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Kirk didn’t expect to see a matching star soulmark on the ass cheek of the weird Danish drummer stripping down in front of him.

Something hot presses against Kirk’s ribs, a wall of fire clamoring to escape his chest. He’s lived twenty-one years looking for his soulmate, and all he had to do was get hired by Metallica.

James sighs, catching sight of Kirk’s stunned expression. “Dude, I’m sorry. He’s just weird. Please don’t bail on us ‘cause Lars can’t keep his clothes on.”

Kirk smiles. “No, of course not. I’m happy to be here.” His own mark burns, hidden under his shirt.

“Hey,” Kirk says, poking his head into the room where Lars tinkers with his drum kit. “Lars, right?”

“Yeah! What’s up?”

Kirk closes the door behind him as he slips inside. He thought of multiple ways to broach the subject, but found the best was probably through humor. He pulls his shirt over his head and says, “Does this look infected to you?” He turns so Lars can see the soulmark on his shoulder blade.

“Holy shit. Is that — ” Lars moves closer, his warm fingers pressing into Kirk’s skin as he studies the mark. “How did you — Ah, fuck, you saw it earlier, didn’t you? Admiring my ass?” he says with a smile in his voice.

“N — no, I mean — I just noticed —”

“Relax. I’m fucking with you.”

Kirk turns around to observe Lars’ face. “So, uh, what do we do?”

“Nothing,” Lars says, returning to his kit. “I don’t really buy all that soulmate stuff.”

Kirk opens his mouth, closes it, tries again. “It’s real, though. The marks are real. That’s like saying you don’t believe in gravity or physics.”

“I believe it exists. I just don’t think it has to mean anything.” Lars twirls a stick around his fingers. “Who wants the universe deciding their fate, y’know?”

Over the years, Kirk heard people deny the importance of soulmates, but he never imagined his own would be one of them.


“But, hey, soulmarks can be platonic,” Lars goes on. “Maybe we’re meant to be really close friends, like brothers who would do anything for each other.” He pushes his long hair out of his eyes, and Kirk yearns. “It doesn’t have to be the whole true love and romance shit.”

“Oh… Well…” To be told by his soulmate that the universal mechanics that brought them together are bullshit makes Kirk feel stupid and shamed. His eyes burn with tears he won’t cry. “Sorry, then, I guess. It won’t be a problem, us being in the band together?”

“No,” Lars says, oblivious to Kirk’s pain. “I mean, it shouldn’t be.” He shrugs. “Has James showed you the riffs?”

Right, of course. Kirk’s here to play guitar, not simper over some prick who doesn’t want him. “No, I’ll — I’ll go find him.” Kirk leaves the room, his heart sinking.

Kirk thinks Lars’ attitude is bullshit, but he’s in no position to call out the band’s co-founder. So Kirk tries to shove his anger away and focus on the music. Lars doesn’t make it easy: draping his arm over Kirk’s shoulders in photos, being close to him, and acting as though he hasn’t broken Kirk’s heart.

Maybe we’re meant to be really close friends, Lars said, and Kirk supposes that’s the extent of their bond. It wouldn’t bother him if Lars wasn’t so dismissive about the whole thing, like Kirk’s excitement over a star-crossed romance is childish nonsense. Maybe it is, but if anyone’s being immature, it’s Lars, for stomping all over Kirk’s enthusiasm.

But whatever. Kirk can deal.

Kirk can’t deal, not when Jason comes along and discovers he and James share soulmarks. The usually shy James sweeps Jason into a bear hug and says, “Holy shit, man, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life,” and, fuck, how romantic is that?

A stone forms in Kirk’s throat, and he slips out of the room. If Lars notices, he doesn’t go after Kirk.

Kirk tries filling the void with groupies, but once they see he isn’t a match, the only thing on the table is sex. Which is fine. Kirk definitely isn’t complaining — being a rock star means he gets plenty of no-strings sex — but he wants an emotional connection.

