The worst about soulmate marks was that they were unpredictable.
Karl wished he could know with complete certainty when he would find his soulmate’s name, but he didn’t. It was left completely to the volition of whichever gods were real and in charge, of however much dumb luck Karl had been hanging onto for the past eighteen years.
The only thing that was set in stone was an eighteenth birthday. That was the start date; the minimum, the first time it stops being stupid to expect it. For Karl, the first day of many where he wakes up and looks at his hand with eyes searching for a name. One he knew, one he didn’t, anything. He just wanted answers.
His parents—hands marked with each other’s names in the other’s handwriting—always told Karl of something called the right time. That his mark would come whenever it was supposed to, that it was only a matter of time and he just had to be patient. But Karl had a track record of lacking that virtue, a childhood filled with finding Christmas presents before the day and pretending he’d never seen them come holiday morning.
Because Karl didn’t like surprises, or unknowns, or things that he couldn’t control. He wanted to be the one who knew things, who started things; who finished them, too. If it was up to him, he’d write his own soulmate mark down on the side of his hand. And he’d write his boyfriend’s name.
Senior year of high school, Karl got a boyfriend. A thing that wasn’t strange despite a world of soulmate marks, especially seeing how they were both still seventeen when they’d first gotten together. And when seventeen year olds were busy dreaming, they’d write each other’s names on their hands with shaky penmanship.
And there was a hope that the fact they were already dating would urge whichever gods were real and in charge to leave the mark on their skin sooner. A hope that on their eighteenth birthdays, they’d appear without question. That somehow, they could alter the course of fate and make it abide by their rules.
Karl had turned eighteen first. Sapnap wasn’t far behind him, and they were spending his last few hours without adulthood sitting with their feet dangling out the window of Karl’s fifth story bedroom. There was a city full of lights beneath their precarious feet, a moon that slowly shifted through the night sky as time got ever-nearer to the fabled midnight strike.
“You know this isn’t the end all be all,” Sapnap said calmly, one hand placed over Karl’s on top of the windowsill, “right?”
And Karl nodded, shifting his fingers slightly just to show that he was there. Sapnap pulled his gaze away from the city for a moment, looked at the side of Karl’s face with leveled fondness in his eyes.
“I know,” Karl whispered, turning his head to meet his boyfriend’s eyes. “But how long do you think it’ll take?”
Sapnap laughed quietly, the sound caught beneath his breath. And the hand on top of Karl’s tightened slightly, shifted to grip his fingers properly while keeping their hands sat in between them.
“The point is to be unpredictable,” he said with honesty, voice spilling out into the cool night air.
Karl looked at him with pleading eyes, and he watched Sapnap’s face turn pink. “I just want to be yours.”
His hand tightened even still, lifting Karl’s up from the windowsill to press gentle lips to the top of his knuckles. And Karl smiled, something between them feeling unspoken despite a knowledge that they would both say more.
Karl waited, waited until lips drew back and smiled, waited until locked hands fell back against his windowsill.
“And you are mine,” Sapnap reassured, “just as I’m yours.”
“I know that,” Karl’s smile faltered, “but I mean…” he frowned, looking down at the street below them. “I want your name on my wrist, I want it to be unquestionable.”
Sapnap rubbed circles into the back of his hand with a thumb. “I have faith.”
“I do too.”
He lifted his head up for just long enough to let Sapnap press a kiss against his lips, felt warmth through a cold night and turned his attention back toward the moon. It was full and high in the sky, a bright glow of silver amongst twilight when Karl dared to look. And the stars were sparse but there nonetheless, drowned out by city lights and scattered clouds.
They both watched the sky as if there was something more to it than what the eye could see. And that was true, there were a hundred thousand more things to the sky than a full moon and shadowed stars, more than just what Karl could understand when he was nothing more than gaping eyes.
Things like shooting stars, like flashes of white that fell across the sky with promising rarity. It glowed bright against the deep purple-black, fell with promises greater than anything Karl could ever know in quick, fleeting disappearance.
“Was that a shooting star?” Karl asked in hushed breath, spoken like it was supposed to be a secret.
And he was even sure that he already knew the answer, sure enough that wishes were already swirling in his head. Maybe he’d only asked because he wanted to hear Sapnap say it, though even he wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was.
Karl looked over to Sapnap’s smiling face, a moment longer of silence before green eyes met his. Karl tipped his head to the side, found another question he already knew the answer to hidden beneath all the unknowns running rampant in his head.
“You’re supposed to wish on those, right?”
“Yeah,” Sapnap smiled, and the look on his face said he already knew. “What’d you wish for?”
Karl inched closer, close enough to lean his head on Sapnap’s shoulder. “I don’t think I need to tell you.”
Silence befell them once more, leaving their ears with nothing to catch on besides steady breath and distant passing cars. Karl reveled in the rise and fall of Sapnap’s shoulders against him, in the way he could slip their hands together against his thigh and listen for midnight alarms.
He didn’t know if emerging marks would hurt, he didn’t know if he’d feel it before he saw. All he knew was that he wanted his, all he knew was there was someone he wanted it to be. And maybe that was a flawed outlook, maybe life was better without unrealistic expectations; but Karl couldn’t help himself.
He wanted it to all be under his control more than anything in the world, even if the only control he had was just pretending.
“Let’s give it a year,” Sapnap said suddenly, the honesty in his tone enough to pick Karl’s head up off his shoulder.
“For our marks,” Sapnap said, turning to look at Karl again. “On my nineteenth birthday, if there’s still nothing, then we…” his voice seemed to quiver, lips seemed to hesitate, “we go look.”
“Look for…” Karl couldn’t help but match his shaky reluctance, “for our soulmates?”
Sapnap nodded, averted eye contact where he stared at the road. “Yeah.”
“Okay,” Karl whispered. “A year, then.”
And a year came and went, perhaps a little bit faster than Karl would’ve liked it to. But it was spent in pure contentment, in gleefully wasting time with the person he cared about the most for another 365 days.
It had all been such a welcome blur that he’d even let himself forget. Forget about blank skin, forget about windowsill promises, forget about upcoming birthdays. With Sapnap, life was timeless, life was infinite—and days blended together with the welcome type of haze, the kind that Karl wouldn’t have traded for the world.
