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Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

Chapter Text

Bon Voyage

 

 

June 2017

"Well, here we are."

They had arrived at the train station in Corvallis. Sören turned to smile at Dooku. "Thank you, again, for the ride here." Sören didn't drive - not since the accident.

"You are most welcome." Their eyes met.

They got out of Dooku's Jaguar together, and Dooku opened the trunk. Sören put on his backpack, and even though he was capable of taking out the rolling suitcase by himself, Dooku still took it out, rolling it up to him. Sören reached in his pocket for his wallet. "Here, let me pay you for the ride -"

"There's no need."

"But you went out of your way to the station -"

"It's no trouble." A small smile.

"All right." Sören wanted to hug him, but restrained the urge; Dooku was always aloof, even with someone like Sören where it was established they considered each other friends - best friends, even - not just neighbors and colleagues.

"Enjoy your vacation, Sören."

"And you enjoy your summer. Maybe shoot me an e-mail now and again, let me know what you're up to."

"And you as well. And do call me when you return, and I'll pick you up at the train station."

"OK." Sören lingered, again, wanting to hug him. But he didn't.

Dooku gave a small, polite wave, and watched as Sören walked to the train station, humming to himself as he wheeled his luggage.

It was a twenty-four hour trip from Corvallis to Sausalito. Sören would be renting half of a cottage there, sharing with another out-of-towner for the summer - an unknown, which made him nervous, but so long as they didn't get in each other's hair it would be fine. Sören finally had enough money to go somewhere nice on vacation, having worked a good job as the studio art professor at the local university the last few years, but he didn't want to be too extravagant, hence why he was doing a rent share in the pricey Sausalito - he would already be paying close to two grand a month to rent the room, and he'd be renting it until the end of August.

He'd thought about going home to Iceland, seeing his cousin Ari, but he could do that for Christmas. He hadn't been a lot of places, and he'd chosen Sausalito because he wanted to see the Bay Area of California.

He took his seat on the train, and put his headphones around his neck, waiting as the passengers assembled. When the train started rolling, he listened to the horn, feeling self-conscious at smiling at it like a big kid. When the horns stopped, he put his headphones on and zoned out to Cocteau Twins, watching the Oregon countryside roll past.


_

From the train station in Sausalito he took a shuttle he'd arranged ahead of time, to the location specified. The two-bedroom, one-bathroom cottage was a short walk from the ocean, and exhausted as he was, Sören gave a happy sigh when he smelled the salt air. He tipped his driver and got out, taking a moment to take it all in, watching the waves, before heading into the cottage.

It was bright and airy, a big living room with a flat-screen TV, leather couch, plush recliner, beautiful tapestry rug in front of a gas fireplace. A painting of the sea hung above the mantle. The kitchen included a bar, and had a glass-doored patio that led out to a deck and the beach. Sören would have to wait for his roommate to get here, if they weren't already here, before picking out one of the two bedrooms. He was hoping he could get the master bedroom so he'd have space to set up the art supplies he'd brought with him, packed in the suitcase, with some being shipped down by UPS within the next two days. But even the smaller bedroom was luxurious.

They would have to share the one bathroom, but it was spacious, done in rich grey marble, and there was even a jacuzzi bathtub in addition to a glass-doored shower stall.  Sören still couldn't believe it; he'd never been in surroundings so posh.

He was going to need to go into town to grocery shop, looking at the empty fridge and freezer, and there were just a few "survive a storm" type staples in the cupboards, none of which interested him. Sören flopped on the couch and put the TV on, and since he'd had a long travel and hadn't slept well on the train, he dozed off despite himself.

He woke up to hear a key in the lock, but still couldn't fully rouse himself out of sleep, groggily laying there until he heard footsteps in the living room and a familiar voice.

"Sören?"

Sören sat up with a start, and looked at him, eyes blinking. "Mark? What the hell are you doing here?"

"I could ask the same of you." A wry smile.

Sören laughed nervously. "What are the odds...?"

"This is quite a coincidence." He also laughed.

Mark Lowry was the music theory professor at the university. They had a cordial relationship, as the art and music departments saw a bit of each other. They sometimes ate together in the cafeteria. But Mark tended to keep to himself, and that was that.

Here he was now, all close-to-seven-feet of him, long dark hair to the middle of his back, and the first time Sören had ever seen him wearing something other than all black all the time, a black T-shirt with a pair of faded jeans, looking nice on his lean, muscular build. He wasn't wearing his usual wire-rim glasses, which gave Sören a better look at his grey eyes. He had a few suitcases with him, including a violin case.

Sören ran a hand through his nape-length unruly dark curls, and scratched his beard, before stretching. "Well," he said, "it's nice to see you?"

"We could have done far worse for roommates, yes."

Mark didn't protest Sören's request to have the master bedroom, and Sören breathed a small sigh of relief as he brought his backpack and suitcase in, sitting down on the edge of the king-sized bed, looking around at the room. Both bedrooms had a sea motif, done in blues and browns and greys, with paintings of the sea in both rooms, seashells and driftwood on shelves, and there was a gorgeous view of the ocean from his window.

"Wow," Sören heard Mark say, across the hall.

He got up, curious, and tiptoed. The smaller bedroom had another glass-door patio, with a smaller deck than the one in the kitchen, leading out to the sea. "Mine doesn't have that," Sören said. "But you're still welcome to this one."

"This is... really nice. This is better than what was advertised in the listing."

"It sure is."

"So... I take it we need food, and all of that."

"We do. I was going to take the bus or walk or take an Uber into town later, I need more of a nap first."

"I'll drive you." Mark knew Sören didn't drive and carpooled with Dooku frequently.

"Thank you. You don't mind waiting?"

"No, not at all. I had a long drive down here, so it'll be nice to take a rest, myself."

"OK. Well... sleep well, or enjoy your chill time, or whatever it is you're doing."

Sören tried to get comfortable on the bed, but as tired as he was he couldn't get back to sleep right away, and after a few minutes of tossing and turning, he knew why. Really? He zipped open his backpack and took out the well-loved Eeyore doll he still slept with. 

God, I hope Mark doesn't see me with this.

Curling up with Eeyore made the difference, and he was out like a light soon enough.

Chapter Text

Bon Appetit

 

"Hey, Sören? You still want me to drive you to the store?"

Sören sat up with a start, blinking awake, and his bleary eyes focused on Mark standing in the doorway, looking at him with the hint of a smile.

Sören nodded. Then he saw why there was amusement in Mark's eyes - he was still holding Eeyore.

"Oh Jesus," Sören said, and hid Eeyore behind his back, instantly feeling stupid about doing so since it was a bit late to pretend like he wasn't sleeping with a stuffed doll.

"It's all right." The hint of a smile became a grin now. "That's kind of adorable, actually."

Heat flooded Sören's cheeks; he cleared his throat and ran a nervous hand through his curls. "Can you give me, like, fifteen minutes to get ready?"

"Yeah, that's fine. I'll be in the living room." Mark gave a little wave and walked off. Sören tried not to notice the way those jeans were hugging his ass.

Hey, could we not, that's going to be your roommate for the summer and we don't need this to get awkward.

It was already awkward enough, being outed as a thirty-two-year-old man who still slept with stuffed toys, in front of one of his colleagues. Sören knew he didn't have to be professional on his summer vacation, but he was already feeling weird about this whole thing as he ducked into the bathroom.

He splashed cold water on his face to help wake up, and spent a moment looking at himself in the mirror - the long-lashed brown eyes, full lips, a mop of black curls to his nape, neatly trimmed beard and mustache that he'd started growing twelve years ago because he looked like a girl unshaven. Like Mark, he was wearing a T-shirt and jeans; he'd wear it to the university if he could get away with teaching in it. The Doc Martens, however, were non-negotiable, which he wore everywhere. He pulled them on now, and added his wire-rim glasses, as he was near-sighted and going to an unfamiliar grocery store and didn't want to be squinting at things in the distance. He didn't just have to get food, he also had to check pharmacy hours - not that they would be open on a Saturday night or that he needed prescriptions right away, but he would need to refill his prescriptions for bipolar meds in about a week, since his doctor only gave him two weeks of medication at a time, though he had refills for the next three months before another med management appointment.

Then Sören noticed he had drool on his shirt, which meant he'd been drooling in his sleep or at Mark's ass. He was annoyed by this - he didn't drool in his sleep often, but the nap had been pretty deep, after not sleeping well on the train. He hadn't unpacked yet, and he rummaged in his suitcase now for a clean T-shirt, pulling out the first one that he found, a Nine Inch Nails shirt. As he took off the shirt with drool on it, Mark was heading to the bathroom, and of course, Mark had to see him with his shirt off. Sören had a wiry build - one of those metabolisms that burned very quickly - and he had his nipples pierced. Mark had already seen the sleeve tattoos, flames on one arm and ocean waves on the other, but he hadn't seen the pair of phoenixes on his back, one made of fire, one made of water. He'd started the ink when he'd started growing out his hair and facial hair, in 2005 a few months following his suicide attempt. He'd gotten the piercings then too - the nipple rings weren't the only body piercings he had, he also had small black gauge plugs and two little silver hoop earrings in each ear, and a Prince Albert piercing in the head of his cock.

It had been quite awhile since anyone had seen that particular piercing, even longer if one counted only consensual sex. Sören hadn't had much of a sex drive in months, after what happened with his ex Seth, and now he was acutely, painfully aware of Mark's maleness, his nipples hardening as he felt Mark's eyes on him. Is he checking me out?

Nudity wasn't a big deal to Icelanders, but Sören had lived long enough outside Iceland to know that wasn't the case in Canada or the United States, so Sören turned his back as he pulled on the shirt. In the eyeful he'd gotten before turning his back, Mark was brushing his hair. Once his shirt was on, he noticed Mark had his glasses on now, since he was driving. The glasses did not detract from Mark's attractiveness at all - if anything they enhanced it. Sören's face burned again as Mark put the brush down and asked, "Are you ready to go?"

My body is ready. Sören nodded.

Mark had a black Jaguar - his car was identical to Dooku's except for plates, and Dooku had a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on his car and Mark had nothing on his car. When Sören got in the passenger's seat he laughed.

"What?" Mark asked.

"You and Professor Dooku even use the same air freshener. Jesus."

Mark laughed too. "Wow, really?"

Sören nodded.

"You guys seem pretty close," Mark said as he put on the radio and began pulling out of the driveway.

"Jæja, I guess you could say that." Sören nodded. "We live next door to each other and he's been my unofficial chauffeur since I was in a car accident."

"Oh, that's why you don't drive?"

Sören looked away, out the window, and then just nodded. "The accident was kind of traumatic and I got spooked. I tried to drive, but... panic attacks. Flashbacks." What he didn't want to get into now was how the accident happened, which had been the breaking point with Seth. Or why he was close to Dooku now, when they hadn't exactly been friendly neighbors at first - Dooku had beaten Seth within an inch of his life and Seth had fled town.

"It's OK. I understand. You might as well know this if we're going to be sharing a house together through August - I have PTSD. So I know a thing or two about being too spooked to do certain things."

Sören felt for him. "I have PTSD also, it's... it's rough." And then - though Sören didn't like to advertise - he felt he ought to let Mark know, since Mark would probably see him take his meds. "I'm also bipolar. It's controlled pretty well by meds, but I go through rough patches and need med adjustments once in awhile."

"I wouldn't have guessed."

"There was a time when my family thought I wasn't going to live to see thirty, but I'm thirty-two now." Sören raised an eyebrow. "How old are you, anyway? Thirty? Thirty-five?"

"Forty-two."

It slipped out before Sören could stop himself. "Oh. Do you know where your towel is?"

"I get that reference." Mark grinned, and Sören felt a little less dorky. "I keep a towel in the trunk, actually, not for that reason, but."

Sören laughed. "Well, you never know when the world might be destroyed to build a bypass in space."

"You're a real hoopy frood."

Sören laughed some more; he was starting to relax a little.

Mark had on the classic rock station and "Under the Bridge" by Red Hot Chili Peppers came on, which Mark turned up before Sören could tell him to turn it up. Mark also rolled his eyes and said, "I can't believe this is considered 'classic rock' now."

"I think I was, like, eight? When this came out? And even then, I loved that song. I was such a weird, sad little kid."

"Awwww. Also, you're making me feel old now."

"Forties isn't old." Sören pursed his lips. "You're only as old as you feel. I feel ancient, sometimes."

"Well, this got dark."

"Yeah, it did." Sören looked in Mark's glove compartment and there was indeed a lighter in it, though Sören knew he didn't smoke - Mark lectured students about smoking. Sören had a lighter in his luggage for when he eventually scored some pot around here - that was going to be an interesting conversation - but that was back at the cottage. Sören flicked on the lighter and waved it in time to the song, and Mark smiled.

"That's better."

"Under the Bridge" was followed by "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, which was like a punch to the gut. "My mamma used to sing this to me as a lullaby," Sören said, flicking the lighter on again and waving it.

"Oh, really? Your mom sounds cool."

"She's dead." Sören looked out the window. "That got dark again, sorry."

Mark's mouth opened like he wanted to say "I'm sorry", but after a few seconds the words "My parents are gone, too," came out. Then, "We're almost here."

They pulled into the supermarket parking lot before the song was over. Mark glanced at Sören, leaving the radio on as he shut off the ignition in case Sören wanted to hear the song all the way through, but Sören said, "We can go in," not wanting to get even more emotional than he already was.

They walked to the shopping carts. Before they could each get one, Mark said, "It's late and I don't mind sharing food with you if you want to save us some time by us only going through checkout once, and we can split the tab?"

Sören nodded. "That works for me."

They walked through the aisles together and picked out food for the next few days. Sören was at a bit of a loss since he habitually only ate one meal a day, and Mark was on him to think of something for breakfast.

"You don't eat breakfast?"

"No?" Sören gave him a look. "I hate mornings enough as it is."

"You need to fuel your brain."

They also got paper products and basic household items like garbage bags. Those items were on the side of the store near the pharmacy, where Sören stopped and plugged a note of the hours into his phone.

On the drive back, Rush was on the radio, which Mark appreciated, and Sören told him about going to see Rush live when he lived in Toronto; he and his brother went to Hamilton, Ontario for the show in 2011. "It was fucking awesome," Sören said.

"I'm... envious. I've been to a number of concerts, but Rush is one of those bands I've always wanted to see live and never got around to seeing."

That got Mark in the mood to put on Rush when they got back to the cottage, before he started helping Sören put groceries away. Mark grumbled that he was a little irritated that the cottage didn't have a vinyl record player, as he'd elected not to bring his, and had to settle for CD. Once everything was put away, Sören asked Mark, "Do you want some help cooking?"

"I enjoy it, it's not a chore to me, but I won't say no... and you're good company."

Sören smiled. He was definitely starting to relax now.

They'd decided on homemade nachos for dinner, since it was already later in the evening and it was fairly simple to make. They worked in the kitchen listening to Rush, and then brought their food out into the living room, kicking up their feet. Mark had brought out a Dos Equis for himself and then he looked at Sören. "I should have asked if you wanted one..."

"I can have one, but only one with the meds I'm on." Sören nodded.

Mark came back with another Dos Equis, which was frosty from having been in the freezer for a little while after riding in the car fresh from the supermarket refrigerator. Sören wasn't much of a beer drinker even before he went on meds, but it was good with the nachos. They clinked bottles.

"Do you have plans tomorrow?" Mark asked him.

Sören shrugged. "Unpacking, but I only brought a backpack and a suitcase so that shouldn't be an all-day job. I was thinking about hitting the beach, maybe walking a little around town to get a feel for the place. I think I want to do that by myself tomorrow, just because I have a little bit of an independent streak and don't want to have to ask you for rides for everything, but if you were asking because you wanted to hang out, Monday?"

"That works for me." Mark nodded. "I don't want to be a pain in your ass, but it would be nice if we could be friends."

"I agree." Sören smiled.

"And if you want to share meals I'm OK with that, if we're splitting the grocery tab, so if you want to do dinner again tomorrow when you're done exploring, I don't mind cooking for us, either -"

"Sure." Sören nodded. "These nachos are pretty damn good..."

"It's just nachos, Sören, but yes, I told you I like cooking and hopefully you'll find my culinary skills acceptable."

"These are more than acceptable. And if you cook, I insist on doing dishes."

"Deal."

Sören was relaxing even more, though it felt awkward again after dinner was done and the dishes were rinsed and loaded in the dishwasher - a chore they did together, since they'd cooked together tonight - and they were just lingering in the kitchen, not knowing what to say or do next.

It was also feeling way too warm in the kitchen, though Sören didn't know how much of that was the actual temperature or the combination of the beer he'd had and the proximity of Mark. Either way, Sören broke the silence by saying, "I think I'm gonna step outside for a few minutes, get some air."

The night air felt good, and the view of the beach at night was gorgeous. Then Mark was outside, his acoustic guitar case slung over an arm, and somehow they had mentally synced up enough to start taking a stroll together out to the beach, and along the sand as the tide rolled in. They walked for awhile in silence, and then they just stood and watched the waves some more, before Mark sat down on a large rock and opened up his guitar case.

Sören sat in the sand, hugging his knees as Mark played. Sören knew from school performances that he could play piano, guitar, violin, and harp, which was impressive to him, but it was one thing to see Mark on a stage and another thing to be sitting beside him on a beach as he played something instrumental that he'd composed himself. It felt intimate - almost too intimate - and in the melancholy chords Sören could feel the deep sadness in him... sadness that spoke to Sören's own sadness.

"That was beautiful," Sören said when it was over.

"Thank you. I don't usually play original stuff around other people -"

"Why? That's fucking gorgeous. It seems like a crime you don't have a music career..."

"Technically I do, teaching music. But no, it isn't just that I don't want to live 'the lifestyle' and all the unwanted publicity that comes with it, it feels like I'm exposing myself, somehow, with my music. I'm surprised I was able to play it around you, but you feel safe, I guess."

The words tugged at Sören's heart. Sören wanted to say something appreciative, assuring, but words failed him - everything felt trite, not enough for the gift he'd been given. Sören wanted to hug him, but he didn't know if Mark would be OK with the touch or not.

Mark followed up the melancholy original song with something completely different, changing the mood.

My mama said 
That your life is a gift 
And my mama said 
There's much weight you will lift 
And my mama said 
Leave those bad boys alone 
And my mama said 
Be home before the dawn 
And my mama said 
You can be rich or poor 
But my mama said 
You can be big or small 

But I'm always on the run


Sören grinned, and when the song was over, he said, "Lenny Kravitz."

"Yes."

"You've got a good voice. You've got soul, for a white guy."

Mark smiled, and in the light of the stars, Sören swore he could see Mark blushing a little. He put his guitar back in the case, got up, and took Sören's hand to pull him up. Just that brief instant of physical contact felt like Sören had been shocked with a live wire. Mark's long hair stirred in the breeze, and Sören's breath caught. He is really beautiful.

No, stop it. You are not going to have a fucking crush on your roommate.

They walked back to the cottage in silence, and they lingered again in the living room before Sören said, "Well, I think I'm gonna wind down for the evening."

"OK."

"You need the bathroom before I hit the shower?"

"No, thank you for asking."

"Night, Mark."

In the shower, seeing himself naked, and touching his naked body, made Sören ache to be touched again. He thought of Seth hurting him, and turned the shower hotter, scrubbing harder, wanting the memory of Seth off his skin. He wondered if he'd ever have a normal relationship again, if he'd be spending the rest of his life sleeping alone. He didn't know what "normal" even was anymore.

After he put on a pair of boxer-briefs and a T-shirt and brushed his teeth, Sören took his night meds and sketched to get his mind off things, until he started to get drowsy. Then he held Eeyore and curled up under the covers, thinking of Mark playing on the beach, thinking of his mother singing to him as a child, before sleep washed over him and pulled him under like the tides.

Chapter Text

The Other Side Of Life

 

Sören slept in until after one PM - despite his nap, he really needed the rest. Regardless of what time Sören got up, he usually took awhile to get out of bed, and it usually took at least an hour, often longer, for his brain to catch up with his body being awake, during which time he was grumpy and needed caffeine to help the process along.

Sören staggered out to the kitchen to pour himself a cup of iced coffee from the pitcher he and Mark had gotten ready last night, and take his morning meds. He had to pass through the living room to get to the kitchen, and this was just as Mark was bringing in his harp case, which he'd had in the car overnight.

Sören, of course, had forgotten he was just in a T-shirt and boxer-briefs. Shit. Sören looked down at his bare legs. Well, I'm not completely naked, either.

"And good afternoon to you," Mark said, carrying his harp into the living room.

"It's still morning to me," Sören mumbled, stumbling into the kitchen.

Once Sören had the iced coffee poured in a large glass, he realized he'd forgotten to bring his meds with him. Which made him feel stupid, even though he was in a strange environment and used to keeping his med minder in the kitchen at home, and he hadn't really unpacked yesterday, needing to decompress after the trip down here. So Sören had to walk back to his bedroom, passing by Mark again, who was taking his harp out of the case.

Sören had seen Mark with his harp on stage at school productions, but he'd never seen it closeup. And despite not feeling awake yet and still in that grumbly, just-got-up-leave-me-alone frame of mind, Mark's harp caught his eye enough to make him pause in his tracks.

"Holy shit, that's gorgeous," Sören said. "That harp is like... a work of art."

Mark nodded. "I had it custom made, a long time ago."

Sören came closer, aware again that he was in a T-shirt and his underwear, and Mark was fully dressed. "Can I touch it? Er, the harp."

"I normally don't let people touch the harp, but go ahead."

Sören's fingers ran over the embellished carved floral design on the crown and column for just a few seconds, not wanting to offend Mark by having his hands on it too long. Then Sören took a couple steps back to take it all in. "You must have paid a pretty penny for that."

"I paid for it with a song."

"If it was anything like what I heard last night, it was worth it."

Mark smiled and looked down, flushing just a little. He opened his mouth to speak - Sören could tell he was a little flustered by the compliment - and now Sören felt flustered too. "Er, right, I was getting my meds," Sören said, and walked off.

He took the opportunity of going back in the bedroom to grab his med minder from his backpack to change into fresh clothes, coming out in a KMFDM T-shirt and jean shorts. He slung his satchel over his hip that had his glasses case, cell phone, and wallet, as well as a small sketchpad and a set of colored pencils in case he felt inspired to sketch anything, wanting to get a move on since it was already afternoon. As he took his meds with iced coffee, Mark walked into the kitchen to have some orange juice. Sören noticed then what Mark was wearing - faded jeans and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, and his glasses were on.

"Have a granola bar or something, it'll help you wake up."

"I was gonna get a bite somewhere while I was out. We still on for dinner?"

"If you can be back by 8 PM, yes. Do you have any preferences?" Mark raised his eyebrow. "What's your favorite food?"

"Grilled cheese."

"Grilled... cheese. Are you serious?"

"I know it's simple and not 'haute cuisine' or whatever fancy classical music people eat -"

Mark snorted at that. "Sören, please."

"But grilled cheese has been a comfort food of mine since childhood. I like Swiss on rye, though anything's fine. If you want to get fancy we can have some kind of soup on the side."

"OK."

"And that was kind of you for asking, and I shouldn't have made that remark about 'classical music people'." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls. "I was trying to be funny but I guess it backfired -"

Mark shrugged. "I've had some of the faculty assume I'm a snob even though I thought it would be obvious the guy who plays Metallica on harp probably isn't that much of a snob, so it hit a nerve a little."

"Are you sure you and Professor Dooku aren't related somehow?" Sören raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised you guys aren't friends, he's a huge Metallica fan."

"At his age? Wow. And there I go making assumptions... his generation had Jimi Hendrix, after all... But to answer your question, it's a big campus, lots of staff, our departments don't get much chance to interact. It's a case of I've seen him around and know who he is - he's kind of unmistakable, British expat, always impeccably dressed, one of the other tallest staff members - but we've barely exchanged a few words in the years I've been teaching there."

"Jæja, you've been teaching there since before I came on?" Sören started teaching at Oregon State University in fall 2013.

Mark nodded. "2010."

"You from Oregon?"

"No. Connecticut." Mark looked away. "Yale is my alma mater."

"Ah. That's... northeast, right?"

"Right."

Sören nodded. "I brushed up on geography for citizenship requirements - I can become a citizen next year. My ex Seth offered to marry me to speed that up once same-sex marriage became legal but boy, am I glad I dodged that bullet." 

"Oh... you're gay?"

"Bisexual, technically. Or as I put it sometimes, I'm not just bipolar, I'm bi-everything. But most of my partners have been male, my last relationship was with a guy." And then Sören felt the pit of his stomach rising - he didn't know anything about Mark's orientation; it was weird enough to be roommates with a colleague, someone who Sören had to be professional around during the school year and now had seen him in his underwear, Sören didn't want to make things even weirder if Mark was worried about sharing space with a man who liked men, which a lot of guys who didn't swing that way could get very strange about, as if it was a threat to them somehow. On the other hand, he really wanted to be friends with Mark, and if Mark was a homophobe of any kind, better he find this out now...

"Ah, OK." Mark casually sipped his orange juice. "Me too."

"I see." Mark's admission may have been to put Sören at ease, something he appreciated - but it was disconcerting as much as it was reassuring. Sören's face burned, his mind immediately going there wondering what Mark had done with other guys...

"Anyway, I wasn't judging you about the grilled cheese. I just didn't want you to feel like you couldn't pick something more complicated or expensive if that was what you wanted..."

"Oh. Well... if you don't want to have grilled cheese, make whatever..."

"No, it's fine. I will make some sort of soup with it, though. Or a salad."

"Either or both is lovely. And with that..." It was getting too hot in the kitchen. Sören really didn't want to think about Mark drinking something other than orange juice. This is your roommate and a co-worker. And your ex was an asshole and you're still recovering. Cut that shit out.

Mark pulled out the box of granola bars from the cupboard and thrust one at Sören. "Seriously. Have one."

"I'm not in the mood to eat right now, usually not when I first wake up -"

"Well, take it if you need it. Though you should get in the habit of eating in the 'morning'." Mark made air quotes.

Sören took the granola bar and gave him a look. "Are you my dad now?"

Mark raised an eyebrow. "Do you need one?"

Sören didn't know if Mark realized the connotations of what he was saying, as one queer man to another, but whether Mark knew it or not, Sören's face burned even hotter and he needed to get out of there now, before his thoughts went even more in a direction where they shouldn't. "I'll see you by or before 8," Sören said, and with that, he was out the door.


_

Sören spent most of the day walking along Bridgeway, the main drag of Sausalito. He admired the pastel Victorian-style houses, many of which had been converted into shops and boutiques, cafes and galleries. He took his time browsing, taking in as much of it as he could, and snapped the occasional photo with his cell phone camera.

After he'd been walking for awhile his body finally woke up enough to want food, and the granola bar he brought with him took the edge off but didn't quite cut it. A Mexican restaurant caught Sören's eye - he'd developed a real taste for it since moving to the States, though when he went for Mexican he wanted heat in his food and found some places didn't understand what "spicy" meant.

Sören's experience was that the best Mexican restaurants were family-owned hole-in-the-wall places run by actual Mexicans, and this was an upscale bistro with mostly white staff, so he already had his misgivings. But nonetheless, he was willing to try it, going for a plate of carnitas, which were very good, if a bit pricey. He would have enjoyed them more if the restaurant was not so crowded - Sören felt a bit stupid for not realizing he would be far from the only tourist in Sausalito at this time of year, and it was a popular destination. He felt a little anxiety in the crowd coupled with the awkwardness of eating alone, and when he remembered that the last time he'd gone to a Mexican restaurant it was Seth, who had berated him for making a mess, he felt an asthma attack coming on.

He decided to get off the main drag and headed to Schoonmaker Beach, closer to where he was renting. The view of the sea and smell of the salt air were just what he needed right now. Sören took his Doc Martens and socks off to feel the sand on his bare feet, and got bold enough to go in the water up to his ankles. He wasn't bold enough to strip down to his underwear and go in deeper, though he thought about his trunks back at the house and going for a dip sometime during the week. In the meantime... the feel of the waves around his ankles and the breeze in his hair relaxed him. He saw some children playing in the water with their parents some feet away and that, too, put him in a better frame of mind, though it also gave him a little ache, as not having children was one of his regrets in life and he doubted at thirty-two and single that becoming a parent was in his future.

On the opposite end of the beach Sören heard drums, which intrigued him. He turned and saw a group of five hippies - two of them his age or younger, one late teens or early twenties, two who looked to be in their sixties or seventies. It was three men and two women, all wearing tie-dye, the younger woman was wearing a skirt and the older wearing shorts, and Sören noticed right away that the old man had long grey dreadlocks and a long beard, burly and ruddy-faced. They, too, made Sören smile, watching them drum and dance along with classic rock songs playing on a portable stereo, around a small bonfire. They were roasting marshmallows.

"Hey!" shouted the hippie woman around his age, with blonde dreads, slim figure, slight tan, gap-toothed, wearing lots of seashell jewelry. "I like your shirt!"

"You like KMFDM?" Sören was pleasantly surprised.

"KMFDM sucks!"

"A true fan, then." Sören grinned, "Sucks" was an older KMFDM song and "KMFDM sucks" was commonly used in the fanbase.

The woman made the "come here" gesture and Sören stepped back into the sand and walked over, cursing to himself that he hadn't had the foresight to bring a towel and now he was going to have wet sand all over his feet when he had to put his socks and shoes back on.

When he arrived at their bonfire, the woman handed him a roasted marshmallow on a stick. "Here, you're cool, you get one."

"Takk," Sören said, and then, realizing it slipped out and the world didn't speak Icelandic, he said "thank you". The roasted marshmallow was delicious, but gooey, and some got on his shirt. "Ah, shit."

"Here." The old hippie man passed over a package of wet napkins, and Sören took one and rubbed at the marshmallow goo.

Then the older hippie woman, plump with long curly grey hair and a glittery silk bandana, dangling turquoise earrings, passed him a joint. Sören laughed and despite his asthma acting up earlier, he took a puff, knowing it would help relax him. It was only after he took a hit that his brain cautioned him that could have been laced, but they didn't look like they were on anything stronger than pot and maybe a little booze.

"You new in town?" the older woman asked.

Sören nodded. "Here for the summer."

"Where you from?"

"Oregon... by way of Iceland."

"Oh, wow. I couldn't place your accent. We're local. I'm Marguerite, this is my husband Herb, that's our son Matt -" She pointed to the youngest hippie, who had shoulder-length brown hair, tall and lanky, a bit of a sunburn. "And Matt's friend Lucas and his girlfriend Sharon." Lucas had long auburn hair in a ponytail and was pale, freckled, wearing glasses. He was also on the skinny side, and judging from his arms and legs and what Sören could see poking out of his T-shirt, hairy too. Lucas had gauge plugs in his ears like Sören did, though Lucas's lobes were stretched much more - Sören wore small gauges.

"I'm Sören. Nice to meet you."

"How are you liking Sausalito?"

"It's got a nice vibe. Though I've only been here less than a day."

"You like it here in the US?"

"I'm becoming a citizen next year. I still visit home sometimes, but this is home now too, I guess."

"Iceland's a beautiful country," Herb spoke up. "Got the aurora and all those waterfalls and volcanoes... I don't think I'd want to leave if I lived there."

"It's gorgeous," Sören said. "I had problems with my family." He didn't know why he was telling this to total strangers, but they put him at ease.

"Aw, that's rough. Well, come hang with us for awhile," Marguerite said, and passed the joint to him again.

"You don't know me," Sören said, laughing nervously. "I could be a serial killer or something."

"Nah. You've got a nice aura," Marguerite said, narrowing her eyes at him. That was when Sören noticed she was wearing a crystal point pendant and several gemstone bracelets, chips and nuggets - he recognized rose quartz, amethyst, and fluorite.

Then "White Room" by Cream came on the stereo. Lucas turned it up and began to play along on the bongos. Marguerite played a doumbek while Herb played a bodhran. Matt shook maracas while he danced, and Sharon took Sören's hands and began twirling him around. Sören felt a little weird dancing with someone he didn't know here on a public beach, but he got into it - the simple happiness of the group was infectious. At "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix, Marguerite passed the doumbek to Sören and Matt took the bodhran as she danced with Herb. Sören liked drumming at least as much as he liked dancing, and liked it even more when he had another couple puffs on a joint.

Herb offered him a Dos Equis from a cooler and Sören declined. "I can't really drink much on my meds," he said. "I prefer weed, anyway. And it's better for my anxiety than what I'm on."

"Weed is the best," Herb said, puffing on the joint.

Then Sören - who was now feeling the buzz kick in - started laughing, and said, "So if you're Herb and smoking herb... is that a kind of cannibalism?"

He worried then that he'd said something extremely stupid, but Herb laughed hard enough to cough, smoke coming out of his nostrils. "My birthday's even on 4/20," Herb said.

"Aw, damn. I wish mine was."

"What sign are you?" Marguerite asked.

"Sagittarius." Sören smirked.

"That explains the traveling."

"I'm also a teacher and an artist," Sören said. "My cousin believes in all of that but I... I don't know what I believe."

"You're an old soul," Marguerite said, taking his hand, "but you've still got some learning to do." She patted him. "And some healing. It's why you came here to the Bay... you came here to find something your spirit needs to heal."

Sören was getting a little uncomfortable, but not enough to pick up and leave just yet. And the joint came back to him. Then there was "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin, which was fun to drum to, and fun to watch Sharon dancing, skirt swirling. It was kind of too bad Sharon had a boyfriend...

"You guys have been really great," Sören said, "but I don't want to be rude if you..."

"You're not imposing," Herb said. "We like making new friends. If you gotta run we understand, but maybe give us your cell number and we can get together for dinner or something, show you around the Bay Area."

"O-OK." And despite the weirdness of Marguerite's observations, Sören found he did like these people and felt all right around them. Sören didn't exactly have a lot of friends, being a shy introvert - though he had to fake extraversion in his job as an art professor, which wore him out some days - and the bullied little kid inside him started to perk up. They like me? If Sören was a dog his tail would be wagging. Sören jotted down his cell number and Herb and Marguerite gave him their cell numbers as well. After a moment Sharon did too, which Lucas seemed rather relaxed about.

"And here's a token of our friendship." Herb passed Sören a plastic baggie with a gram of weed.

Sören's eyes widened. "Oh no, I can't accept that for free..."

"Why not?"

"Because." It was a rich green color, and when Sören opened the bag to smell it his suspicions were confirmed. "That's good weed, you could make money selling it..."

"Money's not really an issue for us."

Sören guessed so, if they could afford to live in Marin County, but that wasn't the point. "Let me pay you..."

"Well, if you want to pay, I could sell you more than that."

If marijuana wasn't legal in California, Sören's hackles would be up, wondering if this was a sting operation - he was careful about who he did business with in Oregon before it was legalized there; now he grew his own, but didn't want to risk bringing it across state lines, even where it was legal - the kind of weed he grew could be smelled through a backpack or luggage. But weed was legal in California, and Sören was somehow not surprised that they would have a decent quantity on them.

"OK... if you want an eighth, it's fifty, or I could give you a quarter for eighty."

Sören raised an eyebrow. It was good weed but that was a bit steep, and Sören was making himself live on a budget since he already was spending a lot on renting the house in Sausalito; he was glad Mark wasn't shopping exclusively at Whole Foods or someplace similar and asking him to split the grocery bill. And Sören realized then that was probably how these hippies could afford to live in Marin County, if they were selling weed at these prices. He didn't want to say "no thanks", not simply because he didn't want to be rude, but he also didn't know what his odds would be of finding "the good shit" at a reasonable price, if he might find another offer with an even worse deal...

Sören thought for a moment, and then he had an idea. "So I mentioned I'm a professional artist... if you want to sell me an eighth for thirty, I'll sketch you to make up the rest."

Herb and Marguerite looked at each other. "Here? Now?" Herb asked.

"Sure, why not?"

"OK."

Sören took out his sketch pad and colored pencils, and Herb and Marguerite posed. Sören sketched as the music continued to play and the weed buzz continued to settle in, opening his mind and helping him to get in "the zone". As with most of his art, Sören tended to embellish on reality a little bit, putting something mythical in the piece, and here he made Herb look a bit like the Green Man, and Marguerite became The High Priestess from Tarot. When he was done, Marguerite actually shrieked at the sketch and got up to give Sören a tight hug.

"Here man, have a full quarter," Herb said, taking out a baggie from a backpack. "We're gonna frame that."

"It was just a sketch..." Sören took the quarter, but felt awkward again. Awkward and good at the same time - that warm glow of pride that somebody liked his work. Seth had been so insulting about it - it's any wonder you got a job teaching art, when you're such a hack - and he never took compliments for granted anymore. "If you like that, you ought to see my painting."

"Oh, we'd love to see it!" Marguerite's face lit up.

"I have a portfolio back at the house I'm renting, but I could bring it next time..."

"Yeah, about next time. There's gonna be a drum circle here on Wednesday night, for the solstice, if you want to come," Herb said. "You could leave your portfolio at your place and bring it another time we hang out."

"Er. Well I mean, I'm not Pagan or anything..." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls.

"Don't have to be."

"I don't own a drum, either."

"There'll be drums to borrow. Wednesday night, seven o'clock. You want to bring a friend, that's fine too. We just ask no weapons, no narcotics, we're there to have fun."

"OK."

After another roasted marshmallow and a couple more songs, Sören decided he better head back. Sharon and Marguerite went in the water with him - again, Sören only went up to his ankles - and then they let him borrow a towel before he put his socks and boots back on. Sharon and Lucas offered to drive him back in their van, but Sören said he was good with walking and would see them on Wednesday, though as he walked back he lamented that he didn't take them up on their offer and sneak a few last looks at Sharon before Wednesday. She wasn't conventionally attractive but there was a glow and sweetness to her that made her beautiful to him.

Mark - who absolutely did look like a model, making Sören fluster again at his chiseled face, long glossy hair and trim body - was reading The Stand by Stephen King when Sören got in. It wasn't quite eight, but Mark said "I can start dinner now if you're hungry."

"OK," Sören said.

They had grilled cheese and a homemade tortilla soup on the deck; it was nice to eat in companionable silence, watching the ocean. After dinner Sören did the dishes, and then he finally got around to the task of unpacking his backpack and suitcase, as well as charging his phone and putting the quarter of weed in a safe place. He had some art supplies to tide him over, but he was looking forward to the UPS shipment on Tuesday, which he was going to have to stick around for. Even though the buzz was wearing off, sketching on the beach - and the enjoyment of his sketch - had put him in the mood to create a little more, and that was what he did as he heard Mark playing his guitar in the living room. Eventually Mark stopped - Sören heard him leave the house, presumably to take a walk - and the silence felt almost painful. He put on his headphones, in the mood for something more ambient, but that made him drowsy after a time as well, and at last he just sat, pushing his project off to the side. Sören started to fall asleep in the chair at the desk in his room with his headphones on, and then he was startled by Mark standing in the doorway of his room. Sören pulled his headphones down.

"Sören, go to bed. And turn the light off."

"Yes, Dad," Sören grumbled.

Mark gave him a look. "Did you take your night meds?"

"Shit, no..."

Mark raised an eyebrow. He walked off, and a moment later Mark came back with Sören's med minder and a glass of water.

"Takk." Sören took his meds, and looked up at Mark, who was watching him. "I can't believe I forgot..."

"You smoked pot today, didn't you?"

"Jæja." Sören looked down.

"I could smell it on you when you came home."

"I toke up once in awhile, yes. It's legal here and in Oregon. I can do it outside if you'd rather..."

"I didn't say I disapproved - it's not the same thing as cigarettes, that I disapprove of - but next time you toke up, try to be mindful of things like, you know, not missing a medication dose. I don't want you to have problems going into withdrawal or something."

Then Mark looked down at the seascape Sören was working on with oil pastels. The seascape had the beginnings of a mermaid. "That's pretty." Mark looked immediately sheepish about saying it, like "pretty" wasn't the right word.

"Takk, it's not done yet..." Sören rubbed his chin. "I gotta wash my hands, too. And get out of these clothes."

Mark looked away. "All right. Good night, Sören." Mark walked out of the bedroom and lingered at the door. "Sleep well."

"You too, when you get there."

Sören detected the faintest hint of sadness on Mark's face as he walked off. Sören wondered about why Mark was here by himself, why a good-looking, talented guy like him slept alone... the story of his PTSD, the melancholy in his song last night. None of that is any of my business unless he wants to share it with me.

Sören washed the oil pastel off his hands, brushed his teeth, stripped down to his boxer-briefs and hit the light.

As Sören got under the covers he thought about the happy hippie couples on the beach, the casual friendliness and warmth that seemed to come so easily to them and was difficult for someone like him, sensitive as he was. He thought about Marguerite's insight. You came here to find something your spirit needs to heal. It seemed like New Age types were always saying stuff like that - his cousin Ari was like that too - but somehow, it felt more true this time. Like this summer had been fated. 

Sören thought about how he'd visited Ari in 2012 and on the winter solstice Ari spun a globe blindfolded and his finger landed on the Pacific Northwest and Oregon State University was in fact hiring, when Sören felt like a change of scenery was in order, like he was wearing out his welcome in Toronto. And then a couple months ago he'd asked Ari to put the other forty-nine states into a hat and what he pulled out would be where he went for vacation - Ari pulled California, though it had been Sören's decision to make that vacation in Sausalito after doing some research. 

And here he was, coincidentally renting the same house with a co-worker who also happened to have mental health issues. He'd asked Ari to randomly pick a state out of a hat on a lark, but things were no longer feeling quite so random or coincidental.

That's just the leftover weed in your system talking, now. Go the fuck to sleep.

Sören closed his eyes, hugged Eeyore tighter, and began the deep breathing exercises Ari had taught him.

Chapter Text

Melancholy Man

 

Monday came, and with it the promise to spend time with Mark, working towards friendship. Sören woke up at ten AM, earlier than his one PM rise the previous day, but Mark was already awake - he could hear Mark puttering around in the kitchen. Sören saw as he peeled the covers back that he was just in boxer-briefs and didn't want a repeat of Mark seeing him in his underwear with even less clothing than before. He quickly ducked into the bathroom, and took a shower to try to help himself wake up.

When he came out, freshly changed into jean shorts and a Super Mario T-shirt, he saw Mark sitting in the living room, writing in a paper journal.

"Good morning," Mark said without looking up. "And it is actually morning this time."

"Jæja." Then Sören realized he needed to take his meds and instead of the med minder being in the kitchen, Mark had brought it into the bedroom last night. Sören went back into the bedroom, grabbed his med minder, and took his meds with iced coffee. He went out on the deck, looking at the beach, and after a few minutes of drinking coffee and breathing the salt air, continuing to try to wake up, Mark joined him on the deck.

"Did you have anywhere in particular you wanted to go today?" Sören asked.

"Where did you go yesterday?"

"Mostly walked around Bridgeway. There was a lot to see. Went to Schoonmaker Beach for a bit."

"Is that where you smoked -"

Sören nodded. "Some hippies on the beach, offered me a hit from their joint."

"Jesus Christ, Sören, you ought to be more careful than that. It could have been laced -"

"I know." The words came out a bit more forcefully than Sören had intended; if anyone knew about surprise substances it was Sören, who had been roofied at a party in Toronto and raped, several months before he decided to leave for the States. "But they seemed mostly harmless." Sören threw the Douglas Adams quote in for levity; Mark's arms were still folded, his face stony. "And as you can see, I'm fine. I also scored some good weed out of it if you're interested in partaking..."

"...I don't, but thank you."

Sören raised an eyebrow at that. "You live in Oregon, you have long hair, you're a musician, and... you don't smoke weed. Really."

"My only vice is alcohol and that I try to be moderate about." Mark looked away. "I don't always succeed there."

Sören snorted. "I bet seeing you drunk would be interesting."

"It's unlikely to happen, if you have to watch your own alcohol intake on your meds. Anyway... shall we get going?"

Sören nodded. "I walked, and would recommend that we walk rather than drive for this. We can take your car if we go other places, just..."

"That was the plan."

Walking down Bridgeway with Mark was a bit of a different experience than seeing it by himself, though Sören appreciated that Mark didn't make small talk - Sören was terrible at small talk - and only spoke when he had something to say, which mostly was commentary on the art at the galleries or items sold at the shops - some of which was snarky commentary about fashion or impracticality of various accessories or furnishings.

Finally, as they stopped at a taco shack for lunch - which was easier on Sören's budget than the bistro he'd been to yesterday, and the food felt a little more authentic - Mark said, "It's amazing how much this town has changed since the last time I've been here."

"Oh, this isn't your first time here?"

"No. It was why I got a rental here... nostalgia reasons, I guess you could call it. This town used to be a lot more residential, while it always had a bit of tourism, but now it's very touristy." Mark made a face. "I was picturing something more quiet and sleepy when I'd made the booking."

"Oh." Sören frowned. "Well I mean we're technically tourists too..."

"Yes, but. I don't know. It's me being a grumpy old man. I'd probably complain less if people were actually having a good time out here that didn't involve, like, posting pictures of what they're eating to Facebook and Instagram."

Sören laughed. "I fucking hate Facebook. I'm only on there because my brother's on there and he defaults to telling people stuff on Facebook, but I don't sign in very often."

"That's good. Well, I mean... I shouldn't be so judgmental, maybe. You have family to keep in touch with. It just makes me feel a little less... out of step with the world to know I'm not alone in my hatred of social media."

"It's not just you." Sören sipped his drink. "I did take some pictures yesterday, couple selfies too, but mostly I was just looking around, taking it all in."

They continued walking after they ate, going to the boardwalk on the southern end of Bridgeway. "This was in a movie," Mark told him.

"Really?"

"The Lady From Shanghai. Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles."

"Wow, that's old." Sören's eyebrows shot up. "You like old movies?"

"I don't know about 'like', but I've seen a number of them, yes." Mark looked out at the sea.

"That's something we could do then, if you wanted to. Watch old movies. From when the world was in black and white."

Mark looked back at Sören, with eyes narrowed. Sören gave him an innocent face that wasn't, really.

"The world was not in black and white then, Sören."

"How do you know? Were you there?" And at the filthy look Mark gave him, Sören elbowed him, laughing. "Sorry, I had to. I imagine in ten years when I'm your age I'll probably be sensitive about the old people jokes, too. But I was serious about watching 'classic films'." Sören made air quotes. "It would expand my horizons a little - I don't think I've seen anything older than E.T. I know about Orson Welles because of history, but -"

"Are you serious."

Sören nodded solemnly. "Now classic books, and of course the old masters - that I'm familiar with. I have kind of an obsession with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - don't get me started about Dante Gabriel Rossetti - and even though my work isn't Impressionist or post-Impressionist at all I can go on forever about Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir..."

"Do you like classical music at all?"

"I haven't really heard much of that, either."

"Blasphemy."

"I know."

"Well, Sören, to be honest with you, not all old movies are worth watching - Plan 9 From Outer Space comes immediately to mind, though something tells me you'd enjoy it... but older music, as in a few centuries old, is worth listening to, and that is something I feel more inclined to share. Though I could be persuaded to watch a few classic films as well."

"Like Plan 9 From Outer Space?"

"No, Sören, we are not watching that."

Mark and Sören headed back. Once they arrived at the house, Sören brought out the oil pastel project he'd started last night, while the sea was fresh on his mind. He thought of Sharon again as he worked on the mermaid, and found himself drawing Sharon as the mermaid with the pastels. He would give this to her, though he felt self-conscious about having a little crush on a girl he didn't even know, really, who had a boyfriend. But he remembered her dancing, and her simple happiness - the sort of bubbliness that Seth stole from him.

And as he drew, Mark pulled out his keyboard and said to Sören, "This is 'Moonlight Sonata' by Beethoven."

It made Sören's hair stand on end, bringing tears to his eyes. Sören blended the pastels to create a night sky with the moon, a feeling of yearning now, not so much for Sharon herself as the happiness that she reminded him of, that he'd lost. The deep melancholy in the notes of the piano, the mental image of Mark watching the moon at the sea and feeling that same envy of happy people, his own wonder if he'd ever be happy again, not wanting to dare to hope...

When Mark stopped the song, he looked a little shaken, as shaken as Sören felt hearing it. Mark got up and stretched, and said, "I'll be back in a bit," and before Sören could ask, Mark went out to the deck, and Sören saw him go down the stairs, presumably heading out to the beach. Sören knew he probably needed to be alone, and Sören himself welcomed the silence as he continued to color and blend.

After close to an hour Mark came back. He looked a little damp, which suggested that he'd gone into the water at least partway. "I'm going to take a shower and then get started on dinner," Mark said.

"OK."

Sören tried to not look in the direction of the bathroom when he heard the shower turn off, but he did as Mark came out in a towel, and Sören caught the briefest glimpse of him with his hair completely soaked, beads of water clinging to his toned, muscular body - he was built like a soldier, and there was a scar on his right shoulder like he'd taken a bullet. Sören wondered about it as he looked away, face burning, knowing he shouldn't have looked.

Mark came back out in a Def Leppard T-shirt and jeans, and put the stereo on as he got to work in the kitchen. The classic rock station played and Sören thought of the hippies again. And Sharon. He thought about calling her, and held back.

Mark made shrimp scampi with a side of greens; they ate on the deck, watching the sunset. After Sören did the dishes he finally remarked on the music. "What you played was gorgeous."

"Thank you."

"I'd like to hear more Beethoven."

"Tomorrow, perhaps?"

"OK, but the night's still young." Sören didn't quite want to be alone right now.

"Well... you know, we could see the film I told you about."

Mark purchased a copy online, and the flat screen TV in the living room had access to the Internet. They watched The Lady From Shanghai together, which was neither the best movie Sören had ever seen nor the worst. When the movie was over, Mark asked Sören, "What did you think?"

"I think I'm glad my life isn't that complicated," Sören said, not really thinking about his response, just saying the first thing that came into his head. "Who the hell wants to fake their own death, anyway?"

Mark gave him a thin smile. "All right, it's getting late."

"It's not that late."

"You have UPS coming tomorrow, yes? They sometimes deliver earlier than you've gotten up the last couple of days. I'd recommend setting your alarm, too."

"Ugh, you're right." Sören facepalmed. "Well, thank you for the company today."

"You're welcome." Mark's smile was less thin now, and Sören smiled back. God, he's gorgeous, Sören thought to himself for what felt like the hundredth time.


_

That night Sören dreamed of the house of mirrors that had been at the end of the movie, but each mirror was another universe, and in some of the mirrors when he looked at himself, he was looking at a man who looked very much like Mark but somehow was not him, wearing a scarlet robe and a silver crown set with three blazing white gems. And then, like the shootout that had happened at the end of the movie in the house of mirrors, bullets were flying, and Mark was in the uniform of a soldier - what Sören recognized as American World War II uniforms from learning about them in history. A bullet hit Mark in the right shoulder, and Sören shoved him down on the ground before he could get hit with another one. Mark was bleeding, and Sören drew on his knowledge from med school to try to take care of the wound. Mark's blood was all over his hands. Then "Moonlight Sonata" was playing again and Sören's forehead was pressed against his; they were both bleeding together. The flame tattoos on Sören's arm were actually burning, as was the phoenix on his back. 

Mark held Sören as he burned, and cried "No, don't leave me again -"


_


Sören woke up just before his alarm went off, heart racing. His first instinct was to check on Mark, to make sure he was OK.

Despite Mark's snarky commentary on Sören sleeping in, and admonishment to set the alarm to be up in time for UPS in case they delivered closer to nine than the middle of the day, Mark was sleeping soundly in his bed. Sören watched the rise and fall of his chest, the proof that he was still breathing.

Then Mark sat up with a start, gasping, and when he saw Sören he glared, before taking a couple of deep breaths.

"Oh god." Sören realized then that with Mark having PTSD, he was probably a light sleeper and the movement outside the bedroom door was enough to startle him awake...

Mark confirmed that by saying, "Light sleeper."

"I'm sorry." Sören swallowed hard and looked down. "I wanted to make sure you were OK..."

And Sören realized that his own trauma issues were coming into play as well. When his mother had laid down for a nap, and it was the last time she closed her eyes... a few hours later when she wouldn't respond to the children calling her, Sören came to check on her and she wasn't breathing...

"You look like you've seen a ghost, Sören. You all right?" Mark raised an eyebrow.

"Um." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls. He did not need to think about that trauma right now, which felt ancient and still recent all at once. Time doesn't heal all wounds, just makes them easier to ignore."You want some coffee?"

"OK, I guess."

Sören stumbled into the kitchen in his boxer-briefs and the T-shirt he was wearing yesterday, and poured them each a cup of iced coffee. He worked on making another pitcher of iced coffee, much as his eyes were still bleary and his body protested at being awake now, wanting to crawl back into bed. Mark finally came out in a Metallica T-shirt and jeans, hair disheveled, and Sören thought he looked even sexier with his hair messed up.

Stop that.

"Here," Sören said, handing him the cup, and then Sören set about taking his morning meds.

"So... you wanted to check on me."

Sören let out a deep sigh. "Let it go, Mark."

"I would let it go but it's clearly bothering you."

"I had a bad dream, and... well. My mother died when I was almost six, I was the one who found her body. She died in her sleep, taking a nap - brain aneurysm, the coroner said."

"Jesus." Mark put his coffee down and pinched the bridge of his nose. "That's awful, Sören."

"I felt like I was responsible somehow, like I could have saved her if I knew what to do, even though later on I knew that wasn't right, but it's how some people cope with things, when life feels out of control, we try to take back control in dysfunctional ways, like believing we're responsible for things that aren't our fault. I decided after she died that I wanted to be a doctor, and I went to med school."

"But you're... not a doctor now."

"No. I couldn't handle seeing people die during my internship and when I lost a patient who looked like my mother just before the holidays in 2004, I." Sören showed Mark his wrists - underneath the tattoos were a series of scars. "I slit my wrists and overdosed on a bunch of shit."

"Sören. I don't know what to say."

Sören nodded. "So I... sometimes I get paranoid, and I really did not mean to wake you up and startle you like that. I imagine you have your own trauma about being woken up, just like I get paranoid with people sleeping..."

"Could say that, yes."

Trying to mentally connect the dots with Mark's PTSD, even though he knew he shouldn't, Sören looked at Mark's badly scarred right hand, and remembered the scarring he'd seen on Mark's right shoulder which did not make him look any less delicious shirtless and fresh from the shower. Sören's face burned again at the memory, and to try to get it out of his mind he kept staring at Mark's hand, even though he knew that was rude; Mark saw Sören staring at his hand and he said, "It's an old war wound."

"Iraq? Afghanistan?" Sören did the mental math and Mark was the right age to have been in the second Gulf War in the years immediately after 9/11.

"It's also a sore subject."

"Sorry." Sören frowned into his coffee. "Well, this morning is off to a fucking great start."

"Could be worse." Mark glanced at Sören over his coffee. "At least we haven't had an earthquake. Yet."

"Eh, we get little earthquakes all the time where I'm from. It's volcanoes that you have to worry about. I keep wondering when Mt. Hood is gonna blow. Fuck that shit when it does, we should be OK down in Corvallis but, like, Gresham is done."

"This conversation is getting more and more pleasant all the time."

"It is, isn't it? Let's talk about something more positive... like the Spanish Inquisition."

Mark actually laughed at that, and it made Sören grin and laugh too. He realized it was the first time he'd ever really seen Mark have a full-bodied laugh, and he kept smiling when Mark calmed down enough to finish his coffee.

Then Mark began to rummage around in the fridge. "I'm making breakfast."

"Hi Making Breakfast, I'm Sören."

Mark glared at Sören over his shoulder. Sören pouted and said "Hey, you wanted to lighten the mood a bit -"

"I know. Anyway, I am making eggs. You are having them with me."

"I told you I don't do breakfast -"

"Try it this once?"

"Oh, all right."

"How do you take your eggs?"

"Ah, I usually don't. It's been awhile, but... scrambled, I guess."

"Omelet OK?"

"OK."

Sören went to put on jean shorts and a Joy Division shirt while Mark cooked - once again painfully aware Mark had seen him in his underwear - and a little while later Mark handed him a plate with a perfectly fluffy cheese omelet that had leftover salsa in it from the nachos they made on their first night. It smelled delicious enough that Sören decided he was in fact in the mood to eat even though there was still a lingering desire to crawl back into bed.

When Sören did dishes after breakfast, Mark did some warmup exercises on the keyboard and Sören was reminded of the haunting "Moonlight Sonata". And he thought of the painting, of Sharon, and realized he felt drawn to Sharon because the few memories of his mother he had, she had been the same way - laughing, dancing, singing, kind to everyone, made more remarkable for being widowed at a young age. It was the same sort of optimism he'd tried to cultivate after his bipolar diagnosis, when he met people in the mental health system who were arguably far worse off than he was, and he tried to keep a sense of perspective, that he didn't have it as bad as some. He'd tried to see that he'd been given another lease on life, after his suicide attempt. But then one thing happened after another. Losing his sister... then the art scene in Toronto, which led to the party scene and being roofied... then coming out to Oregon and finding Seth...

The memory of Sören's sister - a transgender woman named Margrét - was particularly painful. Margrét had been killed by Sören's abusive uncle Einar, married to his father's sister Katrín, and it was made to look like an accident, but Sören knew better. Sören had left Iceland not long after that, because he was tempted to kill Einar and Katrín both, not just for what had happened to Margrét, but for the hell his aunt and uncle had put them through - his sister, his twin brother Dagnýr, and their cousin Ari, who had grown up with them like a sibling. And he still missed Margrét terribly. He'd been closer to her than his brother, initially, only really bonding with Dagnýr after he went to stay with his brother in Toronto, which was where Sören went back to school and got his doctorate at the age of twenty-seven.

He hadn't spoken to Dagnýr in a couple of weeks - Dag knew he was going to Sausalito, and the dates of his stay, and Dag tended to worry about him. Sören wasn't in the mood to check Facebook - he was hoping to avoid Facebook as much as possible this summer - so he called Dag's cell phone. At least this time he was a couple hours behind, rather than being a few hours ahead, so he knew he wouldn't be waking his brother up.

"Sören."

"Dag! Sorry I didn't call sooner..."

"It's fine, I've just been playing a thousand worst-case scenarios in my mind about what could have happened to you."

"No, I've just been settling in and all that shit. Still not completely settled in yet, waiting on UPS to bring my art supplies sometime today."

"OK. I'll try not to worry, then. Though... you're sharing that house, right? Have you met your roommate yet? Are they decent?"

"It's one of my colleagues, Mark Lowry. He teaches music theory."

"Did you know that he was going to be sharing the house with you?"

"No."

"That's... a weird coincidence, then." Dag's voice lowered to a near-whisper. "You think he's stalking you?"

"Jesus Christ, Dag. No. Come on."

"After that fuckhead Seth..."

"He's not Seth." Sören's voice said that forcefully enough that he saw Mark look up and give him a funny look, and Sören facepalmed. Great. "Really. Things have been fine."

"I don't know. It just seems weird..."

"Here. Let me just..." Sören walked across the living room and handed the phone to Mark. "Will you say something to my idiot brother, so he doesn't think I'm in some sort of danger?"

Mark took the phone and said, "Hi, Sören's brother. I'm not a serial killer." He handed the phone back to Sören.

Sören couldn't resist. "Hi Not A Serial Killer, I'm -"

"BUT HE SURE TRIES MY PATIENCE." Mark gave Sören a look.

"Well, at least I know if he kills you, there's a valid reason," Dag quipped.

"Yeah, fuck you too," Sören said.

"I shouldn't worry so much. I know. I know I'm being a paranoid pain in the ass. But..."

"Well, we've lost family. It's... understandable. Really though, it's lovely here, Mark is cool... this promises to be a good vacation. The first nice thing I've done for myself in a long time."

"OK. I'll take your word for it."

"How about you? Enjoying your summer off? How are the kids?"

Dag had a five-year-old twin son and daughter - named Magnús and Margrét, the boy named for their sister's pre-transition name - and he was raising them as a single father, after the death of his late partner. More than once, Dag had offered Sören a chance to come back to Toronto and help with the kids, but Sören was reluctant to leave his teaching job behind, or the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, which he'd fallen in love with. As importantly, he had a sense of independence that he hadn't had living with Dag, and he felt like if Dag was going to move on with his life and eventually find his kids another stepfather or stepmother his chances were better without his brother living with him.

Dag took Sören's inquiry as an excuse to put the kids on the phone, who babbled to him in a charming mix of Icelandic and English. They had gotten a goldfish tank, and Magnús was disappointed the fish didn't do tricks, and little Margrét was now fascinated by marine biology and Dag was letting her watch old Jacques Cousteau documentaries, who she called "the old French guy with the red hat". She proclaimed that she, too, would be a marine biologist someday.

"I'm not surprised one of your kids wants to be a scientist already," Sören said when Dag got back on the phone; Dagnýr Sigurdsson was a well-known astrophysicist who had worked on the Large Hadron Collider and was published in several scientific periodicals, as well as co-author of a book with Neil Degrasse Tyson.

"I am. She gets to see firsthand how boring the life of an academic is. But maybe she'll go on deep sea expeditions when she grows up, or something."

"I seem to recall you at her age saying you wanted to be a scientist when you grew up."

"Have we grown up? Who the fuck let us be adults?"

Sören laughed.

"You know it's true, Sören. I tell people I had kids so I have an excuse to play with Legos and eat fruit snacks, still."

Sören laughed harder. "I'm a little envious."

"Grass is always greener, and all that. It's more work than play. And I probably worry about my kids too much, too, after Sarah -"

"Yeah." Sören sighed. "I know."

"Anyway, UPS hasn't come yet?"

"No, not that I'm aware of."

"I better let you go so you're not on the phone when they come... you know, if they come anytime soon."

"I bet that I got up early and everything for this and they're not even going to come until close to five. But OK."

"Try to remember to call me, if you're not checking Facebook. Doesn't have to be every day or even every week, but... you know."

"I know." Sören wished he could give his brother a hug right now. "Love you."

"Love you too."

Sören hit End, and leaned against the cupboard, taking a deep breath. Then there was a loud knock at the door.

Mark answered - Sören recognized the brown uniform of UPS. Mark stepped aside and Sören signed for the package, and then Mark helped Sören drag it inside. Mark produced a utility knife that had a boxcutter attached, and Sören opened up the package and started carrying his supplies in trips to the bedroom - easel, then a stack of canvases, then his bin of paints, then his bin of brushes and cleaner.

Mark lingered at the bedroom door, watching Sören get set up. Before Mark could walk away, Sören noticed the sadness on his face. "You all right?"

"Yeah. I just..." Mark looked away. "It's nothing."

"It's not nothing." Sören realized the tables were turned from this morning.

"Hearing you talk to your brother, well. I miss my brothers, is all."

"Oh. Why don't you call them?"

"They're dead, Sören."

"Oh. Shit. Oh, Mark, I'm sorry..."

Mark looked down. "Yeah. Me too."

And without thinking about it, Sören crossed the room and gave Mark a hug. Sören had been hesitant to touch Mark before this, but now it felt like the right thing to do, and after a moment - a fraught moment when Sören worried Mark would push him away, offended, and things would be tense the rest of the summer - Mark put his arms around Sören, accepting the hug, returning it. Sören just held him for a moment, feeling dwarfed by his size; at six feet tall barefoot Sören wasn't short, but Mark had close to a foot on him, and it was one thing to stand and walk beside him, another thing for that kind of height to be right there. And yet, Mark felt safe rather than intimidating. A gentle giant, as broken as Sören was, and like Sören, determined to be careful with others and not hurt them, or do the best he could not to, anyway.

Sören could feel Mark get a little choked up, which brought tears to his own eyes. "Oh. Oh..." Sören's arms tightened around him, and he started to rock him.

After a few minutes, Mark tousled Sören's curls. "Thank you."

"Hey, look, I have an idea." Sören pulled apart slowly, reluctantly. "I was gonna work on art, but maybe it's better after the way today has gone so far that we're not hanging around the house thinking about stuff. Let's go out and do something."

"Such as..."

Sören rubbed his beard, thinking, and then it came to him. "There's a ferry that goes from Sausalito to San Francisco. Let's take the ferry to San Fran and... I don't know. Walk around, look at shit for a couple hours."

"That's a decent plan."

Mark drove them to where they needed to board the ferry, and it was a half-hour journey over the water. They sat together. Sören felt a little seasick at first, dizzy and legs wobbling, and Mark noticed his discomfort and began to sing.

Somewhere beyond the sea
Somewhere waiting for me
My lover stands on golden sands
And watches the ships that go sailin'

Somewhere beyond the sea
She's there watching for me
If I could fly like birds on high
Then straight to her arms
I'd go sailing


Mark's lovely tenor made Sören relax, and he relaxed more - though he also felt a little flutter - when Mark patted his knee at the end of the song.

"Deep breaths," Mark said.

"I can do this." Sören set his jaw. "I'm doing it."

"Good."

Sören quoted What About Bob, holding out his arms and yelling "I'M SAILING."

Mark grinned. "Hi Sailing, I'm -"

Sören gave him a withering look and Mark laughed. Then he tousled Sören's curls again, and Sören felt another flutter. That doesn't mean anything, stop noticing how... fucking... attractive he is when his face lights up.

Sören focused on the sea sparkling in the sunlight, the silver-blue waves. In his mind's eye he saw a flash of silver-blue eyes, that reminded him of Sharon's, only prettier. Long dark lashes... an intense, almost-angry look in them... but not anger. A frisson down Sören's spine, and then as quickly as the vision had come, it was gone, and it was just the water again. The sea, the sky, the distant shore. The salt breeze in the air, stirring his curls and Mark's long mane. He felt almost stupid at having had the motion sickness, with everything so peaceful out here. We could sail forever.

From the ferry building they got on the streetcar. Sören had taken the streetcar on his odd trips to Portland, but it was something else to get on the iconic streetcar and tour San Francisco that way. They just rode for one circuit, watching out the window and taking it in, and then they decided to get off at the Castro District, which was known as a gay mecca, and where the camera shop of Harvey Milk had been located. There was a lot of male eye candy walking around, which Sören noticed and appreciated, though his glance kept stealing to Mark, who Sören found more attractive than anyone on display, and was annoyed with himself for doing so.

Mark seemed less interested in the men strutting around as he was in the pipe organ at the Castro Theater. Sören snapped a few selfies at the historic landmark, and then a picture of him and Mark. Mark did not smile for the camera, and he gave Sören a stern look when Sören put his cell phone in his pocket.

"Sören, do me a favor, and don't post that to Facebook or anywhere on the public Internet."

"Aw, I wanted to show my brother, but OK." Sören frowned. "You don't want to be seen hanging out with me?"

"It's not that. I told you I hate social media and it's not just because people spend more time posting to Facebook than they spend actually enjoying the thing they're posting to Facebook about... it's privacy concerns. I keep a low profile, as low as I can teaching at a university. I have my reasons."

"OK. I was stalked for awhile, so I can't blame you."

"Seth?"

Sören pursed his lips, and just nodded.

"I overheard some of your conversation with your brother, and you'd mentioned Seth the other day, as offering to marry you once -"

"Jæja, so you know how you don't want to talk about being in the service? I... don't want to talk about Seth, if that's all the same to you."

"Fair enough. Here, it's warm out, let me get you a drink or something."

They stopped at a group of food trucks and got some water and a light lunch. Sören realized he'd been eating more than one meal a day since he went on this vacation and it was, in fact, helping with his mood and his concentration. He wondered if he'd keep the habit when the school year started again and he went back into nervous-ball-of-energy mode.

They took the streetcar back to the ferry station, and on the ferry ride back Sören immediately wished he hadn't eaten anything at all today, his stomach lurching. Mark gently rubbed his back and sang again. Sören calmed down, focusing on the beauty of the sparkling sea and the wide open sky once more. When the ferry dropped them off in Sausalito, before they could walk back to the car, Sören gave him another hug.

"Your singing is like magic," Sören said when he got in the passenger's seat.

"Awwww." Mark smiled. "Well, I'm glad it made you feel a little better."

"I feel a lot better, actually. That was a nice trip."

"It was."

"I think I'm getting to be OK with having you as a roommate for the summer. You're good company."

"You too."

As Mark pulled out, the classic rock station blaring "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sören said, "I'm going to a drum circle tomorrow night, at seven o'clock. You want to come with me? I was told I could bring a friend."

Mark gave him a peculiar look. "I didn't know you were the type of person to go to drum circles."

"If you mean am I some kind of witch or something, the answer is no. I don't really... I don't disbelieve in it, but I don't believe, either. I don't know what I believe. I'm Lutheran on paper, and I go to church on holidays but that's force of habit. I don't... anyway." The topic made Sören uncomfortable, as he'd heard from Ari that his aunt had gotten a bad case of religion the last several years. If she wants forgiveness she can start with confessing to the police her husband is a murderer, Sören had said about that. "It's not really a religious thing, it's a people-having-fun thing. So I was told."

"Which is... the other issue. I don't really do people. Or fun."

"I don't either, to be honest with you, or at least not after... some stuff..." Sören didn't want to talk about his club days in Toronto and the incident with being roofied and raped while unconscious. "But I'm making myself do it tomorrow night. And even though they have some rules - no weapons, no narcotics - I'd still feel better if I brought along someone I know. And you like music. That entire evening will be music and dancing. I thought that sort of thing would be -"

"I'll think about it?" Mark looked at the road. "That's the best answer I can give you. I won't and can't decide till tomorrow night. I don't want to tell you yes and then be in a horrible mood and have to say no and disappoint you."

"That's fair."

"I appreciate the invite, though." Mark tried to smile.

A few moments of silence passed between them, "Dream On" by Aerosmith playing on the radio, and then Sören observed aloud, "I get the sense that we're two people who both could really use a vacation from our problems."

"Probably."

Chapter Text

Let It Shine

 

On the day of the summer solstice, Sören took a late afternoon nap so he'd be better able to handle the party if it ran late, and when his alarm woke up, he stumbled out to get some iced coffee in the kitchen. Mark was in the living room, reading The Stand, and Sören paused on his way to the kitchen - Mark had yet to give him an answer about whether or not he was going.

Sören stood there, not saying anything, expecting Mark to get the hint and give him a response, but Mark continued reading his book. And then, at last, Mark looked up. "Hm?"

Sören folded his arms. "Well?"

"Well, what?"

"The drum circle tonight. Are you going?"

"No." Mark resumed reading.

Sören walked off with a huff. He knew, as he poured himself a cup of iced coffee, that he couldn't really be justifiably angry about it - he understood all too well what it was like to be an introvert with social anxiety. But he was disappointed - not just that he'd have to go there alone, which would heighten his own anxiety, but he'd been hoping Mark would in fact actually have fun even though he didn't "do" fun. And when Mark came into the kitchen, Sören found he couldn't just let it go, even though he disliked the idea of putting pressure on Mark and making him feel uncomfortable about it.

"Sören, please don't get mad at me. I already told you yesterday I wouldn't be able to decide till later, and you do realize that meant a chance of me saying no -"

"I do realize that, yes. I just." Sören frowned. "Was hoping you'd say yes." He looked down.

"I'm sorry."

Sören met his eyes. "So am I."

"...Oh no."

"Oh no what."

"Sören, you're looking at me like a sad stray puppy that wants to be pet and brought home." Mark put a hand on his hip.

"I'm not gonna argue with you, no is no, I just..." Sören shrugged. "Thought it would be nice. But I guess I'll have to go by myself." He pouted.

"Sören."

"What."

"Sören." Mark raised his eyebrows and then he closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and let out a deep sigh. "You and your... sad puppydog eyes... you win."

Sören put down his coffee and clapped like an overexcited big kid. "Yay!"

Mark facepalmed.


_


Mark decided to drive them there rather than walking. Sören brought along the oil pastel drawing of Sharon as a mermaid, to give to her. He was nervous enough about it to be quiet on the short trip in the car; Mark had the classic rock station playing. And then, just before they reached the parking lot, Sören saw Mark looking at the drawing in Sören's hands.

"That's really nice," Mark said.

"Oh." Sören flushed.

"I saw it when it was a work in progress and it was already looking good, but you did a fantastic job with the finished product."

Sören smiled.

"I take it that's for someone at the drum circle? Did you take a commission?"

"It's a gift."

"That's... that's very generous of you, to gift someone like that."

"Do you think it's too much...?"

"I think the person it's going to better appreciate it."

"I hope so too." Sören swallowed hard.

They were a few minutes early but there was already a healthy number of people around the bonfire - "Sören!" Sharon called as she saw them approaching, waving her hands. She was wearing a pink lace camisole with a rainbow tie-dye skirt and a matching tie-dye scarf. Sören broke out in a run, instantly regretting it when his asthma hit and he had to take a puff on his inhaler.

Sharon gave him a hug - Sören felt his cock stirring just a little - and then he handed her the picture. "Here," he said. "I drew this for you."

Sharon gasped. "Oh, my god." She hugged him again. "That's gorgeous! No one's ever made me a picture before! And I love mermaids, thank you!"

Her boyfriend Lucas came over then and Sharon said, "Look at this. Sören made that."

"Wow," Lucas said, smiling at Sharon, and then he glanced across the painting with narrow eyes as if to tell Sören, I don't like you. He put an arm around Sharon and kissed her on the cheek. "That's really cool."

Mark was at Sören's side now. "Sharon, Lucas, this is Mark, my roommate. Mark, this is Sharon and Lucas. And... Marguerite and Herb should be around here somewhere..."

Sharon pointed. They were helping to get the drums set up around the fire.

Mark looked at the people who were already gathered, and Sören could tell he was having second thoughts about coming. "How many more people are showing up to this thing?"

"Ah shit, I should have asked that before I invited you," Sören said, running a nervous hand through his curls, feeling like an idiot. There was a bit of a difference between a few people and several dozen.

"Not many," Sharon said.

"How many is not many?" Mark raised an eyebrow. "Two? Three? Three dozen?"

Sharon laughed. "A few more. Maybe less than a dozen, unless someone shows up with a carload of people we weren't expecting." She took Sören's hand, with Lucas's hand in the other. "Come on."

Mark followed Sören, Sharon, and Lucas to the bonfire. There was a mix of ages, the group was mostly white with a few black, Hispanic, and Asian attendants, and the group seemed pretty evenly divided by gender, with a few androgynous people; one of the androgynes, who was also one of the only Asians, was wearing a "My pronouns are they/them" sticker and handing out pronoun stickers to everyone, which Sören appreciated since his late sister was a trans woman. Sören and Mark both took "he/him" stickers, which Sören jokingly almost put on his forehead before sticking it on his shirt.

There were a couple coolers of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and a folding table set out with snacks of various kinds. Sören paused a moment to look at the cheese before Marguerite gave him a hug. Herb clapped him on the back and said, "Sören, glad you made it!"

"Herb, Marguerite, this is my friend Mark. Mark, these were the nice people who invited me to the drum circle."

Mark gave a polite wave. "So we just... grab a drum?"

"Yup, grab a drum if you want to drum," Herb said.

"I think I'll dance," Sören said, looking back over at Sharon.

Mark looked at the different drums, considering, and chose a djembe.

Sören spent the next four hours in a kind of trance, dancing wildly to the nearly two dozen drummers playing. Lucas was among the drummers, and Sharon danced. For a time he and Sharon danced separately, at opposite ends of the circle, but as the night wore on they began to dance together. Sören danced hard enough to work up a sweat - it was a warm night anyway - and at some point he took off his shirt. Then someone was lighting torches and passing them to those who wanted to dance with fire, and even though Sören was overheated he took a torch and danced around with it, hoping there wouldn't be an accident with anyone getting singed or burned. Some of the dancers had LED poi tools, lighting up the circle with neon colors, which reminded Sören of his club experiences in Toronto, but he wasn't triggered, and eventually he traded a torch to be able to play with a set of glow poi balls, weaving rainbow flowers around himself. Then Sharon had a set and the rainbow flowers looped together. Sören looked into Sharon's eyes and when she grinned at him, his breath caught.

God, I want her.

He felt stupid about it - she had a boyfriend, he didn't know anything about her except she liked KMFDM and pot - but there was an energy to her, a happiness, that made him feel warm and glowy around her.

In his self-consciousness, Sören started to think about leaving, even though the drum circle was still going strong. He looked around and his eyes rested on Mark, who was pounding away on the djembe. Mark smiled at him, and if Sharon gave him a flutter, Mark's smile made him feel like he'd been hit by a train. The way Mark transformed with the drum, going from melancholy and brooding to passionate intensity, looking so alive...

Sören's throat went dry. He grabbed water from the cooler, and then he brought one to Mark, even though he felt a little nervous as he approached him, and then a lot nervous as he got closer, like he was seeing Mark for the first time and he was some kind of rock star or god instead of the equally socially awkward introvert he'd been getting to know the last few days.

"Here," Sören said, holding out the water bottle.

Mark took it.

"Enjoying yourself?" Sören raised an eyebrow.

"Actually, yes." Mark grinned, and Sören's heart started pounding again. 

His hands shook with opening his own water bottle and drinking from it as he noticed Mark looking at him, noticing the sweat dripping down his chest, the damp curls. I must look like a drowned rat, Sören thought to himself as his lips wrapped around the water bottle, and then he saw Mark look away.

They spent another hour there, and at midnight, about a third of the drum circle started to leave. By twelve-thirty another few people were on their way off, and Mark got up to stretch and put the djembe back in the drum pile. Sören expected Mark to say it was time to go but instead Mark said, "I'll dance with you for a few minutes, then we leave."

Sören had never seen Mark dance - before that time, he didn't think Mark did or could dance. And though Mark was close to seven feet tall, he didn't look like an awkward giant at all, but moved gracefully, like liquid flame. His dance even seemed somewhat seductive, though Sören didn't think Mark was trying to seduce him or anyone there. Mark looked smooth enough that Sören - who had been dancing madly the entire night, not caring what anyone thought - felt like he looked ridiculous in comparison, but he still continued dancing, amused by the thought he might look like a dork. And then Mark was twirling him around, and then Sören was twirling Mark around, and then Mark picked him up off the ground, threw him in the air, and caught him, making Sören shriek with giddy laughter.

"OK, let's go," Mark said, grabbing Sören's hand.

Sören waved to Sharon and Herb and Marguerite. "Night guys, thank you for everything!"

"Give us a call and we'll get together sometime," Marguerite called back. "Your friend is invited too - you were awesome on the drums, by the way."

"Thank you," Mark said. "It was nice meeting you."

Sören grabbed his shirt and put it on before they got in the car. Once they were seated in Mark's Jaguar, they caught their breath for a few minutes, then looked at each other and laughed for no reason before Mark turned the ignition on.

"Aren't you glad I made you come?" Sören asked, and then he facepalmed, realizing too late how that sounded.

Mark had taken a sip of water from his bottle and he spat, turning bright red, shaking with silent laughter.

Sören laughed so hard he snorted, which made Mark laugh harder.

Finally Mark looked at Sören, opened his mouth to speak, and he could only say, "Er."

"Jæja, er. Sorry." Sören's own face was burning; now he had mental images of having sex with Mark, and his cock was responding. "I mean... brought you with me."

"Yes, Sören. Thank you for dragging me along." Mark patted his shoulder and began to pull out of the parking lot.

"I didn't just want someone to go with me so I'd feel less like a stranger, but I wanted you to have fun."

"It's been a long time since I've played music with other people outside the context of school, and I enjoyed that. Even if half the people there seemed to be of the impression patchouli oil is a substitute for bathing."

Sören snorted again. "I didn't notice, but then, I've been working up a sweat myself dancing." He lifted an arm, took a whiff, and made a face. "Phew, I need a shower when we get back."

"I do too - I smell like weed and I don't smoke - but you're welcome to it first."

We could shower together. Sören's face burned again. He pushed that thought away as quickly as he could. This is your roommate. Don't make shit awkward. Stop.

After a few minutes of continuing to come down from the high of the drumming and dancing, with the classic rock station playing Van Halen in the background, Mark finally asked, "So what's up with you and that girl, uh...?"

"Sharon?"

"Yes. You like her?"

"A little." Sören shrugged. "She's got a boyfriend, I don't think anything is going to come of that."

"She seemed to like being around you a lot, for someone who has a boyfriend."

"I guess? I dunno." Sören sipped his water. Then his asthma finally started to act up, after his lungs behaved themselves for four and a half hours of exertion. Mark watched with concern as Sören puffed from his inhaler, and Sören took a few deep breaths after that - the look Lucas had given him was fresh on his mind, and the quiet display of jealous aggression from another man was reminding him too much of Seth, even though Lucas otherwise looked nothing like Seth. Sören closed his eyes.

The simple act of closing his eyes and trying to zone out to the music made Sören doze off a little, with Mark shaking him gently a few minutes later. "We're here."

Sören blinked his eyes open.

"Are you going to be OK to shower?" Mark raised an eyebrow.

Sören nodded. Once he had water on his face he was usually alert enough to shower safely.

And once they were out of the car and in the house, they lingered for a few minutes before Sören said, "I guess I'll take that shower now."

"OK. And Sören, thank you again."

"Thank you. It was nice to see you enjoying yourself."

Their eyes met. "You too."

Sören walked to the bathroom and stripped down as the shower ran. Once he stepped inside, he masturbated for the first time in months, fantasizing about eating out Sharon, which turned into a fantasy of sucking off Mark. He came hard to the thought of Mark climaxing, and leaned against the shower wall, trying not to slide down the wall as his seed flowed over his hand into the drain.

Well, things just got awkward.

Chapter Text

Lost In A Lost World

 

For the next few days after Sören masturbated in the shower fantasizing about Mark, he avoided him as much as possible. It was impossible to completely avoid him, not simply because Mark was his roommate, but also because they were sharing meals, and Sören was genuinely fond of Mark and didn't want him to feel like he was being deliberately ignored and something was wrong; as a fellow socially awkward introvert Sören knew Mark would probably wonder if he'd said or done something to offend, and Sören didn't want Mark to beat himself up. But, every time Sören saw Mark, he was reminded of that delicious sexual fantasy he'd entertained and how hard he'd come.

And, as delicious as that fantasy had been, Sören didn't want to ask to make it a reality. He didn't want to strain things further if Mark wasn't interested, especially when they both taught at the same university and would be seeing each other around campus in the fall. And though it had been over six months now, Sören still felt raw after what happened with Seth. The masturbation in the shower had been the first time Sören had been feeling that randy in a long time, and he supposed it was a good sign that he was moving forward - indeed, he'd brought his toys with him on the odd chance he might want to use them finally, even considering that as a possibility was also a good sign. But Sören mostly just felt wary.

And that was what it all came down to. Sören didn't want to get hurt again. Not physically, not emotionally.

Yet, there was a gentleness to Mark, that made Sören let his guard down when they shared meals; Mark made him feel safe, and at ease despite the tension of having masturbated to him. There was a sadness to him, that Sören knew, one PTSD-addled survivor to another, Mark was careful around him, the same way he tried to be careful around Mark.

Sören managed to make the avoidance look not deliberate by setting up his easel and painting. He found himself working on a painting of Mark, dancing as he had at the drum circle... except that he felt weird about it being Mark, when he was so protective of his privacy, so Sören changed the facial features a bit - made them softer, more feminine. Fuller lips, like his own. Made the hair longer - much longer. Made the eyes purple. The dancer was bare-chested, with Sören remembering what Mark looked like fresh from the shower. And the dancer had veils in his hands. At first they were going to be the tie-dye scarves he'd seen people wearing at the drum circle, like Sharon, but this was no hippie, dancing on the sand. There was a dark sensuality to him. And so, he held dark veils. Underneath the fine work of Sören's brush, the veils began to glitter with stars, swirl with nebulas. In the night sky above the sea in the background, Sören painted storm clouds and lightning.

The man in Sören's painting seemed too beautiful to be real, and indeed, it was someone Sören had never seen before in his life, something out of his imagination. Sören felt utterly consumed by the project, and in those first few days following the drum circle he only left his room to use the bathroom, eat with Mark, and go on short walks down to the beach by himself to get some air. He'd spent so much time painting that by Saturday morning he was almost done - in fact the painting would be done if Sören hadn't felt like something was missing. But he didn't know what.

Then it came to him. In a distant corner of the sea flowing behind the dancer, Sören painted a bright light, something gleaming moving in the water. He added a faint iridescent rainbow effect to the white light, and then as he paused with the paintbrush in his hand, taking a few minutes to look at what he'd just done, and take the painting in again as a whole, to see if now it was done, he had a mental image of Mark throwing a brilliant gem into the sea, and in his mind's eye he saw the purple eyes of the dancer looking at him, and a whispered, seductively accented voice spoke

Beauty.

Sören gasped, and dropped the paintbrush on the floor. It wasn't the first time a painting had interacted with him, like he'd made something come to life, or perhaps accidentally channeled something, but this time felt more powerful than anything else.

The floor of Sören's room was bare wood, but there were Oriental rugs on the floor, and of course the paintbrush was on one of the rugs. "Oh, SHIT," Sören yelled, grabbing the paintbrush.

"Sören? Are you OK?" called Mark from the living room.

"Shit, shit, SHIT. Blóðugur helvítis fjandinn, helvítis tík..."

That response wasn't an answer to if he was all right or not, and just as Sören ran out to grab rubbing alcohol from the bathroom, Mark was in the doorway of his room and they were close enough to touch for the first time in days; Sören could feel Mark's breath. A frisson went down Sören's spine.

Mark folded his arms. "Sören?"

"I... dropped... paint. On the fucking rug. I need to get rubbing alcohol and a paper towel-"

"Mkay."

Mark walked off and came back with the requested items. "Takk," Sören said, and hunkered down on his hands and knees, Mark watching as he applied the peroxide to the paper towel and rubbed the spot on the carpet.

"I take it you've had experience with this before," Mark said.

"Jæja." Sören scowled. "I have wall-to-wall carpeting in my fucking house. I'd have it ripped out and just have a wood floor - would be better for my allergies and asthma - but I rent the house. Professor Dooku owns his and he's got wood." Sören pressed his forehead on the floor with a snort, shaking with silent laughter. "Er. Uh."

"I knew what you meant, Sören." There was laughter in Mark's voice.

Sören picked his head up, his eyes met Mark's, and they started laughing again.

Then Sören's mind went to the thought of Dooku with an erection - not at all an unpleasant thought; Sören had definitely found him infuriatingly attractive when they'd been feuding neighbors, but Dooku was another one where Sören tried to not look, let alone touch, not wanting to ruin what had become a lovely friendship by expressing any sort of attraction.

God, why am I like this. "Er, I need detergent." For my filthy mind, too.

There was a washer and dryer in the basement, and Mark came back with a small cup of laundry detergent. As Sören dabbed detergent onto what was left of the stain, he made a mental note that he needed to do laundry now that he'd been here a week. He'd been avoiding going into the basement because basements still reminded him of Seth...

The stain was finally gone after the detergent sat and Sören wiped at it with water, and Sören breathed a sigh of relief because replacing the rug would have been a bigger expense than he'd planned for. Then his relief turned to panic when he looked up and saw Mark look at the painting that had been eating Sören alive for the last few days.

"Oh." Sören was on his knees - painfully aware for a moment that he was level with Mark's crotch - and Sören leaned on his chair to get up. He looked at Mark, and then at the painting. "Jæja, that's my latest..."

"I see that."

Sören looked down at his feet, which were bare inside the house.

"That's almost like looking at a photo. Except... surreal." Mark's voice was soft.

"Oh, jæja, I try to paint my subjects photorealistic..."

"You succeeded." Mark looked back at Sören. "Who is that?"

"I don't know."

Mark scowled, as if he wasn't satisfied with that answer, and he looked at the painting again. "He looks a little like me, but I know that's... not me. And he looks a little, hm, younger, I don't know."

Sören came clean - or at least on this, anyway. "It started off as you, and then I remembered what you said about wanting to keep a low profile, so I, ah, changed it. I guess that's your long-lost, secret nephew or something." Sören gave a nervous laugh.

Mark narrowed his eyes and Sören stopped laughing, realizing he shouldn't have made that joke knowing Mark had dead brothers, but then Mark said, "How much?"

"How much for..."

Mark blinked slowly at Sören and said, as if he was trying to explain to a five-year-old, "The painting. How much do you want for the painting."

"I. Ah. Oh god." Sören flopped down on the edge of his bed. While he had an inkling that the painting might eventually be for sale, he hadn't had time to think of how much was fair to charge, and since he considered Mark a friend now he didn't feel right charging full price, whatever that even was. Sören rubbed his beard, trying to think, while Mark kept looking at the painting, mouth slightly open, pupils blown wide. Sören finally gestured to the chair in front of his easel. "Take a seat."

Mark sat, which gave him another view of the painting, more at eye level. He was scowling at it now, a furrow creased in his brow. He is more attractive than he has any right to be. Sören licked his lips, mouth dry, feeling even more nervous now, and he tried to pull himself together.

After another moment of silence Sören said, "You don't have to pay me money, I'd ask to eat free for the rest of the summer."

Mark gave a little laugh and then he glared at Sören. "That's not enough. Don't get me wrong - I'm happy to let you eat off me for the summer -" Sören's mind went immediately into the gutter, and at the way Mark blushed and looked away it became apparent Mark hadn't thought about his choice of words and was thinking about it now. Mark looked down, and continued, "But the expense of food for the next two months isn't near what this is worth. And if you think so, you're not charging enough for your labor."

Sören still didn't feel right about accepting money from him, so Sören thought about it, and then said, "OK... well, write me a song, then."

"You. What."

"You said you paid for your harp with a song. Pay for this with feeding me and... a song you compose."

Their eyes met. "Sören, normally I'd be happy to do that, but when I compose it's really personal -"

"But you paid for your harp with a song? Or did you know the person who made it, and..."

Mark looked away with a deep breath. "Those were in times when my music wasn't as..."

"As what?"

Mark looked down. There was a long moment of silence - Sören waited - and then Mark nodded. "OK, I'll write you a song. Though even that, I think you're selling your work short."

"I could say the same about you, just from what little I've heard of you playing and singing."

Their eyes met again, holding for longer.

Then Sören's phone went off in his pocket. Sören wanted to ignore it, but something told him not to. He took out his phone and saw Sharon's number.

"Sharon! Hi!"

"Sören, heya! I'm calling because me and Lucas and Matt and Marguerite and Herb are going to have a cookout with a couple friends on the beach tonight, if y'all want to come."

"Let me ask Mark..." Sören's eyebrows shot up and he hissed, "Mark, come with me to this cookout."

Mark folded his arms. "How many people?"

"Not many, I thiiiiink..." Sören spoke louder into the phone. "When you say 'a couple friends', you mean..."

"Like three or four max."

"Like three or four besides Sharon and her boyfriend and the nice old hippie couple and their son," Sören said to Mark. Then he made the puppydog face.

Mark let out a little sigh of resignation. "Dammit, Sören..." He nodded. "Kay."

"OK, we'll be there," Sören said back to Sharon. "What time?"

"Seven PM usual?"

"Should we bring anything?" Mark raised his voice.

"Whatever you feel like bringing," Sharon told Sören. "If you're on any kind of special diet or something then yeah, bring that, otherwise bring whatever."

"She said bring whatever," Sören said. "And seven is good, I think." Mark nodded.

"OK, see you then!" Sharon hung up.

"We're going to the store," Mark said.

"I love how you say 'we'," Sören snickered.

Mark raised an eyebrow. "If you're dragging me to a cookout, I'm dragging you to the store."

"Hi, Dragging You To The Store..."

Mark gave him a death glare, then he rolled his eyes, barely restraining a grin, and tweaked Sören's nose. "Come on, you."


_


Being in such close proximity in the car and walking around together at the store, Sören was once again reminded of his masturbation fantasy a few days ago, and couldn't help stealing glances at Mark every now and again, admiring him... and not just his looks, and the powerful, fluid grace of his movements, but he even smelled good, like the sea, petrichor, and an herb garden all at once. When they passed through the produce section and Mark picked up some fresh cut pineapple, Sören wondered what Mark actually tasted like, having heard that tropical fruits made one's semen taste better.

Mark got the makings for skewers, which Sören approved of, and Sören picked out a tray of cupcakes to bring along for dessert. Sören also picked up a box of orange creamsicles, a treat he hadn't had in a long time. When they got back to the house everything went into the fridge, except the creamsicles which went into the freezer; it was hot enough outside that Sören wanted a creamsicle right away, so he tore one out of the box and leaned against the kitchen counter.

Sören was alone in the kitchen and then Mark poked his head in. "I forgot to put gas in the car on the way back, do you need anything at a convenience store?"

Sören shook his head and said, "No," and then put the creamsicle back in his mouth.

"You sure."

Sören was sucking the creamsicle slowly, and when he saw the color in Mark's cheeks his own face started to burn. Sören's instinct was to pull the creamsicle out of his mouth, but it was hot enough that the creamsicle started to drip right away, and without thinking about it Sören chased the drips with his tongue, licking the creamsicle. Mark's eyes widened, then he turned away and Sören heard the jangle of his keys as he walked to the door. Sören felt like an ass - he hadn't meant to be inappropriate - and he nipped off the tip of the creamsicle. It was melting enough now that a piece landed on his T-shirt. Sören dabbed at it with a paper towel but it made a stain, and as he tried to get it with a wet paper towel another piece of creamsicle fell onto his shirt.

"Oh, fuck it."

Sören downed the rest of the orange creamsicle and pulled off his shirt on the way to the bedroom. He picked his way through his dwindling supply of clothing and glanced at the laundry bag hanging from the back of the bedroom door, which now had more clothes in it than what was hanging in the closet. There was no doubt about it, he was going to have to do laundry if he changed his shirt now, or he would have no clean clothes tomorrow.

He'd been dreading the basement, putting off laundry till the last possible moment. Now was the last possible moment. Sören took a few deep breaths. You can do this.

Sören's aversion to basements was such that he'd stopped doing laundry at his own house - where the washer and dryer was in the basement - and did his laundry at Dooku's once a week; Dooku's washer and dryer were in his pantry. Sören would have hired movers to bring the washer and dryer up from the basement except they had to be down there, his pantry had no room and no place to hook them up. Dooku didn't quite know the story of why Sören no longer went in the basement, though Sören imagined he wouldn't be surprised to find out, being Dooku knew most of what Seth had done. Sören didn't like talking about it. He didn't like thinking about it.

As he dragged his laundry bag to the top of the stairs leading down to the cellar, he thought about waiting till Mark got back - he was only going for a quick run to get gas, after all - but he felt like he was already being enough of a pain in the ass by asking Mark to go along to the cookout tonight, never mind asking to be handheld like a baby. Sören took a few deep breaths and started down the stairs, the laundry bag bumping behind him.

It's just a basement. Seth's not here. Seth's long gone. You got this.

Sören continued to take slow, deep breaths as he continued down the stairs, and once he was at the bottom of the stairs, inside the basement - laid out so much like his own, right down to the stone walls, the gritty texture of the floor, same weird pea green color of the washer and dryer - his breath came in more shallow gasps. His hands were shaking. The afternoon light even streamed in through the one small window the same way it had that afternoon...

Sören walked quickly to the washer. All of his clothing was dark colors, so there was no need to separate. He threw everything in, and added a cup of detergent. The detergent was a nice, pleasant lavender smell - Sören looked at the bottle and saw it was one of those eco-conscious brands, presumably left by the house's owners. Sören took a whiff before adding the cup of detergent, and then he started the washer machine. It was an older machine, like the ones in the basement of his own home - a surprising contrast between a "green" detergent and older machines that were less efficient and used more water and power. It also made a lot of noise. Sören checked the time on his phone and set the phone alarm for forty-five minutes. Before he could head back up the stairs, he tripped on his shoelace, which had come untied on the way down, and took a spill on the cold basement floor, falling with a cry.

After laying dazed for a moment, pain throbbing through his body, he checked to see if anything was sprained or broken. As far as he could tell nothing was, but he'd taken a hard enough fall on the rough texture of the floor to have skinned a knee and an elbow. He was going to need to clean the wounds and dress them as soon as possible.

First, he tied his shoe and then he rose up, slowly, hanging onto the dryer. Just then the washer entered its first major cycle, even louder than before, obnoxiously loud enough that Sören winced. And as he was bent over the dryer, his eyes caught the box of fabric softener sheets - so much for eco-friendly, Sören thought to himself - but the box looked close to being empty, and, having an ADD moment, he was distracted from his wounds long enough to decide to take a guess at how many sheets were left, to tell Mark in case he used them...

