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“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--”

 

“So.. wind?”

 

“--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.”

 

“Correct.”

 

“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.

 

“No.”

 

“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.

 

Creaaaaak. Tap-tap-tap-tap.

 

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.

 

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.

 

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.

 

“Ryan--?”

 

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.

 

“I-..”

 

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-..”

 

“What?”

 

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?”

 

“What?”

 

“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.

 

“Ow.”

 

“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.

 

“It’s fine.”

 

“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.”

 

“It’ll scar.”

 

“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.

 

“What?”

 

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.

 

“Harsh.”

 

“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?

 

* * * *

 

“Ryan.”

 

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.”

 

“Shane, wait--”

 

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.

 

“Dude-..”

 

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.”

 

“It’s fine.”

 

“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.

 

“What--?”

 

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 didn’t-..”

 

“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.”

 

“It’s 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.

 

“Mm.”

 

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.

 

Shane shifts.

 

“I love you too.” He says, after a moment. “You’re my best bud, of course I love you.”

 

Ryan swallows.

 

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.

 

“Ry-- Ryan?”

 

“Mmh..”

 

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.

 

* * * *

 

“Fuck.”

 

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.

 

He falters.

 

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.

~ S

 

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--

 

“Shane--!”

 

It’s dangerous.

 

* * * *

 

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...”

 

“It’s not.”

 

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?”

 

“The cottage.”

 

“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.”

 

“But it’s--”

 

“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. 

 

Chapter Text

Edit: big thank you to Killer-Kirby for this incredible fan art

* * * * *

 

It’s pouring with rain on Wednesday evening when they both slip from the office long after the sun has set. The cold is sharp and biting, and Ryan withdraws in towards himself against it with a telling shudder. Shane is at his side, holding a plain blue umbrella up above them both in his left hand, and Ryan has to huddle close to him just to stay dry. It takes all of the strength within him not to reach out with both of his hands and curl his fingers around the bend of Shane’s elbow just to make the angle a little less uncomfortable as they walk, briskly, across the parking lot.

 

“--but I’m still not sure if I’ll agree to it. I have so much other shit going on right now, I don’t want to risk over-committing again and then having something else I’m passionate about cut for time or budget reasons, because when that happened last time, it was extremely upsetting.” Shane is saying, gesticulating wildly with his free hand as he speaks; hunched forwards beneath the umbrella. “I have enough that I’m interested in right now. I don’t want to drop anything to make extra time.”

 

“Does that mean you’re not gonna be dropping out of Unsolved? Because while I have a lot of favours I can probably call in with Brent, I’m not so sure I can lure him out to a haunted house, abandoned mine, or empty psychiatric ward. He hasn’t got the nads you’ve got, dude.” Ryan looks up, a crooked grin framing his words.

 

Shane is smiling. “Don’t I know, man.” He remarks, dryly. “Of course I’m not gonna drop Unsolved.” He looks almost… affronted by the mere idea. “What else would I do if I wasn’t annoying you?”

 

“Yeah, you’d get bored.”

 

“...and no Hot Daga, either. Shit, how would you get your weekly fix, Ryan?”

 

“Trust me, dude. I think I’d manage without that.”

 

“I dunno that you would. I could just imagine you calling me up at midnight on a Friday, begging me wildly ‘ oh Shane, Shane; please. I must know more of the Plupples. I must know how Doctor Goondis fares, I simply must!’.”

 

Ryan tips his head back to laugh, and he reaches out with both hands to playfully shove Shane. He stumbles two steps aside, the umbrella tips away, and rain casts across Ryan’s frame. He ducks his head, and hurries back under the cover of the umbrella while Shane laughs; it’s a delighted sound that carries over the pitter-patter of falling raindrops.

 

“That’s not me, and you know it.” He mutters as they near his car, standing alone in the lot - two spaces away from Shane’s.

 

“Sadly so. Someday I’ll win you over.” Shane trails along beside him towards his car. “But, I mean that, you know.”

 

He pauses by the door beside Ryan, holding the umbrella aloft in an uncertain hand, while his other tucks carefully into the front pocket of his jeans, fingers steepled tightly together.

 

Ryan fishes through his pocket for his car keys, realising a moment too late that Shane is lingering to help him stay dry. He moves quicker, jamming the key into the lock with a pang of misplaced guilt.

 

“Mean what?” He pauses to peer back at Shane, over his shoulder.

 

“I’d never drop out. It means too much to me, now.” His thumb shifts against the handle of the umbrella. His gaze drops to the soaked asphalt between them. A familiar frown appears between his brows, his narrow lips set into an unreadable line. “Maybe it’s fucking corny of me, but that show is one of the best things to ever happen to me.”

 

His gaze lifts. It feels weighted and heavy, like it pins Ryan in place by the driver’s seat door of his drenched car. It stuns him. It leaves him speechless. He fumbles. The rain falls in sheets around them, until Shane has to raise his voice into an almost-shout just so that Ryan might hear him over the roar of it.

 

You’re one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” Shane adds, with a thoughtless tilt of his head; a motion that brings a curl of auburn hair forwards to hang, loosely, against his forehead. His features are earnest and pliant, but still so guarded and cautious, as if he’s reading every single one of Ryan’s responses, as if he’s testing the water with nothing but trepidation and uncertainty.

 

...and Ryan just stands there. Cold rainwater trickles in from one of the prongs of the umbrella to run in a thin rivulet under the collar of his shirt, where it sprints down the steps of his spine, sending a deceptively cold chill through his frame that he doesn’t notice, too enveloped by the gentle warmth radiating from Shane’s rain-doused words. He can hardly breathe, he can hardly think, can hardly do anything other than stare, slack-jawed at Shane.

 

It feels like something passes between them, then; lost in the rush of the falling rain. Ryan thinks that he sees Shane drift closer to him, hears the soles of his boots scrape against the wet road beneath them, feels the quiet intensity of his burning gaze loom ever, ever nearer; until the warmth of his exhale drifts across the cusp of his forehead.

 

The silence lingers, excruciating; heavy with expectation.

 

There is something there, an opportunity that neither one of them takes, an invitation that neither one of them dares to extend, an unspoken admission that neither one of them dares voice aloud. Ryan knows it would be easy to lift up onto his toes, and to brush his lips into Shane’s own; with nobody around them to witness it, lost in the rain-forged fog, enclosed by the vibrant rush of outside traffic.

 

“Make sure you drive safe.” Shane says, when Ryan doesn’t speak; breaking that pregnant silence as if he hadn’t noticed the weight of it. “Low visibility, it’s one of the biggest causes of accidents on the road, especially in LA.” He bobs the umbrella. A fresh splatter of raindrops cast across the curve of Ryan’s shoulder, jolting him sharply back to reality with their arctic chill.

 

“I’m always safe. You drive safe, in that hunk of garbage.” He jerks a thumb in the direction of Shane’s car. “I’ll see you tomorrow, dude.” He pulls open the driver’s seat door, and Shane takes a step back.

 

Whatever it was, it slides out of his reach.

 

Ryan sees him lower his gaze, he sees something flicker through his expression, something sombre and sobering - something that is there and gone again quicker than Ryan could blink. When Shane looks up, that guarded expression is back. He lifts a hand to offer a single-handed wave at Ryan, before turning to lope, wordlessly, toward his car.

 

The door is pulled shut after him, and Ryan watches him out of the passenger side door, a lonely figure shadowed by the broad rim of a seafoam-blue umbrella, hurrying silently toward the last car in the lot.

 

He wants to follow him, to abandon his car here, and slip into the vehicle with him, to ride home with him and hide from the thundering weather on his couch, watching Mission Impossible over chunky slices of pizza and beer. His heart strains with it, it aches with want.

 

He could have kissed him there.

 

Shane’s car pulls silently out of the lot, flashes its headlights once at Ryan, and trundles away to turn into the burn of LA’s rush-hour traffic. Ryan watches him go, still- silently clinging to his words for all the solace they offer him.

 

You’re one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

 

* * * *

The first time that Ryan saw Shane, he didn’t look twice. He politely shuffled his belongings further across the desk to give him more room to move in to the previously-vacant space alongside him, and he’d been too busy to look at him properly. Then, Shane had introduced himself, he’d offered a close-lipped smile and a long-fingered hand out for Ryan to shake, and he had felt powerless.

 

It was a work crush, at first. He dressed better, spent more time styling his hair in the morning, spent longer deciding on the right fragrance of cologne to wear, on how short to shave his facial hair - found himself walking across the carpark at a quickened pace just so that he might see his deskmate sooner. His productivity elevated. He waited around the moment the clock hit midday, just to see when Shane would take his lunch, and if he’d ask Ryan to join him. He started bringing snacks, learning early on that Shane prefers a later lunch to normal. If Ryan has his too early, he could miss him entirely, and be shackled to his desk, alone, for an hour.

 

That crush blooms into infatuation when Shane begins bringing him coffee in the mornings, but only on Tuesdays; the day after their pay arrives. It becomes harder to contain the more they begin to talk to one another, the more those conversations begin to shape Shane into something more than just a passing fancy. They connect, they understand one another, they share the same self-deprecating, sarcastic sense of humour, the same passion for pulpy action flicks, the same fascination with the morbid and twisted things that most people find distasteful. Shane makes him laugh , sometimes so loudly that they’re scolded for distracting their coworkers. So his snickers turn into muffled giggles, and he feels like a schoolboy in detention with his best friend.

 

The term ‘best friend’ is thrown out there almost cavalier, by a tipsy Shane at Curly’s birthday party, when Ryan arrives an hour late and stone cold sober. It’s a day that’s embossed into his mind, how Shane had looked - all hard angles and sharp lines blurred into disarray by the condensation of the beer bottle in his grasp as he’d thrown a careless arm around Ryan’s shoulders and proudly declared, “My best bud’s here!”

 

It became a problem when Brent pulled out of Unsolved.

 

It’s the second sharpest memory Ryan has of their time together. How he’d slowly turned in his chair to face Shane, with clammy palms and an uncertain lilt to his tone as he’d offered “You-.. uh-... you wanna be in this?” and to his surprise, Shane had smiled.

 

“Yeah. Sure.”

 

At the time, he’d doubted Shane’s sincerity and his passion. He’d doubted his dedication, and Shane - as if he’d sensed that - redoubled his efforts just to prove Ryan wrong. He’s surprised by him constantly, by merch ideas, case ideas, research ideas, bit ideas, even The Hot Daga, that blossomed into something neither of them had anticipated; much like Ryan’s feelings for Shane. He’d been bewildered, blindsighted by this creative force of sheer will and determination that he now had the pleasure of calling his partner. He’d been left feeling as though he were the proverbial Indiana Jones, finding a diamond in the rough that had been criminally under-utilised in Buzzfeed until Ryan had stumbled upon him, and unearthed him.

 

It became a problem when the show came into the question. Unsolved is Ryan’s passion project, it’s his baby. When it had been offered to him as a recurring show, he’d sworn an oath to himself never to do anything that could jeopardise it; both for himself, but for its followers and fans as well.

 

..and then he started to fall for his co-host.

 

He realised it in Sierra Nevada, while the rain poured around them, filtering in through the dense canopy of towering trees that surrounded them on all sides, while they’d picked at the ruins on the perimeter of the Keddie area. He looked at Shane, and saw something different in his thoughtful expression- creased into a light frown with the hood of his fleecy jumper pulled up, and over his head; the buttons of his denim jacket ( that denim jacket) done up all the way, until the collar sat popped up around the cusps of his cheeks. A curl of dark hair hung over his brow, soaked by the rain. His cheeks and the tip of his nose were flushed pink from the cold. His jaunty steps toward Ryan were calculated and careful, navigating the dense undergrowth and its tapestry of roots with ease, one hand stuffed into his pocket while his other cradled his phone, head tipped down into a light hunch so that he could murmur to Ryan in a tone that wouldn’t be overheard by the crew, or the truck driver glaring at them from the edge of the road. He’d noticed it when he’d noticed how soaked Shane was, how icy the tips of his long fingers felt, how his cologne mingled so effortlessly with the rain, how he’d reached out to set a hand on Ryan’s shoulder to turn his back to the truck driver to utter in a low and reassuring voice, “Just don’t stare. He’ll go away.”

 

Ryan had done as he’d said, though he felt distinctly as though he’d been punched in the stomach. He had felt winded, and as if he couldn’t breathe. Crushed by the realisation, distraught with understanding, crippled with the knowledge that this couldn’t ever happen, and yet elated, addicted, hopelessly, hopelessly addicted.

 

It’s the idle brushes of their elbows during post-mortems, a hand at the nape of his neck to guide him into the right doorway after a long night of filming, a free coffee on a rainy Tuesday morning, the lifts home when Shane can sense that Ryan is too exhausted to drive himself back, take-out meals, shared pizzas, unfinished beers, movies whose credits sequence went on for a little too long because their knees were touching in the theatre, a rumpled shirt swept under his couch that isn’t his, a jacket taken out on a loan, a sports reference slipped in a place it didn’t belong-- just for Ryan. He learns to hold on to the small things, because they’re all he can have. These fleeting and meaningless moments are the only things he can hold on to. Shane gives him an inch and Ryan takes a mile, he cripples himself with the guilt of it all, and replays scenarios against the backdrop of his apartment’s ceiling at night when he cannot sleep. Of him confessing his feelings, luring Shane to his apartment for a beer and a blunt just so that Ryan can be honest with him.

