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Bassline

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The video is grainy, jumps around a lot, obviously fan-made. A thumb sneaks into the frame from time to time. The sound is distorted and there's a lot of crowd noise, snatches of conversation drowning out the music, all these Oslo accents and the small stab Isak feels can only be called homesickness. It's been years since he's been in a room full of people who talk like him. Four and a half, to be exact. And there's the thumb again.

"Real fucking Scorsese we got on our hands," Isak mutters to himself. He plugs his headphones in and it doesn't do much for the distortion, just brings it closer to him, blocks out the street noise from below and the clomping footsteps of his upstairs neighbor. He opens a new tab, keeps the vid running and types in a search. In a kingdom where social media hits matter just as much as record sales, Kardemomme doesn't leave much of a footprint. The official website is basic, no individual bios, just a lineup, a couple of album covers and a link to iTunes. Their facebook page is run by a groupie and most of it is in Norwegian. A load of blurry selfies with band members. A bunch of comments asking for English translations.

It doesn't make sense. Kardemomme is bigger than this, especially overseas. Two songs have hit the top forty here in the States, higher than that on the indie and college charts. The NYU station Isak keeps on for background noise at work has been playing them on almost constant repeat for the better part of three months. The band is well past the obscure, up-and-coming phase. This barely-there blip has to be on purpose.

Autoplay has served up another video, and Isak switches back to the tab. This one is a little better and more recent. The song starts out with some tooth-rattling bass then the drums kick in, and the crowd surges with it. The venue is bigger, a Swedish place Isak doesn't recognize. Someone had even sprung for a laser show and a smoke machine. Shifting rainbow-colored light showers down on the band and the crowd. Whoever shot this one plainly had a thing for the woman on rhythm guitar. Isak doesn't blame them. He'd have a thing for her too, if he bent in that direction.

He flips to a clean page in his notebook and jots down a few first impressions.

 

Even: bass and vocals. Really fucking pretty and he knows it.

Eva: rhythm guitar and vocals. Pretty and doesn't give a shit that she is.

Jonas: lead guitar. Crowd pleaser. Everybody's best friend.

 

The song is sophisticated. Written in an atonal jazz key that makes Isak sit up, lean toward his laptop and pay closer attention. Go fullscreen. The keyboards carry this song, spiraling upward as the bass spirals down. Isak makes another couple of notes, has to scratch out the keyboardist's name when he screws up the spelling the first time.

 

Noora: keyboards. Expressionless. Wow, she can play.

Magnus: drums. Voted most likely to accidentally murder someone with a drumstick.

 

The video swings back to Even, zooms in while he launches into the chorus in a smooth, two pack a day baritone, eyes focused on the mic, soft, pink lips so close to it that it looks like he's about to make out with the thing. Maybe suck it off. Isak really wouldn't mind watching him suck it off, thinks it would be a decent way to spend an evening, and finds himself absently disappointed when the shot slides away from Even to focus on the crowd.

Isak opens up the email from his editor, skims through it for the tenth time, snagging to a stop on phrases like serial piece and North American tour coverage, boots on the ground and big opportunity. His response is quick and vague, that he'll let her know tomorrow morning, although he's known the answer from the jump. He signs off with your favorite intern.

- - -

"You're late," Sana barely glances up from her crossword puzzle, then pulls a double-take. "And you look like you've crawled out of a cave."

"I know," Isak says, looping his headphones around his neck and accidentally kicking her a little under the tiny cafe table as he drops down into the chair across from her. "And I did just crawl out of a cave." He takes a gulp of the coffee she's bought him, reaches over to steal a bite of the granola thing she's been picking at. It has some unidentifiable dried fruit in it, tastes healthy.

Sana pushes her plate toward him and he snags another bite. "Deadline?"

"Research." Six months ago, pulling an all nighter to hit a deadline or study for a final would have been cake. Now it feels like lead has been injected into Isak's thought processes, and a cannonball has landed in his stomach. On the other side of the plate glass window, Lower Manhattan trundles along like it's any other Wednesday, and he's about to agree to take on a story that has the potential to change his life for good and he's gonna do it on a two-hour night's sleep. Sounds about right.

"You don't research." Sana leans back in her chair and crosses her arms.

"Sure I do," Isak tells her. "It takes a lot of work to make everything look this effortless."

"We're not talking about your hair," she waves at generally at Isak's outfit, "or this grunge meets greaser mashup you have going on. I've known you since we were freshman, Isak. You almost never research unless you absolutely have to. I research for you. Now spill."

"The Kardemomme story," Isak says, and gets a thrill when he says it out loud, a small shot of adrenaline that almost makes him feel human for a second.

There's a pause, as if Sana is processing the information. "Wait a minute. No. You're not serious." Isak gives her a small nod and a half-shrug to match, and when she starts to talk again, she switches to Norwegian, something they almost never do. "You are fucking serious. It's a series. Big write up at the end, full access to the band. To everything. The whole tour. When did you find out?"

"Sonja offered it to me yesterday. I told her I'd let her know this morning."

"So you've had this in your back pocket for sixteen hours and you're only telling me about it now? Next time something like this happens, you start with that. Sixty credit hours in journalism and nobody ever taught you about the hook? You lead with the hook."

"Duly noted." He draws a checkmark in the air.

"I saw them once, y'know. Back in Oslo. It was in the basement of some community center. I don't know if there were even fifty people in the audience."

"How were they?" Isak asks. He almost hauls out his notebook to write down what she says, prove to her that he does in fact research.

"Loud. Couldn't pull together a decent cover if their lives depended on it. Not very good yet, but enthusiastic." She pauses, her expression going soft. "One of our hometown crew making it big. I would have killed to bag that story."

"You're pissed at me for getting it." It's not a question.

Sana's response is immediate. "No, not even a little. I can be happy for you, and still pissed off that I didn't get it. The two things are mutually exclusive. Besides, you're the better writer to pull off something like this. All grit and no grammar."

Isak grins at her, his throat suddenly feeling thick. "Thank you."

"It's true. Have you told your roommate yet?"

"Linn?" Isak says. "No. I found a dirty cereal bowl in the sink this morning that wasn't there last night. It's the only way I know she's left her room in the last couple of days."

"She's a dream compared to the psychopath I live with," Sana says, then squints at Isak, gets real quiet. "Even, the singer, you know he's pansexual, right?"

"I am well aware." Isak might have been able to sleep for three hours instead of two if he hadn't come across that little slice of information.

"It made waves overseas, when Mannen i mit liv dropped. When it was Even who was singing it. Not big waves, but important waves."

Isak gets it, understands what it's like to feel well and truly alone, lost and more than a little afraid and then a song comes on the radio or a line from a book hits exactly right, ripples through because someone else knows. There's somebody out there who has a same-shaped, scuffed up heart, who's holding out a blind hand with the hope that someone takes it.

Sana clears her throat. "Anyway, hurry up and finish my breakfast, Isak. We're gonna be late."

"It'll be okay," Isak says around a bite, "everybody's always late."

- - -

Analog occupies the entire twentieth floor of the building, and every time Isak walks through the frosted doors, greets the guy at reception and rushes into the guts of the office, he's a little surprised that security doesn't show up to escort him out. That he actually belongs there. The magazine doesn't compare to giants like Paste, nowhere near Rolling Stone, the goddamn corporate sell out, but they do sometimes catch a few big name freelancers to do editorials and reviews from time to time, and the folks at the top have a soft spot for broke, recently former college students.

"Sonja wants to see you," a guy says while Isak is still getting settled in, fixing his next cup of coffee. Isak hasn't learned his name yet. He's new, kinda scurries everywhere. Real uptight. Isak salutes him, and doesn't run to Sonja's corner office. Almost, but not quite.

Most people don't like Sonja, but Isak understands her. She's smart, sits at the center of a very complex web, and only ever has five minutes to spend on one topic before moving onto the next. What most people measure as dismissive Isak sees as busy, cut and dry.

Sonja's already talking when Isak slips through her door. She's also tip-tapping on her phone and shooting glances at one of two monitors on her desk. "Decent write-up on that Bowery show, shoot it over for a line edit, it needs to be clean by noon."

"Got it," Isak says, then takes a deep breath. Something pterodactyl-sized flutters in his chest. "Kardemomme. I'm in."

She puts her phone down, folds her hands on her desk and offers him a rare smile. "Good. I'm glad you agreed, because I was gonna put you on it no matter what." Turning back to her computer screen, she goes on, "I'll email you the itinerary, all the details. A per diem will be wired into your account. There's an Amex with your name on it waiting for you at your desk."

Isak stands in her doorway, sort of at a loss, because screw sixty, his life has just gone from zero to one-twenty in a blink. "I just wanna say thanks--"

Before he can finish, Sonja is waving him off. "You earned it. You'll do right by them. Now go and get that Bowery piece polished."

"Aye, aye."

"Oh, by the way," she adds as Isak backs out of the door, "they fly in tomorrow afternoon, but you probably already knew that. I recommend a little meet and greet. A warm welcome to our fair city. I'll send you that info as well."

- - -

The E train is a piece of shit and Isak has been sitting in this tunnel for five minutes, obsessively checking his phone for the time, like that's gonna help move things along at all. Finally, finally it pulls into Jamaica station and Isak's bouncing at the door, flat out running through the station to make it to the Air Train to JFK, dodging luggage and kids on leashes, tourists with subway maps walking around in circles, and no fewer than four people pushing fucking bikes. Kardemomme's flight is due to land in ten and this is one time he does not want to be late.

There's more of the same when he makes it to international arrivals, huffing that singular airport smell of dusty luggage and underlying jet fuel. He scans the crowd for any familiar faces, barely remembers to hang his press credentials around his neck on the off-chance they're looking for him as well. No luck inside, so he wanders outside, and picks a spot that he thinks is about as visible as it gets. Crosses his arms. Uncrosses them. Does the same thing with his ankles. Leans against a bench then decides that's too relaxed and stands up straight. Gives himself shit because now he's acting like some sorta awkward, besotted protagonist in a crappy romcom, trying to act casual but not too casual.

A big black van stops along the curb beside Isak, spits out a cloud of exhaust that makes his eyes sting. A girl circles around the back of the van and pulls up short in front of him. She peers down at his press pass, back up at his face and actually pronounces his name correctly, introduces herself as Chris.

"You're the scribe," she says, looking at him like she might tongue fuck him in a second. In heavily accented English, she says, "You're really, really cute."

"I'm really, really gay," he replies in Norwegian.

She just shrugs it off, sighs and says, "Fuck. Aren't they all."

"So you're…" Isak leaves it open ended.

"In charge of logistics and beer runs for the band," Chris finishes, and gives him a smile that could chase away a rainstorm. "I also sometimes drive the bus."

There's a sound like a screaming mimi and a flash of nearly white hair and then Chris has her arms full of another girl, the force of her nearly knocking Chris over.

"This is Vilde," Chris tells Isak, laughing through it. "She's everybody's favorite groupie."

"Correction. I take care of merchandising. Which reminds me." Vilde pulls out her phone. It has a pink cat-shaped case, ears and all, its whiskers vibrating as she starts ticking off a list to Chris.

The band is slowly trickling out of the airport, dragging their luggage and a couple of instruments with them. A man is pushing a cart full of bags. He has on an I heart NY t-shirt and cat-eye sunglasses and introduces himself as Eskild, Kardemomme's tour guru. He shakes Isak's hand like he's expecting Isak to kiss it.

Even is the last to pass through the doors, and he hangs back while the others head toward the van, lowers his bass case but keeps it safe between his feet. His eyes are hidden behind big round sunglasses and his hair is the kind of messy that only happens on purpose. He plugs a cigarette in his mouth, takes a long drag and exhales like it's the best thing that's happened to him all day. He's tall, slender in a whiplash kinda way. Gentle features on an angular foundation, all cheekbones and sharp jawline, a mouth that makes Isak wanna write a five-part essay about it.

"Girls and boys. Meet your biographer," Eskild says. "Play nice, everyone."

It's enough to bring Isak's attention back to front and center. The band is exhausted and travel rumpled, but with it enough to ask Isak all the polite, how-do-you-do questions. Where he's from, how long he's lived in the U.S., whether or not he's ever interviewed Paul McCartney or Thom Yorke.

Eva's stretching, talking about wanting a bath and Noora's looking at Isak like he probably smells. Magnus gives Isak a hug that lifts his feet clean off of the ground, and Jonas does that cool, handshake one-arm back thump thing and calls him bro.

While Eskild herds everyone into the van that will take them eventually to their hotel, Even saunters over, slows to a stop in front of him. Isak needs to tip his chin up to look him in the eye, and really, no one gets off of an international flight looking this good. Almost two meters registers a lot different on pixelated, amateur concert videos. In person, he's a presence. Even leans toward him and his pulse kicks up. Isak wants to be cool or charming. Hell, even funny would do, but right now he's none of those things. He's stuck, suspended and staring at his own double reflection in Even's sunglasses.

"I read a couple of your articles on the way over here," Even says, and his voice is another thing that's different in person. A quiet, deep purr, sexier than it has any right to be.

"Oh yeah? What did you think?"

Even considers it for a second, tongue sneaking out to touch his canine before before he answers. "I think you'll tell the truth about us." He slides his sunglasses down and his eyes are bright blue, a spark in them like Even knows a secret and wants Isak to ask him what it is. "Maybe you'll give me your autograph one day."

As Even begins to follow the rest of the band, Isak calls after him, "Just tell me when and where."

Even turns to quickly glance at Isak over his shoulder. "Don't you worry. I will."

Chapter Text

On the surface, Even appears calm, sprawled silently in one of the two chairs in Sonja's office, the heel of one boot propped up on the toe of the other. He seems steady as his voice when he sings, his hair is swept away from his face, held back by a loudly patterned bandana that would look a shade too hipster if anyone else tried to wear it, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses.

Set a fingernail to that surface, peel off the top layer and it's probably a different story underneath. It's Isak's job to get to that story, chip away to get at the old paint under the new. Observation is step number one, and Isak is doing exactly that, his back to the corner of the room, pen and notebook abandoned in his hands.

Even's chewing on his lips like he'd rather have a cigarette between them. A ring is on the first finger of his pick hand, and it keeps sliding down some, only to be thoughtlessly shoved up again by his thumb. The thing is plain silver, no stones or markings that Isak can see, dull like it has its fair share of scuffs. There's a groove there, visible when it slides down, evidence that he's been wearing it for a long time, years before he stretched out into the tall, slender person he is now, before all the baby fat bled away from his body.

He might appear still, focused, but he's constantly moving in subtle ways. Mostly his fingers, tapping against the side of his thigh, as if he's itching for a keyboard or fretting his bass, like his mind is always split between the world around him and the next song rattling against the inside of his head.

The monitors on Sonja's desk are dark, and her phone is screen-down on her desk. For once, her attention is undivided, centered on Eskild as they go over some last-minute business. A few hairpin changes to the schedule. Paperwork and waivers. A bunch of legal hoodoo that Isak couldn't understand even if he tried.

Eskild is talking fast, says as much with his gestures as he does with his mouth, and Isak gets called upon from time to time to translate when Eskild's English vocabulary doesn't stretch quite far enough.

"I'll need the rest of the band to sign off on this as well," Sonja says, pushing a thick stack of paper across her desk. Even scratches his signature on the spot where she's pointing, leans back again and begins to chew on the pen cap and it's nothing short of criminal. Shouldn't make Isak's mouth go bone dry and his collar seem too tight, yet here he is.

"You'll have them in a few hours," Eskild tells her. "They're setting their controls to nocturnal. Apparently it's a process that started with closing down every bar in Hell's Kitchen last night." He's looking the part today. Suit jacket and skinny tie, sunglasses straight out of Blues Brothers resting on the top of his head. Classy.

"What about you?" Isak asks, looking at Even.

Even purses his lips, shrugs with one shoulder, and Eskild takes over before Even can utter a syllable. "Our magical mastermind here doesn't just sleep," Eskild tells him. "He either cat naps or hibernates for days. There's no in between." He smiles at Even, indulgent as a proud mother, then touches Even's restless hand, momentarily causing it to go still on his thigh. Even doesn't quite smile back, but something in his expression softens, a thin sheet of metal pulled back. There's true affection between them, Isak realizes. Affection and a history that reaches beyond the months and years spent out on the road together.

Sonja shoves back from her desk, tells them she's got what she needs, stands and shakes hands with Even and Eskild, and it's probably the most polite dismissal Isak's ever seen out of her.

Eskild lifts his wrist, makes a show of checking a watch that isn't actually there and says, "I'm needed in three different places five minutes ago." He looks at Isak and lights up, touches his own chest then Isak's. "That reminds me. Even needs a play date. Are you busy?"

"A play date," Isak deadpans, and there it is again, that not-quite smile on Even's face.

"A chaperone," Eskild says, "if that fits your ex-pat sensibilities a little better."

Behind them, Sonja has nosedived back to her phone, but she's still listening in, and the arch in her eyebrows is an obvious enough command.

"Sure, are you up for a little pre-tour interview?" Isak says, easy as anything, needle to the heart shot of adrenaline at the prospect of spending an hour or two with him. Nervous anticipation backed by a complete lack of preparation for an actual interview.

"I'm all yours," Even says in that low purr, and Isak's starting wonder if Even's hardwired to flirt mercilessly with anything that has a pulse, regardless of gender, species, or professional liability.

"Do you have a spot in mind?" Isak asks, waving Eskild through the door, Even on his heels. He can't do it here, not at the desk he shares with three other interns, in an open space with too many other curious people.

"Is The Bitter End very far?" Even says.

"The place where Dylan cut his teeth." Isak nods, kinda charmed that Even's into checking out one of the classic haunts. "It's not too far, but it's only open at night."

"I'll call the owner. He'll open the place up for you," Sonja says. Isak gives her a thumbs up and mouths a silent thanks. As she scrolls through her phone, she goes on, "Just…walk slowly."

- - -

It's a two cigarette trip on foot, Even with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up although the day doesn't really call for it, Isak lengthening his steps to match Even's long strides, pointing out the greatest hits of music history in the area. Clubs where jazz melted into folk then melted into punk and finally put down roots in a mixture of all three.

They step beneath the vibrant blue awning over the door of The Bitter End, the only real outside addition to the place in the last forty years or so, and Isak taps on the window, waits for the owner to let them in. The inside has barely changed at all, same dark brick walls, low stage, lights and a sound system that's probably every bit of ten years old. Black and white photographs here and there that Even takes his time pouring over for a while.

Most of the tables still have chairs upside down on top of them, but the owner has gotten one ready for them, hits it with a rag although it doesn't really need it, brings Isak a beer and Even a glass of wine and tells them it's on the house, then backs off and makes himself busy behind the bar.

"Nobody stopped us on the way here," Even says. He takes his sunglasses off. It's the first time Isak's seen the whole of his face live and in the flesh, uninterrupted by wire and reflective, mirror-coated lenses. His cheeks are pink from the walk and sorta match his mouth, and his eyes are bright despite the darkened room. The color of clear, open water.

"Disappointed?" Isak asks him. He thinks about activating the voice recorder on his phone, decides not to, and pulls out his small pad and pen instead. Even might appreciate something a touch more old school, and Isak hates the disconnect a recorder creates. That timer that ticks away between subject and reporter. Besides, transcribing sucks.

"No. Just strange. Nice," Even clarifies. "A few years ago, I was still working days at a café in Oslo. Everybody in the band was doing something else. Going to school. Working shit jobs. Noora was studying to be a journalist, like you. Then Mannen hit it big, and everything changed. Now we all have to sneak in and out of the back doors of restaurants, that sort of thing."

"It's not what you signed up for," Isak says.

The ring on Even's index finger gets two quick spins. "No, we definitely signed up for it. But it's good that we can still be somewhat anonymous here."

"You're out of context right now. It'll be a different story tonight, after the show."

With a nod, Even says, "After a show it always is, in a lot of different ways."

There's a question in that, one that Isak decides to save for later, once he's seen it with his own eyes. He makes a quick note, doesn't mind it when Even watches what he's writing down. It's mostly in a norsk-English hybrid that he developed during his first year of school here, a code that can be tough to crack. Besides, they'll soon be living in each others back pockets, and everything worth remembering will eventually be made permanent, printed in black ink on glossy paper.

Clearing his throat, Isak says, "Okay. A couple of ground rules, before we get too far into this. If you say something's off the record, it is. No questions asked. If I ask a question that you don't wanna answer, tell me. I won't get pissed."

"Taking charge from the start. I like it." Even picks up his wine glass, makes the deep red swirl, but doesn't take a sip.

"Analog isn't a tabloid. I'm not here to dig up dirt or…or write about what kind of cologne you wear," Isak goes on, then adds quickly, "Which is nice, by the way."

"I couldn't tell you even if you did ask. I always just steal whatever Jonas has in his bag."

"Then I'll make sure to pack something nice, just in case," Isak teases, then launches into a series of basic interview questions. Favorite places to play, what made Even pick up a bass one day and what made him stick to it, his thoughts about the States so far, what he hopes to learn on this tour.

Even's answers are careful, slow because he plainly thinks them through first, generally a little off-kilter in a way that Isak really likes, and when Isak asks Even about his musical influences, the answer he gets is unexpected.

"Country," Even tells him. "Not the newer, poppy stuff, more like the old classics."

"Your stuff doesn't sound at all like country. You guys play a lot of jazz chords, waltz time signatures. C-major into A-seven laid out on top of three-four time."

The look Even gives him is sharp, laser focused. He leans forward, comes in close. "Primarily nine-eight, actually. It keeps Magnus on track. What do you play?"

"Eight years of piano lessons growing up." Isak shakes his head. "It didn't really stick, but a lot of the theory did. Back to the country influence."

"Yeah, not so much the sound, obviously. It's more about the sentimentality. How it allows itself to be sentimental." As Isak makes a couple more notes, adds a reminder to listen to their latest album again with this new information in mind, Even continues, "But c'mon. Anybody can ask about influences. You can do better than that. I'm all yours, remember?" He wears a slight smile as he speaks, and the way he says it isn't mean, just true.

He's right. Isak can do better, and he should. "You mentioned Mannen i mitt liv earlier. It's the song that got you guys here, the one that busted things wide open for you, but you didn't play it live on your last two European tours. Is there a reason for that?"

"There you go. That's better." Even sips his wine, tongue sneaking out to touch his merlot-stained bottom lip. They've been at it for nearly an hour and the glass is still mostly full. "We played that song for years before we went into the studio with it. I was always changing up the lyrics. It's given us a lot, but now it's static. Frozen. Probably never should have laid it down."

"Do you think you'll ever play it again?

Even's response is quiet. Musing and vague. "Give the people what they want, right? I don't know. Maybe one day."

- - -

"How's it looking out there?" Magnus is shadowboxing backstage, hair already sweaty and hanging in damp strands across his face. He doesn't pause as he speaks. "Filling up?"

"It's buzzing," Isak assures him, and takes a step back, just in case. The guy's tall. Real long legs. An inclination to kick.

The venue is smaller than most of the spots they'll be playing on the tour, sort of a warm-up gig before hitting the road, something to give them their land legs and an idea of what to expect from an untested American audience.

Noora and Eva are already dressed for the show, matching red lipstick blaring like a siren. Eva skews a bit more goth, short shorts and thigh high black stockings, a repurposed old Bauhaus t-shirt, cut up and sewn back together, and old combat boots that have at least a hundred thousand miles on them. Noora's in a dress that's only a shade whiter than her hair, knee high red leather boots with heels so spiked that they could be used for a weapon. The two of them are sitting close together on the sofa in the green room, playing cat's cradle with a frayed length of string, heads ducked close together.

"It's their thing," someone says from behind Isak, and he turns to find a shorter guy standing behind him, wearing a smile that's bigger than his face. He sticks out a hand and says, "Mahdi. I'm tech. You're the scribe."

"Or the ex-pat, depending on who you ask," Isak tells him, and doesn't have a choice but to smile back at him. Mahdi has the kind of grin that spreads like infection.

"Hey, Mahdi," Jonas calls from his spot on the sofa beside the ladies. He's kicked back, feet on the table, screwing around on an ancient acoustic that looks like it's seen as many miles as Eva's boots. "Are we gonna sound good tonight?"

"Hell yeah, you are," Mahdi shoots back, then quietly says to Isak, "That's his thing."

Even shows up and the noise level in the room drops a notch. At the same time, the electric undercurrent amps up, some intangible thing that closes the band's circuit now that they're all in the same room. He's kept the bandana but ditched the hoodie. Even's jeans have been painted on him, and his plain white t-shirt stretches just right across his shoulders, puddles looser around his cinched in waist. He has on wristbands that match the ones Magnus is wearing, and his silver riveted belt pulls Isak's attention to the shift of his hips as he walks across the room and straddles the arm of the couch beside Jonas.

Small press is here, a couple of local papers, a blogger or two, and Isak steers clear of them, lets them have their moment with the band. He'll have plenty more. The journalists gather around them, recorders placed on the table, launching into the usual battery of questions, the ones that the band are comfortable with, easy enough that they end up finishing each others sentences more times than not. When one of the reporters asks about their influences, Even glances up at Isak, finding him right away, eyes cracking into him with a force that Isak feels in his gut. Isak rolls his eyes, and Even raises his eyebrows, tilts his head the smallest amount.

- - -

They never take their foot off the gas. They don't stop. There aren't any ballads or acoustic pieces that slow things down. The pauses between songs are only long enough to switch out a guitar or bass or for Eva or Even to pant out a quick thank you to the crowd.

The audience eats it up, surges with the heartbeat of Even's bassline and Magnus's frantic pounding on drums, the sound of Noora's keyboard floating on top of it all. From his spot in the wings, Isak eats it up too, feels the chemistry between Even and Eva seep into his chest, falls a little in love with her when she breaks a string mid-song and keeps going anyway, even though the welt on her hand is obvious.

He forgets to take notes, keeps having to backtrack and jot down the set list at least, learns that Jonas is the one who keeps them centered. That the band is constantly looking to him for small cues to bring the guitar solo or an extended bridge back on track. He nods, leans back, maybe flicks his fingers out or stomps his foot twice and they're there, everything snapping back into place. A conductor in ratty blue jeans and a skate punk shirt with the arms ripped off, hair like a frizzed out halo around his head, snapping guitar picks out into the audience every couple of songs.

At the break before the encore, they dash off stage, huddle together for a minute and Isak listens in to the debate about the last song. He guesses it's not predetermined, a product of what the crowd is feeding them and how they wanna be remembered on this particular night. Motion passed, they rush back on, and surprisingly it's Noora who introduces the band, pausing between each member to let the cheers overtake them for a second.

The last song hits like a car crash. It's a deep cut from their first album, Eva and Even trading off on vocals and coming together for the chorus. Sweat is pooling in the dip of Even's throat and his shirt is so damp it's next to invisible. More sweat makes Eva's hair stick to her face, then Even's face when she slides over to share his microphone, their heads tipped so close her lipstick smudges the corner of his mouth, a line of it left behind on his cheek. The song finishes with Even's arm slung tight around her neck, bodies moving together in a slide that reeks like sex, staring into each others eyes like they're the only ones in the room.

It's another thing Isak should write down. A very interesting thing.

- - -

Sana's waiting for Isak at the stage door. So are about a hundred other people, and Isak doesn't mind the sigh of disappointment when it's just him and not a member of Kardemomme, who are still cooling off, working away the post-show energy back in the green room. He shoots a quick text to Eskild to let him know what the situation looks like out here, then hugs Sana, gives her a peck on the cheek.

His heart is still pounding and everything sounds like it's underwater, and Isak wonders if there will ever come a day when the hangover of a near perfect show won't hit him like this. He hopes it never comes.

"They got better," she says, talking too loud, dimples coming out to play.

"How was the sound?" Isak asks. His perception had been skewed from the wings. He couldn't get the full scope of it.

"Ace," Sana says. "Snare drum a little overpowering for the first song, but tech got it figured out by the second." She starts down the sidewalk, looping her arm through Isak's. "What do you think so far?"

Isak blows out a breath. "Haven't had that time to figure that out yet. I've only really spent time with Even one-on-one and he's…interesting."

"Interesting," Sana parrots back at him. "Interesting like two meters tall and hotter than the sun with a voice that knocks you to your knees."

"Yeah, that's another thing."

Sana pats his hand, shoulders into him, and says, "I'll text you the set list, since you probably forgot to write it down in the midst of all your other research."

"There might be a few gaps," Isak says around a chuckle. "Don’t know what I’m gonna do without you."

"You'll be fine. Which reminds me." Sana stops, pulls a small box out of her pocket and hands it to him. "We're not going to get sappy, because we aren't like that. Strictly no sappy."

"We should put that on a t-shirt," Isak says as he opens the box. It's a small pendant, hanging from a ball link chain, long enough that the pendant will rest against the center of his chest.

Sana rises up onto her toes, loops the necklace over his head and says, "It's a hamsa. For luck. Just in case you need it."

The lump is back in Isak's throat and he swallows past it as he holds it in his hand, turns it to catch the light from the streetlamp. It's hammered silver, intricate filigree working down its five fingers. "Thank you," he says simply.

"It'll keep you out of trouble, when you're too far away for me to do it myself." Sana begins to walk again, crossing the street toward the subway. "Are you all packed? Ready to go?"

"Getting there," he says, and it's not a lie. He's made a list. A very comprehensive list. His only bottle of good cologne at the top of it.
Rolling her eyes, Sana says, "Go home. Get started." She reaches up to ruffle his hair and he shies away from it. "You should have taken the time to get a haircut before you leave."

"No way. It's my best feature." He hugs her again, squeezes tight and whispers in her ear, "I'm gonna miss you."

"Don't miss me too much. You are going to rock this so hard." She holds him at arm's length for a second, then begins the trip down the stairs to the train, turning back to tell him, "And don't forget to eat."

- - -

Bags packed. Comprehensive list checked off. No fewer than three alarms set for only a few hours from now. Isak falls into bed, ears still ringing from the lingering effects of the show. Pulse still jacked up a little. It'll be the final time he gets to see his own bed for weeks. His last thought before he passes out is that he has to remember to write Linn a note in the morning. Somebody has to water his plant.

 

Chapter Text

High ceilings, fancy chandeliers, marble floors mapped out in a geometric design. It's one of those hotels that has four dollar symbols beside its name in all the tourist guides. Isak's waiting in the lobby, damp-haired from his shower and blurry-eyed, sitting on his battered suitcase, his backpack slumped between his feet, plugged into his headphones.

He looks up to see an entourage make its way toward to the door. It's not his. A guy is in the middle of the group of people, vaguely familiar, probably some B-list movie actor that Isak should know but can't quite place. He's always been more into music, anyway.

Reviews of the show last night are trickling in online, and Isak swipes through them on his phone, skimming everything, ignoring the comment sections. Only one of them absolutely slams them, calls them emo-scando-european wannabes, but that's from a guy who hates everything like it's his job, which it kinda is, so whatever. Sana's quick, three-column write up knocks all the rest clear out of the water, and that's no surprise. She can write a better article in twenty minutes half asleep than most of those other fuckers can manage with a month lead time and a hefty cash advance.

Isak looks up to find Mahdi's shown up and is sitting on one of the cushy leather chairs in the lobby, a small receiver opened up on the table in front of him. Most of its guts are spread out all over the table and he's working on getting the rest of them out with a tiny screwdriver.

"Morning, Scribe," Mahdi says when Isak lugs his suitcase over and sits on it again.

Isak salutes him, then asks, "Equipment failure?" The black plastic cover has a crack in it, and a red, Ed Hardy-style rose sticker patches it together.

"Eva said there's some kind of feedback loop happening in her monitor. She was catching a lot of reverb off of Even's bass. Probably has something to do with the fact that she was climbing him like a tree the whole time." He's putzing around with the antennae now, checking the connections. "Anyway, she said it kept on screwing with her last night." Mahdi tells him.

"She sounded good to me," Isak says.

"Of course she did. That girl could break a foot on stage and not skip a beat." He pries out a tiny circuit board, inspects it and sets it to the side. "In fact, she has."

"No shit," Isak says. He pulls his notepad out of his pocket, uncaps the pen he keeps shoved into the spiral binding. "You mind if I…?"

Mahdi shrugs. "It's your job. I don't mind you doing it," he says, and eyes the notepad. "I could hook you up with a voice recorder if you need one."

"I kinda hate transcribing. Plus, I have ninety-percent conversational recall accuracy, so."

With a grin, Mahdi says, "You and Truman Capote."

Nodding, Isak says, "Did this happen at a show? The broken foot?"

"Yeah. Dinky club in Amsterdam. Tiny fucking stage. Everyone was basically on top of each other. You couldn't move without stepping on wires."

"How long ago was this?" Isak asks.

"Maybe three years back." Mahdi stops tinkering, dances the screwdriver between his fingers and over his knuckles like a magician with a trick coin, gaze set on a spot just over Isak's shoulder. "No, make that two and a half. Shortly before Mannen."

Isak scribbles a short side note, a quick reminder to look into the pre- and post-Mannen angle. He has Even's take on it and he's edging in on Mahdi's. "Got it. Do you remember the name of the place?"

Another pause, then Mahdi frowns. "I can't. You could ask Eskild or Eva. They'd know." He taps his temple. "Blame the contact high. You could cut through the smoke in that place with a butter knife." He pauses, mutters something under his breath about frequency, then goes on, "Anyway, where was I?"

"Tiny stage. Wires everywhere," Isak prompts. He already has an idea about where this story is gonna go.

"That's right. Tiny stage. Cords. Contact high, if you get what I'm saying." The antennae has joined the flotsam on the table. "There it is," Mahdi mutters to himself and pulls a set of jeweler's pliers from his pocket, begins stripping a few thin wires, shoring up the connection.

