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the cracked and the cared for

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Adam hadn’t slept well. He spent the night waking intermittently to a pressing, unnamable feeling—like suddenly remembering that he was late for work, or had forgotten to study for a test, but he knew it wasn’t either. He thought it might have had something to do with Cabeswater’s restless murmuring, and decided it could wait, at least until daylight.

But when he woke again, even though his eyes were shut and he was trying to close off the feeling, something was still needling at him, insistent, and he couldn’t fall back asleep. He blinked his eyes open and stared up at the pitched ceiling, streaked with hazy, early-morning light, before flipping over towards the place where Ronan would be sleeping beside him, on the floor.

He was gone. It wasn’t exactly unusual for him to leave in the middle of the night, but something still prickled at the back of Adam’s neck. He tried to shake it off. The cheap digital clock set on the box beside his mattress told him it was well before his alarm would ring.

Adam sighed and sat up, spine cracking unpleasantly, put his feet on the floor and stood, careful not to tangle himself in the blanket strewn across his floor. He stepped in something wet. Frowning, he lifted up his foot to see a dark stain on his sock, and then looked down to see droplets seeping into the hardwood floor, barely visible in the low light.

Adam’s heart lurched. He stumbled to the wall to flip the light switch and immediately his eyes caught on a small pool underneath the place where Ronan had slept, smeared and tacky and dark. Red drips were scattered over his blanket and a trail of them lead to the door. There wasn’t enough blood for it to be truly gruesome, but it was more than enough for a sense of dread to wrap around Adam’s throat.

He had trouble taking in a breath, suddenly. His lungs felt tight in his chest.

Unthinking, Adam burst out of the door to his apartment into the cold morning air and trampled down St. Agnes’ back steps. The BMW was still parked in the lot, empty, so Adam turned back towards the church, wrapped back around to the front doors. His hand shook as he took the handles and pried them open with a sickly creak, old hinges and old wood.

The spice of rich incense filled his nose. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes and in a flash, his mind brought him the sight of Ronan torn apart, mutilated, dying, dying. The wide open eyes of his lifeless body on the floor, face twisted in agony, the real Ronan standing over him.

Adam had had nightmares about it for days after. Nausea slipped in with the fear, swirling together in his gut like the deluge of half-formed what-ifs that played out in his mind’s eye.

When he opened his eyes again, Adam could see Ronan seated in the pews towards the front, head bowed in prayer, but not dead.

Not dead.

Adam tried to slow his breathing so it wouldn’t echo off the high ceilings. He walked towards Ronan in hurried steps, but stopped in the aisle, hesitant. His fingers tripped over the wood of the pews, desperate for something to hold onto. And he looked at Ronan.

He was haloed in the light streaming in through the stained glass window, his silhouette ethereal and unreal, skin kissed by bright blue and yellow and red.

So much red.

Ronan had his arms draped over the pew in front of him, hands covered in a mixture of drying and fresh blood. It was dripping off his fingertips. The arm holes of his muscle tee were wide enough that he could see Ronan’s rib cage.

And Adam gasped when he saw it, almost too choked to make a sound. Ronan didn’t even seem to hear it.  

His side was sliced open—three identical, parallel gashes cut across his ribs, the wounds dripping slowly over Ronan’s skin, seeping into his shirt, his jeans. There was a blood-soaked cloth on the bench, something he’d probably used to try to stop the bleeding, but it was unrecognizable, now.

Adam took a breath. Relief washed over him, just for a moment dulling the fear clawing his throat. Ronan was okay. The wound looked shallow and he probably hadn’t lost too much blood. He was okay.

“Ronan,” Adam whispered.

Ronan lifted his head up to fix him with a look of disdain so incomplete it lasted for barely a second before collapsing on itself. Something lurked around the edges of his expression, clinging onto his handsome features, giving away his exhaustion, his fear.

It was so clear to Adam, who had been exhausted and afraid all his life, whose face was probably marred with both, now, too.

