“I think you have to have a very, very keen respect for the diabolical.”
Father Thomas’s words echo like a shifting shadow in the lambent dark. They feel distant. Somehow impossibly far away. Lost in the woods outside this little cabin, tangled in the tapestry of knotted tree roots that grip the damp soil like greedy splayed fingers, with ridged white knuckles. They feel stifled, as if they had been uttered from underwater, and Ryan had only half heard them.
He could say it’s willful ignorance, that he’s forgotten them. That they had become garbled and impossible to comprehend in the year that had passed between them. It’s harder, this time, to put them out of his mind. Time is transient and linear; but never simple.
When he had sat amidst the pews with the old priest, he’d hung upon his every word with owlish, over-wide eyes. His heart was in his throat. He had felt rigid and uncertain; unsure of what to do with his hands. He could see Shane, sitting just a few inches from him, grinning incredulously behind a half-closed fist, trying to be polite for the Father’s sake. He mightn’t believe in the same things as Ryan, but he’s respectful about his skepticism.
The warning still rings in his ears as they venture precariously down the creaking corridors of the old cottage. Under the tinny-pale glow of their flashlights, their surroundings look desaturated, black and white with a faded wash of aged-blue. Shane is in front of him, a thin silhouette in the relative half-dark of the shanty little house, a veil of comfort.
“I personally think you guys are really... doing dangerous stuff, which I would really encourage you not to do.”
His eyes dart this way and that, unwilling to settle anywhere for too long. The dark knows how to play tricks on his mind, it knows how to make him see things in spaces where nothing exists, with its twisted and uncanny ability to terrify him at every turn.
“Ryan made us use a ouija board.” Shane had said, his smile somehow audible in his words.
“That’s a bad idea.”
Ryan shuts his eyes for a moment, as if struggling to clear his thoughts.
“That’s a conjuring tool. That’s not a game.”
He opens his eyes again, and he swallows thickly. The air smells of dust, of freshly-disturbed soil, of stale thyme and spilled red wine. The echoing cicada song that rings through the woods outside serves as a strange kind of accompaniment, a hollow orchestra for Ryan’s waking nightmare. The windows are fogged up, and even with the lights of their crew, there’s precious little to be seen inside the old house.
“I’m surprised.” Shane starts, pausing in the midst of what must ostensibly have been a living room some century ago. There’s little there save for a small and round wooden table with two stools tucked beneath it. There’s a row of cabinets and a kitchenette bench with a basin that doesn’t have a drain. There’s a hatch for vegetables that’s hollowed out, and a rack for drying herbs.
“What’s so surprising?” Ryan asks, lifting his flashlight to shine a light upon the round table, dancing with dust motes.
“It’s a witch cottage, right?” Shane asks, facing him. “I thought the idea of witchcraft got tossed out the window after we went to Salem.”
Ryan’s gaze skirts towards him, and Shane is only half lit by the glow of his torch, glasses perched along the bridge of his nose, speckled with raindrops. He’s wearing a flannel shirt buttoned up over a simple pair of blue jeans, and heavy boots that match Ryan’s own. His hair is tousled and damp from the hike they’d had to take to find this place, and aside from a small flush to his arched cheekbones, he’s the very picture of ease.
“It’s good content, dude.” He manages, at last. “Plus, it’s just-.. Y’know-... cultists and satanists and-..”
“Ah, yes. A good yarn.” Shane interrupts, turning away from him to shine the halo glow of his flashlight down the narrow hallway that leads off into another dark room that Ryan isn’t clambering to explore. “Should we--?”
“I just wanna set up where we’re gonna sleep and not move any more than I have to.” Ryan insists, gripping the handle of his torch in a white-knuckled grasp. A small tremble flits through his frame, the sphere of his torch shivers, and he shifts where he stands as if to mask it.
Shane turns toward him, the light of his torch bounces off the rickety walls. He’s silent for a moment, and then he nods.
“How about here, then? There’s a nice fireplace there, and a view outside by this palatial window.” He gestures with a large hand toward the single window looking out into the woods above the kitchenette. Ryan can’t see anything through it. The white pine barrens are blanketed in a thick layer of fog, until everything beyond a few feet away from the house is obscured in a white veil.
The fireplace looks as if it hasn’t been lit in at least a century. It’s blackened and crumbling inwards.
Shakily, Ryan nods.
It takes them a half hour to set up all the cameras. TJ goes over their positions three times, reminding Ryan and Shane to change out the batteries after half the night goes by to ensure that they don’t miss a moment. They lay out their sleeping bags and pillows in front of the fireplace, and Ryan’s single stipulation that there be at least one light on has the gentle gleam of a campfire lantern left upon the round table in the middle of the room, bathing the parlour in a pale-white glow that is as unnerving as it is meant to be soothing.
TJ looks between them anxiously as he hitches the strap of his backpack over a shoulder.
“You’re good? Ryan?” He asks, nodding once.
Hastily, Ryan simply nods. “Yeah, I’m good, dude.”
“Give us a call if you need anything. We’re just a few minutes off, so just shout if something happens.”
Shane breathes a quiet chuckle.
“It’s an empty house. I’m sure we’ll manage.”
Ryan swallows, dryly.
TJ looks between them a second time, and with a single nod - he turns to take his leave, slipping back down the dark hallway, and into the grassy clearing beyond. Ryan doesn’t move until he hears the rickety back door click shut after him.
Shane wanders back to their sleeping bags, and moves to sit cross-legged within his own, nearer to the fireplace than Ryan’s (because ‘I’m not putting up with chimney demons!’ he had insisted, and laughing - Shane had obliged him).
“So, what are you feeling?” Shane asks. “Chicken or ham?”
“How can you even think about food right now?”
“We’re here for a whole night.” Shane looks up from his backpack, zipped open in front of him upon the sleeping bag; features charmed with a boyish grin. “I’m going to be comfortable if I’m spending the night.”
“Are you going to take off your shoes?” Ryan asks, venturing hesitantly back toward Shane and the sleeping bags. He’d learned long ago, on their very first expedition into a haunted location, that the closer he stays to Shane, the more sane he feels.
“No. Have you seen the state of this place?” Shane asks, “Chicken or ham? I’ll just eat both if you don’t pick now.”
Ryan slowly lowers himself to sit upon the edge of his sleeping bag. “Chicken.” He concedes. Shane bobs his head into a lazy nod, and tosses the packaged sandwich towards him. Ryan catches it, but simply sets it aside. He has next to no appetite.
“So. Are you gonna spin a spooky story for me for this place?” He asks, reaching for his handycam while Ryan’s anxious gaze flits from the rafters to the vacant fireplace and back again. “It’s gotta be good if it has you this on edge already. We’ve been here barely an hour.”
“It feels like it’s been a lot longer.”
The light for Shane’s night camera flickers on, and illuminates Ryan’s features, shedding a silver glow over the cusp of his collarbones, standing stark beneath the scooped neckline of his shirt. He blinks against it, eyes struggling to adjust in the dark.
“It doesn’t have a name, really.”
“No ‘Sallie House’? No.. ‘Demonic Bellaire House’?”
Ryan blinks. “No.”
“That’s disappointing.” Shane mutters. “The names are half the fun.”
Ryan ignores him. “Hikers and hunters have made extensive reports of all kinds of strange things happening in these woods, especially after twilight. Some report believing that they had been followed, others would hear footsteps, twigs snapping, leaves shifting--”
“--Some people see shapes, and figures moving in the moonlight, indistinguishable enough that they can never quite tell if they are entirely human. Some people report seeing a pair of eyes watching them from the dark, reflecting the same way the eyes of an animal would. The origin of those things is typically assumed to be this house, here; in the middle of the woods, with nothing around for miles. Local residents have a difficult time pinpointing the exact time period in which it was built. I read online that it appeared almost overnight. Here when previously there was nothing. This house is said to have belonged to a woman the late eighteenth century who practiced witchcraft and routinely sacrificed first born male children in order to use their rendered fat in levitation ointments--”
“She what?!” Shane interrupts. “That’s wild!”
Ryan manages a breathless smile. “That’s witchcraft. It is, by its very nature, absolutely wild.”
“Right, so we’re in the house of a baby-killing witch who haunts the forest.”
“Fantastic.” Shane turns his camera, angling it upwards, toward the ceiling tangled with a tapestry of dangling cobwebs.
Ryan watches him; apprehensive, but silent. The light from his torch softens his features, reflecting back toward him from the rickety walls, and the wooden rafters. The planes of his cheekbones are still tinted a faint pink from the exertion of their hike. His throat shifts as he swallows, and he lifts a long-fingered hand to adjust his glasses a second time, shifting them upon the bridge of his aquiline nose. The grin spread across his lips is child-like and delighted.
It would be easy, Ryan thinks, to close these last few inches of space between them, and press his lips into the curve of Shane’s throat; where that lean curve of muscle sweeps into a broad shoulder. It would make it that much easier to forget where they are.
The light bounces as Shane moves his hand, and shines the camera back at Ryan. He blinks against the intrusive light, swiftly averting his gaze. His heart leaps into his throat.
“What? Did you see something?” Shane asks.
“Are you scared already?”
“It’s a cottage in the middle of the woods. Are you telling me you’re not scared?”
“I’m not scared.”
