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When Mark was seven years old, he almost died.

At least, that’s what his parents tell him. Mark thinks it’s more likely that he was on the verge of insanity, though they could be right in thinking that his brain might simply have overloaded and shut down. He doesn’t know how much of what they tell him is true, as he remembers very little of what happened before his eighth birthday. He has never been able to figure out if it’s because of the blocks put into his mind or if his brain simply hadn’t had the capacity to store memories until then.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. He comes from a long line of telepaths on his mother’s side, and though his father’s predictive abilities aren’t particularly impressive, he has never lost a bet during March Madness.

His mother tells him that his powers first manifested at two years old. His mother noticed that Mark didn’t like to be touched, that he was uncomfortable if people were angry or upset around him. She didn’t think much of it at the time.

One of Mark’s few memories from childhood includes his first day at kindergarten. All he remembers is being assaulted with other people’s emotions, feelings of nervousness and anger and sadness at being parted from mommy. One little girl brushed past him, her bare skin touching his, and all he could hear was, I don’t wanna be here why do I have to be here I miss my mommy, until she moved away.

He remembers trying to explain to his parents, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what was happening to him. He knows it now – he’s an empath, a particularly strong one. Strong enough that he can hear people’s thoughts when they touch his bare skin, and strong enough that he can sense them through clothing.

Mark’s mother says that the day she realized something was wrong was the day she woke up to hear Mark screaming in his room. She found him curled up on his bed, his hands pressed over his ears. When she tried to roll him over, he only screamed louder. She tried touching his mind with her abilities, but got only static and a horrible, nauseating rush of emotions that sent her reeling back.

Panicked, she called up another telepath friend, one who specialized in teaching people how to control their powers. The telepath came over to their house and placed her hands on either side of Mark’s head, projecting calm and peace as hard as she could. Mark calmed, slowly, and the telepath pushed her way inside Mark’s head.

Mark remembers feeling a calm presence in his head that showed him how to build up walls to protect himself, to keep people from getting in and to keep his powers from spilling out. He built his walls so tight and so strong that he boxed away his innate ability to recognize emotions, though none of them realized that at the time. Even if they had, Mark doesn’t know that he would have done anything differently. He was finally at peace in his own mind.

When he tells Eduardo all of this, Eduardo looks at him with a strange look that Mark can’t read. After a long moment of silence, Eduardo says, “All right,” his voice quiet and slightly wobbly. Mark stares at him for a long moment, but he can’t tell whether Eduardo is upset or pitying or just drunk. Mark nods, his head feeling a bit heavy, and he leans back on the sofa.

Next to him, Eduardo lets out a soft sigh and says quietly, “I’m sorry, Mark.”

“It’s nothing to be sorry for,” Mark says, turning his head to look at Eduardo. “You had nothing to do with it.”

Eduardo’s mouth quirks upward in a half-smile. “I’m sorry anyway.”

“I don’t understand,” Mark admits after a moment.

“I know,” Eduardo says. He reaches out as if to touch Mark’s leg and then drops it back to his side, his smile turning wry. Mark closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to try to interpret Eduardo’s reactions.


*****

Despite the blocks, Mark doesn’t pretend that he doesn’t have powers. On the SATs, he checks off the yes box under the label Powers and writes on the line below, empathy. There are all sorts of precautions set in place at schools to keep people from using their abilities to unfair advantage, but it’s only fair that he is honest.

Most people assume that his power has something to do with technology or that his intelligence is somehow related to it. He has considered writing a paper on why intelligence has nothing to do with powers, but he has no interest in biology and the study of the omega gene or whatever they’re choosing to call it these days.

He doesn’t usually tell people he’s an empath; the few times he has, they’ve assumed he was joking. Eduardo was the only one who sat and listened as Mark explained the whole story.

He tries not to touch other people if he can avoid it, unless he really needs to know what they’re thinking. It’s how he knows, at the bar, that Erica isn’t joking about breaking up with him. He reaches out to grab her hand and he can see in her face that she is startled by the physical contact. He has rarely initiated it in the past, but now he wants, needs to know what she’s feeling. He can feel the muted presence of her pulsing rage and some underlying sense of sadness, and the hint of an angry, poisonous thought –

He jerks his hand away and lets her leave after she calls him an asshole. His stomach churns unpleasantly as the word rings in his head. He toys with his beer glass for a moment, then sets it back down and heads back to his dorm room, jogging to stave off the cold. He sits down in front of his computer and lets out a sigh of relief, feeling better immediately.

Technology isn’t his power, but he’s always found it easier to deal with computers than people. Computers don’t have emotions to miss or to be overburdened by. He can immerse himself in code and not once have to wonder if he’s offending someone or missing something important.

In high school, Mark hadn’t known very many people with powers. There had been a few -- a girl who could astral project and a boy who could teleport -- but they hadn’t been friends with Mark. Mark had kept mostly to himself and his small knot of acquaintances. He hadn’t ever mentioned his powers to them.

At Harvard, things are different. He meets Chris early on, sees Chris absent-mindedly gesturing books towards him, and he meets Dustin later when Dustin zips out of nowhere, dust clouding behind him like he’s the Roadrunner. Neither of them thinking anything of their abilities; it’s just something that’s a part of them, like Chris being into politics or Dustin liking horrible puns.

Eduardo doesn’t have any powers, but he doesn’t seem to mind, unlike most people Mark has met. He’s never wanted them, he claims when Mark asks about it. At least, Eduardo thinks he has no powers. Mark becomes convinced, though, that Eduardo is some kind of blank spot – maybe he negates powers, Mark thinks, because he can never feel anything from Eduardo, even the few times they’ve brushed hands while reaching for the remote or when Eduardo has slapped him on the back.

Mark brings it up as casually as he can one night while they’re watching a movie in Mark’s room. Eduardo’s mouth curves upward in a small smile. “Yeah, well,” he says. “I’m the son of a very rich man, Mark. I was taught to shield my thoughts when I was five.”

“Oh,” Mark says. He tries to subtly lean up against Eduardo, but Eduardo notices immediately and just leans into Mark, their bodies touching from shoulder to thigh. Mark still can’t hear or feel even one of Eduardo’s emotions. Mark relaxes slowly and breathes out, Eduardo’s body warm against his. He doesn’t feel a single thing and it’s absolutely wonderful.


*****

Mark thinks that Sean’s power is a bit of a cheat. Sean is a mimic and he has gotten good at being able to retain powers once he’s away from the person he mimics. Eduardo doesn’t like it, says it’s an indication of someone who’s predisposed to dishonesty. Mark doesn’t really care about that so much; his own power is so carefully guarded that Sean can’t get at it and besides, who would want empathy that strong?

Sean can’t believe that Mark’s an empath. “Seriously?” he asks in disbelief when Mark tells him. “I’ve never met one before, but you don’t seem like the type.”

“Hey,” Eduardo says sharply from Mark’s side. Christy, who had gotten bored when the discussion turned more technical, is absently passing a flame from finger to finger and watching the fire dance across her hands.

“No offense,” Sean says quickly, lifting his hands and shooting a sidelong look at Eduardo. Eduardo doesn’t seem satisfied with this, though Mark can’t see why not.

Towards the end of dinner, they end up discussing powers. Christy talks about the first time she realized she could create fire and Sean mimics her, producing a tiny flame in the palm of his hand. Eduardo sits there scowling and Mark wonders if he’s jealous, if he’s finally grown dissatisfied with being a Neg. When he asks about it in the taxi ride back to the hotel, Eduardo snorts derisively and doesn’t reply.


*****

When Dustin tells Chris he’s going with Mark to California for the summer, there’s a long silence before Chris says, “Fine.” Mark, who is watching Dustin’s face, sees the way Dustin’s face falls and he frowns, not comprehending the tension he can feel in the air between them.

Later he hears them arguing and he hears Chris say, “You don’t have to go with him.”

“You could come along,” says Dustin, his voice small. “We could use you.”

“My boyfriend is here,” Chris says, his voice sounding slightly strained. “And Eduardo isn’t going.”

“That’s what you’re going to judge this against?” Dustin asks incredulously.

“Dustin,” sighs Chris. After that, Mark stops listening; there are some things he just shouldn’t know about his friends.

Chris does come to California about a week before Eduardo’s disastrous visit. He brings his current boyfriend with him and Dustin hardly talks for the three days that Chris is in the house.


*****

Mark loses most of that summer to the haze of coding. He talks to Eduardo most nights, but after he hangs up he can’t remember what was said. Eduardo’s voice sounds increasingly strange, but Mark chalks it up to tiredness and stress and doesn’t think anything of it. He doesn’t sleep very often when Eduardo isn’t around and he finds himself missing the way Eduardo would nag him into eating or sleeping or showering. He recognizes it as a foolish sentiment and pushes it away the best he can. Eduardo made the choice not to come out with them, Mark reminds himself. And Mark doesn’t need him.

Eduardo’s reaction to the dilution comes as a complete surprise. Mark is stunned to watch the way Eduardo’s face cracks open, his fury obvious even to Mark. Mark swallows hard, tries to move out of reach lest Eduardo accidentally brush against him. Eduardo leans in, his voice dropping low, and Mark stares at him, feeling like he’s missing something but not sure what it is. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Dustin looking unusually pale, his eyes wide. When Eduardo leaves, Dustin blurs after him, leaving Mark with a shattered laptop and absolutely no clue how he managed to go so completely wrong.

Mark is left alone in the office later, feeling tired but unwilling to return home. One of the interns had quietly replaced his broken computer with a new one, but he hasn’t opened it up yet. He collects the pieces from the floor and puts them in the bottom drawer of his desk. Then his phone rings and Mark’s stomach drops unpleasantly in anticipation.

