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Stars Are For Counting

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Contrary to popular belief, Daniel wasn’t completely unathletic.

He wasn’t a superstar by any means, but he liked running and hiking, and he was considering signing up for a boxing class at his local gym.

The point was, he wasn’t as incompetent at sporty stuff as his nerdy persona made people think, and it was actually a point in common that helped a lot in his relationship with Soren.

Like when they were making their way through the dry, hot air of the desert, backpacks on their shoulders and water bottles in their hands.

Daniel had come to really love hiking in the desert. It was just so drastically different from the trails and parks he had grown up with in New Jersey.

New Jersey parks were full of trees and streams and lush green all around; they were noisy with the rustle and calls of animals and insects.

The desert was the complete opposite. Gold and brown infused every stone and plant, and it was so quiet. Just the sound of the wind and their own footsteps. It felt like being on Mars, and Daniel felt calmed by the stillness.

Especially up at the top of a cliff, the whole desert on display in the afternoon sun.

“Told you it was worth the climb,” Soren said, and Daniel had to agree.

The land stretched out below for miles, broken up by collections of rock structures and spiny bushes and cacti, all rich browns and golds and oranges, met by a crisp blue sky on the horizon.

Soren was smiling brilliantly, satisfied and happy and it was making crinkles appear in the corners of his eyes. It was just as nice to see as the beautiful landscape.

“I never doubted you,” Daniel said, still watching Soren instead of the view.

“Wanna sit for a while?” Soren asked, looking at him, and Daniel nodded.

They made themselves comfortable on a big, flat rock, and took the time to refill their water bottles from the gallon jugs in their backpacks.

“You hurting yet?” Soren asked with a grin.

“Not as much as you’re going to be with that sunburn,” Daniel replied, and Soren frowned and looked at his arms and shoulders.

“Damnit!” Soren sighed, “I swear to god. I buy spf 45, and I even get the ‘sport’ crap that isn’t supposed to sweat off, and I still get sunburn. Ridiculous.”

“The perils of having Snow White princess skin.”

Soren glared at him and Daniel grinned wider. It was a point of irritation for Soren that Daniel was blessed with skin that tanned easily and healed quickly from sunburn.

“Just shut up and hand me a granola bar,” Soren huffed, and Daniel chuckled as he fished two out of his backpack, handing one over to Soren and opening the other for himself.

It was midafternoon, and Daniel was looking forward to nightfall. They had set up camp a mile or so away, and being able to look up at the starry sky without the light pollution of the city was going to be amazing. Sharing it with Soren, even more so.

Daniel felt his face flush a little at the thought. Laying with Soren on a blanket under a star-filled sky was downright romantic, and he still wasn’t sure if he was allowed to have thoughts like that.

The four of them had been doing their... arrangement for a little over two years, but they never really talked about it. They all occasionally dated other people, but none of it was ever serious enough that they felt obligated to stop sleeping with each other. Daniel wasn’t entirely sure what that meant for them, and he never had the courage to ask; too afraid of ruining a good thing.

He distracted himself by reaching over and pulling the sunscreen out of Soren’s backpack, then squirting a dollop onto the palm of his hand. Wordlessly he rubbed his hands together to spread it around before reaching up and slathering it onto Soren’s shoulder.

He felt Soren’s eyes on him, but he didn’t look up; just focused on spreading the sunscreen under the edge of Soren’s tank shirt.

His thumb traced the definition of Soren’s bicep, and he rubbed firmly; partially to work the sunscreen in and partially to massage. He nudged Soren gently after a moment, coaxing him to turn around, and Soren obeyed without a word.

More sunscreen, and Daniel massaged it into the back of Soren’s neck firmly, feeling a little flutter of satisfaction when Soren gave a small moan. Finally he moved on to Soren’s other shoulder and arm, working it into his skin and sliding his hand under the edge of Soren’s tank shirt.

Soren glanced back at him questioningly when Daniel shuffled closer, putting Soren between his knees and pulling Soren back toward himself, but he went anyway. Daniel kissed the side of his head as he rubbed more sunscreen down the bit of Soren’s chest that was visible at the wide neck of his shirt.

