“Are those new?” Adam asked and jerked his head in Ronan’s direction. He circled something in his textbook, the light scratch the only sound in the room.
It had become something of a habit, the two of them sharing the small, cold space of Adam’s apartment. Sometimes Ronan would turn up long after midnight, anger etched into his face, a grunted, “Dreams,” the only explanation as he spread out his coat next to Adam’s bed. On those days Adam usually woke up alone to a curious new object on his makeshift table, always carrying the same forest scent.
Other times, like today, Ronan would waltz into his apartment as if he owned the place, and he'd drop a plastic bag with cup noodles on Adam’s homework with an offhanded comment along the lines of, “Today’s grand feast,” and then fling himself spread-eagled onto Adam’s mattress.
Now he lifted his head to look at Adam. “Those?” he asked, pulling on the cable of the headphones around his neck. Adam followed the motion of the cable as it twisted around Ronan’s finger.
He nodded. They looked just like Ronan’s usual ones, except not quite. They were shiny and immaculate, and Adam didn’t take Ronan as someone who would polish headphones he used daily. Or someone who would polish anything at all.
Without a word Ronan sat up and slid off the mattress, down onto the floor next to Adam. He could feel warmth radiating off him.
“Wanna listen?” Ronan asked, wicked. He didn’t wait for an answer before he pulled the headphones off his neck. His palms gently grazed Adam’s cheekbones when he reached out to set the headphones on his head and a fresh scent engulfed him, familiar and comforting.
“I can do that myself, you know.”
“Yes I know, Parrish.”
Ronan let the headphones snap over his ears and Adam’s entire world seemed to tilt.
The music was staggering. It was impossible. It was beautiful. Nothing like the music Ronan listened to. It wasn't loud—quite the contrary, like whoever was playing the song wasn’t sure they had permission to—but it commanded attention. Adam felt his heart kick into overdrive. There was a constant, pervasive undertone that made his breath catch, and something about the song made him feel both free and sheltered. Safe. Unhinged.
Adam only realised he’d closed his eyes when he opened them again and caught Ronan’s gaze sliding off him, then back. In the dim lighting of Adam’s room Ronan looked like a softer version of himself, his edges hidden in murky shadows. He wondered if Ronan belonged here, too, between instant noodle cups and walls that seemed too brittle to contain all that Ronan was. He wondered if Ronan wanted to belong here.
The music in his ears roared, and Ronan blinked.
Adam tapped the back of his hand against his knee and asked, “What’s that song called?”
Ronan shrugged. “Some crap about heartbreak, probably. Isn’t that what’s popular these days?”
There was a pause. Ronan broke eye contact to apathetically pick at the holes in his jeans, so Adam was forced to listen to the music again. It sounded wild, then not, kind, then not, compassionate, secretive, longing—
“Did you dream this?” Adam asked. He traced a finger over one of the ear pads. “All of it?”
It wasn’t like he actually needed to know—of course Ronan had dreamt this. He’d noticed that the headphones weren’t plugged in. But he felt like the music was going to unravel something inside him if he didn’t break through its resonance, like it would tear down his walls and lay him bare for the world to see. He didn’t know how it could sound like any of the things it did, but Ronan had drawn impossible things from his dreams before. He was an impossibility in his own right.
Ronan snorted in lieu of an answer.
“I can hear it in my left ear. The music,” Adam said. But as soon as he’d said it he realised that music didn’t seem quite right, but he didn’t know what else to call it.
At that Ronan’s gaze snapped back to him and he arched a sharp eyebrow, long lashes dark over his eyes when he said, “No shit.” He waved a hand at the headphones, flippant, cable still wound around his finger. “You can keep those, or whatever.”
A while ago—long ago, if he considered it—he would have thought Ronan didn’t care. Would have interpreted the way Ronan was hunched in on himself as disinterest, how he was still picking at his jeans as boredom. Now, Adam suspected Ronan was trying to say this: I want you to have them, but it’s your call.
“Great,” he said wryly, “if I ever want to listen to magical on-hold music I’ll know what to use.”
“Asshole,” Ronan said, then smirked as he reached into the pocket of his jeans and fished out his phone. “Use them like a normal pair. For listening to music, yeah?”
