Adam paced his apartment, tying and retying a simple blue tie he’d purchased earlier that afternoon at the Henrietta Goodwill. He couldn’t quite get the knot right, always dissatisfied with himself and beginning again. Fingers shook, movements remained unsteady. He told himself not to be nervous, and yet he was.
Every late night and every wakeful moment spent wondering when his life would regain its melancholic hue converged on him as he wandered into the adjoining bathroom. His happiness had lasted too long: he waited for the moment his luck would run out. Because even now he doubted himself, wondered why Ronan had chosen him.
Him. Adam Parrish.
He watched his appearance in the mirror, studying each turn of the head and each rise and fall of the shoulders. He watched his lips, traced with his eyes the way they curled upward despite his nerves and his worry. He wondered how long it would be before he lost the smile that had taken eighteen years to appear.
In the days and weeks following the morning at the motel, Adam had convinced himself that the moment would soon come for Ronan to change his mind. Adam was not a dreamer, and yet he’d allowed Ronan to become his fantasy. Every moment he spent with Ronan felt not of this world, too perfect to belong to the boy who lived alone in an apartment above St. Agnes. The smile he wore threatened to fall only when the pair departed and Adam locked himself away, unfinished problem sets and unread textbooks stealing him back from the fantasy he’d allowed his life to become.
His smile threatened to fall, and yet it never did.
It was the same smile Adam wore now, the one that caused him to go to war with his mind as he left the bathroom. He reminded himself to be dissatisfied with the way his hair needed to be cut and the way his eyes fought to stay open. He reminded himself of his mediocrity, and reminded himself that Ronan would soon see through whatever glorious facade he’d put on that first drew Ronan to him.
He was unfit for this: for the collared shirt and the dress pants he’d taken to the dry cleaner to be rid of their wrinkles earlier that week. For the nicest pair of shoes he owned that still looked out of place with the rest of his outfit. He was not an Aglionby boy.
From dirt he was born, and to dirt he would one day return.
He reached for his tie to readjust it once more as the battle climaxed, thought against thought clashing until Adam forced himself to sit on the edge of the bed for stability. One hand gripped the sheet, the other fumbled with the tie.
The world refocused. He let go of the tie first, then the sheet.
The battle calmed. His thoughts came slower, more careful. One stood from the rest: Ronan had never expected him to be an Aglionby boy. He had never expected him to be anything other than Adam Parrish. It was only Adam who saw himself by what he would never be.
He stood from the bed and took off the tie first, tossing it to the place he had sat only seconds before. The shoes came next, Adam slipping off the too-big loafers with the fraying laces and abandoning them in the middle of the floor. The shirt preceded the pants, and soon Adam stood bare in his apartment.
For all his self-proclaimed mediocrity and internalized disdain for the person he saw himself to be, Adam Parrish was certain of one thing: he wanted to get tonight right.
The question of what he and Ronan were and what they would become had retreated to the background as real life pulled them from quiet motel conversations and inconspicuous touches of the knees or shoulders in the backseat of Gansey’s car.
Labels mattered little, whether he called Ronan his boyfriend at the end of the night mattered little (though, he couldn’t deny the way a smile tugged against his lips when he thought of Ronan in such a way). What mattered was that Ronan knew how Adam felt.
And he would start by being himself.
He found a pair of clean jeans, pulling them on before searching for an equally clean shirt. He looked like himself this way, the Adam who had stood outside of the motel and kissed Ronan for the first time.
Now, he was a boy going on a date.
The act of planning the date had proved strenuous, plans being made and remade over the span of several weeks. Something or another always came up, Adam needing to stay late at the library to write an essay; Ronan disappearing without explanation. Sometimes Ronan would show up to St. Agnes after Adam got home from work, sometimes they would sit on the floor of the apartment while Adam scrutinized over math problems and Ronan pretended to scrutinize over the changing weather outside. Ronan never called such moments dates, always promising and repromising Adam a night free from the confines of real life.
He’d resumed his pacing, letting out the last of the nerves, when he heard it. A soft knock at first, then one that grew harder and louder and was accompanied by: “Open up, shit-head.”
Ronan was early.
Hands trembled, heart pounded. The moment was months in the making, a scene that replayed in his head and in his dreams, never seeming to grow any more real, any closer. Tonight, though, it was real.
Adam opened the door slowly, carefully. Each movement was meticulous. The handle turned, the door creaked, and soon it was pulled open. On the other side, Ronan grinned.
“Hey.” Adam greeted, the single word tumbling out too quick, too breathy. “You’re early.”
“Disappointed to see me so soon?” Ronan teased, though the way his shoulders tensed and his body swayed signaled to Adam his own nerves.
“That’s not what I said.” He allowed himself to rest against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. He did everything to appear relaxed, casual. As though the very sight of Ronan didn’t excite every nerve that had been dormant for eighteen years.
They stood there, neither knowing what to say. It was as though they were strangers meeting for the first time, each seeing the other in a new way. Adam recognized Ronan, had memorized the feel of his jaw and of his shoulders. He knew the sound of his voice and the way Ronan tossed his head back when he laughed. Yet, words failed.
He wondered what Ronan thought of him.