“Dude, even if ghosts didn’t exist--”
“--Which they don’t --”
“--all kinds of axe-murdering psychopaths could be prowling these woods right now.”
Shane pauses, as if to consider that.
“I think the sounds of your blood-curdling screams of terror would frighten them off if they dared even knock on the door to this place.”
“My screams aren’t that obtrusive.” Ryan deflects.
“My experience in the Sallie House begs to differ.”
“Are you saying that the thought of being beheaded in the woods, with nobody but me around, isn’t even moderately frightening to you?”
“It’s moderately frightening.” Shane concedes, looking thoughtful. “There are certainly worse ways to go.”
“What do you mean?”
Shane turns the camera away from Ryan, and toward the hallway. Distracted - Ryan twists where he sits to follow Shane’s gaze.
“Did you see something?” He asks, forgetting his previous question immediately.
Shane is silent.
Wind howls at the grooves and notches in the rooftop above them. The curled-over arm of a tree creaks and scratches at the window in the latrine. The windowpanes shiver. The rafters shift and re-settle. It’s as if the whole house shudders and sighs- as if the very architecture around them is sentient.
“Fuck-..” Ryan breathes.
“This is gonna be rough for you, isn’t it?” Shane asks, turning his camera back to Ryan. “That was just a light breeze. Just you wait for that wind to get stronger.”
“Fuck this house.” Ryan hisses.
Shane chuckles, and slowly switches off his camera, lowering the light - but leaving it on for the moment. Ryan wonders if that’s meant to console him, make him feel ever so slightly better about being so utterly terrified.
That wind howls again. The fingers of the branch, as thin as the limbs of an arachnid, creak against the foggy glass. A cool breeze filters in through the chimney, whistling down the fireplace to skim across Ryan’s ankles. He jolts, and hurries to cover his feet with his sleeping bag.
Shane breathes out a quiet laugh.
“If you make it through the night, I’ll be very impressed.”
“I’m gonna make it through the night.” Ryan insists.
“Fifty bucks says you won’t.”
“A hundred, and you’re on.”
“A hundred.” Shane extends an elongated hand toward him. Ryan hesitates, and reaches out to shake it - realising belatedly just how warm Shane feels in comparison to him.
Shane seems to realise it too. His features fall, amusement swiftly bleeding away. He doesn’t shake Ryan’s hand, he just uses it to pull Ryan towards him.
“If you die of hypothermia, that isn’t going to be good content for anybody.” He says, quietly. “Come here.”
Ryan fumbles, struggling to re-orient himself as he shifts onto Shane’s sleeping bag beside him. He reaches out to tug the spare sleeping back forwards - until they are both sitting, side by side, cross-legged, with Shane’s sleeping bag beneath them, and Ryan’s sprawled across their laps. Ryan shudders against the crawling warmth as it spreads its cautious fingers through his limbs.
This isn’t so out of the ordinary. They’ve shared beds. They slept elbow-to-elbow in the Sallie house. Sharing warmth with Shane is familiar, it’s part of the experience, part of these horrific mid-week trips. Shane is warm. It’s a pervasive, soothing, all-consuming kind of warmth. Part of that self-same blanket of safety and security that he had come to associate with the level-headed, long-limbed man sitting alongside him.
He can see Shane watching him out of the corner of his eye, expression vaguely conflicted. But, he simply looks away with a small shake of his head.
“You should eat.” He tells Ryan, after a moment. “It’ll help.”
* * * *
It’s hard to know when exactly Ryan fell asleep. His rest had been fitful and dreamless, ultimately interrupted by the cold. He wakes tangled in his sleeping bag, with Shane sprawled out by his side, sleeping upon his chest, with his head turned toward Ryan, and his glasses folded and dejected above the crown of his head. In the half-dark, Ryan can make out his features, if only slightly.
It seems like a rare thing, to see Shane so defenseless, to see him so vulnerable, to see him with his guard down. There’s not a crease nor a line upon the smooth planes of his pale features. His five o’clock shadow has grown into a more pronounced scruff. Ryan wants to reach out, and run his fingers along the angular curve of his jawline. He wants to feel the rough scrape of his stubble, the warmth of his skin, and how his breath flutters as he dozes.
There’s a creak from down the hall.
Ryan’s head snaps up. He reaches back to fold his palms against the sleeping bag beneath him, and he props himself up on his elbows, looking toward the dim hallway that winds away into the shifting dark.
For a moment, he is motionless. The only sounds are of the wind threading through the trees outside, softened by Shane’s gentle, methodical breathing.
There is another creak.
Another creak, followed by two taps.
Creak. Tap-tap. Creak. Tap-tap.
His brows pull together into a faint frown, and instinctively, Ryan reaches for his flashlight. He switches it on, and he shines it toward the hallway. His heart is beating rabbit-like against the cage of his ribs. His breathing hitches with thinly-veiled panic. His fingers feel ice cold. Dread settles upon his shoulders and presses down ...
But, he doesn’t see anything there. His eyes strain against the dark, and the shifting shadows in the hallway reveal nothing but dust motes and cobwebs.
Beside him, Shane shifts.
“Shane.” He hisses. “Shane!”
“Mmf-..” Shane turns his head away from Ryan, but doesn’t move any further.
“Do you hear that?” Ryan asks him, a breathless, urgent whisper.
Shane doesn’t respond.
Creak. Tap-tap. Creak. Tap-tap-tap-tap…
Ryan’s grip tightens upon the flashlight. His halo of light trembles. He swallows, mouth dry. His eyes are over wide, flickering from one side of the hallway to the other, and back again. He can’t pinpoint the source of the noise, it feels almost omnipotent. Behind him on the windowsill, above him between the rafters, down the hall to the left, in the latrine by the closet. At the bottom of the basement stairs, luring him down into the choking dark.
Slowly, he moves to stand, freeing himself from the folds of his sleeping bag, and casting it uncaringly across the backs of Shane’s legs.
His knees tremble beneath him as he gathers himself up. The light from his torch bounces off the walls. He moves to the hallway; bare feet silent against the aged pine floorboards, where a draft of cool air whistles past him, skimming the nape of his neck with arctic fingertips, beckoning him closer.
Creak. Tap. Creak. Tap-tap.
“What the fuck-..?” He breathes, softly.
Against his better judgement, he follows the sound further down the hallway, to a part of the house he has yet to see. Part of him is utterly desperate to run, to flee, to clamber back into his sleeping bag and settle into Shane’s side, to hide his face like a child afraid of the monster under his bed, content to believe that the blankets are a suitable sheild against the horrors that lurk in the dark.
But that part of him, that more rational, more sensible part, is outweighed by the believer in him, determined to prove Shane wrong. So determined, that he’d left his camera by the sleeping bag, nestled by Shane’s folded-up glasses.
The camera is the very last thing upon his mind as he creeps down the hallway, shining the pale glow of his flashlight at his feet, in case there is a missing floorboard, a rogue nail protruding from the fraying wood, or a stray rodent taking shelter from the icy forest beyond. It feels as though every sound is amplified in here. It’s deathly silent. So silent, that Ryan can hear every shift, every creak of the little hut as the wind whistles outside, every groan of old and shifting wood, every settling sound that the old walls dare emit.
He can hear the rage of his own heartbeat, ringing in between his ears, and coupled with the ragged sounds of his own heavy breathing, he’s half-certain that any entity dwelling within these walls would hear him coming even if he was a mile away.
Ryan jerks towards the sound. It’s more urgent now. More insistent. It’s closer.
There is a storage closet by the rickety door that leads back out into the woods, at the end of the shambling hallway.
“Fuck.” He breathes it, utters it under his breath as the light from his flashlight lingers upon the fraying closet. It looks gutted, and decrepit - as if it’s a light breeze away from toppling to pieces. The door is splintering and aged, held together by a mere few rusty nails and a latch missing its lock.
“Fuck.” He whispers. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckfuck..”
Would Shane think he’s brave for doing this, or would he think that Ryan is monumentally stupid? If their roles were reversed, Shane would’ve flung open that little closet door with a burst of fanfare and a string of threatening obscenities, features drawn into a crooked grin; delighted by Ryan’s protests.
He’s a mere foot from the closet, now. He could reach out and ease it open if he was to outstretch his left hand. What would crawl out? The witch, drenched in sinew and blood? A ghost? A ghoul?
His trembling hand outstretches in the half dark, the glow of his flashlight illuminates the bottom of the closet, his gaze snaps between the rusted-away handle, and the flaking dust and wood by the tips of his toes.
Numb fingers hook against the door to the little closet, and slowly, slowly, agonisingly slowly -- Ryan eases it open, peeling it back, inching it back, until it emits a loud creak , and swings the rest of the way back in an abrupt sweep. It slides sharply from his grasp.
He jerks back. The creak startles him, makes him jump.
There’s a blur. A black shape with eyes that gleam against the halo of his flashlight. There’s a terrified snarl that seems to echo from the moss-ridden walls, and the scrabble-scrape of something urgent upon the splintering floorboards.
Something impossibly fast and impossibly small darts between his parted feet, and Ryan staggers back with a shout.
His flashlight slips uselessly from between his fear-numbed fingers to clatter noisily to the floor. He staggers back. His heart lurches into his throat. His eyes burn. His blood runs cold with terror . All he can think to do is run .