"I get it," Isak says, and chooses not to write that part down.

"Ask Jonas and he'll tell you one thing, and Magnus will tell you another. Somehow Mag's snare drum stand got knocked over, with the snare drum still attached to it. It hit Eva exactly right, or I guess you could say exactly wrong. Snapped three bones in her foot and broke two toes."

"And she finished the song," Isak says.

"Scribe, she finished the set. Magnus basically carried her all the way to the clinic afterward."

Isak grins and says, "Was she pissed?"

"Not even a little. That's the thing about Eva. If something happens to her, it doesn't matter, but look at Noora or one of her boys the wrong way and you're in for it. But now you know why she won't even think about a stage unless she's got boots on her feet." Mahdi's reassembling the equipment now, small components snapping back into place, and Isak gets the idea that he could probably do it blindfolded.

Isak writes down a few more notes, then checks his phone. They were supposed to shove off ten minutes ago. "Any idea on an ETA?"

"We're running on Kardemomme time now, which means everything happens when it happens, give or take fifteen to twenty minutes."

"The busses are good to go?"

Hiking a thumb over his shoulder, Mahdi says, "Gassed up, parked at the curb. Vilde's been busy with the one you guys will be on."

"Yeah?"

"It's one of those things you gotta see with your own eyes." Mahdi stands up and stretches, stashes the receiver in one of his big coat pockets. "Here comes the cavalry."

A bellboy pushing a cart full of luggage gets out of one elevator and the band piles out of another, looking for all the world like a group of kids dragged from bed too early to go on a school field trip. Their footsteps are shuffling and pillow marks crease their cheeks, except for Magnus, who looks like he probably hasn't gone to bed yet.

Noora and Vilde make their way toward the side door with their arms linked, Noora nodding along while Vilde talks, ticking things off on her fingers. Vilde's wearing a t-shirt that says Kardemomme Kosegruppa on it and Isak has half a mind to ask her whether or not she has one in his size, wonders if it would be in poor taste to buy one of them off of her.

Jonas jogs a couple of steps to catch up with Magnus, snags the drumsticks from Magnus's back pocket and starts lightly tapping them on his shoulders, two-handed Tommy Lee-twirls and the whole nine. He hops on his back as they close in on the door, makes Magnus piggyback him outside, wading into a small group of folks crowding the sidewalk between the hotel and the bus.

Even's got his arm around Eva's shoulders. Her hair is held back by the bandana he was wearing yesterday. It's striking, the easy way they walk together, the matched swing of their hips and how she casually fits under his arm, her fingers formed around his waist. She's not wearing her boots, as if she knows her feet are safe around him. Even notices Isak and nods his hello.

"No shit," Eva says, frowning in surprise as she watches Magnus and Jonas sign every CD booklet shoved under their noses, pause to take a bunch of photos with anyone holding up their phone.

"Looks like they found you," Isak says, a hitch in his step from his suitcase as he falls into line with them.

"Yeah," Even says, "it's like you said yesterday. We're in context now." He rubs Eva's shoulder, squeezes it. "Are you good?"

"Now I sorta wish I'd washed my hair." She rakes her nails through her scalp and fixes the bandana. "But I'm good."

Something changes about her the instant she walks outside. It's subtle, the metal that she injects into her spine, the curtain that falls over her expression and how she's sure to keep herself bodily between Even and the people they don't know. She hooks her little finger around Even's, as if she needs to stay in contact with him while they scribble their names on glossy paper and half-smile through a dozen photographs. She only lets go after Even's helped her onto the bus.

Isak's hanging back, getting a little jostled and a little scrutinized while people try to figure out whether or not he's a person worth paying attention to. Someone comes up behind him and pulls his suitcase from his hand.

"Hey," he says, spinning, then says it again when he sees Eskild pushing through the people and dragging his suitcase behind him, stowing it under the bus.

"You can tip me later." Eskild pitches his voice loud to be heard over the crowd noise. "I'm thinking a cover story. Something scandalous for the centerfold."

Isak gives him a double thumbs up and turns to see Even still hanging out of the door to the bus, looking directly at him, and Isak tries to not buy into the jackhammer his heart has turned into, the sudden loss of gravity and the drop he feels in his stomach.

"I thought you needed a ride." Even reaches out to him, gets a strong grip on Isak's forearm, fret-calloused fingers digging in as he hauls him onto the bus.

In his line of work, Isak's been in more than a few busses, but none of them have looked quite like this, a sorta boho caravan. Vilde stands in the center of it, giving everyone the nickel tour, pointing out the couches and swivel recliners, the tables that fold up to give everyone more room, the twinkling fairy lights she's strung up here and there. The pillows she scored from a shop in the Village that go with the throws she found at another one. Everything is bright sari-splashes of color, straight down to area rugs and the tinted light bulbs she's put into all the recessed fixtures. There's a separate room in the back, mostly taken up with a bed which she's made up with an old frayed quilt and a lava lamp, a bunch of vintage black and white photos plastered on the walls.

"It just needed to be a bit more cozy," Vilde explains, then goes into one of the cabinets over the tiny sink and begins pulling out gift bags. They match the decor. Of course they do.

They're little things, a succulent in a pot that will fit into one of the cupholders on the bus for Noora, because she always likes to have something to take care of. New wristbands for Magnus so his hands won't get so sweaty and he'll quit losing his sticks in the middle of a song. Jonas gets a skateboard deck with 'Change Your Life' painted on it, and Vilde shows him the spot in the bus she'd planned out for its display. Eva opens up a set of earrings in the shape of tiny silver daggers and talks about how they'll really catch and reflect the light when they're onstage.

"For nights when you can't sleep," Vilde says to Even. She pats his cheek and gives him a book about weird places in the States and a biography on Johnny Cash. "And for you," she goes on, handing Isak a slim box. Before Isak can protest, she cuts him off. "You're one of mine now, for as long as I have you. Let me do this."

Isak opens it up to find a pen in a burnished silver color, the word scribe etched into the side of it. He takes it out, pulls his notepad from his pocket and turns to a clean page, writes thanks, vilde in smooth blue ink and shows it to her, thinks about how her answering smile is one he could get real used to seeing.

"Alright, ladies and gents," Chris says, shoving a baseball cap on her head and pulling the brim down. "Duck, duck, goose. We're making dust."

Isak falls into a recliner and Even takes the one beside it, already paging through his book.

"Turn it up loud," Jonas hollers from a bench seat along the starboard side, propping his foot up on the table and settling his guitar into his lap.

"Don't you worry about that," Chris calls back. "Mahdi hooked us up."

The engine rumbles into drive and Chris pulls away from the curb, hitting a button on the sound system and spinning the dial up and up, the first few clean chords of the song instantly recognizable.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit?" Isak says to Even a second before the drums kick in and all potential thought gets obliterated.

Magnus spins Isak's seat around so he can bang out the beat on the back of it, and Jonas plays along, his acoustic drowned out under the absolute tidal wave of sound pouring out of what must be a dozen speakers hidden all over the place. The ladies are singing an octave higher and as loudly as their voices will let them go, and Even is a deep rasp beside him, kicking Isak's chair when he sees that Isak hasn't joined in, not sure whether or not he should.

The song closes and Chris hits a couple more switches on the dashboard, then says, "Alright, babies. Get some sleep." Her voice projects over the sound system, startling her. "Fuck me, I didn't know it could do that."

"Please forget that it can do that," Magnus says, with a wicked delight in his eyes that tells Isak that it'll be one thing he remembers.

Noora walks through the bus, kisses everyone on their cheeks, including a very surprised Isak, says goodnight and yanks Eva behind her toward the bed in the back, leaving the door cracked but the lights off.

"The song. Is it a superstition or something?" Isak asks Even.

Even takes his time looking up from his book, fingers tapping along the top edge of it, toying with his ring again. "More like a tradition. Just something we do. You'll get used to it."

---

A half hour outside the city and the buildings have grown shorter. Another hour and they're almost gone entirely, replaced by stands of evergreens on both sides, the strip of blacktop cutting through it, occasional signs of life in the form of rest stops or small towns built in the orbit of a factory or a big box store. The majority of the license plates on the road change from New York to Connecticut and that's how Isak knows they've crossed the state line.

Even's given up on his books and has picked up his journal and a tooth-bitten pencil instead. The journal looks like it spent a day or two out in the rain, and the dog eared pages crinkle as Even flips through them. The cover is plain but warped, creased down the center. A date is written in indelible marker in the upper corner of it, the year only faintly legible at this point. 21 June, 2015.

"It's my birthday," Isak says.

"What? Today?" Even says, and leans toward Isak in his seat. It's something he frequently does, Isak's noticed, a thoughtless way of pulling certain people into his gravitational field. He says more with a nod of his head or a quirk of his eyebrow than he says with his mouth, saves most of his words for when he's on a stage, shielded by his bass, four of his very best friends and a wall of sound at his back.

"No, June twenty-first," Isak clarifies.

Even closes the journal, traces the date on the cover with a fingernail, bitten just like the pencil. "Coincidence," he says, and before Isak can question him on it, he goes on, "I bought this two years ago. Do you remember where you were?"

Isak keeps his answer vague, somewhat because of an inclination to not insert himself into part of Even's story. There's a place for gonzo journalism but he's not ready to write a piece like that yet, to turn himself into some two-bit Hunter Thompson knock off. He also doesn't want to think too hard on that night a couple of years back, when he'd been on the ass-end of something that should never have passed the one night stand phase. Memory of it is choppy anyhow, too many beers and Sana throwing a blanket on him after he'd passed out on her couch. He remembers the pancakes she'd made him the next morning, though, and how they'd tasted like home.

"Working in the mailroom of this trash newspaper. Not one of the big ones," Isak says. "Most likely fucking up a deadline for a summer class. You?"

Even's answer is just as cloudy. "It started out bad. I left my old journal somewhere I couldn't go back to again, so I had to buy this new one." He flips to the first page of the journal, hands it over to Isak. The words are written in both blue and black ink, whole lines scratched out with new ones in the margins. Someone else's handwriting shows up here and there, and there are lines, circles and arrows scattered all over as well as time signatures and chord progressions. The original title has been blacked out, and above it Even has written minutt for minutt.

"Fuck me, this is the original?" Isak asks. If Mannen was the song that put them on the map, minutt was the one that sealed the deal.

"Yeah," Even says. "The day started out bad, but it got better."

Isak follows one crooked arrow to the next page, discovers that the last line to the song was actually the one Even had written first. It's a topographical map of the thought processes of a messy, scattered, beautiful mind. "Did you ever get the other journal back?"

"Jonas got it for me. Along with my favorite pair of shoes," he says as Isak hands the journal over to him. "Losing the guy was one thing, but the shoes…" Even gives him that not-quite-smile, the one that Isak's more fond of than he should be.

"Scenic pit stop," Magnus calls out, hopping up and dashing toward the front, waving his phone and a guidebook at Chris. Vilde is behind him, talking about how two and a half hours on the road is probably a personal best for him.

Chris takes the next exit off of the interstate like she's driving a Volkswagen rather than a bus that's half a city block long and follows the signs to a nature preserve and a nearly empty parking lot. She hardly has set the brake and the hydraulics before Magnus and Jonas are shoving each other out of the bus.

The second bus, the one that a few tech guys, Mahdi and Eskild are calling home sweet home pulls in a minute later, and Eskild gets out, a hand on his hip and a sleep mask pushed up to his forehead.

"Cliff diving," Jonas says, like that explains everything.

Eskild blinks, opens his mouth to say something, closes it again, looks over to Chris, who just holds her arms up. "I don't think our insurance policy covers death by underwater stupidity."

Magnus is pulling luggage out from under the bus, digging through his bags and coming up with a truly eye-wrenching set of swim trunks and a beach towel that actually matches them.

"Does he ever slow down?" Isak asks.

Even offers him a cigarette, tucks it behind his ear when Isak shakes his head, then says, "I saw it happen once. It was weird."

"Devil's Den," Isak says, reading the wooden signpost, which also promises education and oddly enough, spiritual refreshment. "Doesn't particularly inspire confidence."

"Sounds like a good title for a song. Maybe an album," Even says, walking toward the trail that leads into the woods. He dodges Jonas, who's found his board and is skating in loose figure-eights with a towel slung around his neck.

"Yeah, or maybe Mag's bedroom back home," Jonas cuts in, and manages to pull off three consecutive ollies and not eat pavement.

"I'm getting a sign made as soon as we get back to Oslo," Magnus says, and jogs ahead, a bright spot under the shadow of the trees.

Springtime shows up a bit later around here and it's chilly when the sunlight is taken out of the picture. The air has a pine tree-clarity to it that Isak had almost forgotten existed in the years since he's left the city limits. The trail is easy enough, a lazy upward wind through the trees to a rock outcropping a few too many meters above a small, aqua-colored pool.

Nobody mentions it when Magnus and Jonas strip and change into their swim trunks. They spend much of their lives shoved into a bus or a series of hotel rooms together, so Isak supposes that a five or ten seconds of bare ass isn't enough to register. Not even a blip.

Eva walks up to the edge and leans over it, sure-footed, wavy hair streaked sunshine-red and catching some in the breeze. "Screw that," she says.

"Don't like heights?" Isak says, a safe distance from the edge. He likes Jonas and Magnus. He just doesn't quite trust them.

"It's not the jump," she tells him, "it's the goddamn climb back up again."

Even comes up behind her, hooks his chin over her shoulder and his arms around her middle, watches while Jonas takes a foot-slapping dash across the rock and then a flying leap. The splash happens a long beat later followed by an echoing, "Fuck, it's cold," from below.

"I think Noora just got knocked off of her throne," Eva says, cutting her gaze up toward Even. "It sounds like Jonas just became our new ice queen."

"Are you gonna?" Even asks Isak.

Isak laughs. "Not a big fan of hypothermia, and I kinda like my balls where they are. Unfrozen, and not trying to crawl up inside my body."

"Listen to the ex-pat," Magnus says. "All that norsk blood of yours has gone thin." He dives off, decides at the very last second to curl into a cannonball and lets out a whoop after he lands, then hollers, "Fucking cold. I wanna go again."

---

"I still think you guys should have done a Boston cover," Eskild's says, joining the band as they walk down the long corridor backstage. They're jittery, talking fast, must be feeling the same electricity in their bloodstream that Isak has all throughout his.

"We still don't play covers worth a damn," Even shoots back at him with a sarcastic little twist of his mouth, and picks up the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat off of his face. His long, thin stomach and chest are bare for a flash. Smooth, pale skin, ribs like ladder rungs, expanding and contracting with each deep breath.

"And we don't really have the hair for it either," Noora points out, hopping along on one foot and then the other as she takes her heels off, lets them dangle from two slim fingers.

The sound of the crowd follows them along the hallway, the steady rumble of humanity overpowering the piped in, after-show music.

"I liked the change in the lyrics for Mandag," Jonas says with a backhanded, light thwap to the center of Even's chest. "Gives the last verse more of a punch, ties the whole thing together."

Even hums, finger brushes his hair back from his face, scratches at the back of his head. "Yeah, that. I got a little lost for a second, couldn't find my way back to the lyrics."

"So you have no idea what you said." Jonas rolls his eyes, but his grin is big, fondness through and through.

Isak takes his notebook out along with the pen Vilde gave him, rips a page out of the back and writes them down.

Even frowns as Isak hands it to him, reads them over and says, "Scribe, you just earned your keep."

Rocking on his heels, Isak says, "It's why they pay me my pitifully tiny salary." He continues, talking to Noora, "The switch to A-sharp for the piano solo in the middle kicked ass. Made it more...witchy."

She narrows her eyes, considering him. "It was A-sharp minor."

Even steals the pen from Isak, writes the key down below the new verse and underlines the word minor three times, then gives the pen back to him, his thumb running along the bracelet lines on the inside of Isak's wrist. Slowly, to let Isak know that it's on purpose. "Thank you."

At the door to the green room, everyone pauses, Jonas holding his arms out to gather everyone into a tight circle, their heads bowed close together. Eskild and Isak stand back, give them room to regroup, complete what is plainly another ritual for them.

"Boston in the bag." Eva's voice is quiet, muffled. "We did good."

The reply Jonas gives her is immediate, sounds well-worn but not without meaning. A versicle and response. "Babe, we did fucking great."

They break apart, and Even shoves open the door, skips a step when they find the green room jammed with people, smelling like beer and booze and a joint someone somewhere is smoking. It's a small hitch, easily missed except that Isak's made it his primary occupation to notice even the most inconsequential things about him. He turns toward Isak, and the buzzed, post-show look on his face closes down some, like someone's hit a dimmer switch inside of him. It's the same expression he wears in every official photo Isak's managed to scrounge up, album jackets and the occasional concert shot.

Isak gets it. Or at least he's starting to.

 

Chapter Text

Wednesday night was a damn lot of people in one room backstage, a busted coffee table and a spilled bottle of swanky champagne. Noora looking down her nose at everyone because her tights got boozily wet and she wasn't able to defrag the way she wanted to. It was Even in a mood that was just about as textbook pensive as you can get, setting up shop in a corner chair with a blank stare for any stranger who entered his orbit, fingers tapping on his knee, a bottle of beer barely touched at his elbow.

It was Isak getting the looks he was beginning to get used to, curious and cautious, probing questions to see how he fit into the band's traveling sideshow, whether or not he was someone worth knowing. It was Isak being hit on by three women and one man whose ass wasn't too shabby, who knew how to wear a pair of jeans, whose hands looked like they might amount to a hell of a good time. Turned out he the guy was a music blogger, so fuck that.

It was a decent number of photo-ops with a couple of city councilmen who wanted to prove they were young and hip and earn points with their young and hip constituents. It was a bunch of people who somehow got let in backstage not because they liked the band, but because they knew somebody who knew somebody and thought going indie for the night would get them cred on whatever their preferred method of social media happened to be.

Wednesday night slid into very late, then it was Magnus picking up Eva's acoustic while the after-show scene thinned out, proving that he had more than a couple chords up his sleeve and launching into the Boston cover Eskild had tried to talk them into before. A stripped-down version of the one about the rock and roll band which he sang in a frail, wavering falsetto that actually kinda worked, Noora joining him in a harmonic, perfect fifth below for the chorus. Even perked up, didn't sing with them, but hummed along for the second half, beating out the rhythm with the heel of his boot, hollow and homey-sounding against the scarred up floor.

It was Isak falling into a strange bed in a strange room with a surprisingly spectacular view of Beacon Hill, waking up twice to jot down the first line and the last line of the draft his editor wanted in her inbox within a couple of days, then waking up again when Eskild banged on his door and told him to be washed and waxed and ready to go in twenty.

Now he's somewhere between Boston and Philly, a sorta rural no-zone after traffic made them beg off of the interstate, fallow fields all over that will turn into corn, corn and more corn once the growing season gets going, and the one staticy radio station in town splits its time between bible-thumping scripture and the farm report.

 

The only four-lane road is predictably called Main Street, and the busses are out of place here, dark, sleek beasts against the backdrop of silos and wooden fences and very little else. Isak's sitting on a bench outside of a ma and pa store, one of those places that triples as a diner, a convenience store and a gas station. Most of the band and crew are piled inside, filling up on fried food and candy. He's trying to make sense of the last couple of days in a writable way, and a half-remembered line keeps tumbling around in his head about never being able to get the hang of Thursdays. It's distracting.

"Not hungry?" he asks when Even steps down out of the bus, pulling his jacket on and lifting the hood of his sweatshirt. The bandana is back, and Isak has a hunch it's one of the key ingredients to the gravity-defying hair he tends to favor.

"Too much coffee," Even tells him. "You?"

"No such thing as too much coffee," Isak shoots back, squinting up at him. Even notices and hands him his sunglasses. The lenses are a weird green color, make everything murkier and brighter at the same time, and a thought flashes through Isak's mind, that this is how Even sometimes sees the world.

Across the street, between a tractor supply store and a rundown auto mechanic shop stands an old house that's been converted into an antique store. The front yard is all metal mayhem, old bed frames with peeling paint and benches quietly rusting away. A couple of army footlockers and some birdbaths, miniature windmills and a few grills from old Pontiacs.

"Are you busy?" Even asks, chin pointing in the direction of the store.

"I don't think they've invented wifi out here yet. Besides, you're my job. I'm never gonna be too busy, unless there's a deadline breathing down my neck." He actually does have a deadline, one that's softly growling in the background, but he gets up anyway, stows his journal in his waistband at the small of his back and has to jog a couple of steps to catch up with Even, who's already reached the street.

"This place is kinda stereotypical," Even says as Isak joins him. "Frozen."

Isak nods. "Yeah. But...aware of itself at the same time. Stereotypical and proud of it."

"Exactly." He throws an arm across Isak's chest as Isak begins to cross the street without looking, long fingers wrapping around Isak's upper arm for a second while he checks for traffic. There's nothing, no cars, not even a fucking stop sign in sight, but Isak is still ridiculously charmed by it, waiting patiently while Even makes sure these two city boys aren't risking life and limb crossing the absolutely empty street.

Isak doesn't mention it, and he doesn't mention the drop that happens in his stomach when Even pats him between the shoulders before setting off again. Instead he says, "It's no different back home." It's the first time he's called Oslo home in a long, long time and meant it. Probably has something to do with the submersion in Scandinavian pheromones or whatever.

"But back home they're called traditions." Even opens the gate to the chain-link fence in front of the antique store and sweeps Isak through it. The thing opens on screeching hinges. The whole yard smells the same way old pennies taste. "Do you ever miss it?"

"Home?" Isak asks. He shrugs his way out of an answer, then it's his turn to open the door to the shop for Even.

A clanging cowbell above the entranceway announces them, and the man sitting at the register looks about as rusty as everything else, like at some point he chose this particular aesthetic and is now very much committed to sticking with it. He nods at them and goes back to his newspaper, and Isak knows that there's no chance he's gonna want to snag an autograph out of Even, doesn't peg him as a fan of an alt-rock band that hails a small stretch south of the Arctic Circle.

The fine layer of dust that covers everything makes Isak's nose itch as he wanders from one claustrophobic corner to another. The joint is bigger than it looks from the outside, as if the previous owners started building hodge-podge additions off of the back and couldn't figure out how to stop. It's more of a consignment shop than anything, divided into booths with hand written price tags on everything. A big chunk of one wall has been taken over by old license plates from various states and tin gas station advertisements.

A collection of carnival glass is displayed in front of a wavy window, and that's what snags Even, makes him turn into a magpie for a while, picking up platters and butter dishes and serving bowls and holding them up so the light can shine through the swirled, oil slick colors.

"I've never liked antique stores," Isak admits, while he's looking through a display of collectible silver baby spoons, their handles shaped like the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, tarnish rubbing off on his fingers. He's very aware of Even at his back. His height and the way the air feels around him, that now-familiar hint of aftershave he borrows from Jonas. "It always feels like I'm walking all over someone's grave."

Even hums, reaches around Isak to pick up a blown glass paperweight with a wobbly purple and green flower in the middle of it. It's big, takes up the whole of Even's palm and its surface is scratched and dinged like it's hit the floor more times than are countable, all of its smoothness and shine long gone.

"That's one way of thinking about it," Even says, "but I look at it differently. There's a story behind everything in here. Think about it, Scribe." He passes Isak the paperweight, its surface still slightly warm from his palm. "Maybe this sat on someone's desk for years. Maybe it was a gift, or maybe someone saw it in a window somewhere and saved up for weeks to buy it. Someone made this, and someone else loved it. It made them happy, and now it's just here, waiting to make someone else happy."

Placing the paperweight back on the shelf, Isak says, "You might be onto something." He doesn't need to stretch to read between Even's lines. It's basic. Incredibly human, this fear of being forgotten. As they wander further into the guts of the place, he goes on, "Is that why you write music? So someone can trip across a song that makes them happy twenty or forty years from now?"

"No. I write music because it's the only fucking thing I know how to do."

Isak grins at him, and mentally rewrites the last line of the first article he's gonna ship off to Sonja. "You used to work at a coffee shop, right? I bet you know how to make a damn fine latte. And probably muffins like those places always have. Don't sell yourself short."

Even hums again, and takes a turn into what used to be a sunroom when this house was still a house, wide plank flooring creaking under their feet, stirred up dust like a handful of glitter thrown into the bright light. "Maybe one day I'll make you breakfast and you can find out."

He says it as if it's nothing, a throwaway comment like an absent remark about a cloudy sky or the rising price of milk at the store down the street, like it doesn't make Isak's ribs contract and his tongue shrivel up and his thoughts spin out across a dozen different scenarios that all end with goddamn Even Bech Nӕsheim, bass and vocals for Kardemomme, sitting beside him at a breakfast table on some lovely morning, feeding him coffee and sweet things he baked with his own two hands, looking at him expectantly and waiting to see if he likes it.

It's a daydream that is light years away from realistic, not even well-adjusted in the bare minimum sense of the word, but Isak's sorta stuck in the teeth of it now, thinking of sloppy, corkscrewed hair and pillow marks on Even's face, the morning-groggy rasp of his deep voice, what it would be like to spend a lazy, nothing day with him. Wandering further into the make believe to think about what it would be like to fall asleep touching him and wake up the same way.

"Here we go," Even says, dropping cross-legged onto the floor and patting the spot next to him. He's hit paydirt, stacks of old vinyl stored in scarred wooden boxes, and he's already buried in them, flipping through the records, occasionally yanking one out and inspecting the liner notes. He's favoring the ladies of classic country, Emmylou, Loretta, Dolly, seems pleased to find a typo on the inside jacket of an old Hank Williams record.

They've barely put a dent in the boxes when Jonas tracks them down. He hauls Isak to his feet, smiles in that indulgent way of his as Isak stomps the blood back into them and stretches his spine straight again.

"Good thing Eskild always does a head count," Jonas teases, pushing them toward the front of the building. "We probably would have been all the way to Philly and three songs into the set before we realized you two were missing."

Eskild stops them at the door to the bus. People are moving around inside of it, vague shapes on the other side of the darkly tinted windows. Eskild has a bottle of water that he gives to Even, hands over a few pills and watches Even swallow them down, then does the same thing for Isak.

"Vitamins," Eskild says as Isak looks at them, then continues, "I know you two haven't eaten."

"Just take them," Even tells him with a nudge to Isak's side, handing over the water bottle. "Mothering us is in his contract. Don't make him check under your tongue."

Isak swallows them down and opens his mouth up wide, flicks his tongue out and then curls it upward to prove to Eskild that they've gone down the hatch.

Eskild's smile turns sharp and wicked, his eyes fixated on Isak's mouth. "Keep practicing, and you're gonna make him a lucky man one day."

"Who?" Isak asks.

With a soft laugh, Eskild answers, "Whoever."

When Isak climbs up into the bus, he gets a face full of Magnus, or more specifically a lens with Magnus behind it. It looks like a movie camera a cartoon artist would have drawn for George Jetson, a Super 8's great-grandfather, the kinda thing a person needs an extra hand to actually operate. He's going on about shooting a music video on the thing. Noora's on her phone, trying to find a specialty shop that still sells film for it and is willing to overnight some to their next stop on the tour, and Vilde is busy telling everyone not to encourage Magnus while she simultaneously makes a kissy face at the lens and swats him away.

"Where did you find that?" Isak asks him.

Magnus blinks at him and says, "That antique store over there. Y'know, the one you were just in?" He holds his palm against Isak's forehead, then waves three fingers in front of Isak's face. "Are you feeling okay? How many fingers am I holding up? Who was the first female prime minister of Norway? Who's the prime minister now?"

"Fuck off," Isak says with a smile and a sing-song voice, and it's only then that he realizes he'd lost over an hour to some stranger's abandoned vinyl collection and a warm patch of sunlight and Even's proximity. That he was so wrapped up in it that he'd probably still be there an hour from now if Jonas hadn't come for them, still unaware of the time-space continuum as he listens to Even talk about how a couple of the deep cuts from Pieces of the Sky are tragically underappreciated.

Chris and Eva are debating the soundtrack for the next leg of the trip and Noora overrules both of them by plugging everyone into Chopin's Nocturnes instead, quiet and trickling from all angles in the bus.

Falling onto one of the couches, Isak props his notebook on his leg and flips to a clean piece of paper, tries and a fails to ignore the long stretch of Even a few feet away, how he thoughtlessly licks his fingers each time he turns the page of his book. How he sometimes has to mumble phrases or whole sentences out loud, perhaps as a mechanism that makes the translation easier, and how he absently reaches out to Noora as she walks past him, squeezes her wrist without looking up and the way she squeezes his back, her expression melting for just a moment.

Isak jots down a paragraph, hates it by the time he's read it through twice, scratches most of it out and starts over. He has to write. Jonas is laughing about something Eva's said and Noora is talking to Vilde about this anthropomorphic, wooden folk-art cat-thing she bought at the catch-all diner they just left, asking Isak why it's wearing a vest that looks like the American flag, and Isak's having trouble tearing his eyes away from Even, thinking about the habit Even has of resting the heel of one boot on the toe of the other and wondering if he knows that it makes him look somehow taller and skinnier and sets his hips at delicious, tilted angle, and goddamn, Isak has got to get his head on straight. He's really gotta write.

---

Philadelphia is traffic and rain-slick sidewalks and Benjamin Franklin's face plastered over everything, up to and including the sign for Electric Factory, the venue they're playing tonight. It's a big boxy place with small-paned windows that makes good on its name, and Isak's spent a little time diving into the history of the joint, reading aloud for anyone on the bus who cares to listen. The original Factory was actually in a building that used to be a tire warehouse and then a flea market, and when it moved to this spot the name moved with it. It's one of those happy accidents, pure coincidence that the building actually used to be an electric factory.

"They say he had dozens of illegitimate kids," Eva says, leaning over Isak's lap to look up at old Ben gazing down at them, a wise, Mona Lisa smile on his face, those little glasses pinched on his nose.

"Yeah, but apparently he also invented electricity, so he gets a pass," Isak tells her.

The show is general admission, and there are already about fifty or so die-hards lined up outside of the door and snaking along the building, and most of them scramble to grab their phones as the buses slow to a crawl. Magnus starts banging on the window and waving at them, although the windows are tinted too black for them to see, and they probably can't hear him over their own cheers and the sound of the engine.

"Eskild says a few of them have been there since last night," Chris hollers back to them as she steers around the corner.

"No shit," Eva says, still hovering over Isak. She unties her hair as Noora comes up behind her to scritch her fingers into it, working out the knots.

Eva trips a little sideways as the bus pulls into another corner, and Isak reaches up to steady her, both hands finding her waist, knuckles against Noora's stomach as Noora sways into her as well. It's a strangely intimate split second with Eva balancing between Isak's legs, her hair brushing his cheek and smelling like some sorta spicy shampoo, a strand of it sticking to his mouth before she rights herself.

"Sorry. Sorry," Isak mumbles.

Eva shakes her head, frowns a little and says, "For what?"

"We should buy them beer," Magnus pipes up, back to his movie camera, the dead lens pointed toward the people outside.

"We should buy them food," Noora corrects him.

Jonas cuts in, leads the conversation into a hairpin turn. "Okay, setlist. I was thinking we'd open with Livet Smiler."

"Mahdi might not like that," Noora points out. "It's too much of a blast and won't give him time to adjust."

"Mahdi's fast on his feet, but we could soundcheck it if it'll make you feel better," Jonas suggests.

"Buildings like this are rarely retrofit with decent soundproofing. Everyone out there will hear it if we soundcheck with it." Even stands, tapping a cigarette on butt end of his lighter. "We could always ask the people outside what they wanna hear tonight. They'd probably like that more than beer, anyway."

"That's an idea, but I reserve the right to veto Mannen if it comes up." Jonas looks directly at Even as he says it, and Isak knows he's mentioned it so that Even won't have to.

The bus pulls up to the sidewalk, and Chris inches forward until the door is lined up to a couple of metal barricades that form a pathway to the back door. No one's there yet, but it's probably only a matter of seconds until the folks out front catch up.

"The democratic process," Even says, lighting his cigarette before he's barely off the bus. "If we were gonna do it in any city, this is probably the best one, right?"

---

"What was that from last night? During your solo. First encore." Even's drinking something that's more honey than tea this morning, voice pitched quiet, and Isak's sorta glad there's a two day break and only a short three-hour drive to the next city.

Eskild has talked the hotel into putting them in one of the smaller vacant conference rooms for breakfast this morning, then found a place that was willing to deliver Philly cheesesteaks before noon at the request of Magnus and Jonas. Isak's on his third cup of coffee and second hour of spinning tires on his article, irritated that he can only write something decent when there's nothing but a couple of hours left on the clock.

"Do you mean that fuck up during Minutt? Hell if I know," Jonas says. He pushes his plate full of half eaten, dismantled ketchup and meat and bread toward Even, who pushes it back at him.

"Try to remember," Even urges him. "You were onto something." He hums a few notes, fingers drumming on the table, tries again and can't seem to get it right.

Isak picks up his phone from its place face-down on the table, sees that he's missed a text from Sana, reminding him to invest in some earplugs before his hearing is impaired, because the last thing she needs is a valid excuse for him to keep ignoring everything she says, then does a search for fan footage from the show last night. He scrolls through a few, lands on one shot from the upper balcony, votes it most likely to have the least amount of crowd noise. He turns the volume up and places his phone in the middle of the table.

The sound quality is as decent as can be expected, the first few notes ringing out bell-clear, but the picture quality is shit, dark and jumpy and the band looks only slightly larger than a unit of tin soldiers from user norsk87's vantage point last night. Even quickly looks away, flips Isak's phone upside down again so they can't see the screen.

"We're compromising the pact," Jonas tells Isak. "Cutting it close."

