it had been a good job.
treasure hadn’t been invited in, which had meant less gratuitous bloodshed all around. boss had said something about her being at hot yoga. ronan wasn’t sure if that was one of his ridiculous drug metaphors. they’d had gray and a few others ronan had never seen before instead. no one had been shot. no cars had exploded. no one had needed punching. one old lady had stumbled to the ground in fear when the guns had come out, but the job was in a good part of town. probably the ambulance had gotten there quickly. anyway, ronan didn’t really like old people.
so it had been a good job. so he was celebrating, with pancakes.
nino’s was a shitty diner opposite an even shittier strip mall. ronan could make the drive there with his eyes closed. it was greasy and unkempt and terrible. once in the nineties they had experimented with serving pizza, and everything somehow still smelt of oregano and burnt cheese underneath the expected french fries and coffee stench. ronan liked it because they hadn’t updated the uniforms in almost eight years, and there was one waitress who always carved the little pancake butter pats to look like daisies. he liked it because it was open 24 hours, and because the waitresses knew him well enough not to chat. there were other reasons he liked it there, but not a single one included thinking that the coffee was any good.
this was being made particularly obvious tonight. a pot had clearly been burned, and the smell of it was underlaid by a faint hint of electrical malfunction. there was a gaggle of waitresses surrounding the machine in question. he could hear their curses over his music. they’d probably be a while. ronan sat himself and settled in to wait.
he hadn’t been here at night in a long time. matthew didn’t like to go to sleep until he knew ronan was home, and matthew needed to sleep so he could be awake for his fancy school, so usually ronan did what he could to be home by nine. matthew had a sleepover tonight though. the mom had called him on matthew’s phone and made assurances about issues that hadn’t even occurred to ronan. he’d had to grit his teeth through the whole call. he had matthew’s phone in his pocket right now, because the mom had been worried about not having a way to contact him if something went wrong. every time it buzzed with an asinine text from whatever morons matthew was making friends with he felt a rush of adrenaline.
his new burner stayed still.
“get him to come fix this,” one of the waitresses said, and then scowled at the other. she was facing away, so ronan couldn’t see her response, but it didn’t look like a polite conversation. “i don’t care! he can take his fifteen later.”
the gaggle dissolved after that. a minute later a boy walked out from the back, singing.
he was tall and lanky but he walked slightly hunched, like he was examining every step before he took it. as he passed one of the waitresses, he gave her a twisting smile and a wildflower that looked like it had seen better days. it was the daisy butter pat waitress, the short one, and she smiled big and stuck the flower in her notepad.
ronan yanked an earbud out right as the boy glanced at him.
“b-a-b-y baby!” he sang in time with the pulsing beat in ronan’s right ear, voice roundly happy, and then he pointed a finger gun at ronan, who had to look away. he kept one ear free until the whine got to be too much, hoping to hear more, but the song must’ve been over.
“what can i get you today?” the waiter asked later, after he’d fixed the coffee machine and shrugged on his uniform shirt over a coffee-stained white tee and wandered over to ronan’s table. when he was talking and not singing, his mouth looked quicker, thinner, distracted. he kept glancing around the diner and over his shoulder.
“pancakes,” ronan said. his hand brushed up against the earphone cords. “and coffee.”
now the waiter was looking straight at him. his head was tilted like he was looking at a puzzle.
sorry. it’s bad that i assume.
“why are you signing?” he asked, and then realized his hands had been following along to his words without letting him know.
you started it. he was smiling. ronan’s heart thumped strangely. pancakes and a coffee. give me ten minutes.
he was back in a song’s time.
ronan jumped a little when the plate was thunked down in front of him. he’d been thinking about the hateful little burner in his right pocket. specifically, he’d been daydreaming about dropping it in a pot of coffee and breaking the machine all over again.
what song is it? the waiter signed, and then gestured like he was tapping at ronan’s left earbud from a foot away.
he didn’t know the name of the song. it might’ve been a remix of a remix. on the ipod screen was just a string of numbers which didn’t mean anything to anyone but ronan. “wanna listen?” ronan asked instead of answering, holding out the earbud that had been gestured at. the waiter grinned.
i’ll be sneaky, he signed, checking over his shoulder before sliding into the booth.
“i don’t need you to sign. i can hear okay most of the time. i wasn’t paying attention,” ronan explained, and there was that puzzle look again.
