It took months of persuasion to get David Cook to take a real vacation. There was always another album, another tour, another writing session, another charity event.
Finally, his mom, his little brother, and his best friend all ganged up on him, calling him one after the other.
“Et tu, Archuleta?” Cook asked into the phone, pausing the Family Guy rerun he’d spent the last two hours trying to watch.
“You need to take a break,” Archie said. He was using his stubborn voice, the one that always got Cook to quit the party an hour earlier than he’d intended, or turn down that last beer. “You’re not helping your career if you burn out, and nobody’s going to forget you if you take a month off.”
“A month? That’s not even doable. Tour rehearsals start in three weeks.”
“Three weeks, then,” Archie said.
“No. No. There’s no way.”
A FedEx package showed up at Cook’s house the next day, just ahead of the dogsitter who appeared out of nowhere to collect Dublin. Cook looked at the plane ticket—South Dakota?—and the cabin reservation confirmation—Black Hills Hideaways—and sighed. Archie had even reserved a four-wheel-drive car for him, the micromanager.
“I can leave early if I want to,” he told Archie from the cab to the airport. Archie just laughed. “And I’ve always wanted to see Mount Rushmore anyway.”
“You’ll love it. We went once when I was a kid. It’s great.”
“Why don’t you come out for a while, too? You need a break as badly as I do.”
The pause on the other end stretched just into awkward territory before Archie said, “Sure, why not? I’ll clear my schedule and come out for the last week you’re there.”
“Good way to make sure I don’t leave early,” Cook said.
Archie laughed again. “I’m sneakier than I look.”
South Dakota was actually pretty cool. Cook spent the first week driving all over the western half of the state—Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, the Badlands, Wounded Knee—but as he got into the second week, the rental car stayed in the gravel behind the cabin more often than not.
His cabin was smack in the middle of the Hills, a forty-five minute drive from the nearest gas station, but only a twenty minute walk to the edge of one of the bluest lakes he’d ever seen. He napped in the sun; he took his guitar up on top of a hill and played whatever came to him; and he realized, after a while, that he was more relaxed than he’d been since some time in his twenties.
As the days passed, he wasn’t sure anymore if he was looking forward all that much to having Archie there. He really was enjoying the peace and quiet, although he’d have set his guitar on fire before he admitted it.
Archie actually showed up a couple of days early. Cook was dozing in the hammock in front of his cabin (he needed one of these for home) when the nearly alien sound of someone else's footsteps jerked him awake.
“Hello?” he called.
Archie came around the side of the cabin, a duffel bag over one shoulder, looking a little nervous. “It’s me,” he said, and then half-laughed. “Obviously. I hope you don’t mind—”
Cook tumbled out of the hammock and crossed the grass to grab Archie in a full-body hug. “It’s totally okay!” he said, promptly abandoning all his vague thoughts of staying alone. It was Archie. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
Archie’s returning hug was a little tighter and a little stronger than expected, and Cook pulled away to look at him. “Are you okay?” he asked. Archie looked mostly the same as usual, maybe a couple workouts bulkier, but something about the shadows on his face made him look older, more tired.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Archie said without letting go of Cook. “I just—”
“—needed a vacation too,” Cook said. “I knew this wasn’t just about me.”
“You look different,” Archie said, and Cook told himself he was just imagining the intensity of the statement.
“Besides the sunburn, you mean? Yeah, I didn’t want to turn into Grizzly Adams, so I shaved it all off. It’ll grow back.”
“Right, then,” Archie said, and kissed him.
“Whoa,” Cook said, pushing on Archie’s shoulders until he’d opened up a couple inches between them. “Where did that—”
Archie wasn’t fighting him, wasn’t opening his mouth to argue, wasn’t trying to make a further move. He stayed frozen, his eyes wide and dark as he looked back at Cook.
“—come from?” Cook finished belatedly.
“Nowhere, if you don’t want it.” Archie started to lean back.
Cook tightened his fingers on Archie’s shoulders, holding him in place.
Archie went still again. “Your call,” he said, almost inaudible.
Cook leaned forward and barely, just barely, brushed his lips against Archie’s. Archie made a quiet sound that vibrated between them.
