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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.

Chapter Text

Isak envies how his friends rest. 

Magnus was out within minutes, snoring loudly enough that Isak actually pitied Vilde. Jonas took longer, mumbling about how Eva should know he’s not the kind of guy that hooks up with drunk girls, but eventually deciding he was too tired to care about his thoughts. Yousef might still be awake, as absorbed in his own thoughts as Isak is, but Yousef’s energy has always been calm and meditative: ultimately restorative. 

He can hear the girls in the other room: Vilde laughing as powerfully as Magnus snores, Eva talking too loudly about Jonas being weird and Noora’s whispered responses, Sana interjecting with 3AM-inspired philosophical questions that Isak’s sure mirror Yousef’s own thoughts. 

But, Isak’s not the only person who’s alone and too awake here. 

Isak’s quiet as he gets out of bed, but Yousef catches his eye before he leaves. “Bathroom,” Isak explains, like he’s still a kid sneaking out of his house. He just doesn’t need Sana asking him questions about what is definitely a questionable choice in the morning. 

Closing the bedroom door behind him, Isak’s met with Even’s back. He’s sitting up on the couch, notebook on his lap, but he’s not sketching, or writing, or doing any of the brilliant things Isak knows he can do. He’s just looking out the window, a dark landscape illuminated by the snow on the ground.

And he’s still wearing Isak’s sweater.

Isak hesitates: this is suddenly very, very familiar. It was one thing in their group of friends, where they could both play within the personas they present. It’s an entirely other thing when it’s 3AM, just them and their thoughts, the two of them serving as flashlights through each other’s darkness. 

If they can’t be that for each other anymore, there’s nothing good that can come from them being lost in the darkness together. 

“I can hear you thinking.”

Isak sighs. “What am I thinking, Even?”

Even turns his head, a smile starting on the corner of his lips. The room feels a bit brighter. “Stand closer to the Christmas tree. I need to really see your face to be sure.”

Isak rolls his eyes, but obliges. 

“Hm,” Even says, making a show of studying him. Isak shivers, but tells himself it’s because they forgot to close the window. “You’re nervous, but determined: a classic Valtersen expression. My best guess is that you’re plotting how to murder me and make it look like an accident.”

Ok, if they’re going here, if they’re playing--ok, Isak can do that. He can stay in this universe with Even. It’s not like every moment is going to be a moment with them, even if they were before. 

Isak runs his hand along the branches of the Christmas tree. “Well, if something were to happen, and this were to topple towards the couch--”

“I’m sorry, your master plan is to crush me with a Christmas tree?

“Or is that just what I want you to think?”

They’re laughing, and they both realize it’s too loud when the girls go quiet in the other room. 

Even motions for Isak to join him on the couch, and he does. They sit on an angle so they’re facing each other, and their legs are long enough that they have to touch. 

“I’m glad you’re not a mastermind criminal,” Even says, voice quieter now. Isak’s glad that Even also recognizes it as a private moment between them, one they won’t share with their friends. He never thought they’d get another one. “Because I did wonder how you’d react when you saw me here.”

Isak says what he’s supposed to say. “It’s almost been two years.”

“I know, but--”

“And I left you.”

Even’s eyes widen, giving himself away. It all feels too familiar again. “I know that too.”

“So you should hate me,” Isak says. “Which works out, because I’m sure you have a more creative yet festive way to plot my demise.”

The joke doesn’t land. Isak feels like he did something wrong. 

“I don’t blame you,” Even says. “And I definitely don’t hate you, Isak.”

He should, though. He should feel something, but there’s no way for Isak to say I should’ve broken your heart without sounding like a complete asshole, so he goes back to the universe they have to live in now. 

“Probably helps that you didn’t have time to think about me,” Isak says. “Dating actresses and models.”

He means to tease. He’s not sure it comes out that way, but Even meets him in that place anyway. 

“And I’m sure you have many suitors.”

Isak shrugs because yeah, he kind of does. Even doesn’t need to know that he’s never pursued them. It all felt kind of pointless when he realized no one could give him the same home Even did. 

“I’m glad that we can be friends,” Even says. Isak doesn’t remember agreeing to that. “Maybe one day we’ll be at each other’s weddings.”

