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What Stays and What Fades Away

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“We don't have to do this, you know. It's not too late. I can take this stuff back inside. Or we could go somewhere – somewhere else. Get coffee, maybe. And talk some more.”

Grace ran a shaky hand over her ponytail, lingering in front of the rented van after Adam had closed the trunk again. The vehicle was inappropriately cheery for such an occasion, painted in neon green and white with the rental company's whimsical little logo.

“I'm sorry,” Adam rasped for maybe the hundredth time, and it was still just as useless a gesture as it had been all week. He could see Grace controlling her breaths, in and out, just like he knew she would. To keep her cool. Just like she always would.

“All right,” she frowned down at the car key, attached to a matching neon green laminated tag. “All right. I know. I just – I had to try. Let me know if my sweater turns up. I'll be at Rachel's.”

“I'll text you if I see it.”

“All right,” she repeated, her chin lifting in the proud and striking way that had first caught Adam's eye years ago. “Let's not just stand here. It's already bad enough without being all awkward outside your apartment.”

Your apartment. Adam winced reflexively.

“I, um – Drive safe.”

“Yeah,” her eyes flicked upward in irritation, and then she was climbing up into the driver's seat.

Adam had to get out of the street. He walked around the van behind her and watched as she pulled out onto the street and paused at the four-way stop, then disappeared around the corner.

Adam wandered aimlessly, ending up on the steps out front. He crumpled there and nursed his guilt for a while, trying to repress the awful thing inside him that was feeling a terrible, mean rush all of a sudden. He missed Grace already, her very constant and grounding presence, one that he'd had with him for so long that he'd nearly forgotten how to be alone.

But at the same time, he felt a secret glow of adrenaline, of being pulled inside-out and taken apart and the mystery of what his life would be next. Could be next. Without Grace there, it seemed impossible to know what to expect. She had been the one to plan everything. And Adam had just … let her.

His phone buzzed from his pocket. He'd forgotten it was there.

“Hey,” he answered it with relief when he saw Gansey's name on the screen.

“Adam, hi. Are you all right? Is it done?”

“Yes,” Adam rubbed hard at his eyelids until he saw bright yellow starbursts. “On both counts.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Me too.”

“I'm picking up a bottle of Glenlivet right now. Be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Bless you. I'll get food.”

Adam was glad for the distraction of some kind of directed task, however simple it was. He made his way rather mechanically down the street and around the corner to the nearest takeout place. By the time he got back to the apartment, Gansey was already sitting there waiting, exactly where Adam had been earlier.

“You look terrible,” Gansey frowned up at him.

“Yeah, well. Come on in.”

Gansey picked up the tall, brown paper bag that had been propped up between his feet and followed Adam inside to an apartment that no longer made any sense. Adam's books sat in random stacks, now, because the chic turquoise shelves shaped like A-frames had been Grace's. Similarly, his television sat on the floor, and the other wall now featured an empty set of Adam's cheap and utilitarian cube-shaped wall shelves. Grace had displayed her photos there, and her collection of teapots.

Adam gestured toward his interior space apologetically, dutifully embarrassed about the state of things. But he knew Gansey wouldn't care. He'd notice, but he wouldn't say anything, of course.

It was a good ten minutes or so of working their way through cardboard containers of pad thai before either of them spoke much.

“Heard from Blue today?” Adam cleared his throat.

“Just a couple of texts. Apparently Mr. Gray has somehow convinced the occupants of 148 Fox Way to let him purchase their house at a very generous price.”

“Christ. I don't want to know how that particular negotiation went down.”

“Mmf,” Gansey crunched into a spring roll and chewed thoughtfully. “Maura's been staying over there more and more now. Blue reports some dissatisfaction in the ranks.”

“When's Blue coming back?” Adam had almost asked when she was coming home – out of habit – but technically Blue was home, in a way.

“Sunday.”

“Going straight to Baltimore, then?”

“Yes,” Gansey's face was rueful.

There was another stretch of silence, but this one felt different. Adam braced himself, as he could sense Gansey preparing to launch into something unpleasant, or worrisome.

“Adam. Do you want to talk about this?” Gansey set his fork down and waved a hand toward the half-empty living room.

“I dunno. I feel pretty talked out. I'm exhausted from talking about it, to be honest. Grace and I have done nothing but talk about it. For a week now, it's been talking and arguing and crying and apologizing and sleeping on it and I just – I tried. You know? I figured I owed her that much. Two years of her life. Is what she keeps saying. For me to just throw that away, I – she's not wrong. I know it's crazy,” Adam took a breath, and Gansey just listened, patient and intent as always. “But, like … the more she wants to analyze and be practical and supportive and work through it with me, I – the more I know deep down that I'm not invested enough for that to be anything other than a waste of her time and emotion. I love her, Gansey, I really do, but it's not … God.”

“Not enough?” Gansey eventually suggested.

“Yeah. I guess it's just not enough. I put it off and let it get worse all semester just because I didn't want to hurt her. But that backfired on me. The look in her eye, it's – it's terrible, but – but I think staying with her just because it's easier is actually a worse way of treating her. In the long run.”

“I think you're right,” Gansey nodded gravely. “It wouldn't be fair to her. Of course it doesn't seem like a good alternative to, you know-”

“Break her heart?” Adam folded his arms over his quickly twisting stomach.

“But this way she has a chance to find something real with someone who's a better match for her. Down the road.”

“Yeah. Exactly. I should've been more honest with myself and with her right from the start. I'm just - I'm not that person for her. She thinks I still could be, and she wants to prove it with irrefutable data, but I can't figure out a way to counter her lists with this, like … vague yet unshakable gut feeling that it's not right. She doesn't appreciate gut feelings.”

“Of course she doesn't,” Gansey smiled sadly. “Adam, she's going to be okay. It's not going to be easy, or quick, but you did the right thing. What had to be done. And she'll see it, too, one day.”

“Mm,” Adam bit his lip, his insides filling with ice water. Gansey couldn't possibly know that his words were echoing someone else's, from Adam's forbidden vault of trauma, and the sudden, accidental trigger of memory pressed onto his chest like an anchor.

It's the right thing, Adam, the only fucking thing. You'll see that one day. You'll remember this and thank me.

“Are you going to be all right?” Gansey laid a worried hand on Adam's arm, clearly interpreting Adam's shiver as Grace-related. There was no reason not to, after all.

“I – yeah,” Adam tried to physically shake off the chill, the paralysis in his chest, the numbness in his mouth. “Yeah, I am. I actually … the actual relief I feel now is what's making me kind of sick from guilt. The weirdly freeing knowledge that this is over with. I didn't expect that to come so soon.”

“May I ask you a question?” Gansey leaned back, removing his glasses and wiping at them compulsively with the edge of his polo shirt. “Don't answer it, if you don't want to.”

“Ask whatever you want.”

“Did you decide to break up with Grace when you were ring shopping with me?”

Adam stalled briefly by drinking some more of his water. He thought hard and quickly but he didn't see why the truth would hurt.

“Yes,” he finally managed. “How'd you know?”

“I didn't. I was guessing. The timing was … you know. Didn't feel like a coincidence. Plus your questions weren't as conversational as you maybe hoped they'd be. How did I really know I was ready to ask her to marry me. Remember? How was I so sure at the ripe old age of 23. Had I always known.”

“Mm,” Adam shrugged. “Pretty transparent.”

“Was just like the time you-”

Adam glanced over at Gansey curiously, wondering why he'd stopped so suddenly. Adam could see his best friend clamming up, reddening slightly, his lips pressed together as if he were desperate to keep the rest of that sentence from popping out.

The time he'd what? Adam wanted to ask, because Gansey was acting so strangely that it seemed to deserve attention. But then a creeping thought nudged at the back of his mind. Just like the time you asked me how I knew I loved her. After Ronan kissed you.

Maybe Adam was reaching. He'd been experiencing a lot of unwelcome and yet vivid Ronan Lynch flashbacks this week, for no discernible reason except perhaps that his brain was already in self-destruct mode, not quite satisfied with blowing up his currently peaceful and content domestic life, looking to pull in some past ex-boyfriend drama just for bonus points.

But Adam knew that expression. Gansey tended to tiptoe around the Ronan thing quite clumsily despite what must have been his most noble efforts, even now, years later. Adam knew when Gansey had some crazy Ronan-related adventure to share, ready to burst with the dramatic retelling, and then realized almost too late that Adam was the one person he shouldn't regale with it.

“Okay, you know what,” Adam rolled his shoulders against the consistent aches of tension. “I don't really want to talk about Grace anymore. Can you kind of … distract me with something else? Something good? When are you going to propose? Have you planned it all out yet?”

“You'll think it's silly.”

“No, I won't. I promise.”

“There's this spot in Henrietta. A place we drove to, once. Back when she …”

“When she couldn't kiss you without killing you?”

“Yes. I was thinking of taking her there again. Partly for the view, partly because she'll be expecting me to go completely overboard and project her name onto the side of the Washington Monument or something. You know?”

“Yeah,” Adam laughed, surprising himself. “I know. She'd hate that.”

“Well. I thought she'd appreciate something simpler,” Gansey looked a bit dreamy-eyed, and Adam couldn't help smiling about it.

“So, but … you'll have to take her back to Henrietta again. When are you going to pull that off? Christmas break?”

“Mm-hmm. I know it'll be cold out there, but I don't want to wait until it warms up enough.”

“I doubt it'll be freezing.” Adam's years in Cambridge had made him realize how mild the Virginia winters had truly been, comparatively speaking.

“I thought of it too late to make it work for Thanksgiving,” Gansey cracked open a fortune cookie, squinting at the curled piece of paper and then making a face as if he were disappointed by the lack of an actual personalized fortune. “Spent all week in Richmond anyway. I thought about changing my plane ticket and coming back with her Tuesday. But I just have too much work that I've completely neglected.”

“I hear you,” Adam nodded toward his desk on the far side of the room, piled high with readings.

“Did you really spend all week here with Grace? … Sorry, I know you don't want to-”

“Yeah, she had Thanksgiving with her dad in Arlington, and I passed out at like eight-thirty because I drank all her goddamned pumpkin cider.”

“Sounds like you had a lovely holiday break,” Gansey made a sympathetic face.

“Whatever, it's over now. I'm excited for you and Blue. I really am. You have to text me a picture or something when she says yes.”

“You sure sound confident about it.”

“Gansey,” Adam gaped at him, laughing again. “For Christ's sake. You had, like … the world's cruelest proof that you're her true love. Would've been nice to find that out in, like … literally any other way imaginable, but still. Come on. She's obviously going to marry you. She's been in love with you since high school.”

“I wanted to graduate first,” Gansey looked down at his empty hands, having polished off his fortune cookie. “I don't know why. It just felt like the right thing to do. But then we took that trip, and I changed my major … I am an eternal sophomore at this venerated institution.”

“So don't make her wait any longer,” Adam patted Gansey's forearm encouragingly. “She's gonna graduate this year, anyway, that has to count for something. You guys could have a pretty summer wedding.”

“Don't jinx it. I haven't asked her yet.”

“Oh, for the love of God,” Adam shook his head. “Look, will you crack that bottle open already? We need to drink to your impending nuptials.”

“Don't jinx it, I said!”

“Okay, okay. I'll get us some glasses.”

 


 

3:43 a.m., Adam's laptop said.

He'd made a decision to go to sleep at two, then at two-thirty, then three. Now he was looking at maybe three hours of sleep at best, assuming he didn't just lie there and stare at the walls again.

It wasn't being alone in the old, barely full-sized bed that really bothered him. It was of course different, and unsettling, maybe. But it wasn't entirely unpleasant, having it back. It reminded him of when he'd first moved out of the dorms in Cambridge and had felt so independent. That had been before Grace had bought them a queen-sized metal frame from IKEA.

The real problem wasn't that he was missing Grace. It was the fact that he was being a giant pathetic drunken cliché and creeping through his his ex-boyfriend's dozens of captionless photos on Instagram. It was depressing and infuriating and he couldn't stop.

The half-empty bottle of scotch probably wasn't helping. Adam got up and brought the bottle into the kitchen, swapping it out for a glass of water.

Then he curled back up with his laptop and scrolled through more pictures. He'd have to stop soon. He'd reach the end of the photos and then he'd have nothing else to be so compulsively stalking at four in the damn morning.

It wasn't like he hadn't seen these pictures before. He'd occasionally nursed this clandestine addiction a few other times, late at night, usually half drunk, when Grace was out of town, at one of her international policy forums. It would start innocently enough – Adam would be scrolling through newsfeeds and photos to catch up on what was going on with his friends. Then he'd inevitably see Ronan tagged in something. A photo from Blue, maybe. And he'd cringe, then hover over the name, then click it, glancing around guiltily as if someone would see what he was up to.

The Instagram thing had been a straight-up deliberately self-destructive idea on his part, though. He hadn't known about it for very long, despite having his own mostly-neglected account where he might've seen Ronan's if he'd poked around his other friends' photos enough.

The thing was: Ronan was not social on social media. He didn't interact with anyone, as far as Adam could tell. Of course he didn't. The communication was strictly one-way. Ronan posted a picture maybe every other week, and left no caption or context.

It was so perfectly Ronan Lynch to provide no explanation. Ronan simply did what he wanted, and everyone else could take it or leave it. He did not give insight. Or apologies.

The particularly obnoxious thing was that Ronan had a startlingly good eye for photography. Adam knew he only had that phone because Declan had bought it at some point and used Opal as the reason. But Ronan did clearly love Opal, and the Barns, and everything remotely related to either. So his Instagram was filled with idyllic and essentially anonymous shots of meadows, tree swings, tall grass, sunsets over barbed wire fences, water basins crowned with delicate ice crystals in December. There were no actual people featured.

One picture, though. There was one that Ronan actually appeared in. And Adam could click around all he wanted; he knew he was going back to that one at some point to stare at it again. It was from this past summer, and Ronan was only in the corner of it, looking up in a smirky and indulgent way at Opal, who was taking a selfie and laughing with delight. Perhaps Ronan had posted it accidentally and never gone back to remove this one piece of evidence of his own existence.

Adam had cried over this picture, once. He wasn't proud of it. In his own defense, he'd been fairly trashed on vodka sodas at the time. But it had continued to haunt him miserably, and at one point he'd even saved it onto his own laptop, then deleted it again a week later when he'd realized how much it had taken over his mind and his heart.

He needed to remember that part, now - how toxic it had been the last time around.

He closed out of Ronan's account entirely, resisting another visit to The Picture, and went back to Facebook, where he'd of course already checked for any updates as well. Ronan never used Facebook. They were technically “friends” there – they were always playing along with the niceties for Gansey's sake, and Blue's – but it generally didn't matter since Ronan's online presence was of course minimal. His profile page was just a tower of pictures and jokes that Blue or Gansey or Matthew had tagged him in. Nothing substantive; nothing to let Adam in on any aspect of post-Aglionby life.

This brought Adam back to the original reason he'd been on Facebook. He'd toyed with the idea of marking his profile as “single” again, but he hadn't wanted to hurt Grace's feelings. Then he'd realized, after checking her page, that she'd already unfriended him.

He'd gone through and performed some awkward surgery on his profile, taking down some of the more cutesy photos of the two of them, moving others into an album with assorted Harvard friends. He changed his profile picture back to an older one that Gansey had taken of him in the law library.

Now there was nothing left but to change his relationship status. Hopefully no one would see it at this time of night. He thought he had his profile set to be as private as possible, but he knew some of these things leaked out into feeds and he wasn't sure if this was one of them.

It was anticlimactic, really. He looked on his page, now showing him as “single,” and felt vaguely sick.

It was almost four. He seriously needed to at least lie down and close his eyes. Make the attempt.

After he'd brushed his teeth, searched for some preemptive Tylenol, and pulled off his shirt, he padded back to bed and glanced one more time at his laptop. Then he froze and stared.

Ronan had just posted a picture. On fucking Facebook, not Instagram.

There was of course no explanation, no context, but it looked suspiciously familiar. Adam looked at the timestamp – two minutes ago. Then he sucked in a breath when he clicked on the thumbnail to see the enlarged version.

It was the front porch of the Lynch house. At the Barns. Taken from just behind the white pillar outside the door, looking out into the darkness. The moon was almost full, hanging gorgeously low and fat over the treeline. It was a pretty and innocent enough shot. But Adam's throat was closing up looking at that fucking porch.

It was exactly where they'd been standing when Adam had leaned over and kissed him. Ronan's birthday.

Adam's stomach clenched, and he felt goosebumps creeping up his arms.

Ronan never posted anything on Facebook. Never. But now? That picture? Adam wanted to scream at him. What the hell did he think he was doing? It felt like something secret and precious and … and sacred had been yanked out of him and exposed and violated.

He thought about posting a sarcastic comment, or sending Ronan an angry message about it. Then he considered finally just unfriending him, or blocking him altogether.

It also occurred to him that maybe he was reading too much into it, and maybe Ronan had just been taking a picture of the stupid moon. Maybe that spot on his porch meant jack shit to Ronan now. Adam was the one sitting there obsessing about one specific moment that had happened five goddamned years ago.

Ronan would probably laugh at him for it. Get over yourself, Parrish.

In the end, he just snapped his laptop shut and curled up onto his side, holding his head, trying to fight the unwelcome memories. He was only fooling himself by lying down in the dark. No fucking way was he going to be able to sleep that night. 

Chapter Text

“You closing up tonight?”

Anne-Marie's voice came from over Adam's shoulder, at the computer in the corner. It was an ancient desktop that still ran on something like Windows 98, and Adam could always hear it spinning up and churning out noise for no reason.

“Yeah,” Adam wiped his hands on his coveralls. “Still got this oil change to get through, so.”

“They're not coming back for that until three tomorrow.”

Adam shrugged and glanced inside at the waiting room area, through a dirty pane of floor-to-ceiling glass. It was dim and empty now, closed to new customers until eight the next morning.

“Okay, well,” Anne-Marie typed something decisively, punctuating the end with a flourish. “I'm done here. I'll turn the coffee pot off on my way out. You're locked in.”

“Thanks. Have a good night.”

“You too. Don't stay too late.”

Everyone in Adam's life was always worrying about how he worked too many hours, but to him this job was basically a vacation. His first semester of law school had been soul-crushingly hard, but now, with three weeks left of winter break, he could spend long afternoons and nights in the garage with his brain nice and disengaged. And they paid him as much overtime as he wanted.

He wasn't exaggerating when he told Gansey that he loved this job. It was frustrating sometimes when he encountered problems he couldn't fix himself, or customers who demanded he fix something that wasn't wrong in the first place, or whenever he ran into the morning shift guy who looked sideways at Adam like he somehow knew and disapproved of the thought that Adam had just been out at a gay bar.

But mostly it was perfect. Low-key and quiet, and a bottomless pool for Adam to dive in and distract himself from everything: his ex-girlfriend sending lengthy, concerned emails; his touch-and-go monthly budget; the busted hot water heater at his apartment; the class his advisor insisted he needed for spring semester but was currently full.

He was pretty sure he'd personally doubled the efficiency rate of Capitol Repairs that month.

When he'd done all the work available to him that evening, he changed in the locker room, poured the rest of the coffee into a large foam cup, and turned out the lights.

He had a subway ride after that, so the texts from Gansey didn't come through right away. His pocket started buzzing insistently when he was two blocks from the apartment.

Adam glanced at his phone and saw that he'd received a photo, looking suspiciously like a closeup of delicate fingers and something shiny atop them. He bit his lip against a little smile and held off a little longer, saving this little burst of happiness as long as he could.

He shrugged out of his winter coat and sank down onto the futon, then called up the string of texts again.

SHE SAID YES!!!!!!!

Have you ever known anyone as lucky as me? You haven't!

ADAM!!! I can't believe she said yes. She didn't even let me finish asking!

Adam laughed, a thrilled little burst, and looked at the picture Gansey had sent. They'd visited at least five jewelry stores back in October, and still Gansey had eventually insisted on having something custom-made, because he'd had such a specific image in his head. And it was perfect for Blue. A rich, deep amethyst set into a ring with little silver curls that stretched up and down toward her knuckles.

The photo disappeared in Adam's hand, and he blinked in confusion until he saw that Blue's name had replaced it, and his phone was now ringing. He grinned at the selfie she'd set as her incoming call photo – she was making a terrible scrunched-up face – and answered it.

“Congratulations,” he greeted her, leaning back on his couch and crossing his aching feet as he stretched.

“Adam. Did you know about this? You did, didn't you?” Blue's voice was breathless and giddy.

“Sort of. Yes.”

“Did he send you the picture? Gansey, did you text him? Wait, you – have you seen the ring already? Tell me the truth.”

“I went with him to pick it up,” Adam laughed at the sound she made over the phone. Surprised and outraged and gleeful all at once.

“It's so … Oh my God.”

“I know. Someday I'll tell you the story of Gansey being unsatisfied with literally every other ring in the District of Columbia and surrounding metropolitan areas and deciding to have one created. Synthetic, naturally. Where are y'all, anyway? Get off the phone and kiss your fiancé.”

“Holy shit,” Blue's voice squeaked quietly. “That word.”

“You'd better get used to it.”

“We're, um … God. Okay, listen. We're almost at Fox Way and I'm afraid he's gonna need an Adam Parrish pep talk before he breaks the news to the crew.”

“Put him on the phone,” Adam suggested, and there was a rustling and some muffled, excited conversation, and then Adam heard Gansey's shaky voice.

“Adam?"

“Hey. You did it, man. I'm so happy for you.”

“Do you think I should have talked to Maura first? Asked for her … you know. Blessing?”

“Gansey. Jesus. Okay, first of all, it's a little late to be wondering that now. And secondly, do not so much as dream of telling Blue fucking Sargent that you considered asked someone for her hand in marriage, okay? Look at her right now and tell me she's not glaring at you already.”

“She's … not a fan, no. Clearly. Jane, love, it was a bad choice of words, I didn't mean-"

Adam heard them sorting it out, Gansey fawning and Blue grumbling vaguely in the background.

“Adam. Sorry. Are you still there?”

“I'm here.”

“I didn't think this through past the whole will-you-marry-me. I forgot I'd be driving back to Fox Way and … um.”

“Hey, listen, you're not teenagers anymore. She's not in high school. You're adults. This is not going to be a total shock at Fox Way. And if they give you any shit, you know what? You don't have to take it. She is just visiting, they're not gonna ground her. She adores you, okay? That's all that matters. She is your person and she always will be. So go in there and be happy and don't worry about what anyone else thinks.”

“I … Thanks,” Gansey's voice was soft, emotional, and Adam could almost see him gazing over at Blue, who was probably glowing and radiant. “Thank you. I needed that.”

“Text me later, okay? Or tomorrow? Let me know how it went.”

“Okay.”

“Good. Congratulations, Gans. I'm really happy for you.”

“Thank you. I have to go, but I'll – Oh, wait. This is not my phone.”

“Bye,” Adam laughed and hung up. He sat for a while, gazing at the picture, imagining his friends' joy and breathlessness and letting it push away all of the stress and angst he'd been carrying lately.

A couple of hours later, after his shower and late dinner and ten pages of one of his advisor's recommended dense-as-hell legal briefs, he collapsed onto the bed and began his nightly routine of crawling various websites on his laptop.

He didn't get very far before he saw that the big engagement news had already made it to Facebook. This was a little surprising; he'd expected his friends to be enjoying a romantic night to themselves, not updating social media. But upon closer inspection he realized it wasn't Blue posting a picture, but Ronan.

It was an artistically framed shot of Gansey sitting in a lawn chair, holding Blue in his lap. Blue's face was hidden against Gansey's shoulder, but he had her hand in his, showing off the ring to the camera. And behind them, the Barns in all their evening, firefly-filled glory. The glow of a bonfire lit up the bottom foreground.

Several people had already commented with surprise and excitement and encouragement. Adam recognized some of the names – some of Blue's art and design school friends, her cute roommate, some Aglionby names Adam hadn't heard in a while.

He closed his eyes, his heart aching wistfully. Blue hadn't said anything to Adam on the phone, and of course Gansey hadn't either, of course. But they had clearly gone straight to Ronan's afterward, to share and celebrate.

It hurt, selfishly. He wished he could transport himself to the Barns and sit in a folding chair with them around the fire. Like one of the many nights they'd spent that way during senior year of high school, relaxed and lingering in the relative peace of that time in their lives.

God, he couldn't let his brain go there. That was dangerous territory. Watching the sun come up from the roof of one of the barns, cradled in Ronan's arms, leaning back against his chest – Adam had been flushed and dizzy from realizing what being in love actually felt like. How it could feel to hear those words. To say them out loud.

He wondered if first love was like that for everyone, or if it was more potent with Adam because nobody'd ever really said it to him before. Because Adam hadn't even believed in love before that.

Or perhaps it was just a special kind of lifelong lingering curse to have your first love be Ronan Lynch.

He couldn't exactly ask his best friends. Their first love was still happening, and it wasn't going to dissolve with a traumatic crash of fights and stubbornness and slammed doors and unanswered phone calls.

Adam rubbed his eyes and looked at the photo again, carefully setting aside his own drama and reminding himself what real happiness looked like. Maybe he'd find that somewhere, with someone new. Someone to look at him like that, to make his breath catch from a hint of a smile. He felt ready for it in a way he might not have before. Maybe it was the inspiration of Gansey and Blue. That it really did exist for someone.

He clicked the little heart at the bottom of Ronan's photo, and left a comment about how sweet it was to see their best friends so disgustingly happy. It felt like a good mix of sentimental and teasing so as not to set Ronan off. He knew by now how to play the polite and friendly game with Ronan for everyone else's sake.

Then he gave up on the rest of the internet and surrendered to exhausted sleep.

In the morning, when his alarm went off, he saw that he'd received another photo texted to his phone. But this time from Ronan. It had come through a little after midnight.

Adam couldn't remember the last time Ronan had texted him about anything at all. They did not text or call each other. Ever. Maybe they would both weigh in on a group conversation – where was everyone spending Christmas this year, or whatever – but never to each other. Not directly.

This particular text message contained another photo of Blue and Gansey at the Barns, but this time Gansey had his lips pressed against Blue's forehead, and Blue had tears on her cheek. It looked personal and intimate, like Ronan had snuck the photo without them knowing. Adam could see why Ronan had chosen the other one to actually post. But this one was wrenchingly sweet and real. 

sargent says she'll kill me if anyone ever sees this

Adam ran a hand through his hair and didn't know whether to laugh or roll his eyes or completely ignore it altogether.

It was a thrill to see how happy Blue and Gansey were. But Adam was just starting to realize how much of a fucking emotional minefield he was approaching. They'd plan a wedding, and there would be social events and a rehearsal and a bachelor party and all of that shit. And it was going to involve both Adam and Ronan. Obviously. Why had this not occurred to him before? He'd just been so glad that Gansey had decided to go through with it already.

Maybe they'd elope somewhere. Gansey could take her to a Druid stone circle in Ireland or something.

Adam knew his phone would show that he'd seen the text message. He typed a quick, joking response of the kind he'd make around their friends – obviously let's put that on the wedding invitations, then – and hauled himself out of bed. He had work to do.

He hoped there'd be a line around the corner for oil changes that day. He was going to need a very serious distraction if Ronan was going to start texting him again.

Chapter Text

It was 37 degrees out, but Adam had the car windows cracked. Traffic around D.C. had slowed him down a good 45 minutes. Now that he was on smaller roads, though, he could air out some of the stale cigarette stink that constantly haunted the Taurus.

A rental car over the holiday would've cost him a couple of hundred dollars that he couldn't spare from his checking account at the moment. So he was going to be grateful for this crappy loaner from work, even though Gansey would suspect from the smell that the stress of law school and his most recent breakup had driven Adam to take up smoking.

He still couldn't believe he was actually driving in this direction again. It felt suffocating already. St. Agnes, and Boyd's, Nino's, all sitting there expectantly, like of course Adam Parrish was back. Nothing had changed and it was all just waiting for him to slip back out of his new life and tailspin back into the trailer park.

Back on the highway, the Singer's Falls exit sign had given him a stomach cramp. He'd turned the radio on and flipped through three Christian rock stations, six country stations, and then finally landed on the one he remembered from Ronan's car, a local, steady stream of electronica that he couldn't believe still existed.

He'd deny all claims of it later, but for the moment he allowed himself this guilty indulgence. Nobody else was around to give him a knowing side-eye about his choice of music.

Nobody else needed to know how he'd agonized all fucking night over how to respond to a stupid and meaningless three-word text from his ex-boyfriend:

You coming tomorrow?

The driveway at Fox Way was already full, so he parked off the street, halfway in the front lawn, and hooked his backpack over his shoulder. Time to pretend he was a grown-up who actually had his shit together.

“Adam!”

The screen door banged shut, and Adam blinked up to see Blue jogging down the pathway to him, flinging her arms around his neck. He held on as best he could around his backpack and hugged her with some relief.

“Hey. Sorry it took me this long. Traffic was terrible.”

“Always is,” she ruffled his hair and stepped back to look at him. “I'm so glad you made it. This would never have felt right without you. I know you're not a big Christmas person but, you know … everyone was going to be here anyway and it seemed like a good time to do this.”

“Of course it is. Thanks for inviting me,” he sought out her left hand, lifting her fingers so he could check out the ring.

“I'm still not used to wearing it. I'm terrified to bang it against a window or something.”

“Platinum is pretty resilient, Jane.”

“God. Don't you fucking start calling me that, too,” she snatched her hand away with a laugh and tugged at his backpack. “Come on, you get my mom's old room. All to yourself. That's how you know we love you.”

“Your mom's really moved out?”

“Yeah, really. Amazing, right? Never thought she'd go through with it.”

Blue took his backpack onto her own shoulders insistently, grinning in a charming way that made Adam's heart stir with a ghost of the old crush, just a hint of it. Her pure happiness made her glow, all ravishing and self-confident.

He told himself that it was okay to admire her beauty, still, even if she was engaged to his best friend. The feelings he'd had for her years ago had become so irrelevant after she'd fallen for Gansey, and after he himself had ... well. Anyway. He could still privately appreciate the way her dress hung off of her hips.

Maybe Gus at the garage was right after all. Maybe Adam just needed to get laid.

He laughed off his own pathetic train of thought and followed Blue into the house, stopping to give hugs every few steps. Maura kissed his cheek, and Calla gave him a little wink when she squeezed his arm. Orla winked, too, but in a reliably flirty way. Then it was Henry Cheng all the way from Stanford, yelling his name and bumping his fist, and some of Blue's friends from her Baltimore art and design school, nodding and smiling. He only recognized a couple of faces there.

Blue set his backpack on the bed in Maura's now-empty bedroom.

“So who do you still need to be introduced to? Do you know all the Baltimore people?”

“Some of them,” Adam glanced at himself in the mirror – he looked tired as always, that couldn't be helped. But his hair didn't seem to be too much of a wreck, despite not much sleep and a few hours in the stuffy Taurus.

“Okay, well, I'll make sure you meet them. And you already know Luke, obviously.”

“Is he here, too?”

“Mm-hmm. Come on, we'll find him. I told him you were single now, you know. I think he's always had an eye for you.”

“Jesus Christ, Blue.”

“Oh, come on, you should at least talk to him. I adore him. He's the best roommate I have ever had. And he's really talented.”

“I mean … he is also gorgeous,” Adam admitted with a shrug.

“Right? I knew you noticed.”

“You can't not notice.”

“Well, look. You are back on the market, Parrish. Have some fun. It's a party.”

The way she'd called him Parrish made a cold little shiver of memory creep down his spine.

Adam both did and did not want to ask why Ronan wasn't there. But he'd save that for later. For all he knew, Ronan was off lurking in a dark corner somewhere, drinking Calla's whiskey.

As it turned out, Luke was in the back dining room talking to Gansey and Henry. Blue let out a happy sound upon discovering them, and Gansey pulled her onto his knee, whispering something into her ear and kissing her hair.

“Luke, you remember my best friend Adam, right?” Gansey gestured gracefully with his glass of what must have been chardonnay. “Adam, Luke.”

“I remember,” Luke smiled at Adam, a full-watt heart-stopping smile that made Adam's breath catch for a second. Luke's dark skin was set off beautifully with a sky-blue button-down shirt, and his hair was cut much shorter than when Adam had last seen him. He was very thin, with big glittery dark eyes and long lashes. He looked like a model. Actually, Adam vaguely remembered Blue saying something about Luke literally having modeled for the fashion design students before, and Luke shrugging it off modestly.

“How's the internship going?” Adam racked his brain for some scrap from the last time they'd talked.

“Ahh, it's kind of … terrible, actually,” Luke grimaced and then laughed it off. “All I do is get like a dozen lattes every two hours and drive the Starbucks people crazy. Also I watch the front desk and I alphabetize things. Not exactly rewarding graphic design experience.”

“Mm, that sucks,” Adam gratefully accepted a beer from Mr. Gray – Dean, Adam reminded himself – who had seen him empty-handed and came over to nod politely. “I did a very Starbucks-heavy internship myself last summer in Boston. Also a lot of begging courtroom clerks to keep the copy room open five more minutes.”

“At least you actually went to a courthouse. You were, like … in the same room as a legal brief.”

“Technically,” Adam took a long drink and grinned back at Luke. Maybe he hadn't imagined that little bit of prolonged eye contact here and there. Of course, Adam had been off limits before now, so he hadn't really dwelled on it beyond the little rush it provided.

There had been one time in particular, dancing a little bit too close for maybe ten seconds, Luke's eyes silently acknowledging Adam's admiration.

What did he even know about Luke? He was done with his graphic design coursework and had started a year-long “externship” thing that counted for his senior project. He was a year or so younger than Adam. He was from New York. Brooklyn, maybe? He was fucking pretty. His eyes were unreal. That was all Adam could assemble in his mental dossier of Blue's Cute Roommate.

“So you've got one semester of law school down, right?” Luke asked, letting Gansey pour him some more wine.

“Somehow. It's really … Everyone told me how hard it would be. But I still underestimated it. How much it would take.”

“This coming from a boy who's been studying every spare minute since I met him,” Blue sank into the chair beside Gansey's. The speakers in the next room started playing that Elvis song – Blue Christmas. Adam's mouth quirked when he remembered how much Blue Sargent hated that one.

“It's taken over my whole life,” Adam looked over at her. “For real, this time. Worse than I ever was before.”

“I literally can't imagine.”

“Do you like Georgetown so far?” Luke leaned elegantly against the doorframe behind him, looking like a page in a glossy magazine.

“Yeah, actually. A lot. I mean, I do miss Boston. But I'm getting used to D.C.”

“I feel like I'm in D.C. every weekend lately. I could eat at a different place for brunch every time and never run out of new menus.”

“They can't make sweet tea for shit,” Adam lifted a shoulder, watching Luke's eyelashes unabashedly, hearing his own accent slide back out for a little look-see. Henrietta did that to him, even still. Also alcohol.

And maybe flirting.

Was he flirting? He was too rusty to know for sure, but Blue's smug face said everything.

“That's what Blue says. Hey, are you really working at an auto body shop right now? I didn't know you were, like … good with cars.”

“Yeah. It's an easy way to make the rent over holiday break.”

“Doesn't sound easy to me.”

“I hear Adam's very good with his hands,” Blue smirked wickedly from behind a giant margarita that she'd magically acquired. Adam knocked her ankle with his toes and rolled his eyes.

Luke grinned, looking like he was laughing internally from Blue's comment but not wanting to admit it.

Blue spoke up in Luke's direction, reminding him of something they'd been planning to do, but Adam missed it. His attention flew to the other doorway, where a young girl stood, pale blonde hair in a messy bob, impossibly large eyes glancing around nervously. She had on a multi-colored crocheted dress that looked like a Blue Sargent original, and she was maybe twelve? Thirteen?

Opal. He only recognized her from that recent picture on Ronan's Instagram.

Adam knew he was staring, but he couldn't help himself. It had been years, but those eyes were unmistakable. She had her arms wrapped around herself and was watching Adam shyly, but with great interest.

And behind her, also watching him but with a more piercing, level expression, was Ronan fucking Lynch in a silky-looking V-necked charcoal sweater and dark jeans.

Adam's stomach shifted violently, like it was trying to physically escape his body. His throat was dry and his pulse was pounding in his ears, flashbacks sliding unbidden into his consciousness-

God, Adam, I could kiss you all fucking night-

Adam gulped in a breath when he realized he'd been looking at Ronan like that, like Ronan was on fire, a car wreck you couldn't tear your eyes from.

“Pardon me for a minute, I need to say hi to someone,” Adam put a hand on Luke's shoulder, and Luke looked at him just a few seconds too long for it to not be meaningful.

“Yeah, of course.”

Adam set his half-empty beer on the table and gravitated toward Opal hesitantly, compelled to go to her before he lost his nerve.

“Good Lord, kiddo, is that really you?” he bent over to look at her.

Opal's eyes flicked back to Ronan, and then to Adam again. Adam touched the crown of her head, measuring her new height, and then Opal reached her arms up impatiently around his neck, or as far as she could reach. She was clinging to him tightly and laughing in a way that made Adam's heart swell.

“Adam,” she gasped, her voice mature and slightly unfamiliar. “Where have you been?”

“Um. School,” he hugged her close, glancing at Ronan over her shoulder. Ronan hovered there there with his arms crossed, his expression guarded but lacking any full-on Lynch hostility.

“Ronan said you were in Boston. So far away. I've missed you so much.”

Adam felt tears building up instantly, traitorously, and he squeezed his eyes shut until he could will them away.

“I missed you too. You have to tell me what you've been up to, okay? I can't believe how tall you got.”

“It's the boots,” she whispered conspiratorially, looking back at Ronan before she grinned at Adam again. “Will you tell me about college? I want to hear everything. You don't have to tell me in Latin anymore.”

Adam laughed in an oddly choked way, his emotions cartwheeling all over the place. He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.

“People are trying to walk through here. Let's stop blocking the way,” she squeezed at his arm and led him out of the room. It was probably good that he removed himself from Ronan's presence, anyway, because Ronan's shirt was thin and clingy and giving Adam a cold fucking sweat.

“Are we going outside?” Adam grabbed his jacket.

“Do you remember that pretty tree in the backyard?”

“Yep. Long time since I've seen it, though.”

Opal's coat was near Adam's and everyone else's, in a pile on the couch near the front door. They walked around to the backyard and stood beneath the old tree. It was quiet out there, and Adam could hear himself think again.

“Did you live in a dorm? At Harvard?”

“Yeah,” Adam climbed onto the bench of a new picnic table and Opal sat down opposite him. “For a while. Then I had an apartment.”

“But you don't live there anymore.”

“I live in D.C. now. Is Declan still there, too?”

“Yes. Matthew is at Penn State.”

“I heard that. How is life at the Barns?” Adam's hands were shoved deep in his pockets.

“I have my own garden. It's pretty big. I have seventeen different vegetables.”

“Seventeen!”

“Yes. Ronan helped me measure it out and everything. We also made a little fountain and koi pool, sort of a reflective memorial place for Aurora.”

“Wow,” Adam held his forehead. “Do you sell things at the farmer's market? I heard Blue say something about that.”

“Sometimes. We have a lot of extra food this way, so it makes sense. Sometimes Ronan will bring it here, to Fox Way. Or to St. Agnes.”

“Blue said you have a tutor. Do you have lessons at the Barns?”

“Yes. I'm learning Italian now. I had to learn to read English and Latin. And Greek. But now I'm working on Italian. I have lessons every morning, on the weekdays, and then in the afternoons I help in the workshop when it's cold. Or I work in the garden when it's warmer.”

“The workshop?”

“Ronan's workshop. For his art. You know? On the website.”

“Wait, what?”

“You haven't seen it?”

Adam shook his head, lost and overwhelmed.

“Last summer I asked Ronan to help me make some things for my garden. Decorations, you know? Like the ones I've seen in galleries online, but more unique. He made them look just like I wanted them, and Blue took pictures. She showed them to her friends at art school. Then they wanted to see more, so we made more. Sometimes we make copies of things he's dreamed about, those are the most popular. If Ronan would make things faster, the profits could pay the utility bills all year, I think. But he believes it's cheating, to dream anything up himself and sell it. So he makes his own versions instead.”

“Okay, hold on, hold on,” Adam pushed his hands out helplessly. “You're telling me that he's an artist? What is it, like … sculptures? Why did I not know about this.”

“He's a little embarrassed, I think. He'd never call himself an artist. But he is the one who sees these shapes and ideas, even if it happens in his dreams, or his imagination. I just help him make it look right, like what he's pictured. He's very picky.”

“I'm sure,” Adam fiddled with the car key in his jacket pocket. He didn't know what to make of this new information, and he was irritated that he had to learn it from Opal. Surely Blue or Gansey could've told him something about this new venture of Ronan's. “What's the website?”

“It's called Crowned Raven Gallery. I made it,” Opal said, matter-of-factly. “You can search for it. I'm sure you'll find it. Ronan doesn't like to talk about it, but, you know. He doesn't like to talk about much of anything.”

“It's so weird to hear you call him that now. Not Kerah anymore.”

“It's weird that you never say his name at all,” Opal retorted, and Adam huddled further into his jacket, looking down guiltily.

“It's not – God. I know,” Adam mumbled shamefully.

“He thought he was doing the right thing, you know. Giving you your life back. He was grieving so much back then.”

“Okay, let's not … go there,” Adam rubbed at his eyes. “It was a long time ago. A lot has happened since then.”

“Are you going to get married, too? Like Blue and Gansey?”

“What? No. I mean, not anytime soon, that's for sure.”

“Ronan thought you were.”

“He – God. No, I … um. There was a time when I thought that, too. But it didn't work out. And it's okay. I'm okay, I mean.”

“You don't seem okay.”

“I'm fine, I just need to … ” Adam trailed off, unable to finish the thought in front of Opal. I need to stay the fuck out of Ronan's way. “Law school is stressful. So is paying bills. Let's talk about you again, all right? What else have you been learning? Besides languages?”

“Oh, the tutor makes me do math, too, and logic. And sciences. But languages are my favorite.”

“That doesn't really … surprise me,” Adam hesitated and got quiet again as he saw the back door open, revealing Ronan Lynch shrugging into an infuriatingly sexy black leather motorcycle jacket with chrome buckles all down the side. Adam shivered, holding his stomach to keep it from ejecting itself.

“Kinda cold out here for a chat,” Ronan muttered as he got closer. He was rubbing his hands together.

“I was just telling Adam about your artwork. Your website.”

“Course you fucking were,” Ronan glanced up at the sky and then back down at the table.

“Do you have any pictures?” Adam heard himself ask, then regretted it as he saw Ronan's conflicted expression. Maybe he was prying too much.

Although simply asking Ronan Lynch about the weather was prying too much.

“No,” Ronan shook his head sharply, at the same time Opal was saying “they're all online.”

“You can look up the site later,” she leaned closer to whisper.

Opal,” Ronan growled.

“Is your workshop in one of the barns?” Adam continued asking questions in Ronan's direction now, his heart apparently on a self-destruct mission.

“Yeah. Why?”

“I dunno. Just curious. Blue didn't tell me anything about it.”

“You can see it tomorrow. If you're coming out for Christmas lunch. Everyone else is.”

“Blue didn't tell me that, either.”

“Yeah, well,” Ronan kicked his leg over the picnic bench next to Opal and looked over at Adam for the first time, his expression wary. “Maybe she thought it'd be the last place on Earth you'd want to be.”

“I miss it there. I've missed it for years,” Adam blurted out his confession. “Where else would I want to go in this goddamned place?”

“How the fuck should I know?”

“Yeah. How would you.”

Adam swallowed a persistent lump in his throat and stared rebelliously over at Ronan, letting himself become reacquainted with the exact angles of his cheekbones, the curve of his jaw, the sharply angled eyebrows and nose. His gaze stumbled over Ronan's full, perpetually sulky lips, and Adam could feel his heart skipping, his body tightening.

He didn't know if he could survive a trip to the fucking Barns.

Ronan was watching him right back, steadily and intensely.

Unapologetic. Of course.

The back door opened again and admitted Luke, holding his wine glass in one hand and what looked like Adam's abandoned beer bottle in the other. Adam didn't miss the way Ronan's eyes darted warily between the two of them. Then Ronan was on his feet like lightning, beckoning to Opal.

“Come on, O. We gotta go.”

“Adam, will you come for lunch? Tomorrow?” Opal gazed at him as she stood up. “Please?”

“Jesus,” Ronan sighed.

“Of course,” he promised instantly before he had a chance to think about it. He couldn't refuse Opal. “I'll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” she smiled serenely and came over to hug him before hurrying after Ronan, back into the house. Ronan didn't even glance back at Adam.

Asshole.

“Shit. Was I, like … interrupting something?” Luke handed him his rescued drink and sank onto the picnic bench where Opal had been.

“No, no,” Adam groaned, running a hand through his hair. “Sorry. I just – Blue told you, right? She must've.”

“She said you and Ronan dated in high school.”

“Yeah,” Adam put the bottle to his lips, drank deeply. “That's one way to put it.”

“Oh. More than dated, huh?”

“Mm,” Adam grumbled, noncommittally, picking at the label on his beer.

“Well. I mean … Exes, right? Yours looks kind of scary. But in a hot way.”

“I know.”

“How far does that tattoo go?”

“Uh. All the way down his back,” Adam gulped down more beer. “Let's talk about something else.”

“Okay, how about this. Are all of these people psychics, or something? This place is super weird.”

“Amen,” Adam laughed in a tired way and clinked his bottle against Luke's glass. “Drink to that.”

 


 

“There are clean towels in the dresser there, by the way,” Blue nodded, alighting on the edge of the bed. It seemed narrow, for a full-sized mattress, but Adam certainly wasn't picky.

“Thanks,” he touched the bottom edge of a yellow lamp, clacking its little beads together idly. “So, um ... when were you going to spring the Barns thing on me? Not until tomorrow?”

“Oh, Adam. I'm sorry. I haven't been trying to keep it a secret, I just – it's been a whirlwind. Look, Gansey and Henry and I are going out there tomorrow, yes. But you absolutely do not have to feel pressured into it. I didn't want to presume. About how you'd want to spend Christmas, or, like ...”

“Whether I could stand being out there again?” Adam suggested, flopping down onto the bed beside Blue.

“Yeah. Basically.”

“I'll be okay.”

“So you don't mind coming along?”

“Of course not. I love it there. I mean maybe it'll stab at my fucking heart a little, but I won't know until I try.”

“Opal seemed happy to see you.”

“I know,” Adam winced, twisting his fingers together.

“I didn't want to make her any promises, about getting to see you again. I wanted to ask you about that, about whether you'd want to talk to her, but I just don't know anymore how much to, um … to say to you. About Ronan.”

“Is that why you didn't say a word about all the artwork? I mean, God, he has an online gallery?”

“Yeah, he does. And it's … Adam, it's good. Really good. My art major friends all want to know about his creative process, or whatever, and it's not – I mean, it's magic, what can I tell them.”

“He's always been a little too fucking magical,” Adam grumbled, then sighed and collapsed back onto the bed, staring up at the popcorn ceiling.

“You're not going to like this suggestion,” Blue crossed her legs beneath her and looked down at him with concern. “But maybe you guys should, like … have a talk. While you're here.”

“About what?”

“Uh, you know. Closure?"

“Oh, no, no way.” Adam rested a palm on his forehead. “We don't need to drag that shit back out again.”

“Nobody's dragging from where I can see. It's all still sitting there, like … an inch below the surface.”

“Blue. Do you honestly think I haven't tried that? Many times already? I begged him to fucking talk to me. It's not that easy.”

“Okay, but maybe it would be a little easier now. A lot has happened since then. Since you guys broke up.”

He broke up with me,” Adam glared toward the window. “Don't you know that by now?”

“He doesn't talk about it to me,” Blue frowned down at her hands. “He's admitted a little bit, though, here and there. That he knew you were thinking about turning Harvard down because of the distance. That he thought he was holding you back.”

“Oh, yeah. Such a martyr, right? I trusted him and loved him like nothing else in the world and he just walked away from all of it. I can still remember throwing up outside the dorms when he told me to stop calling him. I tried and tried to get him to talk to me, okay? Years ago. I'm done with that.”

“Adam,” Blue rested a hand on his shoulder, her eyes pinched with sympathy. “I'm sorry.”

“Yeah, me too. I didn't mean to have a tantrum about it. Sorry. He's just … he still has the nerve to walk around like he doesn't know how hot he is. That leather jacket, what the fuck.”

“It is a good jacket,” Blue smiled sadly. “So, like … just to sum up … you are still somehow okay with spending Christmas at the Barns.”

“I promised Opal I'd go.”

“Okay. Adam, I really am sorry. I didn't mean to be insensitive.”

“Don't. It's not your fault that I'm being a giant baby,” Adam pulled himself up and reached out to hug his friend. “I could not be happier for you and Gansey. Seriously. I'm sorry for whining about ancient drama. I'm done now. It's out of my system. I just want to see you all radiant and happy.”

“Thanks. I'm so glad you're here. I'll wake you up tomorrow and we'll have pancakes. Okay?”

“Okay. Please don't tell Gansey I was losing my shit about Ronan for the hundredth time. He'll get an ulcer. For real, Sargent.”

“Secret's safe with me,” Blue pinched at his cheek. “Night.”

Chapter Text

Last Christmas, Adam had eaten a polite brunch with Grace's father, then smiled in genuine and happy anticipation as he watched Grace unwrap the new tablet he'd secretly saved up for six months to buy her.

The one before that had been at Gansey's parents' house. Grace had gone to her mother's, so Adam had tagged along obediently with Gansey and put on a freshly-ironed polo shirt and made excellent small talk about Harvard.

Nothing had ever felt like this, though. So laid back and carefree and recklessly happy. Adam was still in his sweatpants, tucked up under a coffee table, laughing so hard he almost choked on a mouthful of waffles and syrup. Fox Way had been a riot of noise and stories and punchy laughter, prank gifts and double mimosas.

After another blasting of Blue Christmas had echoed through the kitchen, Adam slipped away to shower upstairs in the tiny bathroom. He put on some actual clothes and headed downstairs to talk to Henry and Luke. They'd both shown up around the same time from the little B&B across town that had been rented out to house the overflowing guests.

Adam could hear them talking in the hallway. Flirting, maybe. And who wouldn't flirt with Luke, really? Adam didn't blame Cheng in the slightest.

It seemed a little odd to Adam that Luke had been roped into this Barns field trip. The rest of the Baltimore crew were already on their way to some kind of resort they'd booked as a group, but somehow Luke was staying behind just for Christmas dinner? It had Blue Sargent's matchmaking fingerprints all over it.

“Adam! Merry Christmas. Nice sweater,” Henry greeted him cheerily.

“Seconded,” Luke's eyes lingered a little longer, and Adam felt his cheeks getting hot. He pushed his sleeves up his arms and realized distractedly that Grace had bought him that sweater.

“We need to get going,” Blue called down to them, a towel wrapped around her head. “I promised Ronan we'd be there for lunch.”

“It's not wise to keep a Lynch waiting,” Henry's gaze flickered cautiously to Adam before he smiled again.

After everyone had climbed into various cars for the half-hour journey, Adam was somehow alone in the Taurus again. He knew they were all giving him a wide berth, tiptoeing around him, afraid he'd explode under pressure. But that was fine with him. He followed Gansey and Henry, staying back a bit and listening to Ronan's terrible radio station. He didn't know whether to be scared or excited. It was sort of the eye of the storm, driving those familiar curved roads again, looking for the sign pointing to Singer's Falls.

His chest constricted a little more tightly with every turn, and then they were bumping along the gravel driveway. A ridiculously long string of white lights greeted him along the fence, and Adam knew they had to be dream lights. Too far from any power outlet. His breath caught and he kept driving, because there was nothing else to be done. Too late to turn back.

Luke got out of Henry's car, lingering to smile back at Adam in a slow, promising way that made Adam freeze. He couldn't help but glance in the general direction of the house, like it would even be possible for Ronan to witness that interaction from so far away.

“Merry Christmas,” Luke's hands were in his pockets. Adam was surprised Luke could even find the pockets in those fucking jeans. They were painted on in a dark shade of crimson.

“You too,” Adam slammed the car door and wandered over, trying not to be obvious about how desperately he wanted to stare at everything else – the trees, the house, the goddamned clouds. “Sleep okay?”

“Yeah, sort of. I don't know. It's so quiet here. It's a little unsettling for someone who gets anxious when he's more than five blocks from a Starbucks.”

“I hate to break it to you, but you're gonna have to drive twenty minutes just to get to Al's Quik Stop for some fake hazelnut latte out of a square machine.”

Luke shuddered, and Adam laughed. Maybe the day wouldn't be all that bad.

But then he was standing in front of the house, looking up at the porch, and his knees felt rubbery. If he stared long enough he could almost still hear Ronan saying his name over the sound of crickets everywhere. He could almost … almost still feel Ronan's fingers sliding over his ribs, his open mouth trailing over Adam's jaw. It was a paralyzing and unwelcome flash of memory, and he hadn't even made it inside yet.

“This place is so peaceful,” Luke's voice startled Adam from his thoughts. Thankfully.

“I thought you were just complaining about that part.”

“That was before I saw the Christmas tree,” Luke indicated the far side of the house with a lift of his chin. Adam felt like an idiot for having missed it so far, but he could hardly be blamed for the way his brain had gone straight to that fucking porch.

“Holy shit,” Adam mumbled, and they both gravitated toward it. It was out on the front lawn, almost two stories high and covered with shiny ivy leaves, red berries, strings and strings of popcorn and seeds and what looked like poinsettias everywhere, and … starfruit? It was beautiful and natural and somehow otherworldly, and Adam knew with a perfect certainty that Opal must have supervised its decoration.

“Is that a bird? Up there?” Luke squinted.

“Yeah, that's – that is his pet raven,” Adam spotted Chainsaw perched regally near the top, picking through decorations.

“Oh. Uh. Okay? Adam, do those lights almost look like they're floating?”

“Mm-hmm,” Adam swallowed. He didn't have time to come up with a distraction or a reason Luke shouldn't be looking too closely at dream things, because Opal was headed his way.

“Adam! Hi,” Opal stood up on her toes to hug him, and he lifted her up and twirled her around in a circle, just to hear a little of that shrieking laugh, just to check that it was still there somewhere.

“Opal, have you met Luke? Blue's roommate in Baltimore?”

“No,” Opal let go of Adam and looked up at Luke rather shyly, through her nearly translucent eyelashes. “I'm Opal. Ronan's sister.”

Blue had warned Adam that this was the story they told people sometimes. Because they couldn't exactly say that Opal had been pulled from Ronan Lynch's nightmares.

“Nice to meet you, Opal. Is this your house?”

“Well. I live here. Close enough, I suppose? Do you want to come inside?”

“Love to.”

 


 

“Matthew, for fuck's sake. Up or down!”

Adam hovered at the table below the stairs, snickering despite himself as he heard Ronan shouting up to the second floor. Matthew had been running around after Opal, chasing her and getting her going like he had when she was tiny. Those boots hid her hooves a little too efficiently – clearly another dream thing – but Adam didn't think they masked the sound very well.

“Hey. You're holding up the line,” Blue elbowed him, waving a large spoon of mashed potatoes in a threatening way.

“All right, all right, just trying not to get trampled,” Adam snatched a biscuit from the plate in front of him and kept going. He'd piled his plate with turkey and potatoes and gravy and green beans – cooked so southern it made him nearly swoon with happiness – and he was running out of space. It felt like he hadn't eaten real food in years.

He sat down next to Luke, who started in with questions about Adam's job and D.C. life almost immediately. Adam didn't know why Luke was so interested in all of this, but he was willing enough to oblige. Luke's questions kept his mind on school and work and things that were slightly less Ronan-centric.

But everything back in Henrietta was about Ronan, to some extent. Aglionby, the garage, the trailer park, St. Agnes, the forests and roads and night sky. There was nothing left untouched by the haunting magic of Ronan Lynch. And sitting there at the Barns with his oldest friends, all it took was a second here and there to make Adam's heart stop again.

As if Ronan could actually sense this line of thought, he came up behind Adam right that second and quietly plunked a tall glass of sweet tea near his fingertips. Adam glanced back in surprise and he could tell the delight was showing on his face from the way Ronan smirked knowingly.

Asshole.

It was perfectly sweet, too, a gut punch of sugar and caffeine. Adam drank it down slowly and let Henry take over with questions, asking Luke more about his internship. Across from him, Gansey was digging into a huge serving of sweet potato casserole. Blue had disappeared into the kitchen, jumping up to help Ronan bring out water and bottles of white wine from the fridge.

“Y'all need a hand with that?” Adam called toward them and pushed back slightly, but Ronan shook his head and put a forbidding hand on the back of his chair.

“We're good, Parrish.”

“Sweet tea sort of brings your accent out, doesn't it,” Luke smiled charmingly from beside him. Adam shrugged and just barely caught Ronan watching him surreptitiously for his response. Just like old times.

“Jane, sit down. Eat. We can get our own wine,” Gansey caught her wrist and kissed her hair as she came close enough.

“Yeah, sit down, come on,” Adam gave Ronan a look, since they were playing that not-really-staring game again, and nodded to the chair across the table where Ronan's plate sat untouched. “Where's Opal?”

“Getting your presents.”

“What?” Adam heard her scurrying back down the stairs behind them. He turned to see Matthew trailing behind her, holding what looked like a shopping bag.

“We said no presents, Lynch,” Blue's gaze darted back and forth from Ronan to Adam to Opal.

“I know we did. Do you want to look her in the eye and tell her that?” Ronan muttered.

“They're not presents. They're favors. I just forgot to put them out earlier,” Opal looked plaintively at Blue, then reached into Matthew's bag and pulled something out, setting it in front of her.

“Opal,” Blue poked at the tissue paper.

“It's nothing. Really. Open it!”

Matthew was helping now, handing out the favors as Opal directed. When he got to Adam, Opal stopped him and looked in the bag herself, pulling one out that had a slightly different color ribbon. He didn't think anyone else noticed, but he took it from her and ran an instinctively protective hand over her silvery blonde hair. She blushed slightly and kept moving around the table.

Everyone put forks and glasses down to pull at tissue paper instead, and then they all admired unique little stone towers, stacked and tied together with glimmering twine. And each one also had what looked like a painted egg, but made out of something that reminded Adam of the trays at McDonald's, the ones they gave you when you ordered a bunch of drinks.

“Wrong holiday, kid,” Ronan held the little egg aloft, turning it and admiring it carefully in a way that conflicted with his favorite pet insult for her. “The fuck am I even paying these tutors for.”

“I didn't mean for them to look like Easter eggs. But they – they're seed pods. You plant them just like this, in the ground, it's really easy, and you can use these stones if you want to mark the spot. Wildflowers! I'm thinking of doing these for the farmer's market in spring.”

“Oh, that's really clever,” Blue cradled hers in her palms.

Adam looked at his treasures and examined them while the others were talking and complimenting Opal. They all had similar little multicolored cairns in front of them, a few polished and stacked stones. But Adam's stones weren't the same kind of radiantly bright shades of magenta or neon green. His had a stone that was divided into creamy white, dark blue, and black, and then one that looked earthy brown, like wet soil. A slightly smaller one that was a dark leafy green. And then another, even smaller one on top that was a weirdly familiar-looking shade of bluish gray. He could swear those fucking colors were changing and swirling, ever so slightly.

He looked accusingly over at Ronan and caught him watching, clearly in anticipation of something. Ronan shrugged petulantly and turned back toward the table.

There was something significant about the way his larger stone was split in three when all the others were solid colors. He thought about those shades together – blue and black and cream – not even a cream, more like a deliberately dirty and rusty shade of white –

The reference clicked suddenly. Adam's goddamned car. It had been pieced together with parts those exact shades. Adam bit his lip, but it was no use. He was laughing. He covered his face and laughed some more, quiet and breathless. It had taken him by surprise.

“You okay, Adam? What is it?” Gansey's voice floated over from across the table.

“This – the colors,” Adam tried to speak, but he was still snickering. “Do you see it? Oh my God, Lynch, you're such an asshole.”

“Language,” Ronan smiled sweetly, dangerously, and Adam shook his head. The laughter was still bubbling out here and there.

“I don't get it,” Gansey blinked and squinted.

“Look at yours, and look at mine, and you will,” Adam noticed that Gansey held his own rock tower aloft and the bottom one was a very familiar orange.

“Oh my God,” Blue echoed Adam and started giggling. “That car was such a piece of shit, Adam, whatever happened to it? Didn't you drive it to Boston?”

Gansey's eyes popped open wide and then he was grinning, slow and infectious.

“Yeah, and that turned out to be her last battle on this earth. May she rest in peace.”

“Amen,” Gansey admired his cairn again. “Let's eat.”

There was a certain comfort in letting Gansey make these declarations. It reminded Adam of his commanding voice, of his connection with ancient kings. It wasn't a completely uncomfortable reminder of all they'd been through together years ago.

“I feel like I'm missing something,” Luke leaned closer.

“When I was in high school I had this crappy little used car that barely ran,” Adam kept his voice down, focusing on a more private conversation, letting the other talk and laugh loudly around them. “Everyone always made fun of it. It was pieced together from different parts. These colors. That's the joke. Not exactly fun to pull into the parking lot of a rich private school. This whole sea of shiny new sports cars and then my little shitbox lurching in on its last legs.”

“I had a bike,” Luke shrugged, watching Adam like he wanted to listen to these annoying old stories all day. Adam realized he'd been doing all the answering and none of the asking.

“Well, I mean, you wouldn't have been driving to school. In Brooklyn?”

“I can't believe you remember that. Thought it was kind of loud in the club that night.”

“You were on the right side of me that time.”

“What?”

“I, uh,” Adam fidgeted with his fork. “Can't hear out of this ear. The left one.”

“Oh. Really? At all?”

“Come on, you don't have to act like you can't tell.”

“I honestly didn't notice. I guess if I think back I can remember you usually being on the other side of me? But it's not really something I'd … hmm. Would you do me a favor?”

“Most likely,” Adam admitted quietly, watching Luke's eyelashes again. They were so distracting.

“Switch places?”

Adam considered it for a second, then pushed his chair back with a private smile. He knew everyone would be watching as they traded chairs. They'd all know why, and they'd all pretend they hadn't noticed.

Actually, a quick glance at Ronan revealed that he was staring down at his own plate, concentrating on it very intensely. This made Adam realize that he was probably flirting too much with Luke and should chill out a little. Ronan was sitting right there.

Adam, listen to me. I'm not gonna be your anchor to this shithole. It's fucking Harvard, for Christ's sake. You're better off. I'm not gonna say it again.

“This better?” Luke whispered, and it was a bit of a rush now that Adam could better hear the promising note in Luke's voice despite the noise of conversation around them.

“Much,” Adam let his elbow rest against Luke's on the table. Just for a few seconds. Just to feel the heat of it. “Why'd you come to Baltimore? To go to school? I mean aren't there a thousand places to go in New York?”

“Yeah, sure,” Luke broke a biscuit carefully in half, keeping his voice low, maybe now that he understood he was better able to do that on Adam's hearing side. The others were all otherwise engaged with each other. “But I wanted something different, I guess. Baltimore was, like … just far enough. Just outside the scope of what I'd known all my life. Plus it's a great school for design. New York is … well. It's my whole world, in a lot of ways. But there's so much I hadn't seen yet. Hadn't even imagined. What made you go all the way to Boston? The scholarship?”

“Yeah. Honestly. I worked my ass off in high school, and when they gave me that full scholarship it was … it was everything finally paying off for me,” Adam nodded, leaving out the part about how he had been just as ready to sign up at UVA if it had meant not losing Ronan.

It was crazy to think about that now. How close Adam had been to trashing the future he'd so obsessively built, just because he'd been so obsessively in love with that motherfucker.

In a way that Adam always hated admitting, Ronan had been right.

“Makes sense. That's a pretty amazing ticket out.”

“Sometimes I still can't believe it happened to me. Harvard, I mean. And that scholarship. But it changed ev- everything,” Adam stumbled a little over that last word, because he could see Ronan still staring down at his plate in silence while the others talked over him.

“I have to tell you something, Adam.”

“I'm listening.”

“I kind of … don't be mad, okay? But, like … I hate Boston.”

“Of course you do,” Adam shook his head, enjoying more of the roasted turkey. “Such a New Yorker. What is there to actually hate about Boston? Come on.”

“It makes no sense whatsoever. You have to know that. It's completely random. New York makes sense. You can't get lost in New York. Plus it seems like everyone in Boston is a jerk and proud of it.”

“They're not – You're missing the charm,” Adam laughed quietly.

“The charm. Oh. Okay. Is that what you call it.”

“At least I didn't pick up that accent.”

“Oh, yeah, that too, God. It's awful.”

“And my southern one isn't?”

“Adam. Come on.”

“What?”

“You know it's sexy,” Luke whispered, and Adam felt his face getting hot. He truly hoped none of the others were paying any attention. Didn't seem like it, anyway.

“You're crazy. Why do you think I've tried so hard to drop it?”

“Not today, though, huh? You're positively drawling, Adam Parrish.”

“I am not,” Adam dragged each word into at least two or three syllables, grinning shamelessly.

“I feel like I'm in Gone With the Wind.”

“Look, this is nothing. You need to let me bring you to a Waffle House. So you can get the full effect.”

“I wish I didn't have to leave today.”

“Me too,” Adam's voice was a whisper.

He was being a dick, flirting so openly right there in Ronan's own house, and he knew it. But he didn't care anymore. He wasn't going to spend his entire life walking on fucking eggshells around his ex-boyfriend.

Stop calling me, Parrish. I can't keep talking you down at two in the morning. Go the fuck outside. Live your life. You didn't work your ass off for this scholarship just to be crying to me on the hall phone. I'm not doing this anymore.

“What about you, Adam?”

The question rang out across the table and Adam blinked up at Gansey.

“Sorry, what?”

“We're talking New Year's. Any plans?”

“Um. Capitol Repairs pays time and a half all day New Year's Eve,” Adam smiled brightly.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Jesus, Gansey,” Blue sighed and poured him some more wine. “Rent money doesn't grow on trees for all of us.”

Adam gave Blue a grateful glance like he always did in this exact situation. It was automatic.

“So that means you can't come to Richmond?” Gansey's face fell. This didn't make Adam feel any better.

“I wish I could,” Adam sighed genuinely. “I'm sorry. I'd come if I could. Your parents ...”

“No, it's okay. It'll be fine.”

Adam doubted that very much, but he kept his mouth shut. He couldn't exactly do anything to help.

“Adam,” Luke whispered from beside him, and he felt a little shiver run down the back of his neck. “You're not really working New Year's Eve, are you?”

“Kinda have to. I moved into that apartment thinking there would be two of us sharing the bills,” Adam stayed as quiet as possible.

“Not all night, though, right? When do you get off?”

“I dunno. Probably nine or ten.”

“Oh. That's not terrible. I'm going to this party with my friend Ezra. You should come. I'll text you the address. Just in case.”

“I … I mean … in D.C.?”

“Of course. I think you need to type your number in for me, I don't see you in here,” Luke had fished his phone out and was holding it for Adam to take. He couldn't remember ever being asked for his phone number in such an expectant and matter-of-fact way. He liked it.

“Okay, here,” Adam obliged. “What kind of party are we talking?”

“It's at a club. Some of my classmates, and some D.C. friends. Just dancing and champagne, you know.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Chapter Text

“Do you have a thinner one? This brush is too – Oh, yeah, thanks, perfect,” Adam accepted a different paintbrush from Opal's cup.

“Do you do everything this seriously?” Luke's voice surprised Adam. He didn't know how long Luke had been standing there watching; Adam had gotten all absorbed in this project of Opal's.

“Yes. He does,” Opal answered on his behalf, leaving no room for doubt regarding the issue. Adam couldn't help a little laugh as he glanced between the two of them. Luke looked amused, and Opal looked like she was assessing Luke very carefully, judging his worth.

Opal had asked them all to take a few minutes to contribute to her garden decorations. She had set up a little art table in the library, and they'd taken turns stopping in to claim a flat, smooth stone and personalize it, painting names and pictures in varying levels of detail. Adam was painting her a tiny map of Harvard and had of course gotten a little too particular and scholarly about it. Gansey would be the only one to appreciate it.

“I just came to tell you that I'm headed out,” Luke spoke up again, and Adam's paintbrush stilled.

“Oh. God. I didn't realize it was that late already,” Adam looked down awkwardly at his hands that were now splashed with paint. He'd made a mess of it.

“Don't get up. Henry's taking me back. I just wanted to say goodbye.”

“I'd, like … shake your hand or something but-”

“I know,” Luke chuckled. “It's okay. I'll see you in the city. New Year's, hopefully.”

“Yeah. Text me and remind me. Please.”

“I will,” Luke brandished his phone cheerfully. “Merry Christmas.”

“You too.” Their gazes lingered again, and Adam let the electricity wake him up a bit. It had been so long since he'd experienced this – catching someone's gaze, asking silent questions, imagining what could come of it.

If he'd been watching the time more closely, he might've gotten away with a kiss goodbye. Maybe just to try it out, to taste someone else's breath again, to see if it lit up his nerve endings and made him gasp and shiver.

But now Luke was gone, following Henry, saying goodbye to the others out in the living room. Adam let it go, embracing the calm of Opal's presence and the quiet glow of the Barns.

Something would happen soon enough with Luke, if it was supposed to. Adam could stand to wait a while, anyway. His heart was much too confused and angry and miserable and wistful just then. He didn't need to be fucking around with something new. He needed to tamp down on his ghosts first, kick them back out of his head.

“Luke seems very nice,” Opal ventured, looking up from the stone she'd been working on. It was swirled with crimson and silver, like she was using Luke's outfit as color inspiration.

“Mm,” Adam nodded noncommittally, because he could hear Ronan's unmistakable footsteps approaching.

“There you are,” Ronan said sharply, and for a couple of seconds Adam could feel his pulse spike, until he realized Ronan had meant these words for Opal.

“I told you I would be here painting,” Opal chastised Ronan in a gentle voice.

“No, you didn't.” Ronan's eyes flicked over Adam, his expression just as reserved and unreadable as always. Adam swore under his breath as his brush slipped and he got green paint on the outside of his thumb.

“I thought I did. Are people getting hungry again?”

“I dunno, probably. Did you seriously fucking tell Matthew he could-”

“Adam?” Henry's voice sang through the side of the house. Adam blinked up in surprise toward the door. “Hate to be a pain but I think you're parked behind me.”

“Oh. Shit. Sorry, hang on,” Adam glanced out the window, then back down at his paint-splashed hands. He set his flat stone down on the newspaper, but paused in the process of reaching for his car keys. Those pants had cost him fifty bucks.

“I'll get it, Parrish.” Ronan stole his keys from the pocket of his khakis in a flash and went after Henry without another word. Adam's hip was burning from where Ronan's hand had slid over it, brazen and familiar. He sat down carefully, trying to breathe evenly and not give himself away.

Opal was the only one there, and she'd never say anything. He was fine.

He wasn't actually fine in the slightest, but he was going to act and look fine. That was more correct. If he was currently experiencing flashbacks to Ronan's thumbs digging into his bare hipbones, he was going to keep this information to his fucking self.

“Blue is always telling me how much I'd like Luke,” Opal picked up the previous conversation, and Adam nodded with relief.

“He's majoring in graphic design. But I've seen his more creative stuff. Paintings in Blue's apartment. He's really good with color. I think you would like his paintings. They're abstract.” Adam was awkwardly listing brief facts instead of really and truly conversing, but it was a step in the right direction.

“Are you going to go out with him?”

“I, um,” Adam squinted down at his stone, deciding he needed to leave it alone already. He looked at the window to make sure Ronan wasn't within earshot yet. “I don't know. Maybe.”

“He seems to really like you.”

“I don't know him all that well,” Adam picked at a bit of gray paint that had dried onto his fingernail. Why was he having this talk with a thirteen-year-old?

“Do you even want to go out with anyone? Are you afraid law school will take up all of your time?”

“It's not really being afraid of it as much as knowing it with a total certainty,” Adam grumbled.

“The right person won't mind,” Opal looked over at his work. “You need to put your name on that somewhere. Sign it. Okay?”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot.” Adam picked up the fine brush again and added his name over the bottom corner.

He was preoccupied enough with this task that he didn't see Ronan come in at first – plus he'd approached from Adam's left. But he saw the car keys get deposited on the newspaper beside him with a rattle.

His hip burned again, his skin aching and rebelliously wishing Ronan would take the liberty of returning the keys where he'd found them. But this was better. Safer. Adam swallowed and glanced up.

Ronan was biting back a grin. He was fighting it, but a laugh was coming from somewhere that Ronan clearly couldn't suppress.

“What's so funny,” Adam returned the paintbrush to Opal's water cup, swirling it around irritably.

Ronan had his arms folded, standing there staring with twinkly fucking eyes that Adam couldn't bear looking at for too long.

“Thought you hated that radio station,” Ronan said, barely audibly enough for just Adam to pick up on it and realize what he meant and then feel his face flush with the immediate embarrassment of it. Ronan's goddamned techno station that he'd cranked up again for the solo drive to the Barns.

Adam avoided looking directly at that shaky little smile on Ronan's face. It was such a rare and miraculous thing, for the real Ronan Lynch to show through, even for just a minute, and Adam knew it better than anyone. He couldn't even begin to know how to deal with that at the moment.