They continued to stand there, silent, until Ronan held out something for Adam to take. In all the time he’d let his eyes wander up and down Ronan’s body, Adam wondered how he’d missed it, the fragile object he now took in his hands. He stepped aside to let Ronan in.
“I made this for you.” Ronan said, voice quiet. A statement meant for Adam’s ears alone.
It was a paper rose: the kind he had made for Ronan on homecoming night. Translations in what Adam assumed to be Latin adorned the off-white paper. He familiarized himself with Ronan’s messy scrawl, eyes settling on the word pulcher when Ronan spoke again.
“I know we’re not going to a dance, or whatever.” He paused, gathering himself. “You can tell me if it’s shit.”
Adam held the flower up to his face, turning it over in his hands with admiration. This was his. This unfathomable boy with his unfathomable flower belonged to him. “Thank you.”
“If you don’t hate me after that,” Ronan said, reaching for Adam’s hand. “I promised you a date.”
Adam took his hand, keeping the paper flower in the other. “Let’s go then.”
They walked together down the steps, fingers weaved together and bodies close. He didn’t question where Ronan was taking them, he simply let himself be.
Conversations came and went as Ronan drove them out of Henrietta, the radio filling in the gaps when one conversation ended and another did not readily begin. The music was reminiscent of summertime: it was the terrible techno Adam despised, but the type that played on the night he first felt like he’d belonged. He nodded along to the beat.
“I know you know the words, Parrish.”
“Doesn’t mean I want to sing them.”
“Lame,” Ronan mocked, turning the volume up.
The landscape looked familiar, the long stretch of forest giving way to a place Adam had gone only once before.
“Isn’t it illegal for you to be here?” He asked then, forgetting the music and watching as the familiar farmhouse came into view when Ronan pulled into the driveway of the Barns.
“Relax.” Ronan put the car in park, giving his attention to Adam. “I have something I want to show you.”
Ronan led him in the direction of the largest of the barns, away from the house. The world around them quieted, the sound of leaves crunching underneath footsteps the only source of noise. Even the wind had ceased, though Adam still felt the way the late November air stung his exposed cheeks. They were in a world alone; two boys walking an arms length apart, hands shoved into pockets of jeans or jackets.
The nerves that had eased in the car came back, anticipation heightening with each step taken. Adam didn’t know what to make of Ronan’s silence. Inside his pocket, he let his fingers gather around the paper flower. It grounded him, a tangible symbol of the way Ronan felt. He gripped the flower tighter when the pair stopped at the barn door.
“I don’t know what I’m doing.” Ronan turned to look at him, letting one hand leave the warmth of his pocket to rest against the door. “I tried.”
Adam let go of the flower. “What are you talking about?” He asked, voice hesitant. Inside his pockets, his hands turned to fists, nails digging into skin as the waited for the feeling of dread to overtake him. He should have known.
“I needed more time.” Ronan pushed open the door, the darkened barn meaning little to Adam until Ronan stepped inside and flipped the switch to turn on the overhead lights.
Adam felt the way his lips parted, eyes seeming to never not find something new to study. His hands relaxed, the uneasiness of before gone as his eyes wandered to every corner of the room.
Beside him, Ronan kept his head down, hands back in his pockets and looking flustered.
“You did all this?” Adam asked, eyes finally settling on Ronan.
Ronan looked up, “Yeah. I guess so.”
It was nothing Adam had expected it to be, though he wasn’t sure what his expectations had been at all. In the center of the barn rested a table and two chairs; a white tablecloth was situated underneath a silverware set meant for two. The room smelled of freshly cooked food, though Adam was unable to discern the meal. The rest of the barn was a series of workbenches and equipment grown dusty in their dormancy. Yet, Ronan had taken care to place flowers along them. A collection of paper flowers like the one in Adam’s pocket.
“The flowers.” They were the first words out, the only ones he could formulate as he took everything in.
“They’re a pain to make.” Ronan responded, giving a sort-of laugh.
Adam gave a sort-of laugh too. Behind his laugh lay a world of disbelief, an inability to comprehend the splendor of it all. Ronan had done this, and it had all been for him.
He saw it now, that Ronan belonged to him. He was worthy of the boy whose hand he took first, fingers tangling together before Adam brought their bodies close. Kissing Ronan felt charged, every sense alive as hands and fingers found new places to hook and unhook.
He felt Ronan’s hands as they moved around his waist, fingers pushing their way underneath Adam’s shirt. Adam himself had moved his hands around Ronan’s neck, fingertips brushing against the hair Ronan had allowed to grow back in.
He took a breath, bringing their lips apart. “Thank you,” he said, forehead pressed against Ronan’s own.
“Don’t thank me yet.” Ronan responded, letting his hands recoil from underneath Adam’s shirt. Adam let go of his own hold, stepping back just enough to see the sly expression Ronan wore. “You haven’t had dinner.”
“You cooked?” Adam asked, crossing his arms. He was astonished, impressed, incredibly attracted to the boy standing in front of him with a sly smile that turned suddenly sheepish.
“Martha Stewart taught me everything I know.”
Adam shrugged in pretend indifference, “I prefer Guy Fieri.” A wide smile spread as he watched Ronan process his attempt at humor.
“Shut up, Parrish.” Ronan said finally, shaking his head and leading Adam to the table.
