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Look at Me (I'm Still Alive)

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1. Outsider

Adam

When the dream first visits him, Adam only has a second to wonder if it’s the day of the accident before all of his thoughts are stolen away.

He feels nothing but pain, slashing through his back, hacking at his shoulder blades as if someone is tearing away strips of skin, one after the other, in a series of precise motions that have Adam screaming.

“Let him go!”

Adam hears the voice but he doesn’t recognize it. His vision is nothing but a red haze of pain, his eyes obscured by tears.

He’s held down by restraints, strapped to a table of some kind. Fingernails are slicing through his back as sharp as a knife. Sweat is pooling on his forehead, and his throat is raw from screaming.

“I bet it hurts, doesn’t it?” The voice is gentle and kind. It sends a wave of nausea through Adam. “As bad as it did when I found out what you did to my brother. But it will stop hurting soon. I promise.”

Adam can’t help but think that it’s not really him they’re talking too. The thought flies out of his head as soon as the fingernails tear through his back again, and he sobs as a fresh wave of pain hits him.

Right before he blacks out, he hears the first voice again. “Adam, can you hear me? Adam?”

Adam wants to reply. But he’s already waking up.

***

Sometimes the nightmares wake Adam kicking and screaming. Those are the bad days, when he has to call in sick at the bookstore and spend hours trying to make sense out of the mess of his thoughts.

Today, though, the path back from sleep is slow and easy. Adam blinks against the wandering rays of sunlight that fought their way through the drapes. He still has a couple more minutes before his alarm rings, before the whole house wake up and he has to get going.

He stays in bed, enjoying this time when the whole house is quiet, sleeping. He loves what he can see in these moments, as he tries to catch a glimpse of the dream that woke him up. It’s already slipping through his fingers, as it always does, but this morning the feelings of the dream stay with him, making things just a little uneasy for him.

He has a routine that involves, somehow, very little talking, thanks in large part to the fact that all those who live here are strangers to each other. They rent rooms because they need them, all for different reasons, yet no friendship comes out of it.

Being quiet always waken something at the edge of Adam’s conscience, as if it’s not quite right. As if before the accident, he was the guy who talked so much that he sometimes annoyed his friends. That’s not the case anymore.

Today it feels wrong, as if it’s everyone else’s fault, and not his. He admonishes himself before he can finish that thought. The accident changed a lot of things about how Adam interacts with others, including this.

Besides, Adam can’t even put his finger on why it feels wrong. It’s like he’s holding his housemates to some standard that he doesn’t even know where he found. As if he’s constantly comparing them to someone who doesn’t even exist.

But now that he’s noticed it, Adam can’t un-see the way every single one of them dances out of his reach if he gets too close. How there is something about everything they do – starting the coffee, spreading butter on toast, reading the newspaper – that makes it look like carefully rehearsed choreography, executed in the exact same way every day.

The only thing that’s different now is that Adam feels like he’s not a captive audience who just watches, entranced by the magic happening right in front of his eyes. It’s as if he suddenly found himself behind the curtains and can see every little thing that’s used to create the illusion.

Still he doesn’t say a thing. It’s just an impression, and it could be that he’s having a bad day again. They are less and less frequent but they still happen from time to time. And when they do, they leave him shaken for a long time as he tries to figure why every detail of his life seems… wrong, somehow. As if someone wiped out his whole existence, and replaced it with a poor copy of somebody else’s.

He’s aware that he was… different, before, but there is something in the way everybody acts around him that makes him think that maybe he wasn’t such a nice guy, before. And from what he’s been told about the accident, he was also a guy who made a lot of bad choices.

Now, his mornings are quiet as he painfully tries to find the energy he needs to go through his days. Sometimes it’s easy, but most days it feels like his brain is full of cotton, his thoughts lost in a fog that he can barely see through.

Today, however, it’s a little bit easier. Instead of unsettling him, the dream – nightmare, at least he thinks it was a nightmare – and the way it woke Adam up is helping him be more focused. He avoids his usual coffee and makes some tea instead. He vaguely remembers his doc telling him something about the importance of having a routine and sticking to it, but right now Adam doesn’t see what harm there could be in such a small change.

On his way to work, he grabs his usual selection of croissants and pastries, as well as coffee for Cassie and David. The bookshop is small, and it never has that many customers. On his good days, Adam sometimes wonders how Cassie manages to keep it afloat. At least it’s a job, and one where it doesn’t matter that he sometimes can’t come in. He’s aware that Cassie hired him out of pity and sympathy, but he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t see why he should.

He hands a coffee to David, laughs when he gets called “My hero,” and settles to do his usual filing of new books and reorganizing of others. It’s tedious, and a little boring, but Adam knows that before long Cassie will be leaving them alone and the filing will be forgotten until tomorrow. Cassie knows they’ll stop working as soon as she walks out, and they know that she knows. But they all pretend that they don’t.

Or at least that’s what Adam’s expecting to happen. Instead, around ten, he starts feeling dizzy. It’s just bad enough to be annoying, and for Cassie to realize that something is wrong and ask, “Adam, are you okay? Did you take your meds?”

Adam is annoyed by the question until he reminds himself that the only reason Cassie acts all mother-hen is because she worries about him. Maybe that’s why he replies, “I’m not sure. I think maybe I forgot them last night.”

For a second he spies something on Cassie’s face, so far from her usual kind expression, but it’s gone before he can wonder.

“Maybe you should go home,” she says, gently. “I don’t want you collapsing on my watch. And don’t forget your meds tomorrow, okay?”

“Of course,” Adam nods.

It feels strange to have that much time to waste in the middle of the day. He knows he should listen to Cassie and go back home. Instead he finds himself wandering without any real purpose, the dizziness gone as soon as he stepped out of the bookshop.

Adam keeps walking, curious to see where his steps will lead him. They neighborhood is strangely familiar, and not just because he crosses through it every day when he goes to work. When he walks through it in the morning or evening, he never notices the details. Now he does, in a “this is where we used to…” kind of way, but he has no idea who we even are, or what it is that they used to do.

When Adam stops, he’s in front of a music store, the kind where they sell both CDs and instruments, and where they give music lessons as well. Music isn’t something Adam really cares about, yet the sight of the store brings a smile to his lips. Maybe he enjoyed music, before. Maybe he even came here.

Adam hesitates. Then he remembers everything he’s been told about how getting back to his routine, going back to his familiar hang-outs might help bring back his memories. Up until now, it hasn’t really worked, but he’s willing to give it a try.

The place feels familiar, but there’s also something about it that’s just a little off, though Adam couldn’t say exactly what. He’s a couple of steps into the store when a small girl carrying a pile of discs as high as herself exclaims, “Adam? I haven’t seen you in forever! I’m a little busy now, but we need to catch up soon, okay? Tommy’s in the back if you’re looking for him.”