...He felt the presence before he saw the shadow, looming over his own. Sören startled, dropping the box of fabric softener sheets on the floor, with the remainder tumbling out onto the floor. And he just froze. He was bent over the dryer, just like when...

"Sören? You OK?"

Sören made a noise that sounded like a strangled whimper. His entire body was shaking, locked up, lost in the flashback of being bent over the dryer, Seth...

"Sören. You're bleeding..." A gentle touch near the bleeding elbow.

"Don't you fucking TOUCH ME, you son of a bitch -"

And then Sören realized he wasn't yelling at Seth, but a very stricken-looking Mark - Mark, who didn't look anything like Seth - who now took a couple steps back.

"Oh god. Oh god, Mark..." Sören tried to take a couple deep breaths. Tears were burning his eyes.

He was getting blood on the floor - like the way Seth made me bleed, after - and there were the fabric softener sheets. Needing to try to snap himself out of the flashback, Sören stooped down to pick up the fabric softener sheets, his hands continuing to shake. "I... I knocked what was left of the fabric softener sheets all over the floor. I've got dryer balls in my laundry bag, but Mark, I'm sorry if you use the sheets..." I can't do anything right.

"Sören. Never mind that right now. You're hurt..." Their eyes met. "I came down because the basement door was open and you weren't around and then suddenly I heard you yell and..."

"Jæja, I was just doing laundry, nobody broke in..." But of course, what Mark didn't know was that fear was a little too close to Sören's reality. His voice broke and he started to sob.

"Sören. Let's get you upstairs, OK?"

Mark led the way, Sören following; every few steps Mark looked over his shoulder. When they were at the top of the stairs, Mark charged off and came back with a first aid kit. He pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and watched as Sören began to clean and dress his wounds.

"I would offer to help, but." Mark looked away.

"Oh god, Mark." Sören realized that with the awkwardness of the creamsicle scene just before Mark went out for gas, he probably thought Sören was yelling at him, and Sören felt terrible. "No, please..." Please was such an awkward word for him still, even as he'd been away from Iceland since 2006, having to learn social graces abroad. "It wasn't you. I..." Tears came to Sören's eyes again, and his voice broke once more as he choked out, "I was having a flashback."

Their eyes met. Mark's own eyes were too bright now. He slowly reached out a hand, and Sören nodded, and Mark put it on his shoulder, patting him. "I'm sorry. I know what those are like."

"I bet."

"You want to talk about it?"

"Not right now." Sören took a few more deep breaths, continuing to shake with his tears and the leftover panic response in the basement, though Mark's hand on his shoulder was comforting. But the hurt in Mark's eyes... knowing Mark lived with his own private hell, too, whatever it was...

Sören started to ugly cry, making a mess all over his new clean shirt with snot. Mark walked off and came back with a box of tissues. He pulled up a chair at the table after he passed the box to Sören, who soaked through a few tissues very quickly, sobbing. It's been over six months since Seth and I broke up, and it still feels like everything happened yesterday. I hate that he owns my head like this, still. And Sören knew from his trauma with other things - being roofied and raped in Toronto, the physical and verbal abuse from his aunt and uncle growing up, the bullying in school - that just like those things still hurt and made him feel powerless years later, even with therapy and meds, this was going to keep hurting him, keep having power over him, for years to come...

"Can I get you anything?"

"Water?"

Mark got up, got Sören ice water, and sat back down.

"Is there anything I can do for you right now to help you feel safe?" Mark asked.

Sören took a deep breath. "Honestly?"

"I wouldn't ask if I didn't want you to be honest, Sören."

"When my wash is done, I... I don't want to go back in the basement." Sören made a face. "I know I have to go down there the next time I do laundry, but..."

"Well, I can go down with you the next time, if it spooks you. I'm not great in dark, small enclosed spaces myself..." Mark cringed, and Sören wondered now what he was remembering - and realizing that Mark had faced his own fear to help Sören when he heard the yell and thought the worst, made Sören start sobbing all over again. "But I'm probably better at it than you are right now. And as far as when your wash is done, I can throw stuff in the dryer for you this time. What setting do you use?"

"Low." And then Sören pursed his lips - he didn't want Mark to trigger himself trying to help him be less triggered in the basement, that wasn't fair either. "If you hate basements as much as I do, we should just go to a laundromat."

"Oh thank god." Mark let out a nervous laugh. "Now I can do that without worrying you'd judge me -"

"Oh my god, are you serious? You worried about that? Even though you know I have mental health issues too?"

"Some of the worst crap I've ever seen is from people who say they struggle with mental health issues but they 'overcome' with 'willpower' and..." Mark shook his head. "If only it were that easy. I didn't necessarily think you'd be one of them, but I've learned to keep some things to myself so I don't hear about how if I just 'tried harder' or did exposure therapy or this or that I wouldn't feel like I was drowning in something that resembles a cell."

"Mark... forgive me for asking this... but were you a prisoner of war?"

Mark looked away, and his gaze was very far away. "Yes and no."

That answer made no sense, but Sören would accept it, already feeling like he was prying by asking.

Sören sipped his ice water, tears subsiding a little, and then he held out his arms. Mark took the hug, hugging Sören tight.

When they pulled apart, Mark asked him, "Are you still up for going to the cookout? I can make skewers here if you're not up for it."

"Part of me wants to stay here and decompress from... that..." Sören made a vague hand gesture towards the basement. "But I know if I do I'm just going to feel sad all night and it'll be even more of a vicious cycle with being pissed off at myself for one more thing that níðingr stole from me. So I ought to go, for mental health reasons. Unless you're too triggered -"

"No, if you want to go, then I better go with you, for the same reasons. Well... not the same. Well... sort of. I don't know."

Sören realized Mark could probably guess who he was referring to with the ancient curse word, though he hadn't come right out and said what had happened. Sören finished his ice water, and he and Mark sat in silence, till Sören's phone alarm went off. "Dryer time," Sören said, apologetically.

Mark nodded, and got up.

When Mark was downstairs, Sören realized He isn't just going down there where he's uncomfortable, but I basically asked him to touch my underwear. This is getting more and more awkward all the time.


_


In addition to the cupcakes and the ingredients for skewers, Mark brought his acoustic guitar to the beach. Sharon bounced up and down, waving, as she saw Sören carrying the cupcake tray and Mark carrying a grocery bag and his guitar slung over an arm. Sören waved back with his free hand.

"Oh my goodness, are you OK?" Sharon asked, looking at Sören's bandaged-up elbow and knee.

"Jæja, I tripped when I was doing laundry." Sören caught the scent of patchouli and lavender as he came closer to Sharon, who took the cupcake tray.

Sharon, Lucas, Matt, Herb and Marguerite were joined by one of the African-Americans who'd been at the drum circle, and two middle-aged white guys who Sören could tell were gay by their body language with each other, and were wearing wedding rings. "Sören, Mark, that's Thomas," Marguerite said, pointing to the tall black gentleman, who looked to be about the same age as the gay couple, "and Bill and Ted."

"Are... are your names seriously Bill and Ted." Mark raised an eyebrow.

"That's excellent," Sören said, getting that reference.

"Oh my gawd, we get that all the time," Bill said with an eyeroll.

"You might even say it's... bogus." Ted grinned, and Bill swatted him in the shoulder; Thomas smacked Ted in the back of the head.

As the cookout started, with Mark and Herb at the grill, it came out that Thomas, Bill and Ted were in a polyamorous triad. They were all computer programmers which was how they knew Lucas, who apparently was a computer programmer also. And it came out that Marguerite owned a boutique on Bridgeway, specializing in "unique artistic home decor", and Sharon was one of her employees. Matt was a student at UC Berkeley, going into computer science; Lucas had been his tutor and they got to be friends. Sören started to get the sense that Matt and Lucas were a little more than friends, and wondered if Sharon knew. He decided it probably wasn't his business.

That got Sören to briefly, casually mention his job as an art teacher, and Mark as a music theory teacher. And then, when the skewers were ready - chicken, mushrooms, peppers, onion, pineapple, grilled to perfection - Bill asked Sören and Mark, "So how long have you guys been together?"

Sören almost choked on his chicken, and before he could say "we're not", Mark beat him to it.

"We're not exactly together," Mark said.

"Oh, FWBs?" Ted asked, raising an eyebrow, looking Sören up and down.

Sören was starting to feel like he was the meat being served instead of the burgers Herb had on the grill. He didn't think he or Mark was obviously queer, though Sören had been accused of being a "stereotype" by Seth more than once, and it was indeed a stereotype that art and music professionals tended to swing that way; Sören wondered if the invite to the cookout was anyone trying to set people up, assuming that all the queer guys would be interested in fucking, which was an assumption that had started to get old about ten years ago.

"I'm not on the market," Sören said, "if that's what you're asking."

"Pity," Ted said, and Bill nodded.

"I'm not either," Mark said.

"We like friends though," Sören said. "Friend friends."

But then Sören's curiosity was answered when Thomas said, "Sharon showed us the portrait you did of her as a mermaid and Marguerite and Herb showed us the sketch of them and we like it very, very much."

"Oh, takk," Sören said, and then he added quickly, "Thank you," remembering people didn't usually speak Icelandic outside of Iceland.

"You Danish?" Ted asked.

"Icelandic."

"Oh, nice."

"Beautiful people," Bill added.

"Anyway," Thomas said, "we wanted to know if we could commission you."

"Depends on the commission," Sören said mildly, sipping the orange soda he was nursing.

Thomas looked at Bill and Ted. "The three of us, together."

"Together as in... not safe for work? I can do erotic art but it's extra." And it's not an invite to shag, he added silently in his head.

"Together as in, what you're comfortable with. We admit our first preference would be a more sensual pose, but we can go for something romantic and not too sexy if you'd rather."

Sören worked on his skewer, considering. "I was almost a doctor so I can handle seeing the naked body without reacting." Unless it's Mark, apparently. Though Sören hadn't seen Mark fully nude - but what he had seen had been enough to get his blood racing. "So I'll tell you what. I'll give you my rates for what it would be per hour for a nude piece and for a non-nude piece and you can decide."

Thomas looked at Bill and Ted again, and the three men nodded.

Sören gave his usual rates. Mark cringed a little - Sören could tell Mark was thinking they were too low, but Sören found from past experience a lot of people thought art wasn't work and were barely willing to pay a fair minimum wage per hour for a commissioned portrait, let alone something above that. It was why Sören rarely took commissions, preferring to sell finished pieces only. That, and he preferred having full creative control over something as sometimes - often - the work took on a life of its own, going where it wanted to. He didn't have that same freedom when he was hired to paint someone else's vision.

After Sören gave his quote, he nibbled on the skewer and Bill made a noise of disgust. Ted shook his head and said, "I'm sorry, honey. You're good but you're not that good."

It stung. Sören didn't know how to even respond to that; before he could say anything, Mark was on it, snarling "The fuck is your problem?" Mark dropped his skewer and gave the men a filthy look.

Your art's not that great. Seth's words in Sören's head. And Einar's: I don't know why you waste your time with that stupid shit.

Even though he was considered good enough to be an art professor - one who consistently got good ratings on Rate My Professor, praising both his art and his teaching style - and he'd had exhibits at galleries in Portland, Seattle, Toronto and Montreal, and he'd sold at least fifty paintings over the last ten years, Sören felt all those insecurities well up. He knew that art was subjective and not everyone had the same tastes, but he was the kind of person where if ninety-nine people liked something and one didn't, the one criticism was going to stick in his head more than the praise. And this criticism hit a nerve.

"I'm just telling it like it is," Ted said, and Bill nodded. "I don't know why he needs to charge that much."

"Yes, God fucking forbid people make a living wage for their work," Mark said, sounding like he was personally offended even though the criticism hadn't even been at him. He put down his plate of food and got up.

"Oh please," Bill said. "It isn't that hard to twirl a brush around, kids do that in kindergarten for free. Makes you wonder what else he's charging for, Mr. I'm Not On the Market, hmmm?" Bill winked at Sören and mimed a kiss.

Mark decked Bill, who fell over in the sand. Ted and Thomas got up and lunged for Mark, and Sören tugged on Mark's arm, yanking him back. "Let's go," Sören said.

Mark spat, grabbed his guitar case, and as Sören had dragged him away from the fight, now Mark was dragging Sören to the car.

"Yeah, honey, let your pimp take you home," Ted jeered.

"You. Fucking. Filth." Mark's eyes flashed, and he was ready to run back for more, and Sören got in his path and pushed Mark towards the car.

"Let's go," Sören said more firmly.

Mark took a deep breath, gave a small nod, and said, "Sorry."

"Don't... be sorry." Sören found Mark's explosion strangely comforting rather than triggering. "I just don't want trouble with the police."

"Yeah, we better get out of here."

"Sören! Wait!" Sharon was running after them.

Sören turned around, and Sharon gave him a hug. She looked like she was crying. "I'm sorry those guys were such fucking assholes to you," she said.

"Jæja, me too." Sören rubbed his beard.

"Lucas thought it would be a good idea to invite them..."

Of course he did. Sören had a feeling now that he had been set up to be humiliated, and he didn't like it. It also meant Lucas saw him as a threat, and he didn't know if he should find that to be a confidence booster or slightly worrisome. "I see. Well... we're not going back over there, and to be honest, we're probably not going to accept any more invites to do stuff."

"Awww, but I understand. Can you keep in touch with me, at least?" Sharon gave him a sad smile.

And Sören nodded. He patted her on the shoulder. "You, I will."

"Thanks. And for what it's worth, I don't think you charge enough for your art." Sharon hugged him again. She looked at Mark, silently mouthed "you're fucking awesome" and then she ran back to the cookout.

"Mkay." Mark opened the passenger door for Sören. "Get in."

When they were on the road, Mark and Sören looked at each other and Mark said, "You only took a few bites of one skewer."

"And I didn't touch the burger. So much for dinner. Which is too bad because that skewer was fucking amazing."

"I'll make them again some other night. I'd offer to cook once we get back to the house, but I don't think it's a hot idea for me to be around knives right now..." Mark rolled his eyes with a little smile, to show he was joking; Sören managed a grin. "And I'd have to go back to the store and it's just been... a day."

"It has."

"We can stop somewhere and get dinner..."

"I don't want to deal with crowds or people." Sören made a face.

They hit a McDonald's drive-thru and ate in the car, pulled over. Mark looked a bit disgruntled. "I never eat McDonald's, and I never eat in my car," Mark said.

"There's a first time for everything."

"I guess so. It could be worse, I suppose."

"I would have suggested In N Out -"

Mark gave Sören a wide-eyed look and Sören laughed so hard he sprayed french fries on himself, which made Mark double over laughing, making inhuman noises.

"In N Out is a restaurant," Sören said when they calmed down. "Please don't tell me you haven't heard of it. And you've been to Sausalito before, and the chain isn't exactly new, so..."

"Yeah." Mark looked out the window, and Sören wondered when the last time was that he'd been to Sausalito, and under what circumstances, that he wouldn't have seen an In N Out around.

"Anyway... I've never been to California myself, before now, but I've heard of In N Out, because, well, you know. I'm forever twelve like that, and so's my brother, and he asked me 'are you gonna eat at In N Out hurr hurr' when I told him where I was going. So I made him a promise I'd go there at least once, and I hear their burgers are pretty good. But there's no drive thru at the location here, so... McDonald's."

"Here." Mark gave Sören one of his chicken nuggets. He put it in Sören's mouth like Sören was a cat taking a treat. "I'm sorry today was such a clusterfuck. And your friends..."

Sören shrugged. "Eh. I don't need friends who are just gonna sit around and let people talk shit to my face. It's disappointing, but."

"Yeah. I know. Especially with people like us, we don't make friends easily."

"No, we don't." Their eyes met. "But you know what? I'm more disappointed that I didn't get to hear you play guitar."

When they got back at the house, Mark gestured for Sören to follow him outside. Mark carried his guitar case; they walked down to the beach, and they sat together in the sand, watching the waves.

"I think I know what would make you feel better right now," Mark said.

He started to play and Sören's eyes teared up with a mixture of happiness and sadness - touched by the gesture - at the familiar opening notes. Mark's tenor sang

There's a lady who's sure
All that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Oh oh oh oh and she's buying a stairway to heaven


When the song was over, Sören said, "Takk," softly.

"I remember you telling me your mom sang you that as a lullaby when you were small..."

Sören nodded. "I can't believe you remember that." Gentle teasing. "But you didn't remember In N Out is a restaurant."

"Yeah." Mark rolled his eyes. "Well, brains are funny that way."

"Can we..." Sören looked up at the stars. "I don't want to go in just yet. Can we sit out here a little while longer? Do you mind playing another song?"

"No, I don't mind. You have any requests?"

Sören tried to think, and his mind drew a blank. He was exhausted from all the adrenaline of the day. "Something you want to play." Sören grinned. "You like hair bands, don't you?"

"I do, but Def Leppard, Motley Crue, and whatever is probably not what we need right now. But. I think I've got something."

Sören vaguely recognized the acoustic intro from classic rock radio, but not well enough to place it. Mark sang:

So you think that it's over, say your love has finally reached the end
Any time you call, night or day, I'll be right there for you
If you need a friend

It's gonna take a little time, time is sure to mend your broken heart
But don't you even worry, pretty darlin', 'cos I know you'll find love again

Love is all around you, love is knockin' outside your door
Waitin' for you is this love made just for two
Keep an open heart and you'll find love again, I know


When the song was over, Sören was quiet - a reverent hush came over him, the song was downright pretty and not what he'd expected for a hair band song. And then Sören asked, "What was that?"

"'Love Song' by Tesla. One of my favorites." Mark grinned sheepishly.

"When was that?"

"1989."

"So you were... fourteen?" Sören did the math. "I'm trying to picture fourteen year old you with teased hair and eyeliner and shit..."

"Hells, Sören."

"I want yearbook pictures."

"No. You don't." Mark patted his shoulder. "Let's go inside before I get tempted to play something cheesier."

Sören's laundry had long since been done, and Mark brought it upstairs.

"I'm gonna zone out for awhile," Mark said when he dropped the bag off in Sören's room.

"Hi, Gonna Zone Out For Awhile -"

"Sören, I swear."

"Sorry."

"No, you're not." Mark gave him a stern look, but there was mirth in his eyes.

"OK, well... thank you for, well, everything today. Especially the laundry." Sören took a whiff, enjoying that fresh-laundry smell.

"You're welcome. And, well... to keep destressing from today, do you want to get out of the house tomorrow? Do something lame and touristy?"

"That sounds good." Sören nodded.

"OK." Mark lingered, and then he gave a little wave. "Night, Sören."

"Night." Sören sighed when he heard the door to Mark's bedroom close - Mark didn't usually sleep with the door closed, which Sören now guessed was due to his dislike of enclosed spaces. He wondered if Mark was feeling emotional and didn't want Sören to see him cry; Sören felt like crying again, himself.

Chapter Text

Up All Night

 

The next day, Sören and Mark decided that their "lame and touristy" activity to get out of the house would be to visit the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Sören had seen pictures of it since he was a child, but now he was actually on the Golden Gate Bridge with Mark. Sören had taken several photos with his cell phone camera for his own posterity - some when they were driving there and the bridge was at a distance, and most from the bridge itself. Sören snapped a few selfies; Mark conceded to be in one photo if Sören promised not to post it anywhere public.

However, Sören shared Mark's sentiment about people who went places and spent more time taking photos and engaging with social media liveblogging the experience than actually being immersed in the experience, so most of his time atop the bridge was just walking around, standing and looking at the view, taking it all in.

After they stood for awhile, watching the Bay, Sören said, "This really gives me a sense of perspective."

Mark nodded. "I imagine it would give anyone with a soul a sense of perspective."

"Well, jæja, I mean, it's a lovely piece of architecture, a fine testament to the human ability to create and make magnificent things. But it isn't just that. It's..." Sören gestured. "It's a big bridge. I don't just mean that it's physically big and we're small in comparison, but standing here, right now, someplace I only used to admire in books and magazines when I was a kid... the world is a much bigger place than I know. I've lived in three different countries, which is a lot for a lot of people, and yet it's still..." Sören paused, searching for the right words. "It's not all there is to see. I wanted to travel, when I was small, and my aunt and uncle thought that was ridiculous - their entire world was Akureyri, their idea of anyplace big and important was Reykjavik. They were convinced I'd never amount to anything so me thinking of going anyplace else was just a stupid pipe dream to them. And yet, here I am. Seeing someplace famous. And feeling like there's so much more of the world to explore, to take in."

Mark said nothing, though his brow furrowed.

"You've done some traveling, já?"

"A bit."

And then Sören felt stupid and self-conscious. "Oh. You've been in the service, you've seen war." Sören facepalmed. "Ohgod. I -"

"No, it's fine." Mark's tone had a slight edge to it, like it wasn't really fine. His long hair stirred in the breeze, and Sören watched it, fascinated. He has such nice hair. And yet, there was a sadness in his eyes that kept it from being full-on ogling. Sören wondered what he was thinking, what he was feeling.

"I'm guessing we have a different perspective on seeing the world," Sören said.

"Sometimes it's nice to stay in one place for awhile and have a quiet, boring life." Their eyes met, briefly, then Mark looked back at the Bay, almost like he was searching for something.

"The grass is always greener, I guess. Well, not much grass up here." Sören laughed self-consciously. "I could have brought some."

"This is probably a bad place not to be sober."

"True." Sören took a deep breath, thinking of accidental deaths... and not so accidental. "This is probably a bad place to be too sober, too."

"Too sober." Mark gave a bitter little laugh. "Yes, that... sounds like a very familiar frame of mind, right there."

"I honestly could have seen this place years ago, if I'd gotten a wild hair up my ass and asked Dag to take me on vacation. But, ah." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls, feeling weird about being this honest and raw in front of someone he didn't know terribly well yet, and yet, after yesterday, there was an understanding; Mark got him. "Let's just say that years ago it might have been a bad idea."

"You mentioned you tried to kill yourself in 2004."

"I wish I could say that was the first and last time I thought about suicide. I was a quiet, depressed kid, I remember thinking about suicide way the hell back when I was nine. Not planning it, but still... thinking about it. Normal, well-adjusted nine-year-olds don't think about killing themselves. In hindsight it was understandable, with the abuse from my aunt and uncle, and being picked on in school as one of the smart kids, but." Sören shrugged. "I thought about it all through my teenage years, finally attempted it when I was twenty. My brother pushed me to go back to school when I moved in with him in Toronto and amazingly, I managed to get a Ph.D., but the way there was hell, and I walked close to the edge a few times. My own lifestyle choices probably made things worse." Sören thought about the college party scene, the drugs and meaningless sex. He'd done ecstasy and ketamine more times than he could count. He remembered the comedown - the night terrors, sleep paralysis, paranoia, the crash in his mood. That was a walk in the park compared to the night he got roofied in 2011. He hadn't touched E or K since then. "Though the worst of those thoughts, since 2004, wasn't when I was living with Dag, it was after..." Sören's voice trailed off, feeling like he was being unfair by dumping all this on Mark when they'd come here to have fun and relax.

"After what, Sören?"

"Forget it. It's not important."

Mark gave him a look. "It is to me."

There was a lump in Sören's throat, touched by the care and concern in those silver eyes, in his voice.

"So, I mentioned I was in a car accident back in December, it's why I don't drive, and why Professor Dooku has been driving me around Corvallis. What I didn't tell you is how."

Mark waited.

Sören went on. "I was seeing this guy Seth, for about a year and a half. First three months were fine, he started to get a little weird around six months. Things... got worse. A lot worse. He was verbally abusive - for awhile it was just verbal abuse. Then it was also physical abuse. It wasn't every day, but it had a pattern. If you're wondering why it lasted a year and a half, I tried to break up with him more than once. First few times I got sucked back in with 'baby I'll change' and the song and dance of making me feel sorry for him. Then." Sören closed his eyes. "That panic attack in the basement yesterday..."

"...was because of him."

Sören opened his eyes. Mark's gaze held his. Sören just nodded. "I was down in the basement, doing laundry. Seth got in and..."

"Hells." Mark's jaw set. Sören could feel the anger emanating from him, thrumming like a storm. "He..." Mark already knew without Sören saying it.

"He raped me, yes. It wasn't the first time... and he wasn't the first person to rape me, I was roofied at a party when I lived in Toronto. But that time in the basement was particularly... unpleasant. He invited himself over after that, and tried to move in with me while I was too shell-shocked to fight him off. He was in my car on the way back from the store, and tried to manhandle me and something in my brain just snapped and I tried to defend myself and that got... ugly. I lost control of the wheel and crashed the car. He was mostly unscathed, I had a concussion, a dislocated shoulder, and a couple broken ribs. Thankfully nobody else was hurt... well, just a tree. Professor Dooku beat the shit out of him and Seth left town, though he told me what happened on his way out. It wasn't the first time Nico kicked his ass, either - Seth made the mistake of backhanding me in front of him one day - but this time it was pretty brutal."

"One of these days I should buy that man a drink. The professor, I mean, not your shitbag ex."

"I knew who you meant." Sören sighed. "If you're wondering why I didn't go to the police, well... the way the police and court system handles rape in this country leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you've ever had a promiscuous sex history - which I did in Toronto, and Seth had a white-collar job, he could afford a better lawyer... I didn't want to go to all that trouble of re-traumatizing myself with a rape kit and having to prove what happened for what I knew would be a losing battle. I feel guilty about it, which is not an emotion I really need to have on top of everything else, like I 'let him get away with it', but..."

"Sören, I don't even know what to say. 'I'm sorry' doesn't really cut it. You've been through a special kind of hell."

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have unloaded like that when..."

"No. You needed to get it out."

"I suppose." Sören looked back at the Bay. "Anyway... it was early December, the accident happened. And at least a few times since then I've had the thought of 'it would have been better if I died in that accident, it would have been better if he killed me'. It's not anything I plan, it's just thoughts. My psychiatrist and therapist tell me there's a difference between suicidal ideation and suicidal intent. It's intrusive thoughts, I can usually distract myself. I'm not going to jump from the bridge. It's... it's kind of amazing that I can stand here right now and say no, I'm not jumping from this bridge. That a few months ago I just kind of wanted to slowly drift away, could barely get through each day, didn't have a lot of hope for the future and now I'm thinking 'hmmm, it might be nice to travel and see more of the world.'"

"Sören, can I..."

Sören put out his arms, and Mark hugged him. When they pulled apart, Sören saw Mark was a little teary. "I'm glad you're at a place again where you're thinking about the future," Mark said. "And I, for one, am glad you didn't succeed with..."

Sören looked down. "Well, I mean, a lot of people say things like that to be nice..."

"No, I really mean it. I'm glad I met you and I'm glad I'm getting a chance to get to know you and Sören I swear if you say 'Hi Glad' -"

Sören's laughter rang out. He bat his eyes and gave Mark his best innocent face, which wasn't innocent at all. "Would I do that?"

"Yes. Yes you would."

"That's another thing." Sören was serious again. "I joke a lot because humor is how I cope. A lot of people assume that the funniest people are the happiest, but -"

"Comedians have a disproportionately high rate of mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicide. No, Sören, I already knew you being 'the funny guy' was not because you don't take anything seriously, but precisely because of how things weigh you down."

Sören nodded. "And I like making other people laugh. It's one of the reasons why my students like me. If I get to be too much of a pain in the ass, though..."

"I'll let you know."

Sören frowned. "Seth often told me I wasn't funny. There was a period of some months there where I wasn't joking around or really myself at all... so I suppose I'm getting back to the way I used to be, before him. Except hopefully stronger this time." Sören swallowed hard.

Mark patted his shoulder. "It sounds that way."

"Takk."

They fell back into silence, watching the Bay, looking around at the vastness of the structure of the bridge. And it seemed to Sören then that having that catharsis here was powerful - he was burning one more bridge to his past and the power it held over him, building a new bridge of trust and emotional intimacy, after keeping people at arm's length for so long.


_


After opening up on the bridge, Sören went back into his shell a little over the next few days. He and Mark still had dinner together, and interacted off and on, but Sören didn't invite him to go anywhere, and Mark didn't invite Sören either. Even though Sören was the one who had started keeping a distance again - feeling self-conscious that he'd opened up so much - he was worried that he might have said or done something to offend Mark or otherwise make him uncomfortable, and relieved when Mark stopped in the doorway of his bedroom and said, "I need to make a grocery run tomorrow. You want to come along?"

Sören nodded.

"You want to go anywhere first?" Mark shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I was going to ask you sooner than this, but I didn't know if you needed some space after our talk on the bridge, if anything was upsetting you..."

"Oh god." Sören rubbed his face. "No, it was." Sören looked down. "I thought I put my foot in it..."

"No, Sören, I told you it was OK. Look." Mark folded his arms. "I know you probably have a lot of experience with people not meaning what they say - your ex, for instance - but I try to be as honest as possible. If I thought that we weren't compatible as friends I would have told you. And, speaking honestly, you're the first real friend I've had in awhile. I'm not good at people."

"I'm not good at people either."

"So we can be bad at people together. Do you have any thoughts on where we can go before food shopping to go be awkward dorks?"

Sören laughed. God, I like him. "Well..." He ran a nervous hand through his curls, thinking. "I wouldn't mind poking at Bridgeway again. Sharon did ask me to keep in touch and she works at one of the boutiques..."

"Mkay, we'll do that." Mark was about to walk off, then he paused. "Did you take your night meds yet?"

"Yes, Dad. I'm just waiting for them to kick in."

Mark grinned. "Hi, Just Waiting for Them To Kick In -"

"OK, that's my joke, you butt."

"But you called me Dad, and it's technically a dad joke."

"Oh..." Sören blew a raspberry. "I'd tell you go to eat a dick, but..."

Mark looked away. "Yeahhhh. It's been awhile."

Sören was surprised by that - though he knew he probably shouldn't have been, since Mark was sleeping alone, and hadn't given any indicators that he was dating anyone or looking. He wondered just how long "awhile" was, and internally kicked himself for having that curiosity, as well as his mind going places again with what Mark might have done with other men...

Sören got wound up enough that it was taking him longer than usual to get to sleep. He'd learned about distraction as a coping tool for intrusive thoughts or emotional disregulation in therapy, so he got up to get a glass of ice water, as that usually grounded him. Mark wasn't in bed yet, but was in the living room, writing in a paper journal with the TV playing as background noise. Sören paused in the living room sipping ice water when he saw it was a rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

"There's my boyfriend," Sören quipped with Picard on the screen.

Mark rolled his eyes. "You're invited if you want to watch this."

"I won't bother you...?"

"No."

Sören sat down on the couch - Mark was in the armchair. Mark continued to write for a bit; Sören wondered what he was writing. After Sören had been in the living room for a few minutes Mark stopped writing, turned up the volume, and paid attention to the show. 

"Oh god, this is the one where they get stuck in the time loop and die over and over," Sören said.

"Do you not want to watch it, then?"

"I didn't say that. God, if I only liked fluff I wouldn't be a Next Gen geek, that show deals with some heavy shit. Just saying, I really feel for them, especially when they start having déjà vu." Sören rubbed his beard. "You ever get moments like that, where something you're saying or doing for the first time feels... familiar?"

"On occasion."

"Me too. Actually... it feels like we've watched Next Gen together before, but I have no idea why. My brother is an astrophysicist and writes about the possibility of parallel universes and stuff, maybe it's happening there." Sören laughed, but it was a nervous laugh, being a bit unsettled by the idea. He decided to stop thinking about it and just get back into the story... and ogle Picard.

Mark checked the channel schedule during a commercial break and he said, "This airs the same time every weeknight if you want to make this a routine."

"That sounds good."

The show and the ice water had the intended effect of getting Sören out of his own head enough that he relaxed and his night meds started kicking in. He was aware of the show ending, and Deep Space Nine coming on after that - the two of them mentioning they were also Deep Space Nine fans, Sören saying "there's my girlfriend" at Kira Nerys - and then he dozed off. Mark gently shook his shoulder and Sören woke up with a start as the end credits for Deep Space Nine were rolling.

"Sören, go to bed."

"Oh. Oh god, did I fall asleep?" Sören mumbled.

"Yeah." Mark smiled. "You snored a little..."

Sören facepalmed. "Sorry."

"It's OK. Now go to bed."

"Aye, sir."

"Make it so."

Sören laughed as he stumbled to his room.


_


Sören slept late enough the next day that Mark woke him up a little after twelve noon. "Sören, you alive?"

"No," Sören quipped, and groaned as the daylight hit his eyes.

Mark already had a fresh pitcher of iced coffee made and a glass poured for Sören when he made it to the kitchen. Sören took his morning meds and whined again at the bright daylight.

Despite usually needing more time to wake up, he hit the shower not long after, not wanting to keep Mark waiting to go anywhere. He was glad that his hair was still damp and provided a bit of a buffer against the heat when they stepped outside. Sören didn't like hot weather, not just because he'd grown up in Iceland and then lived several years in Canada, with winters on par with his home country, but he always ran hot naturally, something partners had remarked on, like sleeping with a furnace. Mark noticed Sören was too pale in the summer heat and looking like he was wilting.

"You sure you still want to do this?" Mark asked, pausing as they walked along Bridgeway. "We can do something else..."

"Jæja, I'm sure I want to do this." Sören nodded. He thought of Sharon.

Sharon was, in fact, working when Mark and Sören entered the boutique, which sold handmade furniture and home decor as well as antiques and vintage finds. Sharon's face lit up when she saw Sören.

"I've been hoping I'd see you again," she said.

"I did promise I'd keep in touch. My word is important to me."

Sören did wonder if the enthusiasm was hoping he'd be a paying customer that she'd get commission pay out of, but she didn't try to sell him anything. That in turn made him more inclined to look around the store himself than if he'd been dealing with a pushy salesperson. Most of the items in the store were well above Sören's price tag, even as a university professor - Sören could certainly appreciate artisans charging a living wage for their work, wondering how on-board Marguerite had been with the snark from her "friends", in light of that - but there was a reason most of what was in his house was from IKEA or thrift shops. Even when he moved up the financial ladder as a professor, the poverty of his childhood had taught him to be frugal and live more simply; this trip was him treating himself after a year of hell. However, he certainly admired fine craftsmanship when he saw it, and he wondered about taking a few smaller-ticket items back home to Corvallis to brighten his place up, to make it feel more like "his" again and continue to exorcise the ghost of Seth. He hadn't outright moved after what happened because he and Dooku had become close friends...

A stained glass box caught his eye. The box lid had a mirror flanked by two stained glass panels on either side, a sun on one, a moon on the other. Sören's bedroom at his home in Corvallis had a celestial theme, and it would fit the motif nicely. Sören wondered what he'd keep in such a box - maybe a discrete place for condoms and lube, if I ever have sex again. Not that Sören had been planning on it anytime soon.

He kept watching Sharon across the store, her slim body in a tie-dye shirt and broomstick skirt. Wondering if she was blonde all over. Stop that.

But he wasn't blind, and he had needs that he'd been denying for months. He hadn't been with a woman since he lived in Toronto. He missed eating pussy...

OK seriously now, stop that.

Sören felt shy and self-conscious as he brought the box up to the counter to pay for, and Sharon waited on him. "Oh, that's one of my favorites, I'm so glad it's going."

"Did you make it?"

"Ha ha, no, I wish. I don't know who made it, that's one of the vintage pieces here."

"I'd love to get into glass art," Sören said. "I do ceramics besides painting and that's pretty therapeutic, to work the clay."

"I don't make art, I just sell it," Sharon said. "I took art in school and I loved doing it but I'm not any good at it -"

"Every good artist says they're not any good at it, myself included." Sören pursed his lips. "Honestly, though... I tell my kids this - er, my students, I don't have any biological children." That I'm aware of, Sören thought to himself; he'd had the occasional moment of paranoia about Toronto, even though he'd been diligent about using condoms... mostly. There had been a few slips. "The point of making art is not to be good at it or not, it's to make art. It's to express yourself. Taste is subjective and one person's masterpiece is another person's disaster. I think everyone can and should make things once in awhile, though not everyone can and should make art for a living. If you want to make money, art's not the right job for it - I only make money because I teach. But seriously, don't let 'not being good at it' discourage you from it if you feel like making stuff."

"Awwwww, you're sweet." Sharon smiled.

"I brought my supplies with me - well, not all of them, my ceramic stuff is back in Oregon - if you want to get together some time and make art." Oh god, let me die please. Sören felt so awkward, worrying he was coming off as creepy. He was attracted to Sharon, but the offer was genuine friendship, not an attempt to get up her skirt. She was taken, anyway.

"I'd like that. Maybe this weekend? Saturday afternoon, July first?"

"That works for me."

Sören had a little spring in his step on the way out, and Mark noticed.

"And you say you're not good at people," Mark said.

"I'm not. That was me in teacher mode. It's a role I play to pretend to be a functional adult."

"I... feel so called out by that."

Sören laughed and patted Mark's shoulder. "The struggle is real."

"All too real. The difference is I don't always put the Teacher Mark hat on when I'm off the clock. Most of the time if I hear someone singing or trying to play an instrument at a club or busking or on YouTube or something I think to myself, don't quit your day job. Though I do appreciate genuine enthusiasm and passion for something, even when a person isn't good at it." Mark made a face. "Unless it's Eurovision. No amount of enthusiasm can compensate for that."

Sören gigglesnorted. "I didn't know how many Americans watch it. I watch every year because, you know, Iceland."

"What I don't understand is Iceland produces a lot of actually good music compared to what you send to Eurovision."

"'You send?' I didn't send it."

"I should hope not, or I'd have to dissociate from you immediately."

"You know, all this is rich coming from the guy who likes hair metal."

Mark glared. "Listen. Spandex, hairspray, and cocaine aside, a lot of those musicians were classically trained and you can tell. Metal is a lot more complex in its composition than most non-musicians think it is, and those singers really tax their voices..."

"I'm just busting your ass, Mark. You can like something because it's fun to listen to, you know."

"I don't do fun. We went over this."

"Before the end of the summer? You're going to have fun if it kills me."


_


When they got back to the house, Mark put on hair metal, which amused Sören. Sören hadn't thought of himself as much of a metal fan before now - he had an eclectic taste in music but he gravitated towards R&B and hip-hop, and he had a goth phase as a teenager which he still fell back on when he was feeling angstier - Joy Division had seen him through more than one depressive episode. Sören found himself appreciating Def Leppard and Van Halen and Whitesnake and Warrant and Slaughter, and Mark appreciated his appreciation.

Mark made skewers for dinner, and then they watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Sören took his night meds, but he wasn't especially tired, some of which could be chalked up to sleeping till noon, some of which could be chalked up to the enjoyment of the day - a faint excitement at seeing Sharon again on the weekend, satisfaction in having gotten himself something pretty. He felt another painting coming on.

When he sat down to paint he saw the Golden Gate Bridge in his mind's eye. And with most of his works the mundane transformed into something magical. He thought about the mythology he'd learned in school, the Bifröst bridge between the realm of gods and the realm of man, and the story of the gods disguising themselves as men and staying with human families unaware, blessing them for hospitality. He wasn't in Iceland now, but a country where people had come from all over the world, a place where cultures mingled and melded. The stories are never over. Under his brush the Golden Gate Bridge became something more, a bridge across worlds, shimmering with energy.

Sören knew from past experience that when the muse hit, he could end up lost in it for days. It was something he had to keep on a tight leash during the school year, first as a student and then as a professor, having to adhere to a schedule. But in the summer months he had no obligations to keep "normal people hours". Last summer, 2016, had been ruined by Seth - his muse had dried up considerably when they were together, with Seth ridiculing his art on a regular basis. Now, all the unspent creative energy was coming out, and this indeed was what Sören had been hoping for when he decided to treat himself on a summer vacation, that he would finally relax enough for his muse to feel safe to come out again.

At two in the morning Sören took a little break. He knew he should probably go to bed, but he wasn't tired yet. When he came back from the bathroom he heard movement in the kitchen, which surprised him - Mark was usually in bed before now. He walked back into the hallway and sure enough, Mark was in the kitchen, his acoustic guitar case slung over one arm, about to go out the back.

Mark paused. "You're awake."

"You're awake."

"Didn't you take your night meds?"

"I did. I... can't sleep." Sören rubbed his beard. "Been painting."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "Are you hypomanic?"

"Jesus Christ, Mark. Like it's one thing for you to nag me about taking my meds, but I've lived with this for a long time now and I try to be self-aware about mood changes."

"Sorry. I... shouldn't have asked. I guess I worry too much."

"I shouldn't get mad at you for worrying, I appreciate that you care, but... the answer is no. Or probably not. I'll keep an eye on it and see if I've got any other hypomanic symptoms, but no, Mark, once in awhile my muse just likes to keep me making art for a couple days and that in and of itself is not super concerning." Sören gestured to Mark. "You're not sleeping, either?"

"No." Mark took a deep breath. "I do actually understand about getting bit by the creative bug and getting... lost in it. I was going to head down to the beach so I didn't wake you..."

"Well, I need to stretch my legs and get some fresh air before I get back to work. So do you mind company?"

"I'm working on something and I normally don't let people hear works in progress."

"I normally don't let people see works in progress, but I'll show you mine if you show me yours." As soon as that came out Sören wanted to crawl in a hole and hide, not intending how it sounded.

Didn't you, though? Sören's eyes couldn't help raking Mark up and down, all that long dark hair, the way even under a T-shirt and jeans Sören could see the muscle definition of his lean, hard body...

Mark made the "come here" gesture and Sören followed him outside. They walked from the steps of the deck out to the beach. The beach was quiet and vacant, and they spent a few minutes walking along the shore, taking in the salt air and the soothing roll of the tide before finding a spot to sit down.

Mark began to play a chord cycle, light becoming dark. Sören watched the waves as Mark played, and his mind's eye began to flash images - not the painting he was working on, but Mark as a child, then as a young man, and happiness became sadness. There was fire, then winter, violence, blood, wandering alone. Attachments - friends, the occasional lover - and parting. Impermanence.

Then towards the end the chords cycled back up, dark into light, but not the same chord progression of before. A different key. A new chapter. Sören thought of the bridge of his painting now, the feeling that their conversation on the Golden Gate Bridge a few days prior had built a bridge they both needed. A connection.

"It's not done yet," Mark said when he stopped playing.

"It's still beautiful." Sören looked at him. "Made me feel a lot of things." He wondered about the details, the pain behind the music, weeping through his guitar.

"It sounds better on the harp."

They went back inside and Mark played it on the harp. Sören thought it sounded equally good on harp or guitar, but there was a resonance with the harp, and watching Mark pluck the strings was rather like watching an artist paint or what Sören imagined a wizard doing magic, or a god creating, would be like. There was a quiet intensity to him that was fascinating and a little unsettling to watch.

It also stirred the creative impulse in Sören once more. He got up as quickly as he could and dragged down his easel and the rolling cart he'd set up with his paints, brushes, and cleaner. As Mark continued to play, Sören got back to work, painting.

Mark played other songs on his harp, noting that they were other pieces of his that he'd written in different points in time and he liked to revisit them periodically, sometimes refine them, adding to it or remaking an entire portion. The harp was the perfect soundtrack for Sören's bridge across worlds, the sky itself now tinged with different shades as different lands were viewable on different shores.

A couple hours later, when Mark took a break, so did Sören. They looked at the time and laughed. Then, when Sören had Mark get up and look at the easel, Mark wasn't laughing at all.

"It's not anywhere near done," Sören said.

"It's still amazing."

Sören looked down. "My ex used to say I have no talent -"

"Your ex sounds like a douchebag and his opinion doesn't count."

"I told myself that but it still kept me from really digging in again. Coming here... helped." Sören's eyes met Mark's. "Your music helped, tonight."

"So you don't take your own teacherly advice about creating for its own sake, whether or not you're any good?"

"Ouch." Sören frowned.

"You are, however, very good." Mark studied the canvas again. "And I think we should celebrate the return of your muse."

"Such as?"

"Let's go get breakfast. Yes, I know you don't do breakfast, but..." Mark looked at the clock again. "It's four in the morning. I don't know what's open at this hour..."

"I do."



_


Mark rolled his eyes so much as they walked into the Denny's that Sören thought it was a wonder Mark even had eyes.

They sat with their menus; Mark looked over his but Sören knew right away he wanted a Grand Slam. Mark ended up going with the same thing.

As they waited for their food, Mark said, "I've never been to a Denny's."

Sören almost choked on his drink. "So... you want people to not think you're one of those snooty classical music people, but you've never been to Denny's? And how do you spend forty-two years avoiding Denny's? I've only been in the States since 2013 and I've been to Denny's a fuckton."

"Something about having good taste."

"Says the guy who likes hair metal."

Mark kicked Sören under the table. "You can't exactly talk now, yourself."

"I also don't pretend I have standards."

Mark laughed out loud. "Everyone has standards, Sören."

As Mark said that, a trio of face-painted juggalos wearing Insane Clown Posse shirts walked into the Denny's. "OK, not everyone," Mark said.

"Wow, juggalos are real?" Sören's eyes widened. "I thought that was something Americans made up, like Bigfoot or Johnny Appleseed..."

Mark laughed so hard he teared up. "Oh, Sören. You... should have seen my music theory class a few years ago. It's not as popular now, I guess, but a few of my old students are indeed 'down with the clown'." Mark made a noise. "I can't believe we're even having this conversation."

"And having this conversation at a Denny's. You'd think I dragged you to a gulag or something." Sören snorted. "The Denny's Archipelago, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn."

"I'm... I'm surprised you even know who Solzhenitsyn is."

"I didn't get a Ph.D. sitting on my hands, even if I was doing a lot of drugs on the weekend. And I survived some of my worst depression crises reading about people who were having a shittier time, helped put things in perspective. Mostly." Sören scowled. "I hate it when people who don't deal with depression say things like 'people are dying' as a reason why we 'shouldn't feel sorry for ourselves'." Sören made air quotes.

"I hate that too. Just because someone is hurting more, doesn't invalidate that you're hurting as well."

Their eyes met. "There was a lot of pain in those songs. I heard it. But you never talk about your life."

"There's... not much to talk about."

"Except that you've never been to Denny's."

Mark facepalmed, laughing. "You're never going to let that go, are you?"

"I'm just curious why in forty-two years you've never set foot inside a Denny's."

Mark shrugged. "I like cooking. I prefer to cook for myself and... not have to go out and be around other people to eat."

"Well, I'm sorry that I made you -"

Mark put a hand on Sören's arms. "I offered. It's... this is different."

Their food came, and Sören pointed at Mark as he told the waiter, "He's never been to a Denny's." Sören couldn't help the words that spilled out of his mouth next. "I've taken his Denny's virginity."

"Oh my god, Sören." Mark turned red, shaking with laughter.

It was made worse when the waiter brought back a ginger ale for Mark with a single maraschino cherry in it. Sören took it and bit it, and Mark was in hysterics.

"Wow, talk about a Grand Slam," Mark said.

Sören's face was burning now as well.

They quieted down for the rest of their meal, and on the drive back, hair metal was playing on the classic rock station. Mark turned it way up when "Up All Night" by Slaughter came on.

When evening comes I am alive
I love to prowl around in the streets
It's the moonlight that controls my mind
Now I've got the power to speak

(Awake from dusk to dawn)
Watching the city lights
(Stars are shining down)
They'll be shining down on you and I
(And when the morning comes)
And I'll hold you till the morning light

Up all night, sleep all day
Up all night, sleep all day, that's right


Sören played air guitar and actually headbanged, which amused Mark. When they got back to the house, Mark said, "OK, we should actually get some sleep."

"You mean for once you might sleep till the afternoon?"

"I ate at Denny's... I'm sleeping in till the afternoon... yes, I am living dangerously."

"I like getting dangerous." Sören grinned.

Before they headed to their respective rooms, Sören said, "Thank you again for playing while I..."

"Yes, and thank you for... creating with me. Seeing you paint inspired me to break out some old stuff and work on it."

Sören didn't realize he'd actually been helpful. That felt good - there was a synergy there. Sören wondered if that could be harnessed somehow, but now was not the time to explore that. Part of him wanted to paint some more but he knew if he was awake all day he'd be cranky later and didn't want to inflict that on Mark. "Sweet dreams," Sören said, and ducked into his room.

Chapter Text

Just In Time To See the Sun

 

Sören spent the rest of the week intensely focused on his painting of the bridge across worlds, though he took time for breaks which included going for walks along the beach and riding along with Mark into town. They also spent time together at dinner and what had now become a routine of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after dinner.

Saturday came, hitting Sören like a ton of bricks. He'd been looking forward to spending time with Sharon, but had almost forgotten about their plans; his phone went off while he was in bed sleeping.

"Hey Sören, I'm on my way," Sharon said.

Sören rubbed his face, squinting as daylight seared his eyes. When his bleary eyes made out the numbers on the clock he said, "Oh shit," realizing he could have been still sleeping when she arrived, he'd forgotten to set his alarm.

"Are you OK?"

"Jæja, I'm fine, just... waking up." Sören gave a nervous laugh.

"You want me to bring anything? Do you need coffee?"

"I have coffee but I won't turn down one of those fancy iced lattes from Starbucks or something. Um... just bring yourself, maybe a swimsuit if you want to go to the beach later."

Mark knew Sören was having company, and they had an agreement this was fine, but Sören couldn't help noticing Mark looking a little uncomfortable when Mark got to the door first.

"Hi, is Sören here?" Sharon asked.

"I'm here," Sören said, poking into the living room.

Sharon was wearing a usual tie-dye shirt and broomstick skirt. There were new beads in her blonde dreadlocks which she also had in a ponytail today, and she wore a choker necklace of turquoise nuggets and chunky raw amber. She carried a backpack and a tray with three iced coffees - Mark accepted his with a mumbled thanks, and then went to his bedroom and closed the door, which made Sören feel a little awkward; he knew Mark was trying to be a friend and not intrude, but it made him feel bad all the same. He tried to not dwell on it, though, sitting across from Sharon in the living room.

"This is such a nice place you have here," Sharon said.

"This is just the living room. I'll take you on a tour."

Sören showed Sharon the rest of the house, excluding Mark's room. Despite Sören forgetting to set the alarm last night for Sharon's visit he did have things set up for her to take him up on his offer to make art with him, and she looked over the art supplies with wide eyes.

She was intrigued enough by the selection that she wanted to get to work right away. Sören thought about resuming his work in progress while Sharon was there - she spent a few minutes admiring the painting on the easel - but it also felt strangely intimate to be working on in front of her, and sometimes when he had works in progress it did him some good to take a break and work on something else before returning to the original piece. He also wanted to work in the same medium as her for easier cleanup. When Sharon elected to work with watercolor pencils, Sören gave them each a sheet of watercolor paper and they sat on opposite ends of the desk in his room.

They listened to the radio as they drew and colored, which was nice, though Sören was reminded of a few nights ago when Mark played on the harp as he painted, the synergy they had, and he thought about asking Mark to play for them now. But Mark didn't seem like he was in a social mood with a stranger, so Sören didn't want to bother him.

Sören drew a rose bush populated by faeries, and when Sharon was done she showed him, and hers was a heart made out of seashells, surrounded by a mandala-like pattern of swirling water.

"It's not very good," Sharon said.

"No, that's actually not bad at all," Sören said. He'd seen better, but he'd also seen worse. "It's cute," he said, and meant it. He stopped himself from adding, You're cute.

Sharon smiled and bit her lower lip, showing the gap in her front teeth, and her dimples. She picked up the drawing and handed it to Sören. "Here," she said.

"That's for me?"

She nodded.

Sören felt his stomach flutter. Does this mean anything? Does she like me? It was a heart, but it was also something he'd complimented and maybe she was being nice. And she has a boyfriend.

Wanting to also be nice, he gave her the picture he'd drawn of the flower faeries. Sharon let out a squeak and came up and threw her arms around him. Sören's cock stirred a little, and he gently returned the hug, in part to direct her body against his in a less arousing manner and so she wouldn't feel the semi. "This is two pictures you've given me," Sharon said. "I feel like I ought to give you something..."

"Well you did, just now." Sören's finger lovingly traced the edge of the seashell heart. "I will treasure this." It would be something to remember her by when the summer was over. They could keep in touch, of course, but everything felt so uncertain somehow, like Sören wasn't sure what he'd be doing in two days, never mind two months. And he worried that he might scare her away, if she caught wind that he had a tiny little crush on her and didn't feel the same...

"I gave you one picture, you gave me two. And I mean, you're a really talented artist - I could probably sell these and get money, if I felt like selling them, which I don't. Unlike those assholes from that night we invited you for dinner, I know your work is worth something. Maybe I could take you out to dinner sometime."

"A gift is a gift, you don't owe me -"

"I'd still like to."

Their eyes met. Sören wondered if she was asking him out. He couldn't tell, and he didn't want to make things awkward by asking. "Well, OK, sometime, but let's not decide that right now." He felt like he would definitely make things awkward if they continued on that subject. He looked out the window, with his view of the beach. "This picture puts me in the mood to go down to the water."

"Yeah, good! I brought a swimsuit with me. Uh... can I change in your bathroom?"

Sören was already feeling a little aroused - and self-conscious at his arousal - and it got worse when Sharon came out of the bathroom in a blue two-piece. She was on the thin side, and small-breasted, with a tan, a pale scar from appendix removal near her stomach, and a sprinkling of freckles over her shoulders and back. Her navel was pierced, and she had a tattoo of a blue-and-purple butterfly as a "tramp stamp" on her lower back. Her legs and armpits weren't shaved, something Sören always found sexy, especially the implication that she didn't shave anywhere - something he found very sexy. She wasn't a perfect model, but she didn't need to be to get his attention. Her blonde dreadlocks were free of the ponytail now, hanging loose. She gave him an adorable smile when she stepped out of the bathroom, and the bright blue of her eyes was as alluring to him as the rest of her.

While Sharon changed in the bathroom had Sören changed in his room. His swim trunks were orange, which matched the flame sleeve tattoo and fire phoenix on his back. The blue of Sharon's bathing suit matched Sören's ocean sleeve and the waterbird on the other side of his back. His skin was like milk by virtue of having grown up in a northern climate, though he had scars on his arms and back that the tattoos mostly disguised unless you looked closely. Sören noticed Sharon looking at his ink - he turned his back so she could see his back. Her gaze drifted upward to his chest, where his nipples were pierced. It wasn't the first time Sharon had seen him shirtless, he'd had his shirt off dancing at the bonfire on the solstice, but they had both been distracted by the crowd and what they were doing - now she seemed to be studying him.

"Did that hurt?" Sharon asked.

Sören got that a lot when people saw him shirtless. He laughed. "It hurt a little, but to be honest my ears hurt more. And my PA hurt too, I suppose."

"PA?" Sharon gave him a puzzled look.

It just slipped out; Sören wished he could shove the words back in, his face burning. "Prince Albert. Um, my..."

He didn't need to explain. "Oh. Oh." Sharon's eyes widened. Sören's face burned more when he saw her glance at his crotch, quickly looking back up again. "You're the first guy I've met who has that done. I've heard about it, but..."

"Jæja, I. Ah." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls. "Got it done in 2005. Let's go to the beach."

Mark's bedroom had a sliding glass door with a patio and a way out to the beach but his door was still closed; Sören led them through the kitchen, out to the deck, down the steps. They carried towels, Sören brought his sunblock, and Sharon had her backpack with her. When they found a good place to stop Sharon opened her backpack, retrieved a blanket, and put it in the sand. Then she took out a bottle of suntan lotion, with an SPF lower than Sören was comfortable with. Sharon began to rub herself down, and Sören took the opportunity to apply his own sunblock. The touch of his hand and watching Sharon work the lotion over herself made that awkward half-aroused feeling come back, and Sören worried if he got too aroused she'd see, being his trunks didn't leave much to the imagination.

It got worse when Sharon turned her back and said, "Can you get my back? I can't reach. I'll do yours if you do mine."

Touching her was difficult. He tried to keep it clinical, drawing upon his past memories of med school, but his mind raced with thoughts of what it would be like for his fingers to play over her tan lines, followed by his tongue. What it would be like to spread her here on the beach blanket and make her howl with pleasure. Her breath was coming a little faster as his hands applied the lotion, and he stopped himself from going more slowly and deliberately, turning it into a caress. We're just friends.

Her applying the sunblock on his back was even more torturous. "You're so pale," Sharon said as her hands rubbed; he could feel her breath against his skin.

"Well, yeah, I'm Scandinavian, and I've spent my entire life in cold places. Iceland, Canada."

"Oh, you lived in Canada? Far out."

"Toronto. It's where I went to school. My brother moved there, let me stay with him while I worked on my Ph.D."

"Oh. I knew you were a teacher, didn't realize..."

"I'm a professor." Sören nodded.

Sharon laughed. "Nice." She kneaded his shoulders. "You're so tense."

I have a pretty girl rubbing her tits against my back and haven't had sex in months. Yes, I am a little tense right now. Sören didn't say that out loud. "Pale and tense, that's me." He facepalmed. "Pale and tense, that's me?" God, I sound like a dumbass.

"Well, hopefully the sunshine will do you some good." Sharon gently turned him around. "Was it hard?" She bit her lower lip. "Your Ph.D., I mean."

It's definitely kind of hard, Sharon. He started walking her towards the waves, hoping that the cold water would help him calm down. "It was difficult. On the one hand I already had the learning curve because I went to med school first -"

"Seriously? Yeah, I think I remember you saying you were almost a doctor... Holy shit." Sharon raised an eyebrow. "What happened?"

"I realized being a doctor means dealing with people dying. I couldn't handle it." His ankles were in the water and he gasped from the shock of the cold, even though he'd been in colder water in Iceland before. "So I already had the experience of needing to knuckle down for the routine of school, but I had a lot of emotional shit going on. I... still have a lot of emotional shit going on." Sören rubbed his beard. "I'm kind of a hot mess."

"Yeah, me too," Sharon said, nodding.

Sören was in up to his knees now. The waves felt soothing, like being in a living whirlpool. "You go to school? Gone to school?"

"UC Berkeley, but I dropped out." Sharon looked ahead. "There was a lot of pressure on me to 'make something of myself', I'm an only child, and I'm still figuring a lot of shit out."

"You know, I don't even know how old you are? Over eighteen, I'm hoping over twenty-one, but..."

"Twenty-two."

Sören let out a low whistle. "I'll be thirty-three in November, Sharon."

"Yeah, you don't look it. I thought you were my age till you said you were a teacher." Sharon grinned. "Old man."

"Not that old yet." Sören waded out to his waist. "Mark's forty-two."

"Wow, shit, he doesn't look it either. Thirties, maybe."

"You think you might go back to school?"

"I might, but... what I really want to do is write. And I know there's no money in it. I work where I can keep flexible hours and enough to pay the bills so I can write in my spare time."

"Oh, what do you write?"

"Fantasy stuff. A lot of worldbuilding. It's interesting you gave me a picture with the roses and faeries because one of the stories I've been working on recently is about the Fair Folk of legend wanting to take back power because of how much humans have destroyed the planet." Sharon looked down. "That sounds stupid..."

"No, it doesn't. I... I'd like to read it."

Sharon laughed. "We'll see. But anyway, my parents are up my ass about it because 'writing isn't a real job'..."

"Are you dependent on them for anything?"

Sharon shook her head. "I live with Lucas, and before I moved in with him I was living in a camper RV, which is in his driveway right now."

"Then fuck 'em. Writing is real work, whether or not you see money from it. I've had to justify doing art to people. The world needs creativity and imagination just as much as it needs doctors and lawyers and police and plumbers and engineers and whatever." Sören and Sharon had most of their torsos submerged now, facing each other. "It needs it now more than ever. So much hope is gone from the world. When humans create it's a way of connecting us with that divine spark that made everything, like... I don't believe in God the way most people who say they believe in God believe in God, but I believe in, like, a clockmaker, I guess. Makes the clock and it runs on its own. We came from apes and long before that the primordial soup but there might be something watching all of that like 'yes, good, keep going'. Whatever force set that into motion, I think is in us and when people create it's a reminder we can be so much more than we are. That we're not extinct as a species yet because we are capable of beauty, not just ugliness and horror. It's that spark, that fire that refuses to die that's kept me going this long." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls, before realizing he was making his hair wet. "Sorry, I talk too much."

Sharon came closer to him and put her arms around him. "No, you don't."

"Yeah, I do." Sören's face burned.

"Don't argue with me, you butt. I liked what you had to say. It's very... deep." Sharon's eyes held his. "I don't get to be around that a lot."

"Really? 'Cos I mean, before things went pear-shaped with those three guys insulting me and your friends doing nothing about it, they seemed like cool people..."

"Cool and deep aren't the same thing." Sharon patted him. "I'm a writer, I get tired of being around vapid people. People who don't even know what 'vapid' means."

"It's something to do with vaping, right?" Sören quipped. He knew it didn't.

Sharon splashed him for that. Sören splashed her back. That led to an all-out splash war, Sören getting a mouthful of salty seawater, spluttering. He splashed harder, and she took a flying leap onto him, giving him noogies. He put a wet finger in her ear, she gave him a wedgie with his trunks, and he tickled her in retaliation. She tickled him back.

There was a moment when Sören wondered - half-hoping - that they would kiss, and then they saw the tides were rising higher. They moved closer to shore. "Want to get out? I have prune fingers," Sharon said.

They dried off on the beach blanket, and Sharon stretched out for awhile. The warm sun felt nice after the cool water, and Sören enjoyed the view of the waves, the sand, and Sharon's golden brown body posed delectably. Then it got too warm. "Head back inside?" Sören asked.

Sharon changed in the bathroom and Sören changed in the bedroom. Mark's bedroom door was open now but there was no sign of him in the kitchen or the living room, and when Sören went in the kitchen to get them both lemonade he saw a note from Mark saying he went for a drive and would be back before dinner. Sharon came out and they stood in the kitchen, looking at the sea again, this time from the glass doors.

"This place is fucking lit," Sharon said. "Not even Herb and Marguerite have someplace this nice."

"It's just for the summer. I couldn't afford this year-round. I could barely afford it now. I made myself go on vacation. Had kind of a shit year."

"Aww, I'm sorry to hear that. What happened, if you don't mind me asking?"

Sören rubbed his beard. He decided to give her the condensed version of events. "My shitty boyfriend and I broke up. I was in a car accident."

"Oh... so you're gay? I kind of wondered..."

Sören snorted. "I know I'm pretty flaming, but... bisexual."

Sharon's eyes looked him up and down again. "Me too." She grinned.

"Oh, nice." Then Sören facepalmed, self-conscious at what slipped out. "I mean, ah..."

Sharon laughed. "It's OK, Sören. It's... more than OK."

Sören's face burned. He had a feeling now that there might be interest there and it wasn't just wishful thinking, but he felt at a loss of where to go with it.

Sharon looked at the clock. "Marguerite is coming to pick me up in about an hour. I'd stay longer but I have some shit I need to get done, like I do laundry at her place."

"Ah, OK."

"You have any ideas for how to pass the time between now and then?"

Eating your pussy? Sören behaved himself. He wanted, but he didn't want Sharon to cheat on Lucas with him, also he was enough of a mess of issues after what happened with Seth that he couldn't predict what would happen with spontaneous sex, if it would make him panic or not. And he rarely took under an hour for sex, besides. "You want to smoke a bowl, and I'll show you my portfolio?"

Sören brought a glass pipe designed like a turtle in his luggage from Oregon, and he fished it out and packed it with a pinch of the weed Herb had sold him. Sharon shook her head when she looked at the bag. "Herb tried to rip you off, man. Probably thinks because you're a foreigner -"

"I am not an 80s band." Sören thought of Mark, and hoped Mark wasn't in a bad mood, wherever he was.

Sharon howled.

Then Sören said, "I figured he was charging a bit much, which was why I tried to negotiate with him. Now that I know it was intentional..." He narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips. "Why do you associate with those people? I know your boyfriend was Matt's tutor, but..."

"Marguerite is a friend of my mom's and I guess it's like... I'm not on great terms with my parents but it's something familiar."

"Still sounds like there's things to be desired there."

"I guess. It's better than not having friends, though."

Sören shrugged. "I'd rather be alone than settle. I did... enough of that in my life." He lit the pipe.

Sören got out the large portfolio folder with laminated prints of his paintings, most of which had sold, some of which had been gifted, some of which he'd kept for personal reasons. "These are fucking amazing," Sharon said, lingering on a print Sören had done of his late sister Margrét, skin blue like the dead of Norse myth, wearing a crown of bones and flowers, spiked rings on her fingers - nails like claws - holding a skull turned into a drinking vessel full of mead, face stern and haughty. "Especially that one. That looks like one of the warrior queens I imagine in my stories. Fierce."

"That's my sister. She was murdered." Sören swallowed hard.

"Oh Jesus, Sören."

"That was... well, I still haven't recovered, all those years later, but that was part of the grieving process. I suppose her spirit would be angry about how she died. I was angry about how she died."

Sharon took his hand and squeezed. She kissed his hand gently. "If I ever self-publish stuff... if I let my stories see the light of day... can I hire you to make covers?"

"Oh. Wow." That question took him by surprise, knocking him away from the oncoming rush of grief, back into the present. "Um... I guess so. And I do think that yes, you should try to show your work somewhere. Like I said, I want to read it."

"Maybe next time we hang out I can bring over a notebook for you to borrow. You have to promise not to make fun of me, though."

"I make fun of everyone, but I won't make fun of your writing." Sören grinned.

They smoked till the bowl was gone, and when they'd reached the end of the portfolio they sat there on Sören's bed in silence... sitting a little too close, leaning on each other. Sören felt the buzz, nice and mellow - he'd forgotten to ask Herb when he bought the weed if it was an indica or a sativa, and this seemed to be an indica which was a relief because sativa tended to make him feel a bit restless and sometimes even paranoid. Sören thought of his indica plants at home, the Northern Lights strain, which Dooku was looking after - the mental image of Dooku checking in on pot plants amused him.

There was beeping outside. "Ah shit, that's Marguerite." Sharon frowned.

Sören walked Sharon to the door. They hugged, and lingered. "I had fun. Want to get together sometime later in the week or maybe early next week?" Sharon asked.

"Yes, please."

"Kay. I'll call you." Sharon grinned and walked off to Marguerite's car.

Sören went back inside. He flomped on his bed, and after he lay there for a little while, zoning out, he took his cock out and slowly stroked himself, allowing the fantasy of peeling off Sharon's bikini, licking her tan lines, nuzzling her blonde bush, eating her, watching her ride him... letting her feel the PA inside her, which everyone he'd taken had raved about. Then the fantasy changed to topping Mark, the two of them flip-fucking, taking turns inside each other... his hands caressing Mark's sculpted torso, playing with his glorious mane... heat in those silver eyes, like mercury...

Sören cried out Mark's name into his pillow, coming hard, shaking violently, his toes curling.

He felt embarrassed - he had been trying very hard to not think of Mark that way, not wanting to ruin the nice friendship they had going. But his libido wanted what it had wanted.

Stoned and sated for now, Sören pulled his boxer-briefs and jean shorts back up, and curled up for a nap.


_


Sören woke up to the sound of Metallica. He stretched, yawned, and stumbled out of his bedroom. Mark was in the kitchen chopping vegetables.

"There you are. I worried I was going to have to wake you up and you'd be all surly."

Sören looked at the time - it was after seven PM. His nap was longer than intended. "Wow, shit, that was a nap."

"I guess so." Mark raised an eyebrow, glancing at him between slices with the knife. "You get up to anything interesting?"

Jerking off thinking about you. "We did watercolor pencils, took a swim, smoked a bowl. Showed her my portfolio."

"Is that what you're calling it now?"

Sören snorted. "There was none of that going on, Mark."

"Could have fooled me. I see the way the two of you look at each other."

"Oh god, is that why you took off, trying to give us some privacy? 'Cos you didn't need to. Probably." Sören hated that last word slipping out, not wanting to get his hopes up... not wanting things to be complicated. "She's got a boyfriend, yanno?"

"That hasn't stopped some people."

"It would stop me. I don't go there if someone is taken unless they're in an open relationship and I know about it. Besides, I've got issues." Sören poured himself ice water. "I've got subscriptions."

"Issues also haven't stopped some people."

"Well, look, Mark. This is your house too. I kind of felt bad. To be honest, it would have been nice if you were hanging out with us."

"I told you I don't do people, Sören. She's your friend, I don't know her."

"You could know her. She's a nice girl."

Mark shook his head. "I'm good, Sören. I took a nice drive."

"OK. She's probably coming over later in the week or something, and I don't want you to feel like you have to take off..."

"It's courtesy. Because like I said, I've... noticed." Mark chopped harder, his jaw set like he was a little irritated. Sören couldn't figure out why.

"Suit yourself." Sören was about to walk out of the kitchen.

"Where are you going?"

"Room, I guess."

"No, here." Mark gestured to a bowl that looked like he was putting together a sauce or dressing. "Taste this."

Before Sören could protest, Mark put a little on a spoon and put it in Sören's mouth. Mark watched Sören's lips wrap around the spoon, tasting it.

"That's good," Sören said. "It has just enough kick without being overpowering."

"That's going on the skewers."

"Awesome."

Sören followed Mark outside to the deck when it was time to grill. A nice breeze was going, and Sören admired Mark's hair again, in between glimpses at the sea. "So where did you drive off to? Anyplace interesting?"

"Just... drove. No place in particular. Drove for the sake of driving. Helps me clear my head when I need it." Mark looked out at the waves.

"You got stuff on your mind?"

"I always have stuff on my mind, Sören."

"Yeah. Me too." Like you on my cock, earlier. Sören's face burned, not wanting to think about Mark that way.

Tonight's skewers were chicken, tomato, peppers, onions, mushrooms, and squash. They ate in companionable silence outside, watching the tide roll in, listening to the sea whisper and roar, the occasional cry of a seabird settling in to nest for the night. Sunset was fading to twilight, and the first star rose in the sky as Sören and Mark each had a frosty Dos Equis. Sören was still feeling the buzz from the weed he'd smoked earlier - not as strong, but now he was in that phase of an indica high where he wanted to paint. The beer took enough of the edge off from earlier forbidden thoughts that he could be around Mark without feeling so tense.

They sat in the living room and watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as usual. Sören tried to pay attention but his mind kept going elsewhere, to the unfinished painting on his easel. When it was over, Sören took a deep breath and blurted out, "What we did the other night... you make music, I paint... can we do that again?"

Mark's eyes lit up. "I've been waiting for you to ask that."

Sören laughed. "Awwww, Mark, you could have asked me..."

"I didn't want to... intrude. I know your art can be a personal, intimate thing for you, like music is for me."

Their eyes met. "Well, you're not intruding. We worked... really well together. I'd like to see if we can capture that same magic, tonight."

As Sören brought his easel down to the living room, he noticed Mark setting up what looked like audio recording equipment. He raised an eyebrow.

"If you don't mind," Mark explained, "I'm getting the itch to work on some original stuff and it's better if I improvise... the recording is so when I play it back later and listen I can write it down."

"No, I don't mind."

"This isn't a professional studio," Mark said, cringing a little, "but it'll do for what I need to do."

Sören wheeled down his cart of paints, brushes, and cleaner. They settled in, and Mark started with warmup exercises on his harp.

Just the warmup exercises, which weren't properly songs, got Sören into the zone, back to the vision of the bridge across worlds. He resumed work on the water under the bridge, sparkling under the sky, tinted differently in different realms.

He knew when Mark was beginning the real work because he could feel it. He could almost smell petrichor in the room as he drew the sky opening with a storm over the center of the bridge with its traffic and tourists - the part that was the realm of humans, where it all came together. Lightning flashed under Sören's brush, and he could feel the thunder in the harp, the quiet intensity of Mark exploding to life, playing the storm.

The storm quieted, and Sören cleaned his brush and worked on the soft dawn over the city of gold and marble, large dragon-like birds sailing in the sky, a single ship sailing out into the sparkling water. Mark's harp was peaceful, then almost playful... the calm after the storm, the sun shining through, yet the undercurrent that something was yet to come. Sören spent time getting the sail just right, the statues in the city that looked magnificent yet also vaguely unnerving, like something wasn't quite right.

In another realm the sky was blue and wide, forests leading to what looked like a great temple or mansion. The feeling of sailing in that sky, so small against the greatness of the open sky and the stretch of tall, ancient forest, and yet at home. Sören's finishing touch in this realm was flying gliders, something that looked like a balloon but wasn't quite on its way to a cloud. More color added to the trees.

Sunset, ruins, ashes with some embers and small fires going. A shrouded figure that Sören couldn't tell was male or female, alone, lost in grief. It made the bustle on top of the bridge even more dramatic - a sense that the wanderer would end up there, somehow, because there was nothing left. Mark's harp played the descent, the cataclysm, world going up in flames, then quietly fading, smoking out, ashes blown on the wind. Sören's brush filled in the last little details there, every ember, every stone, every crumbling remnant of what had once been.

The bridge again, Mark's harp climbing up, up, up. Two people, one male, one female, building a shelter from the storm, a little fire... eyes bright with an unearthly glow as if they could see the reality everyone else could not, that there were several worlds superimposed on this one. As if they could see the realm of ruins in particular and were beckoning to the wanderer...

Hopeful notes, tinged with sadness. Lingering, waiting.

Sören put down his brush and took some deep breaths. The painting was finished now. Mark's song was finished. He looked at the time. That song had been going on for hours, like a jam band at a concert. Perhaps it was several songs, but it all seemed to fit together. Sören had squeezed every last detail he could out of the painting, which was elaborate even by his standards, often messing with something long after others would consider it done to get it just right, things most people wouldn't notice but he did.

Mark turned off the recording equipment. He got them water and then he looked at the easel.

"Hells, Sören."

"What?" Sören's face fell. "You don't like it?"

"No. That's..." Mark made a little noise. "I do like it. It's just..." He pressed a hand to his heart, then his stomach. "Like a punch." He looked away. "I don't expect you to understand," he mumbled.

"Well, I know it's probably, like, symbolic. I don't fully understand all of this myself, it just... felt like... I don't know." Sören made a face.

"Symbolic is one way of putting it. It's like you saw into my head. My life." Mark put a hand on Sören's shoulder. "An internal landscape, of sorts. It's a little unsettling." He studied the painting some more. "You have an amazing eye for detail." He pointed to the ship. "The sail on that alone."

"Takk." Sören got up and stretched. He was feeling awkward again. He was also feeling a thrum of excess energy that needed to go somewhere. "You want to go to Denny's?"

Mark laughed. "I wouldn't go there of my own volition -"

"All right, let me rephrase that... I want to go to Denny's. Come with me?"


_


The juggalos were at Denny's again, a couple stoner hippies were at another table reeking of marijuana all the way across the restaurant, and there was a paranoid-looking man eating by himself. Mark and Sören got the same table they had last time, and the same Grand Slam they had last time.

"The food here really isn't great," Mark said.

"Nobody goes to Denny's expecting a fine dining experience, Mark. People go to Denny's at this hour because it's open... and they're awake at this hour for some ungodly reason."

"I still can't believe that painting. If I hadn't had the after music buzz I'd still be awake just..." Mark shook his head.

"Your music was something else, too. I never knew purely instrumental music could be so expressive. It was like... words without words."

Their eyes met, and then Sören sipped his drink, feeling awkward again.

"Well, congratulations, because you got to see me improv. It's been awhile since I really let loose like that." Mark glanced at him again.

"We really..." Sören fit his hands together. "Mesh. We make a good team. There's been a magic there those two times we've worked together. I'd like to do that again."

"Absolutely." Mark nodded.

"Fire feeds fire, I guess."

Mark looked away. Sören felt a strange ache, and the mental images came flooding back of his fantasy earlier. He shoved them away as quickly as possible. I barely know this guy.

Which was part of the problem right there. "Mark, you said it's like I saw inside your head, saw something symbolic about your life, but, like... I know pretty much nothing about you."

"There's not much to know."

"Oh no. I doubt that very much, not someone who can play and compose like you do." Sören gave him a stern look. "I get it that us folks with PTSD, we sometimes don't want to talk about things because we think we're gonna be a downer, or people will hit us with platitudes, or both, but really..." Sören leaned back in his seat. "You know more about me than I do about you. I'd like to change that."

"Well, OK. Ask me stuff." Mark looked uncomfortable.

"What's your family like? Fucked up?"

Mark shook his head. "No."

"Really. Almost everyone else I know with PTSD, they've got some childhood horror story..."

"Really. My parents were great. I worshiped my father. He tried not to play favorites, but... I was his favorite. He was very supportive of my music, very... encouraging. He was an artist, so he had a lot of strong feelings about creativity and its place in the world. Both my parents were artists - my mom was a sculptor - but my father was driven, obsessive about his craft."

"Wow. So you had kind of a bohemian upbringing?"

"I dislike calling it that, but I suppose."

Sören did the math. "1970s seemed to be the right time for that. I sometimes think I'd be better adjusted if I lived in the 70s..."

"From everything I've heard it was a pretty wild time, yes." Mark looked off to the side again.

"From everything you've heard... Were your parents swingers, or something?"

"Um, yes. That... they didn't call it that, but... yes." Mark shifted in his seat. "They had an open relationship."

"Interesting. You have any siblings?"

"I'm the second of seven children. All boys." A pause. "All dead."

Sören put down his drink. "Jesus Fucking Christ, Mark, I'm sorry."

"Yeah, me too."

"The fuck..." Sören took a few deep breaths. "How are they all dead? Was there an accident?" Then he looked at Mark's scarred hand, remembered him saying it was a war wound. "Oh Jesus, were they in the service too? Was it war? The Gulf War?"

"We'll go with war. I don't want to get into detail. Though my older brother killed himself because of his own PTSD with the conflict."

"God."

"Now you see why I don't talk about my life. Not exactly a fun conversation when people are talking about their families. I could lie, but that would just feel worse, like I'm disrespecting their memory somehow." Mark gestured across the table. "Anything else you want to ask me, strike while the iron is hot and the wounds are already bleeding."

Sören thought for a moment. "You ever been married?"

"Once. Briefly."

"That didn't work out, I take it."

"No, not at all." Mark cringed.

"Any kids?"

"A son. He's an adult now." Mark sighed and looked out the window. "For a long time, I didn't even know I had a son, which tells you something about how bad things were. I don't know where he is now. I kind of hate myself for it."

There was a long, awkward silence. Their food came and Mark just picked at his. Finally Mark broke the silence and said, "You must hate me now, thinking I'm a deadbeat dad..."

"I'm thinking you probably had a shitload of issues contributing to why you weren't there. It's easy for people to point fingers if they see one side of the story. I'm not making excuses or saying you did nothing wrong, just saying that I at least understand that your life was probably a hot mess for awhile. My own life has been... well..." Sören bit his toast. "I've had my ups and downs. Literally, with bipolar, but. Yeah."

"Yeah."

"You don't try to find him now, though?"

"It's easier for an adult to slip under the radar and elude being found, than it is for a child." Mark pinched the bridge of his nose. "For all I know he's dead."

"Well, shit." Sören didn't know what to say.

There was more silence. As they waited for the check, Mark said, "At least with my teaching job, I feel like I'm doing something right, helping the next generation. It's probably compensating for my failure as a parent, with these kids - my other kids -"

"I think of my students as my kids too. And I think I know what you mean. Teaching gives me a sense of purpose."

"My father taught me so much... he really, really tried to instill values and a sense of depth in how I see the world, and it was precisely in trying to fulfill that commitment to freedom and justice that I feel like I completely fucked up, and not just my own life. This is me redeeming myself, I guess. Not just to myself, but to his memory."

Sören reached across the table and put his hand on Mark's scarred hand. "I think your father would be proud of you now, wherever he is."


_


They drove back as the dark of night was fading into twilight. When they got out of the car, the first light of day was upon them. "I feel like going for a walk," Mark said. "You want to walk with me?"

Sören nodded.

They went out back, out to the beach, and walked along the shore together as dawn rose over the water and there was a fine mist of fog in the air. They didn't speak, only listened to the sea, the birds waking up. Mark's hair stirred in the breeze, and he looked out at the distant waves like he was waiting for something, but nothing was there. Sören wanted to hug him, but he stopped himself, not knowing if it would be welcome.

And yet, as the gold and pink burned in the blue, Sören continued to ache for him. And suddenly, their hands reached out, and held. Sören wasn't sure which one of them had initiated the contact, or if it had perhaps been both of them acting on the same impulse at the same time. But there they were, watching the ocean, holding hands for a few moments, an act of solidarity, that as different as they were there was also an understanding of the kind of pain they both lived in... and the drive that kept them going.

"Kindred spirits," Sören heard himself say out loud.

Mark squeezed his hand before letting go.

They walked back up to the house. "I'm gonna hit the hay," Mark said.

Sören had to. "Hi Gonna Hit the Hay -"

Mark gave him a little swat. "Take your night meds."

"Night, ha ha. It's morning now, but..."

"Your before-bed dose." Mark looked at the clock. "Laundry day today when we get up."

"Exciting."

Mark snorted. "I could bring music to the laundromat. You haven't lived till you've done laundry to Black Sabbath."

Sören laughed. "Why stop there? Viking metal... raid other people's laundry..."

"Hells, Sören."

"It's not a serious suggestion."

"I hope not."

"Hair metal on the other hand... 'hmm, what's this white powder?' 'It's detergent, man.'"

Mark laughed and shook his head. "Go to bed, Sören. Take your meds, go to bed."

Sören blew a raspberry. "Party pooper." Before he headed off, he said, "So if we have to be responsible adults later, maybe we can do something fun Monday? Jæja, I know you 'don't do fun'... but seriously, let's do something fun."

"Well... you have any suggestions?"

"I've never been to this part of the country, but you said you have, so if you have ideas..."

Mark thought for a couple minutes, then he said, "How do you feel about a hike through Muir Woods on Monday?"

"Oh what is that..."

"Redwood forest."

Sören gasped and nodded vehemently. He clapped like an excited big kid, then felt self-conscious about it; Mark laughed softly and patted his shoulder.

"Good night, Sören." Mark lingered before ducking into his room. "Thank you again."

Their eyes met, and held, and then Mark was in his room and Sören took his meds alone in the kitchen.

Chapter Text

The Trees

 

As excited as Sören had been when Mark made the suggestion to go to Muir Woods on Monday, he was almost regretting it now as he sat in the passenger's seat of Mark's Jaguar at too-early-in-the-morning. Muir Woods was a popular tourist destination in the summer, and even though it was a Monday and less crowded on weekdays it was also the day before the fourth of July; Mark had told Sören to wake up at six AM so they could get a move on and grab a parking spot before the park opened at 8 AM.

Mark really had not been kidding about parking - it was already a mess. Sören made a noise as they got out of the car and Sören stretched, still somewhat groggy, waking up.

"Not a morning person," Sören mumbled, finishing his iced coffee.

"I know. You also didn't have to come."

Sören shrugged. "We barely have trees in Iceland, let alone enormous redwoods. Oregon has forests - one reason why I love it - but not like that, really. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me."

"It doesn't have to be once. We can do it again before the summer is over." Mark gave him a little smile. "If you stop looking at me like you want to murder me."

"It's resting bitchface exacerbated by morning, Mark, it's not personal." Sören looked around at all the cars. "To be honest I'm nervous about doing this now, never mind thinking about doing it again. I wasn't expecting this many people, and I wonder how many of them are gonna be on their cell phones and shit..."

"Probably none of them because there's no signal up here." Mark grinned. Then he gently put an arm around Sören's waist, marching him forward. "We can take one of the less popular paths. You won't see as many people and it's a better view."

"Ah, OK, good."

They stopped so Sören could throw out his trash. They were there before the visitor center opened, which meant free admittance, though $10 per adult wouldn't have been bad.

They started on the boardwalk of the Main Trail and Sören got to see the first of the giant trees. His breath caught - he was already impressed and they weren't that far into the forest. Sören barely noticed the other tourists milling about, looking up and up and up. Sören was six feet tall and Mark was close to seven feet, and they were dwarfed by the trees. "Holy shit," Sören said, his voice hushed with reverent awe.

"You haven't seen anything yet."

Mark gestured for them to take a right at the first junction, which started the Canopy View Trail. And then they were climbing steps, up the east side of the canyon.

The redwoods here were younger, but still tall. Mark and Sören moved slowly, taking it all in - the trees hundreds of feet tall, the floor of ferns lush and green. The trail went up the canyon wall, the trees in thick clusters. Sören watched the morning light through the trees, soft and golden. He was fully awake now. There was the rich scent of earth and grass and evergreen.

Sören took a few photos, in case he wanted to sketch or paint later. But everything was burning itself indelibly on his memory.

Including the sight of Mark, who for once actually looked at peace. Tension seemed to be Mark's default state so much that Sören hadn't even noticed how habitually tense he was until now. Mark's body language was relaxed - even a bit confident - and he was breathing easier. Sören also thought he looked at home, somehow; he couldn't explain why Mark looked like he belonged here...

...because he is also beautiful.

Sören couldn't deny that. Of course he couldn't, having masturbated to him twice now, but here, even fully clothed in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt and faded jeans and his usual wire-rimmed glasses, Mark looked absolutely gorgeous. Sören noticed the way the sunlight played in the cascade of dark hair to the middle of his back, giving the soft waves blue-black highlights like raven feathers. He noticed the way his muscles rippled as he strode, powerful and elegant, fluid, like a large predatory cat. Every now and again Mark got a little bit ahead of Sören before pausing and slowing down for Sören to catch up, and he got to feast his eyes on the tight perfect curve of Mark's ass - like it had been molded by a master sculptor - which gave him a little thrust in his loins. Sören started to wonder if his pace was dragging intentionally on a subconscious level to give him that view, and his face burned.

But more than anything, it was the serene look on his proud face, the light in his silver eyes, that captivated Sören about the way Mark looked right now. He was starting to care about Mark a lot, wanting the best for him, wanting him to find happiness somehow. He knew that happiness would be hard-won, understanding that as one survivor to another. Here in the ancient, primordial forest, Mark looked like he'd found something he'd lost, and Sören cherished that as much as he cherished the beauty of the landscape around them.

And what a landscape it was. Sören breathed deep, thinking about the age of the trees, anywhere from six hundred to a thousand years old - young by redwood standards, still far older than him. My ancient ancestors were probably still in Norway when these trees were seedlings. Sören thought about the myths he'd grown up with in school. The story of Ask and Embla, the first man and woman, made from trees. The story of Líf and Lífþrasir, the two human survivors of the Ragnarök, hiding in a wood called Hoddmímis holt. They were just stories, and all religions both ancient and modern seemed to Sören to get some things right while getting other things wrong, like the old tale of the blind men and the elephant. Here and now, Sören thought about what it had gotten right - the awe in the presence of trees. These redwoods were bigger and older than himself, making him feel small and insignificant, like his life was a drop in the bucket of history... and yet, he also felt power here, power that the land was sharing, giving him a gift. Vitality. Strength. Renewal. The forest seemed to sing, Sören could swear he felt a pulse under his feet, an electricity in his blood.

For a moment, Sören thought he heard a whisper, but there was no one else there.

They were on a single track dirt trail going in a loop. Going slowly. Sören and Mark kept pausing to study the trees, admire the ferns. There were sections covered in roots. The roots gave Sören another jolt of awe, intensified by Mark taking his hand to help him climb over the roots.

Looking down, around, up. Ever upward. Sören thought about the myth of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, the Tree of Trees. There were no redwoods in Iceland, but Sören thought if the World Tree was real it would look like one of these redwoods, impossibly tall, reaching for the sky. The trees felt so alive that it made him think about the Ents from Tolkien, and then, on that trail of thought, how his ancestors had believed in Elves. He could almost believe Elves were real too, in a place like this, which seemed like it wasn't even really real but existed in its own dimension of beauty and power.

Sören imagined there might be people in the world who couldn't appreciate a place like this - he thought briefly of his ex Seth, who considered himself a "transhumanist" and spoke of the days when humans would be cyborgs, days Sören never wanted to see. Seth would likely find the redwoods boring, making remarks about how it was "all the same". But it wasn't, really. He was surrounded by trees of the same species but they were all different, each trunk, each branch. It wasn't one shade of brown but many; the bark, the dirt, stones. The texture of bark grooved in subtly different ways from tree to tree. Many shades of green all around them. There was no cluster of ferns or spread of moss exactly the same as another. Even the light itself looked like entirely new, different light from different angles and positions.

They came to the junction for the Lost Trail, with a rustic log bench. They sat; Sören pulled off the backpack he was carrying. There was a 1-liter bottle of water for each of them. They drank in companionable silence. Sören almost leaned on Mark as he caught his breath, but didn't - it was enough that they were sitting so closely.

They had walked in silence, to better focus on the world around them, but now Sören broke the silence. "I'm glad I got up for this."

Mark smiled at him. "I'm glad you did, too. I wanted you to see this."

"Jæja, it's... incredible." Sören let out a little sigh. "I can't get over how tall the trees are. How old. How strong and..." He searched for the right words. "Pure, everything feels here." He made a face. "That wasn't quite how I wanted to say it, but..."

"I think I get it."

Sören nodded. "Old and wise, too. It was here before us, it will be here after us... but for a little while we can feel like we're immortal, like a part of its history."

Mark had a strange look in his eyes as he looked away from Sören, back at the trees. He said nothing in response.

The Lost Trail began the descent down the canyon. Off in the distance, higher up, there was a rustling noise. Sören and Mark both looked in the direction of where it was coming from, and there was a young buck. The buck paused for a moment - Sören gasped, and took Mark's hand without thinking about it.

When the buck ran off, they stood there, Sören feeling the air rush back into his lungs after the brush with a wonder that took his breath away. Sören let go of Mark's hand. "Er, sorry," he said.

"It's OK." Mark laughed softly. "You've never seen a deer before?"

Sören shook his head. "I've seen reindeer in the east of Iceland -"

"Seriously?"

Sören nodded. "Jæja. Santa Claus even lives there and everything." At the annoyed look on Mark's face, Sören's laughter rang out. "We have the very famous Christmas House in Akureyri, where I'm from, Christmas is a big fucking deal there. The reindeer are further out, but I've been to the part of Iceland where they are. I was... really drunk. Enough that I'm surprised I still remember it." He laughed sheepishly. "But we don't have deer like what we just saw. And when I was in Canada, I was in a pretty urban part of Toronto, so didn't see deer while I was there."

"There are more rural parts of Oregon where you might see deer."

"I've mostly just been in Corvallis or the occasional trip to Portland."

"Hm. We should change that sometime, when the summer is over." Their eyes met. "If you want to go on a little road trip, that is."

"Oh." Sören nodded. "That sounds like it could be fun."

They resumed walking down the trail. It started to get steep, enough that Sören moved much more slowly, and still wobbled a little - Mark took his hand as he had with helping Sören climb over the roots. Leaning against Mark, in proximity to him, Sören felt his heart racing, stomach fluttering. He could smell him too; it wasn't the first time he'd picked up Mark's scent before, but he'd always thought it was a sort of cologne, and now he placed the scent, it was like the forest but with a dash of salty sea air, petrichor, and a hint of musk.

You cannot be crushing on this guy. Stop it.

There were even more ferns along the aptly named Fern Creek Trail. Sören smiled at them, taking a picture. They were so green, soothing to the eye, and Sören spent a few minutes getting a good look at the delicate fronds, like feathers. Studying the fine edges, the shading. He had seen ferns before but here in the forest it was like seeing them for the first time, seeing them through new eyes, like the redwoods were wearing them for adornment and the trees were so majestic that was all they needed.

The bottom of Fern Canyon held Redwood Creek. Sören panicked a little at the narrow bridge, just enough space to walk single file. Mark went behind him, a reassuring hand on Sören's shoulder. "I've got you. You're doing fine," he said, and the sound of Mark's voice helped him to stay as calm as he could - still anxious, but not locked up in panic.

They got off at the Redwood Creek Trail, completing the circuit. There were more tourists afoot now - they had pretty well avoided them. They followed the trail back to the visitor center, which was open now. They hit the gift shop and then the cafe; though the hike hadn't been ridiculous Sören still appreciated taking a load off for a bit, having some more coffee. Being around people and in something resembling civilization again did feel a bit weird, like they had just stepped out of time or from one world into another.

"That was fucking awesome," Sören said, smiling at Mark. "Thank you for taking me."

"Thank you for going with me." He looked out the window at the trees. "I've done this before, but it's nice to have someone to go with who's never seen it before and has the joy and wonder of seeing it for the first time."

"I think I'd feel joy and wonder if I saw it a hundred times," Sören said. "That is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my entire life and I come from one of the most beautiful countries in the world so my bar for what I consider a beautiful place is pretty high."

"We can do this again. There are other trails... the Redwood Creek Trail, the Main Trail, is the most popular, but if you feel like doing close to seven miles and want to see a waterfall I can take you on the Dipsea, Steep Ravine, and Matt Davis Loop."

"Seven miles... well... I'll have to work my way up to that, bring my inhaler."

"We did half that today." Mark frowned. "It's too bad you can't see the seven-miler in spring, that's when the flowers are out."

"Aw, shit." Sören also frowned.

"Well, there's always spring break." Mark made a face. "Most people want to go to hot places..."

"Not me, I hate hot weather. I wilt. It's why I went with the Bay Area instead of southern California, even though SoCal has Disneyland and I've always wanted to go there. So maybe spring break next year, or... one of these years." Sören felt a little frisson thinking about what it would be like for he and Mark to go on a vacation together intentionally, instead of them just coincidentally, accidentally renting the same beach house. They were just friends, of course, and buddies could go on trips together...

"Just friends" don't keep ogling their friends the way you keep drooling over Mark.

There was some eye candy in the cafe but Mark was the most attractive one there, to Sören. When they went back out, passing by the trees one last time, Sören once again thought about how much Mark looked like he belonged in this setting - he's pretty enough to be an Elf - and not just in terms of physical beauty, but again, the serenity. It did his heart good to see Mark at peace.

The peace lingered in the car. It was close to noon now - they'd taken their time on the trail. Sören looked out the window at the bright blue sky, the trees, the view of the sea. "I don't feel like going back just yet, do you?" Sören asked.

"Not really."

Sören turned to him and their eyes met. "You mind going on a drive?"

"Anywhere in particular?"

Sören shrugged. "Nowhere in mind. Driving just to drive, maybe."

Mark got that intense look on his face again, like he was racking his brain to think, and then he said, "Oh... I think I know where to take you."

"Oh! Where?"

"It's a surprise."

Sören blew a raspberry.

"You should like this. In the meantime..." Mark put the radio on. Tom Petty was on the classic rock station.

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin'
Trees went by, me and Del were singin'
Little Runaway
I was flyin'

Yeah, runnin' down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads
Runnin' down a dream


The surprise was San Francisco Botanical Garden, normally a half-hour drive on the highway from Muir Woods, closer to forty-five minutes with traffic and having to stop for tolls. The trip took them over the Golden Gate Bridge and Sören looked out the window at Alcatraz in the distance.

"I can also take you to Golden Gate Park sometime," Mark said as they passed by the exit for that. "It's huge, so that has to be a day trip on its own. You'll really want to see the Japanese Tea Garden, I think."

"Cool, I like that idea."

There was another redwood trail here but the Botanical Garden was especially famous for its magnolias. Seeing and smelling magnolias for the first time, Sören had another moment of the beauty of nature taking his breath away, filled with wonder at the world he lived in - even with its pollution and global warming, and the sadness at what wildlife had been destroyed and forever lost, the world not as glorious as it had once been, it was still an amazing place. For all that Sören had wished many times he was dead, he couldn't say now that he regretted making it this far, getting to see all this.

He took more pictures in the Botanical Garden than he had at the redwoods, if only because it felt less intrusive to do it here. They spent close to two hours walking around, looking at the magnolias, succulents, rhododendrons, and dwarf conifers. Sören liked the ponds, especially the one for wildfowl, getting Mark to sit with him there awhile; Sören wished he'd brought his sketchbook, but right now it seemed important to just watch, observe, reflect. Creation could come later.

It was a shorter drive back to Sausalito, feeling almost too short. It was afternoon now. Sören zoned out for awhile when they got back to the beach house, and he was half-asleep when Mark paused in the doorway of his bedroom.

"I'm going to the store, you want to come with me?"

Sören was groggy but not cranky this time, feeling almost like he was stoned even though he hadn't had any pot today. Sören gladly tagged along, still mellow, enjoying the radio on the trip. He helped Mark pick out things for dinner, and then when they got back to the house, Sören decided he ought to freshen up after all the walking around and getting a little sweaty. 