The date was nothing that Adam had expected it to be, but as he took a seat across from Ronan, he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Ronan remembered the day his father had taken him to the big barn for the first time. It was a trip months in the making, an insistent son and a hesitant father bickering back and forth over when Ronan would be allowed to see everything inside. He had been six, just shy of his seventh birthday, when the day finally came.
The world outside had resembled the very world he currently inhabited. The unusually chilly late-October air had caused his mother to bundle him in a hat and scarf, words of protest coming from his mouth as he’d taken off the hat only to readjust it to his liking. He’d trudged in his winter boots alongside his father through the muddied grass, a satisfied grin on his face when he turned back to the house to see Declan and Matthew watching from the window.
This trip belonged to him.
He remembered it, could recall everything he’d felt the first time he saw the shiny equipment and a barn mouse dashing across the floor. He remembered the feel of climbing up the bushels of hay, only to jump down from them a moment later, could picture what it was like to sit on the tractor for the first time.
He thought about it now, as he sat across from Adam in a place now unused. When he was made to leave the Barns, when locks were placed on the doors and the animals in the family's possession were sold, Ronan had watched the magic leave his childhood home. If only for a night, he hoped his date with Adam would bring it back.
“You don’t think this sucks?” Ronan asked, doing his best to hold Adam’s gaze. The space between them felt immense, the food in the center of the table like a wall in need of breaking.
Adam took a napkin and placed it on his lap. “I can’t believe you did all of this for me.” He sounded shocked, as if this were the first time someone had put Adam first.
“Yeah,” Ronan shrugged, unsure of the words to say. He was unsure how to convey to Adam every thought and feeling that seized him whenever he was in Adam’s presence. Talking about his emotions was still new, having gone the last year of his life avoiding any tinge of anything other than discontent. “I really like you, Parrish.”
“I really like you too, Lynch.”
The sounds of forks and knives scraping against plates soon filled in the gaps in conversation. Ronan had prepared a simple dish, a favorite of his mother’s. It was something with corned beef and something with potatoes, the taste of Christmas dinners and the family’s trip to Ireland. It was his childhood, a meal that revealed to Adam a sliver of the person he used to be.
As he’d cooked it, Ronan remembered what it had been like to help his mother prepare the same dish when he was younger. Even as he grew older, he’d still find his way into the kitchen, sticking his finger into a pot of soup or grabbing vegetables out of a skillet when his mother’s back was turned. Preparing this meal for Adam brought him back to a life once lived.
And that was a good thing.
He couldn’t change his past, couldn’t raise his parents from the plot of land not far from where he currently sat. He couldn’t take back everything he had said or done over the last year, but he could shape his future. A future he hoped Adam would be part of.
“Did you submit the application?” Ronan asked when he’d finished eating, setting down his fork and pulling the napkin from his lap.
Adam nodded, swallowing the last of his meal before responding. “I finished the last one yesterday.” He sounded more anxious than relieved.
“You’re going to get in. You’re a goddamn genius, Parrish.”
Across from him, Adam tapped his fork against the edge of the table. “I don’t know.”
“Alright,” Ronan settled into his seat, “let’s make a deal. If you get into every school you applied to, I have to do anything you ask me to do for a week.”
Adam remained skeptical, “Shouldn’t I be the one getting punished?” He asked. “Since I’m the one who would lose the bet?”
“See?” Ronan said with satisfaction, “Genius.”
And he was, at least in Ronan’s eyes. The inquisitive and dedicated student Ronan himself would never be. Adam had goals and ambitions for things Ronan couldn’t fathom for himself.
He knew he wanted to make something with Adam, knew he wanted to be okay with the person he was shaping up to be. Careers and colleges didn’t yet fit into the life he was reconstructing. He still had some rebuilding to do.
He’d once had dreams of becoming a veterinarian. A career that had popped into his head as a child while watching his father feed and tend to the animals. There were days where he’d venture into the barn and check on the cows, or days when he’d scoop up a barn mouse and feel its tiny chest moving against his fingers. His mother had praised his patience with the creatures, a virtue Ronan was certain he would never again possess.
He’d had dreams of inheriting his family’s property, of continuing to run the Barns in the way Niall Lynch had taught. He’d seen himself retiring into the family home that bore the memories of a blissful childhood. Bringing Adam here, no matter how risky the act was, felt like recapturing a piece of that dream.
“Is that dessert?” Adam asked, bringing Ronan back to the present. The other boy pointed at the partially uncovered pan that revealed the cake Ronan had baked alongside the rest of the meal.
Ronan nodded, “If you’re not sick of my cooking, I made a cake.”
Adam reached to uncover the rest of the pan. Ronan continued to stare, waiting to gauge Adam’s reaction to the words Ronan had taken great care to arrange around the cake.
An array of rainbow colored sprinkles lined the perimeter of the cake. In the center, spelled out in blue icing, were the words: NICE ASS. Gansey had told him not to do it, a disapproving look on his face when Ronan had set the cake in the middle of Monmouth to decorate.
He hadn’t disclosed much to Gansey. The others knew just as little, only suspecting here or there that whatever label Adam and Ronan decided to use went beyond simple friendship. There had yet to be a moment when they sat everyone down, confessing the reasons for the fight that seemed so long ago and the reasons they now began to go off with one another instead of with the group.
