Spending time with Mike and Jessica is easy. They act silly and bicker a lot, but their affection shines through, and both accept Bella as if she's been a life-long friend. It's lovely. Edward and Bella spend five days with them, sending Mike off to work to the Crowley Petroleum Distribution every day, and waiting for Jess to wake up to get orders about their daily chores. She initially tries to refuse their request to work, but they convince her otherwise, and so they spend their days chopping wood and hanging wallpaper. Bella likes brushing elbows with Edward, discussing their hopes and plans and dreams. But, sometimes, they spend hours without sharing a word. In that case, it's usually Edward who breaks the silence, afraid that he's boring her, but she talks him out of his doubts.
He's taught her that not every moment has to be filled with chatter, and she's looking forward to a lifetime filled with shared words as well as moments when no words are needed.
Bella and Edward take the train to Denali on a foggy Friday morning. It's a five-hour trip through the picturesque wilderness of Alaska, and because Bella hasn't seen the countryside from a moving train, she spends the trip breathing on the window in awe. Edward is listening to an audiobook, Desert Solitaire by his namesake, Edward Abbey. Edward, while not a fan of the written word, couldn't resist audiobooks that spoke about nature. Since the very beginning of their friendship, Bella had noticed that he was a listener and an auditory learner.
Four hours into their trip, Edward puts his earbuds away and shares a banana with Bella. As the train slows down in a curve, Bella notices a small, white bird she'd seen frequently.
"Do you know this one?"
Two attempts to see the bird later, Edward smiles. "Snowflake," he replies. "They appear in March or April, and their presence usually means the return of daylight. I think it's the only songbird who's been repeatedly seen in the North Pole."
Even after all the hiking she did with him, she's still in awe of his knowledge.
"How can you recognize so many animals and remember so much about them?"
He shrugs, sliding his fingers along her knuckles and intertwining his fingers with hers. "It's what I always knew. You spent your childhood with other kids while I… the forest and the mountains were my playground."
He can explain it to her a thousand and one times, and she'd still listen to him in wonder.
They arrive in Denali at one PM. Instead of walking toward the Denali Visitor Center, Edward guides them past it. They follow a trail for half an hour before two unpainted cabins appear at the edge of a forest. They're wooden and old but well-preserved, and Edward takes the key that's hanging from a nail, hidden from view.
In the cabin, there's a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living room. The toilet is outside within a walking distance. The cabin is tiny but enough for temporary living, and the bigger cabin beside theirs has a shower they're allowed to use. Scott Phelps, the owner, has a family in Fairbanks and only spends his summers in Denali where he works as a ranger.
The bedroom windows are covered by folium to make sleeping easier during the light summer nights.
Having taken their bags to the dim bedroom, Edward and Bella sit on the living room couch. An early belted kingfisher takes off from a branch, and a flurry of snow hits the window in front of them.
Bella tucks legs underneath herself and leans into Edward. He wraps an arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him. He's warm and big and she just wants to curl into him.
"So this will be our home for the summer," she says.
"Do you like it?"
"I love it." She plays with his fingers and leans her head against his shoulder. Majestic snow-capped mountains are seen in the distance, and she takes it all in, the wooden walls, the simplicity, the bursting wildlife outside their door and, most of all, the gentle, giant of a man beside her.
"April 24," she says. "What a difference a month makes."
He smiles and kisses her hair. "Are you hungry?"
They hike back to the Visitor Center after lunch. It's a village-sized place, really. There's a Visitor Center, Morino's Grill, Alaska Geographic Bookstore, the bus stop, baggage claim and, of course, the railway station. It's three weeks until the official opening of the park, but seven summer workers are already here and Edward introduces her to the frequenters as well as the new people he himself has never met. Bella talks to each person in the hopes of finding a job, and although their answer is the same, everyone assures her that they will pass along her message. The restaurant has found itself short-handed at one point during the past few summers, so she's quite hopeful.
The first few days feel like they're back at Edward's home. Not many people are around and Bella and Edward go on daily hiking trips together. Considering how much time they've spent together during the past month, maybe it should start to feel boring or, at least, tiring to spend so much time together, but she's ridiculously in love with him and he seems to feel the same. So whenever he talks about how the summer routine days will start to look like, about the animals and birds they meet and funny stories about hikers, she listens with rapt attention. Sometimes, he has doubts and tentatively wants to know if she's bored with him, but… she's not, and she reassures him of the fact. She's in love, she's spending time with the best man in the world and if or when this type of life gets tiring for her, unlikely as it feels, she can make changes.
Edward is hers to spend a life with, how much more can she ask for?
She's nervous, the first few days. Friday the 24th, a month after she fell in the lake, also means that it's been a month since her period. It's normal for her period to be a little irregular, a few days early or a few days late, but usually, she's not expecting to be pregnant.
She gets her answer on Monday morning, and finds Edward eating breakfast in the kitchen. He's leaning against the wall, observing a bird with a brown neck.
"Red-necked phalarope," he says, takes a sip of his tea, and kisses Bella. He lingers, smiling against her mouth before kissing her again. "Good morning."
