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Adam's voice makes Ronan think he's swallowed gravel and spat it back up when he says more than asks, "What?"

Ronan pushes the small, plastic bowl of macaroni and cheese closer to Adam before he stabs two of the noodles with a fork. He eats them, and then holds the handle end of the utensil out to Adam. Expectant. Silent. Just-take-the-fork-and-eat-like.

Monmouth creaks in the way places not meant to be made into homes creak. Orphan Girl is asleep in Noah's room — Gansey had told them already what had happened; a ripple of mourning had shaken through them all, but Orphan Girl had already claimed her spot and she stuck to it.

Everyone else is gone; gone to take care of themselves now that they can celebrate the fact that Gansey isn't dead, Blue's curse seems to be satisfied, Ronan isn't unmade, Adam has his eyes and hands back, and Henry's an official part of the group. It's a rite of passage, going through potentially fatal situations, Ronan had said to him, though he had yet to decide how he felt about it. Earlier in the night, they'd gone from the hospital to Fox Way; Ronan and Adam had both elected to head back to Monmouth while the rest of their friends filed into the building. Adam's face still had nail-made scratches scored down it but had refused stitches, even when Blue had tried to crack a joke, insisting that they'd match.

It's just as well; Ronan knows from experience that the scratches aren't deep enough for stitches. Besides, how do you explain how it had happened? His hands were possessed and tried to ruin him — his eyes were possessed and tried to ruin us.

Ronan had spent a while helping Adam clean up with the first aid kit that used to be reserved for his bouts of coming home with bruises and scrapes from fighting, from scuffling, from being Ronan Lynch.

Now, Ronan's stomach twists when Adam takes the fork from him. He's finally able to swallow his own mouthful, already mush by then, when Adam takes a bite. It tastes like relief. It tastes like not dying. It tastes like shit, really, but Ronan comes up with something else to say.

"I made dinner," Ronan explains, sarcastic, late. Adam's eyes raise to him incredulously and then, like he's been shocked, his attention falls back to the food.

Ronan bristles. He knows Adam can't stop looking at the marks going around his throat; Adam keeps glancing at the bruises like he can't stand to look but he can't bear to look away, either.  There's a flicker of something angry in Ronan's chest that disappears as quickly as it comes and leaves him emotionally winded.

When Ronan's father died, Ronan had sheathed himself in his anger and armored himself with thorns. The thorns would just make the bleeding worse, the anger lighting them bright and hot in his skin, in his head, in his veins. Now that his mother is dead, Ronan doesn't have any of that anger left. There's only agonized emptiness left where once there had been gasoline and fires begging for fuel and fodder. Ronan's chest is a bleeding wound, his brain utterly still. The white noise in the background of his thoughts adds a static, removed feeling. The word coping echoes with every beat of his heart.

She's dead, she's dead, she's dead.

Ronan stands up abruptly, couch sliding back a bit from the force of it. He doesn't look at Adam, but he can feel the weight of Adam's eyes. He can picture the furrow between Adam's light brows.

"I'm going —" A pause, because Ronan doesn't know how to go on. He holds his breath because the alternative is worse. "I'll be back," he finishes lamely, and then walks to the bathroom. The door is shut with a dreadful quiet behind him.

The usual dark swathes under his eyes are darker than ever. His face is still an uncomfortable shade off, too pale, looking sick. Unmade. There's black bits of crap still stuck to his skin; under his nose and ears, pieces are dried there and crisp, leaving behind stains he could wash off if he really felt like it would make a difference. Ronan starts picking off some of the larger flakes, lip curling in the process. He wishes Adam would stop looking at him for once if he's just going to be looking at a nightmare; the thought is like ripping the thorns he once wore out of his skin.

She's dead, unmade, she's dead, unmade, she's dead, unmade.

He's not sleeping tonight.

By the time he comes back out, Adam's eaten half of the bowl, which isn't saying much since the thing isn't even sizeable in the first place. Ronan stares at him silently, jaw clenched. He wants to press his side against Adam. He wants to put his arm around him. He wants to find Adam's mouth with his own. He wants, he aches, he needs.

"Hey," Adam says, sounding less hoarse than before but still ragged.

Ronan's heart remembers how to beat smoothly. He exhales before throwing himself down onto the couch and then catches Adam's wrist gently. Adam is careful not to grab Ronan back but his shoulders drop and he forces a little, thin attempt at a smile. It looks more like a grimace. Ronan doesn't bother mirroring it, even if he feels the same.

"You look like shit," Ronan says simply.

"Look who's talking," Adam snaps back without malice.

They watch each other for a suspended time. There's memories of lips meeting lips hanging in the air between them, but Adam looks like he might be on the verge of cutting off his own damn hands and Ronan wants to peel back his ribcage and tear out his own pulse. No making out is going to happen tonight. Somehow, Ronan has it in him to be a little disappointed. Maybe his disappointment is a sign that someday they might feel a little normal again.

Their version of normal, anyway.

"Come here," Ronan tells Adam, and Adam does.

It takes some shifting around; they're both long and unused to finding comfortable positions for what might as well be called cuddling. Adam curls up next to Ronan with their legs half-tangled, his head against Ronan and his hair tickling Ronan's collarbone. Ronan holds both of Adam's wrists, circling his fingers around them tightly like shackles at first and then more loosely. His thumb finds Adam's pulse underneath the skin and Ronan counts the beats, his insides feeling like rainwater.

"You should eat," Adam says quietly. His face is tipped towards Ronan playing with his hands.

"Not hungry, you eat the rest. It'd be a waste if —"

"Ronan," Adam interrupts, clearly annoyed; they're both tired and Ronan's thorns dig in deeper like they're hard-pressed to leave him and he snaps, "Adam," like an accusation right back.

They're both quiet for a moment. After eight more counts of Adam's feather-light pulse, Ronan slides his fingers away to press their palms flat together instead. Adam goes back to resting his forehead against the angle of Ronan's shoulder, not daring to watch any longer. Ronan takes this to mean that he's allowed to do whatever he sees fit — he presses his lips to Adam's knuckles once their fingers are interlaced and doesn't miss the skip of a breath that comes with Adam's next inhale. Something in Ronan turns incendiary.

Another string of thorns is ripped from him.

"It's. Not. Your. Fault," Ronan says, incensed and vicious, against Adam's knuckles.

"But they were my hands," Adam responds, voice unwavering but miserable. "You can say it wasn't my fault all you want, but it was my hands. Killing you —"

Adam sounds like he's drowning. He isn't bothering to dance his gaze away now, staring openly at Ronan's neck with anguish. Ronan kisses the back of Adam's hand hard; it leaves imprints of his teeth behind when he draws his mouth away.

"It wasn't you, idiot," Ronan insists. He releases one of Adam's hands to put his arm around Adam's shoulders instead and pulls him closer, like that's something that they can even manage on a couch not made for two boys trying to figure out how to comfort each other over things impossible to forget and even more impossible to soothe.

