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broken like me

Chapter Text

The humidity hung heavy in the air as Adam Parrish clocked in on what appeared to be another monotonous day spent at work.

He began a job at the Henrietta Community Pool by mistake. An offhand comment made during his regular shift at the auto repair shop about needing to stay busy during the summer led to his boss mentioning how his sister-in-law oversaw the pool and how the pool could always use desk attendants.

Adam received the job a day later after an informal phone conversation was had between himself and the sister-in-law in the parking lot of the repair shop. As Adam handed the borrowed phone back to his boss, he shrugged and said “I guess I start tomorrow.”

There was no training, no handbook to follow, no background check conducted, just some paperwork to sign. She even ignored the fact that he was, for another month, a minor who needed the paperwork completed by a parent or guardian. Adam would work in the mornings four days a week and bike to the repair shop for his regular shift in the evenings. On his first day, the sister-in-law (Janet, as Adam came to know her) handed Adam a red shirt with white block letters that spelled “HCP” on the front and “STAFF” on the back. He slipped the shirt on over his traditional white t-shirt and took a seat at the desk.

For twenty hours a week Adam had to be sweet tea and southern hospitality, saying: “thank you, ma’am” or “hope y’all had fun today” to each passing guest that came in or out of the outdated and overcrowded community pool.

The mosquitoes bit, women twice his age talked about pinching his cheeks, and the warm Virginia sun left him both fatigued and irate by the time he clocked out and biked to his second job.

He quickly came to hate it, hated the fakeness of it, hated how classmates would walk past and Adam would have no choice but to smile and thank them for visiting. There was a power dynamic that perpetually placed Adam at the bottom.

But quitting wasn’t who he was.

To be Adam Parrish was to be many things, but it was never to be a quitter. He would never ask for help nor admit defeat. He was ambitious and proud and undeniably alone. Always alone.

So he sat alone, now two weeks into the job, handing wristbands to children who passed their swim tests. There he sat, meticulously watching a spider cross his desk just to pass the time.

“Hello!” The spider scurried off to the far corner of the desk and Adam’s concentration was broken by a boy with golden curls and a persistent smile. The name on the computer screen flashed Matthew Lynch as the boy scanned his membership card. Another name, another face insignificant to Adam.

“Enjoy the pool,” Adam said with a fakeness that made his skin itch.

The boy, a name already forgotten, bounded away and Adam’s eyes fell back on the spider. Or, perhaps it was a different spider. The spiders of the Henrietta Community Pool, much like the residents of Henrietta itself, all took the same form and it became a challenge to tell them apart. Fair-skinned families with laughter lines and calloused hands made up 98.1% of Henrietta’s demographic and made up 100% of the people that passed through the pool’s gate.

A blue collar town that Adam himself blended perfectly into.

Adam followed the spider to the edge of the desk where, as before, approaching footsteps scared it away. As Adam brought his head up, a boy that looked nothing like Henrietta sped past, saying “I’m with the kid.” before Adam could stop him and ask for proof of membership.

Four hours and thirty-two minutes until Adam Parrish could clock out. Less than twenty-four hours until he would clock back in and do it over again.

 


 

Ronan Lynch hated everything about the Henrietta Community Pool, hated the sights and the sounds and the smells that came with upwards of 100 bodies splashing around in lukewarm water as the Henrietta sun beat down on them.

It should have been Declan to take Matthew to the pool, Declan who insistently purchased the memberships. Yet Ronan was the one to emerge from the car some minutes after Matthew bounded through the gates and out of Ronan’s sight while Declan fucked off to Washington.

Ronan felt eyes on him, families giving him inconsiderate looks as he slammed his car door and approached the gate fully clad in black. He had no intention of swimming or doing anything other than sitting under a tree with his head down, glaring at any child or parent or grandparent who might come near him.

Through body language alone he declared “Fuck You” to everyone enjoying the summer sun at the pool.

He watched a mother pull her two daughters aside to let him pass as though he were some sort of textbook villain coming to spread terror to the mild-mannered people of Henrietta. He hated the town and the people inside it and how everyone feigned happiness in hope that it would make them feel something other than dissatisfaction and disappointment with the miserable lives they lived.

Ronan wore his unhappiness on his face every day.

That unhappiness allowed him to pay no attention to the desk attendant, assuming whoever it was to be a carbon copy of everything Ronan despised about Henrietta. He said “I’m with the kid,” before finding a tree to sit under far away from the seemingly happy parents and their seemingly happy children.

It should have been Declan to take Matthew to the pool.

The community pool reminded Ronan of everything he lost. He had no parents, no family beyond his brothers to swim around the water with or compete to see who could make the biggest splash on the diving board. His father lay buried in a plot of land owned by the Lynch family and his mother lay buried under blankets at the local hospital, comatose since the death of her husband.

Ronan lived with his only friend, Matthew lived at school, and Declan lived like a bureaucrat in a townhouse in Washington, the three brothers only coming together once a week to say their prayers at St. Agnes before returning to their disconnected lives. In the almost complete year since the death of their father and the hospitalization of their mother, the once close Lynch brothers grew apart.

Apparently the Henrietta Community Pool was Declan’s attempt to bring the three back together.

Under the tree Ronan kept his head down and picked at the bracelets on his wrist, doing his best to ignore any and all pool-goers with holy water in their oversized bags, ready to condemn Ronan to Hell. He looked up only when he noticed Matthew standing before him, water dripping from his curls onto the tops of Ronan’s shoes.

“Did you bring the money for the snack bar?”

“I gave it to you.”

Matthew scratched the back of his head, all his boyishness coming out as he recollected where he placed the money Ronan had given him that morning with strict instructions not to lose it. “Right… I think it’s still in the car.”

The way Matthew looked at Ronan signaled to the older brother that the younger Lynch desired him to retrieve the money from the car. As Ronan stood himself up, Matthew gleamed and ran off to rejoin a group of boys that looked about his age, yelling his thanks as Ronan began back toward the entrance.

Had it been anyone else, Ronan would have said to piss off. But it was Matthew with his eternal happiness and dream-like smile, Matthew who made Ronan believe that maybe (just maybe) there was some sort of good in the world.

He ignored the desk attendant again on his way out, giving a backhanded wave and saying “I’ll be back” at the same time the attendant offered well wishes. If Ronan saw Matthew as the last chance for good in the world, he saw himself as coming straight from Hell.

The money was left on the passenger seat, visible to anyone who passed by. Ronan grabbed the few bills and slammed the door with enough force that the man emerging from the car beside his glared.

When Ronan approached the gate, the desk attendant addressed him. Just as Ronan turned his head toward the attendant, he tripped over nothing more than his own feet.

Fuck .

He wasn’t sure if he had said it aloud or in his head but Ronan could feel his face growing warmer from more than the sun’s rays. The first thing Ronan noticed about the desk attendant was his hands, worn and calloused and tanned from hours spent in the sun. He held a scanner and said, “I need to see your card.”

“What?”

“Your membership card. I’m not supposed to let you in without it.”

“Oh.”

A line was forming as Ronan dug in his pocket where he knew his membership card did not reside. “I, uh, don't have it.” He tripped over his feet and his words for a boy with nice hands and a nicer smile. Ronan felt sick.

“I need your name then, to verify your membership.”

Ronan thought the second part sounded like an afterthought, wishful thinking telling him the anonymous attendant desired to know his name.

His skin continued to burn.

“Lynch.” Ronan said and when prompted for a first name mumbled out, “Rom - fuck - Ronan.”

“Sorry?”

Maybe it was the heat or the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything today (or the way the attendant said “Sorry?”) that made Ronan’s head grow lighter and lighter. He steadied himself on the edge of the desk, avoided further eye contact, and said: “Ronan. Ronan Lynch.”

“Enjoy your swim, Ronan.”

With that, Ronan stormed off to where Matthew stood wrapped in a towel and eating a snow cone he must have charmed someone into buying for him.

“We’re leaving. Now .”

“You’re no fun.”

Ronan didn’t offer Matthew a chance for further protest, he pushed past children lining up to use the diving board and received a curse or two from the nearby parents in his fury. He was past the gate where the attendant sat before the two could exchange further words and Ronan could further condemn himself to an eternal life in Hell.  

Ronan Lynch hated everything about the Henrietta Community Pool, specifically the unnamed desk attendant who caused him to trip over his feet and stumble his words.

He vowed to come back tomorrow.

 


 

When 3:00 in the afternoon came and Adam Parrish clocked out, Ronan Lynch was hardly a thought in his mind. He got on his bike and continued on with his day, trading heat and hospitality for gears and grease. His stomach gnawed with hunger and the few cups of water he had during his time at the pool did little to hydrate him.

On the road from the pool to the auto repair shop there was a convenience store with prices cheap enough that it became a frequent spot for Adam to grab food as he biked from one job to the other. As he approached, he checked his pocket to make sure he put a few dollars away for his first real meal of the day.

The lady at the front counter smiled at him as he placed a sandwich and a bag of off-brand potato chips on the counter. The price came to $4.76.

Adam pulled out four crumpled bills and, realizing he didn’t have enough to cover the total cost, kindly asked to take away the chips.

The cashier knew better than to ask questions. She charged Adam $4.00 even and he walked away feeling ashamed and upset with his inability to readily pay for basic needs.

He leaned against his bike as he ate, ignoring the staleness of the bread and the sogginess of the lettuce. Food was food and he learned long ago to eat what was placed in front of him. Besides, nothing would be waiting on the dinner table when he returned home.

His time at the repair shop passed by quickly. Adam spent his time alone with the cars; he didn’t have to put on a facade or pretend that seeing classmates enjoying their time off of school didn’t create an unspeakable envy.

Adam Parrish kept busy with work because the alternative hurt worse than a head-to-toe sunburn from hours at the pool or banging an elbow against the side of a car being repaired. Adam Parrish was reminded of the alternative every night when he returned home.

When the time read 8 o’clock Adam got back on his bike and began the ride home, grateful the sun was just beginning to set over Henrietta. The road home was sparsely lit and Adam had long since misplaced the flashlight he used to teeter on the handlebars when it became too hard to otherwise see.  

His eyes fought to stay open, his body ached, and the thought of doing it all again tomorrow did little to improve his mood. He allowed himself one selfish thought, wishing he could have been born to different parents or born into a life that didn’t require a seventeen year-old to work more hours in a day than his parents worked combined.

One more year. He told himself, thinking about college and moving away and never giving Henrietta a second glance. Applications opened in two months and while he excelled in school, the belief that he would never be good enough for a Harvard or a Yale dominated his thoughts. Self-doubt overwhelmed his sense of ambition.

He became lost in his own head, paying attention to his obsessive thoughts and not the road that lay before him. He didn’t see the headlights of an approaching car, didn’t hear the tires screeching as the driver braked to avoid a head-on collision with Adam and his bike. Adam himself stopped, bringing his bike to a halt and his mind to the present.  

The entire exchange lasted only briefly.

The driver sped off, Adam catching only a glimpse of his face before he was gone down the one-lane road. He looked familiar, though it was not until he walked his bike up to his family’s home that Adam realized the boy from the pool, Ronan Lynch, had been the one to nearly hit him.

The scene replayed itself as he slept that night.

 


 

Ronan Lynch swore as he braked his car, prepared to yell a myriad of obscenities at the boy biking in the middle of the road. He was prepared to do so until he saw the biker’s face.

The desk attendant.

God, Ronan believed, was enacting revenge. He was made to suffer and the unnamed attendant quickly became the cause of his suffering. After he dropped Matthew off, the entire afternoon had been spent in his room with his headphones on, music loud enough that his thoughts became replaced by EDM.

When the music no longer provided the distraction he desired, Ronan went for a drive, bringing him to the moment where he nearly killed the attendant.

Fate, if that’s what you could call it, had its way with Ronan Lynch today.

Instead of swearing at or checking to see if the boy was okay, Ronan sped off toward his home at Monmouth Manufacturing. He called himself a coward.

He pulled into the Monmouth parking lot, though remained in his car with the windows up and the bass from his music rattling the car. Ronan Lynch did not “do” feelings, and certainly did not “do” feelings for a boy whose name he didn’t know and whose life he had placed in jeopardy.

Love at first sight didn’t exist because Ronan did not believe in love or the ability for himself to more than tolerate another individual. He lost that ability the day he came home to find his father’s corpse lying mangled in the driveway, remnants of a fresh rain shower mixing with lost blood. He lost that ability when Declan signed his mother off to the hospital and banned Ronan from the family property.

He saw himself a monster, turning further and further away from the person he used to be.

He believed he was too far gone to ever go back.

When he left his car and walked through the never locked entrance to Monmouth Manufacturing, the only other occupant of the spacious building was sitting on the floor with a lamp at his side, scrawling feverishly into an overstuffed notebook.

Richard Gansey slept just as much as Ronan, though where the latter turned to alcohol and street racing to cope with his problems, the former read books about Welsh Kings and made miniature models of the places his trust fund allowed him to travel.

“Ronan! We have a new roommate.” Gansey said, stopping Ronan before he could slither off to his room where he would lie awake for hours, not thinking about the desk attendant (or his hands).

“What?”

Gansey chuckled in a way that only Gansey could, patronizing without intending to be, “His name is Noah and he’s an Aglionby alum and the three of us are going out for pizza tomorrow.”

“So we’re picking up strays now?” He knew the question was hypocritical because Gansey had, quite literally, picked Ronan up after the death of his father and moved him into Monmouth.

Still, he was territorial.

Ronan never heard the footsteps approaching until a quiet, though unfamiliar voice said “It’s only temporary.”

Looking at Noah was like looking at a ghost. His nearly translucent skin and light blond hair coupled with his haggard facial features made him appear otherworldly. His timidness told Ronan he was escaping something or some one. He would fit in perfectly with Gansey’s Island of Misfit Toys.

“God, Gansey, where did you find him?”

“The Aglionby Alumni Facebook Group.”  

Ronan knew better than to question why Gansey, who had not yet graduated, joined the alumni network. He knew better than to question what it was that made Gansey choose to offer the space up to another visitor, no matter how temporary, without Ronan’s approval.

“I’m going to bed.” He said, leaving the space that suddenly felt too crowded with three bodies instead of two.

In his room with the door closed, Ronan found an open bottle of liquor. The burning of his throat as he drank from the bottle felt therapeutic. The day had been too much; he felt ashamed and embarrassed and disposable all at once.

Ashamed because the desk attendant, with his hands and his voice and his smile, made Ronan feel something he tried so hard to suppress.

Embarrassed because his own recklessness nearly cost someone their life.

Disposable because Noah appeared to be the perfect housemate and Ronan was not.

He finished the bottle and tossed it aside, spreading himself across his unmade bed and watching as the world around him spun.

When he dreamt that night, he dreamt of a world where his father had lived and his mother could speak and he could kiss a boy if he wanted to. A world where he could be the hero, not the monster.

In the morning he would find that dreams were just that; fantasies and glimpses of the unobtainable.

 

Chapter Text

Adam Parrish felt like an intruder in his own home, an unwanted burden that neither his mother nor his father wanted to deal with. When he came home from work, his father ignored him and his mother mirrored her husband. Adam spent the night in his room, taking care to make as little noise as possible as he pulled out the Henrietta Public Library’s copy of a book about applying for college scholarships. Out of sight, out of mind , he always told himself. He kept busy, looking always to the future and never the past.

Only when he slept did he recall nearly getting hit by a car.

The following morning he awoke to the sound of his father’s boots walking from his bedroom to the kitchen, Robert Parrish already angry about something and making that anger known to the two other residents of the double-wide. The clock at Adam’s bedside read 5:31.

He could get up, or he could continue sleeping until his alarm set for 7:45 woke him.

He chose the latter, waiting until the front door slammed shut before he knew he could safely fall back asleep.

Adam kept his head down that morning, pouring himself a bowl of off-brand Cheerios and eating them dry. The milk had expired four days ago and had yet to be replaced.

Adam knew better than to say anything, he merely made a mental note to replace the milk before his father presumably went to drink from it the next morning.

From his seat at the kitchen table he could see dark clouds gathering, an oncoming storm ready to unleash itself on Henrietta. If he left now, he had the chance of biking to the pool storm-free and could spare a few extra minutes safe from the inevitable downpour.

He took care to wash his dishes and place them back in their appropriate spots, leaving his space as though he were never really there. In his room, he pulled a ten dollar bill out from the stash he kept under his bed, vowing not to have a repeat of the day before. He finished readying himself, combining his dirtied staff shirt with his only clean pair of pants before heading out the door. The red and the camouflage clashed, leading Adam to add visiting the laundromat to his never-ending list of tasks to complete.

He made it halfway to the pool before the rain began, starting as a sprinkle before thunder and lightning created a threatening picture by the time he arrived. A few cars, including one that belonged to his new boss, sat in the parking lot, headlights on and windshield wipers batting away the downpour. Adam walked his bike to where his boss sat perfectly dry in her car. She seemed inconvenienced that she had to roll down her window to communicate.

“Poor thing! Didn’t I call? We didn’t need you to come in today. We decided to close the pool until the storms pass.”

Didn’t I call?

Adam’s heart sank. He didn’t have a cell phone of his own and on his paperwork he put the landline he shared with his family. His boss must have called shortly after he left the house.

Lightning lit the sky as Adam gripped tighter on the metal handlebars of his bike. He quickly apologized to his boss and walked his bike out of the parking lot, feeling silent mockery coming from the lifeguards and other pool attendants sitting in their cars as the rain blurred his vision and caused his clothes to stick to his skin.

He looked as ridiculous as he felt.

The ride looked menacing and not much stood between the pool and home where he could go to comfortably wait out the storm. The Henrietta Public Library was the only place that came to mind. The librarians knew him well enough that he could leave his bike just inside the doors and they would watch over it for him. Adam Parrish frequented the library, always researching for school projects or writing essays at one of the public computers. The librarians knew him by name and he, in turn, always asked about their spouses or their children or the latest gossip.

Mary was working the front counter when he walked in and she tsked when she saw him, still wet from the ongoing rainfall. “Adam, dear, how did this happen?”

“I guess I didn’t bike fast enough, Mary.”

Her face softened as her lips twisted upwards into a smile, “Go dry yourself off. I have a surprise for you.”

With the door to the men’s restroom locked, Adam Parrish removed his shirt to wring it out in the sink. He kept his eyes on the shirt and the water he expelled from it, daring not to look at his torso in the mirror. He knew what lay on his chest, could feel the bruises every time he twisted his body the wrong way.

It had been just three days ago, a dispute between Adam and his father over finances that grew from raised voices over the dinner table to physical threats. When Adam didn’t provide the answers Robert Parrish wanted to hear, the threats became more than just threats. They became the bruises Adam ignored as he put his still-damp t-shirt back on.

When he finished drying himself the best he could, Adam emerged to find Mary and two other librarians waiting at the counter. Mary held a book and, as Adam neared, saw the title; the newest edition of The Ultimate Scholarship Book.

“Just came in.”

“We wanted you to be the first to check it out.” Said one of the other two, a short-haired woman named Sue.

A genuine smile made its home on Adam’s face, nothing like the fake smiles he delivered at work or at school or at home. “Thank you.” He didn’t know what else to say as he dug in his pockets for his library card.

“Oh, we already checked it out to you, hun.” Sue said when Adam realized he didn’t have his card with him.

The book felt heavy in Adam’s hands, page after page of possibility waiting for him. The librarians gave their well wishes, Mary and Sue and Michelle cheering him on from behind the counter as they returned to their work and Adam turned toward the door. The rain continued.

Not wanting to ruin the book, Adam found a spot at one of the library’s tables and began to flip through the pages. Scholarships from places across the country greeted him, begging him to apply. He found a scrap piece of paper with some childish pencil drawings left on the table that he then used to make note of opportunity after opportunity. By the time he noticed the rain had slowed, an hour had passed and he had a list of fifteen scholarships to apply for.

When Adam Parrish left the Henrietta Public Library, the sun was not shining but the rain had slowed to a drizzle. He used one hand to cradle the book between his arm and his chest while the other walked his bike across the street. For a moment, he felt like things might turn out okay.

He ignored the pain the bruises on his chest caused, ignored that his pants never fully dried and still rested uncomfortably against his skin. He had hours to go before he needed to report for his shift at the repair shop and, as the clock tower at the center of Henrietta chimed noon, his stomach reminded him to eat.

If he calculated correctly, he could buy milk for his family, return it home in exchange for a backpack full of clothes to be laundered, and purchase himself a slice of Nino’s Pizza before spending his evening dirtying himself in grease at the shop. If he calculated correctly, Blue Sargent would be working and he could catch the only person he considered a friend up with the past twenty-four hours of his life.

His plan came to a halt when thunder rumbled and, a moment later, the heavy rain resumed. He stopped his bike under a storefront awning to protect himself and the book. Nino’s rested one block down the road, home lay one mile in the opposite direction. The milk and the laundry would have to wait, Adam decided, allowing himself to be selfish.

In his moment of strength and selfishness, he told himself he could handle the consequences.

 


 

Ronan woke in a sweat, body jolting awake after another nightmare. Rather, the same nightmare had over and over and over. Even awake, he could remember every detail from what he said to what was said to him. He could visualize his father’s corpse as he was laid to rest, could visualize his mother’s cries as she sank to the ground (the last he heard her speak). Ronan had held Matthew close, the younger brother the only of the three Lynch boys to cry.

The only of the three Lynch boys to cry in the others' company.

Dream Ronan did not weep for his father as the boys laid him to rest. The real Ronan, with flesh and blood and a heartbeat that now thumped rapidly against his chest, did. He did so in private, out of sight. Out of sight from Declan and his judgement, but also out of sight from Matthew and his worry. Ronan wanted to appear strong.

He didn’t cry now, having long since grown numb to watching the same scene night after night. He simply got up from his bed and changed from the clothes he’d fallen asleep in from the day before. When he opened his bedroom door, Gansey stood there waiting for him.

“It’s almost noon.”

“Okay, mom.” Ronan said as he pushed past Gansey in favor of the bathroom.

“We’re taking Noah to Nino’s in ten.”

“Okay, mom.” Ronan repeated as he slammed the bathroom door.

Only behind the closed door of the bathroom, as he washed his hands of the dreams and nightmares, did he remember the pool and the desk attendant and their near collision.

Pizza would ruin his plan to take Matthew swimming in the hopes of rectifying the disastrous first impression made the day before. Then he reminded himself there was nothing to rectify because he did not have a “crush” on the desk attendant or his hands or the way he furrowed his brow when he said “Sorry?” to Ronan’s own incompetence.

Crushes didn’t exist when you believed yourself incapable of connecting with anyone on any level over anything. Crushes didn’t exist for a monsterous boy who ran from attachment and love and emotion and the repercussions that came from growing attached only to have that person taken from you.

Because once upon a time Ronan Lynch loved his mother and his father and his brothers, until one by one he lost them. Without attachment he had no one to lose but himself.

“Let’s go.” He said when he reopened the door, this time finding both Noah and Gansey standing there.

There was absolutely nothing special about Nino’s Pizza if you asked Ronan Lynch. He argued the food to be mediocre at best and the atmosphere, with its tacky wall decorations and loop of the same six songs, to be dismal. He hated it more when Gansey attempted to flirt with the waitress.

Her name tag read “Blue” and the first time Ronan met her, he asked if it was a made-up name like Spider-Man . She told him to fuck off . Ronan appreciated that about her. He also appreciated how little tolerance she had for Gansey’s myriad of questions having nothing to do with pizza and everything to do with Henrietta and its surrounding woodlands.  

Blue and Ronan, who interacted only in the confines of Nino’s, had a dislike of one another that led to a sort of mutual respect. A relationship that seemed to say “don’t talk to me and I won’t talk to you.” Ronan liked that sort of relationship.

This time when he walked into Nino’s, a different waitress stood at the podium ready to escort the party of three to the booth in the back. A different waitress took their drink orders while Blue sat in a booth across from the three boys, talking to the desk attendant.

Fuck. 

Ronan put his head down and pretended to study the menu, believing if he couldn’t see the desk attendant, the desk attendant couldn’t see him. His plan fell apart the second he heard Gansey say, “Hello, Jane!”

From across the aisle, Ronan watched the desk attendant look over, watched Blue as she leaned over the table to say something to him. Ronan felt his face grow warm as Blue pointed in his direction only to have the attendant nod his head. When Blue left the table, she directed her attention to Ronan only.

“Asshole.” She said and Ronan couldn’t disagree. “Adam said you almost hit him.”

Adam.

“He was in the middle of the road.” Ronan said, and only when the words left his mouth did he realize he had said the wrong thing. The contents of his mind and the words that came out of his mouth reminded Ronan precisely why he didn’t do crushes or attachments or emotions.

Blue bristled, “Leave it to Aglionby boys to be so insensitive.”

Ronan didn’t have time to correct (or further damn) himself. Blue had moved herself and Adam to a table at the front of the store, far enough away that Ronan couldn’t hear them talk but close enough that Ronan could still watch the way Adam’s shoulders moved when he laughed.

“You almost hit someone?” His attention changed when Gansey spoke.

“Yes.” Ronan said, not offering up any further explanation.

Noah kept quiet throughout the exchange, occupying himself with a corner of the checkered tablecloth instead. In that moment, Ronan liked Noah the best out of all the people congregating at Nino’s. Noah, unlike Gansey with his stream of questions, paid no attention to the growing hostilities between the two boys.

“You have to fix this.” Gansey rubbed a thumb over his lower lip, thinking how best to right Ronan’s wrongs.

Ronan, who had taken an interest in undoing one of the silverware sets, groaned. “Fix what, Dick?”

“You almost hit someone.” When Gansey said it this time, it was no longer a question. It was an accusation, a reminder of recklessness and a statement of fact.

“Can we not do this here?” His words begged. Please. He dared one look over to where Blue and Adam sat. Dared one look as they got up from their respective seats, giving their goodbyes as Adam walked out of the restaurant and Blue walked into the kitchen.

Gansey had said something else that Ronan ignored, anger boiling over as he stood up from the table and walked out of the restaurant through the same doors Adam had passed through not two minutes before.

Ronan realized his mistake the second he left Nino’s. The rain had begun again. Monmouth lay too far to comfortably walk and Gansey had driven. He watched Adam mount his bike, watched the way he awkwardly balanced himself as he cradled a book to his chest to protect it from the rain. And then he was gone, off down the street without so much as a glance back at Ronan.

This, Ronan reminded himself, was precisely the reason he didn’t do crushes. Because now he stood in the Nino’s parking lot soaked from the rain with all the embarrassment from the night before amplified.

He began the walk back to Monmouth wet, angry, and alone.

 

 


 

 

If you had asked him if Ronan went to Aglionby Academy, Adam Parrish would have incorrectly guessed no. Ronan Lynch appeared so unlike Aglionby’s pressed shirts and couture cufflinks. He looked like venom, a toxin deadly to the touch. One wrong look and he would lurch, murderous claws posed to strike.

And yet he appeared to Adam like every other Aglionby student, a privileged boy who could go where he wanted and say what he wanted without repercussions for his insubordination.

Adam hated the Aglionby boys because he wanted the life they lived, with their private boats and summer homes in places Adam visited only in his dreams. Adam supposed that, had Ronan hit him and had there been damage to his car, Ronan would have waltzed up to his parents where he’d be presented with a newer make and model. A privileged boy with expensive playthings and a disregard for anyone not in his inner circle.

When he returned home from work that night, Adam was reminded why he hated Aglionby boys and their freedom.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice the milk?” His father’s voice, loud and booming and undeniably angry. “And what the fuck is that?”

The scholarship book, a way out, an escape from the torments that had not yet come.

“I’m sorry.”

When he clutched his chest that night, willing himself not to cry, Adam was reminded why he hated Aglionby boys like Ronan Lynch. 

 


 

He put his headphones on with music loud enough that he never heard Gansey knock at the door. Ronan lay spread across his bed, lights off, and wondering how he had gotten himself to this point when the door to his room was forced open.

“Jesus.” Ronan said, sitting up and pulling off his headphones at the same time Gansey turned on the bedroom light. “I thought I locked you out.”

Gansey ignored him this time, “I spoke to Jane. She’s going to talk to Adam and the five of us will be getting ice cream tomorrow night.”

Ronan felt every part of his body tense, “ What?

“Well, tomorrow around 8 o’clock—”

Ronan put his headphones back on, drowning out Gansey and his plans and the thought of having to really interact with Adam again. The room began to spin when Gansey left and Ronan resumed his solitude.

He didn’t sleep that night, mind moving from scenario to scenario where he said the wrong words or did the wrong things. He didn’t sleep that night, trying to convince himself that these thoughts didn’t matter because Adam didn’t matter to him and he certainly didn’t matter to Adam.

When the sun rose the following morning, Ronan reminded himself that ice cream meant nothing when he meant nothing to Adam.

Chapter Text

She always knew the time to call, just past eight in the morning when Adam’s father left for the workday and his mother locked herself in her room where she would remain for hours, doing something Adam never bothered to ask about. They had rehearsed it over the two years since striking up a friendship, trial and error and more error.

Adam hadn’t been expecting the call, and her voice took him aback when he went to answer the phone. A nice surprise.

“Blue?” Out of habit he kept his voice low.

“How do you feel about ice cream tonight?”

Adam slumped into one of the kitchen chairs, thinking over the request. He could go, could pretend to be a normal teenager and do things that normal teenagers did. He could stay home and save money on unnecessary wants and desires. “What time?” He asked, nothing binding.

“I guess eight-ish.”

He would be done with work at eight, it was possible. “I’ll try to be there.” And he would, because he wanted this, wanted a moment of normalcy.

“Great!” There was a pause, then: “Because we’ll have company…”

Adam didn’t know what company meant. Blue was the only person at school Adam talked to and, as far as Adam knew, Blue didn’t talk to others either. They were an odd pair: Blue with her home-made outfits and reputation as the psychic’s daughter, Adam with his plain clothes and a home life others could only speculate about.

All the years going through Henrietta’s public school system and never taking notice of one another until Adam raised his hand in Ms. Sutter’s freshman English class to answer a question about A Tale of Two Cities , until Joseph Kavinsky and his cohorts opened their mouths to mock him and his analysis of Sydney Carton, throwing insults around like candy. They had never taken notice of one another until Blue raised her hand to defend Adam. The first time anyone ever did so.

“Company?” He asked, bringing himself back to the present.

Adam heard a long, drawn out sigh on the other end, “The Aglionby boys from Nino’s.”

“Oh.” He remembered them: the polished one with the bright blue polo shirt and glasses that couldn’t seem to stay on his face, the fair one who took no notice of the world around him, and the one who almost hit him. Ronan.

“Please come.”

Adam wanted nothing to do with the Aglionby boys, but Blue was a friend and the only reminder in his life that he wasn’t completely alone. “I’ll be there.”

 


 

Ronan spent the day in his room, dodging texts from Matthew about the pool and dodging knocks at the door from Gansey first and Noah second when the first knocks went ignored.

He needed a plan to get out of getting ice cream and so far nothing he came up with was plausible or believable enough. His last resort was hoping Adam wouldn’t show up.

When eight in the evening came around and Ronan slid into the passenger's seat of Gansey’s car, fingers digging into his jeans and eyes looking anywhere but at the other two, he felt on edge. He was always on edge, but this time it felt different.

This was about a boy and ice cream and righting wrongs past, present, and future. His demeanor changed only when he saw Blue leaning against her bike, arms crossed and impatience wearing itself on her face.

No sign of Adam. Just awkward conversations between Gansey and Blue, just Noah politely declining ice cream when it was his turn to go up to the window, just Ronan messing up his order the moment he heard “Sorry I’m late” coming from behind him.

Just five unfamiliar bodies looking from person to person as ice cream dripped down their cones and onto their fingers.

Every scenario Ronan had spent the day preparing for dissipated; he couldn’t prepare for this. The air around them hung heavy, Gansey the only source of conversation as he went ignored by Blue. He soon took an interest in Adam, asking about life in Henrietta in a voice patronizing without intending to be.

“You go to school together, then?” Gansey asked, looking from Blue to Adam who each gave a nod.

Ronan learned about Adam through Gansey, he himself keeping his silent brood atop one of the picnic tables situated next to a sign that read: DO NOT SIT ON TOP. Adam who worked two jobs, who hoped to attend schools like Harvard or Yale or Brown. Adam who now joined Ronan on the picnic table while Blue and Noah chatted and Gansey prattled on about this or that.

“Had enough of Dick the Third?” Ronan asked.

Adam shrugged, “Is he always that way?”

Ronan turned to see Gansey motioning to something with his hands, emphatic gestures and words coming together. “Yes,” he answered.

Adam smelled like gasoline, that infectious scent that lured Ronan in to night drives and street races. When he smiled, Ronan watched the world burn. Gasoline struck by a flame, igniting everything in its path.

He felt alive. He felt happy.

“He would talk the ear off a corpse if he could.” Ronan added, eyes looking anywhere but at Adam. From the corner of his eye he could see the way Adam’s hands rested on his grease-stained khakis, could see the way his shoulders moved up and down as he silently laughed.

Silence resumed between them, Ronan taking interest in a family of five placing an order at the front window. “I’m not mad about the car thing.” Adam’s voice, free from the over-saturated Henrietta accent Ronan noticed he used at the pool, brought him back. The family of five was replaced by an unfamiliar boy with calloused hands and tired eyes.

“Thank God! I can finally sleep at night knowing you’re not mad at me for not hitting you!” Ronan realized how insensitive he sounded the second the words left his lips. More wrongs needing to be made right spread out before him. He didn’t bother to speak again, internal shame threatening to bring itself to the surface.

He didn’t bother to open his mouth as Adam kindly excused himself before hopping off the top of the table to move back to where the other three stood. He didn’t bother to open his mouth as Adam got on the same rusty bike Ronan watched him leave Nino’s on the day before.

Ronan got down from the table and sulked over to Gansey, “I hate this place.” He announced, just loud enough for the same family of five from before to look in his direction, unease replacing their once-present mirth.

“Because you hate happiness.” Blue looked up at him, daring him to retort.

Ronan couldn’t hate happiness because he longed for it too much, could remember when his days were filled with it. It was the feeling of running through the family property barefooted after a fresh rainfall, tracking mud across the porch alongside his brothers. They were young, too young to take notice of the world and its cruelties.

“We should do this again sometime.” Gansey looked at the remaining three, none of whom immediately gave their approval. “I had a lot of fun.”

As Ronan slid back into the car after another twenty minutes of Gansey and Blue going back and forth about logistical details for a second outing with this Gansey-proclaimed group of friends, he replayed the night over and over. The way Adam looked when he laughed, the way Ronan himself took away that laughter with his inappropriately timed words and spiteful phrases.

He felt defeated, the smell of gasoline long gone. Its absence left Ronan lifeless and unhappy. You’re a monster. He told himself over and over, watching his face in the reflection of the passenger seat window as the car spend down the street.

You’re a monster. He repeated to himself that night, finding an unopened bottle of liquor hidden under his bed. You’re a monster. With each sip he felt the world numb as thoughts of Adam and ice cream and friendships dissipated until sleep overtook him.

 


 

The night spent out reminded Adam Parrish why he kept his own company. Ronan Lynch, among other things, was an ass;  a privileged boy who could say whatever he desired to whomever he desired. The others, whom Adam had only briefly been introduced to - Noah and Gansey, if he remembered correctly - were tolerable. Tolerable enough to nod to if passing them on the street, not tolerable enough to hang out with on weekends.

Gansey with his presidential stature and voice laced with old Virginia money and Noah with his hands fiddling with the sleeves of his too-large sweater despite the June heat made for a tolerable pair. Ronan existed on another level, one that Adam hoped to never reach.

If this was Aglionby, Adam no longer wanted it.

Home that night was more bearable than the one prior. Neither Parrish parent wandered the double-wide when Adam walked through the front door. He crept to his room, closing the door behind him and not bothering to check on his family. He welcomed his solitude as he turned his desk lamp on and changed from his work clothes into another unwashed pair of sweats with holes in the knees and frays at the bottoms.

This moment, spent curled up on his mattress with the new scholarship book open at his side, was nothing. But it was Adam’s nothing to have.

Tomorrow, his day off from work at the pool, would be spent at the library and the laundromat and the supermarket. He would apply for scholarships and wash his clothes and replace the milk in the refrigerator. As he dog-eared a page in the book, he wondered what it was like for someone like Ronan or Gansey or even Noah.

Someone who could spend their nights and days living blissfully unaware of the lower half and their struggles. Someone Adam wanted to be but never could.

He closed the book and placed it underneath his pillow the second he heard footsteps moving toward his parents’ bedroom. The last time he mentioned college, Adam had spent the night in his backyard, too angry and too prideful to reenter the home he had stormed from before words could turn into actions. He was a source of labor to his father, a means of an income Robert Parrish himself could not produce.

For now Adam played along, knowing his eighteenth birthday loomed nearer and nearer and with it came a means to escape. He would make it, he told himself as he pulled out the book when he knew his father had gone to bed. He would make it and he would do it alone.

In the morning Adam resumed his routine, waiting to leave his room until he heard his father’s boots walk down the steps, heard the wheels of the dying Parrish family car squeal down the driveway.

He was in the middle of pouring cereal into a bowl when the phone rang. “Hello?” He answered, knowing if he left it to ring it would go unanswered.

“Adam,” Blue’s voice. “I made a mistake.”

He felt his body tense, hand gripping the phone tighter as he began to catastrophize. Blue would only call if it was important, something so dire that couldn’t wait to be said in person over glasses of water at Nino’s when Blue took her lunch break, or while they worked side-by-side at the Henrietta Public Library’s computers on resumes or cover letters or applications.  “What’s wrong?” He asked, fearing the worst.

“I think I told Gansey I would go on a date with him.”

The world relaxed, his grip on the phone loosened and a genuine laugh escaped his lips. Adam pictured them, Blue and Gansey, a pair more odd than Blue and himself. “A date.”

“The movies. I don’t know. I panicked and let him pick and now I’m seeing a monster movie tomorrow night with Dick Gansey the Third.”

“The Third.” Adam repeated, his face bright and his laughter real for the first time in a long while.

On the other line he heard Blue huff, “I know, it’s bad.”

“Unexpected.” Adam offered, hoping to ease both his and Blue’s growing anxieties about the date. “Could be fun?”

Blue went quiet, thinking for a moment before: “Have you ever seen Cheaper by the Dozen? The second one, with the beach house and Taylor Lautner?”

Adam had not. In fact, the number of movies Adam Parrish had seen were limited to the ones watched in classrooms at school. “No.”

“I can’t believe I’m about to explain this.” And she did, in detail. Explained how Taylor Lautner asked a girl from the rival family to the movies and how both his father and the father of the daughter snuck into the movies to make sure nothing happened between the children. “Of course,” she went on, “it’s a disaster and the kids find out and...on second thought, this is a horrible idea.”

It was the most entertaining conversation Adam had had in months. “You want me to spy on you…on your date?”

“God, now that I said it, it sounds so childish.”

It was, in a way, childish. But it meant something to Adam: Blue trusted him. He had spent so long without anyone, had no one to turn to when he talked himself out of having a crush on a girl in the eighth grade, or again when he threw away the phone number of a boy in his AP U.S. History class because he thought it was a joke.

Whether or not Blue liked Gansey, she trusted him enough to help her on the date.

“What if I saw a different movie? And if things weren’t going well you could excuse yourself and find me?”

“Adam Parrish, we have a plan.”

 


 

From his spot on the sofa, Ronan watched Gansey pace. It had been two days since the ice cream disaster and Gansey was getting ready for a date. A date with Blue that Noah and Ronan would be attending. Sort of.

It had happened like this:

Gansey walking into Ronan’s room, face full of consternation as he ran his thumb over his lower lip. Gansey finding a seat at the edge of Ronan’s bed and saying: “I have a date at the movie theater with Blue Sargent.”

Ronan responding: “Cool.”

From there the plan formulated as Gansey began to pace Ronan’s bedroom, commenting on the empty bottles and crumpled pieces of paper in between expressing his anxieties about accidentally offending his date.

“I’m not going on your date with you.” Ronan told him, occupying himself with an old schoolbook. He couldn’t remember the last time he opened it, a history text about the Gilded Age. He flipped to a page, reading about William Jennings Bryan and his presidential defeat, when Gansey spoke again.

“You could sit away from us and make sure I don’t, you know...”

“Act like a dick?”

“Precisely.”

Ronan rolled his eyes at Gansey’s use of the word precisely. But he listened to the plan, as ridiculous as it was, because he could tell by the way Gansey talked with his hands and tripped over his own feet that he liked Blue. Just because Ronan believed himself unworthy of happiness didn’t mean he wanted to deny it to his only friend.

So Ronan climbed into the front seat of his car, Noah taking up the passenger’s seat. The pair had not talked much since coming into each other’s lives but there they sat, silently waiting for Gansey to pull out of the driveway. He would pick up Blue in his car; Ronan and Noah would drive separate.

They would run into each other only if the car ride went poorly. When the call never came, Ronan left his car with Noah behind him and the two went to purchase tickets for a separate film.

Detective Pikachu ?” Noah asked, pointing to the poster where the classic character smirked at them.

“Why the hell not.” Ronan said as he paid for the tickets.  

And so they entered, two almost strangers seeing a movie together because of Gansey. Ronan bought the popcorn, Noah the candies. They found seats in the top corner, Noah against the wall and Ronan with an empty seat next to him. The theater began to fill, despite the film having already been out for a month, as children and teens and parents gathered to see Ryan Reynolds as Detective Pikachu. Ronan quickly lost himself in the previews for movies he would never come back to see. The theater had been a Lynch brothers thing, until Declan stopped coming and Ronan stopped caring.

“Ronan,” Came Noah’s voice, a whisper as the boy leaned over, “is that Adam?”

And it was. Looking around for an empty seat in the darkened theater, Ronan tensed as he heard Noah call out. He gripped onto the tub of popcorn resting between his legs as Adam noticed the two and began to walk over, realizing the theater was filled.

He swore to himself then, cursing his decision to allow Noah the seat nearest the wall and allowing himself the row’s middle seat. Adam took up the seat beside him, knees momentarily touching as Adam adjusted himself.

“Uh, hi again.” Ronan was the first to speak, voice full of uncertainties and an unsteadiness that seldom laced his speech.

“Hey.”

It was going to be a long movie.

Chapter Text

In fifth grade, a student whose name had long been forgotten came up to Adam and asked what Pokémon cards he had in his deck. Adam had lied, remembering only the most basic names he had heard other students on the playground utter in the days prior to the confrontation. He didn’t know the importance of the 1998 Pikachu Illustrator card or why now, years later, everyone still talked about it or the means with which it was acquired. He just wanted to fit in. When the student asked to see the cards, eyes open in astonishment at the rare Pikachu in Adam’s deck, Adam said he had forgotten his set at home. 

The next day rumors began to spread that Adam Parrish possessed the Illustrator and suddenly classmates who previously ignored him joined his lunch table and asked if he would hang out with them on the playground during recess. Day after day they would come to him, begging to see his deck, and day after day Adam would grow red in the face and make up excuse after excuse as to why he had forgotten his cards. 

“It’s because he’s too poor to afford them.” A young Joseph Kavinsky had said in the lunchroom one day, having long since established himself and his followers as the fifth grade class bullies. “He’s a liar.” 