It was almost unbelievable, the way he’d let himself forget. It seemed so strangely out of character, so close to lost control that Karl even surprised himself. But he felt warm and happy inside, felt at home with wraps of belonging. Even when he’d sit back in that same windowsill with feet suspended above the road, he didn’t think about times past.
He lost count of happy memories, he lost count of giddy days. Got so lost in a life without attachment to a calendar that he nearly forgot his own birthday, got so caught up that he did forget Sapnap’s.
Sapnap’s nineteenth birthday.
A day filled with forgotten promise, a day that Karl may have dreaded if he hadn’t been so quick to forget about it. But he was pressing his back against the wall of his stupid windowsill again, feet out in front of him and nearly hitting Sapnap’s legs. But in their silence, there felt a need to not be touching, felt a need to put themselves as far away from each other as they could get within the tiny space.
“It’s been a year,” Sapnap whispered, gaze lost and unfocused where it caught on the floor.
And Karl could only nod, wondering briefly if the subtle pinpricks in the backs of his eyes would ever grow stronger. He couldn’t look at Sapnap straight, either, but he elected to stare out the window rather than at his bedroom floor in a search for something that felt familiar. Like the buildings that had always been there, or the crescent moon hung high in the sky.
“I’m sorry, Karl.”
He sounded genuine, so genuine, voice thick and raw with unbridled emotion that hurt so bad it made Karl want to break. He could feel it in the center of his rib cage where the weight pressed down, could feel it where bones threatened to crack in the right angles to pierce holes through his lungs.
Breathlessness was always a given when he was with Sapnap, though it had never hurt so bad before.
“It’s not your fault.”
His whispered voice came out more broken than he wanted it to, eyelids flicking quickly in an attempt to bat away the gathering tears. He’d cried in front of Sapnap before—maybe a hundred times—but there was something in him that didn’t want to cry anymore.
Like he’d exhausted all the tears for someone who was about to be his ex-boyfriend, like he was saving himself for a soulmate he didn’t yet know.
“It’s not your fault, either.”
They matched in pathetic shakiness, just as they had before. Only they still weren’t touching, still shoved apart with backs against the wall in hopeless avoidance. Karl wasn’t sure exactly what it was they were avoiding—maybe it was just the pain.
Karl ached, and his eyes had never stung so bad.
“I hate this,” Karl huffed, words sticky with forlorn notion. “I hate the world.”
Sapnap sighed in quivering breath. “I hate it, too.”
Karl tapped fingers against his arm, leg shaking with unsteady tempo. He knew that shaking would come involuntarily, disguising it with intentional movement as if that would help. But nervous habits may have only made him look worse, a shaking form in Sapnap’s peripheral where he lingered at the edge of the window.
Cold night air blew in from the outside. There were no stars in the sky that night, but Karl couldn’t find any clouds, either.
“I’ll miss you,” he whispered like it was a secret, “more than you could ever know.”
Green eyes looked up for no longer than a second. Karl barely caught them in his own, barely caught the spread of pupils where they bled out against dull viridian. He squeezed his arm a little tighter, painted nails etching into the sleeve of his shirt.
“I’ll miss you too,” Sapnap answered in matching hush. “But don’t…” he hesitated on a stuttered breath, “don’t come looking for me, okay?”
The momentary silence felt a thousand years old, a hundred years long. Like the worst kind of infinity—the kind that Karl wished to vanquish, if only he knew how. He let himself get lost in passing cars, going god knows where at midnight beneath a dark sky in March. Maybe he just wanted this to be over, maybe he never wanted it to end.
“I won’t,” he spoke in broken tones. “Promise.”
Sapnap cleared his throat, and even that sounded shattered by design. Maybe it was the asphyxiating holds of heartache that lodged themselves in both their throats, tough to breathe around in the worst way possible. Karl figured that it would always be hard to breathe without Sapnap there to laugh with him, and he hated that he’d have to learn how to exist again.
“I won’t look for you, either,” Sapnap said with aching promise. “But I’ll…” he hesitated, struggled with finding words, “I liked what we had. Loved it, even.” Every pause felt like a thousand years in a moment. “I won’t forget about you, okay?”
Karl tried to nod, but he felt it in the air that spilled against his eyes—the way none of it was working. He had half the mind to raise a hand and brush it out of his eyes, but he felt too weak to expose how bad his hands were shaking.
“I won’t forget about you either, Sap.” His voice never raised, never lost the quiet anguish of raw honesty. “I could never forget about you.”
His voice cracked more than it had all night, face falling against his own knee when he felt his eyes burn red. A wash of tears that had always been threatening at the edge spilled over, pushed far past a breaking point when they rushed down his cheeks in hot dolor.
Cries that got lodged in throats alongside heartache broke sharply, shoulders shook in tandem with every croak. But Karl’s entire body still managed to halt when Sapnap placed a hand on his knee, thumb swiping with an attempt at comfort—but really all it did was hurt.
It wasn’t Sapnap’s fault, it could never be his fault—it was only situational, only agony because they’d made it so when they were too young and blinded by shooting stars. They were still too young, still too blank on the patches of skin that mattered the most.
Silence was foreign when Karl’s voice broke on a sob, but he found that he may have preferred dead quiet over the torture of his own misery.
“It’ll be okay,” Sapnap whispered, though it felt like even he could see through his lies.
But Karl was apt to believe him, just as he’d always been willing to listen to this boy’s every word. So he tried to speak without stutter, tried to swallow heartache only to find that it burned the whole way down.
“I know it will.” He didn’t. “I’m just…” deep breaths shook with every frame, “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Sorry for trying to make you the answer,” he shook his head, “it’s not fair. It was never fair.”
The hand on his knee dared to tighten, blunt nails and fingertips digging into the denim on his legs. Karl’s movement halted entirely again, breath held in lungs where his heart raced just a little bit faster. And it was never the good kind, scorched throats laying in halt when the last drop of saliva ran down his tongue.
“But I wanted to be the answer,” Sapnap insisted. “I wanted it so bad, Karl, more than anything in the world.”
Karl shook his head against his arm, breath spilling out in anguished haste. Cool air stung the scars in his throat, flavored like the worst night in the world. The greatest regret was letting Sapnap have such a terrible memory on his own damn birthday.