Cook tilted his head, increasing the pressure on Archie’s mouth, bit by tiny bit, until they were locked together in a real kiss, arms wrapped around each other. Archie swallowed—Cook could feel the movement of it—and opened his mouth under Cook’s, and that was it, game over. Cook’s hands closed into fists against Archie’s back. He met Archie’s tongue with his own. Archie made another low noise and hauled Cook even closer, bringing their hips into contact.
“Oh,” Cook said, gasping for air as Archie buried his face in Cook’s neck. “Oh, my God. Archie.”
Archie rocked against him again. Cook kept his hands in fists so they wouldn’t shake.
With his last remaining brain cells, Cook got them inside and got the door closed behind them. He had his hands on Archie’s buttons and was halfway through unbuttoning his shirt when Archie said, “Wait.”
“Wait what?” Cook asked. Archie’s skin was warm under his shirt, and Cook was about half a second from seeing if he could, in fact, tear someone’s clothes off.
“Are you sure?” Archie asked.
“Are you shitting me?” Cook shot back.
“No, seriously.” Archie’s heart was beating triple time against the backs of Cook’s hands. “I know I surprised you with this, and I don’t want you to feel like I rushed you into anything.”
“You’re making me feel like a sixteen-year-old after prom.”
Archie took a breath, presumably to ask him seventeen more times if he was sure. It came out in a wheeze, though, as Cook put his shoulder against Archie’s stomach and lifted him up in a fireman’s carry.
He took the few steps to the bed, dropped Archie onto it, and crawled on top of him. “You’re heavier than you were the last time I picked you up,” he said, going back to work on Archie’s shirt buttons.
“Cook,” Archie said.
Cook leaned down and kissed Archie. “Shut up. I’m sure.”
“You’re a pretty good liar,” Cook said, in between attempts at getting his breath back.
Archie had been running a hand idly up and down Cook’s arm; he stopped. “How so?”
“Dude. That was obviously a long time coming for you. And I had no idea.”
Archie huffed out an embarrassed laugh. “I guess I keep things to myself.”
“What else are you hiding in there?” Cook tapped a fingertip against Archie’s temple. “The secrets of the universe?”
Archie smiled, and Cook had a physical reaction that should really not have been possible for someone in his thirties. “Maybe. How about you?”
“The universe is a mystery to me,” Cook said.
“Ha, ha." Archie rolled his eyes and tried again. "I meant—were you hiding any secrets about me?”
With a start, Cook remembered one of his roadies from two tours back, a kid with black hair and a terminal case of shyness. Cook had spent so much time with him, joking around with him during stage moves and teaching him to play poker, that the band had started referring to him as “Dave’s tour husband.”
“Huh,” he said. “I think maybe I was.”
“Hid it from yourself, too?” Archie asked. Cook nodded. “Yeah, I know how that goes.”
Cook rolled over and squashed Archie into the mattress. “Anything else about myself you want to tell me?”
“Not at the moment,” Archie said, lifting his hips up into Cook’s. “I’d rather be kissing you.”
“Fair enough,” Cook said.
Hunger did eventually force them out of bed. They made sandwiches, and put together picnic fixings from the kitchen.
“Hey, how much do you think I drink?” Cook asked, watching Archie pull beer after beer from the fridge.
Archie looked down and made a face. “Whoops,” he said, and dumped half of them back in. “So much for my plan to get you drunk and take advantage of you.”
“David Archuleta,” Cook said sternly. Then he grinned. “Like you need beer for that.”
Archie grinned back and grabbed himself a bottle of water.
They sat with their sandwiches and chips and melting ice cream on a flat spot of ground near the hammock. Archie alternated between looking around at the hills and looking back over at Cook, who was developing a bit of a tendency to blush. After they were finished, they stretched out next to each other on the blanket, touching from shoulder to ankle, and watched the sun set over the trees.
“Wow,” Archie said as the last bits of pink disappeared behind the hills.
“Wait till all the stars come out,” Cook said. “The nearest real town is so far away you can’t even see their lights from here.”
“I don’t remember the last time I just looked at the stars,” Archie said.
“Me neither.” Cook slid his hand into Archie’s. “We’ve got to stop moving more often.”
He waited for Archie to make an I-told-you-so crack, but Archie just hummed his agreement and laced their fingers together.
Cook woke up the next morning to find Archie sprawled over him like a blanket, his head on Cook’s shoulder and one leg tucked between Cook’s.