Isak stares at him, but Even just blinks back. He doesn’t realize what he said. And he doesn’t hate Isak. And he thinks they can be friends. And he’s been in love three times. And he doesn’t even remember that he’s wearing Isak’s fucking sweater.

It shouldn’t be a shock. Isak knew their…thing didn’t mean as much to Even as it did to him. He knew that. He’s been venting to Eva about it since she told him about Kari, then Gunnar, then Lisa. 

He knew that, but in the first moment they’ve been alone together since they broke-up, in this all-too-fucking-familiar place in the dark, he actually believes it. 

Just get to the next place. 

“I’m going to bed.”

“Oh,” Even says. Isak’s annoyed by his surprise: what was he expecting here? That they’d hang out like two bros? “Ok, yeah. I guess it’s been a long day. Maybe we can do this again tomorrow night?”

Isak makes the mistake of looking at Even’s eyes, because there it is, another challenge. It’s not playful like it was before. It’s also not something Isak wants to say no to. 

So, he doesn’t say anything at all as he heads back to the bedroom, pretending to sleep until morning. 

---

“Why did you let me drink last night?”

Eva groans and rests her head on the kitchen table. Isak’s sitting with her as Jonas cooks breakfast, even though it’s well past noon. “This is my fault?” Isak asks.

“Yes! I was so guilty and stressed about the Even thing, but apparently I didn’t need to be since you met him for a late night rendezvous.” 

Jonas's head snaps towards them. “You did?” he asks Isak. 

“Not like that,” Isak says, mentally cursing himself that they were loud enough for the girls to hear. Eva does not let go of gossip. “We just talked.”

“But was it ok?” Jonas asks. 

“According to Even, everything is and has always been completely fine between us.”

“And according to you?” Eva asks. 

Isak shrugs. “If Even’s fine, then I guess I’m fine too.”

Jonas and Eva exchange a look, which annoys Isak, but he’s also not sure what he wants from them. To lie and say no, of course, Even was completely devastated when you left? To console Isak through his own heartbreak that everyone thinks he should be over by now? To kick Even out and pretend none of this ever happened? 

It doesn’t matter, because they don’t offer anything but the plate of bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns Jonas places in front of him. Eva’s takes longer because Jonas gets the bacon so crispy that he nearly burns it. “There,” he says as he hands her the plate. “One hangover breakfast, made to order.”

“You’re so sweet,” Eva says, then groans again.  “How sad is it that my high school boyfriend is the nicest boyfriend I’ve ever had?” 

“At least he’s not the only boyfriend you’ve ever had,” Isak says. Eva gives him a sad fist-bump in solidarity. 

“I don’t know,” Jonas says, looking between them. “There are worse stories than that.”

Jonas leaves to see if the others, outside in a Magnus-led snowman making competition, want food. Once the door’s safely shut behind him, Eva leans into Isak and says, “Ok, something’s up with him, right?” 

Isak sighs; he’s got too much of his own shit for this rerun of Jonas and Eva drama. “I don’t know, Eva.” 

“But he hasn’t said anything to you? I can’t tell if he hates me or has feelings for me again….”

Isak lets Eva go on without really listening, just offering the occasional supportive-but-non-committal-nod. This is what Jonas and Eva do: they go around in circles with feelings that aren’t significant enough for them to either commit to or cut off for good. If it were serious, they’d have to make the same awful choice that Isak did. 

They’re interrupted as everyone comes inside for food, dragging snow in with them. Magnus and Vilde are complimenting each other’s snowcats , which is a conversation Isak knows to immediately tune out of. Noora and Yousef are loudly debating the creative merits of their respective snowmen, even though they’re supposed to be the quiet ones. Even and Sana are losing it with laughter at a joke Isak will never be in on, and that’s when the night catches up to him. 

“My head’s going to fucking explode,” Isak says, suddenly very aware he should’ve at least tried to sleep last night.

Even squeezes Isak’s shoulder, and Isak doesn’t know why the fuck he thinks it’s ok to do that. “Can’t hold your liquor anymore?”

“No, it’s my punch,” Eva says. “I never should’ve brought it into this world. I created a monster.”

“We could have a quiet day watching movies,” Vilde suggests, then smiles at Magnus. “I think that would be very cozy.”