Adam didn’t fight back because he knew Kavinsky was right, because in fifth grade you wanted to fit in instead of stand out. And so, one by one, the kids that had gravitated toward him in his week of popularity returned to their private corners and Adam returned to his. 

He never learned anything else about Pokémon and didn’t make the connection between the movie he was seeing and his time in Mrs. Carter’s fifth grade class until he saw the poster. In fact, he had only selected the movie because it had a similar start and end time to the monster movie Blue now watched on her date with Gansey. 

“One for Detective Pikachu , please.” 

The only other time Adam has been to Henrietta’s movie theater had been on a school trip to see the film adaptation of Charlotte’s Web after his class finished reading the book. He didn’t see the need in going alone, with no friends to invite him and parents who viewed the cinema as an unnecessary expense.

Not much had changed in his absence. 

He skipped the line for popcorns and pretzels and pops, walking right up to a boy wearing the theater’s uniform that Adam remembered from last year’s Physics class. “Hey, Adam.” He said as he gestured to see Adam’s ticket. 

“Hey,” Adam responded, handing the boy his ticket and trying to remember if this was Mark or Steven or Joe until he saw the nametag that read Matt. Another name, another face. 

Matt handed him half the ticket back, “Theater 2, to your right. See you around, man.” 

“Yeah,” Adam walked past, knowing he would never talk to Matt again. He never stopped to question how Matt remembered him or his name. Adam sat in the back of the classroom, Matt in the front. The latter had spoken regularly and unprompted, the former only when called on. Adam brushed it aside, the exchange forgotten as he entered the door marked with a 2. 

Previews for movies Adam would never come back to see had already started as he scanned the theater for an empty seat, eyes taking time to adjust to the dark. A couple pushed past him as he searched, claiming a pair of seats Adam’s eyes had just fallen upon. 

Then -

“Adam!” 

He saw them, two newly familiar outlines at the top of the theater. Noah spoke, waving his hands so Adam could see the open seat next to Ronan. 

Adam looked over the theater in vain, knowing it was filled to capacity, but giving himself a moment’s optimism that he wouldn’t have to sit next to Ronan for the entire duration of the film. 

“Uh, hi again.” He heard Ronan say once he sat down, knees touching before Adam readjusted himself to sit as far away from Ronan as comfortably possible. 

“Hey.” Adam kept his eyes on the screen. He wasn’t interested in what Ronan had to say, expecting to hear words both insensitive and ignorant. When the movie began and Ronan kept silent, he wondered if the boy had manners after all. 

No more than twenty minutes through the movie Adam felt Ronan’s elbow against his shoulder, a gentle nudge to get his attention. “Popcorn?” Ronan asked when Adam turned to look at him, a half-eaten bag of movie theater popcorn resting on his lap. 

“I’m alright.” He wasn’t, not really. His stomach reminded him of a poorly constructed dinner eaten in haste. But stubbornness won out. A second later he realized his declining of the popcorn came out harsher than intended and said: “I’m allergic to butter.” A terrible lie. 

“Milk protein allergy.” He then clarified, trying his best to steady his words and recall the types of food allergies he had learned in a Biology class long ago. 

If Ronan knew it was a lie, he didn’t say anything. 

Adam tried to focus his attention back on the screen, ignoring the way the smell of the popcorn alone made his stomach rumble. When the credits finally rolled and restless bodies began to stand and stretch themselves, Adam was the first of the three to move. Though, any attempt at a quick exit was blocked by the trail of movie-goers in the rows before him taking their leave. 

He kept his focus on the family in front of him, waiting for them to walk down the steps. Adam himself had taken one step before he was forced to stop and allow a straggler from the row before to walk down the stairs ahead of him. An abrupt stop on his part created a reaction; he felt Ronan’s body against his, bag of popcorn falling to the ground and it’s remaining kernels spilling at his feet. He staggered for a moment, grabbing onto the railing for support at the same moment he head Ronan say: 

“Shit, Adam. I’m sorry.” 

“It’s not your fault.” Adam said as he bent down to pick up the popcorn bag and scoop a few visible remnants off the floor back into the bag before walking down the theater’s stairs towards the exit, tossing the nearly empty bag into the trashcan used to keep the door propped open. 

The movie hadn’t been bad, and Adam recognized a name here or there from his experience with the Pokémon franchise in the fifth grade. The two hours spent in the theater provided Adam a temporary distraction from jobs and applications and life in the Parrish household. It made him feel normal. When he entered the lobby, however, his near good mood dissipated. 

Lightning lit the sky, illuminating the parking lot as rain slapped against the pavement. A summer storm that had not been present when he biked to the theater now unleashed itself across Henrietta, leaving Adam Parrish with the sinking realization that he would have to navigate home in this. 

“Are we supposed to wait for them?” Adam turned at the sound of Noah’s voice, wondering for a moment who he was talking about before realizing Noah was not, in fact, speaking to him but to Ronan. 

“He didn’t say to.” Ronan replied, starting toward the door. He stopped just shy of the exit as another bout of lightening ripped across the night sky. “You coming?” Hands rested on the door, prepared to push it open and let in the sounds and scents of a summer rain. 

He said it to Noah, but Adam felt the words coming. “I actually rode my bike and was going to wait…”

“Bullshit.”

“Excuse me?” Adam tensed, uncertainty and anger over what Ronan would say to him beginning to fester. 

Ronan moved away from the door. “Bullshit you’re going to take your bike out in this.” 

This time Noah spoke: “We could take you home.” 

A third emotion, discomfort, began to work its way through Adam’s body. The last thing he wanted was a pair of Aglionby boys driving him home. His homelife was his secret, one that even Blue didn’t know all the details of. “That’s alright.” He said, keeping his voice steady. “It’s out of the way.” 

“Your funeral.” Ronan said at the same moment Noah offered to let him crash where he and Ronan lived until the storm subsided. Adam didn’t bother to question why the two of them lived together.

Logic won out as thunder rumbled and lightning flashed. He braced himself, the three boys now standing outside under the awning of the theater, Adam with his bike at the ready and Ronan dangling his keys. Noah was the lookout, waiting for the slightest break in the rainfall. On his signal they charged, Ronan opening his trunk and Adam trying his best to fit his bike into the too-small space. 

The rain fell heavy on his hair, his shoulders, his shoes as he and Ronan and Noah worked as an unsynchronized team to put down seats and clear trash out of the car in order to allow space for the bike. Eventually it worked. The trunk slammed shut with the bike safely inside and three soaked bodies enclosed themselves within the walls of the vehicle, laughter overtaking the sound of rain against the windows. Ronan honked his horn for good measure as he started the car. 

Adam’s face grew warm and his stomach ached, laughing about the ridiculousness of it all. He had his doubts about the boys in the front seat, but in that moment, with the stereo blasting a song Adam didn’t know but one that Ronan and Noah amicably sang along to, he couldn’t deny the way he felt. He wondered, as the car accerted out of the parking lot, if this was what it meant to have friends. 

And maybe, just maybe, he didn’t have to hate Ronan Lynch after all. 

 


 

Sitting next to Adam had been unexpected, though nothing quite compared to the sight of him lingering in the hallway of Monmouth Manufacturing as Ronan offered to find him a change of clothes. 

The ride home from the theater reignited a joy Ronan had not felt since his father’s death. It was Noah knowing all the words to Ronan’s favorite song, it was the way Adam tapped along to a beat unfamiliar to him with all the confidence of the artist himself. It was splashing through puddle after puddle as the three made their way across the parking lot and into the safety of Monmouth. 

It was the way Adam said: “Sorry if I’m making a mess,” and Ronan responding with newfound confidence: “I’ll find you something dry.”

Euphoric, he searched his drawers, looking for clothes he hoped would fit Adam. An old pair of Aglionby sweatpants and a matching shirt, tucked away in the back of his otherwise monochromatic wardrobe, would suffice. He brought them back and showed Adam to the bathroom, promising to wait outside until the other boy finished drying himself. 

Then there was the awkward silence that emerged as the euphoria wore off and Ronan was left with the realization that here was Adam in his home and wearing his clothes. He told himself this meant nothing, that the rain would end and so would the night. Adam would change out of Ronan’s clothes and leave his home and they would go back to their separate lives.

Outside thunder growled, the rain showing no sign of stopping. 

“Do you want the grand tour?” He asked, trying to ease the growing discomfort between two otherwise total strangers. Ronan began to open his mouth to offer additional options when the main entrance opened and Gansey came in, shaking water off his umbrella. 

Ronan didn’t know whether to take Blue not being with him as a good or bad sign. 

“Adam!” Was the first thing Gansey said, striding over to where Ronan and Adam stood apart in the hall. “An unexpected surprise.” He turned to Ronan then with all the boyish glee of a schoolboy with an embarrassing crush, “She might like me too.” 

Gansey looked on the outside talking about Blue the way Ronan felt on the inside thinking about Adam. Adam, who looked unsure of himself as he gripped at the bottom of a shirt Ronan had not worn since his freshman year.  

At the same time Ronan asked: “Do you want to sit down?” Adam said: “I should probably get going.”

The crack of thunder followed by the growing sound of rain against Monmouth’s windows told them that Adam wouldn’t be leaving for some time. So they shuffled, three awkward bodies, into the main sitting area where Noah already curled himself on the couch. 

Ronan took a spot on the couch adjacent to Noah, Adam lingering for a moment as if deciding who would be more enjoyable to sit next to. Gansey decided for him as he assumed a place next to Noah, leaving Adam to join Ronan on the smaller of the two couches. 

“Is that a Wii?” Noah broke the silence, pointing a finger toward the middle of the room where a little white box sat next to a television set on an expensive table Gansey kept more for show than for use. 

The atmosphere changed as Gansey sprung from the couch, announcing that it was, in fact, a gently used Wii purchased some months ago but never touched. Never touched until he asked Ronan to lend a hand in setting up the system. Under the table sat three games: Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort, and the original Mario Kart Wii. 

“We’re playing this one.” Ronan announced, holding up the plastic case depicting two plumbers, one in red and one in green.

He remembered the feeling when his own father surprised the family with a Wii, no doubt pressured by insistent begging from his three young children. The family had only used it once or twice until a tough loss in Mario Kart Wii at the hands of Declan caused Ronan to throw a controller across the room. The hole the controller left in the living room wall was enough for Niall to remove the system from the home and for Ronan to swear off playing video games. 

“Adam?” He asked, handing him a controller as both an invitation and a challenge. 

“I don’t know how to play.” Adam said, though took the controller anyway. 

He learned quickly, Ronan himself refamiliarizing himself with the controls as he and Adam started on the easiest cup on the easiest setting. With Ronan as Bowser and Adam as Toad they raced, knocking into one another on the couch just as their characters knocked into one another on the track. 

“How do I use this thing?” Adam asked, gesturing with his head to the blue shell on his screen. 

Ronan, in first place though not paying attention to the item in Adam’s arsenal, said “L.”

Adam released and the blue shell whooshed down the track. He held a steady spot in fifth as he entered the third and final lap of Moo Moo Meadows. Ronan realized his mistake too late.

The finish line loomed close, the blue shell closer. 

Fuck .” 

Ronan finished the race in sixth, one position behind Adam. 

He wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t throw the controller and spoil the laughter that came from the other couch as Noah and Gansey replayed the turn of events. He would continue to race and he would win. 

The next race began, the sights and sounds of Mushroom Gorge filling the room as Bowser took off, assuming an early lead while Toad trailed behind. They continued like this, Ronan in the lead until his inevitable demise, Adam steady in the middle. When the final race ended and the stats came, the two found themselves on the Better Luck Next Time hill, having captured fourth and fifth place respectively, while the winning three raced in celebration below.

Adam won, just by a point, but enough for Ronan to claim he had had enough. He tossed his controller over to Gansey as he announced his departure. No one followed as he walked to his room, letting the door close behind him. 

The evening had been too much. 

Adam at the theater, Adam picking up the mess Ronan made. Adam’s laughter as he worked alongside Ronan and Noah to force the bike into the back of the car. The way Adam looked, curled against the couch in Ronan’s clothes as he delivered blow after blow in Mario Kart. 

On his bed he sat, using his mattress to steady himself as thoughts and feelings and emotions and everything he always tried so hard to suppress made their way to the surface. As they came he disputed them, conjuring false narratives and justifications as a way to cope with how he felt. 

 

Fact: He liked Adam. 

Dispute: He had not known Adam long enough to form an opinion on a boy he believed hated him. 

 

It was his secret, one he would keep tucked away. No one would ever know because no one ever needed to know. Ronan Lynch had an embarrassing crush on a boy so unfamiliar to him, yet one who made him feel something again. 

When he heard the rain slow, he left his room, walking with quiet feet back to the room he had left only an hour before. He assumed the change in weather would have prompted Adam’s leave. Instead, Ronan found Gansey and Noah playing a silent game of Wii Golf while Adam slept on the other couch. 

He hovered, not knowing what to say until Adam woke. “Morning, sunshine.” 

 


 

Adam Parrish didn’t mean to fall asleep on the couch. In fact, he didn’t remember it happening at all. He remembered the tiny satisfaction that came with beating Ronan in Mario Kart, even though the game itself proclaimed them both losers. He remembered Ronan storming off, remembered the way neither Gansey nor Noah acknowledged it. 

After that, Gansey switched games and invited Noah to play after Adam declined his initial offer. Somewhere during the third hole in a neverending game of golf, Adam fell asleep. Now he sat himself, Ronan hovering above him. 

“Relax, it’s only like one in the morning.” 

Adam felt the terror begin to creep over him as the realization that he would have to find a way into his home at this hour came to the forefront of his thoughts. “I should go.”

This time, no one protested his departure. 

In a moment’s haste he forgot the clothes he was wearing until well after Ronan had helped him retrieve his bike and wished him well on his ride home. 

“Don’t die.” Ronan had said. 

“I’ll try not to.” Adam had responded.

The building Ronan lived in, a place Gansey referred to as Monmouth Manufacturing, was one Adam had passed before. Though, for all the times he rode past on his way to or from the auto shop, he never realized someone inhabited the old building. Let alone two Aglionby teens and Noah, who appeared as much a mystery to Adam as he did to the others he lived with. 

The mythic image of Ronan and his idyllic life, conjured up in a moment’s jealousy, began to dissolve as Adam biked home that night. 

Puddles lined the streets, Adam’s tires connecting with the remnants of the summer storm and splashing at his pants as he biked home. Only, as he looked down, he remembered the pants on his body were not his. Nor was the shirt, the Aglionby logo visible as he passed under a streetlight. 

He planned it out in his head, how he would sneak into his home undetected and bury the Aglionby clothes in a place his father would never find them. Bury them until he saw Ronan again and could give them back. There was no guarantee he would see Ronan again, but he wanted to. 

He wanted to see Noah and Gansey too, to play silly games in Monmouth Manufacturing and learn words to songs he didn’t know existed. Adam Parrish wanted the feelings that came with friendship, something he had been starved of for so long. He was hungry. 

And when he rode his bike up to the Parrish family home, he wanted to turn back and relive each and every moment of the night again. Because as he neared, he saw the kitchen light on and the silhouette of his father waiting in the window. 

“You think you can come and go whenever the fuck you want, boy?” His father had opened the door, red face illuminated by the interior lights. He was drunk; drunk and angry and moving toward Adam. 

Adam dismounted, facing his father. “I was with friends.” 

“Bullshit.”

Adam closed his eyes when he felt his father’s hands on his shoulders, knowing what would come. “What are you wearing?” His father demanded, hot breath fresh with the scent of alcohol on Adam’s face. 

Adam didn’t answer, feeling the way one of his father’s hands gripped his jaw. He wouldn’t give his father the satisfaction he desired, and remained unfazed by the offensive words pouring from Robert Parrish’s mouth about his son wearing the clothes of another. 

He wouldn’t apologize, wouldn’t pretend like anything he did was wrong. Not anymore. Because Adam Parrish had something to fight for, had a future he wanted to live to see. In that moment, eyes reopened as he watched his father’s other hand shakily raised in a fist above his head, he felt unafraid. 

Unafraid because that night he saw what it meant to no longer be alone. It was in the little moments: running his bike across the parking lot with Ronan and Noah at his side, the way Ronan swore about wet socks as he tripped in a puddle. It was in the possibilities, in selfish longings, and in hope. 

And that night Robert Parrish lost any power he held over his son. 

As he lay in bed that night, the stings of his father’s actions undoubtedly there, Adam began to formulate a plan. He would leave and he would do it on his own terms. He lay, still in Ronan’s clothes and careful not to aggravate the fresh wound on his head, with the knowledge that soon enough he would bike down the dusty driveway that led to the double-wide for the last time.

 


 

The following Monday, Ronan arrived at the Henrietta Community Pool with Matthew at his side. He hadn’t seen Adam since the night of the movie and wanted to check in. Wanted to check in and return his clothes (and invite him to come back to Monmouth). 

His plan collapsed the moment he saw an unfamiliar girl at the desk asking to see his membership card. 

On Tuesday, he tried again. This time he went alone. Matthew complained of a possible ear infection and kindly told his brother he would not be attending what was becoming their routine trip to the pool. 

Adam wasn’t there, replaced by another stranger. 

Ronan stopped going after that, believing something had happened that night as he watched Adam bike away from Monmouth. Something Ronan had done caused Adam to go to great lengths to avoid seeing him. 

Ronan believed that, whatever it was, he probably deserved it. 

It was Thursday now and Ronan sat on the hood of his car in the Monmouth parking lot, taking comfort in the overcast skies and momentary break from the heat. He watched as cars drove by, listened to the sounds the engines made as they shot down the road. He lost himself in the sights and sounds of Henrietta at the end of June, almost missing a boy on a bike speeding down the other side of the road. 

“Adam!” 

He was unmistakable to Ronan, riding on the same bike Ronan had helped load into the car he now sat on nearly a week prior. Ronan braced himself as Adam crossed the road and rode his bike into the parking lot. 

“Hey.” Adam said, voice quiet. 

Something was off, though Ronan didn’t take notice until Adam stood in front of him. 

“What happened to your face?”

The remnants of a bruise around his left eye were still there, though the swelling must have subsided. When Adam looked at him, Ronan saw how tired he looked. Tired and defeated. 

“I fell off my bike.” Adam said, gripping onto the handlebars as though they were the only thing keeping him steady. “After I left your place, I- I wasn’t paying attention and I fell.” 

If it was a lie, Ronan didn’t acknowledge it. Ronan knew the importance of keeping secrets hidden, even the ones that left physical traces. “I’m sorry, man. We should have had you stay.”

What he wanted to say was I wanted you to stay. What he wanted to say was If someone did this to you, I’ll find them and I’ll hurt them.  

But he didn’t, because secrets were meant to stay secrets until their keeper decided it was time to let them go. 

“I guess I learned my lesson.” When Adam laughed, it wasn’t the careless sounds he made that night in the car. It was forced, awkward, a signal to Ronan that everything was not completely right. 

The problem with Ronan, however, was that he didn’t know how to help. 

“I have your clothes.” Ronan said, changing the subject. 

“I don’t have yours.” Adam responded, embarrassed. 

Ronan shrugged, “Keep them.” He said it in part because he would never wear them, would never associate himself with Aglionby Academy outside the hours he chose to show up for his classes. He said it in part because he couldn’t deny the way Adam possessing something of his made him feel. 

Embarrassed by the latter thought, he added: “Maybe they’ll help you win a game. Be your rabbit foot, or whatever”

“I beat you . Then you got mad and left.” There it was, a full smile across Adam’s face. 

Ronan matched his smile, “I went easy on you.”

“Sure you did, Lynch.”

“Rematch me then, right now.”

“I have work.” Before Ronan could call him a coward, Adam added: “But, if you’re still here at 8, I’ll come back and win again.” 

“I’ll be waiting.”

Chapter Text

At exactly 8 o’clock, Adam Parrish said goodbye to Boyd and Cliff and David too as he mounted his bike and began his ride to Monmouth Manufacturing. Humidity hung heavy in the air, bugs dancing above Adam’s head and cicadas humming around him. As he rode, he couldn’t help but think of the strange turn of events consuming his life. 

There was Adam: sitting at the pool, resenting the haughty boy dressed in black, anger brought on by jealousy spilling over when the same boy nearly hit him with his car. There were days spent crafting an image of Ronan as the privileged son, a boy who could go where he wished and say what he pleased because of the Aglionby crest he bore and the family name he inherited. 

But there was also Adam: biking furiously to an unfamiliar home to play unfamiliar games with unfamiliar boys. All the images conjured up in jealousy over a life Adam would never have were replaced by the feelings that came with sitting next to Ronan on the couch, bumping into him as his character sped past on the screen. Adam Parrish liked this version better. 

When he arrived at Monmouth, beads of sweat pooling across his forehead and trailing down his neck, Adam found Ronan in the same spot as before. 

The other boy sprawled himself across the top of his car, headphones on and taking notice of the world around him only when Adam called for him. 

“Jesus, fuck.” Ronan said, sitting up so his feet dangled down the side of the car. He removed his headphones, a sly smile spreading when he saw Adam. “You ready to lose?”

And so they went, Ronan first and Adam trailing behind. Gansey and Noah were not there when they entered the room, the space feeling less inviting in their absence. Adam faltered, beginning to question why he had come until Ronan handed him a controller. It felt familiar, running his hands across the buttons to a game he had learned only days before. 

From there the room invited Adam in, muscle memory taking over as Ronan seated himself on the couch and Adam took up the seat beside him. The familiar sounds of Mario Kart Wii flooded the open space as the game started up, bringing back all the memories of the night shared not long ago. 

They played the Shell Cup, Ronan resuming his spot in the lead and Adam in the middle as Bowser and Toad dueled across Peach Beach. 

“You suck, Lynch.” Adam said, watching as his character received a hit from a red shell while Ronan’s sped past to reclaim his spot in the lead. 

Ronan flashed him a smile, taking his eye off the screen as Adam released a red shell of his own. The two turned back to the screen in time to watch the impact. 

“I hate you.” Ronan said, preparing to accelerate when the blue shell, released by one of the other characters, targeted him.

Adam focused his attention on the game, a wild and triumphant smile on his face. He sped around bananas and green shells, taking advantage of Ronan’s momentary stop. And then he was in first, Ronan falling behind to fourth. 

“Sorry,” Adam said, crossing the finish line victorious as he watched another red shell hit Ronan. “Better luck next time.”

Adam won that night, he and Ronan holding their breath until they saw Toad at the top of the podium. Bowser had captured second, while Peach rounded off the leaderboard in third. Before Adam had time to boast about his 3-point victory over the other boy, Ronan removed himself from the couch and turned off the system.  

“Congrats.” He said, not looking at Adam when he spoke. Bitterness ate at his words.

Adam stood up and placed his own controller next to Ronan’s. The night and all its splendor had ended. “I should probably go home.”

“Oh.”

They stood there, awkward and unsure. Without the noises from the television to drown out the growing discomfort, the silence became suffocating. 

“Yeah.” Adam said, lingering for another moment before showing himself out. Ronan followed him as far as the door, but when Adam Parrish left Monmouth Manufacturing that night, he left alone. 

Friendship, if that was what it was, with Ronan Lynch proved to be a difficult thing. It was two boys trying, and often failing, to figure the other out. The problem with Adam Parrish, however, was that he had not yet figured himself out. 

Beyond Blue, Adam didn’t know what it meant to have a friend. And even his friendship with her had only emerged and developed over the most recent years of his life. 

Life with his parents didn’t make up for it either. If anything, growing up in the Parrish family household prevented Adam from having friends. Always embarrassed about where he lived or who his parents were or what his father did to him created a fortress around Adam, one that only he himself could penetrate. His loneliness was a byproduct of the environment he was raised in, his parents’ loveless marriage the standard for what a relationship would be. 

Because if friendship was new, then love was something else entirely. A feeling Adam Parrish didn’t know if he would ever be able to feel. Rather, a feeling he would ever allow himself to feel. 

Growing up unloved by unloving parents instilled in him a fear that he would end up a mirror image of everything he despised about his home and Henrietta. A boy too scared to love because he didn’t know what it meant to be loved in return. And then there was the thought that bothered him the most: who would ever love a boy who believed himself unworthy of love? 

He carried this with him as he biked home, his desire for friendships and his desire to grow to like these friends- to love these friends- weighing heavy on him. He feared, replaying the way he left Ronan standing in the hallway, that even if he grew to love them, they would never love him in return. And Adam wondered, now tucked away in his bedroom while his father yelled at his mother and his mother said nothing in return, if no one would ever love him, what the point in trying was at all. 

For now, he pushed that aside, trying instead to think of the way he felt standing in the Monmouth parking lot, grinning up at Ronan sitting atop his car as they bickered over something as insignificant as Mario Kart. 

Friendship, if that was what it was, with Ronan Lynch appeared to Adam something scary and new and unfamiliar. He doubted himself most of all, wondered why someone so unlike Adam chose to invite him into his home, to play games and laugh with him as though they were the only two people on the planet. 

He wanted to like it, like this feeling of being a normal teenage boy doing normal teenage things. But it was always there, the doubt in the back of his mind, telling him that he would mess things up somehow, that these strange and wonderful Aglionby boys would soon realize he lived along the same dirt road that created him. 

He kept his doubt tucked away, letting it out only when he returned home from outings with Gansey and Ronan and Noah too. He would replay every scene from the night in his head, searching for some indication that it was all a game, that he was being pitied and mocked by these boys and the ravens they figuratively boasted on their chests. 

Because he wanted it too much, wanted to wake up in the morning and not feel like an intruder in his own home. Wanted to go back to a place after long hours at work and be surrounded by people who cared. Adam Parrish had been conditioned to be an army of one by his parents. Now that he saw the alternative, he never wanted to lose the way having friends made him feel. 

He wouldn’t let himself ruin this. 


On the morning of July 3, Ronan woke early to join Noah and Gansey in the parking lot of Monmouth Manufacturing. Rather, he left his bed at the agreed time after a night spent awake,  replaying ways he would inevitably ruin the day by just being himself. The Mario Kart disaster of just days before was long forgotten, new and bigger challenges now preoccupying him. 

A plan had been in place for several days now, introduced by Blue and executed by Gansey. Gansey would drive Noah and Ronan to the surrounding woods where they would set up; Blue would bring Adam later that morning. Ronan pretended that the thought of surprising Adam for his birthday, of handing him a gift he had taken pains to track down, didn’t make him feel a certain way. A certain sense of innocence reminiscent of a life lived before his father’s death. 

The friend group was new, pieces still unsure of one another and how they fit together. But, no matter how they felt about each other, the four who spent the last week sitting on the floor in Monmouth Manufacturing brainstorming ways to pull together a small celebration for their fifth member, cared for Adam above all. 

So they devised a plan, a simple picnic in the woods. Blue had urged them not to bring gifts, a warning Ronan ignored. He had a skeleton of a plan, an idea thought up in a moment’s courage where he would ask Adam to go on a walk. Far enough away from the group, he would hand Adam a plush Toad, a replica of the character Adam had chosen in Mario Kart the first time he came to Monmouth. 

It was proof Ronan Lynch had a heart after all. 

Now, sitting in the passenger seat of Gansey’s car on his way to the woods surrounding the town, Ronan rethought his plan. Rethought his plan because no one else had brought gifts and he feared Adam’s reaction. Rather, he feared Adam’s rejection. 

Because tucked away in the far corners of Ronan Lynch’s brain was an addendum to the plan. An addendum that said if all went well, Ronan would ask Adam out on a date. 

Back in the car, he picked at his bracelets, anxiety and anticipation eating at him as Gansey drove them to the agreed meeting spot. There would be no need for the addendum because things wouldn’t go well. It would only ever be Adam and Ronan, two somewhat friends still working out how to hold a conversation when the others weren’t in the room. 

When they arrived, the car in park and Gansey and Noah stretching against the warm summer day, Ronan remained in the car. He could feel the way his hands tingled, the sensation beginning at his fingertips and spreading through his arms. It was panic, fear, and dread rolled into one. 

He wouldn’t, couldn’t, go through with the plan. He instead reached down to where his bookbag lay at his feet, unzipping it with trembling hands and searching for the unwrapped gift. It was a reminder of everything he wanted and everything that would never be. So he set down Toad on the car’s floor and rezipped his bookbag, taking only the bag with him as he exited the car. 

“Ready?” Gansey asked him.

“Sure.” Ronan responded, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jeans so the other boys couldn’t see the way they trembled. He would not ruin Adam’s birthday. 

They found a spot not far from where the car had been parked, a patch of land under the canopy of the trees. Bugs danced around their heads while birds chirped carelessly in the trees. Clouds covered the sky, bringing a mild breeze on an otherwise humid day. Noah gathered rocks to weigh down an oversized red and white checkered picnic blanket while Gansey searched for branches hanging low enough for him to tie up a sign painted by Blue that read Happy Birthday, Adam!  

Ronan stood around, bookbag slung around one shoulder and not knowing what to do. 

A small cake with a large 18 iced onto it was placed in the center of the blanket, Noah taking care to arrange five plates on the blanket’s perimeter and Gansey jogging back and forth between the woods and the car to bring a cooler filled with beverages and other treats he and Blue had prepared in the Monmouth kitchen the afternoon before. 

“They’ll be here any minute.” Gansey said, checking his watch. 

“Should we hide?” Noah asked.

Ronan liked the idea, liked the thought of hiding and never returning to the party. He didn’t have time to execute it, however, as he saw Blue and Adam walking together toward where Ronan and the others stood. 

“Happy Birthday, Adam Parrish!” Blue said, presenting him to the celebration prepared before him. 

Anything else that might have been said was lost on Ronan, who stood away from the others now congregating around Adam. 

Adam Parrish

He repeated it to himself, trying the words in his head before turning them over on his tongue. When he was ready, hands firmly in pockets, he walked over to the others. “Congrats on living another year, Parrish.” He said. 

“Thanks, Lynch.” 

And then they were smiling, two boys shaking their heads at one another but with smiles radiating. They followed the others, gathering on the blanket and joking in a manner both loud and triumphant. The moment was happiness and innocence and freedom. It was Ronan forgetting his plan and its addendum, focussing instead on the way Blue laughed when Gansey dropped a slice of cake on his shoes, the way Adam’s thigh momentarily pressed against Ronan’s as he reached for a spare napkin. 

It was Gansey announcing they should go for a hike, and a collective groan replacing the laughter. 

“Go collect your merit badges.” Ronan said, remaining seated as Blue and Gansey and Noah stood up. “I’ll have the orange slices ready for your return.” No one laughed at his joke, but Ronan watched the way Adam bit his lip to mask a smile, the other boy remaining seated beside him. 

“You want company?” Adam asked. “In case you need to fight off a bear, or something?”

“I could take a bear.” 

The others departed, leaving Adam and Ronan alone with only the birds and the bugs and the occasional crunch of footsteps over a fallen tree branch filling the otherwise quiet space. It was quiet, but not uncomfortable. It was two boys figuring the other out, a study in choosing the right words to say at the right time. 

“You didn’t have to do all of this.” Adam said, Ronan turning his head in time to watch Adam slap a bug that had landed on the back of his neck. “I didn’t know Blue even remembered my birthday.” 

Ronan shrugged, thinking of all the words he wanted to say but didn’t. “She told us last week. It was all her and Gansey.” 

“Oh.”

Back to silence, Adam picking at the grass lining the picnic blanket and Ronan picking at his bracelets. Ronan cursed himself, cursed how he hadn’t stuck to any part of the plan and yet still managed to ruin the day. The Toad sitting in Gansey’s car seemed useless now, the plan and its addendum a forgotten fantasy. 

“I bet this is the worst birthday party ever.” Ronan said, not looking at Adam. 

“It’s the only birthday party I’ve ever had.” Adam said, his voice quiet enough that Ronan almost missed it. 

Ronan turned to him then, seeing the way his face hardened and his hands clenched themselves around a few stray pieces of grass. “You’re serious?” 

When Adam didn’t respond, Ronan stood. “Get up, Parrish.” 

“Why?” Adam looked at once startled and enthralled, a mischievous wonder showing in his eyes. 

“Because I’m going to make sure you have the best fucking birthday party ever.” 


He waited until Ronan finished writing a note to the others before they walked together back the way they had separately arrived. Ronan dangled the keys to Gansey’s car between his fingers, a note reading Taking Parrish out for a joyride :-) the only indication of where they were headed. 

It was strange and unusual, but also thrilling and free. He slipped into the passenger seat, his feet stepping on what he soon realized was a stuffed Toad with its tag still on, like the one from Mario Kart. Adam picked it up, setting it in the cupholder and watching the way Ronan’s war-like smile spread as he started the car. 

“Is this a Toad?” Adam asked, because it had to be said. 

And then Ronan wasn’t smiling, he was scowling as he kept the car in park and hands fell off the steering wheel. “Very observant, Parrish.” Then, a second later, he added: “You can have it, if you want.”

“Oh.” Adam picked the toy up, turning it over in his hands and marveling at the softness of it. “Thanks.” 

He didn’t know how to accept gifts because the ones he did receive were so few and far between. For his birthdays and for his Christmases his parents would hand him upwards of twenty dollars and tell him to buy something useful. Sometimes the money would be accompanied by new toothbrushes or a pack of shirts he could wear to work or to school. His rusting bike, which he purchased himself, had been a combination of several years worth of holidays pieced together. The last time he remembered his father giving him a true gift, Adam had turned ten.  

He remembered seeing the box wrapped in old newspapers on the kitchen table, his father instructing him to open it. Adam shook it first, a toothy grin looking up at his father’s hardened expression. 

“Open it.” Robert Parrish had ordered. 

Adam had opened it. Underneath the paper was an alarm clock, a digital one with a radio included. Not the gift a ten year old dreamed of, but one that Adam Parrish had smiled at and gave his thanks to anyway. The alarm clock rested by his bedside to the day, waking him up for work or for school, and would be the first item packed in a box when he announced to his family that he would be moving out. 

“Sorry if it sucks.” Ronan’s voice brought Adam back, memories of previous birthdays dissolving. They were replaced instead by the present; sitting in Gansey’s car with Ronan pressing buttons in an attempt to turn the radio on. 

“It doesn’t suck.” Adam responded, because it didn’t. 

There were things Adam Parrish would never accept. He would never accept a job without interviewing first, would never accept a scholarship without applying for it himself. He would never accept something where he believed he owed the other person something in return. Would never accept something he believed was given to him out of pity. 

He accepted the Toad plush toy with a bit of dirt across its face from where he had accidentally stepped on it. There was no pity and he felt no obligation to give Ronan a plush toy in return. This insignificant object and the gathering in the woods felt like an invitation, an acceptance into a group of friends he often doubted if he truly belonged to. 

“Let’s go, birthday boy.” He heard Ronan say, a wild and carefree smile ripping across his face as he turned the radio up. 

Adam recognized the song, the same beat from the night at the theater rattling the car. He reached for the roof handle as Ronan reversed before tearing the car through the entranceway, Adam's heart beating with renewed excitement as they raced down the road. “Where are we going?” He asked above the noise. 

“The moon.”


They did not, in fact, drive to the moon. 

Ronan drove them to the Dairy Freeze , the same ice cream stand the two visited some weeks ago when friendships were even newer and more awkward than they were now. He didn’t have a plan, any scenario he had thought of in the hours leading up to the birthday party having gone astray. Adam had Toad, but Adam didn’t know that Ronan had picked it out for him.

Another secret Ronan would keep to himself. 

They sat side-by-side on top of the same picnic table as before, the same sign warning them to find a new place to sit remaining ignored. Adam insisted on buying the ice cream, a thank-you for everything that had transpired that day. Ronan, seeing the way Adam’s eyes pleaded with him, accepted the offer. 

Now the two sat, laughing at the way the other licked furiously at his cone to prevent the rapidly melting ice cream from dripping down his fingertips. Ronan licked away the chocolate ice cream from his fingertips, Adam used a napkin to remove his. 

“Do you think Gansey’ll be mad you took his car?”

Ronan smirked, thinking of Gansey standing there, hands on hips and reading aloud the note Ronan had left, “Pissed.” 

“Should we get back?”

The moment was ending, the time spent alone with Adam quickly fading. Soon enough they would ride back to the park, and soon enough they would go their separate ways, never quite knowing the next time they would see one another. 

“I guess.”

Ronan didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to leave behind the feelings that came with knocking knees and bumping shoulders with Adam on top of a picnic table as they joked about this or that. But he left, left because his feelings for Adam were still a secret and one he was not yet ready to tell. 

On the ride back to the others, conversation came and went. The excitement and the adventure had worn off, leaving Ronan unprepared to face the consequences for hijacking Gansey’s car in his own selfish quest to see Adam Parrish smile. Beside him, Adam covered a yawn, eyes fighting to stay awake. 

When they pulled into the parking lot, Blue and Noah stood beside Gansey. Noah looked unsettled, Blue wore a thin smirk across her face. Gansey rubbed a thumb over his lip, undoubtedly preparing a speech Ronan had heard bits of before. 

“Say your prayers, Parrish.” Ronan said, finding a parking spot and cutting the engine. 

“Your funeral, Lynch. Not mine.” 

Chapter Text

In the week following Adam’s birthday, life resumed itself into a series of ups and downs. He worked; he biked to Monmouth during his free moments; he visited Blue on her breaks at Nino’s when he had even more time to spare. He fell into a rhythmic pattern where his mornings were spent at the pool and his afternoons at the shop. In the evenings, with the sun setting and mosquitos biting, he laughed and he joked and he surrounded himself with people who laughed and joked alongside him. 

In the late hours of the night (or perhaps the early hours of the morning), hidden away in his room with the euphoria from the night’s adventures ebbing away, he combed through apartment listings in the local newspaper. Each day brought him closer to leaving, each day he counted the money tucked under his bed in an inconspicuous box labeled with an A. He couldn’t comfortably afford anything yet, but he was close. A year’s lease was all he needed; in a year, college would take him away from Henrietta and all the hurt it brought him. 

He only hoped that he could keep his newfound friends when he announced to them that he would be leaving Henrietta for good. His friends who now crowded around him in the Monmouth parking lot as he dismounted from his bike, chattering away at a plan only Gansey knew about. 

“We’re ready to go.” Gansey announced, dangling his keys as the congregation moved toward his car. 

The fit was tight. Blue claiming shotgun left the three tallest of the group to squeeze into the back, bodies crowded together as Noah then Adam then Ronan took their seats. 

“How far away is the place, Dick?” Ronan asked, one of his shoulders brushing against Adam’s. 

“Just hour or two.” Gansey responded.

Adam didn’t know what was going on. What he knew was that he had been told to arrive at 7 o’clock in the morning on his day off from both jobs by an insistent Gansey. And now, nearly a full hour after Adam was told to arrive, the five friends pulled out of the parking lot, no one knowing where they were going or what to expect except for the boy in the teal polo shirt who raced down the road. 

“Excelsior!” Gansey said, Adam catching his boyish grin through the rear view mirror. 

And they were off. 

Sitting pressed between Noah and Ronan was not the way Adam intended the trip to begin. Noah, for his part, was a pleasant companion who occupied his own space. Ronan, for his part, was everything Noah was not. 

He claimed he couldn’t get comfortable, always shifting and knocking kneeing with Adam or bumping shoulders or elbows or thighs in an attempt to find the ideal spot. Adam tried to ignore him, to keep his eyes focused on the road ahead for some indication of where they were headed. 

He and Ronan hadn’t talked much since the day of the birthday party. Any interactions had between the two were done in the company of the others. 

 

The party had broken up shortly after the altercation with the car, Gansey taking Ronan aside while Adam walked with Blue and Noah back to the picnic to pack things up. 

Blue had asked him about the Toad the second they left, noticing the way he fumbled with it against his bike’s handlebars. 

“Oh. It’s, uh...Ronan told me to keep it.” Adam remembered the way Blue eyed him and the Toad with suspicion, undoubtedly wondering why Ronan Lynch possessed such an object and how that object was transferred over to Adam. “It’s not really a gift.” 

“Mhm.” 

“What?”

“Nothing.” 

Adam remembered the silence that followed their ride back into town, neither knowing what to make of the exchange or the Toad. Adam had no reason to believe Ronan picked something out specifically for him, Ronan who claimed he had nothing to do with the surprise party in the first place. 

 

Ronan who now complained loudly beside him in the backseat of Gansey’s car. “This is the longest car ride ever , Dick.” 

“You have more legroom than me, Lynch.” Adam leaned over to say, voice not quite a whisper but one quiet enough that the others wouldn’t have been able to hear if they weren’t listening for it. 

“GPS says another hour.” Blue called from the front seat, earning a theatrical sigh from Ronan who stuck his head out the open window before quickly retreating, entering into a fit of coughs in between swears about a bug. 

Adam couldn’t help but laugh, marveling at the splendor of it all, the sense of adventure that always came when he was with the four seated around him. 

“Real mature, Parrish.” Ronan said, slouching himself back and elbowing Adam in the process as he crossed his arms in frustration. 

Adam smiled, a playful and mischievous thing, “I’m mature enough not to stick my head out the window of a moving car.”

The way Ronan looked at him then, hungry eyes and sharp smile turning to face him, signaled to Adam that it was going to be a very long car ride. He didn’t want to start an argument, not here with the others trapped in the car around him. Though Ronan’s smile, at once arrogant and calculating, invited him in.

He waited, waited to see what clever retort came from Ronan’s lips as they stared at one another, eyes at once wild and searching. It was Ronan, a second later, who broke his gaze first, putting his head forward and saying nothing more than, “Piss off.” 

Adam faced forward, catching the way Gansey looked at him from the rear view mirror before he too turned his attention back toward the road. Adam didn’t know what it meant, the way Gansey looked at him just then. There was a wonder there, a sense of whimsy and possibility. It was as though he saw something Adam himself could not yet see. 

Beside him, Ronan did what Adam could only describe as pout. Ronan’s arms remained firmly crossed, but he raised his legs now so his feet pushed against the back of Blue's seat in front of him. 

“What is your problem?” Blue turned around, looking past Adam to glare at Ronan. 

“Who said I had a problem, maggot?”

Adam was prepared to interject, to say something accusatory toward Ronan, but Gansey beat him to it. “You will not talk to Jane like that again, Ronan.” Gansey’s voice was commanding in a way Adam’s never would be, free of the Henrietta accent Adam often found himself doing his best to hide when in the company of the Aglionby boys. 

“I think she can speak for herself, Gansey.”

“I can defend myself, thanks.” Blue said it to no one in particular; Ronan appeared to believe her words were directed at Gansey and Gansey undoubtedly believed she directed them at Ronan. 

Adam tuned it all out, the arguing and bickering and the way Ronan leaned over him to make his voice heard by the two in the front seat. He focused instead on the GPS that announced to an otherwise boisterous car: “Continue straight on for 21 miles.” 

He didn’t know where he was going, but he hoped wherever it was would be better than the backseat of Gansey’s orange Camero. 

 


 

Ronan felt the way his chest tightened the second the GPS announced their arrival. A sign welcoming them to Smith Mountain Lake State Park furthered his growing sense of unease. He remembered the park, remembered the first and only time his father had taken the family there to explore a world outside Henrietta and the Barns. 

 

He had been seven. 

He remembered the feeling, waving to his parents who waited for him on the shore. Beside him Declan and Matthew splashed one another, a game instigated by the younger and continued by the elder. The three waded comfortably in the water, Ronan keeping a protective eye on the youngest of the Lynch brothers. 