She returns his smile but takes away his cup. She takes his hands in hers, feeling nervous.
He does as she asks with confusion and worry in his eyes. She leans against the table in front of him and brushes a thumb over his frown.
"I'm not pregnant."
He blinks and straightens his back, staring at her.
"Did you hear me?"
She can't decipher the expression on his face as he gathers his thoughts. His voice is quiet. "Did you take the test?"
"I didn't have to."
She doesn't know how to react to his lack of reaction, and just when she's about to ask, he pulls her sideways in his lap and buries his face in her hair. The warmth of his embrace relaxes her, and she inhales the collar of his soap-smelling cardigan, caressing the back of his neck. Two large, firm palms press against her waist, not moving.
"Talk to me," she whispers.
"I'm disappointed," he replies. She takes a breath, knowing that if he'd changed his mind about their long-term plan, they could compromise, but before she can give voice to her thoughts, he presses a kiss on her temple. "But I'm relieved, too. Does that make sense? It's hard to explain."
She smiles against his cheek. "It's… kind of how I feel, too. I would've been thrilled to have a baby with you, but I also feel bad that a part of me is relieved."
He holds her in his arms, and neither says anything for a while.
"Do you want to try again?" she asks tentatively.
"It's selfish, I know, but if given a choice, I want you for myself for a while. What I said about wanting to spend time with you for a few years… I meant it. Unless, of course, you… do you want to try again? It's your body, after all. I'm right here."
She pulls back, smiling as she looks in his concerned eyes, playing with his hair. "I would love to spend a few years with you. Just you."
His eyes light up. "Yeah?"
She makes a move to kiss him, but instead, she smiles against his lips.
His hands trail upward until he's holding the back of her neck. He tugs at her lips, attempting to stifle his smile, and she enjoys the feel of his growing beard against her cheek. He wipes tendrils away from her face, surrounds her with his arms again, and squeezes her. Bella's palm covers his heart. She feels small and warm and precious against him, and he presses a kiss on her neck.
"I love you."
It's silly, to always feel butterflies when she hears him say it, but the words make her feel warm and cared for. "And I love you," she whispers back, pressing her chin in the crook of his neck, feeling his heartbeat.
Bella hears back from the bookstore a week after the Denali park is officially opened. They want to know if she's available to be a part-time cashier in June and July. It's a small, insignificant job, but Bella is quite content to do something low-stress and use the time to figure out her plans for the fall. She sends another letter to the Wilderness Cure Project because they still haven't replied to her, but she also uses her time to browse the University of Alaska Anchorage website. Bella takes it slow. She doesn't have to make a decision today or tomorrow, and Edward seems to support her no matter which ideas she throws at him during dinners.
As the days grow longer, icicles melt at lower altitudes and tourists from all over the world arrive at the Denali National Park and Preserve. Edward falls into a routine working as a flight-seeing pilot, and Bella works half-time at the bookstore. Sometimes, when Edward wakes up early enough, Bella teaches yoga to him, but they usually end up acting silly and making out on top of each other. Even more often, Edward arrives at the bookstore to steal her away for lunch. He gets a little possessive of her when he catches Bella talking to young men, but he's embarrassed and sweet about it. It works both ways, though. There's a girl working at the restaurant who seems quite disappointed by Bella's presence, not that Bella can blame her. Edward is handsome and calm and silent, it's not hard to develop a crush on him.
On Saturday, June 7, when both Edward and Bella have a day off, Edward takes her on a flight-seeing tour around Denali.
He hasn't bought himself a new plane yet. Instead, he borrows a two-seat Piper Super Cub so that the rest of the Denali flight-seeing pilots can use the ten- or eleven-seat deHavilland Otters for the tourists.
They meet several other bush planes around Denali, but as Edward steers away from the regular route meant for tourists, it feels like nothing else exists in the world but the mountains and them. The horizon is white, almost blindingly so, and the sky is a deep blue where the clouds part. Flying over the grey, vast valleys surrounded by snowy peaks and a jagged horizon in a tiny bush plane is an awe-inspiring experience.
Edward is wearing his sunglasses and looks ridiculously confident, flying the bush plane.
"I've been thinking," he says. "I'd like to go hiking for my birthday."
Bella tries and fails to stifle her smile.
"What?" he asks, amused.
"I already asked your employer if they could rearrange your schedule so that you'd have three days off."
"Well, that's too bad." He mirrors her smile. "I asked yours for five."
"I'm kidding, I saw that you'd already arranged it. They can't really give me the 18th off because there's a shipment I have to take care of, but they said I could have Monday the 23rd, which still gives us five days."
"Why do we need five?"
"There's a place I want to show you."
She can only see his profile, but he's smiling, and she's sure that he won't offer more information even if she asked, so she drops the issue.
"When you were missing, James asked me to convince you to consider becoming an Air Force Pilot, but I forgot and he forgot and I guess… is that something you'd be interested in?"
"Maybe if I were younger."
"You're only 29."
"29 is the upper limit for their pilot training."
"Doesn't James know that?"
