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I've Got You Under My Skin

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"Can I help you?"

The woman behind the counter hits all the right notes for customer interaction; not bubbly or effusive, but polite and to the point. So Adam is probably only imagining the since you clearly don't belong here at the end of her question.

He thinks about bailing, asking if she can tell him how to get to the freeway or let him charge his phone.

But dammit, it would be worse to fail his first attempt at being impulsive than it would be to just go through with it.

"I'd like to get a tattoo."

She tilts her head, sending the chain on her ear swaying. She belongs here; besides the dozen-odd pieces of metal in various parts of her face, there are leaves peeking out from one sleeve, an ink vine twisting up out of sight along her arm.

"Got anything in mind?"

"Actually -- " no, and this would all make so much more sense if he were drunk. Getting drunk enough to get a tattoo is embarrassing, but it's at least easy to explain. "There's one in the window?"

She tilts her head the other way, waiting for him to go on. He has to be the most annoying customer she's had all day.

"The broken one," he explains, and then realizes that can't have been helpful. He touches the back of his neck, feeling his face flush. "Sorry, I don't know how else to describe it -- "

But she shakes her head, perking up a little. Her ear chain jangles. "No, I got you. The abstract with all the lines, right? That thing's like a Rorshach test, everyone sees something different."

"Okay." Better not to dwell on that.

"But if you want to get that one, I'm sorry, you can't. It's one-of-a-kind. The artist is -- " she rolls her eyes enormously. "Touchy. An artist. You know."

Adam hadn't, actually, known that tattoo artists had difficult artistic temperaments. There's a whole world of things he doesn't know about tattoos, which is all the more reason he should leave now.

But it spoke to him, that broken jagged mess of lines, and he can't believe he found it; something that spoke his language enough to reach him, when he wasn't expecting it, when he didn't even ask for it.

"It doesn't have to be that one, exactly. Just -- something like it?"

She scrutinizes him for a second -- Adam tries not to look like a civil servant in a button up who only ditched the tie because it was casual Friday -- before clapping her hands with a clang. She has a ring on every finger. It must take her a hour to go through a metal detector.

"Wait here," she says. "I have to drag Ronan out of the back of the shop."

She doesn't give him a chance to answer, just disappears through a curtain.

Adam drums his fingers, paces around the room. The parlor isn't very big; it's sandwiched between a teriyaki shop and a poorly lit liquor store, and he's managed to walk past it a dozen times without noticing it. Inside it's no more remarkable, the reception area crowded up against a cabinet of jewelry, two chairs in the back of the room where the procedures must take place.

Procedures. God, he sounds like a textbook. He is definitely not supposed to be here.

But there's art up around the room, photographs of old work. A lot of them are the sort of thing he'd expect -- dragons, Zodiac signs, people's names and lines of poetry in swooping calligraphy -- but hidden here and there he finds more of those abstract pieces that tug at him. He's stepped up close to the wall examining one when someone enters the room.

"Yeah?"

Adam turns around, has to blink a few times. He'd been standing closer to the wall then he realized. When his eyes adjust, he can see the newcomer -- Ronan, presumably -- glaring at him.

Like the girl at the counter, Ronan unquestionably belongs here. Though he doesn't, oddly enough, have any tattoos or piercings that Adam can see, he has a shaved head and a leather jacket and most of all an attitude like a knife slashing through the air in front of him. No one could confuse him for a civil servant, casual Friday or no.

He looks supremely unimpressed with Adam. It's oddly reassuring. He doesn't have to pretend he knows what the hell he's doing if Ronan already knows he's a phony.

"You designed this?" He gestures at the photo he'd been examining.

Ronan nods his head, so slightly Adam almost misses it.

"It's beautiful," and that's a misstep; Ronan mouth twists at the corner, suspicious. He thinks Adam's trying to flatter him, but he isn't, really. It's just a fact, so obvious and true that Adam has to state it: Ronan's art is beautiful, raw and painful and captivating, and Adam wants it under his skin. "I take it this one's one of a kind? Like the one in the window."

"That's right."

"I'd like one like it."

"Why?"

Ronan's question is so blunt that it throws Adam off track. "Why what?"

"Why do you want a tattoo, normcore?"

He could point out that insulting and interrogating customers is a terrible business strategy. He could demand that Ronan do it without answering, except that he has a pretty good idea of how well demanding anything from this man would go. He could stammer out the answer, that he doesn't know why, only that he does.

He doesn't do any of those. Instead, to his own surprise:

"My dad died last week."

It's the first time he's admitted it. No one else knows, except Gansey, and that doesn't count; Gansey was there when Adam took the phone call, he didn't have to say anything. He hasn't told anyone, hasn't wanted to tell anyone. Hasn't wanted sympathy where none is deserved.

Ronan doesn't look sympathetic. Ronan looks exasperated. It's hard to tell from the other side of the room, but Adam thinks that he hears a sigh.

It hits him over the head how that must sound: like he wants some kind of -- commemorative tattoo, Dad over his heart for the rest of his life -- God, it doesn't even bear thinking about. It's horrific enough that Adam kind of wants to laugh.

"He was a son of a bitch," Adam clarifies, "and he would have hated it if I got a tattoo."

Ronan pulls a face. He almost looks impressed. For a single moment, Adam has managed to do something other than annoy him. "My first tattoo was to piss off my brother."

"Well, as long as spite is a sufficient reason."

"It's the only reason," Ronan says, and Adam has apparently passed some kind of test, because he jerks his head toward the curtain and says, "c'mon."

Adam bites his tongue and follows Ronan into the back of the shop without asking any questions.

The girl with all of the piercings is sitting on a barstool in front of beat-to-hell table. Ronan leans on her shoulder until she's pushed half off her perch. She doesn't react, just takes a spoonful of yogurt from the container in front of her.

"Scram," Ronan says.

"I'm eating lunch."

"Then you shouldn't have found me a commission."

She opens her mouth to say something, but shakes her head. "Someday I'm going to fire you." Adam thinks that wasn't what she originally set out to say.

"You can try." It has the cadence of something they've said before, an old threat, an inside joke. A password that gets the girl to hop off the stool and return to the front of the store, though not before she bops Ronan on the nose with her spoon.

Ronan tosses the remaining yogurt in a nearby trashcan with an excess of vehemence.

"So when are you getting fired?"

"Never," Ronan says. "Sit."

Adam slowly lowers himself onto the vacated stool; it's the only spot he can see to sit down. Ronan walks across the room and grabs a sketchbook off of a crowded bookshelf -- which is half tacky little tchotchkes, and half heavy and battered art books -- and then scowls ferociously at a pencil box before selecting one, mechanical dull metal.

He walks back up to Adam, on the other side of the table now, and opens his sketchbook to a fresh page.