At least three shitty retorts occurred to him to say, in that moment. Knives to shove habitually and defensively into that surprising and unbearably intimate display of vulnerability. But he breathed them out without shaping the words.

“Haven't heard it for a long time,” he said instead, quietly. “Hard to remember what I hated about it anymore.”

“What are you even doing with that car,” Ronan's face changed, the smile getting chased away by a look of contempt as he studied the Taurus through the window.

“It's a loaner from work.”

“Smells like one.”

“I know.”

Ronan's lips pursed briefly, like he was considering elaborating, but then he turned and left again, and apparently the conversation was over. Adam's shoulders relaxed and he let out a breath he'd been accidentally holding.

“Can I take a turn?” Gansey wandered in, his glasses in his hand at his side.

“Please do!” Opal smiled broadly.

“You can sit here. I just finished mine,” Adam got up carefully, trying not to touch anything.

“Thanks for this, Adam. I'll take a picture in the spring when I get it all set up.”

“You'd better,” Adam leaned down to press a kiss on the top of her head. He had his fingers splayed out at his sides so as not to touch anything. “Gonna go wash my hands.”

“Maybe tell Ronan I said it's time to get the food out again?” Opal suggested, going back to her work.

“Okay.”

It didn't occur to Adam until he arrived at the kitchen sink that Opal had sent him with this message because she'd somehow known Ronan would already be there, rinsing out wine glasses. Adam bit his lip and wondered if he could get over to the bathroom instead without coming into contact with any doors.

“Here,” Ronan pushed the faucet over into the other sink and gestured toward it in an offering sort of way. It was too late for Adam to go somewhere else. He scrubbed his hands with the soap, viciously attacking the little blotches of paint and then rinsing them away, trying to keep his eyes off the way Ronan's sweater sleeves were bunched up over his biceps.

“Thanks,” Adam pushed the faucet back over and dried his hands with a little blue dishtowel on the counter. Ronan turned the water off entirely and rested a hip against the surface, turning to look at Adam. They were alone in the kitchen.

“So, like … what are you still doing here, Parrish,” Ronan asked coldly, straight-faced.

Adam felt it in his stomach, a twisty little jab of acid.

“Fucking – christ, Ronan,” Adam threw the towel down onto the counter and hated his own shaky voice as he walked away again.

He wasn't dealing with that shit. He was not.

“Adam. Wait, I – stop,” Ronan grabbed at his wrist, his fingers squeezing insistently into Adam's skin. “I didn't mean it like that. I – it came out wrong. I'm sorry.”

Adam didn't know how to respond, just stopped and stared and yanked his arm away. Ronan let go with a jumpy exhale and flexed his fingers like he'd been scalded.

How many wars could've been avoided if Ronan would just buy a fucking t-shirt that said I didn't mean it like that, it came out wrong, I'm sorry! in big letters across his chest.

“I just – I meant – why didn't you go back with Luke,” Ronan shoved his sleeve further up his arm, looking sideways at something. The door, maybe.

“He's meeting their other friends at the place they rented in Charlottesville for a couple more nights. I have to drive back to D.C. tomorrow. Why do you want to know,” Adam's throat felt like it was coated with broken glass.

“I don't want you to be stuck here. Just because we decided to do this here. It looked like you guys were – look, whatever, fuck it, it's none of my business.”

Sure as hell isn't, Adam thought, but kept it to himself.

“I'm not stuck here. I'm having Christmas with my friends. And I don't think I want to hear any dating advice from you, of all fucking people, so can we not do the thing where you say you just want me to be happy or-”

Adam pressed his lips together, forcing the sentence to a premature end. Over his own dead body would he ever shed another single tear in front of Ronan fucking Lynch. Ever again.

Ronan looked up at him again, finally, and Adam felt it like a tractor beam of some kind. They stared at each other for way too long. Adam's heart was a strobe light.

“Opal says it's time to get the food out again,” Adam remembered aloud, because he had to say something. One of them had to fucking say or do something.

“Yeah. Okay. Fine. I – I got it.”

“I'll get the plates,” Adam seized at the first physical task he could think of and took off toward the cabinet.

Ronan was still frozen to that spot in the middle of the kitchen floor, but Adam was going to do something. And he was going to keep breathing, and he was going to stay out of Ronan's way.

 


 

“I just went up to the attic to check on them,” Blue returned to her camping chair at the fire pit. Gansey reached over to help her settle a blanket around her legs. Her purple tights didn't look very warm.

They had formed a square around the metal pit of coals and modest flames. Gansey and Blue and Ronan and Adam. Four points of a compass.

“Is Matthew up there too?” Adam took a swig of the beer that was tucked beside him in the little canvas cup holder.

“Yeah. But, Ronan, they have every spare sheet from the linen closet strung up in there over twine like a tent city,” Blue shook her head.

“Monsters.” Ronan made an exasperated face.

“It's kind of funny to me that you're the one to deal with a couple of teenage delinquents. Isn't that … what's the word for it again? Karma?” Blue grinned wickedly.

“Matthew is twenty,” Ronan growled.

“Oh, because that makes such a difference.”

“Technicality,” Gansey ruled with a lift of his wine glass.

Adam smiled and let his head drop back, getting his fill of the view. The stars had always been brighter there, outrageously cluttered and glittery. It was too cold for the crickets, but somehow he still heard them in the background.

“Opal is really amazing,” Blue pointed out after a couple of minutes. “Seriously, Lynch. I love that kid.”

“She's an obnoxious little know-it-all,” Ronan complained, but when Adam looked over he could see a proud little grin teasing the edges of Ronan's face.

Adam hated watching Ronan in firelight like that. Or candlelight. He was so ethereal and arresting. He looked capable of any kind of magic. Like a trickster god.

Blue coughed quickly and raised an eyebrow at Adam, ever so slightly, just to point out that she was onto him. Adam pulled his jacket tighter and slouched down into his chair, forcing his gaze down to the fire pit instead. Safer.

“What time is it?” Blue asked them lazily.

“Almost eleven,” Gansey's phone glowed intrusively as he checked it.

“God. Ronan, I didn't mean for us to stay so late. I'm sorry.”

“What? It's fine, come on. Got the fucking fire going and everything.”

“It's nice,” Gansey smiled in a hazy way. Adam gazed cautiously over at him. He always felt a little uneasy when Gansey's eyes got that look. Like he was remembering this moment from a hundred different points in time all at once. Maybe he was.

Adam could remember it from five years ago, too. He shivered a little.

“More blankets in the house, Parrish.”

Ronan was watching him now. Adam shrugged and allowed himself a defiant stare that lasted until the count of three, then looked up at the roof of the barn nearby. He hadn't meant to; it had happened subconsciously. He closed his eyes so he wouldn't see Ronan's face as he followed Adam's gaze. Ronan would know exactly why his mind had just gone there.

“I think you guys should crash here,” Ronan said in a surprisingly soft tone. “Don't drive all the way back to town tonight. It's dark and you’ve been drinking all damn day.”

“Adam has to be in D.C. tomorrow,” Blue reminded them.

“When, though. Morning? Afternoon? When, Parrish,” Ronan stretched and kicked the edge of his sneaker with a heavy black boot. Adam shivered again.

“Doesn't matter when, exactly. I have to be at work early the next morning. That's all.”

“Okay then. You can have Declan's room.”

Adam shifted uncomfortably. He knew Ronan was right, that he shouldn't drive half an hour now, in the pitch dark. He wasn't drunk, but he wasn't exactly sober, either.

But Declan's room. Jesus. He'd slept there before. He didn't want to think about it.

“Mr. and Mrs. Richard Campbell Gansey the Third can have the master. Okay? Fucking done. Nobody's driving tonight.”

“As long as you're sure, Adam,” Gansey flicked a fingernail at the side of his wine glass, letting it ring out over the backyard like a royal decree.

“Yeah. It's fine. He's right, we shouldn't try to drive back.”

They were quiet a while, listening to the fire crackle.

“Ronan. How did you decide when to celebrate Opal's birthday?” Blue leaned forward in her chair, opening her palms in the direction of the fire, wiggling her fingers. Her nail polish was poinsettia red.

“I let her pick,” Ronan rubbed at the back of his neck. “She likes threes.”

“Oh. March third,” Gansey blinked. “I never knew that. That makes so much sense now.”

“Sometimes it seems like she's thirteen hundred years old. You know?” Blue reached over to play with Gansey's fingers, trailing them through her own.

“I know,” Ronan looked up at the house. They could see lights on in the attic. Adam had poked his head up there earlier in the afternoon, with Opal, and she'd shown him how Ronan had converted the whole damn thing into her 'bedroom.'

“She just surprises me sometimes. With the things she says.”

“She's really smart,” Ronan's voice sounded hesitant. Adam tried to watch him from just the corner of his eye. Like Ronan used to do in high school, when he thought nobody else would catch him. “That's the thing that always fucking terrified me. I don't know what to do with smart. When she used to throw tantrums and break shit and scream, you know … I got that. But smart is not something I can help her with. I drive a fucking tractor, for Christ's sake. I think I might need to send her to an actual school. She can run circles around all of her tutors already. They can't teach her fast enough.”

Adam couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Ronan string so many words together. Genuine, non-ornery ones. It was astounding.

“Well of course we can't let her be a Raven Boy,” Blue grimaced. “Have you thought about asking Declan? About ... well. Smaller schools in D.C., maybe? If you're serious about this?”

“Yes,” Ronan grumbled. “I really don't want to send her that far away. But I don't want her to be stuck here, either. I want her to be challenged, not just – God. Always the smartest person in the room. I know that's not too hard when she lives with me.”

“Ronan,” Gansey gave him a chastising look, but he wasn't paying attention.

“She needs someone to keep up with her, so she won't be bored out of her fucking skull. I'm a high school dropout. Not exactly a compelling conversation partner.”

This little talk was reminding Adam unpleasantly of past ones. About himself. And usually that pissed him off, to think about how Ronan had so heartlessly cut him out of his life, to sink or swim on his own. But instead he just felt more and more sad to think of Ronan sending someone else out into the world because he didn't want to hold anyone back. Because he thought that little of himself and his own worth. Perhaps it was clearer for Adam to see when he wasn't the one being ejected.

“Maybe you should ask her what she wants,” Adam frowned at the fire pit. He could feel Ronan's piercing eyes on him now, and he knew why.

“Well, obviously, Parrish. I'm not saying I'll ship her off against her will.”

Adam folded his arms and bit his lip against the words in his mouth. That's what you did to me.

“I'm just saying, maybe you don't give yourself enough credit,” Adam began carefully, when he'd thought it out a bit. “Maybe she can have her tutors and her garden and all of those books and still be perfectly happy here hanging out with you. Just because you're not conversing with her in Ancient Greek and discussing French philosophy doesn't mean she's not happy. She adores you.”

“He has a point, Ronan,” Gansey said gently.

“Whatever, I'm not saying it right,” Ronan muttered folded his arms. Adam had directed his argument toward the fire, because he was too much of a coward to look Ronan in the eye for it. But now he let his gaze wander sideways and felt like Ronan could see through him completely, down to every stupid little thing Adam had been nervous about all day long. Every flash of memory lurking around corners there at the Barns.

“I hate to say it, but I think I need to go to sleep,” Blue yawned around her fingers. “I stayed up way too late talking to the girls last night.”

“The room's all made up,” Ronan looked like he was fighting to drag his gaze from Adam. But he managed it. “You've stayed there before. Can you find everything okay? The light switches and shit? I need to keep an eye on the fire.”

“I'm good.” Blue got up and came over to put an affectionate hand on top of Ronan's head.

Ronan was wearing a slouchy knit hat and pulling it off as sexy in a way only Ronan Lynch could manage to do. Adam had been trying – unsuccessfully – to ignore it.

“Thank you,” Blue smiled serenely. “For everything. It's been a perfect Christmas day.”

“I know. Get your ass inside before you freeze, Sargent,” Ronan pinched her side, and she laughed and took her blanket back to the house. Gansey followed, as they all knew he would, after proclaiming what a wonderful time he'd had that day.

“You want me to get some water? To put this fire out?” Adam asked when Gansey was already to back door.

“Nah.” Ronan rested his boot on the edge of the metal fire pit. He was gnawing on one of the leather bands at his wrist. It was so familiar that Adam's chest ached painfully.

“Ronan.”

Ronan's wary gaze snapped to Adam, his eyes widening slightly, like he'd been cornered. He didn't say anything, just stayed very still and unblinking.

“I, um – this was nice. Thanks.”

“Yeah,” Ronan said carefully, tense and watchful.

“I'm sorry if I – if I was out of line saying any of that. About Opal. I know it's not my place.”

“You can say whatever you want. You're one of my oldest friends, okay? Your fucking place is wherever you want it to be.”

“Right,” Adam reached down to yank on his shoelace. Friends. Ronan made it sound so easy. Like Adam had ever had any say whatsoever about whether they talked to each other.

“Adam, what? What the fuck did I say wrong this time?”

“Nothing. I should go to bed.”

“Great. Go. You know where it is.”

Adam sighed, suddenly almost immobile from exhaustion. He took his beer bottle inside, only glancing back once at Ronan, who was huddled closer to the fire and staring down at the ground in front of him.

Chapter Text

Is it too much?” Adam said in a haze. “Having me here like this? In your bed? You said stay the weekend but you didn't say in here. With you.”

“Come on, you knew what I meant,” Ronan shook his head. “The only thing – I've ever wanted-” he punctuated these little phrases by crawling closer, until he was stretched out over the length of Adam's body – “in my bed – is you.”

He reached up with a thrill of relief and desire and held Ronan's head in his hands, kissing his eyebrow and temple and cheek and rough jawline, his eyelids burning like he was going to fucking cry from it. Ronan was shivering, just barely, and Adam pulled him close, clinging tightly and desperately.

“Adam,” Ronan's voice was just a breathy rumble, and the sound of it made Adam's pulse hammer in his skull. “I don't wanna scare you. I just – I want you so much it's making my fucking head spin.”

“You're not going to scare me. I promise. Just kiss me already, I can't stand it-”

Ronan groaned against his mouth, kissed him so deeply that Adam forgot how to breathe. He clung to Ronan's arms and back and it felt like his lips were sparking, Ronan's little gasps making his stomach flip. No one else had ever kissed him like that before, so urgently and reverently at the same time. It was electric, and magical, and Adam was completely addicted.

Adam tugged at Ronan's tank top, spreading his hands across smooth skin. Ronan took the hint and divested himself of the shirt entirely. It was only fair, after all.

Adam's body was wound so tightly he thought he might break apart. When Ronan's leg tangled up with his, he gasped and froze for a second – Ronan's hip had slid against his erection and he went temporarily blind, his vision clouding up with little white spots.

When he blinked up again he saw Ronan breathing hard with his eyes shut, his lip being savaged by his teeth. Adam could feel him now, hard and hot through his dark jeans, against Adam's thigh, and he had to use all of his willpower to stay still and get a hold of himself. He didn't even know what he wanted, precisely, but he wanted it right away.

Ronan relaxed a little, but still their positions were tenuous, the contact pushing them both to urgency. Adam felt Ronan's fingertips skate over his chest again, his stomach, then lower, to the indentation at his hipbone, his lower abdomen. Adam's head fell back against the pillow.

“Oh God,” he heard himself whispering, pleading for the kind of touch that Ronan was teasing at, but unwilling to actually ask for it out loud.

“Stupid little string is torturing me,” Ronan tugged lightly at the bow Adam had tied to keep his borrowed sweatpants tightened at his waist. He didn't untie it, though, just ran a fingertip under the waistband, making Adam squirm.

Ronan hovered there, leaning down to kiss Adam's cheek, and Adam tried to calm down, to tell his body to chill out and wait, that they weren't going to go that far just yet. But then – then – Ronan's palm slid deliberately, smoothly all the way down the front of those sweatpants, right at the crotch, and Adam's hips jumped involuntarily as he sucked in a noisy breath, his nails digging into the blanket beneath him. Ronan kept a hand pressed there, just hard enough, and Adam was powerless to stop his own movements, arching helplessly against Ronan's wickedly curved fingers.

“Ronan,” his voice cracked and wheezed. The little dream lights above them glowed stronger and brighter, pulsing crazily.

“Don't move,” Ronan kissed him, quick and light, and then shifted around, removing his chaos-wreaking hand. He was up off his side, holding himself up on his hands again, and then he was loosening the string at Adam's waist and pushing down fabric. He paused there, palms sliding over hips and thighs, and looked up at Adam questioningly and steadily, his blue eyes blazing and wildly alight in the dim bedroom.

He was staggeringly beautiful. Adam could watch him like that all night if he weren't so wound up.

"Ronan, what are you - you don't have to-"

"I really fucking want to, though, I ... Is it okay?"

"I - um - yeah."

Adam tried to sound cool and casual about it, like he wasn't about to burst apart at the very idea, but his brain was instantly on fire when he felt Ronan's mouth on him. He had a moment of shock, of somehow seeing this moment from outside his own body, being distantly aware that this was really happening, but then the physical sensation pushed everything else away. It was dizzyingly good. Like nothing he'd ever felt before. Adam's jaw dropped, his blood pounding through his temples.

“Jesus, Ronan, oh my ... ghhh,” he groaned, giving up on forming actual words mid-syllable – Ronan had him deeper now, and his body shook and tensed – he realized with alarm that he wouldn't last long like that.

He tried to keep from moving, because he was taken aback and embarrassed by how quickly Ronan had brought him to the edge, but his hips were restless, his body seeking release with an intensity that he'd never experienced. His head swam. He gulped in air and still couldn't seem to close his mouth.

Ronan was relentless, moving his lips and tongue hungrily, driving Adam absolutely crazy.

“Ronan you're gonna – oh God, I-”

Adam's eyes flew open and he gasped awake, grabbing the sheets by his sides. His skin was burning up and he was sweating like it was the middle of summer. Ronan's name was imprinted on his breath.

He jolted up in the bed, his chest heaving. He had to stare at his surroundings in the moonlight for a good minute before all of it came back to him in a rush.

Declan's room. He was in Declan's old room, at the Barns, and it was Christmas, and he was having unbidden and extremely vivid sex dreams that seemed to just be pulled straight out of his past, and he was hard and aching and restless. He could only hope that he hadn't been calling Ronan's name in his goddamned sleep.

He held his head and collapsed onto his back again, wanting to cry from being so cruelly yanked out of that dream at that specific moment. It wasn't just a dream; it was a perfectly pieced-together memory, and he had been right on the other side of that wall when he'd experienced it the first time. In Ronan's bedroom, with dream lights flickering hazily at the edges of his vision.

He closed his eyes again and guiltily wished himself back into the dream, like if he kept thinking about it hard enough he could get back there. Just for some physical release. His hand trailed absently to his own waist, his hip, like he could fool himself into thinking it was Ronan holding him down against the bed.

This wasn't working. He was way too keyed up to fall back asleep, and he wasn't going to be magically restored to the dream world. For a second he wondered what it would be like to be Ronan in a dream like that. Would it feel even more real? Could Ronan just go back to that moment in his head anytime he wanted?

Adam was shaking.

He turned on the lamp, blinked until his eyes adjusted, and then grabbed one of the towels stacked on the dresser and padded down the dark hallway to the bathroom he remembered. It was really late – his phone said 2:36 a.m. – so he hoped everyone would be sound asleep enough to not hear the shower turning on. The guests and inhabitants were all scattered throughout the house, and the only person close enough to maybe hear it would be Ronan. If he was sleeping in his room. Right there. God.

Adam paused outside Ronan's door. There weren't any lights coming from beneath it. Hopefully Ronan was passed out.

The shower helped a little. Adam let the water run over him, his body still painfully demanding release. He moved his hand to soothe the ache, wrapping desperate fingers around himself. It only took thirty seconds for him to come, hard and pulsing and briefly mind-erasing. He kept his mouth shoved against his other forearm so he wouldn't make any noise, but he knew Ronan's name had been there, torn in an agonized whisper from the back of his throat. Because in his mind he was in Ronan's bed again. Ronan's mouth. That was the only thing that would get him off.

 


 

After he was dry and dressed and back in Declan's room, he knew he was too wide awake to try and sleep again for a while. It would only frustrate him to lie there. Instead he pulled on his socks and sneakers and jacket and ventured gingerly down the stairs.

Still no sign of anyone else awake. It was a relief. Adam let himself remember the tricky turn of the deadbolt, the location of the porch light switch. He grabbed a blanket and tossed it around his shoulders as he curled up on the front step, waiting for his vision to adjust enough to pick out the edge of the forest.

The moon was just a tiny sliver visible through far-off black branches. The frigid December air greeted him with a welcome punch to his nervous system. Adam had been sweating and suffocating inside the memories of that house. He couldn't believe he'd ever thought he could just fall asleep in there and not be haunted like that.

He huddled deeper inside the blanket and rubbed at his eyes, settling into the calm of the perfect misty quiet before dawn. The tension in his body had been eased, and he was able to sit there without being so jumpy or edgy. But now the shame and embarrassment of what he'd just done began to flood his mind, along with the heartbreak of sitting there in that particular spot, with that view, the miserable reminder of the night that had changed everything so long ago.

He'd been so in love. He couldn't shake the grief just then. The loss felt like a fresh and physical wound, a piece of his insides chipped away with an ice pick.

He was not going to cry. It was getting old, and he knew he was stronger than that. But nothing was stopping him from sitting there and wallowing in the self-pity for a while, cradling the empty and howling place inside him.

Just then, though, he heard a creak behind him from the house.

The door was opening, and Ronan's head emerged from a dark entryway.

Adam sank down in his blanket and said a silent prayer to a non-existent god that Ronan would just look out at the night and leave again, that his inquisitive gaze wouldn't wander downwards.

But even as he thought it, he knew it was stupid. He was sitting right there. Ronan's eyes searched the distance, then the porch, then landed on Adam, a sad little lump of a broken person wrapped in a fucking brown and orange blanket and curled against a pillar.

Ronan frowned, rubbing his hand over his short hair. He closed the door again. Adam thought maybe it was okay, that the mystery of the porch light had been solved, and Ronan would go back to bed.

But of course not. Of course not.

Ronan was back in under a minute, zipping up a brown work coat and shutting the door behind him. He sank down on the step beside Adam without a word, pawing at his eyes with the heel of his hand and staring out into the night.

Adam couldn't properly wallow in self-pity with Ronan right there. It wasn't going to work that way. He could feel his grief hardening back into bitterness and anger, right on cue. This wasn't supposed to be a group activity.

“What are you doing out here,” Adam mumbled, watching Ronan's gaze snap toward him at the sound.

“What am I doing? The fuck are you doing,” Ronan's dark eyebrows furrowed. “It's the middle of the goddamned night. I saw the porch light come on.”

“I'll turn it back off, then.”

“It's not about the fucking-”

Ronan cut himself off mid-sentence and visibly ground his teeth together, then turned and faced the front yard again.

“I had a … a dream that I couldn't … I needed some air,” Adam folded his arms over his knees, curling deeper into his blanket.

“You needed some – okay. Okay. It's, like – literally freezing out here, and your hair's wet. But okay. You needed some air.”

“I didn't ask you to sit here with me. If it's too cold then go back inside. I'm fine.”

“For Christ's sake, Parrish. Could you not just open a goddamned window or something? You had to come outside? You had to come sit – sit here,” Ronan's eyes closed, and his voice got smaller. “This spot.”

Adam felt himself glaring, but Ronan couldn't see it. “Yeah, this spot. Might as well, right? It's already burned into the backs of my fucking eyelids.”

“If I knew how to forget, I'd tell you.” Ronan's voice was barely audible.

“You already took everything else we had. You don't need to take this from me too.”

“Adam.”

“Don't,” his stomach soured. He could feel goosebumps on his arms that had absolutely nothing to do with the temperature outside.

“Maybe we … we need to talk.”

“Oh, right, did Blue tell you that, too? That we needed some closure?” Adam spit the word out – it tasted like rusted metal. “Because I'm not interested in that anymore. I tried to get you to talk to me for a fucking year. You can't seriously tell me now that you want to talk.”

“I know. I know why you’re pissed, okay? I guess I thought by now you’d be - I dunno. I just - I can’t deal with the way you still look at me.”

“Then go back inside,” Adam glared again, and this time Ronan flinched when he caught the full weight of it.

A heavy, angry silence settled in around Adam's shoulder blades. He turned his attention to the fenceposts just barely visible at the end of the yard.

“I always seem to stop here on this fucking porch,” Ronan's voice floated over to him again, thin and shaky. “Every night.”

“Is that why you like posting pictures of it on Facebook for everyone to see?”

“That wasn't for everyone else. It was for you.”

“God. You're not even going to pretend like you just … liked how the moon looked from here that night or whatever. Why don't you just lie to me for once in your obnoxious life.”

“Blue told me you and Grace broke up. It was – I don’t know. I shouldn't have done that,” Ronan swallowed, then dropped his face into his hands for a while.

“Okay, look,” Adam caught his breath, trying to hold onto a thought, trying to resist the urge to ease Ronan's fingers away, to hold onto him somehow, to keep him from spiraling. “I know this isn't easy. Or at least it's not easy for me. But Blue and Gansey – they're getting married, and we – we have to be here for them. We can't be fighting the whole time, I know that. But I am just – I am so done with trying to puzzle out what the fuck you want or don't want or are saying or aren't saying. I'm sorry if some part of me is never, ever going to be able to get what we had out of my – God. Out of my heart. I know that's my problem, that's on me. But I'll try harder. I just really need you to quit fucking with my head if we’re going to get along well enough for their sake.”

Ronan looked up slightly, staring out at the frosted grass, snapping and twisting his leather wristbands violently. Adam had always hated seeing Ronan's skin turn red like that.

“What I did to you,” Ronan bit his thumbnail for a second, then shook his head. “I think it might be the worst thing I've ever done in my life. Which is … is really saying something, if you think about it.”

Adam's body went completely still, shock sliding over his skin like glass. His eyes got wider as he stared unseeing toward Ronan's knees.

“I mean first of all I just want that to be out there," Ronan kept going, the words tumbling out in one breath. "I know now that I personally fucked up the most perfect and – and holy thing that ever existed, when I broke up with you. I didn't realize that then. But I do now. I know that doesn't make anything better. But whatever, it's the truth, so if that's what you want, there it is.”

“I ...” Adam's throat burned again.

Holy? Of all the words for Ronan Lynch to use. Jesus fucking Christ.

“I mean, the fact that you can even sit there and tell me that you're the one who can't ever quite get past it," Ronan paused to shake his head. "That you're the one who's always going to feel it. You clearly have no fucking idea what you're talking about and that's because of what I did to you. What I said to you so I could blow everything up and get you away from me. Somewhere safer and better.”

“Somewhere safer? God. Fuck you, all right? There was never anything more safe in my whole life than you. Just … fuck off, Ronan. I don't want to hear about your sacrifices for me. I never asked you for any.”

“I know you didn't. I'm not trying to be some noble asshole. I'm trying to just – to explain it. I know it's too late and you won't want to hear it and whatever, I know, I know. I just – I feel like I owe you that, at least. The parts I never told you. I think because I knew deep down you'd call me on it and talk me out of it.”

“You're just telling me this now because you're trying to make yourself feel better. You can explain it all night and it's not going to make me feel better.”

“I don't know how to make you feel better. Tell me how and I'll do it, Adam. What do you want me to do? What do you want me to say?”

“I don't know,” Adam sighed, his wide-awake bubble of energy bursting without warning. Fatigue and defeat sank in instead, pushing on the back of his neck, between his shoulders. “I don't know anymore. Why didn’t you say anything? All this time?”

”Because ... Grace. You had Grace. Or whoever before that. You seemed happy, I guess."

”God,” Adam groaned.

“I thought for a while … I thought you’d be with Grace for good. When I heard you broke up I just … I'm sorry.”

“Don't. You don't know anything about it.”

“So, what, you … weren't? Happy, I mean? With her?”

“I, um,” Adam caught a shaky breath, closing his eyes. “Of course I was. For a long time. She was my friend first and I - I really loved her. I still do. There was nothing wrong. And I still broke her heart anyway. Once I had the idea, that something was missing, that I wasn’t in love with her, I couldn't stop thinking about it, it was like some kind of thought poison. It's not her fault. She was perfect. She wanted me to explain exactly, precisely why I was doing this to her, to us, and I couldn't, I can't. I just knew all of a sudden that it wasn't quite right, and that was it, I pulled the plug on all of it.”

“... I'm sorry,” Ronan said again. Adam was admittedly relieved that he didn't say what everyone else said, which was more like it's probably for the best, or she'll be okay in time, whatever. "Did she know about ... Christ, I don't even know how to refer to it. Did she know about Glendower? All that shit?"

"No," Adam admitted in a small voice. "Which is awful, I know. Kind of a huge secret to keep. But that stuff is all kind of locked away in my head now. I never knew how to talk about it with other people. I mean how do you even broach the idea of it with someone else? It'd take days to - to even explain it, and I'd still probably get hauled away and institutionalized."

"I know."

"Even Grace - like, I didn't want to think she wouldn't believe me, wouldn't somehow take my word for it, but - God, it's a lot for someone to have to process and accept on total faith. And what if she couldn't, what if it changed her opinion of me and my sanity? For good? I never wanted to risk that."

"I get it. Believe me."

“Yeah, I know you get that part. So how come I never hear about you with anyone,” Adam tried, defensively, to point the spotlight away from himself and his own disastrous love life. “Is it like the artwork? Do they just not tell me anything about you because they're scared to say your name in front of me?”

“No. It's not like that.”

“So why don't they tell me?”

“Because there hasn't been that much to tell.”

“Oh come on, what, you're too busy farming now? Sculpting?”

Ronan glanced at him for the first time in a while, but it was quick. He faced forward again. Adam wondered how much of this conversation was happening solely because they were sitting side by side and didn't necessarily have to maintain eye contact.

“It's been years, Ronan.”

“I know. Fine. There've been some guys, yeah. One I was back and forth to Charlottesville a lot for. But it's ... Nothing's really lasted that long. But what's the point, really. I can't just start unloading the truth about me and all my shit on someone because I think they have a nice smile or whatever. Look around you. I live in a magical fucking dream farm with a - a hooved satyr genius who looks thirteen but is possibly an immortal dream sage of some type. I don't exactly bring a lot of dates back to my place.”

“You should come to D.C. more often. Plenty of places to go out and meet people there. You're cocky and rich and you look like … like that,” Adam waved a hand helplessly to allude to Ronan's physical self in general.

“Like what? Sleep-deprived?”

“No, you – Jesus, you know what I mean. If I took you out to one of the bars I've been to, you'd have guys all over you.”

“Sounds great if I just wanted to get laid. I didn't think that's what you were asking me about.”

“It wasn't,” Adam admitted, folding his arms over his knees.

“Okay, so. You never hear about anybody because there isn't anyone for them to talk about, not anyone who sticks around. And maybe not because they don't want to. Most of the time I know they shouldn't bother trying. There's only one you in the world. And I blew that up a lifetime ago in a way that you don't come back from. The end.”

“... Oh my God,” he stared, too stunned to think of anything else to say.

“I know, I know, I'm sorry. You don't want to hear it. It's too late and I know that. I'm the one who said we should maybe talk. But I know you didn't want that part.”

“You just – God, Ronan, you have some kind of fucking nerve.”

“Don't look at me like that. I'm not saying it because I'm somehow delusional enough to think I could ever get you back, or should. I'm just telling you the truth, so you can have it. You said you're done trying to figure out what I want, what I don't want. But … Adam, there's nothing new to figure out. I just – I know you're not going to want to hear it, and I don't blame you in the slightest. So I don't fucking say it. That's the big mystery. Once upon a time I did a terrible thing to both our lives. Big surprise. And now I just spend my time hoping one of us can recover from it, specifically you.”

Adam couldn't look at him anymore and process any of this at the same time. Ronan was an unbelievable asshole but still distractingly handsome.

Adam held his head and stared out into the front yard for what might have been an eternity.

“You know what,” Adam sighed, feeling so inside-out and drained that he wasn't even sure what was going to pop out of his mouth until he said it. “Sometimes I think you were right. To do what you did.”

“Really. Well.” Ronan had his hands over his stomach, like he'd been kicked. “So glad you've decided to come around on that.”

Ronan swallowed and got to his feet, disappearing back inside the house.

A not-insignificant part of Adam was reaching out to him, wanting to tell him to stop. But his voice wouldn't work.

Adam thought he might legitimately be in shock. He was a hollowed-out shell and could only hear echoes of what had already happened, not form any new thoughts about them. He shut his eyes and leaned his head against the pillar and heard Ronan's voice on repeat without actually wanting to. There's only one you in the world.

Chapter Text

Adam stumbled through the next morning in a bit of a fog, but he wasn't the only one.

Blue and Gansey were both yawning and moving around in slow motion. But it was so obvious to Adam that they'd been up all night for a very different reason. He could see it in the way Blue leaned over and brushed her fingers over Gansey's shoulders, lingering luxuriously, dropping a kiss there and making Gansey blush as he fumbled with his tea.

It was just after nine, and Adam was propped up on his elbow over coffee at the dining room table, swiping disinterestedly through Instagram on his phone without really taking in the photos. It was just something to do, something to look at instead of letting his eyes follow a very grumpy-looking Ronan around the kitchen and dining room, shoving the button on the toaster as if it had attacked him.

Ronan was in a thin white t-shirt and an old pair of dark jeans so torn up that it was barely worth having them on in the first place. He was barefoot and he had one of his mysterious bruises blooming on the outside of his forearm.

Adam swore at himself inside his head and looked down at the pictures again: A latte mug with a multicolored swirl of foam. A view of a choppy gray lake from the edge of a floating dock. A teddy bear wearing pink plastic sunglasses. He studied them all, forcefully and stubbornly.

“Are they both still asleep up there?” Blue's voice made him jump. He glanced up at the ceiling, like he could somehow use X-ray vision to answer this.

“Matthew'll sleep through lunch, probably,” Ronan's voice was a little scratchier than usual. It was a subtle difference. Adam wondered if the others would notice.

“I hate to leave without saying goodbye. It feels so rude. But I don't want to wake them up,” Blue scraped at the bottom of a yogurt cup. “Ronan, sit down already. You don't have to wait on us.”

“Gimme a fucking second, Sargent,” Ronan growled and snatched at the toast, shaking his fingers quickly when he burned himself on the edges. Adam could just barely see him through the archway into the kitchen.

“How is Matthew liking Penn State, anyway?” Gansey spoke up so Ronan could hear him. He was finally looking up from an olive green cloth-bound book he'd acquired from somewhere – looked like one of those dusty old volumes that lined the shelves of the library.

“I dunno. Fine, I guess. He fuckin' likes everything, you know that,” Ronan shrugged as he shuffled in. His hands were full, things balanced precariously in his fingers and the crook of his arm. He plunked a small plate with toast on it in front of Adam. He also had a cup of coffee for himself, and an open jar of peanut butter with a knife stuck in it, which he slid in Adam's direction without a word.

Adam chewed on his bottom lip, nostalgia warming and choking him. He felt like he could see through time again, like Gansey. This was one of a dozen other moments when Ronan had done the exact same thing, silently shoving the peanut butter over because he knew it was Adam's favorite, and it would fill him up more than just plain toast before a shift at the factory. But Ronan had never asked or commented about it. He just paid quiet attention to things. Details.

It was the same way Ronan used to irritably toss two sugar packets at Adam whenever he ordered coffee. Ronan was skilled at pulling it off in an annoyed, put-out sort of way, preempting and deflecting anyone who might dare to suggest that Ronan was doing anything thoughtful or kind.

Adam shot him a look, just so he wouldn't think it had gone unnoticed. Ronan lifted one shoulder, almost imperceptibly, and wrapped his hands around his coffee.

“Ronan, I was so glad to hear Matthew was coming to the Barns for his break. Thought you'd be happy,” Gansey continued, and Adam had to drag his thoughts back to the current conversation.

“Mm-hmm. Opal, too.”

“How's he enjoying the whole college experience? Going to too many parties? Getting into any trouble?”

“Oh, he's been to plenty of parties,” Ronan muttered. “Got himself a fake ID, too. Declan found it and blew his fucking lid.”

Adam busied himself with spreading peanut butter, smiling at this despite his conflicted mood.

“He's gotten so tall,” Blue observed. “I doubt he'd even need an ID. He could probably just breeze in anyway. Does he have a car there?”

“No. Hell no. He's being kind of a hilarious little shit to Declan about it. About everything. So that's always fun. He even got a tattoo this semester. Matching anchor bullshit with some of his college bros.”

“He got a tattoo? Matthew?” Gansey gaped.

“Some place by the bars that he just walked into one night. Thought it would be cool.”

“God, that's so college,” Blue shook her head. “Getting your first tattoo. Don't you think so, Adam?”

Adam froze, his mouth full of peanut butter, and nearly choked when he saw the way Ronan's eyes had just honed in on him with precision and demand. None of the usual sneakiness about it.

“Sargent,” Adam shook his head, trying to swallow a scratchy bit of toast. “No.”

Of course she'd gone there. Of course. She was fucking shameless sometimes.

“What? It's gorgeous, come on. I didn't mean that it was some kind of cliché infinity sign or-”

Blue,” Adam glared at her, then gulped down more coffee.

“I'm sorry, can we just … pause for a second,” Gansey lifted a finger, his face delighted and curious. “Do you have something to share with the group, Adam?”

“No,” he ran a self-conscious hand down his side, like they'd be able to see it through his sweater. He didn't know why he was freaking out so much about it, really; he'd just never actually confessed it to Gansey, and Ronan–

God. The way Ronan was looking at him. Intent and burning and fully awake. He had to hold onto the edge of the table for a second.

“How do I not know about this,” Gansey's eyes got even wider. “I am your best friend. I'm honestly a little hurt by this.”

“Gansey, for – for Christ's sake,” Adam mumbled. His face felt warm, which made him squirm even more. “It's not a big deal.”

“You have to tell me now. I'm serious. Jane, I'm wounded. How dare you keep this a secret from your betrothed.” Gansey's dramatic words were softened by the way he was smiling, his eyes fucking lit up with glee.

“You've been my betrothed for all of ten days.”

“What is it, Adam? Where is it? Come on.”

“It's not a – okay, fine, it's a – it's a Cabeswater thing,” he ran his hands through his hair. “Sort of. It's, like … vines and leaves and forest shit, all right? What else do you think I would get?”

“Cabeswater,” Gansey gasped. “Jesus. Where?”

“Right here,” Adam pointed vaguely to the left side of his rib cage. It actually started at his hip and wrapped partway up his stomach and chest, but he didn't need to provide them with an exact scale.

“Let me see. I want to see it.”

“Gansey, it's not even ten in the morning, I'm not stripping for you in the dining room, at least not until I've finished my fucking coffee.”

“Okay, calm down,” Blue made a gesture with her hands like she was pressing something toward the table repeatedly. “Nobody needs to strip.”

Adam watched her warily, his hand still spread protectively against his body. Sometimes he thought that if he concentrated hard enough, he could feel Cabeswater's magic pulsing there below the ink. It was a visualization trick. To focus and find the energy still inside him.

Ronan had been utterly silent through this entire exchange, which was how Adam knew it was seriously bothering him or something. Otherwise he wouldn't have been able to resist giving Adam shit about it. Got yourself a tramp stamp, Parrish? Didn't know there were any tattoo parlors that took food stamps.

Blue had gone back to looking at her phone, sort of purposefully, and-

Oh, God, Blue was looking at her phone. Adam groaned and covered his eyes.

“The fuck's the matter,” Ronan's voice popped up for the first time in a while.

“He knows I have photographic evidence,” Blue announced. “Hang on, I think I – it's an old picture, I-”

“You promised me,” Adam complained pointlessly. It was too late now. “You promised. I hate you so much.”

“I know, I know. Just calm down, we are all your best friends here, you know that, and I’m sick of keeping this secret. Jesus, how long ago was – Oh! Oh, here we go. That's the Prudential building, I know we're – Aha.”

Adam braced himself and waited. He opened his eyes slowly to see Gansey peering over at Blue's purple phone and staring in perfect amazement at whatever he was looking at. Then he swiped around on it, fucking zooming in and clearly taking note of the detail work on leaves and roots here and there. Adam slumped back in his chair.

He didn't know why he'd never mentioned this to Gansey. Gansey wasn't wrong; he was Adam's best friend, and to some extent it seemed a little weird that Adam had never brought this up. It was, after all, a pretty big and permanent change. And it had meant a lot to Adam. It still did. But despite their closeness, he and Gansey didn't see each other all that often, and there had always been plenty of other shit to catch up on when they did.

Adam had chosen the placement and design very carefully for personal reasons, some of them secretly Ronan-related, some of them to cover a couple of nasty scars from his childhood, and he couldn't think of a real need to explain that to anyone. It was something he'd done for himself, and he'd had it placed where he didn't have to show it to anyone if he didn't really want to. If someone new was in the position to discover it, Adam didn't have to say anything about the private meaning. He could just claim to like the look of it. To like nature, or whatever.

He hadn't told Blue the whole story, of course. If she'd seen his scars at the tattoo parlor, she hadn't said anything to point them out. She knew about the Cabeswater theme, but probably a Ronan connection would not have occurred to her. Despite how they all knew that Cabeswater had come from Ronan Lynch's head, they tended to forget that part.

So he couldn't exactly be angry at her for revealing it after all this time. She didn't know.

Gansey was still exclaiming and reiterating that he couldn't believe he didn't know already. He started to pass the phone to Ronan, but Ronan held it with the screen away from him, turning to look carefully and pointedly at Adam.

He was waiting for permission. Adam knew that expression well, the expectant and patient question in Ronan's eyes.

Distantly, Adam noticed Blue's body language change into something more abashed and apologetic, an instant switch at Ronan's pause. As if she just then realized that this could be potentially awkward or inappropriate.

“You can look, it's no big deal,” Adam shrugged, but he held Ronan's gaze for another second, trying to express some gratitude for the way he'd handled it.

Even after everything, after all that had happened, Ronan was still the one he was really safest with. More than anyone else. It did feel stupid and naive to think that, considering the irony in how Ronan had broken his heart so fully and ruthlessly. But in Ronan's own fucked-up way, he'd apparently done it for Adam's sake. He would never actually hurt him, never take anything that Adam wasn't clearly and explicitly ready to give.

He observed tensely as Ronan looked at the picture, squinting and holding it closer but not zooming in. Just stared at it evenly and then handed Blue's phone back to her. He could sense Ronan's eyes drifting toward the side of his sweater, maybe trying to mentally map it out, and his cheeks got hot again.

Ronan would remember those particular scars. He'd catch that, the reason for the placement. Adam felt it suddenly and certainly. Ronan had nearly broken a window when he’d first understood that the round splotch on Adam’s rib was an old cigarette burn.

“How long ago,” Gansey played with the tag dangling from his mug of tea. “How long have you had it?”

“Um. It was my twenty-first birthday.” He looked over at Blue, who nodded, confirming the timeframe. She was his only witness, after all. “Go on, tell the story. I know you want to. I'm trying to eat.”

Adam shoved more peanut butter toast into his mouth, thereby recusing himself from the proceedings.

Blue dutifully filled in the details of how she'd come to visit Adam in Boston for a weekend when Gansey had been out on the west coast with his mom for some kind of political thing. Adam had acquired a significant gift certificate donated by a tattoo artist at a charity raffle. He’d told Blue about his birthday plan because he'd wanted someone to come with him, someone who could keep his secret.

“Well there's your first mistake,” Ronan glowered over at Blue, who shrugged guiltily.

“Look, I have kept this secret for a long time now," Blue sighed. "I'll continue to keep it from everyone else, okay, but you two don't count.”

“Apparently we did for more than two years,” Gansey pursed his lips, and Adam was really beginning to wonder if Gansey's whole protest was not just for show. Was he seriously pouting about it?

Blue ignored him and went on with her story, including some weird details Adam didn't really feel were strictly necessary, such as how he'd been in summer housing at the time and he'd been hooking up with Karen who worked at the front desk, and the tattoo healing process had put an abrupt end to their illicit affair.

“You know, thanks for really going for it with this story,” Adam rolled his eyes.

“You didn't say to leave out the salacious details.”

“Should I really have to specify that?”

“Next time get your back done,” Ronan muttered. “Won't have to take such a break from all that pussy.”

“Ronan,” Gansey scolded, clearly more out of habit than actual concern. Blue had spit out a little bit of tea in an attempt to stifle her laughter.

Adam looked up at the ceiling in exasperation and just then realized he could hear loud footsteps at the top of the stairs.

“Okay, can we put a lid on this story already, it's become R-rated for some reason,” Adam kept his voice down as Opal hurried down toward the kitchen.

“Oh, good! I was afraid you'd all be gone already,” Opal greeted them with a smile and sleepy eyes. Adam felt a welcome wave of relief at her presence, which was nice in itself, but also did a good job of shutting Blue Sargent up for a while.

“We're just about to get on the road, I think,” Gansey gave Opal's hair a tiny little tug. “Did you sleep okay up there?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Adam, don't rush. Finish eating. You have your car here. We'll meet you back at the house,” Blue noticed him glancing down at his second piece of toast.

“Okay. I'll be right behind you.”

Blue ran an affectionate hand over Adam's hair, and then Adam was left alone as the others said their goodbyes. He took his time eating, gathering the dishes and bringing them to the sink. Then he picked up the little presents from Opal and said a mental goodbye to the house again. He was glad to have a little privacy for that.

Opal came inside and saw him standing there, then hurried over for a hug, throwing her arms around his neck. Adam twirled her around again and touched a thumb to her chin when he set her down.

“Ronan has my phone number. Use it, if you want. Okay?” Adam said loudly enough so Ronan could actually hear and agree to such a thing. Ronan had just come back inside and was kicking something off of the bottom of his boot by the door.

“Um. Okay,” Opal's eyes tightened, her lip trembling. It cracked at the insides of Adam's chest.

“Send me pictures of your garden. Tell me how things are going. Type me some sentences in Italian,” Adam kissed her forehead. “I'm not far away.”

“Please don't work too hard, Adam.”

Ronan let out a harsh little laugh at that and leaned against the wall.

After Opal had climbed the stairs again, Adam spun around in a slow circle, taking all of it in one more time. Then he ended up pointed toward the door again. Toward Ronan.

“Walk me out?” he heard himself suggest in a low, gravelly voice that didn't seem to belong to him.

He was fucking tired. That's all it was.

Ronan stared at him cautiously for half a minute, then pushed the door open with his shoulder. They got to the Taurus in silence. Adam went around to the passenger side and set Opal's presents carefully on the seat, stalling pathetically. Then he took one more look at the front porch, at the barn near them where Ronan had once snuck him away from movie night with their friends so they could make out in one of the stalls. Years ago, but it didn't feel like that. The Barns seemed so unaffected by the passage of time.

He stood at the driver's side, hesitating too long for it to not mean something. He leaned against the car while Ronan hovered there with his hands shoved in his pockets. Then Adam took a deep breath and a couple of steps forward.

He'd meant it to be just a polite, quick hug, but as soon as his arms found themselves wound around Ronan's neck again, he couldn't let go. Ronan had frozen briefly but then his hands were clutching at Adam's shoulders and back.

It didn't feel like the way he ought to be hugging an acquaintance, or friend, or ex-boyfriend, or stranger, or ... Adam clung anyway, helplessly, allowed himself another little relapse that he'd regret later. Ronan still smelled the same, somehow. God. He buried his face in Ronan's shoulder for a few breaths and then forced himself to let go, to push himself back. It was like being splashed with ice water, letting go like that.

It was just a fucking hug goodbye.

Ronan took his time sliding away, spreading his hand over Adam's left side, narrowing his eyes. Adam could feel him trying to imagine the tattoo again. It was nerve-wracking.

“I, um,” Adam raked at his hair, his fingers trembling, his heart out of control. “It was good to see you."

Ronan lifted an eyebrow at him, but still didn't say anything.

"I think Gansey's going to try to get you to come to Richmond soon," Adam babbled nervously, filling silence. "Wedding stuff, or something.”

“He told me.”

“Okay. Great. I – I'll see you, then. Later.”

“You sure you're good to drive? You didn't get any sleep.”

“Neither did you.”

Ronan frowned and hugged his arms around himself.

“I'll be fine,” Adam's gaze fluttered down to the bruise on Ronan's arm. It was a dark, angry splotch on the ridge near his elbow.

“There's more coffee inside. I can get you some to take with you.”

“No, I – thanks, I'm good,” Adam touched a compulsive fingertip to the edge of the purple mark. Ronan jumped a little at the contact, which snapped Adam out of his trance and made him pull his hand away again.

Ronan made a frustrated noise and scrubbed his hands over his head, then took a step back. Then another. “You have to go. Okay. Fuck. I know. I'll see you.”

Adam yanked the car door open and slid in with a strange combination of relief and misery. Then he flew down the driveway in a cloud of dust that would've made the eighteen-year-old Ronan Lynch smirk.

At Fox Way, he said more goodbyes and thank yous. He took a moment to lay his hand against the wall of Persephone's old room. He grabbed up his backpack and hugged Blue again.

“Was it bad last night?” Blue asked in a whisper.

“Was what bad?”

“Whatever fight you and Ronan had. I figured that was what happened. From the way you two were acting. I'm sorry I brought you out there in the first place.”

“It wasn't exactly a fight,” Adam responded, then stopped to consider whether this was actually true. It had felt like fighting, in parts. “I dunno. It wasn't fun. But maybe you were right, when you said we should talk. Maybe it was still sort of … necessary. He said some things that I ... that he's been keeping inside for years and I ... I think I need to figure out how I feel about that.”

The sharpness of that encounter had been somewhat eased by the way Ronan had been holding onto him by the car about half an hour ago. Adam took a steadying breath.

“So it wasn't bad enough that you don't want to ever see him again. Right? Because I kind of need you both at my wedding. You're my best friends.”

“No, I - It's going to be fine. I just – I'm in Ronan Lynch overload right now. It's been kind of a lot to handle. I'll feel better when I get home and can process and … you know. Shit, that sounds super ungrateful. I'm really glad I came. I'm so happy for you and Gansey. I hope you know that.”

“I know. I am, too.” Blue kissed his cheek and walked with him to the Taurus.

When he was driving away from Henrietta again, he turned off Ronan's radio station and rolled the windows all the way up, blasting some air conditioning and enjoying the silence. It was time to get back to his real life.

Chapter Text

Adam's phone had a tendency to buzz at him when he already had his hands full. Or maybe it was the other way around.

This time he was flat on his back, on the dolly under a red Volkswagen. He ignored it for the moment. It buzzed again, insistently, and his curiosity became too much.

He slid out quickly – he'd been so jumpy at work that day – and wiped off his hands. It was almost the end of his shift, anyway.

His stomach dropped in a little panic when he saw that the first notification was some kind of alert about his checking account. But then he saw the little plus sign and his heart rate calmed down again.

He had been refunded one hundred and eighty-five dollars. He looked at it three times and it still said CREDIT. He wasn't imagining things.

Then he saw the text from Ronan, and he began piecing things together. It was a simple question – you still at work? - but the coincidence of the timing here was telling. Adam's bank account was on life support these days, between paychecks from his Georgetown job. So he knew exactly how much money should be in there at all times, and he knew that he'd just spent one hundred and eighty-five dollars on an admittedly frivolous item. But he'd seen it on Ronan's gallery online and he'd been completely unable to resist it. The sculptures had mostly all taken his breath away, but one in particular had been so reminiscent of Cabeswater that he'd needed it in a way that he didn't usually give in to. Of course he'd seen shoes and albums and video games and bottles of scotch that he'd needed before, whatever, but this had been so different, like it was speaking to him directly. But he supposed that was still a rationalization.

So now he had the money back, for some reason, and a mysterious text from Ronan. He sent an admittedly bratty reply – what do you think? - and waited.

don't know why I even asked. are you done anytime soon? need to talk to you real quick

Adam looked at the time, asked if he could call back in about twenty minutes. Then he waited just long enough to see Ronan's ok and got back to work.

It was an extremely long twenty minutes. The longest twenty minutes he'd experienced in a while. But he didn't want to call Ronan right there in the damn garage. He punched his timecard at six, zipped up his jacket, and began his ten-minute walk to the Metro.

“Parrish,” Ronan answered on the third ring. It was still disorienting, to say the least, to experience Ronan Lynch actually accepting phone calls and text messages.

“Hey. Sorry for the wait.”

“It's fine, I know. Work.” Ronan's familiar, deep voice was such a warm thrill after a couple of days of being back in the real world, where Ronan wasn't part of his life.

“Yeah. Long day. What's up?”

“So, uh … Opal told me you ordered something from the website.”

“Well, I thought I did. It just refunded me, though. Can I not order stuff that way? Do I have to go to a physical store or something?”

“No, you – Christ, Parrish. First of all, if you want one of these things, you do not need to purchase it from me, all right? No way in hell am I taking your money. It kind of pisses me off that you'd even try that. Why wouldn't you just tell me?”

“Ronan-”

“No, seriously, you're not going to pay for it. I know you think that I'm giving you something you didn't earn, and you don't take handouts, blah blah, I know all of this better than you can possibly imagine. And it doesn't matter this time, so just – just don't even start with it.”

“I … I didn't want to … God. Fine,” Adam frowned down at the curb in front of him. He didn't seem much of a choice there. “I don't like it, but fine. I'm too tired to argue with you right now.”

“I know you don't like it, but that's how it is. Take it or leave it.”

“Got it,” Adam sighed.

“Good. Second thing, then. Those are just the ones I already had sitting around. You don't need to be picking through the leftovers. If you really want something like that, I can make you one. A new one. For you. You know that, right?”

“I want the one I picked out,” Adam protested, and it sounded much more petulant than he'd intended. “I wouldn't have tried to buy it otherwise. I thought my debit card would've said that clearly enough for you to fucking hear.”

There was a pause, and then Ronan's voice faltered. “Adam. I'm not – I mean ...”

Adam really was tired and edgy and his emotions were spilling over unpredictably. Internally, he played back what he'd just said and realized that maybe it had come out a little more harshly than he would have liked. That must have been why Ronan was suddenly backing off.

It was just way too easy to slip back into defensive mode with Ronan. Even if things seemed a little different since Christmas, it was still a sudden change. Relatively speaking.

“What was it that you liked about that one,” Ronan asked after a little while. “Like, as opposed to the other ones.”

“I'm not sure if I can describe it. Even if I do, you'll, um … you're going to think it's predictable.”

“Cabeswater?”

“Yeah,” Adam waited at an intersection for the traffic light to change.

“Okay. I get it. I saw which one you wanted. I know. I think it just … it made me nervous, when she told me you'd ordered something. If it's for you, I – I want to make sure it's something good and not just … you know. Something pretty that Opal thought would still sell.”

“They're all good, Ronan. It's amazing work.”

“Whatever. Look, you can have that one if you want. Just as long as you know that you don't have to shop a fucking website if you want something from me. Just ask for it, for God's sake.”

“What if you sell it to me for like half price? Friend discount?”

“Fuck off. I gotta go.”

“Me too.”

“I'll bring you your thing next time I'm in the city.”

“Okay,” Adam lingered outside on the street, wishing he could find a reason to draw out the conversation a bit. Against his better judgment, he really liked hearing Ronan's voice again. “If you want to just send it to me, I put my address in the order form.”

“Is that what you want? For me to put it in the mail instead?” Ronan's voice was quiet and hesitant.

“Um,” Adam chewed on his lip and hesitated. It felt like an important question, a certain line he might be crossing. But after they'd last seen each other, Adam did not have a strong grasp on where the lines were anymore. He could still feel Ronan's hand at the small of his back, when they'd hugged goodbye. “Seems like it would be a lot easier if you just wanted to put it in the car. If you were driving this way. Otherwise you at least have to let me pay the shipping cost, because that wasn't part of the deal.”

“Stubborn piece of shit.”

“Ronan-”

“What.”

“I – Nothing. Never mind. I'm at the subway, I'm gonna lose my signal.”

“Okay. I'll text you next time I'm in town.”

“Yeah. All right. See you.”

 


 

Adam checked his watch and then looked at his reflection in the bedroom mirror. It was too late for him to change his mind again. This was the shirt he was wearing, and that was that.

Luke would be wearing something tailored and gorgeous and chosen to be just eye-catching enough. Adam knew this. He also knew that no matter what he pulled from his own boring closet, he was going to look like he was wearing a trash bag in comparison.

It was too late. He needed to hurry. He hadn't gotten off work until after ten and now he was supposed to be showing up at a party downtown before the ball dropped at midnight. He hoped the shower had washed off most of the oil smell, but he threw on a little aftershave just for good measure.

So many noisy, oblivious people were crowding the streets, the metro, every awning along the sidewalks. Adam found his way to the party, texting back and forth with Luke and assuring him that he'd be there soon. Luke's texts were making Adam blush already, saying that he wanted to dance again. Adam felt like a dirty secret had been laid bare. But obviously Luke hadn't forgotten that moment from a while back.

The party was in an actual little warehouse that reminded him unpleasantly of Monmouth Manufacturing. He could see the place lit up all the way down the street. He was out somewhere by the ballpark and quite unfamiliar with the area, but he followed his GPS, and then he was walking into a pulsing sea of people, young and attractive and full of energy.

“Adam,” Luke was breathless, surprising him – he'd approached from the left. His fingers trailed along Adam's upper arm. He looked a little tipsy, but he was practically glowing and maybe even more good-looking than ever. God, those eyelashes. “You made it.”

“Just in time,” Adam smiled, nodding up at the giant digital clock projected over the DJ's stage. Less than an hour to spare. He had to speak up to be heard, even out there at the front door. The music was pounding from further inside.

“Adam, this is Charlie. And Ezra. Guys, this is Adam. Blue's friend from back home.”

“Hi,” they both greeted him, shaking his hand in turn.

“Shit, Luke. You were right,” Charlie grinned, looking Adam over and raising an eyebrow.

“Shut up,” Luke laughed. “Adam, come on, you look like you need a drink.”

The next fifty-one minutes of his life rushed past in a dizzying spin of champagne and music and laughter. It was everything he'd needed just then, after having worked his ass off the entire break. He felt awake and present, for once. And Luke's attention was so fully honed in on Adam, long lingering gazes that were almost like –

Ronan, his brain insisted, somewhere deep down. He drained his champagne and went to order more.

“You seem different tonight,” Luke observed. “I – remind me again, is it your right side? Sorry.”

“Yeah,” Adam's cheeks got warm when Luke had leaned close to be heard in there. It was loud at the bar. “What do you mean, I seem different. In a bad way?”

“No. God, no. You seem … happier. Less anxious.”

“I am happier. Now, I mean,” he grinned. And maybe it was the truth.

Maybe it was the alcohol.

“Good. You said you'd dance with me. Remember?”

“Mm-hmm.” Adam touched nervous fingers to his hair. Dancing wasn't exactly something that came naturally. But he knew that he could let go enough to enjoy it, eventually. He just had to make himself get there and quit agonizing about whether people would be laughing at him.

He gave up on the drink line and reached for Luke instead, weaving their fingers together, feeling bold from the way Luke was watching him. Then he headed toward the lit-up dance floor, trying to relax into the music, feeling it pulse like the ley line inside him. Luke clutched tightly at his hand and they snaked into the crowd, finding just enough room to stand close together, wedging themselves into a little gap. Adam closed his eyes for a minute, his head bobbing to the song, his body slowly following suit.

Luke's fingertips found Adam's waist, and then Adam was holding him there, running a palm up over his forearm, his elbow, his bicep. Luke was a little shorter than him – when the song ended, Adam was able to rest his forehead against the top of Luke's and catch his breath. They stayed close even as the song died away. But then another beat kicked up in its place, and they were grinning and laughing and dancing again.

Adam could feel both of Luke's hands occasionally clutching at his shirt. It was a rush to be so close to someone like that. He felt wanted. He twisted in time with the music, and he and Luke kept staring at each other so much that Adam was getting turned on just from the fucking eye contact.

He was so caught up with the dancing that he forgot everything else around him, and when the music quieted again to allow the DJ to announce the New Year's countdown, he heard Luke make a little noise of disappointment.

Adam pushed his hair out of his eyes and looked up at the clock. Twenty-nine seconds.

He had temporarily forgotten the New Year's midnight kiss thing. Was he going to be kissed? Now?

He wanted to be kissed. He wanted it pretty badly, actually. It had been a while.

Luke's thumbs were moving slowly back and forth over Adam's ribs, and the arch of his eyebrows held a silent question as he glanced up at the clock and back to Adam's face.

As soon as the clock announced HAPPY NEW YEAR, Luke brought a hand to Adam’s cheek.

Luke's kiss was light and breathless and sweet. Adam could hear yelling and cheering and loud cheesy celebratory music, but he focused on the kiss, because you only got one chance at a good midnight New Year's kiss.

And it was good.

But it wasn't one of those kisses. The kind that lit you up on the inside. And Adam knew just by looking at Luke that the feeling was mutual. It hadn't been bad, not at all. Just … not really remarkable, either.

Luke smiled in a way that was slightly different than before. It made Adam instantly sad to recognize the change and to know what had caused it. Luke kissed his cheek, lingering there a long time, and whispered happy new year. Then they were pulling apart again, watching each other carefully.

“It's so hot in here,” Luke glanced around at the other couples still kissing, or starting to dance again, swaying along to Auld Lang Syne. “Can we go somewhere else for a little bit?”

At first Adam thought maybe Luke wanted to go somewhere else to continue making out. But he knew deep down that the words would've sounded different if that were the case.

Adam nodded, squeezing Luke's hand, and let himself be led off the dance floor into a stairwell. There was another room above them, with another bar, but it was more like a lounge. They could still hear the music pumping from the first floor, but it was blessedly muted up there.

They found a little round table tucked away in a corner – Adam thought it looked like something out of Star Trek – and then Adam got them another drink from the much less crowded bar in there.

“Thanks,” Luke smiled, accepting a champagne flute. “You having fun?”

“Yes. Thank you so much for getting me to come out tonight. I needed a break.”

“I'm glad you came. I told my friends all about you. How cute you are. I hope they're not mad that I'm neglecting them tonight.”

“I would be. If I were them. If some jerk like me was dancing with you all night.”

“Adam,” he laughed, running a finger over the rim of his glass. “I have to admit something. I've been thinking about you a lot. Even before Christmas. Ever since I heard – well. That you were single again. I know that's insensitive.”

“No, it's – it's okay.”

“I had kind of a crush on you right away.”

“You did not.”

“Yeah, I actually did.”

“I'm sorry, I just – you're so gorgeous I don't even know what to think around you. Is that weird?”

It’s not weird. It’s really sweet,” Luke leaned over to press another light kiss against Adam's cheek. Adam closed his eyes for a minute.

“It's sweet,” Adam echoed, feeling his mouth shape itself into a rueful smile. “But you're going to tell me that we're better off staying friends. Aren't you?”

“That's what you think, too. Admit it. I really like you. I would love it so much if you asked me out, if you couldn't keep your hands off me, if you had a thrill knowing that you could have me now, now that you're single again. But I also don't generally date people who are still in love with their ex-boyfriends.”

Adam felt like he'd been pierced and deflated. He'd opened his mouth to deny it, but Luke was so casually factual about it.

“I'm not … Is that what you honestly think?” Adam sighed. “I dated him in high school, for God's sake.”

“Adam. I've seen how you are around him. You guys can't keep your eyes off each other. I don't know what exactly happened back then, but I can tell he's still in there,” Luke tapped at Adam's chest.

“Well, yeah, he's still my friend, I … um. God. I must sound so pathetic right now.”

“No, you don't. Not at all. I think it's rather romantic, actually."

“Mm. Okay. Well. I think maybe I should … um. Head out. I can't stay out all night like I used to. Work has kind of exhausted me.”

“I understand. Thanks for coming out with us. It was fun. I'll walk down with you.”

“You're – you are lovely,” Adam couldn't help himself. “And patient. And way too kind.”

“Come on.”

Just past the front door, at the corner where it was more private, Adam stopped, torn and frustrated and worn out. He pulled Luke close again and kissed him, just because he didn't want to give up so easily. He knew he'd felt something with Luke – he always had, even when he wasn't supposed to. And he'd felt warm all over from the nonstop flirting lately.

Luke slid his hands to the back of Adam's neck, kissing him more intently this time.

Adam wanted it so much. He wanted it to light them both up and take their breath away.

But … all of it be damned, Luke was fucking right. Because Adam knew he should just be enjoying kissing someone new, not telling his brain to shut up with the rebellious little Ronan, Ronan echo making an unwelcome return from years ago.

It wasn't right to treat Luke like that, to kiss him even while knowing that he was forcing another name out of his consciousness.

This was all Ronan's goddamned fault. If they hadn't seen each other again, hadn't spent so much time … if Ronan hadn't unloaded all of that shit onto Adam all of a sudden …

There's only one you in the world.

Adam pulled his mouth from Luke's with a little sigh and took a guilty step back.

“God, Adam,” Luke steadied himself with his hands against Adam's chest. “I hope it works out for you. That lucky asshole.”

“He's certainly one of those things,” Adam muttered and squeezed Luke's hands in his. “You'd better get back in there. People have been staring daggers at me for monopolizing you.”

“Stop. You know where to find me, okay? Let’s talk again soon. Happy New Year. Hope it'll be the one you want.”

“You too. I really am glad you invited me out tonight,” Adam whispered, then forced himself away, letting Luke go.

It was a depressing and bleak trip home on the metro. Adam felt more alone than he had in a very, very long time.

It was almost one-thirty when he sank onto his futon, frustrated and angry with himself, miserable with loneliness. He pulled his phone out of his back pocket so he wouldn't break it. And then he saw that he'd gotten a couple of new text messages from Ronan.

  

happy new year

 

And then:

 

did you really have to hug me goodbye like that

 

The last text wasn't even half an hour old. Adam stabbed his finger at the call button, knowing it was stupid. But he didn't want Luke's words to be for nothing. Clearly he really did need to do some more work sorting through his feelings.

“Hi,” Ronan's voice sent little sparks through his skin. It was so ridiculous. He lay back and closed his eyes to focus on it.

“You just can't resist, can you,” Adam blurted out.

“That's not really answering the question, Parrish.”

“I thought it was fucking rhetorical.”

“So was yours.”

“God, I still hate you sometimes. You just completely ruined my New Year's date.”

“I – wait, what?” Ronan's voice was actually serious now, chastened.

“I went out with Luke,” Adam admitted easily, because he wasn't going to cushion this for Ronan fucking Lynch. “I thought it was going pretty great. I had fun. I hadn't kissed anyone in way too long. I missed the feeling of even wanting to. But he knew. He could tell. It didn't even take a whole minute.”

“Did you seriously call me to tell me about how you made out with Sargent's male model roommate, because, like … I guess you must not be fucking around when you say you hate me sometimes.”

“I'm not. You trashed my heart a while back. In case you don't remember.”

“I remember just fine.”

“Great. Anyway you're missing the point of what I was saying.”

“Jesus, are we not done with this story yet? Maybe I can go electrocute myself while we're at it.”

“I kissed him and he told me he doesn't date guys who are … who are still hung up on their ex-boyfriends.”

Actually, Adam distinctly remembered that Luke had said still in love with their ex-boyfriends, but he edited that out.

“He determined this from an entire minute of kissing you.”

“That is what he told me.”

“How many ex-boyfriends do you even have?”

“... That depends on how technical you want to get, but I – God damn it, Lynch. I hate when you deflect everything.”

“Well what do you want me to say? I'm sorry that you didn't get laid?”

“I mean … No. Do not say that. Ever.”

“Are you drunk right now? You sound drunk.”

“Fuck you. It's New Year's.”

“Okay. This has been a great talk, as usual. I think you need to go to sleep.”

“I was fine until I saw you. I swear. Now this is … fuck, it's happening again. Me calling you in the middle of the night and you telling me to get off the phone. Am I just doomed to repeat this one stupid cycle forever? I can't handle it all over again. I don't want this to be my life, Ronan. I don't want to do this anymore.”

“I thought I was fine until I saw you, too.” Ronan's voice was deadly quiet and even, which scared Adam in a way that he had not exactly intended with his flippant semi-drunk fight-picking.

“When are you coming to the city,” Adam eventually got the real question out, the real reason he'd felt so compelled to call, even though he hadn't fully admitted that to himself.

“I dunno. Soon?”

“Well you'd better hurry up before someone not as smart or nice as Luke kisses me and doesn't make me stop.”

“Adam. Jesus, just – Go to sleep. You're not going to like it when you remember this conversation in the morning.”

“I don't like it now, either. Believe me.”

“Listen, you're … home already, right? In your apartment?”

“Yes,” Adam mumbled, rubbing his eyes against the early onset of a champagne headache. Why the hell had he let Ronan's text message bait him into this conversation? He very nearly hung up right then and there, but some small part of him was clinging to Ronan's voice like it was the only thing keeping him from sliding off a cliff.

“Good, so just – get in bed, you'll feel better tomorrow.”

“Would you fuck off with that already? You know I won't. You're just saying that.”

“You'll be sober, at least.”

“Sober. Great. I really look forward to dealing with my emotional issues in the cold light of sobriety, that'll be a fucking blast. I can't believe you of all people-”

“Yeah, I know. I know. You can savor the irony later. Just tell me you're gonna sleep it off and not do anything stupid.”

“What exactly do you think I'm going to do?”

“Hang on, I – just a second, hold on,” Ronan insisted, and then Adam could hear his voice more muffled in the background, as if he were covering the phone to talk to someone else. It sounded like he was saying he'd be back in a minute and to go back inside. It was too late for Opal to be up, wasn't it? But maybe she'd stayed up for New Year's.

Adam's heart sank even further, a distinct drag in his chest as he remembered seeing Opal and the way she'd hugged him so tightly. Losing touch with her had hurt in a different but still unbearably sharp way. Ronan had so cleanly and surgically severed that connection, like Adam had never existed, never coaxed her into sitting still with an orange slice so he could pull a brush through her matted hair, never carried her through the orchards when she was tired from chasing Chainsaw in circles-

“Hey. Sorry,” Ronan's voice was back. “You still there?”

“Mm,” Adam closed his eyes as a couple of runaway tears slipped out. It was safe enough, though. Ronan couldn't actually see him, and Adam still knew how to be silent about it when he had to.

“Listen. Who's there in town that you know? Friends from school? Or, like – how bad was it with Luke tonight, would he still come over and talk to you if you needed it?”

“I ...” Adam swallowed, but the lump wouldn't dissolve from the back of his throat.

“Adam.”

“I'm fine. And even if I wasn't, I don't need you to help me through it. I'm just gonna make things worse talking to you, and we both know that. Just – leave me alone, Ronan. I can handle my own shit.”

Ronan sighed heavily. Adam barely registered it, though, slumping back with his eyes closed.

“Fine. Fine, just – just text me when you're awake again. I'll see you soon.”

“Happy fucking new year.”

Chapter Text

Adam's extensive playlist for moping and wallowing flipped back over to the first track again. He closed his laptop and went from staring at the curtain to staring at the wall instead.

It was the most unproductive and wasteful day off he'd had in recent memory. Maybe ever. He knew somewhere in a detached part of his mind that this was not an Adam Parrish way to deal with anything. He hadn't even made it out of bed yet, and it had just turned 3:00 in the afternoon. Granted, he'd gotten in late, but not that late. Not late enough to justify the way he'd slumped around his room, the way he kept closing his eyes and turning over and willing it all to leave him alone for another hour.

Of course he was tired. He always was. But this was something well beyond tired. A cloud of numbness that had settled into his skull and throat and rib cage and wouldn't leave.

He was damaged goods.

He'd spent so much of his life trying to escape that category, to throw it off his back, and somehow he just ended up there again and again in new and unimaginable ways. He just couldn't get over that part, couldn't stop picking at it. The unfairness of it. He was the one who'd been dumped ages ago, and now he was apparently permanently marked by it, through no fault or desire of his own. He didn't know if Luke had really wanted him at all or just taken pity on him for a night. But it didn't matter either way, because Luke could see through him enough to tell that he wouldn't be worth the trouble.

Fucking Ronan had called him three times already that day. He ignored it, letting Ronan Lynch have a fraction of a taste of his own medicine for once. He turned his music back on and bent his knees, resting his feet against the wall, putting a pillow over his eyes.

He was just … not doing today. That was all. He was going to let it drown him and he'd figure out how to get his shit back together tomorrow.

He couldn't even seem to have that, though, because now someone was banging on his door. He groaned, his head still a little achey from the slowly departing hangover, and went to see who it was. He kept his footsteps quiet so they wouldn't know he was approaching. The traveling Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses or whoever could move on to the next apartment already.

When he stared through the peephole, though, he froze up with shock and then disbelief.

Ronan.

Adam leaned back, blinked, and rubbed his eyes. Then he heard the knock again, loud and close enough to feel like Ronan was knocking on his actual head.

“For Christ's sake,” Adam yanked the door open, gazing out blearily from the safety of his own apartment. Ronan looked to be at about a 4.5 on the five-point scale of Ronan Lynch grumpiness. He had a large box at his feet.

“Parrish. It's quarter after three. Tell me I didn't just wake you up.”