It’s instinctive. Fight or flight. Ryan chooses flight.
He scrambles back down the hallway, knocking into the rickety walls, scraping his shoulder against the fraying doorway. The sleeve of his shirt catches upon a protruding nail. He feels a strange and foreign flood of warmth begin to spread down his arm in tangled rivulets. He doesn’t stop, he doesn’t dare. His eyes are wild. Adrenaline pours through him, melding eloquently with his fumbling hysteria as he hurtles through the dark, trying to get away, get away, get away -..
He tumbles into something warm, something solid, something that envelopes him at once.
Something that cuts through his white-hot hysteria.
“Hey, hey-..!” Shane’s voice rises starkly above the cavalcade of unhinged panic setting Ryan on edge. He’s level, calm, ever so faintly surprised . “Hey, man-!... calm down.”
He can smell Shane’s cologne, that odd blend of mint and worn leather. He can feel the gentle scrape of his stubble just above the cusp of his temple. He can feel the steady beat of his heart against the curve of his cheek. He can see the glow from the lamp just behind him, left upon the table in the shanty living room where all of this had started.
It’s almost like a fog clears from Ryan’s mind. A fog not unlike that which blankets the forest they’re nestled within. He comes back to reality, bit by bit. More of his surroundings return to him. Their sleep-churned sleeping bags. Shane’s glasses, still by the flat pillows. The unlit fireplace, seething cool air onto the dusty floorboards, and Ryan’s boots - propped by the window, with their laces askew.
There are arms around him. One is cast along the length of his lean shoulders. The other is settled along the sway of his spine, with careful fingers notched just above the curve of his hipbone, drawing soothing circles into his skin, through the thin fabric of his shirt. His face is buried into Shane’s chest. His arms are wrapped tightly around Shane’s torso, gripping him so close that it must hurt.
But, he doesn’t have it in him to let go.
“Ryan,” Shane’s voice is very quiet, softer and gentler than it’s ever been. “Breathe, Ryan. Just breathe. I’m right here.” He thinks he feels Shane’s head shift. His words are murmured into Ryan’s hair. “I’m right here.”
He tries to listen to him. He draws in a strangled breath through his parted lips, and he lets it out through his nose; but it’s worn, strained. He forgets to take another.
He breathes in again, and out again. In, and out. In and out.
He feels the wild beat of his heart begin to slow. The stars popping into his vision gradually begin to recede.
“I saw something.” He says, after a long moment of simply-... standing there. “I saw something. Father Thomas was right. We have to get out of here. We gotta get out of this fucking house, dude . There’s--”
“I saw a possum.” Shane interrupts. “Is that what you saw?”
Ryan draws back, looking up at him, still holding onto him, still keeping his body close.
It was a little black shape. With gleaming eyes--..
Ryan squeezes his eyes shut. His shoulders drop. He hisses out a strangled sigh as the realisation dawns upon him, and he suddenly feels immensely foolish.
It was a fucking possum.
“You saw it--?”
“It ran right past me. Right down the hall. Then, I heard you yelling, and--” Shane lets out a drawled exhale, and in the half-dark, Ryan is almost certain he’s trying not to laugh. “..-it’s okay, man. It’s nothing. The dark plays tricks on everyone.”
“I was hearing this-... tapping, against the closet down the end of the hall. I went to go see what it was.”
“The poor thing has probably been trapped in there for an age.” Shane murmurs. “Did you let it out? You probably did it a favour.”
“It just ran out. I didn’t get a good look at it.”
“This place isn’t exactly well-sealed. We’d be far from the only living things in here. I was seeing rats earlier.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“What, you’re scared of rats now, too?”
“No. I just-..”
Ryan shakes his head, completely unwilling to look back down the hall, unwilling to look anywhere that isn’t Shane, and this safe little corner of this terrible cottage.
“I wanna get out of here.”
Shane is quiet for only a moment. Ryan braces himself for a protest, for Shane’s offbeat brand of chiding piss-taking, goading him into proving himself.
But, Shane surprises him, this time. He doesn’t even remind him of the bet they’d made.
“I’ll call TJ and Devon.” He says, plainly. “But, um-.. Ryan?”
“You- uh-..” The arms around him begin to unwind, threading back to settle against his shoulders. “You’re gonna have to let me go. I’m having a hard time breathing, let alone reaching for my phone.”
“Oh. Right.” It takes him a moment. His limbs feel frozen. Too stiff to move, too terrified to let go of him. But, he manages to unwind himself, arms trembling. He steps back.
He can see Shane, half-illuminated by the lamp upon the table, a silhouette in the dark; caught with sleep-churned hair and a rumpled white shirt, stained red at the sleeve. A frown touches Ryan’s brow at the sight--...
“Ryan--!” Shane steps forwards again, he reaches out for him. A long-fingered hand grips tightly at his upper arm, thumb digging in. “You’re bleeding!”
Ryan looks down, and his frown eases away.
There’s a warm rivulet of blood spiraling down the length of his arm, creeping towards the cusp of his palm where it has gone cold. It shines with a red and effervescent gleam in the dim light surrounding them, smudged against the outside of his arm where he had been holding Shane. There’s a gash along the outside of his arm, just below the hemline of his sleeve, deep enough to be concerning, but shallow enough that it’s far from life threatening.
A dull pang of pain follows the realisation, as if the adrenaline ebbing out of his system is only now allowing him to feel. He lets out a shaky breath. His arm throbs.
“Sit down, man.” Shane insists, reaching out with his other hand to scrape one of the stools back from beneath the table as he ushers Ryan into it. “How-.. when did this happen?”
“I clipped a wall when I ran.” Ryan admits, sitting heavily upon the stool.
“From the possum?” Shane reiterates, and even in the dark - he’s fighting back a smile.
“Yes. From the fucking possum.”
The grip upon him doesn’t ease, and Ryan realises that Shane is trying to stem the bleeding.
“It’s fine, dude--”
“It’s all the way down your arm.” Shane says, voice uncharacteristically firm. “This house is ancient. If it isn’t crawling with diseases, it’s got enough rust in it to give a horse tetanus. D’you remember when you last got your shot?”
“Probably before we went to Mexico.”
“So, a while.”
“Yeah.” Ryan shifts his gaze to look down at his arm. “It’s fine, dude. I got it. You call TJ.”
Shane offers a small bob of his head, avoiding his gaze as he releases his arm. His hand shines, bright as arterial blood, against the tinny lantern.
He reaches out to collect his phone from the table, cluttered with all of their other belongings - and the spirit box that Ryan had yet to touch. He hunches forwards as he unlocks his phone, and begins tapping out a text, elongated fingers moving against the glowing screen that ignites the undersides of his palms a soft blue.
A strange feeling settles at the base of Ryan’s spine. An cold and fitful kind of sensation that sets his nerves on end. A shiver crawls up the steps of his spine, and he turns to peer over his shoulder. Unsurprisingly, there’s nothing there.
“They’ll be here in half an hour.” Shane says, without looking up from his phone. “Can you hold out until then?”
* * * *
The rest of the night passes by in a blur. He’s driven to the hospital where a nurse carefully cleans and wraps his wound. She administers a tetanus shot that hurts more than the wound itself before sending them on their way.
Their shared hotel room is a welcome respite from the cold and hollow surroundings of that forlorn cottage in the woods. It’s easier to think here. That strange and empirical feeling that perhaps they are being watched is gone. Ryan’s skin no longer feels as though it’s crawling with some strange kind of urgency that he can’t name. He can breathe without feeling as though he’s swallowing a lungful of dust. Those shivers are long gone, left in the folds of his rumpled sleeping bag, speckled with fresh blood.
Shane is sitting on one of the double beds in the room, his ankle propped against his knee, leaning forwards and peering at Ryan through the smudged rims of his spectacles as he runs a tired hand through his hair. His shirt is stained with drying blood.
“How are you feeling?” he asks, voice gravelly and rough with what Ryan knows is exhaustion.
“Fine.” He says, softly. “I just-..”
Shane sits up, fingers dipping beneath the rims of his glasses to rub at his eyelid, before withdrawing, knocking his glasses ever so slightly askew.
Ryan wants to reach out and straighten them.
He curls his hands into fists at his sides. He stuffs them into his pockets.
“I just-... need sleep, I think.”
“How’s your arm?” Shane reiterates.
“You’re staining the bandages.” He stands, rising from the bed in one fluid movement that almost leaves Ryan stunned. “..-they really should have given you stitches.”
“It’s a shallow cut, dude.” Ryan responds, quickly. “It’ll be healed up before you know it.”
“So what? All the better to show these demons how tough I am.”
Shane breathes out a laugh. He’s moving closer, head dipped down in that characteristic way it often is when he’s speaking to Ryan, as if he’s trying to be at his level, as if to compensate for the difference between their heights, as if to accommodate him. He reaches out to shuffle the sleeve of Ryan’s shirt up, and past the bandages, wrapped lengthways around the circumference of his arm. Looking, Ryan realises that he is right. His blood is blooming through the fabric like over-ripe rose petals, stark and intimidating.
“It’s fine.” He insists, again.
Shane’s thumb drifts over the bandages, fingers hooked against the inside of Ryan’s arm.
“Are you gonna be able to sleep tonight?” He asks, voice low. His auburn gaze flickers toward Ryan.