“I bet I can swim further than you.” Declan was looking at Ronan, eyes narrowed in a challenge. 

Ronan grinned, sun beating against his shoulders. “I bet I can swim faster.” 

The two brothers sent Matthew back to their parents, not wanting to leave him alone in the water while they executed their competition. With no markers to measure how far they had gone, Declan decided they would simply swim as far and as fast as they could. Whoever went the greater distance would be the superior swimmer. 

Ronan didn’t remember much else from that day, but he remembered what it felt like to take off, the few years of private swim lessons Niall Lynch insisted upon paying off as he focused on nothing more than swimming further than Declan. He remembered feeling tired, but continuing on, losing sight and sound of Declan swimming beside him. Then he remembered it: the sound of his father’s voice, his brother’s voice, his mother’s screams. 

He remembered what it felt like to go under.

 

His sense of unease grew in the backseat of Gansey’s car because the last time Ronan Lynch had been at Smith Mountain Lake State Park he had been seven years old and he had nearly drowned.

The memory, the feeling of his father pulling him up and guiding him back to shore, of his mother holding him to her and repeating over and over how sorry she was, was the reason Ronan fought against Declan’s decision to buy the pool passes. It was the reason he never followed Matthew into the water, the reason he gave up diving board competitions with his brothers or trips down the single waterslide offered by the Henrietta Community Pool. It was why, some ten years later, Ronan picked at the bracelets on his wrist and silently assured himself that he wouldn’t be getting in the same water he had nearly drowned in when he was seven. 

“We’re not going swimming, are we?” It was Adam who asked it, his voice bringing Ronan back. 

Gansey looked back at them, car now in park. “Of course not. We’re going boating!” 

Somehow swimming seemed more appealing to Ronan. 

Four of them stood around the car, heat already making Ronan irritable, while Gansey went off to sort out what the others assumed to be a boat rental. Beside him, Ronan sensed Adam’s discomfort. 

“Is he legally allowed to be doing this?” Adam asked, leaning over to Ronan. 

Ronan shrugged and said, “It’s Gansey.” As though it were the only explanation he needed to give and the only explanation Adam needed to hear.

Before further questions could be asked, Gansey bounded back up to them, waving five tickets in his hand. “I got them to hold the boat for us.”

It was then, ticket now in hand and walking over to the marina where a large white boat playing the sort of music reminiscent of a merry-go-round ride was docked, that Ronan realized they would not be going out on a boat by themselves. Gansey had booked them a boat tour. 

Ronan had no words as he handed a woman wearing a captain’s hat his ticket. She, in turn, instructed him to join the other four for a group picture. He had no words as he stood next to Adam, awkward and unsure and unable to tell if he was supposed to put his arm around Adam’s shoulder or not. He didn’t, choosing instead to cross his arms as he scowled at the camera. 

“Enjoy!” The woman said as the camera clicked, sending them on their way to the Virginia Dare Sightseeing Cruise. 

Ronan Lynch had never been on a boat before because he had never seen a reason to be on one. As he looked around the interior, eyes following couples twice his age and children much younger than himself seated around the tables, Ronan felt an unexplainable anger. 

Rather, it was an explainable anger that he didn’t want to admit to. It was the feeling of knowing this would never be his life; he didn’t have parents to take him and his brothers on boat cruises, didn’t have the innocence of the children pressing their faces to the boat’s windows. 

He was a boy who privately longed for a life taken from him. His public displays of anger and exasperation, now directed at Gansey as he followed him to the upper deck, were a facade. He was a skeleton of a boy who didn’t know how to piece himself back together. 

“It’s hot as shit.” He spoke to no one in particular, the sound of his own voice breaking him away from his thoughts. 

The five of them gathered on the upper deck, joined only by a couple and their small child. In front of them spread an open expanse of water. Ronan felt uneasy, unnerved at the thought of taking a scenic cruise over the same waters he had nearly drowned in. But to confess this to the others would be to let go of another secret. 

Instead he announced that it was too hot, that he was going back to the air conditioned lower interior. Blue rolled her eyes and made some comment that, had Ronan been paying more attention to, he would have given her a clever retort. 

No one followed, leaving Ronan to find a seat alone at a table on the boat’s lower interior, fingers digging into his jeans in an attempt to ground himself. Chatter filled the space, the sound of happy families anticipating the boat’s departure plaguing Ronan’s ears. He looked out the wide windows, looking past the water to the trees that lined the park. He lost himself in mindless imagery and the way the boat rocked underneath him. 

His concentration was broken when he felt himself shift forward, his body’s response to the boat leaving the marina. Then it came, first in his stomach then moving its way upwards until the taste of bile touched his tongue. It was the park and the boat and the heat and the overwhelming feeling of loneliness that made him sick. 

And so Ronan stood himself, wobbly at first as his body adjusted to moving with the boat, and followed the sign that led to the single-stalled restroom. Door locked, he sat himself on the floor and brought his knees up, wrapping his arms around them as he brought his head down. He remained like that, body curling in on itself, as he felt the way his heart beat against his chest and his hands tingled with renewed anxieties he would never allow to leave this bathroom. 

It was moments like these when he would turn to alcohol, would use the way it burned his throat and left him numb to drown out his anxiety and the memories of a life that drifted further away. Completely sober, he didn’t know how to cope. So he remained seated on the ground with his hands around his knees, raising his voice to say “Piss off” only when someone knocked on the door. 

“I can’t imagine why you’d want to miss this.” 

It was Adam’s voice, sarcastic and familiar and the reason Ronan picked himself off the floor and opened the door. 

“What happened to you, Lynch?”

 


 

Adam hadn’t meant to find Ronan in the bathroom. In fact, he hadn’t been looking for Ronan at all. He had been on the upper deck, covering a laugh alongside Noah as Blue and Gansey bickered over the color of Gansey’s polo. The four of them weren’t paying attention to the cruise or the captain pointing out landmark after landmark, not really. They were paying attention to the way Gansey smoothed down the collar of his shirt, the way Noah’s nose and cheeks began to redden after only minutes of being in the sun because no one thought to bring sunscreen. 

Adam took it all in, the sense of belonging. 

When he announced to them that he would be back, excusing himself to the restroom, he had nearly forgotten that Ronan wasn’t with them. Had nearly forgotten that Ronan wasn’t with them until Adam knocked on the bathroom door and Ronan answered, opening the door only after Adam answered him. 

His expression was familiar, not in the sense that he had seen Ronan wear it before, but in the sense that it was the same expression Adam caught himself wearing after he checked himself in the mirror following an altercation with his father. 

It was fear and panic and dread, life sucked from his cheeks and beads of sweat pooling at the base of the neck. 

When Adam asked what happened, Ronan didn’t respond at first. He continued to stare at Adam, one hand curled around the door handle. “None of your damn business, Parrish.” 

“Sorry I asked.” Adam didn’t know what to say, watching instead the way the panic left Ronan’s face and replaced itself with a growing sense of hostility. And then it passed, the scowl on Ronan’s face shifting to an almost-frown. He looked defeated. “We’re all upstairs if you want to join us.” 

“I’m sure they don’t want me to kill the mood.” It was quiet, as if he didn’t want to say it but the words came anyway. 

Adam shrugged, not denying the way that he himself had forgotten Ronan was not with them as he joked alongside Noah and Blue and Gansey on the upper deck. “Do you always have to be a jackass?”

“Yes, Parrish. I do.” 

And there it was; the upward turn of Ronan’s lips into a grin. His sharp edges and cool demeanor returned, traces of vulnerability gone as he settled back into the Ronan Lynch Adam had come to know. 

“Well, when you’re done being a jackass, come find me.” 

Adam forgot about using the bathroom as he walked back into the main area of the boat’s lower interior. Most everyone had retreated to the upper deck to capture the perfect photo of the picturesque world they sailed around. He considered going back upstairs, considered rejoining his friends and forgetting the conversation had with Ronan not moments before. But he stayed below, choosing instead to wander onto the quieter deck on the lower level. 

He sat himself on a bench at the front, feeling the way the wind whipped across his skin as he watched the ripples the boat made in the water. Only one other couple had chosen the lower deck, sitting far enough away that Adam couldn’t hear what they whispered back and forth. 

He didn’t know how much time had passed, maybe a minute, perhaps five. He had given Ronan the benefit of the doubt, given him a chance to sit down with him and talk away from the others. The three who remained upstairs would be expecting him and so he stood, prepared to walk back to the upper deck, when he saw Ronan walk towards him. 

“Want a nut?” Ronan asked. 

Ronan held out his hand, holding an opened bag of trail mix undoubtedly purchased at the bar Adam remembered seeing when he first walked through the boat’s interior. Adults had been lined up, ready to begin their day drinking as they reminisced about boat cruises to places Adam would only ever see on a map. 

“Or are you allergic to these too?” 

It took him a minute, but when Adam remembered, he felt the way his cheeks grew hot from something other than the sun’s rays. The movie theater and the popcorn and his lie about a milk protein allergy came back to him. His embarrassment over the trivial lie mingled with a growing anger, emotions spreading across his face and patience waning. 

He was angry at Ronan for bringing it up, but he was equally angry at himself for the lies he told so effortlessly. Because sometimes it was easier to lie than to say how he felt or to show who he was. 

“I’m not allergic.” Adam said, keeping his voice steady. Mentally, he reminded himself how insignificant the exchange was. If he were his father he would have lashed out, would have done something as dramatic as taking the bag of trail mix and tossing it overboard. 

But the thing about Adam Parrish was that he was his father’s son in name only. 

So he calmed himself and reached out a hand, palm up and inviting Ronan to pour out some of the mix. In that moment Adam Parrish surrendered his pride, reminding himself that whether or not he could consume dairy or peanuts was not a cause worth ruining the boating trip for. He had bigger battles to fight. Battles waiting for him at the end of the dirt road where the Parrish family home sat.

He walked instead with Ronan to the bench Adam had been previously sitting on, the two boys crushing on peanuts and off-brand M&M’s and raisins too as they listened to the captain point out another landmark over the boat’s speakers. The couple from before had gone inside, leaving the two of them alone on the lower deck. 

“I don’t have a milk protein allergy.” Adam said as he inspected an M&M before placing it in his mouth, the heat causing its chocolate coating to leave a residue on his fingers. 

“No shit, Parrish.” 

Adam shrugged, looking out at the water and not at Ronan. “Alright. I told you my secret, what’s yours?” He said it casually, joking as he reached for another peanut. 

“None of your goddamn business.” Ronan wasn’t joking.

 


 

Ronan Lynch had secrets, secrets that appeared to grow in number since he had met Adam Parrish. There was, of course, the most obvious: Ronan liked Adam. But there were others, hidden behind the most obvious, that he believed to be more dangerous if said aloud. 

For example, the night after the birthday party Ronan had woken from a dream. His body had been drenched in a sweat brought on only partially by the summer heat; his head spun with feelings of guilt and shame, traces of euphoric ecstasy dying when he sat up. 

The dream had been him, but it had also been Adam. Him and Adam. Him and Adam in Ronan’s BMW. There had been talking, then there had been more; Adam’s lips against Ronan’s, body against body. Adam’s hands finding their way up and down a body unknown to him, and Ronan allowing himself to relish in the way it felt to have Adam’s hands on him. 

The dream was a secret, one that left Ronan at once ashamed and scared. It had been the first of its kind, the first where a name and a face familiar to Ronan fulfilled desires only experienced in his dreams. 

The dream and his secrets were the reason he responded: “None of your goddamn business.” when Adam asked. 

“It was a joke, Lynch.” 

Of course it was. Of course it was a joke but Ronan had not taken it as such, leaving the two of them sitting with the bag of trail mix between them and doing their best to focus on anything but the tension growing between them. 

“I’m being a jackass again.” Ronan said, because it was what Adam needed to hear.

“I know.” Adam responded, because it was what Ronan needed to hear. 

They looked at each other then, unsteady and unsure. Ronan thought he saw something there, a want in Adam’s expression that mirrored the one Ronan wore when he was alone. It was a look that pleaded, begged for some signal to be sent from one boy to the other. 

Adam?

“Hm?”

They were close, Ronan having not realized how far either had moved across the bench, eyes studying one another. And then he panicked, body going numb as thoughts of what could have been ran through his head. Ronan leaned back. He took his eyes off Adam and broke the moment.

“You have chocolate on your face.”

“Oh.”

He could have kissed him. Ronan could have kissed Adam right there on the deck of the Virginia Dare cruise boat, but he didn’t. Instead, he stood up and said they should rejoin the others. Adam didn’t protest. 

As they walked together, Ronan wondered what would have become of them if he had kissed Adam. In every scenario he thought of, though, none ended happily. He couldn’t imagine a world where he liked Adam and Adam liked him back. It was improbable and impractical. 

Improbable and impractical because Ronan Lynch believed himself to be a monster. And he knew that, from the few books he had chosen to read in his English classes, the monster never got the happy ending. Adam wasn’t meant for someone like him; Adam deserved better. 

When they rejoined the others, Ronan watched the way Adam fit in, watched the way everyone gravitated towards him. Gansey was showing him a picture while Blue recounted a story that made Noah laugh in a way Ronan had never heard. For so long it had been Ronan and Gansey. Now that Gansey had Noah and Blue and Adam too, Ronan wondered where he fit in. 

“You’ve got to see this, Lynch.” Adam called him over. 

In his hands was the photograph Gansey had been showing off. It was the five of them standing on the deck, the picture the woman in the captain’s hat had taken when they first arrived. What an odd bunch they were: Ronan with his arms crossed and scowl on his face, Gansey’s presidential smile dazzling the camera. Blue looked as though she had been in the middle of saying something, Noah looked as though he were about to sneeze. And Adam, situated between Ronan and Gansey, wore a smile Ronan would start and end wars for. 

“We look terrible.” Blue commented, taking the picture to get a better look at it. 

Then they were laughing, all of them. And with their laughter, Ronan felt renewed. 

The rest of the boat tour was spent with the five of them joking about this or that, pointing out outlandish decorations that adorned the lakefront homes they passed and trying to toss the remnants of Ronan’s bag of trail mix into one another’s mouths. 

When the tour concluded and they walked together back to the car, Ronan wondered if things would turn out to be okay. For the rest of the afternoon, with Blue turning up the radio and Gansey rolling down the windows, Ronan escaped his mind. He forgot about his secrets and the way he felt locked in the boat’s bathroom. He focused instead on the way he felt when Gansey stopped for gas and the five of them raided the gas station’s store for cheap sandwiches and candies and sodas reminiscent of his childhood. 

Only when they turned into Monmouth’s parking lot, did the sense of wonder fade.  

The first thing Ronan noticed was Declan’s car. His body tensed; Declan wasn’t supposed to be there. 

He watched as Declan emerged from the vehicle, Ronan already preparing the insults and accusations he would throw at his brother. Ronan himself was the first to leave Gansey’s car, hurling himself toward his brother before the others had even unfastened their seatbelts. 

Declan looked different, the bureaucratic charm that Ronan detested was gone. He looked like the Declan before Niall’s death. 

“Ronan, stop.” There was a defeatedness to his brother’s voice so uncharacteristic of him that it caused Ronan to stop, insults dying on his tongue. 

Something seemed off. 

He confirmed his suspicions only when he saw Matthew emerge from the passenger's seat. The youngest Lynch rubbed at his face, puffy eyes signalling to his brother that he had been crying. Ronan felt unsteady, unnerved at the thought of someone hurting Matthew. His hands curled into fists, nails digging into his palms and body tingling with a sudden adrenaline. 

“Who did this to you?” Ronan demanded, looking past Declan and focusing only on the youngest Lynch. 

Declan reached out to grab Ronan’s wrist. “ Stop .”

Then, Matthew’s voice, barely above a whisper: “It’s mom.” 

Chapter Text

Adam didn’t know what it meant to mourn because he never had to do it before. He never met his maternal or paternal grandparents, did not know whether or not they were even still alive. He didn’t have aunts or uncles or cousins to grow close to, any members of the extended family having been cut off long ago by Robert and Alice. If a family member died, his parents never told him and he himself never went searching for answers. The closest he came to mourning a loss was when he was eight years old and his father wouldn’t let him keep the calico kitten that had wandered onto the family’s property. By the next afternoon, the young Adam had already forgotten the kitten’s existence. 

Adam didn’t know what it meant to mourn because his parents created an environment where he never had anyone or anything to grow attached to. 

So when Gansey came to him about attending the funeral for Aurora Lynch, Adam didn’t know how to react. In fact, the only words he remembered saying were: “She died?

No one had known because Ronan hadn’t intended to tell. It had been Declan who approached Gansey and Gansey who approached Adam. From there, Adam began to make sense of what he saw the night of the boat cruise.

The five of them had arrived to find Declan and Matthew Lynch waiting in the parking lot of Monmouth Manufacturing. Adam remembered Matthew from the pool, but Declan was unfamiliar to him until Gansey explained to the others who he was. Adam never heard the exchange, never knew what the Lynch brothers discussed only amongst themselves; he had simply watched as Ronan got in the car without protest. The four that remained were left to only speculate what prompted Ronan to leave with his brothers in such a hurry. 

Gansey broke the news two days later. 

Adam still didn’t know all the details, but what he knew was a fragmented story told to him by Gansey: Aurora Lynch had been a resident of Henrietta Community Hospital for just over a full year. Her sons admitted her the day her husband died in June of the year prior, body falling unresponsive to the cries of her children as they called for an ambulance; first for their father, then for their mother. She remained there until her death, comatose and kept alive by the machines that beeped at her side. Gansey never said what prompted her seemingly unexpected death and Adam never thought to ask. 

The funeral would be the first time Adam saw Ronan - the first time anyone in the group saw Ronan - since he drove off with Matthew and Declan almost a week prior. 

Now Adam stood, hands placed firmly in pockets to mask the tremor that passed through them, at the entrance to St. Agnes. He never met Aurora, and part of him wondered why he stood there, Gansey and Noah and Blue at his side, at all. He felt like an intruder in a ceremony not meant for him. 

Adam Parrish was not a Catholic and he did not believe in God. 

The Parrish family did not attend church services together; Adam did not grow up attending Sunday school classes or participating in the annual St. Agnes Christmas play. His mother wore a gold cross around her neck, the same one she clutched when she saw her husband hurl verbal and physical assaults at her son, as if the necklace would cast away the horrors that walked the walls of the double-wide. His father invoked the name of the Lord only when he followed it by words like “dammit;” a sinner’s prayer recited as his fist connected with the nearest target, living or not. 

Adam Parrish did not believe in God because his life had not given him reason to. 

So he hesitated when Gansey opened the doors to the church. Declan and Matthew waited in the narthex to greet them, tired and hollow eyes following Adam as he took a breath and crossed the threshold. 

 


 

Ronan Lynch knew what it meant to mourn because he had done it before. His once public displays of grief over the death of his father, though, quickly became the private subjects of his inability to sleep at night and his irritability during the day. It was in the way he carried himself, in the way he spoke and in the way he acted. The Ronan of before was not the Ronan of now; the one who watched himself shatter, a skeleton of a boy feeling the way his body turned to dust. 

Ronan Lynch knew what it meant to mourn because it was what he did now, on his knees in a pew at St. Agnes an hour before the funeral was scheduled to begin. His eyes remained firmly shut, hands joined together in prayer. He sent silent words above to a God he desperately wished could hear him. 

 

Our Father, who art in Heaven...

 

He prayed to forget what it felt like to be in the backseat of Declan’s car, the way anxiety and fear and an unspeakable hurt led him to tap against the window; to nip at the skin around his bracelets; to do anything to jolt himself awake from what he hoped and prayed was one of his night terrors. From the front seat, Declan had scolded Ronan for his irresponsibility and his inability to ever be reached by phone. Ronan remained silent in the back, mind and body growing numb to the same lecture given to him before; the same slew of words that spelled out to Ronan the reasons why he would never be good enough. 

He prayed to forget the way the hospital smelled of disinfectants to cover the musk, the way his boots clacked unharmoniously against the linoleum flooring. 

 

hallowed be Thy name… 

 

The prayer, one recited at every Sunday service, consumed his consciousness. It became Ronan’s attempt at a distraction. 

It was a distraction from the memory of frantic nurses calling down the hall when Ronan arrived at the community hospital, Declan and Matthew flanking either side of him. A distraction from a doctor’s voice pronouncing Aurora Lynch dead before Ronan had even crossed the threshold from hallway to makeshift bedroom. He never bothered to listen to what the cause of death was, and when Declan tried to bring it up the next morning, Ronan tuned him out. 

Knowing made it real.

 

... Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done…

 

He prayed to forget what it felt like to push past hospital workers to reach his mother’s bedside, her always cold fingers feeling even more so chilled as Ronan grabbed for them. He didn’t put on a front, didn’t pretend to hide the hurt that consumed him they way he pretended around the watchful eyes of his peers. He allowed himself a moment’s vulnerability as he ran a shaky thumb over his mother’s pale fingers. Declan stood solemnly in the corner; Matthew joined Ronan at their mother’s side. 

He prayed to forget the hours and minutes and seconds he spent in that room, kneeling on the hospital floor not unlike the way he knelt in St. Agnes now. 

Eventually he had grown restless, voice too harsh as he nudged Matthew aside and pleaded for a moment alone. Declan hadn’t put up a fight; he took Matthew to the cafeteria and the remaining nurse followed them out, her face a mixture of sorrow and fright when she heard the sharpness in Ronan’s tone. She left the door cracked only an inch or two. 

 

…on Earth as it is in Heaven…

 

With his mother’s unhearing ears as his only witness, Ronan had opened his mouth to find the words that didn’t come easy. When they came, his voice was a whisper, a quiet stream of words that would never leave the hospital room:  

“I’m sorry I didn’t visit. I didn’t know how. I wanted to, I really wanted to.” He stopped, willing himself not to shed tears over the times Declan urged him to visit and the times Ronan refused. He hadn’t been strong enough, hadn’t been ready. He didn’t see himself any stronger or more ready as he pressed his head against the side of the bed, knees resting on the linoleum floor. But he nevertheless forced out a year’s worth of unspoken words. 

“Junior year sucked, by the way. They almost flunked me but, uh, Gansey… You remember Gansey, right? He helped me pass. I’m living with him now, and Noah too. You don’t know Noah, though. He can be creepy as fuck - sorry - and I still don't know where he came from,  but he’s easy to live with.” Ronan did not fight the tears when they slowly came, using one hand to swipe at the ones escaping the corners of his eyes while his other hand gripped onto his mother. 

“And, uh, there’s someone else.” Inhale. Exhale. He could do it, he could tell his mother. “His name is Adam. I almost hit him with my car and yet he still wants to come over and kick my ass in Mario.” It was like ripping off a bandaid. 

“Remember that time dad bought the Wii and then-” Memories near and far came to him, going from mind to tongue as though he were five years old again and telling his mother about the game he had played in gym class that afternoon. He shook off how the memory ended, allowing himself to forget the part where he threw the controller, remembering instead the way his mother clapped her hands together as her boys admired the new toy. 

He braced himself then, the beginnings of untold secrets forming on his lips. “Mom, I wish you could have met Adam because I think I like him . I think I like him a lot and I know you would like - have liked - him too. But it’s our secret and I haven’t told anyone because I’m scared. I’m so fucking scared.” His words no longer became about the way he felt about Adam; they spoke to an unknown future and a barely known present.

There was, in that moment, as Ronan knelt at Aurora’s bedside, a glimmer of the Ronan of before. “I miss you, mom, but you’d be so disappointed in me. I’m such a fucking failure. I need help but I - I don’t know how to ask for it. Gansey, my friends, they’re sick of my shit and I know it, but I can’t lose them like I lost dad. Like I lost you.”

It was every bad dream and living nightmare expelling itself from Ronan’s lips, words built up over a year that he would have never said aloud coming out now. “I let you down and I’m sorry.”

It was the last he said to his mother before he stood himself and backed away from her lifeless body, pushing open the door to allow the nurse back in. Soon her body would be taken away and Ronan would drive off with Declan and Matthew with the knowledge that the three of them stood completely and utterly alone. 

 

… give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses … 

 

The memory of what he said to his mother alone in her room at the Henrietta Community Hospital stuck with him as he neared the end of his prayer. 

 

as we forgive those who trespass against us …

 

The way he walked out of the hospital in his trance-like state, not taking notice of the world around him as he asked Declan to drop him off at Monmouth, stuck with him. He retreated in on himself, locking himself away in his room as the days and hours and minutes and seconds passed by. He would slip out only when he knew Gansey or Noah slept, or pretended to sleep tucked away in their own bedrooms, all but unaware of the sense of emptiness Ronan lived with. 

 

… and lead us not into temptation … 

 

He coped the way he always did - with alcohol and street racing and every reckless deed those closest to him despised. I let you down ; he would it repeat to himself over and over as he turned his ignition and left the Monmouth parking lot in the late hours of the night, daring the others to chase him. It wasn’t just his mother anymore that Ronan believed he let down; it was Gansey and Matthew and Adam, those closest to him and those he wanted to grow ever closer to. 

No one, he believed, deserved a fragmented boy who didn’t know how to pick up the pieces to a life he destroyed. 

 

… but deliver us from evil …

 

Amen. 

 

He finished the prayer and lifted his head up, blinking away the memories of a week spent in shame and humiliation and anguish when he opened his eyes. He remained though, kneeling in the wooden pew, until he heard the sound of the door to the narthex open and the resulting chatter of four familiar voices marveling at the otherwise silent church. Slowly, he stood, beginning his walk up the aisle with hesitant footsteps.

He hadn’t asked them to come. He hadn’t asked them to come and yet there they stood; Gansey and Blue and Noah and Adam all walking towards him, wearing expressions not of pity, but of concern. Gansey was the first to approach, the oldest of his friends. 

Ronan felt an unmistakable comfort then, feeling the way Gansey wrapped his arms around him in a hug. The only other time he had done so had been when he had picked Ronan up from the Barns to take him to his new life at Monmouth Manufacturing.

The others were more hesitant, but still they came. Noah and Blue hugged him simultaneously, Blue losing the typical sarcastic tone she used with him as she gave her condolences. When they parted, going to join Gansey in a pew at the front of the church, Ronan faced Adam. 

“I, uh, I’m sorry.” 

Ronan shrugged, long since growing used to the responses people gave when they learned about his losses, “It’s not your fault.” 

“I didn’t know about your dad either.” 

“Some of us don’t like to broadcast the shit we go through.” 

They studied one another. Ronan’s eyes, heavy from sleepless nights and tears that came only in the confines of his bedroom, watched the way Adam fumbled with his hands, pulling them in and out of a clean pair of khakis. Adam appeared nervous, as though the very thought of standing in a church placed him on edge. 

“If this place didn’t burn down when I walked in, I think you’ll be fine, Parrish.” Ronan said it as a joke, something to bring back his sense of self. Or, what had become his sense of self over the last year. He said it to comfort Adam but also to comfort himself, to forget for just a moment why he stood in St. Agnes dressed in an impeccably tailored suit. 

“I’ve never done this before.” Adam admitted, looking down as if to hide the embarrassment that tinged his words. 

“Been in a church or gone to a funeral?”

“Both."

Ronan felt it then, the faintest sense of jealousy creeping up his spine. Not for the services Adam missed or how he never had to listen to the same selection of hymns sung by the choir over and over. His jealousy came from the latter; from Adam never having to listen to a priest speak about Niall Lynch as though they knew one another beyond the relationship between priest and parishioner; from never having to sit with Father John to pick the readings Matthew would soon recite at Aurora’s service. His jealousy came from the thought of Adam being able to go home at night to parents with flesh and blood and beating hearts.

Adam never mentioned his parents, never said who they were or what they did to Ronan. Ronan could only speculate, his attempt to piece together the life of a boy at once so familiar and so unknown to him. 

“Catholics drag everything out.” He brushed off the jealousy, stopping the feeling before it manifested on his lips the way it filled his mind. Ronan would not come to resent Adam for a life taken from him, the idyllic image of Adam’s family dissipating as Ronan attempted to make light of it all. “They’re going to make you sit down and stand back up and sit down again and it’s fucking ridiculous.” 

“Does your God let you swear like that?” 

And there it was: two boys grinning at one another in the aisle of St. Agnes, Ronan leaning against the back of a pew for balance. It wasn’t forced, how he felt, as gratitude and relief began to ebb at the hurt. It meant something to him, the way Adam played into Ronan’s personal distractions and mechanisms for coping. It meant something to him to receive embraces from Noah and Blue, his friends who had been strangers the month before. 

He momentarily forgot the week he spent alone, too afraid to leave his room to face Gansey or Noah, alcohol drifting off his clothes and his breath. Too afraid to join them as they met Adam and Blue for plans he heard being made on the other side of the fortress he built behind his bedroom door. 

“Thanks for coming, Parrish.” 

And he meant it. 

“It’s what friends do.” 

Ronan was prevented from saying anything else when he saw Declan walking toward him. Adam took that as his cue to leave, walking down the aisle before taking up a spot in the pew beside Gansey. The church remained all but empty, only a few of St. Agnes’ most faithful filling the pews otherwise occupied by the Lynch boys and Ronan’s four friends. It was to be an intimate goodbye. 

“We’re ready.” 

Ronan nodded, following his brother wordlessly to the back of the church where he would begin his procession down the aisle. He would be the one to hold the urn; it had been his mother’s wish, written down long ago, to be cremated and for her ashes to be placed around the family property. They would scatter her atop her husband’s grave, a small headstone at the back of the Barns. A dreamer and his dream reunited even in death. 

Chopin’s Funeral March began on the organ, the unspoken order for Ronan to get in line behind Father John and a pair of unfamiliar altar boys. The smell of incense permeated the air, a scent that left Ronan’s head light and his stomach churning. 

He could do this.

I miss you, mom. He sent his thoughts above, catching his breath as he placed one foot in front of the other, muscle memory carrying him down the aisle. I love you. 

 


 

Ronan had not lied about the Catholics and their inability to remain in one position. Adam found himself lost as he stood, then sat, then stood some more. At one point he watched Ronan kneel and he knew he should kneel too. 

Unfamiliar songs were sung as he and Gansey flipped through the hymnal in search of the right pages. When the priest invited those in attendance to eat and drink from what he called the “body” and the “blood,” Adam didn’t know if that meant him too. 

“It’s a Catholic thing.” Gansey whispered to him, he himself staying behind as the few unknown faces in attendance made their way up the aisle to where the priest welcomed them. “The ‘body’ represents Jesus, and the ‘blood’ is, well, the blood he spilled to forgive our sins.”

Adam nodded, still not understanding the symbolism behind it all. He knew of Jesus and he knew of the crucifixion, but anything beyond that basic biblical history was lost on him. 

For the rest of the ceremony Adam found himself following Ronan’s movements more than the words coming from the priest’s mouth. This Ronan felt new, vulnerable. Adam watched the way Ronan bowed his head, the way he brought folded hands to his lips when they all knelt in prayer. He watched the way delicate hands accepted the metaphorical Body of Christ, gait slowing to one that showed his exhaustion and hurt as he returned to his pew. 

Adam Parrish didn’t know what it meant to mourn, but he believed he was watching Ronan mourn now. 

He wanted to reach out, to extend a hand across the aisle to the other pew where Ronan stood. A gesture done not out of pity, but one to let his friend know he would be there. Their friendship was still relatively new, still unsteady at times, but as Adam stood within the walls of St. Agnes, he realized something. He had never been taught how to handle grief, how to process emotions beyond the ones manifested in his parents’ home. But he wanted to; he wanted to learn what it meant to trust those around him and to allow them to trust him in return. 

Adam Parrish didn’t know what it meant to mourn, but he wanted to be there for his friend who did. 

He spent so many years of his life scared of the truth, scared of the judgment that would come when he confessed the story of a broken boy from a broken home. He didn’t want pity, but he was also tired of the overwhelming loneliness that ate at him whenever he curled in on himself, the sting of his father’s abuse the only thing his body felt. 

He wouldn’t come out and say it but, much like the sight of Ronan in the church with his head bowed as the priest gave the final prayer, Adam wanted to learn how to let down the walls he built around himself. It would be gradual, not done all at once and perhaps not done for a year or more, but it was his promise to himself. When he was ready, he would open himself up to the four that he now processed down the aisle with to the tune of an unfamiliar dirge. 

He didn’t see it as giving power away, not in the way he once had. When Adam opened himself, it would be on his own terms and he would drive the narrative. 

Such thoughts carried him as he left St. Agnes, blinking away the sun’s rays as he stood around his friends on the church’s steps. 

“Listen, I know I’ve been a jackass-” Ronan looked first to Adam when he said it, the faintest trace of a smile trying to form on his otherwise expressionless face, “-but thanks for coming. I, uh, it means a lot.” Adam watched the way he fought with his words, struggling to express gratitude in a way that felt so familiar.

“Jackass or not, you’re stuck with us.” Blue said. 

Declan called for Ronan then, he and Matthew standing outside of the same car Adam had watched pull out of Monmouth just days before. The BMW Adam remembered Ronan sitting atop of when things were even newer and more unfamiliar sat parked behind Declan’s car. 

“Come with me.” Ronan said abruptly, ignoring the way Declan’s insistent voice called again. 

When no one answered, Adam asked: “Where?”

Home .”

 


 

Ronan had not been to the Barns since his father’s burial. There had been an argument somewhere along the way about Declan banning his brother from the property, a warning that never held much weight to the middle Lynch brother. Ronan had other, more personal, reasons for not visiting. Much like his decision to not visit his mother at the community hospital, stepping foot onto the family’s property, a site filled with memories of a life long lost, was not something Ronan was prepared for. Even now, as he drove the familiar road with Adam in the seat beside him, Ronan wasn’t ready. 

He wanted to turn around, to drive in the other direction until the nightmare ended and life reset itself to the way things used to be. Adam rode with him to ensure he didn’t turn around. 

Nothing felt real: the preparations, the funeral, driving to his childhood home to say goodbye to his mother the way he said goodbye to his father all blended together like a continuous dream. A dream Ronan didn’t know how to wake from.

He let his foot ease harder onto the gas pedal, the speedometer climbing as he snaked through the valley. Beside him, Adam sat silent, eyes focused on the road ahead. With the radio off, the silence in the car became maddening, a place where Ronan’s thoughts roamed free of distraction. Dangerous thoughts teetered on the edge, beginning to move from thought to action.

He wouldn’t let them, instead turning the radio on and up. An old AC/DC song filled the car as Ronan tapped a hand against his steering wheel to occupy his otherwise restless body. 

“Come on, Parrish. Tell me you know this one?”

Highway to Hell. ” Adam looked at him now, the trace of a smile on his face alone pulling Ronan away from his thoughts. “I’m not that hopeless, Lynch. It’s just whatever EDM shit you play that I don’t know.” 

“It’s not shit.” Ronan looked away, focusing his attention back on the road. “And don’t think I didn’t see you mouthing the words.” 

“When?”

“Your birthday. In the car. When we—”

“When you stole Gansey’s car.” 

“I borrowed it.” Ronan said, feeling the way his lips pulled upwards in a grin. It felt natural, being in the car and joking with Adam. 

Beside him, Adam rolled his eyes. “I don’t think that’s how Gansey remembers it.” 

“My point still stands, Parrish. You knew the words to my shitty music.” 

“So you admit it’s shitty?”

A fire burned inside him, words and secrets begging to be spilled as a sense of life worked its way through him, bones warming and heart beating with a sense of purpose. Ronan had almost forgotten where he was and what he was doing until he saw Declan’s car pull into the family property. The fire lived and died inside his car, numbness settling back in as he parked and breathed in the familiar scents of home. 

Gansey pulled in behind Ronan, Noah and Blue exiting the car alongside him. The three joined Adam and Ronan; the five were then joined by Declan and Matthew. 

“They weren’t supposed to come.” Declan said, leaning toward his brother so the others wouldn’t hear. 

Ronan leaned back, voice tinged with growing hostility.  “They wanted to come.” 

He had warned his friends what to expect before they left St. Agnes, offering each the chance to turn around and go home before he departed. Not one of them accepted that offer. He carried that with him as he faced his brother, the knowledge that his friends would be there to support him as he said his final goodbyes. 

“I don’t want to fight.” Declan said as he turned, carrying the ashes of Aurora Lynch down the driveway as he began the walk to the back of the property. 

Ronan followed, he himself not wanting to start a fight. Matthew walked at his side, the youngest of the Lynch brothers most visibly affected by the day. 

“She’d be proud of you,” Ronan whispered to Matthew, throwing an arm around his brother’s shoulder and bringing him close as they walked. 

“You think so?” 

“Hell, I’m proud of you.” 

“Thanks, Ronan.” Matthew said, eyes red and puffy from a week’s worth of tears began to regain their glow as Matthew ran off to join Declan a few paces ahead, “I’m proud of you too.” 

By now Adam and the others matched his pace, all keeping silent on the walk. The place felt so familiar, the sight of rainy days spent splashing in the puddles that formed between the house and the barns. It was where Ronan learned to ride a bike; to tend to cows and sheep and birds; to climb a tree and promptly fall from it at age eight, earning him his first trip to the emergency room. 

Yet, as he walked in grass that had grown too high without someone there to tend to it, his childhood home felt unfamiliar. The path was one he had walked before, and yet he struggled to remember which way they turned, or how far back the property spanned. He wasn’t prepared to stop when Declan stopped, reaching the place where his father’s headstone resided. 

He wasn’t sure he would have ever been prepared for what he saw; the sight of Declan opening the urn, completing Aurora’s final wish. Beside him, he watched the way Blue leaned into Gansey and the way Gansey wrapped an arm around her. Noah remained, ghost-like, in the back of the group, a somber expression on his face as he watched the eldest Lynch spread ashes across the grave. Adam stood closest to Ronan, hands resting at his sides. When he looked down, Ronan noticed the way Adam’s hands trembled, the way he tapped them lightly against the sides of his pants to quell their restlessness. 

He fixed his eyes forward then, shoving his own hands into his pants’ pockets to hide their tremor. This was it; the final goodbye. 

Declan passed the urn to Matthew, who took his turn before offering it up to Ronan. The middle brother took the urn from the youngest and stepped forward. 

He wasn’t sure he would have ever been prepared for the feelings that came as he watched the ashes scatter across the soil. This was his mother, the woman who held his hand as he learned to walk, who stayed up with him to finish a school project in the fifth grade because he chose to wait until the last minute. And this was his father, buried beneath the earth Ronan now spread the ashes across. The man who taught him how to drive, who allowed a curious child to follow him into the barns where they would spend the day talking to the sheep and to one another. 

Niall Lynch always called himself a dreamer, and Aurora Lynch had been his dream. Now, upon Ronan stepping back after spreading the last of the ashes, the two were united in death as they had been in life. 

Wind whipped itself through the trees on the edge of the property, a once sunny day turning overcast as a summer storm moved in. No one spoke, allowing the chirping of the birds to fill the otherwise silent and somber space. No one knew what to say, Ronan himself unable to formulate thoughts as he stared at the ground, the now-empty urn still clutched between his hands. 

Nothing felt real and yet it was. 

He felt it in the way his head grew light, the way his hands shook as he turned to hand the urn back to Declan. He felt it in the way his voice caught, words unable to come as he backed further away from the grave. This new reality, one that previously manifested itself only in his nightmares, was real. 

He was scared, unprepared for what life would now be like. He lost himself when Niall died, the Ronan of before buried alongside his father. He feared what would become of him now, the skeleton boy unable to even say aloud the words to the parting prayer Matthew had begun: 

“May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.” 

The words were familiar, ones Ronan had memorized as a child. They were the words his mother hung above the door to the home and the words she said to him before he fell asleep. A reminder that said, no matter how far Ronan strayed or how long they were apart, he would always meet his mother again. 

“May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall soft upon your fields.” 

Matthew alone said the prayer, Ronan noticing how the others bowed their heads and folded their hands as they listened. He reached for his brother then, Matthew’s voice choked with tears as Ronan wrapped an arm around him. 

“And until we meet again -”

Ronan spoke the remaining lines alongside his brother, pushing down the numbness and the hurt. The prayer was a memory of a past Ronan could never revisit, but it was also a vision for a future he could craft for himself. It was his mother’s voice in his head, all the reassuring words she had given him throughout the years living on even as her soul passed from one life to the next. 

“May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.”

As he held Matthew close, the youngest brother’s tears leaving their mark on the shirt Ronan wore beneath his suit jacket, Ronan felt the way the numbness ebbed. The hurt remained, and would remain, but the anger he had built up over the last year began to waver. 

He wanted to learn how to manage that anger, to seek help from those standing around him instead of running from it. He spent so long thinking himself a failure, and perhaps he was, but he saw a chance to do better, to be better. He wanted to try. 

I want to make you proud, mom. He cast his thoughts to the grave, watching the way the wind picked up the ashes and gently moved them across the earth. The low rumble of thunder could be heard across the property and a light rainfall had begun, the unspoken signal for the haggard group to pay their final respects before walking back the way they had come. 

When they were ready, Matthew and Declan led the group, with Gansey and Blue following closest behind. Noah remained somewhere in the middle, never getting too close to the four in the front, but also keeping his distance from the two in the back. Adam and Ronan walked slower than the rest, Ronan taking in the familiar and the unfamiliar one last time as the rain began to pick up. He didn’t know why Adam chose to walk alongside him, why he favored the feel of a summer storm over the safety of Gansey’s car, a place the others had already retreated into. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t mind. 

“This place is impressive.” Adam said eventually, eyes forward as the two neared the driveway. 

“Yeah,” Ronan took one final look around the place that had raised him, not caring as the rain slapped against his head and dripped off his suit jacket. “It is.” 

They walked to Ronan’s car wordlessly, Adam slipping into the passenger’s seat unprompted. He didn’t know why Adam chose to ride with him when he could have chosen to join Gansey and Noah and Blue in the other car. Selfishly, he wondered if Adam’s choice meant something; as if throughout all the time Ronan spent pining over Adam, Adam had felt something too. He allowed himself to be selfish, remembering the way he felt as he listened to Matthew recite his mother’s favorite blessing. 

She would have wanted this for her son, for him to see himself as worthy of another. Every bad word Ronan ever called himself and every self-deprecating thought conjured up during a night’s restless slumber, though, threatened to dispel the fire that began to kindle inside him. 

Monster; unloveable; damaged; words that made up the Ronan Lynch who lived on after his father’s death sought to seize control of his psyche. The Ronan who lived before today would have let them. The Ronan of now, who looked to Adam as he started the car, was a boy who wanted to make his mother proud. 

He didn’t know what it would take, or how long, but gradually he would begin to pick up the fragments of a life he spent a year destroying. 

“You’re not sick of me, Parrish?” Ronan asked as he backed out of the driveway, paying attention to the road ahead and not the one he left behind. 

“Guess not.”

“Good.” He pressed the button to switch from the radio to a CD, the sound of his EDM filling the car as he turned up the volume. “It’s time for a sing-along.”

The day had been long, had left Ronan’s body weary and his heart pounding. But as he drove, Adam mouthing the words to Ronan’s favorite electronic song alongside him, he felt reborn. 

Chapter Text

Life was different. 

Life was different and yet it was the same. 