Dustin comes blurring into the office after Sean’s arrest, already talking a mile a minute before he has even come to a full stop. “- done that, Mark, he wasn’t the one who should have been booted and you know it!”

Mark looks up, startled, and stares at Dustin in surprise. “Where did you come from?” he asks, confused. He had been sure that he was alone in the office.

“I heard Sean got arrested and I ran here to talk to you.” Dustin sits down on the edge of Mark’s desk, crossing his arms over his chest. He scowls at Mark fiercely. “I can’t believe you, Mark! Eduardo was right; Sean’s a fuck-up. Why was Eduardo the one to go?”

“What do you want me to say?” demands Mark defensively. “Eduardo – he was – he froze the account, Dustin! He could have destroyed us!”

“Because he was unhappy!” snaps Dustin furiously. Mark has never seen him so angry before, not even when he and Chris get into it. “Couldn’t you tell Eduardo was upset?”

“I guess?” Mark says hesitantly. He had realized something was wrong – even he isn’t oblivious enough to have missed that – but he couldn’t tell if Eduardo was jealous or sad or angry or something else entirely. He had clearly misjudged the situation; he had never thought Eduardo was capable of the sheer fury he had demonstrated earlier.

“Jesus, Mark.” Dustin rubs his face, suddenly looking much older than twenty years old. “When you’ve got – you had someone that really cared about you and you just let him go.” His voice has changed slightly and Mark gets the unsettling feeling that Dustin isn’t really talking about Eduardo anymore. “Do you even understand what happened?”

Mark stares at Dustin blankly. “What do you mean?”

Dustin shakes his head and doesn’t elaborate. “Mark, I know you’ve blocked off your emotion-sensing or whatever, but couldn’t you have tried just a little?”

Mark is asked that same question during the lawsuit. Gretchen looks down at the papers in front of her and says in a carefully casual tone, “Mr. Zuckerberg, you are listed here as an empath. In fact, you are listed as being exceptionally gifted. Are you telling us that you had no idea what my client was feeling during this entire period?”

Eduardo looks uncomfortable and touches her shoulder lightly, leaning in to speak to her even as Mark is answering, “I have very strong mental shields, as does Eduardo. I was unaware of the extent of his unhappiness.”

“Very well,” Gretchen says, though she sounds unconvinced. Mark spots Marilyn wincing at the far end of the table. Sy shakes his head tiredly and reshuffles his papers, looking grim. Mark knows without asking that his powers will count against him if the lawsuit goes to court.

“You have the capacity to understand human emotion better than most and yet you choose not to,” Marilyn explains to him later when he asks about it. “You have to know that won’t look good to a jury.”

“I almost died because of my powers,” Mark reminds her. He knows what she means, though. He’s had people ask him before why his shields are so tightly built – tighter than they need to be, really – and he doesn’t really have a good reason for them other than habit.

“Yes,” Marilyn says, inclining her head in acknowledgement. “And under any other circumstances, that would get you some sympathy. But he was your best friend and you couldn’t even bother to try to understand him.”

Mark sighs and drums his hand on the top of his laptop. “That’s not it.” He wants to explain, or at least try to – that he never liked feeling other people’s emotions and he is always afraid of what he might learn – but he’s not sure how to properly articulate his thoughts.

“I know,” Marilyn says sympathetically. There’s something in her tone that makes him wonder if she might be an empath too – she certainly fits the stereotype – but he doesn’t ask. “Can I ask what happened to Sean?”

Mark doesn’t say the truth – that he had been thinking about firing Sean from the moment he had taunted Eduardo in the middle of the Facebook offices; that when Sean had hugged him, he had felt Sean’s sick sense of triumph and vindictive delight in sending Eduardo away. Mark had known, then, that Sean had never really had Mark’s best interests at heart – that, while he cared about the company, he didn’t care about his collateral damage.

Mark never used to care either.

“He still owns his shares in the company,” Mark says after a moment. He knows that will make things look worse for him; people would want to know why he kept a screw-up like Sean while ousting Eduardo. He has heard enough of that from Dustin and Chris. “I didn’t take any enjoyment in this. If – if I could have done something...” He doesn’t say, He’s my best friend.

“I know,” Marilyn repeats, her voice barely audible. She rests her hand briefly on his shoulder as she leaves and he hears, distantly, You’re better than this. He shrugs her off instinctively and she sighs before bidding him farewell for the day.


*****

Mark doesn’t see Eduardo for almost a year after the settlement is finished. When they do finally see each other again, it’s at a charity dinner that they both have to attend. Chris and Dustin have brought their respective significant others and are very carefully not speaking to each other. Mark sits between them, unable to stop glancing over at Eduardo’s table. Eduardo never once looks over at him.

Mark escapes to the bathroom during the third course, desperate to get away from Chris and Dustin’s cold war. In a true demonstration of Murphy’s Law, Eduardo is there as well. He doesn’t acknowledge Mark at all.

Mark is the first one to crack. He’s washing his hands when Eduardo comes up to the sink next to him. Eduardo doesn’t look over, though he must have noticed Mark. Mark stands there for a moment before breaking the silence.

“Hi,” Mark says awkwardly, his voice echoing slightly. Eduardo turns to look at him, his eyebrows raised. “How are you?”

Eduardo dries his hands on a towel with neat, precise motions, and asks coolly, “Excuse me?”

“How are you?” Mark repeats.

Eduardo stares at him for a long, tense moment; then he steps into Mark’s personal space, looming over him. He grabs Mark’s bare hand in his, sending a shiver down Mark’s spine, and he says, “Drop your shields, if you can.”

It takes Mark a moment to do so; he hasn’t had his shields down since he was a child and it feels like he’s trying to open a door with a rusty hinge. When he finally opens up his mind, he’s hit by a sudden onslaught of emotion from Eduardo, sharp like a kick in the chest. Mark sucks in a deep breath and forces himself to sort through the information his brain is receiving. Pain and anger, mixed with deep sadness. A little exasperation, but also a guilty sense of happiness at seeing Mark again. And, underlying it all, a thick sense of love and fondness.

And he hears, as though Eduardo is saying it in his ear, I loved you, you asshole.

He drops Eduardo’s hand in shock and slams his shields back up, shutting out the creeping sensation of emotion from the other dinner attendees along with Eduardo’s thoughts. Eduardo stares at him, unblinking, and then smiles bitterly when Mark is unable to speak.

“Yeah,” Eduardo says softly. “You’ve always been more comfortable behind your walls. You’ve always preferred not to know anything about anyone other than yourself.” He turns on his heel and slams the bathroom door behind him, leaving Mark alone. Mark turns back to the sink and mechanically washes his hands again, as if he could scrub off the feeling of other people. He looks at his reflection for a moment and is relieved, yet somewhat surprised, to see that he looks no different despite the sudden bombshell of Eduardo’s feelings towards him.

He returns to the ballroom and sits back down in his seat, drumming his fingers on the table restlessly. He has never felt that kind of concentrated affection or love from someone before, not even his few girlfriends. Perhaps especially not them. Mark’s breathing is quick and shallow, and he can feel a strange sense of concern weighing down him. He frowns, trying to search out the emotion, and realizes with a jolt that the concern is coming from Dustin’s date, who is looking at him with a nervous expression on her pretty face.

Mark prods at his mental walls and finds that they have weakened a little. The simple act of dropping them completely for the first time in more than fifteen years has shaken his barriers down to their very foundations. He can feel a low level of emotion pressing in on him, crowding his brain with information. Mark, dazed, excuses himself from the table and goes out into the parking lot, breathing hard. He sits down on the sidewalk even though he knows his assistant will yell at him for dirtying his trousers, and closes his eyes, swallowing down nausea. He turns his thoughts inward and he strengthens his blocks until he can’t feel a single emotion. He lets out a sigh of relief, his head feeling lighter.

Mark knows Eduardo is right – Mark has never made the effort for anyone. He has kept himself walled in and safe. He likes it that way.

But now, sitting in the parking lot, the utter silence crowding in on him, he feels just a little lonely.


*****

He tries, after that, to drop his blocks. He is capable of it; he knows that, even if Eduardo believes otherwise.

He finds that it’s harder than he expected. His blocks have been in place for more than two-thirds of his life at this point and lowering them takes effort and a lot of concentration. He does his googling to see what other people have said about it and ends up spending a lot of time secluded in one of the many conference rooms. He spends two weeks alone dropping parts of his blocks, letting himself feel small tremors of emotion from his neighbors, from the employees of Facebook.

It’s strange, like exercising a muscle that has atrophied over the years. The first time he tries to drop all of his shields, he ends up vomiting into the trashcan, his head aching with the effort. When he had dropped his shields with Eduardo, Mark’s attention had been focused only on him. It had been easy. But letting in all of his employees is overwhelming, frightening in its intensity. It turns his stomach to feel their violent anger, their hot lust, their stomach-churning sadness, or even their buoyant happiness. It’s too much, at first. But he teaches himself to filter, to sift through the information rather than letting it overtake him.

A month after seeing Eduardo, he tries again to drop his blocks completely. He secludes himself in a conference room, asking his assistant to keep everyone out. Once inside, he flicks off the lights and sits on the floor, closing his eyes. He pokes at the mental blocks, dropping them one by one, letting the emotions of his employees filter in. Low hum of excitement, interest – some boredom, some annoyance. A few individual cases of elation and love, a vague pulse of lust from one of the female programmers. The feeling isn’t as intense as he had feared, but he can see how, over time, it could build up. He unblocks every part of himself and spreads out his awareness.

He touches the edges of Dustin’s emotions and feels his bubbly happiness, which sparks brighter when Dustin comes into contact with Chris’s cautious optimism. Mark turns his attention elsewhere, satisfied that Chris and Dustin are in one of their happy phases. He leaves his walls down as long as he can stand, then carefully reconstructs the blocks one by one, until he has a firm barrier shutting people out – but he thinks, this time, that he hasn’t walled himself off completely.