"He probably thinks I'm younger."
"Okay. But if you were younger, would you be interested?"
"If I were interested, I'd be doing it," he says. "I'd consider it, maybe. It's not that I'm not interested, it's a combination of things. I think they'd require education that I do not have, they'd want me to relocate to the lower 48 for a year, they'd pay more but I'd have a messy schedule. I think I'm far more useful to them as backup."
"You keep telling me to choose whatever my heart desires. Shouldn't you have the same freedom?"
"But I do," he replies. "I don't know if I'll be a bush pilot for the rest of my life, but I like what I do. Do you want me to be more ambitious than that?"
She squeezes his forearm. "I just want you to be happy, that's all."
His sunglasses drop on his nose as he looks down. He pushes them back up, smiling, and intertwines his fingers with Bella's.
He takes hold of the yoke without letting go of her hand, and she gets a taste of what it feels like to be in control of the plane. It's daunting, but his smile makes her feel warm.
"I know you're worried that I'm not going to communicate enough, and maybe your concern is justified, but… I will tell you when I want to change my job, okay? We're a team. But right now, having you here, I feel hopeful, and…" He reddens considerably, continuing, "…in love."
Bella smiles and doesn't look away from his sunglass-covered eyes. "Me, too."
Her reply is too quiet to be heard from above the noise of the engine, but Edward sees it because his grin widens and he kisses the back of her hand. They fly over a grey glacier. Its edges are so smooth that it resembles a road from up above.
"What would you like for your birthday?"
He turns and they fly between two enormous mountains, revealing yet another breath-taking view. She's sure that he didn't hear her question or chose to ignore it, until he lifts a shoulder.
"If you could love and tolerate me for the next seventy years, that would work."
He's still blushing slightly, and Bella reaches across the cockpit to kiss his cheek. She's careful not to disturb his flying, but he's much too good to let anything bother it. Nevertheless, a shy smile covers his face.
Preparing for a hike across the mountains in June is quite similar to preparing for one in March, were it not for the amount of insect-repellent in their bags. The bitter winter doesn't stop black flies, no-see-ums and mosquitoes from traveling in swarms during summer, and if Edward hadn't known the most efficient ways of getting rid of the insects, Bella surely would've given up on hiking on the first summer day.
On Thursday, the 19th, a friend of Edward's takes them about two hours away from Denali, and Edward seems to know exactly on which mountainside he wants them to start their hike. Together, Bella and Edward watch the yellow plane leave, and the rumble of the bush plane is slowly replaced by the ripple of the river and chipper of the birds. It's cloudy but, so far, dry.
Bella observes Edward. His dark red scarf surrounds his neck, he's wearing his light jacket, and sunglasses cover his eyes. He takes off his sunglasses, pockets them, and holds out a hand to Bella. She takes it.
"Déjà vu," she says, smiling. "Except now I get to do this." She stands on her tiptoes, encases his jaw, and kisses his lips. His beard is getting long enough for him to have to groom it, and it tickles as he kisses her back. Kissing a trail to her ear, he surrounds her with his arms and presses her against him. He certainly hadn't had that freedom when she arrived in Alaska in March.
"Careful," he mutters. "Unless you want to spend all five days here."
"Are you opposed?" she whispers, and presses her lips against his cheek. He groans, squeezing her, but there's a smile in his voice.
"No, but I have other plans."
She pulls back to see his eyes and brushes her thumb over his chin.
"It's a shame."
Edward laughs and pulls her back against him. He gazes at the horizon, resting his chin on top of her head and rubbing her back. Heading south is a river carrying pieces of ice, and several ruby-crowned kinglets tweet on the tree line across the river. He can only see one of their crowns.
Turning his attention back to Bella, he slides his hands up and down her sleeves.
"Are you warm?"
She smiles, and it feels a little ridiculous to him how such simple display of affection could make him full of warmth, but it does. Three months ago, he didn't even dare to dream that she'd agree to stay here, with him, to hike in the wilderness and spend time with him. To be with him.
"I am," she replies, that gentle smile on her lips. "You've taught me well."
They throw their backpacks on and start walking. Even though they didn't put as many layers on as they did three months ago, they soon have to take off their scarves and unzip their jackets.
"I owe you an apology," Edward mutters, standing behind her as he stuffs their scarves in her backpack. It's emptier than his.
He zips her backpack closed and takes her hand before both start walking. He glances at her, briefly.
"The first week you spent hiking with me in March. I was trying so hard not to be affected by your presence, even though that's not really possible. You make me… I don't know."
"No." He smiles. "More like… dizzy with awe."
"Is that why I'm forced to save you all the time? Because you're dizzy around me?"
He laughs and steals a kiss from her.
"Regardless, I'm sorry I was rude to you."
"You weren't rude. You were just… distant."
"I didn't mean to be. I just didn't know how to behave around you. I was scared you'd notice how much you meant to me when I should've just… shown you."
"Maybe everything happened the way it did for a reason," she says, squeezing his hand. "I'm not holding a grudge, but I would prefer if, next time you're struggling with something, you'd share it with me."