“Couldn’t have wanted it any more than I did.”
Sapnap squeezed his knee in a pulse without tempo. And the words spoken against sleeved arms were far too rich with honesty, just a little too real in how easily they tore two hearts to shreds.
“I would’ve given anything.”
Karl swallowed again, and he found that it hurt just as bad. “I would’ve too.”
The hand on his knee drew back, and Karl could hear the creak of his old windowsill when Sapnap shifted. He forced himself to drag his head up from a safe place in his arm, to let tear-stained eyes meet the irises of green that were blown wide and glassy.
For now, Sapnap’s cheeks had been spared. For now, his face was dry and untouched. Not like Karl’s face; skin stretched taut with heartbreak where he could feel the resistance on every word.
They locked eyes for another infinite moment. One in stillness, one in silence, one in shared knowledge that they both wanted to forget. Not about each other, only about this time—only starless skies and a windowsill that had once been bright. Karl watched eyes blink away tears, read Sapnap’s wide-open face with a sense of later.
And he started to stand. Feet hit Karl’s bedroom floor in a way that cried with last time, in a way that Karl wished he’d never have to see. Sapnap turned his back to Karl, stared in the direction of his door with eyes turned down to the floor.
“I should…” Sapnap hesitated, hesitated like he’d never wanted to hear it in his own voice. “I should go.”
Before Karl could even think, he was reaching forward with a shaking hand. His fingers caught in the sleeves covering Sapnap’s arms, digging into fabric like it would force him still. And it did still him for a moment—Karl could feel the way he froze beneath the not-quite touch, beneath the warmth of Karl’s unsteady hand where it caught in dark cloth.
“No!” he cried out a little louder than he’d wanted to. “Please, stay, just…” his breath shook, cool breeze in an ache-burned throat, “just for one more minute. Please, please, please,” he begged, “just one more minute.”
“Karl,” Sapnap whispered, and Karl only stood up on broken knees behind him, “this will only make it worse.”
Karl knew he was right, knew that he should just let him leave before things got pulled too tight at the meeting point. But he was already on his feet, already caught with a hand around Sapnap’s arm with no intent to let go.
So he didn’t listen. He found himself in front of Sapnap, found himself in a silent mantra of stay when he dropped his face against his shoulder with arms wrapped around his body. With an air of hesitance, Sapnap returned the hug, tipping his own face against Karl’s shoulder with blossoms of regret.
“No,” Karl whispered, muffled by his lips in fabric. “I’m never letting you go,” he insisted, “I don’t…” I don’t want to lose you.
There were a thousand words he couldn’t get off his tongue, a thousand things he wanted to say but knew that he couldn’t. Instead, he sobbed into Sapnap’s waiting shoulder, drew arms tighter around a body he could never do anything but love until he held on so tight there was fear that ribs may break.
Sapnap rubbed circles into Karl’s back, and the typically comforting gesture only made his heartache worse.
“I need to go,” he said it right against Karl’s ear, hot breath tangible on his skin.
But he never tried to pull away, never tried to draw back. Karl wouldn’t have made any moves to let him even if he did, and if anything, he held him impossibly tighter.
“Not yet,” he pleaded. “Please, not yet.”
Hands caught in the fabric covering Karl’s back. Without the same ease as it had always been, they refused to let go. Karl didn’t want them to let go.
There was never anything to be sorry for. And as much as Karl sought his own words of reassurance, he couldn’t drag them past his lips. All he got out was another stuttered sob, broken knees breaking further when his weight fell against Sapnap’s chest.
They stumbled closer to the window just a single step. Neither of them let go.
“I hate this,” Karl dragged his face up to stop the muffle, “I hate it, I don’t want to admit that…” his eyes on Sapnap’s face faltered when he caught the agony, “that it’s.” He would never be able to stomach it. “It’s over, isn’t it?”
Sapnap pressed his face against Karl’s, lips too close to faces that burned hot in all the wrong ways. Karl craved something he barely still had, knew the aching pangs would only grow worse the moment he stepped out that door.
“This hurts me just as bad.”
Karl craned his neck back into the crook of Sapnap’s neck, breathing in his scent like he was going to lose it—because he was. Too soon, he was.
“I know it does,” he said, lost muffle returning. “I’m sorry.”
Sapnap pressed a kiss to Karl’s head like that wouldn’t make everything worse. “No more apologizing.”
“Okay,” Karl agreed with silent promise. “No more apologizing from you, either.”
“No more,” Sapnap agreed, one hand cradling Karl’s head against his body.
Karl savored the touch, reveled in it with sick finality when he thought of all the things he could lose. He thought of words he never got to say or didn’t say enough, thought of first times and last times and all the times in between.
He thought of everything. He thought of two years that he couldn’t stomach losing, and wondered if some people would call it wasted. He wouldn’t; he never would. He only lifted his head slowly, only just enough to see Sapnap’s face in his eyes again. To see the tears that had finally spilled, stroking his cheeks wet with the same doleful glow that Karl had on his own skin.
He wondered if it was worth saying, or if the pain would be too much.
“Can I say it one more time?” he asked quietly, voice shattered at the base.
Sapnap’s eyebrows furrowed even through despair. “Say what?”
And Karl’s jaw ached when he tried to open his mouth, when he tried to push words he’d already said a million times past his lips. They got stuck on the tip of his tongue, spread in thick finality where they nearly glued his mouth shut.
“That I love you,” he barely managed, voice quieter than it had been all night.
He had to try not to sob. Try harder when Sapnap’s face softened, when the ridges of pain etched into his cheeks spread despite a sad-looking smile.
“Okay,” he whispered, stroking long hair away from Karl’s eyes. “One more time.”
Anguish wedged its way back into Karl’s skull, nearly locked his jaw shut before he could even say it. But it was one more time, it was the last time, and then he could never say it to the right ears again for as long as soulmate marks dared to take.
“I love you,” he whispered, and it felt more like a promise than the word itself.
“I love you too.”
Somehow, the returned sentiment made it worse. And in a strange twist of fate—one unexpected after promises of minimal contact—Sapnap pressed his tear-stained lips against Karl’s for what had to be the last time. But Karl still tried to devour him, still tried to keep him locked there between the slickness of quivering lips despite himself.
