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just between us

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Isak lives in liminal spaces. 

The house he was always ready to run from, ending up in Jonas’s guest room, bars he was too young for, and finally Eskild’s basement. One university for his undergrad, another one for his Master’s, and now in Denmark for his PHD. Barely-part-time research assistant gigs, occasional data entry assignments from a temp agency. 

And then it’s Christmas, and he’s somehow supposed to go home. 

He gets close enough. Back in Oslo, he listens to his mom sing in the choir, sits beside his dad who says a loud amen after the pastor’s sermon on forgiveness. Meets up with Eskild in a bar who finds a boy for him to kiss, but Isak’s never really in the mood for that at Christmas. Responds to Eva’s text, which turns from we should get a drink! to everyone’s in town, we should have a party! to ok wait, if we’re all here and all free between Christmas and New Year’s, let’s get a cabin?! 

That’s how he ends up in her car, the same piece of shit she got after graduation. Isak hears it before he sees it, then Eva swerves into his parents’ driveway and nearly hits one of their planter boxes.

“Shit, sorry!” she yells out the window. She doesn’t get out of the car because it’s hardly a reunion: they see each other whenever Isak’s in Oslo, and they text all the time. “But you can’t judge me. ‘You’re a virgin who can’t drive.’”

She quotes Clueless in English, grinning at the obvious contradiction, but Isak’s not sure where everyone got the idea that he’s a player from. Not a virgin, no, but that distinction becomes even more meaningless when your life is transient. 

“Good thing I haven’t made any new year’s resolutions,” Isak says as he climbs into the passenger seat. “I might not make it there.”

“With that attitude, I’ll ensure you don’t.” Eva smirks at him before pulling out of the driveway. 

It’s late, so their conversation fades as Eva focuses on the road. Isak doesn’t mind. A quiet understanding with a friend is as close to home as he can get. 

He’s looking forward to the cabin, and he can’t really remember the last time he’s looked forward to something. He just finishes with a thing, a place, a person, then moves on to the next. But it’s been awhile since he’s seen some of his high school friends, and he misses lazing around while Jonas plays the guitar, debating Sana about the universe, even listening to Magnus and Vilde’s horrifying stories. 

Isak closes his eyes, hoping sleep will get him to the next place faster, then the song playing on Eva’s phone changes. 

At the first beat, he scrambles to skip the song, nearly dropping Eva’s phone in the process. Embarrassed by his overreaction, he slouches back in his seat and closes his eyes again: just get to the next place. 

Eva risks a glance at him. “Still not a Gabrielle fan, I take it?”

Jesus Christ, he listened to his mom sing O Holy Night just a few days ago and didn’t feel a damn thing, but this pop bullshit is what gets him? 

It caught him off guard, that’s all. It’s being in a car with Eva, and going to see his friends--it’s the feeling that he’s finally going home, then the brutal realization that he can’t ever again. His home is as frozen in time as the ice on the ground. 

“Even,” Isak says by way of explanation. There are so many moments between them that even his best friends don’t know about. Early mornings dancing in the kitchen, even though early mornings and dancing weren’t concepts Isak entertained before. Late night confessions of fantasies they couldn’t name during the day, but also the worst thoughts they’ve ever had, trusted only to each other. Long, lazy Sunday afternoons of Mario Kart, which they always joked would ruin their relationship. 

Why did Isak ever think that was funny?

“...Still?”

“It hasn’t been that long.”

“It was before you started your PHD, right? That’s almost two years.”

Isak doesn’t see the difference between that and his statement.

“Ok,” Eva says, then takes too long of a pause.. “I have to tell you something, but I need you to remember that I’m driving a very shitty car in very shitty conditions. If you freak out, I’ll get distracted and kill us both, then what I’m about to say won’t matter anyway.”

“You’re not reassuring me here.”

“Look, it wasn’t planned. I guess his mom’s cousin is sick, or something? So his parents had to go to Sweden on short notice, and Yousef said he was going to be alone--this all happened like, two hours ago. And he’s our friend too, Isak. I couldn’t say no.” 

“You can say his name. He’s not Voldemort.”

Eva sighs. “Even’s going to be at the cabin.”

Isak wants to be angry. 

“I’m sorry,” Eva says before Isak can decide what he’s feeling. “I should’ve texted you, but I was worried you’d bail and I really wanted you to come. And I guess, I thought it had been long enough that it wouldn’t be such a big deal? I mean, Jonas is going to be there. You’re not the only one reuniting with an ex.” 

“That’s not the same, though.” Isak says it before he realizes how mean it sounds. 

“Maybe you shouldn’t assume things about my relationship with Jonas. Given how well that went last time.” There’s teasing and tension in her voice, and that’s why he can’t actually get mad at Eva. She meddles in his life, but he threw the first stone. Ten years ago, but stones hurt.

“Does Even know I’ll be there?”

