Till the Road and Sky Align - helloitsbees (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: apathy has rained on me Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 2: blame it on the satellite Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 3: must be like the genesis of rhythm Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 4: and i was feeling some feelings you wouldn't believe Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 5: and everything depends on how near you stand to me Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 6: sharing different heartbeats in one night Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 7: we could slip away, wouldn't that be better? Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 8: there's a changing constellation Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 9: so long to ten-hour shifts & faking sympathies Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 10: we'll cut our bodies free from the tethers of this scene Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 11: i just know that i like what is starting to show Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 12: your eyes outshine the town, they do Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 13: there's a pull, unassailable Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 14: something so simple, something so trivial Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 15: these frameworks labelled home Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 16: but now i'm feeling it even more Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 17: take me home to the place i belong Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 18: choice is yours, don't be late Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 19: sing me to sleep Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 20: the embers never fade in your city by the lake Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 21: strange you never knew Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 22: i must've been asleep for days Notes: Chapter Text Notes:

Chapter 1: apathy has rained on me

Notes:

content warning for passive suicidal ideation, please take care while reading! title is from Burnout by Green Day

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

For the sixth time during his lunch break, Adam read the first page of the Macy's employee handbook, the blandly cheerful words slipping out of his mind as soon as he processed them.

The break room around him was unbearably noisy. He ached for the CD player stowed away in his tiny locker, but the thought of crossing the room and inevitably having to make conversation with the flock of men’s department employees– who for some incomprehensible reason always spent their break on their feet, chatting next to the lockers– turned his stomach. Instead, he raised his head to blearily survey the clock on the wall, washed with sickly fluorescent light. Only fifteen minutes left until he had to be on the floor again.

He picked at the lunch in front of him– allegedly some kind of meatloaf, though he doubted it had ever seen a cow– and begrudgingly ate another plastic forkful. It tasted more like the fork than anything, but it was free, provided by the store, and f*ck him if he was going to waste any food from home by bringing it to work and risk getting it stolen from the fridge.

“Hey.” A familiar voice, scratchy and similarly exhausted. A tray identical to his clattered onto the table across from him.

The corner of Adam’s mouth lifted. “How’s it going in the sports department?”

Amanda thunked her forehead to the table in response, groaning. She hadn’t taken the time to remove her store-mandated Santa hat, and it fell limply from her head to land next to her food. “Had a customer try to return a broken ski pole,” she mumbled, propping her chin up under her laxly folded arms. Her eyes were glazed over with the same look that Adam was sure his own held. Bright but dead, like a taxidermy animal. “Not even both of them. One ski pole, snapped in half. And I still had to give him a full refund.”

“Should’ve told him to go f*ck himself,” Adam sympathized, scooping his mashed potatoes onto Amanda’s tray before she had the chance to protest.

“Should’ve shoved it down his throat.” She picked up the handbook that Adam had propped up in front of himself, flipping through it idly. “Doing some light reading?”

“Sometimes I think if I don’t read any words that aren’t Sale! or Clearance! or New low price! I think my brain might actually shut down. Honestly.”

Amanda’s eyebrows lifted to skim her choppy bangs. “And learning that you can get–“ She glanced briefly at the page he’d been reading. “–a week-long vacation if you’re with the company for ten years is gonna do any less damage?”

He scrubbed a hand down his face and let out a sardonic laugh. It was that or scream. “Paid or unpaid?”

She didn’t deign that with an answer, instead eating a mouthful of mashed potatoes in moody silence.

That’s what he liked about Amanda. She wasn’t Disney-mascot cheerful like the other people who worked here, with their varying levels of commitment to the bullsh*t smiles they had to keep taped onto their faces. She didn’t care what the others thought about her, didn’t care about being rude, didn’t care that sometimes after leaving the restroom she smelled a little too strongly of cheap pot. Adam sometimes thought that once he left the store, after the holiday hours had left behind a bump in his bank account and a knot of anxiety in his neck, he’d like to be friends with her for real. He liked that she might say no to that, too, depending on her mood.

The sh*tty watch he’d bought with his first paycheck bleated a tinny electronic chime, signaling five minutes till the end of his break, and he groaned. “I swear to god, time moves different here.” Adam clicked off the alarm and shoveled the rest of his meatloaf into his mouth, knowing if he didn’t get enough calories into his body the next five hours would be even worse.

“Got a cigarette I could snag before you leave?” Amanda asked, glancing once towards the assistant manager eating his expensive leftovers in the corner to make sure his back was still turned to them.

“Sure.” He reached for the carton in his back pocket and passed one to her under her tray; he wondered if the whole exchange felt like being back in prison to Amanda. She let it slip once that she’d been, briefly. “Hey,” he said, overtaken with a sudden surge of courage. “Next time our breaks overlap, we should get some fresh air. Smoke together.”

“Mm.” Amanda’s lips flattened into a grim line. “Too cold outside.”

He didn’t want to push it and disrupt their easy, weary alliance– or even worse, make Amanda think he was interested in her romantically. He didn’t blame her for being reluctant. But the thought of standing outside by himself, numb fingers clenched around a cigarette, smoke spiraling up into the grey December sky, his thoughts drifting like river eddies around his brain without another person to talk to, made Adam want to choke. “There’s a spot by the kitchen vents from the Chinese place next to the store,” he said with an offhand shrug, gathering up his tray. “Smells like fried rice all the time, but it’s warm.”

Amanda studied him for a moment, then gave him one of her rare little smiles. She barely inclined her head before fixing her attention back on her food. “Yeah. Next time, sure. Are you here tomorrow?”

“I’m here all week except Wednesday.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

He left her separating the grayer peas from the greener ones, and slouched towards the ancient timeclock next to the break room entrance.

--

The noise and bustle in the toy department was immediately overwhelming. Adam plastered a cheesy smile to his face and "excuse me"d his way through the throngs of arguing families and dead-eyed solo shoppers until he was safely ensconced behind the counter. Overhead, the flat white fluorescent lights glared, and he counted silently in his head that it was the third time he'd heard "Last Christmas" since he clocked in that morning. He raised a hand and called out, "I can help you over here," hoping that his reluctance wasn't audible as a woman with an overstuffed shopping bag bustled over.

Before long, the counter he was stationed at was just as overrun as his coworkers'. He gave the same automatic spiel to each customer, and tried not to let his exhaustion and frustration show. The holidays always brought out the worst in people. For every shopper who wished him a happy holiday, there were five who were furious that a specific toy wasn't in stock, or that they bought something on the store's website that looked different in person, or that something was too expensive. That last one hurt the most, since they usually paid it anyway, and the money they handed over was more than what was in Adam's bank account.

The hours seemed to simultaneously race and crawl when he was working the register, he'd found. The customers' faces blended together into a mishmash of smiles and frowns, brown eyes and greens and blues, hair under hats and crimped in waves, teeth, noses, hello-how-are-yous and thanks-you-toos. It was amazing how quickly the disparate facets of humanity boiled down to a single entity of Customer if you were faced with them long enough.

His girlfriend Vikki had told him about the concept of corporate depersonalization once, over a joint and after a lazy afternoon f*ck a few months back. "It's how they break you down," she'd paraphrased from a book she'd gotten from the feminist bookstore she worked at. "They make you less than human."

Adam wondered if it worked both ways. If his face was blending into the store, one and the same, just as how the people in front of him blended together.

"Cashier five," the radio in his ear crackled, "front Bratz display needs fixing. Could you hop off reg?"

He tried not to sigh with relief before responding with a "Yeah, will do," into his radio. Adam finished ringing out the man in front of him and closed up his register, flashing the disgruntled customers still in line a half-heartedly sympathetic smile.

The displays at the front of the toy department were always getting knocked out of order– it came with the territory of bearing the best-selling toys of the season. Long-limbed fashion dolls, both in their boxes and set up in little scenes, dominated the stand just to the left of the entrance near the elevators, and Adam crossed the floor with the same bland but stressed smile that told the shoppers to kindly get out of his way, please.

As he replaced the toppled-over Wintertime Wonderland boxes that had fallen to the scuffed concrete floor, he focused on the random snatches of conversation that flowed around him– weekend plans, shopping lists, hushed arguments over which parent bought which gift. There was an air of weary bitterness, even though they were surrounded by the bright plastic trappings of holiday cheer.

"Sarah, I said no. Santa's not going to come at all if you don't–"

"–and of course the ticket prices are just soaring–"

"–her sonofabitch brother-in-law to Thanksgiving–"

"–hear that song one more time, I swear I'm gonna–"

He didn't understand what it was about this time of year made people turn, werewolflike, into the worst versions of themselves. He'd stopped believing that Christmas was some magical time way back when he was twelve and his mom had sat him down and told him that he was gonna have two Christmases now, one with her and one with his dad, and wasn't that gonna be nice?– but some part of him still hoped that the spirit of warmth and togetherness that beat him over the head every time he clocked into work would someday penetrate the customers' thick skulls.

"'Scuse me?"

He started, nearly knocking over another stack of dolls. A woman with mousy hair and a weaselly voice stood at his elbow, smiling nervously.

"How can I help you?" Adam asked, shaking himself.

"Sorry for bothering you, but how much is that doll?"

He looked down at the box he was holding. "Uh, the Winter Ball Beauty is $39.98."

The woman's face fell. "Oh. Alright."

"Did you want it?"

"No, that's...it's a bit over-budget for me." She gave Adam a small smile, and Adam was suddenly overcome with the urge to tell her to take it anyway. Who cared if the store got their money? It would be nothing to them, for one doll to go missing from stock. It would probably make the woman's entire Christmas to have this one shining thing.

She left, and Adam perched the doll on top of the display, staring reproachfully into its too-wide eyes.

––

It was bitterly cold by the time he left the store. Adam tucked his chin against his neck, shielding any skin he could behind the upturned collar of his coat, and thought longingly of his bed.

Christmas had arrived in New York sometime in mid-November, all bright lights and shining ornaments on expensive trees in shop windows. The crowd of people flocking on the sidewalks seemed to double in size as the minutes passed, as improbable as it was, and once or twice Adam was knocked off balance by a rushing passerby as he hunched his way to the subway. The air was thin with cold and shot through with the noise of people and cars and snatches of tinny song. It was almost deafeningly loud if Adam let himself listen to it.

He ducked into the doorway of a restaurant to drag his headphones on and connect them to his CD player. The track skipped once, twice, then began to play where he'd left off in the morning. He turned the volume up until it hurt, then slipped back into the crowd, feeling as small and cellophane-thin as a discarded candy wrapper.

The subway station was warmer, at least. Adam closed his eyes and let his body relax against the square pole by the tracks as he waited for his train.

As the rattle of the tracks overpowered the crowd’s noise, he found himself wondering idly how long it would take the workers to clean his body from the tracks if he stepped forward a scant three paces as the C arrived and let it collide with him.

Would it be delayed for the whole day? Or just for a few hours? Who would identify him, in the end– a cop, going through his wallet to find a ripped ID? Or would his face be recognizable enough after the impact? How long would it take for word to reach his mother? What would his father say to comfort her?

With a metallic shriek, the train ground to a halt in front of him. Adam shouldered his way in, still turning his death over in his mind, more out of boredom more than anything else, finding his way around the shape of it like a kid prodding a loose tooth with his tongue.

––

The walk from the station to his apartment was thankfully short. He collected his mail from the box– two bills, a handful of junkmail, a letter from Vikki’s mother. Probably a Christmas card. She had been asking them both to come over for the holidays, but Adam felt like an intruder even accepting rides from Vikki, let alone joining her for a family event.

His apartment was cold enough that he didn’t bother removing his coat and hat right after he entered, slapping his mail and keys down on his cluttered kitchen table. He cranked the thermostat as high as he dared– the bill in November had been astronomical– and pulled the freezer door open so he could grab a TV dinner. There was some tofu stir-fry left over, but he didn't want to waste the only vegan food in the place in case Vikki stopped by later.

As his dinner spun lethargically in the microwave, Adam sunk into a kitchen chair and sighed, savoring the feeling of being off his feet. He scrubbed a hand over his face and surveyed his apartment, wondering vaguely if it was worth the effort to try and tidy up a bit.

The chipped red paint covering the walls– and most of the plugs and door fixtures, in true landlord's-special style– made the entire apartment seem smaller than it actually was. He'd crowded the walls with band and movie posters, even a few of his own photos blown up and framed from his friend Mike's brief stint at a print shop in SoHo, but even those embellishments couldn't shake the claustrophobic feeling imbued through the whole place. The air itself was heavy with cigarette smoke, which Adam could only blame himself for, even though he made an effort to only smoke on the fire escape, and the pervasive scent of mildew and old lacquer. Photo chemicals, too, but those were mostly confined to the darkroom Adam had jerry-rigged in the spare bedroom.

He knew he'd been lucky to find an apartment with a spare bedroom in the first place, especially in Greenwich Village; he'd snapped it up quickly after the mini-housing-crash three years ago. Due to the apartment's size, he often defaulted to hosting parties and gatherings there. Adam didn't have many friends, and the ones he had he didn't particularly like, but it felt good to be able to play host. It made him feel like an adult, as absurd as it sounded for a man squarely in his mid-twenties to say.

The microwave beeped, and he shambled with his dinner into the living room, not bothering to find a clean plate and instead eating directly from the plastic package it came in. Adam flipped on the TV, and ate by the bluish glow of the same old reruns until his eyelids started to droop.

His bed was cold, and he briefly entertained the idea of calling up Vikki to spend the night before firmly deciding against it. She'd been just as exhausted as him lately– even the tiny bookstore she worked at had suffered the usual capitalistic holiday boom– and he didn't want to bring her mood down even more with his own malaise. Instead, Adam allowed himself a half-hearted, begrudgingly satisfying wank, fantasizing about nothing in particular, before curling up into a ball under his sheets and thrifted duvet and closing his eyes.

He didn't dream much these days, whether asleep or awake.

––

"I was thinking May," Vikki said, her voice crackling slightly over the sh*tty reception. "We'll miss the spring break crowds, at least."

Adam pressed the phone closer to his face, wincing at the chafe of the cold rubber casing on his ear. "Yeah, sounds– that sounds good." He quickened his pace, darting between his fellow commuters on the snow-dusted sidewalk. It was early enough in the day, still greyish blue with the last traces of a sluggish dawn, that the previous night's light snowfall wasn't entirely trodden away yet. His worn out Doc Martens left prints behind, and he briefly, absurdly, wished that he didn't weigh anything at all, that he could walk over the delicate frost without ruining it.

"Adam?"

"Sorry, I'm listening."

Vikki let out one of her husky laughs, the sound tinny through his phone's sh*tty speaker. "Which do you want to do first? Paris or London?"

He scrunched his nose. "Um."

In all honesty, neither really appealed. He'd been putting off thinking about the trip at all; it had been Vikki's idea, and her bankroll– or at least, her parents'– so he felt guilty even thinking of backing out. He had no reason not to want to spend a week or two in Europe with his girlfriend, but still his reluctance lingered.

"Tell you what," he said, shifting his phone to his other ear so he could dig in his pocket for his MetroCard, "let's talk about it over dinner tomorrow night, okay? I'm about to get on the subway."

"Okay." Even over the phone, he could hear the mild irritation in her voice. "Love you. Have a good day obeying the whims of your corporate overlords."

"Yeah, you too." He folded his phone, slipping it into his pocket, and burrowed deeper into his coat.

––

Working the opening shift was hell on Adam's sleep cycle, but it at least gave him a few hours of relief from the customers. He enjoyed the clinical methodology of setting up the displays, of setting the model trains to run and the ballerina dolls to spin in the front of the toy department. It also helped that Patricia was shift lead, which meant that he could listen to his own music without reprimand.

He nodded idly along to the Fiona Apple CD he'd snagged from Vikki as he went about assembling the newest model train they'd gotten in that morning, clicking the tracks together and straightening the tiny trees that dotted the artificial snow. As Adam switched it on, watching the little train run its course around the near figure-eight of the track, he heard the PA system kick on with a whine.

"Last Christmas, I gave you my heart," George Michael warbled, overtaking Fiona's 
"No, not 'baby' anymore," and Adam's stomach sank with the familiar daily dread.

"Stanheight," Patricia called, gesturing to his head, and Adam obediently traded his headphones for the Santa hat he'd kept jammed in his back pocket. "You're manning backstock today. Upsell on Holiday Barbies."

He gave her a thumbs up, and retreated behind the backstock doll counter as the customers began to trickle in.

The routine at the backstock counter reminded him of the motion of the train: he rotated on a loop, greeting a customer, hearing their request, bending or stretching or climbing up the stepstool to reach the particular doll they wanted. Mostly parents, but occasionally a wide-eyed child, began to blend in his mind as he traded tired smile for tired smile. Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. Thanks, you too. Happy holidays.

And then–

Adam’s eyes met the man’s in a fleeting moment, and stayed fixed there, magnetized.

He was tall, and he wore an expensive-looking coat. His eyes were a deep, crystal blue, wrinkled lightly at the corners as if someone had just told him a joke. They held Adam’s gaze with a curiosity that verged on recognition.

Adam felt suddenly as if all the breath had been knocked out of him. The man had blonde hair that rested just so over his strong brow, cheekbones that curved softly under his shining eyes. His mouth was quizzical, on a knife’s edge of smiling.

Distantly, he heard another customer approach to ask some meaningless question– the store’s holiday hours, maybe– and Adam tore his gaze away to answer.

When he looked back up, the man was gone.

Swallowing around a jagged lump in his throat, Adam trained his attention back on the counter, brushing away another fleck of black nail polish he’d chipped off his thumb. His heart was stuttering in his chest, and he wondered vaguely if he was going to be sick.

It wasn’t often that Adam found himself this flustered by a stranger. Sure, from time to time there was the odd customer– usually female and blonde, sometimes female and redheaded, rarely but still occasionally male and dark haired– who caught his eye in a purely primal way. Eye candy.

This felt different, somehow. He remembered abruptly a passage from one of the only required reading books in high school he’d actually enjoyed: one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it.

Adam closed his eyes, trying to commit his face to memory. Maybe if he did, he could save that strange, out-of-place angel from the monotony of the store. Maybe he could keep him.

“Excuse me,” a lilting, deep voice said.

He opened his eyes. The man was right in front of him.

Adam felt his face grow hot. He hoped he wasn’t blushing. “Good morning,” he said automatically, straightening his spine.

“Hi,” the man said. He was, impossibly, even more handsome at close quarters. His gloved fingers drummed lightly on the counter. “I was wondering if you could help me with something.”

“Yeah, anything.” Adam cleared his throat, vaguely mortified at his own choice of words.

If the man noticed, he didn’t say anything. Up close, Adam could see a few strands of silver in his blond hair. He could smell his cologne, faintly. “I’m looking for a Christmas gift for my daughter. I don’t have the faintest idea what I should get her.” There was an English accent lurking under his voice.

Adam slipped into customer service mode, heart still thudding in his ears. “Well– we’ve got lots of different kinds of Barbies. We just got the '04 Holiday Barbie in, it's pretty popular.”

The man smiled, glancing around the store's many displays. “I can see that.” His gaze flicked briefly to Adam’s name tag, then back up to look him square in the face. His eyes were very, very blue. “Do you have any sisters, Adam?”

Adam usually hated it when customers had the nerve to call him by name, but the sound of it in the man’s soft accent made him want to hear nothing else for the rest of his life. “Yeah. I mean– a step-sister. She’s ten.”

“Well, my daughter’s nine. What kind of doll did your step-sister want a year ago?”

He swallowed. “She didn’t, really. She wanted– she wanted a train set.”

The man laughed, ducking his head charmingly as if to hide his smile. “That’s refreshing.”

“Huh?”

“Aren’t you supposed to say that she wanted the most expensive doll in the store? Really sell me on it?”

Adam grinned back, enjoying the feeling of sharing some private conspiracy with him. “I mean, yeah. But honestly, the train set’s more expensive than any of the dolls we sell here, so it’s a win-win for the store.”

“Fair enough." The man lifted his left hand to his right elbow and tucked something over the crook of his arm– the handle of a cane. He shifted his weight slightly and placed his left hand flat on the counter before using his right to gesture to the train set behind him. “This one?”

“Yeah. Julia wanted that train set,” Adam said, letting more sarcasm drip into his voice that he'd usually allow while he was working. He wanted, desperately, for the man to see him as a person, not just as a cog in the store. “In the gold-and-silver colorway, specifically, because it’s $10 extra.”

That earned him another chuckle from the man. “Well, who am I to dispute good taste? How much is the whole thing?"

"Two hundred and fifty dollars. Sixty with the paintjob."

He hardly blinked. "That's that, then. Sold." The man pulled his wallet from the breast pocket of his coat, and Adam couldn’t help but follow the line of his waist with his eyes. "Do you accept credit cards here, or should I make out a check?"

"Either's fine."

The man studied Adam, and drew a credit card from his wallet. "So," he said, as Adam rang up the sale, "how long have you worked at Macy's?"

"Just since October. I'm in it for the holiday pay."

"I see." He had a curious way of smiling eyes-first, crinkling charmingly at the corners before it migrated to his lips. "I must be the thousandth customer you've helped today."

"Only the three-hundredth." Adam smirked, and to his delight, the man's eyes dropped to his lips. "Your PIN?"

He punched it into the card reader, and withdrew his card as it beeped. "Thanks for your help today, Adam."

Don't go, Adam thought fiercely.

"My pleasure." He handed the man the sale slip. "So– how are you getting it home?"

The man blinked, as if it hadn't even occurred to him. "Right. What are my options?"

"Well– if you give the store your address, we can have it shipped to your house in two or three days. Or if your car’s big enough, you could take it home today.”

“Oh, it’s definitely not. Besides, I'm taking a cab home. My car’s getting repaired at the moment.” He pulled off his leather gloves with quick efficiency, one finger at a time, and set them neatly on the counter. “I’ll give you my address, then?”

Adam blinked for a moment before comprehending. He felt his ears go red as he scrambled for a pen and shipping slip. “Uh, y-yeah. Of course. Um, just fill out this form, and–“

The man bent slightly to fill out his address, and Adam tried valiantly not to look at the curve of his neck, of his jaw. "There we go." He handed Adam the slip. "It's in New Jersey, so it shouldn't be too much of a wait, right?"

"Yeah, for sure. It'll be at your house by Wednesday the 22nd, Mr–" He took a glance at the man's name on the shipping slip. "Oh, sorry. Doctor. Dr. Gordon." God, even his name was refined.

Those blue eyes shone. "Lawrence is fine."

He smiled, unable to help himself. "Lawrence, then. It'll get to you before Christmas." If it didn't, Adam thought, he'd deliver it himself.

"Thank you, Adam." Lawrence smiled at him again, and took the cane from the crook of his elbow. He turned away, walking back towards the entrance of the toy department, and then hesitated.

"I like your hat, by the way," he said, and then was gone, disappearing into the crowd.

Adam let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. His hands were trembling slightly, like he'd had too much coffee. "Jesus," he said softly to himself. "Pull it the f*ck together. Pull it together."

He dropped his eyes to the counter.

Lawrence's gloves were still there, neatly folded on top of the glass.

Notes:

warning that this will update fairly slowly; if it wasn't immediately evident from Adam's internal monologue, i myself am trapped working retail through the holidays and that's taking up much of my energy.

follow me on twitter (amandasfemme) and tumblr (helloitsbees) for updates & just to say hi!

please leave a comment if you enjoyed!

Chapter 2: blame it on the satellite

Notes:

thank you all so much for your comments and kudos!! I'm so glad y'all are enjoying this as much as I am!
mild content warning for parent-child conflict, nothing too bad but be aware if that's something you want to avoid reading about. mind the rating change for mild sexual content! title is from Black Star by Radiohead

Chapter Text

The rest of the day passed as it always did, a kaleidoscopic blur of Christmas music and strangers' faces. Adam kept the carbon copy from the shipping slip Lawrence had filled out in his left pocket, and his gloves in his right. He couldn't tell himself exactly why he didn't just put them in his locker– or, more accurately, he didn't want to admit to himself that he was holding them close like a talisman.

Lawrence's smile kept flashing through his mind. Adam didn't know why the stranger had taken such a foothold in his thoughts, other than the fact that he was absurdly, fairytale-prince-level handsome. The soft curve of his jaw, the way he'd said Adam's name...

He'd had crushes on men before. That was nothing new. Adam had been aware for a long time that he wasn't only attracted to women, but he'd never been bold enough to actually try to act on his feelings towards the men he'd found hot in the past. Dating women was just simpler, easier. He didn't have the time or inclination to learn what he assumed was a whole other language of etiquette and social mores when it came to flirting with guys. The most he'd ever done was try and kiss one of his best friends in high school– and he'd gotten his nose broken for interpreting those signals wrong.

As soon as he clocked out, Adam shoved his Santa hat into his locker, trading it for the lumpy beanie Vikki had knitted him for his birthday. She'd said that the green of it brought out the hazel in his eyes. He jammed it over his head and made his way past the chattering closers just clocking in, dreading the shock of late afternoon cold that was sure to greet him once he left the Macy's building.

"Hey, wait up." He turned to see Amanda just finishing wrapping her scarf around her face, mummy-style. Only her eyes were visible, sandwiched between her scarf and the upturned hood of her parka coat. "Grab a coffee?"

He grinned, holding the door open for her. "Yeah, sounds good."

The sun was slipping down past the buildings as they exited onto W 34th Street, bathing the sidewalk in gold. Amanda shuddered. "f*ck, it's freezing. You'd think if it's this cold, it'd at least have the decency to snow." Her voice was muffled, but he could still hear the exhaustion threading through her words.

"It did a bit last night. Not enough to stick, though." Adam jammed his hands in his coat pockets, and his fingertips brushed Lawrence's gloves. He balled up his fists, resisting the urge to hold onto the buttery leather. "Did you see that guy in the toy department earlier?" he asked, affecting as casual a tone as he could muster. "The blonde guy?"

Amanda glanced sideways at him as they ambled side-by-side down the sidewalk. Her face, what little he could see of it, was already windchapped and red from the cold. "You're gonna have to be more specific. There were a million people there today."

"He had a tan wool coat," Adam prompted. She looked blankly at him. "Uh, he had a cane?"

"I might've seen him, yeah. Why, was he a dick to you?"

"No, not at all. He was actually really nice." Adam cleared his throat. "He, uh, he left his gloves behind."

Amanda's shoulders twitched with a bemused half-shrug. "Okay...?"

"Would– it would be creepy of me to send them to him, right? I have his address. From a shipping slip for an oversize order."

She blinked at him, unimpressed. "If you have to ask if something is weird, it's probably weird."

"No, yeah, you're right." His fingers grazed the gloves again. "It's just– I dunno. I want to..."

He didn't know how to finish that thought. To prove he was human? To reach into the man's life somehow, to squeeze his way into his mind like Lawrence had settled his way into Adam's?

"I want to do something nice for someone," he decided on saying. "You know, 'tis the season, or whatever. It gets so f*cking suffocating in there, all the– all the consumerism and plastic and bullsh*t. I just want to do something kind. Something real, for once."

Amanda tipped her head up, her eyes catching the twinkling lights. "Yeah," she said quietly. "Yeah, I get that."

The sky was dark enough for her breath to show against the navy blue, puffing out in little illuminated clouds dyed golden from the Christmas lights strung up and down the streets. The tip of her nose was raw and red, her bottom eyelashes glittering with condensation, and Adam was filled with a sudden rush of affection for her, for the slots they'd neatly and unintentionally filled in each others' lives. Not quite friends, but more than just coworkers. He hoped she was going home to someplace warm.

They walked the rest of the way to the coffeeshop in silence, split only by the noise of the city flowing around them like a river.

“Doing anything fun for the holidays?” Adam asked, once they had their coffees in hand. He hoped it wasn't an overstep of boundaries– he knew that Amanda rarely, if ever, talked to her family. "I know Hanukkah ended a couple days ago, but–"

Amanda hummed noncommittally. “John wants to go to an ASCE lecture in Paramus on the 23rd, so that's my quota of holiday cheer."

"A what lecture?"

"American Society of Civil Engineers. The lecture's about some tower in China, the world's tallest building. He goes nuts for stuff like that."

"Sounds thrilling." John was a bit of a puzzle to Adam. Amanda talked about him like he was her father, but she only ever used his first name, so Adam didn't think they were related. He had a suspicion he was Amanda's sponsor or something similar, but he never wanted to pry. John had come to the store once to drop off an umbrella for Amanda; he and Adam had exchanged only a few words, but he seemed nice enough.

"Tell me about it." She smiled fondly, the left corner of her mouth raising more than the right. "But it makes him happy, so...y'know. I go with it." She popped the lid off her coffee to blow on it, sending steam to rise in clouds around her face. "What about you? For the holidays, I mean."

Adam took a sip of his coffee in lieu of answering right away, wincing as it scalded his tongue. "My mom wants me to come up to Buffalo."

"That sounds nice."

He chewed his lip. "I already said no. Amtrak tickets are too expensive– and besides, I'd have to hang out with her sh*thead husband." It'd be nice to see his step-sister, but not worth the cost of being stuck in that tiny house, faking smiles and choking down eggnog. He'd send her gift in the mail instead.

"Mm. Gotcha." Amanda looked up at the plastic banner above the coffeeshop doorway. The C in "Merry Christmas" had fallen off, and some employee had replaced it with a Post-It note with the letter written in Sharpie. "Are you gonna spend Christmas with Vikki, then?"

"Nah. She's going to Connecticut to be with her parents." He sighed. "I'll probably just take it easy, after the hours I've worked. I dunno, though. Feels weird not having plans. It's not that I care a whole lot about Christmas, but..."

This time last year, he'd been on the train to Philadelphia, clutching the gift he'd scraped together the funds to buy for his dad. That particular visit had ended in a screaming match, a busted hand from punching the wall, and effectively being banned from visiting until he'd gotten his act together– his dad's words, not Adam's. He knew he was a f*ck-up, but hearing it out loud hurt more than he'd care to admit. He sometimes wondered if there was something wrong with him, deeply and truly wrong– a missing piece that someone could find for him and snap into place to make him a different kind of man. He didn't feel like he'd be able to find it himself. He'd tried for twenty-five years already.

Amanda gently bumped against him, interrupting the spiral he was sending himself down. "Hey," she said suddenly. "I'm having a small get-together on the 25th. You can come, if you want."

Adam felt a lump forming in his throat. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. It's just me and a few friends getting stoned and watching Rudolph, but it should be fun." She sipped her coffee, not meeting his eyes. Adam was glad. He didn't want her to see how much it touched him that she was thinking of him. "I'll text you the address."

"Thanks, Mandy. That sounds– it sounds really nice."

She finally glanced at him, smiling. It made her look younger. "No problem."

––

Vikki was outside his apartment when Adam finally arrived home. "Hey, stranger," she said, grinning as Adam slouched towards the steps.

Adam straightened up, pushing on a smile that he hoped looked real enough. "You didn't tell me you were coming over."

"I wanted to surprise you. I brought takeout." She kissed his cheek; he had to make a concentrated effort not to flinch away from how cool her lips felt against his skin. A twinge of guilt sounded in his belly thinking of her waiting out here in the cold for him.

"That's super sweet of you, Vick. Thanks."

Vikki was a half an inch taller than him in her winter boots, but her frame was considerably more solid than Adam's lanky limbs. She was wearing an olive green army surplus coat that clashed prettily with her dyed red hair, a scarf long enough to brush her knees even though it was wrapped twice around her throat, and a pair of patched Dickies. In her hand was a plastic bag with takeout from the Chinese place down the street, still hot.

In all honesty, even though he was genuinely happy to see her, Adam didn't feel much like having his girlfriend over– he just wanted to sit on the fire escape with a cigarette and let the day wash over him, or maybe dip into his weed stash and get baked while watching Evil Dead II for the thousandth time. But here she was, shivering slightly despite her sensible layers, glowing backlit by the streetlamps with her mascara slightly smudged, real and solid and warm.

Adam grazed Lawrence's gloves in his pocket as he dug around for his keys to let them both in, and for a moment he felt a sharp jab of guilt for thinking about the doctor as much as he had been all day. He seemed so ephemeral now, just another charismatic stranger.

"Did you get the spare ribs?" he asked as he wrestled with the ancient lock.

Vikki grimaced, scrunching her nose. "Veggie fried rice."

"Oh. Yeah, that's good too." The lock finally clicked, and Adam led the way up the stairs to his apartment.

They were only halfway up to the second floor when she broke the silence. “So, about Europe–“

He groaned internally. That’s why she’d come over.

Vikki was like this sometimes: persistent to the point of annoyance about bringing up things that Adam, for whatever reason, chose to avoid. When the cat who used to hang out outside his apartment had disappeared, she'd pushed him to put up missing flyers, even though he'd told her that he had probably just gone back home to his owner's place. And when he'd let slip that he was thinking about submitting his photos to a gallery in Brooklyn, she'd taken it upon herself to rearrange his portfolio with photos she thought the gallery owner would like best.

He usually admired that tenacity in her. It allowed her to do incredible things– she'd been an organizer with an anti-war group back when she and Adam had first met a year or so ago, and he'd gone with her to protests and helped send endless letters to newspapers and government officials about the causes she persuaded him to believe in. But when it came to his own life and ambitions, Adam wished she'd lay off sometimes. Not every person was destined to be someone amazing.

"I was thinking we should really nail down our plans for Italy, specifically," she continued, boots falling heavily on the worn stairs. "Because I definitely want to see Venice before it sinks. Lord know we've only got a few years left before global warming takes that option away entirely, unless we get SCUBA certifications."

Adam chuckled perfunctorily. "Yeah, Venice sounds nice."

"And Rome, right?"

"For sure."

They reached his apartment door, and Vikki loosened the scarf around her neck, sighing. "Are there any other cities you wanted to add?" she prompted as Adam wrestled with the finicky lock.

"Um– Paris, right? You mentioned Paris yesterday."

Vikki tilted her head in the way that she often did when she thought Adam was being particularly slow. "Paris is in France," she said, her tone as artificially patient as if she were talking to a toddler.

"I know." He gave the door one hard shove with his shoulder, fighting against the layers of paint that kept it wedged shut. It gave way with a reluctant squeal. "But you mentioned–"

"I'm talking specifically about Italy," she sighed, walking past him to put the bag of takeout on the kitchen table. "Were you paying attention?"

"No, yeah, sorry." He scrubbed a hand over his face, suddenly feeling a distant cloud of exhaustion and irritation threatening to swell. "Uh, what about...what about Sicily?"

"It's nice, sure, but my parents and I were just there a year or so ago." Yeah, that figured. Vikki's parents were the kind of rich that Adam didn't know whether to be in awe or resentful of. He'd been to her childhood home in Connecticut only once, and he'd gotten lost three times within the short weekend they'd had him over. If her parents hadn't taken such an immediate liking to him as they had, he'd almost suspect that the only reason Vikki was dating him at all was out of some sort of late-blooming sense of teen rebellion. Rich girl, poor boy. Tale as old as time. "What about Pompeii?"

"The city with the volcano?"

"Well, it's dormant, Adam."

He took a short breath. "Okay. Yeah, sure."

"You don't sound very excited."

Adam took two plates from the cupboard, setting them down on the table with perhaps a bit more force than necessary. "Sorry. I've had a super long day, that's all."

"Oh, god, tell me about it. I had a customer at Bluestockings today who told me that–"

He wished she hadn't come over. Adam had half a mind to start coughing, to pretend he'd gotten a cold at work, but even then she would probably insist on staying to take care of him. He felt guilty for even thinking of that as an inconvenience, but he just wanted to be left alone.

"Listen," he said, when she'd stopped her story to pour herself a glass of water, "I gotta be honest, Vick, I'm really tired. Do you mind if we talked about Europe tomorrow? I really just wanna spend time with you tonight. I'm sorry, I just– I don't have the energy to plan stuff out."

Her brow furrowed. "You said that this morning, too."

"Vikki..."

He could see the storm in her expression, deciding whether or not to keep pushing. At last, Vikki sighed. "Fine, yeah." She grabbed his bottle of vodka from the freezer. "Screwdrivers and a movie, then?"

Adam looped his arms around her neck, relieved. "Thanks. I'm sorry. It was a weird day at work."

"sh*tty customers?"

He thought again of those blue eyes, and felt another twinge of guilt. "No, just– long."

Vikki kissed him; he could taste the wax of her chapstick and a hint of the fruit-flavored gum she loved so much. "Only one more week, babe. Christmas Eve's next Friday, and that'll be it." She tucked her forehead against his shoulder and hummed softly. "You get the co*cktails mixed, I'll put the TV on and pick something out for us to watch."

Adam splashed together some orange juice and vodka into the novelty cactus-shaped glasses they'd found at Goodwill and joined her on the sofa, kissing her temple as she tucked herself against his side. She'd put on The Stepford Wives, one of her favorites.

“They filmed that down the road from Westport,” she commented over the credits, the way she always did, and Adam suddenly was overtaken by a vision of them doing this in ten years, in twenty, with grown-up jobs and a proper house, maybe a kid. She’d put on the same movie, and make the same observations, and he’d kiss her cheek.

He could imagine her older, growing into her own expectations and her mother’s greying hair. He couldn’t picture himself. It was just a stranger with his face.

“That’s the Lockwood Mathews mansion,” Vikki said, and Adam was miles away, maybe in Connecticut, maybe upstate. Maybe they’d have a dog, and photos on the walls from countless trips, and he’d have a 401k and a skill-less office job from Vikki’s dad’s connections, and they’d have a king-sized bed with throw pillows and a Tuscan kitchen. Maybe he’d be an alcoholic. Maybe he’d be f*cking his secretary.

The years stretched out in front of him, endless, milquetoast and suburban and perfectly fine, and he thought again about the model train, never deviating and never stopping, circling in a placid loop until some huge hand flicked the switch to stop it.

"This is all so silly, it's just my head," Carol Van Sant said on the TV, over and over again, and Adam wanted to do something violent, to jump the track.

Instead, he set down his empty plate of veggie fried rice and put his hand on the warm skin of Vikki’s waist, under her shirt. She squirmed closer against him. “That tickles.”

He brushed her hair aside and kissed her neck. “Can I go down on you?” he asked softly. There were a limited number of things that could make his brain go quiet when he was in a mood like this, and he didn’t feel like having a hangover during an 8-hour holiday shift the next day. He’d rather have her thighs bracketing his head, fingers tangled in his hair, only focusing on one thing.

Vikki hummed, tilting her head to give him more access to her neck. “You’re too tired to talk about our vacation, but not too tired to eat me out?”

“Please.” Adam nipped lightly on her earlobe, feeling her shiver. "Let me, please?"

She met his eyes, warm chocolate brown, and for a fleeting, awful, gorgeous moment, he pictured them blue. “Yeah. Yeah, alright.”

––

They didn’t end up finishing the movie. Adam made her cum twice, blaming his own lack of arousal on the vodka when she reached for him. There was a pleasant buzz under his skin as she kissed his cheek, yawning, and shuffled into his bedroom.

He threw out the takeout containers and left the dishes in the sink, stifling a yawn of his own. It was only eight o’clock, and though he very well could’ve joined her in his bed, warming them both against the chill of the busted heating system his landlord refused to fix properly, Adam wanted to do something else first.

On one of the thrifted bookshelves where he kept his old camera parts, there was a stack of bulk Christmas cards with a cheesy cartoon of a smiling wreath on the front. He took one and its matching envelope and carefully copied down the address Lawrence Gordon had left on the shipping slip.

Adam opened the card and paused, ballpoint pen hovering over the blank space under the prewritten Let’s Get Jolly! message printed inside.

There really wasn’t a good way to phrase what he wanted to say. He didn’t even know what he was feeling. It was some enormous swelling in his chest, a nonsensical magnetic pull that he couldn’t prevent or explain.

I want to know more about you. I can’t stop thinking about you. I made my girlfriend cum while I was picturing your hands in my hair. I want to make you smile. I want to know why you make me so nervous.

In the end, he settled on Merry Christmas, courtesy of Macy’s lost-and-found. From– his pen had traced love above the page– employee no. 102904.

He sealed it and the gloves in the envelope, and bundled up to deposit it in the mailbox downstairs.

––

"Excuse me," an annoyed voice said, and Adam's head jolted up. The man at the counter in front of him raised his eyebrows, as if prompting him to say something.

"Sorry, what?"

"I said, does the President Barbie doll only come with a red suit?"

"Um, yeah. Just the red."

The man rolled his eyes and walked off without so much as a thank you, and Adam barely kept himself from sneering after him.

He was three hours into a painful shift, already counting the minutes until his break. It was Sunday the 19th, and the store was in full fever pitch. He barely had time to feel tired.

"Adam?"

He looked up, hoping his manager couldn't read the irritation in his face. "Yeah, be with you in a second–"

"Your doctor's on the phone."

Adam blinked. He hadn't had a primary care physician since his dad had kicked him off his insurance plan. "...sorry, who?" If this was Scott crank calling the store again, he'd kill him.

"He said his name’s Dr. Gordon."

Adam's heart suddenly rabbited in his chest. The man from the other day. The gloves.

"Oh. He's– he called the store?"

"Yeah. He's on hold for you." Greg's expression was dour. "Personal calls are for personal cells, Adam."

"I know. It won't happen again." He stepped away from the register, tongue heavy and dry in his mouth. The smooth plastic of the store phone was cool in his hand as he lifted it up and pressed the hold button. "Hello?"

"So you were the one who returned my gloves," that lilting voice said. He was speaking softly, and Adam turned his back to the customers and his irritated manager, huddling himself into the corner to hear him better. "You’re the man from the toy department, aren’t you?"

"I…yeah. That's me." He had no explanation to offer. It was so obviously an overstep of boundaries to memorize a customer's address. He was lucky Lawrence Gordon hadn’t called the police on him for being a stalker. "Uh, I just figured they'd end up rotting away in the lost and found here, and– and I had your address from the shipping form you filled out. I'm so sorry if it was– uh. I'm sorry."

"Oh, god, don't apologize." Lawrence laughed, and Adam pressed the phone closer to his ear, almost subconsciously. "I was calling to say thank you for sending them. They were a gift from my wife; I'm very glad to have them back."

His wife. Yeah, that figured.

Adam swallowed around the disappointment that he knew was absurd to even feel in the first place. "You're welcome," he said, feeling extremely stupid.

"Listen, I know this is out of the blue, but could I take you out to lunch?"

Adam blinked. "What?"

Lawrence cleared his throat. "I used to work retail myself. I know how long the days can get, working during the holidays. It'd be a pleasure for me to treat you to lunch. To thank you for the gloves, and for helping me with the train set."

His pulse jumped again, for a completely different reason. "Oh– sure. That would be great. Thank you."

"What time do you get out of work?"

Adam glanced at his watch. "Today? Um, I'm closing, so...nine."

"Hm. How about tomorrow?"

He grinned, even though he knew the doctor couldn't see it. "I'm not working tomorrow. Any time works for me."

"Great. Do you know Jewel Bako?"

"No, I don't. What's the address?" He scrabbled for a pen and paper and jotted down the address that Lawrence gave him. It was on the Upper East side; Adam was grateful that Lawrence had already mentioned treating him.

"I'll meet you there at...how's two o'clock?"

"Great. Perfect." Adam smiled against the receiver, suddenly feeling very giddy.

"Excellent. Thank you again, Adam. Oh– and happy holidays."

With a smooth click, the line went silent.

Chapter 3: must be like the genesis of rhythm

Notes:

okay so. don't get used to this updating so often, especially since the holidays are REALLY kicking into gear for me at work, but these idiots have such a stranglehold over my brain that I wrote this whole chapter in basically one sitting. all your lovely comments and kudos have also essentially catapulted my motivation into high gear so really you have nobody to blame but yourselves!

title is from Hot Knife by Fiona Apple; it was only a matter of time before she popped up and it won't be the last. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

"So, who's this guy again?" Vikki asked. She was leaning in the doorway of Adam's bedroom, watching, unimpressed, as he flung various shirts from his closet onto the bed.

"Some dude from the store." Adam lifted up his old grey pinstriped flannel, sniffed it, and tossed it into the laundry hamper.

"And he's taking you to lunch for– what, just returning his gloves?"

"I sent a card, too." The back of his neck was hot. He was regretting more and more that he'd even told her about meeting Lawrence for lunch. "It's...he seems like an old-fashioned kinda guy. I don't see what's so weird about it."

"No, yeah, it's definitely weird," Vikki declared, crossing the room to sit on the ancient beanbag chair that once occupied the corner of Adam's childhood room. "Are you sure he's not some kind of freak? What do you actually know about him?"

"I know that he's got a daughter and a wife," Adam said, critically examining a polo shirt he'd forgotten he owned. "And he lives in New Jersey."

"Oh, well, if he's from Jersey..."

Adam huffed out a short laugh. "Can you help me pick something out? I don't wanna get kicked out of the restaurant before I even order. It's a fancy place." He'd looked Jewel Bako up; it was a highly regarded sushi restaurant with a profile in New York Magazine and a Michelin star. The only sushi place he'd ever been to prior had a B rating from the health department and a line cook who did whippets in the alley behind the restaurant. Granted, that line cook had been his friend Scott, which was the entire reason he'd gone there in the first place, but still.

Vikki shifted forward, propping her chin on her hands. "What about the sweater you wore to meet my parents? The green one." He dove into his closet and held the sweater aloft for her approval. She nodded. "With a white button-up underneath and maybe some darker denim? That's a good outfit."

"The only white button-up I have's got an oil stain."

She stretched. "Well, it's not like you're gonna undress for the guy."

Adam laughed, the thought briefly dancing through his mind before he firmly shut it out.

It was just lunch.

––

He got to the restaurant half an hour early, more nervous than he'd expected to be. Adam lingered outside for a respectable twenty minutes before breaching the front door, taking his beat-up winter coat off before he did. "Uh, hi," he said to the maître d', who looked him up and down with something that looked suspiciously like polite disdain. "I'm meeting someone here. Dr. Lawrence Gordon?"

The man eyed him again, then glanced at the clipboard on his desk. His brow lifted, then he looked up with a smile. "Absolutely, sir. Right this way."

Adam followed him into the restaurant. It resembled a subway tunnel at first glance– curved walls arcing towards the high ceiling, lit with glowing striations of warm amber light. The quiet talk and laughter of the other, very well-dressed patrons echoed minutely off the wood panelling and high-backed booths; Adam glimpsed who he was almost sure was a low-level politician that he'd canvassed against with Vicki during the election. He was extremely glad he'd put the care he had into his appearance.

"Right here, sir." The maître d' smoothly slid two menus onto a table near the stone wall at the back of the restaurant, gesturing for Adam to take a seat. "And may I take your jacket for the coat check?"

He thought of the holes worn through the elbows, and clutched it tighter. "Uh, no thanks. I'm good."

"Very good." The man nodded. "Your waiter will be with you shortly."

Adam sat back in the booth, glancing surreptitiously around him at the people nearby. They were all straight-backed and elegant, flashing veneered smiles and talking at precisely the right volume to be heard by their companions and yet flowed past like a stream, unobtrusive to the other diners. He wondered if there was some manual you got in the mail once your bank account hit a certain number that told you how to act rich; it was like some secret language he just couldn't parse. He draped his coat on the seat of the booth, trying not to take up too much space.

“There you are.”

The tentative hand Adam had laid on the table skittered involuntarily, knocking his folded napkin out of place. He looked up to see Dr. Gordon– Lawrence– untucking his scarf from around his neck, the hint of a friendly smile on his handsome face. Adam felt his pulse quicken; he hadn't imagined him, after all. The doctor extended a hand, and Adam rose to meet him and shake it, praying that his palm wasn’t sweating enough to be noticeable. He was glad that Lawrence was wearing his returned gloves. “Did you find the place alright?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Adam wet his lips, waiting to sit back down until Lawrence did first, hooking the handle of his cane neatly on the back of his chair. “It’s nice. Really nice.”

Lawrence glanced around, as if noticing his surrounding for the first time. “It is, isn’t it?" He slipped his gloves off and put them in the pocket of his jacket in a smooth, practiced gesture. "I’m a bit of a snob for sushi, and the chef is a friend of mine. Our daughters go to the same school.”

“Cool.” Adam nodded, somewhat at a loss for words.

Now that Lawrence himself was in front of Adam again, he seemed so terrifyingly real. What exactly was he expecting from Adam? What did people talk about at lunches like this? He couldn't look directly at Lawrence's face for too long; it was like looking at the sun.

He was relieved when the waiter appeared at the side of the table almost immediately to hand them their menus, but he hardly had time to open it before Lawrence was ordering. "The usuzukuri, please. And some green tea."

"And for you, sir?"

Adam's gaze flashed once, panicked, across the menu before he surrendered. "Uh, I'll have the same thing. Thanks." He had a feeling he’d just embarrass himself trying to pronounce the Japanese anyway.

“Excellent. I'll bring some water for the table."

The waiter left, and Lawrence regarded Adam with a small, contemplative smile. "Thank you for the Christmas card, by the way," he said after a moment, lacing his fingers together on the tabletop with a casual air that Adam wished he could imitate without being too obvious about it. "Believe it or not, it's the first I've received this season."

"Really?"

"Well– the first by mail, anyway. My daughter made me one in class. She's quite the artist."

Adam grinned. "That's the daughter who's getting the train set, right?"

"Diana." Each syllable of her name was pronounced with pride and love. Lawrence reached into his back pocket and drew his wallet out, handing it across the table for Adam to see the multiple photos inside: Diana hugging a dog that was as big as she was, Diana bundled up in a pink hoodie in a park somewhere. She looked like Lawrence, especially her smile.

"She's beautiful." Adam handed the wallet back.

"Isn't she?" Lawrence looked at the photos again, beaming, before sliding his wallet back into his pocket. "She's nine, and already so precocious. I'm glad you suggested the train set for her. We took the Amtrak to visit Alison's parents in Chicago this past summer, and she just loved it."

"Alison– that's your wife?"

"Mm." His smile seemed to stiffen a little, no longer quite reaching his eyes. "Not for very much longer, though. We're divorcing."

Adam was spared having to respond immediately as their waiter arrived with their waters. He took a long, steadying sip, his mind racing. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said, once it was just the two of them again. “My, uh, my parents are divorced, so I know how…how tough it can be. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.” Lawrence smoothly placed his napkin on his lap; after a moment of hesitation, Adam did the same. “Yes, I remember you mentioning you had a step-sister.”

The fact that Lawrence had remembered such a tiny detail from their conversation made Adam’s heart stutter, completely without his permission. Be normal, man. He probably just has a good memory. “Uh, yeah. Julia. I call her Jules, but her dad hates that.” He scratched his nose, a little embarrassed. “My mom’s husband. He’s kind of a dick, honestly.”

“Do you see them a lot? Your parents?”

“No.” Adam looked down at the white linen tablecloth, unsure what to do with his hands. “Mom’s still in Buffalo. Dad moved to Philly after the divorce. I see my mom a little more often, she comes to visit the city sometimes, but...”

The waiter appeared again, this time with an elegant pot of tea and two small handleless cups of bone-colored ceramic. Lawrence lifted the pot. "Tea?"

"Sure. Thanks."

As Lawrence poured the tea for both of them, his gaze flicked over Adam's face once again. “How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Adam smiled humorously. “Twenty-five. I know, I don't look it." He often got told that he either looked like a teenager, or like someone much older than he was. The acne scars pitting his cheeks and the bags under his eyes didn't help clarify his age to strangers. "Blame it on my sh*tty job.”

“No, you look exactly the way I did when I was twenty-five.” Lawrence set the teapot down, considering him. "Tired," he clarified, a frank smirk twitching at his lips. "Bored. A bit confused."

Despite the now-familiar butterflies in his stomach at the doctor's smile, Adam's ire rose a little at that. "Hey–"

Lawrence winced. "I didn't mean it as an insult. Just...I'd only just graduated from medical school when I was your age, and honestly, I was f*cking lost."

Adam hadn't been expecting him to be the kind of person who cursed easily. It put him a bit more at ease. "At least you had a promising career path to show for it. All I do is stock shelves and take photos."

"You’re a photographer, then.” Adam nodded. “For the store? Or as a hobby?"

"Hobby." He shrugged. "I mean– I'd like it to be a career some day. But I don't even have a half-decent camera. And working freelance doesn't pay too well when you're a complete nobody."

"All the greatest artists started out as nobodies, you know." Lawrence paused to take a sip of his tea. "I'd love to see your work."

"I have some of it on here." Adam fished for his phone and flipped it open, navigating to the pictures folder. "You can't see it really well on the phone screen, but I took a couple of photos of my best ones." He handed Lawrence the phone and took a nervous sip of his tea as the doctor clicked through the photos. They were mostly of buildings and the limited amount of nature he was able to find sprouting through the cracks of the city– a bird hidden in the branches of a tree on the sidewalk, light filtering through smog in expansive rays to cast the street in sharp shadow, the crags of a boulder in Central Park, shot from low on the ground so that it looked big enough to rival the skyscrapers. He rarely photographed people; it seemed like an invasion of privacy. "I, uh, I shoot on film, mostly. You have the most control over the image that way. And I develop them myself, in my apartment."

"Adam, these are wonderful." Lawrence's gaze was piercing when he looked back up, his blue eyes almost green in the soft light of the restaurant. Adam could feel himself blush. He took back the phone as Lawrence handed it to him, being careful not to let their fingers touch for fear of letting the doctor feel how sweaty his hands were. “What draws you to photography?” he asked as Adam slipped his phone back into his pocket.

“I dunno. I never really thought about it.”

Lawrence smiled over his tea, almost an embarrassed expression. “That wasn’t a very clear question, I guess. I meant, what are you trying to capture, emotionally? It’s very clear that you have an eye for detail, given the composition of your photos. I guess I don't quite have the– the artistic vocabulary for what you're able to convey, other than saying that they're very beautiful. What's your intent when you take a picture?”

He took another sip from his own tea while he gathered his thoughts. Lawrence’s praise made Adam want to speak carefully, to not be as dismissive of his own skill as he usually was. And he was right– there was always some intangible thing he wanted to capture in his photos that he wasn't able to express aloud, not even to the people he knew best in his life. The still, quiet beauty of an afternoon alone in the park, with the first frost of morning still glimmering on the dead grass, turning it into tiny crystalline sculpture, or even the rush in the afternoon of a thousand people, all moving like fish in a teaming river, all joined and separated by the lives that they'd share with each other for just a moment– he always wanted to try and take those moments, encase them through his lens, and say look, this is everything. He couldn't express in words what those things made him feel, the aching loneliness of being both within and without the world.

“I want other people to be able to see what I see,” he settled on saying. “I guess– I dunno. I want to communicate as directly as I can." He spotted at his mouth with the napkin, and looked down at the hand he'd laid on the table, at the blush of cold still present on his knuckles. "Words can get confusing, but my camera can’t lie.”

“You don’t want to feel alone in the way you see the world,” Lawrence said softly. Adam looked up, and met the doctor’s gaze. They held there, silent. “You want to be understood.”

It was a long moment before Adam looked away. There was a stinging of tears at the corner of his eyes, and he didn’t quite know why.

“Man,” he said, laughing around the jagged lump in his throat, “I just want to bring a little more beauty in the world, as cheesy as that sounds. Like Ferris Bueller said– life moves pretty fast. If you don’t look around, you might miss it.”

Lawrence grinned. He almost looked boyish, his cheeks pink. “That’s one of my favorite films.” He considered Adam; though that single shining moment of understanding had faded, he felt that the other man was still with him. “You said that you develop your photos at home?"

"Yeah. I mean, I wouldn't be able to afford an actual studio."

"If it's not too much to ask, I'd very much like to see some full-sized prints. The phone screen's pretty small; I doubt it does your work justice."

Adam nervously tugged on his earlobe, fingers finding the bump from the piercing that had never quite fully healed. The back of his neck was hot. "I'd like that, yeah. They're not on display anywhere, but–"

"Your usuzukuri." The waiter set two plates down, one before each man. "Enjoy." The usuzukuri was delicately fanned out in a circle, the thin, almost translucent slices of raw fish layered until it resembled a flower. Lawrence picked up his chopsticks, and Adam did too, thankful for the endless Chinese takeout he'd made a habit of ordering. If he f*cked up using the utensils in front of Lawrence, he thought he'd die of embarrassment on the spot.

"You like sushi, right?" Lawrence asked, just as Adam took his first bite. "I'm sorry, I should've asked before suggesting this place."

He swallowed; the slice was nearly melting in his mouth. "I've only had it a few times, but yeah, I like it. This is– it's really, really good."

Lawrence smiled. "Do you live in Manhattan?" he asked, delicately rolling two thin slices of fish onto his chopsticks with practiced grace.

"Yeah. In Greenwich Village, just near Washington Square."

"With someone, or...?"

Adam's heart thudded in an odd half-step. "No. I mean– I have a girlfriend, Vikki. Uh. But she doesn't live with me, she's got a place in Brooklyn."

"Oh. I'm surprised."

"What, that I–?" He didn't know how to finish the accusation. That he wasn't single? That he had a girlfriend, despite the way he was trying desperately not to look at Lawrence's mouth and hands?

"New York is expensive when you live on your own," Lawrence said mildly, and some of the tension left Adam's shoulders. "I thought you might have a roommate. How long have you and your girlfriend been together?"

"Um– about a year, I think." He took another bite. Swallowed. The sushi really was delicious. "I got a stupidly good deal on my apartment, and her rent costs twice mine, so it really just kind of makes sense for us to live separately."

Adam couldn't read Lawrence's expression. "I see."

"And you live in New Jersey, right?"

"In Woodcliff Lake. It's about half an hour from the city." Lawrence took a bite of the edible garnish in the center of the usuzukuri's spiral. "I practiced oncology at Mount Sinai, though."

He noticed the past tense. "You don't anymore?"

"I work from home these days, mostly." Lawrence's lips flattened slightly into a humorless smile. "I'm on leave from practicing surgery until the spring, at least. Navigating the OR is a bit more difficult for me with this." He gestured towards the cane handle hooked over his chair. "I was in a fairly bad car accident this past October. I lost my foot– my right foot."

"Oh my god." Adam put a hand to his mouth, then quickly took it away. He didn't want Lawrence to think he was overreacting, but the thought of the man in front of him going through something so painful, even though he barely knew him..."I'm so sorry, Lawrence."

"Thank you." He let out a soft breath, almost a sigh. "I'm just glad that Diana was alright."

"She was in the car with you?"

"No, we..." Lawrence swallowed. "Neither of us were. We were out trick-or-treating, and–" He looked down at the slightly trembling hand he'd left resting on the table, and Adam suddenly felt horrible.

"I'm– I'm sorry. You don't have to talk about it."

"It's fine." He smiled again, smaller. It didn't quite reach his eyes. "Like I said, my daughter is safe. That's all that really matters."

On instinct, Adam reached across the table and put his hand over the doctor's. He didn't know why he did it– to offer comfort, to siphon his pain away through touch, somehow. Lawrence's skin was warm. Adam could imagine those hands in surgery, or hugging his daughter. Steady, reassuring.

They only touched for a moment before Adam snatched his hand away again, as quickly as if he'd been burned. "S-sorry," he said again, mortified.

"It's fine." He could tell Lawrence was looking at him, but Adam couldn't meet his eyes. He felt as if he'd transgressed some unwritten rule, some law that naturally separated men like Lawrence from guys like him. "I appreciate it, Adam, really. I do."

"Um–" His head was spinning; he could still feel the warmth of the doctor's hand under his fingertips. "I..."

Lawrence saved him by changing the subject. "What are you doing this Thursday?"

"Nothing. I mean– I'm working in the morning. I get out at noon. Last holiday shift of the year." Adam finally raised his head again. The other man's expression was completely placid once again, with only a faintly amused twitch of his lips.

"I'm glad to hear it." His eyes shifted down to his plate to eat another bite of the sushi. "Would you like to celebrate by getting out of the city?"

"What do you mean?"

"Come visit me. In New Jersey."

Adam took a short breath. "Really? I mean– yes. I'd like to, yeah. Thanks." He grinned.

Those blue eyes were considering him again, silent for long enough that Adam was able to relax and take another sip of his tea. "You're an unusual man, Adam," he said quietly, just as Adam was about to ask him some meaningless question.

He set his tea down, more curious than offended. He doubted he could ever be offended by anything the man said. "Why?"

Lawrence had a strange expression on his face. "Flung out of space," he said.

Notes:

sorry this is shorter than the others, I just had to end the chapter on Lawrence's last line!

Chapter 4: and i was feeling some feelings you wouldn't believe

Notes:

sorry for the delay in updates! the holidays and work and family were A Lot lmao. hopefully a slightly longer chapter than usual will make up for my absence! thank you to all of my twitter and tumblr friends who generously donated their names to this chapter haha

content warning for mentions of hom*ophobia; chapter title is from Down In It by Nine Inch Nails. enjoy!

Chapter Text

Adam was in a peculiar, lightheaded mood for the rest of the afternoon. He and Lawrence had parted ways after they'd settled on a time and place for the doctor to pick him up to drive him to Lawrence's house the next day; Adam's skin was still buzzing under his threadbare gloves at the friendly clasp of his elbow that Lawrence had given him as they'd shook hands.

They'd also exchanged phone numbers, and as Adam ducked into the subway, his phone buzzed with a text from Lawrence.

It was nice to get to know you a bit more. See you tomorrow. :)

Adam grinned. Of course he would text in full sentences. And with proper grammar.