"It was," says Adam, his newly-freed hovering uselessly. He clearly doesn't want to put it anywhere near Ronan but right now, everywhere is near Ronan, and Adam finally lets it drop against his leg with a defeated sigh. "I would never — I didn't, I wouldn't, but I did. And you could have stopped me. But you didn't."

"No, I didn't," Ronan says harshly. His thumb is dragging over Adam's knuckles now. One, two, three, four. Hills and valleys are contained in Adam's knuckles, bones creating a place in which Ronan wishes he could live.

Because Adam doesn't say anything, Ronan keeps talking, all his rough edges and spikes aimed outwards at anyone who might disagree with what he's about to say.

"I'm not ever — I don't want to hurt you. That's the last fucking thing I want to do. It's not your fault, it wasn't you. I'm not decking you for something that's not even under your control. Fuck. I'm not decking you for something that is under your control. You're better than that, Parrish."

A pause. Adam's next breath accompanies a shudder that Ronan can feel. Ronan's throat is dry but he chances an addition anyway, murmuring, "Adam."

Ronan splays out his hand to half-free Adam's and he kisses each of Adam's fingers. One after another, a smooth order to it, Ronan's lashes dipping low as he repeats the process until he can feel Adam watching him. His lips stay pressed to the pad of Adam's index finger even when Adam takes one last, deep breath.

"Can I stay here tonight?" he asks.

Ronan just says, "yeah," like he's been waiting for Adam to suggest it.

They stay like that for a while, Ronan going back to just holding Adam's hand, Adam dozing and not dozing against Ronan. The Easy Mac is left, forgotten, on the floor next to the couch. Monmouth keeps creaking. Orphan Girl keeps sleeping. Ronan checks his phone each time it goes off ("Making up for lost time," Adam says once when Ronan looks at it for the third time in five minutes; Ronan's scowl at the dig about his phone habits, or lack thereof, is admittedly gentle). Declan is updating him on Matthew, updating him on what the plan is for the morning, updating him on how they're coming to Henrietta the second the sun is up as opposed to after Declan can get himself out of responsibilities in a responsible if deceptive way.

Ronan doesn't think about Declan's silence on the other end of the line when Ronan had called to tell him. Ronan doesn't think about Declan's carefully manicured tone when he'd said Ronan's name. It had sounded like an apology, specifically for Ronan. It had sounded like the need for blame, and then pained regret, and then acceptance. It had sounded the way Ronan looked in the mirror. It had sounded like the thorns Ronan still felt.

When Ronan's phone chimes the next time, it's Gansey informing them that he's staying with Blue for the night because he can't keep his eyes open to drive. Ronan texts back a snotty safety first, dick reborn with one hand and tosses his phone a little too hard across the couch.

"You smell," Adam comments once Ronan's settled into the comfort of the cushions properly again. The drowsiness of the two words gives him away; Ronan's hand rests on Adam's shoulder and drags circles into his sleeve with his thumb, trying to coax him to rest — despite Adam and rest going together like oil and water.

Once upon a time, Adam and Ronan went together like oil and water. Now...

Now.

"Being unmade or whatever the fuck will do that to a guy, I guess," says Ronan. Then, "Gansey isn't coming back tonight. Doesn't want to pass out at the wheel."

"He's a more responsible driver than some people I know."

Adam pushes off of Ronan finally, untangling himself so he can sit up and stifle a yawn. Ronan looks at him, how he stretches his arms out and shakes out a foot like it's gone to sleep. The last thing to come free is Adam's hand still in Ronan's, which Adam seems to think twice about; Ronan is the one to let go and allow fingers to slip free.

"Fuck you. I'm great at driving and you know it." Ronan's grin begs Adam to push it.

"You're a hooligan with a lead foot." Adam rolls his eyes and Ronan thinks, worth it. "When you finally get a ticket, don't let me know. I'll never let you forget."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Ronan says, the edge to the words masking their earnest nature. Adam snorts and gets up completely, bending down to snatch the Easy Mac from the floor only to shove it towards Ronan's chest.

Ronan stares at it with a raised brow, soaring with Adam's subsequent frown.

"Eat," Adam says simply.

Both of them are still floundering, trying to figure out what they're doing, what they are. Ronan doesn't do things casually; Adam knows that. Adam doesn't do things halfway; Ronan knows that. Ronan has looked and Adam has looked back. Adam has looked and Ronan has looked back.They've kissed and they've bled and they've been at each other's sides for a lot longer than they've been whatever they are now. They've snapped words too angry to be anything but knives. Ronan's had Adam's fingers in his mouth, Adam's fingers on his tattoo, and he wants it again and again and again.

Adam seems to want that too.

Ronan holds the little bowl and picks up the nice fork and takes a bite that makes up nearly half of the remaining pasta.

While he eats, Ronan studies the purple-gray streaks of exhaustion beneath Adam's weary eyes and how Adam sways, just enough off-balance, to be a traitor to his own attempts at staying composed. The angry red scratches going down his face already appear older, like Adam's own fatigue is keeping the marks at bay. Adam's tired gaze flicks in the direction of Ronan's bedroom; some wicked part of Ronan that tends towards jealousy stirs something pleasant at the fact that Adam looked to his room as opposed to Gansey's room, which they both know will be empty for the night.

"Go to sleep," Ronan says. The fork in his mouth mangles the words enough to make things questionable but Adam gets it. His shoulders fall from their tense position.

"You shouldn't be awake by yourself," says Adam. His voice is clipped. Asking Ronan to be reasonable without asking.

What Ronan hears is I don't want to be by myself, either.

"I'm not sleeping," Ronan tells him, taking the fork out of his mouth and tossing it back into the empty, cheesy bowl. He stands up.

What Ronan means is Okay.

Once they're in his room, Ronan throws Adam a pair of sweatpants and a shirt. Adam doesn't say anything about it while they turn from each other to change, both still somehow trying to preserve a semblance of what-used-to-be. Ronan strips off his clothes, ignoring the black stains around the collar of his shirt, and wonders if he should actually shower before climbing into bed with Adam Parrish. It's a nerve-wracking thing suddenly, and he's glad that the room doesn't have any lights on outside of what's trailing in from the other room.

If Ronan had been alone, he would have flicked on every light in Monmouth and then some, just to keep himself awake and unconcerned with the shadows that have hidden night horrors in the past. But Ronan isn't alone, and Adam needs sleep.

Ronan is burning.

He hears the dip of his mattress and shoots a glance back to see Adam sitting on the edge of the bed like he's more unsure than he is tired. Ronan scoffs, walks over, shoves his chest once until Adam gets the picture. Adam gives him an exasperated expression, a mottled image in the dark, but leans back and moves to the other side of the bed; the edge of self-consciousness is still apparent in the strain of his shoulders, how his fingers brush the sheets but don't really make any kind of meaningful contact.

"Shut up," Ronan says, even though Adam's not saying anything. "Lay down."

Ronan climbs into the bed next and pushes Adam until they're both on their sides and facing each other. Adam blinks at him. Ronan blinks back.