 

Even his fantasies end with a soul-crushing punch of reality. Almost every time, Shane turns him down. It’s through smiles, through laughter, through an exhale of smoke or a mouthful of beer; rebuffed as casually as his confession in the back of the Uber after Kelsey’s party.

 

Shane doesn’t see him that way. Shane won’t ever see him that way.

 

Ryan falls asleep, clinging to that thought as though it may offer him absolution.

 

* * * *

 

He can hear music.

 

It’s drifting towards him like a slow breeze. It’s distorted and out-of-tune, off-tempo, filled with ill-timed beats, ringing and ambivalent, distant and mercurial. It feels out of reach, empirical, unfurling and gradual. It’s twangy and off-beat, but somehow, distantly, faintly, perplexingly familiar.

 

It feels wrong.

 

He remembers, when he was very little, his grandmother had owned a music box. If Ryan wound it back, and propped the lid open, it would play music. A little ballerina with a pink tulle skirt would rotate clockwise on a small spring, as if she was dancing to the mechanical tune. If he let the box expire, the tune would grow distorted. It would echo. It would grow twangy, and slow, the ballerina’s rotating twirls would slow to a jaunty halt.

 

It would sound much like this. Like a music box that has been left open for a little too long, like an exhausted pianist whose fingers weigh too heavily upon their keys.

 

The music drifts in like a rolling fog, filling his shanty surroundings with a coil of shifting white mist. He’s standing at the heart of a long hallway that unfolds into darkness at either end, as if it spans on for miles. There are no windows here, and no doors. The walls are stripped blank, with flaking wood, fraying paint, and splintered nails protruding from aged pine. The scent of dust hangs in the air like an aged perfume, acrid and sour and somehow familiar.

 

There is movement out of the very peripherals of his vision. He turns his head.

 

He looks down the dark hallway, swathed in a strange white fog, snaking onwards into the dark. A frown pinches between his brows.

 

A shudder slips down the steps of his spine.

 

Cautiously, he starts forwards. The old floorboards are silent under the weight of his bare feet. He reaches out to skim the tips of his fingers against the wall as he drifts past, tracing the notched and ridged wood as if to distinguish each panel from the next, so that his surroundings feel just the slightest bit unique.

 

The mist seems to follow him; trailing after his cautious steps like a veil, shifting across his surroundings that remain stagnant, no matter how quickly he moves. The darkness spans on, and on, and on - the hallway crawls on for what feels like a mile, bathed in mist, absent of windows, devoid of doors. He looks down at his feet, he counts the rows of nails as he passes them, he takes note of how the wood grains seem identical each time they repeat themselves every few feet. He looks up--..

 

He freezes.

 

There are a pair of eyes staring back at him from the darkness. They are deep and red, reminiscent of the globule-like eyes of the Mothman he’d poured over for hours before presenting his case to Shane. They are omnipotent and vibrant, burning like twin coals in the dark, staring back at him; mimicking his wide-eyed, blank stare in turn. They are vacant, permissive, desolate. Red like he’s never seen red before.

 

He can make out the very edges of a slender silhouette, too tall to be human, with arms too long to belong to a person, and a neck too narrow and lengthy to be anything close to familiar. It’s frozen in place, as still as Ryan, motionless and half-swallowed by the shifting dark.

 

The sight of it sends Ryan’s blood cold. His heart misses a beat. Fear begins to bubble in his stomach. It spirals outwards like a cold weight, spreading through his fingertips, and his toes. He holds still, as if hoping the figure might vanish, as if it might lose interest, as if it might run from him.

 

..but, it doesn’t. It’s as still as him. It’s entirely motionless.

 

Slowly, he takes a step backwards.

 

It doesn’t move.

 

He turns upon his heel, and he runs.

 

His feet are still silent against the old floorboards. The panelled walls fly past him in a blur. He runs until his throat burns. Until his breathing grows laboured. Until his knees ache. He runs until the raging beat of his own heart thuds louder than his own blind gasps for air, and he spares a desperate glance over his shoulder, at the haunting figure standing in the middle of the hallway.

 

It’s still there, drifting after him, cutting through the fog, but remaining well out of reach, indistinguishable, beyond his comprehension, seemingly led by the lethality of its own vacant gaze. Its movements are stilted and slight. It moves like a shadow, like a breeze; floating after him, hungry.

 

“Fuck-..” He turns away, he tries to move quicker, tries to run faster . He tears down the hallway, fumbling over his own footsteps.

 

It’s catching up to him.

 

He can feel it there, hovering just a foot behind him, pursuing him like a predator after its prey. Ravenous and murderous. He can see the glow of its lambent eyes, illuminating the darkness with ease, drinking in his fear, reveling in his panic, adoring the rush of his adrenaline. It’s hungry for him, for every inch of him.

 

“Fuck, fuck--!”

 

He can’t run any faster. The darkness is closing in. It’s spreading its greedy fingers against the edges of his vision, crawling inwards like smoke, closing around him with too much ease; as if the chase, as if the hunt was all part of some impossible game he was designed to lose.

 

“No, no--!”

 

It’s like a rug is pulled out from beneath him. Like the ground opens up to swallow him whole. He’s plunged into darkness, swept up into something cold and unknown - pulled away from reality with one fell sweep. His stomach bottoms out. He forgets to scream. He can see nothing, but an indistinguishable weight constricting about the base of his throat. Pulling, tighter and tighter and tighter until he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe . He struggles, he writhes, he panics, he claws at the base of his throat--

 

...and he jerks awake.

 

He sits upright, drawing in a desperate gasp, with his bedsheets matted to his clammy skin, and his hair soaked with sweat.

 

He’s in his bedroom, and it’s three in the morning.

 

* * * *

 

The nightmare follows him into the following day. It’s as though one of the dark clouds that had helped blanket the LA skyline has descended from the heavens to loom three inches above the crown of Ryan’s head. He feels exhausted; a familiar and bone-deep kind of tired. A tired that presses down on his broad shoulders, and curls its greedy fingers around his steady limbs. Every movement he makes feels like it takes a monumental effort.

 

He’s sitting at his desk with his head bowed forwards and his fingers laced together against the nape of his neck. His hair is a mess, his eyes are red-rimmed and shadowed by deep purple rings, punctured by a distant glaze. He doesn’t feel entirely grounded, and the idea of that awful dream sweeping back into his subconscious is formidable enough to keep him from stealing away into the meditation room for a half-hour nap.

 

“Hey, man..” He hears, uttered softly to his right. “...-is everything okay? You’re looking a little… pale, today. Not that you don’t look pale quite often, because you do. It suits you though, you know. The whole bug-eyed, fearful thing. So, technically I’m complimenting you.”

 

Ryan’s eyes creep open. He can see Shane’s feet, perched upon the legs of his wheelie chair, and angled towards him under their desks. His hands are loosely linked together, elbows resting against his parted knees, with his sleeves bunched up to his elbows.

 

Slowly, he lifts his head. His fingers peel back through his unruly dark curls, and his tired eyes draw upwards to peer at Shane, half-lidded and hazy with exhaustion.

 

“Yeah.” Ryan’s voice is gravelly and rough. He swallows, and he tries to clear his throat. “I just didn’t get a good night of sleep, y’know.”

 

“Oh.” Shane sits up a little straighter. “Did you have another bad dream?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Did I survive this one?” His features crease with concern.

 

“No. You didn’t star in this one.” Ryan reassures, a half-hearted smile puncturing his words. “It was just-... I dunno. It sounds bullshit, but. I think I’m still a bit-... you know…” He trails off, dropping a hand to prod at his mousepad.

 

“What?” Shane leans forwards, voice deceptively gentle.

 

Ryan grits his teeth. A muscle jumps in the cusp of his cheek. “I just-... think I’m still a little freaked out from what happened at the cottage. I know, you’ll think it’s bullshit. It was just a possum.”

 

There is a pause. His admission settles between them.

 

“I don’t think that’s bullshit, Ryan.” Shane’s voice is uncharacteristically firm, softened only by a faint and underlying swell of genuine warmth . “Fear is relative. You’re not scared by the things that frighten me--”

 

“--yeah, that’s ‘cause being injected with heroin by a batshit drug addict is completely unfounded--”

 

“..-but that doesn’t make what scares you any less valid. You felt those emotions. You felt scared . I saw it. I felt it when I held you. You also got hurt. The source of it was a possum, sure - but that’s not what scared you. What we do would terrify most normal people. The fact that you haven’t had a meltdown about it all before now is a testament to your strength. You see that, don’t you?”

 

Ryan pauses, fingertips dancing over the cusp of his own palm. He peers sidelong at Shane, who is watching him with a strange and unreadable expression. His honey-brown eyes are flooded with a kind of reverence that burns with vacant intensity. There is a name for this look, Ryan knows; but it’s a name he doesn’t dare utter aloud. That would make it feel real, as if it could ever be anything close.

 

“I mean-..” His brows draw together into a faint frown.

 

Shane inches closer to him. The wheels of his chair slide against the linoleum. Ryan swallows, dryly.

 

“Will you be able to sleep tonight?”

 

They’ve done this dance before. Ryan has seen Shane die a dozen-and-one ways in his dreams in the past. Each one is still embossed into his memory as plainly as when he had first seen them. Parts of his dreams fade, sometimes within mere minutes of waking up, but those parts never seem to leave him. When these harrowing events conducted by his subconscious are recounted to Shane, always, always-- he turns to Ryan with a concerned frown, and asks if he’ll be able to sleep that night.

 

His arms withdraw, and settle against the edge of his desk.

 

“I don’t know.” It’s an honest admission, uttered scarcely louder than a murmur.

 

“Do you want me to come over?”

 

Ryan’s throat feels dry. His heart lurches forwards, the desperate ‘ yes ’ that perches upon the tip of his tongue is bitten back. His fingers curl against the edge of the desk. His stomach curls into contorting knots. His silence cuts the offer in two, and Shane almost looks regretful.

 

“Yeah-... I-I mean, yeah.” He breathes it, hisses it-- sets it between them before the offer might be recanted, or played off as a harmless joke.

 

Shane draws away from him.

 

Ryan wants to pull him closer.

 

“How did you get to work today?” He asks, still watching Ryan cautiously.

 

“I caught an Uber. There was no way I was gonna be able to sit in traffic for twenty minutes and not fall asleep.”

 

“Good.” Shane nods, slowly. “I’ll give you a lift back, we can pick up my stuff on the way.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Shane looks away from him, and wordlessly lifts his headphones from his desk to settle back over his ears. His attention returns to his laptop, as if in silent indication that their conversation is finished. His elongated fingers tap quietly across the flattened keys, filling the ringing silence.

 

Ryan stares at him for a moment longer, before slipping from his seat to refill his mug with coffee.

 

* * * *

 

How many times has he ridden in a car with Shane? How many nights have they spent, driving toward a new location to film, blanketed by the cover of night? How many times had they swept into the parking lot of a supermarket to buy ingredients for dinner? How many times had they piled into the same car with laundry bags drawn over their shoulders?

 

Too many. Too many times for this time to feel so different.

 

Ryan is sitting in the passenger seat with one ankle tucked beneath him, his knee angled close to the gearstick. His elbow is propped against the bottom of the window, with his cheek cradled against the backs of his fingers and his eyes only half open. The gentle purr of Shane’s engine is soothing. The quiet old folk songs drifting from his filtered radio are background noise. His car is fragrant with the scent of spilled laundry detergent and worn leather.

 

LA rushes past them in a blur of tall palm trees and flat buildings. Headlights and streetlamps trail ribbons across the edges of Ryan’s vision as he peers out the window with a barely-present interest; too tired to thank Shane for driving him home, too exhausted to comment on the state of the traffic. Too spent to do anything other than revel in the fact that he’s here.

 

He drifts in and out through the drive, content to linger in the comfortable silence that spreads its fingers between them, for neither he nor Shane ever felt the need to fill every moment with meaningless chatter. He’s too tired for that, and he suspects Shane knows it. He still catches the concerned glances spared his way when they pause at a traffic light, or linger in front of a stop sign. He notices how Shane lowers the volume of his music, and switches off his air-conditioning when Ryan pulls the sleeves of his jumper down and over his hands.

 

There’s something strangely comforting about it; about sitting in the passenger seat with him, and nobody else crammed into the back seat with cameras and sound equipment precariously balanced over black bags and portable lights. It’s a strange feeling, for so often he’s the one behind the wheel, while Shane folds his sharp angles and long limbs into the passenger seat, tangled up in power cords and knotted shoelaces.

 

This feels inexplicably different. Unspeakably delicate. Like their moment outside the nightclub. Like their reprieve at the airport. Like yesterday, by the driver’s seat door of Ryan’s car.

 

His eyes drift closed as the orange glow of a street light tumbles in through the windscreen, and sweeps away again a second later. His fingers steal across the backs of his eyelids, and peel away. When he opens his eyes - Shane reaches over the gearstick for him.

 

Careful, cautious fingers drift over the cusp of his bent knee, offering a reassuring squeeze that’s as familiar as every other touch they have shared. Ryan’s stomach tightens nonetheless.

