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in any universe, you are my dark star

Chapter Text

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Stars. Or rather, the drains of heaven--waiting. Little holes. Little centuries opening just long enough for us to slip through.

Immigrant Haibun, Ocean Vuong 

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2 Weeks Before

“Well, it’s not that I want a big party, it’s just - the boys have been dropping hints left and right since basically after the new year. I mean, Mutta can hardly contain himself at this point - “ Even cuts himself off and peeks at Isak, lips pursed bashfully in question.

Isak just shrugs, fingers fidgeting with the straps on his bag. The line to the front of the counter has hardly moved in at least three minutes and he’s starting to get antsy.

His back aches, and the longer this line is the less time he has to finish his readings for tomorrow’s seminar. The two textbooks he needs for his double lab today are so heavy his shoulders begin to protest  after an hour of lugging them around. Already he’s aware he’ll need to figure out a better solution for his Wednesday classes, or it’ll fester into a permanent issue.

Even’s wearing dark green pullover under his winter jacket, and the hood compliments the dark navy of his hat. With his head nearly a half meter taller than everyone else in the queue, he looks as if he just stepped off a set for a trendy outerwear photo shoot. Isak is filled with this desire, quite suddenly, to claim him right in line, to kiss the single slender column of his neck. It happens sometimes, this feverish heat, prickling down his back and pulling, like a fish hook, behind his navel.

He always resists.

It happens most often when there are a lot of people around. People make Isak sort of nervous. Too many in one space and his palms start to sweat and then he’s left like situations just like this one. Moments like now where he finds himself standing in a long queue, standing on bleached-wood floors and surrounded by mohair laden chairs outfitted with clusters of blonde girls all staring at their phones and taking photos of latte art.

Isak’s used to surveying his environment wherever he goes. Ever since he started going out with Even, he’s noticed how many people are looking back at him too. Well, not really back at him . Some places are worse than others, but the universal truth remains: Even has his own orbit. Another truth: sometimes Isak finds he’s not the only one in it.

Today, in this stupid cafe too far from campus, the looks are hitting above average. There’s at least four girls looking at them. Maybe he’s exaggerating, so then he counts them again, and nope, definitely four. One at the counter, her eyes flitting over the heads of customers. Two more in a cluster of girls, using their phone cameras to get a backwards glimpse.

It makes sense, given school just let out for the day.

The fourth girl, by the bakery case kind of unnerves him. She blushes, but does not look away when she realises Isak is looking back at her now.

He wonders if, from her perspective, they must look like just friends. She probably doesn’t consider it any other way, not with the way her interest is so blatant. Maybe she thinks she’s being sly, but Isak can tell, she’s sizing them up, wondering if either them are interested back.

He looks away, wishing to be distracted from it. He constantly finds himself playing out whole scenarios with strangers sometimes. It used to be a protective layer, and it sounds ridiculous now, but he used to hope when people automatically assumed he was straight. Mostly girls, especially girls; the more attention he received from them, the less anyone suspected. So long as he played his cards carefully. Always concocting situations where it seemed like he was doing a lot more than he actually was. Always playing a role he made for himself.

Easily the loneliest teenage heartbreaker Nissen ever saw.

God, she’s still looking. Isak doesn’t want to look away first, to prove some kind of stupid point; of what he doesn’t know. There’s absolutely no tangible evidence she assumes they’re straight, and he also knows he’d never tell anyone he thought this, let alone worry about it as much as he does - because he can’t really bring himself to explain why a complete stranger assigning him the wrong sexuality bothers him so much. The feeling crawls down his spine, uncomfortable and alienating. What’s worse is how much it used to relieve him, and how now, it really doesn’t.

As Eskild and Noora - and even Linn, on occasion - have said before, there’s no one type of person, no matter what they identity as. Isak understands this, has understood it for some time. Stereotypes are harmful, and without basis. He knows it doesn’t matter what other people think. It’s just harder to put that thought into practice, in moments such as these.

They inch ahead.  Isak tunes back to catch just the end of Even’s last sentence.

“...it’s just - we didn’t spend my last birthday together as a group,” Even peers at him sideways, searching for the first expression skipping across Isak’s face. It’s always so funny that he does that. Isak doesn’t react at all - never does - as he attempts to recall what he missed at the beginning. He realises he hasn’t said anything in a long time, either, and moments ago was just staring off into the congestion of the crowded cafe.

Isak offers a jerky nod, “Right.”

“Right,” Even mimics, raising his eyebrows as an invitation to say more. Isak can’t think of anything to say, so he continues on. “It’ll be fun, I think. I mean, the bar is set pretty low, considering years past. You’re not worried about it, right? There’s no pressure. I just want you to come.”

Isak wants to ignore his question and instead he wants to ask Even what he means by low and years past. He wants stories. He wants to just know things, plainly told, in a way that doesn’t leave him with more questions than he started with. He doesn’t know how many shitty birthdays Even’s had. Nor does he know how low the bar has to be set for Even to consider it low enough. Not only that. He wants Even to tell him his stories. Explicitly, not in dreamy anecdotes, or through the pitchline of the next cartoon he slides into Isak’s textbook.

Sometimes I don’t even know what I don’t know about you, he thinks. And then it hits me later.

He wants to know if he liked having birthday parties as a kid, if he got cool gifts.

Isak’s rather indifferent to the whole subject. Birthday celebrations were the last thing on his mind growing up, when you only have one friend, and you’re not allowed to have people over.

He doesn’t know how to ask these questions, however.

“I didn’t know there was a secret party for you,” he aims for nonchalance, clearing his throat of any scratchiness. He wishes he didn’t have to admit this. “Maybe Jonas’….”

“They haven’t texted you about it?” Even frowns, a little wrinkle appearing between his brows. “That’s weird. Well, I know for a fact it’s happening. And I know when too. They don’t scheme very well together, only because they’re so fucking obvious. Always whispering at basically normal volume, right outside my door in the hallway by the toilet, to the point where I’m starting to think they’re doing it on purpose.”

“Right, well,” he shrugs lamely.  Wishes he could laugh at Even’s supposed joke but the only thing he can really think is, I’m not really in the group texts with your friends , and it strikes up a pitiful mood in him, not in shape to humour him right this moment. He looks away again.

Even prattles on. “No - well, they probably think you’d tell me, because you’re really on my side , and they know that. Whatever. You’ll come, won’t you? As my date. Please? We can be ‘surprised’ together.”

Isak can’t quite pull his gaze from the amass of people to look back at him again.

Before he can respond, he feels Even’s hand covering his, hidden between them by the bulk of their jackets. It’s not noticeable to anyone else, certainly not with the bustling bodies all around them, people with hot coffee and scones and cinnamon rolls balanced precariously in hand, on their phones, with their friends, distracted, in their own little bubbles -

Like he is now. A thrill raises the hairs on his arms. Just from Even holding his hand.

Isak can’t help but glance at his boyfriend now, and oh , how he always forgets: he really does get to say that, doesn’t he? His boyfriend , yes - with his tousled blonde hair sweeping across his forehead from under a beanie and his woozy blue eyes, his pillowy pink mouth softening the severe line of his jaw. Isak's little weak in his knees. He finds himself smiling in spite of himself, like a schoolboy.

God.

“Well, if you’re going, I’m going,” he decides, like it’s just so easy, like his head isn’t running away without him. Even’s face splits into a cheerful, eye-crinkling smile. It’s a frankly lovely thing to witness.

“Cool,” Even nods, “I’m looking forward, this year. I mean, fuck, it’s twenty-two. Jesus. But that’s fine. It’s just, I never thought my life would look like this a year ago.”

Isak isn’t sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing or if it’s one of those cryptic things Even says that is neither good nor bad, but just is. All of a sudden they’re nearly the next in line. Even greets the girl at the counter like they’re old friends, ordering easily for he and Isak and paying without giving Isak a chance to even offer, which is a little annoying, but not as much as the sparkle now in the girl’s eyes.

Even smiles at her when she accidentally cancels their order, and has to re-do it all over again. Isak just continues to worry the skin around in his cuticles, watching as they flirt over the counter. Well, she’s flirting. Even is just being Even about everything, much to Isak’s inner consternation and constant delight.

When she writes Even’s name on the cup, she draws a little heart drawn around it. Since when do cafes bother with that shit, exactly? It’s hardly necessary, so long as people pay attention to the counter - as they should, in Isak’s opinion. Whatever. His cuticle starts to bleed a little, and he sucks the corner of his thumb it until it’s no longer rusty.

“So,” Even sighs as they go to the other side of the bar to stand in a cluster of people waiting for drinks, and he starts getting a little harried again because there’s too many people in here. No space at all. What time is it anyway?  They’ve been here for what feels like twenty minutes at this point.

Next time, Isak is holding his ground about venturing out, and demand they just go their normal route that passes the university cafe. He ruminates over it, glaring around at everyone. He recites their orders in his head, as if he could forget: a large latte with an extra shot for him, a shot in the dark for Even, double cupped. He lets go of Even’s hand.

“So,” he looks to Even, ticking off a list with fingers, “I have approximately two hours of lab notes to go through and itemise for tomorrow before Sana and I start our revising schedule. Then I have chemistry slides to summarise. But still, I could probably finish those off within an hour or so. What about you?”

Even’s hand is over his heart like it hurts himself to hear this. “Ugh, chemistry,” he moans, and Isak nods gravely, agreeing. It gives him a headache to think about it too much sometimes. “Well, I can swing by later tonight, if you wish.”

Isak wishes he could be snarky and say, if I wish? You know what I wish -

“Oh. You don’t wanna just come back with me after this?” The crowded sitting area swallows the soft and low way his voice turns. He clears his throat. Before Even can say anything. “Well, that’s fine. I guess I’ll see you when I see you?”

He’d been looking forward to an evening filled with intervals of making out and studying. They’re gotten a pretty good system down, each break increasing the longer they go on studying. Like a lot of things between them, it’s down to the living dignity of a bet. It’s evolved into teasing each other to complete their assignments if they wish be rewarded at the finish line. Arguably Isak’s grades have somehow improved by all the sex he’s having - and so it’s difficult to have evenings without it.

He’s not sure how to explain it. On all accounts, someone like Even - arresting and gorgeous and loud and capricious - should feel like one long unwarranted disruption to someone like Isak - introverted, and irritable and cautious. So cautious.

Thank God it didn’t happen that way. Somehow, without plan or grand design, they fell into a fluid exchange of banter and affection and quiet, comfortable, silences. Even never really seems to agitate Isak, and Isak never seems to bore Even: dare he be so hopeful to call it balanced? At least, it’s a tandem of energy, swinging on a continuous pendulum between them.

It’s like this. Isak likes to lie on his stomach on his bed as he studies, feet folded back with his heels hovering over his butt. And Even always lies on the right side of Isak’s bed, with his knees up, his laptop balanced on them, one ear bud in. He likes to listen to music whilst he works, which Isak absolutely cannot tolerate when he’s trying to make sense of his dense coursework, so he uses the headphones, and Isak is set at ease by the rhythm of Even’s typing.

Occasionally Even places his hand on the back of his thigh, kneading it gently and then smoothing over the fabric of his trousers, withdrawing as abruptly as he began. Sometimes Isak is so lost in thought that he jumps at first. This won’t deter Even, he just proceeds once Isak’s settled again. The movement is soothing. It feels like an afterthought, like he’s hardly aware he’s doing it, deeply focused by whatever is going through his head. He just keeps his hand on Isak’s calf, and it’s a beautiful thing, a warm, living, comfortable thing he can label and understand.

Isak never knew being with someone could mean having things like that.

Next to him, Even’s face turns a little baleful. “I can’t, I have plans in an hour, and I won’t be done until later. It could be pretty late, actually...so, if you’re too tired, I understand, too.”

Before he can ask what the thing in question is, Even’s name is called, and they’re shuffled back to the front again. The hand attached to the voice is none other than Sara - last name forgotten, a girl he used to “date” when he was in high school. For a second they just blink at each other. Isak wondering if she’s going to make them acknowledge that they know each other, and maybe he’s just escaped an awkward entreaty when she starts to smile at him like they’re familiar, old friends. Good Lord.

“Oh, hey, Isak,” Sara’s voice is falsely cheerful, but perhaps he’s imagining it. She looks more or less the same, except her long hair is blonde now and pulled tight away from her face. “Wow, seems like it’s been forever since I saw you. How are you doing?”

Isak just stares at her. “Uh, fine. And...um. You - ?”

“Pretty good, just working,” she nods, eyes going inevitably to wonder at the presence of Even. “We should get together sometime, catch up - are you still on instagram? I think I follow you. I can DM you.”

She absolutely does not follow him, Isak knows concretely, because he blocked her when he graduated years ago. It hardly concerns him if she knows he’s lying. All he cares about is getting away from this conversation before it gets any worse.

“Er, yeah, I think so,” he lies, and before she can respond, he swoops up his drink, swivelling around and walking through tables, not even checking if Even’s following behind.

“Who was that?” Even asks as they stroll down back towards the library.

“Who?” Isak asks before he realises who Even is referring to. “Oh. Just some girl I went to Nissen with.”

“Some girl, huh?” Even waggles his eyebrows, just to be a shit.

Isak rolls his eyes in response with a firm nod. “Yep. Just some girl.”

 

-

 

Wednesday’s are Noora’s turn to cook dinner at the Kollektiv, which means they’re inevitably eating vegetarian tonight. Sometimes it’s all little too on the green-side for Isak’s personal liking, though he knows it’s actually good for him. He’s certain no one would never eat any vegetables if it weren’t for her.

Sure enough, lentil dal perfumes the entryway. His backpack makes a heavy clunk where he dumps it on the floor, rubbing his hands into his shoulders, frowning. After he’s hung up his winter jacket and both wool jumpers, he goes straight to the kitchen.

“Welcome home, baby Jesus,” Eskild says without looking up. They’re both occupied with something Linn is doing. Noora is standing with her back turned at the stove, overlooking a large pot.

Eskild’s wearing his kimono already, which means he’s worked the early shift, and hopefully is too tired to bug Isak about the fact that he’s still wearing his big red scarf. He knows - well, honestly, they all know what’s under the scarf. It’s a hickey. A big one. Far more than everyone else - except, arguably, Isak - Eskild loves the fact that hickeys are a thing now, and even more that it’s Isak’s thing. He never misses his chance to bring it up. Which in turn, is very irksome to Isak.

This whole having-flatmates-while- also-having-a-sex-life situation Isak has going on here is only unfortunate for a few very minor reasons. The first is that little goes amis under Eskild’s eye, and so showing up to dinner with hickeys crop up every so often stirs a reaction. So does trying to hide sex hair, or when his room so obviously smells like weed and cum - eau de Isak, as Eskild likes to call it - there’s no point in trying to be sneaky, when he can sniff anything he wants out.

He’s also too witty for his own good, and it makes Isak nervous about when he’s going to drop another joke that will fuck up all of his shit. It’s always a joke, but sometimes there’s a joke that cuts a little too deep. Or finds him for hours after, lingering around in his head. It’s not that Eskild over does it, but he certainly hasn’t forgotten there was at least two entire years Isak spent giving him shit for doing the exact same thing.

Well, not exactly the same. Isak knows what he used to be like. He remembers how petty and distant he was; how homophobic he could be when Eskild pushed him too far merely by being himself.

It’s been a while, but it doesn’t matter; these are things he won't allow himself to forget. It’s hard not to carry the person he was when he was seventeen. The Isak who he hated himself, and never slept, and never wanted to do anything except get drunk and smoke weed and most importantly, push it all down, until he could hardly feel it, or feel anything at all. The Isak who used to hurt people.

Everyone around him who tried to help in the aftermath of his mother’s episode when he was sixteen received a nasty backlash as thanks. Always scrambling to keep everyone from seeing how vulnerable, how scared, how young he was. How much he didn’t know.

Well, he’s older now, and more secure, but he still doesn’t know a lot. His mamma says that the smartest people in the world always question what they know the most.

No one comments on the scarf, which strikes Isak as funny. It’s been at least a minute since he entered, and nothing.

It would be retribution, he can’t deny that. Eye for an eye and all that. He deserves it, surely.  He’s always kind of waiting for a blow that never comes, so much so that Isak suspects that even Eskild is aware of this.

Isak’s learned a lot since he moved in, about the difference between having flatmates and being part of a home . From tentatively taking down his walls to putting up routines and roots instead. Things like having an opinion about what movie they should all watch, and then trying out every crevice in the sofa until he found his favourite spot. Left corner where the pillows are all flattened and soft.

Home is in the unspoken. It’s the designated chair at their crooked kitchen table. Or Noora’s white towels next to his navy ones in the cupboard. Or the extra pan chocolate Eskild brings back Saturday mornings from the cafe around the corner without Isak asking for it first. It’s his face cropping up in the photos in the hallway: the last two past Christmases, all in coordinated ugly sweaters in front of the fireplace; that time they all went to Mallorca, and Linn got really sunburnt; Noora’s high school graduation, where Eskild and Linn and Isak all flock her like proud parents. Isak’s eighteenth birthday, eyes shining over the homemade birthday cake they all helped make for him.

It’s undeniable, and Isak wouldn’t deny it anyway: this is his home. It’s the first time he’d ever realised he felt a sense of belonging. One day the feeling arrived and it never left. A warm tingle in his belly when he comes home and there’s food on the table, and everyone’s making predictable chatter, an ever rotating table of who's supposed to clean what, and how annoying their bosses or co-workers are. No matter how many times he’s appalled by the bunch of weirdos he lives with, without a doubt he'd claim them as his own. And they'd claim him right back.

Home means you don’t need your guard up all the time. There’s no room for benevolent retribution here. Only understanding, and forgiveness, and acceptance - and -

(and love).

Besides. Eskild’s jokes are a vulgar kind of brilliant, and sometimes pretty funny, if Isak can forget for a second that they’re not about him.

This hickey in particular is yellowing purple with a mottled brown rim, sort of like a Rex Begonia leaf. The scarf is admittedly fucking large in contrast to the rolled up sleeves of shirt. His head is oddly shrunken inside of it, and whilst it may have worked cleverly as a disguise in the drafty library on the second floor, no such ruse will suffice this company. Luckily, he’s able to slip on the heavy cardigan hanging on the back of the chair, and it helps blend the scarf in a little. No one’s paying attention to him so far.

“Hey, Isak,” Noora greets him. Her voice always sounds somehow restrained and amused at the same time. “They were like that when I got home too. How was your day?”

He gets an unwelcome flash of mid-afternoon, crowded into a dark lonely corner in the library, the corner of Stearn’s Botanical Latin dictionary pressing into  his back, and Even hovering above him, hands around his jaw, thumb pressing against the corner of his mouth to keep it open. Sometimes he kissed Isak like he wanted to consume him, and it wasn’t surprising, except that he could never count on guessing when it would arrive next and sweep them away. His mouth sucking on Isak’s tongue, his lips wet as they pucked against the tendon between his neck and his shoulder. How tender it felt when Even bit down, just slightly stinging, hand shoved down Isak’s trousers, straight to the point and relentless. Keeping at it until he’s a mess. Until he’s ready to explode, and -

He pushes the memory out of his head immediately, already aware that he’s been quiet for a beat too long. For a brief second he fears they can read his mind, though it’s impossible.

“Long.”

“Mm,” she turns back to the stove again. “Mine too. I’ve been picking up too many shifts, and now I don’t have a single day off until Sunday.”

Linn pays him no mind and he neither to her as he plops down next to her in a huff. Both of them are watching something intently on the screen, Linn kneading her bottom lip and pressing keys on her computer. Her headset has the mouthpiece flipped up away from her face.

“Jeez,” he winces. “When are you gonna go back down to part-time, again?”

