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at my best when I'm at my worst

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Adam settles on Georgetown.

It's a good decision in that the alternatives were all in New York or Boston or Cali-fucking-fornia or England, which had given Ronan a goddamn heart attack for all that Adam claimed it was just a brochure, I'm not applying to Oxford, get off me and stop stealing my mail. Seriously, no one in history has ever been this stressed out by someone else's college applications.

So Georgetown is the best option in terms of Adam's proximity to Ronan Lynch.

It's also the worst option in terms of Adam's proximity to Declan Lynch.

"You know he's cheated on every girlfriend he's ever had," Ronan says.

"You've mentioned." Adam doesn't look up. He's trying to pretend that he's bored of this conversation. Nice try. If he was bored of the conversation, why would they be having it for the fifth time in three days? "That sounds like Ashley's problem. Though I think she knows already. She's sharper than she looks."

"She looks as sharp as a rock."

"If you don't stop bothering me I'm going to tell Blue that you need an introductory lesson in feminism."

"Brutal," Ronan says. "Don't leap straight to nuclear launch. You're supposed to build up to that kind of assault."

"Sorry if I've forgotten the rules of a relationship arms race." Adam scratches out the last line on the page and turns to a new one. He'd gotten very nearly a full-ride from Georgetown, and after relaxing for all of seven seconds to celebrate that fact he'd immediately gone out and started applying for a thousand scholarships to cover things like textbooks and living expenses.

Sometimes Ronan is so proud of Adam that he can't breathe.

The rest of the time it's annoying, that Adam is still spending all of his free time writing essays.

"I'm sort of distracted by trying to make sure I'll be able to eat for the next year," Adam continues. He has an unnerving ability to say one thing and write a different thing at the same time. At least, Ronan assumes that Adam is not just transcribing their argument. That would be a weird thing to send to a scholarship committee. Though with Adam's handwriting, there's no way to tell for sure. "When I'm not distracted by your weird fixation on your brother."

"I don't have a weird fixation," Ronan says. "You're the one that wants to live with the guy."

"I don't mind attending the same university as him. That's not the same thing as moving in together."

"I just would've thought you got enough of Declan at Aglionby," Ronan says. "Didn't realize you were so crazy about him."

"Do you know how many students there are at Georgetown?" Ronan absolutely does, because this has come up every other time they've had this conversation. "I'm never going to see him. It's not like he's going to make time in his schedule to hang out with me."

"You're breaking my heart," Ronan sneers.

Adam slams his notebook shut and closes his eyes. He's actually on the verge of losing his temper, which is not something that Ronan can't deal with, exactly, but he tries not to push Adam that far on accident.

"What," Adam says grimly, "do you want me to say?"

Say that you'll miss me, Ronan thinks, say that you like me best, say that everything will be okay --

"I just think you should admit it, that you're in love with Declan. Then the healing can begin."

Adam is deeply unimpressed by this statement, but he doesn't look like he's getting any madder.

"I'm in love with Declan," he says in a complete monotone. "The last year has all been a plot to get in your brother's pants."

"You don't have to mock me."

"Apparently I do." Adam frowns at him. "Do you not want me to go to Georgetown? Is that the real problem?"

Ronan looks away. "I want you to do whatever makes your little heart sing." He's worried he doesn't sound sarcastic enough.

Adam goes back to his notebook.

Ronan ignores him, because he's a good boyfriend and not one of those obnoxious guys that hovers and pesters and annoys their boyfriends all the time when they're trying to work.

So he's caught by surprise when a balled up piece of paper hits him on the side of the face.

He scowls at Adam, but Adam is staring intently at his notebook like he didn't just throw something at Ronan's head.

Except that he's blushing, which is...interesting.

Ronan appraises the ball of paper in front of him for a second before smoothing it out flat.

It's a note, about as legible as Adam's handwriting ever gets: YOU MAKE MY HEART SING, DIPSHIT.

Ronan is going to have it fucking framed.

-

Ronan and Declan are trying this new thing where they say words to each other while in the same place at the same time, without anyone punching, yelling, or swearing beyond the limits of a normal goddamn conversation. Sometimes they eat food. Mostly they talk about cars or Matthew, because they both recognize a safe topic of conversation when they want to. They just haven't wanted to, historically.

It's surprisingly not terrible, spending time together, so of course Declan has to ruin it.

The two of them are out at the Barns for the afternoon, post-church. Matthew had fucked off to hang out with his old Aglionby buddies. Ronan and Declan both gave him crap for ditching the family, but were both relieved and sort of mystified at the easy way he could bounce back into casual friendships like they were an old pair of sweatpants he found in the back of his closet. Or, Ronan had felt that way, and Declan's words had lacked any real venom, so he assumed they were on the same page.

Adam greets them when they come home but begs off a tour of the grounds, claiming he has work to do and that he still has splinters from repairing the pasture fence so no, Ronan, I don't need to admire it with you.

Ronan shows off the gardens, and the new roof on the tool shed, and the repairs he and Adam had made to the pasture fence. Declan is as complimentary as he knows how to be. If Ronan were the kind of guy who got offended easily he'd probably be pissed at Declan for saying, "I didn't know you could finish anything that took longer than thirty seconds."

But he's getting pretty good at this new language they speak with each other, so he just shoots back, "I'm not the one who needs an audience of suck ups to get anything done."

Declan rolls his eyes.

See? They're fucking brotherly, these days.

Which means Ronan shouldn't be pissed off when he comes into the living room from the mudroom (he got his shoes dirty out in the pasture, and he's not going to track mud through the house, he's not an animal) to find Declan sitting on the couch next to Adam, reading his computer screen over his shoulder.

Ronan shouldn't be pissed off by that.

But he is.

"You have to take Wheeler," Declan is saying. "He's a crotchety old bastard and a terrible lecturer, everyone fails."

"Yeah, that sounds like a fantastic class."

Ronan scowls. Sarcasm is Adam's thing for him.

"He also knows everyone worth knowing, and he remembers everyone who gets an A. Guaranteed introductions and letters of recommendation for the rest of your time in school. Assuming you get an A, but I can't imagine that would be a problem for you."

Declan is giving Adam advice and complimenting him. Under Ronan's own roof. Ronan has never been so disrespected.

He grabs Declan's hat off the coat rack and waves it at Opal, who as usual is not far from him and as usual is doing some weird-ass shit. In this case, she's wrapped her hands around the stair rails and is trying to walk her little hooves up the wall.

"Here," he says, holding the hat out to her. She drops from the railing with a quiet plunk. "Go nuts."

Opal doesn't wait for an explanation. She just grabs the hat and runs off with it, right through the living room and right in front of Declan. It's nice to remember that someone is on Ronan's side.

"What the -- is that my hat?" Declan grabs for it. Opal skitters away. "Is she eating my hat?"

"Probably." Adam does not sound as amused by this as he should. "She does that."

"Get back here!" Declan says and takes off after Opal, which, good fucking luck. That hat is gone. It was ugly as sin, anyway.

Ronan smirks, feeling better.

Until he looks back at the couch.

Adam is frowning at him.

"What?" Ronan says, immediately defensive.

"Opal isn't tall enough to reach the top of the coat rack."

"And?"

Adam doesn't say anything. Ronan doesn't say anything. Somewhere outside the house, something falls over. Swear to God if Declan disturbs the saplings there's going to be hell to pay.

"Do we have a problem?"

"Why would we have a problem?"

"I'm registering for my first semester of classes," Adam says. It's the start of a conversation.

"Whoop-di-fucking-doo," Ronan says, and goes to check on his orchard.

-

Ronan is dreading Adam's move to DC, but it's okay. He has a plan. He's going to pretend it isn't happening until they're actually on campus and he can't avoid it anymore, and then he's going to put the fear of God into Adam's roommate and everyone else in DC that he meets.

It's not much of a plan, but Ronan's not much of a planner. It's good enough.

So of course one of the baby goats gets shitting-its-guts-out sick the night before they're supposed to drive to Georgetown.

"I'll drive myself." Adam rubs his eyes. It's one o'clock in the morning and this isn't how Ronan pictured their last night together, exhausted and sweaty and smelling like goat shit out in the barn. "You don't want to leave her alone, you'll just spend the whole day worrying about her."

It's true, but if he doesn't go he'll spend the whole day worrying about Adam. He has four years of worrying about Adam to look forward to; he really needs whatever time he can shave off of that.

"You're going to steal my car?" Ronan demands, though Adam could have the damn car for all he cares. "I just talked you into giving it back."

"You'll manage," Adam says. "It's not like you go anywhere if you don't have to. I'll figure out some way to get it back to you soon."

"And where are you going to keep it until then? You're not parking my BMW on some sketchy-ass lot."

Adam scowls at him. He hadn't been able to secure a campus parking permit, and an hour of researching alternatives had resulted in that pinched expression Ronan associated with Adam denying himself something he wanted and the observation that "at least I won't have to worry about gas money."

Ronan hadn't offered to pay to garage the car somewhere, because he's capable of taking a hint. He hadn't pointed out that not having a car would make it harder for Adam to visit, because he isn't capable of talking about this.

"I'll figure something out," Adam says, shorter this time, and rubs at his face again.

"Right, 'cause you always figure things out."

Adam rests his forehead on his fists, elbows on his knees, curling up his unhappiness in a tidy efficient knot. "Stop that."

"Stop what?"

"You know what. What do you want from me?"

Let me drive you to school, let me give you the car --

The goat makes a truly pathetic noise from the other side of the barn.

"I gotta go check on the kid," Ronan mutters and crosses the barn as fast as possible. It isn't fast enough that he doesn't hear Adam sigh.

Ronan tries to tempt the goat into taking her medicine. She's having none of it, just turns her head away from any attempt at help and stews in her misery.

"Stop being metaphorical," Ronan says, then looks over quickly to check that Adam didn't hear. No sign that he did. He's looking intently at his phone. Figuring something out, maybe, or just ignoring Ronan.

What the hell. Everything's fucked up anyway. He sits down, leaning against the wall and coaxing the goat's head into his lap.

She makes a pathetic noise but doesn't move away.

Ronan sits, and pets her head, and eventually she takes her medicine, so one of them might even feel better tomorrow.

He figures Adam will have left at some point, but when he drags himself up off the floor Adam is sitting right where Ronan left him, looking at his phone on the cot. It's one of half-a-dozen cots that are scattered in odd corners of the grounds for when Ronan wants to dream; he sleeps badly as often as not, but at least this way he has a little comfort.

Not that Adam looks comfortable. Mostly he looks tired, in that Aglionby way, that trailer park way, that Ronan thought they'd put behind them.

He slides his phone under the cot when he sees Ronan walking over.

"Any better?" he asks.

Ronan jerks his head, a sharp no.

Adam breathes, not quite a sigh. "Let's go to sleep. Maybe it'll look better in the morning."

Ronan doesn't think he's talking about the goat.

"Fine."

To Ronan's surprise, Adam doesn't get up. He just shucks off his shirt and stretches out on the cot.

The cot fits Ronan, barely. The cot does not fit both of them. But Adam lays on his side like he doesn't care about personal space or the laws of physics, so far be it for Ronan to complain. He tugs his shirt off over his head and lies down, pressed up against Adam until his breath tickles the back of Ronan's neck. They're already impossibly close, and then Adam slides his arm around Ronan's waist and pulls them closer together still.

It's hot as ass and fucking humid on top of that. Ronan can feel sweat pooling on his skin, right where Adam kisses his shoulder. "Night."

Ronan lays his hand on top of Adam's and shuts his eyes. Maybe this isn't as bad as Ronan thought.

Maybe it's a thousand times worse, because somehow it's morning already and the goat is crying and Adam's phone is ringing at a volume that makes Ronan want to mutter snide comments about half-deaf boys that will definitely get him in trouble, and when he fumbles the phone trying to get it to shut the fuck up he sees Declan Lynch on the screen right before he drops it on the floor. He kind of hopes he broke it.

"Mmnrgh." Adam is not good in the mornings. Adam is barely alive in the mornings. He clamps his arm down on Ronan in a death grip, but his head is butting at Ronan's shoulder and when the noises he's making find their way to being words it turns out he's saying "go, get up, get the kid."

It takes all of Ronan's willpower to leave the cot. Adam groans and rolls over to lie on his stomach. He makes no move to go for his phone or sit up or do anything to look less like a corpse.

The phone's ringing cuts off, and Ronan mutes it and slides it further under the cot. Whatever Declan wants can wait. Forever, as far as Ronan is concerned.

He's across the barn, petting the sick goat and saying things under his breath that probably sound soothing since it's not like the goat knows what "shitting fuck Jesus fucking cuntface" means, when Adam finally does sit up. It's a sudden, all at once gesture, like someone's got a rope around him and yanked him up with it. His eyes are only a crack open, and he's got a weaving crisscross of lines across his cheek, and his hair is sticking up in five different directions, and he's so beautiful it's stupid.

"Nnrmm." Apparently that means "I am going to stand up and leave the barn, presumably to return to the house," since that's what he does, banging his shoulder against the door frame in the process.

Ronan stays sitting against the wall, legs splayed out over the floor and a disease-riddled goat lying half on top of him, until he feels like he's got his face under control.

He's really glad he took that time, because when he enters the house Declan is sitting at the breakfast table.

"What the fuck." It's Thursday. Ronan is supposed to have three more days to get ready for this. Declan is not supposed to exist on a Thursday.

"Ronan." Declan doesn't say real nice or you smell like goat shit or what the hell is wrong with you, because all of those things are rolled up in the way he says Ronan. "I put some coffee on. Hope you don't mind," and that's a fucking lie, he absolutely hopes that Ronan minds.

"What kind of creep breaks into someone's house and makes coffee."

"I have a key," Declan says. "I figured I was welcome."