 

“You doin’ okay?”

 

That hand lingers. Warmth bleeds in through the thatched denim of Ryan’s torn jeans. Shane’s fingers fold in against the back of his knee. His thumb draws idle circles into the outside of Ryan’s thigh. He stares down at it, like it’s a puzzle piece that’s out of place, like he’s waiting for Shane to snatch it away again -- like he had the time he’d touched Ryan’s hair abroad their flight, like the time he had when he’d touched Ryan’s arm in the office.

 

This time, it remains. Shane’s eyes are still on the road.

 

Ryan’s chest hurts.

 

“Yeah.” His voice is as rough as gravel. “Yeah, I’m okay, big guy.”

 

Shane’s palm lingers there, bleeding warmth into Ryan’s thigh, tracing gentle circles into his skin, for the rest of the drive.

 

* * * *

When Shane comes over, Ryan ordinarily spends an hour beforehand cleaning up; stuffing his clothes back into his wardrobe, re-shuffling his blu-ray DVDs, packing up his rumpled jerseys, returning his pillows back to his couch, and clearing his fridge of expired food. He knows that Shane won’t judge him for having a pillow out of place, or a carton of milk a few days past its use-by date, but the childish and hopeful part of him still wanted desperately to impress him.

 

Today, his apartment looks lived in. There are pillows on the floor. There’s a bowl with three popcorn kernels at the bottom still sitting upon the coffee table in front of his TV. There’s a stuffed bear on the floor in front of it, and a stained coffee mug abandoned upon his kitchen island, set precariously upon the note Shane had left the last time he’d spent the night, with his admonishments scrawled upon the back of a single sheet of poetry. Ryan had read and re-read it a hundred times, as if it might transport him back to that clear, cloudless night.

 

Shane ducks into the living room with a faint smile drawn across his parted lips, gaze drifting across Ryan’s familiar belongings. He pauses by a framed E.T. poster to straighten it where it hangs, grin appreciative and wry. His long fingers pluck the stuffed bear off the floor, and set it thoughtfully back upon his couch.

 

They order food in the end, and eat in silence. Shane continues sparing him those slight and worried glances while Ryan fumbles through his meal. It’s a struggle to stay awake, and the moment he’s done; he slips from his perch upon one of the stools crowded around his kitchen island, crumpling his food wrappings back into the In-N-Out bag between them.

 

“I’m gonna go to bed.”

 

“Are you sure?” Shane asks, turning his wrist to glance down at the scratched face of his watch. “It’s only eight.”

 

“Yeah. I don’t think I can keep my eyes open for much longer.”

 

“Okay.” Shane nods. “I might stay up for a bit longer. I’ve got some work to do.”

 

“It’s not another script for The Hot Daga, is it?” Ryan asks, features pained as he stuffs the wrappings into the garbage bin.

 

Shane just grins at him, knowingly. “Where d’you keep your blankets?” He asks, skimming his palms against one another, left thigh bouncing; restless.

 

“Oh.” Ryan pauses, realising then that Shane intends to sleep on his couch. “I-...”

 

“..and pillows, I suppose. I’ll need all the help I can get in your miniature-human-sized couch.”

 

He lingers there, fingers knotting together over the cusp of his sternum in abject indecision. He doesn’t know how to frame his request. He doesn’t know how to convey to Shane just what had transpired in his nightmare, and how the very concept of closing his eyes was too terrifying to stand.

 

“Um-... well, I can-..”

 

Shane sets down the remnants of his burger, watching Ryan with a thoughtful frown.

 

“I can-.. I can get them, if you want them, but I was kinda hoping-... y’know, if you wouldn’t mind-... my bed is big enough for two, and the idea of being alone isn’t-... it’s not-...”

 

“I can sleep there.” Shane nods. “I’ll come up when I’m finished eating.” He points to his burger.

 

Ryan hesitates. He lingers there, as if waiting for Shane to look up at him with a grin, and remind him that he’s only joking. Waiting for this to be taken away from him as surely as everything else had, waiting for Shane to recant his offer. But, he says nothing further, and he takes another bite out of his burger.

 

Slowly, Ryan turns - he heads back upstairs. He stands by the end of the bed, stomach embroiled with a fresh bout of anxiety. It wears at him, itching and desperate. Shane is going to sleep in his bed tonight. Shane is going to sleep next to him tonight. Shane is going to share the bed with him, and not because they’re ghost hunting or cryptid-stalking- not because he has to, not because the budget doesn’t allow them two seperate beds, not because he’s being paid to; Shane is here because he wants to be here.

 

Ryan strips off his shirt and changes into a simple pair of gym shorts with a fraying Adidas logo toward the hemline, he brushes his teeth and avoids his own gaze in the bathroom mirror, as if afraid of what unspoken confrontation he might find there. He washes his face, rinses his hands, and ventures silently back into his bedroom. He clambers into the left side of his bed, and covers his face with his hands. The simmering anxiety in his stomach continues to burn at a low volume for several long minutes, before the exhaustion creeps back in. It claims him swiftly, pulling him under, luring him into a fitful rest amidst some purgatory point that’s far from Shane and the possibilities that orbit him.

 

He wakes an hour later with a start, bleary eyes illuminated by the faint glow of a laptop screen. There is a figure beside him, sitting upright, legs crossed over at the ankles, back resting against the headboard. Shane’s gaze drifts towards him as Ryan rolls over, glasses reflecting the half-filled word document open before him.

 

“You okay, man?” He asks, voice soft; fingers poised over the keyboard.

 

Ryan’s eyes close, he shifts his chin up, he pulls the duvet higher, he rolls onto his side so that he’s facing Shane. “Mm. I am.”

 

Fingers skim through his hair, pushing those unruly dark curls away from his brow. He feels Shane’s touch dance across the crest of his cheek, and then slowly withdraw. He turns his face closer to him, silently hoping those idle touches will return, and yet half sure that he’d simply dreamed them up.

 

“Go back to sleep.” Shane says, voice gentle. “I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Ryan’s eyes remain closed. He falls asleep listening to the quiet tap-tap-tap of Shane’s fingers dancing across his luminescent keyboard, and the feeling of his warmth seeping slowly through the rumpled linen between them.

 

* * * *

 

His dreams are half-formed, presented like a flipbook of motley possibilities punctured by Shane’s smiles and his down-turned eyes. He feels fingers in his hair, he feels a warm knee skim against the back of his thigh, he feels a hand settle over his knee, a precarious palm rest at the center of his back, a hesitant pat to his shoulder, a firm grip surrounding his arm, pulling him close, into some many-splendored embrace that’s flooded with so much warmth and framed with everything Ryan’s ever wanted. It’s hazy and technicolor, as though his subconscious has gathered up every rogue thought he’s ever clung to, and thrown them onto a projection in the sky, illuminated with prismatic clarity for him to see.

 

His heart swells with it. His cheeks hurt from smiling so wide. His spirits soar as high as the pink-hued clouds.

 

Ryan wakes at dawn. Light creeps in under his blinds a dull and misty blue, too vibrant to be the work of the moon. The window is frosted with condensation, and despite how cold the air feels to breathe in, he feels so blissfully warm. He can feel the quiet rumble of Shane’s thinly-veiled snores just behind him, breathing against the nape of his neck. There’s a hand resting against the sway of his spine, with fingers notched loosely against the curve of his hipbone, burning with the quiet urgency that only skin-on-skin could offer him.

 

His skin prickles with warmth. It spreads its greedy fingers through him. It settles low in his stomach, ardent and thrilling and far too present. He knows without peeling down his bedsheets that he’s hard. He shifts, half-turning his head to peer over his shoulder at Shane, who is lying uncharacteristically close to him. There’s no makeshift pillow-trail between them, no knotted-up bedsheets, or articles of clothing. Shane is right there, warm and present and fast asleep. His features are schooled into that too-familiar expression of vacant redamancy; devoid of his characteristic rancour. His hair is a rumpled mess, and his lips are faintly parted.

 

Ryan shifts again, sweeping his hips back just an inch in an effort to alleviate the quiet ache in his groin, and he freezes when he feels his backside press flush into the cusp of Shane’s hips. Those snores stall, Shane’s breath hitches. His hand shifts, falling further forwards against Ryan’s side, but he doesn’t move any further. He doesn’t rouse.

 

A quiet, relieved huff falls past Ryan’s parted lips. He closes his eyes again, content to revel in this for a moment longer, content to lie here; with Shane a firm line of warmth against his back, holding him in his sleep. If he closes his eyes, and ignores their circumstances; he could pretend that this is intentional. That Shane wants him as much as Ryan wants Shane. That he’s touching him because he wants to, because he wants him, because he loves him just as much .

 

The urge to touch himself is tempting, settling just below the surface; indecent and lurid yet ever so alluring. He could do it quietly, he thinks - he could bite back his moans into his pillow, and relieve himself with Shane being none the wiser. It feels a little too close to dancing with the devil, indulging in something so unspoken while the source of his ardour slumbers just a few inches away. Where would he dispose of the mess? What would he say if Shane caught him?

 

He’s doing him a favour just by being here.

 

Ryan knots his hands into his bedsheets, and tells himself to behave. He’d learned a good while ago that the blare of his alarm is often enough to deflate any and all of his early-morning urges as surely as a bucket of cold water might.

 

So, he closes his eyes; content to revel in the fantasy he’s woven together out of a few accidental touches and a contentedly dreamless sleep, urged along by Shane’s splayed palm resting two inches below his sternum.

 

* * * *

 

His alarm blares at seven-thirty, jolting him back to reality with a harsh and ringing ache of urgency. Tired-eyed and reluctant, Ryan reaches out to fish his phone off the nightstand and to stop the tired sound, only to stuff it beneath his pillow a moment later. Wearily, he rolls onto his back, and extends a sleepy hand onto the other side of the bed, faltering when nothing but cold blankets answer his questioning fingertips.

 

The duvet is rumpled, and the pillow is still lightly fragranced by Shane’s shampoo. His glasses are gone from the bedside table, but the glass of water he’d brought with him is still there. Slowly, Ryan sits up; feeling the bedsheets pool at his waist. Had Shane left already? Had he woken to find himself in their precarious sleeping arrangement? Had he been disgusted--?

 

The sound of approaching footsteps coming up the stairs draws Ryan slowly from his thoughts, and he looks up to see the top of Shane’s head appear above the bannister. He looks over the railing, hair damp, eyes alight with a post-coffee kind of brightness.

 

“I’m making breakfast.” He says, grinning far too wide. “How do you like your eggs?”

 

“Uh-..” Ryan fumbles, tired thoughts struggling to process the request. “Sunny side up is fine.”

 

Shane bobs his head in a nod. “Go have your shower.” He instructs, loping eagerly back down the stairs. “It’ll be ready by the time you’re done!”

 

For a moment longer, Ryan lingers there. He reaches down to pinch the outside of his knee just to reassure himself that this isn’t a dream. A twinge of pain shudders up his side, and he nods to himself.

 

So this is real. This domestic bliss with Shane Madej.

 

Wordlessly, he slips from his bed, and fumbles toward his wardrobe to piece together his outfit for the day.

 

* * * *

 

The decadent scent of sizzling eggs, short-cut bacon, and lightly-burned toast answers him when he steps out of the bathroom in a swirl of steam; dressed in a simple pair of dark red jeans and a loose grey v-neck. His damp hair sticks to his forehead as he wanders back into the kitchen, feet cooled by the creaking floorboards. Silently, he slips back into the very same stool he’d abandoned last night after dinner.

 

Shane stands in front of the stove in a simple white crew neck with sleeves bunched up at his elbows, and a plain pair of blue chinos. There’s a spatula in his hand, being twirled artfully back and forth as the eggs sizzle and pop in the frypan in front of him. He bobs about lightly to the music filtering in through the lone bluetooth speaker on Ryan’s kitchen counter that still remembers the connection to his iPhone. Ryan thinks it’s Marina that Shane had chosen, but it isn’t a song that he recognises.

 

It fills the comfortable silence between them as Ryan taps open his emails on his phone while he waits.

 

“This is great.” Shane declares, after a moment. “I’m so used to having to wake up and scramble off to get to work in time with the traffic from my place. You live so close, we can leave so much later.”

 

“You’re welcome to take advantage of that any time.” Ryan says, quietly. “By staying here, I mean.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you. How did you sleep, by the way?”

 

Shane twists around to look at him, and Ryan lifts his head.

 

“Better.”

 

“You look better, man.”

 

“I didn’t have any dreams. If I did, I don’t remember them.” He pauses, peering at the firm line of Shane’s back. “Did you sleep okay?”

 

“Yeah, of course.” Shane turns his attention back to the frypan, pausing to flip one of the eggs. Ryan thinks he sees the tips of his ears turn a faint pink, but tells himself that he’s only imagining it. Shane Madej doesn’t blush. “I got to wake up before any alarms went off, that was nice. Do you think it helped?”

 

Shane lifts the pan from the burner, and carefully guides the eggs onto two plates already laid out in preparation alongside the cooktop. He sets the pan aside, adds on two slices of toast for each of them, and then turns to set one of the plates in front of Ryan.

 

It smells delightful.

 

“Yeah. Having you there always makes me feel better.”

 

“I thought that was only when we were in haunted houses…?”