“i don’t mind at all,” the waiter said, in a slow summer heat voice, “but i’ll talk if it makes you more comfortable.”
comfortable was not really the word. ronan’s heart was pounding in rhythm, but watching those hands twist wasn’t going to calm it down any, so he shrugged and offered the earbud again.
the waiter held it outside his right ear instead of putting it in, which was weird, but polite. ronan cranked the volume up to compensate.
it didn’t sound like a happy oh. ronan moved to yank the cord, but his hand was swatted away.
let me listen, the waiter signed, fast like he was irritated, then held the earbud back up to the wrong ear.
ronan wasn’t sure why the waiter was still signing when he knew he didn’t need to. he wasn’t sure why the waiter had sat down across from him at all. he was pretty sure it wasn’t something that was supposed to happen, because it never had before, and two of the waitresses at the counter were shooting them looks. he glared at them and drank his coffee, watching the way the waiter tapped his middle finger against his own bicep along to the beat.
after about a minute of scratching bass that soothed ronan’s nerves, the waiter placed the bud carefully onto the table by ronan’s hand. “thank you. i should get back, i got tables,” he said, but he didn’t stand. his fingers drummed along the formica table once, twice. “would you tell me your name?”
“baby,” ronan’s mouth said before he could stop it.
“b-a-b-y, baby? well. that’s why you were so offended by my singing, huh? i guess it is rightfully your song.”
he was laughing, but it was a nice, sunshine kind of laugh. ronan didn’t know how to say that he hadn’t been offended, that he’d just wanted to hear more. he stayed quiet.
“well, i’m adam,” adam said. “thanks for letting me rest my feet, baby. want a refill on that coffee?”
“alright. you know where to find me if you change your mind.”
it hadn’t been a lie. his name was baby, nowadays, almost. maybe he should’ve given matthew’s sign for ronan, but that was lynch brother stuff. he hadn’t lied.
he felt like he had lied.
“a hot one,” he saw one of the waitresses say through a laugh, and the short one elbowed her. an irritable call from the kitchen sent them all scattering, but adam smiled down at ronan every time he passed, and once ronan heard him singing muffled from the back, you go to my head.
adam was nowhere to be found when ronan had finished, but that was okay. he knew how much pancakes and a coffee was by heart. he left double that on the table.
treasure threw her green smoothie across the room the second he walked into the room. ronan ducked, but it still clipped him in the shoulder.
“i hate this kid. why do you always use this kid, colin, he brings down the entire vibe of my heist.”
“the vibe of your heist? i use him because he’s fast,” boss said. “also. treasure. sugar plum. angel. please, no names.”
“like a back alley hooker,” k added, laughing, because that was apparently what this fuckshow needed.
“sure, like back alley hooker,” boss said agreeably. he wore a three-piece suit, because he was the biggest dickhead alive. he looked like investment banker ken doll, which was fitting, because his wife looked like stepford asylum barbie. one of k’s lackeys sat at the end of the table. ronan didn’t know his name, mostly because they were all interchangeable.
“no one is rewarding you for diversity hires, husband. his whole sulking mute act? it ruins our rhythm,” treasure was explaining. somehow, she had acquired another bottle of green smoothie. “he throws off group cohesion. he is not a team player. he has absolutely terrible dress sense. also, he called me a bitch once.”
ronan had in fact done so multiple times, and worse, but never out loud, so there was no way she could’ve known that.
“so is he or is he not able to talk?” boss asked. he eyed ronan warily, like he was trying to figure out if beating up one of his best assets was a less desirable option than not getting laid for three weeks. ronan wanted him to come down on the side of no, mostly because ronan was usually the one contracted to dole out those beatings, so it’d be interesting to see how that conundrum would be solved.
“he said it with his eyes,” treasure shot back, waving a dismissive, perfectly manicured hand.
k’s lackey said something offensive to both ronan and the mentally ill community at large. ronan threw a toy car at him without looking. k’s lackey yelped.
k shot up, threw his hands out wide. “hey hey hey hey, baby! we can’t work in these conditions, boss, we can. not. not under this kind of--goddamn hostility. leash your fucking wild dog.” he mirrored ronan’s bared teeth with his own.
“apologize to k, baby.”