Before he could get in the shower, he looked at the jacuzzi, which had caught his eye when he first arrived at the house, and indeed, had been part of what attracted him to the rental listing. He hadn't touched it in all this time - he'd never been in a hot tub before, though he had plenty of experience with hot springs in his native Iceland. The difference was that hot springs were outdoors, cheap, and filled with people most of the time, and this was something posh people did and it felt fairly alien to Sören. But now it seemed like the perfect way to unwind, so after a quick shower to get clean he took a longer soak in the jacuzzi.

A much longer soak than he'd anticipated. Sören melted away into the heat and bubbles, weightless, mindless. For awhile, all was right with the world.

Mark knocked on the bathroom door. "Sören, you fall in?"

"Oh... jæja I'm fine, I just, ah." Sören felt suddenly sheepish. "I'm in the hot tub. Do you need to go?"

"Not yet, I wanted to make sure you were OK."

"I'm better than OK, this is fucking great. You should try it." The words were out before Sören could stop himself and he facepalmed, hoping it didn't sound out like he was coming onto Mark...

"Sometime. Don't slip and fall."

"Yes, Dad."

When Sören got out of the tub he put on a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, not seeing the need to put on real clothes since he didn't intend to go back out today. He thought about painting but he wasn't quite there yet - he knew he would be in a day or two, but he wanted to enjoy the mellow buzz-like state he was in, not get amped up on the rush of creativity.

It would be awhile before dinner, though he could hear the stereo on - Mark was listening to hair metal again, and Sören could hear him in the kitchen. Sören uploaded the photos to his laptop, checked Facebook for the first time in ages - cringing - and then he remembered he'd promised to e-mail Dooku and of course he hadn't. He replied to Dooku's e-mails with an apology and some attachments of the redwoods, knowing he'd appreciate it, and then he took the initiative of calling him.

Sören didn't know if he'd get a hold of him right away or be sent to voice mail. But after two rings Dooku picked up. "Sören, hello."

"Nico, hi! I just sent you an e-mail. I'm so sorry I didn't before now, I apologize in the reply e-mail too... I didn't mean to make you worry..."

"I probably shouldn't be worried, but it's force of habit after..."

Seth. He didn't need to say it. "Jæja, I get it. Well, I'm all right. You'll never guess who's my roommate at this place."

"Who."

"Mark Lowry."

"Professor Lowry. Really."

"Mhm. Weird coincidence, but he's been good company."

"I see." A pause. "Has he finally expanded your musical horizons beyond that rap nonsense?"

Sören laughed, remembering how he and Dooku were once feuding neighbors, including over how loud Sören played his music driving into their neighborhood, when he used to drive. "Jæja... he's introduced me to 80s hair bands."

Now Dooku laughed - it was such a rare thing to make the reserved, somewhat stuffy old man laugh that Sören felt himself smile; he loved making Dooku laugh. "Oh, dear. As you know, that was my thirties..."

"Oh shit, were you into that?"

"Well, as you know, I appreciate some metal, such as Metallica. And the music from my own youth - I get nostalgic for Jimi Hendrix. But those glam rock bands were a bit... not my taste, in those days."

"Mhm. I bet you secretly have a Quiet Riot album somewhere."

"You're a brat."

"That means yes, doesn't it?"

Dooku laughed again - Sören could picture him blushing and facepalming now. "Dear God, Sören."

"I miss you too."

A soft sigh. "Yes. I hope you're enjoying yourself?"

"Very much, which is why I kind of forgot to call. Kind of forgot to do a lot of things, like check Facebook, so now my brother's up my arse about it. I went to Muir Woods today - I sent you a few pics with my e-mail, though it's not everything. I'll have to show you all the pics when I get back in August. Been doing some painting, too."

"Oh good, your muse came back? I rather thought a change of scenery might help."

"Jæja, been the first time I've really gotten deep into making art for art's sake again since before..." Sören didn't need to say it.

"That's good." Dooku let out another little sigh. "You're well rid of that filth."

"I know." Sören also sighed. "And thank you for that. I owe you my life."

"Sören, you don't. But if you insist, I want you to live. Just over the phone, you sound the happiest that I've ever heard you, and that makes me happy. I want you to find some healing after... that. You deserve it."

Sören swallowed hard. He wished he could hug Dooku right now. "I wish you were here. You'd love this place. You'd love the redwoods." He thought about what it would be like to go on vacation with Dooku. Or maybe Dooku and Mark at the same time.

That's not all you'd like to do with them at the same time. The briefest mental image of a delicious forbidden fantasy, having a threesome with Dooku and Mark. Maybe starting out in a jacuzzi like the one he'd just been in...

Sören quickly smacked that thought out of his head. What the fuck is wrong with you, you horndog. These are your friends. Just friends. You and Nico didn't even like each other as people a year ago. Don't make things fucking awkward.

Sören could see the bulge in his pajama bottoms and shifted uncomfortably. Margaret Thatcher. He needed to make the attack of "the hornies" go away quickly, in case Mark walked by. Margaret Fucking Thatcher.

Dooku's long pause sounded like he was considering. "Perhaps. I've never seen the Bay Area. And as you know, I am getting up there in years and I don't have a bucket list..."

That's three "as you knows". "Nico, don't talk about you dying right now, don't harsh my mellow." Sören needed some levity. "If Keith Richards is still fucking alive, you'll be fine for awhile too."

Dooku laughed again. "Dammit, Sören, you made me spit my drink."

I'd prefer to make you swallow. Sören's face burned. You stop that. The sound of Dooku's deep voice with its cultured RP accent was doing things to him. Things that it shouldn't be doing. "What have you gotten it up to? Er, gotten up to. Sorry, English." More like Pervish.

"Not much that you'd find interesting, probably. Reading a lot. Going to the gym, my martial arts classes, fencing club. Cooking, trying new recipes. Long motorcycle rides on the weekends. Gardening - your plants are fine, by the way..."

"Good, good. I was about to ask about my babies." Sören smiled. "You know, you can take a cutting as thanks for looking after them..."

"I don't smoke pot, Sören. As you know. We've been over this."

That's four. "I can't fucking believe you grew up in the hippie era and you don't smoke pot. The fuck is that."

"It's having kept a clear head for the sake of academia. And I was already enough of a rabblerouser in my radical activist days without getting arrested for drugs. Sometimes I feel like I missed out, but I'm too old to start now."

"You're never too old, and someone your age totally should toke up, it prevents, like... glaucoma and shit. I was in med school."

"Yes, truly, 'prevents, like, glaucoma and shit' sounds like very professional medical advice..."

Sören snorted. "God, I miss you." He really did, now, feeling guilty that he'd taken this long to get in touch.

"I miss you too, my friend. I do have to get back to cooking..."

"Oh, jæja, sorry, I should have asked if this was a bad time -"

"No need to apologize. We'll talk again soon I hope, yes?"

"Yes."

"Take care, Sören."

"You too, Nico."

Sören felt deep, hot embarrassment when the phone call was done, not wanting to think lustful thoughts about his best friend. Or Mark, who was becoming a good friend.

Or Sharon, though he wondered about what Mark had said. I notice the way the two of you look at each other. Sören thought about calling Sharon, but he'd already had enough of a thrust back into tension and awkwardness.

He needed to get out of his head for a bit. He went to the kitchen, sidling past Mark.

"What are you up to?" Mark asked.

"Going for a walk on the beach."

"In your pajamas?"

Sören nodded. "It's not illegal, is it?"

Mark laughed, and Sören gave him a cheeky grin as he slipped out the sliding glass door and bounded from the deck, down the steps, his bare feet in the sand.

That was exactly what he needed, the salt air and the roll of the waves. He came closer - it was low tide. He breathed in deep, looking out as far as he could see. After he stood for a few minutes, he felt a presence beside him - it was Mark. For once he didn't startle.

"Needed to take a break. Stuff's in the oven," Mark said.

They watched the sea together in silence, and Sören finally looked at Mark and said, "Today was one of the best days of my life." He meant it.

Mark smiled at him, his eyes soft. "Good." He looked back at the waves. "Me too."

"I could tell. You seemed really..." Sören made a vague hand gesture. "Tranquil, at the redwoods."

Mark nodded. "I'm not really a proper product of the modern world. I feel better when I'm around the elements, in nature."

"I can understand that. I still miss Iceland a lot." Sören couldn't help himself. "Pining for the fjords."

"PINING FOR THE FJORDS?" He got the Monty Python reference.

They laughed together. Mark patted Sören's arm, and Sören felt a little tingle at his touch. But it was dangerous to want more.

They walked together along the shore, in silence. No need for words, just two people who understood what it was like to need those moments of quiet in the presence of wild places.


_


Having a session of painting while Mark jammed on the harp would have been the perfect end to a near-perfect day, but Sören was so tired from an early wakeup and all the walking with his asthma being what it was, that he almost fell asleep during Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

"Sören, go to bed," Mark said when the credits rolled.

Sören nodded, yawning loudly. He took his night meds and mumbled "night" as he stumbled off to his bedroom.

In the middle of the night, what had been a near-perfect day was shot to hell with a nightmare. 

Sören was in the passenger's seat of the car but it was Seth, driving too fast on purpose to scare him, as Seth had done on more than one occasion after an argument. Then he was behind the wheel and reliving that day when Seth attacked him as he was driving, and Sören defended himself and in their back-and-forth Sören lost control of the wheel and crashed into a tree. Except now he was crashing into a redwood and one by one the trees fell. Sören got out of the car, ribs burning - his body remembered what the dislocated shoulder felt like and it was reliving that too, head dizzy from the concussion. Seth loomed over him.

"You think you've found peace in your life?" Seth laughed at him. "You'll never be free of me, you little bitch." He started to undo his belt. "You can't even get hot for someone else without feeling like you'll 'complicate' things, because you know nobody else will want you. You're damaged goods, baby. And you always come crawling back to me..."

Seth was mounting him, breath hot in his face...

"SETH, NO!"

Sören woke himself up with the shout, and then involuntarily gave a wordless scream before the dream could completely fade away. His heart was hammering in his ears. And then he sobbed into his pillow, shaking, terrified... and disgusted.

You're damaged goods, baby.

Mark ran into his bedroom, and paused at the foot of Sören's bed, his eyes bright in the darkness. "Sören. You OK?"

Sören shook his head, crying harder. Great, now I woke up Mark. I ruin everything...

"Sören." Mark sat on the edge of his bed. He began to rub Sören's back through the sheet. "Sören..."

"I had a bad dream," Sören choked out.

"I thought as much." Mark patted him, and then he turned on the light. He walked off, and came back with a glass of ice water, handing it to Sören. "Deep breaths." He demonstrated, and Sören mirrored him. "It's OK, Sören. Deep breaths. It was just a dream. Just a bad dream..."

"It's never just a bad dream." Sören could hear the edge in his voice, the anger. He wasn't angry at Mark - he was angry with himself, angry with Seth, angry with the world. "He still fucking owns space in my head. Last time I saw him was December. December. The fourth of July is tomorrow." He squinted at the time. "Today. Whatever."

"He also brutalized you. You don't get over this stuff overnight."

"No. And that's... the thing. Because I can't get over it. I had an amazing fucking day and my brain had to be a gigantic fucking dick to me and ruin it with this shit..." Sören broke down sobbing again, curled up in the fetal position. "I can't win. I can't fucking win..."

"Sören, as one PTSD-addled person to another, I'm not going to give you any platitudes. None of that 'it gets better' shit or 'time heals all wounds'."

"I fucking hate 'time heals all wounds'. I'm still dealing with shit from when I was a kid. Fuck that."

Mark nodded. "It's been years since I was captured and tortured and it still feels like it was yesterday, sometimes."

"Jesus."

"But right here, right now... you're in Sausalito. Seth isn't here. I'm here, and I promise you, if you ever run into him out here... I'll kill him." Mark gave a predatory little smile and Sören felt a chill down his spine, knowing Mark wasn't joking and he probably was capable of being lethal if provoked.

That's fucking hot.

And once again, Sören felt ashamed for having any desire... He wept.

"You're here, Sören. You're safe. You're OK. More deep breaths." Mark took Sören's hand, squeezed it, gestured with his other hand for Sören to breathe with him.

Mark gave him the water again and then he picked up Eeyore, who had fallen on the floor. He made Eeyore hop on the bed, and hop up to Sören's arms.

"Takk," Sören said, taking the plush doll. He grimaced.

"There's no judgment, Sören." Mark smiled reassuringly, but also sadly. "I would have pegged you more as a Tigger person, though."

That made Sören laugh a little and he shook his head. "Tigger is what the world gets to see - the joking, the laughing, the carefree bohemian... but Eeyore is what I am on the inside. Sad. And his friends love him and try to make him feel included in things anyway."

Mark's eyes were a little too bright now. Sören didn't want to start crying again. He held Eeyore tight and rocked himself a little.

"Can I get you anything else?" Mark looked around the room. "Do you have a blanket, or something..."

"It's... not a blanket." Sören swallowed hard. He couldn't believe he was about to show this to Mark. "In my closet, there's a pillowcase on the shelf, can you..."

Mark nodded. He opened the closet and reached for it, and brought it over with a puzzled look - there was something inside the pillowcase, soft, and of course he wouldn't know what it was.

Sören's mouth went dry and tears burned his eyes again when he opened up the pillowcase and showed Mark what was inside. Mark squinted, not really understanding; he reached in and pulled out what looked like an arm, made from blue fabric. Then a decapitated stuffed bunny head, blue...

"Sören, what..."

"My mamma made that for me when I was little, before she died. His name is Bláberja." Sören's jaw quivered and his voice broke a little. "When I was twelve, my uncle Einar ripped it up because he said boys shouldn't have dolls and I was too old for that... I kept it. But I don't know how to sew. I... I've had it all this time because my mamma..." Sören wept harder than before, violent sobs that wracked his entire body. "It's the only thing I have from her."

"Oh Hells." Mark sat down on the bed. He took Sören into his arms, rocking him. He held Sören close, pet his curls. Rocking and rocking. "Oh, Sören..."

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry... I'm thirty-two fucking years old, I shouldn't be crying over a stuffed doll..."

"You have nothing to apologize for." Mark cupped Sören's chin in his hand, looked him in the eye. "I very much understand why you kept it."

Sören nodded. "Sometimes when it... the PTSD... gets really bad with nightmares, flashbacks, panic... I hold the pillowcase. What's left of my bunny."

Mark pulled Sören close again, and Sören could feel him trembling. He looked up and saw Mark was crying too.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you cry -"

"Will you fucking stop apologizing." Mark's arms tightened around Sören, and he planted a soft kiss at the top of Sören's head.

Sören cried harder. He felt raw, and exposed. He also felt tired, not just because he hadn't gotten enough sleep, but he was tired of living with these memories and the pain.

"You need to get some sleep," Mark said, his voice soft. "You had a long day."

"I know. You do too." Sören looked into Mark's eyes again - they were still teary. "I'm sorry I woke you up -"

"Stop. Apologizing."

Sören let out a deep sigh. He closed his eyes and saw Seth's face again. "I worry if I go back to sleep I'm gonna have another nightmare..." Sören pinched the bridge of his nose. "I am so sick of this shit."

"Do you have any extra medication you can take for anxiety? What do they call that..."

"A PRN?" Sören shrugged. "I do, but it fucks me up enough where I won't be functional at all tomorrow so I'd rather not take it if at all possible." Sören made a face. "Fucking meds, I swear sometimes the side effects of shit are as bad as the disease. You don't even want to know about the hell I went through when I was first diagnosed with bipolar and trying to get on the right med combo... aaaaaaaaand I'm talking too much. Babbling. Nervous. Sorry."

"Apologizing -"

"Sorry."

Mark gave him a filthy look. Sören facepalmed.

Mark hugged him again. "OK. Sören. You do need to get some sleep." He looked at the clock. "So do I."

"I know." Sören felt very small and fragile, and Mark was big and strong and comforting. "Can you... hold me for awhile?"

"Yeah, I think I have a solution here."

Mark turned off the light, and then he turned down the sheet on the opposite side of the bed from where Sören had been sleeping, and climbed in. Mark was in black silk pajamas - Sören was acutely aware of the thin fabric as Mark settled in next to him and rolled Sören over to him, back into his arms.

"Just rest." Mark resumed petting him. "You're safe here."

As Sören snuggled into him, he realized it had been too long since he'd done anything resembling cuddling with anyone, and he was aching for it, a skin hunger he didn't even know he had until now. Sören started crying again, ashamed of being so needy, wondering how he had gotten so fucked up he'd been afraid to ask for hugs when he needed them...

"Right here, right now, you're safe." Mark rocked him gently. "You're safe, Sören."

Eeyore was held between them, and the scraps of the bunny in the pillowcase were nearby - Sören felt Mark move the pillowcase closer. Mark made the head of the bunny poke out; Sören saw it in the blue glow of the nightlight and managed a weak smile.

Then Mark's arms tightened around Sören and he began to sing.

There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she's buying a stairway to heaven.

There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

There's a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.

Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.

And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune,
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,
And the forests will echo with laughter.


Mark's voice was leading Sören back into the forest. Seth wasn't there, it was just them now. Just them, and the light through the trees, the light taking him into darkness.

Chapter Text

And the Tide Rushes In

 

Sören woke up to daylight burning his eyes. And there were arms around him... Mark's arms. He was snuggled into Mark's bare chest.

His bare, muscular chest. Some of Mark's hair was draped down over a shoulder and Sören's nose was in it, breathing in the clean forest-like scent.

Sören gave a little gasp - he had been used to sleeping alone so many months that the realization someone else in bed with him gave him a start - and Mark's eyes opened at that. "Ah," Mark said.

Then Sören felt himself erect, hard-on poking against Mark's leg. "Er," Sören said. His cock twinged at the sight of a pink nipple pebbled in the morning air.

Sören sat up quickly and pulled back the covers. Sören was still in the T-shirt and plaid flannel pajama bottoms he'd worn to bed last night, and Mark had on his black silk pajama bottoms; the pajama top was folded on the bedtable next to the bed. Sören looked at it and at Mark. "You're like a living space heater," Mark told him. "It got too warm, so..."

"I see." Sören saw, his morning erection throbbing as Mark stretched, shirtless. "I, ah... I gotta pee."

After Sören took care of business, he got out of the bathroom just as Mark was heading to his own bedroom. "I'm sorry about, uh." Sören looked down and made a vague hand gesture towards his crotch.

"It's biology, Sören. Morning wood happens. I'm not offended." Mark patted his shoulder - the touch threatened to make Sören hard again, jolting like electricity.

Just before Mark could walk off to his bedroom, Sören cleared his throat and Mark paused. "Um... thank you for last night," Sören said, rubbing a nervous hand through his curls, rubbing his beard. "For comforting me."

"You needed it." Their eyes met.

"You're a good friend."

Mark gave him a little smile that seemed sad, and then he said simply, "Gonna get changed," and closed the bedroom door behind him.

Sören also got changed into jean shorts and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. When Mark came out he was wearing jeans and an Aerosmith T-shirt and his usual wire-rim glasses. Sören followed him into the kitchen - still feeling awkward about the erection, and the delicious memory of Mark shirtless, needing a distraction. "You got plans for the day?" Sören asked as he took his morning meds.

Mark shook his head.

"You want to go to Golden Gate Park like we talked about?"

"I would," Mark said, "but it's the fourth of July. A lot of people have today off, crowds and traffic will be pretty obnoxious. You had a rough night last night and I don't want you to stress out too much..." Mark made a face. "I don't want to stress out too much either."

"Ah, jæja, I forgot about that." Sören frowned into his iced coffee. "I've lived in this country for four years now and I keep forgetting about it."

"I'm fine with taking you somewhere else that should be less busy, like the Marin Headlands," Mark said. "Doing Golden Gate Park another day, sometime soon."

"Oh, OK." Sören nodded. "Marin Headlands... that's nice, já?"

"I wouldn't offer to take you there if it wasn't."

Sören's face burned, feeling sheepish for asking. Of course, he was surprised he could string two words together after waking up to Mark shirtless. Nothing had happened... and Sören ached a little, almost wishing something had.

"I need to get some air," Sören said, trying not to stare at Mark, who seemed oblivious to the effect he was having.

"All right. I'll... do some warmups on the harp or something."

Sören went out the glass patio doors out to the deck down the steps, out to the beach. The sand felt good on his bare feet, and the ocean rolling over his bare feet and ankles felt even better. It was breezier today than it had been in the days previous, and a bit overcast, though still bright enough that Sören wished he'd remembered his sunglasses. It wasn't simply that he hadn't brought them outside but he'd left them in Oregon - a casualty of ADHD making him a bit forgetful - and his medication made him sensitive to light. If he was going to survive the rest of the summer he needed to do something about that.

He walked along the shore, wind in his hair, breathing in the deep salt air, relaxing at the sound of the waves and the feeling of the sea washing over his feet, the soft sand under his feet. He found a couple pebbles the size of his palm, flat and worn smooth. He hadn't really picked up any souvenirs of his trip apart from the glass box he'd bought at the boutique - he'd resisted the lure of the gift shop at Muir Woods, though he had browsed for fun. This seemed better because it was a part of the place he was staying, a connection to the land. He walked with one stone in each hand, which had the added bonus of grounding and centering him, making him feel more balanced, and after a few more minutes of just standing and watching the tide, he headed back to the house, wiping his feet before he stepped into the kitchen.

Mark was doing scales on the harp, seemingly lost in his own little world. Sören paused and watched him, breath catching at the sight of Mark's fingers moving over the strings, the intense-yet-calm look on his face, eyes closed, as he played. The way his hair and shoulders moved as his arms rolled back and forth, like the tides.

Jesus, he's fucking beautiful.

Mark's eyes opened and he jumped a little at Sören standing there. "Shit, sorry, didn't mean to startle you," Sören said.

"Ah, no, it's fine. Usually I'm more sensitive to hearing and feeling someone else come in the room but I guess I got really into it." Mark looked away. Sören saw him glance at the clock. "When do you want to go to the Headlands?"

"To be honest, afternoon would be better? I'm still feeling kind of... sluggish mentally. The walk helped." What it had helped with was making him less flustered, though the sight of Mark playing the harp, in his element, was bringing all that back again. "But, ah... can I ask you for a favor now?"

Mark primly folded his hands and looked up at Sören, waiting.

The sight would have made Sören laugh if he still didn't feel so in awe of what he'd just seen of Mark playing. "I need to get sunglasses and a couple other things, can you take me to the drugstore?"

"Yeah, we can do that."

The drugstore was across the street from a small appliance store and rental; Mark also got out of the car and Sören thought Mark was going to go into the drugstore with him, but instead Mark was looking at the place for small appliances. "I'm going to head in there for about fifteen or twenty minutes," Mark said.

"Oh, OK." Sören thought that was weird, since the house was pretty well equipped - microwave, blender, various other kitchen gadgetries - but maybe Mark needed an iron or something for his clothes. Mark seemed like the kind of person to actually want to iron his clothes.

Mark not accompanying him into the drugstore was just as well - Sören had considered keeping lube, condoms, and a toy in the glass box he'd gotten from the boutique. He'd brought a couple toys down from Oregon, but it had been enough months since he'd had sex that he hadn't packed lube or condoms, and it had been enough time since he'd bought either of those things that what he had sitting back home in Oregon was probably due for a replacement anyway. Sören hadn't brought condoms and lube because he'd been certain he wouldn't need it, but now thinking of Sharon, he wondered if he did. Based on the way his body was reacting to Mark, he felt like he needed to get laid, but he wasn't yet at the point of trying to go out and cruise - even though he knew he could hook up very easily with the eye candy in San Francisco. He was however willing to allow for "wait and see", especially where Sharon was concerned, so...

After throwing a pack of condoms and a bottle of lubricant in the basket, he went over to the display of sunglasses. They weren't Ray-Bans - which was what he had at home - but he just needed something to shield his eyes. He tried on a few pairs and went for aviator sunglasses, which was close enough to his preferred style. When he got up to the cash register - pausing at the cooler to get a small bottle of Sprite - a twink with a tan and spiky bleach-blond hair who looked to be not older than nineteen or twenty was there, and hungry green eyes looked him up and down as he scanned the condoms and lube. Sören's face burned, recognizing that look - it was the same exact look he got on a regular basis during his party days.

"You on vacation?" the twink asked.

"Jæja... you're local?"

The twink nodded. "A lot of people come and go." He emphasized the word come. "I haven't seen you before and... I would have remembered you." The twink licked his lips as he put the scanner down. He gave Sören his total.

Sören handed over his debit card and waited, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, feeling awkward and a little randy at the same time. The twink was definitely younger than what he went for with men - especially when he had students that age; he preferred men his age or older... especially a lot older. But he was pretty to look at.

The twink bagged the condoms and lube. Before he could put the sunglasses in the bag, Sören took them and their fingers brushed.

"I'll be wearing these," Sören said. Then he scowled at the tag dangling. "Well, I will if I can get the bloody tag off."

The twink pulled out a pair of scissors and snipped the tag.

"Takk."

"That's a great accent. You're... Scandinavian?" The twink cocked his head to one side.

"Iceland."

"Oooh, Icelandic men are so hot." The twink's eyes raked him again. "How long have you been here in 'Murica? You just here for the summer?"

"I've been here four years," Sören said. "I become a citizen next year."

"Oh for real? You want to stay here in Cheetonia?"

Sören laughed. "It's got its problems but everyplace does. My home country had a lot of problems with corruption several years ago, so we can't point the finger too hard." He took the bag from the twink. "Cheetonia, though... that's pretty funny."

"I hope you don't become too assimilated, that accent of yours is really sexy." The twink was giving him another hungry look.

Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls. He put on the sunglasses and said, "Jæja, well, you have a nice day."

He got out of there as fast as he could, not wanting things to get even more uncomfortable. Mark was crossing the street, carrying a medium-sized cardboard box taped up. He reached for the keyring on his belt and pressed a button to pop the trunk. He put the box in the trunk and then went around to the driver's side.

"Hey, Top Gun," Mark said, looking at Sören.

Sören laughed. "I've actually never seen that movie. It's one of those old movies I haven't gotten around to -"

Mark snorted. "It was released in 1986. It's not that old."

"I was just two. Not even, probably, since my birthday's in November."

Mark laughed as he pulled out of the parking lot. "Jesus Sören, you're making me feel like an old man."

"News flash: you are an old man."

Mark gave him a look; Sören gave him an innocent face in return. Then Sören blurted out, "You look good for your age," and though he meant it - oh, how he meant it - he couldn't believe he said it.

Mark said nothing in response, but his cheeks flushed slightly.

When they got back to the house, Sören wanted to ask Mark what was in the box, that he'd picked up from the appliance place, but he decided not to pry, being that Mark was striding ahead right to his bedroom with a determined look on his face, as if he were on some kind of mission. It probably is a clothing iron, Sören thought to himself.

Not asking the question meant Sören could also quickly unload the contents of his own purchase. He opened up the glass box on his bedtable and put in the bottle of lube. He emptied the packet of condoms. He couldn't believe he was doing this, his hands shaking a little as he threw the condom box in the wastebasket. He sat down on the edge of his bed and finished the little bottle of Sprite he'd bought, mouth dry. He thought of the twink at the drugstore and how if this had been a few years ago he would have gotten the guy's number or even asked for a rendezvous in the bathroom.

A lot had happened in a few years. Now the concept of cruising and hookups felt completely alien to him. Reflecting on it, it wasn't really what he wanted anymore. A fuckbuddy, maybe.

Someone to hold at night.

Sören thought about Sharon, wondering what his chances were with her - even as the odds were not good for anything lasting beyond the summer - and as if on cue, his phone went off and it was her. He answered right away. "Sharon, hi!"

"Sören, hi! I'm not calling too early, am I?"

"I'm actually awake at this hour, so today you're not." He gave a nervous little laugh.

"Oh, spending the summer sleeping in, are you?"

"When I can. I'd sleep in all year if I could get away with it, but you know, teacher. I'm not a morning person, I don't know what the fuck I was on when I thought teaching was a good idea. Well... I love it enough I'm willing to compromise, but I need an IV drip of caffeine some days." Sören laughed again. "Babbling, sorry."

"Oh no, it's OK. I could listen to you talk for hours. Your accent is beautiful."

That was twice in one day, but Sharon's compliment sounded more sincere, somehow. Sören's face burned. "Thanks, you too." Then he facepalmed, because by American standards Sharon didn't have much of an accent, a "newscaster" voice with the slightest West Coast twang. He liked the sound of her voice, husky and deep for a woman's. "So, ah... is it normal to say 'happy fourth of July' to you people?"

"You can, yeah. 'You people.'"

"Sorry. Americans. I haven't thought of the day much the last few years I've been here but I assume people make plans."

"Yeah, a lot of people cook out, there's usually fireworks at night."

"Fireworks, yes, I think I remember that." Sören pursed his lips. "If you're inviting me to something Herb and Marguerite are doing, the answer is still no -"

"Actually I'm not, because Lucas doesn't like you and I don't want to piss him off. Which is why I'm calling..."

There was a knot in the pit of Sören's stomach, worried that Sharon was going to tell him Lucas didn't want them spending time together anymore...

"...I know I said I wanted to get together later in the week or early next week, but can I drop by now for a bit? Lucas and I had a fight this morning and I need to get my mind off things."

Sören got up from the bed with a start and began to pace around, a nervous habit of his. "Jæja, you can come over," Sören said. He felt like an eager, excited puppydog, wanting to see her again... then his excitement was shoved aside by a fresh wave of panic. "Are you OK?" He set his jaw. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"

"No." Sharon clicked her tongue. "He wouldn't lay a hand on me. Besides, I've taken karate."

"Wow, that's hot." Then Sören facepalmed - that had just slipped out. "Er, sorry."

Sharon laughed. "Don't be sorry, Sören. Anyway, I'll be over in a little bit, OK?"

"Sounds good to me. I'll see you soon."

When Sören hit "End", he saw Mark standing in the doorway of his bedroom. "Oh. Hi, Mark."

"Hello." Mark folded his arms.

Then Sören realized he'd made plans with Sharon when he'd had plans with Mark. God, I can't do anything right. Sören shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "How much of that did you hear?"

"Enough," Mark said.

"I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking..." Sören pinched the bridge of his nose.

"It's all right. We can take a rain check. Besides, I remembered that I need to pick up a couple things so I'll take care of that while your friend is visiting."

"Are you sure you don't mind?" Sören still felt bad. "I don't want you to feel like I'm blowing you off..." His mind immediately went in the gutter with his choice of words and he smacked away the mental image of giving Mark a blowjob. "Like spending time with you isn't important to me."

"I heard the words 'he didn't hurt you, did he' - so I know she's going through a rough patch and you want to be supportive and comforting. I get it, Sören."

Mark's eyes still looked a little sad, and Sören swallowed hard. "Can she go with us to Marin Headlands?" He didn't want to disappoint Mark.

"Like I said, I have to pick up a couple things. So... see your friend. We can go to the Headlands another time."

Sören decided to make his bed for company. The sheets smelled like Mark, and he couldn't help bringing it up to his nose and breathing in before dropping them back on the bed, self-conscious. What's next, taking his underwear out of the hamper and smelling that? Sören propped Eeyore up on the bed when it was made. He noticed that even though he'd been cuddling with the pillowcase that held the remnants of his bunny, it wasn't on the bed; he assumed Mark put it back in the closet where he'd found it while Mark was in the bedroom and Sören was in the bathroom.

Mark was leaving just as Sharon arrived, driving her RV instead of Marguerite driving her. Sören gave her a hug as soon as she got to the door - she looked like she was still shaken up from her earlier spat with Lucas, eyes red like she'd been crying.

"Can I get you anything?" Sören led her into the kitchen.

"Uh, sure."

Sören took out ginger ale for himself and Sharon decided she'd have that as well. They settled in the living room with ginger ale, just drinking for a few minutes, then Sören said, "Can I ask what happened?"

"We were fighting about money, which happens from time to time since we live together. He makes more money than I do, since he's a computer programmer, and he knew going into this how much I make, and I do contribute to rent, groceries... but he's been getting up my ass to have a 'real' job. Even though he can afford everything just fine without my income, and he knows I have the job I do so I have enough time for writing. He thinks my writing is stupid."

"Jesus." Sören scowled. "My most recent ex... he thought my art was stupid. Even though I teach art for a living."

"Is he smoking crack? Your art is wonderful."

Sören smiled and patted her shoulder. "Honestly, if he was smoking crack that would explain some of his behavior, but no. No crack. He drank, though."

"Oof. I'm sorry, Sören." Sharon frowned. "I don't want you to get the impression that Lucas is, like..."

"Abusive?"

Sharon nodded. "He doesn't hit me..."

"Abuse is more than just hitting you." Their eyes met. "Before my ex, Seth, ever started hitting me, he said nasty shit to me. I don't know why I put up with it. Well... I guess I do, in hindsight. And I mean, I don't know Lucas, really - I just have your word on what's happening. But those guys at the cookout and their attitude, and the fact that it was Lucas who invited them - I haven't forgotten that."

"Yeah." Sharon pursed her lips. "Like I said, he doesn't like you. He'd flip if he knew I was here right now."

"Which is another thing. He shouldn't be controlling who you're friends with."

"Well, if he told me not to associate with you I'd tell him to go pound sand. He can express displeasure but he's not to the point of outright forbidding me to do stuff. I wouldn't put up with that." Sharon folded her arms. "I know it sounds bad, but he's really not an asshole all the time. Everyone is an asshole some of the time, even me. Most of the time he's funny and sweet..."

"I'm not the one you need to convince to stay with him, Sharon." Sören frowned. "I just know that your writing is important to you and if he's putting that down it's not a good sign."

"I think he means well, not wanting me to be dependent on anyone..."

"If he does, he has a funny way of explaining that."

There was a long silence. They finished their ginger ale. Then Sören asked, "So do you want to do something? To get your mind off things?"

"Yeah." Sharon nodded. "I really liked coloring with you the other day..."

"Awww, I liked that too. It's a good outlet, isn't it?"

Sharon nodded again, smiling. "Can we do art again?"

"Sure." Sören got up and without thinking about it, he took Sharon's hand, pulling her off the couch.

He was about to get out some paper, and then he remembered the rocks he collected on the beach earlier. "I have an idea," he said. He put the rocks down on the table. "You want to paint these? I'll do one, you do the other?"

"That's a cute idea."

Sören got out the acrylic paints, brushes, and sealer for when the designs were done. He put on the stereo in his room and sat at one end of the desk, with Sharon at the other. They painted in companionable silence to classic rock. Sören found himself painting a phoenix on the stone, which didn't surprise him since the phoenix had come up in his art so many times over the years, but he realized he was going to give this stone to Sharon when he was done and it felt a touch personal.

When his firebird was all painted, rising out of flames, he waited, studying it, and then Sharon was done a few minutes later. She had made a mandala with hers, a star-flower of rainbows, with more intricate swirling spirals in the background between the spokes. Sören smiled at it. "That's really nice."

"You can have it if you want," Sharon said.

"Oh, thank you - I was going to give you the one I painted, too." Sören showed her.

"God, I love that." Sharon's face lit up. "That'll always remind me of you."

Sören blushed and bit his lower lip, not knowing what to say.

"I really like the phoenix on your back, and the waterbird. And I remember your portfolio, all the phoenix paintings. That's like a thing with you, isn't it?" Sharon cocked her head to one side.

Sören decided to just tell her. "When I was a small child, I used to have recurring nightmares about fire - specifically, dying in a fire, burning to death. I remember being four years old and telling my mamma, this is how I died. I think any other parent would probably think there was something seriously wrong with me, but she never told me I was wrong or treated me like I was crazy or something for telling her."

"Whoa... that sounds like you had a past life," Sharon said.

"Jæja, years later I was reading stories of children who remembered past incarnations and feeling like my own experience of remembering burning up was very similar to that. My cousin Ari suggested I get a past life regression done but like..." Sören rubbed his beard. "My fraternal twin brother Dag is a scientist. A skeptic. I lived with him in Toronto for some years and I learned never to bring up any weird shit around him, and just put it all on the back burner, kind of forgot about it, though not quite. Though to his credit he doesn't dismiss all of it - my mamma said we have Elven blood and Dag thinks this was one of those ancient aliens." Sören laughed nervously. "Anyway... when I was twenty I tried to kill myself. When I was unconscious I had the dream about burning up again and this time a voice led me back to life." She called me Father. Sören swallowed hard, remembering. "I made my first painting in hospital, and the ink on my back was based on that. The fire and water is a reminder to seek balance." Yet it also felt like something more, somehow.

"Oh, Sören." Sharon squeezed his hands. "I'm glad you're OK now."

"It's been a long uphill battle and to be honest, I'm not completely OK. I will probably never be completely OK - there's no cure for bipolar, it's just something I have to manage and some days I do better than that with others. But... I have more going for me now than I did when I was twenty, I guess."

Sharon got up and gave him a hug. Sören returned the hug - his body responding to the feel of her body against his, but he behaved himself.

"These should be dry enough for me to put a sealant on," Sören said, and that was what he did, coating the stones with a protective transparent glaze.

"Summer Breeze" by Seals & Crofts came on the radio and Sharon said, "Oh, I love this song."

"Me too." Sören turned it up. He laughed then. "It's funny... we both like KMFDM and I'm guessing other industrial bands but we also like this kind of music too. My parents came of age in the 1970s and my mamma always had music on when I was a kid. Before she died, and all."

"That's so rough, losing your mom at a young age." Sharon frowned. "My parents are in their forties -"

"Oh your dad's like Mark's age?"

"Probably? So they were 80s kids. I listen to everything, though. Well, except country and rap."

Sören grinned. "I like rap." He snickered, remembering the feuds with Dooku, which were funny in hindsight now. "My taste in music is pretty eclectic but I tend to gravitate towards hip-hop, industrial, and 70s music. I like 70s music enough that I think I was born in the wrong decade. That and it was the time of free love..." His face burned.

"Yeah, I know what you mean." Sharon took Sören's hands then and started dancing him around the room to the tail end of the song.

Sweet days of summer, the jasmine's in bloom
July is dressed up and playing her tune
And I come home from a hard day's work
And you're waitin' there
Not a care in the world


When the song was over "Livin' Thing" by Electric Light Orchestra came on. Sören let out a little scream and turned the stereo up even louder. "I fucking love this song. ELO is one of my favorite bands," Sören admitted. Then it was his turn to take Sharon's hands and lead her around, doing a faux tango.

Sailin' away on the crest of a wave
It's like magic
Rollin' and ridin' and slippin' & slidin'
It's magic

And you, and your sweet desire,
You took me, higher and higher
It's a livin' thing,
It's a terrible thing to lose
It's a given thing
What a terrible thing to lose.


They marched, dipped, and twirled. At the end of the song Sören dipped Sharon as low as he could and when she came up she giggled and kissed the tip of his nose. Sören's face burned. "You're so cute," Sharon said, stroking his cheek.

Sören wanted to kiss her - he felt she deserved better than Lucas, but his internal set of rules still declared her as being in a relationship and he didn't go after people who were taken. Sharon went back to the desk to admire the phoenix stone some more. "Can I look at the ink on your back?" she said after a moment. "I've seen it before but I haven't really studied it."

Sören hesitated, but took his shirt off and turned around. He could feel Sharon looking at his back. "That's amazing," she said in a hushed tone of voice. "Really detailed work..."

"I designed it but the tattoo artist did a great job with the design."

Sharon looked it over some more and then she said, "You've got some scars on your back."

Sören nodded. He turned around. "My aunt and uncle raised us after my mamma died and my uncle was, ah." He looked down.

"Jesus, Sören." Sharon hugged him again. "You seem like a really nice guy and it's all the more remarkable for having lived through that kind of abuse."

"Jæja, the cruelty I experienced taught me the world can be a nasty place and it's important to be kind to others. So I try."

Sören was about to put his shirt back on but before he did, Sharon said, "Do you want to go for a swim?"

"I could go for that, but I didn't think you would want to since it's overcast and not too warm..."

"I don't mind it on days like this."

Sören grinned. "In Iceland we go swimming year-round. My standards of 'too cold to swim' are different from most people's."

"I bet. God, I'd love to see Iceland someday."

"Oh if you can, you totally should. I don't go back because my aunt and uncle are still there and at this point I've lived so long away from Iceland that I'd feel like a foreigner. I might visit again once I know they're dead but... I don't think I could live there again. I'll always miss it, though."

"I've lived my entire life in the Bay Area, but I want to see the world. Or some of it, anyway. I'd really like to see Oregon." Their eyes met.

"You'd like Portland. I live in Corvallis, which isn't too bad of a drive from there. The Pacific Northwest has become home, it felt right as soon as I flew in and saw everything from the plane window. Mount Hood and all the trees, looking like broccoli." Sören laughed at the memory, and then gave a little wistful sigh as he remembered that first sight, the dramatic sunset setting the sky ablaze, the awe of the big mountain, trees as far as the eye could see. It was like flying into an enchanted realm. The Pacific Northwest felt magical to him in a way that was hard to put into words. It had a different sort of beauty than Iceland but a wild, primordial beauty in its own right.

Sharon started undressing right there. At the surprised look on Sören's face, Sharon laughed and said, "I have my swimsuit on under my clothes. I put it on when I thought I'd be coming out here to see you."

She was wearing a hot pink two-piece this time instead of the blue one before. Sören couldn't help but take an appreciative glance before he grabbed his swim trunks and changed in the bathroom. When he came out, he and Sharon went out the glass door of the kitchen, out the deck, down to the beach.

It was overcast, but Sharon still had suntan lotion with her, and made Sören put some on too. "You can still burn on days like this," she said.

The SPF was still a bit low for Sören as pale as he was, but it was better than nothing, as he didn't want to go back in to grab the sunblock he'd forgotten and he didn't expect they'd be out here for hours. Sharon did Sören's back first - he bit back a moan at her hands on him - and then he did her back, trying to be clinical and professional about the whole thing but his mind kept racing with thoughts of what it would be like to give her a sensual massage, play with her, spoil her with his tongue. When she turned around and began to apply the lotion to the front of her, Sören tried very hard not to look, his face burning, but he kept looking.

Sharon gasped from the shock of the water, which was colder today, though not so cold as to be unbearable. She was shivering a little when she got up to her thighs, and Sören couldn't help but noticing her nipples were hard in her bikini, which gave him even more lustful thoughts. He found himself licking his lips without thinking about it, and then their eyes met - she'd seen him looking at her breasts and reacting like that. Sören quickly looked away, wishing he could duck underwater.

When Sharon was out to her waist and Sören was a little further out, up to his chest, Sharon splashed him. Sören looked and Sharon was laughing.

"I saw those eyes wandering," Sharon said, wading up ahead so she was alongside him.

"Jæja, sorry about that. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable." Sören looked down.

Sharon put her hands on his shoulders. "No, I'm... flattered." Sharon bit her lower lip adorably. Their eyes met again, then Sharon looked away. "Lucas makes fun of me sometimes about being small-breasted and skinny, says I'm a toothpick..."

Sören made a noise. "You say he's not abusive but he makes fun of your body. That's not OK, Sharon. And he shouldn't talk either, he's built like a string bean."

"Well, you know, double standards. And I mean, I like girls with big tits so I can't..."

"He shouldn't make fun of you." Sören glared. "And there's nothing wrong with you, Sharon." Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, "You've got a hot little body."

Sharon blushed, and bit her lower lip again.

"Sorry," Sören said, looking down.

"No. It's... thank you." Sharon smiled. "You don't have to say things to make me feel better -"

"I'm not." Sören let out a little sigh. "If you were single I'd fuck you senseless."

Sharon laughed at that, and then she winked at him. "You never know. You're fucking hot, yourself." Then she sighed too. "I want to try to work things out with Lucas..."

"You deserve better."

Sharon shrugged. "We have a history. I'm used to him. Things weren't always like this... he's been stressed out from work..."

I wish you wouldn't make excuses for him. It reminded him too much of how things had been with Seth, right down to Seth also having been in the tech industry. But he knew that just like how he'd made excuses for Seth when things started going bad, it was going to be hard to convince her Lucas was toxic. He couldn't force her to break up with him.

Sören dropped it and they waded around.

When they got back to the house Sharon made a noise as she looked at the time. "I've gotta get going. Herb and Marguerite are having a little party tonight and I said I'd make a couple things, bring them over..."

"I understand." Sören continued toweling off. "Are you feeling any better?"

"Yeah, I am." Sharon started pulling her clothes on, though she shook her ass to give Sören a little show before she put her skirt on and when she turned around and saw Sören blushing, she giggled.

"Naughty," Sören said.

"Mmmmm... if I was single I'd tease you mercilessly just to hear you say the word 'naughty' like that."

Sören was getting hard. He decided getting naked in the bathroom to put his clothes back on was a bad idea in his current state - he'd be too tempted to invite her in - so he walked her to the door in his swim trunks. Sharon hugged him goodbye, which only made it worse, even more so when she kissed his cheek.

"I still want to see you later in the week or early next week," Sharon said. "And I didn't bring my notebook this time..."

Sören nodded. "Give me a call when you have an idea of what your schedule looks like. I'm pretty flexible." His mind immediately went into the gutter at that, and at the flush in Sharon's cheeks he could tell hers did too.

"All right. Bye."

Yes, yes I am. Sören waved as she walked out to her RV.

Sören dropped his trunks as soon as he got back in his room. He lay on his bed and stroked himself, thinking of taking off Sharon's swimsuit and kissing and licking her all over - paying special attention to the small breasts that Lucas didn't appreciate. Eating her to climax, taking her.

The fantasy turned into Mark pounding into him while he was inside Sharon. For the first time in months, Sören took out the glass dildo he'd brought from Oregon. Flipped open the mirror box - he finally noticed there was a mirror on the inside - and grabbed the lube. He caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror, the lust in his eyes that he hadn't seen in months, not since the early days of Seth. He was starting to feel like himself again.

Then the reflection changed... it was the violet-eyed dancer he'd painted.

"What the FUCK." Sören dropped the bottle of lube, startled. When he picked it up - thankfully, the cap was still on - the other man was still there in the reflection. Sören blinked slowly and rubbed his eyes, wondering if he was having an episode, if his mental health was deteriorating and he was having hallucinations.

But from the accounts of hallucinatory episodes that he'd read, or heard other mental health clients talk about, they were usually scary and disturbing in nature. The man was reclining in a silk robe, erect. 

"Don't stop on my account, beauty." The man had an accent... Russian, it sounded like.

Sören's own cock was still hard, and disturbance be damned, he slicked the dildo with lube, then his own cock for a better stroking experience. The man was stroking himself now too, watching.

Whatever the hell this was, Sören was going to give him a show. He fucked himself with his left hand, stroked his cock with the right. With the kinky thrill of the violet-eyed stranger watching him, enjoying what he was seeing, as Sören's fantasies continued to flip between Sharon and Mark, it didn't take long for Sören to bring himself off, coming hard. He brought his cum-soaked fingers to his lips to taste, the violet eyes riveted on him.

"Lovely," the man said, and then he was gone and the reflection was back to its usual.

Sören lay there, winding down from his orgasm. He wondered again about what he'd just seen - though the vision hadn't been frightening, Sören still questioned his own sanity. And yet he also knew the world was strange, recalling the nightmares of going up in flames that had plagued him in early childhood, the fact that Ari had pulled California out of a hat of states for where Sören should go on vacation and he very coincidentally was renting the same house as Mark for the summer. He had no idea what was going on, and he decided that like everything else he didn't understand, he wasn't going to press it right now.

He was also sleepy, post-climax. He needed a nap... He drew up the sheet around him, and closed his eyes.


_

Sören woke up with a start when he heard footsteps outside his door. He breathed a little sigh of relief when he saw it was just Mark.

"Sorry, I didn't know you were sleeping," Mark said.

"It's OK. I... ah." Sören rolled onto his side. He looked at the time - it was just after five. "Wow, shit. I slept late."

"You had a bad night last night, I'm not surprised your body decided it needed extra sleep. Anyway, what do you want for dinner?"

"Um. Food."

Mark laughed. Then he said, "You said grilled cheese is your favorite, right? I want to do something nice for you since you had such a rough time of it last night."

"That's very sweet of you." Sören felt a little tug at his heart. His face burned, remembering his sexual fantasy of earlier... this was three times now that he'd masturbated thinking about Mark. He was dangerously close to falling for this guy and he didn't want to fuck up their friendship.

"So... what do you want to go with it?"

Sören sat up to think. "Soup? I'll let you decide."

"I'll make homemade soup... minestrone fine?"

"Yes. Sounds very good."

"I'll start dinner in a bit, I have to unload stuff I bought while I was out."

Mark walked off, and then Sören realized he was still shirtless... and wearing just a sheet. Worse, he hadn't put the glass dildo or lube back in the box when he was done with them - he needed to clean the dildo first - and he wondered if Mark had seen that right out on the bedtable when he was standing in the doorway. Sören's face burned, mortified. It was one thing for Mark to know he was bisexual, it was another thing to know he'd been relieving himself earlier.

Sören put his clothes back on. The glass dildo was Pyrex, which meant Sören usually cleaned it with dish soap after use. He'd put the dildo in the dishwasher back in Oregon, but something told him Mark wouldn't appreciate finding a dildo in the dishwasher. Since Mark was in his bedroom - the stereo in the bedroom was on as Mark unpacked whatever it was he'd bought - Sören quickly stole to the kitchen, trying to keep the dildo tucked away discretely, hearing the Mission: Impossible theme running in his head.

After Sören washed the dildo, he put it on the counter to dry for a bit and poured himself a drink. He was just leaving the kitchen, dildo in hand, when Mark walked in.

"Oh. Hi, Mark." Sören wanted to crawl into the floor and die. "Ah..."

Mark saw the dildo; Sören fumbled with it, trying to hide it, but that made it even more conspicuous so they just stood there in the kitchen, with Sören holding a glass dildo.

The stereo in Mark's bedroom began to play "Walk This Way" by Aerosmith, and Sören, in an attempt to save face, began to play air guitar with the dildo as the guitar. Mark leaned against the wall, shaking, red and teary-eyed with laughter. "Sören..."

"I'm sorry. I'll... ah... I'll go..." Sören started singing along. "WALK THIS WAYYYYY, TALK THIS WAYYYYY..." He strummed a little more before dashing off, face on fire.

Sören put the dildo and lube away. Mark walked by with a drink on the way back to his room and Sören poked his head out and said, "I'm sorry. I..."

"Don't worry about it." Mark ran a hand through his hair, looking as nervous and uncomfortable as Sören felt. "Um... I'm gonna go outside for a bit."

Sören imagined he would need air, after that. Mark turned off the stereo and then went out the glass door in his room.

It was too warm all of a sudden, and Sören needed another cold drink. From the sliding glass doors in the kitchen he could see Mark sitting in the sand, hugging his knees. The breeze stirred his hair - Sören admired it, but Mark looked sad, even a little wistful. Sören wondered what was bothering him. He wondered if he, himself, was bothering Mark. He knew they had just experienced a very awkward moment, and wondered if he'd ruined their friendship even without Sören confessing he'd used that dildo because of him...

Sören tried to let it go, but when Mark got back and started work on the soup, Sören wandered into the kitchen. "Hey," Sören said.

"Hey."

"I. I'm sorry."

"Sören, quit apologizing. It's not exactly a shock that a single bisexual man of a certain age would be..." Mark's voice trailed off, his cheeks flushed.

"Well... I went to the kitchen while you were outside and you looked upset. I didn't know if it was because of me..."

"It's the fourth of July, Sören. I was in the service. I have memories I'd rather not."

Sören swallowed hard. He felt like an idiot now, like he'd made everything about him. "Shit, Mark, I'm sorry." And yet that explanation didn't fully satisfy him... like it was some of the truth why Mark was upset, but it wasn't the whole reason why. Mark was not looking at him, not just because he was working in the kitchen, but even in the spaces between he seemed to avoid meeting Sören's gaze, deliberately.

If he wants me to know he'll tell me. Sören let it go.

Eventually Mark put music back on as he worked. Sören smoked a bowl to relax, and found himself looking over the photos he'd taken at Muir Woods. The music, the high, and the pictures got his creativity buzzing. He set up his easel and began to paint. He didn't get very far when Mark said dinner was ready.

They ate on the deck listening to music. Sören thought Mark made the best grilled cheese he'd ever had, and the minestrone soup was excellent, and he told him so. Mark had white wine, even though dinner wasn't terribly fancy, and Sören allowed himself a glass. They sat for awhile after dinner just watching the waves, sipping wine, with the classic rock station in the background, and then "Walk This Way" came on again and Mark and Sören both lost it.

"I'm never going to be able to hear that again without thinking of you and..." Mark shook his head, tearing up again as he shook with laughter.

"If ever there was a band appropriate to wave a dick around to, it's Aerosmith," Sören said.

"I will agree with you on that." Mark grinned.

When the song was over, Sören said, "I was painting before dinner was ready. Do you want to, ah..." Fuck my brains out? No, I can't ask him that. "Play harp while I paint?"

"Rain check? I have something I need to take care of -"

"Related to what you bought earlier? Not that it's any of my business, but I'm curious."

"Yes," Mark said. "I'm working on something."

"Making a bomb?" Sören joked.

Mark's jaw dropped. "How did you know?" Then he shook his head. "No, not that."

"OK, I'll quit asking. But yeah, I suppose we can take a rain check..."

"I won't be working on it all night but I'm calling it an early night, I'm a bit tired."

"God, I hope my snoring didn't keep you up."

Mark laughed. "I got hypervigilant and watched you sleep a lot of the night. Protective instincts die hard."

"Yeah, you were a soldier for awhile, I guess so."

Mark nodded.

Sören did dishes, and Mark retreated to his bedroom. He closed the door; Mark's stereo was still playing loud enough for Sören to hear, and Sören wondered about that. As much as Sören liked classic rock it wasn't quite the right vibe for a painting of the redwoods, so he put on his headphones and selected the ambient playlist from his mp3s, which he tended to not listen to except in times like this, when he had a project where that sort of music fit. He got in the zone, deciding to lay out the landscape first, and he could take care of the details - like bark texture, moss - after. But there was so much of it, and not just the height of the trees and how many of them there were, but the feelings that exploded under his brush, seeing the forest again so vividly...

...remembering how Mark looked in the forest.

As much as Mark wanted to keep a low profile and didn't seem to want photographs of himself shared anywhere - which had caused Sören to modify the painting of the dancer, still marveling that the man appeared in the mirror earlier - Sören couldn't help but start painting Mark into the forest now, preserving the memory. He was hesitant enough that he just got some of the hair at first, before going back to do some more trees. But a wild Mark had appeared, giving him a frisson down his spine. These paintings took on a life of their own much of the time, and Mark needed to be in it. That was just how it was. If Mark objected later, Sören would give him the painting or agree to make it part of his own private collection, the few paintings of his he'd kept for sentimental value.

He was leaning towards that anyway, feeling a strange ache as he thought about Mark in the forest again. The peace he'd had there, contrasted with the sadness on his face as he sat on the beach.

I wish there was something I could do to make him happy.


_


Some time later Sören got up to stretch and go to the bathroom. Mark's stereo was off. His bedroom door was open now, and the bedroom was dark; Sören could make out the figure in the bed.

When Sören got back from the bathroom he looked at the time. He remembered the fireworks were tonight, and probably starting soon. He grabbed water and stepped outside, and he was right on time for the first few fireworks to light up the sky, wheels of exploding light. Sören leaned against the door as he watched, not intending to stay long - his painting called him - but for a little while he was entranced, enjoying the play of color.

He hadn't intended to stay long, but of course, there he was, still watching, and the longer he watched the fireworks the less inclined he was to go back and work some more on the forest, out of the zone for the night. He had to go to the bathroom again from the water he drank, and he decided to take his night meds and put his painting supplies away.

The explosions were getting louder, enough that even as Sören was expecting them, it still made him jump. Then he heard a moan of distress from Mark's room, and then another. A "noooooo".

Sören froze. He realized he was sharing a house with a vet who had PTSD, on a night when there were loud explosions happening outside. "Mark," he said under his breath and took off at a run for his bedroom - having to slow down when his lungs wheezed in protest. He was walking towards Mark's bed just as a very loud bang made Mark sit up with a cry, and Mark grabbed Sören and threw him down onto the bed with him, shielding him with his body until he snapped out of it a moment later.

"Oh god, Sören." Mark facepalmed. He was shaking, tearing up. "Sören..."

"It's OK, Mark." Sören was a little sore from being so roughly handled - also vaguely aroused - but his concern right now was for Mark, who was reliving whatever horror he'd been through. "It's OK. Shhhhh. You're here in Sausalito."

"Oh Hells." Mark tried to take deep breaths, but he was sobbing. "Oh god."

"Are you... having a flashback?"

"I was." Mark nodded, still crying. "I'm starting to come out of it but still having that fight-or-flight response... did I hurt you?"

"Not much. And even if you had, I'm not angry. You were trying to save me from whatever it was you were seeing..."

"Yeah. I'm sorry." Mark broke down, weeping harder. "No matter how long it's been, certain things will send me back..."

"I know." Sören's arms tightened around him, and he began to rock Mark back and forth. "I know. You were there for me last night when I was reliving my own hell... I'm here for you tonight." He brushed an errant lock of hair out of Mark's face and stroked his cheek. "You don't have to be alone through this."

Mark cried on Sören's shoulder. Sören gently lay them down and pulled Mark close, petting his hair. "Let it out. It's OK." He continued rocking Mark, petting, making little tender, soothing noises as Mark wept, shaking. "It's OK. It's all right. You're safe here."

Mark cried and cried. It made Sören tear up too, heart aching, wishing there was something, anything he could do to make it OK again.

Well, there is one thing I can try. Sören got up, and went over to his own bedroom. While he was in there, he stripped down to his boxer-briefs - he wasn't going to bed in his street clothes - and he reached for the Eeyore doll on his bed. Before he could grab a pair of pajama bottoms, he heard Mark calling for him in distress, which made the dam break - Sören couldn't hold the tears back. So even though he was just in his underwear, he came back with Eeyore, climbing in bed next to Mark.

"Here," Sören said, putting Eeyore in his arms.

Mark laughed and cried at the same time. "You're a dear."

"I'm a donkey," Sören said in an Eeyore voice, making the doll headbutt Mark. "Get it right."

Mark laughed some more. "I needed that."

"I know."

Their eyes met, and then Sören held out his arms and Mark settled back in. Mark's arms went around Sören too, and they held each other, Eeyore held between them. Their legs braided together and Mark started to cry again. Sören resumed petting his hair, rocking him. "Shhhhh," Sören soothed. "You're safe here. I've got you."

"I don't want to keep you if you're painting..."

"I'm done for the night but even if I wasn't, you need this right now."

Mark sobbed. "I hate being like this, so much."

"I relate. Different trauma, but..."

"Yeah." Their eyes met. "You get it. I'm sorry that you get it too, but..."

"But we have someone who understands." Sören took Mark's scarred hand and squeezed it. Without thinking of it, his thumb stroked the scar on Mark's palm. Then Sören let go of his hand and held Mark more tightly. "Just rest. Try to go back to sleep. I'll be here."

"Thank you."

Mark continued to cry for awhile, and Sören pet him, aching. At last Sören asked, "Do you... do you want me to sing to you?"

"You could."

Sören thought about what to sing - "Stairway to Heaven" came immediately to mind, but he didn't think he could do the song justice at all, especially not after Mark sang it last night, sounding as good as Robert Plant if not better. His mind drew a blank, and then, in a fit of madness, Sören heard himself singing

Backstroke lover
Always hidin' 'neath the covers
'Til I talked to your daddy, he say


"Sören." Mark's eyes were wide.

He said, "You ain't seen nothin'
'Til you're down on a muffin
Then you're sure to be a-changin' your ways"
I met a cheerleader
Was a real young bleeder
Oh, the times I could reminisce
'Cause the best things of lovin'
With her sister and her cousin
Only started with a little kiss
Like this


"Oh my god, Sören." Mark was shaking, but now it was with laughter.

Sören began to make Eeyore dance as he continued the song.

Seesaw swingin' with the boys in the school
And your feet flyin' up in the air
Singin', "Hey diddle diddle"
With your kitty in the middle
Of the swing like you didn't care
So I took a big chance
At the high school dance
With a missy who was ready to play
Wasn't me she was foolin'
'Cause she knew what she was doin'
And I knew love was here to stay
When she told me to

"Walk this way, talk this way"
"Walk this way, walk this way"
"Walk this way, walk this way"
"Walk this way, talk this way"
Just gimme a kiss
Like this


Sören sang "der-ner-ner, der-ner, der-ner-ner, der-ner-ner-ner, der-ner-ner, ner ner NER ner," to the guitar riff, making Eeyore twerk. 

Mark facepalmed, doubled over. "Goddammit, Sören. You fucking dork..."

Sören was laughing too. "I couldn't help it."

When they calmed down from their hysterics, Mark's arms squeezed Sören. "Thank you."

Sören nuzzled the top of his head, breathing in the scent of his hair. "Now get some sleep, you."

"I kind of want you to finish the song."

Sören laughed. "No." His face was burning, feeling self-conscious about singing, even though he was glad he'd entertained Mark and got his mind off things a little. "I could barely get through the first part."

"Party pooper."

"Good night, Mark. You need your rest."

"All right," Mark mumbled, snuggling into Sören's chest. "Good night, you."

Chapter Text

Closer To the Heart

 

"Hey, sleepyhead."

Sören blinked his eyes open and saw Mark sitting on the edge of the bed, fully clothed in jeans and a plain black T-shirt. Mark had his glasses off, and put them on when his eyes met Sören's, smiling at him.

Sören was covered in sheets, naked except for his boxer-briefs. He remembered from last night he'd gone to his room to change and fetch Eeyore to comfort Mark, and Mark had called him back in distress before he could put pajamas on. And of course, under the sheets, Sören was sporting a robust morning erection. Sören wondered if it had been poking Mark and woke him up. He decided he didn't want to know that.

Mark got up and when his back was turned, Sören shuffled off to the bathroom, hoping sidling past would shield his erection. Even though Mark had said yesterday morning he wasn't bothered by it, Sören couldn't help but think on some level it was awkward for him and he was just too polite to say so. 

Just before Sören ducked out of Mark's bedroom he noticed a Singer sewing machine sitting on the desk. That hadn't been there before, as far as Sören knew. He wondered if that was what Mark had rented from the small appliance place yesterday. He wasn't going to ask, as he knew some guys could be sensitive about that sort of thing, even though Mark didn't seem like the type to buy into all that "macho" bullshit.

After going to the bathroom Sören took a shower - on the cool side, which helped calm his libido. With a towel around his waist he made it to his bedroom... just as Mark was walking out of his own bedroom.

"Good morning," Sören said finally, noticing Mark trying not to look at him, looking a bit uncomfortable.

Sören put on jean shorts and the KMFDM shirt he'd been wearing when he met Sharon. He came out to the kitchen to take his morning meds; Mark poured him an iced coffee.

Sören finally noticed the time - it was past noon. "Jesus, I slept in again."

Mark nodded.

"You have plans for the day?" Sören leaned back against the sink counter with an eyebrow raised.

"Yeah, I'm working on something."

Even though Sören hadn't planned on bringing it up, it slipped out anyway. "You sewing something?"

"Ah. Yeah." Mark looked away.

"No, it's cool... you don't have to worry about me judging you. I know you probably had to deal with a lot of that toxic masculine stereotype shit in the service but you should already know I'm not like that."

"Yeah, I know, Sören."

"I can't sew worth a damn, but I think it's cool that you know how. You can cook, you can sew..."

"Survival skills, living alone as long as I have." Mark looked at Sören finally. "So yes, I have plans for the day but it's not personal, and if you want, we can do something tomorrow?"

Sören nodded. "It's just as well, because I'm painting."

"OK. Maybe take some time to think about what you want to do tomorrow and we'll discuss that at dinner." Mark looked at the clock. "Even though I'm claustrophobic, I'm going to close my door while I sew because as you've noticed I startle easily and I don't want to slip if I jump at something..."

"Totally understandable."

Sören felt a little disappointed that they wouldn't be hanging out today, which made him self-conscious as he went back to his room - he didn't own Mark, he couldn't expect to monopolize his time, being permanently attached at the hip. He didn't know why he was reacting like his heart had been stepped on. But there was the promise of tomorrow, and Sören held onto that.

Sören heard music coming from Mark's room - Def Leppard. He smiled fondly as he sat in front of his easel, and put on his headphones, since it wasn't the right kind of vibe for painting the redwoods.

Despite hours of painting the night before, Sören felt like he'd barely made a dent - there was so much of the redwood landscape. Every now and again he'd refer to the pictures uploaded to his laptop, but it seemed that the strongest impressions were when he closed his eyes, drawing from memory.

He got the bases of more trees painted and the beginnings of the forest floor before he decided to take a break to stretch, visit the bathroom and get a cold drink. There was still a lot left to do. He took his headphones off - Mark was listening to Metallica now, and Sören could hear the drill-like sound of the sewing machine. He wondered what Mark was sewing, but felt like it would be weird or intrusive somehow to ask.

Today was a day where even taking a small break disrupted his attention, and he couldn't quite get back in the zone when he sat back down at his easel. He knew it would come back to him - it burned too much - but the fire had faded for now. Sören let out a sigh, exasperated with himself. He decided to go for a walk.

His steps led him to Bridgeway, and he couldn't resist popping in Marguerite's boutique to visit Sharon, whose face lit up when she saw him. Sören didn't stay long, since Marguerite kept giving him annoyed looks as he browsed the stained glass pieces - wishing he could afford to take home a mandala - but just seeing Sharon gave him a little spring in his step that lasted all the way home.

His good mood quickly dissipated when he got home just as Mark was coming out of the bathroom; Mark startled and Sören felt awful about it.

"Jesus, I'm sorry," Sören said.

"It's OK. I... I'm fine." Mark gave him a thin smile.

Sören still felt bad - not just that he didn't mean to give Mark a jolt, but he knew firsthand what it was like to have PTSD to that degree. He ached for him.

Sitting back down at his easel, he looked at where he'd just started to paint Mark's hair. Nobody else looking at the painting would know the subject was Mark, yet, but Sören knew.

He thought of the way Mark had been in Muir Woods. He thought of the stained glass he'd admired at the boutique, feeling like he was in a cathedral. His mind combined those two trains of thought - the forest is Mark's cathedral.

He wanted to recapture that serenity with the brush, the way Mark looked like he was absolutely at home there with the redwoods. As he painted, he thought about what Mark had said before Mark had started sewing - he was sewing now, Sören could hear the machine running again - about thinking about what he'd like to do tomorrow. Sören knew now he wanted to go back to Muir Woods.

Sören painted with his headphones on until Mark knocked on his bedroom door - now it was Sören's turn to jump, dropping a paintbrush on his jean shorts.

"Fuck," Sören said.

"Sorry."

Sören immediately dropped trou, not thinking of it - Mark looked away, but then their eyes met and Mark's face was red. It was Sören's turn to apologize. "Sorry, I gotta take care of this stain now."

He marched to the bathroom in his boxer-briefs and began to clean the stain, while Mark hung back a few feet. When Sören noticed in the bathroom mirror that Mark was lingering, he looked over his shoulder. "Hm?"

Mark brushed a strand of hair out of his face. "Um, dinner's almost ready."

"Oh. OK. Lemme just... finish this and then I'll be out." Sören looked down at his bare legs. "Well, lemme put something on and I'll be out."

Mark shuffled off. Sören's face was red now too. Good going. When he got back to his room he decided to just put on pajama bottoms, and sauntered out through the kitchen glass door to the deck, where Mark was setting things up.

He'd made grilled salmon with a Greek salad. They ate in silence for a few minutes, watching the waves, and at last Sören said, "Can we go to Muir Woods tomorrow?"

"Again?"

"Well, I mean, if you don't want to..."

"No, that wasn't a complaint. I could go to the redwoods every day and not get tired of it. It was more surprise that there's other places you haven't seen yet and you want to go back there before seeing any of them."

Sören nodded. "I want to. I do want to see other places, but... I really want to go back there tomorrow." What he didn't say was You need it.

"OK." Mark raised an eyebrow. "You'll need to wake up early."

"Jæja, I know." Sören cringed a little - that was the one drawback of going, but he'd make himself do it for Mark.

"Do you want to hike the same trail, or do you want to try the Dipsea Trail Loop?"

"I think I want to hike the same trail we did last time. I eventually do want to do the big seven-mile loop you talked about but I need to work my way there with endurance, my asthma being what it is."

Mark nodded. "That's understandable. For what it's worth I won't be upset or disappointed if we don't do the big trail -"

"No. We're going to do that before the summer is over." Sören set his jaw and squared his shoulders. "I need to, for myself." He wanted to feel some sort of accomplishment for once, and he was properly motivated by the promise of waterfalls.

"OK, but don't... overdo it." Mark gave him a stern look.

"Why I want to work my way up to that. So, yeah, if the Canopy View Trail is good for you, it's good for me."

"It's good by me, Sören."

They were back to their routine of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which felt comforting, though also awkward as Sören kept stealing glances at Mark without meaning to. Sören tried to tell himself he was studying the subject of his painting, but that truly didn't account for the number of times he looked over at Mark, or the little frisson of longing he felt...

He's beautiful.

Sören took his night meds before Deep Space Nine, and didn't know if it was a blessing or a curse that he began to yawn, eyes heavy, during the last fifteen minutes of the show. As the credits rolled Sören sat there half-asleep, not really wanting to get up and go to bed yet - almost feeling like he needed to be around Mark just a little longer - and finally Mark said, "Go to bed, Sören."

Sören gave him a look through sleepy eyes.

"Early day tomorrow. You're already enough of a grump in the morning without passing out on the couch and sleeping uncomfortably."

Sören blew a raspberry. "All right."

Before Sören could wander off he turned and mumbled, "Night Mark."

"Night, Sören. Sleep well."

"You too, when you get there."

That sad smile again. Sören was half-tempted to go over to where Mark was sitting and just hug him tight, offer to stay with him awhile, offer to...

What? Get in bed with him?

Of course, he couldn't just volunteer that. So Sören crawled into his own bed, alone, and hugged Eeyore. He felt enough of an ache that for a minute he considered getting up, going to the closet, and fetching the pillowcase with the bits of his bunny. But already he was fading fast.


_


"Sören."

"Murr."

"Waaaaaake up, Sören." Mark was gently shaking him. "We're going to the redwoods, remember?"

"Oh god fucking shoot me."

Mark laughed aloud at that. "Good morning to you too."

Sören sat up. "I'm up. I'm up."

"Here." Mark handed him a cup of iced coffee, and his med minder. "Um, not exactly breakfast in bed but..."

"It helps." Sören took his meds and chugged the coffee.

"How did you sleep?"

"Like the dead." Sören couldn't remember his dreams. "You?"

"I slept all right." Mark nodded. "I took a walk at the shore before bed, that helps."

Sören showered and changed into a Super Mario T-shirt and jean shorts. Mark was already dressed, wearing a Def Leppard shirt and jeans.

It was overcast and foggy, and the fog seemed even worse when they got to the forest. It was a Thursday morning, and it seemed like that and the weather made for fewer tourists today. "You still sure you want to do this?" Mark asked as they pulled into the parking stall.

Sören nodded. "This kind of weather doesn't bother me."

"I kind of assumed that, since you voluntarily live in the Pacific Northwest, but I wanted to make sure."

Not only did it not bother Sören, but as they entered the trail and saw the first redwoods, Sören let out a low whistle. Mark glanced at him and Sören felt self-conscious about the noise he made, but he couldn't help it.

"It's like going to an entirely new forest," Sören said, his voice hushed with reverence. "Seeing it in a whole different way - we came here when it was sunny the other day and the light was shining through the trees and now there's all this mist." Sören looked around, taking it in. "It looks like... an enchanted forest. Like something out of a storybook."

Mark chuckled. "Yeah, I guess it does."

"It's amazing." The air also smelled better today - not that it had smelled bad when they were in the forest before, but now petrichor was heavy in the air, and the mix of petrichor, evergreen and earth was intoxicating.

The trail was slick, so they went more slowly this time. It was just as well - Sören took it in, savoring the sight of the mist around the trees, the way dew sparkled on the ferns. The thicker the forest got, the darker it got with it being overcast, and the play of shadows and light was another thing Sören studied, committed to memory.

And everything felt more alive today, as if it had been nourished by the moisture. It wasn't just that the misty redwoods looked ethereal and enchanted, the forest seemed to pulse and buzz with a deep magic.

Mark was at peace again. He, too, looked like something out of legend, striding down the trail, eyes appreciating the beauty and wonder of their surroundings as much as Sören's were.

When they began their descent down the ravine, Sören almost fell, losing his balance as his foot skidded on a slippery spot. Before he could take a tumble, Mark's arms steadied him. Sören's heart skipped a beat, not just from nearly having a nasty spill, but Mark being right there to catch him if he fell - strong, safe. The feeling of Mark's hands on him was making him giddy, and the light in those silver eyes took Sören's breath away. For a wild moment Sören wanted to kiss him.

No. You cannot catch feelings for this guy. He probably doesn't like you that way. Let's not make things awkward.

But as they made their way on the last leg of the trail, Sören was looking at Mark as much as he was looking at the redwoods. The beauty, the grace. His face was on fire by the time they went back out to the car.

Sören had taken some photos during their hike, though fewer this time since his cell phone didn't like the condensation in the air. Mark had the radio on as he drove and Sören went back and forth between his phone gallery and looking out the window. He hadn't started the finer details of his painting yet, and he wondered if he should paint light through the trees like their first visit or make everything all misty. Finally he decided he'd let the painting decide, when he got back to it.

But the painting didn't call to him when they got back - his bed did, since he'd woken up so early. It was early afternoon, and Sören told Mark, "I'm gonna take a nap."

"OK. I'll wake you up when I start dinner if you're not up by then."

"Takk."

Sören didn't go right to sleep - he was still feeling a bit of a high from the experience of the redwoods, his mind's eye replaying the swirling mists... he could almost smell the forest again. Despite the overcast day he felt a warm glow. He'd craved death more than once in his life, and he was here and now truly glad to be alive to have seen this, one of the wonders of the world. It felt like this summer was a turning point in his life, and like the ancient redwoods were a birthing ground for something new...

Like the previous time he'd visited the forest, his brain wouldn't let him have nice things and he had a nightmare of Seth pushing him down the ravine, falling and falling and falling. And when he got to the bottom he was lost in the fog... but then it wasn't fog, it was smoke. He was descended upon by a pack of creatures made of fire, darkness and smoke, carrying whips of fire, and now he was trying to fight them, and wounded, and fire was rising from his wounds, he was burning up...

Sören heard himself scream, and then Mark was there, sitting on the edge of his bed.

"Sören. Sören, it's all right."

Sören was gasping for breath, shaking. He sat up, and for a moment he and Mark just looked at each other, then Mark took his hands.

"It was just a dream, Sören. You're here, in the beach house in Sausalito." Mark squeezed his hands. "You're safe. You're all right."

"God." Sören closed his eyes, the nightmare flooding back again. "I fucking hate this..."

"I know." Their eyes met, and Sören's eyes teared up at the ache in Mark's eyes, the compassion there, one survivor to another. "Believe me, I know."

"I hate how my brain is constantly a massive fucking dick to me." Sören slipped a hand out of Mark's grasp and pinched the bridge of his nose, then facepalmed, trying to fight the tears.

"Do you want to talk about it? Sometimes talking helps." Their eyes met again. "Sometimes it doesn't help, of course, but I'll listen if you need..."

"It's..." Sören shrugged. "It was a combination of dreaming about my asshole ex, and this nightmare that's been plaguing me since I was a little kid. Since I was at least four or so. Nightmare about burning to death."

Mark's eyes widened as if in shock.

"I know, right?" Sören gave a self-deprecating laugh. "It's not like I had any traumatic experiences with fire as a kid that I'm aware of, nobody's house burned down, didn't see any scary movies or anything. My mind just... decided to be an evil fucking troll. When I was four I told my mamma 'this is how I died'. Like... who the fuck says that at four years old? Kids who dream about burning to death, I guess." Sören looked down. "It's part of why I have the phoenix on my back. It's like death has been chasing me around that long..." Sören sighed.

He looked up and Mark was still staring at him. Then Mark blinked slowly, and looked away for a moment - looking lost in his own thoughts. Sören wondered if he'd said something upsetting, but then Mark's expression returned to neutral and he asked, "Can I get you something?"

"Water. Or maybe I should just get up and get it myself, not lay here and keep replaying the shit over and over in my head."

Mark followed Sören out to the kitchen.

Sören had ice water, and looked out the sliding glass door at the ocean. After a few minutes he went out on the deck, and Mark joined him. It was still overcast and foggy, and now Sören admired the mist on the beach, the steel-grey of the waves.

"You want to go for a walk?" Mark asked him.

"You read my mind."

They walked along the shore together, quietly. Sören liked the smell of petrichor on sea breeze as much as he liked the smell of petrichor in the forest. When Mark's steps occasionally came closer to his, Sören could smell him, too, and fought off the urge to just bury his nose in Mark's hair and breathe in.

They stood together for a few minutes watching the tide. Then on impulse, Sören took off his Doc Martens and his socks and walked out till the tide flowed over his ankles. He liked that feeling of his feet washed by the sea, the softness of the sand underneath. It was soothing, refreshing, and what he needed after the dream of burning up.

He hadn't realized low tide was just about to become high tide, and he scurried out too late, getting hit in the knees. Sören gasped at the shock of the cool water and laughed. Then he said "fuck it" and made his way back in up to his waist, arms wide open, letting the sea come at him, not caring that he was getting his clothes wet. The roar of the sea and the force of the waves pushed away the nightmare, carried him back to the here and now, these little spontaneous moments of wonder at the simple pleasures of life.

He stayed there for a few pushes and pulls of the tide, and when he came out, drenched, Mark laughed at him. As Sören wiped his feet on the mat on the deck, Mark hurried inside and came back with a towel.

"Hey, and it's Thursday and everything," Sören said.

"I could never get the hang of Thursdays either."

"Yeah."

"But this one is pretty good." Their eyes met and Mark gave him a little smile. "Or it is, with the exception of your nightmare. I wish there was something I could do."

"Me too, but." Sören shrugged. "At least I'm not so shaken up now."

"Yeah."

They lingered there on the doorstep and then came in. Sören went right to his bedroom and changed into a plain black T-shirt and green plaid pajama bottoms. When he came out Mark was surveying the contents of the fridge and cupboards, frowning.

"I have to go to the store again," he said.

"You want to just get takeout tonight? Delivery? Whatever?"

"We could do that. What are you in the mood for?"

Sören shrugged. He thought of the painting sitting on the easel. "To be honest, I think I want to just paint for awhile and revisit that topic later."

"OK."

Sören looked at him and said, "Do you, ah... want to play harp while I paint? That would actually be really helpful for what I'm working on."

Mark nodded. "I'll do another recording so I can play it back and make notations later."

That was what they did. Mark's improvisation on the harp was the perfect soundtrack to transport him back to the forest. It seemed like Mark was playing the song of the forest itself, playful here, melancholy there, then contemplative. Playing the mist, playing the ancient, deep dreams of the trees. Details came to life under Sören's brush - the texture of bark, clumps of moss, patches of ferns, dew drops on the ferns, the swirling mists. He wasn't quite there yet with painting Mark, that would have to be another session on its own... there was so much life, what seemed like dozens if not hundreds of shades of green and brown and silver. He could feel himself right there again, like the painting was alive, a door that led directly back to the forest and reliving the memory of wonder, the awe in the quiet majesty of the redwoods, that there was still so much beauty in this world after all the ugliness he and Mark had both seen in their lives. Something still worth living for.

They lost themselves so deeply in the flow of creating together that they lost all track of time. When Sören got up to stretch he realized it was almost two o'clock at night - well past their usual dinner time, well past the time when just about anything would be open or delivering.

"Ah, shit," Mark said when he noticed the time. "I'm sorry." His eyes met Sören's and he gave Sören a sad, apologetic look.

"Don't be sorry. That was..." Sören took a deep breath, reluctant to come out of the trance they'd been in. "That was..."

"I can't describe it either. Watching you work seemed to fuel what I was doing."

"Oh, really?" Sören's stomach fluttered a little.

"Yeah. I could see what you were painting and it took me back there."

Their eyes met. "Well, what you were playing... it felt like the forest."

Mark laughed, seeming a little shy and nervous. "I felt like I was back there." Then he looked at the recording equipment. "Oh shit, this is still on."

"HI MARK," Sören yelled for the microphone to capture.

Mark facepalmed. "Thanks, Sören."

Sören couldn't help himself and started singing

Backstroke lover
Always hidin' 'neath the covers
'Til I talked to your daddy, he say
He said, "You ain't seen nothin'
'Til you're down on a muffin
Then you're sure to be a-changin' your ways"


"Oh my fucking god, Sören." Mark turned off the equipment, shaking with laughter. "Dammit..."

Sören grinned.

Mark started playing the chords for "Walk This Way" on the harp - now it was Sören's turn to explode in a gigglefit, snorting. Mark didn't do the entire song, just enough to get the gist, and then he took a little bow. "Thank you, thank you, I'm here all week."

"Hi Here All Week -"

Mark threw a small couch pillow at Sören, who ducked.

Mark looked at the time again. "Ye gods. We're great at being responsible adults."

"And you're the one to nag me about stuff..."

"Yeah, I guess I lose some adult points." Mark smiled and rubbed his head. He looked from the clock at Sören. "Well, I could scrounge up something random from what's available..."

"Denny's is open."

After Sören put street clothes back on, they walked out to Mark's Jaguar. On the half-hour drive down they listened to the classic rock station, which was playing hair metal at this hour. "Oh shit, it's Dokken," Mark said, eyes widening with recognition at a song, and he turned it up. The hair metal was a contrast to the peace of the late night, when there weren't so many people on the road. Sören liked going over the Golden Gate Bridge late at night, seeing the city lit up, light reflecting on the Bay, though he also felt a pang of wistfulness for where he'd grown up in Akureyri where there hadn't been so much light pollution and he'd gotten to see a sky full of stars. This was its own kind of beauty, but it made Sören wonder if he'd ever see the Milky Way again, and for a brief moment he entertained the idea of seeing the Milky Way with Mark sometime.

"Pour Some Sugar On Me" by Def Leppard was playing as they pulled into the Denny's parking lot and Mark made them sit in the car till the song was over. Then Mark sang the chorus on the way into Denny's and as they waited, till their usual late-night waiter gave them a weird look seating them.

Sören eschewed his usual Grand Slam, going for chicken tenders, while Mark had a Cobb salad. They split nachos as an appetizer and Mark said, "I still make better nachos than this."

"You make better everything than this but we're here because we failed at adulting tonight." Sören looked across the restaurant at the juggalos in the corner. "We didn't fail as hard as that, though."

"At least there's that."

"Though, I dunno, KISS seems like an early ICP." Sören couldn't resist trolling him a little.

"Listen, KISS is fucking awesome. Don't be disrespecting KISS."

"Or what?" Sören grinned. "You gonna fight me?"

"Yeah, I'll fight you outside in the Denny's parking lot."

"All right, let's go." Sören got up jokingly. "Walk this way..."

Mark laughed so hard he almost choked, and when he calmed down he gasped out, "Goddammit, Sören," between gulps of water.

"I'm sorry."

"No you're not."

Sören gave him an innocent face.

When their food was finished it was after four AM. Sören couldn't believe they'd lost themselves so completely in the interplay of their art and music that it had been almost two before they'd noticed. In the parking lot they stretched for a few minutes before getting back in the car - Sören teased, "So you gonna fight me?" He began to make faux karate moves and made a high-pitched yell.

Mark laughed, leaning on the car. "You are ridiculous."

"No, I'm Sören."

"Get in the car, you butt."

They got in the car. The pitch dark of night was fading to twilight now. As they drove back over the Golden Gate Bridge, Mark parked for a few minutes so they could get out for another walk on the bridge, taking in the different views, which were different still for being at the edge of night compared to when Sören had seen it last in broad daylight.

Back in the car, Mark said, "I have an idea."

"Hm?"

That idea was Mark cashing in his rain check on the Marin Headlands. He parked and they walked up the outlook area of Hawk Hill, above the parking. They were just in time to see the sun rise over clouds of fog. Even though the view of the Bay was mostly obscured by the fog, it was still an amazing sight - Sören felt like he could touch the clouds, mist set aflame by the intense orange-gold-pink-lavender of the rising sun. His breath caught, and Sören noticed the hitch in Mark's breath also. Mark was at peace in this place too. Sören instinctively reached out and took his hand. For a moment, Sören wanted to hug him - to hold him close and assure him it would be OK. The same assurance he needed himself.

Sören knew, of course, that it was never completely OK. One magnificent sunrise over the San Francisco Bay couldn't undo an entire lifetime of tragedy and trauma and pain. But it made Sören want to fight another day, to push through the grief and rage that had been burning him alive since he was a child, for moments like this. Moments when he was glad to be here, in this wonderful world.

Sören's eyes teared up, a lump in his throat, an ache in his chest. This moment felt deeply intimate... and yet right that Mark was here with him, someone else who had been through God-knew-what that tormented him. Sören's thumb ran over the scar on Mark's palm.

They drove back to the beach house in silence, apart from the classic rock station in the background, which Mark had on a lower volume now. Sören couldn't make words... and there were really no words that could be made, nor any words that were needed. They had both witnessed something powerful together, and the quiet space was as intimate as the moment of glory on Hawk Hill, a shared place of peace.

Sören finally broke the silence when they stepped inside the house. "Thank you," he said.

"Thank you," Mark said. "That was the perfect time to go to the Marin Headlands." He glanced out the window. "We should go watch the sunrise there again on a morning when there'll be less fog, the view is awesome."

"That means being up before the sunrise, but I suppose if we keep having nights like this it won't be hard."

"No, probably not." Mark yawned. "I should get some sleep."

"Go to bed, Mark."

Mark laughed. "You should sleep too, Sören."

"I will." Sören nodded. "Hopefully the nightmares will stay away."

"Yeah." Mark sighed. "Well... whenever you wake up... you want to go to Golden Gate Park? See the Japanese Tea Garden?"

"Yes."

"Cool. And we also need to get food while we're out, because I'm not eating at Denny's every night."

"Hi Not Eating At Denny's Every Night..."

Mark lunged, and Sören ran away, giggling. Before he could duck into his room he said, "Night, Mark."

"Night."


_


Sören slept until afternoon, and it looked like Mark hadn't been up much earlier than him, still in his pajamas, headphones on as he listened to last night's recording and made notes in a journal. After coffee and morning meds, Sören got changed and went for a little walk along the shore while Mark took a shower. He got back just as Mark was leaving the bathroom with a towel around his waist, and Sören's face burned at the sight of him - his cock was definitely awake now. When Mark went into his room to change Sören desperately tried to calm himself down in the bathroom, internally chastising himself for getting aroused at the sight of his roommate.

His very gorgeous, very likable roommate.

Sören managed to calm down enough where the ride to Golden Gate Park wasn't terribly awkward. And any lingering awkwardness vanished in the magnificence of the Japanese Tea Garden - Mark was absolutely right that Sören would love it. Through the Main Gate, Sören marveled at the Monterey Pine, the clipped hedge made to resemble Mt. Fuji, and the Dragon Hedge decorated with bamboo.

Mark led him through the garden, since he'd been there before. Sören admired the dwarf trees and the irises, all the greenery of the Drum Bridge. His breath caught at the waterfall surrounded by azaleas, more dwarf trees, wisteria and Japanese maples. He needed to sit for awhile and take pictures, and just watch the waterfall, breathe in the sweet scent of flowers, bask in the peace of the place.

They also visited the Sunken Garden, the Pagoda and the Zen Garden. Sören enjoyed the Zen Garden with its bonsai trees, a stone waterfall, and a white gravel river. He needed to sit here for awhile too.

As he snapped a few more pictures he thought of his cousin Ari, the yoga instructor in Reykjavik. He hadn't talked to Ari in awhile - they usually did video chat over Skype because international calls could get expensive. As much as Mark and Sören shared a complaint about people who were more absorbed in liveblogging what they were doing on social media than actually being in the moment, Sören attached a couple pictures to an e-mail and sent it off to his cousin, before putting his phone away. He felt a pang of guilt, missing Ari, though Ari understood a bit better than Dagnýr that he'd be busy this summer and it wasn't personal.

Then, like a stab in the heart, he thought of his sister Margrét, who had loved the Japanese aesthetic - not in a weeaboo, only-knowing-anime way, but appreciative of things like this. Margrét would have loved it here.

The wind stirred, as if his sister's spirit felt him reaching out. Sören choked back a sob, and Mark's lightly meditative state was broken, looking at him.

"I miss my sister," Sören explained. "It still hurts so much, that my bastard uncle killed her and he's still walking free..."

Mark's arms were around Sören, pulling him close, holding him tight. He stroked Sören's curls. "I'm so sorry."

"I feel so bad, bringing this up around you, 'cos like... all your brothers are dead..."

"Sören." Mark took Sören's chin in his hand and gave him a stern look; Mark's eyes were too bright. "Let's not play the 'who suffered more' game. We both lose either way. We've both been through hell. OK? You have a right to grieve, and it's OK if you need to lean on me. That's what friends are for."

With that, Mark held Sören again, rocking him gently. Sören let it out, crying for what was - the close friendship he'd had with his sister, all the teasing and banter, the way she'd supported his art and he'd supported her music. She was the first person to know he wasn't straight, and he supported her living as female, even helping her go shopping for clothing and makeup. He thought of what could have been, wondering what her life would be like now if she'd lived... what his life would be like, and Dag's, and Ari's. Margrét had kept the peace between his mystic cousin and skeptic brother, and they could barely tolerate being in the same room together now; Sören frequently felt torn between them.

He missed Ari and Dag too, but they were at least alive and he could visit them. Never seeing his sister's face again, hearing her voice...

"Let's get some tea," Mark said, helping Sören to his feet. "Tea helps."

They had green tea, and it was indeed soothing. They also each had a bowl of udon. The tea and the snack helped to ground Sören and bring him back to the present.

After their visit to the tea house, Mark and Sören strolled among the lanterns and paused at the Buddha statue - Sören took a picture of the Buddha just to send to Ari. They finished their tour of the garden by visiting the gift shop, and as much as Sören didn't want to be taken in by tourist trap things like buying kitschy souvenirs, he needed a little something and he realized it was a reminder of his sister and her sense of style, too. He bought a glazed ceramic tea set, and carried it carefully back to the car.

"I'll have to show you other parts of the park on other trips," Mark said. "Just the Tea Garden is a lot."

"That was gorgeous," Sören said. "We'll have to come back here again before the summer is over."

"We will."

On the drive back, Sören's cell phone went off. He saw Sharon's number, and could feel himself smiling as he answered. "Hey, Sharon."

"Sören, hi!" Sharon sounded bright and chipper, which was a relief to him. "How goes it?"

"It goes. I'm in the car so reception might get a little funky."

"Oh, this won't take long - you want to get together tomorrow afternoon?"

"Sure. You have any ideas?"

"We could hang out at your place or maybe we could go somewhere."

"I think I'd like to go somewhere. Can we discuss it when you come to pick me up tomorrow?"

"That's fine with me! I'll call you around one tomorrow."

They stopped at the supermarket on the way home; Mark wanted to do a stir-fry, inspired by having gone to the Japanese Tea Garden. Back at the house, after Sören helped Mark put groceries away, Mark gave him another hug.

"Just because," he said.

Sören went to his room to unwind before dinner, but the combination of being giddy from talking to Sharon and the hug from Mark brought on an attack of horniness. Sören closed his door and opened the mirror box. He considered playing with the dildo but he'd have to wash it after and that could get weird again with Mark home. He did however coat his cock with lube, and a few strokes in, the violet-eyed man with long dark hair was in the mirror, watching him.

"Jesus," Sören swore, startled.

"I am not Jesus."

Sören laughed and then he sobered quickly, feeling like he was losing his mind. "Who are you? What are you?" He tried to keep his voice down, not wanting to alarm Mark.

"A friend." The eyes raked him with lust. "A friend who was enjoying the show."

As much as Sören was tempted to throw the box in the ocean and check himself into the hospital, this felt too real to be a hallucination, and his body was screaming with unspent lust. So he resumed stroking himself, and found that as much as he no longer found casual sex as appealing as it once had been, there was something about performing for this sexy stranger who called himself a friend that added a bit of kinky thrill. But he wasn't just stroking himself for the gorgeous man watching him, Sören's fantasies were full of Sharon, or Mark, going back and forth between them. Sören got into it, working his hips, rubbing and pinching his nipples, spurred on by the man purring "yes, beauty".

And at last, the man commanded him, "Come for me."

Sören let go, trying not to cry out as he climaxed. He aimed and shot all over the mirror inside the box, over the man in the mirror. He was gratified by the sound the man made in return, like he came too - Sören couldn't see with the mirror coated in his cum.

Sören lay there for a moment, catching his breath, feeling self-conscious about what he'd done, especially that yet again he'd masturbated thinking about Mark. This had become a bad habit.

There was no way in hell he could tell Mark any of this.

Sören cleaned up the mirror and when it came time for dinner - which was delicious - Sören managed to try to keep his thoughts in order, trying to keep the fantasies and memory of having masturbated to Mark at bay as Mark sat across from him.

Mark wanted to take the evening to continue to play back last night's recording and write down the composition, which was just as well because Sören wasn't in the right frame of mind for painting. He caught up on Facebook, sent some e-mails - including to Dooku, attaching the latest pictures of the Japanese Tea Garden - and he sketched until his night meds kicked in.


_


Sharon and Sören spent Saturday afternoon at the Marin Headlands, having a picnic on Hawk Hill. It was a bright sunny day and Sören got to see the view of the Bay without fog - he snapped photos, including some selfies, some candids of him and Sharon, and got plenty of pictures of the Bay and especially the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sören felt an ache, wishing Mark was there. And as magnificent as the view was on the sunny afternoon, Sören knew it would be moreso at sunrise or sunset, hoping the next time he and Mark went would be at one of those times on a day when it wasn't foggy.

But for now, it was perfectly lovely. Sharon had a little portable mp3 player stereo with her and after their picnic they danced together atop Hawk Hill to "Livin' Thing" by Electric Light Orchestra. No matter what else happened between them, Sören would always cherish the memory of Sharon's skirt twirling, the eruption of giggles as they boogied and leapt and swung each other around on the hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

Just before they could leave, Sharon and Sören were greeted by tiny blue butterflies. One rested on the tip of Sören's finger just before flittering off.

"I wish you could come see this in the fall," Sharon said as they made their way down the hill to her RV. "The raptors come in."

"Oh, is that why they call it Hawk Hill, já?"

Sharon nodded. "Not just hawks but falcons, eagles, osprey."

"Oh, wow."

They didn't go straight back, but stopped and got ice cream. Sören had a soft-serve vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles, and as he licked his ice cream he noticed Sharon watching his tongue and her face turned pink; Sören slowed down his licking, not able to resist teasing a little, though it ended up backfiring on him as he thought about what it would be like to taste her, make her climax with his tongue. His mind played a delicious and beautiful fantasy of eating her on the hill as butterflies danced around them while they rode back towards Sausalito.

In front of the beach house, they lingered.

"You free on Tuesday?" Sharon asked.

Sören nodded.

Sharon popped the glove compartment and pulled out a notebook. "This isn't all my writing - I've got a lot of notebooks - but this is some of it."

"It'll be in good hands," Sören said.

"OK. Be honest when you tell me what you think."

Then Sharon hugged him, and Sören's face burned when she planted a kiss on his cheek. Sören was vaguely aware of them exchanging goodbyes and a time to get together on Tuesday, but his head was spinning from her touch as he hopped out of the RV.

Mark's Jaguar wasn't there, which Sören wasn't too surprised by, though he felt a small pang of disappointment, wanting to show Mark the photos of the Marin Headlands by day like he was a kid having show and tell. He also missed Mark's company - he wished Mark could have seen the butterflies with him.

Sören walked into his room and sat down on the bed. He was about to pack a bowl and toke up as a nice way to start winding down from his little adventure, and then he saw it.

Sitting against the pillows on his bed was his blue bunny. It wasn't quite as good as new - it had obvious "scars" from where it had been ripped apart and stitched back together, but it had the same sweet face he remembered, the same floppy ears. And there was a new, sparkling blue ribbon around his neck.

