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Caffeinated Consciousness

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Ride Into the Danger Zone

 

Chapter Track: "Ride Into the Danger Zone" - Kenny Loggins

 

On the afternoon of Friday, July twentieth, Dooku picked up Qui-Gon and Obi and made the ninety-minute trip one way from Corvallis to Portland. Dooku and Qui-Gon had decided ahead of time that it would be more environmentally friendly to carpool, and while Qui-Gon was rather particular about who he rode with and would normally be the one to offer to do the driving, Dooku mentioned privately that alcohol was being served at the wedding party and he needed to be designated driver and have an excuse to remain sober "so I don't drink too much and say something I regret later, in vino veritas." Qui-Gon couldn't fault Dooku for that.

What he could, and did, fault Dooku for, was wanting a pickup time above and beyond what Qui-Gon was banking on for a commute, "in case we hit traffic"; as of late antifa and alt-right demonstrators had been clashing in Portland and that was an issue of concern as well, with holding up traffic - but there was anticipating delays and then going early in the morning. 

What he could, and did, fault Dooku for was overdressing for the event. Qui-Gon knew Dooku didn't do casual - even on his off days he somehow managed to look impeccably elegant in a sweater or button-down shirt and trousers; he had a very old-school sense of style. He expected Dooku to wear a suit and tie like the kind he wore to the university on his teaching days - one of the few professors at the laid-back institution to do so - or even a tuxedo. He was not expecting a Victorian-style suit with a jacket with tails, and a waistcoat, and a fucking top hat, and something told Qui-Gon that Dooku had gotten the suit custom-made just for the wedding.

What he especially faulted Dooku for was the obvious pain he was in on the way down. Qui-Gon knew Dooku wanted to be supportive of his best friend; he also knew how incredibly sad this occasion was for him. And now that Dooku knew he didn't have to hide his feelings for Sören around Qui-Gon and Obi, he had on extremely sad music on the way down, as if they were going to a funeral instead of a wedding.

Qui-Gon held his tongue, even though he felt like shaking Dooku and screaming at him to say something to Sören already.

They had some time to kill, and Obi had never been to Powell's City of Books, so they did that, attracting some stares with Dooku being overdressed for just about anywhere, walking into Powell's with an aging hippie and a young hipster. Powell's was the largest bookstore in the United States, several levels of wall-to-wall books in every subject imaginable. Obi was suitably impressed, and Qui-Gon found himself considerably less annoyed as he enjoyed himself watching Obi's wonder at "So many books. I've never seen so many books at once."

"This is one of the reasons I stay in this area," Dooku said.

"I feel like I'm on some documentary or TV show exploring the wilderness," Obi said in a hushed, reverent tone of voice.

They took a break to get coffee at the bookstore and ran into Sören's teaching assistant Claire James, whose younger cousin Harrison was allowed to come to the wedding even though he didn't personally really know Sören or Mark, but happened to be in the States visiting Claire. Qui-Gon wondered why Claire had also made it down rather early, and then, as the topic of Sören came up over coffee, he realized Claire was early for the same exact reason Dooku was, and it wasn't really because of traffic. There was a flush in her cheeks and a sparkle in her grey eyes at the discussion of the young soon-to-be-married Icelander. Qui-Gon recalled Mark gently ribbing Sören over perceived attraction to Claire, and he could appreciate why now, seeing Claire's long strawberry blonde hair worn loose, her hourglass figure in a pale pink summery dress. She and Harrison didn't look much alike, with Harrison's brown curly hair and blue eyes, but there was a similarity in body language and mannerisms. A similarity in warmth.

Qui-Gon felt worse for Dooku, who'd had feelings for Sören for the better part of almost two years, but he also felt bad for Claire, who he could tell was trying to be supportive of her friend while this was still a disappointment to her. You guys need a fucking support group.

Even though Obi seemed endlessly fascinated by books upon books, there was only so many times Qui-Gon wanted to go up and down the levels of the store, and eventually it was suggested by Dooku that it was not an inappropriate time to arrive; Claire and Harrison would follow them down.