“Brilliant idea, baby,” Magnus says, kissing her head. 

Isak’s hangover is more Even than alcohol inspired, but he does feel like he could throw up. 

The cabin has a small TV with an old DVD player, but unfortunately for Isak, Eva was prepared for that. Her mom’s apparently a collector of classic holiday romantic comedies, and Isak’s already seen most of them with Even. Isak always complained about their cheesiness, though he loved to watch Even watch them, analyzing every beat to understand why the love stories were so satisfying. Isak always thought it was just to inspire his own movies, but Even laughed when he told him that.

“Well, sure,” Even said. “That’s part of it. But, it’s also for you, Isak. I still want to sweep you off your feet.” 

When Love Actually starts, Isak knows he needs a distraction. And glancing around the room, he quickly realizes his friends won’t be any help. Vilde and Magnus are making-out as though they’re alone in the back of a movie theatre. Sana and Yousef aren’t even touching, but the smiles they exchange feel more intimate than Vilde and Magnus’s horror-show. Jonas and Eva are continuing their dance of sending indecipherable looks to each other, and Isak catches Noora joining in as well. 

So, Isak plays a game on his phone until the movie ends. 

As the credits roll, Yousef nudges Even and says, “So, when are we going to see your name up there?” 

Isak’s made a pointed effort not to look at Even, but he notices now that he has his notebook with him. Even taps it against his knee and says, “Need some inspiration to fill these pages.”

Even looks at Isak, pointed, but Isak’s really not in the fucking mood to play games right now. 

“That shouldn’t be hard,” Vilde says. “Your romantic resume is quite impressive.” 

Vilde,” Noora says with a not-so-subtle look towards Isak, but Vilde just gets defensive.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Vilde says. “I’m committed to Magnus, of course, but I think there’s something beautiful about loving a lot of different people. How many of us get that chance?”

“We don’t want it,” Isak says, though with each word, he’s less sure why he’s speaking at all. “When you love someone, you want to stay with them. It’s that fucking simple.”

“I agree,” Even says, but the same hesitation Isak felt is all over his face. “But they don’t always want to stay with you, so what are you supposed to do then? When they’ve shown you how to really fucking love someone, are you meant to keep that to yourself forever?”

“You never asked me to stay.”

Isak definitely, definitely did not want to say that, and he definitely does not trust himself to say anything else.

“I’m going to take a nap,” Isak says, at the bedroom door before the sentence is fully out.

“Yeah, me too,” Jonas says, about as subtle as Noora was moments ago, but Isak just shakes his head. 

He needs to get used to the fact that home is a place where he’s alone. 

---

Isak sleeps until his friends are ready to rest. 

He wakes up as the guys come into the bedroom, though he can tell they’re trying to be quiet--even Magnus. Jonas notices that Isak’s awake as he gets into bed beside him and asks, “You ok?”

“Fantastic,” Isak says. 

“There’s some leftover dinner in the fridge. Yousef made it, so it’s actually good.” 

“Yeah, thanks.” 

“This whole trip is fucked.”

Isak knows Jonas is talking about more than his bullshit, but even though Isak slept the afternoon and evening away, he’s still too tired to ask. He gets angrier anyway and pretends it’s on Jonas’s behalf.

Everyone’s vision of this trip would fit right into Eva’s mom’s DVD collection: friends, romance, holiday fucking cheer. Even’s directing the story, casting himself as the romantic hero who…what, exactly? Flirts with ex? Has a quick fling with him, the dreaded holiday hookup Eva warns of? Or maybe it’s not that, maybe the story is just that they get to be friends again, but it doesn’t matter what Even has in mind for the third act. He’s still going to fuck off after the credits roll. 

This is not some parallel universe where forgiveness can overcome every hurt. This is reality, and Isak decides to tell Even their story.

Isak tells Jonas that he’s getting up to get food, and he knows Jonas doesn’t believe him. He’s not surprised to find Even awake, but he is surprised that Even’s surprised to see him. 

“Isak,” Even says, quiet, and that’s it. No challenge: no invite, no dare, no statement. Just an acknowledgement that Isak is real, and Isak is there with him. 

