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"You work here?"

The words are innocuous. The way they are growled at him in a pitch so low as to be barely audible, less so.

The person who asked them, when Henry stands up from behind the counter and turns around, much, much less so.

"Yes," he says to the hulking tattooed black-leather-clad man, "but if you are attempting to rough me up for protection money you should know that I am very nearly insolvent."

The Mafia enforcer frowns. Not a Mafia enforcer? Or a Mafia enforcer with no sense of humor about being a Mafia enforcer. A self-hating Mafia enforcer.

"I need flowers."

"Are flowers code for protection money?"

"Flowers are those things that are pretty and smell good."

"Ah! My specialty," Henry says. "I know all about looking pretty and smelling good."

The thug frowns and looks back toward the exit. "Maybe I should just get chocolates."

"No, no, stay. What is the occasion? I will create an arrangement so perfect it causes tears of joy."

And now his customer is starting to look off-kilter. Good. Confused, scared customers spend more money. "Can't you just give me flowers?"

"I could, if you wanted an imperfect arrangement that did not convey your love and care. Is that the message you want to send?"

Henry gets a distinct impression that his customer is only caving out of a desire to make the conversation end. "They're for my mom."

"Ah!" Henry holds up a hand, a stop in the name of love gesture. "Say no more."

The customer sighs something that would sound like so now I can shut up? had Henry deigned to hear it.

Normally he'd sort out price point, timeline, delivery, ask if the customer wanted to see any of the prearranged bouquets, but -- it's not like he's drowning in better things to do. His classmates from his one unbearable semester in business school would probably have done market research before opening their shop and thus probably would have foreseen the lack of demand for a florist in the area. But that was why they were doomed to live boring, unfulfilling, bankruptcy-free lives! They would never know the joy of making a muscled and bewildered white boy watch as they arranged a perfect mother-pleasing bouquet.

"There!" Henry says, with a final expert twist of ribbon. "Is that not exactly what your heart saw in its mind's eye?"

"You got some fucked up anatomy," but he fills out a delivery form. Henry blatantly spies as he signs the message card, mom, love you. get well soon. Ronan.

-

Ronan comes back in two weeks later. Henry instantly remembers him, which is due entirely to the fact of Ronan's supreme memorableness and not at all to the shop's lack of foot traffic. The man is a walking mnemonic device of his own existence.

"Have you returned for a further demonstration of filial piety?"

"Nope."

"Ah, so you just came for the pleasure of my company."

"I came to buy flowers," Ronan says. "You have a weirdly hard time understanding your own business model."

"So, flowers, but not for your mother," Henry says. "You know that I simply have to know who these are for."

Ronan doesn't fight him this time. "My sister's school play is tonight." He even goes so far as to pull out his wallet and show Henry a photo of a small child sticking out her tongue at the camera.

"She has a masterful stage presence," he says. "Who is she playing?"

"Ghost of Christmas Future. She's spooky as shit," and Ronan sounds unapologetically proud.

"Wonderful," and Henry puts together the spookiest bouquet he can manage. They can't teach you that in business school. That requires the soul of an artist.

-

Henry is pleased with his first customer of the day. For one thing, he comes in five minutes after the shop opens, which enables Henry's daydreams of having a customer every five minutes. For another thing, he's gorgeous.

That's not shallow. Henry is a florist. His whole life is about beauty.

"How can I help you?"

"I'm not sure," the customer says. "My neighbor recommended this shop to me -- "

"And you were wondering, what flowers do I give as a thank you gift for someone who recommends such excellent local businesses?"

"...No."

"Well, if you're sure." People are allowed to be wrong about how they live their lives. "What can I help you find?"

He takes a second to answer, like he's having to recalibrate his understanding of the situation. A surprising number of Henry's customers react to him like that. So many people just don't know how to buy flowers.

"I'm looking for something I can give my coworkers for the holidays," he says. "Something professional but not too impersonal and sort of classy without looking like I tried too hard."

"That is a narrow and very neurotic needle you are trying to thread."

The customer blushes and looks self-conscious. It's precisely the sort of thing that would make Henry feel ashamed if he had not consciously and cheerfully thrown all his shame overboard years ago.

"I don't give a lot of gifts."

"Then lucky for you, I have just the thing." He brandishes a poinsettia. "Traditional. Beautiful. Devoid of any pesky romantic subtext. Poisonous to cats, if your workplace happens to be infested with unwanted felines."

"It isn't." Aha, he has found his feet again after all. "And these are...good flowers?"

Henry whips the plant away from where the customer was just leaning forward to inspect it.

"I will pretend you did not just insult the honor of my store by implying I would sell any substandard flowers," and then he adds, "Do not further mock me by laughing!"

"Sorry," the customer says, sounding anything but. "This just isn't what I was expecting when Ronan sent me here."

Hm, interesting.

"Oh, did he lead you to believe this would be a den of Gothic horror, filled with belladonna and nightshade?"

The handsome stranger shrugs, self-conscious again. "I guess I never really know what to expect from him," and with a tone of voice like that, there is only one course of action for Henry to pursue.

"Unfortunately, this is my very last poinsettia," and if he says that with enough confidence then the handsome man in front of him will not look over his shoulder and see the entire row of poinsettias in the next room. "I will have some more in tomorrow, come back then, they will be the very finest of coworker-giftable flowers."

"All right," and he fills out the entirely unnecessary order form whose only purpose is for Henry to find out his name. Adam. Lovely.

As soon as Adam is gone, Henry makes a phone call.

-

Adam returns to the store the next day, early morning again, and Henry drags his feet trying to take as long as humanly possible to ring up a half a dozen poinsettias.

It pays off, because the universe loves Henry Cheng, if not enough to funnel a consistent and adoring stream of customers to his business, than at least enough to keep him entertained. The bell over the door rings and Ronan enters the shop.

And then Ronan stops entering the shop and stands frozen in the doorway. His eyes are fixed on Adam with a horrible desperate painful longing.

Interestinger and interestinger.

"Ronan, come right in!"

Ronan's expression turns to a scowl before Adam can see him. Adam, for his part, gives no reaction but to say, "hey, Lynch." How dare he have the nerve to be inscrutable. Henry detests straight faces as he detests all things straight.

"Parrish." Ronan nods coolly at him, like he hadn't just been pining from afar from the doorway, and then he turns to Henry. "Why're you calling me about a problem with my delivery? I didn't order shit."