“Well, it was supposed to be this week, but they’re down one person until they find someone new. Which reminds me, you know anyone who might need a job?” 

Noora is holding two bowls, each with a healthy serving of a red lentil dal and rice pilaf, still steaming where she places it on the table in front of him. She comes back with two more and sits at the head of their table, eyes narrowing over at Eskild and Linn, still joined together

“Er,” he thinks about it. “No, I mean. I have no idea. I could ask Even, though?”

“Time to eat,” she reminds the rest of the table pointedly. Linn shuts her computer and slides it on the empty chair next to her.

Satisfied, Noora shrugs. “Hmmm, no, I already asked him. He said Mutta would be more than happy to work, but I already know what that’s all about, and - “

“You don’t like him?” Isak squints.

Eskild’s mouth is so full Isak is surprised nothing falls out when he interjects with a, “No, she does! She’s got a big fat fucking cru - !”

“Jeez! Don’t be so gross!” Noora chastises. “And it’s not that. We’ve all talked about this several times. It’s because I like him - as a friend - that I don’t want him working there. Just in case.”

“Because….?”

“She doesn’t wanna have to find another job in case it turns out he’s shitty and boring,” Linn says plainly. Noora scoffs. “What? It’s true. You literally said that.”

“I didn’t say it exactly like that,” Noora frowns disdainfully, and defends herself doubly when Linn just raises an eyebrow. “Well, I didn’t. It’s just - it’s good to have space, you know. Have some things separate, I mean.”

“Is this a William thing?” Eskild asks plainly.

Noora rolls her eyes. “Eskild!” she whines. “Can you not?”

“Basically,” Linn advises Eskild. “You’re so dense. Can’t you infer things, sometimes?”

“I hate to say it, but Linn is right,” Isak points out against his better judgement of staying out of it.

“Shut up,” he bites back. He pokes himself in the chest. “You should hire me. I’d make an excellent tea bag advisor, whatever the hell you call yourselves, I mean, I’d love to wear those little hats - “ Eskild breaks off, laughing at the expression on Noora’s face.

“You wouldn’t last there for a moment, getting up early in the morning like that,” Noora shakes her head. “And we’re attendants, because the place itself is called Attendant -

“What does it even mean?” he wonders, chin in hand.

She just rolls her eyes with a small shake of her head.  “I was actually thinking….Isak would want the job. To be honest, you’re the only one of us who doesn’t work,” Noora’s blue eyes - not so dissimilar to Even’s, now that Isak thinks about it - round on him. He puts down his fork in surprise.

“Me?”

“Yeah, you.”

“Me?” he asks again. Eskild snorts into his rice. “But - I’m - “

“It’s just part time, and it’s good experience. Eventually, you’re gonna have to start somewhere,” Noora says, “But this would be easy. You could do both. Honestly, I’ve already thought it out for you.”

“But I’d have to like - talk to customers? I don;t know about that. I’m not very - I don’t know - friendly enough?” Isak says carefully, before flicking the customary green bean at Eskild when he snorts loudly and pointedly.

“You can be friendly,” Noora adds, not relenting. “Bubbly, one could say.”

Of all people, it’s Eskild who comes to his aid.

“Yeah, right,” he snorts, chewing thoughtfully over at Isak with a smirk on his face. “Bubbly my ass. Unless every person at your job, both employee and customer, is nearly two meters, blonde and blue-eyed and also superhuman beautiful, I doubt any of us peasants will receive the same treatment - “

“And even then, I’m still unlikely to be that interested,” Isak adds.

“You say peasant like it’s still the meme of the month,” Linn rolls her eyes. “I’ve told you how passe I find it. Get a new joke, Eskild, for Christ’s sake.”

Eskild sticks his tongue out at her, but then before Isak can think he’s safe from any more comments, his eyes flick down to the scarf. “Baby Jesus. A little chilly? Or….?”

“Shut up, Eskild,” he mutters automatically, shoveling another spoon in his mouth. The sooner he can finish the sooner he can leave.

“Oh, ho, ho, ho,” he chuckles. “Saint Isak over here thinks he’s smooth. Well, I’ll tell you something. You’re as sly as a brick fucking wall. I mean, really. You couldn’t even find a smaller scarf? An Ascot? Oh, that’s right, you don’t wear those, because they’re too - “

“Eskild,” he bites. “Really?”

“Don’t be so aggressive, pet. You can clean up well, but we all know what I think - “

“Lord don’t we,” Noora rolls her eyes.

“ - you’re not delivering the goods your daddy gave you -”

“I don’t wanna deliver what my daddy gave me,” Isak  whines, his mouth disagreeing with his brain and curling up into a small smile. “What kind of shitty saying is that? My father doesn’t give me anything. Don’t you have any shame!”

“Moi? Pourquoi? You’re so cute. Fat chance. I won’t let up now. Not until you show us this bad boy.”

He groans. “Eskild.”

“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” he gestures to the scarf dramatically. “Come on. Don’t tease us.”

“You’re so annoying, you know,” Noora raises her eyebrow at him, but there’s not an ounce of pity to be found. “But he’s not wrong, Isak. He’s not wrong. Seriously, you look ridiculous.”

“Unveil yourself,” Linn presses, lifting her fist in a pseudo-war cry.

Isak looks at the jury sitting around the table from him, and hangs his head, knowing the piss is about to be taken out of him. “Fine. But this is even worse than the last time - ugh.”

He removes the scarf and avoids looking at anyone, but it doesn’t matter, because Eskild literally squawks like some big ugly bird, and even Noora and Linn make identical sounds of surprise.

“What that boy can do with his tongue, well. I’d pay to see it. It’s just fucking fascinating to me,” Eskild is all breathy and gazing at it, and Isak narrows his eyes. "What! Don't look at me like that! I bet he'd fill an entire room for fuck's sake!"

“Stop gawking at me,” he snaps, “And stop saying weird fucking shit like that. One of these days Even is going to overhear you and realise we’re all way too fucking obsessed with him and his abilities and - “

“I just don’t get it,” Eskild pouts, clearing ignoring everything he’s said. “How come you’re out of the closet all of five minutes, and not only did you find someone hot, but also a good fuck. You found a Hot Fuck. God damn you."

“Don’t call Even a hot fuck,” Isak sputters. “Jesus, - “ 

“The best part is that it’s Even ,” Linn hums, and Isak wants to show her his gratitude but he’s not sure how. She continues on. “He’s both kinky and wholesome.”

“That’s so true, Linn,” Eskild nods, taking a sip of his drink and pointing his finger at Isak. “Honestly, I was worried you were gonna be doomed a virgin forever.”

Linn’s face remains passive as nods calmly. “Me too, actually.”

“Hey,” Isak pouts, “What’s all this, I could have easily lost my virginity to anyone - “ he scoffs and frowns at Noora. “Back me up here.”

Noora remains neutral, observing the table. “Hmmm,” she puts down her water. “Well. You all know what I think. Virginity is a construct. A very oppressive one in my opinion. I don’t dwell over people’s private sex lives, because everyone goes at their own speed, and there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to have sex. It’s alienating to feel like you can’t work out what you need to work out, without fear of being criticised by those around you.”

This last part is directed pointedly at Eskild. And also Isak.

Isak rolls his eyes, minorly distressed. He knows what Noora is trying to get at, and quite frankly, she’s right about pretty much all of it. It was difficult to even accept those thoughts existed in his head, let alone reflect on them, with all the external noise going on too. That hatred, the shame, all cloudy and obtuse. Once Noora inquired as to whether he’d ever considered what asexuality was, to which Isak had to gently refuse. She meant well, but that wasn't it. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t think about it - sex with other people - it was just that he was so evasive as not to be suspected, that he often never looked back twice. Sex never seemed like an option when he couldn’t even hold a gaze and he never left his room.

Even was different. Isak couldn’t look away.

“It’s not like you couldn’t if you tried, Baby Jesus!” Eskild hushes him before he can dig in. “It’s that you didn’t try, not even a little, not even at all. And now you’re sitting across from me with the most vulgar fucking bruise on your neck and I find this glow up not only deserved but frankly very inspiring.”

“Same,” Linn nods again. Looks a little uninterested as she checks her phone. “Um, I gotta go. It’s nearly after school time in Santiago, meaning the boys will be logging on soon.”

“I’m just saying, one last time, like, wow. It’s bigger than that time I fell off your bike, Noora, don't you remember? My ass looked like one giant overripe plum?”

“Oh my God, it does, kind of,” Noora laughs. “Shit. Sorry kid. But it does.”

“Ah, fuck….” Isak groans. He presses his forehead into the palm of his hand where he’s leaning on the tabletop. Why bother defending himself? What the fuck is he supposed to say?

He’s not gonna talk about his sex life with Even. It’s too much. Truthfully Isak suspects they would be very unprepared. None of what he thinks about the last couple months can be blurted out, for fear it’ll sound misaligned and too intense coming out of his mouth.

“Whatever,” he rolls his eyes, and bounces back, snapping, “Don’t call me kid, you’re only like, six months older, and besides - stop smirking like that Eskild! You’re still by far the worst, you’ve put us through so much shit, you know that, right?”

“Like I care,” Eskild smiles, nonplussed and blinking. He clears his plate, and then in a twirl of blue and gold, he’s gone.

Noora’s at his shoulder, ladling in the last of the dal. She places the rice pot on the table. “Here.”

“Thanks,” he takes it. He’d missed out on lunch today.

“So. As I was saying earlier, about the job,” Noora presses on. “It’s only like, fifteen hours a week, that’s basically only three shifts, and everyone’s really cool, and you could like - you know, meet some new people - “

“Do I need to meet more people?” Isak asks. “I already have people. I talk to people, all the time. Always out there...talking...” his voice trails off.

Noora has the decency not to comment on how sad a defence it is. “Right. Well, sure. Could you name a few? That aren’t you know, the three people who live in this flat, Jonas, and now Even.”

“Is this one of your things where you try and help fix people? Because I don’t want any fixing.”

“You’re being defensive because you know I have a point.”

“You’re being evasive because I have a point too,” he says, “Hah! See? Two can play at that language game, Miss Psychologist.”

“For the thousandth time, I’m studying critical thought, not psychology. Sometimes you're purposefully obtuse. Don’t be like Eskild," Noora scolds him, “And anyway, there’s nothing wrong with it, but you spend a lot of time with Even, and maybe -”

“Maybe what?”

She offers him a small smile. “Maybe it’s just nice to meet people, sometimes.”

“Maybe,” he shrugs. “Are you really serious about this?”

“It’s not hard. It’s very easy work. Literally all it comes down to is tea and water and time. You take an order, you make the tea according to our instructions, you pay attention to the time. All things you can do. It’s like the most science-y service job you can get. I promise you that.”

Isak has run out of reasons to object, and he knows it, heaving a great big sigh. He’s tired thinking about it already, but he smiles at her efforts. “Well, you got me with science-y. Can I think about it?”

“Think quickly. Like - tell me by tomorrow, then we’ll send in your resume and I’ll talk to my manager,” Noora never wastes time. Her smile is smug and it makes Isak a little wary. Finally, he accepts his fate and stands up to address the mess in the sink.

On her way out, she points to his neck, “And if we get that far, you’re gonna - well, I’ll have to put makeup on that, there's no other way around it.”

Right. He remembers to pick his battles.

“I need a resume?”

Noora clucks her tongue. “Yes, of course you do. Think of it as preparation for the future.”

“Right,” he frowns, turning the hot tap on and pouring soap into the basin. “The future.”

 

-

 

Isak: [image attached]

Isak: this is truly the worst thing you ever did

Even: well…..

Even: no. remember that time we were fucking and i overestimated myself and basically dropped you halfway to the bed….you landed on ur head. still the worst one for me.

Isak: omg

Isak: true though

Even: see

Isak: when are you coming over?

Even: later <3

Isak: When later?

Isak: <3

 

-

 

“Why aren’t you in the shower right now?” Isak asks Eskild when he comes into the living room. Usually, Eskild took his shower at eight so by nine he’s ready in time for his shows - so Isak had a small window to work with if he wants to be out in the living room with minimal disruption. But here he is, fifteen past eight, crossed legged on the sofa, dipping pretzel sticks in nutella and drinking red wine.

“Um,” Eskild tuts him. “Hi, hello, good evening to you too - “

He goes and sits on the other side of the sofa, in his spot with his chemistry notes in hand. Eskild pulls up the duvet so he can crawl under, and he sets up his revising station.

“I’m just asking.”

“Linn hadn’t showered in four days, and she said if I didn’t give her my spot she would rub her head on my pillow,” he shrugs. “So I let her go first. She’s got some conference tomorrow, apparently it’s a huge library thing. Poor her.”

“It’s not difficult to get up and shower in the morning. Those conferences aren’t any earlier than some of my lectures, which I go to everyday,” he says before he can stop himself. Eskild ignores him. He’s flicking through channels until he settles on one.

“Aren’t you tired of studying now?” he asks. He presses one toe against Isak's thigh, dangerously close to his balls. He flinches back. "Let's hang out."

“We're already hanging out just by virtue of being in the same room. I'm sick of studying, and yet, here I am, studying.”

“So dedicated to your passions.”

“I try,” he deadpans.

“Though not as dedicated as Even is,” Eskild’s smirking.

“Please, Eskild, I am so tired…” he huffs, and then shrugs. “Fuck it. What can I say, each of us is born with a unique gift.”

“You don’t know have to tell me, hun,” Eskild jokes, but then he drops it. The commercial break ends.

For nearly an hour, Isak is zipping through his chemistry notes, or as quickly as he can, considering he’s sharing the sofa with Eskild. If Even is the best distraction while Isak’s trying to work, Eskild is the definition of the worst. He always finds a way to burst right in the middle of Isak’s train of thought when he’s on the precipice of his understanding, and it’s always to tell him some inane bullshit information Isak has no use for.

Currently, thought, it’s not too terrible. Both of them are underneath Eskild’s spare duvet, the ugly brown one with a suspicious stain that looks like it could be nacho cheese or old sick, and Eskild’s toes wedged are way under Isak’s thigh. Every time he wiggles them, jostling Isak, he has to flick him with the butt of his pen so he stops. It’s been a little chilly because everyone is waiting for the beginning of February for payday, and they’ve turned the heat down as low as they withstand in the middle of winter.

“Here’s the thing,” Eskild pulls Isak from summarising his second to last slide. He doesn’t protest; all in all, he’s left him well enough alone for the majority of an hour. The least he can do in return is spare him a little attention.

Eskild gestures towards the TV. “Carrie is lauded for her fashion sense, and I get why, she is a fierce fucking diva, but sometimes, it’s very clear is this is basically the Carrie show, and they fucking dress Miranda like a stubbed toe in a potato sack -

“Which one is Miranda?”

“The lesbian,” Eskild says, just as the show starts again and Miranda is walking across the screen in some frumpy jacket. “She only dates men who are shorter than her.”

“What?” Isak scoffs. “Are you kidding?”

“Fine, maybe we can’t confirm she’s a lesbian. But she’s undeniably a Top,” Eskild says knowingly. “You can tell. Look how she yells at her asshole date. Not having any shit, is she? No, no. Definitely Top energy.”

“Really,” Isak narrows his eyes. “Except someone can not be a top, and somehow still not take anyone’s shit.”

“Of course. But she’s no power bottom.”

He wonders if Eskild’s going to pick up on his underlying implication and hopes that if even if he does, he won’t press it tonight. He doesn’t like talking with Eskild about the tops and bottoms and verse debates, no matter how many times Eskild has tried to pull him into it.

As a Kollektiv, sex is discussed often. Eskild offers up any and all insights into his sex life, prompted or unprompted. Linn has no problem discussing her bedroom proclivities. Even Noora is pretty open, though more often than not, her discussions are centred around theoretical discussions of sexuality and gender in relation to her rather than any kind of explicit retelling.

And Isak. Well. Isak’s never said anything. Truthfully, up until a few months ago, he was the only one in his household not getting laid. And he was the only one in his household who didn’t have any past experiences to offer up either. He remembers how paralysed with embarrassment he was when he realised they probably had figured that out too. Saying nothing can say just as much.

Now, sex talks in the Kollektiv are much more inclusive, but once or twice they’ve resulted in Isak getting embarrassed and therefore tetchy and irritated with Eskild. Of course, the first time, Eskild claimed he was being unnecessarily defensive and then Noora got involved, lecturing them within an inch of their lives about the problematic foundations to their argument in the first place until they were forced to reconcile in an effort to qualm her.

“Look at it this way. Miranda in 2019 is balancing her life between work, pegging her two meter tall vegan yoga instructor after Meatless-Monday potlucks in the neighbourhood Co-Opt, whilst also keeping up with her much younger content-creator girlfriend, who is having a quarter life crisis. I could see a whole a side plot about it. What’s the young app-builder to do? Miranda will tell her the truth: adopt a dog, drop the she/her pronouns all together and move to Portland. There’s no bullshit gluten-free cookie in her purse, not for Miranda.

Miranda would be a Top because she’d never take no for an answer. Not from any man or millennial! I mean, for fuck’s sake! It’s 1998 and she’s not taking no for an answer. So it’s a real fucking insult that they dress her the way she do. It’s tragic. But I get it. That’s how they keep her power levels low enough so the other actresses can share the screen.”

“Okay.” Isak just stares at him. “I have no fucking idea what you’re saying to me, but okay.”

He simpers with disappointment. “God. Why didn’t you stop me? Are we not speaking the same language? No? Well? What am I going to do with you?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, sorry,” he frowns and stands up. “I’m going to go - “

“Oh, no, don’t leave yet!” Eskild wails suddenly, clutching on to Isak’s wrist and tugging hard. “What about our quality bonding time? It’s been ages since we watched TV just you and me, you’re always with Even, and it’s rare - when isn’t there at least five girls here at a time - “

Isak frowns, though inside his stomach flips unexpectedly. “I’m not leaving. I was going to ask you if you wanted some tea. Is chamomile okay? And will you calm your tits?”

“Hah! My tits are so calm right now! You learned that from me,” he snarks, but nods. “I mean, it makes sense. Young grasshopper and all that. You came to me, barely more than just a bean pod, wrinkly and unfunny and in terrible need of a haircut, and I took you in, fed you, washed you, loved you like you were my own. I am your guru, after all.”

“Pft, okay,” he calls down the hallway. He’s heard this spiel before, and it never fails to make him smile a little, but only when no one may see it.

“Yes, I am!”

“No, you are not,” Isak insists politely, setting two mugs of tea down. “And anyway, here’s some shitty raspberry stuff. We didn’t have chamomile, I think we drank the last of Noora’s, and she’s been refusing to replace it.”

“So what are we going to do then?” Eskild just gapes at him. “Suffer?”

“No,” he shakes his head. “The point she’s making is that we need to buy the tea, Eskild. To replace the tea we drank.”

“Her and her principles,” he raises an eyebrow. There’s a particularly fond frown on his face. Isak settles in and catches his eye when he looks up. “It’s nice of her to try and get you a job.”

“I don’t know,” he says. It’s true. He really doesn’t know what to think. “I’m not sure I’d be good at that.”

“Have you worked before?”

“No.”

“Well,” Eskild says. “How do you know you’d be bad?”

“Um, have you met me - “

“My point is, now, that you shouldn’t put yourself down before you’ve even tried,” he effectively cuts Isak off by talking over him, and it works, because he has Isak’s full attention. “I mean, I think...it would be good, for you. You don’t work, and - “

“I always pay my rent on time,” Isak says, a little out of the blue. Eskild pauses.

“I know,” he nods. “It’s not that. After you pay your rent, and whatever bills, transport, or phone or - you know - how much money do you have left over every month?”