“Yeah. It’s just a cut, and all I saw was a possum. I’m not gonna go losing sleep over woodland animals and kitchen-grade cuts.”
There’s a beat of silence. Shane hesitates, fingers shifting along Ryan’s skin. A frown appears between his brows, and he averts his gaze again. For a moment, he looks as though he’s about to say something.
He exhales, and he shakes his head. He releases Ryan.
“You’ve lost sleep over a gust of wind before, Ryan, so I can never be too sure.” He turns back to the bed, straightening out of his hunch as if it hadn’t ever been there. “I’m gonna go take a shower. I feel as though I’m covered in a fine layer of dust and dirt. I never knew how it must feel to be a petrified log, and now I wish I never found out.”
He grabs his shaving bag and his pajamas, and vanishes around the corner, and into the bathroom, humming pleasantly all the while.
Ryan lingers there until he hears the shower rush with water.
* * * *
He wakes feeling distinctly like he’s been hit by a bus. His entire left side throbs with a dull and resounding ache .
A glimpse at his reflection in the bathroom mirror in the morning shows him why.
The bandages are still there, stained a deep and blossoming red. Above them is a darkened bruise from the tetanus shot. That isn’t unusual. Ryan can’t remember the last time he’d been administered a shot that didn’t make him bruise.
Beneath the bandages is a relative kaleidoscope of bruising. It’s as though his shoulder had sought to encompass the entirety of the colour spectrum of the shade purple with as much clarity as possible. A smudging of heliotropic lilac spans the length of his forearm, toward his elbow where it fades away into an off-putting brown colour. He reaches out to skim his fingertips across it, breathing out a quiet and defeated ‘shit’ in the process as nought but pain answers the gentle prickle of his fingertips.
He pulls on the only long-sleeved shirt that he had thought to bring with him, and prays it’ll be enough to keep Shane from asking one too many questions.
* * * *
The airport is one of Ryan’s favourite places to be when he’s with Shane.
They’re sitting in the lounge, waiting to board. Their flight has been delayed due to the earnest rain. TJ and Devon are a few rows back, along with Mark; who had long ago decided amidst themselves that travel time is their time to decompress.
The window is to Ryan’s left, overlooking the landing track where planes drift in on the tarmac, glittering with silver lights to distinguish them in the low haze. He watches the ground crew wave their gleaming beacons to signal the pilots in their reflective vests, shining brightly despite the gloom.
Their carry-on bags are at their feet, and Ryan sits cross-legged within his seat, a coffee cradled in both hands for warmth, hair sleep-churned and stuffed haphazardly beneath a plain black beanie. He’d slipped a hoodie on before they’d left their hotel, and his black jeans have a single tear over the left knee. His limbs feel heavy with exhaustion, a bone-deep kind of tired he’s come to know well.
Shane is sitting in the adjoining seat to his right.
He’s hardly conscious; eyes red-rimmed and tired, hair still rumpled from his pillow, and in dire need of a shave. His glasses sit upon the bridge of his nose, and he’s tucked into his jean jacket, and a pair of plain bootleg trousers that have, over time, become a size too large for him. A single hand covers his eyes beneath his glasses, rubbing tiredly at the bridge of his nose. His other grips his cardboard coffee cup, with his name and order scribbled in black pen upon the plastic lid. It’s balanced precariously upon his knee, but wrapped securely within his elongated fingers.
Steam coils from the spout, curling absently toward the curve of his throat.
This feels like an impasse. A moment of reprieve. A temporary break from the rest of the world. Some in-between place they’ve arrived at with thousands of other transient and nameless people who weren’t important outside of the two of them. People who didn’t care, didn’t notice them. A place that’s dreamy, far-removed from reality, especially when blanketed by this thick, white fog. Far from that desolate cottage, and their crowded offices back home. A place that feels empty of wrongdoings and consequences, a place where Ryan could feel safe uttering those three words that burn ever so urgently upon the tip of his tongue during moments like these.
I love you.
He’s drawn from his thoughts with a start. He looks up, and Shane is peering at him between his fingers.
“Nothing.” He looks away, cheeks prickling with warmth at being caught.
“S’rude to stare, Bergara.”
“I wasn’t. You just-... you look tired. I wanted to make sure you were asleep so that when they called us for boarding I’d have a shot at leaving you behind.”
Shane’s hand slips away from his features. He adjusts his glasses, and breathes out a laugh, slapping that hand to his chest as if Ryan’s words had landed him a mortal blow.
“Finish your coffee, then we can talk harsh.” Ryan mutters.
Shane grins, but he obliges him.
* * * *
They’re crammed together upon the flight. Ryan sits by the window, with Shane toward the aisle, where he can stretch out his elongated legs comfortably. It’s a silent arrangement of theirs, after both of Shane’s legs fell dangerously asleep on a flight to Michigan. The process of re-awakening them had led to more complaining than Ryan was willing to endure a second time. He takes the window seat, now.
Ryan tugs off his beanie, and attempts to neaten his hair, before stuffing it into his carry-on, and fishing out his phone, and his headphones.
He freezes when he feels two long fingers skate through the downy hair at the nape of his neck, and he reaches back, distractedly, as if to swat them away. They withdraw just as quickly as they had come, and Ryan sits up.
“Sorry.” Shane says, a frown settled upon his brow as his hand lowers to the armrest between them. He looks down at the back of his hand as if it had moved without his volition. “I just-... your hair looks nicer like this, y’know-... without all that product.”
Ryan lifts a hand to skim his fingers through his hair, rumpled from sleep and curling toward the ends. “..-really?”
Shane nods, reaching forwards to fish the laminated safety manual out of the back pocket of the seat in front of him, peering at it with enough interest to signal that their conversation is over.
Ryan doesn’t sleep during the flight. Shane, predictably, does .
He watches the clouds fly away beneath them as he listens to his music, loud enough to filter out the trundling chorus of the plane’s engine, but not so loud that he’d wake Shane. His head is resting upon Ryan’s shoulder, elbow pressed to the armrest between them, while his fingers curl over the end, lax enough that Ryan wishes he could tangle his own through the spaces between them, and hold on until the cold brought on by the in-flight air conditioning would be chased away.
It doesn’t happen often, only on those rare trips that Ryan could count on the fingers of one hand, where Shane got little sleep the night prior; when his exhaustion far outweighs his tendency to overthink the littlest things. Ryan knows that if he moves, if he shifts, if he adjusts his position, Shane will wake up.
So he holds still. He focuses on the warmth bleeding through from the cusp of Shane’s temple, and the curve of his cheek. The crest of his shoulder, pressed into Ryan’s own, a firm line of warmth that radiates into him, reassuring and familiar. If he turns his head, he could bury his nose into Shane’s hair, and inhale the vanilla-and-coconut scent from his hotel-issue shampoo, mingled eloquently with his cologne in a scent that’s somehow so characteristically Shane that Ryan could wrap himself up in it forever and be perfectly content.
But he doesn’t dare.
He tries to ignore the pain that throbs through him from the curve of his shoulder, where those bandages are wrapped. They feel vaguely wet, but Ryan tells himself that he’s simply imagining it; that the pain is just the bruising. He doesn’t move.
Why would he?
* * * *
They’re at baggage claim. He’d lost TJ and Devon a half hour ago. The throng of morning passengers are impatient and insistent, a cavalcade of greys and blacks with speckles of forest green, all looking as tired as Ryan feels.
He turns toward the sound of his name, and Shane is behind him, gripping his elbow.
He leans down, ducking his head, hunching down toward him, fingers crawling into the bend of Ryan’s elbow, lips hovering by the shell of his ear.
“You’re bleeding through your shirt.”
Ryan twists, lifting his arm - still in Shane’s grip - to look down at the hemming of his sleeve.
There’s a pocked stain of red there, dark enough to be visible against the rust-coloured fabric. He bites the inside of his cheek to keep himself from cursing.
“I’ll get the bags.”
He’s already off; a foot taller than the rest of the crowd, navigating it with ease to make his way to the conveyor belt. Ryan does his best to follow his footsteps, but he promptly gives up once his toes are run over by the wheels of a recently-unpacked pram.
He breaks away from the crowd, instead, and hangs a few paces back.
Shane returns to him with a broad grin, and both of their suitcases wheeled behind him.
“I’ve returned from battle.”
“You’re a piece of shit. Give me mine--”
“No. Have you changed your bandages since the nurse gave them to you? You really should. It isn’t hygenic.” He starts walking, pace quick, gaze still scrutinizing Ryan.
One of Shane’s broad strides is easily two of his own. He fumbles over himself just trying to keep up with him.
“No, but-.. It’s just a cut . It’s nothing.”
“You’re bleeding through your shirt, Ryan.” He counters. “If it was nothing, you wouldn’t still be bleeding. See? I knew you needed stitches. Do you have a first aid kit at home?”
“I-... think so? But, it’s not gonna have the materials I need to stitch myself up .”
“You’re not gonna have to stitch anything, but if it comes to that, I’ll drive you to the damn emergency room myself. How did this happen? Why didn’t you say anything?”
They walk through the automatic doors into the arrivals bay, all but flying through LAX at Shane’s punishing leg-speed.
“I-.. I didn’t notice it!” He insists, unwilling to tell the truth; that Shane had fallen asleep on him and he’d felt too good for Ryan to dare waking him up, or asking him to move.