"The pact?" Isak asks, spinning the phone so that the speaker points in their direction.

Jonas waves him off. "We'll explain later."

There are some whoops and yells as Even growls out the second verse, his voice rendered as tinny and small as it ever gets through the crap audio on Isak's phone, and Isak distinctly remembers Eva crossing the stage toward him last night during this bit, looking up at Even like she can only see him, like she had no idea she was standing in front of a sold out, max-capacity crowd, then pressing her forehead to his as she joined him for the chorus before the song slid into the lead guitar solo.

It's a hiccup, and Isak only recognizes it because he's specifically listening for it. A few bars worth of syncopated notes, discordant to Eva's solid chord progression and just a hint off from the rhythm Even's bassline set up for him. Maybe four foot taps and Jonas slips back on track.

"There. There," Even says, eyes going wide as he snaps his fingers.

Jonas grunts. "Dunno. I think I got some sweat in my eye or a bug maybe flew up my nose or something."

Even ignores him, turns toward Isak and asks him to play it again. He's sitting up straighter, elbows on the table, thoughtfully smudging his thumb along his lower lip.

"No, bro. It's just. It's just awful." Jonas wipes a hand across his face, pinches the bridge of his nose, but Even's onto something, unwilling to let it go.

"Ignore the rest of us," Even says as Isak backs the vid up, misses the mark and hits it on the third try. "Try to isolate it in your head."

Jonas sits back, palm up on the knee he jackknifes against the edge of the table, fingers moving like he's trying to recreate what he did on his fretboard last night, humming along as Isak plays it a third and fourth time for them.

Jonas repeats the tune, singing the notes over and over under his breath while he steals Isak's pen and pulls a receipt from his pocket. He draws a staff on it, five wobbly quasi-parallel lines and a sloppy treble like an afterthought and scribbles down a series of notes.

"You got it?" Even asks. Under the table, his leg has begun to bounce up and down. Isak can feel the vibration of it, feel the vibration of him.

"Yeah. I got it," Jonas says. "I think…what if..." He trails off, jots down a few more notes, still singing his way through it, fingers still moving like he's holding his guitar, Even joining in from time to time as they talk in a sort of shorthand made out of incomplete sentences and how abouts and maybe heres.

Isak watches it happen, not daring to say a word, an idea in his head that he's witnessing something that's damn near sacrosanct, afraid of fucking with their inertia. For all the time he's spent with musicians, in back rooms and basements and concert halls, he's never seen something like this happen, witnessed a song getting written from its very first accidental, stumbling notes. And definitely not like this, without the benefit of a single instrument.

"It's electric. Like...nerve endings connecting," Even says when Jonas leans back, folds up the receipt that's now covered in tiny writing on both sides and tucks it safe and sound into his wallet.

"You think you could give us some words?" Jonas asks, his kicked back status quo reasserting itself. Even nods, and Jonas goes on, "Will they be about a girl?" The question has a particular cadence to it, as if it's something he's asked Even dozens of times, heavy with inside intel Isak knows nothing about.

Even's reply is quiet, carefully measured. "I think this one's gonna have to be about a boy."

Chapter Text

There's a diner around the corner and two blocks away from the hotel. A spot that straddles the line between old-fashioned and just plain old, split vinyl booths and chipped formica on the tables, the best damn cheesecake Isak’s ever had outside of New York city limits, and the coffee is strong and cheap and comes with free refills.

He closed the diner down last night and nearly opened it this morning, wandering in with his laptop and notebook while the ladies behind the counter were still filling up the ketchup bottles and sorting out the silverware for the day. Now he has three thousand decent words that Sonja will probably want him to condense into two and a fluttering pulse from about a gallon high-test, and a dozen questions written up for the formal interview with everybody that he hasn't managed to find the right time to conduct.

"Have you seen Magnus?"

Isak looks up to find Noora sliding into the booth across from him, the sunlight catching on her skin. So pale she nearly glows. She takes over the blueberry pie with melted a la mode that Isak abandoned a while ago. It seems like half of everyone's conversations start out with one member of the band looking for another member of the band. No wonder Eskild is constantly obsessed with the head count.

"I've been here since before the sun was up," Isak tells her. "Last night he was trying to figure out the bus schedule. Unsuccessfully, so I don't think he could have wandered off too far." For the fifth time this morning, Isak tries to find a network to hook into, comes up with nothing public and sets his laptop up to piggyback off of his phone. "Here goes...something," he says, as he emails the first installment off to Sonja, slaps the laptop closed, pushes it as far away from himself as the table will allow, and takes a deep breath. By the time he's gulped down another sip of coffee, his phone lights up with a text from Sonja. Two words, no punctuation: got it

"What's your angle?" Noora asks.

It takes him a second to cotton onto the fact that she's talking about the articles. "Broadly? The music," Isak answers.

"And narrowly?" Noora's using the fork to draw patterns in the mess left on the plate, Van Gogh sky-swirls made out of blueberry and vanilla.

"The people behind the music. How you fit together. Why you fit."

She hands him over a rare smile. "And how you fit in with us."

Isak laughs, gratefully accepts another warm-up from the waitress and waits while Noora orders a cup of tea before saying, "That's for a different story. One that I'm not gonna write. It's not about me, it's about you."

"It's probably still worth telling, but I'll accept that. What have you come up with? Why do we fit?"

"Ask me that again after a couple more weeks," Isak sidesteps. "Better yet, read the articles when they come out." He thinks about what Even told him during that first interview, about how Noora was studying to be a journalist before the music took off. It's obvious now, in the way she's turning everything he says into a question, the subtle way she's trying to dig into the core. He flips it back to her. "Why do you think you fit?"

Noora takes her time answering, her eyes flicking up to meet his dead on. "Because we know everything there is to know about each other, and despite that, we still like each other."

"So it's because you're friends first. Outside of the music." It feels like a cop-out, even as he's saying it.

"Maybe we're friends because of the music. But we're more than that."

The waitress arrives with a mug of hot water and a tea bag tucked next to it, and Noora asks Isak why restaurants in the States always turn tea into a do-it-yourself project, a subtle way of changing the topic.

Isak shrugs. "Maybe just an extension of American self-sufficiency, or maybe a general rejection of anything British."

"Yeah, and that's why there's a King street in every city old enough to remember that this country used to have one. It's a good story though. You should give up journalism, try fiction instead."

Another text comes through. Sonja again, telling him he needs to cut out five hundred words, but to make sure to keep all the good ones intact. Isak thinks about asking her how much time she's willing to give him, knows he won't like her answer.

"My editor," Isak explains. He sucks in a deep breath and lets it out slow.

"I don't miss that," Noora tells him.

"Do you think you'll ever go back to it?"

"The day job keeps me a little busy, if you hadn't noticed. If we're not touring, we're recording, and if we're not recording, we're rehearsing or writing or getting ready to record. It's been a couple years since I spent more than a couple of consecutive months sleeping in my own bed." She begins doing an intricate thing with the empty sugar packets she used in her tea, folding them into tiny sailboats. "I've thought about it, though. Good to have another plan, in case this gig goes belly up." Her tone is light as she says it, but there's a hint of caution that Isak's not heard out of the rest of them.

"So you'd go back to school, and Even can go back to the morning shift at the coffee shop."

That makes Noora laugh. It's the first time Isak's heard it, and the sound of her laughter is full and rich. Surprisingly warm. "There's no way they would take him back, not with all the coffee and snacks he used to give away for free." She toasts him with her mug. "And tea."

"Made correctly," Isak shoots back.

"Of course." Noora's gaze fixes on a spot above Isak's head. "Incoming," she warns, then there are hands tugging at Isak's shoulders, knuckles digging into his hair, Magnus bodily shoving him sideways to sit next to him in the booth.

"There you are," Magnus says. "Has anyone seen Eva?"

"Last I heard she was checking up on Even," Noora tells him. "And Jonas was supposed to be getting him something to eat."

"Is Even okay?" Isak asks.

"Yeah, he's fine," Noora says, shutting down a little. Cagey.

Magnus waves it off. "He's writing."

It's code. A cypher that Isak understands. He has a touch of it in him as well, and sometimes needs to be reminded to do minimally basic things like eat and drink and brush his teeth when he's up to his ass in a project.

"Our tour guru wants us back in ten." Magnus slides out of the booth, steals a sip of Isak's coffee, as if he ever needs the caffeine. Or the sugar. "You coming?"

"Field trip day," Noora explains. "Eskild's hired someone to take us around, check out all the greatest hits."

Isak tells them he's gotta sit this one out, needs time to edit, then flags down the waitress and orders two pieces of cheesecake to go and asks for the check. He doubles it with the tip since he took up more than his share of the waitress's time and puts it on the company credit card.

As he holds the door open for them, he says, "You should take them to see where Chubby Checker was born. I think the house is still there. Then go to Eastern State Penitentiary. Al Capone was locked up there for a while. Steve Buscemi reads the audio tour. It's creepy. And awesome."

Magnus loops an elbow around Isak's neck and reels him in, makes him stagger and trip on an uneven stretch of sidewalk, and for a heart-pounding moment, Isak's afraid he's gonna topple, laptop, cheesecake, street cred and all, flying into Noora a few steps in front of them. But Magnus doesn't let him fall, holds him upright and surprisingly doesn't mention it.

"I think I've heard of that place," Magnus says, "it's haunted, right? I could take my movie camera, see if we can catch some ghosts on it."

"Sure sounds better than worrying about whether or not you're going to make the Liberty Bell worse," Noora says.

A van is parked outside of the place they're staying, idling at the curb, and there's a woman with a clipboard and good walking shoes speaking with Eskild. The others are trickling out through the revolving door of the hotel. Mahdi and Vilde and a couple of stragglers. Eva and Chris bringing up the rear. From the opposite direction, Jonas is heading their way in a loping jog, holding a couple of take-out containers in his hands.

"Three minutes," Eskild says, shooting a preoccupied glance their way.

Jonas looks at Eskild, then down at the food in his hands, and over to the door. "Is there any way I can talk you into giving me ten?"

"If that's for Even, I can take it up to him," Isak offers, and Jonas looks relieved and passes the food over to him.

"Thanks," Jonas says. "If I go up there, I won't wanna leave, and if I don't go out with everyone, I'll end up pissed at myself for not going." He gives Isak the room number and slaps a keycard on top of the takeout boxes. "Knock once, and if he doesn't answer, just let yourself in."

It's that in-between after check-out time and check-in time and the hotel lobby is mostly a ghost town. The guy behind the desk is trying to look busy, staring at his computer monitor like the thing can tell him why he put a suit and a name badge on today. Isak juggles everything in his hands to hit the elevator button, idly thinking about the good words Sonja doesn't want him to cut on the ride up to Even's floor, dodging room service trays on the walk down the hallway.

He notices the do not disturb sign on the handle, knocks shave and a haircut on Even's door, and is about to rearrange the stuff in his hands to use the key when it cracks open a little.

"Jonas got you food," Isak says as he pushes the door the rest of the way open with his hip, not sure why he feels the need to explain himself, then ducks a little when Even reaches above his head to close it again. Even's still standing close as Isak searches out an empty spot to unload, his breath licking the back of Isak's neck, a hand squeezing his upper arm then letting go.

The room is cluttered but not particularly messy. The bed has been put back together in a half-assed way and the curtains are open to a view of the rooftop of the building next door, only a touch more scenic than the one Isak scored that overlooks the tall office building behind the hotel. The sunlight pouring in through the open curtains has made the room hover at just a notch below stuffy. Jonas's acoustic holds a place of honor in one of the chairs and one of Even's basses is skewed sideways in the other. The television is dark and open books are scattered here and there, along with blank and not-blank sheet music, yesterday's and today's local newspaper, and a few scratched out and rearranged setlists.

Even's standing in the middle of it all in baggy jeans and nothing on his feet. His hair looks freshly washed and free of whatever magic holds it up, loose against his forehead and brushing wavy along the back of his neck. He's wearing an old Thin Lizzy t-shirt with the sleeves cut off that Isak sorta remembers Eva having on a couple of days ago, baggy on her but it fits Even the way God intended. Isak's never seen him like this before, stripped of the armor he puts on to venture into the outside world, somehow more bare and vulnerable. Softer.

Isak clears his throat, back to feeling like the awkward hero in a shitty rom-com, staring at the carpet then his own hands and then the photograph on the wall of an art deco building he's almost positive isn't even in the city of Philadelphia. "Well, um. Food. I got you a piece of cheesecake, if you want it."

Even blinks a couple of times like he's trying to wake up, and if Isak looked into a mirror, he's sure he'd find the same brand of dark circles under his own eyes. "Fuck, I'm sorry. I've been kinda…" He sounds rusty, hardly audible.

"I've been kinda, too," Isak says. The caffeine jitters are petering out and now his head is doing that circular, slow-thinking thing that happens before he's forced to shut himself down for a few hours.

"Papa Jonas," Even goes on, then, a little stronger, as if his voice is getting its land legs, "Thanks for the delivery. And the cheesecake."

Even ignores the food, settles onto the bed with his legs folded underneath his body and back against the headboard. He shoves his hand through his hair to get it off of his forehead, only to have it crash back down again. He opens his journal, thumbs through it, closes it, opens it again then flips to a clean page, and Isak gets stuck for a while on Even's hands. Those slender, fine-boned fingers and ragged bitten nails, wrists that are both strong and delicate at the same time.

"Ask me a question," Even says, as Isak's about to turn on his heel and find a quiet corner of the hotel to start on his edits, preferably a spot with decent wifi. Isak's gaze snaps up to find Even looking at him, one eyebrow arched, his soft, gorgeous fucking lips slightly parted, pen spinning between his thumb and first two fingers. He slides over, stretches his legs out straight to make room beside himself on the bed, ankles crossed. "Do your job, Scribe. If you wanna."

Isak hesitates, debates the lesser of two evils and decides that moving one of the instruments from the chair isn't really an option, then sits on the edge of the bed facing Even, one leg angled for balance. He wants to ask how the song is coming along. He wants to ask why Even wants him to stay, if he really wants him to stay. He wants to know how long it's been since Even's had more than two hours of sleep at a time, something longer than those catnaps Eskild talked about before.

He skims the surface instead, somewhat surprised when Even doesn't call him out on it. "Tell me about the pact."

Even chews on his lip, slides a little further down in the bed and it makes his shirt hike up some so Isak can see the architecture of his hips, the slight dip of his stomach. More of it when he lifts his arms to fold his hands together behind his head, and now Isak has to also deal with the gentle curve of his upper arms and the long line of his throat, how he absently touches his tongue to his canine, a habit specifically designed to take Isak apart piece by tiny piece.

"Off the record?" Even asks.

"Yeah, sure. Of course." Isak holds his hands up to show he's not writing any of this down, although it's sorta obvious.

"We almost quit once," Even says, zeroing in on Isak like he's gauging his reaction.

"Who?"

"All of us. Kardemomme operates as a whole. Sure, it's usually Jonas who comes up with the melodies and I write a lot of our lyrics, but take one of us out of it and, well."

"The equation doesn't balance," Isak finishes for him. "What happened?"

Even's eyes lose some of their focus. "It was years ago. We were young. I think most of us were barely old enough to buy beer. Still playing shit community centers and basements. Friend's birthday parties. Trying to get someone to listen to our demo. Anyone, honestly."

Isak has an idea where this is going, but holds back to let Even tell it, wants to hear Even's take on it.

"It was a bad show, not that there were a lot of good ones back then, but this one was just...off, and we all knew it. Probably my fault. My head wasn't in the right place that night."

"Probably no one's fault," Isak corrects him.

Even shakes his head, shifts a little. "Let me own this one."

Isak's phone buzzes in his pocket, the vibration like a foghorn in the quiet room. He ignores it, so Even does too.

"There was this guy at the show, just some crap writer with an internet connection, ran this local music site. Eva found his review and it sent her into a tailspin. It," he pauses. "I guess you could say it rippled, you understand?"

Without thinking, Isak reaches over and touches Even's bare ankle. Just a squeeze to assure him that he does understand, and that everyone has a bad night or week or year. Even turns his ankle toward him, lines up the curve of his instep to the side of Isak's wrist for a second. His foot is cold, and Isak likes that.

"It was Vilde who told us to get our heads out of our asses," Even goes on, his tone changing to something a touch brighter, and Isak is shocked by the news, figured it would have been Jonas or maybe Noora. "She made us promise to never go searching that sorta stuff out on our own. That's the pact, and we stick to it."

A couple of things lock into place. The band's near-nothing web-presence, their skimpy site, how so much of it is made for fans by fans. The lack of band sanctioned stuff out there.

"So no vanity searches," Isak says.

"Fuck no." Even laughs quietly, finding his journal again and cracking it open. "We didn't even know we'd made it on the radio until Mahdi told us." Isak's pocket buzzes a third time. "You should get that," Even says.

Isak sighs, sees a list of messages from Sonja and knows he's about three minutes away from a phone call from her. He overshoots, asks her for four hours, close of business, and she counters a few seconds later with two, and only because he's her favorite intern.

"You don't have to stay." Even doesn't look up from the page as he says it. He's gotten a smudge of ink on his thumb only a shade darker than the circles under his eyes. "I know Eva and Jonas put you up to it."

"They didn't, actually. I offered."

Even frowns, lips set in a small thoughtful pout that sticks around for a while. "Really? Strange. Well, you don't have to stay. You don't have to go, either."

Isak stands, grabs his laptop and the cheesecake and kicks off his shoes, hesitates long enough to pretend to not see Even smoothing out the blanket next to him, throwing an extra pillow onto what will become Isak's side of the bed. "I'll stay."

---

It happens somewhere between paragraph four and seven, between some journalistic footwork and rewrites that feel like a giant step backward. Narratively, in black and white Arial font, Jonas is a few seconds away from a cliff dive that will later have him chattering and blue-lipped and shoving his icy hands down the back of Eva's shirt.

Snap to now and Isak's sitting close enough to Even to track each and every one of his slow breaths, hear how the rhythm changes as he falls more deeply asleep. Watch the path the light takes across the bed while the afternoon wears down, how it makes the fine hair on Even's arms shine like thin gold, and highlights the blonde, barely-there stubble on his jaw, see the flutter of his eyes as they move behind his lids. Even's arm slides down from where he'd been resting it across his stomach, comes to a stop at Isak's side, his knuckles resting against Isak's thigh. It's nothing. As meaningless as an absent hand on Isak's shoulder for balance as they move around on the bus, an unintentional kick under a table during supper. There's nothing to Even's elbow poking into his side and the slight lean of his head toward him.

His two hours are almost up and screw it, Even is beautiful. Isak is fucked in a number of different ways and Even is so, so beautiful.

---

It's murky in the room when Isak wakes up, that off-purple color of light-polluted city skies on the other side of the window. Someone's moving around the room and it isn't Even. Even's at Isak's back, hair soft against Isak's neck, feet cold against Isak's ankles, a hand draped on his hip, and it feels so goddamn good, waking up next to someone.

Isak sits up slowly, squints into the room until the shape near the door resolves into Eva walking closer, knotty-haired and pink-cheeked from a day spent outside.

"Did he get any writing done?" Eva whispers. She bends over Isak's lap to brush some of Even's hair off of his forehead, wraps her arms around Isak's shoulders and tucks her chin against the top of his head for a minute, and Isak's starting to recognize that personal space is a foreign language that none of them speak. "Did you?"

"A little," Isak says, just as soft, answering for both of them.

"How long has he been asleep?"

"Depends on how long I've been asleep," Isak says. "Maybe a few hours."

"Good." She falls onto the bed and begins working on her laces, one boot hitting the floor with a loud thump that doesn't make Even budge. She glances toward him with a warm smile. "He was starting to get moody."

Chapter Text

One of those big, heavy road atlases is spread across Even's thighs. He's sitting on the long couch that runs along the driver's side of the bus, legs crossed partially under him and arms tucked in close to his body. Much of the time, he's a huge presence, takes up a big amount of space in any given room and on stage and in Isak's head, but this morning there's something diminutive about him. Fragile.

Everyone is piling onto the bus. Jonas is still in his pajamas and Vilde is handing apples and bananas out, trying to get them to eat fruit. Magnus crashes into one of the recliners, pulls his hood up over his head and is passed out before the chair stops rocking. Isak's never seen him run outta gas like that.

Isak takes the seat across from Even, accepts a kiss on the cheek from Noora as she walks past him, for the first time kisses her cheek in return and Noora seems to like that, scuffs her knuckles into his hair.

"Five hundred and twenty-five miles, give or take," Even says. "That's how far we've gone already. Feels longer. And shorter."

"More than that, if you think about it. The flight from Oslo isn't really short," Isak points out.

"That doesn't count. The roads are what counts."

"And all the stuff that happens in the middle," Isak says, trying to figure out whether this is a riddle he's expected to solve or if Even's simply thinking out loud.

"Yeah," Even says, "sometimes that stuff counts even more. Most times."

The bus pulls away from the curb, and they all sway in unison in a way that reminds Isak of the original Star Trek series, the uncoordinated lurch everyone would do when the ship took a hit. Nirvana pumps through the speakers like it does every time they take off. Magnus wakes up long enough to bang the rhythm on the back of his chair, and then he's out again.

"Do you mind?" Isak asks once it's gone quiet again, holding his hand out, and Even gives him the map. He flips through it to where all the grids and stats are, thinking about how a quick search on his phone would have given him the information by now, but there's something satisfying about seeing highway on top of highway spread out on decent weight paper as he pages past state after state, all these facts that he never would think to look up in a rush to get the answers to the questions he's asking. Annual rainfall average, highest and lowest altitude, dates that the state became a state.

"Another one-forty or so until we get where we're going," Isak says, and glances up to find Even hunched forward and staring at him, arms crossed over his legs, fingers of both hands tapping on his opposite thighs.

"We should keep better track." Even doesn't look away, so neither does Isak. He doesn't mention how he fell asleep beside Isak and at one point had curled toward him and his hand had found Isak's hip. Intentional or not, he'd reached out. He doesn't say anything about it, so Isak doesn't say anything about it either.

"Yeah, we should. I don't wanna miss the one-thousand mark," Isak says. He thinks it'll happen somewhere in the foothills of Appalachia, maybe on the road to Nashville. Somewhere up high.

---

Everyone's circadian rhythms are flipping, skewing nocturnal, zombies who become human once the sun reaches a particular meridian on the horizon, and Isak's right there with them, gritty eyed and loose-brained before noon. Well past noon, too. A buzz grows under his skin as the light takes on a late afternoon quality and the bus begins to navigate the clogged streets of the next stop.

Isak's been feeding himself a steady diet of DC hardcore ever since they were within spitting distance of the nation's capital. All the godfathers. Bad Brains and Minor Threat roaring through his headphones, a little Government Issue sprinkled on top for when he's craving something with a hint more production value. Loud enough that Even must be able to hear the rhythm section from his spot sitting beside him, even with all the nervous chatter from the band as they get ready to offload at the venue. Even starts nodding with it, tapping his foot, finally plucks one of the headphones out of Isak's ears when it switches over to Fugazi. He slides closer to him until they're thigh to thigh, hips and elbows and shoulders smashed together, both of them pounding out the beat with the heels of their boots.

The bassline leads them into the song, drags them down under, a sound that Isak will always sorta relate to growing up a queer boy in the middle-class district of Oslo, hiding in plain sight, nostalgic for a time he was too young to ever have experienced first hand. It's a sound that says sure, you're scared and you're pissed off and that thing you're feeling in the bottom of your stomach, heavy as a freight train, that thing that keeps you up at night and makes it so you never smile too big, that thing is real and valid and it's yours. The sound is a flickering flashlight in a dark room that shows you the safest way out and reminds you that it's okay to be lost and fucked up because we're all a little fucked up and if we have to be lost then at least we're lost together.

Even's swaying into him some, singing along under his breath about a patient boy who waits and waits and waits as MacKay screams it into their ears. He pulls his lip between his teeth as the instrumental descends into momentary chaos, shifts and that's his hand tripping up along Isak's back now, singling out the bass track, fingers punching out the notes on Isak's spine, strong and steady. No vibrato. The song doesn't call for it.

"That's the first song I really learned how to play. That fucking intro," Even says, after it ends and he's given Isak back his headphone. "Borrowed this piece of crap bass from a guy I used to know. Practiced so much my fingers split open."

Isak smiles. "So Lally kinda taught you how to play, then. If you had to pick a teacher, that's not a bad one."

"He didn't teach me, but he made me wanna learn." Even stands, pulls his shirt off over his head and puts Isak at eye-level with his bare stomach for a heart-stopping minute while he replaces his worn leather belt with the silver-studded one he wears when he's on stage, then catches the plain white t-shirt Magnus throws at him.

"Tight fit. Tight fit," Chris says from behind the wheel as she steers into the narrow alleyway behind the venue, hissing in a breath and holding it like that might somehow shave a few off of the width of the bus, only letting it out when the alley opens up to a lot barely big enough to get the beast turned around. She radios over to Mahdi, tells him to circle, let her empty out before trying to squeeze in.

"Never thought we'd ever end up here," Magnus says, staring at the venue through the viewfinder of his movie camera, the reel-to-reel film inside of it ticking softly. "The fucking 9:30 club."

"It looks...condemned," Noora says, and Isak doesn't disagree.

There's no sign on the building, just a tiny logo on the door. The windows are covered with something that's only a step up from plywood. Sunbleached brick and some graffiti that's been painted over along one side of the place. A closed down, boarded up former strip club actually fucking called Climax is directly across the street from it.

It's one of those rite-of-passage spots, as likely to take on local acts as much as groups from half a world away. Almost every band that Isak's ever loved has called it home-sweet-home for at least a night, from Youth Brigade to Radiohead, who put on a surprise midnight show here about a decade back, just a way to unwind after playing to a sold out arena a few hours earlier.

"I wonder what it feels like inside, you know? What it smells like in there," Magnus is saying, still filming the place through the window as he heads toward the front of the bus.

"Probably like dead rats and anti-capitalism," Noora shoots back as she walks close behind him.

Pre-show energy has already sunk its claws into Even and he's shifting his weight from foot to foot, chewing on his cuticles in a way that tells Isak it's probably been too long since he's had a cigarette. "C'mon, patient boy," he says, hoists Isak to his feet and gently pushes him in front as they follow everyone else off the bus. He grabs Isak by the shoulders, thumbs rubbing at the back of Isak's neck, whispers into Isak's ear, deep and low, "What are you waiting for?"

---

Backstage is an echo chamber of unfinished drywall and exposed pipes, a maze of wiring that makes Isak wonder whether the lights and the sound system are gonna blow two songs into the set. It's a dingy floor and a busted water cooler and a skinny, metal staircase that will take them up to the stage. A Hole poster is covering up an actual gaping hole in the wall and there is exactly one bathroom for the band and the stage crew and anyone else who happens to wander through.

That's the thing. A lot of people think that backstage is this swanky scene, parties and conspicuously expensive champagne and celebrity appearances, but most of the time it's more like this. People piled on top of each other, dodging ratty couches and checking knobs to mysteriously locked doors. Sound crew in headsets bitching about last minute changes to the setlist for the night and the band in the middle of it all, shaking off their nerves and preparing to play their guts out.

At least this place has cupcakes, and they kick ass. A platter full of devil's food with buttercream centers, chocolate on top and a big 9:30 piped on them in blocky, white icing. Magnus managed to cram in four of them before Jonas cut him off, and now he's pacing, mixing it up with a bunch of jumping jacks and a few pull ups from a pipe that might not hold his weight much longer.

"Anyone seen Eva?" Noora asks, navigating the stairs in her spiked heels as easily as if she was barefoot. The laces she and Eva use for cat's cradle are looped around her wrist like a loose, sloppy bracelet. She unwinds it and begins fixing some knots, working the string with her thin, pale fingers then doing a complex thing that turns it into a broom between her hands.

"Bathroom," Jonas says. He's working on chord progressions for a new song, doesn't like the sound of what just came out of his fingers, winces and starts from the top.

"Even?" Noora tries.

"Bathroom," Jonas and Magnus say in unison. They say it like it's nothing, like Isak hasn't been staring at the door for the last ten minutes, ears straining for any signs of life in there.

"I could, if you want," Isak says, fingers spread as he holds up his hands toward Noora.

"You know how to play cat's cradle?"

"No," Isak shakes his head. "But you could teach me."

She sits down on the lowest step, breathes out a sigh, "Boys."

Another few minutes slip past, curiosity burning a hole in Isak until he finally leans over to Jonas. "Eva and Even. They've been in there a while."

"You can go upstairs if you gotta go. Doors just opened, but you should be able to sneak through." Jonas shrugs, either misses the point, doesn't care too much about it, or wants to hear Isak to say it out loud. If there's a Fleetwood Mac-White Stripes-Sonic Youth-thing going on between Eva and Even, it shouldn't be in Isak's job description to know about it. It's not. Except it kinda is.

The bathroom opens up and no one seems to notice except Isak. Eva's lipstick looks newly put on and she's fixing her skinny skirt, bending over to fuck around with her thigh-highs. Even's right behind her, a hand on her hip, the other one holding her hair back when it begins to fall into her face before she straightens up. He's swept his hair up, all those messy whorls that are nothing if not completely intentional, and put on a dark grey suit vest, shiny silver buttons along the front. It's snug fitting and really shows off his thin waist and Isak bets that it won't last the whole set. He'll probably ditch it four songs in. His lips look puffy and there's a flush to his cheeks and a smudge of something a little red on his jaw that looks like lipstick he didn't realize hadn't been wiped off all the way.

It's ridiculous, pathetic, the hook he feels in his stomach, and now Eva's looking at him with one eyebrow raised and Isak has to make a conscious decision to close his mouth.

"What?" Eva says. "He was taking forever in there. I had to fucking pee."

Jonas is cutting his eyes toward Isak, a tiny Yoda-smile on his face. He keeps strumming lazy on his acoustic as he says, "It's how they are, man. There's no story there. A lot of history, but no story."

"Okay," Isak says slowly as he tries to flatten his expression, make it a little less transparent.

"I'm just saying," Jonas goes on, "whatever you're thinking is wrong. The two of them? Totally platonic bros."

"So all that stuff on stage, it's just an act? Something to feed the audience?" Isak asks.

"No way. Nothing about them is an act. It's just them, get it?" He glances toward Eva, who's now hunkered down with Noora on the steps, shoelaces connecting the two of them in what looks like a bridge. Even's spotting Magnus as he does more pull ups because yeah, that pipe's gonna go any minute now. "They've been like that since we were kids." Then softer, more to himself, “What the hell am I saying? We still are kids."

---

They're spinning toward punk tonight, picking stuff out of their catalog that's frantic and syncopated and a touch belligerent. A nod to the venue and the city, the whole set a love song to all those bands who taught them that feeling comes first and know-how will eventually catch up, so in the meantime keep it loud and keep it fast. That function is always gonna outweigh form.

There's no sidestage here, so Isak spends the show held up by a pole close to the soundboard, one eye on Mahdi as he constantly works through adjustments and the other on the band. Jonas is locked in, sweaty hair in his face and holding his guitar like he might chop down a tree with the thing. Whatever had gotten into Even's head after the Philly show seems to have backed off for the time being. He's sorta flirty tonight, or as close to flirty as Isak's ever seen him in front of a crowd. He's tossing picks, toeing up to the edge of the stage and allowing people to touch his ankles, giving the crowd the finger when they cheer at him for taking off his vest, which only makes them cheer louder. It turns out Isak was wrong. The thing only lasts three songs.

No way Isak can make it backstage for their break before the encore. It would take one of those Red Sea miracles to get there in time, and the credentials around his neck aren't enough to make the crowd give him a clear path, so Isak stays in his spot, joins in when everyone begins to cheer as Jonas leads the band back on stage in an easy jog, Magnus splitting off and ducking behind his drum set, counting them into the song, kicking the bass drum so hard Isak's bones vibrate with it.

Even wanders across the stage to say something to Jonas, hollering directly into his ear. Without any shift in expression, Jonas takes a couple of steps backward, their skate-punk conductor changing things up with three stomps of a street-scuffed, unlaced sneaker. The tempo switches, slows down and Even takes back his side of the stage, legs spread wide while he goes into a bass solo in a song where there's never been one before. There's nothing flashy, nothing theatrical. Even turns into just a skinny kid with a low slung bass and his very best friends at his back, ripping his way into a different bassline. One with a beat and melody that makes Isak's heart trip and his throat feel jacked up. A little teaser courtesy of Fugazi. The sequence of notes that Even busted his fingers open learning how to play, the sound that made him keep going.

The place is at max capacity, two-thousand strong give or take, lit up by shifting purple lights timed to the music and Isak knows he's too far away and the view from the stage can be blinding, that the band can't see for shit from up there, but he swears Even looks right at him and grins. Teeth and everything. A momentary smile so huge it eats up his whole face.

---

The band is still sweaty, gulping down water and sitting in a half-circle of folding metal chairs with some DJ from a local radio station doing a post-show interview. Isak's hovering a few feet away in case someone needs a translation, idly small-talking the nephew of one of the dudes who owns the place.

The guy's kinda cute. Awkward, music-geeky, totally Isak's type. Light, wavy hair and an interesting nose, hipster glasses and decent shoes. He keeps dropping hints, asks Isak how he plans to spend his time in the city in a tone that says he'd be willing to show him around some, teasing Isak about his accent and his tongue's stubborn inclination to mispronounce every word that begins with the letter J. A habit Isak's been trying to break for years.

He slides a little closer and Isak holds his ground, hands shoved in his back pockets, shoulders against the wall. He says something about taking Isak for a drive past some of the sights, down by the water, over to Beecher to stalk the HQ of Dischord Records for an hour or two, the indie label created by a couple of guys from Teen Idle who got pissed off that no one would cut them a record, decided to do it on their own and are still going strong almost forty years later.