"Oh?" Henry asks, the picture of innocent confusion. "But the last time you had flowers delivered to a certain special someone, you said you wanted it to be a regular occurrence."

Adam's voice is completely neutral in that way that you can only be if you are working very very hard at it. Henry does so love being right. "Subscription flower delivery? You're desperate to impress someone."

"They're for my mom, Parrish, butt out."

Adam doesn't look at all relieved to discover that Ronan's errand isn't a romantic one. And with that tone of voice Henry can't blame him. This is why Mafia enforcers don't get laid, Ronan apparently-your-name-is-Lynch.

"So do you wish for me to go ahead with the delivery?" because as much as Henry wants to shove these two beautiful faces together, he also has a business to run into the ground.

Ronan looks thoughtful, and surprises Henry by saying, "yeah, go ahead, same as last time."

Henry finishes Adam's transaction and then rings Ronan up lightning quick, so that he's done before Adam has managed to successfully corral his multiple poinsettias.

"Oh, I have to see to my other customer," Henry lies, because Adam and Ronan are far too busy pretending not to look at each other out of the corner of their eyes to notice that the shop is empty. "Do the two of you think you can get those to your cars without my assistance?"

"Can't handle all this?" Ronan asks Adam snidely.

"Don't trouble yourself on my account, it's only Christmas."

"Don't lecture me about Christmas, pagan," and that gets them out the door together, if not together. Henry supposes that even his elevated intellect and charm might need more than five minutes to make two people fall in love.

-

Adam returns to the shop a few days later.

"No! Do not tell me, let me guess," Henry says. "The poinsettias were such a hit you have decided to devote yourself to the horticultural arts and you have come to ask me for my secrets."

"...No."

"You could have played along for even a minute." Henry sighs. "You have no generosity for indulging a madman, you're even worse than that neighbor of yours."

Adam, who was in the middle of pulling something out of his pocket, falls still. Henry pretends not to notice.

"So how can I help you, oh tragically un-botanical one?"

"There were flowers delivered to my apartment yesterday," Adam says. "From this shop."

"Oh?" Henry asks, like he didn't know this already.

"Yeah. I want to know who sent them."

Henry hms and haws and flips through several pages of a ledger that mostly contains doodles of cyborg hydrangeas. "I don't see any record of that, it must have been a cash transaction," he says. "Was there a card?"

Adam hesitates. "It wasn't signed."

"What did it say?"

Adam hesitates again.

"I'd remember a personal message better than just the flowers," Henry says.

Adam finishes taking the card out of his pocket. Henry makes sure to look at it long enough to read it -- you're amazing. It had caused his soul untold hurt, to not unleash even a smidgen of the poetry that runs through his veins, but he had needed something that could plausibly sound like Ronan had dictated it as part of a business transaction. That had pretty thoroughly ruled out any you're the stars that light the night sky of my heart et cetera et cetera.

Oh well. Even boring prosaic people deserve love.

"Hm, I don't recall taking an order like this," which is true, "my associate must have done it," which isn't. The shop doesn't do enough business for Henry to have employees. Maybe it's time for him to diversify. If he pulls this off perhaps he can branch out into matchmaking. Or crime solving. He's been watching a lot of Murder, She Wrote while business is slow. He thinks he's got the hang of it.

"Could you ask them?"

"There's no one else in right now," and then he adds, "I don't really know that we'd remember one particular customer, unless they were a regular, like you or Ronan."

Hm. He might have overplayed his hand there. Subtlety is just so obviously inferior to all other approaches that life offers.

Overplaying or not, Adam does not look like he's paying much attention to Henry. "Okay, thanks," and he walks very slowly out of the store.

-

The next few days are maddening. Business is too slow to distract him, and even Angela Lansbury cannot soothe his busy mind. He considers phoning Ronan about another fake order, just to get him to show up, but decides against it. That might push Ronan into burning down the shop, despite his professed disinterest in protection money.

Henry spends a lot of time doing research online, instead. There's fewer qualifications than he expected to get certified as a private detective. It seems like a savvier choice than matchmaking. There's no Tinder for solving murders.

Ronan shows up on the third day, which is probably just a coincidence and not actually because Henry had said his name three times to the mirror in the employee bathroom.

"You sent that bouquet to Parrish's place."

"Of course," Henry says. "I hope you had the good sense to take credit for it."

"No."

"Ronan I-don't-know-your-middle-name Lynch," Henry admonishes him.

"I told him I wished I'd thought of it."

"Ah. Surprisingly smooth."

"Thanks," Ronan says, like he means it, which is all the warning that Henry needs; he's not caught off guard at the shark-like smile that Ronan gives him, or the way his voice drops. "The next time you send my boyfriend a bouquet I'm going to set this place on fire."

"You cannot!" Henry protests. "You just said boyfriend! I made that happen! You owe me!"

"Bullshit. I would've gotten there on my own."

"Uh-huh, and how long have you been trying to 'get there'?"

Ronan glares. Intently.

"By which I mean, congratulations, have a long-stemmed red rose for your paramour."

"What do I look like, a virgin asking someone to prom? Gimme an orchid."

"You are the most compelling and multifaceted Mafia enforcer I've ever met," Henry says. "Have you ever considered co-owning a private detective agency?"

Ronan snorts. "You'd make a shitty detective."

"I figured you out pretty fast."

"You think I work for the Mafia."

"So?"

"So I'm Irish, idiot," and he leaves with his orchid.

-

six months later

-

"Every time I think I'm out," Henry broods, "there's one more job that pulls me back in."

Adam sighs. "Remind me why we're doing this."

"What," Ronan says, "you want to get your flowers from someone that isn't a detective?"

"Yes. That sounds like exactly what I want."

"At least this time he didn't talk about how your legs go all the way to the floor."

"Is it too late to elope?"

"Yes," Henry says at the same time as Ronan. That's the sort of thing that pisses him off sometimes, but today he just quirks a smile at Henry. Being engaged must be good for his mood: case closed. "And may I say congratulations? I approve wholeheartedly of the accelerated pace of your courtship."

Adam says, deadpan, "we have to get married so the prosecutor can't force me to testify against him."

"You jest," Henry says. "And yet, if your fiancé were not a member of an organized crime syndicate, what reason would he have for not accepting any of my numerous offers of employment?"

"I don't work for anyone but me," Ronan says.

"Also he has allergies," Adam adds.