It's right on the tip of Ronan's tongue to say you're not. He swallows it, until the words sink into his gut and weigh him down.

There's a photo on the wall behind Declan, three bright-eyed boys on a cloudy shoreline, matching sweaters and dirt on their knees. The youngest has his entire fist in his mouth; the other two have arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, half an embrace.

Ronan vaguely remembers that vacation, how itchy those sweaters were. He's pretty sure that Declan punched him as soon as that photo was taken. Or maybe he'd punched Declan. There had been wrestling, anyway, screams and laughter in that way kids have that are both at the same time.

"I thought you'd be in DC today blowing politicians," Ronan says instead.

"I had to put that on hold to fix your problem. As usual."

"I never ask you to fix my problems."

"No, you just know I will. But I'm sure that doesn't impact your decision-making process, since that would require you having a decision-making process."

"Screw you," Ronan snaps. Declan blinks at him, like he's confused, like he isn't the one who stripped the padding off his gloves after months of détente. "At least I don't come to your home and piss on your life."

"Declan, hey," Adam says. Ronan and Declan start, turning to the hallway. Adam's dressed in a fresh t-shirt and boxers, toweling his hair dry, still blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He looks soft and open and Ronan wants to yell at Declan to turn away, that this isn't his to see. "Thanks for driving down on such short notice."

Ronan glares a question at Adam.

But Declan has known him longer than Adam. Whatever their issues, the problem was never that Declan didn't understand him.

"Parrish asked me to drive him to DC," he says, "since you can't."

"I can do it."

"It's done now, anyway," Adam says. "Declan's here and he has to drive back. There's no point in you going, too."

Right. No point. There's absolutely no reason for Ronan to go to Georgetown.

"Great," he snarls, and walks out to sit on the porch railing.

Opal joins him at some point. He's not really sure when; her little hoofs only make noise some of the time. This is one of those occasions where she's decided to be sneaky, or wants to pretend she's incorporeal, or whatever the fuck her life is about.

She watches him, and he watches her right back. She might look like the little girl at the end of a long hallway in a haunted house, but that doesn't mean that she's any scarier than Ronan is.

Eventually she says, "asshole."

No telling if she means him, or Declan, or Adam. Any of them would be accurate.

"Don't fucking swear."

She rolls her eyes. Ronan decides for the thousandth time that she's not allowed to hang out around Sargent anymore.

He pushes off the railing, lands on the lawn in front of the porch. Declan's Volvo is parked just a few feet away. It really is a beautiful machine. If Ronan feels bad about what he's going to do, it's only because the car is so sexy. It deserves better than Declan.

He pulls on the trunk handle and snorts when the trunk opens. This car definitely deserves better than Declan if he doesn't even bother to lock it when he visits.

Ronan strips off his shirt -- the one that's half-covered in goat shit -- and lifts up the carpet to stuff it in the spare tire compartment. Closes the compartment back up and moves the contents of the trunk back into place.

Then he shuts the trunk gently and dusts his hands off, a job well done.

Adam steps outside a few minutes later, dressed and carrying a beat-to-shit duffel bag. Ronan steps away from the wall of the house where he's been leaning, opens the trunk of the Volvo like he doesn't already know it's unlocked.

"Hey," Adam says. "Are we okay?"

Ronan can't bring himself to say yes; even more, he can't bring himself to say no.

He kisses Adam instead. And if Adam hesitates before he kisses Ronan back, and if Declan comes out too soon with Adam's other bag, and if Adam is moving to a new city and he's only taking two bags, and if he isn't taking Ronan, then at least this much is true: that Ronan kissed Adam, and Adam kissed him back.

-

Adam sends him pictures throughout the day, mostly without comment. A tiny dorm room (and it's easy, too easy, to tell which side of the room is Adam's -- the empty one). Big echoey lecture halls that looked grander on the college website. Rows and rows of library shelves with an endless table running down the middle. That one merits a caption: I have a premonition that I'm going to spend a lot of time here.

Ronan doesn't respond. Adam knows what the Barns looks like. He can't be expecting Ronan to send pictures in return.

Apparently he was expecting something, because that evening Ronan gets another text: Declan and some fucker Ronan doesn't know, sitting at an ugly-ass table in what has to be a dining hall. The caption that goes with it just says help, Declan introduced himself to my roommate, but the real message is clear: if you're going to be petty, I can be petty, too.

Ronan hands his phone to Opal. "Take a picture."

She looks at him for a very long time, then takes the phone and snaps a shot with the camera all of a half-inch above the ground. The result is a single blade of grass in sharp focus and a mess of blurred shadows in the background. Opal has Gansey convinced that she's an photographic prodigy. Ronan knows for a fact that she's just fucking with them, but if Gansey can't figure that out then Ronan's not going to enlighten him.

He sends the picture to Adam, because he can't think of anything better to do.

thanks, Opal
tell Lynch I say hi

Ronan scowls at the phone. What crap is that? Hi. It's fucking meaningless, nothing but noise, and not even noise, because he can't hear Adam's voice or watch the curve of his lips as he smirks or reach out and tug his hair to irritate him. He doesn't need Adam to say hi, he needs him to say --

Ronan taps away at the keyboard. Nice vocab word, all that SAT prep really paid off

Sometimes the most direct communication is the best
Don't you think?

This time Ronan doesn't need Opal to play photographer for him. He's perfectly capable of flipping off the camera with one hand and clicking the shutter with the other.

You always did have such a way with words

-

Ronan has a love-hate relationship with his phone.

No, fucking scratch that; that's some weakass pathetic advice column bullshit, and he hates it. He hates it almost as much as he hates his phone. He doesn't have a love-hate relationship with his phone; he wants to set his phone on fire.

But he lo- -- he wants to talk to Adam, and Adam fucked off three hundred miles away, and he needs the phone to talk to Adam, so. He can't set his phone on fire.

That doesn't mean he doesn't hate it.

"Are you sick of college yet?"

"Yup." Adam clearly doesn't mean a word of it. "It's terrible, I need you to come rescue me from my ivory tower."

"Too bad. I'm busy."

"How's the goat?"

"Finally stopped crapping on everything."

"Figures everything gets better after I leave."

Ronan scowls. "Sucks to be you. Guess you'll just have to cry over your homework."

"You know I haven't even started classes yet, right? It's all been orientations and club recruitment and social events."

"And you haven't killed anyone?"

Adam huffs a laugh. "Don't encourage me."

"What, I'm supposed to discourage you? What kind of crappy boyfriend do you think I am?"

"I refuse to answer on the grounds that I may incriminate myself."

"Are you sure your classes haven't started yet? 'Cause you already sound like a nerd."

"Very sure," Adam says drily. "Trust me, I would love to have anything productive to do. Declan keeps telling me to enjoy this while it lasts and that I'll change my mind when I'm cramming for midterms, but I think my pain tolerances are set differently than his."

Ronan pulls the phone away from his face. Nothing good comes from phones. Nothing.

But that's still Adam on the other end of the line, still Adam's picture on his screen, and he already knew that he hated his phone, so he sucks it up and puts the phone back to his ear.

"When were you talking to Declan?"

"Yesterday?" There's a shuffle of papers; Adam sounds distracted. What exactly is so damn distracting if he hasn't started classes yet? "Maybe the day before. I'm trying to join the honor society, he's a member."

Ronan says, flat, "really."

"Yeah, why wouldn't he be?"

In a real conversation he'd have a thousand options other than answering the question: he could throw Adam's papers out the window or fake his own death or kiss him until neither of them had the breath for conversation.

But on the phone, he only has two options: engage, or don't engage.

"According to you, he's a lazy fucker."

Supposedly discretion is the better part of valor. Ronan doesn't feel very brave.

It makes Adam laugh, anyway. "Oh, hey, you have to meet my roommate, you're going to hate him."

"Is he listening to you right now?"

Adam laughs again, and they move on.

But Ronan still hates his phone.

-

It's a lot more straightforward with Declan. There's no dancing around the subject, or even any putting it off. Declan arrives at the Barns on Sunday morning to take Ronan to church, and as soon as he's slammed the car door behind him he throws Ronan's shirt at his face.

"Oh hey," Ronan says. "I was wondering where this was." Which isn't a lie. He had been wondering if Declan had found it yet.

The shirt has, at some point, been laundered. That's probably intended as a jab at Ronan, to rub it in his face that Declan is capable of taking the high road. Like it's really the high road if he only takes it to rub it in Ronan's face.

"You owe me a thousand dollars," Declan says, "I had to get my car detailed."

"A thousand bucks? You got ripped off."

"I'm rounding up. Guess why."

Ronan tosses the shirt onto the porch and gets into Declan's undeservedly beautiful car.

Really, things have always been straightforward with Declan. They've just never been easy.

-

Adam starts classes. Ronan sets up a still. Sets up a second still when the first one blows up. Sets up a third still when the second one blows up, too. Switches to home-brewing beer when the third still goes missing in the middle of the night.

He isn't expecting Opal to confess to anything. He figures in her place, he wouldn't want shit exploding all the time, either. But he does want to know where the hell she can stash that much metal that he can't find it. He could use a good hiding spot for the next time Declan shows up.

Except next Sunday, when Declan arrives to ferry him to church, Adam arrives with him.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

Adam smiles at him, swept off his feet like Ronan had said God, I missed you so much or you're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen or please don't leave or some sappy crap like that. He bounds up the stairs to the porch in one step.

"Surprise." He doesn't touch Ronan, but he's standing so close that Ronan can feel him anyway. "Miss me?"

So much -- you're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen -- please don't leave.

"Were you gone?"

Adam laughs, soft enough he doesn't make a sound, but Ronan feels the puff of air on his face. He leans forward that last inch between them and presses his cheek against Ronan's cheek. Not quite a kiss.

"I missed you," Adam says.

As close as they are, there was no way that knife wouldn't slide straight through Ronan's heart.

Declan tromps up the stairs to the porch like he's trying to crush them under his feet. Ronan reconsiders the idea that his disinherited brother is trying to destroy their father's legacy after all.

"Change your mind about mass, Parrish?"

"No, St. Agnes and I have seen enough of each other for the time being."

"You aren't coming?" Ronan asks.

"I'll be here when you guys get back," Adam says. "We'll do lunch."

Sunday lunch was always fast food in town; a bribe to make three restless boys behave during mass, with the unfortunate side effect of provoking a decade long argument over Burger King vs. McDonalds that neither Declan nor Ronan gave a shit about except that neither was willing to lose. It had been years since any of them but Matthew had needed the lure of milkshakes and French fries to take church seriously, but it was upheld after their father's death for tradition's sake, for every last scrap of family togetherness they could find.

And now they're ditching it.

Ronan likes tradition, but he's not going to cling to it if it costs him time with Adam.

It's just -- Declan decided this. Declan and Adam, together.

"Okay," Ronan says, and kisses Adam square on the mouth.

Adam doesn't push him away, or tell him to knock if off, or blush so hard that Ronan worries about his heart. He just kisses Ronan back, like he isn't twitchy and weird about public displays of affection. He even slips him a little tongue.

He must have really missed Ronan. And -- that doesn't make anything better.

It doesn't make it worse.

Ronan has a hell of a time focusing during mass. It turns out, despite his parents' conviction, having a bribe to look forward to afterward just makes it worse. Blue says part of getting older is realizing parents are wrong about most shit, and Adam always makes that face that means he agrees but doesn't want to get into it --

And now he's thinking about Adam again. He focuses hard on the altar. He's amazed Matthew was ever able to sit in a pew for a solid hour; he couldn't ever have been half as excited for milkshakes as Ronan is for Adam, waiting for him at the Barns, probably chewing on the end of a pencil while he reads some boring-ass book by an old straight dude who died a billion years ago --

And he's still thinking about Adam, fuck.

He gets through mass -- somehow -- and through the car ride home. Declan spends the whole ride drilling Matthew on the periodic table, hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boring-on, who-cares-ium, shut-the-fuck-upium --

And then they're back at the Barns, and Adam is sitting on the porch reading The Brothers Karamazov. There's a pen hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

"Hello, Lynches." He stands up to greet them. "How was church?"

"Boring," Matthew answers. "But, uh, good."

Adam snorts. "Opal's by the swing, you should say hi."

"You put in a swing?" Matthew shouts at Ronan, already running around the back of the house.

"I think I'll go check this out," Declan says, "in case anyone gets injured." He swans off, a hero in his own mind.

Adam says to Ronan, soft, "hi."

Ronan turns to look at him and discovers -- sudden and overwhelming -- that he is pissed off.

"You didn't tell me you were coming."

"I wasn't sure I'd be able to manage it," Adam says. "I didn't want to get our hopes up."

Our sends a spike through his anger. Deflates it.

"Yeah, okay." He wraps his arms around Adam, a little rough. Feels the corner of Adam's book poke into his ribs, until Adam shifts enough to set it down.

"And, anyway, I wanted to tell you the news in person."

Ronan is instantly suspicious. "What news?"

"Jesus, would you stop squinting at me? Your face is going to freeze like that. Your face is not an insignificant part of your appeal, you know."

"What news?"

"I was able to get the shifts I wanted at work. I'm going to have Sunday mornings and afternoons off for the foreseeable future."

Ronan's heart thuds in his ears. Every Sunday -- he could see Adam every Sunday --

"And Declan already said I can get a ride with him," Adam says, like he's putting the capstone on the monument.

Ronan's heart goes from racing to sinking in an instant. It's not even deceleration. It's a head-on collision with a brick wall.

"You and Declan figured it out, huh."

"Yeah." Adam tilts his head. "I have an hour between classes on Fridays, right by Declan's adviser's office. He bought me coffee."

Ronan wonders how many coffee shops there are on campus. Half a dozen, a dozen? It can't be so many that he can't burn them all down.