Sören's eyes welled up with tears as he picked up the bunny, studying it - almost not believing it was real - and he hugged it. After all these years... twenty years, to be precise... his bunny was fixed. And he realized Mark had rented the sewing machine and spent the last few days hard at work sewing this, for him.

He broke down crying, and that was how Mark found him when he got in a little while later, holding the bunny, rocking himself, sobbing. Mark paused at the door and then he came in and took Sören into his arms.

"Thank you," Sören choked out, crying on his shoulder.

"It was the least I could do." Mark rubbed Sören's shoulder, squeezed.

"It was... a lot." Sören looked up, and saw the tears in Mark's own eyes. "I won't forget this."

"You're very dear to me, Sören." Mark's arms tightened around him. "I'm glad we're friends."

"Hi Glad We're Friends..."

Mark tweaked Sören's nose. "Come on, keep me company in the kitchen."

Mark had on the classic rock station as he chopped vegetables. Sören had Bláberja the bunny sit at the table and watch, and in a fit of playful mischief, brought over a few pieces of sliced carrot on a napkin. Mark rolled his eyes and laughed.

"You're ridiculous," Mark said.

"No, this is ridiculous." Sören took two carrot slices and put them up his nose.

Mark put his knife down and leaned against the counter, laughing. It got worse when the radio station began playing a certain song.

Backstroke lover
Always hidin' 'neath the covers
'Til I talked to your daddy, he say
He said, "You ain't seen nothin'
'Til you're down on a muffin
Then you're sure to be a-changin' your ways"
I met a cheerleader
Was a real young bleeder
Oh, the times I could reminisce
'Cause the best things of lovin'
With her sister and her cousin
Only started with a little kiss
Like this


Sören danced around the kitchen with a carrot slice in each nostril, attempting to moonwalk and spin around like Michael Jackson. At the chorus of "Walk this way, talk this way"  Sören made Bláberja hop across the table.

"You know you've permanently ruined this song," Mark said.

"I know." Sören grinned, then winced a little as he took the carrot slices out of his nose, throwing them in the trash.

"There are worse memories I could have." Their eyes met.

"Me too." Sören hugged his bunny again, and came over to give Mark a hug. He would always cherish this memory. Seeing his bunny put back together wasn't just one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for him, but it felt like a sign, that his life really was on the right track again. It was a good feeling, an almost magical feeling.

Looking at Mark smiling at him as he resumed chopping vegetables, Sören knew it was a feeling dangerously close to love.

Chapter Text

So Many Tears

 

Sunday and Monday were fairly uneventful - Mark and Sören went to the laundromat on Sunday, and on Monday they tidied up the house. Sören took a break from his painting of the redwoods to read the notebook Sharon had let him look at, and found himself engrossed in her stories. Engrossed enough to work on a sketch of one of Sharon's major original characters, a female paladin with a feisty, rough, bawdy personality who nonetheless had a heart of gold and would go out of her way to defend others in need. He drew her short, thick and stocky, with hair in a pixie cut and an innocent-looking doll face - an innocence that belied the blood on her sword, the battered-but-still-sturdy shield that had seen many battles. On her breastplate and shield he drew the same emblem, a flaming star that looked like a flower. It was a simple pencil sketch, but as Sören went back to it between chapters, he felt like it needed to be fleshed out with color, perhaps even turned into a painting. In his mind's eye he saw flaming red hair, silver-blue eyes with long lashes.

Drawing the cute, curvy paladin with her big eyes did nothing to help Sören's libido. 

The undercurrent of sexual tension had been getting worse - telling himself that Mark was off-limits seemed to only make the attraction to him stronger. Sören wasn't sure what to do about it. He briefly considered making new accounts on Grindr and Tinder, which he'd gotten rid of early into his relationship with Seth with the expectation of monogamy. The idea of falling for someone again and having a relationship, being vulnerable, was terrifying to him. Yet he'd also learned to be wary of strangers, after his time in Toronto, and the fact that he'd met Seth on Tinder - Seth was originally supposed to be a one-night stand. Sören was disillusioned with casual sex. And he was still recovering from being raped; as much as he was starting to think I need to get laid which seemed like a sign of healing after having no interest in sex for months, he had no idea how he'd actually react if he tried, if he would get triggered or not.

Sören was mostly able to distract himself with reading, sketching, taking breaks to go for walks along the beach. Then Tuesday afternoon came, and there was Sharon.

It was another gorgeous warm-but-not-too-warm sunny day, and Sören and Sharon went to the Marin Headlands again, having another picnic on Hawk's Hill, taking in the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. They had mostly made small talk or not talked at all on the way up there, and then they were feeding each other finger foods like lovers and Sören couldn't think well enough to make words. After they finished eating they sat on the hill for awhile, side by side, and finally Sharon leaned against him, and Sören put an arm around her. It felt right.

"You read any of the notebook?" Sharon asked.

Sören nodded. "Jæja, your stories are good. I'd buy a copy if you had a book for sale."

"You mean it? You're not just saying that?"

"Sharon, part of my actual job is to give my students honest critiques of their works. Your medium is words, but writing is still art. And I'm pretty picky about what I read. I think your writing is good. It was really captivating. It felt real."

"Yeah?" Sharon blushed, smiling.

"Yes. I'm very fond of Marilwen, your paladin. I felt like I knew her, somehow." Sören decided not to tell Sharon that he'd been sketching her - he wanted that to be a surprise.

Sharon hugged him. "Thank you."

"Thank you for letting me read it. Can I keep the notebook awhile longer? Like a week or two? I want to re-read stuff."

"Sure." Sharon beamed. "I'll see what I can do this fall about typing it up and giving you a free PDF copy -"

"Oh, Sharon, I'm not asking for anything for free. You have the right to be paid for your work -"

"Consider it a gift."

On impulse, Sören kissed her cheek. He couldn't believe he'd done that, and his face burned as he pulled back - Sharon's blush was deeper now.

They went back to the beach house and smoked a bowl together, listening to music. Mark was out, and Sören once again found himself missing Mark, wanting to spend time with him. Sure, they'd seen each other yesterday and the day before, bantered as they usually did, but that had been chores; Sören wanted to go out and do something with him.

Yeah, I'd bet you'd like to "do something" with him.

Sören swatted away the lustful thoughts, though the buzz from the marijuana and the proximity of Sharon's body was still making him horny. She's off-limits too, Sören warned himself. But he couldn't help stealing glances at her, and eventually Sharon asked him, "You want to go for a swim?"

Sharon had worn a swimsuit under her T-shirt and skirt again, but it was not like the ones before. Sören's jaw dropped as he stepped out of the bathroom in his trunks and saw Sharon standing there in a very skimpy glittery gold bikini, her blonde locks free and tumbled down her back; he could tell from the thong she was wearing that she was in fact blonde all over, though he'd already assumed that from the unshaved armpits.

They walked down to the beach together. Putting suntan lotion on Sharon's back was like torture, and Sharon rubbing sunblock onto his back was excruciating. Sören had no way of concealing his hard-on in his trunks, though he tried to walk ahead of Sharon, praying she wouldn't notice, praying the cold sea water would make his erection deflate.

When they were up to their chests, Sharon grabbed his butt under the waves. Sören laughed, and then Sharon waded close to him, the two facing each other.

"You like what you see?" Sharon grinned.

Sören wasn't going to lie, his face burning. "Yeah, I do."

Sharon nodded. "I wore this for you. You... make me feel sexy. I haven't felt sexy in awhile."

Sören didn't know what to say. His breath hitched as Sharon came closer, and then, suddenly, her arms were around him, her mouth on his, her small breasts pressed against him. Sören let out a little moan into the kiss, trembling, and he found himself kissing her back, the kiss deepening, tongues swirling, playing together. Sören's arms were around her waist and his hands slid down to cup her pert ass, his mind racing with thoughts of leading her back to the sand and taking her on the beach...

...They pulled apart, breathing hard. Sharon's face was flushed again, her eyes a bright blue.

"Sharon," Sören rasped, "we can't do this. I don't like how Lucas treats you, but you're still with him and as far as I know that's not an open relationship and I don't want to be the other man..."

"I know." Sharon stroked his cheek. "And I said I want to work things out with him -"

"You deserve better... but... I get it." He wished she would break up with him, but for herself, not just so she could be free to do all the things his cock was screaming for right then.

"And I mean... you live in Oregon. It's a short flight but a long drive."

"And we're at two very different places in our lives."

"Yeah." Sharon looked away.

"Yeah." Sören looked down, hating the truth of it, but the truth needed to be spoken anyway.

And then their eyes met again. "I still like you. A lot."

"I still like you too."

"And if things were different, well..." Sharon took his face in her hands. "I wish you were my boyfriend."

They kissed again, just as passionate as before, and then their mouths lingered, a sweet brush of the lips before they backed away.

Sharon took his hand as they came out of the water. Though Sören was near-sighted and didn't have his glasses on the beach, his eyes still looked up at the beach house out of force of habit, and he could just make out the shape of Mark in the kitchen, at the glass door.

They were still holding hands on the way back to the house, and Mark was still in the kitchen when Sören and Sharon stepped inside, toweling off. Mark was putting away groceries, and looked a little disgruntled.

"Hey," Sören said.

"Hey," Mark said, taking a look at Sören and then quickly looking away.

"Hi," Sharon said.

"Hello, Sharon."

"Oh wow," Sharon said, looking at the goods on the kitchen counter that had yet to be put away, "are you making lasagna?"

"Yes," Mark said.

"That's my favorite. You Italian?"

"No, though I've been to Italy a few times."

"Oh, really? Wow." Sharon laughed. "I've never left the US, you guys are making me feel so uncultured."

"If you ever get the chance to go to Europe, you should go to Tuscany or Venice, you won't regret it." Mark then looked at Sören. "I assume you haven't seen Italy, either."

"No, just Iceland, Canada, and the States," Sören said. "I'd love to see the world, though. Especially parts where the old masters lived."

Mark looked like he was deep in thought, and then he looked at Sören and back at Sharon and asked Sharon, "Do you want to stay for dinner?"

"I'd love to, but I have to get back soon, unfortunately." Sharon made a little pouty face that made Sören want to kiss her again.

Sören was surprised that Mark was actually inviting Sharon to dinner, when it seemed he'd been going out of his way to avoid her, but he held that thought as he ducked into the bathroom to change and Sharon put her clothes back on. He walked her out to her van and they lingered.

"Thank you for today," Sören said. "It was lovely." He couldn't help himself. "You... you're lovely."

"So are you." Sharon took his hands and squeezed. She let out a sigh.

Sören also sighed.

"I'll see you in a few days?" Sharon cocked her head to one side.

Sören nodded. "Jæja, give me a call and we'll do something."

"OK." Sharon gave a little wave as she turned and walked off to her van. "Bye, Sören."

Sören felt a lump in his throat and a little ache when he went back inside, remembering the kisses... the delicious sight of her in that skimpy bikini. He knew he probably could have had her if his conscience hadn't gotten in the way.

If his fear hadn't gotten in the way.

And yet, he wanted. 

Fuck, I'm horny.

And of course, there was Mark, coming out of the kitchen, presumably on his way to the bedroom. Mark paused when he saw Sören, and Sören also paused in his tracks. There was a long, awkward moment of the two just looking at each other, not saying anything; then Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls and cleared his dry throat.

"Jæja, so, ah, thank you for inviting Sharon to dinner. That was nice of you," Sören said.

Mark shrugged. "I figured I ought to be nice to my friend's girlfriend -"

"Wait, no." Sören laughed, his anxiety intensifying. "We. Ah." He shook his head.

"Well, I saw you guys out there -" Mark's voice trailed off and he looked away.

"Oh Jesus, what did you see?" Sören folded his arms. "I know you saw us holding hands as we were coming in, but..."

"I saw enough." Mark took a couple steps away. "I saw you kissing her."

"Yeah. Before I told her I can't go there because she's seeing someone, and she agreed logistically it wouldn't really work anyway."

Mark paused again. "Hm. OK. I just..." He took a deep breath. "I didn't want to be rude."

"No, you... you're fine. That was really nice of you. But no, Sharon and I aren't a thing."

"It sounds like you want it to be a thing, though, and it definitely looks like it."

Sören wasn't going to lie. "Yeah, maybe?" Sören rubbed his head, and his beard, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "Honestly, though, I don't know what I want. I'm a fucking mess."

Their eyes met, and Sören almost blurted out I want you to Mark. His heart raced, thudding in his ears, a chill down his spine as the words formed on the tip of his tongue and he choked them back just in time. He didn't think Mark was interested in him at all, and he didn't want to strain their friendship.

Mark looked away again. "I kind of had a rough afternoon," Mark said, "so I'm gonna go to my room for awhile."

"OK. I think I might take a nap, myself."

Sören went to bed when he got in his room, but it wasn't to sleep - not yet. He took out the lube and the toy from the mirror box. Once again, he performed for the beautiful violet-eyed, dark-haired stranger with the sexy Russian accent purporting to be "a friend", fucking himself with the dildo as he thought of Mark. When he came, aiming at the lid of the mirror box, he started to cry - as powerful as his release was, it left him physically sated and yet spiritually hollow, a sort of unclean feeling. He knew he shouldn't be thinking about Mark this way, feeling like Mark would be horribly creeped out if he learned that over in the next room Sören was masturbating to fantasies of him. And try as he might to resist, the lust burned. It didn't help that there was a sort of almost-familial resemblance between the stranger and Mark, though the stranger looked too pretty to be human and had those unnatural violet eyes.

It also didn't help that Sören wasn't quite convinced he hadn't completely lost his mind, and that the mirror box wasn't just a hallucination or a product of an overactive artist's imagination.

As much as Sören was coming alive again - literally, even - feeling like a sexual person again after months of no interest, caring about two people three if you count Dooku, he thought bitterly, another pang stabbing at him... it also hurt. It was like a limb waking up from being asleep for so long, almost unbearable pins and needles. He felt raw, oversensitized, like everything was too much. He'd been running from having any kind of intimate desires for so long and now it was all catching up with him and he needed but he was so, so afraid, feeling like if he opened that Pandora's box of connection he'd mess everything up, somehow.

Seth's words in his head. You're damaged goods, baby. It hadn't just been a dream - Seth had said those words to him more than once over the course of their relationship, mocking him for his high-strung emotions, his past, his pain...

"Sören."

The stranger in the mirror was speaking to him now. Calling him by name. Sören could feel the tears flowing, and he was ashamed that the stranger could see him crying. He looked away from the mirror, cheeks hot, but something in him was compelled to look back at the mirrored lid of the glass box, meet the violet gaze.

"Sören, it will be all right."

Sören pinched the bridge of his nose and made a noise. "You don't know that -" I'm arguing with... this. Whatever it is. This is fine.

"The fact that we can interact this way should tell you I know more than what you think I know, beauty."

"Seriously, who the fuck are you?" Sören tried to keep his voice down - fortunately for him, Mark had the stereo going in his room.

"Someone who is watching over you. Let's put it that way."

"I can tell you like to watch, yeah." The quip just slipped out.

The man smiled a little - Sören got the sense he did not laugh much. "There are a great many things I don't like to watch. But you, beauty... always. Everywhere."

"This is weirding me out, just so you know. If this is a thing and you have some kind of... I don't know, godlike power... to perv on me from a mirror, wherever the fuck you are, and I'm not actually crazy... you could prove it." Sören folded his arms.

The man sighed and nodded. "That's fair, Sören. But once I prove myself, maybe you'll be less... restrained with what you show me. I know how you burn."

Sören wondered how he knew this, as Sören couldn't remember fucking him at any point in his life. And this man was someone Sören definitely would have had, if their paths crossed. Yet, Sören had painted him, almost as if from memory, and he wondered about that now, what was going on here.

The vision went away and it was just a regular mirror again... for now. It took Sören all of his strength to not pick up the box, smash it, and throw the glass in the sea. He'd give whatever this was a chance to prove itself more than just a hallucination.

For now, he was sleepy post-orgasm. He pulled up the sheet, snuggled Eeyore and Bláberja, and closed his eyes.


_


Sören dreamed of the mirror, and then he was in the house of mirrors, the one he'd dreamed about closer to the beginning of his stay in Sausalito. And from the dream of the house of mirrors, his reflection changed to someone who looked a great deal like Mark but wasn't, wearing a long red robe, finely embroidered and bejewelled, and there was a crown of three stones like diamonds on his brow but the brilliance of the stone surpassed even that of diamonds, like he was wearing three stars plucked from the very heavens.

Mark was there with him in the mirror then, and he turned, and they kissed, much as Sören and Sharon had kissed in the ocean, but instead of being in the sea and waves rolling to and around them, everything was fire. Glorious, bright fire, and it felt like with each kiss they were one with the fire, that in their passion they were as magnificent as a wild force of nature itself...

...and then Sören was burning up. The nightmare that had haunted him from earliest childhood. The creatures of smoke and fire were upon him, lashing him with whips of flame, and he went up in flames. He could hear Mark screaming...

...Those screams were his own. Sören sat up in a cold sweat, heart pounding. Then Mark was pounding on his bedroom door.

"Sören? You OK?"

"Nightmare," Sören called back, his voice threatening to break. He looked down and saw he was naked but for the sheets, and the dildo was on the bedtable, needing to be washed before he put it back in the box. "I need a few minutes?"

"All right. So long as you're OK -"

"Jæja, I." Sören took a deep breath. The dream-kiss with Mark had been so lovely... something I can never have. Sören blinked back tears. I will never be OK. "I'll come out in a few minutes."

Sören put on a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. He tucked the dildo behind the box, making a mental note to come back to it later and find a way to wash it that wouldn't result in another awkward scene with Mark. He opened the bedroom door and Mark was waiting in the living room.

Wordlessly, Sören followed him into the kitchen; Mark began to prepare the lasagna with the classic rock station playing. "You want to talk about it?" Mark asked.

Sören shrugged. "Same shit. Me on fire again."

Mark took a deep breath and looked down, chopping vegetables harder. "I'm doing half vegetable, half sausage," he explained as Sören looked at the ingredients on the counter.

Mark was currently preparing an eggplant. Sören's mind went there, desperately grabbing at levity in the tension. At the look on Sören's face, Mark rolled his eyes.

"Sören, I swear to god..."

Then "Walk This Way" came on. Mark put down the knife, leaned against the counter, and shook with laughter. Sören's laughter rang out. "I can make this worse," Sören said. He came out with the dildo he needed to clean and began to play air guitar on the dildo again, dancing around the kitchen.

When the song was over and Mark calmed down enough to resume his work, Sören washed the dildo in the sink.

Mark finally looked at him and said, "So you got worked up after Sharon's visit?"

"Yeah," Sören admitted. "Ah, sorry for TMI?"

Mark shrugged. "I told you, you're a grown man, I get it." Mark was looking away now, his face slightly flushed. "Keep telling yourself you and Sharon aren't a thing -"

"Because we're not. I mean, what's it to you?" What Sören didn't tell him was that Sharon hadn't been the one he'd been fantasizing about as he reamed himself with the toy.

Sören hadn't meant to snap at him, and as soon as the words were out of his mouth he regretted it. Mark flinched a little like he'd been stung. Sören wanted to apologize for his tone, but he was also mildly peeved at Mark's inquiry and commentary. And this of course is why I can't say anything to him. If it's already this awkward and he thinks I've been jacking it to Sharon...

"I... I'm gonna go check my e-mail and stuff. Come get me when dinner is ready?"

Mark didn't look up, only nodded in acknowledgment.

Sören took the dildo and let it air dry a bit on the bedtable as he opened his laptop and did what he said he was going to do. He had e-mail from Dooku, which he was expecting. He also had a notification of payment received via Paypal, which he was not expecting.

He opened it up, wondering if it was a gift from Dooku or perhaps Ari or Dag... and then he saw that the money was from a sender simply identified as the business pseudonym "Your Proof", and the total donated was exactly $420.69 USD before PayPal fees.

There was an option to include a note with donations, and the note on this had a link to a YouTube URL. Sören copied it and opened the link in another tab. It was the video for the song "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson.

Sören leaned back in his chair. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry, or perhaps both. "Well played," he said to himself, shaking his head. "Well. Fucking. Played."

As much as it was a relief to Sören to know that he wasn't losing his mind, it was also profoundly unsettling - the evidence that the world was far stranger than he knew. Something told him he'd just touched the tip of the iceberg of strangeness.


_


But first, the awkwardness.

Sören and Mark had dinner on the deck. Most of the meal was spent in silence, with music in the background. Finally Sören felt like he should say something, remembering the way Mark flinched in the kitchen at his tone. "The lasagna is really good," Sören said.

"Thank you." Mark sipped wine, looking out at the ocean.

"I can't decide which of these I like better, the sausage or the eggplant." Then Sören couldn't help snickering.

Mark facepalmed, but he was laughing a little too - a laugh that cleared the tension. Then, just as they were both taking a bite of lasagna, "Walk This Way" came on the radio again. Sören sprayed a mouthful of lasagna; Mark teared up. Sören howled and clapped like a seal, as Mark doubled over the table.

"I'm sorry," Sören said, quickly wiping up the mess on the table and his shirt.

"No you're not. And even if you were, it's not me you need to apologize to." Mark gave him a stern look but there was mirth in his eyes.

"Right." Sören folded his hands as if in prayer. "I'm sorry God. I'm sorry Aerosmith."

Mark laughed. "You're praying to Aerosmith?"

"Saint Steven?"

Mark laughed harder.

When they calmed down, their eyes met. Sören decided he wasn't going to hold Mark's earlier words against him, and he said, "I'm sorry for snapping at you."

"I shouldn't pry," Mark said. "I just..." He sighed, looking into his wine glass. "I'd like to see you happy, is all."

"I appreciate that. But..." Sören shrugged. "It's like I told you. I'm a mess. It's kind of a sore subject for me."

"I get it." Mark nodded, and he looked back out to sea. "I get it better than I'd like to get it."

"I... yeah." Sören remembered what Mark had told him, about having a son who was an adult now. He wondered if Mark had been alone all this time.

He wondered what had happened, in that case.

He decided it was dangerous to wonder about it, because that led to asking questions that he got the feeling Mark didn't want him asking. Sören finished his lasagna.

After dinner Sören did dishes, and then he and Mark did their usual routine of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Though Sören took his night meds between shows he wasn't quite tired when the end credits of Deep Space Nine rolled, having had a nap earlier, albeit one that had been interrupted by the disturbing dream. He wasn't quite in the frame of mind to pull an all-nighter, so he didn't ask Mark to play music while he drew. He was in the mood to draw, however, and Mark looked tired for once, like he was dozing off a little.

"Mark, go to bed."

Mark stuck his tongue out at Sören - Sören internally cursed where his mind went at seeing Mark's tongue - and then Mark got up and shuffled off to bed.

Sören sketched for awhile, continuing to work on the female paladin, Marilwen, from Sharon's stories. He was almost ready to copy this sketch to canvas and flesh it out with color, but not quite. He re-read Sharon's notebook, wanting to immerse himself a little more before the undertaking. He felt a small pang of guilt as he looked at the canvas of the redwood forest, untouched, but he'd get back to it. He had a limited time to borrow Sharon's notebook; he had at least another month to visit the redwoods and study Mark, to paint him.

More like ogle Mark.

Sören's face burned. And then, he heard what sounded like crying from Mark's room. Sören got up. When he walked out of his room towards Mark's room, that was unmistakably what it was.

"Mark?" Sören stood in the doorway of Mark's room. "You OK?"

Mark sniffled. He said nothing in response, then another sob came.

Sören walked in and sat on the edge of Mark's bed. Mark lay there, crying into his pillow, shaking. Sören began to gently rub his back, and finally Mark rolled over and Sören pet his hair, his face.

"What is it?" Sören asked.

Mark sighed. He closed his eyes, blinked slowly, and shook his head. "Nothing, Sören. Don't worry about it..."

"It's not nothing if you're crying, Mark." Sören gave him a look.

"It's... stuff I don't want to talk about." Their eyes met. "I'm sorry."

"Well... I get it, your boundaries are your boundaries. There's shit I don't like talking about either. That's one of the problems with therapy, they'll tell you talking about stuff helps but sometimes it really doesn't."

"Yeah. Thank you for understanding." Mark patted him. "I didn't mean to disturb you -"

"I don't want you to feel like you can't cry if you need to cry because it might disturb me or wake me up or something, OK? You're my friend." With that, Sören reached out and gave him a hug. "You're a very dear friend."

Mark returned the hug, crying a little again. "You too, Sören." He swallowed hard.

They held each other for a moment, rocking together, and when Mark started to cry harder, Sören fought back his own tears, wanting to cry with him, for him. He couldn't bear the sight of Mark so upset, desperately wanting to comfort him in some way. Sören wracked his brain. "You want to go outside? Walk on the beach for a few minutes?"

They did that, walking along the shore barefoot, in their pajamas. Sören held his hand like he'd held Sharon's earlier, with the same pang he'd felt for Sharon but stronger. And the sight of Mark on the beach at night in the light of the waning gibbous moon, hair stirring in the breeze, a wistful look on his face, made Sören ache with the beauty of it. Wanting to kiss him, tell him how beautiful he was, that he had a beautiful soul, to make the kind of music he did. But he restrained himself.

After their walk, Mark got back in bed. Sören got a glass of ice water and brought it to him, to help continue the process of grounding and centering. Then Sören went to his room and came out with Eeyore and Bláberja. Mark smiled at the sight of them. Sören tucked him in, put the stuffed dolls in his arms, and before he could walk away back to his room Mark asked, "Sören?"

"Hm?"

"Can you stay with me for awhile?"

Sören nodded.

He pulled back the sheets, got on the other side of Mark's bed, and snuggled up against him, wrapping his arms around Mark. Mark's arms went around Sören, and soon their legs entwined as well. Sören felt the urge to cry again, not just for whatever was hurting Mark so much that he needed him there, but how good it felt to hold someone and be held. Sören had skin hunger, and he wondered if Mark had it too. He could feel Mark crying a little again, and then the tears subsided and he was breathing more slowly, calming down. Sören gently rubbed his head, his back, gently rocked him.

Even though Sören felt self-conscious about the way he sang compared to the way Mark sang, he found himself singing now anyway.

There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she's buying a stairway to heaven.

There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

There's a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.


Mark was either asleep now, or he was close to it. Sören pulled Eeyore and Bláberja closer to them, relaxing himself with his stuffed dolls close - especially the bunny that Mark had fixed up. Sören listened to Mark breathe - felt the rise and fall of Mark's chest against him, the breath against his skin - and attempted to sing the rest of the song, but soon enough he was mumbling as his night meds kicked in and the forest imagery took him into the happy little forest of sleep.

Chapter Text

Highway To Hells

 

Sören groaned involuntarily as daylight blared into his face, rousing him from sleep.

A nice, cozy sleep in a snuggly, warm nest.

Sören's first sight after the bright sky over the beach through the glass door was Mark. He was in Mark's bed again. The two were curled up together, limbs tangled. Mark was still in pajamas, and Sören was wearing a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. Mark's eyes were closed, long lashes framing his cheeks; he looked beautiful even in sleep, and Sören's breath caught. He also felt himself smiling - Mark was holding Eeyore, as Sören was clinging to Bláberja.

Sören looked at the time. It was after eight AM. He knew Mark was usually up before now. He also knew from his own past experience that even following emotional exhaustion from crying, it wasn't a guarantee one would sleep later the next day. He wondered if being held through the night had comforted Mark enough to sleep. He wondered if the stuffed animals had helped; Sören had a hard time sleeping without his.

Sören thought about that, watching Mark sleep. Not only was the sight of him holding Eeyore adorable, counteracting his usual morning grumpiness, but Sören thought to himself, Mark needs a friend.

Sören was torn between the urge to go to the bathroom and wanting to watch Mark sleep just a few minutes more... wanting to savor the feeling of closeness, temporarily sating the skin hunger that ran bone deep. Mark looked so sweet and peaceful in his sleep that Sören had to fight the urge to stroke his hair...

...Mark's eyes blinked open, and looked into Sören's. He blinked again, mouth opening a little as if in disbelief that Sören was in his bed, and then he looked at the clock and back at Sören.

"Hey," Sören husked.

"Hi. Good morning." Mark's lips quirked in a small smile. "For once you're up first."

"Jæja, not for too long. I was just about to get out of bed but didn't want to wake you..."

"Well, thanks for that." Mark looked out at the view of the beach, and then at the stuffed animals, then at Sören. "And for staying with me last night."

Sören patted him. "You needed a friend." A friend. Sören felt that pang, and swallowed hard, looking away.

"You're very kind."

"I try."

They lingered for a moment - Mark looked like he wanted to say something more, but didn't, and Sören waited, until Mark started to sit up and Sören did as well.

They went to the kitchen for coffee, and Sören took his morning meds. Mark leaned against the glass patio doors, looking out to sea. Looking a little sad. Sören wondered what had him so upset yesterday.

Sören took a shower, brushed his teeth, and got changed into cargo shorts - a change from his usual jean shorts - and a dark blue T-shirt. When he was dressed and opened his door, a few minutes later Mark came to the doorway with Eeyore and Bláberja in his hands. "Thought I should return your friends," Mark said.

"They're your friends now, too." Sören grinned.

Mark laughed softly. "I guess so."

Sören thought about just giving Eeyore to Mark for comfort, except that he'd grown so accustomed to sleeping with Eeyore that even with his bunny back, he couldn't give up the doll so easily. And then the gears started turning in his head. "Mark, do you have plans for the day?"

"Not particularly. You wanted to go somewhere?"

Sören nodded.

"Mkay. I'm gonna shower and change first, if that's OK? Then you can tell me where we're going."

Sören couldn't help himself. "Hi Gonna Shower And Change First -"

Mark threw Eeyore at him, and Sören's laughter rang out as he ducked, but caught the bunny just before it could hit him. "It's too early for your shit, Sören," Mark said, but he was smiling.

Sören stuck his tongue out, and Mark stuck his tongue out - Sören's mind went straight into the gutter - and then Sören laughed harder. "We're so mature," Sören said.

"The maturest, adultiest adults to ever adult."

Sören cackled. "That's good, because we're about to do something super adulty."

"Oh Hells." Mark rolled his eyes, and then gave Sören a stern look before he walked off to the bathroom.

Sören managed to behave himself and not sneak a glance at Mark coming out of the bathroom in a towel, much as he was tempted. He already felt self-conscious enough about covertly fantasizing about his roommate, never mind deliberately spying on him near-naked. But just the memory of the times he had seen Mark in a towel, glistening wet, got his libido stirring. He tried to distract himself by re-reading Sharon's notebook but being reminded of Sharon and thinking of her in that bikini didn't help.

Mark paused at Sören's door again wearing jeans and a KISS T-shirt. Sören looked up.

"So, where did you want to go?"

"I know this sounds lame, but..." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls. "I believe there's a Build A Bear Workshop in San Francisco. I wanted to, ah, celebrate the return of my blue bunny by getting him a friend." That wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the full truth, either.

Mark nodded. "OK."

"We could go to Golden Gate Park too, maybe?"

Mark did a GPS lookup on his phone and then he said, "We're going to pass by the Palace of Fine Arts between the park and Build A Bear if you want to take a detour."

Sören clapped his hands excitedly like a big kid. Mark smiled and said, "All right, fifteen minutes and we go?" Sören nodded.

Fifteen minutes later they were in the car, listening to KISS. They made it onto the highway to the tune of "Rock And Roll All Nite", singing along together.

On a sunny Wednesday morning the park was lively but not ridiculous. Sören wanted to go to the de Young Museum and look at the art and the sculpture garden - Sören delighted at the twenty-one-foot-tall Giant Safety Pin, laughing hysterically at it. Mark laughed too. Sören got Mark to pose at the Giant Safety Pin, who took an ultra-serious "not amused face" pose, as well as a pose throwing the horns.

It was a short walk to the Rose Garden, which they strolled through, taking their time to admire the showy blooms and the sweet fragrance. Sören took more pictures - he knew Dooku in particular would love this, as Dooku grew roses; he fondly remembered the pressed rose Dooku had given him back in December when he was first recovering from the accident, a token of friendship, that he still had.

Thinking of Dooku gave him that little flutter in his stomach. Seeing Mark walk among the roses, hair stirring in the breeze, gave him another flutter, and a sharp ache.

God, he's beautiful.

Sören took a picture of Mark too.

Walking around some more, towards the Japanese Tea Garden but not quite there, Sören spotted a tiny faery door on a fallen eucalyptus log. He squeaked, and giggled at the offerings that people left there - acorns, shells, bells, tiny rolled up messages. "If I'd known this was here I would have brought something," Sören said, hearing the wistfulness in his voice. "This reminds me of the huldufólk back home."

Sören circled around, taking pictures, and then he just sat in the grass, marveling. "This is so great. A little touch of magic. That's exactly what the world needs." Sören felt himself grinning. "Maybe if I wait here, I'll see an Elf."

Mark smiled, but his eyes looked sad. Sören wanted to give him a hug, aching for whatever pain he'd known that was coming out now.

Sören was in a playful enough mood to want to visit the playground, which was in the opposite direction. The Koret Children's Quarter Playground was also near a carousel; Sören decided he wanted to ride on the carousel, and got Mark to join him - though Mark rolled his eyes, he was also laughing and Sören could tell he was enjoying himself. Whatever sadness he'd felt at the faery door seemed to be gone as they circled around on horses bobbing up and down.

After that they went from the park to the Palace of Fine Arts, walking around just to admire the structure - Sören got more photos. It was impressive architecture, with its dome, rotunda, and colonnades, sitting on a lagoon fringed by eucalyptus trees. Sören did a little happy dance when he saw swans with baby swans sailing by.

"You're so cute," Mark said.

Sören blushed. He thinks I'm cute?

He wondered about that and then he thought to himself, Probably means my reactions are cute. Doesn't mean he likes me that way.

Sören tried not to sigh out loud.

Sören almost regretted suggesting Build A Bear when they got in and there were rambunctious, shrieking children. Of course Sören had expected kids to be there, but he'd forgotten how loud and wild kids could be. His discomfort with the noise subsided a bit as he browsed the selections.

"There wasn't anything like this around when I was a kid," Sören said to Mark in a voice hushed with awe at the seemingly infinite possibilities of stuffed animal bases, clothing and accessories. "Even if it was, my aunt and uncle..." He cringed.

Mark put a hand on his shoulder.

"One of the nice things about being an adult," Sören said, "is that we can do whatever we want now. Well, you know... within reason. But we can indulge that part of ourselves."

"I've never had a stuffed animal," Mark said.

"Really? But you said your childhood was happy..."

"It was." Mark sounded almost defensive. "This was a long time ago -"

"Yeah, I forgot you're an old fart."

Mark elbowed him. Then he shrugged. "My parents encouraged us to play outside, do hobbies."

"Jæja, you mentioned your parents were artsy bohemian types, so I guess that makes sense, they'd be less into buying you stuff and more into encouraging you to make your own fun."

Mark nodded.

"Still, though, I feel bad you never had a stuffed animal." Sören pouted. "If I was your dad, I'd have gotten you a nice bear to play with..."

For some reason Sören's mind took that in the not-so-innocent direction of the double meaning of "bear", and at the glimpse of a white-furred polar bear he thought of Dooku and entertained the brief fantasy of Dooku shirtless, silver chest hair, before he shoved that thought away, face on fire. He also felt a strange sense of déjà vu, and didn't understand why, since he'd never set foot in a Build A Bear before today.

Sören decided that Bláberja's new friend would be a glittery, rainbow-colored rabbit. He picked out a sparkly unicorn T-shirt and pink sparkle leggings for the rabbit to wear, with a rainbow wig and fuchsia sequin bows to go on the ears. Mark facepalmed, shaking with silent laughter that was no longer silent when Sören made the bunny swivel its hips and make a snapping gesture with its paw. "Yasss honey, I am fa-bu-lous," Sören said in his best "stereotypically gay" voice.

"What is this, Queer Eye for the Stuffed Guy?" Mark asked.

Sören nodded, tearing up. "I would watch the fuck out of that show." At the glare a parent gave him, Sören said, "Um. I mean. I would watch the fun out of that show."

"Hells, Sören." Mark was turning red now, still shaking with laughter. "Let's... pay for this and get out of here."

"Not so fast." Sören looked at the rabbit and moved its head like a ventriloquist dummy. "What's that, Sparkle Bunny?" Sören made the rabbit's head move some more, then he turned back to Mark. "Sparkle Bunny says you need a friend."

Mark facepalmed again. "Oh no."

"Oh yes." And then Sören made Sparkle Bunny poke him and said "YAS, HONEY," in the rabbit's voice.

"Sören, I am not getting a stuffed animal -"

"Hi, Not Getting A Stuffed Animal." Then Sören put his hand on his hip. "So you pay lip service to it being OK if I sleep with one, and you repaired my bunny, but you're what... too manly... for this shit now?" Sören quickly corrected himself. "This ship." Sören muttered, "This is why I don't teach little kids."

"I didn't say that," Mark said after a long pause.

"So what's stopping you?"

Mark shrugged.

"We're getting you a stuffed animal, Mark. I'll pay for it. It's a gift to say thank you for repairing Bláberja and yes I insist." Sören gave him a look as fearsome as the one he'd gotten from the parent for swearing.

"OK, fine." Mark let out an exaggerated sigh.

"Yay!" Sören clapped, then he made Sparkle Bunny hop excitedly.

Mark and Sören looked at the selection of dolls. "I... I have no idea what I'm doing," Mark said, and gave Sören a pleading look.

"You think I should pick it out, then?"

Mark nodded.

Sören turned to Sparkle Bunny, making the rabbit's head nod like a ventriloquist's dummy, then Sören turned back to Mark and said "Sparkle Bunny thinks you should get this." He picked out a plush unicorn, light purple with a pink horn, the mane, tail and hoof fringe in pink, yellow, and blue. "As a reminder of today... the faery door and the carousel. The magic that's still left in this world."

Their eyes met, and then Mark just nodded. "OK."

Sören got a gauzy dress for the unicorn to wear, and a sparkly bow to put on its horn. At the checkout Mark muttered "I can't believe I'm doing this."

Sören gestured to Mark's KISS shirt and teased, "You like a band with grown men who paint their faces but this is too ridiculous for you?" 

"You're gonna get it."

Sören attempted a wink - he couldn't wink so it was more of a clumsy blink.

On the way back they decided to stop for lunch. Sören wanted to go to the famed In N Out Burger, so even though fast food wasn't the classiest thing, that was what they did. After waiting in line to get their order, and filling drinks, they slid into a booth. Mark peeled the paper off his straw, then he wadded it into a ball and spat it at Sören with his straw. Sören snorted as the ball hit him in the face.

"What was that for?"

Mark pointed to his shirt.

Sören laughed. "So are we even now?"

"Probably not."

When Mark was looking out the window, Sören retaliated, blowing a spitball at Mark with his own straw. Mark kicked him under the table, and then Sören got up, went over to Mark, and put him in a headlock and gave him a noogie.

Then Mark's arms went around him, and Sören returned the hug. Mark leaned against him for a moment. "Thank you," he said.

"For?"

"For being you." Mark looked up at him.

For a wild, crazy moment Sören thought about kissing him, but again I can't fuck up our friendship smacked that urge away. And then the moment was gone as Mark pulled him down into the booth, an arm around Sören's neck, and noogied him mercilessly, with Sören squealing loud enough to make people look at them, giggling as his arms and legs flailed. Mark stopped when their number was called, and they got out of the booth and went to the counter to collect their food, bringing it back to the table.

Sören's cell phone went off halfway through his meal. He wanted to ignore it but it was "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin, the ringtone for his brother Dagnýr. "I have to take this," Sören said. He swiped to accept the call. "Dag! Hi!"

"Hey! How goes it?"

"It goes." Sören looked at Mark. "Can I call you back in a bit? Mark and I are at In N Out."

"JESUS FUCKING CHRIST SÖREN I DON'T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR SEX LIFE."

Just that moment Mark had taken a sip of his drink and he ended up spitting, then doubling over with laughter, burying his face in his hands. Sören laughed so hard he snorted, and when people were looking at them Sören snorted some more, which made Mark laugh harder. Mark pulled his hands away from his face and it was bright red; Sören could feel his own face burning, though also that little ache, not wanting his mind to go there with filthy thoughts about Mark and it so very much was going there.

"It's a fucking restaurant, you pervert," Sören said to his brother. "We're eating goddamn burgers."

"Oh. Oh."

"Yeah."

"All righty then."

"So I'll call you when I get home? It's not an emergency, is it?"

"Nah, it's not important. Just, you know. Making sure you're OK and all."

"I'm all right, Dag." Sören wanted to tell him don't be so overprotective but he of course knew why Dag was like that, having seen firsthand Sören's self-destructive tendencies in Toronto - trying his best to help him rein it in enough so Sören could get an education - and having heard about the horror that was Seth. Dag still didn't know the whole story, but what he knew was enough for Dag to worry about him. "I'll talk to you in a bit."

"OK."

Sören exhaled sharply when he got off the phone. "Sorry about that."

Mark shrugged. "It's all right."

"My brother... he... worries." Sören frowned into his drink.

"Well, from what I know about you, you've had a hard life. I can't blame him."

"Yeah." Sören sighed. "Neither can I. It's just..." Sören pinched the bridge of his nose. "A constant reminder that I'm not really normal. I already get enough of that having to take meds every day, for the rest of my life..." Sören leaned back in his seat.

"Neither of us are normal, Sören. There's no judgment here." Mark reached across the table and his scarred hand covered the top of Sören's hand for a moment. He patted Sören's hand then pulled back. "I think normal is overrated, anyway."

Sören nodded.

"I believe it was Krishnamurti who said It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society," Mark said.

"That's some truth right there. But goddamn if it isn't a bitch to live with."

"I'll drink to that."

They clinked their paper cups together as if they were drinking glasses, Sören chuckling at it.

The rest of that day passed by fairly uneventfully - Sören called his brother back and gave assurances he was fine. Mark made a light dinner that evening, a salad. They watched Star Trek together as usual, and Sören went back to Sharon's notebook before bed.

Thursday was a quiet day. Sören started work on a painting of Marilwen the paladin, using his sketch as a reference. When he took a break in the late afternoon, he and Mark walked along the beach together, and then they just sat in the sand for a little while, quietly watching the waves, before Sören said, "Hey, build a sandcastle with me."

"A sandcastle?"

"A sand something." Sören shrugged. "Doesn't have to be a castle."

They ended up attempting a crude replica of the Palace of Fine Arts, and then on a whim, Sören made a faery door. "If I was an Elf I'd want a big palace like this," Sören said. "I'd go hide out there when I felt like the world was too much. Shut myself away and just... make stuff, I guess." He could almost see it in his mind's eye, his wildly impractical dream home.

When he opened his eyes, Mark had a stricken look on his face. "Hey," Sören said. "Are you OK?" He gestured. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

Mark gave a nervous laugh. "It's nothing."

"Mark..." Sören folded his arms. "One messed-up person to another, you can't get away with telling me it's nothing. It's something. I'll respect it if you don't want to talk about it, but..."

"Just... sometimes you remind me of my father, is all." Mark looked down at the sand palace, then up at Sören, and then out at the sea.

"You miss him a lot, já?"

Mark just nodded.

Sören came over to give him a hug. Then he realized his hands were all sandy and he was getting sand all over Mark. "Shit," he said.

"It's all right."

Sören felt that urge to kiss him again, but restrained himself. And he just said I remind him of his father, so that's clearly not ever going to be a thing.

But when they got up finally, Mark returned the hug, and Sören felt himself getting hard as he kept stealing glances at Mark on the way back up to the beach house. Back in the privacy of his room, he brought himself to climax thinking about having sex with Mark on the beach, and he cried again after the release, aching for what he couldn't have, shouldn't want. He smoked a bowl to calm down - not wanting to run into Mark and have him notice he was upset, ask what was wrong, and possibly blurt it out. The weed did its job and by dinnertime Sören was nice and mellow, enough that being in Mark's company the next couple hours for Star Trek wasn't awkward.

On Friday the fourteenth, Sören and Mark went to Golden Gate Park again. This time they looked at the windmills, with Sören making obligatory Don Quixote references, which Mark laughed at.

"I appreciate your literacy," Mark said.

"Been reading as long as I could walk," Sören said. "You ought to read Sharon's stories, if you like fantasy at all. It's my favorite genre."

"Really?"

Sören nodded. "Ursula K. LeGuin is my favorite author, though I've got a soft spot for Tolkien. Well... I haven't read everything of his, just the Lord of the Rings trilogy and that was a long time ago, when I was a teenager."

Mark looked away and gave a slow nod.

"You ever read Tolkien?" Sören asked.

"Yeah, might have read it once or twice." Mark looked down. "I'm reading The Dark Tower series by Stephen King."

"Ooh, is it any good?"

"It makes me want to tear my hair out sometimes, so I guess it must be, if I care enough to scream at it."

Sören laughed. "I've gotten way too invested in fictional characters myself."

Bringing up Tolkien made Sören think of his cousin Ari, who was a Tolkien buff and wrote fanfiction. Sören again felt a pang of guilt that he hadn't talked to Ari much at all this summer, and he resolved to do that sometime today when he was back home, making a mental note of the time difference between California and Iceland.

On the way back Mark seemed strangely distant, and Sören wondered if he'd said or done the wrong thing somehow. Not long after they got in, Mark went out to the beach for awhile, and Sören decided to just call Ari even though international calls were expensive. He waited - it was just after one PM, which meant it would be after eight Ari's time, Ari probably wasn't working now, but whether or not he'd be free was another story...

"Sören!"

"Ari, hi! Sorry, was just thinking of you today and felt bad I haven't called yet..."

"It's all right, I know you've been busy. How's California?"

"Oh god, Ari, if you can ever get out here and see it you should. That pull from the hat you did... it was very lucky."

"I don't believe in luck, Sören. Seems like it was fate."

"I guess so, because it's quite a weird coincidence that I'm sharing a house for the summer with one of my colleagues."

"Really."

"Jæja. Mark Lowry. Music theory professor."

"What's he like? Old? Young?"

"Yes?" Sören laughed. "He's only ten years older than I am, but he's got that old soul feeling to him that you've said about people before."

"Old like Dooku?"

Sören laughed again. "No, he's not stuffy... much. It's cool, he and I are kind of on the same wavelength about a lot of things. He composes music and it's gorgeous. He's played while I paint and it's like taking a hit of... creative crack, or something. We really mesh well, as people."

"Well, that's good. Would suck for you to have a shitty roommate."

"No, I really like him." And then at those words, Sören felt the knife to his gut, because he knew the full strength of them.

"I bet." Ari was nothing if not observant, and those two words summed up that just in his voice and what little Sören had said, Ari knew it too.

Sören sighed. "Shit." He laughed, this time from anxiety, and rubbed his beard.

"Well, I don't mean to be rude, but can we talk more about this in a couple days? Like can you Skype me on..." There was a pause - Sören had a feeling Ari was checking his calendar. "Sunday? Afternoon your time, evening mine? I have a D&D game I'm on my way to..."

"Oh, jæja, sorry, I didn't know -"

"No need to be sorry. I'd talk longer if I could."

"OK! Have fun at your game and I'll talk to you Sunday."

"Sounds good." A pause, and Ari teased, "Don't get in too much trouble."

Sören blew a raspberry before he hit End.

Sören's face was on fire, and he needed some fresh air. He stepped out on the deck, and looked out at Mark sitting on the beach, hugging his knees, looking sad. Sören wondered again what Mark was sad about. Even more than the lust he felt for Mark, he genuinely cared about his friend and wanted Mark to be happy. Wanted to do something to make Mark happy.

Sören thought about going out to Mark with the unicorn, since Sören found hugging stuffed animals to be comforting when he was upset, but then he had an even better - or worse - idea.

Sören went to his room, unboxed the tea set he'd bought from the Japanese Tea Garden, washed it, and made green tea. As the kettle boiled, he assembled Eeyore, Bláberja, Sparkle Bunny, and Mark's unicorn at the table on the deck. He put out a plate of shortbread cookies. When the tea was ready, he went out to the deck, put his fingers in his mouth and whistled. Mark looked over and Sören waved, then he made a "come here" gesture.

Mark slowly walked up to the deck, and when he saw what waited for him he doubled over laughing. "Sören..."

"Sit."

They sat and had tea. "I can't believe I'm doing this," Mark said.

Sören snapped a candid photo of him. "Not every day I get to see a dude with a Metallica shirt having a tea party with stuffed animals."

"No, and with good reason."

Sören raised an eyebrow. "That's mean to your friend." Sören put a cookie in front of the unicorn.

Mark took the cookie and nibbled on it.

Sören kicked him under the table and Mark laughed. "You can't be stealing from... from..." He gestured to the unicorn. "What did you name him?"

Mark gave Sören a sheepish look. "I haven't given it a name."

Sören gave Mark a stern look. "He needs a name, Mark."

Mark rolled his eyes.

"So give him a name, cookie thief -"

"He said I could... borrow... his cookie." Mark looked at the unicorn and made the unicorn's head nod.

"Jæja, you know what else he's saying?" Sören made the unicorn's head move. "Give me a name, Mark!"

Mark facepalmed, shaking with laughter. "Dammit, Sören..."

"We're waiting." Sören made the unicorn tap his foot.

Mark laughed harder. "Hells, Sören..."

"Hells!" Sören made the unicorn clap his hooves, and then bounce up and down. "Hells, my name is Hells," Sören said in a singsong voice.

Mark made noises.

After a few minutes they calmed down and then Mark said, "This is nice."

"I saw you out there looking all..." Sören made a vague hand gesture. "I thought you could use some cheering up."

"Yeah." Mark sighed. "Just... stuff on my mind."

"I won't press it but I'm here if you need to talk, you know?"

Mark nodded. "I know. Not sure this is something I can talk about, though." He gave a thin, apologetic smile.

"I understand."

When the tea and cookies were finished, Mark said, "You want to run to the store with me?"

Sören nodded.

Continuing in the playful spirit, Sören put Eeyore, Hells and Sparkle Bunny in the back seat of Mark's Jaguar, and Bláberja rode on his lap. Mark laughed at the sight of it, and laughed harder when Sören made Bláberja headbang to Mark's Def Leppard playlist.

Sören found himself singing along to Def Leppard.

Love is like a bomb, baby, c'mon get it on
Livin' like a lover with a radar phone
Lookin' like a tramp, like a video vamp
Demolition woman, can I be your man?

Razzle 'n' a dazzle 'n' a flash a little light
Television lover, baby, go all night
Sometime, anytime, sugar me sweet
Little Missy Innocent sugar me

So c'mon
Take a bottle, shake it up
Break the bubble, break it up

Pour some sugar on me
Ooh, in the name of love
Pour some sugar on me
C'mon, fire me up
Pour your sugar on me
I can't get enough

I'm hot, sticky sweet
From my head to my feet


"I love this song," Sören made the bunny say, bobbing his head. "I like sweet things... got chased out of a few berry bushes..."

Sören looked at his bunny then and shook his head. "I... I don't think that's what kind of sugar this song is talking about."

Bláberja clapped his paw over his mouth and then Sören made the bunny's ears hide his face. "My virgin ears," Sören said in the bunny's voice.

"Oh my god, Sören..." Mark shook his head, laughing. "You've corrupted an innocent bunny..." He grinned. "Maybe no more Def Leppard for your bunny."

"No." The bunny folded his arms. "Still gonna listen to it even if it's naughty. Besides..." Sören couldn't help cringing and laughing at the same time as he made the joke. "Why do you think they call it hare metal?"

Mark laughed out loud, doubling over at the wheel. "Sören, that's terrible even for you."

"I know. It was bad, and I should feel bad." Sören giggled. "I don't, though."

Then "Animal" came on, and Sören made the bunny hop during the chorus, belting out

And I want and I need
And I stuffed animal
And I want and I need
And I stuffed animal


"That's not how the song goes." Mark laughed again.

"It is now," Bláberja insisted with a little "hmph" at the end.

Sören put the bunny in the cart at the store, and on the way back they had the radio on instead of Mark's playlist; "Silent Lucidity" by Queensryche came on and Sören cradled and rocked the bunny in his arms. "I think he's sleeping now," Sören whispered.

After they put the groceries away, Sören was about to head off to his room to get some more painting done, carrying Eeyore, Bláberja, and Sparkle Bunny. But then Mark said, "Sören, wait."

Sören paused. He watched as Mark took Bláberja and gave the bunny a hug and a pat, and then Mark hugged him too. Sören hugged him tight, a lump in his throat.

When they pulled apart, Mark told him, "Don't ever change. You've got a beautiful light in you."

Sören swallowed hard. "So do you."

Their eyes met, and held, and then Sören walked off to his room, his heart pounding, making himself get out of there before the three little words he actually wanted to say - which weren't "so do you" - slipped out.

Help me, I've fallen in love with Mark Fucking Lowry.

Chapter Text

Is This Love?

 

Sören spent most of the rest of Friday working on the painting of Marilwen the paladin, working late into the night but not quite an all-nighter. He slept into early afternoon on Saturday, July fifteenth, and when he made his way out of bed to take meds in the kitchen, he saw Mark sitting on the beach again, this time playing acoustic guitar.

Sören heard himself sigh a little, his stomach fluttering. Get a fucking hold of yourself. But his face burned, his hands shaking a little as he made himself look away, and after a few minutes of trying to not look, not think, not feel, he found himself opening the sliding glass door, walking out to the deck, and down the steps out to the beach. Still in pajama bottoms and a T-shirt, barefoot.

It was an overcast day, looking like it might rain later. The water was steel blue, and Sören watched the quiet, understated beauty of the sea underneath the silvery grey sky before sitting down in the sand next to his roommate with eyes that matched today's sky. Sören wondered for a moment if Mark was going to tell him to go away, wanting to be left alone, but instead Mark just began to play "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd.

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?


Sören sang along with him then:

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.


At the end of the song Mark turned to him and their eyes met. Sören fought the desperate, wild, hungry urge to kiss him. Instead he blurted out, "That was nice."

"Thanks." Mark had brought a bottle of water down with him to the beach and unscrewed the cap and took a sip as the breeze stirred his hair.

Sören's mind went straight to the gutter, wondering what Mark's lips would look like wrapped around his cock instead of the water bottle. Sören wanted to smack himself. He was at war internally, torn between I can't tell him, I'll fuck everything up and Just tell him already. He opened his mouth, and what came out was, "Very nice and, ah. Very true. That's us, I think, two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl."

"Yeah." Mark looked down, looking a little sad. Sören wished immediately he hadn't said that. But then Mark said, "It sucks that we both have PTSD."

"It does. But we're not as alone as we were."

Mark patted his hand, and squeezed it. Sören felt that flutter in his stomach again, his mouth dry. They sat and watched the sea for a few minutes and then Mark said, "Did you take your meds?"

"Jæja, before I came out here."

"Just checking." Mark got up, and then he held out his hand to help Sören up. Feeling Mark's hand in his again sent Sören's skin buzzing, that craving for more, to feel Mark's hands all over him...

Sören held himself in check and they walked back up to the house together. "Laundromat?" Mark asked when they got in the kitchen.

"We usually do that on Sundays. Unless it actually is Sunday and I slept so fucking long I missed an entire day."

Mark laughed. "No, Sören, it's still Saturday. And I know our usual laundry day has been Sunday, but the weather forecast is calling for rain later. You saw the sky out there. And I'm like a living barometer - I can feel when it's going to rain, and I've never been wrong. Not about that, anyway." He looked down, and Sören felt that ache for him, knowing he was remembering some old regret. "But doing the laundromat in the rain isn't fun -"

"Jæja, before I moved next door to Professor Dooku I lived in an apartment complex where I had to use the laundromat. 'Course, I'm used to the rain up there, and back in Akureyri. I wasn't expecting it to rain off and on in the Bay Area this summer."

Mark shook his head. "Usually it doesn't, but climate change has been making the weather weirder around the world. Case in point, I remember winters back in Connecticut, we were guaranteed for at least three or four bad nor'easters each winter, a good foot of snow, everything shutting down. Last several years they've gotten maybe one bad blizzard each winter and the snow starts later. Other people might be happy about that, but I'm not." He frowned.

Sören also frowned. "Já, the rain here this time of year is... strange. Definitely climate change." He needed a moment of levity, not wanting to think about the way things were changing in Iceland, reports of shrinking glaciers. "Or maybe we're making it rain being all emo all the time."

Mark gave him a look, and for a second Sören worried he'd caused offense, and then Mark laughed, and Sören relaxed. "You'd have to have some pretty potent, uh... psychic abilities to be able to influence the weather like that." Mark grinned. "Don't tell anyone, but I'm secretly a wizard." He took a swig from his water bottle, finishing it.

"Really? Here I thought you were secretly an Elf..."

Mark spat his water, and leaned against the kitchen counter, shaking with silent laughter. His face turned bright red. Sören thought it was funny but not that funny.

"That's a good one, Sören." Mark looked away, out at the glass doors, at the sea. "Get ready so we can get a move on, OK?"

Sören put on a Super Mario T-shirt and khaki cargo shorts, brushed his teeth, pulled on his Doc Martens, and brought out his laundry. He and Mark loaded the car and drove to the laundromat listening to the classic rock station.

The laundromat was too hot and steamy for Sören to feel comfortable waiting around for a couple of hours, so after they put in their wash, they stepped outside. Sören was expecting to get back in the car for a drive, but then his eyes spotted an arcade in the same plaza, and he dragged Mark in with him.

It was busier and noisier than either of them would have liked, but they managed to find a two-player game that wasn't taken - Mortal Kombat, which got Sören yelling "MORTAAAAAL KOMBAAAAT" when he saw the machine, making Mark facepalm and laugh. Mark beat him four out of five games, and after the fifth they were both tired of it but still had time to kill. The arcade had a section for skee ball, and Sören and Mark spent the rest of their wash cycle playing skee ball, with Mark's dexterity better than Sören's and indeed most of the other people playing.

After they started the dryers Sören got Mark to go back into the arcade. They played a couple of games of Pac-Man and then Sören saw it, tugging on the hem of Mark's shirt before taking his hand and pulling him along. There was a large ball pit and adults were using it.

Sören and Mark waited in a line and then Sören climbed a ladder, went down a slide, and into the sea of brightly colored balls. He laughed, swimming around, and laughed harder when he saw almost-seven-foot-tall Mark slide down into the pit, landing beside him. Mark wheezed as his face popped out of the balls.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," Mark said.

"Have you not been in a ball pit?" Sören raised an eyebrow.

"No."

"Not even as a kid? What the fuck?"

"No, Sören, not even as a kid."

"It's been ages since I was in one of these," Sören said. "Well... OK, not totally ages. I went to see my cousin Ari a few years ago for Christmas and there's a place at the mall in Reykjavik that has one. A few years ago isn't that long, I guess. But before that, not since my mamma was alive." Sören moved his arms and legs around before letting himself sink down. "This is nice."

"This is strangely relaxing."

"I should get a ball pit at my place when the summer's over. Have, like, parties." Sören snorted. "Not that I really have much of a social life. I dunno, it'd be like, you, me, and Professor Dooku in the ball pit. If I could even get Nico to get in one."

Mark laughed. "That would be a sight."

"He does fun even less than you do." Sören smirked. "I say 'less than' because you do fun sometimes. Like this."

"This isn't fun," Mark said.

"No? What is it?"

"Uh... conducting serious scientific research on you Earth humans and your cultural customs."

Sören's laughter rang out. Mark grinned.

Then Mark sobered a bit. "So you'd... invite me over?"

"Jæja, after the summer ends and we're back in Oregon, if you'd like to hang out..."

"I'd... I'd like that, thank you."

Sören reached over and patted him. Then he sighed softly. He wanted to do more than just hang out with Mark - who looked adorably ridiculous and ridiculously adorable floating in the ball pit - but he was terrified of how he felt, and how it would change things. He really didn't have many friends to speak of, so the idea of losing one if Mark didn't feel the same way...

Sören tried not to think about it, and just enjoy himself. They floated for awhile longer, then Sören sat up, which accidentally vaulted some balls onto Mark. Mark responded by throwing a ball at Sören. Soon they were throwing balls at each other, then Sören just shoved Mark into the ball pit and tried to bury him, before Mark did a surprise flip and held Sören down, pelting him with a deluge of balls as Sören screamed and giggled. Mark relented before Sören could be completely submerged and he pulled Sören up. "Laundry's almost done," he said.

Sören gave a reluctant sigh.

Before they could leave the arcade, Sören said, "One more game?"

They returned to the Pac-Man console. Mark beat him again. Then Sören remembered they had tickets from skee ball. Each of them on their own didn't have enough tickets to get anything good, but then Mark added his tickets to Sören's and Sören walked out with a stuffed frog.

"At this rate you'll have an entire menagerie by the time we go back to Oregon," Mark said.

"There are worse things to collect."

As they unloaded the dryers, Sören paused to breathe in - he loved the smell of freshly dryed clothes. Then, before he could put the frog on top of his basket of clothes, the frog leapt onto Mark. "Thank you," Sören said in a croaky voice.

Mark patted the frog. Then Sören said in his own voice, "Thank you from me too. I could tell that... isn't your kind of place, but you still..."

Mark nodded. "I liked the ball pit." He grinned. "If you get a ball pit for your place, I'll come over. I would anyway, but."

"Jæja, I'm thinking about it. There's an arcade in town, but no ball pit." Then Sören cringed, remembering the last time he was in that arcade.

"You OK?"

Sören nodded. "One of the things Seth and I used to do when we started dating. Back when he was fun. Before I knew what he was."

Sören blinked back tears, and then Mark's arms were around him. "Hey," Mark said softly as he pulled Sören close. "Hey, it's all right."

Sören leaned on him, welcoming the comfort of his hug, yet it also somehow made things worse, the feel of Mark's body, wanting him, worried that he'd lose one of his few sources of emotional support and connection if he said anything...

On the drive home, they were quiet; Sören looked out the window. Even on an overcast day, the city shrouded by fog, the Bay Area was still beautiful to him, and he took it in.

The silver mist was so much like Mark's eyes. No wonder I love it so.

It started to rain not long after they got back. Once Sören's clothes were put away and he was sitting down on his bed, trying to think of what to do next, Mark stopped in the bedroom door and asked, "Is ordering a pizza OK for tonight? I kind of don't want to go out to the store."

"Jæja, just let me know when you're ready to order."

Mark glanced at the frog. "You think of a name for him yet?"

"Not yet."

Mark folded his arms. "If that damned unicorn had to have a name, you're not getting away with not naming your frog."

Sören laughed. "Well, I need time to think -"

"I didn't get time to come up with a name, so neither do you."

Sören stuck his tongue out at Mark, then he rolled his eyes and flopped back onto his bed. He picked up the frog and sat the frog down on his chest, and drew a blank. He did however know what he didn't want to name it. "Not Hells."

Mark was deadpan. "Not Hells is a pretty weird name, but OK..."

Sören threw a pillow at Mark, who ducked as he walked off, laughing. Sören got up, picked the pillow up, and ran down the hall chasing after Mark to whack him with the pillow. Mark ran to the living room and launched a couch pillow at Sören.

Mark and Sören spent the next ten minutes having a pillow fight, before collapsing onto the couch together, laughing. "We're adults," Sören said.

"Totally. Absolutely mature, responsible adults who teach college and everything."

The sight of Mark with his hair disheveled, eyes bright with mischief, made Sören want to kiss him. He held that impulse in check. Mark looked at the clock, then at Sören. "You want to watch something?" he asked.

Yeah. You stripping naked then writhing underneath me. Sören shrugged. "Like what?"

"Movie or something."

They browsed the movie channels on cable and decided on The Princess Bride, which Sören had never seen before. Mark was astounded.

"How have you not seen this?" Mark asked.

Sören shrugged. Then he said, "I actually wanted to see it a couple years ago and Seth was over and he said it was 'lame'."

"That... says a lot about Seth right there."

Sören enjoyed the movie, especially Inigo Montoya. When the movie was over, Sören went to the bathroom and when he got back in the living room he said, "We should call for pizza now, maybe?"

"As you wish," Mark quipped.

They watched an episode of Farscape while they waited for the pizza, and after it arrived. After leftovers were in the fridge, they had their usual routine of Star Trek. Sören wasn't quite tired yet - he thought of the painting he worked on last night, and on impulse, he asked Mark, "Do you think we could, ah, work together tonight? You play, I paint?"

"I was going to ask and you beat me to it." Mark smiled.

Sören set up his easel and paints in the living room. Just before he could sit down and get to work, his cell phone went off. It was too late for anyone to be calling usually; Sören pulled out the phone and saw Sharon's number.

"Sharon! Hi?"

"Hi, Sören." Sharon sniffled. "Sorry to call at this hour -"

Sören felt a knot in the pit of his stomach. Her calling at this time, voice quavering... "Are you OK?"

"I... I'm fine." Sharon sniffled again and then let out a sob. "Mostly."

"Shit. Sharon. Seriously. Did anything happen..."

"Can I... can I come over? Or come pick you up? I just... really don't wanna be alone right now..."

Sören looked at the clock and then at Mark. Even though it was raining, Sören didn't want to impose by having Sharon come by at this hour, he was already throwing a monkey wrench into their plans. "You can come pick me up. Um, call or honk when you're at the house, OK?"

"OK, I'll be there soon."

Sören exhaled sharply as he hit End. "I'm so sorry, Mark. She sounds really upset -"

"I get it, Sören." There was a slight edge to his voice and Mark didn't look at him, but Mark nodded. "You have a good heart."

"Tomorrow, maybe?"

"We'll see. The muse strikes when it strikes. Tonight would have been a good night, but..."

"Yeah." Sören ran a hand through his curls and rubbed his head, feeling sheepish. He was trying to do right by Sharon, but he also felt like he was letting Mark down.

Sören's cell went off again ten minutes later. He went out into the rain and Sharon's RV was there. Sören got in the RV and he saw that unlike previous rides in it, it looked like she was actually living in it now - he saw duffel bags and a laundry basket.

"Sharon!" Sören hugged her once he got in the RV. "What happened?"

"Lucas and I broke up, Sören." Sharon looked like she'd been crying.

"Oh shit, Sharon... I'm so sorry..." And yet he really wasn't. He felt for her, knowing what heartbreak felt like from past experience, but a part of him was singing Ding dong the witch is dead from The Wizard of Oz, glad that Lucas was out of her life. "Do you... do you want to drive somewhere and talk?"

"Yeah."

They drove down to Schoonmaker Beach, and sat in the van. They moved out of the front seat; Sharon sat on her bed and gestured for Sören to sit next to her. When he sat down next to her she fell apart in his arms, crying. He rocked her and pet her, making soothing noises.

"So like..." Sören was curious. "What was it?"

"Another fight about money and then just... everything." Sharon sniffled. "The two of us coming from two different worlds, and going two different places in life, wanting different things. He wants a job with Tesla or Apple or something and I just want a simple, quiet life, maybe on a farm. And of course he brought up my weight again and called me a toothpick on legs..."

"OK, seriously, fuck that guy. I know you're hurting but in the long run, you dodged a bullet."

Sharon sobbed, and Sören pulled her close again, petting and rocking her again. Then he asked, "How long ago was this?"

"This morning. I was out of his place as of this afternoon."

"And you're just... living in your RV."

"I've done it before. I mean, it's designed to be lived in." Sharon shrugged. "Might not stay here in the Bay Area, though. Might work a few more weeks at the boutique, get some money saved, and then just... go somewhere."

Sören nodded. "Portland's nice," he said. "It's closer to where I am, too."

Sharon nodded. "Portland or Seattle, I'm thinking about. I mean, like I said, I think I want a homestead eventually but that takes time, and... " She started sobbing again.

Sören skritched her head like she was a cat. "Oh, Sharon." His arms tightened around her. "Anything I can do?"

"Yeah, actually." Sharon looked up at him, their eyes met, and then Sharon kissed him hard.

Sören's cock woke up, throbbing as the kiss deepened, heated. Sharon pushed him onto his back on the bed and climbed on top of him, and they kissed again and again. Sören moaned as Sharon palmed the bulge in his shorts, gently rubbing, and moaned again as Sharon started to kiss his neck. Then their mouths met again, and they rolled onto their sides. Sharon pulled off his shirt, and her hands roamed over his bare chest. She pinched a nipple and Sören groaned, crying out when Sharon leaned in to take a few licks, suckling it and tugging the nipple ring with her teeth before kissing and licking her way up his chest, back to his neck. Licking, kissing, nibbling his neck as she ground against him.

"I want you." There was heat in Sharon's blue eyes. She kissed him again, and then she giggled between kisses. "God, it's hot in here."

It was warm in the van, but not so much to be uncomfortable. Sören's jaw dropped as Sharon pulled off her camisole, revealing small but perfectly formed breasts, her pink nipples hard. She had the tan lines he'd been fantasizing about, and she guided his head to her breasts, moaning as he suckled. Moaning and giggling. She moaned louder as his tongue licked down to her navel, and he nibbled, his cock throbbing, wanting to taste her.

But he didn't want to hike up her skirt and take a taste just yet. She was in his arms and they were kissing again; Sören's fingers and thumbs rubbed Sharon's nipples. And as he took her breast into his mouth again, he felt himself snapped back to reality for a moment, out of the blinding steam of passion. There was something about the heat Sharon's body was throwing off, and the giggling, and the urgency of the way she was grinding against him - the intensity of everything, and how fast it was moving - something that was setting Sören on edge, reminding him of himself when he'd been partying in Toronto. The little warning bells in his head got louder when their eyes met again and he saw Sharon's eyes were glassy, and not just from having been crying.

"Sharon," Sören rasped. "Are you high?"

Sharon nodded and giggled. "I just..." She reached for a Gatorade on the table across from the bed. Oh thank fuck she's at least keeping hydrated, Sören thought to himself, having seen some things in his party days. "I needed to get out of my head for awhile. Needed to be someplace better." She took a sip of Gatorade and then she gave Sören a soft, sweet kiss before kissing him again, harder.

"What are you on right now?"

"E. I scored a few days ago, I popped a tab before I came and got you." Sharon reached for a Pez dispenser that had been near the Gatorade; she opened it and there wasn't Pez inside. She giggled again. "Roll with me, Sören. Help me forget..."

"Sharon, I can't." It wasn't simply that he didn't want to make a potentially fatal mistake with the medication he was on, but suddenly he was reliving Toronto, the sickening feeling of the one-night stands, the emptiness... the last few times he partied, and the very last time, when he'd been roofied. He didn't know if Sharon was too high to really consent or not, and even if she had been fully sober, he was starting to feel like he'd be taking advantage of her when she was vulnerable, like giving her the comfort of his body when she was in this very raw, bleeding emotional state would be promising at something more that he couldn't give, when their own lives were so very different. He didn't want to break her heart. Once she'd had some time away from Lucas... fuckbuddies, maybe.

But not now. This was dangerous territory, here. She was too volatile fresh off a breakup and he didn't want to be her rebound, and he didn't want to use her as a substitute for Mark.

That realization of how badly he wanted Mark seemed to make everything worse, somehow.

"OK, no E." Sharon nipped his lower lip and sucked on it. "Just fuck me, then."

"No. I can't, Sharon."

"What do you mean, you can't?" Sharon palmed at his hard-on again. "Don't you want me?" She pouted.

"I..." Sören sat up and took her hand away. "I mean I can't, Sharon. And neither can you. Not when you're like this."

"Oh come on, Sören, I see the way you've been looking at me, and -"

"Sharon, we can't. No." Sören shook his head. "No means no." Sören reached for his shirt and pulled it back on, then he took Sharon's camisole and threw it at her.

Sharon sat there topless, pouting as she stared at the floor, and the look of utter desolation on her face made Sören want to cry. Then Sharon was crying again and Sören cried a little too, not just for her, feeling like he was being a jerk even when he was trying not to be a jerk, aching for the uncertainty of her life and the rejection she felt, but also crying for himself, for the days when he used to be able to have sex without thinking so goddamn much, being so careful, the godawful night of terror when he woke up well-used and unable to remember what had happened. It seemed a bitter irony to him that MDMA and ketamine were being used in some places to treat PTSD, when both of those drugs had put him in situations that made his PTSD so much worse, out of the frying pan into the fire.

Sören reached out to hug her again. "I'm sorry, Sharon. I don't want to take advantage -"

Sharon swatted him away. "Fucking... don't, Sören. Don't. Fucking. Even." She sobbed harder.

"Sharon. I'd be happy to stay with you, let you cry on me till the morning..." Watch over you so you don't do anything dumb as fuck while you're rolling.

"How very noble of you." Sharon grit her teeth.

"It isn't that I don't care -"

Sharon put up her hand. "Just. Shut up. Shut up." She put her camisole on - backwards, which told Sören she was in fact high enough that he was doing the right thing by refusing her. "I'll take you home."

"I don't know if I want you driving when you're like this. If I'd known you were all fucked up, I wouldn't have had you pick me up -"

"All fucked up. Yeah. That about sums it up."

Sören facepalmed. "It's a figure of speech, Sharon. Intoxicated. Under the influence. Not trying to imply that you -"

"But that's what you're thinking, that I'm Little Miss Fragile and you're going to make it even worse somehow by not fucking me? Fuck you and the high horse you rode in on, Doctor Sören Sigurdsson, Ph.Fucking.D." Sharon walked out of the living portion of the RV to the driver's seat. "I managed to drive to your place without trouble, I'll drive you back."

"I really don't think you should be driving anywhere till the E wears off. If you popped a tab just before you got me, you'd be better able to drive then than you are right now..."

"Oh right, I forgot you went to med school and you know fucking everything -"

"Actually it's because I've done E more times than I can count so I'm relaying firsthand experience here. I do not. Want. You. Driving. Right now. If you want me out of your van that bad, I'll call Mark or an Uber or something." The thought of calling Mark to pick him up made him uncomfortable - he'd canceled their plans abruptly for this, and Mark had called for pizza earlier because he didn't want to go out in the rain. He also didn't want to explain the situation to Mark... he especially didn't want to be blue-ballsed in front of him.

But Sharon wasn't listening to him; she started the van and began pulling out. Sören got in the passenger's seat. "Fjandinn blóðug helvíti," he muttered as Sharon got on the road.

Sharon drove slowly, and they managed to make it to the house in one piece. Sören took a few deep breaths - he'd been shaking the entire way there, nervous about Sharon driving while high.

"Good night, Sören," Sharon said through grit teeth.

"Sharon... my offer still stands. If you want me to stay with you till the morning. I'll hold you. You can cry on me, let it out. I just... you deserve better than me fucking you when you're like this."

"Sören, just get the hell out of here." Sharon didn't look at him.

Sören exhaled sharply. "OK. Fine. Do me a favor though and call me sometime tomorrow just so I don't worry too much. Let me know you're OK -"

"I said GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE," Sharon yelled.

With tears burning in his eyes, feeling like he'd been slapped - feeling like he'd done the wrong thing, when he'd tried to do the right thing - Sören hopped out of her van, and dashed through the rain to the house. Mark wasn't in the living room, which didn't surprise him; he assumed Mark had gone to bed.

Sören went to the kitchen. He poured himself ice water to calm down, but he was still shaking a little as he leaned against the counter, drinking.

When he came down the hall towards his room, Mark got out of the bathroom. And paused in his tracks. Sören also paused. They just looked at each other for a moment without saying anything; Mark's eyes looked Sören up and down and his mouth opened slightly, then closed, and Mark looked away.

"Hi," Sören finally said.

"Hello." Mark's voice was quiet, neutral. "I wasn't expecting you back this soon."

Sören shrugged. "I, ah." He didn't know what to say. "Ah."

"I hope you enjoyed yourself." Mark resumed walking towards his bedroom. "Good night, Sören." With that, he closed the door behind him - itself telling since Mark usually slept with the door open.

Sören went to the bathroom. "Fresh fucking hell," he said out loud when he saw himself in the mirror - hair wildly disheveled, lips kiss-swollen, his neck sporting hickeys from Sharon's attention.

And his fly was open.

Sören got in the shower without thinking about it. For a few minutes he just stood under the near-scalding spray, not lathering, just needing to feel the water beating down on him, washing him away.

After his shower he went to bed alone. For awhile his body screamed with sexual frustration, and for a few minutes he fought the urge to get up, knock on Mark's bedroom door, and beg Mark to fuck him the way Sharon had begged.

Eventually he just cried into his pillow, snuggling his stuffed animals, remembering the emptiness he'd felt in Toronto, the loneliness he'd felt with Seth. How it seemed in the course of an evening he'd fucked up not one friendship, but two, somehow.

He felt so very, very alone.


_


Sören woke up in the afternoon again, and cursed when he saw the time - he knew he had to set up video chat with Ari before it got too much later, considering the time difference.

Mark was out god knew where. At least he'd have some privacy when he talked to his cousin, even though they'd be talking in Icelandic and Sören doubted Mark could speak Icelandic at all.  Sören was comforted by the sight of his cousin, the golden brown hair and beard - Einar's hair color; Sören's parents had both been dark - and the bright blue eyes.  Ari was a gentle giant of a man, the muscular build of an athlete who practiced yoga, but had a soft-spoken demeanor that made people feel at ease around him.  Even halfway around the world, the soothing energy came through the screen now, like a younger, Icelandic Mister Rogers - one with a bit of snark and sarcasm, but a kind, nurturing presence nonetheless.

Ari laughed when he saw Sören on the webcam. "Did you just wake up?"

"Jæja, you can tell?"

"Not just from your bed head, but the grumpy look on your face. Though..." Ari grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "I guess you slept in, having a hot night last night?"

Sören cringed - Ari could see the hickeys on his neck. "I. Ah. Shit."

"Was it with that guy you're staying with... what's his name?"

"Mark? No." Sören laughed and cringed again. "Unfortunately." He let out a little sigh. Then he realized what he'd said, and facepalmed. Ari had already picked up enough from their prior conversation to guess, but here was the unmistakable, out-loud confirmation that...

"Unfortunately? Whoa." Ari laughed. "Sounds like shit is complicated?"

Sören shrugged. "There's this girl I met..." Then his cell phone went off, as if on cue - it was Sharon's number. "Sorry, I have to take this." Sören accepted the call. "Sharon!"

"I'm alive. You told me to call so you wouldn't worry, so -"

"Jæja, I appreciate that." Sören swallowed hard. "Do you want to get together like maybe tomorrow or something, if you need an ear -"

"I need some space, Sören. It's gonna be awhile. I'll call you." Sharon hung up then.

Sören let out a groan as he put down the phone, facepalmed, and rubbed his face.

"That was the girl?" Ari raised an eyebrow.

Sören nodded slowly, pinched the bridge of his nose, and had a sip of his water. "Her name is Sharon. American. California native. Twenty-two."

Ari let out a low whistle. "That's... a bit younger than you go for."

"No shit. That's like my students' age, that's usually a definite no nowadays. But she's not one of my students, and she's fucking hot. Also really sweet girl. A writer. But." Sören scowled and sipped more water. "To make a long story last night, we got together last night and almost hooked up. Almost. She was on E, and I couldn't make myself go there. Not after..." His voice trailed off. Ari didn't know everything that had happened in Toronto but he knew enough to read between the lines.

"So you did the noble thing."

"And she's pissed off at me. Mark is also pissed off at me, I think, because we were gonna do our thing last night - he plays harp, I paint -"

"Oh wow, he plays harp?" Ari's eyebrows shot up. "That's not something you see every day."

"He can play guitar and piano, but my god. The way he plays that harp. He also has an amazing voice. Like how-does-this-guy-not-have-a-record-deal crazy good. He'd be a star not just for his talent, but he's fucking gorgeous. Tall. Long dark hair. Beautiful grey eyes."

Ari smiled. "Sounds like you've got quite a crush on this guy."

Sören sighed deeply. "It's... it's a bit more than that. I think I've fallen for him. Fallen hard."

"Sounds like it. So... why weren't you letting him bite all over your neck last night?"

"Oh Jesus." Sören buried his face in his hands and shook his head. He had another sip of water and leaned back in his chair, searching for the right words. The right words wouldn't come, so he just blurted out what was on his mind, indelicate or not. "I'm worried I'll fuck up our friendship if I say anything to him."

"Is he straight?"

"No, he's bi like me. But he's given, like, no sign that he's interested -"

"Or maybe ones that went over your head. Or maybe he's shy."

"Well, the thing is -"

"Oh god, here we go."

Sören laughed and gave him the finger. Then he touched upon the indelicate thoughts he couldn't phrase better. "I'm a mess, and Mark's a hot fucking mess. He seems to have PTSD about as bad as I do. I don't know a whole lot about him, but I mean... he has a very badly, obviously scarred right hand, I'm surprised he can even still use his hand with what's happened to him, never mind play the harp like he does. He's had some kind of tragedy. Been in some kind of war. He's the second of seven sons and all his brothers are dead. And he is so, so fucking melancholy." Sören sighed, the mental image of Mark playing his guitar on the beach, looking wistful, forever burned into his mind. "This house we're renting is right on the beach, and he goes out there a lot by himself to sing, play guitar. Looking so haunted. I can feel it. It comes out so strongly in his music."

There was a long pause, like Ari was waiting for Sören to go on, but Sören didn't. He drank some more of his water, and finally Ari just nodded - for a brief moment Sören felt like he was at his therapist's office, or on an episode of Dr. Phil, like Ari was doing more than just listening but the gears in his head were turning, drawing some kind of conclusion.

"And he's hot, you said?" Ari narrowed his eyes. "What's he look like, again?"

"He's tall. Really tall, like almost seven feet. Black hair to the middle of his back. Looks like a fucking supermodel. Grey eyes. Wears glasses most of the time. Jeans and T-shirt guy but you can tell he'd clean up nicely. Seen him come out of the shower and he's ripped which I expect for ex-military but holy shit, the body on him. I'm surprised I'm not perpetually drooling on myself."

"And his name is Mark..."

"Mark Lowry. Music theory professor at OSU."

Ari nodded some more, his brows knitting together.

Sören gave a nervous laugh. "Oh god Ari, please tell me you're not going to look him up and threaten him, or something."

"No." Ari grinned. "Not yet." Then he had that intense look of concentration again. "No, it's just... interesting. He's like the polar opposite of Seth in some ways -"

"God." Sören groaned. He finished his water. "Fucking Seth."

"Sorry for bringing that up -"

"Don't worry about it, my stupid fucking PTSD brings him up anyway." Sören shook his head, shoving away the memories as quickly as he could. "So yeah, that's what my life has been like for the last month, is a fucking soap opera. How are things with you?"

"Good, more or less."

"Still single?"

"Yeah." Ari sighed. "I saw a girl a few times, didn't work out." He rolled his eyes. "Again."

"Shit, I'm sorry."

Ari frowned. "Well, as huge as Reykjavik looked to us back when we were growing up in Akureyri, it's, you know. Not that big. Dating prospects here get kind of weird after awhile, because if you're dating someone chances are good they know at least one ex of yours, and they talk, and..." Ari sighed. "I should get out of Reykjavik for awhile - out of Iceland altogether - but I have no idea where I'd go, what I'd do."

"You could stay with Dag for awhile in Toronto."

Ari gave him a look. "Thanks, I'd rather have a root canal."

Sören's laughter rang out.

"That would go over super well. We'd be at each other's throats in a week, arguing about science versus spirituality, before he went on about ancient aliens and parallel universes and all that shit that makes him sound like an even bigger crackpot than I do, and I practice fucking witchcraft." Ari shook his head. "Besides, even if things with Dag were... less fraught... you told me about how you felt like you were cramping his style and everything and I don't want to go through something like that myself. If I move out of here I don't want to be someone's guest."

"I understand." Sören nodded. "I mean, in your case you're not struggling to get a degree and dealing with hardcore mental heath issues -"

"Oh, I deal with mental health issues, they're just quiet. I don't have bipolar, I have dysthymia. I never feel that good. Always quietly sad. Like Eeyore."

"Like Eeyore. But I love Eeyore. And I love you too."

"I miss you."

"You should come to Oregon!"

"I don't know..."

"Think about it."

"It's not just thinking, even if I said yes tomorrow I can't just get on a plane and move immediately. But I'll think about it."

"Pot's even legal out here."

"Well, that's one point in its favor."

"I think you'd have no problem opening up a yoga studio. It's very... crunchy... up there."

"So I've heard. I watch that show, what is it called... Portlandia. Wondering if people are really like that -"

"It's funny because people really are like that. It's not quite so bad in Corvallis but there's some spillover. So, you know, you'd fit right in."

"I'm not that bad."

"No, you're worse."

Now it was Ari's turn to give him the finger. "I miss you too."

Sören heard keys in the door. "Mark's home."

"I'll let you go then." Ari gave him a look. "You should tell him how you feel."

"You should shut up."

"No, Sören... I think you guys met for a reason. I think you'd be good for him. I think he'd be good for you."

"Whatever."

"And... I'm going to send you a little care package. Hopefully it won't take a ridiculously long amount of time for it to get to you..."

"Oh, I should shoot you the address of where I'm staying then -"

"Yes, send me an e-mail, I'll get it out in the post tomorrow. I'll pay extra so it ships fast -"

"You don't have to do that..."

"Yes. I do. Now run along." Ari grinned. "Go see your man."

"He is not my man."

Sören heard Mark's footsteps coming down the hall, and prayed a silent thanks that the conversation was in Icelandic and Mark wouldn't understand any of that. Sören flew up out of his seat and poked his head out the bedroom door. Before Mark could duck into the bathroom, Sören said, "Hi Mark."

Mark paused. "Hello."

Sören stepped out of his room and leaned against the door frame. "I... ah. I'm sorry again for cancelling so abruptly last night -"

"I told you it was fine." There was a thin edge to his voice that suggested it wasn't entirely fine.

Sören felt a pang of guilt. "I want to make it up to you. Um, you want to go out for dinner later? My treat. Then we can do the thing? You play, I paint -"

"Sören, don't take this the wrong way, but I'm not in the mood tonight. I was actually going to tell you when I got out of the bathroom that I need a night to myself and was going to leave you some money to get delivery or... take Sharon out, or something." Mark wasn't looking at him, but into the bathroom.

"Oh." The pang of guilt now felt like a stab in the heart. He hates me, I guess. "Is something wrong..."

"I don't want to talk about it." Mark ran a hand through his hair and frowned. "But..." And finally, their eyes met. "We can take a rain check on your offer?"

Sören nodded - perhaps a little too eagerly. OK, he doesn't hate me. But he still didn't know what was wrong.

"You know, if you don't have plans with Sharon." Mark looked away again. "Excuse me."

He's... definitely pissed about last night. I guess I killed his muse or something, musicians can be touchy. Sören wanted to give him a hug, but the door of the bathroom closed. Sören went back into his room, and a few minutes later the door of Mark's room closed and Sören heard the stereo come on.

Sören flomped down on his bed and hugged Eeyore. And tried not to cry.

Chapter Text

Night By Night

 

Sören slept in until late afternoon the next day - he'd been up until dawn working on the painting of Marilwen the paladin, even though Sharon was angry with him and needed space for awhile; he still had her notebook, and it seemed somehow more important than before to work on this gift for her, like a sort of peace offering.

He also felt compelled by the woman he was painting. Enough that he dreamed of her. And Sharon. When he finally went to sleep in the morning, in his dream Sharon and the paladin were making love together, then he was in bed with both of them, tasting them, taking one then the other. Which then turned into dreaming of Mark, taking him, being taken by him. He and Mark were in a forge, and the heat between them was like its own furnace. He wore nothing but the crown that had recurred in his dreams as of late, could feel the jewels thrumming against his brow, glowing upon Mark, the fire returned in Mark's eyes. Mark's teeth in him, as Sharon's had been. Blood of my blood.

Sören had woken up hard and aching. He opened the lid of the glass box so his "friend" in the mirror could watch as he stroked himself. The man had wanted a more unrestrained show and Sören gave it to him, jerking off harder than he had in a long time. When the man bade him "Come, beauty," Sören aimed at the mirror, and he could hear the man moaning his own pleasure as he shuddered in the throes of his climax.

Sören lay there feeling sad, but he couldn't stay in bed all day. When he was sufficiently recovered from his orgasm he went to the bathroom and then stumbled out to the kitchen. As he took his meds, Mark walked in the kitchen. Mark was fully dressed - jeans and a KISS T-shirt - and Sören was wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. Sören felt almost like he was naked, such was the vulnerability he felt in Mark's presence, like he was exposed somehow. He swallowed hard, looking away as he finished taking his meds.

"Hi," Mark said, finally.

"Hi."

"Did you manage to find something to eat last night?"

Sören nodded. "I finished the leftover pizza."

Mark also nodded.

There was awkward silence and then Sören sighed - if Mark was upset about Sören bailing on him the other night, he had to fix this, somehow. He had to try. He put his drink down, walked over to Mark, and gave him a tight hug. After a moment Mark returned the hug and Sören breathed a sigh of relief, a lump in his throat, tears in his eyes as he leaned on him. A part of Sören was screaming Just tell him how you feel already but Sören wasn't ready yet. He didn't know if he'd ever be ready, terrified that he would be rejected, that it would make the rest of the summer uncomfortable, that he'd lose Mark as a friend. He desperately did not want to have these feelings. But they were there, and as comforting as the hug was, it was also excruciating, Sören feeling a frisson of arousal again even though he'd just come.

Now was not the time for making things further complicated; now was the time to try to smooth over troubled waters. Sören swallowed hard. "I'm sorry," he said simply.

"For?"

They pulled apart, but their eyes held. "The other night. Leaving you to go see Sharon -"

"Sören, we've been over this -"

"Mark, you've said it's fine but I'm not blind. You've been acting really..." Sören made a vague hand gesture. "Like it pissed you off. Which, I wasn't trying to be a shitty friend, but I can see how it came off as a case of the friend who abandons his friend over a partner and I'm really, really sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings but I can't help thinking I did and I really want to make it up to you."

There was a pause and Mark said finally, "Apology accepted."

"And now I need an apology from you in return, because if there's one thing I really fucking hate, it's people playing games with me. I'm not a mindreader - if something's truly not OK, just tell me it's not OK, tell me I fucked up, instead of saying 'it's fine' while you avoid me like I have a contagious disease or something."

Mark sighed and then he nodded. "Fair enough. I'm sorry, Sören." He looked down, and then back up. "The thing is, I wasn't trying to be passive-aggressive. I wanted it to be fine. I wasn't particularly happy with myself for acting je-" Mark shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Acting just like some annoying person who needs to be attached at the hip all the time. I felt like it was unfair of me, she was upset and you were going to comfort her..." His voice trailed off. "Anyway, water under the bridge?"

Sören hugged him again.

They went from the kitchen down the hall towards their respective bedrooms. "So that rain check for dinner..." Mark said. "I'll take it tonight. You know, if you don't have plans with Sharon or anything."

"I don't, no, and that works for me. Do you have anywhere in mind?"

Mark shrugged. "I'm flexible."

"Hi Flexible, I'm -"

Mark gave him a look. Sören laughed, and then Mark gave him a playful swat.

Sören decided he was going to take a shower. Then, before he could get in the shower - while he was shirtless but still had his pajama pants on - he called down to Mark. "Are we going anyplace fancy? I ask before I go to the trouble of putting clothes on."

Mark stepped out of the bedroom, glanced at Sören, quickly looked down, and licked his lips before he spoke. "Well, I'd rather not go to a fast food place but I also don't want to go someplace that requires me to wear a tie or something else dressy. Besides which, even if I felt like someplace upscale..." He gestured to Sören. "Your neck is still a mess, and it's not quite turtleneck weather."

Sören looked at himself in the mirror and his face flushed. He'd forgotten about the love bites on his neck from Sharon, which were purple, some fading to greenish-yellow. "Oh. Jæja, I, ah. That was an oversight when I'd asked about anyplace fancy."

"Yeah."

Before Mark could duck back into his room, Sören asked, "Indian food all right?" That seemed like a nice medium between fast food and someplace too expensive and dressy.

"Indian sounds great, yes."

Sören gave the thumbs up and went back into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

Today it was his turn for Mark to walk out when he was getting out of the shower, curls damp, wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. Mark was coming from the kitchen down the hall, and paused for a moment, blinking; Sören quickly went down the hall to his room, face on fire, not wanting his towel to start tenting up around him. In his room Sören took a few deep breaths, flustered, once again feeling that sharp ache and yet unwilling to say anything about it.

When Sören was dressed, in cargo shorts and a plain black T-shirt, he came out. Mark's bedroom door was open and Sören stood there - Mark was sitting on his bed reading Wizard and Glass in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Mark had his wire-rim glasses on and a look of intense concentration on his face, brow furrowed - Sören thought he looked incredibly sexy, and his mouth went dry. It took a moment for Mark to notice Sören was standing there and Sören's mouth opened, trying to find words.

"Uh," Sören said. "I'm, ah. Ready when you are."

Mark nodded. "Give me five minutes and I'll be out."

Sören put on his own glasses and took a moment to do last-minute preening, even though he felt ridiculous because he didn't think Mark was interested in him at all. When Mark came out of the bedroom they walked out to the Jaguar together, and Sören's heart was racing at the prospect of being in such close proximity to him in the car.

Music helped take the edge off, until Mark started singing along with the radio - "Dream On" by Aerosmith. Sören's stomach fluttered and his gaze kept wandering from the view out the window back over to Mark, in his element singing. Even something like singing along with the radio, he sounded good, had the presence of a rock star.

Once they got to the Indian restaurant, they had to wait a bit to get a table. Sören and Mark sat together on a bench in the waiting area and Sören's heart started racing again feeling Mark right next to him. He had the wild urge to take Mark's hand and hold it while they waited but this isn't a date, you dumbass, we're just friends.

Sören and Mark both went for chicken tikka and a spicy lentil dhal - the food here was much spicier than most of the Indian restaurants Sören had been to, which pleased him. Mark shook his head with disbelief as he teared up at the spices and Sören was taking it like a champ. "Are you part dragon?" Mark asked.

Sören laughed. "It's so weird, because I come from a country where we think something is 'highly spiced' if we put dill in the sour cream, I don't know why I like heat in my food as much as I do, but I do."

"Hm. You throw off a tremendous amount of body heat, too," Mark said, sipping water.

"I feel it. I start to wilt when the temperatures rise above 75 Fahrenheit. It's always been like that, like I'm a living flame or something." Sören shrugged.

Mark almost choked on his water, eyes widening a little. Sören kicked him under the table. "You OK? You still reacting to the heat?" Sören asked.

"Yeah." Mark gave a small smile, looking away. "Definitely... a heat reaction."

"I feel almost kind of bad now, because I wanted this to be for you, and if you don't like the food -"

"Oh no, the food is good. Hotter than what I'm used to but it's pleasant." Mark looked a little pink. "Please don't feel bad."

"Hmmm, do you want to go for a walk on the beach when we get back, get some air?"

"I'll do you one better."

After their meal Mark took them on a drive to Drakes Beach, which was about an hour away. The trip itself was nice and relaxing, watching the scenery on the way there - though hearing Mark sing along with the radio got Sören all aflutter again. Drakes Beach was remote, and on a Monday evening the beach was practically deserted. They were at just the right time to watch the sunset and dusk, walking along the shore for a bit before just sitting and watching the tide, breathing in the salt air, enjoying the cool breeze.

Something about the peace of the empty beach and the changing sky and the air lulled Sören into a half-asleep state for the trip back. He was roused by the sound of Mark turning up the radio when "Bohemian Rhapsody" came on, which they sang along with together, laughing like idiots when the song was over.

As feverish as Sören had been working on the painting the night before, he was in the mood to just be mellow and have a night off when they pulled in. He was afraid he'd disappoint Mark, since the original rain check had included the offer of playing and painting together - which had gotten interrupted when he went off to see Sharon - but before he could ask Mark about it, Mark said, "You want to just chill tonight? Watch a movie or something?"

"Yes, please."

Sören had enough of a peaceful, easy feeling that as Mark turned on the flat screen in the living room and set up the guide so they could browse, he dashed down to his room and came back with his bag of weed and glass pipe. He sat next to Mark on the couch as he packed a bowl.

"Toke up with me?" Sören raised an eyebrow.

"I normally don't -"

Sören gave him the sad puppy dog face.

Mark gave an exaggerated sigh in response. He put a hand on Sören's shoulder, which felt like an electric shock. "As you wish."

Sören smiled, and lit the pipe.