He wants to look at someone and know exactly what they were thinking by the crease of their brow or the quirk of their lips. He wants someone to watch cheesy horror flicks with and listen to him ramble about comics. He wants someone who loves him.

He wants Lars.

But Lars doesn’t want him. Not the way Kirk does.

So Kirk drinks and snorts and screws, a kamikaze pilot of his own life.

It should be Lars who flushes Kirk’s cocaine down the toilet of a hotel bathroom and tells him to get his shit together or he’s out of the band. Instead, it’s James, which only adds insult to injury.

Kirk promises he will, stripping off his sweat-soaked T-shirt.

James says, “Isn’t that — you and Lars?”

Kirk gasps. He doesn’t take his shirt off around the others for the sake of hiding his soulmark, but he was careless this time.

James’ brow furrows. “Lars doesn’t know?”

“Lars doesn’t care,” Kirk spits, hurriedly changing into a fresh shirt.

“Oh… That sucks.”

Kirk huffs.

“Want me to kick his ass for you?”

“No, God, it shouldn’t — What’s the point if he’s forced into it? He should be with me because he wants to be.”

“Not because some tattoo you were born with says so?” James smiles, appreciating the absurdity in Kirk’s words.

Kirk frowns.

“The mark is just a conversation starter,” James says. “Then you get to know each other.”

“We’ve known each other for five years. If he doesn’t know me enough to like me by now, it’s never gonna happen.” Kirk slams the dresser drawer shut.

“Maybe it’s a mistake,” James says. “Your mark.”

Kirk appreciates what James is trying to do, but subjects like this are out of James’ depth. “When has that ever happened?”

“I’m not a fucking historian or anything, but it must’ve happened at some point in human history. Right?”

“Fine. Maybe me and Lars are mistakes. What now? How do I find the person I’m actually supposed to be with?”

James shrugs, looking sheepish. “I don’t know, man.”

There’s no goddamn way Lars will let fate determine his life. He’s always chosen his own course, diving headfirst into music instead of his family’s tennis legacy. He’s never let anyone tell him how Metallica is supposed to sound, act, or think.

So being born with a predetermined soulmate naturally annoys the fuck out of Lars. But he’s done his best not to let it bother him. After all, what were the odds he’ll ever meet the one person on earth with the same stupid mark?

And then Kirk showed up.

It’s not that Lars isn’t attracted to Kirk. He’s lithe and sweet and shy and probably great at hand stuff in bed. But it’s the principle of the thing, and Lars refuses to fall into line with the universe’s plan.

At least, Lars tries.

He watches James and Jason discover their matching marks and fall in love, and it almost makes Lars sick. Because it’s supposed to be Lars and Kirk being nauseatingly cute too — feeding each other French fries, sleeping against the other on long bus or plane rides, walking hand-in-hand from a gig to a nearby bar.

And Kirk knows it just as well as Lars does, because the cold glares Kirk gives him say it all.

It’s easy to avoid the subject. Writing music, recording, and touring takes up most of their time together. As the brain of Metallica, Lars is always busy with something: interviews, working out new songs with James, or getting things organized for the next show.

So it creeps up on him, the odd tugging at his heart when Kirk laughs, the flutter in his stomach when he catches one of Kirk’s smiles.

During the recording of the Black album, when Kirk finally nails that solo in “The Unforgiven”, it’s Kirk’s triumphant little grin that undoes Lars completely, and he sequesters himself in the bathroom for five minutes, splashing cold water on his face and telling his reflection to get a fucking grip.

He’s not falling for Kirk. Not now. Not because of that fucking mark.

And he can’t even commiserate with anyone, because James and Jason and even fucking Bob will tell him to succumb to fate.

But it’s been over seven years since Kirk showed Lars his matching soulmark, and they haven’t discussed it since. Lars’ window of opportunity to close the gap between friends and lovers has passed. Kirk’s probably over him by now, and Lars will just make an ass of himself if he tries to spark something that’s no longer there.