That's one thing that Isak actually considers taking him up on, at least until Even comes over to them and rests his forearm on the wall at Isak's shoulder, cocks his hips in that casual, life-destroying way.

"Do you wanna go get some ice cream?" Even's looking directly at Isak as he says it, zoomed in like the other guy doesn't exist, and Isak lets himself get yanked into Even's gravitational field, an afterthought of a farewell wave to the room. Still in Even's orbit and out the back door, down an alleyway that takes them in the opposite direction of a few stragglers still hoping for a photo and an autograph.

Even walks like he knows where he's going, long strides that leave Isak breathless in an attempt to keep up while Even chainsmokes three in a row, lighting the next one off of the cherry from the last, checking his phone every once in a while to make sure they're still on track. They walk through a neighborhood that goes from swanky to seedy and back to swanky again, past five convenience stores that are sure to have ice cream, until Isak's legs are aching and Even's deconstructed every millisecond of tonight's gig in his rambling, deep voice. Hashed out what went wrong and how he could have done better, composed a sonnet or two about how Magnus was on point.

It's creeping up on midnight when Even checks the map on his phone again. "Fuck," he says, "they're about to close."

He breaks into a jog, dodging a few people as they make a turn onto the more populated Wisconsin Ave, breaking through a group of college kids out spending their parent's money on booze. He takes Isak by the wrist and hauls him diagonal across the street, pulling up short and shielding Isak from a taxi driver who's decided vehicular manslaughter plays second fiddle to the need to get where he's going, then skids to a stop at a tiny storefront.

Isak laughs, soft and still catching his breath. "Haagen Dazs. No shit."

"It's not the original," Even says with a small, crooked smile, and holds the door open for Isak.

"I wonder if Henry Rollins stops by here when he's in town," Isak says. "Puts a few hours on the clock for old time's sake."

"I hear he makes an awesome chocolate malt," Even says.

The late shift is closing down the place, the smell of industrial cleaner is pervasive and the teenage girl behind the counter hands them a death glare as they wonder out loud what kinda ice cream the boys from Minor Threat used to get back in the day.

"They were straight edge," she tells them, like she's heard this story a thousand times before and just wants to get on with the night. "Vegan. Rollins always gets vanilla fudge, though."

It’s good enough for them, and Even insists on paying although Isak has to help him figure out the money, counting it out while Even stands there like a kid in a candy shop, foreign bills and coins in his hands.

A couple of plastic spoons and a tub to share between them, they head over to the canal, the smell of brackish, still water taking over the vehicular exhaust stink of the city. They lean on the bridge, looking down on the walkway that runs beside the water below, stone walls rising up at a sharp angle.

A distance away, someone's playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a sax. The musician has chosen a primo spot, the sound echoing off of stone and water. Growing inside of the reverb, and Isak hopes Even doesn't want to find whoever's doing it. His feet are tired and his legs are burning, and he likes it here, likes standing in this place away from everyone else but close to Even, vanilla and chocolate sweet in his mouth and aching on his teeth.

"That bass solo tonight," Isak says, and feels Even move beside him, edge in a fraction closer.

"I thought you might like that," Even says softly, speech a little mushy from a full mouth.

"A young crowd tonight. I don't know if they recognized it."

"Doesn't matter. It wasn't really for them anyway." Even bumps his shoulder into Isak, and Isak nudges him back and takes another bite, passes the ice cream over to Even so it can freeze to his palm for a while instead.

"Is there anywhere else you wanted to go? I think the trains run for another couple of hours," Isak tells him, mostly because he feels obligated. This place is full of monuments to presidents and itself and people who fought in foreign wars and they don't have a lot of time here. They don't have a lot of time anywhere, really.

Even looks down at him, licks a smudge of chocolate from his bottom lip that Isak had been wondering whether or not he should wipe off for him. "I'm good here. Are you good?"

"Yeah. Better than."

Chapter Text

"Alright, origin story." Isak's sitting cross-legged, absently thwapping his pen against the inside of his wrist. Tap tap tap. Pause. Tap tap tap.

The band is spread out around the back of the bus, surrounding him in a horseshoe shape. Even to Isak's left and Noora to his right. Across from him, Eva's wedged between Magnus and Jonas, and Jonas is weaving small braids into her hair, counting them off so she'll know how many she'll have to take out, won't accidentally find them with a hairbrush later.

"There was a party at Eva's house," Jonas starts, "fall of our first year at Nissen."

Magnus picks up the thread of the story. "Her mom was always out of town." A grin takes over his face. "Man, those parties. I think we did the math once. The cops got called for about thirty percent of them."

"Thirty-eight percent," Eva corrects him, digging her elbow into his side. "I think I spent most of my second year cleaning up the wreckage, and we're not gonna talk about the stuff that went on up at the cabin."

"Anyhow," Jonas goes on, "I'd brought my guitar to this one. Even showed up with his bass."

"You went to Nissen too?" Isak asks Even.

"Nah, Bakka," Even tells him, hooks his heel on the edge of the couch then says to Jonas, "You were trying to impress her."

"Of course I was," Jonas says, picking up another lock of Eva's hair and dividing it into three. "So were you. That's fourteen, by the way."

"Yeah, but for different reasons." Even reaches toward Isak and touches his ankle with the backs of his first two fingers. Tap tap tap. Pause. Tap tap tap. Isak ducks his head, presses his thumb to Even's wrist. Tap tap tap. Pause. Tap tap tap, to let him know he's realized what he's doing. He glances over and finds Noora quickly looking away.

"It worked, on both counts," Eva says, and leans into Jonas for a beat. He buries his nose in her hair, most of his small smile hidden although Isak can still see the edges of it. There's history there, and definitely a story, but it's probably not Isak's job to tell it.

"It started with the three of you," Isak says to get them back on track.

"Not really," Eva clarifies, "the three of us just spent a lot of time hiding in the bathroom smoking weed and trying to figure out how to play Bowie covers."

Even interrupts her to sing a few bars of Rebel Rebel, hot tramp, I love you so, and they all laugh, sorta jostle each other, plainly an inside joke. "The acoustics in that upstairs bathroom kicked ass," he says.

"But the weed most definitely did not," Eva shoots back. "If anyone can take the blame for us getting together, it's Magnus. Before him, we were just screwing around. He was the one who started calling it practice. Plus, he was the only one of us who actually knew how to play his instrument back then."

"I grew up banging on stuff, that's all. You guys were getting there," Magnus insists. "And I just wanted to be part of something, have an excuse to keep showing up. Then there was the ice storm."

"Oh fuck, yeah. The ice storm." The way Jonas says it capitalizes it in Isak's head. Like a proper title. "Three days trapped in Eva's house with no power and nothing to eat."

"And you tried to make a blowtorch out of an aerosol can and a lighter to make us cheese toasties, and I still can't figure out how we all didn't die that week," Eva says.

"Caribbean jerk barbecue," Even says, then snaps his fingers when the rest of the band says kardemomme in unison. "All the stuff we put on those things to try and cover up the taste of hairspray."

"Really? That's where the name of the band came from?" Isak asks.

Jonas shrugs, leans back into the rounded corner of the couch, loops his arms around Eva's shoulders when she relaxes against him. "A little anticlimactic, isn't it? We were high and hungry and trapped inside for days. Funny, but no one ever asks us about it anymore, like, it's this big inside thing that everyone already knows about or something. A secret that everyone's in on, and asking about it means admitting that you lost your secret decoder ring. Or worse, never had one in the first place."

"Man, some of the shit they used to make up about it," Magnus says, voice pitched deeper with laughter. "All that stuff about medicinal uses, how it's good for the stomach." He sits up, holds his arm out like he's doing an impression of some famous orator. "Their music makes life easier to swallow."

"And it'll make your breath smell sweet too," Jonas adds.

"Fuck it," Isak says, "and here I just thought it was a fun word to say."

"That's the closest thing to the truth than any of the rest of it," Magnus agrees. "So, we had a name and we had to make good on it. Then we found out that Even knew his way around lyrics and Jonas had a knack for putting notes together in a way that made sense, and Eva could actually fucking sing."

"We had all that, but we didn't really have a sound yet, at least not until we were almost a year into it, and Eva brought Noora over to watch us practice," Even says. Tap tap tap. Pause. Tap tap tap. Isak returns the favor, makes a decision to not give into his reckless heart and call it flirting.

Noora's been quiet. She waves her hand in a dismissive little gesture and stays that way.

"We were still gritty," Eva says. "Goddamn awful, but she made us gritty, awful, and classy."

Even goes to pat Noora's head and she knocks his hand away, a faint blush coloring her cheeks.

Magnus starts ticking stuff off on his fingers. "We had two people who knew how to play, and a couple of us who knew how to write, and then Mahdi showed up, who's this wizard with the magic to make us sound decent despite ourselves, and suddenly we were legit."

"And you were the other one who knew how to play?" Isak asks Noora, trying to bring her out of her silence.

"More or less," Noora says, then nudges Magnus with her foot as he snorts.

"More or less," Eva repeats, probably brave because she's out of Noora's reach. "You should see the altar her parents have set up to her in their living room. Trophies and awards and photos of their little girl with pink ribbons in her hair and patent leather feet not quite able to reach the piano pedals."

Even leans toward Isak, elbow poking into Isak's side. His hand skims down Isak's thigh, starts up high and comes to a stop at his knee and there it stays while he stage-whispers into Isak's ear. "Don't listen to her. She's a virtuoso, our very own child prodigy. She could be playing opera houses, and here she is, stuck with us." His voice is deep and his breath feels like warmed-over heaven on Isak's cheek. It pushes Isak one step closer to defining this thing happening in his guts and in his chest. To putting a name to it.

"Screw opera houses," Noora says, "and patent leather shoes, unless they're red and come up to my thighs, at which point I will always reconsider."

"I take it you had more than a few piano lessons as a kid," Isak prods her.

Another dismissive wave. "They started when I was four, three times a week and that didn't count the hours spent practicing. Ended when I was twelve and finally figured out that if I gave my tutors enough of crap, eventually they'd all quit. It was years before I could even look at a piano again."

"It's not surprising that you burnt out." Isak feels the loss when Even straightens up again, puts a palm-wide distance between them.

"Yeah, and it's not surprising that I started up again, either." She looks over to Eva and warmth breaks through her expression. "Eva can be persuasive."

"I invited you over to watch us practice and there just happened to be a keyboard there. That's what you call persuasive? All we had to do was get out of your way." Eva stares back at her, equally as warm.

"Our girl has forgotten more about music theory than I will ever know," Jonas says, pride through and through. He shifts some to settle Eva more fully against his chest. "Hey, did you get a chance to think about those changes I made to the new song?"

Noora crosses her legs, hunches forward some, more animation out of her than Isak is used to seeing when she's not on stage. "They make sense on paper," she says, stressing her next word, "theoretically. The bridge is a bit wobbly, though." Noora angles her wrist, plays with the shoelaces looped around it. "Words would also be good."

Isak knows a prod when he hears it, recognizes that this is most likely as gentle a hint as Noora is capable of dropping, and Even sorta chuckles, scratches his fingers through his hair. "The words are there. Not completely in the right order yet, but they're there. How many days do we have before we go into the studio?"

There's a debate, not one of them bothering to pull out their phones or figure out their schedule or check the facts, as if the argument over the day is much more important than the actual answer. Somehow Isak gets blamed in the middle of it all, made into the scapegoat because he's the scribe, which, according to Magnus, puts him in charge of knowing where they should be and when in the event that Esklid isn't there to instantly answer a question.

"Four days," Isak decides, because he kinda thinks today is Monday once he backtracks. And fuck, that means he's really gotta write. Again. Always.

"Four days. That means the rhythm section has actually got to get its shit together," Even tells Magnus.

"The rhythm section has never had its shit together and things have always worked out in the end." Magnus turns to Jonas, makes a liar out of himself on his very next breath. "Can I get a copy of that sheet music?"

Eva groans as she lifts herself up and allows Jonas to slide out from underneath her. He digs around, tosses up clothes and blankets, finds a printed out itinerary and frowns at it, dropping it into Isak's lap and telling him he was right when he guessed four days. Finally he trips across a copy of the work in progress, hands it to Magnus before he throws Even his notebook. Isak can't get a clear bead on the music, only enough to see ink in three different colors and notations scratched all over the place.

"There you go, rhythm section. Make the ghost of Sam Phillips proud when we head into his recording booth," Jonas says.

"And Johnny Cash," Eva adds.

"And Roy Orbison," Even says softly. "Now that was a fucking voice. No one sounded like him."

"And Jerry Lee Lewis." Magnus is mostly lost, chewing on a thumbnail and skimming through the sheet music, his head bobbing a little and his foot moving like it has the pedal to a bass drum already underneath it.

"Brother," Isak starts, "Jerry Lee is still alive and well and living in Louisiana."

It hits Isak then, how this might have started as an interview but hasn't ended up like one. It's taken on a hint of something more like a family dinner, like Isak is someone's new boyfriend being brought into the fold, getting taught the family mythology and incorporated into it. He hasn't taken a single note. Not one of this questions have been crossed out, and the backs of Even's fingers are on his ankle again as Even reads through his notebook, drawing arrows, trying to put the words in the right order. Tap tap tap. Pause. Tap tap tap.

- - -

"Have you gotten earplugs yet?" Sana sounds out of breath, as if she's walking fast. In the background there's a siren wailing away and something kinda staticy, like it's windy where she is and all at once, Isak misses the city in a way he didn't think was possible.

"What?" Isak asks, and tries real hard to not laugh.

"Did you get earplugs yet?" she repeats.

"What? I'm sorry I can't hear you."

"Jerk," Sana says. "Where are you?"

Isak checks out the line of cars parked in front of the rest stop, sees a lot of blue lettering on white backgrounds. "I'm almost positive we're in Virginia still. Closing in on North Carolina."

It's hilly here, and Isak's ears have been popping off and on for the last hour from the altitude. A distance to the west, the land rises up, gentle and covered with evergreens, swaths cut through them to make room for power lines. Old, worn down mountains, not at all craggy like the Rockies.

It's a long haul to Atlanta, two state lines crossed and two more to go, then a while after that. Across the parking lot, Eskild is holding Even's cigarette as Even swallows down his vitamins. Isak's already had his. Mahdi and Chris are pacing in a circle around the busses, working out the kinks in their spines and legs. The rest of the band is wandering around inside of the shop, armed with specific instructions for how Isak wants his coffee. Huge, no sugar, enough cream to make it blonde.

"The stuff you've been sending in is really great, Isak," Sana's saying, the sound of her smile weaving all throughout her voice. "A hint of Lester Bangs, but without all the Nietzsche-talk. You're doing right by them and by Analog. I'm very proud of you."

"High praise." Isak blows out a breath, rubs an embarrassed hand against the back of his neck although no one's there to see it. "All grit and no grammar, right?"

"That, sure. Plus you understand that sometimes it's best if you let the truth play second fiddle to the feeling."

"I'm stealing that line from you," Isak tells her, cradles his phone between his cheek and his shoulder, clicks his pen and scribbles it down on the inside of his wrist.

"It's not stealing if I give it to you." There's a muffled sound on her end, something like a rushed thank you, then she's back. "What's next?"

"Hell if I know. I'll figure it out about twenty minutes before the deadline and then ask for an extension."

Sana's laugh makes something twist in his chest. He's never thought of New York as home, but she's another matter entirely. "Your accent is changing. Getting thicker again, like back when we were freshmen. That didn't take long."

"I tried to order room service in norsk the other day. Fucking culture-shock for a second there. Jonas is still giving me crap about it."

"You like him," Sana points out, breathing hard like she must be walking again. "You can see it in the writing."

"He's their anchor." Isak chews on his lip and starts toeing at a loose patch of sidewalk. "No. He's more like their balloon string with a silver dollar at the end. Just enough ballast to keep the rest of them from floating away."

"Oh yeah?" Sana says slowly. "Then Magnus must be the hot air inside of the balloon."

"Nailed it," Isak agrees.

"Sounds like we just wrote the opener for your next article."

Isak considers it, clucks his tongue thoughtfully against the roof of his mouth, then nods like she's standing in front of him. "Dunno what I'd do without you."

"You'd do a lot of your own research, that's what." A hesitation. "And how about Even?"

Isak glances across the parking lot and finds Even right away, stooped down with his spine against the side of the bus, hand cupped as he lights another cigarette. His cheeks hollow out as he takes a long drag, long neck exposed as he tips his head up to exhale, and Isak feels hot all over.

"Are we still talking about the balloon analogy?" Isak asks, sounding a little strangled, hoping that Sana can't hear it.

"We're talking about how he's still...how did I put it before?"

"Two meters tall and hotter than the sun with a voice that knocks you to your knees, and yeah, he's still all those things. And my conversational recall accuracy is still hanging around ninety percent," he finishes, hoping to shut down this line in inquiry before it really starts.

The band begins spilling out of the shop, plastic bags dangling from fingers, Vilde with two big cups of coffee stacked on top of each other, her chin propped on them to hold them steady. Isak rushes over to her, takes the cup on top and mouths a silent thanks.

Sana breaks up some as she says, "Listen, I'm about to go underground. Find some earplugs, okay? I'm sure tech can get you some."

"I'm on it," Isak says, then speeding up before he loses her, "I miss you, Sana."

"I miss you too, Isak. Be good." Then she's gone.

"That is whole new levels of desperation," Jonas is saying as Isak slides his phone into his back pocket. His grey eyes are wide, whites all around and he shakes his head.

Magnus is holding up a t-shirt in front of Vilde, draping it over her shoulders then stepping back to photograph her from half a dozen different angles. The t-shirt is black with bold white lettering on it that spells out Virginia is for Lovers, a big red heart where the second o is supposed to be.

Glancing between Magnus and Jonas, Isak says, "So, Vilde?"

Jonas gives him a look that says he's seen it all, and most of it he's seen twice. "She's sweet, a lot of the time anyway. And they both have this thing for cats."

- - -

They're in that no-zone between late morning and early afternoon. That zombie lag of broken highway lines and mile-markers. Everyone's dozing except for Isak. He's got three separate balloons sketched out in his notebook, all labeled like they're botanical drawings. The string, the knot in the latex, Even as the lack of gravity that allows the thing to float. He's crossed that out twice, figures he might as well be writing fucking sonnets to the guy.

The engine is wheezing against a steady incline and the air definitely seems thinner, the road a series of switchbacks that make Chris downshift through the turns, bitch under her breath about Mahdi following too closely on their tail. A number of hairpins that make Isak think that taking up praying again after a ten-year hiatus might not be too shabby of an idea.

Two more miles tick by. Three. Even's asleep in the swivel chair beside him, long legs folded up, one arm looped under the opposite knee. His feet are bare and Isak has the inexplicable idea to paint his toenails. He'd use some of Eva's stuff, her polish that's so deeply red it seems black in a certain light.

Four miles, and Isak shifts, gives Even's shoulder the lightest shake. Even turns toward him, a slight smile curving into his mouth before he opens his eyes. He licks his lips.

"Hey," Even whispers, stretches his arm out and grasps Isak's right below the elbow. Gives it a warm squeeze before letting go.

"We're almost there. Coming up on one-k," Isak says, just as quietly. "Sorry to wake you up, but I thought you'd want to witness it."

"Don't be sorry. Of course I wanted to be awake for it. Thanks for keeping track, Scribe." Even sits up, twists his way through a stretch, a few distinct, audible cracks of his backbone.

Isak shrugs. His reckoning of the distance is imprecise at best, twenty miles off at worst. Exact latitude and longitude probably isn't the point, anyway.

"What's that?" Even asks with a tug to Isak's sleeve, cocking his head to the side to read the words Isak had written there earlier.

"Nothing," he's quick to say, "just a little advice from a friend. Point-five."

Isak stands up, kneels on the long bench seat by the window, careful not to bump into Jonas, who's flat out with an arm hinged over his eyes to block out the light. Even takes a knee beside him, and together they watch the next mile-marker grow bigger, speed past them. Even knocks their shoulders together.

"One too many mornings," Even says, then hums a few bars.

"And a thousand miles behind," Isak says, grinning. "Uncle Bobby." He knows that song is gonna be stuck in his head until someone puts a different one there, and not the new, plugged-in version Dylan plays nowadays, with its gospel chords and air of sped up sanctimony. It'll be the older version. The slower one. The one with the harmonica like a faraway train whistle. Quiet enough to be a lullaby.

- - -

Isak takes a step back. Another step back, and blindly stumbles into Mahdi. The guy's at a dead run, carrying two equipment cases nearly as tall as he is, must almost outweigh him as well.

"On your left," Chris says, dogging Mahdi's heels, arms looped with cables and a couple of guitar stands, some other unidentifiable black box clutched to her chest. A couple of other tech guys are following her like ducklings, giving Eskild a wide radius, just like Isak would like to do.

In the number of weeks since they've met, Isak's seen Eskild flirt his way in and out of situations. He's seen him worried and cajoling and mothering and proud. He's seen the business side of him, and he's seen him fall asleep with his head on Noora's shoulder. He's seen the way the simple joy of a gig gone exactly right will spread across his face.

His expression is flatlined, eyes narrowed and mouth tight as he talks to the concert promoter in a dead, even tone. The fighting side of him is coming out, the part of him that must have earned him the band's trust as much as his kindness. Isak's never seen him like this, still feels the obligation to stick close in case he needs a translator.

"It's not like we're asking for fucking peaches and boiled peanuts," Eskild's saying, after the promoter finished talking some xenophobic shit about how things are done in America. "Just a room backstage that isn't packed full of people who don't even know the name of the band, and maybe a soundboard that doesn't blow every time you touch it."

The promoter puffs his chest out, sleeves rolled up to show off what's gotta be an expensive watch, skinny jeans and a leather blazer that make him look like the worst kinda poser. A conspicuously consuming poser. "My building, my backstage, my rules."

"My band's ticket sales are lining your pocket tonight, buying you those frankly god-fucking-awful cowboy boots." Eskild sneers, and Isak thinks he might be a fraction away from actually growling. "More importantly, those are my kids lining your pockets." He bends sideways to peer around the flimsy backdrop of the stage at the audience quickly filling up the room and hikes his thumb in their direction. "And do you see those kids out there? They're mine too."

Turning away, he snatches Isak by the elbow, keeps his hand on him as he guides him toward the green room. "Are they okay?"

"They're jittery," Isak tells him. "More than usual. I think Even's one happy thought away from trying to climb out of a window and Noora's one happy thought away from trying to thin the backstage population through cannibalism."

"Eva?" Eskild asks.

Isak shows his press pass to the security guy at the door. An empty fucking suit if the sheer number of people who have been allowed back here is anything to go by. "I don't think she's let go of Even's hand since soundcheck went ass up."

"That's the only bit of good news I've had all night, and even that is…not great." Eskild weaves through the crowd, elbowing a clear path through it with impunity.

The room smells like a frat house after a week-long kegger, looks like it too. Mystery booze spilled all over the floor and folks packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. A scene like this post-show is one thing, a necessary evil, almost to be expected. Pre-show is a different story, and one look at Even's caged-in posture and the way Jonas and Magnus have formed a human shield around him in the back corner tells Isak more than he needs to know.

"It's gonna be a domino show," Jonas says. He has to shout to be heard over the drone of voices and even then Isak struggles to make out what he's saying. His feet are spread wide and his arms are crossed over his middle, and he's shifting his weight from side to side, nervous energy spiraling up to his surface and that's another thing Isak's never seen before.

"Domino?" Isak asks.

"When one thing knocks into another, then knocks into another, and we all fucking fall down."

- - -

They're off. Isak can hear it. The band obviously knows it. The audience has no idea, sings along to all the stuff in English and a few key phrases in norsk that are easy on North American tongues.

There's a certain frustration in Even's vocals, the near desperate way Magnus bangs out a song, in Noora's cut-off introduction of the band members and the longer than usual pauses between the end of one song and the start of the next while they gather together near the drum kit to debate the next song. A lot of atypical indecisiveness. What's always the tight-fitting jigsaw of them has microscopic cracks in it tonight, a weird vibe that makes Isak's stomach feel loopy, some strange, voyeuristic feeling working its way between his ribs.

Jonas ditches his monitor two songs into the set and Even does the same thing a few songs later, spends more time than usual hanging close to Magnus, as if he's searching for solidarity.

They stay on beat. No one fucks up any lyrics and there's not a sour note that Isak can pick up, Mahdi's magic keeps the sound in check by some unknown miracle, but there's something missing tonight. Some intangible thing that Isak can't quite name and when they say goodnight and dash off of the stage, sweaty and panting and exhausted, it actually feels like a relief rather than a let-down that the show is over.

They huddle up and Isak hangs back the same way he always does. Listens in on their ritual but doesn't take part in it, the same way he always does.

"Atlanta in the bag," Eva says, her fist bunched in the back of Jonas's sweaty t-shirt, tugging on it, stretching out the neckline. "We did good tonight, didn't we?"

Jonas rubs her back, brings his other hand up to bury it in Noora's hair. "Yeah, babe. We did great." There's something defeated in the way he says it, an amen that he doesn't really mean.

They straighten up, and there's none of that post-show buzz, just a bone-deep sort of exhaustion that slows their steps and slumps their shoulders. Magnus starts in first, something about the tempo being off in Mandag and how it set the tone for the rest of the show, and the rest of them rocket off, bitey and self-deprecating, defeatist to the core, talking about how the audience deserved better out of them.

It ripples, the circle of them growing wider and wider as they put more space between themselves and the exhaustion morphs into anger, until there's some passive aggression sprinkled on the top of it all, vapor trails of blame.

"Hey," Isak says, and he might as well be the guy with a lap full of dynamite, a set of wire cutters and ten seconds left on the countdown timer. He shuts up real quick when they turn back to him, five faces full of matching impatience, the foundations of an invisible wall between them, and for the very first time, Isak feels like an outsider. He reaches toward Even and is met with thin air when Even inches back a step.

"You know what we need?" Even says, and maybe he's talking to the rest of the band, but he's staring right at Isak as he says it. "Three hours alone. Absolute silence in a completely dark room. That might do it."

Chapter Text

The hotel has thin walls. Too thin for the size of the price tag they carry. The door to the adjoining room is locked from both sides and Isak can hear Even moving around over there, only a few feet away in a room exactly like Isak's only mirror image. A conversation is happening in the hallway outside. Eva and Jonas. Mostly one-sided, but that could just be because Jonas's deeper voice carries a little more clearly.

Isak is standing at the foot of his bed, shoes off but socks still on. Belt unhooked but still through the loops, his t-shirt off but still dangling from his wrist. Everything half-finished when he'd just sorta stopped. Lost the thread. Began feeling like the protagonist in some Bob Seger song.

The bed is bigger than it needs to be, a lot of old-fashioned American overindulgence, turn down service and a couple of chocolates on the pillows. This place is virtually indistinguishable from the place they stayed last night and the night before that. Same crappy wifi. Smells the same, too. The only things that really change are the pictures on the walls and the brand of tiny free soap and shampoo in the bathroom. He'll lay down, blink, find himself in a different state when he fully wakes up again.

There's a new voice in the hallway. Eskild, and Isak can't make out what he's saying, but whatever comes out of his mouth makes Eva laugh. That husky, low register laugh of hers that always sounds so real, and it makes Isak smile too, standing alone in his room, like he's somehow in on the joke.

His phone buzzes and it's Sonja's name on the screen and Isak feels a brief, cold stab, sure he's missed a deadline. It's late. Really late. More than that, it's rare that she actually calls. But that can't be right. He sent the last article in a few days ago and he's got four more days before the next one is due.

"Good morning," Isak answers, because it is, only a handful of hours before their painful seven in the morning curtain call.

"Your last piece, the closing bit about the ice cream," Sonja says, and that's the thing about her. So often she begins a conversation three paragraphs in and expects everyone to catch up, and the people who can catch up are the people who get the job. "It's been a while since this publication has seen anything this authentic. The article is the best thing you've ever written. Hands down."

"Wow," Isak whispers, and he really doesn't know what else to say, standing here with his toes curled against the universal carpeting and his shirt dangling from his wrist, skin pebbling up some because the air conditioning in the room is set too low. "Um. Shit. I mean, thanks."

Sonja clears her throat, takes on the even cadence of something memorized. "A few miles away there are monuments built out of travertine marble, columns and towers that are meant to etch a sense of stability into the collective conscience, but Even isn't interested in that. His stability is an ice cream shop where a punk rock kid used to work, in the fleeting, here-then-gone experience of cold vanilla fudge melting in his mouth. He's in love with all the small histories, and finds them in a railing to lean against and in an hour spent listening to music as it floats up from below."

"Yeah, that bit." Isak pulls a face, wipes his hand over his mouth, fights that weird, exposed feeling he always gets when he hears his stuff read out loud. He'd been shaky on that paragraph from the jump. "I can re-write. Gimme half an hour."

"Don't touch it," Sonja tells him. "In fact, you can't touch it. I already signed off on it. I was calling to let you know that we're changing the title of this installment to Small Histories."

"Have at it," Isak says. He's always been crap at titles anyhow, and not even a little territorial about them.

"You understand them," Sonja goes on. "You care, and it bleeds through in the writing. You erase your ego, and allow it to bleed through."

"It's their music," Isak says around a mental shrug. "They make stuff that's easy to care about."

There are things Isak counted on when he took the job. Long days and even longer nights. The persistent ringing in his ears. The marrow-deep exhaustion. A certain degree of homesickness and writer's block and feeling like he's out of place, like he's on the outside of this woven together group of people.

Then there's the stuff that's hit him by surprise, like the way the morning doesn't feel quite right until Magnus has beat out the drumline to Teen Spirit on the back of his seat in the bus, or the calming force behind Jonas picking out melodies on his acoustic before a show, or Noora's smarts and how her viewpoint of the States has seeped into almost every word he's slapped down on the page. How he's come to rely on Eskild's iron-clad loyalty and the sheer magnitude of Eva's heart. And Even. Even, with his twitchy, restless fingers and bitten-down cuticles and soft, honest half-smiles, who sometimes doesn't make sense in Isak's head but always makes a lot of sense in Isak's blood.

Sonja makes a noise that Isak decides to interpret as a laugh. "One more thing. You're not my favorite intern anymore. Staff writer is going under your byline for this next one. We'll iron out the details later, but I wanna snatch you up before Paste grabs onto you."

Before Isak can reply, she's gone, and he's left planted in place, t-shirt finally slipping off of his wrist to puddle at his feet. Staff writer sounds nice. Really fucking nice, but he's still kinda partial to the sound of scribe.

"Holy shit," Isak says into the dead phone. Then a little louder, "Holy shit."

Quiet, muffled through the door to the neighboring room. "Isak?"

Isak steps over to it, tries the handle and finds it locked from the other side. "Yeah?"

There's a sound like scraping, and when Even speaks, his voice is coming from a few feet lower than before. Isak adds two and two and realizes it was the sound of his studded belt as he slid down with his back against the door. He's still wearing his gig clothes, hasn't taken them off yet.

"You're still awake," Even says.

"So are you," Isak replies, and does the same, presses his spine to the door and lets it slow his slide on the way down, bare skin catching some as he goes. He wonders if Even has the lights out, if he's sitting in a dark room like he said he wanted.

"Are you tired?" Even asks, and his voice is croaky. Sounds bone dry.

Isak plants his elbows on his bent legs, lets his hands dangle between them. A couple more washes and the knees of these jeans are gonna blow out entirely. The pockets and the cuffs are already frayed. "No more than usual."

"Yeah," Even says, and there's a quiet thump, like he's rested his head against the door, so Isak does the same. "Y'know that moment after a show, when the band walks off and the exit music starts and the house lights come up?"

"Wait a minute. Is this off the record?" Isak asks.

A pause, followed by, "No. I trust you."

Isak stretches up, grabs his notebook from the table, pen hooked through the spiral binding, sets it on the floor beside him but leaves it closed. "Then yeah," he says, "I know it. Always kinda hated it, honestly."

"Me too. So, the canned music is playing and the band is gone, and everyone's heading for the doors, and you're left with this empty space and lights that are too bright. There's beer all over the floor. Empty cups everywhere."

Isak picks up where Even leaves off. "And the air always looks sorta thick, like you could cut through it. Dusty. Maybe smoky."

"Exactly. And it's not until you get outside, back into the dark where you can't see too well, and can light up a cigarette that you start to readjust."

"The outside world should reassert itself slowly, take its time," Isak agrees.

There's a knock, a vibration. An elbow hitting the door and Isak builds an image in his head. A composite sketch based on hours and days and weeks spent watching Even. Studying him. Long legs jackknifed, crossed at the ankles. Thin white t-shirt bunched up at the back. The spin of the silver ring he wears on the first finger of his pick hand. Swept up hair losing its shape from the fingers he keeps brushing through it. The gentle dip of his stomach and the wiry curve of his upper arms and the fine structure of his long throat. The small smile Isak can hear in his voice.

"That's the thing about being one of the folks in the band. You never have to see that part." There's the sound of movement then the trilling, metallic scuff of bare fingers on an unamplified bass. The rumble of not-quite random notes. Even continues, "So, earlier." He pulls up short, plays through a few measures, turns it into a coda.

Isak smiles, thinks of a patient boy who waits and waits and waits, head angled backward against the door, his ear tipped toward it to try to pick up the sound of Even's bass more clearly. They've spent a lot of time living out of the same bus, eating the same food and listening to the same music. They've been in back rooms and green rooms and hotel rooms. Isak's fallen asleep with his feet propped on Even's thigh and woken up with Even pressed all along his spine and he's never felt closer to him than he does right now. Never seen anyone with this much clarity, through eyes that are blurry because it's so late it's downshifted into early, through a reinforced wooden door and a double lock keeping them apart.