A split second after Ronan had plugged the headphones into his phone with a savage grin, Adam lunged at him.
“I’ll squash your phone if you don’t turn this off, Lynch!”
Ronan was too busy cackling to put up much of a fight, so Adam grabbed Ronan’s hand with the phone, unplugged the cable, and yanked off the headphones before he realised he’d effectively tackled Ronan to the floor. Now Ronan was staring up at him, mouth a weapon of mirth. Adam felt like he’d thrown them into a lava pit, not onto the dusty floor.
Ronan shuddered out a breath, and his grin sharpened. “I always get you with this.”
“The new Rick Astley,” Adam said, voice flat. He carefully sat up, released Ronan’s hand, and dropped the phone on his chest. Ronan’s eyes glazed over for a brief moment. Adam’s fingers were tingling. He slowly curled them into a fist, his throat tight.
Then Ronan seemed to collect himself and turned his head.
“Don’t blaspheme. You can’t compare that sorry excuse of a song to a masterpiece like Murder Squash.”
“Whatever,” Adam said, and turned back to face the cardboard table, unreasonably frustrated. “Are you going to study, or are you just going to be a nuisance?”
Rationally, Adam knew that Ronan didn’t deserve his frustration. He hadn’t done anything. Adam glared at the chipped wall across the room and pulled himself together.
They worked in silence. Meaning that Adam worked, and Ronan had a staredown with the textbook as if that would amount to anything. Adam hadn’t bothered to take the headphones off his neck, and he could feel the phantom presence of Ronan’s eyes on them sometimes, warmth trickling down his spine in response. He knew there was something about them that Ronan wasn't telling him, but he didn’t ask. Both of them were creatures of secrets.
And that was starting to drive Adam wild.
For the second day in a row, Ronan’s knuckles rapped on Adam’s door in quick succession about an hour after dark. Only this time Ronan didn’t immediately push past Adam into the room. Instead, he dangled his car keys from his finger and said, “Coming?”
“What? Where?” Adam pulled down his t-shirt properly and shook his hair out of his eyes. Water dripped past his neckline, and he willed himself not to shudder. Even routine couldn’t make cold showers less unpleasant.
Ronan glared at the doorframe as if it annoyed him. It probably did. Then he said, “The Barns.”
Adam considered this. “I have homework.”
“There’s none due tomorrow.”
“History, Lynch. Latin isn’t our only subject.”
“Give me a moment,” he sighed. He’d finished the history homework the day it had been assigned. Even with his shift at the factory on Saturday he had enough time to finish the assignments for next week. It was probable that Ronan knew all of this.
Five minutes later they were in Ronan's sleek car on the way back to the dormant cows. Back to the lab, as Ronan put it. Two mad scientists at work. Sometimes Adam wondered if they were the mad ones, or if it was the science itself.
Ronan made Adam check the power of his dream things. They took notes and made check-lists, always comparing the new dream thing Ronan pulled out with the formless piece of a dream from last time. From its place in the corner it lit up the barn with a light that set Ronan's eyes on fire. As they worked, Adam noticed the tug of Cabeswater asking for his attention, and he made a mental note to listen properly once he was home.
By the time they got back into the car Adam was exhausted. But there was a prickling sensation right underneath his skin, awed as he always was when he went to the Barns. Behind its guarded exterior the place was rich both in warmth and wonders, much like Ronan himself. Yet he couldn’t help but think that this time, there had been something different. Something more. Something that he wasn't sure had anything to do with the Barns at all.
Or maybe it was the inexplicable feeling that despite its wonders the place was starting to seem familiar.
It made him feel reckless.
“The headphones,” Adam said into the silence of the car. “Are you ever going to tell me what that song was?”
Ronan was quiet for so long that Adam leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes, not expecting an answer. He knew it had been a long shot. After all, the only options for Ronan were truth or nothing. Still—
“I know it wasn’t music,” Adam said.
He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but Ronan seemed on edge. Like he was waiting for something to happen, but didn’t know if he wanted it to or not. But maybe he was projecting.
“You’re the magician,” Ronan said, voice blank. “You’ll figure it out.”
He was too weary to argue.
“I didn’t know you were into mind games, Lynch.”