Isak’s cheeks heat, and he resists the urge to reach up and touch them. He looks away. Miranda is on screen with Carrie wearing a floor length denim skirt and a matching cowboy hat. It’s so ugly he wants to laugh. She looks angry.

“Not so much,” he admits lousily. He nearly crosses his arms but resists. It’s too telling and Eskild will accuse him of pouting.

Eskild glosses over it. “Well, then maybe it’d just give you enough extra so you could take that Hot Fuck of yours out on a hot fucking date.”

Isak tips his head up, groaning again. The back of the sofa feels nice, and his head is heavy. Eskild is smiling at the television over the rim of his mug while Carrie admits to Miranda she slept with Big again, and Miranda storms righteously out of the thrift shop as fast as her denim skirt will allow.

 

-

 

It’s quarter to eleven, and Even’s still not arrived. Isak’s finished his chemistry notes, and now his room is much cleaner than it was twenty minutes ago, and he’s laid out his clothes for tomorrow already, along with his water bottle and his shoes and socks, all lined up at his desk chair. His bed has been remade, with all the corners tucked in and he changed the pillowcases too, so they smell nice -

He checks his phone. Nothing.

Sitting on his desk is a joint he rolled for them this afternoon, when he expected Even to show up after dinner. It’s nowhere near as nice as Even’s rolls, but it’ll be sufficient enough to get them stoned, watch an episode of It’s Always Sunny and pass out for a couple of hours until they have to do it all over again.

He checks his phone again. Still no response.

Right. It’s nearly eleven now. He doesn’t want to text Even again, because it’ll be the fourth one he’s sent without a response, and it’s not - it’s not very chill to keep hounding your boyfriend to come back to yours, is it? But then how would Even know to hurry if he doesn’t know Isak’s waiting up for him - maybe he’s looking a reason to escape, and the next text Isak sends is the sign he’s hoping for - but while it’s a decent argument, he still doesn’t send the text. Doesn’t want to look so needy.

It’s not a discussion he ever thought he’d be having with himself. It’s funny in an ironic, weird way. It’s ironic because he never understood how Eva and Jonas could negotiate and argue over and over when they were gonna see each other later. He would just laugh snidely and change the subject without any sympathy. They were a couple, weren’t they? Couldn’t they see each other whenever they wanted? Why were they desperate to be on each other’s cases all the time?

Now he understands a bit better. When you look forward to seeing your - person -  all day, it can get a little aggravating as to when you can expect to see them. Well, it’s also weird, because Isak never thought he could like anyone so much that he’d want to spend all his time with them. But he does like Even this much, and it’s strange to recognise this about himself now.

I am a person who really likes another person , he remembers telling himself after they first met. Coaxing, like he’s been tethered to his own fear for a long, long, time.   And that person is a boy. And that boy likes me back.

It’s not just that he likes Even. It’s much more than that now. It’s so uncontrollable sometimes, how ferocious his emotions are, always simmering just under the surface, waiting to pounce and overwhelm him. He tries very hard not to let it show, when Even sends him into a spiral of gushing, ridiculous heart eyes (as Linn so astutely informed him), but then he reminds himself that he can be happy that he likes his boyfriend, that he has heart eyes, that he has a heart at all -

A text interrupts his thoughts.

Even: Hi. I’m here.

Thank God, he thinks. He was just about to dig Even’s pillowcase out of the laundry so he could smell it. But it doesn't need to get to that point.

Isak: Coming now.

He drops his phone on the bed and makes his way to the front door, unlocking it and pulling it open. A gust of cold air goes through him, from hip to toe, and his knees curl inward a bit out of habit. Even’s standing there on the second step, not quite the landing, smiling up at him. His eyes are shining in the night.

“Hey, you,” he smiles around his greeting, but he doesn’t come up yet. So peculiar, this boy. “Long time, no see, lover.”

“Incredibly long time,” Isak huffs, “Very long. Absolutely no see. It was dreadful.”

Even laughs. "How dreadful,” he says quietly.

“Why are you standing there?” he asks. “Can’t you come up? Or inside? It’s so cold.”

With his hands on his backpack straps, Even walks up the last two steps and stands above Isak, though just barely. They’re not so different in height as Even would like him to think. The air turns opaque where he breathes between them.

“I just wanted to get a good look at you when you opened the door,” Even explains when Isak walks them back into the flat and closes the door behind him. He smells like cold air and snow and the tram, his body becoming smaller and smaller as he pulls off his layers and hangs them to drip dry on the hooks in the hallway.

“Cheesy,” Isak chuckles, but his stomach is doing back flips.

“No, not cheesy. I'm an artist,” Even corrects him. They both go into Isak’s room, where he sits on the bed and looks around, his smile turning into a smirk. “Why, it’s mighty clean in here.”

“I had to find something to do, what with there being no one here,” Isak pouts, but only a little, and only to be cute. “Do you need to shower?”

“I do, actually,” Even runs a hand through his hair. “I’m so tired, too.”

“That’s okay, so am I,” Isak agrees. He goes to the desk and pulls the joint off his text book, holding it between them when he kneels on the bed. “Look what I made for you.”

“That is a very cute little joint,” Even smiles, plucking it front his fingers. “I vote we smoke this, shower, and then cuddle. What do you think?”

“Well, I think that’s a fine idea,” Isak agrees. This routine between them, the banter, the smoking, the cuddling - the sexual tension a clean, obvious line running through everything - is so surprising only because it’s as natural as breathing for Isak now. All the feelings which whirl around inside of him are those that he has come to associate with being around Even.

Even lights it, sitting cross legged, and Isak rolls over and finds his ashtray underneath his bed. He mimics Even, sitting with his legs crossed and their knees touching. He stretches his back, sitting up straight, elongating each of his vertebrae until they pop in relief.

“How was your evening?” Even asks. His hair has lost some of it’s hold from the day, flattened by the beanie against his forehead. It’s adorable, the way his hair is long and fine and so very blonde, blonde in a way Isak’s will never be.

“Nothing fun to report, I’m sad to say,” Isak shrugs. “Just chilled with Eskild, who told me some crazy story about some future TV show. Oh! And Noora is trying to get me a job.”

“Oh?” His big blue eyes swallow Isak up in their wonder. “Where? At her work?”

“Mm,” he takes the joint when it’s offered to him. Even doesn’t seem so enthused, so Isak hurries on. “I don’t know, though. I'm busy so much already with school, and then there's you - “

“I think it’s a good idea,” Even interrupts him. His tone is so decided it takes Isak off guard.

“Really?”

“What kind of work is it?”

“It’s some kind of cafe,” he says. He passes the joint back, feeling his head clouding already, his fingers light and tingling. “Well, I might apply, anyway.”

“I worked at KB last year, when I was living farther west,” Even remembers, “I liked it. It was a nice change of scenery, and I met some friends there.”

“Oh. Which are they?”

“I don’t know, Isak,” Even laughs, caught out. He gestures uselessly. “Just, you know. People.”

“Wow. I’m so convinced. You’re amazing at convincing people with all that...convincing evidence you have,” Isak snarks, and then he kills the last of the joint. Even just laughs at him, a little bashful, and so lovely in the late evening lamp light.

He walks on his knees over to where Even is half-reclining on the wall behind the bed, and leans over him. Even blinks, eyelids suddenly drawn low, gazing up at Isak so sensually his cheeks heat up.

Their lips meet, and it’s like a string being pulled, all the tension leaving his body. His palm finds Even’s cheek when he leans closer. For a couple of long moments they just kiss.

He pulls back and rests his forehead against Even’s, groaning tiredly. “I’m stoned now. We haven’t showered. God dammit.”

“You seem to be missing the point that we can take a shower together. A stoned shower is the best,” Even grins, kissing the tip of Isak’s nose and taking a deep inhale. “But if you don't want to, I guess I can go it alone. You smell pretty good to me now.”

“You basically always say that.”

“It’s basically always true,” Even is quick, too quick, for Isak’s sluggish comebacks. He feels the urge to kiss Even again, to cover the entire surface of that pink mouth, and not reemerge for a long while. It’s the weed talking. Even continues. “Come on, baby. Come get naked with me.”

Isak pretends to glare at him, letting go of a great dramatic sigh. “Well, when you ask so nicely, I can’t say no.”

“Well, you can, but I know, I make it difficult,” Even jokes. He pulls Isak up by his hand, and doesn’t let go. Neither after he stands up, nor when they walk down the dark hallway to the toilet, not until they close the door behind him, sealing all the light off behind them.

 

-

 

In the shower, the dark blue curtain and the steam act as a barriers between them and the rest of the world. Isak is pretty high and Even is dripping wet in front of him, their kiss making vulgar kinds of noises underneath the spray of the water. Even’s sliding his hands down Isak’s chest and plays with his nipples, making him squirm in response.

Even's been teasing him for a while, crowded Isak up against tile wall, and having his way with him while taking the brunt of the water, and Isak’s starting to get antsy, and cold, and he’s really turned on, his cock hard and red and jutting against his hip, so without thinking, he does something he’s never done before: he flips them over.

Once he realises he's got Even belly first against the tile, he kind of just stares at where he’s holding him, arms all folded up awkwardly in his grip. He nearly starts to apologise, but before he can find any words, he takes an instinctive step forward. His body acts of its own accord, leaning closer still, his dick brushing up against Even’s ass.

“Oh, my god,” Even moans, clearly enjoying this turn of events. He pulls his arms from Isak’s grip to wrap them around his back, pulling him closer, his back arching under Isak’s touch. “Isak - “

It feels so fucking good, sliding against Even like this. Rutting against him, the water hitting their bodies, their bodies making noises like this. Even pressing back against him, moaning in such a fucking beautiful way when Isak reaches around and grabs his cock. It reduces to a whimper when he changes the angle, and he’s never made Even come undone like this before, not in this way, and Isak is on fire, all his nerve ends tingling, the head of his dick catching so perfectly against Even, until he knows if he doesn’t stop and touch himself right this fucking second, he’s going to explode -

“Hold still,” he says, his voice much deeper, congested with steam. He grabs at Even’s hip and keeps him in place, squeezing the bone a little there where it protrudes. Even just arches against him, stifling his moan with his forearm, and Isak’s stroking himself for only a minute before he’s coming all over Even’s ass.

“Oh my God,” he groans, breathing through it until he can feel his feet again. The shower rinses away the cum where it’s landed on his skin. “Oh my fucking God.”

“Isak - “ Even groans again, and Isak’s surprised that Even hasn’t turned around by now and asked Isak to finish off what he started, to get down on his knees and suck him off - no. Even stayed still. So perfectly still in Isak’s hands, offering up his ass like a platter, hips catching empty air. He’s trying hard not to touch himself again.

Isak has all the power. What is he going to do with it?

He flips them around again so he’s no longer under the water, pulling Even back against his chest, hand moving around to his unattended dick and working his palm up and down it, holding him so carefully, so preciously - but firmly, like he might wash down the drain if he doesn't. Even leans his head back against Isak’s shoulder, mouth turning to catch the side of his wet cheekbone, kissing him, moaning against his skin, moaning about how much he likes it -

The door bursts open, startling them, and Isak’s hand comes up to cover Even’s mouth without thinking, hand stilling mid-stroke on his dick.

“Hello?” he calls out. “I’m trying to take a fucking shower in here!”

“Sorry, didn’t realise.” If God was watching, it would have been Noora. Small mercies are that it’s only Linn and not Eskild.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he shouts, “Please, go away!”

“It’s an emergency. I have super bad cramps and I need a new tampon.”

Something inside Isak shrivels up in abject horror and promptly bursts into flames. Even shifts a little against him, and it reminds of where his hand is, a little too tight of a grip on his dick. He doesn’t relent, however. Something won’t let him, even though the embarrassment is flooding his entire body so quickly after his orgasm that it's giving him whiplash. Reminds of him of his youth, and those memories always taste so unpleasant.

“Oh my God, Linn!” he stresses, voice raising so high it might start squeaking soon. “I don’t wanna know that! Please!”

“What?” Linn is nonplussed. “Please. It’s nothing you haven’t heard or seen before. And you owe me, I know it was you who used the last of my period tea!”

Isak would like nothing more than to rip the curtain back and bitch her out fully, but that would give away a much worse scenario than the one that is already playing out, and it’s impossible anyway, given that both of his hands are occupied. Even presses against him, moving his hips in little increments so Isak has no choice but to stoke him again, his other palm remaining firmly pressed against his mouth.

“Period tea? I did not drink your period tea?!” Why is that important, Isak? Why does his mouth say things that are so fucking useless sometimes? Defending whatever sliver of dignity is left in him is clearly the priority, which is ridiculous, because it does not speed up Linn’s exit whatsoever.

“Um, yes you did. The raspberry stuff? It’s for cramps. Didn’t you read the box?”

Fuck. Fucking fuck. She's right. 

“Okay, fine. I drank your tea. I’m sorry. Can you please, please leave, like right fucking now?”

There’s the lid of the toilet closing, and then the following flush. Linn just groans, mutters something Isak can’t hear, and then says, “Calm down. I’m done now. Jeez, you’re so dramatic. It’s not like Even’s in there. I would have seen the top of his giraffe head.”

“I just wanted to have a shower in peace!” Isak yells, but it’s cut off by the sound of the door shutting again.

Teeth gently nip at his hand, like a reminder, and it's then Isak makes a choice. He still has all the power. So he ignores the very real and horrific reality of what just occurred, and instead choosing to focus on his boyfriend, who is probably very close to coming and likely in some minor discomfort. Isak kisses the side of his neck, where his reach allows, anyway, and then he presses a knee between Even’s legs, pushing his feet farther apart. Even has no choice but to lean back against him, spread out and at his mercy, and Isak can really work at him, until Even’s spilling with a choked moan over his hand.

“Fuck,” Even turns around, leaning against the tile and peering over at him with a slightly awed, half-lidded gaze, wobbly on his feet. He turns off the water, and when they step out, he pulls Isak into his arms and embraces him. They drip on the tile floor in each other’s arms.  

When he pulls back, the Even he knows well and is dearly fond of - the sleepy, smiling one, his mouth a tripwire of teasing and sweetness - has returned. He raises an eyebrow. “I won’t ever tell anyone what occurred in this bathroom just now, if you promise you'll keep doing  that again.”

Isak isn’t sure what ‘that’ is. He’ll have to clarify it later. But he agrees anyway, because it’s a pretty good fucking deal, if anyone were to ask him.

 

Chapter Text

-


1 week before

“The entire time, except when we were watching the fucking movie, I swear - we were playing eye-tag. First I’m it, then she’s it, then the I’m it and then she’s it - whatever. Back and forth and back and forth. I’m getting dizzy at this point, because she’s just sending all these signals, bro, some serious fucking vibes,” Mutta inhales suddenly and then deflates against the back of Jonas’ sofa. He blows a few strands of hair off his forehead and then looks at them blankly with a deadpan expression which has long since earned the nickname Jim, affectionately dubbed by Jonas when they first moved in together.

“Well.” Cross legged in front of the flat screen, Jonas shakes his head a little “So. You like her. You’re looking at her. She’s looking at you. What’s the problem?”

He still looks put out about it. “It’s just - Noora - she’s so... smart. You know? But also very smart. And...guarded. It’s difficult to tell. What she’s thinking, I mean.”

“Well, have you just tried asking her?”

Mutta rubs his fingers between his eyebrows. “Again, dude. It’s….difficult.”

“Not really,” Jonas insists, smug. Probably enjoying this a little too much. Isak’s enjoying this conversation significantly less than Jonas is. It’s about Noora. It feels sort of weird to be hearing these things about her.

“Well, you don’t really know,” Isak blurts out, catching everyone, including himself, by surprise. “I don't know, maybe it isn't. Or maybe it is difficult.”

Almost feels like he’s guilty by association for hearing them discuss it, let alone saying anything in defence of Noora. He imagines her voice in his head: I do not want or need any man to speak on my behalf.

He understands why she says stuff like that. His mamma has told him many times: sometimes wounds heal the way the heal because that’s all there is left to do about it. Sometimes we must sow what the Lord brings us regardless.

They both look at Isak, but he doesn’t say anything else, aside from refusing the bong when Jonas offers it to him.

“Okay, if you say so,” Jonas says, but whether it’s in response to Isak about the weed or the Noora-Mutta situation remains unclear. Instead he shuffles for his lighter and bends down, the sound of water bubbling, and then a dense smoke fills the room.

There’s a lull, and he realises perhaps he should say something to neutralise the moment.

“Did you like it?” Isak wonders how he decided this is the question he’s going with, but it’s too late now.

“What?”

“Er - the film?”

“That’s the thing,” Mutta touches his heart with his hand, eyes closed woefully, “It was perfect. I loved it. It was exactly the kind of film I would have wanted to see with her.”

Isak can’t restrain his smile upon hearing this. There’s a slippery warmth in him, too tender to be pleasant, As awkward as he finds hearing about Noora like this, he also can’t really help but be a little pleased about it too. Mutta is neither here nor there for Isak, but he’s very much not William, or any version of William, which is an improvement in his books, and he knows the rest of the Kollektiv - Noora included, would agree with him.

He met her in the bathroom that evening before the movie. If Beale Street Could Talk, Noora texted the group chat with a link. He surprised me with a ticket. She was wearing a face masque and her dressing gown, pressing on a nose strip on Eskild sitting below her on the lip of the tub.

Isak came in for floss, and when she turned around with it in her hand, there was a spark of light in her eye he forgot existed. It looked like excitement. Or hope. Maybe it was just the blue light of the vanity bulb reflecting off the mirror.

Noora laughed at the dumbfounded look on his face. She said to Eskild: It’s like this kid has never seen a face masque before. He didn’t correct her.

“Why are you smiling?” Mutta’s caught on now. “What? Do you know something? Wait. Has Noora told you stuff, bro?” he sits up suddenly, eyes wide and alert. “Because, like, you have to follow the bromade code and fess up everything you know, right this second - “

“Hah!” Jonas cows, only because he knows that Isak’ll do no such thing.

He shakes his head. “I wasn’t smiling.”

“That’s - that’s total bullshit?”

Isak holds up a hand. “Okay, I was smiling. But it’s because it sounds like a nice movie.”

Mutta hardly blinks. “But do you think it sounds nice because you saw a preview for the film, completely unrelated, or because Noora spoke positively of the film? And maybe mentioned something of me? Possibly?”

He shakes his head. “I’ve already said too much.”

“What! You’ve said literally zero things. I’m lost in a desert here, and you have an oasis on your doorstep, and you - you’re killing me here!” Mutta moans. Isak huffs out a dry chuckle, and even Jonas rolls his eyes at Mutta’s layaway form.

“Throw the man a bone here, Is,” Jonas raises an eyebrow. He always calls Isak that when he’s stoned, no matter who is there, and it’s meant to pull at Isak’s heartstrings, because Jonas knows him like he’s his right hand; because he is his right hand. They don’t really do nicknames, but it slips out. He remembers all those years he used to count on it. He glances over at the tv screen, the game long forgotten. The little theme song on the menu screen playing on loop.

Jonas is still looking at him. “Well? Has she mentioned Mutta?”

For a split second, they just talk through glances. Jonas eyes flash, as if to say, here’s a bonding moment in the making if you want it.

Isak raises an eyebrow as if to say: who are you kidding?

Mutta blows out a mushroom of smoke, eyes watering pitifully after. He looks a little tortured if Isak’s honest.

“I will not,” he refuses, albeit he does it gently. A twinge of pity, so he explains himself. “I can’t tell you what Noora might have said, because she’s my friend and it would be a betrayal,” he explains solemnly. Mutta doesn’t exactly appear surprised. “But...I won’t tell you she hasn’t said anything about you, because that would be a lie. And Noora has told me what Sam Harris thinks about lying.”