 

“No.” Ryan plucks his knife and fork into his grasp. “It doesn’t really matter where it is, or when. It’s just-... just-... a Shane thing.”

 

“..a Shane thing..?” he hears him echo, his confusion plain.

 

Ryan doesn’t elaborate. He eats in silence.

 

* * * *

 

They arrive at work side by side, each with styrofoam coffee cups gripped in their hands, looking as tired-eyed as one another. Shane had the wherewithal to bring a change of clothes with him so that he didn’t end up arriving in the very same outfit he’d worn the day before.

 

It’s Friday, and the office around them is in a fluffy. Ryan’s phone buzzes without pause in his pocket, a common occurrence after the new release of a fresh episode. He realises belatedly that it must have been their witch cabin that went live today. He’d been too tired to watch it yesterday afternoon to check for changes.

 

They pass Devon. She smiles brightly at the pair of them.

 

“Good job, boys.” She chimes, happily.

 

Ryan frowns, and blinks after her as she twirls past them in her patterned dress.

 

TJ hurries past them with his laptop tucked under his arm, and his headphones dangling about his neck.

 

“The footage is doing great, fellas.” He says, flashing Shane a wink, before bustling out of sight.

 

Ryan’s frown deepens further.

 

He digs a hand into his pocket to slip his phone free, and distractedly - he unlocks it. He sees Shane doing the same thing out of his peripherals.

 

“Oh, shit.” Shane hisses alongside him. He locks his phone and slips it back into his pocket, before lengthening his stride. Ryan has to jog to keep up with him while he peers anxiously down at his phone as instagram struggles to load under the influx of new notifications filling his inbox.

 

“Mark, what the hell--?” He hears Shane say as they reach their desks. “I thought we talked about this.”

 

Mark looks up, and slips his headphones from his head, knocking the plain black baseball cap atop his head askew. He looks perplexed.

 

“Don’t look at me, Anthony had final touches. He isn’t in today.”

 

“We sent it to you for final approval.” Steven interjects from beside Mark. “You didn’t get back to us.”

 

“We can’t be late on uploading, and we figured-..” Mark trails off, looking anxiously at Ryan. “I-I mean-... usually when we send stuff for final approval, you’re fine with it, anyway. It was just-... it was good footage.”

 

Ryan’s profile is finished loading. The number ‘26’ pops up above his tagged photos list, and his brows pinch together into a faint frown. He taps on the number to open it, and he’s greeted by an influx of videos, gifs, still photos, sketches and edits of he and Shane in the living room of that gutted cottage, with their arms wrapped around one another, illuminated by tinny-green nightvision film.

 

“Shit.” He hisses, dumping his empty coffee cup onto his desk, and rubbing his fingertips across the backs of his eyelids.

 

“I made sure to flag it with Anthony. I told him it was not to make it into the episode.” Shane starts from beside him; his tone is measured and even, but uncharacteristically firm. Both Mark and Steven look like startled animals, caught in the headlights of an approaching vehicle. “I didn’t want that in there.”

 

“We can edit it out. I can take down the video. It’s only been up for an hour or so--” Steven starts, hands already flying across his keyboard.

 

“No, don’t do that. If we take it out, it’s just going to look worse.” Mark cuts him off.

 

“I flagged it.” Shane says, again. “I didn’t want that in there.”

 

Ryan covers his face with both of his hands. It feels as though the air has been forced from his lungs, as though he’s received a sharp blow to the stomach, as though his heart has forgotten how to beat. It feels as though a serrated knife has carved into the firm muscle of his chest, and it’s sinking deeper and deeper with every word Shane utters. His voice is so vehement, so heavy, so weighted with frustration. He must be so disgusted, Ryan realises, to be associated with Ryan in a context that could be viewed as romantic.

 

The voices around him have filtered out, they have become distorted, replaced by a distant ringing, a sharp static, overlapping upon one another until Mark stands from his seat, and Steven follows. Shane is gesturing beside him, and Ryan turns away without a word.

 

His hands sweep back through his hair, they settle against the nape of his neck as he starts moving, as he cuts sharply through the office. He sees people pass him by, blurred faces all washed with the same transfixed look of abject concern, and surprise. He hears his name being called from somewhere far behind him, but he doesn’t turn to look. He doesn’t want to see Shane. He doesn’t want to hear Shane’s voice. He doesn’t want to see yet another blown-up depiction of the pair of them intertwined, and highlighted in fluorescent green.

 

His hands fall to his sides as he turns into a narrow hallway riddled with meeting room doors. He continues until he finds one that’s vacant, and he turns into it - sweeping around sharply to snap the door closed behind him, and turn the lock into place so that he isn’t at risk of being walked in on.

 

Slowly, he backs up - drifting against the opposing wall until it meets the solid line of his back; reassuring and cold. He sinks to the floor, there, drawing his knees to his chest, and resting his elbows upon them.

 

Ryan closes his eyes, and realises only then that his cheeks are damp with tears. He wipes at them with the backs of his hands, furious. He pulls up his shirt to run the coarse material across the backs of his eyelids, and in this dark and silent room - the beat of his heart sounds deafening.

 

He can hear his own ragged breathing; desperate and loud. His ears are still ringing with a bubbling line of panic. Anxiety works his stomach into knots. There is a desperate and painful ache in his chest that is blooming into a sharp slice of pure agony-- and he knows why.

 

He’s been lying to himself. This whole time, he’s been lying to himself. He’s been allowing himself to believe that he has a chance with him, that there’s the possibility for something more, that they could be something more. He’s been making whole worlds and building entire fantasies based off a few artless touches between friends . He’s been reading into every look, every sidelong smile, every listless wink Shane has offered to him as if they could possibly mean something more than they do. As if he could possibly love him back.

 

He grips an open hand to his chest, and exhales hard. He’s heard thousands of songs, read dozens of books, seen countless films about what it’s like to have a broken heart. He never anticipated that he’d get to feel it like this, where it’s so visceral, and so all-encompassing. He feels as though he’s lost something more vital than a limb. As though he’s boarded a flight without any of his luggage, and realised a moment too late that he’s flying into the unknown with nothing.

 

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and he doesn’t pull it out. What if it’s Shane? What will he say to him?

 

I’m sorry. I love you and I don’t want to.

 

A tremble runs through him at the thought, and Ryan sinks inwards upon himself; trying desperately to piece himself back together. A broken sob wrings through his parted lips. His splayed fingers sink into his dark curls, and curl inwards to pull at the hair follicles where they meet his scalp. Pain prickles through him, but it’s drowned out by the ache radiating from the core of his chest. His stomach has bottomed out, his muscles strain, they ache under the forceful shudders pushing through him.

 

The lock on the door scrapes, and it sweeps open a moment later.

 

Ryan jerks backwards, drawing in towards himself, running the collar of his shirt over his eyes again, and fumbling blindly to stand up.

 

“Ryan?”

 

He looks up. Devon is standing there.

 

Her eyes are wide, blonde bob a wispy mess of curls, with her laptop tucked under her arm, and the master key in her other hand. There’s nobody behind her, he realises - and relief floods through him a moment later.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah.” he insists, hastily. He sniffs. “I’m fine.”

 

“Just-...” She frowns, her hand withdraws from the key. Slowly, she inches the door closed behind her. “...are you crying?”

 

“No.” He lies, he sniffs again; avoiding her gaze.

 

“Look, I know the fact that the footage was included isn’t great, but-...”

 

“It’s not that.” He interjects, sternly. “I’m fine.”

 

“You don’t look fine.” She tells him, and he can hear the unbridled concern in her voice. “You should find Shane. He’s looking for you.”

 

Ryan’s chest aches as though his fresh wound has met saltwater.

 

“I-I… I think I’m gonna go home, actually.” He looks up at her, and her round face is creased with a look of worry. “...-please, just-... don’t tell him you saw me in here. Don’t tell anyone.”

 

She hesitates, and then she nods; her brown eyes owlish and wide. She steps away from the door, and Ryan slips past her, and out into the hallway. He makes a hasty retreat, feeling Devon’s eyes upon his back until he turns out of sight, and retreats through a fire exit at the back of the building, far away from where his and Shane’s desks are.

 

He catches an Uber home, and ignores the fact that there’s twenty-four unread message notifications lighting up his screen.

 

* * * *

 

The rest of the day is spent in bed. He watches re-runs of Parks and Recreation on Netflix just to fill the silence. He doesn’t laugh, doesn’t smile, doesn’t snort at a single joke. He lies face-down upon his duvet, and does his best not to think. His phone continues to buzz beneath his pillow, and he ignores it; half certain it’s more work-emails, more notifications from twitter and instagram with a screenshot of their embrace, embossed with the hashtag of ‘Shyan’, as though it might or could ever be real.

 

He goes for a run at five in the evening, when a cool and dusky twilight settles over his sleepy corner of LA, illuminating the sky with stripes of orange and pink, dusting the clouds like ice cream. He’s always found that running helps clear his thoughts, helps stave off stresses and anxieties. He’s written-off the events of the morning as an anxiety attack, convinced himself that maybe, maybe it hadn’t been as awful as he had thought. Maybe Shane hadn’t meant it that way. Maybe Shane is just concerned for the show. Maybe Shane is just concerned for him.

 

It’s an accident, and no part of Ryan blames Mark, or Steven, or Devon-- or any member of their crew. It isn’t the clip that has driven him to this point.

 

It’s Shane’s reaction to it.

 

His words ring through Ryan’s thoughts, sharp and obtrusive.

 

“I flagged it. I didn’t want that in there.”

 

His pace quickens. He bites down on the full curve of his lower lip. His calves begin to burn. The skyline is dotted with the golden glow of a thousand windows. The street is illuminated by the flood of a dozen streetlights. Cars drift past him, the sounds of their rubber tires against the dried asphalt a distant chorus to the jumbled mess of Ryan’s inner monologue.

 

He makes it to the lookout point; a rocky outcrop that’s become a favourite to tourists during the warmer months, where he can look down at the Hollywood sign, miles away but still so brightly illuminated against the backdrop of the mountain range, and the buildings below, artfully decorated by palm trees and coloured rooftops that catch the evening light with artistic splendour.

 

It’s there that he sits, with his knees drawn towards his chest, and his elbows resting upon them, listening to the breeze skim its careful fingers through the reeds in the grass, and the leaves of the trees behind him. He watches the headlights of a dozen cars wind through the tangled tapestry of roads. He inhales the hazy scent of exhaust and saltwater that flecks the air, and he thinks back to the time he had brought Shane here.

 

They had rented push bikes, because Shane had stubbornly refused to walk the distance required from Ryan’s apartment. They’d made it to the lookout, and sat here - close enough for their knees to touch - to watch the sunset. Shane was still new to Buzzfeed, still new to LA, still stalwart in his willingness to believe that Chicago was that much better than the city of angels. He still remembers it far too clearly, still remembers how Shane had looked at him against the backdrop of pink clouds, glowing like vibrant cotton-candy from a carnival stall, and said with a crooked grin, “Alright Bergara. I’ll give you this one. One point for LA.”

 

It had felt like the first burgeoning step of their friendship, when Shane had gone from colleague to friend.

 

It feels like a cruel twist of irony, for Ryan to be sitting in this very same spot, alone; a victim of the universe’s cosmic indifference.

 

The breeze turns cold. Ryan shudders, he runs his palms along the outsides of his arms, and remains there until the last hints of sunlight vanish beyond the horizon, and the only light remaining is that of the artificial glow of the city below him.

 

He stands, then - and he sprints home; determined to exhaust himself, determined to force the pain in his chest outwards, and into his limbs - where it’d be productive, where it’d make sleep that much easier to find in the evening.

 

The very idea of being alone with his thoughts is too awful to consider.

 

If there’s one thing Ryan is good at, it’s torturing himself.

 

* * * *

 

The weekend feels as though it drags on. He fills his time by running, by visiting the gym, by punishing himself for the mistakes that had led him to this point. He lifts weights, he bites back the hisses of pain that pulse through him. He amps up the speed on the treadmill. He adds weights to the elliptical. He works until his arms shake, until his lungs burn, until he cannot keep going. He collapses into bed without showering, and sleeps a full twelve hours. His phone has run out of charge, and it lies - dejected and forgotten - upon his nightstand.

 

It feels as though he’s tied to the bed in the mornings, as if his limbs are made from lead; the prospect of meeting the day feels like a monumental task in itself. He lapses into the well of depression as if it’s a comfort, a security blanket, as if it’s the only other way he knows to block out the rest of the world. It’s usually Shane to be the one to pull him out of these moments, to throw him a lifeline down the length of that dark well, and drag him back to reality - laughing through the promise of a marathon of old movies and horror classics.

 

But the deafening silence of his absence feels like a fissure, like a tumble of cold water intent on trapping him at the bottom of the well, with no way to fight for freedom, no rope to cling hold of. He thinks of jokes to send to Shane, of ideas to forward to Shane, of advertisements Shane would like, meal deals Shane would want in on alongside him; things he wants to share with him, things he wants to show him, things that would make him laugh.

 

It hurts. It keeps hurting. It doesn’t stop hurting.