"You still smell," Adam comments, lips quirking up finally in something genuine that leads into something nervous at the tail end. Ronan wrinkles his nose and scoots closer and closer until he's completely pressed against the other boy, rubbing his head into the crook of Adam's shoulder ferociously. There's a long-suffering groan and a laugh that only sounds a little off from the boy he's harassing. "Gross, you asshole —"

"You smell," Ronan snipes back once Adam's stopped squirming. His lips are somewhere close to Adam's right ear, brushing the edge of it when he speaks. Adam tilts his head to just barely kiss Ronan's jaw; Ronan's heart jumps and stutters. It's better than feeling empty.

It's better than most things in general.

When Ronan moves and his mouth finds Adam's, it's soft and careful and comforting, a reassurance in kiss form. He can feel the tension melt out of Adam's muscles. There's a powerful surge of relief when Adam's hands settle against Ronan's chest, the weight of the touch fearfully light. They separate after a brief moment; Ronan can feel Adam's sigh on his lips.

Ronan is burning.

"I have to sleep," Adam says in a way that sounds as conflicted as Ronan feels. It's dizzying. Ronan already wants to kiss him again. "I don't really want to pass out while — you know."

What Ronan doesn't say is that he thinks that sounds like a great idea. What Ronan doesn't say is that he wants Adam to rest well. What Ronan doesn't say is that he'd give whatever he has left to make sure Adam gets a good night's sleep after all this mess.

"So go the fuck to sleep," Ronan says, not unkindly.

Adam looks at him skeptically like he wants to ask when the last time Ronan even slept was. He turns over instead, shifts and shuffles and gets comfortable on his opposite side so that his back is to Ronan, and then Adam reaches behind him to grab Ronan's arm, pulling it over him like an invitation. Ronan sidles up to press his face into Adam's hair. He interlaces his fingers with Adam's and stays like that for the rest of the night, forehead eventually coming down to rest at the curve of Adam's skull, lips buried in the short tufts of hair making up the back of Adam's head, holding both of their hands to Adam's chest like something precious.

 


 

Gansey comes back a few hours later. It's morning. Ronan's running on empty.

"You stopped answering my texts," Gansey says when Ronan emerges from his room thanks to the noise Gansey's made coming in. Adam walks out from behind him, still sporting Ronan's clothes and looking ruffled. Gansey has the decency and good sense to not look surprised.

Ronan's going to have to talk to him at some point, he knows. The Look that Gansey throws his way, quick as a flash, confirms his suspicions.

"I've never answered your texts before last night," Ronan says more like a spark than a full-blown fire. He kicks the Easy Mac bowl and watches it skate across the floor with a gleeful joy. Chainsaw answers the clatter of the fork with a caw from across Monmouth.

Gansey sticks a finger out to point at the phone left abandoned on the couch, intently. Ronan answers by raising only one shoulder, sharply.

"How's Blue?" Adam asks, effectively defusing whatever Gansey-and-Ronan situation that might be on the horizon. His eyebrows are pulled together like when he catches view of Ronan's throat, which is a gradient of ugly in the pale morning light. Ronan, of course, decides to tilt his head higher as if bearing the bruises with pride.

"Safe and sound," Gansey informs Adam, suitably distracted from sending we're-going-to-talk signals to Ronan. Gansey sounds pleased despite himself, like talking about Blue is a relief for his heavy heart. "Her stitches are fresh and she's perfectly intact…"

Ronan, sensing a foul mood coming on and without the energy to have the want to deter it, simply crashes into the bathroom to brush his teeth and contemplate on a shower. He doesn't have to contemplate long, already scratching meticulously at the pieces of black that are clinging on for dear life. Ronan sends a cursory glance to the mirror.

"Fuck you," he snarls at his reflection. He feels a little bit better.

Ronan makes sure that the water is close to scalding before he gets in, scrubbing his chin and jaw and face and around his ears red and angry and raw. The rest of the black flakes off and is sent down the drain. His eyes follow each bit as it goes with a grim satisfaction. Ronan's neck is more sensitive today; the bruises are unforgiving, but he's not about to cover them or shy away.

Orphan Girl is awake and biting on a fork when Ronan comes out, re-clothed but not quite renewed. When he looks to see if the one from the Easy Mac bowl is still where it had been kicked, it isn't, which means that she's chewing on a fork from off of the floor.

Tree bark is probably worse for her anyway, he decides, and tugs on her nose once he's in front of her.

"Kerah!" she cries, shutting her eyes tight until Ronan drops his hold after a second. Then she's throwing the fork aside onto the couch the same way Ronan had tossed his phone last night. She starts to kick at him with one of her hooves, which fucking hurts — Ronan yelps as much as he's slammed directly in the shin.

"You little shit," Ronan says like something intensely fond; from behind him Adam cuts in with an amused, "You deserved that."

Ronan glances over his shoulder with a betrayed look; he doesn't, however, bother to stop wrestling with the little girl. He bundles her up into his arms, taking care not to get a hoof to the ribcage, and turns to Adam with the little Orphan Girl held close to his chest. She seems relatively mollified in his arms but reaches desperately under Ronan's elbow to try and get at the fallen fork. Adam is the one to fetch it for her; she says something in the language that neither of them understand.

"English, kiddo," Ronan tells her.

"No," Orphan Girl responds vindictively, much to Adam's entertainment.

"We should get her something to eat, shouldn't we?" Gansey muses aloud while moving to join them in the room, though it sounds like he's come to a decision already.

It's still hard to conceptualize the memory of Gansey, dead, with Gansey, alive — he strolls around Monmouth like nothing has changed, like he's perfectly Gansey, as kingly and untouched in nature as ever. When Ronan looks at Adam, Adam's worrying his lip between his teeth absently, and Ronan knows they're thinking the same thing. Then Adam's eyes meet his and flick downwards the slightest amount and Ronan knows, again, what he's thinking.

"Stop," Ronan mutters, too low for Gansey to hear. Adam looks away.

"We can pick up the rest of our friends and head out to breakfast," Gansey goes on. "Chat, sit, relax. Rest, finally, without the whole world ending."

"You mean without you dying," Ronan amends.

"Please, without that," Adam adds dryly.

Ronan smirks and shoulder checks him fondly.

Orphan Girl, trying to twist the fork's prongs, punches Ronan directly in the chin when her hand slips free. A string of curses follows.

They go to breakfast.

 


 

 

"Maybe the real Glendower is the friends we made along the way," Ronan says.

Everyone pretends not to hear him except for Henry, who seems to want to laugh but can't find the place for it in his chest. While her boot-covered hooves gently kick back towards their booth, Orphan Girl looks at Ronan with eyes that squint her suspicion like she isn't quite sure if what he's said is a joke or if it was meant as a serious comment about serious topics. In the end, she decides it isn't a big enough deal to worry about and drinks her orange juice before continuing to spit the pulp onto Ronan's plate.

It's gross, but after the second time she'd done it, Ronan had just shrugged a little shrug and explained, "she's a kid."

"So," Blue says, her hands dropping onto the table with Sargent levels of aplomb. "What now?"