Gansey watching Ronan spell out “NICE ASS” on a homemade cake hadn’t been intentional, but he couldn’t help but be grateful for his friend’s lack of awareness. He hadn’t told Gansey the cake was for a date with Adam, only that he was gifting the cake to Adam. Gansey never asked further questions, and Ronan never gave further answers.
“What the hell, Ronan?” Adam’s own question brought Ronan back. He was surprised, but not angry.
“Problem, Parrish?” Ronan wore a minachial look on his face, one that took too much pleasure in the way Adam grew flustered at the message on the cake. He felt bold, a boy becoming comfortable with himself and with his feelings for the boy with the nice ass sitting across the table from him.
“No,” Adam said finally. “Not a problem.”
“Eat up, then.” Ronan said back, taking his extra fork and sticking it directly into the pan. He went for the center, taking from the place where the A and the first S met and bringing whatever he managed to scoop up to his mouth.
Adam was slower, more careful, in taking a piece. He took from a corner, not getting any of the words, but getting a mouthful of sprinkles. “Delicious.” He said, voice and expression deadpan until Ronan looked at him.
The laughter that followed filled the barn, Adam and Ronan each taking their turn at sticking their fork into the cake until the words became indiscernible and sprinkles covered the table. They tossed playful jabs and harmless mockeries at one another in between bites, the moment lasting until forks were placed on the table and each announced how full they felt.
“That’s all I have.” Ronan said then, setting his silverware on top of his plate. “I didn’t plan this far ahead.”
Across the table, Adam wiped his mouth with a spare napkin. “I can help you clean up?” He offered, something that seemed so anticlimactic after the night the two had shared.
“Romantic.” Ronan said it mostly to himself, internally going through everything he’d done wrong that evening. He should have planned for this, the moment when the meal ended and he would either lead Adam into the house or back to the car.
That he didn’t know what he was doing must have been evident to Adam, who started gathering dishes from the table. He stacked them in a neat pile; Ronan watched his hands as they worked. “Should I take these to the house?” Adam asked.
Ronan didn’t respond at first, too busy thinking about the thought of Adam in the place he’d grown up. Adam in the kitchen, Adam being led up the stairs to the site of Ronan’s old bedroom. Artifacts remained, the house full of the items he wouldn’t carry with him to his new room in Monmouth. The house lay dormant, a silent kingdom ready to reawaken.
The knowledge that he wasn’t allowed to be on the property only fueled Ronan’s desire to retrace the steps of his childhood. He stood up then, nodding slowly and saying: “I’ll give you the tour.”
The frigid air greeted them when they left the barn, each carrying a stack of dishes in their hands as they trudged across the yard. The door to the house was locked, and Ronan fumbled for a key he ought not to have in the pockets of his pants. The whole moment felt surreal, the act of carrying dishes from the barn to the house with Adam was something he’d never fathomed.
He wasn’t sure if being home was more unfathomable, or if it was that he had successfully planned and went on a date with Adam Parrish.
“Am I allowed in?”
“Sure you want to do this?” Ronan asked in response, distracting himself from memories of a life gone by. “I mean, we technically are breaking the law, Parrish.”
“Well, only if you want me to.”
“Did you just ask my permission to break the law?”
Adam stood straighter, Ronan watching his confidence build. “I guess so.” He said.
Pushing open the door was the first step, crossing the threshold was the next. He’d been back earlier that day, using the kitchen to prepare the dinner. Yet each time he reentered the home, a fresh charge surged. An act of defiance so personal to him.
“Welcome home.” Ronan said it quietly when he entered the house, more to himself than to Adam. Here he was, standing in a home that meant so much to him alongside the boy who had come to mean so much to him. It was a moment he knew would soon come to an end, after the dishes were placed back in their cabinets and the doors were relocked. But for now, he preserved in his mind what it looked like to see Adam’s eyes take in the sites of his home.
“Kitchen’s this way.” He added, gesturing for Adam to follow.
He’d never been so excited to wash dishes.
Adam couldn’t help but smile, and continue to smile as he walked with Ronan into the kitchen. Like everything else in the home, it was an eclectic mixture of decorations that looked more dream-like than real. The house was a series of mismatched paintings and objects with no practical purpose. It was a glimpse into the Ronan who’d lived before Adam met him, the Ronan who’d only recently begun to show himself once more.
Adam liked it, the splendor and the absurdity of it all. It felt like home, a place he wanted to come back to and share with others. It was everything he’d never had, and now Ronan was sharing it with him.
“You can set everything in the sink.” Ronan brought him back, the other boy standing by the sink and smirking at the wide-eyed expression Adam wore. “Careful, Parrish. I’d hate for your eyes to pop out.”
“Shut up.” Adam responded, bringing the dishes over and placing them in the sink. “It’s impressive.”
“Yeah,” Ronan turned the water on, a muffled “It’s home” hiding behind the steady stream. He grabbed the nearby bottle of dish soap and set to work on the dishes before Adam could say anything else.
It took a moment of fumbling and righting themselves before the pair fell into a rhythm. Ronan washed, Adam dried. Occasionally, Ronan would offer some snide comment, usually regarding Adam drying the dishes slower than Ronan washed them. Occasionally, Adam would respond, saying something equally snide about Ronan’s poor washing capabilities.