They each took three hits and then had a coughing fit. Mark went to the kitchen and came back with water for both of them. "Takk," Sören said, taking the water bottle. Mark sat back down next to him and flipped through the guide.

"We'll have to do a rain check of the rain check," Sören said as he lit the pipe again and passed to Mark. "Like, another night for us to work together."

"That sounds good. No running off next time, though."

"Jæja." Sören looked down, his mind replaying what happened with Sharon in the RV. Worrying about her a little, hoping she was OK.

"At least you had fun." Mark puffed and passed.

"Hahaha... not really."

Mark cocked his head to one side. "Sören, I saw you when you got in -"

"Jæja..." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls and rubbed his beard before he took another hit. "So, ah. You saw what it looked like, but nothing happened. We made out, but it stopped there. She broke up with Lucas, she was upset, and she was... self-medicating while upset. I have a personal rule about not shagging anyone who's under the influence. A little weed, a little alcohol, that's fine. Past a certain line into the grey area and... well, consent is a big deal to me. She wasn't happy about it."

"I see." Mark pursed his lips. "Yeah, from here it looked like you just... gave her a quick fuck and bolted." He cringed, puffed and passed.

"No. On both counts."

Mark breathed a small sigh, and looked down. Sören puffed, and then he put the pipe down and finished his water. "So, jæja, Sharon is kind of pissed at me that I wouldn't shag her when she was rolling on E, and she said she 'needs some space'. I don't know how long - I'd still like to be friends with her, but..."

"You... did the right thing." Mark patted him.

"I tried. I care about her. Truthfully if she had been sober and she wasn't fresh off her breakup with Lucas I would have hit that. But it wouldn't have gone anywhere except fuckbuddies. We're at two very different places in our lives. And... I'm not really into casual sex anymore. I was, for a long time. But I think the next time I have sex - if I ever have sex again... I want it to be with an actual partner. A companion." Sören rubbed his head, feeling self-conscious, like he was rambling about something that was too personal. He finally looked at the guide to try to distract himself from his train of thought, and then he found himself grabbing Mark's wrist before Mark could flip past it. "Oh my fucking god, Plan 9 from Outer Space."

"Sören, we are not watching that."

"Oh, come onnnnnnn. I've heard it's really, really bad. I want to see how bloody awful it is. It starts in five minutes." Sören gently shook Mark. "Please... please." He made the sad puppydog face.

Mark rolled his eyes, and grinned. "As you wish."

"Yay!" Sören clapped his hands.

Then Mark said, "Sören." He gave Sören a look. "Did it go over -"

"Did what go over where." Sören was confused.

Mark facepalmed and shook his head. "Never mind. I think the pot is kicking in."

"Oh shit, is this your first high?"

Mark nodded.

"Wow. Oh... we should get munchies ready." Sören went to the kitchen and came back with a box of Cheezits and a bag of cheese curls, which they'd picked up at the store. Mark wasn't a fan of the latter, but he opened the box of Cheezits and took one, nibbling on it thoughtfully as Sören took the remote and flipped to the channel where Plan 9 from Outer Space was starting.

The movie was even worse than people said it was, and under the influence of marijuana it was hysterically funny. Moreso when Sören started singing "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus and made Mark spray a mouthful of Cheezits, and Sören laughed so hard at Mark spraying Cheezits that he started snorting, which made Mark fall off the couch. When Mark got back on the couch he shook his head at Sören. "I feel like such a dork right now," Mark said.

"I've got news for you. You're always a dork."

"Ha ha."

"Not that I can talk." Sören put a cheese curl in each nostril, and gave Mark a serious, dramatic look. Mark doubled over, eyes tearing, face red, heaving with silent laughter.

"Sören, why..."

"Why, indeed." Sören stroked his beard. "Still makes more sense than this fucking movie."

"I told you."

"You did. I have no regrets though. Mostly." He took the cheese curls out of his nose.

"Just remember that future events will affect you in, like, the future."

Sören snorted again. "I'm not high enough for that to not be stupid."

The movie was to be followed up by Zardoz. Mark laughed when he saw the announcement at the bottom of the screen. "I see they're having awful sci-fi movies all week."

They decided to watch that too. This time they moved from the couch to watch it on the TV in Mark's bedroom, so they could stretch out; Mark and Sören took their glasses off. It was just as well because at the sight of a younger Sean Connery wearing a red diaper, it was Sören's turn to double over, wheezing and tearing up - he would have fallen off the couch if they were still in the living room. Mark got up and brought Sören back some water, which he drank when he calmed down.

The laughter had made Sören relax enough that between that, sitting in a reclining position and the buzz from the marijuana he was getting sleepy. He tried to make himself stay awake to finish the movie, but he found himself dozing off.

Some time later Sören woke up and he and Mark were curled up together - Mark was also sleeping. The TV was off. Sören felt for a moment like he should get up and go back to his own bed, like he was crossing some sort of line by staying here even though they'd slept in the same bed before a few times now, but before he could do that, Mark stirred, blinked, and then put an arm around Sören, pulling him closer. "Cozy," he mumbled.

Sören's face burned. It did feel good to lay here like this with him - a warm, safe nest. Sören snuggled into Mark's shoulder and he rubbed Mark's back a little, smiling as Mark's breath slowed down and he watched the eyes close again, chest rising and falling slowly in the glow of the nightlight. He is so beautiful. Sören fought the urge to give him a little kiss, and soon he was asleep again.

He woke once more with a hard-on and the need to go to the bathroom. He bit back a little groan at the time - just after three in the morning. When he got back in Mark's room, Mark was sitting up, looking at the clock, and then at Sören.

"We took a nap, I guess," Sören said, feeling self-conscious about returning to Mark's room with the intent to get back in bed with him rather than going to his own room.

But there seemed to be no judgment on Mark's part as he nodded. "I guess we did." He yawned and stretched. He looked down at his jeans. "Still in street clothes."

"We were pretty high." Sören laughed softly. "I'm still a little high. I could go for something to eat... not more snacks, though. Ice cream sounds good..."

"Oh, I think we're out of all the ice cream. And that does sound good, so that's kind of a shame."

"We're at the right time to go to Denny's."

Mark laughed. "You want me to drive to Denny's?"

"If you're not too fucked up to drive."

"No, I think I can drive. Just..." He shook his head, grinning. "You and Denny's."

"Well, I mean, you don't have to..."

Mark got up. "As you wish." He gestured to Sören. "Come on, you."

They had ice cream at Denny's, continuing to make fun of the movies they'd watched, and on the way back, instead of driving straight home, Mark drove to the Marin Headlands. They hiked up Hawk Hill and watched the sunrise together. It wasn't foggy this time, though there was a bit of a breeze, and Sören's breath caught at the play of colors in the sky, blue and lavender streaked with red, orange, pink and gold washing over the San Francisco Bay. Mark's arms came around him from behind and Mark gave him a little squeeze. Then Mark began to sing:

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dew fall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's re-creation of the new day

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the word


Sören sighed. The song was appropriate for the sense of awe and wonder he felt watching the sun rising over the water and the Golden Gate Bridge, the view that seemed almost endless. And Mark's voice was like the fire in the sky melting into the water, the air around them all golden. Sören had chills, his stomach doing flip-flops, and when he turned his head to look at Mark, whose hair was stirring in the breeze, eyes a light silver in the golden haze of sunrise, Sören fought yet another urge to kiss him. But oh, how good those strong arms felt around him, comforting and reassuring.

How good it had felt to sleep beside him, earlier. Sören could get used to that, and it bothered him.

Mark put on The Alan Parsons Project on the way back, a change from hair metal. Back at the house Sören took his night meds and before he could retire to his room Mark asked, "So later tonight... I play, you paint?"

"Sounds good. And... thank you for the rain check."

"Thank you." Mark smiled, and then looked down, lingering for a moment, taking a look at Sören before he went to his own room.

Thinking of Mark holding him, Sören went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Burning Like A Flame

 

That Tuesday evening was another night of magic, as Mark improvised on his harp and Sören continued work on his painting of Marilwen the paladin, through the near-finish. When they were at a stopping point close to three in the morning, Sören showed Mark the end product.

"It'll probably need a few more last details, but..."

Mark's jaw dropped a little. "It's already pretty detailed." His eyes went from the sword she held, with its star emblem on the hilt, to the same emblem on her breastplate, on her shield. It was a winter scene, with snow falling everywhere, and ships burning in the distance.

"I could hear the snow as you were playing." Sören pursed his lips. He closed his eyes, remembering the notes on the harp - fading fast from memory, ephemeral. "Could see the way the jewels in her armor, on her shield, were shining. Could feel her determination, as relentless as the snow..."

Mark swallowed hard. "I was thinking a lot of my aunt as I played that."

"Oh, jæja? You've told me a bit about your parents, but not the rest of your family..."

"I was very close to my father's younger brother - well, one of them, the other neither of them really talked to and vice versa... and my father's sisters. One of his sisters was my music teacher and the other was, um. An early martial arts instructor of mine, I suppose you could call it. I was thinking specifically of her for awhile as I played. So it's... remarkable that you were painting a warrior woman, where her energy comes out so strongly."

Sören let out a low whistle. "Your aunt sounds cool. Aunts, both of them, I guess."

"She was. My uncle was my favorite, though." Mark gave a sheepish grin. "I idolized him. And my father."

"Jæja? What did your uncle do?"

"A lot of things." Mark bit his lower lip for a moment - Sören thought that was incredibly sexy, feeling the urge to kiss him again - and then Mark said, "But mostly, he was a politician."

"Oh, huh. And your father was an artist." Sören rubbed his curls. "I was wondering why you'd been in the service when your parents were bohemian artist hippie types, but I guess having a politician uncle..."

"Well, I told you my father's sense of values was also involved. He believed very strongly in justice and defending what you love. They were both idealists, they just expressed it differently. Anyway..." Mark looked at the clock, and then turned off his recording equipment. "Enough about all of that. We should celebrate the painting."

"Denny's?" Sören grinned.

"As you wish."

They had nachos at Denny's, with Mark once again complaining about the subpar quality even as he was still eating them. Sören finally kicked him under the table, and Mark reached across the table and tweaked his nose. Sören got up to give him a noogie, which resulted in Mark tickling him, and Sören running through the restaurant as Mark chased him, ending up in the bathroom with Sören turning on the sink and fiercely splashing water at Mark. Mark splashed Sören back and then stuck wet fingers in Sören's ears before playfully grabbing him by the hair and marching him back out to their booth. Sören found himself getting aroused by Mark grabbing his hair, wondering if he was like that in bed.

Fighting off the desperate, hungry urge to ask Mark to take him to bed.

They went to the Marin Headlands after Denny's and watched the Wednesday morning sunrise on Hawk Hill again, sitting atop the hill; Sören leaned against Mark, craving physical contact even though it was making his nerves scream with sexual frustration. It was another clear morning with a gorgeous view of the Bay, and the colors this morning were even more dramatic than they were yesterday, more intensity, more shading. It seemed almost like the fire in the sky was a mirror of how Sören was feeling about Mark, the way Mark affected his art, fueled his muse, brought back color to his life. It was beautiful in and of itself, but feeling like he needed to remember this place in time somehow - even as Sören was sure it would never amount to anything but friendship - Sören took some pictures of the sunrise and the view, and a couple selfies of himself and Mark. He liked that the fierce, wild sky was in the photograph with them, overhead.

Sören started to doze off in the car on the way back, lulled to near-sleep by Mark singing along with "Stairway to Heaven" when it was on the radio. Mark gently shook him after he pulled into the parking spot at the beach house. "We're here," he said.

Sören followed him in, still groggy, and Mark said, "Sören, take your meds."

He poured Sören a glass of ice water and leaned against the counter as Sören took his night meds. The act of dispensing his own medication from the med minder made him a bit less groggy, though he intended to go to bed after he was done there. He looked at Mark watching him - feeling a little self-conscious, face burning - and there was a moment of silence, as if Mark was considering his words, and then Mark asked, "So tonight..."

"Jæja?"

"I need to talk to you about something." Mark's brow furrowed slightly.

Sören swallowed hard, feeling a knot in the pit of his stomach. "Anything bad? Did I do something wrong?"

"No, Sören." Mark sighed softly. "I wish that wouldn't be the first conclusion you jump to."

"Sorry. Force of habit." Sören cringed. "Seth, and before that, my aunt and uncle scapegoated me more than they did my other siblings. I could never do anything right..."

"You do plenty of things right." Their eyes met, and held. Then Mark looked away, out to the view of the sea from the sliding glass door in the kitchen, and he gave another small sigh. "It's nothing bad. I. Ah." He looked down, and rubbed his head. "I wanted to ask, um, your opinion about something, but I want to do that when you're more awake than you are now." He looked up again.

Sören nodded. "I'm pretty sleepy. It'll probably be another day of me sleeping in till the afternoon, too, considering the time."

"That's fine. There's no set time on when we have this discussion, just thought it would be better to, ah, get your input sometime tonight."

"Is it important?"

"Kind of?" Mark looked at him again, and then looked back out to sea. "Like I said, it's nothing bad. At least, I don't think so."

"OK." Sören was still a little worried, even though Mark had given the assurance he hadn't done anything wrong. "Do I get a clue of what it's about?"

"No. It's easier to just explain the thing all at once."

Sören nodded and finished his water. Mark looked at him again and then he laughed a little. "Oh god Sören, you're making that sad face like you're about to go on trial or something. I'm sorry, I'm really not trying to worry you. It's nothing bad, OK?"

"OK."

"Here. You... get changed, and if you want, I'll tuck you in and sing to you."

Sören got changed, and stepped out of the bedroom when he was ready. Mark came down, and Sören climbed into bed. Mark put Sören's stuffed animals in his arms, and pulled up the sheets around him. For a moment, Sören felt the urge to ask Mark to sleep next to him - the urge, again, to ask Mark to do more than just sleep, though his body was a bit tired for sex right now. He stifled his impulse as Mark sat on the bed next to him, with Sören rolled over onto his side, and Mark began to gently rub his back and sing "Stairway to Heaven". Sören was out like a light before the song was over.


_


Sören dreamed of the paladin again, but this time, he was also in the forge again, making the armor she wore, the sword and shield she carried... right down to refining and cutting the crystals that went into the star design. He wove enchantments into them as he worked, even though he'd never practiced magick in his life - that was something his cousin did. He was obsessive in the work of smithing - both crafting the armor and sword and shield, and the spells that went into them - and, as he sometimes got when he was deep in the zone with his painting, he worked for what felt like days, not sleeping in his dream, not eating. At last Mark came to him, took him out of the forge, bathed him and then tongue-bathed the freshly clean skin, licking him all over, eyes like mercury. You always take care of everybody else. Let me take care of you now. Licking the sweet spot inside him slowly, tenderly, the fingers of one hand playing over his body, the fingers of the other entwined with his fingers, hands clasped together - just the act of holding each other's hand felt so intimate, sweetness when there was so much bitterness...

Sören woke up gasping, panting - Mark had been edging him in the dream, something Sören had never been on the receiving end of in reality, only read about, somewhat envious that he'd never had a lover who'd had the patience to tease him - most of his sexual experiences had been a quick fuck, maybe a few of them in a row. He was a giver, himself, wanting to lavish pleasure on a lover's body, but had yet to experience being given the same kind of care. And in that dream Mark had taken care of him. Sören had woken up just before he could come, and every nerve in his body was screaming for release.

He thought about masturbating then, but his head also ached in the way that let him know he needed his meds and some caffeine in his system. He looked at the clock and it was after 4 PM. He was still hard after visiting the bathroom, and hoped he didn't run into Mark as he made his way into the kitchen, not wanting Mark to see the erection tenting his pajama bottoms.

Mark wasn't there, and the house was quiet. Sören found a note on the kitchen counter, in Mark's handwriting - graceful, elegant, almost calligraphy-type writing, very old school. "Went for a drive, picking up groceries on the way back."

Sören swore he could smell a faint whiff of Mark's cologne - or perhaps his natural scent, since Sören hadn't noticed any bottles of cologne in the bathroom or his bedroom. Sören held up the paper to his nose and breathed it in, the petrichor-earth-forest-sea-salt smell. His cock throbbed, almost in distress as his mind played a delicious fantasy of his nose rubbing over Mark's body, especially in his bush...

...Mark offering him a taste, not just scent...

Sören found himself going back to the bathroom, where Mark kept the laundry hamper of his clothes. Even as he felt like a creepy pervert doing it, he opened the hamper and took out the pair of Mark's boxer-briefs closest to the top. He breathed in the scent of that too, which was a bit stronger, muskier, but not offensive.

What the fuck are you doing, Sören screamed internally. That's his underwear. Stop it. Get a fucking hold of yourself. He doesn't like you like that, you're being weird now...

And yet, Sören couldn't stop himself, too far gone in his lust. He carried Mark's underwear to his bedroom, like a cat making off with a prize. He threw Mark's underwear onto his bed and took off his T-shirt and pajama bottoms as fast as he could, before climbing on the bed and picking up the underwear, holding it to his face again to breathe in Mark's delicious, intoxicating scent. Then he flipped open the stained glass box, waved hello to the man in the mirror, and pulled out his glass dildo and lube.

"You want a show, you are about to get a real live performance here," Sören muttered to himself as he lubed up the dildo.

He stroked himself for a couple of minutes, holding Mark's underwear to his nose - poking out his tongue to take a little lick at where he was sure the underwear had made contact with his cock. There was a slight saltiness, indicating precum. Sören groaned, his mind going wild with thinking about Mark coming in his mouth. A release so Mark would last longer inside him, taking him, coming inside him...

"Oh god." Sören couldn't take it anymore, and let go of the underwear - letting it fall to his chest so he could still smell it, faintly, but he needed his hand free. He positioned pillows underneath his hips, spread his legs, and with his right hand stroking his cock, he began to work the dildo into himself with his left hand. Slowly, thinking about Mark fucking him slowly. Lost in those silver eyes. What it would be like to feel his touch, to touch him...

"Oh Mark." Sören shuddered, not able to help saying the name out loud. He rolled his hips, fucking himself on the dildo as his hand continued to push and pull the toy in and out of him.

A little nagging voice in the back of his head warned you should close your door but it felt too good to stop, get up, close the door. Sören didn't want to stop. He won't be back for awhile, probably. I need this NOW.

It felt too good to get up, and it felt too good to keep it slow for much longer. He stroked his cock faster, worked the dildo in and out of himself faster. The thought of Mark taking him hard, completely surrendering to him - no pain, no fear, just pure lust and heat and desire and need - made Sören crazy, rocking his hips furiously, stroking himself as fast as he could, fucking himself as hard as he could. He was so close, but the delicious fantasy, the delicious pleasure, was too good to stop. He kept himself on the edge, orgasm building but just out of reach, as his mind raced with the thought of Mark driving into him, trembling against him as he was trembling now... "Oh Mark. Mark."

Sören was losing it. He bit his lip and gave a little whimper. Almost there but he didn't want to stop... wanted to make this last... "Oh god, Mark, fuck me, Mark..."

Saying his name out loud just stoked the fire hotter. The truth of it. This is who I want. This is what I want. I want Mark. I want him to fuck me. I want him to make love to me...

"Mark. Mark."

He was so close, soclosesoclosesoclose. He heard himself cry out. He was making the bed shake now, and cried out again, before giving a shuddery gasp. "Mark!" Almost there... "Mark!"

Gasping for breath. The bed shaking. He was about to come. He stopped stroking his cock for a moment as a last attempt to tease himself, rubbed and pinched a nipple - wishing it was Mark's tongue, Mark's lips - before he resumed stroking. "Mark, Mark, Mark..."

He stopped stroking to give his other nipple attention, still fucking himself with the dildo, and gave another wordless cry. "Oh god, Mark..."

His cock was in his hand again. "Mark..." Stroking himself so hard it rattled. "Mark! Mark!" Sören gave a little whimper. "Oh god, Mark... oh god Mark... Mark..."

"Sören?"

Oh no, he's home, oh shit - And it was too late. Mark rushed to the doorway of Sören's bedroom just to watch Sören climax, shooting cum all over his stomach and chest and neck and face - Sören licked his lips without thinking about it, tasting himself... and Mark was just standing there, eyes wide, mouth open.

The sight of Mark watching him come - even as humiliating as it was to be caught - made Sören's climax intensify. Sören let out a moan, not able to help it, and then another as his hole twitched around the dildo - another as he pulled the dildo out and his hole contracted again. It was one of those amazing orgasms where both his cock and prostate were pulsing, a full-body release...

...and he was already crashing into horror.

There was no way Mark could not put two and two together that the crying out of his name and Sören masturbating, climaxing, was connected. Sören's face burned and he felt a wave of panic. I've fucked everything up. He knows now, and he doesn't like me like that, I've ruined our friendship -

Sören started to cry.

"Sören..." Mark's voice was raspy.

"Go away," Sören choked out.

Mark's eyes widened again. "Sören -"

"I said go away," Sören growled through grit teeth. He felt absolutely humiliated - a fresh wave of embarrassment, even more intense than before, when he saw Mark's underwear still on his chest and that he'd gotten his cum on that, too.

Mark's expression was neutral. "As you wish." He turned on his heel and walked off.

Sören took a moment to recover - being jarred out of the euphoria of orgasm into the squick of embarrassment was somehow worse than regular embarrassment, and he was still having a panic attack as he pulled his pajama bottoms and T-shirt back on, but at least his body had stopped shaking with the throes of orgasm and he could stand now.

For a moment Sören thought about packing his stuff, calling an Uber, and going to the train station and going back to Oregon as soon as possible. But he still had another month left on the house - it was only July nineteenth - and even if he left within the next few hours, he'd still be running into Mark at the university in the fall... and he wasn't going to leave and try to find another teaching job just because of this. His job was one of the only things keeping him sane.

He did, however, need to not be around Mark right now. He was too embarrassed. That meant he had to take certain steps. He made himself brave his panic and marched out to the kitchen to grab a bottle of Sprite, so at least he'd have something to drink while he was avoiding Mark -

"Sören." Mark was coming into the kitchen.

"Leave me alone, Mark."

"Sören, I think we should talk about -"

"No." Sören pursed his lips. "Just... I can't, right now. Please." Sören met Mark's eyes, at last, and Sören felt himself ready to cry all over again. Sören realized he still had his own cum on his face and he wanted to crawl into the floor and die. "I'm sorry."

Then Sören stalked off to his room and closed the door. It was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

 

 

Standing in the Shadow




Later in the evening, there was a knock on Sören's bedroom door. Sören tried to ignore it, and then Mark knocked again, more loudly.

"Sören, come eat."

"I'm not hungry," Sören lied. "Please go away."

Sören heard Mark swear under his breath as he walked off.

Sören was up all night, trying to re-read Sharon's stories, but his mind kept going back to being caught masturbating, reliving the shame all over again. Once again he thought about calling an Uber the next day or the day after, going to the train station, going back to Oregon. And he told himself, Wait, and maybe things will blow over. You paid a lot of money to rent this place for the summer, and you're not getting a refund. Taking a loss however felt like a small price to pay compared to the feeling that he'd fucked everything up.

Sören finally slept at sunrise - a muted sunrise with the overcast day. When he woke up it was after four PM, and his head was pounding. He hadn't taken his night meds last night, hadn't left his room apart to go to the bathroom. His meds were in the kitchen. He was going to need to take them. He didn't want to leave his room, didn't even want to leave the bed. It was raining now, and Sören lay there for awhile staring up at the ceiling, listening to the rain, something that usually soothed him, but today he just felt so hopeless, and he started to cry.

After five PM there was another knock on his door.

"Sören."

Sören let out a sigh.

Another knock. "Sören."

"What," Sören called out.

"You need to take your meds. And you haven't eaten anything. I'm not a doctor, but I know if you go too long without food and hydration, it isn't good with the medication you're on. I'm making dinner, it's nearly ready - I know it's earlier than we usually eat, but you haven't eaten, and I insist you come out and have dinner with me."

"Mark, I -"

"Sören, look, I'm not mad at you. And... I miss you. I'd like to see you."

Sören choked up at that. His jaw quivered, there was a tearing ache at his chest. Even after what he'd seen yesterday, Mark seemed all right with him. Like Sören hadn't irrevocably fucked up after all.

"You... you miss me?" Sören's voice broke a little.

"Yes, Sören. Come out of your room, for fuck's sake."

A few minutes later Sören came out of his room, staggered to the bathroom, and then out to the kitchen. His head was killing him now, and Mark watched from a few feet away as Sören took his meds. Sören tried very hard to not look at him - still feeling embarrassed - and watched the rain out the glass door.

"That's a start," Mark said, when Sören closed up his med minder.

Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls. He felt like death warmed over. "I need a shower," he said.

"All right. Go shower, dinner will be ready when you're done."

"What are you making?" Sören found he felt absolutely famished.

"It's a surprise."

Mark had just the faintest hint of a smile. Not at all the body language of someone who was freaked out by what happened yesterday. Sören opened his mouth, thinking about asking about it, but then he decided not to - he was just now starting to relax a little after being wound up for so long, and he needed the calm right about now.

Getting into the shower did him some more good, turning the water on as hot as he could stand it, taking awhile to just stand under the water and let it soothe his tense, aching muscles. The scent of his body wash also helped take his mind elsewhere, and when he came out of the shower he felt almost as good as new.

He changed into blue plaid pajama bottoms and a plain heather grey T-shirt, not planning on going anywhere. He heard the stereo as he came out - Mark had on Sade, which Sören found intriguing and amusing since he hadn't as yet heard Mark listen to anything but classical and rock. As he approached the living room he saw the fireplace was turned on, the first time the fire had been lit since they'd been at the cabin, but it was a cool, rainy day and the fire would be nice and cozy. Then as Sören came closer, the lights went off in the living room and Sören noticed the mantle on top of the fireplace was lit by candles and lanterns.

There were blankets and pillows spread out in front of the fire. A pot of what looked like fondue, with a loaf of French bread and an assortment of things to dip into the fondue - bacon, chicken, fingerling potatoes, grilled mushrooms, roasted cauliflower and zucchini. There was also an assortment of what looked like grapes, raspberries, strawberries and a bowl of Cool Whip.

And then Sören's eyes found Mark. Wearing a black silk robe, with a bit of his chest exposed. No glasses on. Propped up on one elbow - Sören was reminded of the "draw me like one of your French girls" scene from Titanic.

Sören's eyebrow went up. This seemed a bit fancy, even as an attempt at feeding him well for not having eaten in over twenty-four hours, even as an attempt to try to assure him things were fine. It looked romantic, even, which... that couldn't be it, could it?

Sören came over slowly, cautiously, his heart racing a little, stomach fluttering, as he carefully sat down on the blankets, not wanting to disturb the food. "What..." Sören swallowed hard. "What's all this?"

Mark sat up, and then before Sören knew what was happening, Mark took Sören's face in his hands, pulled Sören towards him, and kissed him hard.

Sören found himself responding to the kiss, lips parting. When their tongues met Sören moaned into the kiss and again as their tongues swirled together, slowly, sensually. One of Mark's hands pet Sören's damp curls and the other stroked his cheek, his beard. Sören's eyes opened, wide with disbelief, and at the heat in Mark's eyes, like molten silver, Sören shivered. The kiss deepened, tongues dancing, playing. Mark was a good kisser, if not the best kiss Sören had ever had. Sören's cock stirred in his pajama bottoms, and when they pulled apart, both breathing hard, Sören looked down at the bulge in his pajamas, face burning, and then at Mark, who was smiling.

"You..." Sören licked his lips, nervous. "You kissed me." He realized after that came out of his mouth how idiotic it sounded, but it felt so surreal.

"Sören." Mark raised an eyebrow. "Is it not obvious that I'm completely smitten with you?"

In his fluster, Sören grasped for levity. "Hi Completely Smitten With You -"

Mark took a slice of bread and threw it at Sören, who laughed before he dipped it in the fondue. He was starving and the melted cheese was delicious - like grilled cheese but even better.

When Sören finished his first bit of fondue, Mark took Sören's hands in his. "Sören. I mean it. I've fallen hard for you."

"So have I." Sören's voice was husky, and he blinked back tears. He couldn't believe this was happening, his heart soaring. "I... wow. Really?"

"Really." Mark sighed. "I tried to drop some hints but they went over your head. I thought since we watched Princess Bride that you'd get it when I said 'as you wish'."

Sören facepalmed. "Oh my fucking god, I'm a dumbass. When Westley says 'as you wish' it means 'I love you' -"

Mark just nodded. Then he dipped a piece of bacon in the fondue and fed Sören from his fingers, like he was a pet. "The night that we were going to create together and you got the call from Sharon and went off with her... I was planning on telling you. I was planning on doing more than just telling you, I was planning on putting the moves on you."

"Oh my god."

"So I lost my nerve, a bit, especially when it looked like you'd, ah."

"Jesus, no wonder you reacted the way you did."

"Yeah, I was a bit jealous, and I felt like an asshole for feeling that way. But eventually I got my nerve back - when I told you yesterday I wanted to talk to you and get your opinion about something, last night, I was going to try again. Obviously, those plans got disrupted."

"Yeah." Sören looked down.

"It's been hell, pining for you."

"Pining for my fjörds?"

Mark rolled his eyes. "Yes, Sören, pining for your fjörds."

"Well..." Sören waggled his eyebrows. "I'll show you my fjörds if you show me yours."

Now it was Mark's turn to facepalm. He rolled his eyes, laughed, and threw another piece of bread at Sören. "You fucking dork."

Sören laughed, dipping the bread into the fondue, taking a bite.

Mark sighed, then, and planted a small kiss on the tip of Sören's nose. "Don't ever change." He stroked Sören's cheek.

Mark fed him another piece of fondue bacon. Sören was starting to get turned on by the act of eating from Mark's fingers, and he reciprocated, dipping a piece of chicken in the pot and feeding Mark. When Mark licked cheese from one of Sören's fingers his cock twinged again. Mark looked at the bulge in Sören's pajamas but said nothing, only fed Sören again, this time one of the fingerling potatoes.

"So..." Sören took a deep breath. "Yesterday." He hadn't wanted to talk about it, but here they were, and it felt like it was necessary, now.

Mark nodded. He let Sören feed him cauliflower - taking another lick at Sören's finger - before responding. "When I came home and saw... what I saw... it was all I could do to not pounce on you, lick you clean, replace your toy with the real thing."

"Why didn't you?"

"You told me to go away. I know your ex raped you. Which is a big reason why I've been treading so carefully with all of this - I haven't wanted to trigger you or make you feel unsafe at all. I could see you were panicking yesterday from having been caught and I so very desperately wanted to comfort you and let you know it was OK... it was more than OK, that was one of the hottest things I'd ever seen in my entire life. And I didn't know how you'd respond in the panic. I just... didn't want to hurt you, Sören. And when you told me to go away I felt like it was a very bad idea for me to try to press it."

"Oh, Mark." Sören blinked back tears again, deeply touched by the amount of care and consideration. The complete opposite of Seth. It made him love Mark even more.

"Even tonight, I felt like I was taking a risk by setting things up, letting you know how I feel, but. I had to, finally. I didn't want you to shut yourself away feeling like you'd done something wrong."

Sören threw his arms around Mark and for a moment they just held each other; Mark stroked Sören's curls, kissed the top of his head. Then he took Sören's chin in his hand and they shared another kiss. Sören was aching for release, just about ready to say to hell with dinner - delicious though it was - and let Mark ravish him, but Mark had gone to a lot of trouble and he was starving.

Mark poured them each a glass of moscato. Sören sipped, and they took a few more minutes to reflect on everything, taking turns feeding each other. Getting more bold with licking and sucking each other's fingers. Then, Mark licked some cheese from Sören's chin, and they kissed again.

"We don't have to do anything you don't want to do," Mark said when they pulled apart, breathing hard. "If you're not ready -"

"Oh believe me," Sören said, meeting his eyes, "I'm ready. I want you to make love to me."

They kissed, deep and hungry. As Sören had another bite of fondue chicken, Mark began kissing and licking his neck. Sören cried out - it was one of his most sensitive, erogenous places - and Mark groaned into his neck.

When Mark pulled back, Sören took off his shirt. The fire was almost too hot. Mark's eyes could drill through granite as he looked at Sören shirtless, pierced nipples hard from arousal. They continued to feed each other more pieces of cheese-dipped bacon, chicken, and vegetables, working through the pot of fondue. And then Sören inevitably dripped cheese onto his bare chest, and Mark's tongue chased it, "innocently" straying to brush a nipple. Sören gasped, clutching Mark's head, and he let out a little whimper as Mark's tongue lapped, making his already-pebbled nipple even more exquisitely sensitive, then trailed up Sören's chest, up his throat, to claim his mouth again.

As Sören fed Mark the last of the chicken, Mark sucked on his fingers and Sören felt like he could come just from the sight of Mark's lips wrapped around his index and middle fingers, the look in those silver eyes, the feeling of his mouth on sensitive skin. Sören's entire body felt sensitized and they had barely started yet. A frisson went down his spine as they polished off the remaining bacon and vegetables, cleaned the remnants of the cheese in the pot with the bread. Mark moved the tray off to the side.

"Dessert?" Mark gestured to the fresh fruit and cream.

"Later." Sören grabbed Mark's shoulders and shoved him back against the pillows, kissing him like his life depended on it.

Chapter Text

 One Step Into the Light





Sören undid the belt of Mark's robe. He was wearing nothing underneath, and Sören let out a little gasp at the sight of Mark's cock, proudly erect, long and thick, leaking so much precum the entire shaft was glistening with it. Sören licked his lips as he watched another large drop of precum drip from the head down the shaft. Not able to help himself, he got between Mark's legs and chased the drop with his tongue before taking Mark's cock into his mouth, as much as he could. Sören had not sucked a cock since Seth, and Mark was bigger than Seth - Mark was probably bigger than just about anyone he'd been with; his jaw ached a little and he could almost feel his gag reflex kicking in, but he wanted it badly enough to keep going. He smiled around the cock in his mouth as he heard Mark's breath hitch, watched the larger man arch to him, letting out a moan as he clutched Sören's head.

"Sören." Mark's eyelashes fluttered, and he was breathing harder now. "Sören..."

"Mmmmmmmm." Sören's eyes locked with Mark's. Sören began to work his tongue as much as he could with his mouth full, and his own cock throbbed as Mark moaned again.

"Sören. Ohgod." Mark closed his eyes and groaned. When he opened his eyes he shuddered. "Oh, fuck..."

"Mmmmhmmm." Sören reached and one of his hands began rubbing Mark's balls as he sucked, while his other hand rubbed himself through his pajama bottoms, not able to help it.

Then Mark grabbed Sören by his curls, pulling Sören off his cock, pulling him up for a hard, hungry kiss. Mark rolled Sören onto his back, and Sören melted into the kiss, kissing him back, but he was also confused. When they pulled apart Sören asked, "Didn't you like it...?"

Mark laughed softly. "God, Sören, I loved it. But this is your night, tonight." Mark stroked Sören's cheek, and Sören felt tears threatening again at the look of love in Mark's eyes. "Let me take care of you, baby."

He leaned in and kissed Sören again, hard enough to take his breath away, and Sören felt Mark's hands at the waistband of his pajama bottoms. Mark pulled back to peel off the pajamas from Sören's legs, and then his own robe spilled to the floor. They were both naked. Sören's hands caressed Mark's chest, his perfect washboard abs, those strong, defined arms. "You're beautiful," Sören husked.

"So are you." Mark came back down and one hand pet Sören's curls as the fingers of the other walked down over his body - the flame sleeve tattoo on one arm, brushing a pierced nipple, resting on his heart. "Especially here." He bent his head and gently kissed Sören's chest over his heart.

That act was as erotic to Sören as anything else thus far, if not moreso because of the emotions it awakened, another rush of passion, loving him, and Sören took Mark's face in his hands, pulled him up and kissed him with all the fire of his being. They both moaned into the kiss, and again as they felt their hard cocks press together. Sören began to slowly roll his hips as they kissed, his hard cock rubbing up against Mark's. Mark groaned and matched Sören's rhythm, and he sucked Sören's lower lip into his mouth before kissing him again.

Their mouths met hungrily, fiercely, as their hands wandered, explored over what flesh they could reach, and hard cock rubbed hard cock. They were both trembling - Sören was already so close, pent up after so long, and the combination of sensation, emotion and lust was almost too much to bear. When Mark started to kiss and lick Sören's neck, Sören played with his hair - just Mark's glorious long hair was a turn-on to him - and Mark seemed to really like having his hair played with, kissing Sören's neck even more insistently. Sören cried out when Mark kissed the sweet spot where his neck and shoulder met, and again when Mark licked there, before his teeth nibbled.

"Oh god..." Sören's hands clenched Mark's hips, bucking up against him, rubbing a little faster.

Mark's tongue trailed down and began to tease Sören's nipple, slow, lazy circles then lapping harder, faster. Suckling. Gently tugging the ring with his teeth, before lapping again. Sören's hands slid up Mark's back to hold his head, savoring the feel of the silky hair around his fingers. Sören gave a shuddery gasp as Mark suckled again, then turned his head to give attention to the other nipple, while his fingers rubbed and plucked where his mouth had just been.

Sören looked down. They were both leaking so much precum, and Sören gasped at the sight of their precum mingling, making streamers. Just the sight of that threatened to undo him, and Sören took Mark's face in his hands and kissed him again, not wanting to come too soon watching their cocks together, but the kiss made that raw sexual need even worse. Sören and Mark were both panting between kisses - Sören could feel Mark quivering too. Mark's hands were playing over him again, and the feel of those long, elegant fingers... Sören shuddered.

It was too good. Sören knew he should probably change positions before he lost control, but their cocks rubbing together felt too good for him to want to stop. Their cocks were grinding more insistently now, and Sören could feel their balls together. Mark's fingers brushed his nipples again and Mark's kisses trailed down his jaw. The feeling of Mark's breath on his neck, before he could resume kissing him there, and Sören felt his balls tighten, rushing towards that place of no return...

"Oh, Sören." Mark groaned, and gave a little sigh, nuzzling Sören's throat.

His breath on Sören's neck again and that was it. Sören's nails dug into Mark's hips, letting out a strangled sob as he climaxed. He looked down, watching his cock shoot cum onto Mark's cock and a split second later Mark was coming too, giving a wild cry as he spent. The sight of cock flooding cock with seed, the ecstasy on Mark's face, the sounds he made... Sören cried out as he felt another pulse of orgasm, making him shoot again. And then he and Mark were kissing through their first climax together, and the sensual kissing made the orgasm even better.

"God. Wow." Sören laughed a little. "I wasn't expecting to come so soon..."

"Neither was I." Mark gave him a soft, gentle kiss. "But you turn me on."

"You turn me on." Already, Sören felt like going another round. "I want you, Mark. More than I have ever wanted anyone." He meant it.

Mark smiled. He kissed Sören's forehead, then claimed his mouth again. "It's actually good that we came like this now, because we'll last longer next time." He stroked Sören's face, then Sören reached to take his hand, and Mark squeezed. "I really mean it, Sören. I want tonight to be good for you." They kissed.

When they pulled apart, Mark took a grape from their dessert tray and put it in Sören's mouth. Next to the dessert tray Sören saw a sugar bowl, but when Mark opened it, there was a packet of condoms and a tube of lubricant. Sören laughed, doubling up at its contents. "Wow, that's something you don't normally put in tea," he said.

"No." Mark smiled. "Coffee, on the other hand..."

"Where the hell are you getting coffee from? Starfucks?"

When they calmed down, Mark kissed the tip of Sören's nose. He fed him another grape, then Sören fed Mark a grape. "I went out and bought this before when I was planning on seducing you the night you went off with Sharon..."

"Wow."

"But I have to tell you, Sören... it's been a long time for me. Years. I don't have anything."

Sören nodded. "I get tested every six months, force of habit. I got tested last in May, six months after it was over with Seth and... there hasn't been anyone since him. I'm clean." Amazingly enough. Seth had been cheating on him at one point in their relationship, yet was insanely jealous and possessive, not liking it when Sören even looked at anybody else.

"OK." Mark nodded. "I believe you."

"I believe you too." Sören's experience as a former med student had made him cautious enough where he usually didn't take claims of being clean at face value, but his gut instinct told him he could trust Mark. And that was a good thing, because the thought of barebacking with Mark - Mark coming inside him - drove him mad with lust. And he needed to feel skin on skin, nothing between them. That felt right, for how he felt about Mark, the trust and surrender to someone who had been so careful with him, the intimidating giant of a man who made him feel so safe.

Mark dipped a raspberry in the whipped cream and fed Sören, and as Sören licked and sucked cream from Mark's fingers and thumb, Mark asked, "Tell me, Sören, are you strictly a bottom?"

Sören shook his head. "Versatile. I haven't topped since before Seth, but I enjoy both."

"Good." Mark kissed him. He fed Sören another cream-dipped raspberry and then Sören fed one to Mark, his cock jolting as Mark sucked Sören's fingers into his mouth. When Mark let go, he rasped, "I want to do everything with you," and leaned in to kiss Sören again, harder than before, deep and hungry.

When they pulled apart Mark fed him a strawberry dipped in whipped cream, and then Sören dipped a large strawberry in whipped cream and overdid the whipped cream, bringing it to his own lips, taking a little lick at the cream. Mark leaned in to also take a lick of the whipped cream, and when they took another lick at the cream together, their tongues rubbed together, sensually, playfully. Sören's cock twinged, and Sören felt precum drip down the head of his cock. He took a bite of the strawberry and then Mark did, and then they kissed, sharing the strawberry between them. Mark dipped the remainder of the strawberry in the cream and fed Sören and they kissed again.

When they pulled apart, Mark's eyes were intense, looking down from Sören's cock, then raking up the length of his body, before holding his gaze. Mark was breathing harder. Sören was breathing harder too, and trembling a little, wanting him badly.

"What do you want first?" Mark asked, stroking Sören's face... and his other hand reached down to Sören's cock, hooking his index finger through the ring of the Prince Albert piercing in the head, thumb rubbing the frenulum.

"Oh, god. Yes?" Sören laughed softly.

Mark grinned. "I want both too, but..." He kissed Sören again. "After seeing you with that toy the other day..."

"Mmmmmmmmm. Yes."

The expression on Mark's face was tender as he stroked Sören's chin, his thumb tracing the outline of Sören's lips, looking into Sören's eyes. "It means a lot to me, that you're willing to trust me, let me be inside you, after..."

Sören took Mark's face and kissed him.

When they pulled apart, breathing hard, Mark pet Sören's curls. "I want to show you how good it can be. What it's supposed to be like."

"You already have," Sören said. "And I want more." He took Mark's hand and kissed it. "You have my full consent."

"Baby, I want more than just your consent." Mark started kissing Sören's neck again, and the feel of Mark's breath on his neck again between kisses was just as arousing as the magic of his lips and tongue. "I want you begging for it, wanting it more than you've ever wanted anything in your life."

"Oh, fuck." Sören shuddered, cock throbbing. Even his hole was twitching now, in anticipation of being filled, wanting to feel Mark's cock hit that sweet spot inside him, breed him...

Mark sucked Sören's lower lip into his mouth, kissed Sören, and then his mouth was back on Sören's neck. Licking, sucking on it. Nibbling. "You know... the thing that made me jealous most of all that night with you and Sharon was all those love bites." Mark's teeth nipped Sören's neck again.

"I didn't mean to make you feel bad -"

Mark gave him a look. "Sören, I know. You don't need to apologize." He licked Sören's neck some more. "And now, I am going to put love bites all over your gorgeous body."

With that, Mark proceeded to worship Sören's body with his fingers, lips, tongue and teeth. Rubbing one shoulder as he kissed, sucked, licked, nibbled, and bit the other. Feasting on Sören's nipples, playing with the nipple rings, spending a long time there with Sören's nipples peaking as hard as he could ever remember, his nipples throbbing as urgently as his cock. Back and forth Mark went, hungry, lapping fast, suckling hard, teasing slow, every now and again looking up at Sören with pure lust in his eyes, watching Sören gasping, panting, moaning, at last writhing underneath him.

And Mark was nowhere near done. He kissed the sensitive skin of Sören's chest between his nipples, over his ribs. Licked and nibbled, fingers straying to rub Sören's stomach or up to rub a nipple as his mouth moved lower and lower. Sören giggled as Mark rubbed his stomach in slow circles, nibbling on him, and sighed at the sweet kisses. His cock and his hole were aching for relief, but Mark was still going to take his time. "You're so fucking hot," Mark breathed between kisses. "You have no idea how much you turn me on, how badly I've been wanting you..."

"I think I have some idea, now."

"I've been going out of my fucking mind, Sören. Trying to keep calm and collected on the outside, not wanting to scare you away... but..." Mark kissed Sören's hip, and when he nibbled, Sören cried out. "Every night you slept in my arms, I wanted to take you. Wanted to make such passionate love to you..."

Just the sound of Mark's voice, and feeling the passion in his words - feeling the hunger, the need - Sören's nails were in his shoulders, and he heard himself whimper "Please..."

Mark looked up and gave him a little smile, seeming delighted by that. "Already it starts. Good." He licked Sören's stomach, nibbled his navel. "I'm going to drive you out of your mind like you've been driving me out of my mind, Sören..."

Through the haze of his lust, Sören grinned. "Hi Going To Drive You Out Of Your Mind -"

Mark bit Sören's stomach at that, and at the delicious shock of pleasure-pain, Sören let out a cry, nails scraping down Mark's back. He bucked up against him, shivering. "Please," Sören begged again. "Oh god, please, Mark..."

"Mmmmm." Mark's tongue licked down to Sören's thigh. "We'll get there, baby."

More than anything else so far, Mark working on each of Sören's thighs with his teeth, lips and tongue threatened to undo Sören, almost coming untouched. Nobody had ever done this to him, and he hadn't known he was so sensitive there, but god he was, and Sören made inhuman noises as Mark made sure Sören's thighs would be sporting love bites too. He kissed tenderly behind the knee before his tongue licked there, and just that, too, was beyond exquisite. Sören clutched Mark's head, arched to him, panting, starting to lose his ability to speak English which was taught to Icelandic children at a young age and came even more naturally to him with how long he'd lived abroad... so that was really something. "Andskotinn, það er svo helvíti gott..."

"So beautiful." Mark nibbled. "Your body is a work of art, Sören."

"Það sem þú ert að láta mér líða er afl sköpunarinnar sjálfrar."

Sören almost thought about translating what he'd just blurted out, but he was too far gone. And though he was very sure Mark didn't speak Icelandic - it was a brutal language to learn even for those who spoke other Scandinavian languages - nonetheless he felt almost like Mark somehow understood, because Mark's eyes flashed and he took a lick at Sören's cock.

Sören cried out, and again as Mark took another lick. He made a guttural noise as he watched Mark's lips around his cock, taking it down slowly, inch by inch. Mark sucked him slowly, eyes locked with his. Mark's left hand took Sören's, squeezing, and his right hand played with Sören's balls, gently cupping and rubbing, before his fingers strayed to that sensitive place between balls and ass, brushing feather-light. Sören writhed, howling as Mark continued to suck him slowly, ever slowly, rubbing his tongue as he sucked. Howling as Mark rubbed his sensitive, aching balls, as those talented fingers teased just below. When Mark's fingers traced around the rim of Sören's opening he felt almost like he could come from that, and another jolt of near-climax when Mark stuck a finger inside.

Now the hand that had been holding Sören's hand was playing with his balls, as the index finger of Mark's right hand found Sören's prostate right away, rubbing slowly. Mark sucked a little harder, tongue rubbing faster, but still slow. Sören panted, gasping for breath, so close yet so far away, orgasm teasingly held just out of his reach. And he knew from the wicked look in Mark's diamond-like eyes that Mark had him right where he wanted him, that he wanted Sören thoroughly wrecked before he'd even think of taking him.

"Oh god, please." Sören found his English again. "Please, Mark, please, fuck me..."

"Mmmmm." Mark teasingly let Sören's cock slip from his mouth and gave a few playful licks. "I'll think about it."

"Oh god. Mark. Mark. Please, dammit..."

Mark laughed softly, before his tongue swirled around the head of Sören's cock, making a show of collecting precum, letting a streamer trail onto his tongue before licking around and around some more. When Mark's tongue fluttered over the frenulum Sören cried out, bucking against him, thrashing. "Please. Please. I need you inside me..."

Mark's response to that was to pull away from Sören's cock, and lick and kiss the space between his balls and ass, then his tongue circled the rim of Sören's opening before pushing inside. Sören screamed.

It had been years since anyone had rimmed him, and he was on E at the time. Now, he was perfectly sober, apart from a small glass of moscato, and it was more intense than anything he'd ever experienced on a drug made for feeling everything full intensity. Mark's tongue was to die for, teasing him ever so slowly, then rubbing away at his prostate harder, faster. Devouring him. Sören could almost see stars. Mark was the best lover he'd ever had and they hadn't even gotten past oral yet. And he was right there, right there, at that edge of orgasm, but Mark wasn't going to let him give in yet, slowing down every time he felt Sören tense up, almost about to come. A few rounds of this and Sören was practically sobbing in his need for relief.

"Mark. Please. Fuck me..."

Mark took his tongue out of Sören's ass and smiled. "I am fucking you." With that his tongue lashed away at Sören's prostate, getting him right on that edge again.

"Your cock. Give me your cock... put it in me... please Mark, please, take me..." Sören gasped, shivering as Mark's tongue rubbed harder. "I want to feel you. I want to feel you. Inside me. Make me yours."

Their eyes met. Mark stopped licking, pulled back, and Sören heard him exhale sharply. Mark took a few last licks at Sören's cock, lapping up the flowing precum, and then he came up and kissed Sören deeply. Though his mouth had just been on Sören's ass, Sören was fresh from the shower and the taste wasn't offensive - a lingering fruity sweetness. Mark reached for the tube of lubricant and Sören gasped at the feel of the cold liquid shoot inside him. He looked down as Mark applied lube to his own cock - which was already soaked from precum, and so flushed it looked almost angry in its need - and Sören's hand covered Mark's as Mark worked it over himself.

Mark's slick fingers pushed into Sören, one then two. As his fingers worked in and out, Mark looked into Sören's eyes. "So you've only had a toy, the last few months."

"The last few weeks," Sören corrected. "I had no sex drive after..." He didn't need to say it. "And then, well." He gestured to Mark. "I'd brought stuff with me on the chance I'd feel horny again in a different environment, and."

Mark kissed him deeply. "You're tight, baby."

"I know."

"You have to tell me if it's too much and you need me to stop -"

"I will. But right now... I want it." Sören's gaze held his. "I want you. More than anything."

Mark's fingers pulled out. Sören felt the tip of Mark's cock against his opening. Here we go. Sören remembered his first time bottoming when he was seventeen and didn't know what the hell he was doing, and how much that hurt, and then when he was at med school his second lover, an older bartender - a silver fox, old enough to be Sören's father - guided him and made the experience much less painful. He remembered those words now, the advice to breathe slow and deep, push out. He pushed out as Mark pushed in, slowly. There was the expected burning, pinching sensation of being stretched, as Mark was bigger than his toy by quite a bit, but nothing unbearable. Mark's hands held his tightly, Mark's eyes on his, watching every reaction. Sören gasped as Mark breached the tight ring.

"Do you need me to stop?"

"Don't stop. Keep going."

And at last, Mark was all the way inside. Sören was breathing hard like he'd run up several flights of stairs, and Mark gave a little sigh of contentment, resting in him for a moment.

Then Mark took his first thrust, pulling back slowly, pushing in slowly. Again, that feeling of being stretched, filled - a little discomfort. But Sören wanted this, needed this. Another thrust. And then it happened, Mark's cock hit Sören's prostate. Magic. Sören let out a deep groan.

"OK?" Mark looked concerned.

"More."

Mark moaned, and kissed Sören. Thrusting slowly, slowly. Mark took Sören's hands, and with their palms and fingertips pressed together, they broke the kiss with their foreheads touching, breathing each other's breath. It was the single most erotic moment of Sören's life to that point, the sweet rubbing inside him, the tender sensuality between them. It had never been like this. Nothing had ever felt so completely, utterly right.

"We're one," Sören husked. "We're -"

Mark kissed him hard, making Sören whimper into the kiss. Sören threw his arms around Mark and Mark thrust just a little harder; Sören bucked against him with another whimper.

The heat between the fire and their bodies was making them start to sweat. Between kisses, tongues chased sweat drops over each other's necks and chests, hands slid over damp flesh. Their hips rolled together in a sensual, languid rhythm, savoring each push and pull, each moment of exquisite, delicious union. Mark kept it slow as long as he could, until Sören set the pace harder, faster, rocking underneath him.

The last few moments of that first time were breathless, wild. Mark was cautious to not hurt Sören, but Sören wanted, nails digging into Mark's back, begging "More, more," until Mark was so far gone in his lust that with his teeth on the base of Sören's throat he drove into him and Sören matched his rhythm, even working his inner muscles to tease, to make Mark lose control and go harder. "More. I need this, I need it, I need you," Sören cried out. "More..."

"Fuck." Mark was shaking, gasping for breath. "Sören..."

Their eyes met, and even in the savage rhythm of their fuck, there was tenderness, Mark's fingers stroking Sören's cheek. Then Mark leaned in to kiss him, and in that kiss Sören screamed as he exploded, coming harder than he'd ever remembered, prostate and cock both throbbing, cum shooting all over both of them. A few seconds later Mark erupted into him with a cry, and at the feel of Mark spending into him Sören cried out too, gasping for breath, giving a whimper as he shot off another load. "Yes, Mark," Sören panted. "Yes..."

"Sören." Mark shuddered, gasped, and Sören felt Mark's toes curling against his. "Oh, Hells, Sören..."

They kissed again, moaning into the kiss. Sören's arms wrapped around Mark and Mark rolled Sören onto his side to hold him too. They rocked together, holding each other, snuggling together when they stopped trembling and the intensity of their orgasm gave way to the sweetness of afterglow.

"We did it," Sören breathed. Tears came to his eyes, feeling relief, joy, awe that he'd taken this back. "We did it..."

Mark kissed his forehead, pet Sören's curls, stroked his face, love in his eyes. "You were awesome."

"You were awesome. You were fucking awesome." Sören laughed a little. Laughed and cried. Mark kissed his tears, his own eyes too bright. Sören bit his lower lip. "That was... indescribable."

Mark kissed the tip of Sören's nose. Then he fed Sören a raspberry.

They finished off the grapes, and the last of the strawberries, raspberries, and whipped cream. There were dregs of whipped cream left in the bowl and Sören and Mark put their fingers in the bowl, licking and sucking the cream from each other's fingers. That got them aroused again, and as they leaned back against the pillows, kissing, Sören took both their cocks into his hand and began stroking slowly, lazily, a grin on his face. "What shall we do now?"

"Try and take over the world?"

"NARF," Sören yelled.

Mark facepalmed. "I can't believe you get that reference."

"My brother is the biggest Animaniacs fan who ever lived. It helped keep me sane when I was working on my doctorate. When I graduated I got him huge-ass Pinky and the Brain dolls to say thank you."

Mark laughed. "Your brother sounds like an interesting guy."

"He's a physicist. Was one of the developers of the Large Hadron Collider. I feel like a total dumbass next to him, honestly."

"You're not dumb, Sören. You're smart in a different way, is all."

"Well, I sure feel dumb for not realizing how you felt. Thinking you didn't like me that way."

"Oh, baby." Mark kissed Sören softly. "Now you know."

"I sure do." Sören kissed him back.

"And now..." Mark took Sören's hand off their cocks. "I want you to really know. I want you inside me, Sören."

"Yeah?" Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip, pleased and feeling shy all at once.

"Yeah." Mark kissed him. "I want you to pound me into next week." He grinned.

"Well, if it's been years for you, you're probably tighter than I am," Sören said. He gently pushed Mark back onto the pillows. "I don't want to hurt you, either. And..." Sören gave him a naughty look. "I think you deserve a taste of your own medicine, with all that teasing."

"Oh shit." Mark laughed, and then he grinned, stroking Sören's face, his curls. "I'm all yours."

Sören spent a long, long time making love to Mark's body. They were both quite sweaty now from the fire and the sex, and Sören loved the sight of Mark's sculpted, ripped body glistening, dripping sweat, loved the scent and taste of his sweat, his musk. Mark's moans and cries were almost musical as Sören's lips and tongue and fingers and teeth played over him, neck, nipples, chest and stomach, hips and thighs, even down his calves to his feet. Mark got even louder as Sören licked and licked and licked his cock, and when Sören took him into his mouth, sucking slowly, Mark grabbed Sören's curls, arching to him, panting.

But it was when Sören's tongue was inside him that Mark finally ground out, "Sören, please."

Sören stopped licking for a moment and just grinned. "Mmmmmm, maybe."

"Sören, goddammit."

Sören laughed as he resumed licking, going more slowly than before. Sören reached down to stroke himself, which he'd been doing off and on as he feasted on Mark's body, but now as Mark was beside himself with lust and sensation, begging, Sören was even more turned on, working himself a little harder. He hadn't topped in years, and his body was screaming for it now, but he would be damned if he didn't make it count for Mark, wanting to give him the same kind of pleasure he'd gotten if not better. Sören wanted him very, very ready. And those beautiful, beautiful moans... Sören shuddered. "Mmmm," he purred as his tongue lapped away.

"God, Sören. Please. Please, Sören, please..."

Sören finally relented, taking a few slow licks around the rim of Mark's opening before he spat into it to provide extra lubrication - he smiled as he watched Mark's hole twitch at that - and then he licked at Mark's cock for a moment before coming up to kiss Mark, to coat his fingers with lube and work them in and out of him as Mark played with Sören's cock, working lube over it. The touch of Mark's hand was enough to bring Sören perilously close to climax himself, but he knew it would feel better coming inside Mark so with grit teeth he kept himself in check.

They kissed as Sören pushed into him. Mark pushed out, as Sören went slowly. And then, there they were, Sören buried in him to the hilt. They were both breathing hard, and Mark's eyes blazed his soul.

"Yes," Mark breathed, and kissed him deep.

Sören took it slow - his body screamed again with wanting to fuck, but he knew it would be better for both of them if he kept that impulse reined in, at least for now. It got harder to control, quite literally, when Mark cried out, hands clutching at Sören.

"Are you OK?" Sören asked.

"The ring. Oh. God." Mark shuddered, closing his eyes and opening them, eyes feverish, practically drilling through Sören. He gasped as Sören took another slow thrust. "Oh my god, Sören, your piercing, that's so fucking good..."

Sören grinned and nipped Mark's lower lip. "That's why I got it done. Well, that and it's pretty." He laughed softly and kissed Mark hard, taking another slow thrust, reveling in the way Mark whimpered into the kiss, grabbing him harder.

It wasn't long before Mark was urging him on faster, and Sören gave him what he wanted. But he held back from what he could do full strength, tight as Mark was. And just going close to that, Mark was a shivering, sobbing, seething mess. "Oh god, Sören. That ring... don't stop..."

"You getting close, elskan?"

Mark nodded. He shuddered and let out another feral groan. "So close. God, Sören, so close... so good..."

"Mmmmmmm. I want to make you come, Mark. Want you to come for me..."

"Almost there, baby." Mark looked up at him, eyes pleading.

Sören kissed him, and Mark grabbed Sören's hips, rocking against him. When Mark paid Sören back for his teasing by clenching his inner muscles, a look of challenge in his eyes, Sören threw all caution to the wind and went into beast mode, slamming into him with abandon. That was exactly what Mark wanted, biting Sören's shoulder, nails tearing into him, growling as he kissed Sören deep and hard. Mark's hands slid to Sören's ass, cupping, squeezing. "Fuck me, Sören. Take it like you own it."

Sören bit Mark's neck. "Fuck..." He shivered, close to his own orgasm.

For the last few moments Sören stroked Mark's cock in the furious rhythm of their hips. The slap of their flesh was almost as loud as the way they cried out into kiss after kiss. And then, with their foreheads pressed together, breath mingling, Mark let go, throwing his head back with a cry as he shot his seed over his chest and stomach and Sören's chest. One, two, three thrusts later Sören was gone, crying out "Mark!" as he spent into the pulsing, contracting channel gripping him again and again, milking every last drop out of him.

Shattered, Sören lay with his face buried in Mark's chest, Mark's arms wrapped tight around him, holding him as his body heaved and shook in a seemingly endless climax. He passed out, and came to still in Mark's arms, Mark petting him, smiling at him adoringly.

"Oh shit, how long was I out?" Sören croaked.

"Not long." Mark kissed Sören's forehead.

They just lay there for awhile, cuddled up together, watching the fire, listening to Sade. Sören got sleepy again.  At last Mark patted Sören's ass and said, "Might be more comfortable in bed, now."

Naked, Sören helped Mark carry the dishes to the kitchen. Mark looked at the sink for a moment to decide whether or not he wanted to take care of it now, then he waved a hand and said, "Fuck it, I'll do that tomorrow," and Sören laughed. Mark snuffed out the candles and turned off the fireplace, then the stereo, and then he picked up Sören - making Sören shriek and laugh wildly as he did - and carried Sören down to his bedroom.

He put Sören down on his bed, then he raised a finger and walked off. Mark came back with water and Sören's med minder. "Might still be early for you to take that with how late you slept, but we worked up a sweat and you should have some water," Mark said.

"Yes, dear," Sören teased, gratefully accepting a glass.

"I know I mother hen you a lot, but, like, you need it."

Sören nuzzled him and kissed his cheek. "I don't mind."

Mark got up again, and came back with Sören's bunnies and Eeyore. Sören smiled as Mark put them in his arms, and then Mark tucked in Sören and came around the other side of him, pulling Sören against him. "You were magnificent," Mark said, kissing the top of Sören's head.

"This has been such a wonderful evening," Sören said, snuggling against him, feeling cozy and blissful. "The sex was perfect, and now... it feels so right to be here, curled up with you in your bed."

Mark took Sören's chin in his hand. "Our bed, now."

Sören's heart soared, touched by that. Wondering what it meant for the future.

Mark tousled Sören's curls. "Rest. I'll wake you up in a few hours to take your meds."

"You setting the alarm?"

"I don't need to. It's something I trained myself to do."

Sören raised an eyebrow, but didn't press it. Mark's hand was rubbing his head, then his back, and his touch was so soothing that Sören started drifting off again.

Over the years, Sören had sex with a lot of people but even when he'd stayed the night he mostly hadn't slept with them - those had been few and far between. Sleeping with someone required a certain amount of intimacy and trust that Sören largely hadn't felt with past partners. Here, now, Sören felt safe enough to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sunshine Of Your Love

 

Gentle rubbing at his shoulder. "Sören, baby, wake up to take your meds."

Sören made a noise of protest - it was so cozy, with Mark as the "big spoon" behind him, one arm wrapped around him. Sören didn't want to budge, and he had been sleeping so soundly for once, no doubt from snuggling up with Mark. But Mark kept shaking his shoulder, and Sören whined again as he squinted at the clock. It was after one in the morning.

Waking up brought on the need to go to the bathroom. Sören sat up, stretched, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "I'll go to the bathroom first," Sören said.

"OK. I'll get you some ice water for your meds, it'll taste better." Mark got out of bed.

Something else would taste even better, Sören thought to himself as he watched Mark's ass on the way to the bathroom.

Sören spent a bit longer in there than he'd originally planned, and then longer as he cleaned himself really well. When he got back in bed Mark had ice water for him, and turned on the small lamp next to his bed so Sören could see what he was doing with the med minder.

Mark had seen Sören take his medication cocktail before, but now it seemed like Mark was studying what was going on. Sören saved his mood stabilizer for last, and noticed Mark raising an eyebrow at that.

"Don't tell me you're going to give me an anti-meds, Big Pharma lecture," Sören said.

Mark shook his head. "If you need it, you need it."

"Oh thank fuck." Sören breathed a small sigh of relief. "Seth used to give me crap about taking medication. Tried to get me to stop. I'm not that functional off meds, my depression is pretty serious."

"The more I hear about Seth, the more I want to run him over with my car," Mark said, his face stern. Then his expression softened as he met Sören's eyes. "It's not that, Sören. Just... the size of that last pill. It's like a horse pill."

"It helps I don't have much of a gag reflex," Sören said with a wicked grin. Mark blushed and laughed, and Sören knew immediately what he was thinking. Then Sören said, "You think the molecules are too big to digest, or something?"

"I'm pretty sure that's not how molecules work."

"Hi Pretty Sure That's Not How Molecules Work -"

At the look Mark gave him, Sören almost choked on his water. Then he shrugged. "I've gotten used to it. We swallow bites of food larger than that. It was a pain in the ass I resented when I got diagnosed, but what bugs me more is having to refill prescriptions and keep track of everything - I used to have to take meds three times a day instead of twice - and I've had side effects off and on. The last cocktail I was on before the most recent med change, I had pretty bad GI issues. Mostly I just deal with dry mouth and occasional brain fog now."

Mark nodded. Then he gave Sören a hug and kissed the top of his head, rubbing his nose in Sören's curls.

"Awww, what was that for?" Sören asked when they pulled apart.

"Just because." Mark patted him. "Let's go back to bed."

The act of taking his meds, and talking a little bit about them, meant that Sören wasn't quite as sleepy as when Mark had woken him up a few minutes ago. Mark spooned him again, and the feel of Mark holding him safe did make him relax, and his eyes a bit heavy. A touch of sleepiness, but not yet ready to drift off just yet. And then, Sören's body began responding to the feel of Mark against him, his mind remembering the way they'd made love. He wasn't up for a big athletic performance, but he wanted more, and he found himself rubbing his ass against Mark. After a minute of this Mark began rubbing against him in return, and Sören smiled as he felt Mark's erection. He moaned when the hard cock pressed into the crack of his ass, teasing him.

"Mmmm." Sören tilted his face. "You feel good."

"You feel good." Mark's arms tightened around him.

Sören rubbed against him some more. "Mark?"

"Mmm."

"Will you make love to me?"

In the glow of the nightlight, Sören saw Mark's face lean in to his, and Mark nuzzled him before giving him a sweet, lingering kiss. Then the kiss deepened; Sören's cock throbbed.

"How do you want it?" Mark asked.

"Like this, but with you in me."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Sören was open from earlier, and Mark gently prepared him with lubricated fingers. Then Mark said, "I'm coming in."

"Hi Coming In -"

Mark swatted his ass, and then his arms circled back around Sören and he tilted Sören's face back to his and kissed him hard as he pushed inside.

Sören's breath hitched at the initial discomfort of being stretched, but it wasn't as bad as before. When Mark was all the way in they exhaled together.

Sören had developed an aversion to being taken from behind because that was Seth's preferred position, and in the last few months of their relationship it was the one Seth used exclusively; Sören had been assaulted in the basement from behind. Sören was surprised that he was more than OK with Mark taking him from behind now - it helped that they were laying on their sides, but it also helped that Sören felt so safe with him, even though Mark was a close-to-seven-foot, ripped giant of a man who could probably kill him with his bare hands. Perhaps especially because - those strong arms around him, strong enough to have carried him earlier, were an incredible turn-on. Sören loved feeling Mark holding him, and for all his strength Mark was so gentle now, moving inside him slowly. It felt wonderful, the delicious slow rubbing inside him, Mark's hands sliding over him. So cozy. Sensual. Intimate.

It hadn't been like this at all with Seth. Especially not when Mark tilted Sören's face so they could kiss, stroked his cheek, pet his hair. One hand petting him, one hand slowly stroking his cock. Mark kissed and licked and nibbled Sören's neck and shoulder, having learned how sensitive he was there. Mark's hand strayed from Sören's head to play with his nipples, making Sören moan.

The sweet, safe, cozy sleepy feeling coupled with the building tension of desire and sensation was a heady mix. Their kisses were more frequent as Mark went a little faster and harder, but still slow and gentle, teasing them towards that edge. Teasing and teasing until at last both of them were shaking, panting, and Sören gasped out, "Mark, please..."

Mark's arms held him as tight as he could, one of Mark's hands stroking Sören's cock, the other with his fingers in Sören's mouth, then his thumb. Something about the comfort of sucking his lover's thumb as Mark brought them to the finish, speeding up inside him, all need and sensation, sent Sören flying, coming with a cry. A few seconds later Mark came too, nipping Sören's neck with a growl as he spent. Then they kissed, the sweet fire of their kisses making the orgasm even better.

The release helped Sören relax enough to slide towards sleep, with Mark still inside him. As Sören faded, just before he drifted off, he heard himself mumble "Ég elska þig svo mikið, ástin mín." Sören had no idea if Mark heard him - Mark's own breath had slowed down, indicating he was either sleeping or on the way there himself - and he fell asleep before a response. But he had no regret about saying it; it was the truth of his heart.


_


Sören woke up to Mark raining kisses over his face. Before Sören even opened his eyes, he started his day with a smile.

"Wake up, sleepyhead."

"Mmmmm." Sören opened his eyes, and his breath caught at the love in Mark's silver eyes - and the desire.

They had fallen asleep spooning, with Mark behind him, but here they were facing each other, and Mark kissed him deep and hungry. Then Mark began kissing and licking Sören's neck and shoulder; Sören's cock stirred, and he groaned at the feel of Mark's hard cock pressed against him.

"I want you," Mark rasped.

"Mmmm, good." Sören kissed him again.

When they pulled apart, breathing harder, their eyes met, and Mark stroked Sören's face, pet his curls, planted a sweet kiss on his forehead. Then their foreheads touched, noses rubbing, breathing each other's breath as their hands wandered over each other's naked bodies, cocks grinding together. Sören was already starting to leak precum, and he collected some on his fingers, bringing them to Mark's lips. Watching Mark suck his fingers, pure lust on his face, made Sören's cock throb even more.

Sören raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you going to nag me to take my meds?"

"Later." Mark kissed him hard. "I want you now." Mark resumed kissing Sören's neck, making Sören moan and tremble. Mark's hand was on Sören's cock now, thumb rubbing the frenulum. "I want to taste you."

With that, Mark slid down Sören's torso, leaving a trail of kisses that sent exquisite fire through his entire body, making his nipples and cock twinge. When Mark took Sören's length into his mouth Sören cried out, clutching his head.

Mark sucked him greedily, like he'd been starving for it. The feel of Mark's mouth wrapped around his cock, head moving back and forth... the heat in his eyes as Mark looked up at him... Sören arched to him, gasping, panting, trembling. "Mark. Oh god."

"Mmmmmmmmm." Mark's hand gently cupped and rubbed Sören's balls.

"Oh fuck." Sören felt his balls tightening, felt the tension building in his body, thighs bearing down, closer...

The slurping noises, the hungry, aggressive sucking, the molten gaze, the talented mouth, now with Mark's tongue rubbing as he sucked... Sören's entire body shook. He writhed, whimpered, so close soclosesoclose.

"Ohgod. Mark..." Sören's breath hitched. "Mark, you're gonna make me come..."

"Mmmmmmm." Mark patted him and squeezed his hand, stroked Sören's palm.

Sören bucked as he came, screaming. Mark swallowed all that he could, and licked Sören's cock clean, smiling at the aftershocks, Sören moaning as he continued to twitch. When the exquisite pulsing died down, Mark came up, took Sören's chin in his hand, and kissed him. Sören made a little noise of contentment as he tasted himself on Mark, the evidence of what they'd done.

Between kisses Sören looked down at Mark's cock, glistening with precum, looking delicious. Sören wanted to return the favor, and rolled Mark onto his back, kissing his way down. His eyes locked with Mark's as his lips wrapped around Mark's cock, and he smiled at the moan of gratification Mark made as Sören's mouth took him inch by inch.

Sören sucked slowly at first, savoring the way Mark breathed harder, the sweet sound of his moans, the look of bliss on his face. He idly stroked himself, loving Mark's cock filling his mouth, finding the act of sucking Mark's cock soothing as well as arousing. Like being taken from behind, Sören had developed an aversion to sucking cock after Seth, who had made him do it so many times and didn't return the favor - not that Sören wanted Seth touching him at all in those final days - but now, with Mark, he was reminded of how much he'd once loved it, been a hungry slut for it, and he was hungrier for Mark than he'd ever been for anyone, the slow sucking giving way to passion, devouring him for all he was worth.

"Oh Sören. That's so good..." Mark grabbed Sören's curls, and began to roll his hips, gently fucking Sören's mouth. Sören responded by working his tongue as he sucked, rubbing his tongue as much as he could with his mouth so full. Mark gave a deep groan.

Sören's head bobbed on Mark's cock, slurping at him, the sound filthy and obscene, making his cock throb even more. He stroked himself a little harder, and his free hand played with Mark's balls, smiling to himself again as he felt Mark's balls tighten, knowing it wouldn't be long.

But Sören couldn't resist teasing a little - knowing Mark's climax would be all the stronger for the delay. He took Mark's cock out of his mouth and licked it, tongue running from head down the shaft to the root and back up again. Then on his way back down his tongue took slow, deliberate strokes, licking every bit that he could. Then rubbing faster, harder. Tongue swirling the head, lapping the prominent, sensitive frenulum. Teasing the foreskin. Sören's lips wrapped around just the head, kissing it, and Mark gasped, tugging on Sören's curls.

"Sören... you fucking tease..."

"Mmmhmm." Sören took the head of Mark's cock out of his mouth and lapped at the leaking slit, enjoying his precum. "Such a beautiful cock deserves to be worshiped properly." He lapped the slit some more. "Your cock is a work of art. I couldn't have sculpted something sexier."

"Well, it's yours." Mark stroked Sören's face.

Sören swallowed it back down. Their gaze held. Sören went back to sucking slowly, tenderly, and then he resumed the hungry, needy sucking of before. Mark grabbed Sören's head and thrust into his mouth, with Sören rubbing his tongue again, his cock almost painfully hard as Mark's moans got louder. And finally, Mark cried out "Sören," flooding Sören's mouth with sweet cream. Mark's cum was like flowers and rain, and Sören loved it. There was so much of it that some spilled out of Sören's mouth, making Sören whimper with protest, wanting it all. He swallowed, and lapped up the rest, continuing to lap at the slit to taste and taste until Mark gasped out, "OK, OK..." Mark shuddered. "Sensitive..."

Sören laughed softly and slid up the length of Mark's body. Mark grabbed him and kissed him hard, before pulling Sören close, Sören's head on his shoulder, petting him, rocking him, their legs entwined. Sören's cock ached, wanting relief, but he would let Mark recover first, and right now just enjoyed the feel of cuddling with Mark, and the peace on Mark's face, the tension melted out of his body. Mark seemed to radiate contentment, and Sören basked in its glow.

A few moments later Mark opened his eyes, smiled at Sören, and gave him a little kiss. "You give amazing head."

"So do you."

"Mmmm. I really lucked out, finding you." Mark gave him another little kiss. "Talented in many ways."

Sören stroked Mark's face and hair. He would never get tired of touching Mark's hair. "You make me feel safe," he confessed, remembering last night - the way Mark had made love to him in front of the fireplace, and later, the sweet, sleepy spooning sex. "You make me want again, after what happened. That takes considerable talent."

Mark took Sören's hand and kissed it, and then he put Sören's hand to his heart. "Sören," he said, voice husky. "Last night, after we spooned, before we went to sleep, do you remember what you said?"

So he had been awake. Sören nodded, and swallowed hard.

"Can you say it again?" Mark's eyes held his.

"Ég elska þig svo mikið, ástin mín."

Mark pet Sören's curls. "I love you too."

Sören threw his arms around Mark and they kissed. And kissed. Sören moaned into the kiss, feeling himself rub against Mark, wanting, and then their hard cocks were rubbing together again as they kissed again and again, breathless, hungry. When the kiss finally broke, both of them catching their breath, there were tears in Mark's eyes. Tears reflecting Sören's own, burning, a lump in his throat, ache in his chest. A good ache.

"I love you," Sören said again, this time in English. "Oh god, Mark, I love you..."

"I love you." Mark kissed him. He laughed and cried, and Sören laughed and cried with him.

"I feel like such an idiot, that none of this was more obvious to me," Sören said. "You said you wanted to seduce me the night I almost fucked Sharon, but... you had feelings longer than that, já?"

Mark nodded. "I was attracted to you right away, to be honest, but when I really realized I was in love..." Mark laughed. "When you were in the kitchen with your toy, and it was awkward, and 'Walk This Way' came on and you started playing air guitar..."

Sören doubled over, sides aching with laughter. "Oh god," he wheezed. "Oh Jesus..."

"Yeah. That was the moment of truth. Gods help me, I am in love with this fucking dork." Mark sighed. "And it scared the shit out of me."

"I remember you were sad later." Sören pet Mark's face and hair. "Was that why?"

Mark nodded. "I didn't want to fall for you. I have... reasons... for why I've been alone this long. But goddammit, Sören Sigurdsson, you made me fall in love with you." He kissed the tip of Sören's nose. "Thank you."

They kissed and then Sören said, "I was attracted to you too - I'd fantasized about you quite a bit, actually..."

"When you were in the kitchen with the toy, was that..."

"Yes, Mark, that was you."

"Fuck." Mark's breath hitched and his eyes widened, then narrowed. He nipped Sören's lower lip. "I still can't get over when I caught you..." He sighed. "You were so fucking hot."

Sören kissed him again. Then he said, "So yeah, you were the star of my fantasies but when I couldn't deny anymore that it wasn't just lust, I had feelings..." Sören grinned. "That tea party with Hells, then us in the car at the store."

"That's so sweet." Mark laughed. "We're such fucking dorks."

"We really are." Sören kissed him. "That's why it works."

"My sexual orientation - dorksexual." Mark rolled his eyes. "And apparently my fetish is - fucking dad jokes."

Sören couldn't help himself. "You're... fucking your dad? That's pretty kinky."

Mark wheezed, turned bright red, and shook with laughter, tearing up. "Goddammit, Sören."

Sören grinned, and then he let out a little whimper as Mark took Sören's face and kissed him hard, and then harder. Mark's cock was rubbing against his again.

"Well, now it's my turn to be the dad," Mark said when the kiss broke. "Take your meds."

Sören made an exaggerated groan and he reached for his med minder. There was still water in the pitcher Mark had brought to the bed, though it wasn't great after having been sitting for some hours, and Sören made a face as he took his pills.

"Yeah, sorry, I should have gotten fresh water," Mark said.

"Well." Sören finished taking his meds and then he came back into Mark's waiting arms. "You can make up for it and give me something tastier to put in my mouth."

They got into the sixty-nine position. Sören loved it, sucking and being sucked. Rimming and being rimmed. Hands roaming, hands holding, at last holding each other in the final moments of their hungry feasting. They came together, moaning and crying out with their mouths full, swallowing every drop that they could, licking each other clean before coming up to kiss. Tumbling back down onto the pillows and just holding each other, petting, as the rain started again outside.

"I want to stay with you in bed all day," Sören husked. "All weekend."

"We can do that." Mark kissed him softly, and then guided Sören's hand to his cock, which was already hard again. "I'm insatiable for you."

"Hi Insatiable -"

Mark growled, biting Sören's neck. Sören gasped and cried out, shivering, cock waking up again, wanting more. Wanting everything. There was so much to want.

So much love, and its expression. Like a living work of art. Like a living song.

Chapter Text

Heat of the Moment

 

Sören woke up from his nap to the sound of Mark puttering around in the bedroom. He opened his eyes to the delicious sight of Mark fresh from the shower, his glorious mane damp, his body glistening. He smelled delicious too, a clean outdoorsy scent. Sören made a little noise as he sat up and rubbed his face, watching Mark rummaging through his dresser drawers.

"Ah, you're awake." Mark smiled. "I was going to put something on, but if you're awake..."

"Jæja, I am, but I should shower too." Sören sniffed his own armpit - it wasn't quite offensive, but he could tell he'd worked up a sweat last night... and earlier today. After their sixty-nine they'd lain together face-to-face and rubbed their cocks together to orgasm, and had taken their sweet time getting there, kissing, caressing, building tension strong enough for Sören to pass out after a powerful release, but they'd also been dripping sweat as they trembled against each other.

"OK, while you do that I'll change the sheets, I think. And I know you want to spend the weekend in bed but we should probably do laundry on Saturday afternoon."

"So responsible."

Mark gave Sören a playful swat as he got up from the bed. "One of us has to be an adult."

Sören blew a raspberry. "I am plenty adult." He leered. "We've gotten up to lots of adult activities."

Mark gave him a quick kiss. "There'll be more of that when you get out of the shower."

A frisson went down Sören's spine as he gingerly made his way to the bathroom. His ass was a little sore after having been fucked twice last night for the first time in months, and his body felt otherwise well-used, a sort of pleasant exhaustion from all of the orgasms. But he still hungered for more, his cock hardening up again as he soaped himself, wishing it was Mark's hands on him. He was still hard when he got out of the shower, and he smiled as he came back to Mark's bedroom and saw Mark propped up on one elbow, lazily stroking himself.

Sören pounced on the bed, giggling, and Mark laughed too. He kissed the tip of Sören's nose and then he pulled Sören in for a deep, passionate kiss. They groaned as their hard cocks pressed together again - Sören loved the feel of Mark's cock on his, like they belonged that way. Sören started rubbing against him, gratified when Mark rolled his hips in return, slow and sweet.

Sören kissed and licked Mark's neck, down to his shoulder, and lapped a nipple. Mark grabbed Sören's curls, arching to him, groaning, and moaned louder as Sören's tongue laved the other one, his fingers teasing the nipple where his tongue had just been. Sören kissed up the other side of Mark's neck and their mouths met again, and then Sören's stomach growled. Sören rolled his eyes and Mark laughed.

"I should continue the theme of responsible adulthood and fix us something to eat," Mark said.

"Later," Sören rasped. He kissed Mark hard. "Right now, it's you I want to feast on."

With that, he spent a long, long time exploring Mark's body with his fingers and tongue. Licking him all over. Kissing, nibbling, caressing, rubbing. He worked his way from Mark's neck down over a shoulder to a nipple, then the other, going back and forth between his nipples, cock throbbing at the way they peaked, looking delectable swollen and glistening from his mouth. Sören's mouth and hands played over the rest of Mark's chest, and his stomach, before kissing back up his other shoulder and the other side of his neck, to claim his mouth once more. Then Sören kissed and nibbled down his throat, breathing in the scent of him, to worship his nipples again. Sören's cock twinged, aching for relief, but he needed this even more right now, to love his lover. He continued to kiss his way down, licking and nibbling Mark's perfect washboard abs, then kissing, licking, biting Mark's thighs. He sucked Mark's cock slowly, deliberately for a few minutes, getting him close to that edge, before his head went between Mark's thighs, tongue slipping inside him.

Sören wanted to see if he could make Mark come with just his tongue. He ate and ate him, stroking himself slowly as his tongue played inside fast then slow, swirling, brushing, making sure his tongue hit that sweet spot. He loved the sounds Mark made, the way Mark writhed, panting, as he got closer. At last begging "please, Sören... please, baby..."

"Mmmmmm." Sören stopped licking for a few seconds. "Please, what?"

Mark was too far gone to answer that, he could only make a strangled sob. Sören grinned and resumed lapping inside him, more slowly than before. Mark clutched Sören's head and his hips bucked with a shuddery gasp. Sören made a little noise of contentment as he watched another jet of precum flow from Mark's cock.

At last Mark's hands were on Sören's shoulders - nails digging into him - and he was gently rolling his hips, fucking himself on Sören's tongue. Then harder. Sören's head shook back and forth as he lapped harder, faster, lips kissing the outer rim of his opening. The sound of Mark panting, gasping, the desperate look on his face - Sören was almost ready to come himself, and the urge to take Mark and pound him was intense, but Sören wanted to give him release like this, knowing it would be explosive. And when Mark was finally pushed over that edge into orgasm, contracting, pulsing against Sören's tongue as Sören watched him shoot over himself, crying out, it was even more explosive than Sören thought it would be. Mark almost wept as he heaved, trembling, and when Sören came up to lick the cum off his stomach and chest, the look of bliss on Mark's face made Sören smile, tears in his eyes.

"I love you," Sören said, and kissed him.

"God, I love you." Mark kissed him back, harder. "That was indescribable. You have a gift."

Sören grinned and kissed the tip of his nose. "Consider that repayment for last night. Last night was more wonderful than I'd ever hoped it would be."

"We're going to have a lot of nights like that." Mark stroked Sören's face and kissed him. "You deserve it."

"Oh, Mark." Sören's forehead pressed against his and their noses rubbed together. "I love you so much."

"I love you too." Mark kissed him again. "Let me love you, Sören."

Mark gently rolled Sören onto his back and he returned the favor. Mark kissed and licked and nipped at Sören's neck, then he worshiped Sören's nipples, lapping, suckling, nibbling, tugging the nipple rings with his teeth, fingers pulling one ring, rubbing the aching peak, as his mouth worked on the other. Sören felt almost like he could come just from Mark pleasuring and teasing his nipples, as sensitive as they were, and as hot as it was to watch Mark kiss and lick them and play with them - the heat in Mark's eyes as he took a ring in his teeth and tugged. Before he could, Mark was licking and kissing Sören's stomach, rubbing it, nuzzling. "You're beautiful," Mark whispered. "You are so beautiful to me, Sören."

Mark kissed Sören's hips, sucked the sensitive skin of his hipbones, bit. Then Mark went to work on Sören's thighs, and it was another place where Sören felt like he could almost come. His thighs were sensitized from last night - Sören smiled at the love bites covering his thighs more than anyplace else on his body - and each lick of Mark's tongue, every kiss, every nibble, went straight to his cock. And with each twinge of Sören's cock, his hole also twitched, aching to be filled again even as sore as it was from last night's use. Mark's tongue there would have to be good enough for now.

But Mark took his time getting there. First he took Sören's cock into his mouth, sucking him slowly. Their gaze held; there was nothing sexier to Sören than Mark's eyes in those moments, and the heat of Mark's eyes and the filthy sweetness of Mark's mouth on his cock brought him right to that edge. Sören was so pent up from making love to Mark's body and rimming him to climax that Sören didn't last long - it only took a few minutes of slow, teasing sucking for Sören to come in Mark's mouth with a cry. Sören watched, gratified, as Mark swallowed, and he cried out again as Mark licked his cock clean. "So delicious," Mark husked. "I love tasting you."

"God..."

"We're not done yet." Mark grinned.

He gave Sören a moment to recover, his face resting on one of Sören's thighs, Sören petting his hair as he came down from his orgasm. When Mark began to kiss Sören's thigh again, Sören's cock stirred, and once Sören was sporting another erection Mark's head moved into position and Sören gasped as Mark's tongue slid into him.

Coming in Mark's mouth had taken the pressure off enough that it took longer for Sören to climax this time - not that Mark seemed to mind at all, making "mmmmm" sounds as he lapped away. "I love doing this to you," Mark whispered before he took a few teasing licks around the rim of Sören's opening, before pushing his tongue back inside and licking more slowly, seeming to savor him. Sören had been rimmed before, years ago before Seth, but it had never been like this. This was a performance, as if Mark took it as seriously as he did his music. And the music Mark made now was Sören's moans and cries, closer together, louder and louder. Mark played him like a harp, hands running over Sören's body, fingers stroking, brushing his sensitized skin, as his tongue plucked and danced, building the tension as deep and as high as it could go. Sören was almost in tears when he felt himself rushing towards the point of no return, writhing, thrashing, whimpering, fucking Mark's face as Mark stopped teasing and ate him in earnest, devouring, tongue lashing inside him with the force of a hurricane. At last Sören let go, feeling like he was flying as he climaxed, screaming in Icelandic, coming all over himself. Mark's tongue took a last few slow licks inside him, then Mark licked the seed from Sören's cock and what had spilled over his chest and stomach, murmuring with pleasure as he got to taste again.

Mark took Sören's chin in his hand and gave him a deep kiss. Sören moaned at the taste of himself on Mark - not yet recovered, but not completely spent, a faint frisson of hunger for more later.

But first... "OK, food now," Mark said.

Sören lay there in bliss, only half-awake. He had the vague feeling that he needed to work on his unfinished painting of the redwoods, and at some point call Sharon and see about returning the notebook and giving her the painting of her character as a sort of peace offering. He needed to check his e-mail, talk to Dooku... A little pang of missing his best friend. But even as he knew he ought to be more diligent about touching base with various people, getting a project done... he needed this time with Mark. Needed to love and be loved. And it was so good to reclaim his sexuality this way.

This is beyond sex. Sören had a lot of sex before Seth. Some of it had even been good sex. But this... this was ecstasy. This was transcendent. And it was just the beginning. How much more potent would this wild magic of passion be when they had learned each other's bodies even better? Sören shuddered, thinking about years of making love with Mark this way...

...a lifetime. Sören swallowed hard, tears burning his eyes, more awake now. Maybe it was moving too fast, but he knew then with certainty I want to spend the rest of my life with Mark Lowry. This is the one. He'd found his soulmate. He felt like he had come home.

He wasn't going to say any of that aloud just yet - it was enough to know Mark was in love with him. He didn't want to run the risk of scaring Mark away thinking they were going too fast. But he loved. He loved, loved, loved. It felt so good to love like this and be loved in return. Sören basked in its warm glow, feeling like he was floating on a cloud. He had a big smile on his face when Mark returned with a tray.

"And what are you smiling at?" Mark asked, returning the smile.

"You." Sören sat up a little. "You make me happy."

"Oh, baby." Mark climbed onto the bed with him. "I want to make you happy, Sören." He kissed Sören's forehead, then the tip of his nose. He stroked Sören's face tenderly. "You've been through a special kind of hell. I can't undo your past, but I want to give you a better future."

That was what Sören needed to hear. It was good enough for now. Sören took Mark's hand and kissed it, pressed it to his heart. "You too. You deserve happiness. You deserve peace. I hope I can help give that to you."

Mark kissed the top of Sören's head, holding him for a moment. "You already do." Then he gestured to the tray he brought in. "Here, eat."

It was an assortment of finger foods - slices of cheese, mixed nuts, olives, cherry tomatoes, assorted crackers and two dips, one chicken salad and the other smoked salmon. They fed each other, licking and sucking each other's fingers as they had last night. Sören had a glass of ginger ale from a 1-liter bottle Mark brought in on the tray, and Mark started kissing Sören's neck again when the food was gone and he finished his drink. Sören teasingly poured out the dregs of his glass over his chest and Mark chased the drops with his tongue before kissing Sören hard and hungry. Sören's cock woke up again, and he groaned as Mark rubbed against his thigh, crying out as their cocks met once more, sliding together.

"What would you like, love?" Mark asked, kissing Sören's neck some more.

"Yes," Sören said, laughing.

Mark laughed too. "That's why I asked you. There's too much to want. I can't decide either."

"God." Sören giggled. "I want everything. I want you." Their eyes met.

Mark stroked Sören's face. "I really want to be inside you again, but I don't want to hurt you."

Sören nodded. "Tomorrow, I'd like that. Tonight, we better give my arse a rest. You're not small."

Mark laughed, wincing a little as he adjusted himself in Sören's arms. "Neither are you."

"Jæja, you were so tight. You sure you've bottomed before, you're not a virgin?"

Mark nodded. "Not remotely. But it's been a very long time. It's not something I give easily." Mark pet Sören's curls and his voice was husky as he said, "I trust you."

Sören took Mark's face in his hands and kissed him hard. "I trust you too." He pet Mark's hair, loving the silkiness of it. "It was amazing - no pain, no flashbacks. Only want."

"That means so much to me, Sören." Mark kissed him again. "I know you're still hurting and need care... and I'm going to try."

Sören was getting choked up, and he needed levity. "Hi Going To Try."

Mark bit Sören's lower lip. "Brat," he said, swatting Sören's hip.

"Mmmm." Sören kissed him. He sighed. "I'm sorry that my arse is too sore to bottom, I would have liked that too -"

"Hi Sorry That My -"

Sören bit Mark's shoulder. Mark growled, and grabbed Sören's face and kissed him hard, rubbing his cock against Sören's more urgently. Sören arched to him, letting out a shuddery gasp as Mark's lips slid down to his neck. Mark's hands reached for his, as Mark kissed and licked Sören's neck more intently than before. I am going to have a permanent case of love bites if this keeps up. Sören smiled to himself, not minding that at all.

Then Sören's hands slipped from Mark's. There was something he wanted to try, that he hadn't done in a very long time. For him to be in the mood to do this with someone he had to feel a certain degree of intimacy, and he hadn't felt that since an older, silver-haired bartender in Reykjavik who had taken him under his wing for a time. That relationship hadn't been very healthy - Sören had been introduced to recreational cocaine, which between that and Sören wanting to kill his uncle Einar after his sister's death, was the breaking point where Dag insisted Sören move to Toronto to stay with him. But there were some good memories, and now Sören wanted to make better ones.

"I may not be able to bottom tonight, but there are other ways you can be inside me." Sören's eyes met Mark's.

Mark's eyebrows raised with curiosity.

Sören's hands reached for their cocks. He and Mark watched as Sören guided the heads of their cocks together, making them kiss. Then Mark cried out as the bead of Sören's Prince Albert piercing pushed into the slit of his cock. He cried out again as Sören took his foreskin and stretched it over not just the head of his own cock, but the head of Mark's cock as well, so it looked like Sören's cock was swallowing Mark's. He began to move slowly, so the bead of his piercing went in and out of the slit of Mark's cock, the heads of their cocks sliding together. Sören cupped the base where their cocks met, stroking them slowly. He moaned, savoring the feel of the head of Mark's cock rubbing his, and the feel of Mark's cock inside his exquisitely sensitive foreskin. He knew, from being on both the giving and receiving end of this in the past, that Mark would be feeling Sören's foreskin wrapped around him, the silk of it kissing, caressing his cockhead. The sounds Mark made and the look of lust on Mark's face let Sören know he was indeed enjoying this as much as Sören was.

Enough that they weren't going to last long. Sören's cock felt almost too hot for comfort, as did Mark's. They were both trembling, panting, and Sören heard himself start to moan "Ohgod Mark ohgod" like it was a mantra. Finally Mark's hand reached down and covered Sören's hand on their cocks, guiding him to rub a little faster, harder, and Mark kissed him hungrily. They kissed and kissed and Mark's hand sped up, Mark making a guttural noise into Sören's neck. Sören's hips rolled and he felt Mark thrusting gently into his foreskin and he cried out "Oh god Mark, fuck me..."

Mark kissed him again and they cried out into the kiss as they came together, a violent, quaking orgasm. Feeling the eruption of their hot seed with their joined cocks was almost too much; Sören threw back his head and howled as he spent and spent and spent, seemingly endless. Mark kissed him and they moaned together, arms wrapped around each other, rocking each other through the throes of their climax.

Sören gave a shuddery sigh. "Fuck."

They watched as their cocks spilled apart and a huge amount of cum - both Mark's and Sören's - spilled out of Sören's foreskin onto the sheet. Mark laughed. "I changed those sheets and everything," Mark said.

"Whoopsidoodle." Sören put on an innocent face that wasn't innocent at all.

"You." Mark nipped his nose. "Brat."

"Something tells me you'd do it again."

Mark guided Sören's hand to his cock. "Yeah, now it's your turn."

After Sören was stroked back to hardness - which didn't take long at all - he cried out at the feel of Mark's foreskin slipped around him. Watching Mark's cock take his, loving man to man.

There were so many things they could do to each other, and this was only the beginning.

Yes, I definitely want this for the rest of my life.



_


At some point Sören and Mark managed to sleep, and then the next day Mark woke him up, and Sören made a noise of protest, not simply at being woken up, but seeing Mark fully clothed.

"Come get naked," Sören whined.

Mark laughed. "Later. I told you we need to do laundry today."

"Oh, fuck you," Sören teased.

Mark nodded. "Later. Come on, take your meds, get some clothes on."

They went to the laundromat. It was overcast but not raining, and Sören hoped it stayed that way, not wanting freshly laundered clothes - and sheets - to get rained on. Mark had stripped the bed again after the mess they'd made last night, so his bed was nude and would have to be made again before they could do anything on it. Sören giggled as Mark loaded a washing machine with the sheets, remembering the flood of their cum from their cocks docking. Mark's face turned red and Sören knew he was remembering too.

Even though they were in public, Sören couldn't help himself, wrapping his arms around Mark's waist, rubbing up on him a little. "I love you, you know."

"I know. I love you... and your one-track mind." Mark gave him a look. "Come on, we've got some time to kill."