He knew he had to go. And goodbye kisses had always felt like the weirdest thing, because how could someone know when it was the last time?
It was worse when Karl knew it was the last time. Worse when lips split apart and he was left with nothing but the rigid tingle of a mouth that used to be there, one that wasn’t anymore and one that he would never feel again.
“Don’t go,” he begged one last time, hands on shoulders pulling tight, “please.”
But Sapnap drew away from Karl despite a latching hold, wandered in front of him to approach the door and forced Karl to spin on his heels. They still locked eyes when they were no longer touching, stains of each other’s hands left spread across their skin.
“I have to.” It sounded horribly regretful.
“One more minute,” Karl whispered again, stepping forward to duck his head against Sapnap’s chest.
There was more hesitance in the returned touch, and that may have made it worse. Karl sobbed into his shirt, into his skin, sobbed with white-knuckled grip on every piece of fabric he could get his hands on.
“Please don’t become a stranger,” he pleaded through broken sobs, finding the caress of Sapnap’s hands barely comforting.
“Not a stranger,” Sapnap promised, one final kiss left on the top of Karl’s head. “Just a memory.”
And he stepped back one more time, approached the door with sick finality. He threw one last saddened smile in Karl’s direction, hand on the doorknob with an ex-boyfriend standing alone in the center of the room. Their breath all shook, their words long gone.
Karl hated the way Sapnap looked in his doorway.
“Goodbye, Karl,” he whispered hoarsely, words nearly caught in the center of his chest.
Karl nodded like he understood. And even if he did, he certainly didn’t want to. He tried to find his own words caught tight in his sternum, one last thing to say before there was a true disappearance. Before he had to admit to himself that he’d never see him again.
“I’ll…” see you soon, he’d wanted to say. He caught himself before the wishful thinking could spill. “Goodbye, Nick.” His eyes fell to the floor. “Happy…” the word tasted bitter on his scorched tongue, “happy birthday.”
Without another word, his bedroom door closed. And he looked up to find no one there, felt nothing but the cool breeze where it rushed in from a still-open window.
And he cried with his head down on the windowsill, cried where he’d fallen to his knees and let himself break. He cried because things were lost, he cried because the skin on his hand was still blank and nameless.
The one time he looked up from his soaking wet sleeves, a shooting star fell across the sky. For the second year in a row, Karl wished for a soulmate mark in his ex-boyfriend’s name.
He didn’t know where Sapnap went. The day after his nineteenth birthday, he deleted his contact from his phone. He erased every trace of him from everything he could, and the only things left behind were a cluttered mess of memories.
Karl did move. Just out of his parents house, just to a different part of the city. He’d never know if Sapnap had stayed, would never know if he’d gone as far away as he could get himself.
It was true that some things were better left unknown, it was true that Karl wanted to know.
And it was true that maybe he only stayed in that god awful city so Sapnap would know where to find him. Though they’d promised not to look for each other that night in Karl’s windowsill, he’d always liked to dream about a reality where they broke their own rules. Where somehow, some way, Sapnap had found him again—and he’d come knocking on his door because he missed him and everything would go back to the way it was.
Or maybe they’d been soulmates all along, and the god in charge was only being tricky with them. Whatever the opposite of divine timing was, whatever made it hell on earth because Karl’s hand was still blank and he hadn’t seen Sapnap’s in years.
So it was waiting. Three years of waiting. Watching days pass by and checking his hand every morning when he woke up, wondering if he’d already run into his soulmate and he just didn’t know it yet. Wondering when there’d be black ink on his hand—and he’d eventually drawn himself up to the conclusion that it would be never.
Because there was a chance to be alone. A chance to not have a soulmate, a chance to have an empty hand until death. And that wasn’t just when it came to dying young, when it came to having a life cut too short to ever see a soulmate mark. It came when there just wasn’t one—when there wasn’t a soulmate.
It was on his twenty-second birthday when Karl accepted that to be his truth. Staring down at his empty hand for the fourth birthday in a row, giddy teenage hope crushed under the weight of empty skin. It was a dreary morning then, one with clouds hung over the sun leaving his apartment dimly-lit and stagnant.
The air was damp, but not from morning dew. And the clouds didn’t look dark enough to spill, though Karl almost wished they would. He’d stared himself in the mirror for god knows how long that morning, got lost in his own still eyes and waited for anything to rise out of them. They looked like glass— fake —like they’d been replaced by something not quite his own.
His face looked foreign to a familiar gaze. And it had looked out of place for the past three years, but it only got worse as more time passed.
Maybe it was self-inflicted solitude. Maybe it was the fact he rarely left his house anymore, maybe it was the fact that the person he’d talked to the most since he’d broken up with Sapnap was the barista down the street. He’d forgotten all his friends from high school when they moved away to do bigger and better things, had clung onto his boyfriend like a lifeline until he had to let that go, too.
Then there was nothing. Nothing and no motivation to find a something, no eyes willing to look around a city he once knew for a person that he didn’t. Everyone was a stranger, and Karl had forgotten the way back to his parents’ apartment. (To the windowsill he hated more than himself).
When he muttered to himself in the mirror that morning, he realized he’d forgotten the sound of his own voice.
There was always something to say about watching a best friend become a stranger. More to say when Karl had cried into Sapnap’s chest and begged him not to grow lost from him, to please, please become anything but a stranger whose laugh he could recognize anywhere. He knew he could never forget Sapnap, Karl didn’t lie then—but he also knew that being away from someone for so long would surely wedge a gap between them.
But being a stranger to Sapnap was no longer his concern. For all Karl knew, he already had a soulmate—a name on his hand that Karl didn’t know, someone to find shooting stars while Karl laid alone in his dim apartment.
Karl had become a stranger to himself. And maybe, that hurt worse than anything else in the world.
Perhaps a soulmate mark was the cure to his most pitiful woes, perhaps a mark would make it worse. Karl had let himself get so hung up on a man he’d parted ways from almost three years ago, on a man that was supposed to be nothing more than a fling by this point that he would say he feared the result if the name on his hand was anyone else’s.
Maybe solitude would be better. A life with no soulmate was preferable to a life with a different one.