“You didn't just wake me up,” Adam muttered, mockingly. “What do you want.”

“You look like shit.”

“What do you want, Ronan. I thought I asked you to leave me alone,” he glared, his voice full of acid. He actually saw Ronan flinch, which hurt his stomach.

“Hi. I drove two and a half hours from Richmond to bring you this,” Ronan nudged the mysterious box with his knee, his eyes flashing. “Where do you want it.”

Adam's brain was mush. “... Richmond?”

“Yeah, you know. Richmond. It's a city. The Gansey household is currently located there. So was their New Year's party. Where I was.”

“You were … What are you …”

“Are you sick? Do you have a fever or something?”

“What is that?” Adam ignored him, pointing at the box.

“It's the thing you wanted. You tried to buy it out from under me without telling me. Ring any bells? Or is your … consumption, or whatever-the-fuck wasting disease eating at your brain cells?”

“Oh my God. I put my address in that thing, that's how you found my … You brought it today?”

“Yeah. I was trying to call you and tell you on the way but you're clearly very busy.”

Adam leveled a cold, flat look at him, and Ronan at least had the decency to shuffle and frown down at the ground. Adam did not have to say the words of all people on this earth to be yelling at me about not picking up my fucking phone.

“So, like. Do you want this thing, or not,” Ronan grumbled. “Can I come in or are you seriously that pissed at me.”

“Why the hell would you drive straight here from Richmond just to bring this to me? I thought you were going to bring it with you the next time you actually had shit to do here.”

“You sounded weird. On the phone. And then you didn't answer. I wanted to make sure you were still alive or whatever.”

“Wow. You've always been so thoughtful.”

Adam.”

“God. Fine,” Adam pulled the door open wider and left Ronan there on the doorstep, trudging in to sink down onto his own ugly futon.

He didn't have the energy to do this. Any of it. Especially not if it involved Ronan. Ronan demanded a whole other level of being present and awake and on guard. He rubbed at his eyes.

The box, though. He could focus on that. It was a simple process requiring very little brain activity. Open the box, see what's inside.

Ronan had set it in front of him and was pacing around irritably, looking sidelong at the piles of books and television sitting homeless on the floor.

The box was just out of reach. Adam slid down onto the carpet in front of him, then lifted the flaps. Ronan had shoved them closed but hadn't sealed it up.

“You are seriously starting to freak me out,” Ronan hovered above him.

Adam ignored him – too much of a challenge – and stuck to his current task. He sat cross-legged and tilted the box toward him so he wouldn't have to sit up.

It was full of little Styrofoam peanuts and those plastic pouches of air. Adam dug his fingers in tentatively and found something solid. He remembered the picture from the website and felt gingerly along the shape of it, easing it out of its box and pulling it into his lap.

Adam's breath caught roughly in his throat. His eyes burned. He was in love with it in a way that he'd never be able to put into words.

Except: Cabeswater.

“You don't have to keep it if you'd rather have something else,” Ronan sank heavily onto the edge of the futon. “I told you I'd make you something new.”

“I'm keeping it forever and you can't have it back.”

Adam wanted to be happy to have it there in his hands, but happiness was still such an alien concept. He let his fingers trail over the roughly textured leaves and vines made of something like plaster. It all seemed to grow from a base of heavy, intricately carved wood that he didn't remember being so finely detailed in the photo.

“Why does Blue get to stay so close to you?” Ronan's voice cut in suddenly.

Adam set his treasure very carefully on the coffee table and then looked up at Ronan, who had stolen the framed photo of Adam and Blue posing beneath one of the Fenway Park banners. Adam couldn't remember where that little frame had even been hiding before he discovered it in Ronan's sharp fingers.

“What?”

“Blue. She said you've always been one of her best friends.”

“So? I don't understand the question,” Adam let his gaze return to his new sculpture, imagined Ronan crafting the pieces and then assembling them carefully and deliberately.

“If she were here right now, she'd be able to drag your ass out of bed and into the shower and tell you to eat and sleep and you'd do it all for her. Your ex-girlfriend.”

“Ronan. That's not … I mean, fine, yes. That's technically what she is. But she and I, we never – I never even kissed her.”

“So that's why she gets to be friends with you now?” Ronan set the frame back onto the coffee table with a dismissive clatter. “Because you never kissed her? It's not like you didn't want to. I mean, I wish I didn't still clearly remember how much you sure as shit wanted to. But now you're best friends forever and she has shirtless pictures of you on her phone.”

“Christ. Okay, look. She and I were not really … together, or whatever you want to call it, for very long. And we were really young.”

“So were we.”

“That was different. Don't be an idiot.”

“Don't be a dick.”

Adam sighed, trying to clear his head. He kept remembering a fight they'd had, very early on in their relationship, when Ronan had completely disappeared on him for a while. They'd been used to fighting, of course – they always fought, it was their thing – but it had been so much scarier after Adam had begun to believe that he might be in love. He hadn't had the vocabulary for that kind of fight. Not at eighteen years old.

I can't believe you would think I was over you. What the hell.
I know I was being a dick, but Adam, I fucking promise, I will never be OVER you.

Asshole.

“The thing with Blue was nothing like the – like you and me. How can you even think that? I mean … She's beautiful, okay? I wanted to kiss her. I thought she'd hold my hand and maybe make out with me if I was lucky. But I wasn't in love with her. I didn't even know what it meant yet. I didn't even believe it really existed.”

“She broke your heart just like I did.”

“Ronan. You cannot possibly think that it was just like what happened with you and me. I'm not saying I wasn't upset when she and I broke up. But I had no idea what heartbreak really was until I got cut off from you. You don't understand. It was partly the thing with Blue that made me understand the difference in the first place. That made me so sure afterward of how I felt about you, about how it was so much deeper. I can't believe you'd think it was in the same category, the same planet. I've never loved anyone like I-” Adam pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, giving up on the monumental effort to converse normally.

Ronan was silent a while, and Adam thought maybe it was because of the terrible weight of the words he'd just almost said. The words which Ronan obviously had heard anyway. It wasn't exactly a mystery.

It wasn't like Adam hadn't yelled all of this at Ronan years ago.

You can't do this now, after you made me fall in love with you. I don't know how to stop.
You don't, either! I fucking know you don't, Ronan. You can't pull us apart now. It'll kill both of us
.

But it felt much heavier now with the evidence of five years sitting on it. Maybe he'd been melodramatic, but on a day like this, when he couldn't even get out of bed, it didn't seem like much of an exaggeration.

Semantics, maybe.

Adam's attention snapped back to the present. He was being hauled to his feet, Ronan's hands firm underneath Adam's arms.

“I can't fucking watch you like this. Get up. Come on.”

Adam was too tired to fight it. How was he tired, when he'd slept until two in the afternoon? He sighed and stood up, then looked at Ronan, who nearly flinched again. Adam didn't think he was doing the acid glare, but clearly something else was enough to make Ronan hold his breath with caution.

“When's the last time you ate? I'm starving. I was driving here when I should've been eating lunch. Anything gonna be open around here on the holiday?”

“I don't know.”

“Yeah, well. We're going to find out.”

“I have food here.”

“I want to go out somewhere. Outside. Where's your shower?”

“Do you really think I have the energy to deal with you, like … at all right now?”

“I know you don't. I don't fucking care, though, is the thing. Come on.”

Ronan kept a tight grip on Adam's wrist and started walking. Before he knew it, he was being led through his bedroom and into the adjoining bathroom, and Ronan was fumbling around with the faucets, running some hot water.

“I'll be right out there. Come find me when you're ready to go eat.”

Adam watched him walk right back out toward the living room. The shower was already running, so Adam kicked the door shut and pulled off his shirt mechanically and bleary-eyed.

 


 

Adam spit toothpaste into the sink and rinsed his mouth out. He'd taken a ridiculously long shower. But he could feel a slight difference in his temperament. Not quite so sluggish or shameful. He pulled a clean shirt over his head, shook out his wet hair, and rubbed his eyes. Leaned on the counter a while. Then he took a deep breath and made his way out to the living room.

Ronan was resting back against the futon, his arms folded and his head turned to the side. He was … Jesus, he was sleeping.

Adam remembered how he'd said that he'd driven from Richmond. And he must've driven to Richmond from Singer's Falls the day before. What the hell was he doing, running himself ragged like that? Adam knew he was part of the reason, and the guilt stung, sharp and hot.

He sat gingerly on the edge of the futon and ran a gentle hand over Ronan's bicep. In an extremely platonic way, of course.

“Hey,” Ronan mumbled, blinking awake, his arm tensing up below Adam's fingers. “Sorry, I – I'm awake.”

“Uh-huh.”

Ronan ran a hand over his forehead and yawned, then sat up and stretched his arms over his head with a little groan that made Adam squirm.

“You still hungry?” Adam forced himself to focus on something else.

“Fucking starving.” Ronan breezed over to the front door, shrugging into that goddamned black leather jacket, and waited for Adam to put on his shoes. Then they were out in the cold on New Year's Day, walking side by side toward Adam's favorite diner.

He didn't generally tell anyone that it was his favorite. The similarities to trashy little places in Henrietta were too close. But deep down he loved it. Cheap and greasy and perfect. The idea of bringing Ronan there actually made him laugh.

“You woke right up, didn't you,” Ronan watched him warily.

“I'm hungry. You were right.”

“Yeah, well. Good.”

Adam was randomly struck with the memory of having dinner with Ronan at a little hibachi place in a Henrietta strip mall. Sakura. Ronan had let him pick. It had been their first date, or at least the first time they'd openly used that word. It had been awkward but thrilling at the time. Going out on a date together and calling it that. Even though they'd been spending almost all of their spare time together already, recovering from various magical traumas.

This is the place you want to go?” Ronan lifted an eyebrow when they reached it. “Should've known.”

“They have fried chicken like you won't believe. Plus, and more pressingly, they are open today.”

It took a while for Adam to feel like talking again. They sat across from each other in a raised booth, staring at the laminated menu as if it were some kind of crucial decision. Adam still ordered the same thing he always got, and Ronan just shrugged and asked the waitress to bring two of those.

“So Blue and Gansey,” Ronan began quietly, tossing a pair of sugar packets at Adam. “They're already trying to set a date. This June.”

“I figured they wouldn't wait long,” Adam tapped the spoon against his coffee mug and set it aside. “Gansey stopped trying to graduate first. He said at least Blue could graduate.”

“I have to tell you, they … They told me last night that they want us both to be in the wedding. But they're acting fucking weird about it, and I think – I dunno. They're walking on eggshells. And it's my fault, I know that. They just ...”

“They think we'll fight the whole time?”

“Yeah, maybe. Or that seeing me at rehearsal dinners and wine parties or whatever will make you sick, and their perfect day will turn to shit.”

“...Wine parties?”

“The fuck do I know about what happens at weddings.”

“Okay, well. They're being way too protective as usual. I think they could give me, like … the slightest bit of credit. Although maybe … God.”

“Maybe what.”

“I mean … I'm not making a great case for myself today,” Adam's shoulders hunched in defeat. “Don't tell them you saw me like this.”

“But that's not about me. Or … whatever, us.”

“It's not?”

“Uh. I thought it was about Luke.”

“Ronan,” Adam sighed and held his head in his hands.

“Well, what is it, then? You're dragging your ass like a ghost in your own apartment. Your shit is piled up on the floor. You sleep all day and you're still too tired to keep your own head up. This is not you at all. This is not how you deal with things.”

“How would you know?”

“Come on, you haven't changed that fucking much.”

“I just … You caught me on a bad day,” Adam crumpled the empty sugar packets and threw them back down at the table. It wasn't very satisfying, as outbursts went.

“Yeah. You told me last night. That I fucked up your chances with the model roommate.”

“Stop it, okay? I'm stressed out and nearly broke again. I didn't pick this apartment thinking it would be just me paying for it. Grace was going to help with that part, before I wrecked that and told her I could handle it on my own. I'm so tired of always working my ass off just to break even. And then when I do go out, which is expensive by the way, it doesn't help, not for long. I just end up feeling even more alone than I already did.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, and now throw in the fact that you just told me you thought you made a mistake five years ago and that you, like … regret it now. You just … you tossed that fucking grenade in my lap.”

Ronan was quiet, sullenly twisting around in the booth opposite him. Their food was brought out during this advantageously broad gap of silence.

“So you'd rather not know?” Ronan waited until they wouldn't be overheard.

“Yes. Kind of. But it's too late for that.”

“If you don't want to know true things then maybe you shouldn't talk to me.”

“Christ, I know, I know. You don't lie,” Adam rolled his eyes. “But what is it that you want me to do with this information? I didn't even want to move on with my life, I asked you so many times not to make me do that, but you were so fucking stubborn, and self-destructive. And now you have the balls to tell me … what? That you wish I hadn't?”

That's not what I said. At all. I would never say that,” Ronan dropped his fork onto his plate in clear irritation, making a noisy clatter. “I only ever wanted you to be happy. I did not see how that was possible if you were stuck with me and Bumfuck, Virginia. At the time.”

“Don't start on that again. I've heard it enough to last me a lifetime, Lynch, I swear to God.”

“Don't swear to God.”

“Fucking …” Adam closed his eyes and breathed. “All right. I'm not having a great week here. It's not helping to analyze the part about you with you.”

“Who do you want to talk to about it, then? Sargent? Why don't you just call her?”

“Because she's got her own life and I used up most of my call-and-bitch-about-Ronan cards years ago. I don't want to start playing those again unless it's, like … a dire emergency.”

“You seem kind of dire today. If you ask me.”

“Which I didn't.”

“Okay, look. I have an idea.” Ronan picked at his cornbread. “Just, like … pretend it's not me. That you're talking about.”

“What?”

“Pretend it’s someone else. Then you can still talk to me. Because I don’t see anyone else around here today. If I were still just, you know … your friend from high school. And you were going to talk to me about this. What would you say.”

“This is not something I would've come to you about. You know that.”

“Regardless.”

“You want me to talk to you about it, but pretend I mean someone else?”

Ronan shrugged. Adam blinked at him to see if he was just mocking him or being a jerk, but he was currently devouring fried chicken as if he’d just now noticed it sitting there.

Ronan didn’t lie.

“Fine. So. Um. I saw my ex-boyfriend at Christmas,” Adam drank some of his coffee, feeling very dubious about this stupid experiment but going along with it anyway for lack of any other suggestions.

“Which one?” Ronan’s eyebrow lifted slightly, his mouth full of green beans.

“What do you mean, which one? There’s only one I would be talking about right now. The one from high school. The super hot one that I was in love with and obsessed with forever? That one.”

Maybe this was actually a worse idea than he’d initially imagined.

Ronan watched him levelly, his expression hard to read. The only sign of him processing this was the fact that his fork had gone kind of still in his hand.

“What’s he like,” Ronan set his fork down.

“Ronan, how is that--”

“What? I mean if you were that in love with him, I imagine he’s not, like … a high school dropout who works on a farm in the middle of nowhere. For example.”

Adam ate some of his food just for something to do while he considered this. “That's a weirdly warped description. I mean, yeah, high school was not his thing. But not because he couldn’t have done it. He just didn’t want to. He hated it there. It was slowly eating away at him. Nobody appreciated him there, or gave him any reason to stay. He burned way too bright for school, and he didn't need it. Only thing he liked about being in school was Latin. And me.”

“He liked you, huh? How much?”

“Good question.”

Ronan glared at him this time, fury instantly sharpening his beautiful deep blue eyes.

“Okay, fine, he – he loved me. He said so, anyway. He never lies. And he didn’t believe in just hooking up, like … on principle, or something. I knew that well enough. But he kissed me anyway,” Adam felt a familiar flutter in his stomach at the memory. “So I must’ve meant something to him back then. He told me I did.”

“You’re saying that kinda past tense,” Ronan stabbed his fork viciously into his mashed potatoes.

“Well, yeah, I told you he was my ex. The way he insisted we should end things and then completely stopped talking to me or acknowledging my existence was pretty heartless. When he first seemed to have a thing for me I remember wondering why me, out of literally anyone else he could’ve had, it didn’t make sense why a guy that sexy and magical would even look twice at a hick like me. But then he broke up with me. So you know. I guess he finally figured that out.”

“So he told you he was breaking up with you because you were an ugly hick he couldn’t be bothered with anymore.”

“...No.”

“And you said he doesn’t lie.”

“Only to himself,” Adam muttered down toward the table.

“...The fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that we went through some serious shit together and only survived because of how much we loved each other and if he thought either of us was somehow better off without that, especially at that particular time in our lives, he was hardcore lying to himself,” Adam ranted himself breathless and had to pause for a second before continuing. “It means he had too much to lose again, all of a sudden, so he blew it all up out of panic and self-loathing, and then lied to himself that it was the right thing to do.”

He sat there and tried to let his heart slow down some. It had sort of spiked over that last bit, and Ronan was tearing angrily at the straps of leather on his wrist.

There was a long silence before Ronan spoke again.

“He sounds like an idiot.”

“Yeah, well,” Adam calmed down even more. “That's what I told him.”

“Okay, look, just fucking … enough with the history already,” Ronan sighed, propping his boot on the booth beside Adam's knee. It was rude and intimate and a little too Ronan all at once. “You're talking about the past. What about now, what's the problem now? What are you gonna do about it?”

“I don't know. Lie on the floor of my apartment and listen to depressing music and drink until I stop hearing you say that thing.”

Adam didn't know when he'd decided to dispense with the third-person role playing experiment. But he was done with it.

“Which thing was that, exactly?”

“I don't … I don't think I want to play this game anymore.”

“Jesus fuck, Adam,” Ronan's teeth ground visibly.

Adam sat back against the vinyl booth, another wave of fatigue settling in. He'd only been up for, what, two hours? Why the hell was he too tired to finish this meal, to even say out loud that he was too tired for it?

Adam let himself momentarily drown in his old addiction, eyes wandering over Ronan's temples and long, sharp nose, and perfect, matchless lips. He was draped in a black short-sleeved shirt that looked like it would slide off his ribs and shoulder blades like water.

“You're not doing this,” Ronan demanded. “Quit giving me the fucking zombie eyes.”

“What I don't understand,” Adam heard himself begin to prod at his inner Ronan Lynch injury, as if it were now out of his control. He spoke lazily and coldly, feinting before taking the first punch. “What I really don't understand right now is why you seem to think I am suddenly your problem again. For some reason. After five years. You want to come here now and ask me what I plan to do? What the fuck makes you feel entitled to do that now? I haven't been your problem for a long time now. You made sure of that.”

“Yeah? Well whose problem are you, then? Because I'll call whoever that is and tell them you need a babysitter. Or a good kick in the ass.”

“Your shit doesn't work on me anymore, Lynch. You wanted me to have my own life. Away from you. And I do, now. I fought for it without you, because I had to. You don't get to pop back into it whenever you want and pretend like you still know what I need. You don't know me anymore.”

Adam gripped the edge of the metal table, sharply ridged in silver paint.

Something dark inside him was really pushing for a fight. He wanted the anger, the righteous indignation. He wanted to feel something else. Anything at all. He could practically hear his therapist asking him to identify those observations using “I statements.”

But Ronan just shifted his weight nervously, already laying off, his eyes flickering around at the restaurant. Ronan's fuse had clearly lengthened over the last several years.

“Why are you doing this,” Ronan winced, his voice just barely a whisper.

This wasn't what Adam had been recklessly gunning for. This was not a thing he was prepared for. This was not at all a thing his heart could handle, not in the slightest.

“I …”

“Is this what you want? To yell at me for – for five more years?” Ronan's voice cracked slightly. “To get back at me? I know you hate me now but it can't possibly compare with how much I hated myself for ever turning my back on you, believing anything else was selfish. So whatever, yell at me if you want, if it makes you happy. But I'm not gonna blow it all up again just because you want to see if you can make me punch through a fucking diner window. I'm not here to fight. I thought maybe we were okay enough for me to check on you, but if this is what's gonna happen, then … fine. I'll get the hell back out of your life.”

Adam's breath caught roughly in his throat. He gazed over at the glass beside them, because the sight of Ronan all vulnerable and raw like that made his eyes burn.

Did he want Ronan out of his life again? The very thought of it brought on a reflexive cringe. It felt like a sharp ripping sensation behind his sternum.

It seemed like everything had been so much easier, though, before Christmas. Before Ronan had shown up again in that fucking leather jacket.

Adam had always loved how startlingly alive Ronan was. He simply existed on a sharper channel than everyone else. So real and volatile and breathtaking.

“I, um … I miss you,” Adam confessed, thumbing the handle of his coffee mug, surprising even himself with his own exposed honesty. He saw Ronan stare back at him, completely motionless. “You were my best friend, and I lost that too. I'm sorry that it's … that I'm still so … God. It's my thing and I'll deal with it. I’m sorry. I don't want you out of my life, Ronan. I just want to be able to figure out how to be your friend again. I miss that. I'm sorry that I’m making it so impossible.”

“That’s not your fault,” Ronan let out a long breath.

“I miss being able to talk to you. I miss the Barns so much. I miss … fuck, Ronan, I miss Opal like … it’s a hole in my stomach. I even miss your stupid techno, apparently. I miss all the creative ways you have to piss off Blue.”

“Do you also miss me nagging you to eat? Because you still have half your fucking food sitting there and you skipped lunch.”

“Don't push your luck,” Adam smiled weakly and picked off a piece of the crispy skin of his fried chicken, popping it into his mouth.

“Do you have to work tomorrow?”

“Uh-huh. Nine a.m.”

“Stupid question.”

“So, um. I know you came in from Richmond because you were worried about me,” Adam wiped his fingers on his napkin. It was all torn up from grease. “But you're not really going to turn around and drive all the way back to Singer's Falls, are you? You've been on the road way too much.”

“I have to.”

“No you don't. I have a perfectly lumpy futon that you can bitch about forever.”

Ronan went quiet again, jabbing a straw down into the melting ice cubes in his glass. He looked at Adam, then out the window. Then back at Adam.

It was a question, really. One of Ronan's unspoken ones.

“I'm gonna go pay,” Adam nodded toward the cash register. Ronan didn't protest in the slightest, and Adam's chest tore open again, begging permission to fall back in love. Just like that.

“Sure.”

“Just crash here tonight,” Adam stepped down from the booth, looked up at Ronan with his own silent question.

“I'll have to call O.”

“Okay.”

Chapter Text

“Wait. Wait a minute. You hooked up with someone in a bar?”

Adam was less than comfortable with this turn of conversation. But he still couldn't make himself stop. There was so much ground to cover, so many things they'd missed in each other's lives. He had so many questions. And Ronan was letting him ask them. They were talking again. It felt like he'd gotten away with a trick of some kind – getting Ronan to drop the walls for a while – and he didn't want to break the spell, even though he knew it was probably dangerous to let himself get so wrapped up again.

It was getting late, though; it was long past a reasonable time to go to bed. But instead he was sitting there on the futon, his knees pulled up to his chest. Ronan was lying on the floor with his bare feet up on the futon and a throw pillow under his head. He still rarely used furniture in socially acceptable ways.

“We just sort of made out in the bathroom,” Adam pushed his hair off his forehead. He'd need a haircut soon. “That bathroom was disgusting. I don't even think there were doors on the stalls.”

“Sounds like Harvard made a great investment with that scholarship of yours.”

“Oh, fuck off. I wasn't that bad.”

“You just told me you think you slept with seven different people that year.”

“Getting to second base in bar bathrooms doesn't count.”

“Jesus.”

“I was a freshman,” Adam began to count off his points on his fingers. “I was violently on the rebound. I was not dealing well with the stress of an Ivy League school. I decided it would be a great time to see what alcohol was all about. I had a lot of steam to blow off. And quit slut-shaming me anyway.”

Violently on the rebound,” Ronan echoed slowly, enunciating the phrase in what sounded like fascination.

“Why do we keep focusing so much on me? It was not a good year for me. What were you doing back then? Getting in touch with your inner self? Making real and lasting intellectual connections? Calmly shopping for leather jackets?”

“What's your deal with the jacket, Parrish.”

“Like you don't know. I'm serious, though. Stop trying to change the subject.”

“It was … it was not a good year for me, either. I know you're going to hate me for saying that, because it's my fault, which we have established, but whatever, I was … if Gansey had been around he would've had me fucking locked up. I got shitfaced. A lot. I gave Declan two more black eyes. I burned down one of the old dairy barns. I dreamed myself a motorcycle and then crashed it.”

What?” Adam's feet dropped to the floor, and he moved closer to the edge to look down at Ronan. They'd been sort of avoiding each other's gazes, which made this level of honesty a bit easier. “How did I not hear about that?”

“Because I've never told Gansey or Sargent and now you are also sworn to secrecy.”

“Are you … what happened? Did you go to the hospital? What the hell, Ronan.”

“Was in for a couple nights. I'm fine now. It looked worse than it felt. Collarbone's still kinda fucked up, but whatever.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, it sort of … it cracks when I move it sometimes.”

Adam moved to the floor, his curiosity getting the best of him. He could see Ronan’s fingers pressed against his right clavicle, his right elbow bent and his arm moving back and forth over his chest.

“This one?” Adam looked closely to see if he could tell the difference. He was distantly aware that this was a ridiculous thought. “Was it a fracture, or what?”

“Yeah.”

“That must have been really painful.”

“Mm,” Ronan lifted one shoulder and dropped it again.

Adam drew a fingertip along the place where Ronan was probing. This was, in retrospect, pretty stupid of him, because he then vividly remembered his mouth being in the same place on several occasions.

“Does it still hurt?”

“My collarbone?” Ronan was watching him with sharp eyes now. Adam shivered.

“Yes. The thing we were literally just talking about.”

“Aches a little. Once in a while. Nothing bad.”

“I just can’t believe this, I … how do Blue and Gansey know nothing about this,” Adam pulled his hand back, folded his legs underneath him, staying planted there on the floor. “Did you crash it out on a back road by the Barns somewhere? Wait, you weren’t in traffic or something, or …”

“Or what? Or racing it? Does it really make a difference now? This is exactly why I didn’t tell Gansey. You sound just like him sometimes, Parrish, I swear.”

“I just – I have a hard time believing you’d crash anything without somehow meaning to. I’ve seen you drive.”

Ronan shrugged unevenly, closing his eyes, his hands clasped loosely against his chest.

There’d been a fleeting second of gloating in there, though. A smug little acceptance of Adam’s words as a pleasing compliment.

Ronan’s utter fatigue was so evident now. It was more than just a couple of days of back-to-back driving. Driving wasn’t something that should have exhausted Ronan Lynch like that. Not if he had his car and his music.

“When’s the last time you dreamed,” Adam’s voice was a little dry from how they’d been talking for hours. “Really dreamed, I mean.”

“More than a month now,” Ronan admitted after a long pause. He sounded reluctant to part with this information, but of course he wasn’t going to lie about it.

“Is that normal?”

“No.”

“Are you worried?”

“... A little.”

“What do you think is causing it?”

“I might’ve … overdone it when I was pulling shit out before.”

“Were you trying to kill yourself on that motorcycle?” Adam gave it a try, casually slipping in the question as if it belonged with the others. As if he'd get away with it just like that.

Ronan opened one eye, then the other, and pressed his lips together as he gazed up at Adam. He looked … nervous, maybe? Uncomfortable. This was an unsettling enough response all on its own.

There was no good reason for Ronan to need to think so long about an answer like this.

“No,” he eventually breathed the word out like smoke.

”Are you sure? Are you just - just saying that? You don’t - you’re not supposed to lie to me,” Adam stammered, dimly aware that he’d added the “to me” as if he somehow was entitled to a higher level of honesty than everyone else.

“I’m not lying,” Ronan sat up and turned around so he was resting against the futon, his knee nudging against Adam’s. “The whole truth is that I was really fucked up at the time and blacked it out. I don't remember. But I wouldn’t do that, okay? You know what it would mean for Matthew, for Opal, I can’t - you have to know I wouldn’t.”

”I know that’s a reason. But it’s not the reason I wanted to hear,” Adam said rather weakly, his head dropping back. He looked up, his vision blurring, the popcorn ceiling floating in a weird jumble. He’d spent so long wallowing in his own heartbreak, refusing to consider how bad it might’ve been for Ronan on the other side. God, he'd been in such a self-centered bubble.

“Look, it doesn’t matter now. I’m fine, okay? I’m all in one piece.”

“It matters to me," Adam's throat convulsed. "Who was with you? How’d you even get to the hospital?”

“There was another car out on the back road that passed just after it happened and called the cops, I think. I don’t remember but that’s what they told me. The hospital called Declan.”

“God.”

“Yeah.”

“What else was broken?”

“Are we speaking metaphorically here?”

Adam glared at him. “No. We're not.”

“My wrist. My … whatever this one is,” Ronan tapped his right forearm. “Also had a piece of metal impaled in my shoulder. Now that was a bitch.”

“Jesus Christ,” he sighed, just as much for Ronan's flippant tone as for the concept itself.

“This is from where they sewed me back up,” Ronan tugged the already low collar of his shirt aside to reveal more of his clavicle and the front of his shoulder.

Adam gasped when he saw the scar there. It was broad and jagged. It had happened years ago, apparently, but Adam still reeled from the sight of it. He shook his head and ran a finger along the angry stripe of red skin.

“You’re telling me Gansey and Blue have never seen this?” Adam touched it gingerly, trying not to picture the metal cutting and burning him there.

“Oh, they’ve seen it.”

“So how did you explain it?”

“I told them not to ask.”

“Uh. Okay. And they just … didn’t?”

“There are plenty of things from that time in my life that they know not to ask about. It’s better for everyone. We all pretend the bad shit with you and me did not happen, and they secretly miss who I was when I was with you, but they try very hard not to act like they do. The bar stays nice and low.”

“They do that with me sometimes,” Adam made himself leave Ronan’s shoulder alone. It was a brief internal struggle for willpower, watching Ronan let his shirt collar slide back into place. “I saw Blue look at me like that on Christmas Eve. Hey, what do you mean, there are plenty of things? While we’re on this topic. Anything else requiring hospitalization?”

“I mean … I don’t personally count the rehab facility that Declan checked me into after that. But I guess it depends on your definition.”

Adam’s mouth fell open slightly, and he stared, too shocked to continue this line of questioning.

“Gansey does know about that. And the future Mrs. Gansey, I guess, obviously. By proxy.”

“She’s going to kill you if you keep calling her that.”

“I thought you said you missed how much I piss her off.”

“I do,” Adam actually laughed, a quick fit of hysteria. He was in emotional overload and couldn’t seem to determine what was an appropriate response to anything. “Christ. Rehab. I’m still processing this.”

“It was for six weeks. It wasn’t Declan’s worst idea. In retrospect.” Ronan wound a bit of leather wristband around the end of his index finger.

“I bet you thought it was at the time.”

“Fuckin’ course I did.”

”God, you - you haven’t been drinking with us, have you,” Adam realized aloud. His mind's eye flipped back to Christmas night at the Barns, to the engagement party at Fox Way ... even back to Adam's (and Grace's) graduation dinner that summer, when Gansey had dragged Ronan all the way to Boston for a weekend. “Holy shit, Ronan. I am so oblivious. I didn’t even really notice. Why don’t Gansey and Blue tell me anything anymore? Jesus.”

Ronan didn’t respond to this; his eyelids looked heavy again. He was curled up against the edge of the futon. Adam’s phone, sitting nearby on the coffee table, told him it was almost midnight when he poked at it.

“I’ll be right back,” Adam put a hand on Ronan’s knee as he got up, then dug out his one set of sheets and the woven blanket that would fit on the futon. He took a pillow from his own bed, because that was all he had. It was all terribly mismatched. Grace would’ve been appalled.

He heard Ronan trudging around heavily, then passing behind him toward the bathroom. Adam took the opportunity to make up the futon and turn out the lights in the little kitchen.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Ronan yawned when he returned, looking down at his bed for the night. “You know I can sleep on the floor.”

“Doesn’t mean you should.”

“What time are you getting up?”

“Uh. Eight, probably. For work.”

“Okay,” Ronan ran his hand over the edge of the Harvard “H” on the crimson blanket. Adam hadn’t thought about it at all until he saw Ronan recognize it. “So you need to go to sleep. I know.”

You need to go to sleep, Ronan. You’ve been half asleep for hours already. You look like you haven’t gotten a real night of sleep in weeks.”

“You’re doing the Gansey thing again.”

“The light switch is by the door.”

“Okay. I’ll be out of your way in the morning.”

“You’re not in my way. I’m the one who asked you to stay.”

Ronan didn’t say anything, just sat there on the edge of the futon, looking at the Celtics logo on Adam’s t-shirt. Or something? In that area? Adam narrowed his eyes when he put it together.

“You're thinking about my tattoo again, aren't you,” Adam spread his fingers over his left side. “I can see you trying to remember what it looks like from the picture.”

“I thought about asking her to send it to me. But I know you wouldn’t want her to.”

“She’s not supposed to have it at all.”

“I know. Go to bed, Parrish.”

“You too.”

Adam had a restless and fitful night’s sleep, getting up twice to play around on his laptop. His sleep cycle was all screwed up. He didn’t want to wander around the rest of the apartment for fear of waking Ronan, so he stuck to his bedroom. Eventually he fell asleep again when sunlight was starting to stream into the windows, and then he was jolted awake again when the alarm went off at eight.

He snuck out into the living room, but as it turned out, he didn’t need to be quiet. Ronan was already gone. The Harvard blanket was folded sloppily to the side.

Adam’s heart sank at the quiet and emptiness, so abrupt after Ronan had kept him company for hours the night before.

In the kitchen, there was already coffee made, with a thank you note scrawled across a napkin, and two sugar packets awaiting him. Which didn't make any sense; Ronan had either dreamed them up or stolen them from the diner. He laughed and leaned on the counter for a while. Then he texted Ronan to ask him why he’d left so early, and set about pouring himself some of the coffee.

His phone buzzed back at him later, when he was about to head to the shower.

 

couldn’t risk another one of your god damn goodbye hugs

 


 

“Hey. It’s Adam, right? Did I see you at the library this weekend? The front desk or something? Or am I just sleepwalking at this point?”

Adam shoved his notebook into his bag and looked up at one of his classmates, a woman he recognized from something he’d had last semester – civil procedure? Her short, glossy black hair had a streak of bright flaming red near her temple.

“Yeah, that was me, probably with my nose buried in this thing instead of paying proper attention to the circulation desk,” he raised his textbook with a smile before packing it away as well and falling into step with her as they climbed the lecture hall stairs.

“I’m Taylor. Do you have, like … a key to the library? So you can let us in between midnight and five when they cruelly close down? I mean why are we even paying library fees?”

“Great question,” Adam laughed. “They did not give me a key, sadly. Probably because I have the same complaint as you. Why would a library not be open 24 hours?”

“Thank you. Exactly.”

Adam could see Gansey loitering pleasantly out in the atrium, right on time as usual, examining the mural on the far wall.

“Did you know that the main branch stays open every night, though? Except Sundays.”

“It’s so much farther away,” Taylor made a face.

“Yeah. Worth it sometimes.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. See you Thursday.”

“Bye, Taylor. Nice to meet you.”

Adam’s footsteps echoed under the domed ceiling as he met Gansey by the front entrance. His mind was still spinning with little details, all of the notes he’d been so frantically trying to record as always. Law school was requiring him to function on some higher speed that he wasn’t sure he actually possessed. Maybe it was just caffeine giving him brief delusions of being able to handle it.

For some reason he had a flash of Ronan shifting into fourth gear on the streets of Henrietta and smirking, with sparks flying behind him.

He blinked it away and focused instead on Richard Campbell Gansey, III.

“Who was that? How do they do that thing with their hair? It seems like you’d have to strip the color out completely just in one area? Do you have to bleach it first? Fascinating.”

“Hi, Gansey,” Adam rolled his eyes and bumped knuckles with him, just for old times’ sake. “Still wanna get lunch?”

“Of course! I found this perfect place. Off the beaten path. Authentic chimichurri sauce.”

“Sure,” Adam nodded agreeably.

He knew Gansey was doing that thing where he found a cheap place for Adam’s sake and tried to pass it off as “local” or “real food and real people” or whatever. Gansey knew Adam knew. It was always like that, and Adam didn’t have the mental capacity to even care beyond the simple identification of it anymore.

They walked about eight blocks for whatever fabulous chimichurri sauce Gansey had discovered. That was another thing Adam had gotten used to: Gansey and Blue were always wanting to track down exotic cuisine that they’d encountered during their adventures abroad with Henry.

“I have an important question,” Gansey announced after they’d sat down with plastic trays of tacos and salsa and rice and beans.

“Do you ever not have an important question?”

“I don’t know! You might have a point there. Let me know if I ask one that seems insignificant to you.”

“I’ll make a note of anything that arises,” Adam muttered, scooping up a plastic forkful of black beans.

“I would like to first of all introduce this question with the caveat that you can and are perfectly welcome to say no.”

“Gansey. Jesus. What is it?”

“Adam Parrish. Will you be my best man?”

Adam felt this was too notable of a thing to be addressing while shoving a folded and soggy tortilla into his mouth, so he finished chewing and wiped his hands on a paper napkin. He could see Gansey watching him anxiously, fidgeting with a salt shaker.

“Are you going to have two? What about Ronan?”

“Blue has already asked him to be her … I’m not sure what to call it. Man of Honor?”

Adam felt a laugh burst out of him. “How did he take that?”

“Probably not well? But he’s agreed, of course. And anyway, even if I had already asked him, I need you for this, Adam. It’s not right without both of you. Whatever we want to call it. You must know that.”

“Well, I – I’m honored, Gansey. Really. I will gladly accept.”

“Really? That’s excellent news. Thank you. I’m thrilled. Are you sure it won’t be … well … ”

“Oh, what, Ronan? It's fine, don't worry. I think we’ve actually kind of … turned a corner, maybe? Maybe I shouldn’t jinx it. But it feels a little like we’ve finally made peace. I know you’ve heard that before, I get it if you’re skeptical. I don’t want to get your hopes up. But it feels more solid this time.”

“Ronan told Blue something similar, actually. I just didn’t know whether to truly believe it until I heard it from you. I know it feels true to him, enough so he can honestly say you two are friends again. That’s the best news I’ve heard in years.”

“You mean other than the fact that Blue Sargent has agreed to marry you.”

“Well. I had a pretty good sense that she would, despite what my last-minute panic might have looked like. I did not have a good sense that you and Ronan would ever be on good terms again. To be completely honest.”

“Fair enough. I’m not saying it’s been easy or fun to get to this point. But it’s … you know. It feels really good to have my friend back,” Adam admitted, poking at his rice.

His cheeks felt a little warm, and he couldn’t exactly say why. Maybe the occasion of Gansey asking him, of all people on the planet, to be his best man. Or maybe the tiny flush of guilt of what he wasn’t saying about Ronan. Yet.

Saying it out loud would be acknowledging it too much. It would give it too much legitimacy. Too much of a weapon to hurt him with if – when – it was inevitably turned against him.

But the clear fact remained that he’d been texting back and forth with Ronan on and off for a few weeks now, even talking to him on the phone a couple of times between classes and library night shifts, and he wasn’t entirely sure if that still fell into the carefully diplomatic “we’re on good terms again” descriptor or not.

He was going to stick with it, though, until forced to admit otherwise.

Ronan is using his phone for me. He's talking to me again. He's fucking talking to me, Adam wanted to blurt out. There was something about Gansey that made Adam feel like he was in one of Ronan’s confessional booth things.

Between catching up with Ronan again and occasionally meeting up with Luke and his friends, who were still enthusiastically inviting Adam to things when Luke visited D.C. - out of politeness, but whatever - Adam's social life was practically exploding compared to what he usually experienced.

“... and I think we’ll just go with that, since it’ll give her a full two weeks after graduation.” Gansey was talking rapidly and excitedly. Adam needed to pay attention.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. He ignored it, but it still gave him a little thrill.

“Two weeks after graduation,” Adam repeated dutifully.

“Yes. It’s Memorial Day weekend, too.”

“Whoa. Okay, hang on. Gansey, please do not plan your wedding around a holiday for me, oh my God. I will ask off from work. It’s your wedding. Jesus Christ.”

“It’s the most convenient time,” Gansey set his fork down stubbornly. “And I don’t want to wait any longer than that.”

“If Blue even hints to me that y’all did this on purpose-”

“It’s set, Adam. It’s set. That’s what I’m telling you. All right? I want to take her to England and Wales for a honeymoon, and I need to start planning that, and she won’t have another week free until August if we wait until her internship starts.”

“Okay,” Adam nodded after a moment. “Memorial Day weekend it is. In Richmond. Right?”

Gansey sighed dramatically and reached for his Styrofoam cup. “Yes.”

“But you told them you want to keep it small? That it’s the only thing Blue has put her foot down about, which is pretty amazing?”

“I told them that I am going to have a wedding. In their city. And that they are invited,” Gansey enunciated each syllable.

“Mm. And they are okay with that,” Adam raised an eyebrow.

His phone buzzed at him again, insistent. Not now, Ronan. Give me a minute.

“They’re disappointed. They’d never say so, not in a hundred years. But I know they are.”

“Well. You know. They could’ve had a royal wedding. Lots of nice pictures and a profile in the New York Times and whatever. Press.”

Gansey pursed his lips, looking irritated and thoughtful at the same time.

“You know what I wish? What I’d do if I didn’t have to worry about my family? Or hers? I’d put us all in the Pig and drive to Henrietta. The forest, somewhere. Ronan could dream it up. All of it. Flowers and fireflies and birds. He’d make something beautiful and personal.”

“Yeah. He would,” Adam frowned down at what was left of his tacos. Ronan still hadn’t told them, apparently. About his recent dream drought.

“I can’t even bear to imagine it sometimes. Makes my stomach hurt.”

“Gansey, listen. Why can’t we do that anyway,” Adam held Gansey's shoulder, tugged at his polo shirt sleeve. He chose to leave out the major roadblock of Ronan maybe not being able to necessarily dream things up, because Adam sensed it was temporary, and because it wasn't his secret to tell. “Do the thing in Richmond, make your parents happy. But let us do something meaningful for you, too. Something real. In Henrietta. The four of us. What do you think? We're still your magicians. Always will be.”

Gansey looked at him with a wondering, joyful sort of smile, slowly spreading across his face.

“Do you really mean it?”

“Of course I do, Gans. Ronan'll love it, you know that. I'll tell him. He'll want to do something at the Barns. Opal could be there.”

“Yes. God. That would be … Blue would be ...”

“Come on, let's do it. It'll make the other arrangements so much easier to sit through, right?”

“So much,” Gansey laughed, and Adam felt warm and a little high on Gansey's happiness. It was still so easy to see how he'd been caught up in Gansey's energy so many years ago.

They caught up about school, the start of the semester, compared their new class schedules. They could only do lunch on Tuesdays this time. But it would be okay. It was something. They'd stay connected.

Gansey talked more about the plans in Richmond, that they'd already chosen a modest venue, a hotel that would please his mother and one of her donors. But they would keep it capped at fifty people, have the ceremony and reception in the same place, and then Gansey was putting Blue on a plane to the UK, no matter what.

Adam was warned that Blue wanted help with wedding stuff in Richmond, soon, and she wanted it specifically from Adam and Ronan. The best men, or whatever, as Gansey shrugged.

“What time is it? I should probably get going,” Gansey glanced around, looking for a clock.

“Um,” Adam grabbed automatically for his phone to check the time. He laughed when he saw the texts waiting for him there.

 

hey. did you already go to lunch with gansey? tell me when you're done.

 

are you not done yet?? u are the slowest eater I swear

 

Christ you need to call me soon and talk me down before I lock sargent under the stairs until her fucking wedding day. fair warning, parrish.

 

“It's almost one-thirty,” Adam smothered another laugh by draining his sweet tea.

“Mm. Class in twenty minutes.” Gansey was gazing sideways at Adam, looking suspicious and maybe amused.

“I, um,” Adam pocketed his phone. “I don't know if I've really accurately communicated how sweet it is of you to ask me to do this. Be your best man, I mean. I just … I want you to know that. It means a lot.”

“Likewise, Adam. You should go. Looks like you have something to take care of.”

“Apparently,” Adam muttered and said goodbye to his friend.

Outside, in the alley, after he'd given Gansey a couple of minutes' head start, he called Ronan.

“Fucking finally,” Ronan growled into the phone in lieu of a greeting, and Adam had to close his eyes for a second. It was a good thing he hadn't started walking yet.

“I can't believe you knew Gansey was going to ask me this today and you didn't tell me.”

“He wanted it to be a surprise,” Ronan said dryly, and Adam could almost hear the air quotes he was probably making with one hand. “Can we deal with my thing first, though, because I feel like it’s more urgent.”

“Are you already feeling the stress of being Man of Honor?”

“Don’t. Don’t even. She says we have an appointment at a boutique bakery in Richmond on Saturday and I’m supposed to help her select a decent variety of cupcakes, for starters.”

“So you’re complaining because … what? You get to eat a shit-ton of cake for free?”

“Of course that’s what you pick up on first. Free food. You’d better be taking notes, Harvard, because this now officially involves you too. I couldn’t tell you yet because Gansey hadn’t popped his other question, but now you are in this.”

“How in this am I, exactly?”

“Like you are also going. Was that not clear?”

“What, Saturday? I can’t.”

“You don’t work on Saturdays.”

“I know, Ronan. I study on Saturdays. That’s the whole point of-”

“I did not sign on for this shit just to do it by myself. You’re best man. This comes with the territory.”

“I can’t just go to Richmond on Saturday, for Christ’s-”

“I will come get you and bring you back. You just have to get your ass in the car.”

“You’re not going to drive all the way from Singer’s Falls here and get me and then go to Richmond. That’s ridiculous, I’m not-”

“I’ll come to up Friday night or something. It’s not that bad.”

“Yes it is that bad. Is it really going to kill you to deal with her and her fancy cake shops by yourself for one goddamned day?”

Adam.”

“God, I hate when you do that,” he stopped outside his next classroom and ducked into an alcove, holding his forehead. He could not afford to lose even an hour, much less a whole Saturday.

The semester was just starting up, though. Maybe if ...

“I’d have to be back Saturday night. I have to-”

“I know. Fine. What else.”

“I, um … You have to let me study in the car. I’ve got a thousand things to read over the weekend.”

“Yeah, whatever, knock yourself out.”

“...Okay,” he sighed, leaning his head back against the wall. He couldn’t say no. Their very recently repaired friendship still felt so fragile, and he really did want to take the best man thing seriously.

Okay? Really? Oh, thank God.”

“You can stay at my place. Friday night.” Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered that Luke and Ezra might have asked about drinks this Friday, but Adam could skip it.

“I’d stay with Gansey but he said he’ll already be at his parents’ house.”

“Just stay at mine. Makes more sense anyway. Look, I’ve gotta go, I’ve got class-”

“Yeah. I know.”

Three minutes to go until his professor started lecturing at top speed. Adam lingered, his mind reeling as he imagined riding in that car again with Ronan for two hours each way. He was being a complete idiot for agreeing to such a thing. Ronan of course had no idea; he was just being an asshole about sitting through wedding errands.

“Adam. Is this too hard? You’d tell me, right?”

“Is what too hard? Going to Richmond?”

“What else would I mean?”

“Um. Nothing. I’ll talk to you later, I really need to go.”

“Okay. Bye.”

Chapter Text

On Friday, Adam's shift at the library was glacial. Which was usually a good thing – he needed that study time, when it was quiet – but that particular night he was jumpy and too easily distracted.

He'd come straight from class to work, and now he didn't even have time to sit in his apartment alone for a minute and get a handle on his chaotic thoughts.

He was dying to see Ronan again, and scared about it at the same time. He wanted his best friend back, but he didn't know if he was ever going to be able to evolve past the wanting, the relentless desire for his lethally gorgeous ex-boyfriend. He wanted to try, for friendship's sake. But some traitorous part of him kind of wanted to fail, just for the brief euphoria it would bring if he fell off the Ronan Lynch wagon again. And sometimes that part was winning.

Don't do anything stupid, he chanted to himself on the way home. Ronan had already texted that he was in D.C. and would wait for him there. It was twenty after nine. Don't do anything stupid. He is your friend again, don't push it right now. You both need a friend, not the old emotional roller coaster. Don't do anything stupid.

It was one thing to tell himself this, and another to actually approach his little duplex and see Ronan lounging on the hood of his BMW, slouched in his jacket and knit hat. Adam stopped for a second to try and steel himself.

“Hey,” he cleared his throat as he got closer. Ronan was watching him with an expression that felt a little dangerous to Adam. Recognizably hungry. If you knew what to look for.

“Hi.”

“Have you been waiting long?”

“Nah. Few minutes.”

“Good. Well, um. Come inside, it's cold out.”

Ronan slid his feet to the ground, reached to pick up what looked like a gym bag, and followed Adam inside without another word.

This time Adam had made sure to actually wash all of the sheets for the futon. He'd made it up before class that morning, the same old blanket spread out over the top. He locked the door behind him and listened to Ronan shuffling around, sitting on the chair by the window to take off his boots.

They'd been talking so much over the phone, but now, in person, things felt different. More charged and tense. Maybe it was easier to forget how Ronan looked when they were just talking on the phone.

His voice, too, though. God, it still did something to Adam. Made him shiver. That was inconvenient when he was trying to learn to be friends again.

“Okay, so, talk to me,” Ronan broke the silence after setting down his bag and pulling off his hat and jacket. He stretched his neck to the side, then the other, rolling his shoulders a little.

“About what,” Adam flopped onto the Harvard blanket. “Do you want a drink, or something?”

“No. Thanks, I – I'm good.”

“Okay. Um. If you change your mind, just … you know. Help yourself to anything.”

“Thanks,” Ronan's wary eyes flickered over to him, and Adam tried not to blush. He hadn't meant for it to sound fucking suggestive. Help yourself to anything. Jesus Christ.

“How was traffic?”

“Not great. Not terrible. I dunno.”

“What time are we supposed to meet Blue tomorrow?”

“Eleven.”

“So do we plan for, like, three hours? Just to be safe?”

“I think you probably would,” Ronan muttered. “Doesn't take three goddamn hours.”

“Pretty close.”

I'm driving. But, fine, we'll leave early enough. Will you just tell me how you're doing? You've been quiet.”

“I have?”

“The last few days.”

“It's just – I don't know. Law school. It's just going to be like this. I guess I should've warned you what it'd be like. You didn't … we weren't really … talking like this. Last semester. When I started.”

“It's not just that. It's more than that. Are you mad that we're doing this?”

“This?” Adam blinked cautiously over at him.

“Yeah, Parrish, this. Driving to Richmond for a day and taking you away from your precious studies or whatever.”

“Oh. No, I'm not mad. It's still early enough in the semester, I'll probably be fine. Just hoping it'll be quiet at work on Sunday.”

“What else did you think I meant? If not Richmond?”

“I don't know. I guess just … talking more and hanging out and generally not hating each other anymore.”

“I've never even remotely hated you.”

“I'm pretty sure you've literally said I hate you, Parrish like a thousand times by now.”

“That's not what you fucking meant, and you know that.”

“Okay, let's not get bogged down in semantics. I thought you meant to ask me if I was mad that we were talking so much again after all that time, after all that happened.”

“I didn't before, but I guess now I sure do.”

“It's just … it's a lot,” Adam attempted clumsily. “This whole being friends again thing.”

“I thought that was what you wanted.”

“It was! It is. Doesn't mean it's not complicated. You're still – you know. You. It was always complicated with you. Even when we were seventeen.”

“Is complicated some kind of code word? Is it bad? Are you gonna give me a talk about how you can't really be friends with your ex?”

“Um. I'm not trying to say that, no,” Adam bit the inside of his cheek for a second as he sorted through his nerves. “I'm just trying to acknowledge that it's weird sometimes.”

“Well I don't know what to do about that, Adam. How am I supposed to make it un-weird.”

“You can't. I don't even think it's you. I think it's me. Neurotic as always.”

“Do you want me to go to a hotel?” Ronan sighed. “It's not that big of a deal.”

“No, Ronan, Jesus. Just – I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry if I get quiet sometimes. I'm figuring shit out.”

“Okay. I don't know how this works, either,” Ronan sighed, rubbing a hand over his hair. “I need you to tell me if it's ever, like … too much, or not worth it to you. I don't want to make things worse.”

“If that were the case, I'd tell you. I prom-”

Adam was interrupted by the brassy vibrating of his phone against the metal on the coffee table. The screen was facing up, clearly announcing to both of them that it was Luke calling.

“Sorry,” Adam winced. “He’s probably just telling me about a party or something tonight.”

“Go ahead. I’m fine. I’ll watch TV.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Adam mumbled, grabbing for his phone. He thought about ignoring it, but if he and Ronan were working on this just-friends thing, then he should be able to answer it, right? Not answering it would be weird.

“Hello,” Adam stood up as he answered his phone, not quite sure whether to stay there or to quietly escape to the privacy of his own room.

He didn’t quite know if this was something Ronan should overhear. Luke was still in fact occasionally flirting with him, despite how they’d left things on New Year’s. Either that or Luke was just a flirt in general. Adam hadn't figured that out yet. There seemed to still be some kind of attraction there, an open acknowledgment of possibility, if Adam could only get his shit together and leave his past in his past where it belonged. Adam had gone out dancing and drinking again as a group thing with Luke and his friends recently, a Friday night just like this, but he’d been pretty preoccupied with school and work starting back up.

And with Ronan.

“Adam! Hi. You’re not still at work, are you?”

“No, I’m home, it’s okay. Are you in town?”

“Yep. Is Ronan?”

“Wait, how did-,” Adam blinked over at the subject in question, who was sprawled indifferently across a chair that was clearly too small for such a pose, looking down at his fingernails. “Did Blue tell you?”

“Yes. She told me all about how you and Ronan are doing really well with making peace and being friends again. Just like what you told me. Is it going okay? Or, wait, maybe just tell me later when you can. Sorry, I need to chill out about this, I know. But I kind of can’t help being curious.”

“I, um,” Adam stopped to clear his throat. “It’s going fine, I think. Blue told you we're going to Richmond tomorrow? Caterer and hotel meetings and stuff?”

“Yeah. That’s sweet of you. I’m glad she’ll have you there with her. Ronan too. Okay, speaking of Ronan, I have an idea. He’s here in town for a night, so … do you think you could talk him into coming out with us? Wouldn’t that be so amazing? Would he go for it? Show him some D.C. fun while he's here?”

“Oh my God,” Adam closed his eyes for a second and tried not to laugh. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“You haven’t even tried!”

“I know how to pick my battles.”

“Put me on the phone with him. I’ll ask him. He’s met me.”

“Luke, no,” Adam did laugh this time, just imagining it. He could see Ronan watching him out of what looked like badly-masked curiosity.

“Is he immune to my charm?”

“Your charm is endless, but I still don’t think it’s quite enough to get Ronan Lynch out to a club in Dupont Circle.”

Ronan’s eyes popped wide, and he shook his head slowly and emphatically.

“You don’t think he’d have fun?”

“I mean, honestly? I don’t know. I know he’s hot and we would enjoy showing him off, but he’s not really the dancing type.”

Adam! ” Ronan was saying. Adam couldn’t quite hear him with the phone in his good ear, but it was an easy enough word to interpret.

“Shh, I know,” Adam covered the bottom of his phone to whisper to Ronan, who still looked legitimately terrified.

“Okay, fine. Maybe next time, then, if we have some time to ease him into the idea, not spring it on him? I guess if you have company then that means you can’t come out either?” Luke’s voice had a hopeful raise to it at the end.

“Sorry, I don’t think so. Too much reading to do, since I’ll be gone all day tomorrow.”

“Okay,” he could hear Luke’s sigh on the other end of the phone. “I guess it was stupid to think I could steal you away from him.”

“You mean tonight? Or just in general,” Adam’s pacing took him further away again.

“Ha. Tonight. But maybe in general, too. We’ve discussed this.”

“I know. I remember.”

“God. He’s sitting right there, isn’t he. You sound weird.”

“Um.”

“You want me to come over a little while? Make him jealous?”

“I don't, um ... think that's really a ... good reason?”

“Okay. You’re clearly busy anyway, so. Text me sometime and tell me how the bridal errands went.”

“I will.”

“Bye, beautiful.”

Adam knew he was blushing and fervently wished he could stop. He’d never had anyone call him that before.

Maybe all of this work he was doing to sustain a friendship with Ronan would have a different payoff after all. Maybe Luke would be convinced that Adam’s ex-boyfriend was truly in the past now, and maybe he’d relent. Adam felt restless and needy all the time lately. He wanted to be kissed. He wanted to feel bare skin against his own, hands running up over his ribcage.

He also needed to sort out whether that was about having been single for a few months, or just constantly talking to Ronan again.

“You should go out,” Ronan’s expression had turned somber, perhaps now that he seemed fully convinced that he would not actually be dragged to a nightclub against his will. “I’m just crashing here, you don’t need to entertain me. Go meet Luke somewhere. Enjoy your Friday night.”

“I’m not going to just leave you here by yourself, what kind of shitty friend would do that? Besides, I really would rather do some reading tonight anyway.”

“Of course you would. Go on, then, I can take care of myself.”

“I have some - uh. Orange juice, I think. In the fridge,” Adam glanced toward the kitchen; he’d been about to say that he had some beer. It was still taking some time adjusting to Ronan’s sobriety. “And … and soda. And the remote for the TV is right there.”

“Thanks. Go study.”

“Okay. I’ll be right in there. If you need anything.”

“I’m fine, Parrish. Quit fucking hovering.”

Adam smiled faintly and went to his bedroom with his bookbag, relieved and disappointed at the same time.

 


  

Adam heard the Camaro roaring back down the driveway into the night, and his heart hitched. Time seemed to slow to a suspended, sparkling stretch full of potential energy. He felt in his stomach what was going to happen. Ronan had been brave enough to finally act on what had been building between them for a while; Adam wanted to find that same courage in himself.

Ronan was still outside, somewhere. Adam waited for him to come back, to finally finish the silent conversation they'd started earlier. But the minutes dragged on, and Adam wasn't patient enough anymore. He felt like he'd been awoken once again, not as a magician, but to the real and honest truth of him and Ronan. All of that dangerous and adrenaline-jolting potential was real. It was so real that Adam felt like his skin was on fire with it.

He wanted something, someone, in a way that he hadn't known was possible before Ronan had leaned over and brushed his lips hopefully, carefully, shakily over Adam's. Had Ronan even meant to do that? Had he planned to? Did he regret it already?

He let the night pull him through the house, to the front door. He felt the current carrying him toward Ronan, and he surrendered to it in a way he had been resisting before, maybe out of fear.

Ronan looked back at the sound of the door closing, out on the porch, and studied Adam's face for a few seconds. Then he was gazing out at the yard.

Adam swallowed, still trying to find a way to break the silence and say something, some way to provide what felt like necessary reassurance on his part, that it wasn't just casual experimenting, that he felt something deep and heavy and inevitable happening to both of them, that he was scared he'd mess it up somehow.

He was always doing this. Trying to sort it out so logically, focusing too much on why he couldn't have the things he wanted in life, how unfair it always was. But this – didn't he already have Ronan? In a way? The kissing was just a natural and unavoidable elevation of how they'd been running together for months now.

His fingers twitched, thinking of how he'd just sat there on the bed, stunned and overcome, paralyzed like an idiot. Why hadn't he-

“Adam?”

Ronan's voice was quiet – just enough volume to carry to Adam on the porch night air – but also lost and vulnerable and pleading and – and wanting. Adam's internal debate came to a halt and was washed out with an unquestionable surge of desire and intention.

He felt it like the ley line, pulling through his chest and stomach. This force belonged to Ronan alone, and it was strung through Adam and lighting up with need. Like Ronan had dreamt something to take residence there inside Adam long ago, and it was now pulsing insatiably.

He took two steps and saw Ronan already turning toward him, his eyes electric and soft and surprised as Adam reached up and kissed him intently, deliberately, without stopping to consider whether it was the smart thing to do.

His stomach plummeted at the feeling of Ronan's mouth on his again, at the sound Ronan made – a shaky gasp that turned into a relieved, quiet little moan. Adam felt it shock his lips and heart.

Ronan wanted him. Like this. He'd sensed it for weeks, maybe months, but in an abstract and vague way. The sudden appearance of physical proof was dizzying and made Adam kiss him harder.

Ronan's hands went back clumsily to steady himself against the pillar behind him. Adam leaned closer, pressed him there with his body, kept them both safe. He held Ronan's shoulders, his fingers digging in helplessly.

“Jesus,” Ronan breathed, pulling away for just long enough to say it. Then Ronan's hands went to Adam's hair, and he let his mouth trail in a fiery path over Adam's jaw and cheekbone and lips and kissed him over and over. Adam let his hands find the lines of muscle in Ronan's arms that he'd only been able to admire thus far with his eyes.

Adam wanted so badly that he felt a hiccup of fear about it, about how out of control it made him feel. He tried to get a handle on his breathing and his shaking lips but it was impossible with Ronan's fingers buried in his hair like that.

He never wanted to stop. He felt like Ronan had pulled him into a dream where everything was vibrating at a higher frequency. He wanted to live there.

He felt Ronan's hands float over the sides of his neck. Adam's mouth was a runaway train on Ronan's. He had no plans to slow down anytime soon.

Except that Ronan slid his fingers up and under Adam's t-shirt, over his waist, and then Adam didn't mean for the kiss to stop. He was just leaning into Ronan a little too much at the sensation, seizing up for a millisecond, breathing in erratic little bursts.

“Ronan, God, I ...” he gripped the straps at the front of Ronan's tank top.

“What,” Ronan kissed his cheek, whispered into his ear, mapped out the feel of his ribcage with burning hands. Adam shivered.

“I – I didn't know,” Adam stammered, trying to get the thought out of his brain and into actual words . It was a steep challenge with Ronan's mouth on his throat.

“You didn't know what,” Ronan prompted him again.

“I didn't know it could be like this,” Adam blurted it all out in a rush, looking earnestly at Ronan's heavily lidded blue eyes. He didn't know if he was apologizing or asking a question. Maybe both.

Ronan's lips parted, like he was going to respond. But then he changed his mind. He lowered his mouth to Adam's again, and they kissed breathlessly, Adam's pulse roaring. Adam could feel Ronan's pent-up want, the fierce and tumultuous pressure in Ronan's lips. His thumb slid sideways along Ronan's clavicle, skipping over smooth skin. He gave up trying to do anything else and twined his hands around Ronan's neck so he could lean into the kiss even more.

He wanted them to switch places; he wanted to feel Ronan's weight on him instead, shoving him up against the wall, or the floor. His mind was racing with suggestions now, of specific desires and curiosities, unconsciously pressing them closer and closer together.

Ronan's hands climbed higher, sliding over Adam's chest, and Adam arched against it, hungry for the contact. He needed to sit down, to let Ronan climb on top of him, hold him tighter. Closer.

Ronan broke away from their kiss with a shaky gasp and dropped his head down against Adam's shoulder.

“Adam. God, I … My heart is completely losing its fucking shit.”

“I can feel it.”

“Come inside,” Ronan whispered. “Come inside.” He kissed Adam each time, punctuating his repeated plea. “Come inside.”

Adam followed Ronan inside the house, their hands clutched in each other's as they walked.

 

Adam opened his eyes with a slow sigh, reaching over to touch the button on his phone. 2:04 a.m. He hadn't exactly jolted awake, like from a nightmare, or like the dream that had shocked him recently at the Barns. This one had faded out into a dull, spreading ache of loss and distance as he felt himself drifting from that moment again, yanked away by time and trauma. But he lay there for a long time afterward, genuinely alarmed about how vivid these dreams were getting. It wasn't just remembering – it was reliving the moment in exact detail, and then being crushed by the realization that it was only a memory.

He was wide awake, of course, and his throat was dry.

He turned the bedroom doorknob as quietly as possible, sneaking out into the living room. But as it turned out, it wasn't necessary. Ronan was awake, sitting cross-legged on the floor by Adam's wall of cube shelves, gently stacking paperback books.

Ronan looked up guiltily from where he was sitting cross-legged there on the floor.

“Christ, Adam. What's wrong?”

“What?” Adam pushed his hair back, trying to flatten it against his head.

“You look like … did you have a nightmare?”

“Oh. I, um … not exactly. A weird dream, though. What the hell are you doing?”

“I had a terrible one. Dream, I mean. Couldn't go back to sleep.”

Adam trudged past him into the kitchen, poured two glasses of water from the filtered pitcher, and brought one to Ronan, who accepted it wordlessly.

“Why are you putting things away at two in the morning,” Adam sighed, sinking into the little chair nearby.

“You have books. You have empty shelves. I have nothing better to do.”

“Okay.” Adam searched his own brain for a reaction, an emotion of some kind, but he found nothing. It was a true enough observation that books were supposed to go on shelves. He didn't feel like fighting that one.

“Was your dream about Cabeswater?” Ronan asked as he turned himself around and leaned back against the shelves, stretching his legs out in front of him on the floor.

“No. Was yours?”

“Yeah. Kind of, I mean. Didn't really feel like a normal dream. Do you remember that time we were out looking for O and she fell in that acid pool?”

“Yes, of course I do. You jumped in after her,” Adam gulped down a third of his water.

“Yeah, well. I thought I remembered it. But apparently I'd lost some of the details, and my brain felt like reminding me just now. With extreme fucking clarity.”

Adam squinted at him, considering.

“So it was a memory. Not your usual kind of dream.”

“Basically.”

“Have you had any other ones?”

“Once. Just like this, but … but something different,” Ronan looked off toward the empty kitchen. “A different memory.”

“On Christmas? When we were out at the Barns? Is that why you were awake in the middle of the night?”

Ronan stared at him, folding his arms in what looked like a defensive way.

“So that's a yes.”

“That was way too good of a guess even for you, magician.”

“I've had them, too. Same thing. Memories, really vivid. Same nights as you.”

“Okay,” Ronan's lips pressed together briefly. “That's … uh. Weird. I don't know if it's weird on the scale of what you and I have personally experienced over the years. But still. It feels like-”

“Yeah. Coincidence.” Adam gave it the old ironic mention, in Gansey's honor.

“Were they, like … random? The ones you had?”

“I don't know what you mean by random,” Adam shifted uncomfortably.

“Well what were they, then?”

“It doesn't matter.”

“Mm. Was I there? In any of them?”

“Both of them,” Adam sighed.

Ronan frowned down at his leather wristbands, like this answer had upset him, but like he had also expected it to.

“If we were still in Henrietta I'd go to Fox Way and ask them about this,” Adam continued, since Ronan wasn't saying anything else. “It feels like too much of a warning sign of something.”

“Can you still scry?”

“No,” Adam looked down his water glass without meaning to. “Although I haven't really tried, because I don't see the point. I can still read Persephone's tarot cards. But it's pretty vague and mild. Not like when Cabeswater was communicating through them.”

“Adam, I … Fuck. I think I need to tell you something.”

“Oh, God,” Adam mumbled, watching the way Ronan was now fidgeting uncomfortably. “What?”

“There's a, uh … a new Cabeswater.”

Adam stared, trying to make the words fall into place in his head. In a sentence.

“... Oh my God, you can't be-”

“It's small,” Ronan lifted his hands to ward off whatever he thought Adam was going to say. “I didn't want to try for too much. It had to be stronger and able to protect itself this time.”

“Holy shit, Ronan,” Adam stared. “Who else knows?”

“Opal.”

“And that's it?”

“I didn't know how anyone else would react.”

Adam covered his eyes, then focused on his left side, wondering if he could really feel the tattoo humming very slightly or if he was just imagining the sensation.

“You're not going to say anything?”

“I'm still trying to process it, Lynch. Give me a fucking minute here.”

“You really don't know this already? I thought … I thought maybe you'd felt it.”

Adam ran his hand over his side, over the ink beneath his t-shirt.

“I thought that was why you wanted this thing,” Ronan pointed at the sculpture he'd brought previously. It was displayed prominently on top of the cube shelves to which Ronan had been adding Adam's paperback novels. “It's from the new one.”

“It's what?” Adam gaped. But in a strange way, he did feel something pure and energizing about it. He'd just been telling himself that it was a meditation technique, the reminder of Cabeswater's beauty. Just like his tattoo.

He got up and went to his sculpture, tracing a fingertip over one of the intricately twisted curves of wood.

“Well, I mean this one, not the one you saw in a picture. The base. The wood. You can tell it's different, right? I can't fucking carve wood like that, you know that, don't you? Christ. You didn't say anything, so maybe not.”

“That is from Cabeswater? I thought you said you couldn't dream lately.”

“I can't. I didn't have to. I went there and I asked Cabeswater for it, since it was for you, and it sort of … the forest gave it to me. It didn't work like a dream thing.”

“I can't believe you brought this here and you didn't say a fucking word about this to me. Honestly, Ronan.”

“I didn't want you to get freaked out about possibly having a connection like that again. You know. Through me.”

“I was connected to the old Cabeswater. The one that we gave up for Gansey,” Adam continued tracing the lines of his artwork. “I don't know if the new one is just going to, like … plug into the same port or whatever, but I kind of doubt it. I haven't sacrificed anything to the new one. I lost that magic years ago.”

“I know. But it remembers you. It still knows its magician. Even if it's a different form now.”

“God. Do you really think this is a good idea?”

“I don't know if it's a good idea. I think it's the only idea. I've never not planned to put it back someday. You know that. It's just taken a long time to think through the right structure. I don't want it vulnerable like it was the last time.”

“We have to tell Gansey and Blue.”

“Why? You're acting like I got sent to the principal's office. What's wrong with restoring it?”

“I don't know," Adam groaned. "I've only had thirty seconds to think about it.”

“Do you really think it's fucking with our dreams?”

“How long has it even been there?”

“Um. A couple of months. But I … I've been dreaming it for a couple of years. I just didn't actually take it out until … I was thinking of bringing you there at Christmas. All of you. But then they got engaged, and we were thinking about other shit, and I … I just didn't know if it was time yet.”

“Okay, but why would it give us dreams? These flashbacks? If it's new and – and stronger? I don't know if that's really it. We're nowhere near it right now.”

“First of all yes, it is technically new. But that's the thing, Cabeswater has always, like … existed. This is a manifestation. A timeless one. It has memories. It still knows me. Us.”

“Well of course it fucking knows you, Greywaren.”

Ronan pulled his knees up to his chest, looking more vulnerable all of a sudden. Adam hadn't meant for that last word to come out as an insult, but it looked like Ronan had taken it that way.

“We should tell Gansey and Blue tomorrow,” Adam deliberately softened his tone. “We'll all be together again anyway. Maybe they had dreams, too, but didn't know to say anything about it.”

“Fuck,” Ronan held his head in his hand. “I wasn't ready to tell them.”

“They loved Cabeswater. They'll probably be thrilled.”

“Yeah. They're not potentially tied to it through a years-old sacrifice,” Ronan gazed up at him guiltily.

“Look, just … will you at least just chill out on adding any more magical trees until we can talk more about this?”

“Don't really have a choice about that, Parrish. I can't dream for shit right now.”

“Oh. Right,” Adam went back for the rest of his water. “Is that related, too? Like the dreams? The timeframe ...”

“I don't know. Maybe. Probably.”

“God.”

“You really can't feel it?” Ronan said after a while, his voice startlingly small and tentative.

“I don't know what to look for. It's been years, Ronan. If I felt anything I'd probably think I was just being nostalgic or something.”

“You should go back to sleep. Long day tomorrow.”

“So should you. You're driving. Stop organizing my fucking books and get back in bed.”

“Mm.”

“We'll talk more about this later, okay? I need time to let it sink in.”

Adam was back in his bed without even remembering how he got there, clutching an empty glass. He stared at the wall for a long time, unable to get past the basic idea of it. Cabeswater. Are you there? Are you back? I missed you.

Chapter Text

“So this one is some kind of key lime, and this is, um … espresso and chocolate?”

Adam shook his head as he examined another plate of cupcakes cut into quarters. He'd had no idea how many of these things Blue would be subjecting them to that day.

Across the round table from him, on the other side of Blue, Ronan immediately snatched up a piece of each kind. Adam couldn't tell if he really was devoting himself to the task or if he was trying to get it over with more quickly.

“Mmf,” Ronan pointed at the key lime. “That one's gross.”

“I still don't understand why you won't keep red velvet in the running,” Adam scoffed and reached for the espresso option.

“Red velvet. God. You're still so perfectly Virginia deep down,” Blue laughed and looked at the notebook she'd been using to sort of keep score.

“Nothing wrong with the food in Virginia,” Adam mumbled around a mouthful of cupcake. “This one's a little intense. Maybe you don't need people quite that caffeinated.”

“Mm. That's what I thought, too. Lynch, any thoughts besides good or gross?”

“No.”

“Great. Next round.”

“Is this, like … one of those Dante punishments I slept through in class?” Ronan sighed. “Like the guy who pushes the boulder up the hill?”

“Yeah. It's a rough life, Lynch,” Adam rolled his eyes.

“These are the last two, you poor baby,” Blue slid another rectangular plate to the middle of their table. “Um, raspberry white chocolate and … sea salt caramel?”

Adam dutifully tasted both flavors and looked around at the boutique. He felt very much out of place in this world, the Ganseys' Richmond, where the stores had maybe ten things inside, and if you had to ask the price, you couldn't afford it.