"It's okay," Isak tells him, "it was just a bad night." It's been ten years since Isak's last confession, but this feels a little like that. Like if they can get to the other side of this thing, they'll come through absolved. Clean.

"You reached over," Even says, one degree above a whisper and that's okay. His is a voice that carries too. "And I should have held your hand."

- - -

Come to find out, boiled peanuts are a disappointment. They're somewhat slimy and taste like the ocean and squeak against his teeth and Isak's convinced that no one actually likes them, everyone just says that they do because of the novelty of them, because they only exist a ways south of the Mason-Dixon and east of the Mississippi.

The peaches are pretty good, though, sweet and tart and as messy as they should be, dripping down his wrist, using up a fair number of those baby wipes Noora always has around. Vilde seems happy that he's actually having fruit for breakfast and not just coffee.

Watching Even tear through one is an experience. That mouth of his shiny and wet, tongue coming out catch the juice on the side of his hand, licking his fingers clean one at a time, lips puckered around them. A living, breathing wet dream in vivid three dimension and Isak's never been so glad for the scatter of newspapers and notebooks and magazines he often piles onto his lap, his habit of sitting cross-legged in his seat, that he's been reduced to one clean pair of jeans that are a little too big for him. Give him room to breathe and enough cover to press his palm to himself.

Chris is the last one to climb up into the bus, waving at a few straggling autograph hounds as she comes through the back cargo doors of the hotel, rubbing at her eyes with the heel of her palm.

"Duck, duck, goose, kids," she says as she straps in, screws around with the controls and checks her mirrors, grabs her baseball hat and pulls it down far enough that Isak's isn't completely confident that she can see past it.

"Time to make dust," Magnus calls out to her, but something in his voice sounds wrong to Isak's ears.

"You good up there, Chris?" Isak asks over the sound of the hydraulics and the engine hauling into reverse.

"Just a little tired," she replies, tossing a fast grin over her shoulder and snugging down her fingerless gloves. "It's no problem. I can always sleep on the drive." Under her breath, mostly to herself, she continues, "Let's get this place in the rearview."

Nirvana blows through the speakers like it always does. There's the debate about what they're gonna listen to on the ride and the agreement that it's absolutely not Vilde's turn to choose. Like always, Noora kisses Isak on the cheek and tells him he's sticky and hands him another wet wipe. Eva disappears into the tiny bedroom in the back of the bus and pulls the door closed behind her and a minute later, Jonas follows her in and closes the door again.

Even is chewing on the tip of his pen and silently mouthing out words, twisting his neck until it cracks. He moves so that he's angled into the bend on the couch and sneaks his toes under Isak's leg, and Isak squeezes his ankle.

It's a morning like any other, but there's something about it. A thing that's settled into Isak's stomach, makes him want to be careful about what he says. Something thick in the air like the dust after a show. Something off, like a fingertip on the correct fret of an instrument that's been tuned slightly flat.

They need to cross a state line or two. They need a few days of living slowly. No criss-crossing. No doubling back.

- - -

Afternoon light reflects red off of the Memphis pyramid, gleaming and glassy, more sunspots on the sluggish water, kicked up from the touristy riverboat coming into the dock.

"Fuck that," Jonas says, skateboard propped on the toe of his sneaker as he stands beside a sign that tells him not to skateboard. He's frowning at the pyramid, or more specifically, the big ass Bass Pro Shop emblem plastered on the side of it. "That takes corporate sell-out to a whole new level. Like, a visible from space level. Do you think the person who designed it would want it to look like that?"

"Next thing you know, someone's gonna hang a Starbucks sign on the Great Wall," Noora pipes up. "Pizza Hut will take over the Louvre."

"Can't wait to see what you guys think of the Parthenon in Nashville," Isak says. "It's an exact replica, up to and including the fucking pine trees lining the sidewalks on the way there."

That gets a laugh out of most of them, the first one Isak's heard all day. Behind him, the land rises up at an angle, and short-clipped, trodden grass covering it, a stairway that leads to downtown Memphis proper. If he squints, he can see the opposite bank of the Mississippi, the spot where Tennessee ends and Arkansas begins and the metal monster of a bridge that connects the two.

Even bumps Isak with his elbow to get his attention. "Look closely. What do you see?"

Isak follows Even's gaze toward the city, tall buildings rising up like a backdrop. Haze further out, trying to see what Even is seeing. He pulls his vision in closer, to the foot of Beale Street and the neon made dim from the daylight. Closer still to the small hill in front of them and the concrete steps.

"I see the high water mark," Isak says, "from the last time the river flooded over."

Even nods tongue curling around his teeth in that absent, thoughtful way. "It's something to think about, how sometimes the water just comes in, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. You just have to let it come on in." He knocks into Isak again. "Have you ever been west of the Mississippi?"

With a shrug, Isak says, "Once, but it didn't count."

Even takes one step nearer to him. "How so?"

"It was right after I'd gotten the internship at the magazine. My boss flew a bunch of us to the west coast for a conference. A few of us tagged a couple days onto the end of the trip. I found out very fast that I wasn't cut out for the desert, or for camping in a goddamn teepee." When Even raises his eyebrows in a question, Isak waves it off. "But whatever. That story isn't worth telling."

"I'd still like to hear it." Even knocks into him again.

"Kardemomme?" It's a timid voice, and as a whole the band turns toward it. A kid is walking up to them, fourteen-maybe-fifteen. He's wearing a Clash t-shirt and ripped up jeans and the laces in his boots are untied. The first two fingernails on each hand are painted blue and his hair is most likely courtesy of a YouTube tutorial, a bottle of bleach and some kool-aid. Black cherry, and Isak suffers the deja vu of looking into a time capsule. A version of his younger self.

The band circle around him, find out his name is Max, short for Maximilian and start in on how it's an awesome name. Magnus gives him shit for the Clash t-shirt when he tells them that Kardemomme is their favorite band, that he's trying to learn norsk since the translations online are weird.

There's a shuffle as Eva digs through her bag, looking for a sharpie she knows she has in there somewhere, and there are a bunch of photos taken with Max in the middle of everyone, Isak backing up to make sure everyone gets into the frame as he takes them. Around them, people on the riverwalk begin slowing down, trying to figure out whether they should be paying attention. Isak's used to it at this point.

"What's your favorite song?" Noora asks, stretching out the back of Max's t-shirt as Eva autographs it, switching off so Noora can sign it next.

"Lykke Til," Max tells them, hesitant and plainly starstruck, but smiling now.

"It's a deep cut," Even tells him, ruffling the kid's black cherry hair. "Impressive."

A look passes between them and Magnus starts in on a rhythm, turning the back of Jonas's skateboard into a drum, and Jonas picks up the melody, sorta humming it then singing it louder, as Even and the ladies launch into the first verse, a three-part harmony so natural that it reminds Isak a little of gospel, and he's glad he thought to swipe the phone over from photos to video.

Even scribbles lykke til, Max on the kid's shirt after they wrap up the second verse with a short, improvised skateboard solo and Isak's handed the kid's phone back to him.

"Who are you?" Max asks.

"I'm their scribe." Isak answers through his grin, one that matches the rest of the band's, and the cannonball he's been carrying around in his stomach since last night is gone like it never existed in the first place. Mahdi's dashing down the stairs toward them, already hiking a thumb over his shoulder, telling them it's time to go, that soundcheck is in an hour. He takes Even to the side and whispers something into his ear. "And that's Mahdi," Isak says. "He's their wizard."

- - -

Flowers on the keyboard for Noora. Red rose petals scattered all over the keys. More flowers threaded in between the strings of Eva's guitar. For her, pink carnations and she picks out three of them, tucks two of them into the tops of her boots instead of behind her ear or in her hair. She's not that kinda girl. The last one she keeps for Even, twirls it and breaks the stem off short before slipping it into Even's bass strap then rises up onto her toes to kiss his cheek.

Eva mouths something that Isak can't make out from the wings, but he can see Even's shrug, the kiss he blows to Jonas as he stomps his foot three times and then they're off.

It's a good show. A great fucking show. One of those five minds, ten arms, one heart sorta shows, and afterward, when Eva says they did good, she means it this time.

"The flowers. Nice touch." Isak says to Even as they follow everyone on the trek backstage. He palms the small of Even's back, feels his damp t-shirt and the shift of his hips as he walks.

"Mahdi helped," Even says. He pauses, holds up the carnation he'd saved from his bass strap and tucks it behind Isak's ear, his touch trailing down the shell of it. "These people...the band, and everyone attached to it, they're the love of my life."

- - -

"We do not belong here." Jonas is making a circuit around the studio walls, wide-eyeing the photos hanging here and there, the microphone in the center of the room that's a dead ringer for the one Elvis is using in the nearly life-sized picture of him in the booth, the piano that Jerry Lee might have sat in front of back in his day. The perfectly circular divot in the floor from years of upright bass stands hitting that same exact spot.

"Maybe you don't," Magnus says around the drumstick caught between his teeth, "but Even does. He's got the hair for it." He's messing with the stool behind the drum kit, tries it, stands up and makes some adjustments, sits again and punches the bass drum, taps out a few eighths and whispers, "Whoa," at the acoustics in the room.

"I think these are the original tiles," Eva says, tapping one of the walls. There are wires all over the floor, a tangle of them. She'd taken one look at the studio and run to the bus to change into her boots.

They've already been on the tour, learned more about the history of the place from a lady who looked like she stepped straight out of a John Waters movie. They've been trotted upstairs to check out the relics behind dimly lit glass cases. Mama Thornton's original demos, a contract signed by Carl Perkins, a pair of Roy Orbison's glasses. A harmonica that probably still has Johnny's spit in it and the original handwritten lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues. Isak is the proud owner of a brand new Sun Studios t-shirt. He has a picture of himself leaning up against the whitewashed wall with the neon in the windows and the Jolly Green Giant-sized guitar in the background that he's already sent to Sana.

The original soda pop counter is still in operation, doubles as a gift shop now, records hanging on the walls and serving up the best damn root beer float Isak's ever shaken hands with. Red linoleum on the counters that match the stools, shiny chrome everywhere. Retro as hell but somehow not quite to the point of gaudy.

The tour bus is out behind the place, parked across five spaces, empty now that the show and tell portion of the morning has come and gone. Vilde, Eskild and Chris have headed to the Graceland complex, off to explore the Heartbreak Hotel, armed with marching orders to find a portrait of Elvis painted on black velvet for Magnus, a couple of exact replicas of the pink Cadillac and the Hound Dog Two for Noora. Track down some good barbecue joints for when they're done recording.

Mahdi stuck behind with the band and is currently geeking out in a professional way with the producer, a guy named Josie who looks like he's spent a lot of hours in his long life perfecting his greaser ducktail. They're crawling all over the sound booth and checking out the equipment, the two of them talking in English but in a dialect of tech that Isak can't begin to understand.

The recording process is about as home-grown as its always been here. Only a handful of allowances have been made for the switch from paste to analog and now digital. A few takes, a mix, slap it all on a demo and they're out the door. The nostalgic bend in Isak thinks it's awesome, that to this day anyone can walk up to this place, guitar case in hand, without the benefit of a big name or a label or anything outside of a worthwhile song, slap down a couple hundred and leave a number of hours later with a record.

"Alright, ladies and gents," Josie says, his deep southern accent piped through an ancient speaker set high up on the wall above the window looking into the booth. "Strap on in now."

Isak slips into the booth with him. It's a room built for one, two on the outside, and it's a tight squeeze beside Mahdi and Josie, who chin points to a switch on the wall. "Would you do the honors?"

He flips it and a sign lights up inside the studio, its twin going bright on the other side of the door. Cracked and yellowed and In Session in bold black lettering, installed almost seventy years ago by Sam Phillips himself. Even glances up from his bass to look at it, something wistful in his expression that Isak's never seen before. The first small crack in his armor since they walked into the joint.

"Alright. Take one," Josie squints at the paper in front of him, a copy of the lyrics written in a neater version of Even's handwriting. "What's this say?" Josie asks.

Isak skims the first few lines, their English translations written beneath them for the benefit of their producer, the title scribbled in all caps at the top. His heart trips up and he doesn't know what to make of what he reads, knows what he wants to make of it. "It says Natural Connection."

"Alright," Josie says again, "Take one, Natural Connection, or…" He turns the mic toward Isak, who repeats the title, only in norsk, and Even cuts his eyes toward the booth at the sound of Isak's voice, a look that makes Isak's mouth go dry.

- - -

The instrumental gets laid down first, blues chords but a touch darker, the whole arrangement uncharacteristically tonal for them in sound but not in structure. Isak recognizes it, can pick out snatches of the thing built in the back of the bus and tinkered with during sound checks. Bits of it being birthed behind closed hotel room doors and in Jonas and Even's constant humming.

Nothing compares to hearing the full force of it, the pulse of Magnus on the drums and swooping melody Jonas puts on top, handing the duty over to Noora for the bridge. Even's bass is a grind underneath it all, concentration in the crease between his eyebrows and the silent way he mouths out the words, glancing over to Eva during the chorus as she silently sings them too.

Mahdi's beside Isak, nodding along, watching Josie like his life depends on it and making the occasional suggestion that Isak still doesn't really understand, only knows that Mahdi understands the band. How they sound and how they want to sound.

"These kids know how to write a song," Josie says, impressed, calling a breather after two takes, piping a rough playback through the speaker.

"You don't know the half of it," Mahdi tells him, and Isak's having trouble paying attention to anything outside of the thrumming in his chest, the tightness in his throat. "They'll need a few pick-ups. There's a weird fuzz in rhythm guitar. Magnus hiccuped a couple of times in the second verse."

"Got it," Josie agrees. "Vocals first. Gimme a few to get them plugged in."

- - -

Isak should be taking notes. Jotting down impressions. Keywords and descriptors that will help him out later, when he's back in his hotel room, sitting in his boxers while he waits for every stitch of clothing he owns to be cleaned and returned to him, trying to recreate into words the feeling in his gut and the buzz at the base of his skull. Distill it to something fit for public consumption.

He's not. He can't, not when Even's growling out the lyrics the way he is, one headphone up to his ear and the other off so he can hear himself. Not when every word out of Even's mouth sounds like sex. Feels like it, is about bodies and want and raw, red physical attraction, words that are meant to be metaphors, but only by a hair. Not when Even's eyes meet his and hold him there as he belts out the chorus, then drops back down to a rough baritone for the last verse. Not when it seems like all the air has been sucked out of the room and not when Even wipes his wrist across his forehead and starts from the top, lips close enough to the microphone he could tonguefuck it.

Another take, and Josie calls it on lead vocals, leans over to Isak and says, "Goddamn," and all Isak can do is mutely nod, unclench his jaw by sheer force of will, watch as Even makes the universally recognized motion to show he's gonna go smoke a cigarette and slip out the door as Eva gets set to record backup.

The sidewalk is empty by the time Isak makes it outside, the heat of the day not the only thing that's making his skin prickle. He circles around to the back of the building, follows the obtuse angle of it, along the brick wall painted with larger than life effigies of rock and roll's late greats. The door to the bus is cracked open and it's dark inside. Warm and stuffy. He finds Even in the back, at the doorway that leads to the bedroom, a crumpled pack of smokes in one hand and the other patting down his pockets, probably looking around for one of his lighters. He's constantly losing them.

"Scribe," Even says, and most of his face is in shadow, the curtains pulled closed in an attempt to keep out the heat. Some of the confidence that he always wears in front of the mic has drizzled out of him, left him bare and open. "What do you think?"

Isak counters Even's question with another. Whispered, like a secret. "Who's the song about?"

Even leans on the doorway, arm angled against it above his head and hips cocked, t-shirt riding up and his ankles crossed. He has to know how it makes him look. He has to. Taller, his waist even more nipped in and his shoulders wider, the slope of his neck and bony shape of his wrists more pronounced. More graceful.

When he doesn't answer, Isak takes a few steps closer, near enough that he can smell him. His aftershave and sweat and it makes the short hair on the back of Isak's neck stand up. He asks again, as quietly as before. "Even, who's the song about?"

Even opens his mouth but doesn't answer right away. He tics his jaw to the side, chews on the corner of his bottom lip. "Have you ever wanted someone like that?"

His voice is a deep purr, different than when he sings but no less dismantling. Isak is colonized by it, taken apart and stitched back together into a person that looks like him and sounds like him but is braver than before, willing to follow the shuddery feeling in his heart directly to the source and call it out for what it is. A formerly patient boy who's decided he's not going to be patient anymore.

"I have," Isak says. Another few inches closer and now he has to tilt his head up to see Even clearly, doesn't need to look down for his hand to locate Even's hip and land on it, for his thumb to touch bare skin, draw a slow circle into it.

"Yeah." Even closes his eyes, and he doesn't need to look either to find Isak's mouth with his fingers, trace the dip in Isak's upper lip with the precision of something studied and committed to memory. He snags his thumb on Isak's cheek like he's asking for Isak to open up for him. And the truth of it is that he shouldn't need to ask. Isak's been cracked wide open from the start.

Something hits the floor and there's a scuff and it's all very distant, yesterday's news compared to the sight of Even slowly licking his lips, breathing out a sigh and dipping down, putting his mouth where his fingers were. Isak pushes up on his toes, closes his eyes and feels Even's nose pressing into his cheek, the heat of his lips, damp and soft and then his tongue. His tongue, an almost tentative touch at first but that doesn't last long before Isak's sucking it into his mouth, sliding his along it to learn the taste of him. A little sweet from the tea he always drinks, sweet like honey and Isak keeps at it, gets to the clean taste of Even underneath and that's even better. So fucking good. As good as Even's hands on his waist, pulling him up and in then walking him backward to push him against the wall, shove his thigh between Isak's legs.

Even breaks off, gulps in air and kisses him again. Intent. Intense, and a thought skitters across Isak's mind that Even kisses the same as he plays. All out and with everything he has, like this kiss is another form of music to him. The only way he knows how to imprint. Even is kissing him and he's not stopping. He's holding Isak up with his body, rocking against him, chest and hips and thighs and the banging pulse in his throat that Isak can feel under his thumb and it's all music.

Rough, fret-callused fingers are digging into Isak's skin, snapping open the button on his pants, headlong as a zero to sixty crash into a brick wall and just as absolute, and Even's hard against Isak's thigh, bearing down on him and Isak's holding on as tightly as he can, leg coming up to wrap around Even's waist and shoulders pressed to the wall, his hand sunk knuckle-deep into Even's hair. His palm forms to the back of Even's skull like it was designed to do exactly that and he's still kissing him. Pausing only long enough to lick Even's palm and get it wet then yanking Even back to him to kiss him again. Gasping into it now because Even's got a hand down his pants, wet with his own spit and slick from precome.

The angle is screwed up but Even makes it work, mouths at Isak's jaw, hot breath on Isak's neck, against his ear, roses blooming on Even's cheeks. Pretty as a picture, shoulder juddering as he gets Isak off so fast Isak would be a little embarrassed if it was anyone but Even.

"Wanted you since I first saw you," Even says, harsh and fucked out and Isak's hasn't even gotten a hand on him yet, is trying to figure his way into those goddamn tight jeans of his. Even twists his wrist on the upstroke, rubs his thumb on the head of Isak's cock, says, "You're so fucking hot," and Isak's gone, shoots up Even's wrist, thighs trembling with it, vision losing shape at the edges.

"You. You have no idea," Isak mumbles, shoves at Even's pants and spits on his own hand.

Even's huge, cock thick and curving against Isak's palm, Even's whole body strung out and straining, and Isak just wants to lay him out, lick across every slice of skin. No time for that, no time to learn how Even likes it before Even licks Isak's mouth open again and paws at his ass, hips hitching as he comes, fucking his way through it into Isak's hand.

It's still dark, maybe darker, but that could just be Isak. Everything's a little hazy. Even keeps watching him, unblinking as he licks his fingers clean of Isak's spunk, humming a soft, happy sound. Isak stares back and does the same.

Even takes a step backward and his heel lands on the pack of smokes he dropped and he chuckles, breathy, rushes back in and cradles Isak's face between his hands and kisses him again. Three times, quick like punctuation. He utters a shaky, "Fuck. Do you have a lighter?"

Isak laughs too. Giggles. Another thing he'd be embarrassed about if it was anyone except for Even. "Somewhere, yeah." Isak's got spunk slowly going sticky in his last clean pair of jeans and the taste of Even in his mouth and he's so fucked. So fucked. Fucked in a way that feels a whole hell of a lot like love.

Chapter Text

"Even, what are you doing?"

He steers Isak around so he can use his back as a writing surface, hotel stationery spread on Isak's upper shoulder. The movement of the pen registers through Isak's layers, his jacket and the t-shirt underneath.

"I'm writing a letter to Elvis," Even tells him, and Isak feels him drawing two straight lines. Maybe underlining something for emphasis.

Isak leans against the brick wall that marks the boundary of Graceland proper. The thing is graffiti-covered, much of it revolving around a central thesis that Elvis is alive and well and out there somewhere. Across Elvis Presley Boulevard, the complex expands. The Heartbreak Hotel in the distance, the hangars where they keep the planes and cars and motorcycles, a series of strip malls and shops all selling same-themed stuff. Sadly, not a portrait of Elvis painted on velvet to be found anywhere.

"What are you writing?" Isak asks, trying to wrench his neck around to get a look.

"That's between me and the king. Hold still." Even touches Isak's hip, slides up under his jacket to his waist. Squeezes before letting go and it's the first time he's touched Isak with intent all day.

It's a real cracked-mirror situation where everything is visible but nothing is lining up clean. From last night and the brush of Even's thumb on Isak's cheek before Jonas had shown up and pulled him away, to this morning, when Even had strolled into the hotel lobby, flying in formation with Eva and Noora at his side, his hair swept back and dressed in a way that made Isak sit up and pay close attention. Snug black jeans and a Violator t-shirt, the one with the single maroon rose in the center, a black suit jacket that had to be custom made for him. Everything form-fitted, silver at his wrists and around his neck. Something downright vampiric about him and when he'd greeted Isak, he'd called him scribe. It had made Isak disconnect, shove his loose heart back into his chest where it belongs, remember that they both still have a job to do.

Even finishes the letter, folds it up and kisses it, eyes the white batwing gates covered in green musical notes, the small booth with guards a distance up the driveway. The next truckload of tourists in their glorified twenty-seater golf cart is still a ways off, trundling away from the museum toward the road.

"You don't need to break in. At least not in broad daylight. We could just buy another ticket, take the ride again," Isak says.

As much as having to bail Even out for breaking and entering would make one fucker of an article, Eskild would probably take it out of Isak's hide if it happened on his watch. Anyway, Isak wouldn't mind a sequel, another trip through the house. He'd been paying closer attention to Even's impressions of the place than his own the first time around. How he'd been careful to stand near the back of the group, very aware of his height, and how he'd given the jungle room, with its wood paneling and fake plastic plants a pass as everyone else ogled the bright green carpeting and the big, custom-made throne. The way he'd stood in the office out behind the mansion, watched the video of Elvis sitting at the desk in there, loop after loop of the guy fresh out of the army and still in his uniform. Even's shuttered mood and the dark, almost formal clothing had finally made sense when he'd lingered at the gravesite, stared at the eternal flame and all those flowers, hands folded in front of him, head bowed.

The spark is back in Even's eyes now, something like mischief under a thin layer of innocence, like the thought hadn't occurred to him prior to Isak saying it out loud. "Gimme a boost," Even says.

Isak, helpless and hopeless, weaves his fingers together and braces himself against the weight of Even. It's overkill. Even's surprisingly light on his feet, one solid upward push from Isak and he's hoisting himself up on his own, the letter caught between his teeth, until he's draped over the top of the gate. Bent at the waist. There's a wobble, a heart-stomping second when Isak thinks he might actually go over, and security is pounding down the driveway, a couple more from either side of them and Isak's got his hands on one of Even's ankles, not sure whether he should push or pull. Before he can make up his mind, Even tucks the letter behind an eighth-note, high enough that someone will have to get a ladder to get it out. He shifts his balance and dangles from the top of the gate, and Isak gets a face full of his ass and then his coat, hands around Even's waist to absorb some of the shock of it when he lets himself drop and his feet hit the ground again.

The security guards are closing in with rough shouts and Even looks down at Isak with a sly smile. He starts talking to them, answering their questions with the lyrics of Love Me Tender, except in a conversationally-toned norsk, another line from the song for every question or command, shaking his head like he doesn't get it. Isak cottons on, begins to speak over him and in tandem in his mother tongue, and when one of the guys asks Even what he was doing climbing up on the gate, Isak responds, looking at Even and shrugging as he tells Even to take his hand, his whole life too. Even grins, talks about all his dreams being fulfilled as the guards squint up at the letter, benignly tucked into middle e on the staff up there, before they finally come to the conclusion that it's not worth the effort and wave them off.

"I can't believe I never thought to do that," Isak says as they cross the street. Long strides to match Even's. A lighter handed over without Even having to ask for it. A wave to a twenty-something kid in a damn fine gold lame suit who stops and stares at them like he thinks he knows them. Like Even's name is on the tip of his tongue.

"Really? Never?" Even hums, a low rumble, a hint of a song in it, just like there's a hint of music in everything he does. "That one's old school."

- - -

The booth is horseshoe shaped, not big enough for all of them but they're making it work. Isak's squeezed in with Jonas on one side of him and Even on the other, Mahdi at the head of the table like a proud papa presiding over his family at supper. In front of him is a plate of waffles piled high with bananas and peanut butter, and he's presiding over that, too.

"That looks like a heart attack on a plate," Noora says to him. "My arteries are clogging just being in the same room with it."

"At least I'm gonna die happy," Mahdi shoots back around a mouthful.

The place smells like eight decades of seeped in grease and coffee that's only slightly younger than that, and there's an entire wall that's been taken over with photos of folks who have spent some time sitting at the counter along the back. Black and white to faded seventies sepia to vivid color. A few of them autographed. Memphis Minnie and Howlin' Wolf and Booker T. B.B. King will never sit at a table here again, but they still have one reserved for him, standing empty regardless of the line of folks waiting at the door for a spot.

"B.B. King always said he was shit at playing chords. Said he couldn't pull them off to save his soul," Isak tells the table at large.

"The way he played, it's not like you miss them," Eva says. "He used to stuff rags into the f-holes on his guitar to cut out the reverb. Old blues man trick."

"You play a Gibson, right? A three-fifty-five," Isak says to her.

"She blew her entire first royalty check on it," Magnus pipes up. He's tapping the handles of his silverware on the table, a habit that Isak barely notices anymore, the dull, stainless steel clink reduced to background noise.

Eva dips her head, smiles and says, "My very own Lucille."

"But you didn't name yours after a girl," Even says, and there's a thump like he's knocked his boot against hers under the table.

"I wouldn't tell you if I did." Eva gives Even a light thwap, and it jostles Isak by proxy, makes Even lean into Isak and when he rights himself, he stays closer than before, shoulder to hip to thigh pressed together, his elbow digging pleasantly into Isak's side as Isak lays his arm across the back of the booth to give them more room.

"Did he name it after his wife or something?" Mahdi asks. "A girlfriend?"

"Dunno. Maybe it was his mom," Jonas guesses.

"He didn't know Lucille," Isak tells them. "He'd only ever heard of her."

Noora hunches over the table, chin resting on her folded hands, head cocked to the side. "In comes the journalist with the hook. Solve the mystery for us, Scribe."

"He was playing this bar on the other side of the river, and back then they used to heat the place with these big metal drums filled with kerosene." Isak glances around, finds everyone's attention fixed on him and sorta wishes he'd never opened his mouth. Under the table, Even's hand finds Isak's thigh, squeezes right above his knee to let him know it's on purpose, but his expression doesn't budge. Isak clears his throat, then goes on, "There was a bar fight and one of them got knocked over. He always said it was like a river of fire, and he got out then realized he'd left his guitar inside."

Jonas is nodding along, says, "So he ran back in to get it."

"Of course he did," Isak agrees. "Almost died in the process. Later, he found out that it all started because two guys were fighting over a girl."

Noora takes a deep breath, lets it out on a sigh. "It's always about a girl."

"Except when it's about a boy." Even says, his touch still inching along Isak's thigh, fingertips lined up to Isak's inseam.

A look passes between Eva and Jonas. It's an unreadable thing, a brightly shining biographer's bat signal, and probably as off the record as they're ever gonna get. More history there, but no story.

"And the girl's name was Lucille," Magnus says.

Isak snaps his fingers. "You got it. B.B. King named all of his guitars Lucille after that."

Even takes his hand back, fishes around for his wallet as the waiter drops the tab on their table. "So it was sorta like a reminder," he says, "to never go rushing into a building when it's on fire."

- - -

Isak's got a message from Sana and two missed calls from her, a photo from his roommate back home to show him that his house plant has been watered and is still very much alive, and a less than gentle reminder from Sonja that she's bumped the deadline and at least a couple thousand decent words are due in about twenty-four hours.

He's also got a belly full of barbecue and bread pudding with whiskey sauce so good he had ordered extra in a take out box for breakfast tomorrow morning. It's got raisins in it, and candied pecans, so it's totally healthy.

It's creeping up on late and everyone has scattered, some of the band and crew out visiting the flora and fauna of the city, blues bars and rockabilly clubs, all that Beale Street has to offer, everyone on strict orders from Eskild to be shaved and showered or at least accounted for first thing in the morning for what he's calling a family meeting.

The lobby is abandoned, only a couple of women in power suits setting up signs for a conference happening tomorrow, and Isak wanders along the empty maze of hallways on the ground floor, hunting for a spot to write.

There's a sound, a few muted, tentative notes and Isak changes direction to follow it, finds himself in an atrium he didn't know was there, a geometric glass ceiling reflecting the shifting light from the outdoor pool beyond. A baby grand stands in the center of it, obsidian black and polished to a slick shine. Noora is sitting at it. Eva's on her nine, straddling the bench to face her, a cheek resting on Noora's shoulder as Noora plays a couple of scales to check the tune, blatantly ignoring the small sign on the wall that asks guests to refrain from playing it past a certain hour.

The piano sounds true to Isak's ear, and the acoustics are something to write home about, bouncing off of the high ceiling, doubling back and it that makes the sound richer. Fuller. Noora begins to play and the piece is more complex than the stuff he's heard her do in the band, years of formal training coming out in her posture and the arch of her fingers, the quick cascade of notes.

Isak doesn't know much about classical music, just enough to know that he has a slight preference for eastern European composers over the Italians, and he knows fuck all about opera, but he recognizes this song. Liebestraum by Liszt, and Noora's playing it like it's nothing, as easily as Isak could play Chopsticks or the first few bars of Greensleeves.

He hangs back, doesn't want to disturb them or chance her stopping, watches as Noora sways and Eva sways with her, Eva's arm now draped around Noora's waist, hand resting on her hip. She switches things up and goes for something more upbeat and Isak thinks it's one of the Rhapsodies, but he isn't sure.

There's a change, some slight shift in the quality of the air and Isak doesn't need to turn around to know it's Even. His chest is warm against Isak's spine and so is the hand that touches the back of Isak's neck. His t-shirt is wrinkled and he smells like sleep and has a cigarette tucked behind his ear, so he must have been on his way outside.

"Hello," Even whispers, and Isak feels it against his ear.

"Hey," Isak whispers back, wanting to melt into Even, the warm comfort of his flat planes and bony angles. "I thought you were out with the boys."

"Sleeping," Even tells him. "I thought you were out with them."

Isak shakes his head and it makes his jaw brush against Even's shoulder, looking back the way he is, still whispering. "An article is due, and I really shouldn't work on it drunk. It's a disaster."

The cracked mirror feeling is back. Being alone in a room with Even is sometimes like being in a room with five other people. Even's the guy who saunters on stage and tonguefucks songs from his mouth but otherwise says very little, hides behind his lyrics and bass and the wall of sound at his back. He's moody, joyful, stubborn and impulsive and has a laugh that's better than sunshine. He's the guy who got Isak off in five minutes flat, rough hands and rough breath and a hard shove up against the wall a little over thirty hours ago and hasn't mentioned it since, and he's the guy who buys flowers for his girls, just to see them smile. He's open and closed off and rarely says anything without thinking it all the way through first. And looking at Even now, as he stares toward the piano with that gentle half-smile on his face, Isak can see all of them. Dim, distant lighthouse hints of all of it.

The soundtrack changes, a trip up in Noora's tempo, something light and frilly that Isak doesn't recognize at all, and Eva has both arms around Noora, is tucking Noora's hair behind her ear and taking her chin between her fingers and kissing the corner of Noora's mouth. A couple degrees north of friendly, slow, then she fixes the smudge it has put in Noora's dark red lipstick with a practiced move.

Isak glances over at Even and finds his expression unchanged, slight smile in place like none of this is news to him, and Isak thinks about how it's possible to spend weeks and weeks living out of someone else's back pocket and still know next to nothing about them, still only know about the stuff they want to share.

"Do you wanna take it for a spin? See how much those years of piano lessons stuck with you?" Even asks, a small tug at Isak's elbow as he starts toward the piano. The ladies hear him, and Eva holds her arm out toward him before he's even cut the distance between them in half.

Isak chuckles. "No way. Have at it. I gotta write."

- - -

It's obvious, now that Isak knows what to look for. It's something that's been staring him in the face all along, the bubble Eva and Noora sometimes build around themselves, invisible and permeable but still there. It makes him wonder if anyone else can see the heart he's wearing on his sleeve, the blind cliff he's two steps away from. The all-the-way down fall with Even at the bottom of it.