This time it was Mark bringing Sören to the arcade. Sören laughed, and gave him a squeeze - it was good to see the playful side of him, like a good shagging had knocked some of the stuffiness out of him. Mark beat him a few times in Mortal Kombat, then Sören dragged him off to play skee ball, and then they floated in the ball pit. They ended up holding hands as they rested in the sea of rainbow plastic balls, and then, after Mark stroked his face and gave him an adoring smile, Sören rolled and kissed him, not caring who saw, who cared. Mark kissed him back, and the kiss heated, with Mark looking like he wanted to eat Sören alive as they pulled apart.

They left the arcade to transfer their laundry to the dryers, and couldn't stop touching each other. When the clothes and sheets were in, Mark slammed Sören against one of the dryers and kissed him hard. One of the proprietors of the laundromat was giving them a dirty look, so Mark pulled off him - giving his own not-convincing innocent face - and then he took Sören's hands and started dragging him out of the laundromat.

"Where we going?" Sören asked. "Arcade again? Ball pit?"

"A ball pit of sorts."

They went to Mark's Jaguar but instead of getting in the driver's seat, Mark opened one of the back doors. Sören laughed and also got in the back. They made out in the back seat of Mark's car like horny teenagers, kissing and groping feverishly, and at last Sören had Mark's cock out of his jeans and stroked it, Mark kissing him harder. Sören lay over Mark's lap, sucking him, but before Mark could come like that he pulled Sören off his cock, kissed him hard, and gave him an intense look.

"There's lube in my pocket," Mark said.

Sören threw his head back and his laughter rang out. "Always prepared... were you a Boy Scout?"

Mark nipped Sören's lower lip and undid Sören's jeans.

They lubed Mark's cock together and spent a few more minutes kissing, Mark readying him with slick fingers. Then Sören straddled Mark's lap and rode him, right there in the back seat of Mark's Jaguar. Sören had a little concern that they could get caught, since they were in the parking lot of the plaza and not in an especially discrete place, but that was part of the kinky thrill. Mark's arms held him tight, their mouths kissing again and again, moaning into each kiss.

Then at last Mark began to stroke Sören's cock as Sören rode faster, harder. Sören's cries were getting louder, loud enough that Sören wondered once again if they were going to get caught. Mark's eyes widened at one particularly loud cry, and Sören moaned, "Sorry, I can't help it -"

"Shhh, I know, baby." Mark stuck the index and middle fingers of his free hand in Sören's mouth.

Sören moaned around Mark's fingers in his mouth but that muffled his cries a bit. And it made the fuck even hotter - Sören didn't know what it was about sucking Mark's long, sensuous fingers that was such a turn-on, but it was. Mark kissed and nibbled his neck and continued stroking Sören's cock, groaning as Sören bounced on him. "That's it, baby. Almost there..."

"Mmmmmmhmmm." Sören's eyes met Mark's and he sucked Mark's fingers harder.

Mark lifted his shirt a little and Sören's hands ran over what he could touch of Mark's chest and stomach. Feeling Mark quiver beneath his touch was what sent Sören over the edge, screaming around Mark's fingers as he began to shoot. He saw, as his cum splashed onto Mark's bare skin, that Mark lifting up his shirt was just as much for practicality as it was for intimacy, and after Mark came with a cry, Sören giggled, leaning on Mark's shoulder.

"So responsible," Sören said.

Mark pet Sören's curls. "Well, as much as one can be, fucking in the back seat of a car." He laughed. "I can't believe we just did that."

Sören raised an eyebrow. "Haven't you..."

"No."

Sören cocked his head to one side. "You have that bad boy look to you and you've never done anything like fuck in a car? Wow."

"Really, Sören. But I'm glad we did." Mark grinned. "A car is easier to clean, for one thing." He looked at where Sören had missed shooting onto Mark's skin and had shot on the seat.

Sören doubled over laughing. "I can't even with you."

Mark's arms tightened around him, and Mark gave him a little kiss, then pulled him close, rocking him. "I love you."

Sören kissed the tip of his nose. "I know."

On the way home Sören couldn't stop giggling at what they'd done, feeling young again... feeling that innocence of love fresh and new, reckless and wild. Sören loved that they were passionate enough about each other to throw caution to the wind and just fuck anytime, anyplace... and he wanted more.

Sören and Mark carried their laundry inside. Before Mark could start unloading the basket of sheets, Sören slammed him up against the wall. "I want you," Sören rasped. "Now."

"Baby, I have to make the bed first." Mark looked at the bed.

Sören got naked while Mark made the bed, and as soon as it was ready, Sören climbed on. And found himself getting on all fours, face down, ass up. "Now," he panted. "Please..."

Sören couldn't believe it. Seth had assaulted him from behind, more than once. He never thought he'd want sex in this position again. And yet here he was, wanton, desperate. He wiggled his ass at Mark as Mark got undressed.

Once naked, Mark got on his knees behind Sören. "You want this?"

"So fucking bad. Please. Take me. Fuck me."

Mark grabbed Sören's hips and pushed into him. When Mark was all the way in, Sören cried out.

Mark rested there for a moment, giving Sören time to adjust. As bad as Sören wanted to be fucked raw, Mark seemed to intuitively understand Sören's history with this position and he went slowly, gently at first. Sensually. He lay on top of Sören, put an arm around him. Sören took his hand, and Mark tilted Sören's face and kissed him.

"I love you." Mark kissed him again. "So much."

"I love you." The care and consideration brought tears to Sören's eyes. There was no fear. No pain - though he knew he'd be sore again later, as his body wasn't quite used to regular fucking yet.

Mark squeezed his hand.

Mark went slowly for awhile, laying on top of Sören, with Sören's face turned to him so they could kiss. Breathe each other in. The slow rubbing of Mark's cock inside him at this angle was so good, and Sören gently rocked his hips back against Mark's.

At last Mark rose up on his knees, grabbed Sören's hips, and started to drive into him harder, faster. "Yes, yes, yes," Sören panted, rocking harder against him, fucking himself on Mark's cock. "Oh god... fuck me, Mark... fuck me..."

"Oh, Sören." Mark gave a deep groan. "Fucking Hells, Sören, I want you."

"I want you. I want this, I need this, I need more..." Sören shuddered. "I'm such a fucking slut for you."

One of Mark's hands began to caress Sören's back and ass, and the other fisted his curls. "You feel so. Fucking. Good."

"Mmmmmm, I love your cock inside me," Sören panted. "Love the way you fuck me..."

"Love fucking you."

"So much better than anyone."

"That's because this is mine." Mark slapped Sören's ass.

"Oh, fuck!" Sören almost came from that, and let out a whimper as he rocked against Mark harder, faster. "Fuck... oh god yes, Mark, it's yours..."

"Mine." Mark sped up inside him. "You're mine."

"Fuck... more... more, more..." Sören was out of control now, bucking against him wildly, fisting the sheets white-knuckled. His entire body trembled, feeling himself right on that edge of orgasm.

"Mine. You're mine now."

"More, more, more... don't stop, don't you fucking stop, more..."

Mark's hand rubbed Sören's ass, and slapped it again. "Mine. To fuck whenever I want, as much as I want, and you'll give it to me willingly, won't you?"

"God, yes, want you to fuck me and fuck me and fuck me..." Sören shuddered. "Want to be such a fucking slut for you..."

Mark fucked him even harder. "Want. You."

"Yes, yes... more... more, more, I want you, I need you so bad..."

"You're mine." A growl. "Mine."

Sören let out a little sob. He was so close, so completely lost in pleasure and hunger and lust...

Mark's finger trailed down Sören's spine, achingly, tormentingly slowly. Sören shivered and cried out. Mark rasped, "You want me to breed this ass?"

"God, yes, fill it with your cum, please..."

"Come for me."

The sound of his voice, the touch of his finger along his spine, cock hitting his prostate just right... Sören exploded, screaming into the pillows, crying with the overwhelming pleasure of his release, the overwhelming love and trust he felt, so free...

Mark spent into him making vicious animal noises, and then collapsed on top of him, shuddering, gasping. Mark's arms circled around him and Mark rubbed his nose in Sören's curls, then they kissed and Sören wept some more.

"Are you OK, honey?" Mark pet him, concern in his eyes.

Sören nodded, smiling through his tears. He took Mark's hand and kissed it. "Joy," was all he could choke out.

Mark gently rolled Sören onto his side and pulled him close, rocked him. Sören could feel Mark shaking, and knew from the little shivering breath that Mark was crying too. "I love you," Mark said, his voice breaking.

"I love you. God, Mark, I love you." Sören squeezed him. "Thank you."

"The pleasure was mine." Mark smiled. He gave Sören a sweet little kiss. "That was really... intense. Beautiful."

"Sacred and profane," Sören husked.

"God, yes." Mark kissed him harder.

When they pulled apart, breathing hard, Mark said, "You're mine, but I'm yours, too."

Sören smirked, knowing what was going to happen next.

"I have to get up to get the lube."

Mark did - even those few seconds apart felt too long - and when Mark got back on the bed, Sören rolled him onto his back. He squirted lube directly into Mark's opening, and worked his fingers inside as they kissed. At last Mark took Sören's hand, pulling the fingers out, and rested Sören's hand on his heart. "Love me," he whispered. "Make me yours."

Sören kissed him as he pushed inside, and Mark's arms wrapped around him. When Sören was all the way in he let out a deep sigh, feeling perfect contentment - as badly as he needed to fuck, and Mark needed to be fucked, he could stay like this forever, Mark holding him this way.

Sören opened his eyes and saw the heat in Mark's own, molten silver. They kissed again and Sören began to rock away, one flesh, one need.

"Yours," Mark husked.

"Mine."

Chapter Text

All Star




"Oh, Mark."

While Sören wasn't a morning person, he found he could get used to Mark waking him up raining kisses over his face, then feverish, hungry kisses at his neck as he felt Sören stir, Mark's hard cock rubbing up on him, hands roaming over Sören's body. Sören shivered - he too was sporting a morning erection, and now it was throbbing, aching for attention as Mark kissed, licked, and nibbled his neck and shoulder.

Mark paused a moment to stroke Sören's face, pet his curls, and gently kissed Sören's forehead, then smiled at him. "Good morning, love."

"Mmmm, yes, it's a good morning waking up next to you." Sören grabbed Mark's head and kissed him hard.

"It's a beautiful, sunny day... because I have my beautiful sunshine right here." Mark kissed the tip of Sören's nose.

Sören bit Mark's lower lip, touched by his words - the tug at his heart also went straight to his cock. "God, I love you." Sören kissed him again. "And want you."

Mark's hand reached between them and took their hard cocks together in his fist, stroking slowly. Sören moaned, slowly rolling his hips to thrust into the hand holding them. They kissed again, and again, and then Mark whispered, "So what shall we do with these?"

Sören was still slightly sore, as his body got used to the new normal of bottoming again, but he wanted it. The thought of Mark's cock inside him - Mark claiming him, possessing him, filling him with cum, the evidence of their passion - was driving him mad with lust. "I want you to fuck me," Sören husked.

Mark kissed him back. "Mmmmm, good." He sucked on Sören's lower lip, and then his free hand reached for the lube he kept on the bedtable.

The tube was already looking spent as of last night, but now when Mark squeezed the tube only a small dollop came out onto his finger. Mark rolled his eyes. "I'd only bought a small tube because I didn't know if my attempt at seducing you would be effective or not - well, not until I caught you playing with the toy, anyway - but I didn't expect to be out this soon after opening it."

Sören grinned. "I guess we've been busy."

"I guess so."

The disappointed look on Mark's face was almost comical, and Sören gave into a moment of random silliness, singing out

I'm all out of lube
I'm so lost without you
I know you were tight
no bottoming for so long
I'm all out of lube
what am I without you
I can't be too late
to say that I love your dong


to the tune of "All Out of Love" by Air Supply.

Mark rolled to bury his face in the pillows, screaming, and when he picked his head up his face was bright red and his eyes were teary. He shook, and leaned against Sören, doubling over. "Goddammit Sören."

"Thank you, thank you, I'm here all week."

"I didn't think you could top the ridiculousness of you playing dildo air guitar to 'Walk This Way', but somehow, you have."

"It could be worse," Sören said, grinning.

"Oh no. Sören, nothing could be worse than you ruining Air Supply just now."

Challenge accepted, Sören thought to himself. He patted Mark's shoulder. "We're actually not completely out of lube, I have some in my room."

Sören got up and walked over to his bedroom, which he hadn't slept in for a few days now, and Sören was starting to wonder if he oughtn't just move his clothes into Mark's room for the rest of their stay, and keep his art supplies in the living room where Mark had his musical equipment. He flipped open the stained glass mirror box, and then he decided instead of just bringing the lube, he'd bring the entire box, since his dildo was in there too.

Mark was reclining against the pillows, gently stroking himself as Sören walked in. Sören climbed on the bed.

"That's pretty," Mark said, running a finger along the edge of the box.

"I bought that at the boutique Sharon works at. A lot of artsy handmade stuff. I guess I wanted a souvenir of the summer."

Sören put the box down on the bedtable. He held out the packet of condoms. "Condoms, which we don't actually need." He put it back in the box. "Lube." He handed Mark the bottle of lubricant. Then he took out the glass dildo, and started strumming it singing "Walk this way, talk this way..."

Mark facepalmed, laughing again.

Sören kept the lid of the box open rather than closing it, and sure enough, Sören saw a glimpse of the man in the mirror. Sören wondered if Mark was going to see it too, but Mark's attention was riveted on him - Mark looked like he wanted to eat Sören alive. Sören's cock throbbed in response.

"So," Mark said, "that's... the toy. The one you were pleasuring yourself with when I walked in on you."

Sören nodded solemnly. "It wasn't the first time I thought about you and used it on myself, either. It happened, ah, quite a few times."

"Hells, Sören." Mark closed his eyes and shivered, and then he looked at Sören with eyes that could drill through granite. "You were so hot that afternoon. I couldn't stop thinking about you playing with that thing all night." He leaned in and his breath was hot on Sören's neck as he whispered, "I had to bring myself off, fantasizing about what I'd seen." He licked Sören's neck.

The thought of Mark stroking his cock, fantasizing about the sight of Sören stroking his own cock and fucking himself with the dildo... Sören shuddered. "Fuck."

"Yeah." Mark kissed the sweet spot where Sören's neck and shoulder met, and Sören shuddered again, cock twinging. "You looked so delicious. I'd already been wanting you, but that..." His breath hitched. "That drove me crazy."

"Mmmmmmmm."

"So I have an idea." Mark gave him a pointed look. "I want to watch you."

"You want to watch me... play with this?"

Mark nodded. "I want to watch you make yourself come with your toy, and then have my way with you the way I thought about pouncing on you and fucking the shit out of you when I saw you coming."

Sören exhaled sharply. He'd had jerkoff sessions with fuckbuddies before, but that was different from performing for a live person - apart from the man in the mirror; this was a first for him. And he found he liked the idea a lot, it gave him a kinky thrill. "OK."

Mark took the glass dildo out of Sören's hand and he held it to Sören's lips. Sören started sucking it, getting it wet, even though he'd also be applying lube. Something about Mark holding the dildo as Sören sucked on it made his lust burn even hotter, and soon Sören was sucking it in earnest, like it was the real thing. Out of the corner of his eye Sören could see the man in the mirror watching them, and Sören was almost tempted to wave, except he didn't want to create a scene and have Mark freak out if he saw what Sören had been seeing.

When Sören had his fill, he slicked the dildo with lube, and Mark helped by pouring lube directly into Sören's hole, then Sören poured it over his cock. Sören lay a pillow underneath his hips to make it easier. He raised his knees and spread his legs. Mark got on his knees and leaned against the bed, his head resting on his arms, eye level with Sören's exposed lower half to get a nice closeup view. From what Sören could tell, the man in the mirror could still see Mark at this angle but Mark probably wouldn't see him. Knowing he was performing for both of them... Sören licked his lips, another shiver down his spine.

Sören guided the tip of the dildo to his hole, and began to work the toy slowly inside. He let out a moan when the toy was all the way in, and moaned again as he pulled it out most of the way, gave another moan as he pushed it back in. He pushed and pulled a few times before he started to stroke his cock, working in the same languid rhythm as the dildo fucking him. He was horny enough that he wanted to jerk himself off hard and fuck himself very hard, but he also wanted to give Mark a really nice show, incredibly turned on by the way Mark was looking at him as he watched.

So Sören played slowly, sensually. Teasing himself. Which was just as well because delayed gratification always made for a better orgasm, and he wanted to come really hard for Mark watching him, a repeat of when Mark had walked in on him, but even stronger. Sören gently rolled his hips as he got into it, moaning. "Oh, Mark," he breathed.

"Oh, baby. You are so. Fucking. Hot."

"Mmmmm." Sören shuddered. "God, I wish this was your cock inside me..."

"Soon, baby. Want to watch you play first."

Mark's voice was affecting him as much as those silver eyes and the look of lust on that proud, chiseled face. Sören worked himself just a little harder and faster, but not anywhere near as hard as he could. Still teasing. Just enough to feel good and want more, to stay lost in that delicious rhythm for awhile.

"Oh god, Mark." Sören was breathing harder, making little shuddery gasps. "Mark... oh god..."

"You are so beautiful right now." Mark took a deep breath. "Play with your nipples for me."

Sören took his hand from his cock and started to rub his nipple, while still working the dildo in and out of his hole. Mark groaned, and again as Sören plucked, flicking it around. Mark moaned loudly as Sören pinched and pulled at it, played with the ring - it was as much for stimulation as it was for adornment. He brought his fingers to his lips and licked, and his slick fingers rubbed his nipple more insistently.

"That's it. God, I want you." Mark's eyes were riveted.

Sören played with the other one, not able to keep from moving the dildo in and out harder and faster. He let out a cry, and Mark moaned in response. Mark gave a shuddery sigh as Sören licked his fingers again. Sören pinched his nipples, rubbed between his thumb and index finger, tugging, rolling. He wished it was Mark's mouth. For a brief instant his mind entertained the fantasy of Mark suckling one nipple and the man in the mirror suckling the other. "Oh, fuck," Sören gasped, trembling, his cock letting out a jet of precum from that wickedly debauched thought.

There are worlds where we've made that a reality, beauty, the man in the mirror spoke into his mind.

Worlds? Sören's eyes widened - it was weird enough that he had "a friend" who lived in a mirror and had somehow managed to prove his existence by depositing $420.69 into his Paypal account with a link to the "Man in the Mirror" video by Michael Jackson. It was weirder still to know there were other worlds than these, ones where they had in fact done what Sören was just fantasizing about. That implied things that were terrifying in their enormity, as much as what Sören didn't know as what he now did. Sören almost stopped what he was doing, but it felt too good...

I'll explain when you're less... occupied. In the meantime... make love to yourself, beauty. Love yourself as we love you.

Sören moaned, shivering - also wondering about that admission of love. His cock needed attention now, and his hand moved from his nipples back to his cock. Mark groaned, and Sören saw from only one arm being on the edge of the bed now that Mark was also stroking himself, watching. Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip, pleased with Mark not able to hold back his own lust. Sören let out a "nnnn" as he stroked his cock, harder than before. Getting closer, but not yet.

Sören's hands sped up, and Sören noticed Mark was stroking himself harder too. Not able to resist teasing them both - and his friend in the mirror as well - Sören let go of his cock, giving a little whimper of protest, whimpering again as his finger brushed his nipple, danced, swirled, before taking it between his thumb and forefinger, pinching it, pulling on the ring, fucking it between his index and middle fingers. Mark's breath caught. "Oh, Sören, fuck." Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip again as he watched Mark tremble. Knowing he could make a close-to-seven-foot-tall man quiver like a bowl of Jell-O just from playing with his own nipples was a power trip, one that Sören reveled in. He wet his fingers and continued playing, teasing, as he rocked his hips, fucking himself on the glass cock sliding in and out of him as his hand continued working it in and out.

When Sören's hand went back down to his cock he knew he was almost there, not long now - he was too turned on by Mark's eyes blazing, the sounds Mark made as he touched himself, watching, the feeling of sheer wanton sluttiness, performing like this. And oh, his hand felt good, and the dildo rubbing against his prostate felt good. Not as good as Mark's cock, but still good. And it was Mark's cock taking him when this was all done, giving into that fantasy of what he'd wanted to do when he caught Sören, that Sören thought of as he moved in for the kill, jerking his cock so hard his hand was a blur and his cock rattled, bucking his hips furiously, the hand holding the dildo starting to ache as he reamed himself as hard as he could, harder, harder, harder. "Mark," Sören cried out, just like the day he'd been caught. "Oh, Mark... fuck me... ohgod Mark, fuck me, Mark, fuck me..."

"Yes, baby."

"Mark..." Sören bit his lower lip, quivering. He let out a little whine. "Mark... Mark..."

"Oh, baby. You're close, aren't you?"

Sören nodded and gave another plaintive whimper. "Mark... oh god Mark, I want your cock so bad... want you to fuck me hard..."

Mark exhaled. "I will, baby. Want you to come first..."

"Almost there." Sören bit his lower lip again and whimpered. "Mark, oh god, Mark."

"Yes."

"Mark!" Sören was close. He could feel himself clamping down on the dildo ramming him, even his thighs were quivering now, his stomach muscles... balls tightening, feeling ready to explode. There was a moment when he could barely breathe, body locking down, soclosesoclosesoclose and then when his eyes locked with Mark's he cried out "Oh Mark! Yes, yes, Mark, yes..." and let go.

It was glorious. Sören contracted around the dildo as he shot cum all over his chest and stomach, some even hitting his throat, his face. He howled, practically sobbing as his cock spent and spent, as his channel throbbed and pulsed and the tension in his body instantly melted to sweet, sweet bliss.

Mark climbed on the bed and on his hands and knees, moved over to Sören like a predatory cat pouncing its prey. Sören cried out, clutching Mark's head as Mark began to lick the cum from Sören's body, his throat, his chest, his stomach, licked his cock clean, licked more cum from his stomach and chest and throat on the way back up, and then lapped at the cum on Sören's face before kissing him deep and hungry. Mark's own cock was leaking so much precum the entire shaft was glistening with it, and Sören reached for it, guiding it to his opening, ready for him.

Mark took him, and there was no gentleness this time. Sören's legs were propped on Mark's shoulders, Mark kneeling between Sören's legs, pounding him hard. Hard enough that his balls slapped Sören's ass with each thrust, which Sören loved. Sören reached up and fisted the pillows, white-knuckled, writhing. "Oh shit, oh god, yes, Mark, yes," Sören cried out, rocking his hips back at Mark, matching his rhythm.

Yes, beauty. The man in the mirror was definitely still watching them - Sören's eyes briefly glanced into the mirror at the gorgeous man with violet eyes, stroking himself, and Sören shuddered before his gaze returned to Mark. Tall, the muscular build of a warrior, dark hair cascading down his back, beautiful, haughty face rapt in lust. Silver eyes looking at him like he was the only thing that existed in the universe.

"Fuck me, Mark... fuck me hard..." Sören quivered again.

"Oh, Sören, I want you."

Mark was jackhammering away inside him, and Sören loved it. Once in awhile - maybe more than once in awhile - Sören just needed to be fucked raw, and Mark's cock was working wild magic on his prostate. That, combined with the gorgeousness of Mark rocking into him, his powerful body in motion, all that beautiful long hair, those eyes, that voice.. Sören was already close to coming again.

"I want you, Mark. I love you fucking me like this..."

"You were made for this, Sören."

"God, yes. I love this. I love you."

"I love you, Sören. And I want you. I need you. Need you. So. Fucking. Bad."

"Take it," Sören panted. "Take it... fuck me... own my arse..."

"Mmmmmmm, Sören, you're mine."

Yes. You are his, and he is yours.

"Mark..." Sören was right there on that edge again, about to fly off, hanging on just a little bit longer, needing his cock, needing his fuck... The sweet, luscious rubbing inside him, just right. The hot, primal ball-slapping, Mark's growls... "More, more..."

"As much as you want, baby."

"God, yes, more... oh god, more..." Sören shuddered. He was so fucking close. He could feel that moment about to swoop upon him, and held the glimmering release just out of reach, needing, hungering... "More. More. Mark, please, more..."

Mark groaned. "Never enough. I can't get enough of you..."

"Or you. God, Mark, I need this so much..." Sören gasped, shuddering again. "You... give me you..."

Mark's breath caught, and Sören could tell he was emotionally affected by that, not just physically. "You've got me, baby."

"I love you, Mark." Sören knew then it was the right time. "And I'm gonna come for you."

"Come for me, Sören."

Sören aimed his cock to shoot over Mark's body, his own body heaving again and again as he gave into his orgasm, feeling like he was dying and reborn, pleasure so intense it almost hurt. A few thrusts later Mark threw his head back and cried out "Sören!" as Sören felt Mark's hot seed flooding him, and Sören gave a wordless cry of his own at the cum shooting over his sensitized prostate, making him clench and throb around Mark's cock again.

Mark groaned, and shaking, he let himself down into Sören's waiting arms. Sören's arms and legs wrapped around him and they kissed deeply.

"I love you so much," Sören whispered.

"I love you." Mark kissed him again, and stroked Sören's curls, his face.

Mark rested against Sören's chest, listening to his heartbeat, while Sören pet Mark's hair. Sören's full-body relaxation made him fall half-asleep but not quite there, and a few minutes later Mark stirred and propped himself up on one elbow, petting Sören some more.

Sören thought about bringing up their future, but he was still wary of that subject. He started smaller. "Since I'm not really using my bedroom anymore, do you think I can move my stuff in here?"

Mark nodded. "I was going to suggest that later today."

Sören breathed a little sigh of relief, and nodded. "I'll put my art stuff in the living room." He grinned. "Not that I've made any art the last few days."

Mark gestured to the cum Sören left on his chest and stomach, and Sören's sides hurt, shaking with laughter. He snorted, and Mark laughed too.

"I mean actual art," Sören said, giving him a playful swat.

"Yeah, I know. We still have some weeks left on this place and we should be doing the tourist-y thing while we're here and instead we're... touring each other's bodies. Not that I mind."

"Mmmm, me either." Sören attempted a wink, but he couldn't wink to save his life and it was a clumsy blink instead. "So many fun things we can do with each other, too."

"Yeah, like... just now." Mark gave Sören a little kiss. "God, I can't get over how hot that was."

"You watching me was hot," Sören said. "Made me feel sexy."

"Oh baby, you are." Mark kissed Sören again, harder. "You are the sexiest thing alive, to me."

"I haven't felt sexy like that in a long time," Sören confessed. Then he giggled. "I felt like a porn star."

"I don't watch porn, but I would if it had you."

"That..." Sören giggled again, and snorted. "That's so sweet and ridiculous at the same time."

"You're still more ridiculous." Mark rolled his eyes. "I can't get over you fucking up that Air Supply song."

"I told you it could be worse." And then, with the words porn star on his mind, Sören heard himself belting out

Somebody
once
told
me


"Oh no," Mark muttered under his breath. "Hells..."

the world is gonna roll me
I ain't the sharpest tool in the shed
She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb
In the shape of an "L" on her forehead

Well, the years start coming and they don't stop coming


"Sören no."

Fed to the rules and I hit the ground running
Didn't make sense not to live for fun
Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb


"SÖREN NO."

So much to do, so much to see
So what's wrong with taking the back streets?
You'll never know if you don't go
You'll never shine if you don't glow


"SÖREN I SWEAR TO GOD."

Hey now, you're an all-star, get your game on, go play
Hey now, you're a porn star, get the show on, get laid
And all that glitters is gold
Only shooting sper-erm breaks the mold


Mark fell into the pillows, shaking the bed from laughing so hard. He attempted to give Sören a murderous look, but he broke down laughing again, tearing up, face red. Sören howled and snorted, and Mark leaned against Sören, heaving with laughter, tears rolling down his face.

"Sören, you are the fucking worst."

"I love you too." Sören kissed the tip of his nose.

"That was seriously disturbing, Sören." Mark wheezed a little. "Like, seriously. Disturbing."

"You know what's even more disturbing?" Sören's hand reached for Mark's cock, which was hard again. "You having a hard-on while I'm singing that."

Mark lost it again, and Sören giggled and snorted too. When they calmed down from their hysterics, they shared a sweet little kiss and Mark grinned at him. "I guess you're just so sexy to me that when you're being a completely ridiculous ass you're still sexy," Mark said, tweaking Sören's nose.

"Or you're just... what did you call it? Dorksexual."

"Yeah. That." Mark rolled his eyes.

"We could make porn together. Call it... the Dorka Sutra."

Mark nipped Sören's lower lip. "Fucking Hells, Sören."

Sören's hand started to play with Mark's cock. "Never knew Smash Mouth was a fetish, but hey, you learn something new every day."

Mark bit Sören's neck for that, and Sören had another gigglefit. He glanced over at the mirror - the man was still watching them. The man gave him a sad smile and then the mirror became just a mirror again.

But not without a last word, for now. It is good to hear you laugh, beauty. A pause. Both of you.

Sören wondered about that, and then there was silence. Silence apart from Mark's laughter, and then the sound of Mark's kisses over his neck. Sören moaned.

"Let's get our game on," Mark said, reaching for Sören's cock, and Sören laughed again, before his laughter was silenced with a kiss.

Chapter Text

Pour Some Sugar On Me





Sören woke with a cry, sitting up abruptly, heart pounding.

Mark wasn't in bed with him - Sören's eyes glanced around the room in panic. Needing him here. He'd had another one of those dreams, so intense and vivid it felt like more than a dream. It felt real.

The most immediate recollection was the burning up... again. That had been what had woken him, the fire, the smoke, the ash. Before that, the mob descending on him, beasts of smoke and fire, armed with whips. The lashes... the pain. It was like something out of a horror movie but far worse, far more realistic and terrifying than even the mind of H.R. Giger could conceive.

Before that, fire of a different sort. Laying with Mark. Laying with a man who bore a resemblance to Mark as well as to the man in the mirror, yet was neither of them, with silver-blue eyes and a flood of hair even longer than Mark's, to his knees. He lay with them separately one at a time, and with both together. Remembering the silk of their skin over the steel of their muscles. Kisses, caresses. Taking, sweet velvet. Being taken, the rubbing inside him stoking frenzy until it was like a star about to go nova. Writhing. Moaning, like a song. The passion. The ecstasy, the transcendence of it, like something divine.

The fire of a forge. His own hands at an anvil. Steel, jewels, glass. Bringing visions to life, enchanted weapons, armor, adornments... and above all that, glass balls that could see into other worlds, and at last a great mirror, very much like the one his friend was using to communicate with him, but somehow more. The Mirror of Mirrors.

He didn't understand any of it. And remembering it, as he sat, his head spinning, heart racing, trying to take deep breaths to calm down... the passion, and the creative frenzy in the forge, was just as terrifying as the horrorbeasts, if not more, but in a different way. The horrorbeasts were eldritch abominations that should not be, but his lovers and the act of creation was awful as in awe-inspiring, the way ancient people must have looked at the sea of stars in a night sky without light pollution and fancied they were looking at the gods. He got chills thinking about it, tears coming to his eyes.

He needed Mark. He had a moment of mad fear, wondering if Mark had left...

He heard the sink in the bathroom, and then the bathroom door opening. Mark stepped into the bedroom and smiled at Sören. "Oh good, you're awake. I was just coming to wake you up."

Sören tried to smile back, but he could only half-smile, and Mark could tell right away something was wrong.

Mark was fully clothed, in a Def Leppard T-shirt and jeans, and he sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing Sören's back. "Babe? What's the matter?"

"I had a bad dream," Sören said. That wasn't entirely a lie, nor was it entirely the truth. Some of it - the last part of it - had been bad beyond bad. The glimpses of other things was bad in the sense that it felt like a home he could never go back to. Bad in the sense that he didn't understand it. If dreams were a way of the brain recycling thoughts into symbolic mysteries at night, his brain had to be tripping balls to come up with shit like this.

"Ohhhh, baby." Mark's arms were around him now. "It's OK, baby." Mark pet his curls, his face, kissed the top of his head. "You want to talk about it?"

Sören took a deep breath. He didn't know where or how to begin - couldn't make words for most of it, mouth suddenly dry. But he managed to choke out the worst part. "I was burning to death again."

And with that Sören fell apart, crying. Mark rocked him, pet and soothed him. Mark kissed his tears, and when Sören looked into Mark's eyes he saw Mark was tearing up too. Sören didn't want Mark to feel bad, he didn't want to make Mark cry, and he cried even harder. Mark pulled Sören close and his arms tightened around him, rocking harder, stroking Sören's curls. "Shhhhh, baby. I've got you. I'm here. I'm right here. You're safe now."

Sören sobbed, and Mark made soothing noises. One of Mark's hands began to rub Sören's back, slowly. "Shhhhh, love. It's OK. It's all right." The sound of Mark's voice, and listening to his heartbeat, made Sören start to calm down, and when the worst of the sobbing was over and it was just silent tears, Mark cupped Sören's chin and tilted his face up.

"Here, honey. I was going to wake you up anyway but... let's get you out of your head for awhile, OK? You want to go someplace?" Mark gave a reassuring smile.

Sören looked at the clock, and then at Mark. "I know it's probably a bit late for getting a decent parking spot, but can we go to Muir Woods?" The peace of the redwoods felt like the right thing to do right about now.

And that was what they did. Amazingly, they managed to find a parking spot, as if the fates themselves had aligned. It was a brilliant sunny morning, with some leftover mist from the damp, overcast days before, and the golden sunlight and silver mist combined in the forest to make little rainbows here and there, giving it an even more enchanted feeling. Sören was delighted, and clapped his hands like a big kid, which made Mark grin at him.

They held hands as they walked - side-by-side for most of the trail, and when they had to go single-file through narrow parts Mark put his hands behind him and Sören took both of them. At one junction Sören rode up on Mark like a caboose, arms around his waist, which made Mark pause so they could steal a kiss.

The lingering moisture in the forest brought out the petrichor smell Sören loved so much, mingling with the rich scent of earth and evergreen. The colors of the forest seemed more vibrant in the play of sunshine and mist, or maybe Sören was noticing it more because he was in love and the world itself seemed brighter. Sören stopped here and there to admire the little wonders - fungus and moss, a patch of ferns. And sometimes stopped just so he could look up and up and up at the redwoods, reaching hundreds of feet into the sky. After one of these moments, as Mark looked up with him, they looked at each other and Mark stroked Sören's hand, then his face. Sören felt a little shy, looking down with a crinkle of his nose and bite of his lower lip. Mark booped Sören's nose, making him giggle, and then he whispered, "I love you." Just before Sören could lean in to steal another kiss, his eyes widened at the sight of a buck and a doe, off to the side and above them. Mark's head also turned at the rustle in the brush and their breath caught together, seeing what appeared to be two mates before they pranced off.

We, too, are mated.

Sören loved seeing Mark at peace in the forest even more than before. It reminded him that he needed to finish that painting he'd started - they'd spent a lot of time in bed making love, and Sören still wanted that too, but they were both creative people and there was only so long they could keep from getting back to that. And somehow, the thought of painting while Mark played was arousing to him, wondering what their sex would be like after they'd had a good work session together.

He wondered about a lot of things on the way back - if this would continue when the summer was over and they went back to Oregon. What it would be like to live together, settle down together, grow old together. He found he very much wanted a future with Mark. It wasn't just the mind-blowing, hot sex - though that was some of it - but the emotional connection that they'd forged, which was responsible for that hot sex above and beyond the physical attraction. Sören loved Mark's company. It was so easy to be themselves together... one dork to another, Sören thought to himself, smiling as Mark sang along with "We Will Rock You" by Queen on the radio.

They stopped at the store. Sören picked up a refill on his medication first, and then they slowly made the rounds together. "What do you want for dinner tonight?" Mark asked.

You. "Grilled cheese OK?"

Mark nodded. "Swiss on rye?"

"You know me." Sören grinned.

"We should have something to go with that." They hit the produce section. "I was thinking a tossed salad." Mark picked up a head of romaine lettuce.

Sören's mind immediately went there, not able to restrain the snort and his laughter. "You can toss my salad, all right."

It took Mark a minute, and then Mark rolled his eyes, turning red, fighting back laughter of his own and failing. "Goddammit Sören, you're incorrigible."

Sören stole a little kiss, not caring that they were in public. "And insatiable."

"Mmmm." Mark kissed him back. He loaded other vegetables for the salad into the cart - taking awhile to inspect tomatoes - and then he asked, "Dessert? I can grab something at the bakery..."

"You could, but I really like fresh fruit even more than I like baked goods."

"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised you have a degree of health consciousness, since you were in med school -"

"It's not that, honestly." Sören let out a little sigh. "When I was growing up, we didn't have a lot of money because my aunt and uncle drank, and my uncle was between jobs a lot as a consequence of drinking and, ah, his behavior. So fresh fruit was more of a luxury."

Mark's face tightened. He put his arms around Sören's waist and kissed his forehead. "Oh, baby. I don't know what to say. 'I'm sorry' seems so trite..."

Sören nodded. He leaned on Mark for a moment, trying to ground himself to the present. Then he reached for a small carton of strawberries. "My favorite."

Their last stop was the dairy section, where Mark got a package of Swiss cheese, and also a can of whipped cream. Sören's face burned, thinking about their first time with them feeding each other sensually in front of the fireplace, and when his eyes met Mark's and Mark gave him a pointed look, he got the impression that Mark was thinking about that too. Sören felt a frisson down his spine, wondering if Mark had plans for that whipped cream.

When they got back to the house, after the groceries were put away, they both mutually wanted to spend some time together playing and painting - Mark was energized by the trip to the forest too. Mark set a timer so they wouldn't completely lose track of time and he'd eventually stop to make dinner. But in the few hours they had before the timer went off they made magic together, with Mark improvising and Sören continuing work on his painting of the forest... with Mark in the forest. It felt almost like Mark's fingers were conjuring the light and the mist, the sparkling rainbows, the sense of wonder in the ancient forest, filled with life that had endured through the ages, and was home to new life - like the buck and the doe they'd seen. Sören's painting began to take on a dreamlike quality, where the forest looked more like an enchanted forest from legend. He remembered the faery door he'd seen in Golden Gate Park and painted a faery door here and there, small nature spirits here and there, faces on the redwoods like Ents. He embellished Mark, giving him a flood of hair to his thighs rather than the hair down to the middle of his back. Mark was in a tunic and breeches befitting an Elf, and was carrying his war harp with him.

He wasn't quite done with the painting yet, but he was getting there.

After the timer went off, Mark got to work in the kitchen and Sören took the easel down to his room. Though he'd mostly moved out of the bedroom and into Mark's room, he kept canvases in here to not clutter up the living room or Mark's bedroom, and in this case he was a bit sensitive about Mark accidentally seeing the work in progress, wanting it to be a surprise when it was done.

Mark had on the classic rock station as he cooked and made the salad. Sören helped by adding bits of chicken and bacon to the salad while Mark tended the grilled cheese. Then "Walk This Way" came on while Mark was tossing the salad and Sören said, "Oh, this is the perfect song for tossing salad," and Mark had to put his utensils down, leaning on the counter.

"Sören, I swear to god..."

"Wait, I can make this worse."

Sören ran down to the bedroom and came back with the glass dildo, playing air guitar on it as he danced around the kitchen. This time Sören got even more exaggerated, doing kicks and spinning, prancing into the living room where Mark could still see, prancing back. Wiggling his butt and sticking his tongue out.

When the song was over Mark threw a cherry tomato at Sören, who somehow managed to catch it with his mouth.

"Wow, I got pelted by a tomato," Sören said. "That must really have been awful."

"You are the worst." Mark pulled Sören to him and gave him a little kiss. "Don't ever change, Sören."

Sören kissed him back, harder.

They had their meal on the deck, watching the sunset. Sören allowed himself a glass of moscato, and Mark had two. In addition to the grilled cheese and salad Mark put out a small bowl of olives and another small bowl of nuts. "I like deez nuts," Sören said, making Mark facepalm, almost spilling wine on himself as he shook with laughter.

After dinner and dishes, Sören and Mark took a walk on the beach together, the last light fading to twilight. They watched the first stars come out, and with the tide washing over their bare feet in the sand they held each other and kissed. They looked into each other's eyes, and with Mark's hair stirring in the breeze, he stroked Sören's face and they kissed again. The moment was absolutely perfect, and Sören knew once again I want to spend my life with this man. He got the wild urge to ask Mark to marry him, and he choked it back, fearing rejection if Mark wasn't quite so serious about him... and not wanting to break the spell of the moment with words.

They went back up to the house in silence, and once they got in, Sören said, "I'm gonna take a shower and then maybe we can have dessert?"

Mark smiled. "Sounds good."

Sören came into Mark's bedroom wearing just a towel, curls damp, beads of water clinging to him, feeling nice and relaxed from the shower... and he noticed the golden glow of the bedroom. Mark had lit candles around the dresser and on the bedtable. Mark himself was laying on the bed naked, with a tray of a bowl of strawberries, a bowl of whipped cream, and the can of whipped cream itself next to him.

And Mark was already hard.

Sören's breath hitched. "Oh, my."

Sören let the towel drop to the floor and climbed onto the bed, climbing over Mark. As they kissed, Sören reached for the stained glass box on the bedtable and flipped it open to retrieve the lube. He grinned at the view of the man in the mirror - also feeling a sharp pang of relief, remembering the sadness at the end of their last show. He wondered what the man's deal was, why he was so sad... where he was even watching from, and why. He wondered about that reference to worlds, that he'd done things with Sören and Mark in the flesh elsewhere. He was distracted by Mark kissing his neck, then going for a nipple, lapping it hungrily.

Before Mark could go too far, Sören dipped a strawberry in whipped cream and brought it to Mark's lips. Then Mark fed Sören a cream-dipped strawberry. They took turns giving each other strawberries, licking and sucking the juices and cream from each other's fingers, kissing between strawberries.

Sören wanted more. He wanted to love this beautiful man, express his passion. He began to arrange strawberries over Mark's body - a line of seven strawberries down his chest and stomach, one on each nipple, three on each thigh. He took the can of whipped cream, shook it, and coated Mark's torso and thighs. Mark grinned at him, and then he took the can from Sören and sprayed whipped cream over his own cock. Sören giggled, and gave Mark a little kiss, that quickly became deeper, more passionate.

Sören took his sweet time licking up the whipped cream, eating the strawberries off Mark's body. When Sören's mouth took a strawberry on Mark's nipple, and started to lick his nipple clean from the juices and cream, the sounds Mark made went right to Sören's cock. He got a wicked idea, and reached into the stained glass box again, for the glass dildo. Mark watched as Sören sucked on it - Sören held it to Mark's lips so he could also suck on it a little - and, with the dildo nice and wet, Sören brought it down between Mark's legs and began to work it in and out of his channel, slowly, as he continued to eat the strawberries and whipped cream off Mark. Mark arched to him, panting, groaning, crying out as Sören worked on his other nipple, and his tongue teased his chest and stomach with slow, sensuous strokes, continuing to work the toy slowly in and out.

When Sören's head lowered to Mark's stomach, he took a strawberry between his teeth and came up to lower his head to Mark's, bringing the strawberry in his mouth to Mark's mouth. Mark took a bite and they kissed, sharing the strawberry between them. Sören did this with each of the strawberries on Mark's stomach. He saved the strawberries on Mark's thighs for himself - but now he came up with cream on his tongue, for Mark to lick off his tongue, their tongues rubbing together before they kissed. The toy still moved slowly in and out of Mark, whose moans were getting louder. Mark gasped when Sören at last began to lick the whipped cream from his cock, and he bucked up against Sören with a cry, grabbing Sören's curls as Sören took Mark into his mouth, moving the toy just a little harder and faster but still on the slow side, teasing and teasing.

At last Mark could take no more and he pulled Sören off his cock. "Your turn," he said, a predatory look in his eyes.

Sören pulled the glass dildo out of Mark, and Mark took it away, holding it in one hand as the other arranged all but the last three strawberries over Sören's body, and then he vigorously shook the can of whipped cream and smothered Sören in it. He gave Sören the same treatment, the dildo playing in and out of him exquisitely, excruciatingly slowly, teasing his prostate as Mark's tongue teased the rest of his body, eating strawberries from him - sometimes carrying a strawberry in his mouth up to Sören's mouth for them to share - and lapping and lapping the whipped cream, licking him clean. Mark's tongue lingered on Sören's nipples, and later his cock, bathing it, worshiping it. Sören writhed, gasping for breath, begging "please, please, fuck me..." but Mark showed no sign of giving in anytime soon. When Sören got particularly loud, Mark grabbed the can of whipped cream again and gave Sören a wicked grin as he coated Sören's body a second time, moving the dildo even more slowly inside him - and twisting it back and forth, driving Sören crazier - as he licked Sören all over once again. Here and there he came up with whipped cream on his tongue, Sören licking it off, their tongues rubbing together playfully before Mark slid back down to pick up where he'd left off on Sören's body.

Sören was a quivering, whimpering wreck by the time Mark was ready for something more. He came up to kiss Sören, and kissed and licked Sören's neck, still working the toy in and out as slow as could please. "Shall I replace this with the real thing now?" Mark whispered before he took a nibble at Sören's neck.

Sören gave him a murderous glare. "I've only been begging for the last hour or so."

Mark laughed and kissed the tip of Sören's nose. "You beg so prettily, my sweet. I couldn't help myself."

Sören nipped Mark's lower lip with a growl. "You. Inside me. Now."

Mark laughed and gave an exaggerated sigh. "As you wish."

Mark's choice of words touched Sören and he threw his arms and legs around Mark, kissing him hard. They both moaned into the kiss and then Sören whispered, "I love you too," as Mark pulled back.

Sören groaned at the feel of lube pouring inside him, and again when he felt the head of Mark's cock at his opening. Mark pushed into him slowly, kissing him, and when Mark was all the way inside he breathed, "I love you, Sören."

"I love you, Mark." Sören's arms went around him again. "So much."

Mark fucked him slowly at first, kissing Sören's mouth, his neck, his nipples. Sören moaned at the slow, sweet rubbing inside him and the magic of Mark's lips and tongue over him. When Mark nibbled on a nipple before tugging the ring with his teeth, Sören gasped and bucked, nails raking Mark's back. Mark laughed softly and soothed with his tongue, before giving the other nipple the same treatment with his teeth, eyes blazing.

Lost in sensation and lust, Sören found himself grabbing the glass dildo again. He reached around and shoved it into Mark's ass. Mark gasped and then gave a little cry as Sören started working it in and out of him, harder and faster than before, but not too fast... not yet. With the slow, languid pace of Mark's thrusts inside him, Sören matched the rhythm as he pushed and pulled the dildo, and soon they were trembling, panting, and Mark started fucking him harder.

At last Mark was nailing him, pounding him into the mattress, and Sören worked the dildo as hard as he could, fucking Mark right back. Mark was even louder than usual, and Sören loved it, knowing how good it had to feel, Mark's cock and prostate getting pleasured at the same time. Sören's arousal intensified at the sight and sound of Mark completely lost in fucking and being fucked, and when Mark began stroking Sören's cock in time with his thrusts, the volume of Sören's cries rivaled Mark's own. It felt so good to unleash like this, to completely lose control together.

Sören climaxed first, shooting all over Mark, and that set off Mark a few seconds later, spending into him with a hoarse shout. Mark collapsed on top of him and they kissed - Sören gave a last few slow strokes with the dildo for good measure, gratified by the way Mark shook against him and made a whimper and a groan. Sören pulled the dildo out and Mark's face was in Sören's shoulder; Sören pet his beautiful mane as Mark caught his breath. His heart soared as Mark whispered, "I love you, baby. I love you..."

There were three strawberries left in the bowl, and just a little whipped cream. When Mark came to he dipped a strawberry in the cream and they shared it, kissing. Then they shared the other, and the kiss was more heated this time. Sören's cock woke up again, and Mark stroked their cocks together until Sören started trembling, let out a whimper.

Mark rolled onto his back and Sören climbed atop him. He watched Mark's eyes as he poured lube inside him, and continued to hold Mark's gaze as he pushed into him. When Sören was all the way inside, he rested - Mark felt so delicious, and he didn't want to blow his load too quickly - and Mark's arms were tight around him. "I love you, Sören," he said, kissing Sören's forehead. "Love you so much..."

Sören started to thrust, slowly. Giving Mark the same teasing treatment he'd had, going as slowly as he could, groaning at the feel of that sweet tight velvet heat wrapped around him, kissing his cock. He couldn't help but quicken his pace just a little when Mark pushed the dildo into him, pleasuring his sensitized prostate. But it was still slow and sensual, and Sören reveled in Mark's moans, Mark's whispers of "that's it, Sören, just like that, baby, you feel so good..."

Sören sprayed more whipped cream onto Mark's chest, feasting on his nipples. Mark loved it, his cries more urgent, his hips rocking back at Sören's, urging him on faster. Sören finally gave in, too turned on by Mark's noises and the sight of Mark lost in lust and pleasure, the sight of his nipples peaked, glistening from his tongue. And then Sören went harder and faster still, the beast in him awakened by Mark's screams, Mark bucking against him, Mark reaming the dildo in and out of him. Sören propped Mark's legs on his shoulders and took him as hard as he could, balls slapping against Mark's ass, giving deep, primal grunts as he fucked away, the pleasure almost too much to bear, the passion consuming him, wanting to devour Mark alive. Mark somehow still managed to reach to fuck Sören hard with the dildo, making Sören growl at the rhythm on his prostate. He was so close soclosesoclose... "God, I love fucking you like this," Sören rasped.

"You're such a beast. I love it." Mark shuddered.

"You're my beauty." Sören stroked Mark's face.

Mark took Sören's hand and kissed it, eyes blazing his soul. Sören almost came just from the look in Mark's eyes. The moment of tenderness made Sören slow down - teasing them both - and then Sören reached for the last strawberry. Mark took a bite, and then he did. They kissed deeply, moaning into the kiss, Mark's arms holding him tight, the dildo slowing down inside him...

...and then Mark worked the dildo in and out of him savagely. Sören howled and sped up, driving into Mark with abandon. One of Sören's hands reached to stroke Mark in time with his thrusts, his hand a blur, Mark's cock rattling, and the other grabbed a lock of Mark's hair, pulling hard. Mark's hips slammed against him, giving back as good as he got, the slap of their flesh almost as loud as their cries.

Sören leaned in to give Mark one last kiss, knowing he wouldn't last much longer, and his hand let go of Mark's hair and clamped on Mark's throat, not enough to choke him, just enough to feel possessive, dominant. For all that Sören liked Mark dominating him, now it was his turn, and it was that which set Mark off, screaming out "Sören, Sören, yes, yes" as he shot all over Sören's chest and stomach. The sight and feeling of Mark's cum splashing over his nipples, watching Mark in the throes of passion, the sounds of it, feeling Mark contract around him... Sören gave in, howling with pleasure, coming so hard it almost hurt, a full-body orgasm, cock and prostate throbbing together. Sören took a last few brutal thrusts, crying out with each one, before he fell into Mark's waiting arms, shuddering, gasping as his orgasm pulsed on and on.

"Oh, baby," Mark whispered. "Oh, baby, I love you. You were so good."

"That was fucking hot." Sören kissed him hard. "I hope I didn't hurt you."

"I might be a little sore later but that was so worth it." Mark kissed him more softly.

For awhile they just held each other, coming down from their intense climax, and then Mark collected some of the dregs of whipped cream from the bowl with his fingers and brought them to Sören's lips. The act of sucking on Mark's fingers made Sören harden up again, and Mark smiled knowingly.

Mark picked the bowl up, and Sören started licking the bowl like he was a dog or a cat. Sören giggled, wrinkling his nose, and Mark pet and skritched Sören's curls and his beard. "That's a good boy," Mark said.

For some reason Sören's cock twinged at that even more. And then, seeing the heat in Mark's eyes, he knew what Mark wanted, and god, he wanted it too.

Sören got on all fours, giving Mark a sassy butt wiggle before Mark got on his knees behind him and slapped Sören's ass. Sören moaned, and leaned face down in the pillows, making his ass come up some more. He cried out as Mark's fingers teased around the outer rim of his opening, and then just rubbed against it. "Oh god, Mark, please, take me..."

Mark teased a moment longer, until Sören was rubbing his ass against him, panting, begging for it. He panted "yes, yes, yes" as he felt the tip of Mark's cock at his opening, and let out a cry of "yes" when Mark pushed inside.

Mark grabbed Sören's hips as he started to thrust. "Such a good boy."

"Oh god, yes..."

Mark slapped Sören's ass. "It was fun when you turned the tables... and now it's time for me to take charge again."

"Mmmmmmm, god, yes, please, Mark..." Sören shuddered, wanting it, rocking his hips against Mark's, fucking himself on Mark's cock.

"Need to take care of what's mine."

Sören whimpered into the pillows. The only thing more delicious to Sören than eating strawberries and cream from Mark's body was when he got dominant like this. Sören never thought he'd be into it, after what happened with Seth, but he trusted Mark, felt so safe with his big, strong, protective man...

"Oh, Mark." Sören moaned, and again when one of Mark's hands reached around to start stroking his cock.

"Yes, baby."

"God, fuck me..." Sören shuddered. The angle of this position was doing amazing things to his prostate. "Fuck me, fuck me... more, I need more..."

"As much as you need, baby. We can go all night if you want."

The rest of my life. Please.

Chapter Text

Anytime, Anyplace




Sören smiled as he woke up yet again to Mark's kisses, his giggles becoming moans as Mark kissed his neck and shoulder, rubbing against him. Sören loved feeling how hard Mark was for him already, hardness that his body quickly returned, Sören letting out a deep groan as their mouths met once more and Sören's cock sprang to life, throbbing urgently.

"Want you," Mark ground out, before taking a lick at Sören's neck.

"You can have me," Sören husked, taking Mark's face in his hands, and kissed him deeply. "Any way you want me."

Mark kissed him back. "I want to taste you."

"Mmmmm, yes." Sören rolled onto his back and arched to him. "Please."

Usually Mark took his sweet time getting there, kissing and licking Sören all over, but now he slid right down and Sören gasped as he watched Mark's lips wrap around his cock, hungrily taking as much as he could into his mouth. Sören moaned and clutched Mark's head, bucking up against him, and bucked again as Mark began sucking him hard and fast, fucking Sören with his mouth, like he was starving for it.

Sören loved it. He'd had a lot of blowjobs over the years, and some of them had even been good blowjobs... and then there was Mark. Mark's oral skills were second to none, and already this was one of the best blowjobs he'd ever had. Mark was working his tongue as he sucked, now, and Sören was trembling, even his thighs quivering, white-knuckled. "Ohgod," Sören panted. "Ohgod... Mark... oh fuck..."

"Mmmmmmmmm." Their eyes met. The look of lust in those silver eyes almost set Sören off right then.

Sören started to roll his hips, gently thrusting into Mark's mouth. Mark's sucking became even more eager, and Sören gasped for breath. Now he was whimpering, so close...

Mark couldn't resist teasing just a little. He let Sören's cock slip from his mouth and lapped at it, making Sören howl with frustration. Mark laughed softly before his tongue licked at the sensitive frenulum. "We'll get there, baby. Soon."

Sören growled, and Mark responded by taking the ring of Sören's Prince Albert piercing between his teeth and giving a playful little tug. Sören gave a cry - aroused not just by the sensation, but by how hot that looked - and he cried out again as Mark licked up the precum that pooled down his cock.

Mark gave another little tug at the ring in the head of Sören's cock, groaning in response to Sören's moan, before taking Sören's cock back into his mouth and sucking away. Sören grabbed the headboard, breathing so hard he was heaving. He shivered again, thighs bearing down, the tension squeezing his balls. "Oh fuck. Ohfuckohgodohfuck... Mark... fuck..." The pleasure and tension was coursing down his spine, filling his balls, his cock almost painful in its need for release.

Mark kept him on that edge, until Sören shook and managed to get out a deep, guttural, "OhgodMark I'm gonna... oh, fuuuuuuuuckk..." just before his orgasm pulled him under.

He felt like couldn't stop coming, and Mark drank him down, swallowing and lapping up all Sören had to give. A few last teasing licks at the head of Sören's cock, giving him aftershocks as Mark's tongue collected the last of the cum, and then Mark husked, "You are fucking delicious," before coming up to kiss Sören.

Sören's orgasm was intense enough that normally he'd want to lay there blissed out for awhile, maybe doze off again, but the wicked look in Mark's eyes made him hungry. Sören shoved Mark onto his back with a growl, and quickly scooted down to take Mark's hard, dripping cock in his mouth, eyes locking with Mark's as he began to suck, feeling almost furious in his need to return pleasure.

"Oh, Sören." Mark grabbed Sören's curls, gently thrusting into Sören's mouth. "Oh, love."

Sören rubbed his tongue as he sucked, knowing how Mark liked it. One of Sören's hands cupped Mark's balls and slowly rubbed, and the fingers of the other played around the rim of Mark's opening, tracing it, rubbing against it, just shy of dipping inside. His hands went slow as his mouth went fast and hard, devouring, feasting.

It didn't take long for Sören to bring Mark to that edge where he was a shaking, panting, incoherent wreck, eyes feverish. Sören loved the sight of him wild and out of control, the sounds he made as he pushed ever closer to surrender. It made Sören harden up again, rubbing against the bed. And when Sören pushed his fingers inside Mark, finding that sweet spot right away, rubbing it, Mark gasped out, "Sören... oh god, Sören, I'm gonna come..."

"Mmmmmmmm. Mmmmhmmm." Sören wanted it, greedy for it.

Mark came with a cry. Feeling Mark contract and pulse against his fingers as his sweet cream flowed, Sören almost came too. He drank it up, savoring the taste of the man he loved, and as he watched Mark's cock continue to drip its seed and chased it with his tongue, Sören's fingers pulled out of Mark and latched around his own cock, stroking himself. He needed more.

Mark rested for a moment - Sören pet him with his free hand, buried his nose in Mark's hair. Then Mark noticed Sören playing and Mark's hand covered Sören's on his cock, making Sören groan appreciatively.

"You," Mark said, sucking Sören's lower lip into his mouth before letting it go, "are insatiable." He kissed Sören, and Sören grinned as they nuzzled.

"You make me insatiable," Sören said.

They kissed again, and then Mark started to move into the sixty-nine position, and Sören moaned. He moaned again as he swallowed down Mark's cock, and felt Mark's mouth on his.

They sucked more slowly and languidly this time, and there was a lot more teasing, licking each other's cocks and balls. Sören was content to spend the entire day in bed, hours if necessary, enjoying the journey of sex as much as the destination of orgasm. Mark had a beautiful cock and he loved worshiping it, and feeling his own cock worshiped in return.

But there was only so long they could play like this before they couldn't take it anymore, fucking each other's mouths, sucking hungrily, completely lost in sensation and lust and passion. Sören came first, screaming around the cock in his mouth, and a few seconds later he was rewarded with Mark flooding his mouth too, moaning around him, both of them shaking with the force of their release, toes curling. They took each other's hands, and after Sören drank all he could he made soft little moans and sighs as his orgasm continued to throb, at last coming down into that wonderful floaty, glowy place of perfect peace.

Mark came up, snuggled against him, and they kissed. Sören loved the way they tasted the lingering flavor of each other in the kiss, tasting good together.

They were very, very good together.

Sören and Mark smiled at each other, nuzzled, and curled up together, an arm around each other, legs entwined. Sören started to doze off, and then he heard loud pounding at the door.

Mark raised an eyebrow, and looked at Sören, and then sat up. Another round of banging at the door.

"Jesus, I hope that's not neighbors complaining about the noise we made last night." Sören giggled.

Mark laughed too, and threw on a robe. He went to the door and Sören heard an exchange of male voices that sounded pleasant enough, a "sign here," and then Mark telling whoever it was to have a nice day.

"Oh Sören," Mark called down from the living room. "You have a package that came all the way from Reykjavik, Iceland."

Sören let out an excited yell, threw on a T-shirt and boxer-briefs, and tore down the hall, though not as fast as he would have liked, trying to be mindful of his asthma. He let out a squeak as he took the package from Mark, and Mark grinned.

"You're so cute," Mark said.

"I need a scissor," Sören said.

Mark went to the kitchen and came back with scissors and Sören's morning meds. Sören cut off the brown paper wrapped around the box, then took his meds as he saw he was going to have to cut open the box itself.

"I'm gonna jump in the shower," Mark said.

"Oh... all right." Sören felt a little disappointed - at some point he wanted to shower with Mark - but it was perhaps just as well because he'd just want to march Mark back to bed and he really wanted to see what was in Ari's care package.

Sören finally got the box open as the shower started down the hall. There were two bubble-wrapped bottles of Applesin, an orange soda popular in Iceland. A package of Froskur, a chocolate-covered green goo candy shaped like a frog. A box of Nóa Konfekt, fine chocolates in a box with a picture of an Icelandic landscape on the box. Underneath the box of chocolates was an English-language copy of The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, with a handwritten post-it note on the cover that said Nokkur létt sumarlestur, LOL! "Yeah, light summer reading," Sören said with an eyeroll, having heard the book was a bit dense. Next to the book was the pièce de résistance - a bag of Appolo brand licorice. Sören let out another squeak and actually hugged and kissed the bag of licorice. It wasn't that licorice candy was unavailable in the States but nothing was really quite like what he could get back home. And Icelanders loved their licorice.

Sören put the bottles of Applesin in the fridge. Since it was still morning, he was hesitant about having any of the candy, but then he said to himself, "Fuck it, part of being an adult means I can have candy for breakfast if I fucking want to," and when Mark came down the hall fresh from the shower in jeans, shirtless and pulling on a T-shirt, he saw Sören eating a Froskur.

Mark gave him a disapproving look. "What are you doing?"

Sören proffered a Froskur. "Try one."

Mark pulled one out of the bag. "Frogs?" He bit into it. "Dear god, why is it green."

Sören snickered, enjoying Mark's reaction. "Mmmmmmmmmmmmm."

"I wondered if you and Björk were just, like, anomalies, but no, apparently your entire country is weird," Mark said, finishing the frog candy.

"Takk." Sören had another Froskur. "God, I haven't had one of these in ages. I'm becoming a citizen next year, but goddamn sometimes I get homesick."

"I bet," Mark said. "What else did you get?"

"Couple bottles of soda which are in the fridge - probably need to calm down from being shaken up in transit - and a book, and some more candy." Sören showed off the Appolo licorice.

"Oh my," Mark said. "You know, I haven't met too many Americans who like licorice."

"Neither have I," Sören said. "Seth thought it was disgusting." He made a face.

"Seth is disgusting," Mark said, "so his opinion doesn't count."

"I take it you like it then?" Sören perked up.

"I'm not usually hugely into sweets, but it's an acquired taste I picked up when I was in Germany."

"Oh... in the service?"

Mark didn't answer that. "Can I try one?"

Sören opened the Appolo, and Mark took a piece. Then he said, "I've been wanting to bake you cookies for awhile, and I think I know what recipe to try now."

"That's so sweet of you," Sören said.

"Well, you know." Mark smiled. "I want to do nice things for you."

"I'm keeping you," Sören blurted out.

"Good."

Sören's heart skipped a beat, then beat a little faster, his stomach fluttering. They hadn't talked about the future yet - what would happen after this summer - and Sören was still afraid of that conversation. Sören was absolutely sure he wanted to marry Mark, and his desire for that scared him, thinking if he said anything Mark would feel they were moving too fast. But this right here - Mark's "good" to Sören's "I'm keeping you" - this gave him hope that maybe Mark did want this to be long-term, wanted to settle down.

Their eyes met and held, a long moment where it seemed like both of them were reflecting on that exchange.

"So, ah, the cookies," Mark said. "I'll have to go to the store to pick up ingredients -"

"OK, we can do that. I'll take a shower too and then we can go? Maybe go for a little drive first?"

Sören put everything but the licorice back in the box and brought the box to the bedroom, then showered, brushed his teeth, and put on cargo shorts and a black T-shirt.

Mark drove them to the Marin Headlands, since it was a nice sunny day and they'd have a good view of the San Francisco Bay. They hiked up Hawk Hill and sat together on the hill top, snuggling as they took in the view. A blue butterfly came over and rested on Mark's finger, and the serene smile on Mark's face, his hair stirring in the breeze, added to the beauty of the moment, taking Sören's breath away. He burned the image into his memory, wanting to paint that someday.

When the butterfly flittered off Sören took Mark's face in his hands and kissed him hard and deep. Mark moaned into the kiss, and again when Sören shoved him onto his back. They were in a public place - there was no one else around right now, but someone else could come up the hill at any time and catch them, and Sören didn't care. He undid Mark's jeans, freed Mark's cock, and when Mark gasped, "oh god yes," Sören dove down, sucking, needing to express his love this way, the all-consuming passion that Mark roused in him. He felt alive again, after months of grief following the trauma and tragedy of Seth. He wanted to share that feeling of being hungry for life, the glory of these little moments that made life worth living. And as Mark's breath caught, his eyes looking at Sören like he was the only thing in the world as Sören sucked away, Sören got the sense Mark was feeling it too.

Sören brought him off quickly, Mark grabbing his head and bucking with a loud cry as he climaxed. Sören swallowed, and then as he lapped up the last of the cream, he couldn't help but give tender little kisses over Mark's spent cock, which made Mark laugh and pet Sören's curls before pulling him up, pulling him close.

"I love you, baby." Mark held Sören, rocked him, nuzzled his curls.

"I love you too." Sören was hard from sucking Mark off, but he could wait, for now, not wanting to break the spell of this moment of sweetness... and what he'd done had been a gift, wanting to take care of Mark for once, who had taken such good care of him.

Sören managed to calm his libido - for now - by the time they got back in the car.

The trip to the store wasn't long, and when they were at the house again, Mark wanted to get right to work with the cookies. Sören handed over the bag of Appolo licorice and then stretched out on the bed with The Silmarillion but a few pages in his eyes began to glaze over, and he said "haha nope" to himself as he tucked the book away under the box of chocolates. Though he found the idea of the Music beautiful, Eru and the Valar didn't interest him, coming up against that resistance Sören had to religion and the concept of gods. There was something else about the whole Valar business which made him bristly, that he couldn't quite put his finger on, and he didn't want to try to poke at it right now.

Sören strode out to the kitchen. The oven was pre-heating and Mark had his ingredients assembled, starting to mix things together to make the dough. "I came to help," Sören said.

"OK, go wash your hands first," Mark said.

Sören blew a raspberry.

"I don't know where those hands have been," Mark teased. "Handling frog guts again, or something."

"Delicious, delicious frog guts." Sören turned on the sink and began to wash his hands, smiling at the soap bubbles floating.

"You are so weird."

Sören splashed Mark.

Mark came over and slapped Sören's ass. Sören's cock started again at that, and Sören gave a sassy butt wiggle. When Mark came over to put a wet finger in Sören's ear, Sören splashed him again, and then rubbed his ass against Mark.

Mark groaned, and Sören grinned as he felt Mark hard against him. Sören rubbed his ass up on Mark's cock more insistently. "Mmmmmmm," Sören purred.

"You know," Mark rasped, "you're incorrigible."

"Takk."

Mark's arms came around Sören from behind, and he began kissing and licking Sören's neck. He pulled Sören closer to him, and Sören continued rubbing his ass against Mark's hard-on, and now Mark was grinding against him as well. "I love it when you're all slutty like this," Mark whispered, before taking a nibble at Sören's neck.

"Mmmm, you get me hot." Sören moaned as Mark kissed his neck some more. Sören's own cock was throbbing, his balls tight and aching for release. "I love being a slut for you."

And it was true. In the last few months of his relationship with Seth, Sören was repulsed by him, couldn't get it up - Seth had complained about him "laying there like a dead fish". Now, it felt like it never went back down for very long. Sören felt wanton, shameless... like he was in heat. He loved that Mark made him feel that way. It was intoxicating.

"You'd let me take it right now if I wanted to, wouldn't you?" Mark rasped, between kisses at Sören's neck.

"I'd let you take it anytime, anyplace," Sören said, tilting his face, reaching up around Mark to pull him in for a kiss.

That did it. Mark undid Sören's belt, and the button and zipper of Sören's cargo shorts, yanking them down. Then the boxer-briefs as well. Sören's cock twinged again, and now his hole twitched too, wanting Mark in him, needing to be taken, used, fucked. He let out a little whimper as he heard Mark undo his own jeans, and he cried out as he felt Mark's cock rubbing into the crack of his ass. "Oh god, please..." Sören turned off the faucet and grabbed onto the edge of the sink, rubbing back at him. "Please, fuck me..."

"Shit. I need to get lube but I don't want to kill the moment," Mark said, continuing to rub, his arms tightening around Sören, a hand slipping down to play with Sören's cock.

Then Mark said "aha," and he moved Sören over to the counter near the sink and let go for a moment - just a few seconds was too long, but then Sören saw a metal bowl in front of him on the counter, filled with melted butter. Sören let out a wild, hysterical laugh, and then he stopped laughing and let out a moan as he felt fingers slick with warm melted butter push into him.

"Oh, fuck," Sören gasped. "This is so kinky..."

Mark picked up the bowl, poured butter over his hand, and Sören heard the sound of Mark preparing his own cock behind him. Then Mark buttered his hand again and reached around to grab Sören's cock as the tip of Mark's cock began to push against his opening.

Mark buried his face in Sören's curls, tenderly kissing the top of Sören's head as he pushed inside. Sören pushed out as Mark pushed in, and gasped when Mark breached the tight anal ring, gasping again as Mark bottomed out in him, all the way inside. Mark rested there for a moment, panting, making deep, shuddery gasps of his own. Then he rasped, "I love you so much, Sören," before he bent Sören over and had his way with him, thrusting hard.

Sören loved it, rocking his hips back at Mark, grabbing onto the counter white-knuckled. "Oh shit, oh god, yes, fuck me," Sören cried out. He was absolutely frantic for this. There was no fear, no pain. Only pleasure, lust, wild animal need. Mark's cock worked magic on his prostate from this angle, and Mark's hand stroking his cock - slick with butter - made it that much better. And Sören felt free. He never thought he'd want to be bent over something, after what happened, and yet here he was, Mark's cock slamming away inside him, and he loved it. Sören let out a cry, urging Mark on faster, rocking his hips harder, their balls slapping together. "I need this, I need it, more, god, more..."

"Oh, fuck, Sören." Mark's grip tightened on Sören's cock. "Oh, Hells, I want you..."

"Want you so bad." Sören gave a shuddery sigh. "Want you to fuck me and fuck me and fuck me..."

Mark groaned, and he started stroking Sören's cock furiously, with it making an obscene wet sound slick from the butter. "Sören. Oh god. I'm already so close..."

"So am I." Sören shivered, continuing to buck against Mark, who matched his rhythm. "You fuck me so good, you're gonna make me come so fucking hard..."

"God, I want to make you come." Mark slapped Sören's ass.

"Almost there." Sören shivered again. His balls were tightening almost unbearably, and the rubbing inside him and around his cock was too good. And god, he loved being taken like this, by the man he loved.

Mark grabbed Sören's curls with the hand that hadn't been buttered. "Come. For. Me. Now."

Sören screamed as he climaxed, shooting all over the counter, even into the butter. He laughed and cried, the silliness of where his cum had gone, and the euphoria of his orgasm, that feeling of complete surrender to the man he trusted...

"Sören. Oh, Sören, fuck!" Mark trembled against him as he took three last sharp thrusts, and Sören groaned as he felt Mark spending into him, gasped as the hot cum flowed over his sensitized prostate. He loved that feeling.

They caught their breath for a minute, then Sören rose up, and Mark's arms lifted from Sören's waist to wrap around his chest, holding him tight. Sören tilted his face so they could kiss. They kissed and kissed, and in those kisses Sören felt his cock start up again, wanting another round. Sören took Mark's hand and guided it down there, letting Mark feel.

"This is what you do to me," Sören husked.

"Fuck, baby."

Sören let out a little whimper of protest as Mark pulled out of him, and then a gasp as Mark almost violently shoved the bowl of butter farther off to the side. He gasped again when Mark came around to face him, picked him up, and put him down so Sören was sitting on the counter. Then, after a passionate kiss, he gently pushed Sören down, and propped Sören's legs up on his shoulders.

Sören cried out as Mark pushed into him again, also hard once more. It was another hard, wild fuck, with Mark driving into him furiously, stroking Sören's cock in time with his thrusts. The intense look on Mark's face, almost angry, got Sören right on that edge right away. It felt so good, and Mark was so hot, taking him savagely like this, that Sören couldn't help the noises he made, screaming as he rocked his hips back at Mark. The sound of Mark's balls slapping against him and the slick suctioning sound of their fuck competed with Sören's screams, making Sören feel even more wanton and out of control.

When Sören was ready to shoot, Mark aimed Sören's cock so it wouldn't get on his T-shirt, and Sören came all over his own shirt and the wall behind the counter. Sören laughed and cried again, amused by the mess he made, and how good it was to just let go. His laughter became moans as Mark cried out and spent into him again, leaning against the counter as he shook, gasping for breath.

Their eyes met, and Sören sat up and pet Mark's face and hair. They kissed sweetly, softly, then more deeply. Sören collected the cum that continued to drip down his cock and stuck his fingers in Mark's mouth. Watching the look of heat on Mark's face as he tasted Sören again, Sören found himself twinging, wanting more, and Sören knew Mark could feel his hole twitching around the cock still inside him. Sören grabbed Mark and kissed him again.

Mark picked Sören up off the counter and carried him like he weighed nothing across the kitchen. "Put your arms around my back and legs around my waist," Mark growled.

Sören did, and Mark slammed him against the wall, kissing him hungrily. Then Mark pushed into him again.

With Sören wrapped around Mark, his back against the wall, Mark took him hard, kissing him passionately. Sören moaned into each kiss, cried out when Mark found the right rhythm on that place inside him, before Mark kissed him again, groaning along with Sören's moans.

Being taken up against the wall was just as hot to Sören as being fucked on the counter, if not hotter. He couldn't believe that after all the sex this morning, now here they were again and this was round three in the kitchen. He hadn't felt this randy since he was in his early twenties. But it was better, now - an act of love. Magnificent obsession.

"I love you," Sören panted between kisses.

"I love you." Mark kissed him again. "I love you..."

They kissed harder, like they were trying to devour each other. Mark sped up inside him, his strong arms holding Sören safe, as Sören clung to him. As hard as Mark was pounding into him, it still felt loving. Like the frantic, desperate love of two people who had been separated for a very long time, and reunited. Sören felt like he was coming home, to a home he didn't even know he had. He never wanted to stop kissing Mark, never wanted Mark to stop thrusting inside him, that sweet, sweet rubbing, stoking a wild, brilliant fire...

"More," Sören panted. "More, more, more..."

That word was like a mantra of power, surrendering more fully each time, and it also seemed to be like an aphrodisiac to Mark, who growled and nibbled and licked Sören's neck. At last their mouths met again and after a few more hungry kisses Mark whispered, "Come with me, baby."

It was that last climax that finally shattered them, slaking the unquenchable thirst for now. Sören sobbed with joy as he felt the deep, deep relief of orgasm wash over him, a full-body release. It felt so good to be alive.

Mark kissed his tears. Somehow, Mark had carried him into the living room, and Mark was cradling Sören on his lap, rocking him. "Oh, Sören."

"Thank you," Sören whispered.

Now it was Mark's turn to laugh. "Thank you. God, Sören. Fucking Hells, Sören, that was wild."

Sören grinned. They shared a little kiss, and Mark pet Sören's face, his curls. He kissed the tip of Sören's nose. "I can't get over how passionate you are," Mark said. "I'd say you're a little firecracker but it's more like a fucking nuke."

"I could say the same thing about you." Sören rubbed noses with him.

"It's rare to find someone who can keep up with me."

"Same here."

They kissed again, and Mark pulled Sören close, rocking him. "I think I'm keeping you too," Mark told him.

Sören tried not to cry. He knew Mark wouldn't mind if he did, but he didn't want to fall apart right now. Instead, he went for his usual coping method. "Hi Keeping You Too."

Mark took Sören's chin in his hand and gave him a murderous look. Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip, and booped Mark's nose.

Then Mark said, "Shit, I need to get back to these cookies."

"You, ah. Might need to refresh the butter." Sören gave him a guilty look. "I came in the melted butter."

"I know." Mark rolled his eyes and laughed.

Sören sat in the kitchen - wincing every so often as he shifted position in the chair - and watched as Mark made almond licorice cookies with chopped up pieces of licorice. He didn't use the whole bag, which was a relief to Sören since he still wanted some of the candy on its own. As Mark began to put spoonfuls of dough on the cookie sheet, Sören used a fresh spoon to steal a bit of raw cookie dough. Mark glared.

"You know..."

"I know." Sören grinned.

Mark set the timer. Sören felt like getting high, and sat next to Mark and packed a bowl as Mark looked at the guide on TV to see what was on. Then Sören's eyes widened as he recognized a title.

"Holy shit, LazyTown? Is that what I think it is?"

Sören had seen the Icelandic-language version, Latibær. He was not quite eleven when the book came out that the show was based on, and he was not quite twenty when the show debuted - past its target audience, but he and Ari would toke up and watch it for amusement. It made him nostalgic now, missing Ari, almost as if Ari was hugging him from across the pond the day the package came.

Mark had of course never seen LazyTown, and Sören had never seen the English-language version. "We have to watch this," Sören told him. "It's an Icelandic show! It's called Latibær back home."

"I can't believe I'm doing this," Mark muttered.

"Hi Doing This -"

As they smoked a bowl together, Sören completely lost it, doubling over with laughter at the way the show changed from the Icelandic version to the English version.

"Sportacus," Sören howled. "They're... calling... him... fucking... Sportacus."

"What's his name in the Icelandic version?"

"Íþróttaálfurinn. He's an elf in the Icelandic version."

Mark raised an eyebrow.

"Look! His hat hides the tips of his ears." Sören pointed. "Robbie Rotten - who's Glanni Glæpur back home - calls him 'blue elf' in the Icelandic version. I don't know why they don't mention that he's an elf here, I guess an American audience wouldn't believe elves would like eating fruits and things like that, because you all have, like... Keebler elves baking cookies." Sören snickered as he took a hit from the bowl.

Mark gave Sören a weird look as he puffed and passed the pipe back to him.

When the cookies were done, Mark insisted that they cool for a few minutes, and then he brought a plate of cookies out for them to share.

"Oh god, these are so good," Sören said through a mouthful of cookie.

"I'm glad you like them and don't you even," Mark said, realizing that he'd said "I'm".

Sören gave him an innocent face. He had one last hit from the pipe before starting on another cookie. "There's something so wrong about us getting high and watching Latibær - er, LazyTown... eating cookies instead of 'sports candy'." Sören nibbled thoughtfully. "I've never been good at sports, with my asthma. I guess I fail at elfing. That's a word now."

Mark narrowed his eyes. "You what."

"Oh." Sören giggled. "Supposedly, my family has an elven ancestor. I say 'supposedly' because who the fuck knows, really, it was a long time ago, and Iceland had centuries of witch hysteria so people were seeing devils everywhere - and elves were 'devils' back in those days. Still, it's something my great-grandmother was really insistent about, according to my mamma, who told us about it when we were little. And my mamma believed it. She claimed she saw an elf and everything when she was a kid. Weird, huh?" Sören finished off his cookie and started another one. He noticed Mark was staring with his mouth open. "What, did I say something wrong?" He couldn't resist teasing. "You make a pretty good elf. You can bake cookies and you're athletic." He grinned.

Mark gave Sören another weird look. He got up, and when he came back, he had a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. He poured himself a shot glass.

"I know you're not really a drinker but it's there," Mark said, swirling the whiskey in his glass, inhaling.

It had been a long time since Sören had whiskey, and as he took a sip he remembered he didn't really like the taste. He got up, and came back with the two bottles of Applesin he had in the fridge, and two tumblers. He opened his bottle of Applesin - slowly - and Mark gave him a filthy look.

"What are you doing?" Mark asked.

Sören poured Applesin into the tumbler and dumped in the whiskey from his own shot glass. He sipped as Mark made a face. "You should try it, it's really good like this," Sören said.

"Sören, that is bright orange."

"So?"

"And you... you can't do that to whiskey. Especially not Auchentoshan."

"I'm doing it," Sören said. "Fucking watch me." He took another sip of the offending drink, smiling as Mark glared.

"You are unbelievable," Mark said.

Sören's response to that was to open the bottle he'd brought out for Mark, poured a tumbler, and dumped Mark's own shot glass into it. "Here. Live a little."

"Sören, I swear to god..."

"Skál." Sören bumped his glass against Mark's.

Mark rolled his eyes, muttered under his breath, and then he took a sip. He continued glaring as he drank, and it made Sören laugh even harder.

"Your face," Sören said. "Those eyebrows..."

"You are a brat."

But they finished their drinks, and then Sören kissed him. "See? That wasn't so bad." Sören kissed him again. "The kisses taste good."

Mark kissed him back. "You are the worst."

"I know." Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip.

Mark put Sören in a headlock and gave him a noogie.

A little while later they took their glasses off and curled up together on the couch. Sören felt a little sleepy from the combination of sex, weed, and whiskey, and he and Mark ended up taking a nap together. Some time later he woke up in Mark's arms, their legs braided, and Mark smiled when their eyes met.

"Have you been up long? You could have woken me if you needed to get up..."

Mark kissed Sören's brow. "Not long. Probably just a few minutes." Mark pet Sören's curls. "Wanted to watch you sleep. You're so pretty."

Sören smiled, feeling his cheeks flush. "So are you."

They kissed and then Mark said, "I can't get too worked up if we're having dinner."

"We can't just eat Froskur and the cookies?"

"No, Sören, we have to eat actual food, like, you know, adults." Mark sat up.

Sören dozed off on the couch again as Mark made dinner, and was woken up when it was ready. They ate on the deck, a Greek salad with grilled salmon. After dinner they took a walk on the beach together, and then Sören did dishes.

The storm of passion earlier had awakened the creative impulse in both of them, and Sören set up his canvas and paints while Mark played scales on the harp. Then Sören painted as Mark improvised on the harp, recording so he could make notations later. Sören continued work on the scene of Mark in the forest, which was getting close to being done. Mark's song went from somber to something uplifting and joyous, like coming out of the darkness to find light, and Sören's painting reflected that, where it seemed like Mark belonged in that landscape, as a part of nature as the trees.

It wasn't an all-nighter for once - they took a break to have more cookies, and then as Sören put his easel aside - not yet ready to show Mark that he'd been the subject of the painting, and Sören had turned him into an elf - Mark came over to Sören and took his hand.

Mark started the jacuzzi in the bathroom. It was only Sören's second time in the hot tub since he'd started renting this place. Sören had yet to do anything like bathe or shower with Mark, something he'd been keen on doing, but always missed opportunities. This wasn't quite the same thing, but it would do. They relaxed together, stretching out, leaning on each other. Sören melted into the heat and the bubbles. He melted some more as Mark gave him a little nudge forward and then, from behind him, began to rub Sören's shoulders. Sören moaned as Mark's lips brushed his neck, and louder as Mark started to kiss Sören's neck, continuing to rub his shoulders. Mark kissed the sweet spot where Sören's neck and shoulders met, and Sören's shoulders, as he rubbed Sören's back.

When they got out of the tub, Mark picked Sören up as he'd done that afternoon, but this time he carried Sören down the hall to the bedroom, looking into his eyes the entire time, tenderness and love instead of fierce hunger. He gently put Sören down on the bed and then he climbed on next to Sören.

"It's your turn," he husked, before kissing Sören deeply.

Sören rolled Mark onto his back and kissed, licked, and caressed his way down. He parted Mark's thighs and dipped his tongue into the channel, lapping slowly. The sound of Mark's moans made Sören reach down to lazily stroke himself, but he took his time, letting his tongue play inside Mark for awhile before doing more. When he was ready, he pulled his face back, slid up to take a few laps at the precum flowing down Mark's cock, and then he came up to kiss Mark.

Mark wordlessly reached for the lube Sören kept in the stained glass box, which was getting low, as Mark's own lube had already run out. Mark flipped open the bottle and poured lube onto Sören's cock, kissing him, and then remembering earlier in the kitchen, a fit of silliness overcame Sören and in his best attempt at a fake Italian accent like Fabio's, Sören blurted out, "I can't believe it's not butter."

Mark laughed so hard that he ended up upsetting the lube bottle, spilling the last of it all over both of them and the bed.

"Spray," Sören added.

Mark facepalmed, and doubled over, wheezing, finally screaming into the pillows as he shook with laughter.

"Why are you like this?" Mark asked him.

Sören shrugged.

"Well, I love you." Mark kissed him hard. "You bring joy to my life, and I didn't think that would ever be possible again after..." His voice trailed off.

Sören stroked Mark's face, and tenderly kissed his brow, then claimed his mouth with all the fire and passion that was in him. Mark's hand worked the lube that had been poured over Sören's cock, and then Sören pushed him back against the pillows and slid into place, the tip of his cock against Mark's opening. His eyes locked with Mark's as he pushed inside, his breath taken away at the look of love and trust in Mark's eyes as he went in, and at last the look of wonder and happiness on Mark's face as Sören bottomed out in him.

Sören took him slowly at first, which was exactly what they both needed. Their hands roamed over each other, caressing, feeling. They looked into each other's eyes, pet each other between kisses. Mark moaned as the ring in the head of Sören's cock rubbed that place inside him achingly slowly, teasing. Sören kissed Mark's neck, his shoulder, down to his nipples. As he licked and suckled Mark's nipples Mark rolled his hips just a little harder and faster - still keeping it slow - and Sören matched his rhythm. Mark's moans got louder, and Sören sighed, savoring each of them, the luscious feel of Mark wrapped around him, slowly rubbing his cock.

As time went on their kisses deepened, and Mark began to move faster under Sören, teasing him back by clenching his inner muscles around him. And faster still, until Sören lost control and grabbed one of Mark's legs, propping it up on his shoulders, and rocked into him harder and harder. Mark's cries almost set Sören off and he grit his teeth, holding back his climax, wanting Mark to come first. Mercifully that didn't take much longer - when his balls started slapping Mark's ass loudly, Mark gasped and tensed, and he clutched at Sören, panting "ohgodohgodohgod Sören yes..." and then he erupted, coming all over Sören and himself as he howled.

Sören came with a deep growl, collapsing onto Mark and shaking as his orgasm overtook him. He felt Mark's heart beating, felt Mark's arms around him, and Sören gasped for breath, legs kicking a little, toes curling as he continued to shoot off inside the pulsing channel of the man he loved.

They lay there for awhile, coming down, and then Mark kissed the top of Sören's head, picked Sören's head up, and grinned at him. He collected some of the cum that had landed on his own chest and stuck his fingers in Sören's mouth, and at the taste of him Sören moaned and felt himself start to get hard again. He couldn't believe it, how many times was this today?

And Mark was the one rolling him onto his back now - Sören still inside him - and Sören watched as Mark straddled his hips.

"We don't want the last of the lube to go to waste," Mark teased.

Sören laughed. "No, we don't."

Mark began to ride, and Sören moaned - the sight of Mark riding him, cock sliding in and out, Mark's gorgeous body in motion... this was the life. Delicious eye candy, and the silken heat of Mark's insides felt delicious.

He couldn't believe now that there was a time he'd ever wanted to die. He'd survived everything and this was the glorious light at the end of the tunnel. He wanted more. He wanted to live. He wanted this more than he'd ever wanted anything. He felt more fully alive than he ever had. He was insatiable. Imperishable.

Chapter Text

 

 

Strange Magic




I love waking up to this.

Sören moaned as he returned Mark's kisses, let out a gasp as Mark's cock bumped up against his, and a deep groan as cock rubbed against cock, hard and needy. Mark's hands slid over Sören's body, fingers walking, brushing, playing. Mark kissed Sören's neck and shoulder, and Sören sighed, shivering at the way Mark was already so familiar with his most erogenous zones.

Mark took Sören's face in his hands and kissed him again. "Mornin'," Sören mumbled, before kissing him back.

"Morning." Mark gave him a lazy smile, and nibbled at his neck. "I love you, you know."

Sören grinned. "You don't say." He stroked Mark's face, his hair, breath catching at the love in Mark's eyes, the look of tenderness and passion on his beautiful face. "I love you too. And I never get tired of hearing it."

"I will never get tired of telling you." Mark sucked Sören's lower lip into his mouth. After another deep kiss Mark said, "So we have a bit of a dilemma. We're out of lube."

Sören nodded. "I remember."

"We'll have to go out and get some later, but in the meantime there's a bunch of things we can do that don't involve penetration, and I'll let you decide."

Sören thought for a moment, though it was difficult to think with their cocks rubbing together, especially every time their sensitive frenulums met, making them both gasp. Realizing the effect he was having, Mark stopped grinding on him to let Sören think. They'd done a lot of oral yesterday and Sören's jaw needed a rest. They could rub their cocks together like they'd been doing, and come that way, but Sören considered other possibilities.

If they'd had lube, Sören would have suggested playing with the glass dildo - he found he really liked putting on a show for Mark. Thinking about the glass dildo reminded Sören that he'd brought another toy from Oregon, a vibrator. He hadn't used it in months, not since well before he and Seth broke up, but one of his favorite things had been using it to massage his frenulum, which led to insanely intense, eruptive orgasms. Something told Sören that Mark had never done anything like that and thinking about Mark coming that way, teasing him until he lost control, filled Sören with mad lust.

"Stay here, I need to get something," Sören said, and reluctantly got up from the warmth of Mark's embrace.

Sören went to the closet, and zipped open his suitcase. There was a discrete mesh panel where he'd tucked away his toys, and he withdrew the vibe and a pack of fresh batteries. Mark watched with amusement as Sören popped open the vibrator, put in the batteries, and then practically skipped back to the bed.

"This takes awhile but it's worth the wait, it makes me come really hard," Sören said, and with that, he turned the switch.

Nothing. The vibrator didn't go on.

"You've got to be shitting me," Sören said.

He took out the batteries and squinted. They were well before the expiration date. Sören frowned.

Mark produced a different set of batteries, same type, and loaded the vibe. He turned it on... still nothing.

"It's dead, Jim," Mark quipped, handing the vibe back to Sören.

"Well, fuck." Sören scowled as he slammed the dead vibe on the bedtable. "There goes that plan."

"S'OK." Mark pulled him down into a kiss, and Sören moaned as Mark's cock pressed against his once more. "We'll think of something."

"Mmmmmm. Lots of things we can do together."

"Yes." Mark's eyes lit up. "That's one of the many things I like about being with you. You get me to try new things."

Sören started kissing Mark's neck, as their hard cocks played together. He couldn't resist picking on him a little. "Jæja, like... Applesin in whiskey." He crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip.

Mark slapped Sören's ass, and Sören cried out - he loved it when Mark took charge like that - and then Sören responded with a show of control of his own, nipping Mark's neck. His cock twinged at the sound of Mark moaning, the feel of Mark shivering against him.

Mark smacked Sören's ass again. "You're so bad, Sören."

"Mmmmhmmmm." Sören's tongue soothed where his teeth had been. "You love it."

"I do." Their eyes met. Mark kissed him deeply. "I love you." He put his hand on Sören's heart. "You give me back something I thought I'd lost forever." He kissed Sören again. "We belong together. We fit together."

It wasn't quite a conversation about the future, but it gave Sören hope. Caught up in emotion, Sören kissed Mark back hard, and took Mark's hand and guided it down to their hard cocks, still rubbing together. Sören groaned into the kiss as Mark's hand wrapped around their cocks, stroking them together, gripping them tight. He covered Mark's hand with his, and they kissed again and again, lost in passion.

The tight grip of Mark's hand, the feel of Mark's cock against his - silk covering steel - and the way the sensitive ridge of their frenulums played together, it wasn't long for them to get to that edge, trembling, panting and gasping. Sören's balls tightened, felt like they were being squeezed, the pressure building in his thighs as he got closer. And just before he could come, Mark let go of their cocks and just rubbed his cock against Sören's, hands-free, a mischievous smile on his face. Sören growled at that and nipped Mark's lower lip.

"You fucking tease," Sören rasped.

Mark licked along the line of Sören's jaw, to his ear. "Consider it payback for your own teasing, Mr. Applesin In Whiskey."

Sören growled again. Mark laughed softly, and kissed him.

"Besides," Mark husked, fingers reaching to brush one of Sören's nipples, pinching and rubbing, "you know it'll be worth the wait. And it won't be that long now. We're both already so close." He kissed Sören's neck.

Sören shuddered, knowing how true that was. He moaned as Mark lowered his head to lick the nipple he'd been playing with, and gasped as Mark tugged on the nipple ring before licking the aching peak some more. He clutched Mark's head as Mark suckled, and bucked against him, rubbing his cock against Mark's harder and faster.

Then their mouths met again, tongues teasing. Their hands wandered, caressing, stroking, as their cocks kept rubbing, their balls rubbing together too. When Mark tugged Sören's nipple ring again, Sören reached around and his fingers brushed the sensitive place between Mark's balls and ass, and that set Mark off, throwing his head back with a cry as he climaxed. Watching Mark's cock shoot all over his, the feel of hot cum gushing over his cock... Sören let go too, screaming. They watched, moaning together, as cock spent on cock, cream flowing, an utterly debauched sight. Then Sören collected their combined essence on his fingertips and stuck his fingers in Mark's mouth, groaning as he watched Mark sucking his fingers, a look of sensual enjoyment on his face. Sören moaned around Mark's fingers in his mouth, feeding him their seed, savoring the taste. They kissed, sharing the lingering notes of their pleasure between them, and Mark's arms tightened around Sören as Sören pulled him close.

"That was good," Sören said.

Mark grinned. "I'm a musician. I know a few things about improvisation."

Sören had to. "Hi A Musician, I Know A Few -"

Mark growled and bit Sören's shoulder. Sören giggled, wheezing.

They cuddled for a little while, holding and petting each other, and finally Mark got up and came back with Sören's meds and a glass of water. Sören took his meds as he watched Mark change.

"We need to go buy lube," Mark said.

Sören nodded. "Jæja, that's important."

"I mean we could use butter again, but these aren't our sheets and lube is easier to wash." Mark smiled as he pulled a T-shirt on.

"Where were you planning on getting the lube, drugstore?"

"Yeah, that or a supermarket. Why?"

Sören picked up the dead vibrator from the bedtable. "I want to replace this, so would you mind taking me to an adult store?"

"You mean... a porn shop."

Sören nodded.

Mark's cheeks flushed slightly, and there was a moment of hesitation, and then he nodded. "OK."

They listened to hair metal on the way down - Sören was amused by "Cherry Pie" by Warrant coming on as they took the exit. Once the porn shop was in sight, Mark slowed down, and Sören watched him turn pink again. Sören grinned and patted his shoulder as Mark looked for a parking space.

"You ever been to one of these places before?" Sören asked him.

"That would be a no."

"I see." Sören nodded. Then he raised an eyebrow. "How does a queer guy in his early forties who's been single for a long time avoid something like this?"

"I have a hand, Sören."

Sören opened his mouth and clapped his hands over his cheeks in mock surprise. "You don't say. I had no idea. Especially not after this morning."

Mark rolled his eyes. Then he said, "I take it you have visited a place like this before?"

"A few times. Just enough to know what we can expect going in."

Sören and Mark walked in together arm-in-arm, making it obvious they were a couple. Sören grabbed a basket by the door, even though they were "just" here for lubricant and a vibrator, something told Sören they'd be coming back with more.

At the front of the store was lingerie on one side and videos, magazines, sex manuals and erotic novels on the other. As they walked further down they passed by a BDSM section with floggers, whips, canes, riding crops, paddles, collars and leashes, and all manner of bondage restraints. Sören found himself slowing down to look at the spanking implements, leashes and restraints out of the corner of his eye, and then marching ahead to the toys.

Mark glanced around, looking a little nervous, though Sören noticed he kept staring at certain shelves before looking away, his face more flushed than before. Sören compared vibrators and chose one in a purple design, putting it in the basket. Then he looked at the dildos, even though he already had one. He thought about the fact that he and Mark were both versatile, as his gaze fell upon a selection of double dildos. Mark watched as Sören reached for a box that had a flexible double dildo, and presented it to him. "You think playing with something like this would be fun?" Sören asked.

Mark hesitated, and then he nodded, grinning. "God, I feel like such a pervert right now."

"We are," Sören said, and Mark laughed, putting an arm around Sören's waist and drawing him in for a little kiss. Sören put the double dildo in the basket.

