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awake and unreal

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The forest is thick and you don't recognize

We parted our lips and we reached from inside

--- beach house, lover of mine



The first time Ronan found a soul mark, he was eight years old. When he lifted off his shirt to climb into the bath one afternoon, there was a blotchy, purple bruise on his stomach. He gasped, and his mother, who had needled him into bathing- heard it from outside the door.

 

“Ronan? Are you alright in there?”

 

“I have a bruise.” He said. “I don’t know where it came from.”

 

At that, Aurora, who was trying to give her son some privacy, because really he was old enough to bathe himself- burst through the door. “What?”

 

Ronan frowned, poking it experimentally, but it didn’t hurt. The skin beneath it wasn’t raised either, not like the various boyhood bruises he gained from growing up on a farm. “It’s weird.”

 

Aurora knew what it was as soon as she saw it, and let out a sigh of relief. “That’s just a soul mark, honey.” She knelt before Ronan, and combed her fingers through his dark curls. “When your soulmate gets a mark on their body, it appears on yours, too. That’s why it doesn’t hurt, and why it’ll only last for a day.”

 

“Wait.” Ronan said, his eyebrows furrowing together. “That means this bruise belongs to someone else?”

 

“Yes.” Aurora smiled at him. “Your soulmate.”

 

“I wonder how it happened.” Ronan was frowning down at his stomach now. “It must’ve hurt pretty bad, if it’s this big.”

 

“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, sweetheart.” She took his hand and squeezed it. “Why don’t you take that bath now?”

 

✗✗✗

 

The first time Adam found a soul mark, he was twelve, and a scratch appeared on his hand. He was just sitting in history class, writing down everything the teacher said as fast as he could, when an angry, red scratch appeared on his hand before his eyes. He’d heard about this, but his father always said it was bullshit.

 

“Soulmates aren’t real Adam, and you’d be a fool if you thought they were. Look at your mother and I- none of those ugly marks and we do just fine.”

 

Adam did not say he thought his parents weren’t ‘just fine.’ He nodded his head, and continued doing his homework.  

 

“Are you listening to me, boy?”

 

The tone in his father’s voice had shifted, angrier, more dangerous. Adam looked up. “I’m listening. You said Soulmates aren’t real.”

 

“Don’t talk back at me.” Robert Parrish’s face had gone red, and a vein was pulsing in his forehead. Adam thought he must’ve had a bad day if he was already starting to yell.

 

“I’m sorry.” Adam said, but that did not stop the hit when it came. He went to bed that night, nursing a purple bruise on his arm- a mark he felt mirrored on his soul.

 

The scratch on his hand wasn’t that bad, and it didn’t hurt. It looked like the ones he used to get when he was younger, accidentally nicking himself on the barbed wire behind the trailer. He knew what it meant, that somewhere out there in the world, his soulmate got this scratch on her hand. He hoped it was an accident, because he knew the marks his soulmate would get wouldn’t be that simple.

 

✗✗✗

 

One day, when Ronan was eleven, he proclaimed “I think my soulmate is a superhero.”

 

The Lynch family was sitting at the dinner table, Declan sullen, Aurora golden and serene, Niall clever and charming, Matthew prattling on about his new science project until Ronan interrupted- but Matthew didn’t seem upset by Ronan’s interjection. The youngest Lynch brother turned his gaze towards Ronan- birch tree bark patterns forgotten. “Why do you think she’s a superhero?”

 

Ronan did not quite wrinkle his nose at “she” but pulled a face- he didn’t know why the idea of a girl as his soulmate made him squirm, but it did. “They’re always covered in bruises and cuts,” He pointed to the one on his arm, it didn’t hurt, but it looked like it should. It looked like someone dragged a jagged piece of glass against his skin- until it was blooming red and angry. “it must be from fighting crime, right?” Aurora and Niall exchanged a meaningful glance- one that only Declan understood the true meaning of.

 

Matthew agreed with a cheerful “I wish my soulmate was a superhero.”

 

A silence stretched through the kitchen, before Niall finally spoke. “Your soulmate must be very, very brave, Ronan.” He said it seriously- like the words meant more than their definitions, but then he winked- “She’ll have to be, if she keeps fighting crime.” It made Ronan feel better. For a moment, when his father had first said it- ‘ very, very brave ’ it felt heavy, like maybe his soulmate had some unseen burden he didn’t know about. Like they didn’t just have to be brave, they had to be strong, too.

 

Ronan smiled. “I know they will be.”

 

Declan frowned- at thirteen, he hadn’t seen much more of the world than Ronan, but he’d seen enough to deduce a few possible sources for Ronan’s violent soulmarks- none as kind as his younger brother’s theory. “Dad,” He hissed- trying to be stealthy. “just tell him.”

 

Ronan’s glanced over to his brother, eyes narrowing. He didn’t know what they were talking about, but he caught the remark anyways. “Tell me what?”