It's evening, and they're in a top-floor hospitality suite that Eskild had nabbed them and has been using as an office for the short duration of the stay in the city. Catering spread out on the table and the scatter of their lives spilled all over the room. Instruments and paperwork and electronics, dry cleaning everyone desperately needed done after this much time on the road. A short stack of forty-fives from their Sun Studio session in their brown sleeves, a pile of CD booklets Vilde wants the band to autograph for the merch booth at shows.

There's a backstage vibe in the room right now, with everyone gathered together. This pavlovian thing that happens, energy levels amping up even though there's not a show to play tonight, their internal hourglasses set to flip over at the same time regardless.

Magnus is setting up an old rented film projector in the center of the room, calling for folks to gather around, pointing the lens toward the closed blinds covering the sliding door to the balcony. A ticker ticker sound as he reels the film through and gets the thing going, and then an image swims into focus. It's Magnus, grinning, unsteady frame zooming out, then a jump to the bus, another to the road whizzing past. This shot is through the window of the bus, monochrome and jumpy, picking up on how the glass reflects the interior of the bus. Jonas, transparent and ghost like, kicked back with his acoustic in his lap, the reflection of Magnus with his face hidden behind the camera.

Isak's sitting on the floor, his back against one of the chairs and his legs folded in front of him. Even comes over to sit in the chair, frames Isak with his legs and begins to sign CD booklets, paying more attention to the home movie than his autograph, the smell of permanent marker like a cloud around him.

"You're pretty good at this," Jonas says, wearing an impressed frown. "Looks like you might have a future in the movies."

"Holy shit, we can finally fire him," Eva cuts in from her spot on the sofa, her legs tented over Noora's lap. "We've been trying to figure out a way to do it for about a decade. At least now we don't have to feel so bad about it."

"Fuck off," Magnus says cheerfully.

More footage flits through, more quick cuts. Vilde sticking her tongue out, Chris behind the wheel. Noora and Eva walking toward the camera, along the center line on a two-lane highway with pine trees on either side of them, their pinky fingers hooked together. Jonas pulling a stunt on his skateboard involving a staircase and an unlikely one-armed handstand. Even writing in his notebook, not looking up while he flicks Magnus off. Even throwing Isak's leather jacket over him while Isak's passed out on the couch in the bus and absently scritching his nails though Isak's hair afterward, looking down at him with a soft curve to his mouth.

Behind Isak, Even bends down, takes Isak by the wrist and draws three tiny stars on it with his marker, lined up along Isak's bracelet lines. "You look good in black and white," he says, then blows on Isak's wrist to make the ink dry.

Isak shrugs, wonders if the tattoo shop he'd seen at the head of Beale Street takes walk-ins.

- - -

Shave and a haircut knock on the door to Isak's hotel room. It's the unofficial code for the band and its extremities. Isak saves his doc and snaps his laptop shut, pads across the floor and doesn't bother to check the peephole set in the center of the door before opening it, already knows that it's one of his.

It's Even, fresh from a shower, hair damp and brushed back, already drying and going wispy at the ends. He opens his mouth, tongue touching his upper lip and kinda smiles, focusing in on Isak's mouth when Isak smiles back.

"You look good in color, too," Even says, and Isak steps forward, balls his fist in Even's t-shirt and yanks him into the room, letting the door close behind him.

Isak should say something, hammer-tap at this thin-spun thing between them, try to see how far it stretches but he can't, not when he has Even fresh-faced and bare in front of him, and not when Even's hands are skimming up his sides, along his chest, pushing his shirt up and off as he goes. Moving further up to press his thumbs into Isak's cheeks, coax Isak's jaw open. Not when Even kisses him and gets his tongue in Isak's mouth, steals the breath right out of him along with any hope Isak might have had to keep this night on track and g-rated.

"We're safe, right? We're safe," Even says against Isak's mouth, then ditches his own shirt, snaps open the button at his waistband but doesn't unzip them.

Isak's not sure if it's a question or an answer. Whether it's another one of Even's riddles or open to interpretation, but he agrees either way. "As houses," he says, and licks along Even's jaw, scrapes his teeth on his shoulder and kisses down Even's chest as he falls to his knees.

Isak pries open Even's jeans, lets them drop and it's kind of adorable, the way Even steps out of them, his hand on the back of Isak's neck for balance. His grip tightens as Isak gets a fist on his cock and works him fully hard, learning the weight of him, the curve, exact amount of grip it takes to make Even's thighs flex and make him moan out Isak's name. The smell of him is dark and tinged with soap, and his cock jumps against Isak's cheek when Isak nuzzles into the spot where Even's thigh meets his body, lingering there until Even's muttering softly, saying please and calling him a tease.

Another plea from Even and Isak licks along the underside of Even's cock, picks up the beads of precome leaking from his tip, rubs it along his lips to slick himself up, a few small kitten licks below the crown before Isak takes him down. Soft, soft skin and Even's so hard, heavy and heated on Isak's tongue and the smell of him is everywhere, just like the taste of him.

Isak looks up, catches Even's eyes, half-hidden behind the spill of his hair, feels something in his chest break loose and cracks his jaw wider. As wide as he can go, throat open and tongue flat and Isak's not sure if he can come just from having someone's cock in his mouth, but it's Even, so the theory is being tested. It's Even, fucking hot and the single most beautiful person Isak's ever laid eyes on, and he's looking down at him with something warm and a maybe a little tender flitting across his face, touching Isak's mouth where it's wrapped around his cock, hips moving in tiny, held-back thrusts.

Even says his name, repeats it twice and Isak screws his mouth down as far as he can go, gags around him, hands on his hips to balance Even when he takes a stumbling forward step as he comes, blows straight down Isak's throat. Isak's eyes are watering and his throat feels scoured, his mouth fucked swollen and Even's hauling him up, not giving him a chance to wipe his lips clean or fully swallow before he's kissing him again.

He doesn't stop kissing Isak as he walks him backward and lays him out on the bed, smart fingers unhooking Isak's pants. He stops only to pull them off in one motion, his boxers along with them, letting them fall to the floor in a heap and then he's back at it, tugging on Isak's buzzing lips with his teeth, easing the ache of them with his tongue.

All the hours Isak's spent looking at Even's mouth. Watching him sing, his lips brushing against mics and against Eva's cheek during their duets. Watching him chew his lips when he writes, chew on his cuticles and fingernails and bite down on pencils. Now he's watching them kiss his skin, press into his chest, tease one of his nipples hard and then the other, that long, long body of his sliding down Isak's and settling into the sprawl of Isak's legs. Even puckers his lips around the tip of Isak's cock, a sweet little suckling kiss and then he stretches them around Isak, sinks down, tongue wrapped all around him like a fucking miracle.

Isak's propped on his elbows, fighting the drive to throw his head back and fall into the sensation, wants to watch Even more than that, the snag of his mouth and the dirty, sloppy sounds he's making. The wet gasp when he pulls off for breath. His hand works Isak's spit-slick cock and then he's sucking him in again, throat fluttering around Isak and nose buried in his pubes, jaw cracked wide. Isak presses his thumb into Even's cheek, swears he can feel himself through the thin, hollowed out flesh, swipes up some spit from the corner of Even's lips and runs his finger across his own tongue to taste the two of them combined.

The heat in his guts spirals out as he comes, drowned too deep in the feeling of Even sucking him off to even give a fair warning, but Even doesn't mind, keeps going, his eyes watering now as well and his mouth wrecked, blood red lips he licks with a cream-white tongue.

Even crawls back up Isak's body and falls beside him, smiles into it when he kisses him again. "We never made it to the other side of the river. I kinda wanted to." It comes out in a raw rasp, like Even's on the strung out end of a carton of cigarettes and a three-day whiskey bender.

"You sound like shit," Isak tells him, "and you gotta sing tomorrow night." There's a double-meaning in what he says next, a flashing neon sign that Isak decides to close his eyes against. Instead he rolls toward Even, places his palm over Even's pounding heart. "Probably shoulda thought this through first."

Even laughs and it comes out as a nearly soundless wheeze. He covers Isak's hand with his own. "Fuck it."

- - -

Someone's kicking his bed and there's the smell of coffee and a bright light shining in his eyes. Isak's mouth tastes like death and his tongue is glued to the roof of it and he really should have brushed his teeth before he fell asleep last night.

"C'mon, Scribe." It's Eva, with another kick to the mattress and an open to-go cup held under his nose like smelling salts. She leaves it on the bedside table and begins throwing his stuff into his bag, checking the closet and the drawers. "The bus is already running. Nashville's waiting for us."

A pair of shoes lands on him and Isak rolls over, buries his face in the pillow beside him. It smells like Even, makes Isak's pulse kick up some. Isak pushes himself upright, croaks out a foggy, "What?" He's not sure when Even left, or why Even didn't wake him up.

Eva pauses, one of Isak's shirts dangling over her arm. "You're late. I had to convince housekeeping to let me in." More clothes get tossed into his suitcase, his laptop into his bag, and she begins to do this complex crochet-thing with the power cord then shoves it into the bag as well. "Get up." She does a double take. "Wash your face. Looks like you're a drooler. Good to know."

"Um. Eva?" Isak asks, knuckling his eyes, sore jaw popping on a yawn. "Could you throw me those boxers?"

She laughs, balls up his underwear and throws it at him, along with a pair of socks. "That's good to know, too."

Chapter Text

"It's gonna be a lot of country music. Pop-country." Jonas says it like he doesn't like the taste of the words in his mouth. He's scrolling through his phone, checking out the lineup for the show this afternoon.

Isak's already been over it, done his research regardless of his rep, plucked out a few sets he wouldn't mind seeing in case the afternoon and evening spin in that direction and his day job doesn't get in the way, most of them B-stage acts.

It's a medium-sized festival on the outskirts of Nashville. Jack Daniels cut the check for it and it's overtly American, a decent scatter of local acts, a few glitzier names, some indie groups that Isak recognizes from the up and coming write-ups in the magazine, an Irish folk band outta Boston but by way of Dublin, some singer-songwriters. Kardemomme's top ten and their other couple of top twenty-fives have earned them a spot on the main stage at a decent time, three slots before the headliner. Not too shabby for an alt-rock band in the heart of country music territory.

"I hope we at least get to see a tractor-pull. That would be awesome," Magnus says.

"Probably only if they can find a way to auto-tune the sounds the engines make," Even says. He's talking soft this morning. A croaked-out whisper that Isak needs to strain to hear over the low music playing in the bus.

"So you're not a fan," Isak says, a little surprised. Even doesn't typically qualify or quantify creativity, except when it comes to himself.

Even shrugs, sinks lower on the sofa and hooks his heel on the edge of it. "Blues and country used to be American cousins. The new stuff doesn't have a lot of soul anymore. Talent, but no soul." He swings his leg out, bumps it against Isak's. "Don't write that down."

Isak bites his lip to try to keep from smiling and fails one-hundred percent. The way Even's watching his mouth isn't lost on him. "Wouldn't dream of it." He goes on, "If they're cousins, does that make bluegrass that one kooky uncle who only comes down out of the hills for holidays?"

It's Even's turn to smile. "At least that guy has a lot of character." Another bump. "You can write that down, if you want to."

The bus lurches and there's a squeal of hydraulic brakes, a hiss when they let go, and Isak finds himself mostly in Even's lap, his pen skittering across the floor. Jonas has his arms wrapped protectively around his guitar and Magnus is on his feet, peering through the front windshield.

"Are you okay, Chris?" Eva's standing in the doorway to the bedroom in the back, Noora a shadow behind her.

"Goddamn. Screw that Prius sideways," Chris says, and pries her fingers from the steering wheel like it's taking some effort to get it done. She creeps the bus around a bend in the highway and a river of brakelights spreads out before them, as sluggish as the water they just left behind in Memphis. An hour just got added to their trip. At least. "Everyone good back there?"

"Shaken, not stirred," Magnus confirms and settles down into his seat again, reclines it back and throws an arm over his eyes. "Wonder if we can talk Eskild into letting us go to Dollywood."

- - -

"How do you do it?" Even asks. He's kicked back against the sofa, his toes tucked under Isak's thigh, his journal tented upside down on his leg, its cover a bit more dogeared than when the tour started. Isak supposes they all look a little more dogeared nowadays.

They haven't moved much. Isak's counted maybe ten mile markers in the last hour. Twelve on the outside. Jonas is conked out and Magnus is plugged into his music, strangely still except for his occasional foot tap. Noora is working on a crossword puzzle in English, trying to stretch out her vocabulary and asking Isak for hints from time to time. Not the answers, just hints.

"Hmm?" Isak looks up from the piece he's working on. An off-kilter idea he's been knocking around for the better part of a couple of weeks. A quasi-character study written in real-time that his editor is either gonna love or hate. There's no in between.

"It takes me days and days to write a chorus, and you come up with a few thousand readable words in an afternoon. Show me how you do that." Even's drumming his fingers on the back of the couch. The cuticle on the middle one is bitten down red.

"They don't start out readable, trust me," Isak says. "I just take notes and correlate. Document. You create. There's a big difference between that and what I do."

Even frowns at him, disagrees in that gentle way of his, sets the heel of his foot to Isak's leg. "That's like saying a good photographer is just lucky enough to be standing in the right place at the right time," he says.

Isak wants to kiss that small frown right off of his mouth. He wants to be able to read Even's steady gaze and he wants to crawl between his sprawled legs and doze off to the swell of Even's chest as he breathes. He wants to pull Even on top of him and feel the whole of Even pressing him down. He wants a lot of things, but settles for touching Even's ankle instead, thumb notched into the curve of his instep, tracing the branchwork of pale blue veins.

"The right place and right time is a big part of it," Isak insists. "In my case, it's all about being with the right people. No one wants to read a story about someone boring."

"That's right. You're our biographer." There's something lilting in the way he says it. Something fond. He sits up, swings his legs down but stays close, angled toward Isak. "Most songs are biographies. You know that." He takes Isak's hand, lines them up, his callused fingers along Isak's ink-smudged ones before letting go. "Lou Reed spent half of his Factory days over on Lexington with twenty-six dollars in his hand."

"Waiting for his man," Isak says, not bothering to hide his smile this time. "But you write poetry, then have the guts to set it to music, and there's no way I'm qualified to show you how to do that."

Even stares at him. And there it is again, that absent minded tic, his tongue sneaking out to touch his canine. He tips toward Isak, whispers in his ear, breath feathered on the side of Isak's neck. "You're very charming, and you still owe me an autograph."

"Tell me when and where and it's all yours," Isak says. He goes on, because he's always been curious and has never managed to come up with a straight answer, "Do you think Lou Reed and Warhol ever screwed around?"

"Probably," Even says, matter-of-fact. "In the sense that I think Warhol fucked all of his friends."

- - -

By the time the traffic jam coughs them out, Isak's rounding the corner, heading into the home stretch of the article. He should type it up, do his edits while it's still feeling steady in his mind, but he's got Even, nodded off and snugged in all along his side. Even's head is on his shoulder, soft hair tickling his jaw, his hand palm up on Isak's thigh. Warm and pliant and leaning heavier against him each time Chris hits the gas pedal.

Isak thinks about kissing him. Right now. Like this, with Even already halfway there, face tipped toward Isak's and his lips slightly parted. Isak would hardly have to move, only duck down a fraction and he'd be near enough. Even's mouth would be warm and pliant like the rest of him and he would taste like sleep. Maybe he'd gasp into it if he woke up, maybe he'd kiss him back.

He's not gonna do it, not with Noora within spitting distance and Chris one poorly-timed glance over her shoulder away, but he could. He wants to.

Even is twitchy in his sleep, like his mind has slowed down but can't shut off entirely, full of quiet mutters and small, electro-shock movements, lashes fluttering against the hollows beneath his eyes, fingers curling toward his palm and then relaxing.

Eva slips past them, walking down the center, hands on seatbacks and weaving some against the movement of the bus, her hair in long, loose mermaid waves down her back. She speaks with Chris for a few minutes in quiet tones that Isak can't hear, her hip checked against the railing for balance.

As she heads toward the back again, she pauses and takes in how Even has his ankle hooked around Isak's, arm slung across Isak's lap, all the spots that they're touching. She pats Isak's cheek, brushes the backs of her fingers against Even's jaw.

"Hi boys," Eva says with a small smile, although Even's still asleep, warmth in her voice and in her expression, looking down at Even the way she always looks at him. "We're stopping in fifteen. Food, gas, whatever. I'm fucking starving."

Isak takes his arm back from where it's been lodged between their bodies, loops it around Even's shoulders instead and tucks his fingers under the sleeve of his t-shirt, draws his own name on Even's skin, thinks about how far Even is under his, sinking down, down, down, coming up on bone deep.

Even wakes up and it's a slow thing. Gradual. A change in his breathing pattern. His hand flips over and spans Isak's thigh. He turns his head and nuzzles against Isak's collarbone. A fast inhale that comes back out as a low hum. His pale eyes swim before they lock onto Isak, dial into focus.

"Hey, you." Even mouths the words, next to silent.

- - -

"Big deal staff writer, and to think, I knew you back when you were trying to stay awake through freshman comp class." It sounds echoing, wherever Sana is, and there's the dim drone of a piped-in announcement in the background.

"C'mon. It was an eight in the morning class. Boring as fuck. Gimme a break," Isak says. "Where are you?"

"In Judeo-Christian terms, the fifth circle of hell," Sana tells him, and all at once, Isak misses her terribly. The familiar, grounding force of her sarcasm and the sparky mind behind it.

"So, the airport," Isak says. Across the parking lot, Vilde is climbing into the underbelly of the bus while Chris tanks up, shooting a deadly look at a trucker who's in a staring contest with Vilde's ass. About five more seconds and Chris will probably go for his throat.

"Bingo," Sana says. "Seven hours, not including the layover. I'm just hoping I don't get a seat-kicker."

"Oslo?" Isak asks around a chilly stab. She goes home only once a year, late summer when the days are long and there's a guarantee of no snow, and they're not there yet.

"Think west," she corrects him, then, after a pause, "and north."

"Seattle," Isak guesses. He adds it up and goes on, "You bagged the Sub Pop retrospective. No shit."

"Bingo again. You are on fire today." Isak can hear the grin in her voice.

"Screw staff writer, this is huge," Isak says and congratulates her. "I wanted that assignment so bad."

"Sonja put you where you need to be," Sana says. "I've been keeping tabs on their setlists. The band's playing snowflake shows."

"No repeats in the order," Isak confirms. He's been keeping tabs too, although it's not the type of stuff making it into the articles. "They usually decide on the first three or four songs before they hit the stage. Sometimes they don't even make it that far before they switch something up."

"Still no Mannen i mitt liv. There's some chatter online about it."

Isak hums, steps up on the curb outside of the kitschy truck stop store and takes a few steps, balancing on the edge of the concrete, phone lodged between his ear and his shoulder, arms flung out to keep his center of gravity intact. "You've been reading the comment sections. Never read the comment sections."

"It's research," Sana counters. "What's their take on it?"

"Vague. They don't talk much about it."

"Alright. So what's your take on it?"

It's a question Isak's asked himself a lot. At night, in hotel rooms up and down the eastern seaboard, in all the quiet times that happen between the loud ones, watching crappy fan vids of some of the band's early shows. He's catalogued the changes in the lyrics, how they switched with Even's mood. How the song evolved. Different verses and tempos and one memorable performance in a small spot in Denmark where Jonas actually took over vocals for the latter half.

Sana's silent on the other end, gives Isak the time he needs to line it up, get his metaphors right while a semi-truck runs through its gears on the way to the onramp, engine wheezing as it rolls past.

"I think," Isak pauses, almost doesn't want to say it out loud because even the thought of it breaks his heart. "I think Even stopped believing in it. Some of the rose tint has drained out of his glasses, and the guy he wrote it about...doesn't exist anymore."

"Do you think he ever existed in the first place?" Sana asks.

"I like to think that he did." Another pause, and Isak wonders if he's pumping enough objectivity into his voice, or at least something that might pass for objectivity. "I hope that he could."

Sana's the quiet one this time, and they might be nearly a thousand miles apart, but Isak can still hear her gears turning. "You're projecting. Why?"

On the other side of the plate glass window, Isak sees Even standing in an aisle, holding one of those dinky folk art cats Noora's been collecting over his head, way above Noora's reach. This one's dressed as a fisherman, rod and reel and the whole nine, a tiny fish dangling from a piece of twine. Noora's on her toes in front of him, an arm looped around his neck like she's about to climb him to get to the thing. Their smiles are so big.

"It's called investigative journalism," Isak says. "I'm supposed to be intuitive, right?"

Sana sighs. A staticy rush of air. "I hope you understand that what you're doing is not at all called that. And you sound like crap, by the way."

"Late nights and really early mornings," Isak explains, hoping that the switch in subject means that Sana's dropped it, but she's never been the type to let him off easy. It's the worst thing about her. And the best.

"You're adapting to Even's schedule, getting on track with him," Sana says. "You wrote about how he only ever cat naps."

Inside the store, Noora's almost won, hiked up on her tiptoes with Even's hand on the small of her back to support her and it's like Isak can feel that specific touch on his own back. Strong and steady and holding him close. As if he's pulled the memory of it out of his lizard brain, a part of him that's all feeling and no rational thought. Fingertips pressing in hard. Even's chest across his thighs. Even's arm across his lower stomach, holding him down.

"Yeah," Isak says, "at least until he crashes, then it's hibernation for a day. It's all or nothing with him. He doesn't understand the meaning of middle ground."

"Okay," Sana says slowly, and right now Isak wishes he was standing in front of her, wants to get a read on her expression. "Which side of that scale are you falling on?"

Isak pauses, chews on the inside of his cheek, offers a two-fingered wave to Vilde as she walks past him and into the store, listens to the rustle on Sana's end of the conversation. She's moving again. "Off the record?" Isak says finally.

"Of course." Sana is quick to answer, then she goes on, with a thread of caution woven into it. "Oh, Isak."

He nods, a confirmation although she's not there to see it. What he says next comes out dry, like he's been sucking on sandpaper. "I've got five more weeks with them and a big write up at the end. Fifteen thousand words, give or take, and that's all I have left."

"You have more in you than that," Sana tells him, gentle and soft, and he knows her well enough to realize she's not talking about the articles. "You still didn't really answer my question, so I'll give you another one. Are you happy?"

Isak's confused and a little lost. He's brand new levels of tired and has no idea whether or not his next article is gonna fly with his editor. He's also got a skip in his heart whenever he hears Even's voice and an ache behind his ribs that feels so fucking good, and the sun is shining and they're about a buck-fifty outside of Nashville. He's got Even tapping on the window to get his attention, waving at him to come inside, turning away before Isak has the chance to follow, because he knows he will. He will.

He answers her in norsk, so she can be sure that it's true. "I am. I really, really am."

Sana tells him to stay that way, signs off by muttering something about airport security, and it's Eskild who opens the door to the store for him, standing by it like a watchful chaperone.

"It's like they've never seen a store before," Eskild says. "How's that level head of yours this morning?"

Isak squints, see-saws his hand to show that it's a little wobbly, catches Jonas out of the corner of his eye, playing a kid's plastic ukulele and wearing a red felt cowboy hat, the thing propped crookedly on his wild hair and forming an odd silhouette as he wanders down the aisle. Magnus skids past Isak with a chocolate bar bitten between his teeth, most of his face hidden behind a boxy polaroid camera, snapping shots and not waiting to watch them develop before he tucks them into his back pocket.

Even's laughing a couple of aisles away, laughing out loud, none of his usual quiet reservation. Eva is following him, Isak can see the top of her head above the shelves, so Isak joins them, watches as Even piles Eva's arms full of stuff. Candy and vitamin water and a fuzzy cat-eared headband for Vilde. A travel guide all about Nashville and a waterproof map of the downtown area, one of those little wooden paddles with the rubber ball attached by a thin piece of elastic. Two pairs of cheap headphones and a new package of lighters.

He catches Magnus by the elbow, snags the camera out of his hands and the chocolate bar from his mouth and takes a bite. Still chewing, he spins on Isak and snaps a photo, yellow afterimages swimmy across Isak's vision, blanking out one of Even's eyes, the left corner of his mouth.

The camera spits out the photo and Even waves it, blows on it, says, "A penny for the old guy, isn't that how it goes?" Not waiting for an answer, he holds the photo out to Isak. "A penny for a piece of your soul."

The TS Eliot reference isn't lost on Isak, just out of context. As the photo fades into color, he says, "Keep it. It's all yours." He takes the camera from Even, clicks the shutter as Even is reaching out toward him, his hand focused in the foreground and his face blurry behind it. Mouth open, half-smile, about to speak.

Even takes the photo as it ejects and gives it the same treatment. Waves it. Blows on it, keeps his eyes stuck on Isak's as he passes it over. "A piece of mine for a piece of yours." His fingers trail over Isak's and he tilts his head sideways. "I won the trade."

"That depends on who you ask," Isak tells him, as the photo's pale yellows and blues resolve into Even's chewed on cuticles and long neck and worn-soft Pogues t-shirt. His sloping nose and candy pink mouth. Isak doesn't put it in his pocket. Can't risk bending it.

Magnus swoops in again, herds everyone together, Eva's arms fuller now and Noora balancing four cups of coffee, Jonas with his cowboy hat still on and the ukulele slung over his shoulder by its neck. He calls Eskild over and gives him the camera, and there's impatience in the way Eskild is shifting his weight from foot to foot, his glances toward the busses parked outside. Isak winds up wedged between Vilde and Chris with Even behind him, tries to squirm out of it, says that he should be the one taking it and Eskild should be the one standing in his spot while Eskild works on framing the photo, making good use of the backdrop of colorful magazines on the rack behind them.

Ignoring him, Eskild says, "Squeeze closer together, I wanna be able to catch some of the skin mags in the shot." He takes three, tells Noora to give him more of that smolder and Even less of it then takes another, and Even's snugged along Isak's spine the whole time, hips against his ass, fingers laid lightly on the dip above Isak's collarbones.

"Film like that can be hard to come by," Jonas warns everyone, after they've emptied one cartridge and Magnus loads a new one in, and Even pushes him toward another set of shelves, begins emptying it of all the film the store has to offer.

Eskild hangs back, squinting, tapping a finger to his lips as Even loads up the counter with everyone's stuff, botches it twice trying to pay for it all because he still doesn't quite have the hang of U.S. currency, gets mixed up thinking the decimal point is in the wrong place.

"If they keep this up, we're going to need an extra bus," Eskild says, and opens the door for everyone to file back into the day, ticking off a head count as he does it.

- - -

Isak has a checklist. A compiled series of bullet-pointed suggestions. A sort of beginner’s guide to navigating through any and all situations in one piece. It’s not something he’s ever written down or catalogued or categorized in any specific way, nothing as definite as all that, but it’s there. Present. Ever-present, like graffiti under the overpasses or on the bus shelters in any decently sized city. Like the accent he's never gonna shake or the how he always works better when he can feel a deadline panting on the back of his neck.

Abandonment issues. Check. A heart that’s been broken and patched and broken again. Double check. The thick-skinned ability to shrug away criticism of his work, let it slide off of him like he's made of teflon. Gold stars all around that one.

High hopes and low expectations. It's what he'd had when the eighteen year old version of himself had boarded a direct flight from Oslo to New York with a one-way ticket in his hand. He'd had that, a scholarship, a secondary school writing portfolio that someone somewhere had taken a shine to, two suitcases and not much else. His father had dropped him off at the airport. He'd been wearing his business suit. He'd told his son he was proud of him and had been checking his rearview mirror while he did it.

Isak knows that nothing is permanent. A series of one nighters had taught him that the smart move is to skip out early, before the inevitable awkwardness of eggs or pancakes or accidentally meeting a roommate. Before he has another article due. Before he becomes boring. He's learned that it's better to string together the small joys. Count on simpler stuff. Stuff like the E train actually running on time, or a sunny day and a cup of coffee with his nearest and dearest friend, or the stripped down happiness he feels when the right song comes on the radio at the right time.

Isak wants to make Even breakfast, then wander down to the Battery on Manhattan Island and show him the penny people, the tiny sculptures made outta copper that Isak likes so well. Let Even read his work in hopes that he'll be proud of him. All of this and more and he can't figure out the exact moment when Even became the exception to all of his rules, but at some point it happened and it keeps on happening.

Thirty miles away from Nashville and they're already seeing signs for Dollywood. Jonas is playing Jolene a la the White Stripes, trying to get someone to sing for him but there aren't any takers. He stops as Chris changes over to the radio and starts flipping through stations, stopping on some minister preaching fire and brimstone, talking about signs of the judgement. She moves on to a different station after about thirty seconds, finds Tom Petty singing about the last DJ. The last human voice.

It's a good song. A fucking great song.

- - -

The venue is on the far side of town, on the outskirts, but they're taking the scenic route through the city to get there. Down along music row and the string of publishing houses. Sony, Universal, RCA, all wrapped in big boxy buildings that smell like copyrights. Jonas has been going on and on about corporate fuck-offs who insist on putting a price tag on sound, and Noora is challenging him a little in a way that makes Isak's ears perk up. It's a knee-jerk from her rather than an argument, more like a thing between a brother and a sister, and her heart really isn't in it as she points out the long historical precedent behind patronage, then lets it drop just as it's getting interesting.

The country music hall of fame, bars and genuine honky-tonks, the pervasive places claiming the best barbecue in the state all trickle away as they leave the downtown district, give it up to chain restaurants and supermarkets. There are signs that point the way to Andrew Jackson's mansion and Isak's not gonna touch that one. Not by a longshot.

They turn off on the access road to the venue, get stopped twice by security with walkie talkies and clipboards and a bearing that makes Isak suspect they're off-duty cops. The bus bounces slowly through a bunch of potholes before they're spit out into a parking lot behind the main pavilion.

Backstage is a series of tents set up for the talent, and a woman wearing a headset points them in that direction as they all load off, stretching and blinking into the bright sunshine. She hands out lanyards to the band, different ones for Eskild and the techs, tells Isak to hit up the press tent first to get the credentials that will give him all-access.

"I can come with, if you want," Noora offers, and maybe it's the dregs of some professional curiosity in her or a latent, protective mama bear instinct to not let one of her own out of her sight in a sea of strangers in cowboy boots. Anyone's guess, and Isak finds himself charmed by it, shrugging his way through an answer as he digs out his ID from the magazine, gets his paperwork in order.

Eskild makes the decision for them, looping one arm through Noora's and his other through Even's. "C'mon, kids. We gotta rub some elbows," he says, then pulls them away and Isak watches them go.

Even's in his gig clothes already, all black today, a slinky dark inkblot in the middle of flashy color and faded blue jeans, half a head taller than almost everyone else. He unhooks his arm from Eskild's and throws it over his shoulders instead, his wingspan long enough to put a hand on the back of Noora's neck as they walk. He glances back at Isak, gifts him with a small smile before they disappear into one of the tents and it's a good thing Isak's got his hands full. Otherwise, he might have blown him a kiss.

Dry grass crunches under Isak's feet as he goes where he's been told, walks past a few photographers and a crew of Jack Daniels girls in short cutoffs and crop tops and armed with t-shirt guns, along a gate with banners advertising Ford trucks and Tennessee whiskey. A few round tables have been set up inside the press tent and there are a good number of folks sitting at them. Probably a bunch of local papers. Some bloggers who look the part, all plugged into and tip-tapping away at their laptops, fully half of them sipping at energy drinks and Isak knows the feeling.

A soundcheck is happening somewhere, and Isak pegs it for B-stage, somebody playing clawhammer banjo as he approaches the registration desk and passes over his info to the man working it, doesn't bother to correct the guy's mispronunciation of his name.

"New York," the guys says. "You come from a long way off."

"Not so much. More recently Memphis by way of Atlanta." Isak thinks back, tries to remember where they were before that and can't quite put his finger on it. He's got a hunch the order is mixed up. The cities are clear, though, the shows and the people and the songs like snapshots in an album he can flip through in his head. The miles they've spent on the bus, each one of Jonas's rants, every single time Even's put his mouth on him in secret, hidden ways.

"Sounds like you come from a real long way off."

Isak laughs, holds his arm out for the guy to put a plastic wristband on it, clip off the extra. "I'll give you that one. New York by way of Oslo."

"How did you end up all the way over here?" The guy gives him his lanyard, then plants his elbows on the table like he's settling in for a story, and it reminds Isak that they really are a far distance from New York. That they're in the south, where time works differently. Where everyone seems to have more of it.

"Most of the time I have no idea myself. It's all been a series of sleepless nights and near misses," Isak says and starts to turn away.

"Sounds like you got yourself the title to your autobiography," the man says.

With a shake of his head, Isak says, "No one would wanna read something as dull as all that."

Isak's almost to the edge of the tent when someone behind him says, "Kardemomme," and Isak looks up as quickly as if the new guy had called him by name. In a way, Isak figures he probably has.

Someone's walking toward him, looks as out of place as Isak feels. Isak sizes him up, not a habit he's particularly proud of, but he does it anyway. Blogger. Probably spends a lot of time on his hair and practicing his smile in the mirror. Definitely gets his eyebrows done. He holds his hand out for Isak to shake and Isak figures he probably gets his nails done too. The kinda guy Isak might have gone for back in freshman year, back when he preferred sweet with a side of fuckboy. Back before he knew better.

"Thought I might run into you when I saw the line-up. Chris," he introduces himself, still shaking Isak's hand. "I've been keeping track of you guys in Analog, knew it was you when I heard the accent. There aren't too many of us out here."

"I've got a Chris, too. She does beer runs for the band. Sometimes she drives the bus," Isak says, finally taking his hand back. "Who are you here with?"

