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don't know anything (except that green is so green)

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Homecomings hadn't felt like this before the Barns.

In their old meanings, dust-covered and tip-toeing, coming home meant claustrophobia at a dead-end street, twin blank faces behind shuttered blinds, the smallness of deciding whether or not to leave the transient safety of a bedroom for dinner.

In the new one, they were this: blue flowers bow-tied around roots leading to trees leading to canopies opening up to the sky. They whistled with windows-down driving into the setting sun, with the radio reaching into the rolling fields on either side, songs dampened by a fog blanketed between the hills to be held there until morning. Adam was familiar with that fog, with waking up to the sight of it, how the slow departure of it looked when it burned off in the sun.

As he drove, Adam chose to redefine the word: homecoming was unlocking a door when once it had meant shutting it, and the light it let in overtook the old meaning entirely.

The speedometer exceeded the speed limit by ten, just a mile out now. Adam felt alive. Awake. All around him unfolded scenery pulled right out of a memory but he was living it, he was here, he'd made it.

"You can make it," he assured his gearshift, it being too busy crunching its own insides to tell him to screw himself, but he made sure to shift into the next gear with a gentler hand than the past hundred miles. They'd come this far, the pair of them — he wasn't about to let it give up the ghost.

He could have checked himself, though, when he rounded the corner into the driveway. He'd apologize to Ronan for skidding gravel into the shrubbery later.

Cozied next to the charcoal BMW, still sleek and dreamy as ever, his usual spot had been left empty in his absence. Adam let the engine roll off, his car's dim headlights flickering dead, leaving only the brightly lit porch of the farmhouse to illuminate the driveway.

He left the light on for me, Adam realized. He wasn't expected until hours from now, but Ronan had switched it on just in case.

The driver's door shut with a kick from Adam's foot, and the air swallowed the sound with nothing to echo it back. Without retrieving anything, he took in the steadying feel of the farm: the buzzing sound of bugs hovering around the porch light; the black-blue horizon fuzzing against fields of gold; the stretch of remote space in every direction. He breathed, tapping his fingers on the frame of his tri-colored car, looking from the farmhouse, which was quiet and seemed to hold no sign of bustle, then to the fields — where, from the corner of his eye, he spotted movement in the distance.

It — was it? — it was.

A figure, emerging from the treeline and blurry in the dusk, bounded towards him. Nimbly crunching underbrush, hooved and skull-capped, all the markings of something to brace for — Adam knelt just in time for Opal to throw her arms around his shoulders.

"Hi," he said, his lungs punched of breath.

She made a noise not made of words but of windy helplessness, and Adam helplessly hugged her back. Twigs poked into his side from her messy sweater but he just held her, missing her, even with her mystery smell of wilderness and wet leaves.

"You are late," Opal accused into his shirt.

Adam double-checked his no-longer-shabby watch over her shoulder. "I'm two hours early," he said. He was sure he'd texted Ronan his estimated time: Last midterm. Driving after. Love you.

"Late," she insisted, retreating from his arms. As a greeting gift, she pulled a twig out of the fibers of her sleeve and tucked it behind Adam's ear like one would with a flower.

"Thank you," he said, patting the stick to make sure it was steady, and rose to standing height.

He was tasked with finding the gaps in her speech, missed words or ideas here or there. Whereas late usually meant a timespan of minutes or hours, Adam suspected Opal's sense of lateness stretched into days or months. Late was any time he wasn't at the Barns. Yesterday would have been closer to when she'd wanted him here.

"I heard you. It was making dying sounds," Opal said, eyeing Adam's car, and he followed her eyes, taking stock of it. Chassis still clicking with burning-off heat, bumper loose and windshield bug-splattered, his wheezing high-maintenance machine withered in the driveway, a sighing feat of a long road travelled.

People could joke about how drivers resembled their cars, but God, he was proud of his.

Opal mimicked the ratcheting grinding the gearbox made when shifting into park, baring her teeth. It wasn't a humanly possible noise to make — Adam's senses sung with the extraordinary, with being at the Barns again, with standing before a dream creature altogether weird and fierce and familiar.

"At least it made it," Adam replied, scratching the back of his neck. "Ronan helped to fix it before I left."

"Shitbox cure?" she asked.

Adam blinked. He wondered if she was supposed to say that, but the nickname had stuck. "Yeah. That one. Is, uh, is Ronan inside?" he asked, nodding to the farmhouse. It was strange he hadn't come out yet.

Opal made a face. Before Adam had any semblance of bearings, she took his hand and tugged — not hard, just enough to lead him, the stick behind his ear clattering to the ground. "Whoa, hey," he tried, but she trudged forth, purposeful, aiming past the house and into the fields. Adam allowed himself to be led. "Opal, where are we going?"

After beginning with an incomprehensible string of words, then half a word in Latin, she settled on, "The long barn. I'm not allowed."

"Is he dreaming?"

She had slowed some, urgency quelled, but still linked a finger with his. She shook her head. "No. Banging on things. Lots of noise, like breaking."

Nerves paused Adam's heartbeat, then kicked it a little quicker. Breaking things was standard Ronan-fare, but timing it around Adam's coming home was a coin-flip between good and grief.

They walked while movement skittered in the brush — Ronan's dream animals pawed for grain or inspected ankles or veered away from the pair of two-legged figures on the path. Adam recognized some of the creatures: two white rabbits, ears too floppy for their bodies; a badger with zig-zag markings down its back; a few black-tailed does that were among Ronan's favorites. He didn't see the pale buck, but the fields were vast and expansive and he had time to look for it.

Opal had gone quiet. She'd taken her hand back, tucked it around herself. Like any person, she spoke mostly with body language, and Adam knew what retreat looked like better than most.

Words swirled in his head, guesswork. He wondered what he could say, what she needed to hear, after being away from the Barns for so long. Asking her how she'd been or what she'd been up to were bases for phone calls to touch on.

She dawdled to walk behind him, and when Adam looked, her arms were lifted in a tightrope act, and she concentrated on stepping her hooves in his footsteps. Imprints of bent and cracked grass that were once foot-shaped now had circles in the middle. Adam turned to walk backwards so he could watch her better, and he said, "Tell me if I'm about to run into anything."

"'Kay."

They made it fewer than a dozen steps, though, the dimming fields unhelpful with chirping and rustling animals, when Opal stopped. Her arms dropped. Quietly, she said, "Adam?"

"Yeah?" Adam wavered, stopping along with her.

But she just looked at Adam's shoes, making herself small.

He crouched in front of her, resting his elbows on his knees. "Hey."

She tilted her chin up, then reached out to Adam's face, to his hair, and tugged at a few strands, inspecting them, and he held still. "Not going gray," he assured her.

"Yet," she said solemnly, and her mood defogged. Mortality was one of Opal's foremost Adam-related concerns — she required proof of life nearly every day in the form of texts or photos or, her favorite, short videos of him saying hello. He'd send snaps to Ronan's phone, addressed to her, although at first she was distressed that they disappeared, and had wailed when she thought that Adam had disappeared, too. After that Adam made sure to send the kind that didn't expire, because Opal wasn't fond of things expiring. Ronan had once said that it was one of the most human things about her.

"I'm not going to get old and die while I'm away," he said.

"You will."

Adam knew she meant eventually, but he tried not to take it as an omen from a cryptic fae satyr.

"Well, before that, I'm going to keep coming back."

She pursed her mouth, but seemed to be believing him more and more, since he had come back for Thanksgiving, and for Christmas.

"What if you don't?" she asked, and her voice was hard.

Adam tiptoed his words. "It'll be a long time until that happens. Longer than you've known me."

She shook her head, like that was still very bad to think about, or she didn't think a long time was good enough.

Adam brushed some dried mud from the hem of her sweater. "Have I made a promise to you I haven't kept?"

A pause, and then she shook her head again, a slow side-to-side.

He said, "We have the whole week, remember? It's spring break, which means I don't have anywhere to be for a while except right here. Okay? And we're going to Cabeswater tomorrow, just you, me, and Ronan. I promise."

She looked at him, her face a lot less scrunched up than before, blonde hair a sunflower's petals around widened alien eyes, pupils dark enough to scry into. "I'm happy you didn't get old and die," she said.

Any other time or place or person, and Adam would have cracked a smile, but Opal took matters of life and death seriously in any world, dream or human. "Me too," he agreed. "That would suck."

Legs sore from crouching, and from being in a car for too many hours, he stood and beckoned to her, but she remained put. "I'm not allowed in the barn," Opal said again.

"Oh. Right. But I'll see you —"

"Tomorrow."

Adam nodded. "Yeah. Tomorrow."

"Okay," she said, and briefly, took his hand and kissed it. "Okay."

Then she spun and was gone, another hooved thing in the nighttime, blending in with the long brush.

Adam raked a hand through his hair. The only way he was able to make peace with how his chest hurt was because it was apparent Opal had missed him just as much.

Together, they'd gone most of the distance already — up ahead, Adam saw where Ronan had to be.

Light spilled out of the tall windows of the long barn, lit up from the inside. Floating fireflies, or intangible tiny suns, dispersed from cracks in the wood, making the barn itself look like a manufacturing plant for luminous energy. Ronan must have been busy for them to be awake enough to escape.

Several of the spheres of light encountered Adam as he walked the path to the barn, and he saw that some had wings, and some had eyes, and some had nothing to them at all. They wandered, aimfully, close enough to cast Adam's shadow. A few touched his skin, maybe welcoming, so he said, "Hello," because all of Ronan's dreams were kind to him, and he was kind in return. One clung to his sleeve, static, until the wind whisked it along.

It was unreal — compared to the crisp winter wind of his college in the city, to the honking horns and blaring sirens and hollering voices — the air-thin touches of dreams made him feel like he was sleepwalking.

Gravel snickered beneath his shoes as he went, the fields winking at him, the long barn humming with bustle. As he got closer, the rising bustle became a recognizable voice from inside.

"... Seriously? Shitmeister four-thousand, mori in igni, fucking hunk of landfill garbage —"

Ronan. Unmistakably so.

He'd missed this, too. Hatcheting profane Latin phrases together with English, leaving behind only the most explicit of each.

The barn door was cracked open, a slant of light peeking through. Adam pushed on it and it gave, uneasily, with a jarring and splintered shudder.

"Ronan?" he called.

The noise stopped. A final crash. Adam tried to place the source, tilting his good ear towards it, at some pocket of ruckus further inside the barn.

"Adam?"

Adam's stomach did a funny flop at his name. "It's just me."

From behind a pile of rubbish, Ronan hoisted himself into view. He stood atop a messy mountain of dream junk, sweat beaded on his brow, tank top dusted and askew, and so absurdly handsome and real and present that Adam felt his heart jutter to the other side of his chest.

"You're," Ronan slipped, sending an upside-down trophy cascading to the dirt ground, "fuck, what the hell, you're here. You're early."

"I know."

"Ten," he said, licking his lips. "I thought you said ten."

"I know," Adam said again. He'd texted Ronan that morning, estimating, but he couldn't hardly wait. Everything was a barrier keeping him from the Barns, and he tore them down one by one: packed the night before, loaded into the car, classes attended with keys pocketed and midterms placed first on the Done piles. Remarkably, when faced with a week away from the frantic world and into the wilder country, Adam was alarmingly motivated. "Made good time. And I might have broken some traffic laws."