Except that wouldn't make a difference, if they weren't getting Friday coffee. Adam and Declan have four hours in a car together, every Sunday, for the foreseeable future, plus honor society meetings with all the other bright determined college kids --

Ronan grabs Adam's hand, tugs him off the porch. "Did Opal show you the aviary?"

"You have an aviary now?" he asks. "What is it, ravens and vultures and vampire bats?"

Adam sees it before Ronan does, because Ronan isn't looking where they're going. He's looking at Adam. He doesn't want to miss his reaction, doesn't want Adam to have time to hide his surprise.

Adam doesn't even try. His mouth drops open, and he lets Ronan see how amazed he is.

"God, Ronan, they're beautiful." Adam crouches outside the fence of the aviary, trying to get a better look at the birds. They're basically swans, each of them a different spectrum of hummingbird-bright colors. He'd dreamt them the night Adam had told him over the phone, they're going to make me take an art class, what do I know about art except it's expensive.

They're only three-quarters as dickish as actual swans, which is a plus.

"Can we go inside?"

"Yeah, but don't let them out." Ronan would rather not keep any of his creatures imprisoned. He'd seen how Opal had watched him, silent, as he'd herded her dream-kin into the enclosure. But he'd also seen the vibrant green-orange corpse on the highway to Henrietta, when his birds were only three days old. The shit he loves needs to learn how to stay safe and come home to him. "And keep away from the purple one, she's roosting and she's a bitch about it."

"Not really the season for it." Adam is looking around in every direction, only half paying attention to Ronan. Or maybe not. Adam always does know the important things going on around him.

"You want to tell her that?" Ronan wades into the humming-swan pond -- fuck, he needs a better name for the birds. Maybe Sargent can come up with a vernacular and he can fudge the Latin.

He makes bird call noises (Adam laughs) until the friendliest of the birds paddles over. His gorgeous golden feathers glint in the reflection of the sun off the pond.

Ronan waves Adam over.

Adam tugs his shoes off and rolls his pants up before he wades in. Ronan hadn't done either; but then, Ronan owns more than one pair of sneakers, more than one pair of jeans.

"Not roosting?" Adam asks.

"No, this one's useless and gay."

Adam snorts. "Made in the image of his creator?"

Ronan feels a little bad about pushing Adam into the water -- he'd had the same basic thought when he realized that his second breeding pair of humming-swans was never going to actually breed -- but only a little. Adam was the one blaspheming.

It's Virginia warm, so Adam drip-dries around the aviary, hunts for a shed feather he can take back to school with him. They walk back to the house the long way around, Adam slowing every time they pass something that's changed in the last week and a half.

There's maybe a lot of those. Ronan has been keeping busy.

The only real comment he makes is when they pass the scorched ground that is all that remains of Ronan's brief career as a moonshiner. Adam looks at him, an open-ended question.

Ronan shrugs. "You should take chemistry next semester."

When they reach the house Ronan waives his policy on no messes past the mudroom. Adam would only point out that it's Ronan's fault he's dripping, and anyway he isn't going to ask Adam to strip down when his brothers are in the next room.

The first thing he sees in the house is Declan.

"Come on, Parrish, lunch is getting cold and we're burning daylight."

"Give me five minutes?" Adam rubs the mudroom towel against his deaf ear.

Declan doesn't argue, doesn't even fuss about the inconvenience, just nods. Adam disappears upstairs, where there's hot showers and clean towels and Ronan's clothes, which don't fit him right but which he'll wear in a pinch.

Ronan glares at Declan.

"You cooked in my kitchen?"

"Someone has to provide for this family," Declan says, "and since you were off lollygagging -- "

Ronan shoulder checks him as he walks into the kitchen.

Declan hisses in a breath. Ronan waits for it to turn into an accusation, an admonishment.

It doesn't.

The kitchen is in perfect shape. Ingredients stored away, pots washed and hung up to dry, food set out on the dining table. Matthew is eating mac and cheese straight out of a serving bowl.

Ronan flicks a finger against his ear. "Sit down and eat some vegetables, or you'll turn out as short as Sargent."

"I'm five-ten," Matthew whines.

"And if you don't learn to chew with your mouth closed, I'm going to chop your legs off at the knees."

Matthew laughs and sits down, serves himself the smallest portion of broccoli known to man.

Ronan glares at him and dumps half the broccoli from the serving dish in front of him.

There's a plate at the head of the table, already loaded up with food. It figures that Declan would set himself up as the head of the table in a house he doesn't live in.

"There you are, Parrish," he hears from the next room. "Did you finish your discussion questions for Wheeler?" and beyond that, fainter, "no, actually, I wanted to pick your brain about that -- "

Ronan glances at Matthew, who is gloomily pushing his food around his plate. His entire attention on the horrifying prospect of eating a vegetable.

Declan and Adam have drifted out of earshot.

Ronan grabs the salt shaker, unscrews the top, and upends it over Declan's mac and cheese. After a quick inspection, he stirs the food with his fork, to hide the tell-tale gleam of white crystals, and then licks his fork clean.

"Wait for everyone, monster." Declan enters, Adam close behind. He flicks Matthew's ear, mirror image of Ronan's gesture.

Matthew's fork clatters guiltily on his plate. There's a smudge of cheese on the corner of his mouth.

"And take some more broccoli," Declan adds.

"I just ate all my broccoli," Matthew moans.

"Take some more," Declan and Ronan say, at the same time.

Matthew sighs, hugely, and doesn't argue with either of his brothers.

"All right, who wants to say grace?" Declan's eyes shoot to Adam. On the rare occasion they had them growing up, grace was an honor reserved for guests.

Adam raises his eyebrows, cutting Declan down without speaking a word. Ronan has actually found the perfect man.

"Matthew," Declan says.

Matthew's fork is halfway to his mouth, heavily loaded with orange Kraft product. He drops it.

"BlessusohLordandtheseThygiftswhichweareabouttoreceivefromThybountythroughChristourLordAmen," Matthew says, in one breath, and adds, "Dig in!" which isn't traditional but is hilarious.

Adam eats his broccoli first, because he's a fucking martyr. Ronan starts with mac and cheese, because at this point Matthew has eaten at least sixty percent of everything green on the table and he's off the hook. Opal slinks in once all of the religious shit is out of the way, with a moldy old brick she's eating one broken off pebble at a time.

Declan scoops up some mac and cheese with his broccoli, because he can ruin any good thing.

Ronan acts like he couldn't care less.

Declan's fork hits his mouth.

To his credit, he doesn't make a noise. Probably Matthew and Adam, not paying the same close attention, don't notice a thing.

But Ronan notices. The way Declan shudders. The way he gags, trying to prevent what his tongue has identified as toxin from entering his body. The way his eyes shut.

And then they open back up, wide, and fix squarely on Ronan.

Ronan casually scoops up another bite of mac and cheese.

"You gonna eat that?" Matthew asks, pointing his fork at Declan's largely untouched plate of food.

"Yes," Declan snaps, still looking at Ronan. He scoops up another bite of salt with a side of mac and cheese, swallows it with no hesitation. "If you're still hungry, you can have some more broccoli."

"Man," Matthew sighs.

Ronan is still watching Declan, but from the corner of his eye he can see Adam push some of his mac and cheese onto Matthew's plate.

"Don't like it?" Ronan asks Declan. "Maybe you were thrown off, cooking in someone else's kitchen."

"Not at all." Declan scoops up more salt.

Opal eats half of her brick. Adam explains all of the sex jokes in Hamlet that Matthew's teacher has neglected. Declan poisons himself on sodium. Ronan feels no better than he did at the beginning of the meal.

And then it's time for the DC boys to leave.

"I'll text you when we get back." Adam kisses Ronan, reckless for all that they have an audience of three entire people.

He'd rather go back to Adam not wanting to kiss him front of people at all, if the cost is that he only gets two kisses a week.

-

Adam keeps his word, of course: a couple hours later Ronan's phone lights up, back in DC, and a few minutes later, a picture of the humming-swan feather, tacked up on the corkboard above Adam's desk.

about time you decorated

Maybe I just have a minimalist style

It isn't a style if he doesn't have a choice.

Ronan switches on his computer -- which he hates more than his phone, even, which is kept firmly off a good ninety-nine percent of the time -- and finds the website for the closest big-box store to Georgetown. They have a whole section for college dorm essentials. He throws a bunch of crap into the cart and sets it up for delivery. It's all cheap shit, nothing Adam can be annoyed about.

Except he can. Adam can be annoyed by anything.

What the hell, Ronan
The mail room called me because they thought I was running an illegal business out of my dorm

I can't buy you presents now?

You cannot buy me TWO ENTIRE PALLETS of presents, no, not now and not ever
What am I supposed to do with a shower curtain? I don't have a shower

it made me think of you

It's pink

what's wrong with pink?

It's PINK

you need to take a gender studies class

You need to return all of this

there's a receipt, return it yourself
get something that doesn't threaten your fragile masculinity

I think I liked it better when you and Blue didn't get along

Adam does manage to return it all, since the first thing he says to Ronan during their phone call the next day is, "I finally have a floor again," followed by, "and my roommate might be the worst person I've ever met."

"You've met actual murderers."

"None of them made gross jokes about what I'd done to 'earn' a bunch of presents."

Ronan makes a fist, since Adam can't see him doing it. Adam would not appreciate it if he punched his roommate, even just for pretend. "Okay, he's the one who has to take a gender studies class."

"He's going to think twice the next time he tries to be funny." Another reason not to punch anyone on Adam's behalf: Adam doesn't need defending, not from this. "Still, I'm planning on being out of the room as much as possible."

"That sounds like an excuse not to decorate."

"Damn, you saw through my clever ruse," Adam says, monotone.

"This is the problem with phones," Ronan says, "I can't tell if that was supposed to be sarcastic or not."

Adam snorts. "Clearly. Declan doesn't believe me that you know how to use your phone, by the way. He's been trying to reach you all week."

Ronan knew that already. He didn't know that Declan had been complaining to Adam about it, and now that he knows it he wishes he didn't. Ignorance is bliss, so really, why the hell don't more people drop out of school, or maybe just one more person in particular.

"I'm too busy for idle gossip," Ronan says, "unlike you fancy college students who don't have enough shit to do if you can hang around bitching about me all day."

"I had to borrow his car so I could return a thousand dollars worth of merchandise that some madman sent me."

"Yeah, yeah." Ronan rolls his eyes, enjoying the suspicion that Adam is doing the same thing at the same time. "So is your room still ugly?"

"Yes, and now it's also cluttered, thanks for that." A pause. "If I switch over to video chat are you going to hang up on me?"

"Absolutely."

Adam laughs. "Okay, I'll send you some pictures later."

He does, and Ronan flips through them slowly, incentive for what he has to do next. Adam kept a couple of picture frames, printed off photos of him and Gansey and Blue and Opal and the woods and fields of Henrietta, too many photos, so that he'd filled up the frames and the entire corkboard with them. He'd kept the green-and-white geometric print blanket that Ronan picked out because it seemed like something someone would have if they were actually trying to be minimalist, and he'd thrown down the matching green area rug over the dorm's bland and tired carpet. He'd even kept the hideous bookends that Ronan really expected would've been the first thing on the chopping block. Apparently Ronan is a better decorator than he's giving himself credit for.

It's still a pretty bare room, blank walls and industrial furniture, but it looks like someone lives there.

fugly as shit, Ronan texts back, i'm very ashamed to be your gay boyfriend

Adam's response comes quickly: Now who's buying into stereotypes, but then there's nothing left for him to stall. He switches over to his email.

Ronan knew Declan was trying to get in touch with him because not only had he called twice a day, three days in a row, he'd started sending emails. That had alerted Ronan to the severity of the situation: namely, the situation where his phone gave him email alerts. He'd had to go so far as to ask Gansey for tech advice, a sign of desperation if there ever was one, but he'd managed to turn the notification off and thus solve the problem forever, or so he'd thought.

But if Declan's going to reach out to him through Adam, there's more at stake than he realized.

And then he sits straight up and swears, because the subject of Declan's most recent email is MATTHEW NEEDS HELP.

To: Ronan Lynch
From: Declan Lynch

Ronan:

If that doesn't get your attention I officially give up on you, so please do not fail to clear the extraordinarily low bar of responding to this email.

Aglionby Parents Night is next month. Obviously as Matthew has no parents to attend -- no fucking shit; those are his parents Declan's talking about -- one of us will have to attend for his sake. I had planned on it being me, of course, but the date coincides with a reelection fundraiser -- Ronan gags -- that I cannot miss.

I realize you have your own...obligations, but if you could trouble yourself to represent the family at this event, at least one of your brothers would appreciate it.

Declan Lynch
Intern, Campaign Strategy
Randall Consulting LLC

Ronan rubs his whole face. Dammit, but he remembers Parents Night. Remembers Niall and Aurora winding through crowds effortlessly, charming teachers and parents with Niall's tall tales and Aurora's sparkling laughter. Remembers sullen silence and pretending not to notice, that everyone was looking at the boys with no parents, talking about them behind discreetly raised glasses of wine, I heard -- isn't it awful -- how much longer that one is going to last --

Fuck that. Ronan can't give Matthew the night he should have had, but he can at least spare him from the nights that Ronan remembers.

He scowls at his phone and summons up the strength and concentration to respond.

To: Declan Lynch
From: Ronan Lynch

k

-

Declan's Volvo rolls up to the Barns Sunday morning with Matthew already in the back seat, which gives Ronan that much more time to interrogate him. He's the official unofficial parent now. He's not going to let Matthew make him look bad to the other parents.

"Did you do your homework?"

"I did most of it."

"Show me the syllabus."

"I did some of it!" At Ronan's look Matthew says, "okay, I did like a good thirty percent."

"His backpack's in the car," Adam adds.

"Good." Ronan glowers. "You're gonna conjugate verbs the whole ride to church."

