made Archie feel better, anyway.
"Okay," David said, the next day, after they'd pulled over for the night. "Enough with the packaged food. It's time to get serious." He hauled out the fishing rod and the box of flies.
"Cook," Archie said, "do you actually know how–I mean, have you ever–"
"Is that a note of doubt I'm hearing?" David said.
"Um," Archie said. "I'll make soup?"
"Seriously, this thing cost like five hundred dollars. I'm pretty sure it catches the fish for you."
"But, okay," Archie said, "if you do catch the fish–"
"Then you get to cook it," David said.
"I don't–wait, oh my gosh, you want to like, kill it? And eat it?" Archie said. He sounded pretty appalled.
"Uh, you eat fish all the time," David said.
"Yeah, but, that's different! Oh my gosh, shut up, it totally is!" Archie said.
"All right, shush, you," David said, and flipped the end into the water. He didn't actually think he was going to catch anything, but what the hell, he was camping. "And get me a beer!"
Archie actually did go get him a beer, which made David crack up even more, and then Archie got mad at him and wouldn't give it to him. "You might as well, you already took the cap off," David said.
"I'm going to keep it!" Archie said, and took a swallow, and got this look on his face.
"Yeah, enjoying yourself that beer, huh?" David said, grinning.
"How can you like this stuff!" Archie said, giving up on pretending. "It's like, ugh, gym socks or something. I'm totally pouring this out."
"Hey!" David said, except the rod jerked in his hands, and he had to stand up. "Holy shit, I got something," and Archie even said, "Wow," as the fish jumped out of the water, looking about two feet long.
"Oh yeah, and you questioned my fishing ability," David said. And, okay, so he didn't actually know how you reeled a fish in except he had some vague idea you brought it in a little at a time–anyway, he took a few steps out into the river towards the fish, and it turned out there was a ledge that dropped off into a sinkhole right there, and–
Archie was flat on his back on the bank laughing by the time David crawled out, without fish, without rod, and covered with about six pounds of mud. "Gosh, you look like a mud monster," Archie said.
"Uh huh," David said, advancing on him. "You know, I'm really sad about losing this fish. I feel like I need a hug."
"Oh my gosh, no! Stay away from me! Cook! No!"
The fifth day out, camped off a bend of the river on a red-sand beach, Archie said, "Um, so," and David looked up from the coffee.
"Okay?" he said, after that had hung there for about a minute.
"We're close enough to get to the landing camp in one day, right?" Archie said. "If we, you know, rowed all day today or something–"
David blinked and raised his eyebrows. "You that sick of my company, Archuleta?"
"No!" Archie said, going pink.
"Uh huh," David said. "Yeah, we can make it. Seriously, are you sick of the camping thing? I don't mind. We can probably get a flight back to L.A. early–"
"No!" Archie said. "No, I love camping, it's awesome. I mean, it's awesome, now that I'm not like, freaking out that we're going to die every thirty seconds, and anyway, that was probably really good, because the therapist was all, oh, you should try facing it, and stuff–and, I love hanging out with you, that's the whole, um, point, and–"
"Dave," David said.
"Right, yes, breathing," Archie said, and subsided.
"All right, you love camping, you love me," David said. "So you want to head back early because..."
"No, I don't want to," Archie said, "just, um, I kind of thought, it would be rude, if I, you know, made a pass at you out in the middle of nowhere, and then it would be like, a week to get out, and–awkward, and stuff, so I thought, if I waited, and we were close enough, and then, if you're all, whatever, no, and it's weird, we could just–you know."
"Not even a little," David said, fascinated. "So, uh, are you planning to?"
"What?" Archie said.
"Make a pass at me," David said.
"Um?" Archie said, and then he said, "Oh my gosh, I totally just said it, didn't I, I'm so lame." He flailed an arm helplessly.
David cracked up. "No, you're awesome," he said. "But, you know, hypothetically speaking, if you wanted to make a pass at me, I'd have to warn you that, you know, although they did offer an option for, uh, the kind of supplies we'd probably need for that, I didn't actually check the box."
"I did," Archie said, and rummaged in his bag and pulled out a box of Trojans. "What? Cook, you just said–what is so funny!"
David tried to sit back up and couldn't, so he just wheezed from the ground, "Archuleta, you planned this."