"What time is it? I was going to, oh shit —"

To his credit, Ronan didn't fall. He skidded down a sloped car door, either once ripped off its hinges or never on anything to begin with, landing in the dirt with more grace than the stunt deserved, and breaking five or fifty things in his avalanche wake.

The dust hadn't yet settled before Ronan was across the barn, crushing Adam into his chest and picking him up around the waist with steady arms.

It lasted an entire second. Never had being ungrounded actually felt grounding.

Adam was put down; Ronan told Adam's neck, "Hey."

He barely was able to say "Hi," the embarrassing last quarter of the word cracking like a flame in a hearth, covered up with a drawn-in breath. His hands clung harder, grabbing the fabric of Ronan's shirt like he'd slip off a cliff with a softer grip.

There was always a blistering contrast between here and there, an absence makes the heart grow fonder, though that was only part of it — sometimes, Adam wished he had Ronan beside him so badly that it was like in another universe they were already together, and he was just feeling the aftermath of the blaze across time and space.

Warmth chased away the night's bite, gravity shifting to pinch at the points where they were connected. Almost-kisses, mouths pressed to skin or collars of shirts, traded across shoulders and necks. Adam wanted to hold Ronan for every second he'd spent daydreaming of him since last time, which was just unrealistic, but reason lost out to the feeling of how their bodies fit together.

He knew he should have gotten used to coming and going, to hellos and goodbyes, but he hadn't. Adam felt kinder towards Opal's estimation of his lateness; any time was too much time away.

"I'm pissed you're here early," Ronan said, muffled against his ear.

"Yeah?" With no small effort, Adam pulled back. "What did I ruin?"

"I was going to have this godforsaken door fixed by the time you got here," he nodded to the entrance of the barn, where the door hung tilted and shifty on its hinges, "and other shit, shave, and shower —"

"What's wrong with the door?"

"The godforsaken door," Ronan corrected, "and why are you asking me about —" then he cupped Adam's face with both of his hands, calluses sliding and breath hitching, and kissed him.

Adam could no longer remember what he was asking about.

He indulged, fully indulged, cares wiped clean; Ronan's mouth was soft, his jaw stubbly, the stark and tangible realness lighting up the fringes of Adam's mind that had almost given to exhaustion. One touch turned into many, noses tilting and Adam being the one to always give back as good as he got. They kissed like fault lines, equally pushing and pulling, shifting against each other in waves that made mountains.

Ronan, out of breath from the kiss or whatever he was doing out here, tilted his head down first, breaking them apart.

Salvaging his thoughts that were scattered to the dust, Adam said, "Still pissed?"

Ronan kissed him again, shorting out Adam's smugness, but it turned quick and ended while Adam still had his eyes closed. He spoke against Adam's mouth, "Changed my mind." And then he let his arms slide down, taking the warmth away. "How the fuck did you find me?"

"I ran into Opal," Adam said, still holding on to Ronan's shirt. "Well, she ran into me. I thought she usually stayed in Cabeswater."

"She wanted to be here when you got back."

Oh, Adam thought, skipping over that before it could tear him up. "She said you were breaking things in the barn."

"I'm not breaking, she's a twerp. I'm fixing." Ronan gestured to the door again. "Fell off its hinges on its own."

"Right."

"It did, it tried to kill me." He exhaled, rough, and ran a hand over the buzz of his hair. "Whatever, I can do this shit later, since you're here."

Which seemed like a waste to Adam. He tightened a hand on Ronan's waist to keep him in place. "No, it's fine, we're already all the way out here."

Ronan frowned at him. "Aren't you wiped? You just got back."

Adam shrugged. "Which means I'm here to help fix it. Besides, you know how you get when you haven't shown off in front of me for a while."

"I know how I get? Fuck you," and he leaned back, but there must have been something disarming about the way Adam was grinning, because it lacked steam. "You wanna help? Give it a walker. It's fucking crippled."

"Put it in touch with Malory. What about —"

It took some wrangling, a suggested give me a boost, received by a sensible no way, pressed by a come on, Parrish, just to get up there, dismissed by a sorry, guess you didn't understand my accent, no fucking way. Then Ronan began dragging a hay bale across the floor by its ties, and Adam hefted the other side, and together they slumped it against the wall, a satisfactory height boost that didn't involve Ronan stepping on Adam's hands.

Between the both of them, they affixed the hinges to less splintered sections of the wood: Adam fetched a drill from the workbench; leveled the door while Ronan set screws in place; tried not to stare at Ronan's bare arms and how they tensed, corded, when his forearm swiped the sweat from his face.

Seeing all of him, none of the scowling and static displeasure of video calls but all of his sharpness, commanding of his element, tore away Adam's pretense that kept him afloat at college. The version of Adam that could convincingly pull off a tie, that could show up to class and sit in the front row and placate his professors, had no place here. Ronan was rugged; Ronan bled into his surroundings; Ronan bent reality into newness and Adam was shaped by it.

On the finishing touches, Ronan slammed a misbehaving screw into place, tipping balance, and Adam put a hand on an imprudent part of him to steady him. Taking a moment to look down at him, Ronan said, "Already?"

"I can't help myself," Adam said wryly.

"No, by all means, keep your hand on my ass, that's what I was looking forward to."

"Counting on it." Adam didn't move his hand, nor falter his smirk, because by some unspoken rule between them, dares were mostly met with more dares.

When all was secure, though, he had to let go, lending a hand for Ronan to get down. It hadn't taken long — the bygone dusk misting through the windows was now voided, night swallowing the barn, lingering fireflies tiredly dimming the insides like touchable stars. Golds and yellows and whites, crawling over dream junk and the workbench and attracted to Adam and Ronan as moths to flame. They counted for natural light, Adam thought, and for an imbalanced moment, he realized nearly nothing in here was artificial or man-made — just Ronan-made.

"Wait," Ronan said, before they could leave. "There's — wait. I came out here for something. Turn around."

"Why?" It was an absurd request. Adam didn't want to waste any more time not looking at Ronan.

"Because you were supposed to be here two fucking hours from now and I had a surprise, so turn the fuck around."

Adam, reluctantly, turned. Behind him, he imagined Ronan pillaging through the mountain of junk to match the noise he was making.

"Lynch, what the hell are you looking for?"

"Do not," Ronan's voice ricocheted, followed by another clamor, and he sounded out of breath. "Don't look."

"I'm already turned around."

"Turn around harder."

Adam laughed at that. "If you're worried I'll be a witness to however embarrassing you look right now, I'm not."

"I never look embarrassing," Ronan lied, his voice closer, and then his hand was on Adam's hip and his lips were on his neck. "Hi."

"Hey," Adam said. He leaned back into his chest. "We already did this part."

"So?" Ronan said, inarguably, and his arm moved to wrap around Adam's waist. He gave another kiss behind Adam's ear. "Being taller than you is great."

"You shithead," and Adam jostled loose, turning around.

"I didn't want ship it to you," Ronan rushed, before Adam could even get a good look in edgewise, "since it's technically alive. Like one of the trees inside Cabeswater."

His hand cocooned it, like one would handle a de-nested bird, and Adam examined it. Potted in a green clay base, budding from a short stem of wrinkled brown bark, was an oddly shaped plant that spiraled around a cavernous opening. Adam took it from Ronan's hand. Traced a finger around one of its loops.

Whispers, susurrant, breezed in his ear.

He could have imagined it — could it have moved — could it have been the wind — but they were indoors, and the air was still.

Ronan went on, "It should have been able to talk but I think I fucked it up. All I've heard it say is ego Cabeswater — probably, Jesus, probably because I dreamt it after watching some fucking commercial about a tree that only says its own name."

"You didn't fuck it up. I think — I can hear it."

"What?"

Adam held it up to his ear, less a plant and more a leafy conch shell. From the opening he heard ocean waves, or static, or windswept branches shaking their leaves as percussion instruments. Some of the sounds had shape to them. "It's saying something. Definitely not just its own name," he said. Words jumped out at him but escaped before they could be deciphered, a recording playing backwards, an untranslated language.

"Well, maybe it'll learn to talk to you," Ronan said, sounding gruff to be left out of the conversation, but Adam could tell he was pleased. "Figured you should have a piece of Cabeswater, or something, when you're not here. For that plywood, shitty excuse for a desk in your dorm."

Not about to argue that generous description, Adam opened and closed his mouth. The sproutling again whispered inside his head. "Thank you," he settled for.

Ronan shrugged, which was to say that more work went into it than he was going to give himself credit for.

His work, the nature of it, dawned on Adam — what something like this meant, what it was that Ronan was doing out here in the first place.

"You're still dreaming," Adam said.

Ronan took Adam's hand, the one not holding the piece of Cabeswater. "Haven't stopped. Come on, let's go back."

Adam held the delicate plant to his chest as they left the barn. He's still dreaming, he thought, and it echoed. He's dreaming, and he hasn't stopped. Pride stifled, he'd accept it if it meant Ronan had dreamt it, if it meant it was still keeping him alive. Last summer would not be repeated.

They stepped into blackness, but they both knew the path. Fingers twined, drowsiness weighing down as the light trailed away behind them, Adam leaned into Ronan's shoulder, and Ronan leaned his head on top of Adam's, until they swayed apart to keep their balance.

It was a pendulum with as familiar of a rhythm as Adam's own heartbeat was to him. Clumsy, sometimes, with sweaty palms or kicking heels, one pacing quicker than the other or having the idea to stop walking altogether and start kissing instead when the other would be caught by surprise. Mostly they fit together as naturally as their hands did, catching up, keeping steady, the warmth of Ronan's hand in Adam's hand and the leather from his wristbands giving Adam goosebumps on his arm.

"Did you eat?"

"In the car," Adam responded. "I packed ahead."

"Could have called ahead," Ronan said. He scuffed a clump of grass a few feet ahead of them with his shoe. "Or texted."

Adam nudged the clump along. "Figured you wouldn't have seen it."

Ronan said, "I changed your ringtone. So I'd know it's you."

Adam looked at him, sideways, but Ronan was looking away.

"And your text message sound."

Somehow, this, more than anything else, made Adam love him so hard that he made up a new theory — that this was the universe from which all other universes felt the aftermath of the blaze.

He said, "So every time the murder squash song plays —"

"It's from the Nutcracker, actually."

Adam stopped, and Ronan kept going, and their hands slid apart with a tug. "Is that — are you calling me a ball-buster?"

Immediately, Ronan's laugh was a firework. Adam lunged for his pocket, where his phone would be, to check its settings but Ronan nimbly dodged, catching Adam's wrist.

"I'll just look at it later, shithead," Adam said, twisting his hand around, taking advantage of Ronan's hand already wrapped around his and linking their fingers together again.

"I'll bet. Come on, you know I'm kidding," and Adam did know, Ronan's lighthouse grin giving him away. He knew it by the way they fell back in step without hesitating, as close as they could get without stepping on each other's shoelaces.

They ended up stumbling through the back door anyway; Ronan first, pulling in Adam after him. "Easy," Adam hissed, cradling his plant safely under his arm.

"Relax. I'll dream you a bonsai in the shape of my dick if anything happens to that one."

Heat rushed up in Adam, in more places than just his face. "I'm only surprised you haven't already done that."

"Give it time. Where's your stuff?" He was scouring the empty entryway floor, where there were no bags to be found.