“You were sitting on a plane for fuck’s sake.”
“I must’ve slept on it.”
“Are you serious right now?” Shane turns toward him, auburn eyes filled with concern and disbelief.
“I don’t know. It’s a cut! It’s nothing!”
It’s a strange and unfamiliar thing to see Shane frustrated, or angry. Ryan has seen enough of his smiles that they’re burned into the backs of his eyelids so that he might never forget them. His features are ones that lend themselves over to smiles so easily, it isn’t fair. How his sleepy, down-turned eyes crease and wrinkle into little slits, how dimples threaten to press into his cheeks, often obscured by the scruff of his five o’clock shadow, framing his narrow mouth that draws so effortlessly wide when he grins, flashing his vaguely crooked teeth. He’s all emotion, all movement, fitful and gleeful - moving with unsteady jaunts and curved-in limbs as if to fit into a world made too small for him.
An angry Shane doesn’t emote at all.
He’s a blank slate, tabula-rasa, eerily vacant. His features are impossible to define, his discerning eyes are inscrutable and distant - even as they settle upon Ryan with a cold kind of detachment that leaves his chest feeling as empty as it had in the basement of the Sallie House. He draws back, lengthening his spine, turning his gaze away - straightening up as if to leave as much distance between he and Ryan as he can - without moving.
“You get home, then. Change the bandages, and disinfect the wound.” He says, voice as taut as a harpstring. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
Then, he’s gone.
* * * *
It’s a wet Monday.
Rain falls in sheets from heavy grey clouds that cover the skyline like a thick, velvet blanket. Thunder rumbles like some distant but omnipotent threat, flashing silver through the wispy clouds. All that’s missing is a veil of fog and a moss-choked cabin to put Ryan back in that gutted cottage where all of this had started.
He’s tired, eyes red-rimmed and sleep-addled. His hair is a mess, lacking product and hastily hidden beneath the cusp of a backwards baseball cap. He’s in short sleeves, with a cable-knit sweater tossed haphazardly over the back of his chair in case the air conditioning cools the office enough for him to pull it on. The glances he spares at his watch are fitful and earnest, but never as frequent as the looks he steals into the carpark, visible from the window by Shane’s desk.
He hasn’t gotten any work done, despite the open browser window in front of him, outlining the gruesome details of Bugsy Siegel’s murder, something that would ordinarily have him enraptured for the better part of the morning. It’s his favourite part of covering cases for Unsolved. The script writing is the difficult part that ordinarily sends him spiralling into a bottomless pit of procrastination that Shane often indulges him in.
There’s movement out of the corner of his eye. Ryan doesn’t look up.
Shane tosses his jacket over the back of his chair. He throws his bag under the desk, and promptly turns upon his heel to wander towards the coffee line.
Ryan twists in his seat to watch, nerves sizzling on-end, heart faltering. Mornings are made tolerable by Shane’s exhausted entrances punctured by some pithy comment or another - usually in regards to the amount of gel in Ryan’s hair. Seeing him in the morning is like seeing a second sunrise; only it’s sleepier, softer, tucked into a wrinkled hoodie or a tired button-down shirt.
But, not today. Today, Ryan barely gets a greeting.
They work in silence for the majority of the day. Ryan hovers awkwardly at lunch, making smalltalk across the aisle with Curly until it becomes plain that Shane isn’t going to be looking up from his laptop screen. When he comes back to his desk, Shane is gone, and his monitor is asleep.
He doesn’t come back for another half hour, and by that point - Ryan has a short list of questions to ask him ahead of their next segment, things he wouldn’t think twice about voicing under ordinary circumstances.
But, he’s stuck; hesitating - sparing halting glances at Shane out of his peripherals instead in a frustrating facsimile that encapsulates Ryan’s quandary with his best friend for the past six months. Too content to watch , and not act.
He leans forwards, heaving a sigh, and re-focusses instead upon the wikipedia entry in front of him.
An hour passes.
Cool fingers skim the outside of his arm, and Ryan jumps, popping one of his headphones out and onto his keyboard. He jerks his head with a short huff.
Shane is there, leaning toward him with an elbow propped against the desk, and a hand extended toward Ryan. His long fingers skim beneath the sleeve of his shirt, peeling the woven cotton fabric back to inspect the wound he hadn’t dressed, surrounded by a bruised fresco, whose vibrancy burns in a sharp crescendo against his olive complexion. Shane’s pale fingers wander the perimeter of the wound, no longer oozing blood, and the edges of the fading bruises. His features are fixed into a thoughtful frown, brow furrowed beneath the thick frame of his glasses, lips parted a hair’s breath apart, hunched forwards as if to be eye-level with the curve of Ryan’s shoulder.
Shane’s gaze snaps up. Their eyes meet. He jerks back, his touch withdraws; as if he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. As if he hadn’t meant to reach out. As if he didn’t want to touch Ryan.
He clears his throat. He adjusts his glasses. He skims a hand through his hair.
“It looks better.” He says, after a moment.
“Yeah, ‘cause it wasn’t that bad to begin with. You were just being a fucking drama queen about it.”
“Oh, whose being a drama queen, Ryan? Look at that bruise.”
“Stop, dude.” Ryan tips his head. “I’m done with arguing over this.”
“I didn’t see the bruise.” Shane mutters, turning his attention back to his laptop. “Get a compress for it.”
“Stop squabbling, you two.” Devon snaps, one headphone propped from her ear, tousled blonde bob a relative mess from the wind outside. “You really are turning into an old married couple.”
A dark flush clouds Ryan’s cheeks, and he clears his throat as he reaches out to adjust his laptop screen.
“So, hey-.. ‘Bout the next episode for True Crime..”
Shane leans towards him again.
Ryan tries not to focus on the distance between them, and how dutifully Shane tries to maintain it.
* * * *
There’s a party on Friday evening for Kelsey’s birthday. The venue is a ritzy club Ryan is fairly certain he’d visited during the first week after his move to LA, when everything was new and exciting; when he’d been much more willing to drink himself numb and wake up with little to no memory of the night before.
He’d tried to dress down, in a simple sleeveless shirt that scoops a little too low down the cusp of his sternum, and a pair of plain black jeans with rips in the knees, paired with a sober outlook he intends to carry out into the evening.
His resolve cracks the moment he sees Shane.
He looks dishevelled. He’s in need of a haircut, Ryan knows because the moment Shane’s hair becomes long enough to hang over his forehead, he’s frustrated. He needs to shave, and his downturned eyes are bloodshot and tired . He’s in a rumpled white button-down and a simple pair of skinny jeans that only seem to emphasise the length of his legs. He’s smiling broadly, with a faint flush warming the cusps of his cheeks. Ryan’s half certain the champagne flute held precariously in his left hand is partially to blame, but also the back of a pretty girl locked in close conversaiton with him, her hair a mess of wild blonde curls.
Ryan tries not to look at them, and accepts the first shot of vodka that Kelsey pushes at him, knocking it back and feeling nought but appreciaiton for the burn it offers. It wipes away that hollow, cold, and vacant feeling in his chest. It fills him with an artificial warmth that he knows will last long enough to chase out reality.
He loses himself over to loud music, to shots of tequila that taste like poison, a sticky bartop, manned by a tender who has nothing but smiles for him, glittering and broad - offered over the rims of a half-dozen shot glasses, nails glittering under the osciliating lights, and his laughing friends, dancing with drinks in their hands in the heart of a too-small floor.
There’s a smoke machine he hadn’t noticed before, blowing clouds of white vapour across them until the beams of the strobe lights feel electric and unearthly amidst the haze, flashing eclectic fuscia and brilliant yellows in bold lines. He remembers why nights like these are so valuable to him; the rest of the world is so easy to forget in moments like these. His heart feels full; choked with alcohol and Kelsey’s infectious laughter, crooned on by the cheers of his other friends, a flame fanned by good music and low lighting. He forgets about Shane, about that empty cottage, about the cut on the outside of his arm, about this crush that had somehow become something much more than he’d ever intended it to be. There’s no world at all outside of the walls of this nightclub. The universe is here . Nothing else matters. Not when he’s here.
Not until he drops a scooner of beer he’d ben holding comfortably just a moment ago. It crashes between his feet with a shattering crunch of finality, spilling foamy beer over his too-expensive sneakers, but he’s still so filled with warmth that he doesn’t have it in him to care .
Stiffly, he staggers back to lean against the bartop, his vision swimming.
“Slow down, sugar.” A hand settles upon his shoulder, and he turns his head to see the sweet-eyed bartender hovering over the bartop and toward him. She leans in close, and he can smell the sweetly-scented star-anise of her perfume. “Get any more unruly and I’m gonna have to get the big guy to kick you out, and I don’t wanna do that.”
Her words are a murmur, uttered by the shell of his ear, weighty with some unspoken promise that Ryan’s alcohol-soaked brain is too muddled to piece together. Only, she had uttered the words big guy and Ryan’s knees feel as though they’ve stopped working. He tips his head back, until it rests against her shoulder, and the dazzling lights and loud music feel intoxicating, tempting, dizzying.
He doesn’t know what he wants, only that he does -- his skin feels too-warm, this room feels too-small, and she smells too good . Her fingers skate along the cusp of his chest, and he turns his head; lips skimming against the crest of her cheek.
