“C’mon, Ronan.” His voice cracked and his eyes burned but he didn’t let go of Ronan’s shoulder.
He was coming apart at the seams, torn asunder by desperation and a sadness that cut so deep Gansey felt like he couldn’t breathe.
Ronan stood in the doorway of his room, his face turned away. Gansey stared at the pale curve of his neck, his shorn scalp that looked almost painful and raw, barely enough stubble left behind to hint at his hair color. Gansey didn’t know what to do with this Ronan, didn’t know how to handle his sharp edges, especially now.
“Promise me,” Gansey begged, fingers digging into Ronan’s shirt. “Promise me you won’t do that again.” When Ronan remained silent Gansey cursed and tugged hard at him, pulling him around and shoving him back against the door. He muscled into Ronan’s space, so close that there was no way for Ronan to avoid looking at him any longer.
Ronan’s blue eyes were downcast, looking bruised from lack of sleep. His skin was stretched too tight over the bones of his face. He was almost unrecognizable from the Ronan Gansey had met almost a year ago. It was clear, looking at him now, that in the interminable months after Niall’s murder Gansey had lost his best friend. Grief and anger and estrangement and exile had twisted him into this scrawny, surly, embattled boy who no longer cared to live. Gone was the happy smile, the singing, the curly hair, the infectious joie de vivre. This Ronan looked gutted, like a haunted house. Gansey wondered how it could have all gone so wrong, so fast.
There had been nights when Gansey had stayed up with Ronan, drinking with him while Ronan’s mood spiraled, keeping an eye on his friend. These nights were followed by ones where Ronan disappeared for hours and hours, coming back bleary-eyed smelling of smoke and gasoline. Gansey had done his research, had queried adult acquaintances, but nothing he tried could fill the void in Ronan. He had preached patience and restraint, had tried distractions and diversions, but that only got him so far and he had been operating with incomplete information. He had never known that Ronan wanted to die.
Ronan slumped against the door and against Gansey, his forehead resting on Gansey’s shoulder.
“I promise.” His voice was low, rough and hoarse. “I promise, Gansey.”
Gansey swallowed hard, relief coursing through him. He moved his hand from Ronan’s shoulder to the back of his neck, fingertips brushing over the prickly stubble. Ronan shivered, tilting his face towards Gansey’s neck. When Gansey spoke his lips were next to Ronan’s ear. “Good,” he said, and squeezed Ronan’s neck. His other hand drifted down to Ronan’s elbow, his thumb rubbing against the crease of Ronan’s arm. “That’s good, Ronan.”
He felt Ronan tremble, felt him go limp in his arms. It was a full body surrender that left Gansey grappling with his friend, hauling him up and towards the bed in the middle of the room. Ronan fell in a graceless heap on the mattress, legs hanging off the side of the bed, bandaged arms sprawled over the rumpled sheets. His eyes were closed, his face half buried in Gansey’s pillow. In all their days and nights at Monmouth Ronan had never even sat on Gansey’s bed; it was a shock for Gansey to see him like this, all barriers down, tired and beaten.
Gansey knelt at Ronan’s feet, unlacing and taking off his boots before grabbing his ankles and pulling Ronan’s legs onto the mattress. Ronan made a soft noise but did nothing to help. Gansey toed off his boat shoes and settled on the other side of the bed, his gaze fixed on Ronan’s bandaged forearms. He remembered too well the mess beneath the white gauze.
“Does it hurt?” Gansey whispered, his head resting on a pillow next to Ronan’s.
Ronan opened his eyes to weary slits, his forehead furrowed. “Yeah.” He shifted closer, his knees touching Gansey’s. “Are you okay?”
Gansey almost laughed. Of course he wasn’t okay but he couldn’t tell Ronan that. He needed to find a way to fix this, to fix Ronan.
“Don’t worry about me,” Gansey said. He reached over and pulled the covers up around Ronan’s shoulders. “You should get some sleep, if you can.”
Ronan blinked sleepily. They had given him pain meds at the hospital and Gansey hoped they would coax Ronan into resting. “I don’t want to sleep,” Ronan protested, a yawn swallowing most of his words, “…nightmares…”
“It’s okay,” Gansey murmured. He wanted to pull Ronan to him, hold him until he fell asleep. “If you have a bad dream I’ll be right here.” Ronan’s eyelids fluttered closed and his hands twitched. “I won’t leave you,” Gansey promised, too soft for Ronan to hear.
Gansey didn’t sleep the entire night. Every time Ronan cried out he was there to help sooth him back to sleep. Each time it hurt, knowing that Ronan was suffering on the inside and he was powerless to help.
Noah didn’t mention the incident and he never said anything about the fact that more often than not Ronan slept in Gansey’s bed. The three of them lived with a host of unacknowledged issues and Monmouth felt crowded with the things left unsaid.
Ronan found that racing was the one thing that let him breathe. He let go of everything, living in the heady anticipation of the light change, in the barely controlled charge forward, in the whines and growls of the engines. His nightmares and fears couldn’t catch him on the asphalt.