“eat a dick, k.”
a strangled screech caught the room’s attention, just in time for them all to watch treasure launch the backup smoothie at boss, who ducked with the practiced ease of a man who lived every moment with his life and manhood on the line. she stomped out before the bottle had a chance to clatter to the ground. it was an impressive feat in six inch stilettos. everyone but ronan watched her go.
“i’ll brief her later,” boss said after a beat, and k wolf whistled.
impossibly enough, the job managed to get worse from there.
not by boss’s standards, because they got the cash and they all walked away. certainly not by k’s standards, because he had more than had his fun. for her part, treasure got to shoot a guy in the foot, so probably she didn’t have any complaints either.
when boss took ronan’s cut, he reached into the bag and removed two wads of bills. he handed them both to ronan. “a gift,” he said, bleach white teeth on display. “buy something for that kid brother of yours with the extra.”
ronan had to go home to stash the money, but he didn’t want to sit in the apartment with a sleeping matthew while blood ran in his head, so he left for the diner. besides last time, besides adam, they mostly left him alone there. he would sit for as long as he needed to sit, and then once he could be in his own brain without wanting to puke he would go for a long drive. maybe he would go see noah. maybe he would just go home to bed. either way, the shitshow day would be over soon and behind him forever.
he bumped into someone on the way in.
“b-a-b-y baby,” said adam’s voice, quiet and warm. he said it matter of fact, like a real name, not sleazy and crooning. “you missed me by a minute. it was a slow night. i missed your music.”
being alone suddenly sounded unbearable. “where are you going?” he asked.
“out. away. to do errands, actually,” adam replied. he was wearing a threadbare white undershirt, free of coffee stains, and a beat-up denim jacket. he looked gentler out of the starched-up black uniform shirt. the bass dropped in ronan’s ears.
“you need a ride?”
adam laughed, like ronan had told a funny joke, then stopped and looked at him strange. “well, but i’m leaving right now, and you’re on your way to breakfast.”
“i had breakfast already.”
“you had breakfast already.” for a beat, adam looked worried. ronan stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and turned back to the door. “hey!” a hand grabbed his shoulder and he turned, just slightly, enough to see adam’s mouth. “i didn’t say no. come on.”
ronan walked over towards the bmw, but adam stayed on the pavement. “one of my errands is just over there, we can walk it,” he said, pointing towards the strip mall. ronan shrugged and followed him.
it turned out they were doing laundry.
adam emptied out his bag into one of the machines, glancing sideways at ronan, then loaded in his quarters. “so. i don’t want to be cocky, but it kind of sounded like you came by the diner to see me.”
“no,” ronan said, and adam turned away. “i go there all the time. i just didn’t want to miss you.”
“ah,” adam said, like ronan had told him a secret. he had that little twisted smile on again. “well, here’s what you’re not missing. it’s a little boring. normally i study while i wait, but not now i have company.”
“i don’t care if you study.” ronan was used to floating on the peripheral of other people’s educational endeavors.
“i guess you got your music to entertain you,” adam said. “that’s okay. i’m not in school right now anyway. i just like to keep prepared.”
“it’s november,” ronan said. matthew was in school right now, and even his fancy school still kept regular holidays. maybe college worked differently. adam didn’t look young enough for high school, and he didn’t think normal jobs let high schoolers work overnight.
“i took a semester off,” adam said, jaw tight.
“huh,” ronan said. he didn’t know enough about college to tell if that was a bad thing. the way adam’s shoulders were screwed up, it looked like it might’ve been.
“i am at a pitstop in my life,” adam explained. his voice was soft and full of mean laughter, unleashed and turned inwards. he was fiddling with the gumball machine by the door, but he was turned so ronan could see his lips. it occurred to ronan that maybe this was deliberate. “i got a lucky start and i took off going as fast as i could, and then i ran myself off the road. so now i’m working at that shithole ‘til i can get going again. whoops. sorry for insulting your favorite joint.”
synth whined in his ears, an unhelpful mimicry. ronan didn’t like to talk about car crashes, even in metaphors. it felt unlucky.
“it is a shithole,” he said. “my mom always said so. the pancakes are okay.”
pale eyebrows raised in surprise. “your mom worked at nino’s?”
“yeah. long as i remember. she sang like you too.”
the harsh white light made adam’s flush more obvious. ronan decided he liked it. he wanted to push back the floppy hair that hid the top of adam’s ear. he wanted to rest his thumb on adam’s jugular and watch his head tilt, puzzling.