Just as he was about to respond, he startled as his phone lit up with an incoming call from Vikki. He nearly dropped it, stomach pitching peculiarly. It was unusual for her to cold-call him like this– especially since for all she knew, he could still be out to lunch with Lawrence. "Hey, babe," he said, wincing at how artificial his voice sounded, even to him. "What's–"

"I'm so sorry to spring this on you," Vikki said in a rush. He could hear clattering in the background. "But Maddie can't host the party tonight, her heating just got cut, so I said– I said we could come to the apartment instead. Is that okay?" He heard the rustling of a trash bag. "I'm– I'm here now, cleaning up. You don't have to worry about that, just grab us some booze."

f*ck. He’d forgotten about the party. Adam bit back a heavy sigh. Vikki already sounded stressed enough, and he knew that getting into an argument now would do nothing except make her mood even worse. "How many people?" he asked, rubbing his forehead.

"Um, there's Maddie, Sam, Synni, Oliver, Sarah, Aaron, River, Scott and Gracie, Lark, Jamie, Harvey, Mike...August, Cecilia, um, I think Ben...Alan might be coming, I'll have to ask..."

He could already feel a headache building. "So the whole bookstore crew and Wrath?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry for the short notice. I didn't really think about it, I just said yes."

Adam stopped himself from pointing out that she hadn't simply said yes, she'd volunteered to host an entire Christmas party at an apartment that wasn't even hers. "It's fine," he said instead, fumbling for his wallet to check how much cash he had. "Just– just pay me back when you can, okay?"

"I will. Love you."

"Yeah. Love you too." He hung up, mouthed a fervent curse to himself, and headed for the nearest liquor store, frustration burning under his skin.

It wasn't uncommon for Vikki to treat his place as theirs– she had a key, after all. And she often charged ahead like this, making plans and commitments that Adam couldn't follow through with half as enthusiastically, if at all.

Adam had only been half-honest with Lawrence about why they hadn't moved in together. In all truthfulness, he didn't want her to move in with him, or him with her, because it felt like it would make things too official between them. Sure, they'd dated for over a year, and Vikki had been asking him about moving in– in vague, non-expectant terms– but Adam had always resisted. It seemed like more of an obligation, he'd argued. Just the kind of thing people did automatically, without thinking it through, because it was what was expected in that stage of a relationship. Vikki hadn't protested, but she'd taken to popping over unexpectedly more and more often– or volunteering the apartment for gatherings like this. He couldn't decide whether it was passive aggression or just a genuine lack of concern for Adam's introversion.

Either way, it was a hell of a crew to descend on the place, a lethal mixture of Vikki's friends that she'd made through working at Bluestockings or at various music and art scenes in the city, and Wrath of the Gods, the band that Adam's friend Scott had started and that Adam had briefly been lead guitar in. Those two demographics mixed surprisingly well; the fiercely feminist anti-war riot grrls and the anarcho-punk metalheads always had a common enemy of The Man– and certain members of each group also a habit of hooking up in any closet whose door was left unlocked– but Adam could tell it was going to be an absolutely exhausting evening.

An idea occurred to him as he was waiting in line at the liquor store, leaning his forearms on a metal cart stacked high with vodka, beer, and mixer. He pulled out his phone and shot off a text.

hey mandy its adam. wna com 2 my place 4 a xmas party 2nite?

He got Amanda's response just as he was leaving, juggling five plastic bags.

sounds stupid. im in.

––

Vikki opened the door with a face full of relief and makeup, still brandishing a mop. "You're an absolute saint," she said, immediately setting the mop down to take some of the bags Adam was lugging. "I'll pay you back, I promise."

"Thanks." He carried the rest in and dumped them on the kitchen table, peering around. Vikki had scrubbed the place within an inch of its life; even the lingering smell of cigarettes and pot was replaced by Febreze and cleaning chemicals. She'd put up strings of Christmas lights that twinkled softly in the evening light filtering through the windows, and, as if to tempt fate, even a sprig of mistletoe above the doorway to the living room. "It looks...huh. It actually looks nice."

"Yeah, don't get used to it." Vikki critically examined the bottle of Everclear she'd pulled from one of the bags. "Jesus– what are you, fifteen? This stuff tastes like gasoline."

"I was on a budget, Vick."

"I said I'd pay you back!"

"Yeah, but that's not gonna make money magically appear in my wallet–" Adam bit back the anger rising in his throat. "Listen, I got cranberry and orange juice too, okay? Nobody's gonna drink it by itself."

Vikki let out a caustic laugh, stuffing all the bags but one into the cabinet by the sink. "I've seen Scott chug half a bottle of vodka before."

"...okay, fair." Adam scrubbed a hand down his face; he'd stopped being able to feel his nose after walking only two blocks. "What time is everyone coming?"

"Around five."

Half an hour, then. He swallowed against complaining about the tiny timeframe she'd given them. "Anything I can do to help set up? Clean, decorations...?"

"Yeah, if you wanna tidy up the darkroom. I know you don't like me going in there, so I didn't touch it."

Adam felt his brows creasing in the way that Vikki always told him made him look ten years older than he actually was. "Nobody's gonna go in there, though."

"It's the principle of the thing." She was already stacking Solo cups on the kitchen counter, looking critically at the arrangement of snacks and drinks. "And what if you want to show Jamie your photos?"

"I mean..." Jamie was the new drummer for Wrath of the Gods. Adam had only met him once, briefly, and had liked him well enough– he was less of a dick than the majority of people that Scott preferred to associate with. He also worked part-time at a gallery, and Vikki was always pressuring Adam to show him his photography. Adam was too embarrassed to network with him like that; in his opinion, work was work, and friends were friends. He never wanted to impose too much. "I guess so," he said finally, playing with the edge of the tablecloth Vikki had draped over the kitchen table. "If he asks."

She'd lost interest in the topic. "Do you think this is enough snacks for sixteen people?" Vikki asked, opening another bag of chips and dumping it into the plastic bowl sitting on the counter. "Or do you think you should go out and grab more?"

"Seventeen," Adam remembered. "I invited Amanda. From work."

Vikki glanced back at him, one eyebrow raised. "Oh."

"What?"

"No, just...you've never mentioned an Amanda." Her tone was artificially light.

"Yeah, she mostly works in the sports department. She's cool, I think you'll like her."

She nodded slowly. "Okay. Sure."

The heady surge of irritation was back, setting hot and stiff in the corners of his jaw, daring him to bite. Adam shoved it down. "Honestly, she reminds me a lot of Maddie," he tried. "She's very– she's very antiestablishment."

It was as if she hadn't heard him. "You couldn't have seen her at work today, you were seeing that doctor guy for lunch. You've got her phone number, then?"

He almost laughed at that. "Jesus, Vikki, she's just a friend. And she invited us to her Christmas party, too, so I thought I'd just...y'know. Do the same."

"Oh." Vikki seemed to relax a little. "That's sweet, actually. She invited both of us?"

"Yeah." It didn't seem like such an enormous lie; Adam knew that Vikki wouldn't be able to come anyway, so what was the harm? "Yeah, she wants to meet you."

"Do you talk about me a lot at work?" She smiled minutely, still holding the bag of chips in one hand and resting the other on the counter, next to where her hip was leaned against it. Her lipliner was smudged a little on the left corner of her mouth, and Adam was struck by the sudden urge to kiss the rest of it off, just to put her mind more at ease.

"All the time," he lied.

--

The bookstore crew arrived in fits and bursts, one or two people at a time, greeting Vikki first before Adam. At some point he was handed a bottle of wine, and he wasn't sure whether to chill it or put it on the table, so he hovered awkwardly in the kitchen for a little while as Vikki made the rounds, kissing peoples' cheeks and dispensing hugs like she hadn't seen them for weeks. Someone had brought a stereo, and before long the sound of Christmas music was blaring through the apartment. Adam poured himself a strong drink and drifted from conversation to conversation, trying to dredge names and hobbies up from his memory so he didn't seem completely like a useless accessory of a boyfriend.

"How's, um, the running?" he asked Sarah, chewing nervously on an ice cube as he strained to hear her answer over a raucous burst of laughter nearby.

Her eyes lit up. "Yeah, it's been great! I've shaved off a whole 1.5 seconds from my last time. It's actually–"

"Babe?" Vikki called, somewhere to his left. "The buzzer just went off. I think it's Scott."

Obediently, Adam went to get it.

Sure enough, Scott was at the door with the rest of the band, laughing raucously at a joke one of them had told, one arm draped around his girlfriend's waist and the other holding a cigarette, despite– or, knowing him, probably because of– Adam's previous pleas to stop smoking in the apartment. He locked eyes with Adam and grinned wolfishly. "Aw, there's the reason for the season. Where's the f*ckin' food?"

Adam returned the smile, though there was that familiar restless pit in his stomach whenever Scott was around. The taller man was rough and unpredictable, and Adam always felt himself on edge around him, ever since they were young. "Good to see you, man," he said, gesturing to the kitchen. "Uh, drinks and snacks are that way."

"Wicked." Scott punched him in the shoulder as he passed, leaving ash on his shirt.

His girlfriend Gracie grimaced apologetically as she passed, and Adam sighed heavily before smiling sheepishly at the rest of the band. "Happy holidays, guys."

Mike and Aaron filed in, while Lark handed Adam a small gift bag with the clearance pricetag still attached. "Happy holidays," he mumbled, and made a beeline for the speakers.

That just left Jamie lingering awkwardly by the door. "It's a CD," he said, shrugging his coat off and folding it nervously. "Uh. One of ours."

"Huh?"

"In the bag." He nodded at the gift bag Adam was still holding. "It's one of our EPs. Scott's idea."

Adam chuckled, and Jamie gave him an answering embarrassed smirk. "Well, it's good music. C'mon in, I'll get you a drink."

"How's the store?" Jamie asked as Adam gathered everyone's jackets and dumped them on an unoccupied sofa.

"Oh, y'know. Torture. But it's almost over– my last day's on Thursday."

"Last day of the holiday season, or for good?"

He picked up two beers, handing one to Jamie. "Both. I'm a seasonal hire."

"I'll drink to that."

They clinked bottles, and Adam took a deep swig, gazing absently around the party. It was his third drink, and it was starting to go to his head. Around him, the pleasant haze of weed and conversation and throbbing music– Lark had changed it from a poppy Christmas album to Nine Inch Nails, greeted by scattered cheers– started to feel more and more like home.

"What's next?"

"Sorry?"

Jamie took another drink, eyeing Adam appraisingly. His lips twitched. "You said you're a seasonal hire– do you have something else lined up, or...?"

"Oh– nah. I dunno. Probably more retail." Maybe it was the alcohol, but Adam felt suddenly a bit more cavalier about being asked the same questions that had been bothering him in the dead of night. "I'm not really good at much."

He frowned. "I heard you're a good photographer."

"I mean, yeah. I am." Adam shrugged. "But I can't– I can't make much of a living off it."

"Maybe you can." Jamie tilted his head, picking at the bottle's label. "Show me your stuff. I can talk to some people at the gallery."

Adam straightened. "Really? Thanks, man, that would be– I'd really appreciate it."

"You've got a darkroom here, right?"

"Yeah, it's just over in the spare bedroom–"

He was interrupted by a shout from Gracie. "Hey– Jamie! Get over here, we're doing shots!"

With another shy smile, Jamie started to head over to the snack table, where the blonde was beckoning him. "Later," he promised. "I'll come find you."

"Yeah. Yeah, please do."

--

By eleven, Adam was properly drunk, comfortable enough in his own skin to chat with Vikki's friends without worrying about making too much of an ass of himself. He was chatting with Alan about Radiohead, passionately defending The Bends, when Vikki put her chin on his shoulder to get his attention. "Door's ringing," she said, kissing his cheek. "Must be your friend."

"Oh, sh*t–" Adam stumbled away to get the door, pointing somewhat off-centeredly towards Alan as he did. "We'll– we'll talk about going to Lollapalooza, for sure!" he called, even though he knew he wouldn't be able to afford it.

"For sure, man." Alan pointed back, stifling a laugh.

Grinning, Adam turned and pulled the door open. "Mandy, hey!"

"Hey, Adam." She returned his smile, a bit more hesitantly. Amanda was wearing a miniskirt and a red top, her hair even more spiky than usual. She was carrying a plastic bag with dozens of small, round things in it that Adam couldn't determine. "Uh, happy holidays–"

He was already hugging her before he could stop himself. "I'm so glad you came, dude! C'mon in, c'mon in– what'd you bring? That's so nice of you."

"Clementines," she said, gently extricating herself from his arms and lifting a clementine from the bag. "I wasn't really sure what to bring, I hope it's not weird–"

"Hey, this chick brought oranges!" someone yelled. A cheer went up around the room.

Adam was smiling so hard his mouth hurt. "See? They're into it. Have a drink."

She finally laughed, her shoulders relaxing visibly. "Alright. I'll have something light on alcohol."

"Amanda, right?" Vikki had finally made her way over to them, a tight smile on her face. "Hi. Glad you could come on such short notice."

"You must be Vikki." Amanda gave her what Adam recognized as her customer service smile, the one that helped all the older, more conservative shoppers look past the woman's grungy appearance and refer to her in their optional customer surveys as a "lovely young woman"– bright and cheerful, but not too artificial to call attention to itself. "He's told me a lot about you, it's nice to finally meet you. You grew up in Connecticut, right?"

Vikki softened a little. "Yeah, in Westport."

"No way, really? I used to volunteer at the library there. My mom's from Bridgeport."

Satisfied that both of them seemed to be getting along, Adam sidled off to get her a beer.

At the snack table, he ran into Jamie again. His hair was tousled and his cheeks were flushed, and he was laughing at something that August had said to him. "Adam! There you are, I was looking for you." His hand caught Adam's arm. "Hey– when you get a chance, can you show me your photos?"

"Absolutely, dude." Adam nodded fervently. "Meet me at the darkroom, yeah? It's just– it's that door, there." He pointed, and Jamie nodded, grinning. "I'm just gonna– the girls need drinks. I'll be right there, okay? Meet me– yeah."

Amanda and Vikki were deep into a conversation about Connecticut by the time Adam got back to them, two beers in hand for each of the women. Vikki took hers with an absentminded kiss to Adam's cheek. "So you've never been to the regatta there?" she continued, her voice incredulous.

"Uh, no. It never really...I wasn't really a boating kid." He could read Amanda's moods well enough to know that she wasn't entirely comfortable with whatever line of conversation Vikki was pursuing, and he quickly interrupted.

"Hey, babe, did you guys want to pick something new for us to listen to? Amanda's got great taste in music." It was an easy out, since Pretty Hate Machine had ended a few minutes prior.

Amanda perked up a little, and Vikki hummed. "How do you feel about Hole?" she asked, and Amanda's smile returned.

"f*cking love them," she said, darting Adam a grateful look.

He knew the feeling of being out of his depth worldly-experience-wise. Amanda had grown up poor, too, and that wasn't something Vikki was particularly sensitive to. "I'm just gonna show Jamie some of my photos in the meantime," he said, and headed for the darkroom as Vikki took Amanda's arm and led her to the shelf of CDs in the corner of the room.

Jamie was waiting for him, idly swirling the dregs of some strong-smelling drink in his plastic cup. He waited for Adam to go in first, following him quickly to not let any extra light in.

It was a small room, just large enough to fit shelving and tables to hold the different developing chemicals. Adam heard Jamie bump against one of the cabinets and curse; in the total darkness, his voice sounded quieter. "Do you have anything developing right now, or can I turn the lights on?"

It made Adam smile that he'd even asked in the first place. "I've got some undeveloped proofs sitting around, so you'd better not. Here–" He flicked on the secondary lightswitch next to the main, bathing the room in red.

Even though he'd tidied up a little, there was still enough chaos in the darkroom to take a moment for Jamie to locate the larger photos still drying on clothespins against the wall. He peered closely at one that Adam had taken a few days ago, of an empty alleyway nearby the apartment. "Do you have any in particular you wanted to show me?" he asked, his voice impressively steady given the number of drinks Adam had seen him with throughout the evening.

"Yeah. Yeah, um, I've got a folder of them." He scrabbled around one of the file cabinets he kept in the corner and drew out his meager portfolio, offering it to Jamie with a blush he hoped the other man couldn't see.

Jamie examined each photo critically while Adam tried not to squirm. For some reason Lawrence looking at his photography hadn't made him this nervous; he had the sense at the time that the doctor would look past any technical errors or blurs and see the message that Adam had been getting at with them– which he had, even to an extent that Adam hadn't quite anticipated. He didn't know quite what to do with that feeling of being known so quickly, so completely.

Finally, Jamie looked up. "These are good, man. Really good. I'll talk to the gallery director, I think I could get you a place there for the next exhibit."

Joy bubbled effervescently in his stomach. "Really?"

"Absolutely." He leafed through the photos again, pausing at one Adam had taken of Vikki at a protest they'd gone to together. Her teeth were bared mid-chant, and anger flashed vividly across her face. Behind her, the New York State Capitol loomed larger than life, the American flag flying from the top flickering out of reach of the last of the sunlight, bathing it in dark shadow. "This one's really something."

"Yeah, I took that in Albany. We drove over last March to join the protests– the, uh, the invasion had just started a few days ago. There must've been thousands of people there."

"It's the only one of another person," Jamie noted, peering around at the other prints hanging from the walls. "You– you don't do a lot of portraits."

He scratched the back of his neck. "Yeah. No, yeah, it's, um...I always feel awkward about it."

"About asking people? Or about taking the photos themselves?"

"Both, I guess."

Jamie craned his neck to examine a strip of film drying to the left of the fixing solution. "Worst someone can say is no."

"I mean, yeah, but– y'know. It's the principle of the thing." He sighed, picking up a print he'd left discarded on the table, a photo of a pair of footprints in the snow. One tiny, one large. It reminded him of Lawrence and his daughter. "I feel like– like when I take a picture of someone, I'm stealing something from them," Adam continued. "Like those religions where the people believe a part of your soul goes missing when your photo gets taken. It feels selfish, like some kind of invasion of privacy. The one of Vikki, it's...y'know. It's different with her."

"Because she's your girlfriend?"

He shook his head. "Because she wanted to be seen, in that moment. She was shouting to be heard. I was trying to...I dunno. Amplify that."

"And you don't want to do that for other people?"

"Not if I don't know what they're trying to say in the moment." He sighed and rubbed his forehead. "It's stupid."

"No, it– that makes sense." Jamie glanced at him, his expression unreadable. "If you took a photo of me, right now...what would my face be saying?"

His voice was different now. Adam's stomach twisted minutely. "I...I don't know."

"Take your time." Jamie turned to fully face him. His face was placid, but there was a twitch in his eyebrows, some complication tugging at his mouth. He was nervous, and it was contagious. "What do you see when you look at me?"

"I see..." He took a steadying breath. "Um. A guy in his twenties. Tall. Brown hair, brown eyes. Uh."

"And– and what am I trying to say?""

He was very close now. Adam swallowed, the bitterness of his last beer burning his throat. He knew he was crushing the corner of the photo in his hand, but he couldn't stop the nervous flex of his fingers. "I don't know. I can't...I can't tell."

Jamie wet his lips. "Can't you?"

"Jamie–"

And suddenly, he was kissing him, fingers threading through Adam's hair.

His brain short-circuited. Lips, soft and wet. Arms, holding him. Adam automatically lifted his hands to grip at Jamie's elbows; whether to push him away or hold him tighter, he didn't know. He felt the other man's teeth sink into his lower lip, and he moaned, unable to stop himself. His mind was fuzzed over. He couldn't think.

Jamie pulled away suddenly, his breath rough and fast on Adam's lips. "Sorry. I'm– I'm sorry."

"I..." Adam didn't pull away. Not fully. "Why'd– why'd you do that?"

"I thought...never mind. I'm sorry. Don't– don't tell Scott, okay?"

"Wait–"

"He doesn't know I'm gay, and I-I don't know how he'd– I'm drunk, okay? I didn't mean–"

He wanted to feel the scratch of stubble on his cheek again. He wanted Jamie to leave. "I won't tell him."

Jamie's eyes were wet. "f*ck, I'm– I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have done that."

"It's okay," Adam said automatically. "It's alright."

The other man froze. "Wait, y-you mean...you don't mind?"

"I don't mind that you're gay." His tongue was thick in his mouth.

"B-but...but you're–?"

Adam swallowed hard. "I have a girlfriend, Jamie."

"And you've–" He put a foot of space between them, backing up away from Adam so his legs bumped against the table behind him. Jamie's head was in his hands. "You've barely looked at her all evening," he said, his voice muffled. "I-I thought..."

"I have to go back to the party," Adam said quietly. He couldn't think straight; he just wanted to go to bed. He didn't want to be here, the scent of photo chemicals burning his nose, his cheeks scraped with beard burn. Adam's memory conjured, out of nowhere, the touch of Lawrence's hand in the restaurant. Warm and strong. f*ck, his head hurt. "I won't tell Scott, I promise."

"Okay." Jamie nodded. He was crying. "Okay."

"There's– there's paper towels in the cabinet," Adam said. "For your eyes." He left the darkroom, his pulse pounding in his ears, louder than the music that greeted him.

"Hey! f*ckface!" He turned. Scott was grinning at him, the sharp points of his canines glinting in the low light. “What’d you do with my drummer?” he said, throwing an arm around Adam’s shoulders, inadvertently– or maybe purposefully, Adam could never tell with him– pinning his arms together. “f*ckin’ disappeared on me.”

“I dunno.” Adam schooled his face, grinning back. His skin felt stretched too tight over his face. “Did he get sick of your dumb ass and leave?”

“He was lookin’ at your stupid photos, man, that’s why I asked.”

Behind Scott, Adam could see Jamie quietly slip out of the darkroom, his eyes still red. He watched out of the corner of his eye as the drummer picked his way over to the sofa where all the guests had thrown their coats and tugged his out of the bottom of the pile. Adam swallowed, then looked back at Scott. "I showed him a couple of 'em. He must've gotten bored."

Adam didn't like how closely Scott was studying him. He could almost see the gears turning in his brain before the man laughed, a loud growl of a sound, and punched Adam's arm hard enough to bruise. "Whatever," he snorted, and slouched off to find his girlfriend. "Hey, Gracie, is there any vodka left? Or are we gonna hafta switch to beer like puss*es–"

With a barely hidden sigh, Adam made his way towards his bedroom, past his friends, gently swaying in conversation and dance. He was desperate for a smoke and some fresh air.

“Hey.” Hearing that voice out of the context of the store made him startle. Amanda was hovering on the outskirts of the party with one of Vikki’s artist friends, a plastic cup in one hand and the woman’s waist in the other. Adam took a moment to process that, then decided it wasn’t all that much of a surprise, really.

"Hey." He cleared his throat.

Amanda scanned him quickly. "You look like sh*t," she said bluntly. Next to her, the woman– Synni, Adam remembered– snorted softly before leaving to get another drink. Amanda watched her go, then turned back to Adam. "Seriously, are you okay?"

"Yeah. I, uh. Yeah, I'm fine." Adam suddenly realized that his shirt was riding up slightly around his waist, and he tugged it down, trying to be as nonchalant with the gesture as he could be. Amanda's eyes tracked the movement. "Um, where's– where's Vikki?"

"She stepped out to take a call from her mom. Something about Christmas plans."

Great. f*cking perfect. Adam stuttered out a sigh and rubbed his forehead. "Cool. Uh, if she asks, I'm– I got a migraine. I'm going to bed." He got those regularly enough that Vikki would be understanding, if not pissed. "Um, tell her I'll help clean up once everyone's gone, but I...I just can't deal with– with a lot of people right now."

Amanda nodded. "I'll tell her." She paused, and looked down at where her tights disappeared into her oversized boots. "Adam," she said softly, "she seems like a great girl–"

"I know–"

"–but if you ever need to talk about, y'know...life stuff." She twisted her lips, and something about the gesture reminded Adam of his step-sister Julia. He could suddenly easily imagine Amanda as a kid. "I'm here, okay? I mean– strictly, completely, only as a friend."

A knot loosened in his chest. "Thanks, Amanda. I really appreciate it."

"Yeah. Anytime." She smiled softly. "Good luck with your migraine."

"Thanks." Adam returned her smile as genuinely as he could and wove his way back through the party, leaving her standing alone, looking out the window.

Scott and Gracie had evidently gotten to his bedroom first, and Adam squeezed his eyes shut immediately after opening the door. “Out,” he said faintly, wishing fervently that he’d more firmly established boundaries in the apartment.

He heard the rustle of Scott’s belt buckle and his rough laugh before Gracie brushed by with a consolatory, slightly sticky kiss to his cheek. “Sorry, Adam,” she said, before Scott was ushering her towards the darkroom. “Um, we’ll try not to break anything–“

Adam shut the door firmly behind them and let out a bone-deep sigh. He could still taste Jamie’s lips.

It was the first time he’d really, properly kissed another man. Sure, there'd been Will, in high school– but that had been a second or two at most, and had quickly been followed by Will's fist exploding into his nose, and his mouth filling with blood. Adam hadn't been quick to repeat that experience in his adult life.

His hand trembled as he reached up to brush his fingers against his mouth, feeling the swelling where Jamie had bitten down. Adam thought again, traitorously, of the perfect Cupid's bow of Lawrence's lips, curving in a kind smile.

The thought that would logically connect those two concepts was delicate and terrifying, a soap bubble ready to burst.

Moving quickly, as if he could outrun his thoughts, Adam made a beeline for his bedside table. He opened the drawer where he kept his weed stash and lighter, then paused. Next to his lighter was a notebook, where he'd kept little snippets of songs he'd toyed with showing to Scott before firmly deciding against it, not wanting to be mocked.

He grabbed the half-smoked joint and the lighter, and then, after a moment, his notebook and a pen, then pried the window open to sit on the fire escape. He lit up, and began to write.

--

Adam had filled seven pages with scrawling notes before he noticed how quiet the apartment was. He turned to peer into the adjacent living room window, finger numb with cold he'd barely felt before, and cursed as he saw Vikki's silhouette quietly moving around the empty space, picking up discarded cups and bottles. He ducked back inside, head still swimming from the burnt-out joint.

"How's your migraine?" Vikki asked, not looking up. Her voice was emotionless.

He felt as if he'd been shoved off a cliff, his stomach in freefall. "I..."

"If you're gonna try and apologize for disappearing, don't bother." She shoved an empty bottle of vodka into the trashbag she was holding. "It was a good party. My friends had fun, I had fun. Don't ruin that by pretending you did, too, because I know it's not true."

Adam tucked his hands around his stomach, childishly, then let his arms fall back limply at his sides. "I did have fun."

"You talked to, what, five people?"

"I'm not like you, okay?" He picked up a stack of Solo cups and dumped their contents down the kitchen sink. "I can't just– turn on the social part of my brain. I can't do that."

"Then why did you agree to the party in the first place?"

He worked his jaw. "I didn't. You did."

"But you said it was okay with you, Adam! You said that. You–" She stopped, and sighed heavily. "I'm not gonna argue with you about this. I'm gonna help clean up, and then I'm going home. I'm going to my parents' place on the 22nd. That gives us two days. We can talk before then."

"...okay." Adam suddenly felt very, very small. "You...you went to all the trouble of getting the place ready, Vick. You don't have to clean. I can do that."

"I know I don't have to." She continued to collect the trash, silently. Adam joined her, careful not to get in her way, his head still buzzing.

When every surface was free of trash, Vicki got her coat from the closet and kissed him gently on the cheek. "We'll talk tomorrow, okay?" she said softly.

He felt like he was missing some piece of the conversation, some clue he just wasn't understanding. But it was two in the morning, and he was exhausted. "Okay," he mumbled. "I love you."

At the doorway, Vikki paused and met his gaze. As stoned as he was, he could still recognize the look in her eyes. It was pity. "Love you too," she said, and closed the door.

--

Just before he went to sleep, Adam took another glance at his notebook. He'd been writing through a wild stream of consciousness, fueled by the nerves from being kissed, from the social exhaustion, from the drinks and the weed and the adrenaline. As he looked over his scrawling handwriting, though, a strange warmth settled in his chest.

Lawrence, he'd begun. There's so much I want to tell you, to ask you, that I'm afraid to say out loud. I don't think I'll ever send this letter, but I need to get it down.

Outside, a soft and steady snow began to fall.

Chapter 5: and everything depends on how near you stand to me

Notes:

this was originally going to be one chapter, but it got SO f*cking long that I had to split it...sorry lmao!

content warning for vomiting at the very beginning, as well as a brief mention of suicidal ideation. title is from Hand in Glove by The Smiths. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Adam woke to a grey, cold morning and the piercing ringing of his alarm clock splitting his skull. He was tremendously hungover.

The heat had gone out sometime while he was asleep, and he dragged his duvet off the bed, wrapping it around himself like a cloak as he stumbled into the bathroom to puke. Flashes of the previous night drifted to the surface of his brain: he'd been talking to Harvey about movies, he'd invited Amanda and had been delighted when she'd shown up, he'd seen Scott's dick, he'd had a fight with Vikki–

He shuddered through another bout of vomiting, and flushed the toilet before closing the lid and resting his forehead on the cool plastic.

Jamie had kissed him. Adam didn't remember if he'd kissed him back, but he probably had.

"f*ck," he mumbled. "God, f*cking– f*ck."

He couldn't tell Vikki. She'd been wary enough of him inviting Amanda to the party– the fact that he'd been kissed by somebody in their friend group, especially with the tension that'd been building between them lately about the Europe trip, might be enough for her to finally say that enough was enough and leave him.

A low swoop in his stomach at that idea had him lifting the toilet lid again, but nothing came up. He stared blankly at the rippling water, waiting for his nausea to quell.

It wasn't the first time he'd thought about Vikki leaving him, for some reason or another. He was enough of a f*ck-up that the notion constantly lurked in the back of his mind, seeping into his words when he lashed out on bad days or lurking deep in his bones when he stayed sullenly silent on worse ones. Adam knew she was too good for him; it was an immutable fact. She had passion, and motivation, and boundless love and anger that the world would benefit from hearing. And Adam...well. What did he have? What had he ever had, apart from a caustic sense of humor and a half-decent eye for photography?

Once he was sure he wasn't going to vomit again, Adam rose unsteadily to his feet and swayed over to the sink. He chanced a glance into the mirror and winced at his haggard expression– his hair was a rat's nest, the bags under his eyes even more pronounced. He was wan and pale, and his eyes were bloodshot. He listlessly brushed his teeth and dragged a comb through his hair before bundling the duvet around him once more and braving the cold of his bedroom to get dressed.

At least he had the visit to Lawrence's house that afternoon to look forward to. Thinking of that, Adam chucked the shirt he'd been about to put on– a faded Nirvana tee with a stain on the right shoulder– into the hamper and opted for a slightly nicer button-down. He wanted to impress the man, to make him think that Adam was worth his time and attention.

His gaze fell on the open notebook he'd left next to his bed. It was opened to one of the pages he'd written last night. Adam caught a glimpse of his own words, and flushed.

like spring, he'd written, shoots of green pressing up through the snow. I don't know how long I've been asleep, but it feels like far too long. It feels like my whole life. I don't know why it took meeting you for me to realize–

"f*cking hell," he mumbled, kicking the notebook under his bed. The sh*tty amateur poetry he'd written in high school was one thing, but this was on another level of embarrassing. There was no way in hell he'd ever send the letter to Lawrence.

He shut the bedroom door, grabbed a banana to suppress the growling that'd started in his stomach, and took off for work, huddling deep into his jacket against the cold.

--

The store was as mind-numbing as ever, the customers' franticness only mounting the closer the days crept to Christmas. The tide of people swept through the toy department in waves, each bringing faces that blended together as Adam tried not to look too overwhelmed, tried to smile without looking like plastic himself. His stomach still lurched with the occasional swell of nausea, and his head was killing him, but as the day went on, he knew he'd settle back into his body and stop feeling as horrendous.

About two hours into his shift, a little girl with blonde hair in a thick braid stopped in front of his backstock counter, blinking frankly at him. "Can I have the astronaut Barbie, please?" she asked politely. Her voice was high for her age– she looked about ten– but businesslike in tone.

"Sure." He crouched down to the bottom shelf. "Um, what hair color?"

"Red, please."

Adam handed her the doll, peering around the toy department as he did. "Are your parents around?" The girl was a little too young to be wandering around the crowded store on her own; the last thing he wanted was to have to tell his manager to close the department down to search for her folks.

"Yeah, my mom's over there." The girl pointed over to a woman with her back to them, examining one of the musical instrument displays. "She gave me $20 to pick out the doll I wanted."

Adam hummed. "Alright."

As he rang up the sale, the girl critically examined her Barbie. "Actually," she said after a moment, her voice slightly hesitant, "do you have any Pokémon toys?"

"Oh, uh..." Adam turned to the computer to the side of the counter and typed "pokemon" into the catalog search. "It's mostly cards, but it does look like we carry some action figures, yeah." He met her eyes and shrugged apologetically. "I'd show you where they are, but I'm kind of stuck behind this counter."

The girl smiled. "That's okay." There was something almost familiar about her face, Adam thought, but he couldn't quite place it. "Are they in the boys' section? People put them there a lot."

"Yeah. Just over by the Christmas tree, to the right."

"Thanks, sir." The girl put the astronaut Barbie back on the counter and headed over to the woman she'd identified as her mother. As Adam watched, she pointed to the boys' section, obviously explaining to her what Adam had told her. Her mother, her back still turned to Adam, shook her head. The girl frowned, and seemed about to say something, when another customer approached the counter and drew Adam's attention away.

--

You should bring your camera today, Lawrence texted him while Adam was on his fifteen minute break, munching dissociatively on a somewhat stale ham sandwich. There’s some pretty country where I live :)

k :) Adam texted back, grinning to himself at the perfect grammar of the man's texts. He didn't make a habit of bringing his camera with him to the store– he'd once had someone steal his scarf from his locker, and he didn't want the same to happen with his Nikon– and the timing wouldn't quite work for him to stop at home before Lawrence swung by to pick him up. With a grimace, he texted Vikki.

hope u slept ok :) can u bring my camra 2 the store? dont wry if u cant

Adam wasn't expecting her to respond. He was fairly certain they hadn't left things off on a good note the previous night, though he couldn't quite remember what he'd said. But to his surprise, she texted back right away.

sure <3

It was unusual for her not to hold a grudge after an argument; Adam wondered if she'd talked to her friends at the bookstore and cooled down a little. Or maybe she was biding her time for a longer confrontation later. Either way, he sent back an answering heart emotion and rose with a groan to get back to work.

He was both surprised and glad to see that Amanda was stationed with him in the five-and-younger section when he returned to the floor. "Sports department could spare you, huh?" he asked, reaching to steady a wobbling Duplex display.

"Mm-hm. All the action's here." She looked considerably better for wear than he did– she'd probably gone home at a somewhat reasonable hour the previous night. "Jacob told me to help you out. Said you seemed tired."

He groaned. "f*ck. I look bad enough that Jacob noticed?"

Amanda chuckled, kneeling to pick up a fallen teddy bear. "Yup," she said, drawing out the single syllable and ending it with a pop of her lips. "No offense, but you kind of look like you got hit by a bus."

"I'm so hungover I could barely get up this morning," Adam confided, glancing around to make sure none of the customers could overhear him. "How do you look so...normal?"

"I only had two drinks and some weed." She handed him a tray of stuffed animals. "Thanks for inviting me, by the way. I had a good time."

"Really?"

She shrugged, a smirk playing at her lips as she started stacking the toys on the table in front of her. "I mean, the music didn't suck, and I went home with one of your girlfriend's beat poet friends, so..."

Adam felt the back of his neck grow hot. He hadn't been expecting Amanda to be so forthcoming about the woman he'd seen her with. Sure, it was the 21st century, and some of Vikki's friends were openly gay– especially her friends from the bookstore– but what really caught him off guard was Amanda's willingness to tell him about it. She seemed like a private sort of person.

"I don't think Synni's a beat poet," he said, filling the display in front of him with stuffed alligators. "More of a–"

Amanda looked sideways at him, raising one eyebrow. "Oh, I didn't go home with Synni."

"But I saw you two talking. It looked like– it looked like you were really getting along."

She daintily placed a stuffed otter on top of her display. "I talked to a lot of people," she said nonchalantly. "But I went home with Maddie."

Adam laughed aloud at that, and Amanda's smile widened. "Holy sh*t," he said admiringly, shaking his head in disbelief. "Maddie, huh? I thought the heating didn't work at her place."

His friend shot him another playful look. "If it didn't, we didn't notice."

He snorted, and only changed the subject when a woman and her very young son wandered close enough to overhear them. "Seriously, it was awesome to have you there. They're more Vikki's friends than mine, and I get nervous in big groups."

"What about that metal band? Aren't they your friends?"

"Wrath of the Gods?" Adam shrugged. "I mean, yeah. But it's a bit...different, y'know, with a group of guys. And Scott puts me on edge a little, honestly. He was a dick to me growing up– I don't know why he's kept up with me."

"You seemed to get along with Jamie," Amanda said. Her tone was completely casual, but Adam's blood still froze. Mouth suddenly dry, he simply nodded, eyes fixed on his work. "You showed him some of your photos, yeah?"

"Um. Yeah. A couple of them."

Amanda seemed to pick up on his discomfort, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. "Was he–" she started, then paused. Adam kept looking directly at the stuffed animals he was stacking, heart thudding in his ears.

It wouldn't be a big deal if she found out, he knew. She didn't know Jamie, wasn't quite enmeshed in their friend group yet. There was no way for word to get back to Vikki from her, much less for Scott to hear about it. But the thought of her, of anyone, knowing what had happened between them twisted uncomfortably in Adam's stomach. He was in a relationship. It felt wrong, even though he'd been the one kissing back instead of initiating the whole thing.

And besides, a small part of him whispered, it wasn't necessarily about who exactly he'd kissed that night. It was more about who he couldn't stop thinking of– and talking about kissing another man was a very dangerous line of conversation as far as that went.

Adam straightened suddenly, shaking his head like a dog with water in its ears. Don't. Don't go there.

"Well," Amanda said after a moment, reaching for another stack of stuffed animals, "he'd be an idiot to not like your photos."

Sighing with relief internally, Adam huffed out a quick laugh. "You haven't even seen my photography yet. How do you know if it's any good?"

She glanced at him, the corner of her lips twitching. "I know you," she said simply. "I know how you look at things. You're too aware of the world to be a sh*tty artist." Amanda nudged his shoulder, gently. "It's why you suck so much at lying. You can't help but tell the truth about sh*t."

Adam didn't quite know what to say to that, and Amanda didn't push him to respond. They both fell into a companionable silence, letting the Christmas music score their work as the bustling crowds ebbed and flowed around them.

--

Vikki texted Adam just as he was about to clock out. got ur camera. meet u out front @ w34 entrance?

ur the best, he texted back, his stomach squirming slightly.

He didn't quite know how to tell her about where he was going that afternoon, or whether he should even mention it at all. She'd been puzzled enough at Lawrence inviting him out to lunch the previous day; surely she'd find it weird that he was going to a near-stranger's house in the next state over.

On some level, Adam also knew that it was unusual. He barely knew the man, for god's sake. A part of him– the part that obsessively watched horror movies and yelled at the stupider characters for splitting up to explore the abandoned house or cavorting off to f*ck in the woods while the killer was on the loose– was whispering that he might end up on the news for this. Local nobody butchered by serial killer doctor, more at eleven.

But even with that faint possibility on the table, it didn't change the fact that Adam wanted to see him again. He couldn't help but think about the conversation they'd had at the restaurant, about the way that Lawrence had effortlessly pried him open with only a few words. He wanted to know more about Lawrence– what made him tick, what made him smile. Being around him made Adam feel like he was examining a work of art from inches away, studying each minute brushstroke and working out how they connected to form a cohesive whole.

Adam convulsively shook his head once, a rough twitch. He was going to be in a small, confined space with Lawrence soon for forty-five minutes– an even hour with traffic– and if his thoughts were already drifting towards the pathetically poetic, he knew it would be even harder for him to act like a normal human being around him. The issue at hand was what he was going to tell Vikki. He turned it over in his mind as he made his way out of the building, giving Amanda a small, commiserative smile as he passed the register she was now stationed at.

Vikki was outside with his Nikon, an extra roll of film, and a small smile. "How was work?" she asked, leaning in to let him kiss her cheek. Her expression was neutrally happy, and Adam could read her like a book– she'd forgiven him for whatever he'd said last night, but she'd want to talk about it later, probably that night.

"It was alright. Thanks for bringing my camera, I really appreciate it."

"Yeah, no problem. I was gonna do some shopping around here anyway, and you texted me right when I was near your apartment. It wasn't out of my way." She stuffed her hands into her pockets as soon as he took the camera from her, shivering slightly. "I'd ask if you wanna get lunch, but I'm assuming you've got photography-related plans."

His stomach twisted uncomfortably as he returned her smile. "Yeah. Uh, I'm actually going to Jersey for the afternoon. You know that doctor guy I had lunch with the other day? He's–"

Adam was interrupted by a BMW pulling up to the curb in front of them. The passenger side window rolled down to reveal Lawrence, peering over at the pair with a grin. "Adam, there you are. Afternoon," he said, loud enough to be heard over the quietly idling engine. "You must be Vikki. I'm Lawrence Gordon." He opened the passenger door and leaned over to extend a hand.

To Adam's relief, Vikki didn't visibly show any surprise, shaking Lawrence's hand with a smile. "Hi."

"Thank you for sparing Adam for the day," he continued, making brief eye contact with him before looking back at Vikki. Adam felt his body thrum with a nonsensical rush of adrenaline. "It's such a nice afternoon, I thought I'd take him to see a bit of the country near my place."

There was a moment of hesitation, just shy of comfortable, that had Adam's brain sputtering. "Do you want to come?" he asked Vikki, regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth.

Luckily, she shook her head. "Nah, I've got too much to do. Christmas shopping and all." His offer had served to put her a bit more at ease, though; some of the tension left her brows as she gave him a quick smile. "I'll see you tonight?"

"Yeah, definitely."

Vikki hesitated a moment, then leaned forward and kissed him suddenly, full on the mouth. Startled, and a little embarrassed, Adam cupped the small of her back, rubbing once with his thumb in a gesture that he hoped simultaneously conveyed both I love you and what are you doing, I’m not going off to war. She pulled away, and flashed Lawrence a grin behind Adam’s back. “Nice to meet you. Have fun, guys.”

Adam got into the car, cheeks flushed as Lawrence saluted, returning her smile. “Nice to meet you, too, Vikki.”

“Love you,” she said to Adam as the door was closing, and he mouthed it back, feeling absurdly coddled.

“She’s lovely,” Lawrence commented as he pulled away from the curb. “How did you two meet?”

He couldn’t think of a topic he’d like to talk about less. “We met at a concert. I, uh–“ Adam scratched the back of his neck. “Don’t judge me too much, but I’d taken some weird sh*t. I was tripping balls at a Prosaics show at North Six. She found me hunched in the corner of the women’s restroom babbling about fur growing under my skin...she talked me through it, calmed me down. Even let me crash at her apartment.” He realized as he was saying it what a project she must’ve seen him as– and that was before she even knew about the rest of the bullsh*t going on in his life.

Lawrence chuckled. “As far as first meetings go, I have to say, I’ve heard of much less romantic ones. Why would I judge you for that?”

“Well, you’re a doctor. And I don’t what it’s like where you’re from, but here in New York state, acid’s still illegal.”

“I’m a doctor, not a narc.”

Adam burst out laughing. “Okay, Bones.”

The older man was grinning widely. It made him look exceedingly mischievous. “And by the way, I’ve gone to plenty of concerts in my day. I’m not ancient, you know.”

Adam settled back into the passenger seat, feeling more at ease than he had all day. “Bold statement, coming from someone quoting Star Trek.”

“And you recognized it– what does that say about you?”

“Touché, Larry.” He put a hand behind his head, resting his elbow against the cool glass of the window. “What concerts have you been to?”

“Oh, god, let’s see…”

Lawrence was a U2 and Van Halen fan, like every other dad Adam had met, and he had a soft spot for new wave. To Adam’s surprise, he also quite enjoyed The Clash and The Ramones.

“But you’ve never seen the movie Pet Semetary, even thought you like the song they did for it?”

Lawrence shook his head. “God, no. I don’t have the stomach for that sort of thing.”

“Aw, man, it’s a classic!” Adam tipped his head back; he might’ve imagined it, but he thought he saw Lawrence’s eyes skim quickly over his bared throat. “That creepy little baby? The cat?”

He made a face. “Really not for me, I’m afraid. Especially–“ Lawrence wet his lips. “Especially not recently.”

Oh, sh*t. The accident.

Adam felt immensely stupid for even bringing it up. Of course Lawrence wouldn’t want anything to do with a movie whose plot revolved around a little kid getting killed in a car accident.

Fumbling to change the subject, he switched back to music. “Do you have any CDs in here?” Adam asked, reaching for the glove compartment.

Lawrence groaned good-naturedly. “Please don’t judge me too harshly. A lot of it’s Diana’s.”

Adam shuffled through the CDs scattered in the compartment. Sure enough, there was a lot of bubblegum pop. “She’s a Britney fan, huh? Wait– okay, this one definitely isn’t hers.”

Lawrence glanced over and chuckled. “The Smiths? Yeah, that one’s mine.” He paused. “You’ve heard of The Smiths, right?”

“I’m not that young,” Adam cracked, fishing the CD from its case. “It’s funny. You don’t strike me as a The Smiths kind of guy.”

“And what kind of guy do you think I am?”

He’d said it half-jokingly, but his eyes happened to meet Adam’s just at that moment, and the humor in his voice faltered.

Adam swallowed, feeling suddenly as if he’d neared the precipice of some invisible cliff. “Well,” he said, sliding the CD into the player, “you seem happy, that’s all.”

He’d meant it as a joke, playing off the obvious sadness of the music now filling the car, but Lawrence didn’t laugh. Instead, the doctor silently turned the volume up, letting the first chords of “Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now” wash over them both as they wove through the city.

Adam stared out the window, watching the rush of the city pass by, muffled by glass and the distance of movement. It occurred to him again how absurd the situation was– visiting a man he barely knew, going to his home, talking about music and sadness as if they were friends.

But they weren’t friends, he thought, not really. The easy, fluttering tension of new friendship was there, yet tilted at an angle. He was sure that his schoolboy-like crush on the doctor didn’t help– but it was something other than that. Adam recalled how Lawrence had looked at him in the store, the glimmer of recognition in his eyes.

He wondered if Lawrence still felt that connection, or if Adam had already messed it up by being himself.

The track changed. "Take me out tonight, where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive."

As they passed through the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, Adam sucked in a sudden breath. He hated being underground. He always imagined that he could feel the enormous weight of the river above him, pressing hungrily against the roof of the tunnel.

Lawrence glanced at him. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”

The inside of the car was dark except for the striating glow of the regimented overhead lights in the tunnel, lighting Lawrence's face in brief yellow flashes. They passed over his face and cast strange shadows, making him look almost alien. As if Adam hadn't spent every second memorizing what he looked like.

As the car swooped up on the slight hill at the midpoint of the tunnel, Adam wished, suddenly, absurdly, that it would collapse on them. That Lawrence’s car would crumple, encasing both of them in a tomb of concrete and twisted metal. Would Lawrence take his hand as it happened? Would he be thinking of his wife, his daughter, as he died? Or would he be only thinking about Adam, of easing the other man's fear? Maybe their bodies could be dragged together from the rubble, laid side by side.

"To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die," Morrissey mocked from the stereo.

“f*ck,” he said to himself, under his breath. Pull it the f*ck together.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Adam?” Lawrence’s voice was soft with concern.

“Tunnels freak me out,” Adam mumbled. Even the half-truth felt like sacrilege, but there was no way he was going to tell the doctor about the intrusive thought that was already fading.

Lawrence hummed. “Yeah, I understand that. We’re almost out, don’t worry.” He briefly patted Adam’s leg, reassuring. Adam wished he’d let his hand rest there longer, but he withdrew it just as quickly.

And then they were out of the tunnel, and the song was over, and light blossomed through the windshield, and Adam could breathe again.

The doctor glanced sideways at him, but didn't say anything. "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" began to play, and the dreamy guitar chords washed quietly over the two of them as he drove west through Jersey.

The suffocation of the city gradually gave way to suburbs, letting the greying sky dominate Adam's field of vision as he gazed out the window. It began to snow in flurries, tiny flakes whipping past them like confetti, and Lawrence smiled. "It makes it feel like Christmas, doesn't it?" he said, and Adam's heart swelled unexpectedly at the softness in his voice. "The snow, I mean."

"Yeah." If it made him happy, Adam thought, he hoped it would snow forever. A world of tundras, of blizzards, of cold and white and deep grey skies, just to keep Lawrence smiling like this.

They approached a small stand selling Christmas trees by the side of the road, and Lawrence slowed the car. "Do you mind if we stop?" he asked. "We don't have a tree at the house yet. I'd like to surprise Diana while she's at her mother's. Something nice for her to come home to."

"I don't mind at all." Lawrence parked, and Adam's hand drifted to the button of his seatbelt. "Do you want me to come out and help with the tree?"

"No, I can manage. You stay in where it's warm." He gave him another smile and reached into the backseat for his cane before stepping out.

Leaning back slightly in his seat, Adam watched him approach the man running the tree stand and point to one of the pines resting in a stack, saying something Adam couldn't quite hear through the closed window. The flurries rushed around him like a snowglobe, and Adam's breath snagged in his throat as Lawrence's hair caught the pale light filtering though the billowing clouds overhead. He seemed so out of place here, standing in the frozen mud with his tailored trousers and long wool coat. He looked as if he should be in a movie, or a fairytale, not here by the side of the road in New Jersey, listening intently as the man spoke to him.

Abruptly, Jamie's words from the previous night echoed in his head. You don't do a lot of portraits. Adam swallowed, gaze never straying from the doctor. The worst someone can say is no.

On autopilot, Adam stepped out of the car, lingering behind the open door as if it were a shield. He raised his camera, checking to make sure that the film was loaded correctly, and focused the lens on Lawrence's face– his blue eyes shining, aristocratic lips half-smiling contemplatively as the man showed him one of the trees. Lawrence raised one gloved hand and gently brushed the swoop of blonde hair back from his forehead, and Adam exhaled softly as he pressed the shutter release, capturing him.

He looked down to check the depth of field, not noticing as Lawrence glanced over to him, lips tilting in a curious, tender smile. By the time Adam raised his camera again, the doctor was facing profile once more, listening intently as the man in front of him told him the prices.

Notes:

and here's where I tell you that SURPRISE, the next chapter is coming out TOMORROW! stay tuned, & please leave a comment to fuel me! thank you for reading!

Chapter 6: sharing different heartbeats in one night

Notes:

it's chapter 6, or as I like to call it, chapter 5 part 2!

no content warnings to speak of this time! title is from Heartbeats by José González– it's the song that Adam plays for Lawrence, so I recommend listening to it during that particular scene. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

They arrived at Lawrence's house just as the snow was starting to stick to the pavement. Adam peered out through the window, letting out a low whistle. "Nice place." It was a two-story brick colonial, with a porch and wide black shutters framing the tall windows.

Lawrence hummed, easing the car down the long driveway. "Thank you. Yeah, we wanted someplace close enough for me to commute to the hospital, but with good schools and a big enough yard for Diana to play."

Once they'd parked, Adam helped Lawrence take the tree down from the roof of the car and propped it up by the side of the house, the sharp scent of pine tickling the back of his throat as Lawrence unlocked the front door.

The inside of the house was dead quiet, almost unsettlingly so. It was spotlessly clean and minimalistic, with the only signs of life being the toys stuffed away in neat little boxes tucked against the sides of chairs and a shoe rack by the front door that held three nearly identical pairs of men's oxfords, a pair of large mudboots, and several glittery girl's shoes. Adam set his camera on a side table and obediently toed off his Chucks, enormously embarrassed by the hole in the toe of his left sock. Lawrence wasn't paying much attention, stepping into the large kitchen.

"I'll put on some tea for us. Could you bring the tree in?" he asked, glancing back at Adam.

"Sure. Gimme a second, I just took my shoes–"

"You can borrow my boots. They should fit you."

Adam found his ears growing hot. "Uh, sure. Thanks." He slid his feet into the boots, feeling the soft indents that were formed there. Lawrence must have had them for a while, since the right boot where his prosthetic would ordinarily have uniformly flattened down the insole felt just as molded as the left one.

By the time he'd brought the tree inside, Lawrence had set up a tree stand in the pristine living room. Using the side arm of the sofa for leverage, he hauled himself up off his knees with a grimace, reaching for his cane once he was fully upright again. He grinned as soon as he saw Adam with the tree. "Oh, it's the perfect size for the room. Would you mind putting it in the stand? I'll get the box of ornaments."

Adam nodded, a curious lightness in his chest. It reminded him of being little again, setting up the Christmas tree in his childhood home in Buffalo– before the fights, before the divorce. He was suddenly struck with an aching pity for Diana. There hadn't been any women's shoes in the shoe rack, and Diana herself was nowhere to be found in the house; Lawrence and his wife must have already decided to live separately before the divorce had even gone through.

As he knelt to secure the tree in the stand, he heard the soft sound of Christmas music float in from the kitchen. After the retail hours he'd worked, Adam was used to having an immediate flight-or-fight response to the sound, but here, in the warm living room with a fire crackling in the electric fireplace and snow softly settling outside on the lawn, he could feel himself start to smile.

"Ah," Lawrence breathed. Adam turned and saw the older man in the doorway, a box of ornaments tucked under the arm not gripping his cane, beaming so widely that it narrowed the corners of his eyes. "She's going to love it. A real Christmas tree." He let out a short, contented sigh, then grinned at Adam. "I'll make us some lunch, and then we can decorate. You must be starved."

It was only when Lawrence mentioned it that Adam realized just how hungry he was. "Lunch would be great," he said, straightening up and pressing his hands to his lower back, easing the knots there.

Lawrence made them turkey sandwiches, cold cuts nestled in beds of fresh, green lettuce and slathered in dijon mustard, with small bowls of leftover homemade tomato soup on the side, steaming hot and delicately flavored. They sat in the kitchen at a raised counter with tall bar-style stools, and ate quietly together while the music continued to play from the iPod dock set on the counter. Adam forced himself to eat slowly, savoring each bite. Occasionally he felt Lawrence's eyes on him, but whenever he looked up, the older man was either gazing towards the Christmas tree or out the expansive kitchen windows at the snow blanketing the backyard.

"You grew up in Buffalo, isn't that right?" the doctor asked eventually, once he'd finished his sandwich. He set his plate aside and picked up his mug of tea, surveying Adam with light curiosity.

He swallowed the bite he'd been chewing. "Uh, yeah. Right on the Niagara River."

"I've never been. Did you like growing up there?"

Adam pressed his lips together. His foot twitched nervously, not quite touching the floor from the height of the stool he was sitting on. "It was alright," he said, shrugging one shoulder. "I mean– we didn't live in the best neighborhood." It seemed so far removed from the place he was in now, surrounded by warmth and emptiness and shining countertops. "My parents tried to give me the best life they could, but. Y'know. They weren't too good at being parents." He'd learned that that was as well as he could sum up his childhood without making the people he was talking to feel uncomfortable; Lawrence didn't need to know about the screaming matches, the attempts he'd made to run away, the fact that he'd started smoking when he was eleven.

"I'm sorry to hear that." Lawrence's eyes didn't have the same pity that people often did, and Adam was glad for it– he looked at Adam with curiosity and sympathy, but none of the simpering commiseration that Vikki had when Adam had first broached his childhood with her. He seemed to tell how uncomfortable Adam was with the topic, and changed the subject. "How did you get into photography?"

He straightened in his chair; this was more comfortable terrain. "It started as an elective I took in high school– it was that or painting, and I suck at painting." Lawrence chuckled at that, and Adam continued, encouraged. "I had a sh*tty old Pentax that I got from a pawn shop, a K1000. I was obsessed with it. I would get into trouble, actually, for climbing up where I wasn't supposed to, just to get pictures of the city from up high. I broke into buildings, old abandoned factories– it's a miracle I didn't get killed from falling through the floor, or tetanus, or whatever."

Lawrence laughed, his eyes shining. "Well, I'm glad you didn't." He took a sip of his tea, and his gaze drifted to the tree. "You took my photo, didn't you?" he asked casually, and Adam tensed. "While I was buying the tree?"

"Um– yeah. Sorry, I should've asked..."

"Don't apologize, I don't mind. Did it come out alright?"

He swallowed. The music from the iPod had stopped, and there was only the distant whistling of the wind outside to break the silence. "I won't know for certain until I develop it."

The doctor hummed. "I usually don't like having my picture taken, but it occurred to me recently that Diana doesn't really have any photos of me." He said it with such frankness that Adam's heart clenched. "I was usually the one holding the camera when we took pictures as a family, so I was always missing from the photos. And now...well. Alison pays for portraits. She's very practical that way." He smiled, but there was little humor in it.

"I'm sorry," Adam said again, softer. He didn't quite know what to say to make him feel better– he wanted to lift the sadness from Lawrence's lips, where they were tugging down at the corners. "I'll make you a print of it, if it comes out well. You could give it to her."

Lawrence looked back up from the rings of condensation he'd been idly tracing on the countertop. "Thank you, Adam." He sighed softly, then seemed to shake himself. "Anyway. She's going to love the tree– I'm very glad we passed that stand." A more genuine smile found its way onto his face, twisting the Cupid's bow of his lips with a hint of mischief. "Help me with the lights?"

Adam grinned, scooting back from the counter and getting to his feet. "I'd be happy to."

After leaving the dishes in the sink, Lawrence restarted the music, then led the way back into the living room.

The two men set to work, Adam kneeling to add the ornaments and lights that sat lower on the tree to take the strain off Lawrence's leg. They moved in comfortable silence, broken only by the music from the other room, the rustle of branches, and the soft clinking of the ornaments. Adam chanced a glance every so often to Lawrence's face; the man looked more content than he'd ever seen him in the limited time they'd spent together.

At last, it was time for the large golden star at the bottom of the box of ornaments. Lawrence offered it to Adam with another grin. "Would you like to do the honors?"

He chuckled. "I'm a bit too short, I think. I'd end up falling and taking the tree down with me. You should do it."

"Alright." Lawrence set his cane down and reached up, grunting softly as he rose up on the tiptoes of his intact foot. He secured the star, and stood back, nodding in satisfaction. "There. Everything but the presents."

Adam stepped back as well, automatically falling into step with the doctor to stand directly by his side. "It looks awesome, Lawrence." He had to tilt his head up slightly to look him in the eye; that fact gave him a quick swoop of excitement deep in his stomach. "Speaking of presents– did the train set ever get to you?"

"Oh! Oh, yes, the train." Lawrence grinned. "It's in the garage. Actually, would you mind helping me bring it in so I can wrap it? It's a bit too heavy for me."

"Happy to."

Lawrence guided Adam through to the garage and spotted him while he lifted the enormous box the train set had come in, lugging it into the living room with no small amount of effort. He set it down with a grunt, and Lawrence winced. "I don't mean to be a nudge, but you should really lift with your legs."

He tossed his hair out of his eyes. "Well, I haven't broken my back yet, but I'll keep that in mind."

The doctor chuckled, and went to the closet to fetch the rest of Diana's gifts and some wrapping paper. "Please, make yourself comfortable. I might as well wrap these now, while you're over– it feels lonely as all hell wrapping presents when you're alone."

Adam hummed, taking a seat on the plush leather sofa with a contented sigh. He peered out the window– it was four o'clock now, and nearly dark. He knew he should start to look at train times, but he didn't want to even think about leaving yet. He wanted to stay here for as long as Lawrence would have him.

As he cast his gaze over the living room, something in the corner caught his eye. An acoustic guitar was propped against the wall near a bookshelf full of novels and medical books. Adam hefted himself up and wandered over to the instrument, drawing Lawrence's eye. The doctor hummed. "I'd forgotten I'd brought that down."

Adam glanced over at him. "Do you play?"

"I used to. In college." He smiled sheepishly, and Adam stored that fact away in his brain to pore over later. "Not very well, though."

"Can I...?"

Lawrence gestured. "Please, go ahead." He sat back in his armchair with a bright red bag and some tissue paper, setting about quietly assembling one of Diana’s gifts as Adam picked up the guitar and sank back down onto the sofa. "It might be out of tune, it hasn't been touched in a while. I had the strings changed so Lynn could come and pick it up, but she hasn't gotten around to it yet."

It was a beautiful instrument, probably ten times more expensive than the one Adam had rescued from a sidewalk sale a few years ago. He ran his hands over the frets, remembering as best he could from the tuning manual.

"Who's Lynn?" he asked, adjusting the E string.

"Friend of mine. She works at the hospital, too. You'd like her."

Once the guitar was tuned, he idly began to strum. Random chords at first until, gradually, the song took shape in his hands. Something he'd been embarrassed to listen to at the time– f*ck, he'd stolen the CD rather than look the Borders cashier in the eye– but the memory came back of how it'd felt to let the song wash over him in his ex's car when he'd sheepishly slotted it into the player. The feeling was similar to when Lawrence had been driving him here; that sense of suspended peace, liminal stillness.

C, A minor, F major 7, G.

Adam began to sing, lowly. Just to himself, mostly so he could remember the song's progression.

"One night to be confused, one night to speed up truth– we had a promise paid, four hands and then away."

He thought he heard Lawrence shifting in his seat, but Adam kept playing, concentrating only on the placement of his fingers.

"Both under influence, we had a divine sense to know what to say...mind is a razor blade..."

Adam quickened the pace of his strumming as he reached the chorus, head going quiet as the music filled the large room, accentuated by the distant crackle of the fire and the soft rustling of wrapping paper.