"In the —" not the backseat, don't look in the backseat, or the trunk, don't look, "— passenger seat of the shitbox."

Ronan's hand grabbed the air. "Keys. Actually, never mind," he recanted, saving Adam from rummaging into his jeans pocket, and Adam understood why. A thumbless opossum could break into the shitbox — to a Lynch that meant the equivalent of asking politely, a kick to budge the door a millimeter. "Be right back."

He barged out the front door, leaving Adam to protest his goings, but Ronan was not persuadable when it came to carrying Adam's things for him. Breath was better saved for not trying to move mountains. So he tucked his arms around his lungs, and took stock of the living room.

Everything was mostly the same. The soul was intact, give or take redecorations. Ronan's desk was strewn with his open journal and laptop, but Adam respected his privacy enough to not flip pages. Droopy houseplants, knick-knacks in various states of dust layers, hung-up artworks and artifacts and framed posters filling in empty wall space — they were catalogued, recognized and unfamiliar ones alike.

Along the fireplace mantel nested a series of photographs that were noticeably newer than the rest. Gently, Adam set down his spiraling Cabeswater plant on the mantel's edge and peered at the photographs, stepping closer to straighten ones that were askew — when his heart clutched, missing its next gear.

One was of him; eyes closed, completely passed out, Opal curled into his shoulder. Ronan must have taken it without him noticing. Next to it was of him and Ronan together, on the hood of the BMW on a day Adam thought back to often — taken when summer stretched timeless and gooey, an afternoon spent driving with windows down and radio up, capturing them both smiling in beams, sun flaring the lens.

Ronan had printed and framed these.

Adam considered teasing him about it, but he'd fast become a hypocrite. He'd done the same with his own favorite photos, but hung them from cheap clothespins, strung together in twine lines along the wall of his dorm bedroom.

On one of those clothespins shriveled a rain-damaged scrap of paper, black grime smeared over it and ink-speckled in the shape of a few stained words: unguibus et rostro.

He remembered when he'd pocketed it, dampened on the side of that road where he felt like he'd lost and gained everything at the same time. Sometimes it hurt to look at, and every time he was glad it existed, because it was proof of life. Ronan had made it out alive. That was the reminder.

A deep thunk shook the floor, by the doorway, and Adam looked over to see that Ronan had dropped his duffel at the foot of the stairs.

"This is not enough clothes for the week," Ronan grunted.

"No. It's not." Good, he thought. He stayed out of the trunk. Pointing to the mantel's photos, changing the subject, he said, "These are new."

"Yeah," Ronan said, walking up to him. "What are you going to wear for the week if you only brought two days' worth of clothes, shitwit?"

Getting warmer. Adam said, "Guess."

"My clothes," Ronan guessed. Adam opted to toy with him a little, so he squinted, a tipping back and forth of his head in a maybe, maybe not. Ronan tried, "Or nothing."

There he is. "Little bit of both."

Ronan was reeled in, thrillingly, a boundless grin brightening his face in a way Adam had missed terribly. "God, I love you."

Which demanded a kiss, hands going to hips, Adam's back knocking into the picture frames — shaking out a shit, a who cares, and Adam cared a little bit, but not enough to not be kissing Ronan like this. He cared about the soft buzz of Ronan's hair underneath his fingertips, about the way Ronan's mouth opened and how his tongue tasted and the brush of his eyelashes on Adam's cheek. He cared a lot when Ronan stopped kissing him, but then there were lips brushing Adam's forehead, a hand rubbing his shoulder, a sigh on his skin.

He cared that he was so light-headed he could hardly stand, the lean-to of Ronan's arms keeping him upright, and he couldn't tell if that was because he was tired, or if it was because of the kissing — though there was no shame in it being both.

Crickets chirped in the night and fireflies waded on by outside the window, squinted and blurry through Adam's eyes, lateness turning everything dreamy. He wanted to go upstairs, but he didn't want to be alone. He wanted to be in bed, but he didn't want to sleep.

Muffling his face in Ronan's shoulder, Adam said, "You smell like barn."

Ronan spoke into his hair. "That's your fault. I told you I was going to do all this shit before you got here."

"I'll text ahead next time," Adam promised, and Ronan's hands tightened in his shirt. "You can shower if you need to."

"Only if you come with me."

Adam unmuffled his face, making a quick stop at his jaw to press a kiss there, and pulled up to look at him. "Are you telling me I need one?"

Ronan carefully pitched his voice lower. "I'm telling you to come take a shower with me, because I haven't seen you in fucking forever."

Oh, Adam thought, and he lingered on that so it could tear him up.

He took Ronan's offered hand, following him through his kingdom, guided by memory — the complaining third stair, the tilted framed faces of Ronan's parents in the hallway, captured as still-life, the waddling bathroom door handle that opened to the too-bright overhead light. At its glare, Adam's iris constricted painfully.

"Can we turn that off?" Adam groaned. He angled his head up to the bathroom ceiling, cheek dragging against Ronan's back.

Ronan felt it, understood, but didn't move to flick off the light — instead he wrenched open the cupboard, scavenging an armful of various candles to set on the counter. Adam set about unselfconsciously stripping off his clothes; Ronan set about sharing time between watching him undress and lighting matches, flames licking wicks, shaken out before burning skin. By the time Adam turned off the light, the room had bloomed a dim orange that spread warmth across tiles and Adam's bare skin.

"Jasmine?" accused Adam, caustic, but his hands helped Ronan out of his shirt, his fingers unbuckling, unbuttoning, undoing. Busied, Adam's stomach tensed under Ronan's hungry eyes.

"That would be more cutting," Ronan said, "if you didn't recognize it, too."

"That would only be embarrassing," Adam said, "if you hadn't bought them in the first place."

Ronan squinted one side of his face, kicked off his jeans from his ankles to the wall.

"Dreamt them?"

Ronan said nothing, just counted Adam's ribs with the pads of his fingers, as if making sure they were all still there.

"You are so romantic."

"Get in the fucking shower."

Adam got in the fucking shower.

It was routine tipped on its side with Ronan's presence. It was exhaustion tipping it further. One moment, and Adam couldn't stop staring at the way water trickled over Ronan's shoulder and slid down his ink-ravaged back. The next, and his vision was fuzzy, and Ronan's hands were on his waist, and he was being turned around, standing in the stream of water.

"God," Ronan said, "you're dead on your feet."

He felt Ronan against his backside, unintentionally. He curved into him, intentionally. "I'm awake," Adam responded.

On his waist, Ronan's hand twitched, and on his neck, Ronan's mouth pressed to his pulse. "I could go down on you," he said, and Adam sighed, face tilted up into the spray, "but you'd pass out standing up."

"Screw you," Adam replied easily, uncaring about entendres, and drowned out Ronan's laugh under the water.

Here, in the absence of timekeeping, absence of shower sandals and impatient suitemates waiting their turn, in the soft glow of firelight fractured through tempered glass, Adam felt still. He had no classes to hurry to. No cafeteria closing hours to make. He had one long week of this, of steam unclenching his muscles and resting his sore eyes.

Of Ronan flicking soap bubbles into his face. Of him flicking them back.

Of kissing. Hands strayed once or twice, eyes strayed even more, but it was the kissing Adam wanted the most. He interrupted Ronan lathering his underarms with soap, craned his neck, leaned in, and caught his lower lip. Licked water from where his mouth parted. Kissed him again, because kissing in the shower was like kissing in rain: soaking and overwhelmed, except a little more cramped, more inside, more white tile and sanitary water.

He'd learned early into knowing Ronan that most everything about him was overwhelming, and he'd learned early into dating Ronan that kissing him made the rest seem tame.

Ronan stepped out when Adam was still lazily rubbing shampoo through his hair, a labor Ronan could mercifully skip. The absence of his body beside Adam's somehow made the shower feel colder, and when he wiped the water from his face, he could see Ronan's silhouette through the diffuse glass, white towel around his waist, hear the scratching whirr of his razor, a scene out of holidays spent here, a summer spent here, futures yet to spend here.

He'd left Adam a spare towel on the rack. Spare, now Adam's for the week, spare again when he'd leave, then his again when he'd come back. He pressed the towel to his face, tied it low on his hips.

Spare, his toothbrush in the drawer where he'd left it. He wondered when things of Ronan's would stop feeling borrowed.

He borrowed space next to the sink, gave Ronan a toothpaste kiss on the shoulder, and Ronan gave his ass a grab — then there was hip checking and sink spitting and Ronan pushing back Adam's wet hair from his forehead, and Adam couldn't fathom how he'd survived the winter months without this, when the shortened days had hidden the sun behind clouds and his shadow had shied from following him, some halved part of him left behind. Now it was cast in every direction by candles. By Ronan.

School was work, was sanctuary, but it was a pattern of isolation and otherness, a state of being unknown, waiting for a time when eyes would look at him instead of through him.

Waiting was for being away. Boldness was for here, now, with Ronan, in his borrowed towel, hair wet and face warm. He was tired of going without this. Of starving.

Adam told him, "Drop your towel."

Droplets of water pattered on tile, slinking off of Ronan's skin, some lingering on his chest — which had flushed straight down and now rose and fell, unregulated. One of Ronan's eyebrows rose with the request. Then his mouth slanted, slyly, a toothy thing. He relaxed his hand, and the towel dropped to the floor.

Adam breathed in, once and deep, indulging in all of it, looking at all of him, steam on his own brow and neck, every distant calling in the world that begged for him melting away in a tropical storm with Ronan as the eye of it.

Ronan stepped out of the slumped ring of white, dangerously closing the distance between them, his hand going to Adam's hand, which was still pinching together his towel. Adam let his fingers be worked through, loosened, and then Ronan took the hem and tugged it away.

For a moment, Adam waited for a kiss. Waited for the eye to pass and the storm to come and to be swept into it. But Ronan slid past him, leaning down, and blew out the last of the candles undrowned by wax, plunging them both into the dark. Ronan's returning touch was the only thing to guide him.

After that, it was all a blur.

Messy hands pushed at waists, desperate kisses missed their mouths. They were a tangle of feet, stepping on toes, bumping into knees, and then Adam pressed his entire front against Ronan's and a haze took the air. Heartbeats thudded into each other with no end or beginning, bloodrush dousing it all with adrenaline.

They fell into bed. Fell, clumsily, eagerly, Adam crawling in after Ronan scooting backwards, shoving back sheets to make room. He kissed Ronan's mouth from above, a hand on his chest, Ronan's hand dragging up his side and the other in his hair. Adam pressed down on top of him, shifting, then moved his hand to Ronan's hip and pulled. Ronan pushed back, so they were both laying on their sides, facing each other. The kiss broke; Ronan fixed that.

It felt like dreaming. Rules of reality falling away like they never existed. Focus brought to a point, a person, a place where time was allowed to move forward and stopped elsewhere. It was intimate, personal, private — things that never belonged to Adam while away from here, only belonging to him when he came back, shared with the one person that made company feel singular.

"Do you want..." Adam kissed the words away from Ronan, because the answer was always yes, and he was being stupid, get back to kissing, but Ronan just tried again, against his mouth. "You're tired. I could," and looked down, slipping his hand slightly inward, thumb brushing sparse hairs.

Adam sighed at the thought of it. What he'd offered in the shower. It would be so easy to have him that way, to have Ronan's mouth on him, but he didn't just want his mouth. He wanted all of him.