 

“It’s nothing, Ronan.” Aurora smiled at him, and leaned across the table to tuck a stray curl behind his ear. She was always doing that, for all of her sons. Ronan was old enough now that he found it embarrassing and fidgeted in his seat, batting his mother’s hand away with a “ Mommm, stop!”

 

“He’ll figure it out himself,” Niall told Declan- while Ronan was distracted. “It’s better that way.”

 

“He’s going to be angry.” Declan warned, and he was right. Even at eleven, Ronan’s occasional bouts of anger were usually triggered by injustices to the people closest to him. (When a pox-faced boy teased Matthew at school, Ronan spat a string of rude words right back at him during lunch, all in irish gaelic.)

 

“I know.” Niall said. “But eleven is too young to learn about these things, Declan.”

 

“It’s not too young to learn how to box, though?” Declan was still upset- their father had started teaching them to box together this year, even though Ronan was two years younger.

 

“It’s never too young to learn how to box.”

 

✗✗✗

 

The next time Adam got a soulmark (at least a noticeable one- there were the tiny scratches and bruises you got from just living- by tripping down the stairs, or bumping into the kitchen counter. He could never tell which ones of those were actually his.) He was thirteen, and he woke up with bruised knuckles. He didn’t like that one bit- the idea of his soulmate being the kind of person to use physical violence was unsettling.

 

He couldn’t imagine any of the girls at his school punching someone- let alone hard enough to bruise and break skin. Maybe, Adam thought, She’s like me. Maybe she decided to fight back. He decided long ago that fighting back would only make it worse, that his father didn’t wish to brawl for sport. He just wanted to remind Adam of what he really was- a dirty, worthless excuse for a son.

 

No matter what he did, or how hard he tried, his father was always disappointed. Getting all A’s in school wasn’t good enough, neither was the job he’d just started at the auto shop that fall. Robert Parrish just wanted more for him, right? Maybe if he could get into a private school, or work at the trailer factory- it would finally stop. Maybe he’d finally be proud enough to call Adam ‘son’ instead of ‘piece of shit.’

 

But maybe he’d just come back to his ugly words and thick, meaty fists- like he did that day when Adam tried to explain. “They’re not mine-” He started to say. “They’re not mine, Dad, they’re my soulmates.”

 

“Like I believe that bullshit Adam,” Robert’s tone made Adam feel sick to his stomach- he knew what was coming next. “you’ve just been fightin’ and you didn’t want to tell me.”

 

“I promise, that’s not how it happened, you can call the school and-”

 

“Quit, talkin’ when I’m trying to speak with you!” His father’s voice was more terrifying now than a summer thunderstorm had been to Adam at three years old. He took a step back, out of instinct. Robert eyed his bruised knuckles. “And now look at you. Nothing but a coward.”

 

“Dad-”

 

“Shut up.”

 

✗✗✗

 

Ronan woke up with a black eye the next morning- and a sick feeling in his stomach.

 

✗✗✗

 

When Adam was fourteen, he was stripping off his jeans to take a shower- and found a question written above his left knee in permanent marker. He didn’t remember writing it, and when he tried to scrub it off, nothing happened. It didn’t even smudge.

 

Are you okay?

 

He knew, objectively, that if he wanted to, he could talk to his soulmate by scribbling all over himself- but his Dad hated his soulmarks enough already. He didn’t need to provoke Robert by actively talking to the girl- so he’d never even tried to make contact with her. He didn’t think she’d try to make contact with him .

 

Adam stared at the stark contrast of the words against his skin. For a moment, he thought about hiding in his room, pulling out one of the few markers that still had ink in it, and writing back. But then he thought about his father, and he decided to ignore it. He supposed his soulmate was asking about the bruises on his back- he hadn’t gotten a chance to look at them yet, but they hurt like hell.

 

He thought it was unfair that someone else had to wear the mark of his failings. Whoever it was, they deserved an apology that Adam didn’t know how to deliver. Bitterly, he wished he could send flowers through his skin, instead of words.

 

Adam did not write back.

 

✗✗✗

 

Ronan only figured it out once he was fourteen, once his father had pushed him into Aglionby for high school, just because Declan wanted to go there. He knew his soulmate wasn’t a superhero, had known it for years- but he thought maybe they were just clumsy, or prone to accidents. Maybe they liked to pick fights. Maybe they were bullied.

 

He did not think abuse until the guidance counselor had to explain why a student left the school, and how if they knew any other students suffering from abuse- they should tell the school right away; so they could get in touch with social services. It was only then, once the idea had been properly presented to him, that he shuffled the idea back and forth in his head.

 

It had been a game for him since he was small, making up reasons for the bruises. When Ronan was younger, he always thought dragons ! or monsters ! never heavy-handed mothers. The idea didn't even occur to him until now, but it made him seethe with rage, to think of a parent hurting their child. Hurting his soulmate. Ronan was awfully fond of whoever it was, considering they’d never met.

 

He didn’t have any evidence, aside from the bruises, but that wasn’t enough- and Ronan had no idea if his soulmate even lived near him. The chances that they’d meet any time soon were minuscule- thousands of people died before they even met their soulmate. The ridiculous idea that Ronan could somehow swoop in and save him… it was impossible.