Isak’s resolve slips, but it’s like slipping on ice: he realizes what’s happening, and he catches himself. He is going to have this conversation. “What’s your game here, Even?”

Even stares back at him, wide-eyed. “Game?"  

“Yeah. If I’m going to be a main character in this story you’re writing, I should know my role, right? Learn my lines? So who do I get to be this time, Even? I don’t know how I’ll live up to my last performance, though. I was pretty fucking great at being your soulmate for seven years.” 

Even’s covered his shock and gone somewhere else, somewhere Isak knows, somewhere Isak regrets bringing him. He’s hiding, and Isak hates that, but he’s also furious at it. Isak’s laying everything out, and he needs Even to meet him there. 

“Kari was the muse, right?” Isak continues. He’s not letting them live in silence again. “Gunnar’s the fling that turned into something more. Lisa’s harder to figure out, but that’s the appeal, right? The love no one understands?” 

“Isak,” Even says, carefully. “You really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No, I think I do. You direct your own life. You create stories to live in, and they’re real when you’re in them, but no one wants to watch a seven-year-long movie. You get bored, you move on, and none of us matter to you at all.” 

But that’s not what Isak means. He doesn’t give a fuck how Even feels about Kari, Gunnar, or Lisa. 

“I didn’t matter to you at all,” Isak says.

And Even comes out of hiding. 

“You can’t mean that,” Even says, then repeats himself like he needs it to be true. “You can’t mean that.” 

“What am I supposed to think? I haven’t been with anyone since we broke-up. I haven’t felt like I’m home anywhere since we broke-up. No one and nothing comes close to you, ok? You’re it for me, but I’m just another option for you.” 

“Isak, I meant what I said earlier. I’m only able to love anyone else because I loved you. You gave me a relationship I never thought I could have. You can’t blame me for wanting to have that again.”

“Sure. As long as it’s not with me, right?”

“I didn’t want you to leave, Isak. You have to know that.”

“But you didn’t want me to stay, either. Not forever.”

“Isak,” Even says, and Isak’s very aware of how often Even’s saying his name. They are in this reality together. “It’s more complicated than that.”

“Enlighten me."

“I don’t think I can. I don’t think it’ll make either of us feel better.”

“Well I already feel like shit, and that’s not going to change, so it’s not about that. I need you to tell the truth.”

“I’ll tell you part of it,” Even says, though no part of Isak is willing to compromise. “You can hate me if you need to hate me. You don’t ever have to talk to me again. But Isak, I need you to know that you meant everything to me. You still do. Please, believe that.” 

“How can I?” Isak asks. “You didn’t want me to stay. You’re lying to me now even though I’m giving you everything I fucking have. And you don’t even remember that you’re wearing my sweater.” 

Even stares at him for a second too long, then shakes his head. “I--shit, Isak.” He grabs his notebook from the coffee table and tosses it to Isak. “You need to read this.”

“No, I don’t,” Isak says, even as he catches it. “I’m not interested in your drawings, or scripts, or the fucking hieroglyphics you use to communicate. We’re here right now. Just talk to me.” 

“This is how I talk. And I know that sucks. I don’t know how you dealt with my shit for seven years, Isak. I can’t even deal with my shit. But, I’m asking you to again.” 

“Why?” Isak says. “If I don’t matter to you, why should I bother?” 

“Do you still love me?” 

Isak knows that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be having this fight. “That’s low.”

“Well, me too, ok? I still love you too. So please, read it.” 

Isak’s undecided as he walks towards the bedroom, but Even says one more thing before he opens the door. 

“And of course I know it’s your sweater, Isak.”

Chapter Text

Isak decides to listen.

He tried to earlier, if Even would’ve just fucking talked to him, but--fine. If this is how Even needs to talk, it’s how Isak will have to listen. What else is he supposed to do?

Using the flashlight on his phone to read, Isak opens the notebook. Jonas stirs at the light and promptly rolls his eyes when he sees what’s in Isak’s hands. “What’s it this time?” Jonas mumbles, half-asleep. “A comic where Eva never invited him here and he left you the fuck alone?”

Isak agrees with his anger, but also feels weirdly defensive of Even. He has not always understood Even’s art, but he has always understood that it was a privilege to be let into his biggest feelings. Isak can’t reject that opportunity now. “Not sure.”

