The only rules that mattered to Ronan Lynch were the ones he set for himself: Say your prayers; Stay alive; Alcohol isn’t a meal replacement; Don’t wake up Adam.
Don’t wake up Adam. It was one of his more recent rules, set only during the summer before Adam went away to college. He remembered the night he’d set it, just as he remembered the guilt that had crept over his body the moment he’d felt Adam stir.
The two had been asleep, together. Two oversized boys on an undersized bed. Neither could turn without jostling the other. Ronan hadn’t known that at the time, and he had jostled Adam. The jostling came just after three in the morning, a time when Ronan grew restless after being unable to stay asleep. Beside him, Adam slept off another day spent juggling three jobs.
Adam was tired, Ronan was not. Or perhaps: Adam was able to sleep, Ronan was not.
The details mattered little. What mattered now was the memory of Ronan growing restless that night, of sitting himself up to steady his breathing. He’d been closer to the edge of the bed; Adam slept closer to the wall. Ronan remembered slowly, carefully shifting until his feet could meet the floorboards. Then he stood.
“Ronan?” Adam had asked, his groggy voice startling Ronan. “Is something wrong?”
Before Ronan could assure him that nothing was wrong (or nothing out of the ordinary), Adam had moved to sit at the edge of the bed, ready to join Ronan in the middle of the room.
“Couldn’t sleep.” There was no use lying; he’d woken Adam and now he owed it to his boyfriend to tell him why.
“The nightmares?” Adam had asked as he stood, moving with quiet feet to stand behind Ronan. Adam always knew, could sense what Ronan was thinking without him having to say it aloud. Of course it was the nightmares, the visions that hid behind closed eyes. Always of Ronan’s worst fears, of things he worried would leave his dreamworld and come to life if he thought about them too hard or for too long (if that sort of thing were possible).
Ronan had remained quiet. He remembered his silence, but also the feel of Adam wrapping his arms around Ronan’s waist, of Adam’s chin resting on one of Ronan’s bare shoulders. The room was hot, whether from the temperature outside or from the feel of Adam’s body against his.
“Go back to bed.” Ronan had said, trying to ignore the way Adam’s warm hands against his bare torso made him feel. He’d tried to ignore the way Adam’s breath tickled his neck, the way he felt his body come to life when Adam shifted against him.
As suddenly as the moment had begun, it ended when Adam let go.
Even now Ronan could remember what it felt like, the room losing its warmth without Adam’s touch. His skin bristled at the sudden coolness. “Not until I know you’re okay.” Adam had said in his stubborn tone.
Ronan turned around. “I’m okay.” There was more there, words he didn’t know how to say waiting just below the surface. Words about how Adam made him feel safe, protected in a way so unfamiliar to him. He would never say aloud that, when the nightmares came, most of them were about losing Adam.
Making sure never to wake Adam was the only way to keep those words buried alongside every other unknowable thought that lived inside his head.
When Adam left for college, Ronan searched for new ways to cope. His inability to sleep only worsened in Adam’s absence, the sense of security gone as Ronan wandered the empty hallways alone. He knew he shouldn’t be there, alone in his childhood home, but his friends were gone. Adam was gone. Walking along the same wooden floorboards he used to spend his mornings, afternoons, and nights racing his brothers across was the only comfort he had left in Henrietta.
The hallways felt more narrow now, the house closing in on itself without his mother’s sing-song voice or his father calling the boys to play in the surrounding barns. Still, he stayed, retreated to his childhood bedroom and closed the door. He sought comfort in the familiar, even if that familiar had changed.
He distracted himself, knowing the only one who could save him from whatever the night might bring was the boy looking back at him in the mirror.
He paced; he bought a harmonica; he broke the harmonica. He typed and erased messages to Adam on his phone, an object he seldom used. He never sent the messages, never wanting Adam to know the thoughts that kept him up as the hours of the night crept onward. He also worried the flash of a notification would wake Adam up, and he couldn’t violate his own rule again. Sometimes he called Gansey, but only sometimes. There was only so much he was willing to share with his best friend who’d moved across the country with Blue and Henry.
Ronan was miserable without being able to admit it to anyone but himself.
The solution for his nightly routine did not come until a Sunday in November, the week before Adam was scheduled to come back for a school break.
He sat next to Matthew in a pew at St. Agnes. Declan sat on the other side of Matthew. They’d learned to put as much distance as the boys could manage between Ronan and his older brother. The three Lynch brothers waited for the Sunday service to begin in the same manner they always did: in silence. Declan prayed, Matthew played on his phone, and Ronan looked at the crucifix hanging above the altar.