 

He didn’t even know when he began to think of his soulmate as a “him.” A faceless boy with scars and bruises marring his skin. The marks never stayed long enough for Ronan to see them as scars, but some of them were big enough that they had to be. He woke up with a cut on his stomach once that was deep enough that his mother called it “a gash.”

 

It was hard to tell, sometimes, what injuries he brought back from dreams, and what injuries he brought back from his soulmate.

 

✗✗✗

 

The summer Adam turned seventeen, he’d been accepted into Aglionby with a partial scholarship- and now had jobs at both Boyd’s and the trailer factory in town. Things were going better, his father hadn’t been as volatile recently, and he even had enough extra cash to buy himself brand-new textbooks for the fall, instead of used ones. Essentially, he was happy. Essentially, everything was fine.

 

Until one day in August, he woke up with a tattoo covering the vast majority of his back.

 

Adam didn’t even notice it until he got to work, when Boyd, his boss, frowned at the collar of his shirt. He tugged at it self consciously when he noticed the attention, and looked back down at his work, face heating. He knew there was a hole there, but he hadn’t thought it was that noticeable. Boyd cleared his throat.

 

“That’s some ink you’ve got there, kid.”

 

Adam looked up from the car he was trying to fix, not bothering to move his hands away from the engine- he had work to do. “What’d you say?” He must’ve heard Boyd wrong, but the older man gestured at Adam’s neck.

 

“It’s some tattoo.”

 

He dropped his wrench. “ What ?” Boyd frowned at that, and Adam quickly schooled his features back into a neutral expression- clearing his throat with a cough. “Excuse me, sir, but did you say tattoo?”

 

His boss didn’t seem to care- and grunted out a “What Parrish, are you deaf? Yes I said tattoo. I figure you’d remember getting one that big- but you can see for yourself.” Boyd waved a broad hand in the general direction of the bathroom, but Adam waited until his lunch break to check.

 

Once the clock ticked to noon, he scrambled from his position over the hood of the car, and made a bee-line for the bathroom- desperate for evidence that his suspicions were wrong. Adam’s skin was tingling the way it always did when he got a new soulmark- but he had to be wrong, it must’ve been axle grease smeared across his neck. It couldn’t be a tattoo. He refused to believe it- but the grubby, cracked mirror in the bathroom told no lies.

 

He could barely make it out in the broken reflection- only caught delicate, spidery lines that made up a myriad of symbols and deeply strange pictures he couldn’t decipher. Adam couldn’t even see all of it, awkwardly twisting his neck to see his own back in the mirror. Why would his soulmate possibly want something so large, so dark and intricate and permanent?

 

A knock rattled through the bathroom door, and Adam startled, tugging his shirt over his head before they could knock again. He opened the door to find a plump, older woman scowling at him, before shoving past and muttering about ‘disrespectful teens.’ He didn’t have time to waste while he was working, so he returned to his job- trying not to think about what would happen if he went home with a soulmark like this one.

 

It wouldn’t end well- he knew that, but it was August, and there was no way to hide a mark like that in the virginia heat. The only feasible solution was wearing a scarf- but it was near a hundred degrees out, and Robert would tear into him for that, too. Adam tried not to think about it, but the anxiety of returning home crawled under his skin for the rest of the day.

 

✗✗✗

 

Ronan had not thought about how getting a tattoo would affect his soulmate until it was too late. He woke up with bruises on his stomach, obvious fingerprints on his arms, and a hangover. Mostly, when he got the tattoo, he’d been thinking about how it would make Declan’s blood boil, and how maybe, just maybe - he’d feel something different for the first time since his father died.

 

He’d been right that it would piss Declan off- they immediately got into a shouting match when the older Lynch brother caught sight of the new tattoo- but all satisfaction was robbed by the fresh soulmarks. If there was one thing he still cared about- it was his soulmate. His soulmate, and of course, Gansey.

 

“Do you think they’re okay?” He asked- which would’ve been particularly sentimental and sappy, if he hadn’t been drinking. Ronan drinking was often Ronan without a filter-  which meant only the deepest, darkest secrets were kept under wraps. His dreams were a thing to keep hidden, but his soulmate was not- especially with the obvious markings.

 

They were in Monmouth- and neither of them could sleep, anxiety for the upcoming school year haunting both of them for different reasons. Gansey was poring over his glendower journal, half paying attention to Ronan with a worried crease in his eyebrows, and half trying to read in welsh. He pushed his wireframes up his nose, and looked up from the fat journal. “Could you repeat that? I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention.”

 

Ronan rolled his eyes and sneered at Gansey, but it had no heat to it. “My soulmate. Do you think they’re okay?”

 

Gansey raised an eyebrow at the purple fingerprints on Ronan’s biceps, and the sickly green bruise on his stomach. Ronan did not care to wear a shirt in his own home (if it could be called that), which meant his soulmarks were on display most of the time- no matter how violent the markings were. Once, there had been a particularly nasty bruise-and-cut combo that Gansey had blanched at and asked “Do you have to walk around like that?”