Another hand grasps at the inside of his arm, and he pulls away with a short grunt.
Shane stands over him, a silhouette amidst the prismatic lights behind him, cheeks still flushed a deep red, shirt still impossibly wrinkled and stained with spilled champagne at the hemline. His features are schooled in that same mask of unhurried coldness, resolute and sharp - scathing enough to have the bartender retreating as if she’s been burned.
“Shane.” His voice wavers, it breaks; flooded with relief, with warmth. He lurches forwards, all but stumbling into the taller man, who steadies him with a rigid hand upon his shoulder.
“I think it’s time to go, Ryan.”
“Mmhm. Yeah.” He nods, forgetting the bartender and her inviting aroma, along with the shattered beer glass on the floor between them. He’s too inebriated to care. He wants to be with Shane. He wants to go where Shane is going. He missed him.
It’s been three hours, and Ryan has missed him .
“C’mon.” That grip upon his arm doesn’t slacken.
It feels like so many of their other casual touches - a hand at his back, beneath the nape of his neck, a guiding palm against the center of his spine, a passive pat to his shoulder, a playful shove to his chest; an awkward hug for a mid-show bit.
So, Ryan drifts closer. He knocks into Shane’s side with his bruised shoulder, he falls into step beside him, he reaches over to knot a hand in the wrinkled fabric by the sway of Shane’s spine, and ignores the way he feels the other man stiffen under his touch.
“You’re smashed, Ryan.” He utters, voice quiet but firm over the din.
They reach the club’s exit, and stepping onto the cool LA street feels on par with splashing his face with ice water. He hadn’t realised how stifling, how hot it had been in there. The cold air washes over the sweat and beer sticking to his skin, kissing his flesh with goosebumps until he shudders. A gentle breeze picks up, as if it had sensed his arrival, threading its icy fingers through his hair in a touch he feels must be intoxicating.
“Jesus christ.” Shane mutters beside him.
“What? What’s the matter?” Ryan asks, blinking wearily up at him, struggling to bring him into focus. He feels as through he’s looking at him through some gossamer lens, vision still sparking and spotting from the lights, struggling to adjust to the monochrome street, speckled with flourescent-green graffiti.
“You’re the most accident prone person I’ve ever fucking met, d’you know that?” Shane’s tone softens as he speaks. “It’s a fucking miracle you didn’t cut yourself open on all that broken glass.”
“I saw you.”
“I didn’t drop shit dude.”
He draws away from Shane.
Shane steps closer to him. A hand reaches out to settle above the sway of Ryan’s waist, steadying him before he can stagger. It feels as though there’s some electric current, sparking through his slight frame from where Shane touches him, like he’s a livewire. Again, Ryan shudders, flesh still feeling distinctly hot.
“I saw you lift that beer glass for a drink, and then drop it as if you stopped being a corporeal form. You could’ve convinced me you phased into the spectral realm, you know.”
“I have complete control over my limbs.”
“That’s not true.”
“Walk in a straight line, then.”
Shane drifts away from him.
“No.” Ryan says, with more conviction than he intends. “Don’t let go of me.”
“Are you gonna fall if I do? Because that will just prove my point.”
“No.” He moves closer. There’s some part of him, a more sober and rational part, that’s telling him to stop talking, to step away, to call a cab, get home, and sober up. That part of him is as small as it had been in that cottage in the woods, where it might as well have been choked by fog, and forgotten in the middle of the woods. He doesn’t care . He leans into Shane, he rests his cheek against Shane’s chest, and he winds his arms about the sway of his spine, listening to nothing but the gradual beat of his heart, and the rush of passing traffic, shifting the filtering breeze as it whizzes by them.
It feels like it did in the club, like nothing matters at all outside of the two of them. It feels like it did in the cottage, only Ryan isn’t drunk on fear and adrenaline, isn’t bleeding onto Shane’s only good shirt, isn’t too terrified to realise that it feels fucking perfect to be like this.
Arms fold around him after a moment, settling around his shoulders, and along his waist - just like they had in the cabin, drawing soothing circles into the crest of his shoulder, two long lines of warmth. He’s safe, and solid, he smells like cheap champagne and spearmint cologne. He feels like home.
“I’ll call an Uber.” He says, voice breathless, but sincere.
One of his hands lifts from Ryan’s frame, and the stark glow of his phone screen illuminates the backs of Ryan’s eyelids. He doesn’t dare open his eyes, and feels Shane’s arm drift about him again a moment later.
He loses track of time.
Shane gives his shoulder a small tap.
“Our ride’s here.” He says, voice soft, as if reluctant to rouse Ryan from his reprieve.
He pulls back, unwinding his limbs with halting ease, and he crowds into the back of a shiny silver Volvo a pace ahead of Shane, who helps him in as though he’s an invalid, and not a drunk. It’s dark inside the car, and somehow -- that’s a relief. Their driver is nought but a silhouette, lit by the dazzling lights of his impressive radio display, phone perched within a stand that’s suction-cupped against his windscreen.
“Big night, boys?” He asks.
“Is it that obvious?” Shane murmurs, question rhetorical enough to keep the driver from asking them anything further.
Ryan is vaguely aware of the vehicle pulling away from the curb. The streetlights, headlights and traffic become a blur around them as they drive, ribbons of red, green and white that streak across the curved windows while Ryan leans closer and closer to Shane’s side over the course of the trip, until he’s nestled against him. Shane lifts his arm to sweep it along the broad length of Ryan’s compact shoulders, until his palm settles heavily against the cusp of his chest in a hold that’s decidedly intimate.
It feels right. It feels good.
It slips from him before he can stop it, as if his heart has become too full to hold it in any longer, as if there’s no room left within him to contain it. Ryan feels so much, so often, that it’s hard to keep everything in place, orderly , where it should be.
“I love you, y’know.”
It’s a mumble, breathed into the darkness between them, too soft for the driver to hear over the purr of his engine, and the quiet music filtering from his analog radio. Loud enough for Shane to hear, tinged with aged beer and day-old hairgel.
It hangs between them for a moment, heavy with implications Ryan is too tired to discern, too far gone to capture, too drunk to feel remorseful for. He feels Shane freeze against his side, and he cracks his eyes open ever so slightly.
“I love you too.” He says, after a moment. “You’re my best bud, of course I love you.”
It feels like something has lodged in his throat, something weighted and unfamiliar, something that feels distinctly like loss , something that unfurls with an urgency that leaves him wishing he could make Shane understand, if only he knew how.
“There’s so much I wanna tell you. So much I have to tell you.”
“So tell me.”
“Can’t.” He shakes his head. His eyes close again.
He doesn’t remember the exact point in which it happens, but his consciousness ebbs from him, lulled away by Shane’s steadfast warmth, and the quiet purr of the Volvo’s engine.
* * * *
He imagines this is what the victims of the New Orleans Axeman felt when they awoke to three gaping wounds in their skulls.
His head is throbbing. He feels groggy and exhausted, as if he’d only half slept the night through. His stomach is squirming itself into knots, as though he had been the one to eat those two baggage-claim hotdogs before arriving on set a the Penitentiary. He feels as though he’s covered in a thin sheen of sweat. He’s tangled in his bedsheets, with a pillow hugged against his chest.
It takes all of his willpower simply to lift his head, and bring his surroundings into focus.
He’s in his bed, in his apartment - with its plain walls and lacquered floorboards, complete with an impeccable display for his sneakers, and his disorderly wardrobe. He drops his head back against the pillow, and he rolls onto his back with a groan.
Sunlight winks in at him through the slats of his blinds, drawn over his window; casting striped shafts of golden light onto his bare chest as he lifts his hands above his head to stretch, and then promptly shield his eyes.
“Fuuuuck-..” He hisses, scrabbling for his phone upon the bedside, left by a glass of water.
A glass of water?
He lifts his head. He swiftly unlocks his phone.
He has a slew of messages from TJ and Kelsey, mainly with blurry pictures from the night before with Ryan looking progressively sloppier and sloppier as the night wears on. He pauses, squinting to read her last thread of messages.
K: where r u?
K: bartendress is lookin thorsty Ry-guy
K: k seriously whered u go?
K: Shane just texted. Get home safe!
Ryan freezes, and it feels every bit like the night prior comes rushing back to him at once. The bartender pressing close to him after he’d dropped his beer, the oscillating lights, Kelsey’s crooked grins, Shane leading him out of the club, his muttered confession in the backseat of the shiny silver Volvo.
He sits bolt upright, sheets straining. His head throbs .
Clumsily, he reaches for that glass of water, and he knocks it back in a few scant gulps. It helps him feel moderately more human, skin prickling with the implications of what could have happened once Shane helped him into his apartment. He’s not wearing his shirt, nor his shoes - and a quick glimpse over the edge of the bed reveals to him that both are there, dropped haphazardly upon the striped rug by his bedframe.
He peels back the sheets, and he’s somewhat relieved to see that his belt is still very much buckled over his jeans. Impatiently, he wriggles out of his tangled sheets, and clambers out of his bed. His vision swims, and spins before him as he steadies himself, placing a heavy hand upon the bedside table for balance until his world settles.
He moves quietly as he drifts around his bed and hurries for the door. He draws it open as quietly as he dares, and even an inch is more than enough for him to hear the all-too-familiar rumble of Shane softly snoring.