“Missed it.” The sound of his younger brother’s voice drew Ronan’s attention away from the crucifix.
Matthew played an unfamiliar game, one with an animated character and several animated animals. It looked like the human character wandered between a campsite and a beach where he unsuccessfully attempted to catch fish.
“You wouldn’t like it.” Matthew’s tone caught him off-guard. He sounded disappointed.
Ronan turned his attention from the screen to the golden-haired boy seated beside him. “I don’t even know what it is.” He responded, careful to keep his voice down so as to not draw Declan into the conversation.
Matthew clicked his phone off. “It’s called Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp . Like the game I used to have but then someone lost. Only this time it’s for your phone.”
Ronan recalled old memories of Matthew showing off a village to his siblings, announcing that he was mayor of a town he’d decided to name after himself. It was the kind of game that enticed Ronan, but one that he would never say aloud that he wanted to play.
It was the perfect solution.
He downloaded the app the night he got back from church, holding the phone he never used close to his face as he spent several careful minutes customizing his character. That night he met an eagle named Apollo and harvested oranges. He earned materials and built furniture, feeling an unmistakable calm throughout his body the longer he played.
He would never admit to it aloud, but when he slept that first night after downloading the game, he dreamt of Ronan the Animal Crossing character as he picked an orange from a tree. When he woke, the sun had risen and his phone’s clock read 9:28.
Ronan couldn’t remember a time since Adam had left for college that he’d slept so soundly.
As much as Ronan had come to love Animal Crossing, he couldn’t shake the relief he felt when he picked Adam up from the Greyhound station two days before Thanksgiving. Their bodies fit easily together as they embraced; Adam’s sturdy arms wrapped around Ronan in a way that promised to never let go.
“I missed you.” Ronan said.
Adam held him tighter, “I missed you, too.”
“Let’s go home, shit-head.” Even as he said it, Ronan couldn’t mask the smile that had formed on his face since being back with Adam.
They spent most of the afternoon and evening in the kitchen; Ronan cooked one of his mother’s old recipes while Adam recounted his first few months at school. His stories were simple. He talked of his classes, which of his professors he liked and which ones he didn’t. There were stories of his roommate and of his friends getting lost on a weekend trip to Boston.
Ronan has heard the story before but he wanted to hear it again. There was something about the way Adam wove his words together that enticed Ronan. He left the stew to simmer and joined Adam at the small kitchen table, letting one of his legs stretch out to weave between Adam’s.
“They all want to meet you, you know.” Adam finished, turning his body so that he could properly face Ronan.
This surprised Ronan. He always lost himself in Adam’s stories about his new friends that he forgot to consider that Adam had told them stories about Ronan too. “Really?”
Adam took Ronan’s hands in his, though kept his head down when he spoke next. “They said it was only fair because—” He stopped, shaking his head with sudden embarrassment. “—you must be someone important to me if I bring you up in every conversation.”
Ronan grinned, a terrible yet wonderful thing. “You do?”
Adam dropped Ronan’s hands, though didn’t push away Ronan’s leg that still rested between his own. The flush covering his cheeks was unmistakable. “I didn’t realize it.”
“I guess you do like me.” Ronan tried to steady himself, knowing that the words he said aloud were not the ones that remained just below the surface. He didn’t know how to say aloud how Adam talking about him to his friends made him feel. All he knew was that he really, really liked that feeling.
Adam stood up, movements awkward as he tried to move around Ronan’s outstretched leg. He mumbled something as he went to the stove to stir the stew Ronan had abandoned in favor of sitting with Adam.
“What was that?” Ronan asked. He remained seated, admiring the way Adam’s body moved as he stirred the wooden spoon around the pot. His entire body jolted with an energy he’d been starved of in Adam’s absence.
Adam kept his back to him. “I said: I love you, shit-head. Don’t make me take it back.”
Ronan was grateful Adam couldn’t see his face. He bit into the sides of his cheeks, trying to quell the flush of red he knew covered his face. Adam loved him. They’d said it to each other before, but every time he heard those words come from Adam’s familiar voice it felt like the first time.
He stood then, moving to stand beside Adam at the stove. Ronan placed a finger in the soup and licked the broth off his fingertips. When Adam looked annoyed by Ronan’s antics, Ronan said: “I love you, too.”