 

(To which Ronan had replied, with much vitriol: “It’s not mine , Dick. Why should I care?” )

 

“I’d like to believe they’re alright.” Gansey said- but he was frowning. “Though judging by the evidence at hand, I don’t think that’s the case.”

 

“That’s what I thought.” Ronan said, and took another sip of the beer he was drinking. Gansey frowned, but this late in the night, he didn’t have the energy to argue with an intoxicated Ronan about the disadvantages of being drunk. It would be like talking to a brick wall that chose to listen to angry electronica instead of your opinion.

 

Ronan added. “ I think it's because of the tattoo,” and his friend looked up from the journal. “I mean, it goes both ways- this soulmate bullshit. I think whoever it is who’s hurting them…. I think it's because of me.”

 

“Ronan,” Gansey’s full attention was on the other boy now. “You can’t blame yourself for that.”

 

“I thought it would be okay.” Ronan said- the tense set of his shoulders giving away his distress. “Nothing happened when I did this-” he gestured to his shaved head, mostly meaning the scratches the electric razor had left on his neck. “But now… I don’t know.”

 

“Ronan.” Gansey repeated. “It's not your fault.”

 

He was biting his nails now. “But I think it is, sometimes.”

 

“Are you the one hitting her?”

 

“No.” Ronan didn’t bother to correct Gansey on the pronoun.

 

“Then it's not your fault.”

 

✗✗✗

 

Adam woke up with blood oozing from twin cuts on his wrists. The feeling of it, sliding down his skin, was what had woken him. He scrambled to turn on the light, to stop the bleeding, before he realized that they weren’t his. Of course they weren’t his. Of course. Adam didn't know what to do, as blood dripped onto his sheets. He wasn’t worried about it staining- all evidence there ever was blood would be gone in the next twenty four hours.

 

Why would his soulmate try to kill herself? There had to be some kind of mistake, some sort of flaw in the magic that bound him to this person. Adam had spent the last seventeen years making sure he could survive, that he had enough food to eat and that he wasn’t provoking his father into beating him to death. The idea of actively throwing that away was nearly impossible to wrap his mind around.

 

There was nothing to do about his wrists but watch as later that night, invisible stitches knit his skin unevenly together. So she’ll live. Adam thought. He'd never considered the idea of his soulmate dying. Never considered missing out on meeting them at all. It was this, that convinced him to make one of the more reckless decisions in his life.

 

That morning, getting dressed for school-a more complicated process, now that he went to Aglionby-  Adam scrawled a question on his leg- the same question he’d been asked, years ago. Are you okay?

 

It wasn't until that afternoon that he got a response. It was in english, where Gansey skirted around explaining why his antagonistic roommate,  Ronan, was missing.  Adam  personally didn’t care much for Ronan Lynch, and stopped paying attention when he felt his arm tingling with a new soulmark. It isn’t what you think. Black, messy sharpie scrawled on his outer forearm.

 

Even as Gansey made up an excuse, Adam tried to write back as inconspicuously as possible, like he was writing himself a reminder for later. What is it? Blue pen ink, the palm of his hand- where it could easily be washed off.  He waited all through class, but didn’t get a response again, or at least he didn't notice it- until he got off of work that evening.

 

He’d been too covered in axle grease and sweat to see it at first. somnum exterreri solebat. Latin. His suicidal soulmate wrote him a message in Latin. Adam’s Latin wasn’t perfect- not yet, but it was good enough for him to know what the message meant. Nightmare.

 

✗✗✗

 

When his scars healed, Ronan bought himself a pair of leather wrist bands that covered his ruined skin. He’d managed to keep them hidden by long sleeves and careful evasion of questions from his classmates, but Gansey still worried about him- not matter how many times Ronan said “it’s not like that.” It really wasn’t- but there was no way to explain that a monster from his nightmares tore his wrists open while he was sleeping, and he brought the wounds back. It was just like Gansey to worry, but Ronan was sick of being treated like a foolish, fragile thing.

 

It was even worse though, for his soulmate to make contact with him, only to have the words fade away, never to be replaced. It almost made Ronan angry, though that wasn’t quite the word for it. Was he only worth something to his soulmate when he was bleeding to death? Did his soulmate even care ?

 

Ronan was no closer to figuring out the dilemma of his soulmate’s bruises, although most of his free time was now being consumed by Gansey’s glendower search, and their newly acquired friend- Adam Parrish. Ronan had not formed a rational opinion of Adam, simply because he was now taking up more of Gansey’s time, therefore, their friend had less time for Ronan. Currently: Ronan did not like Adam very much, although he had a vague suspicion that his feelings could, eventually, be subject to change.

 

(It probably had something to do with the fact that they privately smiled at the same jokes, and Adam had the sort of face that Ronan couldn’t stop puzzling over. Familiar, even though he knew he’d never met the other boy. Like the sort of person he’d find in his dreams, elegant, beautiful, and deeply strange.)