"But I've only got English and pre-Calc left!"

"You're gonna do all three and tell me about the Potato Famine too if you don't get your bag this second."

Matthew scurries off.

"I never understood the hot for teacher thing before," Adam muses, "but I am having really inappropriate thoughts right now."

Ronan chokes. "Jesus fuck, Parrish, you can't just say stuff like that."

"Now you know how I feel," and now he's supposed to leave Adam at home and pay attention to a sermon and remember the fucking fourth conjugation pluperfect, somehow.

They return to the Barns to find that Adam has lunch ready. Ronan glances at him, sharp -- he could have sworn Adam hadn't picked up on Declan's mac and cheese difficulties last week -- but Adam's expression gives nothing away. Maybe he really was just trying to be helpful and earn his keep. That would be his style.

Of course, now they all have to eat a meal that was prepared by Adam Parrish. Declan might have preferred the deliberate sabotage. Adam is good at very nearly everything, but cooking is a miraculous exception.

Lunch is over quickly -- no one wants to leave time to taste or think about what they're eating -- and then Declan looks at Ronan, all knowing and all judging, and says, "Come on, Matthew, I'll drive you back to your dorm," and for a split second he's looking at Adam before he looks away from them both.

Ronan's face burns.

Who the fuck does Declan think he is, giving Ronan permission to be alone with his boyfriend, bringing Adam to him like he's a damn pimp.

Adam's all smiles as he says his farewell to Matthew, makes some comment to Declan about academia that no one else is supposed to understand, but as soon as they hear the sound of the Volvo starting up he drops it and turns to Ronan, frowning.

"Do you want to tell me what's pissing you off?"

"Don't you have work to do?"

"Yes," Adam says, "but I'd rather spend time with you."

Ronan can't argue with that. Ronan wants to argue with that, in a sudden and immediate and completely unacceptable way.

He makes a dismissive noise, instead, because that's the best he can manage.

Adam sighs and looks away. The quick flash that Ronan gets of his face is worn out and weary. Aglionby tired. Parents Night tired.

Ronan doesn't trust himself to speak, so he reaches over and takes Adam's hand.

Adam looks back at him, no longer tired but suspicious, and twines their fingers together.

Ronan squeezes his hand, a little too hard.

Adam yanks his arm -- ow -- and pulls him close enough to put his head on his shoulder.

Ronan wraps his other arm around him, too tight, and then squeezes him even tighter.

Adam wiggles, gets one hand free to tickle him in that spot right under his rib cage where he is swear to fucking god, Parrish, if you tell anyone you're a dead man ticklish. (Where he is oh, no, I'm not going to tell anyone, this is just for me ticklish.)

Adam uses Ronan's moment of weakness to get free and push him up against the wall. His grin slides from triumphant to thoughtful, like he's trying to figure out what to do with Ronan now that he's got him.

If he doesn't have any ideas, Ronan does.

All told, Ronan winds up in a much better mood.

But then the Volvo pulls back up in front of the house, and Adam grabs his backpack, and Ronan notices, at the exact same time Declan does, that Adam missed one of the buttons on his shirt, that there's the first blush of a hickey on his neck.

Declan glances at Ronan, a very knowing look, and just like that Ronan's pissed off all over again. That Declan is interrupting this moment. That Declan has the nerve to judge him. That Declan is making the sacrament of Adam into something crass, and this time it's Ronan who turns away, shamed, when Adam tries to kiss him goodbye.

-

Ronan isn't proud of his next move. For one thing, it starts with turning on his computer, and nothing that starts with the internet can ever be a source of pride.

But it does have an eye-for-an-eye reciprocity that is deeply satisfying, and more to the point, it's necessary. He isn't going to let Declan's silent criticism go unanswered.

Which is maybe not an explanation that would satisfy anyone else for why he ends up with a giant box of novelty flavored condoms, but he doesn't have to explain himself to anyone else. The only person who's ever around is Opal, and she got into a staring contest with a raccoon last week, she can't judge his choices.

Declan has learned his lesson about locking his car at the Barns, but he has to let Ronan sit in it to actually get to church, and then it's just a matter of getting in the car first while Declan is distracted by some-fucking-thing -- did Matthew lose a shoe? God bless that kid -- and hiding as many of them in as many places as he can. Glove compartment, under the seats, coin tray, back seat pocket. Declan will probably find one and go on a purge, but if Ronan sprinkles enough of them around there's bound to be one that will turn up at an embarrassing moment, either in front of some girl Declan is trying to sleep with, or some politician he's trying to impress, or some girl politician he's trying to sleeping with and impress, who the fuck knows what Declan gets up to.

He doesn't consider the possibility of his plan backfiring, not until Adam picks something up off the floor of Ronan's bedroom and --

"Dear God," Adam says, horror on his face beyond even what demons and destruction and death conjure up, "is this a garlic-flavored condom? Why do you have this? Why does this exist?"

Ronan shrugs, because like hell is he explaining that must have slipped out of my pocket while I was framing my brother as a pervert. "Takes all kinds."

"I appreciate that you're making your own peace between your religion and your sexuality, but there is no way that this is anything but a sin."

"So you don't want to use it?"

"I don't ever want to have sex again, honestly." Adam is still staring down at the condom, mutters "garlic" in absolute disgust, and there's nothing to do for that but to kiss him. It turns out to be a short-lived vow of chastity.

-

Ronan isn't a planner, and he never really plans this. He never decides it's going to be a thing. It's all action, reaction, some fucking Newtonian equation that someone smarter than him would have predicted. Declan tells Adam about some stuffy guest lecture he should go to, and Ronan fills Declan's camera with pictures of goat anuses. Adam offers to proofread Declan's essay, and Ronan chucks it on the compost heap. Declan and Adam spend ten fucking minutes debating Chicago style versus MLA and Ronan throws pebbles at the Volvo's driver's side mirror until it cracks, although to be fair he thinks anyone would have snapped after the seventh straight minute of conversation about citation methodology.

He doesn't realize how much of a pattern there's been until one Sunday when it's time for Declan and Adam to leave and he hears:

"Where the hell are my keys?"

"In your pockets?" Matthew asks.

"If they were in my pockets, I wouldn't have to ask where they were," Declan says.

"Oh. Maybe they're in your other pockets?"

Declan knows they aren't, and Ronan knows that Declan knows they aren't, but neither of them is going to say it out loud: that Declan wouldn't dare leave his keys somewhere that Ronan could get at them.

But if he doesn't check his jacket, he's as good as admitting to the nonverbal feud they've been having.

Declan checks his jacket. Neither of them are surprised when he finds nothing.

"Maybe you dropped them," says Matthew, the thing-losing virtuoso of the family. "We'll help you look!" And he does, dropping to hands and knees and crawling under the dinner table.

"Thanks," Declan says, short.

Opal joins in the search, if staring fixedly at clouds through the window can be considered 'helping'. Adam does not help, because "I still have a hundred pages of Joyce to read before Monday, that's enough fun for one person."

Ronan looks around the room, poking at things here and there, half-assing it. He's pretty sure wherever the keys are, they aren't going to be anywhere so obvious as the living room.

They tear through the family rooms -- Declan increasingly agitated, Matthew just generally clumsy -- and then Matthew wanders outside.

"I wasn't even out there," Declan says, "why would my keys be outside?"

"I dunno," Matthew says, "I find all kinds of stuff in places I wouldn't expect it to be!" and tromps around the side of the house.

"All right," Declan snaps at Ronan, once Matthew is out of earshot. "Very funny, now where are they?"

"How should I know?"

"You think I buy that my keys just disappeared on their own?"

"So, what, I picked your pocket? And then what?"

"I don't know, I don't care, just give them back."

Ronan crosses his arms. "I can't give something back if I didn't take it."

"If you don't care about my schedule, I think you'd at least care that you're going to make Parrish late for work -- "

Adam doesn't even look up from Ulysses. "Oh, there's no way in hell I'm getting in the middle of this, leave me out of it."

Ronan feels bad, except not really. Adam wouldn't be in the middle if he would just take Ronan's side.

"I found them!" Matthew calls, singsong, from somewhere outside.

Declan glares at Ronan once more, before quick-stepping it out of the house, like Ronan is going to dash ahead of him and steal the keys away.

Adam flips a page in his book.

Ronan walks outside in time to hear Declan ask, "why are they wet?"

"I found them in the trough," Matthew says.

"What?"

"You know," Matthew clarifies, unnecessarily, "what the goats drink out of."

"I know what -- " Declan inhales. "Never mind. Thank you, Matthew."

Ronan can't resist the urge. "Looks like you need to be more careful with your things."

For one second he thinks Declan is going to hit him. His fist tightens around the keys and his face goes ugly with anger.

"Clearly," he says, low and quiet and absolutely brutal, "something isn't working."

Matthew tilts his head, picking up on the tension for the first time, and then Declan turns and walks, deliberately and without hurry, back into the house.

"What -- "

Ronan interrupts him. "Go shut the gate."

"I did!" Matthew protests.

"Go check it's shut all the way," Ronan says, and stalks around to the front of the house as his brother, bewildered, walks back out to the goat pasture.

He sits on the porch steps until they all pour out through the front door: Declan, not pausing to look at Ronan, Matthew with his backpack, still perplexed. Adam, frowning, the finger of one hand stuck in Ulysses to keep his page marked, the other hand reaching out to brush against Ronan's scalp.

Ronan allows the touch, but he doesn't return it, doesn't stand up, doesn't speak. Doesn't follow Adam to the car when he breaks away. Just watches as Declan unlocks the doors manually -- the electronic fob on the key ring doesn't work. Stays there, after everyone has left him, stays until he hears little clattering hooves on the floor next to him.

He glances over at Opal.

"How'd you get the keys out of his pocket without him noticing?"

She rolls her eyes, insulted. "Please. It wasn't hard."

He's maybe fucked something up, as a parent-guardian-creator-god-whatever-the-fuck-he-is, if she's taking it on herself to carry out his petty vengeance.

But fuck it. It's nice to have someone on his side.

"Don't do it again," he says, stern, and pulls a lighter out of his pocket to hand to her, watches as she cracks it open and slurps the lighter fluid.

-

"I can't believe you're doing this to me on my birthday."

"Technically it's not your birthday for another two days," Adam says, and taps a button on his laptop. "Wait, I think I've got it this time.

The picture on the screen steadfastly refuses to be anything other than a black square.

"Hey Parrish," Ronan drawls. "I don't think that was it."

"What do you care, you don't want to Skype anyway." Adam manages to dig his entire elbow into Ronan's appendix on the pretext of examining his laptop.

"I also don't want to be bored."

"You could be useful."

"Right, with my boundless computer expertise."

"God, I'm embarrassed to be in the same generation as you two." Declan snaps his book shut, sets it on the kitchen table. Wanders over to the living room and hovers obnoxiously over Adam's shoulder. "Let me see that."

He's absorbed in pecking away at the buttons on Adam's computer, and Adam is absorbed in watching what he's doing and committing it to memory, so there's no one to appreciate the truly vicious death glare Ronan shoots Declan.

Or no, not no one; there's Opal, perched on the back of the recliner like an overgrown and aggressively omnivorous cat.

"There," Declan says, as smug in victory as ever. At least he's partially drowned out by the tinny voices coming out of Adam's laptop: " -- can see you! Can you see us?" Sargent is asking, and then there's Gansey's "oh, Declan, hello."

"Hello," Declan says, amused, and straightens up away from the laptop. "Ronan, it's for you."

A hideous atonal rendition of Happy Birthday blares out of Adam's cheap-ass laptop's cheap-ass speakers. Ronan breaks off glaring at Declan to look at the screen, just to check that no small mammals are being murdered on the other end of the call, because otherwise he'd never have believed it.

"My birthday wish is for none of you to ever sing again."

Adam snorts, weaves an arm between Ronan's back and the couch. This lets him pull Ronan close enough that both their faces appear on camera. Ronan magnanimously allows it.

"Then you shouldn't have told us that," Blue snarks. "Now it's never going to come true."

Cheng makes a face, hurt and sorrow turned up to a thousand. He and Gansey and Sargent are all visible on their tiny cell phone camera. Ronan tries not to think about how close they're sitting to pull that off. "Does this mean you do not want to join our folk music act? We were counting on you for the tambourine player."

Adam and Declan both laugh at that. Ronan can only threaten one of them at a time, and Adam is better situated to exact revenge.

He glares back up at Declan --

And sees that Opal has pranced over to his side to tug on his arm.

Declan blinks down at her, completely at sea.

"I've been practicing the flute," Opal lies. They have a flute, one of the many fruitless attempts to cure Matthew's tin ear, but Opal has never set one cloven hoof within ten feet of it. "Do you want to listen to me play?"

"I -- " Declan stares at Ronan and Adam, helpless. The rest of that sentence is clearly really, really don't, but Opal's already pulling him out of the room. Ronan almost wishes he could witness whatever horrors are about to befall Declan.

At least now if Ronan has to be on a video phone call, he doesn't have a goddamn audience.

"So how does it feel being nineteen?" Gansey isn't actually Ronan's grandfather, but sometimes it's hard to remember that.

"Fucking awful," Ronan says. "You should abandon all hope right now."

"You're not even nineteen yet," Blue says. "Cut back the dramatics."

"Why'd you even call me if you're just going to censor me?"

"We wanted to talk to Adam, you're just in the way."

"Fine by me." Ronan shifts his weight, manages to nudge the laptop so Adam takes up two-thirds of the screen instead of half. "Tell them about your stupid seminar."

"Oh!" Adam lights up, bright enough even the pathetic laptop's camera can pick it up. "Gansey, I got into that seminar I emailed you about -- " and then he's off, academic geeking out with Gansey about the super competitive seminar he'd managed to get on the class list for despite being a freshman. Cheng whispers in Blue's ear at one point, visibly bored, but Ronan hangs on every word. He could listen to Adam for hours, especially when he's like this, all joy and triumph.