Slowly he worked his way upwards, until he could smooth the liquid gently up Soren’s neck.

Soren sighed, tilting his head back to let Daniel work, and Daniel more than happily took his time to rub the sunscreen into Soren’s skin.

“Here,” Daniel said when he was finished, holding the tube out, “Take a bit for your face. You can do that better than me.”

Soren put his hand up for a dollop, then Daniel snapped the lid closed as Soren rubbed his fingers together before rubbing it all over his face.

“Don’t forget your ears,” Daniel reminded him, and Soren chortled.

Yes, mother,” he sighed, and Daniel grinned in amusement.

Then they were just pressed together, both sweaty and hot, but it didn’t detract from how nice it felt to have Soren’s body resting back against his.

Daniel kept his hand on Soren’s chest, feeling his heartbeat and his breath move in and out.

He closed his eyes. The sun was warm, but there was a cool breeze that made Daniel feel relaxed and calm.

Silence wasn't ever really awkward with Soren, surprisingly. Not anymore, at any rate.

Admittedly, Daniel had been a little intimidated by Soren when he first met him. He was handsome and sporty, confident and charming. He was undeniably smart and funny too; a maelstrom of things Daniel felt he was certainly not.

But they just... clicked. They worked well together, fed off each other's ideas easily. Then Soren invited him to hang out outside of work, asked Daniel if he'd be interested in getting a beer and watching a football game at a bar and Daniel didn't hesitate to say yes.

He had no interest in football, but it didn't really matter in the end because he and Soren ended up talking through most of the game, and the rest, as they say, was history.

“You’re sweaty,” Soren commented, but made no attempt to move away from him.

“And that’s different from usual how?” Daniel chuffed, and Soren shrugged.

“It's not, I'm just always surprised you aren't constantly on the brink of dehydration with how much you sweat.”

Daniel chortled, “Thanks for the concern, I think?”

“Pft, what makes you think I'm concerned? I'm not concerned. You’re a big boy who can handle his own hydration. I'm merely commenting.”

Daniel chuckled and shook his head, raising his eyes skyward, “Of course.”

It was late afternoon by then, and the temperature was starting to taper down. What had been a hot day was now far more mild and comfortable, and Daniel almost felt like dozing off.

“We should try to get back to camp before nightfall,” Soren spoke up after a while, and Daniel hummed in acknowledgement. Neither of them moved for another ten minutes, and the colors of sunset started to bleed across the sky.

“We really need to head back,” Soren said with more conviction this time, sitting up and pulling out of Daniel’s reach. He patted Daniel's thigh before getting to his feet, “Come on.”

Begrudgingly, Daniel motivated himself into a standing position and they gathered up their belongings.

Soren looked toward the setting sun again, “If we hurry we should make it back to the tent before night really hits.”

Daniel nodded, and Soren adjusted the straps on his backpack for a moment before giving Daniel a long look.

“What?” Daniel asked nervously, and Soren shook his head with a little smile before stepping close and pulling Daniel into a kiss.

Daniel leaned into it, his arms going around Soren’s waist. He had been wanting to do this all day, had sat silently through a dozen moments where he had longed to reach out and touch.

Soren pulled back after a moment, and Daniel leaned forward, chasing his mouth. Soren chuckled, and pressed in for another brief kiss before taking a step back.

“Later,” he promised, “We’ve got to get a move on.”

“Right,” Daniel sighed, and Soren chuckled and patted his chest.

Later. We’ve got all weekend.”

Daniel nodded, and Soren began to lead them back to camp. He was right, of course, they really didn't want to be stuck on a trail after dark.

They had caved to Daniel’s tendency to sweat by staying near one of the campsites that had running water, and they both washed off the sweat and dirt of the day before making the final leg of their journey back to their tent.

They were starving and pleasantly worn out, and Daniel let Soren do the work of getting a fire going.

They heated soup then made S'mores, and Daniel felt relaxed and content as they spread out a thick quilt on the ground to look up at the star filled sky. It was just as lovely as Daniel knew it would be.

Soren wrestled a hoodie over his head before laying down; the temperature had dropped since the sun had set, and even Daniel was mildly chilly. He, however, planned to use Soren as his source of warmth.