Instead of drawing, though, he takes the pencil and jabs Adam's hand with it.

Adam manages not to flinch.

"What, are you going to write an oath in blood?" he asks, drily.

"Tattoos hurt."

"So I've heard."

"I have to know if you can handle it."

"Yeah, no," Adam says. "You did not jab me with a pencil to test my pain tolerance."

Ronan stares at him. "No?"

"No," Adam says. "I suspect you did it because you're an asshole, but I'm open to other suggestions."

Ronan snorts and picks up the pad. He starts sketching. The way he's holding his pad, Adam can't see the page.

"How'd your dad die?"

It sends something painful shooting through Adam, a thousand times worse than a pencil jab, but -- he did set himself up for it.

"Car accident," he says, and he means to leave it there, but Ronan's looking down at his sketchbook and the wound's already open. "Ran his car off the road and into a tree in the middle of the night. He was probably drunk, not that anyone's going to look into it."

"Why not? It's illegal."

"Small town. Dad knew some of the guys in the sheriff's department. They look the other way when their buddies get into trouble." The story of his life. "Maybe if someone else had got hurt they'd have to do something about it. But no one else was involved."

"Weird thing to be mad about," Ronan observes.

"How'd your brother take it? When you got your first tattoo." If they're having invasive personal question time, he's going to share the joy. Though he doesn't expect Ronan to answer.

Ronan shrugs. His pencil is still moving. "He punched me in the head."

Adam breathes in, with a lifetime's practice at not reacting.

But Ronan happens to look up just then, and his pencil stops moving for a split second.

"Not that he can box for shit," he says, looking back down and resuming his work. "It's the shame that hurts worst, having a brother who's such a loser."

"I can tell I really missed out being an only child."

"That's probably why you're a repressed introvert, yeah."

"I hope you aren't trying to branch out into psychotherapy, because you really suck at this."

"There's four kinds of people who get tattoos." This ought to be good. A taxonomy of the human race, by an foulmouthed temperamental artist. "Badasses. Party girls. People who wish they were badasses or party girls. And weird repressed introverts."

"What makes you so sure I'm not a party girl," Adam intones.

Ronan shoots him a quick glare, like he's offended Adam isn't taking his grand philosophy of ink more seriously. "Right, I must be wrong. You're a well-adjusted outgoing person with tons of friends and emotional intelligence falling out of your ass."

"I never said I was well-adjusted," Adam says. "But it's polite to pretend that it isn't so obvious."

"If you really want to fool people, maybe don't introduce yourself daddy-issues first."

Adam drums his fingers on the table.

"I do just fine fooling people, thanks. But you weren't going to fall for it anyway, were you?"

Ronan looks up at him, pencil coming to a halt. He doesn't say anything, just looks at Adam.

Adam looks back.

Ronan flips to a new page in his sketchbook and starts drawing again.

"Sargent needs your name and phone number," he says, eyes on his work. "She'll call you when the art's ready."

Adam blinks. The dismissal is clear, but it's unexpected, and it jars him out of something he hadn't noticed he'd fallen into. A moment outside of his normal life.

He looks down at his watch and sees that he is incredibly overdue back at work.

"All right," he says, and uncertainly tacks on, "thanks."

Ronan makes a small noise, something derisive. Whatever moment just ended, whatever world Adam had just been pulled out of, he'd lost the small ability he'd found to communicate with Ronan. They're speaking different languages now.

He goes out front and leaves his name and phone number with Sargent, who laughs once, "ha!" when he calls her that, and introduces herself as Blue.

"I get enough of the macho last name thing from the guys who work here," she tells him. "I don't take it from the customers."

"Sorry," Adam says, but she's already waving it away, offense forgotten as quickly as it was committed.

"I'll give you a call when the art's ready. Honestly that could be -- anything from a couple of days to a month." Adam raises an eyebrow. "Hey, I told you, temperamental artist, but you wanted to go ahead with it. We'll schedule something then."

"All right," Adam says, and leaves the store, blinking in the sunlight, not quite believing any of that just happened.

-

The whole thing takes on the not-quite-real cast of a dream. He walks past the tattoo parlor to get teriyaki for lunch, and it's a jolt to be reminded that he'd ever stepped inside. It doesn't help that the windows are so plastered with artwork he can't see inside. Like it might turn out not to be the same place he'd been before, if he tried to enter it now.

Which is a weird, dumb thought. Adam swears off teriyaki.

It's close to a month before Blue calls him, and it's some kind of law of nature that Gansey is always in earshot when he gets phone calls that he wants to keep private. At least this time Gansey is suitably distracted: they're at the traveling exhibit on the Norman Conquest that Gansey has been not-at-all-subtly dropping hints about wanting to visit for -- well, longer than Adam has been planning on getting a tattoo, anyway. It shouldn't be easier to decide to sign over real estate on his own skin to a stranger than it is to decide to humor his friend for a couple of hours, but life would be so boring if Adam understood all of his neuroses.

"This is Adam Parrish," he says, voice pitched low both for privacy and out of deference to their surroundings. He gets a disapproving look from the little old lady over by the tenth century cutlery and smiles an apology at her that he does not mean for even a second.

"Adam? It's Blue, from Ley Lines," and his stomach swoops, fear and excitement together. He's not sure what he's worried about, that she's calling to make an appointment, or that she isn't, that Ronan has changed his mind.

But he doesn't have to wait long, because Blue is still talking. This is a perfectly normal phone call for her, would be a perfectly normal business transaction for anyone in the world except Adam and his too-busy brain.

"Your art's ready, what's a good time for you to come in?"

He realizes that he's staring at the weaponry part of the exhibit: swords and maces and spears. It's a gloomy sort of omen.

"What's the earliest you can fit me in?" There's no sense in putting it off.

The click-clack of a keyboard, somewhere out there in the real world. "Monday at noon?"

"Great, I'll see you then," Adam says, and hangs up.

Gansey wanders over. "Everything all right?" he asks, nodding at Adam's phone.

"Fine," Adam says. "Just making an appointment." At Gansey's interested expression, he adds, "business," because Gansey had hinted more than once, after the car crash, that Adam might want to 'talk' to 'someone,' and there's no reason to either mislead him or give him an opening to start that conversation again.

"Ah," Gansey says, in a way that promises that Adam has failed in his attempt. "Well, if you're done, there's a film reel starting about the Battle of Hastings."

"Wouldn't want to miss that."

-

There's no sign of Blue when Adam enters the parlor; the person behind the desk is new to him, white-blond hair and pale skin like someone leeched the color out of him. It makes the gauges in his ear, the blood-red infinity looping along the inside of his forearm, startlingly vibrant.

"I have an appointment?" Adam says. "With Ronan."