"To call for hands from above, to lean on," he sang softly, eyes slipping shut. "Wouldn't be good enough for me, no..."

The warmth of the moment wrapped around him like a blanket. The heady sharpness of pine and the faintest trace of Lawrence's cologne filled him, threading through his senses as the strings vibrated beneath his fingers. He was floating, and Lawrence's steady breathing, barely audible behind him, kept him down on earth.

"One night of magic rush, the start, a simple touch. One night to push and scream, and then relief. Ten days of perfect tunes, the colors red and blue...we had a promise paid, we were in–"

He faltered, the words snagging as their meaning sunk in.

A hand landed gently on his shoulder, and Adam's fingers stopped, his heart beating in his throat. He didn't dare to look up.

"That's beautiful," Lawrence said, his tone almost casual. His thumb rubbed soothingly at Adam's collarbone, once, before he stepped away, fetching his tea from the coffee table. "Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you."

"No, it's–" Fine seemed like such a tiny word. Touch me again was far too big. "I haven't played in a while. It's probably annoying."

Lawrence finally turned to look at him, his eyes soft. Adam could suddenly see what he must've looked like in college, before med school, before marriage and Diana and the sadness tugging down the corners of his mouth when he thought Adam couldn't see it. "You're not annoying me, Adam."

He swallowed, and looked down at his fingers, still pressed to the frets. "I don't know if you–"

The door of the front hall opened, and Adam whipped around, blushing, feeling in his gut as if he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't have.

“Larry,” a woman’s voice called. “Are you in? I saw your car– oh.”

She stopped in the middle of the living room doorway, one hand resting on the frame, the other holding her coat. The woman was petite, with soft, straight waves of blonde hair perfectly framing her face. Her brows were furrowed.

"Alison." Lawrence set his tea down.

"Who's this?" She nodded curtly towards Adam. He felt his insides shrivel a little.

"This is– this is Adam. He's a friend of mine."

Alison's jaw set. She seemed to be fighting against saying something further– something Adam was sure wouldn't be in his favor. Then she turned towards Lawrence, hair brushing elegantly over her shoulders as she moved her head. "I need to get some things of Diana's. We're going to Florida for the holidays, to see my parents."

"What?" Lawrence moved towards the door, and winced. Instinctively, Adam rose to get his cane for him, but the doctor stopped him with a nearly dismissive gesture. "Ali, I thought she was staying with me for Christmas. We agreed."

"Well, take it up with my mother." Alison's lips tightened into a clipped smile that she directed towards Adam before she walked towards the stairs.

"Lawrence," Adam started, voice quiet. "Should– I can go, if you–"

Lawrence let out a sigh. He looked much older now. "No, stay. I'm sorry. It'll only– we'll only be a moment." He took his cane in hand and followed Alison, not giving Adam a second glance.

As he listened to the pair make their way up the expansive staircase, Alison's footsteps quick and light while Lawrence's were heavier and steady, the thunk of the cane punctuating each stair, Adam sank back down onto the sofa, still holding the guitar. He looked down; he was gripping the wood so tightly that his knuckles had gone white.

Adam tried not to listen as the muffled argument started. He put away the wrapping paper and scissors as it crescendoed, quietly did the dishes in the sink as it finished, and opened cabinets and drawers trying to find where to put the clean mugs as it picked up again. He felt like he was ten years old again, though the walls had been much thinner at his parents' house.

Finally, preceded by a half-muffled "–with whoever he is, then that's fine," he heard a door upstairs open and slam, and watched from the doorway as Alison marched back down the stairs, carrying a pink suitcase with both arms. She made eye contact with him, direct and undiplomatic. "How do you know Lawrence, again?" she asked bluntly.

"Ali–" Lawrence was at the top of the stairs; Adam didn't dare look up at him.

"I met him at the store I work at," Adam said, using everything in him to keep his voice steady and neutral. "I'm an employee at Macy's. In the toy department."

"I left my gloves behind and he returned them," Lawrence told her. His teeth were gritted, Adam could hear it in his voice– whether because of anger or effort it took for him to descend the stairs, he couldn't be sure. "And he helped me set the tree up."

Alison's eyes darted to the living room, then back, steely, to Adam's face. He tried not to squirm. "Paid, this time?" she said, her voice icy. "Or for free?"

Adam's stomach dropped.

"Alison." Lawrence's voice was sharp. "He's only– you know I can't do things as easily around the house. My foot–"

She gave her husband another glare, and swept out the door. The slam of it knocked a card from the nearby side table, and Adam immediately, numbly, went to pick it up. It was a Christmas card, hand-drawn, childish. The sting of tears rose in his throat.

"I'll drive you to the train station," Lawrence said quietly. His voice was hollow.

"I can get a cab–"

"You don't–" His voice rose sharply, and Adam flinched. He couldn't turn around, couldn't see the look in the older man's eyes. It was the first time he'd heard him angry. "You don't have to call a cab," Lawrence finished, suddenly sounding more tired than anything. "It's fine. I can drive you to the Valley Line, that'll take you to Hoboken. I can give you money for a cab from there."

Adam couldn't help but snap at that; it was that or he would start crying, and he didn't know which was worse. "I don't want your money," he said brusquely, and finally turned. The doctor's face was ashen. His blue eyes were wide, slightly red-rimmed, and Adam instantly regretted saying it. "I– I didn't mean–"

"It's fine. You're tired." Lawrence's jaw set, and he grabbed his car keys from the side table. "I'll drive you to the station. Get your shoes on, and don't forget your camera."

He was speaking to him like a child. Adam nodded, unable to trust his voice, and did as he said.

They were quiet in the short car ride over to the station. Adam's throat was tight; the whole day seemed wrecked now, all the suspended lightness and simple joy he'd gotten from being in Lawrence's company weighed down by the gravity of reality again. He felt as if he'd ruined everything, even if it wasn't his fault that Alison had come over.

And, the worst impulses of his brain whispered, what had she meant by this time?

Lawrence pulled up by the curb of the station. "I'm very sorry about what happened," he said lowly. "Alison and I...it's been difficult between us. You shouldn't've had to see that."

Adam swallowed. "It's okay." His voice sounded ragged, even to him.

"I do want to see you again," Lawrence continued, and god, it was pathetic how quickly that sparked in Adam's heart. "When things aren't so...tense. I'll come by and pick up that photograph, if you'll let me."

"I'll text you my address," Adam said, cautious not to sound too eager, and chanced a look over to him. Lawrence looked exhausted. "Just...just let me know when you'd like to come over, so I can clean up a bit."

He met his eyes, and smiled minutely. "I will. Thank you, Adam. I–" Lawrence stopped himself from saying whatever it was he was going to say, and looked ahead through the windshield at where the car's headlights illuminated the swirling snow against the backdrop of icy black pavement. "Have a good night," he said instead, and Adam took it as his cue to leave the car, even though the train hadn't arrived quite yet.

It was fully dark now, and he shivered. The car idled behind him, and he had half a mind to turn and ask Lawrence why he was still here, when the doctor spoke first. "I really don't mean to insult you, Adam, but would you please take the money for the cab?"

Adam turned. Lawrence had opened the door again, and was leaning forward with a fifty dollar bill held between his fingers. "Are you sure?" Adam asked, trying to keep from sounding as pathetic as he felt.

"Please," the older man said. "I'd feel horrible if you didn't."

He nodded, and took it. Lawrence smiled once more before closing the door and driving away, and Adam watched him go, feeling the slight sting of snowflakes against his skin like little pinpricks.

Adam managed to hold it together until he was safely seated on the train. He gave his ticket to the conductor, tucked himself against the window, and then quietly began to cry. He couldn't explain why, exactly– it was some great emptiness that crested in him, heaving through his chest in raw bursts, dragging his mouth open silently. He wiped his eyes furiously, almost trying more to shove the tears back in than to dry them. It had been such a good day, and that one little thing, that one reminder than he was probably so unimportant to Lawrence, had made it all come crashing down.

He took deep, shuddering breaths until the tightness in his chest had eased, not making eye contact with any of the other passengers. They all ignored him politely, and he was glad for it. He'd never felt so small.

Vikki wasn't at the apartment when his cab pulled up; the window of his apartment was dark. Adam sighed with unsteady relief, and checked his phone. Sure enough, she'd texted him at around five o'clock: 2 tired to come ovr 2nite. luv u <3

Adam responded in kind, and then hesitated.

Lawrence had texted him as well, twenty minutes ago.

Can I call you?

He dialed him immediately with shaking fingers, holding his breath as it rang.

"I really am sorry," Lawrence said as soon as he picked up. His voice sounded strange over the phone. Adam unlocked the door and huddled inside the hallway, wary of breathing too loudly, as if he'd scare him off the phone. "I was horrible, earlier. Will you forgive me?"

"Yeah," Adam said, automatically. "Of course."

"Then you'll–" Lawrence's voice faltered; Adam wondered if he'd been drinking, or if he was just tired. "You'll let me come by and pick up that photo? Tomorrow?"

Adam waited this time, wanting to hear him breathing. "Alright," he said eventually. "Tomorrow." He wet his lips. "I– I want to know, I think...I mean–" He kept himself from pressing the phone closer to his face. "I want to ask you things, but– I'm not sure that you want that." The words tumbled from him, almost without his permission.

There was silence, and then Lawrence's voice, as if from the far end of a tunnel. "Ask me things." He was almost whispering. "Please."

Before Adam could get the chance, the battery in his phone gave a feeble beep, and died.

He cursed brokenly, and raced up the stairs to his apartment to charge it. But when he called Lawrence back, the man didn't answer.

Notes:

happy birthday leigh whannell

Chapter 7: we could slip away, wouldn't that be better?

Notes:

sorry for the delay, i've taken up a little side project that you'll hopefully be able to see soon!

no content warnings to speak of this time! title is from Autumn Sweater by Yo La Tengo

Chapter Text

The process of developing photos was a soothing one for Adam. Chemicals had exactly the same reaction if he put them through the same processes, and the image revealed itself the same way every time. The repetition and easy rhythm of it allowed him to zero in on certain tiny details that kept him down in his body when his mind was a million miles away– the acrid smell of the solutions, the gentle swishing sound as he rocked the tray of developer, the cool of the metal tongs in his hand as he lifted the print up to examine it carefully in the red light from the bulb fixed overhead.

The tan of Lawrence's coat showed a pale grey, contrasting with the deep tones of the Christmas trees around him. The snow blurred around him like static, not thick enough to obscure him but enough to add visual noise to the image. His fingers in his black leather gloves were caught mid motion sweeping his hair from his forehead, mouth poised in a near-smile as he surveyed the trees in front of him. His blue eyes shone, even in the greyscale.

Adam hummed quietly along to his CD player as he placed the photo down in the tray of fixer, counting off one minute in his head. The first copy he'd made was already hanging up to dry– he'd gotten the contrast slightly off, paling Lawrence against the dark trees. It wasn't a terrible print; he wasn't planning on throwing it away. The two final versions he'd made would go into his portfolio and directly into Lawrence's hands, respectively, so he didn't feel it was too much of a waste keeping one faulty print for himself.

The events of the previous night drifted through his mind despite his almost trancelike concentration; he'd been replaying those hours over and over in his head, with Lawrence's face the first thing in his mind's eye when he'd woken up that morning. It was pathetic, he knew, but he couldn't help himself from poring over every detail, every word he could recall. How Lawrence had looked at him in the car, how he'd smiled as they decorated the tree. How Alison had made him feel so small, probably without even intending to. How Lawrence's voice had shook when they'd spoken on the phone.

Ask me things. Please.

The minute was up, and he lifted the photo from the fixer and rinsed it gently in the shallow tub of water.

In the light of day, Adam knew he couldn't ask the things he'd wanted to last night. Couldn't speak into reality the thoughts he'd shoved away, buried down deep, what he'd scrawled into his notebook the night of the party. He would explain it away somehow when Lawrence came to see him later that day, and the doctor would laugh, and Adam would ache, and it would be fine.

A gentle knock sounded on the door to the darkroom, startling him enough to nearly drop the photograph. "Adam?" Vikki sounded almost hesitant. "Are you in there?"

She must have let herself into the apartment. Swallowing the sudden buoy of annoyance that rose in him, Adam pushed back his headphones so they rested around his neck, not bothering to pause his music. "Yeah, what's up?"

"Can you come out for a second? We...I wanna talk."

Adam's skin went cold, heart lurching as if he'd missed a step on a staircase. "Yeah, I'll be– I'll be right out," he said, throat suddenly dry.

He made sure that all his undeveloped film was safely stowed away, and opened the door. Vikki wore a tired smile and one of Adam's old Deftones t-shirts, and his heart clenched despite himself. "I want to talk about Christmas,” she said, and Adam could barely keep a sigh of relief from leaving his lips.

"Sure, what about it?"

Vikki's hand found a peel of paint on the doorframe she was leaning against, and she flicked at it idly with her fingers as she spoke. "My mom really wants you to come to Connecticut. She feels bad that you don't have any family in the city."

"That's...it's sweet of her, but I'd feel–" Adam couldn't meet her eyes. "I don't know. Like I was intruding."

"You wouldn't be. Everyone wants to see you. And besides, what would you be doing anyway? Sitting here by yourself, watching Christmas movies on the TV?" There was a shade of irritation in her voice that Adam was sure had been stewing in her for a while. "I don't want you to be alone."

"I won't be alone. Amanda's got her party on the 25th, and I thought that Lawrence and I might–"

That was the wrong thing to say. Vikki brushed past him and stepped into the darkroom, brows creasing. She leaned against one of the tables, arms folded. "You'd rather hang out with your coworker than my family? Or worse– with a man you barely know?"

"That's not– I'm not pitting my friends against your family, or comparing them, or whatever." He rubbed at his eyes. "It's too sudden, anyway. I'd have to pack, and get the apartment ready to be left for a few days–"

Her eyes narrowed. "So it's too spontaneous for me to ask you to come to Connecticut for the holidays, but when it comes to Lawrence, you're all, 'oh sure, let's go off to New Jersey together'? Seriously?"

Vikki's voice turned the doctor's name into a drawn-out, sarcastic drawl, and the back of Adam's neck burned. "That's different. Don't bring–" Don't bring him into this was the kind of thing a cheating spouse would say, and the words died on his tongue. "That's not fair of you, Vikki," he said instead. "I'm allowed to have friends."

She looked past his left shoulder, and Adam's stomach dropped. "Friends," she said, eyes never leaving the photograph of Lawrence. "Sure."

A hot surge of anger and fear smarted at the back of his throat. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean..." Vikki huffed out a sigh. "You're awfully attached to him, Adam. You met him on Friday, for f*ck's sake."

"I've only got maybe three real friends in the city." Adam's tongue was thick in his mouth. "God forbid I hang out with someone I can actually talk to."

"You can talk to me." Her voice cracked, and it occurred suddenly to Adam that the two of them were hurtling towards a conversation he really, really didn't want to have. "You don't talk to me anymore, Adam."

"It's the holidays. I'm tired from work, from– from everything." He pinched the bridge of his nose, where a headache was beginning to brew. "I don't want to clock out of work and instantly get interrogated about the stupid trip, or about–"

He instantly regretted saying it, but it was too late. Vikki's face hardened. "Interrogated. I'm interrogating you? By, what, by asking you to be at least a little interested in a vacation you wouldn't be able to afford otherwise?" It was a nasty line, and she hesitated after saying it, but didn't retreat. "Do you even want to go to Europe with me?"

"I don't know!" His voice was rising without his permission, echoing dully in the tiny room. "f*ck, Vikki, I don't know. As much as I appreciate the f*cking charity of you letting me come with you, maybe spending two weeks seeing foreign cities and f*ckin' monuments and then having to come back to the same sh*tty apartment and the same sh*tty life doesn't feel like something worth doing. Maybe I don’t want–"

They were interrupted by his watch bleating a cheerful chime, marking half an hour till his shift started. Vikki was silent for a moment before moving past Adam into the living room, her shoulders high and tense. "I'm coming back over to get a few things tomorrow morning, then I’m leaving for Westport," she said, with an air of soft finality. "With or without you. It's your choice, Adam, I won't force you."

He swallowed, staring ahead at the photo of Vikki at the protest that was hanging in front of him. "Say hi to everyone for me." His voice sounded flat, even to him. "Tell your mom thanks for the Christmas card."

Adam could feel Vikki's eyes on him, but he refused to meet them. "I will," she said, after a long moment. "Do you want a ride to work?"

"I'll take the subway."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her nod, and raise a hand to her eyes, rubbing. "Okay. I'll– I'll see you tomorrow."

Adam waited until he heard the click of the lock behind her, then slumped down to sit next to the table that held the fixing solution. There was a familiar ache behind his ribs, dull and hungry.

He didn't want to go to Europe. He didn't want to lounge in expensive hotel rooms and sightsee with excitable guides, taking photos that would rot away in albums and buying souvenirs that would collect dust for a few years before eventually winding up on the shelves of their local Goodwill. He would still be him in Italy, in France– still be the same mess of a person, still disappointing Vikki, still sad and angry all the time, just surrounded by foreign languages and vistas so pretty that they wouldn't seem quite real to him. And when they came back, sunburned and lugging their memories to selfishly display to their friends, it would be to the same city and to the same people. The model train, never stopping.

With a shudder that he refused to let become a sob, Adam heaved himself up to change his shirt to one not stained by photo chemicals.

--

"You're not staying, are you?" Amanda asked, passing him a fresh roll of receipt paper. They were stationed side-by-side at the registers, talking over the noise of the crowd and the music blaring overhead. "I know your last day's tomorrow. Any chance you'd come back after the holidays are over?"

Adam shook his head, loading the paper into his printer. "No. I don't think they'd keep me on even if I asked."

"Good for you, honestly. More retail, then? Or are you gonna try and get your photos in a gallery or a newspaper somewhere?"

He sighed and flashed a tired smile to the customer in front of him as he began scanning through the stack of Hot Wheels she'd dumped onto the counter. "I dunno," he said to Amanda as the woman fished through her purse for her wallet. "Working for a newspaper might be nice. I don't want to do retail forever."

"Tell me about it." Amanda hummed. "Not much of a choice for me, though."

"Hm?"

She met his eyes with a grimace. "My record?"

"Oh. Right." Adam had forgotten– he'd gotten to know Amanda so well over the past few days, it was a bit of a jolt to remember that she had a more difficult past than her sarcastic but warm demeanor would suggest. "What kind of places do they let you work?"

"None that pay particularly well." She twisted her mouth. "Actually– I've got a gig that started at Mount Sinai Hospital last week. Nothing fancy, just food service at the cafeteria."

"That sounds cool." Adam waved over the next customer. The familiarity of the name sparked his mind, and he spoke up before he could stop himself. "Lawrence works there. Or he did."

Amanda shot him a glance. "Your doctor?"

Her phrasing burrowed pleasantly under his skin. He nodded, fighting a smile. "Yeah. He's working from home these days, though, mostly. His leg, y'know."

"Well, I'll say hi if I ever see him." Amanda was silent for a moment, straightening the money in her till. "So, is it– never mind."

Adam glanced over at her. To his surprise, she was blushing. "What?"

"It's stupid. Forget it."

He grinned, his mood lifting by the second. "No, tell me."

She pursed her lips. "Is it, like, a requirement that you have to be hot in order to practice medicine there?" she mumbled after a moment, color still rising in her cheeks.

Adam's eyebrows shot up. "I thought you didn't...I thought he wasn't your type."

"God, no, he's not. But when I was at my interview– hey, shut up, okay?"

"I didn't say anything." It was funny seeing Amanda flustered for once, but he didn't want to needle her too much. "What is it?"

"He's not the only cute doctor there," Amanda said in a rush, and waved her next customer over, effectively ending the conversation.

--

Adam decided to blow twenty bucks on a cab home, just so he could have enough time to thoroughly clean the apartment before Lawrence got there. He was fizzy with nerves, especially having seen the kind of place that the older man was clearly used to. Adam's apartment was a lot bigger and nicer than most of his friends', and it was a hell of a lot better than the sordid wreck of a place he'd lived in when he first moved to the city, but having seen the sleek modernity of Lawrence's house, he couldn't help but be ashamed of his juvenile decor, the water stain on the ceiling of the living room, the chipping paint on the walls.

He raided the closet for a broom and a mop, glad that Vikki had left the cleaning supplies behind when she'd tidied up prior to the party the other night. There wasn't a lot he could do about the sorry state of the heating, nor the lingering smell of cigarettes and photo chemicals, but he could at least take care of some of the dust.

Just found parking, Lawrence texted him an hour later, just as Adam was flapping the ratty area rug out on the fire escape to completely rid it of dirt and chip crumbs.

He responded with a smiley face, his pulse kicking up, and surveyed the place. It would do– he just had to keep reminding himself that Lawrence was here to see him, not to inspect the apartment. Somehow, though, that thought made him even more nervous.

About ten minutes later, he heard three sharp, precise taps at the door, steady as a metronome. Adam swallowed down the last of his nerves and opened the door to find Lawrence with a gentle, tired smile and a box wrapped in shining gold paper. "Merry early Christmas," he said, handing Adam the box.

Adam flushed. "Oh– thank you. Merry Christmas. Um, sorry, I don't have anything for you..."

"I wasn't expecting anything. Honestly, just the photo is enough." Lawrence tilted his chin. "Go ahead, open it."

With a little chuckle, Adam tore open the wrapping paper. "You really didn't need to get me anything, I–"

The words died in his throat. Under the paper was a navy blue box with a large white X splashed across the side, the name Hasselblad emblazoned in the corner. Adam's heart thundered to a near-halt in his chest. He looked up at Lawrence, wide-eyed with disbelief. "Holy sh*t," he breathed. "Is– is that– did you f*cking buy me an XPan?"

"An XPan II, yeah." He seemed a little caught off guard by Adam's reaction, but Lawrence's smile was finally starting to reach his eyes. "The man at the store said that it was the best camera I could buy."

"Lawrence, I–" Adam was nearly choking up. "I can't accept this. It's worth more than my rent."

The doctor waved his hand. "Nonsense. It's a gift. You mentioned the other day that the camera you've got now isn't very good, so I thought– well, I hope it wasn't presumptuous of me to–"

Without thinking, Adam threw his arms around him in a fierce hug, the box still clutched in his hand. Lawrence let out an amused huff, keeping one hand firmly gripping his cane so that Adam didn't bowl them both over, and wrapped the other comfortably around his shoulders. "I can't believe it," Adam said, voice slightly muffled in the taller man's coat. "I can't– I can't f*cking believe this." It occurred to him a few seconds too late how long he'd let the hug linger, and he pulled away, flushed. "Seriously, man, this is...I– I can't thank you enough. Not in a million f*cking years."

Lawrence laughed softly and flicked the swoop of his hair out of his face; it had gotten tousled slightly in the hug. Adam's heart, already soaring, did a little midair backflip. "I'm glad you like it. There's film for it, too, in the box. I made sure it was the kind that's compatible, I asked the store. Black and white."

He couldn't stop grinning. "Thank you. Thank you so much." From the landing above them, Adam heard a door creak open, and he thought fleetingly of his cranky upstairs neighbor. "Uh, c'mon in, please. Didn't mean for us to be standing out here for so long, sorry." He stood aside and let Lawrence pass him into the apartment, glancing down again, nearly disbelievingly, at the camera box in his hands.

"It's nice," Lawrence remarked, looking around his surroundings. Adam flushed– the doctor looked so out of place here in his wool coat and polished shoes, cane gently tapping the floor as he made his way into the living room. "I like your posters," he said, gesturing to a large unframed poster of Jack Torrance's face peering through a splintered door. "The Shining, right?"

"Yeah." Adam set the camera box down gently on the kitchen table, giving it one last reverent glance before turning his attention to the man in front of him. "Uh, I'm a horror fan."

Lawrence hummed. "I remember you mentioning that."

"Can I get you anything? Water, or...?"

The doctor glanced at him, a sardonic smile flicking at his lips. "Do you have anything stronger?"

His frank tone startled a laugh from Adam. "Yeah. Absolutely, sure. I've got some beer, if you want?"

"That would be perfect."

He went to the kitchen to fetch it, talking over his shoulder as Lawrence stood admiring the various posters and prints on the walls. "Rough day?"

"Yes, it was...it was a long one." He didn't elaborate, and Adam didn't push him to. Despite his lingering smile from seeing Adam's overwhelming joy at his gift, Lawrence's demeanor was different today, more reminiscent of how he'd behaved the last time he'd spoken to Adam in person than his usual placid self. He sounded tired, a little on edge. Absent, almost. "Vikki isn't here, is she?"

"No, she’s at her place in Brooklyn." Adam poured one of the beers left over from the party into a glass and, after a moment of hesitation, grabbed himself one as well. "It's just me and you."

He hadn't meant his words to take on a flirtatious tilt, but there was some reckless thrill in his blood, some rush from the thought of Lawrence choosing that particular camera for him– not only because of how expensive it was as a gift in the first place, but the fact that it was Adam's pipe dream to own that exact model. It was a near-unbelievable thing, and he was dizzy with it. Adam handed Lawrence his glass, and let his hand linger for a second too long, their fingers grazing.

If Lawrence noticed, he made no indication of it. He flashed Adam a preoccupied, grateful smile, then returned his gaze to the walls around him, taking a slow sip of his beer. "Did you take that?" he asked, nodding towards a framed oversized print on the wall.

Adam finished the swig he was taking and nodded, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yeah, I had a buddy of mine frame it for me." The photo showed a sweeping vista of the city, taken at sunset from high up. It was in black and white, the buildings shining sharp in crisp contrast, pale white and gleaming grey catching the dying light and reflecting it back in occasional sunbursts in the various windows facing the camera. "I took that from the top of the Macy's building. I had a spare afternoon after work one day, and I decided to get onto the roof...totally illegal, but I think it was worth it."

The memory washed over him– the exhilarating sweep of stingingly cold wind over his face, the thrill of being high enough up that the people below him shrank into inhuman dots, ants scurrying off in colonies. It had been a perfect sunny day, and his heart had been unjustifiably light. It was among the first times he could remember when he'd been that high up and not gotten the urge to jump.

"Definitely worth it," Lawrence murmured, not looking away from the photo. Adam let his own gaze trace over the doctor's face, studying him with a closeness he knew he wouldn't be able to explain away if he met his eyes. The wrinkles around his eyes seemed more pronounced today, as if he'd been frowning deeply, and his mouth was troubled. Adam was about to ask if he wanted to talk about his day when the older man looked down with a self-conscious clearing of his throat. "Do you have that photograph for me?"

"Oh– yeah. It's in the darkroom." He turned, hesitated, and when he registered that Lawrence didn't intend to follow him, quickly went by himself to the darkroom to fetch the photo. Just as well– having him alone in the small room would've made him think, despite his best impulses, of the kiss he'd shared with Jamie, and who he'd been truly thinking of at the time.

Lawrence was looking at a smaller framed picture sitting precariously on the corner of one of the bookshelves when Adam returned. "Is this you and your parents?" he asked, his voice strangely hoarse.

He didn’t have to look to know what Lawrence was seeing in the picture– Adam, seven years old with a missing front tooth and a white button-up a size too big for him; his mother, serene, her hair not quite grey yet but flirting with it at her temples; his father, beaming proudly, a dimple showing in his left cheek that Adam had inherited. “Yeah,” he said, fixing his eyes on Lawrence’s shoes. “That’s…that was us. I took it from my mom’s wall when I left home.”

“Have they asked for it back?”

Adam shook his head even though he knew the other man couldn’t see him. “No. Why would they?”

The doctor ducked his head. It took Adam a moment to realize that he had started crying.

All at once, the air seemed to leave Adam's lungs. There was none of the counterintuitive, guilty frustration he often was disgusted to find in himself when other people around him showed pain he couldn't immediately relieve– he physically ached with his need to comfort Lawrence, but not out of obligation, or even to get the man to stop crying. He wanted whatever made his smile vanish to burn.

Hesitantly, he put his hand on Lawrence's shoulder. Lawrence flinched instinctively, and then settled. He swayed incrementally closer to Adam, resting more weight on him. Adam took it on as easily as breathing.

"I'm sorry," Lawrence said, his voice trembling. "I just– I was thinking–" He took a deep breath. "I was thinking of– of Diana saying the same thing to someone, ten years from now. And I..."

He folded against Adam, leaning back into him as a shuddering sob wracked his body. Adam was at a loss for words, rubbing his thumb against Lawrence's shoulder and supporting his weight as best he could. They stayed like that until the doctor regained a little of his usual composure, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his coat.

"Alison has filed for full custody of Diana," he said hollowly. Adam's stomach dropped. "I only just learned this afternoon. She...she didn't say anything to me about it. Didn't even leave it up for discussion. And– and it's not something I can dispute without–" He paused to take another seizing breath, one hand reaching up to tremulously rest atop the hand that Adam had clasped on his shoulder. "I can't fight it. Not with the leverage her lawyer has against me."

"I'm so sorry." Adam was at a loss for words. "Did– did she say why?" Lawrence was silent, and an awful feeling rose up in Adam's gut. He remembered the poisonous look Alison had given him, the way she'd spoken to Lawrence about Adam's presence in their house. "If...if this is my fault, in– in any way–"

"Don't." Lawrence seemed to come back to himself at that, gripping his hand more tightly. He looked sideways to meet Adam's eyes; his gaze was unwavering, even as his eyes shone with unshed tears. "You didn't do anything wrong. She...Alison always wanted this. And– and Diana will...she'll be alright. Alison's a good mother, she absolutely dotes on her. I just– I had thought we were going to be more civilized about this."

Adam fell silent, rubbing Lawrence's shoulder in small, incremental circles as his mind raced. He hated seeing the other man like this, hated feeling helpless. The photo he had in his other hand was torn at the corner now from how tightly he was holding it, and he couldn't bring himself to care.

"Well," Lawrence said at last, releasing Adam's hand to wipe at his own eyes. "It– it can't be helped." He heaved a sigh and shifted his weight slightly, not quite edging away from the younger man but moving enough that Adam got the message and let his hand drop from his shoulder, empty. "I don't have anything keeping me in the city until the final custody hearing in January. I may as well get away from it– from everything."

The floor seemed to fall out from under Adam's shoes. "What?"

As if sensing his despair, Lawrence offered him a small smile. "I'm going away for a while. Going west, wherever my car will take me. Now that Diana's not spending Christmas with me, I can't bear the idea of sitting in that house alone."

You're leaving me? was on the tip of his tongue, and Adam was ashamed at how close it came to spilling from him. "When are you leaving?" he said instead, hating that his voice was shaking slightly.

"On Christmas Eve, probably." Lawrence looked directly at him, and Adam felt, not for the first time, like the doctor could see under his skin, as if he was seeing all the impulses and fears and hopes that Adam didn't want anyone else to perceive from him. "I thought," he said, and he sounded almost shy, "that you might want to come with me. Would you?"

And suddenly, something was blossoming in Adam's chest– hope, exhilaration, a feeling of giddiness and a nearly effervescent surge of warmth. It had another name, he knew, but he couldn't think it, could never say it. He was glad that Lawrence had looked away for a moment, because he knew it would be naked on his face. "Yeah," he said, simply, as if he was agreeing to grab a cup of coffee with the man. "Yeah, I'd like that."

Lawrence's answering smile could envy the sun.

Chapter 8: there's a changing constellation

Notes:

sorry for the delay getting this one out! it was pretty tough to write, for reasons that will become apparent.

no real content warnings this time, apart from a single reclaimed slur. title is from untouchable face by ani difranco– while i usually source titles from Adam's playlist, this one is from Vikki's. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

“So you met this man a week ago,” Amanda summarized, setting a Fisher-Price dollhouse down on the display stand with perhaps more force than necessary, “you spent five hours at his house, and now you’re going on a cross-country road trip with him?”

Adam cleared his throat. “Um. Yeah.”

She blinked at him, almost pityingly. “Adam. This is how people get murdered.”

“Listen–“

“Just because you’ve got a crush on this guy–“

“It isn’t like that!” He could feel his cheeks getting hot.

She flattened her lips, trying not to smirk. “Mm-hm. What color are his eyes?”

“They’re blue, but I don’t see how that’s–“

“And his middle name? Do you know that?”

“…um.”

“See?” Amanda adjusted the plastic door. “Crush. You’re infatuated with a man twice your age. Like a kid with a hot teacher.”

“He’s…” Adam wet his lips. “He’s a doctor,” he finished lamely. “That’s gotta count for something, right?”

“Oh, so he knows how to dissect people. That’ll be helpful.” She shot him a look. “For him, I mean. When he murders you.”

“Amanda, he really needs a friend right now.”

She huffed a sigh, and stood back to admire her handiwork. “Maybe it’s the dyke in me, but I honestly don’t know what you see in the guy. He’s a middle-aged, divorced doctor. He probably cries during sex. And not in the fun way.”

It was the 23rd, a few hours before the store opened. He was glad that his very last shift at Macy's was an opening one– it gave him time with Amanda, uninterrupted by customers, and also gave him a little longer to mull over how he would break the news to Vikki about his trip with Lawrence when she came over to get her stuff after his shift ended.

He couldn't not tell her. Lawrence hadn't said how long they'd be gone, but the court hearing was on January 12th, and as the older man had said, there wasn't much keeping him around until then. There wasn't much keeping Adam in Manhattan, either– Vikki had a thriving social life outside of him, and he was sure that the tension between them would benefit from him skipping town for a while, anyway. And as for the rest of Adam's friends...well, he'd been out of touch with Scott for months at a time before without the guy bothering to check in on him. Sometimes Adam thought he could disappear off the face of the earth without Scott giving a sh*t. Honestly, it was only Vikki's reaction that he was worried about.

She had picked up on his fondness for Lawrence with frightening clarity and insight. Adam felt a physical, souring weight in his stomach as he remembered her face when she'd looked at the photograph he'd taken of the doctor.

Friends, she'd said. Sure.

He did want to be friends with Lawrence. He wanted to be anything the other man needed him to be, as long as it didn't end with him being left behind. When Lawrence had broken down in his arms the previous afternoon, there had been a spark of understanding, deep in Adam's heart, the same sensation he was always trying to capture in his photographs: this is everything, this is belonging, this is home. It frightened him to feel so much so suddenly, but not enough to displace the comfort he felt as it settled deep into him like a drink of something hot and delicious, curling around his bones, filling him with steady, glowing warmth.

Amanda nudged him. "Please tell me you're not thinking about him crying during sex right now. I might actually puke."

Shaking himself mentally, Adam picked up a doll to position in the dollhouse, using all of his willpower to fight against the sudden onslaught of mental images that had given him. "Well, I wasn't before."

His friend made an exaggeratedly disgusted face, but Adam could tell she was masking a smile. "God. Absolutely useless."

"I'm sorry again about not being able to make it to your Christmas party," he said, changing the subject as much for his own benefit as hers. "It sounded really great, I would've liked to meet your friends."

Amanda shrugged his concerns off easily. "I offered because you weren't doing anything for the holidays. I'm glad that you're getting out of town for a while instead." She began setting up the next dollhouse, clicking the pieces into place with swift efficiency. "Anyway, I found some replacements. Invited a couple more people."

"Anyone I know?"

She shook her head with a wry little twist of her lips. "Probably not."

"They're from your other job, then?"

To his surprise, the tips of her ears began to turn pink. "Uh. Kind of."

Adam hid a smile. He'd noticed her getting flustered talking about her job at Mount Sinai the last time they'd talked about it– it didn't take a genius to see that she was nursing a crush on whoever she'd met there. And with the needling she'd given him about Lawrence, it was only fair if he gave as good as he got.

"So," he said, aiming for a casual tone, "what's her name?"

Her hand slipped as she was clicking the dollhouse walls together, nearly sending them toppling off the display. Amanda caught them just in time, definitely blushing now. "What's your problem?" she huffed, no bitterness at all behind her words, despite her best efforts. "Who– who said it was a her, anyway?"

"...Amanda, I really don't mean to stereotype, but–"

With a world-weary sigh that he could tell was barely hiding a laugh, Amanda elbowed him, gesturing for Adam to hand her the pieces for the roof. "Her name's Lynn," she said, and there was something in her voice that made Adam feel warm inside to hear. "Dr. Lynn Denlon."

"She sounds nice."

"She's incredible," Amanda said, and she sounded almost shy. "I came close to not inviting her in the first place– she's got a kid, and an ex-husband, so I figured she'd be busy with them over the holidays. But she said she'd be there. Didn't even hesitate."

A slow, incredulous smile spread over Adam's face. "So you're telling me that you're seeing a middle-aged, divorced doctor?" he asked, unable to disguise the glee in his voice. "See, now, maybe it's the gay in me, but–"

Amanda snorted with a rippling, joyous burst of laughter, her blush dissipating. "Fine, alright, you got me. Touché." She glanced sideways at him, eyes sparkling. "And yeah, before you even ask, she does. And yes, in the fun way." Adam grinned crookedly, and she shoved him gently. "But she's not middle-aged, she's about my age. And I've actually managed to sleep with her, so I've got you beat there."

"Alright, alright." He'd accept the ribbing if he got to see her smile like that.

She let out a soft huff, clicking the chimney into place. "Anyway, speaking of Lawrence– assuming he doesn't immediately dump your body in the Meadowlands, where're you two going?"

Adam paused. "West," he said. Something in his tone must have given his slight uncertainty away, because Amanda gave him another searching glance. "I– I don't think we have much of a plan, really. I think it's more just...driving for the sake of driving. He said he wanted me to see America."

Lawrence's smile came back to him, easy to picture from how quickly he'd memorized it. He'd asked if Adam had seen Wyoming, or California, or even Illinois. Adam was so used to feeling embarrassed about his lack of worldly experience– he'd never been west of Pennsylvania or south of Maryland, apart from an expensive, ill-fated trip to Disney World that had been cut short when his father had put his fist through the wall of their hotel room– but somehow, when it was Lawrence asking, Adam got the sense that he wasn't being judged or interrogated.

"There's too much of the world out there for you not to have seen yet," he'd said, and Adam had felt something soften treacherously inside him.

"Uh-huh." Amanda didn't look very impressed. "Well, if he does turn out to be a serial killer, give me a call, okay?" She nudged him, gesturing for him to hand her the last piece of the roof. "And even if it turns out fine, call me anyway."

His heart clenched a little. Amanda wasn't looking at him, but Adam could feel the same aura from her that she'd extended to him at the party– comforting, protective. He wondered suddenly if she had any younger siblings, if she spoke to them at all. If there was something in Adam that she recognized as needing– not a shoulder to cry on, exactly, but maybe a shoulder to punch gently. A seat at the cafeteria. A smile when he needed it.

The radio kicked on overhead, signaling the store's opening, and Adam's throat constricted a little. "That's it, then," he said, standing with a groan as his knees cracked. "Last shift, done."

Amanda looked up, a small smile playing at her lips. "You're free. For good."

"Yeah." He hesitated as she rose, scratching the back of his neck. "Uh, hey, listen–"

Before he could finish, she was hugging him. It was swift and brief and a little awkward, but warmth burst in his chest as her forehead knocked against his temple. "It'll be weird not having you around," she mumbled, and pulled away, a more genuine smile on her face than he'd ever seen. "Stay in touch, okay?"

Adam nodded, his heart swelling with affection. "I will. I promise."

--

After he clocked out, taking his nametag and stupid polyester Santa hat with him, a kind of wild freedom began to bubble up in him, lightness building and building in Adam's chest until he felt like he was nearly floating with it. No more waking up at ungodly hours, no more customer temper tantrums, no more agonizingly short fifteen-minute breaks, no more aching back and feet from standing still behind the counter for hours at a time, no more Christmas music.

A wide grin spread uncontrollably over his face. No more f*cking Christmas music.

As he left the Macy's building, gently pushing past the people lined up grouchily outside, it occurred to him to get a treat for Vikki to celebrate. He had a little cash left over from the holiday bonus he'd stayed on for– and besides, it might soften the blow that he was leaving.

He bought two bear claws and a cup of coffee at the first bakery he saw after he'd gotten off the subway at Washington Square, inhaling the fresh, sweet scent as he hurried down the sidewalk, coat collar turned up against the sharp chill of the wind. In all honesty, his mood was a mix of elation at not only being free from the store, but free from the city, too. Lawrence had been right; there was so much of America that Adam hadn't seen yet. Landmarks, national parks, f*ck, even the simple mundanity of seeing what other climates looked like in the winter– he could picture them driving together through a desert or in a forest, surrounded by rolling hills or rippling prairies. He would be able to see more than a handful of actual stars in the night sky for the first time in years. He could only imagine how many rolls of film he'd go through on the trip, even if they were mostly dedicated to blurry snapshots from the passenger side window.

Adam passed by a storefront just opening for business, and paused. The thought of Lawrence's absurdly generous Christmas present lingered in his mind; he'd felt ashamed that he hadn't had anything to give him in return. He eyed the displays of coats and scarves in the window, and huffed a short scoff at himself. Anything that he could scrounge up the money to buy, he was sure the doctor would easily be able to afford a far better quality version for himself.

Heartfelt and cheesy– and cheap– it was, then.

He shouldered open the door to the music store next door, greeted by a light, cheery bell overhead and a small nod from the sleepy-looking man behind the counter. He walked over to the acoustic guitar section, lower lip caught between his teeth as his eyes darted over the names. Gaughan, Genfan, Gilberto, Giltrap...González. He smiled, and plucked the CD from the rack.

"Just this," he told the cashier, setting the jewel case on the counter. "And– could you gift wrap it, please?"

The man eyed the CD. "This for your girlfriend?" he asked as he rang him up. Adam nodded; it was an easy lie. "Alright, whaddya want on the card?"

"The card?"

He sighed. "Gift wrap comes with a free card. Whaddya want it to say?"

"Uh..." Adam swallowed. f*ck. "To, uh– to La...ura. To Laura. From Adam." He could fix it later.

The cashier gave him a disdainful once-over. "From? Not even 'love, Adam'?"

"Look, man–"

He put his hands up tiredly. "Alright, alright. Don't get your f*ckin' panties in a twist." The man wrote the card with a flourish, holding it up for Adam's approval before tucking it into an envelope and setting it aside as he wrapped the CD with bored deftness. "Your guys's song on here or somethin'?"

The idea squirmed pleasantly in Adam's stomach before he could stop himself from thinking about it. "Yeah," he said, and it didn't quite feel like a lie this time. "Uh, 'Heartbeats.' Track four."

The cashier wasn't listening or interested anymore, which was fine by Adam. He finished wrapping the CD in garish green and red striped paper, and bundled it in a plain paper bag to give to him. "Happy holidays. Hope she likes it."

As Adam left, an uncomfortable pit yawned slowly open in his stomach. It was a stupid idea, he told himself, knowing it was far too late. Lawrence wouldn't want a CD of a song he'd only heard a poor, hastily cut-off rendition of. The cashier had been right to assume that it was a gift for Adam's girlfriend– it was too personal, too...romantic.

He swallowed hard, blinking blearily against a sudden cold wind that swept over his face as he approached his apartment. He couldn't think about that right now. He needed to focus on Vikki.

Adam unlocked the front entrance and stomped up the staircase, nearly spilling his coffee with the force of his footsteps. Even from the stairs, he could already see the bright spill of sunlight beneath the crack of his apartment door interrupted occasionally by the shadow of someone moving around, could hear the faint sound of Jack Off Jill playing through tinny speakers. He checked his watch– Vikki must've gotten here right after he'd clocked out, just like she'd said, but his shopping had delayed him longer than he'd planned.

He knocked, even though it was his place. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Vikki's eyes were dull with exhaustion when she opened the door. "Hey," she said, her voice attempting some semblance of lightheartedness. It wasn't effective at all, and Adam felt a familiar, threatening lurch in his stomach. They'd gone to Coney Island together the previous summer, and he was suddenly reminded of the queasy pitch of his stomach as they'd neared the first drop of the roller coaster.

"Hey," he echoed, and tried for a grin, lifting the pastry bag. "I got us some bear claws."

A small smile flitted to her lips. "Thanks," Vikki said, still in that emptily cheerful tone. She took the bag and retreated back into the kitchen, leaving the doorway empty. Adam slunk inside, quietly depositing the bag that held the CD to the side of the doorway, just behind a disused umbrella that he'd raided the canopy of to make a lighting rig. "How was work?" she asked, her back still turned to him.

"It was– it was good." He cleared his throat. "Yeah, last shift, not too bad. Uh, Amanda says hi."

Vikki took out two plates for them, and Adam felt a sudden pang as he watched her move silently around the kitchen, avoiding the squeaky floorboard that he always managed to step on. She fit in this place, band tee slipping off her left shoulder, sunlight haloing her red hair through the grimy window, her music drifting through his speakers. She fit so well in all the parts of him he'd let her into, had elbowed her way into his heart with her smile and her quick eyes and her ceaseless, stubborn optimism– but it was a different ache that settled into him now when he looked at her. Muted, like a familiar song playing in a far room, and him gradually realizing he was starting to get tired of hearing it.

"Tell her I said hi, too," she said, glancing back at him. "She was cool. You're gonna keep in touch, right? I don't want you to lose her as a friend just because you don't work together anymore."

Irritation prickled under his skin. "Yeah, I'll text her."

"And you're going to her party?" She put the bear claws on each of their plates, wiping her hand on her jeans to get rid of some of the stickiness of the icing before setting the plates on the kitchen table. "On the 25th? Since you're not coming to Westport?"

There it was– that tone in her voice that set Adam's jaw rigid with frustration. The same tone that she'd use with a child, not someone she truly saw as an emotional or intellectual peer. Vikki wasn't looking at him, couldn't catch the way he rubbed his eyes, trying to keep his temper down. "Maybe. Yeah."

She glanced up, and her brows were creased. "Well, what else would you be doing? Don't tell me you're just gonna stay in here and–"

"I'm going on a road trip," Adam said, quicker than he could stop himself. "With a friend."

Vikki straightened up, eyeing him with cold wariness. "A friend," she repeated, her tone almost mockingly incredulous. "Who?"

She was angry. She had every right to be, Adam knew, but it still stung him to hear it, to see it in her face. He worked his jaw, and said the name she was waiting to hear.

"Lawrence."

Vikki took in a deep, sharp breath, and let it out with deliberate slowness. Over the speakers, the last song on the album ended with a sustained, fuzzed-out note from an electric guitar, fading out gradually into the icy silence of the apartment.

"You hardly know him," she started, and by the way she said it, Adam knew that there wasn't going to be any chance for him to begin to explain in a way she'd want to listen to. "Adam, you've met this guy once–"

"–three times." He didn't know what made him interrupt her; some stubbornly immature part of him that rankled at her condescending tone. If they were going to fight about this, he'd rather it feel like an actual goddamn fight, not a lecture. "I've met him three times. At the store, at the restaurant, and–"

The volcano boiled over, just like he knew it would. "Shut up! God, f*cking–" One hand flew up to her forehead, as if Adam were causing her physical harm with his stupidity. "Let me talk. Let me f*cking talk, Adam, even if you're not gonna listen. Okay?" Vikki's eyes were burning. "You don’t know him. He is a stranger to you, he's rich and he's handsome but he's a complete f*cking stranger. You met him on Friday."

"And is it really a f*cking shock to you that I want to spend that much time with someone who actually listens to me?" Adam burst out. His voice was rising faster than he could stop it. "Someone who's interested in what I have to say, who doesn't just– who doesn't push me to be someone I'm not?"

"What are you talking about? I listen, Adam. I listen, and I f*cking– I help you, I support you, I–"

He squeezed his hand into a tight fist, nails sinking deep into the skin of his palm. "There's a difference between supporting someone and making them feel like sh*t because they're not living up to your standards, Vikki."

Vikki crossed her arms. "Oh, god forbid I want you to actually do something with your life."

"My life, exactly. It's not your life, it's mine. It's not your job to make me something I'm not."

She let out a bitten-out scoff, whistling harshly past her teeth. "That is so f*cking selfish, Adam. It's not just you who's affected here. I want a life with you. I want you to f*cking grow up. I want–"

"And that's the goddamn issue. It's about what you want. Not me. Not us. Your version of me is someone who I just can't be, and I wish that you'd f*cking see that. But no, god, all you want to do is push, and push, and push. Push me into making friends with people I can't stand, push me to show my work to people who only want–" He tripped over his words, a sudden fear for Jamie's safety breaking through his anger. "Who don't want to see my work," Adam finished lamely. "You're pushing me into the mold of someone you want to be with, and I don't think that person was ever actually me."

"It's who I thought I was with, Adam." Hot, angry tears were springing to her eyes, but Vikki pushed them away impatiently. "You've got so much potential, and you're just wasting it. Maybe if you had any ambition, you'd have an actual job, an actual life. You're a f*cking kid playing at being a grown-up, and I'm sick of it."

Adam's breath came hot and short, squeezing in his chest. "It's not your job to fix me."

"No, apparently it's just my job to lend you a hundred bucks or so when you can't make rent." It was a cheap shot, and Vikki said it with more venom than Adam knew she intended, from the way her eyes suddenly went wide and contrite. "I–"

He laughed, sharp and mean and loud. Fine, if she wanted to play that card. "And where's that money from, Vikki? From your clothes budget, or your restaurant budget? And which one– f*cking remind me, would you, it's been a while– which one of those are you paying for yourself?" Adam tapped his jaw, pretending to think. "Oh, yeah, I remember. It's neither of them."

"Listen, just because my parents can afford to help me out–"

"Help you out? They’re paying for everything. For your brownstone, for your– your concert tickets, your groceries, all of it. You live in Park f*cking Slope and you work at that bookstore for fun, just for something to do." The words were pouring out of him faster than he could stop them, bearing all the resentment that had boiled under his skin for longer than he cared to admit. "Talk about playing dress-up. You’re playing at being punk, at being your own person. You’re not. You spend your daddy's money on pre-ripped jeans and then you turn around and call me out for not having enough ambition to get a better job. You invite your friends to my sh*thole apartment because you're ashamed of what they'd think of you if they saw how good you have it at your place. It makes me sick sometimes."

Vikki's face was wet with tears by the time he finished. Her lip trembled like a child's for a moment before she spoke. "So– so you're mad at me for the f*cking crime of having rich parents. Fine. That's fine, I don't– I don't give a sh*t. I'm sure that Lawrence is gonna be so much more grounded in reality than I am. Talk about daddy's money."

A lurch of heat roiled in his chest, acidic and venomous. "You know that's not why I–"

"I saw the camera he gave you, Adam. What was that in exchange for? Or did he tell you it was just out of the goodness of his f*cking heart?"

"Victoria."

Her eyes narrowed. "So you're gonna go off on this f*cking road trip with him. Fine. Do it, go. What happens when he gets bored of you?" She took a shuddering breath. "Because he will, you know. He's gonna get bored and lose interest, and you're gonna be f*cking rudderless, because I know how you get."

"How I f*cking get–"

She wasn't letting up. "You're gonna come back to the city, alone, and then– what? Another retail job? More stupid photos of buildings and birds and rocks? Wasting away in front of the TV until you f*cking die of alcohol poisoning or boredom, whichever comes first? You don't know what you really want, Adam. You never have."

"I know that I don't want you," he spat out.

Vikki froze, and Adam realized, too late, what he'd said.

He'd meant the arguing, the belittling, but the whole fight had thrown his feelings into focus with the intensity of a spotlight. Did he even want to be with her anymore? It wasn't something he'd ever let himself properly turn over in his brain. Whenever Adam thought idly about not being with Vikki, the things he knew he would miss seemed so small– having someone who would always be there for him, having someone who made him laugh, having someone to come home to.

The fact that even in his head it was someone, not Vikki, told him what he'd been too afraid to admit.

He wondered how long ago it had changed between them. It couldn't have just been the few days since he'd met Lawrence– it was farther back than that. Or maybe he was just telling himself that to make himself feel better.

All at once, the fight went out of him. The word's he'd flung at her felt as empty and useless as wadded-up bits of paper. Adam's feet scuffed the floor as he shifted his stance, and the resulting creak sounded as loud as a gunshot.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. "I– I really am. I didn't mean to be...I wasn't trying to–" He reached forward hesitantly, going to cup her cheek. She turned to the side, out of reach, and he let his hand fall again.

"Do you want to know why I wanted so badly to go to Europe with you, Adam?" Vikki finally met his eyes. Her mascara was smudged above her freckles, red-rimmed eyes glassy and tired. "Because my mom said it seemed like the kind of place someone might want to propose. And I thought–" She let out a short laugh, a bitten-off, ugly thing. "I thought that's what you were waiting for. The right place, the right time. Turns out I was waiting on the wrong person all along."

His stomach dropped into freefall. “Vikki, I…”

“You weren’t even thinking of that as a possibility, were you? It hadn’t even crossed your mind that that’s what I want from this, from you? I’m twenty-seven, Adam. We’ve been dating for a year. And I–“ Her breath caught in a hitched sob, and he wanted more than anything to get her to stop crying, to stop looking at him like that. “I love you. I really do.”

Adam opened his mouth, and no words came out.

The thought of being with her forever, of marrying her...she was right, it wasn't something that had even occurred to him. From the moment they'd met, they'd clicked in a way that had felt natural, but never transcendent. Never more than enjoying each other's company, than laughing together and having sex when they were bored, than staying together out of what he was rapidly beginning to realize was more obligation than passion, at least on his part.

"Adam," she said, and her voice was a tiny, broken thing. "Tell me what you're thinking."

He raised his hand again, and this time she let him draw her close for a hug. She shuddered, folding into him, and all he could think about was how uncomfortable her body heat felt against his skin, how his arm would start cramping soon. A surge of self-loathing rushed up into his throat at the thought, choking him.

"I...I think we should take a break, Vikki," he mumbled, her hair tickling his mouth. "Just– just for a while. You're right, I need...I need to change. I need to grow up a bit. I want to be better for you, I really do."

She shivered, pressing closer. "Okay," she said, after a long time. "I-I think...I think that's a good idea." Vikki cleared her throat. "I don't wanna fight anymore, Adam. I'm so sick of being this angry."

"Me too." He dropped a kiss onto the top of her head. "I'm...I'm sorry about what I said."

"Yeah. M-me too." They were both silent for a moment, before Vikki let out a stuttering sigh. "I...I'm gonna get the rest of my stuff. My parents– I told them I'd be there by two o'clock. I should...I should go."

Adam let her go, unable to bear looking directly at her face. "Do you want me to help?"

"No, it's– I got it." Vikki sniffled again, wiping her eyes with the back of her sleeve. "I'm almost done, anyway. I just need my yellow shirt."

"I think it's still under my bed."

"Okay." She hesitated, and then slipped past him into the bedroom, her socked feet whispering softly against the floor.

Adam let out a long, slow breath. His heartbeat had settled from the heady pounding in his ears to a dull, metronomic thud, almost soothing in its steadiness. He was suddenly so exhausted that it dragged his limbs down like gravity.

It was a while before Vikki emerged from his bedroom, her shirt in an awkwardly folded bundle in her hands. She knelt by her suitcase and stuffed it quickly inside before standing with a tremulous sigh. "So–" she said, her voice still croaky. "I was...I was gonna wait, but since– well. I'm not gonna put a due date on...on all this, but I think we should leave it for a while. Leave each other alone. So you should probably have this now, rather than– rather than too long after the holidays." She drew a small box from one of her bags, thumb flicking idly at the ribbon on top. "It's alright if you didn't get me anything."

"No, I– I did." A tiny lick of anger flared up in him at the thought of Vikki just assuming he hadn't gotten her anything for Christmas, but he pushed it down easily. Adam reached up into the cupboard above the fridge and got down the gift bag he'd stowed there weeks ago. "Um. Merry Christmas."

Vikki's answering smile was so tragic that it made him wish, absurdly, that he could ask to take a photo of her like that, all drained fury and pathetically streaked makeup. "It's an iPod," she said, handing him the box without ceremony. "I– I digitized our CD collection. All of it's on there. It was so we could listen to everything while– y'know. While we were traveling."

He swallowed. "Thank you. I...that's really sweet, Vikki." He handed her the bag with a small, embarrassed twist of his lips. "Yours is, um, a book of poetry. I asked Maddie for recommendations. I hope...I hope you like it."

"Thanks." She was silent for a moment before coming forward for another hug. It was brief, and warm, and Adam felt himself choking up again. "Merry Christmas. I'm sorry that I..." She let out a small noise, almost a hiccup. "I'm sorry."

"Me too." They swayed together in the silence of the kitchen before Vikki broke away, picking up her bags. "I'll– I'll call you," Adam said, unable to look away from her back, concert dates rippling and folding in the fabric of the shirt he'd let her keep. "When I'm ready."

Vikki turned from the open door, and gave him one last smile. "I hope you do," she said, and then she was gone.

Notes:

happy valentines day!

Chapter 9: so long to ten-hour shifts & faking sympathies

Notes:

this one's a bit shorter than usual, sorry! special thanks to sarah @/paleromantic for proofreading & talking me through my anxieties, love you bestie <3

no content warnings to speak of! title is from Letter of Resignation by The Weakerthans, which does make a diegetic appearance in this chapter. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Adam spent the rest of the early afternoon in a haze of sleep and leftover booze. It was unhealthy, he knew, but he couldn't bear to be alone in his head for longer than a few minutes.

Vikki's tear-stained face kept swimming into his vision; her despair hurt to remember even more than the words she'd thrown at him in anger. The heaviness of regret sat in his chest with a physical weight, pressing insistently against his ribs and his lungs until the only way he could breathe was to take another deep drink straight from the cold plastic bottle of vodka and let his brain cloud over, slowing his thoughts and deadening the pain until it eased into a dull, persistent ache.

The worst part was how inevitable it had all felt. They were always going to end up like this; he wasn't the correct shape for the space she'd cleared for him in her future, and he wasn't willing to bend himself to fit. And even if he was, he could finally admit to himself that it wasn't something he wanted. He had been happy with Vikki– not overjoyed to wake up every morning thinking about her, not thrilled to the core every time their hands brushed, not looking at her like she was something holy– but still happy. And it still hadn't been enough for him, would never have been enough, even if he'd tried his hardest to be the kind of man she deserved.

There was always going to be a part of him that was reluctant to fully devote himself to her, unable to let himself fall completely. Even during the surges of love that he'd felt for her, Adam knew that he'd never been as deep in it as Vikki had been, had never been filled with hope at the thought of a real future with her or thought of them as soulmates.

It hadn't been a fairy tale romance, or some great cosmic destiny, or even a sh*tty low budget romcom. It was just two people coming together and then breaking apart, small and angry and exhausted from pretending it had been something more than that. Maybe it would hurt even more if it had been, but the pain of it as it was– of dredging up the ugly things he'd been shoving down and hurling them at her, of hearing what she truly thought about him– was already chewing at the inside of him with sharp, hungry teeth.

Adam scrubbed at his eyes, hating the pinpricks of tears. He was so goddamn sick of crying. Sick of ruining everything, sick of feeling. He slumped into his bed, closing his eyes for another restless nap.

--

He woke up again around four, the light outside his bedroom slowly fading into dusk. Only the dull throbbing in his head kept him from reaching for the bottle again– he didn't want to be a complete hungover mess by the time Lawrence came to pick him up tomorrow morning.

That was the only thing that kept him from falling back into complete despondency. Not just the fact that he was leaving the city, at least for a little while, but that he would be leaving with Lawrence. It was a dizzying thought, the idea of spending so much time with him– and even if he couldn't pick his mood up entirely from the stomach-churning melancholy of being newly single for the first time in a year, he could at least make a bit of an effort for Lawrence's sake, if not for his own. The last thing he wanted to do was disappoint the man, especially after he'd taken such a leap of faith inviting Adam in the first place.

It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he didn’t even know why Lawrence had chosen him , out of everyone the doctor surely had in his life, to go on the trip with. Adam was a nobody, for god’s sake. A pathetic wannabe photographer with delusions of poeticism, an awkward mess who tripped over his own words even when he meant them more than he’d meant anything in his life. Was he just a sounding board for Lawrence’s despair, the nearest warm shoulder to cry on? Or did the doctor see in him a crumb of potential, a shadow of who Adam truly wanted to be– a good man, a kind man, the sort of person who would deserve a friend like Lawrence?

He heaved himself off the bed, groaning as the action sent a wave of nausea through him. Surely it was the former. But he could try to be better, would always try, for Lawrence’s sake.

Unbidden, Vikki’s words came back to him, with even more venom than she'd said them: He's gonna get bored and lose interest, and you're gonna be f*cking rudderless.

He could only hope that she was wrong about the first part, because the second rang with a brutal, resounding truth. Adam had never taken rejection well, even when it was warranted– the slightest hint that someone was tiring of his presence was enough to send him into a spiral of self-loathing and aggressive melancholy. He’d always felt too deeply, he knew. It was just another aspect of himself that he shouldered like a physical burden, unable to imagine sharing the weight with another person. Vikki had tried her best, but she hadn’t understood when he’d explained it to her.

Adam could imagine Lawrence understanding, but he couldn’t imagine sharing it with him in the first place. The ugliness inside him seemed too awful for Adam himself to stand to look at, and he didn’t want Lawrence to see him for the clinging, pathetic thing he thought himself to be in his darkest moments.

Shaking himself, he dragged his seldom-used duffel bag from the closet and threw every clean, somewhat respectable shirt he owned inside, making a blurry mental note to get some laundry done before it was time to leave tomorrow. There were a few laundromats nearby, cheap and with late hours, but he was reluctant to brave the winter cold right away–

With a shuddering clunk emanating from the peeling walls, the apartment made his decision for him. Adam groaned, glaring balefully at the thermostat whose needle would soon slowly start to dip. Another thing he wouldn't miss from this place. He assumed, or at least hoped, that Lawrence's standards would keep him from booking any motels or hotels with broken heating systems.