Mark gets to his feet and looks at the clock. He has been in the conference room for almost two hours, he notes absently. He steps outside and finds his assistant standing there, looking a little worried.

“Is everything all right, Mark?” she asks. He lets himself feel her out, and senses her worry, her nervousness, all undercut by exasperated fondness.

“Everything’s fine, Jessica,” he says after a moment, smiling tentatively. “You can go back to work.” He draws his awareness back in and returns to his desk, nodding to Dustin and Chris as he passes. He brushes the edges of their affection for each other and for a moment his stomach twists in an emotion he can’t identify. He looks away from them quickly and sits down in his desk chair.

He opens up his email and hesitates for a moment before typing in Eduardo’s email address.

Wardo –

It has been pointed out to me that I did you a great disservice by not sacrificing a small of part of my own comfort for your happiness (though the fact of your own mental blocks renders the point somewhat irrelevant). For that, and for everything else, I wanted to tell you that I am sorry.

Mark

He reads it over once he’s done, trying to see if there’s anything there that could possibly be taken the wrong way, then sends it. He sits back in his chair once he’s done, feeling a bit lighter.

Eduardo doesn’t reply for five days. On the sixth, Mark opens his email to see an unread message from Eduardo sitting in his inbox. Mark nearly falls off his chair in his hurry to open it. There isn’t a subject line, and the email is brief, but to the point.

Not that you knew or noticed, but I dropped my guard with you a long time ago. I won’t pretend now that I can forgive you without reservations, but I will consider it.

“Good news?” Jessica asks as she passes by his desk. Mark realizes that he’s grinning, huge and unguarded. Dustin is eying him worriedly, as though he’s afraid that Mark has finally cracked.

“Pretty good,” he says. He saves the email to his hard drive and celebrates by leaving his walls down for almost half an hour. He doesn’t try to match emotions to people – that, he feels, would probably be considered a breach of privacy – but he lets them wash over him in a soothing hum.

He still doesn’t like to be touched – that brings in too much information for his brain to process easily – but he’s getting better with emotions. He can stand to have other people pressing in around him. In fact, it makes him feel a little less alone.

He considers telling Eduardo this, but instead he ends up sending an email that reads, Recently, I’ve been trying something new. I think I might have better control over my empathy now. I can let people in without it hurting too much. It isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

I didn’t know you dropped your guard with me before. I am getting better at returning the favor. I would like to see you again soon so I might show you.

Mark

He doesn’t get a response via email. Instead, Eduardo shows up to the next shareholders meeting in Palo Alto, his face set in a firmly blank expression. For once, Mark is finding his power useful; he has dropped some of his shields so that he can tell that the shareholders are upset about some of the more recent changes, that they’re impatient to get out of this meeting, that they’re eager for news. He isn’t actually sure why Eduardo is there, but from the faint buzz of anticipation and anxiety Mark is reading off him, he suspects it isn’t actually for the meeting.

As it turns out, he’s right. Eduardo lingers after everyone else leaves, shuffling papers until it’s just the two of them in the large room. Eduardo stops fussing when the last person leaves and he looks up at Mark with a small, twisted smile.

“So,” Mark says, his voice echoing a little in the empty room. Mark can feel Eduardo’s nervousness go up a notch. “You came to a meeting.”

“You told me you were working on your empathy,” Eduardo says in a neutral tone. “I want you to prove it.”

“How am I supposed to prove something like that?” asks Mark. “It’s not like I’m Dustin or Chris. I can’t just show you my power.”

“I know. But you can tell me what I’m feeling,” Eduardo says. He shoves up the sleeve of his left arm and holds it out. “Touch me.”

Mark eyes the expanse of bare, tanned forearm. His stomach twists nervously as he walks around the side of the conference table towards Eduardo. Eduardo’s hand is shaking just the tiniest bit, a physical manifestation of the nervousness that Mark can sense from him. After a moment of hesitation, Mark reaches out and wraps his hand around Eduardo’s wrist. He drops himself into Eduardo’s thoughts and emotions, letting his shields go.

Mark is initially overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience. His knees buckle and he sways forward unsteadily, but Eduardo catches Mark with his free hand, his fingers digging into the meat of Mark’s shoulder. Mark lets out a deep, steadying breath and begins to sort through the whirlwind of information, placing Eduardo’s curiosity, residual anger, and nervousness to one side. Underneath, he finds that same undercurrent of fondness – or maybe it’s love. Mark doesn’t have much to compare it to.

“You –” Mark says, pulling his hand away reluctantly. “You’re curious. And still angry, but I can tell, Wardo – you miss me a little. More than a little.”

Eduardo looks at him, and an emotion like bitter laughter ripples out. “Yeah,” Eduardo agrees in a sardonic tone. “My self-preservation instincts never were very good.”

“What are you doing here?” Mark asks, because he has been wondering that since he saw Eduardo sitting at the conference table. “Were you just curious?”

Eduardo snorts self-deprecatingly. “Poor self-preservation skills, Mark. When have I ever been able to say no to you?”

“Wardo –” Mark starts, wanting to counter with examples of times Eduardo hadn’t given in to him, but he draws a blank and falls silent. Eduardo looks triumphant, his mouth twisting into a facsimile of a smile. They stare at each other in tense silence for a few moments. Mark notices that Eduardo has a slight smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose and he looks tanner.

“Where have you been?” asks Mark curiously. “You look – different.”

There’s an incredulous silence; Eduardo raises his eyebrows skeptically, then grudgingly says, “I’ve been splitting my time between Singapore and New York. Why do you care?”

Mark shrugs, wishing he had a good reason other than pure curiosity. “I want to know.”

“That would be a first,” mutters Eduardo coolly.

“What?” asks Mark. The conversation is getting away from him, he can tell. He opens his mouth to say something, but then Eduardo’s emotions abruptly shift into frustration.

“Why did you do it, Mark?” bursts out Eduardo abruptly, anger pouring from him in nauseating waves. “That is what I never understood. Why did you kick me out? Why couldn’t you just talk to me?” His voice breaks a little on the last half and he turns away a little, his shoulders hunched.

“We can’t – Wardo, we’re not supposed to talk about this,” Mark says, remembering the details of the settlement they had both signed. “We can’t.”

“I know.” Eduardo rubs his hand through his hair and steps back from Mark. “I shouldn’t have asked, it’s just – I wish you had talked to me, Mark.”

Mark doesn’t answer; he’s at a complete loss for what to say. He wants to tell Eduardo, It’s because you left me, or I did it because I was jealous, but these are things he’s not supposed to say and the truth is that he’s never been entirely sure why he allowed things to go that way.

“You just spent so much time thinking about yourself,” Eduardo continues, his voice cracking a little. “You didn’t ever bother trying to – I would have given you anything, Mark, and all you could think about was Facebook.”

That’s more than Mark can take from Eduardo, and he bursts out angrily, “I needed you and you weren’t there, Wardo! I wasn’t the only one who was being self-centered!” He stops himself from saying anything else, knowing instinctively that it was the wrong thing to say, no matter how true it may be to him.

Eduardo has frozen, staring at Mark in what looks like shock. Eduardo’s mental blocks slam up one by one, shutting Mark out completely, and it feels like a punch to the sternum.

“Excuse me?” Eduardo asks icily, his voice quivering with repressed rage. “That’s what you – Mark, I did everything for you!”

“What about Christy?” demands Mark pettily. “You cared more about her than –”

“What about Christy? You weren’t interested, Mark! I moved on, is that such a crime?”

“How could you possibly know that I wasn’t interested?” asks Mark quietly, now irritated by Eduardo’s assumptions.

“Were you?” shoots back Eduardo, crossing his arms.

Mark can’t come up with a response that isn’t a lie. Eduardo watches him for a long moment, then snorts and shakes his head.

“Goodbye, Mark,” Eduardo says, and he walks out of the conference room, his footsteps soft and barely audible. Mark hesitates for only a split second before running out after him.

“Wardo,” he says, his flip-flops slapping loudly against the floor. “Wardo!” He can feel the curiosity of the employees buzzing against him and he shuts them out impatiently, not wanting them intruding on this.

Eduardo turns, looking at Mark with the blank, impersonal stare that Mark remembers from the beginning of the depositions. “Mark,” he says evenly. “Is there something –”

Mark cuts him off by grabbing a hold of Eduardo’s lapels and rising up onto his toes to press a hard kiss to Eduardo’s lips. Eduardo’s mouth is soft and yielding under his for a fraction of a moment before Eduardo stiffens in shock. He reaches up to grab Mark’s wrists, his fingers pressing into Mark’s skin, and gently pries Mark’s hands loose. Mark pulls away and registers that the room has gone completely quiet. He resolutely does not look around and instead focuses on Eduardo’s face. Eduardo’s has gone pale and his eyes are huge and very dark in his face. Mark’s gaze strays downwards towards Eduardo’s lips, which are pink and slightly shiny. Mark licks his own lips unconsciously and Eduardo swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing.

“What –” Eduardo says blankly. “Mark, what are you –”

“I miss you,” Mark says, keeping his voice low. “I know you won’t believe me. I wish there was a way I could show you so you would know for sure.”

“Mark, this isn’t what I – that isn’t what I wanted!” Eduardo shoves Mark back a step, but he keeps his voice down. “I’m not in love with you anymore.”

“Right,” Mark says, his stomach twisting into knots. His fingers feel a little numb and his mouth is suddenly dry. He nods and looks away, swallowing hard. “Right, I – I’m sorry. You can leave, I – that was all I wanted to say.”