If Lars is anything, he’s stubborn. He fights for years against his attraction to Kirk, sublimating his desire by jerking off when he has a moment alone. Or drinking until he doesn’t feel the little tug in his chest.

It’s ten times worse when Kirk gets tattoos. Inky flames reaching across his hip like fingers. An arch of text over his navel. Lars wants to run his tongue over every bit of ink.

He thought Kirk’s short haircut would damper the attraction (not like Lars fantasizes about tugging Kirk’s long curls, nope, no way), but the goddamn piercings! The eyeliner! Is Kirk trying to kill him? Is this payback for refusing the mark?

So Lars thinks it’s perfectly fair to fight dirty, too.

When Load hits record stores, the band is assailed by interviews, with a flurry of questions asking why they cut their hair and “turned their backs on their fans” by selling out.

“We’ve never been more in harmony with each other,” Lars says during one interview, an arm slung around Kirk’s shoulders. “Metallica is two pairs of soulmates.” Lars kisses him then, just a quick peck on the lips for the sake of the story.

And that’s catnip to journalists, who love the romantic notion of a band full of soulmates.

Kirk blushes crimson, though, and Lars hopes he didn’t give him the wrong impression.

“You’re in on this, right?” Lars asks in the band’s hotel suite. “The whole soulmate PR shit?”

Kirk goes pale. He starts blinking. A lot. “What?”

“I thought the kiss made you uncomfortable. Sorry I didn’t run it by you earlier. It just came to me.”

“‘Uncomfortable’?” Kirk says in an icy tone Lars has never heard before. “‘PR shit’?” He stands up, fists clenched at his sides.

“Oh no,” James groans, raking his hands through his hair. “Lars…”

“So this is all just a fucking publicity stunt for you?” Kirk says, his voice trembling. “Thirteen years, and you’re still —” He laughs a sad, tearful sound, shaking his head. “You know what? I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.”

“Whoa, hey, let’s slow down here,” James says, rising to stop Kirk.

But Kirk pushes past James to his room, slamming the door. Behind it comes sounds of drawers being thrown open.

“Fix this!” James seethes, grabbing fistfuls of Lars’ shirt. “We cannot fucking lose Kirk!”

“He’s not gonna leave,” Lars says, like the notion is ridiculous.

“Dude, if I was in a band for thirteen years with my soulmate who didn’t want to be with me, yeah, I’d totally fucking leave,” Jason says.

Lars rolls his eyes. “Nobody leaves Metallica. Besides, we have shows to do. He’s not gonna bail out now.”

Inside Kirk’s room, his suitcase is open on the bed. The dresser drawers are open, and Kirk’s hastily packing his clothes.

“You’re not seriously gonna bail, are you?” Lars asks, though from the state of the room, Kirk’s intentions are obvious.

“You don’t respect me, so… I guess I am.”

“Look, I’m sorry. I know this soulmate stuff is important to you. I shouldn’t have used it for publicity.”

Kirk whirls on him, his eyes and mouth furious. “You don’t fucking get it! We’re supposed to be together! But you’re on this absolutely insane mission to fight that! And why? What’s so awful about being with me?” The fury slips then, giving way to pain.

“I — thought you were over it,” Lars says. “I wouldn’t have kissed you like that if I knew you still had feelings for me.”

It’s the wrong thing to say, and Lars knows it as the words leave his mouth.

“Over it?” Kirk looks like he’s been stabbed, and maybe it would’ve been less painful if Lars had jabbed a knife into Kirk’s stomach. “Over it?!”

Anyone else would strangle Lars to death at this point, but this is Kirk, a guy who once smuggled a bird with a broken wing onto the band’s tour bus so he could help it heal. Violence isn’t in his nature.

Instead, devastation ripples across his face like a nuclear blast.

“Alright. Yeah. I’m done. I’m getting this fucking thing removed, and that’ll be the end of it,” Kirk says.

Soulmark removal is a rare, painful procedure. Lars never considered it — he doesn’t like the idea of someone cutting on his skin — since he figured it would be easy enough to ignore the mark and go on with his life.