Ronan looked even more at odds, of course, in his torn dark jeans and thin black sweater, his tattoo curling out aggressively from the neckline. He was always glancing over at the doors and windows, like he was ready to bolt at any second.

Despite Ronan's obvious edginess, the day had been going better than expected. Adam was enjoying it, actually. He and Blue had a comfortable, affectionate friendship that almost never failed to make him feel stronger and more solid. He'd been nervous about having Ronan there, too, about the awkward dynamic it would create. But as they traveled around from lunch to cake shops to catering offices, Adam began to realize that Blue had an even stronger grounding effect on Ronan. The two of them had their own set of rules, their own language, the way they were teasing each other.

Once, during lunch, when Adam was walking back from the restroom, he paused to observe Blue whispering seriously to Ronan, her eyes different – concerned and intensely attentive. Ronan had caught Adam at it, though, and nudged Blue away from whatever secrets they'd been sharing during Adam's brief absence.

Back when Blue and Ronan hadn't known each other as well, they both would've been enraged if Adam had pointed out their similarities. But now they seemed to have grown to a point where they embraced it, worked from it as common ground. They were like siblings. And Adam could see the way Ronan secretly assessed the details that he was pretending to not give a shit about. Ronan wasn't missing any of it, deep down, and Blue would know that.

When one of the caterers had taken a snotty couple of glances at Blue's studded boots and fishnets, Adam had seen Ronan's eyes flash with protectiveness, his shoulders squaring instantly. At just a hint of a potential slight against Blue Sargent.

Adam was reminded of that first day he'd met Opal, the first time she'd been accidentally hauled out from Ronan's dreams. They'd been walking through Cabeswater, and Adam had privately watched Ronan's arms tighten around Opal as he carried her, fierce and unwavering.

It wasn't good to spend too much time on those memories, that time in his life. Not just because of the nightmares, the trauma, the demon and decay and unmaking. But also because of how he'd still been sliding near the edge of falling in love with Ronan, losing his balance more and more all the time without recognizing it, or even believing himself capable of it. Those little moments suspended in his memory – Ronan's smile at the music in Cabeswater; Ronan's fingertip on his palm in the parking lot – they still hurt.

Adam and his friends had dispatched a demon, and they'd brought Gansey back, and they'd lost Noah, and Persephone, and Aurora. But those things were over, decidedly so. His feelings for Ronan were different. That book was not so easily closed. It didn't feel like a finite event.

Neither did the old stream of energy and magic that had been Cabeswater. He had given it up, and he understood that sacrifice for what it was. But just because he comprehended it logically didn't mean he was spared the occasional burst of grief, of missing the way his pulse would sync with the ley line beneath him. He'd been something more back then, and he felt the difference on and off ever since. Just human. Not like the Greywaren, who was still a magical thing all his own, always would be.

“Parrish,” Ronan's voice cut sharply into his reverie. They were outside in the street, tucked into an entryway with a red awning, waiting for Blue as she stopped in to check on reserving a block of hotel rooms. “You in there? You freak me out when you do that. Reminds me of …”

“Sorry. Just thinking.”

“I know, I know. I'm waiting for Gansey. I don't want to tell it twice.”

“I'm not saying you should. It's fine.”

“You just have to get through dinner. Then you'll be back in the car with your books.”

Adam looked over at Ronan for the first time since they'd started this conversation. “I know that. Why are you saying it like that? Am I being a dick or something?”

“No. I just – I know this wasn't easy for you,” Ronan muttered, folding his arms. “I know you didn't have time for this. You did it because I guilted you into it. I'll get you back to your books as soon as I can.”

“It's fine. I'm good. You were right to get me to come today. Blue's happy.”

“Mm,” Ronan glanced behind them, at the door, and put down the foot he'd been resting against the wall. They could see Blue on her way out, nodding politely to a concierge. “She's just glad we're not fighting.”

“Yeah, well. So am I.”

Ronan's eyes flickered to him, and they were both quiet, caught up magnetically. Adam's recent dream still had a powerful hold on him. He imagined leaning a couple of feet closer, breathing Ronan's name against his lips, holding himself there, still and trembling and daring Ronan to give in and kiss him, grab at the front of his jacket and pull him in.

Adam's fingertip was at his own lips before he realized it. He closed his eyes to escape Ronan's and turned out toward the street again, his heart skipping painfully in his chest.

“Okay, that's done,” Blue arrived in a sweep of the revolving door. “Did you know that these rooms cost four hundred fucking dollars a night? I hope Gansey's mother is happy.”

“Dinner time,” Ronan announced, shaking Adam out of his fuzzy haze. “Parrish, call Gansey.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“You act like I've been dragging you into salt mines or something, God,” Blue smacked Ronan's arm. “Snap out of it. You're done with bridal duties today.”

As Gansey's phone rang in Adam's ear, Adam could see Blue and Ronan exchanging a wordless gaze, Blue questioning and Ronan deflecting. Maybe Adam's kiss-hungry imagination had been obvious on both of their faces when Blue had--

“Adam! Where are you,” Gansey's voice sang into the phone. “Please tell me you're ready for dinner. I can't stay here another minute.”

“Can you meet us at – what's the place again? Shit. Why did you have me call, I don't know where we are,” Adam rolled his eyes at Ronan. “Hang on, Gansey, let me have you talk to Blue.”

They got the directions straightened out, and soon the four of them were installed around a small table in a pub with a goat painted on the wooden sign out front. Gansey looked like he'd been conducting some kind of hostage negotiations all day.

“Jane. Please tell me about your day. I want to hear everything. Except if it has to do with my sister. Or my parents. Or the church. Or Richmond.”

“Um,” Blue squinted vaguely. “The entire day literally took place in Richmond.”

“Okay, fine, just don't make it overly Richmondy in your descriptions,” Gansey rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

Blue began regaling him with only slightly embellished tales of tasting cupcakes and selecting appetizers from catering menus. She asked Ronan and Adam to fill in details, or she deliberately told them wrong so that Ronan and Adam would interrupt to protest or grumble or roll their eyes. Adam could see the slow, relaxing, unwinding effect it had on Gansey.

Gansey turned the focus onto Adam, asking about all of his new classes, about the library, about the cute girl Gansey had seen with Adam on Tuesday. This made Blue's eyebrows shoot up and Adam's eyes roll and Ronan's mouth quirk.

“She's in a couple of my classes. I don't know her. She walked beside me for thirty seconds,” Adam sighed, dragging his last french fries through ketchup. “Don't book the double wedding just yet, okay?”

“I was just wondering. I like her hair.”

Blue shot Gansey a sideways withering gaze. “Do you. That's so interesting.”

“I can't go back to that house,” Gansey burst out, covering his eyes with his hands, surprising all of them with the jump in topic. Only then did Adam realize that these questions had been mostly to get Gansey out of his own head. Not about the cute girl in class.

“It's only one more night,” Blue murmured, resting her head against Gansey's shoulder.

“I can't do it. They're driving me – God. My father is being so terrible.”

“What's keeping you here, man,” Ronan leaned on his arms. “Come back to D.C. with us. I gotta take Parrish back tonight anyway.”

“His sister would kill us,” Blue rubbed Gansey's arm over his pale turquoise sweater.

“So what?” Ronan kept at it, and Adam could see the light in his eyes. He had a mission now. “Jesus, Gansey, you bend over backward for them all the time, and for what? You made your appearance, you planned your shit in their city and their church, just like they wanted. Come back to D.C. tonight and hang out with us for a while. You're not a kid anymore. You don't owe them anything. Tell them you have to study or something.”

“God, it would be nice to stay with you one night before I go back to Baltimore,” Blue turned to Gansey, taking up his full attention for a moment as they gazed at each other. “Wouldn't it? Is Ronan right? Could we get out of here a night early? If we left now we'd be back by nine.”

“The Pig's in the lot around the corner,” Gansey tapped a finger against the table.

“Do it,” Adam put in his vote, draining his lager. “Just call them and be Gansey and breeze through it. You and Blue come over to my place when we get there.”

“Your place,” Gansey's eyebrows lifted.

“Yeah. You can see my new sculpture.”

Adam glanced over to see Ronan squirm at this. Ronan would understand that this was meant to segue them into a Cabeswater talk. Even if he didn't want to go there yet, Adam was going to push him into it, because a Cabeswater thing involved all of them. Period.

“Ooh, that sounds perfect, I want to see it,” Blue nodded. “Gansey, please?”

“I'll call them,” Gansey acquiesced, and then took turns bumping knuckles with all of them. “When else do we get a chance to all hang out together? Let's do it.”

“I'll get the check,” Ronan pushed his chair back.

“The hell you will,” Blue snapped first, before Adam had a chance.

“Can we not do this every fucking time?” Ronan was looking at Blue, but definitely shot a glance at Adam, preemptively. “You got lunch.”

“Because we asked you here to help today,” Gansey lifted a hand, mediating. “Here's the deal. I get the check. And we'll meet you at Adam's.”

“Christ. Let him get it,” Adam snatched at Ronan's sleeve, pulling him back down into his chair. “We'll get him some of his Chardonnay on the way back.”

“You of all people,” Ronan glared at him.

“Adam knows how to pick his battles,” Gansey pronounced smoothly.

And it was true. Sort of. Adam had been fighting this fight with Gansey long enough to know that look in his eye. The commandment had happened and to argue was just to make him dig in more.

“Okay, fine, let's go,” Ronan nodded toward the door. “If we're going to stop at the liquor store first.”

“We'll see you in a couple of hours,” Blue got up with them, and they all hugged before Adam followed Ronan back into the street, walking quickly toward the BMW.



 

“Do you regret it now?” Adam heard himself whispering his primary fear, finally. “Is that why you won't come inside?”

“Don't be stupid,” Ronan sighed against his mouth before kissing him again. Adam's eyes closed involuntarily at the contact, and his hands clenched up, grabbing fistfuls of Ronan's shirt. His eyes and hands, wholly his own again, yet responding without any rational input.

“I would understand,” Adam pressed on breathlessly, surprising himself with his own ardor. He'd been desperate for some alone time with Ronan again, to find out if what they’d started was even real anymore. A stolen ten minutes in Ronan's BMW was better than nothing.

But now that he had what he wanted, he was still haunted, racked with images of his hands flinging themselves back around Ronan's throat.

“Parrish, come on. Not this again.”

“Again? We haven't talked about it at all.”

“What is there to fucking talk about? It wasn't you. I know that. We all know that,” Ronan's mouth wandered over his jaw, his neck, the hollow of his throat. Adam's head fell back against the headrest behind him, his eyes closing involuntarily. Then he felt Ronan's teeth at his earlobe and he couldn't suppress a noisy gasp.

“I could feel it happening,” Adam closed his eyes, covering his forehead, the confession weighing heavy and rough. “You don't understand.”

“Okay, but did you want it to happen? Did you mean for it to happen? Did you consciously set out to fucking murder me all of a sudden?”

“Of course not.”

“Right. There you go. You think I would hold this against you? For some stupid reason?”

“I almost killed you!”

“But you didn't. And it wasn't you. How many times do I have to- Look at me.”

“I can't, you … your bruises,” Adam rubbed at his eyes, trying to erase the scene flashing ceaselessly in his brain.

“They're starting to heal. That's why they look like shit. That's how it works.”

“I can't stop seeing it in my head.” Adam probed the edge of a yellow-gray bruise and then pulled his fingers away again instantly.

“Look. I trust you more than … more than anyone else on this goddamned planet, you ought to know that by now,” Ronan grabbed Adam's hands and settled them loosely, gingerly, at Ronan's neck. Adam jumped in horror at the mere position of his hands there, his thumbs at the sensitive, satin skin at Ronan's throat, his hands matching the bruising patterns in a terrible and specific accusation of what he'd done. Ronan kept him trapped there though, insistent, weaving their fingers together.

“Don't,” Adam saw flashes of it again, of him squeezing the life out of Ronan Lynch.

“You need to get past this. I can't fucking handle seeing you look at me like that. Like you're scared to touch me now. That wasn't you. This is. Okay? Don't let that thing keep controlling you even after it's dead. These're your hands now. Use them.”

Adam pressed his lips together, getting a hold of himself. Ronan slowly released his fingers, giving him encouraging little squeezes as he let go. Adam stilled and closed his eyes, counting his breaths, in and out. Then he forced himself to keep his hands where they were and really look at them. He bent his knuckles experimentally, moving his fingers back and forth, proving to himself that he was in control.

Ronan's mouth curled up a little at the corner, a tiny smile of approval and pride, and Adam's anxiety ran off of him like water. It wasn't until that moment that he realized that he'd walk barefoot through hell just to see that look on Ronan's face.

Now that he had regained a bit of confidence, he let his palms drift to Ronan's rounded shoulders, and leaned closer to kiss each of the fading marks on the sides of Ronan's neck, attending to them like he felt he needed to. Then he got a bit carried away, of course, his mouth trailing down around the neckline of Ronan's shirt, working the cotton aside with his fingers so he could kiss that gorgeous collarbone, sucking at it hungrily before he realized what he was doing.

“Adam. Shit,” Ronan breathed, clutching at his waist, pushing up at the hem of Adam's Aglionby uniform shirt and sliding his hands there, over the skin of his lower back.

“You don't have to drive all the way back there tonight,” Adam sighed. He resented the hard plastic console between them like he'd never resented anything in his life. He could see Ronan glance down at it, too, and then suddenly he was being lifted, yanked over it. Adam found himself sprawled across Ronan's lap, gasping at way Ronan clutched him there and watched him, his eyes glowing blue with determination and need.

It was too much all at once. Adam stayed there for a minute, burying his face against Ronan's shoulder. But without the kissing he realized he was focusing on the rest of his body, pressed into Ronan's so desperately on its own. Ronan was waiting him out, letting him take time to respond however he was going to respond.

Ronan very much did have to drive back to the Barns, despite the way Adam was protesting it. They were already on borrowed time. So Adam needed to make the most of this.

He slid up to reach Ronan's mouth and kissed him, and Ronan groaned a little, grabbing at Adam's back again, shoving his shirt up. They kissed again and again, Adam shaking with adrenaline, like Ronan was leaning hard on the gas pedal. Adam's senses were overwhelmed – the scent of Ronan's soap, his car, the leather seats, the music quietly but relentlessly urging Adam to kiss harder and faster. He was losing himself in it. Ronan had Adam's shirt halfway up his ribs, but Adam didn't care. The air on his skin felt good, and Ronan's hands were everywhere. His fingers locked around Ronan's belt, at his hips, and he felt Ronan lifting up against him, their bodies grinding together.

“Ronan,” he gasped, his lips shaking. “Ronan, God-”

 

Adam sat up so fast he very nearly smacked his head against the roof of the car. He was gasping, clawing at the edge of the seat, his fingers still trying to cling to Ronan's body beneath him.

He was alone.

Not alone, exactly, but compared to where he'd just been a second ago, sprawled across Ronan's lap.

No. He was in the passenger seat now. That other thing had been a dream. He sucked in a seizing breath and rubbed hard at his eyes.

He was hard as hell. He grabbed for his notebook that he'd been sleepily scanning earlier and set it flat on his lap, embarrassed and ashamed. Ronan was right there. Jesus Christ.

“Hey,” Ronan's voice snaked in from beside him.

It was Ronan who had woken him. He realized it suddenly. He'd felt a hand on his arm just in that moment of being torn from the dream.

God, he wanted it back. He wanted it with a force that would've alarmed him if he could think of anything else at all besides straddling Ronan in that goddamn driver's seat while they made out like it was the end of the world. God. He still couldn't breathe right.

“You okay?” Ronan asked in a scratchy voice, touching his arm and setting it on fire.

“Don't,” Adam pulled back immediately, heat rushing through him. He squeezed his eyes shut. Ronan was quiet again.

After he felt his chest rising somewhat normally again, without the hitching and heaving. He swallowed hard.

“Sorry, I – Sorry. I'm fine. Just another one of those – those dreams,” he pulled his feet up under him, shifting around to try and adjust himself without calling attention to what he was actually doing.

He was blindingly aroused and stuck in Ronan's car for another … forty-five minutes. Brilliant. He wanted to cry.

“Can I, um – will you kill me if I put the window down for like thirty seconds,” Adam swallowed again. He remembered a brief time when he'd been the only one ever allowed to touch any buttons in Ronan's car. He didn't think that privilege still applied.

“Whatever,” Ronan muttered. He was glancing over at Adam quite frequently, the highway not taking much of his attention. Adam leaned on the window button and let the January air blast over him for a little while. It helped some. Helped cool him off and shock him back into reality.

It was barely forty degrees out there, though, according to the car's thermometer, so he put the window back up and breathed deeply. He needed to go through some of Persephone's meditation techniques.

“I didn't mean to fall asleep,” Adam pushed his hair back out of his eyes. “Thanks for waking me up.”

“Mm-hmm. Was that a bad one?”

Adam chewed at his bottom lip. He didn't know how to respond to that, exactly.

“Um. Why?”

“I dunno. You kind of – you said my name, I think.”

“Oh my God,” Adam's eyes stared roundly into nothingness, and then he covered his face, curling up into a ball of humiliation.

Of course. Of course he had. Maybe the car seat could just swallow him up entirely.

“I don't think we're having the same kinds of dreams,” Ronan observed dryly. Adam could barely hear him.

“Can we please not talk about this,” he sighed.

“Well, I mean, just in the interest of figuring out what the hell is happening here, do you not think it makes a difference what memories we're actually being shown? Mine have both been terrible.”

“Mine were … not. Okay? Not. Let's leave it at that.”

“Okay.”

They were both quiet for a while, Ronan's music calming Adam down a bit more. He dropped his hands slowly from his eyes and blinked out at the night around them. It was too dark to read now.

“Gansey and Blue are going to ask. When you tell them you're having dreams.”

“I know.”

“I'm just saying-”

“They're all about … about making out with you. Okay? Are you happy? I've relived the fucking front porch at the Barns and your bedroom and now this goddamned car and I do not want to talk about it.”

“This car, huh? Which time?”

“Ronan!”

“Look, I'm the one who has to drive this thing every day. I remember it all the time.”

“Not like that,” Adam shook his head. “Not like that.”

“I'm serious, though, why am I getting nightmares and you're getting, uh … those?”

“It's your magical fucking dream forest, Lynch. Figure it out, I'm not talking about this with you, so fucking help me.”

“All right, all right, chill. I just thought you might want to have your shit together for whenever Blue grills you about it later,” Ronan looked decidedly cool about this whole thing, almost fucking laughing about it, and Adam wanted to scream.

“You think this is funny. You're such an asshole.”

“I don't think it's funny. I just wish we could trade. I didn't know what you were getting. Feels kind of unfair.”

“Christ,” Adam seethed, shifting around again and resting his feet up against the glove box. He knew Ronan hated that. He didn't care.

“Maybe tonight you'll get St. Agnes.”

“I hate you so much.”

Unbelievably, Ronan smirked at him and turned the music up. Adam stared out the window, nothing but three other lanes of traffic to stare at as he waited for his blood to cool off again.

Chapter Text

“Adam, this place is nice,” Blue observed, brushing past Gansey, who'd planted himself on the futon where Ronan had slept the night before. Ronan had pushed it back up into a couch formation at some point when Adam had been looking for more wine glasses. Before Blue and Gansey had gotten there.

“I forgot you hadn't been over here yet. It's definitely nicer than the places I was looking at first,” Adam walked with her so she could see the bedroom, the bathroom. “Grace found this one.”

Blue gave his arm a squeeze and they went back to the living room, where Gansey had poured chardonnay for everyone but Ronan. Adam tried not to seethe at the fact that Gansey and Blue had known about his not-drinking thing for God-knew-how-long. He didn't know why it was so infuriating that nobody had let him in on it earlier, but it was, it really fucking was.

“God. I'm so glad to be out of there,” Gansey stretched and sprawled elegantly across the futon. Blue perched beside him, and Ronan was on the floor by the coffee table. Adam couldn't really fault him when there was a decided lack of furniture options. Adam pulled the chair up and tried to get Ronan to take it, but he waved a dismissive hand. He looked very distracted.

“Oh! That's the sculpture. Can I see it?” Blue's eyes had landed on the top of the shelf.

Adam glanced down at Ronan, who was now picking at the plastic ring on his water bottle, and went to retrieve his own personal piece of Cabeswater. He knew it was silly, but as he held it he tried to focus on it, the wood at the bottom, the intricate pattern, to see if he could feel any energy emanating from it.

“It's lovely,” Gansey leaned over to peer at it after Adam deposited it in Blue's lap.

“Ronan, how did you – this isn't like the other ones,” Blue touched the leaves and vines made of painted plaster.

“I know,” Ronan muttered to the coffee table.

“Ronan,” Adam sank into the chair next to him and nudged him with his knee. “It's time.”

“I thought we'd kinda work up to this.”

“Come on.”

“Do you want to see the new ones? I have three more, now. Pictures on my phone,” Ronan dug into his pocket.

Adam looked at him, exasperated. Then he took in Blue and Gansey, who had switched their attention from the sculpture to Adam and Ronan. Blue raised her eyebrows at Adam questioningly.

“If you're not going to tell them, I am,” Adam glared over at Ronan.

“How are you still like this. I thought maybe that stick would've slowly eased its way out of your-”

“Ronan dreamt a new Cabeswater,” Adam announced, spreading his fingers like he was physically tossing the information away from him. It had been eating away his insides, after all.

“I'm sorry, what?” Gansey leaned forward, putting the sculpture on the coffee table between the four of them.

“Ronan fucking Lynch,” Blue hissed.

“Thanks a lot, Parrish. Great introduction there.”

“Is he serious? Why didn't you say anything? How long ago? How does he know this? He doesn't even live there!” Blue pointed shakily in Adam's direction but stared over at Ronan the whole time.

“Yes, he's serious,” Ronan glowered. “It's only been a few months. I wasn't ready to tell anyone yet.”

“Except Adam,” Gansey pointed out helpfully, still looking like he hadn't processed the basic concept yet.

Barely except Adam. I only fucking told him yesterday, don't get your panties bunched. I knew he was going to figure it out anyway, he's the magician.”

“He's the magician who was connected to a previous Cabeswater,” Blue frowned over at Adam. “Is it going to work that way? It doesn't make sense.”

“You just – you have dreamt up an entirely new Cabeswater forest,” Gansey blinked. Blue shook her head at him, clearly wanting him to pick up the pace on his comprehension.

“It's smaller. A lot smaller. But it can't be corrupted. It only responds to one of us.”

“Which one?”

“Jesus, Gansey, not a specific one,” Ronan sighed. “Any of us. The four of us in this room right now.”

“How did you do that,” Adam crossed his arms, imagining Ronan's dreams weaving and unfolding for years, like he'd admitted the night before.

“It took a while. I've been dreaming inside that space for a long time. I just … I took it out of my head. After I was sure that it was stronger this time. More protected.”

“Christ,” Gansey leaned back against the futon, staring up at the ceiling. “So you didn't think it was a good idea to mention any of this to any one of us before you manifested a new version? What if it had been dangerous? You did this by yourself?”

“I am by myself most of the time,” Ronan grabbed for his wine glass, his voice low and irritable. “We don't exactly hold war council at Fox Way anymore.”

“You could have called me,” Blue cut in. “You could have – God, Lynch.”

“Well this was a great idea. Thanks a lot,” Ronan grumbled over to Adam.

“For someone who doesn't lie, Ronan, you keep a hell of a secret,” Gansey scratched at his head and sat up again.

Adam had to admit that he was a little surprised. He'd expected a more enthusiastic and less agitated response from the two of them. He actually felt a bit guilty about blurting it out now, after he saw the consequential fallout. Ronan was sitting there with his knees pulled up in front of him, gulping down water too quickly.

“Look, go easy on him, all right? You knew he was going to put it back someday. We all knew that,” Adam addressed Blue and Gansey, looking both of them in the eye in turn. Gansey looked thoughtful, and Blue just gave him a dirty look that said Really, Adam?

“What's it like,” Gansey eventually asked, and Adam could hear the note of wistfulness there. “Can we go there? Can we see it?”

“How do we even know it's safe?” Blue looked at her fiance sharply.

“You know it's safe because I fucking made it safe,” Ronan cut in. “I would never deliberately bring out anything that would hurt you. Any of you. I think you know that.”

“I do think it's doing something slightly weird, though. Possibly,” Adam spoke up reluctantly. When else would they talk about this, if not now? He could at least try to ease into it a little better than he'd done with the last reveal.

Ronan made a frustrated noise and stood up, pacing over to the bookshelves.

“And what is that,” Gansey looked like he was bracing himself.

“It's not, like … dangerous,” Adam raked back his hair. “It's just a little strange. I think. I don't even know that it's coming from there, I mean – I just can't figure out any other connection to—”

“Just say it, Adam,” Blue plunked her empty glass down.

“It's giving us dreams,” Ronan's path turned and took him back to the coffee table. “Maybe.”

“Us. Like … you and Adam,” Blue glanced between them.

“Magicians,” Gansey's lips twisted – Adam couldn't tell if he'd meant it in a good or bad way.

“What kind of dreams?” Blue demanded.

“Uh. It's more like … memories. Like reliving something in a dream. Some bad and some … not,” Ronan's gaze slid to Adam, who rocked nervously in his chair.

“But they're your memories? Recent ones? Old ones? How do you know to connect it with Cabeswater?”

“I think they're all from the same timeframe,” Adam glanced at Ronan, who paused and then nodded. “They feel really vivid and when you wake up it feels like you're being dumped back into reality.”

“Wait a second,” Ronan sank back down onto the floor. “Wait, you said – I think some of yours might be, uh … I didn't think about this until you just said that. Mine were from when the old Cabeswater was still there, at least partially. Corrupted, yeah, but. But yours ...”

“Oh,” Adam chewed at his fingernail for a second before he realized he was doing it. “Yeah. You're right. I've actually had a couple from just after Cabeswater went away. That doesn't make sense.”

“Well maybe it's just triggering your memories from somewhere,” Gansey gazed at them. “From some when . Maybe it's learning what happened when it began to be unmade. To assemble the story. By asking your memories.”

“Fuck,” Ronan blinked.

“Okay, hold on,” Blue helped herself to another half a glass of wine. “Ronan, I get it if you're having weird dreams, that's just … sorry, but that's kind of par for the course. But Adam, you are nowhere near this new Cabeswater or the ley line. It can't possibly be sending you dreams all the way from Henrietta.”

“I know. I don't think proximity to Cabeswater is the thing. Fucking … Ronan is the thing.”

“Thanks, asshole, it's been real nice hanging out with you too.”

“I just had one in your car, moving at … let's just pretend it was seventy miles per hour across Virginia,” Adam eyed Ronan wryly before continuing. “If it was based on proximity to a place, to a ley line, I don't think it would've been sustained in a moving car.”

“Ronan, where were you,” Blue asked cautiously, calmly, glancing between both of them as if she'd been preparing all day to deal with a fight between them and was just now winding up for it. “When you had yours.”

“At the Barns, Christmas night. And here.”

“So … near Adam,” Gansey tapped his finger against his chin.

“Technically.”

“Oh my God,” Blue's eyes had gone wide and alert.

What? ” Adam and Ronan asked simultaneously.

“Christmas night. Christmas night, Gansey, do you not remember? The Barns? You woke me up because I was talking in my sleep? The tree language?”

Gansey's eyes closed for a moment, and then he stared over at the sculpture. “You said you were dreaming about the moment you brought me back. But you were in the trees.”

“I've had plenty of nightmares about that day, believe me. But that one … I can't remember ever having a dream that clear before.”

“God. So is it because you were near Adam? Or Ronan? Or both?”

“I think I need to take another trip to Fox Way,” Blue sighed. “I just don't know when I can get back there. Ronan, will you go with me? If I can figure out a weekend to take?”

“Yeah, fine,” he squeezed the empty water bottle half-heartedly in his fist. “Just let me know.”

“Okay. Can you also dream me up one of these someday? It's so beautiful. The wood here,” Blue touched the carving again, her fingers reverent.

There was a long silence, and Adam looked over again at Ronan, who was resting back on his elbows and staring stubbornly up at the window.

“Ronan,” Adam sighed.

“God. Okay. Fine,” Ronan hauled himself up to a seated position again. “I can't dream right now. I physically took that out of Cabeswater. I asked for it. It's not – I didn't dream it up myself.”

“I have questions,” Blue pursed her lips, and Ronan rolled his eyes in irritation. “What do you mean, you can't dream right now. Like, right this second? Today?”

“The past few months.”

“And Cabeswater has been in place for … how long?”

“Yeah, great job, you solved the fucking puzzle.”

“Did your new Cabeswater drain the ley line?”

“Well, obviously,” Ronan threw his hands up. “It's a whole fucking forest. The power had to crank back up a little after that.”

“But you don't know that for sure without Adam,” Gansey pointed.

“Adam doesn't know that anymore, either.”

“He's right,” Adam shrugged. “I don't know if I'd be able to feel it anymore. I gave up that connection years ago.”

“God. This is all way too much to process right now,” Blue sank back against the futon, and Gansey ran a hand over her hair.

“Here's what we're going to do,” Gansey looked at all of them in turn, and Adam could feel their collective relief at hearing him take charge. “We're going to find a time to go see the new Cabeswater. And stop by Fox Way. And we're going to keep a record of any of these dreamed memories in the meantime. Ronan, is Opal's birthday … March third, you said?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. We'll try to find a time before then. But if not, that's our plan. Is everyone all right with that?”

“That's more than a month from now, but fine,” Blue sighed. “I wish I could go right now and see it. The trees, I mean. I just … I've got a lot coming up with my final project.”

“Ronan. Do you want to come stay with us? In case it really is proximity and you trigger any more of these … events?”

“Maybe he's right,” Adam bit his fingernail again and looked over at Ronan, who was watching him in a way that made his heart squeeze. It was a fear that he was trying to mask. Adam had caught it before it could be hidden away under a scowl. “I don't want to kick you out, I don't mean that, I just – if yours have been bad … and it's because you're around me … I can't do that to you.”

Adam wondered if Ronan had already relived the attempted strangling; his mother's ruined corpse; his own torturous unmaking. His stomach twisted with acid. They all had plenty of nightmares to relive, but Ronan's were unimaginable.

“I'm not going to be insulted,” Adam continued, watching Ronan's torn expression. “I promise.”

“Come on, they're right,” Blue leaned down to squeeze at Ronan's arm, and Adam just then realized that Blue and Gansey had already been standing up, getting ready to leave. “Gansey has the fold-out bed. Please don't risk it.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ronan's eyes were dark. “Let me get my shit. I'll follow you over there.”

“Adam, thank you,” Gansey gave Adam's shoulder a squeeze, and then he and Blue were on their way out the door.

Ronan was zipping up the duffel bag he'd brought the night before and taking another long look at the sculpture.

“I really didn't mean to say you couldn't stay,” Adam wrapped his arms around himself, feeling a preemptive attack of loneliness. He hadn't expected his apartment to empty out so quickly, and his Ronan problem was complicated as usual. He knew they were right, that he couldn't put Ronan at risk for one of those awful memories. But they'd been getting along so well and he hadn't been ready to say goodbye again just yet.

“I know. Thanks for letting me, though. And letting me drag you to Richmond. Hope it's quiet in the library tomorrow.”

“Me too.”

Ronan slid into his jacket and carried his bag over to the door, where Adam had slowly gravitated.

“Ronan, if you do have one, one of those dreams, just … call me,” Adam touched the zipper at the top of Ronan's black leather jacket, toyed with it unnecessarily.

“I'm not gonna fucking call and cry to you about it in the middle of the night.”

“I want to know if you have any more. I'm serious. I don't care what time it is.”

“What, for science?”

“Yeah. And I … I'm worried about you. That's all. We're friends, right? I can say it.”

Ronan gave him that raw look again. Scared and unsure and pleading. Just for a second. It took Adam's breath away. Then it was gone when his brow furrowed and he looked down at his bag.

“I'll call you. Don't tell me if you have any more of your dreams,” he muttered, and then he was out the door. Adam's heart was racing, which was strange considering he was just standing there. He peeked through the window, but it was too dark to see where they'd parked outside.

 


 

Adam went back to work.

Work was good. School and work and school and work. He slipped into the skin of it with ease and comfort and familiarity, the routine of wake-study-work-sleep, day after day. It fueled a new perfectly-focused zeal for catching up and getting ahead. He threw himself into it in a way he hadn't exactly done at the start of the semester.

This was his life, his quest. This was what he was good at. He raised his hand in classes, gave thoughtful and informed responses, read supplemental briefs and legal precedents, even signed up for a one-hour-per-week voluntary discussion group on constitutional law that wasn't usually open to 1Ls. But he was Adam Parrish and he didn't know how to not be that student. And that was good, that was doable.

His eyes skimmed petulantly over the constant sprinklings of Latin phrases. He stopped pronouncing them out loud in his head. He had work to do. The days clicked by nicely, a satisfying click of gears, little measures of progress toward the goal.

Wake-study-work-sleep.

And on Fridays, he went out with Luke and Ezra. They had ushered Adam into their circle of friends, effortless and welcoming. Adam enjoyed it for channeling away the stress and pressure of a full week of law school, not just law school but the fucking maximum amount of law school one human being could be devoted to. Going out with his new friends was socially challenging, forcing his brain away from the supernatural and dreams and forests and resurrections and hot ex-boyfriends who were secretly gods.

His hands were his own. His eyes were his own. He used them carefully and intentionally and wisely. Responsibly.

Respondeat superior. Ex oficio. De lege ferenda - no, no. No.

He never got any alerts from Ronan about bad dreams. But they did still text here and there. Adam had asked him if he'd slept okay at Gansey's, if he'd been back to Cabeswater that week, if Opal was doing okay. All innocent enough questions that friends would ask. It was peaceful and nice.

He was finally, finally getting the hang of this. He could have his law school, his dance club friends, his job, and his longer-term best friends (his family, really) to check in with whenever possible.

Wake-study-work-sleep. The days turned into weeks. He stopped counting.

Wedding plans were put further into motion, and Adam was informed that he'd need to attend a suit fitting in April, and that Gansey was paying for the suits and there would be no discussion. It was simple enough to accept without argument since Adam knew the Ganseys would expect a certain level of quality for a Richmond wedding that Adam would probably have to save up for a year in order to bankroll. So he let it go. He let Gansey take care of it.

Then, randomly, one weekday after class, he got a call from Ronan. Apparently “Crowned Raven Gallery” had been tapped for a local artist feature at a small series of galleries in D.C., and some of Ronan's work had been distributed for display, and Ronan wanted to see it for himself. Opal had requested photographs. Ronan was coming into town and wondered if Adam would want to see the displays for himself.

It took that one phone call.

It had been nearly a month since Adam had seen Ronan, but the one phone call knocked everything back into chaos.

He woke up at eleven on a Wednesday - a Wednesday! - and had missed all of his morning classes. He stared down at his phone in disbelief and denial and terror. He'd forgotten to set his alarm. He had slept for thirteen hours straight.

And holy shit, he was still tired.

He was lonely again. He was stressed and fatigued and spread too thin. He wanted Cabeswater.

He missed magic. He missed sex. He missed having someone curled up next to him when he slept.

He could feel all of these things so sharply and suddenly, and they all popped right back up along with everything about Ronan that he always hid away so habitually, so unbelievably well now that he apparently did it without thinking.

That Saturday morning, Adam awoke with his stomach in knots. He took a long shower and dressed slowly and read the paper and even meditated for a while. But he needed to do this. He wasn't sure whether that was a good or bad thing. He was split between exhilaration and dread.

He got there first. He'd identified a coffee shop near the metro station where they could meet up at eleven. He went in and ordered himself a latte, and a black Americano for Ronan.

He'd just found himself a spot at the counter by the window when he saw a familiar black jacket and dark jeans going by. He waved and saw Ronan blink around at the motion, then stop and smile in an unguarded, genuine way that lit up Adam's insides.

God. He was overcome. Again. Always.

Ronan dodged customers and laptop cords to walk over there, and since Adam was still standing up, he gave in to impulse and reached out to hug him, his jacket skidding and creaking under Adam's fingers.

“Hi,” Ronan breathed, sounding surprised but happy.

“Hi. I got coffee already.”

“Thanks.”

“I, um – sit down, here,” Adam made himself retreat immediately, before he did anything too impulsive. He didn't trust himself just then. He could feel the draw of Ronan's skin, the smell of his soap and his leather jacket. He needed to sit in his own fucking chair right away.

“This is the first time I've ever driven here where the traffic didn't make me want to shoot myself.”

“Well. That's a good start, I guess?”

Ronan settled his jacket over the back of the tall chair and sat down. His long-sleeved charcoal t-shirt looked soft and tissue-thin. Adam's fingers twitched.

“No more nightmares?” Adam wrapped his hands around his latte for something to do with them.

“Nope. Well, I mean. Not those. What about you?”

“Um. No,” Adam felt his cheeks burn. “Are you still – have you been able to-”

“Still nothing,” Ronan picked up on Adam's half question, glancing around them at the other customers. “Haven't really tried, though. Although Calla did come to visit me and demand that I tell her what the problem was.”

Calla? Jesus. When was this?”

“Sunday. After mass. I guess Blue must have filled them all in.”

“She told me she was going to.”

“Calla thinks when I – when the new Cabeswater – you know,” Ronan kept his voice down. “That I drained the ley line more than I thought I did. That it's still not back to normal, and that's my problem.”

“I guess it's possible.”

“I dunno. She's a pain in the ass but maybe she has a point. Are you still coming for O's birthday? Gansey wanted us all to-”

“Yeah, of course. Yes. Gansey's driving. We already worked it out.”

“Okay.”

“Blue told me you are giving her an entire house. I thought you were just reworking one of the barns for her to use for her garden or something.”

“Nah, I just redid the interior of one of those newer ones on the east property line. I've been working on it for a while. I know it sounds batshit of me, but … she's technically turning fourteen, but she's not really fourteen. You know what I mean.”

“I know.”

Ronan rested against the counter and sipped his coffee. He didn't look like he needed the caffeine, really. He looked jumpy enough already, now that Adam looked more closely. His gaze was bouncing around, his fingers fidgeting.

“God. You're nervous,” Adam observed aloud, and Ronan's eyes shot back toward him, wide and clear lapis stones.

“Fuck off.”

“You are. Hey, look, they picked you for this display. Your work. It's not like it's an audition.”

“I never meant for this to be a thing,” Ronan muttered. “It was just making shit for Opal's goddamned garden, and now pieces of my weird-ass dreams are in a window somewhere downtown for everyone to see.”

“I thought you said you built them to look like your dreams, not that they were-”

“That's what I meant. Don't take everything so fucking literally.”

“Well. I'm so glad you're in a good mood for this. Maybe this is a good time to mention that Luke and some of my other friends want to meet you and that I maybe promised I would bring you out with me tonight since you're in town.”

Ronan set his coffee down very slowly, watching Adam with a level glare. It wasn't quite as lethal as Adam would've expected.

“You're saying some words that make no sense all strung together, Harvard.”

“It's just a club. It's not going to kill you. They're nice.”

“Jesus Christ. You could've given me five minutes before you sprung this shit on me,” Ronan rubbed at his eye.

“I'm not saying go out dancing. I know you won't dance. I'm just saying come with me to meet some people and that's it, okay? An appearance. A quick one if you want.”

“You deliberately did not say anything about this until I fucking got here,” Ronan pointed accusingly.

Adam shrugged. He was enjoying taking Ronan's mind off what had been making him nervous about thirty seconds ago.

“Where's your hotel?”

“Trying to change the subject? Asshole. It's on K Street.”

“Oh. Wow. Okay, um … so we won't stay out late. I promise. Luke really wants you to come out this one time.”

“Luke,” Ronan repeated, and somehow it made Adam uncomfortable to hear that name from Ronan's lips. “So you guys are, like … still seeing each other.”

“It's not – I mean we – that doesn't-” Adam cut himself off, flustered. Ronan just raised an eyebrow at him. “We're not seeing each other, that's not how I would describe it.”

“But you want to.”

“I, um … No. I don't know, he really is a good guy. Maybe it's me, maybe I ruled it out too fast. It's been a while, I don't exactly have a whole lot of other prospects around.”

“Right,” Ronan's eyes flicked up toward the ceiling. “I'm sure you have lots of trouble getting ass.”

“It's not about ... I'm not going to just hook up with Blue's roommate, for fuck's sake, I ... Okay, listen, it's not like that anyway, I told you it didn't really go very well with Luke, when I did try it.”

“You told me that was my fault,” Ronan muttered into his coffee cup.

“I was drunk and lonely and I'm sorry I took it out on you. Okay? I just – he did tell me that he thought I was still ...”

“Hung up on your ex.”

“Yes. Fine. But that was a little while ago. We still talk, and go out sometimes, not like a date, just with our other friends, and ... I don't know. I do think he's still flirting with me, sometimes. Maybe I haven't given it a fair enough thought.”

“And this guy wants me out with you tonight? This makes no sense. Why would he want me anywhere near – oh. He wants to test you. To see if it's really true.”

Adam chewed at his lip, blinking down at the counter.

He had not thought of that.

“Look, I'll go with you, okay? He seems nice, and cute, and whatever. If you want him you should have him.”

Adam still couldn't seem to put words together. He had several thoughts warring for control in his head: that Ronan might be right about Luke wanting to test him; that it was quite likely he would spectacularly fail such a test; that despite how gamely he pursued the friends thing with Ronan, he was not ready for talks like this; and that some secret part of him deep down had been hoping for some hint of jealousy instead of this friendly show of support.

God, he couldn't even get his own brain to come to a consensus. He was in a tailspin.

“So we'll go to your terrible club tonight," Ronan spoke again; Adam had just been zoning out. "But they'd better not have cage dancers. And I'm not staying out late. I'm driving back tomorrow.”

"Cage dancers," Adam blinked, surprising himself as he laughed. “Look, maybe you'll surprise yourself and have fun.”

“And maybe the Lord Jesus Christ will arrive and begin the fucking Rapture. One never knows.”

“Okay,” Adam made a face. “I don't think you should be making jokes like that when you're skipping church this week.”

“I'll confess it all away. Works out great.”

“We need to go to your gallery. Finish your coffee.”

“Shit,” Ronan tapped his fingers against the counter and drained the rest of his Americano. “Shit.”

“It's going to be fine. I promise you.”

“You little asshole, you were distracting me.”

Adam couldn't help a quick, wide smile. “You still have to come out with me tonight.”

“God. Let's get this over with.”

Chapter Text

“Please tell me he's coming with you,” Luke's voice was excited on the other end of Adam's phone. Adam sat near the host stand in the restaurant, peering back at the table where Blue and Ronan were laughing about something, taking their time with their jackets as they got to their feet. Gansey was folding his cloth napkin as he set it back onto the table.

“He is. I doubt he's going to want to stay very long. He's told me before that he really hates clubs. Unless it's like EDM night or whatever, but even then. I can't believe I talked him into this.”

“Look, it won't be too crazy yet, you know that. It's still early. I'm walking over now, did you eat already?”

“Yeah.” Adam was a bundle of nerves. He saw Ronan watching him now, then looking away as Adam caught his eye in the process. “Is Charlie coming? Charlie can entertain him. They can be wallflowers together.”

“Oh yes. Nobody wants to miss this event. I may have talked up your ex-boyfriend to some degree.”

“God, this is a bad idea.”

“Oh come on, it's going to be fun. I'll see you in half an hour or so. I can't wait to try and make him jealous.”

“Luke.”

“What? You know you want to. Hey, is Blue there? Ask her to text me the login for this stupid maintenance thing, okay? She forgot again.”

“Okay. See you soon.”

“We're gonna have fun, beautiful. Text me when you get there.”

“Was that Luke?” Blue grinned when she got closer, handing Adam his jacket.

“Thanks. How'd you know?”

“You're blushing.”

Adam covered his face with one hand, which didn't really work, because the other was busy shaking his jacket out.

“He says to text him a login for some kind of-”

“Oh, for God's sake, he is such a nag. I'm sending it right now.”

“I'm sure he'll appreciate that,” Adam zipped up his jacket and looked up at Ronan and Gansey, who were walking leisurely toward the restaurant door.

“I think it's time for us to let the kids go out to their club,” Blue smiled sweetly as she took Gansey's hand in hers.

“Mom, I think I'm actually grounded. I think I need to stay home.”

“Ronan,” Adam laughed, smacking his arm. “Come on.”

“Have fun,” Gansey nodded regally. “Talk later. Adam, lunch? Tuesday?”

“Yes,” Adam pointed at him, then bumped knuckles as was tradition and led Ronan in the opposite direction from their friends.

“Are we taking the subway to this fucking place?”

“Yes, we are. Try not to mingle with the commoners.”

“This is so terrible,” Ronan sighed up toward the streetlight.

“I owe you one, then.”

“Oh, you fucking bet you do, Parrish.”

“Come on,” Adam tugged at the end of his jacket, and they walked five blocks to the metro station, mostly in silence.

He could tell Ronan was slowing down, wanting to bolt, but then he remembered the casual way Ronan had spoken about Luke.

If you want him you should have him.

Ronan wasn’t really going to back out now. He didn’t lie.

Adam was so confused about that little remark. Was Ronan seriously at the point in their friendship where he’d start the damn matchmaking that Blue always did? Was that really where they’d evolved to now?

It was so hard to tell what Ronan really wanted. Especially at that moment, when everything felt too close for Adam to rationally judge. He’d spent all day with Ronan, looking at his art displays, listening to his Opal and Chainsaw stories, fielding all of his random and frankly nosy questions about Adam’s sleep habits, watching his deep blue eyes take in the sights.

Adam had very guiltily caught himself occasionally pretending that they were on an actual date, that Adam could reach over and slide his fingers through Ronan's, that they'd linger there in an alley somewhere and kiss until they were breathless.

He thought he'd been touch-starved before. Now he was dying from it. A full day of Ronan's proximity was driving Adam crazy.

He was actually a little nervous about going out, because he knew these clingy phases made him a little too flirty and needy when he was dancing.

He wasn't a fucking robot. He wanted to feel … wanted. Safe. Held onto. Something like that. Having Ronan there but not really having him was more excruciating than it had ever been. He'd been really and honestly enjoying having their friendship back, having Ronan in his life again, up until the point where friendship had stopped being enough for Adam. Again.

Don't do anything stupid. He still doesn't know how to be happy. He won't let himself. He'll crush you again. You can't have him back the same way, and you know that.

Despite these strict internal instructions, Adam could feel his body betraying him. His knee brushed against Ronan's on the subway; his eyes gazed too long; his breath caught in his throat when Ronan leaned closer to complain yet again about crowded places and remind Adam that he wasn't going to dance.

This is not a date, Adam sighed inwardly.

When they got to the club in question, there was no line out front. It wasn't quite ten; Adam generally arrived at this place closer to midnight when there was a wait to get in. Adam tried to explain that this was a good thing, an unexpected bonus, but Ronan just made a disgusted face and crossed his arms over his chest.

They walked inside. Adam checked their jackets, assuring Ronan that it was going to be hot as hell in there and he wouldn't miss it for an hour. The music was loud, and there was a full dance floor, but it wasn't packed and crazy like it would probably get in a couple of hours. That was also good.

Adam texted Luke as quickly as he could, then nudged Ronan's arm and pointed toward the bar along the left-hand wall. Ronan nodded with understanding.

It wasn't quite as dreadful as usual to leave his debit card for the tab; he'd just gotten paid the night before. Also, Ronan was a cheap not-date. He got Ronan a Coke, and himself a vodka tonic, and then his phone buzzed, telling him to come upstairs. It was a good idea. There was an upper floor that looked out over the dancers but was a little quieter, away from the crush.

“Come on. You trust me, right? We're just going upstairs,” Adam yelled to be heard, then latched onto Ronan's wrist and led him in a beeline toward the stairs in the back. He knew Ronan was suspicious of every movement that led anywhere near the dance floor.

“Jesus, why don't these fucking places ever play good music,” Ronan was grumbling, but he came along dutifully, already gulping his soda.

“Adam!” Luke's voice greeted him, once again from the wrong side, but Adam was used to that.

“Hey,” Adam let go of Ronan so he could hug Luke, and he didn't miss the way Luke held on extra long, keeping a hand at his lower back.

“He's really here,” Luke looked over Adam's shoulder, presumably at Ronan.

“Don't freak him out, he's fucking jumpy. Let him calm down first before you start asking him questions.”

“He doesn't look jumpy. He looks like a bouncer.”

“Trust me.”

Adam handled the introductions, standing protectively at Ronan's side, pointing to Luke and Charlie and Ezra. They had claimed a round standing table, so Luke ushered Adam and Ronan into their circle.

“Holy shit, Adam,” Ezra breathed, his eyes fully on Ronan.

“I know. You're staring.”

“Well, I mean ...” Ezra waved his hand discreetly under the table, indicating Ronan, his eyes saying I cannot be blamed, look at him.

“Ronan, you live in Charlottesville?” Charlie smiled broadly.

“Singer's Falls.”

“Ah.”

“It's close to Charlottesville,” Adam glanced at Ronan, who shot him a look of his own that said I hate you so much right now.

“Luke showed us pictures of your work. Your sculptures. They're just amazing,” Charlie continued.

“Oh, I … Thanks,” Ronan ran a hand over his hair.

“There's a gallery downtown displaying his stuff. Two, actually,” Adam couldn't help bragging a little. He was sort of enjoying how his friends were so taken with Ronan. “We went by to see them today. That's why he's in town.”

“Also so you could torture me by bringing me out to places like this,” Ronan said loudly enough for them all to hear, and Adam sighed. So much for the friendly conversation.

But Luke and Charlie were laughing, and Ezra joined in pretty quickly. Maybe it would take a little more of the classic Lynch grumpiness to get under their skin tonight. Adam could only hope.

“Do you really run a farm there in … what was it? Singer's Falls?” Ezra took a turn questioning Ronan.

“Yeah. A small one.”

“Wow. That must be … I don't even know what that would be like.”

“It's exhausting, and fucking boring a lot of the time,” Ronan pushed his sleeves up to his elbows. “But it's worth it to keep it up. It's my family's home and I'm the only one who can deal with it.”

Adam looked at all of them sharply, hoping they would remember his basic instructions – don't ask him about his parents, don't ask him about school, don't ask him about me.

“I grew up on a farm in Ohio,” Charlie spoke up, downright unexpectedly, and Adam could've hugged him for this sudden burst of extroversion. “I couldn't wait to get away, to be honest. But I'd hate to see it leave the family, too. Not that I'd know what to do with it if it were me. I never ran much of anything, just stayed in my room and and did chores sometimes and waited to turn eighteen so I could get the hell out.”

“You grew up on a farm?” Ezra stared like Charlie had just grown a second head.

“Yes. I'll show you the pictures sometime. It's nice there.”

“Can I show them pictures from the Barns?” Adam leaned over to ask Ronan privately, digging out his phone again.

“If you want.”

“This is … here it is. This is from his Instagram,” Adam pulled up Ronan's account and handed the phone over to Charlie, who started swiping through pictures with great interest. Ezra leaned in to look over his shoulder. Luke was a little too far away and busy drinking a rum and Coke, so he kept to himself.

“We can talk later about how in the fuck you pulled that up so fast,” Ronan leaned over to growl in Adam's ear, and Adam looked away guiltily.

“These are gorgeous. Did you take all of these?” Ezra gaped over at Ronan.

“The phone camera's good,” Ronan shrugged.

“Oh, please, so's mine, but my Instagram is all blurry pictures of my cat.”

They exclaimed over the photos, and handed Adam's phone back. Then they discussed someone else's Instagram, a friend who had apparently broken up with her boyfriend and deleted a bunch of photos and was now leaving nasty comments on others. Then Adam sort of lost track of the conversation around the same time Luke was catching his eye and glancing down at the dance floor.

“We need to go grab one of those spots downstairs before it gets more crowded,” Luke proposed, leaning across Ronan to address Adam directly, putting a hand on his forearm and squeezing. “You know? Or else we'll be up and down those damn stairs all night.”

“Yeah.” Adam thought this idea was also good because he didn't want to leave Ronan on an entirely different floor if he was going to go out and dance at all.

They left their mostly empty glasses behind and made their way downstairs. Ronan stayed behind him but at a greater distance than before. Adam suspected he was adjusting his behavior after he'd seen Luke lean over toward Adam like that.

He kept thinking about Luke saying that he wanted to try and make Ronan jealous. He couldn't dissect the layers of flirting and he didn't know whether Luke was joking.

After a while, though, he determined that Luke was being completely serious. They'd all been downstairs at a different table – a counter, really – at the corner of the dance floor. It was hard to talk down there, so they shouted occasionally, and Ronan mostly stood nursing another Coke.

A new song started up – a song that Luke liked. And then Luke was taking his hand and looking at him entreatingly. Adam couldn't help glancing at Ronan, who looked at him and lifted his chin toward the somewhat crowded dance floor, lifting his eyebrows expectantly in a way that seemed to say Go on. So he waved and let himself be pulled out onto the floor, far enough so they were in the crowd, but not so far that they couldn't be seen from where Charlie and Ronan were still standing. Ezra had been off dancing for a while with a guy Adam had seen there before.

“Do you really want to dance or are you just fucking with Ronan,” Adam decided to come right out with the question, since they were pressed close already and he could feel Luke's hand on his waist.

“Can it be a little of both? God, he's hot.”

Adam sighed, looking back at where Ronan was still posted like a solemn gargoyle. At least he wasn't glowering or swearing too much or setting anything on fire.

“I thought he might loosen up a little by now,” Luke reached up and wound his hands around Adam's neck.

“I told you he was going to be like this. Didn't I?”

“Yeah, and so did Blue, I know. Has he even been in a gay bar before?”

“Oh, yeah. Still doesn't mean he likes clubs like this one,” Adam moved away slightly, because his heart didn't feel into it. He couldn't seem to summon the motivation for any of this with Ronan standing right there.

What he missed was not just hands on skin, or lips on lips, or warmth against his own, because he was pretty sure he could have that if it was what he really wanted. Luke was swaying close beside him.

He'd been wrong. His body had been telling him that he wanted contact, electricity, sex. But he realized now that the contact alone wouldn't be enough. He wanted more than that. He wanted to be in love, or at least on his way to it. He wanted to be kissed by someone he could feel something for. Why couldn't he seem to make himself feel that way for Luke?

It was because of Ronan, obviously. The idea of Ronan, anyway. His head spun a little at the thought. Or maybe the vodka. That plus the wine he'd had at dinner – it was catching up to him out there on the dance floor.

Ezra had wandered away again. Luke came closer and touched a thumb to Adam's face, surprising him with tenderness.

“You have perfect cheekbones, do you know that,” Luke leaned closer so he wouldn't have to yell.

“Oh, please.”

“It's so damn loud. I need to talk to you. Come here.”

The song had ended. Maybe a second song had ended, or a third. Adam had lost track, and his head was buzzing. He clutched at Luke's fingers and they made their way through the crowd again, twisting too many times – Adam had to hold on tight to keep his balance.

They ducked out in the alley and Luke's lips were on his before he knew what was happening. It was warm and fuzzy and sweet, but Adam had to pull back after a minute or so, because he knew with a certainty now that it wasn't going anywhere, and he wasn't going to use Luke just to feel better for one night.

He swallowed hard as Luke took a step back, holding their hands together between them.

“I just wanted to do that one last time,” Luke smiled sadly, looking resigned. “Adam, you have to talk to him, figure this out. You know good and well that you still have a thing for him.”

“Even if I did, it's still a terrible idea, him and me,” Adam groaned, leaning back against the cement. “I just can't seem to get my stupid brain to remember that when he's around.”

“It doesn't have to be terrible. Look, you were kids when you broke up. You're not going to have the same drama now.”

“You don't know him. You don't know what he's like. He can't ever let himself be happy. Besides, he doesn't even live here.”

“He told you he thinks he made a mistake and he still regrets it. He wouldn't just say to you to make conversation, he wouldn’t say it like that, don’t you get that? Maybe he wants to try again, try harder this time. I would hate for you to ignore that completely. I mean maybe you try it again and then you figure out that it's still not meant to be. But it's worth a shot to at least see. Something is still kinda hardcore there with you two, and it's not going away. You need to at least find out what it is.”

“God,” Adam ran a hand over his eyes, his mouth, trying to get a hold of himself. “Is this why you convinced me to bring him out? So you could see what I'm like around him?”

“Honestly? Yes. Mostly. I guess there was a part of me that thought maybe I'd see that you two were really friends now. But come on, I can see your eyes shut whenever he comes too close to you. Is he staying at your place tonight?”

“No, we, um … we decided that wasn't a good idea anymore,” Adam lied a little. By omission.  It was a Ronan Lynch trick. The hotel was because of their potential for proximity-triggered nightmares. “He's staying on K Street.”

“Well. It's getting late, you should get him back there. And tell me how it goes. Later, okay? I just – I like you a lot. I'm not gonna lie. I'm a little crushed right now and I’m just trying to figure out why I always want what I can't have.”

“Luke. You're … God. Okay. Okay, I'm going to get my ex and … and possibly take a match to my whole life, all over again, so I hope you're happy.”

“You got this. Come on.”

Adam squeezed Luke's hands, and then they found their way back into the club. Luke stayed on the dance floor, nudging Adam on with his forehead against Adam's shoulder. It felt like being set adrift.

Adam tried to hold onto his resolve, hearing Luke's advice in his head, but his senses felt overloaded.

When he found Ronan again, the lines of his striking face lit up in blue from the neon to match his eyes, Adam felt a surge of wanting so strong that he thought it was pulling at his chest, drawing him into Ronan's orbit. Charlie had disappeared somewhere, so Ronan was alone, leaning lazily against the wall and surveying the dance floor with a level gaze over the rim of his mostly-empty glass.

God, Adam wanted to feel it again, that breathless rush that he remembered so clearly now from those fucking dream memories. He desperately wanted Ronan to remind him of what a real kiss felt like.

Adam was right beside Ronan before he even knew it, folding his arms and leaning in too close. Ronan's eyes skipped warily over him, at the place where Adam's shoulder was pressing into his upper arm.

“Hi,” Ronan's eyebrow lifted slightly.

“Hi,” Adam swallowed hard, trying to get a hold of himself. He fantasized briefly about just leaning over to take away Ronan's soda and back him into the shadowy corner so he could press his whole body against Ronan's magnetic warmth.

Holy shit, he was horny. He really needed to pull his shit together, but it was a challenge to remember exactly why that was so crucial.

“Where's Luke?” Ronan surprised him with the sudden and demanding inquiry.

“I dunno. Back there somewhere,” Adam shrugged mildly, glancing toward the crowd behind him. “Didn't mean to leave you all alone over here for so long.”

“I'm fine.”

“Okay, well. You wanna dance a little while?”

“...What?” Ronan frowned at him.

Well, it was loud in there. Maybe he just hadn't heard.

“Do you want to dance,” Adam took the opportunity to lean closer, clutching at the hem of Ronan's shirt and tugging it twice for emphasis.

“Are you fucking high right now?” Ronan glared, and Adam let go of him, feeling the sharpness of his retort like sandpaper against his lungs.

He turned away with a sigh, leaning back against the wall and putting a couple of inches between them.

“I don't know why I even asked,” Adam muttered, combing his hair self-consciously with shaky fingers. Things were starting to get hazy around the edges of Adam’s vision. He definitely should've had one less of those vodka tonics. They were strong here.

“I told you I was fine,” Ronan’s voice floated over to him. “You don't need to check on me.”

“Yeah, I know, but I wanted to. I thought you might want to have some fun while you're here.”

“And you think dancing would be fun for me.”

“Could be if you'd let yourself relax for five minutes.”

“That does not look relaxing to me. It looks fucking stupid.”

“Okay, okay, fine. I get it, you don't want to dance with me. Just let me nurse my rejection in peace.”

Ronan stared sideways at him, his expression guarded and perhaps slightly taken aback.

“Adam, what are you doing back here, anyway? Why'd Luke let you out of his – Oh. You're trying to make him jealous, aren't you. I really don't think you need to-”

“God, Ronan, shut up,” Adam groaned, running his palm over his face. He hadn't meant to say it out loud, because it wasn't fair or kind, but he'd blurted it out anyway. He didn’t want to hear the words make him jealous again for a goddamned lifetime.

“Hey, look at me. What happened,” Ronan's voice was more serious now, more concerned, almost – angry? Like he was ready to deck someone if Adam so much as hinted that he'd been slighted somehow.

“Nothing. Nothing happened.”

“I saw you leave with him,” Ronan's mouth twisted as he glanced over toward the alley door. “I thought that was a good thing.”

“I, um,” Adam faltered, hesitating to yell these things into a crowded club. The song was beginning to fade out. “I'll tell you later. I think you've put in your time here, okay? Let's go.”

“What, now?”

“Yeah, now. I thought you didn't want to stay out too late.”

“I didn't,” Ronan looked out to the dance floor again, and back to Adam. “But you should. I know my way back. Stay and – and have fun, it's totally fine.”

“No, it's okay, I'm done. Too much alcohol already. I can’t ever keep up with these guys. I have to work tomorrow.”

“Adam …”

“What? Why are you fighting me on this? I know you can't stand this music. You don’t drink and I’ve surrounded you with alcohol anyway like an insensitive asshole. You did what I asked, and thank you for that, so now let's go.”

Another song started up, the bass pounding. Ronan opened his mouth but closed it again, looking frustrated. Adam tugged at his arm and then they were headed out, toward the coat check.

Ronan pulled him aside, though, when they were still in the hallway. There was a little alcove with a pay phone that probably no one had used in ten years.

“Adam, listen. You don’t have to babysit me just because I'm in town. If you want to stay out with Luke and see where it goes, then, you know – go for it, I'm totally fine.”

“I don't need to see where it goes. It's not going anywhere and I already know that.”

“So, what, you didn't sneak outside to kiss him in the alley?”

Adam's teeth dug into his lip as he looked away, guilt engulfing his cheeks in sudden flames.

“Don't pretend for my sake, okay?” Ronan's voice dropped, and Adam couldn't tell if it was from pain or irritation or both. “I get it. He's a good guy, fucking … good for you. I'm happy for you.”

“Are you,” Adam muttered.

What the hell was he doing? He was crazy. Luke was crazy to tell him to do this. Ronan was a terrible pain in the ass and Adam was fucking nuts for even thinking that it would be survivable to test those waters again.

“Yeah. He's what you want, and you deserve it. So, like … have fun, and thanks for today, I – I'm gonna head out.”

“Ronan, for fuck's sake,” Adam burst out unpleasantly. “It’s not like that!”

“What the hell is it like, then?”

“Look, come on, let's get out of here and I'll explain somewhere else. Where we can hear ourselves think.”

“Christ. Fine,” Ronan rolled his eyes in clear exasperation, and they claimed their jackets at the window.

Outside they stood in silence for a moment, and Adam took a couple of steadying breaths.

“We can go back the way we came. Sort of. Gotta take a different train to K Street.”

“I still don't know why you won't just stay with him. You don't have to walk me all the way back.”

“He told me to go back to you, Ronan. So, no, I'm not staying with him,” Adam snapped without meaning to, and then started walking. Ronan fell into step with him after a couple of seconds' delay.

“What? I saw you dancing with him. I'm not an idiot.”

“Yeah, well. I apparently am.”

“What are you talking about.”

“I'm saying that he's amazing and I like him well enough but I – I failed the test. Just like I knew I would. We have to cross here,” Adam grabbed Ronan's wrist and hurried when he saw the crosswalk was blinking down from five seconds. They jogged up onto the opposite curb and made a left toward the big “M” sign, the busy city night flooding Adam in a rush of lightheadedness.

A silence sank in as they walked. Adam's head was ringing, and he didn't know if he felt like starting this conversation in the middle of the sidewalk, half drunk and tired and terrified of his own life choices, and yelling because he had been slowly deafening his one hearing ear.

It wouldn't be far to K Street, though. Only a couple of stops. Adam tapped his metrocard against the reader, and then reached back to swipe it again for Ronan, because no one was watching, and he didn't feel like wrestling with a ticket machine.

“I thought you guys looked good together,” Ronan asked softly, after they'd come to a stop in the breeze of the subway platform. It was oddly quiet compared to the street above. Only a dozen or so other people were milling around on benches and leaning sideways to look down the dark tunnel.

Adam stared over at Ronan in disbelief. He certainly hadn't expected Ronan to become such a dedicated wingman for the evening.

It was difficult to gauge his sincerity, since Ronan was busy gazing down the track, giving the impression of casually watching for their train. If Adam were to question it, though, he knew he'd just get the standard I don't lie line. Why did Ronan have to be so fucking invested in Adam getting with someone else? Was Adam really reading him that wrong?

“If he doesn't get that, though, I mean – if he's just fucking playing games, and testing you,” Ronan continued, his eyes trained on approaching white lights, “then he doesn't deserve you. You know that, right? You could have anyone.”

“I'm not so sure about that right now.” Adam only felt emboldened enough for that retort because of the alcohol dulling his better judgment, and because the train was pulling up, allowing him to dodge any immediate follow-up questions. “Come on, this is us.”

The train wasn't as crowded as he'd seen it on other weekend nights, but there were only single seats here and there. Nowhere for both of them to sit together. Ronan stayed standing by the doors, grabbing the first metal pole he saw. Adam braced his feet sideways to keep from wobbling so much at the train's motion, leaning heavily with his hands just above Ronan's.

Despite the number of people currently inhabiting it, the train car was relatively quiet. A young woman was conducting a noisy conversation on her cell phone about an overdue paycheck, but things were otherwise still and silent. Adam was mostly alone with the weight of his own long-burning, forbidden, and, according to Luke, poorly concealed attraction to his ex-boyfriend.

In those close quarters, even though his brain was slow and cloudy, he still sensed that Ronan was picking up on it. Maybe Adam's repeated assertion that nothing was happening with Luke were finally sinking in, because now Ronan was watching him openly, intently, without the usual darting away of glances.

Adam's head grew faint after so much unabashed eye contact. He just barely resisted the urge to let his head drop against Ronan's arm.

“This our stop?” Ronan's voice was just a breathy hint of sound at his cheek.

“Hmm?” Adam blinked up at the ticker, flashing their current location in bright little dots. “Oh. Yeah, I – Yeah.”

“You're drunker than I thought you were.”

“No shit. Let's go.”

He lost his balance a little when they pulled into the station and the car jerked to a halt, but Ronan was holding onto his shoulder, gripping tightly and keeping him upright. Adam swallowed a curse and headed for the doors instead, then the escalator, then the stairs to street level.

Ronan's hotel was the nicest one on the block, naturally. Adam laughed bitterly and made his way toward it, keeping stride with some difficulty.

“Parrish, you still need to talk to me. For real,” Ronan planted himself stubbornly in Adam's way after they'd pushed through the revolving doors. They were too conspicuous there in the marble entryway.

“I know that. Can we not do this right here, though?”

“My room's on the seventh floor.”

They rode the elevator in silence. Adam felt a little unsteady, bracing himself against the metal railing like he just felt like leaning there. Ronan stood against the other wall and kept watch over Adam, his eyes looking different now, more worried than anything. Maybe Ronan pitied him for being basically rejected again by Luke. The thought made Adam’s stomach sour.

How was he supposed to approach this whole social life thing, to find someone else to connect with like he so desperately wanted, if he couldn't ever get Ronan fully out of his head?

Maybe it wouldn’t be the same now, though, if he really did cross that line. Maybe the recent and painfully vivid flashbacks were overselling things. He didn’t know anymore if the thing with Ronan had really been that incomparable or if he was just idolizing his first love.

Like Grace had pointed out, so matter-of-factly.

 

Of course you’ve never been kissed like that again. He was there first, in your brain, and your heart.
And now everyone else has to measure up. That’s how first love works, Adam.

 

Sometimes Grace had been more of a therapist to him than his actual therapist.

Ronan's renewed presence in his life was a constant and challenging question that so far Adam couldn't or wouldn't determine the answer to. And because of that lingering question, that what if, he couldn't seem to move on with a sufficiently open mind or heart. And the fact that Ronan had confessed his regret made things a thousand times more complicated. He couldn’t take another step toward anyone new if Ronan was still (or again) some sort of romantic possibility.

He had struggled with it long enough already. He needed to fucking do something about this, even though it terrified him.

“This place is … God,” Adam blinked at the luxuriously high-ceilinged hotel room before him, Ronan dropping his keys and phone on a little round table by an armchair and silky white floor-length drapes. “What time is it?”

“Twelve thirty.”

“Okay,” Adam pressed a hand to his fluttering stomach. “Okay. It's late. I know.”

“It's not – I don't fucking care if it’s late. Just tell me what you're going to tell me. It's kind of killing me here,” Ronan perched on the edge of a low, wide wooden dresser.

“Um. Right. I was going to explain about what happened with Luke.”

“I don't know if you need to give me any more details on that. Christ. You danced with him and you couldn't keep your hands off each other and you left so you could make out with him, all of that sounds like you were doing just fine. He's cute and he wants you and he has for a while now, I know that. What am I missing.”

“So, I … yeah, fine, we kissed. He kissed me,” Adam amended, for whatever it was worth. He resented how calm and in control Ronan looked over there, sprawled nonchalantly on the furniture.

“But, what, you left him there? Why?”

“Because he and I have tried this already. A couple of times now. And we both know that it's not going anywhere. I had to stop when I realized it. Stop kissing him, I mean. I don't want to lead him on. But he was there, he knows my heart's not really in it, not when – God, I can't believe I am telling you this. I don't know how to do this.”

“Tell me what, Adam? You're fucking scaring me.”

“He told me he can see me closing my eyes when you get too close to me.”

Ronan blinked, staring at him levelly, maybe waiting for more of an explanation. Adam wasn't sure why he'd just grasped at this particular detail, but it was a descriptive one that had immediately stuck in his head.

“Okay. I don't … What am I doing wrong?” Ronan uncrossed his arms, held onto the dresser at his sides. “I really am trying to be your friend, am I fucking it up? Is that it?”

“No, you're fine. I'm fucking it up. That's what I'm trying to say. That's what Luke pointed out yet again. I'm fooling myself. I can't kiss him in good conscience because I know I want more than that, something he can’t give me. I want what I – what I had with you,” Adam finally let the words out. “You must know that, anyway, it's not a surprise. I’ve always wanted something like that again. And it’s hard to let myself – to make myself look for that with other people when you’re standing right there, like … passively reminding me of what it could be like. What I can't seem to find again.”

Ronan was quiet, watching him, his blue eyes wide and his brow furrowed. His knuckles were white on the edge of the furniture beneath him.

“So I am personally making everything worse for you just by being here,” Ronan said flatly.

“No, no, I mean – that's not what I … it's not worse, just, like … things are harder for me to ignore. But it's not like it's your fault. You're not doing anything wrong.”

“Okay, but … look, how do you know he can’t be that to you? Luke? If you tried? If you gave it some time? You've barely spent any time together, how are you already so fucking certain that it won't be enough for you?”

“Why can you not let the Luke thing go? I don't want to have to try that hard. I don't want the thing that needs time and effort and acclimation or whatever. I did that once. With Grace,” he admitted, shame making his ears burn. “I learned my lesson. I want the thing that comes more naturally. Adrenaline and butterflies and electricity and – don’t look at me like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“I know what the fuck you mean. I guess I thought that’s what it was. With you and Luke. It seemed like it from watching you together.”

“It’s not for lack of trying,” Adam held his head.

“I think he was trying plenty hard.”

“Don't say it like that, come on. It's not even about him, really.”

“Okay, so it’s about … what, then? Me? I’m hanging around you too much lately, right? And you’re having these dreams, these flashbacks, and you’re remembering the few good moments and none of the disaster that was the rest of it.”

“I …” Adam went still, temporarily stunned by this.

Few good moments?

“Adam,” Ronan's mouth tightened after he said it, but he didn't have any actual words to offer. He'd blanched in a way that made Adam wonder what his own expression was conveying.

Disaster,” Adam repeated in a mumble before shuffling around again, restless and spiraling. “I guess that's, um. Fair.”

“What would you call it, then,” Ronan reached out and caught his hand, stopping him from pacing in the other direction.

“I don't know, it was - it was everything to me. You wouldn't fucking understand.”

Adam was much too close now, Ronan’s thumb running infuriatingly gently over the backs of his knuckles. He was torn between being hurt and angry at the way Ronan had so summarily dismissed their whole relationship, and lighting up inside at the way he was physically reacting to Ronan even barely holding his hand. Electricity and butterflies and shortness of breath. The confirmation of what he’d been searching for, physically, at the same time as a reminder of how impossibly mired it was in Ronan Lynch flammability. He shouldn’t have expected anything less.

This is what you said you needed to find out, he reminded himself. You’re stuck. Only way out is through.

He took a tiny step, and another. Ronan let go of him, his gaze sharp and blue and on high alert.

Adam rested his hands on Ronan's knees, feeling the jagged strips of skin beneath torn denim. He leaned forward just enough, and let his lips press against Ronan’s, acting purely on instinct. He didn't let himself think long enough to talk himself out of it, for once in his fucking life.

The world tilted diagonally. Adam's legs threatened to stop working.

Ronan drew in a sharp, shaky breath, his legs jolting beneath Adam's fingers. His kiss was so light that it felt like just the idea of a kiss, a hint at something he was quite rigidly holding back.

