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Somewhere in Northern Italy... 



***

The villa was Gansey’s fault.

Well- if you were being technical, the villa was Gansey’s grandfather’s fault. Richard Gansey I was as fanciful as his grandson, and had bought the villa in the aftermath of World War II, a rich American G.I. in love with a beautiful Italian woman. The woman had been a passing fancy, fleeting and immaterial.

The villa, as it turned out, not so much.

Gansey’s grandmother, Gansey the First’s second wife, had been as American as could be, born and bred in the same rich Virginian county as her husband, before his expatriation. She’d been cleverly sent to visit her future husband by way of his meddling mother during her own coming-of-age European adventure, which had, up until that point, been comprised of stately ballrooms and expensive boutiques and a London townhouse furnished exactly like the stately Virginian manor home she’d fled.

She’d been as taken with the villa as she’d been with Richard Gansey I, and so it had been a whirlwind summer romance-turned-lifelong partnership, though they’d lived half the year in America and half the year in Italy until the children were born, and Gansey’s father, the charmingly-titled Dick Jr., had been raised in Virginia with only snatched expanses of time spent at the villa. After the death of Gansey’s grandmother, his grandfather had retired to his much-beloved home and spent the remaining years of his life there.

Gansey had, in the way of all moneyed heirs, summered at the family’s European home, and there he’d been inseparable with his grandfather, who had never had any love to spare for society events or finances but instead always adored the intangible things in life, stories and myths and legends that could be communicated through long talks in the study, jaunty tunes played on the piano in the parlor, enthusiastic romps through the fruit groves. He’d smelt of pipe tobacco and freshly-sliced oranges and mint leaves, and Gansey had adored him beyond all reason.

And then he’d died, and the villa had fallen to Gansey, who was at that point finishing his PhD at the tender age of twenty six, living (according to his parents) like a bohemian in a cramped apartment in New York City with his girlfriend, boyfriend, best friend, and… whatever the hell Ronan was to him. Platonic life partner? Exceedingly disagreeable pet?

They’d lived entirely overlapping each other, with laundry hanging to dry every conceivable place it could be draped and Gansey’s books piled everywhere and Ronan suffocating in the urban nightmarescape that was the Big Apple and Noah working his fingers to the bone as an under-appreciated sous chef in a fancy restaurant he couldn’t even afford to eat at and Blue getting arrested every other weekend at increasingly-radical protests and Henry… well, Henry thriving entirely upon all the chaos, soaking it up like a sunning lizard on some desert rocks, but Henry Cheng was not exactly the poster boy for normalcy, anyway.

Gansey had taken to staying up through the night in the weeks following his grandfather’s death but preceding the call from his grandfather’s lawyer telling him he’d been bequeathed the villa, and he’d grown thinner and waner and progressively more manic in that period, all curved shoulders and bloodshot eyes. None of them had said so, but they’d worried.

And then he’d come home with the paperwork in his hands and he’d looked at them all gathered around and said, tremulously and like he expected to be rejected, will you go too? sounding like he’d meant will you come home with me? And what more was there to say, after such a request from the man-boy- king they all loved to the point of blinding and suffocating and dying?

Ronan had packed up everything in boxes and told his brother he was moving off to join an anarchist sex cult in the Italian countryside, Noah had quit his job loudly and vehemently, already more alive by the time he’d gotten back to the apartment than he’d been the entire time Ronan had known him, Blue found replacements to take over all her high-ranking positions in the various women’s rights and minority advocation and LGBTQ groups she was always getting into shit with, and Henry got Cheng2 to assume ownership of his six-year-old goldfish Perdita.

It had been an interesting week for everyone.

And so they’d shipped all the belongings they wanted to keep and boarded a plane, a train, and then an automobile to get to the mystical villa, fully expecting either a towering castle or a nobly-cobbled shack. With Gansey, it was hard to tell.

The reality of the thing had been somewhere between the two, with expensive flooring and towering ceilings and priceless antique cartography hung everywhere. It was as if Gansey had become an Italian villa instead of a man, and now they were all to live safely in his innards, which also featured prettily-shaped topiary gardens and a frankly ridiculous number of fruit groves. There was a goddamn tennis court. Blue had remained baffled just by the sight of the place for nigh on two months, before finally she’d settled in and gotten comfortable putting her feet up on the furniture and leaving her half-eaten yogurt cups fucking everywhere.