Ryan shuffles silently down the thatched stairs, and peers past the arched doorway, and lying there - with his legs hanging over the armrest of his couch in the midst of his living room, is Shane. His arms are folded across his chest, head tipped down against the cushion, hair rumpled and falling across his features, mussed from his attempts at getting comfortable. There’s a half-full glass of water on the coffee table before him, along with his glasses, and his shoes; still laced, as if he’d impatiently slipped them off.
He doesn’t stir as Ryan watches him, silently disbelieving.
It isn’t the first time that he’s spent the night, and certainly not after a drunken escapade. The fact that he had stayed after this one , leaves Ryan feeling mildly vindicated; maybe it hadn’t been so bad. Maybe it wasn’t the disaster he’s imagining it to be. Maybe Shane really did think he loved him as a friend.
He slips back into his room, and gathers up a change of clothes and a fresh pair of underwear, and drifts into the shower; determined to wash away whatever remains of the night before, prior to facing Shane in the harsh rays of the Los Angeles sun.
He emerges, clean-shaven, with damp hair; lightly scented with cologne, dressed in a fresh pair of jeans, and a plain white v-neck; mulling over food possibilities, over which cuisine might appeal to Shane most after a night soaked in alcohol.
But, the moment he steps back into his living room, he knows Shane isn’t there.
His glasses are gone from the coffee table. The glass of water has been drained and stored neatly above the dishwasher in his kitchenette. There’s a note settled upon the coffee table, folded over just once.
Ryan drifts towards it, hesitant, and retrieves it with careful fingertips.
Glad you don’t have alcohol poisoning.
PS: You’re irresponsible.
Ryan turns the slip of paper over, realising that Shane had torn it from the inside of a poetry book Curly had given him four months ago. One Ryan had used as a coaster and hadn’t thought to open. The page is stained from the bottom of his coffee cup, and already torn twice.
He wonders if that was deliberate.
* * * *
They don’t talk about it.
Monday at the office goes like any other. Shane shares too many cat videos with him and swings too far back on his wheelie chair. He paces by the windows while on a phone call before lunch, and vanishes into back to back meetings for the rest of the afternoon, his jacket still cast over the back of his chair.
Outside, the weather has taken a turn. The sun is veiled behind a thick blanket of clouds, and there’s a distinctive chill in the air, reminding the residents of this sunny city that, despite the beach, winter is well on its way.
At four in the afternoon, Ryan texts Shane.
R: Can I steal ur jacket? Fuckin freezing out
He drops his phone face-down onto his desk, and trawls through more footage from the cottage and doesn’t check it again until a half hour later. His screen illuminates with three texts from Shane.
S: I’ll freeze. I’ll lose limbs. Is that what you want for me?
S: It’s all yours, just bring it back tomorrow.
S: Don’t forget to bring your own also. I’m not going to lend it twice.
At five-thirty in the afternoon, when the sky sheets with greying rain, Ryan slips from the office; tucked into Shane’s jacket. It dwarfs his slighter frame.
* * * *
“I personally think you guys are doing dangerous stuff, which I would really encourage you not to do.”
It’s eleven in the evening and Ryan lies wide awake, sprawled out upon his bed, and staring up at the ceiling; wondering if there hadn’t been a double meaning to Father Thomas’s words.
He’d said them with the cadence of a world-weary preacher, long-suffering, but gentle with his firmness, aware that the likelihood of two ghost hunters and professional demon-provokers adhering to his words of warning were slim to none.
But, what if it wasn’t demons that he’d been warning them about?
What if it was something else?
Ryan studies his ceiling in silence, fingertips skimming over the crest of his sternum, rubbing idle circles into his skin through the thin fabric of his shirt in a poor mimicry of what Shane had done that night against the curb, with the rush of peak-hour LA traffic whistling past them on all sides. Rain taps its idle fingers against his closed windows, distorting the tawdry light cast by the low street-lamps outside. Wind has the panes shuddering, the rain whipping against the glass, and the swaying palm trees waving to and fro under its force.
Shane’s jacket has been cast over the end of the bed, and Ryan’s gaze draws towards it in the veiled half-dark of his bedroom.
He’s still. Only for a moment longer.
He draws upright, and slips from the edge of his bed. He reaches out with a careful hand to draw the jacket into his grasp, and he thumbs thoughtlessly at its fraying collar, at its discoloured sleeves from when Shane had fallen in the midst of their hunt for Bigfoot. He brushes his thumb against the fraying tear where Shane’s sleeve had gotten caught against the thorny undergrowth while they’d searched for Mothman. He runs his palm over the cusp of its shoulder, that had shifted in a way that had felt like a foreign touch in the Voodoo house in New Orleans. A wry smile forms across his parted lips, and he wonders just why he gives this jacket such a hard time. It’s been with them for almost all of their adventures.
Thoughtlessly, Ryan shrugs it onto his shoulders, rolling his shoulders forwards beneath the thick fabric that dwarfs his frame. The sleeves have been made for arms much longer than his, and his fingers barely peek past the sleeves. The collar sits too far forwards against his chest. The shoulders have been tailored for ones much broader than his.
The jacket seems to fit so snugly upon Shane.
Thoughtlessly, he slips his hands into the pockets, and pauses when he feels something rumpled scrape the cusp of his fingertips. His features shift in distaste, fingers curling around whatever it is. He withdraws his hand, and peels his grasp back - half expecting to see a used tissue rumpled into the heart of his palm.
It’s a ticket.
He hesitates. Carefully, he smooths the wrinkles free. He inches closer to the window. The gimcrack glow of the streetlights illuminate the rumpled slip of parchment in his grasp.
ADMIT 1 - Knott’s Boysenberry Farm
A sudden wave of feeling crashes through Ryan. Warmth fills his chest. Something lodges in his throat. His stomach curls into knots. His eyes burn. His gut fills with a rush of pleasure, and immense frustration; swept together in a tide of emotion too complex to navigate.
He knots the ticket back into his palm, and he slips his hand back into the pocket to return it back where he’d found it. He’s trying not to think about how often he sees Shane’s hands tucked into these pockets, how often he must feel the press of the ticket there, how warmly and earnestly he’d told Ryan ‘ that genuinely was one of the best days of my life’.
He turns back toward his bed, nose skimming the cusp of the jacket’s collar, soaked in Shane’s cologne - and for a moment, he is dizzy. His scent feels amplified here, woven into the very fibres of this jacket he’s taken halfway across the world with him, a careful aroma of knitted-together spearmint, keg beer, dust motes, morning dew and hotel-issue shampoo. It smells like old houses and ancient forests blanketed by fog. It smells like the haze before a storm, like suburban horrors and extra-terrestrials. Ryan stands there for a moment, content to simply drink in the scent, to revel in how it makes him feel - how his skin suddenly feels too warm; how close it feels to having Shane’s arms around him, to having his cheek pressed to his chest, to sleeping a few inches from him in the Sallie House, or in that cottage in the woods.
He could be here. If Ryan closes his eyes, and shuts out the incessant rain - Shane could be here, embalming him in his scent, impressing it onto Ryan as sure as he might possess him. He sits, heavily, upon the end of his bed, and squeezes his eyes shut when the shift reminds him that he’s hard.
Maybe this is what Father Thomas meant.
This feels dangerous.
This feels wrong.
Ryan lies back. He tips his head back against the rumpled duvet beneath him. His palms skate downwards, drifting over the thatched denim beneath his grasp, catching here and there on loopholes, pockets, on metal buttons pressing upwards. His fingertips find the lip of his jeans, and he fumbles - seeking his belt buckle, and drawing it slowly loose.
He shouldn’t be doing this. He knows he shouldn’t.
But, all he can think about is him. His steadfast warmth. His long fingers. His steady hands. His mussed hair, the scrape of his stubble, and his sleepy-eyed smiles. It’s all him. It’s Shane.
His fingers slip past the lip of his jeans, and into his briefs. His length is warm and hot and heavy; damp with pre that drifts along the pads of his fingers as they curl along his underside. A short huff is stuttered out past his lips. His hips hitch thoughtlessly upwards, seeking more, wanting more, wanting him.
Ryan’s free hand pulls free from his belt, and hastily - he grips the front of the jacket. He tugs the fabric up, and over his lips, and his nose; until he’s breathing in the fraying underside, the part that rests against Shane’s chest. It smells the most like him, dense and intoxicating and wonderful.
His breaths fall harsh and fast; shallow, hitched - desperate. His hips roll into the curl of his fingers, fucking shallowly into his fist, imagining that it’s Shane’s parted lips, and pliant mouth; imagining that it’s him that he’s fucking. He wonders what Shane would do if he was here; if he’d be content to suck him off. If he’d loom over Ryan’s slighter frame and turn him over, if he’d fuck him into the mattress, and hold him down if he squirmed.
A shuddered gasp falls past his lips, muffled in the folds of the jacket. His pace quickens, until he’s squirming, thighs spreading blindly apart as if to accomodate somebody who isn’t there. He bites into the denim, cheeks burning against the fabric rumpled across his features. His fingers squeeze at his base, and pleasure sprints through him; rippling along the insides of his thighs, settling like a low heat in his stomach, burning at the base of his length; incessant and over-eager.