At first, Mutta doesn’t react, and it starts to make Isak nervous. But then a slow grin crawls over his face until his face is split into a wide smile, and he beams at Isak, sitting up fully. “You,” he says, pointing one slender finger at the centre of Isak’s chest. “She’s listened to Sam Harris’ podcast on lying? Fuck yes!”

Isak chuckles with a shrug. “Yeah. It’s pretty good.”

“It’s a brilliant endeavour,” Mutta shakes his head with elated exasperation. He looks at Isak again. “You know, I gotta call it like I see it, and what I see you for is a big fucking homie. I have a lot of respect for that man. Mad respect for that. Damn. He’s got her back.” He looks at Jonas. “Did you know about this? I’ve been out bro-coded by Noora. That’s a ride or die situation.”

Isak doesn’t answer. Jonas scoffs. “Of course he does,” he shakes his head, laughing. They’re both stoned now, sharing stupid twin grins. “He’s the homie. My homie Is. My number one homie. All the priorities, Isak, he’s got em. All lined the fuck up in order of most of important.”

“Thanks for the support,” he mocks, faux-serious. He folds his arms. “Please, tell him more about how much of a homie I am. I don’t think he can see just how far up my ass you are.”

“You know I’m not fucking wrong. You do all your fucking studying like a week in advance. Only smoke between ten-and-twelve like some kind of textbook martyr. You know this fucker makes up a colour coded revision schedule? Every. Time. We have to revise. For fuck’s sake.”

“Stop telling people I do that,” he pouts.

“Mutta’s not ‘people- ’”

“- Mutta is a person who is not you or I, so therefore, he counts as - “

Jonas chucks the lighter at him in retaliation, which he just tosses right back. Isak always takes the opportunity to tease him a little more when he’s stoned, especially in times like this. He doesn’t especially feel guilty about it. Serves him right. It’s middle of the afternoon on a Thursday, and he’s made known his disapproval for smoking prioritising over studying, and Jonas certainly knows he has no business smoking this early in the day. There’s classes to attend and subjects to study and plenty to work on. Smoking should be the reward after the work, not the precursor to it. Isak stops that train before he’s carried away on it. Those are thoughts for another day.

“Wow,” Mutta just stares between them. “I always forget how you two do that.”

“Do what?” Isak asks.

Mutta just gestures uselessly between them. “That thing where you bounce off each other so fast it’s like your playing tongue ping-pong - “

“Tongue-pong,” Jonas bursts out laughing, amazed at his own abilities. “Incredible. I’m gonna use that next time - “

“Please, if you value my sanity, you won't ever say that again,” Isak half-begs, but his smirk is undeniable, the way it eats up the sides of his face. He starts to laugh too.

“....anyway,” Mutta is eyeing the two of them, looking suddenly like he’s regretting taking that bong hit now. “It's confirmed for this Friday. We’re gonna get all together around seven I think. And Elias is for sure bringing that hash from his cousin - “

“The holy hash,” Jonas cuts in with a chuckle.

Mutta addresses Isak now. “You coming, too?”

“On Friday?” he finds himself asking, even though he knows what Mutta said the first time.

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” He still hasn’t made up his mind. The pressure to pick the right answer is tantamount, but he’s not sure which one it is, or what he actually wants. “Maybe. I might have plans, though - so, I don’t know yet.”

“I’m pretty sure Even said he’ll be there, if that changes anything,” Mutta raises an eyebrow. His expression relaxes as he shrugs. “Thanks for the smoke, man. I gotta go if I’m gonna make class on time. I’m so stoned though, fuck, hopefully the tram ride will help sober me up.”

“Yeah, right,” Jonas snorts. “Probably make you more stoned being around all those people now.”

Mutta sighs, running a hand through his wavy hair. His five o’clock shadow is of the kind that Isak dreams of, but will never truly achieve anytime soon. “I know you’re fucking right about it, but fuck it. I can’t skip this lecture anymore or I may as well kiss my grade goodbye.”

“Save it while you can, bro,” Jonas holds up his fist to bump.

Isak leans out his fist to bump too, a foreign gesture for him, but he feels like there’s been - some kind of fist bump worthy exchange - or maybe he’s just a little contact high and feeling hopeful. He knows how much it means to Jonas when he tries. And Even too.

But Mutta swoops down and hugs Jonas instead, a great movement of arms and shoulders bending at an awkward angle because Jonas is still sitting. They’re still hugging and patting each other several times on the back, long enough that Isak retracts his fist for bumping purposes. It hung there mid air for longer than the three seconds necessary. All of Jonas’ boys are tactile, but this holds a more nuanced meaning.

“Listen, won’t you - uh, won’t you text Mikael?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jonas nods and doesn’t say anything else. His face is suddenly closed off. Isak is looking at both of them, but neither turns and looks at Isak.

“Alright. Before Friday? Promise? We love you, dude. We all wanna try and make it a nice time.”

“I know. I promise, I love you guys too,” Jonas stands up and leads Mutta out, their conversation continuing as they disappear down the hall. Isak feels suddenly as if he’s missed something, something large enough for him to feel it settling in the room all around him, but too quiet to have anticipated it’s arrival. It’s a familiar, embarrassed feeling.

The door slams, and his face draws to a blank again.

“Now that’s over, I’m gonna go shower, and then we should go to class,” Jonas says as he emerges from the hall.

“Oh, so you are going to class today. Well,” Isak remarks, a little sassy still. He takes up the rest of the sofa and pulls his text book out of his backpack, flipping to the chapter they’re on this week. “Don’t take forever. My lecture is at one. We were supposed to do things today, but now as per usual, I am here, waiting for your stoned ass.”

“Bite me!” Jonas claps back, far enough away that there’s no point in rebuttal.

-

Instead of actually revising, Isak pulls out his phone and looks at his notifications on the lock screen. He purposefully does not unlock any of them.

Even: Good morning, how was your lab?
Even: I think I’ve run out of clean underwear….
Even: Have you noticed approx 28 more pairs in your....

Noora: Yup, I did end up falling asleep
Noora: So how was your first shift?

Mamma: I found this new podcast I think you’d…
Mamma: which weekend did we agree...
Mamma: Call me when you can honey. Just when you’re free

He stops and considers them all. Who should he answer first?

He likes to responds earliest to latest, which is pretty easy considering his first text to come through is almost always Even. Since winter term started, he’s worked the morning shift and is often up earlier than he is. He's also stayed true to his new year resolution. Isak didn’t consider the gravity of that promise at the time, but now it's impact is undeniable and it is startling too. There’s a weight lifted off his shoulders every time he checks his phone after his first class in the morning and there’s a notification already there. It’s like a safety net catching him day after day.

That being said, he’ll likely see Even right after class at their usual spot in the library, and it’ll be more fun giving him shit for apparently not having any underwear - he’s already trying to think of something annoying to say, along the lines of going commando and distracting Isak for his honest-to-God-work, and so he saves it.

He thinks about his mamma. She’s been using his old iPhone from when he was at Nissen, slowly exploring the various things a smartphone can do for someone with limited capacity to venture far from home, and a lot of time on their hands.

For Christmas, he bought her a Kindle and showed her how to download books and audio-books, which impressed her very much. Mamma wasn’t really one for innovative technology, so this was a big step. TV was still a no-no, even Netflix. She’d never really gotten over the time when she threw their television into the back garden and set it on fire until the neighbours called the police; the flat dimensional screen of the Kindle holds no reflection like a regular screen does. Isak’s been very relieved to find that she’s taken to it as well as she has. It’s something new, besides church, school, and family, that they can bond over.

He was planning on calling her back later anyway, at least once he’s been able to buy some tickets up to see her the weekend after Even’s birthday. There’s no point in texting her until he’s bought the tickets, because inevitably it will come up, and she will ask, and he’ll just have to call her again so she can write it in her calendar, an entire long process he can avoid by calling her later.

He opens Noora’s text.

To Noora: It went okay I think

He doesn’t send it, though.

Was his first shift okay? Working at the Attendant feels a bit like a blur. A week ago he had no job, and now all of a sudden he’s employed there. He has a schedule now that doesn’t depend on his grade, but rather, things like monetary gains and co-workers schedules and business running efficiently, which are all entirely new concepts to him. And there’s the fact that it’s an expensive place. It’s reeking with opulence. He fails to grasp that there exists a luxury market for tea, and furthermore, that people actually spend quite a bit of money buying into it.

Despite the unfamiliarity, it was otherwise exactly as Noora described. It was in the west, close enough to the park. The east facing walls lined with windows from floor to ceiling. Shiny, dark green tile ran from floor to mid-way up the wall; above it only shelves and shelves of sleek, bespoke tins holding imported teas. They were required to wear white shirts, black trousers, black shoes, under the required dark green apron, and honestly, the entire ensemble was far from the worst thing Isak could imagine. Luckily, there were no little hats like Eskild had teased.

Noora was only there for the first ten minutes, where she set him up with the new hire information binders. Isak spent the majority of his first shift studying the tea guide and learning the different varieties they offered. It was extensive, to say the least, each with their own unique background histories and compositions. He started taking notes after an hour, shifting around all the new facts in his head like shaking a cup of dice.

Alongside the menu, there were other technicalities that secretly delighted him: boiling temperatures; extractions, textures and taste notes and the subtle art of steeping. He’d never realised there was so much precision and knowledge required and he kind geeked out over it. It felt good to be interested in something again: since choosing to study plant biology he’d lost some of the original gusto that came with the pressures of studying. He deleted what he wrote and re-wrote the text.

To Noora: It went well. You’re right, I like all the science behind it.

To Noora: I’m working the open tomorrow. When does your shift start?

He can hear the distant sounds of Jonas singing along to his music in the shower. There’s no one to witness the small smile it stirs out of him.

-

The sheer weight and darkness of the clouds hanging low overhead are to blame for their gloomy, lingering shadows, the sky a smokey phantom above. The random snowfall from Monday has been reduced to salty mud slush, ugly and inconvenient to avoid when it’s still everywhere. The puddles left behind are black and run deep into the ground.
They take the neighbourhood route as long as they possibly can before they need to rejoin popular traffic and Jonas is forced to kick up his board. Once he does so, and their strides are matching, he finally musters the courage to speak what’s on his mind.

“Why did Mutta ask you to text Mikael?” he asks. “Have you not been texting?”

It surprises him when the closed, awkward expression returns to Jonas’ face. He looks away, and Isak frowns.

“What?” he asks. “What’s with the face?”

Jonas looks away longer this time with a distant shrug. He just continues twisting his mouth in circles and stares straight ahead, his pace so casual. It always felt like Jonas could see right through Isak, but Isak could never see through him. He’d reason with himself that at least, at least someone was looking in the first place. It’s oddly comforting to be read like that.

He stops right there in the middle of the pavement. “Stop acting weird. What? Are you two fighting or something?”

It forces Jonas to stop too, a little reluctant. “No. I mean, not really.”

He prods further. “Is it really not really?”

They continue on again, now alongside a little green park in between two neighbourhoods. He fixates on the choppy horizon of grey evergreen trees. “No, I mean. It’s embarrassing.”

This takes Isak by surprise. “Oh? For you, or for him - ?”

“Neither, but never mind,” Jonas looks even more reluctant to say. “It’s not that important.”

He wants to buy it. Leave the whole weird moment as just that, and now they’ll carry on and attend class and forget about it. But he will not do that. Isak does not often shrug things off. There is something confusing and irritating with the pleading tone of Jonas’ voice. It sounds mostly protective, but also a little pitying. He can guess where it’s stemming from and it brings a sour feeling in him.

Bitter. He tries to keep anything bitter out of his mouth even though he can taste it. “Aren’t you two like best friends? What is this?”

“Mikael and I -? You and I are best friends,” Jonas motions between them, relying a note of impatience. He hates having to remind Isak of this sometimes.

“That’s why I say like,” he says. “But still, you're really close. Why aren't you speaking? Isn't that a big deal - "

“We're close, but we're not like - I mean, whatever. Of course we're friends, and we are talking.... This is stupid, you know. No big deal. So let’s drop it.”

Isak looks away, straight ahead, unseeing. He’s annoyed now. He looks back again. “Okay. Fine. Let’s drop it.”

“No, wait,” Jonas huffs, equally displeased to drop it. “Now you’re gonna be all...sad and quiet and weird, I…”

“I don’t - how do I get ‘weird’?”

“You don’t talk to me.”

“What? Bullshit,” he sputters. “We talk almost every day.”

“Lies, all lies,” he argues, and then rolls his eyes, jaw clenching. And clenching again. His bright eyes so sharp where they zero in on Isak now. “Okay, fine. I’ll tell you, but you can’t freeze me out, okay?”

“I don’t freeze anyone - fine, okay, okay.”

“Well, I’m assuming that Even told you already he and Mikael aren’t speaking.”

His gut swoops in an uneasy surprise. What? “What?”

“Well, they’re not fighting or anything, they just...had a disagreement, and now they’re kind of avoiding each other, and I was there, and I didn’t agree, so I went and spoke to Mikael, and then he and I got into it and now - well.

Well, not ‘into it’. Look, what happened happened, we had some words, we’re taking a break, and I’ve already been trying to work through the negative energy it’s bringing me. Didn’t I show you how I reorganised the crystals for different healing purposes? Now I have a go-to station - “

“Don’t make this about your crystals,” Isak interrupts. Jonas falls silent. They’ve stopped again on the side of the icy black road. “Why did they fight?”

“It wasn’t a fight. It was a disagreement - “

“Whatever, Jonas,” Isak cuts him off. “You know what I mean. Stop throwing semantics in my face.”

“Well, it was - wait. Did Even not tell you this?” the surprise in his voice makes his gut swoop again. He’s right. Why didn’t he already know? His lack of response causes a reaction out of Jonas, where he frowns and exhales harshly, shaking his head. He's wearing his disappointed expression, but in reference to who? Isak? Mikael? Even?

“Obviously if I’m asking you right now, I don’t know already about it,” he answers icily. He watches as Jonas’ eyes widen until there’s a ring of white around his iris, framed by his dark long lashes.

“You’re really going to make me tell you the whole thing? Right now?”

The fear grows the longer he has to wait until it feels unbearable. “Yes!”

He groans, pinching the bridge of his nose. “This is so…”

“Jonas, can you fucking please, just,” he hates that his voice sounds so meek now. “Tell me.”

His guard is down and he’s wandering blind into unknown territory. His head is spinning, phone burning a hole in his pocket. Did it originate between Even and Mikael, or all the boys, with Mikael leading it? Was Jonas there? Part of him wants to brush this off easily; surely if it was important Even would have told him. It must have not been so important. Except. Except, now Jonas is involved, and he’s not really speaking to Mikael, enough that Mutta has to ask him to text back - so it must be at least a little important. He remembers what Jonas said before. Embarrassing, he’d explained. It was embarrassing to talk about.

Was Even embarrassed, too? Enough that he specifically did not want him to know? That thought makes everything twist further, his heart aching now. Why would no one tell him before now? Unless -

“It’s something to do with me, then?” he figures it out for himself, of course he does. Isak’s spent a long time never relying on anyone. “Something no one wants to say to my face, obviously.”

Jonas is already wearing his apologetic eyebrows, his eyes all puppy-eyed and sensitive. It looks like pity in the dark gray light, and Isak absolutely abhors it. He can feel his heart in his chest, the way it throws itself against his sternum, distracting and loud.

“It’s just - the thing you do,” Jonas starts, wincing.

“Thing? What - ?”

“The thing, where they invite you to stuff, and you don’t ever take them up on it,” he explains uneasily. “Like...just now, with Mutta, actually. We’re all getting together on Friday, hanging out - “

“Well - maybe I have plans?” he tries.

Jonas raises his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Maybe I do,” he tries again. Then he gives up, throwing his hands in the air. “Well, for fuck’s sake, I don’t know. Mikael is upset over me - not hanging out enough? Doesn’t he have better things to - “

“He cares about Even,” his voice is surprisingly soft. “They’re best friends, they've been through a lot - “

He doesn’t like that, despite his obviously disapproval, Jonas still defends him. Isak would be very interested to know if the things Isak counts as Even having ‘been through’ are the same Mikael counts, or if there are vast differences in their experiences. It reminds him, like dropping a small heavy stone into a deep opaque pool of water, that once again, there is so much he doesn’t know about Even.

He stops again. “Well. I don’t really get the big deal. Even’s not said anything to me about there being a problem.”

“Well, Even doesn’t agree with Mikael,” Jonas explains. “Hence the argument.”

“Okay?” he asks impatiently. A hot anxiety is bubbling in him, pushing him to the edge - why is he always the last one to know everything? “And? How the fuck are you involved?”

“Why are you being so aggressive about it?” Jonas frowns, his hackles raising.

“Why are you being so evasive about it?” Isak slings back. They both glare at each other, twin expressions of awkward irritation.

“Well,” Jonas gives in, frowning. They’ve continued to walk along the avenue, the park long behind them now. “Mikael made this big deal about how little Even is home anymore, and at first, Even agreed... but then Mikael took it further said he was worried about you two, because it was started the same as when he was with his ex. Apparently it was kinda controlling. He was always with her, and never hung out with his friends. He doesn’t want him to get so wrapped up he forgets about everyone else again. He kept saying ‘It’s not healthy.’”

Isak just stares at him. He realises he’s stopped walking again, his heart thudding in a oddly slow pace. It just hits the inside of his eardrum just so. Thud-Thud-Thud.

Anyone else might wait for Isak to respond, but Jonas knows him better. “That’s obviously when I got annoyed. Because Mikael doesn’t know you like that, and it’s not fair for him to assume. And look, man, I remember back when Even was with her. And you two are nothing like that. Seriously, I think he overstepped the boundary just a little.”

“Oh,” Isak says quietly, his throat sore as he swallows. Suddenly he has to look away.

“You’re good for each other,” Jonas says, insistent now. “It’s okay. What you two have, it’s healthy. Hey, Isak. It’s okay.”

“Right,” he nods numbly, blinking. His voice comes out all gravelly and harsh. “Fine. Well, it’s fucking whatever, I guess.”

“Not whatever,” he argues, shaking his head. They resume down the road again. It’s the longest walk back to university they’ve ever shared, but Jonas keeps up now, insistent at his side. “It’s not. Mikael was out of line, and Even said so. He was just upset with the way things were going, and Even apparently - I don’t know, he’s not the most forthcoming dude. And I said so too. So anyway, we talked about it, but you don’t need - “

“Don’t,” he cuts him off, still so sharply. “Don’t.”

“What?”

“Try and make it better,” he can’t restrain the bitterness in his voice. “You’ve done enough. Why must you always fucking meddle, Jonas?”

“I wasn’t,” Jonas looks like he didn’t anticipate this at all, and the slow confirmation of Isak’s anger is dawning on his face bit by bit. “I didn’t - “

“You always do,” Isak bites, harder now. “You know how it makes me look? You having to step in and stand up for me? Weak. Like some fucking - kid or something. I don’t need you defending me - it just makes it fucking worse - ”

“No, that’s not how it happened - Isak - wait!“

He turns abruptly, stepping off the corner, and crossing the street against the light, knowing Jonas won’t be able to follow him so quickly. His hands are shaking when he puts them in his pockets, quivering with humiliation and anger that, if remains unchecked, will overcome his sense of rationality and ruin his day.

A few steps into the university courtyard, and fuzzy little stars appear in the corner of his eyes. He understands what’s happening now. He's becoming upset. He stops by a bench and sits on it until they disappear. He smooths out the black denim over his knees, over and over. They’re the pair that Even likes so much. He pictures Even’s face: that startling face, the serious beauty of his expression, the quirk in his mouth whenever he spotted Isak in a sea of people. Always keeping an eye out for him.