“If you think I’m so shit, let's switch.”
Adam set down the plate he’d finished drying, placing the dish towel on top of it before he turned to look at Ronan. “You’re not shit; you just need some practice.” His tone was teasing, the smile on his face inviting Ronan in.
“Oh? You gonna show me how it’s done then?” His expression matched Adam’s, voice full of the same teasing tone the other boy had used.
“Yeah. I will.”
This was what it meant to be happy: the innocence of washing dishes with Ronan in his childhood home, the banter that left Adam laughing in a way he never before saw himself capable of, the paper flower tucked safely in his pocket. It was when Ronan scooped up a handful of soapy water and flicked the bubbles Adam’s way, and when Adam moved closer to the sink so that he could shower Ronan with an equal amount of bubbles.
“Fuck.” Ronan swore, reaching into the sink to wet his hands again.
When he reached out again to flick the water at Adam, though, Adam was ready. He grabbed Ronan’s wrist in a way that was gentle yet playful, letting his other hand steady himself on the counter. When Ronan refrained from flicking the traces of soap on his fingers into Adam’s face, Adam released his grip of Ronan’s wrist.
“Gotta be faster than that, Lynch.”
He waited for Ronan to react, stood in anticipation for the inevitable retaliation. He was always calculating something or other, mind now going through every scenario of what Ronan would try next. He envisioned a quick scoop of water, something to saturate the clothes. Or perhaps Ronan would leave the room, luring Adam into some sort of trap only Ronan knew was waiting.
When Ronan moved closer to him, Adam thought nothing of it. He remained focused on the other boys eyes, searching them for a sign for what was next to come.
The feel of Ronan’s hands slipping into the back pockets of Adam’s pants caught him off guard. He’d only just watched the expression on Ronan’s face change to something at once smug and confident before Ronan’s lips met his own.
“Gotta be faster.” Ronan said after a moment, breath warm against Adam’s face when he pulled slightly back.
Adam didn’t respond, couldn’t find the words to describe the way the moment made him feel. He simply brought their lips back together with an added vigor. Happiness ate at every inch of his body.
Adam never tired of kissing Ronan. He never tired of the feel of Ronan’s body against his, the way he slipped his hands underneath Ronan’s shirt and the way Ronan tightened the grip he held on Adam. The sound Ronan made when Adam moved his hands downward, tugging at the buckle of Ronan’s belt, brought Adam to life.
He broke off the kiss only to move his lips across Ronan’s jaw, then his neck. When Ronan swore, Adam brought his lips closer to Ronan’s collarbone, kissing the last of the skin that lay exposed. He didn’t know what he was doing, knowing only that the way Ronan’s hands worked their way from the outside of his back pants’ pockets to underneath his pants made him nip harder at Ronan’s neck.
“Damn belt.” He heard Ronan mutter, Adam understanding that it stood in the way of Ronan moving his hands further into Adam’s pants.
Adam stopped. He brought his head up, hungry eyes matching Ronan’s. “I could take it off?” He suggested, voice suddenly confident and calm.
He knew what he wanted: it was this moment. It was unwashed dishes and a sink full of soapy water. It was Ronan’s hands now comfortably back in Adam’s pants’ pockets.
It was the way Ronan looked down when he quietly said: “I have something else I want to show you.”
Adam nodded slowly, unsure if Ronan was inviting him upstairs to continue what they’d begun in the kitchen, or if the moment was over. He assumed the latter when Ronan slipped his hands out from Adam’s pants’ pockets and began to walk toward the kitchen’s entrance.
Adam followed with hesitant footsteps to the staircase that led to the second floor.
The stairs creaked underneath him, the softness of Adam’s steps doing little to alleviate the noise. Ahead of him, Ronan seemed oblivious to the unharmonious noise, heavy footsteps stomping quickly up the staircase. Adam struggled to see, the light in the second floor hallway not on until Ronan fumbled for the switch.
The hallway was narrow, though led to a series of closed doors. One bore the letter M , and Adam wondered if it had belonged to Matthew. The other doors were unmarked, but Adam didn’t have to guess where he was when Ronan wordlessly opened the door to the room next to Matthew’s and flipped on the light switch.
When Adam imagined what Ronan’s childhood bedroom looked like, the place he stood in now didn’t compare. The room bore little trace of the Ronan he’d first met, though it also seemed different from the Ronan who’d recently begun to expose himself to Adam. The room felt innocent, a series of toy cars placed on a desk that also held a handful of colored pencils thrown into an old soup can. The bed was made, a homemade quilt spread across it.
The room was everything Ronan had left behind, yet it was everything he now returned too. Adam could sense it in the way Ronan stood, lingering at the foot of the bed and staring down at the quilt.
“Did your mom make that for you?” Adam asked, coming to stand beside Ronan.
“I helped.” Ronan said it quietly, as if embarrassed by the fact.
Adam took his hand. “It looks nice.” He said, unsure what other words to offer.