As Adam walked towards him, Ronan’s eyes, glassy and unfocused, drifted towards the crucifix staring down at them from behind the altar. Its features and body were distorted in anguish, rivulets of painted blood pouring from the punctures in its hands and feet, the crown of thorns around its head. The wound in its side. Adam felt sick.

When he turned back to Ronan, his brows were pinched in what Adam suddenly realized was pain.

He stopped himself from reaching out. To do what, he wasn’t sure. Try to staunch the bleeding, maybe, or offer comfort. But he didn’t do either and he dropped into the seat beside Ronan, close but not touching.

Adam let Ronan stare, unseeing, at the dying form of Jesus Christ for a long time, while Adam got himself under control. He waited until his heartbeat evened out and he could think past the haze of panic that still suffocated him.

He glanced at Ronan, and though his expression was tight—a barely restrained cascade of emotion behind his eyes—Adam thought, helplessly, in that moment, that he was almost unbearably beautiful.

Ronan was looking back, now. Adam said, “You okay?”

Ronan snorted. Stupid question.

“Come on,” Adam said.

He stood up, touched his fingers to Ronan’s bare shoulder. His skin was unbelievably warm. When Ronan looked up at him, he nodded his head towards the doors in the back of the church and held out a hand, an offering. Ronan sneered, heaved himself up with a grimace and clasped his hand around his rib cage. He grabbed the cloth in the other and as it unfolded, Adam realized it was one of his shirts, now ruined.

He hated himself for caring about it, in the face of all this.

Adam led the way out of the door, around the back of the building, and as they passed the parking lot, he stopped. It was just for a moment, but long enough that Ronan said, “No.” His voice was scratchy and rough like he’d been screaming.

Adam sighed, exasperated. “You don't even—“

“I’m not going to the fucking hospital, Parrish.”

“Those might need stitches.”

“Who gives a fuck.”  

He passed Adam, knocking him out of the way with his shoulder and then hissing through his teeth from the pain. Adam didn’t say, ‘I do,’ he said, “Don’t blame me if you get sepsis, Lynch.”

Adam was suddenly aware that he had no shoes on, and his feet were cold on the pavement, socks offering poor protection.

Ronan walked towards his apartment without being asked. It was a relief to have one less thing to argue about. This was going to be difficult enough as it was.

Ronan’s steps were plodding and slow, and Adam found that his hand kept reaching out as if to brace him. He really had no idea how much blood he’d lost—if it was enough to make him clumsy or faint.

Adam certainly had experience with physical damage, but his father had more often inflicted bruises and scrapes and internal injury rather than lacerations like this. He couldn’t remember offhand how many quarts of blood you could lose before you’d need a blood transfusion. Or what a quart of blood even looked like when it was spread over skin and fabric and hardwood floor.

He seemed coherent enough, but Adam would keep an eye on him. Carry him to the hospital if he needed to.

Ronan had stopped at the top of the stairs, shoulder leaning against the door jamb, even though the door was ajar, in the way, so that Adam had to press parts of his body against Ronan’s to shuffle past him into the apartment. It pulled at Adam’s nerves.

Ronan followed him inside and Adam pulled out his rickety desk chair and said, “Sit.”

He turned away to pour a glass of water from the sink and when he turned back he was surprised to find that Ronan had sat.

Adam handed him the water and he watched as Ronan drank in deep gulps. He flicked his eyes away, swallowed, and went to retrieve his first aid kit from the cabinet under the sink. He washed his hands, ran a couple of rags under hot water and brought them back to Ronan.

He placed them beside the empty glass set on his desk and Ronan glared at him in a way that was more wary than menacing.

Adam didn’t look Ronan in the eye as he kneeled on the floor in front of him, between his spread thighs. He felt heat rush to his ears and the back of his neck. He half expected Ronan to make a shitty comment about the position, and if Adam were anyone else, he probably would have.

But he was silent.

Adam could feel his eyes on him like a living thing. He took one of Ronan’s hands in his, cradled the back of it in his palm, his heart beating almost as fast as it had been before he found Ronan in the church. It was tacky with blood, but there was incredible warmth in the skin to skin touch, and Adam felt it seep into him.

