Linka has a paper crown perched on her head. Her cheeks are flushed a pleasant pink and her hair is coming loose from her ponytail.
"You have got me drunk," she accuses Wheeler.
He grins easily. "It's the only way to celebrate your twenty-first birthday," he says. He can feel the warmth of alcohol too, but he hasn't had as much to drink as Linka. "You're Russian, anyway," he says dismissively. "You should be able to handle your drink."
"That is such a stereotype," Linka says crossly.
He thinks it's impressive she's not slurring at all, though she's definitely leaning a little sideways in her chair.
"Think I should get you a glass of water," Wheeler says. He finds her intoxication amusing, but he's smart enough to know that he'll pay for it in the morning if she wakes up hungover.
"Thank you for your gift," Linka says, a little self-consciously. She touches the silver chain at her throat.
Wheeler sets a tall glass of water in front of her. "You're welcome," he says. (He restrains a smug grin. He's completely over-the-moon that she loves it so much; her hand keeps straying to touch the tiny L hanging from the chain.)
"You know," he says, watching her close her eyes as she gulps from the glass, "we became Planeteers, like, two weeks before your sixteenth birthday."
"Yes, I know," Linka says, slightly breathless. She tilts her head and smiles at him. "I think we had a mission in Africa."
"Plunder, and ivory," Wheeler says, remembering. "I considered getting you an ivory necklace."
"You did not," she says, her eyes widening. She looks like she doesn't quite believe him, but it's true.
"Kwame just about kicked my ass when I mentioned the idea," Wheeler says.
She laughs, sliding away from him a little, her arms braced on the kitchen table. She rests her head down and smiles at him. "I like this necklace much better," she says. "Thank you, Yankee."
He grabs her empty glass, intent on getting her another. "You're welcome."
Linka watches him. The crown has toppled forward a little, resting against the very top of her forehead, casting a shadow down over her eyes. "Twenty one does not feel so different to twenty," she says.
"But now you can drink legally," he says, grinning at her.
She smirks. "In Russia, there is no law regarding drinking ages."
Wheeler snorts. "Right."
"It is the truth." Her lips curve up and she looks as smug as he had felt a couple of minutes before. "Why do you think we are all so good at drinking? I have been in training for twenty-one years already."
Wheeler laughs and sinks down into the chair beside her, skating another glass of water over to her. "I thought that was a stereotype."
She accepts the glass with a sigh. "It is." She rubs her face and pushes the crown back so it sits upright on her head again. "I have had too much."
"Only way to celebrate," Wheeler says.
She shakes her head, but she's smiling. "I have had fun," she says, leaning back in her chair. "It has been a good birthday."
She touches the little silver L at her throat again, and Wheeler's chest warms.
She drinks the second glass of water more slowly than the first.
"Tell you what," Wheeler says after a moment, "I'm surprised Gi went to bed so early. She can usually out-party me."
Linka laughs. "She is tired. It has been a long week."
"Not that I mind that they all piked out early," he says, leaning forward and pulling the crown gently off her head. "Gives me some alone time with the birthday girl."
"Bozhe moy," she mutters, narrowing her eyes at him slightly.
He smirks and leans forward. "Birthday kiss?"
"I gave you a birthday kiss on your birthday," she says. She hasn't pulled away.
"Well, this time you get to be on the receivin' end," he says.
She's smiling when he kisses her. He traces the smooth, warm swell of her cheek with his thumb, and lets his fingers come to rest at the base of her throat, near the charm he bought her with money he saved for months beforehand. (Being a Planeteer comes with a lot of benefits, but cash isn't necessarily one of them.)
She tastes like the sweet, syrupy drinks Gi was mixing earlier. When they break apart, she breathes out slowly, her lashes fluttering.
"Happy birthday, babe," Wheeler whispers.
"Mm," she says. "You are very good at giving presents, Yankee."
"Maybe I'm startin' to figure you out," he says, grinning at her.
She smiles back at him and shakes her head only slightly. "Maybe a little," she admits. She rubs her eyes. "I am tired. I think I need to go to bed."
"That's probably a good idea," he says. "Keep a glass of water beside you, okay?"