And that's the question. It feels wrong, anticlimactic. There was supposed to be a king, awake and alive, and Gansey, safe as life; there was supposed to be all of them together, valiantly returning from their quest that was really Gansey's quest, but it was all of theirs because it was Gansey's, and it was all of theirs because it was for Gansey. There was supposed to be favors and celebrations and a job well done and historical validation.

Instead, they have a dead king and an alive Gansey, which is not so bad, really. They can all agree on that.

Gansey had already told them the night before what Noah had said, what he'd done, from beginning to end and all in the middle. Ronan had refused to look at anyone, picking apart the flaws in the wood of 300 Fox Way's walls; next to him, Adam had touched his arm to Ronan's. They had all known what it meant — Noah had faded, finally. Already knowing Noah was dead was wholly different than knowing Noah wasn't coming back.

Across from Ronan, Gansey has his finger to his lip now, a little line in his forehead showing how pensive he really is. He looks determined and grieving all at once; mournful for his dead king and their dead friend. Ronan's gaze slips away once Gansey's eyes stray too near to his.

"Now," Gansey begins, "we don't throw it away."

Blue nods at his side, one fierce little dip of her head before she's holding her chin high, even with tears shining at the corner of her good eye. Gansey's fingers wind around hers and Henry smiles a quiet, sympathetic smile. The new member of their group had not known Noah, but to know that the rest of them are so moved moves him, that much is obvious. Ronan is scrutinizing Henry now, measuring his reactions, as critical and as protective of his little family as ever.

"And Cabeswater?" Adam asks.

Things go silent then — even for Orphan Girl, who recognizes the word and looks at Ronan again, this time expectantly. Ronan thinks of Cabeswater; Ronan thinks of roses and nightmares and blackness and blood. Ronan thinks of his mother. Thorns threaten to dig into his shoulders deeper and deeper, and his jaw works.

"Cabeswater sacrificed itself for Gansey," Ronan says. There's a hollow edge to the words when he continues: "Shit was hitting the fan. It's always shitty whatever, a life for a fucking life, and Cabeswater sacrificed its-fucking-self. Because we asked. Because — because. Just because. Magic, is why. Fucking magic."

This, too, demands mourning.

Ronan pushes himself back in his seat abruptly and grits his teeth until it hurts and his vision oozes bright spots. Adam looks at his hands like he might be seeing them clearly for the first time. Blue's fingers tighten around Gansey's and Gansey is inhaling with a pace comparable to watching paint dry. None of them speak, because none of them know what to say. They've been through this. Time is a circle.

Henry is the one to break the silence.

"Does that make our boy here partially deciduous or partially magic?"

"Partially zombie," Blue says, sending a glance to Ronan as if she can sense him trying to shred Henry apart mentally. Ronan has a feeling he's going to get a Talk from her, too, and he gives a nasty expression her way until she subtly flips him off. Ronan grins against his will.

"He already came back to life once, I've heard," Henry replies. His very impressive eyebrows go up and his hair hardly even moves as he bounces slightly in his seat. "Two-thirds zombie?"

The tension begins to ease off and Ronan leans to the side until his shoulder brushes Adam's; Adam doesn't move other than to wind their arms together, tangling at the elbows to press the inside of his forearm against Ronan's. Two of his fingers touch at Ronan's palm and Ronan grabs, holds, greedy and wanting. Gansey is looking at Ronan. Ronan, finally, meets his gaze and the corners of his lips turn up just enough. Gansey's expression softens and Ronan's cut-rough edges smooth out; Ronan kicks Gansey's foot under the table and then Gansey is brilliant.

Ronan's mom is dead. Cabeswater is gone. Glendower's a no-show.

But Gansey is alive. And Matthew is alright. Adam has his hands, Adam has his eyes. Ronan isn't unmade. Orphan Girl is spitting pulp on Ronan's empty plate again and he finds it disgustingly endearing.

The last of the thorns pull loose from his skin and allow him to bleed, finally.

 


 

 

"Just looking at you is making me tired."

"Your face," Ronan counters.

Adam is dubious in the passenger seat. Ronan looks at sideways at him while he shifts gears with a jeer that says so what?

"That doesn't even make sense," Adam is saying, but Ronan turns up the previously quiet music just to see Adam throw his hands upwards into the air out of the corner of his eye. In the backseat, Orphan Girl is wide-eyed at the sudden rush of bass but then seems to decide that she likes it, pressing herself against the inside of the BMW's door like the shaking of the speakers is her new favorite thing. Ronan's answering response is exuberant.

After breakfast, Ronan had taken Adam back to St. Agnes, expecting him to opt out of the rest of the day, but Adam had asked, "When are you leaving?" and Ronan had, instead of answering, said, "Wanna come?" Adam's reply had been to ask if he had time to take a shower and then, at Ronan's half-shrug, shoved his unfinished schoolwork into a bag. Adam had then frowned and, determinedly, told him that it was in case Ronan drove him back too late.

Ronan had thought of several responses to that but Orphan Girl had started trying to eat one of Chainsaw's feathers and he'd become distracted.

Now, they're coming up on the Barns. Matthew and Declan are waiting. Ronan is a live wire draining the closer and closer they get. His fingers drum on the steering wheel, on the gearshift, on the center console. His attention jumps from the road to Adam to Orphan Girl to the pounding music. His chest could be ripping apart into nothing or dragging all of him through a black hole and Ronan could never tell the difference.

The next time his hand slaps onto the gearshift with a vengeance, Adam rests his own on top of Ronan's.

Ronan doesn't dare look.

"Lead foot," Adam reminds him, shouting over the sounds of synths.

Adam's hand stays there until they reach the end of the road; pulling into the Barns too quick so that gravel sprays beneath the BMW's tires, Ronan is unbuckling and getting out almost in the same moment that the car is parked and off. Behind him, Adam is talking in a hushed tone to Orphan Girl as their respective doors slam. Steps away, Declan's car sits silently. Ronan stares at it and shifts his weight to his heels, scuffing his shoe into the ground until pieces of rock are dug up from where they've been pressed down and tight, until he's made a little hole where he stands, until his lungs feel as loose as the dirt he's freed.

It's Ronan, this time, who grabs Adam's hand as they walk to the house where the light looms.

"Go play somewhere that's not inside, brat," Ronan says to Orphan Girl. She sticks out her tongue and wrests off her boots, sending a snappy Latin word Ronan's way before darting off, slippery quick.

"She called you an ass," Adam says, walking with Ronan up to the door.

"Yeah."

"She's right."

"Yeah."

A momentary truce ensues while Ronan grabs the door handle with his free hand. He doesn't turn it, but looks at Adam instead, who is looking back at him. There's something at the tip of Ronan's tongue, a question, he can't parse it to tell — there's too much happening in him, it's overflowing.

Adam kisses him first. Ronan's hand comes off of the door to rest at Adam's face, his eyes closed to absorb each second that ticks by. Inside waits Declan and Matthew and talks of funerals and what-next-anyway. Questions about Ronan's attendance at Aglionby, questions about what happened, questions about all of it — but outside is Ronan's lips moving with Adam's, something warm and molten and lovely in Ronan's center, Adam's hand in his.