And it wasn’t like they never left the villa, of course- Blue was too stir-crazy to stay in one place, and so she and Henry would periodically kiss Gansey goodbye and go off on some world-saving mission or another, leaving him with his books and his Noah and his Ronan. After a couple of years they’d even started kissing Noah and Ronan goodbye too, which the former took with awed happiness and the latter barely tolerated but secretly treasured, down beneath about two dozen layers of disgusted disgruntlement.

And so now they were all twenty nine, very close to thirty, and they had permanent suntans and drank all the homemade summer wines that Noah brewed like water and life was just the villa, with few interruptions.

Few interruptions, except for Gansey’s yearly tradition of taking on grad students for six weeks every summer, so he could help them with their manuscripts and send them back out into the world glowing with shining confidence and half (or more than half) in love with him.

It was annoying. They were all unfairly attractive and invariably thought Ronan was some kind of gardener for a few weeks of their stays, what with the way he very obviously didn’t fit in with Gansey and his leather armchairs and fucking boat shoes. (And yes, okay, maybe he did handle the kitchen garden and oversee the orchards and milk his goat, Opal, every day, but for fuck’s sake, he lived in the goddamn house. He was not the hired help.)

The fourth summer, the fourth candidate, would surely be like the rest, Ronan knew, as he watched the man exit the taxi he’d rode in from the station. American, like they all were, and from his vantage point at the second floor balcony all Ronan could see was fair hair and freckles and smart-looking leather shoes. Carefully dressed, with a leather satchel that looked brand-new tossed over his shoulder.

He stretched his arms above his head and gave a small sigh when something in his back gave way with a pop, and as he did so he turned his face up to the sun and Ronan’s breath fucking caught.

Jesus fuck, and of course he was beautiful. It was practically a prerequisite for this gig, that you were lovely and brilliant and infuriating.

He was used to the grad students’ beauty. What he wasn’t used to was the pang of terrible want in his gut at the sight of their faces, fine-featured and rosy-mouthed and freckled. This guy was awe-inspiring.

It was terrible.

Blue and Henry were gone to… somewhere, to do something, and that left Gansey eagerly anticipating the arrival of his newest protege, Noah baking loaves of bread and experimenting with rosemary amounts in the dough, and Ronan… well, Ronan practicing his swing on the tennis court, milking Opal and having his daily muttered conversations with her, trying and failing to dream up inspiration for his latest sculpture, and skulking around the villa staring at the paintings for hours.

When Blue and Henry were gone they all three became solitary creatures, alone except for when Gansey would inevitably crawl into bed alongside them every other night, alternating which platonic life partner he pressed himself all along like a clingy furnace, oppressive in the already hellacious heat of an Italian summer, but impossible to refuse.

Blue and Henry were the ones who filled the house up with noise- noise that wasn’t pen nibs scratching against paper and copper pans banging together and the constant stream of swearing that Ronan emitted whenever he had artistic blockages.

Declan was constantly texting him, reminding him that he had a gallery show coming up in a month and a half and if he didn’t have something fucking amazing then Declan was going to leave him for fucking Kavinsky and his trashy found-art piles of blow-up dolls and car parts and pill bottles, like that was fucking original.

The point was, there was nowhere to hide from the gorgeous new grad student, who was older than their last ones had been and took everything Gansey said so seriously, with grave nods of his head and quietly-murmured discourse. Gansey was ecstatic; he was a constant barrage of questions and yes, exactly !s and the two of them were always bent over one heavy, leather-bound book or another, even at the dinner table, which Blue didn’t allow when she was home to order Gansey around. Eat, she’d say, and take his books, sitting on top of them stubbornly until he forgot them in favor of laughing and telling stories and drinking Noah’s sweet pink wine, cheeks flushed and smile white.

(The worst thing about living with your best friends was that after a while you couldn’t even convincingly put up a front like you detested them. Ronan was missing Sargent and Cheng terribly, and he was horrifically petulant about it. Noah knew this, and kept making sad, understanding eyes at him and baking him loaves of rosemary bread.)