With that, she’s gone, leaving Adam to wonder how someone who obviously works here can recognize him. This is definitely not one of the place where his friends brought him when the doc said that familiar ground could be helpful.

Without thinking further, Adam makes his way in the direction the girl pointed. He walks through row of instruments to where a small blond guy is tuning a guitar.

Adam stops to watch him, and right before the guy looks up, Adam has a flash of him on a stage, playing that guitar, headbanging and singing along.

The vision is gone as fast as it appeared, and Adam’s left with the guy staring at him as if he’s seen a ghost.

Tommy tightens his grip on his guitar, as if he’s worried he’s going to let it fall if he doesn’t, and says, “Adam?”

Adam nods, trying his hardest to understand what’s happening. “You’re… Tommy, right?”

The name fits, and not just because it’s the one the girl gave to Adam. It’s the kind of things that feels right when everything else seems wrong.

There’s a second when it looks like Tommy’s about to smile. Instead, his whole face closes off. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

Adam takes a step back. There’s so much aggressiveness coming off Tommy that it scares him, but not enough to make him leave. Tommy’s attitude is proof that they do know each other, and Adam thinks it would be good for him to get an image of who he was before that doesn’t come from any of his current friends… who haven’t been really helpful, now that he thinks about it.

“Tommy—” Adam tries to say.

Tommy interrupts him before he can say one more word. “Why are you here? You think you can reappear after six months like everything’s fine?”

“I didn’t mean…”

“I worried myself sick about you! But you never even tried to contact me… to contact any of us. Did it ever matter to you?”

The only thing that Adam understands is that Tommy’s hurt, so badly that he’s lashing out. Other than that, not much of what he’s saying makes sense.

Instead of asking, though, Adam simply says, “Something bad happened. I barely made it through. And my memory still isn’t that great.”

It’s enough to stop whatever Tommy was about to say next. It seems like there’s something else happening, too, but Adam can’t figure out what it is.

Tommy looks at him, biting his lip, and takes a step closer. “Can I ask what happened?”

Adam hesitates for a second, pretty sure that this is the kind of thing that could get him in trouble. As soon as that thought flies through his head, though, he wonders. How could something bad come from talking to someone who seems to know him?

“If I can ask you a couple of questions too. But not here.”

Tommy nods. “There’s a little café across the street; it’s not too busy. We’d be able to talk. If you can wait, maybe an hour? I should be able to take a break.”

“Okay,” Adam agrees with a smile. “I’ll just… wander around.”

Tommy snickers like it’s some kind of inside joke. There’s sadness in his eyes when he realizes that Adam doesn’t get it, and his voice is soft as he says, “Sure. That works.”

When Tommy goes back to his guitar, Adam looks through the store, startled at how many bands, how many singers seem familiar. He can name titles, musicians, and he realizes with surprise that he can even hum a few bars of many of the songs. Which doesn’t make sense because he never cared about music. Or did he?

Still he listens to some, and he’s surprised to discover the feelings they evoke in him. He feels peaceful in a way he hasn’t in a long time, as if he’s just rediscovered a long lost friend.

As promised, an hour later, Tommy gets his break and they make their way across the street to the small café. They grab their drinks – once again, Adam goes for tea instead of coffee, but Tommy only smiles as if he’s used to that – and Tommy points to a table near the window.

Adam shakes his head and guides Tommy toward a table near the counter, one that can’t be seen from the window.

Tommy follows him, but still asks, “You don’t wanna be seen with me?”

Adam shrugs. “I have a feeling some of my friends would think it’s a bad thing.”

He can feel Tommy staring at him curiously as he sits and looks down at his cup. So many things seem like they don’t fit into place since he woke up this morning. It’s like he doesn’t know which way is up and down anymore.

Before Tommy can say anything, Adam asks, “Why were you angry? I’ll answer your questions afterward. I just need to know why.”

Tommy looks away from Adam, bangs falling into his eyes, and he replies, quietly, “You know why.”

Adam shakes his head then realizes Tommy still isn’t looking at him. “No. I told you, my memory’s pretty bad. I probably should know, but I don’t remember.”

“Because you promised me.” There’s a hint of a sad smile on Tommy’s face. “You both promised that if you wanted out, you would tell me and make me forget. That you wouldn’t disappear out the blue the way you did.”

Adam frowns as he wonders who they both are, but before he can ask, Tommy says, “It’s been six months, Adam. Six months without a way of getting a hold of you or Brian. We were all worried out of our minds. And I couldn’t… I couldn’t feel you anymore.”

“Feel me?” Adam repeats, completely lost, but Tommy doesn’t seem to notice.

“That connection between us, the way I always know if you’re in trouble or, or…” Tommy tightens his grip on his cup, but not fast enough that Adam doesn’t notice his fingers are trembling. “I know shit got bad for you – I woke up in the middle of the night, screaming because of the fear and the pain – but the next morning, you weren’t there anymore. Like you’d evaporated, or something.”

“That’s… impossible, for you to feel me like that,” Adam objects, because what Tommy’s saying doesn’t make sense.

Tommy shrugs, and he curls in on himself, shoulders hunching as he stares at his cup. “It should be. But it’s been this way since you saved my life.”

The next couple of words are lost on Adam. He closes his eyes against the intensifying headache. Saved Tommy’s life? No, he didn’t save his life, he…

***

They’ve been off the stage for a couple of minutes when Ashley enters the dressing room, asking, “Have you seen Tommy?”

“Wasn’t he with you?” Adam replies. He’s barely paying attention, focusing instead on what’s next. The first set wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. Something was off, but Adam can’t put his finger on it.

“Yes, he was, but I can’t find him. And those guys who give me the creeps? I’m pretty sure they’re around. So excuse me if I’m a little worried.”

Ashley doesn’t need to say that she’s worrying; Adam can feel it all over her. He turns toward her, glancing at Brian who’s sitting on the couch, on the other side of the room. “What makes you say that?”

“I have a bad feeling. And I’ve been around both of you long enough that I know better than to ignore it.”

Adam can’t help but think that she’s wrong. Even they wouldn’t be stupid enough to step on his and Brian’s territory and take away what’s theirs. At least, he hopes so.

He’s about to say it’s impossible when Brian crosses the room.

“It won’t hurt to check.”

Although he’s surprised, Adam tries not to let it show. He sits as Brian stands beside him, one hand on Adam’s shoulder to shield him. It shouldn’t be necessary – it won’t be if Adam’s right – but they can’t take any risks.

Adam closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He waits until Brian’s grip tightens on his shoulder, then he opens his mind, just enough to feel the energy in the rest of the bar.

As soon as he does, he’s hit with a wave of nausea. There’s energy flying in the air, everywhere around them, so bright and so pure it makes him sick.

The pain bends him in half, and he barely feels Brian grabbing both of his shoulders and forcing him to close his mind and come back.