Ronan doesn't know what he's allowed. Doesn't know how to ask for more. Doesn't know how to ask for anything. Ronan is learning; Adam is also learning.

"I'm staying on the porch," Adam informs him while Ronan catches his breath, head spinning. "Homework."

Adam not wanting to do his homework inside, at least for the moment, is understandable, despite the word traitor that threatens at the thin hook of Ronan's mouth. Ronan and Declan have done decently with each other as of late, but now — now, their mother is dead. They stopped being friends the last time a parent died; this time, what would it be like?

Ronan's fingers slide from Adam's hold. He just barely notices Adam swallow as he turns away and opens the door.

Declan is already standing in the room. Matthew is nowhere to be seen and Ronan's heart reels up tight until Declan waves him off.

"He's asleep," Declan tells him, sensing the instant concern as only control freak older brothers have the ability to. He stares at Ronan's neck, regarding the bruises there, and then seems to remember himself. "I texted you when we got here to tell you —"

"Didn't get it," Ronan says. Without Matthew present, there's no buffer to keep Declan from sniping towards Ronan's chest or to keep Ronan from snarling at Declan's throat.

"Ronan, don't do this again," Declan starts, exasperation bleeding in.

Ronan doesn't give him the chance to finish. He goes to the kitchen for water, an itch already forming in the back of his throat and the inside corners of his eyes. He can hear Declan's footsteps following and Ronan's spine twists, nails deep in his palms, anger budding into grief and mourning and guilt.

Ronan drinks a glass of water. Ronan looks at nothing. Ronan bites the inside of his mouth and tastes copper.

Inexplicably, there is an almost curious touch at his shoulder and then something more firm as it turns from a touch to a hold. Ronan's head snaps right to look, teeth bared, and Declan is there.

"I'm sorry," says Declan. His voice does not crack. In his eyes, there are no tears. But his hand is careful like approaching a caged animal and Ronan's shoulders are shaking without him having realized it and Declan means what he's said. Creases of worry are between Declan's brows, his frown looking permanent on his mouth. Usually, Declan does not speak a language of love, but rather one of reason; this, too, is a white flag asking Ronan to come inside to dry off instead of raging along with the storm.

Ronan's venom drains from him suddenly.

The remaining, oldest Lynch stands beside the remaining, middle Lynch; they both silently consider being orphans there in the kitchen of their childhood home. Declan, who has never been a favorite of anyone's, breathes a breath that is made of exhaled jealousy, lost in the air between them, now free from his lungs. Ronan, who has found both parents' bodies empty and broken, fights exhaustion and desolation alike, but does not fight with Declan.

When Matthew comes downstairs, he finds Ronan and Declan across from one another in the sitting room — Declan, straight and proper in a chair with one sharp knee tucked over the other,  and Ronan, perched with a forced laziness on the couch. Both boys look up to meet the gaze of the youngest brother, whose eyes are already beginning to swim.

Ronan is the one who ends up with an armful of hurting, soft Matthew thrown his way. This remaining, youngest Lynch boy puts up a fight at first as any Lynch is terribly wont to do, his lip wavering, eyes shining, but then the determined expression on his face crumples into something heartbroken; his hands, once balled up into fists, loose themselves against Ronan's shirt only to tighten once again. It's a familiar and inescapable grip, one that Ronan has worn on his own white knuckles for as long as the thorns have dug themselves into his tragedy-toughened skin. Declan looks on with an unreadable expression while Ronan pulls Matthew close and allows him his grief. Eventually, Declan's attention shifts to a particularly interesting grain in the wood of the windowsill, like the dark mark in the surface there might possibly contain all of the emotions he's refusing to let show on his face.

Ronan doesn't miss the shine of a tear that escapes Declan's eye, nor the smooth brush of the back of Declan's hand as it's wiped away.

Ronan drowns alongside his family, if only for the moment.

 


 

 

Later, Ronan lays in a pile of hay, Adam next to him. Orphan Girl caws obnoxiously at Chainsaw, who keens back as if begging Ronan to call off the dream child. Ronan does not. Chainsaw, high above on the rafters over the shelter, knocks brittle pieces of wood down onto Ronan's face. Ronan shouts something not meant for Orphan Girl's ears at the raven and is met with a cackle from both bird and girl alike, laughter echoing away as both take to the fields again.

Adam laughs too, but that's a sound Ronan would admit to cherishing more than the rest. There's a softness to the little gasp of breath at the tail end of Adam's laugh that sounds like the beginnings of something vital being repaired.

"Hey, fucker," Ronan snaps, not very maliciously, nudging Adam hard in the thigh with his elbow. "I thought you were on my side."

"I never said that," Adam defends, catching Ronan's next attempt on his leg with an open palm. Ronan's elbow, now a prisoner of war, digs into Adam's hand anyway, and Adam rolls his eyes and shoves.

It's Ronan's turn to laugh nastily while Adam releases him.

"Finish your homework?" Ronan mocks, looping his newly freed arm around Adam's back, hand curling almost tentatively at Adam's waist. This is clearly the right move to make — Adam responds by pushing fingers between Ronan's, the inside of their wrists touching while their hands are held together. Ronan doesn't think that his thrilled heartbeat can be felt, but Adam looks at him like he's terribly transparent anyway.

Ronan loves it viciously.

Adam lays back then, effectively pinning Ronan's arm underneath his weight. Ronan doesn't care. He turns his head so that dust and little pieces of fallen wood from Chainsaw's wrath skate down his face onto the hay, pressing his cheek to Adam's shoulder as if in a plea. His eyes shut; sleep is waiting around the corner. He feels more than hears Adam's relaxed sigh.

"You say homework like it's a curse word," Adam notes aloud.

It takes Ronan a minute to remember what he'd said before, and then he laughs again, shoving his chin on purpose into Adam's arm.

"Fuck off."

"I take it back. You say it like it's worse than a curse word."

Ronan kisses Adam. With only one arm available, he manages to catch Adam's cheek to tilt his face towards him, thumb sliding down the length of Adam's jaw. The kiss is chaste and lasts only a handful of seconds but it's long enough to leave him both a little breathless.

"Fuck off," Ronan repeats once satisfied, collapsing once again back into the soft pile of hay.

Then Adam kisses Ronan. This meeting of their lips is less inhibited; where Ronan constantly betrays himself with the tender way he initiates, Adam feels like a wildfire. Maybe it's because Ronan burns every time Adam looks at him. Maybe it's because their shoulders brushing is enough to set Ronan off with a need for a gas pedal under his foot or the sun in his eyes or his bracelets in his mouth.

Ronan pulls Adam on top of him; Adam goes. Adam grips Ronan's shirt; Ronan's shirt goes. Ronan rolls them over; they laugh, embarrassed, when they slide in the pile and it's not as easy as Ronan tries to make it seem. There's hay caught all in Adam's hair, Ronan's back itches from it all, the afternoon light is blinding him with how it streams between wooden panels and brightens each curve of Adam's face and the slide of his neck, and Ronan thinks, this is fucking beautiful.