But it only lasted a few seconds. Then Ronan was holding his face, pulling him gently away, making him stop. And Adam's world blinked and crashed and collapsed inside his stomach like a dying star.

God. That look of pity on Ronan's face, of having to break bad news. It was a look he’d seen before. It was a look that still haunted him.

He was a complete fucking idiot. A drunken mess who needed to go home and hide under his bed and never come out. The way Ronan was looking at him, cringing like he saw Adam as the sad, broken mess he clearly was – God.

“Adam. Listen, I-”

“Don't. Don't, please. Oh my God,” Adam's chest was a heavy cement block. He pulled free and backed up, wanting to run.

“No, Adam, you - you’re drunk, you have to know that. I don’t want you to–”

“Holy shit, I am so stupid,” Adam gasped and went for the door. His fight-or-flight was coming up one hundred percent flight. Ronan jumped off the dresser and somehow beat him there, blocking him.

“No, you're not.”

“I, um – It won't happen again. I'm sorry,” Adam's eyes burned.

“Whoa, whoa, stop. Look, you're too out of it right now, okay? You don't know what you're doing. You'll fucking hate yourself when you-”

“I need to go home. Can you just let me out, please?”

“Adam, Christ-”

He reached for the door handle, behind Ronan's back. This time Ronan moved so he could get to it.

“All right, fine, just – call a cab if you’re going. Text me when you get home,” Ronan clutched at his sleeve and let go of it again, like he'd changed his mind. “So I'll know you're okay.”

“I'm not fucking okay. I think that's obvious enough now, isn't it? God. I'm sorry.”

Adam shut the door behind him and somehow made it to the elevator, leaning on the button and shaking all over.

Not again. You idiot, not this again.

Chapter Text

Work. Adam had to work in the morning.

It was the only thing propelling him up the step to his door, to his bed. He didn’t have time to fall apart. He couldn’t afford to.

Of course he could’ve thought of that before deliberately stepping off of a cliff.

He sighed and tried to assess the damage as he sank into his bed. Maybe he’d just made a drunken mistake, and they’d write it off as a stupid fluke and they’d get past it. Blue and Gansey wouldn’t have to know anything about it.

Or maybe Ronan was going to tell him that he couldn’t trust Adam anymore and they were just supposed to be friends and that he’d see him at the wedding and that was that.

God, he was especially a shit about getting that buzzed and fucking up like this around Ronan. Ronan, who didn't touch a drop. He was probably disgusted with Adam and his drunken antics.

The more he considered it, the more he began to accept that dread in the pit of his stomach telling him that this repaired friendship with Ronan was not going to work either way, in the end.

He’d been trying to balance precariously on a wire in order to keep from crossing any lines or investing too much of himself, and it was taking too much of his energy to keep his heart from getting trampled. They were clearly fooling themselves with thinking they could coexist so fraternally like this, like they didn't have a mountain of history and regret dragging them backward.

Disaster. Jesus.

He’d given the friendship a try and it had turned out to be too difficult to maintain, and he'd done something very stupid. He'd at least been brave enough to put himself out there, finally, but he'd clearly read everything wrong. That hesitant, pitying look of Ronan's was all he could see when he closed his eyes.

He was sure Blue and Gansey would understand, if he and Ronan went back to the polite distance and occasional forced courtesies. Hell, maybe they’d be relieved, in a way.

He couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d potentially just done to Blue and Gansey, though. They were getting married and all they were asking of Adam was to maybe not poison their little circle by crashing and burning into Ronan again. Their breakup had taken a toll on all four of them - hell, five, if you counted poor Henry who’d probably gotten the brunt of Blue’s venting after Skype calls talking Adam down all the way from Venezuela or wherever.

It had been years; could Adam not just wait like three more months before he drunkenly experimented with bombs that could potentially take out all four of them again?

His phone buzzed and he dug it out of his pocket, turning on his side to retrieve it from his jeans.

  

you don’t have to talk to me but please just tell me you got home safe

 

Adam swallowed, his throat closing up inside. He typed a quick response to Ronan just to get it out of the way – I’m home – and shoved his phone over onto the nightstand.

He had to remind himself of the parts of this that were going to be okay. Just to calm down. Ronan hadn't seemed angry, at least. And maybe now - maybe the knowledge that Ronan didn't want that line crossed after all would be enough for Adam to chill the hell out about being all crazy for Ronan again. Maybe the false hint of possibility had strung Adam along.

His mind was racing, going over every detail of the entire night with agonizing repetition. But there was still enough alcohol in his system to make him feel hazy, and sleep overtook him sometime after two in the morning.

He felt terrible at eight when his alarm went off again. But he dragged himself up anyway, into the shower, and for a while everything was quiet in his head. He went through his routine mechanically, trying to pretend it was just another Sunday.

He should’ve let himself sleep in a little more. He could’ve afforded another hour in bed, really. But now he was awake and miserable again.

The ibuprofen had helped. The hangover headache had eased. He looked at the clock – still an hour before he’d need to head to the library. Maybe he could start reading that 30-page brief.

He pulled it up on his laptop and only got through the caption before he heard someone knocking on his door.

Adam froze, staring down at his hands. He wasn’t ready for the next part of this fight. Adam and Ronan, round three thousand and one. He was already a hundred percent certain who was out there knocking.

He grabbed a clean t-shirt and pulled it over his head on the way to the front door.

Ronan knocked again. Adam could see him out there, juggling a brown paper bag and two tall cups from Starbucks.

This was happening. Adam tilted his head back to let out a long, even breath, and then opened the door.

He couldn’t even say hi. He just planted himself there, his arms folded, shivering in the winter morning breeze.

Ronan’s face was … it was neutral. Unreadable. He stepped inside and walked right past Adam, depositing his provisions onto the coffee table. Perhaps he was there to smooth things over, to very kindly explain to Adam that their past was their past and blah blah.

“No, please, come on in,” Adam muttered, leaning back against the door to shut it behind him.

“I brought bagels. And coffee. How’s your head. Come sit down,” Ronan demanded. He looked about as high-strung as Adam had ever seen him, and that was certainly saying something.

“I already have coffee,” Adam blinked, confused, pointing in toward the kitchen.

“Well I brought more. It’s a latte. You like those better,” Ronan physically placed one of the cups into Adam’s hand.

“How many of these have you had already this morning?” Adam narrowed his eyes at Ronan, who turned away quickly and started pacing around.

Adam was not in the slightest bit ready for … whatever the hell this was.

“I have to go to work soon,” Adam closed his eyes as he breathed in the latte, which was steaming extravagantly up toward his face.

“Okay, fine, so sit down for a minute,” Ronan took his arm and led him insistently toward the futon, then sat opposite Adam, sinking onto the coffee table directly in front of him. Their knees interlocked like teeth on a zipper. Adam shivered again.

“I’m sitting,” Adam pointed out, grumbling and testing the latte – it was still a little too hot to drink. He held it balanced against the futon cushion, what he hoped was a safe distance from where Ronan was wound up like a strained rubber band.

“You don’t look like you’re suffering the worst hangover you’ve ever had.”

“Very observant," Adam rolled his eyes. "I – oh, God, is that why – all the coffee and the bagels? Carbs? How drunk do you think I really was?”

“I don’t know,” Ronan’s knees bounced, jittering against Adam’s. Ronan stared at him imploringly, and Adam sensed that the how drunk were you really question was a lot more important than he’d initially realized.

“Do you honestly think I was that out of it?”

“I don’t know,” Ronan repeated in a frustrated sigh. “I can only assume you were out of your goddamned skull.”

“Thanks for that. You didn’t get any of what I was even saying, did you.”

“You kind of distracted me, Parrish. Okay, look. You’re sober now?”

“Yes. I have work in an hour, I don’t go to work drunk, you don’t have to call the Betty Ford-”

“I don’t care about work, do whatever you want at work, I do not give a shit. Just look at me and tell me you’re sober right now.”

“Do you want me to find a fucking breathalyzer?”

“... Kind of.”

Ronan.”

Adam blinked as the latte was yanked unceremoniously from his fingers, taken back as quickly as it had been given.

Ronan pulled at his wrists, his upper arms, his shoulders, hauled him up to the edge of his seat, and kissed him.

Adam gasped, the surprise of zero context or segue for this giving way to the shock of Ronan’s mouth on his.

Last night Ronan had just barely moved his lips, just enough to participate in a polite, breathy little kiss. But this time Ronan was not fucking around.

Adam’s stomach plunged like he’d really literally stepped off a cliff. Ronan pulled his face closer, kissed him long and intense and searing. Adam fell into it breathlessly, sliding toward the end of the futon until he was barely balanced there, letting Ronan hold him up.

He was awake. Awake and alive and starving.

Adam heard a sound come from his own chest and throat, escaping against his will. Ronan swore and sucked at Adam’s bottom lip and kissed him harder.

He’d wanted his evidence. His proof. And there it was. He’d spent years looking for a kiss like that. Nothing ever came close. Ronan's kiss reclaimed Adam with a fucking ease and power that was honestly terrifying.

Ronan kissed like a fucking apocalyptic storm, and Adam was being swept away in it again. He was warm and shaky and high from it, from the familiar purposeful slide of Ronan’s lips.

It was one thing to know for sure now that he only really ever wanted to kiss Ronan Lynch. It was another thing entirely to have to deal with Ronan Lynch.

He had to breathe. He’d forgotten. He pulled his mouth away and pressed his face against Ronan’s shoulder instead, hoping his stinging eyes wouldn’t spill over.

“Fucking hell, you … you asshole,” Adam shook his head, his voice muffled against the fabric of Ronan’s shirt.

“You started it.”

After they sat like that for a minute, clutched against each other in the quiet living room, Ronan let go and spun around to sit back on the futon beside him, looking up at the ceiling, breathing fast.

“I cannot believe you,” Adam groaned after he'd recovered a bit. “Jesus Christ.”

“You fucking kissed me last night, in case you don't-”

“I remember, okay? I thought you were coming here to yell at me about it, not to … God.”

“Why would I yell at you about it? You think I don’t fucking want this-”

“Don’t. Ronan, don’t,” he squeezed his eyes shut. “Oh my God, don’t say it yet.”

“Well that's great, then. Really great. What was the point, then? You just wanted to torture me?”

“Look, you're right, it was – I was a little drunk. I know that now, and it was really stupid to try something like that. I’m sorry I crossed that line so … God, so carelessly, without asking you about it first, that was so wrong of me.”

“I didn’t say shit about it being wrong, I just said you were drunk. I don't want the line anymore. I hate the motherfucking line.”

“Yeah, I guess I do too, judging from my behavior last night. But maybe there are still some perfectly good reasons for the line,” Adam sighed, running his hands over his face.

“If that's true, then what the hell were you going on about last night?” Ronan reached out and grabbed at his fingers, and the vice squeezed around Adam's stomach.

“I wasn't exhibiting my best judgment, let's be honest. But I ... I spent all day with you, letting myself pretend – I dunno. That we were on a date. But I still know how we are, you and me. You do too, Ronan. We're way too good at hurting each other. And ourselves. We always fight and you shut me out and you’ll refuse to say what you’re actually feeling-”

“No. Bullshit. That’s not fair. You can't keep using that time in our lives to tell you how everything else will go. We’re not those kids anymore and you know that.”

Adam made a frustrated sound deep in his throat; he was squeezing at Ronan's hand without meaning to. His body and brain were raging against each other. Again.

He knew deep down how dangerous it was to be flirting with a relationship with Ronan again; it was all he’d been telling himself since he’d gotten home. But he couldn't really start backtracking now, could he? God, he was the one who'd personally caused this. He had no one else to blame but himself for the way he'd given into temptation like that. Ronan had just called his bluff and doubled down.

Beside him, Ronan was staring down at their interlaced fingers like he couldn't see anything else. He looked exhausted and wired, like he was only marginally mobile because of the gallon or so of caffeine he must've consumed already.

“You’ve been up all night, haven't you,” Adam guessed, carefully letting go of Ronan's hand and toying with his leather wristbands instead.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

“Did you already check out of your hotel?”

“Yeah. I was just coming to see you on my way out of town. I’m fine, okay? It’s only two more hours.”

“God, now you're leaving,” Adam winced, bending forward to rest his forehead in his hands, his elbows on his knees. “I don’t know how to deal with this right now. I have to go to work. I have to study. I can’t be falling off this wagon right now.”

“Okay, fine, I get it. You really were that drunk, and you regret it, and now so the fuck do I. I'll see you later.”

“Wait, I-” he clamped a hand onto Ronan's forearm, panic overtaking whatever good sense might've been kicking in there. “That's not what I - We need to talk some more about this, okay?”

“I thought we just did. If you don't want me to kiss you again then I don't know what else there is to say,” Ronan's stare leveled him instantly, knocking his breath out.

“The problem is not that I don't want you to,” Adam ground out in frustration before having to break eye contact. He let go of Ronan's wrist and tried to calm down, to be reasonable and mature about this. “Look. I, um … do you really have to drive back at nine in the morning on a Sunday? Can you not put it off a while? Drive back tonight instead?”

“You just said you have to work.”

“I know, but I'll be done by five. What if you just … crash here a while, get some sleep while I'm gone. I won’t be around to trigger any weird nightmares. We can talk when I get back.”

“Why, though,” Ronan sat up straighter, trailing the backs of his fingers over Adam's arm and wrist. “Why do you want me to stay.”

“Because you've been up all night and I don't want you to be driving like that.”

“It's not that far,” Ronan muttered, folding his arms. “I've got enough caffeine in me to drive to Florida and back. That's not a reason that'll get me to stay.”

“Ronan,” he frowned and turned himself around sideways, propping his knees up against Ronan's leg. “Honestly I just … I need to think. Give me a little while to think."

"You can't just stop your life every five goddamn minutes so you can think some more! You always do this, Adam, always. Jesus Mary. Give it a rest. Tell me what you want, not what you fucking wrote a mental research paper about."

"I don't work like that," Adam winced, and it hurt his stomach to admit it. It felt like a secret and very deep flaw had been exposed. "Look, just - don't leave, don't go back yet. Not when you've been up all night like this. Please.”

“Oh, fuck off with the please. Asshole. You know exactly what you're doing, still, don't you. Pulling my fucking strings,” he ran a shaky hand through Adam's hair, sifting it through his fingers.

Adam was so very doomed.

He sat there a minute, unable to move in even the slightest bit as Ronan's fingertip traced his eyebrow, his cheekbone, the edge of his ear, the bridge of his nose. He felt a chill from the top of his head down into his chest.

He didn't know what else to say. Even if he did, he couldn't manage to make his throat work.

“You work until five?” Ronan’s knuckle traced Adam’s jawline, gentle but steady, then dropped his hands back into his lap.

“Mm.”

“Is that how long it's gonna take you to find the balls to tell me that you still don't want me? Because you might as well save us both the time and do it now.”

“You know I'd be fucking lying,” Adam said in a low, cracked voice, and stopped to swallow a couple of times.

“Maybe,” Ronan shrugged swiftly, suddenly. “But you'd do it anyway. You're not the one who doesn't lie.”

“You can't really think it's that simple,” Adam gripped the edge of the futon, his knuckles angry and sharp. “Like the wanting is all that matters.”

You're making everything way too complicated. You could overthink absolutely anything, it's fucking infuriating.”

“Do you not remember telling me that it wasn't enough that I still wanted you so badly? Even though I said I loved-” Adam's voice cracked on the word, and he immediately wished he hadn't tried to say it out loud.

“How many times are you gonna go to that well? You gonna just throw that all back in my fucking face forever?”

“I don't know, Ronan. I've only had it echoing in my head since high school, you don't know what it's been like,” Adam's fists clenched tighter around the edge of the cushion.

“Adam, I'm sorry,” Ronan ground out, clutching at the side of Adam's shirt. “I'm sorry. Does it make any difference? To hear me apologize? I've never been more fucking sorry for anything in my life, okay? Last night you said something-”

“Oh, God, come on, I was-”

“No, listen. You said that we – that this, it was everything to you, and that I wouldn't understand. I know you think that I wouldn't, and I get why you do. But you're wrong. Just because I was stupid and self-destructive and threw it all away doesn't mean it wasn't everything to me, too. Doesn't mean I don't still miss your ridiculous overthinking ass so much it makes me feel like I'm gonna lose my goddamn mind.”

“What? You … it's – it's been more than five years,” Adam insisted, his voice tellingly thin and shaky. He knew perfectly well he couldn't take the high road there. Those years had meant nothing when he'd spotted Ronan at Fox Way on Christmas Eve, or any of the other handful of other times they'd had run-ins since high school.

“I can fucking count, Parrish.” Ronan's voice was a growl that vibrated up and down Adam's spine.

Adam closed his eyes for a moment, swallowing hard, pushing back at the threat of tears at these unsolicited confessions. It had only been a few hours ago when he'd been reeling from the look of pity and polite rejection in Ronan's eyes, and now this in contrast – it was a lot.

“I thought you were trying to let me down easy,” Adam admitted, unable to keep this thought to himself as he blinked over at Ronan again. “Last night. The way you looked at me-”

“I know what you thought. But it wasn't that. For Christ's sake, I thought – I thought you were drunk. You were losing your balance. I didn't know if you'd even remember it in the morning. You can't really think I'm that much of a shit, can you? I mean I do want you, only you, like – like you probably wouldn't fucking believe, okay, but not like that. I want it to be you, for real.”

God. Fuck,” Adam rubbed at his eyes and then reached for Ronan's shirt in order to pull him close again, and the kiss was an electric shock. Ronan's lips were familiar, but the pressure was something new and hungry and a bit more careful and deliberate than Adam remembered.

He heard Ronan's noisy gasp of surprise and relief against his mouth and it undid Adam, made his heart race even faster.

Adam loved kissing. He loved getting caught up in it, in a way that his various other partners historically had not fully understood, not really. They often seemed to treat it as a means to an end, but Adam was almost always left wanting more, trying to prolong kisses past their apparent expiration date.

Maybe it was the fact that he'd had Ronan to kiss in the first place, years ago, when they'd both been so fumbling and awkward. They'd spent hours just kissing, making out in that fucking BMW. Ronan had been content to stay that way all night, with Adam in his lap. He was patient and devoted and attentive and Adam wondered if that had changed over the years. He wondered if he himself had changed, whether Ronan would notice a difference.

Ronan's kiss was just as addictive now, even more so. Their physical connection was maybe even stronger than before, somehow, God – but there was more to work through.

He gave himself a little three-count of shivering at the way Ronan’s tongue slid so decadently and deftly over his, and then he eased away with another feather-light kiss, his lungs burning. Ronan's fingers slipped slowly from Adam's hair, and he sighed when he rested his head back against the futon, squinting sideways and searching Adam's expression.

“You're already telling yourself that this is a mistake. I could feel the minute it just occurred to you,” Ronan's eyelashes dropped fully, fanning against his flushed cheeks in surrender.

“I'm not thinking mistake. I'm thinking dangerous. I'm trying to figure out if I've been thinking too much with my dick and not my actual brain.”

It took a few long seconds, but Ronan's brow lifted before he even looked at him again.

“As if you could ever leave your damn brain out of it. If you could, you'd be waking up next to Luke right now.”

Adam felt a little flare of defensiveness sparking through his chest. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from snapping the first angry and murderous retort that sprung to mind: maybe now I wish I was.

It was a bitter lie, condense and weaponized.

God, how he hated his own innate talent of pulling forth just exactly the most poisonous and rotten thing to say in any given moment to Ronan Lynch.

“I really had things figured out pretty well, you know?” Adam dragged his hands through his hair, looking up at the ceiling. “I was doing okay. Until Gansey dragged me along ring shopping, and he wouldn't be satisfied until he saw every stupid piece of jewelry in D.C., just because he had to imagine Blue's potential reaction to every one, every single one. And I realized I hadn't felt that invested in another person since … well. Since you, maybe. And I – I just wanted that feeling again. So badly. I've been screwing everything up ever since.”

“So, what … that includes getting drunk and kissing your ex-boyfriend. Is that what you're gonna tell me next?”

“No. I mean … I don't know. I, um … no one's ever kissed me like that. Do you know that? Nobody. God.”

“Yeah, well. So what? Do I get a trophy?”

“Ronan, quit it, I … I’m really scared to be trying this now when all Blue and Gansey are asking is for us to be fucking civil to each other. What if we fight too much and - God, they’ll be heartbroken, and Blue will straight up kill me.”

“So then I'll ask you again,” Ronan folded his arms and regarded Adam levelly. “What was the point of kissing me, then? Are you trying to get back at me? Are you just trying to get this out of your system? If you're trying to prove something to yourself, that you can kiss me and feel not a thing about it, then good for you, but just … tell me now. You definitely don't have to prove that shit to me. I know you moved on a long time ago.”

“Moved on,” Adam repeated bitterly, the words stinging at his tongue. “Right.”

“Okay, whatever, look, I have to-”

“Go out with me,” Adam blurted out desperately without thinking about it, without any other true or pressing motivation besides wanting to keep Ronan from storming off in that way of his. Adam slid his fingers to Ronan's wrist, holding on tightly, wishing his heart would slow down a little. He felt dizzy again.

“What?” Ronan blinked at him, still halfway to standing up.

“Like a, um … a date. You know? Like normal people do? No magical forests or ley lines or whatever, just … we could just go out. Sometime when you're back in the city. Do you want to?”

“Why,” Ronan's eyes narrowed, but he sank back onto the couch, and Adam took that small victory, at least, squeezing at Ronan's forearm.

“Because I don’t know how else to try,” he insisted, and as the words formed, he understood more clearly what he wanted. “Because it's what I wanted so badly yesterday. You said we're not those kids anymore, and you're right. This is the real world, this is how it works. This is what adults do when they want to, like … explore a relationship. Okay? That's what I'm asking you.”

Ronan was quiet for an agonizingly long amount of time, staring down at his hands, then over at where Adam's fingers were curled around the bone at the outer part of his wrist.

“You think it's stupid, don't you,” Adam sighed.

“Friday,” Ronan turned toward him, catching his hand in his own. “Friday night. What do you think?”

“You will, then? You'll go out with me? But you'd have to drive all the way back after only-”

“Don't think about that part. Friday night? Or Saturday, what’s better?”

“Friday,” Adam confirmed. Plus it was a whole day sooner. “I’ll be done by five.”

“Then I’ll come get you. From here, or work, or what?”

“Um. Here. Then I can come back first and drop my stuff off.”

“Are you really going to do this,” Ronan closed his eyes. “Or are you going to call me halfway through the week and say you smartened up and changed your mind. You know Gansey’ll try to talk you out of it.”

“No he won't. But I’m not going to tell him yet,” Adam decided on the spot. “Or Blue. You and me, we’re the only ones who know what this has been like. Let’s just figure it out for ourselves and we can tell them later. If we don’t kill each other first. Please don’t tell Opal yet, either, okay, I don’t want her to get her hopes up or-”

“Oh come on, Parrish, I'm not that dumb. So where do you want to go? For a date,” Ronan leaned closer, his voice light with what sounded like relief. “Don’t say sushi.”

Adam laughed in a surprised little burst at the memory. “The sushi is a lot better here than it was in Henrietta. But fine, maybe we could go to a movie, or something?”

“Yeah. Sure,” Ronan swallowed, staring back for a long moment, and Adam got distracted trying to categorize that particular shade of blue again. Like a deep part of the ocean, maybe. “Shit, look, I need to get out of here. You'll be late.”

“And you still have two hours on the road. Okay,” Adam cleared his throat. “Okay. I, um … I’ll walk out to the car with you.”

“No, you stay inside. It’s cold out there.”

After some shuffling around for his jacket and untouched coffee, Ronan was at the door, and Adam dreaded the impending mood crash that was sure to hit as soon as Ronan left him behind in that apartment. In that city.

“Say hi to Opal for me,” Adam shoved his hands in his pockets, his nervousness lingering.

“Sure. See you later.”

“God. Wait,” Adam stopped him, pulling him back for another kiss, and this one was so perfectly sweet and intense that it actually hurt somehow. Deep in his chest.

“Just, um … text me when you get home?" Adam asked breathlessly. "So I’ll know you're back safe.”

It was ridiculous, and they both knew it. Ronan just smiled a little, crooked and genuine. And then he was gone.

 


 

Adam had a strangely productive afternoon at work. He'd expected to be antsy and distracted the whole time. But his mind felt clear as he read through text chapters and briefs, checked in books, and chatted politely with one of his professors from last semester.

And underneath it all, his heart kept stuttering privately to itself, warm and nervous and wondrous, anytime he had a moment of silence or turned a page of his book. Ronan kissed me. Ronan wants me back.

He'd managed to keep it contained pretty well until he saw his phone vibrating with a text from Blue.

 

Hey. Luke just got home. Call me when you get a chance?

 

He only had an hour and half to go. But he should've been expecting to hear from Blue. Of course Luke had told her what happened.

His mood crashed instantly. The happy little thrill gave over to guilt and anxiety. He was very suddenly off his Ronan high and worrying about whether Luke was upset, whether Blue was going to murder him for it, whether he was in for fighting and drama and heartbreak, whether it would spill over into his friends' lives.

He flipped his phone over and over on the desk, on his textbook. He was scared about the distance, even though it was a mere two hours. Nothing like the trip to Boston would've been. But Ronan hated the phone, and he hadn't been willing to try anything long-distance before.

We’re not those kids anymore and you know that.

He gave up on his studying and zoned out for a while. The logical part of him wanted to be drawing up pros and cons lists, examining all of the potential angles and outcomes, measuring the risk versus reward.

That was being very much drowned out, though, by the extremely strange desire to keep admitting his deep-down secret, to literally everyone, that fine, he'd never really gotten over Ronan entirely. Maybe he could rent out a billboard on the side of a truck. Let everyone fucking see it.

And then he could tell Ronan he needed to be kissed a lot more, all the time, to make up for five years of drought.

And then he'd let himself be really in love again.

They were still going to fight. He couldn't shake that. They always fought in some way or another. But maybe they’d just have to avoid fights that were lethal. He didn't know if that was plausible, if they'd somehow developed decent enough communication skills apart from each other, if they could manage to maintain a relationship this time, if Adam could stop bristling every time Ronan gave him something, if Ronan could get over the idea that he was somehow holding Adam back.

But how would he really know if they were capable of maintaining it if he didn't actually try it? Ronan was right; he wasn’t being fair using their eighteen-year-old selves as his compass.

By the time he was able to clock out, he was feeling steadier. Fuck, he was sort of giddy, even. He called Blue from the street outside.

“Adam. Hey. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I'm okay. Sorry, I just got off work, couldn't call you until now. Is Luke okay?”

“Oh, yeah, he's okay. He's disappointed, I think, but he'll be okay. He told me he sent you off to have a talk with Ronan.”

“I don’t feel great about that, for whatever that's worth. I really like Luke. A lot. If we'd met at a different time … I dunno.”

“I'm not gonna lie, Adam, I warned him. I liked the idea of you and Luke, but … I know you and Ronan have that thing that doesn't ever go away. I know you probably don't want me to say that.”

“No, I … I know. You're right. It's not like you haven't said it before. I wish it didn't have so much influence over me, but I don't want to be dishonest with Luke, he's … he's amazing. But there's just something that's missing, he knows it too.”

“And that's okay. I get that. I just – isn't that going to be true of everyone who's not Ronan?”

“Mm. Maybe,” Adam sighed, shivering in his jacket. The temperature had dropped significantly that afternoon under an overcast sky. “I really thought I was past that. I thought I could have my friendship back and that I was mature and strong enough to keep it that way, but he just – the more time I spend with him, the more he starts to, like … eclipse everything else. Everyone else.”

“So did you actually go talk to him for real, or what?”

“Uh. Yeah. Kind of.”

“What does that mean?”

“I was a little too drunk for a serious talk last night. But he … he came to my apartment again this morning, and … We are both aware now that trying to be just friends is still really hard. And we still have some serious shit to figure out,” Adam confessed, at least partially.

He couldn't bring himself to say I kissed him, Blue, even though the words were right there waiting. He just couldn't do it, after years of her listening to him agonize, coaching him about being able to move on.

“Oh. Before he left to go home again?”

“Yeah. He didn't get any sleep. I tried to get him to crash for a while, but you know. He doesn't listen, and I had to go to work.”

“So are you still working this out? Should I send in a mediator of some kind? You're in D.C., I'm sure they're everywhere. Lawyers? Diplomats?”

“I'll let you know,” Adam muttered.

“Adam Parrish. Tell me the truth. Are you two getting back together?”

“Oh my God, don't say it like that, Jesus. That sounds insane, doesn't it?”

“Uh, I mean … I don't know what you want me to say to that. It doesn't sound bad to me, not unless it's not what you want. I just want you both to be happy.”

“I know. I'm sorry about … about Luke. I really didn't want to make things awkward.”

“You didn't. I told you, he was fully aware of the Ronan thing. He'll be all right.”

“I know he will. He's so sweet, God, honestly I do not know what the hell is wrong with me.”

“Yeah, well. I do.”

"Tough case to crack, Veronica Mars.”

“I know, right? I … um. Oh, hey, I'm sorry, Helen is texting me something about wedding centerpieces. God. Can I call you back later?”

“Yeah, go, don't worry about me. I'll talk to you soon.”

“Okay. You're gonna figure this out, Adam. Love you.”

Chapter Text

Adam's apartment was quiet and still when he returned to it. He sank down onto his couch and let himself float in the memory of Ronan’s kiss for a while. Then he looked down at his phone again and re-read the text he'd gotten from Ronan that afternoon, dutifully reporting that he was back at the Barns. He was pressing the dial button before he even realized what he was doing.

For a minute he fully expected Ronan's voicemail, because it was Ronan. But on the third ring he got a real answer. He couldn't tell if he was relieved or scared about that.

“Magician,” Ronan's voice was quick and quiet, a bit unsteady.

“... Greywaren.”

“You aren't actually fucking psychic, right? Because O was just asking about you.”

“What? I – Really?”

“Yeah. You got a minute?”

“Of course.”

There was a rustling on the other end, and then he heard Opal's voice. “Adam?”

“Hey, kiddo. How are you?”

“I'm good! I just wanted to tell you, um, è quasi il mio compleanno!”

“That sounds like … are you telling me happy birthday? You're a little early.”

“No, I'm saying it's almost my birthday,” Opal laughed in a trill that made Adam smile again. “You know Italian?”

“No, not at all. Some Spanish, though. The word for birthday in Spanish kinda sounds the same.”

“Can you teach me Spanish?”

“Um. Maybe a little? It's been a couple of years. I'm rusty.”

“Teach me some when you come for my birthday. Okay?”

“Okay,” Adam laughed, holding his forehead.

“That can be my present! Okay, I ... I think Ronan wants his phone back?”

“Take care of yourself. I'll see you in a few weeks.”

There was another pause and some muffled voices in the background.

“She likes to show off,” Ronan's voice was grumbling. “Anyway. You okay?”

“Mm-hmm,” Adam closed his eyes and leaned back into the couch cushions so he could focus on listening. “You made it home okay.”

“Quick on the uptake, Harvard.”

“Shut up. I'm tired.”

“Yeah. Me too. Glad you called, though, the little monster really wanted to talk to you. She's running back up to the attic right now, real delicate and quiet.”

Adam grinned and rubbed at his eyes but didn't say anything. He was frankly afraid of how much he suddenly wished he could be there in person, curled up with Ronan by the fireplace at the Barns.

“Friday feels really far away right now,” Adam admitted after a bit of silence.

“I know.”

“Are you going to stay here, in the city? Friday night?”

“Yeah, probably. Maybe I'll see if Gansey wants company.”

“Then you'll have to tell him why you're here.”

“I can tell him I spent time with you. I don't have to say it's a date.”

“You're totally going to tell him everything," Adam gazed up at the ceiling. "He'll look at you and just know. He does that to me, too.”

“Well, I mean, the dude is my best friend, I can't just fucking avoid him now.”

“I know. Tell him whatever you want, I don't mind. I don't want you to think that I'm keeping you a secret, like I don't want anyone to know, or something.”

“You can keep me a secret however long you want. I just … look, I think I need to ask you something.”

“Okay. Ask," Adam pressed his lips together briefly. "I'm listening.”

“So you, like … you want to try this dating thing, right? And, I mean – I get it, I'm in, whatever you want. But are you still – I mean you go out a lot, don't you? In the city? To these clubs and shit?”

“Uh. I wouldn't say a lot. Only on the weekends, when I don't have a test or something. But I'm not going to drag you out like that again, that's not what I meant. I promise I'm not going to ask you out to a club, I know you'd hate that.”

“I wouldn't hate it.”

“Ronan,” he rolled his eyes, and he knew Ronan would be able to sense it if not actually see it.

“No, seriously, not if it was just you and me. If you … fuck, you're gonna think I'm an asshole.”

“Just say it.”

“I didn't want to get into this earlier because I knew you had to leave and we didn't have time, and I didn't want to do anything to fuck it up. But the thing is – I've tried this dating shit before, and I – I don't really love the part where I don't know how many other dates you're going on the rest of the week. That's all. And maybe it wasn't so bad when it wasn't you, but now it is, and that's different, I don't-”

“Whoa, hang on, I'm not – Ronan, I didn't mean it like that, like I'm keeping my options open or something. That's not what I meant when I said dating.”

“Okay, fine. Good, I just – I don't know how you want it to work.”

“I'm sorry. I should've been clearer,” Adam ran a nervous hand through his hair. “I just want to focus on you, all right?”

“So what's gonna happen with Luke?”

“Oh my God, nothing. I told you what happened already. That's over now. He and I both know that.”

“Are you sure he knows that? He fucking wants you, I can-”

“I'm sure,” Adam cut him off flatly.

“Okay,” Ronan breathed into the phone, and Adam could feel the surge of relief in the sound of his voice.

“Okay. Um. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Are you seeing anyone else, too? Or is it-”

“Fucking Christ, Parrish. You know better than to ask me that.”

“I don't want to just assume-”

“There's no one else but you,” Ronan insisted sharply.

“Okay. Okay. Just asking. I should, um … I've got some reading to do, still.”

“Yeah, all right. Text me soon, tell me what you want to see on Friday. I don't even know what's playing, can't remember the last movie I've actually seen.”

“I don't know, either, but I'll look it up. Can we get something to eat after? Late dinner?”

“Yeah. Anything.”

“Good. Might as well, if you're driving all the way here.”

“Sure.”

Adam knew he had to hang up, but part of him felt there was more to say, more to talk about. He just didn't know how he could possibly begin to address it all.

“I, um,” Adam took a deep breath. “I should go. I just wanted to hear your voice, I guess.”

“What's wrong?”

“Nothing. Really, I – I'll see you Friday.”

“Okay. See you.”

Loneliness crept in through Adam's pores as he wandered his own empty apartment, eating a sandwich just to have something in his stomach. He ended up on his bed with his laptop, of course, rereading a paper in progress. He polished off three new, fairly lengthy paragraphs, and then checked his phone for a break.

Ronan's Instagram had been updated with a pretty shot of the night sky over the fields behind the house. It was uncaptioned, like always, and had already earned a couple of admiring comments. It could've been any generic photo of the clouds and stars and fireflies. But Adam was pretty sure it was from the roof of a particular barn, where Ronan had pulled a blanket around Adam’s shoulders after some very Ronan-like yelling about being in goddamn-fucking-love with him, where they’d kissed and talked for hours and watched the sunrise.

He tapped the little heart, his first time ever actually doing that on Ronan's account, because he didn't have to be stealthy about it anymore. This was happening. He flopped back down on his bed to stare at it a while longer.

 


 

Adam was honestly glad for the breakneck pace of law classes. He threw himself into it again, needing to keep his mind busy at all times just to keep from agonizing about Ronan and whether he was getting himself in over his head just for something that was almost guaranteed to eventually self-destruct.

He was up late finishing his paper Monday night, and Tuesday he had work. He kept at the studying and reading and only took breaks when Gansey wanted to meet for lunch, or when Ronan called him from Singer's Falls. Ronan called a couple of different times, around ten at night, when he was up and awake and alone in the downstairs part of the house. Adam didn't have much to report. But he stayed on the phone anyway, sometimes lying there in silence for a minute, just for the connection.

After all that ancient fighting about whether long-distance relationships were doomed, Adam hadn't actually experienced one and couldn't say whether it was going to be feasible. But two hours was different. Smaller. Less insurmountable. So maybe the distance wasn’t as bad as it already felt. It was hard to say how it was affecting Ronan, though – it had only been a few days, after all.

Adam knew he needed to temper himself and not throw all of his energy and emotion into something that felt so fragile. So he was a star pupil that week, staying ahead as much as he could.

Friday afternoon’s class still dragged, despite his attempts to stay focused on the lecture. The professor let them out early, which was usually a blessing on a Friday afternoon, but Adam still had an hour and a half to kill and nothing but nervous energy to deal with.

It’s just a movie. Get your shit together.

He was jumpy and impatient, though. He couldn’t seem to calm down. He took a quick shower and put on a t-shirt and sweater, and then changed his mind and switched to a pale green button-down, and then laughed at what Ronan would even think of his waffling about wardrobe.

Why had he picked a movie date, of all things? They wouldn’t be able to talk. He was about to waste two hours of Ronan’s rare D.C. time, and for what? Some stupid superhero movie in which he himself only had a passing interest and he knew for sure that Ronan would only care about if there was a car chase scene of some kind.

If he hadn’t already bought the tickets, he might-

The knock at the front door interrupted his steady stream of worrying. He finished rolling his sleeve up to his elbow and swallowed hard before unlocking the deadbolt and pulling the door open.

After a week – not even a week, five days – of only talking to Ronan on the phone, seeing him in person was sort of electrifying. Adam’s panic dissolved momentarily. Who cared what the date was? Ronan was right there.

“Parrish,” Ronan greeted him with a smirk.

“Lynch.”

“You ready, or what?”

“Yeah, I … I need my phone, I’ll be right there.”

Ronan didn’t come inside; he loitered on the doorstep. Not taking things for granted, as usual. Adam grabbed his keys and phone and turned off the lights and headed outside.

This was what he’d been asking for. To go slowly. But he hadn’t truly expected Ronan to take that so seriously.

“I, um … I already bought the tickets online,” Adam began unsteadily, after he was installed in the passenger seat of the BMW. “I just have to print them at the kiosk thing. When we get there.”

“Okay,” Ronan pulled up to the four-way stop, glancing over at him like he was trying not to laugh.

“What,” Adam ran a hand through his hair, wishing his face would cool off a little.

“Are you always this nervous? On dates?”

“It's been a while. Do you know how to get to the theater?”

“No, but that thing does,” Ronan pointed to his phone, currently resting in a cup holder, flashing a green message over a map.

“Just stay on this road until you see the signs for the freeway. It’s easier.”

Adam continued to provide directions and was childishly pleased that Ronan followed them even when they were contradicting the phone display. His maps app kept indignantly displaying a “Rerouting” message, but Ronan seemed to be ignoring it.

Inside the theater, Adam got their tickets printed as promised, and gave one to Ronan, who still looked like he was trying not to laugh. It was a little nerve-wracking.

They still had half an hour before the movie started. Adam hadn’t really thought about what they’d do once they got their tickets. He hadn’t thought past anything other than Ronan, Ronan will be here, with me, on a date, this is happening, this is crazy.

“Do you, um … do you want to go find a seat now, or …” Adam didn’t know what else to suggest, so his sentence trailed off. They were just inside the theater doors, off to the right, out of the way of foot traffic.

“I want a Coke, actually.”

“You do know they charge you like five dollars for a soda that costs them maybe ten cents. For the cup, not even the-”

There he is,” Ronan grinned, his arms folded across his chest.

“Asshole.”

“How about you go find us some seats and I’ll squander my own unearned wealth as I see fit.”

“Fine,” Adam nudged his arm as he walked past, and Ronan laughed, light and quiet. If not for the hint of breathlessness in there, Adam would think him completely indifferent.

Adam’s self-consciousness led him to choose a spot toward the back, where he didn’t feel quite so much on display for this date. He fidgeted with his phone, put it back again, watched the cycling ads and inane movie trivia on the screen. Then he saw Ronan arriving with a giant soda and rolled his eyes. He waved to catch Ronan’s attention.

“Did they not have an actual bucket of soda for sale?” Adam raised an eyebrow as Ronan wedged his Coke into the cup holder between them.

“I didn’t want you to be coveting in silence. We can share.”

Adam smiled and shrugged, reaching over to drink some down right away, because secretly he’d been daydreaming about a fountain Coke as soon as Ronan had said it.

“I’m glad you planned for us to be so fucking punctual,” Ronan grumbled, looking at his watch. They were both keeping their voices down; the theater wasn’t crowded but there were plenty of other people nearby to hear everything. Adam was glad Ronan had gone to his right side, like he could always be trusted to do.

Ronan shoved his jacket onto the empty seat beside him. Then he slid back further, nestling closer to Adam until their arms were pressed together. He turned his face into Adam’s shoulder and it was a sudden rush of warmth through Adam’s chest and stomach. Adam was smiling again – he couldn’t seem to suppress it.

“You’re gonna hate this movie,” Adam whispered, his lips against Ronan’s short hair.

“I don’t care,” Ronan’s voice was filtered through the sleeve of Adam’s shirt, and Adam shivered a little. Ronan must have felt it, because he picked his head up again and looked up through his heavy dark eyelashes.

“You look like you’re going to fall asleep,” Adam held his gaze, which was making him just as shivery as the contact a few seconds ago.

“Are you cold?” Ronan frowned slightly, ignoring Adam’s comment.

“No.”

The lights eventually dimmed, signaling the start of what would probably be ten or so previews that Ronan would roll his eyes at. But it didn’t really matter. Ronan had wrapped his hands around Adam’s in the dark, rubbing them back and forth to warm up his fingers, and Adam leaned back contentedly.

The movie was fun and distracting and mindless. Adam didn’t know if he’d be able to summarize the plot, exactly, because of the way Ronan kept playing with his hand the whole time, restless and unceasingly sweet, pressing his thumb into Adam’s palm, cradling his knuckles.

Occasionally Ronan would roll his eyes or even make scoffing noises of disbelief at the most noble superhero moves and speeches. Adam would laugh, breathless and inexplicably charmed, leaning in to quiet him with a kiss to his cheekbone or his temple.

“You hungry?” Adam asked over his shoulder as they climbed the steps to the exit afterward. Ronan had let go of him and he missed it already. Adam wondered what reaction he’d get if he reached back for Ronan’s hand in public like that, with the lights on.

They’d never been very public about their relationship back in Henrietta, that was for sure.

“Mm-hmm. There’s a burger place next door, have you tried it? You want to?”

“Okay.”

“Or did you have something else planned. You did, didn’t you. I bet you have a list.”

“I mean … I had a backup idea, not a – a plan,” Adam admitted in a mumble as Ronan fell into step with him out in the hallway. “But the burger place sounds good, let’s go there.”

The restaurant was a chain, one of those places where you ordered at the counter and then sat to wait for your food. Ronan claimed a little round table in the corner, and Adam pulled a chair closer to him instead of across from him. He wasn’t sure how willing Ronan would be about obviously and visibly being on a date, so he was going to test the boundaries a little.

“I think Gansey knows,” Ronan blurted out after they’d started eating. “Why I'm really here, I mean.”

“Oh. Okay,” Adam watched him carefully. “You told him?”

“No, but … I dunno, he was asking about the movie and whether I thought Blue would like it, and I kept saying no for honestly just … no good fucking reason. I think maybe it was obvious that I just didn't want him tagging along and making it weird.”

Adam laughed a little, imagining Gansey's face falling after trying to get invited along.

“He's so caught up with the wedding lately, I'm surprised he could talk to you about anything else.”

“Yeah, well. When I get back I'm sure it'll be more about couldn't Jane just go along with one simple thing to be nice instead of drawing lines at every principle and blah blah.”

“Hope he's not holding his breath.”

“That's what I said. Anyway he really wants to have lunch tomorrow. He asked me to invite you. I told him you had to study.”

“I think I can probably manage to take a lunch break,” Adam found himself laughing around half a mouthful of french fries. “Or do you want some Gansey alone time.”

“Fuck off.”

“No, I’m serious, maybe I shouldn’t crash-”

Please crash,” Ronan caught his wrist, ran his hand over Adam’s bare forearm, watching him seriously.

“Okay,” Adam swallowed. “I, um … I do have three assignments to write, but I kind of hate the idea of not getting to see you a little more while you're actually in the same city as me.”

“Me too, believe me. I just didn’t want to cut into your studying.”

“I’ll have the rest of the day for that. Where’s he want to go for lunch?”

“He said some place by campus you guys go to a lot. I’ll tell him you’re coming, he’ll be fucking beside himself. Maybe he’ll be so happy we’re not fighting that he won’t notice, like …”

“What, that it seems weird we’re going to see movies without him?”

“No, just … I dunno. That I can’t stop looking at you? Or thinking about you?”

“... He can't actually read your mind, you know,” Adam grinned a little, resting his elbows on the table and looking sideways at his date. His date. It was still a little disconcerting to think it.

But he was flushed and happy and hadn’t felt anything like it for so long.

Please don't let him break my heart again.

“Hey, so, I haven't told you yet,” Ronan pressed his lips against Adam's arm, a little kiss just above the rolled-up cuff of his shirt, and it was so casual and personal, that little display of affection. Adam was taken aback by it.

“Told me what?”

“Matthew's coming down next weekend. He wants to see Opal. He's got some kind of bullshit field trip on her birthday, so he's making up for it early.”

“That's good. I bet he'll be so happy to be home for a couple of days,” Adam picked at his french fries. It looked like Ronan had abandoned his own, having pushed his little basket aside.

“Yeah, O will love it, too. I mean it's nice and all, but I'll be kind of stuck in Singer's Falls for the weekend.”

“Oh,” Adam wiped his fingers on a napkin, trying hard not to let any disappointment come through in his voice. “No, it's okay, I get it. I can't really expect you to drive all the way here every single weekend just to go out with me.”

“I would, though,” Ronan seemed to be studying Adam's shirt sleeve, tucking his fingertips beneath the folded part. “You know I don't mind the drive.”

“You hate D.C. traffic.”

“It’s not as bad if I leave early enough.”

“Well, I … Um,” Adam stammered a bit. “Opal's birthday is the week after next, right? So I'll save you a trip that time.”

“I don't know if I'm allowed to bring a date to her party.”

Adam laughed a little, busying himself with his soda for a few seconds. “Aren't you the one throwing it?”

“She's the one in charge, let’s be real.”

“Good point. But she already invited me, so.”

“You gonna ride down with Gansey and Blue?”

“Yeah.”

“Adam,” Ronan said more quietly, still hanging onto Adam's sleeve. “I know you don’t want to hurt O’s feelings, but if it’s too weird for you to be there, then don’t go. Nobody’s pushing you. Stay with the psychics if you want. We’ll still do the Cabeswater thing. I know it was weird for you at Christmas, you were all haunted and shit.”

“It’s not …” Adam bit his lip, trailing off from what would clearly be a lie. “I mean, it was weird, before, being back there, but that wasn’t all about the Barns, it was kind of more about you. But I needed to deal with it sooner or later. I couldn’t just avoid you forever, not with the wedding coming up. I sometimes think Cabeswater woke us both up in the middle of the night just to force us to have that talk.”

“Mm,” Ronan practically growled down toward the table.

“It’ll be okay now. Really. I’m sorry that I was such an ungrateful ass last time I was there. It was different then. I thought you still hated me and that you were only putting up with me to keep the peace with Gansey and Blue.”

“Still?” Ronan enunciated it carefully, like he was trying out a new word for the first time. “I never fucking hated you, can you please stop saying that?”

“I know that now. It was before we started talking again, okay?”

“I know,” Ronan sighed, dropping his forehead against Adam’s arm. “And I never gave you any reason to think otherwise, I know, I know.”

“It doesn't matter now. Ronan,” he leaned down to press his lips against the crown of Ronan's head. “When's Gansey want you back at his place?”

“When's my curfew, you mean?” Ronan lifted his head, smirking faintly, making Adam's face warm. “He gave me a key.”

“So you think he's gonna wait up for you? Ask you where you've been all night?”

“Shit, maybe. I don't know. Probably. You know how he is.”

“Does that mean you should be getting back? I mean, it's after ten. Or can you still ...”

“Just fucking ask me, whatever it is,” Ronan's fingertips trailed along the prominent bones of Adam's wrist.

“There's this place down the street from here, half a mile, maybe. They have the most amazing milkshakes.”

“Are you seriously still hungry?”

“Um. Not really. To be honest. I just …” Adam caught Ronan's hand, turning his palm upward. “I really don't want our date to be over yet.”

“Milkshakes, then,” Ronan squeezed at his fingers and led him out of the restaurant.

 


 

They spent another hour and a half across a tiny booth at the little red-roofed diner, nursing their shakes as slowly as possible with an unspoken agreement to drag things out. Ronan kept asking him about his classes, about which landmarks and museums Opal would like most, about every little aspect of his now solitary life that Adam had otherwise considered boring.

Ronan was a lot better at asking questions than answering them. Adam felt a little cheated of details.

The only thing he could really get Ronan talking about was Opal's birthday present, one of the smaller barns that Ronan had been fixing up for Opal's use. It was still a surprise, so Ronan had to lock himself in there to do all kinds of carpentry work.

When Adam eventually noticed it was after midnight, and their milkshakes were long gone, he knew they'd have to head out. Ronan picked up on it without prompting and pulled his jacket back on, looking slightly pained.

Ronan didn’t use his phone for directions when they got in the car; he just looked over at Adam expectantly. Their only conversation was Adam telling him to turn right onto the frontage road, or to switch lanes. Adam didn’t have to help when they got to his street, though. Ronan knew to pull around the side for a parking spot on the street.

“I had a very nice time,” Adam couldn’t resist being polite and formal, just to see what kind of reaction it would get.

“I’m so glad,” Ronan’s eyes flicked upward, clearly annoyed.

Adam let his laugh escape, and watched Ronan’s eyes narrow at him.

“Do you want to come inside for a minute?” Adam brushed the side of his thumb across Ronan’s cheek. It was an old movement, muscle memory from years ago.

“I dunno, seems kind of soon for that. Only our first date.”

Ronan had quickly beaten him at his own game.

“Okay, but I, um … I have something for you,” he decided spontaneously. Spontaneous was so unsettling for him. “So it would be nice for you to come inside and not make me bring it back out here.”

“... You what?”

“Come on,” Adam pushed open the passenger door, not waiting for Ronan to answer. He really did have a present that he’d bought at the bookstore when he’d walked by and seen it in the window. He just hadn’t anticipated giving it away so quickly, but it felt right, and he was going to go with his gut. Wasn’t that what Ronan would want, anyway? For him to not overthink it?

He heard the BMW locking behind him, which was a good sign.

Inside, he hung his jacket by the door as usual. Ronan tossed his own jacket carelessly onto the chair, because of course.

“Just, um – wait here a second, okay? Sit down, if you want. I’ll be right back,” Adam’s nerves flared suddenly, watching Ronan’s reserved expression.

The little plastic bag from the campus store was still sitting on Adam’s dresser. He snatched it up and allowed himself a moment of hesitation before heading back out. Ronan was seated on the edge of the futon, looking restless and fidgety, pulling at the lace on his boot.

“You’re gonna laugh at me for this,” Adam pressed his lips together anxiously before sitting down, close enough so their knees were touching.

Ronan didn’t move away, so Adam took that as a positive sign and unveiled the thin strap of leather with a snap on one side. It was only half an inch wide, with the Georgetown 'G' embossed in the center.

Ronan examined it with a sharp, attentive gaze, and then stretched out his arm over Adam’s knee, presenting his wrist, palm up, already quite full of worn and beat-up leather. Adam fastened the new one in place and added it to the collection.

“It’s the Georgetown-”

“I know what it is,” Ronan turned his wrist over and traced the tiny logo, staring at it almost in disbelief.

“I saw it in the window. At the bookstore. I can’t ever see these things and not think of you. It looks weird, though, not the same as your other ones, it’s so brand-new look-”

Adam’s words were abruptly cut off because Ronan had pulled his face closer and was kissing him, like he'd been waiting forever, and Adam could no longer form sentences. He gasped and clutched at Ronan’s wrists and let himself be absorbed in it.

Five days. It didn’t seem like he should feel this desperate after five days. What was he going to do for two weeks?

His plan for taking this whole thing tentatively and cautiously was overly ambitious, and he knew it the second Ronan’s mouth slid over his. He could tell himself all he wanted that they were going slow and just dating and whatever, but Ronan’s kiss said I want you back, I need you back, right now, and Adam’s breath caught in his throat.

He’d told himself he would only test the waters, only put his feet in, but Ronan’s pull was – had always been – its own fucking gravitational force, and Adam’s body, at least, was embracing the riptide.

“God, Ronan,” he breathed, feeling unsteady, like he could fall off the edge of the futon. What he really wanted was to climb onto Ronan’s lap and kiss him from there instead, but he kept himself very still in order to resist the compulsion. If he did that now he’d be fucking gone.

“You’ll meet us for … lunch tomorrow?” Ronan kissed him again, lighter, slower, making Adam’s chest feel like he was floating.

“Mm-hmm. What time?”

“Dunno yet. I’ll text you.”

“You sound like you’re saying goodbye.”

“Adam, I just … I really really don’t want to fuck this up,” Ronan dropped his head against Adam’s shoulder. “If you want to go slow then I can go slow.”

“Okay, I know, I know that’s what I asked for,” Adam sighed, partly just to say it out loud and remind himself about it.

Ronan kissed his hair and then backed up, which made Adam do the same. Adam followed him to the door and hugged him tightly after he’d put his jacket on. Adam reached up slightly for another quick, breathless kiss, and then let go.

“Thanks for my present,” Ronan smiled faintly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“See you.”

Chapter Text

If there was one thing Adam felt fairly expert at, it was compartmentalizing. At various times during his life, his sanity and safety had depended on it. That Sunday morning, he'd decided he needed to take some time and let himself decompress some more about his date the night before. Then he was going to put those thoughts away in a little box for several hours and get his work done at the library.

That was how Adam found himself sitting cross-legged in the middle of his living room floor, his head and heart so full of Ronan Lynch that he could do little else. He could already hear Ronan accusing him of overthinking again, but honestly, as Adam had tried to say in his own defense - this was how he worked. Plants needed water, people needed oxygen, whatever. Adam Parrish needed to think.

He had this shifty and wobbly feeling that his life was changing in a major way, maybe whether or not he was staying aware of it changing. And he didn't necessarily trust that unsteadiness. He liked to see where he was going at all times. A security measure.

Adam’s first date with Ronan (and yes he certainly was starting at 1, counting from the present; that felt oddly important) had been so serene and sweet and … and good.

He wanted to give himself enough credit for understanding and knowing what he wanted, and asking for it. He had asked Ronan out because it felt like the only actually walkable path forward, the safest way to find out whether they had both grown and evolved enough to come together and create something new, something stronger this time.

Of course some part of him, the cynical part that had been burned before, was the tiny voice reminding him to just wait, that it’d just be a matter of time. That Adam was fooling himself into thinking that Ronan was not still, deep down, full of a certain self-destructive instinct that might still torpedo anything good from his life, because Ronan would think he didn’t deserve it, or just wouldn’t understand how to process it.

It didn’t have to be Ronan’s fault, perhaps, that he might be still like that, or ever had been, for Adam to still be scared of the potential consequences anyway.

The cynical, careful part of him was crouched in a defensive, battle-ready stance, just waiting for the first sign of trouble, the first alert that Ronan was up to his old patterns. This was an internal security measure.

And that was okay. That was valid. Adam recognized it in himself and understood why. It had a certain precedent. He could observe it and name it and respect it, and not let it influence every new decision.

That cynical part of him had not been betting on hours of honestly vulnerable and real conversation with Ronan about them and their genuine everyday lives and the things Ronan hoped Opal would get to see someday. That cynical part had expected this date to be a mess in one way or another, for Ronan to say something awful. It had been warning Adam, in a bitter way, that all he had to do was set Ronan up - suggest that they try slow and small steps like simple dates, for example - and that Ronan would knock everything down. Consciously or otherwise.

Adam hadn’t been able to fight Ronan’s demons for him, when they were teenagers. And he certainly couldn’t now, if they were still lurking, if Ronan hadn’t done enough work to deal with them. If that were the case, they'd crash and burn again, sure as shit. But just at that particular moment, sitting on his floor and trying to calm his giddy heart and his flushed skin and still occasionally spiking pulse, even hours later, even into the next fucking morning, he actually suspected that he'd only just cracked the surface of the kind of work Ronan had been privately up to in the last five years. And he wanted to learn it all. All of it. Ronan was someone Adam still had so much to learn about. It gave him an embarrassing thrill. And he wanted. So powerfully.

Adam’s work to dispatch his own demons was already plenty to handle for one person, and that slow, sometimes scary work had taken him years. He’d probably be on that path for good. That was okay. He knew that. He accepted that.

But maybe the cynical part of him could kind of just ... shut up, for a minute. Take five.

After the tenth or twelfth or fifteenth time Ronan had asked him another question, one after another after another, like he couldn't stop, like this was what he'd wanted all along, really, this? Alone time to sit and ask questions over milkshakes of all things, and watch Adam's face so raptly as Adam considered and laughed and tried his best to answer all of it?

Adam covered his face with both his hands, laughing with a startling kind of disbelief and amazement.

Adam's survival instinct had always been a necessarily strong one, so he'd spent some time in silence trying to listen to it, to consider what it had to say, like listening to the trees in Cabeswater. And right now it sounded like a cautious, quiet hope. It sounded like permission to take at least one hand off the edge of the pool, into the deep end.

 


 

By the time Adam arrived at Leopold’s Cafe for lunch, Gansey was already deep into some kind of story about a professor of his who’d taken him on as an undergraduate research fellow. Ronan was tapping his finger against his water glass, nodding and glancing around. Adam could hear Gansey’s every enthusiastic word from the front door of the cafe, and for the life of him he could not quite get why Gansey would be going on and on about something like this to Ronan.

It wasn’t the first time within the last couple of years that Adam had privately been of the opinion that Gansey could really use some reflection time of his own, maybe to consider why he was so often talking so endlessly to other people about things that were really only of interest to him.

Adam cringed at himself. Was his date with Ronan the thing that was making him start to size up everyone else in his life in comparison and whether they’d made as much thoughtful progress and growth in their lives as Ronan Lynch had?

Jesus, he was having a judgey day so far.

Ronan spotted Adam first, and Adam could see him biting his lip against a slow, sexy little grin when their gazes met. Adam felt so much better already.

“Hey,” Adam approached quickly, claiming the chair next to Gansey, so he could have an excuse for Ronan to be across from him, in his direct line of view.

“Adam! How’s the library today?”

“Pretty quiet, thankfully,” Adam settled in, raking his hair back self-consciously and hoping it didn’t look too much like … like he’d spent all morning buried in textbooks and notes. “Except for the tortilla chip eating dude. I hate that guy. He never leaves.”

“Does he really think he’s getting away with it,” Gansey shook his head somberly. “Oh, here’s our waiter, let’s order. I’m starving.”

“Parrish hasn’t even seen a fucking menu.”

“It’s okay, I always get the same thing here,” Adam let himself glance over at Ronan, who only looked back for a second, then avoided eye contact entirely.

They ordered lunch, and Gansey plunged back into his story. Adam’s attention was quickly becoming more focused on Ronan’s every movement or expression, in what was probably becoming a borderline obsessive way, and he realized that maybe he would’ve been safer sitting on the other side after all.

No, then he would’ve spent the whole time wondering how many times he could slide his knee against Ronan’s under the table without Gansey noticing.

For a while Ronan had his chin in his hand, leaning on his elbow, and Adam gazed at the glaringly new leather band slung so obviously over the others, the little Georgetown logo peeking out from the side.

It had been a selfish present. Adam had felt an inappropriately possessive thrill at the idea of Ronan wearing something with Adam’s school logo. So people would have to ask him what it was, and he could say oh, you know, Georgetown Law, where my boyfriend goes?

Adam rubbed his eyes and tried to adjust back to the conversation at hand, to the barely-touched lunch in front of him.

Christ. Boyfriend. That was maybe a little-

“Adam, you're quiet. How are you? Lately?” Gansey interrupted his internal argument, gesturing with a forkful of potato salad.

“I'm good, actually. Really good.”

“That's excellent to hear. You look well.”

“Um. Thanks?”

Ronan snickered but kept his gaze focused on the table in front of him.

“I'm glad to see you looking so bright-eyed lately. More rested, maybe? Anyway,” Gansey's mouth twisted pensively before apparently forcing himself into a different line of conversation. “You're still coming along for Opal's birthday, right? It's next – oh, wait, the week after next.”

“Mm-hmm,” Adam nodded. “Oh that reminds me, Lynch. You have internet out at the Barns, now, right?”

“Yes, we have wifi, you don't have to go without for a whole two days.”

“I don't mean for me, I mean for Opal's present. It needs internet access.”

“Okay, that sounds predictably nerdy. You'd better not be paying much of your actual money for whatever this is.”

“Oh, don't worry, I traded in a whole pack of food stamps.”

“All right, well either way, I'm looking forward to spending a weekend back home. Ronan, what can we do to help with the party?” Gansey cut in loudly, steering them habitually away from any possible fighting.

Adam saw Ronan frowning down at his fork and taking a pensive little pause before he answered. Was that about Gansey’s classic intervention? Or was it Adam’s defensive and really not funny joke at the first hint of opinions about what Adam should or should not be paying for?

God, that was an old reflex. That was something Adam would’ve said at dinner at Nino’s or some shit. It had been a preemptive kick, and now he kind of wished he could take it back.

The three of them sitting there together so companionably again, even with – hell, because of Gansey playing referee – it gave Adam kind of an unpleasant hint of nostalgia. He could almost see Ronan's aggressively mangled Aglionby uniform if he let his eyes unfocus for a second.

It was an uncomfortable mental image; he missed Ronan, yes, of course, but he didn’t like thinking about going backwards like that. Imagining Ronan in an Aglionby uniform again just felt cruel, not like a cute memory. Aglionby had suffocated the spirit right out of Ronan, and his teenage years had been strangled by grief.

Hometown and high school nostalgia was not a thing that Adam was interested in at all, actually. For instance, he did not need to share Gansey's warm feelings for Henrietta, despite its charm or its peaceful stillness or whatever. Adam had to keep a neutral face when Gansey sounded thrilled about spending a weekend “back home.” Like that concept would be so fucking great for Adam Parrish.

Adam chose to focus on the present. The future. His past had been kind of a grim showcase of trauma, but he took a private kind of pride in the time and effort he’d spent on himself since then, on making himself stronger and safer. That included college, reading, internship work, therapy, and all of his lessons from Persephone that had turned out to be so useful beyond just the magical applications. And yes, even a long-term relationship that had since ended, but it had been solid and real for a long time, and had helped him grow. Grace had taught him so much about communication and partnership.

The reason he’d really slid into this renewed attraction to Ronan was because of the time they’d been spending together now, getting to know each other now, as different people who had grown and changed. People who could actually talk to each other about shit that mattered sometimes, or just - God, just express their honest feelings about anything at all. That had been an uphill battle at eighteen. For both of them.

He just - he didn't really want the old thing back. The old thing had wrecked him, both of them. He wanted something new and better. Something more suited to both of them, the new places they found themselves in now, the more evolved people they both were now.

He wanted to know whether he and Ronan were getting together now, instead of just getting back together. It felt like a crucial difference.

Adam really needed to figure out a good time to broach this with Ronan soon. When he could write it down, or something, maybe. Sort it out better.

Also, he really had to start paying attention to this fucking conversation. It was going on around him without any participation from him, and he was just sitting there staring at Ronan and tearing at the crust of his club sandwich.

When Gansey excused himself and headed to the restroom in the corner, Ronan looked over at Adam more steadily and openly. He slid his hand over to Adam's, twining their fingers together. Adam lit up instantly.

“He was right, you - you look so happy. You're fucking gorgeous,” Ronan whispered, and Adam felt a swirl of warmth unfolding in his chest, up the sides of his neck. He let it coax him out of his introspective funk and deposit him firmly back in the present.

“I – um. Well, you know. I had this … date last night,” he laughed a little. “I'm still kind of distracted about it.”

“Is that a good thing?”

Yes, Ronan. Jesus."

"Then why are you all spaced the fuck out and not eating anything."

"Because I, uh ... I have some stuff to overthink and could not care less about what Gansey's professors think of him and his brilliant research ideas right now?"

"Oh. Okay. So same as me except that overthinking bullshit, that's your deal. Also you are cheating by sitting over there where he's not fucking looking."

Adam tried to stifle a laugh by shoving his tongue against his cheek and teeth, but it still came out in an unattractive little snort.

"What'd he say when you got in so late?" Adam dug into his sandwich after Ronan let go of him. He had to have something to do with his hands.

Ronan sighed, his eyes shifting around like he was considering several ways to answer this. Adam raised an eyebrow.

"He asked me where we went after the movie. I told him. He asked what we were talking about all that time."

"God. Honestly," Adam shot a glance at the restroom door; still no sign of their best friend. "I feel like they're both on red alert about potential drama again. I guess I shouldn't blame them."

"I know we said we wouldn't tell them yet, and I didn't, not really. I just ... I dunno, I kinda hinted to him we had shit to work through."

"Not a lie," Adam looked at his sandwich, put it back down on the plate.

"I know, Adam."

"Has he, um ... has he noticed this yet?" Adam pulled at Ronan's new wristband.

“Doubt it. Or else he would've said something.”

“Mm.”

“Hey, do you think you can find me one of these with the Harvard logo, too?”

Adam blinked at Ronan questioningly, in surprise, then grinned again, slow and crooked as it washed over him, a flush creeping up his neck. He didn't really have time to emotionally deal with that, let alone answer it, because now Gansey was emerging from the restroom door.

“Talk to me about something,” Adam said softly. “So he won't think I was just sitting here staring at you the whole time. Tell me what you thought of the movie.”

“The movie? Jesus, I dunno, I didn't get what was happening half the time. It bugs me that they wear those those stupid costumes. Like, am I supposed to think that an actual cape looks badass or something? Half the people in that theater basically came in their pants when they saw him jump out with that cape flying around. I don't get the costumes, they look like cartoons.”

“That's just a comic book thing. Superheroes always have to have a secret identity.”

“But why, though? Why can't they just fuck up the bad guy? Why do they have to wear a mask or whatever?”

“God. I just realized … You don't like it because you think they're lying.”

“Well. I mean … they are, kinda. It's not just that I think they are.”

“Oh, there’s always a whole thing about how they want to protect their loved ones from villains or like ... You never read comics at all? Not even when you were a kid? Why do I not know this about you?”

“Not really my thing. Matthew loves 'em, though.”

"Well next time I'll take Matthew, then," Adam couldn't help the fucking flirty way he had just smirked about that. There was something seriously wrong with him, God, he felt like he was high.

Ronan chewed on his bottom lip and stared right back.

Gansey had returned and was glancing between them, perhaps being observant about the admittedly obvious vibe, about Adam's traitorous blush, or perhaps just getting caught up on conversation.

“Oh, yes, how was the movie,” Gansey reached for his water glass.

“I thought it was fine. Ronan hated it.”

“I didn't say that,” Ronan's eyes narrowed, but his mouth was doing something close to a sharp smile.

“Okay, sorry. Ronan made fun of it a lot.”

“Well. If you're in the habit of catching movies when you're in town, there's this documentary we should see sometime soon, it's getting all kinds of acclaim. What's it called, Adam? The thing about human trafficking in West Virginia?”

“Um. Not For Sale? Something like that?”

“Sounds uplifting,” Ronan tossed his crumpled napkin onto his empty plate and fixed Adam with a pointed, not-very-subtle gaze, like he was trying to get his attention for something. “I should probably get going. Need to get on the road.”

“Of course. Thanks for staying for lunch. I'm supposed to be at the student union soon,” Gansey sighed, folding his own napkin neatly and smoothing it down on the table in front of him.

Adam was a little confused but trying not to make it too obvious. He stood up last, watching Ronan carefully, because there had been some kind of signal there and Adam still didn't get it.

They paid their separate bills at the register - this was one of the reasons Adam was a little less on edge about coming here - and then they were all out on the sidewalk.

"Where'd you park, Ronan?" Gansey squinted at the hazy early afternoon sky.

"Garage. By the library," Ronan flashed Adam another look, and ... oh.

"Cool, I'm going that way too, I'll walk with you," Adam tried very, very hard not to laugh, because they were so not pulling this off. It turned his mouth into another smirk instead which frankly was no better, maybe actually worse. Gansey was glancing quickly between them again.

"So I'll see you for lunch soon, Adam? And you in a couple of weeks, Ronan."

"Yeah," Ronan took a step backward, only occasionally glancing at Gansey even though he was directly talking to him. His attention still came back to Adam as a default. "Call me later and tell me when you guys are gonna head down for Opal's thing."

"Bye, Gans," Adam bit the inside of his cheek, hard, and waved.

After they crossed the street and Gansey disappeared around a building, Ronan's fingers slid over the inside of Adam's wrist, over his palm, and then he clutched at Adam's hand as they ducked into the entrance of the parking garage. Adam clung tightly and gratefully, jogging up a flight of concrete stairs and spotting the BMW parked by itself on the far end of that level.

There were so many things he should say – Okay clearly Gansey can tell, right? Do you even want to hide it from Gansey anymore? Should we hide it from them anymore? Are you as terrified as I am right now? – but Ronan was leaving soon, and Adam's chest hurt. He didn't want to start asking questions like that, not when he only had a few minutes left.

When they got to the car, Adam stared at it with a mixture of anxiousness and longing. He suddenly resented all of the reading and writing he had waiting for him before classes kicked back up on Monday. He allowed himself a daydream of simply climbing into the BMW instead of going back to the library. Drive me somewhere. I don't care where. Just please don't leave yet.

Adam tried to summon up some resolve; he was just standing there, staring forlornly at the car, and he needed to snap out of it.

Before he could manage to say goodbye, though, Ronan seized his arm and turned him around and pressed him up against the driver's side door, kissing him in a desperate and demanding way that made Adam suck in a loud breath and claw at Ronan's back, yanking him even closer, so his weight was leaning fully into Adam's.

There was something different about this kiss, something more. Something that revealed Ronan's real and actual need behind the distant, polite dating veneer Adam had warily imposed upon them both. It was achingly sexy, knowing Ronan really wanted him like that, knowing it so immediately, and Adam's heart raced like he'd been running at full speed.

Ronan's mouth was hot and insistent, his hands sliding down over Adam's hips. Adam had fistfuls of Ronan's jacket as he let his head fall back against the cold metal frame of the car. Ronan's lips and tongue drifted to the side of his neck, and he swallowed a groan.

Distantly he knew he was sinking back into Ronan's touch a little too easily, as if those five years apart hadn't even existed. But more presently and immediately, he found he did not care.

He reached up to run his fingers over Ronan's short, rough hair, and pulled his head back up, brought his mouth back insistently. Ronan's kiss was obligingly intense and Adam's vision popped into glowing bursts behind his eyelids.

They heard a creak and a slam from somewhere. Ronan eased up a bit and then he let go of Adam completely as footsteps clapped loudly up the steps from the street entrance.

Adam felt the loss physically, painfully. His irritated noise drew Ronan's attention back with an amused but very shaky little smile. He could see Ronan's chest rising rapidly, his arms folded tightly across his chest.

The intruder kept going up the stairs to the next level. When Adam realized this, he grabbed Ronan's elbow, and eased him close again. Ronan sighed heavily, wrapping his arms around Adam and holding him tightly.

“Fuck, Adam, I'm sorry, I – I shouldn't have – you were just kind of driving me crazy in there, I -"

"Shh, stop, it's okay, I wanted it too, or else I wouldn't have followed you here."

"I just kept thinking about it being two weeks and I lost my shit a little. Plus you just - you are so fucking gorgeous, oh my God. Sorry.”

“Ronan," Adam laughed in a rush, his forehead tucked against Ronan's shoulder. "Stop apologizing. I get it, believe me. I know it's only two hours away but that still doesn't mean it'll be easy."

“I know, I know. Long distance sucks. You don't have to keep saying it when you’re on the phone with me, you know? It’s still not going to freak me out or make me change my fucking mind.”

“I, um,” he stammered, and took a second to let that sink in. He hadn’t realized he’d been saying it a lot. Internal security measures again. “Will you call me tonight? If you have time?”

“Yeah. If you want.”

“Why the hell else do you think I'm asking you to,” Adam laughed, but it was a sad, almost hysterical little burst.

“Okay, fine. Go on, magician, you've got papers to write,” Ronan kissed his cheek and his jaw, caught his earlobe in his teeth, and Adam gasped. “Ask me out again sometime.”

Adam pulled his hands away from Ronan's shoulders and arms, taking his time to remember the lines with his fingertips. And then he forced himself away from Ronan, from the car, from the magnetic pull of all of it.

“You want me to drop you off over in front of the library?” Ronan asked when the window slid down.

“God, no, don't let me get in that car right now,” Adam shook his head, wrapping his arms around himself. “I won't get back out.”

“Shotgun's still yours,” Ronan's smirk was sharp and hot and deadly. “See you later.”