Cook rolled him over—it was adorable, but the cabin didn’t have air conditioning and he was starting to swelter—and lay with his head propped on his elbow, studying Archie’s face until he woke up.
Archie blinked lazily a couple of times. Then his eyes popped open and fixed on Cook.
“Okay,” he said after a minute, running a hand over his face. “Not a dream.”
“So you’re admitting you dream about me,” Cook said, letting the smirk cross his face.
Archie gave him a dirty look and rolled off the bed. He stomped off and slammed the bathroom door behind him.
He didn’t lock it, though. Cook kept smirking and followed him.
They spent the morning in bed—well, in the shower, then back to the bed, then stuffing themselves with peanut butter toast in the kitchen, then back to bed again. By the time the owner’s daughter came by to do the housekeeping (and Cook was not going to think about the condition of the sheets; he just left her an extra tip and avoided her eyes), they were ready to stumble out of the cabin, fall into the hammock, and go straight to sleep.
When they woke up, Cook was relieved to only be a little more sunburned. He took Archie for a walk around the nameless hamlet—basically a group of tourist cabins and summer homes (log construction featured heavily), with a tiny chapel at one end of the long gravel road and a stack of mailboxes at the other. There was just enough distance between everything that everyone had the illusion of solitude.
“There’s a song in that,” Cook said. He started humming.
“Vacation,” Archie said, with just the slightest edge in his voice. Cook looked over at him, startled, but Archie was looking the other way.
Five or six cabins from Cook’s, the gravel road branched off and suddenly became paved, heading down past the red and white one-room schoolhouse and crossing a bridge before becoming a real road heading out to the more populated areas Cook had been avoiding.
They walked next to the road—not that there were any cars—and made their way down the hill.
The schoolhouse was actually a museum, according to the sign, open Saturdays from one to four. Cook wasn’t entirely sure what day it was, but the door was locked, so it must not be Saturday.
“We’ll have to come back and check it out,” he said. “Even if it’s awful, it’ll be awesomely awful.”
Archie didn’t answer; when Cook looked up, he’d drifted down the road and was leaning against one of the bridge rails, looking down into the river.
“What’s on your mind?” Cook asked, standing next to him. The river was a few feet deep at this point and fairly rapid; if Cook concentrated, he could see the occasional flicker that marked a fish passing by.
“I am trying not to think of anything at all,” Archie said. He turned around and leaned back on his elbows. “It’s not really working, but damn, I’m trying.”
Cook ran two fingers down the side of Archie’s face. “And what are you 'damn' trying not to think about?”
“The future. What happens to us. About anything that happens after today.” He leaned in and kissed Cook with a little more desperation than a lazy summer day required.
Cook kissed him back, but his hands dropped away from Archie’s face and rested on the railing behind him. “Let’s head back,” he said when they came up for air.
Back at the cabin, Archie made a beeline for the kitchenette. “Sandwiches again?” he asked, rooting through the fridge. “Or—hey, there’s pizza in the freezer—”
“Archie,” Cook said.
Archie turned to him, all youth and innocence. “Yeah?”
Cook pointed at one of the kitchen chairs. “Sit down.”
Cook flipped the other chair around and sat on it backwards, crossing his arms on its back and keeping his hands tight on the sides. “I want you to tell me what’s really going on.”
“With what?” Archie asked.
Cook aimed a level and not particularly friendly look at him. “You say ‘God’ and ‘damn’ when you’re not paying attention. That beer was for you.”
“I’m allowed to swear and drink if I want to,” Archie started, but Cook cut him off.
“There was no car anywhere when you showed up, I’d have heard it—and there’s a scar on the side of your face that wasn’t there when I saw you six weeks ago. And there is absolutely no way you got a burn like that and healed in six weeks.”
“There’s a perfectly normal explanation for all of this,” Archie said.
Cook just looked at him. “You haven’t sung a note since you got here,” he said.
Archie tipped his head back and sighed. “Fuck,” he said, and Cook had to fight to keep from jumping in his chair at the sound. “I should have known I couldn’t pull it off.”
“Talk to me,” Cook said. Something like terror crawled up his neck.
Archie lowered his head. “Hi,” he said. “I’m David Archuleta. I’m from the future.”
“…the fuck what?” Cook asked faintly.