"I will," he replies. "But I might need a reminder."
"I'm okay with that."
Before she can climb on the sharp edge of the small mountainside they're on, Edward pulls her back. He's looking at her but listening to something, so she stands still, trying to understand what he hears. There's mild wind blowing against the trees beside them, but also a low, frequent tapping that's too soft for her to understand.
"Caribou," Edward says, tugging her to walk along the edge and uphill with him. Five minutes later, the tapping is louder, and once she's high enough to see over the edge of the mountainside, she can see a herd of perhaps a thousand caribou, walking over the small river and across the treeless tundra until they disappear behind a mountain in the distance.
It's an awe-inspiring sight.
They step on the very edge of the mountainside so that if the caribou were to look up, they'd see two silhouettes against the cloudy sky. Edward slides off his backpack and takes out his camera.
"Do you mind if I sneak a little closer?" he whispers.
"Go do your thing."
He gives her a smile, leaving her to sit on her bag on the edge of the mountainside. He sneaks up to a caribou pair, a baby and the caribou cow who stand away from the others. Edward is quiet and respectful, taking pictures, and not a single caribou is bothered by his presence.
Once he's back, he sits beside her, and they talk quietly for an hour until the last caribou are far enough not to be bothered by two humans hiking after them. They start walking. Because Edward's chosen trail goes through the tundra, the riversides and smaller mountains as well as the forest, they see an abundance of bird and mammal species. They come upon common birds such as the black-and-white lesser scaup, the Arctic loon, several species of sandpiper and the American robin, but also rare ones like gyrfalcon, a hairy woodpecker and a beautiful, blue tree swallow. In the midnight dusk, Edward even captures a small, boreal owl on a photograph.
He guides her away from bear droppings, tracks and trampled vegetation, and they spend the first night in a tent on a riverside.
The summer nights are incredibly light. The sun sets after midnight and rises at half to four, and it barely gets dark between those hours.
The next day is windy but dry. Their hike continues mostly in the forest, and they meet quite a few small mammals. Green droppings lead them to a northern bog lemming, and they find a hay pile belonging to a collared pika who resembles a big, cute hamster. Edward guides her to a least weasel eating a vole on a clearing, and they also find a stoat in summer fur on top of a tree, aiming for a bird's nest.
Edward explains how to find animals: which paw or hoof prints belong to which animal, how fresh and which color are the droppings, and how to spot burrows and crevices. There's a plethora of signs, and where Bella simply sees a fallen branch, Edward sees a story, perhaps a struggle or a fight for the attention of a female, or maybe a small bird who left its nest a bit too soon. If Bella didn't know any better, she'd believe Edward to be capable of sniffing the air and start pointing in the direction of each nearby animal.
Like in March, the salmon he catches in the afternoon happens to be kokanee. After climbing uphill for hours, they find a clearing covered by forbs and grass. Bella sets up their tent and Edward starts cooking salmon. The setting sun emphasizes silhouettes of a few winding larches and a lone quaking aspen that have managed to survive the weather conditions in this altitude.
Done with their tent, Bella sits beside Edward and rests her head against his shoulder.
"Will I ever get used to how breathtaking Alaska is?"
"Hopefully not." He kisses her nose. "I haven't."
She hums, smiling, and watches in silence as he unzips his camera bag and focuses on a nearing bird. It charges and vanishes from sight before reappearing and spreading out its massive wings as it holds a prey in its claws.
"Eagle?" she whispers, peeking at the incredible photograph he took. Within the few seconds it took for her to notice what he was looking at, he already had a picture taken. He had a stellar reaction.
"Golden eagle," he replies, shutting off his camera. Thighs and elbows brushing, they eat, watching the midnight sun get closer to the horizon.
"Will you teach me how to hike without gear, too?"
He throws his leg over the trunk of a fallen tree they're sitting on, facing her, and locks eyes with her.
"Because… I want to spend time with you. I think it's fascinating, what you're able to do, but it also might save my life one day. Or do you want to do that alone? I know I'm not really an optimal companion."
He's been patient with her, kind and silent and an exemplary hiker, but she knows she's hindering his hiking, and she isn't a fan of the feeling.
After making sure no salmon-loving animals are nearby, Edward puts his bowl of salmon on a rock and scoots closer to Bella. He takes one of her hands in both of his (because the other one is holding her food), and brings it close to him.
"Bella," he says, brushing his lips against her hand. "You don't give yourself enough credit. The fact that you're not only willing to hike with me but like it is already more than I could've ever hoped for. You're in Alaska with me. You don't whine, you have stamina, you take care of nature and you're interested in what I have to say. You're doing exceptionally well, and if you're not the optimal companion, it's because you're beautiful and holding my hand and sometimes I just want to… do unmentionable things with you in whichever clearing we find ourselves on."
A timid smile stretches on her face, but she lowers her eyes.
"But… sometimes I drive away the animals that you intend to photograph."