Usually this sort of thing calms him. But now, under the weight of what he knows, and worse, the weight of what he knows he does not know, well, it’s enough to send him spiralling into a suffocating darkness, the kind that requires digging to get back out of.

-

It’s difficult to start his work that afternoon, his brain a muddled pile of lethargic disenchantment. He can hear the echo of his angry voice in his head, how he chastised Jonas on the street, for anyone to hear. It reminds him of his father. It makes him embarrassed just thinking about it, and every few minutes his brain forces him to relive it again. He does not check his phone. There won’t be any messages yet.

Looking out the second story window in the library, the clouds gather in dark clumps like dirty kitchen towels. He hasn’t written a single note down in the last fifteen minutes, and his mouth is incredibly dry again. He swallows thickly. Even thinks he doesn’t spend enough time at his flat? Does that mean he thought he spent too much time with Isak? Did he want to spend more time at home? Imagine, Isak’s always bugging him to come over, and Even agrees, but meanwhile he’s dragging his feet, knowing he has many other important things to do, at his own home, like any other normally adjusted fucking person -

Suddenly his lungs feel very tight again so he gulps down more water and stands up to walk a lap around the perimeter. Anytime he’s in need of a break he often finds himself weaving through the rows of shelves, the bookends repetitive and diverse enough he can run his eyes over the titles like a game.

It seems to always distract him a little, and release some of the inner turmoil. The bookcases are nearly as tall as the ceilings and are made out of dark polished wood, casting long shadows and holding neighbouring pockets of spiders and dust. He takes a drastic right turn straight into a dead end, where the light doesn’t follow, and there’s only a bunch of overstock carts and stacks of chairs.

He’s not sure what he’s actually upset about. He wants it to be just Jonas stepping in for him. He’s always been aware of how fucking awkward he is around that friend group. But now he’s involved with Even, and it’s far more complicated than before. It’s Mikael thinking Isak is a new version of Even’s ex-girlfriend - whatever the that means - and it’s Mikael trying to protect Even from whatever doomed ending he thinks Isak has in store for him. Another terrible thought enters his brain: what if they all think he’s trying to separate Even from his friends? Or that he’s some needy, insecure, loser who can’t do anything without him? What if -

And then there’s the fact that this happened all last week, and Even must have purposefully forgot to bring it up. Why does everything feel so secret and weird? And why does it bother Isak so much that he couldn’t even sense something was off with Even in the first place?

The question of asking Even is a whole other dilemma. How does he even go about that? God, it does his head in just thinking of scenarios trying to bring it up. Now he knows there’s been this schism amongst them, and it’s his fault, and he can’t pretend otherwise. All this underlying tension will inevitably create obstacles between Even and his friends and it will be all too apparent to Isak on Friday. If no one knows what he knows, it might just be enough to send his anxiety into overdrive. No thanks.

There’s no fucking way he’d want to go over to their flat now, not when everyone must think he’s been trying to keep Even away from them, anyway. Isak runs a hand over his face, suddenly aware of exhausted soreness building under his eyes. They’re drooping down his face like a dog’s. He thinks it over again, Jonas’ voice a wispy echo in his head.

It started the same as when he was with his ex. Apparently it was kinda controlling. He was always with her, and never hung out with his friends…

Is he controlling? He’s not controlling. Is it controlling to always ask your boyfriend to spend the night? Most of time, from what he can recall now, it’s just an aside between them, an easy assumed answer of yes, because Even always misses his stop on the tram home and they end up walking back to the Kollektiv together.

Even never motions he has to leave, either: not when they cook dinner, not when they hang out, doing homework, or fuck when they're supposed to be doing homework. Not at the end of the night when they’re little more than a pile of cuddles and yawning. Does he feel awkward about going home to his own place? Is it all the time, or just once in a while? Does he think Isak will freak out? Isak wonders this with a ferocious spurt of insecurity, growing stronger by the moment.

And yet... he does ask Even. Hey, you’re staying, right? Okay, maybe that sounds a little persuasive. But Even - Even says yes. Enthusiastically. Even doesn’t say, no, why don’t we go to mine, or I have plans with the boys at home, or I can’t tonight, but what about tomorrow -

“Hey,” a quiet voice startles Isak and he jumps out of his thoughts immediately. Eclipsed in a half-shadow, Even emerges from between the narrow space where the stacks nearly crisscross, their corners looming crookedly, the light overhead a flickering, grim mustard yellow. “There you are. I was looking for you.”

“Oh.”

“What are you doing here, all by your lonesome?” his voice is so supple and light, at once playful and funny and sweet. It makes Isak tingle a little in reaction. God. He can’t help it. There he is, standing before him, his velvetine-voiced boyfriend, looking down his nose at him with his warm blue eyes, his big mouth smiling so surely.

You, you, you, Isak’s thoughts swell in circles as Even steps into his space. Me, me, me.

Even tilts his head before cupping his cheeks, and Isak allows himself to be held, eyes slipping closed for a second, and he tries, with all of his might, not to let slip an errant tremble.

Being kissed by Even still makes it better even when it’s actually making it worse. Still, he lets himself become wrapped up in the moment anyway. Isak kisses him back, mouth open and inviting, intent on nothing else but this. A kiss for a kiss into the ether of eternity. Even leans into him, picking up the pace, one hand running from his cheek to hairline, thumb stroking all the same. There’s a little slip of tongue here and there until Isak’s backed himself against a upended table and he’s able to lean a little against it, his legs spreading to accommodate Even in between them.

It always escalates with them, in a way words never seem to hold in comparison. Talking has always been what they’re second best at when it comes to dark corners and their mouths. It makes sense. Time ceases to hold the same importance, and he’s anchored by their closeness, and how loud that feels, and how quiet it is in reality.

When Even pulls back he’s running his fingers under Isak’s eyes, considering. They fit so neatly there, a little cold, and soothing. “Hmmm,” Even hums. “You look tired, baby.”

“Are you trying to tell me I look bad?” Isak tries to joke.

Even isn’t humouring him. “Everything okay? How was last night, with sleeping alone - “

“It was fine,” he excuses hastily. “I don’t know. I missed you.”

A beat too late he realises how needy that sounds, and a sour, desperate feeling overcomes him at once. He wants to curl up and hide himself, and he resents it, how one thought makes you feel so small, and unsure, and it annihilates you completely.

He sees it in his mind’s eye, the way it could play out in the future: the more clingy he is, the more Even will try to oblige, only to further stoke the tension between Even and his friends, and that will only encourage them to dislike Isak. Where would that put them as a couple, with he becoming an obstacle for Even's daily life, feeling he must choose where he must spend his time may be at the ire of everyone around him? Someday, Even would hate him too for this....

It doesn’t make Isak feel at ease at all.

Even seems to sense how upset he is, which only serves to make him feel worse. He rubs his eyes, shaking his head. “No, everything's okay, I didn’t mean to sound pathetic, actually...I just was feeling kinda unwell.”

“Oh?” his boyfriend’s face is now turning worried. He examines Isak now, fingers brushing spider-soft over his cheeks, then the delicate press of the inside of his wrist against his forehead. “That’s no good. I think you’ve been spending too much in the library, and the stress is affecting your immune system ability to fight off germs. Yousef lectured me all yesterday about eating a study diet rich in vitamin C and omega-3. Maybe - “

“No, I’m fine,” Isak shakes his head, but he cringes at the hard tone of his voice. He looks down, his face ripe with hot embarrassment. “Sorry, I didn’t - “

“Hey,” Even soothes, and he does always what Isak least expects. He engulfs him a hug, tucking Isak’s head under his chin and holding him close, and Isak doesn’t know why, but it really does make him feel better, regardless of what for. He takes a deep breath, tasting all of Even’s combined smells, the comfort it sends straight to his brain. His shoulders relax into the embrace, and Even relaxes with him. Like they’re on the same wavelength.

“Sometimes it just feels hard,” Isak whispers very quietly into his chest. “I don’t know what it is, but it feels hard.”

For a moment he thinks Even may not have heard him. He almost hopes for it. But then he nods against Isak’s ear. “I know,” he whispers back gently. “I know exactly what you mean.”

-

Noora: My shifts not until the afternoon…
Noora: I made aubergine pasta dish. When are you coming back?

Mamma: Honey, I hope you’re okay….let’s talk tomorrow, okay? Hugs.


Jonas: Dude
Jonas: I’m sorry. Please. Let’s not fight.
Jonas. Pretty please?

Noora: Ok I left it in the fridge for you

Jonas: I feel really shitty about how I acted now. I realise I gotta back off and let you do your thing. Let me know when you got time bro.

Jonas: Well, text me when you can.
Jonas: You know. I just wanna talk. Love you.

-

Even lures him away from the library with the promise of a latte and a muffin, and outside on the concrete benches they sit together picking it apart. They only had blueberry ones left this late in the day.

In the limited winter sunlight, Even teases him for the fading hickey on his neck. Looks like the rings of Saturn. Well, he doesn’t know about that, but he likes it so much when Even says this kind of weird shit. Isak chuckles out the corners of his mouth and sipped his drink, their ankles overlapping.

Isak’s cheered up considerably now, more buoyant again under Even’s attention, whose nudging him and lamenting his frustrations with a major essay he’s writing about the history of theatre. “I love the bohemians, but probably because they’re all queer.” he grins, winking. “I’ve told you haven’t I, why I love - “

“Yes, the movie about the Mädchen, I remember,” Isak says drily. “You and Eskild. Making me watch so many gay movies. I didn’t even realise there were so many.”

“Exactly, you didn’t,” Even points out triumphantly. “Now you do, so my mission is a success.”

“Is success what you’d call traumatising your boyfriend with cowboy tragedies?” he raises an eyebrow. He still gets irrationally sad every time he sees Jake Gyllenhaal now.

“Look, babe - I already said sorry, and besides, I’d be more worried if you didn’t cry during Brokeback - “

“ - I told you, I wasn’t crying,” he scoffs, wishing Even would forget about that. “It was - “

“Baby, you were, and it’s okay, it means you’re human,” Even teases, clearly not forgetting about it. “And besides, Ang Lee is one of my - “

“ - favourite directors?” he finishes for him. “Hmm. Heard that one before.”

“Hey,” Even pouts, but he smiles like he’s very pleased Isak does this now. It’s like one of their things, and it makes him giddy. To be a couple who has things. Isak tries not to let it show. He shrugs. Even taps Isak’s knee, considering. “You know. I missed you too, last night.”

“You did?” he asks. He can’t resist. They’ve only spent one night apart this week, last night, and one night apart last week, which Isak now understands was due the flat meeting. He wonders if that’s what Even was up to yesterday too, but now that he knows what he knows, he doesn’t want to ask.

“Yes, I did,” Even kisses his cheeks, his mouth warm. Isak feels his skin ripple with fresh goosebumps. “Not the same, not having anyone to cuddle.”

“Well,” Isak sighs contentedly. “I suppose you could do something about that.”

“Suppose I could,” he agrees. “We should leave the library in an hour. Go get some soup, and just take the evening completely chill. You don’t want to push yourself now. We’ve exams coming up.”

He should have known not to lie to Even about being unwell, because now he won’t drop it. It’s just too awkward to bring up this petty anxiety. Isak knows he’s lucky. Even’s being more understanding than most about Isak’s quirks. And he deals with his mental health everyday. He would get it. Isak could tell him and he’d understand. Right?

But then - these are his best friends. Since Even was in school. An image of Jonas appears in his head and, alongside it, the idea of him disapproving of Even on the basis that he’s worried about Isak - well, it's not only is it possible, it’s damn well likely. Best friends can be like that, for better or for worse.

Besides, he’s not an idiot. Mikael is more chill than the rest of them. He’s not the type to say something out of nowhere, just for the sake of it. And yet there’s a part of him that feels especially threatened, however illogical the underlying motivations.

Mikael and Even remind him so much him and Jonas, in specific ways. Too specific to ignore once he noticed them. Isak has itemised and listed them anxiously in his head over and over. There's this aforementioned history, check. The blurred lines, check. And the girlfriend, check. It’s an eerie mirror to stare too long into.

The boys hardly know Isak at all. Part of this is solely his own fault. He just didn’t expect Jonas’ first flat share experience to be an instant brohood with four dudes plus their neighbour-friends. It was hardly a surprise he wasn’t so eager. Jonas was disappointed. He urged Isak. They want to be your friend too. They like you.

He stewed in jealousy for a while, trying to figure out how long they were going to stick around for. Isak plays the part of himself very well, after so many years of practice. The diluted version, without the baggage, or the liking-guys part. It was clear, when he met Jonas’ flatmates during his first weekend in university, they wouldn’t like him if they really knew him.

They were too loud, too brotherly, and overall, much too touchy feely for Isak to be comfortable with. At least they genuinely seemed to love Jonas. Eventually that was good enough.

Of course, he’d heard of Even, but had never met him. Their paths never crossed until there was designated a specific hairpin turn in the universe. Everything was organised this way by chance and something feverish - something like God was at work. Isak wouldn’t dare admit it, but he does think about it often. He never saw Even coming until they were already going a million miles an hour. How else was he supposed to explain such a force of nature?

It’s so dark when they leave the library that evening. On the walk down the moody blue and white streets, Even loops his arm around Isak’s back and they step in sync. They head to a Kiwi near the university, and once they’re inside, Even doesn’t budge, simply makes due with angling their conjoined bodies through the narrow aisles, still attached to the hip.

Isak’s not really focused on the what they're supposed to be buying. Instead he’s watching Even, and Even must sense it, because when their eyes meet, he smiles.

Isak wonders what he did to deserve someone like him. He glides through this world with a effervescent grace Isak can only admire but will not dare imitate. He looks at Isak like he’s wonderful, like he’s so wonderful he can hardly believe it, and Isak loves that look, he loves it more than he thought possible. He hopes they never get sick of looking at each other like this. In the canned soup aisle of all places.

The thought holds him there on the corner for a beat longer, even after the light turns green. Even’s a few steps out when he realises and turns around.

“Babe?” he chuckles a little. “You okay?”

“We’ve passed your turn,” he mumbles. It’s snowing again, fat globs of loose slush falling from overbearing onyx clouds. Even just looks at him, confused. He elaborates. “I just mean - if you have stuff - I don’t wanna assume - “

“Oh…” Even is growing more alert as he steps back onto the curb. “I...we just bought a bunch of food, so I thought we could eat, no?”

“I mean, of course, we did - ,” he amends hurriedly. With one mitten, he makes a little gesture. “I just meant. After the soup, I guess. Don’t let me keep you.”

“Cool. Shall we, then? It’s fucking cold,” Even says, huddling for effect. He winks. “You can keep me all night. It’s fine.”

“Okay,” Isak swallows. Tries to make all these thoughts go away, but they’re following him down each block. The light changes green, but Isak’s feet still aren’t moving. He’s looking at Even’s face. It’s indescribable, his expression. Not one that is explicitly confused or suspicious, but rather plainly curious, in a vague, calm way that unnerves Isak just as much.

Even doesn’t move, just narrows his eyes at Isak and gives him a once over. “Baby, will you please tell me what’s up? You’re acting strange.”

He shakes his head, feeling his throat swell with a slick wet heat. He swallows it back. The snow is causing Even’s hair to grow damp and curly. “I’m just...I guess I am really tired. I’m being weird.”

“You are being weird,” Even agrees. The light turns red again.

Isak licks his lips; they taste like salt water. He doesn’t say anything.

“Oh. Well....Now look, we’re covered with snow,” Even shrugs placidly, looking up into the blackness above. A whole abyss . “A little romantic.”

Isak leans up and kisses him, teeth chattering a little and tongue warm against their icy lips. Underneath a single street lamp, their feet shuffle together. He hears the crunch of the earth, alongside Even’s small gasp, swallowed up by the sound of their conjoined silence, on this empty street, in the wet white night; swallowed up by the universe whole.

-

 

Later, his surroundings drenched in darkness, Isak wakes up in a half-caught stream of anxiety, his left temple throbbing. He tries to push the thoughts of his head as they whir around in dysfunctional cogs. He rolls over and huddles against Even’s back, taking a deep inhale. It calms him a little.

They’d ended up having such a nice evening, no doubt thanks to Even ignoring Isak’s weird mood. When they returned to the Kollektiv, his flatmates were all in the living room, so naturally they joined too, slurping the soup and ribbing Eskild about his new favourite show. Isak regretfully allowed Even to baby him too, keeping up with his lie, and consequently swathed in a sea of blankets, with only some protest from Linn. They’d showered together, kissing under the steam, Even raking his fingers through Isak’s hair until he was little more than a sopping wet noodle, relaxed and unencumbered.

By the time the lights had been turned off and Even’s sentences grew slow and thick with sleep, his thoughts returned to the day’s earlier anxieties, and they hadn’t let up for hours. Tossing and turning, plagued with vaguely disturbing dreams that seem innocuous and mundane but still make his stomach squirm with worry.

Isak rubs his cheek against the cotton of Even’s sleep shirt, searching fruitlessly for a better distraction tactic.

So he thinks of Even’s smile, the one that unfolds slowly across his face, as if the universe has revealed something very divine to him, hidden in whatever Isak said or did. It’s the most majestic feeling, being captured under the gleam of that specific smile, and now he rubs his nose against the bony nape of Even’s neck. Isak’s hands slip around his middle and press against lulling kick drum of his heartbeat, his chest rising and falling in a soothing pattern of deep sleep; evidence that wherever Even is, he is far, far away from Isak right now.

-

February in Oslo is a dark month, every day encased in back-to-back shadows, providing a twilight effect over the city. Now more than ever night blends into morning and morning into night again like one long, effortless tide. It all feels slept on, somehow, and the late season snow flurries are now tiresome and unwelcome. It’s a little after six in the morning as he trudged to work, a twenty minute journey which is remedied only a little by listening to music at full volume.

The opening shift at the Attendant begins at 6:30, in time for a 7 am open, and in the darkened storefront, everything feels plastic and eerie. He’s still half-asleep, quite frankly, the walk to the shop having done little to wake him up - it’s almost too short, and he’s hardly had enough sleep. These anxieties, now that he remembers them, kick up again, right where they left off from last night. He takes a deep breath, pushes the staff-only door and walks in.

Immediately, however, he stumbles over something - something any reasonable person would assume was a broom or the corner of a table, when a large burst of noise alerts him that is it human being, one which fully flinches back, and he shrieks, stumbling forward and into a heap on the floor.

“Shit!” it’s a woman’s urgent voice. “Shit!”

In the shadows, there’s a blonde stranger rubbing her temples, cursing still. There’s a deep crease mark on her cheek. “Shit, fuck!”

He wants to demand what she’s doing on the floor, but at the last moment his voice wobbles as he attempts gather his wits. His wrist pangs angrily from trying to break the fall. “Who are you?”

She looks at him and must realise she doesn’t know who he is. Her face turns apologetic. “I’m sorry I scared you - I wasn’t planning on doing this, Jesus fuck, I’m so fucking screwed, shit - “ she groans, looking at her phone to find it dead. "Fuck, no. Oh, no!"

As they both stand up, Isak rights himself, and finds that upon closer inspection, the young woman looks suspiciously close to tears, and it sends a urge of panic through Isak. He doesn’t like it when girls cry. It sends him lunging in desperation , his weak attempts to offer comfort little more than awkward mumbled shuffling. This girl in question seems particularly unlikely to want that. But still, he asks, “Are you...are you okay?”

She leads him into a back room, flicking on the lights and dimming them. There are stacks of papers and sample bags of tea everywhere, rolls of labelling stickers in messy stacks around the desk. He’s not been back in here yet, but he understood that he was to follow her. She has a commanding essence, despite her petite stature, that reminds him of Noora.