“Trust me, I explained this to you in my head for years,” the man in front of him said. “There’s no good way.”
“There’s got to be a better way than that,” Cook said. “Also, I don’t think I believe you.”
“You’re the one who said something was wrong.”
“Not time travel wrong.”
“Even with the burn scar? You are the one who brought it up.”
“Plastic surgery—” Cook said tentatively, and was cut off by a laugh that was harsh and humorless and like no sound he’d ever heard Archie make.
“Not exactly plastic surgery,” he said, and Cook stared in horrified fascination as the skin on Archie’s face and arms rippled, as though they were looking at each other from either side of a heat wave.
When the air cleared again, it was still Archie, but…not. He was older, with the beginnings of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, and a strong, muscular build. The faint scar at the edge of his face became more pronounced, and similar scars peeked out of the neck and sleeves of his T-shirt.
Archie looked down and made a rueful face. “I perform in dress shirts a lot, buttoned all the way up. And more stage makeup than you can imagine.”
“How old are you?” Cook asked. “I can’t believe I just said that.”
“I’m thirty-four,” Archie said.
“The same age I am now?”
Archie met Cook’s eyes. “The same age you were when you died.”
Cook bolted out of his chair and for the door.
Archie found him an hour later, sitting on the hill leading down to the lake, staring off into the blue. He sat down just close enough that they weren’t touching.
“Are you done freaking out yet?” he asked. “I could come back later.”
Cook took a deep breath. “No. No, I’m good. I reserve the right to resume freaking out later, though.”
Archie laughed. Even his new voice was subtly different, lower and rougher. It was weird that that, out of everything, made Cook want to cry. “Got it.”
“Tell me the whole story,” Cook said.
Archie laced his hands together in his lap and stared down at them. “I was driving up the road to the bridge, singing along to the radio, looking forward to forcing you to relax if you hadn’t already.” A small smile came and went. “The railing was broken on one side. A car had gone into the river, flipped over. The car I—the one I picked out for you.”
Cook concentrated on not reacting at all.
“Apparently the gravel around here does a number on cars sometimes. Your brake line had been leaking fluid. You lost control coming down the hill. The wheels were still turning, and I tried to get you out, but all the doors were wedged shut. I started screaming, and the whole town showed up, but by the time they broke the window and pulled you out—” He stopped, took a shaky breath, then another. “Maybe if I’d gotten help faster—everyone said it wouldn’t have helped, but they didn’t really know that. It’s just what people say.”
Cook wasn’t sure when he’d started believing, but—he reached out carefully and put his hand over Archie’s joined ones. “You know I’d never blame you, right?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Archie said. Tears were running freely down his face.
Cook tilted his head until it was resting on Archie’s shoulder, and they sat in silence.
A while later, Archie cleared his throat. “Afterwards, everyone told me it’s really hard, but you’ll get over it, it’ll get easier.”
“I really hate your ‘everyone,’ you know,” Cook said.
“Tell me about it,” Archie said.
“But it didn’t get better.”
“A while later, we had a wake—just our Idol people,” Archie said. “Everyone was being so careful and gentle with me, and the pictures of the car were all over the tabloids, and Andrew kept calling me like it was even fair that he was worried about me, and my dad had said—” He broke off. “Somewhere in the middle of it I realized that everyone was calling me David, that they didn’t need to call me Archie because they all knew which one they were talking to. I grabbed the first bottle I could reach and started pouring.”
“Archie,” Cook said.
“I ended up in the ER. Paparazzi everywhere. And it wasn’t until I saw the headline the next day--Archie Pines for Lost Love--that it made sense.”
“Archie,” Cook said again, leaning into him.
Archie shook his head. “It was a long time ago. And—next month. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember which one of me I am, and what order things are happening in.”
“I’m interested in the part of the story where you got on with your life and were happy again.”
“Working on it,” Archie said sharply. Cook picked his head up and looked over at him. Archie sighed. “Sorry.”
“Just keep talking,” Cook said.
“Well, I went back to singing, because it was the only thing that even kind of made sense, but even that was different. My songs changed. My voice changed. I started having a couple beers every once in a while—which you have no right to bug me about, bartender.”
“And your family?” Cook asked.
“They’re fine,” Archie said, ducking his head. “They don’t—we don’t understand each other as well as we used to, but, you know, people change.”