"Also your detective agency does even less business than your flower shop," Ronan continues, a pitiful attempt to deflect from this revelation of pollen-based vulnerability.

"I may have been mislead by daytime reruns about the frequency with which people mysteriously perish."

Ronan pats him on the shoulder. Good-mood Ronan is, frankly, unnerving. "Aw, cheer up. I'm sure someone will get horribly murdered around here someday."

"I'm really going to regret letting you write your own vows, aren't I," Adam says.

"Yup."

"Look on the bright side," Henry says. "The flowers will be perfect."

Chapter Text

The realtor had told Adam that the neighborhood was on the rise, which as far as he can tell was her attempt to make busy, sketchy, and your rent's going up in a year sound like a virtue.

The first thing he learns about his new neighbors, before he ever meets any of them, is that they are fanatical about the front door to the building. There are signs all over the mail room and the elevators telling him he is never, under any circumstances, to leave the door propped open or to let anyone in who doesn't have a key. Given the neighborhood is busy and sketchy -- sorry, on the rise -- he gets where they're coming from, but it still leaves him with the impression that if his neighbors could keep him out, they would.

So on his first full day after moving in, when he approaches the building and a stranger loitering out front tells Adam to hold the door, he says, "sorry, I can't let anyone in."

"I live here," the guys says, and that might even be true. He's carrying something large and lumpy and heavy-looking that's wrapped in a tarp. It's entirely possible he has a key and just doesn't want to go through the hassle of extracting it while his hands are full of, oh right, an enormous and unidentified object.

"How do I know you're not just pretending to live here?" Adam asks while he sorts through his key chain. It takes an effort to distinguish the key for the front door from the one for his door. He can't wait for that to become habit so he can cut these interactions shorter.

"How do I know you're not just pretending to live here," the guy retorts.

"I have a key."

"Maybe you stole it."

"I'm not getting into an argument about who's more suspicious with the guy who looks like he's dragging a body into the building."

"Dragging a body into the building is way less suspicious than dragging one out."

Adam carefully opens the door the exact amount he needs to slide through and then pulls it shut behind him. He hopes that the guy outside really doesn't live here, or that if he does, he really is about to get arrested for murder, because he's glaring at Adam through the glass in the door like he's memorizing his face.

On second thought, Adam doesn't hope that he's a murderer.

-

"So," Adam says, trying to diffuse some of the tension. "You do live here."

"Like I said."

With his luck, he should have known that yesterday's sketchy loiterer would turn out to live in the building after all. He didn't realize his luck was so bad the guy would live in the unit right next door.

But maybe this can be salvaged. All he did was obey the terms of his lease. Maybe this guy is really into following rules and maintaining community spaces.

"I'm Adam."

"Good for you."

He waits, but apparently that's all he's getting. "This is the part where you say your name."

"Why do you care?"

"Because we're neighbors?"

"So? Who gives a shit what their neighbors are called?"

Adam can't remember why people introduce themselves to their neighbors. He just has a vague feeling that you're supposed to. Something about fostering a sense of community, or else just preventing situations where you've seen someone every day for ten years and can't ask what their name is now and have to resort to stealing their mail to find out.

"In the event of an apocalypse it's important to know who's around and how useful they are."

The guy snorts, unimpressed, but he does finally say "Ronan," so at least Adam won't have to commit any federal crimes.

He can't honestly manage it's nice to meet you, so he asks "was that really a dead body in the tarp?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?"

"No," Adam says, "but I was trying to show a polite interest in your hobbies."

Ronan steps inside his apartment and slams the door behind him. It looks like Adam is on his own if the end of the world hits tomorrow.

-

Adam doesn't notice any noise during the evening, while he eats dinner in the kitchen and writes code in the living room. It's only when he goes to the bedroom for the night that he hears it, music rising and falling on the other side of the wall, heavy, with a lot of bass. He pictures the apartment's floor plan and realizes that if Ronan's is the same as his, then his living room shares a wall with Adam's bedroom. It's a sloppy bit of design. He wishes he'd thought to ask the realtor about that before he signed the lease.

He tries to ignore it, but it's just loud enough he can't tune it out and no amount of white noise will mask it.

He gets up and knocks on Ronan's door, only realizes when Ronan answers that he's wearing baggy pajama pants that are cut off at the knees. Too late to do anything about it now, and it makes him grumpier than he was already.

"Can you turn your music down?" he snaps. "It's quiet hours."

Ronan goes wide-eyed and apologetic. "Yeah, of course," he says. "I'll turn the music off right now."

"Okay. Great." Adam is off-balance. He'd expected more resistance. "Thanks."

He's back in his apartment and just laying down in bed, lights off, when someone screams.

He sits bolt upright, heart hammering, and there's another scream, followed by an inhuman roar, as loud as if it was in the room with him.

Adam listens to thirty seconds of slasher movie soundtrack before he gets up. Swallows a Benadryl and shoves ear plugs in, and then while he waits for the drugs to kick in he moves his speakers from the living room into the bedroom and hooks his phone up to them. When his alarm goes off at six o'clock in the morning, all he has to do is plug it in and hit a button, and then Good Morning, Baltimore starts blaring against his wall at top volume. He leaves the ear plugs in.

Hairspray gives way to Wham! while he shaves and brushes his teeth; Green Day turns into Avicii while he makes coffee and gets dressed. He's out the door before Evanescence can get brought to life, feeling very pleased with himself.

-

Adam is on alert all evening, expecting a reprisal, but he hears neither zombies, demons, nor chainsaw serial killers. He doesn't see any sign of Ronan; maybe he's out for the night.

He relaxes enough to fall asleep, but it's all undone when music comes blasting through the wall, startling him awake at -- he grabs for his alarm clock -- four-thirty in the morning.

Ronan's music choices are not as clever, in Adam's sour opinion, but they make up for it with percussion.

He downs three cups of coffee before he leaves for work, resigning himself to being the first person in the office by an even larger margin than usual. He spends most of the day fighting not to snap at people for grievous offenses like making conversation and laughing.

He puts on his best smile when he sees Ronan in the hallway. It's a good one. Adam is very good at faking happiness.

Ronan puts on a look of concern that's just as genuine as Adam's smile. Those wide eyes are familiar; Adam kicks himself for falling for them the first time.

"Adam, hi," Ronan says with a warm voice that makes Adam furious. "You look tired, are you feeling okay?"

"Just great," Adam says. "I got an early start to my day, I got so much done."