For he was still haunted by dull green eyes. He saw them when he closed his, saw the way they’d looked on nineteenth birthdays with feet dangling above the road. It wasn’t something he could just erase from his memory, not now and not ever—it was doomed to stay until the end of time, even if moving on ever did come and take Karl away.
The first time he checked the calendar after his own near-forgotten birthday was the day before Sapnap’s. And it hadn’t been intentional, had been that same not-divine timing from before; the one that sought to tear him apart until he was screaming at the moon in the dead of night.
He’d forgotten it was March altogether, he couldn’t believe the date on his wall.
There was a new kind of pain in the center of his chest, pricking until it spread beneath his skin with sick intent. Karl had a feeling that it would only get worse, had a feeling that once important days would always make him feel like agony—because they had; for the past years since the one that shattered his heart, they had.
And the timeframe for increased anguish extended throughout years, like how Karl couldn’t bear to miss the fact that the pain got more excruciating with every passing year. The way it had started as pinpricks when Sapnap turned twenty, the way it was a dull ache when it was twenty-one, the way he turned twenty-two tomorrow and Karl already felt like he was on fire.
It ignited at the center of his chest without thought, without worry for scorching the inside of ivory or pulsing rose. And he felt it there, felt it there all day—through pathetic excuses for distractions, through gazing out the window at a different part of the city than it had been three years ago.
Why was he still waiting?
Effort towards ignorance was minimal at best. Karl couldn’t un-feel burns that were already scored into his insides, just like he’d sometimes feel the marks he’d made when he swallowed searing words. Just like now, when it was getting worse, when flames were dancing in places he couldn’t see and leaving ash scattered about his rib cage.
He was still waiting.
And the days were always getting longer after the winter solstice, but Karl felt like it had dragged on for millenia. Like every time he looked out his window the sun hadn’t moved from behind the same cloud, like there was always daytime no matter how dark it felt.
He was throwing bouncy balls at the wall and hoping they’d hit him in the face, he was watching clouds roll across the sky and taking the sun with them. Why was it always so dark? But never dark enough to sleep, never dark enough to find anything but pulsing white on the backs of his eyelids.
When it came to screwed-up sleep schedules, Karl was awake long past the eventual sunset. The shades of orange and pink that had taken so long to arrive, the disappearance of the smallest hints of gold that had been licking at the street since what may as well have been the dawn of time. Maybe he wanted to go to sleep, maybe he wanted to sleep through the next 36 hours so he could wake up on the other side of a terrible anniversary, but even Karl knew that was wishful thinking at best.
He was sitting on a different windowsill three years after the worst one, staring up at a full moon where it hung in the sky and waiting for the clock to strike midnight. There was an alarm still on the phone he’d left on his bed, a phone he’d never gotten around to replacing. A phone that, despite lacking a certain someone’s number, still had a sound go off whenever it was his day.
Karl had said he’d let go of everything, but he could never quite bring himself to forget that one. Maybe it was because his birthday was just a little too important, maybe it was because he was a little too attached.
An alarm went off while feet hung over the busy street, the fire in his chest burning with hot tangerine. (Orange had always been his color).
“Happy birthday, Nick.”
And Karl barely recognized his own voice when it rasped.
He thought about going to bed, he thought about rushing cars at midnight and how far above the ground he was. But nothing ever lasted very long—unlike long days and burning chests—because Karl felt like his hand was getting torn from his wrist.
A groan ripped through his grit teeth, opposite fingers curling around thumbs where he felt his body tear at every seam. Heels knocked against the outer wall of his apartment building and every car seemed to stop, detailed outlines replaced by blurring amber beneath his feet.
Flames in his chest may have extinguished, leaving nothing but ashes in their wake. And Karl looked down at his aching hand.
It was his name. It was his name.
Karl might have screamed. Truth be told, he couldn’t remember—not when his ears were ringing, not when his hand still glowed red around the words in a handwriting he couldn’t do anything but recognize. And his body was already reaching, reaching out so far to find someone he knew but not anymore, to find the man he’d lost but never should have.
It had been him all along, it had been Sapnap all along. And it truly was whichever tricky god wanted to play with their feelings, because the stupid mark had only come in the midst of the worst kind of pain. Not when they made promises to part ways, not when they upheld those promises and walked in opposite directions.
Not when Sapnap had stepped out the only door he ever wanted to enter, not when Karl had watched him go.
And Karl had never gotten dressed so fast. It had been far too long since he last stood in the mirror with anything that wasn’t regret, when he was smoothing pastel sweaters down his front because he couldn’t stomach anything but presentable. When there were rings on his fingers because it made him feel younger and past-tense, when he finally realized that his hair was a little too long.
No time. No time. Karl was three years overdue on the sound of his voice and running outside his own apartment at half-past midnight on his ex-boyfriend’s birthday. On his soulmate’s birthday.
He didn’t even know where to go. He got outside the front door to his complex and nearly froze where he stood, settled for a slower pace when he realized the game was going to be ‘pick a direction and run.’ He chose right because it’s name was the same as the feeling, and he ran. Properly, actually ran—sprinting down the sidewalk with a speed he hadn’t found in himself in far too long.
It was at that moment that he fully realized it was raining. Only light, barely above a drizzle, just enough to soak into his shoulders and wet his hair just a touch. Just enough to make the pavement damp beneath his feet, not enough to create any puddles.
And he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be looking for outside of a familiar face. There were no directions, no clues, no hints except gut feeling and mending hope. Heavy breaths tore from his ash-soaked lungs and spilled into cool night air, the sky tasted damp and of petrichor when it filled Karl’s chest.
He had someplace to be. For once in his life, he had someplace to be—if only he knew where. If only he had a landmark or an image in his head, if only he could be sure that Sapnap was awake and running through the same hoops to find Karl.
Maybe he could find his way back to Sapnap’s old apartment (he still remembered the way) but the threads of a bond starting on the side of his hand told him that was wrong. So Karl listened, listened to every random direction he heard called in his head and let his feet take him there. Let the ground grow wetter beneath worn-out sneakers, let his shoulders knock into the rare pedestrian when he ran without care.
It wasn’t quite mindless, but it certainly was chaotic. Not directionless but frenzied, not disorganized but a flurry. Karl was fast enough and panicked enough to draw eyes, but none of them were the right shade of green.