"Oh," the guys says, and then a second later, "ooooh," and Adam doesn't know what that means but he doesn't like the sound of it.

"Something wrong?"

"Something's always wrong," the guy sighs, and reaches out to ding the bell on the counter. There's a little cartoon ghost tattooed on the web of skin between his thumb and his fingers.

A head pops out from the curtain to the backroom. Adam honestly can't take stock of any of this new guy's piercings or tattoos because he's distracted by his hair. It's at least two inches tall.

"You rang?"

"Is Lynch back there?"

"Stepped out to pretend he's smoking," the impressive hair says, then looks at Adam. His eyes light up in an unsettling way. "You're Ronan's?" he asks, and before Adam can dignify that with a no, he fires off, "First time, right?"

"Yes," Adam answers, against his better judgment.

Nice," he says, and turns back to the pale guy. "Noah, you fetch Lynch, he actually likes you."

Adam's not entirely sure he wants to be left alone with this overly invested stranger, but before it comes to that he stumbles out of the doorway.

"You could ask, you know," the guy with the impressive hair says over his shoulder.

Ronan steps through the newly opened doorway. "Move, Cheng."

"Yours is a comedic wit for the ages," Cheng says. "Don't you think, Noah?"

"I think that you shouldn't pick fights with Lynch," the pale guy says. "But I always say that and you never listen to me."

"Both of you go away," Ronan says. "You're annoying and I have work to do."

"But I want to watch you take his v-card," Cheng says, throwing an extremely dirty wink at Adam.

Adam chokes.

Ronan crosses his arms. "Get the fuck out of my shop, pervert."

"You can't talk to me like that, Sargent likes me."

"No one has ever liked you and no one ever will."

Cheng just smiles at Ronan, tips an imaginary hat at Adam, and blows a kiss at Noah before ducking out the back door.

"I'm going to kill him," Ronan says.

"Nah," Noah says. "You won't, you're too afraid of Sargent."

Ronan glares at Noah. "Set up a screen and then go away." He disappears back into the back room again.

Noah waves Adam over to one of the chairs in the back corner of the room. "Ronan will be right back," he says, as Adam sits down. "It can get kind of hectic around here but he's really focused when he's working, I promise."

"That's fine," Adam says. "My fault for not taking Blue seriously when she warned me about temperamental artists."

"She's the level-headed one," Noah agrees. "Right up until she isn't."

Adam wonders exactly what the hell he's getting himself into.

Noah grabs a folded up screen that's leaning on the wall and props it up, blocking Adam off from the rest of the store. "There's some privacy, if you want to take your shirt off," and then he disappears to the front of the shop as Adam realizes, mortified, that he doesn't know where his tattoo is going to be. He spends ten seconds debating what's worse, if he's supposed to take his shirt off and he doesn't, or if he takes his shirt off and it turns out he wasn't supposed to, and before he can come up with an answer Ronan's back with a lot of alarming equipment.

"Noah tell you anything?" Ronan asks.

"That you're more professional than you seem."

Ronan snorts. "I meant legal disclosure bullshit."

"No, I think he was distracted by the possibility of imminent murder."

"No one knows how to take constructive criticism."

"Exactly how is 'go away before I murder you' constructive?"

Ronan glares at him. "Do you want to hear the stupid legal shit or not?"

"Not really," Adam says, "since it's likely designed to protect the shop, anyway. I'm guessing, what, you're supposed to inform me of the risks inherent in getting a tattoo and reassure me that your shop follows all the required safety and health procedures?"

"Cool, we get to skip the boring stuff," Ronan says, and pulls out a sheet of paper. "Now we're at the part where I ask you if you like the design," he adds, in a monotone like he's reading a cue card against his will.

Adam doesn't look down. "What if I say no?"

"Then I give you a Tweety Bird tramp stamp and Sargent bitches at me about my shitty customer service."

"To be fair, that's an impressive dedication to fucking over a customer. I've had bad service interactions before, but none of them left a permanent mark."

"Then you're not doing it right," Ronan tells him.

Adam hides his smirk by lowering his face to look down at the design --

-- and sucks in a breath.

He is going to have to take his shirt off -- Ronan has helpfully included a smaller sketch next to the full-size design, to demonstrate where it will fit on Adam's body. It's starts at the left hip, spreads up and across his back, spilling out and growing wild, like a weed, a virus, a forest fire. Undefeated and uncontained. Something fierce and terrible inside Adam recognizes it, says yes, that.

It's huge and ostentatious and it's got to cost a fortune and he doesn't have a single second thought in his head.

"The suspense is killing me," Ronan says, monotone again.

"Yeah," Adam says. "Yeah, let's do that."

It doesn't actually hurt that much, at first; the needle under his skin is more of a test of endurance than anything. Adam is used to pain, but in his experience it's usually fast and brutal and then swept under the rug.

The first time that it really hurts, that the irritation blooms into real pain, he breathes deeply and doesn't let himself react.

Ronan pulls the needle away.

"Doing okay?" he asks, and it's not quite the bored indifference he'd managed earlier, when he was asking if Adam liked the design.

"Fine." Adam's shoulders have inched up; probably that's why Ronan stopped, probably he's twisting the canvas of his own body out of shape. He forces himself to relax. "People really do this for fun?"

"People do it because they want the tattoo." Ronan reaches for something; comes back a moment later to blot at Adam's skin with a cloth. Weird to think that he's bleeding, artistic and intentional. "Mostly the pain's a side effect."

"Mostly?"

Ronan shrugs. "World's full of perverts."

Which was not a train of thought that Adam needs to follow. It's bad enough that he's hyper-aware of Ronan's hands on his back, of the fact that sometimes Ronan leans close enough that he can feel the slight breeze as he exhales.

Adam shuts his eyes. He can keep his composure. He has always been good at that.

"Some people think it helps to talk." There it is again, that note in his voice like he's trying to be matter-of-fact and not quite hitting it.

Adam has a pretty high threshold for pain, but he looks up, into the mirror on the wall in front of him. Ronan is focused hard on his work, just like Noah promised, not looking Adam's face at all.

It can't hurt.

"What's the weirdest tattoo you've ever had to do?" Adam asks, groping for a topic of conversation that isn't too personal or too likely to remind him that an extremely attractive man is focusing intently on his body.

"Guy came in one time," Ronan says. "Wanted to get his daughter's name tattooed on his arm."

"That doesn't seem that weird."

"His brothers came in with him. They also wanted the daughter's name on their arms."

"Maybe they all had daughters with the same name."

"Pretty sure that'd be worse." Ronan pauses to blot away more blood. Adam had lost track of the fact that Ronan had started work again. Maybe there was something to this distraction idea after all.