Eduardo eyes him for a moment, then nods curtly. He spins on his heel and heads for the exit, his shoulders hunched and his head down. The fishbowl remains completely silent as Mark returns to his desk and sits down. Jessica lays a hand on Mark’s shoulder for the briefest of instants – I’m sorry – before moving away.

Chris comes over, radiating concern, and he kneels down next to Mark’s desk. “Mark, are you – what was that? What happened?”

“You don’t need to worry,” Mark says stiffly. “It won’t be an issue with the press.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about, Mark,” Chris says, his concern turning grudging. “I’m worried about you.”

“I’m fine,” Mark lies. Chris can tell – his skepticism is like a poke in the head – but he doesn’t call Mark on it. Mark appreciates that aspect of Chris.

“If you ever need – or, I don’t know,” Chris sighs. He rubs a hand through his hair. “Look, I don’t know what that was about, but you can talk to me. If you need to, that is.”

“I appreciate that,” Mark says flatly. Chris takes this as the dismissal it is and gets up to return to his own desk. Chris’s concern turns to a sharp, startled whirlwind of emotion as he passes Dustin and Mark hurriedly strengthens his walls, not wanting to deal with their idiocy.

“We need to introduce something new,” Mark mutters to himself. He puts his headphones on and opens up a DOS window before putting up all his walls and immersing himself in code.

When he resurfaces, it’s almost six hours later and his stomach feels achingly empty. There is a tuna sandwich sitting on a paper plate next to his computer along with a mug of cold coffee. He’s the only one left in the fishbowl and his breathing sounds very loud in the vast emptiness.

He eats the sandwich and then microwaves the coffee. It tastes like crap, stale and bitter, but he drinks it anyway. He walks around the darkened, empty office, looking out the windows at the night sky. He feels tired and bruised, and when he tentatively stretches out his empathy, he can’t feel even the faintest hint of another person’s emotions. He lets out a breath and scrubs a hand over his face.

He heads to one of the whiteboards they have set up around the office and picks up a pen. He sketches out an outline of his ideas for the new profile, labeling each one. He has been thinking about redesigning the profile for a while – people always bitch and complain when he does, but they always come around in the end.

Mark steps back and looks at his work thoughtfully. He looks around the office, wishing there was someone to confer with, then sighs and tosses the pen back into its holder. It clatters satisfyingly and he mentally gives himself two points.

He gets a can of Redbull – he has never been the biggest fan of coffee – and returns to his desk to look over his code. He doesn’t spot any gaping holes or grievous errors, so he resumes typing, pausing occasionally to take a sip of his drink. After fifteen minutes, he puts his headphones back on, the silence wearing on him. He turns the volume up as loud as he can bear and works until his eyes start to hurt. He closes his eyes for a moment, intending to alleviate the strain.

He wakes up to Jessica shaking him by the shoulder and saying his name, her concern leaking into his head. “Mark? Mark, did you sleep here last night?”

“What?” Mark asks groggily, lifting his head off his keyboard. He can tell without looking that the keys have imprinted on his cheek. He focuses on Jessica’s worried face. “Jessica. What time is it?”

“It’s nine a.m. Mark, did you sleep here?” Jessica steps back as Mark straightens up and wakes up his computer. “I – what is that?”

He looks at her and sees that she’s looking at his computer screen, her eyebrows drawn together. “It’s the new profile,” he tells her.

“You designed a new profile?” Jessica asks, staring at him. He nods, not understanding the tense note in her voice. She turns and yells, “Dustin! Get over here!”

Dustin zips over at half-speed, ruffling people’s hair as he passes. “What’s up?” he asks, looking from Jessica to Mark.

“Look what Mark did last night,” she says and she points at the computer screen, nudging Mark over. Dustin leans in to squint at the screen, bracing himself on the back of Mark’s chair. After a moment, he lets out a low whistle and glances over at Jessica. The two of them stare at each other, apparently having some sort of silent conversation despite the fact that neither of them has any sort of psychic ability. Jessica crosses her arms and glares at Dustin, who sighs.

“All right,” Dustin says, sounding resigned, and he zooms out of the office, a multicolored blur against the grey and white of the office walls. The other employees, long accustomed to Dustin’s ways, ignore him.

“What’s going on?” Mark asks Jessica, puzzled. “Where is he going?”

“He’ll be back soon. Don’t worry about it, Mark.” She steps away, then turns back and asks, “Is the new profile done?”

“I still have some testing to do on it,” Mark says. “I’m wiring in again, don’t bother me unless it’s urgent.” He cracks his knuckles and puts his headphones back on.

He isn’t aware of anything other than the black lines of code on his screen until a gentle hand lands on the nape of his neck. He stiffens, feeling Eduardo’s worry and annoyance pour through him, but he doesn’t make a move to stop typing.

Mark, it’s me. Take your headphones off. Eduardo lifts his hand away and Mark is suddenly left alone again. Mark continues typing for a moment, then gives into his curiosity. He takes his headphones off and turns his chair around. Eduardo is standing there, his hands in the pockets of his no doubt very expensive pants. He seems slightly irritated, but he’s looking at Mark with the same expression Mark remembers from when he had pulled all-nighters in college. Eduardo would interrupt Mark with that same look on his face, telling him to sleep and eat.

“Wardo, what – what are you doing here?” asks Mark in confusion, leaning back in his seat. “I thought you’d left.”

“Dustin came to get me,” Eduardo explains. He jerks his head towards the conference room. “Can we talk in private?”

Mark hesitates, the allure of code pulling at him. He reminds himself that Eduardo could leave at any moment and he says, “All right.”

He gets to his feet and follows Eduardo into the conference room. Eduardo closes the door behind them and puts his hands on his hips. He bites his lip hesitantly, then he nods sharply, as if making up his mind.

“Dustin says you stayed up all night coding a new profile page?” Eduardo looks at Mark for confirmation, which Mark provides with a nod. “Jesus, Mark.”

“Why did he get you?” asks Mark, honestly confused.

“God knows why, but I’m here.” Eduardo passes a hand over his face. Mark is suddenly struck by how much older Eduardo looks, his thin face more lined than Mark remembers. “Old habits are hard to break, I guess.”

“Old habits?” Mark asks, not following.

Eduardo gives him a pitying look and leans back against the wall with studied casualness, though he reeks of nervous tension. “So you coded all night.”

“Yeah,” Mark says.

“Why?” asks Eduardo in a carefully controlled voice.

Mark pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs heavily. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I don’t react well to people leaving me. I needed to – I had to do something.”

“So this was all my fault?” demands Eduardo. “You’re fucking kidding me, right?” Mark feels the sudden shift in the argument and knows that somehow they aren’t just talking about the coding tear. He scowls, irritated by the encoded language. For someone who is generally so emotionally open, Eduardo can be really fucking cryptic.

“No, it’s not your fault,” says Mark, frustrated. “That’s not – Wardo, I drove you away. I do that. It’s what I do. I’ve never - I don’t like emotions, you know that.”

“Yes,” Eduardo agrees, bitter and knowing. “Is this an apology?”

Mark looks at Eduardo and chews on the inside of his lip for a moment before answering, “I don’t know.”

“How can you not know?” snaps Eduardo, flinging up his hands. “Either you feel bad about what happened or you don’t. Do you feel bad?”

“I – I miss you,” Mark says after a moment of consideration. “I know what I did was a mistake. There was – there was a lot going on and I let – I was angry. I miss you, Eduardo.”

Eduardo exhales heavily, lifting a hand to rub at the back of his neck. “Mark –”

“You don’t have to stay. I’m not going to make you stay. But I – I want you to.” Mark stares at the floor and doesn’t look up, not wanting to see Eduardo’s face.

There is a long, thick silence. Then Eduardo says in a tense, thin voice, “I can’t do that, Mark. You – I shouldn’t even be here right now.”

Mark nods jerkily; he had more or less expected that, but his chest burns and feels uncomfortably tight. He shuffles out of the room, shoving his hands deeply into the pockets of his hoodie. Eduardo doesn’t call after him and Mark doesn’t look back. He sits down in his chair and gestures to Dustin, who comes over with a hopeful smile on his face.

“How is everything?” asks Dustin cheerfully, slapping a hand against Mark’s back, sending a brief burst of optimism through Mark.

“I need you to double-check my code,” Mark tells him. “It’s in the shared directory.”

“Are you all right?” Dustin leans back a little, squinting at him in concern. “Did you talk to Wardo?”

“Yes. Check my code.” Mark grabs his headphones and Dustin slaps his hand lightly to stop him. Mark glares up at him. “What?”

“Mark, you can’t just -” Dustin breaks off and shakes his head in exasperation. “Forget it. I’ll go check that code.”

Mark puts his headphones on and resolutely does not watch to see when Eduardo leaves.


*****

Chris and Dustin are having a fight without saying a word to each other. Mark can feel their anger buzzing against his skin, but it’s steady and unchanging. He isn’t used to knowing they’re fighting; Chris and Dustin fight in silence, subsiding into glares across the fishbowl as they pass each other by.

Dustin’s anger is slow and tinged with melancholy. It makes Mark’s head hurt to talk to Dustin, who puts on such a good front of cheerfulness while his emotions seesaw back and forth. Chris’s annoyance is sharper and it pricks at Mark every time they are around each other. Mark takes to avoiding both of them because it’s becoming harder and harder to shut them out.

He starts taking aspirin, though he’s never been a great fan of pain medication. At first, it’s one in the morning and one towards the end of the day; but as his headaches grow in intensity, he ups his dosage accordingly.

After a few days, Jessica notices the bottle on his desk. She frowns in concern; she no doubt recalls him refusing aspirin in the past. “Is everything all right?” she asks

“Yes,” Mark says, resisting the urge to rub at his temples. He has it under control.