"Well, since I've let my inner perv come out to play..." Mark showed Sören one of the toys that got his attention. It was a buttplug. "Remember how you were in the kitchen yesterday?"

"I don't think I'll ever forget that, Mark," Sören husked, a shiver going down his spine. It would be one of the most delicious memories of his life, whatever ended up happening between them.

"If you're serious about letting me take it anytime, anyplace..." Mark picked the box with the buttplug off the shelf. "This will keep you open."

"So you..." Now it was Sören's turn to feel a little bashful. "You want me to start wearing a buttplug?"

"Only if you're willing. I don't want to pressure you into something you don't want to do."

"Being ready to be fucked by you at anytime?" Sören pressed his hand to his forehead and staggered backwards with an eyeroll. "That sounds awful, I don't think I can handle it," he said sarcastically. He elbowed Mark to let Mark know he was joking, and took the box from him, giggling, looking at the buttplug showcased in the box and the details on the back of the box for a better look. As he did, Mark pet him, which felt nice. Though it was also arousing as well as soothing; Sören's cock was starting to get uncomfortable in his jean shorts, and he glanced over at Mark and saw Mark had a noticeable bulge in his jeans too.

"You getting hot thinking about me wearing this?" Sören whispered.

Mark nodded. "You out in public, wearing this under your clothes because I told you to, so you can be ready for me whenever..."

Sören shuddered. And again when Mark kissed him, a lingering kiss that left him breathless.

The idea of being out in public with the plug up his ass, and nobody would know but him and Mark - and Mark would definitely know, and give him that knowing look, thinking about it, maybe even taking him in a public or semi-public place... it was so wanton, so shameless. Sören loved that slutty feeling, so free after the hell he'd been through with Seth. It felt healing, to be like this. It felt powerful.

It also felt like a token of commitment. Sören didn't know when they were going to have the talk about their future - it needed to happen before they left Sausalito and went back to Oregon. He was pretty sure at this point that it probably wasn't just a summer fling, with how many times Mark had said "I love you", all of the other things he'd said, the little things - Mark looking out for him, taking care of him - and now, this, something almost close to a symbol of ownership. He didn't know quite where Mark was on the page of committing to something long-term and he was still afraid to go there and ask, but this made him a little less nervous about it.

Sören put the buttplug in the basket, and Mark led him to a nearby shelf unit that had different varieties of lube. They stocked up on regular lubricant as well as flavored lubricant - Sören picked out strawberry and passionfruit flavors - and they also got flavored massage oil, going for vanilla.

After they put the lube and massage oil in the basket, they started heading towards the checkout in the front of the store. And once again they passed by the BDSM equipment and Sören slowed down, then paused. He found himself walking over, and after a moment Mark followed him.

Sören looked through the measurements of the collars - he knew what size choker he took when he used to get gothed up to go clubbing in Toronto. When he found the right size he took down a black leather collar with an O-ring, opened it, and put it on. Then he grabbed a matching leash, clipped it into the collar, and put it in Mark's hand.

"What do you think?" Sören asked. "I'm not into lifestyle, 24/7, but... it could be fun to play like this sometimes."

Mark's response was to pull on the leash, dragging Sören closer, and he wrapped the leash around his hand as he pulled Sören in for a deep, hungry kiss. Then he took the collar off Sören, and threw the collar and leash in the basket, eyes locked on Sören, intense. Sören felt another shiver down his spine.

Sören noticed Mark was looking at the restraints. His breath hitched. He giggled when Mark took a box of handcuffs off the wall. "This could be fun too," he said, and Sören nodded, grinning. Mark put that in the basket. Then a pair of silk scarves. And at last, a length of rope, purple. "Matches the vibe," Mark said.

"How aesthetic of you."

"Well, you are the artiste, are you not?"

Sören gave him a little peck and playfully grabbed his ass, still giggling.

"I'll pay for everything," Mark said, taking the basket from Sören, and then Mark said under his breath, "I still can't believe I'm doing this."

When they were out of the store and got in the Jaguar, Sören and Mark started laughing. "We did that," Mark said.

"We did."

"God." Mark shook his head. "What have you done to me, Sören."

"Mmmmmm, we'll have to keep exploring that." Sören leaned in and kissed him.

Mark kissed him back, and then he put the keys in the ignition. "We better get out of here."

But Sören and Mark were both worked up; the hard-on in Mark's jeans was even more obvious now. Sören kept stealing glances at it, and finally his lust got the better of him and he reached over to rub the hard bulge, making Mark groan.

"Oh, fuck, Sören."

"I want to suck you off in the worst way."

Mark moaned. "Shit, Sören, I'm driving -"

"Hi Driving."

Mark gave him a murderous look. Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip. Mark growled at that, kissed Sören hard, and then he rasped, "Go for it."

Sören got Mark's cock out and dove down, sucking while Mark was on the road. Mark managed to keep driving at first, though he did have to slow down. The thrill of the moment intensified Sören's lust and he sucked Mark with hunger and enthusiasm. As Mark got closer, it got to be too much and he pulled over, grabbing Sören's head and leaning back in the driver's seat, shivering, gasping and moaning as Sören sucked him to an ejaculation.

Sören kissed him, letting Mark taste himself, and then he grinned - his own cock was aching for relief now but the glowy feeling of power and pride was well worth it.

"Jesus." Mark laughed. "I've never done that before."

"Neither have I."

"Really."

Sören nodded solemnly. "I like to try new things."

"I guess so." Mark looked down at the way Sören's jean shorts were tenting. "We should take care of that, too."

Sören whipped it out, and stroked himself, loving Mark's rapt attention. As he got closer, Mark reached for the shopping bag in the back seat, and Sören's eyes widened as Mark pulled out the box with the vibrator, and the package of batteries. Mark loaded the vibe, turned it on, and held the vibrator to Sören's frenulum.

Sören gave a cry, and again as Mark leaned in, kissing his neck. "You are so fucking hot," Mark whispered. "I love how completely debauched and slutty you are."

"You make me this way," Sören whispered back. "I want you more than I have ever wanted anyone."

Mark tilted Sören's head and kissed him passionately, both of them moaning into the kiss. Mark switched the vibe to its next highest setting and continued rubbing it against Sören's frenulum, kissing Sören's neck again as he watched Sören's cock drip precum.

Sören let go before Mark could catch it with a napkin and, coming hard, a seemingly endless eruption of ecstasy, he made a mess all over the glove compartment and inside windshield, as well as his own clothes. But Mark, fastidious though he was about his car, laughed, not even mad. "God, Sören," he breathed as he wiped up what he could. "That was hot."

They sat there for a moment and then raindrops began falling on the windshield. "Wow, man, I made it rain," Sören joked.

"I guess fucking so." Mark laughed again, turning on the windshield wipers. "God, I still can't believe we did that. Any of that."

"We've entered a whole new world," Sören said.

Mark took Sören's hand and kissed it. "You've made the world new again for me, Sören."


_



Though Sören's body was more used to bottoming now than it had been after months of sexual inactivity, it was one thing to bottom regularly and another thing to wear a buttplug regularly. Having the buttplug in for extended periods would be an adjustment, something to ease into gradually.

The passion between them fueled the creative impulse. They took a walk on the beach in the afternoon, after the rain, then took a nap, and when they woke in the late afternoon with the rain started up again, Sören took a shower, then Mark did, then they had another all-nighter of music and art. Sören began painting Hawk Hill, intending to paint his memory of Mark with the blue butterfly dancing on his finger. Mark's improvisations were ethereal, celestial, with Sören needing to take breaks as he got teared up.

At last Mark said, "I haven't forgotten about that song I owe for the painting."

"I think you've more than paid, Mark."

"Well... this isn't something I wrote, but I'd still like to play it for you, if I could."

Sören stopped painting and sat, waiting.

Mark flexed his fingers and began plucking chords on the harp - something that was familiar to Sören, but also presented in a new way, arranged on harp. Mark's rich, crystalline tenor sang as he played.

Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am home again
Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am whole again

Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am young again
Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am fun again

However far away
I will always love you
However long I stay
I will always love you
Whatever words I say
I will always love you
I will always love you

Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am free again
Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am clean again

However far away
I will always love you
However long I stay
I will always love you
Whatever words I say
I will always love you
I will always love you


Sören started to cry. Mark's eyes were too bright, holding back tears during the song, and now he cried too. Sören came over to him and sat on his lap and they held each other, rocking, crying together.

"I don't want this to be just for the summer," Sören choked out, finally letting it out. "I want to be with you."

Mark took Sören's hands and kissed them. "I want to be with you too, Sören."

"Be my boyfriend." Sören laughed through his tears and rolled his eyes. "It sounds so weird calling a man your age 'boyfriend' -"

"It does, but I'll accept it." Mark stroked Sören's face, and pulled him close, kissing the top of his head, nuzzling his curls. "Yes, Sören. We're doing this."

"Husband" sounds better than "boyfriend". Sören desperately wanted to propose, wanted to tell Mark that he was in this for life if Mark would have him. No one had ever made him feel this way before, so truly, madly, deeply in love. But he didn't want to scare Mark away. It was enough, for now, to hear that they had a future beyond this summer. It hadn't been completely settled yet - Sören imagined they might need to have more discussions about it, where they were going. But in the meantime, his heart soared.

They kissed. Sören felt that sexual need stirring in him, and then his stomach growled - they'd forgotten about dinner, wrapped up in the act of creation. Mark gave him a look and then checked the time. "Yeah, we better do the food thing." Mark grinned at Sören. "Denny's?"

"For once you're the one suggesting Denny's?"

"Apparently."

"Wow. You keep this up and you might even suggest orange soda in whiskey soon."

Mark slapped Sören's ass. "Brat."

Sören's cock twinged. He giggled when he got up from Mark's lap. Hungry though he was, he was feeling randy, and he decided it was time to break in the buttplug. After taking care of business in the bathroom and cleaning himself out well, he lubed up the plug and worked it in. Even as much as Sören was used to having things up there now he still needed to go slow, and it felt a little weird when he put his underwear and shorts back on.

They split nachos and chicken fingers at Denny's, which wasn't the healthiest thing but it was OK to live a little. Sören had orange soda just to get under Mark's skin about the Applesin in whiskey some more - the way Mark's thick eyebrows tensed and his eyes narrowed as he glared made Sören even hornier. Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip, and started playing footsie with Mark under the table just before blowing bubbles into his already carbonated, bubbly drink.

"You are so ridiculous," Mark said.

"Takk."

"Every day you manage to astound me with new levels of ridiculousness."

Sören grinned. "Jæja... says the man who suggested I wear a buttplug out in public." Sören's voice lowered, since they weren't alone in the restaurant - it wasn't crowded, being late at night, but there were the juggalos again, and a group of stoners, and a couple folks eating alone. "I'm wearing the buttplug right now."

"You're wearing a buttplug in Denny's."

Sören nodded, doubling over, tearing up, his sides aching from the sheer silliness of it. "Yes, Mark, I am wearing a buttplug in Denny's."

Mark facepalmed, laughing too. "Wow. Just... wow, Sören."

After Denny's they went to the Marin Headlands, climbing Hawk Hill to see the sunrise. There was some lingering fog from the rains last evening, but they still got to see some of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay, breathtaking in the riot of scarlet and gold.

"No matter how many times I see a sunset or a sunrise," Sören mused aloud, "it never gets old. No two are exactly the same. And each one is perfect."

Mark took Sören's hand and kissed it, and then tilted Sören's face to his, leaning in to kiss him. "I love you."

"I love you."

As soon as they got back at the beach house, Mark began stripping off Sören's clothes, overcome by the emotion Sören had roused in him during the sunrise. Sören returned the favor, helping Mark out of his clothes, leaving a trail from the living room to the bedroom.

Mark got on the bed and took Sören's hands, pulling Sören down on the bed with him, on top of him. He wrapped his arms around Sören and held him tight as Sören leaned in to kiss him. They moaned as their cocks rubbed together, kissing some more. Sören collected his precum on his fingers for Mark to taste, and as Mark sucked his fingers, looking at Sören with heat in his eyes, Sören wanted.

Sören climbed down from Mark for just a minute and turned around, getting on all fours, giving a sassy butt wiggle to show Mark the plug in his ass. Mark groaned, and pulled it out of Sören. It made a satisfying pop when it was out, and Sören wiggled his ass again. Sören cried out as Mark poured lube into his opening - he saw it was the flavored passionfruit lube. He noticed that just before Mark grabbed his waist, guiding Sören to scoot up until Sören was sitting on his shoulders.

Mark held Sören's thighs and spent the next while devouring him, his talented tongue working Sören into a frenzy. Sören cried out so loudly it hurt his throat, but he couldn't stop making noises, it felt too good. Mark's tongue lapped at him hard, and then more slowly, teasingly, before speeding up, faster than before, and at last Sören found himself riding Mark's face, fucking himself on Mark's tongue. So, so close to orgasm.

Just before Sören could come, Mark patted his ass, a cue for Sören to get down. Sören climbed off Mark's face, and Mark took the passionfruit lubricant and coated his own cock. Sören dove right down. The lubricant was surprisingly delicious, though Sören liked having Mark's cock in his mouth anyway, finding it soothing and arousing all at once. Mark clutched Sören's head, voice rising and falling in those musical moans that Sören loved so much. He liked seeing Mark undone, the passion building and rising until Mark was pulling Sören's curls, thrusting into his mouth.

And before Mark could come in Sören's mouth, he ground out, "Stop." Sören stopped, and Mark added more lubricant. "I want to feel you," Mark whispered.

Sören straddled Mark's hips, and impaled himself on Mark's cock. He began to ride, slowly. Mark took his hands, watching Sören with a look of awe on his face.

"You're beautiful." Mark stroked Sören's face, and Sören smiled, before sucking the tip of Mark's thumb.

There was indeed something powerful and healing about Sören letting Mark take him anytime, in any number of submissive positions, wanting it again, trusting him enough to surrender. And here, now, Sören was on top - taking Mark inside him, but he was the one in control, riding... claiming, conquering, celebrating. This wasn't just an act of love, an act of pleasure, it was an act of triumph. An act of joy.

Chapter Text

 

 

Come and Get Your Love




It was time for Mark to return the sewing machine he'd rented to repair Sören's stuffed rabbit Bláberja, and Sören elected to stay home while he did, hoping to poke at his art. But once again, Sören found himself struggling with brain fog in the first few hours after waking up - he typically didn't feel awake until much later in the day.

Sören needed to find something to do before Mark got back. He picked up the copy of The Silmarillion that was tucked under the as-yet-unopened box of chocolates in the care package Ari had sent, and attempted to read it again. And as before, his eyes started to glaze over with the business with Eru and Valar in the beginning. He closed the book, shoved it back under the chocolates, and made a face.

But taking out The Silmarillion did serve a purpose - it reminded Sören to get a hold of Ari, finally, and thank him for sending the care package. And as Sören looked at the time and did the mental math of the time difference between the US West Coast and Iceland, he knew it would be the right time for Ari to be home. So he set up his camera and opened a video chat with his cousin, waiting.

Approximately ten minutes later Ari got on. "Jæja," Ari said.

"Jæja," Sören replied.

"Jæja?"

"Jæja."

A pause, and then they both laughed. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" Sören asked.

Ari shook his head. "No, not really."

"The package came. Thank you so much!"

Ari grinned. "I hope you liked it."

"I do. I shared the Applesin with Mark - I put it in whiskey, he wasn't too happy about that, but he drank it anyway. It was funny. He made me the best cookies with some of the licorice, chopped up. Still got some, and still working on the Froskur. Haven't opened the box of chocolates yet, since I want to share them with Mark and I'm waiting for the right romantic moment -"

"Oh, so you guys are a thing now?"

Sören's cheeks flushed. He bit his lower lip and nodded. "Jæja, Mark is my boyfriend now."

"Good, good." Ari raised an eyebrow. "Have you started reading The Silmarillion yet?"

Sören didn't want to be rude, but he knew Ari would want him to be honest. He ran a nervous hand through his curls and rubbed his beard, making a face. "I tried. I couldn't get into it."

"Where did you stop reading?"

"Not that far into it... where it gets into the Valar. Just... reminds me too much of the Bible and shit."

"Mmm, OK. I should have anticipated you wouldn't like the Valar and written a longer note about where to start reading. For now skip all that stuff and go to the Quenta Silmarillion. If you're still having a hard time getting into it a chapter or so in, go right to chapter 6, Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor, though the stuff with Melkor will make more sense if you read the Quenta Silmarillion from the beginning, straight through. I promise, it gets much more interesting."

Now it was Sören's turn to raise an eyebrow. "You're really bent on me reading this book, aren't you?"

"Well, I mean... I don't want to force you to do anything." Ari laughed nervously. "But you know I write Tolkien fanfic and you've expressed interest in seeing my writing sometime and it won't make sense to you unless you've read certain things. And, I don't know, it would be good for you to expand your horizons a little? You like reading, you like learning."

"Fair enough," Sören said, though he wasn't completely sold on the idea, trying not to cringe as he remembered his immediate distaste of the Valar. And he couldn't help but suspect that Ari had some kind of motivation for wanting Sören to read the book beyond wanting to share his fanfic, and give him an "educational experience". He wasn't going to press it, though.

"Anyway," Ari said, leaning back in his chair, folding his arms, "congratulations on you and Mark. Even just talking to you for a few minutes, you seem a lot happier than you were with Seth."

"Seth was a fucking disaster, and that's just what I told you about. None of those red flags have gone off with Mark." Sören sighed. "It's almost too good to be true, really."

"When are you guys going back to Oregon?"

"I'm clearing out of here on the 18th. My original plan before everything happened was to take the train back up and Nico pick me up at the station, but Mark drove down here and I think I'll probably be riding up with him." Sören realized he had to tell that to Dooku, who would be expecting to pick him up that weekend. He'd have a lot to talk to Dooku about - he felt a little pang, missing his best friend.

"So you have a couple weeks left then."

Sören nodded. It was Friday, August fourth, now. "Two weeks."

"I hope it doesn't fly by too fast. It already feels like just yesterday you were telling me about that place on Airbnb."

"I know." Sören sighed. "It was a nice vacation. Especially after the hell of last year. Did me a lot of good."

"I guess so. Feels like you were meant to go on this trip."

Sören nodded. "If I were religious I'd say it felt like someone was pulling strings." And then Sören thought about the violet-eyed man in the mirror... the one who'd proven his existence by depositing $420.69 into Sören's Paypal with a link to the Michael Jackson song "Man in the Mirror". Something that Sören couldn't deny, and was unsettling to think about. He came back to Sören's attention now - Sören remembered that he hadn't actually met the owner of this place, only a broker who handled everything on behalf of the owner. Sören got the nagging feeling he might want to look that up at some point.

At some point.

"Well, enjoy the last two weeks of your vacation, Sören. I'm going to assume you're in good hands - ha ha - and not worry about you, so you don't need to Skype me again till you get back to Oregon. Take time to do other things."

"OK. You want me to Skype you as soon as I get back?"

"Uh, you can take a day or two to decompress from your trip if you need to, I know it's a long journey. So a few days after is fine. But." Ari gave Sören a look. "I expect you to read that book I sent you."

Sören rolled his eyes. "What, is there going to be a quiz?" Now he was even more suspicious as to why Ari was pushing this book on him.

"Maybe." Ari smirked. "Just... read the book, before you go. I went to a bit of trouble to get an English language copy -"

"I was wondering about that, why you didn't send the Icelandic version."

"It was written in English and I didn't want there to be anything lost or mangled in translation."

"Ah, OK, that makes sense."

"It's not like you can't read English, anyway."

Sören sighed at that. "It's hard to believe I've been out of Iceland for eleven years. I speak English so much that I seem to think half in English, half in Icelandic now."

"Jæja, I know." Ari sighed too. "And it's just me here now, of the family, with you and Dag abroad, and..." He didn't need to finish the sentence; bringing up Margrét was still a sore spot.

Sören winced, missing his sister again. "Já, you're the only one left."

"Though, I've been thinking." Ari looked like he was looking at something far away for a moment, then his eyes met Sören's again.

"What, you're thinking about leaving Iceland?"

"Probably. After our last conversation I really started thinking about it seriously." Ari nodded. "Wouldn't be anytime soon - I'd want to visit the States a few times, so not for another year or two, but... well, it would be nice to be closer to family. Or at least you, anyway."

Things were tense between Ari and Dagnýr, as a man of faith and a man of science. Sören always felt like he was caught in the middle between them, and that would probably get worse if Ari moved within a somewhat more reasonable visiting distance. But, he missed his cousin nonetheless and the thought of being able to see Ari more often made him perk up. "Not gonna lie, I'd be thrilled if you moved out here."

"I'd be thrilled if you moved back home but there's even less chance of that now with you having found someone, já?"

Sören nodded. "I was planning on becoming a citizen anyway. There's just... nothing left for me there, besides you. I still find myself calling it 'back home' but... it doesn't feel like home anymore." It felt strange to finally admit this out loud, to someone in his own family, but there it was.

"I understand. And, well... it's time for me to go on an adventure." Ari gave a small smile. "But I have to be smart about it, so like I said, won't be for awhile. I'll come to visit, get a feel for things."

"I'd like to visit too - even if Iceland isn't home anymore, it's still a gorgeous country. Part of my heart will always be there." Sören closed his eyes, conjuring up mental images of the landscape. "Mark should see it."

"I want to meet him. Seth wasn't keen on meeting me, or Dag. In hindsight that says a lot."

"It does." Sören nodded. "Maybe Christmas. We'll see. Sometime, though."

"And on that note, I'll let you get going, and I'll talk to you once you're back in Oregon?"

"Jæja, that's the plan. Take care, Ari. Love you."

"Love you too."

Even though Iceland hadn't really been home in over a decade, talking to Ari nonetheless gave Sören a feeling of homesickness and nostalgia. And the prospect of Ari moving out to the States someday, possibly even somewhere that he could take a day trip to visit him, created a surge of nervous-but-happy energy, the kind that needed to be burned off.

While Sören had been listening mostly to whatever Mark wanted to listen to as of late, he had a more eclectic taste in music than Mark did, and tended to gravitate more towards goth and industrial if he was feeling sad, and R&B and hip-hop at other times. He decided he would do some tidying up while Mark was out, and connected his hard drive of Mp3s to the stereo in the living room. His playlist started with Aron Can, who was like an Icelandic version of Drake or The Weeknd.

Enginn mórall
Þú þarft bara ekki annað en að brosa
og ég er farinn skýjum ofar bara þú er ekki að fokkast
Og þó hún fái nokkra sopa þó hún snerti, dansi, loki vel
þá mun þig enginn toppa


When Mark came back, Sören was booty dancing as he dusted the living room, with "I Can't Feel My Face" by The Weeknd playing. The music was on loud enough and Sören was lost enough in dancing around that he didn't hear Mark when he got in, and he jumped when the song was over, seeing Mark lean against the door with his arms folded, smiling with amusement.

"How... how long have you been there?" Sören asked.

"Long enough." Mark's smile became a grin. "No need to stop on my account, I was enjoying the show."

The playlist launched into "And the Beat Goes On" by The Whispers, a song that came out in 1979, before Sören was born. Sören put down the feather duster and took Mark's hands, making Mark dance with him around the living room.

Do you ever wonder
That to win, somebody's got to lose
I might as well get over the blues
Just like fishing in the ocean
There'll always be someone new
You did me wrong 'cause I've been through stormy weather

And the beat goes on
Just like my love everlasting
And the beat goes on you'd better believe it
Still moving strong on and on


It was both silly and sensual, goofy and graceful all at once, marching back and forth with their hips rolling together, Mark twirling Sören around and dipping him, then bringing him back to grind up on him. Towards the end of the song Mark picked Sören up off the floor and Sören shrieked and giggled as Mark swung him one way then the other, before holding Sören tight as they spun around. When the song was over they collapsed onto the couch, laughing together, and Mark kissed the top of Sören's head.

"That was a nice surprise," Mark said. "I thought you were going to work on art."

"I thought so too, but I got restless." Sören decided not to mention the chat with Ari for now. Then he realized something that gave him a sharp pang, happy and sad all at once. "I used to do this all the time before things got bad with Seth. I'd put my music on and dance around while I was doing housework or laundry or whatever, or sometimes just for the hell of it. It always felt good, even though I know I probably look stupid."

"It's cathartic," Mark said.

Sören's eyes widened - that clicked with him. "Jæja." He nodded, remembering. "I miss clubbing sometimes. I haven't done it since the experience with getting roofied, but like, when I started, it wasn't even to hook up with people or roll on E... that was more of a consequence of going rather than the cause. I wanted to... lose myself. Music, dancing. And that's the part I miss, not the casual sex, not the drugs, but going somewhere just to get out of my head and move to the music. It's, like you said, cathartic. A sort of release."

Mark nodded. "I think it's hard-wired into humans as a species, right down to when humanity lived in smaller tribal groups and had shamans." Mark closed his eyes for a moment, as if he were mentally transporting himself into history. "The ritual drumming and dancing was, to borrow your word now, a release. A kind of group therapy. Most people who go out to nightclubs or house parties to dance probably don't realize they're enacting something very ancient. Primordial." He opened his eyes.

"Almost like song is an element right along with fire, or water," Sören said.

Their eyes met.

"You want to go clubbing tonight?" Mark asked, petting Sören's curls.

"I wouldn't mind, but the real question is, do you want to go clubbing tonight?" Sören pursed his lips. "Something tells me you're not the kind of guy who does the club scene."

"You're right. I'm not. But there's a difference between 'the club scene' and taking you dancing. I like seeing you let loose, set something free within yourself. I'd like to see more of that."

"OK." Sören kissed the tip of his nose. "I really liked it when we danced together at the drum circle, and just now. I'd like to do more of that. Though... it gets me randy."

"Oh heavens." Mark pressed the back of his hand to his forehead and rolled his eyes. "You getting horny? That would be just awful."

Sören giggled, and Mark gave him a little kiss. He continued petting Sören's curls. "I like that part of it too," Mark said.

"So... we're just going there to dance with each other, right? We're not going there to cruise?"

"Correct."

There was a weight in the air - Sören considered bringing up the fact that monogamy wasn't really a good fit for him, and while he wanted to be with Mark, sooner or later the dog in him was going to come out and want a little action on the side now and again. He'd always come back to Mark, like eating at a restaurant sometimes and eating at home most of the time... but that was how it was. Sören decided after a moment not to broach the subject here and now, not just because he didn't want to potentially hit a bump in the road when he was having a good day so far, but also, Mark was enough for him currently as he "got back in the saddle" with his sexuality again after the trauma of Seth, and even when his inner hound finally woke up and came out to play he was probably going to be a lot more discriminating going forward about prospective sexual or romantic partners. It was too soon to attempt playing around, and a club wasn't really how he wanted to meet someone right now.

"We'll probably have to make it obvious we're a couple, then," Sören said, taking Mark's bad hand, tenderly rubbing his thumb over the scars.

"I think I know how we can manage that."


_


In the bathroom, Sören added the finishing touches of his ensemble.

The first was the buttplug, coated with a generous amount of lube. It was still tight going in, and Sören wondered how he was going to manage dancing with it up there, but he supposed his body would find a way, and even as he pulled his underwear and trousers back up he started to adjust and it felt far less tight and uncomfortable, which was a good sign. Indeed, as he took a few steps to retrieve cologne and apply some to his neck, the buttplug provided a certain amount of friction on his prostate that was a little arousing.

Then he put on the black leather collar he'd gotten at the sex shop, with a metal O-ring in the center like a pendant. He looked at himself in the mirror, wearing it, and the overall package - a black ruffly pirate-style shirt, black chinos, his usual Doc Martens. He batted his eyes to put on a touch of eyeliner and mascara, something he hadn't done since before he'd met Seth - something Seth disapproved of. Earlier he'd painted his nails black, with a layer of clear sparkles. That, too, was something he hadn't done in a long time.

He considered putting gel in his curls to tame them a little, which was something he'd gotten in the habit of when he went out with Seth, and then he decided not to, since Mark seemed to enjoy the unruliness of his hair. And he certainly wasn't shaving - he'd had facial hair since 2005, and at least Seth had never complained about the beard, had only sometimes complained about the length of Sören's hair and the messiness, and Sören wasn't going to cut his hair for anyone.

Sören walked out of the bathroom and Mark gave a low whistle when he saw Sören. Sören, in turn, opened his mouth slightly when he saw Mark. "Guð minn góður, þú ert ljúffengur."

Mark gave a throaty chuckle at that. "If I'm making you lose your English, I must have done something right."

Mark was wearing his usual wire-rimmed glasses and a light blue button-down shirt with a darker blue paisley tie and a deep navy pinstripe vest and trousers, the kind of thing Sören had seen him wear to concert performances at the university but it was one thing to see him from feet away on a stage and another thing to see him dressed like this up close and personal. And Mark's long dark hair was cascading to the middle of his back, as it always did, though tonight for the first time, Sören saw him with a thin braided ponytail - when Mark's back was turned Sören saw a set of three blue dichroic glass beads at the bottom of the tail. Sören fingered the braid and the beads, admiring the elaborate braid - wondering how long it had taken Mark to braid it - and the iridescence of the beads, the way they sparkled in the light, jewels of blue fire. Once again, Sören felt that urge to learn glasswork. One of these days...

"I like your hair," Sören said when Mark turned back around. "All of you looks nice - well, better than nice - but your hair is really beautiful tonight."

Mark kissed Sören's forehead. "I wanted to look good for you." He opened his mouth again as if to say something, then thought better of it, closing his mouth with a little frown. Sören wondered about it, what he wanted to say and didn't.

Then Mark pulled the leash out of his pocket and clipped it through the O-ring in Sören's collar, tugging on it to draw Sören to him. Sören came to him with open arms, giggling, and Mark wrapped the leash around his good hand, his hands sliding down to Sören's waist and then his ass, pushing him closer for a kiss.

The kiss quickly heated, tongues teasing, and then Mark drew back with a little groan, both of them breathing harder. "We better behave if we're actually going to get to the club," Mark said, and Sören nodded reluctantly. Mark unclipped the leash from Sören's collar, put the leash back in his pocket - smiling at the whine of protest Sören made, playfully booping his nose before taking Sören's hand and leading him out to the car.

Sören couldn't stop looking at Mark's hair, resisting the urge to touch it because he knew if he started playing with Mark's hair he was going to want to play with the rest of him. Most of Mark's hair spilled down over his back, but some was over his shoulders. It occurred to Sören that not only had he never seen Mark with his hair tied back in a ponytail or a "man bun" - as Sören sometimes wore, especially on warmer days - but he'd never seen Mark's ears. He knew Mark didn't have any body piercings or tattoos like he had, but he wondered briefly if Mark ever had his ears pierced.

He also wondered about the braid, if it was just done for show, a bit of dressup, or if there was something significant about it. Mark hadn't talked about his life much, though Sören knew his parents had been bohemian, and between that and Mark bringing up tribal shamans earlier Sören wondered if Mark was a kind of Pagan, like his cousin was. If the braid was regalia for dancing

or to signify marriage.

Sören's heart leapt at that. He didn't know why his brain jumped to that conclusion, maybe too many fantasy novels or something, though he couldn't recall offhand any fantasy novel where braids were used in such a way. Sören once again felt self-conscious for the feeling he had that he wanted to marry Mark - he was bad at monogamy, but he still wanted a commitment, he wanted to settle down and grow old with Mark, for Mark to be his hearth and his home. He knew if he told anyone how he felt they'd all say he was way too serious about this guy way too soon, moving way too fast, and for all of Mark's proclamations of love Mark would probably want to run in the other direction if he brought up marriage. But it was what it was, Sören couldn't help how he felt. Mark's braid couldn't be some sort of Pagan-ish marriage token, could it? - but that thought had come out of nowhere, much like the vision he'd had of the violet-eyed dancer that he'd painted, who turned out to be his guardian-friend-perv-thing watching him in the mirror.

Huh.

Before they'd gotten ready to go, they'd browsed a list of clubs online and chosen one that was bisexual-friendly, where there would be male/female couples, male/male, and female/female, as well as people outside the gender binary. Though Sören wasn't going there to cruise, he liked having a more diverse assortment of eye candy around him.

After waiting in line and paying the cover charge, Mark and Sören made their way into the club. It was Throwback Night, where most of the music would be from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The DJ was taking requests, and Sören thought about that as Mark led him onto the dance floor. As they hit the floor, "Vibeology" by Paula Abdul was winding down, a song Sören had not heard in years. Then "Just Another Dream" by Cathy Dennis started.

"Jesus, I remember when this song was new," Mark said, clipping the leash through Sören's collar. "I feel old now."

"I was six? Seven?" Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip.

"Thanks, that was helpful." Mark playfully swatted Sören's ass.

They did a bit of a tango, and also to the song that followed, "Strike It Up" by Black Box. When "Let's Dance" by David Bowie came on, they moved closer together, starting to grind more, their eyes locked on each other, the energy between them more sexually charged than before. "Physical Attraction" by Madonna had them grinding some more, with Sören's back against Mark's chest, Mark's hands around his waist, sliding up and down, leaning over Sören's shoulder to steal the occasional kiss. The buttplug rubbed in the most sensuous way as Sören's ass wiggled against Mark, and Sören entertained the brief fantasy of Mark bending him over and taking him right here.

"Be My Lover" by LaBouche seemed appropriate enough after, Sören turning around to face Mark, though now they were back to more of a dance routine, attempting something like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And then, out of the corner of his eye, Sören saw him, leaning against the bar.

Sören did a double-take, his mouth open. He almost stopped dancing, but he didn't want to cause a scene, especially if he was hallucinating and was the only one who could see him. His friend from the painting and the mirror was there in the flesh, wearing a black short-sleeved tunic with a delicate black floral pattern and leather pants. Dark, tribal-looking tattoos swirled over his arms. His long black hair fell to his waist. Violet eyes blazed, which he could get away with in this flamboyant part of the country by claiming they were contacts, perhaps from the set of a movie production, but Sören knew they weren't.

And those violet eyes were fixed on them, full, sensuous lips curved in a small smile.

I hear what you say, I see what you do
I know everything, I need to know about you
And I want you to know that it's telling me
You wanna be my lover


Sören continued to dance, with Mark spinning him around at the end, dipping Sören and pulling him up for a kiss. Mark tugged on the leash as they kissed, and Sören's cock woke up again, though he'd already been feeling some arousal from dancing with the buttplug rubbing inside him.

Mark walked Sören over to a nearby pole, and Sören grinned as Mark tied the leash to a pole. "I'm going to get us a couple drinks," Mark said. "Non-alcoholic, you have a preference?"

"Can I have a Shirley Temple, if they've got it? Otherwise ginger ale or Sprite is fine."

Mark nodded and patted Sören's ass before he walked off. Being tied to the pole was making Sören even hornier, for some reason. He wondered if Mark was going to run into the man at the bar, and if there would be an incident when Mark recognized him from the painting. But the man wasn't at the bar anymore, as Mark went over and placed an order.

"Mr. Vain" by Culture Beat started. Sören's eyes scouted and he saw the man within a few feet of him now, drinking a glass of champagne.

Call him Mr. Raider call him Mr. Wrong
Call him Mr. Vain
Call him Mr. Raider call him Mr. Wrong
Call him insane
He'd say: I know what I want
and I want it now
I want you cause I'm Mr. Vain
I know what I want and I want it now
I want you cause I'm Mr. Vain


The man raised his glass to Sören, and while he was still a few feet away, he was close enough for Sören to hear his voice over the music, deep and with that rich, Russian-sounding accent - he sounded a bit like a young Yul Brynner - and Sören found his voice incredibly sexy, a shiver down his spine. "You dance well, beauty. And it is so good to see you both so alive."

Sören wondered about that. And before he could ask "who are you? what are you?" the man walked away.

Mark came back with a mojito mocktail for himself, and Sören smiled as Mark put the familiar pink Shirley Temple in his hands. Mark's face turned as pink as the drink as Sören's lips wrapped around the cherry.

"Oh, this is good," Sören said. "The cold drink feels good, after working up a sweat."

Mark untied Sören from the pole, and when they were finished with their drinks, they went back out to the dance floor in time for "Alright" by Jamiroquai. Once again, they were grinding up on each other, but this time their hands were roaming as well. Knowing that the man in the mirror might still be around somewhere watching brought out Sören's exhibitionist streak.

And the words echoed in Sören's mind. It is so good to see you both so alive. It felt good to be so alive, here and now. As much as Sören had missed dancing, he hadn't attempted to go clubbing by himself in the months following the breakup with Seth - the prospect had been triggering, reminders of what had happened in Toronto. Here with Mark, he wasn't triggered at all. He'd even accepted a drink without being afraid that something was in it, because he trusted Mark.

Mark's hands were on him, and he was living life again, and his life was in Mark's hands - the leash wrapped around Mark's bad hand was like a symbol of his tether to this world. Sören lost himself in the driving rhythm of Jamiroquai, one of his favorite songs by one of his favorite bands... lost himself in emotion, the silver flame of Mark's eyes.

I see your eyes,
Hold the key, to my paradise
Summer in your smile
Well it makes me feel, so real
You tell me things
And my heart sings to the world,
From islands in the sky
Take my hand
As one we will stand
You know it's never too late
To say hello to forever


Sören's back was up against his chest again, and Sören raised his arms and wound them around Mark's neck. Mark tilted Sören's face and they were close enough to kiss, close enough to breathe each other's breath, just breathing each other in. The sensuality between them made Sören rock-hard, and Mark, not even caring that they were in public, slid his hand down to where Sören was tenting. Sören pulled Mark down for a kiss.

Something seemed to explode between them and the next thing Sören knew, Mark was pulling him along on the leash, marching him towards the bathroom. He slammed into the men's room, and then he bent Sören over the marble counter of sinks. Sören watched in the mirror, smiling at the obvious bulge in Mark's trousers, then letting out a moan as Mark undid Sören's trousers and yanked them down, moaning again when Mark got his cock out.

Mark pulled the buttplug out of Sören's ass and grabbed a small travel-size tube of lubricant that Sören assumed he'd gotten while he was out returning the sewing machine. Sören wiggled his ass. "Fuck me," he panted.

He watched in the mirror as Mark took him. It was one of the most erotic things Sören had ever seen in his life, made all the more erotic as Mark started to thrust. One hand had the leash wrapped around it, rubbing up and down Sören's back, and the other grabbed Sören's curls. Sören rocked his hips back at Mark. Not caring who saw them. Not caring if they got caught, if someone called the police. He wanted. He needed. Right now this was the only thing in the world that existed to him - their passion for each other, their hunger.

Mark pounded him, hard enough that their balls smacked together. Sören matched his rhythm, bucking wildly against him. "Oh, fuck, get it, get it," Sören cried out, grabbing onto the sink white-knuckled.

The hand that had been in Sören's hair reached down to play with Sören's cock, and the hand holding the leash was now in Sören's curls, grabbing again. "Oh, Sören," Mark groaned. "Oh, Sören, fuck, I want you..."

"Take it, take me, I'm yours, I'm yours," Sören panted.

Mark loved that, growling. "Mine."

"God, yes."

"Mine."

"Yes, fuck, god, yes..."

Sören gave a high-pitched whimper and Mark responded with a deep grunt. They continued to moan and cry out together as their hips slapped together. It was so wild, so shamelessly wanton, and the thrill of fucking in public like this - the surrender to being bent over and taken any time Mark wanted it, and loving it - combined with the sweet sensation of Mark's hand expertly stroking his cock, thumb on the frenulum, and Mark's cock rubbing away inside him, teasing his prostate just right. Sören knew he wasn't going to last much longer, and from the way Mark was trembling, gasping for breath, he knew Mark was close too.

They climaxed together, wordlessly shouting their pleasure. Sören almost fell over as his orgasm coursed through him, buckling his knees. Mark steadied him against the sink - Mark himself having to lean on the sink to not collapse, breathing hard.

"Sören," Mark moaned. He shuddered again and then he laughed. "Oh, Sören. Oh god, wow."

Sören laughed too. "Holy fucking shit."

They got up, Mark put the plug back in Sören's ass, they put their pants back on, and kissed - a deep, sensual lingering kiss that held the promise of more later. The feeling of being plugged up with Mark's cum inside him made Sören feel even more shameless, still aroused, in heat, after the powerful release in the men's room. But they weren't ready to go yet, arms around each other as they danced together to "This Is How We Do It" by Montell Jordan.

"We gonna stay here awhile?" Sören asked.

"Maybe, yeah."

"Can I go see the DJ?"

"May I go see the DJ."

Sören narrowed his eyes. "English isn't my first language, dude."

"You speak it well enough." Mark gave him a wicked grin.

Sören scowled and Mark laughed. He patted Sören's ass then and unclipped the leash. "Go see the DJ, I'll get us another drink. Same thing?" Sören nodded, and stuck his tongue out at Mark as he walked off, saying, "Meet me at the bar."

Now Sören was feeling mischievous - since Mark had been a troll, he'd be a troll right back. When he met Mark at the bar he had a shit-eating grin on his face and Mark raised an eyebrow before clipping the leash back in Sören's collar, then handing over the Shirley Temple. "You're up to something."

Sören gave him an innocent face.

It took a few songs, but finally the DJ announced, "For Sören, this is a little Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch."

Sören smirked as "Good Vibrations" came on. Mark gave him a withering look over his mojito mocktail, and Sören raised his Shirley Temple in salute.

After the song they'd had enough of a breather to get back on the floor. "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred came on, which made Sören and Mark laugh, and now they danced like dorks, mock-voguing, leaning on each other laughing some more at the end of the song. The dorkiness was put aside when "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real" by Sylvester followed, and then "Come and Get Your Love", the mid-90s Real McCoy cover of the 1970s Redbone song. Sören and Mark were grinding together again.

Yeah (yeah) what's the matter with your hair?
Oh, yeah, yeah, (yeah) what's the matter with your mind
And your sign and a, oh, yeah

Mmm, how I gonna get it, baby, gonna get my lovin'?
Talk to me, tell me how I gonna get it
I'm ready for you, baby, ready for your lovin'
Don't make me wait 'cause I really need to get it
Yeah, (yeah) whip it baby
'Cause you're fine and your mine
And you look so divine

Come and get your love
Come and get your love


When Mark spun Sören around and Sören twirled back to him, Mark caught him and whispered, "We can go after this."

"OK," Sören said.

Mark gave him a look like he was going to eat him alive, and Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip, feeling aroused again.

As soon as they got in the car they started making out, and when Sören reached down to try to undo Mark's trousers, Mark took Sören's hands away and said, "I don't want to make a mess in the car again after I cleaned it... and besides, there's stuff we can do at home."

"Oh, all right."

They had a last kiss - which became another, then another - before Mark made himself pull away and started the car up. Sören was so sexually frustrated he felt ready to scream, and was glad it wasn't a terribly long ride back.

As soon as they got in the door they started undressing, and Mark picked Sören up off the floor and Sören's arms and legs wrapped around Mark as he was taken right there up against the wall. Mark kissed and nibbled Sören's neck, groaning and growling as Sören's nails raked him, Sören crying out "more, more, fuck me, fuck me," loving being taken this way, so completely lost in passion. Sören came first, shooting all over Mark, howling, and a few seconds later Mark came with a cry, and they kissed deeply, moaning between kisses, tongues rubbing together, sensual, keeping the fires burning.

Mark carried Sören to the bedroom, looking at him like he was the only thing in the world, giving him that same eat-you-alive look he had during their last song in the club, and when he put his glasses down on the bedtable his eyes seemed for a moment almost iridescent, flashing like labradorite, before they went back to their usual silver. Sören flipped open the glass box on the bedtable and saw the man in the mirror. He couldn't believe it, that the man had been in the club and now he was back in the mirror, watching them. Sören made a mental note to ask him about that later...

...sometime when we stop fucking.

Mark opened the first drawer of the bedtable and took out the flexible double dildo they'd bought, and the vibrator. Sören's cock throbbed at the sight of it. Mark climbed onto the bed, and held one end of the dildo to Sören's lips, for him to suck.

Mark sucked the other end, and just from that, Sören felt like he could come again. Then Mark was kissing him, giving the double dildo a coat of lubricant as they kissed. Mark lay back against the pillows and pulled Sören down on top of him, Sören giggling before Mark kissed him again. Then he handed the dildo to Sören, looking up at him with trust and love in his eyes.

Sören guided one end of the dildo to Mark's opening, and began to push inside, slowly. Mark gasped - Sören remembered he was still pretty tight up there - and he went gently. Mark adjusted, and Sören played a little, using his hand to move the dildo back and forth, in and out.

Then, with the man in the mirror's violet eyes riveted, Sören straddled Mark's hips. With one end of the dildo inside Mark, Sören brought the other end to his own opening and sank down. He moaned when his end of the dildo was all the way in.

They found their rhythm, Sören riding, Mark rolling his hips, fucking himself, going slowly at first. Sören leaned down to kiss him, stroking Mark's face, looking into those beautiful eyes between kisses. His fingers tenderly strayed to what he could reach of the braid, and then Mark grabbed Sören's face and kissed him more deeply, insistently. Sören reached to take both of their cocks in his hand, stroking them together in the same slow, sensual, teasing rhythm of their thrusts. Out of the corner of his eye Sören could see the man in the mirror stroking himself too, watching them.

Sören wondered about what it would be like to be with both of them at the same time. For the man in the mirror to be poised behind him, thrusting into one, then the other, as Sören and Mark rubbed together. Or Sören and Mark sharing the double dildo, rubbing together, as they also shared the man's cock, taking turns sucking it, licking it together. Sören wondered if Mark would ever be open to a threesome, with the right person.

There would come a time when at least once in awhile Sören would need variety, male and female, and he hoped Mark would be willing to share... and be shared. Group sex was aesthetically delightful to him, the beauty of different bodies mating as his own was being pleasured. He loved that debauched feeling of enjoying two or more bodies at once, a feeling he hadn't experienced since he lived in Toronto.

But here and now, this was enough. This was more than enough. This had been a wonderful night, losing himself in the music at the club, and now the music of Mark's moans as they pushed and pulled like the tide. Mark reached for the vibrator and turned it on and held it between their cocks, against each of their frenulums. Sören cried out, riding harder, faster, loving the feel of the vibe on his frenulum as the dildo rubbed on his prostate. The sight of Mark moaning, panting, lost in lust...

Things would never get old, with them. Their bed felt like a garden of endless sensual bliss, waiting to be explored, and always new things to discover each time.

Chapter Text

Healing Touch

 

Sören woke up with a gasp.

"Babe? You OK?"

"Bad dream again." Sören frowned.

Some of it had been bad. As usual, not all of it. He'd dreamed about a man who looked like Mark, but also bore a strong resemblance to his guardian-friend-perv-thing, and yet was neither. A man he'd dreamed about before, with the most extraordinary silver-blue eyes, like jewels that he couldn't stop looking at. The man was wearing an ivory tunic under royal blue robe trimmed with ivory and silver, and his hair had the same elaborate thin braided tail that Mark had worn to the club last night, but his hair flooded all the way to his knees. And Sören, himself, was wearing a robe of red, a black tunic underneath, with black and gold trim on the red robe. A crown of flowers was placed on each of their heads, and then, their hands joined together with a length of rope braided like their hair. Blood spilled down their hands.

We bind our bodies, our hearts, our souls. If we should be lost, let us find each other again even worlds apart. If we should perish, let us find each other again across lives. For now and for always, I am his and he is mine. So mote it be.

A deep, hungry kiss. Then Mark in bed with both of them, gloriously decadent and debauched, worshiping each other's beauty. The same length of rope used to bind Mark to the bed as they feasted on him, teased him, made him beg to be taken and fucked by both of them. Mark's arms holding him tight as he slipped inside.

Mark's arms holding him as he was surrounded by the mob of fire-demons, lashing at him. Mark's eyes the last thing he saw before burning up. The terror and pain in those eyes. The scream as he let go, turned to ash...

Now Mark's eyes were the first thing he saw upon waking up, tender and concerned. Mark pet Sören's curls, stroked his face. "You want to talk about it?"

Sören wasn't sure telling Mark I had a dream you and I were having a threesome with some hot guy and we were double penetrating you would go over well, delicious though that part of the dream had been. And it wasn't that part of the dream that bothered him. Unsettled him, yes.

"That recurring dream I have about burning to death, turning to ash." Sören's frown deepened. "I'd say that dream is getting old now, but it's been old since I was four. It just..." Sören rubbed his beard. "Seems to be increasing with frequency and intensity. Almost like the more progress I make in my recovery from... well, like, everything... the more that dream comes back to remind me I'm still broken." Sören's jaw trembled then, not able to hold back the tears.

"Oh, baby." Mark's own eyes were too bright, and he kissed Sören's forehead before pulling him close. Sören cried on Mark's shoulder, and Sören could feel Mark heaving, knowing Mark was crying too.

It made Sören cry harder. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you cry -"

"Shhhh." Mark kissed the top of Sören's head, rubbed his nose in Sören's curls. "It's OK, love."

Mark stroked Sören's face some more, with his bad hand, and Sören noticed the leash was wrapped around his hand. That made Sören smile through his tears - he'd slept on the leash last night. He absolutely loved that, feeling the safest he'd ever felt, taken care of.

Which of course is why my brain is being a massive dick to me now. It always seemed to be like that - a step forward and then a few shoves back. Sometimes knocking him down and kicking him for good measure. "I am so, so tired of having PTSD," Sören choked out, venting aloud.

"I know, baby. You didn't sign up for yours, and I didn't sign up for mine. But we've got each other now. We're looking out for each other." Mark rubbed his nose in Sören's curls again, rested his cheek on top of Sören's head. "You're precious to me, Sören. You give me back something I lost a long time ago." He took Sören's face in his hands then, met his eyes. "My little flame."

Sören desperately grasped for levity, his default coping mechanism. "I think you mean flamer."

Mark slapped Sören's ass and facepalmed - now he was shaking with laughter, not tears. "You are the worst, you know."

"I know." Sören kissed the tip of Mark's nose.

Mark cupped Sören's chin and kissed him, and soon they were kissing passionately, hands roaming. Mark's hard cock rubbed against Sören's thigh and just before Sören could reach down to grab it, Sören's cell phone went off.

Mark groaned. Sören made a little whine of protest. He thought about just ignoring it but he looked at the time - it was past twelve noon, not an unreasonable hour for someone to call him. And it might be important. With a whisper of "I'm sorry," Sören reached for the cell phone going off. Then he saw it was Sharon's number. His eyes widened. He still had her notebook, and he would be going back to Oregon in just under two weeks. "I gotta take this," Sören said, and Mark nodded.

"Sharon, hi," Sören said. "How are you?"

"Doing a little better. How are you, Sören?"

"I'm OK." I'd be more OK if you'd called later and let me get my fuck on, here. But Sharon couldn't have known, and he wouldn't fault her for calling.

"You're still in town, right?"

"Jæja, but not for too much longer, I'm going back on the 18th." He would have to touch base with Mark about that and coordinate a ride up. "You still in town?"

"For now, though I'm leaving sooner than you are. Which is... what I wanted to talk to you about, actually."

"Jæja." Sören nodded. Mark got up from the bed - no longer hard - and put a hand on Sören's shoulder. Sören felt a pang of guilt as Mark walked out of the bedroom, hoping this wasn't going to make things awkward again. "You'd asked me to give you some space, and..."

"Yeah, I know. And... you did, so thanks for that."

"But since we're both leaving soon, and I have your notebook..."

"Yeah, I need that back. But I want to see you anyway, if that's all right."

Mark came back in with Sören's meds and a glass of water. "Takk," Sören whispered; Mark kissed Sören's forehead and Sören watched as Mark began putting clothes on. "I think it should be all right, but..." Sören looked up at Mark. He lowered his voice. "Do we have plans this afternoon? Do you care if I visit Sharon? I have to return that notebook -"

"It's OK, Sören." Mark patted him. "I'll do laundry while you're out. If you trust me, I'll do yours too."

"Oh." Sören blinked. "That's nice of you." He felt strangely touched by that.

Mark actually smiled at him, a genuine smile, and Sören felt a flood of relief. Sören wanted to say more - he wanted to ask Mark if it was really really OK - but he didn't want to leave Sharon hanging. "OK, I have this afternoon free?"

"Yeah, that's good for me. Want me to stop by in an hour? We can go get lunch, go for a drive?"

"Sure. I'll see you then."

"Kay. Bye, Sören."

The phone call ended. Sören put the phone down and started taking his meds. "Are you sure -"

Mark gave him a look. "We're in a relationship now. I'd tell you if I had a problem with it, and for fuck's sake, Sören, you can have friends. My problem with you going off with Sharon before was when I didn't know where we stood and I was trying to hide my feelings for you and felt conflicted about having those feelings at all."

Sören was still attracted to Sharon, but he didn't think now was the time to ask Mark if he'd be OK with him and Sharon being friends with benefits. Not to mention that, while the conversation with Sharon had gone pleasantly enough, he didn't know whether or not Sharon had gotten over him, so he didn't want to ask about a ship that might have already sailed away without him. He knew he'd have to have that talk with Mark eventually, but he was biding his time before the next round of potential awkwardness.

"I appreciate you asking, though," Mark said as he pulled on his jeans.

"Well, I mean, you're my boyfriend." It still felt weird calling a man in his forties that, but Sören also liked the acknowledgment. Yes, this is mine. "I care about your feelings."

"I know." Mark smiled at him again. "You're very loving and caring and that means more than you know."

Sören took a quick shower, put on cargo shorts and a black T-shirt - he lubed up the buttplug and put it in his ass, smiling, knowing Mark would approve - and went into the bedroom he'd been using before moving into Mark's room, where he still kept a few things. Sharon's notebook was one of them. Then the painting caught his eye, of Marilwen the paladin with her flaming red pixie cut, her doll face, her curves, those lovely grey-blue eyes. He took it out, and wrapped it up in a cloth.

After hugging and kissing Mark, Sören sat outside with Sharon's notebook and the cloth-wrapped painting on his lap. It was a beautiful sunny day, the sky a bright blue with almost no clouds. He rose to his feet when he saw Sharon's RV rolling down the street, smiling at the sound of KMFDM blasting out the window, remembering how they'd met.

"KMFDM sucks," Sören said when he got in Sharon's van.

Sharon smiled. "It's good to see you too."

"Jæja." Sören drank in the sight of her. Her blonde dreadlocks were worn loose today, and she was wearing a hot pink camisole and a rainbow-colored broomstick skirt. She had beaded bracelets of different semi-precious stones on both wrists, and a choker made of seashells and glass beads. She smelled a little like plumeria flowers without being overpowering, and Sören smiled, his nostrils twitching. "Wow, I like that scent. Is that your body wash?"

"Perfume oil," Sharon said.

"That's nice." He was used to smelling patchouli on her.

She started driving. "Is there anywhere in mind you want to go eat?"

Sören considered. "Mexican? That taco shack OK?"

"Yeah, that's good with me."

They got their food to go and drove out to the Golden Gate Bridge, where Sharon parked, and they ate in the van.

It was Sören who broke the silence. "So you said you're leaving town soon."

Sharon nodded, taking a moment to chew her burrito. "Before the end of the week."

"Just you?" Sören pursed his lips. "You and Lucas still broken up?"

Sharon laughed. "He's long gone, yeah. Just me."

"You know where you're going?"

Sharon shrugged. "Up the west coast. I'm gonna scout around Seattle, then Portland, and see what's available before I make a decision, but it'll be one of those two places."

Sören thought about offering Sharon a place to crash at the house he was renting in Corvallis until she got a place of her own, but not only did he not know her well enough to feel entirely comfortable making that offer, he had a feeling that having a live-in roommate would cramp his style with Mark coming over, or even he and Mark possibly moving in together. Not to mention that he was, indeed, still very attracted to her and having her under his roof would be like playing with fire until he'd had that talk with Mark.

"I hope something works out," Sören said.

"Thanks, me too."

"You're not going to consider Corvallis at all? You talked about wanting to homestead someday, it's a bit less fast-paced than the big city."

"You know, I thought about it, but unless I have some freakish streak of luck it's going to take time for me to work towards that dream - time and money. There are more jobs in Portland and Seattle. And, well, I don't know. Yeah, I want to settle down on a farm someday, but this is also my first real crack at independence. So I might as well do it in a city, and Portland and Seattle seem more my speed as far as cities go than, say, New York. Portland has that artsy reputation in particular."

"It does. Though, not gonna lie to you, it's starting to have a Big Tech presence too, which was part of your problem with Lucas." Sören thought about Seth, who worked at Apple before Dooku ran him out of town. "And that's also been driving rents up. That's part of why I didn't want to move to Portland when my ex was really keen on it."

"I'll be staying in my RV for a bit while I check things out. I mean yes, at some point I'll want to get an apartment so I can have more space, sleep in a better bed, take a shower in something that isn't a tiny fucking cubicle." Sharon laughed. "And I'll need to get a roommate for that."

Sören hoped she wasn't going to ask him to be her roommate, but she seemed to understand that he had no desire to move to Portland, let alone out of state to Seattle. "So I'll be checking Craigslist and whatnot," Sharon quickly added.

Though he didn't feel right offering to be her temporary roommate, he nonetheless didn't want her doing something desperate if things went bad. "If there's an emergency, like you're going to be homeless and something happens to your RV, you can come chill with me in Corvallis for a bit. Not too long, but -"

"I appreciate that, Sören, but I should be fine. I'll let you know if that changes."

"OK." Sören nodded. He cocked his head to one side. "How are your parents taking this? And your friends?"

"Pfft," Sharon said, laughing. "My mom thinks I'm making a big mistake, as usual, but... she doesn't run my life. Marguerite says she'll miss me but I don't think she will, really. I don't have much keeping me here. And it's time to move on."

"Hope you're prepared for the rain." Sören grinned.

"I can deal."

"Well..." Sören handed Sharon her notebook. "Here. I hope that the move isn't just good for you, but inspiring. I'd like to see you keep writing."

"Thanks, Sören." Then she looked at the cloth at the side of the passenger's seat, hiding something large and rectangular. "What you got there?"

Sören unwrapped it and showed her. Sharon's jaw dropped.

"That's Marilwen," she said.

Sören nodded.

"Holy fucking shit, you got her just right." Sharon took the painting, blinking slowly as she studied it.

"I tried."

"Jesus." Sharon's voice shook. "It's like you took the image right out of my mind, and I didn't give you any references or anything, there was just a very brief description... and here you got her face..."

Sören smiled, feeling that warm glow of pride.

Their eyes met. "No, seriously, Sören... she's been showing up in my dreams for years. When I say you took the image right out of my mind, I really fucking mean that." Sharon looked at the painting again, then at Sören. "That's actually kind of creepy, like... you're psychic or something."

Sören thought about the little coincidences-not-coincidences in his life - Ari spinning the globe when Sören wanted to leave Canada, finger on the Pacific Northwest, Oregon State University having a teaching position open that Sören was qualified for. Ari pulling California out of a hat of states to go on vacation in, and sharing the cabin with Mark Lowry. The man in the mirror, confirming his existence. Sören's hair stood on end. "Jæja, maybe," he said, giving a nervous laugh.

"I wonder if you can project as well as receive," Sharon mused in a hushed, reverent tone of voice.

The subject was awkward enough to Sören that he fell back on humor. He closed his eyes and said, "I'm thinking of a number between 1 and 70..."

It took Sharon a minute and then she facepalmed, giggling. "God."

Sören opened his eyes, grinning. Sharon gave him a playful little shove. "You're a fucking pervert," she teased.

"Hey, no, you're the pervert, for all you know I could have been suggesting 42."

"Yeah, right." Sharon smirked.

Then Sharon leaned in and hugged him. "Thank you," she said, giving him a squeeze.

He returned the hug, his body responding to the feel of hers. "I'm glad you like the painting."

She pulled back a little - still lingering in his arms - and kissed his cheek. "Not just the painting, though I'm thanking you for that too. It's other things. Including, well." Sharon took a deep breath. "That night Lucas and I broke up, and I took E and tried to seduce you..."

"Jæja." Sören sighed and frowned, not wanting to visit this topic, though he knew it couldn't be avoided forever either, not if they were going to continue to be friends.

"And I got so, so mad that you didn't want to fuck me, because I was so raw it just felt like a rejection..."

"It wasn't a rejection of you," Sören said. "I didn't feel like you were in a position to consent. I'm not a rapist." Unlike my ex.

"I know. And, well... thank you for that." Sharon took his hands.

"Don't need to thank me for not raping you. God, how fucked is society when people feel the need to thank a man for being decent and not raping a woman..." Sören made a noise of disgust, thinking of his uncle Einar and all the other toxic "real men" he'd known in his life.

"OK, well... I'm not really phrasing this the way I wanted to." Sharon leaned back in her chair. "You were decent, and I haven't had a whole lot of decency in my life, and when I calmed down, I thought about things a bit. That's actually why I needed some space. I stopped being mad at you, but I also had to just... reflect on that night, and what led up to it, and what is and isn't healthy. I was with Lucas to fill a void in my life, and put up with his shit because I didn't think I could do any better."

"I know what that's like." Sören frowned, thinking of Seth.

Sharon nodded. "I don't want to make that same mistake again. There was genuine attraction, when I put the moves on you, but I was also in a lot of pain that night and it wasn't coming from the right place. I spent the last few weeks taking time to myself before I saw you again, because I wanted to make sure that, when I saw you again, now finally single, I'd be approaching it from the right place. Not trying to self-medicate with sex and relationships, not using you as a crutch, not using you to validate myself."

"Good."

They finished their food, holding that thought, and then Sharon drove them to the Marin Headlands. They climbed Hawk Hill together and sat, looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge where they'd just been parked, and the San Francisco Bay, sparkling in the sunshine. Blue butterflies flitted around them, and after awhile Sharon leaned on him, and put her head on his shoulder.

"I still like you," Sharon said.

"I still like you too," Sören said honestly.

Sharon turned her head, and Sören turned his, and they looked at each other.

"I'm single now," Sharon said.

"Hi Single Now -"

Sharon grabbed Sören's face and kissed him. Though Sören felt a pang of guilt about kissing her, he responded, kissing her back, moaning into the kiss as their tongues played together. His mind raced back to that night in the RV, before he'd figured out she was rolling. The way he'd kissed her nipples, would have devoured her if she was sober. Fuck, I still want her.

Sören pulled back, breathing hard. "Sharon. You may be single now, but... I'm not." His voice was raspy from arousal and emotion.

Sharon blinked. "I see."

Sören took a deep breath. "So... Mark and I..."

"See, I thought you two were a couple when I first saw you together, and it confused me when you said you weren't. It confused me even more when I saw him back at the beach house and the way he was looking at you. So... I can't say I'm surprised." Sharon gave a small, tight smile.

Sören nodded. "Mark's my boyfriend now. I don't know what the future holds -" God, I want there to be a future. "But I'm pretty serious about him."

"Well, I can't fault you for that, and I hope he makes you happy." Sharon's face registered disappointment, but Sören could tell she was trying to be a good sport about it.

And Sören laid his mental cards on the table, or at least where Sharon could see it. "I really want things to be long-term with him. I'm fucking crazy about him. But. I'm not good at monogamy. I tried, with the last guy I was with, but I couldn't stop looking, even if I didn't touch, and that drove him nuts. I actually blamed myself when the abuse started, thinking it was my fault because of that, but no, he would have done it anyway."

"Jesus, Sören -"

Sören shoved the thoughts of Seth out of his mind, though they were never very far. What Seth did would haunt him for years to come, even as he'd found happiness. "I make it a policy to be honest with my partners and tell them, look, you can have most of me, but I'm bi, I'm horny, I like novelty, that's just how it is. And most people can't keep up with my libido, I tend to be too much for just one person. I stopped and tried to be a good boy for my ex, Seth. And I haven't had that talk with Mark yet, because usually when I tell my partners up-front I can commit to a serious relationship but I need some breathing room to get it on the side sometimes... well... I stop having partners." Sören ran a hand through his curls. "But..." His eyes met Sharon's. "I want to have that talk with Mark. Eventually. When we get back to Oregon, and the dust has settled a bit. And if he's agreeable... look me up when you're in Portland."

"I'd like that, Sören. I'd like that a lot."

Sören took Sharon's hand and kissed it, making her blush - which made his cock stir. "And if he's not agreeable, well... I'd still like to be friends." He gave a nervous laugh, hoping what he was about to say would never, ever happen. "And if he really takes it badly and I'm single again... you might just have a new boyfriend."

Sharon threw her head back and laughed. Then she gave Sören a hug. "I do hope things work out with you and him."

"Me too."

"And yes, I'd like to stay friends with you, whether we ever do end up hooking up or not. Which is why I wanted to see you today. Well..." Sharon bit her lower lip. "I was hoping to get down your pants, too..."

Sören's cheeks flushed and he smiled. "Sorry about that. Maybe next time we see each other, though, if all goes well."

"You have my cell number but not my e-mail. You want my e-mail?"

"Yes. And though I'm on Facebook primarily for family, you want to add me there? Just... don't expect me to check it often. I hate Facebook." Sören made a face.

"I'm not even on Facebook. E-mail is fine."

They traded e-mail addresses, and then they stood up, and hugged again. They hiked down the hill together hand-in-hand, and back to Sharon's van. Just before Sharon could go around to her side of the RV, she grabbed Sören and gave him another kiss, and he kissed her back - feeling another pang of guilt, but it was just a kiss, and at least today, that wasn't going to go anywhere.

Their lips lingered, brushing for a moment before they pulled apart. Their gaze held, and then Sharon patted him before circling around the van to her side.

"So," Sören said, "you're leaving before the end of the week, then?"

Sharon nodded. "I'd invite you to hang out one last time, but I've got a lot of loose ends to tie up before I go - I'm working all week, to get as much money as I can before I head out, and I'm gonna be selling some stuff, buying other stuff, doing research..."

"It's OK."

"Besides, I don't want to cut into your time with Mark too much while you've got all that new relationship energy going."

"Well, takk. That's considerate of you."

Sharon drove him back to the beach house. Sören continued to sit in the van for a couple minutes, not wanting to let her go just yet - even if it would only be temporary, for a few weeks, couple months - and then Sharon got up, went into the back of the RV, and Sören watched as she pulled out a milk crate full of notebooks. She came back with a new notebook and handed it to him. "Something to read," she said. "You can hold onto this till the next time we see each other. Just so you know there's a next time."

They hugged again, and Sharon tousled his curls. Finally Sören hopped out of the RV. He didn't like saying goodbye, and he didn't want to get too emotional, hating how sensitive he was that his eyes were tearing up a little. With the hand not holding the notebook, he made the Vulcan hand salute. "Live long and prosper," Sören said.

Sharon giggled. "Get out of here, you dork."

The hand salute became the middle finger - Sharon flipped him off too - and then she blew him a kiss. Sören caught it, and turned around, taking the hand that caught the kiss and putting it on his ass. He waved, and walked to the house.

Mark wasn't back yet. Sören put the notebook away - he'd read more of her stories, but he was making himself wait awhile first. Right now, he had a glass of water and began pacing around the kitchen, thinking about her reaction to the painting.

She's been showing up in my dreams for years. When I say you took the image right out of my mind, I really fucking mean that.

"OK. Just now, shit got weird," Sören said aloud, though he knew that line had technically been crossed awhile back, especially last night when his guardian-friend-perv-thing had manifested at the club and then was back watching them in the mirror.

He'd started to have the nagging feeling that it might be worth a look to see who actually owned this place, and he found himself taking his cell phone out of his pocket and dialing the broker who'd set up everything on behalf of the owner. Since it was a Saturday, Sören knew he was taking a gamble that she wouldn't be answering her phone, but...

Three rings, then that disinterested, flat, British-accented voice. "Hello."

"Hello, yes, is this Charlie?"

"Yes. To whom am I speaking?"

"This is Sören Sigurdsson, who's renting the place on..." Sören gave her the address.

"Yes, Mr. Sigurdsson, what can I do for you?"

Sören cringed, as he always did when addressed by his patronymic. Iceland may not have been home anymore, but it still jarred him. He decided not to correct her. "So I have a question... would you mind putting me in touch with the owner?"

"Mr. Sigurdsson, the entire point of me being hired was so I could handle anything that needed to be handled without involving the owner. But if you need me to pass on a message - which would be odd, I should be able to take care of any questions, concerns, or needs you might have..."

Sören went with a half-truth, hoping he wouldn't have to elaborate. "There's actually something that came up that is a bit, well... it's of an intimate, personal nature that I wouldn't feel proper discussing with you, and would rather discuss with the gentleman involved." Sören was banking on the owner being a male. "If you don't mind putting me through."

Charlie took a deep breath - Sören prayed she wasn't about to call his bluff - and then she said, "Very well. I'll give you his number, but I truly do hope this is important, he's a busy man..."

Jæja, I bet he's very busy. "Perfect, takk."

She gave him a number, which he quickly jotted down, and then the conversation ended rather abruptly. Sören took a minute to breathe and try to calm his nerves - the hand holding the pen was shaking - and though he was still a ball of anxiety, he pushed on ahead and dialed the number.

Four rings, and it went straight to voice mail. A deep, rich, Russian-accented voice like that of a young Yul Brynner - the very same voice of the violet-eyed stranger - had made a recording. "You have reached the voice mail of Lucien Steele. Please leave your name, time you're calling, a callback number, and briefly state your business, and I will respond at my earliest convenience." Beep.

Not thinking about it, Sören started singing in an exaggerated falsetto, his best worst impression of Michael Jackson.

I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change


Sören let out a "HOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" scream, then he blew a raspberry into the phone and hung up.

Sören had to lean onto the kitchen counter to not fall over laughing. "Oh god why did I do that." His sides hurt. "Oh shit. Oh fuuuuuuuck." That was bad even for him.

And then he sobered up. Because having even more weird shit confirmed was unsettling rather than comforting. All of this was too much now. Sören found himself marching to the bedroom and flipping open the glass box. The mirror was just a mirror, but Sören waited. And after a few minutes the man finally appeared.

"Took you long enough," Sören said.

The man's lips quirked. "Did it now."

Sören raised an eyebrow. "You didn't get my voice mail?"

"Er, no."

Sören raised both eyebrows. "Do you not have your phone?"

"It's complicated."

Sören snorted and folded his arms. "This entire thing is complicated. And I'd really like some answers now."

"To be honest, I'm surprised you didn't start asking questions before now." Another quirk of those full, sensuous lips. "Though perhaps also not surprised, considering you've been a bit... occupied."

"Jæja, and so have you, Lucien Steele." Sören pursed his lips. "That's not your real name, is it?"

"No, beauty, it is not."

"So... what is your name?"

"That's rather irrelevant."

"No. Uh-uh. It's not irrelevant. You, somehow, set all of this up."

"You and Mag - " The man coughed. "Mark. Got together of your own free will."

"I didn't say we didn't, but we certainly got a helpful nudge towards each other, with us both coincidentally happening to rent this place that you listed on Airbnb." Sören narrowed his eyes. "You've been pulling strings left and right, you're some kind of fucking guardian angel or whatever the fuck you are, and I don't get the courtesy of a name?"

"You don't need my name."

"I do need your name, so I CAN YELL AT YOU," Sören said. "So I can have something to refer to you as besides Mirror Dude or Perv Guy or whatever. And no, Lucien Steele isn't going to cut it, even though I know you could give me another fake name."

"You can call me whatever you wish."

"Fine. Mr. Vain." Sören's nostrils flared, remembering the song last night. "How's that, Mr. Vain? Is that OK?"

The man took a deep breath and finally he said, "You may call me Van."

"Is that your real name?"

"It's a shortened version of my real name. A nickname, I suppose."

"All right." Sören took a deep breath. "Who are you?"

"A friend."

"Mkay. Obviously that's the wrong question." Sören pinched the bridge of his nose, pressed his hand to his forehead, and then rubbed his beard, thinking. "Why are you doing all of this?"

"You and Mag." The cough again. "Mark. Are very dear to me."

Sören wondered about that slip, but wasn't going to press it... for now. "Why? How? I've never met you, that I'm aware of. And Mark..." Sören exhaled sharply. "I painted a picture of you, and Mark liked it, enough to want to pay me for it, but he also claims he's never seen you before."

"He hasn't. Not in this world."

Sören reeled. "What... does... that... mean." Oh great, my life hasn't just turned into a bad sci-fi flick, but now I even sound like William Shatner. "This world? What?"

"It might be the reason why I haven't gotten your voice mail, because... the phone you'd have called is where you are, and I am... elsewhere."

"What. What." Sören's jaw dropped. "What in the gay hell..."

For a moment, it looked like Van could have laughed, wanted to laugh, but instead he gave Sören a smile that seemed terribly, terribly sad. "I have missed you, beauty."

"Jesus Fucking Christ." Sören got off the bed and started pacing around the bedroom. "OK. None of this makes any fucking sense. Elsewhere? You've missed me and I've never met you? I don't get it."

"No, of course you wouldn't. And I'm unsure how much of... all of this... is a good idea to tell you right now, because the more I explain, the less sense it will make without certain context I can't provide."

"Well... you saw us at the club last night, and then you were in the mirror watching us fuck."

"It was beautiful. On both counts."

"Where even are you?"

"Right now, at this moment? Sydney, Australia."

Sören blew up again. "How is that even... no. No no no no no. That is a long-ass flight from San Francisco to Sydney. There's no fucking way you could have shown up here and then be there if you flew, even if you have some kind of high-tech super-secret private plane or -"

"I didn't fly."

Sören's jaw dropped. He sat on his bed again. "You have a transporter? Like Star Trek or some shit? You from the future?"

"I am sort of from the future, but that... gets into the things that would just be confusing and difficult. For now, let this suffice - your brother, Dagnýr, is a scientist, and a portion of his work is quantum theory and theorizing about the existence of parallel universes. He is absolutely right. He doesn't have all of the details right, but you inhabit one universe within a multiverse. I am in the Sydney, Australia of another universe. The phone you called does not work across universes, but the mirror does. I have made a few trips to the universe you inhabit, to do things such as transfer the money, and, earlier this year, set up the listing for the house you're staying in..."

Sören's head was spinning. He felt about ready to faint. That panic came on again, like the one he'd had before placing the call to "Lucien Steele", but this one was worse. Because all of this was worse.

"So in the world where you're in Sydney, you've met us? Enough for us to be 'very dear' to you."

"Here, and more."

"Fuck." Sören rubbed his face. "No. No... this can't be happening." He started pacing around again, another wave of panic erupting. "This can't be real. This can't be happening -"

"It's happening, beauty."

"No. You don't get it." Sören laughed bitterly. "I have bipolar disorder. I'm mentally fucking ill. We're not known for hallucinations the way schizophrenics are, but it's not outside the realm of possibility when we're having an episode. We can have 'delusions of grandeur'. This has... got to be one big fucking hallucination. Which is, frankly, fucking terrifying because now I'm wondering what else -"

"Sören, none of this is a hallucination, and it was precisely because I anticipated you reacting badly that I was willing to accede to your demand that I prove myself, thus I made the Paypal donation. You have a record of it. You can ask Mark, himself, to look at it if you don't trust your own perception. But that might raise awkward conversations with him. And - you don't trust yourself enough. You struggle with self-doubt. I know enough about your life across the multiverse to know you were constantly challenged in your younger years, you experienced gaslighting, so it comes naturally to you to doubt yourself, to second-guess yourself. And part of your healing process is to cut that out. To stop doubting yourself so much. To trust your gut instinct. To trust what you see, what you feel..."

She's been showing up in my dreams for years. When I say you took the image right out of my mind, I really fucking mean that.

"Of course a hallucination would be telling me to trust myself, that this isn't a hallucination, because it's wishful thinking." Sören snorted and gave another bitter laugh. "You want to go to all this trouble to pull strings, to intervene, for me. Little old me. Most of my life, nobody has ever given a shit about me -"

"Most people aren't worth giving a shit about. But you are, Sören. And this isn't wishful thinking, because it's the easy way out, for you to close yourself off, keep telling yourself nobody cares, not risk feeling again, getting hurt again. Letting yourself trust, and love, and live - that's the hard part."

There was such sadness in those beautiful violet eyes. Sören thought about Van's words at the club last night - It is so good to see you both so alive. In his mind's eye he could see a fireball, then a nuclear flash of white. Could feel griefragehate from Van, a vision of him walking out of the silence of dust, leaving a monument behind.

And for the briefest instant he could almost hear or feel another version of him, the one who knew Van - one of the ones - scream at Van You might want to take your own advice.

Sören swallowed hard. Feeling like another version of himself had just broken into his head for a minute was the final straw. Wordlessly, he removed the lubricant, glass dildo, and the condoms he hadn't been using from the box.

"What are you doing?" Van asked from the mirror.

Sören picked up the box and threw it as hard as he could. It slammed into one of the walls in the hallway and shattered, glass all over the hall floor.

The metal frame remained, but one of the hinges was broken in the impact. And, Sören dropped to his knees, sobbing. What have I done? The box hadn't exactly been cheap, he'd bought it as a pretty souvenir of this summer. It felt like a disrespect to the craftsmanship of a one-of-a-kind piece of glass art. There was no way to repair it, as much as the glass had shattered. And he'd made a giant mess.

And what if this was real, not just a hallucination, not just wishful thinking, the magical thinking of a disordered mind... he'd cut off a line of communication.

Or not. He thought of the "Lucien Steele" number. He probably hadn't seen the last of Van, whether or not this was his mental illness playing up.


_


Mark came home to find Sören on his hands and knees, sweeping up the glass into a dustpan, throwing the broken pieces into a garbage bin. All except for one, a larger piece that Sören put in his pocket.

"Sören?" Mark went right over, standing as close as he could without wandering into what remained of the mess of broken glass. "Are you OK?"

"Jæja, I think so." But Sören's voice was raspy from crying; he didn't sound OK, and when Mark got down on his knees across from him, staring at him intently, Sören knew he probably didn't look OK either, that Mark would be able to tell from his eyes and his flushed face that he'd been crying.

"Sören. What happened." Mark's brow furrowed. "Did you fight with Sharon -"

"No. No... everything with Sharon went fine." Sören felt another stab of guilt about the kisses, but they hadn't gone farther than that, and Sören saw no point in telling him now. He'd have the poly conversation with him in a few weeks. "I just." Sören made a vague hand gesture. "I think I'm having an episode." That part wasn't a lie - he was worried that he genuinely was hallucinating. And there had been the increased nightmares, and now this explosion of anger that led to him smashing the box...

Mark gently reached out and took the dustpan and brush out of Sören's hands, and took Sören's hands for a minute, kissed them, before Mark started sweeping up the rest of the glass. "So... what makes you say that?"

"Don't you have to bring in the laundry?"

"I can do that later. This is more important." Mark gave him an "I'm waiting" look.

"I think I'm hallucinating everything." It wasn't just all of the weirdness, the not-coincidences... Sören looked into Mark's eyes. Mark loved him. Sören didn't feel worthy. Indeed, his entire life had driven the message home that nobody would or could love him, apart from maybe his brother and cousin. "Like this is too good to be true..."

Mark swept up the last of the glass, and then he grabbed Sören and bit his neck. Hard. Hard enough for Sören to give a yelp.

"That's how you know you're not hallucinating or dreaming this," Mark said.

Sören grabbed Mark and kissed him passionately. Mark shoved Sören down onto the floor and for the next while they kissed and kissed, hands roaming, exploring, teasing. They were both hard, and Sören's hand slid to the bulge in Mark's jeans, rubbing. At last, he reached for Mark's belt, about to undo Mark's jeans and free Mark's cock, wanting him right there on the hall floor.

Mark's hand grabbed Sören's wrist, stopping him. "Not yet."

Mark got up, then he pulled Sören up. "Here. Let's relax for awhile."

He went to the bedroom, came back with his glasses off, led Sören into the bathroom, and started the jacuzzi. Mark began to undress, and Sören followed suit. They got into the hot tub together. The heat and bubbles was just what Sören needed. Already, he felt a little better.

Even better when Mark pulled him close and just held him, rocked him a little, stroked his curls. "It's OK, baby. I know how much you hurt."

"So much." Those two words held a lifetime of pain.

Mark cupped Sören's chin and tilted Sören's face to look at him. "I know this feels too good to be true because you're not used to this. I'm not used to it, either. I'm used to being alone. But we're not alone anymore." He kissed Sören's forehead. "You've got me."

Sören's arms tightened around Mark. "Don't let me go," Sören husked. "Never let me go..."

Sören repeated those words like a mantra as Mark held him, rocked him. "Don't let me go. Don't let me go... Don't leave me..."

Sören started to cry, and it felt like Mark was crying, too. Mark finally put his finger to Sören's lips. "Shhhhhh." Sören started sucking on his finger, and Mark groaned. He kissed Sören's forehead, nuzzled his curls. "Good boy."

Then Sören was sucking on Mark's thumb, and when they were both more calm, Mark took his thumb out of Sören's mouth, took Sören's face in his hands, and kissed him.

They kissed and kissed like they were starving for it, like their lives depended on kissing. Underneath the water, Mark reached for Sören's cock - hardened up now - and began to stroke, slowly. Sören moaned into the kiss, and cried out as Mark kissed and licked his neck, his shoulder. Sören clutched Mark's head and cried out again as Mark lowered his head to lap at a nipple, before suckling, tugging a nipple ring with his teeth, lapping some more, then turning his attention to the other to lick, suckle.

Mark kissed his way back up Sören's neck, claimed his mouth again, and then he rose up. He turned off the jacuzzi and picked up Sören, carrying him out of the bathroom to the bedroom. In the bedroom, Mark lit candles, and then he paused when he saw Sören on all fours, showing off the buttplug that had been in all afternoon.

Mark swatted Sören's ass before he removed the plug, and groaned at the sight of Sören open for him.

Mark got on the bed, and he gently rolled Sören onto his side. He took Sören into his arms and for a moment they just looked into each other's eyes, petting each other. Then Mark kissed Sören deeply, hungrily, as he took their cocks into his fist, slowly stroking them together.

"Fuck." Sören shuddered.

"Here," Mark said. "You've had a rough day, I think... let me take care of you." With his other hand, he pulled open the first bedtable drawer and out came the vanilla-flavored massage oil.

Sören lay on his stomach and Mark got behind him. Sören gasped at the shock of the liquid pouring over his back and then he made a little purring noise as Mark's hands slid over him, working the oil over his bare skin.

For the next while Sören melted, floated, as Mark's hands rubbed, chopped, and kneaded at his shoulders, his upper arms, forearms, his upper back, his lower back, his ass, the back of his thighs, his calves. The tension flooded out of his muscles, even as his cock got harder and his balls tightened. Feeling Mark's hard-on slowly grinding against him made the rubdown even more sensual and decadent.

When Mark rubbed Sören's feet, Sören could have cried at the deliciousness of it. He hadn't known how sore his feet actually were until Mark's hands clenched and stroked, relief so strong Sören felt like his entire body was glowing.

Mark had Sören lay on his back then, and Sören smiled up at him adoringly, Mark smiling back as he poured oil onto Sören's chest and worked it over his skin.  Mark rubbed Sören's shoulders from the front this time, then one arm, then another. Then his hands slid down to rub Sören's chest, fingers lingering on the nipples, "accidentally" brushing, plucking, heat in Mark's eyes as he watched Sören's nipples peak. As his cock rubbed against Sören's thigh, his hands moved in sensuous circles on Sören's stomach, and even more sensuously on Sören's thighs, cock grinding on one thigh as his hands kneaded another. Sören was rock hard, and now his cock was leaking precum. And after Mark rubbed Sören's calves from the front, he dove down and began to lap Sören's precum, slow, deliberate licks at the head of Sören's cock, over the frenulum.

"Oh god, Mark..." Sören gasped and shuddered.

Before Sören could be too far gone, Mark came up to lick and suckle Sören's nipples. He spent a long time there, feasting on one then the other, thumb and fingers rubbing, pinching, plucking one as his lips and tongue pleasured the other. Sören grabbed Mark's head, arching to him, panting.

Mark kissed down to Sören's stomach, and spent awhile there as well, kissing, licking, nibbling. He kissed over to one of Sören's hips, and then along the seam of the crotch. Mark teased a thigh, caressing, kissing, nipping, and Sören bucked against him with a whimper.

When Mark took Sören's cock into his mouth, Sören felt already too close to orgasm. But Mark sucked him slowly, keeping him on that edge - though the look of lust in Mark's eyes drove Sören into a frenzy. And when Sören's balls tightened, orgasm starting to build, Mark took Sören's cock out of his mouth and just licked it all over, a little wicked smile on his face as Sören cried out and writhed and whimpered, at last panting "Please... please..."

Mark laughed softly as his tongue teased the sensitive frenulum.

"Oh god, Mark, please..." Sören made a guttural, primal noise.

Mark's eyes widened as if he were surprised that noise came out of Sören as well. Smiling - seeming to revel in the power he had to undo Sören - Mark rose up, grabbed the massage oil, and handed it to Sören. His smile became a cheeky grin as he lay down on his stomach, and now it was Sören's turn to swat Mark's ass. Mark just laughed at him.

Mark's laughter became a moan as Sören brushed the hair aside and poured oil over Mark's shapely back and perfect ass. Sören straddled Mark's hips, hard cock rubbing into the crack of Mark's ass as he proceeded to spoil and tease Mark the same way, his hands finding a rhythm over Mark's shoulders, then those sculpted, veiny arms, then the back. Mark moaned and sighed as Sören worked on him, and Sören found himself moaning too, completely turned on by Mark's gorgeous body - Mark was a work of art. Sören's hands over him was like an act of worship.

Sören's lust grew as he kneaded Mark's ass, then the backs of his thighs, his calves. While Mark was on his stomach, Sören couldn't resist but dip down, and lick around the rim of Mark's opening. Mark cried out, and Sören took that as an invitation to play, slipping his tongue inside and returning the torment, paying evil unto evil, licking as slowly as he could, until Mark was gasping, shuddering, and made a high-pitched whimper that was also unreal coming out of the likes of such a tall, strong man.

Sören relented, and Mark rolled onto his back. Sören licked his lips at the sight of Mark's cock, dripping. Sören poured oil over Mark's chest and straddled Mark's hips again, this time from the front, their hard cocks rubbing together as Sören worked on Mark's shoulders, arms, torso, sliding up and down from chest to stomach. Playing with Mark's nipples, finding the sight of them swollen and glistening to be so delicious he couldn't help himself and bent to suckle, lash his tongue. The vanilla oil tasted good, and Mark's cries and groans were even better.

Sören poured oil over their cocks and worked them together in his fist, stroking slowly, as he resumed lapping at Mark's nipples. And then Mark pulled Sören up for a kiss, before getting into the sixty-nine position. Laying at each other's sides, arms around each other, hands gliding, caressing, they sucked each other slowly and languidly, like they had all the time in the world. But soon enough their hunger and passion overtook them and they sucked harder, faster, until Sören let go, crying out around Mark's cock, and a few seconds later he was rewarded with Mark filling his mouth with sweet cream, sweeter for the lingering taste of the vanilla massage oil.

Somehow, they made their way back to the pillows, kissing. Sören could still taste Mark after swallowing, and tasting himself on Mark, their flavors combining in the kiss, made them harden up again. Their cocks slid together, sensuously teasing awhile, before Mark poured oil directly into Sören's opening. Sören grabbed him, bucking up against him with a cry, opening wider. "Please," Sören begged.

Mark guided just the tip to Sören's channel, and smiled as he tormented Sören with just the tip in and out - so good, but Sören needed more, needed to be stretched, filled. And at last there he was, bottoming out inside him, and Sören almost wept at the relief of feeling Mark in him.

"This is real," Mark husked, taking Sören's hands. "And this is right." He kissed Sören's neck. "This is where you belong. And I belong."

Their mouths met, and Sören moaned, hips rolling back at Mark in the slow, ancient rhythm of the tide.

Chapter Text

Fuck the Police




"Bad dream again?"

Sören just nodded, frowning. He was getting tired of this - especially now, when he'd been woken up fairly early in the morning, too early for his liking.

"The usual." Sören made a face. "I've been dreaming about burning to death since I was four, like I told you, but lately it's been even more graphic than that. I keep having this dream where I'm attacked by a mob of, like... fire demons... and they're whipping me to death, and you're holding me and I die in your arms before I go up in flames."

Mark's eyes widened, and his mouth opened.

"I mean, people with bipolar disorder supposedly have very vivid, symbolic narrative-type dreams and it's obvious that it's, you know... symbolic. Like, I finally have something good in my life, and here's the demons from my past, trying to take it away from me. But it also felt real, like in a way dreams don't tend to feel." Sören ran a nervous hand through his curls and rubbed his beard.

Mark looked away and swallowed hard. His eyes were too bright.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you..." Sören immediately felt bad for saying something. "I know that's disturbing as hell..."

"Don't worry about it." Mark attempted a thin, tight smile. He got up from the bed and began putting clothes on. "You want to go to Muir Woods? We both find peace there, I think, and it's early enough that we'll get a decent parking spot if we leave now even with it being a weekend." It was Sunday, August sixth.

"OK." Sören nodded.

After getting his meds, taking a shower, and putting on a Joy Division shirt and camo cargo shorts, he and Mark loaded up supplies for a hike and got in the Jaguar. They went back inside to get some additional water, since it was going to be a warm day - Sören noticed that today Mark was actually wearing shorts, rather than his usual jeans.

"Nice legs," Sören said on the way inside.

Mark grinned. "I wanted to show off for you."

"Is that so." Sören also grinned; he liked that Mark wanted to look sexy for him.

And then, after they got the water from the kitchen, Sören saw Mark looking at his musical instruments, considering.

"You're gonna take the war harp with you?" Sören raised an eyebrow. "Or the acoustic guitar? Even that seems like a pain in the arse to lug on the trail, strong as you are."

Mark reached down and picked up his violin case. "I haven't touched this since we got here." He patted it and carried it out to the car. "This way we can have some music when we stop for a break."

Sören smiled - now that would be a treat, Mark performing in the beauty of nature. He couldn't wait.

Once they were on the road Mark cocked his head to one side and said, "Do you want to try the longer trail?"

"The really long one?"

Mark nodded.

Sören considered, and nodded, patting the inhaler in his pocket. "I hope my body won't give out."

"Well..." Mark gave him a sly smile. "You have been building up your stamina, as of late."

It took Sören a minute, and then he facepalmed, giggling. Mark laughed too.

It was a forty-minute drive from Sausalito to Stinson Beach, and a nice scenic ride. Sören managed to relax on the way there, listening to the radio, feeling the breeze in his hair. When they arrived at the beach parking lot they lingered for a few minutes, Mark looking out at sea, and there was such a sadness in his eyes that Sören ached for him - again feeling guilty, like sharing his nightmare had been upsetting somehow.

Sören put his arms around Mark's waist. "Hey," he husked. "I love you, you know."

Mark tilted his face to look at Sören, his hair stirring in the wind; once again, Sören's breath caught at the beauty of him, as beautiful as the seascape and the nearby coastal trail, lush and green. "I love you too," Mark said, stroking Sören's face.

"You OK? Anything I can do?"

Mark kissed him softly. "I'm never really OK, Sören, but having you around makes it a lot better." Mark's own voice was husky with emotion now, and for the briefest instant Mark had a touch of a strange accent - not generic-newscaster-American any longer, vaguely Latin if Sören had to place it, but that didn't make any sense. Well, sometimes people sound funny when they're upset, Sören thought to himself, deciding not to press it... and Mark was taking his hand, pulling him along.

From the trailhead at the beach, they climbed through a dense patch of forest and through coastal scrub, rolling grassland. Here and there they saw a deer; in one grassy spot they saw a coyote lurking in the brush. Then the Dipsea Trail became the Steep Ravine Trail and the deep forest began, hiking among redwoods in a lush canyon along Webb Creek. Sören gasped at the waterfalls and pools, wanting to stop and take pictures, and just watch the flowing falls and bubbling creek, taking it all in - half-expecting to see fairies flittering about the ferns and redwoods. They spotted more deer, which made Sören choke back a squeak, softly clapping with excitement.

Once again, Mark seemed at peace, and Sören almost wished they could stay here forever, just build a hut here and live in the forest. Of course, they couldn't, and Sören knew he wasn't cut out for that kind of primitive living. But it was good to get away and be in a space to breathe in unspoiled land, anyway.

Eventually they came to here a steep section with an unavoidable 10-foot ladder next to one of the falls. Sören shook a little on the ladder, feeling an asthma attack coming on not from the ascent but from the anxiety of the height and feeling unsteady. Mark was right behind him, soothing with "I've got you, baby. I won't let you fall."

Sören made it up the ladder, puffing on his inhaler, and then once Mark was there with him he hugged Sören from behind. "I'm proud of you," Mark said, squeezing him. "I could feel how nervous you were."

Those strong arms around him, Mark's hands on him, his protection... Sören trembled again, not from fear this time. He reached up and wrapped his arms around Mark's neck, pulled him closer for a kiss. Then Sören grasped for levity, caught up in emotion and desire. "Hi Proud Of You," he teased.

Mark swatted Sören's ass. "Come on, you butt."

The trail passed through more redwoods, becoming a bridge with a particularly thick growth of ferns and shrubbery that looked like small oak trees, that was unavoidable to walk through at one end of the bridge. The ferns and oak-like leaves tickled Sören's legs, making him giggle, and Mark tilted Sören's face to steal another kiss. "I love to hear you laugh," Mark said.

Mark took the lead again as they left the bridge, climbed out of the canyon into a more open forest. They reached the Pantoll Ranger Station and stopped to take a rest, drinking water, eating trail mix. Mark took out his violin then and began to play - first practicing scales, then "Serenade" by Schubert, which was melancholy and bittersweet after the wild, exuberant beauty of the canyon and reminded Sören again of the early morning's nightmare, and Mark's own strange sadness at it.

Sören had a memory of attending a Christmas concert last year with Dooku, where Mark had played harp in the opener, and how even then, before he and Mark were friends, before they were intimate, Mark's music evoked so much emotion, bringing him to tears. It was so much more personal now, feeling the song inside Mark - just as Sören painted what he saw in his mind's eye, Mark played from the heart. Sören could hear the love and loss, the memory of love lost, the fear of love found, all coming to a head in a beautiful place like this.

"Serenade" was followed by "Mysterious Forest" by Chopin, another achingly melancholy song. As Mark's bow glided over the violin, Sören could feel the summer winding to a close, wanting to hold on to what they'd found this summer, what they'd found here, the magic between them. As if he was afraid, just as Sören was, that when they left California and went back to Oregon, they'd lose what they had.

"La Campanella" by Paganini was a mood swing of a song, veering back and forth between wild melancholy and playful brightness, the dance of fear and hope, sorrow and joy. Sören swooned - he was having a better appreciation for why rock stars had groupies; the way Mark played, eyes locked on him, made Sören feel almost like Mark had gone back in time somehow and mused Paganini to compose that just for him. Which of course was foolishness, but that was the sensitivity of Mark's playing, putting so much emotion into music without words, feeling that transcended words.

"That was fucking brilliant," Sören said as Mark caught his breath.

Mark took a theatrical bow. Sören laughed and applauded.

"That Paganini guy was a genius," Sören said.

"I'm sure he'd be rolling in his grave at you calling him 'that Paganini guy'," Mark said with an eyeroll and a small smile. "If you like that, though, you should hear it with an orchestra, it's even more brilliant when it has other instruments backing it up."

"Maybe we can go to a concert sometime?" Sören chuckled then. "I never thought I'd be wanting to go to a classical music concert, but you've expanded my horizons."

"Good." Mark grinned. "I like it when I can help the younger generation to appreciate the old masters."

"I'm not that young, and certainly not that much younger than you," Sören said.

Mark raised an eyebrow before taking a sip of water. "I'm at that age where everyone under thirty-five is a kid," Mark said.

"Mhm."

"Anyway... one more song by Paganini?"

"Please."

Mark finished with "Caprice no. 24" by Paganini, which was exciting - like channeling discovery and exploration itself, the spirit of wonder. Mark's wildness on the violin was intoxicating to watch, and when it was finished, Mark breathing hard, Sören checked his impulse to throw Mark down in the grass and fuck him senseless. Checking that impulse wasn't a bad thing, as a runner zoomed past.

Mark put his violin away and after more water they continued on, crossing Panoramic Highway to the Matt Davis Trail. It was all downhill now, alternating forest and wide open views - in the open places they stopped to look at the Pacific Ocean and the Farallon Islands in the distance, holding hands. The descent through the mixed evergreens was rocky and the stairs were uneven, with Sören holding onto Mark to steady himself, Mark's return grip strong and comforting.