She gives a rueful laugh and gets to her feet, still leaning on the table. "Da, that is probably a good idea."
Wheeler wraps an arm around her waist and walks with her toward the door.
It has rained. Hope Island is humid and thick with the scent of the jungle. Linka leans against Wheeler's shoulder as they walk toward the path into the trees.
"How did you get me so drunk?" she asks, holding her hand to her head.
"I think that was mostly Gi's fault, not mine," Wheeler says. "But I'll take the fall if you give me another kiss."
"Oh," Linka sighs. "I am not sure that is such a good idea."
"Come on," he says, grinning at her in the moonlight. "It's not every day you turn twenty one. Live a little."
She laughs and turns to face him, scrutinising him with her eyes half-closed. "By kissing you?"
"You seem to enjoy it." He slides his hands around her waist.
"Not half as much as you do, apparently." But she lifts her mouth to his and kisses him again, slow and deep.
"You know," Wheeler says, pulling her in close, hands on her hips, "if you weren't drunk, I'd be suggestin' we take this back inside."
"But you are withholding because...?"
"Just seems like takin' advantage," he says. "Curse my sense of decency."
She laughs and pushes him away. "I should not have kissed you at all," she says. "It only encourages you."
"Hey," he says, taking her hand. "One day you'll realise I'm the only guy you'll ever want to kiss."
"Well, when you can commit to one girl, perhaps," she retorts. The smile is still on her face, but her words are serious.
"Gotta sow my oats while I'm still young and good-lookin'," he says defensively.
She tuts and pulls her hand free. "I am going to bed."
"I can commit," he says, following her. "I'd commit for a girl like you."
"Give it a rest, Yankee. I am tired."
He takes her hand again and pulls her to a halt, just outside the door of her hut. "Don't believe me, huh?"
She sighs and looks at him. The night is darker here, within the cloaked shadows of the jungle. "We met a little over six years ago, Wheeler," she says. "Are you still so intent on chasing me?"
"I'm not chasin' you," Wheeler says. "You slowed down a long way back. It's hardly a chase when I caught up so long ago."
"Do not flatter yourself too much," Linka says, smiling at him. "I am not that drunk."
He takes another chance to kiss her again, pushing her up against her door. He has kissed her quite a lot over the past six years, but he can still remember each and every time; can still remember what good fortune or flirtatious smile caused her reluctance to crumble and let him in.
She pushes him away after a moment, slowly extending her arms, her palms flat against his shoulders. "Goodnight," she says firmly.
"I meant it," he blurts, still a little dazed from all this contact with her, from the taste of sugar and alcohol in her mouth. "Just 'cause I flirt with others girls don't mean I wouldn't stop all that for the right girl."
She smiles again and shakes her head. "You are a flirt," she says. "That is who you are."
He starts to feel annoyed that she has dismissed him so readily. Again.
"You know why we'd be good together?" he asks.
"I have no idea," she says, folding her arms. She's sounding completely sober now, and Wheeler figures there's a good chance he could steer the whole evening into shit by starting an argument. He presses on anyway.
"'Cause we're so similar," he says. "You and me."
"We are not," she says irritably. "We have been through this before."
"Probably," he says. "We're both stubborn as hell and –"
"And that is about it," she finishes for him.
"I was gonna say we're both smokin' hot," he says.
He laughs and steps close, kissing her cheek, nuzzling his nose against the side of her face. "I'm a better person with you," he murmurs. "I like the kind of guy I could be with you."
"I do not want you to change," she says. She leans her forehead against his shoulder. "I love you just the way you are, Wheeler..." Her fingers curl against the material of his t-shirt. "But," she sighs tiredly, "we are not a good match." She pushes him away and opens her door. "Goodnight," she says.
Wheeler steps back. "Goodnight, Linka."
When he sees her touch the little L at her throat, just before the door closes, he knows the story isn't finished.
But there sure seems to be a hell of a lot of chapters in this book, and a lot of them are starting to read the same.
He sighs and moves away up the path, toward his own hut.
He supposes love is just complicated, and sometimes it takes a while for it to move from the love between two friends to the love which, he figures, he and Linka are destined for.