Voodoo Doughnut was everything Sören and Mark had promised it to be and worse. The walls were screaming Pepto-Bismol pink. There was indeed a velvet painting of Kenny Rogers hanging up. Voodoo Doughnut proudly served RC Cola, that throwback to the 80s, and as another throwback one of their donut varieties had orange Tang.

Sören and Mark were already there, going over the wedding procedure with the officiant, and Qui-Gon did a double-take. Neither Sören nor Mark were wearing their glasses, which was not usual for them, but that was not even the most unusual thing about their appearance.

Sören was wearing what appeared to be a fur pelt-topped cape over leather armor, a metal breastplate embossed with a wolf, and a sword on his belt. He looked for all the world like a Viking chieftain, or a king from some ancient fantasy realm.

Mark Lowry himself was wearing a full suit of delicate, shimmering chainmail; on the breast, set with blue gems, was the flaming star of the House of Fëanor. Mark wore a plumed helm that added a foot, and he was already tall enough to make Qui-Gon feel short.

Qui-Gon wondered, looking at Mark, if he'd had the costume made for the wedding - and probably spent a small fortune to do so if he had - or if it was a relic from the ancient past, days from before the War of the Ring itself. He had a disturbing feeling it was the latter, and somehow whatever Elven magic or energy had gone into the making of the armor had kept it together all this time.

Mark's service dog Huan, a Corgi-sheepdog mix, was wearing a little bow tie, obediently waiting on a leash nearby. When Sören caught Qui-Gon in the corner of his eye, he waved, and a few minutes later Sören and Mark came over.

"You guys look..." Qui-Gon didn't have words for it. "You look... very... you." It would have been ridiculous on anybody else, somehow the two of them pulled it off and looked regal - especially Mark, who looked like a true Elf, even glamoured to hide his unnatural eyes and the true length of his hair, which still covered the points of his ears. Even with the absurdity of them wearing this attire in Voodoo Doughnut.

Sören threw his head back and laughed. Mark gave a small smile.

"The costumes would be odd anyway," Claire spoke up, "but they seem even odder with wedding guests wearing T-shirts and jeans."

"And yet, this is normal for Portland from what I've seen," Harrison quipped.

Claire snorted. "This is his first time visiting Oregon. He's still taking it in."

"There's a reason why one of the town slogans is Keep Portland Weird," Mark said.

"Jæja... you're the reason." Sören grinned at Mark.

Mark gave him a look, and Sören batted his eyes innocently and Mark tweaked his nose. "You can't talk," Mark said. He pursed his lips and folded his arms, glowering at Qui-Gon and Obi. "I hear I have you to thank for the frame for the painting."

Qui-Gon and Obi nodded, grinning.

"Oh, Sören made you a painting?" Claire asked.

"Yes." Mark rolled his eyes. "Kenny Loggins."

Claire almost spat her drink. "Kenny... Loggins. What..."

"I accidentally slipped up and referred to that 'art' -" Mark made air quotes. "Over there as Kenny Loggins instead of Kenny Rogers, and Sören had a field day."

Sören put an arm around him. "Could be worse. I thought about getting you a life-size cardboard cutout of Kenny Loggins but I decided a black velvet painting was tackier."

"Gee Sören, thanks."

"ARI!" Sören waved to someone coming in through the door. Qui-Gon recognized Dagnýr from last month, and there was a man with him, equally tall, short dirty blonde hair, bearded, blue eyes, ripped, ruggedly handsome, wearing jeans and a Metallica T-shirt. "Claire, Harrison, Qui-Gon, Obi, Nico, this is my cousin Ari. Ari, this is... people."

"Hi," Ari said. He raised an eyebrow at Sören. "What are you wearing, dude?" Ari's Icelandic accent was at least as strong as Sören's if not stronger.

"Clothes," Sören said.

Ari's eyes narrowed. "Please tell me that's not real fur and no animals died for you to wear that pelt..."

"No." Sören made a face. Then he grinned and said, "It's IKEA rugs put together because I'm classy as fuck like that."

Ari and Dagnýr facepalmed in unison.

"I'm fucking dying in this shit," Sören said. "I can't wait to get my clothes off, if you know what I mean..."

Dooku and Claire turned pink in unison. 

"I'd rather not know what you mean," Ari said. Ari shook Mark's hand. "Uh, nice hat."