Adam Parrish was the grad student’s name. He was their age, but had, according to Gansey’s sleepy recounting of the tale in bed one night not long after Adam Parrish had arrived, been late getting into college because of financial troubles. He’d worked four jobs and then finally had enough to supplement the scholarships he’d secured and then deferred, enough to live in a tiny cardboard box of an apartment and live on ramen noodles and leftover food at the diner he bussed tables at when he wasn’t in class. He was getting his degree in classical literature, and he and Gansey passed hours ogling passages written in Greek, Latin, and English. Adam glowed. He was glowing with every day that dawned and died that he spent in Gansey’s solaric presence.

It was hateful. Ronan spent a lot of time outside. Opal snorted when she saw him coming, sick of him sitting on the milking stool with his knees pressed into her belly and his cheek resting against her heaving side, not milking, just breathing in her thickly animal scent, reveling in the calming presence of her, chewing noisily on whatever was in reach. He was thinking of putting in some grape vines, of establishing a vineyard. He held mounds of clay in his hands, settled in his workshop, a repurposed outbuilding that Gansey had had a kiln put in, one of the ridiculous things he’d done to settle everyone in, that first year. The clay was as malleable as it ever was, as new and formless as a daydream. He’d sculpted arguably his masterwork in this studio, the first winter of their contentment, a life-sized copse of trees filled with ravens and koi fish and sprigs of mistletoe entitled Cabeswater.

But now there was nothing except Adam Parrish, and Ronan’s hands were still while his mind raced with thoughts of the sweat beads that fell down Adam’s back when he sunbathed with a book in hand, the way he couldn’t quite hack how to crack open soft-boiled eggs with his work-roughened hands, the way he wrapped his lips around the cap of his pen as he wrote, curled all around his notebook because he and Gansey were Luddites who forsook laptops when academically composing.

It was ridiculous. Ronan felt like his head was constantly full of cotton wool.

Declan leveled up to calling, and then wouldn’t stop. Ronan turned off his phone, and ate a lot of rosemary bread. At night he had lurid dreams of Adam’s back heaving and his mouth opening and his thighs flexing powerfully. Gansey, who, when half-asleep, knew no shame nor boundaries nor self-preserving fear, would murmur Adam? wryly in Ronan’s ear when he felt him wake with a start, hips stirring against the mattress. His cool, minty breath on Ronan’s skin left goosebumps in its wake, made him gasp and made everything worse. Gansey would only laugh and fall back asleep when he dragged himself out of the bed for a cold shower.

(He hated Gansey, when he wasn’t too busy loving him to pieces.)

It was all eventually going to come to a head, and when it did there was no bang but a fizzling whimper. Ronan was actively avoiding his studio, trekking to one of the various ponds on the property, his favorite- a little cove of a place that reminded him of the green springs full of naiads that Gansey was always recalling in his stories. It had been the first story he’d ever told Ronan, the night after his dad’s funeral. He’d been wearing half of his suit, still, and his hair was lying all around him in feathery pieces on the bathroom floor, a nest of heartache. He’d been weeping. Gansey had tangled their bodies together until there was no point where they weren’t touching, and when hushing Ronan hadn’t soothed him he’d started murmuring a story about a place where there was only ever summertime and no one ever died, where there were immortal beings who sang of everything a man could desire, whose voices were so lovely that the men who listened needed nothing else but to hear it, not food nor water nor gold. A paradise.

That was when Ronan had known there would be no life for him without Gansey in it, and the truth remained unshakeable to this day.

So Ronan was in his little oasis, his green place, his paradise straight from myth, and he was naked, because it was Italy in the summer and this was a place where clothes weren’t important. He was hidden behind the fronds of leaves, the canopies of low-hanging fruits. He was safe. Cocooned. He was diving into the water, all bare skin and long limbs, and when he came back up for air with his lungs burning there was Adam on the pebbly shore, shirtless and golden like the sun, sculpted the way a blustery academic had no business being.

Adam did not move and did not speak, and Ronan’s throat was dry at the sight of him but he did speak.

(Was it better to speak or to die? Gansey had read to him just the other night, knowingly, their ankles tangled as they draped themselves all over the green velvet settee in the parlor.)

“Are you just going to stand there?” He challenged, and rose from the reflective pool of water as if he were Nimue. He had to stop listening to Gansey’s constant storytelling; his inner thoughts were sounding way too learned.