He methodically wiped every drop from his skin, from in between his fingers, the creases in his palm, and he resolutely didn’t look at Ronan’s face until he’d finished.

When he did, he found it exactly the same as it had been—Shuttered. Guarded. In a rough voice, Ronan said, “I can wash my own hands, Parrish,” but he’d waited until Adam had finished to say it, and they both knew why.

Adam’s face was burning. He rolled back on his heels and shifted around to Ronan’s side. He cleared his throat, licked his lips, and cut the awkward pause with, “Take off your shirt.”

That got a reaction, Adam was gratified to notice. Ronan’s eyes widened and he took in a sharp breath through his nose, let it out slow through gritted teeth. In an instant, he ripped off the muscle tee and throw it to the floor.

Ronan was delicately pink across the apples of his cheeks and Adam let his eyes linger there because it stalled for time before, inevitably, he had to look down.

Adam had seen him shirtless before, of course. In passing. Ronan wasn’t shy. But this was different in so many ways.

Adam let himself have a bare moment to rake his eyes over Ronan’s chest, quickly as he could manage, but it was enough to take in his toned muscles, the dark hair trailing down his stomach. Guilt choked him, suddenly. Ronan was hurt and this was not for him.

He snapped into focus. Ronan propped up his elbow so it was resting on the back of the chair, and Adam could see the gory mess of his side. It was bleeding, still, though sluggishly, and Adam peeled a wet rag from his desk and began to clean the area around the cuts.

He started at the bottom, where blood had dripped down to the waistband of his jeans, and Ronan stilled. It couldn’t have hurt, not yet, but Adam saw the muscles in his stomach tense and flutter with every touch.

He worked his way up to the first cut. The skin was torn and a little jagged around the edges. It would scar—like the others. Adam let his eyes drift to the ones on his arm, those three cuts that had sliced his forearms down to the bone, the ones that had sent him to the hospital. They were angry pink, the skin bumpy and translucent, still too recent and too deep to have healed to the silvery white of some of the older or less severe ones.

Gansey had once expressed to Adam a sense of relief, after they’d found out that Ronan hadn’t done it to himself, not really. And while it was true that he hadn’t taken something sharp in his hand and dug it into his veins, Adam wasn’t so sure it was quite as incidental as Gansey wanted to believe.

The night horrors were part of Ronan’s subconscious, as much as any of the beautiful things he’d ever brought out of his dreams. As much as Chainsaw and Matthew. It stood to reason that if the night horrors wanted to hurt Ronan, that a part of Ronan wanted to be hurt. If they wanted to kill him, a part of him wanted to die.

“Are you gonna pass out? I’m the one losing blood, here.”

Adam had been too still for too long. “This might hurt,” he said.

Adam could see Ronan’s hand clench in his peripheral vision, bracing himself. He hissed when Adam pressed the cloth to the wound, as gently as he could manage.

He risked a glance to Ronan’s face and he found that it was creased with pain. He said, “Sorry.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Ronan said.

Adam applied a little more pressure and Ronan swore under his breath. He rested his free hand on Ronan’s arm, a barely-thought-through gesture of comfort, and he could almost feel Ronan’s heart beating hard and fast behind his ribcage, or maybe it was his own heart he could feel in the palm of his hand.

He kept pressure on all three of the wounds until the bleeding had stopped, and then cleaned every stray drop of red from Ronan’s skin.

Adam took a moment to breathe. To appreciate how much worse this could have been, if the night horror had only struck a little deeper, if it had caught the tender flesh of Ronan’s throat instead.

He grabbed a few gauze pads from the first aid kit and created a patchwork of bandages and medical tape to protect the wounds. He ran his fingertips over every edge, making sure they were sealed tight over his skin. Ronan shuddered. He said, “You done?”

Adam’s eyes caught on the streaks of red trailing from Ronan’s nose, down his chin. On impulse, he said, “Almost.”

Adam got to his feet, stood between Ronan’s legs, and touched a single finger underneath his chin, turning his face up. Ronan looked up at him warily, through his long lashes. His eyes darted back and forth between Adam’s.