But Kirk, with his tattoos and dead-set determination, will absolutely follow through.

“No, you can’t!”

Kirk picks some of his clothes off the floor and shoves them into his suitcase. “Why not? It would solve this whole goddamn problem.”

Removing the mark means severing the bond between them. It’s rarely ever done — soulmates have no inclination to betray or hurt each other — and most of the data on soulmark removal comes from experiments by researchers trying to unearth the secrets of the marks.

“Maybe some fucking groupie will take pity on me for not having a mark. I could get married and have kids and finally fucking move on with my life.”

The thought of Kirk with someone else actually pains Lars. “You won’t be happy.”

Kirk scoffs. “So what? I’m not happy now. At least I’ll have a shot at making my own happiness.”

“No doctor will do it!” Lars says, desperate now. “It’s irreversible. They’ll say you’ll change your mind and want the mark back.”

“You wave enough money in someone’s face, they’ll do anything.”

Nausea tightens in Lars’ gut when he realizes how serious Kirk is about this.

Kirk zips up his luggage and grabs the bag. He moves for the door, but Lars blocks his path.

“Move,” Kirk says.

“No! You can’t do this! You can’t leave! I don’t — fuck, man! You’re fucking crazy!”

Kirk grits his teeth. “I’m crazy? I’m not the one who’s pushed away his soulmate for thirteen fucking years! Do you realize how much of my life you’ve wasted, you selfish little prick?”

Kirk’s anger is a maelstrom, picking Lars up and throwing him like a tornado. His insides tremble.

Kirk shoves Lars aside and throws open the door.

“Kirk, no!” Lars races after him, grabbing at Kirk’s shirt. “You can’t — please! I need you! We need you! Please! I’m sorry!”

Kirk turns to look at Lars, this pathetic, pleading idiot who’s wasted so much time denying destiny. Kirk doesn’t look angry anymore. Just sad.

“Kirk, hey, c’mon,” says James, “Lars is a dick. We all know that. But we’re family. Do what you gotta do, but come back to us.”

“I’m getting the mark removed,” Kirk says. “Either he goes or I go.”

And Kirk seems to know it will be him who breaks away from the band. Lars owns the name and the entire catalog. Along with James, Lars is an anchor point of Metallica. The band has lost bassists and guitarists before and recovered just fine. They could lose Kirk and carry on.

Maybe the band could recover, but Lars won’t. Kirk’s going to sever something crucial inside of Lars by removing that mark.

“Don’t fucking do this, man,” Lars whimpers. “Kirk, I — I want to be soulmates with you.”

On any other day, Kirk might believe that. But right now it sounds like a lie, a gambit to keep Kirk in the band.

“You had thirteen years to tell me that,” Kirk says, shaking his head. He leaves and slams the door behind him.

“Was that how you fix things, Lars?” Jason says after a moment. “‘Cause I think you made it worse.”

“Shit!” Lars storms to the window, gazing out as if he might see Kirk leave the building. “Fuck!” He smacks his forehead against the glass. “Fuck!”

James’ wide hands grab Lars’ shoulders and lead him away from the window before Lars breaks the glass and falls twenty stories. “Hey, hey, c’mon. It’s okay. Give him some time to cool off. He’s not gonna listen to anybody when he’s fired up like this.”

“I can’t give him time!” Lars wails. “He’s gonna remove the mark, and — what if — what if whatever I’m feeling goes away?”

“So you finally like him now?” Jason wonders.

“Took you long enough,” James says.

“Fuck off. It’s complicated.”

“It’s really not,” James says. “But sure. Whatever.”

Lars jerks free of James’ grip and hurries to the door. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing!”

“Lars, for fuck’s sake!” James uses his size advantage to manhandle Lars away from the door. “Think for a minute. Even if you dropped to your knees and blew him right now, Kirk’s not gonna think it’s real. He’ll think you’re doing it just to keep him in the band, and nothing you say or do will convince him otherwise. So give it a couple days. You know Kirk. He doesn’t stay mad very long.”