July ended and August began, the days since the funeral growing in number as summer started to wane, bringing with it the promise of SAT testing and college applications and the inevitable question of “what's next?” posed by a college counselor in an office adorned with banners and brochures for schools Adam only dreamed of attending. 

Adam’s life resumed in the way he knew it would; he would work at the pool and Ronan would sometimes visit, lingering at his desk while families intending to swim pushed past.

Adam never turned him away, and Ronan would often stay the entire duration of Adam’s shift. He was a break from the conversations Adam struck up with the pool-goers who passed through the gate, the ones where he feigned happiness and hospitality. Conversations with Ronan felt real, genuine. 

Sometimes Adam would go on hikes through the forest with his friends and sometimes they would sprawl themselves out on the couches of Monmouth Manufacturing as they watched monster movies and played silly games. In that way, life was the same. 

And yet life was different. Somewhere along the way Gansey confessed to Adam that he liked Blue, and somewhere further along the way Blue confessed to Adam that she liked Gansey. He still didn’t know where they stood, didn’t know whether or not they told each other the secrets they entrusted to Adam. 

Life was different because somewhere even further along the way Adam confessed to himself that he liked Ronan. A confession that lived and died within the confines of his bedroom, a thought he dared to never say aloud. Confessing to himself had been hard enough; he didn’t know if he would ever be able to confess to Ronan, to the others. It was a secret not meant to be shared. 

He’d realized it two weeks after the funeral. 

Adam had been sitting on one of the couches in Monmouth, Ronan on the floor below him, close enough that his head could have leaned against one of Adam’s legs. Something was on the television but neither paid it much attention anymore. The five had been together until they slowly trickled out, the night’s magic beginning to fade with each tick of the clock. Gansey had offered to drive Blue back to her house and Noah had gone to his room, leaving Adam and Ronan alone with the remnants of a night of laughter and chatter still in their peripheral. 

“You leaving too?” Ronan had asked, looking up at Adam from his spot on the floor.

Adam shrugged, “Are you kicking me out?”

“No.” Definite, definitive. 

Adam remained and eventually Ronan had joined him on the couch, bodies adjusting to allow enough space for the other to sit together comfortably as another movie unfamiliar to Adam began on the screen. Ronan had chosen it, attaching someone’s laptop to an HDMI and finding a bootleg of a film he called “poetic cinema.” The entire operation seemed very illegal and very Ronan. Adam remembered the allure of it all. 

“What are we watching?”

The Room , Parrish.” Adam remembered the way Ronan had leaned closer to him, shoulders touching and the taste of Skittles the two had taken turns tossing into the other’s mouth earlier in the night still on his breath. “The best movie you’ll ever see.”

“I don’t trust you.”

“I don’t lie.” 

The movie had, in fact, been terrible. Though, Adam didn’t remember much of the plot. What he remembered was Ronan’s voice, loud and pronounced as he said: “ You’re tearing me apart, Lisa! ” in time with a character Adam never learned the name of. He remembered laughing alongside Ronan, the kind of laughter that made his sides hurt and his eyes water. 

He remembered wanting to stay in Monmouth, tucked away in a place that seemed so detached from the rest of the world. Within its walls, time seemed to stand still. Adam forgot what waited for him at home, forgot the scholarships he applied for but never heard back from, forgot the newspaper clippings for apartment listings he kept inside his pillowcase. Here, there was just Adam and Ronan (and a Tommy Wiseau movie). And that was enough. 

As he said goodbye that night, Ronan walking him to the parking lot where Adam’s bike leaned against the side of the building, Adam clung to the memories made free from the watchful eyes of a scrutinizing world. Reality resumed itself only when he reached the dusty road that led home, laughter and magic and mirth ebbing as he walked his bike up the driveway. The lights had been off but the door unlocked, the forgetfulness of a drunken father even more apparent when Adam stepped inside to find the refrigerator door improperly shut and a line of Natural Light cans decorating the kitchen table. 

He locked up the house and shut the refrigerator before he had crept to his bedroom, unseen and unheard. It was there, laying atop his sheets with eyes closed and trying to calm thoughts both insistent and restless, that Adam realized it. 

It was in the way he found himself watching Ronan throw his head back in careless laughter at a film only he found joy in; the way he clutched onto the feeling that came with being alone with Ronan in Monmouth, a feeling that remained with him long after Adam left its walls. He had someone who made him feel something , some unexplainable feeling that took him away from his family’s double-wide and from the fortress he built around himself. A feeling different from the way he felt around Blue or Noah or Gansey. 

But in the days following, he buried his secret. 

Unfamiliar feelings and confessions not yet ready to be said aloud lived and died in his bedroom, manifesting themselves only when the door was shut and his eyes were closed. Before Ronan, Adam never believed himself capable of a crush or anything of the sort. Never believed himself worthy.

Before Ronan, Adam never thought about sexuality. There had been girls throughout his childhood he thought were pretty, but there had also been boys he caught himself staring at a second too long. He heard terms tossed around in the hallways of his high school, but never thought to qualify himself as this or that. He never saw the need, always resigning himself to a life of being unable to love because he didn’t know what it felt like to be loved in return. 

Now, he wasn’t so sure. 

Doubt clouded his judgement still, willing him to push down his feelings before they caught hold of his patchwork heart, spreading like an untamable fire. So he pretended, pretended like nothing had changed between him and Ronan. Whatever feelings he buried became another unattainable fantasy. 

He pretended now, seeing Ronan approach his desk at the pool as clouds gathered in the sky and lifeguards blew their whistles at the first clap of thunder, that he hadn’t spent the first hour of his shift silently hoping Ronan would show. 

“What are the odds they send you home?”

Adam shrugged, willing himself to look at Ronan. “Depends.” 

When his boss wasn’t in and storms rolled through, she left the head lifeguard in charge of deciding whether or not the pool’s desk attendant could go home. Some were more friendly to Adam than others, though Adam preferred to avoid any conversations that went beyond a typical greeting with all of the guards that passed through his gate. 

“I’m bored, Parrish.” 

Above them, thunder rumbled, each burst drawing the oncoming storm nearer. 

“And that’s my fault?” 

“No.” Ronan looked around, undoubtedly searching for the head lifeguard. “It’s whoever the fuck won’t send you home’s fault.” 

There was a part of Adam who hoped the rain would pass and he could stay the entire duration of his shift, the desire to earn the full $7.25 he made an hour tugging at his rational and logistical brain. There was a different - newer - part of Adam, however, who hoped the rain would come and send him away, the desire to stow his bike in the back of Ronan’s car as the two drove off together overtaking logic.

“Why don’t you go talk to them yourself, Lynch? I’m sure they’d listen to you.” He looked at Ronan in earnest, though his tone was sarcastic, inviting. He wondered if this was what it meant to flirt. 

In front of him, Ronan bristled. “Half of them are Aglionby.”

“All of them are assholes.” 

The smile on Ronan’s face was undeniable.  “Easy, Parrish. You’re starting to sound like me.” 

“Horrifying.” Adam matched his smile, taking in the way conversation seemed to pass so easily now. They still stumbled, tripped over words and said the wrong things, but Adam began to take pleasure in the banter he and Ronan created when they were together. 

They talked about what they wanted, and avoided what they didn’t. Adam knew their blissful ignorance wouldn’t last, but he couldn’t deny the way it felt to have someone to be a teenager with. Being with Ronan made up for the years Adam lost to his loneliness, the years he spent growing up too fast in order to simply survive.

When rain finally came, it began all at once, an endless stream slapping against the roof to the gazebo Adam’s check-in desk was housed under. Ronan, who stood outside the gazebo, fell prey to the storm. Adam stifled a laugh, eyes trained on Ronan, as he worked to pack up the computer and scanner and the other miscellaneous materials his boss insisted he keep at the desk. Ronan swore about the dampness of his clothes as he passed through the gate and joined Adam under the roof of the gazebo. 

“Employees only.” 

Ronan leaned against one of the sides to the gazebo, the wind directing a few droplets onto his exposed and already wet arms. “You wouldn’t.”

Adam just shook his head as he turned back to the stream of pool-goers making their exit. He slipped back into his over-saturated Henrietta accent as he wished them well and expressed his condolences about the unexpected change in weather. He could feel Ronan’s judgement without having to look at the other boy’s face. It was the sort of silent judgement that made Adam believe he would never be the boy’s equal, the one that took away their easy conversations about movies and music. 

He hated how powerless he felt working at the pool, always having to chat with the parents of kids he went to school with, never letting slip that their children spent their hours in the classrooms and in the hallways making passing comments about what Adam wore or speculated aloud about the fading bruises on his cheeks. 

For someone who tried to remain anonymous, Adam’s name passed loosely through the lips of his classmates. Even those who lived in the park with him, the few kids he used to toss footballs around with or catch frogs alongside in the neighboring creek, pretended that Adam Parrish came from a different version of Henrietta than the rest. 

To the parents, though, he was a reflection of the Henrietta many grew up in and chose to remain in; a hardworking boy with true charm and hospitality. A reflection of the children they believed they themselves raised. 

Adam knew Ronan saw through the image Adam painted for the members of the pool, and he said as much when the pool cleared and the two stood alone under the gazebo as the rain continued to pour. “Say it, Lynch.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You think I’m pitiful. You pity me.” 

“The fuck do I have to pity you for? I barely know anything about you, Adam .” 

Adam was surprised to hear his first name, the two syllables laced with a rancor that signaled to him Ronan’s growing frustration. The easy flow of conversation so present before faded as the two faced one another, arms crossed and eyes staring. It felt like before; the early days when they were trying to figure the other out, when Adam would craft stories of the Ronan he thought he knew to justify his own judgements. 

Two months later they still had a lot of figuring out to do. 

Adam made the promise to himself, within the walls of St. Agnes and with a God he didn’t believe in as his witness, that he would open himself to his friends. The Henrietta Community Pool was not the place to do so. Secrets buried and reburied in the corners of Adam’s mind threatened to spill; declarations of how he felt about Ronan and confessions of his impoverished upbringing caught in his throat like bile. 

He’d seen Ronan with his guard down, vulnerable as he walked down the aisle of St. Agnes and again as he walked through the fields at the Barns. He’d seen the way Ronan looked when he opened the bathroom door on the boat weeks prior, anxiety and fear etched across his face. 

And yet Adam wasn’t ready for himself to do the same. 

“Forget it.” Adam said, turning his attention away from Ronan and instead looking to one of the lifeguards who came jogging over. He thought his name was Tad, but Adam was never quite sure. 

“You’re good to go home, Adam.” He said and Adam gave his thanks. Tad looked as though he wanted to say more to Adam, but quickly turned away when he saw Ronan’s glower. If the two hadn’t begun an argument, and if Adam had been willing to curb his pride, he would have thanked Ronan for sending Tad away. 

Instead, he ignored Ronan as he finished putting his things away and continued to ignore him as he walked the pool bag back to the employee’s shack where the lifeguards now congregated, playing cards and joking with one another in a way that always excluded Adam. He clocked out wordlessly and left the shack; Ronan waited for him at the door’s threshold.

“Can I at least give you a ride somewhere?” Ronan knew better than to ask to give Adam a ride home, and Adam was at least grateful for that. 

“I’ll be fine.”

They walked together out the gate, frustration building in time with the growing storm. Adam’s tennis shoes quickly filled with water, soaking his socks and causing them to slosh uncomfortably with each step he took. The rest of his body matched the discomfort he felt in his feet. 

“God, Parrish. Cut the martyr bullshit, okay?”

They reached the bike rack, neither caring that lightning lit the sky and the storm showed no signs of letting. Adam’s hands fumbled with the rain-soaked bike lock, anger and frustration giving his fingers an added tremor. He messed up the combination twice before hearing the desired click as the lock came loose. 

“I’m not a martyr.” He said, taking the lock in one hand as he used his other to wipe off the seat of the bike. “I just don’t want a ride.”

He did, though. He wanted to get in the car and ride alongside Ronan; he wanted to forget the conversation had under the gazebo and the way Ronan looked as he kicked at a puddle forming on the pavement, rainwater splashing Adam’s exposed ankles. He wanted to be unafraid of his desires and the way his heart and his mind fought one another tirelessly, thought always overtaking feeling. 

He wanted and yet he hesitated. 

In his hesitation, he watched Ronan’s face change. Anger melted into something akin to sadness as Ronan ran a hand over his head, swatting away at the persistent raindrops. There wasn’t pity there, not in the way Adam once thought; there was hurt. Adam wanted to make right and yet he hesitated.

“I guess I’ll see you later, then.” Ronan said, turning to trudge through the puddles that led to his car. 

“Yeah, see you later.” 

Adam mounted his bike, feeling the way the rain continued to soak his already damp clothes. He was angry and frustrated, but his emotions were now directed inward. Angry at his pride; frustrated at the way words seemed to catch in his throat. His friendship with Ronan had become steady, a constant in Adam’s life he knew he could count on. The afternoon at the pool left him unbalanced.

Unbalanced and wishing so desperately that he could have developed a crush on anyone else but Ronan Lynch. 

Because, if his friendship with Ronan felt steady, his newfound feelings were anything but. Adam’s feelings were a summer storm, the kind that seemed to appear out of nowhere, but one you knew would inevitably come. It was the kind of storm he biked through now, vision obscured and heart beating against his rain-soaked chest. Anxieties and adrenaline pushed him forward as he fought against potholes and puddles. 

In order to regain his footing, Adam knew he would have to quell his anxieties and push down his insistent thoughts of never being worthy of a crush, of never being Ronan’s equal. There was a truth he would confess in time, a scary and ugly truth that Adam lived with every time he went home. A truth he biked to now. 

He had the fragments of a confession coming together in his mind, built on a mutual trust so unfamiliar to Adam. Truth for truth. He owed it to Ronan, to himself. Because, for as hard as Adam searched for Ronan’s pity and his judgement, for some indication that their friendship was a ruse, it was never there. In all his time spent wondering if Ronan would ever consider him his equal, Adam neglected to see that he himself was the one who viewed them apart. 

His confession would be to Ronan, but also to himself. A confession that told Adam he deserved this, that his upbringing did not make him unworthy of someone like Ronan. The thought of exposing himself in such a way, of appearing vulnerable when he spent his life building up his armor, unnerved him. Though, the way he felt nestled on a couch in Monmouth, or watching the way Ronan lost himself in the melodies of unfamiliar songs, gave him something to fight for. 

I deserve this . He repeated it to himself, the words carrying him through the threshold of the family’s double-wide. His mother stood with her back to her son, washing the few dirty dishes while her husband lay asleep in a worn-out recliner, a crushed can of Natural Light empty at his feet. Adam passed by the two to his room, closing the door and stripping himself of the clothes that clung to his body. 

He reached for a clean pair of pants at the top of a pile of laundry he’d forgotten to put away, pulling them on while simultaneously trying to find a shirt that wasn’t one he would have to wear to work the next day. He found it in the back of his three-drawer dresser, tucked away in a spot only Adam knew existed. 

The Aglionby crest greeted him, something at once so familiar and unfamiliar to him. He knew he wouldn’t dare leave his room adorning Ronan’s shirt, but here, locked away in his bedroom as he combed through the SAT book recently borrowed from the library, Adam took comfort in the way the fabric felt against his skin. 

I deserve this. 

 


 

On Saturday morning, Ronan entered the Henrietta Public Library alongside Gansey. He hadn’t seen Adam since their argument at the pool two days prior and Gansey took notice.

“Why didn’t Adam come over last night?” Gansey asked as they walked together to the small section in the back of the library labeled Classics. “I thought you invited him.”

Ronan had meant to the day at the pool, but the way they parted hadn’t left room for exchanging weekend plans. “I forgot.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. 

“You never forget.” Gansey’s voice grew quiet as they passed a long desk that housed several computers. Each was occupied by Henrietta residents, some applying for jobs and others searching the internet for viral videos. 

Ronan hushed his own voice, though made his agitation known. “We didn’t have time to talk about it.” He wanted to let the matter drop, knowing soon enough he and Adam would see one another again and push past the argument. At least, Ronan hoped they would. He and Adam hadn’t parted amicably that day, and the thought of Adam mad at him left Ronan unsettled. 

He’d driven back to Monmouth that afternoon in silence, the persistent rainfall against the windshield the only noise in an otherwise quiet car. Since the funeral, Ronan had done his best to adhere to the silent promises he sent to his mother above. In three weeks, his sober nights outweighed his drunken ones and he’d only spent one night whipping through the backroads of Henrietta with an unworthy challenger racing beside him. 

He was making the effort to do better, be better. He wanted to one day be able to look at himself in the mirror and not hate the sight of the person he’d allowed himself to become. He wanted to show the few friends he had that he wanted to be in their lives. Asking Adam on a date was an added want he kept tucked in the back of his mind, a want that always sought to surface but one he never said aloud. 

Gansey’s voice brought him back as he asked: “Is this the one we’re supposed to read?” 

He held a copy of King Lear in his hands. 

In all the allure and adventure of the early summer months, the two had forgotten that summer reading was a requirement for their senior English class. August had begun and school loomed nearer, Ronan’s last first day hovering over him like a specter. The thought of adorning his Aglionby uniform one final time did not bring him the comfort he once thought it would. 

He had no plans for the future, and walking across the stage come the end of May only brought an uncertainty about what would happen next. 

“I thought you had the list with you.” Ronan pulled himself away from thoughts of the future, instead moving to run his fingers across the spines of the books. “You’re acting like I do the reading.” 

Gansey ignored him as he scanned the shelves for another book. “I think we have to read this one too.” He handed Ronan Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“We read this last year.”

“Did we?” Gansey ran a thumb over his lip in contemplation. “We read The Portrait of a Lady , and I think that was two years ago.”

“Are we done?” Ronan asked, finding little joy in the selection of books the Aglionby English Department chose for their students to read. 

When Gansey nodded, Ronan started back toward the library’s entrance with the Joyce novel still in hand, leaving Gansey to wander toward the non-fiction section. A seat had opened up at one of the computers and Ronan thought to take it, knowing the time Gansey would spend clawing through books he had not yet read.

A boy much younger than him sat to his left, watching a YouTube video of someone doing a walkthrough for a videogame unfamiliar to Ronan. To his right, the chair was empty but the computer screen remained on. Henrietta apartment listings were pulled up on screen, while a piece of paper with prices and phone numbers sat on the keyboard in front of the monitor. 

Ronan tapped at his own keyboard, pulling up a blog dedicated to hunting the paranormal, something mindless to keep him distracted until Gansey finished his own literary investigation. He clicked to an article about the Mothman and had begun reading when the sound of the chair next to him moving against the carpet drew his attention. 

Ronan looked over. 

“Parrish?”

Adam looked unsettled, as if the very thought of seeing Ronan at the library put him on edge. “Hey.” He responded, closing out of the tab with the apartment listings. 

“House hunting in Henrietta?” Ronan asked, voice joking in an attempt to settle the discomfort building between them. He hoped Adam would smile, would joke alongside him in the way that lit up Ronan’s insides.  

Adam continued to stare, lips pressed together. Ronan took notice of the way he pushed his palms against his khakis, a similar trick Ronan used to ground himself. “I’m moving.” He said finally, voice hardened and free of the teasing tone Ronan had first used. 

“Oh.” Ronan collected himself, shoulders stiffening as he sat himself straighter. “When?”

“Soon.”

Ronan nodded as he took it all in, feeling the way his skin prickled with unspoken anxieties. “I get it. You don’t want to have to see my face everyday.”

“What?”

“It was a joke, Parrish. I was making a fucking joke.” His tone was too loud, too harsh, for the public library. He didn’t know how to process the thought of Adam leaving Henrietta, so he made improperly timed jokes that did nothing but increase his own fears. “It was a joke because you’re leaving me and—”

“I’m staying in Henrietta.”

“You just said you were moving.”

He watched Adam then, noticing the way he tried to steady his breathing and tapped the heel of his foot against the leg of the chair. Whatever he was about to say, Ronan could tell he was choosing his words carefully. 

“I’m moving out of my parents’ house.” Adam’s voice was quiet when he said it, as if he didn’t want the other library patrons to hear his confession. “As soon as I find a place I’m moving…” Adam stopped then as he took notice of the way Ronan’s mouth hung just slightly ajar, “Don’t look at me like that.” 

“Like what?”

“You think I’m irresponsible.” 

“I never said that.”

In fact, Ronan didn’t know what to say. He knew he and Adam teetered on the edge of a fight, picking up where the argument at the pool left off. Ronan was used to fighting; he fought with his Aglionby teachers over incomplete assignments and he often found himself punished for hurling malicious words at fellow classmates he believed provoked him. 

Ronan was used to fighting and yet he did not want to fight with Adam.

“Look man, I could care less about why you’re doing it.” When Ronan spoke, he sounded disinterested in a way he hadn’t intended. “I mean — I support you, or whatever.” 

Adam looked like he wanted to say more, but stopped, eyes looking past Ronan. It was then that Gansey reappeared, cradling a stack of books in one arm. “Adam!” He said, “I didn’t know you’d be here.” 

“I’m here.” Adam responded, keeping his attention focused on Gansey and not on Ronan. 

Ronan himself turned his attention back to the computer screen. He pretended to lose himself in the legend of the Mothman while Adam and Gansey exchanged words beside him. One hand gripped the computer mouse while his other lay fisted at his side. The words on the screen carried little weight.

He was searching for instant gratification, trying to connect beginnings and endings without considering everything in-between. The beginning was his promise, the end its completion. Now he found himself in the in-between with no sense of direction. 

He felt like he was backtracking, no closer to the end than when he started three weeks prior. He wanted to get things right. With Adam and with his friends, he wanted to pick up the fragments without fracturing more of himself in the process. 

“If you’ll excuse me,” Ronan looked up at the sound of Gansey’s voice, Gansey who took a call on his cellphone with all the giddiness of a schoolboy. “Jane!” He answered, walking away with his library books still cradled in one arm. 

“Do you think they’re together now?” Adam leaned over once Gansey had gone. 

Ronan thought of the nights he would leave his room to use the restroom or find a box of cereal to stick his hands into, always hearing Gansey on the phone with Blue. He’d quickly learned, however, to keep his headphones on during such nightly escapades. Whatever was happening between his friends, he wanted to leave it between them. 

“With the way Gansey won’t stop talking about her, I hope so.”

When Ronan looked to Adam, he saw the way his face had softened, the beginnings of a smile working on his lips. It felt like every late night in Monmouth, every car ride with Adam where Ronan pretended to know the way only to get lost in order to buy a few extra minutes at Adam’s side. 

“I’m a jackass.” Ronan said unprompted, not giving Adam the chance to draw out a conversation about Gansey and Blue. “A big fucking jackass who is sorry for all his jackass-ness.” 

“Are you apologizing to me, Lynch?”

“Yeah, Parrish, I am.”

“For what?”

Every ill-timed word or phrase spoken to Adam over the course of two months came back to him; Ronan tried to find which ones fit best as he crafted an apology. “Everything.” He decided on, “For being a shit person.”

“You’re not that shit.” There it was: Adam’s joking tone, the one that said everything would work out, would be okay. “I wanted to tell you about moving, but—.”

“You thought I would judge you?”

Adam nodded, embarrassed. “Normal eighteen year olds don’t just move out.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Parrish, I live with Gansey in a fucking warehouse.” 

And then they were laughing, both of them, shoulders vibrating up and down in rhythmic unison. They forgot about where they sat, library patrons typing away at the computers around them or walking past in search for a book to read. Instead, the two took in the way it felt to be back to the easy and the familiar. 

“I should make sure Gansey didn’t leave without me.” Ronan said eventually, closing out of his unread article and grabbing the all-but forgotten Joyce novel. “I don’t think I could ride on your handlebars.”

Adam stood up too, taking the paper with the phone numbers and prices and placing it in his pocket. “Who said I’d let you?” He teased as he walked alongside Ronan to the circulation desk.

Ronan handed the book to one of the librarians before he searched his pockets for a library card he knew he didn’t carry. While he patted himself down for the sake of theatrics, Adam handed over his own card. 

“I’ll check the book out, Mary.” He said. “And I’ll make sure he returns it on time, too.”

“You’re a good friend, Adam.” The woman named Mary responded.

Of course Adam Parrish knew the names of the librarians. Ronan didn’t know why he found that fact so undeniably attractive. 

“Thanks,” Ronan mumbled, taking the book from Adam as the two walked out of the library. “Can I repay you with a scented candle or whatever housewarming shit people do now?”

“I don’t need a candle. Just remember to return the book.” 

“Can’t let Mary down.”

Adam shot him a look and Ronan held up his hands to show he was only kidding. He would make sure that he returned the book on time. 

They continued walking until they caught sight of Gansey sitting on one of the benches outside the library with his stack of books beside him. He looked picturesque — the perfect image of academia with his pressed shorts and coral polo shirt complementing his top-siders and wireframe glasses. He looked, in that moment, everything Ronan would never be. 

“How’s the girlfriend?” Ronan asked, wanting to see the way Gansey flushed when he mentioned Blue. 

“Jane’s uh, she’s not my — not yet.” 

“Jesus, Dick. Make your move.”

Beside him, Adam looked uncomfortable, as if Ronan and Gansey stood on opposite ends of a fictitious argument and he didn’t know whose side to take. 

“We’re going out tonight.” 

“Without a chaperone?”

Adam’s voice: “ Ronan.

Ronan stopped, his wild and frenzied grin shrinking when he saw the firmness is Adam’s own expression. On the bench, Gansey looked stunned. 

“Well,” Ronan began, “when you decide to get the sticks out of your asses, I’ll be at the car.”

And then he left, walking the few steps down the sidewalk until he reached the parking lot. The sun beat against his shoulders as he leaned against Gansey’s car, furthering his irritability as sweat began to pool on his forehead. Eventually he watched Adam take off on his bike and eventually Gansey came and unlocked the car. 

“Was any of that necessary?” Gansey asked once the doors were shut. 

“Is anything I do ever necessary, Dick?”

As they drove back to Monmouth, two thoughts crossed Ronan’s mind: how long it would take for him to read and return the book checked out under Adam’s name, and what scent of candle he would christen Adam’s new apartment with. 

He would make things up to Adam (again). 


 

On Monday morning, Adam biked to the pool with the knowledge that nothing extraordinary would happen. The weekend had been ordinary, spending much of it at home in his backyard or in his bedroom with the door firmly shut. He expected the week to be even more ordinary. 

He parked and locked his bike against the same bike rack as always and adorned the same red staff shirt he had been given at the start of the summer. He gave one quick look at the community bulletin board attached to the side of the big blue building that lay home to both the locker rooms and the snack bar before walking through the pool’s gate. 

The same flyers for items in need of purchasing or adverts for babysitters needed for hire decorated the board. Nothing new, nothing extraordinary. 

He went about his day as always, retrieving the pool bag and setting things up at the desk. He fell into the rhythm of logging into the laptop and making sure the scanner worked, of setting out a collection of pens and clipboards for guests to sign in on. The day was warm and muggy and seemed to drive the entire town to the pool. 

He hoped Ronan would show himself amongst the faces of Henrietta pool-goers, but he never did. Memories of the day at the library still hung heavy in Adam’s mind, remembering the way nerves ate at him when he’d allowed himself to prematurely tell Ronan about his plans to move. It’s your fault , he reminded himself, for leaving the computer on.  

Adam Parrish didn’t believe in fate like he didn’t believe in God, and yet it felt like some universal force pushed him to tell Ronan before he was ready. His intention had always been to tell, but he imagined doing so casually, after the fact. His intention had been to simply invite his friends over one night and the few things he owned would already be in place. 

Now, he didn’t know what would come next. So he spent the rest of his shift thinking about everything but what came next, choosing to lose himself in the smiles he feigned and the conversations tired-eyed members engaged him in instead.

When the time came for him to clock out, he passed by the community board on his walk to his bike one last time. He didn’t know what he was searching for, just that he was searching. The flyers and adverts appeared the same, ordinary. So ordinary that he almost missed it, ready to give up his search when he noticed something new had replaced something old. 

It was a listing for a single-room apartment above St. Agnes’ adjoining office building with a price incomparable to almost every other listing Adam had looked at. A phone number for inquiries printed at the bottom of the page lured him in. He willed himself to take the flyer, telling himself he deserved this. He deserved to move out; he deserved to spend his last year in Henrietta unafraid to walk through his front door. 

Adam Parrish did not believe in God, but he began to wonder if someone was looking out for him after all. He began to wonder if he wouldn’t have to navigate life alone. 

 

On Tuesday morning, he left his house early, pedaling until a sweat broke on his brow. With the day off from the pool and hours to go until his shift with Boyd, Adam wanted to talk to the woman whose name appeared on the St. Agnes flyer, and he wanted to sign a lease. He had the payment and the paperwork he’d spent Monday afternoon tracking down and filling out nestled inside his bookbag; he wanted this.

I deserve this. He reminded himself, nearing the church. 

He hadn’t entered St. Agnes since the funeral, and still felt out of place reentering a holy site when he himself was not holy. The doors creaked when he opened them, the potent scent of incense greeting him as he hovered in the narthex. He had spoken briefly to the woman on the phone about scheduling a meeting, but the church appeared empty. 

Adam occupied his hands with the straps of his bookbag, nails digging into the fabric as he scanned the building. He wondered if he’d been forgotten, if he’d picked the wrong time. Everything had gone so well that he began to wonder if his moment’s luck had run out.

Then he heard it, the sound of heels against tile and a woman’s voice saying: “Are you Mr. Parrish?”

He took a breath and responded, “Yes, ma’am.”

The woman — Ms. Margaret, as she came to be called — wasted no time as she ushered Adam down the hallway and through a door that connected the church to the office. The building was not air conditioned and smelled of both musk and the incense from the neighboring church, an unpleasant odor Adam knew he would become acquainted with. 

He followed the woman to a stairwell at the back of the office. “I’d like to show you where you’d be staying.” She said, Adam following behind her as they walked up to what he presumed to be the apartment. 

A small hallway the width of the apartment but the length of only four or five feet greeted them at the top of the stairs, wooden floorboards in desperate need of a dusting leading to a single door with chipped paint and a worn-down doormat placed in front. It looked as though the entire attic used to be one room until a few pieces of drywall and a shabby door sought to give the space the feel of a real apartment. 

Home. Adam thought, following Ms. Margaret as she unlocked the door. 

The room itself was unimpressive, a single queen-size mattress without a bedframe lay against one wall and a built-in desk without a chair lay against another. A small alcove with a curtain rod and a stained white curtain separated the living area from an even more unimpressive bathroom. One small window allowed natural light in, giving Adam a view of an unbusy Henrietta street. 

“There’s a kitchen in the basement of this building for you to use.” Ms. Margaret said as Adam looked around. “Just remember to label your food.” 

The room was unimpressive and yet it was Adam’s. He had every intention of signing the lease and moving in as soon as allowed. It was his space, purchased by himself and for himself. 

“If no one else has put in an offer, ma’am, I intend to lease.” 

“You’re my only offer, Mr. Parrish.”

 

On Tuesday afternoon, Adam signed a twelve-month lease to the room adjoining St. Agnes. With no current tenant, Ms. Margaret would allow Adam to move in as early as Friday afternoon following his shift at the pool. She and the key would be waiting for him in the office below his new home.  

Home. It felt unnatural to say as he biked to Boyd’s, unnatural and yet uplifting. He would not tell his family until he carried a cardboard box full of only his most important belongings out the door, skipping the well-wishes as he biked down the dirt road and away from a place that never felt like home for the last time. 

 

Wednesday and Thursday were spent in restless anticipation. He saw Ronan only on Thursday and neither mentioned the apartment. Ronan provided him updates on Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist and assured him it would be returned on time. Adam, in turn, talked about the SAT book he had been sifting through, quizzing Ronan on vocabulary terms neither of them knew the definitions of.

Adam worked long hours and used the little energy he had when he came home to assemble his things. With only a bike to get him to and from St. Agnes, he knew what he took with him couldn’t amount to much. He’d let his parents sell the rest of his belongings, pretend like he never lived there at all. 

He filled his box and his bookbag with only the essentials: clothes, toiletries, a single pillow. He made sure both Ronan’s clothes and the Toad plushie made it into the keep pile, the thought of the items alone bringing him comfort. This was his life now: his room above St. Agnes and his group of friends. There was nothing left for him in his parents’ double-wide. 

 

On Friday afternoon, he biked home from the pool with faltering courage. He had no regrets about the lease, about leaving his parents. After eighteen years, he’d reached a point where he knew he owed them nothing. And yet, Adam felt uneasy, not knowing if the goodbye would be as satisfying as the one he’d dreamed up over and over in the night’s leading up to this moment. 

He didn’t know if he wanted his parents to be home when he announced his final departure, didn’t know whether or not he wanted to watch Robert Parrish curl his fist one last time as Adam biked away, knowing his son had legally declared his independence and was untouchable. He’d prepared a note ahead of time just in case he left behind an empty home, one he kept tucked in the pocket of his khakis as he biked up the driveway. 

His father’s truck was there and he noticed his mother’s silhouette outlined in the front window of the house, Alice clutching her cross necklace when she saw her son. 

Adam dismounted and pushed down the kickstand, the bike teetering for a moment before it steadied. He took a breath, steadying himself on the exhale as he started up the stairs. He could and he would do this. 

Inside the house, his father sat at the kitchen table, cleaning his teeth with his fingers while his other hand clutched a can of beer. His mother had drifted away from the window to join her husband at the table. They paid Adam no attention as he slipped into his room and shut the door.

He could do this.

He gathered his things quickly, leaving his room only to grab his toothbrush from the bathroom across the hall. With the door once again closed, he allowed himself a minute to sit on his bed one last time. The walls of his bedroom had been his only comfort in his eighteen years of living in the double-wide, the place he could go to be alone. It was the sight of late nights studying for exams and the sight of late nights laying with his knees curled up as he pretended the pain his father inflicted on him wasn’t as bad as it seemed.    

It had been as bad as it seemed, worse even. He knew that now, knew that he owed his father nothing because his father had given nothing to him. So Adam stood, giving the room one last look as he pulled on his bookbag and grabbed his single box of belongings. Any sense of attachment to his childhood home dissipated when he entered the hallway.

He could do this. 

“The fuck you think you’re doing?”

Adam turned his head at the sound of his father’s voice, bracing himself for the words he knew would come. By the look of him, Robert Parrish was only one or two beers in. Adam knew, however, that the sobriety of his father made no difference in the severity of his words or actions. 

“I’m leaving.” Adam said, words feeling cathartic on his lips. And he smiled, a smile that invited his father in, daring him to lay his hands on his son one last time. “I’m not coming back.”

“You think you’re so smug, boy.” His father stood now, unsteady at first. “I’ll wipe that fucking grin off your face.”

Adam’s mother looked away, pretending to occupy herself with an advertisement in a newspaper as her husband moved toward her son. Robert was quick, but Adam had grown used to his movements and stepped aside as his father stumbled forward. Adam reached out his hand to grip the handle of the front door, using the door itself to steady his single box as he sought to pull the door open. 

The door opened. A second later he felt his father’s hand tugging the collar of his t-shirt, the sudden impact causing the box in Adam’s hands to crash onto the floor. A collection of clothes and his toothbrush were the first items to spill. His father kicked at the box, fingers pulling harder on Adam’s shirt collar until Adam felt as though he were choking. 

The door remained open, the late afternoon sun drawing Adam forward. His things were useless to him now; what mattered was getting through the door and onto his bike. 

He could leave. He would leave.

He pushed forward as Robert worked to pull him back, ignoring the way his shirt collar pressed uncomfortably against his throat. When he felt his father’s grip on his shirt loosen, Adam put a hand to his throat as he entered into a series of coughs he quickly tried to quiet. He had taken another step, teetering on the threshold when his father’s hands gripped Adam’s shoulders. Adam felt himself being spun around, his father’s strength surpassing that of his own as they stumbled back into the confines of the house. 

They faced one another, Adam’s jaw set and ignoring the way it felt to have his father’s untrimmed nails digging into his shoulders. And then his father’s fist was raised, one hand still holding firm on Adam’s shoulders. Adam dared a step backward, no longer knowing how close he stood to the spot where the door ended and the stairs leading downward began. 

The first time his father hit him, Adam closed his eyes only at the moment of impact, expecting the way fist connected with jaw. They staggered together then, an inharmonious dance that led Adam back to the door’s threshold. One misstep and he would fall down the stairs. 

The pain was sharp and searing. His ears rang and his throat burned with the familiar metallic taste of blood. It touched over his tongue as he swallowed, realizing then that he’d bitten his lip. 

Adam couldn’t dwell on it, seeing the way his father’s hungry eyes begged for more. Begged to see his son fight back. Adam’s act of resistance had been in signing the lease, in never hitting back even when he wanted to. His act of resistance was in knowing that he would never become his father. 

The second time his father hit him, it came unexpectedly. Adam didn’t have time to react: there was only the feeling of his father releasing his grip before his fist connected hard against the left side of Adam’s face. There was his body losing footing on the door’s threshold, momentum sending him backwards as Adam scrambled to propel himself forward, knowing an injury to his chest would hurt less than one to his skull. 

It felt like a party trick, the one where the rug was pulled from under his feet and he had to fight to steady himself. Only, the rug was a set of stairs that he slipped on, knees connecting with the patch of grass at the bottom of the staircase. His chin then his forehead fell forward on impact, landing with a hard thump against the middle step. It was no longer just his jaw that radiated with pain; he felt it in his ribs, in his chest, as he tried to push himself up. The taste of blood still permeated his nostrils and lingered in the back of his throat; he wanted to cry out in pain but wouldn’t give his father the satisfaction

Robert Parrish hovered in the doorway, eyes following his son who fought to stand himself at the bottom of the staircase. For a second, Adam wondered if his father would kill him. 

He felt the way the world spun, the way his lungs burned and his vision blurred. His bookbag remained on, an added weight keeping him down. His father’s mouth moved, but his voice sounded muffled, unclear. When Adam brought a hand to his left ear, he could feel the blood warm against his fingertips but couldn’t hear the way he tapped against it. 

Every inch of his body felt bruised and battered, but he told himself to get up. No one was coming to save him. Neither police nor God would intervene. This was a fight between a father and son, and Adam would see it to completion. His bike was close enough that he could reach it before his father made it down the stairs. 

“Get up, boy.” He made his father’s words out the second time he said them, a muffled sound coming in only through his right ear. 

Adam used his hands to push himself up, thinking to the future. He envisioned a future where he graduated top of his class and accepted a scholarship from a school his college counselor told him he was foolish for applying to. He envisioned a future with Gansey and Noah and Blue and Ronan beside him, a future where he told Ronan how he felt and didn’t fear the other boy’s reaction. 

It was a future unattainable while trapped inside the walls of his family’s double-wide. 

Adam stood then, balance unsteady and body protesting his every movement. His knees burned. The fabric of his khaki pants had been torn during his fall and he could feel the way blood began to trickle down his legs from the open wounds. He waited for his father to move, knowing one misstep in calculation would cost him the future he so desperately clung to. 

“Goodbye.” Adam said, his own voice sounding hoarse and unfamiliar to only one hearing ear. 

And then he ran, ignoring the way his knees protested his movements, as he moved to the bike and mounted it. The kickstand was up and he’d begun to pedal by the time his father reached the final step. He tried to numb himself to the pain, forgetting how each bend of the knee sent another ripple of pain up and down his body. His lungs burned and breathing was haggard, but he continued onward. He forced himself to forget the way his head throbbed and his vision crossed, letting his bike carry him to the familiar. 

Fear pushed him to pedal faster: he feared he would lose consciousness before he made it to where he longed to go, feared his knees would give out and be unable to carry him onward, feared a police officer would find him on the side of the road and take him home.

No , Adam reminded himself, not home. Home was the apartment above St. Agnes, but it was also the place he biked to now. Home was a place but it was also a feeling, a feeling Adam realized he needed now more than ever. 

So he fought with his body, urging himself to keep going until he saw Monmouth Manufacturing. Both Ronan and Gansey’s cars lay dormant in the driveway and Adam took comfort in that as he dismounted, not caring to set up the kickstand as the bike fell against the pavement. 

His breathing came heavy and ragged, and he clutched his side where he hoped all ribs and organs remained intact. He knew he couldn’t afford a visit to the hospital. Every inch of his face burned, head pounding against his skull and causing him to feel at once dizzy and nauseous. His walk to the side door felt like a marathon, his movements slow as he fought with consciousness. 

He knocked on the door, noticing now the dried blood that covered his knuckles and his fingertips. He didn’t care who opened the door; a familiar face was all he needed. No one answered at first and Adam knocked again, knowing he didn’t have the strength to go anywhere else. His body was spent, shutting down. 

He went to knock a third time when the door opened and Ronan appeared. Adam tried to focus on him, the way Ronan’s features changed from confusion to concern as he looked Adam over. 

“Parrish—” 

“Please.” Adam cut him off, moving to lean on the doorframe for support. He closed his eyes, feeling the way the earth moved around him. “Help me.” 

He remembered the sound of Ronan’s voice, panicked, though muffled, as he seemed to yell Adam’s name; he remembered what it felt like to fall when the world around him finally darkened.  

 


 

Adam.” Ronan moved quickly, letting the door remain ajar as he reached for Adam mid-fall. He took hold of the other boy’s shoulders and guided him as gently as he could to the ground, straightening out his legs and propping his unconscious body against the side of Monmouth. He noticed Adam still wore his bookbag and Ronan leaned him forward to take the added weight off of him, placing it on the pavement beside him. 

Panic and fear ate at him and his hands shook as he gently tapped against Adam’s paled and swollen cheek. “Come on, man. Wake up.” 

The last time he saw someone drop in the way Adam did, it had been his mother’s body the day her husband died. He was not prepared to lose Adam not even a full month after he’d said his final goodbyes to his mother. 

He remained crouched beside Adam, unsure how to coax the other boy to consciousness. He was certain he was doing everything wrong, any memories of what he’d been taught in his freshman health class useless now. In that moment, he felt scared and unsure in a way he hadn’t felt since he’d heard Declan speaking with the 911 operator in the driveway of the Barns. 

Adam’s heartbeat was there, Ronan noticing the slow rise and fall of his chest. It was the only comfort amid Ronan’s panic. Gansey and Noah sat inside, playing a mindless board game Ronan too had been playing until he’d heard the knocks at the door through the open window of Gansey’s bedroom. He wondered how long it’d take before either of them came to find him. He wouldn’t leave Adam, but he couldn’t find the words to call out to the two inside. 

He tapped against Adam’s cheek again, certain he could coax the other boy awake with the same gesture he used to coax Matthew awake in the backseat of his parents’ car after a long trip. 

He moved his hands away from Adam then, noticing the way Adam’s breathing began to pick up. It felt surreal, like he had stepped into one of his nightmares. Here was Adam, eyes fluttering and mouth parting to let out a low groan as he fought to regain his consciousness. He watched the way Adam’s eyes rolled back into his head once before they opened fully, bloodshot and tired. 

“Did I…” His voice was hoarse and Ronan noticed a fading line around his throat, a sign he had been choked. 

“Holy fuck, Parrish! You’re alive.”

Adam’s lips quivered as he looked to do what Ronan could only guess was smile. “Yeah.” His mouth opened only partially when he said it, lip busted and bruising.  

Panic subsided for just a moment as Ronan leaned closer to Adam. “Don’t fight me; I’m going to help you up.” 