"You in the SCA or something?" Dagnýr asked. "You do Ren Faire?"

"No," Mark said. "That involves people. And romanticizing a part of history rife with disease, intolerance, and brutality -"

Dagnýr blinked like he'd been slapped. "OK, wow, just asking."

Dooku's lips quirked into a small smile. "I hate medieval re-enactment for the same reason."

"You'd both know all about it, you were there," Qui-Gon quipped, and then he realized he'd said that out loud. At least in Dooku's case he was joking... mostly. Probably.

"You guys just hate fun, let's be real," Sören said.

"That too," Mark and Dooku said in unison, and then they laughed about it, though Dooku looked uncomfortable.

"Please excuse me," Dooku said, stepping aside.

"Speaking of hating fun..." Mark glanced at Sören and gave him a stern look. "'The Wedding March' better not be interrupted by Rick Astley."

"Would I do that?" Sören gave Mark an innocent face.

"Yes. You would."

Sören raised his right hand. "I solemnly swear 'The Wedding March' will not be interrupted by 'Never Gonna Give You Up'."



_


"The Wedding March" began to play.

Dagnýr's children Margrét and Magnús were both "flower-bearers", a gender-neutral version of the flowergirl, since Sören and his family were very sensitive to the issue of not reinforcing sexist stereotypes about what was "for girls" and "for boys". They scattered petals down the aisle.

They were followed by Huan, who was serving as ringbearer, wagging his tail excitedly as he trotted down the aisle carrying a small pillow set with two rings. Huan got pets from Margrét and Magnús when he reached the end of the aisle, and turned around and yipped, waiting for his master.

Mark and Sören took their first step down the aisle, and the stereo playing "The Wedding March" cut to synths and an upbeat guitar riff.

Revvin' up your engine
Listen to her howlin' roar
Metal under tension
Beggin' you to touch and go

Highway to the danger zone
Ride into the danger zone


Mark gave Sören a look, and Sören beamed.

"You said no Rick Astley," Qui-Gon heard Sören say. "It's not Rick Astley. It's Kenny Loggins..."

Qui-Gon tried not to make a scene from laughing; he laughed harder when he saw Dooku roll his eyes, and then he stopped laughing at the little sigh Dooku gave, watching Sören's mischief. He could almost hear Dooku's thoughts: He's an idiot, but he's my idiot. And knowing, in those moments, the door was closing. Qui-Gon put a hand on Dooku's shoulder, feeling bad for him.

"We have come today to join these two men in matrimony," said the officiant. "If there is anyone present who objects to the union of these two men, speak now, or forever hold your peace."

It took Qui-Gon every ounce of his strength to not shove Dooku forward. Qui-Gon watched Dooku take a deep breath, open his mouth as if to say something, and then close it, thinking better of it. The pain in Dooku's dark eyes tore at Qui-Gon's heart. Qui-Gon had wondered sometimes, when Dooku had been his professor and a very harsh taskmaster, if the man had any emotions at all. And now, he felt bad for ever having thought that about him. Still waters run deep. Qui-Gon could see just from Dooku's eyes - he otherwise held a poker face - that he was in unfathomable distress.

Then, Qui-Gon noticed Obi kept checking the door, and he realized after a minute why. Sören and Mark's wedding announcement had run in the paper; Anakin would have seen it. Though Obi seemed to be recovering over the last few weeks, Qui-Gon could tell now that Obi was wondering if Anakin was going to show up and crash the wedding in retaliation for Mark "ruining his life". Qui-Gon's heart raced a little faster, now wondering the same thing himself. He once again internally berated himself for waiting so long to catalyze Obi getting away from Anakin's influence, because it was so much worse with things having dragged on and escalated than if he'd risked telling Obi his concerns at the first sign of trouble.

Qui-Gon's eyes met Claire's, who gave him a concerned look. He didn't want to cause alarm by demonstrating paranoia, so he returned his focus to the wedding. Mark and Sören had written their own vows to each other, and Sören went first.

Sören's warm brown eyes could drill through granite, as he looked at Mark like he was the only person in the room. "I'm not as good at singing as you are, but I wanted to sing for you, from a song by Seether."