There’s a line of sweat on Adam’s forehead and tears in his eyes when he’s finally able to sit up and look at Brian and Ashley.

“What the fuck was that?” Brian asks.

“I’m lucky you were there. Ashley’s right. They’re not just around. They’re using spells.”

Adam’s still trembling from the wave of energy that hit him earlier. There’s a few seconds of silence while he tries to get himself back under control.

Ashley takes a step toward him. “What does that mean?”

“That we have to find Tommy before trouble finds him. Stick with Brian, okay? I don’t want them to get near you, either.”

“What about Rick?”

Brian shakes his head. “I’ve known him for years. It’s not the first time he’s seen it happen. He’ll be okay.”

Ashley frowns, but she doesn’t ask anything more, and Adam sighs in relief. There is a limit to what he and Brian can tell the others, and they really don’t have time for that kind of explanation now.

Right before he steps out of the dressing room, Brian grabs his arm. “Be careful. Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

“I won’t pick a fight, I promise. I’m just trying to find Tommy.”

When he gets back to the dance floor, he can feel the energy without even trying, sticking to his tongue and choking him. Shivers climb up his spine. What the hell is happening?

Near the bar, he spots a flash of blond hair, along with someone who makes Adam want to run in the other direction. He pushes through the disgust and fear that comes to him on instinct and keeps walking, only to realize that said person has an arm around Tommy’s shoulders.

Right before he can touch either of them, a pretty face looks up at him. “He’s yours, I think, isn’t he? Or should I say, he was.”

Adam can’t risk touching them, not without Brian by his side. He’s powerless as they push Tommy toward him and Tommy collapses into his arms like a ragdoll.

Adam watches them walk away, memorizing every detail of their faces, before he turns all of his attention to Tommy.

“Tommy, can you hear me?”

The only reply Adam gets is a mumble. No words and Tommy’s eyes are glassy, as if he’s not really there.

It takes him a second to search and find Brian’s presence at the edge of his mind. I have him. We’re in trouble.

Then he brings Tommy back to the dressing room, and he waits. He barely dares to touch Tommy, can’t bring himself to actually look and figure out what’s wrong. In part because he’s scared of what he will find, but also because he’s aware that, whatever the spell is, it could latch onto him since he still doesn’t have a strong enough shield.

He doesn’t hear the others enter, and only becomes aware of them when Ashley kneels by Tommy’s side, next to the couch, and reaches for his hand. “What happened to him?”

“Don’t touch him!” Brian snaps behind her, and while she looks hurt, it’s enough to make her take her hand away.

“It’s a spell, Ash,” Adam explains. “If you touch him, it could take hold of you, too.”

She nods as she looks from him to Brian and back to him. “But you can help him, right?”

Adam hesitates before saying, “Once we figure out what spell it is, we might be able to, but… we don’t have healing powers. No idea if it’s something we can help with.”

“I don’t know,” Rick says, looking at Brian, “but it looks a lot like what they did to me, way back when.”

Brian stares at Tommy for a few seconds. “A purifying spell. Fuck. I think you’re right.”

“A purifying…”Ashley repeats, frowning. “Isn’t that kind of spell supposed to be good?”

Adam shakes his head. “Not really. It can have a good result when it’s performed on a child, or on a really pure soul. On an adult, it erases big parts of their personality.”

“Besides,” Brian says, “You guys have been around us for long enough that if we let the spell runs its course and take away all the darkness? There’ll be nothing left of him.”

“You need to do something,” Ashley orders, glaring from one of them to the other.

“I’m not sure we can,” Adam tries to say.

Rick interrupts him, “Or you could do what Brian did for me.”

Adam looks at Brian, confused. He doesn’t know this part of the story.

“I tied myself to a part of his soul, and gave him just enough darkness to make the spell disappear. Only reason why I did it,” Brian says as he turns toward Rick, “Was for your girls. I’m not sure I’d do it again. You know why.”

“I don’t care what you do,” Ashley says before Adam can ask any more questions, “but it needs to be done fast. He’s really not doing well.”

That takes Adam’s attention back to Tommy. There’s a fine line of sweat on Tommy’s forehead and his eyes are wide open, but he’s clearly not seeing anything. Adam still doesn’t dare touch him, but he can’t let him fade away like that.

Before he can say or do anything, Brian’s standing by his side and says, quiet enough that only Adam can hear him, “You can’t do that.”

In the same way, Adam replies, “I’m not letting him die because of me.”

“He won’t die.”

“You know what I mean, Bri. He got caught in the crossfire. They wanted to hurt us. It’s my fault.”

Brian puts his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “It’s permanent, Adam. It can’t be undone. He’ll always know where you are and how you’re doing. You may think it doesn’t matter now, but if he decides that it’s too much for him, or that he wants out… that gives him a really easy way to hurt you.”

“It’s Tommy. He’d never do that.”

“You don’t know that.”

Adam nods. He knows Brian is right, and yet, he can’t help but feel guilty. There’s nobody to blame but himself, and his selfishness. “If I decide to do it anyway,” he asks, “Will you shield me?”

Brian moves his hand to the back of Adam’s neck. “You know I could forbid you to do it.”

Adam shivers. He can’t bring his head up, he can’t look at Brian, but he forces himself to say, “If you want to destroy everything between us, then yes, you could.”

He hears Brian sigh. “I’m just trying to keep my promise and protect you.”

“Maybe this time I don’t need you to protect me. Except in the way I’m asking you to.”

There is no reply. Adam lets his own words hang in the air for a moment, then he asks, slow and careful, “Do you really want to lose him?”

Adam holds his breath for the couple of seconds it takes for Brian to lift his hand off Adam’s neck and place it back on Adam’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” Adam whispers.

“If it’s another kind of spell, you don’t try anything, you hear me?”

Adam nods, because he can’t bring himself to make the promise Brian wants to hear. Even if they’re wrong about the spell that was used on Tommy, he can’t say he won’t do anything. They’re so far from the time when they saw the band as a means to an end. And Adam knows that, even if Brian won’t admit it, he’s just as worried as Adam.

Adam recognizes the spell as soon as he creates the link with Tommy. Everything is suddenly too bright, too pure, giving him a headache and making him want to run away. The only reason the purifying spell isn’t latching onto him is that Brian’s shielding him.

His own shield still isn’t strong enough, which is why he gets a headache, but he’s not backing off now. He can’t.

There is light, bright and pure enough to hurt, and gray everywhere else, the gray that Adam’s learned to know and love. The gray that is typical of humans, of all their contradictions and dilemmas, of all the compromises they make between what they believe in and their everyday lives.

And there are flashes of color here and there, bright red and soft blue, that are all Tommy. Hint of blond hair falling over brown eyes.