Ronan also thinks like a sudden unhappy epiphany, I'm fucking exhausted.

"Shit," Ronan says. Adam's fingers play at the claws of black snaking up and peeking from behind Ronan's shoulders, only to pause. Ronan wants to tell him to keep going.

"You look tired," Adam says with a casual knowing edge, like he'd been fully aware that this is where they'd end up this whole time, getting handsy in a hay pile before Ronan's tired body caught up with him. Ronan is reminded of the drive over — just looking at you is making me tired.

His teeth are bared to snap when Orphan Girl bursts into the barn again; her sudden reappearance is enough to have Adam's knees bend in surprise, which pushes Ronan off of his lap, which throws Ronan's balance so that he gets a faceful of hay. This entire display delights her exceptionally, and she laughs at their shared expense, but mostly laughs at Ronan. Squawking in a perfect imitation of Chainsaw, she throws her arms out to her sides as if flying while she gallops out again, back to where Chainsaw circles low in the sky.

Adam tosses Ronan's shirt back at him, getting up. Ronan watches, staring with a foreign kind of desperation that he shutters off carefully once Adam glances over again.

"Drive me home?" Adam asks after a suspended moment. "It's getting late."

It sounds like more questions than just the one. Drive me home? Do you need me to stay? Do you want me to stay? Ronan considers it, not moving his gaze from Adam while he does. The sunlight looks like it belongs on him, flyaway strands of hair and hay both lit up with a breed of majesty. Adam's freckles stand out even more, not quite so muddled once the sun coaxes them out into brilliance. Ronan wants to touch and touch and touch, for fear that Adam himself might slip between his fingers, that he might blink and Adam would be gone.

Tossed into the wildfire of Adam Parrish, Ronan says bitingly, "Sleep with me first?"

 


 

 

They end up in Ronan's bed, only after Adam's face has gone through several emotions and settled on one that had been somewhere between amusement and concern — just beneath sits the same self-consciousness that Ronan aspires to dig his fingers into and wrench out. Declan and Matthew had left ages ago to make arrangements for the funeral; a smaller piece of Ronan wants to think it's also because he told them Adam is here. He's not above using Adam's presence to keep some kind of almost-solitude.

"If you take something out of your dreams," Adam starts to say. They're curled up, facing each other, Adam once again in Ronan's clothes. It's a fact that could improve Ronan's mood at literally any other time but right now.

"I won't," Ronan cuts him off.

"But if you do," Adam tries again, insistently. "I'll be here."

It won't matter much if he brings back a nightmare, or a swarm of hornets, or a river of blood, or, or, or — Ronan turns onto his back, and then onto his other side. Adam, after a second, worms his arm between Ronan's elbow and Ronan's side, then hooking a leg over him too. It's an amazingly warm and comforting way to exist; Ronan immediately wants to get used to it more than anything in the world. Adam's breath on the back of his neck is just as warm as the rest of him.

"Shit's fucked," Ronan mutters about nothing in particular and everything in general. Adam agrees with a little hum.  

It's the last thing Ronan thinks about as he drifts, the vibration and pressure and presence of Adam's mhm against the nape of his neck. Then Ronan is sinking into sleep like there's an anchor tied to his ankles.

Cabeswater does not greet his dreams.

Ronan takes in the open road stretched before him; nothing else is within miles. Only a straight road and tall hay encompassing either side of the asphalt, as deep as an ocean. Ronan inhales; it smells like dust and gravel and motor oil. The sky is a pale, colorless blue; the clouds look like trails of cigarette smoke. There is no sun, but everything is lit up as if it's there all the same. Heat pulses against his skin, drawing out sweat already, and Ronan uses his hand as a visor to take it all in.

As far as dreamscapes go, this could be much worse. It's a far cry from the nightmare he was expecting, and a much better outcome than what he'd been through while being unmade. Even so, a trickle of dread loops its way down to rest at the base of his spine. He misses Cabeswater, awfully and violently.

Ronan foregoes the asphalt in favor of stepping into the field. It tickles his bare arms, a daring strand of it brushing his nose as if to taunt him into sneezing. Giving a sniff that's almost a scoff, Ronan barrels through the hay, breaking it off and crunching it beneath his feet as he goes. He walks and walks and walks, pieces of brittle hay pressing sharply into his hands. He's going to wake up with little cuts all over his palms and fingers if he's not careful, but he can't bring himself to care, bearing the knowledge of his near unmaking in the back of his head. He keeps careful track of his heartbeat, his pulse more demanding here.

He realizes then what's unsettled him so deeply — there's silence, outside of the noises he makes himself. No wind pushes the hay into streaming sounds of presence. No trees whisper helpful words to him. No Orphan Girl shouts warnings to him. In this hay field with the open road, it's only Ronan and the sky. Looking up again, he stares at the almost colorless void until his eyes sting and water; no birds float in the space over his head. There's nothing.

There's nothing and it's scaring him.

Ronan, exhaling dust from his nostrils, nearly trips onto his face when he stumbles into open space with no hay to stomp.

Throat tied up, the silence muffling his need to shout demands at the empty sky, Ronan grits his teeth and hisses out a breath. Looking downwards from the sky, scrubbing knuckles over his eyes to force his vision to return, Ronan blinks and blinks again. His eyebrows, already furrowed, knit together further — there's something vividly red waiting for him in the very center of the crop circle.

Ronan can't breathe.

Like a flipped switch, all of the potential fear turns to anger, the dread into rage. Ronan digs his shoes in deep with every step he takes closer and closer to the center, the hay whipped downwards into the ground in a shape like a vortex. The light is blinding now, as if the sun is in his eyes, but there's still no sun. The heat is pressing into his heart. His stomach turns, flips over and curdles the nearer he is to the drop of red in a sea of bland yellow.

Ronan stops when he reaches the center, staring.

He wakes up with one hand gripping the stem of a large, fully-bloomed rose. The thorns dig into his palm, but he doesn't feel it until Adam tries to pry his fingers away for him while he slowly comes back into himself. Ronan's eyes are sticky with sleep, his hand is sticky with blood, and his chest is sticky with pain.

"You have to let go of it, you're hurting yourself," Adam is saying, probably not for the first time, but it's the first time Ronan hears it clearly.

Ronan makes no effort to release the last bit of the hold he has on the rose. The thorns are stuck into his hand and with every attempt Adam makes at pulling his fingers free, they hook in deeper. Ronan can feel the wetness oozing onto the sheets where his skin is pierced. He tips his head to look and sees Adam's fingers dark with blood, feels where Adam's gripping him. He doesn't know which one of them is shaking.

The sun's gone down outside, the light in the room dim and bleak. No sun in his dream, no sun here.

"Ronan. Let it go."

Adam's voice is firm and Ronan finally tears his fingers free of the stem. He inhales abruptly — Adam's breath skips in sympathy. The red coating the rose looks black, the once-green stem in the dream dripping with Ronan's blood.

All he can think of is his mom, his mom's blood, his mom's rose.