Ronan's eyes narrow a little, like he's weighing the merits of waking Adam up at three in the morning against the merits of getting to be asleep at three in the morning. Adam has a pretty good idea of how Ronan's priorities are going to shake out. This is the moment where this turn into a thing, where they cross the line into a feud that will never end.

Adam is really, truly tired.

"You know," Adam says, as much as it pains him to make the first concession. "I'm usually asleep by eleven."

"So?"

"So once I'm out I sleep really soundly. A reasonable amount of noise wouldn't wake me up."

"Good for you," Ronan says bluntly, as though he doesn't care, but when Adam goes to bed that night the noise from Ronan's tv is low enough he can't make out what it is. He could probably cover it up with a fan, or the white noise app on his phone. He doesn't. It's -- soothing, in a way, like the room is less empty. He falls asleep easily. If Ronan turns the volume up in the night it's not loud enough to wake him up.

-

Adam falls asleep to the sound of Ronan's tv a lot of nights, quiet enough he can't tell if Ronan actually likes horror or if that had just been for his benefit. He could be watching sports or Turner Classic Movies or Law and Order reruns for all Adam can tell.

Sometimes the tv is still going when Adam wakes up the next morning. He wonders every time if Ronan fell asleep on the couch, or if maybe he's still awake, if he spent the whole night in endless Youtube playlists or video game marathons. He looks tired enough sometimes, passing by in the hallway, that Adam could believe it.

There's a night where he hears Ronan arguing with someone on the phone, voice loud and fast, and the next morning when the tv's still going Adam knows, inexplicably, that Ronan is still awake ten feet away from him. He nearly brings him a cup of coffee, but he can't picture how he'd explain that.

He pours the extra coffee down the sink and walks the long way around to the elevator.

-

Adam isn't expecting to run into Ronan in the middle of a workday, although in retrospect, he's not surprised. It's not like he's ever seen any sign that Ronan has achieved traditional employment.

Ronan is apparently making the same calculation.

"Playing hookie?" He sounds too interested in the question; it borders on salacious.

"Working from home," Adam say.

"Getting paid to play hookie," Ronan corrects him.

Adam grabs his mail and heads back to his place instead of defending his honor.

His wifi's on the fritz, though, and after troubleshooting and waiting on hold with the cable company and explaining to the cable company that yes actually he has tried turning it off and back on again, he's acutely aware that he's been out of touch with his team for an hour and they're going to start making the same assumption Ronan had.

He could head for the library or a Starbucks or somewhere else where he can use the internet. All it would cost him is the drive time, and parking, and a five dollar latte, and the entire day spent tuning out distractions.

On the other hand, well, he knows there's someone else around.

"Yeah?" Ronan asks when he answers the door.

"My wifi's down," Adam explains. "Can I use yours?"

Ronan looks him dead in the eye and says "I don't have wifi."

Adam's eyes wander over to the tv, just in view against the wall with his apartment. It's on, and Adam doesn't recognize the program, but he recognizes the pause menu.

"Right. This is that retro version of Netflix that comes on VHS tapes."

"I don't have wifi, the guy next door does." He jerks his head toward the apartment on the other side of his.

"The 'guy' next door is named Stacy," Adam points out.

Ronan rolls his eyes. "Save it for the apocalypse," but he steps out of the doorway and walks back into the apartment with the door still open. It's not exactly an invitation, but Adam figures it's the best he'll get.

Ronan heads deeper into the apartment, disappearing into a room where the door swings shut behind him. His place doesn't have the same layout as Adam's after all; too many doors. Does he have a guest room? Or a roommate? No, Adam would have noticed by now if someone else lived with Ronan.

He sets his laptop down on the coffee table in the living room. He doesn't want to intrude anymore than is absolutely necessary -- he wouldn't want Ronan to go poking around his place, so it seems like the least he can do -- but just squatting on his couch without another word feels strange.

He shakes it off and opens the laptop and is staring at the screen in irritation when there's a horrible resounding clang-crash-bang, like a car crash in the middle of the apartment.

Adam's eyes flick up to the tv, but it's still paused.

The sound slams into his ears again a second later, coming from behind him the guest room.

Adam stalks over to it and swings the door open on the room, to reveal Ronan balancing what looks like the driver side door off a '50s era Chevy on top of a work bench. He's holding it in place with one hand while the other raises a giant mallet up in the air, prepared to strike.

Adam thought the car crash comparison had been an exaggeration.

Ronan stops, the mallet hanging at its apogee, full of deafening potential energy. "What?"

"That's loud," Adam says, too surprised to not sound stupid.

"It's ten in the morning, your draconian quiet hours aren't in effect."

"If you're trying to beat the dents out of that you're going about it all wrong."

Ronan slams the mallet down onto the door. Adam can't help flinching.

"I like dents," Ronan says.

"Oh, no," Adam groans, because he's looked around the rest of the room now and seen the other pieces of twisted metal scattered about, and also welding gear, which he dearly hopes Ronan does not use in this carpeted guest room. "This is supposed to be art, isn't it."

"You can't say what's not art, that's censorship."

"This is what you were doing the other day, isn't it," Adam says. "Smuggling in trash metal wrapped up in a tarp."

"I had it covered up so I wouldn't track muck from the junkyard all through the lobby. I'm considerate like that."

"Uh-huh," Adam says, unimpressed. "Or you just didn't want someone stopping you. There's got to be something in the lease against using your apartment as a metal shop."

"Only if you get caught."

"I hope the threat of eviction is worth it to make this..." Adam can't tell how any of these parts are supposed to fit together. But it's "art" made out of junkyard scraps; the answer is probably that they don't. "Commentary on the human condition?"

"It's gonna be a dragon," Ronan tells him.

That might actually be worse. "Really?"

Ronan jerks his head over at something pinned to the wall. Adam wanders over to look at it while Ronan hammers a few more craters into the metal. He expects to see a blue print, maybe, some kind of schematic. Instead he finds a colored pencil drawing on a lined sheet of paper. It doesn't look like any dragon Adam has ever seen.

The room is quiet for a moment, like Ronan is waiting for him to comment on the drawing.

"Oh," he says, sarcastically, "so you're a visual artist, too."

"Fuck you, asshole. My sister drew that, she's ten."

Adam blinks several times before he trusts himself to look over his shoulder.