Jonas sighs, but rolls over and goes back to sleep. Isak reads.

At first, he’s not sure what he’s looking at, but he’s used to that from Even. It’s not clearly a script, novel, or poem, but a brainstorm of an idea too big for conventional formats--at least, Isak thinks that’s how Even would describe it. Pretentious asshole. 

If There Could Be Forever…

It would be his hand on the back of my shoulder, guiding me through the moments that are too much. It would be his hand squeezing mine, somehow trusting me to pull him out of the moments that are too much. 

It would be his thoughtfulness in asking and answering big, wild, dangerous questions about the universe. It would be him not being scared when I do the same. 

It would be the stubbornness in his care, the determination to help even if he doesn’t quite know how. It would be trying to do the same for him, and maybe one day succeeding. 

It would be the absolute trust he asks for and gives with his body. It would be making him feel safe, but also making him make that one noise. 

It would be him cursing at video games. It would be him letting his coffee go cold as he studies. It would be him forgetting himself and singing along to the radio, loud and playful and beautiful. It would be him kissing at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected places. It would be him laughing, always.

It would be him, and him, and him, and I would try to be there too. 

There’s more, but Isak’s gripping the page so hard he nearly tears it. 

Ok, clearly he meant something to Even, clearly Even still loves him, fine, whatever. If There Could Be Forever? There fucking could have been. Isak offered it, and Even rejected it. 

Isak’s too wired to sleep, and he’s stuck living in Even’s vision of forever until morning.

---

Isak feels sixteen again. And he did not like being sixteen.

He’s slept, but he’s not rested. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone. He’s not going to participate in whatever kosegruppa-light bullshit Vilde will force them into.

He thinks he wants to play an RPG until he’s finished it, which he hasn’t done since high school. He thinks he wants to get high, which he hasn’t done since undergrad. He thinks he really should have learned to drive by now so he could just fucking leave. 

It doesn’t matter. He’s stuck here, and that’s fine, the time will pass and the new year will come, but it’s not like he’ll go home after. He’s stuck in a liminal space, a fucking oxymoron, but Isak’s too tired to care about the semantics. He’s just stuck. 

Isak waits until everyone else is up before he leaves the bedroom; he cannot risk a one-on-one conversation with anyone right now, especially if they heard him and Even last night. Once he’s up, he makes a beeline for the kitchen, thankful for small mercies when he sees the coffee pot’s still full. 

Jonas and Eva are talking at the kitchen table, but Isak’s tuned out of their conversation until Jonas gets louder, forcing both Isak and Eva to hear him. 

“What I’m saying,” Jonas says, and Isak instantly recognizes the frustration in his voice. Despite how laidback Jonas usually is, when he gets worked up, he gets really worked up. “Is that I don’t want to be your second choice, Eva. But I’m not even that high, am I? Or does it depend on who you want to be that day?”

“You’re not being fair,” Eva says. “We’re not fucking teenagers anymore. I know who I am, and you do not get to tell me that I don’t.” 

“Ok, fine, but what do you want then? Because it’s not me. It’s only ever me when you’ve exhausted your other options and want something safe and familiar. That’s not fair to me.” 

“Come on. You are familiar, but you’re not safe, Jonas. You mean too much to me to ever be safe.”

Isak’s stalled, annoyed they’re having this conversation here, annoyed they didn’t leave when Isak came in, annoyed they’re doing this shit again

“Jesus Christ,” Isak says, voice even louder than Jonas’s. They both turn to him, surprised. “When are you guys going to stop this high school bullshit? It doesn’t fucking matter. You need to do something about it or move on.”

Jonas and Eva exchange a look, which annoys Isak even more than it did yesterday, but this time they don’t follow-up by asking if he’s ok. 

Instead, Eva looks at him like he’s sixteen and says, “You’re a real shit friend sometimes, you know that?”

She leaves, slamming the door on her way out of the cabin. 

“Shit,” Isak says, because he didn’t mean for it to come out like that, or maybe he did, he’s just--he’s just so fucking tired. “Jonas, I--”

Jonas hesitates, but ultimately just sighs and goes into the guys’ bedroom. Isak takes their place at the coffee tables and drinks his coffee, alone, and pretends it’s not an awful place to get stuck. 