When he dragged himself back to Monmouth he found a chilly reception, Gansey pacing down the main street of his Henrietta replica, lower lip caught between his teeth. He was wearing his Aglionby crew t-shirt, the fabric stretched taut over his arms and chest. His bare feet padded across the floor as he made his way around the cardboard buildings to Ronan.
Gansey moved in close, glaring up at Ronan through his glasses. His hair was messy, his lower lip red from anxious biting. The words Ronan wanted to say felt like blocks in his mouth. The things he wanted to do felt just as impossible. Something like pain throbbed through him and he swallowed around the feeling.
“It’s three in the morning,” Gansey said, his voice low and tight. He crossed his arms over his chest but not before Ronan saw the minute tremor in his hands.
Ronan knew what he should say but he couldn’t. It was driving him crazy, Gansey’s doting and his own frantic neediness that was morphing into something more.
Monmouth was silent around them, dark in the corners and up in the rafters. It felt both claustrophobic and comforting, standing in the circle of light with Gansey. The two of them against the world. God, he’d do anything for Gansey.
“Just…” Gansey waved a hand between them, his expression naked and wretched. “Take your phone, Ronan, please. If anything happened to you I couldn’t…”
This was the part where he should agree or he should bitch about phones. Instead he stepped closer to Gansey and asked, “You couldn’t what, Gansey?”
His pulse was hammering hard in his veins, his hands balled into fists to keep himself from reaching out. When had this happened? When had he let himself get so tangled up with Gansey that he couldn’t imagine a life without him? It hurt to hear him talk to anyone else, to see him smiling at all those Aglionby boys and professors. It hurt to stand there, broken and wanting, in front of perfect, unblemished Gansey.
Gansey looked like he was on the verge of shattering, his teeth clamped down on his lip, his eyes bright and pained. His throat worked as he swallowed. His hand curled into a fist and he was shaking, like he was cold or wired or…
“I couldn’t live with myself!” Gansey said, his voice raised and nearly hysterical. His lower lip was bloody. “Every time,” he continued, “every time you go off in the middle of the night I worry, Ronan. I think, ‘What if he gets in a wreck? What if he gets hurt? What if he never comes back? What if I could have saved you and I didn’t?’” His fist came up and knocked against Ronan’s chest, over his heart. “It would destroy me, Ronan.”
Ronan suddenly had a vision of Gansey here in Monmouth, alone. Gansey hunched over his books, driving his car, walking to class… without him. But not alone, not truly; after all there was Noah and Adam. Gansey still had his sister and parents.
“Don’t,” Ronan snarled. It felt like ripping his heart out as he pushed Gansey away from him. “Don’t fucking talk like that when you have everything.”
Gansey stumbled back, tripping over a stack of boxes and landing with a crunch on one of his cardboard houses. For a suspended moment they stared at each other, too surprised to move. Gansey looked down at the wrecked building like he couldn’t understand how he got there.
Reality caught up with Ronan then. And the reality was the awful truth that he had pushed Gansey down. Gansey, the person he cared for above all others. He dropped down in front of him, reaching to help him up.
“Christ, Gansey,” Ronan said, the words tumbling out, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Are you alright?”
Gansey wouldn’t look at him, his face downturned as he shook his head back and forth, back and forth.
With all the gentleness he could muster, Ronan lifted Gansey’s head and found that he was crying. Silent tears streamed down Gansey’s flushed cheeks and Ronan felt undone. Absolutely undone. He pushed Gansey’s hair off his forehead, tried wiping the tears away with his thumbs. Gansey caught his wrist, fingertips trailing over the new, pink scars, before bringing Ronan’s wrist to his mouth. Gansey’s lips were soft on his skin and warm tears followed, trickling down the scarred surface of Ronan’s arm.
Ronan couldn’t breathe. Gansey’s eyes were closed and his mouth was pressed to Ronan’s wrist like he was a penitent come to worship at the feet of his saint. Which was all wrong. Ronan was no saint; it was Gansey who sacrificed and cared and gave and gave and gave.
Ronan leaned in and kissed the back of Gansey’s hand. It felt right, like offering his allegiance, like offering his heart. He had decided months ago, when he had first met Gansey, that he would follow him anywhere, would do anything for him. Now Gansey was calling in that unspoken vow, asking him to save himself, to stop hurting himself. He couldn’t give Gansey the truth of his nightmares, but he would try in all other ways to be better. For Gansey.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, the words whispered onto Gansey’s knuckles.
He felt a peculiar, unrelenting desire to bite down on Gansey’s knuckles, to suck his fingers into his mouth and… Ronan blinked and swallowed back the saliva pooling in his mouth. What was wrong with him?
“Ronan.” Gansey cupped the back of his neck, carefully easing forward until their foreheads touched. Ronan could smell the mint on Gansey’s breath, could almost taste it in his mouth. Gansey had stopped crying and his eyes were glassy and wide, and he looking at Ronan with boundless affection. “Ronan,” he said again, and then he kissed him.