Adam winced as he nodded, a slow and steady thing, as if each movement was another battle that needed to be won. He didn’t protest as Ronan gripped Adam from underneath his armpits, the two unharmoniously working to get Adam standing. Adam’s hands hung loosely around Ronan’s neck, bodies close as Ronan helped him to lean against the doorframe. 

“The stairs are going to be a bitch, but it’ll be worth it.” Ronan warned, adjusting himself so his arm now wrapped around Adam’s waist. He helped Adam put one arm around Ronan’s shoulder while his free hand used the wall to guide himself into Monmouth. Slowly they walked, taking each step with ease until they reached the hallway that led to the second floor living area. 

“Gansey,” Ronan called then, voice regaining little of its usual composure. “Hallway, now .”

Gansey and Noah entered the hallway from Gansey’s room, their own faces a mixture of shock and horror as they took in the sight of Ronan and Adam. Gansey acted first, asking Noah to get Adam a glass of water to drink and a glass of water to clean his cuts and bruises with. He then helped Ronan lead Adam to Ronan’s room, Adam not protesting when the other two worked to prop him up against Ronan’s pillows. 

Gansey remained seated on the bed beside Adam. Ronan, in turn, began to pace, the weight of what was happening settling in as his adrenaline wore off. Eventually Noah reemerged with two glasses of water and a hand-towel, handing them to Gansey who handed one glass to Adam and kept the other for himself. 

“Whoever did this to you…” Ronan gripped the edge of his windowsill as he looked down to the parking lot, turning away as Gansey began dipping the towel into the second glass of water. The sun was beginning to set, its dying rays casting a hazy orange glow around his bedroom. Cars drove down the street, drivers and passengers moving by blissfully unaware of the four boys crowded in the upstairs bedroom of an abandoned warehouse. “...they’re going to wish they didn’t.” He spoke with his back to the others, the image of Adam when Ronan had first opened the door pressed firmly in his mind. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Adam now. 

“Ronan.” Adam’s voice sounded more sure of itself when he spoke again, growing less hoarse and haggard. “Stop.”

Ronan turned, brows coming together in frustration. “Stop? Don’t sell me the ‘I fell off my bike’ bullshit. Whoever did this to you…” He didn’t know what he would do. He wanted to give them scars and bruises to match the ones Adam bore, wanted them to feel Ronan’s fist against their skull. 

“It was my dad, okay?” Ronan froze, mouth parting slightly as he watched Adam bow his head. Gansey and Noah looked to one another, each struggling to find words that seemed to live and die on their tongues. “Are you happy now?”

Ronan felt the furthest thing from happiness. He felt shame and humiliation, felt every bad thought he’d been working hard to suppress creeping through his body like a parasite. His thoughts were directed inward, however; feeling ashamed that he’d spent so long silently envious of Adam who had two living and breathing parents when Ronan had none. Humiliated that he never saw the signs, never connected what he saw now to the way Adam refused rides and missed work or adventures with his friends only to show up days later with fading bruises and stories of biking accidents. 

“I didn’t know.”

“No one knew.” Adam kept his head down, Ronan watching the way he bit at his already swollen lip, “I never told anyone.”

“The apartment.” When Ronan said it, Gansey and Noah turned their attention to him. Ronan realized then that he knew only fractions more than either of them. “You said you were moving out.”

“It was supposed to be today.” Adam’s voice was quiet, eyes fighting to stay open. Ronan had only ever been broken on the inside; he was looking at someone who knew what it meant the look on the outside the way he felt on the inside. 

“Your bag.” Ronan didn’t know what prompted him to say it, suddenly remembering the bookbag he’d taken off Adam when he sat unconscious, the one that still sat abandoned in the parking lot. “I forgot to grab it.” 

He thought he saw Adam trying to laugh, his shoulders sluggishly moving up and down a single time. “It’s all I could carry.” 

“You should rest.” Noah said, the first he’d spoken since Ronan and Adam had made their appearance. He’d moved to the doorway, fingers locking and unlocking with one another in a nervous anticipation of what would come next. 

Gansey stood, taking one of the glasses of water and the bloodied towel in his hands, “I think you should stay here tonight.” 

Ronan waited for Adam to protest in the way he always did, but he’d merely nodded and said: “Thank you.”

Noah said his goodbyes before disappearing into his own room, assuring Adam he was welcome to take his bed once he felt well enough to walk. 

Before Gansey left, he pulled Ronan aside. “I feel like I let Adam down,” He said, voice a whisper as his own head hung low. 

“We all did.” Ronan responded, letting the words out and not caring how harsh they sounded. He needed to hear it, a reminder to himself to adhere to his promise to be better. 

Gansey nodded and left, slow steps carrying him back to his bedroom where an unfinished board game would remain incomplete. Ronan turned back to where Adam lay, eyes closed and breathing slowing as he drifted into a light sleep. He left his room then, keeping the door open as he walked down the hall until he reached the staircase, taking the steps two at a time until he was out the door. 

The August evening greeted him, weather too perfect for the events that transpired under the summer sun. 

Ronan eyed his car selfishly before setting to work on the two tasks he’d come outside to perform. He first picked up Adam’s bike and walked it over to the side of the building, pushing down the kickstand and making sure it steadied. He then found Adam’s bookbag and grabbed it, keeping its contents zipped as he walked back through the door and up the stairs as swiftly as he’d descended them.

Adam was still asleep when Ronan reentered the room, and remained asleep when Ronan set down the bag and took a seat at his desk. The hour was still early and Ronan knew he wouldn’t fall asleep for some time, choosing instead to pick up where he left off in The Portrait of the Artist.  

It was a distraction and he knew it, but Ronan also knew it was what Adam would want of him. He wouldn’t want him to dwell on an unchangeable past; they would talk about it only when Adam felt ready. 

So he read, and he reread when the words on the page didn’t make sense. The hours crept by, Ronan reading as he left Adam to sleep. When he finally heard a low groan escape Adam’s lips, the time was just after one in the morning. 

“I should go.” 

Ronan looked at him, hoping Adam was making an attempt at humor. “You hit your head, go back to sleep.”

“It’s your bed.” Adam had slumped over at some point during his slumber and struggled to push himself upright, wincing and bringing a hand up to his left cheek when he’d managed to sit up. “Ms. Margaret is probably pissed.”

“You got a special friend waiting for you?”

“She’s my landlady.”

“Scandalous, Parrish. An older woman?” Ronan knew the last thing Adam wanted to hear was an inappropriate joke about the office lady at St. Agnes, a woman Ronan himself had known his entire time attending church services there. 

Adam groaned in response. “I’m sorry about this.” 

“Not your fault.” Ronan turned his book over in an attempt to hold his spot as he stood from his desk and walked over to the bed. He sat on the edge, studying Adam as Adam studied him.

“I didn’t think — I thought I could just leave and no one would ever find out.” He could see the way Adam fought with his words, never wanting to reveal too much before he was ready. 

“I don’t blame you for any of it, Parrish.” Ronan said, and he meant it. “I want you to stay.” He said the words aloud, words he’d wanted to say but never knew how to. He only wished the circumstances were different. 

“At least let me give you your bed back.” Adam moved to swing his legs over the side of the bed until he remembered the way his body ached, the way his knees didn’t want to bend. He stopped and slumped himself back down a little lower. 

Ronan stood, grabbing one of the extra pillows not propping Adam up and tossing it on the floor beside the bed. “Bed’s yours.” Before he laid himself down on the floor, he turned on his desk lamp and grabbed his Joyce novel. “I gotta find out what old Dedalus is up to next.” 

“You’re actually reading it?"

“Can’t let Mary down.” Ronan said, moving to turn off the main light switch and closing his door until it hung open only a crack. “I still haven’t tracked down your candle, though.” 

“You’re ridiculous, Lynch.” He heard Adam say in the dark, voice almost joking. The voice of someone who wouldn’t let the night’s events break him. 

Ronan laid himself on the floor beside the bed, placing his hands behind his head on the pillow. “I know.” 

He waited until he knew Adam had fallen back asleep before he allowed himself to close his own eyes. Sleep was hard to come by, his mind wandering to the boy on the bed above him. His feelings for Adam went beyond any summer crush, feelings that had been building for some time but now spread like oil stuck by a flame. 

It was the reason he’d talked with Ms. Margaret about the vacancy the Sunday after he saw Adam in the library, the reason he’d slipped a flyer for the St. Agnes apartment onto the community bulletin board when Adam stepped away from his desk. It was the reason why he now formulated a reckless and impulsive plan to make Adam’s father beg for a forgiveness Ronan would never grant, and why he quickly dismissed the plan until he garnered Adam’s approval. 

It was the knowledge that he would help Adam through this, whatever scary and uncertain thing their lives had become. The path straightened, the completion of his promise growing closer when he finally fell asleep that night. 

Chapter Text

The world was burning. 

The world was burning until Adam opened his eyes to find the world in tact, just a little fuzzy around the edges. 

He’d been dreaming. 

As he sat himself up, taking in the unfamiliar bedroom while his eyes tried and failed to adjust themselves to the mid-morning light, the dream began to blend into the hazy world he awoke to. He remembered his father, then a match being struck. The world burned only as dream Adam left behind his family home to the sound of his father’s curses and the scent of kerosene filling his nostrils. 

He felt unsettled, the dream fading as a physical pain began to spread its way back through Adam’s body. It was in his head, his knees, his jaw. Thoughts came and went with little coherence as he narrowed his eyes against the light. 

“You finally awake, Parrish?” He heard Ronan’s voice before he saw him, Ronan who lay on the ground with his hands behind his head and his copy of The Portrait of the Artist resting on his stomach. His voice still sounded wrong, muffled, to Adam’s ears. When he brought his hand up to his left ear, Adam felt the blood that had dried around the lobe; any tap or scratch he made around the ear, however, went unheard. 

Memories of the night before came back to him — the fight; biking to Monmouth; the feel of Ronan’s body next to his; Ronan’s reassuring voice helping Adam up the stairs and into the bed he currently lay in. “I’m awake.” Adam responded then. The taste of blood still lingered in his throat when he spoke, and he cursed the way his jaw stung each time he opened his mouth. But he was awake; awake and alive. 

“Would you kill me if I asked how you’re feeling?”

“I’ve been better.” He saw no point in hiding it, not after what he put Ronan through, what Ronan saw. 

Ronan was up now, sitting on the edge of the bed and looking Adam over. Ronan had seen him at his worst, had been with him throughout the night, and yet Adam couldn’t shake the selfconsciousness he felt at the thought of Ronan studying his injuries before Adam himself could assess them. 

“Is it bad?” Adam forced himself to ask it. 

Ronan shrugged, “You're still Adam.” 

He searched Ronan’s eyes for judgement, for pity, before lowering his gaze at his own foolishness. “Great,” Adam said, bringing a hand up to his forehead to massage the worst of a growing headache. He feared he had a concussion — not the first time he’d encountered one, but an inconvenience nonetheless. “Because I have work tonight.” 

And then Ronan was laughing, mouth hanging open and sharp eyes narrowed. “You can’t be serious.”

“Boyd needs me in at 5.”

Underneath the cars, the conditions of Adam’s face and body mattered little; it was unlike the pool where scrutinizing eyes passed by him and parents asked questions Adam didn’t want to give the answers to. What he looked like to Boyd mattered little. So long as Adam could do the job assigned to him, his boss paid him little attention. 

He watched Ronan stand then, pacing around the room and inspecting the items spread across his desk before hovering at the barely-opened door. “Well, I’m starving. Do you want anything?”

He felt the tug at his stomach, the way his body begged him to eat. “I don’t want to take your food.”

“Shut up, Parrish.” Ronan’s eyes narrowed, arms crossed tight against his chest. “I’m going to get you a goddamn bowl of cereal.” 

Adam tried to get himself up then, wincing at the way his knees stung as he brought them upwards toward his chest before swinging them over the side of the bed. He still wore the same clothes from the night before, holes in his khakis showing off a set of bruises forming on his knees. Dried blood left a browning stain around the holes, and the collar of his t-shirt adorned a similar stain. He remembered his clothes then, strewn across the floor of the double-wide. 

“My stuff.” He it said aloud, though to himself, ignoring Ronan’s offer of cereal and the way hunger began to gnaw at his insides. When he saw the way Ronan watched him, he added: “I couldn’t grab it.” 

“You’re not going to go back, are you?” 

“No.” Adam shook his head softly, feeling the way his temples pulsed in protest to the sudden movement. “I’m not.” His voice was firm, definite and definitive. He had a change of clothes in his bookbag, though not much else beyond a few library books and the Toad plushie. It would have to be enough. 

He studied Ronan, watched as the other boy teetered on the edge of saying something, mouth opening and closing once in contemplation. “Get dressed.” Ronan finally said, hands now pressed in his pockets and eyes finding a point just beyond Adam to look at. “I’m taking you out.”

“On a date?” The words were out before Adam could stop them, a slip of the subconscious. He looked down too quickly then, a fresh wave of nausea hitting in his attempt to mask his flushed cheeks from Ronan. He hoped whatever bruises he’d yet to see further masked the embarrassment he could feel hot on his face. 

Ronan smirked, “A date?” He repeated, his mockery adding to Adam’s misery. “If that’s what we’re calling Walmart runs now, then yeah, Parrish. Let’s go on a date.” 

“I didn’t—” Adam began to correct himself but stopped, willing himself not to let go of another secret in his attempt to amend his words. He rose from the bed then, finding his bookbag and reaching down to grab it. With one hand pulling the bag up and onto the bed, he put his other to his face, cursing the way his vision came in and out of focus. 

“Relax.” Ronan reclaimed his spot on the edge of the bed as Adam dug through the few items in his bag, hands running across the Toad in his search for a clean pair of clothes—- another reminder of his current predicament. “It’s not a date.”

“Not a date.” Adam repeated, holding his clean pair of clothes - a Coca Cola shirt and jeans - against his chest. He realized then that the Aglionby shirt - Ronan’s clothes - lay abandoned on the floor of the double-wide. He wondered, for a moment, if he should bring it up to Ronan. He stopped himself when he thought of Ronan questioning why the clothes mattered so much to him. 

Discomfort grew from the silence that followed; Ronan began to tap restless fingertips against his thighs while Adam stared at the barely open bedroom door, unsure if he should walk to the bathroom himself or be dismissed. 

“We have soap and stuff.” Ronan broke the silence, his voice drawing Adam’s attention away from the empty hallway waiting for him on the other side of the door. “If you want to use it.” 

Adam gave a slight nod, “Thanks.”  

Alone in the bathroom, he allowed himself to study first his face, then his body in the dirtied mirror. Ronan was right; he was still Adam. Underneath the cuts on his chin and across his forehead, underneath the busted lip and bruised kneecaps he was still Adam Parrish. He stripped himself of his torn and dirtied clothes, ones with blood dried around the collar of his shirt and around the holes in his pants. Adam stood for a moment then, looking up and down his body. He couldn’t deny the way he ached, the way his head continued to throb and eyes never fully adjusted to the fluorescent bathroom lights. But he was alive. 

Eighteen years living under the same roof as Robert Parrish sought to destroy Adam from the outside in; to break his body, then his mind. Looking at himself now, his outer body held together in tandem with his consciousness. He bore bruises and scars, and yet he felt a sort of relief. He was alive, and he had survived. 

He would continue to survive, to piece together his life in a way of his own design. His father had taken away eighteen years of his life; Adam wouldn’t allow him to take anything more. He had a home now — a real home — with real friends and a life ahead of him made for living. He had Ronan Lynch waiting for him in his bedroom, the boy taking him on a not-date that Adam silently and selfishly hoped would one day give way to a real date.

Washing himself in the shower at Monmouth Manufacturing brought a new sort of comfort, a sense that he could become equals with the boys wandering the halls of the abandoned warehouse. He let himself linger even after the soap had been rinsed off his body, standing under the warm water until his fingertips resembled raisins and his skin reddened like a sunburn. 

Redressing himself took some effort, his knees still stiff from the fall and his head not yet losing the persistent throb, but he managed. He checked his ear one last time in the mirror, calculating how he’d manage having only one hearing ear. He knew he’d manage, though, because he always did, always kept fighting even when the fight in him wavered. It was one of the many things it meant to be Adam Parrish. 

When he opened the bathroom door, though, he faltered, confidence wavering as his eyes took in the sight of Ronan standing in the doorway with a toothbrush in hand. “I didn’t know if you lost yours so I found you one.”

Adam cautiously took it. 

“I swear it’s unused.” 

“Thanks.” 

“Toothpaste is on the sink.”

Adam had noticed it earlier, but now kept his observation to himself. “Thanks.” He said again, unsure of what other words to offer up. 

Ronan lingered in the doorway as Adam brushed his teeth, Adam himself keeping his eyes trained on the mirror as he fell into the methodical and familiar rhythm of brushing, spitting, and rinsing. When he finished, he held the toothbrush in his hand, unsure if he should keep it or not.

“Keep it.” Ronan said, as if reading Adam’s thoughts. 

Adam held onto it as he regathered his dirty clothes and left the bathroom, Ronan trailing one step behind as they walked together to the bedroom. Gansey and Noah were waiting, twin looks of concern spread across both boys’ faces. 

“I’m better.” Adam looked from Noah to Gansey and finally to Ronan, who hovered apart. His voice was firm, teetering on confident. “It’s just a concussion, probably.”

“I feel like—” 

“He said he’s feeling better, Dick.” Ronan kept his arms crossed against his chest, looking down at his socked feet when he said it. There was a harshness to his voice that caused Adam to focus his attention on Ronan, an uncertainty over what he would say next. “And I’m taking him out.” He wore the tiniest trace of a smile on his face, a gesture Adam would have missed had he not been watching the way Ronan’s lips moved when he spoke. 

“Oh.” Gansey said, his voice drawing Adam away from Ronan. Adam watched the way he ran a thumb across his lip, and Adam appreciated the way Gansey appeared to contemplate his words, turning them over before he uttered them aloud. They were, all of them, concerned without appearing patronizing. They treated Adam as an equal. 

Whatever Gansey wanted to say went unsaid as Ronan began to move to the door.

“I’m starving,” Ronan announced, body close enough now that Adam could smell the trace of cologne on his skin. “Then Parrish and I are going to HGTV the shit out of his new place.” 

Adam had never watched HGTV, the reference lost on him. 

And then Ronan was moving around Adam, Adam who still held onto his dirtied clothes and borrowed toothbrush. No one spoke, unsure how to react. When Ronan was out the door and standing in the hallway, Adam wordlessly walked over to his bookbag and deposited his items into it. He slung the bag onto one shoulder, said an apologetic goodbye to both Noah and Gansey, and followed Ronan down the hall. 

“I’m going to show you a good time.” Ronan flashed him a smile as he descended the steps, Adam following behind at a slower pace. He was grateful for Ronan taking the lead, unable to see the way Adam’s face flushed at the thought of spending the day with Ronan on a not-date.

Together in the car, windows down and Ronan’s music up loud enough that it didn’t bother Adam, Adam felt the way his heart pulled and his nerves tingled with excitement and anticipation. No one could take this away from him; he was learning what it meant to finally feel free. Adam was healing, and he didn’t have to do it alone. 

And as they pulled into the parking lot of Henrietta’s most beloved diner, Adam Parrish couldn’t shake the way he was undeniably and irrevocably attracted to Ronan Lynch. 

 


 

Ronan kept his hands in his pockets as he walked with Adam through the door of the Henrietta Inn, a little diner situated at the corner of Main Street. Things were different, with Adam and with himself, and the change left him unsteady. The sight of Adam on his doorstep, of Adam asleep in his bed with cuts and bruises decorating his body, left him unsteady. 

He went to war with his mind; feelings that he let Adam down, that he should have been a better friend, picked away at his consciousness. He knew Adam kept secrets in the same way Ronan held on to his. He knew now that Adam had endured his father’s abuse for an amount of time incomparable to the two months Ronan had known him. And yet, Ronan faulted himself.

Because he cared about the boy sitting across from him at the Henrietta Inn, the boy who sipped on a glass of water as he studied the menu. The thought of someone hurting that boy caused Ronan’s senses to heighten and his pulse to quicken. The Ronan of two months ago, the Ronan who lived before his mother’s funeral, wouldn’t have seen himself capable or strong enough to care about another person the way he cared for Adam. 

There was a part of him who feared his feelings, feared losing Adam in the way he lost everything else in his life. But there was a stronger, newer part of him who wanted those feelings. It was the reason he sat across from Adam now, pretending to lose himself in the menu as his thoughts ran free. He knew what he would order: it was the same thing he’d ordered every Sunday after church growing up, his parents on one side of the booth and the three Lynch brothers scrunched together on the other. It was the first he’d been back since his father’s death. He was healing too.

“Lynch?” 

Ronan looked up, Adam’s voice drawing him away from his thoughts. “What, Parrish?”

“She wanted to know if we were ready to order.”

“Oh.” Ronan noticed then the waitress standing at the head of the table, a kind smile on her face as she awaited the orders. He glanced back at his menu, as if he’d forgotten the name of the item he intended to order. “I’ll have the Farmer’s Breakfast.”

“I’ll have the same thing, please.” Adam added, Ronan noticing the way he slipped back into his heavy Henrietta accent when he talked with the waitress. “You don’t have to be doing this.” Adam said once she had gone. 

“Doing what?” 

“All of this.”

“It’s what friends do, Parrish.” There was more there, hiding behind his safe choice of words, that threatened to spill. A confessional of thoughts and dreams kept private. He pushed them down, though, knowing a declaration of feelings wasn’t what Adam needed right now. 

Underneath the table, Ronan’s foot touched against Adam’s once before they simultaneously retracted; two magnets pulled apart. He’d thought Adam’s foot was the center table leg, his own foot reaching to tap it to quell his growing restlessness. He thought of a joke he could have made, one that would have earned himself a groan and an eyeroll from Adam. Instead, he said: “I think it’s bullshit that teachers assign summer reading.” 

“You’re not reading the right books.”

“Do the public schools have summer reading?”

Adam stared at him, mouth slightly open. Ronan knew by the way Adam’s eyes began to narrow and his fingers gripped his glass of water a little tighter that Ronan had said something to offend him. “Yes.” Then Adam’s face changed, softening as he ducked his head down in sudden shame. “I haven’t started it yet.”

“I’m ahead of you, Parrish?” Ronan shook his head as a grin spread across his face. “Shut up.”

“I’m not proud of it.” 

And then they were laughing, bodies moving up and down in tandem as they hurled playful jabs at one another from across the table. They quieted only when the food was brought out, letting slip the occasional joke around mouthfuls of eggs and toast and hashbrowns. 

It felt familiar; Adam bringing Ronan a comfort that he himself hoped he could reciprocate. Even surrounded by hungry patrons with their own vocal conversations, or sitting underneath one of the overhead speakers playing a 1960s melody, Ronan focused himself on nothing other than Adam. They were alone in a crowded room; a place where nothing mattered to Ronan except for the boy currently using his fork to scrape the last of his hashbrowns into his mouth. 

“Will this be on one check, or separate?” The waitress’s voice brought him back; the background noises of the restaurant became more pronounced. 

“Separate.” Adam and Ronan said the word in unison, twin smiles spreading in the wake of their synchronized speech. 

The waitress nodded and went to retrieve the check, leaving Adam and Ronan to fall back into conversation. 

“We still have six more hours of our not-date, Parrish.” Ronan watched the wall clock tick past 11, each move of the hand bringing Adam one second closer to leaving for work. “What’s next?”

Adam shrugged, “I guess I should get some sheets.”

They went to Walmart next, the superstore situated several miles outside of Henrietta. Ronan started with the shopping cart until his poor steering bumped into a display full of school supplies. Adam took over after that, steering the cart as Ronan tossed unnecessary items into it when Adam wasn’t looking. 

“I don’t need this.” Adam said, holding up an As Seen On TV air fryer Ronan had placed in the cart five minutes prior. They were standing in one of the home goods aisles, Adam looking at the cheapest silverware set to purchase while Ronan wandered over to the children’s dishes. 

“What about this?” He held up a dinner set featuring characters from a television show called Paw Patrol . Ronan had never heard of the show, but still handed the set to Adam. 

“No.” Adam said, putting the set back where Ronan had taken it from. “I don't even know what Paw Patrol is .” Instead, Adam placed a plain white dinner set into the cart and continued on. 

“You’re no fun.”

“I’m fun, you’re just ridiculous.”

Ronan’s eyes narrowed, a challenge forming on his lips. “I have an idea.” He said and took off toward the toy aisle, hoping Adam was following behind. 

“What are we doing here?” Adam asked then, leaning against the shopping cart and steadying his breathing. They stood at the start of the toys, the place where a giant cart of balls and a rack of hula hoops greeted them. Ronan reached for a hula hoop, a sparkly pink thing that he handed to Adam. He took a sparkly purple one for himself. 

“We’re going to have fun.”

Ronan was a horrible hula hopper, his hips and his arms not working together in the rhythmic harmony the activity desired. Adam was better, though better was a generous term. He lasted only seconds longer than Ronan. Both boys tried and failed to swing their hips, their hoops clattering to the ground time after time. When Ronan announced he’d had enough, Adam repositioned the hula hoops in their proper spot while Ronan wandered off in search of the next activity. 

He waited in the electronics aisle for Adam, who appeared some minutes later with a pillow and a pack of white sheets now in the cart. While Ronan had been scheming, Adam had been shopping. 

“This is your own apartment and you’re going to decorate it like a hospital room?” Ronan asked, looking at the monochromatic items in Adam’s cart. 

“They're practical and affordable.”

Ronan had a newer, better competition forming in his mind when he looked back to Adam. “I have a challenge for you, Parrish. Ten minutes. We both pick out as many items we can for the other. Can’t spend more than $15.” 

“That seems unnecessary.”

“Do you accept?” 

Ronan watched the way Adam’s features scrunched in contemplation, brows furrowed and lips pressed together. “You’re going to be sorry you suggested this.” He said, hands gripping tightly onto the shopping cart’s handle. 

“You’re going to be sorry you accepted.” Ronan responded, taking off and telling Adam to meet him by the check-out line in ten minutes. He couldn’t mask the wild grin spread across his face if he tried. 

He felt alive as he navigated the aisles, knowing for certain one item he intended to pick for Adam. He sped past aisles for skincare products and medications, past greeting cards and school supplies until he reached the aisle he wanted to browse. Before him lay shelf after shelf of candles; a housewarming gift. He ran everything from Cranberry Mandarin Splash to Warm Rustic Woods under this nose, finding nothing particularly Adam. But he promised Adam a candle and he was not leaving the store without one.

He also knew he was wasting his time sniffing candles when he had other thoughts for Adam’s gifts turning over in his mind. He was prepared to grab the last one he’d inspected when he caught sight of an ugly pea-green colored candle with a label reading Rainy Spring Day . He picked it up, noting the way it smelled not unlike the day at the theater. 

It was a reminder of the way Ronan felt, running alongside Adam through the puddles and working to put Adam’s bike in the back of the BMW. It was a reminder of what it felt like to have Adam in Monmouth, playing Mario Kart and adorning Ronan’s clothes. It smelled like the beginning, when two boys first started figuring the other out and when Ronan started figuring out himself. 

He left the aisle with the candle in hand, wandering around for something to spend his remaining $9 on. He began walking to the other end of the store when he saw Adam coming toward him. 

“Your ten minutes are up, Lynch.”

“Are you fucking with me, Parrish?”

“It’s 12:57. We started at 12:47. If my math is correct—” 

“Don’t bring math into this.”

Adam simply smirked, hands still on the cart with a few new items added to it. Ronan didn’t know what was for him and what wasn’t. He also didn’t know if, in that moment, he wanted to kiss Adam Parrish or swear at him. 

“Fine, here’s your gift.” Ronan handed him the candle, looking away as Adam inspected it. “Sorry if it’s lame.”

When Ronan finally looked up, he saw the way Adam’s smile widened as he unscrewed the lid to smell the candle. “It’s not lame.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but stopped himself. Instead, Adam closed the candle back up and placed it in the cart. “Mine is lame.” 

“I bet it’s not.” 

Adam handed it to him then, looking away the same way Ronan had done when he’d given Adam the candle. 

“How the hell did you find this, Parrish?” Ronan asked, turning the package over in his hands. When he looked at it, he felt the way his face lit up. He knew now what it meant to feel on the outside the way he felt on the inside. He was alive, on fire. He was hopelessly and helplessly falling in love with Adam Parrish. 

 


 

Adam watched the way Ronan studied his gift, his reaction unlike anything Adam had anticipated. He’d envisioned Ronan laughing, scorning Adam for the childish item he now examined with a joy Adam never thought him capable of expressing. 

It was a Hot Wheels car, but from the Mario Kart collection. It was a miniature Bowser in a kart not unlike the one Ronan chose to use when the two played together. It was a joke, but also a thank-you for the Toad plushie Ronan had given to him on his birthday. A reminder of the first evening Adam spent in Monmouth and the way it made him feel. 

“You don’t think it’s lame?” Adam asked, needing to hear Ronan’s validation. 

Ronan flashed him a smile, “Not at all.”

They finished up at the store, Ronan insisting Adam try on every ridiculous item of clothing they could find as a final challenge. Adam declined, settling for a pack of plain white t-shirts and other clothing items sold in bulk. He braced himself at the check-out, hoping the money in his wallet would cover everything he intended to purchase. 

His luck had not yet run out as the total on the screen, even with the added Bowser toy, totaled less than he had budgeted for. He would put the extra money toward the following month’s rent, remembering to separate wants from needs as he walked with Ronan to the parking lot. 

“So, do I get to see the place?” Ronan asked once they were in the car. 

“If Ms. Margaret hasn’t kicked me out.”

“My bed’s always open if she did.” 

Adam faced forward, hands resting in his lap. He was sure Ronan meant nothing by the comment and yet Adam felt the way a blush crept back across his cheeks. He only hoped Ronan paid more attention to the road than to Adam. 

“She doesn’t know about my dad.” 

“If she asks about it, I’ll make something up.”

Adam turned to him, “You said you don’t lie.”

“This is different.”

He felt it, studying Ronan’s face as the other boy drove them to St. Agnes. It was a pull, an unexplainable longing. It was him processing Ronan covering for him and what that meant. It was Adam wanting to kiss Ronan on the steps of St. Agnes, forgetting the groceries and miscellaneous items heavy in his hands and the thought of Ms. Margaret turning him away. 

When he went to face Ronan, though, he hesitated. What he had was an insurmountable joy, found in the easy conversations and the way Ronan looked when he saw the Bowser toy. He didn’t want to ruin things with an impulsive decision to kiss the boy who’d slept on the floor of his own bedroom while Adam occupied the bed, the boy who’d seen him at his worst and didn’t turn away. 

The boy who asked, “Coming, Parrish?” as he propped open the door to St. Agnes. 

The moment was forgotten, Adam settling back into himself as he followed Ronan through the door in search of Ms. Margaret’s office. He didn’t want to ruin things by seeking a false hope that Ronan would come to love him the way Adam was coming to love Ronan. He toyed with the thought of loving and being loved as he stood outside Ms. Margaret’s office, wondering if his feelings for Ronan meant that he was finally seeing himself as worthy. He also wondered if this was indeed a sort of love he felt, or if being starved of such a feeling for so long caused him to latch onto the first person to show him real kindness. 

Though, part of healing, he was learning, meant accepting himself and his emotions. 

“Adam, dear.” Ms. Margaret’s voice brought him back, the older woman standing from her desk when she saw him. “What happened last night?”

Adam stiffened; beside him, Ronan relaxed. “He stayed with me.” Ronan said, voice casual. 

“I’m sorry, ma’am.” Adam bowed his head.

Ms. Margaret sighed, picking up a key placed on a simple black chain and handing it to Adam. “I’m just happy to see you in one piece.” Adam knew she was making a comment about his appearance, but he ignored it as he turned the key over in his hand.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Adam said as he left her office, retrieving some of the bags he’d left in the hallway before he walked with Ronan up the stairs. “Thank you, too.” He added once he and Ronan reached the door to his new home. 

“I told you, it’s what friends do.”

Inside, they set to work. Bags were dumped on the floor as Ronan inspected the room and Adam watched him. He was sore, all the aches and pains plaguing his body intensified after his afternoon out with Ronan. There was no clock in the room, but the time had been nearing 2 o’clock when he and Ronan had left the BMW. In three hours, he would be forced to trade his lazy summer afternoon for the sounds of machines whirring and engines coming back to life.

“I left my bike at Monmouth.” Adam said then, sitting down on the wooden floor and reaching into the bags to begin sorting items. Ronan joined him. 

“I’ll drive you to work.”

“Then you’d have to pick me up.”

“So?” Ronan looked down as he said it, gathering dishes and dish soap in preparation to wash them in the adjoining bathroom sink. 

“It’s an inconvenience.”

Ronan stood and walked toward the bathroom, pushing open the shower curtain with one hand, “It's only an inconvenience if I don’t want to do it, Parrish.”

Adam remained seated on the floor. He pulled open a pack of sheets before realizing they should be washed before he placed them on his bed. Without his bike, he didn’t know when he would be able to take them to the laundromat and Ms. Margaret hadn’t mentioned anything about a laundry room on-site. Ronan said it wouldn’t be an inconvenience to drive him to and from Boyd’s, but Adam still fought with the idea of asking Ronan to make an additional trip. 

Behind the curtain Ronan had pulled closed, Adam could hear the sound of water running and dishes clanking in the sink. He hadn’t asked for help, nor did Ronan ask to wash the dishes; he’d simply picked them up and set to work. Adam couldn’t deny the way it made him feel. 

He abandoned the sheets for now, grabbing instead the candle Ronan had picked out for him. Adam stood himself slowly, knees popping as he did, and took the candle over to the chairless desk. The only decoration in an otherwise barren apartment. 

This was home now, the sight of the candle making it feel even more so. 

Ronan returned from the bathroom, Adam turning as he heard the curtain pull open. “I think they’re washed,” he said. He joined Adam by the desk, setting the dishes down next to the candle. “What’s next?”

“I need to wash my sheets, but—”  

“I know where the machines are.”

When Adam didn’t answer, Ronan closed his eyes for just a moment before saying. “Altar boy. Dad made us all do it growing up. Dad also made me learn how to wash the albs after I spilled wine on mine when I was ten.” 

Adam just stared, not knowing what exactly an alb was but nevertheless trying to picture Ronan as an altar boy dressed in white. The thought made him smile to himself, lips parted as a small laugh escaped him. 

“Stop looking at me like that, Parrish.” Ronan said, reaching down to grab the sheets and balling them against his chest. “Let’s go.”

Adam followed. 

Ronan led them down an additional set of stairs to the basement. Adam made a mental note of everything he walked past, noting the empty kitchen connected to the laundry room and the way the smell of incense lingered wherever he seemed to walk. 

There was only one small washing machine and one equally small dryer, but Ronan insisted on fitting all of the sheets into the machine at once. Adam worried about breaking it. 

“Wouldn’t two loads make more sense?” He asked, handing Ronan the laundry detergent. 

Ronan looked back at him with a wink, “This thing’s bigger than it looks.”

Adam wanted to sink into the floor. His mouth hung agape, eyes open a little wider. Ronan turned back to the washing machine, the exchange dying before Adam had the chance to question Ronan’s choice of words. Part of him wished the clock struck five, that he was hiding underneath a car in need of repair instead of standing in the laundry room alone with Ronan. 

He needed time to process. 

“Unless you want to stand here for the next 40 minutes and watch the machine spin together, we should go back upstairs.” Ronan said, detergent in one hand.

Adam simply nodded and waited for Ronan to lead him back up to the apartment. There was little to do with the room until the sheets were done, Adam unsure how the two would pass the time. Ronan appeared equally unsure, the two lingering in separate corners of the room, pretending to busy themselves while silence grew between them. 

“What time is it?” Adam asked. 

“4:57.” Ronan responded, causing Adam to turn fast enough that the headache that had slowly faded as the day went on came back. He steadied himself on the desk, fatigue and nausea creeping back through his body. 

“Tell me you’re lying.”

“You caught me, Parrish.” Ronan tossed his hands up. “I have no idea what time it is.”

“You don’t have your phone?”

“Why would I?”

Adam didn’t question it, he merely brought his shoulders forward, head bowing. “I should have gotten a clock.” He knew he wouldn’t last without one. He thought of the alarm clock his father had given him years ago, the clock his father must have picked up and tossed out by now. 

Buying a new alarm clock was another step, trading in the life he’d left behind for the life standing before him. 

“We can go after work.” Ronan offered. 

We . Adam held onto that single syllable. It was a sense of togetherness, of equality. It was something so insignificant, and yet Adam held onto it.  

“Okay.” Adam hadn’t realized how close he’d moved to Ronan; if he extended a hand it would fall on Ronan’s shoulder. He didn’t know what he was doing and yet he took half a step forward. The hesitation from before wavered, a moment’s confidence reclaiming its place. 

Another step and he could kiss him. 

“I’m starving.” Ronan said, turning to look at Adam as Adam himself took a step back. 

The moment ended. Confidence left him, replaced by a sudden embarrassment. 

“I’ll stay with the laundry if you want to go.” He didn’t want Ronan to go, not really, but the time alone would allow him to reorient himself and calm his insistent thoughts. 

“Want me to grab you anything?” 

“Don’t worry about it.” He was hungrier than he would admit to, though wouldn’t say as much to the boy he’d nearly kissed. The boy who must have sensed what Adam was prepared to do and stopped it before Adam acted on impulse. He felt foolish, ashamed, falling blindly in love with someone he knew would never reciprocate his feelings. 

“I’ll be back to pick you up.” Ronan moved toward the doorway and Adam didn’t stop him. 

The way he felt just minutes before, the way he felt on the steps of St. Agnes and racing through the aisles of Walmart in search of the perfect gift fell away when he was alone. Ronan was a friend; Adam knew that’s all they’d ever be.

“Get over it.” He said aloud, going back to the items left on the floor. He unpackaged socks and shirts, adding them to a pile of things to wash after work. Eventually he would check on the laundry, move it from washer to dryer with the same monotony characteristic of everything else in his life. 

Eventually Ronan would come back and Adam would pretend that the sight of him didn’t light up his insides and cause his heart to beat just a little faster. Life would resume and at the end of the night, Adam would fall asleep in his new bed. Alone.

 


 

Ronan wondered what he’d done wrong. Something changed between him and Adam in the apartment after returning from the laundry room; Ronan believed whatever it was to be his fault. When he’d announced how hungry he was, he’d hoped Adam would join him. He’d hoped they would have continued their infectious laughter and easy conversations over french fries. 

Now, he sat alone in his car thinking of a plan to make things up to Adam. 

He knew if he brought Adam something back, the other boy would turn it down and things would only worsen between them. Ronan had taken care with his words and with his actions, making choices with Adam in mind. 

He kept his music loud when he finally started the car and began down the road. His thoughts were a warzone, the music a temporary truce. He lowered the radio only when he pulled into the drive-thru line at the fast food restaurant nearest St. Agnes. He didn’t know what he was ordering, reciting the first things his eyes fell upon on the menu. 

He paid for the food and was given well wishes by the woman operating the window. The smell of french fries and over-greased foods permeated the car and the clock on the dashboard inched toward four. He would return to St. Agnes and offer the extra food Ronan knew he couldn’t finish on his own but ordered anyway to Adam before he drove him to work. 

In the three additional hours he’d have to himself, Ronan would further conjure up and execute a plan to make things up to Adam. 

He returned to St. Agnes with the bag of food in hand, starting up the stairs until he saw Adam coming up from the basement. They met in the middle, Ronan stopping until Adam caught up to him. They walked together. 

“Everything’s in the dryer.” Adam said. 

“You got it all to fit?” 

“Yeah.” Adam pushed open the door to his apartment, looking at Ronan with a thin trace of a smile on his lips. “You were right; it is bigger than it looks.” 

And then Ronan let out a laugh, “Shut up, Parrish.” He said, tone joking, as he followed Adam into the room that looked the same as the one he’d left not thirty minutes before. He sat himself on the floor and opened the bag, the contents still warm as he reached for them. 

Adam took up a seat beside him. 

“I ordered too much.” Ronan said between bites, holding up an unopened sandwich for Adam to take. 

Adam didn’t take it right away. Instead he said: “I don’t want to take your food.” 

“It’ll get thrown away if you don’t eat it.” 

He watched the way Adam fought with himself, jaw set and fingers flexing at his sides. “Are you sure?” He asked. 

“Take the damn sandwich before I change my mind and throw it out the window for the birds.” 

Adam eventually took the sandwich and the two settled back into themselves, Ronan’s worries over what he’d done easing when conversation picked up like it had never stopped. They finished putting things away, making piles of things to be washed and trash to be thrown away. When Adam said he needed to retrieve the sheets from the dryer, Ronan followed. 

They worked together, taking up the entire room in an attempt to neatly fold the fitted sheet. 

“This is impossible.” Ronan complained. 

“It’s because you have no patience.” Adam said on the opposite side of the sheet they held together. When they met in the middle, Ronan let his hands brush against Adam’s as he grabbed the sheet and finished folding it. 

Adam looked down, Ronan unable to see his reaction. They quietly finished in the laundry room and walked through the kitchen, Ronan unsure if Adam was mad at him or not. 

When they passed by, the clock on the stove in the kitchen read 4:36. 

“I should probably take you to work.” They stood in the apartment now, sheets folded in a pile on the bed but not yet placed on them. 

“Yeah.” Adam responded, grabbing his key and starting toward the door. 

Ronan didn’t know what to do with himself after he dropped Adam off, so he chose to do nothing. He remained in the parking lot, car parked close enough that he could watch Adam work from the open garage door, far enough that he couldn’t hear the conversations had between Adam and the man Ronan assumed was Boyd. He fumbled with the radio and reclined the seat back and forth, watching the clock as it continued to change. His body and mind were restless, the events of the day replaying themselves as he pushed down on the button to roll down the driver’s side window only to pull it back up when a bug entered the car through it. 

The clock read 6:17. 

He tapped against the steering wheel and mouthed words to songs he knew and ones he didn’t. He recited the words he wanted to say to Adam, the ones that went something like: “I had a lot of fun on our not-date today. We should go on a real date sometime.” He scrapped those same words seconds later, hating how they sounded aloud. 

The clock passed 7. 

At one point, he closed his eyes only to open them when Adam became the subject of his subconscious; the image of Adam bringing his hands to Ronan’s lips enough to cause him to sit upright and turn the music up a little louder. 

At 8 o’clock he waited with restless anticipation for Adam to leave the garage and walk back to Ronan’s car. A few minutes after, the passenger door opened and Adam came in, the infectious scent of gasoline drifting through the car upon Adam’s arrival.

“Did you stay?” Adam asked above the music.

Ronan turned it down. “Yeah.”

“Why?”

He hadn’t been prepared for this conversation, unsure how to tell Adam he stayed in part because he couldn’t think of another way to spend his time, and because he wanted to make sure Adam was safe. “I was bored.” He settled on, a partial truth winning out as he buried his emotions in the way he always did. 

The ride back to St. Agnes passed quickly, Ronan easing his foot harder onto the gas petal. He didn’t want to leave Adam, but feared what would happen if he stayed in the boy’s company much longer. They had something easy going, something steady. He wouldn’t ruin it like he ruined everything else. 