Chapter Text

Adam’s textbook was open across his lap, his legs stretched across the back seat of the Pig, and he was feeling the inevitable onset of dread that always happened when he came anywhere near Henrietta.

They weren’t stopping in town, thankfully; they were going straight to the Barns for Opal’s birthday. But still, like any of his anxiety symptoms, the physiological response didn’t really give a shit about the details of whether they’d stop or not. It was still going to rage through his stomach anyway and make embarrassing churning noises.

Luckily the goddamn Pig was so loud that he was pretty sure no one else heard his uneasy gut rumblings back there.

His need to use these two hours for studying was fairly critical since he wouldn’t be back until Sunday afternoon. He really was putting in a valiant effort. But there was kind of a lot to distract him at the moment. Maybe he wasn’t such a compartmentalizing expert after all.

Ronan had been busy finishing up Opal’s new … well, Ronan was calling it an “apartment.” And he’d been cleaning up the house and buying stuff for the birthday party. He’d also been packing and shipping a few of his pieces to buyers from the D.C. galleries who’d seen the recent displays.

And Adam was of course still (always) buried with studying and reading and work, like ... it was almost getting worse at this point in the semester, if that were even possible, so they hadn’t talked as much as Adam would’ve liked since their date weekend. Although they’d definitely been on the phone way too long the night before, Adam listening to Ronan freak out about how now he had to suddenly produce new artwork on demand by certain deadlines, and now he was afraid he was just making shit to sell it, and why the hell had Opal made that stupid website in the first place.

It was an old axiom with their crew that Ronan Lynch hated phones. But it turned out that if you were a guy Ronan was dating, a guy who lived two hours away, and if Ronan still apparently needed to ask you incessant and sometimes weirdly demanding questions, then Ronan would certainly deal with the phone well enough for you.

Adam had just sat through two very difficult exams on Thursday and had another mid-term to prepare for Monday morning. But he was about to spend his weekend in a place that felt light years from law school. Cabeswater. Ley lines. The Barns. There was a lot he’d missed terribly. But it was also impossible to separate the good from the bad, sometimes.

Taking steps forward and safely away from Glendower, buried tombs, corpse roads, time loops, reanimated skeletons, nightmare trees – that had been part of his own personal recovery.

But it was all seeping back out of its assigned mental storage locker, though, slowly and steadily.

After every paragraph of his reading, he’d pause again and listen for Cabeswater in his mind, in his heartbeat. Once he’d let the desire back in, he couldn’t stop the constant checking and longing for any hint of the old magic.

Cabeswater? Are you there? Do you recognize me?

Gansey and Blue had been fairly quiet and calm, but when Adam suddenly snapped his book shut, he could see them both glancing back to check on him. Blue over her shoulder and Gansey in the rear view.

“Talk to me, Adam,” Blue turned around and hugged the headrest behind her. “You look stressed.”

“He is in law school, Jane!” Gansey sang out instantly, parroting the stock response Adam usually provided whenever Gansey was moping about not seeing Adam often enough.

Adam couldn’t help a laugh at this – hearing his own words trotted out for this purpose. Maybe they’d finally sunk in with Gansey after all?

“No, it’s more than that now, I can tell,” Blue shook her head insistently. “Are you sure you and Ronan aren’t fighting again? You look like you’re dreading this.”

“I suppose that would be a safe enough guess most of the time,” Adam picked at the worn, fraying corner of his secondhand textbook.

“So that’s a yes to the fighting.”

“No, actually, for once it’s not. I’m not dreading this in, um … in that particular way. I promise. I’m just – I dunno. Stressed.”

“Uh-huh,” Blue lifted an eyebrow. “About what.”

“All the usual shit. School, rent, work, you know. Exam on Monday. It’s hard to leave that stuff behind. But today there’s … you know, everything we’re going back to. Cabeswater. Aren’t you anxious about it, too?”

“Yeah, actually. A lot. I can’t really stop thinking about it.”

“Me either.”

“Can you, like … feel it? Cabeswater? Since we’re getting closer?”

“No. I’m not going to be connected like I was before,” Adam asserted much more confidently than he actually felt.

“You don’t know that,” Gansey glanced at him in the mirror again. “Ronan created this one much more carefully and deliberately, we don’t know the new rules yet.”

“Mm,” Adam pressed his lips together, again trying not to let the hope run away with him.

Blue was watching him with narrowed eyes, her gaze focused somewhere below his face – his hand, he realized. He was doing it again. Spreading his palm over his left side, like it was some kind of talisman.

“Do you think Ronan would’ve tried to build that in somehow, fundamentally? You? Us?” Blue blinked back up at him.

“I know he did. He told me he did. Because he thinks that’s how it’s supposed to be. The four of us.”

“And you don’t?”

“I dunno. I’m not saying that. I just – I wish he’d told us about it way back when he was sort of redeveloping it in his head. But then again I wasn’t really talking to him at all back then.”

"But you are now.”

"Yeah,” Adam’s eyes jumped away guiltily.

"Adam. What is going on,” Blue reached back to poke at his shoulder.

"What’s going on is studying,” he focused on opening his book again to the page he’d folded, newly motivated by the need to avoid exactly this conversation with Blue Sargent.

“I’m serious! It’s not nothing.”

“We, um … We’re figuring out where we belong in each other’s lives,” Adam sighed, searching for a diplomatic way to push the issue away, kind of like Ronan had with Gansey. Adam pressed anxiously at a crease in his textbook page, trying to flatten it back out with his index finger.

“So how does the whole movie date thing fit into your little plan?” Blue raised an eyebrow.

“God. Thanks for that, Gansey.”

“I did not say they were on a date,” Gansey protested, but Blue waved a dismissive hand in his direction.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” she turned and sat back down in her seat, and Adam could see Gansey’s shoulders relax when she was settled again. “You know I’ll get it out of Ronan.”

 


 

When they finally rounded the last corner and slowed down onto the long gravel driveway, Adam gazed out at the view and let it welcome him back there in a soothing sort of peace this time. The Barns were such a nice bubble away from Henrietta. For a few moments, his anxieties were forgotten, and his mind was all on the cozy, eclectic buildings, rolling fields, and fruit trees blossoming riotously all around them.

Blue glanced back at him with a knowing smile as they came to a stop behind Ronan’s car.

Two other cars were already in the driveway on the other side, and Blue pointed out that one of them was her mother’s.

The porch was full of balloons, gold and silver with glossy, mirrored sides, in the shape of stars. Adam ran a hand over the trailing ribbons anchoring them to the railing as he climbed the steps, slowing down to drag out the anticipation just a few moments longer. Blue and Gansey were in front of him, holding presents and knocking on the door.

“You came!” Opal greeted them gleefully from the doorway and hugged them all in turn. Adam of course lifted her up until she laughed and shrieked a little.

Buon compleanno,” he smiled as he set her down again.

Grazie! That was good pronunciation.”

“Thanks. That’s all I learned so far. For the occasion.”

“Come on in, everyone’s in the living room right now.”

Opal began fielding questions from Blue as they all made their way through the house. Adam trailed behind again, wishing he could spot Ronan somewhere, catch his eye, let him notice the way Adam was hanging back, how easy it would be to pull him aside for a second without the others noticing. He already felt so needy about it, wanting reassurance.

He hovered in the doorway, searching the various faces in the living room. Maura, Dean, Calla, even Declan – that explained the sleek, unfamiliar car outside – but not the one he so desperately wanted to see.

Opal, where’s Ronan, he wanted to ask while she still stood somewhat near him, because he needed to know, and because the phrase felt so familiar, another reflex. He’d probably uttered those very words a dozen times during his senior year of Aglionby. She could probably see it unspoken there on his face as she glanced back over her shoulder like she was checking for him.

“He’s downstairs,” Opal whispered, pointing toward the floor.

Adam nodded. The cellar – it would make sense, if he had to bring up food or something else for the party.

He wanted to say that he was above sneaking down there right now to maybe take advantage of a minute of stolen alone time, but … it had been two long fucking weeks, and he was not. He was not above it at all, actually.

The slanted little three-quarter-size door to the cellar still made him feel like he was in a hobbit house. He wrestled with the stupid loose doorknob and started down the still-unfinished wooden stairs. It was fairly dark, the only light source coming from a bare bulb down at the bottom.

Ronan was leaning over the chest freezer, rummaging around for something. Surely he’d heard Adam’s footsteps by now.

"How have you not fixed that door yet,” he hesitated, suddenly nervous to approach.

“Doesn’t like to be fixed. It just unfixes itself, it’s a whole stupid thing,” Ronan had hauled out a big bag of ice, holding it in front of him, but when he gazed up at Adam - and more importantly behind Adam, apparently realizing he’d come down there alone - he set it back down on the floor by his feet and took a step forward.

Adam took this as his sign and descended the rest of the stairs, climbed gingerly over a big wooden crate blocking his way, and reached up to wind his arms around Ronan’s neck.

He jumped and shivered when Ronan hugged him back.

“Jesus, God, you’re freezing,” Adam complained, shrinking back again.

“I swear you could be standing in the pits of Hell and still fucking shivering. I do not know how you ever survived Boston,” Ronan muttered, ran his palms quickly up and down Adam’s arms. “Maybe don’t hug someone who’s just been hugging a giant block of ice, genius.”

"Yeah, thanks, noted. What do you need me to carry upstairs?”

“Uh. Case of soda in the other fridge. Would save me another trip.”

"Okay,” Adam had to be satisfied with touching the front of Ronan’s outrageously tissue-thin long-sleeved white shirt. “Ronan, I, um …”

"What.”

"Blue is really up my ass about what’s going on with us. Do you think I should tell her?”

"Adam,” Ronan fixed him with an unimpressed stare. “Come on. She fucking knows. She’s just trying to get you to admit it out loud so she doesn’t have to pretend she doesn’t know. I mean personally I think it would be fun to see how long she can go without, you know, blurting it out and yelling at everyone about it, that’s always hilarious. But fine, put her out of her misery if you want, I don’t care. You’re the one always worrying about how they’ll react.”

"Well, yeah, I have a good reason for that. She’s the one who always coached me through trying to get over you. She’s gonna kick my ass for undoing all of her patient work.”

"Then don’t tell her, whatever,” Ronan reached back down for the ice again.

“She’s coming after you next.”

“Doesn’t matter. If Gansey knows, she knows.”

Adam was still standing there considering this, his brain insisting on providing exhibits A, B, and C demonstrating little bits of information that he definitely knew Blue and Gansey had kept from each other before, but Ronan was already halfway up the stairs again.

 


   

Upstairs in the kitchen, he spotted Calla pulling stacks of plastic plates and cups out of their packaging. He saw an opportunity to be distracted with some kind of chore and gravitated toward it immediately.

“Hi. Can I help?”

“Hey there. Sure,” Calla nodded at him, looking him over analytically. “Open up those spoons and forks for me."

“Should’ve known you’d be working somewhere,” Maura's voice startled him from behind.

“Hey,” Adam smiled, yanking open the seal on a box of disposable flatware and then presenting himself to be hugged by Maura. Calla came in for a hug, too, her palms resting on the outsides of his arms, and then she glanced up at his face sharply, her brows raised a little.

Adam realized his mistake too late. Calla’s trick with touch.

“Well,” Calla folded her arms. “Settling right back in, are we?”

“Like a broken record, you mean,” Adam muttered, taking her glass from her and filling it with ice from the bucket on the counter.

“Do we need to discuss-”

“No. Definitely not.”

“Blue says you’re all coming over later.”

“Not to talk about-” Adam broke off as he saw Gansey and Ronan enter, each holding two giant bags of chips. Ronan’s gaze snapped straight to him and Calla, and Adam was too flustered to finish his sentence.

“Okay, got it. Damn,” Calla looked at him witheringly. “Calm down and give me one of those root beers.”

“Here you go,” Adam complied, happy to be given a simple task, to move on from the embarrassment. He grabbed himself a soda, too, and busied himself with opening it. Maura's attentive eyes flicked between Adam and Ronan and Gansey, and then she left them alone in the kitchen.

“What else can we do to help,” Gansey came to the rescue, his voice bright and sincere.

“Nothing, I got this," Ronan spun away abruptly, turning back to the bag of ice he’d deposited on the counter. “Go fucking socialize or whatever. Relax. Talk to Opal.”

Ronan began assaulting the plastic bag with a large screwdriver he'd grabbed from a kitchen junk drawer, breaking up the ice into smaller chunks, and the ungodly noise forced them to do what he'd asked. Adam shrugged at Gansey and took his elbow, leading him wordlessly into the next room.

Adam settled on a chair in the corner, listening to the smatterings of conversation around him, smiling occasionally and answering polite questions about Georgetown and D.C.; Opal was busy catching up with Declan.

As lunch preparations continued, Adam was assigned to the grill. He had no real idea what he was doing, but he tended to it faithfully and enthusiastically anyway, embracing the chance to keep busy.

Without the need to make conversation, though, his mind drifted to Cabeswater again, his heart speeding up every time the name flickered through his thoughts. Cabeswater. Would he even recognize it? Had Ronan dreamt it to look different? To feel and sound and smell different? Or would it feel something like … like going home again?

Who was he, really, to say anything about that. He supposed the Barns were the closest thing he could have to that, but still only now, really. Only after he’d tentatively reconciled with Ronan could he feel like he was more comfortable there again.

“Are those burgers done yet?” Blue hurried over toward him, an empty plastic platter in her hands. “They can go on this, okay?”

He fulfilled his task, setting the platter onto a long metal table draped with a plastic tablecloth decorated with stars. It was just barely warm enough outside to get away with eating in the yard instead of in the kitchen.

When Adam took the empty packaging and plastic wrap around to the side of the house to the trash, he blinked in surprise as he saw Chainsaw perched there on the lid of the rolling container, watching him alertly with a quick tilt of her head, blocking his path.

“Just make her move,” Ronan’s voice floated from behind him. Adam hadn’t noticed him approaching with a flattened-out cardboard box. “You know how to handle her.”

“I don’t think she knows me anymore,” Adam crumpled the plastic in his hand, hovering there to assess the raven from a careful distance.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Ronan shoved the cardboard into a packed blue recycling bin and rolled his eyes at Adam.

“What? She didn’t come anywhere near me at Christmas.”

Ronan sighed and turned to sort of nod at Chainsaw, who’d still been eyeing Adam from several different angles, one after another. It looked like Ronan was giving in to something, granting permission with a little gesture.

“Yeah, fine, go on, it’s really him,” Ronan addressed the bird aloud in a mutter, and she hopped, paused, and then flapped over to Adam’s arm and up to his shoulder, her talons gripping him in a few different places as she got settled.

Ronan took the trash out of his hands and threw it away for him, since Adam was now somewhat occupied.

“Hey. You do remember me,” Adam brushed a tentative knuckle over the feathers at her chest, relief and warmth flooding through him at the familiar sensation of it.

Ronan’s eyes scalded him with a look that said I told you so. Then his expression gentled slightly, as he seemed to process the fact that they were alone again, another stolen minute, and ran a cautious hand over Adam’s hair and cheek and the shoulder that was currently unoccupied.

“You okay?” Ronan’s fingers eventually came to rest at his wrist.

“Yeah, I - I’m good. Are you? You haven’t even sat down for five minutes.”

“I’m fine. You’re here. I’m fine.”

They heard voices approaching, more trash bags rustling. Ronan let go of him and disappeared around the corner.

After that, Chainsaw stuck close by Adam for an hour or so, perched directly on his shoulder or arm, or on the back of his lawn chair. He was glad for that bit of company, if he couldn’t have Ronan close to him. Chainsaw was at least a reminder of him.

He almost missed Ronan more there at the Barns, six feet away across the yard and perfectly within range, than he had when he was two hours away at Georgetown.

They still needed to keep things quiet, in his opinion, but maybe not just for Blue and Gansey. Maybe just for their own sake, if they had any fucking chance of making this happen together. He was afraid that if it were suddenly public information, everyone would wince and look at them with worry and disapproval and say are you really sure this is a good idea.

So he felt compelled to safeguard this little space that they’d sort of hesitantly carved around themselves, to reconnect and learn each other on their own terms, on their own timeline. It was fragile but sweet, and he already felt fiercely protective of it.

That was really why it made sense to keep it under wraps for a while, keep it to themselves until either of them could feel a little more confidence about it. He had to remind himself of that, of all the reasons why. Because he kind of wanted to go over there right now and slide his arms around Ronan's waist to distract him and calm him down, to make him quit fidgeting so damn much. The party was great, and Ronan needed to stop worrying and actually enjoy some of it himself.

“Do you want me to take her so you can eat?” Opal came over to sit beside him, her eyes on Chainsaw.

“Oh, she’s fine.” Adam glanced up at the back of his chair. “She’s not in the way or anything.”

“Okay. She can be clingy sometimes.”

“I remember.”

“Are you doing all right? Blue said you have an exam on Monday morning?”

“Yeah,” Adam grimaced, balancing his fork on his plate. He’d just devoured a good helping of buttery glazed carrots and lima beans. “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry. I’ll study on the way back tomorrow. I wanted to be here for your birthday.”

“I’m glad you could come with Blue and Gansey. I’m so glad you’re all spending time together when you can. I know Ronan has missed that.”

“So have I,” Adam’s glance strayed briefly to Declan, who’d just burst out from the house and was talking loudly to Gansey behind him.

“Are you worried about the … the forest,” Opal’s voice got quieter, her eyes also flickering over to Declan.

“It’s not worry, exactly. I trust Ronan and whatever he's done with it.”

“You still seem anxious, though?”

“I guess I just … I’m still not great with surprises.”

Opal smiled in a kind and sympathetic and understanding way that seemed more suited for someone fifty years older.

Before they could continue the conversation, though, Blue pushed the door open and exclaimed something about it being time for birthday cake, and Ronan came out behind her holding a white sheet cake still in a bakery box. The gold and silver star theme was repeated there in shiny icing. Blue helped him clear a space near the food so they could set it down.

“I don’t know why cake has to be such a thing at birthdays,” Opal whispered in his ear. “I really hate cake.”

“Grace used to say – my ex-girlfriend, I mean,” Adam stumbled over the explanation; her name had just popped out without warning. “That birthday parties were really for other people. Just like weddings. And funerals. She said birthdays were kind of an obligation to show the people who love you that you’re happy and they're doing a good job of making you feel special.”

“She sounds smart.”

“Smartest person I’ve ever met,” he shrugged a little, because it was incontrovertible fact. “Aside from you, of course. You’d better blow out those candles, kiddo.”

Opal smiled at him again and lifted her arm, pointing out a thin watch fastened on her wrist, too big for her. It had teeth marks, and Adam knew it didn’t work anymore, despite having tried to change the battery. Five - almost six years ago now. His eyes were wide.

He couldn’t believe she still had that old watch of his. That it hadn't fallen apart. They’d traded it back and forth for months, but in the end it had wound up with her, when Adam had left for college. He’d dropped it into the mailbox because he hadn’t been able to face Ronan at the time, and Ronan wouldn’t have allowed him to see her anyway.

He was stunned, but still somehow nervously laughing, because he didn't know how else to respond. The corners of his eyes begin to sting. He was honestly surprised Ronan had given it to her at all. He’d never really had a good way of knowing for sure.

After cake it was time for presents, naturally. Maura directed them to bring their chairs around the larger table, in a circle, and Opal unwrapped paint sets and books and jewelry made of wire and sea glass that Blue had picked out from a design school show. There were candles and headphones and a pretty ceramic swan made to look like delicate origami. Adam couldn’t believe how many things she was unwrapping when it didn’t seem like there could possibly be that many people in attendance.

Adam’s “present” was a piece of copy paper folded inside a birthday card he’d picked up at the CVS. The card wasn’t much, but the present itself – a year’s subscription to an online learning database he remembered using at Harvard – had set him back a hundred bucks.

She read the printout with an explanation, login, and password, glancing up at him every few seconds, and then brought it over to Adam, her eyebrows pushed together slightly. She looked almost like she was in disbelief.

“Is this real?

“Of course it is. This is the website, and this is your password, but you’ll have to change it the first time you log in. They have a ton of self-paced online classes. You see this page here? This is an index of some of the classes you can try, if you want. I used it all the time for school. Had a student account in college.”

“Oh, hey, I’ve got an account there,” Blue had stood up to peek over Opal’s shoulder. “It’s great for learning software. Or just reminding yourself how to, like … do a specific thing in a specific program. Adam, that’s brilliant, I never would’ve thought of that.”

“I … it’s for a whole year?

“Yeah,” Adam laughed gently at her giant round eyes and ruffled her hair a little. “I’ll show it to you later, if you want.”

“Thank you,” she blinked quickly and leaned in to hug him. Adam kissed the top of her head and saw Ronan watching levelly from across their uneven circle of chairs.

He did not look happy.

Adam shifted around nervously, a little unsure whether he was just being paranoid about that.

When Opal was through with her presents, everyone began to glance at Ronan expectantly. There had been no gift from him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny little suede drawstring pouch, then tossed it to Opal with a grumbled happy birthday .

She pulled out a key. A plain silver thing, rounded at the top, no identifying marks. She raised an eyebrow.

“You want to see where it goes?” Ronan got up and nudged her arm.

“I know where it goes. That barn you’ve been working on all winter.”

“Yeah. Come on.”

There was a group expedition to the barn in question, a newer and more modern one compared to some of the other buildings nearby. Ronan made Opal unlock the door herself, and they walked into a small but fully-functioning and independent home. Electricity, plumbing, heat – it was all set up for her.

She turned in a circle at least three times, in complete disbelief, and Ronan had to explain it again, that this was all hers now, because the first time it didn’t seem to take.

It was all very open, the bedroom and bathroom walled off on one side but everything else in one big space with furniture for dividers. The long wall on one side was painted in an arresting blue ombre that looked like an underwater scene.

He would’ve expected a forest theme, but then again, she’d been wandering alone through a forest for her whole young … existence, hadn’t she? Maybe Ronan had wanted her to see something new.

There was even a small office on one end that Opal exclaimed over; apparently she’d been insisting that they needed such space for Ronan’s artwork website.

“And yes, you have internet out here, so you can nerd it up all you want with your online classes,” Ronan nodded at the laptop, cutting a sharp glance over at Adam, who had been running a hand over the spines of the books stacked on shelves along one wall. Travel books, photography and art books, and lots of dictionaries for different languages.

Adam couldn't tell whether Ronan was actually annoyed about Adam's choice of gift or if he was just ragging on all things scholastic just because it'd be expected of him. But there was certainly something eating at him about it.

Ronan had told him about this project extensively, about various details that he’d been working on, things that had been more difficult than expected, things he'd snuck in contractors to tend to while Opal was at Fox Way. It was all Ronan ever really wanted to talk about whenever Adam tried to turn the conversation away from himself and school and what kinds of law Adam wanted to practice and why.

So Adam had been given an extensive heads up about this. But it was so different seeing all of this in person, in all of its heartfelt glory. Every detail was deliberate and thoughtful and casually artistic, and it made Adam’s heart ache to think about how long Ronan had planned it out.

Adam had to physically restrain himself by holding books and utensils and random objects, to keep his hands away from Ronan. Watching him show Opal around her entire new apartment was honestly kind of unbearable.

It was strange how falling in love felt so literal in that moment, so physiological. Like, he really needed to sit down.

Somewhere else, where he was not being surrounded by a physical manifestation of Ronan’s capacity for attentive devotion and thoughtful care.

Adam’s stomach flipped and squeezed inside and he backed up quietly toward the door, finding his way back out so he could have a moment to compose himself.

Outside the barn, he nearly ran straight into Blue, who was on her phone and wrapping up a call. Adam ducked around her and leaned against the wall, which was the only solid object immediately available to help hold him up.

“Adam,” she leaned beside him, her shoulder pressed against his. “You look like you’re about to pass out.”

“Mm. I’m fine,” he mumbled, raking his hair off his forehead.

“Uh-huh. Look, don’t feel bad, Ronan’s impossible to compete with when it comes to presents. You know that. He can literally dream up the thing you want most while he’s napping on the couch. Don’t even try. Yours was good, though.”

Adam laughed, shaky and thin, still trying to catch his breath

“You going back in, or what?” Blue narrowed her eyes as she studied him.

“No. Not yet. God.”

“Okay. I can’t figure out why this would be messing with you so hard right now. You thinking about what it would’ve been like? To have someone look out for you like that? When you were that age?”

“Just because we’re calling this her birthday-”

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Technicality. Whatever, that’s not what I’m asking you.”

“Fine. No. That’s not it.”

“You want me to keep guessing?”

“Not really.”

“So it's a Ronan thing.”

“Blue, for fuck’s sake,” Adam’s teeth clenched in sudden irritation. “I will tell you when it feels like I have something to tell. Okay? I mean, shit, of course it's a Ronan thing, it's always a Ronan thing! I'm trying to spare you that, for once, so please just – just stop trying to pry it out before I’m ready.”

She watched him for a while, her eyebrows shifting around as she took this in, and crossed her arms in front of her.

“I would never ask you to spare me anything, not where your feelings are concerned. Why do you have to say it like that?”

“I just - haven’t you had enough of me doing this to you by now? For years?”

“I am your best friend. Telling me how you feel about things, what is bothering you or upsetting you or making you happy -  is not some kind of … of burden you’re putting on me. I am worried about you. Both of you. I’m not just being nosy for the sake of it, Adam!”

“You don’t do this to me, though. You don’t make me listen to you whine all the time about your emotional fucking problems, why is it okay that I dump mine on you?”

“Okay, you know what? You honestly kind of piss me off when you act like this.”

“Act like what?” he bit at his thumbnail anxiously.

“Like it’s a balance sheet. Our friendship. You can only tell me a thing in return if I already told you a thing, like it’s - like the numbers have to add up. It doesn’t work like that. Nobody’s keeping score! We’ve been over this before, Adam.”

“Okay, I - I hear you, you’re right. I get that. And I love you, I like being able to talk to you about things. But this, this particular thing, I just – I don’t think I can talk about this thing yet. Especially right this second, it's too new. And I can't process it - I can’t quite process him right now, he's just too much when he's … when he's like this.”

“Like what? Like how he is with Opal?”

"I … Yes,” Adam admitted miserably.

“Okay,” she sighed. “Look, I’ve seen Opal’s place already. Let's go back up to the house, we left a hundred dirty dishes out there on the picnic tables. I’ll stop asking, all right? But just remember you can come to me about it when you’re ready, it’s not a burden on me.”

"Okay. Blue, thanks," Adam nodded with relief and hooked his arm through hers, picking his way back through the wild grass to the path along the east property line.

Chapter Text

After they ate more cake and told more stories and waved as everyone else headed home, Opal riding over with Maura and Calla for more celebration with the Fox Way crew, Adam found himself at the kitchen island staring expectantly around at his three best friends.

Ronan didn’t stay in one place for more than a second. He was wiping plates dry from the dish rack, abruptly straightening things on the counter, clearly stalling. Adam’s patience was wearing thin.

“Okay, so maybe we should go to Fox Way first and get it out of the way,” Blue twisted the cap off a pale green reusable water bottle she’d been hauling around all day. “Just in case they have any words of advice for this.”

“Blue,” Adam groaned. “Come on.”

“Oh, don’t act like you’re the only one who wants to see it. Just because you’re the magician. I’m just saying maybe we should-”

“What words of advice are they really going to have? They don’t know Cabeswater like we do. Ronan didn’t consult with them before dreaming it up,” Adam’s gaze bounced over to where Ronan had given up the pretense of toweling anything off and was now just standing there with his back to them.

“Didn’t consult with us either,” Blue muttered.

“Let’s just go see it first, and then we’ll have something to talk about with them in the first place.”

“What if the dreams are some kind of warning?”

“Personally I believe the forest will tell us what we need to know,” Gansey came over to stand beside Blue. He was drumming his fingers against the countertop, and Adam could see how eager he really was, now that he didn’t have to put on a polite face for the party.

“Oh, sure, take his side,” Blue folded her arms.

“I'm not taking a side. I want to see it for myself,” Gansey insisted in a way that Adam would almost describe as whining, if it hadn’t come from Richard Campbell Gansey III.

They were at a bit of a stalemate, and Adam was getting frustrated.

“Ronan, oh my God, can we please just go see it,” he burst out when Ronan showed no sign whatsoever of participating in this conversation.

“Fucking chill, Parrish. Jesus,” Ronan dried his hands on a dishtowel and turned around, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his car keys. “We’re going. Come on.”

They piled into the BMW, Ronan’s eyes rolling irritably every time either Adam or Gansey made some kind of excited comment about where they were going. Blue and Gansey automatically went for the back seat, their hands clasped together. Adam took the front seat and tried not to think of it as his rightful spot.

Ronan looked very distracted. His knuckles tightened periodically on the steering wheel, or tapped erratically against the gearshift, and it got worse the further they drove from Singer’s Falls.

“What are you so nervous about. I’m sure it’s going to be fine,” Adam couldn’t help whispering as soon as Blue and Gansey seemed preoccupied with their own conversation about Maura and Dean.

Ronan looked sideways at him but didn’t answer. Obviously he wasn’t going to lie, but he didn’t want to admit it, either, so he was abstaining. Adam was familiar enough with this obnoxious non-response to know that it was a confirmation of something, at least.

He resisted the impulse to rest his hand over Ronan’s between them and keep it there, partially to calm him down, and partially to make the point in a more physical way that Ronan was clearly fidgeting and restless.

“How much did you spend on that thing for O?” Ronan sprung his own unrelated question out of the blue, as if Adam hadn't asked anything to start with. Of course. “That online class thing.”

“Why?” Adam could play this fucking game.

“I thought you were going to get her a video game or whatever. You got her an entire year's worth of online classes? What the hell was that?”

Adam sighed, and he was bitingly aware that Gansey and Blue had finished their own conversation and were now listening in. He glanced back and could see both of them pretending like they were super interested in the scenery, which made it that much more obvious.

“You don't approve?” Adam folded his arms. His skin was prickling with alertness, like that thing he'd read about once, where your hair stands on end before a lightning strike.

“You're not answering the fucking question.”

“Oh, that's rich. Ronan Lynch says I'm ignoring a question.”

“It's rude to ask what someone spent on a gift, you know,” Blue leaned forward a bit, looking like she could sense the oncoming storm as well. Adam gazed coolly back at her, because she knew good and well by now to let Adam fight his own battles. She muttered something nasty and threw her hands up in impatient surrender.

“Look, you know it couldn't be that expensive if I could somehow afford it,” Adam turned his glare back to Ronan.

“Oh, fuck off, Parrish, that's not what I’m saying, you don’t have to constantly fucking go there.”

“You are the one who asked me what it cost me.”

“Well I can tell it was some ridiculous amount. You won’t even say it out loud.”

“Don't start with this. Please, just … do not. Jesus, Ronan, don't you think I can balance my own goddamn checkbook? I know exactly what I can afford, and I don't need you policing my finances, thanks.”

“I do not even give a fuck about your finances right now, okay? Figure out your own ungodly rent payment, fine. I’m not on your ass about your money like you always think. No one is on your ass about it!”

“Then what the hell are you on my ass about?”

“I’m talking about … about you showing back up now and giving her extravagant presents like-”

“Extravagant?” Adam repeated, laughing in a rough way, with disbelief and anger. “You gave her an entire house!

“I am her legal fucking guardian.”

“Just because you dreamed her up a fake Social Security card or whatever-”

“Not the point. I do not need you popping back into her life now, bringing these amazing impressive presents or whatever and getting her all starry-eyed about you and then leaving again for God knows how long, okay?”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean? Do you mean leaving again like … Are you trying to tell me something here?”

“You want to keep taking it all slow and careful. I don’t know what you’re gonna fucking decide two months from now or whenever you draw your scientific conclusion about any of this, about me. Whatever you think about me is one thing. But I can’t afford to gamble Opal’s happiness on whether you’re gonna freak out on me and bail.”

“Ronan, Jesus Christ!”

“God. You’re still so sly as fuck, you know that? You told me don’t worry about it, that I’d think it’s boring, when I asked you before what you were gonna give her. That was how you got out of telling me exactly what it was or what it cost? Do you not get why I wanted to know what you were giving her out of the blue like that?”

“I wasn’t deliberately trying to hide it from you. It wasn't even that expensive! Maybe if I hadn't been forced to miss out on actual years of her life it wouldn’t seem so out of the fucking-”

Adam cut himself off sharply, pressing his lips together and pushing himself back into the seat like he might be able to disappear into it. He’d just now realized how badly his temper had started raging. God, he couldn’t be doing this now, not in front of the others.

But apparently the news was out.

All of the muscles in his body had felt like they’d seized up when Ronan had said that thing about Adam bailing. Of all the fucking people to-

He took a deep breath. Tried to relax himself back down, deliberately focusing on his shoulders, his arms, his hands, but he was shaking a little too much.

A heavy, charged silence crept in all around them, and he knew Blue and Gansey were probably squirming at the painful awkwardness. But he was shaking and worked up and couldn't focus on the repercussions just yet.

This was the real truth of it, then. This was how quickly they could end up at each other's throats again. This was how easily, how effortlessly they could find themselves in yet another shouting match in Ronan's fucking BMW.

Adam glared out the window, his teeth pressed painfully together as he tried to calm down.

Gansey spoke up again after a while, raising a timid question about the road they were taking, but Ronan ignored him completely and Blue glared outright at him until he gave up again.

He knew he should feel guilty about getting drawn into a fight, about ruining the general mood of their group outing, but he still wasn't over the initial burst of defensive anger.

They were winding through smaller back roads now, familiar and more densely wooded. Ronan pulled sharply over onto a flat widened shoulder, packed hard with mud that still looked like it hadn’t completely thawed from winter. The sun couldn’t penetrate this part of the forest very easily, so Adam was glad he’d worn his jacket.

He needed to focus on this, on Cabeswater. Compartmentalize.

“Do you guys seriously not know where we are?” Ronan stood there raising an eyebrow expectantly. His expression was fairly flat, and Adam couldn’t really determine how angry he still was.

“I know where we are,” Gansey frowned somberly, touching his bottom lip, his eyes back and forth from the car to the treeline. “We’re on the ley line. Noah’s buried near here.”

Adam's eyes widened and watered from shock and sadness and his own stupid shame. He hadn’t recognized it. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to him.

“It’s hard to tell these ten trees apart from those ten,” Blue squeezed his arm comfortingly. Adam couldn’t quite tell if she was just saying that or if she really didn’t recognize it either.

Of course she of all people would know this set of trees from that one. She was just indulging him.

“Come on, it's this way,” Ronan grumbled. He took a couple of steps backward, waiting for them to follow. His eyes were warily on Adam for a long moment, and then he was turned around, stepping over downed branches and tall ferns in clearings.

“You’ve been coming here for months, you couldn’t have, like … cut a path of some kind?” Blue muttered, dodging a rotting and split log that looked like it’d been there for years.

“Don’t really want to put up a fucking Welcome to Cabeswater sign.”

“Well. Great job with the camouflage, then. I feel lost already.”

“Just don’t go wandering off, all right? You’ll be fine. It's a little bit of a walk from here, so get those tiny legs moving.”

Adam stuck to Blue’s side while Gansey strode ahead of them, closer to Ronan. This worked out just fine; Adam's anger had diminished, but he still needed a little breathing room. They both did.

Even walking behind him, Adam thought he could see Ronan’s nervousness kicking up again. Adam was still feeling ambushed and desperately trying to figure out how he’d ended up in a such a nasty fight so quickly. He was questioning things now, doubting himself and his precious new status with Ronan, observing Ronan’s every movement and attempting to catalog the signs. Ronan kept glancing over at Gansey, rubbing his hand over the back of his shaved head as they walked. It seemed like he was more nervous now about Gansey’s reaction to Cabeswater than nursing any of his fury about Adam giving Opal too much of a birthday present.

If only Adam had been looking more closely for these signs before. Shouldn’t he have taken a little more pause at the signs he had received, the little signal flares that he was crossing into a war zone? Ronan hadn’t exactly been hiding his displeasure earlier, at Adam’s gift, but Adam had kind of shrugged it off.

His immediate thought process had been Ronan hates school and nerdy shit, not Ronan's afraid Opal will get hurt again.

A very flat and past-tense way of looking at things, of looking at Ronan Lynch. Adam ought to have known better than that by now.

God, Adam really wanted to be able to focus on Cabeswater. But he was still badly shaken from that fight.

He wasn’t used to that kind of fight, not lately anyway. He and Grace had fought sometimes, sure, but they’d sort of learned to fight in ways that didn’t end in slammed doors or broken windows. He and Grace would take breaks sometimes, come back later with cooler heads and counterpoints. Fighting with Grace had been more like conducting business negotiations.

He’d genuinely forgotten the kind of balls-out knife-fight feeling of having Ronan Lynch lay into you. It’d had Adam all crumpled up inside and grasping blindly at any weapon that might land.

Because no matter what anyone else said about Ronan's temper, Adam’s wasn’t any better and never had been. It was just ... stealthier.

He fervently wished he’d had a warning of some kind, but Ronan tended not to ease into things. Ronan had also never really liked talking about his feelings, but that didn't seem to be entirely true anymore, at least not when he was with Adam.

He was going to have to develop a better antenna for when Ronan was genuinely upset, or afraid, and to better understand his priorities now. He desperately needed to do that if he wanted to be able to keep him.

And he did, he honestly really did. It was a little unsettling how much, how quickly. He’d had enough cooldown time now to remind himself that he wanted Ronan a hell of a lot more than he wanted to be right about giving Opal a fucking birthday present.

 


  

When they got to the part of the forest that was home to Noah’s grave, Adam recognized the feel of it rather than the sight. He’d been focused on Ronan’s increasingly jittery nerves, watching the signs, but now he started observing all of them in this shared adventure, his three oldest friends and their surroundings. He could sense Gansey’s excitement and impatience; he could sense something like wistfulness and grief coming from Blue.

“You okay?” he squeezed at her elbow, whispering as he noticed Ronan slowing down.

“Yeah,” she blinked over at him, clearly surprised that he was picking up on her emotions. “Yeah, I … sorry. I’m fine.”

“I miss him too,” Adam squeezed at Blue’s hand, to lend her some support. If he looked closely, he could see the REMEMBERED tattoo inked on the inside of her forearm, the one that matched Ronan's. Actually, he could feel it, the way it throbbed against her skin now like when she'd first had it done years ago.

“You … God, Adam, your eyes,” Blue stopped short, staring at him. “Are we almost there?”

Adam couldn’t seem to pay attention to anything, couldn’t respond to her words. Distantly he was aware that it was an odd thing to say – the thing about his eyes?

He’d think about it later. He’d almost been knocked flat with the wave of mournfulness that flowed from Blue to him through their interlocked fingers. She missed Noah fiercely, and Adam felt like it made him weigh two hundred extra pounds.

“It’s right there,” Ronan was saying.

He thought, anyway. The words were barely audible through Ronan’s sudden spike of alertness and fear and … God, was it like … Awe? Like seeing something beautiful and familiar suddenly returned to you, something precious that you’d lost and given up on long ago. It was a rush.

He couldn’t really see the look on Ronan’s face, but that was secondary to knowing exactly what was behind it anyway. Feeling it just as certainly as the breeze on his neck or the humidity in the air.

Why couldn’t he actually see Ronan? He squinted, trying to concentrate harder. He’d forgotten his primary senses. Ronan wasn’t that far away, but he was like a dark, hooded blur.

“Blue. His hand. Let go of his hand.” Gansey’s voice, this time, echoing from a tunnel nearby.

Then his fingers were released to chilly March air, and his vision and hearing returned with a whoosh, like the sound of a vacuum being released, of a bottle of shaken-up Coke being popped open.

“Shit. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking,” Blue muttered from beside him.

Adam blinked first at her and her agitated expression, then at Ronan, who was only a couple of feet away now, watching him intently.

“I … God, sorry,” Adam pronounced carefully, the syllables fitting together rather awkwardly.

“No,” Blue breathed. “It’s okay, I – I haven’t had to be careful about the battery thing with you in a very long time.”

“What’d you say about – about my eyes?”

“You look all … magician-y,” Blue fluttered her hand vaguely in his direction. “Your pupils are huge. I forgot what that used to look like. Are you okay? Can you feel Cabeswater?”

“I don’t … I don’t know what it is, but it’s … it’s fucking strong, Ronan,” he turned forward again, where Ronan was still staring at him.

“Don’t look at me like that, Parrish. You’re the magician, if it’s doing something then you’re fucking doing it.”

“I … what?”

“Cabeswater … well, this Cabeswater anyway … it always asks for you. It wants to be ... useful to you, or whatever. I dunno. Just … Come on, we’re almost there, you’ll see.”

They kept walking, and Adam was counting without meaning to. Five steps. Six. Seven. Eight-

The air changed suddenly, sunlight streaming in around them in dusty beams. There was an archway, formed naturally by huge and curving willow trees whose branches had grown together about ten feet up in the air.

“Time for me to see if it’s working right,” Ronan came to a stop just outside the archway. “See if you can follow me through here.”

“What do you mean,” Gansey’s eyes were huge and alight.

“This is the only way in. You can get out wherever the fuck, but you have to come in this way. Just – remember that part, okay? You have to go through here, and … and it can only be you, or me. Only the four of us. Or if you have someone else with you, the forest will know if you’re allowing them in or not. I think. It works when I bring Opal in. Come on, try it, see if it works.”

Gansey didn’t have to be told twice. He strode through the archway behind Ronan. Adam and Blue exchanged glances and then followed, both gazing up at the branches curved above their heads.

Then Adam came to a stuttering stop, because he had to. He was too overwhelmed by the rustling of leaves around them. It was vaguely musical, like wind chimes. The warmth of the air slid over the top of his head, the backs of his hands – he could even feel it under his feet, through the soles of his sneakers, somehow.

His fingers fluttered toward his chest, his neck, as he felt his pulse growing stronger, almost like it was stretching free of some invisible cell, and stepping out in pace with the ley line beneath them.

“Oh my God,” Blue’s eyes were closed beside him. “I can hear them. They – they know us. They’ve been waiting for us.”

Magician, the trees sighed around Adam, bending toward him, leaves straightening and pulling at their branches to reach him. Magician, dear one, you have been gone too long.

It was a surge of being recognized, missed, adored, welcomed home, and it was too much to bear. He could feel Cabeswater around him, could sense it longing to really see him again, to embrace him and hear all of his stories and memories all at once.

Adam covered his mouth against a borderline hysterical laugh, looking up in wonder at the sheer height of the trees towering above them. He was absently aware of Blue and Gansey wandering and looking all around them and murmuring to themselves, much like how Adam was reacting.

“Well?” Ronan came close to Adam, tugging at the bands around his wrist. “I know you can feel it. Your eyes are all fucked up.”

“I … Yeah, I can ...” Adam swallowed hard, his throat closing up.

Magician. Please. We have needed your help.

“What kind of help,” Adam squinted upward. The plea had been so clear in his head.

Magician, dear one, we’ve longed for you. We need you to come home.

“I … what? I'm right here. What do you need?”

We cannot see you. Please come home. We can help you.

Adam closed his eyes for a moment, flooded with more emotion that he knew was not his own. Now that it’d happened once, he could recognize it. It was pouring off of Ronan. There was a flash of pride, and a fleeting kind of … what, possessiveness? And then it was all shoved under a tidal wave of fear, of dread, a deep-down certainty of impending loss and agony.

Ronan’s expression had changed. He was still watching Adam, but now he looked confused and wary.

“What are they asking for? Is it-” Ronan broke off, pressing his lips together, and looked significantly over at Gansey, who was just sort of twirling around slowly and taking everything in.

“No. No,” Adam shuddered, trying to push away the sensation as it continued to take shape. “It's me, they – I don't really understand, yet, I'm getting flooded by – Ronan, what is it? God, it was just a fight, it doesn’t mean everything’s over again, are you okay?”

Ronan's eyes narrowed sharply, his gaze burning into Adam. But Gansey and Blue were returning, and Adam put the personal questions on pause.

We can help you, Magician, Cabeswater repeated in his mind, several times.

“Do you want to see the rest of it, or not,” Ronan was muttering, his expression guarded. There was no point being careful here, though; Adam could still clearly feel his anxiety and nervousness and shades of deep betrayal.

It wasn't like Adam was psychic here, exactly – he couldn't hear what Ronan was actually thinking. But the forest's magic appeared to be exposing him directly to his friends' emotions and states of mind.

Ronan suspected the forest was telling Adam his secrets. Or he was afraid of that, anyway.

Blue felt exhilarated and … accepted, maybe? Normal? Adam couldn't quite find the right word for it. Like she didn’t have to be alone anymore. Adam was struck almost completely still with that revelation. How obvious it seemed now, and how strange that it’d never occurred to him to ask her that.

And Gansey … Gansey was reverent. Worshipful. In love. With all of it. Adam's heart absolutely raced when he focused in on it. He felt a flush climbing over his neck and cheeks, an instant thrill.

“Ronan. Show us the rest. Please?” Gansey twisted back and forth on the ball of his foot.

Adam tried to get a handle on himself, remembering Blue's old shielding trick – picturing isolation inside a glass bubble. He came back into himself, his own mind, with a bit of relief, and a bit of loneliness.

“This way.”

They trekked deeper into the forest, Blue walking ahead beside Ronan this time, and Gansey hanging back a bit with Adam, moving slowly to stare at everything and run his fingertips over tree bark. They were generally following the direction of a small stream to their left, and Adam could feel the water without even physically touching it. Clear and pure and teeth-chatteringly frigid. If Adam concentrated, though, he sensed it warming a bit in the sun, just for him, just because he wanted it that way.

Adam froze mid-step, and Gansey nearly tripped over him.

Intention was power here, just like the old Cabeswater. And Ronan had said the forest was asking for him, wanting to help him. And coincidentally enough, Adam had just been agonizing about not catching the signs of Ronan’s fear, and how he wished he’d been able to tell how he was really feeling …

Holy shit.

“Oh my God. Cabeswater, can you hear me?” he spoke up into the trees; Ronan and Blue had come to a stop and were now turning around to see what the hell was taking them so long.

Magician. Dear one.

“I don’t need you to do this anymore. Thank you but - God. I don’t need you to show me their feelings.”

Magician, we can help you.

“Okay, but this is not - I don’t need that kind of help, it’s - I don’t want to take something that doesn’t belong to me. So. Uh. Thanks.”

Adam felt like such an idiot standing there, asking some trees to stop showing him his friends’ feelings. Jesus.

Not really any weirder than it’d ever been, he supposed.

 


  

Look up here,” Ronan nudged them along again. “This is what I want you to see.”

When he was a freshman at Harvard, Adam had taken an art history elective – Art of the Renaissance, or something like that. He hadn’t realized until too late that he’d be staring at endless PowerPoint slides of the insides of cathedrals. Stained glass and frescoes and intricately painted golden domes. He’d been caustically reminded of Ronan and St. Agnes the whole time. But he had retained pieces of it, and after he saw how Ronan had laid out the heart of his whole design, it was very familiar.

He didn’t put it together at first. A round, central clearing was much like the entryway – impossibly tall, thin trees in a rough circle. This one was bigger, though, and took Adam’s breath away when he looked up, because it seemed to be a perpetually clear starry night. Something that looked like the Milky Way was blurred across one quadrant.

And in the tree branches, soaring above their heads, if you squinted, you could see a something written up there. Hints at lettering. Like one of those magic-eye things, spelled out in dark parts of the trees that overlapped just right. Adam let his eyes unfocus a little, and it came together.

It said, of course: REMEMBERED.

Blue had seen it too. She didn’t say anything, but he saw her jump up to hug Ronan’s neck, to hold onto him for a long minute. He hugged her and kept a hand at the crown of her head.

Adam stood in the mutual silent acknowledgment for a long time, Noah’s laugh echoing in his head. He was afraid to focus on it too much, afraid Cabeswater would hear him and produce a facsimile of his dead friend just to try to make him happy.

He didn’t want that. That wouldn’t fix anything. I don’t want that, he thought forcefully, just to be clear.

It wasn’t that he didn’t miss Noah, didn’t feel a bitter kind of sadness whenever Noah came up in conversation with the others. He hadn’t lived with Noah or spent nearly as much time with the boy, but he still missed Noah’s unwavering love, Noah’s way of unconditionally supporting all of them, no matter what secrets he’d snatched accidentally or otherwise.

Now though, now that he’d spent so much time reconnecting with Ronan, the fact of Noah’s death felt like even more of an outrage, so much more of a cause for grief. Because Adam and Ronan and the others had all had a chance to come to these new points in their lives, with new understandings of themselves and each other, with so many experiences they’d grown and evolved from.

Even though there’d been a good share of terrible times, Adam had still managed to arrive here. To a version of himself that he could actually be a little proud of, sometimes. To a version of Ronan that was fascinating and endearing, more and more all the time.

It was more than Noah was ever going to have. Noah had been robbed of that kind of development. Noah was forever a teenager, their idea of him suspended in time as they all continued to grow older and further from that age themselves.

Adam was older now than Noah would ever be. And it was so fucking unfair.

 


 

“What the hell time is it,” Blue wiped at her eyes as she let go again, her gaze lifting up to the constellations above them. “This can’t be right.”

“No, it’s right, I can feel it,” Gansey gaped along with her. “It’s supposed to be this way.”

“I like the stars,” Ronan muttered, shrugging awkwardly. Adam could tell he was watching all of them while they stared upward. Ronan had seen this before. “So, look. If you get lost. You can always come back to this point, it never changes. The stars don’t move here.”

“It’s beautiful,” Gansey mumbled.

“We came in that way, to the south, see?” Ronan waited until he had their attention; it was a challenge when the sky above them was so breathtaking. “Behind you, it’s a straight walk through the trees. This is the central part. Everything else radiates out from here, okay? … Are you even listening?”

“We’re listening,” Adam frowned at him. “What do you mean, everything else?”

“Gimme a sec, I’ll show you. The main thing's here in the middle.”

Ronan led them on a path that bisected the circle, straight up in the same direction they’d been heading. It was easy to tell where they were supposed to go next; Adam felt it like a gentle current, tugging him forward. Also, the trees seemed to part slightly for them as they approached the far end of the circle. It was almost a corridor – very broad, though, with tree branches arched back and forth overhead to make a sort of peaked cover. There were red and orange and yellow leaves here, all over the forest floor, as if it were a fresh autumn morning despite the fact that they’d just been stargazing, and Adam knew it was early March outside the forest.

He could see blue sky through a gap ahead. Were they already at the end of the forest? Ronan hadn’t been kidding when he’d said it was smaller-

It was a dropoff. A cliff.

Adam’s breath caught as they climbed a quick slope upward. Nestled at the top of a rounded hill was an outcropping of white stone. It looked like the quartz Adam had seen on a hiking trip with Gansey somewhere along the Appalachian trail.

This shape was deliberate, though. Rough and stylized, but it was most certainly a chair.

A throne, maybe.

And from that spot, an unencumbered and crystal clear view of the area below them.

Not just any area. Henrietta. And the surrounding hills and valleys.

Adam took it in with amazement, then looked over at Gansey, who was clearly blinking back tears.

“Ronan,” Gansey breathed. “Ronan, it’s … I don’t think I have the right words.”

“Try,” Ronan stared, waiting.

Cabeswater really had turned off the emotions cheat. Adam couldn’t quite crack that expression on Ronan’s face, but he suspected it was a veiled nervousness about Gansey’s opinion.

“It’s perfect,” Gansey assured him, swiping the back of his hand over his cheek. “It’s so beautiful. I can feel how happy I’ve been here. I will be here, I mean. Sorry, you know I … It’s perfect.”

“Well, whatever, it's for you. It's yours. This place.”

“You really are a magnificent thing.”

“Okay, let's not – We're going to Blue's wing next.”

“My what?” Blue's eyes widened a bit.

“Wing. Or … I dunno, place. Whatever you wanna call it. I’ve never had to like … say it out loud before now. We each have one. The east wing is yours. You'll see,” Ronan tilted his head to his right. “Come on.”

 


 

It was a short walk over to the right side of the main clearing, and then they were in another distinct area of the forest. The trees there were much taller and thinner, the branches wound up between each other, with a prominent one in the center that looked suspiciously like the ash tree behind 300 Fox Way. It was split in several places, though, as if several trees had grown together to form the shape of one larger one, and there were branches spread around at irregular intervals just begging to be climbed like a circular staircase. All around the edges of this area, vaguely circular, were wildly blooming day lilies in riotous shades of orange and yellow and indigo and crimson, some of them chained together by vines in a way that reminded Adam of one of Blue's safety-pinned tunics. They were strung in and around the leaves and branches, interconnecting chains all around.

There were also shiny, flat, oval pendants floating here and there, and glass pyramids. Little mirrors and prisms, scattering sunlight and colors in the breeze.

Adam stopped at the base of the large tree, running a hand over the bark. Gansey stood back with a satisfied smile, still looking overwhelmed from their first stop.

Blue, though – Blue stared wide-eyed, then ran toward the lowest opening in the tree. And vanished.

Adam blinked, startled, and looked to the canopies of leaves and branches. He could hear her, still, calling to them with a thrill of excitement.

Ronan, I can hear them, I can understand them, Blue’s voice floated around Adam’s thoughts.

“Yeah, well, that’s kinda the point, genius,” Ronan folded his arms.

“Um,” Adam glanced between Ronan and Gansey and the tree again. “Is she, like … in the tree?”

“Sort of,” Ronan shrugged, as if it were that simple to confirm, as if he’d asked the color of her shirt, or the date of her wedding. “Not literally. It’s her … tree-magic thing. Come on, Parrish, you know this. Don’t look at me like I’m the fucking crazy one.”

“You’re the one who made it this way!”

“It’s beautiful, Ronan,” Gansey came closer, gazing up at the branches, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Where’s yours?” Adam couldn't help blurting out after lingering there a while, because he’d been wondering that ever since Ronan had said the thing about how they all had different places, and the sheer curiosity at this point was frankly going to kill him.

“My what?” Ronan's gaze lifted to the treetops.

“Come on, Lynch, you know what I'm asking. I want to see your wing, where is it.”

“Your priorities are a little fucked up sometimes, you know? But fine, yeah, you can see it. Across that way.”

“Straight across?”

Ronan pointed in silent, patronizing confirmation. The insulting nature of his expression was so familiarly Ronan that Adam relaxed significantly.

“I want to see it, too,” Gansey protested, so Adam grabbed his elbow on the way out. Ronan didn't move. There was no indication that Blue would be re-emerging anytime soon, either, so Adam left her to her flood of homecoming and belong and relief and continued his explorations.

Chapter Text

Adam and Gansey travelled beneath the impossibly bright stars in a straight line; theoretically they knew Gansey’s beautiful valley view was nearby, but it was still completely hidden from them in a tricky warp of reality.

“What do you think it’ll look like,” Gansey whispered noisily. “Ronan’s wing. A racetrack? A giant sound system? A hatchery?”

“Maybe,” Adam laughed, just a quick little burst. “God, he's such an artist, you know? This whole forest, it's … I mean, the little sculptures are one thing. Nobody knows what he's really capable of, though.”

“Nobody else but us,” Gansey nodded sadly.

Adam did not have time to dwell on that, because the west wing was starting to come into focus.

They were not at all prepared for the sight that awaited them, despite Gansey’s excited conjecture on the way over. As the trees gave way to another clearing ringed in overly large, exaggerated thorns, Adam slowed to a stop and stared at what appeared to be a giant bonfire raging noisily in the center of all of it. Lush green grass rolled in mild slopes up away from the fire, and the gentle warmth drew Adam in closer. It was some kind of dream magic that kept the fire at a cozy, warm temperature even though in reality they should've had to turn their faces from the scalding heat.

The fire, though – it was slowly turning different colors as Adam stared into it. First an inky purple, radiating out into a calm turquoise, back to pale gray-blue, then sparking into green and yellow at the edges. And bouncing up and away from the tips of the flames – Adam had to squint and look more closely to confirm – the fire spit out tiny jewels and insects and leaves and flowers and snowflakes that would hover and float and then sort of dissipate, like smoke. Adam couldn’t tell whether there was any pattern to it.

“Oh,” Gansey blinked beside him.

“It's – Jesus, it's creating,” Adam held his forehead and gaped some more.

“It's like him,” Gansey agreed, his voice barely audible.

Adam had to sit down again.

He sank into the impossibly soft grass, digging in his fingers beside him and letting his head tilt back so he could take in the sky above them.

Sunrise. It was a slowly spreading and changing sunrise above them, in gorgeous melty shades of pink and purple and red. Adam's eyes burned, and he watched it with a mixture of awe and grief. He knew that fucking sunrise. He saw it sometimes, in his own dreams, in his own memory.

The whole area was mostly dominated by the sparking bonfire, but there were very strange flowers at the border, circled all around and woven through the snaking thorns, with vibrantly orange snapdragons and lilies that looked like they might bite.

Many of the trees surrounding the area looked like they'd already been burned. There were some stumps curled into themselves, into blackened stubs of nothing. Then there were others that just had their bark peeled back and heat-warped, or singed off. There were twisted, dark branches tapering down into charcoal and ash.

The other trees - the ones that had survived - all seemed to have various phrases and verses scorched into them, in what looked like dozens of different languages. He thought he recognized the romance languages, but he wasn’t sure on some of the other ones. Farsi? Arabic? Russian?

There was only one in English, and it said sin no more.

Adam’s gaze returned inevitably to the emerging sunlight reflecting off long, striated clouds, and he squeezed his eyes shut against a wave of tears. Strangely enough, he thought he could even smell Ronan's soap mixed in with the woodsmoke now.

He was almost sure he had just done that himself, though.

“Adam. Are you all right?” Gansey folded himself carefully beside Adam on the grass.

“Mm,” Adam managed to nod, swiping at his cheeks. “I – Sorry.”

“It's a lot. This place. I know,” Gansey squeezed at Adam's shoulder. “I can't imagine, for you – well. Especially right here.”

“He made this. All of it.”

“I know. And we’re the only ones who will see it. It seems almost tragic, to not let the whole world see something this beautiful, don’t you think?”

Adam nodded, chewing on his thumbnail for a moment.

“Gansey.”

“Hmm?”

“You, um. You heard what he said in the car, right?”

“Oh. Adam, you need to understand, he’s very protective of-”

“No, no, I - I know,” Adam gulped in a breath. “Not that. The thing about - about how I asked him to take it slow.”

“Yes. I did hear that.”

“I mean, I did ask him that. I did. It was - it's important to me. I told him we had to take our time and go on dates and we’ve only been on one, you know that’s what it was. One date. But I ... I already fucking love him so much, and I don't know if I can do this slow dating thing that I am the one who asked for, I’m such a hypocrite and I - oh my God, Gansey.”

Adam’s face was currently buried in his fingers, so it was hard to tell how Gansey was reacting.

“You’re not a hypocrite,” Gansey told him gently, rubbing at the back of his shoulder. “It’s not like you chose to have things progress this way. You’re always so hard on yourself.”

“Gans, I just told you I’m in love with Ronan fucking Lynch again, are you not going to tell me to like take a step back and think about this? That it’s crazy?”

“No, I’m not. If I thought it was crazy I would have said something to you two weeks ago when I knew you were out with him all night. Or even before that, when you were texting him nonstop. You say it’s only been one date but come on. It’s Ronan.”

“I know. I know. I just - the thing in the car … I mean I'm still not okay with what we were actually talking about, I know I need time to talk to him more about why. I know that. But does he really think I’ll just - just bail on him? That if we argue at all I’ll just say okay it was nice dating you but that’s it, I’m out? Does he think I’m that uninvested just because I said we should - God.”

“I think that if you really do love him, you should definitely tell him that. I'm not going to lie to you, Adam. I think he's waited a long time for this.”

Adam sighed, leaning back into the grass. It cradled him there like it was specifically made for the curves of his back and the length of his legs.

And, hell, maybe it was. He wouldn’t put anything past Ronan.

Heavy, familiar footsteps trailed through the grass and dirt behind them. Adam was a mess and needed to pull himself together. He bit at his bottom lip, hard enough so he tasted blood, trying to force himself to stop with this little breakdown.

He could hear Ronan coming to a stop beside him. And despite Adam’s efforts to control himself, he knew Ronan could detect that he’d been crying. It was clear from the slight widening of Ronan's eyes, then from the furrowing of his brow in a reluctantly transparent display of concern. Ronan settled himself in a crouch beside Adam and just looked at him, silently demanding an explanation.

Adam sat up, dragged the back of his hand over his own cheek again and then pointed to the sky, because he couldn't get any words out. But he didn't need to, really. His issue would be clear enough.

Ronan followed Adam's gaze toward the blushing lavender clouds, then sighed, long and tired. Gansey had gotten up and was wandering somewhere nearby, probably to give them privacy.

“I know,” Ronan muttered, folding his arms. “You want me to say I'm sorry?”

“N-No,” Adam's throat was full of cotton again.

“Okay, well. Good. Because I'm not.”

“Do you – do you come here and watch it?”

“All the time.”

“God, Ronan ...” Adam groaned into his hands, covering his face for a moment. “You couldn’t have warned me? Couldn’t have said anything about any of this?”

“What was I going to say, genius? Watch out, there’s a sunrise?”

“That's my sunrise.”

"Well if you don't like it, then change it to something else, Magician. Look, are you seriously not even going to ask where your wing is? You're just gonna sit here in mine? You’re done?”

“Yeah. I’m done. I’m just going to live here now,” Adam scrubbed the heels of his hands over his eyelids and blinked up at Ronan again.

“Yeah, well. Fine. Maybe it's for the best. The, uh ... north wing might be a little tricky anyway.”

“...Um. Why,” Adam swallowed hard, his attention effectively detoured by the weird, hesitant look on Ronan's face. “What did you do, Ronan.”

“Right, so … here's the thing,” Ronan stood up, pausing to stretch his hand out. Adam took it after a few seconds and let himself be hauled to his feet, squeezing at Ronan's fingers a little too long before letting go again. Ronan slid him a quiet, intensely sort of grateful look.

“Are you talking about Adam's wing?” Gansey returned immediately, looking all lit up and curious.

“Yeah. Adam, look, you – You're its magician, okay? You're the one who has actual power here. Ley line shit. I thought it should be more protected, wherever you were supposed to be, so, like … you're the only one who can get there.”

Adam stood very still as he took in this new information and turned it around a couple of times in his mind.

“You mean … except you?”

“No, I don’t mean except me.”

“Okay,” Adam touched the tip of his tongue to his wounded lip. “But that doesn’t - How did you build a place that you yourself cannot even access?”

“I dunno, I mean … how did I build a tree that Blue can disappear into? How did I build a fire that sometimes turns the exact fucking color of your eyes, but doesn’t actually burn anything anymore? I mean why are you just now getting stuck on the paradoxical bullshit? I knew that’s how it should work, so that’s how it works.”

Ronan was grumbling, nonchalantly, like he hadn’t just admitted to something that made Adam’s heart seize up and fold in on itself. Adam turned his gaze back to the bonfire, his eyes watering from shock and from the bright, pale blue that was now spreading outward from the hottest part of the flames, dulling everything into slate. As soon as he registered the color, though, it began to fade out again, darkening into a navy blue that matched the starry sky nearby.

“I thought you … um. I thought you said you haven't been able to dream for a while.”

“Months. Yeah. So?”

“So this,” Adam lifted his chin toward the fire. “This isn't new. It's always done that?”

“What are you getting at, Parrish,” Ronan's voice was sharp and low.

“I'll tell you later.”

“How does he access it, if you can’t show him?” Gansey’s voice picked up the thread that Adam had quickly let drop without meaning to. Adam thought he could see a spark of delight in Gansey's face, and he was pretty sure it could be chalked up to what Gansey'd been overhearing between them.

“The forest will tell him.”

“Oh. They've been trying, I think,” Adam realized as he let the voice slip back through his mind. Come home, Magician, dear one. “I just didn't realize how literal they were – okay. Yeah. I need to pay better attention.”

Adam shoved his hands into his pockets and walked away from both Ronan and Gansey, making his way out of the clearing and back to standard forest. He could vaguely hear both of them mumbling and stepping on grass and leaves behind him, but he needed to concentrate. He needed to block everything else out again and listen to Cabeswater.

“I’m here,” he blinked up at the trees when he was surrounded by them again. “I’m ready. Please. Show me the way.”

Magician, we sent you the map. You can find us now.

“The map?” Adam repeated aloud in his confusion. “You sent me something?”

The Greywaren, he was our messenger. Greywaren, please. Did you carry our gift?

“Oh,” Ronan’s voice cut into Adam’s thoughts. “Shit.”

Adam spun to glare at Ronan, who was grimacing and rubbing the back of his head.

“Did you hear that? Ronan-”

“Yeah. I heard, I know. Your sculpture. They said it was for you. I didn’t know it was a fucking map. Some details would’ve been nice,” Ronan grumbled in the general direction of the treetops.

Magician, come home, come home.

“That sculpture is a two-hour drive away,” Adam groaned.

“All right. Adam, listen to me,” Gansey stepped closer, his brows lowered in determination as he rested his hands on Adam’s shoulders. “This is going to be fine. Think about it. You don’t need a map for Cabeswater. You’re the magician. What would you have done the first time around, to understand the first Cabeswater better? Years ago?”

“I, um …” Adam swallowed thickly, his mind’s eye already wanting to travel away from him in a scrying bowl somewhere, for answers. He could feel it as a nearly physical thing, a gentle pull behind his forehead, almost a headache in the bridge of his nose.

There had been a river, but the water wasn’t still enough, maybe a candle, maybe-

Adam pivoted again and hurried back over to Ronan’s bonfire without stopping to explain himself. He hunched down on a flatter surface than where he’d been curled up earlier and let his fingers weave through the soft grass, settling in and gazing at the flames. He focused all of his attention and energy straight ahead of him, and he knew he was having some success when the colors stopped changing. They merged into a brighter, more intense golden glow, and he allowed his mind to drift in the old familiar way that made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

Magician. Dear one. There you are.

 


 

Adam’s body was weightless, and the urgency of passing time was only a memory. He floated contentedly and patiently toward his destination knowing he had all the time in the world to arrive there.

He recognized it instantly, and wasn’t exactly sure how or why, but that didn’t concern him. It was a perfectly scribed circle, as if the tall grass around him were cut using a compass the size of his bedroom.

At the center was a simple slab of stone engraved with a wand, a cup, a pentacle, and a sword.

He moved smoothly toward the altar, admiring the simple but clean carvings, and took a deep breath before placing his hands palm-down against the surface.

Water and wind roared through his head, his ears, everywhere. He felt it rushing around and over and beneath him, heard the leaves rustling and whispering and welcoming him. The breeze sifted through his hair, caressed his elbow to his wrist, and Adam distantly remembered the new scar there from when he’d been tossed from his bicycle in Cambridge a few years back.

Cabeswater was looking him over, relearning his presence, checking to see that he was safe and intact.

He laughed when he felt something like the ripple of cool water over his side, his ribcage.

“Yeah, that’s a tattoo. It’s for you, do you like it?”

You are carrying one moment of us. We are carrying old moments of you. This is not the whole of either.

“Okay, well - what is it you want, then?”

Stay. Magician, stay, let us learn.

Adam lifted his hands from the cold stone, experimentally. He could still sense Cabeswater’s gentle, probing presence.

His heartbeat was so slow, like it was pulsing underwater. He needed to rest. He sat back on the cut grass behind him, his weight falling back on his hips and his arms propped up with his palms at his sides. His eyelids were impossible to lift back open. He was staying, and Cabeswater was learning.

 


 

“All right,” Gansey announced when he returned. “Family meeting. Right now.”

“Oh, for the love of God,” Blue muttered, at the same time Ronan swore in a nasty little burst.

Adam was clearly overtired, because he actually found himself laughing at this, how perfectly synchronized their reactions were, despite how the two of them had clearly not been speaking to each other after Ronan’s explosion earlier.

Ronan twisted around from his spot on the floor to shoot Adam a look that said what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-you. Adam covered his mouth and tried to get a hold of himself.

“Item number one,” Gansey stood authoritatively in the middle of the room, where he could look them all in the eye. “Jane is going back to school on Monday.”

Blue’s eyes widened – she had obviously not expected to be this high on the agenda when Ronan and his newly bandaged hand were sitting so insolently right there for everyone to see.

“I’m serious about that,” Gansey addressed her directly. “You’ve missed enough as it is. I’m going to be okay. You all don't need to keep such a constant eye on me, I promise. If you miss any more school you won’t even pass the semester.”

“Fine,” Blue pursed her lips.

“Excellent, that’s decided. Item number two. Ronan is going back to-”

“Whoa, Gansey, there’s no fucking-”

“Let me finish. You’re going back to school to fill out the exit paperwork. If you’re going to quit then do it properly.”

There was a long silence. Adam sat back and watched Gansey and Ronan and their wordless exchange.

“You honestly want me to make it official?” Ronan stared.

“Yes. I suppose I do. I can't say I didn't try to change your mind, dozens of times. I don’t know what else to do. If you can’t stick it out for one more semester, then quit paying them tuition, for God’s sake. Use that money to fix up one of the barns instead.”

Ronan was still stunned; his back had gone still and tense against Adam’s knee as soon as Gansey had told him to quit.

“You’re eighteen. I’m done trying to beg you or guilt you or force you or trick you into it. You’ve all but dropped out already, so I’m just asking you to do ten minutes’ worth of paperwork.”

“...Okay,” Ronan shrugged.

Adam let out a thin, slow breath. He honestly felt disappointed. Not necessarily because Ronan couldn’t manage to suck it up for half a year, that Ronan would never get that diploma, but truthfully and selfishly because Adam was now staring down the rest of his senior year at Aglionby without Ronan there at all. Perhaps some part of him had been holding out a pointless hope that Gansey would manage to cajole Ronan into scraping along to graduation.

“What, Parrish. Fucking say it,” Ronan nudged his leg with a hunched shoulder, and only then did Adam realize he’d been watched.

“Nothing. I dunno. It’s not like it’s a newsflash. It’s just … you’re really not coming back. It feels different now that we’re openly acknowledging it and not just pretending like we don't notice it already happening.”

“Guess you’ll just have to find someone else to fix your crappy Latin homework.”

Adam rolled his eyes and gave Ronan’s back a little shove. Ronan just smirked down at the floor.

“Item number three,” Gansey called their attention back to himself, then came over to stand beside Adam’s chair. He turned to look at both Adam and Ronan in turn, drawing the pause out very dramatically. “Do you remember when Blue had her stitches? Over her eye? And we had a little talk afterward, in the waiting room? And I finally told you the truth, that Blue and I had been seeing each other?”

Adam winced, feeling these words land on him and Ronan in an accusatory fashion. He glanced down and saw Ronan folding his arms and hunching down.

“That was not rhetorical,” Gansey added politely.

“Yes, I remember,” Adam sighed, raking his hair back, his nerves popping like bubble wrap.

“I feel like we should’ve had a chance to vote on the agenda of this fucking meeting in advance,” Ronan shrank back against Adam’s leg even more, which Adam hadn’t realized was physically possible.

“Whoa, whoa, what the hell,” Blue shot off of the edge of Gansey’s bed and planted herself above them, her hands on her hips. “What is going on?”

“Gansey, it’s not cool to out someone before they’re ready,” Adam rested his hands on the sides of the chair.

“I … oh,” Gansey pressed his lips together, his neck flushing slightly. “Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't really think that through. I just … you told me, but I didn't think about Blue.”

“It's okay. I'm just kidding.”

“You told him?” Ronan spun around, his eyes shooting daggers at Adam.

“No, not … I mean … just like-” Adam swallowed, his stammering voice low in his throat.

“Hey,” Blue cut in. “Ronan can't get outed in front of me. I already know. He knows I know.”

“Christ, Sargent,” Ronan turned forward again, running a hand over his forehead. “He's talking about himself.”

Blue stood there in silence for a minute, then dropped down and sat on the floor, cross-legged, clearly needing a second with this.

“You. And Adam,” Blue's eyes jumped back and forth between them. “You’re what, you’re ... together now? You're seeing each other? For real?”

“Yeah, for fucking real,” Ronan snapped instantly, defensively, and Adam felt it in his stomach, a deep shiver that made his eyes close. The way Ronan hadn't hesitated to confirm it was everything Adam had been wanting, deep down, ever since that night at the Barns. It made all of the anxious and paranoid fears evaporate, in the way Ronan's voice did not allow for any possibility of it being unclear.

The relief was powerful, too. The weight of the secret lifted from his chest like a physical thing. Adam's arms were folded over his stomach, and he leaned down to rest his forehead against Ronan's shoulder, trying to catch his breath, letting himself draw from Ronan's unwavering certainty and strength.

Ronan's hand came up to run over Adam's hair, holding his head there protectively, and Adam almost laughed trying to imagine what Blue's face would look like in reaction.

“Adam, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to force you into that part. I just wanted you two to finally admit it, you were both being so obvious,” Gansey's voice was thin and worried. “I wasn't thinking.”

“No, it's okay,” Adam shook his head and eased himself up again. Ronan looked reluctant to let him go. “I was just giving you shit. I figured you would've told Blue about what I told you.”

“I felt that was told to me in confidence,” Gansey frowned.