 

✗✗✗

 

Adam stood in the alley beside Nino’s, waiting for Gansey to come get him once the Lynch brothers were finished fighting. It was out of the blue, that suddenly, his nose started bleeding. Now was not the time for a new soulmark, a new problem, not when Ronan was brawling with Declan, and Evil “not a prostitute” waitress stood inside somewhere. Adam was painfully aware of how pretty she was, and how slim his chances were after the disastrous encounter with Gansey. He sighed, and wiped the blood off his nose and onto to his sleeve- it would be gone this time tomorrow, it wasn't like it mattered.

 

In his boredom, he managed to find a rubber ball with a spongebob logo on the side of it, and began to bounce it against the far wall of the alley. It was not long before Gansey appeared.

 

“I convinced them not to call the cops.” Adam said, as Gansey frowned at him.

 

“What happened to your face?”

 

Adam touched his nose again- he’d almost forgotten about it. “ I get nosebleeds sometimes.” It was a simple lie, one he didn't have a real excuse for. It was habit now, with Robert Parrish as a father, to make up excuses for his soulmarks.

 

“Huh.” Gansey said. “Coincidence.” Most likely, because he believed it was not.

 

“What?”

 

“Ronan’s got a nosebleed too, but obviously for different reasons.”

 

Adam shrugged. “Ronan’s always getting into trouble.” Gansey frowned at that, but did not correct him, just moved on to a new subject. Adam didn’t quite know why it irritated him that Gansey ignored Ronan’s misdemeanours, or brushed them off in an effort to keep the peace, but it did. Yes, Ronan’s father had died. Yes, it was traumatic, but it didn’t excuse his actions- at least not completely.

 

“So, Ashley..” Gansey said, and Adam jumped back into conversation.

 

Yes.”

 

“Quite some eyes on her…”

 

✗✗✗

 

It did not take long for Ronan to suspect- considering the way Adam’s disappearances from school coincided with his soulmarks. It was nearly impossible not to suspect, in an offhand, curious sort of way. It was a silent question that burrowed under his skin, and stayed buried in the far reaches of his mind. He did not speak of it. He did not think of it- he let it play on in the background, like white noise in a staticky pair of headphones.

 

Maybe that was why he turned back that night, to clock Robber Parrish across the jaw. Maybe that was why he always chose Adam for general mischief making. Maybe that was why the other boy constantly appeared in his dreams, a strange specter from another world. His blue eyes were always wider, the hollows in his cheeks deeper, more pronounced. More alien. That was dream-Adam, not nearly as living and tangible as real Adam.

 

It wasn’t hard to tell them apart, though sometimes, there were dreams where Ronan found he did not care, and woke with sweat slick-skin. It was then that he always felt the most ashamed, not because Adam was a boy, but because it was Adam. Because he didn’t know, and if he did, he’d never be able to look Ronan in the eye again. He had moments, when he woke with a threadbare t-shirt balled in his hands, trying to catch his breath- that he tried to convince himself it was fine.

 

It was fine. Adam was his soulmate. Maybe. Probably. It wasn’t bad for him to think that way. It wasn’t bad to imagine, even if Adam was dating Blue- because they were soulmates. The evidence was piling up that way- over and over again, tiny matching scratches and harmless bruises from living a normal life above St. Agnes. Ronan even picked at his cuticles until they bled, and watched as tiny, bloody marks appeared on Adam’s fingers. Despite it all, Ronan was afraid. What if he was dreaming like this and Adam wasn’t his soulmate? What if if Adam would never look at Ronan that way? What if he was thinking this about someone who would always, and ever remain nothing but a friend?

 

Ronan did not know if he could stand the idea of that, and each time he woke up with an article of clothing that didn’t belong to him in his hands, he shoved it under the bed where no one could possibly find it. Tried to ignore the scent of drugstore deodorant and gasoline that clung to each shirt, or hoodie, or hand-me-down aglionby sweater.

 

It was impossible.

 

Ronan dreamt again.

 

✗✗✗

 

Adam figured out Ronan’s crush around the same time he accepted that Blue might not be the right person for him, as much as he wanted her to be. Maybe she wasn’t the right person, or maybe it just wasn’t the right time. He didn’t know if either of those things mattered- what mattered was that it was over, like ripping a bandaid off, the wound red and angry for all the world to see. It took awhile, but the wound started to heal, and the searing moments of heartache he felt when he looked at her turned into nothing but an occasional cheek-chew of bitterness.

 

It was hard to let himself get distracted by those feelings, though, because there was so much more going on in his life. Glendower. Aglionby. Work. It was beginning to pile up into a fearful equation that left barely any time for himself, even though he was used to it by now. He did not stop to think about how his soulmarks had become few and far between since the summer, only occasional scratches on his shoulder that reminded him of the holes chainsaw’s talons made in Ronan’s muscle tees.