As he stuffed his laundry into a thick black garbage bag, that fleeting thought returned and settled. If they were going to drive to California– f*ck, even to Illinois– they would inevitably have to stay at a hotel together at least a few times. Adam didn't doubt that Lawrence would be able to spring for separate rooms for them, but there was a small part of him that half wished he wouldn't. Okay, maybe it was a large part of him, but he refused to let himself really think about exactly why , instead forcing his brain to focus on finding his second-best pair of jeans.

It was below freezing outside by the time he left the apartment, his makeshift hamper slung over his shoulder like some kind of trashbag-lugging Santa. Adam shuddered, shrinking into his coat as he scurried towards the nearest coin laundry place.

The flickering fluorescent lighting and the sickly warring smells of antiseptic bleach and sweat that filled Mr. Suds' Laundry Palace didn't help the low swell of nausea threatening to rise ever higher in his gut, but Adam pushed through it, dumping his laundry into one of the machines and fishing a few bucks from his wallet. He fed his money to the machine and sank into one of the plastic chairs nearby, scrubbing a hand over his face. With an hour to kill before he had to change it over to the dryer, he wished he'd brought a book to read– the TV was playing some stupid reality show on mute without closed captioning, and while he briefly entertained himself making up dialogue in his head for the socialites onscreen to follow, he quickly grew bored.

Adam shoved his hands into the wide front pocket of his worn hoodie, and was surprised to find the box that Vikki had given him before she'd left. He drew it out and turned it over in his hands, a lump rising in his throat as his thumb traced the crookedly applied tape over the folded edges of the shiny red wrapping paper. Swallowing roughly, he tore open the paper, balling it up and chucking it into the trashcan next to him, and opened the glossy white box.

He'd never owned an iPod before– he hadn't really seen the point of it, since his portable CD player had always worked just fine, and spending $300 on something that essentially did the same job seemed like a complete waste.

With another weary glance at the clock above the doorway, he scrolled through the library she'd loaded onto the iPod. Sure enough, all of their combined CD collection was there, even the bands he loved that she didn't particularly care for. He paused for a moment over Cannibal Corpse, the jagged sting of tears surging up in his throat as he remembered, with an oddly powerful flood of nostalgia, the rant he'd been on the receiving end of for listening to something so grossly misogynistic and just plain nasty . Vikki had hated it with a passion, but here it was, on the iPod, just in case he wanted to listen to it. It occurred to him that he hadn't even checked Vikki's book collection to see if she already owned the book of poetry he'd gotten her. She'd given him something kind and generous, and he hadn't even thought twice about his gift to her.

Adam shook off the memory and scrolled down until he reached the bottom, seeing an artist he didn't recognize. Some indie band with a dorky name; probably something she'd heard about through her friends at the bookstore. He clicked through to one of the three albums, scrolled until he found a song that didn't seem quite as pretentious as the others, and pressed play, plugging in the included earphones and jamming them into his still cold ears.

Crashing drums and a rhythmic guitar line slammed into his ears with a welcome melodic harshness, mildly nasally vocals describing a diary written in invisible ink, a basem*nt bachelor suite, a certain search for certainty. Adam leaned back, closing his eyes, and let the song blend with the thumping of the washing machines until they lulled him into a near-trance, brain empty of everything except the music and off-kilter percussion of water and metal.

--

He must have drifted off, because he was jolted awake by the shrill blare of the washing machine signaling the end of the cycle. He'd reached the end of the album, the earphones sitting dead and silent in his ears. Yawning, and then wincing at the foul taste in his mouth, Adam stumbled over to fling the load into the dryer. The action made the front pocket of his hoodie lift from his shirt, the small flat weight of his cell phone thumping against his stomach as the fabric settled back.

Adam drew it out and checked for any new messages. There weren’t any, but his eyes lingered over the names he’d recently texted. On impulse, he pressed the fourth name on his recent contacts. It rang out once, twice, and then there was a rustling on the other end.

“Adam?” Amanda sounded surprised; he didn’t blame her.

“Hey.” Adam’s voice was creaky from doing nothing for most of the day but drinking and crying. He cleared his throat. “Um. Sorry, I should’ve– you’re probably busy, I should’ve texted.”

“No, you’re fine. I’m just on my way to Mount Sinai. What’s up?”

He breathed out, slow and a little shaky. “Vikki and I broke up,” he said, and it was harder to say than he’d thought it would be, the words tumbling awkwardly together in his mouth. “Um. On a break, technically, I guess, but…yeah.”

She was silent for a few moments. “Oh, god, Adam, I'm so sorry.” Amanda’s voice was soft with sympathy, even through the crackling signal.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s…” He felt the threat of tears again, and tipped his head back, staring up at the fluorescent lights above him until his vision spotted out with green when he closed his eyes. “It sucked,” he admitted. “It was a long time coming, I think, but– it sucked.”

“Do you want me to come over?” she asked, and Adam swallowed hard against the lump in his throat.

“No, it’s– thank you, Mandy, I-I really appreciate you offering, but it’s…I’m fine. I just needed to…I don’t know. I wanted to hear someone’s voice, I think.”

“Yeah, absolutely.” She let out a small sigh– he could picture her face, the knot in her brow, the way her lips curved down. “Do you wanna talk about it?”

Adam leaned against the dryer, scrubbing a hand over his face. “We had a fight. I told her about the road trip, and– I don’t even know how it started, really, but we were both saying sh*t, and it just…it fell apart. She just kept pushing me, and I said some stuff to her that I probably– I meant it, but I shouldn’t’ve said it. Shouldn’t’ve gotten that angry.”

Amanda tutted sympathetically. “Are you okay?”

He was quiet for a while, working his jaw. The ache in him was still jagged and heavy, still squeezing his throat like a vice, but his breathing wasn’t as labored as it had been a few hours ago. It was a dull weight now, still pressing into him, no longer quite as suffocating. “Yeah,” he said, letting out a sigh. “Yeah, I think– I think I’m okay. It helps that I’m leaving tomorrow.”

Over the line, he heard the faint whooshing of an automatic door and some distant voice greeting Amanda. “That’ll be good for you,” she said, voice dipping out and back in– he figured she was juggling her phone as she was taking her coat off. “To get out of town for a while.”

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll– I’ll let you go now. You’re at work, right?”

“It can wait.”

Adam’s lips twitched into a small smile, affection curling through him in warm tendrils. “No, it’s fine. I’m okay, really. I just wanted to hear someone else’s voice, I think. I was feeling a bit lonely, but…honestly, just telling you about it made me feel better.”

“Anytime, man. Really.” She cleared her throat. “And speaking of being lonely…I know how– I mean, this gonna sound stupid, and tell me to f*ck off if I’m out of line here– but I’ve seen how much Lawrence cheers you up. I’m glad you’re going with him tomorrow. I’m glad you’re not gonna be alone.”

That same warmth clenched around his chest, a welcome aching pressure. “Yeah, me too. Thanks for listening to my bullsh*t.”

“It’s not bullsh*t, man. And I’m always here,” Amanda said, something gentle in her scratchy voice. “I mean that, okay? You can call me anytime you need.”

“Thanks.” He swallowed. “I– I really appreciate it.”

“Yeah, absolutely.” She hesitated for a moment. “Don’t do anything too stupid on that road trip, okay? I want my friend back in one piece.”

Adam smiled faintly against the cool plastic of the phone. “I’ll be fine. I promise.”

--

Once the dry cycle was finished, he filled his arms with the still-hot laundry, closing his eyes and letting himself briefly enjoy its warmth before shoving it all back into the bag.

The walk back to his apartment seemed to be shorter than the walk from it, the wind hurrying him along impatiently, tugging at the tendrils of his hair that escaped his beanie. Adam shuddered, eyes squeezed shut as the cold stung his eyelashes with frosty condensation. Maybe he could convince Lawrence to drive them somewhere south, somewhere warm. He suddenly found himself smirking at the idea of the doctor in a Hawaiian shirt and boardshorts, still prim and dignified, a large margarita in hand as he lounged on a beach somewhere.

He unlocked the door and breathed a fervent sigh of relief once he was safely inside, taking a moment to flex his trembling hands before tromping up the stairs to his apartment, absentmindedly humming the song he’d been listening to in the laundromat. Lawrence’s car was definitely fancy enough that he could hook up his new iPod to it– he wondered if he could convince him to let Adam pick some of the music they listened to. They seemed to have somewhat similar taste, anyway.

The rest of his clean laundry went immediately into his duffel bag, unfolded and chaotic. Adam stood back with a short sigh, rubbing the back of his neck. He was itching for a cigarette or three, knowing that it would be his last opportunity to chainsmoke for a while. Lawrence probably wouldn’t approve of the habit, being a doctor– and especially being an oncologist. He would have to limit himself to as few a week as he could manage without his hands starting to shake.

Grabbing a carton and his lighter, he ducked out of his bedroom window, boots clanking loudly on the metal of the fire escape. Adam peered over the darkening brick of the buildings surrounding him, over the pavement grey with salt and straggling pedestrians dogged by the bitter wind. He lit his cigarette, numb fingers slipping once or twice on the lighter’s spark wheel, and inhaled deeply, the glow of the cherry illuminating the scant flurrying snowflakes like tiny embers. Below him, someone’s radio was playing a gentle, slow song, too distant and quiet for him to hear the lyrics with any real clarity. Some old love song, sentimental and sweet.

His mind drifted, again, to Lawrence.

There wasn't any doubt in Adam’s mind at this point that his interest in the man was more than just friendly. He had danced around it too long, and even if he still couldn't look directly at it, afraid to take in the scope of what it meant, there was no way he could continue to be in denial about what Lawrence meant to him. His attraction to the doctor had knocked Adam senseless the very first time he'd seen him, for god's sake. It was a hell of a crush, and it was only getting worse the more time he spent with him. Adam only hoped that the road trip would either cure him of it, or–

Or.

He shook himself, huddling deeper into his jacket. There wasn't any or . There wasn't any world where Lawrence could possibly think of him in that way. He'd just have to suffer through the closeness of sharing each other's space as they traveled. He would savor it while it happened, and Lawrence wouldn't know the difference, and it would be fine . Absolutely fine.

He only slunk back inside after his second cigarette, unable to feel his fingers, and finished packing, the thoughts still clinging to him like smoke.

--

For all the emotional fatigue he’d put himself through over the course of the day, sleep came easily to him that night. Adam’s eyes began to drag closed the second he hit the mattress, and he barely had the wherewithal to set his alarm clock for seven o’clock the next morning before he gave into his body and brain’s exhaustion and let himself drift off, huddled under his duvet in a tightly wound ball.

His dreams were troubling things, melting into each other and evolving faster than he could make sense of them. Vikki, tearstained and angry, telling him he was a failure. Lawrence, looking ahead with stony silence as he drove him to the train station. His parents, the last time he’d seen them together, grief in his mother’s eyes and fury in his father’s.

A hand in his hair, pulling him away. A hand on his shoulder. A hand holding his. Lips on his cheek, wet with tears. Lips mouthing his name through a closed window. Brown eyes, accusing. Green eyes, haunted.

Blue eyes, holding him like something precious.

Still asleep, Adam smiled, curling closer into himself.

Notes:

please comment if you enjoyed, it really does fuel me!

Chapter 10: we'll cut our bodies free from the tethers of this scene

Notes:

bit of a longer one this time! we're finally, FINALLY in the road trip section of the road trip fic lmao, took me long enough to get here. thank you to @/maxim_died on twitter for supplying Adam's dad's name, and to Ginny (shirelings on here, @/ginnywrites on twitter) for being my New Jersey consultant!

small content warning for use of an anti-gay slur in song lyrics– not maliciously directed at anyone, but be aware if that's something that bothers you. title is from Brand New Colony by The Postal Service. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

It was a bright, clear morning when he woke. Adam’s eyes drifted open a few minutes before his alarm went off, awakened by starbursts of orange light glowing through his eyelids from the sun reflecting off the buildings outside, filtering through the thin curtains of his bedroom window with warm intensity. He groaned, slapping vaguely at the buttons on top of his cheap plastic clock before it had the chance to split his skull with the noise of its alarm. A wide yawn tore itself from his mouth, and he allowed himself a few moments of peaceful silence before heaving himself up and out of bed.

The leftover grief from the day before still sat in his chest with a dry, hollow ache, but it was dormant now– simply resting there, a heavy presence he could breathe through, no longer quite as suffocating. Adam briefly thought about texting Vikki to see if she was alright, but swiftly decided against it. They both needed space, after all, and he was about to get miles of it.

He looked over his duffel bag, checking to see that he had enough clean boxers and adequately presentable outfits to get him through a week or so of travel before they’d have to stop and get their laundry done. He didn’t doubt that Lawrence would want to travel with someone who at least smelled halfway decent.

Adam showered and dressed, letting his hair drip-dry in the apartment’s spotty heat as he packed up the last of his necessities– toothbrush and toothpaste, comb, deodorant, cell phone charger, a paperback horror novel, his iPod. His brand new camera would get its own bag, packed reverently with plenty of extra film and batteries. He hesitated, then carefully took the XPan from its box, thumb stroking the textured rubber of the camera’s grip.

It was a f*cking miracle that Lawrence had just given him his dream camera as a gift. Adam was still reeling from it– not only from the cost, which he knew from his own prior, tentative research had been astronomical, but from the fact that Lawrence already knew him well enough to guess what he would want the most. He knew his own gift of the CD would pale in comparison, but he was at a loss for what he could grant the man in exchange, what he could possibly give him that would be just as enormously thoughtful and generous. Maybe a kidney.

He stepped back into his bedroom, facing the full-length mirror he’d found at a thrift store. A scrawny, somewhat tired-looking young man stared back at him, hazel eyes shadowed under with faint bags, dark hair sticking up in the back despite his best efforts to comb it down, a slight bump on the bridge of his nose from it being broken as a teenager. His plain white t-shirt hung loosely from his shoulders, jeans held up by a secondhand belt. He looked like any grungy nobody pulled from the street, not someone worth remembering or noticing.

But Lawrence had noticed him. Had remembered him, had made the effort to call the store and thank him, had let him into his home and trusted him enough to weep in front of him and invite him along on an escape from his troubles. He’d allowed Adam into his life with a generosity and grace that Adam knew he didn’t deserve.

Just what did the man see in him? Adam didn’t know. He knew he didn’t have the courage to ask outright, at least not yet.

On impulse, he raised his XPan, checked the film, and depressed the shutter, christening the new camera with the image of himself in the mirror.

By the time eight thirty rolled around, the apartment was ready to be left for at least a few weeks; there were no houseplants that would die in his absence, no food in the fridge. If he thought for too long about how easy it was for the place to be scrubbed of his presence, it depressed him, so Adam distracted himself by putting together a playlist for the first few hours of their trip– some Deftones, some Radiohead, as much Tool as he thought Lawrence would be able to tolerate. He scrawled out a check for January’s rent, ready to be stuffed into his landlord’s mailbox, and then piled his bags by the doorway and surveyed the apartment.

The sunlight streaming through his kitchen windows caught the dust motes drifting with the displaced air. It was peaceful, empty like this. Adam’s eyes traced over the signs of life– the stains on the countertop, the magnets on the refrigerator, the posters hanging on the walls. He swallowed against a wave of bittersweet nostalgia, and shut the door behind him.

New York was bidding its goodbyes to him with blinding sun and icy wind, sweeping over the waking streets with enough force to nearly knock Adam off-balance. He clutched his bags closer, shivering under his worn jacket, and peered around for the doctor.

They’d agreed to meet at around nine outside of his apartment building, and as Lawrence failed to appear within the first five minutes of waiting, a roiling wave of anxiety began to rise in Adam’s chest. Had he gotten the time wrong? Or, worse yet– had Lawrence changed his mind? Was he already gone, driving west with an empty passenger seat next to him? Or had Adam’s place been taken by another friend, a closer friend of the doctor’s, someone he knew and trusted far more than the guy he’d met a mere week ago?

“Adam!”

He jerked his head around, pulse leaping.

Lawrence was smiling at him from a few paces away down the sidewalk, hair tousled and shoulders hunched with uncharacteristic inelegance against the wind, two cups of coffee held in his gloved hands. Instantly, Adam felt the last of his grief and nervousness melt off of him like snow from a mountain in spring. “Good morning. Sorry I’m late, I was getting us some coffee.”

“Morning,” he said, self-consciously adjusting his camera bag so he could take the offered paper cup. “Thanks, I definitely need something to wake me up a little.”

“I don’t know how you take it, so I guessed. I hope cream and sugar is alright.” Lawrence glanced at the duffel resting on the sidewalk at Adam’s feet, the camera bag slung over his chest, the small paper package in his hands. “Got everything?”

He nodded, flushing a little. “Yeah. I’m a light packer.”

“I still need to pick a few things up from my house. You don’t mind if we make a brief stop there first, do you?”

Adam wouldn’t have minded if Lawrence wanted to make a brief stop on the moon. He nodded, and heaved his duffel bag up into his arms, following Lawrence to his car. He didn’t look back once.

Lawrence was in a good mood today, chatting easily as they drove through the city. “And you brought warmer weather clothes, too?” he asked, glancing at and then past Adam, peering through the passenger side window before merging into the right lane. “I don’t quite know where we’ll end up, but it’s good to be prepared for anything.”

“Yeah. I mean, I didn’t bring shorts, but I’ve got some short-sleeve shirts.” Adam was a little lightheaded, exhilarated with the freedom of the road and Lawrence’s closeness. He knew he’d be used to it soon, but every word from the man, every laugh and every glance, sent a thrill up his spine.

“If you need any other clothes, we can just buy some.” Lawrence seemed oblivious to his twitterpated state, which Adam was extremely grateful for. The doctor kept his eyes mostly on the traffic in front of them, gazing around every once in a while to take in the Christmas decorations adorning the city. It hadn’t snowed enough to stick the previous night, and none of the lights were illuminated in the bright morning daylight, but it still looked enough like a fairytale from the windows of the warm car to give Adam a hint of the fleeting joyful spirit that working during the holidays had nearly stolen from him entirely.

This time, when the car sloped down into the Lincoln Tunnel, Adam was able to easily hush the part of his brain that whispered to him about disaster and flood, instead looking at the iPod in his lap. “Hey,” he said, sounding more confident than he felt, “can I play us something?”

Lawrence looked over and made a small noise of interest. “Sure. There should be an aux cable tucked in here somewhere.” As Adam hooked it up, fumbling a little with the cord, he remarked, “If I knew you had an iPod, I wouldn’t’ve subjected you to my CD collection the other day.”

“Nah, don’t worry. The Smiths rule. Anyway, I– I didn’t have it before. It’s new.” Adam swallowed around the brief tightness in his throat. “Uh, it was a Christmas gift from Vikki.”

“That was sweet of her. How is she? I hope she didn’t mind too much about our trip.”

He couldn’t tell him– not now, when his mood was so light. Adam didn’t want any specter of regret or guilt hovering over the two of them today, especially since Lawrence was probably doing all he could to distract himself from thinking about his daughter and the Christmas he was missing with her.

“She’s good,” Adam said, genuinely hoping it was the truth. “Yeah, she’s– she went over to her parents’ place for Christmas. I would’ve just been hanging out at the apartment by myself if you hadn’t invited me.”

Lawrence glanced over at Adam, brow creasing minutely. “I’m glad I did, then,” he said after a moment. His voice held some undecipherable emotion, a tenderness that Adam didn’t quite know what to do with.

The opening of “American Idiot” slammed out of the speakers, far louder than Adam had anticipated. He cranked the volume down immediately, face burning with a blush he hoped the other man wouldn’t notice. “God, sorry–”

Lawrence laughed, shoulders bobbing slightly with the motion of it. “You’re fine. I can never get the damned thing to play at the right volume.”

He grinned sheepishly, letting the song continue to play at a respectable 4 on the dial. “I can change it, if it’s not– I mean, I know this probably isn’t really your taste in music.”

“No, no, I’m always happy to hear something new.” He listened for a moment, lips twitching a little. “Who is this?”

“Uh, Green Day. It just came out this fall– the album, I mean; the band’s been around forever.” Adam brushed the side of his nose with his thumb, trying to push past the familiar embarrassment that came hand-in-hand with showing someone his taste in music. Especially someone he regarded as highly as Lawrence. “It’s a lot more, um, socially relevant than their old stuff. More political than punk– I mean, I know all punk is political. I guess…it’s a bit more on the nose. I think they’re identifying more as a message band now.”

“I can see that,” the doctor remarked, more than a little humor in his voice as he spoke over Billie Joe Armstrong’s proclamation about not being the ones who’re meant to follow. “And– how do you identify, if you don’t mind me asking?”

His question happened to fall, with ludicrously, awfully perfect timing, into the lull directly before Billie Joe sang, with perfect clarity, “Well, maybe I'm the fa*ggot, America.”

Whatever Adam had been about to say stuck abruptly in his throat; he knew his face had gone a bright, undeniable red. He didn’t dare to meet Lawrence’s eyes, instead staring directly ahead at the curve of the tunnel. “Uh,” he said, eloquently.

Lawrence cleared his throat. “I mean– do you call yourself a punk?” he asked, voice slightly louder now. Out of the corner of Adam’s eye, he could almost swear he could see the man blush. “Or…or is that a bit old-school?”

“I’m just– I mean–” He found himself wishing again that the tunnel would collapse on them both, just to spare him from the moment’s circ*mstances. “Not really. Uh. I mean, I– I listen to punk music sometimes, a-and I used to play for a metal band, for like, five minutes, but…”

“You were in a band?”

Adam clung to the new thread of conversation like a lifeline. “Yeah. My friend Scott’s band, Wrath of the Gods. I played lead guitar for them until they found someone better. It didn’t take them too long, I kind of sucked at it.”

“You seem very talented to me,” Lawrence said, and Adam’s blush returned with a vengeance. “That song you played for me the other day– it was lovely.”

“I mean, acoustic is way different than alt metal.” He nervously tugged on his earlobe, blunt nails catching at the skin. “Especially when it’s a song I know pretty well. But, um, thanks.”

“Mm.” Lawrence lapsed into a comfortable silence, and Adam looked out the window as they drove out of the tunnel, squinting slightly at the bright sun that spilled into the car. The playlist continued over the speakers, and Adam was amused to find Lawrence humming along to a few of the songs he’d chosen.

“I should’ve known you’d like Blur,” he said, and Lawrence laughed, inclining his head slightly.

“What gave me away?”

“The accent, honestly.” He contemplated the man next to him. “Were you born in England?”

Lawrence nodded again. “I was, yes. I moved to America when I was seventeen, though. I’m surprised you can still hear it in my voice.”

“I listen, that’s all,” Adam said, ignoring the heat spreading to the tips of his ears. “Why’d you move?”

“My father’s job moved us here– well, to Washington D.C., actually. He used to be a curator at the British Museum, but in 1979 he took a job at the National Gallery. It was a big move for all of us.” He smiled softly, remembering. “My sister and I used to sneak out and go to nightclubs– I grew like a weed, so they never asked for my ID at the door, and Cynthia would just bat her eyelashes and they’d let her in without a second thought.”

Adam grinned; the idea of Lawrence as a reckless, tall teenager getting into trouble was a delightful one. He would bet anything that he’d been unearthly handsome back then, too. “Does your sister still live in Washington?”

That lovely smile faltered and faded. “No,” Lawrence said simply. “No, she…she doesn’t.”

His stomach dipped low with remorse. The doctor’s eyes stayed on the road ahead of him, and Adam swallowed. “I’m– I’m sorry.”

Lawrence gave him a quick glance, and chuckled without much humor. “Oh, she isn’t dead. We just aren’t in each other’s lives anymore.” He let out a soft hum as they approached the exit off the turnpike. “And that’s for the best, anyway. What about you and your step-sister? Are you close?”

Adam caught the swift change in subject, and didn’t press it. “Yeah. I mean, she’s way younger than me, so it’s a bit different, I guess. I always wanted brothers and sisters growing up. Just to–” Just to have someone else for my parents to blame was far too dour a thing to say, and he swallowed the words. “Just to have a friend, y’know. But Jules is great. She’s honestly the most hilarious kid I know, she’s got a wicked sense of humor.”

“You said she was ten, right?”

“Uh-huh. And she’s already a f*cking genius. The last time I visited, I showed her how to develop film– she caught on like that.” He snapped his fingers. “She’s super good with computers, too. She offered to help me set up a website to show off my photography– ten years old, and she’s helping me with my portfolio.”

“Does she want to be a photographer, too?”

He shook his head. “Nah. She wants to be a marine biologist. More money in that, anyway.” Adam chuckled to himself. “Not that that sort of thing matters to her yet. Next month she’ll probably want to be something different.”

“Do you know what I wanted to be, when I was that age?”

There was a laugh hiding under Lawrence’s voice, and Adam glanced sideways at him, his grin widening. “What?”

He met his eyes; the doctor’s cheeks were slightly tinged with red. “Don’t make fun, alright?”

“I’d never.”

Lawrence cleared his throat. “More than anything, I wanted to be a figure skater.” He shot a quick look to Adam, as if he was afraid the younger man would burst into laughter. When he saw his expression of what Adam could only assume was manifesting as fond delight, he continued, “I’d watched the Winter Olympics for the first time that year, and I was just captivated by it all– the pageantry, the costumes, the way they moved. It was beautiful.” He hummed softly, reaching up to self-consciously flick his hair back from his forehead. “Of course, when I actually tried for myself, I quickly realized I didn’t have much of a career ahead of me. We went as a family to the rink at Canary Wharf– that’s in London– and the second I was out there with the skates on my feet, I fell over like a sack of potatoes. I sprained my ankle, and my mother had to carry me off the ice. It was absolutely humiliating.” He chuckled, and Adam smiled. “But I still loved watching the Olympics every year that they were on. I was absolutely ecstatic when John Curry won us the gold in 1976. Fourteen years old, jumping up and down in front of the television…my god, I still remember the music he skated to. Every note of it.”

Adam watched his expression shift slowly from wistful remembrance to something slightly more melancholy, the corners of his lips dipping softly downward. “What song was it?” he asked, wanting to keep him from frowning. “The one John Curry skated to?”

He straightened minutely in the driver’s seat, shaking himself as if he’d nearly forgotten Adam was there. “It was the overture from Don Quixote, the ballet. I’ve got it on a CD at the house.”

“You should bring it with us when we leave.” Adam rested his arm against the passenger side window, the cool of the glass raising tiny pinpricks on his skin. “I’d like to hear it.”

Lawrence’s lips lifted again, slightly. “Do you like ballet?” he asked, a small teasing note in his voice.

“Nah.” Adam looked out the window; they were passing by a patch of woods now, and he watched the rush of trees blend together in blurs, stark brown against the clear blue sky. “But– I dunno. I want to know about the things that’re important to you.”

The doctor fell silent again. After a few long moments, he turned the volume up on the music, letting Radiohead score the rest of their drive to his home.

As they arrived at Lawrence’s house, Adam felt that familiar fluttering tension, excitement mixed with slight unease. “So– what’s the plan?” he asked, as Lawrence parked and pressed the button to open the BMW’s trunk.

“Packing up the car shouldn’t take too long, and then I thought we might stop for lunch somewhere.” He reached for his cane in the backseat, and opened the driver’s side door with a small shudder at the cold that greeted him. “We can take a look at some maps once we’ve eaten. Decide on our first few destinations.”

It was a slight surprise to Adam that Lawrence didn’t seem to have much of a definitive plan of action– he really had meant it when he said they were just going to end up wherever the car took them. Adam didn’t mind; he’d be happy to go anywhere with him. “Sounds good,” he said, stepping out of the car and shivering as Lawrence unlocked the front door. “Uh– can I help with your bags? Since I’m all set already?”

“Thank you, I’d appreciate that.” Lawrence flicked his hair out of his face, and considered Adam for a moment. “Or, actually– my wheelchair is in the garage, if you could fetch that and put it in the boot of the car.”

“Your wheelchair?”

Lawrence’s lips quirked as he let them both inside. “I have bad days with my foot sometimes,” he explained, scuffing his shoes free of dirt on the mat just inside the front door. “Phantom limb pain, or strain from wearing my prosthetic for longer than I should. The chair helps with that– it’s good for me to get off my feet occasionally. Garage is just through there, next to the kitchen.”

“Gotcha.” Adam hovered near the door. “Will I be able to lift it by myself, do you think?”

He glanced towards Adam, eyes flicking to his arms and then back to his face. “You should be able to. It isn’t very heavy, and it’s already folded. But give me a shout if you need help.”

Adam nodded, and stepped through into the garage, fumbling for the lightswitch. It was a neat space, with built-in shelving stacked with boxes of various ages, materials, and labels: he spotted a few more of Diana’s toys through a clear plastic bin, and one cardboard box labeled “Alison– for Goodwill” in Lawrence’s scrawling handwriting. In the corner of the room was a folded wheelchair, utilitarian and simple, with a couple of stickers of cartoon creatures decorating the handles. Adam smiled, pressing down the vinyl tail of a Charizard where the edge of the sticker had started to curl up from the smooth metal. He picked up the chair with ease, and carried it out to the car.

By the time he’d arranged it in the BMW’s trunk, Lawrence had piled his bags by the front entrance of the house, three neat suitcases that were obviously part of a matching set. He exhaled a soft cloud of condensation into the chilled air, and smiled when Adam met his eyes. “Could you help me with these, too? I know, I know, I overpacked.”

He laughed, obediently picking up two of the suitcases. The leather handles were stiff with disuse, and he wondered when Lawrence had last used them. He didn’t seem like the kind of man to take frequent vacations. “Should these go in the trunk, too?”

“The smaller one can stay in the backseat. Thank you for helping, I appreciate it. It’d be slow going if it were only me.”

“That’s what I’m here for.” Adam shot him a grin, just a hair cheeky. “And for my sparkling conversation and bitching playlist.”

Lawrence returned his smile, hefting up the remaining bag with the hand not holding his cane. “I’m looking forward to hearing both.”

Once the car was packed up, complete with a small cooler with snacks for the road, Lawrence sank back into the driver’s seat with a short, satisfied sigh. Adam joined him, worrying his lower lip with his teeth. Excitement bubbled in his chest, nervous but eager. “So…where to first?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m quite hungry.” Lawrence buckled his seatbelt, and Adam followed suit. “How do you feel about pizza for lunch?”

“That sounds awesome.”

He started the car, and then paused briefly, staring into the rearview mirror at the shuttered, empty house. Adam looked down at the iPod in his lap, wanting to give Lawrence a moment without his gaze falling quite so heavily on the doctor. He couldn’t imagine what he was feeling, but he hoped it was closer to the excitement in Adam’s own heart than it was to the despair he’d seen hidden so poorly on Lawrence’s face when he’d first proposed the trip.

After a moment, he let out a sharp, self-dismissive sigh. “Well,” he said, and gave Adam one of his charming grins. “Ready?”

Adam smiled back, stomach fluttering. “Ready.”

Lawrence drove them to a homey-looking restaurant, a stone building with a large green sign designating it as Nellie’s Place. As he parked, Adam reached back to scoop up his jacket from where he’d left it draped across the backseat. His fingers found the hard shell of the CD he’d gotten Lawrence, and he hesitated for a moment before grabbing it, tucking the bag that held it under his arm. He held onto his camera bag, too, slinging it over his shoulder as the doctor stepped out of the car into the mostly empty parking lot.

“The thin crust here is absolutely wonderful,” Lawrence commented. He took one of his bags from the backseat before locking the car, chafing his hands against the cold as they walked the short distance to the restaurant’s entrance. “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah. I didn’t even eat breakfast this morning,” Adam admitted, holding the door open for him.

Lawrence frowned, stepping through. The faintest hint of his cologne tickled Adam’s nose as he passed him. “God, you must be starved.”

They sat at a table in the corner, and Adam glanced around at the decor and other patrons– it was a far cry from the last restaurant Lawrence had taken him to, rustic and charming as opposed to elegant and imposing. They were two of the only six customers, and as a sweet-looking waitress wearing elf ears and a genuinely cheery smile brought their menus, Adam could feel himself relax even further.

At Lawrence’s recommendation, they ordered a thin crust pizza to share, and Adam forced himself to eat slowly despite the gnawing in his stomach. He’d entirely forgotten to eat breakfast, too anxious by far to stomach it. Now that Lawrence was sitting across from him, though, dabbing at his lips with a thin paper napkin and lit by the bright daylight from the window beside them, he couldn’t remember what he’d been so nervous about. It felt so natural to simply exist in the man’s presence; he was more at ease than he could remember being in a long time.

“So,” Lawrence said at last, once they’d finished eating, “I have a few maps…” He reached onto the seat of the booth beside him and drew a few books and folded maps from the bag he’d brought in with them. Adam moved their plates to the side, and Lawrence spread out a map of the United States, brushing a few stray pizza crumbs from the paper. “Go ahead.”

Adam blinked. “What do you mean?”

Lawrence grinned, a nearly boyish expression. “Pick a city, a state, a town, wherever. Something with an interesting name, someplace that speaks to you. Or just the first thing that draws your eye. We’ll head that way.”

“So when you said anywhere–“

“I really meant it. Anywhere you want to go, Adam. The world’s our oyster.”

Adam returned his smile, joy squirming in his stomach like a living creature. He glanced down at the map, and rested his finger on the first name that drew his eye, so far west that the section of the map dangled off the table. “There. Eureka.”

The doctor peered down, squinted, and drew a pair of reading glasses from his front pocket. “California?” he asked, oblivious to Adam’s sudden near-conniption at seeing his blue eyes framed by a pair of simple wire-rimmed glasses.

Adam took a sip of his water, willing his heartrate to calm down a little, and nodded. “Eureka, California.”

Lawrence looked closer, and laughed. “Well, how about that.” He met Adam’s gaze, grinning, and took a pen from his bag. He drew a star over the town of Eureka. “Any other places on the way?”

He thought for a moment. “I mean– like you said, I’ve never really seen America. I’m up for anything, whatever you think I might want to see.”

“Hm.” Lawrence rested the end of the pen against his lower lip, pondering the map. “I’d love for you to see some real forests. A few national parks, as many monuments as we can hit– museums, too. Definitely Chicago, and I have a friend we can stay with in Kansas City. For today, though…how about we drive down and stay the night in Philadelphia?”

A deep pang of dread sank suddenly in Adam’s stomach. “Um,” he said, stumbling over his words as a lump rose in his throat. “I– I’m not sure if– I don’t really…”

Lawrence looked up, concerned. “Are you alright?”

“I’m– I’m fine. I just–” He cleared his throat, embarrassed by his own visceral reaction. It was just the name of a city. It wasn’t as if Lawrence had proposed they drop in on Jacob Faulkner himself. “I’ve been already,” Adam said, aiming for nonchalance and missing it completely. “Um. Besides, my, uh, my dad lives there, so–”

Lawrence’s gaze softened. “What about Baltimore, then?” he suggested lightly, and Adam felt his shoulders lower from where they’d risen nearly to his ears, the tension leaching from him just as quickly as it had manifested.

“Baltimore sounds great.” He gave Lawrence a grateful smile.

“Perfect.” Lawrence circled Baltimore on the map, then folded it and slipped it back into his bag. “And we’ll improvise the rest– anyplace you see on the way that you’d like to stop, just say so. We’re on nobody’s schedule.” He took a sip of his water, eyes shining. “I just hope we’ll have enough music to get us across the country.”

Adam straightened in his chair. “I can help with that, actually.” He reached into his bag, and drew out the CD. “Merry Christmas,” he said, handing it to Lawrence.

The doctor clicked his tongue, his face softening with a fond little smile. “Adam, you shouldn’t have.”

“You gave me the camera,” Adam said, shrugging. He couldn’t help the answering grin creeping across his face as Lawrence smoothed his fingers over the wrapping paper. “I mean– this doesn’t nearly come close to that, in terms of, y’know, value, but…”

“It’s very kind of you.” Lawrence opened the card stuck to the top, and read it aloud. “To…” His brow creased. “To Laura, from Adam.”

Adam felt himself go bright red. “Uh– there was a– um, the guy who wrote the card, the cashier at the store– I think he– well–”

Lawrence chuckled, setting the card aside. “It’s not even close to the worst misspelling of my name I’ve seen. Don’t worry about it.” He unwrapped the CD methodically, not so much as tearing the paper, and hummed with mild bemusem*nt at seeing the cover.

“It’s José González,” Adam said. “It’s got the song I played for you on the guitar the other day. Heartbeats.”

He glanced at him, and Adam couldn’t quite read his expression. He was still smiling, but there was some distant storm in his eyes, a fluttering at the corner of his lips. “Thank you,” Lawrence said, his voice softer than it had been moments before. He looked back down at the CD, turning it over in his hands to see the track list, and Adam’s heart kicked into a rapid staccato as his reading glasses caught the light.

“You’re welcome.” Instinctively, he raised his camera, focusing on Lawrence’s contemplative expression, his hair still slightly ruffled from the wind outside.

Lawrence looked up and blushed heartily, lifting a hand to block his face with a good-natured groan. “Oh, god, I look horrible.”

“C’mon, no, you don’t.” Adam raised his hand without thinking, gently taking Lawrence’s wrist and lowering it down to the table. As soon as he touched his skin, a flush crept up the back of his neck, but he stubbornly ignored it. “Just– stay like that. You look fine.”

“Just fine?” Lawrence was looking at him, but Adam shifted his gaze down, adjusting the focal length before raising his camera again.

“You look wonderful,” he said before he could stop himself, and depressed the shutter, capturing Lawrence’s curious smile, his face bathed in pale winter light. “You– you always do.”

He didn’t see the way Lawrence’s expression shifted as he packed his camera back into the bag, the brief storm of emotions that surged over his face as he watched Adam’s movements– how carefully he handled the camera, how he flexed the hand that had touched Lawrence’s. Adam didn’t notice the softening of the doctor’s gaze as he took in the way his dark hair fell into his face and the way the blush hadn’t quite left his cheeks. If he had, he might have wondered what it meant, why his eyes lingered on him for so long and with such tenderness.

But the moment passed, and when Adam looked up again, it was to Lawrence’s placidly neutral smile. “Shall we?” he said, and Adam grinned.

“Yeah. Let’s roll.”

Notes:

please leave a comment if you enjoyed! they bring me so much joy and motivation

Chapter 11: i just know that i like what is starting to show

Notes:

thank you to my beloveds ginny (shirelings) and sarah (paleromantic) for proofreading and cheerleading! both of you are incredible people and i owe so much to you

no real content warnings here other than some brief mentions/vague descriptions of human organs– nothing too gross or graphic but be aware if that's something that bothers you. chapter title is from Clean by Depeche Mode. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The sun was high above them by the time they left the restaurant, and Adam thought fleetingly of what he’d be doing at this time if he’d stayed behind in New York, if he hadn’t met Lawrence at all. He would have rolled out of bed nearly an hour ago, probably not bothering to get dressed. Leftovers for breakfast, or a sh*tty cup of instant ramen. Maybe he would’ve taken his camera to Rockefeller Center to snap a few photos of the pulsing crowds around the tree before getting inevitably overwhelmed and heading back home. Maybe he would’ve stopped by the store to visit Amanda, or maybe he would’ve just stayed in the apartment all day, cursing the heating and flicking numbly through his DVD collection for something vaguely holiday-themed to watch.

Or he would’ve woken up in a guest bed in Connecticut, because he and Vikki might still be together. That thought stopped him for a moment.

Adam knew he had been drifting from her ever since he’d met Lawrence, even if he hadn’t been cognisant of it at the time. The groundwork for them falling apart had been laid long before he’d met the man, but their last argument had pushed them over the edge, and it had been Adam’s attachment to Lawrence that had started it. He wondered how she was coping– if her parents were badmouthing him, if she was airing out a laundry list of grievances against him that she’d always held. Maybe she wasn’t thinking about him at all.

“More music?” Lawrence asked, and Adam shook himself. They were on I-78 now, with the wide, clear sky above them and small hills curving gently up on either side of the highway, carpeted with trees and the last traces of melting snow. He’d turned on the heating in the car, and Adam could feel the last of the winter numbness leaving his Doc Marten-clad toes, the hum of the motor vibrating beneath his feet like a living creature.

“Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.” His hand hovered over his iPod. “Uh, do you want more of my playlist, or– you probably don’t, actually.” Adam let out a self-deprecating laugh, reaching back for the thick binder of CDs Lawrence had slipped into the backseat pocket behind him.

“I could hear some more of it,” Lawrence said mildly, glancing over as Adam tugged the zipper of the binder open. “Your taste in music is definitely more modern than mine.”

He grinned, looking over the neatly organized contents. The CDs were arranged in alphabetical order, sorted by genre, and a rush of warm affection filled him as he thought about Lawrence quietly sitting down to slot each disc into its proper place. He flipped past the tabs of the binder labeled Audiobooks, Classical, Diana, and Jazz, all in near-indecipherable cursive, and made a small noise of appreciation at the section labeled New Wave.

“Nothing wrong with the classics.” Adam carefully slid a disc out of its flimsy envelope and pushed it into the CD player.

“You like Depeche Mode, too?” Lawrence asked as the intermittent synthetic bloops that opened “World In My Eyes” rumbled out of the car’s speakers.

“Who doesn’t like Violator?” He leaned back, crossing his arms behind his head. “It’s one of the best albums, like– ever.”

Lawrence hummed in agreement, turning the volume up. “I remember buying it when it first came out in 1990. I was still living in Chicago at the time– I would put it on and go on long drives by myself, to clear my head.” His lips twitched nostalgically. “I’d just started practicing oncology at Northwestern Memorial, and it was incredibly stressful. The only thing that helped was tuning out the world, just for a little while, and driving nowhere.” His eyes met Adam’s, and he grinned. “Have you heard that before?”

Those familiar butterflies kicked up again in his stomach, and it was all Adam could do to simply return his smile instead of saying something stupid. He said it anyway. “Glad you’re not alone this time?”

Lawrence’s answer was immediate, but spoken softly enough that Adam could hardly hear it over the music. “Oh, immensely.” He cleared his throat, and said, a little louder this time, “I get so in my own head sometimes– I think if I were taking this trip by myself, I’d be terribly lonely. It was good of you to say yes.”

The answer Adam instinctively wanted to give to that was far too much– too much for him even to think about long enough to give it proper phrasing. All he did was shrug in agreement, as casually as he could. “Of course, man.”

The song continued, and Lawrence eventually spoke again. “1990…God, it seems ages ago. I would’ve been about thirty-six at the time.”

Adam did some quick mental math, and swallowed. “I, uh, I’d just started smoking around then, I think,” he said, because he had a feeling that saying I was in sixth grade would send Lawrence into some form of mental spiral.

That still seemed to give him pause, because the little crease appeared again above Lawrence’s brow. “You still do, don’t you?”

“Yeah.” He shifted in his seat. “Um–“ His first instinct was to apologize, the same as it was every time he spoke to any sort of doctor. “You probably smelled it on me, right?”

“A little. In your apartment, more.” Lawrence tapped the steering wheel absently, in time with the music. “I don’t mind it. You’d be surprised how many of my colleagues smoke.”

“Did you, ever?”

“When I was a teenager, yeah. And in college, when I was pre-med.” He huffed, nearly a laugh. “The first pair of smoker’s lungs I dissected put me right off, though. I threw out every pack I had the second I got back to my dorm. Cold turkey, just like that. I couldn’t stand thinking about mine looking that way.”

Adam shuddered. He thought sometimes about what his own insides looked like– the condition of his lungs after years of smoking, if his heart beat in the same rhythm as everyone else’s even if it didn’t seem like it oftentimes, if his stomach was still scarred from the bottle cap Scott had dared him to swallow when he was sixteen, just to see if it was the right size to stick in his throat and stop his breath. He sometimes felt so removed from his own body that it frightened him– it was just an animated piece of meat, lungs inhaling, blood pumping, heart beating without his conscious effort or permission. A strange, fleshy machine, broken in places but still keeping him alive, running on nothing more than pure stubbornness.

“Why’d you become a doctor?” he asked, to stop the flow of his own thoughts more than anything else. He’d wondered it for a while, anyway.

Lawrence exhaled. “The noble answer would be that I wanted to help people,” he said. “And I do, don’t get me wrong. But honestly, it was more my parents’ choice than my own. When I was first looking at universities, I was planning to major in English literature. I wanted to be a professor.”

“Really?” Adam straightened in his seat, curious.

His lips twisted wryly. “And then my mother sat me down and told me what a professor’s salary would look like. I still wanted to, despite that, but– well. I never could tell her what she didn’t want to hear. So pre-med it was. I was always good at biology in school, anyway.” Lawrence glanced at him. “What about you? Have you always wanted to be a photographer?”

Adam scratched his nose, embarrassed. “For most of my life, yeah. Not that it’s worked out too well for me.”

“There’s no shame in getting your feet firmly under you first with something like retail, you know.” As always, Lawrence’s perceptiveness sent a gentle warmth through Adam’s heart. His tone was comforting, but not overly cloying– simply understanding, as it so often was. “I worked at Dillard’s for a year or so, myself.”

He laughed at that; he couldn’t help himself. “Wait, really?”

“Mm-hm. I did tailoring. Steady hand with stitches, you know. That turned out to be pretty useful later in my career.” Lawrence’s eyes twinkled with amusem*nt. “You never know what you’ll keep from a job, even one as mundane as working retail.”

I kept you rose so easily to Adam’s lips that he pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, feigning at scrubbing at his lips, just to keep it from getting out. “I can’t imagine you working retail, honestly,” he said instead. “It just seems so…I dunno. Undignified.”

“I’m flattered that you think of me as dignified,” Lawrence retorted, a sardonic twist to his lips as he raised his chin a little. “I’m really not. I’d like to see someone be dignified after being a father for nine years. You can’t have a toddler and dignity at the same time, I’m afraid.”

Adam chuckled, looking back out the window. There were so many different Lawrences that the man held inside himself– the calm doctor, the loving father, the excitable boy who wanted to be an ice skater, the older brother who snuck out to nightclubs, the college student who once played guitar and worked as a tailor in a department store. All of those aspects of him were surprising to Adam, but they cohered so well into the man he’d gotten to know. Each revelation was just another brushstroke that made up his portrait. It was perhaps a bit cliché, but Adam felt that he could examine him forever and not get bored, would always want to keep searching through him to find the next reason why he was so very fascinating to Adam.

The album played on through the comfortable silence, broken by occasional interspersed conversation– about the music, about the signs they passed, about questions Lawrence had for him. Adam had just finished telling him about the first job he’d ever worked, as a dishwasher at a restaurant near his mother’s house in Buffalo, when Lawrence suddenly raised one hand from the steering wheel to point through the windshield.

“Our first state line,” he said, undisguised excitement in his voice. “Well– second, if you count New York to New Jersey. But we’ve done that before, together.”

Adam sat up in his seat, raising his camera to snap a photo of the bright blue sign, stark against the graying brown of the trees surrounding it. “Welcome to Pennsylvania,” he read aloud. “I feel super welcome.”

Lawrence laughed, giving a short, celebratory press of the car horn as they sped past the sign. “We’ll only be here for about two hours today,” he said, glancing briefly into the backseat before tilting his thumb back for Adam to look for himself. “But if you’d like to go through some of the guidebooks and find some places for us to seek out, you’re more than welcome to. Again– we’re on no schedule but our own.”

He said schedule the British way, and an unrestrained bloom of affection for him rose through Adam’s entire body, lifting his lips in a wide grin and making his fingers twitch with the urge to grip his arm. He reached into the back for the travel bag instead, shaking himself. The bag had slipped further back with the motion of the car, and Adam had to stretch to reach it, grunting a little as the seatbelt dug into the skin of his stomach where his shirt had lifted. After a moment of searching, he found a guidebook on Pennsylvania, buried under two about West Virginia and Kansas. Lawrence had packed seemingly every travel book he could find, and Adam took a moment to glance at a few before the uncomfortable stretch of leaning halfway out of his seat became too much to bear comfortably.

“Did you empty an entire library?” he asked, settling back with the book in his lap.

“No, just the bookstore near my house.” Lawrence’s face was slightly tinged with red when he glanced over at him, and Adam puzzled over that for a second before mentally shrugging and cracking the book’s spine, flipping through to the index at the back.

He scanned over town names and attractions, briefly pausing over Gettysburg before deciding against it– he was sure he’d be interested, but it seemed dour to drag Lawrence to a battle site, especially in the cold weather. Lawrence had mentioned museums in the restaurant, Adam remembered, and he flipped through to a list the book had compiled of the best museums in the state.

“How about this?” he said, finger pausing over a name that caught his interest. “Fallingwater, in Mill Run. Some kind of Frank Lloyd Wright thing. That sounds pretty cool.”

Lawrence visibly lit up at that, and Adam suppressed a grin. “Are you a fan of architecture?” the doctor asked, shooting a glance at Adam.

“I mean–“ He paused, considering. “I never really paid attention to it, outside of how well a good building photographs…the lines of it, y’know– the contrast of industrialism against nature.” A blush rose to his face at how pretentious he sounded to himself, but he ignored it– Lawrence seemed more receptive to his ramblings than any of his friends, and he chose to relish that freedom rather than say anything to acknowledge it.

“There’s something so cool about how humans have this instinct to build,” he continued, gazing out the window. “We’re the only animals that do that– aside from, y’know, rabbit warrens and stuff like that, I guess…but we’re the only animals that build for aesthetics. We care about how beautiful the places we live are. We care about decorating. We care about– about how tall a skyscraper is. We care about how buildings look together, about skylines, about the color of the metals we use. We didn’t just invent gutters, we invented gargoyles. I dunno.” He shrugged. “It’s just really cool to me.”

When he looked at him again, Lawrence was smiling at him with a tender fondness in his eyes that stopped Adam’s breath short. The doctor quickly cleared his throat, looking back at the straight stretch of highway in front of them, and Adam tried to dissipate the blush that had found its way onto his face.

“Fallingwater, then,” Lawrence said, his tone mild. “Anything else? Anything in Maryland?”

Adam reached back again, fetching one of the books on Delaware and Maryland and opening it with a determined set to his jaw. Being this close to Lawrence, while admittedly distracting, was extremely comforting– the man’s even manner set him more at ease than he’d care to admit, even when he was simply sitting in silence next to him.

“Is there anything in D.C. you want me to see?” Adam asked eventually, closing the book with one finger left between the pages to hold his spot. “Museums, monuments, nightclubs, anything like that?”

Lawrence chuckled, then paused, thoughtful. “Actually, that might be quite fun,” he said. “Tell you what– we’ll add that to the itinerary. We can stay in Baltimore for two nights, and tomorrow can be our D.C. day.”

“Won’t some places be closed?” Adam wondered aloud. “Because of Christmas and all?”

“...right. God, I’d completely forgotten.” Lawrence went silent once more, and Adam hoped he truly was as placid and unbothered as his expression seemed to portray. He had to have been missing Diana like crazy; Adam could only imagine what it would be like spending the first holiday away from his daughter. Especially for a father as clearly devoted as Lawrence.

“Hey,” he said, after a while, an idea forming just as quickly as he spoke it aloud, “I’ve got an idea for how I can give you a gift equal to the camera you got me.” Lawrence’s mouth opened, as if to protest, but Adam quickly cut him off. “You said that Diana doesn’t have many photos of you. What if I could give her a whole album of them? Snapshots of you, on this trip? To show her that you’re missing her, but also that you’re– y’know, having a pretty okay time, too?”

Lawrence’s mouth snapped shut. It was a while before he spoke again, and when he did, Adam pretended not to hear the thickness of tears behind his voice. “That…that would be wonderful. Thank you, Adam.”

Their eyes met again, and Adam smiled softly. He turned back to the guidebook, and after a long stretch of comfortable silence, Lawrence eventually slotted another CD into the player. The soft sound of violins and gentle horns swept through the car, before a sprightly chorus of woodwinds and brass overtook them, scoring the drive with the overture of what Adam could only assume was the ballet that had so enchanted Lawrence as a child. He felt himself relax back into his seat, lips curving up involuntarily as he heard the doctor start to hum along.

“Maryland.”

Adam jolted awake– he hadn’t even been aware of falling asleep, face pressed against the cool glass of the window, watching the light slowly leave the clear blue sky until it was entirely replaced with the deep navy of dusk. He smacked his lips, wincing at the taste in his mouth. “What?”

Lawrence huffed out a little laugh. “Sorry to wake you. We’re just about to enter Maryland.”

He sat up, dragging his camera up automatically as they approached the sign welcoming them to the state. “This is gonna be blurry as sh*t,” he mumbled, mostly to himself, and Lawrence cast a quick look at him.

“Do you want me to stop?”

“No, it’s– you’re fine.” He paused, shifting a little in his seat. “Actually, if there’s maybe a welcome center we could stop at, that would be great. One with, um, a bathroom.”

The visitor’s center was largely unremarkable, a low brick building with a slate-gray roof. After using the facility’s thankfully relatively tidy restroom, Adam wandered back out to the car, stretching his arms above his head, and then paused.

Lawrence was outside the car as well, leaning against the driver’s side door with his cane propped up beside him, a pamphlet in his hand that he was looking over with nearly model-like boredom. Adam grinned, reaching for the camera slung around his neck. He snapped a few quick photos of him, capturing first a picture of Lawrence and the car with the large Welcome to Maryland sign behind him, and then a few close-ups, focusing on his face, his hands holding the pamphlet, the delicate cross of his left ankle over his right shin.

It was completely dark by the time they arrived in Baltimore. Adam peered out of the window, a yawn on his lips as he took in the uneven skyline. The buildings were shorter and broader than in New York, and he felt a thrilled tug in his gut, the familiar itching in his fingers to capture all of it with his camera. He resisted, knowing his eye would be compromised from how tired he was.

“I’d like a hotel near the water,” Lawrence said, as he turned off the highway. “And as much as I’d like to explore the local cuisine, I’m much more in the mood for something quick tonight, if that’s alright with you.”

He stretched as much as he was able to without bumping Lawrence with his arm. “Fast food sounds good to me.”

They stopped at a Checkers next to a gas station downtown, and Adam tried not to smirk as he watched Lawrence wrangle his burger into his mouth with as much poise as he could muster. The two men ate mostly in silence, broken only by quiet requests to pass the ketchup and the occasional comment on the overwhelmingly loud Christmas music blaring from the restaurant’s speakers.

When they were finished eating, Lawrence drew out his reading glasses and one of his guidebooks and began flipping through the pages, humming quietly to himself. “You’d think they’d have a subsection for ADA-compliant hotels,” he muttered, a little line of consternation appearing between his eyebrows. “Or at least an icon next to the names, or something.”

It hadn’t really occurred to Adam that any and all of their accommodations for the trip would have to be wheelchair-accessible. Lawrence was so steady on his feet, even with his cane, that Adam sometimes forgot about his prosthetic.

“Ah. Here– Mount Vernon Hotel.” Lawrence tapped on one of the pages, a satisfied look on his face. “‘It offers 133 rooms on nine floors, including single, double, and handicap-accessible rooms as well as loft and Jacuzzi suites.’ And it’s right by the water– excellent.”

Adam wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Honestly, anyplace with a bed sounds good to me.”

He looked at him over his glasses, lips quirking while Adam swallowed. “Tired?”

“Yeah.” Now that he’d eaten, Adam’s eyelids seemed to be dragging themselves shut of their own accord.

Lawrence closed the guidebook with a snap. “Well. Shall we, then?”

The hotel was a beautiful brick building downtown, with large arched windows overlooking the river nearby. Adam looked blearily up at the facade and whistled as Lawrence popped open the trunk of the car. “Jesus. It’s really nice.”

“The building used to be a YMCA, apparently,” Lawrence said, through a politely stifled yawn. “Could you help me with the bags?”

The lobby was similarly grand, decorated in a vaguely Victorian style. Soft Muzak played overhead– though it could very well have been actual music. Adam was nearly too exhausted to tell.

Lawrence cleared his throat pleasantly as he approached the front desk. “Good evening. Do you have any handicap-accessible doubles available for tonight?” he asked, and Adam suddenly felt some of his tiredness leave him. He’d fully expected Lawrence to request separate rooms for them, but it was a very welcome surprise– besides his obvious joy at sharing close quarters with the man, he was a bit embarrassed to admit that he would’ve felt more than a little isolated sleeping in a hotel room all alone in an unfamiliar city.

“Absolutely, sir,” the man at the desk asked, sounding very bored. “One bed or two?”

“Two,” Lawrence said, nearly before he could finish asking, and then turned to Adam. “You don’t mind, do you? Sharing a room, I mean?”

He wouldn’t blush, Adam told himself. He was a grown man, in control of his own stupid emotions and what his own stupid face was doing.

“Seems practical,” he said, adjusting the duffel bag on his shoulder. “I mean, it just makes more sense.”

The man tapped at his computer. “How many nights will you be staying with us?”

“Two nights, please,” Lawrence said, and added, “Under the name Gordon.”

He slid his credit card onto the desk, and Adam felt a small prickling of shame under his collar. It hadn’t quite occurred to him before just how much of their expenses Lawrence would be paying for– the hotels, the gas, the meals. He’d been able to save up a fair amount from his holiday pay, but it was nowhere near enough for him to be able to chip in without bankrupting himself before they reached Chicago. Especially if they were going to stay in places as nice as this.

As they made their way to their room, keys in hand, he tried to find the words to bring it up– to apologize, to offer something in exchange, though he wasn’t sure what that could possibly be. But Lawrence preempted him, just as they reached the door.

“Don’t worry about the cost,” he said, his voice low enough so that the bellhop behind them with the rest of their luggage couldn’t overhear. “I don’t want you to think you owe me anything. Just your company is enough.”

Adam swallowed, his throat tight. “Are– are you sure? It’s gonna get expensive, all of this.”

Lawrence unlocked the door, then glanced at him, his eyes soft. “Please don’t worry, Adam. It’s my pleasure.”

Something in his tone left no room for protest, and Adam gave him a grateful little smile before pushing the door open.

The room was nicer than any he’d ever stayed in– two twin beds decked with plush comforters and mounded high with pillows, a large desk, a comfortable-looking armchair in one corner, an enormous TV in the other. There was some landscape art on the eggshell walls, but what really drew Adam’s eye were the wide windows next to one of the beds. He crossed the room and parted the curtains, letting out a soft breath. Even from the ground floor, the city lights shone from the uneven skyline, twinkling like a thousand diamonds on the surface of the Patapsco River.

Behind him, Adam heard Lawrence quietly thanking the bellhop, then closing the door. Adam didn’t break his gaze over the city until he heard a peculiar metallic clunk and a short sigh of frustration. “Adam, could you help me with this?”

He turned to see Lawrence leaning his weight against the wall, his cane handle out of his hand and hooked over on the door to the coat closet. He was frowning at his wheelchair, which was folded up and leaned against his luggage in the cart just inside the hotel room’s door.

“Yeah,” Adam said at once, walking over with only a little hesitance. “Um, what do you want me to…?”

“Could you open the chair for me? I’ve– I’ve overexerted myself a little, and I just want to sit.” On closer inspection, Adam could see that Lawrence’s teeth were gritted in pain. There was a dullness in his eyes that Adam recognized, faintly, from the night he’d first gone to his house. Frustration mixed with exhaustion.

“Yeah, for sure.” He lifted the wheelchair down onto the floor and looked up at Lawrence. “How do I unfold it?”

The doctor gestured towards the rails on either side of the seat. “Press down on those. Both hands, as firm and steady as you can.” Adam pressed, and the fabric of the seat flattened out with a smooth click. Lawrence let out a short, relieved sigh as he sank down onto the wheelchair, rotating the ankle of his intact foot. “Thank you,” he said, smoothing his hair out of his face. “I’m afraid you’ll have to help me out like that a few times during the trip.”

“I don’t mind at all, I’m happy to.” Adam unloaded the rest of Lawrence’s bags from the luggage cart, the warm satisfaction of usefulness curling in his belly. “Which bed do you want?”

“The one nearest to the bathroom, I think. You can take the one near the window.” Now that he was off his feet, Lawrence looked nearly as tired as Adam felt. He opened the middle-sized suitcase as soon as Adam had set it down by the bed, and drew out a matching set of pajamas and a small toiletry bag. “Would you mind getting ready before me?” he asked. “It takes me a bit longer in the shower, and I want there to be enough hot water for you.”

“Uh, sure. Thanks.” He dove into his own bag and dragged out his sweatpants and a band tee; he usually only slept in his boxers, but the idea of being nearly naked, in the same room as Lawrence– he couldn’t think about that. “You, um…will you need any help? With– uh–“

Thankfully, Lawrence didn’t seem offended by his floundering. “I’ve got it. But I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

“R-right.” He nodded, and slipped into the bathroom.

By the time Adam had showered, brushed his teeth, and changed into his pajamas, Lawrence’s prosthetic was off, resting against a pair of slippers he’d set next to the bed. Lawrence deftly wheeled himself into the bathroom, smiling in thanks as Adam held the door open for him.

He sank down onto the bed, staring out the window at the city lights. Adam had expected to feel at least a little homesick, but any longing for New York was completely replaced by anticipation, though exhaustion-tinged, for the rest of their trip. Especially sharing it with Lawrence. He couldn’t wait to see where the man had grown up, the places he’d frequented as a rebellious teenager, the museums that he probably had an in-depth knowledge of thanks to his father.