“i’m sure your mom sang much better than me. i just do it for fun, sometimes. it makes blue laugh.”
adam, ronan was realizing, was good at saying things that made no sense.
“mom liked the same songs you do. big ones.”
“what, you mean songs with words? songs by people and not robots?” adam teased. ronan smiled his shark smile.
“songs like b-a-b-y baby.” he wanted to watch adam laugh forever.
“well, your mom had taste, ‘cause that’s a good song. not that you need to worry, you have a million good songs. no adam songs out there at all,” adam said, and ronan shrugged.
“i know a couple. they’re sad ones mostly.”
“well, that’s no good,” adam replied. he looked thoughtful. his legs kept jittering in his sneakers. “come over here. i want to listen to more of your not-big songs.”
the word in ronan’s brain for not-big was low, or maybe loud, but he didn’t correct adam. he sprawled out on the bench instead and pulled out the orange ipod.
“how many of those do you have?” adam asked, and he sounded almost annoyed.
“different ones for different sounds.”
“uh huh. of course, silly me. what does bright orange with...neon skull stickers sound like, then?”
noah, ronan thought. he offered adam an earbud.
“what happened to your hand?”
everything in adam's face said he knew exactly what had happened to ronan’s hand. there weren’t all that many explanations for split knuckles.
“some guy. started a fight about a car.”
the car had been said guy’s, and he’d started the fight because ronan had dragged him out of it. car swaps got messy.
adam was considering his hand with intense focus. one elegant pointer finger stretched out to prod the scraped skin, and ronan’s hand flexed painfully without his permission. after half a beat, adam’s hand dropped to his lap. “i need the other earbud. maybe you should sit on my other side, too.”
“what’s wrong with this one?”
“well, it says l here,” adam explained. “i can’t hear in my left ear.”
“oh. i thought you just knew sign language,” ronan said. adam turned to face him, sitting criss cross applesauce on the bench, and he tugged the right earbud from ronan’s ear.
“not too many people know asl just because, i don’t think. you’re in limited company there, baby.”
“i know it for my brother,” ronan told him.
adam hummed and put the earbud in. “i know this one! god, it’s old though.”
they sat there while adam’s clothes washed. adam didn’t like the murder squash song, or any of ronan’s remixes of the same, but he did like the stupid pop punk stuff about getting out of this deadbeat town and finding love. his knee jittered up and down against his sneakers until ronan tapped one finger down onto the bone, and then he stilled. the peace didn’t last long, but when he started up again instead of shaking he grabbed ronan’s hand and fiddled with ronan’s fingers, with the leather bands on his wrist, tapping out beats on ronan’s knuckles. every feather-light brush of his pinky finger against ronan’s scars made ronan want to throw his head back and scream.
adam asked questions between songs, and ronan tried to answer them. a lot were things he couldn’t share-where he worked, why he kept such weird hours.
i’m a driver, he offered after thinking for a beat. that was safe enough, right? they keep me on call.
it was easier to talk about matthew. he got to watch adam laugh big when the stories were funny, and smile soft when ronan told him about the new school and how much better for him it was than the public one.
“that’s a great opportunity,” adam said. he was a lot more convincing than the suit of a guidance counselor had been when ronan had first thought about enrolling matthew. “you’re a good brother.”
it was as addicting as it was terrible, how obviously adam didn’t know.
the buzzer for the machine went off, and ronan jumped up, yanking the loaned earbud with him.
“i still have to use the dryer,” adam said. “you can go on, though, if you need to get home. there’s a bus i can take, i’ll be just fine.”
matthew wouldn’t be home from school for hours. ronan sat back down.
he watched adam smile, and then he watched adam busy himself with the laundry. he moved the way he had at the diner-precise, distracted, like he was running on autopilot. his eyes looked faraway.
finally he came back to the bench.
“do you come to the diner to remember your mom?” he asked.
ronan grit his teeth.
“you don’t have to talk. i just thought maybe you wanted to.”
“i’m no good at talking.”
“show me what songs she sang, then,” adam said instead of arguing, which was nice. lots of people took that admission as a chance to convince ronan otherwise.
he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket (for secrets, he could hear his father saying) and pulled out an ipod. it was old, squat and dented gray, and scrawled on the back in looping cursive it said mom & ronan.
this reminded him of his lie to adam. he felt too bad to talk, so he focused on untangling the headphones.