 

Even if there had been more soulmarks, he wouldn’t have to worry about them anymore, not as an emancipated minor. Though he was still paralyzed in the supermarket when he thought he saw his father, his soulmate had become nothing but a passing thought. Adam would find himself studying and wondering if she took any of the same classes. Wondering about how one day, he would have to try explain being tied to a magical forest on the ley line. That seemed like an impossibility, for someone who wasn’t there to accept the magic and the gravity of the situation. There were days he could hardly believe it himself.

 

That was one of the most comforting aspects of Ronan’s personality, his unflinching acceptance of Adam as something other- someone who wasn’t always human, at least not anymore. Adam was at once a himself, and something entirely different. A being. Maybe it was because Ronan was something unreal, too, that he could accept Adam for who he was. A boy living with the pulse of the ley line in his veins,  and the sleepy mutterings of leaves and vines unfurling in his mind.  

 

Maybe, Adam thought, that’s why Ronan likes me. Maybe Ronan needed someone else who was magic to make himself feel like less of an impossibility. Less like a creature and more like a person. After watching Ronan- or, a copy of Ronan, as the case had been- die, Adam was badly shaken. He hadn’t thought of how much Ronan meant to him, how much presence the other boy held in his life. He hadn’t thought of how Ronan felt about himself- how maybe, to watch himself die, it felt like re-living an entire period of his life where that was what he wanted.

 

Adam didn’t quite realize how much he valued Ronan until then, and after, he became increasingly aware of Ronan’s attention. The way his eyes followed Adam across the room and then flicked away as soon as contact was made- like he’d been caught red handed. The way his leg would drift closer and closer to Adam’s every time they sat together, only to pull away at the last second. Adam couldn’t tell if it was frustrating, or relieving, that Ronan never actually did anything.

 

Both, probably, though he wasn’t going to mention his feelings on the subject. Somehow, to bring it up felt almost disrespectful to Ronan- so Adam never did. But he watched, and he waited, and he noticed the look in the other boy’s eyes as Ronan examined his palm. Starving. He knew, of course, that Ronan wanted him- but the rawness of his expression wasn’t as startling as the emotion lingering beneath it. Wonder. Wonder for Adam, in the eyes of a boy who could manifest beautiful birds and cars and anything his heart desired. Wonder for grease stained clothing, sunken eyes, and the crescents of dirt beneath his nails. Adam could not believe it, so he didn’t try to.

 

✗✗✗

 

Ronan went looking for Adam- he was supposed to be finding tinfoil, but after looking through the kitchen and the pantry for the other boy, he deduced that he must’ve gotten lost somewhere in the house. It probably wasn’t hard to get lost in the barns, but it wasn’t easy, either- there were only so many unexplored rooms in the farmhouse, and only so many places to get distracted. Ronan spent five minutes searching, before he finally thought to check his old bedroom- where he found Adam sitting cross-legged on the middle of his bed.

 

It was an odd sight to find his soulmate in the middle of his childhood room, turning a toy car over in his fair hands- painfully beautiful. Ronan’s chest ached. A square of white light spilled over Adam’s knees as he looked up at Ronan, who crossed the room to sit beside his friend. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to- the sight of Adam in this room, surrounded by the whimsical dream objects of a child without worry- was enough to make him feel undone. Ronan held his hand out, and Adam passed the toy car over without complaint.

 

Ronan turned it over in his hands, trying to ignore how fast his heart was beating this close to Adam. He spun each of the wheels one by one, listened to every tune. “This old thing.” He said. It was unbearable. Ronan leaned over, and kissed Adam.

 

He didn’t expect Adam to kiss back. He didn’t know why he didn’t expect Adam to kiss back. They were soulmates- this was how it was supposed to be. This was how it was supposed to be- hot mouths pressed together, his pulse quick and tremulous, a reassuring hand clasped in his shirt, telling Ronan that this was what Adam wanted. He had to stop- to catch his breath, to make sure it wasn’t a dream. He didn’t remember falling asleep- but he almost wanted to pinch himself. Adam kissed him before he could really make a decision, and Ronan felt the heat of it pooling in his stomach. He pulled away again- it was too much in the best way, too much, too good, too fast. Ronan couldn’t accept more until he stopped to think about it. He kept his eyes closed, like opening them would break the moment because maybe it would. He knew he had to look at Adam eventually. He knew that this might change things. He knew he wanted it to change things, but he didn’t know if Adam felt the same way. Ronan opened his eyes.

 

“I’m gonna go downstairs.”

 

✗✗✗

 

Adam didn’t know how he felt, and that stirred a restlessness in him. He hated not knowing things- it made him feel powerless, and he hated even more when he didn’t know things about himself. Generally, he could puzzle it out, but even after Gansey and Blue left- Adam spent fifteen minutes in the living room of the Barns, trying to come to an abstract conclusion he wasn’t sure he fully understood. He remembered what his friend had said.

 

“I think it’s about being honest with yourself. That’s all you can do.”