"You could do that, if you need to piss your brother off again," Adam says, then remembers that he was trying to avoid personal. "Tattoo yourself with his kid's name."

"I wouldn't drag a kid into that fight," Ronan says, disgusted, but before Adam can berate himself he adds, like he's honestly considering it, "I might get his wife's name, if he ever quits whoring around long enough to get married. That would definitely piss him off."

"At least you wouldn't have to worry that you were getting him the same wedding present as anyone else," Adam observes.

Ronan laughs, and a puff of air runs over Adam's shoulder blade.

Adam very carefully does not shiver. The pain really is the last thing he has to worry about.

The tattoo is only bare lines by the time the session is done; Ronan explains, bored again, that something of this size and complexity is going to require three sessions, with time for Adam's skin to heal in between.

He gives him a hand mirror so he can check his reflection in the wall mirror and see the outline that will eventually become his tattoo.

Adam takes the mirror, needs to try a few times before he can line it up properly.

And then it hits him, worse than anything he'd felt from the needle today: there are marks on his body that were put there with no say in it from him, but this one, he got to choose.

He stares at his back in the mirror for long enough that Ronan drawls, "are you done having a moment or what," and he can't even think of anything snide or defensive, just says, "yeah, okay," and somehow manages to tug his shirt back over his head and go make his next appointment with Noah.

-

The problem, Adam discovers after several minutes of convoluted maneuvering with a paper towel, the jar of goop that Noah had sold him, and the bathroom mirror, is that he can't reach the middle of his own back.

He eyes the towel rack speculatively, before he admits to himself that he's only avoiding the inevitable, at this point.

He walks downstairs and knocks on Gansey's door.

There is something to be said for having a neighbor that you know and trust and can count on for any favor.

But he's only just discovered how to explain the tattoo to himself. He isn't ready to explain it to anyone else. And Gansey is the consummate academic, ever searching for answers to all questions.

Still. He's getting this tattoo, which means he's going to do it right, which means he's going to put the appropriate after-care products on it before his skin rots off, and there's no use in regretting what can't be helped.

Some day, Adam is going to believe it, that there's no point regretting things that can't be changed.

"Adam!" Gansey beams at him and immediately steps back to usher him into his apartment. It is in actual fact the entire second-floor of the three-story house he owns, that Adam rents the smaller third-floor of. The bottom floor houses a couple with a toddler who, for inexplicable reasons, can't stand Gansey and always wants to play with Adam, even though -- or perhaps, perversely, because -- Gansey is the one who is invested in making friends with his neighbors. "Come on in, I was about to order something for dinner. Do you want anything? We could watch that new documentary about climate change."

"Just dropping by for a favor," Adam says, and holds up the jar from Ley Lines. "I need you to put tattoo goo on my back."

Gansey's face goes through several interesting contortions before it settles on helpful and non-judgmental friend mode, an expression that Adam knows well and still can't decide whether he loves or hates. "You got a tattoo?"

"No," Adam deadpans, "I just like the way the goo feels. Yes, of course I got a tattoo."

"Well, I'm happy to help," Gansey says, which are the truest words man hath ever spoke, so Adam only hesitates a second before he pulls his shirt over his head. He sets the goo on the counter of Gansey's wet bar (because Gansey has a wet bar, because Gansey entertains, which is hilarious and terrifying given that Adam had to sit him down and explain what the phrase "Netflix and chill" really meant) and turns around to expose his newly scarred flesh.

"Oh. It's. Nice?" Gansey offers.

"It's not done yet."

"Oh," Gansey says, sounding relieved. "What's it supposed to be? When it's done."

Adam shrugs, at a loss for words. "More of the same. The artist has this whole series of abstracts, he designed it."

"It's a bespoke tattoo?" Gansey asks, and Adam hisses; Gansey has just applied some of the goo to his back, and it feels at least as amazing as it feels terrible.

"As opposed to an off-the-rack tattoo?" His voice comes out tighter than he wants, but he can't help it; the relief and anguish of having someone touch him in such a sensitive and intimate place is unnerving.

"I meant no offense." That much is self-evident; Gansey has never meant to offend anyone, ever. "I'm just surprised. I would have thought you would want more control over any process this permanent."

"Maybe I'm trying to be less of a control freak."

Gansey lets that slide. "When do I get to see the finished product? So I can admire it properly."

"I have another session in a month," Adam says. "Then a third one after that."

"That's -- an awful lot of pain to commit to," and then Gansey's hand comes to a halt over Adam's spine.

"It's not anything I can't handle," Adam says.

"That's not the same thing as saying that it didn't hurt."

"Really," Adam insists. "It's not that bad. I chatted with the artist for part of it. He says it helps if you have something like a conversation to distract you."

"Oh!" Gansey says, smearing goo far too enthusiastically; seriously, the needle hadn't come anywhere near his left shoulder. "I can go with you to your next appointment. Keep you company. Moral support, and all that."

"That's," Adam starts, trying to think of a way of saying no gracefully. The tattoo is not the real reason that Gansey is offering him moral support, but Adam has forbidden him from discussing the car crash, and Gansey is not above committing to pretense. Adam does not need his tattoo to be any more about his father than it already is, than his entire life already is. "Not necessary, thanks."

"It's not a problem, really," Gansey says. "I'd love to see how it happens," and damn, but he would love that, wouldn't he; Gansey has never met a subject he didn't want to know more about.

"I'll have to check my calendar," Adam lies, and hopes that Gansey will have forgotten by the time a month has passed.

Except God forbid Gansey ever forget anything related to any of his friends, which is simultaneously his best and most irritating trait; Adam is ducking out of the house in the middle of the afternoon a month later, on a day he'd been working from home and reveling in the feeling of his back not itching where that he either couldn't or shouldn't scratch, when Gansey just happens to be out front pruning the shrubs.

"Heading out?" he asks, and Adam can see days on an desk top calendar being torn off in Gansey's eyes, like a montage of time passing in an old black-and-white film. "Oh, is this the next tattoo appointment? Let me go lock up the garden shed, I'll come with," and so Adam rolls up to Ley Lines with his roommate-slash-landlord-slash-best-friend in tow.

"Adam, hi," Blue greets him as he enters, "and you brought a friend. Or a lawyer? Because if you're going to try to sue us I'd like to remind you that you signed a waiver."

"I didn't, actually."

Blue sighs. "Goddammit. This is why Ronan isn't normally allowed to do -- anything."

"Lucky for you, this isn't my lawyer. Blue, this is Gansey."

"Hello, Gansey the un-lawyer," Blue says. "Did you come in to get a piercing?"

"What? Oh -- no, I couldn't," Gansey says, visibly flustered. "I'm here for moral support."

"For Adam?" Blue glances over at his sideways and then back at Gansey. "I don't think anyone needs moral support less."