Adam did not plan on just standing there, as it turned out. He met Ronan at the edge of the water and the pool lapped at their toes while they kissed, searing hot and made hotter by the wetness of Ronan’s skin and the press of their bare skin together, the friction of Adam’s shorts on Ronan’s rapidly-filling cock.

And oh, it was so much. His hands kept wanting to roam, fitting themselves to every single fucking nook and cranny of Adam Parrish, classics scholar, pastoral hero; he was Endymion in the flesh and Ronan was overcome. Ronan was gasping, and they were on the pebbly shore rocking together, thighs slotted together and hands grasping.

“God, Ronan,” Adam sighed, and tipped his head back as he came, throat working and eyes shut, the fan of his lashes reddish-blonde against his sharp cheekbones. The sight had Ronan following, raising a trembling hand to trace over Adam’s face, the curve where his neck met his shoulder, the jut of his collarbones and the flat of his sternum.

They lay tangled for a long moment, and then Adam was gently pushing at him, rising up and stretching the same way he had when he’d arrived. He smiled, a perfunctory kind of expression, down at Ronan, who lay sprawled at his feet still.

“Now that we’ve got that out of our systems, I trust the atmosphere will be less tense around the villa.” He said it so genially that Ronan was almost nodding, mindless, just in response to his tone, which was not Gansey’s earnest richness but a learned smoothness that told Ronan he’d had a lot of practice spinning things to his own advantage.

He didn’t nod in agreement but it was a near thing, and first he thought he wouldn’t be able to argue.

If there was one thing Ronan Lynch was good at, though, it was arguing.

“What the hell?” He rasped, propping himself up on his elbows and drawing his teeth from his lips in a snarl. “How do you just fucking think you can decide-”

“Ronan,” Adam began, confusion seeping through the cracks in his congenial mask. Like he was so fucking surprised that Ronan had an opinion, that he wasn’t just the scowling, stupid farmboy you could fuck to scratch the itch and then impose your will upon. Fuck that.

“Fuck that,” Ronan muttered, and got up, stalking from the grove and snatching his clothes from where they hung from a tree limb. He dressed as he walked, and came up the drive of the villa thinking he’d shut himself up in his room and not come out except to milk Opal until Adam left.

“Ronan!” Henry called out when he came into view of the house, grinning and sunburnt across his cheeks the way he only ever was when they went south of the Equator where the sun was brighter, harsher, less forgiving. He loped across the grass to tug Ronan into a bro-hug. It was enthusiastic, and turned into a regular hug halfway through. Ronan bore it, the way he had borne Henry Cheng’s hugs for all the years they’d known each other and been friends. (Nearly thirteen now, and wasn’t that odd? Soon he’d have known all of these people longer than he hadn’t.)

“Ronan, are you okay?” Blue asked, a kind of maternal worry in her tone that had developed with age. She was very far from the girl they’d first met when Gansey had brought her home that first night. He’d been stumbling back to the apartment from the library, wearing his wireframes and looking like an easy fucking target in his khakis and ever-present boat shoes. Blue had beat the shit out of his would-be mugger, walked him home and just… never left. The years had softened her, too, worried down the edges of her protective nature until it became something else entirely.

She was wrapped up in Gansey’s arms; he was laying worshipful kisses on her bare shoulders. The sight of them together made Ronan’s throat ache.

Noah appeared in the doorway, flour-smudged and tired-eyed. “I’ve done it!” He exclaimed, holding aloft a loaf of bread identical to all the ones he’d produced in their absence. “The perfect recipe!” He bandied the loaf about proudly, cradling it like an infant. It distracted Blue, who flew to him to embrace him, too, and gamely try a broken-off chunk of the perfect bread.

Gansey beamed, practically hovering with his contentment. He brightened even further, however, when his eyes fell upon something past where Ronan and Henry were still standing.

“Adam!” He exclaimed. “Adam, my good man, come meet my partners! This is Blue Sargent,” he indicated Blue with an awed flourish. “And Henry Cheng,” an equally awed nod pointed out Henry. Adam’s eyes were burning when they met Ronan’s. He smiled, the expression only a little tight.

“Very nice to meet you,” he said, back to his charming self, all the momentary strickenness from the pond erased, swept back under the faux-authentic Oriental rug that was his mimicrous fortress of a monied persona.

Henry smiled, released Ronan to go shake Adam’s hand. Ronan was left feeling imbalanced, oddly chilled, stripped of his last defense.