It was about an hour later when Lawrence emerged from the bathroom, dressed in a matching set of deep blue pajamas that looked like they probably cost double what Adam would make in a daily shift at work. The right leg of his pajama bottoms was neatly knotted at the ankle, and his hair was wet, sticking to his neck in clumps that Adam, in a moment of utter weakness, longed to card his fingers through.

“I’ll sleep like the dead tonight,” he said, giving Adam a small smile, and Adam exhaled sharply in what he hoped was an agreeable sort of way. “Alarm for around eight tomorrow morning?”

“Yeah, that works for me.”

Lawrence stood up, steadying himself with both hands on the bedspread, and rotated his body as he sank down so that he landed on his back on the bed with a short sigh. It was clearly a practiced move, natural and comfortable, and Adam found himself smiling a little as he got into his own bed. Lawrence’s self-sufficiency was something he was growing to adore about the man– and as soon as he’d processed that thought, Lawrence turned out the light, thankfully preventing him from seeing the blush that spread hotly over Adam’s face.

He’d fully anticipated being too thrilled at the prospect of sharing a room with Lawrence to sleep, but heaviness began tugging at his eyelids the second his head hit his pillow. The room was blessedly quiet compared to Adam’s apartment, with its thin walls and adjacency to the NYU nightlife. The only sound in the hotel room was the hum of a heater, the quiet noise of traffic from the street below them, and Lawrence’s gentle breathing, rhythmic and steady.

Adam was nearly asleep when he heard Lawrence’s voice, soft and almost somber in the silence of the hotel room. “What age did you start smoking, Adam?”

He half-attempted to push his head up to face Lawrence’s bed, but soon gave up and sank back into the softness of his pillow. “Eleven,” Adam mumbled, too tired to interrogate why the man wanted to know. “Sixth grade. Helped me stop crying all the time.” He yawned, loose-lipped with exhaustion. “Felt too much, back then. I still…still do, I guess.”

Lawrence was quiet for a very long time; Adam was half-dreaming when he spoke again, too hazed over to fully process his words, his low voice almost lost to the soft ambiance of the room.

“You lonely, lovely thing,” he murmured, and Adam slipped gently into darkness.

Notes:

please leave a comment if you enjoyed! even if i don't respond, i read and treasure every single comment i get, they mean the absolute world to me!

Chapter 12: your eyes outshine the town, they do

Notes:

an extra long christmas treat for you! ignore that it's currently march, it's christmas in my heart!

thank you to Jesse batboyvinny on twitter and TJ whosehatisthis for lending me your names (and also your mom in TJ's case) and to msbadatnamingthings on tumblr for naming Barbara for me! and once more thank you to my angels Ginny (shirelings) and Sarah (paleromantic) for proofreading and hyping me up, y'all are the f*cking best <3

content warning for adam's sh*tty childhood (parental conflict, no explicit abuse) and also spoiler warning for It's A Wonderful Life. title is from This Christmas by Donny Hathaway! enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Adam was disoriented when he woke– the sound of his alarm was all wrong, the sheets too smooth against his skin, the mattress beneath him far too soft. He frowned into his pillow for a moment, still half-asleep, when a quiet grumbling sounded from his left. The alarm shut off, and he heard a small sigh of relief.

Lawrence. Baltimore. The road trip.

A smile tugged its way inexorably onto his lips, spreading wider and wider before he even opened his eyes.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, his voice a little muffled by his pillow.

Lawrence’s answering chuckle, rough from sleep, made his heart soar. “Happy Christmas.” He sounded halfway through a yawn. “Mm…I think we can sleep in for a little longer. It’s a holiday. We’ve got no schedule to keep.”

Shedule,” Adam mumbled fondly, and fell back asleep.

When he woke up for real, it was to the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of a teaspoon gently clinking against ceramic. He sat up slowly, yawning, and was greeted by the sight of Lawrence, a tartan flannel robe over his pajamas and a teacup in his hands, sitting in his wheelchair at the desk. His reading glasses were on, and he was glancing idly over one of the guidebooks which lay open in front of him as he stirred his coffee.

“Morning,” Adam said, figuring it would be a bit creepy of him to just watch Lawrence in silence for much longer.

The doctor looked up with a smile. “Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

It was an achingly domestic tableau, and Adam resisted the urge to reach for his camera, to preserve the softly rumpled man in front of him in all his cozy perfection. Instead, he glanced at the clock. “Super well. For longer than four hours, too, looks like. It’s a nice change of pace for me.”

Lawrence chuckled. “You sound like one of my med students.”

“Those poor bastards.” Adam stretched his arms over his head, letting out a satisfied groan. “God, I’m starving.”

Lawrence’s cheeks colored slightly. “We missed the continental breakfast, but I thought we could go to a café nearby. In the meantime…” He nodded to an extra cup and saucer sitting on the corner of the desk, its contents still lightly steaming. “I know it’s not food, but there was coffee in the lobby.”

“Oh, thanks.” Adam kicked his blankets off, one last yawn clinging to his lips as he slumped over to take a deep drink of his coffee. Black, with an unhealthy amount of sugar– perfect. “f*ck, that’s good. You’re a lifesaver, Lawrence.”

Lawrence’s lips twitched. “By trade, yes.”

He snorted at that, taking another long sip as Lawrence returned his attention to his book. “So, what’s the plan for today? D.C.?”

“You were right about most places being closed for Christmas.” He licked his thumb to turn one of the pages, and Adam caught himself watching the motion with more attentiveness than he knew he probably should. “Most of the museums I’d like to take you to aren’t open until tomorrow, so I was thinking that we could spend today mostly in Baltimore, check out of the hotel tomorrow morning, and then spend Boxing Day in D.C. when there’s more open.”

“That sounds great.” A thought occurred to him, and he frowned a little. “Won't everything be closed here, too?”

Lawrence hummed. “I took the liberty of asking at the front desk for a list of attractions that’re open today. And I thought we could ask some locals, too, once we’ve had breakfast.”

He grinned, and finished his coffee in two smooth gulps. “Man, you really do think of everything. Is that a doctor thing, a dad thing, or just a Lawrence thing?” Adam asked, setting his cup down before going over to his bag to collect a shirt, clean boxers, a pair of jeans, and the plastic shopping bag that served as his toiletry bag.

“A mixture of the three, I suppose.” He looked up again, briefly. “Dress warmly– it’s apparently one of the coldest Christmases they’ve had here.”

Adam obediently grabbed a flannel to layer over his t-shirt, and ducked into the bathroom to brush his teeth and change.

His face had an odd glow to it when he glanced in the mirror. The bags under his eyes were less pronounced from a restful night’s sleep, and there was a healthy pink in his cheeks from being consistently warmed through the night, unlike his faulty heating back home. And there was a kind of light in his own eyes that Adam hadn’t seen in quite a long time– something bright, something hopeful. Something contented. He didn’t just look happy, he looked…whole, almost.

He scoffed to himself. The last thing he needed was to be waxing poetic about his own dumb face. Adam finished buttoning the last button of his flannel, and opened the door.

Lawrence was fully dressed when Adam emerged, sitting on the end of his bed with his right leg propped up over his left thigh, talkshow-host-style. His pant leg was rolled up neatly out of the way above his knee, and he was finishing fastening his prosthetic to where his leg abruptly ended a good few inches below his calf. Adam gawked unthinkingly for a moment before catching himself, dragging his gaze up to meet Lawrence’s eyes.

The doctor’s lips twitched. “It’s rude to stare.”

Adam went bright red. “f*ck, I’m– I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s alright, you’re not used to seeing it.” He finished tightening the cuff of his prosthetic above his knee, then tugged his pant leg down to cover it. “Could you hand me my shoes, while you’re over there?”

He did, fetching Lawrence’s Oxfords and setting them in front of him, not meeting Lawrence’s eyes. “S-seriously, I’m really sorry for staring.”

“Adam, really, it’s fine. I’d prefer if you didn’t, obviously, but I’m used to far worse from people.” The doctor’s tone was even, almost soothing. Adam imagined it was the same voice he used to calm his patients; that just made him feel worse, somehow. He was just living his life, for f*ck’s sake– he shouldn’t have to coddle Adam. He fidgeted uneasily as Lawrence slipped his shoes onto both feet, both plastic and flesh, and then lifted his hand, palm down. “Could you hold your arm out, please?”

Adam nodded, offering his arm as if he were asking Lawrence to dance. He firmly gripped the crook of Adam’s elbow and got up off the bed, smoothly reaching with his other hand for his nearby cane.

“When you say far worse,” he said, without thinking, “you mean– people give you sh*t for it?”

“You’d be surprised.” Lawrence smirked without much humor. “It’s rare, but not as rare as you’d hope, unfortunately.” He let go of Adam’s arm, and Adam found himself missing the warmth of his hand through his shirt. “Breakfast?”

He took the cue to drop the subject, and grabbed his camera, wallet, and door key. “Definitely.”

The café Lawrence had chosen for them was a warm, inviting coffeehouse, a bit more cozy than the places Adam was used to grabbing a rushed breakfast sandwich from. The cheerful yellow walls and exposed brick were hardly visible under the disparate prints and paintings, all done by local artists, and the high ceilings kept the noise of the other customers’ conversations to a happy minimum.

They sat at a table under a massive mural, which a sign proudly proclaimed was available for sale for a price that made Adam’s eyes water. He and Lawrence both ordered omelets, and for a while they were both content to eat silently. Adam couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so comfortable sitting in silence with another person– he usually felt the impulse to fill the space with words, with little asides to quell his own nerves, but with Lawrence, just the simplicity of the other man’s presence was enough to make him calm.

Eventually, the doctor set his plate aside with a satisfied sigh, his omelet half-finished. He caught their waitress’s eye and smiled, and she hurried over. “Excuse me,” he said, peering at her nametag. “Sam– my friend and I are visiting for the day, and we’d like to know what we shouldn’t miss out on while we’re in town.”

Her eyes darted between the two of them, and a bright, genuine smile cracked through the customer service grin Adam was used to seeing and wearing. “Oh, you absolutely can’t miss The Miracle on 34th Street,” she said, the faintest drag of an accent in her voice.

Adam swallowed the bite he’d been chewing. “You mean the movie?”

“No, 34th Street in Hampden. It's a Baltimore tradition. This couple started it back in the 40s– the whole street gets all decked out in lights, it’s really something. Here, let me mark it down.” She grabbed a flimsy tourist map from a nearby counter and scribbled a star over one of the neighborhoods with the pen tucked into her front pocket. “It’s prettiest at night, so I’d go then.”

“And what about during the day?” Lawrence asked. “Any museums you’d recommend, or…?”

“I mean, the Edgar Allen Poe house, definitely.” Sam chewed on the cap of her pen. “The BMA’s great, but it might not be open today…there’s always ice skating at the Inner Harbor…oh! Definitely the aquarium. It’s world-famous.”

“Where’s that?”

“Right by the harbor.” She marked it on their map, and gave them both another grin. “Great place to take a date,” she said, and Adam immediately choked on his orange juice.

“We’re– we’re not–” he sputtered, positive that his face was bright red. “Uh–”

“Sorry.” She didn’t look very sorry; more amused than anything. “It’s a great place to visit, regardless.”

Lawrence cleared his throat. “Thank you, Sam. I appreciate the advice. We’re, ah, ready for the check now, I think.”

As Sam stepped away to get their check, Adam shoveled another bite of his omelet into his mouth, mostly to give him an excuse not to say anything stupid. His cheeks were still burning with a blush.

He supposed they did look like a couple, to an outside observer– they didn’t look enough alike to be mistaken for being related, and the difference in their attire made it unlikely for people to assume that they were coworkers. Adam couldn’t pretend it didn’t send a small thrill through him, that people thought they were together. He could only imagine how embarrassed Lawrence must be by the idea, though– being mistaken for the kind of guy who would have low enough standards to date Adam would be a crushing blow to anyone’s ego, especially a man like Lawrence.

If he was offended, or if he’d even noticed at all, he didn’t make any mention of it. “As much as I’d love to visit the Edgar Allen Poe house, I’m afraid I’ll have to skip it,” Lawrence said, lips flattening regretfully. “The guidebook said that it’s not very accessible. But I’d be happy to find something else to do for a while if you wanted to go.”

Adam shook his head, swallowing his last mouthful of egg. “Nah, I can skip it. It seems kind of depressing, honestly.”

“You’re not a Poe fan?” He leaned back in his chair.

“I mean, I like ‘The Raven’ as much as anyone else who’s passed tenth grade English,” Adam said, and grinned as he was rewarded with a hearty chuckle from Lawrence. “But his life was sort of a huge bummer. I’m not sure how much misery I can take today, especially when I’m in such a good mood.”

“Fair point.” Sam brought their check and a tray, and Lawrence smiled up as she gathered up their plates. “I’m sorry they’ve got you working on Christmas,” he said, sounding very genuine.

“Eh, it’s alright.” She shrugged. “There’s worse ways to spend a holiday than getting to know nice folks like you two. Where’re you visiting from?”

“New York,” Lawrence said, and she whistled.

“In town for business, or just for fun?”

He gave her one of his charming smiles, and Sam visibly melted a little. Adam could see, for the briefest of moments, what he must’ve looked like the first time he’d seen the doctor. “We’re on a road trip,” he told her, his gaze flitting warmly over to Adam. “We’re trying to see the best that America has to offer.”

“Aww. Well, I’m flattered that Baltimore made the list.” She totalled out their charge, and handed Lawrence the receipt. “Go ahead and bring that to the front. You have a merry Christmas, alright? Both of you.”

“We are so far,” Adam said, and she grinned even wider.

After he paid the check, Lawrence stepped back to leave an enormous tip in cash on the table. Adam gently nudged him as they left the cafe. “You probably made her day.”

“Just by being a decent person?” Lawrence’s tone was so skeptical that Adam laughed.

“I mean, yeah. Customers usually are a whole other breed of entitled. I could tell you some absolute horror stories from working at Macy’s– or pretty much any other place I’ve worked.” He wrapped his jacket tighter around himself as the wind cut through the buildings around them. “Where do you want to go first?”

Lawrence hummed thoughtfully. “The hotel clerk mentioned that the aquarium is open today,” he said, lifting the map that Sam had given them. “And our waitress did say it was world-famous…seems worth a visit.”

“S-sounds– sounds good.” He shivered as they crossed the street, wishing he’d brought a warmer jacket.

As they waited for the lights to change at the next intersection, Adam flinched a little as he felt a soft fabric drape around his neck. He glanced up; Lawrence’s cashmere scarf was gone from the doctor’s neck, and the man was slightly flushed. “Sorry,” Lawrence said, “I– you looked cold. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s– it’s fine. Thank you.” He gratefully knotted the scarf around his neck, the wool softer under his fingers than any he’d ever felt. “Won’t you be cold?”

“I’ve got my coat, I’m fine.” Lawrence cleared his throat. “We should get you a new jacket, that one’s practically in pieces.”

Adam couldn’t help the embarrassed blush that spread over his face. “Tomorrow, maybe. I think all the thrift stores are closed today.”

That familiar little line appeared between Lawrence’s brows. “As much as I admire the– the prudence of shopping secondhand, there’s some things you should always buy new so they last longer.”

With what money? rose to Adam’s lips, but he burrowed deeper into Lawrence’s scarf in lieu of saying it. It smelled of his cologne, and he felt a warmth greater than what the scarf itself provided sink into him. “We can go shopping tomorrow,” he mumbled.

He felt Lawrence’s eyes on him. “I want you to be warm, Adam,” he said simply, and Adam suddenly couldn’t feel the chill anymore.

The aquarium was gigantic, a huge concrete building topped with a glass pyramid shrouded in scaffolding and tarp. Adam squinted up at it– although it was overcast, the sky was the bright kind of gray that nearly hurt his eyes with the luminescence of the clouds overhead.

Lawrence paid for both their tickets, to Adam’s feeble protests. “You’ve gotta let me make it up to you somehow,” he said, waiting as a small flock of kids rushed to crowd around the touch pool. “I’m not gonna let you pay for everything on this trip.”

“It really is my pleasure,” Lawrence started to say, but Adam held up a hand, grinning to let him know that it wasn’t a slight.

“Lunch is gonna be on me today,” he insisted, making a mental note to swipe the guidebook later and peruse the less pricey options.

They walked through the exhibits on display, pausing at various tanks and exhibits and dodging families with eager kids, pressing their tiny faces to the glass. Adam snuck a few glances at Lawrence, worried that he’d be thinking of Diana, but he seemed to be entirely content, returning Adam’s gaze with a little smile every time he caught his eye.

After a while of touring aimlessly, chatting lightly about the different exhibits, they stopped in front of the Atlantic coral reef, the centerpiece of the aquarium. Adam’s breath caught a little– it really was an impressive sight. The construction of the enormous tank meant that he and Lawrence were surrounded on all sides, and it gave him an odd, floating feeling to be completely dry but still enveloped by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The different fish danced in and out of artificial currents around them, and the lights overhead shimmered through the water and onto the floor at their feet in prismatic ribbons. For a long moment, he simply stared into the water, feeling himself relax as he watched the hypnotic movements of the schools of fish, the occasional blacktip shark, an enormous gliding ray. He could feel Lawrence’s eyes on him again, studying his face.

They were alone now, a momentary lull in the crowd isolating the two of them in this peaceful underwater world. Adam turned to look at him, and Lawrence was smiling, his eyes soft. He parted his lips to say something, leaning down to be heard over the rush of the pumps overhead, when a voice called out somewhere to their left, making them both look away towards the noise.

“Mom! Mom?”

A small boy, no more than seven, rounded the corner. There were tears in his eyes, and he was clutching a stuffed toy whale. He was looking around frantically, and when he saw Adam and Lawrence, he shuffled to a stop, sniffling.

Lawrence immediately lowered himself down so that he wasn’t towering over the kid, frowning in concern. “Are you okay?”

“I-I can’t find my mom.” His lip trembled, and Lawrence pulled a small packet of tissues from his pocket, offering them to him. “She was– she was right here…”

“Don’t worry, we can help you find her. What’s your name?” Lawrence’s voice was gentle, and something in Adam’s heart clenched.

“Jesse.”

“And who’s your friend?”

Jesse sniffled again, looking down at his stuffed whale. “Pearl.”

“Like from SpongeBob?” Adam asked, and Jesse gave him an appraising look, wiping his nose with the tissue Lawrence had given him. “That’s a great show, man. You’ve got good taste.”

The kid smiled a little. “Th-thanks.” He seemed a little calmer now, and Lawrence glanced at Adam with a look that Adam couldn’t quite decipher, peering briefly up through his lashes at him with a sort of distracted fondness before focusing back on Jesse.

“Where did you last see your mom?” Lawrence asked, getting back to his feet with a slight strain in his voice from the effort. “Was it near this exhibit, or another one?”

“Um…I think…I-I think we were at the jellyfish. I don’t– I don’t know.” His lip trembled again, and Lawrence offered his hand.

“Let’s go to the front desk, okay? That way they can call her on the intercom, and she’ll know where to find you.”

Jesse looked up at him, seeming to weigh his options, and then hesitantly took Lawrence’s hand. “...okay.”

The three of them made their way back to the front desk, and as Lawrence kept Jesse occupied with questions about what he’d enjoyed seeing at the aquarium so far, Adam got the attention of the guy behind the desk, a young man with curly hair, a lip piercing, and the biggest can of energy drink Adam had seen in his life. “Hey, uh, this kid lost his mom,” Adam said, and the man straightened up in his chair.

“Oh, sh*t.” He leaned over the desk to look at the boy, the nametag on the lanyard around his neck clattering against the formica. Adam could barely read the letters TJ through the plethora of shark and squid stickers plastered over the plastic. “What’s his name? And his mom’s name?”

“His name’s Jesse, and– hold on, I’ll ask.” Adam crouched down, interrupting Jesse’s breathless description of the shark exhibit. “Hey, bud, what’s your mom’s name?”

“Barbara,” he said, and TJ tapped the intercom.

“Will Barbara please come to Guest Services? Jesse is waiting for you at the front desk.” He shut it off, and scrabbled around behind the desk for a moment before pulling out a small coloring book and a pack of crayons. “I don’t know if he wants these to distract him, or– actually, it looks like your friend’s got the situation handled.”

Lawrence was listening intently, a smile playing at his lips as he nodded along with whatever Jesse was saying. His leg must’ve been killing him, Adam thought, half-kneeling like he was on the concrete floor to be at eye level with the boy, but Lawrence didn’t seem to mind at all. It was obvious even from the few minutes that he’d spent with Jesse that Lawrence had that kind of natural aptitude with kids, the ease of making them feel comfortable and unintimidated. Adam had always felt a little uneasy around younger kids, remembering his own childhood and resenting being either talked down to or being forced to shoulder the emotional baggage of the adults around him. He never knew how to speak to children, aside from the requisite interactions he had with the kids in the toy department at work. In contrast, it seemed that Lawrence took to it naturally, asking questions about the exhibits Jesse had seen, brows tilting up in genuine interest as he expounded on his favorite types of sharks. Adam could easily imagine Lawrence listening to Diana talk about her day at school on a drive home, and the thought made his chest ache.

The tears had almost fully dried on Jesse’s face by the time a frantic-looking woman finally rushed up to the desk. She and Jesse spotted each other at the same time, and he immediately broke into a huge, toothy grin. “Mom!” He crashed into her arms, and she buried her face in his hair, kissing the top of his head.

Lawrence stood quietly, a slightly pained expression on his face that faded as soon as the woman made eye contact with him. “Thank you so much, sir,” she said, her voice thick. “I-I only let go of his hand for a second–”

“I’ve got a daughter of my own, I know how easy it is for kids to get distracted in a place like this.” He smiled at Jesse. “There’s a lot to see, right?”

Jesse nodded, and turned to his mom. “I was telling him about the sharks, and how they have cartilage instead of bones, and–“

In the chaos of their reunion, Jesse had dropped his stuffed animal. Adam bent to scoop it up, handing it to him with a grin. “Don’t forget Pearl,” he said, and Jesse hugged the whale tight.

“What do you say to the nice men?” Barbara prompted.

“Thank you!”

Lawrence easily returned his broad smile, but as Jesse and Barbara turned to head back into the main entrance, it faltered a little on his lips. His blue eyes grew distant, fixing on the mother and son’s joined hands, and Adam looked away, feeling as if he was intruding.

“Adam,” he said, finally, and his voice sounded carefully rehearsed. “Do you mind if I step away for a moment to make a call?”

“Yeah, absolutely.” He caught his gaze again; Lawrence’s face was a canny mask of itself, betraying nothing but pleasant neutrality, but Adam was good enough now at reading him to know that he was miles away. “I’ll…” Adam’s eyes darted to his right. “I’ll be in the gift shop.”

It was nearly an hour later when Lawrence finally came to find him again. In the meantime, Adam had bought a keychain shaped like a crab for Amanda, specifically because he suspected she’d find it absurdly corny. He was browsing through the picture books for the third time when Lawrence’s hand landed gently on his shoulder. He turned; Lawrence seemed far more cheerful now, with a new lightness in his eyes and voice. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah.” Adam paused. “Um, did you– how was your call?”

Lawrence visibly softened, his eyes flicking from Adam’s to the book he still had in his hands, his gaze resting idly on the cartoon octopus on the cover as he spoke. “It went great. Diana had a terrific Christmas– she said she got nearly everything she wanted from Santa, and she’s very happy to be in Florida. They’re going to the beach this afternoon, and she told me she’s going to try and find some shells that she can bring home with her to show me.” His smile turned wistful, but still warm. “She said that she misses me, but that she’s having a wonderful time.”

“That’s great, Lawrence.” Adam bit his lip. “How’s…how’s Alison?”

“She’s fine.” He met his eyes again, and there was a little coolness in the blue– not directed towards Adam, he could tell, but it was still enough to make his stomach tip uneasily. “She thinks I’m traveling alone,” Lawrence said, just a shade shy of casual. “She said she hoped I wasn’t too lonely.”

Whatever Adam had been about to say died on his tongue. Lawrence extended his hand, gesturing for them both to leave the gift shop, and as Adam led the way into the main lobby, his mind raced. Why hadn’t he told her? Was Adam just that unimportant of a fixture in Lawrence’s life, that he wasn’t worth mentioning at all? Or…had Lawrence lied to her deliberately? And if he had– why?

“I don’t know about you,” Lawrence said, and Adam hastily tucked his thoughts away for later, “but I could go for some lunch. Should we eat, and then check out that Miracle on 34th Street thing Sam mentioned?”

“Sure.” He paused. “You’re– you’re done with the aquarium?”

Lawrence shrugged. “If you are.”

Adam felt that it would be too childish to say that he’d been kind of looking forward to seeing the jellyfish, so he simply nodded. The aquarium had been getting more and more crowded as the afternoon wore on, anyway, and he was sure that the noise of screaming kids echoing off the concrete floors would’ve burrowed into his brain deep enough to sprout into a full migraine before long.

“Lunch, then. On me, this time.”

Adam picked an old fashioned diner from the guidebook, located squarely between the harbor and Hampden, to treat Lawrence to lunch. Feeling obliged by local custom, he ordered the crabcakes, and Lawrence followed his lead. As they ate, Adam glanced out the windows, absorbing the sight of the city around them. Baltimore was all brick and glass and green copper roofs in this part of the city, and the buildings were far lower than in New York, allowing the sky to spread out above them in a soft gray blanket. Once the sun began to set, Adam thought, he’d like to try and take a few photos from somewhere high up, to capture the spill of light over the harbor with its mix of yachts and old sailing ships.

“What’s on your mind?” Lawrence asked, his mouth full of crab, and Adam ducked his head to hide the smile that endearingly uncouth detail pulled from him.

“Just thinking about taking some pictures of the city,” he said, spearing his fork through a tender bite of crabcake. “D’you think the hotel would let me up on the roof?”

Lawrence swallowed, and dabbed his lips with his napkin. “I doubt it, unfortunately. Too much of a risk for them, legally speaking, if you slipped or something. God forbid.”

“Eh, that’s alright. I can take them from the ground level, too– it’s just more interesting to have a bird’s eye view.” Adam took a large bite, casting his gaze back out over the streets and the few people out braving the cold.

Lawrence studied him. “What were your Christmases like with your parents?” he asked, his tone only betraying a calm curiosity.

It was a good thing that Adam’s mouth was full; it gave him time to contemplate his answer. His most vivid memories were of the fights, the broken plates, his mom screaming at his dad until her voice strangled itself into a furious hiss, the harsh bite of the December air as he climbed out his window to sit on the fire escape with his Game Boy, trying not to cry so his tears wouldn’t freeze to his cheeks, trying not to listen to the horrible things his father was shouting.

But there were other memories, too– distant with time and with the softness of focus that came from trying too hard to conjure them. His mom’s gentle laughter at the clumsy job his dad had done at wrapping her gift, Adam’s own eagerness to help decorate a somewhat lopsided Christmas tree that he’d helped his dad cut down at a farm a few miles away from their home in Buffalo. He remembered a secondhand model train set with a wheel missing, the smooth click of a video game cartridge, a yellow bike with training wheels waiting for him in the tiny yard outside.

He remembered feeling loved; even more vividly, he remembered missing that feeling.

“We didn’t have a lot,” Adam said finally, his voice a bit quieter than he’d intended. “But– it was nice, especially when I was younger. They started fighting, like, really fighting,when I was eight, and that…y’know. It didn’t make for a very fun time. But before then…they at least tried to make it special for me.”

Lawrence’s eyes were soft when he met his gaze again. “I’m sorry,” he said, and Adam automatically shook his head.

“No, no, it’s– it’s fine. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be a bummer.”

“You’re not. I asked, and I’m glad you answered honestly.” He folded his fingers together, propping his elbows on the table. “I’m glad you have some good memories, too, not just the bad ones.”

“They weren’t awful parents,” Adam said, feeling the need to defend them even though he knew it wasn’t entirely true. “They just– they weren’t good together. They brought out the worst in each other. It was a f*cking relief when they split up.”

Lawrence fell silent again, and Adam would have traded almost anything for the chance to take back what he’d said, to rewind time and keep his stupid mouth shut. Of course the person currently going through a hellish divorce didn’t want to hear him whine about his parents splitting up. He probably just wanted to hear about the snow days, the presents, a fireplace festooned with stockings and letters to Santa, not the CliffsNotes on a decaying marriage.

“What were your Christmases like in England?” he asked, desperate to bring back some levity.

Adam was rewarded with a faint twitch of a smile that only grew when Lawrence looked at him again. “About as stereotypical as you can imagine,” he said, chuckling. “We always traveled up to Haverhill to be with my father’s side of the family for Christmas– my grandfather had a lovely little cottage there. I’m sure it didn’t snow every year, but that’s how I remember it…all of us tucked cozily in our jumpers and watching the snow fall outside the window, the whole place smelling of gingerbread and pine.” He glanced out the window, laced fingers tucking under his chin in thought. “Cynthia and I would fight over the Christmas crackers, but I’d always let her win. She’d gloat about it, too.” Adam laughed, and a rush of pride filled him at the twinkle that appeared back in Lawrence’s eye. “I don’t think she ever found out that I always lost on purpose.”

“You sound like you were an awesome brother.”

The doctor hummed, picking up his mug of tea. “We loved each other fiercely,” he said, his voice soft. “Right up until– well.” His lips twitched. “What was it you said about not wanting to be a bummer?”

Adam gave him a sympathetic little smile, and, on impulse, raised his own glass of water. “To not having a bummer of a Christmas,” he said.

Lawrence bumped his mug against the cool plastic, and the resulting gentle tap settled into Adam’s mind like a promise.

The walk to 34th Street was cold, but the anticipation from the gradually filling sidewalks around the two men was enough to keep Adam warm, excitement glowing inside him. Lawrence’s scarf helped, of course– the soft blue wool tickled his chin and the scent of the man’s cologne filled his nose, surrounding him with the now-familiar calm he felt just being around him. At his side, Lawrence was humming a Christmas carol under his breath. Adam couldn’t stop smiling.

The commonplace yellow strings of lights on the houses around them began to evolve into multicolored explosions, shining through the rapidly fading light like warm beacons. The rows of buildings blossomed into lavishly decorated layer cakes of glowing red and purple and green, complete with rows of inflatable characters and a shining tree made entirely of hubcaps. The crowd around them swelled into a fever pitch as more lights blinked on, the cars slowly passing by blaring different carols that jumbled together in a cacophony that, under any other circ*mstance, Adam was sure he’d find intensely grating.

Here, though, surrounded by jostling bodies and laughter, with Lawrence steady and smiling by his side, he felt a little bit like a kid again.

“Cocoa?” the doctor asked, as they approached a small booth on the sidewalk.

“Sure.” Adam rubbed his hands together to fight the chill as Lawrence paid for two paper cups of hot cocoa, handing one to him with a grin. “This really is something.”

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Lawrence said, looking up at the strings of lights overhead.

Adam gazed over the people, bundled in their warmest clothes to face the below-freezing temperatures outside just to look at the decorations; at the houses draped in lights, shining against the darkening sky with a glow that filled Adam’s heart with indescribable joy. And he looked up at Lawrence, and the doctor’s face was glowing, too– his cheeks were red with cold and his lips were curving up into a smile so wide it narrowed his blue eyes into slits.

“Yeah,” Adam breathed, wrapping his hands around the offered cup, soaking in its warmth. He didn’t look away from Lawrence’s face– he didn’t think he could have, even if he wanted to. “It really is.”

By the time they got back to the hotel, it was fully dark outside. Lawrence ordered room service, and they ate while watching It’s A Wonderful Life on the enormous TV in their hotel room, curled up in their respective beds, slightly tipsy from sharing the bottle of cheap wine Adam had had the foresight to buy on the way back from Hampden.

“You know,” Lawrence said through a yawn as they watched George Bailey run through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this movie all the way through.”

“Really?” Adam rolled his head over to look at him. The doctor was lying back with his head propped up by the bountiful pillows, his left ankle crossed over his right calf just above where his leg ended. He didn’t seem at all uncomfortable with Adam seeing him without his prosthetic, and Adam was grateful for it– his own rudeness that morning had bothered him immensely, and it was a relief that Lawrence didn’t seem to hold a grudge. “The ending’s the best part, man.”

“Oh, I know what happens. I’ve just never seen it.” He finished off his cup of wine and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, never taking his eyes off the screen. “The middle depresses me too much. I always end up turning it off.”

Adam chuckled, the sound rumbling lazily through his body. He was heavy with a cheerful sort of tiredness, fizzy from the wine and pleasantly sleepy. “That doesn’t make sense. If the middle’s so sad, wouldn’t you want to skip that part and go straight to the end, instead of– instead of not watching the end at all?”

“I don’t think I can really explain it. It’s silly, I know.” Lawrence was quiet for a while, and eventually Adam looked back towards the TV. They both watched as George scooped his children into his arms, kissing their faces before spotting his wife and rushing into her arms.

“Are you real?” he said, the sound slightly tinny over the speakers, and Adam couldn’t help a small sniffle that pushed its way out of him.

He could feel Lawrence’s eyes on him. “You alright?”

“Yeah.” He rubbed his nose. “Yeah, it’s just– god, it’s stupid to get this worked up over an old movie.”

“It’s not stupid.”

Adam kept his eyes trained on the TV. “I guess– I’d like real life to end up that way, sometimes,” he said eventually, watching all the neighbors crowd around the living room with the stacks of money they’d collected for the Bailey family. “Y’know, all tied up with a happy ending. No complications, no doubt about if they’re totally okay– just The End in cursive.”

“I know what you mean.” Lawrence sighed softly, not as much a melancholy sound as it was a contemplative one. The movie ended with Auld Lang Syne and a ringing bell, and Lawrence clicked the TV off to bathe them in darkness and silence.

“I’ll get the light,” Adam mumbled after a moment, reaching for the table lamp.

When he turned it on, Lawrence’s eyes were misty. “I told you that Diana said she got nearly everything she wanted for Christmas,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mention– she said she asked for me to be there, too.”

Adam’s heart clenched in his chest. “Lawrence…” There was that pain again, tangible in Lawrence’s face, his voice. Adam wanted to siphon it away, to comfort him, but he didn’t know how. The empathetic grief that pressed into him like a weight was mixed with the familiar guilt he’d felt before– at Lawrence’s house, when Alison had interrupted them; at Adam’s apartment, when Lawrence had told him about the custody his wife had claimed. The circ*mstances weren’t his fault, not entirely, but surely he’d made things worse. Adam wet his lips. “Listen, I’m…I’m sorry that–”

He didn’t know how to finish that sentence. I’m sorry that you’re not with her. I’m sorry that Alison took her away from you. I’m sorry that you’ll have to fight for her.

“I’m sorry that you’re stuck with me for Christmas,” he said finally, unable to meet the man’s eyes. “It’s– I’m sure you’d rather be with her. With your family.”

“Adam.” Something in Lawrence’s tone made him look up. The doctor met his gaze with calm finality. Somewhere in his eyes, Adam saw– not pity, exactly, but knowing. As if he’d reached into Adam and drawn out his insecurities, examined them, dissected them, and found them worth refuting. “I asked you to come. I want you here. I wouldn’t have invited you if I didn’t.” He hesitated, as if the next words he spoke weighed more than the lightness with which he finally said them. “I want you with me.”

Adam couldn’t respond. His heart was somewhere in his throat, beating with a fury that he was sure Lawrence could hear, choking out whatever he’d wanted to say. He didn’t even know how to say it, or if he should say it at all. So instead, he just smiled, and reached to turn out the light.

In the dark, the words came easier.

“I’m glad you did,” he said, quietly. “I’m glad I’m here– I’m glad you’re not alone. And I’m glad I’m not, either.”

Adam wasn’t sure if Lawrence had heard him at first. The other man turned over in his bed, the rustle of sheets soft in the silence of the room.

“Merry Christmas, Adam,” Lawrence said, finally. His voice was warm, and Adam felt a cresting wave of affection swell up inside him for the man, washing past his lingering guilt, filling him with the comfort of knowing he was wanted.

“Merry Christmas, Lawrence,” he said, and hoped Lawrence could hear, somehow, what he really meant by it.

Notes:

please leave a comment if you enjoyed! also, if there's any Washington DC locals/former locals who could give me some insider tips for what to include next chapter, drop me a line!

Chapter 13: there's a pull, unassailable

Notes:

sorry for the delay on this one, the DC chapter got so long I had to split it into two parts!

thank you to my twitter friends motherdanger_, planetarymoth, and ginnywrites (shirelings on ao3) for lending their names to a few of Lawrence's exes, and thank you once again to the wonderful sarah stanheightcoded (paleromantic on ao3) for proofreading! AND!!! If you haven't seen the spellbindingly gorgeous art turnipoddity made for chapter 12, fix that IMMEDIATELY!!! (tumblr . com / turnipoddity / 746648621100023808)

no content warnings to speak of this time! chapter title is from This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open by The Weakerthans. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Lawrence was in rare form the next morning, cheerfully humming a song Adam didn’t recognize as he packed up. “You’ve got everything?” he asked, zipping his suitcase with a pert snap of his wrist.

“Yeah, I should be all set.” Adam shouldered his duffel bag, regarding the doctor with somewhat sleepy amusem*nt– he wasn’t yet used to the hours that Lawrence seemed in the habit of keeping, but he didn’t entirely mind. Waking up early to be driven to a beautiful city by Lawrence was leagues more tolerable than waking up early to go to work. “You’re really excited to show me D.C., huh?”

“Oh, tremendously. It’ll be my first time back since I graduated high school. I only hope I’m not overselling it…it’s just always very exciting to show someone a place that means a lot to you.” He flashed Adam a grin. “Especially someone who I know will appreciate it.”

Adam felt a blush creep up the back of his neck, and he hid it by reaching back to scratch at his shirt collar. “Are you gonna share the itinerary you made for us, or do you want me to be surprised?”

“I’ll tell you when we get there.” A gentle knock sounded at the door, and Lawrence opened it to let the bellhop in, standing aside to allow him to load their luggage onto the cart. “But prepare for a lot of art, a lot of history, and a lot of walking.”

“Looking forward to it.” He hesitated as the bellhop lifted Lawrence’s folded wheelchair onto the cart. “Is your foot gonna be okay? With the walking, I mean?”

“Yeah, I think I’ll be alright. If I need to, I’ll use the chair. We’ll just have to go slowly on the cobblestones.”

“You can hold onto my arm, if you need to,” Adam said, without thinking. It took considerable effort for him not to flush at his own lack of tact, but he managed to clear his throat and clarify, eloquently, “y’know. Um. If that’s okay. I mean– if it would help.”

The doctor appraised him for just a second, lips tilted in that curious smile of his, before he huffed out a soft breath of a laugh and handed one of his suitcases to the bellhop. “You’re very considerate. I’ll let you know– but thank you for offering, regardless.”

They drove out of Baltimore with the sun at their backs, the road stretching before them with what seemed to Adam to be endless possibility. D.C. was a little more than an hour’s drive south, and as Lawrence merged onto the highway, Adam reached for his iPod and the aux cord.

“What’ve you got for me today?” Lawrence asked, glancing over briefly.

“More of my road trip playlist, if you’re up for it.” He clicked the cord in, wincing at the sharp stab of fuzz that sounded through the speakers. “It’s not all Green Day, I promise– I tried to pick stuff I thought you’d like.”

There was a smile playing at Lawrence’s lips. “You made a playlist just for our trip?”

Adam caught his eye, bold with happiness. Lawrence’s words from last night were still curled tight in his heart, filling him with a kind of elation that Adam hadn’t felt in a very long time. Lawrence wanted him here. He wanted Adam’s presence by his side, wanted his conversation, his music, his stupid ramblings and frequent pauses for photographs. Adam was so used to being cast aside, or at least feeling like he had been, that he was sure he’d be able to recognize Lawrence’s waning interest in him when it inevitably started to manifest– so until then, he wanted to take as full advantage of his affection as he could.

“Yeah,” he said, pressing shuffle. “Just for us.”

Lawrence’s face did something complicated at that– a twitch of a smile, a little intake of breath. He could have just been reacting to the song that started to play loudly through the speakers, but Adam tucked his reaction away in his mind, content to believe he’d been pleased by Adam’s sentimentality.

“This is the Pixies, right?” the doctor said, and Adam grinned even wider.

“You know them?”

“Of course I do.” He flicked his hair out of his face. “You know, I always thought that someone’s taste in music was always a poor indication of age– there’s a lot of nurses I work with who’re about your age, and a few of them have much older-fashioned taste than I do.”

“Maybe you’re just young at heart.”

He smiled a little at that. “I’d like to think so, at least.” Lawrence was silent for a while, nodding absently to the music. “I never understood my generation’s whining about how unsophisticated modern music is,” he said, after a moment. “There’s trash from the sixties and works of genius from the past five years. It depends entirely on which artists you listen to.”

Adam sat up slightly in his seat, invigorated. “Right, exactly.”

“And the same goes for films, and books. Poetry, especially.” Lawrence hummed thoughtfully. “I remember adoring Shakespeare in school, but so many of my classmates found it completely inaccessible– and all the while, they were watching romantic comedies and listening to love songs. That never made sense to me. Sure, the– the language can be difficult to parse if you aren’t used to it, I suppose, but the human emotion at the core of his work has never changed. There’s a beautiful, universal sentiment that every good poem has alike, whether it’s Shakespeare or Pablo Neruda. Or whoever, really. It’s all a way of trying to give tangible shape to the things we all feel. The need to be loved, to express the love we feel for others. I think that’s why language was invented in the first place, to communicate that. It must have been.”

He cleared his throat, a slight blush coloring his cheeks. Adam had been watching him raptly, drinking in his words and the small gestures he made against the steering wheel, but as soon as the man stopped speaking he hastily looked away, not wanting Lawrence to see what he was sure would be plain on his face.

“I’m not too much of a poetry guy,” Adam said, just to break the silence. “I mean, I enjoy the poetry I’ve read, but I don’t really make a habit of reading it a lot.”

“You should read Neruda, at least. I think you’d like him.” Lawrence turned the music up, and Adam turned his head to look out the window, watching the trees ripple past the highway.

All the talk of poetry had reminded him of the letter he’d written to Lawrence, still tucked away in the notebook under his bed in New York.

Maybe someday, once their trip was over and they were back in real time, back in the city with their lives and responsibilities resumed, away from the liminal closeness that gave Adam the courage to hope he could mean more to Lawrence than the other man would probably ever want from him, he could type it up, revise it, show it to him.

Isn’t it funny, he’d say, how much you’d already changed my life, even though we’d only spent an hour together at that point?

And Lawrence would laugh, and the part of Adam that ached over him would twinge dully. Adam was sure that feeling would never quite go away, but for the sake of their friendship, he hoped it would ease a little. He couldn’t imagine the rest of his life feeling like this: waiting with bated breath for every smile and touch, for every shining moment of understanding they shared. Lawrence would either come to his senses and see Adam for the pathetic nobody he was the majority of the time, instead of the wittier, upbeat, thoughtful person he found himself becoming when he was with Lawrence– or Adam would simply get accustomed to being around him. The butterflies would settle, and he would be able to just be friends with him.

Hearing Lawrence hum along to “Here Comes Your Man,” though, with the sun gleaming through his hair like gold and his lips curved into a soft, fond smile, Adam couldn’t imagine ever feeling differently about him.

Lawrence’s mounting anticipation was tangible as they neared the city. He began to point out landmarks through the windshield, both culturally and personally significant– the Washington Monument looming high in the distance, the park where he used to play tennis, the Library of Congress and the library where he’d studied for his finals in high school. His voice was high and quick with excitement, and Adam tried not to smile too fondly as he looked out the window, his neck craning to take in as much of the city as he could.

They pulled up in front of a tall, gorgeous stone building located directly across the lawn from the White House, and Adam furrowed his brow, curious. “I thought we were gonna check in at the hotel before we took any tours?” he said, and Lawrence chuckled.

“Adam, this is the hotel. This is where we’re staying.”

His jaw dropped. “...no way. No f*cking way, Lawrence.” He craned his neck to look at the building more closely– the ornate facade at the front, the flags flying above the entrance, and the gleaming white stone that comprised the exterior made it look like an embassy, not a hotel that an ordinary person could just walk into and request a room.

Lawrence was slightly flushed when he looked back at him. “I only thought…well. Since we’ll be spending the majority of the rest of our trip driving through the middle of nowhere– West Virginia, Idaho, Kansas– I figured we ought to take advantage of as many luxuries as we can, while we’ve got access to them.” He smiled a bit at Adam’s dumbstruck expression. “And besides, the Hay-Adams has excellent accessible accommodations. And it’s located right in the center of the city.”

He wet his lips. “I– god, I don’t even think I want to ask how much a night’s stay is here.”

“Nothing I can’t comfortably afford, and nothing you need to panic about,” Lawrence said smoothly. “Like I said, it really is my pleasure.”

Adam let out a deep sigh, and then offered him a tentative grin. “I bet the room service here is crazy.”

He laughed, and opened his door. “Well, let’s find out, shall we?”

The lobby of the Hay-Adams was just as ornate as its exterior, with honest-to-god chandeliers overhead lighting the dark oak walls and pristine cream ceilings. Adam felt as if any second he’d be politely but firmly asked to leave by one of the impeccably-dressed members of staff– his best jeans and cleanest flannel still made him stand out like a sore thumb among the suits and skirts of the other patrons lingering and chatting in the lobby.

Lawrence at least looked like he belonged here, his cane tapping gently as he strode across the marble floor to the front desk. Adam hung back, gazing around at the stately decor and high arched ceilings. A man in a sleek jacket that looked like it cost five times Adam’s rent peered curiously at him from behind a newspaper, and Adam gave him a flat, frank smile and an apologetic sort of nod.

“Adam?” Lawrence called from the front desk, and he trotted over to meet him. “Which view would you prefer, the courtyard or St. John’s Church? I’m afraid there aren’t any accessible rooms with a view of the White House.”

“Oh, uh– the church, I guess.”

The receptionist tapped away at her computer with elegantly manicured nails, then looked up at the two of them. “And would you like the suite or the king? Both have the same size bed, but the suite has a small sitting room and kitchenette.”

Lawrence paused. “You don’t have any doubles?”

“No, sir. In order to allow for the extra space, all of our wheelchair-accessible rooms have a single king-sized bed.”

Adam froze. “Uh–” He turned helplessly to Lawrence, who, to his credit, only looked mildly perturbed. “I can– I can sleep on a cot or something. Um, do you guys have rollaways, or…?”

“I don’t want you to have to sleep on a cot in a luxury hotel, Adam.”

“Why not? I bet– I bet it’ll be a really nice cot.”

“We don’t have cots,” the receptionist said apologetically, and Adam swallowed.

Lawrence turned to face him, his expression as placid as it normally was, save for a slight crease between his brows. “It’s up to you. We could try for a different hotel, but there’s no guarantee of us finding another place with accessible rooms. Or, if it’s alright with you…”

He refused to let himself blush. Finding a new hotel with rooms available during the holiday season, let alone rooms that Lawrence could comfortably use, would eat enormously into their time in the city and would probably mess up the meticulous itinerary Lawrence had planned for them. Besides, if Lawrence could be normal about sharing a bed, so could he.

Adam shrugged, as nonchalantly as he could. “I mean, I don’t…I’m fine with– with whatever you want.”

It took only a moment for Lawrence to mull it over. “We’ll take the standard king room, please,” he said, and the receptionist nodded. “For one night.”

“What the f*ck,” was the only thing Adam could think to blurt out as the door to their hotel room swung open. “Lawrence. Seriously. What the f*ck.”

It looked like what Adam would imagine a guest room in the White House itself would look like– the decor was spotlessly elegant, all cream and gold bedding, wallpaper, and carpeting, and a gigantic picture window overlooking the city draped with thick, tapestry-like curtains. There were curtains above the headboard of the bed, too, framing it in a soft half-canopy. The bed itself was enormous, laid with linens that Adam was positive contained an absurd thread count. There were two nightstands on either side, one laid out with a complimentary bottle of wine and several packages of cookies and other snacks, the other with an assortment of local magazines. Across from the bed was a low chest of drawers made of the same dark oak as the nightstands, topped with a large TV. The open bathroom door had two plush bathrobes hanging from the hook at the top of the door, and Adam could see that the shower was enormous, practically the size of his entire bathroom back in New York.

“Not bad,” Lawrence said, his satisfaction audible. “Not bad at all.”

Adam turned to him, stunned. “This is insane,” he said hoarsely. “I– I feel like I shouldn’t even be here.”

Behind them, the bellhop quietly arrived with their luggage, setting their bags on the table at the foot of the bed and placing the folded wheelchair by the door to the bathroom. Lawrence handed him a generous tip, and the man nodded in thanks, leaving with the luggage cart and closing the door behind him. “Do you want a few moments to rest before we head out?” Lawrence said, ignoring Adam’s discomposure.

“Honestly, I feel like if I touch anything, someone’s gonna come in and kick me out.”

“Don’t be silly.” Lawrence made his way over to the window and peered out over the buildings, then glanced back over at Adam, grinning. “Come here. Look at this view.”

He went obediently to his side, still reeling. D.C. was laid out before them, the morning sun catching like pinpricks of flame in the windows of the squat federal buildings. Just below them, a stately church sat amidst the more modern architecture, the gold dome of its roof glinting softly.

“We’re looking towards Penn Quarter,” Lawrence said, pointing, “and Chinatown is just over there. The National Mall’s to our right– that’s where the museums are. And the White House is directly across the street from us, also on the right.” He beamed out at the city for a moment, and then added, “Whenever you’re ready, I’d love to take you on a tour. On your own time, of course.”

Adam nodded, a slow smile starting to spread over his face as it finally sunk in that this was truly where they’d be staying the night. “Yeah. Sure. Uh, hold that thought.”

With that, he shucked his boots off and flung himself onto the bed, landing facedown on the cloudlike comforter. Adam heard Lawrence chuckle from behind him, and he smiled against the pleasantly cool fabric. The mattress was soft and bouncy under him, and he melted into it with a muffled, satisfied sigh, wriggling a little to sink in even further. He breathed in the clean scent of the linens for a moment before rolling onto his back and stretching his arms up indulgently, staring up at the molded ceiling and shining golden light fixture above him, a hazy grin on his face. His shirt had ridden up on his stomach and back from the motion, and the comforter was impossibly soft against his skin.

“This is insane,” he said again. “Seriously, Lawrence, it’s…I can’t thank you enough.”

Lawrence was silent, and Adam, curious, tilted his head up to look at him. The doctor was just turning away to gaze out the window again, brushing against the curtains as he leaned a hand against the glass. The knuckles of his hand clutching the handle of his cane had gone white. Adam frowned.

“Is your foot okay?” he asked, propping himself up on his elbows. “You look a little–”

“I’m fine,” Lawrence said quickly. He cleared his throat. “Sorry. It’s just– being back in D.C. after so many years, it’s…a lot to process.”

A small pang went through Adam at that. The first time he’d visited his mom in Buffalo after moving out post-high school, he’d been bowled over by a combined wave of nostalgia and bittersweet regret at seeing the old buildings he’d grown up around. He could only imagine what Lawrence was feeling after being away for nearly thirty years– he didn’t blame the man for being as overwhelmed as he seemed to be.

“I’m excited to see it,” he said, once Lawrence’s breathing seemed to have evened a bit. “Where are we going first?”

Lawrence let out one last short sigh and turned, his usual calm demeanor back in place. “We’ll be taking a big loop around the Mall and memorials,” he said, a note of boyish excitement in his voice, “moving counterclockwise. It’s about five miles– that’s about the limit of what I can walk with my cane, so I’ll have to be off my feet for most of the evening, but I should be able to manage the whole thing. And we can stop at any of the museums you’d like– I have my favorites, of course, but it’s up to you which we prioritize.”

“That sounds awesome.” He pushed himself fully off the bed and reached for his boots. “Can we do the Air and Space?”

“Absolutely.” Lawrence paused for a moment as Adam laced his boots back up. “And…I’d also like to take you to dinner tonight. Somewhere nice. If you’re up for it, I mean.”

He flushed slightly. “That’s– that’s really generous of you. But, uh.” Adam swallowed. “When you say nice… how nice are we talking, exactly? Because I think we’re–” In way different tax brackets sounded a bit gauche, so he finished, lamely, with, “…used to different things.”

“More along the lines of the sushi place we went to in New York than the burgers we had the other night,” Lawrence clarified. He looked Adam over, thoughtful. “If you’re concerned about a dress code, we can go shopping beforehand,” he said, as if reading his mind. “That’ll be my treat, too. Call it a belated Christmas present.”

Adam let out a slow breath. “Lawrence, that’s– you’re being way too generous, man. First the hotel, and now this? I can’t let you–“

“I insist. Only if you’re alright with it, I mean. I don’t want to imply that you’re…” He paused, considering his words. A tinge of red had settled back on his cheeks.

“I’m not insulted,” Adam said quickly. “It’s just– it’s incredibly kind of you, that’s all. I’m really not offended, don’t worry.”

It was the truth– somehow, it felt different when Lawrence offered than when Vikki had, in the past, insisted on buying Adam nicer clothes than the ones he had. With her, it always felt like she was embarrassed to be seen with him. But with Lawrence, it felt more like an expression of the man’s generosity than any sense of shame. The hotel, the restaurant, the clothes– he got the sense that since Lawrence had regular access to luxuries like these, he wanted to extend them to Adam while he had the chance. It was a nice feeling, to temporarily not have to worry about money; honestly, that feeling was the real gift that he felt Lawrence was offering him.

“I’m glad.” Lawrence smiled at him once more, and Adam felt the familiar thrum of excitement sound through him. “C’mon. Let me show you my city.”

The sun gleamed down on the buildings around them as they set out, Adam with his camera slung over his arm and Lawrence with his cane, a small, irrepressible smile flitting at his lips. Adam couldn’t help but match it– despite the icy temperature, there was a warmth spreading through him at seeing the doctor so happy.

“Any urge to tour the White House?” Lawrence asked as they crossed through Lafayette Square.

Adam shook his head vehemently. “Nah, I’m good. Not a huge fan of the guy living there at the moment, to be honest.”

Chuckling, Lawrence inclined his head. “Neither am I.”

“You should’ve seen Vikki’s face when the election results came in,” Adam said, squinting slightly as the sun glared off a statue of some important-looking general. “God, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so angry– she was cursing Ohio for weeks.”

Lawrence laughed again, and then they were both silent for a while, the only sounds around them the soft crunch of the gravel underfoot and the chattering of birds and tourists.

“You know,” Lawrence said as they approached the gigantic Christmas tree in front of a huge, gray lawn, his tone carefully casual, “I think that’s the first time you’ve mentioned Vikki this whole trip.”

Adam’s throat closed. “Huh,” he managed, hunching his shoulders a little against the chill breeze. “I guess– I guess so.”

“You must miss her.”

The note of gentle sympathy in Lawrence’s voice sent an oddly sick feeling swooping low in Adam’s stomach. “Not really,” he found himself admitting. “We– uh, before she left for Connecticut, we had…we actually had a pretty bad fight.”

Lawrence slowed, causing Adam to accidentally walk ahead of him by a few paces. He caught up with two long strides before Adam had time to react, and his face was troubled when the shorter man glanced up at him. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be.” He didn’t want to ruin anything, didn’t want the real world to intrude on them. Not today, not here. “I’m fine. She’s fine. We’re– it’s all fine.”

“Adam–”

“Look, I’m– I don’t really want to talk about it,” he said, chewing on his bottom lip. “I’m having a great time here, getting away from everything with you, so can’t we– can’t we just…not think about all the stuff at home for a while?”

Lawrence was silent for a while as they made their way towards the Washington Monument, looming tall and white in the distance. The clear blue sky above them contrasting sharply against the gleaming buildings and the meticulously maintained park around the gravel path they were walking on made Adam feel as if he’d stepped into a postcard– a feeling of near-surreality, like this was a stolen moment from someone else’s life. Someone far luckier than him.

“You mentioned making a photo album for Diana,” Lawrence said eventually, once they were close enough to the monument to see the faint outlines of the huge individual blocks of stone that composed it. “Should we take a few pictures here?”

He smiled to himself, pleased that Lawrence had remembered Adam’s offer. “Yeah, for sure. What are we feeling? A touristy one, a funny one, something more artistic?”

“You’re the photographer, you tell me.” He stepped ahead of Adam and smoothed his hair down from where the wind had ruffled it slightly.

“Let’s do all three. I brought tons of film.” Adam raised his camera.

Lawrence grinned broadly, one hand in his front trouser pocket, using his wrist to keep the flap of his coat open, with his other hand resting casually on his cane. It was an effortlessly modelistic pose, and Adam found himself helpless to return his smile. He adjusted the f-stop for the bright sunlight and snapped off a photo of Lawrence standing tall to the right of the monument, framed by a few bare trees and a perfect, cloudless sky.

The size and grandeur of the monuments ringing the Constitution Gardens nearly took Adam’s breath away as they continued down the path– the pictures he’d seen of the Lincoln Memorial didn’t do it any justice, and he doubted his own would, either, but he made an effort at it anyway. Adam focused on the smaller details: the shadows cast across the marble by the colonnades, the curl of the statue’s fingers on the arm of his throne.

“The sculptor modeled Lincoln’s hands on his own,” Lawrence remarked, peering up at the enormous statue. “He took casts of his own fingers so he could get the placement just right. An artist’s hands, immortalized on the body of the president. There’s something poetic in that, I think.”

The water in the Reflecting Pool was choppy with the frigid wind, and Adam captured the fracturing reflection of the Washington Monument before snapping off a quick photo of Lawrence, squinting into and buffeted by the wind, his face scrunched endearingly against the cold.

They rested for a moment on one of the benches overlooking the water, and as Adam tipped his face back, closing his eyes to enjoy the sunshine, he heard Lawrence clear his throat.

“I always used to bring my dates here,” the doctor said, a note of sheepish laughter in his voice. “Back in high school, before I knew anything about how to properly impress women.”

Adam’s eyes snapped open. “I mean, it’s pretty impressive to me,” he managed after a moment. “You could do much worse for a first date.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Lawrence hummed. “It’s more the cliché of it that embarrasses me now. And the fact that they lived in D.C., too, so it wasn’t exactly a new experience for them.”

“How many girls did you bring here?” Adam asked, tamping down a mildly bitter swell of some emotion he chose not to put a name to.

When he glanced over, Lawrence’s cheeks were slightly red. “A few. Lucy, Patty, Ginny– I didn’t have many steady relationships when I was a teenager. Few people do, I think.” His eyes flicked over to Adam. “What about you?”

He winced a little. “I wasn’t exactly a ladies’ man in high school. Shocking, right, that nobody went for the pimply, quiet photography geek with greasy hair and zero friends?”

Adam softened his self-deprecation with a grin, but Lawrence’s answering smile was a bit more melancholy. “You do that a lot,” he said, and Adam felt himself falter.

“What?”

“Nothing, just…I wish you wouldn’t put yourself down like that, Adam.” He wet his lips absently, and Adam looked down at his hands, resting on the cool stone of the bench. “I’m sure you were a joy to be around back then. Just like you are now.”

He didn’t have any ready response to that. Adam could hear his own pulse fluttering in his ears, obnoxiously loud. Lawrence’s earnestness was overwhelming sometimes– Adam never knew quite what to do with the doctor’s sincerity and consideration other than to soak it up like a sponge, absorbing it with a voracity that embarrassed him. He knew that he meant every word, but it was easier sometimes to pretend that he didn’t. Adam couldn’t remember meeting any other person during the course of his short life who’d taken the time and effort to make him feel as valued as Lawrence tried to; he was helpless to do anything but accept that it was just the way the older man was with everyone, making every person he met feel this way with his boundless kindness.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, realizing he’d been silent for an awkwardly long time. “I’m– I’m less of a dork now, I guess.”

Lawrence let out a soft breath, nearly a sigh. He seemed to be considering his words carefully, and Adam imagined that he could track the precise path his thoughts had traveled down when he finally spoke again, shifting away from more of the sincerity and affection that he knew would make Adam uncomfortably happy and more towards resuming the light, easy tone that was now so familiar between them.

“Hopefully you’re not too cool for the Air and Space Museum,” he said, and Adam grinned.

“God, never.”

The moment Adam entered the museum, he felt like he’d been instantly turned back into a kid. His jaw dropped at the sight of the planes overhead, the enormous rockets, the lunar module that looked so similar to the small model he’d gotten on his fifth birthday. “Dude,” he said, a slow grin spreading over his face. “Dude, this is– this place is so f*cking cool.”

“Language,” Lawrence admonished him gently, grinning just as widely. “Little ears everywhere.”

Adam nearly didn’t hear him, trotting over to a huge red Lockheed airplane. “Oh, man, is this– is this Amelia Earhart’s?”

“You’re really into all this, hm?”

“Who isn’t?” He drank in the brightly painted plane, turning his head between it and the blown-up photograph showing Amelia Earhart standing proudly next to the very same aircraft. “I don’t know a single other guy who wasn’t hugely into this kind of stuff when they were little, at the very least.”

Lawrence stifled a short chuckle. “Now you know one.”

He turned to him, one brow co*cked. “Seriously? You never had an airplane phase as a kid?”

“I was more interested in trains. Steam locomotives, especially.”

Adam hummed, looking back up at the Lockheed. “Yeah, so’s my step-sister Julia. She’s got this big train set at home that she used to be crazy about. She still plays with it sometimes, even though she thinks she’s too old for it.”