It’s the music that catches Adam’s attention, sweet, sometimes violent, always tender. It’s the only part of Tommy’s soul on which he can get a grasp – everywhere else is closed off because Tommy doesn’t want this. Tommy isn’t even aware it’s happening, but Adam can’t let that stop him – so he grabs onto it, onto the living, moving notes that wind higher and higher.

He weaves his own spell over it, until he can hear, mixed with the wailing of the guitar, his own voice, just a soft humming that nobody else would notice.

As soon as he’s done, he lets himself fade back to his own body. Right before he does, he thinks maybe he can also hear a gentle piano note. But that’s impossible.

Adam opens his eyes with a soft sigh. He can’t help but smile when he sees that Tommy seems to be sleeping, eyes closed, with a hint of a smile on his lips.

“You were right,” Adam says to Rick. “It was a purifying spell. But he should be okay now.”

***

“Hey, you okay?”

It takes Adam a second to come back to reality, and when he does, it’s to say, “I didn’t save your life, Tommy, I…”

Tommy interrupts him before he can finish. “Yes, as far as I’m concerned, you did. It doesn’t matter how you did it. If you hadn’t done a thing? I wouldn’t be here. Or if I was, I would be nothing but a shell of myself.”

Adam doesn’t have an answer to that. He can’t help but feel that what he did to Tommy was much worse than death.

“It’s my life, remember?” Tommy says. “If I say you saved me, then you did. Now, will you tell me what happened to you?”

Adam hesitates for a second. The story is already on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t help but wonder. For the first time in months, after what he’s just seen, he’s questioning it.

“I will tell you what I was told,” he says finally, deciding that there is no other way but to take the plunge and see what happens. “But I have a feeling that some of the things I was told might not be the exact truth.”

“Go ahead. We’ll see.”

Adam frowns as he tries to make some sense out of the mess of his thoughts. He’s heard this story so many times, but now that he has to tell it to someone who doesn’t already know, he has no idea where to start.

It’s only when Tommy grasps one of Adam’s hands that Adam realizes that his own fingers are trembling. He takes a long, shaking breath, trying his hardest to tamp down the panic bubbling up in his throat.

“It’s okay,” Tommy whispers, all soft and coaxing. “Just tell me what they told you.”

“They told me I was in a car accident,” Adam says after a couple of seconds of silence. He keeps talking, as fast as he can, as if he’s going to lose his voice if he even thinks of stopping. “That it screwed up my back, and my memories. I’ve been trying return to normal ever since, but it’s not… working that well for me.”

“Return to normal?” Tommy repeats, as if the words don’t make sense.

“You know,” Adam shrugs. “Having a job and a good relationship with my boyfriend, and getting to the point where my friends don’t feel like they have to constantly mother-hen me.”

Tommy stares at Adam as if he’s seeing him for the first time. “What you just said would make a lot of sense. If you… if you were human.”

For a second it feels like Tommy meant to say something completely different, but Adam can’t ask him about it when all he wants to do is to laugh at what Tommy said. Yet he can’t. It seems to wake something in him, something he’s scared to examine too closely.

“I’m not?” Even as he says the words, they gain a certainty that denies the question he wanted to ask. “I’m not.”

“You really don’t remember anything?” There is so much misery in Tommy’s voice that Adam can feel his hurt deep inside, but when Tommy looks at him, his face reveals nothing.

Adam shakes his head. “Nothing beyond what they told me. And this… this is really not something they told me.”

Slowly, Tommy releases Adam’s hand and asks, as if he has a hard time getting the words out, “Who are they?”

Once again the automatic reply that Adam would have given a week ago doesn’t seem to make much sense. So he hesitates as he tries to figure out a way to answer.

When he does, he surprises himself with what he says. “He says he’s my boyfriend.”

Tommy blinks as if he can’t quite believe it, then he seems a little angry when he asks, “What’s his name?”

“Scott.”

Tommy’s eyebrows go up even higher as Adam’s reply seems to leave him speechless.

“From the look on your face,” Adam says, “it’s not what you were expecting.”

“I have no idea who that guy is. I’m used to…” Tommy starts, before interrupting himself with, “Fuck, why is this so hard?”

Adam stares at him, surprised, and hesitates before he says, “I’m sorry?”

Tommy shrugs and looks away. “Not your fault. I have no idea what they did to you, but it’s making every word feel like pulling teeth.”

“Can’t you just… tell me?”

“I’m trying,” Tommy snaps, before looking down at the table. “Sorry. There’s something stopping me from telling you want I want to tell you. I can’t explain it better.”

It takes a few seconds for Adam to realize that Tommy won’t be able to say anything more unless Adam asks the right questions.

“So in your memories,” he tries, “Scott isn’t my boyfriend.”

Tommy shakes his head and lets out a little sad laugh. “I don’t know Scott. In my memories, you don’t have a boyfriend.”

“I don’t?” Adam repeats, a little lost. While he can’t remember a thing, he could practically feel the lie as Tommy told it.

Tommy looks at him through his bangs and gives him a soft smile. “You have…” Once again Tommy hesitates, and Adam knows that this time, there is no spell, nothing stopping Tommy but himself. There’s something Tommy really doesn’t want to tell him. “You have Brian. But never in a hundred years would you call him your boyfriend.”

“Why not?”

“He’s your Shield. You always said it meant more than any of our words could explain.”

The feeling from earlier comes back, giving Adam a bit of a headache, and he releases Tommy’s hand in the hope of keeping the memory at bay. It doesn’t work.

***

The aftermath of the spell hits Adam like a ton of bricks. The remnants of magic always seem to cling to his skin for days afterward, leaving the taste of ashes in his mouth. But it’s never been this bad.

He’s lucky to have made it home. As soon as he crosses the threshold, he collapses to his knees as air comes out of his lungs in a rush.

He rests his hands on the floor as he tries his hardest to find his center again. He can feel the energy running under his skin, wild and uncontrollable, hitting him in all the wrong ways.

He always has a hard time dealing with this and he always hates himself a little for it. He can’t help but think that it should be getting easier as time passes, that he should be better at controlling it.

Which is why it takes things getting this bad and the aftereffects nearly knocking him off his feet for Adam to accept help. He knows it would be easier if he’d let Brian in from the start and didn’t wait until the feedback got so terrible that all of his defenses collapsed at the same time, leaving him helpless and defeated.

He’s aware that it’s only his damn pride standing between him and the help he needs, but he can’t do anything about it. Admitting that, even after all that time, it doesn’t get any easier would ask just a little too much from him. It makes him feel weak, and worthless in a way he thought he’d left behind when he met Brian.

Still, it takes him pushing himself this far before he can accept the comfort of Brian’s arms. Adam can barely move, so Brian stays with him on the floor, holding him close and tight until Adam can get his breathing under control.

It’s only then, when Adam finally stops shivering, that Brian lays a hand on the back of Adam’s neck, and asks, softly, “Let me in?”