"You dragged a hundred pounds of scrap here from the junkyard so that you could make a heavy metal dragon for your little sister," he summarizes, with absolutely no inflection.

"You got a problem with that?"

Adam has a problem with that. Adam has an enormous, towering problem with that. He's new in town, it's going to be months before he really feels comfortable in his new job, months more on top of that before he has really integrated himself into his new life. He has enough work on his hands without having emotions. He is absolutely not going to develop feelings for his weird, belligerent, avant garde artist, good-big-brother neighbor.

"No," he lies. "What's the password for the wifi?"

"That," Ronan says.

"What?"

"'wifipassword'. All lower case." At Adam's incredulous expression, Ronan adds, "It took me three seconds to figure out, did you even try?"

"Why would I do it myself when I live next door to a genius hacker?"

Ronan returns to his work; Adam returns to the couch. It's loud in the apartment. He should tell Ronan thanks but no thanks and drag himself to a Starbucks.

If he scoots to the other end of the couch, the mirror on the wall reflects back at him a view into the guest room. Ronan is dragging a new piece of metal onto his work bench. The muscles in his bare arms strain from the weight of it.

Adam stays exactly where he is.

-

Adam is still in trouble in the event of an apocalypse; he hasn't managed more interaction with any of his neighbors besides Ronan beyond nodding and greeting them by name in the hallway. He doesn't want his first real interaction with anyone else in the building to be asking for a favor, and, well, the worst thing that can happen is he comes home to an empty aquarium.

"I'm going out of town for a few days," Adam tells Ronan. "Can you feed my fish?"

Ronan frowns at him. "Fish are for eating, not feeding."

Adam might be more offended by that if he didn't blatantly consider his fish starter pets. "They're too small to be worth eating. The ratio of work to food is too high."

"So what you're saying is they're completely useless."

"Yup. Can you do it?"

"You trust me inside your apartment while you're not there?"

Adam shrugs. "Just clean out any dead bodies before I come back."

"Does that apply to the fish, too?"

"No, those you have to leave. I'm not going to give you incentive to starve my fish to death if you decide you want microscopic sushi."

Ronan grins and steps out of his doorway, like that was the thing that decided it for him. He follows Adam into his apartment and lets him show him where the fish food is.

-

Ronan is arguing on the phone. It isn't the first time Adam's heard that.

It is the first time that he's ever heard a thud, though, after the voices fall silent. Adam recognizes that, the sound of someone banging their head on the wall in frustration. Before he can think better of it he reaches up and raps his knuckles on the wall in solidarity.

It's half a minute later when Adam hears a knock from the other side of the wall. It's closer than the thud, nearly on top of him. Is Ronan trying to tell him to shove off? Or is he trying to connect with Adam?

Adam walks to the other end of the room and knocks loudly on the wall.

There's another pause, but this one is full of anticipation; it's broken by the sound of not one but two knocks, coming from each side of the room, like Ronan had twenty foot arms, or like he threw something across the room at the same time that he knocked.

"What the hell," Adam mutters. There's a confused little smile on his face.

A few minutes later there's a knock -- from the front door, this time. Adam opens it and steps out of the way to let Ronan in. Ronan has already been inside his apartment, after all; this isn't anything noteworthy.

"You clearly don't have anything better to do," Ronan says, and shoves into his arms a six-pack of --

"Is this Smirnoff Ice?" Adam asks, every other thought wiped away by disgust.

"What, you're too good for the ice?"

"Yes, I would have thought even you were too good for the ice." Adam heads for the kitchen and sets the drinks down with a clink-clink of glass. He pours himself some water while Ronan twists one of the bottles open and nods at the kitchen table Adam had dug up at a thrift store for twenty bucks.

"That thing is ugly as fuck."

"If you say so then it must be true," Adam says, with over-the-top innocence.

"Yeah?" Ronan asks, eyes narrowed.

"Sure," Adam says. "Having seen your artwork, I consider you an expert on ugly things."

Ronan shoulder-checks him as he heads for the living room. "Okay, but even you know that this thing is a travesty," he says, insulting Adam's couch even as he falls into a seat.

Adam bites down on a smile and sits on the opposite side of the couch, listening to Ronan tell him everything that's wrong with his apartment.

-

Ronan knocks on his door one night to ask for a cup of sugar, which Adam didn't realize was a thing that happened outside of Little House on the Prairie.

"Sorry, I don't have any."

"What do you mean you don't have sugar?" Ronan demands. "Who doesn't have sugar?"

"You don't have sugar."

"Because I ran out, not because I'm some joyless body-snatched freak who doesn't own any."

"What would I do with sugar?"

Ronan stares at him in outrage. "You would make things sweet, what the hell," and he storms back off to his apartment like Adam's preference for black coffee has mortally offended him.

-

The next day there's a bag of sugar on his door and a foil-wrapped stack of cookies, like the final blow in a duel that Adam was not actually fighting.

Or, he thought that was the final blow, except Ronan comes over and demands Adam make him cookies in return.

"You owe me."

"You can't give someone a thing they didn't ask for and then demand payment."

"Why don't you want to make cookies? You have sugar now."

"I have all of your stupid cookies I still have to get through."

Ronan isn't satisfied. He keeps coming by, day after day, and demanding repayment. Adam should just cave. He doesn't know that he could make cookies, but he could buy some at the store. It would be the easiest way to get Ronan to stop coming around.

Adam does not buy any cookies.

Ronan finally barges into his apartment one night, following him through the door when he comes home from work.

"Right, fuck this, we're baking," he starts, and then he sees the pantry.

"This is the saddest thing I've ever seen," he tells Adam, suddenly solemn. "I'm going to cry until I hurl."

"I don't cook much," Adam says, "I don't need a bunch of ingredients cluttering the place up," although he's painfully aware that three empty shelves is still miles away from cluttered.

"We'll figure something out." Ronan holds up a loaf of bread and stares it down, grimly. "There's got to be a way to make cookies out of nothing but sugar and coffee filters."

There isn't, but at some point in the evening after Adam's kitchen table is a mess of granulated sugar and bread crumbs and dry rice, he's past even caring about defeat.

-

"Three day weekend," Ronan says when Adam runs into him in the elevator. "Wanna get shitfaced?"

"That's not really my thing," Adam says.

"Who cares? You don't have anywhere to be until Tuesday."

Adam flushes red.