“That’s right, the train set. I remember you mentioning it the first time we met. Huh...” When Adam looked over at him again, there was a tender little smile flicking up at the corners of Lawrence’s lips as he stared up at the various aircrafts hovering above both their heads, illuminated by the bright sunlight beaming through the skylights. “You know,” he said, as if it was just occurring to him, “I don’t think we ever would’ve become friends if you hadn’t told me about that. If I’d walked up to any other cashier that day, they would’ve been content to sell me whatever doll their manager had told them to push– but you talked to me like we were just two people, with no other agenda.”

A twinge of affection went through Adam at his thoughtful tone, at the way Lawrence’s eyes drifted absently over the displays without really seeing them. “I guess I owe her big time for all this, then,” he said, and Lawrence smiled, still gazing upwards.

“What was it like growing up with a dad who worked at the museum?” Adam asked as they headed across the lawn to the National Gallery. They’d spent an hour or so at the Air and Space before he’d picked up on Lawrence’s restless disinterest, as much as the doctor had attempted to hide it, and had proposed that they head to a museum he was more excited to see.

Lawrence hummed, tilting his head up to the sun. “I wish I’d appreciated it more at the time. I always thought it was a bit uncool, spending afternoons cooped up in my father’s office while he argued about acquisitions on the phone. But he was able to give us some truly wonderful opportunities. My school classes always went on field trips to the museums he worked at, both back in England and here at the Gallery, and he was able to give Cynthia and our mother and I private tours after hours. I got to know every inch of it– I could walk you through the whole thing blindfolded if I wanted to.”

“Maybe another time.” Adam grinned. “I want you to see everything properly, too– wait, hold on.” He paused, slinging his camera off his shoulder and dropping to one knee to get a shot of the tall colonnades of the Gallery looming overhead, the slope of the roof against the cloudless sky.

Lawrence waited patiently for him as he checked his aperture, cursed quietly, and adjusted the camera. “I hope to see some of your work here one day.”

He was so consumed by getting the framing just perfect that Adam forgot to be embarrassed by his flattery. “Probably not here. Some local galleries back home, though, definitely.” He depressed the shutter. “I mean– I’d absolutely love to end up in a museum someday, don’t get me wrong, but that’ll probably only happen after I die. And definitely after I’ve improved a ton as an artist.”

“I think your work is already wonderful, Adam.” Lawrence’s tone was mild, as ever, but there was a note of slight reproach to it. Adam glanced up at him– from his position half-kneeling in the gravel, tiny stones biting into his skin through his jeans, Lawrence seemed as tall and regal and steady as the monuments and buildings surrounding him. His gaze down at Adam was contemplative, brows creasing minutely. “Just as good as what I’ve seen in most museums.”

He did find himself flushing at that. “Oh, c’mon.”

“I mean it. You have a remarkable eye.”

Adam rose, brushing his knees off and placing his camera reverently back in its bag. “Well– if the photos I take on this trip are good enough for you to want to show your daughter, that’s more than enough praise for me.”

They fell into step together as they entered the museum, footsteps jointly echoing against the marble. It was remarkably quiet compared to the Air and Space, with only a few scattered families milling around the lobby. Adam paused to grab a map and brochure, and then spread his hands to Lawrence. “Lead the way, man.”

Lawrence led him past the tall green columns and lovely fountain of the first atrium, voice bouncing off the polished stone as he spoke quietly. “The building was designed by John Russell Pope,” he said, pausing as Adam stared up at the domed ceiling. “He never lived to see it finished, though. He died in 1937, I think, and the building was completed in 1941.”

“Poor guy.” Adam glanced at the sign on the wall next to the doorway they were about to enter, then at his map. “Renaissance art…I gotta be honest, I’m not super interested in that.”

“What do you want to see?”

He looked up at Lawrence, one corner of his mouth tilting in a hopeful smirk. “Wanna show me your favorites? Dealer’s choice?”

Lawrence blinked. “Oh. Oh, that would be…I’d like that, yeah.”

He led Adam to the Impressionists, narrating to him the differences between Manet and Monet, and Adam listened as attentively as he could– while Lawrence’s knowledge and retention truly was impressive, the gentle cadence of his voice acted as a sort of meditative murmur, lulling Adam into something like a peaceful near-trance. He soaked in his words, nodding and commenting when it was expected of him, content just to hear the man speak.

Eventually, they paused in front of a painting of a small girl wearing a blue dress and a little red bow in her clouds of blonde hair, holding a watering can in one hand and two daisies in the other. Lawrence fell silent, propping his cane in front of him and resting both hands on the top of the handle, gazing up.

Adam peered at the plaque next to the painting. “A Girl With A Watering Can, August Renoir,” he read aloud.

“Auguste,” Lawrence corrected him, absently. His eyes were still fixed to the girl’s face.

There was something strikingly familiar about her, Adam thought. By the time it occurred to him that she looked nearly identical to the photo of Diana that Lawrence had shown him that day in the sushi restaurant, however, the doctor had shaken himself from whatever reverie had overtaken him and moved on to an urban landscape by the same artist, a brisker light in his eyes that seemed a bit too bright to be truly genuine.

“Have you ever been to Paris?” he asked, and Adam snorted.

“No. Quebec, once, which is as close as I think I’m ever gonna get.”

“You really ought to.” Lawrence peered closely at the painting, eyes flicking over the skyline. “It’s the kind of place that stays with you forever.”

“Vikki and I were gonna go together,” Adam found himself saying, before he could stop himself. “We were gonna go in the spring. But, y’know, with the fight we had and everything, I…I don’t think that’s exactly in the cards anymore. Honestly– I didn’t really want to go with her in the first place. I do want to travel, just…”Just not with herwas too cruel to say aloud, so he left it unspoken, hanging in the air.

Lawrence’s mouth tipped down at the corners. Adam braced himself for questions, for the man to encourage him that it was still possible to fix things, but instead he said, very simply, “Another time, then. Perhaps with another person.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it, unable to tell if he was simply making conversation or offering something, a distant possibility that seemed too outlandish and generous to even comprehend.

“Yeah,” Adam said finally, looking away from Lawrence and toward the painting, studying the blurred figures. “I’d like that, I think.”

They meandered into a hall of sculptures, with Lawrence falling into a contemplative silence, only breaking it occasionally to point out a Degas or a Charpentier. Adam smiled at the sight of a statue showing what looked to be a monk who’d smelled something foul, nose scrunched up in lifelike wrinkles. There weren’t any people in this particular gallery, and the only sound was his and Lawrence’s footsteps and the tapping of the doctor’s cane. He looked down at his map, trying to figure out where exactly they were, when he heard a sharp inhale.

“Oh,” Lawrence breathed, coming to a dead stop and nearly making Adam bump into him. “There it is. My god, I’d forgotten how lovely it is in person.”

Adam looked up from the paper. “Hm?”

Lawrence was staring at a small bronze statue of two people, a man and a woman entwined in a rapturous kiss. It wasn’t any more than ten inches tall, burnished and shining in the bright gallery lights. While it was beautiful, to Adam it was no more spectacular than any of the other statues on display nearby, but Lawrence was seemingly entranced by it.

“It’s by Rodin,” he said. “Le Baiser, or The Kiss. It originally had a different name, Paolo and Francesca, but not enough people were familiar with the source material when it was first displayed– I don’t suppose you’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy?”

“I’m flattered that you even think it’s a possibility that I have.”

He smiled at that, not taking his eyes off the statue. “Dante finds the two of them in the second circle of Hell– the different circles are dictated by the sins that the souls consigned there committed, and the second circle is for souls who were overly lustful in their lives.”

“Right.” Adam scratched his neck. While his family hadn’t been very religious growing up, he had a vague understanding of the seven deadly sins, purgatory, divine punishment– all the usual fire and brimstone stuff that as an essentially half-closeted guy always set his teeth on edge.

“Francesca was married to a man named Giovanni,” Lawrence continued, “but she fell in love with his brother, Paolo. When Giovanni discovered them, he drove a sword through them both. Their souls were so entwined, even after death, that when they were cast into Hell even the Devil himself couldn’t separate them.”

Adam stared at the sculpture. From this angle, the lovers’ faces were hidden, so enveloped in each other that he felt nearly like a voyeur, even though he knew the statue was crafted for the intention of being observed. The bronze seemed to glow with life: he half expected the hand so delicately and hesitantly placed on Francesca’s leg to start moving, to smooth along her skin with quiet intimacy.

“This is their first kiss– and the only kiss they were able to share before they were both killed,” Lawrence said, his voice quiet in the echoing gallery. “They’d fallen for each other long before this moment, but they didn’t act on their feelings until they were reading a book of Arthurian myth together and realized…well, they realized they couldn’t stand it any longer, being so close like that and not…”

His voice trailed off. Adam was about to ask if he was alright when he began to speak again, softly reciting what Adam realized after a moment was a poem.

“Love, that in gentle heart is quickly learnt,“ he said, the soft cadence of his voice seeping into Adam like cool water, “entangled him by that fair form, from me ta’en in such cruel sort, as grieves me still: love, that denial takes from none belov’d, caught me with pleasing him so passing well, that, as thou see'st, he yet deserts me not. Love brought us to one death: Caina waits the soul who spilt our life.”

A sudden, nameless urge overtook Adam, so magnetic and overwhelming that he found himself speaking, just to do something with his lips– something other than his first impulse, something that wouldn’t send the world crashing down around his ears. “So did you just come up with that, or…?”

Lawrence burst into laughter, bright and loud, filling the empty room and shattering the quiet spell he’d cast over them both. “It’s from the Divine Comedy,” he said, a blush tinging his cheeks. “I memorized it years ago. I used to know entire stanzas– I would recite them in my head to calm myself down. The only parts I remember now are the fifth canto and the very start of it.”

“There once was a man from Nantucket,” Adam offered, deliberately pitching his voice to imitate the slam poetry he’d occasionally heard at Bluestockings, and Lawrence laughed even harder.

“Go on, finish it,” he said, giving the sculpture one last, lingering glance before grinning at Adam, his blush dissipating into a warm glow over his whole face. “Do you know the rest?”

“There once was a man from Nantucket, who kept all his cash in a bucket,” Adam recited. “His daughter named Nan ran away with a man, and as for the bucket, Nan-tuck-et.”

“I think that’s about on par with Dante,” Lawrence said, chuckling. He readjusted his hold on his cane, ready to move on into the next room, when Adam suddenly raised his hand to grip his elbow, stopping him. A shaft of light had pierced through the window nearby, lighting Lawrence from the side so that his profile practically glowed.

“Wait,” Adam blurted, and reached for his camera. “Just…hold still for me.”

Lawrence obeyed with a shallow breath, nearly a laugh. “Of all the things in the museum to photograph, Adam–”

“The art’s here all the time. We’re only here now.” Adam raised his XPan, and Lawrence held stock-still, keeping his eyes fixed on Adam’s as he depressed the shutter. “Now– now look at the statue again. Tilt your chin down, just a little…perfect. That’s perfect.”

The photo he took captured both Lawrence and The Kiss in frame, the statue in silhouette against the light from the window and Lawrence illuminated. The doctor’s profile was aristocratic in contemplation, his lids slightly lowered so that the ocean blue of his one visible eye was all the more piercing, framed by his blonde lashes. His lips were open by a hair’s breadth, as if he were about to speak– Adam could conjure his voice reciting the poem easily in his mind, even if he couldn’t quite remember the words he’d spoken. He looked like some angel dragged down to earth, putting the surrounding art to shame, and Adam lowered his camera slowly, swallowing hard.

“Thanks,” he said, his voice clumsy with the swell of emotion that had suddenly overtaken him. “Um– sorry.”

Lawrence flicked his gaze towards him, and when he saw that the camera was back at its place slung over Adam’s arm, he relaxed his stance a little, blinking at the sunlight that had been shining uncomfortably into his face. “Don’t apologize. I’m flattered.”

As they moved into another gallery, with Lawrence resuming his lecture, Adam found himself thinking, not for the first time, about how f*cking unbelievable it was that he’d found this. That he’d been in just the right place for Lawrence to meet him, that Lawrence had wanted to see him again, that he’d been trusting enough to let Adam into his life, that he’d invited him on this trip. It was surreal to think that they’d only met a little less than two weeks ago– he felt like he’d known Lawrence his entire life.

And it felt like Lawrence knew him, really knew him, more than just memorizing his coffee order and anticipating which sights he’d want to see in the city. There was a kind of understanding between them that Adam had rarely felt with anyone else in his life. It was a strange feeling, to be seen like this– and stranger still to have someone be so kind to him despite how much of himself he was letting Lawrence see.

Any measure of friendship the man gave him, any crumb of patience and affection would have been enough, but he seemed intent on granting Adam the kind of warm, boundless kindness that, prior to knowing Lawrence, he’d always assumed he hadn’t deserved.

He didn’t know how long it would last, he thought as he followed him into the next room, listening raptly as Lawrence spoke about poetry and marble, but he would savor it with all his heart while it did.

Notes:

thank you for reading, please drop a comment if you enjoyed! i'll have chapter 14 out as soon as i can! love you guys!

Chapter 14: something so simple, something so trivial

Notes:

i wrote this in a feverish haze over the course of two days...i needed this boy SPOILED ROTTEN. thank you to Robyn (@/justafrogg on twitter and fandommania here on ao3) for lending me your name, and as always thank you to my beloveds Sarah paleromantic and Ginny shirelings for giving me their eyes (and in Ginny's case, herself) for this chapter!

content warning for mentions of past hom*ophobic violence, please take care while reading! title is from Blue Dress by Depeche Mode. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

It was around four in the afternoon when Lawrence started to slow, gritting his teeth at every other step. Adam paused in the middle of lining up a shot encompassing the entirety of the Mall, lowering his camera as he saw the doctor sink heavily onto a bench out of the corner of his eye. “Are you okay?”

Lawrence nodded, his face pinched. “It’s– it’s my foot. I think I’ll have to take it easy for the rest of the tour.”

“We can stop here and go back to the hotel,” Adam offered immediately. “I think I’ve seen everything I wanted to see, anyway.”

They’d been to nearly every museum on the Mall, and Adam had gone through a whole roll of film, filling it with images of monuments, artwork, and more photos of Lawrence than he’d readily admit. His embarrassment was slightly assuaged by the fact that he knew most of them would be going into the album he’d promised Lawrence would be able to give to his daughter. And as for the rest of the photos, the ones capturing the doctor in quiet thought or with his head tilted back in laughter at some joke Adam had cracked about a statue in the sculpture garden…well, it wasn’t his fault that Lawrence happened to photograph well. Adam certainly couldn’t be blamed for wanting to preserve those moments, as selfish as it was.

Lawrence grimaced slightly. “Are you sure? I don’t want to cut your first visit short on my account.”

“No, don’t feel bad. I’m getting kind of tired, anyway.” He stowed his camera safely in its bag and offered a hand to Lawrence. “Besides, I think it’d be a good idea to rest for a bit before heading out to dinner.”

He only hesitated for a moment before taking Adam’s hand and lifting himself off the bench. Lawrence’s grip was as warm and steady as ever, and Adam couldn’t help but savor the scant moments of contact before he dropped his hand again in favor of gripping his cane. “Are you still alright with us going shopping beforehand?” Lawrence asked, leading the way towards a cluster of taxis on Constitution Avenue. “Like I said, I don’t want to imply that your own sense of style isn’t up to snuff. It’s only that the place I have in mind for dinner–”

“Would probably take offense at me wearing an Evil Dead t-shirt?” Adam grinned. “No, I totally get it. Thanks again for– well, for everything.”

“It’s my pleasure, Adam, really.” As he raised his hand in greeting to one of the cab drivers, Lawrence’s lips twitched a little. “Out of curiosity,” he said, as the driver opened the door for them, “have you ever owned a suit?”

“Um. No, I– I haven’t. I’ve rented a few, for weddings and things like that, but I don’t– I’ve never actually owned one.”

He flicked his eyes up and down Adam’s frame appraisingly, and got into the cab before Adam had the time to flush under his gaze. “We can’t get you a full bespoke suit in time for dinner, obviously,” Lawrence said, once Adam was seated next to him. “But certainly we can find you something off the rack that fits you well. I believe William Fox is still in business.”

They stopped at the hotel first to get Lawrence’s wheelchair, and Adam immediately sank onto the bed again, sighing happily at the combined relief of being off his feet and the plush comfort of the impossibly soft mattress. “I still can’t believe I get to sleep here tonight,” he said, gazing at the elegant decor of the room around him. “It just– it doesn’t seem real.”

“I do wish we could stay here for more than one night.” Lawrence was sitting in one of the armchairs by the large picture window, massaging the area around his prosthetic, his pant leg rolled up to the knee. “There’s so much more of D.C. that I’d love to show you– but if we’re to make it all the way to California and back to New York before the twelfth, I think we should try our best to limit ourselves to one city per day, if possible.”

Adam nodded, though a small pang went through him at the distant threat of their time together having a deadline. The custody hearing on January 12th was just over two weeks away, sure, but even that time frame gave him an almost queasy sinking feeling in his stomach. He didn’t think it was likely that Lawrence would discard him completely once their trip was over, but it was equally unlikely that they would ever be this close again. They led completely different lives back home– here, on the road and in lavish hotels, it was as though they were removed from the world, in their own small bubble out of time. The air between them seemed to crackle with freedom and promise, and it took everything in Adam not to clutch desperately to that feeling while it was still his.

“Tell me about the D.C. you grew up with, then,” he said, looking past Lawrence and out through the window. It took effort not to let his gaze linger on the doctor, but the slowly setting sun casting the skyline in shades of pink and gold was a nearly equally lovely sight. “If we can’t see all of it today, tell me about the places you loved the most. I think I’d prefer to see it through your eyes than my own, anyway.”

There was a smile in Lawrence’s voice as he began to speak. “Oh, it was just the usual places that seemed so unremarkable at the time but stay with you long after you leave. All the little restaurants and bookstores that probably look completely different now– not to mention the ones that don’t even exist anymore. I mean, it was the 80s. The city looked very, very different back then. It wasn’t exactly glamorous, especially since Cynthia and I were…well, we were troublemakers. We weren’t fond of our parents’ set, all the highbrow museum fundraising galas every month and sedate luncheons in the suburbs. We’d sneak out to the 9:30 Club as often as we could, sometimes still in our school clothes– we’d change in the bathrooms, and I’d help her tease up her hair before we went out on the dancefloor. I always kept an eye out for her, back then. She did the same for me.”

Adam could see when the nostalgic look on Lawrence’s face slowly faded into something slightly more pained, and he spoke up again, leaning forward on the bed. “So you were a punk?”

He chuckled, jolted from his melancholy. “God, I tried to be. I don’t think I ever really pulled it off. The clothes never fit me right, and I looked like far too much of a– well–” He cleared his throat. “I’ll just say that I didn’t have the look. The term people used back then was preppy. I was the poster child for it, all blue eyes and blonde hair, leather jacket slipping off my shoulders. I looked ridiculous.” Lawrence met his eyes briefly, lips curling mischievously, and added, “I did have my ear pierced at one time. But it’s long since closed up.”

Adam’s brain, already short-circuiting, fully blanked out at that news. He was barely aware of his own jaw moving as he joined Lawrence’s soft laughter, mental images of a young, gorgeous Lawrence in a leather jacket and earrings swimming across his vision. “I’d love to see pictures,” he said, hoping against hope that Lawrence would assume that the strain in his voice came from tiredness.

“There might be some tucked away in photo albums at the house.” He tugged the leg of his trousers back down over his prosthetic with a short sigh, and eased himself into his wheelchair. “I’m ready when you are. The tailor’s shop is only about a block away from us– let’s get your suit, come back here to change, and then head to the restaurant. It’s about a ten minute cab ride from the hotel.”

He nodded, rising from the bed and trying to ignore the small knot of nervousness squirming in his stomach. “Should I– do you want me to help with the wheelchair?”

“I’d prefer if you didn’t push me, I can handle it myself. I’ll let you know if I need help.” Lawrence’s voice was slightly clipped but still warm. Adam got the sense that it was a question he was used to responding to, his answer well-rehearsed and leaving little room for argument. “You’ll have to be a bit patient with my pace.”

“Yeah, of course.” He held the door open for him and followed him out, hands in his pockets as Lawrence easily maneuvered himself down the elegant hallways of the Hay-Adams.

The tailor that Lawrence took them to was situated in an stately building with large, arched windows overlaid with scrolling stonework, the nondescript sign above the door reading Wm. Fox & Co. in formal gold print. Mannequins in immaculate suits stood in the window displays like sentinels, and even though he knew he was here for the express purpose of leaving with another outfit, Adam felt impossibly scruffy in the flannel and t-shirt he was wearing.

As they entered the store, it took a moment for him to adjust, hunched shoulders gradually relaxing in the gentle warmth. The shop was softly lit with elegant lamps and dim ceiling fixtures, with shelves of pressed shirts, stands of silk ties, and displays of fabric samples crowding the understatedly dignified space. A person in a pin-sharp wool jacket greeted them warmly, not blinking twice at the unusual sight of a very dignified middle-aged man in a wheelchair accompanied by a shabby twentysomething.

“Welcome to William Fox and Company. My name’s Robyn. How can I help you gentlemen today?” she asked, offering a smile and a firm handshake to both men.

Lawrence returned her smile easily. “We’d like a suit for my friend Adam here. We’re having dinner at The Prime Rib tonight, and…”

“And I don’t have anything that fits the dress code there,” Adam finished, fighting the urge to fidget in embarrassment.

Robyn’s grin didn’t waver. “Absolutely. I’m assuming you don’t have time for any alterations?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Not to worry. We’ve got a wide selection of off-the-rack choices, too– I’m sure we can find something that suits you perfectly.” She gestured to the back of the store. “If you’ll follow me.”

As they made their way into the back, Lawrence stopped in his tracks, pressing his lips together in mild frustration. “I’ll have to wait for you out here,” he said. “I don’t have quite enough room.” Robyn went to move one of the tables out of his way, but Lawrence shook his head, grimacing amiably. “No, it’s alright. Even if you clear a path for me, I won’t be able to move around comfortably in the back of the store with the wheelchair, anyway. The space is a bit too small for me.”

“I’m so sorry, I’ve spoken to my superiors before about accessibility, but they’ve never tried to…”

He waved her concerns away. “It’s a whole process, I know. I’m really fine waiting by the door– Adam’s a grown man, I trust the two of you to pick out something lovely for him.”

Adam bit his lower lip, nerves rising a little, but nodded when Lawrence met his eyes. “We’ll surprise you,” he said, and the doctor grinned.

The back of the store was sectioned off with a small curtain, concealing racks of neat jackets and immaculately folded trousers, with clothing forms displaying everything from three-piece suits to tuxedos. Adam somewhat awkwardly stuck his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans as he looked around while Robyn took a measuring tape from a nearby table. “So, do you guys actually sew the suits here? Like, from scratch?”

“Yes, we do,” she said, snapping the measuring tape. “We have both bespoke suits, which we construct through draping and with frequent refittings, and made-to-measure suits, which use pre-constructed pattern pieces and only have about two or three fittings.” Her cadence was smooth and practiced, as if she were running through a script. “All of our off-the-rack suits are also made in-house, just to standard letter and number sizes rather than our clientele’s direct measurements. But I will be taking a few of your measurements to ascertain your best fit. Could I ask you to remove your flannel, please?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure.” Adam nodded, hanging it on an empty hanger at her prompting.

As Robyn took the measurements of his shoulders, she remarked lightly, “So, what’s the occasion tonight? A business dinner?”

His ears went scarlet, and he laughed awkwardly. “Oh– uh, no. We’re not– we’re not in the same line of work.”

A little smile played on Robyn's lips. “I see,” she said, measuring and then jotting down the length of his arms. “Just friends, then? Or…?”

“...friends,” Adam managed, glancing through the small gap in the curtain at where Lawrence had picked up a magazine and was leafing quietly through it. He didn’t seem to be able to hear the two of them over the soft music playing on the store’s speakers. “Yeah, just– just friends.”

“You must be very good friends if he’s taking you to The Prime Rib.” There was a gentle teasing note in her voice, and Adam swallowed. “Are you locals, or visiting? Arms up, please.”

“Visiting.” He lifted his arms to let her measure around his waist. “Lawrence lived here as a teenager, but I’ve never been before. It’s a great place, from what I’ve seen. It’s been awesome seeing it with him.” Robyn hummed, and Adam continued to speak, his nerves still a little unsettled by her knowing look. “He took me to a few of the museums, and we’re staying in this ludicrously fancy hotel– it’s really something.”

“And does he know?”

Her measuring tape was around his neck now, and he knew she could feel it tighten when he gulped. “Know– know what?”

Robyn cleared her throat. “Does he know you’re having a good time?” Adam nodded slowly, nearly positive that she’d meant something else, but before he could ask her about it, she was whisking away the measuring tape. “Now, let’s pick a color for your jacket. Do you know what he’ll be wearing?”

Adam wracked his mind. “Uh, Lawrence usually wears a lot of brown and blue.”

“Perfect. I was going to suggest a charcoal gray for you to bring out your eyes, and that’ll go nicely with either of those.” She went to a rack of suit jackets and drew out three choices, draping them smoothly over her arm and presenting them to Adam. “Which of these do you like best? I believe they’ll all fit.”

“The– the middle one looks good.”

“Excellent.” Robyn hung his choice in the small fitting room, along with a pair of slacks in the same color. “For the shirt I’d suggest a plain white.”

“That’s cool with me.” Adam pressed his palms to his jeans, not wanting to get any of the expensive fabric damp with his sweat. “Uh, and the ties…there’s a lot of them.”

“I would go with black or blue,” Robyn said, bringing a few choices over to him. After a moment of hesitation, he pointed to a deep, sedate shade of peaco*ck blue, and Robyn nodded. “Great. And do you have shoes?”

He looked down at his Doc Martens. “Um. I guess these won’t really go with it, right?”

“I’ll bring you some Oxfords. Black.” Robyn nodded toward the fitting room. “Go ahead and try everything on.”

Adam dressed quickly, fumbling with the tie before giving up entirely and letting it hang loosely around his neck. He emerged from the fitting room and slowly spun in front of the tri-fold mirror opposite him, a smile tugging on his lips without his permission. The shirt and jacket were flatteringly snug, but not uncomfortably so, and the crisp lines of the slacks emphasized his legs in a way that made Adam second-guess the loose cut of jeans he’d preferred his whole life.

“It looks f*cking great,” he said, as Robyn approached him to fix his tie. “Uh, sorry for cursing.”

She laughed. “I don’t mind. Is there anything you’d like to change or add? A pocket square, cufflinks…?”

“I think I’m good. I don’t want to keep Lawrence waiting too long.”

With the tie secured around his neck, Adam thought, he looked…handsome. Like someone important. Someone who didn’t seem quite as out of place as he’d felt in the hotel and even in a few of the museums. Someone who Lawrence wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen with– not that he’d ever been cruel enough to express anything like that before.

Robyn was beaming. “You look wonderful.” She hesitated, glancing out of the curtain, and leaned in a little closer. “And I think Lawrence will think so, too.”

He felt his ears go red. “Uh–”

“Would you like to wear it out?”

“N-no, we’re going back to the hotel room to get ready, I think.” Adam cleared his throat. “But, um. If there’s any way that you can keep the tie, uh, tied…”

She nodded. “I’ll loosen it so you can slip it over your head. When you’re ready, just tug here to tighten it back up.” She tapped on one end, and Adam gave her a grateful smile.

He changed back into his regular clothes, which felt even baggier and sloppier than they had before, and waited while Robyn boxed his suit up before they returned to the main part of the store where Lawrence was waiting patiently. “All set?” he asked, putting his magazine down.

“Yeah.” Adam was still slightly flushed, leftover euphoria buzzing under his skin at seeing himself so put-together. Lawrence paid for the ensemble without asking aloud for the price, which Adam was grateful for– he was sure that the final figure would have put an enormous damper on the joy he was feeling.

“You two have a wonderful night,” Robyn said, giving Adam a grin, and he nodded, the color on his cheeks deepening slightly.

“Seriously, Lawrence, I– thank you so much,” he said as they left, carrying the box under his arm as delicately as if it were some priceless artifact. “This is the first suit I’ve ever owned, it’s– it’s insanely generous of you.”

“I’m glad I was able to do this for you,” Lawrence replied, smiling fondly up at him. He seemed to sense just how buoyant Adam was, which didn’t surprise Adam at all– he was practically radiating joy. Lawrence seemed just as pleased, reflecting him like the moon. “Every man should own at least one good suit.”

“Is that where you got your first suit?” he asked, stepping into the street for a moment as the doctor navigated his chair around a large planter of flowers on the sidewalk. “For prom, or something?”

“Oh, not my first one, no. That was way back when I was around ten– monthly fundraising galas, remember? And I never went to my school’s prom.”

Adam tilted his head, curious. “Really? Why not?”

He chuckled softly. “I’d just been dumped, and I didn’t feel like going alone.”

“God, that sucks, I’m sorry.” The thought of Lawrence as a heartbroken teenager sent a little ache through Adam, picturing him tossing a corsage in the trash and sitting slumped over at a kitchen table, all tousled blonde hair and pouting lips, blue eyes shining with unshed tears. “You didn’t want to go with your friends?”

“The few that I had didn’t have any tolerance for my moping.” Lawrence’s tone hinted at humor, but all Adam felt was a deep, panging sympathy for him. He looked up at Adam again, curious. “What about you? Did you go to prom?”

“Uh–” He scratched the back of his neck, stomach suddenly dropping. “I got suspended, so I couldn’t go.”

“Suspended? Why?”

The memory of a sharp pain in his nose and an even sharper one in his heart jolted through him, as tangible and sickening as they had been on the day it happened. His best friend’s lips, his best friend’s fists. The words he’d spit at Adam. Lying to his parents about the reason for the fight, lying to the principal, to his friends, praying for nobody to find out. Will, lips curling in a disgusted grimace. You’re lucky I didn’t tell them, you f*cking freak. Still beautiful, even with Adam’s blood on his knuckles.

“I got in a fight,” he mumbled uneasily.

Lawrence glanced at him, concern creasing his brows. He seemed to sense how little Adam wanted to talk about it, asking instead, “Would you have wanted to go, if you hadn’t been suspended?”

“Probably not.” Adam kicked at a crushed nip bottle, lying discarded on the sidewalk. “Apparently, Scott spiked the punch bowl, so I would’ve gotten in trouble anyway.”

They were at the hotel now, and Lawrence let out a soft laugh. “I think anyone who says their best years were in high school is either lying or pathetic,” he said, and Adam’s lips twitched. “All the best people I know had an absolutely miserable time.”

He held the door to the lobby open for him, the rush of warmth from inside the building matching the one in his heart at Lawrence’s words. “That’s reassuring, at least.”

Once they were back in their room, Lawrence gestured for Adam to head into the bathroom. “You should get ready first. I’m going to call the restaurant and make sure they have a table for us.”

“Okay.” He paused, fidgeting with the box. “Uh, I might need some help with my tie.”

“Of course. I’ll be right out here when you’re ready.”

Adam showered, head spinning with fragrance from the expensive shampoo and bodywash provided by the hotel, and blow dried and combed his hair. He took extra care shaving his neck and face, not wanting to show up to the restaurant with any unsightly nicks, and finally slid into his brand new shirt and slacks, tugging his jacket on over his loosened tie. He nearly didn’t recognize himself in the bathroom mirror– the deep gray of the suit really did bring out his eyes, just like Robyn had said, and the rich greenish blue of his tie complemented it perfectly. He looked like a politician, or a movie star. Someone worth a second glance.

When he stepped out, neat black Oxfords tapping on the tile of the bathroom, Lawrence’s back was to him, facing the window as he spoke on the phone. “Perfect,” he was saying. “Thank you very much, we’ll be there in about an hour.” He hung the landline up and turned, lips quirked. “Are you–”

The smile abruptly froze on Lawrence’s face as soon as he saw him, and Adam’s stomach pitched uneasily.

“Uh,” he said, fidgeting with his sleeve. “Um, is it– do I look okay?”

Lawrence’s eyes dragged slowly over him, from the top of his head to the tips of his shoes. His lips parted, tongue darting out to wet his bottom lip. He looked as though he’d been struck over the head. “Adam,” he started, as Adam glanced nervously in the mirror next to the closet. “You…it looks–”

“That bad, huh?” he joked, smoothing his hair down before looking back at Lawrence, peering uncertainly at him through his lashes.

The doctor paused for a moment, then gave him a slow, dazzling smile, rising from his wheelchair with the help of his cane. “You look wonderful,” he said, his voice low and sincere and just a touch strained–probably from the pressure he was putting on his foot. “Your tie– may I?”

Adam swallowed. “Y-yeah.”

Lawrence’s hands went to the smooth silk, neatly tugging the tie into place. He tightened it against Adam’s throat, and Adam swallowed, unable to look away from the stormy blue of Lawrence’s eyes, still fixed on his work with all the attentiveness with which he probably performed surgery. He was standing very close now, close enough for Adam to hear his breath, to feel the heat from his body.

“There,” Lawrence said softly, stepping away. It took everything in Adam not to lean back into his space, to chase the fleeting closeness. “You look perfect, Adam. It fits you beautifully.”

He couldn’t help the blush that bloomed over his face at the compliment. “Th-thanks.” Adam didn’t quite know where to look, afraid to meet Lawrence’s eyes, so he glanced towards the clock on the nightstand. “Um. You said an hour, on the phone?”

“Yes, I should– I’ll go and get ready, too.” Lawrence took one of his bags into the bathroom with him and closed the door softly, and Adam exhaled shakily, sinking onto one of the chairs by the window, taking special care not to wrinkle his slacks.

As the water began to run in the shower, Adam picked up one of the local guidebooks lying on the table and flipped through it idly, trying his best not to let his thoughts linger on Lawrence’s hands so close to his skin. It was such a familiar rush now, the feeling he got whenever Lawrence directed his attention solely towards Adam– a strange panic gripped him every time, the instinct to look away, to run, to hide himself away from the blinding sincerity the man radiated. At the same time, he felt deep within him the same urge he got whenever he was up somewhere very high, dizzied by the sight of the ground beneath him. The urge to jump, to fall. To throw caution and common sense to the wind and hold on tight to Lawrence for all he was worth, to drink in his fond looks, to press closer into his touch, to meet his eyes and let him see in Adam’s face the impossible wanting he was sure lurked threateningly close to the surface under every look he gave Lawrence.

It would scare him off for good if Lawrence ever realized how he felt, Adam knew. It would ruin everything.

He traced a finger over a photo of the cherry blossoms blooming around the Reflecting Pool, noting absently the way his fingertips trembled over the glossy paper. It had been days since his last cigarette, he realized. The itching under his skin would only get worse, his lips feeling empty and bereft as the clinically posed photographs of monuments and buildings that he gazed over, unseeingly. He should’ve stepped out on the sly while Lawrence was talking to the receptionist at the hotel that morning and smoked half a cigarette before joining him again.

If he wasn’t already dressed in his new suit, he’d lean out the window and sneak a smoke now, while Lawrence was showering. As if he was back in his parents’ house, afraid of getting punished but almost wanting to get caught anyway. Lawrence would move towards him, pluck the cigarette from his fingers, eyes fixed on the curl of smoke leaving Adam’s lips, the storm of his eyes bluer than the sea, his own lips parted to scold him– and Adam could lean in, just a little, and–

“Christ,” he muttered, shaking his head sharply. “f*cking get it together, man.”

Adam picked up the worn paperback novel he’d brought with him, relying on the words to sink into his brain just enough to distract him from the treacherous path his thoughts were leading down.

He could not really see the river, he read, fingers scraping dully over the time-weakened edges of the pages, but he could smell it. He knew it was there, gray-green, deep and rolling, and more or less dirty.

He’d read three chapters before realizing that the shower was still going.

Adam glanced at the clock and worried his lower lip with his teeth. It was nearly six thirty; Lawrence had said on the phone that they’d be at the restaurant around seven. He didn’t want to rush the man– he knew that with his prosthetic it took him more time to get ready, but the last thing Adam wanted was to have them miss out on a dinner Lawrence was so obviously looking forward to, to the point of paying for Adam to be properly dressed. Adam set his book down and went hesitantly to the bathroom door, hand raised to knock, when the shower suddenly shut off with a smooth hiss. Cheeks reddening, he hurriedly sat back down, feeling nearly guilty for his impatience.

It was a few minutes later when Lawrence stepped out of the bathroom, and Adam’s breath caught helplessly in his throat. His hair was tousled with artful nonchalance, still in that perfect swoop above his brow, but textured and loosened with some rich-smelling product. The deep blue of his suit made his eyes shine, and the soft give of his waist was trimmed to a neat line, emphasizing how perfect his posture was even with the aid of his cane. He looked like royalty, the sort of unearthly handsome that would have sent Adam’s stomach erupting into butterflies even if he hadn’t known the man well enough to see that his cheeks were slightly pinker than usual, his smile more hesitant and soft, so much more genuine than the smile he gave to the other people he spoke to.

“Well?” Lawrence said, a laugh under his quiet voice, and Adam realized, with a rush of embarrassment, that his mouth had been hanging pathetically open.

“You were f*cking born to wear a suit,” he said honestly, and Lawrence ducked his head a little, chuckling. “Jesus Christ, man, you look– it looks great on you. I’m gonna look like a kid playing dress-up next to you.”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short.” He flicked his eyes over Adam’s body, lingering a little on his hands. “Your nails,” Lawrence said, a note of surprise in his voice. “The paint’s gone.”

He looked down at his own fingers. “Oh. Um, yeah?” He’d scraped off the little bits of black polish that remained while his nails were soft from the shower’s hot water, leaving them bare.

“You don’t want to re-paint them? We can stop by a pharmacy and get a bottle of polish, if you’d like.”

Adam’s pulse kicked up, throbbing weakly against his throat. “No, I– it’s okay. I don’t think it would really go with the suit, anyway, but– I mean, you noticed that they were painted? Before, I mean?”

“Of course I noticed,” Lawrence said simply, and something deep and private in Adam’s chest was blooming, spreading through his whole body in tendrils like the vines of a sun-starved plant, reaching for the light.

The restaurant was impossibly elegant, all dark wood and sumptuous black leather chairs circling the wide tables laden with creamy linen tablecloths. Vases of enormous white roses sat on plinths scattered throughout the expansive space, and the air was alive with muted conversation and the gentle music from a live pianist performing in the corner. The walls were laden with a mix of artwork and photographs of politicians and old Hollywood celebrities, and the whole place was softly lit by a combination of flickering candlelight from the candlesticks placed on each table and muted electric light from the refined bronze fixtures on the walls.

Every patron was dressed just as finely as Adam and Lawrence, including the tuxedoed waiters and waitresses. A smiling red-haired woman guided them to their table, introducing herself as Ginny before presenting them each with a menu whose prices made Adam’s head spin. “May I bring you some water to start?”

“And an old fashioned,” Lawrence said, returning her smile. “With Angel’s Envy, please.”

Adam swallowed, extraordinarily aware of how tightly the buttons of his suit sat over his stomach. “Could I have– I’d like a gin and tonic, please?” It was the most refined-sounding drink he could think of on the spot.

“Is Burnett’s alright?” Ginny asked.

He stared desperately up at her, about to bite the bullet and ask whether that was the gin part or the tonic part, when Lawrence spoke up. “Hendrick’s, please.” He caught Adam’s eye as Ginny left with a nod, giving him a conspiratorial sort of smile. “You’ll like it, trust me.”

Adam let a slow breath leave him. “I feel so out of place here,” he admitted, trying not to fidget with the menu. “Like– there’s three different forks at each place, man. Who even needs that many to eat one meal?”

“You’ve seen Titanic, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Lawrence’s eyes were shining. “It’s like Molly Brown told Jack– start at the outside and work your way in.”

He smiled, already feeling some of his unease abating. “This whole day has been a complete fairytale,” he heard himself say– even if it was too much, too close to the truth, Lawrence deserved to hear it from him. “I really– it doesn’t feel real, honestly. I can’t thank you enough, Lawrence. You’re absolutely spoiling me.”

A blush spread over Lawrence’s face, soft and pink in the candlelight. “I’m treating you how you ought to be treated,” he said, and Adam’s smile faltered.

“What do you mean?”

Lawrence paused, taking a careful sip of his water, as if considering his words. “I don’t mean this as judgment, and the last thing I want to do is patronize you, but…I get the sense that in your everyday life, back in New York, you don’t often have the opportunity to experience this sort of thing.”

Adam shrugged, face heating, mirroring the doctor.

“I’m poor,” he said bluntly. “It’s not something I’m ashamed of, it’s just– y’know. It’s my life.”

“But you deserve better.” Lawrence folded his hands on the table. “And if I can do that for you– if I can give you the chance to escape from that, even if it’s fleeting…well. It’s not only my privilege, but my pleasure.”

There was a whisper of unease at the back of Adam’s mind that sounded like Vikki’s voice, echoing and continuing her words back from their last fight. Talk about daddy’s money. What was that camera in exchange for? What’s all of this in exchange for?

But, he realized, what was the CD he’d given Lawrence in exchange for? Or playing the song for him in the first place? What was the photo album he’d promised Diana in exchange for, if not Lawrence’s smile? Even if those things didn’t cost the same, Adam knew, they came from the same impulse– to see the other man happy, as simple as that. Lawrence just had different resources than him.

“Besides,” Lawrence continued, glancing down to leaf through his menu, “I get the feeling that the rest of the places we’ll be staying will be a far cry from the Hay-Adams. Call this overcompensation for the rest of our trip.”

Adam laughed at that, opening his own menu. “Speaking of which, are you still okay with heading back up to Pennsylvania after this?”

“Oh, absolutely. That museum you mentioned– Fallingwater, wasn’t it? It sounds fascinating.”

Ginny brought their drinks as they planned the next few days of the trip, and waited patiently as Adam scanned the menu a final time before settling on the dish that had evidently given The Prime Rib its name. Lawrence ordered the same, and perhaps it was the alcohol that prompted it, but Adam found himself laughing at that.

“It’s nothing,” he said, when Lawrence quirked his brow questioningly at him. “It’s just– that reminds me of the sushi place we went to. I got the same thing there that you did because I was totally lost. I was afraid of embarrassing myself in front of you. And thinking back on it…I didn’t have any reason to be nervous.” He smiled over his drink. “You’ve got a weird way of making me less anxious. And I’m an anxious f*cking person, so that’s saying a lot.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Lawrence hummed softly, lips curving in a smile. “It’s the same for me, frankly.”

Adam couldn’t help a small scoff. “You, anxious? Really?”

“You would be surprised.” He took a sip of his old fashioned. “You should have met me when I was younger– I was a different man at your age.”

That gave Adam a peculiar pang in his chest. Their conversation moved on, drifting from travel to music to films, but a part of him stayed behind, lingering at the mental image of Lawrence in his twenties, confused and nervous and with the whole world ahead of him. Adam wondered if that was how Lawrence saw him, now– brimming with potential, only held back by what he couldn’t let go of, blind to the future he would arrive into.

The evening passed in a blur of excellent food and two more rounds of drinks; by the time they left the restaurant, Lawrence was pink-faced with laughter, leaning more heavily on his cane than Adam had seen before. Adam himself was loose and giggling, only the last impulses of his dignity preventing him from leaning into the other man as they made their way towards a taxi.

“And– keep in mind this is the same guy who stabbed me in the shoulder on my f*ckin’ sixth birthday party, yeah? Scott goes, he says, ‘Well, how was I supposed to know it was gonna hurt that bad?’”

Lawrence snorted, the sound loud and undignified and endearing, and Adam was grinning so widely it hurt. “And he passed out from that?” he said, holding the taxi door open for Adam to get in.

“From a tattoo! A f*cking tattoo! No goddamn pain tolerance, I’m telling you.” He gave another wheeze of laughter, wiping at his face as Lawrence slid in and shut the door behind him. “I chickened out after that. We were supposed to get matching ones, but now he’s just got a tattoo of a song lyric on his shoulder for no reason.”

“The Hay-Adams, please,” Lawrence said to the driver, and turned back to Adam. “What– what lyric did he get tattooed?”

Adam’s giggles died down a little, tripping over the nervousness that suddenly welled up in him. “Oh, just some– something stupid,” he said evasively, leaning against the window.

He felt Lawrence’s finger poke gently at his shoulder, and tried to ignore the swelling wave of fondness the immature gesture sent through his heart. “Tell me.”

Adam sighed. “I’ll be hungry till the day I die,” he mumbled, knowing his face was burning red.

The little crease was back between Lawrence’s brows, half-hidden behind his reading glasses– he’d put them on to sign the check, and Adam wasn’t about to remind him to take them off, not when they made his blue eyes shine like that. “I don’t recognize that,” he said.

“Well, it’s not by The Smiths,” Adam said, bumping their shoulders together. “Or Blur, or– or Depeche Mode.”

“Who’s it by, then?”

He cleared his throat. “Uh, me.”

Lawrence leaned back a little, taking him in. His lips were still curved in a charmingly crooked smile. “You write songs?”

“Used to. It was dumb, I was– I was bad at it. But he liked that one, for some reason.”

“I think it’s lovely,” Lawrence said, and Adam couldn’t take his eyes off the way the streetlights washed over the perfect planes of his face, the curve of his cheeks, the gentle tilt of his mouth.

Nerves coiled hot and tight in Adam’s stomach as soon as he opened the hotel door for the two of them, tossing the key onto the table next to the doorway.

“I’d forgotten about the bed,” he said stupidly, staring at the offending item. Behind him, Lawrence chuckled, moving forward to sit heavily on one of the armchairs to take his prosthetic off. “Uh– which, um, which side do you want?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter. Whichever you don’t want.” He eased himself into his wheelchair with a soft grunt and made his way into the bathroom, his gorgeous blue suit only slightly wrinkled from the evening’s shenanigans. “Get in your jammies and pick whatever side you’d like.”

Adam smiled hazily to himself as the bathroom door closed. “Jammies,” he mumbled fondly, unbuttoning his jacket. He hung his suit up with as much care as he could muster while as tipsy as he was, stumbling a little as he stepped into his sweatpants and t-shirt. They felt loose against his skin after the snug fit of the suit, and he marveled at how anyone could stand to wear a full suit to work every day. Being respectable must be exhausting.

He burrowed into the left side of the bed with a happy sigh, snuggling under the cloudlike comforter and silk-smooth sheets. The mattress cradled his aching body like a lover, and he found himself nearly drifting off after only moments, his brain a blur of the day’s memories.

When he felt the dip of the mattress as Lawrence got in, though, he suddenly felt some of his exhaustion leave him.

The other man’s body heat was tangible even from the foot or so of distance he was careful to keep between them. Lawrence’s breathing was even and steady as he adjusted the blankets around him, careful not to steal any from Adam.

“Are you awake?” the doctor asked softly.

Adam didn’t know what kept him silent, but he remained lying still, eyes shut, feigning sleep. His brain was still spinning from the alcohol– not unpleasantly, but enough that everything around him felt dreamlike and vague, as if his life was a film playing out with him in the audience.

It was still his body, though, that felt the soft brush of Lawrence’s hand against his arm. He felt the gentle squeeze against his shoulder, clumsy and warm, and the barest hint of a huff of air as Lawrence gave a quiet laugh.

“Sleep well, then,” he mumbled, and turned to roll onto his side away from him, the print of his now-absent hand burning pleasantly against Adam’s skin.

Notes:

please leave a comment if you enjoyed this chapter! we're really getting into it now, i can't wait for y'all to see the rest of their journey!

Chapter 15: these frameworks labelled home

Notes:

sorry this took me so long y'all, I was fighting DEMONS (smut fic ideas and also writers block). huge thanks as always to my dearest ginny shirelings and sarah paleromantic for proofreading and screaming about these idiots with me!

content warning for parental death (also mentions of catholicism if that's something that skeeves you out). title is again from This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open by The Weakerthans– sorry for reusing it, it's just such a quintessential "coming home (derogatory)" song to me. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Adam’s face was smushed against a wall when he woke up. A soft, warm wall that moved against his cheek, rising and falling as gently as the ocean’s waves. He let out a disgruntled sound deep from his throat, blinking his eyes open– and then froze.

He was spooned up at Lawrence’s side, pressed against his body as the older man snored, lying face-up with one arm wrapped loosely around Adam’s shoulders and the other dangling off the bed. Adam’s knees were digging into the upper thigh of his left leg, curled as he was into a near fetal position, and his cheek was creased from being smushed against Lawrence’s shoulder. He’d left a small spot of drool on his expensive silk pajama shirt.

Instantly awake and mortified, Adam took a slow breath, trying not to panic. Lawrence was still asleep, dead to the world. His arm was warm, curled around Adam’s shoulders, the soft weight of his palm a comfort even as it made his heart race. Adam couldn’t extricate himself from his gentle grip without disturbing him, even if he wanted to.

And… he really, really didn’t want to.

The light in the room was dim; it wasn’t quite dawn, and the sun had yet to peek through the curtains of their hotel room window. He still could make out the man’s features in the soft blue-gray light, though, and Adam couldn’t take his eyes off him now that there wasn’t any danger of Lawrence catching him staring. Lawrence’s face was peaceful in sleep, his brows relaxed and his lips parted as he snored quietly. There was a faint spray of freckles over the bridge of his nose, and his eyelashes were light, blond as his hair. He had a small, nearly unnoticeable scar on his chin, and Adam was reaching to brush his fingertips against it before he could think to stop himself.

The doctor’s skin was warm and soft, the very faintest hint of stubble grazing Adam’s fingers as he brushed with feather-lightness over his scar. It felt more intimate than any of the times he’d slept with Vikki or any of his exes, just this one small gesture– it felt like a sort of worship, tracing over his skin as he slept. He drew his hand away as quickly as he’d reached out, hardly daring to breathe for fear of waking him. His eyes were still closed, and Adam let out a soft sigh, his heart pounding.

He would have to move soon, he knew– he’d roll over to the other side of the bed and pretend he’d spent the whole night a foot away, pretend he hadn’t felt the barest gentleness of his touch and craved even more. He didn’t want Lawrence to wake up and see him so close, tucked against his body like a stray animal seeking warmth.

For now, though…for now, he wanted to be selfish.

Moving slowly, Adam rested his head against Lawrence’s shoulder once again, eyes open to catch a hint of his chest hair through the gaps in his pajama shirt. Lawrence’s arm was heavy and warm around him, thumb resting lightly against the scar Scott had left embedded in Adam’s shoulder when they were little.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this safe, this comfortable. Adam had always run cold, and Lawrence’s body was like a furnace, warming him from the inside out. The gentle rise and fall of his chest was a soothing constant, the press of his arm a grounding weight. He inhaled slowly, breathing in the scent of his skin, the crisp cleanness of his pajama shirt. There was a spot at Lawrence’s throat that still smelled faintly of the cologne he’d worn at dinner: something rich and woody, a hint at the sharp sweetness of cherry under a heady layer of amber and leather. His arm shifted slightly, muscles tightening minutely and relaxing again, still curved almost protectively around the thin frame of Adam’s shoulders.

Adam could imagine him comforting Diana like this after a nightmare, or him and Alison waking up entwined together every morning before their relationship had fallen apart. That thought sent an ache through him. Distantly, he wondered if Lawrence missed Alison. Surely some part of her missed him, at least– he couldn’t imagine anyone truly wanting to leave a man like Lawrence. Adam certainly wouldn’t, if it had been him in her position.

Before he could fully process what that idea meant, the frightening scope and surety of it, a golden shaft of early morning sunlight spilled through the curtain and over the bedspread, catching Lawrence’s face. His brows tightened a little, and his lips closed and pressed together with a barely-audible grunt as the arm that had been wrapped around Adam rose to unconsciously shield his still-closed eyes from the light. He was waking, slowly.

Reluctantly freed, Adam moved off his shoulder as carefully as he could, easing his head onto his own pillow and rolling onto his side facing away from Lawrence, his heart pounding so loudly that he was nearly afraid that the other man would be able to hear it. Surely he would notice the sudden absence of Adam’s weight from his body, the retreating of what little warmth he’d been able to give to Lawrence as they slept.

Adam couldn’t bear to think of the questions he’d ask, and resolved to himself that they wouldn’t talk about it. He could never mention to him that his embrace was the closest thing to heaven he thought he’d ever reach.

He must have fallen asleep again, because the next thing Adam felt was the full warmth of daylight on his face, bright enough to blind him. He rolled onto his stomach, grumbling, and heard a quietly stifled laugh. Dimly, as his mind settled into wakefulness, he noticed that the dip in the mattress was gone, and that the voice he’d grown so familiar with had come from a further distance than the bed.

“What time is it?” he asked, voice muffled by the soft down pillow.

“About eight.” Adam heard the rustle of paper. “Checkout is at eleven, so there’s no rush for you to get up if you’re still tired. I know we both had quite a bit to drink last night.”

“Nah, I’m okay.” He did have a little bit of a headache, but he’d endured far worse hangovers– three gin and tonics was a relatively mild night compared to some of the binges he’d been on in the past. Adam yawned, and finally lifted his head from his pillow, blinking in the light.

Lawrence was dressed already, wearing a grandfatherly cardigan over his button-down and a pair of jeans that looked shockingly casual on him. It was an enormous departure from the elegant suit he’d worn the previous night, and Adam’s heart fluttered as he watched him putter around the room, packing his guidebooks into the smallest of his suitcases.

“Fallingwater has tours every half hour, starting at ten and ending at four, according to Fodor’s guide,” he said, once he noticed that Adam was sitting up and awake enough to fully process what he was telling him. “It’s about a three hour drive away, so we’ll have plenty of time to take the scenic route, if you’d like. It’s a lovely area.”

“Sure.” Adam stretched and swung out of bed, shuffling over to the wide windows to take in the morning light spilling over D.C.’s elegant buildings. “There’s nothing left you want to see here?”

“Well–” He heard Lawrence’s motions pause behind him. “I don’t think it’s anything you’d want to see, but I wondered if it would be worth the effort to swing by my parents’ old house in Fort Hunt. It’s south of here, not too far out of our way. But it was just a thought. I understand if you aren’t interested.”

The shuffling of books and fabric resumed, slowly, and Adam bit back a smile at the thought of Lawrence having any measure of nervousness broaching a topic as simple as making a slight detour in their vague plans.

“I’d love to,” Adam said sincerely. “Are they– do they still live there?”

He turned, just in time to see Lawrence zip his suitcase shut with a decided set to his mouth.

“They’re in England,” he said, his voice quiet.

There was nothing outright in his expression that suggested it, but Adam felt suddenly that he’d made a mistake in mentioning his parents. He understood his discomfort completely– Adam himself had just about had a conniption the other day when Lawrence had casually mentioned the possibility of them visiting the city his father still lived in, after all– but it was an unpleasant feeling to have trespassed on a subject that made the man even slightly uneasy.

Adam fell back on his usual liferaft of humor to recover the moment, lightening his tone to make it obvious he was joking. “Well, good, because your dad would probably be pissed at me for not recognizing that one statue of the girl squinting at the ceiling.”

It worked; a bright smile bloomed over Adam’s face as he heard Lawrence chuckle. “It’s Degas’s Little Dancer. How could you not know it?”

“I had more of a Ghostbusters-and-Metallica sort of cultural education growing up than a Shakespeare-and-Tchaikovsky one.” He grabbed some clean clothes from his duffel bag and headed to the bathroom to change, casting one last glance over his shoulder to see Lawrence’s soft smile, a tender lift of his lips that Adam wasn’t sure he was entirely conscious of. “But I gotta say, you’ve done a great job of filling the gaps for me so far.”

The neighborhood Lawrence drove them to after they checked out of the Hay-Adams reminded Adam of Vikki’s parents’ neighborhood in Connecticut, all pristine lawns and oak trees surrounding elegant colonial-style houses with BMWs and Jaguars in the driveways. They’d passed three different golf courses and at least one country club on the short drive from D.C., and Adam was willing to bet anything that if he left the safety of the car in his ratty jacket and shabbily-cuffed jeans he’d get some absolutely filthy looks from the WASP-y residents that were out on their morning walks.

Lawrence pointed out a few landmarks as they drove– the park where he would walk the family dog, the houses of former friends of his and Cynthia’s, the church his family used to attend.

“I didn’t know you were Catholic,” Adam commented, peering out the window at the tall brick building topped by a shining golden cross.

“Former.” Lawrence put his blinker on and turned down a quiet road that to Adam looked nearly identical to the rest of the streets he’d navigated them through; after all these years away, he still seemed to know the route by heart. “It was my parents’ religion more than it was mine. I didn’t agree with every aspect of the faith, but there’s still some parts that I find myself missing sometimes.”

Adam glanced at him, curious. “Like what?”

“The sense of belonging to something greater than myself, mostly.” He had a small smile on his face. “Both in the literal sense, in terms of feeling as if a higher power was watching over me, but moreso having a community to belong to. The first friends I made in America were the other kids I met in church. I had to work a little harder to make friends at school– I was a bit of an outsider by nature, and my accent certainly didn’t do me any favors– but the very first Sunday after we moved into the new house, I was able to meet other boys my age who I had at least one thing in common with.” Lawrence glanced idly at one of the houses a little way down the road, then did a double-take, slowing the car.

Adam hesitated briefly before asking the question that had been nagging at him since the beginning of their conversation. “Why’d you stop?”

“We’re here.” Lawrence nodded towards a house just ahead of them on the corner to their right. “That’s the house.”

He’d meant why Lawrence stopped attending church, but the look on the doctor’s face made Adam not want to correct himself. He turned and took in the sight of his childhood home, a beautiful two-story brick house painted over in a light green that reminded him of a few of the historical buildings they’d seen in Baltimore. A little curl of smoke rose from the chimney, signaling that whoever lived there now was home, and Lawrence gave a quiet hum before parking on the street in front of it.

“Does it look the same?” Adam asked after a moment.

“The color’s new. It was plain red brick when we lived there.” Lawrence’s expression was wistful, eyes drifting from the wreath on the front door, to the large oak tree framing the left side of the house, to the barren patch of dirt near the path across the lawn. “And they took out my mother’s garden,” he noticed quietly. “She grew such lovely roses, just over there by the path. Blush Noisettes. They bloomed every summer; we’d have little bouquets of them all over the house, and the whole place would smell heavenly.”

Adam smiled a little. “We had daffodils in my yard growing up,” he remembered. “Nobody planted them there– they just grew. They were beautiful.”

He caught the change in Lawrence’s smile, from melancholy to kind. The doctor’s eyes stayed fixed on the place where the roses used to be, lost in thought.

“I brought her some, once,” he said eventually. “It was hard to find them in England. They aren’t long-stems, so they don’t sell them in the flower shops. But I was able to find a private garden willing to part with a few blooms. I wrapped them in paper and–” He paused, voice faltering. “I would’ve liked to have planted a rosebush for her, but the cemetery wouldn’t allow it. So I just left that little bouquet, instead.”

Adam’s heart clenched in his chest, a deep pang of grief going through him as Lawrence’s words sunk in.

“I’m sorry the people who live here now took the roses out,” he said after a while, hoping Lawrence would be able to sense what he was truly trying to say. I’m sorry she died. I’m sorry you had to grow up. I’m sorry you never got to plant the roses for her.

Lawrence let out a soft sigh, and started the car. “Thank you,” he said quietly, giving Adam a small smile. “But they wouldn’t know how to care for them properly, anyway.”

As soon as they were on the highway heading northwest, Lawrence’s mood seemed to shift, brightening even as the clouds overhead closed off the sky. “Any thoughts about where you’d like us to go after Pennsylvania?” he asked, and Adam tipped his head back, humming in thought. “I do want us to stop in Chicago eventually, but it’ll be a while before we get there. Maybe about four days’ worth of travel.”

“Four days?” Adam let out a whistle. “That’s a lot of sightseeing time.”

“I mean, I wouldn’t get too excited– it’ll be four days of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. And West Virginia, briefly.”

He chuckled, reaching for the bag of guidebooks. “Damn, really overwhelming me with choice, here.”

As Adam flipped through one of the books, browsing around for places for them to stop in Ohio, Lawrence slotted a CD into the player. The quick, melancholy strumming of an acoustic guitar drifted through the car, and the back of Adam’s neck immediately heated with a fervent blush. He glanced briefly at the display on the dashboard, even though he knew exactly what name he’d find there.

“It’s very pretty,” Lawrence commented, turning the volume up. “Thank you again for giving it to me. José…what was it, again?”

“José González.” He stared back down at the book, eyes scanning repeatedly over the same paragraph describing the Columbus Zoo. “Um. I only know this one album of his. I learned– I learned how to play Heartbeats on guitar last year to keep my fingers, um, sharp. Y’know. Just so I wouldn’t get too out of practice.”

“That’s the song you played for me, right? Heartbeats?”

He nodded, not entirely trusting his own voice not to betray him. Lawrence was looking at him again, but Adam didn’t dare look up, keeping his eyes fixed on the same twenty or so words.

There are animals from all over the world here, from a baby giraffe to a rare red panda bear and bulky black rhinos. I wanted so badly to impress you, for you to like me. I didn’t know why back then, but I do now. There are animals from all over the world here, from a baby giraffe to a rare red panda bear and bulky black rhinos. I wanted you to kiss me that night. There are animals from all over the world here, from a baby giraffe to a rare red panda bear and bulky black rhinos. I still want you to kiss me. There are animals from all over the world here, from a baby giraffe to a rare red panda bear and bulky black rhinos. I don’t think I’ll ever stop wanting it.

The music continued, and eventually the knot in Adam’s chest eased. It was just a CD. Just a gesture, a simple Christmas present– something a friend would do. Lawrence didn’t think anything of it, and neither should he.