He pulled at Ronan's hips in the universal sign of come the fuck up here, kissed his freshly smooth jaw, then took Ronan's hand and slid it down to where Adam had missed it most and said, "No. Just this. I want you here."

His body remembered how to do this. His hands remembered how to fit against the slant of Ronan's stomach, every groove in his abdomen, every coil and stretch of skin that responded to his touch. His mouth remembered how to kiss him breathless, and where Ronan liked his neck to be bitten just enough to redden. He remembered how Ronan liked the rest of it — how Adam's thumb on the underside made him hiss, how if he stopped for a second, squeezing, teasing, Ronan would make a sound that begged to be followed by a kiss.

Adam wanted him to look this way again and again and again. Red-blotched skin giving him away, chest visibly trembling with a racing heart, lips full and warm against Adam's own.

Stomach, thighs tensing, Adam held his breath, closed his eyes, let Ronan's hand take over, let Ronan take control, and it was some kind of high, to let himself only go pliant with Ronan. To only trust Ronan with that. With his gasping, with the groans that escaped when Ronan's rutting moved with his hand, with the stretch of his neck as his back muscles arched, sinking into sheets, Ronan kissing his throat.

He'd waited — pulse in his cheekbones — God, how had he waited so long — limbs too heavy to move — Adam closed his eyes, kept them closed, felt like he could keep them closed forever.

"I fucking missed you," Ronan whispered, after a minute, between catching his breath.

"I missed you, too," Adam whispered back, like if they gave it no voice, only air, it was their secret to keep, only letting out truths when no longer alone because saying it without the other physically there it would break them.

Ronan shifted, leaning over the edge of the bed, and what was heoh, grabbing a spare or borrowed towel, oh, dragging it over Adam's stomach, then throwing it, slumped, across the bedroom.

His body curled into Ronan's, crescent to fullness, and Ronan said something, the air making the shape of his name, but Adam only said mmhm. The weight of exhaustion allowed for little else. He wanted to lean up and kiss Ronan but he was too tired and couldn't reach, so he settled for kissing the closest part of him, which was his shoulder, shaped sturdily, like Ronan had been more aggressive with the hay bales the past few months. Then he wanted to kiss all over him, but he was too tired and couldn't reach, so he just kissed further down his arm, tucking himself into the warmth of his side, and Ronan's hand came up to trace an imaginary star chart made up of the freckles on Adam's shoulders, and Adam hummed again.

He fell asleep with his mouth against Ronan's skin, his leg hitched over Ronan's leg, his hand over Ronan's heart — and he drifted, human into dreamthing, daydreamer into night.

*

"Brek," a noise said.

Adam groaned.

He rolled over, pawing for displaced pillows, for a body, something to wrap his arms around — only to reach into empty sheets, finding himself alone and naked in Ronan's bed. He groaned again. The rumpled blank spot next to him was still warm. Adam starfished in it.

"Brek," the noise insisted. He cracked open an eye. Chainsaw, nightmare-black feathers full of sheen in the morning sun, swiveled her neck at him from the bedside table.

"All right, if you're gonna be a rooster —"

He gave her a tap on the head to snooze her, which she did not appreciate, and she fled through the open window from whence she came with a few disgruntled flaps, wingspan clipping the frame. Jesus, she had gotten big.

Adam squinted, dandelion-blurred light streaming in after her departure. He listened for footsteps, voices, a toilet flushing, anything, but it was just his own breathing in the room. Laundry, all Ronan's, stumbled over itself on the floor, none of it wearable, so Adam borrowed a black t-shirt and boxers from Ronan's drawers, and investigated.

The hallway was quiet. The stairway held no life save for Adam's bedhead that he glimpsed in the mirror. The kitchen —

Something crashed in the kitchen, someone swore — Opal and Ronan, but Adam lightened his steps, checking the fireplace mantel before letting them know he was up.

The spiraling plant had survived the night, still green, still odd, emanating that same kind of ley line energy like a tuning fork. As Adam ran his fingers down the stems, the resonance flared: small tendrils peeled away from the slim strips of vine, and curled around his fingertip. He startled, edging away and easily pulling his finger loose, thinking them thorns — but the stems returned to normal again. Neatly, no lines, folded back in place. A gesture of grace, a handshake with no ill will.

He left it be, because he would take it with him back to school, and he had time to figure out its secrets. Because the sound of snapping drawers in the room over was distracting. Because the conversation had drifted out of the kitchen and into the living room:

"Hold up. Hold up. Jesus, Joseph, get back here, you forgot the, here, the je ne sais quoi. What would that be in Latin?"

"Nescio quid?"

"Probably."

"No, I was saying I don't know."

"Was that a joke? God, translating idioms sucks, anyway."

When Adam peeked in, he found the kitchen in the state of a vandalized Norman Rockwell painting: the scene was animated into open cupboards and crumpled paper towels and a sink piled with pans. Ronan was drizzling syrup over a tall stack of pancakes, strawberries chopped and glazing the edges, and Opal held the plate steady, expression grave with bestowed responsibility.

Adam's feet had turned to roots in the doorway.

"What's going on?" He asked.

"Adam!" Opal said, and dropped the plate.

"Fuck!" Ronan said, and caught the plate midair.

Opal flung herself against Adam's legs and wrapped her arms around his middle. Winded, he swayed with her, patting her shoulder, chest daggered with overwhelming fondness.

"I saw you yesterday," Adam reminded her, but she didn't seem to care.

Ronan slid the plate deeper onto the counter, safe from Opal's prying hands. He told her, "You know what's wrong with you? No goddamn object permanence."

Adam, distracted, squinted up at him. Object fucking permanence. Ronan was already showing off and Adam hadn't even had his coffee yet. It wasn't fair.

"What is all this?" Adam asked again.

"This is giving Opal a hobby," Ronan responded.

Opal's protest came with a stomp, wiggling back from Adam. "I have hobbies."

"Oh, yeah? What are they? Eating door jambs, you bottomless termite?" He reached over to ruffle her hair — she snapped her teeth at his retreating hand.

"Sorry," Adam said, acclimating to this, the routine, righting himself from tipping off-balance. "I guess I overslept."

"Not long enough," Ronan said, returning his look. "This was supposed to be breakfast in bed."

The thought, the image, didn't fully register, even after a few blinks, and then Opal was telling Adam sit, and he was directed to the kitchen table.

She chattered at him about using her teeth to open the bag of flower, the evidence still stuck in her hair; about digging in the vegetable garden for signs of ripeness, the evidence still stuck under her fingernails. He looked up; Ronan was already looking back at him, folding up a used coffee grounds funnel and overhanding it into the trash where it miraculously didn't miss, holding eye contact through Adam's smirking, grabbing twin cups of coffee from the counter and setting them down on the table — then Adam was forced to look away when Opal tugged on his sleeve to show him what she'd drawn on the placemat with syrup.

"Opal," Adam said.

Ronan told her, "You know what. We're low on strawberries again, since you dunked half of them in the garbage disposal."

"Is she even tall enough to flip the switch," Adam muttered.

"They exploded," Opal said cheerfully.

"Yeah, everywhere, so go get some more to replace them. Here. There were some left in the far patch." Ronan proffered a green mesh basket from a stack of them on the counter, but when she went to snatch it, he tugged it back. "No eating the basket this time, either."

She jumped out of her chair suddenly, and then the basket was in her hands and not Ronan's, and she bolted out the door.

Stilled, Ronan looked after her, then at Adam, who raised his eyebrows. Challenging him.

When the screen door stopped clattering, a final stilted creak, Ronan moved — hand going to Adam's shoulder, leaning down, and Adam figured out the rest for him.

He should've been surprised by the shift in pace, but really, if anyone thought they went from zero to a hundred in a blink, they weren't paying attention. Eye-fucking was an art form.

They kissed like they hadn't yesterday — slow, practiced, a memory made real and not one of disbelief. That was their pattern, to rush until they could trust it, then hold it there for as long as they could.

"Morning."

"Morning," Adam managed between a kiss. "Breakfast in bed?"

"You were dead out," Ronan protested.

Adam hummed. "Guess I was more tired than I thought I was after the drive."

"Don't talk to me about sacrifice. I woke up to you naked in my bed and instead did this."

"A real martyr."

"Is this," Ronan said, stopping, restarting. "This is my shirt." His hand slid under the fabric, fingers along Adam's collarbones.

"Forgot my bag downstairs last night," which was true, the memory itching in his lower stomach, both of them too wrapped up in each other to remember it. "I brought laundry," Adam offered. "The machines in the dorms are busted."

Ronan shook his head. "I'm not complaining. Do it later," he said, and kissed Adam's mouth again.

He was insatiable whenever they reunited. The few times Ronan visited him at school were tangled limbs, then laughter, then heady and private, everything a dam of piled-up texts and phone calls and video calls that tightrope-tested how they fared apart.

It seemed Ronan wasn't done welcoming him home. Adam wasn't done being welcomed, either. He still felt morning-flushed and slow-blinking and knew Ronan loved him like this, but Ronan seemed to want him in any state.

Breakfast ended up getting a little cold — though months of past cafeteria meals couldn't hold a candle to Ronan's cooking.

They took their time, Ronan's ankles crossed with Adam's underneath the table, sharing freely given touches and grins and Ronan assuring Adam he'd kicked the curve's ass on his essays and Adam assuring Ronan this was the best breakfast he'd had since he was last here. The morning stretched golden and gauzy, and when Ronan stood to clear their coffee, the light through the window had slanted to a midday's overhead shadow.

Mugs clinked together and settled on the drying rack — one chipped from use, a Catullus quote printed on its insides, the other with Adam's collegiate crest emblazoned on the side. A raven was carved in black beside the cest, its beak parted to eat it whole. That one was dreamt, a Christmas present from Ronan, and Adam had said that it would offend absolutely everyone at his prestigious college if he were to use it at school. So it remained at the Barns, on a shelf next to Ronan's.

Ronan wrung his hands dry with a cow-patterned dish towel and asked Adam, "What does different mean?"

Adam had stuffed his mouth with a last bite of pancake, and he spoke around a mouthful, "I mean she's different, she's..." He swirled his fork in the air and swallowed. "Sometimes she acts like she's ten, and sometimes it's like she's as old as Cabeswater."

The things Opal said to Adam during their phone calls ranged from discomfiting to disturbing: Don't breathe with your mouth open and You are lucky to be alive and When will your hooves grow in? The last one could have been a practical joke, because Ronan was heard snickering in the background of the call.

Ronan took Adam's finished plate and unceremoniously dumped it in the sink. "She's been around in my head for as long as I can remember. Probably since before that."

"What if she has abilities?" asked Adam. "What if —"

"No," Ronan said quickly, "she hasn't taken shit from her dreams."

"Does she dream?"

"Not in the same way as us. As me."

Adam thought on this, and wondered if Matthew — or even if Aurora had — dreamt like humans did. If the dreams were in black in white, or in color, or if all they saw was Cabeswater, or nothing at all.

"Anyway," continued Ronan, "that's not something you can hide. If she could, she'd take back some fucking chew toy." His voice took a snark to it. "Maybe she's a magician with all the tree communing she does."

"Maybe," Adam entertained. "Has she made any bargains with wild mushrooms lately?"

Ronan laughed, and it was a magical sound in the rustic kitchen, even more magic than dreams.