He finds his shields failing at odd times, usually when he’s tired or when he’s feeling particularly stressed. He takes more and more aspirin and finds himself going into the office when he knows that less people will be around. He avoids Chris and Dustin, who spark off emotions more than anyone else and to whom Mark is particularly attuned.

For the most part, it’s not a problem.


*****

The next time he sees Eduardo is six months after Eduardo walked out on him.

Mark spots him on the street in New York City. Eduardo is on his phone, pacing the sidewalk outside the hotel where Mark is supposed to be meeting with some potential shareholders. Instead, Mark stops and watches Eduardo talk. Eduardo’s face is animated and alive, and Mark suddenly realizes that he misses Eduardo’s enthusiasm, his nearly implacable optimism.

Eduardo looks up then and catches Mark’s eye. Mark immediately looks away, but the damage is done; Eduardo knows he’s there. Mark hesitates, then crosses the street to the hotel, since he has to be there anyway. Eduardo has hung up his phone by the time Mark comes to stand in front of him. There is an awkward moment where they just look at each other, neither of them saying a word; then Eduardo nods, shortly.

“Mark,” he says politely . “What brings you to New York?”

“Meeting,” Mark says shortly. He hates New York with a passion; it’s hard to keep the emotions of that many people out of his head now that his shields aren’t so tightly welded shut. He has had a headache ever since he landed at JFK and it’s only gotten worse since then. “I – is your job going well?”

“It’s fine,” Eduardo answers politely. He looks happier than the last time Mark saw him. Mark is surprised that he noticed at first, and then he realizes that he can feel Eduardo’s happiness flickering at the edge of Mark’s weakened barriers.

“You’re happy to see me,” Mark says in surprise. He hadn’t expected that, not after how they had parted last.

Eduardo flinches in surprise, but his happiness dims by only the tiniest bit. “Yes,” he admits readily. “It’s good to see you.”

“Why?” asks Mark, honestly confused. “The last time I saw you, it didn’t seem like you ever wanted to see me again.”

“Because you were my best friend and I was in love with you for two years,” Eduardo says, rolling his eyes, “if you need to have a reason.”

“That’s not the real reason,” Mark observes, noting the tinge of falsehood around Eduardo’s words. A woman jostles him as she passes and he receives a sharp flair of thick anxiety from the touch. He winces involuntarily and steps closer to Eduardo, whose emotions are familiar and comfortable against his skin.

“I don’t know the real reason, I’m just – it’s good to see you.” Eduardo shifts his weight and frowns at Mark. “Are you – you don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine,” Mark lies. His head is pounding with the intrusive thoughts of the people who are passing by, the thick layer of intense emotions that lies over the whole city oppressive and heavy on his shoulders.

“You’re lying to me,” Eduardo says shrewdly, narrowing his eyes. “You’re sweating and it’s not that warm out.” He reaches out and presses the back of his hand to Mark’s forehead. His eyes widen in surprise. “Jesus, you’re burning up.”

Mark drops his shields instinctively and leans into Eduardo’s hand, his eyes fluttering closed in relief. Eduardo’s hand is cool against his overheated skin and all Mark can feel is Eduardo, surrounding him with the feel of fond worry and shutting out the angry buzz of the city.

Eduardo pulls his hand away a moment later and Mark stumbles forward. He doesn’t put his shields up fast enough to block out the worry, the frustration, the sickening rage of the people that pass around him. He gasps as a sharp spike of pain goes through his head. His knees buckle and his stomach gives an unpleasant lurch. Eduardo reaches out to brace him, saying something that Mark can’t hear over the noise rattling around his skull. The last thing he sees before he blacks out is Eduardo’s face, his eyes wide and frightened.


*****

Mark wakes up in a hospital with an IV in his arm and no emotions pressing in on him. His head feels muffled, oddly blank, but it’s a relief after the harsh buzz and noise of the city.

He looks over and sees Eduardo sitting on a chair next to the hospital bed, reading The Economist. Mark tries to say Eduardo’s name, but it comes out incomprehensible. He clears his throat and tries again, this time succeeding. Eduardo glances up at the sound. He smiles faintly and sets the magazine aside before scooting forward to the edge of his seat.

“Hey,” he says softly. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Mark says, which is more or less true. His headache is gone, but he feels groggy and exhausted. He pushes himself upright and asks, “What happened?”

“You blacked out. You should have told me you were having problems with shielding,” Eduardo chides gently. “I told the paramedics you were an empath and they brought you here. This hospital is warded against powers.”

Mark digests this information, then asks the next question on his mind. “How long have I been asleep?”

“A few hours.” Eduardo leans forward, his expression unreadable. “Mark, you – you completely dropped your guard with me. Why did you – you don’t do that for anyone.”

“You told me to try,” Mark says, shrugging. “And it – it doesn’t hurt so much with you.”

“Oh,” Eduardo says. He bites his lip, then says, “I was going to leave, but – would you like me to stay?”

Mark nods, his fingers twitching restlessly at his side. He wishes he could tell what Eduardo was feeling, but Eduardo’s face is blank and Mark can’t reach out to touch Eduardo’s emotions.

“All right,” Eduardo says, leaning back into his seat, and he stays by Mark’s bed until Mark falls asleep again.


*****

Mark is in the hospital for two more excruciatingly dull days. He doesn’t have his cell phone or his laptop to communicate with anyone at the offices and Eduardo tells Mark that he’s emailed Chris and Dustin to keep them apprised of the situation. Fortunately for Mark’s boredom, he spends the better part of the second day with a telepath who teaches him to create better shields.

“I don’t know how you’ve been getting by,” she tells him frankly. “Your blocks were disintegrating bit by bit. It was only a matter of time before they collapsed completely. You’re lucky your boyfriend was with you when it happened, otherwise you could have been in a bad way.”

Mark opens his mouth to protest the labeling of Eduardo as his boyfriend, but Kandyse has already moved on, settling her long-fingered hands over Mark’s. “On the count of three, I’m going to enter your mind and show you how to raise and lower your blocks,” she says in a soothing, almost sing-song voice. “One, two, three –”

Mark closes his eyes and he sucks in a deep breath as Kandyse slips into his head. She performs a spring cleaning on his mind, tidying up the blocks and showing him how to better section off the empath part of his brain.

“Think of it like a firewall on your computer,” she says when it becomes clear that he’s struggling. “You can’t let the viruses in, but you do want some information. You have to filter.”

Mark takes to that analogy, and he builds a firewall in his head, each line of code piling on top of the other until he has a flexible shield that he can control more easily than the cobbled-together shields he has used for most of his life. He can feel Kandyse’s approval settle over him when he’s through and he smiles slightly.

“Well done,” she says, slipping out of his mind. He opens his eyes and sees her smiling at him. “You’re going to need to practice raising and lowering your walls, but I think you understand now.” She writes something down on Mark’s medical chart. “You’re welcome to head home,” she adds. “But if you experience any problems, I want you to come right back so we can figure something else out.”

Mark nods obediently and signs the forms she hands him. She pats him on the back and tells him Eduardo is coming to pick him up. Mark’s heart jumps a little at the sound of Eduardo’s name, taking him by surprise. He takes stock of his emotions and realizes that he’s excited by the prospect of seeing Eduardo again, which. Is unexpected.

Eduardo had gone home after Mark awoke the second time, but he returns to collect Mark from the hospital, bringing a pair of jeans, a shirt, and a hoodie for Mark. Mark gratefully changes out of his hospital gown, glad to have the anchor of familiar clothing back. He zips up the hoodie and puts his hands in the pockets with a sigh. He looks at himself in the mirror and sees that his eyes are slightly shadowed, but that he looks more or less the same.

When Mark emerges from the bathroom, Eduardo is talking to Kandyse, who is speaking very earnestly to him. She gestures widely, her mouth moving quickly, and Mark pauses to watch Eduardo’s expression grow more and more alarmed. Eduardo looks relieved when he finally spots Mark, and he waves Mark over eagerly.

“Are you ready to go?” he asks Mark. Mark nods and Eduardo hurries over to curl his arm around Mark’s waist, his hand settling gently just above Mark’s right hip. Mark looks at Eduardo in confusion and Eduardo raises his eyebrows at Mark in a silent plea to say nothing. “Thank you, Kandyse,” Eduardo adds over his shoulder as he ushers Mark out of the room. “I appreciate all your help.”

“It was my pleasure, Mr. Saverin,” Kandyse calls back brightly.

Once they’re out of the room, Mark asks in a hushed voice, “What are you doing?”

“I had to tell them we were…together when I brought you in,” Eduardo says in a low voice. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have let you in to see me and they wouldn’t have let you leave with me.” He hesitates for a moment before continuing in an awkward tone, “Kandyse was just telling me that you should spend at least a two or three days confined to one place, and she made me promise to keep you from traveling.”

“What are you trying to say?” asks Mark, noting Eduardo’s shifty expression.

“You’re staying with me for a few days,” Eduardo says. He sounds apprehensive and he glances at Mark quickly to gauge Mark’s reaction.

“All right,” Mark says after a moment. “I need to use a computer, though.”


*****

The drive back to Eduardo’s apartment building is a trial in managing his new blocks. Mark carefully adjusts his filters until he’s able to only just barely feel Eduardo’s nervousness and relief and nothing at all from the people in the passing cars.

“Why are you doing this?” asks Mark curiously once his blocks are settled. “You don’t have to – I know you’re still angry with me.”

“I’m not angry with you anymore, Mark, I just –” Eduardo shakes his head exasperatedly. “For a genius, you can be really fucking stupid sometimes, is all.”