“It reminds me of Nick Drake,” Lawrence said, as the first song faded into the second. “Do you know him?”

“Not personally.”

He laughed at that. “He was a songwriter from the 1970s,” Lawrence explained. “They’re very similar, musically speaking. Open tuned guitar, introspective lyrics. I think you’d enjoy the album Pink Moon, if you like this style of music.”

Adam committed the name to memory. “I’ll check it out.” It gave him a glowing warmth in his chest that Lawrence was recommending him music– it was such a commonplace gesture, but it meant the world to him to be thought of at all.

The two of them grew quiet once again, letting the music flow over them as the album continued. Adam flicked the corners of a few pages down in the guidebook, taking note of a couple of possible destinations for them in Ohio. It was funny to think about being so excited to travel to such a dull state, but he knew that anywhere Lawrence took him, they could find something to share that would stay in his mind, electric and alive with possibility.

Familiar chords washed through the car, and Adam found himself humming along absently before he could think to stop himself. Next to him, he could see the flash of Lawrence’s smile as he recognized the song Adam had played for him before.

“It really is beautiful,” he said softly. “I can see why you like it so much.”

Adam nodded, wordless. What was there to say, when the sun was breaking through the clouds above them and lighting Lawrence’s face with gold? What was there to say, when he could still feel the warmth of his arms around him hours later? What was there to say that the song wasn’t already saying?

He could say it anyway. He could just tell him now.

But Lawrence was already speaking. “We played Nick Drake at my and Alison’s wedding,” he said, his voice wistful, and something in Adam’s chest curled and tightened, an ugly tangle of bitterness that surged into his throat with a sudden choking pressure. “Time Has Told Me. It’s a song from Five Leaves Left, his first album. She was the one who chose it– I suggested something by Nick Drake, but Alison was the one who picked all the actual songs.”

“Yeah?” Adam managed, hating himself for the anger and jealousy that had washed over him with the fickle violence of a storm surge at the mention of Lawrence’s wife. It was nonsensical, he knew, and petty. She wasn’t his enemy, and Lawrence had said that she was a wonderful mother to their daughter. But he couldn’t help the bitterness he felt towards her after how she’d spoken to Lawrence that night, or how she’d taken Diana away from him.

Lawrence’s gaze flicked over to him. “It’s funny, actually. It turned out to be a very fitting song for what we became, all those years later. It isn’t really a love song, though there’s some very romantic lyrics in it. It’s more melancholy than anything.” He lapsed into a thoughtful silence, and after a while, Adam set aside his guidebook.

“Why did you decide to get divorced?” he asked, surprising himself with the bluntness of his own question. Lawrence was surprised, too, judging by the way his hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I mean– sorry, that’s probably a super rude thing to ask.”

“No, it’s fine.” He gave him a sardonic sort of smile. “I mean, it is a bit rude, but I don’t mind you asking.” Lawrence sighed, turning down the heat in the car; his cheeks were high in color, and Adam could see the faintest glint of sweat on his temples. “The mature answer I’d give is that we grew apart. That’s what we told our mutual friends, and the PTA, and Diana. But the truth is…I just realized I couldn’t love her anymore. It didn’t come out of nowhere for me, or even for her, really, when I told her. But it was still…it was difficult. Difficult to reckon with, difficult to tell her. I did and said some things I regret enormously. But we were worse together than I think we both realized. And I didn’t want to do Diana the disservice of putting her through a childhood with two parents who didn’t love each other.”

Adam nodded slowly. Lawrence’s tone was careful, and Adam could tell that he wasn’t telling him the entire truth. He didn’t blame him in the least for it– he wasn’t owed every intimacy of his marriage, every detail of his life, after all. But it still gave him a small, perverse twist of pleasure to know that Lawrence had shared with him more of the truth than he’d shared with most of the other people in his life.

He opened his mouth with every intention of telling Lawrence some platitude about how he’d been happier in the long run when his own parents divorced, but what came out instead was, “Vikki and I broke up on the 23rd.”

Lawrence went still. Adam could see the slight bob in his throat when he swallowed. “You broke up?”

“I– y-yeah. The fight I told you about…it wasn’t just a fight. It was, like the fight, y’know?” He ran a hand through his hair, nervous. “I mean, technically, it– we’re on a break, I guess. But I…I don’t think I want to get back together with her.”

“Why not?” Lawrence’s voice was run through with a current of artificial calm, swirling eddies under a placid surface. “She seemed like such a lovely girl.”

“She was– she is.” He turned his head to stare out the window, an unpleasant knot in his stomach. “She just…we’re not good together. I can tell that she doesn’t– she doesn’t respect me very much. And I’m not good for her, either. She deserves a whole lot better than me.”

“That isn’t true,” Lawrence said automatically. “Any girl would be lucky to have you as a partner.” He paused, and said, a bit quieter, “I’m so sorry she left you, Adam.”

Adam tried not to let his expression show the conflicted storm that roiled suddenly in him at that. He didn’t mind Lawrence assuming that he was only interested in women– he’d indicated nothing to the contrary outright, and he didn’t feel like mentioning the fact that he was bisexual to him. The man was a former Catholic, after all; for all Adam knew, all the warmth and affection that Lawrence had shown to him previously could vanish as suddenly as mist, replaced with icy indifference or even outright hostility. It was unlikely, he knew, and part of him had been curious about Lawrence’s own preferences, but frankly, that wasn’t his brain talking. Adam was fine with him assuming he was straight, at least at this stage in their friendship.

What troubled him most was Lawrence’s assumption that the breakup hadn’t been Adam’s fault, and his immediate assertion that he deserved a good relationship. It felt good to hear him say it, and that was the worst part– if Adam deluded himself into believing he deserved something better, he knew he’d only be disappointed in the long run. Self-loathing was a burden he’d worn for so long that it had formed around him like armor; without it, he didn’t quite know what he was.

That thought warred in his mind with the only other unshakable truth he knew: Lawrence wouldn’t lie to him. Not about something he knew held so much significance to Adam.

“It’s alright,” he said eventually, trying for a smile. “I’d rather be here than in Connecticut with her parents, anyway.”

Lawrence glanced at him, an indecipherable look in his eyes. Finally, his lips twitched in answer. “You say that now, but wait until you see Kansas.”

Adam was able to laugh at that, relief and gratitude spilling from him. He could go anywhere with him and be happy, he thought– any city, any house, in every state and every country in the world. As long as Lawrence was by his side, with that gleam in his eye and the gentle curve of his smile, Adam would find joy there.

The corner of Pennsylvania they drove through was speckled with wide brown fields and the occasional copse of evergreens, largely dull compared to the sights D.C. had to offer– but even as mundane as the view was, Adam managed to take some relatively decent photos from the car. An abandoned farmhouse coated in frost, a blurred murmuration of starlings wheeling through the newspaper-gray sky, the shining waters of Youghiogheny River Lake, Lawrence’s smile as they both tried fruitlessly to pronounce “Youghiogheny” with any modicum of accuracy.

They turned off Route 40 onto a quiet country road, with Adam providing the directions from one of the hundred of maps Lawrence had packed. The doctor squinted out of the windshield at the signs for Fallingwater, a grin lighting his face as he saw the large stone slab designating the dirt road turn-off to the house itself.

“Load up your film,” he said as Adam carefully folded the map. “You’ll need plenty to–”

The words died on his lips as the car slowly rolled to a stop. Adam looked up from the map, and his heart sank. There was a thick chain extending over the driveway ahead of them, barring their entrance to the museum.

“It’s closed,” Adam said, unnecessarily. “Is it– is it a seasonal thing?”

“It shouldn’t be…” Lawrence reached into the backseat to grab the Pennsylvania guidebook he’d been looking at that morning. The motion caused his shirt to come untucked, exposing a sliver of his soft stomach, and Adam swallowed hard, trying in vain to drag his eyes away from the dusting of light hair leading down into his dark jeans. He was only spared when Lawrence settled back into his seat with a soft grunt, leafing through the book. “Yes, it says right here– ‘Winter season: weather permitting, Fallingwater is open December weekends and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.’ Why on earth would it be–” He squinted at the page, and his face fell. “Oh. Oh, I’m an idiot. It’s closed on Mondays.” Lawrence massaged his forehead. “I’d completely lost track of what day of the week it is.”

Adam had, too– traveling with Lawrence seemed so far removed from something as mundane as the concept of weekdays. “It’s– it’s okay,” he said, trying to conceal the disappointment in his voice, mild as it was. Lawrence looked distressed enough; he didn’t want him to think he’d let Adam down personally. “I hadn’t, like, set my heart on seeing it. It just seemed cool.”

“Still, I’m very sorry.” He replaced the guidebook in the bag and sighed heavily before offering Adam an apologetic smile. “I suppose we have the whole day free, then. Is there anything you’d like to–”

A thought occurred to Adam, and he interrupted him, picking his camera up and slinging it around his arm. “They’re completely closed today, right? Not just ‘not doing tours’ closed, but closed-closed?”

“It looks that way, yes. Why–?”

“And since it’s, like, the only full week in December that they’re open, they probably won’t have any staff they’re paying to sit in an empty building, right?”

Lawrence seemed to understand what he was implying, and a decidedly mischievous smile curved his lips up. “It sounds to me like you’re up to something.”

Adam grinned. “Sounds to me like we’ve got a whole Frank Lloyd Wright building all to ourselves.”

They parked down by the main road, close enough to the nearby state park that it would look as if they were just hiking if anyone happened across the empty car, and walked back up the long driveway to the visitors’ center. It was empty and dark, every door locked tightly, and Adam craned his neck around to see if he could find the path to Fallingwater itself.

“Looks like you have to go through the gift shop in order to get to the house,” he noted, examining the metal fence ringing the grounds. “Smart of them, I guess.”

Lawrence glanced around anxiously– he’d been all for this little adventure in theory, but Adam suspected he’d never properly trespassed in his life. “Maybe if we went through the woods, from the other side of the river…”

“With your foot? No way, I’m not risking you like that.” He didn’t mean for it to come out as dismissive, and luckily Lawrence didn’t seem to take it as such. “I’ll find a way around for us. Wait here for a minute.” Without a second thought, Adam vaulted over the fence, landing heavily on the leaf-carpeted ground on the other side.

“Adam!” Lawrence hissed. His face was scarlet. “You can’t– what if someone sees you? What if they have security cameras?”

“Who’s gonna be checking the cameras on the one day they’re not open?” He gave him a cheeky grin, slinging his camera over his chest, and Lawrence’s mouth snapped shut again. “I’ll be right back, don’t worry. I’m just gonna see if there’s another way around.”

Before the doctor could protest further, he was off, tromping carefully through the woods.

The museum grounds were far enough away from the road that the only sounds around him were birdsong and the crunch of branches and leaves underfoot. Adam wasn’t used to the silence– growing up, his childhood neighborhood had been a cacophony of noise: shouting kids, loud laughter and conversation, neighbors playing thumping music from their houses and cars, the occasional siren or rare gunshot. New York had been even louder, obviously; his first apartment had been on the ground floor of a husk of a building with paper-thin walls, and even his current place wasn’t immune from the noise of traffic or NYU students.

Here, he only had the buzz of his thoughts for company.

Lawrence had been caught completely off-guard by the news that he and Vikki had split up. Was that because he’d been so assured of the strength of their relationship, just from meeting her once? Or was it not surprise that had been lurking behind his reaction, but disappointment in him as a person? After all, Adam was not just unemployed, now that his seasonal job at Macy’s was over, but he was single, with nothing to come home to except a pathetic bachelor pad and only a handful of friends, none of whom he cared for all that much besides Lawrence. Did he see Adam now as the loser Adam was always afraid he’d be perceived as? Nothing in his attitude towards him had changed, so Adam was at least assured that it wasn’t likely.

Perhaps he was simply being a sympathetic friend, unsure of how to comfort him. Adam could easily see him being bemused by the juvenile trivialities of a one-and-a-half-year-long relationship ending, especially when he was dealing with his own far more serious relationship troubles. The two weren’t comparable in the least– much like the men themselves.

His hand, which had been running idly along the wire fence, suddenly found air. There was a gap in the fence about a yard wide, with a dirt path winding through where the tracks of a golf cart were clearly visible. Adam grinned. A maintenance gate– perfect. He ducked through, following the tire tracks along a somewhat tidy path through the woods to a small shed just next to the visitors’ center.

Lawrence’s back was to his new position, and Adam couldn’t resist sneaking up behind him and clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Found a way in,” he said cheerfully, his grin widening at the startled yelp the doctor let out.

“Adam, you– Jesus, you scared the sh*t out of me.” He put a hand to his heart, breathing out slowly.

“Sorry, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Lawrence cracked a smile. “I’m an old man, though, don’t scare me like that.”

“You’re not that old,” Adam said, before he could stop himself. “Uh– I found an opening in the gate. It should be okay with your cane, too, it’s on a dirt path. They must use it for maintenance or something.”

Lawrence followed him along the path, slightly slowed by the care he was taking not to put his cane on any uneven ground. Adam didn’t mind the leisurely pace; it was peaceful here in the woods, surrounded by singing birds and Lawrence’s occasional remark about how lovely the maples around them were. He’d only been hiking once before, with one of his more volatile exes in her hometown in upstate New York during a particularly scorching summer a few years ago, and by the second mile he’d been absolutely determined to loathe hiking for the rest of his life– but if this was what hiking with someone he truly enjoyed the company of was like, he could stand to do it a lot more.

Before long, the sound of rushing water overpowered their voices, and Adam grinned.

“We must be getting close,” he said– nearly had to shout, over the sound of the river. “It’s built on a waterfall, right?”

“That would…certainly explain the name.” He sounded a little out of breath. Adam glanced back, slightly worried. Lawrence was slightly pink-faced from exertion, but he was grinning with abandon, windswept and exhilarated, and Adam’s heart twisted itself into a fond little pretzel at the way he tossed his head to get his hair out of his face. “Don’t worry, I’m alright,” he said, preempting Adam’s concern. “Just…not quite used to this much exercise.”

“I can slow down–”

“Please don’t.” He held his gaze for just a moment too long, and Adam’s breath caught in his throat at the look in his eyes. “It makes me happier than you can imagine to see you so excited, Adam.”

There wasn’t any reasonable response that Adam could give to something so honest and sweet, so he was glad when the frame of the building loomed suddenly out of the trees, tall and broad and sturdy, narrow jutting horizontal planes of concrete shot through with elegant stonework climbing vertically to reach towards the slate-gray sky above.

“Holy sh*t,” he breathed, standing to the side to let Lawrence see. “It’s beautiful.”

The building seemed to emerge from the rock like it had grown out of it organically– the stone of the foundation was the same color as the boulder that elevated it over the flowing waterfall it was perched on top of. Approaching it from the back didn’t give them quite the same iconic view as all the brochures and photos in the guidebook had advertised, but it was still utterly gorgeous. It looked nearly impossible, such an elegant thing sprouting from the wilderness, like a castle in a fairy tale.

His camera was trained on it before Adam was even conscious of lifting it. The click of the shutter echoed off the flat planes of the concrete in the peaceful silence, broken only by the rush of water. He had taken four or five photos before he noticed that Lawrence wasn’t at his side anymore.

The doctor was taking a slow walk outside the perimeter of the building, careful not to get in the way of Adam’s photos. His hair caught the softly filtered light through the thick clouds overhead, the blue of his eyes stark against the grays and browns of the building and the woods around them, and Adam couldn’t resist taking a photo of him as well, training the lens on his face as he peered up at the tall chimney.

“Could you imagine living in a place like this?” he asked, reaching out to brush his knuckles against the stonework. “Waking up every morning to the sound of the water, having such a lovely view of the woods from the balcony?”

“I bet the people who lived here had to pee constantly,” Adam joked, coaxing a bright laugh from Lawrence. “Do you want to see if we can get closer? I know it’s probably locked, but maybe we could get onto one of the patios.”

His lips tightened a little. “I don’t want to set off any alarms.”

“Yeah, that’s– that’s probably smart.” He took another photo, capturing Lawrence as he regarded the house with open wonder and contentment. “It’s enough just to see it from the outside, anyway.”

“I do wish we’d been able to get inside for a tour,” he said wistfully, and Adam shook his head.

“Don’t. This is perfect. Lawrence…thank you for bringing me here. Even if we can’t get inside, it’s f*cking magical.” Lawrence turned, and he caught his gaze, unable to keep the earnest gratitude from his eyes.

“You’ve done more for me during this trip than I think anyone’s ever done for me in my life,” Adam continued. The words were pouring out faster than he could stop them. “Not just the fancy sh*t in D.C.– although that was f*cking amazing, don’t get me wrong– but just…all of it. Putting up with my bullsh*t, listening to my music, taking me places that mean something to me, showing me things like this.” He broke eye contact again to fiddle with his camera, as Lawrence’s face softened into something indescribably tender. “I dunno, just– thank you. This trip has meant the world to me.”

Lawrence’s words were nearly lost under the flow of the water, but Adam still caught them. “You deserve the world, Adam.”

Notes:

please leave a comment if you enjoyed! it means so much to me that people are fond of this silly little story

Chapter 16: but now i'm feeling it even more

Notes:

sorry for the slight delay with this one! thank you so so much once again to my darling ginny shirelings and Sarah paleromantic for proofreading and being my constant supporters– and especially thank you to ginny for lending me her boys for their little cameo! if you haven't read your best kept secret and your biggest mistake then fix that IMMEDIATELY. no, really. go read it. right now. i'll wait.

okay are you back? GOOD!

mild content warning for violence in this chapter (thanks Scott) but nothing too gross or explicit! also, the ending for the movie Roman Holiday gets basically entirely spoiled here so be warned for that as well. title is from Dreams by The Cranberries. enjoy!

(oh. and mind the work rating.)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

After departing the museum’s grounds, they stopped for lunch at a small diner nestled cozily between farmland and woods, just north of Fallingwater in Mill Run. Lawrence brought along a few of the guidebooks for the two of them to pore over while they ate, determining their next destination.

“There’s a few places in West Virginia that actually look kind of cool,” Adam said, twirling a french fry absently in the small paper cup of ketchup he’d swiped from Lawrence. “I wouldn’t mind spending some time there.”

“Whereabouts?” Lawrence opened one of the maps, spreading it carefully between the plate holding Adam’s burger and his own matzah soup and cheese sandwich– a warm, comfortable meal for a chilly day. “I’ve never been, not properly. Pick someplace that looks interesting to you, I’m up for anything.”

“What about…” He let his gaze drift down the book’s index, looking for anything that caught his eye– and in the M section, nestled neatly between Morgantown and Murray, John, he found a name that made a grin spread slowly across his face. “Hang on. What the f*ck is a Mothman?”

Lawrence’s lips twitched. “Some sort of superhero, maybe?”

Adam flipped to the page indicated by the index, and quickly scanned over the text. “Oh. Oh, yeah, no, we’re definitely going here. ‘Point Pleasant is also the home of the Mothman, a winged, furry creature first seen in the 1960s. Be sure to visit during the third weekend of September to experience the Mothman Festival.’ I think we’ve missed that by a few months, but it looks like they’ve still got some cool stuff to check out. There’s a statue and everything.” He turned the book around for Lawrence to see the vaguely menacing silver statue. “Look at this.”

The doctor’s eyebrows raised.

“Is this sort of thing interesting to you, then?” He lifted his spoon, gesturing to the book. “The more roadside-attraction type of destination?”

There was more curiosity in his voice than judgment, but Adam still felt the tips of his own ears growing red with embarrassment. Lawrence had been more than accommodating towards Adam’s lack of culture, and while he truly did appreciate the museums and luxury hotels, there was something fundamentally appealing about a town centering their tourism angle around a Bigfoot-like creature of dubious myth. It was the exact sort of cheesy earnestness that drew Adam, even though he knew it probably wasn’t Lawrence’s scene.

“I don’t have the chance to go on many road trips,” he said, once he’d taken another bite of his burger, “so I think stuff like this just speaks to me more than it would to someone who’s able to travel for fun a lot. But– it’s really dorky, I know. We don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“I would love to see it with you.” Lawrence’s voice was resolved but gentle, and more honest than Adam knew what to do with. He always seemed to know precisely what to say to set Adam’s mind at ease– like he could hear the insecurities he fought so hard to plaster over, could understand them, and always sought to refute them. “Or anything else you want to see. This trip– it’s for us, not just for me.” He paused, and met his eyes. “I want you to get everything out of it that you possibly can, Adam. It’s…it’s important to me.”

Adam grinned, one corner of his mouth sloping higher than the other, and let himself bask in Lawrence’s answering smile for a long, lovely moment before bringing up another thought. “Do you want to try and find a hotel here in Pennsylvania, or should we see if we can make it to West Virginia before dark? I’m fine either way, but I know you’ve been doing a ton of driving today.”

Lawrence adjusted his reading glasses and peered down at the map. “Point Pleasant sounds– well, pleasant– but it looks like it’s about a three hour’s drive from us. I think I’d be more comfortable finding a place nearby. Maybe we could lay low for the rest of the afternoon; we’ve been on the move fairly consistently, with all the sightseeing. It might be nice to take a lazy day.”

“Honestly, yeah. I’d definitely be up for that.” He took another bite of his burger, gaze drifting out the window to fix idly on one of the cars in the parking lot of the diner. An old white truck with California plates– another traveler, just like them.

He wondered how many other people had done the exact same thing he and Lawrence were doing; driving west, with no definitive plan. Just two people enjoying the simplicity of each other’s company, making whatever stops they pleased, seeing as much of the country as they could. How many others had sat in this diner, in this very booth, planning their next destination over coffee and gentle laughter and soft glances? How many people like him had looked over at the person across from them and felt the things he did, knowing they could never speak them aloud?

Lawrence was looking at him again, his eyes absent with thought.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” he asked suddenly.

Adam swallowed, nervous. “Um, yeah. What’s up?”

“You have a scar on your shoulder,” he said, and Adam’s stomach twisted sharply, a familiar pit opening up inside him. “What happened?”

“When’d you see it?” he asked, instead of answering him right away. “It’s usually under my shirt. I– I don’t exactly like to show it off.”

Lawrence’s cheeks went slightly red. “Yesterday, I think. When we– perhaps when you were putting your jacket on. I don’t quite remember.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to pry, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s…it’s fine.” He tried for a nonchalant grin, but it felt a bit foreign on his face. “I told you about Scott, didn’t I?”

“Scott Tibbs, right?”

“Yeah. Uh– on my sixth birthday, my parents got me this really cool toy. It was a Transformer, y’know, one of those cars that turns into a robot?” Lawrence nodded, a smile playing on his lips, and Adam continued. “I still don’t know how they managed it, but they saved up enough to buy it for me. It was the coolest thing in the world to me back then. And, um, Scott was there, at my party– he’s a year older than me, but he was still young enough to get jealous and not really know what to do with it. And he…he really wanted that stupid toy.”

Absentmindedly, Adam raised a hand to his shoulder, pressing idly against the knot of tissue under his skin. “So, um, when I wouldn’t give it to him,” he finished, suddenly in a rush to not talk about it anymore, “he dragged me behind my parents’ garden shed, took a nail from the door, and, uh, stabbed me. Right here.” He tapped his shoulder. “It was pretty rusted up, but– but he got it in pretty deep. Past the muscle. It got infected, too, so. Um.” Adam forced a laugh, glancing down at the open book in front of him. The red eyes of the statue glared balefully up at him. “It f*cked me up pretty badly. I wasn’t able to use my arm properly for, like, months. It still hurts sometimes.”

“My god, Adam.” He looked up, and took a breath. Lawrence’s eyes were dark. There was anger in the look that he gave Adam, a sharpness flashing in the blue, but it was quickly overwhelmed with soft sympathy. “I’m so sorry,” the doctor said. “That must have…it must have been extraordinarily painful.”

“Yeah, it– it was. It sucked.” He shrugged. “But we were kids. We were friends. I couldn’t stay too mad at him.”

“This is the same Scott who stole your first girlfriend in high school?”

“Yeah.”

“The same one who told you that you weren’t smart enough for college?”

“...yeah.” He’d let a lot more slip the other night than he’d thought.

“And you’re still friends with him?”

“He moved to the city with me when I didn’t have anything,” Adam said, suddenly feeling defensive. “Without him, I– I don’t think I would’ve made it more than a month in New York.”

Lawrence pressed his lips together, clearly fighting against saying something further. “He doesn’t seem like a very good person,” he said carefully, and Adam couldn’t help but chuckle at that.

“Christ, no. He’s a total bastard. But I love him, man– he’s my best friend.”

With a soft huff of a sigh, Lawrence dabbed at his mouth with his paper napkin and left it crumpled by the side of his bowl. Adam watched as it slowly unscrunched itself, spooling out across the plate. “You don’t have to stay friends with someone who treats you that terribly,” he said, his voice quiet, and something ugly twisted in Adam’s throat.

“It’s not that simple,” he said, shaper than he’d intended. “It’s– he had it rough growing up, y’know? Even rougher than I did. We’ve always been there for each other in a way that not a lot of other people in our lives have been. I can’t abandon him just because I think I can do better than him now.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I know– I know.” Adam took a breath, calming himself down from the sudden spike of bitter anger that had surged in him at Lawrence’s judgment. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to blow up at you.”

“You didn’t.” Lawrence’s voice was as steady and mild as ever. “I’m sorry for pressing the subject.”

“It’s okay.” The easy rhythm between them was out of step now, and Adam hated himself for it. He met the doctor’s eyes again, and gave him an apologetic smile. “I did give him that stupid Transformer, in the end. I broke the one my parents gave me, but I got him the same one as a graduation gift. Vintage, still in the box. Worth a fair amount of cash.”

The pity was thankfully gone from Lawrence’s face now, in favor of the now-familiar fondness that Adam couldn’t see his own existence justifying, but was thankful for nonetheless. “I bet he loved it. Does he still have it?”

Adam waved to their waitress, suddenly more than ready to leave the diner.

“I’m not sure,” he said, picturing, crystal-clear, the empty spot in his and Scott’s shared closet at their first apartment, the baggie of weed they’d shared that same night, the question he’d been too embarrassed to ask about how Scott had gotten the money to pay for it. “Maybe.”

The road map of Pennslyvania Lawrence had brought along didn’t have any hotels marked, and the guidebook largely directed them to either seasonally open bed-and-breakfasts or five-star hotels in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, so when Lawrence stopped at a gas station to fill up the BMW’s tank, Adam took the opportunity to not only grab a few road snacks, but some more doable recommendations as well.

A small bell sounded above him as he slipped past the heavy door; it was crowded, typical for three o’clock on a post-holiday Monday. Adam quickly gathered up some Slim Jims and trail mix and took his place in line, tapping his foot.

The line crept forward achingly slowly, and he glanced nervously at his watch– he didn’t want to keep Lawrence waiting. There was just one person in front of him now, and he seemed to be taking his sweet time.

“Excuse me,” Adam tried, refusing to get on his tiptoes to look around the man in front of him, despite the fact that he was built like a refrigerator. “Can I just–“

The man turned, lips pursed disdainfully, and Adam got the sudden feeling that this was someone he definitely didn’t want to cross. He looked like he’d been in a bare-knuckle fight with a tornado and was particularly pissed about losing– he had two black eyes and a bandage on his nose, and his eyes were icy.

“What,” he said, flatly.

“Um. I just wanted, uh, directions to the…to the nearest hotel.” Adam made fleeting eye contact with the gas station cashier, who looked just as intimidated. “Or a map, if you’ve– if you’ve got one.”

To his relief, the man stood aside without argument, his lips curling with a humorless smirk.

“There’s a Comfort Inn a few miles over in Uniontown,” the cashier said, taking a map down from a stand of pamphlets and pointing to an orange dot slightly above their current location. “And there’s also a few motels you’ll pass on the way. They’re all pretty decent– cheap, too. Uh, but stay away from the Midway on University Drive. Bedbugs.”

“Thanks.” Adam dumped his meager haul of snacks on the counter, and wet his lips. “Um, the map, these, and a pack of Newports.”

He found himself slipping one of the cigarettes between his lips as he left the station, purely out of force of habit– the conversation he and Lawrence had had in the diner had left him more on edge than he’d thought, and the cool burn of the menthol in his lungs instantly helped to settle his nerves.

Lawrence’s lips pursed slightly when he saw Adam with the cigarette, but he didn’t offer any chastisem*nt other than a simple, “Not in the car, please.”

“I won’t.” He leaned against the car next to him, tilted his head back slightly, and exhaled, feeling his shoulders relax even in the biting December air. “Sorry, my fingers were starting to twitch.”

“It’s alright, I don’t mind.” Lawrence paused, eyes flicking to Adam and then away again, cheeks pink from the cold. “Well– I do mind, given my profession, but I won’t scold you.”

“Thanks, dad.” He cracked a grin, but Lawrence didn’t return it, leaning against the car and gazing up at the darkening sky. Adam took another blissful drag, then cleared his throat. “Um, the cashier said there’s a couple of motels around, if we feel like roughing it. Or we could go to Uniontown and stay at a proper hotel.”

“I wouldn’t mind a motel.” Lawrence’s eyes drifted down and fixed on a pair of figures in the parking lot– Adam recognized the bear of a man he’d run into at the gas station. He was having what looked an awful lot like a couple’s spat with another man, slightly slimmer, who had one arm in a cast and the other clutching a paper bag from the nearby Panera Bread.

“I have to admit, I’m more tired than I thought,” the doctor continued after a moment. There was an edge to his voice that made Adam glance over at him. The breeze ruffled over his hair, mussing the perfect swoop over his forehead into a delicate fan of gold, and his brows were slightly pinched. “I’m glad we’re not trying for West Virginia today– it’ll give us more time tomorrow, anyway. I’m very much in the mood for a quiet evening in.”

“Yeah, me too.” Adam took another drag, reveling in the burn that warmed his fingers as the cherry neared the filter. “Wanna watch a movie or something? We could rent a DVD.”

Lawrence’s lips quirked. “Sure. What are you in the mood for?”

“I’d suggest a horror movie, but that might not be the best idea when we’re alone in a motel in the middle of nowhere.” He blew out a thin stream of smoke, watching as it dissipated slowly, mingling with the clouds from Lawrence’s breath in the cold air. It was an oddly intimate sight, the air from their lungs visibly swirling together, and he found himself blushing slightly despite himself. “What’s your favorite movie?” he asked, to distract himself.

Lawrence hummed in thought, head tilting back. “I’m trying to think of something you’d enjoy as well. I have my own preferences, but I have a feeling our tastes skew a bit differently.”

Adam took a final drag and dropped the butt to the pavement. “Try me. I’m surprisingly flexible.”

Lawrence’s eyes idly followed the line of his leg as he ground his heel against the smoldering remnants of his cigarette, then traced back up to Adam’s face, the corner of his lips lifting impishly. “Exactly how flexible? I might want to put that to the test tonight.”

He swallowed hard. It wasn’t an intentional innuendo, he knew, but he couldn’t help the sudden rush of heat that surged, low and electrifying, through his body. “I’ll try anything once,” Adam found himself saying, and Lawrence’s smile spread slowly over his face until the corners of his eyes were charmingly wrinkled.

Testing Adam’s flexibility , in Lawrence-speak, meant that two hours and a Blockbuster visit later the pair were in a shabby motel room, staring at the opening credits of a black-and-white movie so old that the word “Introducing” preceded Audrey Hepburn’s name. Lawrence’s grin was breathtaking in the flickering light of the TV screen, a blissful, radiant thing, and Adam couldn’t bring himself to even pretend to be bored or annoyed as the film’s bombastic overture began.

The motel they’d ended up at thankfully had a room with two twin beds available, and Adam, by now accustomed to sharing a room with Lawrence, had offered to order them a pizza while the older man showered and changed into his pajamas. They were both comfortably ensconced in their respective beds before it was fully dark out, awaiting their dinner’s arrival while Roman Holiday played on the ancient, boxy television.

“It’s one of the best romances ever put to screen, in my opinion,” Lawrence said, his expression rapt as Audrey’s Princess Ann escaped from her bedroom in the Roman embassy to explore the city in freedom. “Her and Gregory Peck– my goodness, what a pair.”

“Isn’t she way younger than him?” Adam remarked absentmindedly. He regretted the words as soon as he spoke them, though he couldn’t quite articulate why.

Lawrence gave a noncommittal sort of hum. “She was around your age when the film came out. I believe she was twenty-four.”

“Huh. She looks like a teenager.” They lapsed back into silence as an American reporter played by Gregory Peck discovered the woozy princess, bemused by her recitations of poetry. “Is that a real poem, by the way?”

“Not to my knowledge, no. She does quote Shelley later on, though– Arethusa.”

“Gesundheit.”

He smiled at that, and then raised his eyebrows as a knock sounded at the door. “That’ll be the pizza, then.”

Adam rose, reaching for his wallet. “This one’s on me. Don’t even try to argue.”

Once he’d secured the pizza, Lawrence took it upon himself to serve them both, a few slices each divvied up on thin paper plates that the two men balanced delicately on their laps while curled up on their respective beds. It reminded Adam a little of the sleepovers he used to have with Scott, on the nights when Scott’s dad was in a good enough mood to let Adam stay over in their semi-finished basem*nt– the two of them muffling laughs with mouths full of cheese, arguing over the TV’s volume, trading shoves and lighthearted insults. That same easy rhythm was there with Lawrence, but obviously with a much softer edge; instead of calling him slurs and repeatedly insinuating that he’d slept with his mother, Lawrence shuddered goodnaturedly when Adam counted off the sugar content in his soda, offered him his blanket when he saw Adam shivering slightly, favorably compared his skills as a photographer to the photojournalist in the movie.

The other key difference was that back then, in the musty air of the basem*nt, it had only occurred to Adam once or twice what it would be like to be closer to Scott, to wish he could lean over and rest his head on his shoulder without being shoved away. Lawrence wouldn’t do that, he knew, would never begrudge him such innocent intimacy, but the risk was somehow so much greater with him than it had ever been with Scott, and Adam’s yearning to be close to the older man had only increased from the previous night.

Lawrence evidently had no memory of the way Adam had pathetically cuddled up to him in D.C., and Adam was glad for the lack of awkwardness because of that. But he missed the closeness of his body all the same– the warmth of his touch, the safety he’d felt in his arms. He shook his head sharply, jolting his mind out of that familiar corridor of thoughts, and forced himself to focus on the softly flickering screen in front of them.

Despite his initial misgivings, Adam found himself enjoying the movie tremendously– it was surprisingly funny for something so old, and the chemistry between the two leads was genuinely believable. Lawrence was clearly wrapped up in it even more so than Adam, occasionally mouthing the lines along with the actors.

“Let me guess,” Adam said after a while, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as Princess Ann smiled starrily at her new haircut, cropped short above her ears in becoming curls, “Audrey Hepburn was your first celebrity crush, wasn’t she?”

Lawrence gave a stifled laugh; Adam glanced over to see a tinge of red over his face. “Not– not quite,” he said, setting his paper plate aside on the nightstand. “Very close, though.”

“Katherine Hepburn, then?” Adam guessed. “Good taste.”

He paused at that. “You’re not half wrong. Have you seen Sylvia Scarlett, by any chance?”

Adam shook his head. “Those are just syllables to me, man.”

“I see.” Lawrence fell silent again, eyes glued to the screen as Gregory Peck’s Joe Bradley leaned back on the Spanish Steps with his hands in his pockets, fixing his princess with a fond look that Adam had trouble believing Ann could interpret as anything other than pure devotion.

It was funny, he thought, how simple everything seemed in the movies. Just kiss her. Just tell him. They’d get their happy ending sooner, without the silly complications. He wished he could have that kind of certainty in life, the knowledge that everything would somehow work out, the surety of a prewritten script.

“Who was yours?” Lawrence said suddenly. “Your first celebrity crush, I mean.”

Adam blinked, wracking his brain. “Oh, boy. Carrie Fisher, for sure. Princess Leia from Star Wars, y’know? I must’ve seen that first movie hundreds of times as a kid. I was obsessed.”

Lawrence hummed in agreement, reaching for another slice of pizza. “I remember seeing it at the cinema back in England,” he said, folding the slice in half with a methodical neatness that made Adam’s heart clench fondly. “It’s a wonderful film. I liked the second one better, though.”

“Me too. I remember seeing her and Luke kiss, and not knowing–” Adam caught himself just in time to let not knowing who I was more jealous of go unsaid, swallowing his words so quickly he nearly choked. “Uh, not knowing they were related at the time,” he finished lamely, and Lawrence chuckled.

Adam felt his eyes growing heavy as the movie continued on, fighting a yawn while he watched Ann and Joe zip down the streets of Rome on a rented Vespa. It was a comfortable, safe sort of exhaustion that washed over him in gentle waves, lulled by the movements onscreen and Lawrence’s occasional commentary next to him.

The doctor had been right– it was a good choice to take it easy that afternoon. All the sightseeing had taken more of a toll on Adam’s body than he’d care to admit to himself. It hadn’t been a particularly physically strenuous few days, especially compared to the odd manual labor jobs he’d taken on every now and then over the years since leaving home, but there was something pleasantly draining about absorbing so many new experiences in such a short frame of time.

Had it really only been four days since they’d left the city? New York felt lifetimes away, melting like a dream into a blur of familiar shapes and faces in his memory.

“Are you falling asleep on me?” Lawrence said after a while, soft amusem*nt in his voice.

“No,” Adam lied, stubbornly refusing to yawn. “Just…just resting my eyes a little.”

“Do you want me to pause the movie? I really want you to see the end.”

He shuffled up in his bed, dragging his eyes open fully to focus on the screen. “I’m watching.” If it was important to Lawrence, he could rally.

On the TV, Joe and Ann were together in a car, rolling up to a large, ornate palace. The mood had shifted between them from carefree joy to melancholy, and Adam wet his lips, about to shoulder the shame of asking what he’d missed– he’d dozed through a larger chunk of the movie than he’d thought– when Lawrence mercifully took the burden on without having to be asked.

“She has to leave him and go back to the embassy now,” he said. “They’re about to say goodbye.”

Adam sat up fully at that, indignant. “Wait– that’s it? She just goes back to her life as a princess? I thought she was gonna run away with him– you’re telling me they don’t end up together?”

A little smile played at Lawrence’s lips. “I’m not telling you how it ends.”

“You said this was a romantic comedy! How is this f*cking comedic?

He shushed him as Joe and Ann’s gazes met, Audrey Hepburn’s doelike eyes shining with unshed tears. They kissed tenderly, finally, and Adam found himself swallowing around a lump in his throat.

“Bullsh*t, man,” he mumbled, rubbing at his eye with the heel of his palm. “Romcoms are supposed to make you happy.”

“Hush. Be patient.” There was still a smile in Lawrence’s voice, and it helped soothe the odd squirming in Adam’s stomach from being gently reprimanded by the doctor.

Adam stayed obediently silent as the two of them watched Joe make the decision not to print the story and photographs he’d taken of his and the princess’s outing in Rome, keeping it only for his own memories. His eyelids were growing heavy again, but he fought to keep from closing them. Lawrence’s soft chuckle next to him at some of the photographs was enough to keep Adam alert, wanting to stay awake so he could keep hearing Lawrence’s voice.

At last, Joe and his photographer friend were invited to Princess Ann’s official royal press conference, and Adam felt a little of his tiredness leave him as her and Joe’s eyes met amidst the crowd.

“If I was her,” he mumbled, tightening his blanket around himself, “I’d just keep him.”

“Keep him?”

“As– whatever, as a consort or something. I don’t know how royalty works.”

Lawrence made a noncommittal noise. As Ann shook Joe’s hand, touching him once more for probably the last time in both their lives, he let out a soft sigh.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s lovely that they left it like this.”

“Bullsh*t,” Adam said again, not trying to hide the way his voice shook slightly. “They should’ve ended up together.”

“I know,” Lawrence said, not breaking his gaze away from the screen as Ann left with one final glance to the man she loved. “But isn’t it more romantic to have it be open-ended like this? To not know if they ever see each other again?”

“Absolutely not .” Adam scrubbed at his eyes with a paper napkin as he watched the scrum of reporters leave, letting Joe remain alone in the empty hall while the music swelled. “I hate endings like that. I think it’s a cop-out.”

“Well, to each their own, I suppose.” Lawrence glanced over at him and smiled. He didn’t comment on Adam’s reddened eyes, instead just asking, mildly, “What did you think? Of the whole thing, I mean, not just the ending?”

He heaved a sigh, and returned his smile. “Yeah, I can see why you love it so much. It– it really did get me, honestly.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it.” He shut the screen off, and fumbled for a moment in the dark before illuminating the room with the dim glow of his bedside lamp. “Bed, then? I want us to have plenty of energy for West Virginia tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” Adam reached for his book, content to call it an early night and read himself to sleep. “I can’t wait.”

Sometime in the night, he woke to Lawrence’s voice.

“Adam, I need to ask you something.”

His eyes opened as he felt a soft dip in the mattress. “Hm?”

A gentle hand found the skin of his cheek, warm and smelling of hotel soap. Lawrence was sitting on the side of Adam’s bed, eyes burning blue in the dark. His pajamas and hair were disheveled, as if he’d spent the whole night tossing and turning.

“Lawrence–” Adam began, confused, but Lawrence cut him off.

“Are you going to kiss me, or do I need to do something about it first?” he asked, and Adam’s entire world dropped into freefall.

“I…I-I…” He didn’t have words. He didn’t have any excuses, any denials. All he could do was take in Lawrence’s face, gazing at him with unabashed desire. “How did– why–?”

“Because I– I can’t stop thinking about it,” the doctor admitted, his voice quiet but rushed. “I look at you, and it makes me sick with longing. All I want is to touch you, to be close to you. I can’t stand it any longer. I’ve seen the way you look at me–” Adam felt himself blush, and Lawrence smiled, his Cupid’s bow lips curving tenderly. “You’re more obvious than you know. The way you look at my hands, at my lips– but I was never sure. And I can’t stand not knowing for certain.”

“I didn’t want to scare you away,” Adam found himself saying.

Lawrence’s face softened. “You never could.” His thumb stroked over his cheekbone, the gesture more tender than anything Adam had ever felt from him.

He was lying back, now, and Lawrence was above him, his gaze steady.

“Tell me to stop, to leave you alone,” Lawrence continued, “and I swear that I will. I won’t touch you, I’ll go back to my own bed. Or…tell me that you want this, too. That you want me.” His fingers moved down to gently brush against Adam’s lips, his eyes fixing on their motion before returning up to meet Adam’s gaze. “Please, Adam. Tell me the truth. You owe me that much, at least.”

He couldn’t breathe for a moment, and then the tide welled up inside him, breaking over the walls he’d built so carefully, flooding through him in wild swells.

“I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything,” Adam managed, and crushed their lips together.

He tasted like wood smoke and vanilla, sweet and deep and perfect. Lawrence’s hands were everywhere, in his hair and running along his sides, under his shirt, soothing him as if Adam were a frightened animal. His lips were smiling against Adam’s, hungry, roaming down his neck, and Adam’s head spun. Lawrence kissed him properly once again, dragging his lower lip between his teeth. His hand traced down his bare chest and then even lower, and Adam let out a desperate noise.

“Let me do this for you,” Lawrence said, his breath hot on Adam’s lips, his large, strong hands drifting between his legs, finding him eager and wanting. “Let me touch you. Let me make you feel good.”

Please,” Adam begged, and felt him smile against his mouth.

“Oh, Adam,” he sighed, shifting his weight on top of him, pressing him into the mattress, his hands everywhere, burning against his skin. “I want you to wake up.”

That didn’t make sense. Adam’s pulse fluttered. “What–”

“Adam, wake up.”

His eyes snapped open. It was morning, bright and brutal, and Lawrence was peering at him curiously from the other side of the room, fully dressed and respectable, his expression vaguely apologetic.

“What?” Adam mumbled, face flushing bright red. His mouth still tasted like he’d imagined Lawrence’s would.

“Sorry for the rude awakening,” the doctor said, adjusting the sleeve of his cardigan. “I don’t want us to miss breakfast. It ends at nine, and it’s eight thirty already.”

Shame and embarrassment flooded through him, quickly overpowering the last lingering traces of arousal. Adam thanked a God he didn’t even believe in that he’d slept on his stomach, sparing himself the humiliation of an obviously raised blanket over his crotch.

“Y-yeah,” he managed, averting his eyes as Lawrence bent down to straighten his shoelaces. “Thanks. Um. Gimme a little bit, I’m…I’m still waking up. I’ll, uh, be there in a second, you should go on ahead.”

“I’ll save a pastry for you,” Lawrence said with a small, easy smile, and slipped out the door.

Adam waited until he was sure Lawrence was gone, and then let out a hearty groan, letting his face flop into his pillow.

Oh, he was f*cked.

Of course he was physically attracted to Lawrence; that wasn’t any surprise to Adam. He’d known it from the very start, had been knocked breathless by the man’s handsome face and devastating smile. But having it bad enough for him that he’d started dreaming about him– and not only sexual dreams, but dreams about Lawrence being kind to him, being tender with him before ravishing him, complete with cheesy romance-novel-style dialogue– Jesus Christ, it was like being back in high school.

“f*cking hell,” Adam groaned into his pillow.

He allowed himself a moment or two of self-pity, cursing his hormones and body, before dragging himself out of bed and into the shower, praying a quick wank would be enough to quell his overactive libido and imagination for the rest of the day.

If he was a bit more flushed than usual as he joined Lawrence for the last ten minutes of breakfast, the older man mercifully didn’t comment on it, instead handing him a pastry and a cup of coffee.

“No milk, three sugars,” he said, and Adam’s heart kicked right back into overdrive. He offered Lawrence a grateful smile.

“Thanks. Um…what’s– what’s the plan? For today, I mean?”

“We’ll be in Point Pleasant by lunchtime if we leave before ten,” Lawrence said, stirring his own breakfast tea. “It should be a scenic drive; we’ll be cutting through the Appalachian Mountains and driving by the Ohio River for some of it. And then we’ll spend the rest of the day in Point Pleasant. Seems like there’s a few things to do there– hiking, sightseeing, a couple of shops.”

“And the Mothman.”

Lawrence inclined his head, smiling. “Can’t forget him.”

Adam took a sip of his coffee, gazing out the window at the cars in the motel’s lot– theirs was by far the most ostentatious among the trucks and station wagons, and the only one without mud on the tires. “Do you– do you think we’ll get anyone staring at us?” he asked. “I mean…we’re pretty obviously not from around here.”

“Maybe.” Lawrence took a bite of his pastry, eyeing Adam curiously. “Would it bother you, if we did?”

He swallowed. “I– I mean, I don’t really care, but– I don’t want us to get harassed or anything.”

“Why would they harass us?”

“We might look–” Adam didn’t know how to finish the sentence without digging himself even further into a hole he’d found himself deep in that morning. “Like city slickers,” he said instead.

“I’m sure they get plenty of tourists from out of town,” Lawrence said, all poise and rationality. “We wouldn’t be any different.”

“Right, but…”

His eyes met Adam’s, then, as much as Adam had tried to avoid his gaze all morning. “Adam,” he said softly, “I won’t let anything happen.”

He let out a slow breath. As always, Lawrence had a surgical precision for sensing his feelings, incisively peeling back all the layers of obfuscation that Adam kept between them like armor and reaching into the heart of what Adam felt. He felt silly for worrying, suddenly– of course Lawrence would be able to handle it if anyone misinterpreted their casual closeness, or looked twice at either Lawrence’s nice clothes or his disability. Of course they would be alright.

His eyes were calm, and a reassuring smile flicked at his lips. Adam couldn’t help but believe him, couldn’t help but trust him, and returned his smile.

“Okay,” he said, finishing his coffee. “Let’s see if we can find ourselves a Mothman.”

Notes:

thank you for reading, & please leave a comment if you enjoyed this chapter!!!

Chapter 17: take me home to the place i belong

Notes:

sorry for the slight delay! thank you to butchtomhardy, johnnyxstarlight, stanheightcoded, and bardroyisms for lending me their names, and as always to my darlings Sarah paleromantic and Ginny shirelings for proofreading and going bugf*ck insane with me about these idiots!

content warning in this one for references to real life tragedy and loss of life (the silver bridge disaster in Point Pleasant, WV). it's unfortunately unavoidable when talking about the legend of the mothman, and I've tried to handle it with as much care and sensitivity as the subject deserves. i've gotten the opportunity to travel to point pleasant and meet & speak to many people who live there, and it's a truly wonderful and special place to me. i hope i did it justice here.

chapter title is, obviously, from Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The drive to Point Pleasant was just as beautiful as Lawrence had promised. Even in the barren winter, West Virginia was all deep valleys and rolling hills, occasionally rising up into towering mountains so tall that they seemed to produce their own clouds. The curve of the Monongahela River shone like diamonds in the sun, twisting playfully closer and further by turns beside the road as the doctor guided them down Route 79. At some point, Lawrence rolled the windows down to get some air, and as cold as it was, a warmth lit deep in Adam’s heart at seeing Lawrence’s carefully combed hair being tossed and mussed by the whipping wind, at his eyes wrinkled at the corners with laughter, at the gleam of his smile.

As lovely as the view was, both inside and outside the car, Adam couldn’t help but let his mind drift ceaselessly back to the dream he’d had the previous night. He hoped the harsh nip of the wind would be enough to explain away the red tinging his cheeks as he ran his tongue nervously along the inside of his teeth, conjuring back the phantom sensation of dream-Lawrence doing the same thing.

It wasn’t the first time he’d had a sexual dream about somebody in his life– girlfriends, exes, friends; there was even one particular incident where he couldn’t look Scott in the eye for a good week or so without his face burning with a blush. But the wanting in him had been so crystalized last night. The things Lawrence had said were so specific, so tender and sweet, that it almost hurt now to realize that he would never hear those words from him aloud, let alone to feel his hands on him like that.

God, his hands. Adam felt his gaze trail treacherously over to where Lawrence gripped the steering wheel, wedding ring flashing in the sun like a warning. He could almost feel the phantom brush of his fingers trailing up his shirt to caress his chest, soothingly petting over his thighs, wandering between his legs–

“Are you alright, Adam?” Lawrence asked, and Adam jolted as if he’d been shocked with electricity, cheeks flaming up even hotter. “You look a bit flushed.”

“I’m fine.” He cleared his throat, willing his pulse to slow a bit. “I’m just, uh, a little warm. Let’s– um, let’s listen to the radio.” Something, anything, to drown out the memory of his own imagined moans.

Lawrence’s brow quirked, and he turned the radio on, filling the car with a rush of loud static. “Christ,” he muttered, turning the volume down. ”Adam, could you…?” Adam dutifully took over flicking through the channels, being greeted by more static at every station. “Are there no stations around here?”

“We are kinda in the middle of nowhere,” Adam noted, gazing back out the window at the clear sky unmarred by telephone lines as he continued to scan through the radio. “Didn’t the book mention something about a radio quiet zone?”

“Hm. I think you’re right.” Lawrence glanced over at him briefly. “I hope nobody needs to get a hold of us– our cell phones are probably as good as useless until we reach a real town.”

“Nobody’s gonna try. Not for me, at least.” It only occurred to Adam after he’d said it how pathetic that sounded, and he noticed Lawrence’s lips turn down at the corners. “I mean– everyone’s probably still busy with the holidays.”

A gentle weight settled briefly on his leg, and he looked down. Lawrence’s hand was resting just above his knee, comforting and steady, and Adam swallowed reflexively, the memories of his dream surging back.

“Nobody’s tried to reach me since Christmas, either,” Lawrence said, his voice nearly swallowed by the sharp snap of the wind through the lowered windows. “We can be lonely together, I suppose.”

He squeezed Adam’s knee once, softly, then put his hand back on the steering wheel. Adam missed his warmth the second it left him, the way he always did whenever Lawrence touched him, and allowed himself a moment to ache before returning his attention to the radio.

After a few long minutes of pulsating static, he finally found a song that sounded half-decent, still crackling and fuzzing out occasionally, but coming through strong enough to hear the lyrics and the twanging guitar.

“–not just time that I’m killin’,” a voice sang, and Adam grinned triumphantly, as if he’d personally been the one to pull it from the static. “I'm no longer one of those guys; as sure as I live, this love that I give is gonna be yours until the day that I die.

His smile faltered a little. Of course it had to be a love song.

“Are you a fan of country music?” Lawrence asked, seemingly oblivious to Adam’s slight agitation.

“Uh– not really, to be honest.”

“I’ve a soft spot for John Denver, but largely, it’s not really my style, either.” Nevertheless, Lawrence turned the radio up, letting the song’s chorus wash over the car.

I’m gonna love you forever, forever and ever, amen,” the singer warbled, and Adam stared out the window, sure he was blushing.

It was funny– when he’d been with Vikki, or with Rosh, or Johnny, or even with either of the Sarahs he’d dated, he’d never felt the pull of love songs quite as keenly. But even the cheesiest words now seemed to speak to some part of him, some long-dormant romanticism he’d stifled under cynicism and feigned casualness. It must have been the freedom of the open road that brought it out of him again, he supposed.

He couldn’t allow himself to think of the alternative.

Point Pleasant was a sweet, sedate little town, its roads speckled with potholes and its people open-faced and friendly, with only a few giving them second glances as Lawrence guided the BMW along a quiet Main Street. Adam chewed absently on his thumbnail as he peered out the window, catching glimpses of the Ohio River between gaps in the old buildings.

Finally, a glint of silver ahead of them caught his gaze, and he tapped Lawrence’s shoulder with a grin. “Hey, pull over. I think I see the statue.”

Lawrence obediently parked the car between the faded parking lines on the side of the street, and the two men stepped out, Adam hurriedly tugging his coat tighter around his shoulders as a chill wind blustered through the wide street. Point Pleasant looked like it had been flung out of time– the buildings’ edifices surrounding them seemed straight out of some wholesome 1950s movie, a quaint old town full of small shops and restaurants on the ground floors of tall brick buildings, complete with a few remaining Christmas lights and the faintest dusting of snow over the parts of the sidewalk that were shaded from the bright sun overhead.

Adam’s eyes hadn’t deceived him: nestled neatly between a whitewashed building whose storefront looked to be under construction and a painted red building with a small coffeeshop, there was a small square of browning grass interrupted by concrete sidewalks, a few benches, and a towering silver statue of a winged figure.

It was almost more robotic than bestial, with segmented limbs and tall, veiny wings that stretched over its head to cast a wide shadow across the sidewalk where the two men stood staring at it. Its eyes were enormous and red, its beaklike mouth open in a snarl, and Adam grinned in amusem*nt as he glanced at the creature’s washboard abs and carefully sculpted chest hair.

“Seems like the sculptor had a bit of a crush on this thing,” he noted, shading his eyes with his hand to get a closer look. “It’s in, uh. Very loving detail.”

“The monstrous Galatea,” Lawrence murmured, and when Adam looked at him, he was grinning, too. “Do you have your camera? I’d love a photo with it.”

He drew his camera from the bag slung around his chest and backed up, encompassing both Lawrence and the statue in a few shots, one with the doctor beaming next to the creature and one with a comically surprised expression, as if he were being attacked.

“Now you,” Lawrence insisted, and Adam ducked his head with a shy chuckle, examining his lens.

“Uh, I don’t think–”

“It was your idea to come here, wasn’t it? Here, I’ll take it.” He held out his hand for the camera, and Adam hesitated.

It wasn’t as though he didn’t trust Lawrence with the XPan– it had been a gift from him, after all, and he was sure that he’d handled a camera before. It was more that Adam didn’t trust himself in front of the camera as much as he did behind it.

“I– I don’t photograph well,” he hedged, finding an invisible speck of dust to brush from the top of the camera, an excuse to avoid Lawrence’s questioning eyes. “It would look dumb, anyway, to have a photo of just me in front of the statue. Me, you, and Diana are the only ones who’ll see these.”

“What if I wanted– wait, here’s a solution.” Lawrence raised his hand to wave to a passing family, a somewhat short man wearing glasses and a woman with a kind face, both of them holding one hand of the excited-looking toddler between them. “Excuse me, could we trouble you to take a photo of us with the statue?”

The man smiled. “I’d be happy to.” His voice was pleasantly accented, a gentle lilt that Adam recognized as being the same he’d heard at the Filipino restaurant he used to frequent in Queens. Adam handed him the camera, and took his place at Lawrence’s side next to the statue. “Alright, big smiles!”

To his slight surprise, Adam felt Lawrence’s arm wrap gently around his shoulders, light enough that he could easily shrug it off if he wanted to– as if he would ever want to. Instead, he leaned slightly into the taller man’s warmth, and the grin that spread across his face was the most genuine one he could remember giving for a camera since he was ten years old.

The man handed the camera back, brushing off Adam’s thanks. “It’s the unofficial job of everyone who lives around here, ever since the statue went up.”

“You’re from Point Pleasant, then?”

“Visiting from Huntington. Avery wanted to see him again.” He nodded towards his tiny daughter, who was staring up at the statue with unabashed wonder. “She’s in love with stuff like this– my wife says it’s just a phase, but if it is, it’s not going away anytime soon.”

Lawrence laughed softly. “When my daughter was her age, it was frogs. You’re lucky Avery can’t catch a Mothman and bring it inside to wreak chaos on your house.”

“Despite her best efforts.” The man grinned easily, and rejoined his family. “Have a great visit, you two.”

Adam took one last photo of the statue before his stomach got the better of him, hunger stabbing through him with a familiar ache. “What do you want to do for lunch?” he asked Lawrence as the doctor examined the plaque at the Mothman’s clawed feet.

“Oh, I could eat anywhere.” He lifted his head, shading his eyes from the sun, and fixed his gaze on a sign a few doors down from where they were standing. “How do you feel about…steak?”

With a doubtful squint, Adam read the sign aloud. “Harris Steak House. Huh.” He was about to suggest that they check out the biscuit place they’d passed on their way into town when his stomach gave an embarrassingly loud grumble, effectively deciding for him. “Yeah, works for me.”

The bell above the door of the restaurant rang a pleasant chime as they stepped inside, and Adam breathed out a relieved sigh at the place’s warmth. It was decorated to look like an old-fashioned diner, complete with neon signs and photos of old cars– as well as a considerable amount of decoration depicting the Mothman. An enormous mural dominated the righthand wall, showing the creature swooping low through a stand of twisted trees. The tables were covered in red-and-white checkered tablecloths; they were all empty, and Adam was glad for the tinny vintage music overhead to offset the otherwise silent restaurant.

A counter ran along the left wall, manned by a tall woman with long blonde hair gathered up into a low, loose bun. She smiled as they came in, tugging her bulky headphones down around her neck.

“Afternoon. Y’all can sit anywhere you’d like, I’ll be over in a moment.” Her voice was pleasantly low, with the distinctive twang of an accent, and something about her made Adam’s chest thrum with vague recognition.

He and Lawrence took their seats under the mural, and the woman brought over a pair of menus and two waters in sturdy red plastic cups.

“You folks from out of town?” she asked, setting down their drinks.

“What gave it away?” Lawrence said with a chuckle, and the woman grinned.

“What didn’t?” Her eyes narrowed playfully. “You’re from London, aren’t you? Westminster?”

He blinked, startled. “I– yes, but I haven’t lived there in decades. You’ve got a remarkable ear for accents.”

The waitress shrugged, leaning back against one of the nearby tables. “It’s a pretty good party trick. We get a ton of tourists, and you tend to pick up on stuff like that once you’ve talked to enough people.”

Adam sat forward, impressed. “What about me?”

She tilted her head, and grinned. “Buffalo, New York.”

“Holy sh*t,” Adam said, unable to help himself. “From three words?”

“I’m a good listener.” She set their menus down. “Any idea on drinks to start?”

“Two coffees, please. Sugars in both, and cream in mine.” Instead of opening his menu, Lawrence leaned forward, folding his fingers together. “How long have you lived in Point Pleasant, um…?”

“Joanna.” She seemed content to stay and chat; Adam figured it beat sitting silently behind an empty counter. “I’ve been back for about five years now– I’m from here originally, but I did a bit of traveling when I was younger.”

That brought a little smile to Lawrence’s lips, and Adam could guess why: Joanna looked about Adam’s age, but she spoke about being younger as if she were a much older woman. “Whereabouts?” the doctor asked.

“Oh, a bit of everywhere. I’ve lived in Massachusetts, New York, Cornwall in England– even Ukraine, for a little while.”

“Man, I’d love to have that opportunity.” Adam took a sip of his water. “Was it, like, a study abroad program, or…?”

“I moved with my family; my mom’s job took her all over the place. We’re all back here now, though. Probably for good.” Joanna hesitated. “She’s…she’s not doing too well, these days.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Lawrence gave her a softly sympathetic smile. “My mother moved back to England when she got sick, too. There’s always something very comforting about returning home.”

Home. That word stuck with Adam more than it should have.

He’d always pictured home as more of an abstract concept than a definitive place– his childhood house wasn’t home, but the darkroom at school had been. His apartment in New York wasn’t home, but Central Park on a boiling hot afternoon, with tourists and locals alike shedding their shoes to cool their feet in the fountains and munching on overpriced popsicles, was. Home wasn’t a place, it was a feeling, a sense of belonging. It had always been fleeting for him, but now–

Now home was the scenery of a different state each day speeding past a window, and music playing loud enough to drown out his heartbeat. Home was a hotel room with a wheelchair folded in the corner, old movies on the TV, a warm laugh drifting up from the bed next to him.

Home was a smile. Home was sky blue eyes and a soft voice. Home was the man across from him, listening intently to their waitress, his gaze finding Adam’s in brief, sunlike bursts.

He shook himself, forcing his attention back on the conversation Joanna and Lawrence were having.