The leather of his seat was pliant and soft and he tried to sink deeper into it. In the Hondayota he would have needed an extra jacket. Here Ronan only had to press a button and Adam had felt heat radiating off the seat cover, not even a minute after they’d left the Barns.
“I’m into a lot of things.”
Adam's sleep-hazy thoughts snapped into razor-sharp focus. He hadn’t expected Ronan to keep the conversation going. And he realised that this was bold. This was dangerous. This was an invitation.
Ronan, impossibly, almost looked relieved. “Problem?”
He didn’t say it. He couldn’t say it. The BMW was like an arrow in the night, both of its occupants targets and archers alike, forced to a standstill. And Adam didn’t say it, didn’t say anything until they pulled into St. Agnes’ parking lot.
Ronan’s gaze followed his jerky movements as he unbuckled. The silence was suffocating, and Adam hated it, hated not doing anything. He raised his hand, reaching for—something. Cabeswater rustled in his ears, beckoning him, and something on Ronan’s face flickered. Then Adam’s knuckles bumped against Ronan’s shoulder.
Ronan knitted his eyebrows together, a fierce expression smoothed into something gentler by the lack of light. “Night, Parrish.”
As he walked towards his apartment, he listened to the BMW roll back to the road. It moved quietly for once, a furtive fleck of gray in the surrounding black.
Adam might be frustrated with Ronan, but most of all, he was frustrated with himself.
Dormancy didn’t suit either of them.
It was raining when Adam got into his shitty car to drive to the factory on Saturday. He tossed his bag onto the passenger seat and the dreamed headphones next to it. Then he reached for them again and put them on.
They were silent.
You’ll figure it out.
Vexed and disappointed, he pulled them off and stuffed them into his bag before he started the engine. He’d grabbed them off his shelf spontaneously when he’d left for his shift, not sure what use they would be. But he had expected them to play that impossible and terrific and wonderful song he’d heard before, at the very least. His gut clenched at the absence of it.
By the time his shift was over the rain had grown even heavier, a violent waterfall on his windscreen. The headphones still worked—he’d confirmed it by plugging them into the grimy garage radio—but without that they were as silent as any pair would be. It was niggling him, like a missing puzzle piece when the box was already empty.
He wasn’t looking forward to driving out all the way to Cabeswater in this weather, but he’d put off the task long enough.
When he pulled onto the main road, there was someone on the sidewalk hurrying at a brisk pace through the rain. Their head and upper body was covered in a neon-yellow rain cape, but the combination of jeans with a patchwork skirt and boots was unmistakable.
He waited until a car had passed him, then rolled down his window and called out, “Blue!”
She whirled around. “Don’t—oh! Adam? You—Are you coming from work?”
He nodded. “Do you want a ride? I have to go fix the ley line. It’s on the way.”
She looked around. Then she said, “Actually, yeah. That’d be great.”
Drops of water flew everywhere when she swung herself onto the passenger seat and shook her head, her lips curling into a grin when he wiped his face. “Thanks,” she said.
Her hair was a mess, falling into her face, the tips dripping wet. She was still heartbreakingly beautiful.
But then again, so were all of his friends.
She pointed at his neck. “Are those yours?”
“Ronan’s,” he replied automatically. He’d forgotten he was still wearing the headphones. “In theory. A dream thing.”
“That's an odd gift," Blue said slowly. Adam fought down the urge to protest the word gift, because even if it sounded wrong to him, he didn't know what else to use. "Do you even listen to music?”
Adam shrugged. "As long as it's not Murder Squash."
Blue snorted, and then pulled off her cape, struggling for a bit. Adam felt a light tug on his neck.
And there it was. Music—Something. The headphones were playing the song again, muffled from the distance, but definitely there. And then, as abruptly as it had started, it was gone.
Adam threw Blue a sharp glance. “Did you do something?”
“What? No, I just took off my cape. It’s gross and cold.”
“No, I mean—wait.” He pulled over into the parking lot of a supermarket. The rain was still raging against the windows. He turned towards her. “Tell me exactly what you just did.”
Blue stared at him.
“Please,” he added.
“I took off my cape? And the sleeve got caught in the cable of your headphones, so I had to untangle it, sorry if that—”
Memories flooded his mind. Ronan winding the cable around his finger. Adam working in silence as Ronan held onto a hot cup of noodles with both hands. The headphones, utterly silent when they weren’t wired to a source.