“It’s just - I fucking - I’m doing an early meeting with the boss before they fly out to China - China for god's sakes, to look at tea, and I was up late crunching new numbers and I fucking fell asleep, oh my God - “ she rubs her face again, really dumbfounded by this apparently happening to her. She drags in a watery breath, “And now, I can’t even do the meeting, because my phone is dead, and I’m definitely, definitely getting fired now - “

“Shit,” Isak grimaces. None of that sounds good.

Her lip wobbles. His stomach flips. She just nods her head back and forth, like she’s trying to shake all her thoughts out of her head.

“Wait,” he blinks, “Is it an iPhone?”

“Yeah,” she nods, looking more distraught, “Why, do you - “

“I have a charger,” he realises he might be beaming a little, at this small blonde stranger. She’s kind of pretty, in a boyish kind of way. Noora’s told him the word for that: an androgynous way. Isak’s not sure what to do with this knowledge, but he finds himself a little surprised that it doesn’t bother him. He bends down and bulls out an extra cord out of his backpack.

“Does your phone always die too?” she asks sympathetically, her face changing rapidly as he hands her the cord. “My battery is just shot now, I think.”

“No,” Isak shakes his head, “Not really. But I carry a backup with me, just in case.”

“You’re very prepared,” she raises her eyebrows, and plugs her phone into the wall.

“My boyfriend says that a lot, too,” he says without thinking. Her eyes flash for a moment, perhaps in surprise, perhaps in something else - before her mouth softens into a sincere smile.

“Very nice,” she nods, but says nothing else and frowns at him with a considering look. “So. Who hired you?”

“Well, Noora is my - “

“Oh, I love her,” she smiles, “She’s very switched on. Yes, well, that makes sense.”

He’s never heard that phrase, but as soon as she says it, he understands exactly what she means. She has a clipped, matter of fact way of speaking that made it feel like she was always telling the truth.

“And what’s your name?”

“Me?”

“No, the other people here, in this conversation - “ she laughs, a little throaty. He finds himself caught out and laughing too, his face flushing.

“Sorry,” he mutters, embarrassed. “I’m Isak.”

“Well, Isak, let me thank you properly. Seriously, you’ve saved my ass so much, like, you have no idea. I owe you, once I get my shit together. This is such a terrible first impression, but - what the hell. I’m the new manager here. Or actually, I’m the new operations manager - so I guess I’m technically at both stores - it’s - yeah,” she cuts herself off, taking a deep breath.

Isak laughs a little nervously. Somehow her being flustered and grateful for his help kind of endears her to him in a way he’s not sure how to express to himself. He can just feel it happening. “That’s okay. I should probably open the shop, now - “

“Right!” she claps her hands together, eyes wide. “I’ve got to prep my notes for the call. Anyway, let me know - if you need anything - actually, I’ll come help you, then prep my notes - yes, that’s what we’ll do -”

He does giggle a little in earnest then, “Sure. That’ll be good, because I’m still new - “

“Fuck, right, of course - “ she shakes her head again, but now they're both smiling a little. “Right this way.”

“Okay, er - sorry, I don’t think I even asked you your name?”

His new manager bursts into another peal of laughter, but now the wrinkle from falling asleep now nearly gone, and her face folds into a pretty, ebullient expression as she rolls her eyes at herself. It’s the kind of self-deprecating move that Isak understands likewise. He does the same kind of shit too when he’s being awkward.

“Let’s just add that to the list of embarrassing things that has happened this morning. I’m Sonja,” she reaches out her hand for him to shake as they step back out into the front of house. Her fingers are warm in his grasp, and he smiles, feeling suddenly renewed suddenly, without knowing how to explain it.

He shakes his head and accepts the opening task lists she hands him. “I don’t know what you're talking about. Did something embarrassing happen this morning?”

She laughs appreciatively. “You’re amazing for that, you know.”

He just shrugs, a little embarrassed now. “Well, you are my boss. So…”

A look of seriousness appears, though it’s tempered still by the residing laugh lines now. “Too right you are. And we better open the shop in five minutes or shit is gonna get real again.”

The store is flooded with a gauzy darkness still, the large windows relaying a muted lavender sky over a grey blanket of snow now, the familiar tell that morning light will break soon. It’s a similar morning to all the rest in February, but today, for no reason he can explain very easily, his heart beats slightly lighter than before, and someday in the future, the strange buoyancy of this morning would soon become a memory he’ll likely never forget.

 

-

Chapter Text

1 day before 

 

The week progressed them into further darkness. The last of January's snowstorms have melted without any trace, leaving only slick black pavements and wind bitten trees in its wake. 

He thought giving Even space without telling him he wanted to give to Even space would have been difficult and awkward. In actuality, it was quite easy: all of a sudden there appeared a large deadline Even was desperate to complete, and he’s been holed up in the media labs at the university every day and well into the evening. It was almost unnerving how well that worked out, but it did little to qualm Isak’s anxiety. 

“You have chocolate in the corners of your mouth,” it always surprises him, how reactive his body is to hearing that voice. Even’s cheerful blue eyes peered down at him, a congruous smile across his face. 

It's just before four in the afternoon, meaning it was time for their afternoon coffee break. Isak had been waiting a couple of minutes already, tiredness heavy behind his eyes. He forgot to get lunch and all the good wraps have been sold out, so he's been hungry for hours already, and doesn’t have the energy to admit he basically swallowed his pain au chocolat whole, because apparently it’s all over his face. 

“I left it there for you,” he smiles, and Even bends down, kissing him first on the forehead, then down his nose, feather light and teasing, and then the corners of his mouth. These types of patient ministrations are unique to Even when he’s in a specific mood, and Isak feels himself relax a little. He’s still in his winter jumper. Even sits down with a large tea and crosses his legs, so their feet touch. 

When it’s too wet to sit outside, they always chose the seats in front of the big glass wall, where one can see the thin outline of mountains behind the city in the foggy distance. During this time of year they remain invisible, however: outside's just one large canvas of navy blue,  lingering reminders of ice and sleet and snow, leaving a certain impression that it could happen again at a moment’s notice. The warm glow of the street lamps lining the road look like hot oranges floating mid-air. 

“So, how is everything?” Isak asks. He’s taken to picking at the loose string on his jumper sleeve. “The project going okay?”

“We’re nearly done,” Even nods, relieved. “Just tonight and tomorrow morning and I think we can hand it in. Stine said she can take a look at it tomorrow afternoon so I don’t spend my birthday in the lab.”

“That’s nice of her,” Isak says, for lack of anything else. The spike in his nerves jumps just at the mention of Even’s birthday tomorrow. He hasn’t seen or spoken to - let alone about - any of the boy squad, and tomorrow all of them enforce were going to be tomorrow. It was all very intimate. 

“She’s a nice person,” Even agrees. He takes a long pull of tea and turns his entire torso towards Isak, forward and suddenly serious. 

Isak mirrors his body language, and braces himself. 

“Isak, listen,” Even starts. Here we go, an insidious voice sounds in his head. Here’s the beginning to the end. It was too good to be true anyway, and could never last - 

Even’s large, pale hand comes up to cub his knee, rubbing his thumb down the inside seam. It’s meant to be comforting. “I just wanted to say - we’ve hardly spent any time together this week, and…. I just - I appreciate you giving me the space to finish my project.”

He doesn’t understand at first. What does he mean? Is Even complaining that they haven’t spent any time together, or celebrating that he’s finally gotten the space from Isak he’s secretly wanted? 

“Of course I can give you space,” he finally admits, shaking his head. A strange hollow laugh barks out of him, as he says, half-joking, half-serious, “It’s not like I’m going to fall apart just because you’re busy.”

Even looks a little surprised by this. “ Oh. Yeah. I know that. I just - from the very beginning - since we - we’ve spent a lot of time together, but this week - it’s just been hard for me to find the time to see you, and I -”

This is it, he thinks, and his gut curdles as if he’s drank sour milk, low and hot and heavy inside of him. If he had any idea they were going to have this conversation now, he would have feigned illness, or left early, or - pretended he doesn’t exist at all. Anything, anything, to escape the humiliation of the ‘my friends say you’re too clingy and I agree’ conversation they’re about to have right now.

“It’s fine,” Isak cuts him off. Then he bites for real,“It’s really not a big deal. You don’t have to - congratulate me for not being needy.”

This causes a steep pause, to which Even’s brow furrows in surprise. “Isak,” he says, nearly like a question, but then nothing else follows. He regrets everything he just said, and - 

Isak’s burning up. His jumper is suffocating, and the heat travels from his armpits through his chest and right up to his neck. Surely his cheeks are flushed. He doesn’t say anything else; can’t now, with this lump in his throat. 

“It’s fine,” Isak cuts him off. Then he bites for real. “It’s really not a big deal. You don’t have to - congratulate me for not being needy.”

This causes a steep pause, to which Even’s brow furrows in surprise. “Isak,” he says, nearly like a question, but then nothing else follows. He regrets everything he just said, and - 

Isak’s burning up. His jumper is suffocating, and the heat travels from his armpits through his chest and right up to his neck. Surely his cheeks are flushed. He doesn’t say anything else; can’t now, with this lump in his throat. 

Even asks, confused, “What do you - do you think I think that?”

“I don’t know what you think most of the time.” Well, it’s all just pouring out of him now, and he’s not surprised by how clipped his own voice is; anger is an old friend, unsettling to run into again. His teeth clench and unclench together.

“Well, I don’t think that,” Even snaps. He’s looking at Isak like he has two heads. “What the hell is - “

“But I know some people apparently do,” Isak glares, his hands flexing in his lap. “It's weird you think you have to thank me  -”

“Babe, what are you talking about?” Even’s on full alert, sitting straight up with his shoulders squared, drink forgotten. “No one thinks that you’re needy. Least of all me. Jesus, I was just trying to -”

Even’s flabbergasted outrage only incenses Isak further. Enough now. He’s had enough of this conversation, especially now that it seems Even is lying to him. 

He feels his throat swell at the thought of it, and yet - “I know how your friends feel about me. Jonas told me what they’ve said.”

“What?” Even says sharply, and then realisation dawns on him. It rushes over his face like a dark cloud, shutting him off from Isak completely. “That’s - that’s between me and them, Isak. He shouldn’t have said anything.”

Something inside of him breaks. It feels like humiliation. Or something darker and heavier. He can hardly hold himself up now, his hands shaking in the pockets of his jacket. Anything he says now will only be weakened by the falter in his voice, his throat so thick and painful he knows he can hardly manage another word. How does one remove the lump in their throats without being driven to cut it out?

“I’ve got to go,” he musters, and he gathers his things up in a rush, dashing off. If he could spare to look back, he would have seen the dumbfounded look on Even’s face, one shuttered in disappointment. 

But he does not look behind him. He does not even slow his gait. Not until he is outside in the brisque winter air. He stands there just beyond the library entrance, watching his own breath appear and disappear before him. When he wipes a hand over his mouth, he finds remnants of chocolate on his skin. 

 

-

 

It’s a stark, numbing walk to work. He should use the time to shove everything into the lining of his brain and refocus on trivial matters, but it is impossible.  Wandering through Oslo in the darkness loses its sense of time or purpose and he endures it only through a disjointed daze.The shop windows all bleed into one another. The traffic noise a distance hum under the weighty sound of his own thoughts. 

He’s grateful, however, once he steps inside the Attendant. Closing shifts means he only has to deal with customers for two hours before they shut; the rest of the evening was spent in comfortable quiet restocking the shop and taking inventory. 

Noora is in the back when he arrives. She’s still in her uniform, which appears much more dignified on her than Isak.

“Hey,” she says. 

“Hi,” he waves a mitten hand and starts to disrobe, turning away from her.

“What’s up with you?” She asks, in that nonchalant but knowing way Noora is known for.

“Nothing,” Isak keeps his tone neutral, knowing it will set off all sorts of alarms. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m doing pretty well.” 

He can hear the rustling of her clothes and he doesn’t turn around yet. He’s seen Noora in a few states of undress at home, but this is work. 

Then Noora says, “Did anything happen?”

“What?” He says, feeling that pang again. “No?”

“Okay,” she agrees. “Just seems like you've got something on your mind.”

When he whirls around she’s looking at him with a raised eyebrow, but her expression is faultlessly kind. Abruptly he loses all steam. He doesn’t even know what is coming out of his mouth next, because it isn’t, no, just tired, everything is fine

It’s -

“Even and I just had a fight,” he can hear the tremble in his voice. He looks steadfast at the clock on the wall. Five minutes until his shift. “I think - I don’t know. I think it was my fault.”

“Oh,” Noora frowns, and gently pulls him into a hug. “I’m sorry, Isak. Arguing is the worst.”

“It really is,” he groans. Her hair smells like the shampoo he always steals when he runs out. “I don’t know what I should - ”

“I don’t mean to interrupt this adorable situation happening right now, but I really need to get more receipt paper,” Sonja’s jovial voice breaks Isak’s sentence clean through, and he steps back immediately from Noora so she can pass.

“That’s okay,” Noora says. She squeezes his arm gently. “See you at home.”

“Thanks for all you did today, Noora,” Sonja calls without looking up. “You’re a star.”

“Of course.” 

The next two hours pass in amiable quiet, with only one customer sitting in while he’s working. Isak’s noticed the older man because he’s come in every evening Isak’s worked, and always at half past five. He buys a cup of tea and reads the paper on the window counter without sitting. He wore a dark brown overcoat with broad shoulders and carried an impressive leather bag, and he was sort of - in a way - kind of handsome to Isak. 

It’s still strange to have those thoughts, however fleeting they may be. When it first happened he asked Noora if it counted as cheating - to which she replied no, finding people attractive in passing is a normal part of living life. It’s his intentions and actions which follow that really matter. 

Sonja comes out as Isak’s sweeping and flips the sign. “Finally, we’re closed.”

She surveys the empty room. “Looks very tidy in here.”

“Thanks,” he chuckles. Since their first encounter last week, they’ve adopted a familiarity that usually takes weeks, or sometimes in Isak’s case, months to materialise. But with Sonja it was just easy. Her face was round, and open, and every time she smiled, she did so with all her teeth. It reminded him of Even.

With a drop in his gut, he remembers Even and the afternoon again. His feet turn to lead as he searches for the dustpan.

“I suppose we should start counting,” Sonja runs a hand through her hair, sighing tiredly. “I really don’t have the brain for it tonight.” 

“That makes two of us,” Isak agrees. He pulls one of the high stools and sits at the register opposite her and begins to tally the products sold according to their register. Sonja disappears into the back, presumably to play her own music on the speakers. A moment later a Highasakite song started, and she returned.

“My flatmate Eskild really likes them,” he told her. 

“Oh, he does?” She beamed. 

“Yeah, always playing that one sad song, very loudly,” he gesticulated just how much he’s heard with his hands, “The lover song.”

“That's their classic. This their new stuff, which is also really good,” she said, rifling through their closing paperwork.“What’s today’s date again?” 

“11 February,” he says. 

“That’s right,” she remarks with a small frown. “God, a year and a half ago, I would have never forgotten that,” she remarks, and when he only looks at her in confusion, she adds, “Tomorrow is my ex’s birthday.”

“Huh,” he winces, “Same day as my boyfriend, actually.”

“Oh yeah?” She smiles, “Have anything planned?”

“Kind of, yeah,” he rubs the back of his neck. “It’s sort of weird actually. His friends are throwing him a surprise party, but they - forgot, I guess, to let me in on it. And he found out because... they’re - I don’t know, bad at keeping a secrets? Then he had to invite me to his own surprise party, because I didn't even know.” 

“Christ,” she looks at him frankly, nodding a little. He lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding in, and he feels some of the tension lessening. “That’s shitty. I mean, do you know them?”

A little flicker of light springs from within him - someone who gets it, finally. “Actually, yes. My best friend is their old roommate. We used to hang out at their place during my first year.” 

“Sounds like some passive accidentally-on-purpose bullshit, but what do I know?” Sonja shrugs. “I mean, I don’t blame you if you feel weird about it. But I would be put off by that.”

“Thank you,” Isak nearly bursts, shaking his head. “My best friend tried to make it all about me being awkward, which made me really angry, even though usually I understand what he means.”

“You, awkward?” Sonja laughs. “No way.”

“Go easy on me,” he laughs. 

“But still, Isak. How long does it take to send someone a text?”

“Not long,” Isak agrees. He thought the same thing. 

“Especially if you used to hang, or still do,” she shakes her head now, a little solemn. 

Sonja begin to count the actual product on the walls, Sonja on one end of the store and Isak on the other. 

“I - I’m not sure his friends even like me,” he admits after a while, half speaking to the bags of tea. He does not turn around. “I don’t know. It’s all…”

“Why wouldn’t they like you?” She asks, nonplussed. “You’re negotiably awkward, and always on time, and sometimes you even speak. Very inoffensive.”

Isak chuckles again. He wants to make a joke about how he’s going to put that on his CV, but instead he says. “Apparently, there’s concern that I’m too clingy. And that we spend an 'unhealthy' amount of time together.”

“Well, do you?”

“I don’t know!” He chirps, waving boxes of tea in his hands. “I don’t think we do. Or, I don't know. We see each at uni, and we do study together, and in the evenings we tend to end up at mine. But I have three other flatmates, so we're rarely alone. I guess it's true we don't go over to his that often. I don't know."

“I get it, I’m not judging you,” Sonja’s tone is careful blend of serious and sympathetic, and it calms Isak. He feels like she’d really tell him the truth but in a nice way, rather than rip the rug from under his feet. “There are always so many reasons couples do things the way they do.”

“I guess so, yeah,” Isak nods. Since moving out, he’s adopted rigid routines. Those first few months at the Kollektiv, they were the only thing he had. When Even came along, he simple rewired all those habits to include him in them.

“Which is why it’s annoying to have someone from the outside criticise it,” Sonja continues. “The same thing happened to me before, and I used to really take it personally. But you know what I realised?”

He perks up. Finally, relationship advice coming from someone other than Eskild. “What?” 

“No one quite understands the relationship like the two people in it,” her voice adopts this patient, almost Noora-like quality to it, deep and clear across the room. “Ultimately, those are the two opinions that matter the most.”

“You're...you’re right,” he acquises. 

“I’d be willing to bet his friends are unhappy because they don’t get as much time with him as before.”

“I’m sure that adds to it,” he considers, the unfoldings of this tangled web of he-said-he-said becoming clear for a moment.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be less about you than it appears,” she shrugs, her expression kind even across the room. “To me, it sounds like it’s a problem between your boyfriend and his friends.”

Though it feels like a different statement in this context, coming from his manager of all people, it somehow still rings eerily similar to what Even said to him. 

Sonja checks her clipboard again, shuffling some tea boxes around chaotically. “Ugh. I’m missing a Fennel. Can you go and check underneath the counter? Sometimes staff leave them there.”

 

-

 

The next morning, Isak does something he never does: he skips his lecture. 

He wakes before his alarm. Before he even opened his eyes, his hands were roaming an empty bed for a body that wasn’t there. It all comes rushing back again. An ache awakens in his heart and he sits up in blue darkness, squinting.

Different from all the other times, a longing is born deep within him, and he knows instantly what it feels like to truly miss Even. For a moment he holds himself close. Then he takes a deep breath and lets go.

As he’s walking his stop, a tram arrives on the platform heading to Olso’s main station. Rather than wait for the one towards university, he steps on it without a second thought.

He buys a ticket to Kongsvinger and sits in his seat with a coffee between his legs and his bag slung in the other chair. It’s time to check his phone and stop avoiding his messages.

Noora: I’m up if you wanna talk when you’re home

Sonja Manager: I think you left both your chargers here!