But when Ronan walked with Adam up the stairs and through the apartment door, he offered to stay to help put the laundered sheets on the bed. Ronan had no reason to offer his help, and yet he did. Adam had no reason to accept his help, and yet he did. Ronan wondered selfishly if Adam wanted him there as much as Ronan wanted to be there, or if he was simply being polite. 

He guessed the latter. 

They worked quickly, Ronan on one side and Adam on the other. The fitted sheet that had caused Ronan trouble in the laundry room continued to test him as he pulled it over the mattress. He swore for good measure. When they’d finished, they sat together on the bed, close enough that knees would touch if either boy moved inward. 

“How are you feeling?” Ronan asked, turning toward Adam. 

Adam shrugged, keeping his eyes on the ground. “Better.” By the way he took care with his movements, Ronan could tell he was still in pain. The day had been long, probably too long for Adam, yet he didn’t complain. He yawned and said, “We forgot the alarm clock.” 

“Shit, man. I completely forgot.” 

“I don’t have work tomorrow. I’ll just pick one up in the morning.”

Ronan prepared to stand. “I could be back with one in twenty minutes.” 

“You’ve done enough for me.”

It’s because I care about you; because I think I might be in love with you. He said them to himself, letting his brain pick at things left unsaid until he’d convinced himself to let the matter drop. “You sure you won’t be lonely here?” He asked, standing up and looking down at Adam. 

Adam stood, too. In their closeness, Ronan could smell the way his shampoo mingled with the scents of the auto shop. He pushed his hands into his pockets, willing himself not to be lured in, willing his heart to steady. 

“Ronan,” Adam said, studying him with an expression unreadable to Ronan. For a second, Ronan wondered if Adam was going to kiss him. Then, the expression changed and any sense of wonder was replaced by sudden foolishness when Adam said: “You’re allowed to leave. I’m fine.” 

“I know you’re fine.” He didn’t, not really, but if Adam wanted to pretend he was fine Ronan would let him. The alternative meant a fight Ronan wasn’t prepared to endure. 

“I’m not going to make you sleep on the floor again.” 

“I don’t mind.” When Adam didn’t respond, Ronan knew the day had ended. He wordlessly walked toward the door, casting one final look at Adam who remained by the bed. “But I guess you can just call me if you get lonely.”

If Adam said something, Ronan ignored it; he was out the door and down the stairs before he realized he’d never given Adam his phone number. Adam had never asked and Ronan had never bothered; he never saw the need. Now, he wished he’d made more of an effort. 

From the car, he watched the light in Adam’s room turn off. It was then that he began down the street and back toward Monmouth, when he knew Adam was content spending the night alone and without Ronan taking up space on the floor beside him. The ride was quick, though silent. He focused his attention on the sound his car made as it whipped around a turn he took too sharply, the way his engine revved in anticipation of a light changing from red to green. 

He remained in his car long after he pulled into Monmouth. He used the solitude and silence to process the last twenty-four hours. Feelings were hard; every time he thought he’d figured something out, he’d say the wrong thing or misinterpret a look. Adam deserved the world, but Ronan did not have the world to give. 

When he finally left the car, he noticed Adam’s bike still resting against the side of the building. He would bring it to him tomorrow. It was a start.

Another fresh start, another chance to right his wrongs. He wondered, though, as he walked up the stairs and into his room without a word to Noah or Gansey, how many chances Adam would grant him before Ronan’s luck ran out. Adam had only been in his life two months, and yet Ronan didn’t want to imagine a life without him in it.

 

The following morning before church, Ronan carefully walked Adam’s bike up the stairs and left it outside the door to the apartment. He considered knocking, considered skipping the service with his brothers in favor of spending the morning with Adam. Instead, he left the bike and his phone number with a note that read: 

Call for a good time :-) 

After a moment’s contemplation, though, he took the note and crumpled it, shoving it in the pocket of his black dress pants before he walked down the stairs to where his brothers would soon be waiting. Returning the bike would have to be enough. 

It was a start. 

An unsigned note left too many possibilities for error and misunderstanding. With Adam, Ronan wanted to get things right.

 

As he knelt in the wooden pew under the roof of St. Agnes, at a time when he should have been silently reciting Hail Marys and Our Fathers , he let himself think instead of the boy in the room above him. The boy he would go to see as soon as he heard the final “Thanks be to God” echo through the half-empty church. 

He told himself to stop dwelling on the what ifs, to stop denying the way he felt . The day spent out with Adam reminded him how much he wanted this; how much he wanted to hold Adam’s hand, to wake up beside him and unravel his secrets like a loose thread. He formulated the words he would say, crafting them with a care he was unused to. 

After he said his short goodbyes to his brothers, he found his way to the stairs that led to Adam’s apartment. At the top of the stairs, though, he faltered. Adam’s bike was gone. 

He went anyway to the door, hoping Adam had pulled it inside. He knocked once, then again when the first knock went unanswered. 

“Parrish?” He called. “I need to talk to you.” 

He knocked again, any confidence he’d built up on his knees inside St. Agnes gone after no answer came. “If you’re ignoring me: fuck you too, I guess.” Silence came from the other side of the door.

Ronan gave a final knock before he walked back down the stairs, defeated. He knew Adam had probably stepped out, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that came with working so hard at something only to have it fall apart. He wasn’t going to wait around for Adam to return, the moment and his confidence long since passed. Instead, he slid into his car. He remained parked there, staring at the closed church doors as the clock on his dashboard ticked on. The low hum of the engine was the only source of noise. 

Only when he saw that familiar face riding towards the church on his bike did Ronan pull away. Asking Adam Parrish on a date, he decided then, would have to wait another day. 

Chapter Text

Senior year began with a start Adam was unprepared for, a start realized at 11 o’clock the night before. 

He’d been in bed, almost asleep, when he remembered the date, remembered that he would be reporting to Calculus instead of his shift at the pool in the morning. It then became a night spent finishing his summer reading and making sure he had a pencil or two for his classes; a night spent awake and alone and in contemplation of every minute detail that could go wrong during his final year of high school. He worried about being denied entry to every college he hoped to apply to, of his FAFSA not going through because of his recently declared independence and subsequent change of address. He worried more selfishly about how often he would see Ronan, the two going their separate ways as August gave way to September.

The days leading up to walking the overcrowded halls and sitting in underfunded classrooms for eight hours a day had been equal parts unexpected. He spent time in the library and at work, socializing with computers and cars instead of with his friends. He saw them on occasion, but when he sat next to Ronan on the familiar couch in Monmouth, his mind wandered to everything he needed to finish before summer’s end and everything that would become of him when school began. The magic of summer waned; real life resumed. Adam had not yet learned how to carry that magic with him into the school year. 

And after Ronan had asked something along the lines of: “Are we boring you, Parrish?” the weekend after school had begun, Adam began to turn down invitations to movie nights and hikes in the woods. The time he spent alone with Ronan dwindled too. They hadn’t been alone together in the St. Agnes apartment since the day of the not-date. Adam didn’t know how to get things back to the way they’d been. 

He knew his friends deserved better than someone who listened to their conversations but didn’t process what was being said, his own thoughts overpowering any joke Blue made or every argument Ronan started with Gansey. He once again became a silent observer in a crowded room, only speaking when spoken to. Life was becoming a balancing act, the scales tipping in favor of personal ambitions over the relationships he’d worked so hard to attain. 

He reminded himself then that life in Henrietta was supposed to be temporary; if he didn’t act on applications and scholarships, life in Henrietta would become permanent. He’d gone to war with his mind, knowing - but not wanting to admit that - his unrequited crush on Ronan was not as important as giving himself closure. The day after he’d left the double-wide replayed itself only when Adam dreamt, a selfish reminder of what he and Ronan could have been if life had dealt him a different hand of cards. There was no room in his current deck for romance. 

And so he also spent time with the Henrietta Police Department working on filing a protective order against his father. It was the closure he needed, a closure he knew not even a day spent running through the aisles of Walmart could truly bring. His friends brought him one kind of healing, ensuring his father could never contact him again was a healing he needed to do on his own. It wasn’t a secret, what he was doing, but when his friends brought it up, he nevertheless changed the subject. Sitting Blue and Gansey and Ronan and Noah down one afternoon to explain everything that had happened to him had brought him unwillingly to the center of attention; he was ready to reclaim his spot on the sidelines.

After the first day of school, he quickly fell back into the rhythm of attending classes during the day and working with Boyd in the evening. Without the pool to provide additional cash, he’d extended the hours he worked at the repair shop to make up the difference. Days were long and he slept little, but he managed in the way he always did. 

He managed until mid-September when Blue said to him: “They’re worried about you.” 

“Are you?”

They were sprawled out on the floor of Adam’s apartment on a chilly Sunday afternoon, Blue complaining about a book she had to read for her English class while Adam fought with his Calculus homework. It was the first he’d seen her outside of school in a week. 

“I know you.” She said, looking up from her book. Adam could see the cover: Huxley’s Brave New World. “I also know when you want to be left alone.” 

“It’s not that.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Adam.” She went back to her book, “I’m just warning you in case Gansey shows up asking about why you didn’t come to movie night again.”   

The newest tradition. Every Friday night, and sometimes Saturday night too, the five would gather on the couches in Monmouth and select a movie from an old peanut butter jar. When movie night was first announced the weekend before school began, each member in attendance had taken four slips of paper to write down the movies of their choosing. Adam had written only one: Detective Pikachu . It was the only one he knew. Ronan had laughed, though Adam laughed harder when he saw Ronan had written down Detective Pikachu on one of his slips too. He missed that laughter.

Each week, a new movie would be drawn. It was their way of staying close even as Adam and Blue went one way, and Gansey and Ronan went the other. Adam had missed all but one movie night, attending only the first one. 

“I was busy.” He was, first working late with Boyd and then working later on the homework he needed to get ahead on. 

Blue set down her book. “I get it. You’re always busy. It’s who you are.”

He knew she didn’t mean it as an accusation, but he still felt his body stiffen. “I’m trying.” It was a lie and they both knew it, but Blue didn’t prod. She looked sad, and somehow the look of defeat in her eyes made Adam feel worse. 

Part of him wanted to believe he was trying, but he also wanted to be honest with himself. In his quest for personal betterment, he’d neglected the friends who’d stuck by him through the worst the summer had to offer. He wondered how long it would be before they stopped making the effort to see him, something he knew he deserved unless he began re-making the effort to see them. 

“Ronan’s worse without you there.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s so moody. ” 

Adam’s shoulders moved up and down once as he gave a sort of chuckle, “Moody?” He asked, picturing the way Ronan looked when he pouted. Adam felt the workings of a smile on his lips; he missed the sight of Ronan, missed hearing his obnoxious laughter that stemmed from a joke only he found funny. 

Blue sat herself up, bringing her knees to her chest. When she spoke, her voice was all sarcasm: “Apparently it’s my fault you don’t come over because apparently I’m the one who now has to invite you to everything.” She wrapped her arms tightly around her knees, shaking her head. “And then, when I told him that he spends more time with you than any of us, he just got moody .” 

Adam’s attention perked, “How so?”

Blue rolled her eyes. “Let me put it this way: he’s like a little kid who wants something but makes someone else ask for it because — because he’s scared or jealous or something.” 

“He wanted me there?” Adam felt the tug at his heart. The pull of every feeling he’d pushed down since the school year began threatened to surface. 

Blue shrugged, “It’s like he’s suddenly lost without you and doesn’t know how to behave. Lost and moody and he always ruins movie night.” 

Adam never thought of Ronan as lost, and he certainly never thought of himself as being the one to give Ronan direction. Though, he selfishly liked the feel of it. “I’ll try to come next weekend.” 

When Adam looked at Blue, she began to play with the fringes at the end of her sweater. “I don’t think we’re doing a movie night next week…” She looked embarrassed when she spoke again, “It’s Aglionby’s homecoming.” 

Adam stared, mouth hung agape with realization as he struggled for words. When they finally came, his voice had an unexpected waver to it. “You’re going to homecoming? At Aglionby?” 

He wondered how much he’d missed since the school year had begun. He’d seen the posters for his high school’s own homecoming dance, swearing it off each time he passed by the poorly painted banners. Blue had sworn it off too. 

“Gansey asked me last night. I told him no at first, but he was so excited and neither of us have gone before and it just kind of...happened.”

“And Ronan’s going too?” He forced himself to ask it, willed himself to know if Ronan had asked someone else to the dance. 

“It’s just me and Gansey. I think Ronan said watching you do math problems for three hours would be more entertaining than a school dance.” 

“He did?”

Blue rolled her eyes for a second time. “Yeah. Then, when Gansey suggested that Ronan ask you - you know, as friends - so that we could all go together, Ronan left the room. No one knows what his problem is anymore, but he’s so moody !”

Adam didn’t know what his problem was either, Ronan ever a mystery to him. He also didn’t know what to make of everything Blue told him. He and Ronan navigated an ever-tangling web. Just as he thought he knew Ronan, thought he saw some indication that the other boy reciprocated his feelings, the web retangled itself and Adam was forced to navigate their relationship anew. Ronan wanted Adam at Monmouth, and yet he no longer asked him over himself. Ronan wanted to spend time with Adam, and yet he wouldn’t ask him to a dance. 

“I probably wouldn’t have gone.” Adam said then. “To the dance, I mean.” 

“Nothing about it sounds fun, but Gansey—” Adam couldn’t help but smile when he saw the way Blue talked about Gansey, he was happy she’d found some sort of happiness and had managed to hold onto it even after summer ended. “Adam Parrish stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” He put a hand to his chest, pretending to be offended. “Blue Sargent at an Aglionby dance with an Aglionby boy; how the tables have turned.” 

He watched the way her face flushed, “I like him, okay? Even if he goes to that stupid school.” 

They never discussed relationships with the other, in part because neither had been in one before, which resulted in nothing to discuss. Beyond little mentions here or there, Adam still didn’t know the status of Gansey and Blue’s relationship. He knew they were happy, though, and he one day hoped to feel that kind of happiness himself. 

“I’m happy for y’all.” And he meant it. 

Blue went to say something else, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. She and Adam exchanged glances before she stood to answer the door. “I warned you about Gansey coming over.” She teased, hand reaching for the handle and pulling the door open a crack.

“You’re not Parrish.” At the sound of Ronan’s voice, Adam felt his body sit a little straighter. 

“Always a pleasure to see you too, sasquatch.” 

“That’s a new one, maggot. Is he here?” 

“Is who here?” 

Adam couldn’t see Ronan, but watched as he worked against Blue to push the door open. Adam stood then, beginning to walk towards the door as Ronan crossed the threshold.

“Parrish.” He said, a snake-line smile spreading across his face. 

Blue huffed at Ronan and went to pick up her book, gathering it and the few other items she’d brought over with her. “I guess I’ll see you at school, Adam.” She said as she walked toward the door. “And I’ll see you in Hell, Ronan.” 

When she had gone, Ronan shut the door to the apartment, leaving the two alone and in silence. The lazy days of summer had gone, the chill of autumn drawing ever nearer. Adam could feel it in the space between where he stood and where Ronan lingered. Neither spoke and neither moved. 

Ronan looked distressed, unsure of himself. Though, when he finally spoke, his voice carried a certain sharpness that Adam was unprepared for. “Do you want to not go to homecoming with me?” He asked.

“What?” Adam wasn’t sure if he’d heard him right, wasn’t sure if he was being asked to the dance or prohibited from attending it. 

“God, Parrish, I’m trying to ask you if you want to hang out while Dick and Jane go to that fucking dance.”

Oh. He thought his words through this time, not asking if it was a date. If Ronan wanted it to be a date, he would have said so. Adam left no room for misinterpretation, as much as his heart tugged at the thought of going on a date with Ronan Lynch. “Yeah, sure.” He said, giving a shrug.

He wouldn’t let it show how much he desired to spend time with Ronan. He’d kept a mental count of how many nights he’d turned down the chance to be in Ronan’s company in favor of AP Government readings or Calculus problems. He wanted to be selfish, if only for a night. He wanted to indulge himself, to reassure himself that one night out wouldn’t redirect the course of his life. He wanted the magic of summer to mingle with his hope for the future. 

“Shit, man. Really?” Ronan looked shocked; Adam didn’t know whether it was a good thing or not. “You’re actually going to show up?”

Adam was firm, “I’ll be there.”

Ronan began back towards the door, “Saturday at 7. If you wear a suit, I’m uninviting you.”

Then he was gone, closing the door behind him before Adam could get in another word. The entire exchange was bizarre, unexpected. Adam settled himself back onto the floor, though the words in his textbook mattered little now. All he could think about was spending his Saturday night with Ronan Lynch.

 


 

Ronan felt renewed. 

The weeks he’d spent alone in his room trying to work through every plausible reason why Adam stopped coming over felt far away. He settled back into himself. He had this; a night alone with Adam six days away, and a desire to make sure he did things right. 

The weeks leading up to him choosing to take a risk, to ask Adam to spend time together, had passed with an unpleasantness that caused him to revert back to the Ronan of before. He blamed Aglionby publicly, but cast blame on himself in private. The first week of school had been okay , the thought of seeing Adam that weekend getting him through Latin translations and Statistics problem sets. It was when Adam stopped showing up to Monmouth, when Adam was conveniently away from his apartment the three times Ronan came knocking, that things went from okay to not okay

He’d stopped turning in his assignments and his insomnia worsened. He reverted back to the person he’d been in the months following Niall’s death; the lonely, monstrous boy of before. Some nights he drank, others he didn’t, but his thoughts were always of Adam. Always of the boy who’d made him feel alive. He wondered what he could do to bring back that feeling of liveliness present only weeks before. 

When he thought of Adam, he always assumed the worst; that Adam had somehow pieced together Ronan’s overwhelming crush and decided to end things before they’d even had a chance to begin. That Adam avoiding Monmouth and avoiding Ronan was his way of letting the other boy know he was uninterested in pursuing something romantic. He let his brain dwell on the irrational. Try as he might, though, his feelings for Adam never wavered. He couldn’t resent Adam for not feeling the same way, and he couldn’t resent himself for falling in love with the unobtainable. 

Asking Adam to spend homecoming night with him was his final effort, a last hurrah before he told himself to stop wallowing in what ifs and start focusing on a future he was certain he’d already fucked. He’d only hoped that he and Adam could at least be friends, something that had seemed less and less likely with every movie night Adam missed. 

Now, he tried to bite back the smile on his lips as he slid into his car. He hadn’t yet lost Adam.  

The week passed by with restless anticipation. Ronan attended school in the same way he always did, present in his classes but ignoring the words that came from his teachers’ mouths. He talked with Gansey during their shared study hall, heads close together and speaking in hushed voices whenever one of the school librarians passed by. Gansey talked about Blue, Ronan tried not to talk about Adam. 

At night, when he’d start to reach underneath his bed for an opened bottle of whatever he kept on hand, he would force himself to go to his desk and complete a Latin translation instead. There were nights he slipped, nights where he lay awake on his bed as the world around him numbed, but he was trying. He felt foolish for ever thinking of giving up. 

He thought over his plan on the nights when insomnia hit the hardest, thinking of ways to bring up to Adam how he felt as he lay awake. It was the latest in a series of failed plans, plans that dated back to the birthday party and most recently after the day of the not-date. He viewed his life as a series of failures, but Ronan was ready to get this right. His secrets begged to be set free. 

There was, of course, the most obvious secret: Ronan’s crush. But there were others, more personal secrets that he toyed with. In tandem with confessing his crush, he wanted to say aloud the words he’d kept to himself most of his life. They were the words he struggled with on his knees in St. Agnes and the words he heard tossed around as slurs when he walked the halls of Aglionby. 

Ronan Lynch was gay. 

It was a fact he knew and a fact he now accepted, but one he never said aloud. He didn’t necessarily hide it, but he didn’t necessarily present it either. He was certain people knew he wasn’t straight , but he’d never confirmed the speculations surrounding his sexuality. He feared their reactions, feared those closest to him leaving in the way they always seemed to do. It was the same fear that kept him awake in the weeks between the not-date and asking Adam to come over on homecoming night. 

He reminded himself then that Adam, whether cognizant of Ronan’s crush or not, still wanted to be in his life. Saying aloud his sexuality to a boy he had come to trust felt like the first step in letting go of the secrets he concealed. 

As the days drew closer to Saturday, though, the confidence he’d felt at the beginning of the week began to falter. He became unsure of himself, wondering if he had known Adam long enough - trusted him enough - to say aloud the words he’d only recently begun to entrust himself with. By Friday afternoon, he decided to forgo the plan. 

When he came out to Adam, he wanted it to feel natural. He didn’t want things to feel like cause and effect, a confession that read: I am gay, therefore I have to have a crush on you. He saw it as: I am gay, and I happen to have a crush on you. Not Gansey, not Noah. 

You, Adam Parrish. 

On Saturday morning, Ronan spent his time adjacent Noah on one of the Monmouth couches. The two were tasked with helping Gansey ready himself for his homecoming date with Blue. Though, helping was a term loosely applied. Noah was helpful, Ronan was not. 

“Should I wear the red or the blue tie?” Gansey asked, holding the two options against the tailored black suit hanging over the television set. His hands shook, his voice wavered. 

“Both.” Ronan responded, giving the two ties a quick glance-over. “Tie them together.”

“I like the red one.” Noah offered. 

“It’s 10 a.m., man, why the hell are you getting ready this early?” Ronan slumped further into the couch. He thought of Adam coming over that evening, missing whatever Gansey said back to him. 

“You could make a bow tie.” Noah tried. 

“I think he should braid the ties together.” 

Ronan. ” Gansey looked frazzled. Rather, he looked more frazzled than usual. “I want to get this right.” 

“Aren’t we all trying to get it right, Dick?” He stood up from the couch and began to walk away from the two remaining boys sharing a stunned expression at Ronan’s sudden hostility. “Red looks better.” He said quietly, his back to them as he departed. He traded their company for the solitude of his bedroom. 

Ronan reminded in his room until mid-afternoon. When he finally left, he found Gansey in the same spot as before, though, this time he wore the suit. And the red tie. 

“Congressman Dick the Third,” Ronan gave a mock-bow. 

Gansey toyed with the ends of the jacket sleeves. “Is it too much?” 

Ronan slumped down onto one of the couches with a theatric sigh before saying: “Gans, if she agreed to go to the dance with you in the first place, I can assure you that she won’t give a fuck about what kind of cuff links you have on.” 

“You think so?”

“Just don’t mention how much that suit cost and you’ll be fine.” 

Gansey remained standing, no doubt to prevent a single wrinkle form working its way back into his pressed pants. “I wish you and Adam were coming.” 

“He’s coming over tonight.” Tonight. In four hours. Ronan felt the way his pulse quickened when he thought of Adam walking through Monmouth’s doors. He was unprepared. “Might order pizza, watch a movie. Real romantic shit.” Ronan kept his tone full of mockery, though his words held true.

“I didn’t know you two were, uh—”

“We’re not.” Not yet. Ronan pretended to brush something off his jeans. “Learn some sarcasm.” 

Gansey sighed, pressing his palms against his eyes for a moment. “I’m nervous.” He admitted then as his hands dropped back to his sides; his hands shook. “I really like her and I’m worried about ruining everything.” 

Ronan knew the feeling.

“You need to relax. I can pour you a shot to, you know, take the edge off.” His snake-like smile spread; Gansey didn’t smile back. Ronan could sense Gansey’s misery, the anxiety that ate at him over trying to do things right with the person he liked. Ronan felt like he was watching a polished version of himself. 

“I’ll be alright.” 

“And if you’re not, maybe Parrish and I will save you a slice of pizza.” 

“You’re really not helping.”

“I know.” 

Eventually Gansey left, retrieving a simple corsage made of red and white flowers from the refrigerator before he announced that he would be picking Blue up for the dance. Noah had joined Ronan in wishing Gansey well before he returned to his room. Ronan silently hoped he would remain there the rest of the evening; in all of his planning and not-planning, he’d forgotten Noah lived there too. 

Alone, he paced Monmouth, sticking his hands into whatever opened boxes of cereal Gansey had purchased and running the razor over his head until he felt the smoothness of his scalp. When the clock passed seven, he sat himself at the top of the staircase, ready to descend them and answer the door when Adam knocked. 

At 7:06 he heard it. 

Wanting not to appear too eager, he waited a moment. He let Adam knock again before he finally went to greet him.

“No suit.” Adam said by way of greeting. 

“No suit.” Ronan responded, biting at the inside of his lip as he studied Adam. The other boy dressed in the way he always did, thrifted jeans too short in the legs and a Walmart brand t-shirt. His eyes fell to Adam’s hands, always to his hands. He held something in them, an intricately folded piece of paper gripped between slender and calloused fingers. It looked like a flower.

Adam looked down, embarrassed. “I saw somewhere that, uh, for homecoming you’re supposed to get the other person a bout—bouton— whatever it’s called. Boutonnière. I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea to make you one.” 

Ronan couldn’t speak. He wanted to take Adam by the hand and guide him to his bedroom, to kiss him on the lips again and again and again. Instead, he took the flower as Adam extended it to him. He saw now that it was a rose, made from a sheet of loose leaf paper with Calculus equations on it. “Shit man, I should have gotten one for you.” 

“You can tell me if it’s shitty.”

Ronan tucked the paper stem behind his ear, “It’s not shitty.” When it fell a second later, he put it in his pants pocket, taking care not to crumple it. “Our evening awaits.” He said, turning back up the stairs. Adam followed. 

Ronan had a good feeling about the night ahead. 

 


 

Adam Parrish was through with being subtle. Though, he wasn’t sure he could describe his time spent trying to garner Ronan’s attention as subtle. Subtlety, he realized, required effort. Adam had made no effort to hint at his feelings. In fact, he had spent more time avoiding Ronan than trying to place hints here or there. Now, he felt the scales begin to tip. 

The week spent in anticipation of his night with Ronan brought selfish thoughts back to the surface. Preparing materials for his upcoming court date surrounding the protective order could resume in the morning, finishing an outline for an essay due the following Thursday could resume in the morning. His Saturday with Ronan was a weight placed on the scale, bringing the different forces in his life closer to equilibrium. 

The paper flower was an added weight. 

He’d gotten the idea from Blue, who had approached him in the cafeteria on the Wednesday before homecoming. They sat alone at their usual table in the corner. It was their routine; talking little and always finishing their food no matter the taste. On Wednesday, she’d brought up the boutonnière, complaining quietly about not knowing where to find one or what it should look like.

“What’s a boutonnière?” Adam had asked. 

Blue propped her elbows up on the table, resting her cheeks against fisted hands. “It’s what the guy gets pinned to his suit. The girl gets a flower bracelet. You know, the forced heterosexuality and gender roles this country loves.” 

Adam had decided then that he would find Ronan a boutonnière. When he saw the price, though, he settled on making one instead. He’d checked out an origami book from the library and sat on his floor until the late hours of the night, using pages from assignments he’d completed at the start of the school year to practice. It had taken him until Saturday morning to perfect the gift, a series of failed attempts spread across his floor and his still chair-less desk. 

He hoped now that his efforts had been worth it. 

Inside Monmouth, he settled down next to Ronan on one of the couches, the smaller of the two. The two were alone, the house quiet. He watched the way Ronan tensed beside him; Adam himself felt on-edge, the anticipation over how he would bring up how he felt to Ronan starting to feel its way through his body. 

“I didn’t plan anything.” Ronan kept his eyes fixed forward when he spoke. “Want to order pizza?”

“I’ll buy.” The flower was the start, offering to buy dinner was the second step. “Nino’s?” 

Choosing a pizza shop took little effort, choosing what type of pizza to order proved more difficult. Adam was content with cheese; Ronan told him he needed to stop being lame. He threw out names of toppings Adam couldn’t keep track of in quick succession, getting up to pace the room while Adam remained seated on the couch. 

Adam liked the sight of him, hand running over his shaved head in contemplation as he said aloud everything from mushrooms to pineapples. He wanted this; he also wanted to make a decision. 

“What about a half-cheese, half-whatever you want?” 

“God, Parrish, cheese is boring.

“And pineapple doesn’t belong on pizza.” Adam shot back, a provoking grin spreading. He’d never had pineapple on his pizza, but he liked the way Ronan’s hands balled into fists and the way his brow furrowed when Adam spoke against the topping. It felt natural; a boy trying to flirt with the boy he liked. 

Ronan stopped, now hovering over Adam as he stood in front of the couch. If Adam slid forward, his knees would be against Ronan’s legs. “Take that back.” 

“No. I’m the one paying for the pizza” 

They studied one another, Adam wanting to reach out to grab Ronan’s hands and pull him down until their bodies collided and their lips met. Ronan’s expression was unreadable, the anger over the pineapple pizza melting into something Adam couldn’t discern. 

“Fine. Order your damn cheese pizza.” Ronan stepped back, voice loud and arms thrown up in exasperation before they fell heavy against his sides. Adam could tell from the way a smile then fought against Ronan’s lips, though, that he wasn’t actually mad. 

“Half-cheese, half-pineapple.” 

Ronan sighed, “It’s not just the pineapple. A true Hawaiian pizza has more than that.”

Adam was losing patience, any flirting from before dissipating with his growing hunger. “Fine. A half-cheese, half-Hawaiian pizza. Now can I use your phone to place the order before you change your mind again?”

“Let me go find it.” 

A call for pizza was placed twenty minutes later. The time leading up to the call had been spent in rising frustration as Ronan went to search for his phone, then his phone charger when he realized the device was dead. Nino’s didn’t offer delivery, and so the two left Monmouth some ten minutes later to pick up their dinner. Adam had missed the familiar feel of Ronan’s BMW, the way Ronan tapped against the steering wheel in time to the music Adam had come to tolerate.

“Noah’s not home, is he?” Adam asked as they drove down the street. 

“He is.”

“Shouldn’t we have gotten him something, or at least asked?”

Ronan shrugged, keeping his eyes on the road. “He can have your cheese.” 

Ronan .”

“God, you sound like Gansey.”

When he’d first met Gansey, Adam had wanted so selfishly to sound the way Gansey did, to have the commanding voice of old Virginia money. “Then listen to me. Should we get Noah something?”

“If you want to pay for it.”

They reached a deal sitting in one of the booths at the front of Nino’s while they waited for their order to be completed. They would each give up two slices of the large pizza and place it in a separate box for Noah. Adam still felt guilty about leaving Noah out, but Ronan assured him the other boy would have been content with even one small slice. 

Ronan had been right; when Adam and Ronan went to knock on Noah’s door, he’d politely refused the food. The door was pulled open only a crack, but Adam could see the impeccable tidiness to the space. Bed without a wrinkle, a single houseplant in the window. It gave the illusion that no one lived there at all. Adam wondered what Noah did all day, always seeming to be in Monmouth, but only coming downstairs when invited. Ronan didn’t invite him down tonight, Noah didn’t ask to join. Sometimes Adam thought Noah was more ghost than human.

“If you change your mind, we’ll leave you some.” Adam said then, ever polite.

“I told you, he can have your cheese.” 

Noah gave a small smile, “I’ll be okay.” 

“Whatever, man.” Ronan began to walk away, both his and Adam’s pizza, and the pizza they had reboxed for Noah, in-hand. “We’ll be downstairs.” 

Downstairs, Ronan set the two boxes on the pool table in the corner of the room. Adam had never taken notice of it before, always watching the TV screen or watching whatever Ronan was doing whenever he found himself in Monmouth. Ronan sat himself up on the edge of the table, opening the pizza box and grabbing a slice of the Hawaiian he insisted on ordering. Adam remained standing, though took a piece of his own. 

Conversation came and went as they ate. It was easy, they talked mostly about school. Rather, Adam mentioned the classes he was taking and Ronan complained about his. Adam mentioned the colleges he was finishing applications for, Ronan mentioned that he wasn’t going to college. Adam had aspirations, Ronan asked further questions about them. 

“If you become a lawyer, what am I supposed to call you?” Ronan asked, pointing his third slice of pizza at Adam. “Your honor?”

“That’s a judge.” 

“Your excellency?”

“I’m not royalty. I’m pretty sure I would just be Mr. Parrish.” 

Ronan talked around a mouthful of food. “Boring.” 

They finished eating, the entire pizza soon gone and the two drifting over to their usual couch with full stomachs. Adam missed it, the feel of Ronan beside him. He couldn’t believe he’d ever thought of giving it up. 

“Do you want me to kick your ass on the Wii or do you want me to culture you on the second best movie you’ll ever see?” 

“What’s the first?” Adam asked, eyes finding Ronan’s.

The Room. God, Parrish, keep up.”

“That movie was terrible.” 

“You have no taste.”

Ronan stood up then and went to retrieve the laptop permanently residing on the floor next to the television set. Adam watched the way Ronan sat himself on the floor, opening the laptop and making sure everything was connected between the TV and the computer. Then, the TV was on and Ronan reclaimed his spot beside Adam. 

The movie had begun, the production company’s intro giving Adam no indication of what Ronan had put on the TV. He thought he saw a cartoon bee. 

Then

A black screen, followed by a pop of text that read: “According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly.” 

He missed the rest of the text appearing onscreen, too busy watching the smile spreading across Ronan’s face. Ronan, who sat with his body facing Adam. “Ronan...what are we watching?”

The other boy looked at him, “The fucking Bee Movie. Now pay attention, or I’m kicking you out.” 

It was hard to pay attention with Ronan sitting there, lounging himself across the couch so that his toes touched against Adam’s thighs if he slouched his legs too far down. Adam remained upright, hands in lap as he tried in vain to follow the movie’s plot. How easy, Adam thought, it would be to reach for one of Ronan’s hands and guide Ronan onto his lap. To confess to him every thought and deed that plagued his mind over the course of a month. 

He felt the burn of his cheeks, a burn that grew when he found Ronan studying him. He worried Ronan sensed his thoughts. The movie on the screen was long forgotten.

Adam spoke then, working to change the direction of his thoughts, “I wonder how homecoming is.” 

“Unbearable.” Ronan responded. Adam didn’t doubt it.

“Have you ever gone?”

“No.” His voice was firm, unsettling.

“Me either.” Adam admitted then, placing his hands under his thighs so Ronan couldn’t see the way they had begun to shake. He didn’t know where the conversation was headed, if he was ready to finally say aloud the words he’d kept secret. “I never had anyone to ask.”

He and Blue had once joked about going to homecoming together, though quickly put the idea to rest minutes later once they’d realized how miserable they would have been at a school dance surrounded by their peers. Blue had also mentioned slow-dancing, a thought that sent the two into an uncomfortable laughter. Adam wondered now if he would have slow-danced with Ronan. It seemed unlikely. 

“There was someone I could have asked.” When Ronan said it, Adam wasn’t expecting it. His voice was quiet, hardly audible above the movie that continued to play. “There‘s, uh, someone.” He added with his head down. 

Adam felt the way his pulse began to quicken against his chest, words catching in his throat. Ronan liked someone. He pictured an Aglionby boy waiting at Ronan’s locker, a polished diplomat’s son who could afford to give Ronan everything Adam couldn’t. He wondered if it was another boy at all. “Oh.” Was all he managed. 

“I probably fucked things with him.” 

Him. They looked up at one another, Adam biting against the inside of his lip while Ronan wore a look of fear. It was as though he had said aloud something he’d meant to keep to himself. 

Adam thought then about what Ronan was saying; about how there was a boy he could have asked to homecoming but didn’t, a boy he liked but ruined things with. Adam also wondered if it had been Ronan’s intention to invite him over at all, or if he was an after-thought when homecoming plans didn’t work out. 

“What’s he like?” Adam didn’t want to know, and yet he did. He wanted to know what he would never be to Ronan, what he could only ever dream of being. He didn’t look at Ronan anymore, blindly following the movie’s plot in an effort to distract himself. He wondered how he could have ever been foolish enough to think himself worthy, to be Ronan’s first choice. 

Ronan’s voice was firm when he spoke again, and Adam felt his anxiety rise; he shouldn’t have asked. “He’s smart; a fucking genius. But he’s stubborn as hell and I think he used to hate me... probably still does hate me. He’s, uh, he’s — Adam ?”

Adam hadn’t realized he’d stood up, mind and body a jumble of nerves and unexpected emotions. “I have to go.” He said it without looking at Ronan, cursing himself for his cowardice. 

Adam .” Ronan’s voice grew louder, a statement and no longer a question, but Adam had long since grown numb to the words that came from his lips. Ronan was standing now too, but Adam had begun toward the door. “What the fuck is this about?”

“I’m sorry; I forgot about something. It’s important.” Adam found his way to the door handle, turning it with added force until he was greeted by the cool September evening. The lies came easily, though he fought to keep his voice steady. “Thanks for letting me stop by.”

“We didn’t even finish the movie.” 

Adam mounted his bike, Ronan remained in the doorway. He allowed himself one last look, one final sight of Ronan and Monmouth and everything that could have been. “I’m sorry. I hope it works out between you guys.” He called, already out of the parking lot and beginning down the street. 

“Adam, he’s —”

But Adam was too far away to hear the end of Ronan’s sentence, or maybe he just didn’t want to know. He pedaled instead, navigating the dark streets with speed reminiscent of the night he left his family’s home as he made his way to St. Agnes. He hated himself for leaving. He knew he should have stayed, should have listened to Ronan and supported the boy he liked. 

And yet he pedaled faster, Monmouth a distant memory. He viewed himself a coward, a boy too wrapped up in his own head that he couldn’t face another disappointment. How desperately he wanted things to work between Ronan and himself; how foolish he’d been to think things ever would. The scales tipped back; he felt unhinged. 

He knew then that he would always be Adam Parrish, the unloveable boy from an unloveable town. Leaving behind his family’s double-wide didn’t change what he was. Ronan walked the halls of Aglionby alongside politicians’ sons and the progeny of diplomats from countries around the world; why would he settle for a boy with nothing but what he himself could earn? 

Alone in his room, Adam worked on Calculus homework and read Candide when the math problems became too complex. He distracted himself and kept awake, his alarm clock creeping past one in the morning before he even felt an ounce of fatigue creep through his body. Ronan had been a dream, a fantasy Adam thought he could catch onto. 

He knew he’d have to see him eventually, lie in the way he always did about why he’d left so suddenly on homecoming night. For now, he would work harder in school and take more hours with Boyd. He would do whatever he could to forget his unrequited crush on Ronan Lynch. 

 

When he fell asleep that night, Calculus textbook on one side of him and Candide resting on his chest, he dreamt of Ronan. An alternate universe where the boy Ronan spoke of was Adam. 

 


 

Ronan Lynch was a self-proclaimed moron. Maybe the others thought him a moron as well, but his conversation with Adam proved to him his own status as a dumbass.  

He kicked the base of the table holding up the television set, slamming his laptop shut and prematurely ending his tenth viewing of the Bee Movie. He’d been so close. So close and yet he ruined it by choosing to be subtle, by choosing to describe the boy sitting on the couch beside him without using his name. And then, when he’d try to call out to Adam and amend things, the other boy never came back. 

 

The paper flower still tucked into the pocket of his pants felt heavy, a reminder of what could have been had he chosen different words. He took it out and inspected it, thinking of the way Adam’s hands pieced it together. How little it mattered now; Adam thought he liked someone else, a boy who wasn’t Adam.

Or, Adam had indeed heard his final “ Adam, he’s you ” and chose to keep going. Ronan didn’t know which hurt worse, the thought of Adam thinking he liked someone else, or the thought of Adam being cognizant of his crush and choosing to ignore it. He hoped the former, though feared the later. The former could be amended, the later would take time to accept. 

He’d speculated before homecoming night that Adam knew of his crush; now he knew Adam knew of the crush but the result was the same. Adam was gone, Ronan was left alone with his feelings. 

He kicked the base again, a myriad of swears slipping through his lips. He didn’t know why he was so angry, and yet he was. It was an anger built on another failed plan, on the look of hurt on Adam’s face when he left Monmouth. Ronan didn’t know why Adam reacted in such a way, and now he was too afraid to ask. He couldn’t live with another disappointment. 

When he turned around, he found Noah standing a few paces behind him. “Jesus, fuck .” Noah looked started when Ronan spoke. “How long have you been there?”

“I just came down. I heard yelling.” Ronan watched the way Noah’s eyes flitted across the empty room. “Where’s Adam?”

“He’s gone.”

“Why?”

Ronan walked around Noah, favoring the stairs that would lead him to his bedroom. “Because I’m a fucking jackass.” 

“I don’t think you’re a jackass.” The way Noah said jackass amused Ronan, like a child trying out a swear for the first time. 

Ronan began his ascent up the stairs, not looking back at Noah. “I appreciate the sentiment, but you’re wrong.” He wanted to be in his room, door locked and music loud enough that he could forget what it meant to think. He did not want to be followed up the stairs by Noah. 

Noah who said softly:  “Did Gansey ever tell you why I moved in?”

Ronan turned, “No offense man, but how is that relevant right now?”

They were at the door that led to his room, Ronan with his hand on the handle and Noah hovering like a specter. “I was trying to distract you.” 

“Entertain me.” Ronan said then, pulling open his door and letting Noah follow him in. He sat on the edge of his bed, Noah took up the seat at his desk. Only the light by his desk was on, the room taking on an eerie quality. 

Noah looked unsettled. “There was someone I was living with. We went to school together at Aglionby.”

“Trouble in paradise?” Ronan offered when Noah stopped talking. 

It took a moment, but when Noah spoke, his voice was barely a whisper. “He tried to kill me, I think.”

He had Ronan’s attention. “You almost got murdered?” 

“Have you ever heard of the Bacchae ?” Noah asked. 

Ronan had, the play had been required reading at Aglionby. He hadn’t read it, but he knew the story. “You were going to be a sacrifice? That’s metal as fuck.” 

“It started as a joke, about him sacrificing me to wake something . It wasn’t a god, though, not like in the story. I don’t know what it was. A king maybe?” Noah looked to Ronan for answers that Ronan himself didn’t know how to give. 

“So you were going to be a sacrifice and then what? You made a post in a public Facebook group about needing a new place to live instead of going to the police?” 

Noah laughed, but Ronan could sense his misery. Ronan himself felt miserable. “Yeah.” 

“Adam left because he thinks I like someone.” He didn’t know why he said it; maybe because Noah had been open with him. Maybe because Ronan needed to say the words aloud, to work through the thoughts that consumed his mind. “Or maybe because he thinks I like him. I don’t know. It’s all fucked.” 

“Ronan,” Noah’s voice was gentle, “do you like Adam?” 

He didn’t lie: “Yeah.” 

“Does he like you?”

Ronan considered it, the thought of Adam leaving because he liked Ronan. Because he couldn’t stand the sight of Ronan with someone else. He toyed with the thought of it, the vain hope that Adam liked him back. “If he did, he doesn’t anymore.” 

“You should talk to him.”

“Because that just worked so well.” He knew Noah was right, but he didn’t want to admit to it. What he had said to Adam had been hard enough to admit, perhaps harder than admitting it to himself. Saying it aloud made it real. He didn’t know if he would ever be ready to re-say aloud the words he struggled with. 

Noah stood from his spot at the desk, walking to the door that remained open. “I know you want to be left alone.” He said, and Ronan was grateful for that. “And I know things will work out.” 

“Sure.”

When Noah left, Ronan got up and shut the bedroom door. Gansey would be back from the dance soon, and the last thing he wanted to do was talk to another person about his failed attempt to tell Adam how he felt. He spread himself across his bed, fatigue overtaking the adrenaline that had pricked at his senses after Adam left. 