Mark still doesn’t understand, but he stays quiet and watches the sunlight play off of Eduardo’s features. He feels something akin to the fondness and affection that he remembers from touching Eduardo, only it’s not coming from Eduardo this time. It’s coming from inside Mark, and he feels it every time he looks at Eduardo. Mark has never been this aware of his own emotions before; it’s startling and a little strange. But he likes the feeling of warmth and happiness that looking at Eduardo brings him, so he doesn’t think about the strangeness and instead just basks in the sensation.

“Wardo,” he says after a long period of thought. “What does it feel like to be in love?”

Eduardo shoots him a startled look. “Seriously?”

Mark nods. Eduardo sighs and takes a moment to think before he answers. “It’s – it feels like your world has narrowed down to this one person. You, you feel affection for them, I guess, and you just, you’re happier when you’re with them.” He glances over at Mark, a strangely twisted expression on his face. “Why?”

“I think – I think I’m in love with you.” Mark’s words come out sounding surprised and he feels an echoing jolt of shock from Eduardo a second later. The car swerves slightly, which is immediately greeted by a chorus of car horns. Eduardo swears in Portuguese before straightening out. He hunches over the wheel defensively and mutters darkly under his breath for a moment before turning to glare at Mark.

“Jesus, Mark, you can’t just say things like that,” Eduardo says, sounding strangely out of breath. Mark probes a little and encounters something hot and squirmy. Mark breathes a little faster, his heart beating hard in his chest. It’s arousal, Mark realizes a moment later as heat pools in his stomach. He’s turning Eduardo on.

“And you want to have sex with me,” Mark says. Eduardo shudders, his arousal spiking. He tightens his hands on the wheel until his knuckles are nearly white. “You have for a long time, haven’t you?”

“Mark, please shut up,” Eduardo says through gritted teeth. He’s radiating with tension now, the long lines of his body taut like a bowstring.

“Even when you were angry with me?” Mark asks, now honestly curious. “Did you fantasize about me telling you I loved you?”

“Mark, I swear to God –” Eduardo starts furiously.

Mark puts his left hand on Eduardo’s thigh, tracing his fingers along Eduardo’s inseam, and Eduardo slams on the brakes, eliciting angry honking from the cars behind them. Eduardo breathes out hard and slowly accelerates again, his eyes never wavering from the windshield.

“We’re not having sex,” Eduardo says firmly, even though Mark can hear Eduardo’s faint thoughts and fantasies running at high speed. - on my bed on the couch with his arms braced on the back while I fuck him from behind – or no, in the shower, him pressed against the tiles with nothing to grab, I’d lick him open until he was begging me for more - “Mark. Take your hand off my thigh.”

Mark tucks his hands back into his lap, pressing lightly at his own erection. He’s feeling horny now, and he wants nothing more than to make Eduardo follow up on a few of his more inventive ideas, but he can also tell that Eduardo is determined not to let this go any further. It’s utterly mystifying.

“I can tell you want to have sex,” Mark tells him, frustrated. “Why are you resisting?”

“Because it wouldn’t end well, Mark,” Eduardo says tightly. “You’re – we shouldn’t. And while I might want to have sex with you, it’s just not a good idea.” He’s nervous now, anxiety thrumming through him, but he still hasn’t shut Mark out. Mark takes that as a good sign.

“Why aren’t you shutting me out?” asks Mark. “You could shut me out completely, but you’re not.”

“I don’t – Mark, I just. I don’t shut you out, Mark.” Eduardo turns into the parking garage of an apartment building with more force than is strictly necessarily. “That’s not what friends do.”

“So we’re friends now?” Mark asks a little sarcastically.

“What else would you call us?” asks Eduardo with a bitter smile.

“I don’t know,” Mark admits after racking his brain. “There really isn’t an adequate word to describe what we are to each other.”

Eduardo snorts and unlocks the car doors. “Right. Come on, we’re here.” He gets out and starts walking away, not looking back to see if Mark is following. Mark hurries after him and together they take the elevator to the eleventh floor of the apartment building.

Mark senses the emotions of the people in the building at first, but then he carefully strengthens his blocks until he can’t feel anything except Eduardo’s low-level contentment. Eduardo putters around the kitchen, making coffee and humming a song that Mark doesn’t recognize. Mark watches him, admiring the long, elegant lines of Eduardo’s body as he moves gracefully around the room without really looking. Mark doesn’t remember being this aware of Eduardo before, and he’s finding it hard to look away now.

“Thank you,” Mark says when Eduardo is facing him again. “I…appreciate what you’re doing for me.”

Eduardo looks up, surprise emanating from him. It takes him a moment to respond, but when he does, he says sincerely, “You’re welcome.” He pours himself a cup of coffee and holds out the pot to Mark with a questioning look on his face. Mark shakes his head and instead just watches Eduardo’s fingers curl around the ceramic of the mug.

“You’re staring,” Eduardo says after a moment, a small smile quirking at his mouth.

“Yes,” Mark agrees, seeing no point in pretending otherwise.

“I’m not going to disappear.” Eduardo tries a smile, but it isn’t very convincing. Eduardo’s own skepticism about the situation is coming through strongly, and his contentment has been fading slowly into a jumble of nerves.

Mark doesn’t answer that; he doesn’t know how to express that he’s afraid he’ll say the wrong thing and send Eduardo away again. He looks down at his hands and Eduardo fades into regret a moment later.

“Mark,” Eduardo says quietly, his voice fully of pity, “I didn’t – are you, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m fine,” Mark says shortly, slightly annoyed by Eduardo’s coddling. “Where’s the bedroom?”

“Down the hall and on the left,” Eduardo says after a moment, pointing. “The bathroom is across the way.”

Mark gets up and circles around the counter to where Eduardo is standing. He trails his fingers along the small of Eduardo’s back. Lust sparks from Eduardo at Mark’s touch. Eduardo’s spine stiffens and he pulls away from the touch.

“Mark,” he says warningly, but there’s no real bite to his tone.

“Good night, Eduardo,” Mark says, satisfied, and he heads down the hall to the bedroom, smiling to himself.


*****

Mark can tell that Eduardo is trying to keep his desire tamped down. It simmers just below the surface every time they’re in the same room together, a low level thrum that tugs at Mark’s stomach and makes his fingers itch. Mark takes ruthless advantage of it, taking care to casually touch Eduardo whenever he’s given half of an excuse.

“I know what you’re doing,” Eduardo says halfway through the second day, raising his eyebrows at Mark right after Mark purposefully brushes up against him on the way to the dining table.

“What is that?” Mark asks facetiously.

“You’re trying to wear me down,” Eduardo accuses. “You think you can get me worked up enough that I’ll forget my misgivings.”

“Will it work?” inquires Mark, honestly curious.

Eduardo rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling as he says, “Mark, I – this is not the right way to do things.”

“I love you,” Mark says, and he watches Eduardo’s expression change into something more guarded, his emotions shifting from resigned amusement to nervousness. “I don’t have time for – You know I don’t say things I don’t mean.”

“I know,” Eduardo says, but he keeps his distance for the rest of the day. His confusion is palpable; it permeates Eduardo’s every thought and clouds the air between them, so Mark lets Eduardo have the time to himself. He can wait.

“Fine,” Eduardo says when they have finished washing the dishes after dinner, breaking the long silence of the day. “What do you want?”

“I want to have sex,” Mark says promptly. “And I know you do too.”

Eduardo regards him for a moment, amused, alarmed – and fond. “Yeah,” he says softly. He leans back against the counter and looks expectantly at Mark, his mouth quirked up slightly. Mark takes a step forward and, when Eduardo doesn’t move, he moves until there’s a scant few centimeters separating their bodies. Eduardo’s breath has sped up and his anxiety has ratcheted up, a high frequency hum that Mark wants to soothe away.

Mark fastens his hands around Eduardo’s wrists and feels Eduardo’s desire pulse. Eduardo’s dark gaze fixes upon Mark’s mouth. Mark hears Eduardo wondering what it would be like to kiss him, so Mark leans up little to press his mouth to Eduardo’s.

The moment their lips touch, Mark’s awareness of Eduardo expands until it feels like they’ve become one person. Mark is subsumed with the feeling of Eduardo’s intense desire, his aching nervousness, and the overwhelming love that wraps around Mark like a blanket. He shudders hard and presses himself into Eduardo’s body, absorbing as much warmth and affection as he can.

At some point, Eduardo’s arms had gotten loose from Mark’s grasp. Now, he pulls Mark up against him, sliding his thigh between Mark’s legs. Mark gasps involuntarily as Eduardo presses up against his erection and he clutches Eduardo’s shoulders tightly. Eduardo noses at Mark’s ear, then bites Mark’s earlobe gently.

“I’m going to make you beg,” Eduardo promises in a low, dirty voice, and Mark’s mind is filled with fantasy after fantasy, some elaborate, others rather more mundane. He’s finding hard to think straight, but it’s not unpleasant, letting Eduardo take over like this. “Bedroom?” Eduardo suggests breathlessly.

Mark manages to nod through the haze of desire, and Eduardo pushes Mark down the hall into Eduardo’s bedroom. Eduardo yanks Mark’s shirt off and then shoves him onto the bed. Mark sucks in a desperate breath and lifts his hips to help Eduardo work his pants off.

Mark doesn’t have sex very often. Like most single people, he would prefer to have sex more frequently, but it has always been difficult, given his empathy. He doesn’t like feeling the reservations or boredom of his sexual partners or hearing their thoughts wander during the act. But Eduardo – there is no part of him that isn’t interested in or focused on Mark. It’s a heady sensation.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” Eduardo says just before he takes Mark’s cock in his mouth. I wish it had been me to take you into that bathroom I could hear the way your breath quickened and it should have been me. I would have made you shout -

Wardo,” Mark chokes out as Eduardo slides a slick finger inside him – Mark doesn’t know when Eduardo grabbed the lube, but he’s not going to ask – and he presses down onto Eduardo’s hand, his own fingers scrabbling for purchase on Eduardo’s slick, expensive sheets.