A clattering down the hall stayed Ronan's reply — Adam leaned back in his chair, angled down the hallway towards the back door, Ronan ducking around the corner after him — and they saw a disaster.

Opal had returned, a conqueror from war. Chainsaw waddled and scuffed in her wake, vastly more interested in pecking the scattered trail of fallen strawberries behind her than in Opal herself.

She looked like she'd grabbed fistfulls of dirt and, by pure luck, had also picked some berries in the same attempt. Green strings of weeds stuck out, grimy and getting everywhere, mud tracked through the house in wild hoofprints.

Ronan began to swear at her, creative conjunctions and colorful vehemence, and Opal puffed up and began to swear back at him in a language Adam couldn't understand but knew was filthy all the same. Consonants flew like furiously glaring tinsel strings sticking to skin, and Ronan performed a lot of pointing at the hoof-shaped mud tracks and her berry-stricken face, and Opal did a lot of stomping and sticking out her tongue, everything between them a familiarly flipped switch and Adam felt a shaking rise in his chest until he was laughing, unhaltingly, a cage door burst open.

He was too busy laughing at them that he barely noticed their arguing cease altogether, Ronan mid-pointing, Opal mid-fist shaking, to look at him.

It refused to be wiped off his face — it stuck on his expression for a long time, throughout scrubbing the floors, kicking the dishwasher closed, challenging Opal with an, "I'll race you to the car," which was a losing bet as soon as it made it out of his mouth. Opal would beat him in any kind of footrace, cheating by making it a hoofrace.

She never got tired of winning. Adam never got tired of pretending to care.

*

The day was grand and cloud-puffy, and the BMW roared to life with Opal jittering in the backseat and Ronan winsome in the driver's seat. Adam rolled down his passenger window to catch the breeze and scrunch his nose at the forgotten pollen, which he had become un-immune to while he was away.

He'd also forgotten that Opal wasn't a seatbelt kind of satyr.

Instead, she stretched it out until it locked, then let the gears grind as it was reeled back in. "Are we there yet?" she asked.

Adam smothered a snort with the heel of his hand. Many things about Opal were endearing, and one of them was her inheritance of Ronan's belligerence.

"Don't make me get a child seat," Ronan said, eyeing her through the rearview mirror.

Opal stuck her tongue out at him, which was a brilliant defense of her lack of childishness.

"Any renovations lately?" Adam redirected.

"Always," Ronan said. "It's always fucking changing. If I changed one thing, it would just change it to something else the next day. So much for making it perfect. Fourth," and Ronan stepped on the clutch.

Adam, from the passenger seat, shifted into fourth gear.

Sometimes they would do this — Ronan called the gear, handled the clutch, and Adam shifted the stick for him. "But the rain is still there."

"The rain is still there. I'd kick its ass if the rain was gone."

"You'd kick a forest's ass."

"With my bare feet. Fifth."

Ronan clutched; Adam shifted up.

"He wouldn't," Opal said quietly from the backseat. "He loves it."

Adam smiled a secret smile at her, because Ronan was facing forward. "I know."

Ronan looked like he was going to say something, a twist to his mouth, a slant of his jaw, but he just flicked his eyes over for a second to meet Adam's gaze. He saw the crinkled-eyes look on Adam's face, blinked back at the road, and kept driving.

Perfect was all relative. No one could hold perfection in their head all at once — the thing Ronan had done, when he'd dreamt it, was make Cabeswater malleable, because being able to grow into something new was its own kind of perfect.

It was a stroke of genius, and it suited him.

"You take over shifting," Adam said, slumping against the window, angling his body to the center.

"Lazy ass. Why?"

"I don't feel like watching the road."

If Ronan minded being stared at, he sure as shit said nothing about it.

*

Mist ate you up and turned you around, right back to where you'd entered the ground-clinging cloud, if you were not welcome in the forest, Ronan had decided. "Mist moat," he'd called it.

"Only the pure of heart can go in?" Adam had asked.

"Nah," Ronan had replied. "It's a whitelist."

"Whitemist."

"You get it."

There were other security measures for Cabeswater — though it still had to exist physically, it was invisible from the air, so no other filthy rich Aglionby-goers could scope it out from their helicopters. This was also a trick of the eye, humidity refracting light away from it, a this is not the magical forest you are looking for.

On dry days, when the mist burned and the sky was clear, it blended into the hills: rocky outcroppings and thick woods made it indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape. No matter what, it pushed intruders out, pinching compass heads and angling them opposite, hikers and backpackers and incessant snoopers stepping out of the forest's boundary almost as soon as they'd entered. It was meant to be a mindfuck, and dreams were good at being that.

It was also bigger on the inside. That, too, was only accomplishable by magic.

Inside, on that day, Cabeswater was spring, just as it was on the outside.

Adam stepped through the line of bramble and branches into a technicolor bloom. His hand, in Ronan's, his other hand — slipping out of Opal's as she bounded ahead of them, crying out to a blue jay's nest high in a willow, who cried back at her in a tone that was less excited than she was. Down the willow trailed peachy petals, a surprising addition to the season, the grass underneath it a sacred shade of green. Streams of water curled down past the willow, deeper into the forest, rippling blues and mossy whites and pebbled reflections of the light.

Overhead, the sun was cut into shapes by the canopy, casting crescent shadows, shifting with a breeze. It sang with birdsongs, a distant thunder, the thrum of the ley line echoing in Adam's veins.

He'd missed it so much. He almost couldn't breathe. There was so much air and he wanted to steal none of it away.

"Opal, don't piss them off, they're nesting," Ronan said, letting go of Adam's hand to shoo her away from the birds. She blew a raspberry at him and then jumped into the stream, but managed to land on a shallow bridge of rocks that had evaded Adam's eye, or had maybe just appeared in time at her whim, and she was over to the other side in another second.

"Hey, don't go too far!" Ronan shouted after her, but she'd disappeared behind lines of curly-q vines. "Fucking. Whatever. She'll come back if she wants to."

"When she can dream up edible cardboard for herself? We've lost her forever."

Ronan said, "She came out when I told her you were coming home."

That did topsy-turvy things to Adam's stomach. Honored, to be able to entreat her out of her loved-feared place. "How do you usually get her to come back?"

Ronan shrugged. "Mostly keep walking until I run into her, if she wants to be found. Have some birds go look for her. Maybe pop some bubble wrap."

"And that works?"

"Oh, every time."

They spent what felt like hours there.

Hours, minutes, seconds of warped timespace.

Cabeswater never felt like a maze — that implied feeling lost, fumbling for an exit when all Adam ever felt was magnetized, perfectly oriented, and when he asked which direction the rain was in, the forest gave him an answer.

They passed by Mt. Gansey, which was less of a mountain and more of a stony formation; two misshapen boulders giving rise to a larger plateau erected behind them. Gansey had not been fond of his namesake when he'd been told about it.

They passed by a red Mustang, overtaken by the overgrown foliage, repeated words preserved and undusted on its pollen-coated windshield, knick-knacks in the back seat and front seat, looking altogether peaceful and unforgettable. Ronan fisted out a clump of stubborn leaves from the grill, kicked around the tires to shed some weaving cobwebs, which was a groundskeeper's job well done.

They passed by a headstone, singular in a field of red roses, and Adam stood at the edge of them, allowing Ronan some minutes to clip stems and gather a few at the foot of it. It had been important for Ronan to do this, to take some measure of marking where his mother would have been laid to rest. Even if it was impossible to recover her from the old Cabeswater, Ronan had said Aurora would have liked this meadow, and so he did this small act, because the larger acts were still left behind in dreams.

Adam paid his respects, too. It wasn't infrequent that he remembered the dream he and Ronan had shared, that morning in the Barns, helping Ronan to wash his hands and arms and shirt of the dark stains he'd brought back with him. He breathed out, kneeling, and added another red rose to the offering.

When he stood, Ronan was looking at him with hands in pockets. That complicated look on his face made Adam wish for so many impossible things, but instead he just coaxed Ronan's hand out from his pocket to hold.

They pressed on.

Past the field of roses, something began nipping at Adam's heels.

"Ronan," he accused, but the end of his name couldn't decide if it was a question.

"What? I'm not telling it to do that."

Adam paused to examine one of the flowers that were growing from his footprints, plucking it from the ground — the petals split, forming a second flower from the same stem, some kind of mitosis.

"God," Ronan said. "It's showing off for you. Mutant tribble plants."

"You know," Adam said, turning his head and swaying close to press his mouth to Ronan's shoulder, briefly, because he could, because he wanted to, then like a breeze, pulled away. "I was going to stop on the way yesterday and get you flowers."

It worked; Ronan grinned at him. "You were?"

"But I thought maybe these would be better," he said, and then he rubbed his free thumb and index finger together, and from his palm sprinkled petals of reds and violets and oranges, multiplying, and then he held the handful of them over Ronan's head and let them go.

Ronan spluttered them out of his face and veered away, letting go of Adam's hand. "You asshole," he said, and Adam held his stomach and laughed, and laughed, and when the petals touched the ground they became flowers made whole again — and Ronan was standing in the middle, the centerpiece to a bouquet.

"There," Adam said. "That's what I had in mind."

"Didn't know you were a fucking florist, weirdo," Ronan said.

"In your dreams."

"Yeah, it's my dream, you can't outdo me in my own dream," and as he said it, rolls of thunder deepened in the forest.

Overcast blotted the secret sky gray, drizzling mistiness through watery sunlight and giving way to a cottoned cloud cover, a ceiling, an indoor arboretum that crackled with familiar energy. The air was taken by humidity, fast as a sudden storm.

Adam, recovered from his gesture, looked up to the overhanging boughs of the trees. They were wrong, he thought. Not like he remembered. "But we aren't there yet," he said.

"It moves now. I can tell it to move."

He looked at Ronan when he felt the first drop of rain on his face, and Ronan looked back.

He felt it, right then, right away — that same wild happiness that took up every space inside of him, that same encompassing sadness that pressed down around him. It was the rain, and it was Ronan, and it was home. All of those things, all at once.

Every bit of sadness he'd ever felt and every bit of happiness he'd ever felt, context stripped, rewound to their happenings, all times being the same under rain: Moving out of his home, Persephone dying, nearly killing Ronan. Becoming friends with Gansey, throwing blackmail on Greenmantle's doorstep, kissing Ronan for the first time. Kissing him for the second time.

Telling Ronan he loved him for the first time. Ronan telling Adam he loved him for the first time.

So much of Adam's happiness was tied up in Ronan, and also so much of his sadness, and all of those things and all of the hours they inhabited crashed, cacophonous, a wildly struck chord, in every drop of water on his skin. It should have burned — it should have bloomed — but it just poured.

He was already a well of such overflow. Each ripple on his surface was a relived memory. Those of the past, and those of the future, yet to happen.

And those of the now.

Some of his sadness wrapped around knowing that this happiness would fade after this moment, after the rapture quieted, real only in remembrance. Prematurely missing it, awed that humans could feel this much and the wondrous space it filled would be empty again, Adam thought that maybe that was the sadness. Maybe the sadness was the real thing and he was happy he could feel that, too, because feeling that much of anything was proof of life.

It only took a few moments to overwhelm them in the downpour — the sky opened and the clouds let go.

Adam's hair was soaked in a second. Ronan's shirt was plastered to his body in the next.