Sören cleared his throat and began to sing in a soulful, raspy tenor:

The worst is over now and we can breathe again
I wanna hold you high, you steal my pain away
There's so much left to learn, and no one left to fight
I wanna hold you high and steal your pain

'Cause I'm broken when I'm open
And I don't feel like I am strong enough
'Cause I'm broken when I'm lonesome
And I don't feel right when you're gone away


Mark was getting obviously choked up, and Qui-Gon felt himself tear up, too. Sören's voice was husky with emotion as he said, "We've both been wounded by tragedy and trauma in our lives. We're careful with each other... and our broken places fit together. We're stronger, together, than either of us were on our own. Stronger than either of us thought we could be. Two parts of a powerful whole." Sören glared at Ari and Harrison, who were both snickering; Ari mouthed the word "hole", and Ari and Harrison exchanged a guilty grin, looking down. Sören came closer to Mark and took his hands. "I want to be with you for the rest of my life. Through sickness and health, for better or worse - we've already been there. I want you at my side, no matter what happens. I would follow you to the ends of the earth, through the end of the world, across lifetimes, across universes. From this day, to my last day, my life is yours."

Qui-Gon felt Obi take his hand. Qui-Gon fought back tears - not just at how beautiful the words were, Sören's feelings for Mark... but it echoed so much his own feelings for Obi. 

Mark took Sören in his arms, and then when they pulled apart it was time for his vow.

"Well, I don't have a song," Mark said, "but I have a poem. Pablo Neruda wrote it."

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz, 
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire: 
I love you as one loves certain dark things, 
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries 
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself, 
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose 
from the earth lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where, 
I love you simply without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
than this: where I does not exist, nor you, 
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.


Sören wept openly. Qui-Gon started ugly-crying, feeling self-conscious about it then less so when he heard Claire sobbing as well. Dooku's eyes were too bright.

Somehow, Qui-Gon was aware of when Sören and Mark exchanged rings, were proclaimed "partners in life", and kissed, but it all seemed to pass in a blur. He kept looking at Obi. Thinking. Feeling.

The wedding party was simple, with assorted drinks, donuts, and 80s music. Dooku kept off by himself. Qui-Gon and Obi fed each other donuts and each had a bit of alcohol - Qui-Gon was amused to see cannabis ale as one of the options. He hadn't had pot in a good while, he knew Mark and Sören occasionally toked up and had invited them to do so "one of these days"; maybe when they got back from their honeymoon "one of these days" could be soon, deeper relaxation after the mess with Anakin. Qui-Gon saw Sören dance with Claire out of the corner of his eye. Ari and Harrison were talking - if Qui-Gon didn't know better it looked like they were flirting.

Somehow, Sören got Dooku to dance with him to David Bowie, even though Dooku protested "I don't dance." After Sören and Dooku danced around, Dooku came over to Qui-Gon and Obi and said, "Would you mind terribly if we left soon? The crowd and the noise is getting to me."

While Dooku was in fact an introvert, Qui-Gon knew it wasn't just that. Obi was getting a bit antsy from the crowd and the noise himself, so about fifteen minutes after Dooku and Sören danced, they got in Dooku's Jaguar and made the drive back to Corvallis.

Qui-Gon took "one for the road", even though Dooku disapproved of eating and drinking in his car - Sören got away with it, when Dooku was chauffeuring him, but for obvious reasons. Dooku gave Qui-Gon a filthy look as he sipped away at the ale, but Dooku otherwise said nothing.

Qui-Gon wasn't quite drunk, but he had enough of a buzz going that it was loosening his lips, and it was probably a good thing that Dooku had elected to leave when he did, because Qui-Gon heard himself blurt out, "And this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper."

"Would you like to walk to Corvallis?" Dooku spat, eyes staring at the road.

"Not especially. But then, I could probably get there faster than you could get where it is you really want to go." Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow.

Dooku said nothing.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"At the 'speak now or forever hold your peace' portion? Do you think I am utterly daft, Qui-Gon?"

It was amazing to Qui-Gon how long Dooku had lived in the States and not only still had a London accent but also frequently used British English. "I wouldn't say utterly daft, Teach. There's a difference between 'a lot' and 'utterly'."