 

* * * *

 

He plugs his phone back on to charge on Monday evening. He’d sent Mark an email to let him know he wouldn’t be in late on Sunday evening, citing the need to take a mental health day. He’d avoided technology after that. He’d gone for another run. He’d taken a shower (finally), and isolated himself to the company of his tangled bedsheets for the remainder of the day; with nothing but the soothing distraction of Netflix to keep his thoughts occupied while his phone struggles to turn on.

 

The barrage of messages are scarcely surprising; interwoven with notifications from twitter and instagram, and an influx of work emails. He sees Shane’s name fly by, followed by Devon’s, then Mark’s, and even TJ’s. Curly’s name pops up, only to be pushed down by a waterfall of other messages; concerned friends, all reaching out just to make sure that he’s all right. It is admittedly not like Ryan to go silent across all platforms.

 

He doesn’t unlock it, and he runs his tired fingers across the backs of his eyelids, half certain that he isn’t up to the task of replying to every single one quite yet.

 

It begins to ring. It feels like reality is reaching out to him again, offering him a hand that will pull him from the bottom of the empty well. It mightn’t be Shane’s braided rope of safety and security, but it’s offering him an out, a breath of freedom, a reminder that there’s more to his life than Shane Madej and his cocky smiles.

 

Ryan squeezes his eyes shut as the sound cuts through his subconscious. Thoughtlessly, he sweeps his hand out from under the pillow, and his phone slides along with it, illuminated by Shane’s face; swept into a grin with a pair of sunglasses shading his eyes from the harsh sunlight, a thoughtless photo Ryan had taken before they’d left the Boysenberry farm.

 

His heart leaps into his throat. His head spins. The ache that rockets through him is sharp, and insistent. It’s so profound that he needs a moment just to steady himself.

 

By the time he does, the picture fades from view. A cavalcade of messages from Shane still riddle the lower half of his phone, and listlessly - he reads through them.

 

S: Answer me.

S: Are you ok?

S: It’s been days, I need a bit more from you at this point--...

S: Are you ignoring my calls intentionally? I can’t tell.

S: I’m going to come over if I don’t hear from you soon.

S: I mean it. This is a threat. Act accordingly.

S: Emotional terrorism at work.

S: I’m on my way.

 

The last message was sent ten minutes ago.

 

Ryan clambers out of bed. He switches off his TV and briefly considers locking the front door and insisting later that he just hadn’t been home, and he’d missed Shane dropping by. He drifts into his bathroom, and splashes cold water across his features; it does little to bring down the swelling in his red-rimmed eyes that all but scream I’ve been crying. His hair is a mess of dark curls atop his head, tumbling forwards against his forehead. He needs to shave, his facial hair has grown into scruff that’s on-par with his moustache prior to their hunt for Bigfoot.

 

There is a knock at his door. Reality is there, requesting entry.

 

Ryan looks to the window peering in at him from beside his bathroom mirror. He considers pulling the glass from its frame, and leaping out.

 

He shuts off the faucet, and he turns his back upon his reflection. He hurries down the stairs, listening to them creak every step of the way, and he wipes at his eyes a second time; feeling his damp hair cling to the cusp of his forehead as he stops in front of his front door.

 

His heart feels as though it’s caught in his throat. Every beat contorts and fills him with a fresh wave of dull agony. Dread and fear well up within him as he reaches out with an unsteady hand to curl his fingers around the doorknob. What will he say? What will he do? How will he excuse… any of this?

 

Slowly, he gives it a twist; and peels it open. He steps back, and lifts his gaze steadily.

 

Arms envelope him at once. They wrap around his broader shoulders, and settle above the sway of his waist with a gust of Shane’s too-familiar cologne riding heavily upon their curves and ridges. His pulse is racing under the cusp of Ryan’s temple, desperate and fearful. He stumbles back a step, eyes over-wide and disbelieving.

 

“Fuck, Ryan. Fuck. ” Shane hisses.

 

“Wh--?”

 

“You-... I was so worried, I was so worried, I thought something had happened. You’d had those nightmares, and you’d looked so pale, I thought that-.. I thought-... shit , man.”

 

He draws back a moment later, looking down at him with over-wide eyes that look as red-rimmed as Ryan’s had a moment ago in his reflection. His hair is a rumpled mess, as if he’d run his fingers through it one too many times for it to do anything aside from stand up at all angles. His jacket is rumpled and denim and much too familiar and Ryan takes a stiff step backwards, remembering himself, bumping into the wall behind him. He does his best it ignore how Shane reaches out for him again, as if to steady him.

 

It feels as if his heart is breaking all over again.

“Yeah. I’m fine.” His voice cracks, and strains - this is the first time he’s spoken in days. “You don’t have to stay.” He says, feeling distinctly as though he’s been the victim of a hit-and-run. As though Shane had come just to do more damage.

 

The hand at his side falls away, and the door is swept shut behind Shane as Ryan wanders into his cluttered living room without sparing a glance back. He knows he’s being followed.

 

“What do you mean? I’m here to--”

 

“Check up on me, right? I’m fine.” He says, voice cutting, and firm.

 

A beat of silence chases them.

 

“Ryan-..”

 

“I’m fine. Okay? Completely fine. Better than ever.”

 

“If-... if this is about the footage, man-... we can take down the episode if you want. It’s really not that big of a deal. People will notice, but we can say there’s other reasons for it. Blame it on technical issues, blame it on not wanting to look too... sensational , or fake.”

 

“Is that what you want?” Ryan turns around to face him.

 

“Isn’t it what you want?”

 

He lifts a hand to sweep through his dark curls. Shane is standing there, at the entrance to his living room, rumpled and dishevelled; with confusion and concern drawn haphazardly across his features in a look more profound and more expressive than Ryan has ever seen upon him. He’s not taking steps to guard his expression, to school it into a veiled look of half-hearted apprehension. His clothes are rumpled, his facial hair is in dire need of a shave, the set to his shoulders is hunched and strained.

 

“You said to Steve and Mark that you didn’t want that moment in the video.” Ryan presses on, refusing to allow his resolution to crack under Shane’s uncharacteristic concern. His heart is racing, beating rabbit-like against the cage of his ribs. Anger burns like a wildfire under his skin, itching and urgent and desperate to be recognised, built-up and contained over Ryan’s days-long self isolation.

 

“...-Ryan.”

 

“..and that makes sense, you know. You asked in the sound booth if I was going to keep it in there and I should’ve realised, y’know--... that this shit bothers you. It makes us look a certain way, and of course you don’t want that.”

 

“Ryan--”

 

“..and that’s fine! It’s honestly fine, why wouldn’t it be? We’re just- we’re just friends. We’re just friends, and we shouldn’t let anybody else feel like we’re anything more than that, because that would be ridiculous, it’d be horseshit--”

 

Shane is stepping towards him, but Ryan continues; eyes wild, voice hitching; eyes burning with a strange and too-familiar warmth. He moves closer, and closer - until he’s all but looming over Ryan, who stands firm and motionless, gesturing wildly with his left hand.

 

“..--and it wouldn’t be fair to you, or to me. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone. What would that mean for the show? It makes sense, too, that you’d be disgusted, I just--”

 

He’s cut off.

 

Shane’s fingers drift through his hair, skimming against the nape of his neck, notching a lengthy thumb beneath his chin to angle it upwards, to bring his gaze upwards as his breath catches in his throat, and stutters past his parted lips before they’re claimed in a sudden and greedy kiss.

 

It catches him off guard, with another sharp rebuttal perched upon the tip of his tongue. It’s hesitant, and gentle; as if Shane is giving him every chance to pull away. He’s hardly touching him at all.

 

It feels as though he is being flooded with warmth; as though it’s drifting through his limbs and settling, warm and omnipotent, in his chest. Filling that cavity where there had previously been a fracture, a break. It’s mending that fissure with its warmth. It’s filling him up, dizzying and wonderful, until he feels as if he might detach from gravity, and float upwards and away from the rest of the world. That fire prickling beneath his skin has been extinguished; as if the press of Shane’s lips had come with a surge of cold water that had douse the flames of his frustration, his resentment, his heartbreak.

 

His fingers knot in the front of Shane’s rumpled button-down, as if to pull him closer, as if to stop him from even daring to pull away. A muffled hum slips past his parted lips as his eyes slip closed, and a heavy arm sweeps back around the sway of his spine.

 

His kiss turns desperate, wanting, and half-convinced that this is another dream, a beautiful and wonderful dream that’s illuminated by the technicolor glow of reality. Shane smells real, he feels real, and Ryan draws him closer, pulls him inwards until he hears him emit another short moan, a quiet sound of surprise.

 

He feels light-headed, his lungs burn, and he breaks the kiss just for long enough to remind himself to breathe as the lip of his couch bumps against the backs of his knees. Shane pushes him into it, and they tumble backwards onto the rumpled cushions, knocking pillows and teddy bears tumbling onto the floor, but Ryan doesn’t care.

 

Shane looms over him, his hair a mess, his lips kiss-bitten and flushed a tempting pink, and Ryan leans up to kiss him again, his arms drift around those broad shoulders, and his heart feels as if it’s a moment away from bursting, a moment away from leaping out of his chest to spring about the perimeter of the room; delighted and overjoyed. His nerves sing, his lips curl into a smile he’s half-certain that Shane can feel .

 

After a moment, Shane draws away; he breaks the kiss- pressing his brow to Ryan’s forehead. Both of them are out of breath- breathing heavily into the lambent space between them.

 

“You’re an idiot.” He tells him, voice filled with that same warmth.

 

Ryan lets out a stuttered exhale, breath washing across Shane’s parted lips.

 

“I thought-... I-I thought I-... I thought-...”

 

“I know.” Shane draws back, lengthening his spine, straightening out of that half-hunch, bracing a hand against the armrest of the couch above Ryan’s head so that he might look down at him without going cross-eyed. “The reason I asked Anthony not to include that clip is because you said you wanted it to be private. I was trying to look out for you.”

 

Of course he was.

 

“But-... how did you know I was-...?”

 

“I figured it out.” Shane reasons, fingers crawling up the steps of Ryan’s spine against the press of the couch cushions beneath them, vertebrae by vertebrae. “I thought at first that you might be embarrassed, but then I thought back to the bird in the Queen Mary, or the time I scared you in the basement of the Winchester Mansion. The more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed. You never give a shit what people think, not unless it’s somebody important. You didn’t give a shit then. Why would you suddenly give a shit now? There was another reason for it. There had to be. But every single theory I had felt insane.”

 

Ryan’s eyes drift closed, his arms encircle Shane’s waist.

 

“You might be onto something there, big guy.” He says, words half-muffled by the collar of Shane’s rumpled button-down. “You came all this way just to debunk your theory?”

 

“No.” He draws back. His arms recede, and he eases back, smoothly shifting Ryan’s legs from the couch so that he might sit upright. After a moment, Ryan follows suit - folding one leg upon the cushion to face him. “I was worried about you. Devon said that she saw you looking like you had been crying in one of the meeting rooms. I had thought something had happened. Something really bad, Ryan. Like, maybe somebody had died, or that you had some kind of emergency.”

 

“I told her not to say anything-...” He mumbles.

 

“She said that, too. I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. I waited it out. But your silence just made me worry.” His hands withdraw. Ryan stamps down the urge to tug them closer, to kiss him again. Shane skims his hand through his hair, and adjusts his glasses. “You should really message her. She’s as worried about you as I was. We all were, you know.”

 

“Shit.” Ryan pats his pockets in search of his phone.

 

“It took a lot of convincing. They almost all followed me here. This was very nearly a full inquisition. I should have worn red, or something.”

 

“My phone is upstairs. Can you text them?”

 

“Yeah. Sure.” Shane shifts, plucking his phone from his pocket. “Would it be presumptuous of me to stay for dinner?” He asks with an arched brow.

 

* * * *

 

Tuesday back at work is a strange and awkward affair. Everything in the office feels the same, but inexplicably different in a way that Ryan can’t place. It feels more vibrant, more alive, crawling with people who are so full of smiles and laughter, teeming with things he hadn’t noticed previously; streamers and balloons and personalised cakes.

 

There is a printed-out photo of he and Shane locked in their embrace from the cottage stuck to his monitor with a balled-up wad of bluetack. He rolls his eyes half-heartedly and utters a dry ‘ha-ha’ to his snickering coworkers as he tugs it free, and does his best to ignore how wide Andrew and Steven are grinning as he crumples it up, and tosses it into the trashcan by his desk.

 

Nobody outside of he and Shane knows of their-... their kiss.

 

He’s hesitant to give it a label, hesitant to jump the gun on what he wants it to be. He knows what he wants, but what Shane wants is still a relative mystery.

 

They’d talked through the Lord of the Rings together, and sat close enough for their shoulders to touch. At one point, Shane had draped his arm across the top of the couch behind Ryan, and it had felt unspeakably intimate in a wonderful and untapped kind of way.

 

He hadn’t pushed it, despite how little he had cared for the movie, despite how much he wanted to crawl into Shane’s lap, and kiss him until the Hobbits and Elves were nothing but background noise. Shane hadn’t stayed the night, but he’d asked Ryan if that’s what he wanted (‘You know, for the nightmares.’), but he’d refused him.

 

He wants to do this right.

 

This transition from friends to more-than-friends is a strange and precarious path for them to take. He doesn’t want to rush into anything. He doesn’t want to ruin this. He doesn’t want to drive Shane away.