Patiently, he lets her finish, and grazes her face with the back of his knuckles. "Déjà vu right back at you, Bella. We've had this conversation and my answer is the same. I'm the lucky one in this relationship, and I get to spend time with you. If I wanted to spend my time with some expert from the National Geographic, I would've told him yes. But I don't want to be a tourist attraction. I just want you."
She's tempted to ask about the expert whose offer he turned down, but he's being too sweet.
"All right," she replies, smiling. "I won't bring up the issue again, but I still want to know if you're willing to teach me how to do all of this without gear."
He kisses her. "Okay."
"Yes," he replies, letting go of her hand and taking back his salmon. "But the first few times, we'll have a smaller bag for the two of us as well as a satellite phone. Baby steps, okay? It's easier to be responsible for my own life."
The sun, now gone, leaves a pinkish horizon behind, and somehow the buzz of mosquitoes feels louder to her after sunset. They finish eating, lift their bags on two branches of a quaking aspen and enter their tent. After killing the few mosquitoes who managed to get inside, they lie down in separate sleeping bags. But when a wolf howls, a sound she hasn't heard since leaving the Denali Visitor Center, she inches closer to him. Chuckling, he unzips his bag enough to reach over and pull her against him. He rests his head on his folded arm, and she does the same.
He breathes against her forehead, and she sneaks her hand under his chest to warm it. The ever-present sound of distant mosquitoes is now interrupted by some howling and the occasional croak of a raven.
"When did you know?" he asks, turning on his back and pulling her with him.
"That you…" He smiles, squeezing her. "…loved me."
She slides her hand along his clothed chest, tapping and rubbing it, and rests her head on his shoulder.
"I think it was a gradual process. If I had to pinpoint an exact moment… Maybe after the first winter break, I came back from the UP. A few weeks into the next semester, I had to study for an ethics test and you sat so patiently on the carpet all night, asking questions I told you to ask me. I think I fell asleep because I remember waking up in my bed to the alarm you set for me and wishing you had stayed. It was a regular day, I guess, but you made me feel loved. I think that was the first time I acknowledged just how much you meant to me."
He curls her hair, playing with it, and smiles against her forehead.
"For me, it was the first night you went out with Tyler. I had to buy Rosalie and Emmett a new set of knives because I spent the night throwing them against a cutting board on the garage wall."
She slides her fingers along his beard. "Sounds productive."
"I didn't know how else to process how I felt. I just needed to let out steam and when something bothers me, that's how I deal with it."
She looks at him, feeling his heart beat. "Perhaps we will practice… talking."
On the early Saturday morning, Bella dresses warmly and sneaks out of the tent. The few clouds are shaped like a fish scale, and morning mist glistens in the sun. For the time being, mosquitoes are nowhere to be seen. She steps on top of a rock and stands in the silence, admiring the foggy valleys and waking wildlife. It's stunning. Bird chipper is the only sound that follows her on her quest after wildflowers, but she keeps her ears alert for any sign of larger mammals as she picks alpine forget-me-nots and Lapland rosebays.
She lowers her bag to the ground, digs out a brown document tube, and lifts her bag on the branch again. Back in the tent, she sets her wildflowers against his gift, considering her options. They usually sleep until eight AM which gives him four more hours to sleep, and while she doesn't want to disturb him, she also wants his birthday morning to be special.
On a whim, she takes off her clothes and curses the cold as she unzips his sleeping bag so that he can wake up with her in his arms. She's grinning, feeling silly as she attempts to lie on his side and not on top of him, but just as she's zipping up his sleeping bag, he turns on his side and half on top of her. She lets out a puff of air, and he blinks down at her.
"Morning," he says, smiling. He adjusts his weight so that he's not crushing her and wraps both arms around her. "It's summer solstice today."
Cherishing the way he presses her against him, she takes hold of the back of his neck. Smiling, she kisses his jaw, his chin, and his lips. "Happy birthday, Edward."
He smiles. He's fully clothed and very sleepy, but as his fingers trail patterns on her back, he hums and keeps blinking at her, slowly.
"Is that why you're naked in my sleeping bag?"
There's a glint in his eyes.
"I'm not naked," she defends. "I'm wearing panties."
Nuzzling her hair, he grins. His hand travels lower until he reaches the edge of them. "So you are." He slides his hand up, and presses a prickly kiss against her neck.
"I'm sorry I woke you," she whispers. "I didn't mean to."
"You mean you didn't have an ulterior motive, crawling naked into my sleeping bag at sunrise?"
She grins but avoids his eyes, feeling embarrassed. "I might have," she admits.
"Good," he replies. "Because you can crawl naked into my sleeping bag anytime you want. In fact, maybe we should share a sleeping bag every night." His warm breath tickles her ear, and she shivers. "To preserve heat."
"What about sleeping?"
He brushes hair away from her neck and kisses it. "Overrated. I can think of much more enjoyable activities we can do together."
He blows air against her skin and she laughs. She helps him out of his shirt. Having gotten it off, she tugs at his pants until she can throw them out of his sleeping bag, and their underwear follows. The sleeping bag unzips itself as they move around. He sets her on top of her own sleeping bag as he hovers above her, and tries to keep close to make sure she's not cold. Her head is on his jacket, hair splayed everywhere, and he rests his weight on his elbows on either side of her. He kisses a trail down her neck, tickling her with his beard when he nuzzles her skin, and she snickers.