“But he’s getting the mark removed!” Lars says, because James doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of that. Or maybe he does and just doesn’t give a shit. James has his soulmate, so why should he care about Lars’ problems?

“Maybe it won’t matter,” Jason says. “I mean, here’s your chance to see if you really like him, or if the mark influenced you. That’s what you’re all about, right? Choice over destiny?”

It doesn’t seem fair that Kirk’s deciding for Lars, but it’s not like Lars’ memories of Kirk will disappear along with Kirk’s soulmark. Maybe if his feelings are real, they will remain, even after the mark is gone. If it took this many years for Lars to feel a flutter in his chest when Kirk laughs or tells a dumb joke no one appreciates, maybe it isn’t the mark sending pleasure signals to his brain.

Lars can only wait three days before hunting Kirk down. The band’s manager holds most of the group’s secrets, and a “don’t tell Lars” policy means Lars isn’t cracking that proverbial safe. He enlists the help of James and Jason, who have plenty of free time now that Metallica’s next few shows are cancelled due to “health concerns.”

James is able to sweet-talk their manager, who lets it slip that Kirk boarded a plane for Tijuana three days ago. There were no arrangements made for a return trip. So Kirk is probably still there.

“We’re fucking going,” Lars says to James and Jason.

“No, you’re going,” James says. “If all three of us show up, it’s gonna look like an ambush.”

“Or like a family who cares about our friend’s well-being?”

“This isn’t about the band,” Jason says. “This is between you and Kirk.”

Lars hears the implication loud and clear: We didn’t fuck this up. You did.

Lars has no clue how the hell he’s going to find Kirk, but he’ll figure something out. Sink or swim.

Lars makes the trip to Tijuana on his own and uses the power of celebrity (and the almighty dollar) to bolster his search. He explores downtown, drinking and chatting with fans in hopes of gaining a lead. He checks nearby hotels, bartering cash for information from the desk clerks. None of them have seen Kirk.

Disheartened, Lars stops in a bar as the sun begins to descend. He drinks a few margaritas and commiserates with the bartender, who happens to be a metal fan.

“Is Metallica doing a show here?” the bartender asks in Spanish.

Lars only speaks two languages fluently, and Spanish isn’t one of them, but he knows enough to converse, albeit clumsily. “No, I’m looking for Kirk. He wants to leave the band. I’m trying to change his mind.”

“Oh! So that’s why — My sister said she saw him at the Lucerna. She waits tables at one of the restaurants there.” The bartender observes Lars’ wide-eyed expression. “I know, confidentiality, but she knows I’m a fan, so — ”

“Where? Give me the address, please!”

“Sure, sure!” The bartender scribbles the address onto a napkin and slides it to Lars. “He might have left, but I hope this helps.”

Lars thanks him profusely and leaves a sizable tip.

The hotel is elegant and massive, with palm trees and a water fountain out front. Lars feels only peace as he pushes through the glass entrance doors and steps inside, as if something inside Kirk calls to him. Maybe Kirk changed his mind about removing the mark and decided to take a relaxing vacation before deciding his fate with the band.

Lars charms (but mostly bribes) his way up to Kirk’s room. He knocks on the door and hears faint shuffling on the other side.

The door opens, and Kirk stands there, looking frightened and almost a little impressed by Lars’ tenacity. “Lars?”

“Happy to see me?”

“Yeah, actually.” Kirk smiles, and Lars’ heart flutters. He wants to kiss Kirk. Maybe he should. Maybe that’s how they’re meant to fix this mess. But kissing Kirk didn’t work out last time, and Lars wants to play things safe for now.

“Where’s James and Jason?” Kirk asks.

Lars shakes his head. “It’s just me. Disappointed?”

“No,” Kirk says with fondness. He opens the door wider in invitation.

The room offers an amazing view of the setting sun over the city. Palm fronds dance in front of the balcony window.