Chris waves off the question. "Freelancer," he says, and yeah, Isak pegged that one right away. "There's some buzz about your articles. I hear Paste wants to pull a copycat, start putting people in deep with the bands, devote a lot of pages to it."

"I had no idea," Isak says, frowning because perhaps he should have known, and because it's strange to be talking shop with someone who's clearly had his ear to the ground. It's a mainline shot, a small glimpse of the reality that still exists outside of the nomadic, carney life that's so quickly and easily become normal to him. He goes to sleep and wakes up in a different city with a different beer in his hand and a new encore blasted out at full volume. His only consistencies are a snare drum and a bassline and Jonas's up the neck solos. The slow, careful way Noora speaks. The smell of Eva's shampoo filling up the bus and the sound of Even's voice shivering down his spine.

"It's a dream job," Chris is going on, still grinning. "Sure beats some of your old stuff, like covering bands no one's ever heard of on stage two at Rockwood."

Isak frowns again, this time from surprise. "That's way back. A year and a half ago at least. Ancient history, when you're talking journalism."

The grin Chris is wearing takes on a flirty shape. "I'm a cover to cover kinda guy."

"The Rockwood kicks ass though. It's an awesome spot," Isak insists, heels dug in, not taking the bait Chris is trying to dangle in front of him. "That assignment introduced me to a lot of stuff I might not have found otherwise. Taught me how to write and got me here. Besides, no one ever heard of Kardemomme until someone finally did."

Chris nods, point taken. "So, what's it really been like?"

"It's a job," Isak holds back, takes a few sideways steps toward the band's last known whereabouts, sees the way Chris's face falls a little. "But being with them...it's the best thing I've ever done."

It's interesting, how sometimes it's so easy to tell the truth to a stranger.

- - -

They're sitting in a triangle in the grass. Equilateral and cross-legged. Noora's and Eva's shoulders are going pink from the sun. Isak pinches the strings Noora's holding in the right spot, ducks them under and spreads out his fingers to make the diamond pattern and swings it over to Eva. He's learning.

Elbows have been rubbed, the usual battery of questions from small press reporters answered and it's time for the rituals. Magnus is working on perfecting his handstand, arms and legs everywhere. Mahdi keeps passing through, bitching under his breath about how he's not a fan of outside festivals because there are too many variables. Jonas is finding his center in quiet chord progressions a few feet away, sunglasses on the tip of his nose, pausing every once in a while to wet his lips from a glass of whiskey. The stuff is flowing like a river around here.

"Anybody seen Even?" Eskild asks as he ducks into the shade of the tent. He's got a sunburn too, cheeks pinking up and the hair at his temples looks a little damp.

"I thought he was with you," Jonas says to him.

"I thought he was with Magnus." Eskild rubs his wrist on his forehead, glances at the sweat he's wiped off like he's offended by it.

Magnus puts his feet on the ground again and walks over. "He said something about talking to Mahdi about the pickup on his Fender."

"It was the Stingray," Mahdi says, not slowing down as he beats another track through the tent toward the busses, "but that was a while ago."

"Hey, Mahdi," Jonas calls out to him, "Are we gonna sound good tonight?"

"Hell yeah, you are," Mahdi hollers back as he breaks into a jog.

"We'll sound better if we have someone on lead vocals," Eva says, untangling the string from around her fingers and looping it around Noora's wrist.

"I'll track him down," Isak offers, brushing grass from the seat of his pants.

"There's a lot of people out there, and he never looks at his phone," she warns him.

"I have a few ideas."

Isak loops around to the front of the pavilion, near the back where the crowd is looser, more spread out, dodging blankets and portable camp chairs and the expected litter of water bottles. It's the first time he's seen the stage set-up since he got here, and the roof of the place looks straight out of the rulebook on seventies modernism. Like someone's idea of what the future might look like.

The sound is weird in the space between the main stage and the second stage. Country pop on one and folksy bluegrass on the other, and the music seems to shift depending on which way the wind is blowing. There are vendors and beer stands and lines for the bathrooms, and beyond that an open patch of land where food trucks have parked for the day.

Isak had heard in passing that the Third Man Records truck had rolled in, scores a hole in one when he sees Even's head above the crowd in front of big yellow box truck, sunglasses hiding most of his face as he speaks with one of the men working it. Isak's knees become a little shoddy at the sight of Even, something deep inside of him realigns and Isak chooses to ignore both of those things.

A few apologetic nods as Isak weaves through people to get to him, then a tap on Even's shoulder, and Even begins talking like they're half-way through a conversation, like he's not at all surprised that he's been found or that Isak's the one who's done the finding.

"It's an ice cream truck full of music. Look at this," Even says, slipping a record from its sleeve, careful to only touch the edge of it to his palm. "It's beautiful." The paste is a mix of yellow and black, designed like a biohazard symbol.

Isak tilts his head, reads the label. "Julian Dahl? Never heard of him."

"Singer-songwriter. He played every instrument himself on the record and he's about to hit second stage. We should check him out."

"You're due to hit the main stage in about ninety," Isak reminds him in a low tone. Just because no one here seems to have recognized Even, masked in sunglasses, out of context, doesn't mean Isak wants to blow his cover.

"Good. That means we have plenty of time." Even shifts his attention back to the guy standing behind the counter in the truck, pats his pockets down and gives him a look when he must have left his wallet on the bus and the fifty Eskild handed him for play money probably isn't gonna cover the stack of vinyl he's picked out, even if he adds in the crumpled pack of smokes and the two lighters he's carrying around.

The twenty Isak has doesn't get them much further, but the guy at the counter grins, disappears into the murk of the truck for a second and comes back with a forty-five. It's got Even's profile on the jacket in black and white, mannen i mitt liv spelled out in gold letters.

The guy winks, slides a silver sharpie across the counter and says, "Throw in an autograph and we'll call it even."

Even pauses, sorta smiles, grabs the pen and signs it, angles his body so that no one near him can get a clear view of what he's doing, then flips it over to show Isak the smaller photo of the entire band on the back cover. They're all piled into the back of a cargo van, slotted between equipment, no one except Noora looking directly into the camera. She's laughing, caught in movement, her hand blurred and her hair in her mouth.

"This has always been my favorite photo of her."

"It's a good one," Isak agrees, and hefts the bags full of records, splits them with Even as they walk toward the second stage.

They hang back, although the incline and the angle down to the stage make it so that there's no such thing as a bad spot, and Even whoops as Julian strides out, sits on the single stool set up for him and starts to play.

It's an entirely acoustic set, just him and his guitar, bit of a Damien Rice knockoff except better dressed, and Isak can't give him the attention he probably deserves. He's more fixated on Even. Two songs in, Even puts his hand on the back of Isak's neck and begins tapping out the rhythm, his lips moving along with the notes since he doesn't know the words. It's the first time Isak's seen him as the observer during a show rather than the observed and he's fascinated by it. Even's total absorption. The slow sway of his hips and how his mouth has formed into a concentrating pout while he nods along.

Dahl takes a break, a sip of water, mumbles something about supporting local acts and local record stores and goes into another song, eyes closed like the audience doesn't exist. He really digs into the strings when he plays, trilling metallic sounds of his fingers moving on the frets. Attacks the acoustic like he's planning on chopping a tree down with it.

Isak touches the small of Even's back and Even reads the signal right, ducks his head down, ear close to Isak's mouth. "Not much of a stage presence. Interesting melodies, though."

"His words," Even says. "All the rhymes in this song happen in the middle. It works. I wish I could pull off something like that."

Shaking his head, Isak says, "I like your style better. His structure is complex for the sake of being complex. For the art of it. It makes you pay more attention to how it's being said, rather than what's being said."

"It takes talent," Even counters.

"Sure. Of course it does. But your stuff punches," Isak tells him. Even's hand is still on the back of his neck and Isak feels him flex his fingers, hold on a little tighter. "The work you put into it as a writer disappears and all I'm left with is this feeling in my chest and it's like...you know me. You understand my clockworks."

Even steps in front of him, blocks his view of the stage and that's okay. Isak's starting to lose the thread of the song anyway. "I hardly know you at all," he says, mouth open like he wants to say more.

"That's the thing about your music. That's the magic. It doesn't matter if you know me, or if you know any of us."

Something in Even's eyes goes liquid and his grip is back on Isak's neck, his hand sliding up into his hair. A twitch in his mouth that's not quite a smile and onstage, one song is bleeding into another.

A short way down the hill, Chris walks by, pulls a double-take and changes direction, making a beeline toward them, and Isak waves, shakes his head when Chris holds up his hand, silently asking if they have five minutes.

Even glances over his shoulder, turns back to Isak with his eyebrows up.

"It's this guy I met earlier," Isak explains. "Freelancer."

"Should I be jealous?" Even does smile this time, bigger, flirty and somehow less real than before. Heat dances all over Isak's skin at the thought that Even being even the smallest amount possessive of him, this archaic, cro-magnon thing lighting up in Isak's DNA.

"Not at all," Isak says. "Let's go." He takes Even by the wrist and pulls him along. His phone is going off in his pocket and Even's got a job he should be doing.

- - -

The sun is going down and the hill in front of the main stage is packed, more so than it has been all day. They've got some tried and true in front, pressed into the barricade, a norsk flag draped over it, calling out the band's name in a four-syllable chant that scatters into the rest of the crowd. There is a line of people at the crest of the hill, girls twirling in boho spinner skirts silhouetted against the clear sky. The silhouette they make is beautiful, arms up like dancing marionettes.

Mahdi's talking to Eva and she's nodding along. Magnus is pacing, and Eskild's staring into the audience as if he's trying to get a count on them. A quick huddle to figure out the opener and then Even breaks away, heads back behind the set up to sneak in a quick, last minute cigarette as the canned in music switches over to the Waterboys. This is the Sea and the vibe of the crowd changes. It's exponential energy and the band eats it up.

Four more verses to go and Magnus is stretching, cracking his neck. Three more verses and Noora's moving to the front of the band with Jonas behind her, his chin tucked into her shoulder. She's got the furthest to walk across stage. Two more verses and Even's back, bouncing on the balls of his feet, rubbing Eva's upper arms.

The last verse begins to taper off and the band starts walking and Even turns toward Isak, pushes him behind a tower of equipment cases and kisses the breath out of him. Fast and intense, Isak's face framed in his shaking hands.

The crowd is a white-noise roar and Even's whisper is loud in Isak's ear. "Maybe I'm a little jealous." He draws his thumb along Isak's jaw, hands him his sunglasses, takes off at a flat-out run and Isak's left staggered, slowly following after but careful to stay far enough back, the taste of Even on his mouth when he licks his lips.

It's half-way through their set before Isak starts to feel his feet again. The sun is red on the horizon and everyone on stage is sweating, gulping down water between songs. Even's shirt is clinging to him like a damp shroud. His voice is wrecked and Isak's the only one who really knows why. It's a good look and a good sound on him even though it keeps him hunkered down in a lower register.

The back third of the crowd starts to wander a bit as they finish up Fredag, get ready to push into the last couple of songs. It's always a crapshoot, playing festivals like this, a lot of conflicts of interest. Good for exposure, bad for attention span, but the analytical fraction of Isak's mind has taken a back seat to what's going on a few yards in front of him, to Even's growl and the slow grind of Eva's rhythm guitar, the silent cue she gives Jonas and the way Jonas passes it along, throwing up a salute that the rest of the band knows is a signal for a quick regroup.

They gather for a few seconds at the drum kit and everyone nods. Even props his bass in its stand and Eva does the same. Jonas switches his electric out and plugs in an acoustic instead and Magnus tucks his drumsticks into his waistband and picks up a tambourine.

The song starts out with Noora's keyboard, soft and floating. Jonas comes in a few bars later with some picked out notes and Isak's heart is in his throat because they don't play covers. The almost never play covers and yet here's Eva, walking up to the mic with Even at her back, looking into the audience like it's some kinda dare. The crowd goes quiet as she starts to sing, keeps it at the bottom of her vocal range. Springsteen, I'm on Fire and she doesn't switch up the pronouns as she asks her little girl if her daddy's home.

A few lines into it and the crowd joins in, a freeze-frame that brings them all together. Even mouths the words along with her, only adding his voice to the chorus each time, pushing himself into notes a fifth higher than her, cracking through it and it sounds fucking fantastic, the slight break it puts into his vocals. He backs off while Eva sings about a freight train running through the middle of her head, kisses her temple and slides his gaze toward Isak offstage, keeps it there until the end of the song.

"Holy shit, that was hot," Isak tells her when they head off stage to figure out their encore.

Eva shrugs, plucks at the front of her shirt to cool herself off. "Alright boys and girls, what's next?"

- - -

Jonas snaps a polaroid, adds it to the stack on the desk. "I call that one Even in his natural habitat."

Isak thinks this hotel room is the one Jonas is calling home-sweet-home for the next couple of nights. It's got his skateboard in it anyway, and a dark trunk that might belong to Even but more likely belongs to him. Even's sitting on the floor, records spread out in a horseshoe all around him. He has one that looks like a peppermint candy held between his palms. Red and white swirls and he's holding it up so that the light can catch on the grooves.

"I don't think the hotel has a record player they can lend you," Eva tells him, and flops down sideways on the king sized bed. She's fresh out of the tub, a few minutes past washing the grime of the festival off of herself, wispy hair at her neck still damp.

"Damn good show today." Isak falls into one of the chairs, thinks about cracking open one of the complimentary bottles of Tennessee Honey the sponsors were handing out, decides his throat is already scrubbed raw enough from breathing in kicked up dust all day. Each time he blows his nose it comes out the color of dirt. "Have you ever thought of putting that cover on an album? Maybe a b-side?"

Eva snorts. "Nobody buys records anymore." She reaches out and screws up Even's hair. "Nobody except Even, anyhow."

"He's the reason Tiger Records in Oslo stays in business," Jonas says, and crawls into the bed, legs tented over Eva's middle.

"I haven't thought about that place in a long, long time," Isak says. "Can't believe it's still around."

"It's as claustrophobic as ever. And as yellow," Jonas tells him.

Isak grins, thinking about it. The slanted ceiling and the bored guy who was always working whenever Isak wandered in after school. The smell of old vinyl and all the small treasures he'd picked up over the years. "I bought my first actual record there."

"What was it?" Even asks. He's moved on from the peppermint record and has cracked out the biohazard one, takes a break from reading the liner notes to stare at Isak.

"It was by Mayhem. Their live album," Isak admits.

Even's eyes grow wide. "Death metal. That's interesting. I didn't expect that outta you, Scribe."

"I went through a phase. It was a pretty dark phase," Isak says.

"You don't have to explain it. You never need an excuse to love the things you love," Jonas says and scoots down lower in the bed. Eva doesn't budge and he doesn't call her out on it, just makes room.

- - -

It's late. Isak's left foot is numb and he's not very sure where he is and something is stabbing into his hip on the right side. He cracks his eyes open and redefines late as early. He's spent the night pretzeled into a chair in Jonas's room, his leg draped over the arm of it, which explains his foot and the hip and the stiffness he already feels in his neck.

Someone took his boots off for him. He can't remember doing it himself. Probably the same someone who got the spare blanket from the closet and threw it over him.

Jonas is a lump in the bed, covers kicked off of half of his body. Eva is the smaller lump in the blankets beside him and it looks like everyone stayed where they toppled a handful of hours ago. It had been that kinda night for everybody.

Mostly everybody, anyhow. Even has pulled the desk over to the window and is sitting on top of it. There's a knife-edge of light coming in through the blackout curtains as the sun comes up, a line that cuts through the shadow and is turning Even's skin a warm color. The handkerchief is back, Even's hair curling around the thing as it holds it off of his face and Isak's careful to not move for a while, let the morning sink in slowly, listen to the sound of Jonas and Eva breathing and the scratch of Even's pencil on paper.

There's no show today. The gig at the Ryman isn't until tomorrow and Isak submitted his article to Sonja as the festival wound down yesterday, which means he can give himself two days before he has to come up with something new. It's the closest thing to a free day as he's ever gonna get. A chance for observation. To start from the top.

Even rips the page off of the pad and tears it into tiny strips, lets them trickle out of his fingertips and into the trash can beside him, and that's how Isak knows he's not writing. Even never throws away words. He taps the eraser end of the pencil to his mouth, slides his eyes over to Isak and Isak is caught.

"There you are," he says, voice less hoarse than yesterday but still gritty.

Isak swings his legs down and sits up, waits for gravity to make sense and for the blood to infiltrate his feet again before standing and stretching. He cranes his neck and feels it crack and is very aware of the way Even watches him the whole time. That's not surprising. What's surprising is that he doesn't mind it. Kinda loves it a little.

A number of pieces of paper have fallen to the carpet and Isak picks them up. Smeared pencil drawings. A geometric outline of the night time cityscape. The view from the hotel room window. A sketchy portrait of Eva and Jonas in the bed from a skewed perspective. A still life of the whiskey bottle resting on its side on the table. Isak has the chance to hold them up to the light for only an instant before Even plucks them from his hands and pulls him in, fits him into the space between his legs and presses his mouth to Isak's temple.

"I didn't know you drew," Isak says. "You're a regular renaissance man."

"I really don't draw, and I'm really not." Even's hands are cold and his mouth is warm. A kiss to Isak's other temple, barely there. He feels different this morning. Lighter. Distracted. Less solid. It's something Isak can't quite put his finger on, but he feels it in his chest. "Your stomach is growling."

Isak thinks back, can't remember whether he had supper or even lunch yesterday, and can't come up with the last time he drank something that wasn't highly caffeinated. "You want some breakfast?"

"No, I'm not hungry, but I wanna watch you eat."

Isak tells him he needs twenty to get cleaned up. The jeans he's wearing are about twelve hours past their expiration date, have dead grass in the cuffs and the whole nine, and as he heads for the door with his boots dangling from their laces, he sees Even walk over to Jonas and tug down Jonas's t-shirt where it's ridden up on him.

- - -

The calories began to take effect on the walk over here, eggs and pancakes and two different kinds of meat and Isak is turning into a human being again, clarity beating away the fog. Even leads them across a cracked-pavement parking lot, telling a story about Magnus in between drags on his cigarette, one drunken night when he'd managed to lock himself in a bathroom, then in a basement, then lose a snare drum in a cab all in the matter of about three hours. A story so far-fetched that it couldn't be anything except true.

The Bluebird Cafe isn't much to look at from the outside, stands in the middle of a strip mall with a massage parlor on one side and a barber shop on the other, has a baby blue awning over a plate glass window clogged with ads. A sign-up sheet hangs on a peg just inside the door to the place, a pen attached to the clipboard and today's date at the top. There are a dozen names on it, all in different handwriting.

"Do you think they'd give me a shot if I signed up?" Even asks.

"I'll put in a good word for you. Maybe it'll help, although I kinda think songwriter Sunday might be a better fit," Isak replies.

It's early afternoon, and there aren't many signs of life inside the bar. A few tourists are taking photos in the corner that's been set up as a gift shop and a bartender is cutting lemons along the back wall. A guy wearing a tool belt is tinkering around with the door that might lead to the kitchen or the office or both. The ubiquitous photographs hang on the walls. Autographs too. Garth Brooks holds a place of honor, one of his gold records he donated to the decor lit up by track lighting.

Isak orders a glass of red wine for Even and a beer for himself, more for something to do with his hands than any real craving for it, picks out a table near the low stage and works on committing the place to memory so he can write about it later, tries to put himself in the shoes of the musicians who have passed through here, hoping to hear their names called, tries to see it the way that Even might.

A woman shows up from the back, dodging between the tables like she's spent her whole life here, and Even stops her short, his head ducked down to be more at her level. She nods, waves toward the bartender, and then Even's walking past Isak, hooking the strap of a borrowed guitar over his head.

He steps up on the stage, takes one of the three chairs on it and ignores the mic. It's probably dead at this hour anyway. Then he crosses his legs and settles the guitar in his lap, checking the tune with a few strummed chords. A few more. A C-chord into G-seven and then F, and a song is starting to come together, one that prods at Isak's memory but doesn't quite land squarely. A switch up to another C-chord and C-seven, Even begins to sing and that's when it hits Isak.

It's a Marty Robbins classic, Devil Woman, a song about love, about guilt and sin and forgiveness and a man who feels like he's drowning in all of these things. Even's version is toned down from the original, lands closer to delta blues than classic country. Deeper. Slower. His voice cracks some every time he tries for the drawn out notes, and he asks for his freedom like he doesn't precisely know what the words mean, a hint of Son House's gravelly voice where the original was all honey smoothness.

Even keeps staring at the fretboard like the couple of extra strings added to the equation has made him unsteady. Isak's thinking about one of the first interviews he ever did with Even, about his country influences and sentimentality. He's thinking about biographies as Even sings about wanting the devil to let go of his arm, how he just wants to go home. He sings about his best girl taking him back and their house by the water and he finally looks up at Isak when he sings about what belongs to him. The thing he wants most of all.

The final chords echo out to scattered applause and Even steps down from the stage, holding the guitar by its neck. He takes a small sip of wine and pats the back of Isak's shoulder.

"Are you gonna write about that?" Even asks. He doesn't sit down, doesn't quite meet Isak's eyes.

"Not if you don't want me to," Isak says.

"Don't let me hold you back." Even plucks at a couple of strings. "This is a nice guitar. I wonder who's played it."

The song is a sensation in the back of Isak's throat. Clattering around in his head. He's wondering if it's something to be untangled, another one of Even's riddles, and whether he's the angel or the devil on Even's shoulder. If he's anything at all to him.

It's a question he could ask, but not one he can write about.

"You've never played a festival in the states before. First impressions," Isak says, when Even joins him at the table and takes another sip of his wine. It's a shit question. Worse, it's a cookie-cutter question.

There's a look like relief on Even's face as Isak pulls out his notebook, sets the tip of the pen to the paper. A glancing skim of fingertips to Isak's wrist and that feels a lot like forgiveness.

- - -

Isak can smell Magnus before he sees him, the too-sweet scent of whiskey working its way out of someone's pores the day after that reminds him of the quad he lived in during his freshman year at college.

"Have you seen Even?" Magnus asks, striding through the hotel lobby toward where the busses are parked out back.

"He said something about talking to you guys about the setlist for tomorrow," Isak tells him, and pushes himself out of his chair to follow Magnus down the hallway. He'd thought it was strange when Even had told him, couldn't figure out why he'd want to plan tomorrow's show differently than all the rest. What's making this one more important.

"Weird." Magnus says. He shoves through the doors, winces and hisses when the sunlight hits him. "Screw Jack Daniels. Actually, Jack Daniels screwed me." A key hangs on a chain around his neck and he uses it to unlock the storage under the tech bus and pulls out a couple of cases. His name is stenciled on them right below the band's name.

Isak chuckles, says, "Do you need him?"

Magnus has two latches unhooked on one case and pauses like he's lost the thread of the conversation. "Oh, Even? No. I just like to know where he is."

"He's probably passed out somewhere. I don't think he slept last night."

Magnus doesn't respond to that. He begins fooling around with some clips on his tom drum, taking a small jeweler's screwdriver to it. He taps on it with his ear held close and makes another adjustment. "Can you hear that?" He does it again, and this time Isak picks up on it, a faint, alien vibration. "It's gotta be one of the braces. This much time on the road can make things rattle loose sometimes."

"Mahdi could probably take care of that for you," Isak points out.

"He definitely could, but I like to do it, and I've got time." Another small adjustment and another tap. "Too much time off gets into my head. I'm not like Even."

His lack of stillness begins to make sense. He always needs to be doing something with his hands. The movie camera and the polaroid and the constant drumming. The way he can make everything into a percussion instrument. Silverware, a skateboard, the back of Isak's chair on the bus. Magnus is kinetic, kicks the pedal on his bass drum so hard he often has to hold onto his drum stool to stop from knocking himself backward, and it's not because he's afraid of not being heard. He's doing it because all of that energy has to go somewhere.

"Can I offer an outsider's perspective?" Isak asks, and it makes Magnus stop and straighten up, his reliable joker smile turning a little crooked as he gives Isak the full measure of his attention.

"That's your job, isn't it?" He whacks Isak's arm, strong enough to knock Isak sideways if he hadn't been ready for it. Around Magnus, he's always sorta braced for it.

"You're more like Even than you think," Isak says. "It comes out in a more outward way with you. You're just more direct about it. Even's a spider web. You're a loudspeaker, but the two of you are saying the same thing. You're the two parts of the rhythm section. You keep them all centered, and not just on the stage."

Magnus shakes his head. "Jonas. He's the one that keeps us cohesive."

"Sure," Isak counters, "but you're the one who sets his tempo. You could speed up or slow down and they'd all follow you. They'd hardly have to think about it." Magnus places the tom back into the case and Isak helps him with the latches, lifts it into its spot in the underbelly of the bus. "And you make them laugh, which is sometimes the most important thing. You carry them."

Magnus unpacks his stool next. "You're like Even too, you know. Writers and their backward way of saying stuff." He sits down and squirms on it, trying to find the wobble, something else that tech could do for him. "But here's the thing," Magnus goes on, all traces of humor gone. "I'm the guy behind the drum kit. I might be loud, but I've got all this metal and skin to hide behind. It's Even everybody comes out to see. His words are what they fall in love with first."

"It's the front man phenomenon," Isak explains, aware that Magnus doesn't actually need an explanation. He lives it.

"Yeah," Magnus says, and brushes his hand through the air in a throwaway gesture. "And here's another thing. Even carries us all. Every single one of us, and we're big and heavy but he never complains about it. He never will. He's got these skinny, wiry arms and legs and he has to stretch so far to hold us."

"He's strong," Isak says, a little under his breath as he builds a new version of Even in his head, another nearly transparent overlay to place on top of all the others.

"He really is, in ways you don't even know. So, for you to say that Even and I are alike is one hell of a compliment, but I still think you're wrong." Magnus stands up, flips his stool over and pulls a bigger screwdriver from his back pocket. He goes back to tinkering, body turned slightly away from Isak. Case closed. "One more thing," he says. "You aren't an outsider. You haven't been for a while now, Isak."

- - -

There's an echo to the Ryman. A richness in that echo. Decades of music has seeped into the walls, the classy red velvet curtain hanging behind the stage, into the rafters. From the outside, the place doesn't look like an auditorium. Red brick and white trim, arched windows. A wide, half-circle staircase leading up to double doors. Walking into it the first time had felt more like stepping onto hallowed ground, like Isak should have taken a knee and made the sign of the cross with fingers damp from holy water.

The place doesn't have seats. It's got pews instead, rows and rows of them varnished to a deep mahogany color. Sloping upward like a swelling wave. More of the same on the mezzanine above. It changes the acoustics, makes the music travel differently.

Soundcheck is done. Their instruments are set up and waiting for them on the stage and Isak is sitting in the center of it, legs crossed, elbows on his knees, carefully avoiding the criss-cross of wires. His and Even's are the only souls out front, and Even is walking between the pews, making his way up and down the aisles with his arms stretched out, touching the backs of the benches as he goes.

It smells like cedar. Everything gleams. Tri-colored stained glass windows but it's not the saints who are illuminated. It's Even, with the afternoon light shining down on him.

Even's chosen all black again tonight, the silver studded belt that's as much of a mainstay as Eva's boots or the wristbands Magnus always wears. The snug-fitting vest is back. The one that always makes him look taller. His heels bang hollowly with every step. Walking through the place like this, he reminds Isak of a minister preparing himself to preach the present-day pentecost.

Isak stands when Even gets closer to the stage and walks toward him, the toes of his shoes at the edge of it. Even reaches up, palms spread on Isak's thighs, skidding up to his hips, his waist. Isak drops down, hands on Even's shoulders to lighten the impact, lets Even carry it.

Together, they walk up the incline, steps matched, elbows brushing. Isak's sneakers are silent.

"This is one of my dream shows. Sorta like the 9:30 was for Magnus. Never thought we'd make it this far. I've waited a long time for this." Even's back to touching the pews, rattling off the letters that mark the rows. A sidelong glance. A half-smile. A crack in the armor. "I'm really nervous."

Isak puts on a teasing grin. "You're hardly ever really nervous. Antsy, maybe."

"I'm always nervous. It doesn't do the rest of them any good to show it." A few more steps then an about face and he goes on, heading back toward the stage. "Doors open in twenty. They say that the audiences here sometimes don't stand for the shows. That we should expect that. Kinda weird."

"You'll have them on their feet."

- - -

The floor is shaking. Rattling with the pound of five thousand feet and people are standing on the pews, singing along in a language they hardly know. Isak's in the wings, arms hugged around his chest, feet planted wide as he sways. He's not a journalist right now. He's not even a writer. He's too busy witnessing a tiny miracle.

It's gonna be one of those mythical shows where everything lines up perfect. The crowd and the songs and the energy. One of those shows that people will mention for bragging rights, for that oh fuck, you were there reaction. Like the Stripes at Coney Island. The Dead at the Fillmore West in sixty-six. Jane's Addiction's Halloween show at the Hammerstein twenty years ago.

Even's singing into the mic like he's about to swallow it whole and Eva's at his side, boot-stomping the stage. Jonas plays his entire solo balanced on the monitor in front of him, mouth open and head tipped back, trusting his fingers to know exactly where to go.

They dash off of the stage before the encore, into the wing opposite from Isak to huddle up for a few beats. Wound up excitement skitters throughout the crowd. Something akin to bottled lightning finally set free when they run onto it again, strap back in.

Magnus has his drumsticks above his head, held together like a busted crucifix, ready to count them off, but Even beats him to it. A slow rhythm, gradually building, a swimmy set of notes and it's as if everyone is holding their breath, trying to figure it out.

Jonas cuts a look in Even's direction and a split-second later Eva does the same, gap-mouthed, happy surprise on her face. Noora's the first to get her shit together, a light cascade of notes syncopated to Even's bass. A rest. A double-whole rest and Isak pictures it as music notation. A black box on the staff, and he can hear Magnus laughing, see Jonas mouth out a silent holy fuck. He can see Even stepping up to the mic and turning toward him. Splash blue eyes going soft and a little watery.

"For Isak."

mannen i mitt liv

For Isak.

Four minutes. It's four minutes and Even's mixing up the verses, making the song brand new. Starting with love and promises and ending with hope. It's bareboned and raw, and Even watches Isak the entire time. Unblinking, as if he's afraid Isak might disappear and Isak's eyes have gone gritty from doing the same. There's a shake in Even's voice as he sings, small flaws and cracks in the notes, and that's how Isak knows it's true. That he means it.

Even waves to the crowd like it's an afterthought, leaves the rest of the band to say their farewells and stride off in the other direction. He pulls up short in front of Isak, breathing hard, the heat from his skin transferring onto Isak's skin, into his skin. His sweaty shirt is stuck to his chest and there's a darker stripe where his bass strap has been. Even's still holding his pick between his thumb and first finger, a forgotten extension of his hand and he brushes his knuckles against the shell of Isak's ear.

"Here's the scene," Even starts. It's a whisper. More like a shared thought. The canned music is back and the drone of the crowd filing away is very loud, but Isak can hear him. Clear as a bell. Isak is always going to be able to hear him. "We were in Boston, and you explained the entire history of the banjo. Just rattled it off like it's tattooed on the back of your hand." Even goes on, picking up speed, "You always wear that one Metallica shirt although you say you don't like their music, and your favorite jeans are the ones with the hole in the back pocket, and I'm always afraid your wallet is gonna fall out."

Some foreign thing has reached down Isak's throat and is squeezing. The expression Even's wearing is hopeful and fragile in equal doses.

"You're not afraid of silence, and when you sleep you curl your fingers under your cheek and rub your feet together." The pick is still there, skin warmed plastic on Isak's face, sharpness under his cheekbone and he doesn't mind it at all. "I hardly know anything about you but I want to know everything about you."

Isak touches Even's chest. His shirt is damp and beneath it, Even's pulse is beating incredibly fast.

"Here's another scene. We were on the bus. Connecticut, I think, driving south."

"The first t is silent," Isak finds his voice, corrects Even's pronunciation. His eyes are stinging again and this time it's for an entirely different reason. "Connecticut."

Even's mouth breaks into a gentle curve, and he gets it right on the second try. "Connecticut. I woke you up. You smiled at me and said good morning. It was late afternoon. But you smiled. It was late afternoon and Patti Smith was on the radio and I fell in love with you."

"It was late afternoon. We were in New York. You asked me for an autograph," Isak says and steps closer, pushes into Even and hooks his elbow around the back of his neck. His hand is still trapped between their bodies, twisting into Even's shirt, and Even's wrapping an arm around his middle, tangling them into a perfect puzzle piece fit. Chests and hips and mostly lips, and Isak swears he feels his heart reshape, make room beside itself for another.

"I wanna take you home," Even says, lips moving against Isak's cheek, lifting Isak up so that only Isak's toes are touching the ground.

"Where?" Isak asks, and he feels so light right now, like everything has snapped into place, settled into his bones. "Oslo?"

Even laughs, and Isak can't remember ever hearing something quite so beautiful. Quite so free. "Anywhere. Everywhere. I just wanna take you home."

Chapter Text

There's time, or as much as they ever have. A day and a half before the road will haul them somewhere else. It might as well be forever, might as well be a blink.

Tech is breaking down the stage, moving equipment and coiling up wires, packing the show away with practiced efficiency. They file past Even and Isak like an army of ants and in an hour the stage will be empty, waiting for the next act. It's impermanent, here then gone, no trace of them left behind. Not even an echo.

Even is holding his hand. Their fingers are basket-braided together. Even's palm is warm, sweaty from residual nerves and being hyped up from the show. Their wrists are notched together, and Even's drawing shapes on Isak's skin with his thumb. When Isak squeezes his hand, Even squeezes it back. When Even lifts them to kiss Isak's knuckles, Isak wants to swallow him whole.