Noora: Are you home yet? It’s almost 1

 

Even: isak

Even: can we talk? 

Even: Everything came out wrong

Even: babe I have to try and get some sleep

Even: I hope you’re ok

Even: let's talk tomo after your class? 

He reads Even’s messages again, but this time in Even’s voice. He catches glimpses of him in his mind’s eye before they disappear again. 

As the train’s pulling away, an overwhelming gratitude comes over him. Everything changed, everything changed the night they met. It was a balmy evening at the very end of summer. The sky was so black it looked almost red, and the city was a muted maroon canvas below.

Then: the glass door slid shut, and someone else was on the balcony with him. He remembers seeing Even before Even saw him. Back then he was always watching. He used to be made of wanting; his hunger a slinking, silent predator. 

When Even’s gaze fell upon him, Isak materialised in a way he hadn’t thought possible before. All of a sudden he was there, and he was seen. It’s feels like a long time ago, but it isn’t. 

Isak: i’m sorry 

Isak: i dont like what i said

Isak: and i’m sorry this happened before your birthday

Isak: happy birthday 

Even responds immediately, which surprises him.

Even: no i’m sorry

Even: I want to see you i miss you

Even: where can we meet after your class

Isak: i didn’t go

Before he can write anything else, his screen shuts down and turns black and then it’s just his own face staring back at him in horror. How this could possibly happen, he doesn’t know, but he desperately digs into his bag for his back up. 

Except there isn’t one. It dawns on him instantly: he did in fact leave them both at work. Sonja even texted him after he left. 

Goddammit, he thinks, throwing his phone dejectedly back into his bag. No music either, so he settles dejectedly with his hands tucked under his knees, staring out the window. Farther away from the city into the endless roadside towns and dense forest, intercepted by more sprawling patchworks of frosty white and gray land. 

At Kongsvinger station he disembarks, and meanders around until he can find the correct bus to his mother’s place. The bus clock reads 08:35, which means breakfast will have just been served. On the south bend of the small stream there is a cluster of small cottages, and in the center stood a large glass atrium. All the buildings had the same octogonal shape but ranged in sizes, creating a spectral of itself. Even the trees grew in a mystifying centrifugal pattern. 

It had been his mother’s residence for nearly four years now. It seems like lifetimes between then and now; in other moments, they’re back in the kitchen foiling the windows up, but those flashbacks happen fewer and farther between, these days  - 

He checks himself into reception and proceeds to the dining hall. Small tables sprawl through a large room, with tall glass walls and ceilings. A few indoor trees cluster in the corners. It appeared as the heaven’s were just above their, their gray clouds broiling in discontent.

In the summer, the light is blinding, toeing the line between abrasive and indulgent. Isak sees his mother almost right away, because he knows where to look. She likes to sit near the left corner. In the spring these tables had the best view of the rose gardens, which were east facing. 

“Isak! I wasn’t expecting you today,” his mother jumps when she sees him, reaching over the table to hug him. She’s clutching a wad of tissues in one hand, and wearing a thick robe with a scarf wrapped around it. “Everything's okay, right? How are you, my dear?”

“Oh yeah, everything’s good. Just missed you,” he says, and it’s true. It’s a specific type of desperation that sends him back to her: one rift with naivete and guilt and embarrassment, problems where there aren’t any right answers, or clear paths to take. His mother understands messy. He didn’t really think about it on the train over; but it’s true - and now that he’s here, there’s a sense of relief. Now he’s forced to take a break from everything; being out here with her in the trees and damp air and endless light made it so. 

He moves on with a joke, “Er, yeah. I also missed having some decent breakfast for once.”

“I’ve missed you too,” she laughs, her teeth gapped like his. She gestures to the bar behind them. “Well, you know the drill. It’s a buffet. Load up.”

“Thanks,” he smiles, and then raises an eyebrow, “How many - ?”

“You should take two plates, definitely,” his mother chuckles, reading his mind. He finds himself smiling when he gets in line with other residents; indeed he piles two plates high full of food, including two cinnamon rolls, bacon, a bowl of fruit salad, and four fried eggs. 

They eat together the way people who have been eating together nearly their whole lives: in near silence, with a pause to ask if it tastes good or to pass the salt. After a while, his mother puts her fork down and starts to read the newspaper. 

At the very last dregs of his juice, she turns the page and fixes him with a look over the rims of her glasses. “So, my dear son. Tell me how you’ve been. You look tired.”

Isak nearly wipes his mouth with his sleeve, but then opts for the napkin at the last moment. “Yeah. I’ve been a bit more busy. Because the term is ending soon and I have a job now.”

“You have a job? Doing what?” 

“It’s a tea shop, called the Attendant,” he says, rummaging through his backpack until it produces a bag of tea. An Oolong blend, soft and creamy. “Here, this is for you.”

“Oh, you always spoil me,” his mother smiles, picking up the bag and reading the label. “Thank you, Isak.”

Her mood is very peaceful today, and Isak feels peaceful in return. Suddenly, his perception narrows in on what's really important, and everything else which felt so urgent and troubling ebbs away. 

“Well you know an insider now. I get samples, and discounts. They do take home bags and bulk tea mostly. Teapot type things too. You can also have a tea in the cafe section. When you want to come visit, I'll take you there.”

“Maybe in the spring,” his mother nods, looking a little apprehensive at the mention of Oslo. Isak understands the tension, and soothes it.

“My flatmate, Noora, helped me get the job - she works there. And my manager is really cool as well. Everyone is. I like it so far,” he explains. “There’s a lot of science behind a perfectly brewed cup of tea, actually.”

“Oh? A learning experience alongside, then.” Her eyes crinkle in the corners when she smiles. Her hand reaches for his on the table. “I’m proud of you. That’s a big responsibility.”

“Thanks, mamma,” he smiles, leaning his chin on his hand, buoyant. 

“And you’re still managing your workload at university?” She presses. “Keeping your grades up?”

“Of course,” he replies reflexively. He can only feel warmth from such a familiar echo, of when she used to be very involved with Isak’s academic vocation. Growing up they used to complete his homework together at the table: she would help with his Norwegian, and he would breeze through his science and math and wait for her to correct it proudly.

“Well, this is all wonderful. Let’s bundle up and brave a walk,” she turns and wags a finger at him jokingly. “We must take Miko or he’ll be cross with us.”

Miko, her little black scruffy dog. Of course. As they stand and leave, he remembers again how little she is, shoulders furrowed inwards like a bird; dark red hair streaked with a little gray. In contrast to her wild hair, her face remained demure and unblemished; her petite features made her look like a young woman from a certain distance. It seems impossible to imagine her as anyone outside of his mother, but he’s the only one.

Her apartment is tucked between two others on the edge of the wood. It even has a little mailbox and front garden that she half-heartedly tends to. Her name plate is nearly identical to the one they used to have. Sometimes it's still strange to be so independent from her. Deep down the urge to take her back to their old house in Oslo persists, quietly, even though there is no longer a house to go back to, and hasn’t been for years. 

Inside, Miko barks from his favorite chair by the fireplace, before leaping off and greeting him. Her apartment was resembled an octogonal donut, where one room bled into another. Above them was her lofted bedroom, reachable by a staircase wrapped along the walls. Down the railing she had twirled purple fairy lights around it, and at the bottom of the stairs sat an impressive BonSai tree collection, a tradition started by his father many years ago. 

Most of her furniture varied in shades of purple, her favorite colour. Of which there are a few key accents, from her previous orange phase, including a bright orange toaster oven. Along her wood walls hung a few intentioned decorations: a cross above a short bookcase. A framed photo of his mother and two of her sisters when they were little. Another picture of her and Isak when he was five or six.

On the mantle is a new photo, from the Kollektiv’s little Christmas Eve. The poor orange lighting makes it darker than intended, but five faces sit outlined together on the sofa. Linn and Noora are wrapped up in blankets on the floor, beaming. Eskild’s wearing a Santa hat and flailing his arms, one dangerously close to knocking into Isak’s head. Isak’s in the middle, with a toothy grin and red cheeks, leaning into Even’s side, whose blue eyes bent backwards over his laughing mouth. Isak stares at it until it becomes blurry, dreaming of that evening. 

“I’ve found the lead,” his mother comes back in the living room, changed and ready to go. He turns around. She looks slightly similar to a small purple cartoon bear. On her head she wore a big fuzzy hat she knitted herself, her body swallowed up by an oversized purple puffy jacket and completed with matching snow boots. Even Miko wears a mauve vest.

“Let’s go,” he nods, following her out. 

“You need a snood,” his mother remarks. She links their arms after letting Miko off to wander freely ahead, and slowly they walk through towards the river. A thin dusting of snow turns the deadened grass crunchy. “Eventually, you’ll catch cold.” 

“Yeah, yeah,” Isak shrugs. Miko’s already found a few other dogs and their owners, and Isak and his mother keep a wide berth. “How have you been?

“This week has been good, but the last few weeks...have been trying,” she says. “I’ve been on a new combination of medications and I’m not sure it’s completely right.”

“Oh,” Isak frowns. There are many moments where he feels unable to understand the opaque complexity of treating his mother’s disorder. “Have you said? Has anyone listened to you about it yet?”

She smiles a little. “Yes and yes. This has been a conversation in the works for a while. My doctor and my therapist know so you can relax.”

“Really?”

“I talked to your aunt as well,” she adds. “Okay?”

“Which one, Elisabeth? Or Aunt Eva?”

“Eva,” she replied.Then she unlinked her arm from his and turned away, staring into the black woods. 

When she turned back again, she wore a face of grief. “I don’t know dear, sometimes, I must admit, it is very tiring, to know that I face this the rest of my days.”

“You don’t know if it’ll always be like this,” he counters. He remembers to keep his voice low and calm, if not for her, than for himself. His heart feels made of glass today. “It could get better. You don’t know.”

“No, I don’t,” his mother quietly agrees, but her eyes droop with sadness. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, coming up to her. He wraps his arms around her. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this. I wish you didn’t.”

He can feel her small hands around his middle, clutching his jacket. In the distance, Miko barks happily, kicking up dirt and snow. 

 

-

 

Back at her apartment, she makes them a pot of black coffee. Her mugs are tiny and hard to handle properly, so he pinches the sides like he’s a giant at a tea party.

“Cake?” She asks. “It’s cinnamon sugar and raisins.”

“Yes, please,” he nods immediately.

His mother laughs. “Thank goodness your bottomless appetite is still there.”

Sitting in a mismatched armchair at the small table covered in dusty lavender crochet, he finds her mobile under the butter dish lid in the center of a peculiar collection of glass figurines.

“Is this its new home?” He asks wrly. She whirls around and then shrugs with disinterest. 

“I only use it to contact you anyway,” she explains. “You know I prefer the landline.”

“Yes, and you can call me on the landline, but what if you want to leave the house, why don’t you take it with you? It’s safer that way. If something happens - ”

“Honey, I’m paranoid enough without having some listening device in my pocket,” she pours them both more coffee and sits down. “Don't give me that look. Listen - I’ve spoken with my therapist a few times, and we both agree that some technology is too much of a trigger for me - “

“I understand this, mamma!” He cuts her off, hand flexing on the table. He exhales. “But - it’s just, won’t you consider one of the reasons you’re depressed is because you remain out of touch and isolated inside, disconnected from everyone? Well!” 

She purses her lips, folding her arms, and he folds his too. Then he remembers just half an hour ago they were standing together in the field and she was pretending she wasn't crying, and he knows he can’t go on like this. 

“Sorry. It doesn’t have to be about the phone. I just want there to be something you like to do, that makes you happy,” he mutters. 

She took a long sip of her coffee. Her expression remained aloof, but nonetheless after a few minutes she nodded in agreement. 

“You’re right,” she says uneasily. “There is one thing I was considering... A church I would like to join. Elisabeth’s neighbours go and she said apparently the pastor is a woman and brings new perspectives, so that's interesting. On top of that - Elisabeth has told me there’s some kind of craft fair they throw every year. They have a committee and everything.”

“That sounds perfect,” Isak says. “When are you going to go?”

She blinks. “Well,” she starts, and pauses. “I would love to, actually… what if you would come and attend with me one Sunday. It could be really good - don’t you think? What do you say? Or would you just hate that?”

“Oh,” Isak nods dumbly. It’s been a couple years since he’s gone to church. By the time he was fifteen, they were going twice a week, and her fanaticism was often unbearable. Those were times clipped with fear. By the way his mother is looking at him, she hasn’t forgotten this either. 

“It would just be - I would love for you to come, for people to meet me knowing about you, my son, and it makes it - easier to bond with people. When they see that I am just - like them. A mother.” 

Isak remembers the pews in the church they attended when he was really young. They were long cherry coloured wooden benches in orderly rows wrapping around the podium. From God’s view, they were hardly more than just ants on a log, something Isak thought about a lot, lost in daydreams and scribbling  on the backs of communion cards. 

“But not just that. It’s not just about me. At one point, it was something we did together, and it was good,” she adds.

After sermons, there was another room with a massive long white table under a stately red cloth. It seemed to go on forever in that dark ornate wooden room. Behind this table his mother and other ladies she knew would serve coffee and bring out more of those little cookies and cakes. Her hair was always curled away from her face, and she wore dresses she never wore the rest of the week. 

Finally he nods. “Just tell me when you want to go and I’ll be there. I can come the night before and we can have dinner If you’d like.”

“Really, you wouldn’t mind it?” She beams, mouth teeming with joyful surprise. “Oh, that would be more than I could ever ask for, Isak. Really.”

“We should have done this a long time ago,” he decides, and sighs. “But we’re doing it now, so.”

When they finish their coffee, and Isak munches on a second piece of coffee cake, she gets up and puts a vinyl on her vintage record player, fitting the needle and turning it on. She loved that hulking, burnt orange thing, and secretly Isak did too. It was easy to find records whenever he went to a thrift shop to bring along when he’d plan to see her. 

“When are you going back today?” She asks. 

“What time is it?”

“Nearly lunch time,” she says, looking at the giant clock just above her wood stove. “11:45.”

“I should probably go soon,” he says. 

His mother his mother realigns the needle on her record player and it begins to play something softer now. She smiles and sways a little, tip toeing around Miko lying on the sofa, and collects their plates. It was a whimsical, gentle type of jazz his mother really enjoyed. It would be a great soundtrack to one of Even’s short films he’s always working on. 

“You know - how I've told you about Even?”

His mother smiles knowingly. “A mother always remembers what her children tell her. Seems like a very lovely young man.” 

Isak laughs a little, abruptly nervous. Is he going to do this now? His thoughts all scatter around, colliding with one another until it becomes incoherent. “Yes, he is.” 

He swallows.

“Well, what about Even?” She asks. “Is everything alright with him? And his family?”

“He’s fine,” Isak assures her. Then he exhales sharply and says, “ Actually he’s pretty good. We’ve... recently decided to become a couple.”

His mother's eyes widen, but she does not recoil. The song skips for a moment, and then resumes, humming sweetly. “You and Even are together?” 

“Yes,” he nods. He doesn’t want to look up again, so he stares at his hands. Both his thumbs face up at him, a little crooked. 

She hasn’t said anything yet, and his face is very hot, and he wonders if at any moment he will deeply regret saying anything. It had been a relatively peaceful day, too. 

“Are you happy?” Her question, along with her tone, surprises him. She just stares at him with open curiosity on her face. 

He nearly chokes when he nods. “I am. I’m really happy.” 

His mother relaxes, and she smiles in a way he’s never seen before, that he wouldn’t even have a name for. She comes over to where he’s sitting, and for a moment he’s unsure of what is happening. She puts her hands on both his shoulders and leans down so they’re at eye level. “I’m so happy to hear this, Isak,” she says without blinking. “I’m happy you told me.”

“You’re not disappointed?” He asks in a rush. “I’m sorry. I know I didn’t tell you earlier about liking - well, liking boys. I didn’t want you to be stressed, I know it’s a lot, and -”

“Isak, listen,” she regards him seriously. “It is a failure of me as a mother to make you feel like you couldn’t come to me.”

“It is not,” he protests, “Many parents reject their children because of this, and their completely within - “

“I doubt they are within their right mind, if that’s what you’re about to say,” she quiets him. He feels a hot stroke of guilt for saying something so careless. But she presses on before he can apologise. 

“There’s - your childhood - there’s so much I wish I could take back. Or at the very least, do differently.”

He’s heard her say this before. Many times, since she was discharged from the hospital and moved here to Kongsvinger. He’s come in a handful of times for family therapy during his first year of university - something he absolutely despised, given the state it would leave him in on the train back home - and this was often what it always devolved to: regrets, sadness, and the ever elusive damage which remained.

“I know,” he nods. “It’s not like that. It wasn’t - you never said anything about it, but when we went to church, it was - it is in the Bible, and it’s a sin. And I worried you also felt that way.”

“The Bible says a lot of things,” she sits down across from him, one of her hands still folded over his forearm. “It’s a great doctrine, but it’s still just a doctrine. My relationship to God is with God, it doesn’t just exist through the Bible.”

“That’s true,” he nods. His eyelashes are damp when he rubs his eyes. He feels wrung out. 

“And you know what God says to me, when I pray to Him?” 

“What?”

“That I should open my heart to love. And by knowing love, I become closer to God. And I love you so much Isak. Nothing will change that. You are my most beloved son.”

There’s the pull; there goes his last straw, and it ripples through his being, until he slumps forward and begins to cry in earnest. His mother embraces him immediately, their heads touching where she leans over to shield him. She still wears the same perfume she’s worn his entire life, and some things never change. A million memories surface and rinse him like a flash flood; at once he realises he’s not just crying for himself, but for the both of them.

 

-

 

She insists on escorting him back to the station with Miko in tow. They take the scenic route, ambling along. The morning was heavy and cathartic and gray, and now he needs the near hour journey back in silence to process it all. 

She pulls out a cigarette and then side eyes him. “What?” She asks flatly, though he’s not said anything yet. “I know, I know it’s bad for me, I know I should quit, but come on. Let your mamma live a little.”

“I didn’t say anything,” he laughs. “Your defense sounds a little too rehearsed.”

“Hah! You said it all with your eyes,” she ribs him. “I wouldn’t be too quick to assume you’re as innocent as you say you are, son.”

His own laughter is boisterous and loud. She’s also laughing. It breaks the silence of the woods around them. He aims for deadpan and fails profusely, “What are you talking about? I’m perfectly innocent! I can truthfully say I do not smoke. Swear it.”

“Maybe not cigarettes, but I’m on to you,” she teases, and he falls silent, his mouth hanging open. He can’t believe his mother is calling him out like this. He thought he was pretty discreet, and it helped that they didn’t even live in the same town, and yet - she still guesses correctly about things she should have no prior knowledge to.

“Look, I’m not guilty unless proven otherwise, and that’s all I’m going to say,” he says.

They pass through clearing, where the snow has yet to be muddied. The station is just around the corner, but he secretly wishes it were a bit further. 

“Did I mention today is Even’s birthday?” 

“No, you did not,” she hooks Miko back to his lead. “Tell Even Happy Birthday from me. I’ll send something in the post.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” he says as he buys a ticket back. 

“I want to,” her insists. "Did you get him a present?"

"Yes," Isak informs her proudly. "Almost a month ago."

"How prepared you are!" His mother laughs. "What is it?"

"It's tickets to a musical called Cry Baby. The National Theatre is doing it," Isak explains, smiling just at the thought of it. "It was a movie from the 80's - "

"I know what Crybaby is, Isak, that was my time, remember," she snarks, teasing. "I'm sure he'll love it."

Then she sighs and opens her arms for him to step into them. Into his chest she says, “What a great surprise to have you here. I’m thankful we had this time together.”