“Are you going backpacking later?” Kirk asks, referring to the knapsack slung over Lars’ shoulder.

“That’s my suitcase. I’m traveling light.” Lars sets the pack on the floor and sprawls over the massive bed. “You had us worried. Well, you had me worried. James and Jason figured you’d come back eventually. But… I had to see if you were okay.”

“How long have you been here?”

Lars checks his watch. “Six hours? I got lucky on my search.”

“You’d make a great PI,” Kirk offers with a hint of a smile.

Lars feels the flutter again. He sits up, gazing at Kirk, imploring. He has to know for sure. “You didn’t — tell me you didn’t do it. I bet you didn’t, ‘cause I don’t feel any different, and I still want —” Lars swallows, forcing himself to say the words. “I still want you. I meant what I said about wanting to be your soulmate. I’ll never be sorry enough that it took me this fucking long to be honest with you.”

Kirk’s eyes are wide, his face devoid of color. Slowly, he unbuttons his shirt and lets it slide off his shoulders. When Kirk turns around, a hand reaches into Lars’ chest and squeezes, as tightly as it had the first time he saw Kirk’s soulmark.

Haphazard surgical tape holds a large square of gauze in place over the spot on Kirk’s shoulder blade where the mark once was.

Lars sees the dark bruises blooming underneath the gauze. “No… You really fucking did it. Does it hurt?”

“Do you think having a couple layers of skin sliced off like deli meat would hurt?”

Lars makes a face at the mental image. “Jesus.”

“If that grosses you out, I probably I shouldn’t ask you to change my bandage.” Kirk sits beside him on the bed.

“I guess you can’t reach it yourself.”

“It’s too sore right now. I can’t bend my arm back without stressing the shoulder blade.”

Lars glances at the bandage again. It seems relatively clean, without any blood seeping through. “Looks like someone changed it since the surgery.”

“I’ve been paying the room service guy to do it,” Kirk admits, dropping his face into his hands as though this is some great shame.

Lars snickers. “Well, it’s the least I can do, soulmate.”

Lars brings Kirk into the bathroom to patch him up. Kirk tells him how to dress the wound. Lars follows his instructions, trying not to wince at the bruised mess of raw skin. It’s bright and ugly under the fluorescents.

The last time Lars saw anything this gruesome up close was the burns on James’ arm from a pyrotechnics malfunction a few years ago. This seems worse, because it isn’t an accident; Kirk let someone excise his mark like a tumor because of Lars.

Lars runs a gentle hand over the newly-bandaged wound. The skin is hot, even through the gauze. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. This was the best way to know for sure.” Kirk moves back to the bedroom, where he sips at a bottle of water. “The morning after, I woke up wishing you were here with me. And that pissed me off, ‘cause I thought the procedure didn’t work. And then I thought maybe it took, like, twenty-four hours to fully set in, y’know? Then three days went by, and I still looked out that window wishing we could watch the sunset together.”

“We still can,” Lars says.

They lay on the bed and watch the sun sink steadily below the horizon. Hazy oranges and pinks paint the sky in colorful brush strokes. Lars tucks himself against Kirk’s back, careful not to press his sore shoulder blade. He slides an arm around Kirk’s waist, and Kirk holds it there.

Lars doesn’t know if he’s supposed to say anything more, or if they’ve reached a point where words are superfluous. The implication seems clear; regardless of the mark, they belong together.

After the sun falls from the sky, Kirk says, “You wanna go downstairs and have dinner with me?”

“Are you asking me on a date?”

“I guess I am.” Kirk laces his fingers with Lars’ own. “Afterwards, you can spend the night with me.”

“You put out on the first date?”

“When I’ve got thirteen years’ worth of dates to catch up on, yeah.”

Lars rests his chin on Kirk’s shoulder. “Thirteen years… Is that a bad omen?”

Kirk laughs, as Lars knew he would, and the light, airy sound fills Lars with love. “Maybe not for us.”