"Oh, but I want to hear about the birthday boy." Yeah, Gansey is going to be the best grandfather of all time, what with having an entire lifetime of practice at it. "What's new on the farm?" and he grins at Blue and Cheng, like that's some kind of clever joke.

Ronan's stomach flips over. Gansey has inside jokes that he knows nothing about.

"Eh. It's a farm."

Adam elbows him -- seriously, what does he have against Ronan's internal organs? "Have a conversation, will you? Tell them about the swans."

Ronan shrugs. He doesn't want to tell them about the swans. He doesn't want to say, I was so fucking lonely and starved for beauty that I invented a new species of animal to need me.

"Oh yeah," he says. "We have swans now."

Adam sighs.

Skype helpfully informs him after the fact that his misguided birthday celebration lasted two hours and sixteen minutes. Most of that was him listening, sinking into Adam and Gansey and Cheng and Blue's voices. A good twenty minutes of it was Blue chewing him out for not knowing the difference between Argentina and Brazil, and Ronan's increasingly obvious (but apparently not obvious enough) attempts to bait her.

Come on, Sargent. He said Vancouver was the capital of Venezuela. You should have caught on.

Declan doesn't reemerge. Ronan thinks about worrying, and then decides that if Opal is old enough to commit murder she's old enough to hide the body herself.

Matthew hooks up his hideous loud video game system and asks Ronan if he wants to play a hideous loud video game. He doesn't, but Matthew's enthusiasm is hard to say no to, so he hits some buttons and loses a lot. Adam laughs at him for losing, or maybe for falling for the same trick Declan just fell for. Ronan lectures Matthew about how video games are bad for his brain and he ought to give Parrish a turn.

"Jesus Christ, your guys' lack of boundaries is contagious," Adam grumbles, staring at the controller Matthew is holding out to him with unmasked dread. "Fine, but you have to tell me what to do so that I can crush Ronan."

"I don't know, man," Matthew says, a philosopher pondering one of the great questions of the ages. "It's his birthday. I probably shouldn't sabotage him on his birthday."

"Real love demands a little sabotage from time to time."

Adam is as good as his word. When Matthew steps out of the room to get more cake (again; the kid has eaten half of it already) Adam leans over and cops a feel, which is distracting enough that Ronan's little cartoon character runs off a ledge and -- somehow -- explodes.

"Fuck." Ronan drops his controller. "Did you just grab my dick to win a stupid game?"

"I grabbed your dick because I wanted to," Adam says. "I was already winning." He was, because Adam's pride will not allow him to be bad at anything he does, just like Ronan's pride won't allow him to be good at something as fucking dumb as cartoon characters punching each other.

"This is stupid."

"Extremely." Adam rests his head on Ronan's shoulder, still murdering the shit out of his on-screen counterpart. "But it's nice of you to indulge your brother."

Ronan turns his face, buries his nose in Adam's hair and lets Adam grope him some more.

Matthew comes back from the kitchen with chocolate smudges on the corners of his mouth, which means Adam retreats off of Ronan for propriety's sake. Ronan demands that the two of them fight each other to the death for his affection, which prompts Adam to roll his eyes and Matthew to focus on the screen so hard that his tongue sticks out a little, like he's honestly worried Ronan will love him less if he can't pull off the super magic combo dickpunch whatever the fuck.

Adam loses, abysmally but with good humor, plays again when Matthew frantically offers "best out of three?" in what is clearly supposed to be a concession. He loses that match, too, and hands the controller back.

"Thanks for letting me play," he says, setting Matthew at ease about winning. "I'm kind of beat, though, I think I'm going to bed."

Ronan stands when Adam does. "Night, scamp," he says to Matthew, nudging his shoulder with his knee.

"Night! Happy birthday!" and he's already back to staring at the tv screen a foot in front of his face.

Ronan thinks this is the real birthday present, that Adam and Declan drove down on a Saturday night instead of a Sunday morning, that he has hours more with Adam, that he gets to go to bed with Adam and wake up with him in the morning. Though they don't waste any time sleeping. They don't have sex, either. Mostly they wrap themselves up in each other, soak in the sensation of skin pressed against skin, and speak in low voices when one of them has something to say. Ronan rests his ear against Adam's chest and listens to his heartbeat, long after his arm goes numb from being lain on. Adam runs a hand up and down Ronan's back, over and over. Occasionally he'll start, as though he's suddenly discovered an immediate need to touch Ronan's elbow or kiss the top of his head, and then he'll do that before he goes back to tracing the length of his spine.

The light of dawn is starting to peek in through the curtains when Adam murmurs, quiet, "I wish you were happy," and Ronan shuts his eyes and lets the words destroy him.

-

"Oh, shit," Adam says on the phone that Wednesday, interrupting his own story about the continuing douche adventures of his douche roommate. "Shit, shit, shit."

Ronan grins. "Language."

"With how much you curse? No."

"I'm criticizing your technique. Use some variety."

"Still not a valid criticism, I've heard you use fuck as noun, verb, and adjective in the same sentence," Adam says. "Goddammit."

"What is it?"

"I was supposed to meet with some classmates for a group project yesterday but one of the guys flaked at the last minute. So we're rescheduled for tomorrow night, except now the rest of the group says they can't make it."

"Aren't you just going to end up doing the whole thing anyway?"

"It's a presentation, the rest of the group does need to at least have a hand in it." Ronan can hear the clack-clack of keys; Adam's put him on speaker phone while he types out a message on his laptop. "And I don't really have time to write four people's worth of -- dammit."

"What?" The fun of hearing Adam swear starts to pale when it sounds like he really means it.

"Now the group wants to do Sunday."

Ronan's heart sinks. "When's it due?"

"Monday," Adam says, distracted and then sarcastic, "oh, great."

Ronan makes a questioning noise. He doesn't trust his voice to speak.

"Flaky guy says 'why do we need to get together, we can just do our own parts'. Like we should all be as cavalier about thirty percent of our final grade as he is. I'm going to end up in front of my professor with some slapdash project with my name on it, Jesus, I hope that 'grading as a group' thing was a bluff."

"Just do Sunday," Ronan says.

Silence.

"You'll be pissed off and freaking out about it all week if you don't."

Adam says, "I couldn't."

If he'd said I'll figure it out or screw that or nice try, you can't get rid of me that easily, Lynch it would mean that he still wanted to come down, and Ronan could happily move on knowing he'd done the selfless boyfriend thing without actually having to make a sacrifice.

But he didn't say that. He said I couldn't, because desire and denial are inextricably linked in Adam's mind.

"Yes, you can," Ronan says. "Stay at school and get an A and then murder the flaky bastard and hide his body."

Adam doesn't laugh. Maybe jokes about hiding bodies get less funny after you've done it a couple of times for real.

"I wanted to be there after Parents Night," Adam says, but it's already the past tense. He's already admitted he's not coming down.

-

Parents Night starts out bad, which is some deceptive-ass bullshit: it's faking that it isn't going to be a complete nightmare.

He gets through the welcome speech okay. It's boring, but he graduated from this fucking school, he's used to boredom. He slinks in right as the remarks are starting, slumps low in a seat in the back row, and tunes everything out. No one's saying anything important -- congratulations on being rich douchebags, your sons are going to be rich douchebags too, but they'd turn out even richer and douchier if you gave us more money for a library expansion they'll all be too busy smoking and jerking off to ever use. The headmaster makes a joke at one point that gets a well-bred chuckle from the audience, which is how Ronan knows it wasn't funny. He feels nauseous.

The next part is bearable because Matthew finds him pretty much immediately and Ronan doesn't let him out of his sight for the next hour. The crowd mills in and out of classrooms, looking at student work and engaging the instructors on their philosophies of education.

It's horribly claustrophobic. His tie is strangling him, even though he knows it's not an Aglionby tie, knows it's a blue striped thing he bought for an occasion when Gansey had explicitly told him to wear red. He keeps waiting for someone to tell him to tuck his shirt in, to wipe that look off his face, to straighten up and fly right before he comes to a bad end.

There's not a set order to the classroom tours -- you don't tell the rich and powerful where they're allowed to go, Adam's voice, snide and envious at the same time -- but there's a general flow of traffic. Matthew drags him every which way, dashing around CEOs and state senators and hedge fund managers, hitting up his classrooms in no order that Ronan can divine. Ronan loves Matthew beyond words, but he kind of wants to tell the kid to chill out for one fucking second, because people keep looking at them, and it's all too easy to see what they're thinking when they do.

And then it's dinner time, and everything really goes to shit.

The boys all go to eat on one side of the hall, the parents and staff -- and Ronan -- on the other. Which means there's no Matthew to make this bearable, no lecture to shut up conversation, just Ronan and a bunch of people who know he doesn't belong here.

He could leave. He showed up, he let Matthew show him the English project he'd done with three of his identical friends that Ronan can never tell apart. He wore a fucking suit. He did his part, except the fact that he's having to argue this means he knows it's not over yet.

And Declan would find out somehow, if Ronan ditched early. He probably knows some of the people filling in the tables. He's probably networked with them.

Ronan grabs a tray of food and looks for the least terrible spot he can find.

There's a nearly empty table in the corner. The only person Ronan recognizes is Matthew's English teacher, the one Adam says takes Shakespeare too seriously. He's wearing a fuck-ugly pair of glasses, and he'd pinged Ronan's gaydar in a bookish, reads too much poetry and thinks it'd be really poignant to die of consumption kind of way. Which is as close as Ronan is likely to find to an ally.

More importantly, this is his first year at Aglionby. He doesn't remember Ronan as a student.

Ronan sets his tray down. Mr. Whatshisname starts, looks up. He clearly wasn't expecting any attention on Parents Night, which just confirms that Ronan is at the right table.

"Oh, hello again." He remembers Ronan. It'd be hard not to, when Ronan is three decades younger than any of the other parents. "You're Matthew Lynch's...brother?"

"Yeah." It's a conversation. People do this all the time. Declan does this all the time. Ronan can do this.

"He's a wonderful kid." Ronan nods, for all that Matthew is seventeen years old. That's just how Matthew is; people are going to be calling him a wonderful kid until he's sixty. It's better than what they call Ronan. "A bit distracted in class sometimes."

"You mean he's a space cadet." Ronan kicks himself. That's not a parent comment, that's a teenage fuck-up comment.

But the teacher just laughs. "Yes, that's one way to put it. Personally I enjoy seeing a student who brings such creativity to their work, even if it makes grading his essays a little...challenging."

"Jesus, what did he do? I read that Hamlet essay with him twice, if he went and put all his crazy bullshit back in after that -- "

"Oh -- no, I don't remember anything particularly far-fetched in that essay." He blinks enormously. "Do you mind if I ask what, exactly..."

Ronan sighs. "He has this theory that the whole thing was a dream Hamlet had. 'Cause ghosts, pirates, everyone dying, it just makes sense."

"Well! I can't say I've heard that exact take on Hamlet before. Your brother must have very exciting dreams."

Not really, but he doesn't say that. He has conversational instincts after all. This isn't so bad. He can get through this.

"It's good of you to take the time out of your own studies to help Matthew," and he sounds totally fucking chill for a guy who might as well have kicked Ronan in the stomach. "They must keep you busy at college."

"I'm not in college."

"Oh." Another enormous blink, and he's starting to look uneasy. "You graduated -- "

"I never went to college." Why not just keep digging? "I'm a farmer."

"Oh." He's clearly looking for something to say in response to that, though from the confusion on his face Ronan would think that he doesn't even know what a farmer is.

Ronan watches him: go on, let me hear it, what are you going to say?

Matthew's teacher takes a very long sip from his water glass.

In the lull -- deathbed -- of the conversation, Ronan can hear the parents around them talking about the food, pork chops and potatoes and locally grown produce: -- dreadful -- the poor boys -- builds character --

Ronan doesn't get how shitty food is supposed to build character. He'd lived off Budweiser and Nino's pizza, when he was Aglionby, and that had done fuck-all for him.

He can still picture the cupboard at the St. Agnes apartment, dusty and empty except for a single row of canned food and dry pasta.

He isn't hungry.

They move on from dinner to cocktails, and it only gets worse. There's nothing to do but mingle, not even a plate of food to hide behind, and he can't take advantage of the open bar, as much as that sounds like a good idea, as much as that sounds like the only good idea, because everyone knows he's nineteen because everyone knows him.

"Ronan Lynch." He has to give Mr. Milo some credit. At least he has the guts to sneer at Ronan to his face instead of talking about him behind his back. "I do believe you've spent more time here tonight than you spent in my classroom over an entire year."

"I do believe you're an asshole," Ronan says. "Isn't it great how we all have our own opinions?"

He decides that it isn't too early to leave, after all.

When he gets home he looks down and finds a text from Adam, shining up at him from his phone: How was parents night?

I had to wear a suit

He sits there and waits for an eternity for a response to come through, and when it does, it's only: I'm sorry I missed that

Well, fuck him anyway. Ronan tosses the phone over his shoulder. It rattles around the backseat as he throws the car into reverse and tears down the driveway, too, too fast.

-

Declan's Volvo pulls up to the Barns on Sunday morning with an empty passenger seat.

Ronan yanks Matthew's door open. "Riding in state, your highness?"

"Ronan!" Matthew beams at him like it's a complete surprise to find Ronan at his house, where he lives, on the day of the week that they always hang out. "What?"

Ronan grinds his knuckles into Matthew's skull. "Why are you sitting in the backseat like you've got a chauffeur?"

"I have graphs to work on," Matthew says, glumly. "I needed to spread out."

Ronan eyes the empty seat next to Matthew. "Uh-huh. And where are these graphs?"

Matthew looks over at the seat next to him. "Oh. Shoot! I forgot my backpack."