For a time Ronan lost himself in the sweet, new sensations of kissing Gansey and being kissed in return. It unfolded with surprisingly easy intimacy, the two of them sprawled on Gansey’s collapsed house, bodies pressed together, hands finding new places to touch and explore, lips locked together or gliding over skin. Ronan kissed Gansey’s jaw, one hand at Gansey’s waist, the other buried in his hair. He shivered as Gansey’s hands pushed under his shirt and over his back. With every kiss and touch Ronan thought, deliriously, I’m yours I’m yours see how I’m yours see see see.
“I’ll be good, I promise,” Ronan murmured against Gansey’s hair. “I promise, Gansey.”
Gansey’s smile was so wide that Ronan could feel it as Gansey’s mouth pressed kisses to his throat.
It was surrender, putting his entire self in Gansey’s hands. It was what he wanted, what Gansey wanted. What wouldn’t he do for Gansey?
Is that all?
That’s all there is.
He listened to the words again and again, wondering. His voice on St. Mark’s Eve meant something, something he wasn’t willing to put into words. The end.
Ronan was curled up on the bed, the lines of his magnificent tattoo revealing a new scene: more flowers, less thorns. Gansey thought about tracing the lines, following the graceful curves over Ronan’s shoulders, up his neck, down his spine. He thought about kissing Ronan and holding him close. After the last couple days he needed it, the comfort of losing himself in Ronan, in feeling alive and safe.
But there was a new addition to their household, an improbable baby raven with a cry loud enough to wake the dead. Currently she was asleep on a nest of towels, nestled in the protective circle of Ronan’s arms. Gansey didn’t dare do anything that would rouse Chainsaw, which meant that he could do nothing to wake Ronan either.
The night passed slowly and Gansey rubbed at his tired eyes. He was thinking about the death card and the psychics, about what they had said to Adam and Ronan. Things were starting, changing, and he had to change as well. The thing he and Ronan had started – been propelled into – it couldn’t last. It was a temporary stopgap at best and Gansey knew, in order to protect Ronan from what would inevitably happen, he had to put a gentle end to it. He couldn’t let Ronan get even more attached to him; he couldn’t be the only link binding Ronan to life. If he died… well, Ronan needed to able to move on, not fall into the darkness that had taken him after Niall.
Ronan shifted in his sleep, his arm reaching across the bed. The scars had faded from dark pink to a lighter shade though they were still vivid against his pale skin. Gansey touched his fingertips to Ronan’s, smiling a little when Ronan’s fingers curled reflexively around his.
Tomorrow, he would tell Ronan tomorrow.
“So that’s it, then,” Ronan said. He was feeding Chainsaw, his attention focused on the bird. It was an easy excuse not to meet Gansey’s eyes.
After months of finding comfort with Gansey, something that Ronan had never dreamed possible, he wasn’t ready for it to end. They had never put a name to what they shared and even now Ronan couldn’t think of what they were. Best friends, always. Best friends that kissed and often shared the same bed? Ronan didn’t know how he was going to be okay without that, not being able to fall into Gansey when he needed him, to not fall asleep with his cheek resting on Gansey’s stomach or chest or thigh.
“It’ll be like before,” Gansey lied.
“Right.” Ronan filled the stopper with food and placed it in Chainsaw’s greedy beak. “This little shit needs her own space, anyways.” He glanced up and saw Gansey’s nose wrinkled in distaste as Chainsaw gobbled down her food.
“I did say I didn’t want to raise a child with you.” Gansey’s voice was faint, the attempt at humor falling flat.
Ronan didn’t bother to fake a smile for Gansey. There was no point in being anything other than honest.
“This sucks.” He stroked Chainsaw’s feathers. The raven blinked up at him, her beak hanging open. She needed him; even if Gansey was letting him go he had to stick it out for her.
“Ronan.” Gansey touched his bare shoulder, the weight and warmth of his hand familiar and reassuring. “I’m still here for you, I always will be. Just… not like that, not anymore.”
Ronan stiffened, not allowing himself to lean back against Gansey. It was over. He stood and Gansey’s hand fell away, lightly trailing down his back. Ronan grabbed his shirt from the mess of blankets and tossed it across his shoulders.
“I’ll be in my room,” he said, not looking back as he walked away. “It’s off limits, remember? No more coming in there.”
He heard Gansey sigh before replying, quietly, “I remember.”
Ronan pulled the door shut behind him and leaned against it. His heart had withstood a fuckton of emotional trauma in the last eighteen months; it wasn’t fair that it should still hurt, that he should still feel this intensely.
Chainsaw squawked and Ronan held her close, over his wounded heart.
“It’s okay,” Ronan murmured. His heart felt like it was being pulled apart, muscles straining until they tore. He leaned down and nuzzled the top of Chainsaw’s fuzzy head. “We’ll be okay.”
It wasn’t a lie. Ronan wouldn’t let it be.