Adam nods because that’s all he can do. Tears aren’t far away, and the feeling of having his whole world turned upside down won’t disappear until he accepts some help.

His breath catches in his throat when he feels Brian’s energy surround him, forcing him deeper inside himself as the remnants of magic cling to Brian. Adam knows that the energy will fade now and leave nothing behind, just a little memory that he can deal with.

The tears still aren’t far, hiding at the corner of his eyes, so close that Adam can’t protest when Brian says, “Off to bed with you. Come on,” and guides him to bed. Adam lies on his side, curling in on himself, his back to Brian.

It’s nothing, really, just Brian’s hand splayed on Adam’s back, but it’s enough to stop Adam from holding back the tears and they finally fall free as he lets out a sobbing breath.

Not a word is spoken as Adam shakes out his tears and fear and everything that takes hold of him to the point of choking him every fucking time he uses magic. He finds it frustrating enough that he can’t help but say, “It should be getting easier, not harder.”

“You’re still very young,” Brian reminds him. “It will happen in its own time.”

Normally, Brian’s reassurance would be enough to get Adam off the ledge, but this time he rolls onto his back and replies, “Did you listen to me? It’s not just a case of the magic hitting me hard, Bri. It’s hitting me harder every time.”

“I know.”

The easy answer makes Adam’s widen his eyes, but he can’t find anything to say to that.

After a couple of minutes of uneasy silence, Brian explains, “Your soul is still fighting the magic. Don’t ask me why. I have no idea. The reason is different for everybody. Unless something changes in a big way about your deep, intimate self, which would be surprising, I’m sorry but it won’t get any easier.”

“Isn’t there any way…” Adam can’t finish.

Brian interrupts him. “There is a way. Every time I try to explain it to you, you refuse to listen. I’m not going to force you.”

Adam grinds his teeth, tension showing over his whole body. “I can’t be that weak.”

Gently, Brian traces circles over Adam’s chest, a barely there caress until Adam lets go again, his body deflating like a balloon losing air. “It doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It just means that you’re more sensitive to magic.”

Adam sighs. “That’s what it feels like. Don’t you get it? Like I’m not strong enough, not…” Good enough, he wants to say, but he holds the words in. He knows they’re a leftover from the life he had before, from the way he used to think of himself. Sometimes, though, those insecurities surface again, and Adam can’t stop them.

“It has nothing to do with your strength,” Brian reminds him. “Those spells that leave you in such a bad state after using them? You’re still better at performing them than I’ll ever be. And I’ve had hundreds of years of practice. That feedback you’re getting? It’s just the other side of that.”

“It can’t be that simple,” Adam argues, but the pressure of Brian’s hand on his body stops him before he can get any further.

“It is. My defenses are stronger than yours, I’m not gonna lie about that. But it also means I have a harder time accessing magic of any kind.”

Adam’s breath catches in his throat as he stares at Brian. “You never told me that.”

“You never let me,” Brian replies, so softly that even though it’s a rebuke, it doesn’t sting as badly as it could.

Adam doesn’t have an answer to that. It sounds so simple, so easy, yet he’s painfully aware that it would mean so much more than just protecting him from his own magic. He’s heard of Shields, the good and the bad, because even though he hasn’t been around as long as Brian, he listens, and listens well, when people talk around him. Especially when he has a feeling that it’s a conversation he’s not supposed to hear.

What he’s heard has always been enough to scare him and make him cut short any conversation about that possibility.

Everything he’s heard is still overwhelming his mind as he says, “I’m not sure I could give anyone that much control over me. Even you.”

Brian stares at him for the longest time before he replies, “It doesn’t have to be anything more than what we want it to be. Don’t make a decision now, just think about it. Will you?”

Slowly, Adam nods, aware that even if Brian doesn’t ask again, he won’t be able to stop thinking about it. About what it would mean and how it could help.

***

When Adam focuses on Tommy again, Tommy’s looking at him with a curious smile on his face.

“Where do you go when you zone out like that?” Tommy asks.

“Memories. I get my memories back.”

For a second there’s something on Tommy’s face, something that looks a lot like fear. But it’s gone before Adam can question it.

Tommy doesn’t leave him a chance to ask anything. “What did you see?”

“The moment when Brian told me why my magic wasn’t as strong as it could be. And the one when I… when I saved your life, I guess.”

Tommy grabs Adam’s hand again. “Did you listen to me? If I say you did, then yes, you did.”

Adam can only smile at that outburst, and he whispers, “Thank you.”

Tommy stares at him, surprised. “Why are you thanking me?”

“There aren’t many people in my life who seem willing to help me remember. They all act like I’m better off not knowing.”

“Or like they don’t want you to know,” Tommy adds, and Adam nods. “I’ll help you remember, Adam. I promise.”

Without thinking, Adam brings Tommy’s hand to his mouth and kisses Tommy’s fingers. He feels a little burst of pride at the shiver that runs through Tommy, a hint of possessiveness that seems out of place yet is so familiar.

However, the silence that falls upon them is heavy as Adam can feel Tommy’s discomfort clinging to the air. Reluctantly, he lets go of Tommy’s fingers.

“Was that out of line?”

“It was…” Tommy stares down at the table as he searches for the right word. “It was a little unsettling.”

Then, before Adam has the time to say anything else, Tommy looks at him as if the last few seconds never happened.

“You should come to our rehearsal tomorrow,” he suggests with a soft smile. “Well, it might not be much of a rehearsal because we still haven’t replaced you or Brian but… it’s nice to hang out and jam. Ash would be really happy to see you. Rick, too, I think.”

“Rehearsal?” Adam repeats, uncertain. The word is waking something up at the back of his brain, but nothing clear, just a hint of a memory.

He can’t miss the pain in Tommy’s eyes as Tommy says, “Our band?” Like it shouldn’t be a question.

Adam has a feeling that he should remember, yet all he can come up with is, “I’ve never been that fond of music.”

Tommy stares at Adam then barks out a laugh. “What the hell did they do to you? Your signature is music.”

“My what?”

Tommy lowers his gaze to the table again, but it doesn’t stop Adam from noticing the way Tommy’s fingers are shaking as he tightens his grip around his cup.

“Your signature,” Tommy repeats, in that kind of low, careful voice that lets Adam know the effort Tommy’s making to stay calm. “The one thing that allows the people closest to you to recognize you when they can feel nothing but your energy. It’s your voice, singing. Humming, actually.”

Adam wants to ask how Tommy knows that, but he has a feeling the question wouldn’t be welcome. Instead, he says, “I’m… not sure I would be comfortable coming to your rehearsal, but I can join you after. Tell me when and where it is?”

Tommy smiles then, one of first real smiles Adam has seen on him since Adam saw him in the music store. And Adam can’t help but think that he wants to see that smile more often.