“What the hell did you tell him in confidence,” Ronan shifted and wrapped the fingers of his left hand around Adam's leg, just below his knee. Adam could feel heat radiating through his threadbare khaki pants that he'd worn to work. Ronan's gaze on him wasn't quite so full of betrayal this time – more like curiosity-

 


 

Adam gasped awake, clutching at his chest and stomach, his fingers curling into himself and empty air with sudden frustration. He sucked in another breath and looked up at his surroundings. Not Monmouth after all, but a clearing, hazy and indistinct.

As it began to take firmer shape, Adam remembered. He’d been scrying.

Oh, God, had he wandered too far? How was he going to get back? Why hadn’t he asked Ronan to keep watch, to hold onto him somehow?

He still felt very corporeal, though. Just … lighter, maybe.

“Cabeswater, where am I? What was that? Did I fall asleep in here?”

We are learning. We have much to learn, still.

“You are … oh. Oh. Wait. Is that what’s been happening? Gansey said maybe … These dreams? Are you playing back our memories, to learn them?”

We have much to learn. That place is all darkness. The place between when we were and are.

“Okay, okay, I - okay,” Adam rubbed harshly at his eyes. “Do you have to do it that way?”

We do not know another way.

“Okay, but there has to be. You have to understand, the things Ronan’s been through, you can’t - I mean the Greywaren, if you make him see those things again-” Adam began, then froze as he considered the possibility that he wasn’t the only one having dream flashbacks at that moment. “Please tell me you’re not learning about him right now, too, not like that.”

We must learn from the Greywaren. We can never allow it to happen again.

The trees made swishing and humming noises, but no words were audible, and this made Adam’s scalp crawl with a chill of panic, down to the nape of his neck.

“Yeah, you said that, I - do you mean right now? Where are they? All of them? Where’s the Greywaren? I need to see him, can you - Bring them here, please? Let them in? It's okay,” Adam raised his voice a bit, but still no immediate answer.

He stared around at the clearing, and his gaze landed on the stone altar. He pushed himself to his feet and hurried over, then spread his fingers against the slab and gave his request again. This time he felt his palms warming up with energy, and he drew the ley line into his lungs instead of oxygen.

Bring them here, Adam repeated, and the forest bent itself to his will.

He saw Blue first, dropping down onto the grass like she’d just descended from a nearby tree branch, and stepping inquisitively into the circle. Gansey was next, yawning loudly.

“Adam? Oh my God,” Blue stopped halfway to him and then actually took a step backward again.

“Magician,” Gansey breathed, looking awestruck and wide-eyed back at Adam.

“Are y’all okay?” Adam found his own voice again and lifted his hands from the stone. “Were you dreaming? Where’s Ronan,” he looked around impatiently at the borders of the clearing. It was coming more into actual focus now, turning more realistic colors.

“I was dreaming, actually,” Gansey frowned; he’d wrapped an arm around Blue’s waist and tucked her up against him. She was still watching Adam like she’d never seen him before.

He’d explain it later, it didn’t - where the fuck was Ronan?

He closed his eyes to concentrate on the intention of it, to hone in on this one crucial direction, and leaned on his altar again. He pared it down to its most fundamental element and strengthened that with all of his energy.

Greywaren.

He swallowed and blinked up at the edge of the trees, his ears popping in a disconcerting way. There was a shape materializing there at the perimeter, huddled on the ground and vibrating - shaking -

“Ronan?” Blue’s voice was high and laced with alarm.

Adam released the flow of magic humming through his pores and closed the distance in six long, fast strides, landing on his knees at Ronan’s side. Blue and Gansey were crowding in, too, but they seemed to be deferring to Adam.

“Ronan. Hey. Ronan, shit, wake up,” Adam choked a little as he cupped the back of Ronan’s head to try and lift him, to keep him steady. Ronan was shivering all over and his eyes were squeezed shut, leaking tears. The sight of it pierced right through Adam’s stomach. “Ronan, it’s me. Listen to me, wake up, please. You’re dreaming. Come back to me.”

Adam wasn’t getting through, and he was using most of the rest of his conscious thought just trying not to shut down from panic. His own heartbeat and dry throat and constricted rib cage were conspiring against him. He looked up pleadingly at Gansey, because he didn’t know what else to do.

“What’s happening to him,” Blue cried, reaching out to run her fingers over Ronan’s buzzed-short hair. She’d crouched down there and Gansey was standing over her from behind.

“It’s Cabeswater, it’s trying to - it - it’s what Gansey said,” Adam stammered, sucking in a breath, leaning down to press his forehead against Ronan’s chest. “It’s trying to learn from our memories, I can’t let him relive any of that shit, it’ll - Cabeswater, stop, please.”

Adam’s request was not being honored, or not being heard. He turned his head, closing his eyes and resting his cheek against Ronan’s shirt, helpless and unwilling to put even a centimeter between them.

“Gansey,” Blue was urging. “Gansey, make it stop, God only knows what he’s seeing right now. Do your thing. Here.”

Adam looked up just in time to see Blue stretching her hands back up to her fiance. Gansey’s brow furrowed for a moment, and then he clutched her fingers decisively and straightened his shoulders, lifted his chin.

Gansey took a step closer, drew a deep breath that expanded his chest, and focused an intense, sharp gaze at Ronan on the grass between them. He opened his mouth to speak, and his voice rang through the trees and air, vibrated through Adam’s solar plexus.

“Wake up.”

Chapter Text

Ronan sat up in a jolt, gasping for air and coughing roughly, and Adam jumped, backing up just enough to not get thrown. He clutched at Ronan’s arm, trailing two fingertips over the bunched-up leather bracelets, letting Ronan catch his breath and get his bearings, drag the heel of his other hand over his tear-streaked face.

“Ronan,” Blue demanded, stroking his head; she’d let go of Gansey and sunk to her knees. “You’re okay. It’s not real. It’s over now.”

Ronan’s breathing was still ragged, but slowing down by the second. He opened his eyes more fully and looked around wildly until he found Adam, and he stared, assessing and questioning. His gaze moved slowly down until he was fixated on Adam’s hands.

“Oh, fucking God, not that,” Adam let go of him and squeezed his fingers into tight fists. He held them out and away from his own body, losing his grasp on whether he could fully trust his own hands. He’d had full control over them for more than five years but now, realizing what Ronan must have just been re-living, he remembered wanting to cut them off.

“Shh, Adam,” Blue came closer, rested her forehead against his upper arm. “You’re both okay.”

“Cabeswater,” Adam shook his head, backing away from Ronan in that habitual way he’d had for weeks after the demon incident, when he’d occasionally wake up from the nightmare and need to put space between them just for his own peace of mind. “Cabeswater, you are doing this the wrong way, do you understand me? This is not okay. He is the Greywaren, how can you do this to him?”

Magician. Dear one. You are hurting.

“No, Ronan is hurting. The Greywaren. Why would you do that to him? Do not make him see any of that ever again! Listen to me,” he staggered to his feet and returned to the stone at the center of the circle. “You are not doing this again. I know you want to learn us, to know what happened, but you can’t do it like that. Do you hear me? Not like that. We’ll find another way.”

We do not want to hurt you. We do not want to hurt the Greywaren like he was hurt before. We do not know another way.

“Well we’re going to fucking figure one out,” Adam snapped and returned his treacherous hands to the altar.

He could hear his friends talking now, asking each other if they were okay, whispering observations about this place and how they’d arrived there. He’d worry about that later. The energy was rushing back through him.

He wasn’t sure that his words were sufficient enough to convince Cabeswater to cut it the fuck out, so he was going to concentrate on making the forest get the picture one way or another. When he stood there and physically connected himself with the magic of that place, he felt as though he could communicate in a different, more basic and stripped-down way. A way that hopefully Cabeswater would actually understand.

The ley line was so strong beneath his feet, crackling up over the surface of the stone at his fingertips. The hair on his arms and neck stood on end, prickling with static electricity.

He had an idea.

You do not need to do this, he formed the thought deliberately, painstakingly. He wanted to be clear, and heard, so he found himself doing the opposite of Blue’s shielding trick. He opened it all back up, soaked it all in, shifted into the highest gear and floored it, diverting power.

He nearly collapsed at first from the roar in his blood, from the range of colors and sounds. His mind’s eye was flipping randomly through tarot card images, through the glowing reflection in a deer’s eyes, and rivulets of dark blood lapping against pavement. He gave it a moment and dug in, pushing through the chaos, struggling for more control.

You cannot take any more from the Greywaren. You take from me instead. I will tell you what you need to know. Me. Only me. I will do this for you. Hear me, Cabeswater. I will help you.

Magician, we do want this. We are lost in this darkness. We cannot see between now and then. In his mind he saw a black and haunted section of the forest, echoing with cries and confusion and unending frustration, and he understood that he was being shown this image very deliberately.

I will show you. You must promise not to take from him ever again.

We did not want to hurt our Greywaren again. We want to make his dreams again. We want to give him his dreams but we need to see. We need to see what happened, how we failed him. We need to understand. We cannot fail him again. This time he saw more bits and pieces - the black, crusted ooze caked around Ronan’s nose, and mouth; the flickering shape of Noah’s silhouette; a glowing dot of light sitting on Gansey’s shirt, atop his heart. Adam pushed through the shock of reopened grief and steeled himself.

I will be your memory. I will give you whatever you need.

Adam felt a wave of such relief and gratitude and joy from Cabeswater that he choked back a sob from it. He eased his consciousness away from this place, from the onslaught of smells and shapes and numbers and languages. He pressed himself back, backward, retreating and rescinding in a rush, until he felt solid dirt and grass beneath his own scrambling fingers.

The world reshaped itself around him, into a sunrise, a grassy clearing edged with thorns and flowers, and a raging bonfire.

 


 

“Adam, what the fuck.”

Ronan stalked into the center of Cabeswater, where Adam had gravitated alone to wait for his friends. He knew they’d all meet back there, beneath the oversized stars. He’d been standing there studying Ronan’s sky, realizing that it was a much stranger layout of stars than the one in the real world.

“You unbelievable little shit. Tell me I just imagined that,” Ronan continued, stopping about four feet away and folding his arms, taking up a wide, defensive stance. “That it was just part of my nightmare.”

“Imag-” Adam’s voice came out a croak. He stopped to clear his throat. “Imagined what.”

“What the hell do you think? I will be your memory? Can you not fucking help yourself in the fucking slightest?” Ronan threw his arms wide. “What is wrong with you?”

“I - it - it was the only thing I could think of.”

“Of course it was. Of course!” Ronan’s voice echoed around the night sky, and he clasped his fingers behind his head, his eyes squeezing shut.

“You could hear me say those words?” Adam asked weakly, guiltily, as an afterthought.

“Yeah, I could - Jesus Christ, Magician, everyone within fifty miles of this place could hear it. I heard it inside my own body! Maybe don’t channel half the ley lines on the eastern seaboard next time if you don’t want to be overheard!”

“Okay, look, this is the reason you can’t dream, they said that flat out. If I help put the pieces together then maybe-”

“Yeah, I know, Adam! I heard that too, I figured we would deal with it together, not that you’d just jump in and pull this shit again. Why can’t I leave you alone for five fucking seconds without you sacrificing something to a - a magical entity? Do you think I would ever have brought you here if I even remotely suspected you’d start giving up whatever you could think of off the top of your fucking-”

“Ronan,” Blue’s sharp voice startled Adam. He didn’t know how long she’d been standing there, a few steps behind him.

“Oh no. No you don’t. Don’t give me the fucking Ronan-Don’t voice. You heard what he just did. You think just because I’m in love with him that I’m not going to call him on his shit now? I mean why does it have to be me, why do you guys let him get away with it? I’m not just going to stand here and go along with it, he’s fucking everything to me and you know that! Why am I the only one who wants him to stop offering himself up as fucking collateral?

Adam stared and stared, and stared some more.

He wasn’t sure he was still breathing.

All of the defensive and strident thoughts in his head, all the arguments that had been jostling and shouting to be first in line for battle … all of them vanished into a confusing mist in his mind, like trying to remember a dream.

He couldn’t remember any of it, couldn’t see or hear anything else-

You think just because I’m in love with him-

just because I’m in love with him-

just because I’m in-

Blue and Ronan were still talking, Blue saying something about how they didn’t know what it meant yet and Ronan just grumbling back irritably. Adam almost felt like he was hearing it in another language. Like he couldn’t put words together right. Except just because I’m in love with him.

Bizarrely, he was also thinking about Ronan in the cellar earlier, at the Barns, insisting so certainly that Blue already knew.

"Whoa, hey, what’s going on,” Gansey ducked beneath a low-bending branch and called to them from the forest. He made his way closer and went immediately to Ronan, looking him over like he was checking for blood or bruises. Which Adam understood perfectly well.

“What’s going on?” Ronan gaped at him, incredulous. “You mean aside from the Adam Parrish Sacrifice Hour?”

“Ronan. Would you - would you please just calm down,” Adam’s voice trembled as he tried to find his thoughts again, tried to concentrate. Just because I’m in love with - “Cabeswater is … it is missing a chunk of time, and I can fill in the blanks. Then maybe you’ll be able to dream again. It’s - it is really not that big of a deal.”

“And when exactly do you plan on doing that? Because Adam Parrish is always so flush with spare fucking time, right? In a city two hours from here, where you are a full-time law student and part-time library employee?”

“I will figure something out,” Adam’s jaw clenched involuntarily.

Ronan wasn’t wrong about the things he was now saying. Adam was just - he realized - stubbornly not letting it sink in yet. The logistics were indeed going to be a pain in the ass at best.

But still very much preferable to ever seeing Ronan curled up and crying on the ground like that. Ever, ever, ever.

“You’ll figure something out. Okay,” Ronan nodded sarcastically, moving closer and sucking in a breath. “You always do, right? Do you actually like putting yourself in this shit so you can prove how smart you are and figure out a goddamned plan? Everyone knows you can use your brain, Harvard, you don’t have to invent a sticky situation to puzzle your ass out of and-”

“I had to do something!” Adam spread his hands wide in a helpless gesture, staring Ronan back down and cutting him off. “Otherwise the forest was going to learn from the stock footage of trauma in your brain, and that’s not happening. I’m sorry, it’s not.”

“Who asked you to decide that? You think I can’t handle a fucking nightmare? Who do you think you’re talking to here? You think I haven’t seen that shit over and over in my sleep since then anyway?”

“That doesn’t mean it’s okay to make you see it all again, not like that. It’s different, you know it is!”

“If it had been one of us,” Blue stepped in, moving herself between them like a barrier but directing her words at Ronan, “if you’d seen one of us on the ground like that, you would’ve done something too, Ronan. You don’t know what it was like.”

“Adam has seen the ends of my nightmares before,” Ronan’s voice got quiet, but no less angry, as his gaze flickered to Blue. “He knows perfectly well what I can deal with.”

“Yeah, I do. I know it better than anyone else,” Adam brought the volume down to match, even though his own was slightly shaking. “And if you think I’m going to let them do that to you ever again without coming through me first, you don’t know me that well after all.”

“Oh, I know you all right,” Ronan rolled his eyes. “Doesn’t mean I have to be on fucking board with it.”

“All right, you two,” Gansey came closer, resting a hand on each of their arms. “We don’t even really understand the specifics of how Adam can fulfill this. None of us wants Ronan to be exposed to these replays; this doesn’t have to be terrible. It doesn’t, Ronan. Let’s go to Fox Way and ask for some guidance, like we planned.”

“Finally. Yes,” Blue nodded. “I still want to see Ronan's wing, though. Before I have to go.”

“I'll show you,” Gansey released Adam and Ronan, but kept glancing cautiously between them as he retreated and walked with Blue toward the trees.

Their footsteps faded, and Adam sighed, tearing his gaze from Ronan’s scorchingly angry one and looking back up at the stars again, instead.

“It’s a little annoying how they keep trying to leave us alone but still want to know exactly what happened later,” Adam noted, following the curve of a cluster of stars with his eyes.

“Don’t change the fucking subject.”

“Have you ever even seen a star chart?” Adam ignored the growl beside him, because he didn’t have anything else to say for himself in that argument. “These constellations are all wrong. Orion is backward, I think.”

“Yeah, well. Don’t look too hard at those. You keep staring and you’re gonna find the one below your left shoulder. Or this one,” Ronan grabbed at his wrist and turned it over, traced a pointed line between the five freckles scattered across his inner arm.

Adam’s eyes widened as a shiver crept over him, and he stared in outright disbelief up at the sky, then back at Ronan, who let go of him again and turned his back. He didn’t know how many more shocks his system could handle.

“Ronan-”

“Come on,” Ronan snapped over his shoulder. “We’ve got shit to do.”

Adam started to let him go, let him storm off like always. But then he changed his mind. He hurried to catch up and and snatched at Ronan’s fingers, held so tightly onto his hand that he was afraid it had been painful for a second there.

Ronan glanced down almost suspiciously at first, but he still held on and didn’t let go, all the way back through Cabeswater.

 


 

Ronan’s car was barely parked in the driveway at Fox Way when they all saw the screen door fly open. Opal ran down the path, toward the BMW, and was launching herself at Ronan before he could even extricate himself from the driver’s seat.

“Hey. Hey, I’m okay,” Ronan blinked in obvious surprise before leaning down and hugging her tightly in his lap. “It’s okay.”

Adam swallowed, his throat threatening to close up again. His eyes stung. He left them to their moment and got out of the car, trailing after Blue and Gansey, who were taking turns glancing back in Ronan’s direction.

Inside the house, Opal left Ronan’s side and came rushing over to Adam, lifting his hands gently to run her tiny, pale fingers over his and inspect every inch. She touched his wrists, too, then seemed satisfied and hugged his waist, her forehead digging into his side. He smoothed her hair down and stood still, and they grounded each other, calmed each other with their stillness while the others followed some kind of unspoken agreement to gather in a sitting room, sinking onto mismatched furniture.

Adam peered through the doorway and took stock. Gansey and Blue were curled together on a little loveseat by the window. Ronan was folded onto a chair that seemed to be stolen from the dining room set, and he dragged it up near Gansey’s side. Maura sat calmly in a wingchair opposite them, and Calla took the piano bench. It was sparsely attended, as Fox Way meetings tended to go.

“O, let him sit down,” Ronan said in a quietly authoritative voice.

“She’s fine,” Adam frowned, tucking her hair behind her ear as she looked up at him analytically, her pale eyes reminding Adam of an evening sky in Boston, right before a snow storm.

After a few seconds she let go of his middle, squeezed his hand again, and scurried over to plant herself on the floor in front of Ronan’s chair.

Blue took the lead in relaying the afternoon’s events - well, they had started out being afternoon events, technically. Somehow it was past ten at night everywhere else though. Ronan had grumbled something about still not being able to help the way Cabeswater fucked with time.

“... different than before that, I mean the first time we all woke up in the place where … Adam’s wing? What even was that, Adam?” Blue raised her eyebrows at him, and he pulled his attention back to the present. He’d settled on a little round wooden stool beside Maura.

“Um. I’m not sure, exactly. I had to scry to get there. I don’t even know if it exists, like … in the same place and time as the rest of Cabeswater, I don’t - My brain can’t really wrap around the logistics of it.”

“You had to scry to get there,” Maura repeated, narrowing her eyes. “Then how did you bring the others with you?”

“I asked for them. I asked Cabeswater to let them in.”

“But you said he was the only one who could access the ley line source you built in,” Maura tilted her head toward Ronan.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Ronan held his hands up in front of him. “He’s the one who knows how to manipulate everything. I just dreamed him up the space.”

“Speaking of the space,” Blue smoothed a bit of hair up into her bun from the back of her head and re-secured a little clip there. “Did you just run out of gas for Adam’s wing, or what? Gansey’s got a geographically impossible view of the mountains and you have a giant eternal flame of creation and Adam’s is like a … a circle of grass?”

“Adam doesn’t need me to make shit for him,” Ronan sighed, as if it were just that obvious to everyone. "Do you not get that? He is the magician. He can make it anything he wants it to be, all by himself, Cabeswater's power is for him. And it’s not easy to even carve out a space that doesn’t really fucking exist in this same dimension and that I can’t personally enter on my own to physically see, so how about you lay off the design critique, Sargent.”

“Okay, we are getting sidetracked here. You,” Maura pointed at Adam, “you need to understand exactly what it is you have committed yourself to. And you’re saying you think this is related to his dreaming power being restored. Correct?”

“Yeah,” Adam glanced warily at Ronan, who kept his mouth shut, but it looked like he was doing so under protest.

“Do you want to-” Maura looked at Calla, who frowned back for a while, and everyone else had to wait out their silent exchange.

“Fine,” Calla’s mouth twisted, and then she got up and left without another word.

As their glances were jumping back and forth to Maura and each other, trying to gauge what had just been decided, Opal stood carefully, looked to Maura for a thoughtful nod, then followed through the same door Calla had used. Adam was bewildered by this, but nobody else seemed to notice.

“We’re going to try a reading. With all three of us. For more insight on what we think Cabeswater needs here. Let’s go in the other room.”

“All three? What?” Adam gaped, his heart squeezing in sudden and unexpected pain at the thought. Persephone’s not here, how the fuck are there three of you.

“Opal has been a very quick study. Just like you were,” Maura lifted her chin toward the doorway, where Blue and Gansey and Ronan had already begun to filter out.

“Opal? Is your third? I … Jesus,” Adam chewed at his lip.

“Persephone is irreplaceable,” Maura laid a hand on his shoulder. “You know that, honey. That’s not what it means.”

“I. Okay. I - I didn’t - okay.”

“Come on.”

 


 

A good half hour later, after all of the cards had been laid out, and all of them had been inspected and considered and pointed at and cryptically commented on, Maura breathed out a sigh and lifted her gaze to Adam with a frown of concern.

“There is a sort of sacrifice required here. From you, since you’re the one powerful enough to convince it in its own language. But I think what it wants is a thing you don’t really have to give.”

“Time,” Opal spoke up, rather shyly. Adam was standing on the right side of her chair, looking over her shoulder at the table, and Ronan was on her left.

Ronan scoffed and looked up at the ceiling.

Opal turned back toward Adam, gestured for him to hold his hand out. He did as instructed, and then his chest tightened as he watched her fasten his own old, beat-up watch around his wrist, above the newer metal one he wore now. Adam closed his eyes for a good long moment, gripping the back of Opal’s chair with his other hand.

“Would’ve easier for you to give up your hands and eyes again, let’s be real,” Ronan muttered.

“Okay, look,” Adam coughed, clearing his throat, leaned down to press a grateful kiss against Opal’s hair. “First of all, Cabeswater wants this because it’s determined to never let what happened before happen again. And I kind of agree with that being a priority. To be honest. If the forest needs to understand what went wrong before, then I’m perfectly willing to help with that, because the forest’s safety is tied to its dreamer’s. We all know that. We all remember that.”

He looked over at Ronan, who was still looking vaguely displeased but quite cooled off from his shouting fit in Cabeswater.

“I know it’s going to be hard. I know I’m busy. But I know how to make time for what’s important. Y’all know that, don’t you? Do you honestly think I won’t do whatever it takes to keep Ronan safe?”

“I don’t think there’s ever been any question about that,” Calla leaned back from the table, across from Adam, and folded her arms to watch him challengingly. “But I do think you kids still have a lot to learn about handling yourselves and your emotions. Jesus. Love doesn’t always have to be about sacrifice. When are … literally any of you going to learn that? You do not have to prove your devotion to each other through suffering. Do you hear me, Coca-Cola? It’s not a damn test, for once in your life.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Adam glanced around at his friends’ faces, feeling chastened. He saw Blue frowning down at her hands, and Gansey pursing his lips pensively. Ronan was of course rolling his eyes and looking like he wanted to be anywhere else.

“All right, good. What’s second of all?”

“Hm?” Adam squinted.

“You said first of all earlier. About Cabeswater,” Calla spoke slowly and clearly, like she was talking to a toddler.

“Oh. Right. Second of all. Ronan. You know how I could only get to the altar by scrying?”

“What?” Ronan’s head snapped toward Adam in clear surprise at being addressed so directly. “Yeah, so?”

“Do I have to scry in Cabeswater?

Ronan opened his mouth like he was going to provide a snappy retort, but no words came out. His eyes widened a bit, and he looked sideways and forward again, obviously considering this.

“I … Shit, Adam, I don’t know. Who the hell knows what you’re capable of, now that the forest got a hold of you again. If you thought you could do it from somewhere else, I … I wouldn’t bet against you.”

“Oh my God,” Blue pressed her fingers against her open mouth for a moment. “You think you can get there from somewhere further away?”

“That’s what I’m asking,” Adam shrugged.

“That kind of power - I just don’t think that’s possible,” Maura glanced at Calla questioningly before turning to Adam again. “It would take a lot of practice. A lot of work, honey. I don’t know. It’s a new kind of power that we don’t really understand yet, and you’re rusty.”

“He drew off so much of the ley line earlier I thought we were having an earthquake,” Calla muttered.

“He can do it,” Gansey cut in confidently, speaking up for the first time in what felt like hours. Everyone looked at him in surprise. “Trust me. I know he’ll do it.”

“Do you still remember Persephone’s lessons?” Maura lifted a Magician card and tapped its corner against the table.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then practice. Try it. As much as you can. But you're going to need to physically be there at first, to make good on your promises to that forest, if you don't want it getting frustrated and hitting up Ronan again. You're not going to be able to scry your way in from somewhere else right away. It’s not going to be easy.”

“Heard those words before, in my life,” Adam toyed with the old watch at his wrist. “About lots of things.”

“Okay. Well,” Maura reached over to touch a fingertip to the tip of Opal's nose. Adam looked down and saw Opal’s head resting back sleepily against the chair, her eyelids drooping. “I think we’ve learned as much as we can for one day. Why don’t you take Opal home so she can get some sleep. It’s been an eventful birthday.”

Chairs were pushed back, cards were gathered up, hugs and smiles were exchanged. Adam dragged a hand through his hair and felt a sudden onset of exhaustion, the weight of everything sinking into his gut. The extraordinary beauty and magic of Cabeswater still sang in his heart, but the lingering aftereffects of fighting with Ronan scraped at his insides, hollowed him out.

And yet - just because I’m in love with him -

He shuffled back into the sitting room, following the crowd, and hid a yawn by tucking his face into his own shoulder.

“Adam,” Blue whispered, grabbing at his hand. “Listen. I think Gansey and I will just crash here for the night. Why don’t you ride back with Ronan and Opal, and we’ll come pick you up tomorrow. Nine o’clock, like you said. Okay?”

“I, um,” he swallowed another yawn. He felt entirely too wrung out to determine whether Blue was trying to manipulate things, and too desperate for some actual alone time with Ronan to care if she was in the first place. “Yeah. Thank you.”

“Good,” she squeezed his fingers and let him go. “I don’t think he’s in any more danger of those nightmares, thanks to you. If you two stay up all night fighting, though, I swear I’ll kill you myself.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Adam’s mouth twitched up at the side, and Blue flipped him off as she left to give Opal a hug.

Adam received his own hugs from Maura and Calla, and then exchanged one with Gansey, who looked just as tired.

“Parrish, are you ready or what,” Ronan’s voice called out loudly from the front hallway, where he’d ushered Opal along. He didn’t stop or look back to ask.

“Yeah, I just - I’ll be right there. Need to find my shoes,” Adam rubbed his eyes and glanced around at the edges of the room.

“Have you checked to see if you accidentally sacrificed them to Cabeswater?”

 


 

Opal was completely passed out in the back seat not five minutes away from the driveway. Adam kept glancing back at her, wondering how she could possibly be comfortable like that. She was hugging Ronan’s jacket but curled almost sideways on the back seat, so her head was nearly hanging off the edge.

She’d kicked her boots off onto the floor. Adam smiled fondly at the way her hooves twitched every minute or so. She looked like she could run for miles, free of her human disguise.

There were so many questions and assertions fighting for Adam’s attention, so many ways he could launch into the things he wanted to talk about. He didn’t understand how Ronan could be so fucking silent, now that they were alone. Maybe he was just that angry.

Adam fastened and unfastened his old watch, took it off and flipped it over and over in his restless fingers. He didn’t think he’d really grown that much since he was eighteen, but the watch felt too tight when he buckled it at the old worn-in hole in the strap.

He almost spoke up a couple of times, questions pressing in a demanding way against the roof of his mouth, but each time he’d take in the way Ronan’s hands were tense and tight around the steering wheel, and he’d back off again.

He was tired, yes, but his questions would keep for twenty more minutes. He didn’t need to be provoking arguments while Ronan was also tired and trying to drive through the pitch-black back roads of Singer’s Falls. And he didn’t want to risk waking Opal or upsetting her further. The way she’d clung to Ronan earlier made Adam wince in the darkness.

He ran his thumb over the face of the watch, then pulled out his phone and stared at it as he tried to sort through his chaotic thoughts. There were certain things he absolutely had to remember to address in a little while, when he could get Ronan talking again. He was going to sit there and gather his thoughts, focus on what he wanted to get across during some rare and precious time alone together.

There was so much at stake. So much to lose, now. Again. He had to figure out a way to hold on to all of it.

 


 

“I don’t know why I’m so exhausted when to me it should only be, what, six or seven at night?” Adam spoke up hesitantly from his position at the window, where he was watching the beam of Opal’s flashlight bounce toward the new home Ronan had created for her. She’d filled a little backpack and was carrying a box of Honey Nut Cheerios.

“Maybe draining my entire magical forest of energy so you can boss it around is a little taxing,” Ronan said flatly, and Adam turned to see him leaning against the back of the couch with his eyebrow raised in irritation.

“Okay. Okay, you know what? We need to talk,” Adam took a steadying breath, pushing himself away from the windowsill and taking a few steps toward the armchair. Maybe if they both sat down, instead of pacing around and working themselves up like they always tended to-

Shit, Ronan was staring at him. Clutching the back of the couch so hard his knuckles were white. He looked like the wind had been knocked out of him, his eyes wide with what Adam could only describe as terror.

“Ronan?” Adam tested, actually looking behind and around himself to see what the hell had just spooked Ronan so badly, what-

“No. No way,” Ronan shook his head, then somehow backed up along the side of the couch like he was scrambling to get away from Adam.

“What-”

“You’re not fucking doing that. That’s not - you can’t just - are you serious? Now, Adam? After you heard me say-”

“I … Ronan-”

“God, I knew you would do this. I fucking knew it. It was never gonna be that easy, right? Do you really want to get back at me that bad? I can’t - Jesus, I knew you were going to do this and I still can’t seem to fucking believe it. You’re giving me we need to talk now? Here?”

Ronan broke off from his alarmingly upset words and stalked into the kitchen, and it took Adam a full minute of shock and confusion and utter bewilderment before finally piecing this together.

We need to talk. Christ. After all that careful consideration and preparation - God, he’d made a list!

He practically jogged into the kitchen and straight to Ronan again, who was crouched down on the floor in front of the fridge, holding his head.

“Oh my God, Ronan,” Adam knelt in front of him, grabbed at his arms. “Listen to me. It’s not that. I just want us to talk, okay? I think we have some shit to talk about together, to figure out together, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not trying to give you a - a breakup talk. Is that what you think? Do you really think I’d … um. God. Don’t answer that.”

Ronan let Adam coax his hands away from his face and watched him carefully, tentatively, the vulnerability and raw emotion in his expression making Adam breathless.

“Look at me,” Adam clutched at Ronan’s fingers. “I’m not going anywhere. It’s not that. Okay? I just need you to talk to me. Come back. I’m sorry I said it that way. I wasn’t thinking.”

“You … literally just want to talk,” Ronan blinked at him.

“Yes! Because we’re finally alone and in the same zip code and a lot of shit has gone down. I need to process it with you. Are you awake enough?”

“Yeah, I - yes, Adam. Please.”

“Let’s not sit on your kitchen floor all night. Just … Come here, come with me.”

Adam got up and pulled Ronan with him insistently, refusing to let go of his hands. He backed up until he felt confident Ronan would continue to follow him, and then he turned and led the way to one of the living room couches.

Chapter Text

“You sure you’re okay to do this now?” Ronan asked tentatively, quietly, sinking onto the edge of the couch, like he was ready to jump back up if Adam told him no. “You’ve looked so fucking drained since we left Cabeswater.”

“I have?” Adam rubbed at his eyes. “Oh. I’m tired, I guess, but I - I don’t want to wait. I have so much weighing on me and I don’t know when we’ll have another chance."

"Okay, well. Good."

"So. Um," he stopped to clear his throat, nerves scratching at him. "To start with. The thing about Opal. I should have run that by you first. I’ll give you that. Fine. You are her legal guardian, like you said. I just got excited about the chance to give her something at all, after so long. I’ve missed all of her other birthdays, I - Ronan, I didn’t even fucking know she had a birthday. I want to know her. I want her to be able to know me again.”

“Yeah, I've been thinking about that since - since you started to say it," Ronan breathed the words out slowly, like he was just easing into this whole conversation thing, still shaking himself out of shock.

"Is that why you just stopped talking at all?"

“Um. Yeah, kind of. I wasn't thinking about it like - I just - I was too caught up being afraid of how much she fucking … loves you,” Ronan flinched as he said those words, glancing away for a moment. “After you left for Harvard, and she knew you were far away, she didn’t talk to me for a week. She slept outside in the fucking field, and I thought she was gonna run away. I was - I had no idea what to do. I was eighteen and fucked up and stupid. I didn't know what to do with a heartbroken little kid. I was scared for her. And I mean I know that was all my fault, how I handled it, that's not what I'm saying, don't look at me like that. And I know now she’s more of an adult than I am, way stronger and braver. But I - I shouldn't have acted like that was on you, we both know I'm the one who'll fuck it up. But this one could fall on her too. If she starts to see you and get attached again …”

“Okay,” Adam swallowed hard, hugging his arms around himself. “Okay, I know, I just - I love her, too. A lot. I did back then, too. I'm the one who wanted to go get her back. And you said if she saw me again it'd only remind her and upset her again, and maybe that's true, but you fucking made me be the one to leave her. And I was angry about that for a long time. I still am, to be totally honest. All I want is to be in her life, somehow. it doesn’t have to be like it was, if you - if we don’t want that, it’s not even really about you and me. I know you were trying to protect her but I think you hurt both of us when you cut me out.”

“Christ,” Ronan sighed. “Okay, I know. Back then I thought the best thing was to hold her there too tight and have it be her and me against the fucking world and I just - that was my fault. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I did that to both of you. But I - I do want to show you something. Come on, it’s upstairs.”

Ronan was already halfway up the first staircase before Adam could quite comprehend that they were going on some kind of field trip. He hauled himself up from the comfort of the couch and followed as requested, until they were up at the attic door again.

Adam had seen this a little of this before, at Christmas, when Opal had shown him her room. He hadn’t been all the way back through it, though. Ronan flicked on light switches as he went, and paused at one of those old fold-out Victorian screens, set up like a zig-zagging barrier. Then he nodded for Adam to go around it, to the area hidden away on the other side.

It looked like a little reading nook, with a window seat on one side, book shelves bracketing it, and an old overstuffed armchair on the other side of the screen. A perfect little hideaway for getting absorbed in a book. It was cozy and peaceful.

But the thing that drew Adam’s eye, eventually, was a big cork board over a desk on the opposite wall. It was covered in pictures and articles.

“Is that …” Adam moved closer. “Oh my God.”

There were two little crayon drawings of what looked like Chainsaw, and five or six photos that appeared to be Ronan’s sculptures. But all around those were other, much more familiar-looking items: an Aglionby graduation program; a commencement program from Harvard; clippings from the local paper highlighting Dean’s List names - there were three different semesters represented; a photo of Adam and Gansey in front of the Georgetown entrance; a journal article he’d had published from his sociology thesis research; a printout from Georgetown's news site about this year's law fellowship recipients.

It was full of little scraps celebrating Adam.

Adam ran his fingers over the yellowed newsprint and the worn corners of photos and had a strange slippery feeling, like he was going to pour like liquid through the floorboards.

During his first couple of years at Harvard, he’d taken advantage of the hospitality of quite a few friends’ parents and families, because he had no reason or desire to go back to Henrietta for things like Thanksgiving break. On those occasions, he’d generally find himself bunking down for the weekend in someone’s old childhood bedroom, one of his Harvard classmates. And inevitably there’d be the shelf of soccer trophies, science fair medals, school photos showing dimples and missing front teeth.

There was no such shelf anywhere boasting about Adam Parrish.

Or at least he’d thought as much. Until now.

“At first I told her you were far away at school, and that was it,” Ronan straightened a sturdy bit of cardstock that announced Adam Parrish, Valedictorian, Aglionby Academy. “Then when she asked more questions I started to tell her more of the truth. That you were gone because of me. I didn’t want her to hold anything against you. She’d get mad at me and yell at me to stop being stupid and - and she was right. She’s always right. I started bringing back these things for her to know you were okay out there, that you were out conquering the fucking world and that’s why you were far away, and it’d cheer her up.”

“How do you even have this picture of me and Blue. I do not have this picture of me and Blue.”

“Oh, I dunno, Blue must’ve given it to her.”

“God.”

Adam sat in the armchair, his eyes still darting around to every little bit of information on the board in front of him. He couldn’t stop.

He didn’t want to be cocky or anything, but it was … deep down it was kind of nice to see his accomplishments laid out like that. He’d worked his ass off for all of that.

“Why haven’t you told me about this before now?”

“Uh. You mean this giant fucking stalker wall I’ve created? Not really a great way to bring that up in conversation. I mean maybe that one can wait until the second date, at least.”

“Ronan.”

“I should’ve let you see her again,” Ronan leaned against the desk, folding his arms, gazing down toward the floor. “I know that now. I know it doesn’t fix anything for me to say that now. I’m not showing you this to, like … try and make up for it. I’m just showing you so you’ll know that you weren’t just totally gone from her life.”

“Yeah, well. Maybe from her side. I didn’t fucking get any clippings. I didn't get a goddamn bulletin board. I might as well have been gone!”

“Okay, I know, I - I’m sorry. Look, I won’t do it again. I was scared today but I also … I see now how important you are. To each other. I shouldn’t have panicked like that. So if you wanna give me the we need to talk speech for real, I - We’ll figure something out this time. So she can still talk to you.”

“I don’t like how you say that,” Adam mumbled, tucking his feet up underneath him. “Like you still expect it to happen. Honestly, do you really think that after a couple of fights that’s just it? Do you really think I haven’t sat and thought about this and analyzed it and brought myself here, to this point, consciously and carefully and - and deliberately investing myself, like - do you honestly think that I could so easily just say fuck it and bail if you get mad at me?”

“I mean honestly? Maybe. I don’t know. I wouldn’t blame you.”

“Jesus.”

“All this … this fucking careful considering you’re doing, that’s great for you, but … You say you want to go slow to take time and like get to know me again and shit. But you know what, we’re talking, we’re doing this now, so tell me the truth. Is it actually because you know deep down you’re gonna think better of this eventually and snap out of it and then you won’t have to feel as bad when you decide it’s not worth it to you?”

“No. Ronan, that’s not why,” Adam got up and clutched at Ronan’s arm, just for some contact, his fingers digging into the long, rumpled shirt sleeve. “Is that how I’m making you feel? Like I’m not really serious?”

“I mean … I really want to think you’re serious. I want it really fucking bad. I don’t really get anything but serious. But I don’t know how much or how long you’re gonna keep holding me back at this safe distance and measuring me and deciding if you really want to be with me.”

Adam kept still for a moment and took this in. He thought back to the car, earlier, when Ronan had said something similar.

“I’m just scared, Adam, I - I’ve thought about this for so long, God, I thought I’d go to my fucking grave with this secret of how bad I still wanted you all the time. But now that you're here I kind of don't know why. That's why I keep waiting for the - to wake up from the dream, for you to wise up and realize what you're doing. I wouldn’t even blame you anyway with how much I hurt you before. It’d actually make way more sense to me if you changed your mind. When you tell me now that you’re happy because of our date, or you actually like talking to me all night on the phone, I want to believe it, but I’m still - fuck, I’m just scared. I can’t shake it.”

“I do like talking to you all night on the phone. I like it a lot,” Adam squeezed at Ronan’s forearm. “But I still need to go at my own pace sometimes, to keep myself safe. Is that what’s scaring you, the way I asked to go slow? Or is it how I yelled at you in the car?”

“Well, I mean. You did keep saying we couldn’t do this because we’d fight all the fucking time, and then today happened, and what am I supposed to say to that one anymore.”

“You know what,” Adam raked his hair away from his forehead as he considered this. “We do fight sometimes. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that’ll ever go away completely. But the more I think about it, the less I think that was, like … the real problem. It was the stuff we were fighting about but couldn't admit or say to each other. The way we are, you and me, we - I think we’re kinda supposed to fight sometimes.”

“Adam, come on,” Ronan sighed, sounding exasperated but still very gently trailing a fingertip over Adam’s knuckles.

“Not the bad fights, okay, I don’t mean that. I mean like … how we can actually talk shit out like this now? Sort of? I think we can probably learn to avoid more of the shouting matches now, if we try.”

“I bet you and Grace never fought like that.”

Adam let go of Ronan’s wrist, began toying with the edge of his sleeve instead, considering how to answer this in a way that would feel honest but still not scare Ronan even more.

“Just say it, Adam.”

“We had our fights. They were … different,” Adam let out a nervous breath. “But I think I am starting to understand that a little better, now that I’m spending time with you.”

“The hell does that mean,” Ronan watched him warily, and Adam really wanted to chase that fear out of his eyes, out of the way his eyebrows set so rigidly.

“Grace and I, we did fight sometimes, but it was - she analyzes everything, too, and she’s a lot better than me at separating emotion out of it. She and I just - we worked differently together. But I just mean different, not better. The thing is … okay, here it is, I’m just gonna admit it, even though it feels shitty. I didn’t feel for her what I feel for you. I tried, because I wanted it to work. But it’s different with you. When you and I fight now it’s fucking terrifying and I start panicking and lashing out and I … I need to work on that. It’s partly because we still have so much to talk about, but partly that I’m starting to realize more and more how I really don’t want to lose you again. Not to one of our stupid fights, that’s for sure.”

Ronan’s eyes narrowed a little. He was very quiet, leaning back, watching and considering everything so carefully. Adam had never felt anyone’s attention so squarely and intensely on him in his life.

“I, um,” Adam looked down, feeling very nervous now and actually starting to blush from the way Ronan was studying him like that. “There are some other things I want to say. It’s important.”

“Well fucking say them then,” Ronan blinked a couple of times, his eyebrows lifting impatiently.

Adam hesitated, then reached down and pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“What are you doing,” Ronan caught Adam’s hand as he was pressing the button to glance at the desperately typed-up notes on his screen. “Is this conversation cutting into your texting time or something?”

“No, no, sorry. I just … um. This is embarrassing.”

“What,” Ronan’s stare burned into him again.

“There are certain things I want to remember to talk to you about and I was afraid I’d forget them if we got sidetracked or - I don’t know. I don’t get much of a chance to talk to you alone like this.”

“Adam. Did you make a list? ” Ronan’s eyebrows jumped as he glanced at Adam’s phone screen and back to his face. “Jesus, fuck. You did, didn’t you? You have a fight list? Does it have bullet points? Do you even know how ridiculous you are?”

“Shut up,” Adam grumbled, pocketing his phone again.

“Holy shit. This is the single most Adam Parrish thing you have ever done in your entire Adam Parrish life.”

“Quit making fun of me, okay, it’s a good technique for-”

“Oh, God, I’m sorry, it’s just … it’s sexy as fuck,” Ronan slid his hands to Adam’s waist, pulled him closer so they were pressed against each other, and kissed him.

Adam’s whole body felt it in a jolting gasp. His eyes flew open wide and then closed again as he decided to give himself over to it for a while.

It wasn’t a difficult choice, really; he’d spent two very long and lonely weeks fervently missing Ronan’s touch and voice and smell and obsessing over their last kiss and wishing time would go by faster so he could have more.

Ronan was breathing the life back into him, and he felt it like the rush of energy in Cabeswater.

Only this was sweeter. Better. More honest and real. Burning over his lips and skin, tensing up his fingers and toes.

"Jesus, I missed you,” Ronan gasped and kissed him again. Adam was melting into him.

“Missed you … too,” he managed to pronounce against Ronan’s lips.

Adam’s whole body was lighting up with desire, but it wasn’t time for this yet. He couldn’t give himself over to it. Not yet. Not yet. He had to pull himself back from the kiss and it took all of his focused willpower.

He could tell Ronan was holding back, too. Something about the particular stillness of his hands, the way they just hovered at Adam’s hair but didn’t dig in and hold on.

“Adam. God, sorry,” Ronan mumbled, slowing the kiss down until it was just a quick touch of lips, and then easing away. “It’s like I just now realized you’re here with me and the house is finally cleared out and I’ve been dying for that ever since you showed up today.”

“You don’t have to say sorry for that,” Adam gulped in a breath, ran a shaky hand over his own face.

“Okay, I just - I know you’re not done talking. We’re not done, I mean, and if I kiss you for five more seconds I - you do some kind of lightning strike shit to my brain.” Ronan sighed. “Let’s not stay here, I feel weird kissing you in here.”

“What, Opal’s room? Okay. Yours instead, then.”

“Uh,” Ronan raised an eyebrow. “Okay?”

“Come on.”

 


 

After Adam had taken a minute to compulsively catalog all of the little changes in Ronan’s room - different curtains; a weird new leather chair that looked slightly too wide; a new lamp and nightstand - he settled onto the edge of the bed, because he didn’t feel like having a whole awkward talk about whether it was okay or not. He was tired, and he didn’t care that he was basically kicking down all of the walls he’d built for his own protection around Ronan Lynch.

“Sit down,” he pointed, a little grumpily, at the other end of the bed. He was also kind of riled up now and strictly reminding himself not to keep foregoing the talking in favor of the making out.

“All right, do it,” Ronan sat with his back against the wall. “Read me the - the fucking fight list.”

“Shut up.”

“No, I’m serious, I want to know what it says. Read it to me.”

“Um. I don’t think I need to - to really look at the list to remember.”

“Okay,” Ronan’s eyebrows lifted impatiently.

“Why do you automatically think that me spending more time in Cabeswater is sacrificing something?”

Ronan narrowed his eyes at him, wary and watchful, like he was waiting for some kind of trap to spring. “Is this a trick question, Parrish?”

“No, it’s a question question.”

“You said it the same way,” Ronan’s mouth twisted irritably. “Like the first time. Like a sacrifice. I will be your whatever.”

“Maybe, but you’re not really answering the question. It’s me, okay? I know your little half-answers and dodges and tangents, we’re not doing that anymore. I’m too tired for that. So cut it out and tell me why you think it’s such a sacrifice,” Adam’s foot reached out to give Ronan’s leg an insistent nudge.

“I don’t even get why you’re asking me like that, like it’s some kind of weird-ass opinion that I have, that you want me to justify. It’s a thing that is true. If you promise shit to Cabeswater, that means you have to come here and do it. That’s the whole deal. You don’t have the time or energy or - or resources, and you know that.”

“Resources. Did you learn that from Gansey?” Adam rolled his eyes, then chastised himself inwardly, actually hearing Grace’s voice in his head: You don’t get to sidetrack if he doesn’t. “Okay, yes, that’s true, what you’re saying, that it’ll take time and energy and money. Gas money, train ticket money, yes, resources. But what makes you think I wouldn’t have been doing that anyway? If we’re dating now?”

“I … you don’t … have a car,” Ronan squinted at him. “I do. I was going to come to you.”

“Every single time? Every fucking weekend, you’re going to come to me? Drive two hours each way?”

“Well, I, uh. I didn’t mean that you have to see me every weekend, I just meant-”

“Oh my God, Ronan. It’s not the frequency I’m objecting to. It’s the fact that you’re just assuming you’re going to do all the work and you don’t even realize it. Why should you have to come to me? What about your life here, your house, your work. Your art. You’re just … not going to be here on weekends?”

“If it means I get to see you, then no,” Ronan’s eyes flashed rebelliously. “You think I’ve waited this long just to argue about who goes where on weekends? I will go where you are, whenever you say I can, because it’s all I’ve fucking wanted for years, and driving back and forth is nothing.”

“Ronan,” Adam grabbed blindly at Ronan’s knee, squeezing it hard and closing his eyes.

It was hard to even breathe right, but he counted inhales and exhales. Concentrating on the conversation was so impossibly hard when Ronan said things like that. Adam’s heart squeezed and his skin ached and he tried to get a hold of himself.

“Okay. Okay, I, um,” Adam paused to chew on the end of his finger. Inhale, exhale. He pictured Ronan’s giant bonfire in his mind’s eye and let it focus his energy. “I hear you. I want that, too. I just want to ask you to think about how you are basically saying the same thing that I did, in maybe a different way. You want us to be together as much as possible, and you’re sitting there saying that you’ll do whatever it takes, you’ll travel and spend time and whatever. I know this isn’t Cabeswater but you’re still offering up a sacrifice, Ronan. Okay? Do you get it?”

“That’s different.”

God,” Adam groaned, flopping back onto the mattress, his knees bent up toward the ceiling. “You’re still such a pain in the ass sometimes.”

“No, I’m serious,” Ronan inched closer, wrapping his hands around Adam’s shins; it felt like he was burning handprints into Adam’s jeans. Adam shivered a little. “It’s not the same. I’m not in law school. I have a car. I don’t really have to be anywhere at any fucking time and that’s how I like it. I can come and go whenever. If that’s a sacrifice, it’s nothing like yours.”

“Mm, okay, I … yeah, fine. Point.”

“Besides, I don’t hate D.C. That much. I mean, yeah, the traffic can suck my dick, but the galleries and museums are cool. And Gansey’s there, and Sargent’s right over in Baltimore. It’s not like you coming back here. I don’t want you to have to do that. You hate it here. All you ever wanted was to get the fuck out.”

Adam chewed at his lip and then hauled himself back up, so he could look Ronan in the eye again. This meant Ronan let go of his legs, though, which made him feel chilly again.

“I’m not going to try and pretend that I don’t get the cold sweats driving through Henrietta,” Adam began slowly, carefully. “But I do not hate it here.”

“Come on-”

Here, Ronan,” Adam pointed down at the bed beneath them, meaning the Barns but not really able to indicate the whole place with one visible gesture.

But in fact he could narrow it down that much, if he wanted to. To that particular bed.

“Here, at the Barns,” he continued, just to clarify, watching Ronan’s laser-blue attentive gaze. “With you. And Opal. And not because of how pretty it is here, but because you are here. You always used to say that you didn’t want me to be tied to this place, that it would weigh me down and hold me back, but I wanted to be tied to you, you asshole. Wherever you were. And when you talk about the way this place never deserved me? You’re not talking about here. We both know that.”

“Getting kind of technical, aren’t you? You like it here, but thirty miles away is the dirty-ass hellhole you had nightmares about.”

“I know. That’s all stuff in my past, stuff that hurt me, stuff that I don’t want or need to return to. That’s different.”

“Yeah, but I am stuff from your past that hurt you,” Ronan looked away, toward the door. “We both know that. So why is it any better here with me?”

“Because you … you told me you were sorry for it. You’ve changed. Ronan, you’re not just a painful thing in my past anymore. You’ve changed, and grown, just like me. And yeah, I have my life away from here now, but I do want to keep some kind of connection, at least, if I can. It’s about you. And Opal’s here. And Cabeswater. God, Ronan, Cabeswater,” Adam said it out loud again, like an invocation.

He closed his eyes to let the images fill his head again. The gems and gears and coins and flowers sparking from the gold-tipped flames of Ronan’s bonfire. The soaring, impossible valley view.

“Cabeswater can go fuck itself,” Ronan’s voice rumbled through the memories of that place and startled Adam into a disbelieving laugh.

“What is wrong with you,” Adam shifted around and sat closer, rested his head against Ronan’s shoulder. “Honestly.”

Ronan was warm and electric, his shirt soft beneath Adam’s temple. Now that Adam was close enough, he could confirm that he’d been right about Ronan’s forest clearing smelling like him. It was enough to make Adam’s eyes roll back into his head.

“I didn’t bring Cabeswater back into existence so it could start asking you to sit and tell it bedtimes stories,” Ronan’s hand kept Adam’s head tucked against him, the pads of his fingers setting onto Adam’s scalp. His words were typically abrasive, but his voice was smooth and even. “Of course it was asking for you, all the time, but if I’d known this would happen, I wouldn’t have taken you there in the first place.”

“It was asking for help to make sure nothing bad happens to you again,” Adam mumbled. “I wasn’t going to say no to that. I wasn’t just … making sacrifices for the hell of it, okay? I had a very good reason this time. I don’t care if you think it’s stupid. I don’t care what it wants from me if it helps keep its dreamer safe. Besides, I want you to be able to dream again. It’s a big part of you. It’s important.”

“See, there you go again,” Ronan sighed, eased Adam’s head up again so they were eye to eye. “I don’t want you obligated to me or my forest or this place just to keep me safe. I don’t want a fucking magician bodyguard, I want a magician boyfriend. Not just stuck with me out of responsibility. I don’t want that from you. If you’re gonna be here then I want it to be because you want to be. Not to help me.”

“Come on, Ronan, I do want to be here! I want you, this isn’t a fucking pity project. You’re not something to be tied down to, to weigh anyone down, to hold anyone back. You’re not eighteen anymore anyway, you’re different.”

“You’re different now, too,” Ronan’s fingertips toyed with the seam of Adam’s jeans, the bunched-up denim at his bent knee. It was just a hint of a touch, a tentative graze against the very edge of Adam.

“Yeah, well. I sure hope so. But I want to talk about you for a second. You always take every opportunity to talk shit about yourself, and I don’t understand why. You’re a brilliant artist. You always were, even before the sculptures, you were creating things, imagining them.”

“Yeah, the art world was really starving for a box of blue Frosted Flakes.”

“Shut up,” he rested his hand against Ronan’s chest. “And now this entire forest you’ve been designing in your head for years, Ronan, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. It should be an art installation in the fucking Smithsonian, or something. You’ve worked your ass off on that, and on Opal’s - God, I haven’t told you this yet, Opal’s apartment is-”

Adam had to stop. He didn’t need to start crying right that second.

“All these things I’m saying about you,” Adam began again. “I don’t want you to just shrug it off like I’m exaggerating. I’m sick of your self-deprecating bullshit, and frankly it scares me. I’m pretty sure the real reason you cut me loose in the first place was that you didn’t believe you deserved to be with me, or you didn’t deserve happiness at all, I don’t know. Something like that, right? And I’m scared you’ll eventually manage to convince yourself of that all over again.”

Ronan crossed his arms and leaned forward, folding up and closing off, and was quiet for a while. Too long, really. Adam’s stomach felt like it was being stapled to itself.

“Ronan, talk to me,” he eventually spoke up, his voice wavering. “Please.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Ronan’s voice was muffled at first, before he sat up slightly, still not enough for Adam to see his face. “I don’t want to lie to you. But I’m afraid if I don’t you’ll change your mind, and I don’t - Christ, I don’t blame you.”

Adam ran a hand over the back of Ronan’s head, trying to interpret these words.

“I don’t know if I can stop thinking those things, Adam, I don’t know how. I don’t. I’m sorry. I made your life hell once already. I don’t want you to think I can do better this time and then get fucking disappointed, I - you should know what you’re getting. I want to be what you want. But I - I don't know why you want to be here with me and risk everything all over again, I can't seem to make myself understand it.”

“Okay, I - okay, listen to me,” Adam squeezed at Ronan’s shoulders. “There’s a difference between knowing you did a - a bad thing, and knowing that you are a bad person. You’re not a bad person. Neither am I, I don't think. Even though I did and said some bad shit, too, in case you don't remember. I hurt you right back. I hurt Blue and Gansey, too, sometimes. And you were right before, you know? You were right to ask why they don't call me on it."

"That's not at all the same fucking-"

"Fine, whatever, the point is - can you imagine if what it would be like if all of us were ... were just gonna be judged forever on what we did at eighteen, or twenty-one, or whatever, that's - that's fucking horrifying! I know who you are. You are not a thing you did five years ago, when you were lost and grieving and struggling, okay? You're generous and devoted and kind and thoughtful and … okay I don’t know if I even know a good word for it. You’re, like - vibrant. You make everyone else look like they’re in black and white, to me. And also … maybe this is a self-centered way to look at things but I know you’re not a bad person because I wouldn’t love you so much if you were. I’m smarter than that.”

Ronan’s head slowly lifted back up. He blinked slowly and squinted at Adam like he was trying to translate something he’d just said in another language.

“You know how Calla said that thing,” Adam plowed on ahead. Maybe he was doing his nervous-fast-talking thing, but he couldn’t stop now. “About how love isn’t about sacrifice? I mean sure, I think that’s a good thought. It’s nice and poetic. But I don’t think anyone can say love means this or that, not just universally, because in my opinion it’s different for everyone. For a while I thought true love had to hurt. But now I understand what it is for me, and it works like this, okay? When I start to feel it, I fall in love a lot. Not one big drop, but like … like stumbling around and losing my balance until I realize I’m in way deeper than I thought.”

Ronan was so silent and still, taking in every word in complete fascination.

“That’s what happened to me the first time,” Adam took a breath and kept going. “With you. And that’s what’s happening to me now. When you get all nervous about your gallery showings, or you drive all the way to D.C. just because I sounded sad on the phone, all these times have been little drops on my way to loving you again.”

“... Jesus, Adam,” Ronan’s hand had wandered to Adam’s knee and had an iron grip there now. “You really - I mean - you don’t have to-”

“I’m not just saying it, Ronan. I’m here with you because I want to be, because I’ve gotten to know who you are now and I can’t stop thinking about how much you’ve been through to get here. Is it really that hard for you to believe? You think you can show me around the new home you built for Opal and filled with … with things you knew she’d want and need and places you want her to see someday, and every speck of it you deliberately designed ... and that I wouldn’t be too in love with you to even see straight by the end? The stars, Ronan? God, the tree you made so that Blue could talk to her ancestors again for the first time in five years? You’ve got some kind of nerve, have I told you that?”

Ronan’s shocked, frozen expression had begun to slowly ease into what looked like a poorly disguised little grin.

“I didn’t build that thing for Opal, the structure was already-”

“Oh my God, you asshole!” Adam shoved at his chest. Ronan laughed with a wild, deep abandon that made Adam’s breath run away in a giant rush. He caught Adam in his arms and hauled him into his lap, caught his face between his palms and kissed him.

Adam needed a second to get his bearings, to realize what was happening, and then he sped into the kiss like he’d been drowning without it. Ronan’s mouth was feral on his, hungry and demanding and euphoric in a way that made Adam realize just how much he had been holding back before.

Ronan’s hands were buried in Adam’s hair, holding him steady. Ronan had a way of pulling back every so often and drawing out a kiss into a long, charged, breathless pause, like he was savoring just that one moment, memorizing it. It felt like the world slowed down around them to match. And then Adam could feel him collapsing back into the need, even hungrier and faster, his hands clutching and pulling and pleading.

Ronan’s mouth dragged slowly over Adam’s one more time, and then he pulled back to breathe a little, his head dropping back against the wall. Adam took the opportunity to kiss Ronan’s jawline and cheeks and earlobes and chin and neck, he was driven, he needed to re-learn every inch with his lips and tongue and teeth.

“Adam,” Ronan’s voice was just a whisper. “I can’t fucking stand it anymore. I need you back.”

“I’m right here,” Adam cradled Ronan’s cheek to look at him more closely. “Tell me what you want.”

“Did you really mean it? What you said? Fuck, I never thought - I never let myself really think you’d ever-”

“Of course I meant it, I’d never say it otherwise, you have to know that. I’m so in love with you now I - I feel like I’m going to come apart,” Adam confessed in a rush, dropping his head against Ronan’s shoulder again.

“I’ve got you,” Ronan held him tightly, one hand in his hair and the other wrapped around his lower back, keeping him steady across Ronan’s lap. “You, um - you know how you said you think love is different? For everyone?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“It’s different for me, anyway. If you want to know the truth, I - I’ve never even known how to love anyone else but you.”

“Ronan.”

“No, don’t - I’m not just being a fucking sap, I’m being serious, this is - I thought for a while there was something wrong with me. Maybe there really is. I dunno. It’s like once you were there in my heart, I didn’t want anyone else, but also I … I just did not get how to want anyone else. Like, I’ve had dates, I’ve had sex, I tried it, but I just - God, this sounds crazy.”

“No it doesn’t,” Adam laughed a little against Ronan’s shirt - he was smiling so much it was starting to pinch the outsides of his cheeks with a little ache. “It sounds like you.”

“I’m not trying to say it to sound all pathetic, but I - Even though I never saw you or talked to you I still heard what was going on with you, your graduation, your internships, when you got into law school, when Gansey was so excited you’d be at Georgetown too, I was always so fucking proud of you. I’m sorry I - God, fuck, Adam, I’m sorry I wasn’t there for all those things. I’m sorry.”

“Okay, I - let me just say this, because it’s important,” Adam sucked in another deep breath. “I know you’re sorry. And I want to say it’s okay, but I - I’m still working on that. It’s going to take time, and we’re going to figure out how to make it okay again. I just - I’m going to need your help, and I’m going to need you to give me time and space to get there, when I need it. I need you to not pressure me into it. It’ll just … it’ll take how long it takes. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay, I - shit. Of course. I didn’t think about it that way, about pressuring you into - okay I’m sorry I was complaining about you wanting to go slow, I was just being paranoid, I didn’t think of it like that-”

“Shh, I know. Just - I still want to be with you. That’s what matters. If you still want to be with me. We’ll figure out how we work together. Look, I want to, um - I want to show you something, too,” Adam decided aloud, his voice cracking and scratching. He breathed in deeply, picturing that bonfire again, focusing himself.

He sure had adopted that particular visualization trick pretty quickly.

He eased back a little on Ronan’s lap, back toward his knees, and Ronan let go of him instantly, dropping his hands palm-up on the bed at the sides of Adam’s legs. Adam hadn’t meant to send a let go of me message; it was just logistics. He needed to back up for this. But he wasn’t surprised that he’d gotten that reaction. It was very Ronan to jump back and wait for more explicit permission.

Hopefully it would be obvious in a second, though, why he’d moved that way. Adam swallowed a lump of anxiety in his throat and then reached down to yank his own shirt up over his head.

“Jesus Christ,” Ronan’s eyes popped wide and round, and he stayed perfectly still, his arms still at his sides and nowhere near Adam.

“I didn’t tell you the whole story before,” Adam straightened his posture self-consciously; he felt a blush spreading down his throat, over the top of his chest. Ronan’s gaze locked onto Adam’s face, like he was just that determined to not take any liberties.

“Of your tattoo?” Ronan mumbled, his voice thin.

“Yeah. The where and the why of it. Ronan, you can look,” Adam’s teeth pressed against his lip to keep from smiling too much. He didn’t want Ronan to think he was laughing in some kind of teasing way. “It’s okay.”

There were three main colors in the whole thing - green and brown, all outlined in delicate black. Adam watched for a moment as Ronan’s eyebrows lifted in a confirmation, one final permission check before he began looking downward. Then Ronan was sucking in his bottom lip in concentration, his eyes trailing up and down the design, painstakingly following all the lines and points and curves.

Adam sensed movement in his peripheral vision and glanced down to see Ronan’s hands opening and closing, his fingers twitching restlessly. Adam smiled again.

“Come here,” Adam reached for Ronan’s right hand in both of his, lifted it gently and placed it against his own skin. He sucked in a breath at the contact and felt Ronan’s fingers curl up again, digging into Adam’s side.

“Jesus fuck, you’re still such a miracle,” Ronan began tracing an index finger along the main line of Adam’s tattoo.

Ronan. Oh my God.”

“I thought I knew why you picked this side,” Ronan kept right on talking, following the outline of a tree with twisted, broad roots and leaves that almost whispered against the underside of his left arm.

“I figured you’d remember,” Adam tried to breathe normally, but he’d been holding so still beneath Ronan’s touch that he was drawing in sudden little bursts of air at weird intervals. He reached down and tapped at the burn scar on his ribs, revealing the secret of a particularly knotty part of the tree.

“Must’ve hurt right there. Right on your rib,” Ronan mumbled, barely audible, still very much caught up in his careful and tentative explorations.

“Yeah. Look, though, there’s something … um. There’s an actual real reason why I showed you this. Do you see this shape right here? It’s a - a maple seed. Looks like it has a wing on it?”

He wriggled around a little in Ronan’s lap, so that part of his tattoo would be visible. It was on the left side of his stomach, on the way toward the bottom of the whole image.

“You see it?” he brushed the side of his thumb over the tiny part of the design.

“Yeah, I - yeah,” Ronan swallowed visibly, his throat rippling.

“That’s the seed of Cabeswater,” Adam leaned closer to press his lips against the top of Ronan’s head. “That was for you, in a way that I never admitted to anyone else. Even myself sometimes. But that’s you, the - you’re the one who created it.”

“That kind of seed,” Ronan’s brow furrowed. “Those seeds are the kind that … that fucking fly away. Helicopter seeds. Declan and I used to find them and spin them in the air.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know. That was kind of the point, at the time. That’s why I asked for it in the design. To let go of you, finally. To try, anyway. To be okay with you being so important and yet still being able to really let you go. Is it weird?”

“No,” Ronan’s eyes were closed.

“It’s kind of funny to think about now. I used to focus on that part, on the part that I wanted to let go of, finally. But now I think about it the other way around. You know? The part that I want to keep.”

There was a long silence, and when Ronan spoke again he still hadn't opened his eyes.

“I made it for you,” he said quickly, a rushed, practiced breath of saying confession. “Cabeswater.”

“I … What?”

“Not that one,” Ronan’s eyelashes fluttered; he indicated Adam’s tattoo by sliding his fingertips over Adam’s stomach. “Not the old one. The - the new one. Isn’t it fucking obvious by now?”

“I mean I … it’s for you, it’s for all of us.”

“Yeah, sure, but mostly it's for you. When I dreamed it up, I could only think about how pissed I was at myself for doing that all alone, without you. I was already imagining it again when you were there with me, when I had you, I couldn’t wait to bore the shit out of you with all my plans for it and then - so - so then every stupid tree I dreamt up was a tree that didn’t exist because I couldn’t fucking tell you about it afterward. It only really exists to me now, now that you’ve been there and - and seen it.”

Ronan stopped to breathe, and Adam was too stricken to say anything, so there was a bit of a silence again.

“I used to daydream about you getting to see it. I mean, just to see it, not like for me to … You had Grace and I didn’t want to fuck with that, I never would have, that’s not what I’m saying-”

“I know.”

“But I was still obsessed with figuring out a way to make things up to you. So then, like … Cabeswater. I built it all just ... imagining that it could be for you. What you'd ever do or think or - or whatever. I wanted you to have that magic back. I didn’t really think you’d set foot in it, though. But now you’re here and you said you want to be. I can’t even believe it’s real, I mean holy shit, Adam, I love you so fucking much, you just - you don’t even know.”

Ronan looked up at him steadily, promisingly, and Adam had to suck in a breath from the magnetic glow of it, giving him goosebumps all the way down his shoulders and arms. Then Adam was being lifted, slightly, turned onto his back, pressed down into the bedspread, Ronan’s hands trailing over his chest. Ronan stretched out over him, propped himself up, burying his fingers in Adam’s hair and lifting his head up toward him for a long and heart-wrenching kiss.

It was slower and more intimate, and Adam wondered if he’d fall straight through the mattress, through the floor and the ground and the surface of the Earth, he was dizzy and aching and lit up with love. Adam loved him so overwhelmingly, more than he ever had before. It was staggering, this sudden and total certainty about it.

“Adam.”

“Hmm,” he let his head fall back again, tugging at Ronan’s shoulders until he gave in and collapsed against Adam, stopped trying to hold himself up.

“Is this our second date? Like, did we ever decide that or not?”

“Oh my God,” Adam held Ronan’s head against his chest.

“I was just asking.”

“I don’t want to count anymore. Because otherwise you’ll tell me you don’t want to sleep with me until the fifth date or some shit and I’m already kind of dying for it," Adam sighed. "I’m just - I’m a little tired right this second.”

“Adam. Fucking Christ, just - what time are they coming to get you?”

“Not until nine. We’ll have time.”

Ronan groaned as he pushed himself back up and away, then got up to turn out the light.

“Come on, get in here,” Ronan nudged Adam until he could pull the covers up and around them both. “If you’re leaving tomorrow morning, I’m not letting go of you till then.”

 


 

Adam had been more worn out than he’d realized. He slept in a long, dreamless rush, clutched against Ronan’s chest. He’d given in to it almost instantly when they’d tangled up together so desperately.

He only understood how deeply passed out they’d both been when he blinked his eyes open at the sound of his phone loudly and rudely buzzing from the nightstand.

Had he set an alarm? Shit, he couldn’t remember. He could tell it was already late morning, though, from the way the light came in through that window.

Ronan’s room. God. He smiled uncontrollably for a moment and reached for his phone. It was Blue calling him. And it was already quarter after nine. Shit. Shit.

“Hi,” he croaked into the phone, then coughed and tried again. “Sorry. I’m late, right?”

“Adam Parrish. Did I just wake you up? Oh my God. Who even are you anymore.”

“Uh. Really behind on my sleep, apparently,” he further extricated himself from Ronan, who began to grumble and swear.

“The front door was locked so I went to Opal’s. Do I really need to remind you that you are the one who insisted we get back in time for your-”

“No. Shit, no, sorry, give me like five minutes.”

“Gansey and I are having breakfast with the only responsible adult here, so. Meet us at Opal’s and you can say goodbye.”

“Uh-huh. I’m on my way.”

“The fuck you are,” Ronan growled as Adam hung up. “What the hell.”

“Ronan, we slept way too long, I - I’ve gotta go.”

“Right this second?” Ronan grabbed at him and pulled him back down. “Sargent can wait.”

“Um. Not really, I’m the one who told them I had to leave by nine or else,” Adam sighed, clutching at Ronan’s crazily bunched-up shirt. “I have work.”

“No, God, you can’t go now, I - fuck,” Ronan’s head sank back into his pillow. “Fucking hell, Adam.”

“I know. Come on, they’re waiting at Opal’s.”

“I was supposed to have time, you said we’d have time, you asshole.”

“We’ll have time. Lots of it. Just not today. I really do have to be at-”

“Stop, don’t say it again, that’s enough. Jesus.”

Adam crawled up and away from Ronan, forcing himself with some kind of secret reserve of willpower he did not know he possessed, and tugged stubbornly at Ronan’s hand until they were both upright again. Then it was a slightly off-balance trudge to the bathroom, and downstairs while Ronan took his turn. Adam was running too late to be sentimental at the moment, or else he’d run his hand over every wall and chair and piece of furniture, tell it all that he’d be back soon, that he’d visit when he could.

They trekked over to the barn that had been reclaimed for Opal, Ronan clinging to Adam’s hand the whole way.

Adam supposed their relationship was basically out there for Blue and Gansey to see, but he wasn’t sure about the Opal part. He was going to defer to Ronan for that. He stopped to give Ronan’s hand a squeeze before letting it go as they approached Opal’s front door.

“I’ll tell her,” Ronan mumbled, and that was how Adam knew his action had been understood. “After you guys leave. I don’t want to rush it if she has questions.”

“Okay,” Adam nodded. “So I’ll, um - God, Ronan-”

“I’ll drive up Friday. If you want.”

Adam tried to say yes, I want, I want, but he couldn’t even fucking swallow. He nodded haltingly instead, and Ronan hugged him tightly, kissing his forehead and cheek.

 


 

The lump in Adam’s throat was painful and persistent. He hugged his arms around himself, huddled into the corner of the back seat. Blue kept looking at him with a mix of concern and curiosity, probably because the only words he’d said out loud were to Opal, to promise he’d send her an email soon. Blue could clearly sense that something big had shifted last night with him and Ronan, but for once she wasn’t grilling him for details.

They were stopped at the edge of the driveway, Gansey checking for any oncoming traffic before he turned, when Adam felt his phone buzzing in his pocket. He jumped a mile at the interruption and pulled it out to see who was calling.

He shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut against tears of either despair or irritation or laughter, and put the phone to his right ear.

“Ronan, we’re not even out of the driveway,” he turned and flopped onto his back across the seat, propping his foot up on the edge.

“You forgot to read me the rest of the fight list.”

“What? Oh. Oh my God. For fuck’s sake, Ronan.”

“You can’t just go back to D.C. without telling me what the hell else was on there! Come on.”

“I’m not going to read it to you now. I’m in the car with Mom and Dad.”

Gansey shot him a wounded look in the rear view, and Blue flipped him off.

“Then text it to me or something. Come on, Adam, send it to me.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll call you when I get home.”

“Okay. Don’t fucking spend an hour correcting your spelling on it or whatever, either, just send me the stupid fight list, I need to read it, please? Right now.”

“I’m hanging up, Ronan.”

Adam was laughing and crying at the same time, and Blue reached back to squeeze his arm, leaning her chin on the back of the seat and grinning like mad.

He held her hand gratefully, letting her see the way his eyes were shining with hope and elation and love.

He pulled up the word processing app on his phone and screenshotted it dutifully so he could send the image to his boyfriend.

