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What Stays and What Fades Away

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

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

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

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

“I'll text you if I see it.”

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

Your apartment. Adam winced reflexively.

“I, um – Drive safe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I'm sorry.”

“Me too.”

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

“Bless you. I'll get food.”

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

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

“Yeah, well. Come on in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sunday.”

“Going straight to Baltimore, then?”

“Yes,” Gansey's face was rueful.

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

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

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

“Not enough?” Gansey eventually suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ask whatever you want.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Was just like the time you-”

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

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

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

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

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

“You'll think it's silly.”

“No, I won't. I promise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure sound confident about it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Don't jinx it, I said!”

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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