Adam takes the rose — he puts it somewhere, Ronan doesn't see where, and then Adam is getting out of the bed, pulling Ronan with him. Adam's got him by the wrist, slick with blood; they stumble together, awkward and sleepy and vaguely panicked limbs not cooperating, Ronan heavy, Adam worried. By the time they make it to the bathroom, there's great, big droplets of blood making a trail from the bed to the sink.

"It's not poison," Ronan tells him bitterly.

Adam flicks on the faucet and shoves Ronan's hand underneath the flow of the water. Ronan hisses between his teeth; Adam's jaw clenches at the sound before he asks, "The thorns?"

"Yeah." The water is cold. It bites at each of the punctures, the red washing from his skin in rivulets. Ronan stares at the sink instead of looking at Adam.

"Do you have any bandages or anything?"

Ronan tells him where there's a first aid kit but doesn't tell him that it used to be brought out only for scratches and light things, pain that would scab over and was only ever gained from play or roughhousing. Adam's fingers hover at Ronan's wrist, like he's delaying leaving his side, but then Adam's gone to retrieve the supplies. The leather bracelets have red smeared across them; Ronan rinses them, curls his lip, takes them off completely and launches the bracelets into his room somewhere. He'll find them later or he won't — it doesn't matter either way. His palm tingles, the pierced pads of his fingers throbbing in time with his pulse. He shoves the faucet off again, unnecessarily rough, and then stalks to the shower, wrenching the valve with his good hand to get the water going loudly.

Adam comes back in time to see Ronan throwing off his shirt. It's a not-so-funny parallel to earlier, wrapped up in hay and each other. Ronan sniffs blankly at the steam to get rid of the smell of hay in his head.

"Declan and Matthew just got back," says Adam, holding out a hand. Ronan gives him the shirt and watches him put it on the counter, blocking Ronan's view of the sink that's still got blood on the lip. "They're with Orphan Girl — she needs a better name, I feel like an asshole calling her that."

Ronan makes a noncommittal noise. He's thinking about the rose. He's thinking about Orphan Girl's name. He's thinking about taking Adam home. He's not thinking about actually taking a shower or going back to sleep or asking Adam to stay even though he knows he shouldn't and can't and won't.

Adam takes his hand then, carefully flipping his palm up; Ronan watches Adam's fingers deftly work magic on each of the thorn's wounds, replacing open sores with bandages and ointment. It's clearly a process that he's focusing all of his attention on and Ronan doesn't miss a beat, eyes following each movement, tracing the little strands of Adam's hair that dip downwards into his face. Ronan, with one hand free, pushes the hair back for him; Adam's lips curl up just so at the edges. Ronan wants to kiss him but doesn't.

"Want to grab your crap and head out?" Ronan says when Adam's finished.

Adam's brows go up. "Aren't you going to shower?"

"Nah." Ronan turns it off then, like it's an afterthought. The shower had only been on for one reason — Ronan hadn't wanted things quiet, he'd wanted noise. Adam (briefly) hadn't been there to make noise. The shower had. Plain and simple.

Ronan brushes past him, letting their arms touch as he goes to get clean clothes and strip his bed. He glances behind him then, back to Adam, who looks particularly frustrated and like he might be about to say something that could be mean. Ronan would revel in it; Ronan would fire something back just as terrible; Ronan would take and dish in equal amounts.

Instead, Ronan shrugs a gentle shrug and asks him, "Wanna drive?"

 


 

 

Ronan takes the time he has while Adam pilots the BMW to take in the silence between them. The quiet is tense like it's anticipating something, waiting for a rock to be tossed into the water's otherwise flawless surface. Ripple-causing. Hurt-causing. Fear-causing. Ronan, in lieu of having a steering wheel, is drumming his bandage-free fingers along his leg.

Adam turns off the music completely, despite the volume already being on zero. They'd made it a quarter of the way back to St. Agnes without this. Ronan looks out the window.

"I'm not cornering you," Adam starts, sounding tired.

"I'm not running," Ronan says quietly. His honesty seeps between the words. It feels like bleeding.

"No, you're not." Adam is just as quiet.

There's more silence for six cycles of Ronan's fingers drumming before Adam breaks it again. Ronan's glad for it.

"I already know what you're going to say." Adam's hands slide to 9-and-3 instead of 10-and-2 on the wheel. Ronan is watching now and appreciates that he doesn't miss the way Adam's knuckles work when his grip tightens around it. It's the little things. "But how are you doing?"

Ronan's initial lack of a response speaks louder than anything else he could say, but he hikes his shoulders up higher on the seat and settles more deeply against the back of it when he responds with, "I don't want to fucking sleep ever again, that's for sure. I miss getting my wrists ripped open to shit. That was easier to deal with."

"Ronan." It's a Gansey way of saying his name, how Adam says it, all sharp and reprimanding, a reminder to be kinder to himself. Ronan makes a disparaging face in response and curls his fingers into a fist, pressing the heel of his bunched-up palm into his thigh.

"You said you knew what I was going to say," Ronan says as hollowly as he feels. "I'll deal with it how I see fucking fit."

"I'm trying —"

"Yeah?" Ronan sneers out the word like something slimy.

"I'm trying to fucking deal with it with you!"

Adam's angry and looks it, posture all tight and wound up. Ronan can't catch his breath.

It's what Ronan's been waiting for — neither of them are patient enough for this. They haven't learned how, but that's the beauty of it; maybe neither of them need to be. Ronan's never had to hold his tongue for Adam and Adam, in turn, has never held his for Ronan. Ronan likes the stark sincerity more than he could ever like having to pull his verbal punches. He sits up a little straighter despite the exhaustion still biting at his heels.

"Why?" Ronan asks, alive with his own emotion, Adam's emotion, the gasoline between them waiting on a spark.

Adam's foot seems to stutter on the gas. Ronan wants him to press it down harder, press him down harder. Adam hits the brake and pulls over. There's no lights on the dark country road and no other cars, just empty road in an empty area. Fields and fields of hay surround them. There's too many clouds in the sky to see stars. In the distance, heat lightning brightens the horizon and disappears just as quickly. Ronan is about to suffocate.

Adam puts the BMW in park and looks at him. Ronan looks back.

"Because I give a crap?" Adam is stony while facing Ronan down. All Ronan can hear is the purr of the engine waiting to snarl its way into speeding away again. His lungs are in his gut. "Because I care, you asshole. I can't believe you're asking me why." Adam eyes him. "I should kick you out of the car."

"It's my car," Ronan says, lips pulling into a wide, teeth-glittering smile. Everything about him says do it, I dare you.

"I'm driving," Adam points out, throwing his full body into a roll of his eyes. He slumps against the chair and appears miserable. "You make it so — so hard. I cried on you. I came to the Barns with you because I knew you'd need someone. I slept with you."

The wry, frowning curve to Adam's mouth says that no jokes are to be made, so Ronan doesn't make a joke.

"Twice," he reminds Adam. "Monmouth."

"That was you lying awake while I slept."

"I slept a little fucking bit," Ronan argues, difficult for the sake of it.