Adam leaned forward to reach the last damp rag on the desk behind Ronan, and it put them so close he could feel Ronan’s breath on his neck, feel the warmth radiating from his body. He wiped the blood from under his nose, so much closer than he needed to be. Ronan parted his mouth and drew in a shaky breath, and Adam dragged the cloth over his lips, one after the other—slow, and methodical, and precise, collecting every drop of blood.

Ronan licked his lips.

“Done,” Adam whispered.

Ronan’s eyes were alight with something: fear and possibility. Or maybe Adam was just projecting the echo of the feeling in his own chest. He’d been navigating around the potential of this, of them , for so long. Suddenly anything felt possible.

But he knew better, so he drew back, stood up straight. He let himself have one last, lingering look at Ronan—his veneer stripped clean, unguarded and open.

He retreated into the bathroom, turned on the water, and watched it swirl down the drain, rather than look at his reflection. Adam felt unbalanced. He cleared his throat before he said, “You coming to school today?” but it came out shaky, anyway.

“Fuck you, Parrish. I get mortally wounded, and you expect me to go to school?”

Adam let out a tremulous laugh, felt a minute release in the tension in his shoulders. He brushed his teeth and turned on the shower, closed the bathroom door.

Only when he was safe under the spray of tepid water, did he let himself feel the weight of it—let his forehead rest on cold tile while he breathed, harsh and jagged.

He had wanted to kiss Ronan.

The realization almost surprised him, but it shouldn't have. He had thought about it often enough. Considered it. It had been impossible not to, with the way Ronan looked at him, sometimes. With the way he looked at Ronan.

He had wondered, cautiously, what it would be like. Examined it from one angle, then another. If Ronan were to kiss him, how would it happen? Would it be here, at St. Agnes? At The Barns? Would it be because Ronan was filled to the brim with that restless and undefinable wild energy? Would he do it at all?

But those thoughts had been exploratory, almost detached. Simple wondering. He always put them out of his mind before they could stretch into the more dangerous and uncertain territory of what Adam actually wanted. He knew that it felt good, to wonder—knew that it made his stomach flutter and heat rise to his face. But it was an ego stroke, and nothing more.

This was different because the idea hadn’t occurred to him because he thought Ronan wanted it, but because Adam had wanted it. It was unmistakable—the way his heart thudded in his chest, overwhelmed by Ronan’s trust in him, his fingers itching to touch him again, and again. The way he’d stared a beat too long into the fractured longing in Ronan’s eyes, and then down, to his bitten-red, parted lips.

Adam didn’t like what it said about him that it happened now—with Ronan bleeding and hurt and vulnerable.

The water went cold. Reluctantly, he turned it off and stepped out of the shower. He wrapped a towel around his waist, and prepared himself to face Ronan half-naked, another layer of intimacy stacked on top of at least four others in one morning.

But when he opened the door, Ronan was gone. The blood was wiped from the floor, soiled blanket and rags in a trash bag for Adam to deal with. He’d have to soak them, later, to get the stains out.

It was a relief to be alone, and a disappointment.

He got dressed, packed his school bag. It hit him, as he trudged downstairs, how tired he was, and how he was going to have to take his bike to school, and then to the factory, after.

But the BMW was in the parking lot, its charcoal grey paint glittering in the sunlight. Ronan’s arm was hanging out of the window, the sleeve of his uniform shirt rolled carelessly up to his elbow, and he honked the horn loud enough to frighten a flock of birds out of a nearby tree.

“Come the fuck on, Parrish, you’re gonna make me late!”

Adam huffed, ducking his face against the smile that threatened to split his face. He circled around to the other side of the car, and dropped into the passenger’s seat. “Sorry. Don’t want to mar your perfect attendance record.”

Ronan grinned dangerously, slid a pair of aviator sunglasses on his face. He wrapped an arm around Adam’s seat and turned his head around. His smile faltered into a pained grimace before he peeled out of the parking lot with a screech of tires.