***

That night, right before he goes to sleep, Adam finds himself sitting on his bed, pills in the palm of his hand. Tommy’s words keep going around in his head. What the hell did they do to you?

Instead of taking the pills, he keeps staring at them as if taking them will make him forget everything Tommy’s told him.

And he has to remember. He needs to remember. He needs to go to that rehearsal tomorrow and maybe, just maybe, get a couple more answers.

But he also has to make it through the day first, and he knows that after today they will all be asking if he took his damn meds.

While he’s still hesitating, he feels a hand on his shoulder, a gentle stroke on the back of his neck. Don’t do that. It will make you forget again.

Adam can’t help but look around. He’s still alone, just like he was a couple of seconds ago, but the firm pressure on his neck doesn’t go away. If he closes his eyes, he can even feel someone here with him.

Slowly, Adam closes his fingers around the pills and crushes them in his fist. Eyes still closed, he shivers when he feels a loving kiss on his hair. Good boy.

When he opens his eyes, he’s still alone. But he also feels more peaceful than he has in months.

***

The second day without meds is a little easier. It leaves Adam a little off-balance, but not enough that anyone would realize it.

The biggest difference is that now the routine at the bookstore leaves him as lost as the one he has at home. As if he’s living a life that wasn’t meant for him, but that he has to fit into anyway.

The day drags on and on. Every little thing that normally helps Adam feel a little more grounded is now grating on his nerves in the worst way. Everything around him, including the bookstore itself, seems fake, out of place.

He still makes it through the day without raising too many eyebrows or getting too many questions, so he thinks he didn’t do too badly. Still, he’s glad when he can finally leave the bookstore, grab a quick dinner and head to the address Tommy gave him.

He arrives a little earlier than he said he would, just so he can hear them. As Tommy said, they’re not a complete band anymore. There’s just Ashley on bass, Tommy on guitar and Rick on the drums, and they are jamming more than rehearsing, but Adam smiles when he sees the joy written all over Tommy’s body.

The song sounds oddly familiar, as if he heard it a long time ago but not since.

***

“Tell me again why you brought me here?”

The bar is the kind of scene that Adam still has a strange fondness for, in big part because his human life isn’t that far behind him. He’s aware that Brian, however, avoids them as much as he can. It usually takes no more than a few minutes before the mix of feverish thoughts and energy gives Brian a headache.

The music, Adam realizes, is a shield that lets Brian hide in plain view. It blocks everything that would otherwise hurt him because he’s so far from human now that feeling all those emotions and being unable to feed from them is torture to him.

“The band’s up next then we’re out of here,” Adam promises. “You’ll understand why.”

They’re standing in the back of the bar, far away from the people crowding the dance floor, yet Adam can feel the unease coming off Brian in waves.

Brian quirks an eyebrow but doesn’t get a chance to say a thing as the reason why Adam insisted and sweet-talked and coaxed him into going out tonight walks on stage.

Once again, as he watches, Adam can’t help but think that while the band’s current singer and keyboardist are good, he and Brian would be so much better.

Adam waits and hopes, finally allowing himself a small smile when Brian goes beyond listening to the music and starts paying attention to the way the musicians play. He smiles even wider, hiding it behind his hand, when Brian’s gaze settles on the guitarist, just as his did the first time he watched and heard the band play.

He knows exactly what Brian is seeing, what he’s noticing. A shock of bright blond hair falling over brown eyes. A light frame moving along to the music, as if caught under a spell. The boy is pretty, but what they can see goes beyond pretty. How responsive he would be, the way he would move and whimper and beg…

There’s a second when Brian looks back at Adam, gesturing toward the guitarist, and Adam shakes his head. He wouldn’t have made such an effort if this was just about picking up a pretty new toy. Even though the idea is tempting, they have enough trouble as it is, and tonight is about the music.

For the rest of the set, Adam loses himself in the music and lets himself enjoy it. He doesn’t recognize all of the songs but he hums them under his breath. He can’t help it. Music was and is always the thing that makes him feel alive. That’s hasn’t changed, no matter how much he has.

When the band steps off the stage, Brian bends toward Adam and whispers in his ear, “Anything else you want me to see?”

Adam shakes his head. “We can go.”

After they leave the bar, Adam waits until the cold air brings him peace again, until he can feel the tension seeping out of Brian with every step they take into the empty night.

“What do you think?”

“They’re good,” Brian replies. “Talented. I still have no fucking clue why you wanted me to hear them, though.”

“Talented enough that it would be interesting to play with them?” Adam asks, aware that he’s treading on thin ice, but it’s the reason why he kept going back whenever they were playing, why he had to bring Brian to hear them.

Instead of the reaction Adam was hoping for, Brian only gives him a small smile, the kind that lets Adam know that Brian is barely humoring him. “They already have a keyboardist and a singer, you know.”

“Maybe not for long. Maybe they’ll be looking for new ones soon.”

Brian snorts and glances at Adam. “With absolutely no help from you, right?”He shakes his head. “Why?”

“Why not?” Adam says, louder than he meant to. “They’re talented enough that they deserve to have their little band go somewhere, and you and I get to make music again. Everybody wins.”

“Don’t you think we have enough problems as it is? They’re just human.”

“All we need is a little bit of glamor, and they won’t suspect a thing.” The magic of the night is lost on Adam as he keeps arguing, “Besides, our problems, as you put it, wouldn’t be interested in a bunch of humans. As long as we don’t get attached to them, we’re good.”

Silence weighs heavily between them the rest of the way. Just as they reach their place, Brian turns toward Adam, and asks, “Why?”

“Because it’s worth it.”When that doesn’t get a reaction, Adam sighs and adds, barely above a whisper, “Because I miss it.”

There’s a gentle hand on the back of his neck and a, “You should have said that from the start,” as Brian pulls him down to kiss him. It barely lasts a second, sweet and tender, but Adam shivers.

He smiles as they separate. To him, music will always be worth it. Besides, he can’t see how playing again could get them into more trouble than they already are. It’s not like they’re likely to get attached to a bunch of humans.

***

When Adam comes back to reality, the song has changed, and this one he can recognize without even trying. He’s not sure he could name it per se, but as soon as they start playing, he’s humming under his breath. He knows the rhythm and the notes, he realizes, surprised, and he even knows some of the words, the way they ought to be sung.

He lets the words come to him when they want to, and without even thinking about it, he sings for real. He thinks he’s still inconspicuous, but apparently not enough because his singing makes Ashley miss a note, stop playing and look right where he’s standing. “Adam?”

They’re standing frozen into place as if they’ve seen a ghost, except for Tommy who has a small, satisfied smile on his face. As if he was expecting Adam not to be able to resist as soon as he heard them play, and well, Adam has to admit that Tommy was right.

“I told you he would be coming,” Tommy says, and shakes his head. “But you didn’t believe me.”

“It’s not that we didn’t believe you, Tommy.” Ashley runs a hand through her hair, clearly a little annoyed. “But you’ve been saying that for months.”