Ronan wondered if this was God’s way of punishing him, the Catholic guilt he’d worked so hard to manage creeping back in. It was guilt and the belief that Adam had heard Ronan, that he had pieced together that Ronan spoke of Adam even before the outside confession. It was the above, coupled with the belief that Adam left because he didn’t reciprocate those feelings. 

It became a truth he began to live by, that Adam knew and didn’t feel the same. Adam avoided Monmouth, and Ronan saw that as a sign to avoid St. Agnes. 

On movie nights, Adam made no appearance. It was a fact, like everything else since homecoming, that Ronan had to accept. When Gansey asked why Adam stopped coming over, Blue answered that he was busy. Ronan doubted the validity of such a statement, hearing the same excuses made night after night. 

Things worsened as the days since homecoming grew in number; Ronan’s irritability intensified in Adam’s absence. The first few weeks of senior year bore no comparison to the way he acted now, a boy unable to keep himself in check. He ran from his problems, pretended like they didn’t exist. He often left his spot on the couch early, favoring the solitude of his room to the sight of his friends taking comfort in one another’s presence. 

Adam’s absence and Ronan’s irritability changed the dynamic of the group. No one outwardly took sides, Gansey not siding with Ronan and Blue not siding with Adam. Noah remained neutral as always, the only one to know the truth Ronan dared to never say aloud again. Though, the knowledge that something happened between Adam and Ronan was present. 

For awhile, no one mentioned it. Things were awkward, but life went on in the way it always did. Movie nights still happened without Adam, but the others had also begun to visit Adam without Ronan. 

A true fight had never been declared; they’d simply just stopped seeing one another. Ronan, embarrassed over homecoming night, tried to tell himself things were for the best. He saw truth in the narrative that Adam had heard Ronan’s confession, and that Adam didn’t feel the same.  

And yet, he wanted to call Adam a coward, to resent him for being unable to talk to Ronan about how he felt. He wanted to search Adam for answers, to hear the other boy say the truth amongst the lies that made up Adam Parrish. Instead, Ronan felt hollow. 

What happened with Adam was precisely the reason Ronan told himself he didn’t do feelings. No one could hurt you when you had no one around. Ronan always thought himself a dreamer like his father, but Adam Parrish was the one dream he couldn’t catch. He told himself it was time to stop dreaming.

His self-proclaimed life of solitude continued through the weekend before Halloween. 

He sat on the couch, making fun of Gansey’s attempts at decorating the lower level, when the knock at the door came. He didn’t get up to answer the door, knowing Blue was coming over for a monster movie marathon set up by Gansey. He let Gansey do the work, cheery greetings sounding when Gansey answered the door. 

Ronan had been prepared to get up and take his leave when he saw three, not two, figures approaching. Gansey and Blue in front, Adam behind. 

Adam looked tired, the circles under his eyes growing darker in the month since Ronan saw him last. They made eye contact but didn’t speak, the unknown fight continuing onward when Adam took a seat on the couch adjacent Ronan. 

Ronan remembered what Noah had said about talking things through with Adam, advice that seemed useless now. He also remembered when Noah questioned if Adam liked Ronan back. If Adam had ever liked Ronan, he showed no signs of it now. The other boy simply looked bored; Ronan fought with himself to stop looking at him. 

Gansey and Blue joined Adam on the bigger couch, Noah taking a spot on the smaller couch beside Ronan. The arrangement felt unnatural, Adam the furthest away from Ronan. 

They began with a movie Blue had chosen, an unfamiliar title called Birdemic: Shock and Terror . It was the exact kind of movie Ronan loved, a low budget thriller reminiscent of The Room. He couldn’t bring himself to pay attention, not with Noah squirming beside him and not with the way Gansey sat with his arm curled around Blue. The tangle of Gansey-and-Blue obstructed Ronan’s view of Adam. 

He stood then, four heads turning to look at him when he announced: “I’m leaving.” 

“You don’t get to do that tonight.” Blue narrowed her eyes at him. Gansey’s arm was no longer around her; he’d become a docile body.

“Maybe I should leave.” Adam said beside her, preparing to stand. 

“You don’t get to do that either.” She said, voice equally forceful with Adam as it had been with Ronan. “You two are behaving like children. And for what? I didn’t know this was a competition to see who could be the biggest dick .” 

Blue didn’t know; Adam hadn’t told her. Ronan looked to Noah cautiously, wondering if he would let on to anything he knew about the fight. Noah looked lost, fingers looping themselves in his sweater sleeves. Gansey looked saddened, the outburst unexpected, the movie night in ruins. 

“I have homework.” Adam stood then, eyes finding Ronan’s. He dared him to challenge. 

Ronan took the bait. “Bullshit you do. That’s your excuse every week.” 

“It’s not my fault you don’t have any aspirations. Some of us are trying to graduate.” 

The words hurt, but they’d been perfectly placed. Ronan knew it and the look on Adam’s face said that he knew it too. The trouble with words, however, was that once they were said aloud, they couldn’t be taken back. “Fuck you, Parrish.”

“Big words coming from you, Lynch.” 

Blue was standing now her attention directed at Ronan, “You’re being ridiculous.” She turned to Adam then, “And you’re no better.”

The room quieted. Adam and Ronan followed one another’s gaze, each preparing another weapon in their arsenals. Ronan went to draw first, but was stopped by Gansey. 

“I’ve had enough.” He could command a room with his presence alone, the son of a politician coming through when he stood. “I won’t watch my best friends fight over nothing anymore.” 

Ronan felt the beginnings of jealousy knotting in his stomach. He should have known he wouldn’t always be Gansey’s only best friend. He just didn’t know when Adam came to take that spot. “You really consider someone who won’t talk to us for weeks your best friend?”

“Are you serious?” Adam laughed when he said it, only feeding into Ronan’s fire. “Is this fifth grade? I’ve been busy.”

“Yeah, you always say that.”

Gansey interrupted any potential for further fighting. “I’ve just decided something. We’re going on a road trip. All of us. And there will be no fighting.” 

“I bet Parrish is too busy for that.” Ronan looked back to Adam, snake-like grin curling. 

“I’ll be there.” Adam matched his expression, eyes daring Ronan to challenge him. “You won’t leave thirty minutes in, will you?”

“No. I won’t.” 

Blue sighed, “Great. I’m prematurely calling shotgun.” 

Gansey looked pleased, filled with a naive hope that a road trip would somehow solve everything. “Now that that’s settled, back to the movie. I want to see what happens with these birds.” 

 

Ronan listened to the sounds of the television from his bedroom. Adam had left, as expected, before the movie resumed. Ronan himself had been up the stairs and through his bedroom door before Adam had finished saying his goodbyes to the other three. He watched Adam leave on his bike from his window, giving the boy who had consumed so much of him since June one last look before he retrieved a bottle of cheap whisky from under his bed and seated himself on top of the mattress. 

He drank to forget the sight of Adam standing to face him, baiting Ronan with jabs no longer playful or friendly. He drank also to forget the proposed road trip, the fear of confronting the problems he ran from manifesting itself in his consciousness. 

That night, he drank to forget what it felt like to have a crush on Adam Parrish and to forget a time when there was a possibility of Adam Parrish liking him back. When he fell asleep that night, he didn’t dream. 

Chapter Text

“And what sets you apart from your peers, Adam Parrish?” 

It felt like a nightmare, the sound of the college counselor’s voice the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to his hearing ear. Adam, with his hands folded in his lap, pinched his wrist then — not because he thought he was dreaming, but because he feared falling asleep. He was exhausted. Talking to the counselor for an additional twenty minutes about why she thought he would never be good enough for Harvard’s law program — or any law program — ranked low on his list of priorities. 

When he didn’t answer right away, she continued: “On paper, you’re a perfect student. But why does that matter? Harvard receives applications from perfect students around the world. What makes Adam Parrish of Henrietta, Virginia stand out?” 

He didn’t know; what he knew was that he wasn’t special. He worked hard in school and hoped his GPA would be enough. There were no extracurriculars to be added to his resume, and his experience in law was limited to his time in a Henrietta courtroom defending himself and the protective order he’d been granted. He was undeserving; the college counselor saw it, she wanted Adam to see it too. “I don’t know.” He said finally.

“Adam, I’m here to help.” 

That was her job, officially: to help students choose a college and to write the coveted recommendation letter for them. Adam assured himself he didn’t need her letter. He would sooner ask one of the librarians at the public library than have the woman sitting before him tell the college board lies about his achievements. Mrs. Beal, the college counselor, was at the bottom of Adam’s list of people to ask. He needed someone who could attest to his skills, who would fight for him. Adam was certain Mrs. Beal thought of him as skill-less. She saw him for the fraud he was. 

“I think you’ve given me all the help I need for today.” Adam stood up, grabbing his bookbag from its spot on the the floor and slinging it over one shoulder. “I’m going to think about your questions.” 

“Think over what we talked about last time too.” She didn’t try to stop Adam, though her words made him pause in the doorway. 

“I’ll think about it.” And he did, reminding himself of the way she’d told him that, with his financial status being what it was, he should think about a vocational school instead. The way she’d said it stuck with Adam, as if attending a vocational school or community college mattered less than a 4-year institution. That it was the only option granted to those of low financial or social standing, to people like Adam. 

She was the elitist, classist sort of person who belonged at an institution like Aglionby. And Adam Parrish despised her. 

He despised Mrs. Beal and the way she talked to him, the way she made low-income students like Adam and Blue feel insignificant for wanting to pursue higher education. Stepping into her office for their weekly meetings made him feel powerless. Adam was forced to keep a smile on his face and answer the counselor’s leading questions in his overly polite voice. He hated her and he hated the way he told himself to act around her, never wanting to give her the satisfaction of seeing him lose his composure. 

He knew Blue felt the same. And so when he stepped out of the office and found Blue sitting on the ground, he was unsurprised when she greeted him with: “The Wicked Witch strikes again.” 

“I bet she’ll purposely forget to send my transcripts.” He began walking toward his locker and Blue stood up and followed. 

“Gansey’s road trip starts in two hours. You have that to look forward to.” Her tone was sarcastic, but Adam knew how much time she too had put into planning the getaway. The vain attempt to get Adam and Ronan to reconcile. 

Adam knew his entire feud with Ronan was childish. Though, until the movie night the weekend before Halloween, Adam hadn’t actually been mad at Ronan at all. He’d been mad at himself for staying away from Monmouth, and from Ronan, in the days following homecoming night. When days turned into weeks, however, and weeks became nearly a month, Adam knew he couldn’t show up to Monmouth without having to admit to Ronan why he’d left so swiftly that September night. 

Even now, as he switched out his books and prepared to leave school for the weekend, Adam wasn’t truly mad at Ronan. Any animosity he had towards the other boy stemmed from Ronan’s treatment of him; Adam was mad because Ronan was mad. 

“Ronan hasn’t backed out yet?” He asked as he walked with Blue to her locker. Maybe things would be easier if he didn’t show up and Adam didn’t have to confront the boy he still liked. 

“Don’t do that.” She warned, fiddling with her locker combination and switching out her books in the same manner Adam had done. 

“It was a question.” 

Blue slammed her locker shut, “No. He hasn’t backed out.” She began down the hall and Adam followed. “I can’t believe the two of you won’t just talk. No one knows what this fight is even about.”

He wanted to tell her, but walking the crowded halls of their high school while their peers talked loudly and amicably about weekend plans was not the place to do so. Standing outside by the bike rack, the feel of a November wind stinging Adam’s cheeks and causing him to shudder against his thin jacket, felt equally out of place. 

“Are you sure you don’t want a ride home?” Blue asked then. 

Adam shook his head, looking down at his cracked knuckles as they gripped the handlebars of his bike. It was getting colder, but he couldn’t rely on Blue and the women of Fox Way to drive him around. He couldn’t rely on anyone, having turned down Gansey’s offer twice before. Soon enough he would begin walking; the first sign of snowfall preventing him from comfortably using his bike. He’d manage. He always did. 

“I’ll be okay.” Another lie, teeth already beginning to chatter and face reddening from the persistent flurries. “I’ll see you later.” He said as he mounted the bike.

Blue looked unconvinced, but shrugged and said: “Gansey’ll pick you up by 5:30,” all the same.

The ride to St. Agnes left him struggling for breath as he navigated the streets with the wind in his face. The exhaustion of before weighed heavy. He felt it in the way his lungs burned against the cold, the way the tips of his ears numbed and a headache developed across his forehead. He wanted to stop, to seek shelter in a heated building and curl his fingers around a cup of coffee. He wanted to purchase basic necessities like hats and gloves, the ones he used to own having been swallowed whole by the double-wide. 

Instead, he kept going, St. Agnes looming nearer. 

His already cracked knuckles drew fresh blood as he gracelessly guided his bike up the stairs and through the door to the apartment. When he went to find lotion, he came up empty. He thought for a moment about packing up a few items for the weekend trip, though favored the warmth of his bed. The clock he’d placed at his bedside crept past four. 

Adam told himself he’d earned a moment’s rest. A moment’s rest that soon turned into over an hour spent drifting in and out of consciousness until he heard a knock at the door that grew in sound with each tap against the wood. He rubbed at his eyes, clearing his head before glancing down at the clock. The time read 5:43. 

“Shit.” He said it aloud, leaving his bed in a sudden movement that left his head light and the world a little off-balance. He righted himself as his hand met the handle, opening the unlocked door and saying aloud: “Oh, hey.” 

“Dick sent me to get you.” Ronan responded, hands pressed in the pockets of an expensive looking leather jacket. He looked bored. 

“I need to pack.” Adam admitted, hand gripping the handle a little tighter. He hadn’t been expecting Ronan to be the one to pick him up, Ronan with his expensive clothes and snake-like smile that Adam wanted to kiss again and again and again. He reminded himself then of the boy Ronan liked, the boy who wasn’t Adam. He told himself to stop watching Ronan and start packing his things. “You can come in if you want.” 

“What a gentleman.”

Adam tensed, preparing to shut the door on Ronan instead of holding it open for him. “I take back what I said. Wait in the hall.” He turned then, leaving the door open as if daring Ronan to cross the threshold. 

Ronan listened. He leaned himself against the door frame while Adam threw a clean pair of clothes and his toothbrush into his bookbag. He reached then for the key he kept placed on his desk and waited for Ronan to step aside so he could lock the door. When they walked down the stairs, they did so in silence. 

“Did Gansey say where we’re going?” Adam finally asked once they’d left St. Agnes and began down the steps toward the spot where Gansey’s Camaro waited in the street. 

Ronan shrugged as Adam turned to watch the way Blue rolled down her window to wave at them from the front seat. “Congrats,” she said cooly. “You both survived step one.” 

“What’s step two?” Adam asked, voice full of hesitation as he prepared to climb into the backseat. 

Noah waited there, looking at once frightened and apologetic. As if he really didn’t want to be going on the trip, but did so anyway in order to see his friends make up. He occupied the far left seat, seatbelt on and not budging even when Ronan swore. 

Adam saw it then too, a piece of paper with his name on it had been placed on the right-most seat. Ronan’s name had been placed on the middle seat. 

“I’m not taking the fucking middle seat.” He said. “My legs are the longest.”

Adam rolled his eyes, “We’re almost the same height. I always take the middle seat.”

“Then why don’t you take it tonight? You love being the martyr.” 

Any chance for a retort ended when Blue tossed something out the opened window, a large piece of fabric that Adam reached to catch. “If you two can’t behave, we’re going to step three early.” 

Adam fumbled with the fabric, realizing then that it appeared to be two shirts sewn together. One sleeve for each person, one enlarged head hole to share. He struggled to make out the words on the front, the November sun having already sunk below the trees of the valley. When he held the shirt against the street lamp overhead, though, he saw the words written in Blue’s messy scrawl: 

This Is Our Get Along Shirt!!!

“Is this a joke?” Ronan asked it, hovering behind Adam and reading over the same words Adam had struggled with. “There’s no way.”

“Do we look like we’re joking?” Blue asked. 

Adam looked to Blue first, then past Blue to Gansey. Neither looked amused; Blue looked annoyed, Gansey upset. When he looked back to Noah, the oldest of the group bowed his head.

“Ronan, if you take the seat in the middle, I won’t make you put the shirt on.” Gansey spoke for the first time. He sounded tired, though his voice tinged on frustration. Adam couldn’t blame him; he himself knew how ridiculous the entire feud had become. He wanted to blame Ronan, but he knew he himself was not without fault. 

Ronan obeyed, saying: “I’m not sharing that shirt with you” as he took the middle seat. 

“Feeling’s mutual.” Adam responded, letting his bookbag and the Get Along Shirt rest on his lap once he’d settled himself into the backseat of the Camaro. He tried to ignore the way Ronan’s knees touched against his own, or the way shoulders met when Ronan slumped himself into the seat. He tried to ignore the way their bodies would be forced together inside the single shirt, a closeness he craved, but one he never anticipated coming from adorning a DIY t-shirt together. 

With the doors closed and the radio turned up, Adam kept his eyes forward as the car began down the road. He was prepared for the worst. 

 


 

Thirty minutes into the drive, they stopped for dinner. It’d been Ronan’s own fault, and he accepted such a fact. Though, his reason for needing a stop had been two-fold. There had been the reason most obvious to the others; Ronan was hungry. Further down, nestled amongst secrets that created a different kind of hunger, was the second reason; he needed space from Adam. 

Because Ronan Lynch couldn’t shake the way he felt about Adam, and he couldn’t shake how sitting so close to him made him feel. So he locked himself in an empty McDonald’s bathroom while the others ordered their meals, and he told himself to stop thinking about the boy with the calloused palms and slender fingers; the boy with innumerable freckles running across his nose  that Ronan would spend an entire afternoon counting if he could. 

Ronan told himself to stop thinking about what the others thought of him, about the accusations they made in private concerning his irate behavior. He wondered whether he’d ever be ready to tell them about his secrets, about his sexuality and about what happened with Adam. His life was a series of failed plans, of trying and not succeeding. He told himself, worked to convince himself, that his friends would support him. And yet it was there, his fear from before manifesting itself in the far corners of his consciousness. 

It was a fear of what would become of him if his confession to his friends ended the same way his confession to Adam did. 

In the bathroom of the McDonald’s, hands running under the sink, he suppressed his fears and his feelings in the way he always did. It was better that way. He focused his attention instead on the cool water from the faucet, and not on the four waiting for him in the dining area. His reflection in the mirror was a study in fatigue and worry, of dark circles under his eyes and a jaw that remained firmly set.

Thirty minutes into a two-day trip and he was ready to back down, to sneak out when the others weren’t looking and find his way to Monmouth. The trip was everything he despised. He would sooner leave than share his feelings with the others, than publicly acknowledge why he and Adam fought when the two hadn’t even had a chance to say in private the reasons for feuding. 

What he and Adam needed was time spent alone, away from the others. He could admit to that, scary as it seemed. There were two sides to an interwoven story that needed to be told, a story Ronan wasn’t ready for the others to hear. Evidently, he thought as he shut off the water and shook his hands dry, Adam wasn’t ready either. 

Nothing would change between them if they faked reasons for fighting in an effort to keep how they felt — or didn’t feel , Ronan reminded himself — about one another private. Ronan needed to talk to Adam, but he also needed Adam to talk to him. 

Being forced into a shirt with Adam pressed firmly against him while the others poked and prodded for answers he wasn’t ready to give wouldn’t solve a thing. At some point, though, he would have to stop running. Leaving the bathroom and ordering an unappetizing meal was a start. 

Back with the others, Ronan focused himself on the meal he’d ordered. He picked at his french fries and kept his head down, not ready to talk to Adam. They sat at a table alone, alone but within hearing distance of the other three. It was a forced arrangement, one that would produce inauthentic conversations overheard by the others. 

The one where Ronan said: “Some trip.” 

And Adam responded: “Yeah.”

Silence resumed, an awkwardness passing between them that caused Ronan to stand suddenly, chair screeching against the tile floor as he did so. He was up, looking down at Adam who looked up at him, and he didn’t know what to do. This was the part where he would leave, would say some comment that earned him a groan from everyone in the room. 

Instead, he simply remained standing, hands finding his half-eaten meal and crumpling it in the wrapper. He walked to the trashcan without a word, and he returned the the table without a word. Adam didn’t question him; he’d simply gone back to his food. 

Sitting across from Adam, trying not to watch the way he took care to eat everything spread before him, Ronan thought again about backing down. He knew he couldn’t talk to Adam about the state of their relationship if the two couldn’t manage small-talk over McDonald’s french fries. 

He began to study the room in search of a distraction, eyes finding the PlayPlace his parents never let him climb on as a child. If things were different between him and Adam, Ronan might have dared him to climb through the tunnels now. Instead, he stared until his vision began to blur, finding a point of unimportance to fixate on.

He stared until he heard Adam’s voice: “I’m not going on that thing.”

“I didn’t ask you to.” Ronan’s attention was directed at Adam now, the PlayPlace forgotten. 

“But you wanted to.” 

“Maybe I did.” Ronan leaned forward, daring Adam to challenge him. “What else do you know about me, Parrish?”

“What?” Adam’s brows furrowed, a little thing that caused Ronan to bite against the inside of his cheeks. He looked undeniably attractive to Ronan. 

“Since you’re so sure I wanted to ask you to join me in that germ factory, what else are you sure about?”

He could sense the others watching, his voice raised enough to draw worry from the three at a table of their own. He shouldn’t have baited Adam, not in the middle of a McDonald’s and not with Blue and Noah and Gansey prepared to intervene. He shouldn’t have baited Adam, but the words were out. It was his mistake; he would deal with the consequences. 

Adam looked tired, more so than usual when he responded. “I’m sure you’re mad at me but you’re too scared to talk about it and no one knows what the hell I did.” 

This was not the conversation he wanted to have in a McDonald’s. 

“Me? Scared to talk to you ? Maybe if you didn’t hide in your apartment all the time I would have fucking talked to you.” 

He watched the way Adam flexed his fingers, curling and uncurling them into fists. “You never came over.”

“That’s bullshit. Your goddamn light was on.” Three times , Ronan reminded himself, but didn’t say as much aloud now. Though, each time he had knocked had been before the fight, before he resigned himself fully to the belief that Adam didn’t like him. It was a weak argument, but it was a start; a chance for an honest conversation. “You ignored me just like you ignore all of us.”

“Sometimes I forget to turn the light off when I leave.” Adam sighed, voice growing quiet when Ronan looked unconvinced. “I only ignored you once.” 

Ronan knew he was staring, mouth hung agape as he watched Adam bow his head. He was trying and failing to process what Adam had said, hostility rising with each breath he drew. He didn’t question why Adam had ignored him because he knew whatever Adam said would be a lie, another string of untruthful words thrown together. A chance for an honest conversation dwindled.

Instead, Ronan stood for a second time. “I’m not going on this fucking trip.” He said aloud, heads of children and parents alike turning to watch him leave the McDonald’s with heavy footsteps. He would not spend the weekend thinking and rethinking over everything he’d done wrong, every misplaced word that made Adam someone both strange and unfamiliar to him. He would not get back in the car with Adam pressed beside him, not knowing what had led him to this point.

He began to walk, striding with feigned purpose past Gansey’s car as he neared the open road. Ronan knew which direction Monmouth lay; he also knew how close to the Barns he was. He could make the walk, the cool November evening the only thing standing between him and a chance at solitude. Cars sped past when he stepped onto the road, he himself taking care to avoid a collision. He wasn’t ready to die yet. 

He’d gone only a step or two before he heard Gansey’s voice, then Blue’s, calling him back. 

“I’m not going on your fucking trip, Dick.” He called, facing forward and taking another step. 

“Please.” Gansey’s voice was closer now, sounding breathy. His hand was on Ronan’s shoulder, working to spin him around. Ronan shrugged him off. “We were just trying to help.”

Ronan turned, seeing the way Gansey tried to catch his breath. He’d run to him, run to stop him from doing something reckless. It was their thing, perfected over the last year and a half; Ronan acting out, and Gansey bringing him back. It was why Ronan made it to senior year, Gansey the one to stay up with him to study Latin vocabulary words or memorize the capitals of European countries. 

It was why Ronan sighed, hands now in his jacket pockets when he spoke to Gansey. “I get it. You’re trying. But I don’t think having me and Parrish hold hands and sing Kumbaya is going to solve anything.” He sounded defeated when he spoke, voice tired and hurt and tinged with an anger directed both inward and at what his life had become. What he’d allowed his life to become. 

“Give it a try.”

“I am trying.” When Ronan looked past Gansey, he saw the others had gathered around Gansey’s car. Adam and Blue talked in hushed voices while Noah stood apart. His eyes stayed on Adam the longest, watching the way his shoulders sagged forward; a sign of his exhaustion. “I know you think I get off on being a dick, but I’m trying. He’s not.” 

Gansey ran his thumb over his lip, the same gesture he always made when thinking. “Adam doesn’t even know what he did.”

“You’re speaking for him now? I’m sure he’ll love that.”

“I talked to him, Ronan.” 

“Glad he’ll talk to you, because he sure as hell won’t talk to me.”

Ronan could see Gansey’s patience waning, features trying to remain relaxed under the glow of the street lamp. “I don’t know what happened, but you need to fix this.”

“Why does all of this fall on me? He’s the fucking adult.” Ronan was technically nearing adulthood, his eighteenth birthday a week away. It was a terrible reason, and yet it was all Ronan had. He was losing the fight within, but he didn’t know how to call a truce. 

“You’re right. It shouldn’t have to.” Gansey’s face softened, his polished edges smudging as he pressed his hands into the pockets of his pants. “I’m sorry. It’s just — you’re my best friends. I don’t want to lose you, either of you.”

Ronan didn’t want to lose them either, neither Gansey nor Adam. Declan disappeared to Washington, Matthew disappeared into an Aglionby dorm with his school friends. Without the comfort of the four others who stood in the far ends of the McDonald’s parking lot, Ronan had no one. 

He’d convinced himself that it was what he wanted, that being alone was the only way to ensure he would never lose another person. But in doing so, in his fight with Adam and in what their feud meant for the group of friends, he’d begun to lose himself too. He’d forgotten that he mattered too, that his feelings mattered.

“I’ll talk to him.” Ronan said, meeting Gansey’s eye. Tonight.

And he would; he would stop running. 

Ronan didn’t complain as he reclaimed his seat in the middle, and he didn’t complain when Adam’s thigh rested against his. He kept quiet, thinking over how he would ask to see Adam alone and how he would confess and reconfess the secrets he’d reburied since homecoming night. 

 


 

Adam didn’t remember falling asleep, but he remembered what it was like to wake. It was with a start, head shooting up when he realized where he was and who he’d just fallen asleep on. He bit against the inside of his lip, willing his cheeks not to flush when he glanced over to Ronan. 

Ronan didn’t say a word, he kept his head forward. Adam wondered if he should apologize, or even acknowledge falling asleep on his shoulder. After what happened at the McDonald’s , though, Adam chose to keep quiet. It would be another thing left unspoken in his life. He forced the memory of falling asleep on the shoulder of the boy he liked — the boy who didn’t like him back , he reminded himself sullenly — into the crevices of his mind. 

When he looked at the dashboard, he saw the time had crept past midnight. He’d been asleep for hours. 

“I’m sorry.” Adam whispered then, turning his hearing ear closer to Ronan and saying aloud the words for only Ronan to hear. The radio played an unfamiliar pop song, the only other noise in an otherwise silent car. 

“For what?” Ronan turned to look at him, Adam able to make out little of his features in the dark car. 

“For falling asleep.” 

“It’s fine.” Adam thought he saw the corners of Ronan’s lips curl into a soft smile, but when he looked again, Ronan’s face hardened. “How much longer?” His voice grew louder, saying it to Gansey in the front. 

Gansey kept his eyes forward. “Ten minutes.” 

Ten minutes. Adam could do that. Soon enough he would be in the bed he insisted he pay for at a place still unknown to him, sleeping alone and forgetting what it felt like to wake against Ronan. Ronan, whom Adam was certain would never give him a chance to explain why he’d ignored him the single time he’d heard him knocking against his apartment door. It was a truth Adam had ignored, but one he knew he would have to one day say aloud. It was a part of healing.

It had been two weeks before homecoming, a Thursday evening. Adam had been studying for a quiz, the subject matter of little importance to him upon reflection. He hadn’t heard the knock at first, busying himself with organizing notes written down as hastily as his teacher had spoken. When he’d heard it the second time, accompanied by Ronan’s voice, he’d stopped. 

He remembered the way Ronan’s knocks grew in intensity, feverishly pounding on the door in search of the boy then too afraid to answer. He remembered Ronan saying aloud: “I know you’re in there, Parrish. I just wanna talk.” Adam had wondered if he was drunk, something Gansey had warned him was not uncommon. 

His heart had beat against his chest in rapid bursts, breathing picking up as he’d toyed with the thought of letting Ronan back into the apartment. It hadn’t been the way he’d pictured seeing Ronan again, unexpected and intoxicated on his doorstep. 

Intoxicated

He’d remembered his father in that moment, the sight of Robert Parrish’s drunken self charging toward Adam forming behind closed eyes. 

He knew Ronan was nothing like his father, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to see the effects alcohol had on the boy he couldn’t bring himself to stop caring about. So he’d hid, staying seated on the floor of his apartment and trying to forget the feel of his father’s fingers digging into his shoulders. He’d tried to forget the scent of alcohol that always lingered in the double-wide, a scent Adam had told himself he would never allow on his lips. 

He’d never told Ronan about that Thursday evening, nor had he told the others. He couldn’t bring himself to, the thoughts of his father enough to cause the hairs on his arms to stand and the tips of his fingers to tingle. Memories of his father, of the eighteen years of life he’d spent living in fear, had become a thing of only the nightmares he couldn’t control. 

Ronan’s angry knocking, his booming voice tinged with alcohol, had been the exception. And Adam hadn’t been prepared to say how the experience made him feel. So he’d buried it, pretended like it was another nightmare. It was a secret he carried with him, and one that left him ashamed. 

Ashamed because he hadn’t answered the door because he, in that moment, had feared that Ronan under the influence would parallel what he’d endured from his father. Ashamed because he’d, if only for a second, conjured up an image of Ronan’s hands hard against his shoulders, Ronan yelling every vile word Robert Parrish had ever spat in the face of his son. It was improbable and impractical and yet it was. 

Adam Parrish was ashamed because he no longer lived in the double-wide, but its effects still pulled at his mind and caused his senses to heighten. He couldn’t face Ronan knowing he’d even begun to think of a world where Ronan would hurt him. 

Adam pulled himself away from the memory as Gansey pulled into the parking lot of a place called the Driftwood Inn. It was an unimpressive stretch of motel-like buildings illuminated only by the lights on the porch. It looked so unlike Gansey and so like Adam. 

“All of that, for this?” Ronan asked, echoing Adam’s thoughts. 

Gansey turned off the car, “It’s just a place to sleep. We begin again in the morning.” 

Adam didn’t know what that meant, but slid from the car with his belongings in tow. Ronan followed him out, stretching against the car and letting out a groan that made Adam bite his lip. They stood together in silence, Blue and Noah hovering beside them while Gansey went to retrieve the room keys. 

When he came back, Adam took notice of the way his shoulders sagged. “There’s been a mistake.” 

“What kind of mistake?” Ronan asked, crossing his arms. 

“I booked the wrong rooms.” 

It was Blue’s turn to cross her arms. “Two rooms with two beds each. Is that not what you booked?”

Gansey rubbed at his eyes, glasses going askew in the process. He didn’t bother to fix them when his arms fell limp at his sides. “Two rooms with one bed each.” 

“There are five of us.” Adam said it aloud, though he hadn’t intended to. 

“I tried to ask for a change, but they told me that there weren’t any vacancies. I’m sorry.”

“I’ll sleep on the floor.” Ronan said, looking to Adam. Adam met his eye before looking to the ground when the sight of Ronan became too overwhelming. 

There was an unease that rose from the silence that followed, no one wanting to make a decision as to who was to sleep where. Adam knew what Blue would say, but the thought of being alone with Ronan, of having to share a bed with him, brought on an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Ronan had said, though, that he would sleep on the floor. Adam wondered if it was because things had progressed with the boy Ronan had confessed to liking nearly two months before. He let his eyes find anything that wasn’t Ronan.  

He didn’t look at Ronan when it was decided that the two of them would go off together, Noah having chosen to stay with Blue and Gansey. 

As they walked, quiet and with mismatched paces, Adam thought of the Aglionby boy, the politician’s son or the heir to an old money fortune that had caused Adam to leave so abruptly in September and that had caused the start of an ever-growing fight. 

Adam didn’t bring him up as Ronan unlocked their room and held the door open; he merely set his bag down on the floor of a room with little more than a single queen-sized mattress to fill the space reminiscent of the 1970s. 

Ronan spread himself on the floor, arms reaching behind his head as he lay on the patterned carpet. “You can take the bed.” 

Adam sat himself on the edge, forcing his eyes to follow Ronan’s own. “We’d both fit.” He said, testing the waters. He waited for Ronan to mention the Aglionby boy. 

“You don’t think it’s weird?”

“Everything’s weird between us. It’s why they sent us on this trip.” 

“Godforsaken trip.” Ronan corrected as he sat himself upright. “At least we didn’t have to wear that fucking shirt.” When he laughed, Adam found himself laughing too. It was the easy laughter, unforced. It was everything he’d lost when he began avoiding Ronan and Ronan began avoiding him. 

“I’m sorry about ignoring you.” 

The laughter ended. 

“Whatever.” 

Adam knew he shouldn't have brought it up. He should have continued with the easy laughter reminiscent of days forgotten. He should have left his secrets buried, knowing Ronan wouldn’t care. “Can you stop being a jackass? For a minute?” 

“Big words coming from you, Parrish. Pretending you’re not home sounds like a jackass move to me.” 

Adam closed his eyes, thinking the words over before he said them aloud. “You were drunk.” 

“I’m drunk a lot.”

“And angry. You were pissed at me for something. I couldn’t do it.” He didn’t know how to say the next part, didn’t know how to explain why he didn’t open the door, without making it sound as though he saw his father in Ronan’s drunkenness. “I ignored you because the last person I saw drunk was my dad.”

“You’re not—” Ronan didn’t sound angry, he sounded hurt. “Adam, did you think…”

“No.” He said it firmly, definitively. It wasn’t the total truth and he knew it, the briefest second where he’d envisioned Ronan closing in on him flashing across his mind before he blinked it away. He shuddered and felt his cheeks redden, body growing warm in his own frustration. “You’re not him.” 

When Ronan didn’t respond, Adam continued: “You don’t understand what it’s like. When he was drunk, and even when he wasn’t, everything in his pathetic life was taken out on me. He’s the only person I ever saw that way. I didn’t know if you…”

“I figured you were just being a dick.”

“Surprise.” Adam said, though his voice bore no sense of cheer. 

“Shit, man. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” And it wasn’t, but fault wasn’t to be placed on Adam either. It was the fault of Robert Parrish, for every action he’d inflicted on his son and every word he spat at him. Adam had always thought that his father had broken only his body, that his mind had withstood his attacks. He saw now that mental scars, though not always present, were there in place of the physical. It was a final power Robert held over his son, and one Adam wanted to take back. 

“I should have just opened the door.” Adam said finally. He wondered how much would have been avoided if he’d only opened the door. 

“Fuck it. Stop thinking about it.” Ronan stood then, moving to join Adam on the edge of the bed. Adam readjusted himself, following Ronan’s movements; the way his eyes stayed closed a little longer when he blinked, the way he fought back a yawn when Adam himself yawned first. “We need something fun.” He added. 

A mischievous and toothy smile began to spread across Ronan’s face, any hurt or anger from before gone. It was a smile Adam could press his lips against, kissing into Ronan’s warmth again and again and again. 

Instead Adam cocked his head, “Ronan, it’s almost one in the morning.” 

But Ronan was already up, finding the remote for the television set not much younger than Adam. “Relax, we’re not going streaking in the parking lot. I’m just putting on the TV.” 

Adam dug his fingers into his palms at the thought of running naked alongside Ronan. “Oh.”

“Unless you want to.”

“No.”  

In the end, Ronan put on the Food Network. He and Adam sat apart on top of the still-made bed, clothes from their journey having not yet been traded for pajamas. Only shoes and coats had been shed. On the TV, a man Ronan named as Guy Fieri went around to different diners, drive-ins, and dives to try dishes so unlike anything Adam had ever eaten. It was the distraction he needed, a temporary truce from the fight and the unspoken secrets. It wasn’t a solution to his and Ronan’s problems, but it was a glimpse into the possible. 

Adam fell asleep that night, Ronan dozing off beside him, to the sound of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives . For the first time in weeks, he wondered if things would turn out okay between them. 




 

Adam fell asleep first, Ronan still conscious when he watched Adam slide down into his pillow. He himself remained awake for sometime, Guy Fieri little distraction from the memory of what Adam had said to him replaying in his head. 

It was a memory from a night long gone, a night when Ronan’s confidence had surged and he’d prepared to confess aloud the litany of things that Adam meant to him. Though, the memory was blurred, not the only one of its kind. The three times Ronan had shown up at Adam’s doorstep prior to homecoming were always the same; always starting and ending with alcohol.

He hadn’t been drunk like Adam insisted, but he hadn’t been sober either. He’d been somewhere in between; somewhere where he shouldn't have driven a car, but somewhere where he’d decided to all the same. Just buzzed enough that his nerves subsided as his body began to numb, reckless enough to confess to Adam his feelings. Ashamed enough that it was alcohol that had given him his confidence. 

It was only after Adam didn’t answer the door after a knock, then a call, then a second and third knock, that Ronan retreated back to his room in Monmouth, spreading himself across his bed and thinking over everything he’d done wrong. Everything he hadn’t said to the boy hiding on the other side of the door. 

And he’d drink, revert back to the unhealthy coping mechanisms that had caused Adam to ignore him in the first place. The somewhere between sober and drunk that he’d wandered to when he’d arrived at Adam's doorstep was not the somewhere he wandered alone in his room. It was there, in his solitude, that he’d drink himself into slumber, a place where his thoughts sloshed together like the alcohol in his stomach. It was there that he forgot about Adam, because his inebriated state allowed him to forget everything. 

He knew Adam deserved better. 

He spared himself one look down at Adam now, the other boy curling in on himself in slumber. One arm wrapped around the pillow, the other extended itself close enough to Ronan that he could intertwine their fingers together. He didn’t. 

Instead, Ronan carefully and quietly swung his legs over the side of the bed before standing his socked feet on a carpet in need of a cleaning. He just as carefully and quietly found his shoes and his jacket, the only two items he’d shed upon entering the room. He dressed himself and found the key to the room, taking it with him as he prepared his exit. The clock at the bedside flashed 1:52. 

Ronan needed to think, something he couldn’t do with Adam asleep beside him, features soft and delicate as he drifted further away from consciousness. His thoughts were an indiscernible tangle of feelings about Adam, about himself, about things he could control and things he couldn’t. The November air nipped at his nose and his cheeks when he pulled the door open, but he continued on, willing himself to work through the things he ran from. 

He found a bench situated on the walkway one door down from where he and Adam stayed, the metal cool against his body when he sat. He remained alone on the bench with only the sound of the wind whistling against the leave-less trees to keep him company. His thoughts came slowly at first, then faster and more insistent. 

He thought mostly about letting go. The conversation he’d had with Gansey in the McDonald’s parking lot seemed so far away, his promised talk with Adam taking on new forms in his restless mind. He knew the words he needed to say aloud, but he also knew the words he needed to prepare to listen to. A confirmation of everything he’d suspected since homecoming. 

There, on the bench, as he fought the way his body shivered against the cold, Ronan accepted what he knew Adam would say, and what Adam had already said. Listening to why Adam had ignored him had hurt, but he couldn’t blame Adam for his apprehensions. He was right; Ronan didn’t know what it was like. 

And Adam didn’t deserve to be reminded of his father every time Ronan slipped and let his throat burn with the taste of Daniel’s or Jameson or Tito’s. He would rather Adam be happy than be reminded of everything he’d left behind anytime he smelt the trace of liquor on Ronan’s lips. 

Until Ronan changed, he told himself that he didn’t deserve Adam. He was the monster under the bed, the one who couldn’t bring comfort to the boy in search of it. He’d only ever thought of his crush on Adam, he’d never considered what being in a relationship would entail, the sacrifices he would make and the things Adam would ask of him. 

Now, he told himself he didn’t have to consider it. 

Ronan closed his eyes, squeezing them shut for a moment before blinking away the water that had gathered in the corners. He would blame the single tears on the wind. The night was cold, the hour creeping past two, but he remained. He didn’t know how to return to the room, to sleep beside the boy he’d unintentionally hurt. 

So he looked to the parking lot, memorized the license plates he could see and counted the number of cars that drove past the road that led to the inn. Bored of the cars, he then lost himself trying to count the stars in the sky, a mindless distraction. 

Ronan didn’t know how long he’d stayed outside, maybe only 5 minutes, maybe an hour, but when he heard Adam’s voice, he was certain he was dreaming. It was a voice laced with sleep, groggily saying: “Ronan, what the hell?”

“Good morning, sunshine.” He said, fighting against himself to look at Adam. It wasn’t a dream. 

Adam’s shoes were on, but his jacket wasn’t. Ronan watched the way he shivered, arms wrapped around himself. Ronan couldn’t tell if he was angry, annoyed, or somewhere in between. “It’s 2:30 in the morning.” Adam said, moving closer to the bench. 

“So?”

Adam sighed and sat down next to Ronan. “Are we really going to do this?” He asked, facing forward. 

Ronan knew he shouldn’t have said it, but he asked anyway: “Do what?”

Adam looked to him now, his perpetually tired eyes looking even more so up close. “That thing where we can’t have a conversation without arguing. I’m tired of fighting.” 

Ronan was too, tired of what they’d become. He missed their closeness, longed for days like the one in the Walmart , a time when they competed to see who could hula hoop longest and who could find the best gift for the other. Two months felt like an eternity. He kept quiet, though, thinking over what to say. 

Adam decided for him, saying: “I mean, what are we even fighting about?” 

“I just assumed you were pissed at me for something.” 

“I wasn’t.” 

“But you are now?” Ronan’s teeth had begun to chatter, Adam himself shaking against the ceaseless November wind. 

Adam shrugged, “I don’t think so. I figured you were mad at me.” 

In all of this, in all the arguments and time spent alone in his room, Ronan had never considered himself to be mad at Adam. He was mad at himself, but he couldn’t fault Adam. “I’m not mad at you.” 

“Then what the hell is this about?”

“You tell me, Parrish. And don’t feed me that shit about being busy.” He sounded confrontational, angry in a way he hadn’t intended. But he wanted to know. He needed to hear the truth. 

He watched the way Adam placed his head in his hands, slumping over in what Ronan couldn't discern if it was exhaustion or defeat. “It’s stupid.” 

“Yeah?”

Adam looked up, fingers that shook from more than just the cold coming to rest in his lap. Ronan could tell that whatever he was about to say had been something he’d fought against. Ronan felt his own anxiety rise, wondering if this was the part where he would lose Adam for good. “It was about the Aglionby boy.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” 

Adam stood suddenly, facing Ronan with his hands now shoved into his pockets. “On homecoming night, you told me something.” Ronan sat up straighter. “You told me about a guy you liked. Then, like a jackass, I left.” 