"Let's presume that even if I could have said something at that part of the ceremony without incurring the wrath of everyone in attendance but perhaps yourself and Obi, looking like a wretched arse... you heard them, back there. How can I, in good conscience, try to disrupt that or take that away?"

Qui-Gon shrugged. "I don't know. I only know that I still think you owe it to Sören to tell him and if you thought it was awkward before he put that ring on his finger, it's going to be a hell of a lot more awkward now."

"What I owe Sören is my friendship... which I undoubtedly will ruin if I say a damn thing. You don't get it, do you?" Dooku finally looked at Qui-Gon - a withering look bordering on contempt, though Qui-Gon knew it wasn't personal - and looked at the road again with a snort.

"Get what?"

"No, of course you don't. People actually like you. You're warm, personable. I told you that I very likely have undiagnosed Asperger's - there wasn't awareness of autistic spectrum issues when I was growing up. By the time that was 'a thing', as the youth say, I was already old and I don't have the time or patience to drag myself off to a doctor to tell me something that I already know and I can't really get help for because I've been set in my ways coping how I can, this fucking long." Dooku never used the f-word, and Qui-Gon's eyebrows shot up. "But this is what I'm getting at - it's hard for me to make friends, it's hard for me to keep friends. I don't want to lose Sören's friendship. Even if you think he wouldn't automatically reject me because of my age or some other issue - and I disagree with you on that - it's not just Mark, and not wanting to ruin what they have. I don't want Sören to think I'm some... what do they call it? 'Nice Guy'. Who is only friends with him and doing nice things for him to get down his pants. Which isn't the case at all. Sören doesn't owe me sex, I don't feel entitled to him, I don't resent him for being with Mark. With or without any romantic complications, I appreciate Sören's friendship. He has been through a lot, I intervened with an abusive ex of his, he really does not need to be triggered thinking I'm some creepy old guy who's only kind to him because I have ulterior motives. Does that make a modicum of sense now, Joaquin?"

"It does. And yet, I am a scientist and you are an historian, and as you know, plenty of people in both our fields have had brilliant logic and still were completely wrong. You make sense, Dooku... you're still an idiot."

"Piss off."

Those were the last words Dooku spoke to him for the remainder of the drive down. When Dooku dropped Qui-Gon and Obi off at their house, Qui-Gon lingered, not wanting there to be bad blood.

"Look. Teach. I just want you to... if not be happy, not have any regrets." Qui-Gon took a deep breath as he looked up at the sky, which was bright and sunny, yet still felt ominous. "When things went down with Anakin late last month... it's been weighing on my mind that they could have gone worse than they did. He could have had a gun. If Mark hadn't been there, the police might have needed to get involved and things likely wouldn't have ended well. It's been impressed upon me that you, I, anybody, could go at any time. When I lost Tahl, I kept replaying over in my head what I wish I could have said if I'd known I was having a last conversation with her, and..."

"Qui-Gon, I am keenly aware of my age and eventual impending mortality, which is yet another reason why I say nothing to Sören. The difference in our perception is not that you or I could go at any time, it's what we would regret saying or not saying."

"You don't want Sören to know you love him? I think that's bullshit." 

"Qui-Gon... go home. We'll... talk in a few days." Dooku patted Qui-Gon's shoulder. "You try too hard."

"At least I try. At least someone gives a damn about you."

Qui-Gon got out of the car. When he got in, Obi was sitting on the couch with Fernando. Qui-Gon kicked off his shoes and sat next to Obi, taking in the sight of him with the cat... how natural it looked, like Obi had been living here all along, this was his cat, his home. He thought about the wedding and how Sören and Mark's choice of words had struck a chord in him as well.

You should take your own advice, Gonzalez, Qui-Gon admonished himself. Don't let another minute pass by without Obi knowing how you really feel.

He argued back at himself. I don't even have a proper ring -

All that can come later.

The urgency was amplified by the fact that he wasn't sober, and indeed, he'd probably be waiting for the proper time and place, with a ring, arranging everything just so if he wasn't under the influence. A nagging voice in the back of his head told him to wait, not just because he was tipsy but this was all moving so fast, and it was drowned out by Now, now, NOW.

"Obi?" Qui-Gon's voice was a little hoarse.

Obi glanced up at him.

"Will you marry me?"