 

Gansey was right, but when it came to love, something Adam was so new to experiencing, he wasn’t sure how to handle it. Love was a fragile privilege that he wanted to keep safe. He wanted to protect it. He wanted to make sure he didn’t lose what he already had- but what was the risk, even? Adam knew Ronan liked him. He knew he liked Ronan- loved him even, in a way that felt jarring when he allowed himself think it. Adam supposed the truth often felt that way. And then, like clockwork, there was the silent reminder to himself. You’re leaving Virginia.

 

There was no way around it- Adam wanted an ivy league school more than wanted food some days, more than he wanted new textbooks or sweaters without holes in them, or anything else money could buy. He never wanted an ivy league more than he wanted Ronan now, though. He felt like that single kiss had been enough to unlock a storm of emotions- and having them about Ronan, it felt strangely familiar. Like they had been there an entire lifetime, just waiting to emerge.  

 

Adam rose from his seat by the window- he knew Ronan was on the porch, and he knew he had something he wanted to say- but he wasn’t sure how he wanted to say it. He wasn’t even sure he knew how. How did you tell someone made from magic and dreams and the rawness of the world, that you might be in love with them? Adam couldn’t even begin to try. So, instead, he joined Ronan on the porch to watch the lights in the field that were not fireflies, and the deer at the edge of the forest that might be dreams.

 

They stood in silence that way, for long enough that he felt the wordless answer to a question humming under his skin.

 

“Adam?” Ronan said, and Adam put his hands on Ronan’s neck, before pulling the taller boy down to kiss him. He couldn’t easily convey what he was feelings with words, so he tried to use his mouth instead, where Ronan responded accordingly. It wasn’t like the kiss before- this was hungrier, without the reservations of their first kiss, without the fear of making a mistake. A voice inside Adam whispered: don’t play with him - but he didn’t think he was playing. He thought, more than anything, he was finished playing.

 

Without thinking, he deepened the kiss, his tongue in Ronan’s mouth, one hand on the slope of Ronan’s shoulder, and one on the back of his neck. Adam knew this was probably only Ronan’s second kiss, but he was unreasonably good at kissing for someone with so little experience. He felt like a live wire, with Ronan’s hands on his ribs, the night around them glowing with imitation fireflies. Adam stopped to catch his breath, but Ronan didn’t give him long to recover before pulling Adam’s face to his. They kissed a long while, teeth grazing lower lips, hands playing with the hems of shirts, hearts beating furiously.

 

Eventually, they did need to stop, to breathe, to think for five minutes- but Adam still felt the phantom weight of Ronan’s mouth against his. Still had Ronan’s shirt fisted in his hands. When he let go, it was almost as if the November cold caught up with him. Goosebumps suddenly dotted his arms, and Adam let out a shaky breath.

 

“Hey,” Ronan said, running a hand over Adam’s arm as if that would make the  night-time chill disappear. “Let’s go inside.”

 

Adam nodded, and followed Ronan in through the front door, down a hallway and into the living room, where it still smelled like hickory and lemon cleaner. Ronan had a tentative hand on Adam’s waist, like he wanted to touch, but still wasn’t sure if he was allowed. When they sat down on the couch, Adam wanted to kiss him again. He thought he might always want to kiss Ronan again.

 

Instead, he said. “I think I’ve wanted to do that for longer than I thought I wanted to do that.”

 

A smile tugged at the corner of Ronan’s lips. “Just itching to get your hands on me, huh?” Mirth twinkled in his blue eyes, so bright it almost made Adam want to smile back.

 

Cheerily, he replied.“Fuck off.”

 

“Ouch,” Ronan feigned hurt, placing a hand over his chest. “You wound me, Parrish.”

 

“Oh, really?”

 

“Yes, really.” Ronan’s smile was a living thing now, but Adam changed the subject.

 

“How long have you wanted to do that?”

 

“Do what?”

 

“Kiss me.” Adam said, even though the answer was obvious by the look on Ronan’s face. His eyes said what his mouth did not: he’d wanted to kiss Adam for a long, long time. He shrugged in a way that was so uncaring, so nonchalant and practiced, that it gave him away completely. At the gesture, Adam repeated himself, this time just asking for what he wanted.

 

Kiss me, Ronan.”

 

Ronan did- catching Adam’s face with his hands and pressing their lips together for another kiss, as dizzying as the one on the porch earlier. If he had been standing he thought his knees might go weak. It seemed like each time they kissed, it was better than the last, more consuming, more likely to break any train of thought he tried to keep hold of. Adam felt electrified with each ragged breath from Ronan’s mouth to his. Each slide of Ronan’s hands on his back. Each taste of someone else’s tongue in his mouth. Ronan broke away in favor of kissing along the side of Adam’s face, down his neck to his collarbones and shoulders, still covered by a cheap, cotton t-shirt.