“So we had no idea if it was just more wishful thinking,” Rick says, standing up behind his drums, “Or if you were serious.”

“Apparently you were,” Ashley adds as she walks toward Adam. “You look good.”

Adam can’t help but feel that there’s a trap in her words that he can’t see. Yet he replies, “I’m mostly okay, I think.”

“Good.” Ashley’s face hardens and he whole demeanor changes. “Then why did you think it was good idea to disappear like that? We were all worried out of our minds!”

“His memory is shot to hell, Ash,” Tommy says. “The only reason I found him is that he randomly walked into The Beat. He didn’t even remember Brian.”

For a second they all stare at Adam, speechless. Then Rick says, “That must be some wicked kind of spell. What did they do to you?”

“I have no idea.”

What confuses Adam the most is that they all seem so sure that someone did this to him. That it couldn’t have been as simple as he’s been told, just an accident. That someone took him away from the people he cared about and who cared about him. That someone stole his memories to keep him where they wanted him to be.

“Only way to figure that out is to find out who did this, right?” Ashley suggests.

“Ash, no.”

“Ash, it’s too dangerous.”

Ashley seems as surprised as Adam upon hearing Tommy and Rick talk over each other.

“Why not? They don’t know my face, and they can’t recognize me without it.”

“That didn’t stop them with me,” Tommy reminds her.

“Oh please, Tommy. Even before the others attacked you, you had Adam and Brian’s energy all over you all the time. That’s how they found you. It won’t happen with me.”

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense to Adam in what Ashley just said, but he’s not about to ask. Not when he can feel the fear coming off Tommy in waves, even stronger than when they were talking in the café.

He’s aware that mentioning it when he can see how hard Tommy’s trying to hide it won’t go well, so he only asks, “What did you have in mind?”

“Take me where you live. If it’s the wrong ones, I’ll feel them all over the place.”

Adam nods. “I should take you to my job, too.” Then he smiles a little and asks, amused, “The wrong ones?”

Ashley laughs a little at that, and it makes Tommy grin before Rick explains, “That’s what my daughters called them when they were kids, and the name stuck. Because they are technically the good guys, but we’ve been around you and Brian long enough that they’re the one who feel wrong to us.”

Adam smile widens because it does make sense, in a very strange kind of way.

***

Later in the evening, Adam goes out with Ashley. First he guides her to the bookstore where he’s been working for the last six months since it’s the closest. It’s one of the places he’s the most familiar with, and he could find his way there with his eyes closed. So he’s completely lost when he finds himself, in front of an abandoned building, instead of the bookstore he expected.

“Why did we stop here?” Ashley wrinkles her nose. “Forget it, I know why we stopped. This place stinks of them like crazy!”

“It was here. The bookstore. I’ve been working here the last six months.”

Ashley’s eyebrows go up in surprise. “Wow. Are you sure? From what I know, that would need a very strong spell, not just a little bit of glamor.”

“Yes, I’m sure.” Adam stares at the abandoned building, unsure what his next step should be. “Do you want to see where I’m living?”

“Why not? I’m curious to see if it will feel like this.”

Adam is curious too. So they make their way across the neighborhood to be faced, this time, with an abandoned school.

Ashley shivers and inches closer to Adam. “The place gives me the creeps.”

She’s not the only one who’s a little scared, but Adam won’t say it out loud, not until he can sort out the jumble of his thoughts. Who the fuck would go to that kind of lengths just to mess with his head?

“And now I have nowhere to go. Great.” He’s thinking out loud more than he’s talking to Ashley.

“But Tommy still has a key to your old place. Didn’t he tell you that?”

Adam frowns. “Why would Tommy have a key?”

“Wait, didn’t he tell you…” Ashley sighs. “Oh, of course he didn’t tell you. Jeez, Tommy!”

Adam waits, and when she doesn’t say anything else, he asks, “He didn’t tell me what?”

“Nothing,” Ashley says, a little too fast.

“From the look on your face, it’s not nothing.”

Ashley looks away from him, embarrassed. “Please, Adam. It’s not my story to tell. Tommy will do it when he’s ready.” Under her breath, so low that Adam barely hears her, she adds, “I hope.”

Since it was obviously not meant for him, Adam acts like he didn’t hear her. It still sends the wheels in his mind into overdrive. He’s aware that there are things Tommy didn’t tell him, things he can’t say and other things he doesn’t want to say, but he’s starting to think that whatever it is that he’s missing is a lot bigger than he first thought.

Forcing himself to ignore all the questions crowding his mind, instead Adam asks, “You said Tommy has a key. Do you think you can ask him to show me the place?”

Ashley takes her phone out of her pocket and start texting before Adam is done asking. “I’ll tell him to meet us there. I know the way.”

Adam doesn’t even need to look over her shoulder to know that she’s doing exactly what she said: telling, not asking. She doesn’t keep her attention on her phone that long, but Adam knows, from her stiff back, that Tommy’s giving her a hard time.

Finally, she puts her phone back in her pocket and looks at Adam, but her smile seems a little tired at the corners. “He’ll be there.”

They make their way to the apartment. The neighborhood is familiar, in a way that makes Adam’s heart twist in his chest. As if he was coming home but not really, in a way he can’t explain.

When they finally arrive, Tommy’s already there. It takes mere seconds for Ashley to grab Tommy by the hand and drag him out of the room with a serious, “We need to talk.”

Adam hides a smile behind his hand as they leave him alone to explore the place. He’s left with the strange feeling, every time he sees something, that he should remember it in a way, but he doesn’t.

In the end, he walks into the living room, where the big windows and the beautiful sunset have created a spot of light on the floor. He stares at it as it stirs something in his memory, something big that he can’t remember.

As if in a dream, Adam walks into the light left behind by the sunset and sits on the floor. He throws his head back and barely has time to close his eyes before the memory takes over him.

***

The sun is slowly disappearing behind the buildings, and Adam’s not quite awake yet. He’s in his usual spot in the living room, the one where the light of the sunset will slowly bathe him until he finds himself staring at the moon and stars, ready to start the night.

He feels more than he hears Brian join him and sit behind him on the couch. He leans into the gentle scratch of fingers in his hair and lets out a happy sigh.

“Sometimes I wonder if you were a cat in another life,” Brian teases.

Adam laughs under his breath and is left with a soft smile that he doesn’t want to get rid of. The silence settles between them, like a comfortable blanket that makes him feel safe, protected.

Adam lets himself be carried away by Brian’s gentle caress until he’s feeling so relaxed that the request he’s been wanting to make for days without knowing how falls from his lips without a second thought.

“I want to know how it feels.”

He can feel Brian’s hesitation in the stutter of his fingers in Adam’s hair. However, Brian’s voice reveals none of it when he asks, “What are you talking about?”