“oh, i like this one,” adam said once he’d hit play. ronan wasn’t surprised. it sounded like sunshine, like adam’s laugh. “stop making a fool out of me,” he half sang, and then his eyes fluttered closed. he had leaned in close enough that his eyelashes were countable things.
time slid. songs bled into each other, one terrible lovely memory after the next on shuffle. ronan blinked and suddenly he was alone on the bench, and adam was packing up his bag of folded laundry. he raised an eyebrow when he caught ronan’s eye.
“i think you dozed off on me. are you good to drive?”
“okay then. let’s go.”
cars, apparently, were adam’s thing. he’d laid an appreciative palm on the hood of the bmw when they first walked up, then swatted at ronan’s arm, in punishment for smugness, he said. for the first five minutes of the drive he’d stared intently at the side of ronan’s face while flipping through songs. after he’d settled on a old remix, low and heavy, he’d curled his right hand around ronan’s wrist, a second set of bracelets, and curled his body towards the driver side. ronan, who drove every day through sirens and collisions and gunshots, had almost swerved off the road.
“it’s funny that this is your job, but you still like doing it outside work. i can’t even look at a cup of coffee on my days off.”
“this isn’t my job,” ronan told him.
“you said you were a driver.”
“not this kind of driving.”
pale brows furrowed. “what, do you do stunts or something?”
ronan thought about driving through a highway barricade and off a bridge. “sure, i do stunts.”
“typical. i always like the ones with the death wishes,” adam said, shaking his head.
he wanted to tease back, but he hadn’t lied when he’d told adam he was bad at talking. he settled for saying, “so you like me?”
adam didn’t laugh. when ronan glanced over again, he looked serious. “i’m deciding,” he said at length, which was just fine. that meant he’d stay to keep puzzling over ronan until he figured it out. he started telling ronan about about what he did on his days off, which weren’t really days off since they mostly seemed to be spent at the body shop he worked at. he told ronan about how he’d spent the summer working on a pit crew at a demolition derby. he talked about the wrecks he’d had to piece together lately, and ronan had listened and purposely not thought about if any of the carnage sounded familiar.
he recognized the neighborhood adam pointed him towards, and then the city block, and then finally the building. “this is my church,” he told adam. “you live in my church?”
adam looked just as surprised, as if he was only in that moment realizing what kind of building housed him. “i don’t live in the church. they have extra apartments in the building behind the church, now that the nuns live, well, somewhere else. wherever it is they live. they let students rent them. do you go often?”
“every week,” ronan said.
“small world,” adam replied, but there was a worry line etched between his brows. “i should go. thank you for the ride, baby. coffee’s on me next time you stop by nino’s. i’ll let blue know in case i’m not there.”
“wait,” ronan said. for a beat, there was nothing but music. “i lied. baby’s not my name.”
elegant fingers stilled on the door handle. “i kind of figured,” adam said, all his worry erased by a grin, and then he was gone.
ronan drove himself to the grocery store, for flowers, then to noah. he couldn’t stop thinking about that worry line. adam had only seen ronan’s good, his matthew stories and the bmw and mom’s ipod, but he still knew enough to be wary. he was smart, a college kid, a mechanic. the problem was in that puzzle look that ronan liked so much-between the appeal of the sharp jaw and sharp eyes and the long line of neck, ronan had forgotten he couldn’t actually afford to be puzzled out.
he stayed with noah until it started drizzling, because noah would’ve made fun if he stayed any longer. you can’t stand in a graveyard in the rain, you sad sack, that’s too on the nose emo. that’s a cliche. have some fucking subtlety, man.
there was a white mitsubishi evo idling on ronan’s block when he finally got home. it was odd, because the bmw was normally the nicest car in the neighborhood, and spine chilling, because ronan knew the owner of this particular car. he flipped it off. k yelled something in response, but all ronan could hear was the noise of it over a 3/4 meter.
you look sad, matthew accused much later, swinging his legs back and forth into the kitchen cupboards. ronan had spent most of the day playing around on his keyboard. matthew had come home hours after the encounter with k and offered to make dinner, and now ronan was wrestling with mac and cheese solidified in the pot because matthew had gotten distracted by some phone game. probably ronan was lucky the apartment hadn’t burnt down.