The room was a reminder of everything Ronan had lost, but it was also a reminder of everything Adam had never had. His room in the double-wide never bore a homemade quilt or more than a few knick knacks acquired from a McDonald’s Happy Meal. He never felt comfort sleeping on the mattress without a proper bedframe, never found joy in looking out the too-small window and seeing nothing but the same dirt road that carried him to and from the double-wide.
Ronan’s bedroom felt like home, something Adam never had. And yet, even Ronan had lost the very thing Adam had tried for so long to find. Standing with fingers locked and mouths closed in the place Ronan had grown up in felt like building something new. It felt as though Ronan wasn’t just inviting Adam into his home, it was as though this was the first step in building a new home. Together.
Adam squeezed Ronan’s hand a little harder. Ronan squeezed back.
“It’s freaky being back.” Ronan broke the silence.
“Are you allowed to take this stuff with you?” Adam asked, admiring the eclectic mixture of photographs of the Lynch family and miscellaneous ticket stubs and flyers that were tacked onto the walls.
Ronan shrugged, “The law says I can’t. But the law also says I can’t be here.” He paused, then turned to Adam with a wide smile. “So I say fuck the law.”
Adam went to say something, but was interrupted first by Ronan’s lips on his, then by Ronan leading him downward until the pair sat on the edge of the bed. When Ronan’s tongue found its way into Adam’s mouth, Adam used his hands to push Ronan’s body down onto the bed.
Movements were quick, breathing heavy. The two fumbled to position themselves, breaking the kiss and coming back together when they satisfied themselves with their arrangement. Ronan lay with his head against the pillows; Adam sat along Ronan’s torso, bringing his body forward so he could move his lips along Ronan’s jawline in the way he had in the kitchen.
It was all new to him, the times and ways they’d kissed never lasting longer than a few minutes. This felt different. He felt different.
Adam felt Ronan’s hands against the back pockets of his pants, his own hands held himself steady as he moved his lips further down Ronan’s neck. He stopped thinking, acting only in response to the rhythmic swears and moans Ronan expelled. He let his teeth graze over a patch of skin on Ronan’s neck, nipping for a second too long before he brought his lips back around the spot.
He broke away then, eyes opening and looking down at Ronan.
“Damn, Parrish.” Was all Ronan said, but the look in his eyes told Adam everything the other boy had left unsaid. The hunger Adam felt consumed Ronan too; the desire for more tugged at every piece of his body.
Adam prepared to bring their bodies back together when he stopped, noticing the mark on Ronan’s neck. “Shit.” He said, fumbling off of Ronan and finding space to sit beside him. “I messed up.”
Ronan sat up, “The hell are you talking about?” He asked, voice scared more than anything else.
Adam kept his eyes forward, a blush overtaking his cheeks. “Your neck.” He spoke softly.
Ronan brought a hand to his neck, “What about it?”
It took him a moment, but he turned to look at Ronan with guilt. “I left a giant... mark along your neck.”
Ronan flopped back down, placing his hands behind his head. “Hot.” He said, grinning up at Adam. “I guess that means you like me.”
“Shut up, Lynch.” Adam leaned his head against the wall. He closed his eyes, fighting back a smile and not wanting to see the look on Ronan’s face. Or the hickey he’d just given him. “You’re alright.”
“That felt better than alright, Parrish.”
He felt Ronan’s hand slide into his own, a gesture that caused Adam to open his eyes. “You’re not mad?” He asked, trying not to focus on the glaring mark on Ronan’s skin.
“Gansey’s gonna shit himself when he sees it.” Ronan responded. Adam wondered if Ronan took pleasure in seeing how flustered the entire situation made him. “Come on.” He added, “I want to see it too.”
By the time they’d gotten themselves off the bed and to the bathroom, Adam felt calm. Or, calmer than he had been five minutes before. Ronan appeared almost gleeful, angling himself in the mirror to get a better look.
“You’re the worst.” Adam said, standing behind Ronan.
“I already knew that.” Ronan responded, winking at Adam from the mirror.
Sinking into the floor suddenly sounded appealing to Adam.
Ronan had never had a hickey before. He’d never given one either. He’d noticed them on Aglionby boys here or there; sometimes the boys would attempt to hide the marks with a neck scarf, others would wear them with pride. Ronan wanted the confidence of the latter, showing off to everyone what Adam Parrish had done to him.
His confidence, however, faltered a moment later. Aglionby boys could be cruel, Ronan knew as much. He heard the slurs they used for boys like him. Boys who liked boys. Sometimes the cruelties were directed at boys who never disclosed their sexualities at all. They were the boys who looked different, acted different, from the pressed shirts and heirloom cufflinks that made up the greatest portion of Aglionby’s demographic.
The world he lived in with Gansey and Noah, with Blue and Adam, existed only among the walls of Monmouth and its surrounding territory. Even if the others didn’t know all the details of what he and Adam were, even if he hadn’t stood atop a sofa and declared “I’m gay” to the people he trusted most, he felt a freedom there, a safety, that Aglionby could never provide.
Aglionby was a cage, his classmates the ones who hid the key.
Ronan shook his head, refocusing himself away from the world he would return to on Monday. When he looked at the mirror though, he saw the worry in Adam’s face.
Adam noticed the thoughts Ronan never said aloud.
“I’m sorry.” He said, keeping his place behind Ronan but not moving any closer.
Ronan shrugged, “Don’t apologize.”