 

He’d nearly lost him once. The scars of it still ache around the edges, even if they’re mended over.

 

But, he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns in his seat to see Shane there, dressed in a plain and striped shirt half-tucked into a pair of blue chinos that elongate his legs to an impressive degree. He looks artfully dishevelled, carefully rumpled, with a faint air of casual elegance. His lips draw into a faintly knowing smile as he looks at Ryan.

 

“Coffee?” He asks, with a wordless quick of his brow.

 

“I-... y-yeah. Coffee.” Ryan nods.

 

Wordlessly, but with a smile that lingers, Shane turns to join the growing line at the machine, already pulling his phone from his pocket.

 

Suddenly, Ryan is ready to rush. He’s ready to muddle their path, and leap to the end - so long as it means he gets more of this.

 

* * * *

 

He’s pacing anxiously back and forth by the drawing board in the meeting room he’d booked. The very same meeting room that he’d barricaded himself within to have his panic attack. He tries not to look at the wall (and floor) by the door as he drifts back and forth along the faded linoleum, hands twisting together before him, hair mussed from the artless drift of his fingertips, prickling with thinly-veiled anxiety-- until the door clicks open.

 

Shane drifts inside, his brows raised and inquisitive, his hands holding the door open as if he’s expecting someone else to join them at any moment.

 

“What’s up?” He asks, frown deepening when he only spots Ryan. “Where’s TJ and Devon?”

 

“They’re not coming.” He answers, somewhat breathlessly. “Will you close the door?”

 

“Oh.” Shane starts, stepping inside the conference room. The door closes behind him with a short snap. “Uh, what’s this for? Should I have brought my laptop?”

 

Ryan manoeuvres around the chairs, he sweeps towards Shane, and reaches up to knot two hands in the front of his shirt. He gives it a single tug to bring Shane down to his level, and he claims his lips in a greedy and hasty kiss.

 

Shane lets out a quiet sound of surprise and, after a moment, indulges him. Fingers drift through his dark curls, settling against the nape of his neck. An arm loops about his waist, drawing him closer until Shane’s body is a firm line of warmth against his own. Ryan bites back a moan, feeling dizzy with warmth. It feels electric, it feels wonderful, it feels like a thousand and one fireworks have gone off against the backs of his eyelids, vibrant and colourful and as explosive and exhilarating as every kiss has always meant to be.

 

Shane breaks the kiss, after a moment.

 

“Ryan-..” He’s breathless, he’s laughing. “Did you book this meeting just to kiss me?”

 

“Yeah.” He gives the front of Shane’s shirt a tug, trying to claim him for another. “Is that bad?”

 

“No. No, it’s not bad.” One of Shane’s hands lifts to cover his own. “It’s just-... we’re on the clock.”

 

Ryan blinks.

 

“I know you’re a pain in the ass with making sure we don’t trespass, but I figured that was because you didn’t want a fine. I didn’t pick you for this much of a stickler for the rules, big guy. Are you gonna go tell on me? Go and get me fired for luring a coworker into a meeting room just to corner them and kiss them? I guess it counts as sexual harassment. You could seriously incriminate me right now.”

 

“No.” Shane is laughing again, features alight with quiet chuckles that radiate through his slender frame. The corners of his eyes are crinkled with his too-broad grin. “I had just pictured things going a little differently.”

 

Ryan pauses, hands smoothing out of their fists against the front of Shane’s shirt. For a moment, he is stunned that Shane has thought about this at all.

 

“What were you picturing?” he asks.

 

Shane’s hands drift down his forearms, and rest above the bends of his elbows. He ducks his head down until he can look Ryan in the eye. His expression is stern, but impossibly warm.

 

“Can I take you out to dinner?”

 

It’s such a simple request. One that’s been asked of him before a dozen times; but never with as much meaning, with as much possibility weighted behind it before now.

 

“Yeah.” Ryan’s answer is breathless and soft. A faint smile threatens the corners of his lips. “...-might need some beer, too.”

 

“What about wine?” Shane asks.

 

“That works.”

 

Those hands drift down his forearms, and capture his hands in a warm but reassuring grip.

 

“Come to my place at six-thirty.” He insists, words lit with a quiet kind of intensity that reminds Ryan of all the Jane Austen novels he’s never read. “I’ll cook for us. But, dress up? You always look nice when you do.”

 

He leans in, and presses his lips into the corner of Ryan’s own, before releasing him, and drifting back through the door, and into the hallway beyond.

 

It snaps closed after him, and Ryan lifts a balled-up fist to his lips to hide how wide his grin is. He’s giddy.

 

* * * *

 

The day feels like it trawls on after that. Shane is unusually focussed upon his work, seemingly too enthralled to notice the halting glances that Ryan spares his way, or the casual bumps of their knees beneath the table every time he whisks his chair back and forth. He leaves at five, pressing a lingering hand to Ryan’s shoulder in lieu of a farewell.

 

They’d be seeing each other soon, anyway.

 

If Devon notices, she doesn’t say anything.

 

Ryan makes it home in a flash, skipping through two stop signs without pausing, and only half-hearing the music drifting from his radio. He agonises over his outfit choices for a solid hour, changing his shirt four times before settling upon a plain black button-down that’s more fitted than his usual fanfare. He pairs it with the white pants that Ladylike had styled him in, that he remembers Shane liking, and a plain pair of shoes that don’t stand out. The last fifteen minutes before he has to leave feel as if they drag on the longest. He paces, checking his phone repeatedly for the time, rethinking his outfit (and almost changing entirely), staring down his reflection in the mirror for much too long -- wondering why Shane would ever want anything to do with him, before it’s quarter-past-six, and time to start driving.

 

The trip there doesn’t take long, it’s the traffic that Ryan has to allow extra time for, and at the tail-end of peak-hour, it traps him for a little longer than he would’ve liked. It’s six thirty-five by the time he pulls in to park on the curb in front of Shane’s building.

 

He sits there, in the driver’s seat of the car, looking up at the towering complex to see Shane’s window, three rows from the top of the building, his closed curtains are illuminated in gold. Slowly, he slips out of his car, locking the door after him, and smoothing out the fabric of his button-down with care. He runs a hand through his hair again as he slips his keys into his pocket, and starts up the stairs towards Shane’s door.

 

He knocks twice once he reaches it, still struggling to digest the knowledge that all of this is real; that the past two days really happened, that he didn’t dream them up - that Shane had kissed him earnestly in the middle of his living room, that he’d let Ryan kiss him again in the breakroom just a mere few hours ago.

 

His idle fingers skim across the bow of his lower lip, as if to mimic the warmth of his lips, as if to remind himself just how they had felt.

 

The door whisks open, the scent of basil and parmesan comes with it, and Ryan lifts his chin in surprise.

 

Shane is standing there, dressed in a plain white button-down with a hoodie pulled over it, and a simple pair of dark slacks. His features are drawn into a smile, eyes alight with excitement in a look that’s soothing and perfect. Ryan’s heart misses a beat. He wants to kiss him again. His stomach twists with excitement. He lingers there, nervous, uncertain -- so he says the first thing that springs to mind.

 

“You look like a fucking waiter, dude. Did I walk into some roleplay of yours?”

 

Shane laughs. The comment is too on-brand, too in-line with their version of bonding. It’s the least romantic thing Ryan could have said.

 

“Do I, really?”

 

“White and black. When I did bartending, that’s what I always had to wear. The hoodie is nice, though.”

 

Shane steps back, gesturing for him to enter.

 

“Should I change, then?”

 

“No.” Ryan adds, hastily.

 

The door sweeps closed after him, and Shane moves forwards quickly to lead Ryan through his apartment, and toward the jutting balcony that overlooks his corner of the city. It’s set up with a simple wooden table, and two chairs -- a space they’ve occupied countless times with beer bottles in hand, or a cheap wine between them; watching the hazy skyline, filtered with light pollution, and stars too faint to see, even at the darkest point of the night sky.

 

There’s a candle sitting at the heart of the table, with two glasses of cold water, and empty plates.

 

Ryan’s heart feels almost pained, lodged in his throat. His eyes prickle with warmth. He has to draw in a deep breath just to steady himself. It’s wonderful. It’s perfect. It feels too good to be true, like Shane will step in front of him, and insist this had all been some cruel joke that he and every member of the crew were in on.

 

But, that doesn’t happen. He feels foolish for believing that it might.

 

Shane’s features are earnest and hopeful, peering anxiously at him as if uncertain if Ryan approves, if he likes it. His hands knot together, wringing in a pliant example of his nervousness.

 

“It-... it looks great, dude. So do you. Not like a waiter at all. I’ll do my best not to ask you for a dessert menu when the food comes out, I swear.”

 

Another laugh tumbles past Shane’s lips, and he almost looks relieved.

 

“Sit down. It’s almost ready, I just have to-...” He lifts his hands, wriggling his fingers playfully. “..-spruce it up a little.”

 

Ryan nods, and shuffles into the same seat he always occupies when they sit here; though the context is impossibly different this time. Shane vanishes into the kitchen, and emerges a moment later with their meal in his grasp.

 

It’s pesto pasta with a side of roast mushrooms, and it’s wonderful. They eat there together, talking, laughing, piss-taking- it feels easy. It feels like it should’ve always been like this. It feels like the kisses and the intimacy are just a fortunate by-product of this new route their relationship has taken, but when their plates are cleared and Ryan feels contentedly full, it’s Shane who speaks up.

 

“I wanted to ask about your hair.” He says, when the silence between them grows comfortable. “You’ve stopped using product.”

 

A hand instinctively leaps into Ryan’s hair. He runs his fingers through it, skimming the wayward curls off the cusp of his forehead, looking apprehensive, self-conscious for the first time this evening.

 

“Does it look bad?”

 

“No, no, no.” Shane says, quickly - a smile softens his features. “No. I just-... I mentioned to you once, that I thought your hair looked better when you didn’t put so much gel in it. I don’t think I’ve seen you use any gel since then.”

 

Ryan’s hand slips from his hair. His elbow rests on the armrest, and his cheeks prickle with warmth. He’d done it without realising; he’d omitted it every morning since that fight when Shane’s fingers had slipped through his hair.

 

“Oh. Yeah.” He murmurs, brows twitching together into a small frown.

 

“Did you do that for me?”

 

Ryan watches him, eyes over-wide; uncertain of how much he wants to reveal. He doesn’t want to scare him away. He doesn’t want to say too much -- and convey his attraction, his affection toward Shane as anything close to obsessive. He’s ready to admit that to himself - that his behaviour, his thoughts, his internalised monologue skimmed the border of ‘obsessive’, and he had done his best to curb them. How much had Shane noticed?

 

“I-I-... ye-yeah.” He admits, freely. “I-... I just-....” His fingers skim through his hair again. “It’s fucking dumb, I know--”

 

“It’s not.” Shane interjects. “I wanted to ask about it last week. But, I-... assumed it was for another reason. A girl, or somebody else you were trying to impress. Or, maybe you were just trying something new, and it didn’t have anything to do with me.”

 

“I mean, it was time consuming as hell.” Ryan adds, with a small tilt of his head. “You saved me a shitton of time by telling me that. I can sleep in like… an extra four hours now.”

 

Again, Shane laughs - features crinkling up with delight in a way that makes Ryan’s heart stutter.

 

“When did you know?” Ryan asks, carefully - skimming his fingers thoughtlessly along the wood grains polished onto the table beneath him.

 

Shane tilts his head, surveying the rim of the wine glass in his grip.

 

“I had a feeling.” He starts, words chosen carefully. “You’ve never been really good at hiding your emotions. The staring was a little overt Ryan, I’m not gonna lie. I kept… trying to pass it off as just… odd Ryan things, like when you talk to yourself, or how to get when you’re extremely focussed. But, at Kelsey’s birthday, and I don’t know if you remember--”

 

“Oh.” Ryan tilts his head aside, and rubs his fingertips across the backs of his eyelids, already positive of where this is going.

 

“..--that’s when I knew how I felt about you. I saw that bartender talking to you, and she just-... she looked at you as though you were something that she wanted to devour--”

 

“That’s… visceral.”

 

“...--and-... I’m not a jealous person, you know, but in that moment. It overtook me. It was like, the only thing I could think about. I didn’t want her to have you. It was extremely selfish of me, and I felt so guilty when we got into that Uber, but it didn’t even seem like you cared. I thought it was just because you were drunk, you know.”

 

“I didn’t care.” Ryan admits, thankful that it’s that part of the story that stuck with Shane, and not what came after it. “I think, all I wanted that night was to be with you.”

 

“I heard you, you know.”

 

“When?” Ryan frowns, stealing another sip of red wine just to occupy his hands.

 

“You were talking to Curly. He asked you if you would ever play wingman for me. You said.. ‘I’d do anything for him’.” Shane’s smile is reproachful. It’s crooked, spared at him over the rim of his wine glass.

 

Ryan’s heart lurches forwards, and it lodges in his throat. He swallows thickly - looking away from Shane. He’d forgotten about that, amidst the haze that filled the rest of that night.

 

“That’s true.”

 

“Even when you felt this way for me?”

 

“Yeah. I would’ve done it.”

 

“Ryan.” Shane’s voice is gently scolding, and faintly surprised.