Eduardo pulls off him with a wet pop and kisses the inside of Mark’s shaking thigh, smirking smugly. “Yes,” he murmurs into Mark’s skin. Yes.

“You’re a fucking tease,” Mark manages and then he moans helplessly as Eduardo adds another finger.

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Eduardo breathes, curling his fingers just so. “I’m going to make the most of it.”

Mark jerks as a sharp spike of pleasure races through him and stops protesting, letting Eduardo do whatever he likes. Eduardo senses Mark’s surrender with a sharp pulse of joyful triumph and he takes Mark’s cock back into his mouth and slowly coaxes Mark to the very brink of orgasm, seeming to know exactly what will make Mark jerk with pleasure. Mark is trembling all over, completely overwhelmed. He stares blindly at the ceiling, his eyes watering slightly as Eduardo’s thumb traces a line from the base of Mark’s balls to where Eduardo’s fingers are buried inside him.

“Do you want to come?” asks Eduardo in a soft, cajoling voice, his desire and joy pouring through Mark. He presses a kiss to the skin just below Mark’s belly button and Mark nods fervently. “You need to say it,” Eduardo coaxes with a sense of smugness that is somehow utterly sweet.

Wardo,” whines Mark and Eduardo curls his fingers inside Mark again. Mark gasps and says in a voice that is far too desperate for his comfort, “Let me come, please.”

“Good,” Eduardo almost purrs and he wraps his free hand around Mark’s cock, stroking until Mark comes in a great shudder, his back arching and his heels drumming against the mattress. Mark is too out of it to think much more, and he lets Eduardo enter him, Eduardo’s thoughts going haywire. Mark can’t possibly come again, but Eduardo looks beautiful with his lower lip between his teeth, his eyes focused on Mark’s face as he thrusts into him. His hands are tight on Mark’s hips, holding him firmly in place. Eduardo’s thoughts have gone to pieces; they come in sudden starts and stutters - Jesus, Mark – god I – Mark -

Eduardo’s orgasm rips through Mark with the force of a freight train, leaving Mark shuddering in its wake. Eduardo falls forward against Mark, breathing hard. He presses his sweaty forehead to Mark’s and Mark unclenches his right hand from the bed sheets to stroke his fingers across the curve of Eduardo’s jaw. Eduardo closes his eyes and turns his face into Mark’s hand. Christ, I still love him.

It feels like a secret, so Mark doesn’t reply. Instead, he kisses Eduardo, relishing how tightly they’re pressed together, how Mark almost can’t distinguish his thoughts or emotions from Eduardo’s any longer. Eduardo slides off Mark a moment later and rolls onto his back, his pinky finger just barely brushing against the outside of Mark’s arm.

Eduardo is radiating contentment and warmth, so Mark spoons up against him, pressing his face into Eduardo’s freckled shoulder. Eduardo turns his head and kisses the top of Mark’s head, then drifts off to sleep, his thoughts slowing down. Mark closes his own eyes and breathes out slowly.


*****

In the morning, Eduardo pushes Mark into the shower and gets him off before driving Mark to the airport. Mark doesn’t kiss him, though he wants to; he’s afraid of pushing his luck. Instead, he reaches out and touches his fingers to the inside of Eduardo’s wrist. I don’t want him to go what if we never --

“Thank you,” he says, pulling his hand away, and Eduardo freezes for a moment, startled. Then he relaxes and offers Mark a weak smile. Mark hesitates, then nods once, and heads into JFK.

Mark sleeps for most of the flight back to San Francisco. His shields seem to be holding up well, because he’s not once bothered by the other people on the plane. Jessica had booked him a first class seat, so once the plane takes off, Mark curls up in his seat and goes to sleep, still slightly sore from the night before.

He doesn’t have any luggage – Jessica had taken it back with her after he had been hospitalized – but Chris meets him at the airport anyway. Chris does a valiant job of looking happy, but there is a tell-tale crease between his eyebrows that Mark recognizes from when Chris and Dustin are arguing about something.

Chris gives Mark a hug, saying, “I’m glad you’re all right.” His fingers brush the skin on the back of Mark’s neck and Mark hears, should I tell Dustin? He won’t – I don’t, I want him to tell me to say no. I need to tell him – I’ll show him the ring and he’ll tell me not to say yes, and Mark is assaulted by a deep feeling of anxiety. Mark frowns in confusion, but smoothes out his expression when Chris pulls back.

“I didn’t mean to be gone for so long. Did anything happen while I was away?” Mark asks brusquely, wanting to forget the feeling of Chris’s panic. “Is the company is still standing?”

“Everything was fine, Mark,” says Chris, guiding Mark towards the parking lot. He’s tense, but it’s directed inward and not towards Mark, which is a welcome change. “Don’t worry about it. It’s more important that you’re feeling okay.”

Mark blinks at that, a little startled. “All right,” he says after a moment of consideration. “Good.”

“How are you doing?” asks Chris once they get in the car. “Eduardo sounded absolutely panicked when he called me. Did you really black out?”

Mark shrugs, more interested by Chris’s description of Eduardo. “Panicked? Really?”

“No one likes seeing someone collapse, Mark, not even if it’s you and Wardo,” Chris says crisply. “He still cares about you.”

“I know,” Mark says. Chris throws Mark a sharp glance, his brow furrowed.

“Did something else happen?” he asks. “You look…you look happy.”

Mark smiles a little and looks out the window. “It was good to see Eduardo again,” he says, which he knows doesn’t answer Chris’s question in the slightest. Chris makes a slightly annoyed sound and the windows of the car rattle slightly.

“You will have to tell me at some point,” Chris says with uncharacteristic sharpness. “If it involves Wardo, it’s – the two of you don’t have the greatest track record.”

Mark shrugs again, now bored with the conversation. “Yeah,” he agrees without committing to anything. Chris lapses into silence, and when he drops Mark off, his goodbye is curt. Mark nods farewell and heads inside. His house feels larger, somehow, emptier. He goes to his computer and puts his headphones to shut out the silence.


*****

The office feels unusually tense when Mark returns to work. There is an absence of the usual cheerful noise that makes up the soundscape of the office, and people are nervously skirting around each other. It takes Mark a while to locate the source of the tension, but it soon becomes obvious that Dustin and Chris have been arguing more openly in his absence. It’s beginning to wear on the other employees, who are used to Dustin and Chris both being fairly upbeat and pleasant. Their nervousness scrapes on him and when he accidentally runs into one of the interns, he hears her wondering what’s going on between them.

Mark has never been one to intrude on other people’s relationships and he has made it a point over the years never to ask Dustin and Chris what, exactly, is going on between them. He doesn’t want to ask, but he can feel how it’s bothering everyone else. He makes a point of keeping tabs on Chris and Dustin, monitoring their emotions in case things spiral out of control.

So it happens that Mark senses it coming a split second before it does. Chris and Dustin are arguing in low tones on the other side of the fishbowl, their emotions taught and tense. Then Chris’s anger suddenly sparks into sharp, furious rage, and Mark looks up in time to see Dustin’s mug fly out of his hand and shatter against the wall in an explosion of ceramic.

The room falls silent and Mark looks around to see that the employees’ eyes are wide and shocked. Chris is the most even-tempered of them all; even Dustin, who is generally pretty happy-go-lucky, can go on rant binges. But Chris is the one that keeps a cool head no matter the situation; now he’s simmering with barely suppressed fury, his eyes bright with anger.

Mark reluctantly gets to his feet and calls, “Chris, Dustin? I would like a word.” He jerks his head towards the conference room and waits for the two of them to file in before he steps inside. He shuts the door behind him and turns to face them. They are standing almost on opposite sides of the room. Dustin slumps against the wall, his expression sullen and miserable. Chris is standing ramrod straight, holding onto the back of one of the chairs. He glares at Dustin and turns to look at Mark.

“It won’t happen again,” he tells Mark in an overly polite voice. “I apologize for letting my temper get the better of me.”

“That’s not what – that’s not why I asked you in here,” Mark says. He fidgets a little, then shoves his hands into his hoodie pockets. “The two of you are setting everyone on edge.”

“How do you know –” starts Dustin, eyebrows coming together in a frown.

“He’s an empath,” sneers Chris, shooting Dustin a nasty look. Mark is taken aback by the sheer venom in Chris’s voice. Dustin shrinks a little, misery pouring from him. He looks pale and exhausted and, now that Mark thinks about it, he has been moving slower than usual, a sure sign that there’s something wrong with him.

“I don’t know what’s going on with the two of you,” Mark says after a moment. “But you have to get it under control. This is not the place for the two of you to air your personal grievances.”

“You’re one to talk,” snaps Chris. “You and Eduardo use the office as a staging ground.”

Mark takes a step back, startled, and looks over at Dustin, who has straightened up a little. “Chris,” Mark starts, “I – look, like I said, you have to get this under control. The two of you have always been – you need to deal with this. You always argued like it was the end of the fucking world. Before it didn’t matter; but now you’re making everyone else nervous.”

Chris lets out an annoyed noise and makes a move to leave the room. Mark raps out sharply, “You’re not leaving.”

Chris looks back, startled. “Mark,” he begins in an irked voice. Mark glares him into silence; he is suddenly furious with the whole situation.

“The two of you told me I should have listened to Eduardo. And I know now that you were right. The two of you are acting like childish idiots and I have better things to do than act as therapist for your goddamn relationship problems,” says Mark. “I don’t know what Dustin did to make you so mad, Chris, and frankly I could care less, but you’re in love with him and he’s in love with you, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to deal with.” He turns to leave, then adds, “And if you don’t work your shit out, I’m firing both of you.”