He was in a part of town he couldn’t recognize. Maybe it was how fast all the buildings were moving alongside him, maybe it was blurry vision and the influx of falling raindrops; but Karl couldn’t find a single familiar landmark, not one recognizable sign. But the voice in his head was still calling out directions, and he had fallen in too deep to ignore it.
There weren’t even people anywhere anymore, there weren’t passing cars and there weren’t lit-up buildings. It was empty, it was solitude besides the rain, it was just Karl and the sidewalk beneath his feet. It was run-down streets in need of maintenance, it was their emptiness that said they’d never get it.
No time to worry about where he was, only time to worry about him. Wherever he was, because that was where Karl was meant to be—with him, his soulmate, for the rest of his life and death.
The mark on his hand felt burning again, but for once, fire was welcome on Karl’s rain-drenched skin.
Find him. Go find him, he’s out there—so close, almost there, find him.
Maybe it was fate, maybe the timing finally was divine. Because it was a blurry figure in the center of an abandoned street, it was a form that Karl could recognize anywhere spinning around to look.
Their eyes met from across the street, and for the first time without exhaustion, Karl halted his too-fast pace. He felt every breath where it tore his chest in two, felt every heartbeat where it thundered in his ears and hit against his rib cage.
Pauses were only short-lived, because he ran himself right into the center of the empty street. Right into the arms he’d gone three years without, the place he’d begged through tears for one more minute with.
He had a hundred thousand minutes now, and a downpour hard enough to disguise the tears that spilled into his shoulder. Hands gathering in soaked-through hoodies, choked-out sobs that didn’t burn nearly as bad as they used to.
When was the last time he’d truly cried? Karl had thought he’d run out of tears a long time ago.
“It’s you,” Sapnap whispered, and Karl had never been so happy to hear a voice he’d feared not knowing. “It was always you.”
Sapnap pulled his face free from Karl’s shoulder, grabbing his rain-stroked face and staring into his eyes like he could see the entire world in them. And Karl could see the world in Sapnap’s eyes, could see where it turned and where it was swallowed by stars.
“It was always me.”
And his voice didn’t sound unknown.
Their lips met like they had been waiting for it—and they had —and a kiss had never felt so world-shattering before. More than it had ever been three years ago, more than Karl had ever dreamed of soulmates to be.
It both rid his chest of ashes and lit a new, brighter fire in their place. It made a name on his hand ache, it made his heart race at the center of his chest until he couldn’t feel the wetness on his skin anymore. Lips moved without patience, without halt, with clumsy ease; but it had never felt so fucking right.
Karl let himself be dragged into Sapnap’s body, let the hands that had been swallowing his cascading face slip around his shoulders. There were tastes of rain in every corner of his mouth, tastes of sweet silk and recognizable glory. He was the only best thing in the world and there would never be another reason to let him go.
Because his name was on his skin. Because his name was on his skin.
Rain never stopped falling, never stopped hitting the empty road beneath their feet with enough fervor to gather. And Karl never halted in his attempts to devour the only man he could ever love, let himself be swallowed right back until there was nothing left in either of them to take. Until they had both taken each other’s likeness in a way that was special to branded partners, in a way that was long overdue like the words on their skin.
Sapnap was the first to pull away, the first to let aching breath spill out against Karl’s lips where they waited in part. Hands touched him everywhere they could reach, gripped onto soaking wet sweaters and slipped beneath fabric to run over bright pale skin.
“I waited,” Sapnap huffed, “and waited, and waited, and waited for your stupid name on my skin.” He shook his head, a laugh tearing from his lungs without forgiveness for time long wasted. “I missed your handwriting on me.”
Karl smiled, knocking their rain-covered foreheads together with fondness. And one of his hands found Sapnap’s out of sight, fingers lacing together just the way they used to but this time with more sparks. Metal was slick where it caught around his fingers, awkward on his hands with lost familiarity.
“Now it never has to leave,” he whispered, the raw burn in his voice finally welcome. “I’ll never forgive the world for making me wait three years for you.”
Sapnap shook his head where it was still pressed against Karl’s, twisting his neck strangely to leave a kiss on his rain-soaked cheek. It was warm, so warm, startling enough as a sensation to make Karl’s fingers draw tighter around his hand.
His breath came out in heart-racing shakiness, but it wasn’t laced with anguish. There were only nerves, severed and clad in stardust, waiting to be connected with the only person he was bonded to.
“I won’t either,” Sapnap murmured. “I still hate the world, and I hate this,” he spiraled, “and I love you.” His breath caught in his throat, head pulling back from Karl with sharp realization. “I get to say it again, I get to—” he stumbled over newfound excitement, “I love you, I love you, I fucking love you, Karl.”
And the kiss he left on his lips after the fact was enough to light up the sky. Karl could feel the glow of forgotten stars where they finally found the night again, found it at the exact same time lips found each other in a lock that could have lasted forever.
The only thing that left Karl in want of tearing away was the fact that he hadn’t said it back yet, that he hadn’t spilled his own guts out on the sidewalk and left them there for Sapnap to see.
But even still, Sapnap’s lips were intoxicating. He was like unspoken promises, promises for things like this to last forever—not just in memory, but in practice, too. Because soulmates were bound by the stars they were forged of, by the blood in created veins and the hands that gripped each other without forgiveness.
And they still hadn’t let each other go, not anywhere they were connected until lips slipped apart with the help of pouring rain.
“Not as much as I love you,” Karl rushed to speak like he was running out of time, “could never be as much as I love you, more than life itself and everything and fuck,” his breath shook more than his words, “you mean everything to me, Nick.”
There were lips again. Slick and without mercy, slick and without regret. It held every sentiment their words did and maybe a little bit more—Karl wasn’t surprised, he’d always found actions louder. (Like walking out the door meaning more than saying it was time to go). There was still the lingering taste that felt familiar on Karl’s tongue, something inherently Sapnap and unmatched by everything else in the world.
Then there was more. Beneath that, above that, there was more. Like the taste of the air around them where it had clung to his lips, like a flavor that came only in kisses that took three years to find. Lost time that Karl couldn’t be mad about, not yet at least—it was bittersweet by design, sweet because he had it back, bitter because he ever had to let it go.