 

“I never thought there was a chance of this. Of us.” He admits, half positive it’s the wine, or maybe it’s just pure relief - the unbridled bliss of being able to be honest with him. Confessing this feels easy.

 

Shane’s chair scrapes against the tiles beneath them as he inches closer to Ryan. “You are the most delusional, most accident prone, most idiotic person I know. You are King Idiot of the Idiot Foothills, dumber than all of the Plupples in the galaxy.”

 

“Dude.” Ryan tips his head back, a faint chuckle drifting from him.

 

Shane reaches out for him, and he skims two careful fingers against the crest of Ryan’s cheek. “..-and you’re the worst at picking up on hints.”

 

He leans in, breath tinged with the bitter scent of red wine, to claim Ryan’s lips in a gentle kiss. His fingers linger there, skating backwards along Ryan’s cheek to skim below the curve of his jawline, to angle his face upwards, to deepen the kiss into something that’s less chaste, and more indecent.

 

He breaks it before Ryan can lean into him. He feels breathless when Shane pulls away.

 

“I nearly kissed you outside your car.”

 

“When?”

 

“That day when it rained.”

 

Ryan leans in again, fingers curling through the front of Shane’s shirt to pull him closer, to claim his lips a second time, greedy and insatiable and uncaring of what Shane thinks of it. As if he’s trying to make up for all the missed opportunities, all the chances he didn’t take. All of the moments he could’ve claimed, but didn’t because he was afraid. His fingers pull through the short hairs by the nape of his neck, they fold under the collar of his shirt, prickling under the warm press of skin-on-skin, even if it’s chaste.

 

Shane sinks into him, leaning forwards to deepen their kiss, skimming his tongue along the seam of Ryan’s lips until he opens for him, until he wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. He feels like putty under Shane’s careful, cautious touches; though they are frustratingly tentative, maddeningly gentle. He breaks the kiss.

 

His words are murmured into the corner of Shane’s lips.

 

“I’m not gonna break, big guy. You gotta stop that.”

 

It’s as if a switch flicks. Something in Shane’s guarded expression shifts, something in the air seems to curl taut.

 

He stands, the chair scrapes back against the tiles, his fingers curl in the front of Ryan’s shirt, drawing him to his feet, twisting them both, and pressing Ryan up against the sliding glass door leading back into his apartment. He kisses him again - fiercely, desperately, deeply.

 

It surprises Ryan, it catches him off guard, it brings heat rushing to his cheeks, and low, low in his stomach. A subtle thrill slips down the steps of his spine. Shane’s hand dips below the hemline of his shirt, rucking the material as his greedy fingers crawl across the span of his stomach. He arches away from the glass, and into the tumble of his cool fingertips. His breath hitches, the kiss is broken, Shane leans in, and trails a searing line of kisses down the thick curve of muscle along the sweep of Ryan’s throat.

 

“Ah--.. fuck.” He hisses, voice clipped and rough.

 

Shane’s lips part, his teeth skim across the flesh beneath the hinge of Ryan’s jaw, and he braces himself, his fingers curl through a tumble of dark-auburn hair, almost-black in the cool night air, waiting for him to bite.

 

But he doesn’t.

 

He pulls away.

 

“Motherfucker.” Ryan hisses.

 

Shane is grinning at him in the lambent half-dark; eyes crinkled at the corners; alight with a wicked gleam, breath shallow but laboured. He kisses him again, fingers drifting down Ryan’s chest, down the sweep of his sternum, and toward the dip of his hipbones. He withdraws, he breaks the kiss, he catches hold of Ryan’s wrists, and gives them a gentle tug - pulling him forwards, away from the shuddering door, and into the relative warmth of his apartment.

 

The cool night air kisses at Ryan’s flesh, running its idle fingers along the sweat already gathered at the tilt of his sternum, and the sway of his spine. His shirt is open. He’d been so engrossed in kissing Shane that he hadn’t felt him get the buttons undone.

 

A short and disbelieving laugh is pulled from his parted lips, but it’s cut short as Shane turns back towards him in the heart of his living room, and kisses him again. His fingers rove through Ryan’s hair, they fold beneath the collar of his shirt, pushing it from his shoulders until it tumbles to the floor beneath them. Ryan feels himself step on it, but he doesn’t care.

 

He tugs at Shane’s hoodie, peeling it from his shoulders as they stumble backwards. Every one of his kisses is hungry, utterly, utterly ravenous. He doesn’t care where Shane is leading him. He could take him anywhere, just as long as he keeps kissing him.

 

They bump into a doorframe. Shane’s palms skirt across the cusp of his chest, his nails drag along the pebbled rise of Ryan’s nipples. His breath catches, the kiss is broken -- Shane leans in, and his lips meet the dip of Ryan’s collarbones. They part, canines skim his flesh, and he bites down .

 

Ryan cries out, loud enough that Shane’s thumb folds over the slender column of his throat, as if to cut the sound off part-way, only to stop himself short. He draws away again.

 

“This way.” He says, voice rough and urgent.

 

He pulls Ryan into the darkness of his hallway, in a direction Ryan knows will lead them into his bedroom.

 

It’s dark in there, too; but moonlight spills in from the bay windows that overlook his double bed - Ryan’s only been in here a handful of times, usually when Shane has been running late to work early in the mornings, or when he’s crashed on Shane’s couch late at night, after a long night of drinking. Never like this, never in this context. He’s wondered plenty just what it would feel like to be somebody that Shane led in here.

 

Now, he supposes, he knows.

 

It feels fantastic.

 

His skin feels like it’s on fire. His nerves are standing on-end, hyper-aware of everywhere the pair of them touch, of how Shane’s skin feels against his.

 

He crowds him into the door, he steals his lips in another kiss. He presses their chests flush together, and Ryan thinks he could combust from the joy of it, from how good it feels. His fingers fumble with Shane’s buttons, desperate for more, desperate to get rid of that last layer of fabric that’s keeping them apart. He gives up half-way, and balls his hands into the front of Shane’s shirt. One sharp tug , and the last four buttons tear from their threads, boncing uselessly across the room, clattering noisily against the floorboards. He pulls the shirt open, and folds it back against Shane’s arms, losing interest in it then, and leaning in to press his skin into Shane’s.

 

“Impatient--” Shane says, somewhere above him. “..-s’one of my good shirts.”

 

“Get a new one.”

 

“How else will I dress up as a waiter--?”

 

“Shut the fuck up.”

 

Their kiss is sloppy, open-mouthed, insistent; it’s debased and rushed. Shane draws him from the doorway, angles him slowly forwards; until the backs of his kneees bump into the end of his bed. He stumbles backwards; and falls into a breathless heap atop fresh sheets that smell of Shane’s strawberry detergent.

 

He lingers there for a moment, a silhouette in the half-dark, looming over Ryan as if he’s just as astounded to find himself here as Ryan is. He reaches out for him, fingers fumbling through the darkness for him - and Shane hovers over him, planting a knee into the mattress by Ryan’s hip to clamber over him, and to press his lips into a too-gentle, too-apologetic kiss against the flushed patch of skin that’s raised and red from his bite.

 

“Fuuuck you.” Ryan hisses.

 

“You’re so darn impatient.” Shane murmurs, his words breathed into the column of Ryan’s throat. “Be patient for once. We don’t have to rush absolutely everything. Not ghost hunting, not sex.”

 

“What, you want to wine and dine me a little harder before you fuck me?”

 

Shane shudders over him, his hips lower until they’re pressed flush to Ryan’s. A slow exhale of pure relief pours through him at the pressure, and his hips roll upwards, desperate to alleviate the ache in his groin.

 

“Don’t give me that southern-gentleman shit.” He hisses, and Shane’s hips hitch against his own, they rove forwards, and a greedy palm smooths up Ryan’s side, closing over the cusp of his pectoral, sweeping against his chest to settle at the base of his throat. It squeezes, and stars pop against the edges of Ryan’s vision. His head tips back against the twisted-up bedsheets, and he gasps.

 

“Fuck, Ryan-...” Shane draws back, his palms glide down the cusp of Ryan’s chest, toward the lip of his jeans, where long fingers fumble with the buckle of his belt while Ryan can only stare, slack-jawed, up at him.

 

His hair is a mess. There’s a flush to his cheeks that’s descended down toward the top of his chest where it blooms; vibrant and indecent. His arousal is plain against the front of his jeans, pressing forwards against the seam of his fly with a kind of urgency that makes Ryan’s mouth water.

 

His jeans are undone, and Shane’s fingers peel back the waistband of his underwear. His length tumbles unceremoniously free, hard and straining - a thick line of warmth against his over-heated flesh.

 

His head tips back, another short gasp is pulled from him. His hips strain upwards, and for a moment - Shane only looks at him, slack-jawed and something close to awestruck. Careful fingers crawl forwards to curl around the base of his length, and Ryan turns his head aside to bite back a quiet moan.

 

Pleasure coarses through him, slipping through his veins with a kind of vibrant insistence, settling at the base of his length, shuddering between his parted thighs, coiling low, low in his stomach. He jerks, and he jolts as Shane’s thumb drifts across the flared head of his length, and he shoots a hand out to grasp hold of his wrist.

 

“Fuck-.. I’m gonna-... I can’t, if you keep doing that, I’m not going to-..”

 

Shane nods in quiet understanding. His fingers trawl back to tug at Ryan’s jeans, to pull them down- along with his underwear -- and peel them from his legs. He tosses them aside, uncaring about where exactly they land. He folds over him again, pressing his elbow into the pillow by Ryan’s head, and he brushes a kiss into the cusp of his forehead, where his hair is clinging to his flesh; damp with sweat.

 

“Ryan.” He starts, voice low, layered with something he can’t quite name. “I want to-... I want to make sure you’re-... you’re comfortable, I just-...”

 

“Are you honestly asking for permission to fuck me?” Ryan asks, breathless, turned on, but too affronted to care for how he sounds.

 

Shane huffs out a laugh. “I didn’t want to assume--”

 

“Assume. Fuck me.” Ryan hisses. “I’ve wanted this for too fucking long for you to be holding out on me right now.”

 

Shane’s left hand lifts from his skin. He reaches over for the nightstand, and fumbles opening the first drawer. He reaches in to procure a stout bottle of lube that’s only half-full. Ryan makes a mental note to ask about that later, but for now - the implications of what that will be used for are too thrilling for him to care what Shane’s been doing in this room with his bottle of lube.

 

He shifts beneath him, Shane eases off him just enough to set a hand against his hip. Slowly, Ryan parts his thighs, spreading them against the soft duvet while Shane peers down at him, hooded eyes barely visible in the half-dark; pupils blown wide against the backdrop of brown that made up his irises, cheeks still flushed a deep-dark pink as he twists the cap from the bottle.

 

“Have you done this before?” He asks Ryan, quietly.

 

He considers lying.

 

“No.” He’s honest, in the end. “Never.”

 

“Have you been with a guy before?”

 

Again, he considers lying.

 

Ryan.” Shane breathes, reading his expression.

 

“It just never-... never happened, y’know? Would you stop looking at me like that?”

 

It’s an expression he can’t read; one that’s deeply conflicted, a mix between trepidation and unbridled want. A look that makes Ryan think Shane might think twice about this, and he can’t wait any longer.

 

“It’s hard for me to believe.” He reaches out, and his fingers skim along the cusp of Ryan’s length, stroking him slowly, drifting under the brush of his over-warm fingertips, roving with far too much patience. His hips hitch forwards, rolling upwards, shallowly fucking the thin ring of Shane’s careful fingers.

 

“Fuck.” He bites out, and his hand withdraws. He tips the bottle into his palm, and spreads a liberal amount of lubricant onto the tips of his fingers. The bottle is cast aside, tossed onto one of the other pillows as Shane reaches down to slot his thumb against the curve of Ryan’s thigh.

 

“It’ll feel cold.” He warns, softly.

 

Ryan braces himself. He feels two fingers skim over his entrance. He jerks instinctively, and sinks his teeth into the plush bow of his lower lip as he feels Shane’s index finger gently prod for entry.

 

“Relax.” He murmurs, voice reassuring, gentle, uttered in a whisper by the shell of his ear. He does his best to do as he’s told.  

 

That finger sinks into him. Ryan lets go of his lower lip. He breathes out a shuddering sigh. He swallows, throat bobbing with the motion, as that finger slips deeper, and deeper-- it twists and slowly withdraws, bringing no pain; only the strange and thrilling sensation that something isn’t where it should be.

 

He’s done this before, with his fingers, with a sex toy given to him as a gag gift by a friend (that he’d thrown away the following morning just because the fear of having it accidentally discovered was too great for him to bare), but it feels irrevocably different when it’s somebody else’s touch.

 

A second finger joins the first, and Ryan’s breath hitches. Shane’s free hand curls around the base of his flagging length, offering an encouraging squeeze, and a slow but lurid stroke while he shallowly fucks him until Ryan’s hips are pressing down and back into the slick press of his careful fingers.

 

“One more.”

 

“C’mon, big guy.” He goads, voice soft, broken, shuddering; cutting through his faux show of bravado with ease.

 

“Slow it down, Bergara.”

 

It brings a smile to his lips, a quiet peal of laughter, a grin that encompasses his features, contagious enough for Shane to reflect it back at him as a third finger sinks into him, this time -- with a dull ache upon its heels. His smile falters, and a shallow intake of air is hissed through his teeth. Shane’s fingers curl around the base of his length with an appreciative squeeze.

