By the time sunset threatens pink and gold in the distant west, Cookie’s head is spinning from the whiskey. When King-Lu offers him the bottle again, he shakes his head.
“Are you sure? We can hardly call it a celebration if we don’t finish the bottle.”
Cookie smiles at that. “What’s it a celebration of?”
“A celebration of friends, perhaps? Of fate. Of… something.”
It’s the same as the toast King-Lu had offered earlier in the evening: “To… something.” Then, he had sounded excited, almost giddy. Now his voice is calmer, whiskey-warm and knowing.
“Something,” repeats Cookie, feeling warmed by the word in turn. It’s a gentle, edgeless word, broad enough to encompass a country full of opportunities, but small enough to fit cozily before the fire in a one-room cabin.
King-Lu kisses him.
The kiss is slow but certain, the way you would handle a touchy animal. Cookie stays perfectly still. In his whiskey-softened world, the kiss is a bright bolt of sensation: the hard, warm press of King-Lu’s mouth, the scratch of his mustache.
Then King-Lu pulls back, his eyes on Cookie’s face, searching for a reaction.
“I never kissed anyone before,” says Cookie finally. He tries to say it casually, but his voice rises at the end of the sentence like it does when he’s nervous.
“Never had occasion to, I guess.”
“And how does this do for an occasion?”
It’s quickly getting dark outside, and either the firelight or the alcohol is lending a warm flush to King-Lu’s cheeks. Cookie himself has had enough whiskey that sensations seem to arrive faster than he can react to them, as if the future is pressed very close to the present.
Desire is a risky thing, Cookie knows. Life leaves little room for it. When there’s no food to be had or no time to rest, there’s no point in sitting around feeling hungry or tired. You set aside your wants and move on.
But right now, sitting close to King-Lu in front of the fire, safe in the something they’ve begun to build, there’s nothing stopping the desire that blooms inside him. It’s a novel, nameless thing, like an undiscovered wildflower, delicate but strongly rooted.
“Does pretty well, I guess,” he says, and he reaches out and takes King-Lu’s hand and squeezes it.
When he wakes up, sunlight is striped like veins of gold across the floor. King-Lu is still asleep. Looking at him – the curve of his bare shoulder, the softness of his face in sleep – reminds Cookie powerfully of that first night, when King-Lu slept in his tent.
Cookie hadn’t been sure what to make of King-Lu then: shivering and starving and vulnerable, but with confidence in his voice and boldness in his gaze. Cookie could barely sleep most nights he was with that crew, but King-Lu had no problem falling asleep naked in a complete stranger’s tent.
Now, in the cabin, they’re very close, facing each other on King-Lu’s narrow bed. Cookie watches King-Lu’s sleeping face like it will help him understand him, but it’s like trying to learn why fire burns just by watching it glow.
“Why’d you trust me?” he mumbles.
King-Lu opens his eyes. “Good morning, Cookie.”
The way he says Cookie isn’t the way anyone else says it: he makes it round and even, the two syllables given equal weight, like it’s a complete name in itself and not just a nickname. A pleasant, tingling heat curls through Cookie at the sound, and he ducks his head.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s all right,” says King-Lu gently. “Did you say something?”
“I was just thinking, that time with the Russians – why’d you trust me?”
He expects it’s because King-Lu had no choice, because he was hungry and exhausted and Cookie happened to be there. Maybe if it had been someone else, it would be that person here in King-Lu’s cabin instead of Cookie.
But the question makes King-Lu smile, and he reaches out and curls his hand around Cookie’s face, his thumb warm against Cookie’s cheek.
Cookie, still unused to this kind of touch, lies still.
“I don’t know, Cookie,” says King-Lu lightly. “I saw you, and something inside me said, ‘there is a friend.’”
Cookie, who second-guesses every impulse, finds the simplicity of this hard to imagine. And yet King-Lu was right. Maybe it was chance that they met in the woods and again in the fort, or maybe there’s something else at play: fate, or some magic that persists in the deep unexplored corners of the forest.
He doesn’t know if he believes that. But a lot of things seem different now than they did a day ago, when he woke up and cold and alone in his mud-mired tent outside the fort. A lot more things seem possible.
All he says is, softly, “I’m glad of it,” and reaches up to take King-Lu’s hand in his.
Weeks later, Cookie wakes as though surfacing from deep underwater. He’s lying on the ground, and behind the jagged silhouettes of trees, the sky above him is a vast blue-black. His head is throbbing, a deep, inescapable pulse so strong his vision swims, but there’s a cool hand in his.
Cookie knows King-Lu’s hands by now – slender, strong, rough with callouses. Although it seems to him King-Lu’s hands shouldn’t be calloused. King-Lu is supposed to live in leisure, and his hands are supposed to be smooth and soft and clean. The truth of this feels painful to Cookie. King-Lu is tenacious and adaptable enough to survive in these conditions, yes, but he shouldn’t have to.
King-Lu’s voice is quiet in his ear. “Cookie?”
In answer, Cookie squeezes King-Lu’s hand. He thinks it will hurt too much if he turns his head to look at him, so he keeps looking at the sky.
“How are you feeling?” asks King-Lu.
Cookie would like to say something helpful, or at least tell a joke, but he can’t think through the feverish ache of his head. All he can manage is, quiet and wretched: “I want to go home.”
He hasn’t wished that since he was a boy. Hasn’t had any home to wish for.
Cookie, unlike King-Lu, was never supposed to be rich. He’s not even sure he wants to be. He just wants to be warm, and full, and safe. To be sitting by a hearth, with the smell of baking bread in the air, and someone by his side.
King-Lu’s grip on his hand is very tight. “We’re going home, Cookie,” he says. “All right? A new home, in San Francisco.”
King-Lu always sounds most certain when describing something that doesn’t exist yet. Cookie lies still and listens.
“It will be a nice one, a real house with rooms. Our own little house behind the hotel, maybe. Early in the morning we can go to the hotel, and you can cook – it will have a big kitchen, white and clean. We’ll make sure everything’s settled, that all the guests are happy. And then at night we’ll go back home and have a drink in front of the fire.”
The images swim through Cookie’s head, and he closes his eyes.
“Maybe a garden, too. A nice one, green and orderly, with vegetables to cook up for the guests. And flowers, too, the kind that grow where it’s warm. So that if you – if you want to get flowers for the mantel, Cookie, you’ll have all kinds to choose from.”
That’s been Cookie’s habit: every couple of days, he brings in fresh wildflowers to set on the shelf. It’s a simple thing, but he likes to think of King-Lu smiling when he sees them.
Now, King-Lu’s voice has grown rough, but Cookie imagines him smiling. He imagines that far-off focus in his eyes, that conviction that by naming the future, he can bring it close enough to reach out and grab.
“All right, Cookie? You just rest a little, then we can go home.”
All right, thinks Cookie, and he squeezes King-Lu’s hand tight and lets himself drift back into sleep.