Ronan pushes his shoulder. "Budge over."

He can feel Declan's eyes on him in the rear view mirror, but Matthew doesn't even question it, just unbuckles his seat belt and scoots over to let Ronan sit in the back seat next to him. "Declan, can we go back to the dorms? I want to grab my backpack."

"You can't work on your graphs during mass."

"No, but for after," Matthew says. "If I don't get it now I'll forget again."

"Between the three of us I think we can remember," Declan says, drily. "Wouldn't you say so?"

Ronan doesn't say so. Ronan doesn't say anything to Declan, no how are you, no peace be with you, no fucking questions about what snobby DC shit he's up to now.

Matthew fills the silence with chatter, mostly. There's five minutes where Matthew's out of the car to grab his backpack, but Ronan shuts his eyes and leans his head back on the headrest and Declan turns up the volume on his stupid fucking yacht rock. And then they're at the Barns, Matthew dashing into the house at full-speed, yelping something about his cell phone dying -- fuck, that kid's not going to do any work on his goddamn graphs, is he -- and Declan starts up the porch stairs for the front door.

Ronan steps in his way.

"I can drive Matthew back to school," he says. "I'm sure you have more important things to do."

Declan sizes him up, like this is the first time that he's noticed he's being snubbed. So much for that fancy university education of his.

"Oh, don't trouble yourself on my account," he says coldly. "I don't have anywhere to be."

"Find somewhere to be."

"You know, I don't think I will." Ronan's half expecting him to go for the door, force his way inside. Instead he turns and stretches out on one of the deck chairs, aggressively relaxed. "It's such a nice day, I think I'll stick around a while."

"It's not going to stay a nice day if you stick around."

"If we're going to talk, you should sit down."

"We aren't talking. You're leaving."

Declan kicks the deck chair across from him. "Sit your ass down."

Ronan kicks the chair, too, hard enough it tips over. He hears something crack. Whatever, deck chairs are pretentious bougie bullshit anyway.

He sits on the side of the fallen chair, crouched and tense, ready to spring up again at the slightest provocation.

Declan leans back in his chair. His limbs are sprawled out, feigning ease, but his fingers are gripping the arms of his chair, and his feet are planted firmly on the ground. He's ready to spring up, too.

"I understand," he says, "that you're pissy because you aren't getting laid this weekend -- "

"Don't fucking talk to me about Adam."

"You're acting like a child. Children don't dictate the terms of the conversation."

"Why the fuck would I want to have a conversation with you?"

Declan's foot twitches. "I'm making allowances for the fact that you're disappointed, but you've taken it far enough. I am your brother and I am here, now, so you might as well get used to that."

"You aren't getting it. I don't want you here."

"I don't just exist to ferry your boyfriend to you."

"Obviously," Ronan says. "You're probably thrilled he didn't come down."

A look of realization crosses Declan's face, followed by disgust. "Are you jealous? All of the shit I've been putting up with from you, that's all because you think I'm trying to steal your boyfriend -- "

Something boiling hot and murderous slides into Ronan's gut. "What, is he not good enough for you?"

"Goddammit, Ronan, I can't win with you."

"Guess you're not as clever as you think you are."

Declan stands up, so Ronan jumps up to his feet. He isn't going to let Declan get any more of an edge over him, look down on him any more than he already is, than he already has been. "You really aren't capable of a conversation right now," he says, and starts for the door.

Ronan shoves his way in front of Declan. Stands with as much force as he can muster. Declan is older than him and smarter than him and universally agreed to be better than him, but Ronan has absolutely nothing holding him back.

"You're not welcome in my house."

Declan doesn't speak, doesn't move even a finger. He watches Ronan, assessing him.

They both know that Declan wins in a fight about as often as Ronan does.

They both know that neither of them ever wins, in a fight.

Declan leaves.

-

What the hell, Ronan, you were supposed to have BROTHER BONDING TIME

Maybe Ronan would know what to do if this was a real conversation. If Adam were here, Ronan could fix it, somehow. But Adam left, and the phone only gives him two choices: engage, or don't engage.

Ronan does not engage.

it worries me when you're capable of keeping your thoughts to yourself about this
come on, tell me what's bugging you
I know it's going to be, you know, "everything"
honestly I'd take that at this point
can you just tell me what's going on?

It's better, if he doesn't engage. Adam doesn't want to hear what he'd have to say.

look I have a cram session for mid-terms this weekend
do me a favor and use the time with Declan to get your shit sorted

How's that for karma, for grace. He gives Adam the blessing of silence, and Adam turns around and punishes him for it.

-

You can block my phone number but that doesn't change the fact that we need to talk.

Declan Lynch
Intern, Campaign Strategy
Randall Consulting LLC

Tactical error on Ronan's part. If he'd left Declan's number unblocked Declan would send text messages, not emails, and he probably wouldn't be so fucking wordy in a text.

Parrish says he hasn't heard from you. If you don't call him I'm going to assume you're dead and drive down there to find your body. If you aren't dead you're going to wish you were.

Declan Lynch
Intern, Campaign Strategy
Randall Consulting LLC

Of course, the real tactical error was on Declan's part, when he decided to become a giant dick, instead of a human being.

I know you've opened my emails, Ronan, I get a read receipt on them.

Declan Lynch
Intern, Campaign Strategy
Randall Consulting LLC

Declan wants a response from him? Fine.

The fact that Ronan knows how to find what he's looking for is a testament to what a proud sicko Henry Cheng is, because no one who wasn't a depraved friend-stealing weirdo would talk so much about internet porn. But hey, God works in mysterious ways, because it only takes him a minute to find something suitably disgusting and click send.

GOD FUCKING DAMMIT RONAN

Declan Lynch
Intern, Campaign Strategy
Randall Consulting LLC

-

"Aren't you off traveling the world?"

"I came home for Halloween." Blue lowers her sunglasses to look down at him, which is a hell of a thing given that he's got more than a foot on her. "You might have heard that it's a big deal?"

"Going to dance around naked at midnight?"

He could pick her up with one hand. There's really no excuse for not being able to block, when she licks her finger and sticks it in his ear.

"Classy, Sargent."

"You bring out the best in me."

"I'm going to tell your boyfriend you put your tongue in my ear."

"If you think you can make Gansey jealous you have completely failed to understand him."

She pushes her way into the house like she's allowed to go anywhere she wants, anytime. Ronan nudges her toward the kitchen, dirties a dozen pots and pans to make it look like he's doing more than just heating up deli aisle soup. Blue would call him out on it, except she doesn't catch on. It's not like she ever does any cooking more complicated than taking the little foil cover off a carton of yogurt.

Opal hangs in the doorway, one hoof outside and ready to bolt, while Blue asks her a bunch of questions. She answers with nods or head shakes or the occasional grudging word. If she had a rank and serial number she'd probably recite them.

There's maybe something to the fact that Ronan's subconscious created a girl who doesn't trust other women, but he'll die before he goes all psycho-crap and Freud and talking about his mom, so he ignores it.

And then Blue strikes gold.

"You can play with this for now, but I need it back when I'm done eating, okay?" and when Ronan turns around she's holding out her fucking switchblade.

Opal snatches it up, gifts Blue one dazzling, heart-stopping smile, and runs out of the house.

Ronan thunks a bowl of soup down in front of her. "You're a bad influence."

"And you're, what, mad that I'm stealing your bit?" Blue picks up the bowl and slurps.

"When she chops all her fingers off, I'm the one that's going to have to dream up a finger regrowing machine."

"Right, because I honestly believe your child doesn't know how to handle knives." Blue eyes go wide with fake shock. "Oh wait! I don't believe that, at all."

Even Ronan can't be annoyed about such an obvious compliment, though he tries to keep up appearances.

"I'm just saying, while you're off sipping margaritas in Barcelona -- "

"That's Spain."

" -- or Madrid -- "

"Also Spain."

" -- or Bangkok or wherever -- "

"Yes, exactly, that beloved South American city, Bangkok."

"I just hope that you remember me and it ruins your day."

"Ronan," Blue says. "I'm traveling with Gansey. I hear your name thirty times a minute. And it ruins my day every time."

"It's weird when you're nice to me."

"Fine, I'll stop." She looks him dead in the eye. "How's Adam?"

Ronan leans back in his chair, crossing his arms. "He ratted me out?"

"No. He hasn't complained about you in weeks, actually, which is how I could tell something was wrong. What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything." Blue doesn't buy it. "I didn't do anything to Parrish, and if he's pissed off on Declan's behalf that's his fault."

"Uh-huh," Blue drones, unconvinced. "Look, I'm not your boyfriend, I'm barely your friend -- "

"Not even," Ronan agrees.

" -- right, we're acquaintances, at best," Blue continues. "And you know what I cherish the most about the extremely minor and unimportant relationship we have?"

"You get to feel all righteous and superior compared to me?"

"The fact that I am not obligated to listen to any of your bullshit angst about your brother," Blue says. "Do not take that away from me, Ronan."

"You asked."

"No, I asked about Adam, I don't see what that has to do with Declan."

"They're best friends now."

"Trust me," Blue says, "they really aren't."

"How the fuck would you know? You haven't seen him since he want off to college, he's turning into a total poser."

"Yeah, that sounds like Adam, always changing himself to fit in with the popular kids."

Ronan glares. "You don't get it."

"Hm, no, let's see if I can't solve this incredibly convoluted mystery." She taps a finger against her chin, as though deep in thought. "You miss Adam, so you're being annoying and picking fights over nothing, which makes him come home less, which makes you miss him even more. Is that about the size of it?"

"You're not psychic."

"It doesn't take a psychic to read your mind, loser." Blue punches him, and lets her hand fall in the crook of his elbow, like a rope tying him to shore. "Tell your boy you're sorry for whatever you did, I miss hearing his stories about the stupid stuff you get up to."

Ronan huffs and steals the rest of her soup.

"Or, you know, keep being stupid." Blue stands up. "All this emotional intimacy is giving me hives, can we go back to pretending you don't know a damn thing about geography?"

It would only be embarrassing to acknowledge that she knew he was faking after all, so he chases her outside to go find Opal and retrieve the switchblade.

They wander the grounds. Blue is unexpectedly interested in his homebrew and pouts when Ronan refuses to let her try it ("it's not ready, chill the fuck out" "how are you more patient than me, what have I become?") and less unexpectedly amused to see one of the goats charge at Ronan and headbutt him. He grabs the goat by the face and plays with its ears while Blue is laughing at him, checks it over in a quick scan out of pure habit: eyes, nose, mouth, all look healthy.

"Henry's been telling Gansey about goat yoga," Blue says, like that string of words makes any damn sense. "So. Be warned, they're gonna come bug you about that at some point."

"What the fuck is goat yoga."

"It's yoga but with goats."

"Thanks, Sargent, that clears up nothing." Ronan thinks about it. "The fuck."

"Yeah, I don't know either," and then they lose half an hour to dicking around trying more and more ridiculous poses, since neither of them knows the first thing about yoga. At one point Ronan just lays down on his back on the ground. Blue steps on his stomach.

"Ouf. This is how Houdini died."

"No it isn't," Blue says, just to be contrary. She stretches one leg out behind her and leans her whole torso forward like she's a damn ballerina and not an enormous weight crushing Ronan's guts. A goat jumps on her back and she falls over on her face, which is exactly what she deserves

They end up at the aviary, admiring the birds. Blue sits with her arm pressed up against his, and she's so stupidly tiny that he can rest his chin right on top of her head.

"You know, you're doing a really good job here."

"It's just dream shit."

"Uh-huh, because it's not like dreaming shit up doesn't take anything out of you, or like this all doesn't require a ton of commitment and patience and hard work." He doesn't need to see her to know that she's scowling at him. "I'm not playing this game with you where you pretend you don't know what I mean. Not your boyfriend, not your friend, remember?"

Ronan doesn't want to admit to being pleased about that, so he just whistles until the purple swan swims over, smugly trailing a line of tie-dye chicks.

Blue coos at them, even after one of the chicks tries to bite her.

"I need a better name for these guys," Ronan says.

Blue hms.

"Long-necked Virginia horklings," she says, decisively. "Horks for short."

"Damn."

Blue preens, as proud of herself as the mother hork, which is fair. She's more than earned her pride.

Ronan does still wrestle her into a headlock, for appearance's sake, but he only musses up her hair a little.

-

They stop at Hardee's for lunch after mass, Declan's suggestion; either an apology or an accusation, offering a compromise before the debate had even begun.

Or maybe that's too much emotional weight to shove onto a five-dollar cheeseburger.

They drive straight to Aglionby, the car reeking of greasy French fries, and Declan shifts into park and tells Matthew, "I know you have midterms, go study."

"Uh -- " Matthew looks back and forth from one brother to the next, loudly thinking, if I leave them alone are they going to kill each other? He's more anxious than anyone holding a milkshake has a right to be.

"Out," Ronan says.

That decides it for him. "Okay," Matthew says, opening the door and promptly spilling half of his fries. He scoops them up and throws them back in the take-out bag. Ronan can already tell that he's going to eat them, carpet fuzz and all. "I love both of you guys," he says, like he thinks he's being subtle. As soon as the door closes behind him Ronan and Declan make eye contact, amused, and it's almost friendly.

Declan looks away first, pulls out of the parking spot.

It's a few miles before Ronan sees that they aren't driving home. He shoots Declan another look, more confrontational than the last.

Declan shifts gears. "I think we spend too much time at the Barns."

"Once a week is more than you can handle?"

"Let me rephrase -- you spend too much time at the Barns, but I was trying to be polite."

"Do me a favor and just say what you mean next time."

"Sure," Declan says. "You're going to throw a fit over whatever I say, I might as well spare myself the trouble of trying to appease you first."

Ronan's about to argue, but then he sees where they're going.