The evening passed by quickly. The two sat beside one another as they ate, shoulders occasionally brushing if one of them got too close to the other.
When the meal was finished, Adam took Ronan’s bowl and began washing it alongside his own in the sink. Ronan stood at his side while Adam worked, knowing not to challenge Adam’s decision to clean up unassisted.
With the dishes done and the kitchen set right, Ronan led Adam to one of the couches in the adjoining room. There was no television set to turn on, but neither seemed to mind the silence. They tried to find a position conducive to the couch, resulting in something akin to laying down while still sitting upright as hands and bodies tangled together.
Ronan had not realized just how much he’d missed moments like this until now, with Adam dozing off beside him. He knew he’d missed Adam, thought about him every day, but he hadn’t realized how starved he’d been for Adam’s touch until now.
He held Adam’s hand a little tighter. When he squeezed, Adam squeezed back.
Eventually, they moved upstairs to the bedroom, Adam taking up his spot closest to the wall while Ronan curled up against him. For a time, they just lay there, hand-in-hand and staring up at the ceiling. It felt like summer.
The weather reminded him of the time that had passed; the wind began to pick up and the sounds of tree branches hitting the side of the house replaced the silence. The draft from the window nearest the bed caused Ronan to pull the quilt up a little tighter and bring his body a little closer to Adam’s. They lay on their sides, Ronan pressed against Adam with an arm extended over Adam’s body so their fingers could still touch.
“Cold, Lynch?” Adam asked with his back to Ronan.
“Warming up.” Ronan responded, adjusting himself so he could bring his lips to Adam’s neck.
He didn’t know how else to express how much he’d missed this, how being pressed against Adam in this undersized bed made him feel. Where words failed he used gestures, continuing to kiss along Adam’s neck until Adam flipped over to face him.
“Ronan.” In the darkened bedroom, Ronan could barely make out Adam’s face. It was his tone, though, that let Ronan know something had changed. “How have you been?” He asked.
It wasn’t the casual, conversational expression people used in greetings with those they haven’t seen for awhile. Adam’s tone was serious. He wanted to know about the nightmares.
Ronan sat up, the quilt slipping down his body as he readjusted himself. He shuddered against the sudden cold. “I’m okay.”
Adam joined Ronan in sitting upright, pulling the quilt up with him and letting his head rest on Ronan’s shoulder. Underneath the quilt, Adam took Ronan’s hand. He squeezed until Ronan squeezed back. “No nightmares?”
Ronan hesitated. The nightmares had not stopped, but he’d become better at controlling them in the almost week and a half since downloading Animal Crossing . He could tell Adam as much, but that would reveal two things: that he’d spent nearly three months unable to control the nightmares, and that his only coping mechanism was an app on a device he hated.
“They’re better.” He said finally.
“You know,” Adam started, voice quieter than before, “every night since I left I’ve kept my phone under my pillow in case-”
He didn’t have to say it, Ronan knew what he meant. What Adam didn’t know is that Ronan would never call, would never risk waking Adam up. Adam needed his sleep more than Ronan needed the comfort. At least, that was the lie he told himself every night when his body would jolt awake, screams echoing around the room as the scenes from his nightmares replayed in his head.
“I know.” Ronan said, giving Adam’s hand an extra squeeze.
Adam squeezed back. “I’m proud of you,” he said. They were words unfamiliar to Ronan; he wasn’t sure the last time anyone had ever said they were proud of him. Perhaps when he was younger, before the world took his parents from him, replacing memories of a once-happy family with the nightmares that kept him awake.
“You don’t have to be proud of me. Just doing what I’m supposed to do, or whatever.” He added the last bit to change the tone, to add a bit of self-deprecating humor that he knew would cause Adam to roll his eyes and crack a smile. He longed for the simple conversations that turned into kisses down Adam’s neck, ones that left both of them breathy and wanting more.
But even in the darkened bedroom, Ronan knew it hadn’t worked.
“Ronan, I’m trying to help.”
What Adam didn’t know was that he was helping. Just by staying, by continuing to hold his hand and keep his head rested against Ronan’s shoulder, he was helping. Adam Parrish was the reason Ronan didn’t forget to breathe. Every awful thought that came to Ronan’s mind was pushed out by Adam’s touch, by Adam’s reassuring voice. Even the promise of seeing Adam when he came home from school for a day, a week, a month, kept Ronan afloat.
But all Ronan said in response was a repeated: “I know.”