"Thanks," Adam throws in, but he's become superfluous to this interaction.

"Really, I think you'd look quite dashing," Blue continues, leaning over the counter to just tap at Gansey's earlobe. "One hoop right here. Understated and intriguing."

"You think?" and by the time Adam has finished rolling his eyes -- which takes a while -- Ronan has appeared, so Adam leaves Gansey to Blue's predatory attentions.

"You haven't screwed it up yet," Ronan says, as Adam shucks his shirt off.

"What exactly did you think was going to happen in the course of one month?"

"I've seen some stupid shit."

"I'm guessing that you've enabled even more stupid shit."

The beginning of the appointment is the worst; Adam's body is tense all over, knowing that what is coming will be bad but not used to it yet. The needle passes back over the same skin again and again, finer detail than the last session, and he hadn't accounted for that in his reckoning of his mental resources.

"Endorphins will kick in soon," Ronan says.

"Thanks." He hadn't realized he was being so obvious.

Gansey appears eventually, with a small gold hoop in his left ear.

"How does it look?" Gansey asks, like there was anything that could be done for it if it looked bad.

"Wonderful," Adam says, short; the needle's right over his spine. "You're like a very underwhelming pirate."

"You are aware that the image of the pirate that is popularized by American films is not accurate," Gansey says.

"Yes, I have suffered through your grad school peers' mistaken ideas of what constitutes party conversation, on many occasions."

"No kidding," Ronan says, like he's genuinely interested. "What's a real pirate supposed to be like, then?"

Adam's twisted halfway away from the mirror while Ronan works on the space between his shoulder blade. It takes some doing to be able to land eyes on the mirror, but it feels worth it, in this instance.

He'd thought he'd been imagining it, indulging in one of his many, not unearned but not helpful bouts of paranoia.

But no. Ronan meets his eyes squarely in the mirror as Gansey starts rambling about the Dutch West India Company and smirks, wide and evil.

Ronan is absolutely fucking with him.

Adam mouths, I hate you at the mirror, never mind what an inappropriate thing that is to say to someone he wants to think well of him.

Ronan just smirks wider and flicks his spine with a fingernail.

Adam yelps, glad that at least Ronan had pulled the needle away from his back first. Probably professional pride would not allow for deliberately taking an action that would cause the customer to flinch and ruin their art.

"Are you all right?" Gansey asks, breaking off in the midst of a biography of Francis Drake.

"Fine," Adam says, teeth gritting. "I just wasn't expecting that."

Ronan breaks off eye contact in the mirror. "So you study pirates?"

Gansey clarifies "oh, no, my main area of study is the Welsh revolt," and Ronan keeps feigning an interest as Gansey goes on to regurgitate his entire dissertation. At least, Adam thinks sourly, it keeps Gansey distracted.

No such luck.

"So," Gansey says, lowering himself behind the wheel of his car while Adam tries to sit down without touching his back to the seat. "Ronan is attractive."

Adam is not going to engage. "Is he."

Gansey looks at him out of the corner of his eye. "I'm not sure a crush is valid reason to get a permanent body modification."

"Well, I'm positive that you only got your ear pierced because a cute girl smiled at you," Adam says, "so you've forfeited the right to judge me."

"You're admitting you have a crush on the tattoo guy."

"I admit nothing," Adam mutters, and leans forward on his elbows for the entire ride home.

-

Adam is halfway between his second and third appointment when he has one of his truly awful days: court first thing in the morning, followed by wall-to-wall appointments that put him behind in his paperwork. He stays at his desk long past dinnertime, trying to catch up, which means he's still in his office when he gets the call.

The cops have the scene well under control when he arrives. The parents are nowhere in sight -- small blessing, but he'll take it -- and the paramedics are shutting down shop. No permanent harm done. Not anywhere anyone can see it.

Three kids, and the youngest is just a year old. Jesus Christ.

By the time he's got his new children processed and dropped off at short term care and walked through the first of what will be countless spirals of but why -- why would they -- what did I do, it's the middle of the night. Adam is drained, and worn out from his temper burning under his skin and starving. He never had eaten dinner.

He can't stand the thought of even one more thing to do, so he stops at the teriyaki shop on his way home. He's pretty sure they're open late.

They aren't. The windows are all dark, and Adam can just make out the hours on the door, telling him they closed at eleven. He's not sure what time it is. How much he missed them by. What he's going to do now.

It's one thing too many.

Adam breathes.

There's a knock on his window.

Somewhere in between having a heart attack and realizing that he's been sitting in a car in a dark parking lot for he doesn't even know how long, he looks over and sees Ronan standing outside his door.

He rolls his windows down.

"Hello?"

Ronan bends over so that his elbow is resting on the door of the car, his face framed by the open windows.

"I'm not finishing your back for another two weeks," Ronan says. "If you want a Tweetie Bird somewhere else you have to come back when we're open."

"Yeah, no, I -- " Adam scrubs his eyes with his hands. "Sorry. I was trying to get. Food. But they're closed."

"Huh." Ronan steps away from the car and opens the door. "Come on."

"What?" Apparently Adam missed something.

"I've got Hot Pockets in the fridge," Ronan says. "You wanted food."

Adam blinks. He definitely missed something.

"Hot Pockets do not qualify as food."

"I've had the teriyaki here. Don't pretend you're a gourmet."

The door's open already; stepping through it is the only obvious choice he has.

Adam has just enough energy that one choice is the perfect amount of choices.

"Okay."

But then Ronan is unlocking the door to the tattoo parlor, and Adam remembers him saying they were closed. And as it turns out, Adam does have enough energy to second guess himself.

"You don't -- " he starts, and Ronan turns to him, questioning, from the open doorway. "You don't have to let me in, if you're closed. I don't want you to get in trouble because of me."

"This is my store."

"I know, and I don't want to get you fired."

"You can't," Ronan says. "I own this store."

Adam must be even more out of sorts than he thought.

"What?"

"I own this store." He crosses his arms. "What, you don't think I have an entrepreneurial spirit?"

"Not really," Adam says, and then scrubs at his face again. "So that's why Blue was joking about firing you?"

"She's going to buy half of it from me and do all the business crap that I hate doing. Since I don't have an entrepreneurial spirit," he adds, smirking.

"It's not fair for you to make fun of me right now," Adam says. "I'm so tired that I might as well be drunk."

"So sit down already," Ronan says, and Adam doesn't have any good reason not to follow him to the back of the store.

Ronan must sense that Adam has drained his conversational well, because he doesn't say anything else, just microwaves an entire box of Hot Pockets. Adam thinks that's excessive, but then he blinks and somehow he's eaten three of them already, while Ronan nibbles on a fourth with an amused expression.