The door backstage is only a few more steps away, four big guys with security stamped on their shirts standing on either side of it. The noise behind it is approaching max level. Isak can pick out a few familiar voices floating on top. Eva's post-show rasp, deep and throaty. A cackle that is definitely Magnus. Vilde's heavily accented English. The door opens enough for Eskild to poke his head through. The sound level doubles and Even flinches, his hand clenching tighter around Isak's for a beat.

Eskild makes a signal and the band files out, each of them slipping through the door without opening it any wider.

Even gives Isak's hand another squeeze before letting go. It's a mea culpa that Even doesn't need to make. The band is Even's life. It's turning into Isak's life too, and Even should never have to apologize for living it, and anyway, rituals are important. Consistency in an inconsistent world.

They huddle up, Even with Noora slotted in close on one side, and his arm draped across Eva's shoulders, gripping Jonas by the back of the neck. His head bowed toward the center far enough that he could kiss Magnus if he wanted to.

"Nashville in the bag. Two times over," Eva says, and Isak can't see her face but he can hear the smile in her voice. "We did good, right?"

Jonas jostles her, sets a sway in motion and they all move with it. "Holy shit, babe. We did great," he says.

They break apart, and Magus salutes Isak, flings his arms around Jonas and picks him up for a spin, all but carries him toward the green room.

Eva hangs back, still plastered to Even. She touches his face, her blunt, black polished fingernails tracing the tiny scar on his cheek that Isak has always hesitated asking about. Something warm in her eyes, and something warmer in her grin as she says a few words to him that Isak can't quite cypher. She pulls Even down to kiss the corner of his mouth then gives him a shove, an elbow to his side, turns away and waves to the hallway at large before disappearing, closing the door behind her.

Eskild is pulling an envelope out of his pocket, waving security over, herding Even back in Isak's direction with a small push. He's business-like, expressionless, as if all the flirt in him has run dry. "You probably don't want to go to the afterparty." He pulls the stack of hotel key cards that he'd held onto for safekeeping out of the envelope and starts shuffling through them.

"I'm not really up for the noise of it," Even tells him, and he's looping his arm around Isak's middle, tucking him in along his side, hip formed to the spot where Isak's waist nips in a little, and it's criminal, the way the heels on Even's boots give him another boost of height that he doesn't really need, how his smile makes Isak's stomach drop and his skin go hot all over.

"There's a car waiting for you," Eskild says, and passes their two key cards over to Isak like he knows better than to make Even responsible for that sorta thing, then turns to a couple of the guards. "It's gonna be intense out there this close to encore. Get the kids to the car in one piece."

The corridor that leads outside is narrow and they have to move into single-file, Isak following closely behind Even, matching his long strides, stuck on how his sweat-damp hair curls and licks at the back of his neck. The exit is closing in and there's another security guy standing at it, and the one beside Isak puts a paw on the middle of Isak's back as the door opens.

The wave of sound that hits them is tooth-rattling, and it seems to double when the crowd realizes it's Even and starts chanting mannen, mannen, mannen at them. Even skips a step, or at least Isak thinks he does, then he reaches back, hand held out, little finger extended for Isak to hook his own around, and dozens on top of dozens of camera flashes are going off, and the space between the metal barriers is only about as wide as Isak's wingspan, and people are reaching out, fingertips skipping around on Even's arms and shoulders. Isak's caught in the blast radius of it all, glancing touches on his own arms, pressure on his back as security is urging them to move faster, sunspots in Isak's eyes from all the cameras.

It only lasts a handful of seconds before they're piled into the car, a conspicuously inconspicuous black SUV with darkly tinted windows and leather bench seat in the back that makes it easy for Even to slide Isak across and haul him near.

The driver pulls off and the guy is silent, an obvious professional who doesn't go for small talk, just wants to get the job done. It's a crawl, a real stop and start scenario, a lot of folks whose sense of self preservation is playing second fiddle to trying to get a look inside of the car, and Even's humming a sped up version of a Jeff Buckley song, ignoring the situation happening on the other side of the glass.

"Are you good?" Even asks.

"Yeah," Isak says, a little breathless, and maybe it's from the dash from the building, or the people tapping at the window on Even's side as they drive past them. Maybe it's from the arm that Even has around him, the whisper touches along Isak's jaw. Maybe it's from all of it. "Are you good?"

"The part where they had their hands all over you wasn't my favorite," Even tells him.

Isak shrugs. "They did the same to you."

"Sure, but for a few hours every night, I belong to them." He buries his nose in Isak's hair and his mouth is soft on the tip of Isak's ear, nothing with intent, just a presence. "It doesn't matter."

"I'll give you that," Isak says. He's seen Even smile small for photos and sign his name over and over after shows, keep at it until someone comes along to drag him away. Tonight was the exception, not the rule. "But you're back to being mine, now."

The noise Even makes is more of a purr than anything. "Say that again."

"Mine." Isak tips his head back, rests it on Even's shoulder, looks over to find Even already staring down at him. He takes Even's hand and kisses the heel of his palm, still staring at him. Even traces his lips with his thumb and Isak kisses that too. Again, a bit more open-mouthed this time, runs his tongue along a bitten-rough thumbnail, lets Even feel his teeth while he slides his thigh on top of Even's, hooks their legs together.

The car is gaining speed, finally breaking free. It's a twenty minute ride from the venue to their hotel. Or perhaps Isak's thinking of Memphis. Or Atlanta, or some other city. He can remember conversations, but geography turns into a tangle in his head. Not that it matters. Isak's got a mouthful of Even's thumb, and Even's crooking it and rubbing at the roof of his mouth, moving it in and out, and he's now back to humming Buckley and the city lights are starting to blur. Even curls his index finger against the tip of Isak's nose, the plain silver band he always wears cool on Isak's skin, and his thigh muscles are tightening up, hips moving, drawing Isak closer toward him.

"My boy," Even says. It's light. Like a sigh.

His boy. It's just an expression, a couple of words that drip so easy off of Even's tongue, but the knot in Isak's throat is back. Lodged there. Isak's never been anyone's boy before. He's never really been anyone's anything.

"You're fucking me up," Even says, hips tilted upward, using his free hand to palm himself through his pants, get himself at an angle he can live with. Nothing subtle about it. His pants are too tight for it. He kisses Isak's temple then takes his thumb away, still spit damp when he skims it along Isak's ear.

"What song was it?" Isak tries to straighten up in the seat, but Even has him right where he wants him, doesn't seem ready to let him go. "On the bus in Connecticut. You said Patti Smith, but which one?"

Even sorta laughs, bites his bottom lip as he grins. "You would ask something like that. It was Ain't It Strange."

"Heavy," Isak says, and he's sorta laughing now, too.

"Not so much," Even counters, qualifies it as Isak gives him a direct stare. "I mean maybe, but only when you think about how all of her stuff is pretty heavy."

"Don't get dizzy, do not fall now," Isak quotes, skipping out on Patti's growl as he says it.

Even digs his hand into Isak's hair, tugs gently on it. "It's a little late for that."

---

They're stopped in the lobby where Isak has to take a couple photos of Even and a girl who absolutely botches his name, and the whole time he's shifting from foot to foot, hoping his t-shirt is hiding the thing going on in his jeans.

They're stopped in the elevator because Isak forgets he needs to slap his key card onto the sensor to gain access to their floor, and again when Isak tries for a full minute to get into the wrong room. That room number was a different night and a different city and a different version of him. A version that loved Even but didn't know that Even loved him back.

"You're vibrating," Even says, form-fitted to Isak's back, hands on his hips, mouth on his neck.

"My phone," Isak explains. "It hasn't shut up since the show ended."

The light on the handle turns salvation-green and they're in his room. Someone's come in and left the lamp on and turned down the bed for him. For them. He pulls his phone from his pocket and shuts it off without looking at the screen, then lets it thump to the carpet. He's got better things to do with his hands. Things like get them under Even's t-shirt, fit them to his knobby hip bones, steer Even up against the wall and pin him there with his own body.

Isak kisses him the way he's wanted to all night. The way a boy kisses another boy who just handed him his heart. Angled in and deep, smiles at the edges of their open mouths. Soft lips and slick tongues and Even smells so good. That part might be Isak's bias. It doesn't matter if it's sweat or the cologne he ganked from Jonas. It could be the shit he puts in his hair to make it do that thing it does, or the cigarette he's sucked down right before a show or road dust. It could be the bitter traces of an adrenaline hangover or the scent of sun warmed skin. He always smells so fucking good.

He gets a leg between Even's, grinds in so he can feel Even's cock, the hardness that he put there, gasps into their kiss as Even begins to move against his thigh, pulling back only long enough to shove at Even's shirt, lift it over his head. Kissing him again, and Even's helping him out of his layers, his flannel and the shirt underneath it, then holding him so tight his ribs compress because of it, Even's belt buckle digging into his lower stomach.

It's all amped up desperation and Even's riding his thigh, and Isak would rather ride him, or get ridden, and the ache in his cock is heading into the red zone. Another minute of this and the alarm bells are gonna start going off. An entire chorus of them.

"Tell me how you want it," Even says. Quiet, through kiss-swollen lips, staring at Isak. Most of the blue in his eyes is gone, eaten up by black. Pupils so big whole universes could fit inside of them.

"Whatever you're doing right now is really working," Isak says, and goes for proof, holding Even's hand and placing it on his crotch, bearing down a little.

Even lets loose a groan, rubs at Isak, fingers forming to the shape of him through his jeans and yeah, that needle is deep into the red, about to max out. He's back to kissing Isak again, sucks on his lips, tugs at them with his teeth, licks at them.

Isak's thoughts come online long enough to toe out of his sneakers, glance down the length of Even's body. "Your goddamn boots," he mutters, and spins them around, leads Even toward the bed and shoves him onto it forcefully enough that Even bounces a bit. Isak drops down, resting his forehead on Even's knee as he works at the laces. He rests back and yanks them off one at a time, takes a minute to kiss the tops of Even's feet, the red marks the tongues of his boots have left on them.

Deed done, and Isak stands up again, loses track while Even unbuckles his belt, lays back and pumps his hips up to get his jeans down past his ass, his blood-thick cock slapping wetly on his stomach and all Isak can think about is how he should have stayed on his knees. How he wants to taste each millimeter of skin laid out in front of him, every stretch of Even's long, long frame. He'd start with the pale vein high up on his thigh, figure it out from there.

Even doesn't give him the chance, sits up and works open Isak's jeans, peels them off of him and mouths at his stomach, wraps his fingers around Isak's cock and that is plenty enough to make Isak's hips shoot forward, leak a steady stream of precome, make the walls around them go a touch cloudy.

"Fuck, fuck," Isak spits out. "I need…" He trails away, didn't have a clear finishing line when he'd started that sentence, kinda thinks that if he starts rattling off a list he might never stop, so he stumbles back, and Even's touch skitters off of his skin, and there's no question in Even's expression, no doubt, just a hint of amusement in the gradual curve of his mouth.

Isak dodges the breadcrumb trail of their clothes, passes on turning on the bathroom light, doesn't need a mirror to tell him that he looks wrecked and fuck-drunk although they've barely gotten there, only just started. He goes through the basket beside the sink, shampoo and body wash and a shower cap for his convenience, finds a package of lube tucked discreetly in the back, reminds himself that he should write a the place a four-star review for that alone.

He heads back into the room to see that Even has crawled further onto the bed, so Isak crawls on top of him, straddles his thighs and rubs their cocks together. Even's hands have found his ass and he's spreading Isak wide, and Isak's skin is growing tight, pebbling up although he's miles and miles away from cold.

It's aching, hot, getting real wet and sloppy between their stomachs and Even has the lube tucked between his first and second fingers and Isak doesn't really remember passing it over to him, but it frees his hand to wrap around their cocks. He drags it up and down, gets off on how it makes Even suck in air, all rough and hitched.

Even rolls them over like it's nothing, brings all that height and deceptive strength to bear, and then Isak's underneath him, and his hip joints groan under Even's weight while Even pushes his knees apart with his own. He sits up, lets Isak's legs fall loose across his thighs, and the smile on his face is huge. Shiny from Isak's spit, a wet streak of it branching out from the corner of his mouth where Isak went outside the lines on a kiss.

"You never told me how you wanted it," Even reminds him. He spits directly onto Isak's cock, rubs it into Isak's skin with his palm, then tears the lube open with his teeth.

Isak arches into his touch. Heat is zinging through his bloodstream and his balls are aching and tight. Even is looming over him, swaying. He never holds still, and his smile is sticking around, and he's getting his fingers slick and rubbing at the soft skin behind Isak's balls, teasing at Isak's rim, circling it with a light, wet touch.

"That's how I want it," Isak says, a grip on Even's wrist, feeling the tendons move as Even pushes a fingertip past Isak's rim.

"Like this?" Even asks. A little more lube and Even slides his finger in deeper then twists his wrist, makes Isak wet on the inside. "Or like this?"

"Yeah, yeah," Isak says. There's a minor earthquake in his voice, but Even doesn't call him out on it, just keeps going deeper. More lube and second finger. His other hand is splayed on Isak's belly, and that's what Isak focuses on for a while. Thinks about scuffed knuckles and calluses and red cuticles, and whether or not Even would let someone paint his fingernails because that would be hot, and at some point the teeth-gritting stretch of his rim as it makes room for Even's fingers settles down to a simmer, and then it begins to feel good. Fucking great. Nothing better.

A line has formed between Even's eyebrows, and small drops of sweat are balanced on the ridge of his upper lip and he's breathing through his mouth, working his hips up absently, fucking into nothing when he should be fucking into Isak. One of Isak's legs is still splayed over Even's thigh, and Isak draws the other up, the sole of his foot melded to the top of Even's leg so the next time Even curves his fingers inside of him Isak can push up into it.

"Like this," Isak says. He pulls Even down by the back of his neck and licks at the sweat, bright and salty, and kisses him, moans around his mouthful of tongue. Isak slips his hand between them, opens his legs up as wide as he can go and feels Even's cock jump against his wrist, smear along his rim when he tilts his hips upward and shows Even he's ready.

Even pushes in and his face goes slack and the muscles under Isak's hands feel coiled tight, restrained as he forces himself sink in slow. The noise he makes is sorta choked when he bottoms out, a touch higher than his normal register. It sounds a little like relief. A little like finally. A lot like love unguarded.

Isak's eyes are watering and it's fucking intense. All of it. The pulse of Even buried inside of him as far as he can go, the weight of him and the taste of him in Isak's mouth. The way he pulls Isak's mouth open before they kiss again. A slow grind out and back in, and Isak moans, jabs his hips up to prove to Even that he can take it. Wants it, and Even reads him like simple three-chord tablature, screws in harder the next time, one arm under Isak's shoulders to hold him in place as he picks up speed.

Something like a bass drum starts pounding in Isak's ears. Even's thrusts are off-beat from it. Six-eight time and a shaky rest and Isak clenches his guts around Even, lifts up clear from the bed as Even pulls all the way out and folds his body in half, slips part-way off the bed and nips at the inside of Isak's thigh.

"Too close. Really close," Even says around a small laugh then noses at Isak's balls, licks down and shoves Isak's legs up. Warm breath on Isak's achy, sore rim and then his tongue is there. There. Spit and a hint of teeth, and Even's perfect mouth sucking at him. Brushstroke eyelashes flutter as he eats Isak out, laps at him. He makes a tuneless, happy sound that vibrates into Isak's skin, sets a collision course for Isak's cock and Isak shoots, spatters his own stomach, the smell of it a sharp exclamation point to the smell of sweat and hot skin.

"Holy shit," Even slurs, wiping his chin off on Isak's thigh, "you just came on my tongue." He sounds fucked up. Amazed.

"It's a good fucking tongue," Isak says, arms held out, and Even doesn't waste time filling the space between them, pauses only long enough to lick up a streak of spunk on Isak's stomach and slams back into him.

No hesitation. Nothing gentle this time. Long, hard drives into Isak's ass, his mouth attached to Isak's, not really a kiss but close enough. A shuddery groan as he comes, still buried deep inside and Isak's never felt this full, never been this wrapped around another person in every single way.

"So pretty," Even says, and brushes Isak's hair from his forehead, shifts like he's about to pull out but Isak tightens the hold he has on him, hooks his ankles together and refuses to let Even go. Not quite yet.

"That's all you got," Isak says, monotone. Teasing in a gentle way. "Where's all your poetry now?"

"You just fucked it out of me. Gimme a minute." Even sucks in enough air to laugh.

"How long is it gonna take you to recharge?"

"What? My words?" Even slides his hips forward, gathers Isak's thighs higher around his middle, fucks into the sticky mess he's made of Isak's ass. "Or this?"

"Both." Isak's breath catches in his throat when Even does it again. "Either."

---

It's limbo, and Isak's been dozing. Not quite morning but definitely not night. The sweat on their skin has dried. So has the spunk on his stomach. Even's cheek is resting on his chest, his exhales humid on Isak's skin.

A day, give or take. It's how long they have here, and Isak wishes it could be just a little longer. He wishes for a chance to live slowly for a while, to occupy the space between their heartbeats.

"You're awake," Even says.

"Not very much, and not for very long." He blinks, sluggish and tired. Even mirrors him.

The room is dark, and the nighttime city light from around the edges of the blackout curtains has rendered Even's skin a pale blue color.

Isak turns toward Even, slips his leg around him and says, "I'm in love with you. I didn't say it before. Not out loud."

"You didn't have to," Even murmurs and rubs his thumb along Isak's cheek. It's a new habit, a new pattern Even is building. Isak likes it.

"Did you plan it? Did you know you were gonna play that song? There, in that place?" Isak's warm and sleepy and content in an alien, wonderful way. His thoughts are syrup but he swims through them. This is something he needs to know.

"Not at all." Even's still staring at him like he's forgotten how to look away.

"Why now?"

There's a pause, and it's as familiar to Isak as the deep sound of Even's voice or the guitar lead-in to the third track on their second album. As familiar as Even's touch is becoming. It's Even, trying to put together his thoughts in an order that makes sense.

"Because you were there before the show, up on the stage and you let me lift you down from it. You let me hold you." He ticks his jaw sideways and purses his mouth, a sign that means he's not quite finished. "And because I met you, and the song became true again."

Even licks his lips before he kisses him, Isak really likes that too.

---

The shower is big enough for two tall boys with long arms and long legs and an inclination to use them, and forget about the four-star review. Isak's gonna give this one five. His soapy hands are on Even's stomach, and Even's back is slick against his chest, and the water dripping from Even's loose mouth is pornography.

Even has his feet spread wide, chocked up against the sides of the shower to keep steady and it's put him on Isak's level, a bit shorter than him. Short enough that it's easy for Isak to hook his chin over Even's shoulder and watch while Even jacks himself until he's hard, candy pink skin from the heat of the shower and the head of his cock as it slips through his fist is a darker color.

He's been singing since they woke up, absent verses here and there, going through a mental catalogue of eighties new wave. Echo and OMD, and Isak's figuring out that it doesn't mean that he's distracted. If anything, it keeps his feet on solid ground, helps him keep his place. Like a timestamp. A bookmark in a chorus.

It's Joy Division now, and Even's committed to it. Dance, dance, dance to the radio and Isak's humming along with him as he rocks against Even, his cock slotted between the cheeks of Even's ass, trapped between Even and his own lower stomach, enough pressure to get him there, but not too fast. Damp, steamy air in his lungs and he's sucking water off of Even's neck, swallowing it down.

Nothing rushed about it, nothing forced. Even curls his spine and hands Isak over a perfect angle, the tip of his cock snagging on Even's rim and Isak stays on it for a while. Never intending to push in, and mostly for the noises it yanks out of Even, still mixed in with lyrics. Synchronize love to the beat of the show.

Isak lowers his hand and tangles it with Even's, and Even staggers enough that Isak's cock slides in between Even's legs instead. High up, nudging against his balls, and Even shifts, tightens his thighs together to give Isak something to screw into. It's all wet, warm skin and Isak's pretty much taken over on Even's cock, and Even's fucking into Isak's fist and there's still nothing rushed about it when they come. Even, then Isak a minute later. Not at all frantic, more like a finally letting out a long-held sigh.

---

Room service had shown up while they were in the shower. Linen napkins, decent silverware and a cart full of stuff. A red carnation in a vase, the whole nine.

"Did you?" Even asks. He's scuffing Isak's hair dry with a towel, running his fingers through it to try and bring it into submission.

Isak shakes his head. "I've been with you the whole time, and both of us forgot the do not disturb sign last night."

He plucks up a card tented in the center of the tray and smiles as he reads it, then shows it to Even. Compliments of the tour guru.

Coffee that Isak attacks with dedication. Tea with loads of honey for Even. Fruit and pancakes and these french pastries that Isak can't say the name of, can't manage to force it past his Scandinavian vocal chords, even when Even slows it down and tries to teach him three times, syllable by syllable.

Even feeds Isak with his fingers, the tray trucked over to the bed and the two of them sitting among the blankets, only wearing their towels, fancy napkins spread in their laps. They're cross-legged, facing each other, their knees touching. Isak's ass feels sore and his body has been shredded in the best possible way, and there's a damn good chance that he could watch Even eat for the rest of his life and still find it mesmerizing.

"Your stars are gone," Even says, talking with his mouth full, tapping on Isak's wrist.

"Came off in the wash. That was a while ago," Isak points out.

"Was it?" He looks up at the ceiling, like he might find a calendar painted on it. A list of last known whereabouts. "I can't keep track. I'll give you new ones."

When Even's on stage, he seems untouchable. A deep voice and a smoldering expression, his heart hidden under a locked-in rhythm and ear-ringing sound. It's the same guy sitting in front of Isak now, but Isak's never seen him look more human. Splotchy pink cheeks, hair a toweled off disaster, a red spot in his left eye from soap or shampoo or opening his eyes up too long under the water. He's bare, folded in the bed and taking up almost no space at all. He's beautiful.

And he's singing again. Duran Duran of all fucking things, and chewing on his lips like he really, really wants to put a cigarette between them.

"Where are we going next?" Even asks, pausing. Isak can't put his finger on the song.

"Does it matter?"

"No. It doesn't matter at all," Even says, and rolls on top of him, pushes all the breath out of Isak's lungs and fills them with his own.

Girls on Film. That's it. That's the song.

---

"We should have thought this out better." Even crosses the room, picks up last night's t-shirt from the limp pile of gig clothes and drops it back to the floor again. "I should have stopped by my room for some clean underwear. Or at least a guitar."

"Not a bass?" Isak asks.

"I'm kinda thinking about a new song," Even says, kicking his pants into the corner.

"Does Jonas know about it?" Isak weaves his hands together behind his head and stretches out on the bed, ankles crossed, working out some of the kinks in his muscles. Isak's managed to get dressed, kinda. Put on some boxers at least. Even's wrapped a towel around his waist again. Too loose, and he keeps absently hiking it up when gravity has its way.

"Not yet. I need to get a little further along on the thing first. He's always waiting on me, has the composition tight before I've even ironed out the chorus and I'd like to make it up to him."

"But you're always writing," Isak points out.

"It doesn't mean that it's good enough to set to music." He shoves his hair from his forehead and it stays up for a second before crashing back down into his eyes again.

"Do you ever just take a break? Stop for a while?"

Even regards him, glances down his body and it makes Isak warm all over. "Sometimes it feels like I have this deadline inside. Like a countdown clock, and one morning I'm gonna wake up and do the same thing I've done every morning. Take a shower." He waves at his naked chest. "Get dressed, make my coffee and sit down to write and it'll be...nothing. Gone. The little monster in my head that lets me do what I do will have shriveled away. So. Stopping now, while I can still do the one thing that I've ever been decent at doing is, well, it's unthinkable." He follows up with a sarcastic twist of his mouth and a very pointed, "Scribe."

Isak shrugs his way through an apology. It's a habit, that sort of rapid fire questioning, so ingrained in him that it's close to a reflex at this point, and he's gonna have to work to break it.

Even shrugs back, says, "It's your nature. It's what you do."

"Maybe, but you're my favorite thing to do," Isak tells him, and Even rushes over to kiss him.

"And you're always saying you don't write poetry. I'm gonna steal that line from you," Even says, and kisses him again, a light one on the tip of his nose this time.

"It's not worth all that, and besides, it's not stealing if I give it to you." Isak digs his hand into Even's hair, feels the soft slip of it between his fingers. "Speaking of, feel free to steal something to wear." He nods toward his small pile of luggage. "Most of the stuff in there is clean."

Even settles down on the floor and says, "Are you sure?"

"Of course. You're all access. That includes my suitcase."

He cracks open Isak's suitcase and immediately goes into a critique of it. A five-part essay on disorganization and the importance of packing efficiency, all this coming from a kid who can't keep track of a lighter or a hotel key or which city he's in at any given time. He gives him shit because Isak's t-shirts are folded wrong. Not one of his socks are with its match. His boots have left a tread print on the jeans he often wears because obviously they were packed up wet.

Within seconds, everything Isak has to his name is spilled all over the floor, and Even Bech Nӕsheim, lead singer and bassist for the most talented new band Isak's heard in years, the subject of more fairytale fantasies than Isak is willing to admit, the best goddamn thing that's ever happened to him, is folding his t-shirts and putting them in alphabetical order if there's a band printed on them, rolling his pants up so they won't wrinkle so much, and pulling some strange, origami maneuver with all of Isak's boxers.

Apparently the socks are almost a lost cause. Isak's not particularly sure they all matched in the first place.

---

The day slithers away. Isak blinks, and the shadows in the room are at a different angle. Blinks again and the Nashville skyline outside their window is turning a dusty shade of orange.

Even disappeared for a little while, returned with a guitar and a smoke-stained kiss. Now he's laying on the floor, wearing Isak's favorite socks after a good amount of negotiation and organization, feet notched along the edge of the mattress as he picks out notes with the guitar resting on his stomach. He's stolen Isak's Smith's t-shirt and it's put him in a mood, singing in a soft voice, straddling the line between baritone and tenor. Please please please let me get what I want, an actual, suprise dead ringer for Moz.

Isak's in the desk chair. He touches Even's side with his toes, and can't for the life of him figure out how he made it through the first couple decades of his life without the sound of Even. The constant hum of him, the lyrics mixed in with it. The buzz that comes with a room with him in it, all at once comfortable and electric.

It's been a long time since he's had something more than a little spit and a smirk and a phone number that he erased before the sun could come up the next morning, and it's been such a long time since affection came easily to him. And here is Even, cutting off a series of notes with a sour, flat chord to wrap his hand around Isak's ankle instead. Even's fret-calluses catching on the fine hair on Isak's leg. All Isak would have to do is reach down and Even would take his hand. All Isak would have to do is tip his head and slide in close and Even would kiss him.

Isak's writing, or trying to, finally putting a dent in the off kilter, quazifictional idea he's been chewing on for weeks. His mind keeps circling around to all the things that will never be put into an article but are no less important. The things he's learning, like the taste of Even's skin after a show or fresh from a shower. How it feels when Even straddles him and presses him down into the mattress. The hot clench of his rim on Isak's cock as he sinks down onto him, settles into his lap and breathes. Just breathes.

Things like how much Even likes to play with the marks he's left on Isak's skin. Sucked on bruises or irregular, snaggle-shaped indents when he bears down hard. Trace them. Press against them. The slack-jawed, fucked-out look on his face when Isak gets the angle just right, hits Even's sweet spot and stays on it, pushing up and up and up against Even's weight. The way he gasps when he comes, and how his oral fixation extends beyond cigarettes and bitten fingernails and the hottest blowjobs Isak's ever gotten. How that oral fixation extends to Isak's mouth too.

"I'm distracting you. I'm sorry." Even's cheshire smile says he doesn't mean it. "I should be quiet."

Isak flips to a clean page. "Don't you dare." He digs his toes harder into Even's side to show that he does mean it.

---

"Hey. Hey."

Isak stretches before he opens his eyes, smells coffee and soap-scented skin from Even's shower, kinda wishes he'd been awake to get clean with him. Even's switched shirts and is now wearing Isak's Metallica one, although he'd threatened to burn it, and insists he doesn't like them much either.

The curtains are pulled back, and the sky is a rare, deep blue. Not a cloud anywhere.

"It's a beautiful day for a drive," Even tells him, and hands over a cup of coffee. He begins to turn away then stops, holds Isak's cheek in his palm. "I am so into you. Just so fucking into you."

Isak grins and all his words are gone. Dissolved into the sweet hook he feels in his stomach, the leap his heart makes in his chest.

There's a thump against their door. The definitive racket of a boot getting one over on soundproofing, and Eva's voice on the other side of it is muffled. Impatient.

"You boys still alive in there? I'd like my bass player back now."

Chapter Text

Jk3qIF5

Let's dance with the one that brought us here: the music.

The festival was sponsored by Jack Daniels, so a whiskey metaphor seems like an appropriate place to start. Jonas Vasquez (lead guitar) is the bartender, the guy who feeds you shots and cuts you off when you get too sloppy, who seems happy enough to listen to your sob stories for half the night. Noora Amalie Sætre (keyboards), is the ice in the glass, the stuff that makes the liquor go down smooth. Eva Mohn (rhythm guitar/vocals) is the hiss after a sip, the burn in your throat that eventually mellows out to a warm slosh in your stomach. Magnus Fossbakken (drums) is the giddy feeling you get when you've had two too many and you're laughing too loud and all your bad ideas start to seem like really good ones. Even Bech Næsheim (bass/vocals) is the moment when the drunk begins to settle in, when everything is suddenly making sense. He's the angel on your shoulder and the devil on the other one, telling you to stick around, have one more. It's on the house.

Perhaps Kardemomme's greatest strength as a live act is their ability to read their audience, and that knack was dialed up for Whiskey Fest this past weekend. Unlike some of the other acts, Kardemomme puts itself in a feedback loop with the crowd in front of them, knows when the audience needs a breather or when it's best to blast it loud. They don't demand attention so much as ask for it with a handshake and a kiss on the knuckle and steady eye contact from over top dark tinted glasses, and once they have it, they don't let go.

That said, the audience on this day was the type more at home at honky-tonks and square dances rather than the slick streets of Oslo. But to paraphrase a new friend of mine, no one ever heard of Kardemomme until they did, and on this day, they were heard. The band opened up with a couple of powerhouses that made everyone spring from their lawn chairs, forget about their Budweisers and get to their feet. Starting with mandag and lykke til, two songs that showcase their particular blend of scando-alt-rock-atonality, compositions made up of individual pieces that don't work on their own and yet when put together picks you up, slings you over its shoulder and takes you right to the bedroom.

The penultimate song was a rare cover, Springsteen's I'm on Fire sung by Eva in a way that will probably make the Boss weep with joy if he ever trips across it on YouTube, Even taking the shotgun seat with backing vocals. It was their reconnection, and this is the part where the band has you in its bedroom and tosses you down on the bed and all you can do is hope the headboard doesn't bang too loudly against the wall.

It was a good, solid show. If anything though, it was the opening act to what went down at the Ryman a day later.

The hallowed halls of the place are more accustomed to the twang of the Opry greats, but Kardemomme rocketed those country gods and goddesses straight into the shadowy rafters with this show. It was a hostile takeover from the second they stormed the stage, with Even growling out song after song, a few deep cuts from their second album and a couple of their college radio hits sprinkled on top. Those old pews hardly knew what hit them, vibrating with the hard, dirty thump of the bass drum and the extended guitar solo in the middle of minutt for minutt. The whole first set was a supernova example of the grit, determination and musical poetry that got them here, plucked them out of small community centers and backyard picnics and put them on center stage.

And then: mannen i mitt liv.

There's been a lot of talk about the song, quite a bit of it from your humble narrator. It's been years since they played it live, and it's a carrot they don't bite when it's dangled in front of them during interviews, and they'll probably be just as close-mouthed about the reasons for its revival now.

Even led them into it, and it's safe to say that the rest of the band was about as surprised by it as the audience. A small hiccup before everyone onstage snapped into place and found Even's wavelength, proving yet again how in tune they are with each other. It was an explosion so loud from the band and the audience that it's a miracle the walls didn't cave in or the pews didn't collapse from everyone standing on them while Even rewrote the song on the fly, mixed up the verses in a way that still made sense. The band ripped through the song like they were drunk on it, high from the cheers and everyone singing along with the chorus. Every single person under that roof knew they were witnessing a small miracle.

There couldn't have been a better way to close out the show, even though it left a few thousand people shell-shocked, asking questions like why now?

Furthermore, who the hell is Isak?

Well, boys and girls, your intrepid blogger is here to give you all the hot-off-the-wire details. Isak is in actuality Isak Valtersen, the dashing golden-curled wunderkind from Analog magazine, who is currently shadowing Kardemomme on their first North American tour. If you haven't been keeping up with his bi-monthly pieces for the magazine, you should be. Buy the ticket, take the ride. It would seem that he’s a little bit more, ahem, imbedded with the band than we first thought!

I had the pleasure of meeting my musical scribe counterpart on the job at the festival in Nashville, where I had the chance to hunker down for a little mano a mano shop talk, and then later spotted him getting cozy with a certain lanky blond bass player. The spectacle witnessed later at the Ryman just solidified the fact that this was indeed the new mannen in Even Bech Næsheim’s liv.

Now here’s the real scoop – a source managed to get me a sneak preview of a new song coming down the pike from our favorite Norwegian rock stars. The sexy slice of sonic delight might just shed some light on the budding connection between the hot new couple.

As I always like to say, follow the music, kids!

Next up, my exclusive interview with that modern music enigma, Julian Dahl: The Man Behind the Beard.

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