“i’m too mean to be sad,” ronan told him, setting the spatula down so he could sign back. matthew grinned, a big cartoon thing.
true. where were you this morning? had to make my own breakfast.
none of your fucking business. fuck off to bed.
matthew copied the sign for fuck off a couple times, because he knew how it annoyed ronan to see him curse, and laughed out loud as he dodged a congealed clump of mac and cheese. he rambled on for a bit, about friends and school and the whether the upstairs neighbor was actually a spy.
going to bed, ronan informed him after about an hour of this, eyebrows raised like a hint.
sure. where’s the paint?
“paint?” ronan asked, imbuing the accompanying sign with as much arch sarcasm as he could. what for?
art project for tomorrow. i have a free period, but the studio isn’t open.
ronan felt an irritating rush of sympathy for every foster parent he’d ever been inflicted on. but you were going to study for history in your free.
matthew’s mouth opened in a rounded oh.
the night became a rush of unearthing old acrylic paints from closets and hunting down newspaper so they wouldn’t get paint on the floor and lose the deposit and flicking matthew’s ear because he was such a ditz what the fuck just because you’re blonde doesn’t mean you need to fit the stereotype, but by the time three o’clock rolled around they had a passable picasso-inspired self portrait on their hands and ronan had barely spared a thought to the worried crease on adam’s face.
he spent three weeks not thinking about it. he was okay at it, except in church, because he kept wondering if adam could hear the organ playing and the singing from his apartment. if he joined in, maybe, humming under his breath. cars were hard too, in that parked empty space before the rush where all he had was noise and time to remember adam’s fingers resting on the passenger door of the bmw, but what came after usually took care of that. he had other things to think about, like how seeing the white knife flash of k’s car in the corner of his eye was becoming an almost daily occurrence, and how matthew’s algebra teacher was making noise about summer school, which the social workers would have a fucking field day with. he won a fight for boss, drove a car, dropped a different car at a demolition yard, threw a fight.
it was after the last one that boss looked him in the eye and smiled. he looked out of place in the dingy parking garage, like he’d gotten lost, like he was genetically predisposed to frequent establishments with valet parking. he peeled out bills, two four six eight ten, clipped them together with a new burner phone, pressed the bundle into ronan’s hand. then he said, “this is it, baby. one more job and we’re square. do you understand me? nod like you understand me.”
“i’ll be done?” ronan asked. his voice sounded angry.
boss laughed. “well. we’ll be square. you should put some ice on that, by the way. really just looks horrifyingly ugly. maybe get hit in the head less, next time, that can’t be good for the tinnitus. are you listening? i wish you would take those earbuds out when i talk to you, baby. alright, now fuck off.”
he walked off without watching to see if ronan followed orders. ronan did anyway. five year old habits got hard to break.
the next time he went by the diner, he was free.
no burner phone. no next job. just a pile of bills under a floorboard and a whole lot of empty time.
“adam! it’s your regular!” the short waitress called out when she caught sight of him.
“thank you, blue,” adam replied from the kitchen, not sounding thankful at all. when he walked out into the restaurant he smiled and said, “hey, baby,” though ronan had already confessed to the lie. the waitress he called blue raised her eyebrows at adam, who ignored her. ronan followed him to a table and watched him straighten the salt and pepper, then the menu place-mat, then futilely scrub his apron against a stain. “we haven’t seen you here for a while.”
“work,” ronan said.
“right, they keep you on call.”
“not anymore,” ronan told him, and just like that he realized it was real, it was true, and he couldn’t help grinning.
adam didn’t look as pleased as he was meant to. “oh, shit, did you get fired?”
“retired,” ronan told him. “my contract ran out. i’m done.”
“retired? and here i thought you were bald by choice.”
it was hard not to smile at adam’s dorky laugh, but ronan had plenty of practice scowling. “you shouldn’t insult paying customers.”
“maybe not, but how else would you know you’re special?” adam asked him, leaning forward a little with one hand against the table. his fingers splayed out awkwardly. ronan’s hand flicked out to tap two fingers against his wrist, right on the pulse, where there was a pale band of skin that interrupted the tanned lines of his bones. adam didn’t move away.
“when do you get off?”
“so what are you gonna do with yourself now?” he asked three songs later, sliding into the passenger seat of the bmw. his words spilled together when he sounded happy, like he was worried he might not be able to get them out fast enough. his undershirt was forest green this time. ronan wanted to twist his fingers into it.
“take you to dinner,” ronan told him, mostly to watch adam roll his eyes.