"Thanks," Adam says. "What do I owe you?"

Ronan rolls his eyes. "Forget it. You tip too much anyway."

"Who complains about getting tipped too much?"

"I split tips with Sargent," Ronan says. "If I get a lot of tips then she gets a lot of tips, I don't want that."

"You don't want your business partner to be successful," Adam repeats. Ronan does not contradict him. "I have some startling and unwelcoming news for you about what co-ownership of a business entails."

"I've already got Sargent the socialist telling me how to run my shop," Ronan says. "I don't need a civil servant to teach me about the private sector. I'm full up on ironic lectures."

Adam looks down at the paper plate in front of him. He feels queasy all of a sudden. Probably because he inhaled three Hot Pockets.

"I'm fresh out of being helpful, as it turns out."

Ronan swipes the last Hot Pocket.

"I thought bureaucrats were supposed to be lazy," he says. "Not working until midnight."

God. Is it really midnight? It must be.

"Theoretically I have regular hours," Adam says, "but the nature of government work is that the more work you do, the more you have to do. And then I got a call. Three kids..." he starts, and trails off. He doesn't want to go back to that house.

"I thought you worked at City Hall," Ronan says.

"Yeah. Child protective services." He usually sounds cool and professional and competent when he talks about his vocation; he has to. But he's too drained for his poker face, ingrained habit though it is, and he's tipped his hand every other time he's stepped foot in this stupid parlor anyway, so it's a bit late to start caring now. "It's something of a calling."

"That's the one non-shitty thing about the whole government."

Adam sighs. "No, it's pretty shitty."

Ronan frowns at him. "Knock that off."

"What?"

Ronan leans forward and smacks Adam's hand away from the back of his collar, where he hadn't even noticed it had drifted. "You're scratching."

"I'm not scratching," Adam lies. "I'm just aware that it itches."

"You're going to fuck up my art," Ronan says.

"It's my skin."

"It's still my art," Ronan says. "You need more lotion, take off your shirt."

Adam's mouth dries out. He tries to convince himself that is another side effect of Hot Pocket consumption.

"Okay." He tugs his shirt up over his head, folds it in half quickly and drapes it over hie knees. He tells himself that Ronan has seen him shirtless before, but this feels different, in the near-dark of the store after closing, with no one else in the building.

Not different enough that he wants to say no.

Ronan rummages around in the cabinets, comes out with a bottle of something that Adam remembers Noah trying to sell him, the day after his first appointment. He hadn't wanted to buy multiple different after-care products, had assumed that they were all the same. Apparently he'd been missing out, though, because as soon as Ronan spreads some of the lotion on his back he feels incredible.

Then again, that might have less to do with the lotion itself, and more to do with the hand that is spreading it over his skin, slow and gentle and with an attention to detail that doesn't surprise him in the least.

It's more indulgent than Adam should allow, but he leans forward and rests his forehead on his arms on the table. Leaves himself open and vulnerable, and just enjoys the sensation of Ronan's hands, following the paths that his needle has carved into his skin.

He's not sure, but -- he thinks Ronan dwells a second over his hip, on the thin tendril of ink that trails off.

"There." Ronan doesn't sound any different, but then, Adam doesn't know what he was expecting.

"Thanks." Adam has no intention of getting up from this table right away. Or ever. Maybe he can just sit here for another minute. For the rest of the night. Until he's not so damn tired --

His phone rings.

He doesn't groan. There's no point. It is what it is.

At least, when he fishes it out of his pocket, it's only Gansey calling. Not another call out to another scene. Not someone calling about any of his kids.

"Hey." He grimaces at Ronan, sorry for answering my phone like a douche.

"Adam! Are you okay? You didn't come home, I thought -- "

"I'm fine," he says. "Just a late night at work."

"Oh," Gansey says, and the care in his voice could crush Adam, if he had one ounce less of personal fortitude. "Bad night?"

"Late night," he says again. Gansey knows that the late nights are the bad nights; he's only asking from that eternal belief that talking about problems helps solve them. A belief about which Adam is, at best, agnostic. "I'll be home soon, I just stopped for food."

"All right," Gansey says. "Do you need -- " and he stops himself; willing to offer anything, but well aware that any offer would be refused.

"I'll be home soon," Adam repeats. His wit was robbed from him hours ago, in a courtroom or his office or that house he does not want to return to. "See you then."

"Okay," Gansey say, and Adam hangs up.

He slips the phone into his pocket, and then tugs his shirt back over his head. The phone call has knocked him out of the world of comfort and food and soft touches, back into the world of exhaustion and pain and the persistent itching under his right shoulder blade that was not, actually, banished by the cream Ronan applied to it.

"Sorry," Adam says, because he doesn't know what else to say.

Ronan asks, "Are you good to drive?" and Adam doesn't even understand the question at first; but holy shit, he had said that he was tired enough to be drunk, and after he'd just driven here too --

Ronan holds his hand out. "Give me your keys."

"You don't even know where I live," Adam says.

"So tell me. Or don't, and I'll just drive around and take random guesses. That'll take longer," Ronan adds, so dry that Adam can't help but laugh, a laugh that feels like an agreement.

"Yeah, okay," he says.

They don't talk beyond Adam giving Ronan directions. The radio's broken, and Adam's too tired to dig out a CD from the glove compartment, so they mostly drive in silence. It's restful.

The curb in front of Gansey's house is open. Ronan parallel parks in two smooth motions, pulls the keys out of the ignition and pulls himself out of the driver seat before Adam has fully registered that he's home.

"Thanks," Adam says, and he ought to add something -- can I call you a taxi -- do you want to come up -- what can I offer you --

And then Ronan tosses him the keys, "'night," and walks off down the sidewalk.

Adam stares after him until he's turned around a corner; then he locks his car. Starts up the stairs to his apartment, stopping on the second floor to alleviate Gansey's fears.

"Adam, good, you're all right." Gansey pats him on the shoulders, an odd gesture he's gotten used to over the years. Adam does not intrinsically understand physical contact as a comfort, but Gansey believes in it so strongly that some of it carries over anyhow.

"Just tired," Adam says. "How are you?"

Gansey waves a hand. "Fine, or, as well as can be expected."

Adam raises an eyebrow.

"Nothing serious. I had dinner with my family today."

"Ah."

Adam doesn't need anymore to be said -- if anyone can understand the trying nature of a family gathering, it's Adam -- but Gansey continues. Leading by example, maybe, except Adam still has no desire to talk about his dad. "They were not pleased about the ear piercing."

"What were you expecting?" Adam asks, amused despite himself.

"I thought Helen at least would be modern about it," Gansey complains, so elegantly it barely registers as a complaint, except that's what it is. He's practically whining, once you strip away the well-bred vowels. "Dad's just glad that I got the left one pierced because -- what was it? Left is right and right is wrong, what nonsense."