Blue did not smile, her eyes narrowing as they darted from Ronan to Adam and back again. Whatever she saw, it did not please her. “Good to meet you,” she said, coolly, and jerked her chin towards their bags. “Ronan, come help me with these.”

Ronan did, staring at the ground, and was not surprised when she rounded on him as soon as they had passed into the relative privacy of the bedroom she shared with her boyfriends. Their bed, large and white-sheeted, looked lonely. God knew Gansey wasn’t spending any time in it without the two of them home.

“Tell me,” she said, and his hackles rose.

“Tell you what, Maggot?” He snapped back, using his old nickname for her. It made her eyebrows raise, both of them together, humming thoughtfully as if he’d spilled the entire damn story to her.

“Oh, Ronan,” she sighed, and tugged at his wrist until he relented and sat down on the edge of the bed next to her, the both of them staring at the oil painting of an armored knight settled upon a towering steed and a spear-wielding army all in red livery. Owain ap Gruffudd by A.C. Michael.

They sat for a long time and did not speak, until Noah was bellowing cheerfully through the house that dinner was ready.

Ronan spent a long time out on the terrace with Gansey and Henry, and by the time he staggered up to bed, tipsy on Noah’s strong new batch of pomegranate wine, had almost (almost) forgotten Adam’s words, Adam’s face.

Of course, he remembered it very quickly when he opened the door to find Adam there. In his room. Where no one went, except Gansey and sometimes Noah, when he had stressful dreams about Death, the hip and soulless restaurant he’d toiled at for years, becoming a glorified ghost, unappreciated and underpaid.

“Ronan,” Adam said, low and urgent, and then pulled him in with hands wrapped around his skull for a kiss, fierce and fiery. Ronan meant to pull away, to say fuck you, to kick him out.

He meant to, but didn’t, and instead fell with Adam upon his bed and gasped into his mouth.

The days that followed were a confusing blur of sex, sex with Adam, golden boy grad student, Gansey’s favorite of all their erstwhile visiting baby academics, and time spent in the studio. The clay finally allowed itself to be shaped into what Ronan saw in his head, his dreams, his nightmares.

The clay became a sleeping figure, life-sized, and Ronan finally answered Declan’s calls, if only to force his brother to obtain him some bronze and have it shipped in.

Adam was as infuriating as ever outside of the bedroom, the downstairs hall closet, the pond oasis, but even his infuriating nature became something that Ronan adored, his love building silty and strong in his gut, churning.

The sixth week of Adam’s stay dawned, heralding the arrival of the bronze Declan had sent after a long chewing-out that had Ronan threatening to break his phone and retire from the sculpture game altogether. He spent long hours in the studio making the mold and then, finally, pouring the bronze after he was sure he had every detail just right. Every eyelash, every swell of muscle, the slackness of the jaw and the sweetness of the mouth in that sleeping, fine-featured face.

Endymion, and Ronan was the biggest fool who had ever lived.

Gansey too became melancholy as the day of Adam’s departure approached, and no one in the villa liked when both Ronan and Gansey were in a bad mood. Noah alternated between tiptoeing around with baked goods and giving both of them random hugs, warm-breathed with his nose buried in their necks, not saying a word. He was good at that, comforting without asking the reason comfort was needed.

(Ronan really loved Noah Czerny.)

Finally it was the end- the last night. Blue queued up music and Henry danced enthusiastically to each song and Noah made a spread truly fit for a king, charcuterie as far as the eye could see, laid out on their outdoor dinner table. Gansey sulked, but smiled for Adam and wished him well in all sincerity.

And Ronan. Well.

Ronan got knee-walking drunk.

The night was a whirl of flailing limbs on their makeshift dance floor and salted butter smeared over warm slices of bread and so much alcohol.

The night became the wee hours of the morning, and Ronan found himself entwined with Adam in Adam’s bed, a place he had never been, laid out on sheets that smelled strongly of Adam, a scent that Ronan could not dissect or identify but was rabid for, inhaling deeply like he was trying to catch a contact high.

“Adam, Adam, Adam,” he rambled, greedy fingers and loose tongue, as Adam worked him open with slick fingers, as Adam took his (rightful) place between his thighs, as Adam thrust in, and in, and in. “Adam, Adam, Adam,”

“What?” Adam demanded finally, when the tone of Ronan’s voice grew less vague, less overwhelmed, and more urgent. “What, Ronan?” Tell me, his eyes said, and so Ronan did.