He never looked away from Adam. Not even for a moment, not once. He just stood, surrounded by flowers, under the rain of his dreams.

He probably felt so happy it felt like sadness, too.

Adam recognized that look on his face. He'd seen it often enough outside of Cabeswater.

It was different from how his face looked in the shower. No artificial light on his features, just the dappling of whatever slipped through the incomplete sky, silver branches leaving a pattern of shadowed leaves on pale skin, reflective with water — Adam always did prefer sun showers, anyway. Maybe Cabeswater knew, and broke the clouds through.

And when Ronan stepped into him, bent his neck and touched his jaw so softly — when they kissed, it was the first rain after a drought. It was the first strike of lightning in a thunderstorm, and the rain washed over them, over their mouths, on their tongues, getting in their eyes that they wiped away or kissed away or just closed their eyes and leaned together, foreheads together, chests together, and the storm rolled, growing larger and heavier until it drowned out the world.

*

On the way back, shoes hanging from fingertips, soaked socks stuffed into the soles, they ran into Opal. Or, more accurately, she ran into them.

"Duckpocalypse," Ronan said, but didn't let go of Adam's hand as he sidestepped Opal's inbound prancing.

Trailing behind her was a strung-together line of wheeled wooden ducks — except they weren't ducks. Though they were quacking like ducks, Adam saw that they were black, and big-beaked, curved at the tips, and most certainly ravens masquerading as ducks. Opal mimicked the sounds they made, or they were mimicking her, a drum major and her monotonously quacking raven band, marching in haphazard formation.

"Can't you do useful grown-up things, like do my taxes for me," Ronan said.

"Growing up is for dying," Opal replied, waving her arms, and the wooden wings of the ravens flapped, too.

Ronan looked like he would have put his face in hands, if they weren't both occupied; one for his shoes, one for Adam's own hand.

"Morbid, but not wrong, Opal," Adam said, then to Ronan, "and don't act like Declan doesn't do all three of yours."

Ronan shot Adam a look, but addressed Opal, "We're checking out. If you're coming, train's leaving."

Opal fiercely kicked away the leading toy raven that was circling her hooves, and it quacked plaintively. She started saying something in the dream language, elegant and quick, consonants Adam soon couldn't follow. Adam wondered if she found it hard to always be translating in her head, especially in Cabeswater, where the words of the forest must come most naturally to her.

Before either of them could interject, she stopped herself and said, "Coming."

Ronan asked her, "You're not staying?"

She shook her head vigorously.

"Want to come back with us?" Adam asked.

"Yes," she said, then quicker, "yesyes," and bounced on her hooves, and then looked at Adam's annoyingly taken hands in a rather aggravated way, so Adam let go of Ronan and held out his open palm to her, which she gladly took.

Ronan scoffed loudly. "Fuck you too, Parrish."

It was the least convincing expletive he'd said all day. Lingering raindrops hid in the stubble of his jaw; a calm reddish tint rested under his skin; his eyes betrayed how unfazed he was, how he looked at how Adam treated Opal with an unreserved openness. Adam said, "If we didn't just make out in the rain, I might think you were actually mad."

He made a louder scoff, shoved his free hand in his pocket, and kept ahead of them, which Adam considered was a convenient way to hide his face.

They toweled off, after, by the side of the road — Ronan threw a ratty tan towel at Adam from the backseat of the BMW and grabbed an even grimier one for himself, getting the back of his neck as Adam fluffed his own hair. Their clothes still clung, damp, and the feeling still clung, happysad, and they'd change later, because Adam didn't mind clinging to that feeling a little longer.

A shadow crossed over them along the edge of the forest. Chainsaw circled overhead, more hole in the sky than object in space, and she skirted the car, avoiding either Cabeswater or Opal. Adam covered his eyes from the sun to look up at her.

She was calmer when airborne, wilder when grounded, having inherited Ronan's love of flight. When she was on the ground, she preferred being near or on top of people — that morning, as they were cleaning the kitchen from the whirlwind mess before leaving for Cabeswater, she'd clung, grubby talons, to Adam's shoulder. "Sorry about this morning," he'd whispered to her, and she'd nuzzled the crown of her head on his temple, slights forgotten.

"Come to think of it," Adam said to Ronan, "I didn't see Chainsaw yesterday."

Ronan sniffed, shoving his towel back in the car. "She's in that AWOL teenager phase where she shits on everything and stays out too late."

"Is it a teenager thing to shit on everything?"

"For punk-ass birds, it is. Next thing you know she's going to bring home a boyfriend or a girlfriend or both and I'll have to chase then off my damn property."

"Don't they just grow up so fast," Adam drawled, heavy on his accent.

Ronan grinned, unperformed and charmed, like Adam thought he'd be.

Chainsaw barked a haw haw from her high glide.

"What does she want?" Adam asked.

Ronan was looking up at her, too. "Waiting for us to go. She's been doing this free-wheeling thing where she races me when I'm driving. It's kind of cool. The car's faster, but she can take the straight shot."

"She loses."

"Definitefuckingly."

"You're probably hurting her pride, Lynch, you should let her win sometime. Maybe that's why she's rebelling."

"Fat chance. She can deal with it. I thought she'd show herself around constantly now that you're home —" the word home zinged inside of Adam, though Ronan seemed to think nothing of it "— but she and Opal really have beef. They need to work out some trust falls or some shit."

Adam suggested, "Or she really does have a lovebird."

"I really am gonna give her a curfew."

His protective streak got an easy smile out of Adam, and as Ronan ushered Opal into the backseat, hooves drawn up on the seat and him telling her feet down, an uncanny echo of Gansey, Adam caught his wrist, circling his fingers under Ronan's leather bracelets.

"Hey." Adam felt Ronan's untidy pulse. "Thanks for bringing me here."

Ronan's thumb traveled across the uneven veins in Adam's own forearm. "I didn't just dream it for me." He looked like he was going to say something else, or kiss Adam, but he just dropped his hand and began making his way around the car, away from the driver's side. His jeans clung to his thigh but he managed to fish out his keys. "Here. If you wanted to let Chainsaw win so badly," and tossed them to Adam.

Adam caught them; spun them effortlessly around his finger. "If that's you telling me I'm slow," he said, "I have something to tell you about the bushes in front of your driveway."

*

"I wonder if magic will be a part of science one day," Adam said, twirling his notes in circles on the coffee table. Though midterms had come and gone, courseloads were posted for the rest of the semester, and Adam wasn't built to be in a state of rest when there was something left to learn. There was always more to do, to research, to figure out. "Or academics. What if you could major in magic?"

Ronan dumped an entire basket of freshly tumbled laundry onto the couch next to him and began folding. "Isn't that what you're doing? Witch doctor, M.D.?"

"Isn't that redundant?"

"W.D."

"Yeah, that's exactly what I'm doing. Did you know that," Adam said, "scientists used to think there was this substance that all matter gave off when burning? And that's why things lost mass. They gave off a made-up element called phlogiston when they burned, like some primal force."

"Fuck kind of class would teach you that?"

"Epistemology," Adam responded.

Ronan gave him a look.

"The study of knowledge," Adam supplied.

Laughter, barked, came from Ronan. Incredulous, he said, "Knowing things about knowing things."

"Mostly knowing things about not knowing things. Because then they discovered oxidation, and atoms, and how things actually burned, and the whole old theory was bullshit. They just didn't have the tools to observe what was really happening. They couldn't understand it yet."

"Like magic," Ronan said.

"I don't even fully understand how scrying works," Adam admitted, "or where the ley line's magic comes from. It just is." Sometimes he was frustrated with the limitations of science, just as he was with language, as happysad wasn't close enough to how Cabeswater's rain made him feel.

"If anyone can figure it out," Ronan said, leaning over to put a hand on Adam's hair and his lips on Adam's temple, "you're the witch doctor for the job."

Adam sighed. "Hope so."

"Know so. Fold this, will you?" With that, he hefted half of the remaining heap of warm clothes onto Adam's lap, all jeans of unclear ownership and bundles of boxers and wintry coats and something inside Adam's brain fell over itself trying to recall what he was supposed to be doing.

But this was the norm at the Barns. It took its time catching up with him.

Maybe he didn't have to know anything for sure, not yet — but he was getting closer to figuring out the important parts.

His hands busied themselves folding; his mind busied itself thinking.

"Have you talked to Gansey, or Blue, or —"

"The three stooges?"

Adam didn't reward Ronan with a laugh, but the corner of his mouth misbehaved. "I've been on radio silence for exams. Last time I talked to them they were about to head somewhere new, I think."

"Yeah. Somewhere in Assfuck, Peru, obsessing over some ruins Gansey had a wet dream about."

Flippancy could only cover his tone so much — Adam knew how much he missed them. When they'd all been back in Henrietta for Christmas, Ronan was a brighter version of himself, a bonfire on a dark beach. Sometimes, during the winter when they Skyped, Adam thought Ronan's eyes were missing that burning fire, a dimming candle in a boarded-up room, a Ronan-shaped island in a Gansey-less town.

"Assfuck, Virginia, calling the kettle black," Adam said.

Ronan, done with his half of the pile, wrapped his arms around Adam's shoulders and kissed him on his nape of his neck. Adam tilted his head to the side to give him free reign. He wasn't sure if it was a whim, or if it was because Ronan liked it that Adam was looser with his vulgarity around him, but he'd take it either way.

"Are they using your gifts?" Adam asked.

A muffled, "Which ones?"

"You know which ones. The good ones. The useful ones."

An engine-less twin Camaro wasn't the only thing Henry, Gansey, and Blue ventured into the world with — Ronan also saddled them with a Latin for Dummies book, saying it was "to talk with the locals." This had led to a long conversation on the origin of the name Latin America, led by Blue, until she realized Ronan was being facetious.

Though the morning they left, Gansey had left a voicemail for Ronan, since Ronan had been indisposed at St. Agnes at the time: Gansey was grateful for the true-north compass and sextant combo zippered into a small pocket in his backpack, and he was grateful for the balled-up note slashed angrily with a penned MAGIC PROOF. Henry had found an unfortunately Dora the Explorer themed analog watch in his own rucksack, but it, too, would not be swayed by ley line magic. Wherever they went, magnetism, the sky, time itself wouldn't turn them around.

Ronan said, "Depends on if they've run into any ley lines yet."

"They must have. That was half the point of going all the way down there."

"Then they must have. You would know, being the psychic."

Ronan kissed his neck again, and Adam decided that wasn't enough, angling to catch Ronan's mouth, and he forgot about Peru, and dead sciences, and only thought of magic.

*

The day drifted, lazy — Adam was left to his devices on the couch and Ronan was left to his devices around the house, in the fields, in the barns, not restless, but purposeful. Repairing or breaking, or some combination of the two.

On one of his passthroughs, Ronan spun up a vinyl in the record player, Irish folk accompanied by quiet static, and let it play the whole album. On another, he took the stairs three at a time before sliding down the bannister a minute later, a toolbelt filled with wriggling dreams slung across his chest, looking something like a cowboy crossed with a mechanic, and headed out back again. Another — he nearly burned himself wrangling a pizza out of the oven placed in there by Adam some time earlier.

Each time, Adam had looked up from his printed-out readings on paradigm shifts and they had shared a look, twin smirks, fleeting, settled enough by the comfort of existing nearby each other.