It's not like Ronan has a ton of visitors, but he has enough of them that it's taken work for Adam to crosscheck all of them back to references he's made to friends, to be sure that none of them are boyfriend or girlfriend. Which means that Ronan's social life, while far from busy, is still rich and fulfilling in comparison to Adam's.

The downside of taking every opportunity he gets to move further away from his hometown is that he doesn't have any old friends in town who can just drop by. The downside to working hard to jump ahead in his career as fast as possible is that he isn't making any new friends who could drop by, either. The best he's managed so far is this thing where Ronan comes by sometimes and makes fun of his decor, or Adam goes to Ronan's place and makes fun of his everything.

It's embarrassing, all the more so if Ronan has noticed that Adam never goes anywhere and never has anyone over, if the information he took from this wasn't Adam is single and available and totally, completely ready for someone to make a move on him but wow, Adam is pathetic.

He was almost tempted to get drunk with Ronan, to suffer the get drunk part in order to enjoy the with Ronan part -- but getting drunk with the guy he has a crush on who already thinks he's pathetic would be a really good way of doing something that confirms Ronan's opinion of him.

"Pass," he says. "You'll just have to find someone else to inflict your soda pop booze on."

-

Adam spots Ronan before Ronan spots him, tossing envelopes into the recycling bin too fast to actually be sorting out whether they're junk or not before he throws them away.

He bites his lip. He promised himself he would ask Ronan out the next time he had an opportunity, and now Ronan is here, but -- that doesn't make it an opportunity.

He steps up to his mail box, which is in arm's length of the recycling bin. Ronan nods at him. Adam nods back. Ronan looks back down at his mail.

Adam realizes that his window of opportunity is rapidly closing. He sighs in irritation.

Ronan looks back up at him, searching, like he's inviting Adam to say something, or else just trying to figure out what's wrong with him.

"I just found out I have to work next weekend," he says, which is true, even if it's not actually why he's annoyed right now.

"Aren't you always working?"

"Basically," Adam says, "but this time there are going to scarecrows."

Ronan startles, which is gratifying. "What the fuck is your job that there are scarecrows?"

"Software engineer," Adam says. "There are not normally scarecrows."

"Oh, right, this is a special occasion, is your office fucking haunted?"

"It's the county harvest festival this weekend," Adam explains. "My company is a sponsor, we're all supposed to volunteer."

"Fuck, that blows."

Adam shrugs, as though this is casual. "I don't know, maybe it won't be so bad. It's a really popular event. People go for fun, they gave us all free tickets to bring friends."

Ronan snorts. "Yeah, corn mazes and cow shit. Who would want to go to that?"

You, I was hoping.

Adam bites his lip and lets it drop.

-

Ronan drops by a few minutes after Adam gets home from work. He can't help being excited about the suggestion that Ronan has been waiting for him.

Except it turns out what he was waiting to tell Adam is "I'm having some people over tomorrow. So that'll probably fuck with your quiet hours."

"Oh." Adam scrambles to say something else, to make it less obvious that he's disappointed. "I'm going to be out late tomorrow anyway, so you're in luck, you won't have me on your conscious."

"Oh. Okay, great." Now Ronan sounds disappointed, like he's bummed that he isn't getting to screw with Adam's schedule. Although of course he is; now Adam needs to find something to do to avoid coming home tomorrow.

It isn't until eight o'clock on Friday night, staring at the screen of his work computer, that it occurs to Adam that he could have tried to turn that into an opportunity.

"Fuck," he says, quietly, even though there's no one around to hear. Why did Ronan have to tell him about the party ahead of time? It would have been so much easier if Adam had just heard the noise and gone over to check what was going on, and since he was there already maybe Ronan would invite him in, and introduce his friends to Adam, and they'd ask who Adam was, and -- Ronan would say he was just the guy that lived next door. Right.

Adam realizes that the code on his screen has just become fffffffffffffffff scrolling down into eternity. He sighs and starts deleting.

-

"Hold the elevator!" calls a voice from down the hall. Adam recognizes it, so he makes a show of hitting the close door button, even as he slides his foot out to block it.

He's rewarded with the sight of Ronan glaring at him as he slides into the elevator. He's wearing clothes that look like they've been to hell and back. It's impossible to tell what color that shirt used to be under its various different stains.

"Going to the junkyard?" Adam asks.

"Yeah." Ronan looks surprised and then suspicious, like he's wondering how Adam could tell.

"Good. If you were going to try to get into the opera I was going to have bad news for you about those pants."

"Fuck the opera, my clothes are good enough." They certainly look good enough, although Adam can't think of anything that wouldn't, on Ronan.

"You know," Adam says, "I've never been to the junkyard."

"It's not a harvest festival, people don't go for fun."

"You like it."

"Yeah, but I'm a freak." Ronan sounds very proud of this designation. Adam would only look like a poser if he insists that he is curious about it, which isn't even fair, because he really is. He's just trying to figure out if it would be worth it anyway, and if there's any way on earth of inviting himself along, when Ronan reaches out and tugs on the collar of his shirt.

Adam has the panicked thought that Ronan will feel his heart leap into his throat, even though his fingers only brush against Adam's skin for the barest second.

"You'd mess up your clothes," Ronan says, "you wouldn't be fit for society anymore."

Adam manages some garbled word that might charitably be mistaken for "yeah." When the elevator doors open he exits in the opposite direction from Ronan and has to do a lap around the entire ground floor before he remembers why he came down in the first place.

-

"Oh hey," Ronan says, and Adam turns around to discover him leaning on the far wall of the mail room, like he's waiting for something. He's pointing up at the top of the door frame leading out into the lobby. "Someone put up mistletoe."

"That's holly," Adam corrects him.

Ronan blinks at him, confused.

"Red berries," Adam points out. "Not white."

"Huh."

"Just as well," Adam says. "Forcing people to kiss is really creepy."

"I think you're just bitter 'cause nerds who can tell plants apart never get laid."

Adam hopes that Ronan doesn't notice how very fake his laugh is.

-

Ronan offers him a Smirnoff Ice, which has somehow, horrifyingly, become a normal occurrence. Adam ignores the offer and pokes through Ronan's fridge without asking for permission. "Just because you're not a contributing member of society doesn't mean that you have to drink like an alcoholic twelve-year-old."

"Hey, asshole," and Ronan has a weird way of saying asshole where it doesn't even sound mad about. "I contribute plenty. I've been driving my sister home from rehearsal all week."