“So, to sum up, I’m the worst thing that ever happened to you.”
“Don’t you even fucking say that.” Archie’s face went fierce and dangerous; the scar on his face stood out white against the flush on his cheek. “That’s not funny.”
“It’s not supposed to be funny. I ruined your life.”
“Shut up,” Archie said. “You don’t understand.”
They glared at each other for a long minute, then Cook looked down into the lake. “I wish I still didn’t believe you.”
Next to him, Archie sighed.
“Keep going,” Cook said.
“I started doing all this reading—you know, psychics. Mediums.”
“That has got to be against your religion.”
Cook blinked at him. “I’m lucky you didn’t try to raise me from the dead.”
“Get serious,” Archie said. Then, under his breath, “Besides, you were cremated.”
“We are all gonna pretend you didn’t just say that.”
“Anyway,” Archie said. “I tried a couple of things, but it was just—it’s supposed to make you feel better, but it didn’t. And then one day I got a shipment of books, and this one I hadn’t ordered was in the bottom. It was totally different from anything I’d seen before. And it helped me figure out how to get back to you.”
Cook waited, but Archie seemed to be done talking. “That’s a very simple end to a very complicated story, Archie.”
“Um…” Archie said. “There’s some things I really can’t explain without—” He stopped and made a face Cook couldn’t interpret. “It was not easy, and not a lot of fun. I’d rather not get into it.”
Cook ran a hand over the scar on Archie’s arm. “Does this have something to do with it?”
“I’d really rather not—”
“Okay, fine.” The air around Archie started to shimmer again, and Cook said, “Wait, wait, wait—I won’t ask, you don’t have to cover it up.”
The shimmering stopped. Archie said, “I just thought you’d be more comfortable if I looked like you remembered me.”
“Don’t,” Cook said.
They made their way back to the cabin and curled up in the hammock again, with Archie mostly on top of Cook. It was starting to get more humid—an afternoon thunderstorm was coming in, Cook predicted with his knowledge as a two week resident of the area. Archie’s denim-clad legs rubbed against the bare skin beneath Cook’s shorts, and Cook’s hands were playing with the bottom of Archie’s T-shirt and the skin just beneath it.
“So, I have to ask,” Cook said. “Was this book that brought you back—I mean, do I get to say it was magic? Or did science advance far enough in eight years—”
He thought for a minute that Archie would brush him off again, but instead he said, lazily amused, “Any sufficiently advanced technology—”
“Is indistinguishable from magic,” Cook finished for him. “You know your Clarke.”
“It’s come up in conversation a few times.”
“Hm,” Cook said. “How’s your Bradbury?”
“I like Mars,” Archie said.
“He wrote a story called ‘The Sound of Thunder’ that shows up in crosswords a lot,” Cook said. “I read it in high school. A guy goes back in time, steps on a butterfly, and changes the world.”
Archie made a show of checking his bare feet. “No butterflies, no beetles, no ladybugs,” he said.
Cook didn’t laugh.
Archie wriggled his way to a mostly-seated position, with his legs over the edge of the hammock, and looked down at Cook. “Are you fucking insane here?” he asked.
“I’m a little bigger than a butterfly, Archie. What if keeping me alive fucks up, I don't know, El Niño or global warming--”
"Unless you're planning to sabotage an oil tanker, I don't think--"
"Or my family?" Cook asked. Archie went silent. "Or my friends? What if I'm supposed to be dead for a reason, and I ruin something neither of us can imagine right now? We've both lost people we love, important people, and we--how do I decide I'm more important than anyone else in the world who's ever died? How do I make that call?"
Archie stared down at him for a minute more, his knuckles white against the hammock. He took a deep breath. "Fuck you, David Cook," he said. "Fuck you." He dumped himself out of the hammock so hard, Cook almost went flying after him. He stormed into the house; Cook stopped trying to untangle himself and follow when he heard the door lock click into place.
He lay back in the hammock and covered his face. From the cabin, he could clearly hear the sounds of shouting and something breaking.
Cook didn’t have a watch on him, but he figured Archie waited a good half hour or more before he let him back in the cabin. Cook looked around. Nothing seemed permanently damaged, but when he brushed against the trash can, it rattled suspiciously.
“Did you break all the dishes?” he asked.