“I remember that part.” He could picture it, every image from that night coming back to him. He felt himself there, calling after Adam as the other boy biked feverishly away. The moment his hope had been taken away. 

“I was jealous.” 

Oh. “Don’t tell me you thought I liked someone from Aglionby.”

“You don’t?” There was a hope there, hiding behind Adam’s words, that Ronan clung to. 

Ronan stood now too, facing Adam. “I fucked up.”

“You can’t blame yourself for liking someone.” Adam shrugged, turning his head away from Ronan. “And I can’t blame you for not liking me.” 

Ronan felt his heart stop, his breath catch. He replayed what he’d just heard Adam say over and over, wondering if the improbable and the impossible had been true all along. He’d convinced himself Adam had left that night because he didn’t like Ronan back, that he’d heard his final confession from his bike and chose to ignore it. The thought of Adam leaving because he thought Ronan liked someone else had seemed unfathomable. 

“Fuck, Adam. There was never an Aglionby boy.” He was done running; the race was over. He took a step closer to Adam and said: “I was talking about you, dumbass.” 

Chapter Text

I was talking about you, dumbass. 

Adam found himself staring. There was nothing else he could do; his brain tried to process what was happening, mind moving too fast to say aloud the words that began to form in his head. His body stood still, mind making up for the stagnant pieces that made up the rest of Adam Parrish. 

Ronan stood close enough that Adam could reach out a hand and lace their fingers together if he wanted to, could bring their bodies together in a series of movements so unlike anything Adam had ever known. But he didn’t. 

He didn’t speak, nor did he move. He simply stared. 

Because there was nothing else to do when the boy you’d spent day after day trying to push from your mind confessed to liking you. Every minute and every hour Adam had spent telling himself he’d never be worthy, that having a crush on Ronan was an unrequited fantasy, began to break down. Ronan Lynch liked him. It sounded unnatural, some slip of the tongue not yet amended. 

It was a truth Adam never thought possible, and yet it was a truth he could no longer ignore. Ronan Lynch liked him. 

“Adam?” Ronan asked, voice full of uncertainty. “Say something. Please.” 

“There was never an Aglionby boy.” He repeated Ronan’s own words, trying to recall everything Ronan had said about the boy he’d never considered to be himself. Him. Smart, a genius. They were words Adam had told himself to forget, but ones that always came back when he lay awake, thinking of everything he could never be. “This whole time I thought he was someone else… the next diplomat to Hungary, or whatever.”

Ronan scoffed. “Hungary? My standards aren’t that low, Parrish.” 

They stood close, an unintentional - or maybe it was intentional - pull drawing them nearer. When Adam breathed, he could see the little cloud that came from his lips. The hairs on his arms stood up straight, temperature and anxiety sending his body into a persistent chill. 

“Besides,” Ronan said. “You’re better than the whole damn country.”

“You really liked me?” Adam questioned, finishing his thought in one breathy statement. It seemed something so improbable. He waited for the moment when Ronan told him it wasn’t true; that it was indeed the Hungarian diplomat he desired. “Of all people, you chose me?”

Ronan extended a hand, cold fingers finding a gentle grip around Adam’s bare wrist. When Adam flinched at the unexpected cold, Ronan retracted his hand and took a step back. “ Fuck . I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Relax. Your hands were cold.” Adam stepped forward until he could feel Ronan’s breath against his face. He wore a sly smile on his lips, confidence building as he extended a hand until his fingers hooked around Ronan’s own. They weren’t exactly holding hands; it was the faintest touch of fingers gripping at fingers. Adam liked the feel of it. “You didn’t answer my question.” 

He felt bold. He felt brave. He felt free in a way reminiscent of the day he biked away from his family’s double-wide and again when he was granted a protective order against his father. Fragments of a life left behind began to reshape, taking a new form in the friendships Adam cultivated and the way he now felt standing in front of Ronan.

Adam— ” Ronan began, letting go of Adam’s fingers only to bring both his hands up to cup Adam’s face. 

He didn’t flinch this time, though his breath still caught when Ronan closed his eyes and kissed him. 

It was nothing like he’d expected it to be - nothing like the first kisses he‘d read about in novels for school. Nor was it like the kisses he’d envisioned in his head. This kiss was not Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. 

It was awkward, it was messy. Ronan’s lips had nearly missed his own, the other boy aiming too high and only catching Adam’s upper lip. But he felt it; the way an unspeakable warmth worked its way through his body with Ronan’s fingers gentle against his cheeks and with their lips pressed together in a way reserved only for Adam’s dreams. 

It was over too soon. 

Ronan’s hands dropped from Adam’s face and found their way into the pockets of his jacket. Both stared, neither spoke. Ronan stepped back; Adam remained in the same position. The wind picked up and a fresh gust tickled Adam’s skin, but still he did not move. 

“I still like you, Parrish.” Ronan said finally, voice small and stipped of any bravado. His features softened then, as if saying the words aloud lifted the weight of the world from his shoulders. As if he were once Atlas, and now he could finally breathe. “I like you a lot.”

It was a quiet confession, one nearly lost against the howl of the wind. But Adam committed to memory every word.

“I still like you too, Lynch.” He mirrored Ronan’s expression, finding an unspeakable comfort in saying the words aloud. Six words that lit up his insides and told him things might be okay. He’d found someone, a boy who’d once been so unfamiliar and loathsome, but now he was a boy Adam never wanted to lose. All his days spent running from attachment, from wondering if someone would ever come to feel the way about him the way he felt about them, seemed so far away. 

“I like you a lot.”

Ronan made him feel . And, by some strange and wonderful miracle, Adam made Ronan feel something too. 

He watched the way Ronan’s lips parted, a smile unlike anything he’d ever seen spreading across the other boy’s face. It was a happiness Adam himself felt breaking down every wall he’d spent his life building up. He felt himself unravel before Ronan, a single loose thread pulling him apart until his heart lay exposed. 

It was why his hands found their way around Ronan’s torso, bodies coming together under the flickering porch light. When he kissed Ronan, he did so slowly, gently. It was nothing like the first. It was not done in haste; not the sloppy, messy first kiss of before. 

The second kiss was calculated, a representation of Adam in a way the first kiss had been a representation of Ronan. As he crept his hands up under Ronan’s jacket, then his t-shirt, he couldn’t mistake the noise that slipped through Ronan’s lips. Adam moaned back, a soft, delicate thing. He told himself he deserved this. 

“Fuck.” Ronan said as the kiss ended, foreheads pressed together and warm breath tickling the other’s face. Adam kept his hands wrapped around Ronan’s body, and Ronan’s own fingers had found their way through the loops of Adam’s jeans. 

“I think we should go back inside.” Adam said then, letting his hands fall from Ronan's body. Ronan released his own grip and nodded. The other boy looked stunned in a way that made Adam want to kiss him again and again, as though they were hungry animals who finally knew what it meant to feel full. 

 

They shuffled together back to the room, neither knowing what else to say or how to process what passed between them. Ronan shrugged off his jacket and both took off their shoes; Ronan aggressively and Adam more meticulously. The sound of Guy Fieri continued on the TV. The clock inched closer to three. 

Adam took to the bed first, sitting on the edge until Ronan joined him. They didn’t touch, they simply sat and watched together as Guy Fieri rode off in his red convertible. One episode ended and another began. 

“I’m sorry.” Adam said finally, adjusting himself so he faced Ronan. “I should have just talked to you.” 

“So you didn’t know?” Ronan asked, a question that almost confused Adam. He wondered if Ronan had said something before, a cue that Adam had missed. 

Adam’s laugh was weak when it came, laced with an exhaustion that had momentarily evaded him when he’d been outside with Ronan, but one that now wore heavy on his body. “I told you what I thought.” 

“I tried to tell you. When you got on that fucking bike-”

“I didn’t hear you.” Adam said in earnest, remembering when he’d heard the beginning of words leaving Ronan’s lips as he biked away. He remembered how he’d ignored them, not wanting to hear another word about the boy who would never be Adam. Two months wasted on a fight that was over nothing more than a miscommunication, or maybe a lack of communication. “I guess I am a dumbass.” 

“After all the shit I put you through,” Ronan ran a hand over his head, processing. “You actually like me.” A statement, not a question. 

“There’s something about almost hitting someone with your car that’s a major turn-on.” 

“Did you just make a joke?” Ronan asked, the smile on his face playing with Adam’s insides until he felt his own lips twitch upward. 

“I guess I did.” He was shocked, astonished; but he was also proud. Proud of himself. Adam saw the moment as another step forward, the life of before another step left behind. “Was it terrible?”

“I liked it.” 

Ronan leaned himself back until he lay sprawled across the bed. Adam didn’t know whether to join him, or to remain sitting upright. He didn’t know what they were, if they were still two boys who happened to like one another and who happened to have kissed, or if they were defined by some arbitrary label like boyfriend . He liked the thought of being Ronan’s boyfriend, as shaky and new and unfamiliar as it all was to him. 

So he chose to lay himself down, feeling the way Ronan’s arm curled around him as they adjusted themselves on the still-made bed. He let his head rest against Ronan’s chest, feeling the way the other boy’s heart beat at an even pace. The moment was an unmistakable peace that Adam had never known. 

There were words still to be said, conversations about what they were not yet had. There was also the question of telling the others, a fragment of a thought that Adam didn’t know how to put into words trying to form as he lay against Ronan’s chest. 

In the morning, he would allow life to resume. For now, Adam pushed aside all of the complications and confrontations that he foresaw coming. He told himself this moment belonged to him. It was his turn to be selfish, and in his selfishness he wanted to lay beside the boy he liked without thinking of what those around him might say. 

His body relaxed. 

The last Adam remembered before falling asleep that night was the feel of Ronan’s lips against the top of his head and the way his fingers traced designs into Adam’s back. 

 


 

Every inch of Ronan’s body burned, every sense heightened and every nerve tingled. He knew what it meant to feel alive. It was Adam asleep against his chest, one hand thrown across Ronan’s body in a lazy slumber. It was the memory of placing his lips to Adam’s, a warmth filling him up even when he recalled nearly missing the other boy’s lips in his initial haste. It was the way his heart threatened to break from his chest when Adam kissed him back, admitted to Ronan the words he never thought he’d hear. 

It was better than street racing; his euphoric state remained long after the dust settled and the ignition cut. 

He told himself, as he lay tracing senseless designs into Adam’s back, that maybe, just maybe, something in his life had gone right. 

He closed his eyes then, taking in the feel of Adam nestled beside him. It was in that state that Ronan began to pray, not to his God, but to his mother. A silent invocation that said: “I hope you’re proud of me, mom.”

He thought back to the day in July when he’d scattered his mother’s ashes across the plot of land at the back of the Barns. He thought of the promise he’d made both to her and to himself. A promise to do better, to be better. He knew he still had a long way to go, not yet the person he sometimes envisioned he could become. He also knew now that Adam liked him through it all; Adam had seen the ugly and the even worse in Ronan’s life, and yet he’d remained.

Ronan wanted to continue to get better. For Adam, for his mother. For himself. 

He likes me, mom. Ronan sent his thoughts above, though envisioned behind closed eyes what it would be like to say the words to her in person. It was a casual scene: his mother in a chair on the porch, Ronan on the steps that led to the home. It was the way they sat when he was a child, when he would point to fireflies and tell whimsical stories about the world that lived inside his head. 

Adam actually likes me. I don’t want to mess this up. 

Ronan found himself talking to his mother in that way often: he on the steps, she in her chair. Before he drifted to sleep, or even when he simply closed his eyes for a moment too long, he spoke to his mother as if they really conversed together on a breezy summer night. He saw it, could feel her touch when she left her chair to sit beside him. 

Only behind closed eyes could he replicate what it felt like to be a child having a conversation at his mother’s side. Only in his prayers could he speak silently the words he wished to say to her aloud. 

I miss you, mom. I wish you could have met him. 

Ronan hadn’t realized the way his eyes dampened until he reopened them, blinking against a room lit only by the television set and a lamp at the bedside. He didn’t know what had brought on the sudden emotion, a vulnerability he was unused to. Perhaps they were tears for his mother, for the life he would be forced to navigate without her guiding hand on his shoulder. Perhaps they were for the life he would build with Adam, the possibility of creating something with the boy whose hand now held onto the fabric of Ronan’s t-shirt. 

He curled his arm a little tighter around Adam, the other boy stirring for a moment before falling asleep against Ronan once more. Adam was tangible; the moment was real. 

The moment was a chance at a life Ronan never thought he’d live to see. He deserved this. He deserved Adam. 

The smile on his lips was unmistakable even in slumber. No one could take this from him. 

 

Not even the sound of a knock at the door, coming what felt like seconds instead of hours later, could pull Ronan away from Adam and the feel of their bodies tangled together atop the still-made, but slightly rumpled, bed. Amid the knocking, Ronan felt Adam stir, head still on Ronan’s chest but face now turned upward. He wore the thin trace of a smile on his lips, a kind of contentment Ronan had never seen softening Adam’s exterior. 

“What time is it?” Adam asked, heavy eyes fighting to stay awake. Ronan’s heart pulled, the sight of Adam yawning against his chest reminding him that everything that had happened was real. 

“Too fucking early.” Ronan responded, he himself fighting a yawn as he tried to glimpse the clock. The time read 7:37. 

“We should get up.”

“No, we shouldn’t.”

Ronan—”

The knocking continued; the real world threatening to pull Ronan away from the dreamworld he and Adam could build inside the walls of the motel room. A voice, one Ronan recognized as Blue’s agitated tone, came in between the knocks. The dreamworld dissolved, though the feel of Adam against him remained, as though Ronan had brought the moment back from his dreams. 

“If you haven’t killed each other—” He tried to forget about Blue and her knocking and the thought of spending the day on a trip surrounded by those who hadn’t witnessed the events of less than five hours prior. 

Adam retracted, head and hand leaving Ronan’s chest as he sat himself up. “We should go.” He said, looking down at Ronan who had slumped himself flat against the pillows. 

Ronan turned on his side, eyes watching the way Adam toyed with the idea of leaving the bed, of rejoining the others. “We could blow it off.” Ronan suggested.

“And do what? Watch more of that guy in the car?”

“We could do whatever we wanted.” He did his best to wink, a gesture that had seemed better in his head than when he performed it in front of Adam. Adam merely laughed, though readjusted himself until he lay back on his side opposite Ronan. “And the guy with the car is Guy Fieri.” 

“We should go.” Adam repeated, ignoring Ronan’s attempts at stalling. Ronan wasn’t ready to leave the moment behind. 

They watched one another, neither sure what to say nor do. When Adam sat himself back upright, Ronan rolled onto his back. They processed, calculated their next moves amidst a new set of knocks followed by Gansey’s voice.

“We need to leave.” Adam said finally; a repetition of what they both already knew. He looked forward when he said it, hard lines returning. “They’re waiting.”

“Relax, Parrish. This is our trip too.”

“And they think we hate each other.” 

That was, of course, the underlying issue and the reason for embarking on the trip at all. Ronan didn’t know how he could spend the day with Adam acting as though nothing had happened. 

“So you don’t hate me?” He said it teasingly, enticing and inviting Adam in. He wanted to remain, sprawled across the bed with Adam beside him, watching reality shows and losing themselves in the other’s company. He wanted to continue to feel something other than the daily discontent and dissatisfaction he felt with himself. 

Instead, he felt the way the mattress shifted when Adam left the bed to open the door. Ronan himself retreated to the bathroom before he could answer questions from an impatient Gansey and an agitated Blue; he would let Adam do the talking. 

He’d brought nothing in with him but he remained, staring at his reflection in the mirror to pass the time. He looked the same, and yet he was unrecognizable. He’d forgotten what it looked like to see himself happy. It was in the way he stood a little prouder, the way a smile crept across his face at just the thought of Adam on the other side of the bathroom door. 

Ronan turned the faucet on and ran a hand under the cool water. He bent down then, cupping his hands until water gathered between them. When he brought the water up to his face, he expected to truly wake. He expected it all to be a dream, everything with Adam nothing more than a fabrication of his subconscious. 

And yet it was real. 

Ronan finished in the bathroom and opened the door to find Adam sitting on the edge of the bed. Gansey stood against the open door with Blue at his side. Noah had not yet arrived. 

“What’s going on?” Ronan asked, looking to Adam first to see how much the other boy had shared. Adam gave a quick shake of his head, a gesture done fast enough that it would have looked like he’d merely felt a chill if Ronan hadn’t known better. 

Gansey answered: “I was just telling Adam the plan for today.”

“And?” Ronan turned to Gansey, arms crossing. 

“We’ll start at Denny’s .” Gansey began.

“Then the fun begins.” Blue finished, narrowing her eyes and crossing her own arms across her chest. She dared Ronan to challenge her. “So let’s go.” 

Ronan looked to Adam, Adam looked to Ronan. Neither looked to Blue or Gansey, who huddled close together against the door that remained open despite the breeze. 

“Will you shut that godforsaken door?” Ronan said when he broke Adam’s stare. He disliked the way his arms pricked at the cold. “Parrish and I will meet you in the lot.” 

“Five minutes.”Gansey warned. 

Ronan waved him off with a flick of his middle finger, keeping a scowl on his face until the door was shut and he could face Adam with a renewed grin on his lips. A private look he reserved for Adam alone. 

“I’m going to go get ready.” Adam looked down as he walked past Ronan to the bathroom. Real life, whatever that now was, had resumed.

He watched Adam until the door shut, vision going in and out of focus. How desperately he wanted everything to be okay, for every moment spent with Adam to feel like kissing him on the sidewalk of the motel for the first time.

He blinked it away and forced himself to move, finding his belongings and bracing himself for whatever the day would bring. 

 


 

Adam stared at himself in the mirror. Something had changed.  

He was still Adam Parrish, still the boy with the deep circles under his eyes and hair in need of a trim. And yet he was different. His shoulders straightened, his muscles relaxed. Perhaps most noticeable, though, was the smile that never seemed to leave his lips. 

“Huh.” He said it aloud, though quiet enough that Ronan wouldn’t have been able to hear it on the other side of the door. Adam was calculating in the way he always did, but his thoughts were not directed toward his next payment for his apartment, or his unfinished Harvard application. 

He calculated the trajectory that had led him to the present moment, working and reworking facts and fantasies in his head in an attempt to solve Ronan’s feelings for him. It had seemed so improbable. An equation without a solution. 

He likes you. Adam only thought it, watching himself in the mirror as he undressed and redressed into his spare pair of clothes. 

When he left the bathroom and saw Ronan sitting on the edge of the bed, jacket on and hands folded in his lap, he could feel the way his cheeks warmed. 

“Wipe that grin off your face, Parrish.” Ronan said, his suddenly serious tone causing Adam to freeze. “We’re supposed to hate each other, remember?”

Adam’s grin only widened. “Let’s go then, shit-head.”

“Shit-head?” Ronan walked closer. He looked euphoric, hungry smile spread across his face as he reached for Adam’s hand. “Did you learn that one from me?” 

Adam didn’t say anything, he simply let his hand fall from Ronan’s as he turned toward the door. “We’re supposed to hate each other, remember?” He said finally, his words followed by the melodic sound of Ronan’s laughter. It was a laughter reserved for Adam alone, a private sound that Adam told himself to ignore as he placed his hand on the door handle. 

He tried to forget his feelings, to revert back to the Adam who’d lived before the 3 a.m. confession. It was just another lie, Adam reminded himself. He was good at telling lies, always avoiding the truths of where he came from or who he really was. He and Ronan knew the truth; he asked himself what harm one more lie would cause. 

Adam put his thoughts aside and opened the door, the November wind stinging his face as he crossed the threshold. 

“Yeehaw.” Ronan said, voice monotone as he slammed the door shut.

Silence grew from the exchange, each letting distance grow between them on their walk to the car. 

 

Pretending to hate Ronan Lynch proved more difficult than actually hating Ronan Lynch. Adam forced himself to forgo the warmth that touched his cheeks when Ronan’s hand unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) hit his, or the way his heart threatened to escape his chest when their bodies remained close as they piled themselves into the backseat of Gansey’s car. 

Adam took the seat in the middle.

They hadn’t talked about when they would tell the others, or even talked to one another about what their relationship was. Adam liked Ronan; Ronan liked Adam. It was enough. Adam hoped everything else would simply fall into place. 

Years of being alone, of conditioning himself to stave off feelings because he believed no one would ever feel for him the way he felt for them, began to wane. In its place came the repeated words “I was talking about you, dumbass” and everything that came after, everything that would continue to come. He knew now what had changed within in; he was happy. 

There had been moments in Adam’s life where he’d felt happy, but they were just that: moments. Snapshots of what could be, instances always ruined by one thing or another. This time his happiness felt permanent. 

In the backseat of Gansey’s car, with Ronan’s knee bumping harmlessly against his own, Adam stifled a yawn and let his body relax. When his shoulder touched Ronan’s, he didn’t adjust himself. He liked the feel of Ronan’s touch, the innocent bumpings of knees or shoulders that wouldn’t raise an eye from those who didn’t know to look for them. 

Adam had been nervous to let Ronan touch him at first, another remnant of life in the Parrish double-wide creeping its way back into his thoughts. But this touch was new; it wasn’t the angry hands of Robert Parrish clasping him by the shoulders. It was a comfort, something Adam had been starved of before Ronan. 

Now, he wanted more.  

He closed his eyes as the car left the parking lot, capturing the way he felt and telling himself not to let it go. Behind closed eyes, his mind remained transfixed on the feel of Ronan beside him. It was not until he heard Ronan’s voice, a boisterous and booming thing, that he came out of his daze.  

“Why the hell’d you drive us all the way out here, Dick?” Ronan leaned over Adam when he spoke. One hand rested on the back of the passenger’s seat, the other on Adam’s knee. 

Shit-head .” Adam muttered under his breath. In response, Ronan moved his thumb back and forth against Adam’s knee, a rhythmic massage that threatened to expel from his lips an unholy sound bearing the secrets kept between Ronan and himself. 

Adam knew it was intentional, what Ronan was doing. He also knew he would get back at Ronan for causing the flush of scarlet now warm against his cheeks to appear. He wondered if the others noticed their exchange. 

“My family stopped here once.” Gansey said, keeping his eyes forward. “I found the town fascinating.” 

“Great.” Ronan said, keeping his same position, as if he could sense the way having his hand on Adam’s knee made Adam feel. “I’m in Maryland because Dick the Third thought it was fascinating ?”

“Ronan—” Adam warned. He didn’t know what was wrong with Maryland, what aversion Ronan had to the state that had caused the sudden outburst. He wondered if it was simply Ronan being Ronan, being argumentative for the satisfaction of himself alone. 

Ronan groaned, settling himself back into his seat. He kept his hand on Adam’s knee a second longer, eyes following Adam. Had Ronan forgone an outburst, Adam would have looked at him with something other than the mild annoyance he now expressed. Ronan, upon seeing Adam’s stern look, appeared almost apologetic. Almost. 

“They have shit motels and Denny’s back home.” Ronan’s voice was quiet when he said it, defeated. No one responded, and Adam only gave a small nod when Ronan whispered “ Sorry ” into his hearing ear. 

 

The drive continued, unfamiliar houses situated on unfamiliar streets greeting Adam as Gansey navigated through a place only he knew. Adam disliked it, not knowing where he was. Through license plates and billboards, he’d deduced even before Ronan’s outburst that they were in Maryland, most likely in Chestertown. It was the first he’d been out of Virginia. 

He reminded himself that college would take him from the state for good; a thought that became complicated when he felt Ronan prod him with his elbow. It was a conversation he was unprepared for, letting himself instead concentrate on the words Ronan whispered into his ear. 

He wasn’t sure what Ronan had said, something beginning with “ I think you ” and ending with words Adam couldn’t unscramble. 

“Hm?” Adam asked in response, voice a little too loud, hoping Ronan would repeat himself.

“Did you say something, Ronan?” Gansey looked to both Adam and Ronan in the rear view mirror when he asked it. 

When Adam turned to Ronan, the other boy looked embarrassed, jaw going stiff and fingers beginning to grip at his bracelets. It was then that Adam realized Ronan had tried to compliment him. “I wanted to tell Parrish he looked shitty today.” 

A compliment of sorts. 

“What the hell, Ronan?” Blue didn’t turn around when she said it, but her voice signaled more than mild annoyance. 

“Thanks, man.” Adam faced forward, sullen. He played his part the same way Ronan played his, silently calculating ways to get back at Ronan for everything that had transpired in the backseat of Gansey’s car. 

He continued to play his part as Gansey pulled the car into the parking lot of a diner bearing a name other than Denny’s . It was a small shop, one with few cars in a lot unlikely to have been repaved for several years. The sign on the building’s exterior read Ellen’s Coffee Shop and Family Restaurant . It was a place frozen in time, a kind of place mirrored across Henrietta. A slice of the small-town Americana that drew Gansey in and drew Adam away. 

Adam allowed himself one look at Ronan, who had turned his head toward the window. In the reflection, Adam caught the scowl on Ronan’s lips, and remained unsurprised when the first words out of his mouth were: “This isn’t Denny’s .” 

“The horror of supporting a small business.” Blue grumbled as she opened her car door, arms crossed and eyeing Ronan with growing agitation when he too slid from the car. Adam couldn’t blame her. 

He followed Ronan out of the car, taking care to stand apart from him. Noah and Gansey soon joined, the five forming a misshapen circle in the parking lot. 

Noah, who had not said a word since getting in the car, looked uneasy in a way only he seemed to manage when he found himself positioned between Adam and Ronan. Adam didn’t blame him either. 

The day had only begun, yet Adam sensed that the car ride to the restaurant would be a microcosm for the rest of the trip. He turned his attention to Gansey, searching his face for the same marks of discomfort and disgruntlement worn by everyone else. 

Instead, Adam saw hope there; a foolish grin that believed everything would be set right by eggs and toast and a cup of lukewarm coffee. Adam envied his optimism. He also envied the enthusiasm with which Gansey announced that they should start walking. 

As they began across the parking lot, Adam felt Ronan’s shoulder bump against his own. The others walked ahead; the gesture went unseen. When Adam turned to look at Ronan, he saw the same foolish hope Gansey wore. A toothy grin gone too soon as the pair crossed into the diner. 

Ronan’s scowl returned and Adam immersed himself in a newspaper clipping hanging on the wall beside the hostess’ stand, starring until his eyes blurred and the words grew meaningless. He refocused his attention elsewhere, always finding the spot in his vision where Ronan was not. It was easier that way. 

The diner was unimpressive. Sparsely decorated walls and an overabundance of wooden furniture greeted the five who hovered in the entryway until a woman wearing a badge engraved with the name Ann emerged. Gansey spoke to her in the way he spoke to everyone, as if they’d known one another all their lives. And perhaps they did; Gansey had connections in places others would never think to look. 

Adam brushed the thought aside, catching instead when Ronan turned toward Adam and mouthed: “ Bathroom .” 

When Noah, Gansey, and Blue followed the hostess to their table, Adam followed Ronan to what the pair quickly discovered was a single-stall restroom. 

Ronan locked the door. 

“What the hell?” Adam asked, because it needed to be said. The way he felt waking up beside Ronan suddenly felt so far away, replaced by an uncertainty over what the coming day - or days, rather - would bring. 

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” Ronan didn’t look at him when he said it, keeping his head bowed as his fingers gripped tight around the sides of the sink. He seemed unnerved, on edge in a way that caused Adam to stand a little straighter. 

The memory of Ronan’s lips on his for the first time drifted even further away. He waited for Ronan to tell him it was all a mistake, that he was taking back the words said in the early hours of the morning. Adam didn’t know when the shift occurred, if the car ride caused Ronan to rethink everything said at the motel. 

The words, though, never came. 

Instead, Adam watched the way Ronan lifted his head, staring at his own reflection instead of at Adam. Frustration and fatigue found their way onto Ronan’s face, blending together until the hard lines and firm jaw settled. Adam took a step back, quietly calculating as he watched Ronan’s reflection in the mirror. 

“I feel like I’m fucking it up” Ronan said finally, turning to look at Adam. He sounded hurt, upset in a way atypical of his day-to-day sharpness. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Adam responded. He felt it in his stomach first, a deep-seated fear that worked its way up through his fingertips. He placed his hands then in the pockets of his pants, Adam willing them not to tremble in front of Ronan. 

He worried he was losing Ronan before things even began, that all the possibility felt in the motel would be pushed aside. He worried they would go back to being Adam and Ronan, two boys unwilling or unable to communicate how they felt. The memory of the autumn loomed heavy; a memory Adam hoped never to go back to. 

“I like you, Parrish.” Ronan gripped harder against the sink, eyes not leaving Adam’s. “I just don’t want to fuck this up”

“So you don’t even want to try?” The words were cruel when they came out, accusatory in a way Adam hadn’t intended. Or maybe he had. The world seemed to spin, hunger and dehydration and fatigue only aiding in his rising frustration. 

Ronan released his grip on the sink. “I want to try.” 

“Then what is all of this about?” Adam said it softer, gentler. An attempt to stop an impending fight before it broke out. 

“Look, I’ve never done this before.” Adam watched when Ronan dropped his head, unwilling to look at Adam when he spoke. “I fucked up being friends with you and now I’m going to fuck up—” 

A knock at the door interrupted them. 

Ronan kicked the trashcan at the sound of Gansey’s voice on the other side of the door asking: “Adam?” 

“Yeah?” Adam responded. He kept the door locked, turning instead to Ronan for some sort of guidance. When Ronan shrugged in indifference, Adam unlocked the door enough to see Gansey hovering with his hands in the pockets of his khakis. 

 Ronan hovered behind Adam. 

“Oh, Ronan’s here too.” He seemed shocked, taking in the sight of the two of them looking equal parts frustrated and annoyed in the single-stall restroom. “Did I interrupt something?”

“Yeah, man.” When Ronan spoke, Adam felt his body numb. Uncertainty over what he would tell Gansey festered, hands tingling with renewed fear. They had only begun to work through their feelings with one another; prematurely telling the others seemed out of place. “Parrish and I were scheming.” 

“Scheming?” Gansey asked, running a thumb over his lip.

Adam turned to Ronan, crossing his arms over his chest with a sudden smirk on his face. A private look that Gansey couldn’t see; a grin for Ronan alone. Curiosity replaced uncertainty. He wanted to hear what the other boy would say. 

“Yeah.” Ronan pulled his shoulders back, confidence building as his face set. He was a match struck to a flame; an imposing force that Adam found undeniably attractive. “I was telling Adam about an idea to get back at you for making us go on this godforsaken trip.” 

The room felt a little bit brighter, the world a little off-center. Ronan had lied. Ronan had lied and he had done it to protect Adam, to protect them. Whatever tangled web of thoughts and feelings they were, Ronan protected them with a single lie. And Gansey believed him. 

“Has it really been that bad?” Gansey asked. 

Ronan smirked, face mirroring the expression Adam wore, “Hasn’t all been bad.”

If Gansey wanted to ask further questions, he stopped himself. Adam too remained quiet. 

“Now that you ruined our plan,” Ronan took a step forward, “can we go? I’m starving.” 

“We were waiting on you.” Gansey said, stepping out of the way to let Adam and Ronan leave the bathroom. 

They allowed Gansey to show the way, though remained behind until he was a comfortable distance away. Ronan then turned to Adam, Adam then turned to Ronan. The conversation from before loomed heavy, unexpressed fears over the future remaining unsaid. There would be a time to talk, Adam knew. A time to sort out and put together the pieces that made up Adam and Ronan.

For now, as they began walking toward the group, Adam whispered: “I want to try, too.” 

“Let’s go, shit-head.” Ronan responded.

When they rejoined the others, Ronan took the seat across from Adam. Smiles matched when Ronan first tapped Adam’s foot with his own underneath the table; smiles widened when Adam tapped back. 

They weren’t yet steady, but Adam believed they would one day be alright. 

 


 

As it turned out, there was little to do in Chestertown, Maryland. Ronan could have guessed as much, but he chose to let Gansey figure it out for himself. It always happened that way: Gansey coming up with elaborate plans, Ronan saying “I told you so” whenever his plans fell short. 

The words threatened to prematurely slip as the five sat around the table at the diner, waiting for their respective checks from an overzealous server named Max. Gansey searched his phone, scrolling through a TripAdvisor page in hope to find something for the group to do before returning to Henrietta. 

On the other side of the table, Adam yawned. 

Ronan nudged his foot underneath the table. Adam nudged back. They didn’t say much at breakfast, each continuing to play the part of a boy who hated the other boy. It was an infuriating game, and one that Ronan had almost lost. 

Because Ronan Lynch did not lie, and yet he found himself speaking untruthful word after untruthful word to both Adam and to the others. It was the story he made up to Gansey in the bathroom; it was announcing to the car that he thought Adam looked shitty, when all he wanted to do was tell Adam he looked nice. 

Though, as much as he would prefer to stand atop the table and tell everyone at the diner how he felt about Adam Parrish, Ronan continued to lie. He lied because it meant protecting Adam.

When they’d been in the bathroom, Ronan had been prepared to talk to Adam about their relationship, whatever it may be. He’d spent his few silent moments in the car rehearsing what to say, thinking things over until the moment he locked the bathroom door. The months he’d spent in silence, not talking to Adam about how he felt, would become a thing of the past. He knew now that he needed to talk, to be open in a way unfamiliar to him. 

Things were new and scary and unfamiliar, but the alternative was a life without Adam. 

The talk in the bathroom had been a disaster, the bravado Ronan had felt walking into the diner quickly disappearing when confronted with the realization that he’d come there to share his feelings. And then Gansey had knocked on the door. He’d interrupted Ronan before he’d been able to finish his thought, before he could ask Adam out on a date. 

The bathroom of a diner in the middle of a Maryland town hardly seemed the place to ask, but Ronan didn’t know when he’d have the chance again. 

“I think we should try the museum.” Gansey announced, bringing Ronan back to the present. “Or the historical society.” 

Ronan groaned, directing his attention away from the foot game he and Adam had been silently engaged in. “I didn’t give up my weekend for a history lesson.” He said cooly. 

“Well,” Gansey looked troubled, scrolling through his phone in search of a solution. “We’re only an hour and a half from Washington.”

The thought of wandering the capital seemed even less appealing to Ronan. The bureaucracy made him itch. “Why don’t we just go home?” Ronan suggested. 

“I think we should go to D.C.” Blue spoke up, looking at Ronan with sudden smugness. “Don’t you think so, Adam?”

“I, uh..” Ronan took interest in Adam’s response, waiting to see who he would side with. It was a cruel game they all played, but one Ronan was determined to win. “I’ve never been there before.” 

Safe, a neutral response. Ronan tapped his foot, Adam tapped back.

“We could see the new exhibits at the American History Museum!” Gansey’s cheer went unmatched, and even Blue remained wary of wandering a history museum with Gansey. It was the very reason Ronan had turned down staying longer in Chestertown initially. No one had listened. 

Only Ronan knew what it was like to visit a museum with Gansey, having spent one too many school trips with him at Aglionby. He would have to add the other three to the list of people to say “I told you so” to when they returned home. 

Noah, who’d remained true neutral during the exchange, said softly: “I think it could be fun.” 

It was all the validation Gansey needed. 

 

The ride to Washington was equal parts unbearable and uncomfortable. Adam sat next to him, and yet the two didn’t talk, neither wanting to continue their charade of being mad at the other. Nor was the backseat of Gansey’s car the place to continue the conversation from the bathroom. 

So, while the radio played and conversations between the others came and went, Ronan formulated. Asking Adam on a date at one of the Smithsonians became the newest in a series of failed plans that spanned back to the summer months. Every opportunity missed, every moment ruined by some unforeseen circumstance. 

Things had changed, they had changed. Ronan knew now what he hadn’t known then: that the way he felt about Adam was the way Adam felt about him. Asking him out on a date seemed the most appropriate next step, a chance to work through what they were and what they would become. A chance to make up for the dates they could have gone on that summer.

While he formulated, Adam dozed off beside him. When he felt Adam’s head against his shoulder, Ronan didn’t move. He liked it. It was an innocence that made Ronan feel like the boy he used to be, the one who lived before his parents had died, and the one he tried to come back to. 

A boy who could confidently ask another boy on a date. 

He thought back to what Adam had said to him as they walked to join the others at the breakfast table: I want to try, too . It had been like standing on the edge of a cliff, a restless current waiting below. But now the waters quieted, and Adam waited at the bottom with open arms and a giddy smile unlike anything Ronan had ever seen before. He jumped in too. 

 

Getting into Washington proved strenuous, stop-and-go traffic leaving them motionless on the interstate for periods at a time. Gansey remained calm, Ronan grew impatient. The rest were somewhere in between. 

Ronan wanted to walk the galleries alone with Adam, to pick up where they left off. He sensed Adam felt the same, now sitting awake and alert and looking out Ronan’s window as they descended upon the capital city. 

They remained close. Close enough that suspicious may have been raised had the other three been paying attention. Ronan nudged Adam’s foot, Adam nudged back. They turned to watch one another with teeth biting down on lips, quelling their laughter and grins before they had a chance to break out. 

“Are we there yet?” Ronan asked. He needed to stretch his legs, to rid himself of the compactness of Gansey’s car. He also needed to be alone with Adam. It was a thought that once scared him, but one he now desired. 

“Does it look like we’re there?” Blue responded from the front, not bothering to turn to look at Ronan.

“Remember this.” Ronan said, sinking back into his seat. “Remember sitting here for forty goddamn minutes the next time you want to take a field trip.” 

 

Eventually the traffic cleared and eventually they found a place to park several blocks from the Smithsonians. The weather was cold, the wind relentless as Gansey led the way through the streets. 

Despite the weather, the National Mall bustled with tour groups and parents attempting to steer children toward this building or that. Ronan felt out of place, prideful displays of patriotism causing him to grimace. Beside him, Adam took everything in. The other boy’s mouth hung slightly open, interested in a way Ronan could never bring himself to be. 

“Don’t tell me you want to live here?” Ronan leaned into Adam, the two walking in the back of the group. 

Adam shrugged, “There are worse places to live.”

“Like Henrietta?” 

“Yeah.”

Ronan kept walking, shrugging off the comment. Now was not the time to tell Adam he planned to stay in Henrietta after graduation, neither was it the time to ask Adam where the future planned to take him. 

That conversation would come later. 

For now, Ronan ignored the world around him. He watched Adam alone, watched the way his eyes tried to capture everything they passed. He watched how Adam shuddered against the cold, though never complained that the jacket he’d brought didn’t protect him against the November winds. If things were different, he would have taken Adam’s hand. 

Ronan couldn’t stand it, the unfairness of it all. How nothing in his life could ever be simple. How he and Adam felt the same way about one another, and yet every time they tried to work out what they were, they were interrupted. 

He kicked a rock in front of him and announced: “Parrish and I are going to Air and Space.”

His impulse caused the others to stop, four pairs of eyes turning to look at him with equal parts suspicion and shock. 

But he needed to get away; he needed to be alone with Adam, to talk to him and ask him on a goddamn date. He was through with the lies and the pretending and the deceit. He wanted to ask to hold Adam’s hand, whether it be in public or in private.

“We are?” Adam said it more quietly, though Ronan couldn’t mistake the twinge of excitement eating at his words. Ronan flashed him a sharp grin, a super villain’s smile. 

When the others continued to stare, Ronan said: “Yes. We are.”

“I would like to see that one, too.” Noah, ever quiet, said. 

“Me too.” Blue chimed in, looking from Adam to Ronan with distrust. 

Gansey gave his agreement, “Let’s begin there, then.” 

And just like that, another plan to spend time alone with Adam slipped further from Ronan’s fingertips. 

 

It became easier, though, to lose the others in the museum than Ronan had first anticipated. After tickets were acquired and maps were passed around, Ronan and Adam waited until the others walked one way before they took off in the other direction. They did so wordlessly, each knowing what the other wanted. 

A private scheme that set Ronan’s heart on fire. 

They found themselves on the second floor. Adam looked through the Time and Navigation exhibit, Ronan watched Adam. When Adam looked to Ronan, Ronan pretended to show an interest in the plane Adam had just been reading about. 

“You hate this, don’t you?” Adam asked. 

Ronan turned back, “Yeah.” 

“We can leave.” 

Ronan took a step closer, “That’s not what I hate.”

He watched the way Adam put his hands into the pockets of his pants, thinking. It took him a moment, but Adam then asked: “What is it?”

Ronan took a breath, thinking over everything he needed to say. “I don’t know why I thought any of this would be easy.” He began, thinking back to the conversation they’d had in the bathroom only hours before.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact that I’m in the middle of the fucking Smithsonian and I can’t even have a conversation with you without someone interrupting.” He pointed a finger in the direction of the exhibit entrance, deadpan stare watching as Gansey and Blue and Noah rejoined them. 

“Scheming again?” Gansey asked jokingly. 

“No,” Adam responded, sounding short. Ronan had never heard him talk to Gansey in such a way, but he found his sudden temper undeniably attractive. “Ronan and I were talking about the fight.”

Oh. 

Ronan tried to mask his shock, letting the other three absorb what Adam had said. When no one responded right away, Adam continued. 

“We’ve been trying to work things out all day, but it’s been hard with all the, uh, interruptions.” 

“I had no idea…” Gansey ran a thumb over his lip in the way he always did, looking from Adam to Ronan, who nodded his agreement. “We can meet you at the entrance if you want to.. um.. chat?”

“That’s the best idea you’ve had all day, man.” Ronan spoke up. Gansey stood close enough that Ronan could clasp him on the shoulder, giving the other boy a little pat before letting his arm fall back to his side. 

 

When the other three finally shuffled away after another round of awkward conversations and Adam and Ronan dodging answers, Ronan turned to Adam. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I wanted to hear what you had to say.” Adam responded, moving closer to Ronan. 

Tourists pushed past, the world around them continued to turn. But Ronan took no notice; he only saw Adam, only felt when Adam took his hand. It was a simple thing, fingers barely wrapping around fingers. A simple thing that Ronan wanted to never let go of.

“Come on,” He said then, fumbling with his fingers until he properly held Adam’s hand. “I’m going to show you a goddamn good time.”

They wandered through the exhibits hand-in-hand, pointing and joking and taking comfort in the moment. If others stared, neither seemed to notice. This was their moment to have.

It took little time for Ronan to lead them to the museum store where they fiddled with toys and tried on memorabilia designed for children. It felt familiar, reminiscent of the day they’d wandered through the aisles of Walmart together. Ronan remembered how he’d felt in that moment; it was akin to how he felt now. 

He saw his chance. 

“If we ever make it back home,” Ronan began, putting a toy telescope to his eye and looking at Adam through the lens, “would you want to maybe go out?” 

“Like on a date?” Adam asked, looking through a telescope of his own.

Ronan nodded, “Yeah. Like on a date.”

“Yeah,” Adam responded, “I think I would.” 

“Then let’s hope we make it back, Parrish.” Ronan said as they put down their telescopes and prepared to leave the store. A smile spread wide across his face, a loud and triumphant and wonderful thing. 

He wore that smile the entire way home. 

Chapter Text

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.”

“Here?”

“Upstairs.” 

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.”

“Then what?” 

“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.”

“Okay.” 

“Yeah.” 

“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.