Opal joined him on the couch after they'd eaten, after Ronan had gone to go dream, her oversized sweater tucked over hooves, which were sticky with something inscrutable. She peeked over Adam's hands to chance a look at his book.

He angled it towards her. "Have you been reading?" Adam asked.

She nodded.

"What have you been reading?"

"Dictionary."

"You've been reading the dictionary?"

She nodded again. "Tastes like ink."

Adam laid his book flat down in his lap, limp. "Reading. Not eating. They sound similar."

She looked up at him, her complicated brow furrowed, but maybe she learned through osmosis, absorbing the text through some machinations of her digestive system, so he let it slide.

"Sounds in dreams are just thoughts," Opal said. "I," — she struggled, maybe picking the right words, maybe something else — "think, and then I say it, now. More steps."

"You're translating," Adam said.

Opal nodded.

He felt unbalanced; his world always crooked its axis every time he found out something new about her or the place where she came from. "I wish I knew the language so you wouldn't have to," Adam said apologetically.

"I can teach you," Opal said, something glinting in her eyes.

As if she hadn't already taught him so many things. "I'd like that."

As far as study partners went, she middled the road — Adam skimmed some Kuhn, some Hume, while Opal tried to read with him, almost bowed over his whole lap, sometimes pointing at words until he defined them for her, until she understood what the page was saying, and she repeated them in the dream language. It was clawing, her eagerness, her attention to him, and if Adam wasn't mistaken, she was more invested in hearing him explain the words than learning any vocabulary. He said, "Careful," when she reached over and almost tore a page — dutifully, she retreated, gnawing at her nails, excitement caged, like she wanted to impress him with manners and literacy and interest in his interests. He'd forgotten how special she was, and he loved her that much more for it.

He read out loud to her, and taught her what the word paradigm meant, and what old and dead philosophers thought about it, and what oxygen was, and how electrons worked, and then he just read from his readings in quiet, studying for himself — until he felt her slump against his shoulder, arm draped over his arm, as if she'd returned to a dream.

The spine of Adam's book creaked like an old oak as it stretched over his knee. Stilled, he let her rest against him, eyes closed, warmed down his side.

She was delicate, sometimes, when she wasn't gnashing at something with her teeth or building mud-castles with her hooves. Always the same in appearance, frozen in time, but always changing on the inside. Maybe that bothered her, to not have that reflected on the outside. It would bother Adam, if, after everything he'd been through, he'd have nothing to show for it.

He closed his eyes, too.

Atoms danced behind his eyelids, starry from staring at pages and pages of axioms and structural formulas, sounds and words turning into thoughts, then thoughts turning into words and sounds.

The dream words played themselves back in his head — in Opal's voice, then in some disembodied joining of Adam's voice and hers. It made more sense in the dark. It made more sense in his head, more than it had out loud. Maybe that's what she had meant — the dream language was the language of thought, and in dreams, the words for oxygen and fire consumed each other with jaws of letters and sundered the serifs to ashes.

It was the language of the spiraling plant, the voice of Cabeswater, if only he could reach out and touch the sounds —

"Hey. Hey, let Adam sleep, monster."

Ronan's face was hovering over them when Adam blinked open his eyes. Lamplight floated the room in an evening glow — he hadn't remembered when he'd even dozed. Opal was clutching his leg, fingers stilled from previously flicking at the hem. Adam rubbed his eyes, and sat up.

"Have you washed yourself?" Ronan asked.

Opal glowered, but at least she didn't try to kick him with her hooves. She began picking at her own clothes instead of Adam's.

"Bathe, go, if you're staying inside. You know the rules."

Opal whined and sidled impossibly closer to Adam. The instinct to placate her tousled inside of him.

Adam didn't know if this was the kind of thing that called for gentleness or sternness — he never seemed to get it quite right with Opal, and when he did, he always looked back on how he spoke to her, and imagined all the ways he could have done it better. If he were to do it again, he would have done it better. If it was him instead of her, he would want someone to worry about doing it better.

He did the best he could.

Sometimes, it was as easy as a little bribery.

"We'll go back to Cabeswater again this week if you wash up," Adam said. "We'll go to the moon field, if it's —" he looked up at Ronan.

"Still there," Ronan confirmed.

"Like astronauts," Opal said.

"Yeah," Adam said, and nudged her cheek with his finger. "You can jump as high as you want and I'll catch you when you float back down."

"And steal the stars," she whispered, and there were stars in her eyes to match.

"Exactly," Adam said, although they couldn't, really. The moon field showered with comets of intangible dust, speckled sky and unsinkable gravity, more a dream than any astronomical chart would belie, but it felt real enough when the sun had gone down. And Opal, like Ronan, loved to dream about light. "But only if you don't stink."

Ronan added, "I'll grab you a towel from the laundry in a sec."

Opal's wide eyes flitted between them, dark as space, and then she nodded. Hooves scuffed on carpet as she pushed off the couch and climbed up the stairs.

Adam turned back to Ronan to find him staring.

"What?"

"I'm going to say something and then leave immediately."

"What," Adam said again, more evenly, in a lower register, his voice the hesitancy of pressing a match to lighting strip.

"You'd be a good dad."

"Ronan."

"Said I was leaving."

It was a dirty fucking move. Squeezing his hand and standing from the couch and walking away. Gifting him the image of raising a daughter together and bolting upstairs behind Opal, bare feet leaving padding creaks, emptying the living room save for a petrified Adam, stilled in place.

He replayed the words in his head. Turned them over, wrung them out, folded them, no matter how unkempt they felt to handle. They pulled at his loose threads, washed out a stain, and he thought — maybe.

He'd thought about it before, even in the early days of dating Ronan — maybe someday — maybe he'd make it work. Someday that could be his life. That could be both of their lives, together.

Knees pulled to his chest, curled in the corner of Ronan's couch with Ronan's blanket covering his toes, he looked for something to tether him. The mantelpiece still held those photographs — of him, of Ronan, of Opal. His plant — had it grown? — vined around the frames and linked them together. Adam's eyes could be playing tricks on him, not processing things like they usually were, but he didn't think so. It must have reached out.

Everything at the Barns always felt like it belonged there, and as Adam looked all around, he felt it: the whisper of magic in him, the whisper of magic in the house, both on the same wavelength like he was as intrinsic as the wallpaper or whittled cabinets or hand-knotted rugs or antique record player or the dirt beneath it all. Necessary, foundational, part of what held it up. He felt a kinship with this place, or with Ronan, as natural as kismet.

Upstairs, a door closed. Adam's breath came out slowly, and he clutched his knees tighter.

This wasn't borrowed. Ronan wasn't borrowed. Adam was not lent the right to live and bargains were not made to be broken and one day there would not come a moment where he must give back all his magic.

Frames and vines wrapped around photos of him and Ronan and Opal and held them still.

He felt so still.

His heartbeat was miles inside of him, or he was miles outside of his heartbeat, inhabiting all this open space with air to give and future to be lived — and for once, he didn't feel small because of it, but felt he could grow to fill it up.

Then Ronan was crouching in front on the couch where Adam still sat, and took Adam's weary hands into his own calloused ones, and pressed his fingers to his mouth.

Adam said, "I'm always... what if I'm fucking it up?"

Ronan's thumb pressed into Adam's palm. "You aren't. You won't." He held the back of Adam's hand to his cheek. "I think you're fucking it up if you're not worried about fucking it up."

They stayed like that for a minute, and Adam's breathing calmed, and his eyes closed, and Ronan took to brushing his mouth across Adam's knuckles, back and forth, not kissing but simply feeling.

There were a lot of things that were possible to fuck up, but this, them, Adam knew wasn't one of them.

Ronan sighed. "Bed," he said, but when he said it, it didn't mean sleep, or stop thinking, or forget about it — it just meant come with me. And he stood, taking Adam's arms up with him, and so Adam followed, like he always would, like he would follow him to hell and back, like he already had.

And in the bedroom — theirs, could he say that — as he stopped Ronan and pulled him into his chest and kissed him, and kissed him, and held his face in his hands and kissed him again, leading him back towards the bed — theirs, someday, someday — he felt so in love that he needed Ronan to know it.

He wanted to make love slowly, torturously, laboriously, and he always made a difference in his mind between fucking, having sex, and this — the lingering drags of hands on thighs and the long pauses just spent kissing, the small sounds that escaped both of them, the words they whispered between them when they had enough breath to spare. At some tipping point his yearning turned to greed turned to heavy pushes of hips, Ronan huffing or grunting or swearing every time Adam went deeper, and he couldn't — couldn't bear how good it felt, the drag of it, the slick sweat on their chests, Ronan rocking back into him, it was all — it was everything — so much.

He needed him to know, and that need exploded, unparceled, a rash of sensations:

"I love you," I love him, "love," love, love, "shit," don't cry during sex, don't, "oh, God," it feels, "so good," I want to see him, I want him to see me, "Ronan."

White-hot, flame-licked, he took Ronan with him into the oblivion-nothing, with "Adam," and "fuck" and "God," and "love," said in equal parts, with their arms around each other, hands grasping into skin to hold on in a storm.

He hadn't the mind to cry. His mind was lost at sea. It sailed, wind-swept, by the grace of Ronan's breath. It scuttled, shipwrecked, on the shore of Ronan's mouth. He settled, lay flat on the beach of Ronan's chest, soaking it all in, all the light only they could see.

Sweat was brushed from his forehead into his hairline, Ronan's fingers having a rhythm to them, slower than the beat of their hearts, slower than the rise and fall of their breaths. Adam closed his eyes for a long time. Turned his mouth against skin a few times, away to breathe, mouth to skin again, hand reaching up to curl around Ronan's shoulder, changing his mind, brushing down Ronan's arm, touching any part of him and always wanting to touch more.

And he could. So he did. He had his fill of touching, because he was home, and he was able, and when their breaths had evened and Adam's eyes had opened and he'd slid up from Ronan's chest and onto their shared pillow, Adam kissed him. Ronan made a sound that Adam would think about at night while he was away: low, from the throat, tired and relaxed and pleased.

He used Ronan's shirt to clean them, the one he'd worn himself that day, and it was thrown to make another laundry pile. They took turns in the bathroom — Adam collapsed face-down on the pillows, and when Ronan came back, he landed on top of Adam, a true sporting bed-diver, until Adam pushed him off to lie next to him.

Blankets bunched at the foot of the bed, sheets spindled around their thighs, arms raised over heads and rested on pillows to let the air take care of the sweat. Ronan sprawled on his stomach, face turned toward Adam, hands resting under his temple.

Last night, Adam hadn't been awake enough to get a good enough look at him, to re-learn him, in all of their haste and exhaustion. It had almost felt like a dream. Spelled under the Barns, the magic trickling back into him, Adam felt more and more real every moment he spent here. Eyes opened. Everything more tangible and in focus the longer he looked.

He leaned over Ronan, pressed his mouth to his shoulder, watching the way Ronan shut his eyes, watching the way his back arched with an inhale, exhale, the way the tattooed patterns seemed to move with him. Adam kissed the same spot again.

"It's beautiful," he said, his finger making a line along the edge of inked blackness and unmarked skin. "I don't say it often enough."

Whatever it was meant to be — woods, meandering farm roads, a murder of ravens, a shield against the world — it twisted across the muscles of Ronan's back, became his shadow, soaked in the sun when he crouched, shirtless, over his crops in the summer. It wasn't a part of him, wasn't defining him, but was padlocked a layer above him, disarmed by Adam's mouth, a kiss uncoiling the covering and revealing Ronan with a sigh.