 

“You’re doing good.” He offers, reassurance gentle, but earnest. “Doin’ good, Ryan. Doin’ so good.”

 

He squirms against the sheets, his fingers knot within the blankets beneath him, rumpling them, knotting them. He reaches out for Shane, folding a knee against the back of his thigh, skimming his fingertips across coarse denim, wanting him closer, closer, closer.

 

Those fingers slither out of him, and a full-bodied shudder skirts through Ryan’s frame. They gleam in the moonlight, illuminated by the spread lubricant that coats the first three fingers on his right hand as he fumbles with his belt buckle, struggling to feed leather through brass as he unbuckles it until the denim of his jeans sits precariously low upon his narrow hips. His thumbs dive beneath the fabric, and his length tumbles free. He’s hard, and wet and heavy; flushed a deep red, and bigger than Ryan had anticipated.

 

For a moment, he’s struck dumb, breathless, silent - still struggling to believe that this is real, that it’s happening, that he’s here with Shane.

 

That heavy, hooded gaze remains on him as he retrieves the bottle a second time, and upends it to pour more of the slick stuff onto his fingertips, spreading it with his thumb before lowering his hand to his length to coat himself with it. Ryan watches, mouth feeling abruptly dry, half-blind with anticipation and only half-sure he can take all of him.

 

“We’ll go slow.” Shane says, as if he can hear his thoughts.

 

“You’re gonna have to, big guy.” Ryan breathes, aware of the double meaning that nickname now has.

 

Shane’s grin is wry as he reaches out to settle a hand against the back of Ryan’s thigh. He urges it back, pressing his legs apart as he settles more comfortably between them.

 

“Don’t forget to breathe.” He warns him. “You look good like this, by the way.”

 

His arm shifts as he strokes himself, a sight Ryan thinks he could get drunk off.

 

“Terrified?”

 

“No.” The flushed tip of Shane’s length skims against his entrance. His hips press slowly forwards, and Ryan’s head tips back against the bedsheets.

 

His fingers ball into a small fist against the duvet. He bites into the inside of his cheek. A dull ache rockets through him, splintering outwards, sharp and insistent, invasive and unpleasant. Shane sinks into him slowly. He feels himself stretch, he feels himself struggle just to accomodate him.

 

“Fuck, fuck fuckfuckfuck..”

 

“Taking my cock.” Shane says, voice measured and slow, something else for Ryan to focus on aside from the roar of his own heartbeat, and the sizzle of pain slipping through him. “..-with your legs spread so wide.”

 

“Ahhff--!” He arches off the mattress.

 

Shane’s hips press forwards, insistent, unforgiving, slow-- until he feels the scrape of denim press flush against the curve of his backside. The thatched zipper of Shane’s jeans catches against his flesh, cold and biting. It serves as a distraction from the pain.

 

A hand rubs soothingly at his flank, as if he’s a startled animal; and Shane looms over him - mouth dropped in a loose ‘o’, eyes only half-open, while the muscles in his stomach flutter against his skin, visibly fighting the urge to move.

 

“God-.. fuck. Shane-... fuck. Fuck you.”

 

A short laugh stutters from him, and he folds forwards, looming over Ryan’s smaller frame.

 

“Hold still.” He tells him, earnestly. “It’ll get easier.”

 

He does, and the pain slowly begins to ebb away. He listens to the slow drag of Shane’s breathing, huffed by the shell of his ear. He focuses on his warmth, bleeding through him from where they are joined - on how wonderful it feels just to be like this, to be so full of him, to be in this place he’s imagined, he’s fantasised about so many times.

 

The reality is absolutely nothing like his imagination had painted it to be. It’s a hundred thousand times better.

 

Shane’s hips roll forwards, carefully, temptingly.

 

A quiet shudder skirts through Ryan.

 

A hand presses down against his waist, notched beneath the shallow dip of his hipbone.

 

“You’ve got-..” He rolls his hips again. Ryan’s world spins. “...-no idea how fucking good you feel, Ryan.”

 

“You’re too fucking big, dude.”

 

“Am I hurting you?”

 

“No, I just-...”

 

Shane’s hips stutter forwards, jostling Ryan against the bed.

 

“Fuck--!”

 

A sharp surge of something sweeps through him. It isn’t quite pleasure. It isn’t quite pain. It’s something he can’t adequately name. Something that makes his vision swim, and his stomach bottom out. The hand upon his hip presses down, and Shane’s hips begin to move, drifting forwards and sinking backwards again; setting a gentle, and forgiving rhythm while the last of the pain ebbs away from him.

 

Ryan is still hard. His length is curved and damp with pre, settled below his stomach; forgotten for now, high off the feeling of Shane inside him, turned on just by his warmth, by being this intimately wrapped up in his scent, in his bedsheets, in his bedroom.

 

He’s lost in it, and he reaches up with a steady hand to plant a firm palm against Shane’s headboard. He uses it to press downwards, to push himself back down and onto Shane’s length in a movement that elicits a surprised gasp from the man looming over him.

 

“Ryan-- shit.”

 

His hips hitch forwards, his fingers grip Ryan’s hip firmly, and he begins to fuck him. It’s earnest, almost-punishing, sharp and eager. The springs on the bed beneath them begin to creak. The headboard rocks forwards with each press of Shane’s hips, only to sweep back to slam into the wall above them. The lurid slap-slap-slap of skin-on-skin fills the room, and Ryan’s broken gasps and muffled cries offer some quiet accompaniment. Pleasure soars through him with every press of Shane’s hips. It peaks and swells, settling low in his stomach, spiralling eagerly outwards, a sharp thrill that rides between the insides of his spread thighs, and ripples decadently outwards.

 

Shane claims his lips in a demanding and sloppy kiss that’s all teeth and tongue. His arm sweeps along the sway of Ryan’s spine to pull him closer , until they are all skin-on-skin, damp and sweaty and intertwined. It’s dizzying and wonderful, it’s wanton and messy; pleasure and flesh and the gossamer moonlight peeking in at them while Shane fucks him.

 

He’s lost in it, in this strange brand of pleasure that feels like no other sex he’s ever had, with Shane hunched over him with an open palm balanced against the headboard, while his other remains gripped tightly beneath the sway of Ryan’s spine. His teeth sink into the firm muscle leading along the slender column of Ryan’s throat, biting marks into his skin as if he never wants Ryan to forget that he’s his.

 

“Shane, Shane--... I’m gonna-- I-I--”

 

“You gonna cum?” He asks, tone almost challenging, gravelly and harsh and uttered into the damp curve of Ryan’s throat, riddled with budding bruises. “Go on, show me. Show me.”

 

He draws back, looming over Ryan still, with his hand braced against the headboard, and his hair hanging forwards against his brow, guiding Ryan onto his cock again and again and again .

 

It feels too good. It’s mounting and mounting, and that coil pulled low in his stomach is sweeping tighter and tighter. It ripples through him, sharp and urgent, it pulls him as taut as a harp-string until he’s trembling, shuddering, shaking against Shane’s rumpled pillows. His free hand curves around the cusp of his length as a dull thrill of pleasure settles at his base. His other curls at the nape of Shane’s neck, and sweeps downwards, over his chest, settling palm-down against his pectoral, until he can feel the quiet beat of his heart.

 

It’s racing just as quickly as Ryan’s.

 

It crashes over him with the suddenness of the first wave before high tide. It’s sharp and thrilling and dizzying in a way he won’t ever be able to name. It rockets through him, until his hips stutter, and his body shakes.

 

He comes in a white-hot rush; onto his curled fingers, onto Shane’s chest, onto the open fly of his jeans, onto his pristine bedsheets- he comes undone in a mess that cascades all over him, voice caught in his throat, breath tumbling in harsh and sudden staccato gasps, his heart is racing, and it’s stuck; gated past his lips like everything else.

 

I love you.

 

Shane lurches forwards, his lips find Ryan’s; and it’s earnest and sloppy.

 

“You’re beautiful.” It’s murmured into the corner of his lips as Shane fucks into his spent body, “You’re so fucking beautiful, Ryan. You’re everything--”

 

Shane’s breath hitches, it catches, his fingers curl against the nape of Ryan’s neck, his hips stutter, his body trembles, pulls taut; and Ryan reaches out for him, winding his arms loosely around Shane’s broad shoulders, pulling him close as he sheaths himself inside him, as his release fills the parts of Ryan that his length cannot reach; hot and wonderful.

 

His breaths catch, and falter; laboured and murmured into Ryan’s ear.

 

He wants to tell him. It burns at his tongue, at his chest -- it’s there and it’s so profound.

 

But, he holds it back, and loses himself to another kiss when Shane claims it.

 

* * * *

It’s impossible to hide by morning.

 

They arrive at work together, with Ryan dressed in one of Shane’s shirts, and the same pair of jeans he’d worn to his house the night before. There’s a trail of dark bruises down the column of his throat, and a distinctly tired look to his eyes. He moves stiffly, and rigidly - it hurts ever so slightly when he sits down, and he feels as if he’s just had the workout of a lifetime the night before, and his muscles are still sore in the aftermath.

 

There’s no denying the satisfied gleam to his eyes. The self-assured smile that’s plastered across Shane’s lips, the peppered bruises over his thighs and his hips, or how they seem to orbit one another for the entirety of the day. It feels like gravity is no longer what ties Ryan to the earth, but Shane.

 

Devon’s smile is incredulous and disbelieving. TJ’s glances are knowing and earnest, with raised eyebrows and faint head-shakes. Mark watches them through narrowed eyes, but his features are difficult to discern in most situations. He looks nonplussed.

 

Steven and Andrew set a framed and blown-up version of their moment in the cottage on Shane’s desk; who laughs and takes it in stride, proudly proclaiming that he intends to hang it up within his living room.

 

* * * *

 

They’re working late. It’s Thursday. Their next episode is due to go live in just a handful of hours. They should’ve gone home hours ago, but Ryan isn’t finished editing his final touches, and Shane lingers beside him to offer his aid; editing a soundbite here, fixing the opacity on a graphic there, doing menial and simple tasks just so that Ryan can make it home a little earlier.

 

“You never used to do this.” Ryan says, with one headphone propped off his left ear. “If I knew that all I had to do to get you to help me edit this shit was have sex with you, I might’ve done it sooner.”

 

“You make me sound like some kind of video-editing gigalo.” Shane mutters back, with a beanie pulled down over his mussed hair.

 

“Do you mean to tell me that’s not true?” Ryan asks without looking up.

 

“No. If you want me to start inserting all of my jazzy special effects, you’re gonna have to break out the real freaky shit, Bergara.”

 

“What’s that, then?”

 

“Cameras in the bedroom, bondage with reels of video tape for ropes, I need you to tell me ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ any time I do something wrong, boss me around, y’know. Standard stuff.”

 

Ryan laughs, lifting a hand to his lips to stifle the sound, even though they’re the only ones left in the office.

 

“I don’t know why you’re laughing. I’m entirely serious.” Shane says, drawing back from his desk to shoot Ryan a sidelong grin.

 

“You’re an insane person.” Ryan tells him, reaching up to slide his headphones off.

 

“Yeah, but you put up with me. I’m still not entirely sure why.”

 

He reaches out with careful fingertips to sweep a stray curl of dark hair from Ryan’s brow.

 

It’s another one of those moments where his heart stutters, where it feels full, where he feels as though he might explode - like he had in the back of the Uber, outside his car in the rain, like he had every time they’d ever visited an airport, and been stuck for an hours-long layover.

 

But, this time he doesn’t hold it back.

 

“I love you.”

 

It’s a whisper, a half-murmured exhale, an admission that feels too heavy to contain. Uttering it feels euphoric. It's liberating. It's freeing. It's like confessing the single biggest secret he's ever kept. Like taking in a breath of fresh air, like shucking a great weight from his shoulders.

 

Shane’s smile is wide, and unabashed. It encompasses his features, it softens his edges, it engulfs him. He leans forwards, sliding toward Ryan on his chair until their knees bump against one another. He kisses him, chaste and soft; and his admission is murmured into the corner of Ryan’s lips.

 

“I love you. I’m in love with you. I don’t know how to be anything else.”

 

* * * *

 

He wonders often if it’s meant to feel this easy, if this progression is meant to feel so natural and intended. He wonders if this was the universe’s plan for them all along, or if the witch that had once owned that cottage in the woods had placed some spell on them; a spell that made Ryan turn into a blundering cesspool of emotions, and Shane as the only stagnant being left in his life that would ever be able to steady him.

 

Their colleagues find out over time; but Shane and Ryan stop trying to hide it after a week. Their brushes are less friendly, and more nuanced, fingers joined before meetings, lunches taken together, a reassuring hand set upon a knee, a gentle kiss to the cheek, a stolen reprieve in the dark corner of the break room, a bite mark, a bruise, a hickey here or there; somewhere obvious where others will see while Ryan slowly begins to realise that Shane has a real thing for marking him.

 

They don’t share everything, but they share enough. There are some secrets that Ryan still wants to keep, and what happens in the dark, after work is over, is always going to be something that’s only for the two of them.

 

Nobody else has to know what it’s like when they collide.