“Me too, Mamma,” he’s being honest, even to himself, when he says that.  An indescribable feeling runs through his entire body. They both ignore the way he clears his throat, voice wavering. “Thank you for everything.”

“That’s not a problem,” she shrugs, already slipping back in her signature nonchalant style. “You take care now, and enjoy the celebrations tonight.”

“I will.”

“Wear a snood next time.”

“I will.”

“Don’t forget to call your old lady.”

He rolls his eyes. “I won’t.”

“That’s all I can ask for,” she smirks. “Well, Miko and I will be here. Until next time.”

“Until next time,” he waves before boarding, and Miko lets out a little bark. His mother waves back jovially, purple limbs fluttering.

The train pulls away and they become tiny figures on a platform. He sits, awash with relief. It’s a feeling he doesn’t have often, and he clutches at it possessively, mulling it over on the train to Oslo. The coldness inside of him melts, and in its place is a warm, yellowed feeling emerged, tender and forgiving and hopeful. 

 

-

No one is home when he arrives, so he goes into Linn’s room for her cable and plugs it into a socket in the kitchen. As soon as he can stand for it to restart he’s in his messages again.

Even: you didn’t go? Are you okay?

Even: Isak?

Jonas: hey, are you okay? Even said you skipped your lecture

Jonas: and now you’re not answering your phone?Jonas: I know it’s been hard lately

Jonas: where did you end up going?

Jonas: ok well

Jonas: let me kno

Noora: I’m going to bring your chargers home later

Noora: but Mutta is gonna pick me up

Noora: don’t tell eskild thanks

Even: my message aren’t delivering? Is your phone dead??

Even: i’m getting a little worried

Even: can you please let me know where you are?

Isak: I’m home. I’m sorry, I’m home now

 

-

 

He’s in the bathroom when Even finds him, hair damp and windswept, scarf is thrown over his shoulder like he’s a film star. Isak is naked from the waist up, standing in his own hair. He must let himself in with the spare key they keep in the frog planter, because he comes alone. The buzz of the clippers is the only sound between them when their eyes meet in the mirror. 

He flips them off and sets them on the basin. Half of his golden hair is in the sink now; even a full curl, the ones Even loved to wrap around his fingers.

Even shrugs out of his clothes and drops them next to Isak’s. He’s wearing black underwear, a little loose around his thin thighs. Isak shivers under his hands, which are old from the air outside, but presses his shoulders back into them. 

“Hi,” Isak murmurs. There’s hair everywhere, in his navel, or his ears, falling from his shoulders and down his arms. Even examines his skull with great attention, but his expression gives away nothing. 

“Let me help you with the back,” is all he says, and Isak nods, passing the clippers behind him. 

The light overhead reflects off the dark tile, casting a greenish glow on their pale skin. Under the right angle there appears blue rings under his eyes. Isak’s not sure how to describe them except for steep

“What happened to you?” Even asks softly.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” Isak apologises, frowning. “I went to visit my mother, and my phone died, and I didn’t have a spare charger. I wish I told you earlier, but truthfully I didn’t realise until after it was too late.”

“It happens,” Even says. A little aloof, which means his guard is still up. His fingers are firm but gentle as they go up and down Isak’s scalp, following where he’s buzzing. "How is Marianne?"

Isak smiles. "She's good. She says happy birthday."

"That's sweet," Even switches to his other side, “I’m sorry too. I wanted to explain, but it was all so - it felt like a lot to say, and most of it doesn’t make sense without a ton of backup context - ”

“Well. You were right,” Isak tilts down so Even can reach his neck. “It’s between you and them. I know I don’t try very hard to be part of their friendship group and that’s - yeah. On me. But it still hurt, I guess.”

The truth leaves his mouth differently than lies do. Even’s looking resolutely at his head, still cutting away, and it comforts him to know he’s not the only one who feels shy about talking like this. Isak sees the evidence of his beetroot chest, aflame from his confession.

“Isak...I don’t know where to begin.”

“Just start somewhere,” he frowns. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because…” he steps back. The sallow green light hits the shadow made by his collarbone. The way his stare bore into him, dark with intensity even in the mirror, contradicted the gentleness of his touch trailing over his head.

“Because it upset me,” Even confesses. “And it’s weird. Look. My friends...it’s not that they don’t like you, they do. They - want you to like them. But...I don’t know, they just don’t express it right.”

“Why does it - I do like them,” Isak shakes his head. He’s had this conversation with Jonas maybe ten times at least, and it’s grown old. “I’ve known them a long time, because of Jonas, way before I knew you. We’ve always been friendly.”

“I know,” Even concedes, heaving a loaded sigh. “As a matter of fact Mikael does really like you too. It’s not that he doesn’t, it’s just that’s it’s complicated with him sometimes. We....The thing is, that’s how we grew up,” he finally finishes, as if that explains everything.

Isak shakes his head, and plods further, confused. “Okay?”

“Like - since we were kids, I was the wild one, he was the cautious one, that kind of thing,” he continues. “Always looking out for me, pulling me back from the proverbial cliff. It - when we were at Bakka, some serious shit went down, shit that resulted in me being diagnosed as bipolar. And Mikael was there for me, when he didn’t have to be.”

Isak has a million questions, all ripping through his head like they’re on a giant spinning wheel. He licks his lips. “So you argued because Mikael is trying to...look out for you - because of me?”

“That’s the thing,” Even shakes his head. “He tried to make it about you, and I was so angry, because I knew - we both knew - that it wasn’t.”

“It wasn’t?”

“No. It was about me, and who I am, “the choices I make,”” he listed off, air quoting and shrugging one shoulder. 

“Okay,” Isak sighs, half-heartedly accepting this. “You could have just said that instead of me hearing it from Jonas.”

Even looks crestfallen at once, his face ashen. “I know,” he agrees quietly. "I regret how unnecessarily awful this was for you." Then he whispers into the crown of Isak’s head: “I’m sorry I hurt you,” and seals it with a kiss.

“I forgive you,” Isak nods. 

“You don’t have to,” he protests.

“I want to forgive you,” he argues back. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

This brings a smile out of him and Isak can’t help but reflexively a little grin too. 

“I’m sorry it’s complicated,” Even continues. “All my relationships are always so damn complicated. And I know it’s my fault they’re like that. Not that I think that’s an excuse. It’s not.”

“I don’t think you’re that complicated,” Isak shakes his head and then immediately has to spit hair out of his mouth.

“Oh babe, how I wish that were true,” Even jokes, but he blinks and his gaze is suddenly one thousand years old.“Mikael and I talked last night.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, we did. Everything had calmed down but I was upset all over again when I came home last night, and I just - snapped, I guess. Well we ended up talking and saying sorry, and he, uh - he wants to apologise to you too.”

“You told him I know?” Isak asks, briefly horrified.

“Of course I did, I was fucking pissed, babe,” Even says passionately. “We had to figure it out then and there, or - I don’t even know what.”

Even tilts head to the side now, finding any remaining hairs behind his ears, gentle and methodically precise. “I promise. If you want to know everything, we can talk about everything. It’s just a lot. But if anything - like this - happens again, I’ll tell you.”

Isak nearly nods, but holds still. All thoughts abruptly pause. He considers what is being said.  Are they negotiating how to proceed from here? The argument already feels a little abstract. There were apologies and everything. Yet, here Even is problem solving - so the same mistake isn’t made again. It’s strangely mature and not at all intuitive to Isak’s usual emotional mechanics in stressful situations.

Holy shit, Isak realises dumbly, staring up at his beautiful, blonde boyfriend - this was communication. It seemed like a phantom concept, until he was in the middle of doing it.

“I’ve never thought you were clingy, either for the record,” Even continues, clearly missing the silent epiphany Isak is having. “Hanging out with you these past few months have been some of the happiest of my short and relatively uneventful life. I don’t regret a single minute.”

Isak turns around, struck with the devastating whiplash of butterflies. Here’s Even in his vulnerable glory. Here’s Even holding these stupid old clippers. Here’s Even not asking questions, just giving answers. Here’s Even naked in his underwear, not touching, but still touching - these utmost hidden parts of Isak - with his words. Face spread open in tenderness. Face absent of human fear.

Isak loves him. Isak is in love with him. He leans up to kiss him, a kiss which affirms this feeling further.

When they break, Even’s expression is still so serious. He cups one of Isak’s cheeks, leans in close, their noses grazing. “I just hope - if I’m honest - you won’t start to doubt anything. Because what we have is real.”

He nods. A moment of quiet blooms between them for several long breaths. Finally Even picks up the clippers and Isak turns around again. 

When he’s finished, he dusts the last remnants off, hands so gentle they feel like ghosts. Isak presses back into Even’s ministrations, until it becomes firmer, hand moving up his skull and then back down his neck and into the dip between his shoulders. He leans in close enough for Isak to feel his breath on his ear. 

Even’s arms snaked around him, their bodies overlapping, and Isak clutched loosely at his wrists, holding him there until their gazes aligned again in the mirror again. 

“You’re right,” Isak agrees quietly. “It is real.”

Even kisses his cheek, a little wet. Isak’s skin goose-bumps all the way down.

 

-

 

They’re late to Even’s own surprise party. 

Sometimes this happens. Isak likes to call it a side affect. Time bends itself for lovers and becomes uninteresting. After he sweeps the last of his hair into the bin, Isak goes to his bedroom. There’s music playing from the speaker on his dresser. Even is staring out the window, his pale back illuminated by the orange lamp. Shadows make his skeleton appear almost macabre, and when he turns around to return Isak’s beloved gaze, his eyes are burning. 

Isak sits next to him, running a hand over his neatly shorn head.  

“You look like you did when I first met you,” Even just about whispers. He clears his throat. 

“I still dream about that night.”

“Yeah?” 

“Yeah,” Isak tips his chin up for a kiss, waiting. “You know I do.”

Even responds with a half-strangled noise, hands coming up to tilt his chin, his mouth hovering, just their breaths mingling. When they kiss, it sinks all the way down through him, and he inhales through his nose roughly, his body surging forward until their chests press flush together. His hands wander down the careful planes of Even’s back, over every mole and freckle and bone alike, pressing down into the sinewy muscle.

Even’s mouth is warm and incapable of fully separating, his teeth pulling on Isak’s bottom lip, his cheek, and along his jaw. His fingers press in to the side of his face.

“You’re so beautiful,” Even says in his ear, and Isak shudders a little, rubbing their cheeks together, unable to part from him. Even called him beautiful before, but he’s the only one to really do so, and it still hits Isak like a sucker punch, a big red bruise blooming over his entire body, until he’s overheated and tender to the touch.

They both curl around each other on his duvet, Even’s fingers seeking for curls no longer on Isak’s head, and clutching him tightly, their naked skin against each other. It’s outrageous that this is his life now, that he can touch someone like Even and be touched in return - that he can feel the things he does in just a kiss, that he - 

“Love you,” he says between bouts of heavy kissing, his mouth swollen. “I love you, Even.”

“My God,” Even murmurs under his breath. Whenever he’s turned really turned on, as in - thoughts going static turned on; as in white noise and thighs trembling turned on - Even erupts in a fervour. His hands are everywhere. Their bodies escalate. His mouth only a running, unfiltered dialogue under his breath, brimming with expletives and wonder. It borders on sacrosanct, the things he says, and it’s overwhelming to receive it all, but Isak tries his best. He tries to pour everything he feels back into him. 

They end up naked, duvet and pillows strewn around them on the floor. Even’s stroking himself, regarding Isak’s body with longing. He sits back on his knees, leaning on his free hand and blinks languidly, stretched out like an otherworldly creature. 

“Even,” he whines, opposite, his own neglected dick throbbing against his hip.  He does not touch himself, his hands sliding up Even’s thighs on either side of him but not close enough their wrists bump each other. “Tell me what you want.”

“Why?” Even asks, brows furrowed, teasing. 

But Isak’s ready for it. “Because, it’s your birthday. And on your birthday, we do what you want.”

Even sits up again, hands coming up to touch Isak’s face and leaning in so they’re just able to kiss. 

“I can have anything?” He whispers.

“Anything.”

“Okay… then fuck me.”

Isak pulls back, surprised. “Are you sure?”

Even scrunches his nose in a moment of embarrassment, and then presses on. “Very sure.”

Isak sees everything in flashes. Even’s hands on his face. The sound of their mouths kissing, teeth sliding against bottom lips, sucking. The rustling of sheets, a groan splitting all their seams in their restraint. Lube cap flipping open, then shut. The broken half of a nervous chuckle, swallowed by another kiss. The inhibitions fleeing away. The heat of Even all around him. The heat of being inside of him, watching his fingers disappear again and again. The incredulity and awe which rises in him like a tide at the expression on Even’s face when Isak finally slides him to him. The ragged inhale when he finally bottoms out. 

Pin drop silence, just one heaving breath, then two, and then - 

And then -

It’s just bodies, and colours, and closeness. It’s another side effect. Time creases in the face of love making like this, and Isak’s hip snap forward, harder, and harder, holding Even close, folding his body up, and Even just grips his shoulders and keeps him closer still, kissing him, hardly letting him breathe, consuming him whole, swallowing him up entirely, until they’re one.

He pauses, pulling away. Even gazes up at him with a hooded stare. “You feel so good, baby,” Even says, hushed. “I knew you would fuck me so good.”

He slows, rolling his hips, thinking about the angle that feels incredible when he’s receiving. He reaches for the nearest pillow, wedging it under Even's hips until he can slide deeper. Then he touches Even’s neglected cock and strokes it to an unbearable hardness, so beautiful and pink it can only be derived from suffering. 

“Oh,” Even raises his eyebrows, sighly suddenly, hands in his own hair, fucking it up when Isak pulls back nearly all the way and then slides smoothly again, dragging against Even’s prostate. “Oh - shit.”  

He keeps looking at Isak in surprise, like he didn’t know, and Isak nearly combusts from the knowledge that yes, fuck yes, exactly. He didn’t know it could feel like this until it'd happened to him too.

“Feels good?” He asks, slowing down again and running his hand up Even’s dick, trying to recoordinate. 

Yes. Fuck, I can’t believe it,” Even groans, face screwing up again when Isak picks up speed. “Fuck -”

“I’m not going to last much longer,” Isak confesses, leaning down closer and kissing the side of Even’s damp head. “Please -”

“You’re doing so good, baby,” he coaxes, fucking back against Isak, his legs wrapping loosely around his thighs and pressing against him. It overwhelms his body into overdrive, his orgasm building at a blinding speed, and Isak loses the last bastion of his control, thrusting into Even hard enough his thighs twitch in response.

“Fuck,” Even curses again, eyelids fluttering, hips egging him on, deeper, and deeper, until - until Isak can feel the moment Even begins to come in his hand, and only then he lets himself go, eyelids rolling shut and head tip backed, a powerful zipline of euphoria deep in his belly and down his spine. He surrenders to it, body shaking.

After a few deep, wet breaths, they seperate, and Isak rolls off, reaching down for the toilet roll under his bed. 

Even chuckles, eyes closed, “I can hear you crinkling all that tissue, but it won’t save us, babe.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Isak folds too easily when he’s just fucked like this, and he doesn’t even care. He leans over and kisses Even’s chapped mouth.

“I really enjoyed that,” Even whispers. He takes the toilet paper and mops his stomach, wincing a little. “The best present ever.”

Isak scoffs lightly. “That’s not your present.”

“You got me something?” His eyes shine, touched.

They both sit up, Even frowning as he does, and Isak understands, having been in that exact situation. He hands him more toilet paper. Then he reaches for a joint he rolled yesterday he never smoked. 

“Yes, of course I did,” Isak scoffed, pretending not to pass the joint. “Shall I give it to you now, or later?”

“Later. The best surprise for last,” Even smiles, and then rolls onto his side, propping his head up on one hand. “So. Did you like it?”

“Oh my God, Even, of course, it was fucking - next level,” Isak stares at him in disbelief. “I just didn’t know you wanted to try that.”

Even takes a big hit of the joint, “Yeah. I mean, you seem to enjoy it, and I was curious to know what all the fuss is about.”

“Eskild told me that everyone always says it, but true verses don’t exist,” Isak says randomly. “But I think he's wrong. I think I like both.”

“Me too. And I think we can do whatever we want,” Even shrugs, and yes, that’s true. They’ve always been open about what they’ve wanted so far. Later tonight they’re going to be at a party. He briefly imagines it, and then a new thought arrives in his head, and it begins to grow heavy.

“Can I ask you something?” Isak braves after they've finished the joint. 

Even nods.

“What did you mean when you said, ‘it was really about you?’”

Even bites his lip and stares somewhere above Isak’s head. Out at the dark sky. He says, “It’s about balance. Living a normal life is about balance, you know.”

Isak shrugs, “Sure.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about the concept. I’m either all in or I’m not. With many things, and with people. And now, with you,” Even looks at him finally. 

“Why do you think that is?” Isak asks, considering.

“I'm not sure. Some would explain it away as my disorder, but I’m not sold on that, not completely,” he says. He licks his lips. “I think it’s just me. Who I am. I want to be - ” he swallows, and his voice darkens,“I’ve always - I want to be inside the things that make me feel alive.”

Isak understands. He’s always stood on the outside of the pleasures of love, looking in; never really knowing more than their imagined outlines. He knows what it's like to crave to feel real. 

He nods. “But. I like how you are.”

“I do too, usually,” Even confesses, smiling a little. “It’s just that I’m not always easy to live with, is all. Unbalanced. That energy, then not, that intensity, the lack of - I don't know. I take a toll.”

Then Isak understands why Even’s expression grows world weary and heavy. He thinks of his mamma, in her geometric, purple house, and everything that happened this morning. How much better he felt after he saw her; how he couldn't being to think, despite everything, what he would stand to lose if she changed. He thinks of telling Even he came out to his mother, but he saves it. 

"I disagree," Isak murmurs gently. He doesn't look at Even. “You are who you are for a reason. My mother use to tell me we are all God’s children. And he loves us the way we are, because he knew us before we were born.”

“That’s a nice thing to believe,” Even murmurs. Isak moves the ashtray and lays down next to him, their arms tangling. 

“It helps, sometimes,” Isak sighs, kissing Even again. Their conversation falls silent, and they listen to Even’s playlist, heads pressed together and hands folded in between them.

At the sound of the front door closing and voices filling the hall, they finally abandon the bed for the shower, and eventually, the evening dials back it’s somber hues for brighter, giddier notes as they dress for Even’s not-so-surprise party. Linn and Eskild are cooking in the kitchen, music playing loudly. He wonders if Noora's already with Mutta at the flat with everyone else, waiting for them. He texts Jonas finally letting him know they were finally on their way, uneasy when he combs through the six unread messages from previous. 

The only clean clothes they have at hand are all black, and Even combs his hair back over his ears, smiling at Isak in the mirror. When Even is dressed up like this and his gaze beings to glow a little, it's almost unsettling how arresting he is. He's so beautiful, Isak thinks. Excitement bursts abruptly inside of him, and it becomes startling clear. He's celebrating the birthday of his boyfriend for the first time, and he wants Isak there with him every moment, and they just made love in this bed, Isak's bed, just before this. He relaxes, at once distant from his previous anxiety about the other boys. It was Even's opinion that mattered.

“Just so you know, Eskild’s definitely going to want a photo before we leave,” Isak says, slipping Even’s birthday envelope in his pocket. "It's another tradition here. Then you go up on the Birthday wall in the hall. I don't make the rules here."

“That’s fine by me,” Even beams, crossing the room and kissing him. "My boyfriend is really hot, so.”

“Oh he is, hmm?” Isak teases. “What a coincidence. So is mine.”

“Ready?” Even asks, hand on the door, and Isak nods. He's ready.

 

-