He’s not alone for long, though. Sana comes in, greeting Isak with a nod. “Ran into Eva outside,” she says, pouring a cup of coffee for herself. “Impressive that you managed to piss her off before noon. New record?”

“Hardly.”

Sana sits across from him and is quiet for too long; Isak knows not to trust that from her. “What?” he asks, but even he hears that the exasperation in his voice is more than she deserves. “Sorry.”

Sana shakes her head. “You’re fine. Just don’t make anymore enemies, because I was hoping to hitch a ride home with you and Eva.” 

“To see her push me out of a moving car?” Isak says.

Sana smirks. “Exactly. But also because I don’t want to walk, and Yousef’s leaving early with Even.”

That wakes Isak up. “How early?”

“They’re shoveling the car out now.”

“But,” Isak says, and that’s all he got. But Even asked him to read the notebook. But they haven’t talked yet. But Isak’s still stuck. And no, Isak didn’t know what the fuck he was going to do about any of that, but--Even can’t just leave. 

He can’t do what Isak did to him.

There are private moments between Isak and Even that their friends don’t know, and one is the morning Isak left. As Even slept, Isak packed a suitcase. Still stuck in Even’s silence, he didn’t know what else to do. A lot didn’t make it: a textbook he needed for an exam; a travel mug he never commuted without; a sweater that Even always stole, and that made it Isak’s favourite. He knew he had to go, but he wanted to be able to come back.

In the morning, Even saw the suitcase, and looked at Isak in a way that still makes his stomach twist to think about. He didn’t ask Isak to stay. Isak’s not sure he gave him the chance. 

Isak feels sixteen, but he’s not. He’s gone to enough places and been through enough shit to understand that he’s never really stuck anywhere--even as his feelings tell him otherwise. It may not mean that he’ll get to have a home with Even again; it may mean they have to agree to move on. Isak doesn’t know what he expects or wants. 

But he knows they owe each other a conversation.

“You know, it really snowed last night,” Sana says. “It’s going to take them a while.”

“They shouldn’t drive in that.”

“Maybe you should tell Even that,” Sana says, then smiles. “Because, you know Yousef. He won’t listen to me.”

Isak laughs, grateful that he still has a friend. “Right. Famously.”

Isak heads outside, and the instant relief he feels when he sees Yousef’s car reminds him of when Even would laugh after a depressive episode. Just a bit of hope.

Scanning his surroundings, Isak doesn’t see Even or Yousef, but he does hear someone. 

“Piece of shit.” 

Eva, taking the aggression she has for Isak out on her own car. As Isak approaches, he finds her in the driver’s seat with the door open, trying to get the windshield wipers to work.

“Everything good?” Isak asks. 

Noticing him, Eva glares, then picks up the snow brush at her feet. “Careful, Isak. If we’re going to talk, I need you to know that I have a weapon and cannot be held responsible for what I do with it.” 

“Well, if you’re going to attack me or the car, you may as well attack me. Because if you damage the car, I don’t have a ride home. But if you hurt me, you can drop me off at the hospital.” 

Isak tries a grin and prays it lands. Eva rolls her eyes, but unlocks the passenger’s door. “Get in before I run you over.” 

Once Isak’s inside the car, Eva says, “Even and Yousef went for a walk, by the way. I know you didn’t come out here for me.”

Isak winces; he wishes that weren’t true. “I’m really sorry, Eva. There’s just so much shit going on that I forgot I’m not the only one going through it.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Do you want to talk about Jonas?”

Eva groans and leans back in her seat. “I don’t think I’m the hero in that story.”

“I’ll understand. Trust me.”

“It’s hard because he’s kind of right,” Eva says. “I love him, I don’t think that’ll ever go away, but I only want him when we’re all home like this. I don’t know, it’s like…you’re off doing cool science things in Denmark--”

“That is the technical term.”

“Remember: weapon. You’ve got science, Chris is living her best life in Berlin, Vilde and Magnus are somehow married, Sana’s going to win a Nobel Prize before Yousef gets the courage to propose to her…and it just feels like I’ve been left behind. I don’t want to get stuck here, but it’s not so bad if I have Jonas, right? Then at least I’m not alone.” 