"Really?" he demands as Declan turns into the parking lot for the rickety old go-kart track they haven't been to since they were kids.

"Do you have a better idea?" Declan asks, like it's a real question that he wants an answer to. "Because I'm racking my brain for beloved childhood memories and there's not a hell of a lot of them to choose between."

Ronan bites at his fist.

"I'm just saying, we can drive real cars now."

"Yes, but we can crash go-karts."

Ronan makes a face at him: you can crash real cars if you aren't a scared little shit.

Declan gets out of the car. The driver's side door makes a sound like a scoff when he shuts it.

Ronan follows, bugging him all the while. "How fast do these things go, anyway? Twenty, thirty miles an hour?"

"Keep bitching." Declan throws a helmet at him with force. Ronan catches it just before it hits him in the gut. "It'll be that much better when I beat you."

The actual question of victory goes out the window fast. They're less racing than they are competing to see who can knock the other one into the wall more often, which slows them down considerably and forces the other racers to swerve widely around them. Ronan thinks he gets more hits in, but he loses track; he goes to shout at Declan that he's winning, anyway, and Declan crashes into him so hard that he bites his lip. They come to a stop and Ronan is buzzing and tasting blood and wondering how hard it would be, really, to convince Declan to go in for a real demolition derby.

They take a second go-round right after the first; outdoor go-karts aren't the most popular activity on an overcast day in November. The guy running the ride reminds them, pointedly, that this isn't bumper cars, and then immediately out of the gate Declan rear-ends Ronan and drives him into the wall of the rink.

By the time they stumble, bruised and dizzy and politely uninvited go-karts, Ronan has finally recognized the way he's feeling as mellow. Declan fishes a flask out from the pocket on the back of the driver's seat of his car, nudging a book of CDs in the process. Ronan grabs the book and flips through it until he recognizes a disc, pulls out the jalapeno flavored condom that was hidden behind it.

Declan just sighs.

They perch on the hood of the car, passing the flask back and forth while the weather thinks about raining and mostly just spits on them.

"You realize," Declan says, definite and sudden, "that most of the time Parrish and I just talk about you."

"What," Ronan says, "like that's better?"

"Depends. Better than what?"

Ronan doesn't answer.

Declan punches him in the arm. Doesn't pull his punch, either; Ronan is probably going to find a bruise there tomorrow. "I get that you suck at explaining yourself, I've had a lifetime to get used to that. But I suck at being helpful, which you should very well know by now -- "

Ronan snorts.

Declan glares and punches him again, exact same spot. Definitely going to leave a bruise. " -- so if you could try to meet me halfway, I'd -- " he stops, shoves the flask up to his mouth and gulps. "I'd be grateful," he forces out.

"And I'm supposed to be grateful too? You know what, I am. Thanks for not being as much of a fucking weirdo to Adam as you are to me, he's got enough shit to deal with without you hating him."

Declan stares. "Why would I hate him? I don't hate him."

"Maybe because he's fucking your brother?" Ronan says, and Declan flinches. "Right, clearly you don't have a problem with that at all."

"What -- " Declan starts. Ronan turns away from him, stares back out at the go-karts. He doesn't feel mellow any more. "Wait one goddamn minute, all this -- bullshit, that's because you think I'm mad that you're gay? Why would think that?"

Ronan balls up on fist and taps it on the hood, taps it again. Not hard enough to leave a dent, but he's thinking about it.

"Yeah, why would I think that when you've been judging me this whole time? You only get weird as fuck anytime Adam and I are in the same room, why would I think that you had a problem?"

"I get weird because it is weird," Declan says. "I want to give Parrish the same shit that I'd give any of my friends who just got laid and then I realize that I'd be talking about my brother and that's -- " Ronan is still looking out ahead of him, but he can feel Declan shudder.

"Right."

"What, so you'd be fine talking about sex with Ashley?"

"Ugh, no, what the hell's wrong with you?"

"You see my point, dumbass?" Declan shakes his head. "I'm not judging you, Jesus Christ, I'm proud of you. I've spent the last few years worrying that you were going to end up in jail, or shut away from the rest of the world, or lost in your nightmares. Assuming you lived that long. And now you have friends, plural, and you're raising a child, and you're pulling off an actual adult relationship." He stares out over the field, and when he speaks again, his voice has fallen, contemplative and kind of sad. "My little brother grew up to be a good man. It's just a shame that I never get to meet him."

Ronan flicks his eyes over, but can't stand it for more than a second; stares out ahead of them again. "You bring out my bratty side," he mutters.

"And you bring out my overbearing side." Declan takes a sip from the flask. "I thought we were doing better for a while there. I don't know, maybe we'll always revert to type."

"We are doing better." Ronan swipes the flask from him. "I haven't kicked your ass in an alley in months."

Declan cracks, smiles a tiny, mean smile. "You haven't kicked my ass in an alley ever."

Ronan mulls it over.

"We can't promise we're always going to get along," he says. "But just -- you always say what you mean, and I'll always say what I mean."

"As opposed to now," Declan observes drily. "When you're so delicate with your words."

"As opposed to not saying anything."

He breathes.

"Well," Declan says. "How could I turn down an offer like that?"

-

Ronan sends Adam a picture of one of the hork chicks. It has the end of his shoelace clamped in its beak and it's doing its very best to untie his shoes, despite being three days old and three inches tall.

this is shibi, he's an asshole

that's a cute name
too cute
what's it short for

Shitbird

there it is, there's the Ronan I know

Adam doesn't ask about Declan, doesn't let on if Declan had told him that they'd made their peace. He must have, the way the two of them have been keeping tabs on Ronan.

Ronan doesn't ask. He sends Adam pictures, instead: Chainsaw. His best pair of boots with the soles ripped off. Opal sulking and refusing to apologize for destroying his boots. The drunken carpentry he tries that somehow manages to be less of a bad idea than the hungover carpentry he tries the next day.

Adam sends him pictures back: Sunset over the library. Lingering Halloween decorations in the student center. His roommate passed out face down on the floor, how bad of a person does it make me if leave him like that. A handwritten essay which is either about Mesopotamian agriculture or metrosexual apologists, Ronan can't fucking tell.

He got an A on the essay. He's smiling.

The closest they come to having a conversation about any of it is Adam texting him on Friday, I swapped some shifts around, Declan's going to drive me down to the Barns tomorrow night, and Ronan looks at his screen until he feels sick.

-

Ronan's already outside on Saturday night when Declan's car pulls down the long gravel driveway to the house.

The Volvo stops a ways back; enough that with the house lights reflecting off the windshield he can't see into the car. Can only see the passenger door open, Adam's head emerging. Bending back down to say something to the driver, and when he shuts the door the car backs up down the driveway.

Adam hoists his backpack up and over one shoulder, turns to the house.

Ronan doesn't breathe.

Adam stares toward the house. Toward Ronan.

His face breaks into a smile.

Ronan stays where he is. Waits for Adam to walk up the driveway, take the stairs at a jog. Drop his bag on the porch, and now there's no more waiting, no more putting it off.

"God," Adam says, hands finding Ronan's waist, his face turning in to Ronan's neck. "It's good to see you."

"You're not mad at me?" Ronan asks.

Adam breathes in against his skin. His lips twitch; a ghost of a kiss, habit, no conscious thought required. Only then does he pull away, far enough that Ronan can meet his eyes. Not far enough away that his hands leave Ronan's sides.

"Should I be?" he asks, and it's an honest question. He doesn't already know the answer. He has somehow forgotten, that everyone always has a reason to be mad at Ronan.

"Figured you had to be," Ronan says. "Since you were avoiding me."

His face doesn't change, but they're too close for Ronan to be fooled. He can feel Adam's fingers spasm, digging into his skin for the barest second.

Adam doesn't wear his damage on his face.

"I wasn't avoiding you," Adam says. "I needed more time on campus."

Ronan stares at him. Waits for an explanation as to how those are two different things.

"All right," Adam says, and this time he does take his hands off Ronan. "Since we're doing this already. It turns out -- I still need more time."

Ronan doesn't understand what's happening, but he understands that it isn't good.

Adam breathes in deeply and then stops, like he's choking on air.

"It turns out." He breathes in again. "It turns out that this schedule, where I come home every weekend -- I'm missing too many hours at work, I'm missing too many study sessions, I'm -- it isn't working for me."

Ronan takes a step back, too. The space between them is enormous, wide, mocking.

"Okay," he says. "So, it's starting."

Adam's eyebrows go flat as knives. "What's starting?"

Ronan says, "you leaving me."

Adam doesn't say anything right away.

Ronan wishes he'd said something right away. Anything. Adam is vindictive and petty and has a temper, and Ronan loves all of those things about him. Ronan knows how to step around them. It's when Adam is careful and thoughtful and deliberate that Ronan is out of his depth. That's where Adam disappears into the distance. That's where Ronan loses him.

"I am not leaving you," Adam says. "I'm going to come home every other weekend -- "

"And how long until you decide that's too much, too?"

"We knew this was going to be hard."

"We were going to try."

"I am trying, I am trying so hard, but this is -- I'm struggling," Adam says. "This is what I need, okay? I need the extra time on campus, and I need you, and I need to know I'm going to see you and you're not going to give up on me when I tell you what I need because it's too much."

"Right," Ronan says. "You need me. Never mind that you're ditching me to spend more time with stuck up college kids like Declan --

"Can you just stop it," Adam spits, "with this insane conspiracy theory you've developed that I'm going to cheat on you with Declan?" so there goes the idea that Declan had given him any fucking privacy. "I don't even know how to tell you that that is never going to happen."

"I never thought you'd be his best friend, either."

"I don't see why it's such a big deal that I don't hate your brother. I thought you didn't hate him anymore, either."

"Of course you don't hate him," Ronan says, snide. "Everyone likes Declan. Everyone likes Declan better than me. It's not fair that he gets to have you, too."

Adam stares at him, some expression that Ronan doesn't understand on his face. It makes his stomach turn. "Declan doesn't have me."

"He sees you all the fucking time," Ronan says, and he's been knocked so low, so quickly. He wasn't ready to sound this weak and needy. "You have all this shit in common now."

"I've always have shit in common with Declan, we're both high-achieving high-stress pragmatists." In any other context in the world, Ronan would say that Adam sounded confused. "That's not the point, I don't actually love hanging out with people who remind me of all of the stuff that I don't like about myself."

"Funny, because you're doing a lot of it."

Ronan is expecting Adam to fall back on excuses: we go to the same school, he drives me home, he's teaching me all the secrets to running the world.

Instead, Adam flushes red.

"He gets it, okay?" Adam says. "He gets what it's like, being human, when everyone else is something more."

"You're not less."

But Adam is already shaking his head. "You don't get it, Ronan, and that's fine, mostly that's fine. But sometimes it sucks, and then it's kind of nice that someone else knows that it sucks, too."

"You don't have to talk to Declan," Ronan says. "You could talk to me."

"Because you're always so ready when I try to have open, emotional conversations."

"Because if you keep hanging out with Declan you're going to realize that you and me don't have anything in common."

Adam stares at him. "Ronan. I love you and I am trying really hard to be empathetic. But that is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard."

"Really? Because colleges were fighting over each other to bet on how successful you were going to be, and I broke a toe yesterday trying to catch a runaway goat, I don't see the fucking similarities."

"You broke your toe?" Adam steps forward, eyes dropping down to Ronan's feet, completely ignoring the important part of what's happening.

Ronan steps away from him, and Adam's eyes snap back up to his face.

"Fine," Adam says, soft and angry. "What do we have in common? Besides the fact that were both stubborn assholes. Besides the fact that we love taking stupid risks and I would have broken my toe chasing after a goat with you if I'd been here."

But you weren't here. Ronan bites down on that sentence, and it must do something to his face, because Adam pulls back, haughty and mad. He's not taking his time to choose his words now.

"What could we possibly have in common, besides every time we've saved each other's lives, besides every time you reminded me that I want to be alive, besides Gansey and Blue and -- and Opal." He breaks down there, like he thinks Ronan is going to tell him no, no he doesn't have any right to Opal, and that is the actual stupidest fucking thing he's ever heard. How could Adam even think that? How, except that Ronan had just told him to his face that he didn't, and he feels so hurt and guilty and sick that he just wants to make it better, he wants this to be over.

Ronan steps forward and kisses Adam.

Adam shoves him away.

"Don't," he snarls. "I'm sick of you doing that."

"Sick of what, kissing you?"

"I'm sick of you kissing me to get out of talking to me."

Ronan blurts out, "I have to kiss you before I run out of time."

"Oh my God," Adam says, exasperated, "you are not running out of time."

"Right," Ronan says, as nasty as he can manage. "You're off at college with a bunch of people who are educated and ambitious and they're all going to be running the country someday, and you're still going to be making out with your boyfriend the farmer."

"Yes," Adam says. "Yes, that is my plan, exactly. That has always been the plan."

"The plan was you were going to come home every Sunday."

"I wish I could, and I'm sorry about that, but I told you that's what I need, and so far you haven't told me what you need from me. What do you want right now? Do you want me to drop out of college?"

Ronan doesn't answer.

"Do you want me to not be friends with Declan?"

He doesn't answer.

"Do you want me to just not have any friends?"

Ronan shuts his eyes. He can't answer any of these, because they're all yes, even though they should be no.

He doesn't realize that he has an answer until he's saying it.

"I want you to not realize what a loser your boyfriend is."

Adam is silent for so long that Ronan opens his eyes again, takes in the blurry sight of Adam's face, stricken and pale. "You're not a loser."

"Sure I am. I'm one of those pathetic rich wastes of space. I live off my inheritance, I barely graduated, I didn't go to college -- "

"I thought you didn't want to go to college," Adam says.

"I don't. But I don't want to watch you go off and meet people that fit into your life better than me."