"Well..? Like, what, you thought I decided to make a pass at you in the middle of the Grand Canyon out of, whatever, nowhere?" Archie said, waving a hand.
"I've got to be honest, I hadn't actually gotten that far in thinking about it," David said, wiping his eyes. "Seriously?"
"Oh," Archie said, and flushed and stuffed the condom box back into his bag. "No, if you don't want–it's not–"
"Hey," David said, and sat up and slid his hands around Archie's face and turned him back, tilted him up. Archie sort of flicked his eyes away and then back, shy enough to make David remember all the reasons this was seriously not a good idea, except for the one reason that mattered more than all the rest of them. "You think there's any way I'd say no to you?"
"I don't–" Archie swallowed and said, a little unsteadily, his pulse jumping quick enough for David to feel it, "I don't want you to–I mean, I totally do want you to, but not just because I asked–I want–" He shrugged helplessly.
"Okay," David said, fighting off a grin. "So, you obviously had this all worked out, so I'm going to go take a shower now with our awesome solar-powered hot water heater, and then I'm going to come back here by the fire, and you can make your move, and see how you do."
"Oh," Archie said. "But, um, you know I'm going to, so–?"
"I'll pretend I didn't know," David said.
"Oh, okay," Archie said, and David laughed and kissed him, really quick, because he didn't really know if Archie was as sure about this as he thought he was.
Well, okay, he thought vaguely, a couple of minutes later, flat on his back and getting a little lightheaded because Archie wasn't letting him get enough of a breath in between. Maybe Archie was that sure. Huh, that was his zipper going.
"So, um, was that okay?" Archie said, a little while later.
"Nngh," David said.
"Is–is that a good sound or a bad sound?" Archie said. "I could–you should tell me if it's not, because–"
David got hold of his hair and tugged gently until Archie quit talking and crawled up him and snuggled in. David patted his head. "Oh," Archie said, sounding happy, and they both zoned out for a while until the sun got over the canyon edge and hit them full-throttle.
"I guess we should get going?" Archie said, without moving.
"Interesting," David said. "See, I'm thinking we should get inside the tent and have more sex."
"Oh," Archie said. "That's a better idea."
"Yeah," David said.
Later that night, he hauled out the satellite phone and got his mom on the line. "So, we're going to be a few days late getting in–"
"Are you all right? Did you overturn the canoe?"
"You know, I'm just going to point out again, I did survive a plane crash in the Rockies," David said.
"You were in a plane crash in the Rockies," she said. "Also you got a concussion, halfway froze to death, and nearly starved."
"I'm never going to win this argument, am I," David said.
"Not even close."
"Okay, well, no, canoe not overturned, haven't been eaten by bears, plenty of food left, and, uh, we kind of got engaged," David said, and braced for impact.
"Oh, sweetheart, congratulations," she said. "Has he talked to Lupe yet, can I call her?"
"That's not exactly the reaction I was expecting," David said, after a minute.
"Honey, you brought him home to meet us eight months ago and you've been seeing him since–"
"I have?" David asked the ceiling of the tent.
"–so it's not what I'd call a huge surprise."
"Okay then," David said. "Uh, so, is Lupe going to be–"
"I think she and Jeff were getting ready to ask about your intentions if you didn't come back engaged," his mom said.
"So what you're saying is, everyone knew about this but me," David said.
"I can pretend to be shocked if you want."
"The moment's gone," David said. "Now I just want to know how I spent eight months dating without noticing. Or getting laid." He eyed Archie's sleeping head darkly.
"I'm starting to think he might be smarter than you, honey," she said.
"I'm hanging up on you now," he said.
"Oh," Archie said, after David poked him awake. "I kind of thought you were, you know, being nice, and stuff, and not pressuring me. Well, or that you didn't, um, actually want to have sex with me. But I was hoping you were just being nice."
"I'm nice, but I'm not eight-months-without-sex nice," David said. "Apparently I'm eight-months-without-sex clueless, though, so I guess that worked out. And your parents are totally okay with this?"
"Wasn't–wasn't that the idea?" Archie said. "Going home together after we were just not-dead and everything? So they would be all, yay, you're not dead, so we don't mind if you're gay?" He paused and added, confusedly, "You asked me to come meet your parents and everything."
"You know, I'm just going to shut up and quit wrecking my reputation here," David said.
= End =
With many many thanks to Celli and Giddy and Ces! ♥
All feedback much appreciated!