Soren sighed as he flopped down on the blanket, and Daniel had a feeling Soren would be asleep before too long if he wasn’t careful.

They scooted closer, and Daniel looped his arm under the back of Soren’s neck, letting him use his bicep as a pillow. His arm would be numb within twenty minutes, but it would be worth it.

“Good day, huh?” Soren said, “Made even better by the fact that we didn’t have to deal with Michael’s whining this time.”

Daniel chortled, “I didn’t even think about that, but fuck yes. Great day.”

Soren chuckled and nudged Daniel with his elbow gently, “And you didn’t fall behind even once. I’m so proud.”

“Oh shut up, you’re not some super hiker,” Daniel rolled his eyes, “I can keep pace just fine.”

“As far as you know.”

“Alright Thor,” Daniel grinned and Soren laughed again.

It was quiet for a while, and the fire slowly died as the stars shone brightly overhead.

“God, it’s so beautiful,” Daniel murmured, and Soren hummed in agreement, “The things you miss out on when you live in the city.”

“The price you pay for being able to get a burger at 2am,” Soren said, and Daniel laughed, but agreed.

“California’s got nothing on New Jersey though. Back home we’ve got three diners in every town and almost all of them are open 24/7. Diner capital of the world and it’s the best.

“You’re such a nerd,” Soren chortled, and Daniel nudged him with his knee, “You and your diner addiction.”

“Listen, I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like night breakfast at a diner. I feel like that’s a reasonable standard for friends and acquaintances.”

Soren laughed and shook his head.

“You should come to New Jersey with me sometime,” Daniel offered, “You’ll see what I’m talking about.”

“You’re parents would certainly like that.”

Daniel’s parents loved Soren. They had met him the last time they had flown out to California for a visit, and his mom regularly inquired how he was doing when they chatted on the phone.

“God, yeah, they would. It’s infuriating how easily you get people to love you.”

“I’m a charming fellow, Daniel, I can’t help it.”

Daniel chortled and Soren grinned.

“You know... I think that’s the first time I’ve met the parents of someone I was sleeping with since high school.”

Daniel wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he just hummed noncommittally, and they were quiet for a few minutes.

“I’ve been thinking,” Soren suddenly said, and his voice was quiet, “About... all of us. The thing we do. It’s weird to think about but I can’t help but realize that I’ve had sex with the three of you more than anyone else on the planet.”

Daniel hadn’t really thought about it in those exact terms, and he was surprised that Soren had. He was also a little surprised that it was true for Soren, but the more he thought about it the more it made sense. Daniel had seen Soren date and enter relationships off and on since they met, but he didn’t think most of them lasted beyond a year.

“Two years is a long time,” Daniel finally said, and that was true. He honestly hadn’t expected their arrangement to last this long; he really thought that one of them would get into a relationship with someone outside their group, or else someone would just get bored and lose interest and they’d drift away from doing it.

“Fuck, it really is,” Soren sighed, and Daniel tilted his head to the side to look at his profile.

He seemed thoughtful, staring up at the sky with his eyebrows furrowed and biting his lip.

Daniel swallowed, nervousness creeping through his insides.

“Can I ask you something?” Soren murmured, still looking up at the sky, and Daniel hummed questioningly.

“Do you really want to try to score a date with that waitress?”

Daniel felt off kilter; that was not a question he was expecting, and it took his brain a moment to process the shift in topic.

“Oh... uh... I dunno, that ship has kind of sailed.”

“Yeah but if it hadn’t?”

Soren finally looked at him, and Daniel’s uneasiness grew. He wasn’t sure why Soren was asking, couldn’t figure out where this conversation was steering, and it was making him nervous.

“I guess?” Daniel finally ventured uncertainly, “I mean... I don’t even remember the last time I was on a date, I should probably make an effort to meet people. I’m not exactly oozing with charm, so it’s not like people are going to flock to me.”

Soren hummed thoughtfully, looking back up at the sky, and Daniel’s anxiety grew. He felt like he had done something wrong but he had no idea what. What answer had Soren been seeking?

“For the record,” Soren said after a minute, “You’re a lot more charming than you give yourself credit for.”