"If one earring in your right ear means gay," Adam muses, brain-dead enough that old-money logic almost makes sense, "and one in your left ear means straight, then wouldn't bi pride dictate you have both ears pierced?"

Gansey actually appears to be considering this point. Adam decides he is entirely too tired to be having this conversation.

"That was a joke, Gansey," he says, holding a finger to Gansey's face. "Do not get your other ear pierced."

"It's for the cause," Gansey says, and Adam shakes his head and continues up to his own door, to fall asleep before the skin on his back can start itching again.

-

He doesn't get a chance to swing by the tattoo parlor for a few days; government work really does compound in a way that defies nature and reason. It's almost a week before he shows up at Ley Lines with a half-dozen turnovers from his favorite coffee shop -- the closest thing he could think of to a gourmet version of a Hot Pocket.

It's just his luck that Blue's behind the counter, and there's no sign of Ronan.

"Oh, Adam, your boyfriend was in here the other day," Blue says. "Apparently I'm not supposed to let him pierce his other ear? But I did sell him a thousand dollars worth of earrings. Sorry."

"You're not sorry," Adam says, wondering if there's any graceful way of hiding a box of pastries.

"No, I'm not." Blue is as cheerful as she is unrepentant. "I have a business to run."

Adam shrugs. "It's not actually my problem since Gansey's not my boyfriend."

She raises a hooped eyebrow at him. "No?"

"Roommates," Adam explains, "but we're bisexual and codependent, people make that mistake a lot."

"I notice you subtly managed to work it in there that he's interested in women."

"Yeah, so do me a favor and ask him out before he bugs me for any more opinions on jewelry." If Blue noticed that he also subtly managed to work it in that he's interested in men, she doesn't bring it up.

"Can I help you with anything?" she asks. "I'm not supposed to give you the bi special, am I?"

"Is that just what you're going to call a normal ear piercing from now on?"

"I'm tempted," Blue says. "Though it would probably lose me more sales than it gets me."

"I'd go so far as to say it definitely would."

"Shame. People ruin everything."

Adam snort. "No kidding." He hesitates, but he can't think of a good segue, and he figures a bad one would be more awkward than an abrupt subject change. "Is Ronan here?"

"Nope, he's not in today. Is there a problem?"

Once again Adam has entered this parlor on an impulse he can't defend and doesn't want to explain.

Once again, he decides that he might as well commit to his decision.

"Can you give these to Ronan next time he's in?"

"Okay," Blue says, drawing the word out to three syllables. So much for subtlety. Adam is possessed of the absolute certainty that she's going to open the box and investigate as soon as he's gone. He kind of regrets writing this is real food on the inside of the lid.

But if he's wrong, well, he only has to set foot in Ley Lines one more time. And if he's right, then obvious isn't the worst thing he could be.

"Anything else?" Blue asks, entirely too interested in his response.

"No," Adam says, "I'll see you next week," and makes his retreat from the shop.

-

Adam shows up at Ley Lines for his final appointment to find that it is packed, swarming with -- he doesn't know the proper collective noun for this situation. A gaggle of teenage girls? A giggle of teenage girls. An intimidation of teenage girls.

Noah has commandeered Ronan's usual work space, swabbing one girl's earlobes in preparation for giving her the bi special. Blue is perched on a chair in the other work space.

"Adam Parrish, is that you?" she calls out, not looking up; given that she's about to insert a needle into someone's lip, Adam is not offended.

"Yeah, it's me."

"Ronan's on a break, but he should be back in a minute," Blue says. The girl with the newly pierced lip screams without opening her mouth. "Do you want to wait in the back? Since it's -- "

"Yes, thanks," Adam says, ducking and weaving through the crowd to get to the back of the store. He shuts the door to the backroom behind him, leans against it for a second to appreciate the cessation of noise and energy. He's pretty good with kids, even teenagers, but it's an different matter when they come in battalions.

The back room is empty. Adam surveys the bookshelves, pokes a cheap plastic snow globe from Caracas -- does it even snow in Caracas? -- and grins at a coffee mug emblazoned ARTISTS DO IT TO DISAPPOINT THEIR PARENTS.

There's still no sign of Ronan, so he drifts towards the table, planning to take a seat on the room's lone stool until he shows up.

Then he spots Ronan's sketchbook.

It's the same one Ronan was drawing in the day they met, or it looks like it. The book is open up to a page near the end, sketchy designs for a butterfly, and that ought to be a cliché for a tattoo. It isn't. It doesn't look like it could have been drawn by anyone except Ronan.

He nudges the corner of the book, turns it so he has a better angle. Runs his finger along the side of the page.

He's absorbed enough he almost misses the sound of the back door opening.

When he looks up, Ronan is standing in the doorway.

Ronan steps into the room, door swinging shut behind him. Adam blinks a few times until his eyes adjust to the light change, until he can make out that Ronan is frowning at him -- or rather, at the sketchbook in front of him.

"I didn't look," he says.

Ronan says, "You should."

Adam blinks again, but Ronan doesn't sound angry or annoyed or upset, just serious; so he takes him seriously. He flips back a page in the notebook; there's the butterfly again, but simpler, sketchier, a less evolved concept.

He flips the page again, watches the same process several more times, completed designs that regress back to their basic concepts. And in between them, abandoned projects, random doodles; there's a sketch of Blue done in such an exaggerated anime princess style that he would laugh, except Ronan is watching him like a particularly solemn hawk.

He keeps flipping through the notebook until he gets to his drawing. He's spent longer than he'd admit staring at his back in his mirror over the last two months, even though the tattoo isn't finished. And even though this isn't the final product either, he could never mistake it for anything else.

Adam looks up at Ronan, but there's no change on his face; this isn't it, whatever he's supposed to find.

He keeps turning pages, knowing as he goes what he'll see: the trial versions, the drafts, the rejected attempts. But there's more of them than he expects, like it took Ronan a long time to get this right, and now he's frowning, too. Because these are all good, but Ronan hadn't been happy with them; he had kept working, he had put a lot of work into this, and between the false starts and the way Ronan is still watching him, he's itching with anticipation, deep below his skin.

Adam turns another page --

-- and inhales, quick, before he can stop himself.

The next page is a drawing of Adam. It's rough, it's rushed; it is, he realizes, what Ronan was drawing the first time they met. The resemblance isn't perfect; the eyes are too far apart, the shape of the nose is wrong.

But there's an expression on his face: sorrow and anger and over them both defiance.

He's never seen that expression on his own face in the mirror, but he knows it from the inside out; and he thinks, maybe, that he has seen it in the mirror, all along his back.

