Every time Adam hauls himself to the fifth-floor painting studios he wonders why he doesn’t do this more often, and once he’s there he remembers that he’s not a painting or fine arts major and that anything he does here is ultimately fruitless, wasted time better spent elsewhere.
His coveralls, ever-present and well-worn, make him stand out here where he blends in downstairs in the welding suites and the foundry in them. Up here, where these students are largely studying fine arts together, their camaraderie over cadmium is a physical presence in the air, a living thing born of the Renaissance masters and Impressionist visionaries and post-modern trailblazers, Adam is an interloper no one wants to approach.
This is an open studio for anyone to use. He has much a right to be here as any of these fine arts students. He wishes they’d stop glancing at him like an intruder as he moves to the far side of the room, to the wide working counters along the tall, open windows. Adam tosses his bag up onto the counter and digs out the cloth roll of his brushes and the small portable palette of cheap acryllics, the canvasboard he picked up the other day at the craft store and the half-drunk bottle of stale water from his car. His entire painting kit cost less than twenty dollars. Most of the students in here have spent that much on a single paintbrush.
Blue says she understands how he feels, but she’s kind-of-but-not-really-well-sorta dating Gansey, who Adam is certain has never once even touched anything that cost less than twenty dollars. Whatever understanding she may have offered has been tempered by long exposure to Gansey’s cluelessness.
Adam retrieves one of the tabletop easels from another part of the studio and returns to his corner to settle himself on the counter, his deaf side to the windows and his back against the ugly cinderblock wall. His position leaves only two sides of him open to approach, which is preferable when he’s in the mood he’s in today, even though that only leaves two routes of escape if he starts to feel claustrophobic. Out the window is a third option he doesn’t actively acknowledge as a genuine one, but the idea of tucking and rolling or jumping out the window secretly delights him. Cartoon physics.
Ronan Lynch is in the studio today. Adam won’t admit, to anyone, including himself, that this is a reason why he’s in this particular studio and not one of the seven others that are generally less crowded and less frequented by Joseph Kavinsky and his mob of friends. Adam and Ronan aren’t strangers by any stretch of the imagination and spend no small amount of time together outside of class, usually with Gansey and Noah, increasingly with Blue all over again. They’re friends. Good friends, if either of them are feeling charitable that day. But Ronan is private about his paintings and refuses to discuss his concentration portfolio or his fine arts thesis, and notoriously disinterested in explaining the work he does let other people see. Adam has never once been privy to more than the little sketchbook Ronan carries around, so the five feet-square canvas Ronan has had on his easel for the last two months is endlessly fascinating to him. He’s not sure if he wants to see what Ronan is working on or if he’s fine with only ever getting to watch him work.
Each of his friends had chosen mediums with finesse and long histories and respectability. Adam chose welding because it was useful outside of art school and he’d already known how to use a blowtorch, and because he’s fairly useless with a piece of charcoal or a paintbrush. A professor told him once he was too analytic, too mathematical, for a softer medium than metalwork or sculpting. “Maybe graphic design,” they’d also suggested, not knowing Adam’s computer can barely navigate social media let alone run Photoshop or Illustrator.
It doesn’t matter that he’s analytic or mathematical do throw bargain paint at a glorified piece of cardboard for the sole excuse of watching Ronan work from across the room, though. It’s worth it just for the chance that he might look up and see Adam. Adam secretly lives for catching Ronan staring at him and pretending he doesn’t notice.
“You have it so bad,” Noah says, materializing at Adam’s side. He takes the water bottle from Adam’s hand and shakes it at him meaningfully, sloshing the cloudy brown-gray water inside. “Do you want him to see you choke on your paint water? I don’t think he knows CPR.”
Adam hadn’t realized he’d been about to drink from that bottle. Ronan hadn’t been looking. “Do you know CPR?”
“I’m dead, not stupid.” It isn’t an answer, and Noah isn’t really dead–Noah had an existential crisis during his undergrad studies and decided to go from being a wealthy philosophy major with an off-campus townhouse and a gorgeous red Mustang to a broke abstract concept living in the closet-sized third bedroom Gansey and Ronan’s apartment who walked everywhere and constantly bummed rides off people. Sometimes he refers to it as a nervous breakdown. It’s hard to get the straight answer from Noah about the whole thing, if he’d ever been able to give a straight answer about it in the seven years since he abandoned his Camus thesis.
Adam takes his water bottle back and sets it on the windowsill beside him. “Is it that obvious?”
“That you and Ronan are playing the most passive-aggressive game of gay chicken in human history for the last two years? Very. To anyone with eyes.”
Adam frowns. “Is it that bad?”
“Gansey said something about it.”
“Oh.” Then it is obvious. Gansey is notoriously blind to when the people around him are having feelings more complicated than ‘hungry’ or ‘tired’ or ‘please stop talking about Glendower.’ Noah might be fairly useless, mostly by choice, in most things, but he’s unfailingly good at keeping secrets. If he’s making mention of Gansey commenting on how Adam and Ronan have been dancing around the whatever it is between them, he has a very good reason to.
Ronan is looking at them again the next time Adam looks up, his face unreadable but decidedly interested in an open way that isn’t characteristic of him. Noah waves at him and gets no response, and Ronan goes back to painting. He keeps glancing up in ways that aren’t half as subtle as he clearly wants them to be.
“He wants to ask you out so bad,” Noah is saying. “But at the same time he wants you to ask first.”
“What’s the point? It’s not like he doesn’t spend the night at my place all the time. He has a toothbrush in my bathroom and a drawer in my dresser. He sleeps in my bed with me when he stays over.”
Noah groans. “You guys are so gay already the u.s.t. isn’t even satisfying anymore.”
Adam pretends he knows what u.s.t. means and files it away to ask Blue about later. He catches Ronan looking at him again. This time Ronan doesn’t look away. This time, neither does Adam.