 

A low moan escaped Adam, from somewhere deep in his throat, while his hands fought for purchase- one on Ronan’s hip, one at the back of his neck. At the touch of Adam’s fingers against the knob of his spine, Ronan shuddered, though Adam could tell it wasn’t unpleasantly. He suddenly remembered the tattoo, and his stomach swooped at the idea of seeing all of it in it’s entirety. He suddenly remembered that now, he could ask for these sorts of things. Adam wondered what it would be like to trace the ink with his fingers, or his lips, or maybe, he thought- nearly flushing red, with his tongue.

 

He separated himself from Ronan for long enough to make the request. “I want to see it.” Adam said, in between still-heavy breaths, tapping his fingers against the place where ink met skin. Ronan, again, seemed affected by Adam’s hands on the tattoo, but said nothing as he pulled his muscle-tee over his head. For a moment he forgot he’d even wanted to look at the tattoo, because he was staring at the planes of Ronan’s chest with a hunger that must’ve been recognizable, because Ronan said:

 

“Distracted, Parrish?”

 

“Shut up.” Adam said, and kissed Ronan into silence. After a few heated kisses, he pulled away, and touched the tattoo again. Ronan’s back was still facing away from him, so he couldn’t see the vast majority of it. He said. “Lie down.”

 

“Moving fast, aren’t we?” Ronan smirked. “You already got my shirt off and now you’re asking me to lie down?

 

“I just want to see it.” Adam said, so Ronan spread himself across the couch, and lay on his stomach in such a way that the entire tattoo was visible. When he crawled on top of Ronan to fully look at it, he felt like his stomach bottomed out. Adam recognized this tattoo, even after viewing it in a cracked mirror a year and a half before. How could he have forgotten about the delicate, spidery lines of the intricate tattoo that marked his own back for a day? How could he have missed the signs pointing to Ronan the entire time? A shocked breath forced its way from his lungs, and Ronan must’ve heard it, because he shifted beneath Adam, turning so they were eye to eye.

 

Adam said. “Oh my god, Ronan.” he dragged a blunt nail over his own neck, and watched as the red mark appeared on Ronan’s skin- not caring that it stung. Watched as he did it again and again, as the marks kept appearing, until Ronan grabbed his wrist and said:

 

“You’re going to scratch your skin off if you don’t stop.”

 

“Did you know?” Adam felt like the world had been tilted on it’s side. He never thought it could be Ronan, not even when he started to realize he liked Ronan back, had he considered this outcome. He always thought his soulmate was a girl. Adam thought of the time red bloomed against his wrists, and he reached for Ronan’s, pushing back the leather bands strung across them. Twin scars, thick and white and jagged, marred Ronan’s pale skin.

 

He choked on his own breath, and Ronan said. “It’s not what you think. I told you-”

 

“somnum exterreri solebat.” Adam remembered. Nightmare.

 

“Yeah,” Ronan agreed. “The night horrors were still coming for me then, and I couldn’t control it, I never tried to-” He let out a sharp hiss of breath between his teeth. Adam could tell this was hard for him. “I never tried to do that. Matthew….” Ronan trailed off. “I couldn't do that to Matthew.”

 

Adam was still reeling in the aftermath of finding out Ronan was his soulmate, and he absently took Ronan’s wrists to his mouth, kissing each scar gently- even if they weren’t self inflicted. The tenderness of that gesture made Ronan’s eyes widen in disbelief, but Adam didn’t care. He repeated his question from earlier- immediately forgotten in the fear that Ronan, of all people, had tried to kill himself. “Did you know?”

 

“Yes.” There was a hesitation in Ronan’s voice that Adam had seldom heard. “No. I don’t know, I suspected but...” Ronan’s expression was complicated and sincere. “I didn’t let myself believe it until now.”

 

Adam thought about what that meant, how every time he missed school to keep up a pretense with his family, Ronan went anyways- with the marks of Adam’s failure written on his skin. He almost felt sick, imagining it. Adam’s bruises purpling the side of Ronan’s cheekbone, the bridge of his nose. There were too many times, now that he tried to remember, that he should have known. He should’ve noticed the way their scabs were mirrored after the moving dolly incident. How had he missed it, all along? Adam swallowed. “How long?”

 

Ronan did not say ‘ always,’ but again, the uncaring shrug gave him away. He cared too much to be casual, and when he tried to act that way, it rendered his gestures transparent. Adam’s breath caught in his throat again. “You knew the whole time?”

 

“No.” Ronan said, and Adam believed him because he did not lie. A part of him wanted to push Ronan for answers until he knew everything, but it was enough for, now. He wouldn’t force Ronan’s hand while cabeswater decayed, and powerful magical forces stirred to life around them. They had enough to worry about without fighting over the fact that they were Soulmates.

 

Adam couldn’t believe they were Soulmates.

 

But he could. In a backwards way, it made sense. Adam wasn’t afraid of who- what- Ronan really was, and Ronan didn’t care about Adam’s origins. They were the one thing he was the most insecure about, and Ronan, in a way, had lived through the worst parts. Adam wondered if soulmarks were what made people Soulmates, or if they were just a magical side effect of the process. Either way, he thought he wouldn't mind bearing Ronan’s for the rest of his life.