Aware that if he lets himself hesitate he’ll find a good excuse not to ask again, Adam says, as fast as he can, “The Shield thing. I want to know how it would feel.”

“It was just a suggestion,” Brian reminds him. “I won’t force it on you.”

“But you could,” Adam replies before he can stop himself.

The hand petting his hair stops, then there’s just a little pressure on the back of his head. Adam goes with it until he finds himself with his head resting on Brian’s legs and a finger under his chin forcing him to look at Brian.

“Who talked to you?”

“No one.”

Brian doesn’t say a thing, but his whole expression says that he believes that Adam’s lying to him again.

“No one talked to me,” Adam repeats, putting more weight into the words. “I’ve just learned to listen when it feels like people don’t want me to hear.”

He waits for the few seconds it takes to make sure that Brian believes him, then he says, “Your turn. Answer me. Please.”

Brian sighs and releases Adam’s head, but Adam only sets his back more comfortably against Brian’s legs. It takes a moment before the hand in his hair starts stroking again.

“Yes, I could,” Brian says just when Adam starts to believe he won’t get an answer. “But I won’t.”

“Why not? It would make everything easier, wouldn’t it?”

As this point Adam’s only repeating what he’s heard. And while he doesn’t really believe a word of it, he needs to hear it from Brian.

“For who?” Brian asks. “If all I wanted was a slave boy, I wouldn’t have chosen you.”

Adam knows that; it’s impossible for him not to be aware of that. Yet everything he’s heard has messed with his head so much that he needs the reminder.

“The information about the Shield’s link has been distorted beyond belief,” Brian finally says. “You shouldn’t listen to anybody else. What you need to remember is that it only goes as far as you allow it. It can be whatever we want it to be. The point is to protect you from the aftereffects of your own magic, but you’d be the one who has control over it. Not me.”

Slowly, Adam nods. “I still want to know how it would feel before I make a choice.”

“I could show you. But you’d have to let me in. Do you think you can do that?”

Adam forces down the automatic answer that comes to him and takes time to think. It would be easy to let Brian enter his mind, but the fact that it would be so easy is the reason why Adam needs to think it over. It was the hardest thing, the first couple of weeks, to learn to close his mind and to protect himself. There’s a risk that undoing even one of the barriers he’s learned to surround his mind with might undo all of his hard work.

A couple of days ago, that fear would have been enough to stop him. Today, though, he gathers all the confidence he has and says, “Yes. I need to try.”

“Trying might not be enough, Adam.”

Adam knows what Brian wants to hear, but he can’t say it. He has no idea if he’s strong enough. But he has to try.

“Please. The place is protected and it’s just you and me. There’s no risk.”

There’s always a risk, though, and they’re both aware of that. But there are moments when the benefit is worth it, and Adam thinks this is one of those.

Brian must understand it, because he says, “All right. Bedroom, now.”

That gets Adam’s attention and makes him throw a look at Brian over his shoulder. “Why?”

“Because we both need to be comfortable and we don’t have enough space here. Come on.”

They end up on their bed, with Adam lying between Brian’s spread legs, and Brian with his back to the wall and one arm around Adam’s waist, holding him tight.

“Close your eyes,” Brian murmurs, pressing a soft kiss on the side of Adam’s head when Adam obeys without thinking. “Take a deep breath for me. Slowly. In. And out.”

Brian guides him through three more long breaths, until Adam’s able to focus on the hypnotic rhythm of his own breathing.

“And now,” Brian drops his voice even lower, turning the whisper into an order, “Let me in.”

It’s easy, then, as if the walls surrounding Adam’s mind were nothing but a curtain that a strong gust of wind could blow away. For a second he feels as if he can’t breathe, as Brian’s presence in his mind surrounds him, tighter and tighter. It doesn’t last, though, and a moment later Adam feels safe again.

As if in a dream, he hears Brian’s voice, soft and faraway, “Now, seek your magic.”

Instead Adam takes a step back in his own mind. He’s tried that many times, and he always hurt himself because the aftereffects are too strong.

“Do as I say, Adam.” This time there’s no mistaking Brian’s words for anything but the command they are. “Seek your magic.”

Adam should be paralyzed by fear, but he isn’t. Instead, he listens and dives inside himself until he finds the source of his power, the little flame on which he always burns himself.

This time, though, it’s just a little light. Somehow it burns brighter than it used to, but Adam can look at it now. He can reach for it and watch the flame dance in his mind without feeling the burn. He knows, without even asking, that if he was to try and use it, it would burn as bright as it used to, give him all the power he needs without leaving him feeling like his brain is a house that’s been burned down to the ground.

“Do you see?” Brian asks, softly.

“Yes. I see it. I can… feel it.”

“Good boy.” There’s approval in Brian’s voice, and Adam can’t help but smile. “Now move away from it.”

Slowly, Adam comes back to reality. It’s only when his breath hitches, when he opens his eyes to a blurry vision of their room, that Brian releases him.

The aftershock isn’t as bad as it usually is, but it still hits Adam full on, and he shudders in Brian’s arms. Brian tightens his hold until Adam stops trembling, until he can relax again and let Brian take his weight.

It takes a couple of minute for Adam to be able to put his thoughts together and ask, “Is that… what it is? The Shield thing?”

“That’s the basis, yes.”

“But it doesn’t make sense,” Adam protests. “It didn’t… the way it felt. It scared me, but only for a second. But otherwise…”

“How did it feel?” Brian asks. “The moment when you got scared?”

“Like I was choking. Like I was tied down and couldn’t move.”

There’s a silence, long enough that Adam looks at Brian to try and understand, but Brian’s face reveals nothing.

“And did it feel any different when you stopped being scared?”

It did, but the question is enough to make Adam stop and think. So when he finally replies, it’s to say, “More or less. It felt… safe, afterward, but I don’t think the sensation itself changed.”

“It didn’t. You fought me. It didn’t last, but you fought me. So that moment when you felt like you were choking was me pushing through your barriers. But the control was there before, and after. You weren’t looking at it the same way, that’s all.”

“But it felt… right,” Adam says, trying and failing to make sense out of his confusion. “It shouldn’t.”

“Why not?” Brian tightens his hold around Adam, and Adam goes with it without thinking, all but melting in Brian’s possessive embrace. “We fit together, in more ways than one. This would give you the ability to explore the full potential of your magic, the way you should. And as for the rest?”

Brian slips a hand under Adam’s chin and makes him turn his head. “I don’t give a fuck what everybody else thinks. I won’t try and mold you into who I want you to be. I just want to push you to be the best you can be. And this? Will be whatever we want it to be. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Even though Adam’s aware Brian’s not expecting an answer tonight, he already knows he’ll agree. Because even though it still scares him a little, it feels too right to let it go.

Besides, he has a feeling that it would be nothing more than acknowledging and accepting what’s been there all along.