King-Lu had always looked out for whatever was coming next, running the odds, testing the angles. Life was chess, it was a hustle, it was plotting out all the moves from all sides, and even with that he could never see everything that was coming. He couldn’t foresee the series of events that would land him naked in the undergrowth, and he couldn’t foresee a guy like Cookie, changing all his math and redrawing all his maps, because for the first time, he was planning for someone other than himself.
Before, as he travelled as a child from his northern home down to Canton, and out into the wider world, it had only ever been him. No one to rely on, sure, but no one to worry about either, and that was how he liked it. Friends were good for a transaction or two, a way to ease his path, but not for intimacy, at least not for long. New people were always a risk, and King-Lu had learned at an early age how to balance risk and reward.
New people were always a risk for Cookie too, but the surprise and relief in this man’s eyes when he returned with the blanket and provisions were a comfort, as was his openness in sharing his story. He guided him past the trappers snoring out in the open, welcomed him quietly into his tent, and when King-Lu slipped away as they neared Fort Tilikum, Cookie was sorry to see him go. He’d liked, if only for a day, to be around a man who did not always have one eye open searching for a fight.
King-Lu had been living and working around Fort Tilikum for two years, learning the lay of the land and the mettle of the men, preparing himself for the chance that had yet to come. An opportunity was only half the battle after all; a man must also be ready for it.
He was relieved to find his hutch still standing upon his return, the most stable home he’d had in longer than he cared to remember. He tidied it, expanded it, and then visited the fort regularly to hear the camp gossip, to seek out the possibilities, and to keep an eye out for Cookie.
The day Cookie walked in, King-Lu had stopped looking, but not hoping. He watched for a while from his seat in the shadows, smiled as the barkeep plucked the right coins from Cookie’s hand, as Cookie coughed a bit on his drink, and as the baby was left with him, for who better to leave an infant with in a bar brawl?
So King-Lu invited him over for a drink, and he just never went home.
They barely discussed it, which might have been odd, but Cookie had long since lost track of what was odd and what wasn’t. It was true that King-Lu never met a topic he couldn’t go on about, but also it just felt right to combine their efforts, Cookie bringing something new to the space that King-Lu had built, it turned out, for them. It was natural to take up the broom, to shake out the rug, to improvise a vase for flowers, and to sit in peace as King-Lu coaxed a fire out of nothing.
They grew closer in spending time together, in working together, in risking together, in dreamy nights by candlelight. The ease of conversation when you’re not looking at each other was a gift Cookie hadn’t had before, and he held onto it with both hands.
King-Lu had had fleeting friends before, and paid for it, but with Cookie it was different. He didn’t even know quite how it happened, this new thing, but everything shifted in his vision and he started looking for what he could give to this man and not what he could take.
There was plenty to do all the time, just surviving, and they complemented each other. King-Lu made his rounds checking and resetting the traps, gathering water and wood. He started to see the forest in a new way through Cookie’s eyes, not just greens, but browns and blues and yellows as Cookie showed him more of the different things the earth here gave them.
Sometimes they would both fish, the most perfect way ever devised to be alone together.
If Cookie paused for a moment, watching through the gaps in the wall of the hutch as the water sluiced down King-Lu’s lean torso, no one would know.
And if King-Lu took the time to contemplate, perched high in the tree in the dark, how lucky he was to have found that gentle voice he was keeping watch over, no one needed to know that either.
When the end came, it was so fast not even King-Lu could have seen it coming, but he should have, he thought. He should have planned better. His relief at finding Cookie at the hutch faded as he realized how hard Cookie was working to downplay the seriousness of his injury. King-Lu tried to pull him through with sheer will, but once they started to lose the light he thought only of making him comfortable.
The leaves rustled as King-Lu settled in beside Cookie and reached for his hand. His hands are alway so warm Cookie thought as he drifted a little more, the touch tenuously tethering.
“Tell me about what it’ll be like in San Francisco,” Cookie said, or maybe he only thought it, but it was enough for King-Lu to know. Before, in all the cities of the east and later, in camps full of loud and rough men, Cookie longed for silence, but now he knew that wasn’t truly what he was looking for. He was looking for this, for King-Lu’s voice, warmth and protection, spinning out plans and dreams and a future where both of them were safe and neither of them was alone.
Seasons pass like this, on into years and then decades as they melted into each other and the cradle of the earth, undisturbed, until one day when there came the snuffle and scratching of a dog, then soft hands carefully moving the dirt away.
There’s sunlight and clean air on their bones, dazzling colors of fall leaves, birdsong and distant horns on the crisp breeze. They’re still together, the world is still bright and new, and the thread that binds them is a nameless thing no longer.