“you actually aren’t, because i already got us both food,” he shot back, shaking his stuffed backpack to demonstrate. “what you are going to do is take us somewhere we can park and eat and you can do some explaining.”
ronan could do most of that. he peeled out of the diner parking lot with a show-off kind of screeching turn, and adam frowned.
“you should treat your car better.”
“sure,” ronan agreed. adam had reached out to hold on to ronan’s right wrist again, like a habit. his hand was solid and strong. ronan twisted his own palm upwards and swept his thumb along the back of adam’s, along what felt like a raised scar, feeling bones and tendons and veins and dry skin. adam squeezed.
he took them to a grassy viewpoint, one of his and noah’s old places.
adam toed off his sneakers before climbing onto the hood, leaving them with his backpack resting in the grass. he was quiet as he unpacked their dinners. he didn’t say stop watching me, so ronan didn’t. he handed ronan a to-go coffee cup and a styrofoam box that smelled like syrup and bacon with a plastic fork balanced on top, and popped open his own to reveal a burger and fries. when it looked like he’d arranged everything, he hugged his knees to his chest and took a deliberate breath.
“you should tell me your name,” he said. he didn’t say, and don’t lie.
heavy edm slithered out the open windows into the night air. as always, it sounded like if he closed his eyes and reached out, he could catch it in his palms. adam was waiting. “ronan.”
“ronan,” adam said, sounding it out. “that’s what’s on the back of your mom’s ipod.”
after another breath, adam folded his legs down and leaned a little closer. he watched intently when ronan showed him how to sign matthew’s version of ronan. he dipped his fries in ronan’s syrup, laughed when ronan pushed his hands away and pretended to gag. the music thumping in the background and the sharp line of adam’s jaw conspired to raise ronan’s blood. adam asked, “why did you say baby, that day?”
“nickname,” ronan explained, taking a bite of bacon. adam had persuaded him to dip it into the already polluted syrup. it tasted okay, but he finished the rest of the piece without going for more. “my boss likes them. he knew my dad, when i was a kid.” then he frowned. “old boss. my old boss,” he reminded himself.
there was that worry line again.
“it’s not a very professional nickname,” adam pointed out. ronan shrugged.
“he liked to joke. since i was always the youngest one on the job.”
it had been more than that. part was petty cruelty-when they were younger, a confused declan had thought that baby was ronan’s given name, and sheer older brother dickishness had meant the name had stuck far past the age where ronan was willing to tolerate it. declan’s confusion had sprung from the fact that baby was their mother’s favorite pet name for ronan, and their father had delighted in explaining the nickname to anyone who asked. the other part of it was his own private joke: naming his pet monster baby, naming his terrible cruel wife treasure. adam didn’t know ronan was poison, though. the worst he’d seen was a half-lie and some busted knuckles. ronan didn’t want to prove that worry line right.
“only matthew calls me ronan anymore. he signs it. i forgot.”
adam nodded, once, sharp and short.
“you don’t have to worry about me,” ronan told him. he wasn’t sure why adam would, but the set of his shoulders was unmistakable.
“i worry about everything,” adam said, then laughed at himself.
ronan took his hand, thought about bringing it to his lips. words bubbled and fought for precedence on the very tip of his tongue. he managed, “tell me.”
adam was worried about rent. adam was worried about ronan’s rent, too. he was worried about matthew’s school now that ronan had no job. he was worried about his own school, about whether they would take him back. he was worried about his job, and how boyd had started to pay him extra and under the table for certain cars, and how those cars sometimes came in with bullet holes. he was worried about blue, the daisy waitress, who had applied for a scholarship for some trip to some country far away and wasn’t sure if she would get it. he was worried what would happen if she didn’t, and what would happen if she did. he was worried about blue’s mom, or her aunt, or one of her friends, who had been ill the last time he visited. he was worried about his own mom, but he didn’t give a reason for this. he was worried about the dog who lived in the apartment below him who barked all day because she got left alone. he related all this quietly, systematically, like he was reading off a list. the whole time he was talking, he never looked away from where he was toying with a loose thread in the hem of his jeans.
“i was worried i wouldn’t get a chance to see you again, too,” he said finally.
“you live where i go to church,” ronan offered.
“i work sundays.” then he looked at ronan, with clever eyes that said they knew all your secrets. “most sundays. not this sunday, though.”