"I have a gift for you."
She can feel his teeth against her sternum as he smiles. Looking up, he rests his chin on her chest. "You mean this isn't my gift?"
"I have something better."
"Better?" he repeats, squeezing her sides and tickling her a little. "Not possible."
She runs her fingers through his hair before she turns to reach for the little bouquet of flowers and a document tube. "Happy birthday, Edward." Holding out the flowers to him, she smiles shyly. "I love you."
He grins, smelling the wildflowers before setting them aside next to the document tube, and presses warm, wet kisses on her cheeks. "I love you, too." His lips brush against hers as he talks. "I'm sure whatever is in that tube is brilliant, but I think my beautiful, naked girlfriend needs my undivided attention at the moment, don't you agree?"
Scratching his beard, she laughs, and if they do start walking two hours later than usual, it's worth it.
Their journey continues slightly uphill, but not high enough to need protection against snow. Edward has tied his little bouquet on his backpack. The weather is almost too good to be true: the sky is clear, it's nearly windless, and the temperature reaches a high 65 °F. Edward walks in a sleeveless shirt while Bella is in a long-sleeved T-shirt, and Bella has clung to his side since he led them to a pack of wolves in the spruce forest. He doesn't mind. On the contrary, it gives him a reason to steal kisses and hold her close as they have lunch.
Not that he needs one.
They find a small pond surrounded by a swarm of wood frogs, and two horned grebes swim in the middle. They meet a wolverine, a red fox with three baby kits, a great horned owl, a northern flicker, and there's so many of them that Bella loses count of the animals and birds they meet. They're surrounded by incredibly diverse wilderness, and she enjoys watching Edward sneak close to the animals and taking pictures without bothering any of them. She keeps a safe distance.
He catches two waterfowls for dinner, and like each time he hunts game for them, Bella wonders at the little prayer he whispers in Aleut, or Unangam, as Edward himself calls the language. It sounds like Elvish to her, she can't make out a single, separate word, but it's beautiful.
They get fresh water from a spring he leads them to. After skinny-dipping in a cold but slow river, they lie on the grass—clothed and covered in mosquito repellant because it's warm but not that warm—and stare at the sky. He finds her hand, brings it to his stomach and starts playing with her fingers. She looks over to him, and he smiles. He's barely said a word since this morning, but she knows him well enough to recognize that the silence is not bad. He's happy.
Turning toward him, she rests her elbow on the ground and her cheek on her palm. An odd but picturesque cliff catches her attention in the distance where a grassy plateau emerges from the middle of the mountain, surrounded by large trees and jagged-looking mountainsides.
"I see you've discovered our destination for tonight." Edward rubs her knuckles. "It's called the Serene Edge."
She turns to look at him with wide eyes.
"That would be a ninety-degree ascent," she says. "I'm flattered you think I could do it, but I'm not a mountain climber."
"Me neither, and either way, we'd need ropes and helmets and safety equipment. We're going to approach the plateau from the other side. It's tough but rewarding."
Feeling unsure, she stares at the mountain, or the Serene Edge. It looks beautiful, but it also looks deadly.
"We don't have to if you really don't want to," he backtracks, drawing patterns on her palm. "It's just one of my favorite places to visit."
"How long will it take?"
"One plus three hours."
"Has anything ever happened to you, getting up there?"
"Not once, and I've been there countless of times," he replies. "We don't have to."
"But you were hoping to show it to me."
"Plans can be changed. It's okay."
The prospect of reaching the Serene Edge sounds daunting but not unappealing. She watches the plateau for a while, thinking. She can tell he doesn't want to pressure her.
"Let's do it."
A smile stretches on his face. "You really want to?"
"I really want to."
He's chosen challenging trails before, but this is a whole new ball game for her. They climb jagged mountainsides and they climb trees, they jump over small chasms and slip on the soil. They're sweating. They're sharing water. She bruises her forearm as she slips but doesn't think much of it until blood starts coloring her long-sleeved T-shirt. Twenty minutes later, they reach the plateau.
And what a plateau it is.
Her forearm forgotten, she throws off her backpack as she takes in the snow-capped mountains in the distance, the rivers and the green valleys covered by spruce forests. The very edge of the right side of the plateau is covered by white bird droppings and it's the size of a single room. Birds fly nearby, a couple of ravens croak, but the place is otherwise silent. She can't even hear a single mosquito.
"It's pretty remarkable." He bites his lip before kissing her. "Thank you."
"I'm sorry I hesitated."
"You had every right to. I should've asked." He takes her hands in his, but his smile drops when he notices blood on the ripped sleeve of her shirt. He turns her arm, and Bella pulls away the cloth that clings to her skin. It's starting to sting.
"I should probably clean that," she says.