“Wait,” he said, “wait. Okay.”
He closed his eyes, and breathed out. Then he put on the headphones and looked at her.
“Can you hold this?” he said, and pointed at the plug lying on the center console. “I know it sounds weird.”
The headphones were silent.
Blue picked up the plug and said, “Believe me, I’ve heard weirder things in my life.”
Now they were not.
They were playing the song again. Except no, they weren’t. It was different. What they were playing was just as pleasant, just as all-encompassing, but nowhere near as piercing. Nowhere near as unraveling. Nowhere near as Ronan.
He pulled the headphones off and thrusted them into Blue’s hands. “Try it.”
He felt silly and self-conscious holding onto the plug, but Blue’s eyes widened. “This is… this sounds super nice. Did Ronan really dream that?”
Adam carefully measured what he said next, his mind whirring. “Not exactly. I think he just dreamt how it works. He hasn’t said…”
He let go of the plug. Blue’s eyes dropped to his hand.
“You know,” she said slowly, taking the headphones off and laying them down between them, “maybe you should give these back.”
This time, Adam knew what she was trying to imply.
“Fox Way first.”
It was dark by the time he arrived at Monmouth Manufacturing. Gansey unlocked and opened the door only a few seconds after he’d knocked.
“Oh, hey, Adam.”
Gansey smiled, ever cordial, and stepped aside to let him in.
Adam smoothed down his jacket. Habit. “Is Ronan here?”
“Yes?” Gansey sounded confused. “Come on in, it’s cold.”
“I need him to come with me to fix the ley line.”
Something complicated passed over Gansey’s face, so briefly that someone less attentive and versed in his body language wouldn’t have noticed, and he blinked to chase it away. Then he said, “I’ll go get him.”
As Adam waited, he wondered if Gansey had been expecting Blue. The thought wasn’t as upsetting as it could have been. It was strange how their group dynamic had shifted over the months, but a good kind of strange. He knew as much, now. No one was being left behind.
Ronan appeared in the doorway with Chainsaw on his right shoulder, both of them staring at him with the same unreadable gaze, one black, one blue. Gansey was hovering around behind Ronan, looking collected and in charge, if not for the way he kept running his hand over his pants.
Suddenly, Adam felt fidgety. He thought about what Blue had said in the car, and what he assumed the headphones did, and how Ronan looked sleeping next to Adam’s bed.
He returned Ronan’s gaze and didn’t blink even when Chainsaw made a garish sound and lifted off Ronan’s shoulder to fly back into the dry warmth of the main room.
“Coming?” he asked.
He could tell Gansey was staring at the two of them staring at each other. None of them were strangers to charged situations.
Ronan’s gaze shifted to focus on something behind Adam. “We’re not going on a merry ride in your shitbox in this weather. We’re taking mine.”
“Your shitbox?” Adam said lightly, and let Ronan brush past him without moving away, fingers catching on Ronan's wristbands.
He bumped fists with Gansey, an explanation already on his lips when Gansey nodded and said, “Be careful.”
From up close Adam could tell Gansey was tracing the outline of his phone in his pocket.
While Adam was putting on his seatbelt, Ronan asked, “So? Get a kick out of having me watch you push around stones or something?”
Maybe I do.
“Maybe I do.”
Ronan glanced at him, and Adam was waiting for him to glance away, but he didn’t. Adam folded his fingers in his lap and stared at a faded and muddy patch of grass in the driveway.
“It’s in Cabeswater this time. You talk to the trees, you tell me the exact location.” He rubbed his arms and watched as Ronan blindly pushed a button on the dashboard. “I hear if you want Latin done, you ask the Greywaren.”
Now Ronan glanced away. Out of the corner of his eye Adam could tell he looked pleased. If it was at the fact that he’d asked him to come along, or the fact that he’d borrowed his words, he didn’t know.
The engine roared to life. They left Monmouth behind in seconds, the mix of the car’s noises with the constant murmur of Cabeswater in his head bizarrely soothing as he settled into the warm seat.
Leaves crunched underfoot as they made their way through the forest. A warm breeze and golden light had welcomed them as soon as they’d stepped over the border, and Adam was immensely grateful for it.