“You’re not,” Isak says. “Ever, ok?”

Eva smiles at him. “But I’m stuck with you?”

“Unfortunately.” 

“You know, I’m sorry too,” she says. “I should’ve told Yousef not to invite Even. You’ve just been so weird and distant since the break-up that I thought it might help you to talk to him, even just for closure.” 

“For what it’s worth, I think you were right.” 

“Still not my decision to make, though.”

Isak agrees with that, but he doesn’t hold it against her. Their friendship is too long and important for grudges. “Have you ever noticed that half our conversations are just us apologizing to each other?”

Eva laughs. “That’s because we’re in this for life, Isak. I don’t care what he says, you and I will be playing shuffleboard at the nursing home long after we’ve both forgotten Jonas’s name.”

“You think?”

“Oh yeah. We feel things in the same way, you know?”

Isak understands that more than ever, and it occurs to him how much they could’ve helped each other if they’d talked sooner. Maybe he’ll figure out friendship in his thirties.

“We need each other,” Eva says. “So don’t ever think that you’re alone either, ok?” 

Isak nods, and as he sees Yousef and Even approaching from his window, he doesn’t feel the same urgency he did when Sana said they were leaving. He needs to talk to Even, and he will, but he’ll be fine regardless of the outcome. He already has a home, and it’s time he prioritizes the people that built it.

“Where were you going, anyway?” Isak asks Eva.

“I don’t even know. Just a drive to clear my head, if I can get these fucking windshield wipers to work.”

“Do you want me to come with?”

Eva follows his gaze out his window. “Oh,” she says. “No, definitely not. I am not going to be an accomplice in you running away from your problems.”

“I’m trying to be a good friend!”

“Your effort is noted and appreciated, but no. You need to deal with that.”

“Then maybe you should talk to Jonas?” And then he asks something only a real friend could, about the name notably missing from her list of people who’ve moved on. “Or…Noora?”

Eva narrows her eyes at him. “You don’t know anything about that.”

“No,” he agrees. “But also, I kind of do? So if you need to talk--”

“Oh my God, I didn’t realize you being a good friend would be so annoying.” But she smiles at him before she continues with, “Fine. Let’s both have horribly awkward conversations, then report back over some very strong drinks.” 

“Deal.” 

They get out of the car as Even and Yousef are approaching. Eva quickly ushers Yousef inside, and Isak takes a moment to look at Even in the daylight for once. He’s wearing the same green jacket he’s had since high school. He has his own sweater today, but it’s one Isak frequently stole. He looks exactly the same, and where that once frustrated Isak, it now comforts him. 

It’s just Even. He can talk to Even.

“Sit with me?” Isak asks, nodding his head towards the stairs up to the cabin. 

Even exhales in a way that shows up in the cold. “Yes,” he says. “Of course.”

Once they’re seated on the top step, Isak says, “I don’t know why you wanted me to read that.”

Even grimaces, but doesn’t seem surprised by Isak’s words. “I needed you to know what you mean to me. Last night, when you said that you didn’t matter to me at all--fuck, Isak. I can’t believe you ever thought that. I can’t believe I made you think that.”

“Meant.”

“What?”

“You said mean. It’s meant. Past tense.”

“No,” Even says, a simple truth. “It’s not.”

“But what am I supposed to do with that, Even?” Isak says. “You make me read this fucking love letter, if there could be forever , but you don’t actually want that with me? Is this just some romantic fantasy? Because if it is, please, leave me out of it.”

Even is quiet for a long time, and Isak realizes that patience can be a verb. He is trying. 

“I do want that with you,” Even says. “I always have.”

“Why couldn’t you tell me that two years ago?”

“Because,” Even says, and the strain in his voice sounds like it hurts. “I didn’t know if I’d get forever.”

Isak instantly understands and instantly wishes he didn’t. But he catches the challenge in Even’s eyes, and he knows he has to meet it. “Oh.”

“I, uh. I started seeing a new psychiatrist about a year ago. Her theory is that I don’t commit to things because part of me thinks it doesn’t matter if I just, you know. Go.” 