Archie muttered something that ended in “…your stupid head.” Cook pretended to ignore him. He pulled two beers out of the fridge and offered one to Archie. Archie gave him a startled look and took it.
“See, I can adapt,” Cook said.
Archie’s face was still angry. “Adapt faster.”
Cook sighed. “All right,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed and looking up at Archie’s still-flushed face. “Let me have it.”
“I never would have said a damn thing about it if I’d thought you would come to a completely wrong conclusion,” Archie said, his voice low and harsh. “Basically you want to kill yourself.”
“Trust me, I do not,” Cook said. “I just think—maybe this is supposed to happen for a reason.”
“To break your family’s hearts? To make your friends mourn for you? To make me—” Archie broke off and drained half his beer bottle in one gulp.
“Archie.” Cook grabbed Archie’s beer and set it along with his own on the floor. He stood and pulled Archie into a hug, wrapping his arms tightly around his back. “I don’t want to die. Just—how do I take the chance that I hurt someone else, or worse, if this doesn’t happen?”
“I came to save you,” Archie said into Cook’s neck, and his whole body tightened in a sob.
“I’m so glad you did,” Cook wrapped himself even tighter around Archie. “No matter what, I’m so glad you did. I just don’t know what to do.”
“Stay,” Archie said. “Just stay.”
“How long do I—when—” Cook’s throat tightened up all the way.
Archie huffed a breath in. “Day after tomorrow. I got caught up in something and had to come a day late.”
“Okay,” Cook said. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Cook cut Archie off with a kiss. They stumbled together back to the bed. Cook ran his hands over every scar on Archie’s skin, memorizing the way Archie shuddered and shook underneath him.
“Thank you,” Cook said as he mouthed his way down the scar on the side of Archie’s face. “Thank you.” He detoured to Archie’s mouth for a long, lazy kiss. “Thank you.”
Archie arched helplessly under him. His hands dug hard into Cook’s hips. “Please,” he said, “please,” and Cook smiled as he kissed him again.
Cook woke up slowly, reveling in the sun across his face and chest. For a minute, he was back in his vacation, relaxed and carefree. Thoughts about tomorrow, and the decision he had to make, nagged at the back of his mind, but he ignored them. They still had today. Whatever might happen tomorrow, he’d figure it out later.
He sighed and opened his eyes, and only then did he realize that he was alone in bed.
“Archie?” he called, listening for the sound of the shower, or the clatter of dishes in the kitchenette. “Archie?”
He sat up in bed. There was a piece of paper on the nightstand with Archie’s nearly-familiar handwriting on it—more scrawled and less precise than he remembered. He picked it up.
I lied. I’m sorry.
“Fuck you,” he told the note. He didn’t even bother to read the rest of it, just tossed it back on the nightstand and grabbed for his shoes.
It was only a fraction of a mile to the bridge, but Cook’s heart was pounding dangerously in his chest as he turned the corner and looked down the hill.
The car was on its roof in the water. Archie, the Archie he hadn’t just spent three days with, stood next to it, yanking helplessly on the driver’s side door.
For a second, Cook hesitated—no matter what the other Archie thought, this was his decision, and no one else’s. He could slip away, make it look like he’d been part of the accident when no one was looking. His body gave an involuntary jerk at the thought, but if it was the right thing to do—the right thing for everyone…
And then Archie started to cry. It was barely visible from where Cook stood, but he knew Archie, knew it from the way his shoulders shook, his head ducked. He watched Archie haul off and kick at the barely visible window, slamming his foot into it over and over.
Cook took off running.
“Archie!” he called, almost tripping over his own feet as he hurtled down the hill. “Archie!”
Archie turned, and his expression went from anguished to shocked. “Cook?”
Cook skidded to a stop at the edge of the bank and had to make himself move carefully as he picked his way down over the edge. When he reached the bottom, waist-deep in the water, Archie was still staring at him like he wasn’t really there. Cook could relate.
“But—you—” Archie started.
Cook held up a hand and then, taking a deep breath, plunged under the water until he could see through the driver’s side window. He came back up. “There’s no one in there.”
“I woke up and my car was gone,” Cook said. “I don’t know exactly what happened after that.” Well, he didn’t exactly know. He turned and scanned the area, not sure what he was looking for—a body floating away? A dark head disappearing into the trees? A wisp of smoke drifting up into the sky?