Even more than that, it tasted like fate. Like it was meant to be, like it had always been meant to be, like time spent apart was only to make this moment that much better.
Maybe they would’ve done the impossible and grown sick of each other if they got their marks three years ago, maybe it would all be misery now instead of then. Karl didn’t know and, in all honesty, he didn’t want to. All he wanted was the grasping control he finally had, the jurisdiction to tug his lips away from Sapnap’s when rainwater wet them irreversibly and their breath mixed in the early morning air.
“You’re mine,” Sapanp said in disbelief. “Really, really mine.”
And Karl giggled, startled suddenly by the bright sound on his own lips. He’d forgotten the feeling of it rising in his throat, forgotten the way it felt to smile wide enough for cheeks to ache when laughter mixed with rose-tinted likeness.
The look on Sapnap’s face said he’d missed it, too.
“No asterisk,” Karl spoke with feigned calmness, “just yours.”
The hands that were still interlocked lifted, fingers threading out from between each other when Sapnap displayed the name on his hand. Sure enough, it said Karl Jacobs in permanent ebon letters, in handwriting that Karl knew all-too well despite neglecting its use as of late.
“Says so right here,” Sapnap whispered, eyes trained on the mark as well.
Karl lifted his own hand, placing it alongside Sapnap’s with a matching name. Right next to each other, it felt real. As if it hadn’t felt truthful this whole time, as if shared kisses in the pouring rain didn’t solidify every single emotion as they ripped through Karl’s chest. Seeing Sapnap’s messy penmanship laid against his skin was the only thing he could ask for.
“Yeah,” he said in hush, “look.” Their hands knocked together where they swayed in the wind. “They’re real this time.”
Real and permanent, real and binding; unlike messy scrawlings in black inked pens when they were teenagers, unlike wishful thinking on Karl’s bedroom floor. When they’d mourn the swirl of ink down the drain of a bathroom sink, when they’d wish for it all to become real.
They were real this time.
And Sapnap’s lips were realer, and they were on Karl’s again even if only for a moment. They had a million more moments, so many more seconds-long kisses—maybe some of them would be beneath the rain. Maybe some of them would feel as good as this, with slow drawbacks and lean-ins as if to chase things not yet gone.
Sapnap was tipping their foreheads together again, hair and skin slick with dripping water. Karl met his eyes awkwardly when they were put so close together, dull viridian looking glossy beneath the shine of a full moon.
“You kept your promise,” Sapnap whispered, everything about his quiet voice acting in secret.
And Karl furrowed his eyebrows, hands catching on Sapnap’s shoulders when he took a step closer. The toes of their shoes knocked against each other, soaked through without enough attention paid to discomfort in step.
Sapnap smiled, something about it aching. “To not come looking for me.”
Karl felt his breath catch in his throat, and only on that cold inhale did he find that burn marks had faded. He pressed a fleeting kiss to Sapnap’s lips on the exhale, breath mixing between themselves without the quiver of anxiety.
He looked for the right words. For once in his life, he found them easily.
“I was scared that it would hurt more to find you,” he said in quiet confession. “What if…” hesitance when eyes fell to drenching pavement, “what if you got your mark, and it wasn’t my name? I don’t think I could’ve taken it,” he whispered, “to see you with someone else. Daydreams were better than real life.”
There was nothing but breath for an elongated moment, but again, for the first time it felt comforting to be within each other’s proximity. Felt comfortable to listen to nothing but heavy breath, nothing but pouring rain and a slowing heartbeat that still pulsed through Karl’s ears.
Karl giggled again, quieter than before but still just as bright. It dragged one of his hands all the way to his slick lips, mouth finding the chill of clumsy metal around his fingers where it tasted like the rain.
“I never dreamed about you at night,” he said with dead honest divulgence. “It was like everything out of my control wanted me to forget, and I was the only thing left trying to remember.” His breaths were shuddering again, but they wavered not like fear and instead like the flame on the wick of a candle. “I told you I could never forget about you,” wax-melting earnest, “even if the world really wanted me to.”
Sapnap gave him another fleeting kiss, one that echoed with ashless fire. It was slick and careless, but in the good way that Karl had always craved. And Sapnap’s words were just as desirable as his lips were—it only made sense, when everything came from the same reckless mouth and his voice swirled with so much wax.
“I’m glad you didn’t forget.”
Sapnap’s confessions were just as hushed as Karl’s were.
Like they were competing for softness, and it all mixed taut in the cool air between them. Mixed until Sapnap’s eyes fell down to the street, found interest in toes that touched beneath torrential rain and the way he could feel Karl’s exhale against his skin.
“And I couldn’t keep my promise,” he whispered.
Karl’s eyebrows knitted once more. “What?”
“You have no idea how many times I went to just…” Sapnap huffed out a laugh, shaking his head pitifully, “to stand,” voices cracked when fear came back, “outside your old apartment.”
Karl’s hands drew tighter in soaking wet fabric. “You did that?” And his question didn’t require a direct answer.
“I’d stare up at the fifth floor and hope to see you there,” his admittance was brutally aflame, “looked for your feet where they dangled out the window, but you were never there. I didn’t dare to go upstairs and knock, I didn’t…” his brows lowered when cream white wax ran down the sides of his face, “I guess I feared the same thing, that there was already someone else.”
Karl gave him a breathy laugh, but it was more a wavering exhale than anything else. And he felt the melting candle where it scorched his skin, wondering if it did the same to Sapnap—if it could run in liquid adjacent, then surely it was hot enough to leave a mark.
“Never anyone else,” he said truthfully. “Not even just to forget.”
He laid a hand against Sapnap’s burning cheek, let a name-marked hand take his wrist when his palm was leaned into.
“And I…” There was nothing that should’ve made it hard to admit, was there? “I moved. To the other side of the city, hoped that you’d stuck around, too. I couldn’t let myself get too far away, just in case of…” Karl looked down at his name on Sapnap’s hand, “just in case.”
Sapnap’s eyes beamed with silent understanding, glowing flame beneath the shine of an argent moon. His hand dropped away from Karl’s wrist to card through his soaking wet hair, to push bangs farther from his eyes with a quiet want to see him clearer.