Now Ronan was leading the way, murmuring under his breath as he trailed his hands along rough bark and branches. This was Ronan Lynch in his element: a paradox of light and dark, walking among miracles of reality, completely unwound and at ease. The longer Adam stared at Ronan’s back, the more the visible parts of Ronan’s tattoo seemed to move.
Ronan stopped so abruptly that Adam bumped into him.
“Gonna run into a tree next?” Ronan asked.
“Funny,” Adam said. He took in their surroundings. “This is the place?”
Ronan jerked his chin at a formation of rocks, surrounded on both sides by a small brook that split right in front of it. Adam immediately sensed something off about it. The world around him ceased to exist when he kneeled down, fingers splayed flat on the forest floor. Only the energy of the ley-line and Ronan’s overwhelming presence behind him remained.
The work was tedious, but practice had made him faster, and he quickly realised what he had to do.
He directed Ronan with wordless gestures, dug up a stone here and turned one over there until he finally felt the ley-line snap into place.
“Got it,” he said.
His mind was immediately lighter, Cabeswater drawing back now that he’d fixed the problem.
Which was to say that now there was nothing distracting him from why he had gone to Monmouth in the first place.
“Not music,” he said, and stood up, “but feelings. Right? Someone holds the plug, and whoever wears the headphones hears how the other person feels about them.”
Whatever he had been expecting, it hadn’t been this: Ronan Lynch tensing next to him, drawing into himself, eyes like daggers.
“Well, good for you, Parrish. One hundred points. Gold star. You figured it out,” Ronan said.
And that’s when Adam realised. That even after all this, Ronan had never dared to hope for anything more than acceptance. Had known Adam would inevitably figure it all out, but had never expected anything back. Had never expected Adam to bring it up.
Ronan’s heart was perhaps the biggest wonder of them all.
He took a step forward. Ronan stepped back.
“Ronan, that’s not what I meant. I’m not showing off. I’m—”
Adam took another step forward, the forest rustling as if to encourage him. Ronan stayed where he was, face fractured and disbelieving.
Ronan’s voice sounded as if it came from a deep, hidden part of himself. Adam had never heard Ronan pray before, but he imagined it would sound a lot like this. There was a temple of leaves around them, Adam a mortal deity on Ronan’s lips.
Ronan’s eyes flickered down, and back up.
Adam breathed out slowly, and then said, “You can.”
Ronan was very still. “What?”
“Kiss me. You can kiss me,” he said.
Ronan opened his mouth, said, “You…” then trailed off.
Anything Adam might have said died in his throat when Ronan’s leather bands brushed against his neck and forest-warm fingers shivered against his nape.
“Don’t chicken out on me.”
Ronan Lynch was dynamite, and the way he kissed was no different.
Adam’s entire world seemed to tilt.
It was everything at once, an explosion of senses. Because for everything that Ronan took, he gave back just as much in return: a circle traced on Adam’s cheekbone for the soft sound he made when Ronan first pressed his lips to Adam’s. A hitched breath for the bold hand Adam slid over Ronan’s hip and to his waist. A thundering heartbeat to mirror Adam’s own when his hand reached Ronan’s chest.
A secret for a secret.
Adam was flush with triumph. A victory not of possession or superiority, but of belonging.
Because this was them, and this was a place where both of them belonged, and between them was the space where they belonged to each other.
Because Ronan was here with him, fire against his skin.
“Alright,” Adam breathed, Ronan’s lips relentlessly chasing him, “alright.”
He coiled his fingers into Ronan’s shirt. With Ronan’s eyes closed his dark lashes were fanned out over his skin, painfully elegant. Adam slowly pulled back, but not away, eyes roaming Ronan’s features.
“Ronan. You aren’t in a dream. Look at me.”
When Ronan opened his eyes they were so full of raw longing that Adam could hardly bear looking at him. Could bear looking away even less, his heart voracious.
“Fucking shit,” Ronan said, or whispered, face too close to Adam’s to make better judgement, “I’d better not be,” and then Adam leaned forward and they were kissing again.
Cabeswater felt vivid around them. As if charged with a new sort of energy, one that Adam found in the dips of Ronan’s spine and the gaps between his fingers and along the line of his sharp jaw and down his neck.