“I want- stay, Adam, stay, don’t go-” he felt out of control, nauseous as he watched the words reach Adam’s ears. He touched the delicate shells of them as if he could caress his confession back out.

Adam didn’t reply, but his face twisted in something almost like pain, and Ronan’s neck burned with the humiliation of it, of being the high school dropout loser whose only real contribution to society was a bunch of pretentious sculptures people only bought because he was Niall Lynch’s son, panting after this genius demigod of a man who had a life, who had a whole life beyond this villa.

For Ronan there was nothing but the villa, and the people who lived in it.

(The longing to add Adam to that list was gut-wrenching, and he was so embarrassed.)

They finished quickly, almost perfunctorily, and of course Ronan had fucked up the last time they’d ever have this, the two of them becoming one with the feverish intensity Ronan had always imagined. Had always thought of, when he thought true love.

God, he’d been so fucking stupid.

Adam left, and only paused at the doorway to say, low and harsh, “Ronan,” like it was the only goodbye he possessed.

Ronan fell asleep, and dreamt of Cabeswater being smashed to pieces, ravens bursting from the jagged pieces, cawing out Ronan, Ronan, Ronan in Adam’s voice.

He woke up with Blue shaking his shoulder, scowling fiercely.

“What the fuck, Maggot?” He groaned, miserable, heartbroken and hungover.

“You’re such a fucking idiot, both of you- ugh. Adam left. He got a taxi. He left a fucking note, and Gansey is freaking out, so you go fucking fix this, Ronan. Now.” Her hands were curled into fists, and abruptly she was nineteen again and getting arrested at a protest against police brutality. Ronan loved her. Ronan wanted to strangle her.

Ronan could not strangle her, because he was too busy shoving his feet into his shoes and fumbling in his desk for his seldom-used wallet, thundering down the stairs and past Gansey, wringing his hands and pacing.

Ronan couldn’t remember the last time he’d been further than the village, and then he’d always taken his bicycle. There was no time for any of that now, and so he found himself in the garage, the only outbuilding that Gansey had had built and not just renovated, when they’d moved in. There was Gansey’s little orange fiat, ramshackle and the same color as the car he’d had when they were kids, The Pig. This one was called The Piglet, formally, but also answered to You Old Marxist Piece of Shit when Ronan was wrestling with its finicky innards. It also did not reach any speeds over thirty miles an hour. It would be too slow for his purposes.

The car that Ronan had come to find was nestled beneath a tarp in the far corner of the garage, past Noah’s red pickup truck and Henry’s shiny little coupe. He yanked the tarp from it, coughing when it displaced the dust that had accumulated there, and blinked through watering eyes at the car he’d just uncovered.

The BMW was as beautiful as it had been years ago, and Ronan slid into the driver’s seat with a startling familiarity, stroking over the gearshift the same way he’d stroked over Adam’s skin.

The train station was two hours away by bike.

In the BMW, Ronan made it there in half an hour, with minutes to spare.

Or, he would’ve made it with minutes to spare, if the station clock had not historically run fourteen minutes early.

As it was, he arrived in time to see the train disappear on the horizon, and Adam with it.

“Fuck!” He bellowed, ignoring the looks he was getting from bystanders. “Fuck!” He shouted again, and went to kick the BMW’s tires viciously.

“Don’t hurt her, she’s too gorgeous.” The voice was low, and came from behind Ronan, filled with hope and humor and something else, too, something thick and complicated that matched the feeling in Ronan’s chest when he heard it.

Adam Parrish stood with his luggage around him, smiling both sheepish and self-conscious, very definitely not on a train that would take him to the airport.

“You missed your train,” Ronan said dumbly, because he could not let himself start to hope. Not again. 

“No,” Adam disagreed, and shrugged. “I didn’t get on it.”

“Why would you do that?” Ronan challenged, voice faraway. He realized that he and Adam were stepping closer and closer to each other with every exchange.

Adam was radiating heat. Ronan couldn’t breathe.

“I didn’t want to go.” Adam said simply, and Ronan kissed him then.

“Good,” he said when they parted. “I didn’t want you to.”