At last they reached the end of the trail, and after a short walk from the firehouse back to the Dipsea Trail, it wasn't far to the car.

"We made it," Sören said, not able to believe he'd hiked almost seven miles without incident.

"We did." Mark gave him a little hug. He looked at the time. "We made good time too, only six hours."

"Some of that was your concert." Sören kissed the tip of Mark's nose. "Thank you for that."

"It was my pleasure." Mark stroked Sören's face, pet his curls. "Thank you for appreciating it."

"I can't believe I didn't really appreciate classical music before now," Sören said as Mark turned on the ignition.

"I can." Mark let out a little sigh. "Don't get me wrong, there's really good music from this era." He gestured to his Metallica T-shirt. "But I think the lack of ability to appreciate more complex music, that isn't 'catchy', is symptomatic of the culture as a whole. Wanting instant gratification, not wanting to think too hard, feel too much. Wanting everything to be packaged and 'fun'."

"Like a snack instead of a meal."

"Or junk food instead of something that took longer to put together and where it needs to be savored slowly. For the most part, I like music to be the way I like to make love. A quickie can be fun, but immersion, something that takes you in completely, is more satisfying to me. And the world seems to be losing that. People want to 'hook up', not be actually intimate. People want mindless entertainment, not engagement. They want to be consumers, not be consumed by the experience of music, of art... and, well..." Mark glanced at Sören. "You get it, I think. You feel more deeply than most people, and that comes out in your work."

"Your music makes me feel, too," Sören said. "It's not just what the old masters composed that makes a song good, it's the musicians playing it. Just like lines can be written, but an actor makes or breaks their impact. You have a gift."

"It's a gift I try to impart to my students, at least a little." Mark frowned as he watched the road. "It feels like trying to keep alive something that's dying out."

"Like magic, itself, is dying out in the world," Sören said, thinking of the way Seth couldn't appreciate his art, scoffed at the magical realism, the supernatural and mythological themes. Seth, who was all technology and transhumanism, longing for a day when AIs would rule the world.

"Very much so."

"We have that magic, both of us." Sören's mouth was dry, remembering the melancholy he'd felt in Mark's violin, the way he'd taken others' compositions and made them his own, almost as if he'd composed them himself, that feeling of loss and fear and longing, wanting to believe in the love that was in front of him. "We're stronger together."

Mark pulled over and kissed Sören hard, hard enough to take his breath away.

For a minute Sören wondered if Mark was going to drag him into the backseat, but then Mark got back on the road and said, "Let's go grab a bite to eat somewhere, then maybe we can make some more of that magic together."

It was late afternoon now. They opted for a small, cozy restaurant on the coast where they got seafood, and before they got back in the car they just leaned on each other awhile, watching the sea. Mark seemed a little sad again, and Sören ached for him, wishing there was something, anything he could do.

When they got back to the beach house, Sören's cell phone went off. He thought about ignoring it, but he didn't know if it would be important or not. So he took his phone out of his pocket. His face lit up when he saw Dooku's number, doing a little internal happy dance.

"Nico! Hi!"

"Sören, hello." Dooku's own voice was bright. "As you know, it's been a few days since I've heard anything from you -"

"Jæja, I've been kind of occupied." Sören didn't want to get into how, since Dooku didn't seem to be the type of person to discuss sexual matters. He also hadn't told Dooku yet he and Mark were an item now - that information could wait till he got back. "I just got in the door..."

"Oh."

And that one "oh" carried the weight of disappointment. Sören felt a pang - despite being so fixated on Mark as of late and incommunicado, he did miss his best friend, and he was regretting very much that he didn't hug Dooku before he took the train. They had been in the habit of hugging and casually touching when they first became friends, last year, and then Dooku had suddenly stopped, apart from the occasional touch. Sören very much wanted to hug him now.

"I should let you go then," Dooku said, a note of sadness in his voice.

"Oh no, Nico, it's OK, I just wanted to try to explain a little why there's been radio silence. It's not you. And I'm telling you I just got in the door because..." Sören walked to the bathroom and closed the door behind him. "I'm taking you to the bathroom with me."

"Oh dear." Dooku chuckled.

Sören put Dooku on speakerphone as he took care of business. "So how's things up there in Oregon?"

"The usual. Reading, gardening, going to the gym, my weekly Krav Maga class. Your plants are fine."

"I've got some more pictures to send you when I get a chance to upload them, I hiked in Muir Woods today."

"Oh, that sounds lovely."

"You'll appreciate this - I hiked eleven kilometers. I managed pretty well, though I'm pretty worn out now."

"How did your asthma hold up?"

"Only one attack and that was on a ladder going up, from anxiety."

"Very good." Dooku sighed. "I recall that the first few months of this year you were having asthma attacks quite a bit..."

"Jæja, that was a hard road, newly being separated from Seth and having to unpack all the shit he did to me, like peeling layers of an onion. You were my rock, Nico." A pause, Sören wishing he could hug him again. "You still are."

"Oh, Sören. Well, as you know, you're rather a rock for me as well. I've missed you terribly."

"Yeah." Sören sighed, knowing his relationship with Mark was going to impact his schedule, and he would have to make time for Dooku. "We'll make up for lost time when I get back. Mark has taught me to appreciate your old geezer classical music and everything -"

Dooku chuckled. "Brat."

Sören blew a raspberry and switched from speakerphone to regular phone as he flushed. "So, you know, maybe you could take me to a concert now and again."

"That would be wonderful." Dooku cleared his throat. "Sören, that's actually why I'm calling - the matter of when you're getting back."

"And here I thought it was so you could hear the sound of my voice."

"Well, that too."

"I missed your voice," Sören said sincerely. He really did. And that deep, rich velvet voice was doing things to him now, almost like a caress, a frisson down his spine. Sören's face burned as he thought about hugging Dooku again. Now that his libido had come back thanks to Mark, he entertained the briefest fantasy of he and Dooku in bed, naked, kissing...

But they were just friends. Sören batted that thought away, swallowing hard.

"So," Dooku cut into his thoughts. "When do you need me to pick you up at the Amtrak station?"

"Ah, I don't, actually."

"Oh?"

"I'm going to ride back up to Oregon with Mark, be easier since we're going to the same place and all."

"Oh, all right."

Sören detected the faintest touch of disappointment, and Sören felt a little guilty, knowing Dooku wanted to spend time with him, take him out to dinner when he got back. And Sören still wanted to see him. "It's a ten-hour drive and I'm leaving on the 18th, so Mark and I will probably get back on Saturday the 19th, and... how does Sunday the 20th sound, if you want to get together for lunch? Maybe we can go to Portland?"

"I'd like that, Sören, thank you."

"Good. I'd like that too. I miss you." Sören got a little choked up now, feeling the impact of how much. Yes, he really was going to need to keep Dooku as a fixture in his life, and hopefully that was something Mark would understand and allow him time and space for, because Dooku was very, very dear to him. There was fierce loyalty, after the hell he'd been through, and the way Dooku had rescued him, taken care of him, helped him back from the edge of self-loathing.

"I miss you very much, Sören. I lo-..." A deep breath, and a little sigh.

"Hm? You OK? You what?" Sören was a little worried, hoping Dooku didn't have some kind of announcement to make about ill health or anything else.

"I lost track of time and have to turn the chicken in the oven." A soft, nervous laugh.

"Oh, OK." Sören gave a nervous laugh too, relieved that was what it was and not cancer or something. "I'll let you get off, then." Mind, gutter. Sören wondered if Dooku ever masturbated; he'd never seen Dooku with a lover or heard him mention a partner so he didn't think Dooku had sex at all. Sören wanted to slap himself for even wondering, but that voice... Sören shuddered and bit his lower lip.

"Yes, I shall be... getting off now." A small clear of the throat. "Have a good rest of the evening, Sören, and I'll see you on the 20th... what time?"

"Ah, noon just so I can sleep in a little. And you too. I'll see about sending you some pictures tomorrow or the day after."

"Splendid. Good night, dear."

Sören's heart was racing a little, his stomach fluttering as the call ended. He looked at himself in the mirror - pupils wide, cheeks flushed. He felt kind of stupid, not knowing why he was reacting like this, and splashed some cold water on his face before he came out to the living room.

Mark was relaxing with a glass of white wine. He smiled when he saw Sören, and patted the seat next to him on the couch. Sören sat down and immediately put his aching feet up, to take a load off. Without Sören having to tell Mark how much his feet ached, Mark seemed to sense it, put his glass down, peeled off Sören's socks and adjusted his position, moving Sören's legs; Sören sat with his back against the armrest, propping pillows behind him, and Mark began to rub one of Sören's feet. Sören groaned at the tenderness of the spot followed by relief as Mark's elegant, skilled fingers kneaded.

"So that was Professor Dooku," Mark said.

Sören nodded. "He was going to pick me up at the train station but I told him I'd ride back up with you on the 18th - I assume that's OK?" Mark nodded. Sören continued, "And I told him we can do lunch the day after I get back, probably the 20th."

Mark nodded. "I think it's good you want to see your friend."

"Yeah?"

"You've had a rough life, you need supportive people around you. Even without that, it's just... you know, healthier, to have friends."

"Says the guy who has no friends." Sören narrowed his eyes.

"Yeah." Mark looked down, rubbing Sören's foot harder. "I have issues with getting close to people, so this is a 'do as I say, not as I do'."

"Well, I'm glad you're mentioning that, because I actually was going to talk to you about how I'd still like to keep Nico as a constant in my life, I need to make some time for him each week. He's been a good friend and I need to keep that friendship."

"I don't have a problem with that. I'd like to keep seeing you when we're back in Oregon -"

"Boyfriends."

"Yeah." Mark gave a sheepish grin, continuing to rub, and when Sören let out a deep groan at another good spot, Mark moaned at the sound Sören made. "But it's OK to have a life and not make me your everything. I encourage you to have as well-rounded of an existence as you can. I want to spend time with you, I want to be important to you, have an important place in your life, but I don't want to monopolize you where you feel smothered. I get the feeling Seth smothered you and pushed everyone and everything out of your life, didn't he?"

Sören nodded, cringing, remembering.

Mark took Sören's hand and kissed it, before resuming work on Sören's foot. "So, you know. It's fine if you want to take that Sunday and see your friend."

"Thank you for understanding."

"I gotta say, though." Mark gave a soft chuckle, rubbing harder. "Before this summer? I actually assumed you and Professor Dooku were a couple."

"Oh."

"Yeah. It started - uh, you remember Christmas Eve? When I was walking and you guys pulled over and asked if I needed a ride, and said you were on your way to church? I honest to god thought you guys were a thing, which was why y'all going to church surprised me, because, you know, gay people usually don't."

Sören's face burned. It wasn't the first time that assumption had been made - that same night, after midnight Mass at the Lutheran church, the pastor had given them a spiel about the church being LGBT-affirming and performing gay wedding ceremonies. And, the fact of the matter was, back then Sören had been half-hoping - only half-hoping, as he had been wounded from Seth, cautious about those matters - that Dooku would express some interest, when Sören was staying with him following the injuries from his car accident, and Dooku hadn't; indeed, Dooku had helped him dress and undress following his car accident and hadn't tried anything. And Sören had tried his best to vanquish that silly little crush. It was good enough that they were friends - really, the best friend Sören had ever had. He didn't want to ruin that, didn't want to lose Dooku by making things awkward.

"I figured it out when you showed up here, alone," Mark said, "because if you had been my boyfriend, you wouldn't spend a summer alone." Mark laughed softly.

"Jæja, maybe next summer we can go on vacation together," Sören said.

Mark nodded, looking down again. Looking a little pensive. He switched to Sören's other foot.

"But no, Mark, we weren't a thing." As much as I'd wanted it to be, and... It was dangerous to still want. That voice... "I don't think he's even gay."

Mark raised an eyebrow at that with a small smirk, and kept rubbing. "OK."

"What?" Sören laughed. "Seriously, I don't think he's gay -"

"Not everyone is as out and, ah..." Mark gestured to Sören. "Flaming as you. Would you have known I'm bi if I hadn't told you?"

Sören once again grasped for levity, since this discussion was making him uncomfortable and he needed a distraction. "Hi Bi If I Hadn't Told You -"

"Dammit, Sören, I'm being serious -"

"Hi Being Serious."

"Hells."

Sören giggled; Mark was so cute when annoyed. Sören booped his nose. Then Sören said, "Probably not. But I mean, he's never once talked about his love life or..."

"Have you ever asked him?"

"Well, no. But I haven't asked because he seems kind of private, reserved..."

"Yes. So am I. And you see how I am. I'm a total slut for you." Mark grinned.

Sören couldn't resist. "Hi A Total Slut For You."

Mark facepalmed, shaking with silent laughter. "Goddammit, Sören..."

Sören blew a raspberry.

Mark rubbed Sören's feet some more, and finally he patted Sören's calves. "I need to get up for a minute," he said.

Sören swung his legs over. Mark finished the last of his wine then he said, "I'm gonna go to the kitchen, you want anything?"

Mark muttered "Hells" under his breath as Sören came back with, "Hi Gonna Go To The Kitchen You Want Anything..."

"SÖREN I SWEAR TO GOD -"

Sören grinned. "Ginger ale or Sprite would be lovely?"

Mark came back with a Sprite. The cold, crisp bubbles and tart citrus were refreshing, and Sören sighed as Mark put Sören's legs back on his lap, and now Mark was massaging one of Sören's calves. Sören moaned and sighed, not simply from sensual pleasure but the aching tension flooding out of him at Mark's touch. "Oh, that's good."

"I'm glad I could oblige." A muttered, "Oh shit no."

"Hi Glad I Could Oblige, I'm Sören."

Mark gave Sören a playful swat. "OK, what is it with you and the dad jokes? It's like... the Dadpocalypse over here." A pause. "The Dadgor Dadgorath."

"The what now?"

"Never mind," Mark said. "You'd get the Dadnarök reference though, I hope."

"Oh, já, I would," Sören said, grinning at Mark referencing Norse mythology. "Twilight of the Dads. I think that's where Fenrir kills Odin with bad memes and dabbing, or something."

Mark facepalmed. "Dear god, I almost forgot dabbing exists."

Sören dabbed. Mark groaned. Sören chuckled, and moaned again as Mark kneaded his calf.

"But seriously, you're on a streak tonight that's bad even for you." Mark raised an eyebrow.

Sören shrugged. "Humor is my coping mechanism and I've been feeling too much today. Besides... I've never had kids, that I know of, and that's my one big regret in life. So I have to make up for it somewhere."

"So you... you want kids," Mark said.

"Admittedly I do, já." Sören felt a tightness in his throat, thinking about his brother's son and daughter, and how much of an ache he'd felt when they were born. "But it's not a dealbreaker in a relationship if my partner doesn't. And up until more recently my life was too much of a mess for me to even think like that, so, you know. It's fine."

Mark pursed his lips but said nothing.

There was an awkward silence. Sören got the feeling from what Mark had disclosed to him weeks ago - that Mark himself had an adult son out there somewhere - that the subject was a sore spot for Mark. "Sorry," Sören said softly.

"No need to apologize, Sören." Mark took Sören's hand and kissed it.

"I just... don't want to make things weird for you. Or us."

"It doesn't." Mark patted him, and resumed rubbing Sören's calf. "I'll be honest with you, I don't know how I feel about the concept of more kids. I fucked up with the one I've got. Which..." Mark pinched the bridge of his nose. "I have no excuse for that. My father was amazing. I never once doubted that he loved me. We were incredibly close. A lot of deadbeat dads or people who are estranged from their kids... you at least can kind of get it if their own dad or other family wasn't around. But I don't have the tragic dysfunctional family to complain about. I only have the tragedy that happened to my family, that ripped us apart."

"The war."

Mark nodded solemnly. "I haven't been right in a long time, Sören. And I don't want to cheat you out of something you want..."

"I told you, though, it's not a dealbreaker. Honest. I don't absolutely need to have kids."

"But you've still got that paternal instinct."

"I do," Sören said. "That's why I teach."

Mark leaned in and gave Sören a soft little kiss. "I love that about you." He stroked Sören's face. "You're a better man than I am."

"I don't know, you seem to be pretty good with your own students. And today you taught me something, even, a little. You opened my mind to something I wasn't into before."

"You've got a beautiful mind to open," Mark said, continuing to pet Sören, his eyes soft. "You see the world through different eyes than most people. You burn so brightly." He leaned in to kiss Sören, more insistently than before. "My little flame."

Sören giggled and wrinkled his nose. "I love it when you call me that."

"Good." Mark kissed the tip of Sören's nose, and booped it before rubbing Sören's calf some more. "So, what do you say we think about creating together some?"

"We could, though kinda worn out from the hike," Sören said.

"Oh, OK." Mark nodded.

"But..." Sören took a deep breath. He knew he had to show this to Mark eventually and he might as well do it while they were still here and fresh off a trip to the redwoods, even. "Something I want to show you."

Sören got up, and walked over to Mark with a canvas. He showed Mark what it was - the painting he'd done of the redwoods, and Mark in the redwoods, Mark depicted as an elf with a flood of hair to his thighs, pointy ears, playing harp in the forest, where it seemed like a shaft of golden light streaming through the trees over him and his harp was in fact coming from the harp itself. There were little faery doors here and there on redwoods, and golden wisps floating around the forest.

Mark's jaw dropped. "Er."

"Oh." Sören gasped. He yanked the painting back. "Oh no... you don't like it, do you?"

Mark grabbed the painting from Sören, looked at it with wild, feverish eyes - for a brief second Sören feared Mark would break the canvas, as Seth had once done with his work, even though Sören knew Mark wasn't like that, Mark wasn't Seth... and then Mark put the painting down gingerly, grabbed Sören and pulled Sören onto his lap, kissing him deep and hard, hard enough to take Sören's breath away.

Catching their breath, Mark looked at Sören with awe on his face, then looked back at the painting, then at Sören.

"You..." Sören swallowed hard, eyes misting.

"Sören. Oh, Sören. Oh, my love." Mark kissed him again. "My love. My little flame." Another deep, hungry kiss; Sören moaned into the kiss, hardening.

"You like it?"

"Sören, 'like' is too trivial of a word here." Mark's voice was hushed with reverence. "You..." He seemed shaken. "Your gift. Your..." He seemed to struggle for words. "Your gift. That inner fire in you, illuminating what you see, what comes out with your brush..."

"So you like it."

"Dammit, Sören. No, 'like' is what idiots do on Facebook."

Sören let out a howl, shaking with laughter. Mark laughed too - laughed and cried a little. Mark blinked back tears and he stroked Sören's face. "I love it. I love you. You... god, I don't even know how to make words to describe what's going through me right now, but you." Mark stroked Sören's face some more, pet his curls. "I'm deeply, deeply touched, and honored -"

Sören felt like he was going to break down and bawl, relief flooding him, as well as pride, as well as joy, like his gift had given Mark something he'd needed, somehow. And Sören didn't want to have another crying fit. "Hi Deeply Deeply Touched And Honored..."

Mark picked Sören up and marched to the bedroom, carrying him. Sören shrieked and giggled on the way there. There was a feral look on Mark's face when he put Sören down on the bed and began stripping as quickly as he could. Sören also took his clothes off but it wasn't fast enough for Mark, who came over to yank them off of him, then shoved Sören back onto the bed with a growl and climbed over him.

Sören went hard at being manhandled like this - he loved the passion between them - and he cried out as Mark's hard cock slid up against his, as Mark settled on top of him and kissed him hungrily. Sören wrapped his arms around Mark, kissing him back, hunger awakening hunger. Fire calling to fire.

"I want you," Mark rasped between kisses. "I need you like life needs life."

Sören shivered at that, eyes misting again at the poetry in those words, the depth of a beautiful soul. "Mark," Sören breathed. "Take me. Make me yours."

"Yes, Sören." Mark kissed Sören's neck, making Sören cry out, nails raking his back. Mark kissed and licked the sweet spot where Sören's neck and shoulder met, nibbled and sucked on Sören's shoulder, then kissed Sören's neck some more. "You're mine, baby." Their eyes met. "And I'm yours."

Sören grinned. "Hi Yours."

Mark growled, reached over to the bedtable, and before Sören knew what was happening, Mark grabbed the handcuffs that they'd picked up at the sex shop. Sören's face lit up at the sight of them, his cock twinging - now this was going to be fun - and he moaned as Mark rolled Sören onto his stomach, held him down as he slapped the cuffs on Sören's wrists.

"I'm arresting you for your dad jokes," Mark said.

"Hi Arresting You For Your Dad Jokes."

Mark slapped Sören's ass, hard. Sören cried out and rubbed against the mattress, giving a sassy butt wiggle as he did. Being spanked like that was hot, he had to admit.

"Now," Mark said, "a teasing brat like you deserves to be disciplined for awhile."

"OK," Sören said.

"I notice you're not wearing the plug."

"I wasn't wearing that on a hike when I'm still new to wearing a plug."

"Fair." Mark rubbed Sören's ass and slapped it again, groaning as Sören moaned. "If I do anything you don't like, and you need me to stop, tell me no."

"OK."

"And now..." Mark slapped Sören's ass again, and Sören cried out. "It's time to drive you as crazy as you drive me."

Sören grinned.

Sören watched as Mark got out the flavored lubricant, and he moaned when Mark poured the liquid into him, and moaned again when Mark retrieved the plug and put it in Sören's ass. Mark gave Sören's ass another slap, then another, and Sören whimpered, rubbing against the mattress, loving it, wanting it. Already he was painfully hard.

Mark leaned over him. Mark had learned enough about Sören's body by now to know that the back of Sören's neck and shoulders were one of his biggest erogenous zones. Sören shivered at the feel of Mark's breath against his nape, and then he whimpered again as Mark began to lick his neck, then his nape. Mark's tongue made slow, deliberate strokes up and down Sören's neck, nape, and one shoulder, then the other, then back to the nape again, taking his sweet, sweet time, as Sören shuddered and cried out, so close to coming and he knew Mark had only just begun.

Mark moved lower. He began tracing the phoenix and waterbird tattoos with his tongue. Placing reverent kisses over the scars that the tattoos only somewhat concealed, from when Einar used to beat him with a belt. Tears burned Sören's eyes, and a few spilled when Mark whispered, "I love you, baby," pressing his forehead against Sören's back for a moment before kissing his scars some more. Mark made another round of licking the ink on his back, then kissed and licked lower, groaning as Sören moaned and whined. Mark kissed and licked his way back up, and then Sören felt Mark's tongue on his spine, going so, so slowly. Sören's fists clenched in the handcuffs and he cried out, shivering.

"Oh god, Mark."

"Mmmmmmm." Mark's tongue continued to slide down Sören's spine, ever so slowly.

"Oh god..." Sören let out a cry. "Oh god, Mark, fuck me..."

Mark laughed softly. He patted Sören's ass and slapped it, and continued the slow trail of his tongue, all the way down Sören's spine.

Then back up, going even more slowly than before. Sören shrieked into the pillows, and again as the stroke of Mark's tongue became feather-light. "Oh god, fuck..." Sören was practically sobbing. "Oh, shit, fuck..."

Mark licked and kissed Sören's nape and shoulders some more, with his fingers playing down Sören's spine now. Sören screamed into the pillows again, cock throbbing, balls tightening. When Mark's fingers reached the rim of Sören's opening and traced around it, Sören cried out, and begged some more. "Mark, please... please, fuck me, Mark, take me..."

"Mmmmmmmm, we'll see." Mark nibbled Sören's shoulder.

His fingers walked down Sören's spine again, brushing slow and feather-light. His mouth followed the wake of his fingers, kissing, licking. Sören howled, thrashing. The handcuffs were getting a bit sore but he loved being bound like this, helpless, teased. The feeling of surrendering so completely, giving in so fully to his passion... Sören shuddered. "Mark, please, fuck me, fuck me..."

"I'm not anywhere near done with you yet."

Sören wiggled his ass. "Hi Not Anywhere Near Done With You Yet."

Mark slapped Sören's ass, and when Sören cried out and bucked against him, Mark slapped the other cheek of Sören's ass. "So naughty."

"Mmmmhmmmm."

And there was Mark's tongue on his spine again, slow and feather-light. Down, down, down, then up, and down again. Then Mark's tongue slid from the base of Sören's spine to the crack of his ass. Sören cried out, trembling. "Oh god..."

Mark removed the plug, and his fingers traced around the rim of Sören's hole in slow, deliberate circles. "So you want to be fucked?"

"Yes. Please. Oh god, Mark, please, more than anything."

"Hmmmmm."

And then Mark's tongue was inside him, lapping slowly, slowly. Sören screamed at the slow strokes on his prostate, feeling like his brain was pooling out of his ears, his entire body turning to mush, melting at the magic of that tongue. The slow, slow rubbing inside him made Sören's balls tighten dangerously, cock as hard as it had ever been. The handcuffs ached but god he wanted Mark to dominate him as long as he could, knowing the teasing would pay off in the end...

...if there was an end.

Mark put the plug back in Sören's ass, and climbed next to him on the bed. He rolled Sören onto his side - Sören's hands still cuffed behind him - and Mark gave Sören a wicked grin as he began stroking himself lazily. Sören licked his lips at the sight of precum pooling down Mark's shaft.

"You want this cock, do you?"

"God, please, Mark..." Sören pleaded with his eyes, making a whine like a puppy.

Mark laughed. "You poor thing." Mark continued stroking himself - delicious, delectable eye candy that drove Sören as wild as Mark's tongue inside him.

"Oh god. Oh god, Mark, please..." Sören whined again. "Mark, please, fuck me..."

"I love hearing you beg for it." Mark stroked himself a little harder and faster. "God." Mark looked down at Sören's own hard cock, which was also dripping precum and flushed a deep pink, looking almost angry in its need. "That's so hot, seeing how much you want it."

"God, I want it so bad. So bad. Mark. Please." Sören whimpered. "I'm begging you."

Mark grinned. "Hi Begging You."

Sören grit his teeth and screamed; Mark laughed and patted Sören. Then he collected some precum on his fingers for Sören to taste, while he continued stroking himself. Sören sucked Mark's fingers greedily, cock throbbing, dripping more precum as he watched Mark play with his cock.

Then Mark collected some of Sören's precum onto his fingers and Sören watched Mark suck his own fingers, savoring the taste of him with a look of sensual lust on his face as he stroked harder, faster. Sören cried out, and Mark moaned.

"God, Sören, I want you. But you're such a naughty boy."

Sören watched as Mark got out Sören's glass dildo. He coated it with lube and then Mark began to toy himself with one hand, stroking his cock with the other, the way Mark had caught Sören that one afternoon. Sören cried out and whinnied, then made a strangled sob at Mark's laughter. Mark played slowly, deliberately, but he was shaking, breathing hard, and after a few moments of Sören's eyes riveted on him, Sören making helpless pleading noises, Mark sped up, fucking himself harder, rolling his hips, stroking faster.

"Oh, Sören." Mark closed his eyes and gave a shuddery gasp. "Oh, god, Sören, I fucking want you. Hells, I want you, Sören."

"Please, Mark. Take me. Give us what we both need."

"And what would that be, Sören?" Mark opened his eyes, and his eyes locked with Sören's, challenging. "I want to hear you say it."

"Fuck me, Mark. I want you to fuck me..."

Mark continued stroking, toying himself. Sören groaned with frustrated need. He got the sense "fuck me" wasn't quite good enough here. He searched, through the haze of primal lust. "I want you to claim me," Sören husked.

"Better," Mark whispered.

"Take my fire, Mark. Give me yours. Burn with me."

Mark stopped stroking himself and working the dildo in and out. Wordlessly - eyes feverish as the rest of him was calm - he unlocked Sören's cuffs. Sören flexed his wrists as Mark pulled the plug out of his ass. Then Sören yelped as Mark grabbed him by the hair, shoved him onto his back, and seized his aching wrists, pinning him. He cried out again as Mark took him, pushing inside. "Oh god, yes..."

Mark kissed Sören hard. Then he began to thrust, showing no mercy, pounding Sören as hard as he could.

"Yes, yes, yes," Sören panted. "Oh god, Mark, take it, take me, get it, yes..."

Mark growled. Soon Sören's legs were around his waist, his balls smacking against Sören's ass as he drove into him, and then Sören's legs were on his shoulders and Sören's now-free hands were grabbing onto him for dear life. "Oh shit, oh god, fuck me, fuck me," Sören howled, and then he couldn't make words anymore, just animal noises as Mark slammed into him, looking almost angry in his need.

Sören was so close, and a moment of hard pounding later he felt it, rushing towards the glimmering release, then it came over him like a wave, like a flame. Over him, into him, through him. It felt like heaven crashed into earth and the stars themselves sang as Sören screamed, his body giving into the hardest orgasm he'd ever known to that date, his cock and prostate throbbing one, then the other, then together, clenching. Three final drumbeat thrusts later Mark let go with a roar as he exploded into Sören, like a white-hot supernova. Sören's nails raked him involuntarily - after Mark collapsed onto him, trembling and gasping for breath, making high-pitched little cries as his body convulsed, Sören wondered why, for a moment, his nails didn't break the skin, as hard as he scratched. That was odd.

Then he couldn't wonder anything at all, couldn't think, only feel. Pleasure. Joy. Light. Life. Love. Love, love, love. He'd been so worried yesterday about madness but if he was mad, right now, he didn't want to be sane. They belonged.

Chapter Text

Brightest Star




"Oh, shit..."

Sören whined, kicking off the sheet loosely covering the lower half of him. His legs itched and burned almost unbearably, and he grit his teeth and made a little screaming noise through them as he frantically scratched.

Mark sat up and his hand grabbed Sören's wrist. His eyes widened at the hot pink rash all over Sören's calves. "You'll make it worse if you scratch," Mark said.

"Blóðugur fokking helvíti," Sören growled.

Mark tilted Sören's chin to look him in the eye. "Is it just your legs that itch like this?"

Sören nodded.

Mark stroked his own chin thoughtfully. "We had seafood yesterday but you're not allergic to any of that."

"No. I mean, allergies can start at any time but I've been eating it my entire life and never had a problem and it doesn't make sense why my legs would be all fucked up."

"Right." Mark narrowed his eyes. He got up, and Sören watched as he fished a laptop out of a briefcase. It occurred to Sören then that he hadn't seen Mark use a computer much at all over the summer, and Sören had to do a double-take as Mark sat on the edge of the bed, typing into a search engine - for a moment Sören felt like that looked out of place, as if Mark was a relic from another time and this was an anachronism of sorts. But that made no sense...

"Ah, OK." Mark nodded. He looked back over at Sören. "According to what I just read, there was some poison oak on the trail yesterday, so my guess is that's why you've got a rash."

"Fuck." Sören scowled. He reached to scratch again as his legs twinged, and Mark gently swatted his hand away.

"Mkay." Mark got up and quickly began getting dressed. "I'm going to go to the store to get you some stuff to help you feel better, OK? Do me a favor and try not to scratch it. Actually... go take a quick shower with lukewarm water, while you do that I'll strip the bed and change the sheets in case any of the oil on your legs got on the sheets. Then I'll head out and pick up some things."

Sören nodded. He went to the kitchen to take his morning meds, whining all the way, then he did as Mark said - the shower was only minimally helpful, like turning down the volume on the itching but not making it go away completely. And it wasn't long before his legs were killing him again, itching like mad. He felt ready to climb the walls waiting for Mark to get back, where an hour felt like ten. He tried to distract himself by reading, or sketching, but he was too uncomfortable to concentrate. When Mark got back from the store Sören was uploading photos from yesterday's hike, about to send some of them off to Dooku in e-mail.

Mark came in the bedroom and tossed Sören a pink bottle. Sören caught it and saw it was calamine lotion. Then Mark tossed over a bag of cotton balls.

Sören shook the bottle and put some lotion on a cotton ball, rubbing it onto his leg. The cotton ball didn't get much use before Sören needed another one, and as Mark was putting things away in the kitchen Sören ended up spilling some calamine lotion on the fresh sheets and swearing. Mark came back in and saw the mess.

"I can't do anything right," Sören said, feeling ashamed of himself, remembering all the times he'd spilled things and Seth and Einar had taken him to task.

"Oh, baby, that's not true. Here." Mark got down on his knees at the edge of the bed, shook the bottle, poured lotion onto a cotton ball, and began to apply lotion to where Sören had left off. As Sören continued crying, not wanting to be dependent on anyone and monopolize Mark's time - feeling like he was being a nuisance - Mark made little soothing noises, and at last he took his free hand and offered his thumb for Sören to suck on. Sören did, and started to calm down. The action was also vaguely erotic, and Sören would have gotten aroused if he wasn't feeling so awful.

When the lotion was all over Sören's legs, Mark stripped the bed again. "I'm going to have to go to the laundromat and change the sheets before you can lay on the bed," Mark said. "I'll fix up the couch for you in the meantime."

Mark spread a towel out on the couch and propped up some pillows. Sören felt guilty that now Mark was going to have to take time to go to the laundromat. "I fucked up this entire day," Sören said as he climbed onto the couch.

"Baby, shit happens. And, in fairness, I feel like I was negligent. I should have done more research before we went on that particular trail yesterday, and should have told you to wear something other than shorts. After all, where I come from in Connecticut it's Lyme Disease central, hiking without long pants is a fool's errand."

"Well, you were wearing shorts too," Sören pointed out, which seemed odd for someone who had spent so much time in Connecticut and would have had "long pants for hiking" ingrained. In fact, the whole thing seemed odd to Sören, just now - Mark didn't have a rash at all. He knew something like 15% of the population was more or less immune to poison ivy, oak and sumac, but that seemed like an awfully big coincidence that Mark would be one of the 15% that wasn't affected by poison oak.

Sören remembered then, the way he'd scratched Mark during sex, and Mark didn't bleed, and he knew he'd scratched hard enough to draw blood on anyone else, having had that kind of sex with other partners for years. That, too, was odd. He'd think Mark was indestructible, like the Army had done some sort of medical experiment that contributed to his trauma and secrecy, except Mark had that geometric-shaped burn scar on his right hand, and scarring on his right shoulder and thigh like he'd taken a bullet or a knife.

Something was very strange here. Something that would have been very strange on its own, but coupled with the other strangeness...

You mean, the strangeness that I'm not entirely sure isn't just me hallucinating.

Except that hallucinations didn't tend to be such an immersion, or do things like deposit $420.69 into one's Paypal.

Sören leaned back against the pillows, exhaling sharply, and turned on the TV.

"I'll be back," Mark said in a fake Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.

Sören could only half-pay attention to the TV, still uncomfortable - not quite as itchy as before, but his legs still felt a little burned and prickly. And his thoughts kept returning to why Mark didn't have poison oak, why Mark didn't bleed when scratched, why Mark was so reticent about discussing certain aspects of his life.

So you're not just hallucinating, now you're paranoid. Maybe you should think about going back early, seeing the doctor as soon as possible.

But he really didn't want to go back early. This vacation had been a treat to himself after the hell of 2016, and the hard, brutal work that had been keeping himself together in the aftermath and fallout of leaving Seth and coming to terms with the abuse Seth had put him through. And for the last little while it had been magical, finding love with Mark and it awakening something in him. If he was going crazy - crazier, Sören thought to himself with a frown - well... there was a little crazy and there was a lot crazy. For now, he could still function.

Ancient Aliens was on the Discovery channel. His brother Dagnýr, the astrophysicist, was in fact a believer that the "gods" humans worshiped in antiquity could have been aliens, but Dag disagreed with a lot of the outlandish theories about it; Sören smiled to himself as he remembered the way Dag would make snarky, cutting MST3K-type commentary on this show in particular, pointing out the holes and flaws in speculations being presented, while Dag had speculations of his own.

And now, Sören had another crazy thought: What if Mark's not human?

That was ridiculous, of course - Mark looked human, though possessed of an unearthly beauty, the body of a Greek god. But the man in the mirror was definitely not human, with seemingly godlike powers, and those violet eyes that Sören knew, somehow, were not Hollywood-grade contacts. And the man in the mirror claimed to know Mark, not just him.

There had been that slip-up on Mark's name twice. "Mag." Maybe that was his name in the other universes this Van person claimed to know them from, but...

"Curiouser and curiouser," Sören mused aloud. Then a snort. "I'm not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens."

And now I'm talking to myself. Great.

Sören thought about calling Dag, but what would he even say? "Hey, so can aliens have sex with humans? Asking for a friend." He felt like if he told Dag he was dating someone he suspected wasn't human, for all of Dag's belief that it was ludicrous and outright dangerous for humans to think they were alone in the universe, Dag would probably echo Sören's earlier thought, to cut the vacation short and go see his doctor.

Ari, on the other hand, would much more readily accept that there was something weird going on here.

Sören chewed on that thought, considering opening up chat with his cousin, but then Ari would get on his case about that damn book he'd sent with the care package. The one he was really pushy about Sören reading. Ari had been writing fanfic for years and never gotten adamant about wanting to share with Sören before - if anything, Ari seemed reluctant to broach the subject of his writing - so something about "needing context" so suddenly Sören could read things was odd. Very odd. In light of everything else happening, a little too odd.

I need to stop thinking about this shit for awhile.

Sören made himself put the thoughts on file - not quite done with it, but having exhausted his ability to deal with it all as poorly as he felt right now. He was watching an Ancient Aliens marathon still when Mark got back from the laundromat, and Mark seemed fairly amused by Sören's choice of television viewing as he strode in with the laundry basket.

"Didn't think you'd be into conspiracy theories and stuff," Mark said.

Sören felt somewhat peevish - his rash was acting up again, just a little - and he changed the channel. There was a Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon happening, which was considerably better. Sören applied more calamine lotion to his legs and focused on Patrick Stewart, and after Mark made the bed back up he went to the kitchen and began cooking. Sören wondered why he was starting so early.

Sören stopped wondering, dozing off at a point, and when he woke up from his nap he could smell something delicious. Mark was sitting across from him, writing in a journal, and when Sören yawned, stretched, and then moaned at his rash itching, Mark looked up and smiled at him tenderly.

"Hey, sleepyhead. How ya feeling?"

Sören made a noise.

Mark made a little soothing noise back.

Sören's nostrils twitched. "What smells so good?"

"Making something special for you," Mark said.

Sören managed to smile through his discomfort. Regardless of what Mark was or wasn't, he loved this man, and Mark had been better to him than any previous partner... especially Seth. The only person who had been this kind to him, outside his brother and cousin, had been Dooku, and, well, he and Dooku weren't sleeping together, much as Sören would have liked that months ago before he gave up hope and resigned himself to being just friends.

Mark was a keeper. That was all that mattered.

Sören applied more calamine lotion to his legs. Star Trek: The Next Generation was still on and his attention resumed there, as Mark continued jotting down whatever he was writing in a journal. At last Mark got up and went back into the kitchen, and after Mark puttered around in there for awhile, Sören watched Mark walk to the bathroom, and then he heard the sounds of the shower.

For a brief instant Sören thought about taking his clothes off and joining him, except that he wasn't feeling very sexy with the rash on his legs, and he knew lukewarm water was advised for showers and meanwhile, there was steam rolling into the hallway from Mark's shower. The thought of Mark naked under the water did make Sören harden a little, and as the minutes wore on, Sören's temptation grew.

He needed a stronger distraction than Star Trek. Mark's journal was on the ottoman by the armchair, and despite Sören's misgivings about spying - knowing he was committing some kind of cardinal sin - he picked up the hardbound book and opened it, heart racing at what he might find. Hoping Mark wasn't secretly complaining about him, though Mark had given no indications of being displeased with him at all - it was just second nature to Sören to doubt, after what had been drilled into his head for years.

Sören leafed through the pages and not only was none of it in English, it was all in a foreign alphabet. It didn't look like runes or Cyrillic or the Greek alphabet, but something altogether.

Sören dropped the journal like it was a hot potato. Then he put it back in the exact position where it had been on the ottoman, hoping Mark wouldn't be able to tell he looked at it. Feeling dirty for having pried. And now, of course, he had even more questions.

He knew that Mark had been through some kind of prisoner of war experience, and he wondered if Mark's time in the Army had involved anything classified, and if he'd gotten into the habit of cryptology from that. But that still didn't make sense, especially when this wasn't any kind of alphabet Sören recognized. It did, actually, look somewhat familiar to Sören, a weird sense of déjà vu, like he'd seen this before - but he couldn't think of where.

...parchment, his own hand holding a quill, forming the letters, as a small boy with long dark hair and solemn silver eyes watched, and then copied the letters...

"Jesus," Sören said, pinching the bridge of his nose, suddenly dizzy. "What the fuck."

Mark's shower was done. Sören attempted to get into a casual, I've-done-nothing-nope-no-suspicious-activity position on the couch, and Mark came back out in pajama bottoms, shirtless and glistening, his glorious mane still damp from the shower. Sören bit back a moan as his cock stirred again at the sight of him.

"Dinner will be ready soon," Mark said, and went to the kitchen.

Sören heard the sound of the frying pan, and wondered again what Mark was making, but he let it be a surprise. And when dinner was ready, Sören made his way out to the deck outside the kitchen, taking a moment to breathe in the salt air and enjoy the cool breeze before sitting down.

Mark had made grilled cheese - Swiss on rye, Sören's favorite - and a pot of homemade chicken soup, completely from scratch. Sören teared up, touched by the gesture.

"You're so sweet," Sören said.

"You're sweet. I had to do something for you." Mark dipped a spoonful in the bowl and held it to Sören's lips. "Here, try it and let me know what you think."

It was as good as it smelled, if not better. It was seasoned with salt, pepper and savory herbs, flavorful but not overpowering. The chicken was accompanied by a wealth of vegetables - carrot, celery, peas, onion, garlic, peppers, and mushrooms. Mark fed Sören a few spoonfuls before letting Sören work on his grilled cheese, and then Sören dug into the chicken soup, even having a second bowl. Mark was pleased Sören liked it so much.

"I'll have to make that for you again." Mark patted him. "Hopefully you won't get poison oak again, though."

"God, I hope not." Sören made a face. "I enjoyed our hike yesterday but I'd rather not get poison oak next time."

"I'll be more careful. I'm sorry -"

"Hi Sorry."

Mark glared.

"I don't want you blaming yourself," Sören said. "I could have done research too. I tend to look things up when I'm curious - after my cousin picked California out of a hat for where I should go on vacation, I did a lot of research before deciding on Sausalito. I should have looked up if there was anything potentially hazardous to prepare for on the hike, I mean, I was an intern at a hospital for awhile, for fuck's sake..."

"Well, you blaming yourself doesn't do any good either. We'll just be... more careful going forward." Mark frowned a little, and then he shoved another spoonful of soup in Sören's mouth. "I'm so glad you like this."

"You take such good care of me, Mark." Sören took Mark's hand and kissed it. "I think that's also part of why I didn't think about any potential dangers on the trail... after living in fear for so long... I've started to relax. Not completely recovered, but better than it was. I feel so safe with you. You keep me safe."

Mark gave him a thin, tight smile, a look of sadness in his eyes that tugged at Sören's heart. Sören wondered about it - thought about Mark's dead brothers. For a moment the words I can't keep anyone safe rolled into Sören's head, as if Mark had spoken aloud but hadn't, and Sören saw the brief mental image of himself old and frail and sick, being fed soup again. An intense feeling of sadness with it, that was not entirely his own. And then the mental image was gone, and Sören felt that same dizzy feeling he'd felt when he'd had the little vision of the parchment and the strange alphabet, earlier.

Mark's eyes looked away and Sören looked down, hearing the hitch in his breath. He quietly finished the rest of his soup.

Mark cleared the table and began running the sink. Sören walked over, about to do dishes since Mark had cooked, and Mark gently pushed him back. "You're not feeling well, I'll take care of this tonight," Mark said.

"Oh, all right." Sören wasn't going to argue - once again, the relief of the calamine lotion was all too temporary and his legs were burning and itching again, making him feel on edge, ready to scream.

Mark patted him. "Go take another lukewarm shower, and then I'll help you with the lotion."

Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip, wanting respite from all of the uncomfortable thoughts and the way the rash was bothering him. "Join me?"

Mark laughed softly. "These dishes won't do themselves, Sören."

"I can wait..." Sören made a moue.

"I already showered, and you're doing the itchy dance, the longer we take in the shower is the longer you'll have to wait to get some more lotion on. So, you know." Mark stared at the dishes in the sink, scrubbing more intensely. "I'll take a raincheck for when you're better."

"I'll hold you to that."

Mark patted Sören's ass. "Go. Shower."

Sören took a quick, lukewarm shower, which didn't help that much, and he once again felt ready to scream from the itching and burning of his legs as he walked from the bathroom to the bedroom, not even bothering with a towel around his waist.

Mark was also naked, reclining on the bed propped up on one elbow, half-hard. As unsexy as Sören felt with his rash, the hungry look that Mark gave him when he walked in made Sören strut a little, grinning, and Mark smiled back when Sören got on the bed.

"The doctor is in," Mark said, reaching for the calamine lotion and cotton balls.

"Hi, Doctor Lowry," Sören said.

"No no. Tonight it's... Doctor Feelgood." Mark threw the horns and began to sing, "He's the one they call Doctor Feelgood, he's the one that makes ya feel all right..."

"He's the one they call a huge fucking dork," Sören sang.

Mark gave Sören a playful swat. "I think you have a case of terminal brattiness."

Sören blew a raspberry.

Mark began to apply calamine lotion to Sören's legs, rubbing in slow, sensual circles, heat in his eyes. As uncomfortable as the rash was, the way Mark applied the lotion felt really good, and Sören couldn't help but find it sexy, not just the touch but the way Mark was taking care of him. Sören reached out to play with Mark's hair, rubbing his scalp as Mark teased Sören's calves with the cotton balls.

"That's nice," Sören purred.

"Mmmmm." Mark kissed Sören's knee. "Good. I want to help you feel better."

"Jæja, the calamine lotion only works for so long before it wears off. It's gonna be hell to try to sleep tonight."

"I prepared for that too," Mark said. He gestured to a box of Benadryl on the bedtable. "In a little while I'm going to have you take an antihistamine and your night meds - while you were sleeping I looked up to make sure it wouldn't interact with what you're taking."

"It's early for me to go to bed."

"It is, but sleep is a potent healer and what your body needs when you're having an allergic reaction like this. But... that'll be in a little while. Not now." Mark kissed Sören's other knee. "Right now we're giving you another sort of relief."

"Oh?" Sören raised an eyebrow, smirking. Despite the discomfort of his legs, he was starting to feel a little randy, with the way Mark had been rubbing him, the sultry look on Mark's face, the tenderness and once again the feeling of safety and total trust he had. "And whatever would that be?"

"Well... I want to make sure you're really OK, so..." Mark propped himself up on his elbow again, giving Sören a seductive smile. "Doctor Feelgood wants to give you an exam."

Sören hadn't played doctor since his internship, and had only been on the giving end, not the receiving. This was cheesy, but fun. Sören was game for having a little fun right now, awful as he'd felt all day... all too serious as his thoughts had been. "OK... you can examine me, Doctor."

After Mark was finished putting the calamine lotion on Sören's legs, he said, "First, testing your reflexes..." He tapped one of Sören's knees, then the other... then he kissed behind one knee, then the other. Sören's breath hitched. Mark tickled Sören's tummy, making Sören jump and giggle, and then Mark began to kiss and lick his stomach and Sören clutched his head, arching to him, sighing and moaning.

"So far so good..." Mark tugged on one of Sören's nipple rings, then the other, and lapped them, making them pebble. "Mmm, seems to be working here, too." He suckled and lapped some more, and Sören bucked, breathing harder.

"Yup." Mark's hand reached to cup Sören's erection, slowly stroking. "Reflexes seem to be fine."

"That's good."

"Now, it's time to examine your prostate..." Mark poured lube onto his hand, and slipped one finger inside Sören, then two, rubbing inside him in slow, lazy circles as they kissed. Sören moaned into the kisses, gently rolling his hips back at Mark, fucking himself on Mark's fingers.

"Mmmm, so far so good. Have to really get in there to make sure..." Mark added a third finger and Sören gasped, then moaned as Mark continued fingering him, achingly slowly.

"God." Sören shuddered. "I think that's in good working order..."

"Mmmmmm." Mark kissed Sören again, and started kissing and licking Sören's neck and shoulder. Sören gasped and cried out, rocking his hips against Mark harder, faster.

Sören noticed then that Mark had used the passionfruit flavored lubricant. He braced himself, desperately wanting what he thought Mark was planning, and cried out with a mix of frustration and pleasure when Mark's mouth slid down to feast on his nipples again, fingers continuing to play inside him. The heat in Mark's eyes as he suckled made Sören feel like he could come right then. But he needed more.

And Mark knew that too, at last lowering his head, spreading Sören's legs, and licking around the rim of Sören's opening. "Have to examine really thoroughly, now." With that, Mark's tongue slipped into him.

Mark devoured him, Sören writhing, thrashing, fucking Mark's face, screaming louder and louder. It was far from the first time Mark's tongue had been inside him but there was a passion and hunger to it tonight that was unmatched, as if seeing Sören so vulnerable brought out that fierce side of him, needing to offer comfort... offering them both something other than a reminder of frailty. Mark moaned into Sören's ass as his tongue lashed away, and Sören knew he was stroking himself and that turned him on as much as the sensation of Mark's tongue on his sensitive prostate, rubbing just right... knowing how much Mark liked doing this, wanting it as badly as he did...

Sören came from Mark's tongue, shooting all over himself with a cry. Mark licked up the cream that spilled onto Sören's stomach and chest, and Sören pet his hair, groaning at Mark's tongue on his sensitized flesh. As good as that felt, his orgasm was intense, and he was exhausted enough from being in physical discomfort so much of the day that he knew he probably was going to need a good long time to recharge, if he could go again at all. Already, the endorphins from the climax were relaxing him enough that sleep wouldn't be far away.

But Mark was hard, grinding against his thigh. And Sören wanted to do something to please him.

"Do I get a lollipop, Doctor?" Sören crinkled his nose and bit his lower lip.

Mark sat on Sören's shoulders and Sören grabbed Mark's hips and leaned in, drawing the hard cock into his mouth. Mark pet Sören's curls and stroked his face, moaning beautifully as Sören sucked him. Sucking Mark's cock was soothing, continuing to relax him. He wished he wasn't so exhausted because the sound of Mark moaning, the sight of his lovely face in ecstasy, a good look at his gorgeous body as he worshiped Mark's perfect cock... Sören shuddered. When he was feeling better, he was going to let Mark ravish him. And ravish Mark. In the meantime, he wanted to give a damn good blowjob to this wonderful man who was so kind to him, so loving.

So full of secrets. And yet so kind and so loving that those secrets almost didn't matter.

Mark finished in Sören's mouth, crying out his name, taking Sören's hands as he came. Sören loved that, the proof that Mark was coming for him, loving that confirmation of yes, this is mine. Sören drank the sweet cream flooding his mouth, savoring the taste, once again wishing he wasn't too exhausted for more. He would never get tired of Mark's taste. He wondered about that too, why it was so delicious...

Sören giggled, a fit of silliness coming on. "You're magically delicious," Sören said as Mark snuggled on him.

"Aye, you're always after me Lucky Charms," Mark said in a fake Irish accent, patting him.

Sören snorted, giggling some more. Then the speculation from earlier resurfaced. Lowry is an Irish name... is he a leprechaun? But that didn't seem right. He wasn't guarding a pot of gold.

No, not a pot of gold.

Sören shoved that thought away. Definitely crazy. He was content, for now, to just lay here with Mark. Mark was Mark. The man he loved. The man who had given him an amazing rimjob a little while ago. That was all that mattered.

Before Sören could doze off, cozy and warm, he was roused half-awake by the feeling of Mark getting up from the bed, and Mark came back with water. Mark opened the box of Benadryl and dispensed one; Sören took it with his night meds.

Then Mark rolled Sören against him and pet him, rocked him. "Rest, my love."

Sören pouted. "Dun wanna."

Mark swatted Sören's ass. "You need it." His lips brushed Sören's forehead, and he gave a shuddery sigh. Then his arms tightened around Sören and he began to sing:

There's a lady who's sure
All that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Oh oh oh oh and she's buying a stairway to heaven



_


Sören woke up a few hours later - squinting at the clock, it was only after eleven PM. He'd been asleep four hours, if that.

Mark wasn't in bed with him, and the rest of the house was quiet, and felt empty, though Sören wasn't sure why he was relying on a feeling for why that was so. For a brief instant he panicked, wondering if Mark had just left - which didn't make any sense, considering how happy they were together, but that was his abandonment issues talking.

Sören remembered why he hated taking Benadryl as he sat up, wincing. Always afterward, he had that hungover feeling, a combination of the leftover fog of sleep and being thrust into awareness, everything sharper and more acute after having been hazy, the world melting away earlier. In the sharpness of sobriety, Sören noticed the sliding glass door in the bedroom was ajar. Ah ha, Mark went for a walk.

Sören was going to need to go back to sleep soon, so he popped another Benadryl and took it with water. He opened the glass door some more, and stood out on the part of the deck that was outside the bedroom - glancing down at the part outside the kitchen, where they'd eaten earlier, looking strangely forlorn now. The moon was full tonight, and Sören looked up at the moon, glowing over the waves and the beach.

He could hear harp music now. Sören's eyes followed the direction of the music. Mark had lugged his goddamn war harp outside, and he was sitting on a rock, playing. The moonlight flooded him and yet... Mark, himself, was glowing as bright as the moonlight, if not brighter.

There was a breeze going. And that was when Sören noticed it. Mark's hair was all the way down to his thighs, and Sören finally saw Mark's ears, with his hair blowing in the wind. Pointy ears, like a Vulcan's only more elegant. As beautiful as the rest of him.

Sören dropped the tumbler of water, spilling out onto the deck. He let it lay there for a moment and rubbed his eyes, blinking, doing a double-take. But Mark was still glowing, and there was all that long hair, those pointy ears. His harp was playing the most melancholy song Sören had ever heard, and Mark was singing in a language that wasn't English. Wasn't any language Sören had ever heard before.

Sören had chills.

Sören felt, somehow, like this was even worse than trying to read Mark's journal earlier, like he was spying on something very private and intimate. He didn't understand a word of what Mark was singing but he could feel it, all the loss and loneliness he'd endured, finding love and hope again and being prepared to lose it once more. Sören's heart ached, wanting to go out there to him, put his arms around him, tell him it's OK...

Sören picked up the tumbler, closed the glass door - leaving it slightly ajar as before - and walked to the kitchen to rinse it out and have more water. I can't possibly be seeing any of this. Seriously, I'm hallucinating.

But he thought again of the rash that he had and Mark didn't, even though they'd both crossed through the same patch of poison oak in shorts. The way Mark hadn't bled when scratched. The fact that he couldn't completely write off Van's existence, and Van definitely was not human and somehow knew Mark elsewhere.

Sören went to bed. Mercifully, his second dose of Benadryl was starting to kick in, so he wouldn't lie awake all night, mulling it over. He was woken up briefly by the sound of Mark coming back inside, bringing in the war harp, and he gave a little murmur as Mark got back in bed with him, arms tight around him, so tight it almost hurt. Sören reached up to rub Mark's cheek, sleepy, and he could feel it was wet, like he'd been crying. Sören wanted to kiss it and say something reassuring, but sleep took him again.

In the morning Sören woke up and the rash was aggravating him again. Mark - who was back to his usual appearance, not glowing, hair down to the middle of his back, covering his ears - helped him put more calamine lotion on his legs, and got him situated in the living room.

"I'm gonna go for a drive. I'll be back in a few hours," Mark said, and Sören nodded. He almost asked to come along, but he knew he wasn't going to be good company all cranky and uncomfortable like this. And just like Mark didn't want to smother Sören the way Seth had, Sören didn't want to smother Mark either. It was OK for him to do things by himself.

After the way Mark had been playing that sad song and crying last night, Sören felt he probably needed some time to be alone, anyway.

Sören was already tired of TV. He got up and paced around, and then he found himself going to the care package that Ari had sent. He still hadn't touched the box of chocolates - which now felt like a good idea, with his nerves so jangled... and his eyes rested on that goddamn copy of The Silmarillion.

If Mark was an elf, well... Tolkien wrote about elves.

Sören wondered now if something about what he'd told Ari about Mark, had set something off in Ari's head to send him this, and that was why Ari was being so insistent he read it.

Sören grabbed the book now and sat back down on the couch.

Chapter Text

Teardrop on the Fire

 

 

Sören was in the bathroom with The Silmarillion when he heard Mark's car pull in. Usually that sound was comforting to him - that his beloved was home safe and sound.

This time it wasn't comforting at all. Sören froze, like a deer trapped in headlights. He felt his muscles tense, his fists start to clench, like he was ready to spring. His heart raced, mouth dry, head spinning.

Sören had gone into reading the book with few expectations - Tolkien had written about elves and maybe there might be some sort of clue here, something that Ari saw and thought he should look at. What he found went above and beyond his expectations.

His jaw had dropped, hair standing on end, when he came to the line

Maglor the mighty singer, whose voice was heard far over land and sea

and later

And it is told of Maglor that he could not endure the pain with which the Silmaril tormented him; and he cast it at last into the Sea, and thereafter he wandered ever upon the shores, singing in pain and regret beside the waves. For Maglor was mighty among the singers of old, named only after Daeron of Doriath; but he came never back among the people of the Elves.

Suddenly it all came together: Mark's claim to be the second son of seven brothers, all of whom were dead but him. Mark claiming the scar on his hand was a war wound - for so much of the story had been Maglor and Maedhros fighting together. Mark's father, the artist, his mother, the sculptor... his uncle, the politician. Why he was here living among humans now, instead of his own kind. Sören wondered how long indeed Mark had been away from his people.

"Mag", the slip-up Van had made twice.

At some point in his reading, Sören had grabbed his laptop, typed "Maglor" into Google, to see if there was anything he'd missed, or any apocrypha from Tolkien's other writings. And on Wikipedia he'd come across the line

Maglor is a Sindarin rendering of his Quenya mother name Makalaurë (or Macalaurë), which means "Gold-cleaver" — alluding to his skill with the harp, and possibly the power of his voice.

He thought of that painting he'd done, where he'd painted Mark as an elf, golden light streaming from his harp, as if the light in the forest were coming from his music and not the sun. And then it hit him like a ton of bricks:

Macalaurë... Mark Lowry.

It was an even worse pun than the Dadpocalypse, Dadnarök, Dadgor Dadgorath jokes. Sören had groaned, facepalmed, shaking with silent laughter, actually a little proud of him.

A chip off the old block.

And that had been even worse than the revelation that "Mark" was more than what he'd let on, was living a double life, had not been completely honest with him all this time. Into his reading of The Silmarillion, Sören had started shipping Fëanor and Fingolfin. There was of course no mention of an intimate relationship between the brothers in the story, but Sören could see it in his mind's eye, could feel it - sibling rivalry spiced with sexual tension, loyalty born of passion. Fingolfin, mad with grief at the loss of his brother, his beloved, his soulmate, had challenged Morgoth to single combat - a suicide mission, intending to take Morgoth down with him, avenge the man he loved.

But then Sören realized he wasn't just shipping them as a fan, doing what fans do. The pieces started clicking together. The dreams of burning to death that had been plaguing him since he was four. The flames and the phoenix that he'd inked onto his own skin. The dreams he'd had of wearing a crown of three brilliant jewels. Making things in a forge. The vision yesterday of writing in that strange script that had been in Mark's journal, teaching a boy who looked like a small version of Mark how to write.

The dreams of a secret marriage with a man who looked like Mark, only not... and laying with Mark, together and separately. The passion between them. The fire.

He was still passionate. Still creative. He still burned.

He was Fëanor, the Spirit of Fire, reborn into mortal flesh. It had been the curse of the Valar for his defiance. Even now, he was still defiant - after Seth, what seemed to be the latest punishment of the Valar, he'd struggled with the occasional suicidal feelings, half-wishing the car accident had taken his life. And he was still alive in large part out of spite, not wanting to let "the bastards" win. The bastards meaning Seth, Einar, the peers who'd bullied him in school for being so different. And now, Sören knew that the Valar were the biggest bastards of all, wanting him to break.

His crime was pride... and passion.

I seduced my brother and later my son, when he was of age. And it was glorious. I would do it again. A shudder, remembering how it had been. Again and again.

And yet, none of it sat well with him at all. It was one thing to see the true length of Mark's hair, and the pointy ears, and suddenly have it backed up by something Tolkien had wrote, as if it were a historical document passing itself as a piece of fiction. It was another thing to claim to be the reincarnation of Fëanor himself. That was crazy. That was even worse than the New Age people who claimed to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra or something.

And it was another thing to commit incest. And still, Sören wanted him.

But that want was tinged with anger now, anger that flared up again when he heard Mark's car pulling in. Mark had been lying to him. It was an understandable set of lies - Sören knew Mark couldn't live openly as an elf among mortals - but it had been a set of lies nonetheless. And it raised a lot of questions about the future... their future.

"Sören?" Mark called out as he walked in. "You OK, babe?"

"In the bathroom," Sören called back. No, I'm not fucking OK at all. His hands were shaking. "I'll be out in a minute."

"OK, you want anything from the kitchen?"

The truth. "I'm good, takk."

Sören splashed some cold water on his face and took a few deep breaths, trying to calm down. But he couldn't. It felt like something snapped inside his head, and he found himself storming out of the bathroom, not able to think, only feel. Mark was sitting there in the armchair with a glass of Sprite, writing in that damned journal again, and knowing what was in there - the script Fëanor had invented, taught his son - and Sören flew off the handle. He'd wanted to bring up this subject calmly. There was no calm anymore. There was only fire.

Sören threw The Silmarillion at Mark, which he caught just before it could hit him in the chest - lightning reflexes that once again were superhuman. When the book was in Mark's hands he glanced at it, poker-faced... and then his brow furrowed, and he looked up at Sören, looking stricken. As if he knew the hammer was about to strike the anvil.

It was suddenly very, very warm in the living room. Sören completely lost his ability to speak English. "Þú fokking lygari! Hvernig get ég einhvern tíma fokking treyst þér aftur eða trúað einhverju fjandans orði sem kemur út úr munninum?"

Mark's lips parted, and he was breathing a little harder.

"Fokking lygari. Varstu að ljúga þegar þú sagðist elska mig? Hefur þetta allt verið lygi fyrir þig, bara höfn í stormi, áður en þú ferð?"

Sören was shaking. He realized that he was going off in Icelandic and nobody but Icelanders spoke it, and he should probably try to calm down and find his English...

"Sören. Sören, I can explain -"

"Það er bara það. Þú getur útskýrt, en það gerðir þú ekki, allan þennan tíma. Hversu mikið lengur varstu að skipuleggja að ljúga að mér? Myndirðu einhvern tíma segja mér eitthvað af þessu? Myndir þú?"

Mark's brow furrowed again, his face stern. When he spoke, it sounded like he had raised his voice, but he hadn't. "Sören. Sestu niður. Róaðu þig. Rólegur og leyfðu mér að útskýra fyrir þér hvað er að gerast."

Now it was Sören's turn for his jaw to drop, his eyes to widen. He pointed at Mark, finger shaking. "Þú ... þú talar íslensku?"

"Ég tala allt, Sören Sigurdsson. Ég er Söngurinn."

Sören flopped down on the couch, trying to catch his breath. He started to wheeze, and cough, and fumbled for his inhaler, taking a puff. Mark got up, calmly walked to the kitchen, and came back with a glass of ginger ale for Sören. Then Mark turned on the stereo - putting on a pop station - before sitting down again in the armchair, across from Sören. They just stared at each other for a few moments, with Katy Perry making a ridiculous contrast to what was playing out here.

When Sören found his words again - found his ability to speak English - it was that he remarked on. "You hate this kind of music."

"I hate most of it. I don't hate all pop music. I like Madonna... well, earlier Madonna." Mark laughed softly.

"Why is this on?" Sören asked.

"This is the kind of conversation I'd rather not be overheard by neighbors or passerby. My experiences over the years have taught me I can't be too careful. And it's easier for me to mask everything if there's music in the background..."

"...Mask?" Sören was confused.

"It's one of my superpowers, I guess." Mark took a sip of his drink and leaned back. "Manipulating sound... don't ask me how it works."

Sören had a sip of his own ginger ale and then he also sat back, his arms folded. "You have a lot of explanation to do."

"It seems to me you already figured out most of it," Mark said, looking at The Silmarillion and then back at Sören.

"Most of it. But I have more questions than answers, now."

Mark took another sip of his drink and waited, hands folded on his lap.

Sören took a few deep breaths.

"I suppose we can start by me asking you a few questions," Mark said. "How did it occur to you to go digging for information? What was it that set it off?"

"I saw you last night on the beach," Sören said. "I saw your ears. I saw how long your hair really is. When I painted you in the forest, as an elf, I hadn't seen any of that. When I paint, I tend to paint what I see here..." Sören pointed to the middle of his forehead. "And it was like seeing you, last night, confirmed that there's something going on with me, when I make art." Because I'm Fëanor. It's my own "superpower", as you called it. But Sören didn't say that aloud. He didn't want to touch the Fëanor part of this conversation with a nine-foot-pole. "Actually..." Sören laughed bitterly. "There's part of me that's still convinced I'm hallucinating all of this, because what I saw last night... too beautiful to be real..."

Mark inhaled sharply, and Sören found himself closing his eyes reflexively. When he opened them, Mark's hair had lengthened from the middle of his back down to his thighs. Mark's eyes were iridescent, like pieces of labradorite. His already-flawless skin was even more flawless, save the scar on his hand. Mark tucked his hair behind his ears and Sören gasped at the points.

"The glowing...?" There was only a faint aura around Mark.

"It's more noticeable in a dark room or at night, neither of which we have at the moment, but I think this should suffice to show you what you saw wasn't a hallucination." Mark pursed his lips.

Sören's eyes teared up. His head was spinning again. He opened his mouth to try to speak, and a sob came out. The last time he'd cried like this in the presence of such beauty was back in April when Dooku had taken him out to the middle of nowhere on the Oregon Coast Highway to see the stars without light pollution, and they'd looked at the Milky Way. Sören broke down, and Mark came over to him, putting an arm around him, then the other.

As angry as Sören still was for being lied to - and as much trepidation as he felt knowing this was his son, this was the taboo to end all taboos, the sin to end all sins - he melted into Mark's touch, and found himself petting the mane of hair, stroking the flawless cheek like smooth marble, gently tweaking the point of Mark's ear, which made Mark smile.

Mark took Sören's hand and kissed it, and pulled Sören against his shoulder. Sören fell apart on him, crying, and Mark rocked him. "It's OK, my love," Mark whispered, petting Sören's curls. "It's all right. You have nothing to be afraid of..."

Sören pulled back. "I have everything to be afraid of." He swallowed hard. "This changes everything."

Mark nodded solemnly. "It rather does, yes."

"I don't even know where to begin with the questions. There's too much."

"Just the first thing that comes to mind, and... we can take this a piece at a time. It doesn't have to be all unpacked today." Mark gave a small, rueful smile. "One thing I've got quite a bit of, is time."

"I guess we can go with that. How old are you?"

"Old."

Sören snorted.

Then Mark closed his eyes and mumbled under his breath in a language that wasn't English - Sören got the sense he was doing some sort of mental math. When Mark opened his eyes again he said, "The Third Age was roughly ten thousand years ago and I am considerably older than that. Twenty thousand, give or take."

"Twenty... thousand. What." Sören shivered. Even two thousand would have been a lot.

Mark nodded. "And I've spent over half of that around mortals. I've been around humans longer than I've been around elves, at this point."

"So I'm not... the first relationship you've had with a mortal."

"No, Sören, but you're the first mortal partner I've had in a good long time." Mark looked into his eyes, before looking away, shifting uncomfortably. "It's painful to get attached, and watch them age when you do not. Watch them succumb to their frailty, one way or another. There is only so much the heart can take. I told you when we got together I'd been trying to fight my feelings for you. This is why. Especially with it being you." Mark looked back at Sören. "More than any other mortal I have loved, you have stolen my heart. I will always remember what I had with others, will always love them, cherish them, but... you are leagues beyond anyone else." He stroked Sören's face. "The fire of your spirit..."

And once again, Sören thought about telling him. We have been reunited. But he couldn't bring himself to say those words, confess that truth. That terrible, awful truth. There was a part of Sören that was convinced it might not even be the truth - he'd been right about Mark being an elf, his perceptions, intuition, hadn't been wholly off. But even a stopped clock was right twice a day. Delusions of grandeur. Maglor was magnificent, and he was nothing. Nobody. He'd been told as much over and over again.

And Sören didn't just have reasons to doubt his own perception that he was Fëanor reborn, but Mark speaking of his love wasn't as comforting as hoped.

"You say you love me," Sören choked out, "but do you? Because you've been lying to me -"

"I haven't lied to you about everything, and when I have lied, it's been as close to the truth as possible."

"Has it?" Sören glared.

"Yes, Sören. For example - I really am from Connecticut... in a sense. Wethersfield, Connecticut. I came here in the 1600s, when Connecticut was still a colony. I keep going back there every few decades for the nostalgia of it, my home away from home, I suppose you could say. I did go to Yale... a few times." A little smile. "I've been in the United States Army - the American Revolution on behalf of the Americans, the Civil War on behalf of the North, World War I and World War II. I was a prisoner of war a very long time ago, back in the old days, before the world was what it became... and I was imprisoned for a time in the 1970s by the US government."

"They..." Sören swallowed hard. "You... did they find out about you?"

Mark nodded. "I was a leftist civil rights activist when the government was spying on 'commies' like us, and what was a routine arrest turned into, well." Mark cringed.

"I'm so sorry, Mark." Sören couldn't even imagine what hell that was like - a vision flashed across his mind's eye of needles. Electricity. A cell... My son. Oh my son, what have they done to you. The crazy, wild urge to get up and burn the entire world to the ground, somehow. For everyone's sake - most of all Mark's, his own - he locked himself into the moment, concentrated on this. His brain focused on the name. "Er. Should I still call you Mark? Should I call you Maglor?"

"To be honest, I'd prefer you continue to call me Mark," Mark said, looking into Sören's eyes. "It's not just that I've been Mark so long that it feels like my name now, but you're less likely to slip if you call me the same thing consistently. And it's very important that... we keep this information contained as much as we possibly can."

"Are you on the run from the government?"

Mark shook his head. "I was eventually let go, with some conditions. I have to relocate every seven to ten years, because I don't age, and with my personality I can't convincingly pretend to be under thirty, thirty-five, so by the time I edge closer to 'fifty' -" He made air quotes. "And I'm still looking like this, it raises eyebrows unless I claim I've gotten some work done. Which, you know, claiming to get Botox done is fairly incongruous with my personality. So. They help with moving me around, giving me new paperwork, it's like the Witness Protection Program but I have more freedom of where I go and what I do, so long as I register with them and keep them updated on what's going on."

"Jesus."

"It's a hard life, Sören. Though to be honest it was harder before, when I had to move on my own without help. I'd had to part with some irreplaceable things to cover travel expenses. Now all of that is free, so long as I keep my head down, keep my nose clean, live as quiet and 'normal' of a life as I can. I do worry about how things are going to change in the Trump administration, since the government seems a lot more hostile to foreigners, and well... what am I if not a foreigner. The immigrant of immigrants." Mark gave a bitter laugh.

Sören had to. "The Noldor aren't sending us their best people -"

Mark's laughter rang out. Then he frowned. "Well, no. Because the best people died." He closed his eyes. "I miss my father and my uncle Fingolfin so, so much."

Sören missed Fingolfin too, wherever he was. The other half of my soul. And again, that wild urge to tell Mark I'm right here. But he didn't, couldn't.

Instead, Sören put his arms around him, and now it was Mark's turn to lean on him. Sören's anger was starting to fade. He just hurt for Mark, wandering endlessly around the world - having to uproot once a decade. Getting attached, loving and losing. Sören could feel the ancient grief bearing down on him, the weariness.

"I never liked lying to you, Sören, but I'm sure you can understand that I couldn't just come right out to you and say, 'Hi, I'm an elf.'" Mark picked his head up and smirked. "Even if you'd probably respond with 'Hi An Elf' -"

Sören snickered, and kissed the tip of Mark's nose.

"And I wasn't lying to you about my feelings. I'm not." Mark sat up and stroked Sören's face some more, looking into his eyes. "I do love you, Sören. More than you know."

"What I want to know now is if you were going to tell me."

"Eventually I'd have to. I knew it was a matter of time before you'd see my ears, or I'd accidentally slip and you'd see me unglamoured."

"Un...glamoured?"

"What I call the little bit of magic I do to, ah. Make myself look more human. With some concessions - I don't want my hair short. This is as short as I'm willing to go, these days." Mark gestured to the middle of his chest. "Back in the late 60s through the 1980s I didn't have to hide the length of my hair at all - the glam rock days of the 80s were a lot of fun. I could probably get away with my hair being its full length in Portland, it's a city full of weirdos, but I'd also probably get a lot of random strangers wanting to touch my hair and talk to me about it."

"You don't hide the scar on your hand though, or your ears...?"

Mark shook his head. "I could, but it takes a certain amount of effort to sustain the glamour and as time has gone on I'm tired and have become a bit of a slacker. So I just... never put my hair up, or back, I wear it loose to hide my ears. And the scar, well... it's a reminder of who I am, where I came from. Sometimes I doubt my own sanity, and it's harder to doubt when I have the evidence of certain events right in front of me."

"And you don't need the glasses."

"No. I have perfect vision. The glasses are part of my slackass approach to glamour - the eyes are the window to the soul, and all, and tend to be the first thing to go when emotions are running high. So that's part of the disguise. Though, I've also gotten used to seeing myself in them. I feel naked without them now." Mark laughed softly.

"You're beautiful," Sören husked. "You don't have to glamour around me when it's just the two of us, if you don't want to."

Mark kissed Sören's forehead.

They held each other for a moment and then Mark said, "So, yes. There have been untruths, and I regret those - I know you have trust issues. I know you've been gaslit by abusers... and I hope you'll forgive me. As I said, though, I try to keep the lies as close to the truth as I can. Not simply because lying puts a bad taste in my mouth, but I'm less likely to slip and be caught in a lie, that way."

"Your name." Sören nodded. "Mark Lowry... Macalaurë."

Mark's breath caught. "That does sound lovely when you say it in your accent."

"Macalaurë," Sören repeated.

Mark kissed him hard. When they pulled apart, Mark was breathing a little harder - so was Sören - and Mark said, "Yes. But save that for more intimate moments."

Sören grinned. There was a frisson down his spine, wanting more of those intimate moments - and then the pang of guilt again. Incest. Sin.

But Fëanor had no guilt, no shame, back then. They had been consenting adults - wildly consenting, frantic in their need for each other, begging for more. Always needing more. Never enough. I need you like life needs life, Mark had said to him a few days ago... and Sören understood that need now. The fire in their blood.

Sören needed to change the subject - the thought of him being Fëanor, or more likely, the delusion that he was - was more uncomfortable to him than the thought that the pleasure and passion he'd known with Fingolfin and Maglor a long time ago had been incest. "It does seem strange," Sören said. "You're trying to avoid exposure, and you're hiding in plain sight to avoid a slip-up on your end... but you're also leading a bit of a bread crumb trail to yourself. I'm not exactly the brightest crayon in the box sometimes -"

"I beg to differ. You're not stupid, Sören."

"Sometimes I am." Sören cringed. He'd made a lot of stupid mistakes in his life - his days of reckless partying. Choosing Seth as a partner, staying with him past the first round of red flags, buying his "baby I'll change" lies. Since he was a child he'd felt like an idiot compared to his twin brother, who'd been sent off to Oxford at age fourteen. He and Dag both had genius-level IQs, but Dag soared like an eagle, and Sören still felt like an awkward ugly duckling with all there was to learn about the world. "But even I was able to follow that bread crumb trail to who you are, and your name helped with that." Sören raised an eyebrow. "I'm used to calling you Mark, we'll go with Mark. But... you couldn't use a more imaginative, less obvious name?"

Mark gave him a look, and Sören wondered if this was not the first time Mark had heard this lecture, and from who. In his mind's eye he could see an old man, older than Dooku, long grey beard, spectacles, a pipe... "Such as?" Mark raised an eyebrow.

Lady Gaga was on the radio now and a mad giggle bubbled out of Sören. "Alejandro?"

For a brief second, Sören felt like another version of himself was glaring at him across the multiverse. Ha. Fucking. Ha. Ha. Then as quickly as that feeling came on, it went away.

And the gigglefit gave way to sobbing. This was all too much. It was one thing to know the world was weirder than he thought possible - Van in the mirror, the painting of Marilwen the paladin that Sharon said had been taken right out of her dreams. It was another thing to have tangible, irrefutable proof of it right here in his arms.

Proof that changed everything. The future seemed even more uncertain now. They had love - so much love - but was that really enough?

Mark cried with him. Seeing Mark so distraught made Sören cry even harder, not wanting to see him in so much pain - Mark had already known too much pain and sorrow in his long, long life. Sören leaned in and kissed Mark's tears, and then they were kissing again, and Sören clutched at him - but he couldn't give in. Not just yet.

Mark seemed to know something was bothering Sören enough to not let go into his usual spontaneity with sex. He held Sören again, petting his curls. "Thank you," Mark whispered.

"For?"

Mark took Sören's chin in his hand and tilted his face up. Their eyes met. "I took a real risk by telling you... which is part of why I was holding off. I knew there was a chance that you'd freak out. That you'd bolt and never want to see me again."

"Oh, Mark. How could you even think that?" Sören stroked Mark's face. "I love you." However angry he had been at being lied to... he couldn't deny how much he loved Mark. Wanted that love to continue.

Mark looked down, pain visible on his face. "Past partners or would-be partners have reacted badly to the truth of me. Not all of them. But more than once, I've been rejected for this. And once, betrayed." Mark took Sören's hand and kissed it.

Sören grabbed Mark and held him tight, sobbing. "You've got me, Mark. As long as you want me." The words came flooding out before he could stop himself. "You've got me for life, if you want it. You're the one."

Mark wept as brokenly as Sören had ever heard him, holding onto Sören so tightly it almost hurt. They cried together, rocking, falling apart in each other's arms.

"I love you," Mark husked. "I love you so much..."

"I love you." My Song. Sören felt like his heart would break - Mark finally had one of the people he'd lost. Except maybe he didn't, Sören still couldn't quite believe he was Fëanor...

They continued holding each other, and then Sören made a noise - the rash on his legs was bothering him again.

"Jesus Christ," Sören growled, desperately trying not to scratch.

"Oh, honey." Mark kissed the top of his head.

Sören got up, marched off to get the calamine lotion and cotton balls, and came back. As he shook the bottle of calamine lotion, Mark gently grabbed his wrist and took the bottle of lotion out of his hand, setting it down on the coffee table.

"What... are you doing," Sören said, confused.

"I really badly wanted to do this for you yesterday, I was so tempted, but it would expose me," Mark said. He rubbed his hands together and Sören watched them glow brighter.

He grabbed Sören's legs and put them on his lap, and then he put his hands on Sören's left knee. He began sliding his hands down Sören's left leg and Sören watched, open-mouthed, as his leg was encased in silver light. And it was soothing, like being in a warm bath, or a soft pile of pillows. Sören felt the tension roll out of his body, to the point of almost falling asleep.

But he couldn't quite sleep, watching Mark. It was beautiful. Beautiful and a little terrifying, humbling, to be in the presence of godlike power, healing his rash. Sören gasped when he saw the rash completely gone from his left leg, and Mark working on his right leg. When both his legs were rash-free, Sören grabbed Mark and hugged him.

"Oh my god," Sören said, laughing and crying.

"You're welcome." Mark kissed Sören's cheek, and smiled tenderly, petting him.

"That's..." Sören's breath caught. "That's incredible. You can do that?"

"I can heal some things," Mark said, nodding. "Not others." Mark closed his eyes, wincing, and Sören could see it in his mind's eye - mortal partners, friends, found family, injured, sick, dying, nothing Mark could do, feeling helpless. Hating himself for it. Digging a grave, burying a partner, kneeling in the dirt, kissing the memorial cross, weeping. Mark opened his eyes and their eyes met again. "If you have a minor ailment - a rash, a cut or a scrape... a sprain, maybe... I can fix that. More serious things... not so much."

"It must have been hell for you last night, wanting to do this..."

Mark nodded. Then he gave a guilty grin. "Well, playing doctor was fun."

Sören grinned too. "It was."

"But yes. It's... it's a relief that you know, now." Mark hugged him.

Sören was glad that it gave Mark some relief. But he wasn't relieved at all. After finding love and happiness, he felt so close to losing it again. Being even more alone and hurt than he was before.


_


While there was still more that needed to be discussed, it could wait. Everything that had come out already was more than enough, Sören's mind reeling. They needed to put the rest of it on the shelf for awhile and revisit it later.

Now that Sören's poison oak rash was cleared up, he felt like going out. Mark took him out to dinner - they went for Indian food. Then a drive to Point Reyes, where they'd gone before. Mark brought his harp along in the car, and he carried it out to the beach when they got to Point Reyes. After doing scales, Mark looked at Sören and asked, "Any requests?"

"What you were playing last night," Sören said.

"The Noldolantë."

"That. Yes."

Mark played it. As last night, Sören didn't understand a word of it, but he could feel it. And now, he could see it. The death of Mark's family, picked off one by one. The exile. Blood on his hands, death on his soul. The shaming of other elves. Not at home with his own kind ever again... not completely at home in the world of men. Wandering forever, keeping himself alive even with the despair strangling him because it was how he kept the memory of his loved ones alive, kept their Song playing. Especially the Song of his father Fëanor, who Maglor had outright worshiped. For all that his kind had tried to make him repent of who and what he was, Maglor would not renounce his heritage. His Oath had been terrible, he had done terrible things, he had lost so much... and he would take the Oath again, for the love of his father.

It broke Sören's heart, again wanting to scream I'm right here. You're not alone anymore. Followed by the crushing weight of You can't be Fëanor. Look at you. You're pathetic.

Back at the beach house they went to bed early, but they didn't make love that night - they just held each other. They both needed to be held. And as Sören lay there in Mark's arms, their legs entwined, he screamed at himself: Why don't you tell him? You demanded the truth from him... how is it fair for you to not tell him the truth, in turn?

But nothing about this situation was fair. The way Sören saw it, one of three things was possible.

The first was that he was deluded, a delusion of grandeur. He had been correct in his perceptions of other things, but not necessarily this. Fëanor seemed too great for his little life. A life that others had seen as worthless - Einar, Seth. You just want to be important, for once. Sören didn't, really - it seemed that any degree of "importance" in the world came with great responsibility... a great burden to bear. Nobody truly wanted the kind of weight that something like having once been the King of the Noldor carried, what with the Doom upon it. It would be easier, better, for Sören to just be a mortal, just a regular guy, just nobody. He didn't want the can of worms that being Fëanor reborn would open, the necessity of dealing once more with the Valar... dealing with them once and for all. Sören's jaw set.

He could see himself coming out about being Fëanor, and Mark laughing in his face. Mark being insulted, offended, that Sören would claim to be Fëanor reborn. "How dare you. Who do you think you are?"

And if Sören came out to Mark about being Fëanor, and he was right about being Fëanor, but wrong about the incest... Sören could see it now, that rage unleashed. "You sick FUCK, get out of my sight." As it was, Sören could barely deal with the perception that Fëanor had been lovers with his own brother and adult son...

...barely. He had a better appreciation for mythology now, why gods were so often intimate with their siblings, their offspring. The Noldor had been on their way to godhood. Some of them, indeed, felt closer to gods than others - Maglor, as the Song. Fingolfin, star-bright, glorious in his last stand against Morgoth. Ai, my brother. Sören could see them in his mind's eye now, so powerful, so magnificent. He couldn't help but want them, then, and they him. They had been made for each other, three parts of a greater whole, a divine trinity.

But that was just Sören's perception of things. Which could very well be a flawed perception, shipping Fëanor and Fingolfin like some horny fanboy, with an extra dose of delusions of grandeur, narcissism. For all that it might be true that he was Fëanor reborn, and Fëanor had been intimate with Fingolfin and Maglor both, Sören didn't want to take the risk that his perception was off and it hadn't been a thing at all, and have things crash and burn with Mark, rejecting him in disgust. Sören couldn't handle that heartbreak. Seth hadn't destroyed him, Einar hadn't destroyed him... but that would. Mark could destroy him so easily.

The last possibility, to Sören's way of thinking, was that he would come out about being Fëanor and Mark would see that he was, and the incest part of it was true... but Mark would be so, so disappointed. Like expecting filet mignon and getting Hamburger Helper instead. Here I am... Discount Fëanor. There were ways the old self burned through, but Fëanor had been magnificent in his pride, his certainty... and Sören thought of himself as a mess. It made too much sense that the Valar would punish him this way, they'd finally broken that pride they despised, bumped him down several notches from godhood. But that didn't mean Mark would want to see it. Rather than it being a relief to be reunited with his father, his lover, once more, Sören would serve as a constant reminder of the Doom.

Mark loved him, Mark desired him... Mark had been living among mortal men longer than he'd ever been with his own kind. Sören couldn't help but think it was similar to how men in prison engaged in situational homosexuality because that was what was available, but they weren't really gay, going back to female partners once they were released. He was convenient. Maglor wanted Fëanor because he was Fëanor. There was no way Sören could compare with that. If truly given a choice, Sören couldn't help but think Maglor would choose elves over humans. Ugh, people. And attracted though Mark claimed to be now, Sören could only think that Mark would eventually be repulsed, knowing what Fëanor had been, and here he was in this mortal body that wasn't anything special - not to mention all of Sören's problems. He wasn't able to measure up. Mark would recoil, and need to move on - not just not wanting to see his father die again, but not able to tolerate his father in this form. This pathetic, miserable life, the glory forever lost.

Sören wept. And it felt like his reaction - weeping, doubting - was further proof that he couldn't possibly be Fëanor, so brilliant in his defiance. I'm a pathetic fucking crybaby.

No, he couldn't say anything about it at all.

Sören tried to contain himself, but Mark of course heard him crying, and pet him, making soothing noises.

"Love, what's wrong?"

Sören couldn't make words. He made a strangled noise, and cried harder.

"Shhhh, baby." Mark pressed his lips to Sören's forehead. "Get some rest, my love."

Mark took a deep breath, and then he breathed onto Sören's forehead and Sören, through closed eyes, could see the silver light. He felt it wrap around him, like ribbons of light, like being sprinkled with stardust. He felt himself melting, slipping away into a tide, into the forest, into an aurora, bands of color and chiming bells, distant voices, the Song.

Chapter Text

 

As I Am




When Sören woke up the next morning, Mark wasn't in bed with him as usual, and Sören had a split second of panic, wondering if he was gone gone - followed by a breath of relief as he sensed Mark's presence nearby. And that, in turn, was followed by confusion and a note of concern that made him wrinkle his nose, wondering how it was he could suddenly feel whether Mark was there or not. It was one thing for Mark to be Maglor the elf, and it was another thing entirely for some sort of psychic powers to exist, even if it seemed more than once as if his own cousin had a degree of prescience.

Sören tried to not dwell on it too much as he climbed out of bed and changed into a T-shirt and jean shorts, stumbling out to the kitchen to get his morning meds. Mark was in the kitchen cleaning, scrubbing the sink.

"Mornin'," Mark said, leaning in to give Sören a little kiss as Sören went past him to get his med minder.

Sören thought about pulling Mark in for a deeper kiss, but the doubts that had surfaced yesterday had put a bit of a damper on his libido - for now - and even without that, Mark had an intense look of concentration on his face as he scoured the sink, as if his existence depended on getting it clean. Sören glanced around the kitchen and saw the countertops were shiny, and when he opened the fridge to get a glass of orange juice he saw Mark had cleaned the fridge too, and there was new baking soda in there to freshen it up.

As Sören took his meds he stared at the calendar on the fridge. It was Wednesday, August ninth. They had nine more days left at the house, heading back to Oregon on the eighteenth. Sören knew that would fly by in no time, and he was once again worried about the future, if there was an "us". He thought about bringing that up now but he was still exhausted from yesterday's revelation - not to mention his own wrestling with doubt about being Fëanor - so he put it aside for now. He knew he wouldn't be able to avoid the topic of where they went from here - if they were truly going to be boyfriends or if this was just a fling - for much longer. But he needed a little more time. He got the sense from watching Mark, feeling so much storm beneath the mask of calm, that Mark was going to need some time before that discussion, too.

After he took his pills, still drinking the juice, Sören raised an eyebrow, and Mark stopped scrubbing for a moment, looking a little self-conscious. Finally Mark said, "I had a bad dream." A pause, and Mark continued, "About Maedhros."

"Oh, elskan." Sören's throat tightened. He put down his juice cup and held out his arms. Mark went to him and Sören pulled him into a tight hug. Mark gave Sören a squeeze, and they stood there holding each other, rocking each other. Sören's heart ached - not just for Mark, tormented by the trauma of his elder brother's death all these eons later and still missing him, living with the hollow void of where Maedhros used to fit into his life... but also the ache was for Maedhros himself, who had died so terribly and deserved so much better. It was a grief that threatened to undo Sören first thing in the morning, and he tried to keep himself together to be strong for Mark. But by god, he could see it in his mind's eye, the man even taller than Mark, flood of flaming hair, so proud, so strong. A strength that was broken. My son. Even now, as he doubted, it was a father's grief. My son.

Sören found his thumb rubbing the geometric-shaped burn scar on Mark's right hand, then bringing the hand to his lips, kissing the scar. With his free hand Mark stroked Sören's face and pet his curls, his eyes too bright, and then he pulled Sören in for a kiss.

When they pulled apart, breathing harder, Mark pet him again, and took a step back. He resumed scrubbing the sink. "So... yeah. I've found over the years when I get like this, it's better for me to... find something to do. Clean, if possible."

"You could have woken me up, Mark."

Mark gave a little nervous laugh. "Sören, if I get in the habit of waking you up every time I have a bad dream, or am otherwise having a haunted moment... you'll never sleep." He frowned, scrubbing harder.

Sören took the sponge out of his hand and wrapped his arms around Mark's waist, holding him from behind for a minute. Mark's arms covered Sören's.

"Well..." Mark turned on the water. "I suppose this is good enough for now." He turned around and took Sören's hands in his. "You want to get out and do something?"

"Já, that sounds good." Sören leaned against the counter and finished his orange juice. "You got anything in mind?"

Mark shrugged. "I'm flexible, so whatever you want to do -"

Sören couldn't help himself, otherwise he was going to fall apart and Mark didn't need that right now. "Hi Flexible So Whatever You Want To Do -"

Mark swatted him with the dishtowel, but he was laughing. "Thanks, Sören, I needed that."


_


They decided to walk around Sausalito on foot, spending the morning and afternoon going from one end of town to the other and back again, much of it on Bridgeway, taking in everything there was to see.

They spent awhile at Schoonmaker Beach, playing in the sand. Sören wanted to make a "sandman" - a snowman, but with sand - and Mark obliged. Needing some levity after the emotional intensity of the morning, Sören made him anatomically correct, fashioning a crude penis out of sand, which made Mark groan and eyeroll but also chuckle. It got worse, however, when Sören found an earring that someone had lost in the sand, and stuck it in the head of the sculpture's cock, giving it a Prince Albert piercing like his own. Mark howled.

"You know, you're terrible," Mark said.

"I know," Sören said, grinning.

Mark gave a wistful little sigh. "Nelya would have appreciated that." He snickered. "He would have told you to make it even bigger."

"He got that from his father, didn't he?"

Mark looked away with another sigh. "Yeah, he did. Our father was... a character." He looked back at Sören. "You... remind me a lot of him." Mark pursed his lips and looked down.

Sören again felt that urge to scream I'm right here and once again that surge of doubt shoving it back. And for all that Sören had tried to lighten the mood, now here he was ready to cry again. I'm such a crybaby. Fëanor never cried like this in the Silmarillion, for fuck's sake.

A flash of a mental image of Fëanor and Finwë arguing bitterly, Fëanor isolating himself in his forge where nobody could see him cry, sooty tear streaks on his face as he banged out his anger with the hammer on the anvil. I feel too much. Fingolfin, his little shadow, coming in with a snack, trying to be comforting. I don't like the way Father treats you, Fëanáro. Fëanor trying not to cry in front of Fingolfin, then crying anyway, ashamed of himself - oh, the grief Finwë had given him for crying - and Fingolfin taking out a handkerchief and wiping his tears.

I'm such a mess, Ñolofinwë.

You are a beautiful mess.

Words spoken in innocence, the hero-worship of an older brother... and years later, when Fingolfin was becoming a man, far less innocent. Fingolfin now a man, kissing his tears.

Sören's breath caught. Oh, Fingolfin. I miss you. Which just added to his doubt. If he was truly Fëanor reborn... where were the others? What of Fingolfin? And where is Maedhros? At the question of Maedhros, the mental image he conjured - once again of copper hair, pride, strength - faded to sunset glowing over bushland, and... a kangaroo, hopping away. The sound of a didgeridoo.

That made no sense whatsoever. Definitely going crazy.

Sören got up and brushed himself off. Even though Mark was capable of getting up on his own, Sören held out his hands and Mark grabbed them, rising up. Towering over Sören as he did, almost a foot on him. I remember when we used to be eye level. But as much as Sören ached for what was lost, he had a frisson down his spine at how much bigger Mark was than him... bigger, stronger, capable of killing with his bare hands, yet Sören knew Mark would never hurt him. Mark was his protector now. And Sören loved that. It was what he needed, in this life. And after the hell of how I died.

Shut up, that was not even a thing. Sören was getting more and more annoyed with that part of his brain insisting he was Fëanor.

Once again, Sören sought for something lighthearted and fun to do, to give them both a respite from the emotional overload. They made their way to an ice cream stand, and waited in line. Mark just got a strawberry-banana smoothie, which Sören thought was kind of lame but somehow also adorable; Sören got a soft-serve cone, vanilla with rainbow sprinkles. They sat on a nearby bench, people-watching.

It was a warm day and the ice cream was just right. Sören had a moment of wistfulness, seeing parents with their children - not just wanting kids of his own someday and knowing increasingly that wasn't likely, but also thinking that Fëanor would have definitely taken all of his sons out for ice cream if a place like this had existed back in Valinor long ago.

That ache again, and then the sharp stab of guilt, making it worse. Some father you are, fucking your own son.

In the "download" of memories, Maglor had been a consenting adult - Fëanor had not touched him a day before then - and they were not human besides. Incest was still wrong for humans, that much Sören felt strongly about. But they had been almost as gods. There had been something magical in the way they'd made love, the energy they'd raised, Flame and Song...

Nice delusions of grandeur, there, you sick pervert.

Sören focused on his ice cream. He started licking the soft-serve ice cream, making himself slow down to savor it, immerse his senses, get out of his head. After a few licks he noticed Mark was no longer people-watching and was staring at him intently, and a couple licks more and Mark's face was pink. Sören realized what was going through Mark's head and now he licked even more slowly, deliberately. The warmth of the day was making the ice cream melt a little and he chased drops down the side of the cone, licking down and then back up again.

This trip around Sausalito on foot was evocative of when they were newly arrived and rooming together not just in their choice of activity, but the way it seemed like they were almost back to where they'd started before they slept together - so careful around each other, not touching too much, trying to not give away too much interest. But now, they were in couple mode again, Sören not able to keep from smiling at the lust in Mark's eyes as Mark watched him licking the vanilla ice cream.

And then a dog barked, startling Sören enough to make him jump - which made Sören hit himself in the nose with ice cream, getting a dollop of vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles on the tip of his nose. The dog was on a leash, but it was more the loud noise out of nowhere. Sören hated that he still startled so easily at loud noises, months after being done with Seth. And his face burned - he'd been trying to be flirtatious, a little seductive... and now he was just a dork.

But here was Mark, coming closer. "You know," Mark husked, cupping Sören's chin in his hand, "you are so damn cute."

Mark licked the ice cream off Sören's nose, and then kissed the tip of Sören's nose. What was a sweet, silly moment was also one of the most erotically charged moments of Sören's life, hair standing on end, breathing harder, cock stirring in his shorts. Mark seemed to feel it too, heat in his eyes as he gave Sören a wicked grin.

Sören's tongue darted out to take another lick of ice cream, and Mark leaned in to also steal a lick from Sören's cone. Their tongues rubbed toge