He buried his head in the curve of Ronan’s neck and inhaled something fresh and familiar.
“If this is a dream it’s the best shit I’ve ever come up with,” Ronan said, and Adam burned at the honesty of it.
He traced a hand along Ronan’s collarbone, fingers catching on fabric and skin.
“You have to do something about Chainsaw’s claws,” he said, breath ghosting over the stretch of Ronan’s throat, and he felt him shiver. “You have scratches all over your shoulders.”
“Why would I?” Ronan answered. “Makes me look tough.”
Adam leaned back and stared at him for a long moment. And then, he started laughing. He laughed so hard he had to let go of Ronan to sit down, laughed until he caught Ronan glaring at him, and then laughed even harder.
“You’re an idiot,” Adam wheezed, giddy with the oddity of it all. Giddy at the sight of Ronan touching his shoulder where Adam’s hand had been. “You’re such an idiot. Oh my god.”
“Made you laugh, didn’t I?” He looked exceptionally pleased with himself.
Adam locked eyes with him. “Keep doing it, then.”
It was confession enough.
He moved to stand. But he seemingly didn’t do it fast enough for Ronan, because he grabbed his hand and pulled him up, huffing an annoyed, “Seriously.”
Adam didn’t let go of his hand.
Ronan looked down. “Handholding? Really?”
His palm was clammy, unlike the rest of him that still seemed to be alight with a fire that made Adam feel more like a magician than anything else.
Instead of an answer, Adam said, “Murder Squash is still a terrible song.”
“You have shit taste.”
“At least Noah has some respect. Your music taste is being trumped by a dead guy’s. That’s fucking sad.”
Adam threw him a withering look. And then he looked again, because there was red blooming on Ronan Lynch’s cheeks. Something hot coiled in his chest.
“Oh, I have absolutely shit taste. In everything.”
The red on Ronan’s cheeks deepened. “Kindly shut your mouth, Parrish.”
Adam felt like squeezing his hand, so he did.
“Your mother knew?” Adam asked when they were back in Ronan’s BMW.
They had passed Aurora Lynch on the way out of the forest. When she’d seen their interlocked hands all she’d said was, “I’m glad”, her voice like a sunrise.
“Anyone else?” Adam could hardly imagine it. Ronan was a vault of secrets.
Ronan drummed his fingers against the wheel. Then he backed up, glided back onto the road and chased the meter as high as it would go before he replied.
“You told Blue?”
“Fuck no, I didn’t. She figured it out herself. I had to stop her before she got any stupid ideas.”
Adam could imagine Blue standing in front of Ronan, her hands on her hips and a hundred things to say, all of which would boil down to you idiot.
He snorted. “Like what? Making us sit down and talk it out?”
“And force-feeding us shitty tea.”
“You love her.”
Ronan pulled a face, and Adam laughed, long and loud and incredulous.
“I knew,” Noah said.
Ronan’s shoulders jerked so violently that the car swerved a little. He snarled a diverse and artful string of curses at Noah, and by the time he was done Adam had managed to ease his own breathing and was pretending his heartrate hadn’t doubled in speed.
“Hi. I totally knew,” Noah said, and smirked in that ghostly drowsy way of his.
Ronan said, “Get out of my car.”
Noah blew his cold breath against Ronan’s neck. Ronan hissed out another curse and swatted at Noah as if he was a particularly aggravating fly, and Noah giggled. And then, without Adam seeing it happen, Noah was gone again, the back row dark and empty.
They stopped at a red light. “For what it’s worth,” Ronan began, and then Adam wrapped his fingers around the wrist of Ronan’s hand on the gear shift.
“You didn’t tell Noah either. I know,” Adam said. “No one has to tell Noah anything. He probably knows about the box with your dream objects on my shelf, too.”
“Damn voyeur,” Ronan said, a tad late.
“I’m still not going to let you pay for me on a date, by the way,” Adam said. He could feel Ronan’s pulse spike through his wrist.
“You think I’m gonna take you out for a date, Parrish?”
“I think cup noodles have exhausted their romantic potential.”
“Me too,” Noah said.
“For fuck’s sake, Noah!”
Adam laughed again, and when he looked over, there was a smile sneaking its way onto Ronan’s face. And for now, that was good enough.
For now, that felt like hope.