He turned to face Adam, the other boy a reflection on the outside of the way Ronan felt on the inside. Adam’s worry matched Ronan’s. For all the confidence he pretended to exhibit, for all the toughness he carried in his footsteps and in his fists, Ronan was afraid.
It was not what the Aglionby boys would say to him that worried him, not necessarily. It was how he would respond. He worried that the punches he imagined dealing to Tad Carruthers would be just that: imaginary. That when the time came, when Ronan became the next victim of whatever litany of offensive words his classmates used, he would freeze.
He watched every clever comeback, every “you sound jealous, Tad,” die on his tongue. Ronan was becoming proud of the person he was, the person who showed himself to Adam and to his friends. The worry came from Aglionby undoing everything he’d worked so hard to build.
“I wasn’t thinking.” Adam looked miserable in a way Ronan hadn’t intended.
He took the other boy’s hand. “Adam,” he began, trying to find the words he’d kept silent for so long. “I don’t care about my neck.”
“It’s about that fucking school.”
“What are you talking about?”
Ronan let go of Adam’s hand, using it to run a hand over his head. His hair had started to grow in, several days gone by since his last shave. He liked it; he felt like more of himself. It was the self who said to Adam: “I’m talking about the goddamn hellhole Gansey makes me sit in five days a week.” His voice raised, though quieted again after a pause. “I’m talking about the fact that every day I hear those assholes say things and no one cares.”
In front of him, Ronan watched Adam’s expression change from one of worry to one of concern. Adam cared.
Ronan leaned against the bathroom sink to steady himself. “I can’t stand it. They can say whatever they want, but I’m the bad guy if I throw someone into a locker.”
“You threw someone into a locker?”
“No.” Ronan looked down. “I wanted to.”
Ronan lived on impulse, craved adrenaline and the satisfaction that came with being asked to leave his U.S. Government class because of his “disruptive” comments about anarchism, but not at the cost of the secrets he held close.
Before Adam, he feared his decision to act would expel the secrets he himself had only begun to discover. Now, he saw that Aglionby had conditioned him into a person he didn’t want to be. He wanted to fight back.
“I want to wipe those smug grins off all their goddamn faces.” There was more there that he wanted to say, a series of wants he never realized he desired before Adam. “Fuck, I don’t know. I would never ask you to come to campus but, I mean, if you did…”
He collected himself, hands reaching to grip harder on the edge of the sink. “I would want to introduce you as my boyfriend, or whatever.”
Adam stared; Ronan stared back.
“Boyfriend?” Adam said finally.
“Or whatever.” Ronan responded, trying not to sink into the floor. Feelings weren’t his thing, and yet there they were, exposed. All he could do was wait for Adam to say something more.
“If you want to…” Adam appeared equally as flustered, finding it hard to talk about his feelings in a way that mirrored Ronan. It explained why it took them until November to get this far. “I can call you my boyfriend too.”
“So are we…?”
“Boyfriends.” Adam finished, moving closer to Ronan for the first time since entering the bathroom.
Ronan moved away from the sink, the first step unsteady before he took hold of Adam’s face and kissed him. He would never tire of this feeling. There were things left unsaid, the thought of Aglionby and its students not fully resolved. But having Adam, feeling the way he kept his hands firm around Ronan's waist, told Ronan that he would fight to keep this feeling alive. And he would fight for boys like himself; they deserved to be free of the cage that confined them.
“Ronan,” Adam said after a moment. “We should finish the dishes.”
“Fuck off, Parrish.” He responded, and kissed Adam harder.
It took some time before Adam led Ronan back to the kitchen, and even longer before Adam convinced Ronan to finish washing the dishes. Eventually though, the pair finished everything and the two stood alone in the silent and spotless room, admiring the other more than the work they’d accomplished.
“Thank you.” Adam said finally, hand in Ronan’s.
Ronan shrugged, “Thank you,” he said back.
He had never truly said aloud how much he owed Adam. The way Adam met him at his low, and stayed with him as he began to rebuild. He could be himself around Adam, something he had forgotten how to do.
“Come on,” Ronan added. “I need you to be there when Gansey sees my neck.”
“Are we going to tell them that we’re—?”
“If you want to.”
Adam nodded, “I want to.”
Ronan squeezed Adam’s hand, “Then let's go.”
They rode with the stereo loud, the car vibrating to beat of a song Ronan loved and Adam hated. It felt natural, nerves replaced by the calm Adam brought him. Ronan didn’t know what version of himself drove back to Monmouth, but he liked it. He wanted it to be permanent.
He turned the song up when he caught Adam mouthing along the words.
When they arrived at Monmouth, though, Ronan hesitated. He left the car on a second too long, the music playing even after the moment ended. Even after turning off the car, the silence that took the music’s place went on for too long.
“Are they all in there?” Adam broke the silence.
Ronan hadn’t thought of that. He had just assumed everyone would be there and that everyone would be waiting to listen to what he and Adam had to say. “Maybe.”
“I guess we should go.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Ronan took his keys and left the car, waiting for Adam to walk with him into Monmouth. They walked quickly, hands shoved into pockets to protect them from the frigid air. At the door, Ronan stopped to look at Adam.
“How’s my neck?” He asked, grin wide.