"School play? What are they doing?" Adam congratulates himself on sounding a normal amount curious. He doesn't think anyone would guess that he's massively curious anytime Ronan mentions anything about himself.

"Christmas Carol."

Adam shakes his head. "Toddlers performing Dickens, sounds amazing."

"You gotta keep toddlers off the street somehow."

"Because you wouldn't be wildly proud of your sister if she started a gang."

"Not if all of her enforcers are three feet tall, fuck."

"So theater is a way of biding time until she's old enough for organized crime?"

"It's so she can practice being spooky as fuck."

Adam frowns. There's a carton of orange juice with an expiration date so old he hopes it's a typo; either way, he's not touching it. "Didn't they make a version of that with Muppets? How scary can it be?"

"She's the angel of death, that's pretty scary," Ronan says. "If you don't believe me you should come with me to opening night."

"I don't believe you," Adam answers, on automatic. "There isn't an angel of death in Christmas Carol, is there?"

"Ghost of Christmas Future, same shit."

Oh, god, there's milk in this fridge. Forget angels of death, that's terrifying. "I don't know enough about this to argue with you," he says, standing up and shutting the fridge door. "Don't mistake that for an agreement."

"What, you've never seen Christmas Carol?"

Adam shrugs. "I don't really do Christmas."

"Everybody does Christmas," Ronan argues.

"That is blatantly false."

Ronan rolls his eyes. "You still pick stuff up. Are you Jewish or something?"

"No, just godless and deprived."

There's a quiet moment where Ronan is -- well, if it was someone else, Adam would say he felt awkward about putting his foot in his mouth, but Adam can't really tell what's going through his head. He's a little too busy to figure it out, because his mind is racing from oh, god, is Ronan religious to why couldn't he have mentioned this weeks ago to is there a good way of asking 'so exactly how Christian are you and is it the kind that gonna be really weird about the fact that I want to kiss you?'

But it doesn't really matter. Adam hasn't been getting anywhere with Ronan, for this or for some other reason, and why should he? No one dates their neighbors, not outside of tedious novels about depressed straight people having affairs in the suburbs because the American dream is dead. It's not something to hope for, it's a disaster waiting to happen. It would only end badly, and then he'd have to spend the rest of his lease peeking around the door every time he leaves, trying to avoid contact with someone he shares a wall with. It's a bad idea. He absolutely isn't going to ask Ronan out.

-

Adam spots the flowers in the mail room as he's leaving for work, because they're gaudy, and because he's had flowers on the brain. Damn Ronan for mentioning, in passing, no big deal, that he'd gone to the florist shop that just opened across the street. Adam had had a miserable couple of days pretending that he didn't care who Ronan was buying flowers for, and then a miserable couple of days pretending that he didn't care that Ronan hadn't noticed he was miserable. The last couple days of pretending not to care that the flowers were for Ronan's mom have not been a distinct improvement.

He doesn't really think about these particular flowers until he sees they're still in the mail room when he comes back from work. He hopes they're not for Mrs. Henderson down the hall; they'll be long dead by the time she comes back from visiting her daughter. He goes over to them, idly curious.

His heart stops when he sees his name and apartment number on the envelope.

He lifts the tiny card off the arrangement, not even breathing. It's a struggle to get the card out; his hands are shaking.

The card says you're amazing in swooping calligraphy, and -- that's it. It isn't signed. There's no name, no explanation.

He flips the card over, feels inside the envelope, searches through the blossoms for another card, even lifts the vase up like there might be something underneath it, before he finally admits that whoever sent this didn't want him to know who they were.

-

He stops by the flower shop the next morning. The florist doesn't make a big deal out of Adam asking him about the delivery, but he isn't able to tell Adam who sent it, either.

It doesn't really matter. Adam knows who he's been hoping it was since he first saw his name. If it isn't him, then he doesn't care who it was.

Ronan lets him in when he knocks, offers him a drink like there's nothing unusual going on. That doesn't bode well. Wouldn't he be -- nervous? excited? hopeful? -- something besides just smirking at Adam over his stupid Smirnoff Ice that Adam still can't tell if he actually enjoys or if he just buys to be irritating.

There's no way this will be anything but a disaster.

"Someone sent me flowers yesterday," he says abruptly. "They didn't sign the card." Ronan's face goes a little surprised. Like he's politely interested, the way you'd be when someone tells you a story you don't have a stake in. That alone tells Adam the answer, but it's too late to save this. Even if he chickens out and leaves right now, Ronan will figure out what he came here to ask. He might as well smash the whole thing open. "Was it you?"

Ronan says "no," because that was always going to be the answer.

Adam's face is burning. He should have left the thing half-broken, after all; he would have had privacy for this part. "Okay. Never mind, then."

He's halfway to the door before Ronan says "I wish I thought of it, though."

For a second he thinks his ear is playing tricks on him -- but when he turns around, Ronan is self-consciously rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. He looks like how Adam felt a moment ago, like he wishes no one could see him.

"You do?" An old survival instinct kicks in, keeps Adam's voice devoid of emotion.

Ronan's face falls and he turns away. "I've been trying to ask you out forever," he tells Adam, or more exactly, tells the armchair in the corner of the room.

"That's impossible," Adam says. "I've been trying to ask you out forever."

Ronan meets his eyes again, and Adam recognizes that expression, too; like jumping into cold water on a hot day, the split second of shock where your senses are too overwhelmed to feel anything, right before they feel amazing.

"Holy fuck," Ronan says, "we're stupid."

Adam breathes out, a shaky laugh. "Yeah," he says, and "can I," and Ronan tries to nod and say "yeah" and cross the room and reach out for Adam all at the same time and nearly ends up tripping over his own feet.

"Are you -- " Adam starts, stepping forward. Before he can say okay Ronan catches himself and then catches Adam and pulls him into a kiss.

He hadn't let himself think about this. If he never got to kiss Ronan then it would only have been torture. And if he did get to, for real -- well, Adam knows he's not the world's most imaginative guy. There wasn't a point in picturing this when it wouldn't be as good as the real thing, Ronan's mouth on his and a thousand details besides: the way Ronan is leaning into him like he still hasn't found his balance; the way the rough skin of Ronan's thumb brushes softly over his cheek; the way that his lips curl up into a smile before he can stop them.

Ronan makes small hm? sound, inquisitive.

"You taste like a Jolly Rancher," Adam complains halfheartedly. It's hard to be to annoyed about anything when Ronan is nosing at his ear like that. "I'm going to pour your stupid drinks down the drain."