"Ronan," Adam says, still stricken, but there's something fierce catching fire under his words. "You fit into my life. You are always going to fit into my life if I have to dig out a spot for you with my bare hands."

He shuts his eyes again. It doesn't help. He can still feel Adam, inches and miles away. "You wouldn't have to try so hard if you picked someone like Declan," he says. "Someone who's smart and useful and ambitious and shit."

"I did pick someone smart and useful and ambitious."

Ronan tchs. "Don't coddle me."

"I'm not." Adam steps closer, just barely not touching. "My boyfriend is very smart, except for this weird blind spot he has about his brother. He's done more for me than anyone in my life. And if blowing up three stills in a row isn't ambition I don't know what is."

Ronan mumbles, "I only blew up two of them."

"Okay, then we need to have a talk with Opal about playing with fire, because I definitely found three."

"Don't pretend you don't care what I do," Ronan says.

"Okay," Adam replies. "I care about this mustache you're growing, it's hideous and we're going to talk about that later."

"You don't get to tell me what I do with my facial hair."

"I get to make fun of you if it's hideous, which it is." Adam takes the last step to erase the space between them, not holding Ronan but just pressing their bodies together, leaning up against him like Ronan is holding him up, like he is offering to hold Ronan up.

Adam is trying so hard get him to laugh, to smile, to not want to cry, and just the fact that he's trying is making it worse.

"I think I'm struggling, too," Ronan admits.

He feels Adam breathe. "If we can get past that time I almost murdered you, I think we can make it through this."

Adam gives him more space to talk, to talk for real, to do more than put a bandage on the wound in his own heart and pretend he can't feel his life slipping away from him.

God, it's so hard.

"I don't -- I don't know how," Ronan says.

Adam puts an arm up and around him, rests his hand against the back of Ronan's head. "I want you to be happy," he says. Taking the first step down the path and holding a hand out for Ronan to follow. "I want you to be happy because of me and not in spite of me. I don't want to be the thing that makes your life harder."

Ronan shakes his head, careless of how that pushes his nose up against Adam's skull, because no, no, never.

Adam says, "I want you to tell me what you need."

Ronan fills his lungs. It takes a few tries.

"Don't give up on me," he says.

"I won't," Adam promises, savage and vicious. "I won't."

"I want you to be happy," Ronan continues. "Because of me."

"I am."

They stand in silence, Adam's other hand coming to rest with his palm against Ronan's cheek, and Ronan doesn't even feel guilty when he interrupts Adam's peace to say, "I want you to take the car."

Adam brushes his fingers up high, over Ronan's cheekbone. "It wouldn't make a difference," he says. "For how often I can come home. I'll probably just carpool with Declan."

"I know," Ronan says. "But I want you to have it."

Adam doesn't answer right away, and this time it doesn't gut him to know that Adam is thinking about what he's saying. He likes it, even. "I can't afford what it would cost to keep it somewhere near campus." He breathes in so sharply that Ronan doesn't say anything, just waits until Adam can get it out on his own. "Could you pay for that?"

"Yeah," Ronan says, "of course -- "

Apparently now they've done enough talking that they're allowed to kiss, because Adam turns his face until he crashes into Ronan, biting his lip and curling his fingers until they dig into the back of his neck, and, okay, it is better now that Ronan isn't desperately trying to hide how nervous and unhappy he is.

And then it gets a lot better, because Adam gets pushy with him. Ronan loves when Adam pushes him. He loves to push back, sometimes, or get coy and make Adam work twice as hard for it. But best of all, he loves to pull along with him, to give when Adam takes, to open himself up, and that's what he does now. Lets Adam push him into the house, push into his room, push him onto the bed, push inside of him, until he's pushed out every last thought and doubt from Ronan's mind, until he's as immediate and present and undeniable as life itself.

"Love you," Ronan gasps, "love you, I love you, love -- "

"I know," Adam says, "I know, I love you, shut up," and he pushes that last little bit forward and covers Ronan's mouth with his own.

-

It's only later, sticky and sweaty and sated, that he realizes, props himself up on his elbow to glare down at Adam:

"Did you tell me to shut up?"

Adam looks like he's thinking about denying it. "Yes."

Ronan collapses back onto the mattress. "Real nice."

Adam groans, turns his face into Ronan's chest. "Talking about feelings sucks," he says, voice muffled.

"That's what I've been saying this whole time."

"Yeah, yeah, you were right, okay? You usually are."

Ronan buries his face in Adam's hair.

"You know that was never the problem," Adam says, "right?"

Ronan runs a hand down his back.

"I know," he says. "Shut up."

-

Ronan wakes up the next morning at dawn, thanks in part to the fact that the curtains had been wide open when they'd fallen asleep.

He gets up and shuts them, not that Adam is likely to let a little thing like the entire fucking sun in his face wake him up, and then climbs back into his soft warm bed.

It's no good. He's awake.

He lingers for a while anyway, until he remembers how boring it is to watch someone sleep, even if the person in question the incredible Adam Parrish.

He gets back up and takes a piss before wandering down to the kitchen.

Declan's sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper.

It had been late, morning rather than night, when Ronan heard Declan pull into the driveway and let himself into the house, but he isn't surprised to see that Declan's awake already. Declan had always had the trademark family insomnia, without even anything to show for it.

Ronan looks at the faint circles under Declans eyes and feels -- not pity, because he's never going to be able to pity Declan, but something like regret, and he understands. He gets what it's like, being human.

Declan looks up. "Morning."

Ronan steps into the kitchen. "Morning. Want some eggs?"

"Sure," Declan says, surprised.

"Cool." Ronan drops into the chair opposite him. "You know where the chicken coop is."

Declan shakes head with a snort, I should have known. "I always hated chickens."

"They hate you, too."

"They hate everything. Tell you what, you go deal with the angry death birds and I'll make coffee."

That's hardly an equal distribution of labor, but Ronan doesn't have it in him to argue, and anyway, he wants coffee.

Ronan throws down seed and collects the eggs mostly without incident, and sets the eggs down on the kitchen counter to wash off the peck wound on his left hands. Chickens are nature's stupid assholes, if you don't count humans.

Declan confiscates the eggs. There's already a frying pan on the stove, heating up.

"Is Parrish going to want any?"

"He won't be up for hours," Ronan says, "but yeah, make him some anyway."

He sips his coffee while Declan makes breakfast, steals out sections of the newspaper that Declan hasn't gotten to yet, Science and Travel and Arts.

Declan switches over to doing the crossword puzzle, and they pass the morning mostly in silence. Ronan halfway expects Declan to stab him with a butter knife when he corrects his spelling of Rubicon, but he just says, "huh," and fills in armistice while he's at it.

Ronan is pretending to care about a review of some mediocre off-Broadway play when Adam stumbles out into the kitchen and stares at them, bleary-eyed and blinking.

"'m I asleep?"

"I honestly can't tell," Declan says.

"You're." Adam waves hand. "Brothers."

Declan looks baffled.

Ronan can translate that as oh, the Lynches are spending a pleasant morning enjoying each other's company, I must be dreaming, as such a sight would not meet my eyes in the waking world, but he keeps it to himself.

Adam opens the fridge, rubbing his eyes with one hand while groping around blindly for something edible.

"There's food in the oven," Declan says.

"Hm?" Adam stares into the fridge, wondering why it isn't the oven.

Ronan stands up and places his hands on Adam, steers him over to an empty chair before getting his breakfast for him.

"Jesus," Declan says. "Who knew you were such a disaster in the mornings?" and Ronan feels warm inside because, well, he knew.

Declan's phone goes off, buzzes against the hand-carved wooden kitchen table, and Ronan only thinks what a douche reflexively, the way he'd think it about anyone using a cell phone, as Declan steps outside to take the call.

"I could be awake in the morning," Adam mutters, stubborn.

"Sure, I believe that." Since Adam just stabbed his fork through his toast instead of his eggs, Ronan feels like the point is made for him.

"It's true. Normally I'm. Out of bed, boom, awake."

Ronan snorts. "I've never once seen you do that."

"Well, obviously," which is a hell of a lot of sarcasm to yawn through. "I don't have to when you're around to take care of me."

Ronan feels his face flush, feels warmth spread through him, chasing out every last pocket of sorrow.

"Hey," he says. "Come to mass with us."

Adam squints at him suspiciously, or tries to. It doesn't come off very threatening. "Are you using my sleepiness and fondness for you to manipulate me?"

"Yeah."

Adam smiles, his whole face soft and open.

"You asked me to tell you what I want," Ronan says. "So -- come to town with us. You can sit in the car with Opal, you don't have to come into church. We'll get fast food for lunch."

"Is that supposed to be an incentive?"

"We'll get real food for lunch." Traditions are fine, but there's no sense holding to them if they can choose something better, together.

-

He makes great time on the road, which is because he left in the weird off-hours of the day and not because he was lane-splitting. Adam's price for taking the BMW was that Ronan exercise the highest level of caution possible when riding the motorcycle he dreamt up to replace it. Honestly, Adam has been way more annoying about the bike than Declan; Declan just sighed and said, "I see I'm upping the insurance again."

(Though no one's reaction was as bad as Cheng's. He started texting Ronan every single day SEND PHOTOS, JAMES DEAN. Ronan blocked his number, but that only led to Cheng texting from Sargent and Gansey's phones. Constant bombardment is worse when it comes as surprise attacks from numbers he previously trusted.)

He would have been even more pathetically early, except he'd walked the entire grounds of the Barns three times before he left, fussing over the horks and checking the sprinklers in the orchard and tossing hay down from the loft until Opal physically stood in his way and blocked him from climbing back up the ladder.

"I can take care of all of this myself."

"Excuse the fuck out of me if I'm nervous about leaving my livelihood in the hands of Tim Burton's Babysitter's Club."

Opal stares through him. It's a chilling expression, even though half her face is covered with mustard. And what the hell had she been eating that was so gross she needed to mask the flavor?

"You're stalling," she says. "If you don't leave now I'm going to take the bike and go instead."

"No motorcycles until you're fifty." Which isn't that bad. Matthew had been forbidden from motorcycles until he was a hundred and three, so really Ronan is being very lax.

"Go," she says, and Ronan goes, and now he's an hour earlier than he meant to be, so thanks for nothing, Opal.

He drives the bike right up to the dorms. He's not going to spend a single second of his life figuring out the parking lots around campus. The whole point of the bike is taking it places it's not supposed to go.

It's a good thing that he knows the name of Adam's dorm, because his phone is dead. How can a thing he never uses be dead? He finds the building he wants after a few twists and turns, and kills the (fake, non-polluting, don't get on my case about it, Sargent) engine.

He knows Adam's room number, too, but Adam is still at class. And he'd be sad if he missed Ronan's first encounter with the dickhole roommate.

So Ronan dawdles out front, unpleasantly visible.

A couple of people stare, and he stares back until they stop. But he can't do that to everyone who just glances his way. There's too many of them.

It's the bike, it has to be the bike. It's not like all these preppy college kids can tell that he doesn't belong here. Except they probably can. He only sees a couple of guys walk by with shaved hair, and they all look like Army wannabes. There's more than a few leather jackets, but they're fashion pieces. No way have any of these kids been near a motorcycle, or, for that matter, a cow.

But he's got nowhere else to be, so he puts on a brick wall of a face, leans against the building, and lets people look at him.

Snatches of conversation drift past:

"...fifty pages of reading, I swear I'm going to die, really, feel my pulse, am I dead yet..."

"...doesn't count as cheating if you're too drunk to remember, right? It doesn't..."

"...mom reads my bank statements, she wants to know why I'm spending two hundred a week on groceries..."

"...bro. Bro! Bro? Bro."

Jesus Christ, Ronan should've driven up here weeks ago. This is what he was worried about not measuring up to?

"...think he's cute, don't you?"

"Not so loud, he'll look -- oh my God, he's looking at us."

"He knows he can't park there, right?"

"Maybe he has a handicap permit."

"You can't get a handicap permit for a motorcycle, Kayla."

"Will you guys shut up, he's looking at us again!"

And then the voice he's waiting for, snuck up behind him just to be contrary:

"You're scaring the locals, Lynch."

"The locals scare too easy." Ronan takes his time turning around, feigns nonchalance because the alternatives are all sappy and embarrassing and too damn much.

He almost cracks anyway when he sees Adam, backpack slung over his shoulder, hair all over the place, looking straight back at him.

A trick of the light, a chameleon flicker: Adam is a student. Adam is wild creature, fury and awe, who belongs here even less than Ronan.

"That is undoubtedly true," he says, deeply amused. "You're early."

"Opal kicked me out."

"I'll have to thank her." Adam steps forward and kisses him, feather-light and lingering. Ronan cups a hand around his elbow, the most restrained touch he can manage, and holds him for as long as Adam's modesty will allow.

Except Adam doesn't blush or pull away from him or act like he's concerned about decorum. It's Ronan who steps back first, because he's as hungry for the sight of Adam as he is for the taste of him. Today he does not have to settle for bits and pieces.

Adam is smiling. Ronan feels his own reciprocal smile grow, but he fakes concern, "you aren't embarrassed to be seen with a townie?"

"Are you kidding, I just became the envy of every person on the quad." Adam slides their hands together, links his fingers through Ronan's. Tugs him toward a group of Georgetown students -- not, thankfully, Kayla and her dipshit friends. "Come on, I want to show you around."

It would be easy to say that he doesn't care about libraries and classrooms and dining halls, that he's only here to see Adam. And like most things that are easy, it isn't really true.

As little as he's wanted to admit it, this place is a part of Adam's life. But life is a vast and terrible wonder; Adam contains Georgetown and Aglionby and the Barns and the trailer park and places he hasn't been to yet, and there is no part of him that Ronan can ignore. No part that he needs to ignore, because Adam's life contains him, too.

"Yeah," Ronan says. "I want to see it."