“you shouldn’t be worried about my job, either,” ronan told him, because he wasn’t sure what to do with a direct invitation. “it’s good i’m out.”
“if i asked you if you were really just a stunt driver, would you lie to me?”
“no,” ronan said, and hoped desperately he wouldn’t ask.
“you had blood on your shirt, that day we went to the laundromat, and your knuckles.”
“blood wasn’t mine.”
“yeah. that’s what worried me.”
“wasn’t mine like that, either.”
“you mean you didn’t do it. you just drove.”
“you said you had a contract. you said you worked for your dad’s old friend. did you owe him something?”
“okay.” adam took a deep breath. “okay. but it’s been paid off now, so you’re done.”
“you really believe that?”
boss had said they were square. he was an asshole, an pompous idiot, but he said what he meant. a person didn’t get to be where he was by making false promises.
“how long did you work for him?”
“five years,” ronan said, and adam blinked.
“but you’re my age. you’re my age, right?”
“you were a getaway driver at fourteen?” adam shook his head, and his hair tumbled down into his eyes. he brushed it away impatiently. “that’s not the point. the point is he had you for five years. why would he let go of you now?”
“he didn’t have me,” ronan bit back. adam didn’t shrink from his anger. he had both palms up and outstretched, saintlike, imploring, offering up his logic for ronan’s perusal. “he said the debt was paid. maybe he’s tired of looking at me.” that sounded like a boss sort of thing to say.
“unlikely,” adam replied. it was too matter of fact to be flirting. ronan hoped he was thinking too hard to be paying attention. he could feel himself flushing. “what was stopping him from just upping the amount you owed or whatever?”
none of this was making sense. it had been an honest debt: somewhere out there was an itemised bill, probably. there was a standard market price for the services boss had rendered, not just an imaginary number pulled out of nowhere. ronan tried not to think about whelk’s skull cracking under his fist, vital fluids slipping between his knuckles.
“i’m sorry,” adam said suddenly, laughing softly. “this is what i mean. you don’t want to talk about this, you were just being nice to reassure me and i went crazy on you.”
it was hard to know what to do when that mean laughter bubbled up. it wasn’t an unfamiliar sound. ronan had known he was strange in so many ways for so long, and he wasn’t like matthew, too kind and gentle and happy to realise or care what others thought. the hard thing was that adam was never laughing at ronan or anyone besides himself, and so ronan’s schoolyard reflexes of throwing a punch weren’t helpful. he kicked gently at the arch of adam’s socked foot. adam smiled, jaw tight.
“what do you want?” he asked.
ronan could tell he meant this in more than the boring acknowledging sense.
“i want to go to my home,” ronan told him, and then worried that adam might misunderstand, but he just sat there, listening and waiting. “we used to live on a farm. we had cows. my mom made homemade cheese, and she always had the radio on. that’s what i want.”
“i wanted college,” adam confided. “more than anything else in the world, i wanted to go to college. i still want it. i think i just spent so long wanting to be anywhere else than where i was that the part of me that knew how to stay put in one place broke.”
he looked so mournful, curled up small against the entire night sky. ronan reached out to brush his hair back, the way his mother used to back when ronan had hair, and a mother. it was soft and wiry running through his fingers. adam leaned into the touch, fitting his cheek against ronan’s open palm, and when his eyes opened they were serious and still.
“ronan,” he said, voice rough, and that was more than ronan could bear.
the kiss was quick, over before it had begun. ronan’s lips were just slightly wet from the sparse contact, and he felt the thrill of that all the way down his sternum. adam had reached forward to capture ronan’s neck in his palm, not pulling him back in but keeping him from retreating any further. they were mirrors of each other. adam’s eyelashes fluttered against the pad of ronan’s thumb, and his fingertips scraped through stubble when he held tighter.
“come here,” he said, and he guided ronan forward until his head was resting in the crook of adam’s shoulder, slow and mindful of the remains of their dinner spotted across the hood of the car. luck had already been pressed and found steadfast, so ronan brought his hand down and twisted it into the softness of adam’s shirt, knuckles brushing against cotton brushing against skin. his nose brushed adam’s collarbone, making adam squirm and then settle.
they stayed like that, and when it was time to go ronan packed the trash up and watched adam pull on his sneakers. after he had crouched to tie them and straightened back to his full height, ronan tossed the car keys his way.
“don’t get us lost,” he said, and adam smiled.