His hips jerk forwards. His body is pulled as taut as a harpstring. His heart hammers against the cage of his ribs. Pleasure burns his vision violet, tangled in the heart of his gossamer fantasy; with Shane looming over him, fucking him deeply, burying his face into the curve of Ryan’s throat to mark him, to bite him, whispering filthy obscenities into the shell of his ear until nothing, nothing, nothing matters but him, and the warmth of his cock.
His pleasure blooms, and burns vibrant. His vision sparks with pockmarks of light. His breath hitches. His hips stutter sharply forwards and he comes in a sharp, white rush , spilling over the backs of his fingers, over the hemline of his shirt, over the teeth of his zip-fly, and the cusp of Shane’s jacket. He comes with a ragged, wet gasp of--
* * * *
The jacket sits in a folded bundle upon the surface of Shane’s desk, unassumingly cleared of stains, and nestled beneath two new pieces of sample merchandise. Ryan hopes he’ll be too distracted by the printed tote bag and the beanie to notice the damp patch by the hemline where he’d hastily scrubbed away any and all evidence of the night before. Denim is frustratingly slow-drying, and when he’d left in the early hours of the morning, it had still been faintly wet.
Shane doesn’t notice, offers him a brief nod of thanks, and hangs the jacket thoughtlessly over the back of the chair. He doesn’t touch it again until the end of the day.
It’s difficult to look him in the eye.
* * * *
“If this is more spirit box bullshit, I swear Ryan...”
They’re crammed into the sound booth with a static cam set up in the left corner with the viewfinder flipped up so that Ryan can make sure they’re in frame. It’s a balancing act, keeping the camera high enough to capture Shane’s reactions, but low enough that Ryan is also in the frame. It requires some maneuvering - but they find their familiar positions easily enough. Shane leans against the far wall, and dips his head down in that too-familiar hunch as if to be as close to Ryan’s level as possible, while Ryan stands beside him, angled toward the camera, with his laptop hooked up to the sound system in front of them.
“It’s a radio. You’re hearing radio frequencies. One of these days, I’m going to bring a real radio onto an investigation with us and spend the entire shoot tuning the darn thing to find the channels you’re skipping over and show you why the fucking screaming box is absolute rubbish.”
“I swear to god dude, just trust me on this one.”
“What’s this from?”
“With the fierce and unforgettable possum, right?”
“Yes.” Ryan utters through gritted teeth. “Right before it happens--”
“--before your confrontation with the supernatural--..”
“..--there’s a sound, here, listen.”
Shane leans towards him, reaching up with a hand to pull his headphones into place over his ears, lingering close enough that Ryan can feel the warmth rolling from him in steady waves, close enough that he can smell strawberry-scented detergent upon him, mingled with his aftershave and the morning coffee he’d spilled against the sleeve of his button-down. He’s still for a moment, his vision swims, he forgets to breathe, to move, to think.
He hits play on the recording.
The sound is tinny, and far-off; a distant scrape that sounds like worn leather dragging across splintering wood. It’s short. There and gone again -- and chased by Ryan’s shout, and hurried footsteps, where it cuts as Ryan hits pause.
“It’s you.” Shane states, plainly. His eyes draw open. He leans back.
Ryan wants to tug him closer, to hook his fingers against the nape of Shane’s neck, and pull him inwards, to fist a hand in the front of his shirt, and press him into the insulated wall. He wants to kiss him, touch him, taste him.
He swallows. His throat feels dry.
Coming in here for this had been a mistake.
“It’s not me.” He counters.
“Play it again.”
He obliges, and Shane simply shakes his head.
“It’s your breathing, or your clothes. Or it’s another rodent trapped in some bucket or cupboard. Is there any footage to go with it?”
“I’m still editing it together but I’ve got-.. This..”
He reaches out to push the screen of his laptop further back, and switches into his video player. He presses down on his spacebar key, and the footage begins to play for them.
It’s static camera footage, since Ryan had neglected to take his handycam with him. It flanks the room in grainy, green-tinted nightvision; illuminating Shane’s motionless form, wrapped up in one of the sleeping bags, with the other cast across the backs of his knees. Ryan can see Shane’s reflection off the edge of the screen, peering over his shoulder at the screen before them, studying the footage through the thick lenses of his plastic-rimmed glasses, brows drawn together in thought as he watches himself wearily peel out of the sleeping bag. He sits up, he runs a hand through his hair, he notices that Ryan is missing from his sleeping bag, and he moves to stand only then.
Ryan hears his shout. It draws another jolt from him, even now - in the safety of the sound booth. He sees a little black blur sprint down the hall, and he sees Shane start in surprise - head turning to follow the little possum as it makes its swift retreat; and Ryan reaches out to hit pause again - hastily pressing down upon the spacebar.
He hasn’t watched any further, but he knows what happens next.
“No, hold on--” Shane reaches past him. His arm skims against Ryan’s shoulder. Static sparks through him, and he holds his breath as Shane hits play.
The footage continues. Ryan comes bolting back down the hall, little more than a distorted blur in hazy nightvision. Shane steps in front of him, holding out his arms as if to catch Ryan; as if to stop him. He watches as Shane’s arms envelope him. He staggers back a step just to keep his balance as he holds on to him in an embrace that could only be considered intimate. His hand settles first at the nape of Ryan’s neck, before moving to encompass his shoulders, and his waist.
Ryan’s vision slides out of focus, settling upon Shane’s reflection in the darkened corner of the laptop’s screen. His expression is taut, unreadable, stony. It’s distant, and deeply conflicted.
Hastily, he reaches forwards to hit pause, again - stopping the footage mid-reel as they stand, intertwined together, swaying gently back and forth.
“I-I’m still editing it, I mean.”
“Are you going to keep that in?” Shane draws away from him.
Ryan hadn’t noticed how close he’d been standing.
“I dunno, I-... maybe not. It just-... I mean, I know people love it when I get scared. The pigeon on the Queen Mary? I mean-..”
That brings a crooked grin back to Shane’s parted lips, and he breathes out a quiet chuckle. “Yeah. That was good. That was a good one.”
“Personal.” Shane finishes for him.
Ryan looks up at him. His chest feels inexplicably tight.
There’s so much I wanna tell you.
Shane slips the headphones off his ears, and reaches forwards to deposit them back upon the desk. “Either way,” He prods a fingertip into Ryan’s chest.
“That’s one for the Shaniacs.”
* * * *
“How’s your arm?” It’s uttered casually, over the rim of a freshly-opened beer bottle still hissing with foam, but the quiet intensity to Shane’s sleepy doe-eyes tells Ryan that it’s anything but.
They’re on his couch, sitting on either end with three pillows thrown haphazardly between them, and a pizza box open on the coffee table in front of them, half vegetarian and half meatlovers, so that neither of them has to sit on a fence. Ryan’s TV floods his living room with shifting light, airing the newest season of Big Mouth, one that they’d agreed to watch together. It’s a friday evening, and this is Ryan’s favourite way to close the week.
“It’s fine.” He mutters, balancing a slice of pizza in his left hand, trying wearily not to tip any of the toppings off. “It’s been fine since it happened.”
“Can I see?” Shane asks, leaning forwards to place his beer bottle upon one of Ryan’s silver coasters.
Thoughtlessly, he nods - lifting his free hand to attend to a slice of salami threatening to slide onto his palm.
Shane shifts closer to him, and reaches over the pillows to skim two fingers beneath the sleeve of Ryan’s shirt. His touch is cold, careful, imploring. It’s gentle, mindful not to tug the fabric too hard, not to touch him too firmly; peeling the fabric away with enough vigilance that Ryan almost doesn’t feel it.
He tries to look nonplussed, tries to focus on his pizza again; thankful for the dim light. He takes a bite, and feels warmth creep down the length of his throat, to bloom boldly along the top of his chest, thankfully hidden from view. He hardly tastes the pizza. His attention is so wholly focussed on Shane, that it feels almost like chewing cardboard.
The wound itself is on the mend - little more than a shallow cut that had long ago scabbed over, while the mottled bruising has begun to fade from the outside in. His skin is still discoloured and bruised- but it’s no longer painful to touch.
“It does look better.”
“See.” Ryan says, mouth full of pizza. “Told you to stop being a drama queen.”
“I wasn’t being a drama queen.” His voice is gently scolding. His fingers drift over the mended wound. It takes every ounce of willpower within Ryan not to shudder. “I was worried.”
“What is there to worry about? M’as healthy as a horse.”
“You’re stuffing yourself with pizza and beer, Ry-guy.”
“So what, big guy? I’m tough as nails.”
“You-...” Shane’s hand withdraws.
Ryan’s skin prickles. He feels cold.
“You don’t listen to anything I say, man.”
“What d’you mean?”
“You’re the most accident prone person I know.”
“Am not.” Ryan takes another bite not a moment after swallowing his first. “Nobody wants to touch me, anyway. S’not like anything is gonna happen to me if you look away for a minute.”
Shane is silent. He sits there for a long moment, arm still cast over the pillows between them, hand hanging lax against rumpled linen, almost like he wants to reach back out and touch Ryan again. But, he knows that’s not the case, he knows that’s not true. He shifts his elbow until it brushes Shane’s fingers, and ignores the way his heart sinks when Shane slowly withdraws.
There's so much I want to tell you.