“I didn’t go far, either,” Sapnap whispered, hand sitting still at the back of Karl’s neck. “Only four streets down,” he laughed, “I wondered if you’d check closeby first.”
Karl laughed with him, quiet and without humor. It was only amusement, shared amusement; the best kind. It was kisses pressed to lips in the midst of bubbling sound, it was the spills of brightness between parted lips with a sweetness that coated tongues. It was without the bitter tang, without the notion of lost time or should-be regret.
It was just them. Alone, in the middle of an empty street. Solitary enough to be out of sight when their lips dragged apart in slick promise, when Karl’s smile still hadn’t died and his breath still shook a flame above ivory.
“I went wherever the…” Karl’s eyebrows drew closer, “wherever the mark told me, I guess.”
“Same,” Sapnap whispered. “Here,” he said with admirable assurance. “Right here.”
Karl giggled again, twirling and lurid enough to get caught in the air.
“I like here,” he let his eyes flick down to the road, “I like you.”
Sapnap’s lips told all they needed to about agreement, mashed against Karl’s without warning just as they had been all night (all day?) There may have been clicking teeth, there may have been rain-induced slickness, but no amount of anything was enough to snuff out the flame.
Karl still tasted sugar even when they stopped kissing, even when it was just heads dropped against wet shoulders again. When there were no longer any tears to dampen the fabric more, when it was hiding from something that only scared Karl in how much he wanted it.
“I’m never letting go of you now,” Sapnap said right against Karl’s ear, arms tightening around him as if in emphasis.
“Good,” Karl giggled through words, arms tightening in return. “I’m not letting go of you, either.”
It was just that for several rain-clad moments. Nothing but the wrap of a warm embrace, nothing but the tightness of familiar arms. Hands that lay marked over their backs, quiet except for pouring rain and whispering breath.
He could finally repeat the words of three years ago with a lightness that meant something. With blossoming mirth, with all the lilt it had been missing so long ago. When there wasn’t an end time, when there wasn’t finality, when there was just the present. Just now, just them, just here.
Flame-flicking words spilled without thought, but perhaps those were the best kind of questions.
“Would you still give anything?” Is what had wisped an orange flame. “For me?”
Sapnap lifted his head up from Karl’s shoulder, the motion drawing Karl to do the same. It was locked eyes again, contact from the other side of a curtain of rain, from the other side of falling promise.
“Everything I have and don’t have yet,” he said with a shaking head. “Truly, Karl—you’re the only thing that makes me happy.” A silent kiss on the lips emphasized every word. “I’m just mad I had to learn that the hard way.”
Karl laughed, but it was drawled in dolor agreement.
“The really, really hard way,” he acknowledged. “Breathing has never hurt so bad.”
Sapnap’s face morphed with an echo of pity. A thumb rolled across Karl’s rain-soaked cheek, and he worried that Sapnap may think he was crying.
“Is it any better now?”
“Of course,” he answered quickly, “it’s better now. Better than ever, because it’s with you.”
Arms wrapped him tight again, and embraces returned beneath the pouring rain. Karl could barely see the glowing moon when he looked up from where he belonged, could barely see the smattering of stars where they covered the darkened sky.
“You’ll never lose me again,” Sapnap promised. “I’m here.”
“I’m here, too,” Karl affirmed. “And…” he’d already said it, but it had been alone and to no one but the sky, “happy birthday, yeah?”
It dragged Sapnap’s face out from his dripping wet neck. A startled look spread across every feature on his face, from his quirked eyebrows to the blown-out pupils to the spread of his lips.
“You remembered?” he whispered, the shock in his voice stretching all the way through to burning hot wax.
“How was I ever supposed to forget?” Karl asked, and despite an unspoken heaviness to the words he said, they were all drawn taut with mirthful lilt. “Forgot my own birthday, too,” he laughed despite the sadness of it, “I forgot every day in the calendar except this one.”
Sapnap’s gaze found its way to the street. “I’m sorry.”
Karl shook his head, dotting a kiss to the corner of Sapnap’s mouth. “No more apologizing.”
“But I am,” he insisted, taking Karl’s hand from where it rested on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“And I don’t want you to be,” Karl insisted despite the honesty in wax coatings. “I forgive you,” he promised, “but there’s nothing to be sorry for.”
Sapnap shook his head, the smile on his face too big to be missed. “I love you.”
Karl giggled. “I love you too.”
“I’ll tell you every day a thousand times.”
“I will, too.”
They kissed, and they kissed, and they kissed until time must have stopped moving. It dragged, but not in the same way it did when Karl was all alone in his bedroom. It was slow in the favorable way, slow in a way that was mixed with a want for the moment to last forever.
Karl wanted this moment to last forever. The moment in which he got to taste himself off Sapnap’s lips, the moment he learned what flavor eternity was and found that it was exactly like the person he loved the most.
When they fell away from each other, they stood in silence for another extended moment, Swayed in the wind together, wrapped up in arms with feet so close to stepping on each other. It was only rain, only air, only the sounds of outdoor rainstorms in the eye of it all.
Karl was the one who broke the silence, but it wasn’t thick enough to feel wrong.
“I don’t know how to get home.”
Sapnap laughed quietly, rubbing circles into Karl’s upper back. “We’ll figure it out.”
“I left my phone in my apartment,” he continued.
“I did too,” Sapnap confessed. “We’ll be lost together, okay?”
“Okay,” Karl agreed quietly, nodding as he slipped his head back into the crook of Sapnap’s neck. “And I take it back,” he spoke against wet skin, “I know my way home.”
Sapnap looked down at him, hand pausing circular motion. “You do?”
“It’s right here,” Karl answered, “isn’t it?” He lifted his head, feeling a candle’s flame roar brighter between their lips. “Home, it’s wherever you are.”
Sapnap smiled warmly, cheeks turning pink beneath the darkest sky. And though he scoffed and shook his head, the joking tone of it was clearer than the full silver moon.
Karl giggled, pressing a kiss to Sapnap’s cheek. “You missed it.”
“I missed a lot of things,” Sapnap agreed, and they kissed without finality.
Somewhere in the sky above them, a shooting star fell toward the Earth. Karl didn’t need to wish on it this time, because he already had everything he’d ever wanted.