Adam let go of Ronan’s hand first, then lifted his head from Ronan’s shoulder. “We should get some sleep.”
He hated himself for this, for taking a moment he’d waited three months for and turning it into the start of one of his nightmares. The ones with Adam always began with a fight, with something Ronan did that caused Adam to realize he’d made a mistake by agreeing to pursue a relationship. They were the ones that scared him most, because they felt so real.
He sensed it would be inevitable, that he would fuck up in such a way that Adam would leave. Then he would be truly alone.
“Ronan?” Adam asked when Ronan remained sitting upright.
“I’m sorry.” Ronan responded, shaking his head and blinking away his thoughts until he saw stars. He felt dizzy, unsettled. When he reached for Adam’s hand, fearful of what might happen with nothing there to ground him, the other boy let him take it. “I swear I’ve been trying.”
Adam adjusted himself so he could face Ronan more directly. “I know. I just don’t want you doing anything stupid.”
Ronan couldn’t help but smile, “That’s all I do, Parrish.”
When Adam looked unconvinced Ronan sighed and said: “Let me show you something” as he reached for his phone at the edge of the desk by his bed. No use keeping secrets anymore.
The screen illuminated both of their faces as Ronan cleared a series of unread messages from both Declan and Gansey before unlocking the device. He only had one page of apps. At the end was Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp . Ronan clicked it.
Adam sat attentively at his side as Ronan gave the tour of the campsite. Ronan explained that the animals all had names and different personality types; it was his responsibility to build the furniture that his campers desired. In the week he’d been playing, Ronan invited an eagle named Apollo and another bird named Tex to his campsite.
Ronan showed Adam how to pick oranges and catch fish, muttering to himself after pulling another olive flounder from the fictional ocean. Ronan’s character ate a fortune cookie and hunted for gems, met new faces and talked with the old.
By the time a notification flashed on Ronan’s screen that his phone’s battery was running low, over an hour had passed. He and Adam had adjusted themselves by that point, Adam laying against Ronan’s chest while Ronan used the arm not wrapped around Adam’s body to hold the phone.
“I guess that’s all you’re getting tonight.” Ronan said, closing out of the game and dropping his phone on the ground to avoid disturbing Adam’s position against Ronan’s chest with any further movement.
The sound of the phone crashing against the wooden floorboards had the reverse effect. “You couldn’t have put it down gently?” Adam asked as he sat up, He sounded annoyed, but in the way that meant he wasn’t mad.
“My hand slipped.” Ronan said, his coy expression not going unnoticed by Adam.
The room was dark, the hour just after three, but Ronan had a life to him he hadn’t felt in months. He could sense Adam felt it too; on any other day his boyfriend would have long since fallen asleep. It always happened, typically mid-conversation. Ronan would wait for a response and be greeted by the low groans that escaped Adam’s lips when he slept.
“My hand slipped .” Adam teased, donning his best Ronan impersonation. Then he laughed, the kind of genuine laughter that caused Ronan to pull Adam closer and kiss him.
They lay there, laughing between kisses and kissing between laughter as the clock continued to tick on. But when the pair settled in that night, the hour didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that in less than a week Adam would leave again; Adam was here now and Ronan wanted to hold on to every second of being able to fall asleep with his body entangled with that of the boy he loved.
“Goodnight, shit-head.” Ronan whispered, adjusting to give Adam’s neck a final kiss.
“Goodnight, Ronan.” Adam responded, giving Ronan’s thigh a squeeze.
There would be no nightmares that night. He and Adam slept, neither waking until sunlight came through the windows.
It was just after noon when the two finally made their way downstairs. Ronan made pancakes while Adam studied his phone. When Ronan asked what he was doing, Adam said he was reading the news. Ronan scoffed and went back to flipping pancakes in the skillet.
It wasn’t until he charged his phone that night that Ronan saw the text from Adam waiting on his screen from nearly twelve hours before. An invitation to be friends on Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp .
“For when I’m back at school.” Adam said, burying his head into Ronan’s neck as the two lay in bed. “I don’t get how it works, but you can visit my campsite or something.”
When the night caught up to him, when he lay in bed alone and afraid, all he had to do was visit Adam’s camp. He could see a familiar face even as the real Adam slept nearly 600 miles away. It was a small gift, but one Ronan didn’t know how to express his gratitude for aloud.
Ronan Lynch could not put into words how in love with Adam Parrish he was.
“Thank you,” was all he said that night, giving Adam a final kiss before settling down for what he knew would be another night free from nightmares.