Adam’s eyes narrowed. “Shut up.” He found the door handle and opened it, walking across the threshold before Ronan.
Ronan joined a moment later. He was ready. The secrets he kept beneath his chest surfaced, every word he’d held back because it hadn’t been the right time reappeared on his tongue. He knew who he was and who he wanted to be.
And right now that was Adam Parrish’s boyfriend.
“Dick,” he called. “Parrish and I are here.”
After a moment, Blue’s voice came: “Great. We’re busy.”
He looked to Adam who shrugged, unwilling to question what Blue meant.
“You better have clothes on when I walk up these steps, Gans.” Ronan yelled. “Or I’m kicking you out of your own place.”
“I have clothes on.” Gansey’s voice called back.
Noah’s voice followed, raised to a tone just above conversational: “We’re setting up the town.”
Ronan looked back to Adam, who appeared equally lost. Instead of indulging in further conversation, Ronan walked up the steps to the main living space. From the hall he could see Gansey, Blue, and Noah sitting together on the couch in front of the television set. The TV was on, as was the Wii . Ronan didn’t recognize the game, but watched as a human-looking boy interacted with a raccoon.
“What the hell is this?” He asked, announcing his presence.
Noah responded, “ Animal Crossing !”
The three continued the game, leaving Adam and Ronan to shuffle themselves into the room. They hadn’t rehearsed what they would say, or how they would bring things about. Letting things happen naturally seemed best, but Ronan didn’t know how long he could sit through watching the three play Animal Crossing . Especially with Adam seated beside him, thigh intentionally pressed against Ronan’s thigh.
He nudged Adam, Adam nudged back. No one took notice.
“What do we do?” Ronan whispered a moment later into Adam’s hearing ear.
“I figured they’d notice by now.” Adam whispered back. He kept his lips close to Ronan’s ear a second longer, a gesture that caught Ronan off-guard.
The two continued to sit and watch as the human-ish character planted flowers and interacted with a dog and then a bird. Ronan grew restless; he’d had enough.
He looked to Adam, asking wordlessly if the time had come. When Adam nodded in approval, Ronan began to open his mouth. He told himself he could do it, that these were his friends and the people he trusted most. He could expose his secrets and trust them to never let them go.
“This game is boring.” He said it loud enough that everyone turned to look at him. “Great. Now that I have your attention—”
“What happened to your neck?” Gansey interrupted, falling for the bait Ronan had laid.
Ronan smirked. “Glad you asked.”
“That was my fault.” Adam responded before Ronan could. “Because I, uh, we…”
It was Ronan’s turn to respond, helping Adam when his own words failed. “Parrish and I are together.”
And just like that, the secret was no longer a secret.
He looked from Noah to Blue to Gansey, judging each of their reactions. Of them all, Gansey seemed the most surprised. Noah wore the faintest trace of a smile on his lips, the only one of the three Ronan had spoken to before about his feelings for Adam. He appeared happy, an expression Blue also wore.
Only Gansey looked confused. “As in…”
“As in, when one boy likes another boy very much they—” Ronan was interrupted by Adam nudging him with his elbow, the cue for him to stop talking.
Blue had also elbowed Gansey, who continued to process everything he’d been told. “The ASS cake,” he said finally. “I thought you were making a joke.”
“Parrish has a nice ass, doesn’t he, Gans?” Ronan said, earning himself another elbow to the side from Adam. This one had an added force.
Blue stood up, “Well I’m happy for the two of you,” she said. “And I’m glad you’re done fighting, or whatever that was.”
Ronan exchanged a look with Adam, a knowing glance that said the story of the fight was one to share another day. Instead, they joined Blue in standing, Adam first and Ronan following his boyfriend’s lead.
“I should head home.” Adam announced, always the first to depart. Selfishly, Ronan wondered if it was so the two could have a moment away from the group. Realistically, he knew Adam probably had homework or some other academic commitment he’d stepped away from for too long.
Blue rolled her eyes, “Don’t be boring.”
“Gansey just bought more games for the Wii for us to play.” Noah added, gesturing to Animal Crossing still playing on the screen.
Ronan nudged Adam, “Yeah, don't be boring.” He thought to say more, but stopped himself when he realized the others were staring. “Let me kick your ass in—” He walked over to the stack of games lined up on the floor beside the television set, bending down to skim through titles he had never heard of before. It didn’t take him long before he settled on one, pulling out the game with a familiar character on the cover and waving it in front of the room. “ Monopoly .”
Adam’s eyes narrowed, “Fine. But you’re not allowed to storm out of the room when I win.”
“And you’re not allowed to fake needing to go home until the game’s over.”
A deal was reached. Noah ended his game of Animal Crossing and politely announced that he would not be partaking in Monopoly , leaving Adam and Ronan, and Blue and Gansey to compete against one another.
The game was a series of raised voices and intentionally ruining opponents’ chances at winning. But it was also a game of laughter and a return to normalcy. The fighting was over, the secrets were free. Everything felt natural, and Ronan took pleasure in it all.
The fact that Gansey won Monopoly didn’t bother him, not really. He had his friends, he had Adam.
He could handle returning to school on Monday, and he could handle a future he wanted to live to see.
He was happy; and he knew his mother would be proud.