 

  • I should have asked you first about O’s bday gift
  • But I want/need to be part of her life
  • You still need to understand youre not holding me or anyone back
  • I know you now & youre beautiful & brilliant & brave & kind & selfless
  • I wouldve done anything to stop that nightmare of yours & i’m not sorry
  • Being in CW or here w/you is not a sacrifice, it’s what i want anyway
  • I want to be with you all the time
  • I want to learn how to forgive you & it might take time
  • But I don't want to lose you again
  • I love you

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Adam? Hey, isn’t that your charger?”

Adam came to a sudden halt in the lecture room aisle and spun around to see Taylor, pointing at a thin white cord on the desk.

“Oh. Oh, God, yeah, thanks,” Adam jogged back down and snatched it up. “That wouldn’t have been good.”

“Yeah, no. I sit too close to you to let you destroy your academic life by leaving a laptop charger in a locked classroom all weekend.”

“Thank you,” Adam grinned broadly, winding up the cord haphazardly and shoving it into his bag.

“You’ve looked so ready to get out of here all class. You’re usually such a good little 1L. What’re you so jacked up about? Weekend plans?”

“You can tell, huh?” Adam swung his bag over his head, across his chest.

“Uh. Yeah, Adam,” Taylor gave him an unimpressed eyebrow quirk.

“My boyfriend’s visiting,” he spoke the words aloud, trying to bite back another stupid laugh. “From out of town. Today.”

“Oh,” Taylor’s eyebrows did another dramatic thing, lifting briefly, and she looked at him like she hadn’t seen him before. “Well. That’s great. Don’t forget your torts assignment.”

“I’m not that out of it. But thanks. Have a good weekend.”

“You too. Clearly.”

Adam only barely heard her; he was taking the lecture hall steps two at a time. He’d begged off his library shift, which was of course stupid, but he needed Ronan so badly, so fucking unbearably, that he thought he could almost legitimately justify it as a sick day. And Ronan had sounded so floored about it on the phone, so taken aback that Adam would even consider such a thing for him.

He was laughing again, delirious and distracted.

 


 

Ronan was already there waiting, sitting on the front step in a dark grey hoodie and black jeans, playing with his phone. Adam wanted to pause, to take a minute to memorize the image of it, but his feet carried him faster toward the front door.

Ronan jumped up when he saw or heard Adam coming, one or the other, and shoved his phone in his back pocket. He looked nervous.

Adam’s heart stuttered and lurched.

His fingers reached the edges of Ronan’s sweatshirt first, pulling and claiming. Ronan was up on the step, which made him an additional six inches taller. He leaned down and kissed Adam, breathless and trembling, and Adam tilted his head up, up, up, a sunflower starved for sunlight. His spine prickled all the way down.

“Hi, baby,” Ronan murmured against his lips.

Adam groaned and jumped up the step to the door and fumbled for his keys.

 


 

Adam had retained exactly zero percent of his class lectures, all day. He’d typed notes obediently, but then his hands had repeatedly drifted slowly away, to the side, as he cycled through daydreams, desires, all the decadent and fast and slow and demanding and pleading and intoxicating things he wanted to do to and with Ronan Lynch.

He couldn’t do all of them at once, despite his furious and impossibly perfectionist desire to, but he was going to do all of them soon enough, one after another, he was going to have and give it all. He was going to dive in with his eyes closed and fall and fall and fall.

He dropped his bag on the floor with a thud and kicked the door shut behind him and dragged Ronan to him again by the pockets of his sweatshirt, kissed him intently and with everything he had, feeling a little too close to the way he’d felt when channeling a ley line. The roulette wheel of desires spun in his mind and landed on one, maybe at random, maybe not. Adam was done processing the data and picking it apart, at least for now. For a little while.

His mind was made up. He kept a secure hold on Ronan and kept pulling, walking backward through his apartment, his brain helpfully creating for him a little map of where to sidestep, where to haul Ronan closer to keep him from stumbling. Ronan’s eyes were closed, still kissing Adam in desperate little bursts whenever he could, his fingers curled tight into the waistband of Adam’s jeans. He was trusting his magician.

Adam walked them both through his bedroom door and then kept going until they were at the bathroom door, and he took a few more steps and let go of Ronan long enough reach in clumsily and turn on the shower.

He was suddenly struck with remembering the time their places had been reversed, and Ronan had done this for Adam, when Adam had looked up at him from something like rock bottom on New Year’s.

He took a moment to breathe and listen to his own racing heart and look at Ronan steadily, to make sure his intention was being understood. Ronan was hovering there, running a palm over his freshly buzzed scalp, glancing between Adam and the shower curtain. Then he came closer with a decisive look on his face and began slowly unrolling the folded sleeves of Adam’s button-down shirt, at his elbows. Careful and gentle and attentive in a way that made Adam's head feel light and dizzy.

 


  

It was a challenge not to just stand there and stare as water poured over the perfectly smooth planes of Ronan’s skin. The muscles in his arms and shoulders were all traced with rivulets, dividing small, angled sections of Ronan like the black dividing edges of a stained glass window. Only more beautiful.

And Ronan was staring back, his needy gaze taking in all of Adam’s body, wet hair to dripping elbows to slanted hip bones to prominent ankles.

There was nothing else, no world around them outside of that blessed shower.

Ronan’s hands crossed the unspoken divide first, sliding wetly over the tree branches and leaves and vines inked onto Adam’s left side. He pressed a fingertip against the little seed beside Adam’s navel, the one Adam had confessed about. Then Ronan gripped Adam’s hips tightly, easing him back against the tile, his thumbs digging in where they always had before, exactly where they belonged again.

Then Ronan was down on his knees, learning Adam’s tattoo with his tongue, and Adam’s head dropped back hard against the shower wall. Ronan made a noise of worry, at the sound of it, but Adam could only shake his head, his hands cupped around Ronan’s shoulders.

Ronan left his own mark with his lips, outside the lines of Adam’s tattoo, because of course. Adam did something that was either a laugh or a sob; he couldn’t quite tell.

He didn’t let Ronan stay there, though; Ronan had gotten ahead of him.

He hauled Ronan up again and spun them both around, watching Ronan’s surprised eyes widening with undisguised arousal as Adam pressed him impatiently against the wall and crouched down to drop reverent kisses down the path of Ronan’s perfect hipbones to his beautifully flushed cock, hard and jumping, reaching wildly for Adam.

Adam let his kisses wander lower, grazed the familiar satiny inner thighs with his teeth, then held Ronan from the base and took him into his mouth, all at once, the water making his movements so easy and smooth against Ronan’s skin. He felt a little rush of power when he heard Ronan swearing and gasping and pleading his name.

God, that was the spell, the incantation: Ronan mumbling Christ, Adam … shit, oh my ... God in fucking heaven, Adam ...

The magic worked its way all throughout Adam’s body, warming his insides, letting his heart be weightless, making him feel perfectly aligned with his past and present and future, materializing right where he belonged: coaxing prayers and curses from the lips of his Greywaren.

 


 

Adam was harder than he’d ever been in his life, aching in a way that he was afraid might’ve been pulsing with some nearby ley line, and he shuddered from it, but he didn’t let Ronan touch him until they were both dry again and they were sprawled across Adam’s bunched-up bedspread. He was being greedy, testing himself.

It was a perfect sort of torment, these moments between them now when they both wanted everything, both knew there was nothing else that would satisfy them, and were just barely controlling their shaking bodies long enough to delay it a tiny bit longer, to escalate the climbing build of pressure even further, to see how high they could go together.

They’d never been quite so patient years ago, as teenagers. It had been clumsy and awkward sometimes, hesitant or overly enthusiastic, but still beautiful in that exploratory and breathless kind of way.

They were more easily able to slow down, now, to lazily stretch out dozens of moments, drink down every luxurious drop of each other. Ronan already knew that Adam’s lower back was so sensitive he’d actually jump at too gentle of a touch there, and he knew precisely how hard to tug at Adam’s hair so it was exquisite and not painful.

When Adam was buried deep into Ronan’s throat, he felt Ronan’s tongue melt over him in tight, expert little waves that made him want to scream. He didn’t say holy shit Ronan that’s new, but he definitely thought it. He couldn’t say actual words, anyway, because he’d been dangerously close to the edge for at least half an hour and all he could do was choke and groan and dig his fingers into the sheets beneath him.

He came like a fucking freight train, feeling it barrel down on him and push hard and out and through, it was like nothing he'd ever felt before. He gasped and laughed and cried for Ronan, because he had come apart completely and was now a hysterical trembling twitching mess.

 


  

They didn’t think to eat anything until half past ten at night, Ronan in a pair of sweatpants he’d brought for the weekend, and Adam in his boxers and Ronan’s hoodie. They almost never stopped touching in one way or another, and when Adam’s stomach had growled obnoxiously, Ronan had rolled his eyes and dragged them both into the kitchen, looking for anything edible. They sat tangled up in each other on the futon, very inconvenient for actual eating but very conducive to Adam being able to keep his forehead tucked into Ronan’s shoulder and neck whenever he wanted. Ronan correctly deduced aloud that he was probably never getting that fucking sweatshirt back. Adam didn’t pretend otherwise, zipping it up defiantly over his bare chest.

 


 

For a while they were both perched in the armchair, Adam curled up in Ronan’s lap. They slept at strange intervals, in ridiculous positions and places, paying no attention to time or whether the sun was up or down.

They knew they needed to talk more about Cabeswater and memories and scrying and sacrifices, but it was too crucial to stay wrapped up in each other first, to cradle the wounds they’d caused in themselves and each other, and nurse them, care for them, mind their edges, try to determine whether there would be scars.

Adam traced the scar over Ronan’s collar bone again, pressed his lips to it like he could still somehow help heal it. He left soft, adoring little kisses all over Ronan’s skin, basking in the beauty of his resilience.

Nearly unmade, once. But now here, holding Adam, all in one gorgeous piece.

Some of their injuries would be scars forever, but others were scabbing over. They had time now.

 


 

They didn’t acknowledge the outside world for at least thirty-six hours.

 


  

Sometime Saturday night they were lying on their backs on the living room carpet, forming a crooked T shape, Ronan’s head pillowed on Adam’s stomach.

“Why'd you put Cabeswater so close to where Noah was buried? For like a memorial?"

"Yeah. Sort of. Also there was ... I don't know if I want to say it, you'll think it's pathetic."

"What."

"When I was still dreaming about it I used to see him as like ... the gatekeeper. He'd protect the entrance there and haunt the shit out of anyone who came near it. Like making creepy giggling noises from far off in the woods or whatever. And when I pulled it out there was this tiny part of me that couldn't help still hoping ..."

"Oh, God. That he'd come back?"

"Yeah."

"That's - I'm sorry, Ronan. That must have hurt all over again. I know he would've loved it, to see it, if that means anything."

"Mm."

"Did you really have Cabeswater all out of your dreams that long ago? Way before you saw me at Christmas?

“Yes.”

“What were you going to do if I hadn’t been dragged back to Henrietta for their engagement party? If I’d never agreed to come back at all? To see it? What were you even going to do with it, if I was the only one who could get to the power source?"

“Uh. Probably burn it all down.”

“Ronan.”

 


 

On Sunday morning, when Ronan was passed out so deeply that he was snoring a little, Adam went to his desk drawer and moved some things around, found a pale yellow envelope still taped and sealed. He retrieved it as quietly as possible and padded out to the living room so he could open it without disturbing Ronan.

It had been there since Grace moved out, Thanksgiving week. He shook out the key into his palm and stared down at it. And smiled.

 


 

On Sunday night, when it was already almost nine and Adam had just finished typing an admittedly substandard but at least completed assignment for the next morning, Ronan was putting books away on the shelves again. Adam closed his laptop and they looked at each other for ten long seconds. Adam didn’t think his eyes were that pleading, but the next thing he knew, Ronan was pulling out his phone and calling Opal to tell her not to wait up tonight, that he’d be home tomorrow instead.

Ronan reached his hand out for him, and Adam went.

Ronan pulled him into his lap again and whispered to him and kissed him and ran the tip of his tongue over the freckles on the inside of Adam’s wrist and told him he never really wanted to leave, maybe ever, and then fucked him into oblivion.

 


 

Ronan did actually leave on Monday morning, at the same time Adam left for class. They kissed against the BMW again, and Adam pressed his spare apartment key into Ronan’s hand. Ronan stared and stared at it, then pocketed it and dropped his forehead against Adam’s.

“Call me soon,” Adam gulped.

“Let me drop you off on campus.”

“I ... it’s the - the complete opposite direction you’re-”

“Adam, just get your ass in the car. Do you think an extra ten minutes makes a difference? God.”

“I’ll get in if you promise to swing by Starbucks or something. I ran out of coffee two days ago.”

“Fine. Come on, you’re gonna be late.”

“By the way, it’s ten minutes there and ten minutes back, that means you’re actually twenty minutes out of your way.”

“You are really not as cute as you think you are when you do that shit.”

 


 

Ronan said he’d be back next weekend, which turned out to be … Wednesday night.

“My weekends are flexible,” Ronan grinned in a shaky way as Adam grabbed at him in surprise and overwhelming delight, hauled him inside, tore the beloved leather jacket from his shoulders and arms.

“You don’t have to knock anymore, you know? I gave you a key.”

“Is it not a little creepy for me to just waltz in when you’re not expecting me?”

“Um. Yeah, maybe.”

“Have you been working on your Cabeswater homework?”

“You mean the thing I said I might eventually work on when you left two days ago?

“Fuck, Adam, I think they were the longest two days of my life.”

 


 

Adam was in the shower Thursday morning, the hint of a smile dancing around his lips as he scrubbed soap over another one of Ronan’s marks, outside the edges of his tattoo. This one was small and crooked and crimson.

He’d left the bathroom door open, but Ronan still knocked on it from somewhere out there, announcing his presence.

“What,” Adam called, sort of over the shower bar toward the bathroom. “You have to come in here if you want to talk, I can't hear you over this.”

Adam set the small nub of what was left of a bar of green soap on the dish, and a second later he heard a weird muffled, repetitive thud at the shower curtain. Ronan was knocking on the fucking shower curtain now.

“Oh my God, what,” Adam leaned over to pull it aside a few inches. Ronan took it and held it open for him, so he went back to grab the shampoo bottle. He really had to get to class on time for real.

“Some lady was at your front door just now,” Ronan said through the tiny gap. Adam could see him peering in and spying now, his eyes roaming hungrily even though - Jesus, Adam had spent all night naked on and in the bed with him, it wasn’t like he was scoring a peek at something new.

Still, it kind of made Adam feel like he was blushing, maybe.

“Oh. Yeah. Mrs. Clark?”

“I didn’t exactly get her name. She said she was looking for her cat?”

“Yeah,” Adam sort of winced. He finished lathering his hair and leaned back under the shower head to rinse. “She, um - She kind of has the same conversation with you every time you answer the door. She’s sweet and harmless, just - God, you were nice to her, right?”

“I’m always fucking nice.”

“Okay.”

“Does she even have a cat?”

“I am … not entirely sure.”

“Okay, whatever, um. Can I borrow your phone?”

“It’s on the sink,” Adam turned around to let the water hit his face again, wake him up a little. He wasn’t quite getting his eight hours a night with Ronan there, not that he was complaining.

When he glanced back over his shoulder, he shook his head when he saw that Ronan was not going for his phone, and was instead checking out Adam’s ass.

“Do you need to put in your passcode first?”

“I'm in the fucking shower, Ronan. It's 3141.”

“... Aren’t you going to ask me what I need it for?”

“Um,” Adam decided to skip conditioner, because really, really he was going to be on time to class. Really. He turned off the water, and Ronan handed him his towel. “No.”

 


 

Adam had a ten-page paper due Friday morning, so at eight-thirty Thursday night he was completely cocooned at his desk, typing nervously about dissecting a three-pronged legal argument, glancing back and forth from his screen to his outline to his book, gulping down coffee like it was his job. He had not gotten behind because of a week and a half of nonstop shacking up with his boyfriend, he had not, he would not. He tugged at the hood of Ronan’s sweatshirt, shrinking further into it as he searched his mind for another word for consequently.

His phone buzzed. He glanced at it in a simply cursory fashion, reflex, not actually to answer-

The incoming call display said MAGICAL SATYR KNOW-IT-ALL.

Adam scooped it up and swiveled around, jumpy and edgy, holding the screen up so Ronan could see it, his brain currently swimming in legal terms and unable to even form a simple question such as what the fuck did you do.

Ronan was watching from his spot on Adam’s bed, where he was camped out with graphing paper and colored pencils, sketching silently.

“Well fucking answer it,” Ronan glared. “You can spare five minutes.”

Adam blinked and touched the answer button.

“Hello?”

“Adam!” Opal’s voice made him suck in an amazed and happy breath. “Hi! Is it okay? To call and say hi? I know you must be busy.”

“Oh my God, of course it’s okay,” Adam said in a rush, turning back around in his chair and pulling his feet up, resting his chin on his knees. “It’s so good to hear your voice.”

She laughed in a high-pitched way that reminded him sharply of when she was little. Adam realized distantly that such a memory now gave him more of a sweet, nostalgic pang, and not so much an acid stab at his gut.

Healing. He was healing.

“So I know you have school to think about right now,” Opal said eagerly, “but I thought a lot about what Cabeswater wants from you and I think I have an idea. It might be a silly one.”

“Literally any idea is better than what I currently have. There are no silly ideas with us, okay? No such thing. Please tell me what you’re thinking.”

“Ronan said that wooden carving is actually some kind of map? Or that’s what Cabeswater said?”

“Yeah,” Adam blinked, glancing sideways toward his bedroom door. “I didn’t have it with me, though. And I keep looking at it but I’m not sure how to read this particular map. Maybe you can help me. You’re good with other languages, maybe I am having a translation problem.”

“That’s, um … kind of what I was thinking? That maybe Blue could help? If you showed it to her? I know she said she doesn’t consciously know how to speak Tree, but, um. Maybe something would trigger her memory? You know?”

“Oh, God,” Adam chewed at the tip of his thumb for a moment. “I didn’t … I did not even think of that. God, you’re so smart. Do you know that?”

“Thanks!” Opal replied cheerily, and Adam was glowing inside. “Ronan used to say he thought sometimes I took after you.”

Adam froze with his teeth worrying a hangnail. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.

“Okay, well, anyway, I know you’ve got schoolwork. Will you please remind Ronan that he promised he would call Declan this weekend? I don’t want him to keep pretending like he forgot. Maybe he will listen to you.”

“I … Yeah, sure, sweetheart. I’ll do what I can.”

“See you later!”

“Thanks for calling. Call anytime. Bye.”

Adam hung up but didn’t move for a while, staring sort of over the top of his laptop screen but not really seeing it, turning his phone over and over in his hands.

Then he pulled up his contacts and fixed Opal’s listing.

“What’d she say,” Ronan spoke up behind him.

“She thinks Blue can maybe tell us what that wooden carving means, if she looks at it more carefully,” Adam spun his chair around, slowly. “That it might be in the tree language somehow. That it might still be a map.”

“O … kay,” Ronan made a skeptical face. “Maybe. I didn’t think you really needed the map. You leveled up past it or something.”

“Ronan, shut up. Did you really have to list her in my phone like that?”

Ronan shrugged petulantly, turning back to his sketch but saying nothing, just smirking a little.

“Thanks for letting me have her number,” Adam paused, and saw Ronan’s pencil come to a stop again. “I know that’s a bigger deal than you’ll admit to me. But it’s - um. Thank you. Really.”

“I was just gonna give her your number. I didn’t want to have to mess with your phone. It’s yours,” Ronan frowned down at the page in front of him, carelessly flicking a shred of pencil shaving off of the paper onto Adam’s bedspread. “You didn’t have to give me your phone passcode, Jesus. But I knew if she just called you out of the blue it’d be … you know, a … an unknown 434 area code.”

The rest of this train of thought remained unspoken - that Ronan knew good and well never to do that to Adam. An unknown number calling his cell phone from the area of Henrietta, Virginia would probably mean the onset of a panic attack.

Adam slowly let his feet drop to the floor, then came over to prop himself up on the bed in front of Ronan. He took the sketchbook away, set it aside for a minute, and rested his head in Ronan’s lap.

Ronan allowed this for a few minutes, holding onto him, or at least as much of him as he could reach like that. Then he kissed Adam’s hair and nudged him to get back to his fucking paper, and Adam told him to call his fucking brother.

 


 

Sometime overnight, randomly and without comment, a framed photo of Opal laughing and tossing a spluttering Chainsaw up in the air, into flight, appeared on Adam’s desk.

 


 

“Do you think we can go to the wedding together? Like, together?”

“Adam. Parrish,” Ronan pronounced irritably. He’d been very attentively and relentlessly kissing the side of Adam’s neck, everything he could reach from where he was propped up beside Adam on his elbow, on the bed. “You don’t get to spend ten straight hours in class and at work and then come home to me and start discussing other people’s weddings while I’m trying to-”

“The invitation came today,” Adam tried to ignore Ronan’s grumbling. His pulse was flying, his body tightening and shuddering at the sensation of Ronan’s tongue at the hollow of his throat, but he couldn’t seem to shake the whole plus-one situation from his brain long enough to be present with his boyfriend.

“God, fine, we’re doing this now. And? ” Ronan pulled back to glare, his face so flushed and sexy that Adam faltered on his train of thought.

“Um. The. The invitation, it came to me, and it says I can bring - bring someone,” he took a steadying breath. “And it says to write their name. Like, how uptight is this wedding crowd really going to be? Is it implied that this has to be a sort of … female someone?”

“Are you seriously worried about this when we are both in the fucking wedding party? Jesus Christ. We are both going already. We kind of have to. You don’t have to worry about putting a dude’s name on your invitation and, like - outing yourself to the fucking Richmond crowd, because you do not need to bring me. I will already be there. But if you’re really worried about it and don’t want to deal with the drama then … I dunno, Adam. Invite that girl with the hair, make nice with the Republicans or whatever.”

“The girl with the hair,” Adam repeated slowly. “You’re - okay first of all I love you, you just … you are ridiculous, and secondly … I can’t believe this but I actually know who you’re talking about, and no, she stopped being friendly and hasn’t looked at me the same since I mentioned my boyfriend, that’s not - look, you’re right, this was a stupid question.”

“Well. You broke her heart, the least you could do is give her access to the best open bar in the Commonwealth for a day.”

“I don’t think that’s what - Okay, again, you were right, just forget I brought this up and kiss me again. I’m taking my boyfriend, done.”

“Fuckin' right you are,” Ronan growled, grabbed his ass possessively and hauled Adam up on top of him. Adam was already - again - hard and aching so much; it was honestly a little confusing how his needy-ass sex drive was only getting worse. His hips drove down of their own accord against Ronan’s.

“You know what? Sometimes I think you could make me come just from the sound of your voice,” Adam sighed, burying his face in Ronan’s shoulder, wanting to feel surrounded by him and his warmth and his solid strength.

Adam, Jesus God,” Ronan groaned.

At that, Adam ground down against him so desperately that it very nearly came true.

 


 

“I kind of want Cheng to have something. In the forest. Especially if I’m really dragging his ass here last-minute for a hippie wedding in the woods.”

“Okay,” Adam paused as he was grabbing for his binder. “But you can’t really build him anything right now.”

“I know, but if I told you what I wanted it to look like, you could make Cabeswater do it for me.”

Adam gave Ronan’s knee a nudge so he’d move enough to free the textbook he was sprawled over on the bed.

“That sounds pretty complicated. I guess I could try, though? So what do you want it to look like?”

“I don’t know,” Ronan groaned and flopped onto his back, shoving a pillow aside. “I was still thinking about it way back when I started realizing I couldn’t pull shit out anymore. I don’t know enough about him to make him a - a whole thing like I made the others.”

“Well. Then think about what you do know, and go from there. Whatever it is I’m sure he’ll be thrilled. What do you know about him. And don’t fucking say he helped us find Gansey, that’s all you ever say about him, it’s not a personality trait.”

“Um. He’s … smart. And … Blue and Gansey both love him. … He’s actually kind of hot? Like I mean when he chills out a little on the hair gel or whatever I can definitely see how-”

“Oh my God, Ronan. Get off my laptop, I have to go.”

Adam. I need you to help me with this. I don’t want him to get there and not fucking have anything! He helped find Gansey! Okay, okay, sorry. I’m already freaked out enough as it is about whether he’s gonna think it’s insane. I wasn’t done with this thing! You made me tell them, I wasn’t ready. What am I gonna do, make him a giant RoboBee fountain?”

Adam sighed and came over to press a kiss against Ronan’s forehead.

“I’ll help you when you start taking it seriously."

"There was that time he took Blue to Costa Rica when she was pissed at her dad and he distracted her with a weekend of rainforest ziplines and shit."

"I ... I mean you're getting warmer, but get the hell off my laptop.”

 


  

“So you just search for the artist, or, like … I guess if you were so inclined you could click on one of those annoying two-hour-long instrumental EDM playlists it generates from somewhere.”

Ronan was sitting on Adam’s living room floor, poking dubiously at Adam’s laptop which was propped on the coffee table. Adam sat behind him, wrapped around him, his knees at Ronan’s elbows.

Adam couldn’t really see the things he was trying to point out, but he supposed Ronan would figure it out, or would complain loudly enough if he didn’t. He rubbed his cheek back and forth against Ronan’s shoulder blade, followed swirls of black ink with the very tip of his middle finger.

“But it still only plays on your piece of shit tinny laptop speakers,” Ronan sulked.

“Well, yeah, I mean - I’m showing you this so you can plug in your thousand-dollar headphones, not subject me to it out loud in this apartment. When exactly do you think I would’ve been able to afford a set of-”

“What the fuck is this?” Ronan cut him off abruptly.

“Hmm?”

“Why does your computer know the word Greywaren?”

Adam froze, his hand hovering over a curved talon, and inwardly cursed himself. Holy shit, was he just so obsessed and high off Ronan Time now that his brain had just shorted itself out? Could you actually kill brain cells with too many blowjobs?

“It’s nothing,” Adam reached his hand out around Ronan’s arm, to snatch at his laptop, but Ronan was faster, sliding it away to his left, bringing it closer to his face.

“Oh yeah, clearly,” Ronan muttered. “Nothing.”

“Oh my God, Lynch, don’t you dare click on that.”

“I don’t even know what it is.”

“It’s nothing,” Adam repeated childishly.

“It is a playlist,” Ronan announced to himself, triumphant, and Adam rolled his eyes.

“Great job, did you just now read the word written directly above it, like how do you pull off these feats of deduction-”

“You have a playlist with my name on it-”

“It’s not your name.”

“Not literally, you fuck. You have a playlist named for me and you’re not going to tell me what’s on it? What is your deal with lists, holy Mother of - Is this like a fight list?”

“Uh,” Adam found himself laughing, despite his inward panic and mortification. “Weirdly, sort of? Now that you mention it? But I … It’s really old, okay, I just forgot to delete it. I never go back and clean up the-”

“Adam, come on, is it just songs? How many do you have on here?”

“Don’t do that voice. You hated it when Opal did that voice.”

“Do you have any songs from that tape I made you?”

Adam sighed. He really, really didn’t want anyone, including Ronan, to see even the names of the songs listed there. Even now, when the more depressing ones had lost their bite for him.

But fuck if he knew how to not give Ronan something he wanted, something that was perfectly giveable, really.

He reached for the laptop, and this time Ronan let him have it. Probably thought he’d lost that round and was plotting other ways he could ask for it or coax it out of Adam somehow.

Adam clicked the playlist.

In the end, Ronan didn’t laugh at him, just read the titles, then turned around and pulled Adam close for a while. And then Adam deleted it. He was going to start a new one.

Chapter Text

In May, Adam spent a weekend at the Barns, and in Cabeswater. Back home.

He’d been trying and trying to spark up a long-distance connection, scrying into the stone basin of an old birdbath that Ronan had dragged out of a storage shed.

It was really hard, though. The most he could manage was a flicker here and there of the stone altar. Cabeswater seemed to have picked up on the memento of Adam’s tattoo, because his left side would get sort of warm - Ronan had felt it, too, spreading both his palms wide over Adam’s skin to verify, and then rolling his eyes about it.

It was something, though. It was possible. He could learn this. He could study it. Maybe Opal could help him.

In the meantime, he’d just have to physically transport himself to the forest, whenever he could manage it.

This time he’d hitched another ride with Blue and Gansey Friday night, and made Ronan get up with him before dawn to transport him to Cabeswater for what Ronan was naturally calling his “Magic Forest Alone Time.”

It still really grated at Ronan that Adam was under another contract with Cabeswater. Adam could tell. But Ronan had sent him off anyway with a thermos of coffee and kissed his closed eyelids and both his hands and made him promise him not to fucking sacrifice anything this time.

This trip with Blue and Gansey was, on the surface, about Blue’s wedding dress. At this very moment - or at whatever moment it might be outside of Cabeswater - Blue and Opal were at the local alterations shop. The owner was a loyal Fox Way customer and more than happy to lend her place of business to Blue for the day so that a four thousand dollar wedding dress could be given the Sargent touch.

Mrs. Gansey had purchased the dress as a “fun surprise,” and then the wedding had very nearly been called off altogether. But now Blue was turning it into her own “fun surprise,” and Adam loved her so fiercely for it that he kept laughing about it at random and inappropriate times.

Somewhere nearby, out in Henrietta, also at that moment, Ronan was entertaining the groom with their own nostalgic adventures, cruising around Henrietta in the Pig. Adam was happy to leave them to it. He was glad they could have this together, glad to picture them both smiling so easily with the windows rolled down.

Adam would save his nostalgia trips for the Barns. Or here. Cabeswater.

Although, like Adam, this Cabeswater was actually changed and different. Stronger. Safer and better protected. More intentional and deliberate in its design.These were all aspects that Adam felt mirrored in Cabeswater, inside himself, a connection that was still new but growing steadier now that Adam was there again to drift around through the fallen leaves and breathe in the early morning mist and let the magic settle back into his heartbeat.

He’d had to wait a while to do this - much longer than he (or the forest, as it was making quite clear now) would have liked. But he and Ronan had wanted this visit to serve another purpose - to have their own private celebration for Blue and Gansey - and so it took a little while to find a good day for everyone to converge.

But final exams were over now, and Adam’s heart felt light with the relief of it.

Everyone had told him that the first year of law school would be the one to break you. And maybe Adam hadn’t done quite as well on as finals as he had hoped, with all of the distractions lately.

But it sure as fuck hadn’t broken him.

 


 

After Adam made his way back to his Magician’s altar, back home to the heart of Cabeswater, he sat for a while and meditated there, so many of Persephone’s words helping to keep him still and strong and in control, even when the ley line power began to feel like too much. He let it ebb and flow and tried to stay outside of himself for a while so he could listen better.

He wondered if Persephone would be proud, if she could see him now.

For an hour or two he simply stayed there, in a sort of offering, letting Cabeswater coax him into lucid dreams and memories, and he tried to watch it like a film of someone else’s life. To keep his emotions separate. It wasn’t easy, and he failed sometimes. But he’d work on it. He had time. The forest wanted Adam to learn just as much as it wanted to learn from him. They would patch this dark place together, and they made a pact with each other to bolster the safeguards. For the Greywaren.

When Adam felt too mentally drained to continue, he eased back into the forest, into his physical self, and wandered sort of languidly, stretching his limbs and breathing in the magic of Ronan’s dreams. He spent a little time in all of the different wings of the forest cathedral, meditating and dreaming and telling stories.

Near the entrance, he gave Cabeswater the night when he and Blue and Gansey and Ronan and Henry had stayed up past three, camped on the floor of Monmouth, taking turns giving heartfelt and sometimes awkward (or in Ronan’s case, profanity-laced) toasts to the memory of Noah. Ronan had somehow procured two bottles of Schnapps. Adam had only been able to bear a sip and then had switched back to Coke.

Blue had cried most of the night, on and off, but she’d laughed sometimes at Gansey's stories. Henry, too, had laughed. Ronan had been well on his way to drunk before they’d even started, and he had muttered something shitty under his breath to Adam about how Henry hadn’t even known Noah and why was he even there. But then Henry had given an honestly sweet and genuine toast of his own about how their stories really made him wish he’d known Noah. And then Ronan had reached over in an appreciative peace offering of clinked bottles, and it had been okay, at least for a few hours.

When it was Ronan’s turn to toast, he’d slurred a little, but he’d said that Noah had known everything about him - everything - and still hadn’t turned his back, hadn’t stopped being his friend, no matter what. And he’d said Noah was the one who made him feel like he was going to be okay, that maybe he could just be himself. And Blue had cried some more.

Adam wandered over to Blue’s tree and gave in to the urge to reach up and pull himself up into the branches. He spent a while with his legs dangling in the air, his back pressed against a firm trunk that seemed to adjust itself in order to cradle his shoulder blades.

In that spot he gave Cabeswater the weekend of his twenty-first birthday, when Blue had taken an Amtrak to Boston. They’d trekked up and down the asphalt in the sticky summer heat of the Back Bay and through a street fair on Newbury Street, and Adam had refused to waste his hard-earned money on one of those duck boat tours. Instead he’d smugly produced his driver’s license in order to legally purchase them a bottle of tequila. They’d mixed too many margaritas on the coffee table of his common room and laughed until they cried, and it had been sort of a spiritual experience, that whole long and very overdue personal talk with her.

He’d been shifting around uncomfortably against the sofa, his brand new tattoo burning up and down his side and itching like crazy. But he’d felt such a weight lifting, like he’d been able to bottle up so much old grief and anger and loss with that one image. And at least if he was going to carry that shit with him, he was going to do it on purpose; he was going to acknowledge it and know where it was.

They’d gently and timidly danced around the subject of their breakup, and Adam had eventually poured out a huge rush of apology and shame from a place that he’d been denying existed until that one sort of buzzed moment. Blue had been gracious and admitted she'd been hurt for a while, but that it was okay now.

Blue had spent so much time smiling at him, all weekend, telling him how well he was dealing with things and finally putting stuff behind him.

She’d confessed, too, that she’d had a month or so that year when she’d felt strangely out of sorts with herself, wondering guiltily whether growing up would mean somehow growing apart from Gansey, wondering how crazy it was to believe that a person she’d met in high school would be her lifelong love. But Adam had talked it out with her, and she’d concluded that she and Gansey were growing up together, not apart. And she hoped they still would, because she still always came back to wanting to share things with him, wanting to watch him light up with inspiration about something, wanting to kiss him in non-lethal ways every day for the rest of their lives.

And there was no one else who’d ever really understand what they’d been through together. They needed each other for that. All of them.

After that he and Blue had chatted a lot more often, by email mostly, and it had all felt so much easier and more natural between them. After the awkwardness that had been their breakup, they’d really chosen to be friends, chosen each other consciously and deliberately, and Adam still treasured that. He let it fill his heart, let Cabeswater feel how much it meant to him. The tree branches swayed and swelled beneath and around him.

At the cliff overlook, he gave Cabeswater the day that he’d called Gansey to share the news that he’d accepted a fellowship from the law program at Georgetown, that they’d be at the same school again, and the little shout of overwhelmed delight that Gansey had sent over the phone waves.

He let Cabeswater rifle through so many flashes of memory, of lunches and library study sessions with Gansey during that fall semester, and Cabeswater sighed over its king, reclined with a pencil behind his ear, or his chin propped on his hand. He shared the feeling of ease and calm that came with Gansey’s companionship most of the time, especially when it was just the two of them. It was a quiet contentedness when they were together. Adam was struck by how much that feeling matched the scenery, or vice versa, maybe. It was so hard to tell here in this place built to subtly satisfy Adam’s own little whims, conscious or otherwise. Everything from the trees to the clouds to the blades of grass felt like they were so easily influenced, like they wanted to be given instruction and purpose by their Magician.

Adam took his time mapping out the creeks and fallen trees and fern beds but ended up, of course, by Ronan’s fire.

He’d stalled a little while, but he knew he had to get this over with. This is part of that whole sacrifice thing, Adam.

It was too hard to even find where to start. He lay down in the grass, curled up near the fire’s warmth, and closed his eyes, let Cabeswater decide what it wanted to learn.

He knew he’d been offering mostly nice memories so far, but when he stopped curating them himself, the forest searched with a quick, frantic sort of fear.

He saw Aurora’s memorial service, the one Declan had quietly arranged with a D.C. funeral director who did not ask questions.

And he saw Ronan ending up at Adam’s door, three in the morning, not saying anything. That had happened several times, and Adam had always hauled him inside to his bed, wrapped himself around Ronan to let him seethe and cry and pass out. Adam hadn’t ever really know what to say or do other than to just be there. Sometimes it had felt like enough. Other times, not at all.

He cried through dreams of Ronan slowly pulling himself back from their relationship after Adam’s graduation, of that realization slowly dawning on Adam over the course of a summer, of Ronan disappearing on him for longer periods of time and getting defensive when he was asked where he was or whether he could at least tell Adam when he was vanishing to.

Of Ronan kicking half a bottle of whiskey off the front porch, spilling its contents in a halfhearted golden arc, when Adam had suggested UVA could mean he’d still be close enough if Ronan kept having those nights when he could only crumple himself into Adam’s lap and stare at nothing.

Of Adam’s words hitting back viciously and ruthlessly toward the end, as he’d uttered the most needlessly, childishly, and deliberately hurtful things he’d ever said in his life.

The back of Ronan’s shaved head. The back of his old Aglionby jacket. The back of his car, the taillights a long yellow disappearing streak on the street outside St. Agnes. The blank screen of his cell phone, abandoned on the floor at Monmouth. Ronan disappearing. Ronan opting out of everything. Ronan fading away.

The forest cried with him, drizzling steady and gray, the breeze mournful. Adam tried not to linger too long on these things. It carved out his heart and stomach to have Cabeswater share in his grief like that, but he realized there were actually two purposes served: it was apparently educational for the forest, and also it was allowing Adam a very visceral, perhaps necessary sort of exorcism.

He let these memories creep away from his brain, from his pores, gave them one last self-pitying, wound-nursing caress, and then he tried to let them go.

He gave them to Cabeswater. And then he gave some of his good memories, too, the ones that were buried even deeper, the ones he couldn’t usually let himself remember without aching too much. Watching a sunrise from the roof. Being dragged away from their friends out to a dark corner to be kissed, fast and desperate, Ronan whispering to make them go away, make everyone else go away, Ronan just wanted Adam, Adam, Adam. The sound of Ronan gasping Adam’s name, and the trembling burst of amazement and pride Adam had felt the first time he’d brought Ronan to the edge like that, just him, just Adam, his own hands and lips and tongue, he’d done that.

Strong arms wrapped around him when he needed to be anchored, and proud little smiles from across the room when he needed to fight on his own, to remind himself and everyone else that he could. Scrambling away from Ronan after that nightmare again, and Ronan patiently waiting it out and lacing their fingers together and insisting that Adam could never hurt him. Ronan holding him tight and still after a good week of the absence of Cabeswater’s magic had made Adam want to scream with loss, with feeling weak and inadequate and only human. Ronan sighing to him that he’d always be magic, that his eyes and and hands and skin and smile and heart and brain were all magic and always had been.

There hadn’t been as many words back then; Ronan’s love had all been in his touch and his patience and his badly-disguised adoring gaze, the way he’d constantly go out of his way to make good things happen for Adam, just to see him smile.

Adam cried for all of it and let Cabeswater see how beautifully they had been connected before, how much more beautifully they were connecting now. How he was not going to let it come undone again.

 


 

Ronan made so many trips back and forth that day in his BMW. Adam didn’t even try to count. He was too busy communing with the forest and putting in his time.

Ronan dropped off Blue and Opal first. Cabeswater told Adam they’d arrived, waking him gently. Adam was flushed and his heart was racing and he realized he’d slipped into some much more recent memories about the Greywaren that he wasn’t entirely sure were … relevant, exactly.

“Adam?” he heard Blue’s voice calling, floating around the tree branches above his head, and he pushed himself up off the grass with a bit of difficulty. Cabeswater had made him more comfortable there than in a feather bed.

“Adam,” Opal rushed over, her brows furrowed. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he blinked and wiped at his eyes. “Just some sad memories. That was part of the deal.”

“Good God, Adam, it’s a hundred degrees over here,” Blue stepped gingerly around the edge of the clearing.

Adam couldn’t help laughing to himself as he his eyes focused again and he felt Ronan’s bonfire raging and pulsing nearby, throwing off more heat than usual.

Easy, he focused on the wild flames, coaxing them into receding a bit.

“Ronan is right, you know? About you always being cold?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Adam smiled and got to his feet, dusting grass from his jeans. “What time is it out there?”

“Just after noon,” Blue shifted her weight; she had a dress bag slung over her shoulder.

“Oh. Already? God, this time sacrifice thing wouldn’t be so hard if it didn’t go by so much faster out there. Is that the dress?”

“Not the dress. That thing weighs a ton, Adam, come on. This is my dress for today. The real wedding.”

“And I brought lunch,” Opal held up a metal lunchbox.

“Thanks, kiddo. You want to help me talk a magical forest into giving us stuff for Ronan?”

“Yes! I’m not sure how much help I can be, though?”

“Well honestly I’m not sure how to do this at all, you know? But at least this way I get an excuse to hang out with you.”

Opal smiled up at Adam, her eyes lighting up in excitement.

They sat by the magical fire, discussed the various things Ronan had wanted Adam to do with his forest powers, and ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches cut into triangles.

 


 

“It was supposed to be yellow,” Opal said in dismay, peeking through the cracks of Adam’s caged fingers as they stood on opposite sides of the stone altar.

“It’s … well I mean it is close to yellow. It’s almost … uh. Gold, right?”

“It’s white,” Opal sighed. “Ronan won't like it.”

“What’s wrong with white? I like white. It looks more ... benevolent?”

Opal gave Adam a wry little frown and a raised eyebrow, a look that very clearly said your funeral.

“Okay, you know what, Ronan should be happy I got something anywhere near what he was describing,” Adam muttered and came around to Opal’s side, his hands still clutched loosely.

He moved his fingers very slowly, opening his palms toward the … well, it wasn’t a sky up there, exactly, in his strange little wing. It was just a grey edge of nothing.

There was another twitch in his hands and a soft, jingling noise, almost like tiny wind chimes, and then the little starburst of riotous light jumped up from Adam’s palm and flickered around wildly. It was an energetic little sprite that flew and spun and careened through the air. Ronan had called it a will-o-wisp, but he made sure to specify that it should be a really fucking cheerful and helpful one, because in legends they were, like … evil, or something. He was fuzzy on the details.

“It sounds so happy,” Opal laughed as the sprite twirled around her, teased the edges of her hair. “Do you think Henry will like it?”

“I hope so. I don’t think I can pull out anything else. It was kind of giving me a migraine to concentrate that hard.”

“Are you sure you couldn’t just try to do a yellow one,” Opal asked hopefully.

“I really don’t think so, kid. This is not my kind of magic. If the Greywaren wants a yellow one he’s going to have to come dream it up himself.”

 


 

Gansey was next to arrive. Adam could hear the forest’s exaltations before he saw Gansey wandering over through the main clearing.

Opal had tucked the excitable little will-o-wisp thing into her metal lunchbox. It was a surprise for Henry, and Henry was a surprise for Gansey and Blue.

Adam had tried meditating again, Opal’s presence helping to calm him at his center. He still couldn’t figure out how Ronan expected him to create this whole wedding arch thing out of thin air when he’d nearly had an aneurysm with just a tiny little sprite. He’d communicated the idea of it to Cabeswater, but the forest wanted Ronan for this. Adam was not the Greywaren and that was as far as the conversation seemed to progress.

So he’d talked more to Cabeswater about the idea of marriage, instead. About what the forest knew of weddings and ceremonies and bonds between people. It had been a little hard to follow, flipping through images of flower crowns and bound hands and sharing some kind of goblet of wine, maybe? And also some much racier things that he was never ever going to say out loud to Gansey.

He was fairly sure Cabeswater was down with the basic concept, anyway.

“Adam!” Gansey greeted him with a fist bump. “You’re here. Is everything going all right? Your memory sharing?”

“Sure, yeah. It’s fine. Where’s Ronan, did he just drop you off?”

“Yes, he said he had another errand? He wouldn’t say what it was. He’ll be back soon.”

Adam saw Opal hiding a smile, and he winked at her.

“You brought the map,” Adam nodded at the wood carving in Gansey’s hands. Ronan had removed Adam’s sculpture from the base after promising he’d put it back together later, but Adam still felt upset seeing it dismantled like that.

But he hadn’t been able to resist Gansey’s earnest fascination with it. None of them could say no to Gansey when he was like that.

“Yes. Yes, I brought it. Adam, have you really looked at this? Blue and I have been talking and - she is here, right?” Gansey seemed to come to a stop mid-thought and was looking around in concern, like perhaps somehow he’d gotten the wrong day? Or even like perhaps Blue would still somehow change her mind? Jesus.

Adam was still occasionally in awe of the way they so fully loved each other.

“I’ll get her!” Opal set her lunchbox by Adam’s feet and ran off toward Blue’s wing.

“Oh, isn’t there - something about not seeing the bride beforehand?” Gansey smoothed his hair down nervously. “Bad luck, or ... you know?”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that here,” Adam smiled and rubbed Gansey’s shoulder. “That stuff is for regular weddings. I don’t know of any rules about what we’re doing today.”

“Ronan keeps calling it a … a magical hippie forest wedding.”

“Yeah, I know, sorry. You know what he means.”

“I know,” Gansey shot Adam an indulgent little grin.

They chatted about Cabeswater, about how beautiful and strange and inspired it was, until Blue and Opal joined them. Blue had changed into a floaty green dress that shimmered with gold embroidery everywhere - it must have been some of that mysteriously glowing thread that Ronan had pulled out of his mother’s sewing room and gifted to Blue with a typically gruff the fuck would I ever use it for non-discussion.

Blue Sargent was radiant. She looked like a forest nymph, barefoot with her hair loose and dark and wild, like she’d just graced these mere mortals with her fae presence. Adam’s breath caught, and he looked at Gansey, who was stunned and overwhelmed and motionless.

“I can’t believe my life sometimes,” Gansey whispered before the girls were close enough to hear.

 


 

Adam had to do a little more coaxing, but Blue’s tree offered up some wide, low branches, and then the four of them could sit and catch each other up on their lives outside of the magical forest. It all seemed so far away, though.

Gansey had immediately launched into some theories he had about this map of Adam’s. He thought the carved lines were too fine to be just detailed bark, and he’d thought of images made from sound waves, and he’d done some Googling, and had they considered the fact that the trees might not be giving them a map of Cabeswater, but of somewhere else? Something bigger?

Gansey’s eyes were alight with curiosity and fascination, and it began to dawn on Adam that he might’ve accidentally nudged his best friend into another quest. He could almost hear Ronan grumbling and rolling his eyes.

God, this wasn’t right without Ronan, not at all.

Adam glanced habitually at his watch, but it was pointless there in Cabeswater. He knew Ronan had to go get Henry from the B&B so they could maintain the surprise, but Gansey was sitting there launching into some new obsession with God-knew-what and Ronan was missing it.

Plus he just - he’d been there all damn day and he didn’t like spending his precious Saturdays on anything else but Ronan Lynch. It was selfish and greedy but there it was. They still lived in different zip codes, technically, despite Ronan staying over as much as he could get away with.

Adam leaned back against the bark and let his mind drift a little, wondering if he should actually try again to convince Cabeswater to give him the archway thing Ronan wanted. Maybe if he tried to broach it as Cabeswater changing itself, reshaping itself? Instead of just giving him something entirely new? That would make more sense, right?

Ronan was going to be so grumpy if Adam had spent all day there and produced nothing but a little will-o-wisp that wasn’t even the right color.

He opened his thoughts briefly to Cabeswater, putting forth the idea of the archway again, picturing it growing from what was already there. But Cabeswater only said We cannot see this dream of the Greywaren's without the Greywaren. Of course. Adam sighed.

“Adam, did they say they had created it for you or just given it to you?” Gansey asked breathlessly, and Adam blinked as he tried to come back to the conversation at hand.

“Um. I don’t know, now that you mention it. I can ask?”

“I think it’s relevant, honestly,” Gansey nodded, clutching a twisted tree branch to hold himself up. “Because if they’re asking you to find them with a map, I mean - isn’t it a little strange that they would think you’d need that? If all you have to do is scry there? Have you thought about the fact that they might be asking your help to find something else? Maybe something else is out there?”

“You mean … another forest? Like this?”

“Exactly! Why not? There are legends-”

Greywaren. Greywaren, the forest exclaimed in Adam’s brain, in excited whispers.

Actually, it wasn’t just in Adam’s mind. He saw now that the others had heard it; Gansey had trailed off and was looking around at the trees, his eyebrows lifting.

Adam’s pulse surged into triple time. He pushed himself up and off the tree branch, landing somewhat unsteadily on his feet. Greywaren.

“Ronan’s here?” Gansey asked hopefully.

“I, um - yeah,” Adam chewed at his lip, his face threatening to smile so hard it’d hurt. “I think.”

“Finally,” Blue leapt down from the tree herself, much more lightly and gracefully than Adam had managed. “What the hell has he been doing with himself.”

“Errands,” Opal smiled serenely; she was still cross-legged in the grass, blowing dandelion seeds into the breeze.

Greywaren.

“Yeah, I know, we know,” Adam laughed in a rush and ran a hand through his hair. Why the fuck was he nervous, God, did it never end? They’d been dating for months-

It was obvious now that Ronan wasn’t alone. There were two sets of footsteps. Adam and Opal shared another secret grin.

“Who is - is that - oh my God. Henry? ” Blue shrieked, and took off running, full-speed, toward the place where her clearing opened up onto the forest path.

Opal’s metal lunchbox lurched itself sideways on the grass and then began rattling.

Adam watched Blue jumping into Henry’s arms, laughing and shouting as he spun her around and hugged her tightly. He heard Gansey exclaiming about how he’d thought Henry was in California.

Then Adam felt a thrill down into his stomach as he saw Ronan emerge from behind them. Ronan stalked quickly and confidently across the grass in a plain black tank top, dark jeans ending in heavy black boots. His raven was here, too. Chainsaw soared over his head and announced her presence with a caw, then diving down toward Opal.

He was so ethereally and strikingly handsome, and Adam’s breath left him for a couple of seconds.

He’s mine, he’s mine, Adam let himself gloat. He’s mine.

“Adam. The fuck’s going on,” Ronan reached him quickly, running his hands from Adam’s shoulders to wrists, looking him over in alarm.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Are you all right? Forest was yelling at me to get my ass over here, I thought you were in trouble.”

“Oh.”

“Was it the dream memory thing? What’d you see, are you okay?” Ronan traced a finger over his temple, down to his cheekbone.

“I’m fine,” Adam felt a nervous laugh bubble out of him. “I think maybe I … God. That’s embarrassing. I missed you and I was thinking about it too much. Sorry.”

Ronan raised an eyebrow at him.

“I didn’t mean for it to, uh … summon you,” he shrugged faintly.

“Get a hold of yourself, Magician, I had shit to do,” Ronan said in a low, sexy voice that only Adam could hear. He smirked a little and Adam couldn’t help reaching for him, hugging him tightly with relief and elation.

“Thanks for bringing Henry,” Adam glanced over at their friends, also hugging each other and smiling and laughing.

“Yeah. You need to tell me later about how this day went,” Ronan kissed him lightly, quickly, and let him go again. “Also, uh … where is all my shit?”

“Um,” Adam pressed his lips together, looked over at Opal, who was hugging the lunchbox to keep it from moving. It was still rattling, though.

“Seriously, Parrish? You have none of it? What the fuck! Is this because I didn’t make you an actual list?”

“I can’t get it to work,” Adam folded his arms. “I tried. I mean we did get the one thing. Show him, O.”

“Okay,” Opal pursed her lips dubiously, then unlatched the top of the container.

A delicate little whistling and jingling sound emerged, victorious, the white starburst launching up into the air and cartwheeling around, making straight for Henry Cheng. There was some shouting and laughing, and Henry was clearly astounded and bewildered.

“I tried to get him to make a yellow one,” Opal shrugged up at Ronan.

 


 

They held their ceremony on the cliff’s edge overlooking Henrietta.

Blue, Gansey, and Opal took some time showing Henry around the forest, talking a mile a minute, their eyes glowing with happiness. Henry’s little will-o-wisp flew in narrow orbits around him, teased his arms and hair - Adam thought he could hear it giggling. They weren’t sure if it would be coaxed out of Cabeswater or not, and it wasn’t exactly an efficient tool like RoboBee. But Henry still seemed to love it anyway, and Adam could sense Ronan’s relief.

While the others toured around, Adam sat in the grass and asked Cabeswater to make it soft and warm there on the ground beside him. And Ronan slept and dreamed, curled on his side with his head in Adam’s lap, his hand curved around Adam’s knee.

This was better. This was going to work. Adam held Ronan’s head close to him and heard the forest exclaiming about the Greywaren’s pretty dream, clamoring to make it come to life there where Adam’s magic could safeguard and direct the effort.

Maybe their magic was still confined to Cabeswater, but it was real, and it was all their own, and it worked so much better in tandem.

Gansey and Blue and Henry and Opal returned to a soaring archway of vines decorated with red and white tulips and tiny fireflies. They’d been talking loudly but became more hushed at the sight. Or maybe because they noticed Ronan was still sleeping.

Adam woke him as gently as he could, his lips against the crown of Ronan’s head.

They assembled beneath the archway with Blue and Gansey in the center, Adam and Henry with their backs to the cliff, Ronan and Opal opposite. Opal brought flower crowns for Blue and Gansey.

Everyone sort of looked to Adam expectantly, so he tried to explain what Cabeswater had shared with him - that this would be a sort of handfasting, a meeting of equals, a celebration of their love for each other and an agreement to walk ahead together as partners.

Gansey and Blue took turns speaking to each other, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes jokingly, sometimes crying. Then Adam asked them to join their hands together, and he crouched down to dig his fingers into the soil beneath him, closing his eyes and concentrating.

Cabeswater spun a delicate black vine up around them, encircling both of them, twirling more tightly around their arms and wrists and hands. They kissed and Opal cried and then the vines popped away into a fine, sparkling mist.

“Guys. This is by far the best wedding I have ever been to,” Henry announced, holding his palm out flat for his little will-o-wisp to jump and twirl and land on.

“Do we even have to have the other one?” Gansey sighed, pulling Blue close to him. “I don’t even want that one anymore.”

“Your family does,” Blue sniffled and squeezed him back.

“This is my family," Gansey proclaimed. "Right here.”

 

Chapter Text

“What are you doing over here,” Adam hissed, clutching his mostly-empty champagne glass.

“I’m standing,” Ronan indicated the wall behind him.

“Yeah, I see that. It wouldn’t kill you to make nice with these people for, like - five minutes, would it? God, you just have to stand here and … and glower at everyone?”

“Honestly, what is it to you? Am I making you look bad in front of these assholes? They’re terrible.”

“You don’t know that.”

“They don’t even know Gansey at all, and they’re stuck-up as hell, and they’re shitty to Blue. And I think we’re all better off if we stay out of each other’s way. You told me to stay out of trouble and that is what I am fucking doing.”

“All right, fine,” Adam sighed, patting his pocket again to remind himself of his carefully folded index card.

Honestly, what else should he have expected? Ronan Lynch at a high society Richmond wedding? Of course it was going to be a tense peace at best.

“Yo. Best man,” Henry greeted Adam with a clap to his shoulder. “I hear it’s almost time for speeches.”

“Oh. Awesome,” Adam blanched, shrinking back beside Ronan against the wall.

“You’ll be great! Adam, you’re all glowing, lately, do you know?” Henry tipped his glass toward Adam with a grin. “It’s rude to outshine the bride on her wedding day.”

“This is not her real wedding day,” Ronan growled, bending his knee and kicking his foot back up against the wall.

“Right. Of course. Well. How are you, though, is what I obviously meant,” Henry continued smoothly.

“Me?” Adam made a face. “Well, um. I have to give a speech in front of everyone soon which is kind of terrifying. And Ronan is being a shit, because of course. And Blue keeps self-righteously correcting people about my bisexuality for some reason? But, yeah. Fine, otherwise? God. I think I might throw up. How are you.”

“I’m good! I wish I could’ve brought Wispy, but I don’t know if this is an appropriate occasion.”

From the corner of his eye, Adam caught Ronan mouthing the name Wispy in disbelief.

“I should - I should go back and find Blue,” Adam closed his eyes for a second, trying to push down the dread.

“Right. I’ll tell her you’re on your way. Nice to see you, Lynch.”

“Cheng.”

“You seriously can’t say like two words even to Henry?” Adam muttered after they were somewhat alone again. “Why are you still like this, oh my God. I know you have to deal with people when you go the damn farmer’s market and the art galleries, like real actual people, I know you must have social skills buried in there somewhere but you can’t even-”

“Adam. For fuck’s sake. You’re gonna be fine,” Ronan reached out and grabbed his hand, squeezing it insistently. “Just breathe.”

Adam held on tight and focused on expanding his chest, not his stomach. Inhale, exhale. Deep breaths. Ronan’s lips were on his cheek.

“You’ve given speeches before, for way more people. You’re fine.”

“You know it’s really annoying that you somehow found a way to be best man without actually being called that, right? So you don’t have to do this?”

“I know. Come on.”

 


 

“Hi, everyone. Um. Good evening,” Adam raised his voice and hoped it wouldn’t sound too shaky. On his right, Ronan was knocking a fork noisily against his water glass to get people to shut up. On his left, Blue was settling herself back onto her draped chair at the head table, reaching out to squeeze at Adam’s hand for a moment. Gansey and Henry were on the far side of Blue.

“I just wanted to say a few words about - about my two best friends. Blue and Gansey. Yeah, thanks,” Adam nodded at the claps and shouts of acknowledgment. He slid the index card cheat sheet out of his pocket and set it on the table in front of him, just in case. The little bullet points were neat and reassuring.

“You all probably know that these two have been in love for a long time,” he launched in, holding the microphone awkwardly and fixing his gaze on his friends. “Pretty much ever since any of us can remember. And they’ve done pretty well, even though the first time they met was a little bit of a … well let’s say a disaster, huh, Gans?”

Gansey’s grin was wide as he waved to acknowledge this and laughed broadly, and the crowd seemed to take this as a sign that they could laugh, too.

“Blue and Gansey were so clearly in love with each other. Even back then, when we were all teenagers. In fact, uh - you might say they’re so perfectly matched that it was - it was actually fate that brought them together. That destiny, you know - they were destined to be together. And you wouldn’t be wrong. They knew right away that it was true love.”

Adam was speaking directly to Gansey and Blue, now, and it helped calm him to kind of pretend that the crowd wasn’t there. He could see them both smiling now, their eyes sparkling with the secret Adam had hidden away in his words, just for them.

The crowd was really digging the whole destiny thing, though, breaking out into ahhs.

“Now I personally don’t usually, uh … describe it that way. As fate,” Adam plowed ahead - he couldn’t tell if he was going too fast. Was he doing the nervous talking? He glanced at Ronan, who was completely zeroed in on him, attentively and calmly. Confidently. Adam took another breath.

“I don’t actually believe in destiny. It sounds nice, I know. But Blue and Gansey are much more than that.”

The crowd had gone rather quiet again.

“I think that true love is not really about fate, or stars aligning. It is more about choice. And that is a different kind of magic, one that - that Blue and Gansey can teach all of us about. It’s the magic of choosing each other every day, all the time, again and again. You know, continually deciding that of all the people out there, this one is yours, this one is your center, and you're going to do the work it takes to protect and care for that. And these two, they prove that all the time. They have chosen each other today, and they will choose each other tomorrow. And I think that’s more romantic than fate any day. Growing and learning together, learning how to be stronger together.”

“Gansey once told me,” Adam switched the microphone to his other hand - his palm was sweating. “That he tried to count, one time, he tried to - to see how many times during one day that he thought I can’t wait to tell Blue about this thing that’s happening right now. He tried, and he lost count, of course. Because it happens so often. That’s always his first instinct - I can’t wait to tell Blue. And she’s the same way, with him. And even though they’ve been going to different schools, living an hour apart, they still make each other a priority. They’ve been through a lot together, and now they are stronger than ever. They are home, to each other. And that’s why it’s such a privilege to - to stand here today and toast them with you.”

“I still remember when Gansey told me he was in love. Years ago, he helped me understand that love was a real thing,” Adam glanced back so he could see Ronan’s face again, just to steady himself. “Blue and Gansey are always teaching me more about love, about what it really looks like. They've influenced me to seek it out in my own life, that it's not always easy, but it is ... so worth it. These two are evidence of that. Always coming back to each other.”

He’d expected Blue to be the one to start crying. But it was actually Gansey wiping at his eyes. Blue was just grinning outrageously, beaming proudly at Adam.

“So, um. Here’s to choosing true love in your own way, no matter what destiny has to say about it. And here’s to Blue and Gansey.” Adam raised his glass for everyone to follow suit.

As they all chanted To Blue and Gansey, Adam leaned over to clink their glasses and whispered, “Excelsior.”

  


 

Toward the end of the night, when there were only a dozen or so people left at the reception, Adam loosened his bowtie and closed his eyes for a minute, leaning back against Ronan’s shoulder.

Ronan had caught him and pulled him onto his lap at one of the round tables by the stage. Blue and Gansey were on the dance floor with Henry and Luke and some of Blue’s friends from Baltimore, so Adam didn’t mind retreating into his boyfriend’s arms for a little while. Everything was under control out there. 

“Ronan?”

“Hmm.”

“I don’t know if this is a weird time to ask this, but, like …” Adam hesitated, peering down into the bottom of his champagne glass. “Would you ever want something like this? Marriage? Wedding ceremony? That whole thing?”

“Jesus, Parrish. You ask a hell of a question sometimes.”

“I know, I - um. Sorry, we can talk about it later.”

“I wouldn’t want it like this,” Ronan snaked an arm around Adam’s waist and nodded toward the mostly empty hotel ballroom. “Stuffy-ass party with people I barely know making small talk and whatever.”

“Well, yeah. I get that.”

“But if you’re asking if I’d want the marriage part at all? Then … yeah. I would. I would want to make it official. Like, in a church with vows and shit, yeah.”

“A church,” Adam said aloud, to process the thought.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted.”

“Yeah, I - that makes sense.”

“Okay, what, Adam. You sound freaked out.”

“No, I - I’m not, I just - I’ve never really thought about it much. Before Gansey told me he wanted to do this.”

“Bullshit. You and Grace talked about it.”

“Well, yeah, she thought it would be smart for tax purposes,” Adam smiled faintly, turned his head to rest his forehead against Ronan’s neck.

Ronan Lynch was just ... shockingly gorgeous in that fucking tuxedo. It was unacceptable. Adam had been with Gansey all morning, and Ronan had gone along with Blue to be ‘man of honor’ or whatever the fuck, and so Adam hadn’t even seen Ronan until five minutes before the wedding ceremony, and all the blood had basically gone straight out of his head.

“You don’t want it, then,” Ronan’s voice was much quieter.

“I didn’t say that. I didn’t. I just … I was never really sure if I believed in it. I didn’t really have the greatest role model for it. Growing up.”

He felt Ronan’s arms tighten around him, automatically.

“It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to, like … consider it. Someday. If I felt like it was a commitment I really wanted to make and I wanted to … I don’t know. Make it clear to the world with a ring, I think I would like that part. I guess I need to think about it some more.”

“Of course you do,” Ronan rolled his eyes.

“You know what? When I asked Cabeswater about it? About whether it would do some kind of wedding magic, or a binding ceremony? I saw some, uh. Interesting ideas it had about that.”

“The fuck do you mean by interesting.”

“Um,” Adam tried to hide his smile, but it was too late. “That the couple should be naked? And there should be like … literal bindings, maybe? Some drinking out of cups and, um. Communing? Perhaps under that waterfall on the side of the cliff?”

“Jesus Mary,” Ronan growled, squirming around in his chair, and Adam’s head fell back again. He hoped everyone else would be dancing and not paying attention to their little dark corner. “You’re such an asshole. Shit. Did you really need to do that right this second? Can we get the fuck out of here yet?”

“Soon.”

“God. Adam.”

“I was just trying to say that I like Cabeswater’s version better than this one,” Adam closed his eyes, because now the visuals were getting a little much. He could already picture the vines sliding around Ronan’s wrists, and - God. “I think I need to get up.”

“Hey,” Ronan stopped him before he could get too far away, grabbing at his hand. “Hey, you remember that time you … you asked me if I would dance with you?”

“Yeah,” Adam laughed, pulled at Ronan’s arm until they were both standing up again. “Yeah, I do.”

 


 

Almost a week later, after they’d sent Gansey and Blue off on their honeymoon to England, and Henry back to Stanford, things were settling down again into a pleasing routine for Adam. He’d begun a summer job clerking at a giant law firm on K Street, and it ran him ragged already, but in kind of an exciting way. Sure, he wasn’t exactly writing opening arguments yet, but he was at least in the same room with some big case files.

Sometimes he walked through the big box file room and read the names on the sides and imagined that they were his files, his cases. That he’d be in a courtroom just like the one he’d been in several years ago, the time Gansey and Ronan had shown up and surprised him.

But this time Adam would be on the attorney’s side of the table.

It was a Friday evening when he arrived back at the apartment. A little later than he’d promised Ronan, but still plenty of time to eat and vent and listen to Ronan fill him in on these farm foreman interviews he was now conducting in his typically intimidating and off-putting way. Adam still privately thought Ronan was just doing this to go through the motions, that he was never going to find someone good enough to satisfy him, to be the one to trust with watching over the Barns so Ronan could let go for a little while and just stay with Adam.

Adam was perfectly okay with it just being a pretense. He didn’t want to push anything, and he would certainly never ask Ronan to do it in the first place.

But it had been Ronan’s idea. He was the one driving back and forth all the time. And every “weekend” was drawn out just a little further, starting earlier and ending later, with Ronan sighing more and more about not wanting to go home and sleep by himself.

But of course Opal was at the Barns. That was the real complication.

Adam had spent his lunch hour looking for larger, two-bedroom apartments. The kind that he could only afford if Ronan pitched in and helped with rent. The kind with a room for him and Ronan, and one for Opal.

Maybe it was still a crazy daydream, but his lease would be up in two months, and he liked to be prepared for things. It was blissful and amazing having Ronan there so much. But Adam still missed the fuck out of Opal. He didn’t want her to have to leave the Barns, though, her beautiful new home all her own.

They just … they had a lot to figure out, still.

“Hey,” Adam called into the apartment, dropping his messenger bag as he locked the front door behind him. “Sorry I’m late. Got talking to my new boss.”

There was no answer, but Adam could hear … something. A dull kind of sound he couldn’t quite make out yet. It almost sounded like … like the cadence of polite conversation?

Adam hung his suit jacket in the hall closet and took a couple of tentative steps toward the kitchen. There were definitely voices coming from that direction. Ronan’s unmistakably deep one, and another higher-pitched-

Holy fucking shit.

Grace.

Adam stood there staring, too numb and queasy at the shock to do much else. Grace was sitting at the little kitchen island next to Ronan fucking Lynch, and they were drinking goddamn tea. Tea. And holy Jesus Adam was going to pass out.

It some kind of fucking nightmare come to life, Grace sitting there talking to Ronan, like in real life, like - oh, God, how had this even happened?

“Hey,” Ronan looked at him sharply; Adam wondered if it was clear externally how much he wanted to fall through the face of the Earth rather than take another step anywhere at all. “Grace had a box of your books.”

“They, um,” Grace ran a hand over her hair, smoothing it down in a modest, familiar way that cracked at Adam’s heart. “They weren’t labeled right. The box said it was cookbooks. But it’s full of your sociology books, and - and I think some notes from your thesis work.”

“Oh,” Adam forced his throat muscles to swallow. “Oh. You emailed me about this.”

“Yes,” she picked up the mug in front of her, glanced at it, and set it down again.

“God. Sorry. I - I forgot, I’m sorry, I remember now you said you could bring it by this weekend.”

“It’s all right. Nothing to be sorry for. Ronan was very sweet to sit with me while we waited.”

“Mm,” Adam looked over at Ronan, still feeling panicky about this. But the other two both seemed quite serene and calm, of course. Of course. The two of them having a fucking tea party in his kitchen like that was just completely normal-

“Well. I should really go. I didn’t mean to stay so long,” Grace set her mug on the edge of the sink, on the left-hand side, like she’d done before. Dirty dishes on the left, clean ones on the right.

“Um,” Adam mumbled. Ronan shot him a look behind her back, a glare that said get your shit together.

“Thanks for the tea, Ronan. It was good to meet you, finally.”

“You too,” Ronan got up and actually shook her fucking hand, holy God Adam was in some kind of fucking Twilight Zone.

Ronan stayed behind in the kitchen, rinsing things apparently at random. Adam left him there and walked with Grace to the front door. It wasn’t that far, really, but it felt endless.

“I’m sorry I dropped in like this. I should’ve waited to hear back from you,” Grace looked down at the floor. “To see if it was okay.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’m sorry I …” Adam began, then trailed off, because what the hell was he getting at there? I’m sorry I broke up with you and ran straight back to the ex-boyfriend we both agreed was completely toxic and now he’s welcoming you to the apartment you picked out for us because clearly he’s already practically living here with me?

“Are you happy?” Grace picked up the conversation thread, which was good, since Adam had left it sort of flopping and dying.

“I … yes,” he admitted, his cheeks burning. “Yes. Are you … God, I want to ask if you’re okay but it sounds like the shittiest question in the world.”

“Actually, I am doing okay, Adam. It took some time, but I feel a lot steadier now. A lot more myself again. So I … this was a fear I needed to conquer. I might need to go home and cry about it a little more. But I will be all right. Ask Ronan, if you want to know more.”

“Yeah, I … okay. Thanks for - for returning my books.”

“You’re welcome. Take care of yourself, Adam,” she reached out to hug him, and he gasped a little at the frightening combination of guilt and relief it brought.

“You too, Grace.”

Adam stayed there for a good five minutes, leaning against the wall and holding his head and trying to let his emotions settle down. Then he trudged into the living room and sank down onto the futon.

Ronan gave him space for a while. Then he poked his head around the doorway and came over to sit down. He touched Adam’s shoulder, and that was it. Adam crawled over and got as close as he could, surrounded himself in Ronan’s touch and smell for a while, breathed him in and focused on this, on his present, his future.

“I thought maybe you’d forgotten your keys,” Ronan kissed his hair. “That’s why I answered the door. It was right around when you said you’d be home.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. Christ, did you make her tea? Oh my God.”

“She was … yeah she was kinda surprised to see me. I felt like shit, I didn’t want her to cry. She’s, like … so fucking nice.”

“I know.”

“She remembered me from that graduation dinner I guess. She knew who I was, I mean. Right away.”

“Yeah,” Adam groaned. “I know she did. You were kind of a … um. A presence. You always have been. She knows who you are, believe me. Fuck, I am such an asshole.”

“A little bit, yeah. She was just trying to give you back your books and you never replied at all.”

Adam leaned back to rub at his eyes, digging his fingertips in until it hurt a little bit.

“Adam, look, it’s fine. It’s over with, okay? She still misses you but she’s doing better. She’s sorta seeing somebody, some poet dude with a guitar. She already likes him a lot.”

The surreal nature of this conversation was just too much to handle. Adam blinked over at Ronan to try and process even any of it.

For whatever reason, he could only grasp at one particularly jarring part.

“Grace is dating a musician?

“She said he’s soulful,” Ronan’s mouth quirked up.

“What the fuck, Ronan, this is the weirdest day of my life.”

“So … not counting, like … the day you sacrificed your hands and eyes to a magical forest, or day time you discovered our friend had actually been dead for seven years, or the day a bunch of animal skeletons came to life-”

“Yeah, yeah, point made, shut up.”

“She’s really smart, you know? I mean I know you always say that, but you don’t say how nice she is. She really changed my whole way of thinking about how to keep my art sales a separate business from anything that gets sold on the farm.”

“Oh my God.”

“Like do you think if I made her tea again she’d help me figure out how to price things?”

“Ronan, holy shit, you are not getting my ex-girlfriend to do your fucking QuickBooks, just stop. Stop.”

“Okay, okay, fine. Look, I have something to tell you. It’s important.”

“Does it have to do with Grace in any way whatsoever-”

“No! No, look. You know how you spent all that time with your magical forest friends and it was supposed to help me start dreaming again?”

“Yes,” Adam sighed shakily, pushing his hair out of his eyes. Cabeswater. He could focus on this.

Now that he really looked at Ronan, he could see a light there in his eyes. A badly-contained excitement. His knee was bouncing beside Adam’s, and he looked like he was going to burst any second.

“It worked. It’s working, Adam. I pulled something out.”

Adam’s breath caught, and he stared at his boyfriend, letting these words sink in. He imagined Ronan waking up in Adam’s bed, frozen and paralyzed for a few seconds, clutching a raven feather or a bit of ivy, and his heart picked up speed again.

“It worked?” Adam grabbed for his hand. “What did you get?”

Ronan’s lips curved into a grin, his dark lashes dropping as he looked down at their tangled fingers. He turned his hand slightly, so it was on top of Adam’s, and then reached toward his wrist as he tugged at one of his leather wristbands.

It was much newer than most of the others. Black with clean edges. Matching the one Adam had bought him back in February or so. Ronan pulled and twisted it, turned it around so Adam could see it better.

It was embossed with a big block letter H inside a shield. The Harvard logo.