Archie was looking too. “Someone must have tried to steal it and then jumped out before they wrecked it."
“Makes as much sense as anything else,” Cook said, which was also mostly true. He turned back to Archie, shivering as the wind hit the sweats he’d tossed on as he stumbled his way out the door after—after the car. He shivered harder. He wasn’t going to think about it, he told himself firmly.
And then he didn’t have room to think about anything else, because Archie had just thrown himself into Cook’s arms. “Oh, God,” Archie said, and he was shivering too, probably not just from the wind either. “I thought you were dead, Cook. I thought you’d died right in front of me.”
“I didn’t,” Cook said, rubbing his hands up and down Archie’s back. “I’m alive, I’m fine. I’m not going anywhere.”
Archie leaned back to look at Cook, and Cook’s hands slowed and stilled. The look in Archie’s eyes was all too familiar, and Cook realized he had another choice; step back, leave them as friends, and give Archie a chance to live a life that was more or less without him. To maybe keep him safe.
“Do you believe in fate?” Cook asked, his hands tightening on Archie’s soaked shirt.
“What? Um, yes?”
“I don’t,” Cook said grimly, and kissed him.
The world interrupted them, of course. There were neighbors, emergency vehicles, search teams, people with blankets and warm drinks and concern, and by the time they had answered all the questions and then answered them again and thanked everyone for their help and refused offers of more help, Cook was weaving on his feet. He couldn’t stop himself from clinging to Archie (this Archie) like he would disappear, too, if Cook looked away for too long. Fortunately Archie didn’t seem to mind.
They stumbled into the car Archie had abandoned on the road by the bridge, and stumbled out of it at Cook’s cabin. The bed was freshly made, the room smelled like pine cleaner, and Cook could imagine for a second that he’d been alone the whole time, and nobody had time-traveled into his life and saved it. There was a grinding feeling in his chest, and he tried to push it away.
He turned around, startled, as he felt Archie’s hand touch his shoulder. “You okay?” Archie asked.
“Just...just freaked out and worn out,” Cook said with his best smile. “You?”
Archie shrugged. “Yeah, that.”
Cook looked around. “Um, the couch pulls out into a bed if you want to crash for a while. Or, I mean, you can take the regular bed, I don’t—Archie, don’t look at me like that.” Archie’s eyes were wide and uncertain, and he eased a step away from Cook. “You’ve had a bad—I mean, it was a shock, and I don’t want—you shouldn’t think that I—I don’t expect any—oh God.” He closed his eyes. “Please make me stop talking.”
Archie kissed him, one hand coming up to balance himself on Cook’s shoulder. Cook tried to stay still, but Archie leaned into him, patient and calm, until Cook broke and kissed him back.
“Really,” he protested one more time, opening his eyes and trying to hold Archie away from him, fighting the impulse to just run his hands down Archie’s sleeves, to find the skin under the fabric and explore this new, nearly familiar body. “Archie, you shouldn’t—”
“Fall in love with you?” Archie asked with a funny little smile on his face—a smile Cook had seen before, and could live to see again, now. “Too late. I just wish I’d figured it out before.” He looked up, suddenly nervous. “Unless you—”
“No,” Cook said involuntarily, giving in and moving his hands down Archie’s arms. Archie closed his eyes a little and leaned closer. “No, me too. I guess we both figured out in, in time.”
The younger version of Archie snored a little, Cook noticed, as he ran a hand down the unmarked skin of Archie’s back. He was already making plans to tease him about it when he woke up, but he actually found it kind of comforting: a gentle reminder that this was his best friend, the person he’d just tumbled into love with, someone with his own thoughts and quirks and what-have-you that Cook was going to get to learn for the first time.
The note was still on the nightstand. Cook picked it up and started to crumple it, then reluctantly teased the crushed paper open again. There were just two lines beneath what he’d read earlier.
As long as you’re somewhere, in some universe, that’s all that matters.
You’re worth it.
Cook crumpled the note back up and tossed it into the trashcan. Then he pulled the covers up over Archie and lay down practically on top of him, his nose tucked into the curve of Archie’s shoulder.
“I have a story I’ll tell you one day,” he said into the stillness. “Once I know you’ll really understand.”
Archie murmured and shifted back towards him, and Cook let himself drift off to sleep.