Adam looks up from the page at Ronan, who has his own defiance on display, imperfect cover for the vulnerabilities underneath.

Adam smiles.

"You know, I had a plan. I was going to wait until after our last appointment to ask you out, to avoid any conflict of interest."

"I'm an artist," Ronan says, "not a doctor."

"You love playing therapist so much, I thought maybe you were confused."

"I don't know shit. It's your fault if you listen to me."

"I like listening to you," Adam says. "I like you."

Ronan steps closer, close enough to put a hand on the sketchbook, so that they're holding it between the two of them.

"The shop's infested with brats," he says. "We could reschedule your last session for when it won't be so annoying."

"Okay," Adam says. "But then what will we do for the next hour?"

Ronan tugs the sketchbook out of his grip, puts it on the table next to them, and then places his hands on the sides of Adam's face and kisses him.

It's strange, after having spent most of their time together with Ronan essentially torturing him, to have Ronan treat him as something precious and delicate now; but Adam decides he likes it. He mimics the careful way Ronan brushes his thumbs over his cheekbones in the way that he skims his hands down Ronan's sides. Drinks in sweetness and tries to return it with his own. Runs his tongue against Ronan's lips, hears him hum in satisfaction as he opens his mouth to Adam --

"Ronan, are you -- " Blue says behind him " -- busy, okay, I'll take that as a yes."

Ronan rests his forehead against Adam's. Adam has his eyes shut, but he can picture the expression on his face, even before he says, "Out."

"Sure, fine, I'll just go and keep running your business all by myself!" There's a loud slam of a door. Adam is feeling charitable enough to chalk that up to Blue wanting them to know that they had regained their privacy.

"Great," Ronan mutters.

"It's not so bad," Adam says, nudging his face again Ronan's, "right?" and then Ronan's mouth find his again, and they're back on track --

-- until a shriek of teenage laughter rises in the next room, multiplying in an unholy fashion.

"Goddammit." This time Ronan pulls away far enough that Adam opens his eyes, catching the look of annoyance that he's shooting at the door to the main room. "This is not what I imagined."

"Well, I had a plan," Adam says, to cover up the flush of warmth he feels: Ronan had spent time imagining their first kiss. "But you wanted to do things your way."

"You have a problem with my way?" Ronan asks, a second before Noah pops into the room.

"Ignore me, we got this." He grabs the shop's first aid kit off the wall and ducks back out of the room, "it's not that much blood!"

Adam looks at Ronan, point made.

Ronan sighs, as close to a concession as he is likely to get.

"You know," Adam says, "my place isn't that far away."

Ronan's hands drop to cup the back of his neck. Adam's eyes flick shut, honest reaction to the pleasant warmth against his skin, but he opens them again quickly. Ronan is visibly weight his words, and he wants to pay attention to this, wants to understand everything that Ronan is communicating to him.

Ronan says, "Let me buy you a drink first."

Adam thinks about taking Ronan out, to a bar, to a coffee shop, to anywhere they can sit down and have a conversation. Where he can look Ronan in the face and not through a mirror, where he isn't bone tired, where neither of them are working. Where they can talk and enjoy each other's company and see who they are outside of Ley Lines.

"Yeah," Adam says, a smile growing across his face. "I'd like that."

-

The artists splitting a six-pack in the shop at the close of business on Friday is an old tradition, though Adam's not sure how they managed it before the installation of a couch in the backroom -- Gansey's idea of what constitutes a "small gift" being even worse when he's in a new relationship than it is normally. Blue had nearly refused the couch; it had been a group effort to talk her around, with the Noah and Cheng insisting that it's a gift for the business, not for her personally.

And anyway, it's convenient, since their group has grown by two this week.

At the moment, it's Blue and Gansey, Adam and Ronan, and Noah hovering in the doorway to the shop in case Cheng needs help. The last customer of the day is getting a Prince Albert. Adam is doggedly not thinking about the events occurring on the other side of the wall.

Blue and Ronan arguing during Friday night six-pack is, he's been informed, also an old tradition, and one that doesn't require anyone else to participate or even understand. As far as Adam can tell, tonight Blue is attempting to blame Ronan for the couch on the grounds that her relationship with Gansey is his fault.

"And anyway," she says, with the vehemence of someone playing a trump card, "you weren't supposed to take the stupid commission."

Adam is a connoisseur of minding his own business, but context points to the stupid commission in question being his, and that piques his interest. Besides, Cheng just summoned Noah into the other room, and nope, still not thinking about what's going on in there.

"How can you be an artist who doesn't take commissions," Adam asks Ronan. "You don't actually give people Tweety Bird tattoos regardless of what they ask for, right?"

"I take commissions." Ronan can't decide which of them he wants to glare at, Adam or Blue; the result is him glaring at the ceiling, which is weirdly adorable. "That series is different."

"He only does his abstracts for people he really likes." Blue smirks at them over his beer.

"You're fired."

"You can't fire me, I know all your secrets."

"No, you don't," Ronan says. "It's not about liking someone, it's about thinking they're interesting."

Blue rolls her eyes at the distinction and physically turns her back on them to talk to Gansey, halting the conversation now that she has won it by whatever rubric she and Ronan use.

Adam shifts closer to Ronan. "You thought I was interesting?"

"Clearly I was wrong," but Ronan puts an arm around him, deftly avoiding the sensitive healing skin where he'd touched up some of the detail work near Adam's hip.

"Oh, yeah, clearly."

Ronan noses at his ear. "But since you're here anyway I might as well get to know you." He adds, a little uncertain, "All about you."

Somewhere deep under his skin Adam can feel that comment leave its mark, etching lines onto him that can never be erased. It's painful; but the pain is just a side effect, and a temporary one at that.

"Yeah," he says, "I'd like that."

Ronan places his hand under Adam's chin, tilts his face until he's at the right angle to kiss him. For one perfect heartbeat Adam forgets about the itching on his back and the weird teriyaki aroma and the horrifying goings-on in the main room of the parlor, forgets about everything that isn't the soft press of Ronan's lips against his.

"Ugh," Cheng says from somewhere outside of time, "this display is how you reward me for a day's hard labor? Someone give me a beer before I succumb to nausea."

Ronan glares at this interruption. "You just shoved a needle through a guy's dick."

"Which is infinitely less upsetting than monogamy," Cheng says with inappropriate gravitas.

"Oh, just ignore them," Blue tells Cheng, scooting over to make room for him on the couch. "You know how Ronan is."

Adam looks back at Ronan, considering. He knows how Ronan is; not as well as his friends and business partners do, maybe. But he knows, and he wants to know more.

"What?" Ronan asks.

"Nothing." Adam pushes down his embarrassment about displays of affection, rests his head on Ronan's shoulder. "Just thinking. You're pretty interesting, too."