"And yet you still want to kiss me," Ronan says.

Adam kisses him again, to stop him from gloating, and also because he's right.

-

The mystery of the flowers gets forgotten for a while; they fall onto the couch at one point, and then Adam hopefully suggests moving to the bed, and then Ronan suffers an attack of chivalry and insists that he has to buy Adam dinner first.

"I really don't care" has no effect, nor does "I can afford my half of the check just fine," but "do you seriously want to go outside, in public, right now?" makes Ronan stop and consult his moral code.

"Delivery?"

"All right," Adam agrees. "But you're going to have to go let the delivery guy in when it gets here."

"Oh, fuck that, after you locked me out? You get it."

Adam means to say you locked yourself out, I just didn't help, but all he gets out is a laugh. Ronan reflects his own delight back at him until he presses his forehead to Ronan's shoulder, hiding away. "You're the one who insists on performing a noble feat," he says, muffled. "Four flights of stairs and ten seconds of small talk with a stranger, go."

"Can I take the elevator?"

"Nope, has to be the stairs."

"You're just punishing me because I tried to do something nice."

"Not just that," Adam says. "It's also so that you come back sweaty and out of breath."

"You dork."

Adam tilts his head to drop a kiss on his neck. Ronan shivers.

"What was that you said?" Adam asks.

Ronan holds steady.

Adam opens his mouth to gently scrap his teeth over the pulse beating in his throat.

Ronan lets his breath out in a rush. "You're a dork, fuck, you're amazing."

Adam falls still and then pulls back off of Ronan, frowning. "You really didn't send me those flowers?"

"Why would I lie about it if it worked?" Ronan asks, as mystified as when Adam first brought it up.

"It's just -- that's what the card said."

"What?"

Adam blushes. "You're amazing."

"I can't be the only person to notice that."

"You're the person that I wanted to notice," he says. Ronan's eyes go soft, which doesn't do anything to help Adam's face cool down. "I wanted it to be you so much I didn't even think about who else it could be."

"Does it matter?" Ronan shifts, closing the distance between them and raising a hand to play with Adam's hair.

"It's sort of creepy," Adam says, leaning back into him. "I should go back to the shop, the florist said maybe his associate would know who placed the order."

Now it's Ronan's turn to freeze in place. Adam raises an eyebrow, so he doesn't have to ask why did you stop petting me out loud.

"Was this the place that's run by the really chatty weirdo?"

"The store that you recommended, yeah."

Ronan says, slowly, "that sneaky little fuckweasel."

"Who?"

"The florist. He sent you those flowers."

"Yeah, I know," Adam says impatiently. "The store's name was on the delivery slip."

"No, he sent them, to make you think that I had sent them."

Adam gapes at him, but Ronan doesn't waver.

"Did you tell him that you were trying to ask me out?"

"No," Ronan says.

"Is he a friend of yours?"

"No."

"Then why would he meddle like that?"

"For the drama," Ronan says with the kind of grim resignation Adam would expect from a general in the middle of losing a war.

"Don't be ridiculous," Adam says, and "no" and "who would do something like that?"

-

"I'm really disappointed in you," Adam tells the florist -- tells Henry. This whole thing is only weirder if they aren't on first-name terms.

"Yes, I can tell you're completely broken up about this." Henry flicks idly through the pages in a magazine. "You are positively glowing with disappointment."

"I tried to defend you to Ronan. I said, no one would do something that weird and invasive to two complete strangers."

"Invasive is a very harsh word." The perfect smoky eye -- flick. Keep him interested -- flick. Celebrity babies who are richer than you -- flick. "It is not as though there is some prime directive for relationships that states one cannot interfere with the love lives of less developed people. Trust me, I have done the research." He taps on the magazine. His finger lands unfortunately on the words mind-blowing orgasm.

"I think the directive you're looking for is basic decency," Adam says. "What if I'd thrown myself at Ronan and he wasn't into me?"

Henry raises an eyebrow and says nothing. Silence is alarmingly effective, from him.

"You didn't know he was, anyway," Adam mumbles.

"No, I truly did." Henry swipes a hand over the counter, dramatically flinging Cosmo to the floor. "Have we moved onto the part of the conversation where you make a show of gratitude? Any of my bouquets would make a perfect gift for me, I am my own first audience."

"I'm not going to buy you flowers as a thank you. One, I'm not going to thank you. Two, you live in a flower shop, you don't need more flowers."

"I do not live here." His disdain is short-lived. "Although that may change in the near to immediate future. I am at the mercy of my fickle and unforgiving business ledger."

"If your cash flow is consistently negative then it's not fickle."

"You have a marvelous head for business. Would you perhaps be interested in volunteering some time to a struggling but virtuous locally owned business?"

"No."

"Well! I am afraid the only remaining option would be for you to make a sizable investment in my new business."

Adam tries not to. Really. He tries.

"I am terrified to ask what your new business is."

Henry says, very plainly, "private detecting."

This is what Adam gets for not trusting his own judgment. His head hurts. "Is there a single transferable skill between those two industries?"

"My understanding of and love for humanity, of course."

Adam shakes his head and leaves.

"You'll be back!" Henry shouts after him, and in a very pale approximation of a Humphrey Bogart drawl adds, "they always come back."

-

"Hang on, I need to stop here." Adam tugs on Ronan's hand and pulls him toward the flower shop.

"They're closed," Ronan says.

"Yeah, I know. Don't talk so loud, I'm pretty sure Henry sleeps here." He digs in his pocket, but gets distracted when Ronan comes up behind him and rests his chin on his shoulder, touching him for no reason other than he wants to. Adam smiles at him and watches out of the corner of his eye as he smiles back.

"I think we owe him a drink," Ronan declares. "I'm gonna bring him an ice."

"He might be the one person in the world who would take that as a gift instead of an insult." Adam finds what he's looking for and pulls it out of his pocket.

Ronan intercepts the envelope before Adam can slide it through the mail slot. "Am I jealous of whatever this is?"

"If you really want a costume magnifying glass, you can go to Party City yourself."

"Eh," Ronan says dismissively. "You didn't put your name on the envelope."

"It wouldn't take a detective to figure it out if my name was on it."

Ronan's arms slide around his waist from behind and squeeze him. "Oh, you fucking dork."

Adam elbows him. "Less sweet-talking, more fleeing the scene."