"Ronan."

Ronan grunts in answer.

"Shut up."

Ronan does, because it's Adam telling him to.

Adam peers down at his own hands like he's studying the lines in his palms, like they're telling him something in a language Ronan can't understand. Adam stares at his palms and then at his fingers, and Ronan watches him twitch each one of them. Adam sighs then, putting his head back against the seat. He turns to face Ronan. Ronan is already facing him.

"What are we doing?" Adam asks finally.

It feels like something that should have been asked ages ago, before Adam traced his tattoo, before they kissed themselves silly, before Ronan was almost unmade and Adam's hands and eyes were possessed. It's only naive and immature to think that because so much else between them had gone unsaid that this would too. Ronan picks at the bandages on his hand with his nails, not particularly eager to answer with something spitting or impulsive. Ronan has thought about this since before kissing Adam for the first time; Ronan has envisioned a million other ways for this conversation to go.

He doesn't let the silence stretch for long.

"I'm all in," Ronan says. It's not the answer Adam's asking for, but it's Ronan's answer all the same. He stops fidgeting and glances back up to Adam, fixing him with a serious stare. "I'm not just messing around. I don't… that's not what I do. I've never…" He wrings out his hands fiercely then, frustrated with words. His left, unhurt hand drops onto the center console of the BMW as if defeated. "I kissed you because I wanted to. I'm trying to make it obvious — I thought I was making it obvious already. You know full fucking well what I'm doing. Jesus."

Adam's touch slowly slides over Ronan's knuckles, drawing out a harsher breath from Ronan. Adam winds their fingers together; Ronan allows it and welcomes it, relaxing.

"I know," Adam says, carefully. Ronan has the distinct impression that he's being approached like a cornered animal. I'm not cornering you, Adam had said. Ronan snorts. Adam points out, "I kissed back."

While Ronan eyes him, clearly unimpressed with this response, Adam frowns suddenly.

"And you're not nearly as subtle as you think you are if you're only just now trying to make it obvious. I'm not blind."

Ronan coughs a gross laugh at that.

"Jackass," Adam accuses even though he's smiling slightly and crookedly and hesitantly.

Ronan splays his fingers apart, turning his hand over completely to allow for a better hold. Adam obliges.

"What do you want, Adam?" Ronan asks, looking at their hands, together.

He thinks he hears Adam inhale a bit more suddenly than he might have. He thinks Adam's grip tightens a little more firmly. He thinks Adam is staring out of the front window at the dense cloud cover on the horizon, at the swaying hay fields, at the open road. The BMW still murmurs in the night. Ronan's heart on a silver platter is waiting in the quiet.

"It'd be easier to list what I don't want," Adam confesses. Ronan glances up at him quickly. Something like nerves make his stomach hurt; it's dishonest for Ronan to try and convince himself that Adam's response is the one he wanted. Adam finishes, quick, like he can sense Ronan's reaction, "But I like all of — this. Whatever this is. Whatever we're doing, or trying to do."

Adam gestures vaguely to the car around them, and then to their hands, still connected. Ronan shrugs, feeling stress begin to drip out of him like poison from a wound.

"Yeah," Ronan says agreeably. He feels too light for his body.

Reaching over with his bandaged hand, Ronan presses his seat belt button until it clicks and releases him. Then he shifts, turning, to grab the keys out of the BMW, silencing the engine. His other hand is still in Adam's. His eyes are still on Adam.

"You ever wanted to make out in a car that's sitting all shady on the side of the road at midnight?" Ronan asks suddenly.

Adam gives an owlish blink before a scattered sort of laugh tumbles out of him — the authenticity of it is enough to knock Ronan's lungs into infinity again. Ronan preens himself victoriously while Adam laughs next to him in the driver's seat of the BMW and Ronan can't think of a better place or time in the entire universe. When Adam manages to choke down the amusement, he wears an expression that accuses Ronan of ruining and perfecting something all at once.

"You," Adam says, accusing even while he's smiling, "are the absolute worst."

"You love it." Ronan drags their still-attached hands away from the console just so that he can brace his elbow against it instead.

"I don't think I do." Adam clicks his seat belt off.

"You tolerate it. Same fucking thing." Ronan is up in flames.

"I enable it." Adam leans over.

"I like you driving my car."

Ronan's confession is met with Adam's mouth. Ronan presses into the kiss, already meeting Adam halfway, fingers tightening where they stay with Adam's. Adam doesn't know what he wants; Ronan wants everything. Adam's lips are warm. His free hand slides to the side of Ronan's neck, very carefully brushing his thumb over the bruises lacing Ronan's skin there. Ronan does not flinch or shudder and he does not allow his breathing to change, allowing Adam this wordless and needless way of apologizing.

Ronan catches Adam's hand, the thorn wounds stinging now only angry reminders of a bad dream. He drags his mouth across the callouses painting Adam's fingers, Adam's palm. Ronan worships here between Adam's knuckles, in the bump of bone jutting from his wrist, against the curve of his fingertips. Adam says nothing, his silence focused and unobtrusive, but Ronan can feel him watching, exhilaration burning through him for it.

It's everything like their first night spent in the Barns together and nothing like it.

Instead of touching Ronan's tattoo, Adam frees his hands to cup his face and drag their mouths together, taunting and testing. They're both still learning. They're both going to be learning for a while. Ronan thinks that if all learning is going to be like this then maybe he won't play hooky for once.

They break apart, breathing faster than they had been earlier. Ronan retrieves the BMW's keys from the floor; Adam adjusts the mirror even though it doesn't need adjusting. Ronan leans over into his space to put the keys in the ignition himself — and then a little further, so that he can sneak a brush of their shoulders, a kiss to Adam's right ear, and a whisper of Latin: posthabui tamen illorum mea seria ludo.

"If you like Virgil so much maybe you should be making out with him in a car," Adam says with a proper amount of snideness. Ronan revels in it.

"Fucking gross. He's old," Ronan returns promptly. He starts reclining his seat while Adam rolls his eyes.

"And dead."

"Super fucking dead. I'm not into that."

Ronan rolls down the window to let the cool night air in. Rocks crunch beneath the tires as Adam pulls back onto the road with a jerk of the wheel meant as warning. Ronan whoops excitedly as they speed up, wind snapping into his face and dragging tears from his eyes. His heart sings, his blood joining the chorus.

"Was all of that a date?" Adam finally calls over the sound of the air rushing past the car.

"God, I hope not." Ronan looks at him, feeling vibrant. Ronan is still grinning; he wants it to be a date, but it's not quite right. Ten minutes making out in the middle of nowhere shouldn't count. Ronan spits out the rest of the words before they turn dangerous: "What a shitty date. Tell your boyfriend to get better at this romance crap."

To his credit, Adam doesn't startle. Ronan's grin turns fuller, sharper, happier.

"Get better at this romance crap," Adam tells him, not quite looking over at Ronan but not quite not looking either. He's wearing half of a smirk. Ronan likes the way it looks on him.

"Sure," Ronan says, dangling bandaged-up fingers out the window and letting the wind steal the word away.