“Yeah. He didn’t seem to mind.” 

Isak’s not surprised. 

As Eva reminded Isak moments ago, Even’s their friend too. So Isak knows about Kari, the redheaded actress that shows up in all of Even’s projects like she belongs there, as close to Even’s creations as his own brain. Isak never knew how to get there.

Gunnar, an actual model. A goddamn model. Who performed spoken word poetry, which would be embarrassing from anyone but him. He spoke to Even in abstracts he understood, concepts to build their own world on. Isak just mumbled half-baked, literally, theories about parallel universes.

And Lisa. By all accounts, Lisa was boring. By all accounts, Even would’ve given her the fucking world. 

It hasn’t even been two years, and Even’s been in love three times. Isak can’t even listen to a fucking Gabrielle song.

“Why would he?” Isak says. “He’ll have another soulmate tomorrow.”

“Mm, ok,” Eva says. “I’m going to say something that’s going to piss you off. But in my defence, that’s most things. And let me reiterate that I hold your life in my hands.”

“Thanks for the warning?” 

“You can’t exactly be mad at him for moving on.” 

Isak knows that. He still waits for Eva to say why.

“You left him.” 

---

Isak hates that phrase. 

It implies the absent dad in oldschool dramas, the one who went out for a pack of smokes and never came back. It implies his own dad who never evolved past fight or flight. It implies a villain, and that’s a role Isak refuses to assume in Even’s story. 

Minute by minute was thrilling when he was seventeen. It was still cute at twenty. But at twenty-four, Magnus and Vilde got married. Isak and Even stood in the wedding.

Watching Magnus rock back-and-forth on his feet in front of them, Isak whispered, “We’ll switch places with him soon.” After all, Even was always making comments like that, detailing every intricacy of a large, lavish wedding that Isak would pretend to hate but secretly covet. 

It didn’t have to be marriage. It didn’t even need to be public. It did need to be some kind of commitment, some kind of permanence. 

It needed to be confirmation that Isak was finally home. 

It just felt like time, but Even was quiet at the wedding, and Even was never quiet at weddings. He was quiet that night at the apartment, and the next day, and the day after that. 

“Feeling ok, baby?” Isak asked, just in case. He knew the signs of a depressive episode, and this wasn’t one. Even was still going to work, still meeting his friends, still creating as though he hadn’t felt the same shift in their universe that Isak did. 

“Shit, yes,” Even said, startled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Though he knew it was a fucked-up thing to think, Isak wished Even were depressed. At least it would’ve been an answer. 

“Then where are you?” Isak asked.

“Right here in bed with you, of course.” Even kissed his forehead, but he stopped there. He never stopped there. 

“No, you’re not. Not since the wedding.”

They were both quiet for a long time. 

“Even,” Isak tried again. “I know where you are right now. I know where you’ll be in the next minute. I need to know where you’ll be after that.”

“You know I can’t control--”

“You know I don’t mean that, fuck. It’s not where you’ll be mentally, you know I’ll meet you wherever that is. You know that.”

“I do.” Even’s voice wasn’t even a whisper. 

“But where will you be, Even? Is it always going to be with me?”

It was the fucking loudest silence Isak had ever heard. 

What else was he supposed to do?

---

Isak’s stuck in a memory of silence until they arrive at the cabin, and then it’s an assault of noise. 

It’s not just Christmas music: My Only Wish This Year by Britney Spears, a song Even and Eskild unfortunately bonded over their mutual love for. It’s his friends’ familiar laughter, Magnus’s voice rising above it all. It’s glasses clinking against each other, the sizzle of something on the stove. It’s Eva yelling at him to be careful with the gifts he helped her carry in. 

It’s his own heartbeat drowning out everything else, but fuck it. He loves these people. He wants to enjoy this. Even is not going to take that from him.

“Is that Eva?” Vilde yells, running into the hallway to greet them. She squeals when she sees Eva, hugging her like Isak doesn’t exist. Noora trails behind Vide, but at least has the courtesy to give Isak a hug as she waits to greet her actual friend.

Jonas follows after them, nodding for Isak to step to the side with him. “Did you know Even was coming?” he asks, then shoots a pointed look at Eva. She catches it and rolls her eyes right back at him. 

“No, but. It’s chill.”

Jonas looks unconvinced, but just claps Isak’s back. “Let’s get you a beer.”

Jonas leads Isak into the living room where Sana’s on the couch, eyes glued to her phone. Isak sits down beside her and says, “You couldn’t greet me at the door?”

“No. Amazingly, I was able to contain my excitement at seeing you after four long, excruciating months.” 

But she smiles at him, and Isak’s glad to see her too. 

“Yousef kick you out of the kitchen?” Jonas asks her.

“No, I very selflessly let Even take my spot.” Realizing her own words a second too late, she glances at Isak. “Did you know--?”

Isak rolls his eyes: is everyone going to do this to him? “It’s fine that Even’s here!”