“Is that how you feel?” Isak asks. As hard as this is for Isak to hear, he knows it’s harder for Even to say, so that’s what he focuses on.

“Maybe? I don’t know. I felt completely called-out and embarrassed when she said it, so probably.” 

“It’s not embarrassing.”

Even smiles at him. “God, Isak. I’ve missed you. And I need you to know that if I’d understood that’s what my fucked-up brain was doing two years ago, I would’ve told you. All I knew was that I couldn’t promise you what you were asking for. I’m so sorry.”

Isak shakes his head. “You needed time. And I didn’t give that to you.”

“It did feel…sudden,” Even admits. “I knew we weren’t in a good place. It kind of seemed inevitable, but when I saw you with that suitcase--everything got very real very quickly, and I thought it was only fair for me to let you go. I should’ve fought.”

“I shouldn’t have left. It’s just what I’m good at doing.”

Even laughs, and Isak’s surprised. “What the fuck?” Isak says, but he keeps his tone light. That feels like a good place for them to be now. “I’m pouring my heart out over here, and you--”

“Sorry,” Even says. “It’s just that anyone else would’ve left years before you did. Or they would’ve seen me here and turned right back around. You are the most stubborn person I’ve ever met, thank God.” 

“You’re not giving yourself enough credit,” Isak says. “I wanted to stay with you forever. I loved being with you. I love you, so stop talking shit about yourself.”

“See? Stubborn.”

Isak rolls his eyes. Even nudges him with his shoulder, and the jolt that goes through Isak forces him to ask the next question. “How do you feel about forever now?”

“You only read the part of the notebook about you, didn’t you?”

“The most interesting and compelling part, yes.”

“Good to see that age hasn’t humbled you,” Even says. “Anyway, it was an exercise from my psychiatrist: if I actually committed to my life, what do I want? And it turns out it’s a lot. Sunday dinners with my parents, directing a feature-length movie, maybe even teaching…and you. Mostly you. So when I realized you were going to be here, I thought I might be lucky enough to get another chance.” 

“You want me,” Isak repeats. “Forever this time.”

“Yes. Whatever version of forever I get, I want it to be with you.” 

“Not Kari, or Gunnar, or Lisa….”

“I can’t tell you that I didn’t love them,” Even says. “I did. But when I think about forever, they’re not who I think about.”

Isak’s in a liminal space, but he has an invitation somewhere permanent. He leans into Even’s shoulder, and Even kisses his head before either of them remember they don’t do that anymore. 

“I know we can’t just…go back,” Even says. “I know that I hurt you, and honestly, you hurt me too. There’s so much shit between us now.” 

“Then let’s move forward,” Isak says, decisive. “Let’s be slow and careful with each other, but let’s move forward.”

And that’s exactly how Isak leans in to kiss him, slow and careful, but with an edge that captures everything between them. 

“One more question,” Isak says once he pulls away. Even’s lips linger close to his, and Isak’s excited for the promise of everything that’s to come. “Why the fuck would you wear my sweater here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Even asks.

“Clearly not.” 

“I was trying to get your attention.”

Isak just stares, but it turns into a scowl at the teasing grin that forms on Even’s face. “You’re serious?”

“Well, it was that or use all the paper towels.”

“I really fucking hate you.”

“I know, Isak.”

When Even leans in to kiss him, Isak does hate him, and love him, and thinks he’ll probably feel everything there is to feel as long as he’s with Even. 

“Oh, thank God.

They’re interrupted by Magnus coming outside, and Isak swears he looks as relieved as he did when Vilde said her vows at the altar. Trailing behind him, Vilde says, “This is long overdue. Magnus has been so stressed.” Her tone is so matter-of-fact it’s disconcerting. 

“Everyone, it’s happening!” Magnus yells into the cabin, then claps Isak and Even on their shoulders. “A Christmas miracle!”

When everyone comes rushing out, Isak takes in his friends’ faces. Magnus’s wide grin and Vilde’s satisfied approval. Yousef’s warm smile and Sana’s confident nod. Noora’s subtle thumbs-up. Jonas’s concerned but content gaze, communicating that they’re cool, and he’s happy for him, but he has questions, all at once. Eva’s barely-contained glee. 

Isak’s glad to be home.