Daniel scoffed, looking back up at the sky as well, his mouth pulling down at the corners.

“I don’t believe that for a second, but thanks I guess.”

Soren sighed and shook his head again.

Silence. What had started out as a pleasant evening was now making Daniel tense and uneasy, and he shifted a little on the blanket and sighed as well.

Soren pulled his legs up, putting his feet flat on the ground and crossing his arms across his chest, and let out a puff of breath, “I haven’t been on a date in eight months.”

Daniel didn’t answer, but he tilted his head to the side again to look at him, and Soren determinately kept his eyes fixed on the stars above them, “I’ve been asked. But I haven’t dated anyone in eight months.”

Daniel wasn’t sure what to say to that. Sorry? Why?

“I just didn’t want to,” Soren went on to say, and Daniel could tell he was making an effort to keep his face blank, “People have asked; pretty people, fun people, people I would have said yes to in a hot minute two years ago. But then you’d ask me to see a movie with you or Katie would want to go to dinner or Michael would text me about some open mic night and I’d drop everything to spend time with you guys instead.”

Daniel’s heart panged and his throat felt tight, and he kept watching Soren’s profile in silence.

“The point is that you shouldn’t feel like you have to be on the prowl for a date or whatever. Because I’m certainly not, and I don’t think Katie and Michael are either.”

Daniel took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Thank you,” was all he could think to say, and Soren grunted in acknowledgement.

“I...” Daniel wasn’t sure where the rest of that sentence was going, and he swallowed around the hesitation in his throat, “I don’t actually want to be on the prowl for a date. But I felt like I should, like... like you guys would want me to, to keep me from...”

He stopped, swallowing again, and Soren turned his head to look at him, eyebrows furrowed questioningly.

“What?”

“I dunno...” Daniel sighed and let his eyes close, “From thinking that what we do was more than it is, I guess.”

Soren was quiet for a minute, and Daniel kept his eyes shut, trying to quell the nervousness churning in his guts.

After what felt like a small eternity, Soren sat up, and Daniel was convinced he was going to get up and disappear into the tent without another word.

Instead, he swung one leg over Daniel’s hips, and Daniel’s eyes flew open in surprise, looking up at him as Soren leaned down, bracing his elbows on either side of Daniel’s head.

“What we do...” Soren murmured, pressing his forehead against Daniel’s, “is important to me, alright? So don’t try to convince yourself otherwise.”

Daniel gave a little nod, tentatively putting his hands on Soren’s thighs, and Soren gave him a brief kiss.

“I’m tired. Want to turn in?” Soren sat up and put his hands on Daniel’s chest, and Daniel blinked several times before nodding mutely.

Soren thumped him on the chest and stood up, offering a hand down to pull Daniel to his feet.

“Hey,” Soren murmured when Daniel was standing, pulling him closer and looping his arms around Daniel’s shoulders. Daniel was quick to return the gesture, his arms going tightly around Soren’s waist, and Soren pressed a kiss to his neck.

“Come on. That air mattress is calling my name.”

Daniel begrudgingly let go, and Soren smiled at him and patted his cheek, then they folded up the blanket and turned in.

“Should we aim for a certain time to get up tomorrow?” Soren asked, plugging his phone into their portable charger, and Daniel shrugged noncommittally.

“Whenever we feel like it, then,” Soren shrugged back, settling in and tuning out the lamp.

The night was quiet, and Soren was warm as he pressed them chest to chest and slung an arm over Daniel’s waist.

“Wanna make out for a while?” he asked teasingly, Daniel gave a little laugh before pressing in for a kiss in answer.

Soren was good at that; at talking Daniel’s nerves down with the right words and the right affection, and Daniel thought again about what Soren had said.

”What we do is important to me.”

He hadn’t realized he needed to hear that until Soren said it. He hadn’t thought to say it back, but the more he thought about it the more important it seemed.

“It’s important to me too,” he murmured against Soren’s mouth, and Soren paused, “What we do. It’s important to me too.”

Soren kissed him again and rubbed his hand up and down Daniel’s back.

“I know,” he said, and he was smiling, Daniel could feel it against his lips, “Shut up and keep kissing me.”

Daniel couldn’t say no to that.