That’s, of course, the moment Even walks into the living room. There’s a beat of silence, and Isak’s right back to the last moment they were together. He looks exactly the same, exactly the same , even down to the stain on his sweater--

Isak’s sweater. He’s wearing Isak’s fucking sweater. 

“Hi,” Even says with a smile. Like he didn’t just catch Isak in an embarrassing moment. Like it’s not the first time they’ve spoken in nearly two years. Like he’s not wearing Isak’s fucking sweater. 

Like none of it mattered to him at all. 

“Hi,” Isak says. He tries to sound exactly the same. 

The girls come back to the living room, Even greeting Eva with a hug. Isak watches him turn on, light up at being there for someone else, brighter than the fucking Christmas tree. 

Jonas delivers on his promise to get Isak a beer, and he takes a healthy chug. 

---

It’s not too bad, actually. 

Maybe it’s the beer, or Eva’s infamous holiday punch. Maybe it’s Christmas fucking cheer. Maybe it’s because it’s late enough that the day’s long over, but early enough that it feels like the next one will never come: a suspension of time, a parallel universe.

One where he and Even can be friends.

That might be a stretch. They’re acquaintances, laughing at the same jokes, playing the same games, orbiting each other’s realities. But if the earth were to get too close to the sun, well. 

This is safe; this is fine. 

Winding down, Isak, Even, Eva, and Sana are playing Bullshit with a deck of cards Noora brought. “Two fives,” Eva says as she lays the cards down; she only has two left in her hand. “I told you I’d kick your ass. I mastered this game on Neopets.” 

Isak has five cards left: he needs to catch up. “Three sixes,” he says, playing a two, eight, and Jack. 

“Bullshit.” 

Since they said hi, it’s the first time Even’s spoken directly to him. Earth barreling towards the sun, and Isak instinctively leans back in his seat. They are only safe at a distance, and Isak doesn’t want to burn him. Not again.

But apparently it didn’t hurt Even last time, not if he’s gone on dates with models while wearing Isak’s sweater. So whatever, clearly it doesn’t matter what they do in this universe if their last shared one was so fucking inconsequential. 

Isak’s a bit drunk, and he’s never been able to resist the challenge in Even’s eyes. Not when Even first invited him outside. Not when he dared Isak to hold his breath underwater. Not when Even said that he knew it wasn’t going to work, that he’d hurt Isak, that Isak would hate him. 

Not when Even was silent, an invite, a dare, a statement: you should leave me.

Isak wants to be angry, but he can’t do that, so he may as well have fun instead. And isn’t that what going home from Christmas is? Pretending the parallel universe where there’s no work, your family’s together, and you eat fucking gingerbread pancakes for breakfast every day is a real place you can return to?

Me?” Isak asks, fake smile, feigned innocence.

“You’re still a shit liar.” 

Even’s smile is hesitant, but real; Isak can tell. He’s asking if they can do this, and it’s easier to try with a conversation they’ve had before.

“Fuck you, I’m the best liar. You just don’t know that because I’ve gotten away with every lie I’ve ever told. And the lies you think you caught me in were actually truths.”

Eva snorts. 

“Using that big brain of yours, I see,” Even says. “But not big enough to remember that I played a six earlier, and so did Sana.” 

Isak rolls his eyes as he picks up the cards from the discard pile, but he can’t stop his next smile from being real.

With her ever-impeccable timing, Vilde interrupts everyone to say, “Excuse me, but we need to discuss sleeping arrangements. We have two rooms with two queen beds each. While Magnus is my soul-mate and lover--”

“Soul-mate and lover,” Isak repeats under his breath.

“A man of my many talents,” Even says.

This time, it’s a real smile from both of them. 

Vilde, however, is not smiling. “As I was saying, Magnus and I spend every night together, but I saw a TikTok about how female friendships are the most intimate love stories there are. It is critical that we nurture them. So, I suggest the girls take one room and the boys take the other.”

“Cheers to that!” Eva yells. Sana made sure to swap her punch for water a long time ago. “That dramatically reduces the chances of a nostalgia-induced hookup I’ll regret in the morning.”

“Even with me there?” Noora says, and there’s a brief moment where Isak isn’t sure if she’s joking. Jonas doesn’t look up for making a joke himself.

“Then I’ll take the couch,” Even says. “Since there’s five guys.”

“No bro, we got you,” Magnus says. “Me, Jonas, and Isak in one bed, you and Yousef in the other.”

“You can’t all fit in a queen bed,” Even says. “It’s really fine.” 

“Don’t be stupid. You’re too tall for the couch.”

Everyone notices that Isak says it. 

“It’s cool,” Even says, but the challenge is back in his eyes. “You know I don’t sleep much, anyway.”

An invite, a dare, a statement--Isak’s just not sure what Even’s saying this time. 

He supposes there’s only one way to find out.