"I'll do it." He takes out their tent and lies her sleeping bag on top of it. Dinner is forgotten as he sits on her sleeping bag and asks her to sit in his lap. Their proximity is unnecessary for the task at hand, but she doesn't mind. He's attentive and kind as he cleans her wound. The inside of her forearm is oozing blood close to her elbow, but it's going to bruise up to her wrist.
Having wrapped her forearm in a bandage, he presses a kiss on the inside of her palm. "I'm sorry you were hurt."
"It's barely a graze, Edward. It's okay. It happens."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
His tone isn't accusatory, just attentive.
"I guess I'm not much for being fussed over, either." She wipes hair away from his forehead. "Although, I must admit, if you always take such good care of me when I've injured myself, I will soon start to complain about an invisible splinter in my little finger."
He lowers his head and his lips brush against her temple. "I like this, too." He's smiling. "Are you hungry?"
He plucks, cleans and cooks the two waterfowls with the help of her Esbit cubes. She's happy to see that the apple cinnamon buns she made a couple of days ago (for this specific reason) are still good, and he's almost childishly delighted to see their dessert.
Edward opens his document tube, revealing a drawing of himself and her, standing on top of a mountain, hugging, both facing the picture. It's not made after any particular photograph because a picture like this doesn't exist, but it could be. If anyone had been around to take a picture of the two of them, they could have a thousand and one such photographs.
He pulls down her scarf because she's hiding behind it, and presses a warm, lingering kiss on her lips. "I love it. Can I put it up in our bedroom?"
"You can put it anywhere you want."
Smiling, he rolls up his picture, puts the tube in his bag and returns to her side.
The view from their little picnic table is so beautiful it's hard to comprehend, and they sit, side by side, and watch the sun get closer to the horizon. If they had an audience, they would appear to be sickeningly sweet with each other, talking and laughing and acting silly, and it's already midnight when they remember to brush their teeth. They leave their tent on the ground as their make believe carpet and put her unzipped sleeping bag on top of it. He unzips his own sleeping bag and covers her with it before sitting behind her. Leaning against their bags, he puts his legs on either side of hers, wraps his arms around her and pulls her back against his chest.
She feels like they're on top of the world.
She turns her head and bumps her nose against his jaw.
"Yes," she replies, snickering and rubbing her nose. "You?"
Only a few small clouds cover the sky, and it's still nearly windless. For the second evening in a row, Edward and Bella see a golden eagle, and even though the photograph would be just as picturesque if not more so, he doesn't reach for his camera.
"Do you remember when gran invited herself over to Denali?"
She grins at his wording.
"Wasn't it the first week of July?"
"Maybe. Remind me to ask her."
He rests his chin on her shoulder and sees her smiling to herself.
She leans her head against his for a second. "It's just that… you never told me that her name was Evangeline."
"Yes, I did."
"No, you didn't."
"Nope. You always call her gran, and I think I started calling her gran too without remembering to ask for her real name. You have no idea how confused I was to start receiving text messages mentioning her while having no clue who they were talking about."
"I'm sorry. I was so sure you knew. George already calls her Eva."
"Really? I think he called her Evangeline when he spoke with me."
"He definitely called her Eva when I talked to him."
She hides her smile in her scarf. "Do you think they will get along?"
"Are you kidding me? I'm pretty sure gran will make George strip naked the first time they meet."
"What? Why do you say that?"
"She always wanted to have a tattoo. She doesn't like needles or unnecessary pain, but she loves to observe other people's tattoos. She has made people strip quite frequently."
"Oh, God." She laughs. "Please make sure I have the front row ticket to their meeting."
"I'll be holding the popcorn," he replies, grinning. They watch the sunset cast an orange glow on half of the sky, but neither moves even when the sun is gone. Slowly, the brightest stars become visible in the night sky, but it's simply not dark enough to see as many of them as she saw in March. Nevertheless, the view is unparalleled in its beauty.
They continue to talk under the night sky, and he's still amazed that he's able to hold her in his arms on a night like this. She's a quick learner, she's considerate with nature, she's beautiful and smart and he cannot believe that she had chosen him. What had he done right in this world to be given a chance to deserve her? As his warm breath ghosts over her cheeks, as she tightens her hold on his arms under hers, as she whispers silly nothings in his ear or gives him her opinion of the piece of land they are going to see in two weeks, he feels like he falls more in love with her with every moment.
When they're both quiet, he can feel her breathing, and it feels precious. They've seen several shooting stars by dawn, but he waits, whispering silly nothings back at her, until it's minutes to sunrise. He feels his heart hammering as he removes one hand from around her and unzips the pocket of his pants, but his ring box is not there. He nervously checks his left pocket, and it's not there, either.
Noticing his shuffling, she turns to look at him. "Are you getting sleepy?" she asks, vapor puffing out of her scarf. She has a sleepy smile in her eyes. "It's okay if you are. We don't have to wait."
"No, no, I'm feeling just a little—stiff."
"I'm sorry." She recoils immediately, and her voice is so apologetic he wants to hug her to him. "I should've realized. I'm really sorry. Here, I can help you up if you need to move."
"No! No, I mean, I'm fine." He feels blood rushing to his cheeks, and he knows it's light enough for her to notice. "Please, can you come back here?"