He stalks out of the room before he can hear either of them protest, and he beckons Jessica over. “Make sure they don’t leave,” he tells her. “I’ll tell you when you can let them out.”

“Right,” Jessica says and she drags over a chair so she can work on her laptop while she watches the door. Mark stares at the door to the conference room, wondering if Chris and Dustin had felt this way when they had watched him and Eduardo dissolve.

Finally, he goes to his computer and opens up his email. He stares at the blank message for a while, mulling over what he wants to say. He feels as though there isn’t enough space for him to possibly express everything he wants to share with Eduardo.

Eduardo, he begins, because he feels that’s a fairly safe way to start. Chris and Dustin are acting like idiots.

He drums his fingers on his desk, trying to think how to explain the situation. He settles on, This must be what they felt like when they watched me not listen to you. And you not listen to me. I know you hate the things I did, but at the time they made sense to me.

You asked me if I regretted what I did. I don’t know if I can say that. It was a business decision and it had nothing to do with you. I never realized that the two weren’t mutually exclusive to you.

I didn’t lie when I said I love you. I find it hard to stop thinking about you. I miss you.

He stops, looking at the words on his screen for a moment. Then he adds, completely on impulse, Come home.

Mark goes home before Chris and Dustin reappear from the conference room; his head is aching from Chris’s outburst and he’s having trouble keeping everyone out. At home, he takes an aspirin and takes a nap on the sofa before going to his laptop. He compulsively refreshes his email until he forces himself to accept that it might take Eduardo a while to get back to him.

When he wakes up the next morning, Eduardo has written him back.

I have a home, Eduardo had written. In fact, I have two. You even visited one last week.

As to the rest of your email – it’s taken me a while to accept that you had a reason for what you did. I still wish things had been different.

For Chris and Dustin – they’ll be fine. It’s just taking them a while to get themselves together.

Mark stares at the last line for a long moment; then he smiles a little. He closes his laptop and drives to the office, thinking over Eduardo’s email. He goes to his desk and then realizes that the office is back to its usual level of chatter. He does a quick survey of the room and it seems that everyone has relaxed. Mark looks around for Chris and Dustin, but doesn’t see either of them. He nods, satisfied, and then composes a reply to Eduardo’s message.

You know that isn’t what I meant by home , Mark tells Eduardo. And they’re not the only ones.


*****

Chris and Dustin arrive around ten. They enter walking close together, their hands brushing against each other, each touch sending off sparks of love and joy. They radiate a tentative happiness and a shy sort of delight in each other’s company that gives Mark pause. He stops typing and watches the way Dustin lights up when Chris speaks to him. Chris looks more relaxed than Mark has seen in ages and nothing seems to be rattling in his wake, which is a sure sign that he isn’t feeling upset.

Chris detaches himself from Dustin’s side and approaches Mark’s desk, looking apologetic. “Mark,” he says, “I’m so sorry about what I said yesterday. I was just – things have been really strange recently.”

Mark nods. “I gathered as much.” He pauses, tilting his head to the side, and asks, “Will the two of you be all right?”

Chris smiles widely; it’s one of the first real smiles Mark has seen from him in a long time. “I think we will.”

Mark tries very hard not to feel a little envious and fails completely. “Good,” he says, slightly clipped. “That’s reassuring.”

Chris laughs wryly and nods before he goes to his desk. Mark opens his email and searches fruitlessly for a new email from Eduardo. He sighs in frustration and closes the email client. He wires in and spends three hours coding until Jessica makes him stop so he can deal with some paperwork from Legal.


*****

Eduardo doesn’t email Mark back for two days. When he finally does, the text of the message is ten digits and the words, Use it.

Mark programs the number into his phone but doesn’t use it for almost a week. Every time he moves to dial the number, he finds a reason to avoid pressing the call button. He finally manages to call late one night while he’s almost completely alone in the office and he’s too exhausted to rethink his decisions.

“Hello?” Eduardo asks when he answers, sounding a little groggy. “Who is this?”

“Hi,” Mark says and Eduardo goes quiet on the other end.

“Mark,” he says eventually. “I didn’t think – it took you long enough.”

“I know. I don’t – I should have called.”

“I almost didn’t think you would,” Eduardo admits.

“I’m not very good at phone conversations,” says Mark. He doesn’t know if Eduardo still thinks about the phone calls they had exchanged in that summer. Mark doesn’t – and won’t ever – remember the details of what Eduardo had told him in those lengthy conversations. What he does remember is sitting outside listening to the sound of Eduardo’s voice and feeling – at home.

“I know,” Eduardo says, sounding amused. “But it’s what we have.”

“We have other options,” Mark feels compelled to point out. “Airplanes do exist, you know.”

“Mark, I –” Eduardo stops, and there’s a heavy moment of dead air. Then he says, “I wish – I wish I had spoken to you before you left.”

“We did speak,” says Mark.

“Yes,” says Eduardo in a tone of amused frustration. “We said hello and goodbye, but I didn’t get – Mark, what did you mean?”

“When?”

“When you asked me to come home.”

“I meant –” Mark pauses, thinking it over. “When I came home,” he says slowly, “it felt strange. I couldn’t hear anyone else around my house. I missed having someone else there.”

Eduardo doesn’t say anything for a few long seconds. “I don’t know what you want from me,” he admits eventually. “I have my own life, Mark. I can’t just drop everything and come join you.”

The conversation feels too familiar to Mark. He says, “I don’t need you to drop everything. I just – I need to see you more than once every six months.”

“All right,” Eduardo says slowly. “That, I understand.”

“Where do we –” Mark stops and frowns. “Is there a we?”

“Yes,” Eduardo says and he sounds oddly pleased. “There is now.”

“Then where do we go from here?”

“We do our best,” says Eduardo softly. “That’s really all we can do.”


*****

Three days later, Mark arrives home to find Eduardo sitting on the stairs to his house. Mark gets out of his car and approaches Eduardo cautiously, his flip-flops scraping against the concrete walkway. Eduardo gets to his feet, dusting off his spotless trousers self-consciously.

“Wardo,” Mark says blankly, utterly confused by this turn of events. “What are you – why are you here?”

“You called,” Eduardo says simply. He moves in towards Mark and reaches out to take Mark’s hand. Mark lets out a breath as Eduardo’s love embraces him. “I thought I could get over it. Over you. But I – I haven’t. I won’t.”

“Good. That’s good,” Mark says frankly. He smiles a little and Eduardo laughs in return, his joy bright and bubbly and absolutely overwhelming. “Come inside.”

“I can’t stay for that long,” warns Eduardo, squeezing Mark’s hand a little. “I could only take off a few days.”

“Then we’ll use those days to our advantage,” says Mark and he pulls Eduardo inside his house. Eduardo leans down and kisses him as if he can’t help himself, and Mark feels unreasonably happy, his own delight mixing with Eduardo’s sheer joy until it feels like his chest is going to burst from everything he’s feeling. Eduardo tightens his grip on Mark’s hand as he leans away to breathe.

“I still love you,” Eduardo tells him.

“I know.” Mark releases Eduardo’s hand so he can start working on the buttons of Eduardo’s sleek dress shirt. “And I’ve told you how I feel. Can we have sex now?”

“Mark, I’m trying to have a conversation,” complains Eduardo, but he’s laughing, his stomach tensed and quivering with amusement. Mark presses one hand flat against Eduardo’s skin, his pinky brushing the top of Eduardo’s waistband, and Eduardo goes very still, arousal spiking. “Mark.”

Mark leans in and kisses the side of Eduardo’s neck. Eduardo sighs happily, his head thumping back against the wall. Eduardo’s stubble is coming in slightly and it rasps against Mark’s mouth and hands. Mark is sure he’ll have stubble burn in the morning; he can’t wait.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” Mark says after a moment, bracketing Eduardo’s face with his hands and relishing the warm pulse of love. “I know everything you’re feeling. How do you know I feel the same?”

“Because I know,” says Eduardo, his mouth curving up. “I know you, Mark.”

Mark kisses him because Eduardo wants him to, and then he says, “You deserve better.”

Eduardo shrugs. “Maybe,” he agrees. “But I’m happier with you.”

Mark is silent for a moment before he says, “That is the cheesiest thing I have ever heard.”

Eduardo laughs, loud and completely free, and Mark grins. He presses his face into the warm skin of Eduardo’s neck and closes his eyes. Eduardo strokes a hand down Mark’s back, then pulls him in closer.

“I have a bed upstairs,” says Mark into Eduardo’s ear. Eduardo shudders, delight sparking off him, and nods fervently.

Mark takes him upstairs and undresses Eduardo piece by piece, relishing the experience of getting to unwrap Eduardo like a gift to himself. He catalogs Eduardo’s reactions to each touch, finding the places that make Eduardo flicker with ecstasy. He touches and kisses across Eduardo’s skin until Eduardo’s thoughts lose coherence and even his steady litany of Mark’s name has faded into weak, soft noises.

Eduardo collapses onto Mark and buries his face into the curve of Mark’s neck, still shaking. Mark strokes a hand down Eduardo’s back and wishes he could send emotions back to Eduardo, to show him how much he loves him. Eventually Eduardo’s breathing evens out, and Mark feels Eduardo return to emotional equilibrium.

“How long will it be before I see you again?” Mark asks quietly, rubbing his hand up and down Eduardo’s spine. “How long will I have to wait?”

“You can visit me too, you know,” Eduardo says into Mark’s skin. “But – hopefully not long.” He moves so he can kiss Mark’s lips and Mark opens his mouth to him. Mark almost forgets what they’re talking about by the time Eduardo finally pulls back. “We can do this, Mark.” He’s uncertain underneath the confidence of his words, but Mark doesn’t remark on that.

Instead, he says, “I know we can.”