"It's a good thing I'm gay, right?" Ronan said. "At least someone can appreciate it."

Adam disguised a laugh by dropping his brow to Ronan's spine, biting at his skin a little, over a knotted eye on the trunk of a tree.

Ronan flexed, rolling over, all elbows and grunts and knees until he was on his back and Adam had fallen back on his pillow and they looked at each other some more, eyes flicking to bare skin and back again. It distracted, but the tattoo, and the blackness, and the boyfriend brought with them memories of a summer ago. He knew Ronan still dreamt — he had evidence of it on the living room mantel — but he wanted to know more than just the fact of it.

"Tell me what you dream of," he said.

A brow raised. "Like, my five-year plan? It's a lot of this."

Adam flopped his arm on Ronan's stomach. "I mean what you're dreaming. What you're taking out of them." He paused. "But that's good to know."

Ronan trapped his hand there, stretched out his fingers, absently palm-reading. He took some moments, thinking. "It's not a sexy answer."

The thought to say you, alive, is sexy, crossed Adam's mind, but he didn't know how to say it without sounding like the world's biggest lovestruck loser, so he said, "Try me."

He was silent, and Adam waited, fingers threading through Ronan's, until Ronan let out a breath. "I was fixing the fucking door of the barn," he said, "to have a better lock. Next was going to be the windows, and the farmhouse," and he stopped, frowning, and restarted. "Opal said some weird shit to me. She was all upset and started saying sorry for this thing she didn't or didn't do, about how someone came to the Barns once, some woman, while we were gone and then didn't tell us."

"Jesus," Adam said, "Christ."

"I know. That's what I said."

Adam breathed out. "What were they doing here?"

"Trying to get into the long barn, going through my shit in the house. That's all I got. It freaked her out and she thought she was going to get punished because they saw her so I didn't really, I just..." he trailed off, looking at the ceiling.

"You didn't want to scare her." Adam could imagine it: Opal, teary-eyed, like she'd broken something or eaten something and was afraid either Ronan or Adam would be mad, like a secret a child kept because they thought it would protect them.

Ronan shook his head. "She felt guilty enough."

A deeper, paranoid part of Adam wondered what other unknown things were worth worrying about — a stronger, more relieved part of him thought that it was good she had said something at all. The best they could do was make sure she knew it was safe to tell them anything. "God," Adam said, but it didn't feel like enough to sum it up.

"Yeah." They shifted in the bed, nudging closer, Ronan's arm under Adam's pillow and Adam's knees against Ronan's thighs. "So I'm fixing the godforsaken door and setting up cameras and dream locks. With — what's it called — the word when it's tied to the person."

He knew, but he said, "Dream-factor authentication."

"Biometric, Parrish," and the asshole in his name was implied.

Adam's mouth wanted to quirk, but it stayed put. "Will you dream the cameras, too?"

"No, I won them in an eBay bid."

Surprised, Adam blinked. He'd missed a lot.

"Next time you're here," Ronan went on, "it'll be all set up, all the — I don't know, moats and turrets."

Adam brainstormed. "A guard dog."

Ronan volleyed. "With fangs. Bloodthirsty. Six legs."

"Really fluffy."

"Called Fluffy."

"You should continue your appliances trend. Something like Lawnmower."

"Peoplemower."

Adam smothered his drimpling smirk into Ronan's neck; Ronan's arms came around him. It was sinking, two bodies pressing together, and Adam breathed out, closing his eyes. "I worry about you. About things just like this. When I'm in class, all the time. It's distracting."

"Yeah, well," Ronan said, kissing above Adam's ear. "Wouldn't be fair if I was the only one."

His hand brushed the nape of Adam's neck, over the bristles of his dusty hair. It was easy to think of Ronan as unprotected when he was like this: voice with a rasp shared only with Adam, undressed and undone and tangled around each other, though he wasn't without his defenses. Ronan had himself, and his dreams, powerful in his own right, and Adam trusted him with that. But all of the things that could go wrong were also things that were out of their hands.

He just wanted Ronan to be safe. It was easier to keep him safe if Adam was around to do it, here, by his side. Life called to him, as it always would, but life included Ronan, as it always would.

"Next time I'm here," Adam echoed, stuck on the thought. "What about next month?"

"What's next month?"

"Me. At the Barns. Us, at the Barns."

Ronan's hand stilled in his hair. "Just because?"

Adam lifted one shoulder in a light shrug. "Just because."

There was a moment, tempoed by Ronan's heartbeat under Adam's palm, and then Ronan's hand resumed in Adam's hair. "Twist my arm," he muttered, thumb rubbing circles, then said, "A weekend?"

"Yeah."

Ronan thought. "It's a long ass drive."

Adam shifted, rolling off Ronan's shoulder and onto the pillow, resting a hand behind his head. "But you have the whole week to make me a road trip mixtape." When he turned to look over, Ronan was already looking back at him.

"I meant you'd barely only be here for a day. I can go to you again."

Yes, Adam's heart lunged. Then, but that's not home. "Yeah, but I miss here, too."

"And Opal."

"Definitely mostly Opal. Second to missing Chainsaw." Of course it's mostly you, his heart whispered.

Ronan's mouth twitched up, but he was still mostly serious. "What about flying?"

Adam wrinkled his nose. "God, no, that helicopter we went in with Helen was bad enough. Also — tickets are expensive."

"Parrish. It's, like, over four hundred fucking miles. On your shitty gas mileage that isn't much better."

He's sexy when he talks gas mileage to me. That was not his heart talking. Adam stowed his confusing dick-feelings and tried to think.

There were more excuses — the boonies of New England sank into swamps or meandered through woodlands and the humming of the ley line was right there, magic reaching up from the ground, streaming through Adam's fingers if he held his hand out the window of his car. It was the same feeling given by a paint-chipped Victorian two-story huddled behind a thicket, or by some presence that kept poking its eye out from behind trunks, a figure, an animal, but when he looked closer, it was just a restless shadowing of branches. It held history and hauntings, stories unending and a defiance of time. Adam didn't simply want to see the world but inhabit it, inhale the air outside of Henrietta, and he couldn't do that from inside a plane.

Maybe he also wanted to control where he was going. Adam Parrish was not someone to be piloted.

"I want to drive," he said. "It's long, but I prefer it to anything else. And I can still come back often."

"You always prefer the tougher shit."

"It's the better shit."

"Pain in the ass," Ronan told him, but they were making plans — and next time Adam was here they would make more plans, and this would go on because being pains in the asses to each other was part of that plan, and Adam, for one, found it wasn't much of a pain at all.

He imagined himself coming back for brief trysts, long drives, exploring all the barns and staying up all night, not letting a second go to waste. It reeled on a spool of film, projected into months and years. Plans.

Like the plan in the trunk of his shitbox car, stuffed into a worn duffel bag, large and waiting and secret.

Adam looked up at the ceiling, laid his hand on his abdomen. Guarding and open, both at once. "I wanted to ask you something."

"What?" Ronan returned. Maybe it was a misfired tactic to start it that way; Ronan's voice was steel.

Adam said, "I didn't just bring laundry back. I...  the dorms are small."

Ronan had seen the insides of it a few times. He wasn't unfamiliar. "No fucking kidding. It's a broom closet."

"Yeah, I, well, I ran out of space in my broom closet. Couple suits for interviews, and," Adam kept fumbling. Kept pushing against the question, baring himself to weakness, digging out chunks of his self-sufficiency, a stone clattering down the walls of a bottomless well —

— but he reminded himself it wasn't any of those things. He wasn't emptying himself. He was reaching out, a boy of a mended ley line, finding bigger parts of himself.

"I brought my winter clothes," Adam said. "It's too hot for them anymore, and they take up too much space."

Ronan didn't say anything. Didn't finish anything for him; just held open the door.

"It's just a few coats, a stupid scarf, um, boots, but I thought I could — keep them here."

Sheets, pillows shifted, a weight next to Adam dipping and moving closer. Adam drummed his fingers on his stomach, but after a few moments of silence, he looked over to see that Ronan had rolled on his side, head in his hand.

"With all of my negative acreage?" Ronan said. "Where would I put all that junk."

With some restraint, stone to Ronan's metal, Adam waited. It was never a matter of if it was possible to move parts of his life into the Barns. It was a matter of those parts belonging there.

Ronan knew this, too. He said, an amendment, "We have space."

We.

It salvaged Adam's smile, pulled it from somewhere deep and knotted inside him, and played it across his face. When Ronan reached over to run his fingers through his hair, Adam closed his eyes.

"Okay," he said. "Okay."

Tethering, homely, Ronan's touch strayed behind his ear, down the side of his neck. "You know you don't have to worry about shit like that," he said quietly. "I want you to —" then he stopped, like that wasn't the point, like it wasn't about him. "You can always come back."

That pressed itself through the widening split in the scraps of Adam's armor. Not an arrow, but a sproutling. Not ownership, not charity, but its middling road of choice. This can be for you, too, Adam's heart tried, and his head was beginning to listen.

"I know," Adam said.

"Do you?"

Adam kissed him; it wasn't meant to complicate. It was meant to be an answer, or a feeling, or the promise of both.

"Yeah. You left the light on for me."

*

"Gonna stay up there all day?"

Adam considered it.

It was a ridiculously idyllic view, actually. From his vantage point he could see the sprawling property of the Barns across all of its many acres, curving into the distant horizon. Each unpressed roll of hills turned into fences turned into more fields, swathed with trembling buds of nearly-ripe grains and petal-pinched windflowers not yet trusting the air's warmth. Browning grass would soon signal another closeby summer, but for now, the dew clung underneath the sun.

"The view is nice," he said. "I can see my dorm from here."

He'd meant to just mob Ronan from behind, but Ronan was stronger than Adam remembered, feet planted steadfast and standing up straight when Adam jumped on his back and cinched his legs. Ronan always pretended he was annoyed at things that brought him joy; Adam had learned to see right through him.

"I'll dump you in a pile of cow shit."

"No." Adam scrambled higher on his back. "I'll take you down with me," he bargained.

"Like you could." Ronan was already stalking off, hands hitching Adam's thighs thoroughly up his hips.

"We're not going to find out, asshole," Adam said, a little distressed, but his smile was otherwise brilliant and his arms loped around Ronan's shoulders like a blanket, hands clutching his own elbows.

"Oh, we are. What, you think I mind? That's not a threat. I've been shoveling shit since I was five."

"Fuck. Fuck," Adam breathed, grasping his mistake. He could go after Ronan's neck to distract him — the skin of his shoulder was very available next to his tugged-aside tank top — but he leveraged himself further away from Ronan's back, hands squeezing biceps, and shimmied his waist out of the sure grip that was keeping him there.

Adam's shoes touched ground and Ronan's indignation was immediate; a "Hey!"; a whirl; catching Adam before he could make another step, winding his arms fiercely around Adam's waist and holding him tightly to his body. They stumbled, a tripping of feet, and Adam laughed, harder than he had all morning, listening only to the sound of Ronan's breathlessness, the whistle of the morning winds across the hills, the sound of his own voice, happier than he'd ever known it —

— and there they swayed in the springtime fields, wearing smiles across their bodies.