Hesitating, she returns to his open arms and sits between his legs. "Are you sure you're okay?" she asks, concern in her voice. "You're acting kind of strange."
He breathes a sigh of relief when he finds her ring in his breast pocket. He opens the box in his palm, takes out her ring and surrounds her, once again, with his arms. He's nervous. What is he supposed to say? He's not sure.
But the first ray of the sun peeks out, and he watches her smile and close her eyes.
Eyes still closed, she leans her head close to his and hums. He tilts his head closer, and breathes against her ear.
"I didn't know it was possible to love anyone as much as I love you," he whispers, heart pounding in his chest. "I'd like to spend my life with you. Will you marry me?"
She turns her head, sharply, locking eyes with him. The vapor of his breath warms her cheek, and her eyes are wide.
Edward surrounds the pinky finger of her right hand with his fingers before sliding a cold ring on it. It's too big. He covers her hand with his, curling his palm around hers and squeezing. Bella hides her face in his chest and tries to stifle her smile, but she can't. She no longer feels the chill of the night.
He nudges her temple with his forehead, wanting to meet her eyes. She can't stop smiling. She'd known this would happen, but she hadn't expected to feel so overwhelmed, so happy, so nervous. She turns and throws her arms around his neck, pressing herself against his warmth. When her lips brush against the stubbly skin in front of his ear, she whispers,
"It's the wrong finger."
Squeezing her, he turns his head so that his beard is pressing against her cheek. His voice is low but falters.
"There's a specific finger for this?"
"Why?" he whispers.
"I don't know."
He, again, nudges her to see her face. Surrounding her face with his hands, he wipes his thumbs along her cheeks. Her smile feels a mile wide but her eyes are shimmering with tears, and he's not sure how to react. He counts the freckles on her nose, he pushes a lock away from her cheek, but most of all, he's observing her eyes. He doesn't dare to say anything.
She inches closer to his face, grinning, until vapor from their breaths mix. Leaning closer, still, she presses a kiss in the corner of his lips before resting her forehead against his cheek. She feels like her heart might beat out of her chest.
"You're so quiet," he whispers.
"I don't know what to think," he says. "You were smiling but now you're crying and… we don't have to. The ring is yours no matter what. I made it for you."
"Edward." She slides her hands to the back of his neck, feeling the heat in her cheeks. "They're happy tears."
"People don't cry when they're happy."
"Sure they do," she argues. "I cried when you turned up in the UP."
"I thought that was because of my injuries."
"I couldn't even see your injuries at that point."
She didn't realize he'd been frowning until his face clears. He looks in her eyes, back and forth, and a slow, hopeful smile stretches on his face. He slides his hands back under the blanket and around her waist, squeezing her to him. His lips brush her cheek.
"Yes," she replies, and even though he must know her answer now, she still pushes her head back to lock eyes with him. "Of course I'll marry you, Edward. As if you didn't know."
His face splits into a grin, and he stares at her before squeezing her so very tightly against his chest.
"It's not going to be perfect. I'll make mistakes, and I'll annoy you with my silence, and… you'll have to teach me a lot, especially when we have kids. But, but, I'll make sure you won't have to go one day unloved because I'll love you and I'll cherish you and I hope to grow old with you and flip off our grandkids on top of trees."
Bella snorts a laugh. She's never considered herself to be the type of girl to cry at a moment like this, but she can feel tears in her throat as she whispers, "Edward…"
"And, when I made your ring, I didn't know it was supposed to be different from a regular ring. I didn't know there's supposed to be a diamond before I googled it, and if, if that's the kind of thing you want, I can get one for you. You should have the most beautiful ring in the world, Bella. Anything you want."
Usually, she can't get words out of him, and now she can't get him to stop.
"I'm really sorry. I would have changed it but George…"
She turns to him fully, sitting on her knees, and takes off her mittens before she surrounds Edward's face with her hands. She can't believe she's crying, but he's being the sweetest man in the world and he's so worried it's making her heart ache.
"I would marry you if you tied dental floss around my finger, Edward," she whispers, stroking his beard and smiling so widely her face feels numb. "I love you." She slides her hands to the back of his neck and kisses him. His lips are hot and fingers tender, and she nearly falls over as she attempts to straddle his lap. Laughing, she squeezes the back of his neck, but he pulls her to him and slides his hands underneath her jacket. She feels like she's bursting with love. She throws off her hat and hides her face in the crook of his neck, squeezing him. Her warm breath ghosts over his neck, and he can feel her smiling. He can't stop, either, and he holds her, hugging and smiling and whispering sweet nothings in her ear for a long time.
A lone, sharp-shinned hawk flies over them, circling twice before deciding no food is to be found around the couple, and flies toward the uncommonly red sunrise to look for prey from across the river. It's a new day.
A/N: This story has been a joy to write, truly. Thank you all so much for sharing this journey with me, reviewers, lurkers, and gals from ADF. You've all been incredibly kind and I couldn't be more grateful. Take care of the people around you and the planet we live on. Life is precious.