“And then the movie came out two years ago,” she was saying. “That brought tons more people. They’re even opening up a museum right next to the statue.”

“A movie?” Adam asked, valiantly attempting to salvedge the threads of the conversation. “About– about the Mothman, right?”

“Yep.” Joanna’s nose wrinkled. “It’s…not very good. They based it on John Keel’s whole–” She waved her hand. “Y’know, his whole deal. He was this journalist who investigated the Mothman, and he’s all tied up in conspiracy theories, the Men in Black, a whole bunch of bullsh*t like that. Pardon my French. Richard Gere plays a fictional version of him, and that girl from The Truman Show’s in it, too. But it’s not accurate to the actual events at all, and they didn’t even film it here.”

“Not accurate?” Lawrence leaned forward. “So what really happened, then?”

She opened her mouth to answer, honey-brown eyes twinkling.

“Joanna!” Adam flinched a little at the muffled call from the kitchen, and Joanna winced, caught. “Are you gonna take their orders, or just stand there yappin’?”

Joanna groaned, but it was good-natured. “Will do, Carolin.” She turned to Lawrence and Adam again, grimacing. “Sorry. What can I get y’all?”

“I’ll take your recommendation, whatever it is.” Lawrence handed his menu back, unopened.

Adam did the same. “Me, too.”

Joanna’s smile was quick and bright as a flashbulb. “Two deluxe burgers, then, coming right up. And I’ll get your coffees, too.”

As she made her way towards the kitchen in the back, Lawrence caught Adam’s eye with a smile. “That’s what I love about these small towns,” he said, laying his paper napkin over his lap. “We meet the most interesting people, don’t we?”

Something about the way he said we warmed Adam right to the core.

Their coffees arrived soon, along with their burgers a few minutes later. Adam devoured his ravenously, with only the barest thought spared towards not looking like a wild animal while he ate. Lawrence seemed to be just as hungry, which lessened Adam’s embarrassment– his own burger was gone within minutes, and he was just starting in on his fries when Joanna returned to refill their waters.

She paused in the middle of pouring Adam’s, her eyes fixing on his camera bag. “Are you a photographer?”

“He is,” Lawrence said, before Adam could demur with some self-effacing comment about it being just a hobby. “And an extremely talented one, at that.”

He felt his face heat with a blush, and took a steadying sip. “It’s…I’ve had pretty good subjects recently, to be fair.”

Lawrence’s eyes twinkled, and he seemed about to say something when Joanna let out a small gasp.

“Wait– is that an XPan II?”

“It is, yeah.” Adam straightened up. Not a lot of people would recognize the specific model of camera, and he could tell from the hungry look in her eyes that Joanna was just as in awe of his equipment as he had been when Lawrence had given it to him. “Are you a photographer, too?”

“I mean…I’d like to be.” Joanna touched the back of her neck, self-conscious. “There’s only one commercial darkroom ‘round here, and it’s pretty expensive to rent time there. And I hate working with digital. Film has so much more depth and control over the image, y’know?”

Adam leaned forward, nodding. “God, absolutely. What kind of camera do you have?”

“I’ve got a Pentax K1000. It’s lasted me a super long time, I’ve had it forever.”

“No sh*t– that was my first camera, too.” They grinned at each other, and Adam couldn’t help but feel the joy flitting in his stomach at finding another kindred spirit. “I’d love to see some of your photos, do you have any with you?”

“I do, actually. Hang on–” Joanna went over to the counter and ducked behind it, rooting around in an oversized canvas tote bag with the logo of a university on it.

Lawrence surveyed Adam over his folded fingers with a fond little smile as they waited for her to return, but Adam noticed a certain peculiar set to his eyebrows, a strange tension in his face that he wasn’t quite familiar with. “You should show her some of your photos, too,” he said, just as Adam was about to ask what was wrong. “I know you don’t have any prints with you, but the ones you showed me on your phone at Jewel Bako are an excellent display of your skill.”

He grinned and glanced down bashfully, still feeling Lawrence’s eyes on him. “You think?”

“They impressed me tremendously,” he said. “And with me, you weren’t even trying to…well. The circ*mstances were different.”

Adam frowned a little at that. “What do you–”

He was interrupted by Joanna setting down a few photo prints on the table– she’d used largely black and white film, just like Adam tended to. The majority of the photos were of abandoned buildings, stark depictions of rotting roofs and empty hallways. One showed a church with a broken steeple, framed by tall oaks with branches jutting out like grasping arms; another was a classroom, dirty and scattered with tipped-over desks covered in debris, with the focus of the photo being a broken pencil in the foreground.

“You can’t throw a stone in Mason County without hitting a condemned or abandoned building,” Joanna said, “and that’s the kind of stuff I love to shoot. These are mostly from around here and in Ohio.”

“That’s so cool.” Adam picked up a photo of a rusted Ferris wheel, looming larger than life over the overgrown weeds in what seemed to be a long-abandoned amusem*nt park. “Yeah, I mostly do urban landscapes and architecture, too. I’ve been focusing more on people, though, lately.” He caught Lawrence’s eye and, out of reckless joy born from talking to another person who was just as passionate as himself about photography, shot him a quick wink without pausing to think about it.

Lawrence abruptly cleared his throat, almost a choking sound, and Joanna looked up, startled. “You alright, sir?”

“Fine, fine. Just– coffee’s a bit hot.”

“I’ll get you some more water. Carolin’ll probably be pissed that I’m taking up your time with these, anyway.” She collected her photos, a tinge of pink on her face that brought out the slight freckles on her nose. “Can I get y’all anything else, or are we ready for the check?”

“Actually,” Lawrence said, dabbing at his lips with his napkin, “could you tell us a little more about the Mothman? That’s why we came here in the first place– Adam was very intrigued by the legend.”

It was the truth, but Adam found himself a little flustered at Lawrence’s straightforwardness. “It just seemed cool,” he mumbled, and Joanna shot him another smile.

“Sure. Lemme clear your table, and I’ll see what I can remember.”

As she collected their empty plates and brought them into the kitchen, Lawrence leaned forward. “You two seem to have a lot in common,” he said, a significance to his tone that Adam was puzzled by.

“Um– yeah. I mean…it’s always fun to talk to someone who loves the same stuff I love.”

He smiled softly. “And she’s very pretty.”

Adam’s heart stuttered abruptly. Out of all the things he’d been expecting Lawrence to say, complimenting their waitress’s looks wasn’t among them. A bitter surge of jealousy tingled at the back of his throat, uncomfortably acidic.

“I guess,” he said, uneasy.

As if sensing his apprehension, Lawrence’s expression shifted a little, but before he could say anything, Joanna was back with their check and a few photo prints. These ones were faded and worn at the corners, showing a few sights around the town that Adam vaguely recognized from their drive through Point Pleasant– an expansive tangle of woods they’d driven past on their way in, the statue, a few of the murals on the brick walls of the buildings, as well as a black-and-white photo of a bridge and several newspaper clippings.

“On the night of November 15th, 1966,” Joanna began, with the cadence of someone who’d long since memorized a script, “two couples were parked at the TNT area, a decommissioned munitions plant just north of here.” She moved the picture of the woods to the front of the pile, allowing Adam and Lawrence to see the thick trees nearly swallowing several domed concrete buildings, decrepit with age. “They were doing– well, the things that couples do when they’re parked alone in the middle of the woods– when one of them spotted a mysterious shape out of the corner of her eye.”

She shuffled the papers again, showing a familiar sketch of the Mothman: black body, large wings, red eyes. “It stood seven feet tall, with enormous glowing red eyes and huge birdlike wings. No sooner had they seen it when the beast took to the sky, circling their cars, and they took off, terrified. No matter how fast they drove to get away from the creature, it flew just as fast, easily keeping pace with them. They didn’t stop driving until they’d reached the sheriff’s office here in town.”

Lawrence leaned forward, a smile playing at his lips. “This was the 60s, right? Do you think they were influenced by any…substances at the time that could’ve explained this?”

She chuckled. “That’s what the sheriff thought. But all four of them described seeing the exact same thing, even when they were interviewed separately.”

Joanna shuffled the newspaper clipping to the front, showing a headline that read, dramatically, “Couples See Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something.” It was yellowed with age, even though it was clearly a photocopied version of the actual newspaper.

“Many other people saw the Mothman in the following months,” Joanna continued, “including the owner of this very restaurant, Carolin Harris.” She paused. “Including the owner of this very restaurant, Carolin Harris,” she repeated, a little louder.

“I’m watchin’ Wheel,” the voice from the back of the restaurant called. “You can just skip my part.”

Joanna sighed, and Adam stifled a smile.

“Well, anyway, a lot of people saw it. In person, and in their dreams. People reported having nightmares about the creature, and…about other things, too.” Her voice grew serious, quiet. “They started dreaming about dark water. Icy cold, speckled with glowing headlights and bobbing Christmas presents. A sense of foreboding fell over Mason County, and many people reported feeling uneasy, as if a disaster was about to strike their peaceful town. And then, just over a year later…” Another headline rose to the top of the pile, along with a photo of a twisted wreck of metal, sinking into the dark water of the Ohio River.

‘Silver Bridge Tumbles,’” Lawrence read, the smile sliding off his face. “‘Toll: 7 Dead, 41 Missing.’ Oh, Jesus. This– this really happened?”

Joanna’s face was grim. “Yeah. On December 15th, 1967, at 4:55pm, the bridge from here in Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, Ohio, collapsed into the Ohio River. Forty-six people ended up dying. Two of the bodies were never found.” She swallowed, glancing down at the papers on the table. “Point Pleasant’s a tiny place. Everyone lost someone that day. A neighbor, a friend, a family member. There were a few empty chairs in the classrooms, and more than a few empty stools at the bars. That’s…that’s when my family left town. Too much tragedy. There were ghosts everywhere.”

“I’m so sorry.” Lawrence’s voice was soft, and Joanna cleared her throat.

“It’s the part of the story I hate telling,” she said, “but it’s part of the legend. It’s my job to tell it; otherwise, people ask around town, and some of the answers they get are more painful than mine. I’ve got the privilege of being a bit more– y’know, removed. I always knew about what happened, but I wasn’t as close to it as some of the folks around here.”

Joanna sighed, and flipped over another paper. The silver statue from just outside the restaurant stared up at them with its enormous red eyes. “Anyway. The legend of the Mothman grew from there, and we’ve kind of adopted it as the town’s mascot. Even though it’s attached to the tragedy, people find a kind of comfort in it. They say it warned people about the bridge collapsing, or at least that it tried its best to. And I think people believe what they need to believe when it comes to stuff like that.”

“Do you believe in it?” Adam asked, before he could stop himself.

Joanna’s eyes met his, slightly tinged with red. “People ask me that all the time,” she said quietly. “I guess my answer is…I believe in Point Pleasant. I believe in the people here, and I believe in their strength, their ability to heal. I believe in Carolin Harris, and Jeff Wamsley building his museum across the street, and the statue’s sculptor Bob Roach. I even believe in John Keel, on days when I’m feeling generous. I believe that everyone was kind to my family when we left, and even kinder when we came back.”

She hesitated for a moment, and her throat bobbed as she swallowed. “I– I looked a lot different when I moved back here,” Joanna said carefully, and suddenly it dawned on Adam what he’d recognized in her. It was similar to the magnetic pull that he’d had with Amanda, even before he’d known she was a lesbian and she’d known he was bi. There was a kinship between them, the bond of family, even before they’d properly known each other. Joanna’s height, the cut of her jaw, her low voice– she was family too, he realized.

Joanna was smiling again as she continued. “Everyone was…they were so lovely. I hadn’t expected that, and– and I was so happy. I know they see me for me. That’s all I could ask, and they’ve given me that and so much more. Carolin gave me a job here to support my mom, no questions asked, even though I make bad coffee and even worse conversation.” She gathered up the papers into a large manila folder, worn with age and use, its corners tattered from nervous, repeated folding. “Anyway, to answer your question– I believe in people, Adam. And I’m glad they believe in me.”

She took the folder and Lawrence’s credit card to the front counter to ring them out, and Adam was glad when Lawrence excused himself to peruse the Mothman-themed souvenirs at the front of the restaurant as they waited for her to return. Joanna’s words had struck a chord deep within him, and he was embarrassed to find that his eyes were stinging faintly with tears.

Where would he be at this point in his life if he’d gotten that kind of support from the people in his life? Would he have been able to get a real, proper job doing what he loved, a penthouse apartment back in New York instead of the sh*tty one he had now with broken heating and a vermin problem? Would he be in a healthy, stable relationship with a partner who gave him the support and love he needed? Would the ever-present pit in his stomach, in his chest, be filled? Would he be able to sleep soundly through every night, knowing that even if he failed, he would be loved? He used to not be able to imagine what that would feel like; he hadn’t been able to conceive the shape of it.

The past few days had changed that, though, Adam realized, as Lawrence returned to the table with a gigantic smile and two matching baseball caps that read “I SAW THE MOTHMAN” in clumsy machine stitching.

For the first time in his life, he felt that he could let himself hope.

They left the restaurant with their new hats and a warm smile from Joanna, with a promise to come back if either of them ever found their way back to West Virginia. On her advice, they’d decided to try and make it to Cincinnati for the night, only about two and a half hours away; it would put them closer to Chicago, and Lawrence was seemingly eager to make it there at least before New Year’s Eve.

“Joanna was lovely, wasn’t she?” he said, as they bundled back into the car.

“Yeah.” Adam shed his jacket, making at least a bit of effort to fold it haphazardly before depositing it in the backseat. “I’m glad we went to that place.”

Lawrence still had his brand new Mothman hat on, and it gave him a charmingly uncharacteristically undignified appearance as he navigated them out of Point Pleasant and onto the Silver Memorial Bridge, the choppy waters of the Ohio River frothing benevolently beneath them. Adam was about to thank him for lunch, or maybe ask him what he really thought of the whole Mothman thing, when Lawrence preempted him.

“I'm surprised you didn’t ask for her number,” he said, his voice a shade away from casual.

Adam froze in his seat. “...hm?”

The doctor glanced at him, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth, but not quite reaching his eyes. “I’m pretty sure she was flirting with you, Adam.”

“She– she was just doing her job,” he mumbled automatically, fighting a blush. “She’s a waitress. She has to be nice to everyone.”

“Yes, but the two of you have a lot in common with the photography– and she kept smiling at you.” Lawrence readjusted his grip on the steering wheel, and cleared his throat. “Sorry if I’m overstepping by saying that.”

“No, it’s…”

What could he tell him? That it was too soon after Vikki? That would be a bald-faced lie. That Joanna wasn’t his type? She was admittedly gorgeous, but she wasn’t…

He swallowed.

She wasn’t Lawrence.

“I try not to make a habit of flirting with people who’re on the clock,” he hedged. “It’s just– it’s a weird dynamic, y’know?”

Lawrence was quiet for a while, only breaking the silence to turn the radio on. Now that they were in a proper town, the country song that swam through the airwaves was clear and strong, some Toby Keith track that Adam was easily able to tune out as he gazed over the rolling hills of Ohio.

It occurred to him, just a shade too late to address it without feeling awkward, that Lawrence had essentially done the same thing when he and Adam had first met. The circ*mstances were different, obviously– Lawrence hadn’t been flirting with him, after all– but Adam felt an odd sense of guilt over making Lawrence think he’d put Adam ill at ease during their first meeting.

It was different with you, he wanted to say. I don’t believe in fate, but I think what happened between us was always going to happen. I was always going to meet you. You were always going to smile at me, and I was always going to fall. We were always going to end up here.

He left it unsaid, letting his eyes drift over the barren trees, the small towns they drove through.

They were just passing Centerville when Lawrence spoke again, just as abruptly.

“When did you know that you were in love with Vikki?”

Adam let out a short breath.

He didn’t want to tell Lawrence that he wasn’t sure that he had ever properly been in love with her. He loved her, sure– loved that she cared so much about the world, loved that she made him feel less alone– but he had never felt that sudden groundswell, the oh, there you are moment that so many movies and songs talked about. There had been a few times when he'd thought so– after he'd woken up on her couch in Park Slope wearing her Bikini Kill t-shirt and saw her haloed by light, making eggs for herself and smirking at him; the time he'd surprised her at work with flowers on her birthday and she'd started crying; when he'd skinned his knee at an anti-war rally and she'd kissed his flayed skin, not caring about the blood that stained her mouth. But none of those moments meant as much to him now as he'd thought they did at the time.

“About a month after we started dating,” he said instead, because that was when he’d said “I love you too” to her. "When did you know? With Alison, I mean?"

Lawrence hummed, turning the radio down. "This is going to sound awful, but it wasn't until Diana was born."

"Really? Not even when you got married?"

"Oh, on our wedding day, I'm sure I did. And when I proposed." He let out a short sigh, glancing briefly over at Adam before returning his attention to the road. "But it's so hard to remember the good days when you've had so many that've tested you. The first time that I can recall being completely swept away by her was when I first heard our daughter crying. I looked at her– she was like an angel in that hospital bed, all sweaty and tearstained and smelling like blood– I looked at her, and it hit me that we'd made this– this life together, this new, beautiful, perfect little creature. And I knew that she'd given that to me. As...as patriarchal as that sounds, I mean. She'd given me Diana. How could I not love her?"

Adam's eyes rested on Lawrence's hands, resting lightly on the steering wheel. "And…does any part of you still love her the same way now?"

He was quiet for a long while.

“I don’t think I could.” Lawrence said it in a soft voice, but it still made Adam startle slightly. “Even if I wanted to, I– it faded so quickly, once I realized. I did want it back, for a very long time. But when it isn’t there, it simply isn’t there.”

“Y-yeah.” He didn’t know what to say to that.

Lawrence was silent again, for so long that Adam was nearly sure he’d chosen to drop the subject.

“You know…I don’t think I’ve ever truly loved someone, apart from my daughter.” He let out a sardonic laugh, and Adam’s heart ached. “I think it would destroy me.”

He swallowed. “Me too.”

Lawrence seemed to startle a little at that, half-turning his face towards Adam. “With Vikki, then…you didn’t…?”

“I don’t know. I’m– I don’t know myself well enough, I think, to really– to really know what it feels like for me.” Adam stared out the window, his thoughts in a blur. He could only hope that the words that tumbled out of him were far enough from the truth, held close and unspoken inside him. “I hope I’ll know when it happens. Otherwise…well, I guess I’m sh*t out of luck for the rest of my life.”

“There’s more to life than romantic love, you know.”

“Yeah, but…I dunno.” They were veering towards something dangerous, a precipice Adam knew he couldn’t pull himself back from once he started to fall, so he changed the subject. “Do you– do you think it was ever real? The Mothman? Or do you think they were– I don’t know, hallucinating or something?”

Lawrence was silent again.

“I think we can make ourselves believe in almost anything,” he said, his voice so quiet it was nearly lost to the hum of the motor. “When we want it enough.”

Notes:

please consider dropping me a comment if you liked this chapter! and, if you liked meeting Joanna, keep your eyes peeled for my novel Looking For Impossible, coming sometime in the next five to ten years probably!

Chapter 18: choice is yours, don't be late

Notes:

this was originally going to be one big chapter, but it got way too long so you're getting two! chapter 19 will be up either tomorrow or the next day.

thank you to markhoffmnpenis, rotatedmolars, and strongerpotions on twitter for lending me your faces, and as always thank you to the wonderful ginny and sarah for proofreading and wailing with me!

content warning for mentions of gun violence and a brief description of a home invasion, please take care while reading! chapter title is from Come As You Are by Nirvana. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Cincinnati by night was all shining lights and the low silhouettes of buildings against the darkened cloudy sky, the bridges guarding it glowing like strings of pearls as they approached. Adam could imagine it from above: a spark of life in the gently rolling hills, with the bridges over the Ohio River keeping the city tethered to Kentucky like the ropes of a great balloon in a Thanksgiving parade.

He would never get tired of this, Adam thought– seeing a new city unfurling before him, buzzing with potential, its history, attractions, and people waiting for him to discover them as if he were an expected guest. His camera captured the smears of light as they passed over the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge, and he couldn’t bring himself to care that the photo probably wouldn’t be up to his own artistic standards. It captured how he was feeling, the blurred pinpricks glowing like stars and echoing the sparks of excitement flooding his bloodstream. His hands squeezed the camera slightly, feeling the cool plastic dig into his palms.

Adam had long since mastered the art of masking the leaping joy and pitching sadness inside him with the neutral, slightly bored-looking expressions the people around him were accustomed to seeing. He’d expressed himself too readily as a child, and had quickly learned to disguise it, to hold his hands still and not laugh too loud, to cry quietly and not bite his lip until it bled. Sometimes his feelings burst through, but he was always quick to push them back down.

Lawrence seemed to know, though– he kept shooting Adam glances, and each twitch of Adam’s expression, every traitorous flick of his lips, each quick, eager darting glance, made the doctor smile.

They picked the first ADA-compliant hotel Lawrence’s eyes fell on in their guidebook, some chain hotel in the downtown area with fussy carpeting and a persistent smell of bleach in the large bathroom. Adam didn’t particularly care, more fixated on the list of restaurants that he immediately snatched up from the nightstand of his twin bed.

“What do you think of fish and chips for dinner?” he asked, eyes catching on a Scottish pub.

Lawrence hummed agreeably, flicking his hair off his forehead with the back of his palm. “That sounds wonderfully appealing. Maybe a pint, as well.”

“You gonna catch me up on your culture?” Adam teased, already moving to unfold his wheelchair– he’d noticed the slight stiffness in Lawrence’s movements as they’d left the car, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before he would want to give his leg a rest. “Maybe play the lads at footie in the morning?”

The look Lawrence shot him held a pleasant mix of exasperation and amusem*nt, and Adam basked in it as the doctor eased into the offered wheelchair. “Only if you give me a taste of Buffalo culture, too.”

“I would, but you don’t seem the type to enjoy getting baked and picking fights with geese in Riverside Park.” Lawrence chuckled at that, and Adam’s smile widened. “I can teach you some moves, though. The key is to avoid their beaks.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” He wheeled himself through the door, and Adam followed, slipping his key card into his back pocket.

The restaurant was crowded enough that Lawrence had a little difficulty maneuvering to their table, nearly running over the toes of a man sitting alone at the table adjacent to them. The small space echoed with laughter and tinny Celtic-sounding music, and Adam felt himself relaxing even further in the warm atmosphere.

He stuck to his initial order of fish and chips, while Lawrence went for a trout dish that arrived steaming hot. The idle conversation between them was eased not only by the pints of beer that Lawrence ordered for them, but also by the familiarity between them that Adam was still in awe of. Lawrence was an exceptionally easy person to talk to, and the silences that occasionally fell over the table were comfortable rather than icy; it was still such a new thing, being this sure of himself around someone so obviously smarter and more worldly.

“I don’t think we stood out in West Virginia as much as you’d anticipated,” Lawrence said after they’d ordered their second round of beers. “I felt very welcomed.”

“Yeah, me too.” Adam twirled a french fry between his fingers. “I dunno why I was worried– I always just get this feeling that I either blend too much into the background, or that I’ll stand out like a sore thumb everywhere I go. I dunno. I don’t like feeling judged.”

Lawrence surveyed him curiously. “What are you afraid people will think of you?”

Adam took a sip of his beer as he considered that.

“I dunno,” he said again, with an aborted huff of a self-conscious sigh. “It’s hard to put it into words. I feel sometimes like I missed a day in school at some point, a day I played hooky or got sick, where the teacher stood in front of the room and said ‘okay, here’s how to be a person. Here’s what to say, here’s what to do, here’s how you date people and make friends and find out what your life’s about.’ Because it seems like everyone else learned at some point, and I’ve just been playing catch-up my whole life. I guess I’m afraid people will be able to tell that I think of myself that way.”

They both fell silent, and Adam took note of the twitch in Lawrence’s eyebrows as he glanced over the crowd behind him. He seemed to be searching for the right words to say, and Adam was more than content to wait for him.

“I think a lot of people feel that way,” Lawrence said eventually. “There’s no one correct way to be a person.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Lawrence’s blue eyes were tinged with gray in the warm light of the restaurant as he held Adam’s gaze. “What do you think people see when they look at you, Adam?”

He didn’t want to answer that– the truth would ruin the meal, the evening. The last thing Adam wanted was to cast a pall over Lawrence’s open, relaxed face, to force him into playing therapist for a few hours. It wasn’t fair to him.

“The dictionary definition of just some guy ,” he said instead, grinning. It wasn’t a total lie, at least; Adam didn’t think he’d ever be able to lie to Lawrence. “They’d probably assume I’m on my way to crash a house party with an acoustic guitar. I have that look, I think.”

Lawrence settled back in his chair, lips twitching amusedly. “And what about me? What look do I have?”

The phrase devastatingly handsome sprang immediately to mind, as did the kindest man I’ve ever met. Charming. Caring. A bit nerdy. Wonderful. Not perfect, but damn near close. Someone I want to spend time with. Someone I can’t get enough of. Someone that I–

“Honestly, I thought you were a lawyer when I first saw you,” Adam said, interrupting the treacherous flow of his own thoughts. “The suit, the coat, all that. You looked rich, but not enough of an asshole to be haughty about it.”

Lawrence’s eyes gleamed. “And what about– her?” He nodded to a woman at the table near them with clouds of blonde hair and an infectious smile, laughing at something the person across from her was saying.

“What do you mean?”

“What’s her life’s story, do you think?”

Adam grinned, understanding the game Lawrence wanted to play. “She seems like the kind of dude who I’d bum a smoke from after a show. The type who always cheers the first and loudest for whatever band’s on first, even if nobody else likes their music.”

Lawrence glanced over to a young man nearby. “What about him?”

“Hm.” Adam took in his mop of curly hair, his round glasses, the band tee that stood out as a bit too punk for the somewhat refined setting. “I’d say– he’s an undercover agent, on the run from the authorities. Deep cover. And the guy sitting next to him,” he continued, noting the man about the same age, who reminded him a bit of Lawrence when it came to his placid expression and softly swooping hair, “that’s the next poet laureate of the United States. We’re in good company.”

“And him?” Lawrence tilted his chin towards the man whose foot he’d nearly run over, a slightly nervous-looking guy with a wide forehead and eyes that seemed a size too small for the rest of his face. The man glanced over briefly, as if he’d heard him, and then looked back down at the notebook on his table.

“Wannabe novelist. See how he’s looking around and then writing stuff down? He’s taking notes. This place is gonna be the setting for a mystery novel one day.”

“A mystery novel?” Lawrence grinned. “Any good?”

“Nah. He should’ve stuck to his office job.”

Lawrence laughed, deep and warm, and Adam felt the familiar fluttering ache ripple through him. “See–” the doctor began, setting his fork down on his empty plate. “If you can make up that rich of a story from just looking at someone, I very much doubt anyone would see you as anything less than a person they’d like to get to know more.” He peered fondly at Adam. “That was my first impression of you, you know.”

He went still at that, his smile freezing on his face. “Yeah?”

“I saw you from across the store,” Lawrence said, and Adam’s heart pounded in his ears, a skipping, off-tempo thunder, “and I knew that I wanted to know you. I don’t think you were ever a stranger to me. You were always someone I was going to find.”

Adam couldn’t say anything to respond to that. There weren’t any words he could find that wouldn’t lay him completely bare.

“I wanted to know you, too,” he said softly, and Lawrence smiled, and the unsaid knowing in his eyes was enough.

—-

They left the restaurant a little tipsy, with Adam laughing so hard at something Lawrence had said on the way out that he nearly stumbled into a white truck parked next to Lawrence’s BMW. He could see both their breath, billowing clouds lit yellow by the streetlights, and the sight was so entrancing that he nearly missed Lawrence calling his name.

“Huh?” he said, catching himself.

Lawrence grinned from the driver’s seat, already situated and reaching to turn on the heating. His empty wheelchair stood by the open car door. “The chair, could you put it in the trunk for me?”

“Yeah, totally.” He’d gotten good at maneuvering it, and by the time the wheelchair was folded and stowed safely in the boot of the car, Lawrence had started the engine. Adam joined him in the car with a short, satisfied huff, buckling his seatbelt automatically.

“So,” he said, as Lawrence drove them back to the hotel, “Cincinnati tonight, obviously, and then–”

“Chicago’s only about five hours away.” He was smiling a little distantly under the passing streetlights, the planes and curves of his face drifting in and out of the shadows. “I’ve got a– a friend who lives there; I thought it might be nice to meet up for dinner with him tomorrow night.”

“Sure.” A morsel of information he’d absorbed, back from when they’d first had lunch together, floated up in Adam’s mind. “Do Alison’s parents still live there?”

“Not this time of year. They’re snowbirds– they’re in Florida during the winter and early spring.”

“Gotcha.” He idly flicked his thumb against his index finger, a habit that Vikki had found annoying. “Who’s your friend?”

Lawrence wet his lips. “His name’s Logan. He used to be one of my residents when I worked at Northwestern Memorial– he’s from New Jersey originally, and I always thought it was a bit funny that we swapped places the way we did.”

“One of your residents? What’s that mean?”

“I oversaw him during the final phase of his studies. Logan was one of the brightest people I worked with as an attending physician.” There was a softness in Lawrence’s face, a sort of nostalgia that Adam recognized as being similar to his expression when he’d seen his parents’ house in D.C. for the first time in years. “You’ll like him, I think. He’s a wonderful man. He’s very kind.”

An odd surge of jealousy welled up in Adam, and he pushed it down, staring out the window at the streets they passed. It was childish to be envious of Lawrence’s other friendships– for f*ck’s sake, he’d met the man less than two weeks ago. Of course he didn’t have a monopoly on his life, his feelings; he’d lived an entire life before they’d met. But the way he spoke about Logan rang so familiar to the kindness with which he spoke to Adam that Adam couldn’t help but wonder if he had, in some way, filled the slot in Lawrence’s life where Logan had previously been.

It hurt to think of himself as a replacement for someone else, even if it wasn’t true to how Lawrence saw him.

“We’ll both be meeting his wife for the first time,” Lawrence continued, some indecipherable emotion dragging through the syllables in his soft voice. “They met shortly after Allison and I moved to New Jersey. He invited me to the wedding, but I– I couldn’t come.”

Adam glanced at Lawrence again. His face was unusually calm, a mask of itself. Something thrummed in Adam’s chest, some dawning realization, but before it could fully crest, Lawrence flicked on the radio, and the moment ended.

Sleep came easily to Adam that night, deep and thankfully dreamless. The morning brought a cold rain drumming insistently at the window of their hotel room, making Lawrence audibly fret at it turning into snow and delaying their arrival in Chicago that night.

“I’m fine stopping in Indiana if we have to,” Adam said, bundling up the clothes he’d worn over the previous days– the hotel had a monstrously expensive coin laundromat that Lawrence had handed him a few dollars to take advantage of. “I don’t want you to have to drive through the snow, especially on unfamiliar roads.”

Lawrence sighed, drumming his fingers on the handle of his cane. “We’ll see,” he said eventually, and reached for his phone. “I’ll give Logan a call. Are you alright taking my laundry down?”

“Yeah.” Adam gathered up the plastic shopping bag Lawrence had put his clothes into, trying very hard not to think about the fact that he’d be handling the man’s underwear soon. “Just the stuff in here?”

Lawrence was already halfway out the door, phone in hand, when he paused. “Might as well do my cardigan, while we’re here. It should be in my medium suitcase.”

As the door clicked smoothly behind him, Adam unzipped the suitcase, smiling at the sight of the doctor’s cardigan. It was soft to the touch, fine wool that he was sure was more expensive than all of his own flannels put together.

Before he could stop himself, or even fully realize what he was doing, he raised it to his face, closing his eyes and inhaling the scent of Lawrence’s cologne. Sandalwood, cherry, leather, amber. And there was a mellow sweetness under it that Adam had noticed the morning he’d woken up in Lawrence’s arms– some indefinable, comfortable blend of soap and skin and warmth.

He breathed out, letting his eyes drift open, and that was when he saw it.

There was a gray metallic glint at the bottom of the suitcase, just peeking out from under a neatly folded blue pinstripe shirt. Adam’s breath caught in his throat as he moved the shirt aside.

Lawrence had brought a gun.

Immediately, Adam’s thoughts tripped together in a mess of panic and confusion. Why had he brought it? Why had he kept it hidden? Jesus Christ, Amanda had been right– Lawrence was going to kill him. No, that was stupid. If he wanted to murder him, it would’ve been so easy to do it in the middle of nowhere, in rural Pennsylvania or even mafia-style in the Meadowlands. But then again, maybe he was waiting until they got to California.

Adam took a deep breath.

He trusted him.

He barely knew him.

Numbly, he replaced the shirt with shaking hands, and made his way down to the laundry room.

His brain was still in a whirl by the time everything was dry. Adam had thought through his course of action, and decided the best thing was just to ask. If Lawrence attacked him, he’d bum-rush him. He could scream loud enough to alert the rest of the hotel, and if the gun went off– if Lawrence shot him before Adam could get away–

That was the part that his brain circled endlessly around, because the conclusion he reached was always the same. Adam wouldn’t entirely mind dying at his hands. It was perhaps a melodramatic thought, but he’d never seen himself making it past thirty, anyway. And the past week had been the best of his life– if this was the conclusion, so be it.

He had to knock to be let into their room; he’d misplaced his key card at some point. Lawrence’s face was a little flushed when he opened the door, and his eyes were bright.

“Logan can’t wait to have us over,” he said, stepping back over to his suitcase, which he'd been packing methodically. “I told him about you, and he’s very eager to–”

“Lawrence, why do you have a gun?”

The doctor’s expression froze. “You– why do I…oh, it was in the suitcase, wasn’t it?”

“Y-yeah.” Every muscle in Adam’s body was tensed as Lawrence slowly walked over to him, the tap of his cane dulled by the hotel room carpeting. He braced himself, but all Lawrence did was gently take the folded laundry from his arms.

“The week after Alison moved out with Diana,” Lawrence said quietly, “someone tried to rob our house. I suppose they’d seen that her car was gone from the driveway, and assumed that nobody was home. I found him in the living room– some young kid, even younger than you. I…I was very stupid, Adam. I tried to confront him.” He tilted his chin, letting the scar there catch the light. “He– he had a knife. I only had my fists.”

Adam’s stomach swooped with nausea. “Lawrence–”

“The police didn’t do much. They didn’t catch him, or help recover the cash he stole. So I bought a gun. It was foolish of me to bring it here, I know, but– I didn’t want to leave it in the house. It isn’t loaded, it doesn’t even have ammunition. You’re not in any danger, I promise.”

Adam let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. His legs suddenly went to jelly, and he sank onto the bed, sitting with his back slumped in a heavy curve. “Jesus.”

“I’m sorry, I should have told you the day we left New York that I had it with me. Honestly, I’d forgotten.” His hand found Adam’s shoulder, and despite the residual panic still trickling through him, Adam was immediately comforted by his touch, as ever. “Are you alright?”

“I– y-yeah. I’m– I’m sorry for– it really scared me.” He swallowed, and let out a weak, relieved laugh. “I thought you were gonna murder me.”

His thumb rubbed a slow, soothing circle into his skin. “Adam, I’d never hurt you.”

“I know. I just– man. Sorry.” Adam stuttered out a sigh, willing his heart rate to slow.

Cautiously, Lawrence sat on the bed with him, careful not to let their legs brush until Adam relaxed with another small shudder, leaning ever so slightly closer to him. He was still holding onto the bag that held his own clean laundry, squeezing the plastic shopping bag nearly tight enough to rip.

“I never want you to feel as if you’re in any danger around me,” Lawrence said softly, and Adam couldn’t help the shudder of self-loathing that crested over him at the hurt in his voice. “I know this trip is– unusual. I know we’ve only gotten to know each other over a very short span of time, and I know you don’t have much of a reason to trust me. But please believe me when I say that I would never do anything to make you uncomfortable, or to put you in harm’s way.”

“I trust you.” It was the truth, and it rose so quickly to his lips that Adam shocked himself into silence after saying it. He felt his pulse slowing gradually, no longer pounding in his throat. Lawrence being so close, his shoulder brushing Adam’s, his steady breathing faintly audible over the hotel room’s heating system— it was all working wonders on his nerves.

“I’m glad,” Lawrence said, after a while. “And for what it’s worth– I trust you, too.”

Notes:

like I said, chapter 19 will be up soon, but in the meantime please drop me a comment! they absolutely mean the world to me!

EDIT: just realized that with the publication of this chapter, i’ve officially surpassed the word count of the original novel The Price of Salt! thank you guys so much for putting up with my yapping, can’t wait for you to see what happens next!

Chapter 19: sing me to sleep

Notes:

as promised, chapter 19! thank you to the incredible ginny and sarah for being my absolute anchors, love you guys!

a note: the content warnings for this chapter are considerably more serious than previous chapters'. firstly, explicit animal death is described (a deer, specifically), as well as a flashback description of a survived suicide attempt involving an attempted overdose. the option is available to skip past both of these depictions entirely, with a summary in the ending notes about plot-important details. please take care while reading.

chapter title is from Asleep by The Smiths. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

It was an easier thing for Adam’s mind to settle than his body; he was still breathing through the intermittent tremors that went through him as he and Lawrence packed up the car for the drive to Chicago. The doctor occasionally gave him a worried glance or two, but seemed to pick up on Adam’s reluctance to broach the subject again, instead simply letting Adam pick a CD from his collection to fill the silence of the car.

They stopped at a fast food place just past the Indiana state line for lunch, and Adam begged off to smoke a cigarette in the parking lot, not much minding the cold rain that stung at his skin as he took a long, slow drag. Lawrence stayed in the car, flipping idly through a guidebook on Iowa– he’d been keeping a cautious distance from Adam ever since they’d left the hotel. Adam was simultaneously grateful to him for respecting what the doctor clearly thought he wanted, frustrated with himself for pushing him away, and aching with the need to be closer to him, a need that by now was as familiar to him as the beat of his own heart.

He took another drag.

It wasn’t the fact that Lawrence had brought the gun that had bothered him– it was the fact that Adam had, even for an hour, thought that the man had the capacity or desire to hurt him. It was counter to everything he’d learned about Lawrence over the course of their time together, and it felt like a betrayal to mistrust him.

At the same time, Amanda’s words echoed in his mind: You met this man a week ago.

He dropped his cigarette to the wet pavement, half-finished, and ground it under his heel before starting determinedly back to the car.

“What’s your middle name?” Adam asked, as soon as he was back in the passenger seat.

Lawrence peered at him over the frames of his reading glasses. “What?”

“Your middle name. What is it?”

He closed the book, folded his glasses, and slipped them into his breast pocket. “Henry,” he said, a note of mild confusion in his voice, an amused twitch in his lips. “After my father.”

Adam let his own lips lift into a smile; it was so much easier for him to do that, these days.

“Mine’s Oliver,” he said, leaning back in his seat. For some reason, finding the answer to Amanda’s entirely rhetorical question gave him a sense of ease.

“Adam Oliver Faulkner,” Lawrence said, each syllable light and easy in his mouth. “It suits you.”

“Faulkner-Stanheight, actually. I know it only says Faulkner on my ID, but I like having my mom’s last name as a part of me, too.”

“That’s a lovely sentiment.” He started the engine. “Why the sudden curiosity about my name?”

“I dunno. I just feel like–” Adam bit his lip, considering his choice of words before suddenly deciding to stop thinking, to just speak. “We know a bunch of the deeper stuff about each other already– my parents’ divorce, your childhood, our thoughts on life, y’know– and I think we kind of skipped the surface-level stuff.”

Lawrence chuckled as they pulled out of the parking lot. “Alright, then. What’s your favorite color?”

“Blue,” he said, instinctively, and cleared his throat. “Or– or dark green. Like a forest green.”

“Mine’s pink.” Whatever Adam had been expecting him to say, it wasn’t that. He gave a small laugh, assuming Lawrence was joking, but when he looked over at him the doctor was blushing minutely. “It’s Diana’s favorite– it reminds me of her.”

Despite it only being early afternoon, the rain above them had darkened the sky, and Lawrence’s face was harder to read in the dimming light. Adam could still see the melancholy twitch in his lips, though– he wore the grief of Diana’s absence like a weight some days, heavy in the set of his shoulders, slowing his movements and dragging his eyes magnetically onto his wallet, where the photos of her were safely stowed.

“I can keep quiet if you want to call her,” Adam offered, hesitant. “She doesn’t have to know I’m in the car with you.”

Lawrence glanced at him. “Why wouldn’t I want her to know about you?”

The candidness of his response stopped Adam short. “I– you said that you didn’t tell Allison about me,” he said, by way of explanation. “So I…I thought…y’know. It’s not– I’m not judging you for not wanting people to know that we’re doing this trip together.”

The doctor’s lips tightened slightly. “That was more because– well. Allison can be…quite judgemental.”

That assumption didn’t seem very fair to Adam– if Allison disliked him or distrusted him, he felt she had every reason to– but he nodded, not wanting to argue the point. Lawrence knew her better than he did, obviously.

“I went to college here in Indiana, you know,” Lawrence said as he merged back onto the highway, and Adam lifted his brow, as surprised by that fact as he was by the abrupt change of subject. “Indiana University School of Medicine. I’ll point out my campus if we pass by it in Indianapolis.” He wet his lips. “You entered right into the workforce after high school, didn’t you?”

Adam snorted. “That’s a polite way of putting it, yeah.”

“And an accurate one. You don’t have to have a college degree to be a functional adult, you know. There’s no one correct way to live your life.”

He hummed, swallowing around the slight lump in his throat. “I guess so.”

“Did you ever want to go to college?”

“Too expensive,” Adam said, knowing that Lawrence would be able to see that he was dodging the question, and hoping he wouldn’t pursue it. “My– my mom wanted me to. Dad too, even though they weren’t talking much by that time. But I didn’t have the grades for a scholarship. I barely had the grades to graduate high school. So instead, I bummed around Buffalo for about six months after I turned eighteen, and then I took out all the savings I had and moved to the city. Scott came, too. I’m glad he did– he was the only friend I had there, for a while. And then he got Wrath of the Gods started for real, found an audience. He’s the type of guy who always wants people to listen to him, y’know– and he makes it easy to do that.”

He’d deliberately opened the conversation to more questions about Scott’s band, about music, about things that didn’t make his skin start to itch with regret and shame, but Lawrence seemed to fix on something he’d mentioned in passing.

“Bummed around–” His hands tightened on the steering wheel. “You don’t mean that your mother kicked you out?”

“She didn’t have to.” Adam shrugged, hoping it came across as nonchalant. “I know when I’m not wanted. I’ve gotten pretty good at picking up on that kind of stuff.”

“Oh, Adam,” Lawrence said quietly, and stopped. His voice was soft with pity, and it gave Adam a slightly sick feeling, nausea boiling low in his stomach.

The car fell silent. Again, Adam felt as if he’d spoiled something, turned them down a dark corridor when their conversation had been so light. It was a familiar regret, and he pushed it down with a press of the console’s button, letting his iPod play them out of Batesville, Joy Division rumbling through the speakers under the steady beat of the rain.

[skip to summary]

He must have fallen asleep at some point; it was dark outside when Adam jolted awake, smacking his lips around the sour taste in his mouth. He glanced out the window, hazily dragging his gaze over what little he could see outside– long, flat fields interrupted by occasional bursts of trees. There was the occasional dim sweep of a streetlight overhead, and the road illuminated by Lawrence’s headlights showed a narrower stretch than what they’d been traveling before. The rain had stopped, at least, but the pavement was still wet, the skim of it under the BMW’s tires almost hypnotic in sound.

Lawrence seemed to notice that he was awake. “We’re a bit delayed,” he said. “There was quite a bit of traffic in Indianapolis. It’ll be about nine by the time we reach Chicago– we’re roughly an hour and a half away.”

“Does Logan know we’ll be late?”

He saw Lawrence nod, his eyes pinpricks of light in the dark of the car. “I sent him a text when we stopped for gas. We’ll go for lunch with him tomorrow instead of dinner tonight, but he’s happy to have us sleep over. He’s got a guest room all set up for us.”

“Nice of him.” Adam stretched minutely, rolling his spine as much as he could in the confines of his seatbelt. “Man, I slept through a lot.”

“Not really. Mostly just the road, and the last of the rain.” Lawrence glanced at him, seemingly comfortable taking his eyes off the straight stretch of road in front of them. “Are you hungry? Logan said we’re welcome to his leftovers, but we can stop for dinner somewhere around here, if you’d like.”

“I’m alright.” He wet his lips. “You’re still okay driving?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Thank you for asking. I’ll be glad to lie down when we reach Chicago, but it’s been nice to have such a quiet drive. I missed these roads.” Lawrence smiled minutely, eyes flicking to Adam, his gaze lingering on him. “It’s different, having someone with me this time.”

Adam opened his mouth to respond, when something just ahead of them caught his eye, making his heart leap into his throat with a violent suddenness.

There was a lump lying in the middle of the road, nearly the size of a person.

“Holy sh*t– f*ck, Lawrence, stop! Stop the car!”

Immediately, Lawrence slammed his foot on the brakes. The BMW screeched to a halt, the wet squeal of the tires echoing in the quiet night air. They’d stopped two or three yards shy of the object, and the glow of the headlights illuminated it fully.

It was a deer, lying on its side on the pavement. Its tawny fur caught the car’s light, glistening with the remnants of rain, and as Adam watched, mouth dry with panic, it stirred feebly, kicking one leg out.

“Jesus, Adam–“ Lawrence lowered his arm; Adam hadn’t even noticed that he’d flung it across his chest to catch him. The doctor was breathing hard, and his hand lingered, clutching for a moment at Adam’s shirt as if to affirm that he was still there, but Adam hardly took note of that, already unbuckling his seatbelt with shaking hands. “What the hell are you doing?”

“It’s hurt, Lawrence. I have to–“ He choked on his own words. “Just– wait, would you?”

“Adam!”

He was already out of the car.

The winter chill sank into his bones as soon as he set foot on the road, shocking his system and allowing his mind to fix on the sensations, to ground himself. Adam took a breath, slowing his movements as he neared the animal.

The deer was still stirring feebly, legs splayed pathetically across the wet pavement. Its eyes were open and frantic, as dark as the sky above it. Cautiously, Adam knelt down on the road a few feet away from the animal, almost afraid to touch it for fear of hurting it even further, for fear of it kicking out. An open gash on the deer’s rear leg, glistening with blood, made it impossible for it to stand, but it shuddered as if it was trying to.

“Hey,” Adam said lowly, lifting a hand with glacial slowness, reaching out cautiously. “I’m not gonna hurt you. It’s okay.”

“Adam,” Lawrence called again. His voice was closer; he must’ve left the car as well. “I…I don’t think there’s anything you can do to help it.”

“I know.” Adam refused to look away from the deer’s eyes. Gently, slowly, he extended his hand to stroke its neck. The coarse, short hair was cool to the touch and damp with rain; it must’ve been laying there for a long while before their car had arrived. “But– but I can be here.”

The deer shuddered as Adam pet it, looking up at him with what Adam imagined was relief. He hoped, at least.

"Hey, buddy," he murmured. "It's okay. I've got you."

Its spasmodic movements slowed, its body moving rhythmically beneath Adam's hand, rising and falling with guttural breaths. He kept petting it, making small shushing noises.

The wet pavement dug into his knees, but Adam barely felt it. All of his attention was focused on the dying animal, on its eyes, its flaring nostrils and the strange huffing sound of its breathing. He could almost feel the fear fading from it, leaching out of its body along with the warmth that slowly faded the longer it lay there.

Eventually, its leg stopped twitching. The body beneath his hands shuddered once, twice, and then stilled; the deer’s eyes stayed open, cold and glassy, but the light behind them had gone out.

A dullness settled in his chest, hard and heavy as stone. Adam pressed his palms to the road and pushed himself up, unsteady on his feet, eyes still fixed to the deer’s, as if he could keep its soul tethered there somehow.

"Adam," Lawrence said, his voice infinitely soft. He was closer than Adam thought.

"S-sorry. " He finally tore his gaze away from the dead creature, turning to face the doctor. “I…I-I…”

Lawrence was backlit by the headlights, leaning against his cane, but Adam could still see his expression. He was looking at Adam with a mix of fear, tenderness, and– Adam couldn’t name it. It was warm, and terrified, and utterly helpless. As if Adam was some wild creature himself, an untamed thing shuddering in the cold. He opened his arms, and Adam went to him, drawn as if magnetized.

“Lawrence.” He hardly recognized his own voice. Adam numbly gripped the taller man's shoulder, folded himself against his steady weight. Lawrence took him on with the steadiness of stone, wrapping his arms around him. His cane clattered to the ground, forgotten. Adam swallowed, pushing his nose instinctively against the warm skin of his neck; he could feel Lawrence’s pulse, steady and hot. "I– I know I shouldn't've...I– I know th-there was nothing I could've done–"

"You did enough." Lawrence threaded his fingers through Adam's hair, stroking him just as Adam had done for the deer. "It isn't in pain anymore. It didn’t…” He swallowed. “It didn’t die alone.”

The tears came, then.

With a helpless shudder, Adam dissolved into an open-mouthed, childish sob, tears soaking into Lawrence’s shirt. His body shook uncontrollably, trembling against him, clinging, and Lawrence didn’t push him away, didn’t admonish him for crying. He just held him closer.

Adam pressed his face into his shoulder, muffling the pathetic, heaving sobs that tumbled from him uncontrollably. It was as if a dam had been broken down, and he was powerless to stop the flow once it started– it wasn’t just the deer, it was the fear that had gripped him earlier that day, it was the nausea of his own wasted potential he’d been reminded of, it was the accumulation of everything he’d been shoving down to make himself the kind of person Lawrence would want to spend time with. He could only ride it out, let the waves carry him as he was held and gentled.

Eventually, the heaving in his chest subsided, giving way to utter exhaustion. He gave one last weak shudder, folding in on himself.

He might have only imagined it, but he thought he felt Lawrence drop a kiss onto the top of his head.

“Let’s go back to the car,” the doctor said softly, once Adam had stilled against him. His thumb rubbed tender circles into Adam’s shoulder. “I’ll find us a motel close by. Somewhere we can rest.”

“I-I–“ His mind was completely fuzzed over, every function of his body muted apart from the pounding of his heart, the aching sorrow of feeling the deer die in his arms, the weight of the emotions dredged up from their previous conversations rushing back into him with the force of a tsunami. The walls were down now; there was nothing stopping him from feeling everything he’d pushed aside. “I…I don’t–“

“Adam, sweetheart. You need to lie down.”

Sweetheart.

That word, of all ordinary things, pushed him back into his body. Lawrence was holding him, and he was cold, and he was tired, more tired than he’d been in his whole life.

He nodded, numbly aware that his hands were shaking like leaves. “O-okay. Okay.”

Lawrence guided him to the car, making sure he was able to buckle his seatbelt through his tremors before crossing over in front of the car to his own seat. Adam kept his eyes on the prone figure of the deer, unable to look away until Lawrence was seated by his side.

“Logan,” he remembered. His voice was croaky. “He’s…he’s gonna b-be waiting.”

“Don’t worry,” Lawrence said. “I’ll call him when we’re at the motel. Just focus on breathing for now, alright? In, and then out. Match me, sweetheart. Can you do that for me? In and out.”

He took a deep, exaggerated inhale, and Adam mimicked him, breath catching once or twice. His lungs seemed like dead things, inflating hollowly and easing back into emptiness as he exhaled.

“Good,” Lawrence murmured. “That’s good, Adam. Just breathe. You’re doing so well.” Adam looked down; at some point, Lawrence had taken his hand. His thumb stroked tenderly over the bones of his knuckles, his shaking fingers. He was so warm.

It took a few long moments, but eventually Adam’s pulse slowed to a steady beat, his breath matching Lawrence’s without his conscious effort. A last push of tears welled up in him, and Lawrence reached up to gently brush them off his cheeks, eyes searching Adam’s.

“A little better now?” he asked softly. Adam nodded, emptied of everything but his presence. “Okay, that’s good. I’m going to let go of you and keep driving, alright?”

Adam nodded again, and Lawrence released his hand and his face, his warmth lingering on Adam’s skin as he turned the ignition over.

He squeezed his eyes shut as they passed the deer, unable to bear seeing its corpse again.

The smooth schick of the tires over the wet pavement lulled him into an absent calm; he was still shaking, but it wasn’t any worse than the milder attacks he’d had as a child. He’d done this before. He could do it again. Breathe through it, let himself feel it.

Lawrence’s eyes flicked to him every once in a while, making sure he was alright. Adam was too tired to be embarrassed by his attention; he allowed himself the comfort of being cared for, being worried over. It felt nice– it felt like something he had been waiting for, afraid to ask for it.

“I wanted to be a vet,” he said, once he was able to speak. His voice was weak, hoarse with tears, but he didn’t care. “When– when I was little, I mean. I wanted to help animals. I was too stupid for it, though.”

“You’re not stupid,” Lawrence said, seemingly automatically. Adam could see from the spasm of his lips that he wanted to say more, but he didn't. His eyes stayed fixed on the road.

Adam would have laughed, if he could. “C’mon. I told you– I barely made it through high school. I haven’t gone to college, and I'm already twenty-five. It's too late for me to be a vet. For me to– for me to do anything.”

“You’re so young, Adam.” The way he said it, the gentleness of his tone, made Adam want to cry again, to shake him by his collar and scream that he wasn’t a child. “Twenty-five isn't dead. You have time. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”

He swallowed. “Okay,” he said, voice flat, leaning his forehead against the cool glass of the passenger side window. “Okay. I know.”

“Vikki’s family could help with the cost of going back to school, if you let them.”

Bile rose in Adam’s throat. “I don’t want that,” he said thickly. “I don’t want– I don’t want her money. I don’t want to go to Europe with her. I don’t want to move in with her, I don’t want– I don’t want to marry her. I’ll just make her miserable if I stay with her, she deserves better than that.”

"Loving someone isn't about deserving them. It’s about them being your person– not being able to imagine your life without them.” He paused. “And you still feel that way about her, don’t you?”

Adam was quiet for a long time. When he finally said “No,” it was easier than he’d thought it was going to be.

He did love Vikki– he loved her passion, her intelligence, the space she had filled in his life. But it was over– it had been over for a while, even before he had met Lawrence. When he returned to New York, he wanted to be friends with her. No more, and maybe even less.

“I see,” Lawrence said quietly, and took his hand where it rested on the glove compartment between them.

[skip to summary]

They didn’t speak again until they reached a motel, some shabby place with a flickering vacancy sign and a scant three cars in the parking lot. Adam stayed in the car while Lawrence made the arrangements, and then followed him silently into the room he’d gotten them, taking in the two beds, the hideous carpet. He felt like a zombie, dead on his feet.

“I requested a double, but you’re welcome to share my bed, if you’d like,” Lawrence said, as he set his suitcase down at the foot of his bed. His back was turned, and Adam was grateful for that, since he had no idea what his own expression looked like. “There isn’t any pressure. I just thought you might not want to be alone after what happened.”

Adam swallowed thickly. “I don’t know. I need to– I need to shower.”

“Of course.” He finally turned to face him, and Adam couldn’t imagine how Alison could have possibly stopped loving him. He looked so steady. Concerned, but patient. For a long, vivid moment, Adam could picture so clearly what it would be like to come home to a man like Lawrence, to be held by him, to be comforted and made to feel safe. “Whatever you need.”

Adam gave him a small smile, and turned towards the bathroom before he could do anything stupid.

As the water from the shower poured over him, he couldn't shake the image of the deer from his mind. What it must have felt like to be met with so much sudden violence, out of the blue, and then being left there to die in the road, in the dark. What his own touch must have felt like. If he'd just made it more scared, but unable to move away from him, helpless to do anything but receive it.

He cried again, quietly, letting his tears mingle with the hot water until the storm of it had quelled and he could swallow easily. Adam washed his hair and body mechanically, dried himself with the scratchy towel hanging neatly by the door, and got into his pajamas.

Lawrence was seemingly asleep by the time Adam left the bathroom. His prosthetic was propped up next to his slippers, and he was curled onto the left side of the bed, leaving enough space on the right for Adam to join him. The other bed lay empty.

With a long, shaky breath, Adam pulled back the covers on the unoccupied side, careful not to pull the blankets away from Lawrence, and lay down beside him.He could feel the rhythm of the doctor breathing, could feel the soft give of the mattress. He imagined he could feel some of his body warmth.

He stared up at the still ceiling fan, and was struck with the memory of a night five years prior.

The shower beforehand, tears running helplessly down his face. The note he'd left on his kitchen table.

The pills he'd taken.

Staring up at the ceiling, waiting for them to take effect. Counting the seconds until he fell asleep, counting the reasons not to roll over onto his side and vomit them back up. Waking up the next morning, disoriented, disappointed it hadn't taken, each breath in feeling like an act of cowardice.

Saying good morning to Scott, getting an affectionate punch to the shoulder in return. Not telling him. Calling his mom. Not telling her. Crumpling up the note, going to work. Not telling anyone.

"I tried to kill myself when I was twenty." His voice, even to his own ears, was reedy and childish. Louder than he'd thought he'd sound. The words pulled themselves from his throat of their own accord, landing hard and ugly in the stillness of the room. "I couldn't– I couldn't see my life getting any better. And it hasn't, really. I've just stuck around for more of it than I planned, and now I don't know what to do with the rest of it. I don't know how to be better than this."

He felt the shift in the mattress as Lawrence turned to face him, lessening the space between them, but instead of meeting his gaze, Adam kept staring up at the ceiling. He couldn't bear to see the doctor's pity. It would hurt worse than anything. He expected him to assure him that he had so much life left, that he was smart, and special, and a thousand other meaningless things that people always said.

Instead, he felt Lawrence's hand, warm from being tucked against his own body, land gently on his shoulder. Adam caught his breath.

"I'm glad you're still here." His voice was soft. "I'm so glad I met you, Adam."

Trembling, Adam put his hand over Lawrence's, pressing his palm even closer, and turned over to face away from him. Lawrence understood, followed his action without speaking further. He curved his body gently around the younger man's, the blanket folding between them. His breath tickled at the hair on the back of Adam's neck. He was warm, and solid, and safe.

Adam's last thought before he drifted into a dreamless, comfortable sleep was that this was what it must feel like to be loved.

Notes:

chapter summary: Adam sees a dying deer in the road, and has Lawrence stop the car so that he can comfort it as it dies. He has a breakdown, and Lawrence comforts him. Adam tells him that he wanted to be a vet when he was younger, and Lawrence mentions that Vikki's parents could pay for his education, which is an idea that Adam expresses discomfort with; when Lawrence asks if he still loves Vikki, Adam says no. They drive to a motel, where Adam mentally recounts a past suicide attempt when he was twenty. The chapter ends with him telling Lawrence about his suicide attempt, to which Lawrence responds that he's glad Adam is here and that he'd very glad that they met. The two of them fall asleep spooned together on Lawrence's bed, with Adam feeling loved and comforted.

the idea for Adam’s attempted suicide comes courtesy of uzuicidios on twitter, thank you again for letting me use this concept in my fic.

thank you for reading, and please leave a comment if you enjoyed!

Chapter 20: the embers never fade in your city by the lake

Notes:

logan nelson timeeeeee! who cheered!! as always, thank you to the wonderful ginny and sarah for proofreading and keysmashing with me!

content warning for discussions of past suicide attempts as well as a brief mention of forced institutionalization, please take care while reading. chapter title is from Tonight, Tonight by The Smashing Pumpkins. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

There was hair in his mouth and a heavy weight on Adam’s chest when the daylight pierced orange through his closed eyelids the next morning. He frowned vaguely, not yet opening his eyes, not yet quite awake. His left arm was dangling off the bed, and his right was wrapped around a warm, solid shape.

The shape was alive, he realized, as the last traces of sleep sloughed away from his mind. The shape was Lawrence, curled around him with his head on Adam’s chest, his breathing deep and even.

Adam was too well-rested and comfortable to panic about their closeness. Lawrence’s hair smelled like the citrus-scented shampoo from the hotel they’d stayed at in Cincinnati, and his face was slack with sleep. As he absently stroked the man’s back, Adam tentatively let his mind wander to the previous night, dreading the emotional fallout that would doubtlessly accompany his memories but still letting himself find his way around it at his own speed, allowing himself the freedom to feel it.

The details came back to him in gentle waves– the deer in the road, his breakdown, Lawrence comforting him. His confession about his suicide attempt. Lawrence holding him. They’d fallen asleep like that; the doctor must have shifted even closer as he slept, until his head was comfortably pillowed on Adam’s chest. The grieving ache that had hollowed him out was smaller now, eased by having Lawrence’s grounding presence with him, snoring quietly against his threadbare Re-Animator t-shirt.

The last time he’d had a breakdown that intense, it had taken a whole day for him to recover enough to feel like himself again, but Adam already felt as if a weight had been lifted from him. He’d carried it alone for too long, and having Lawrence be such a good listener, so adept at making him feel cared for in a way Adam had never experienced, made it so much easier for him to grieve the absence of someone like him for so much of Adam’s life.

It hadn’t been fair to him to bear it all alone. Realizing he didn’t have to anymore, and realizing that someone like Lawrence could still care about him after having seen him at his worst…it felt like finally being able to breathe again after being held underwater. He didn’t know what to do with the new bursts of air in his lungs, the joy that settled over his skin like sunlight, except to softly kiss the blonde hair that tickled at his lips.

“Loving someone isn't about deserving them,” Lawrence had said. And as Adam pressed his lips to the top of his head, breathing in slowly and feeling Lawrence’s gentle weight on his chest, he wondered if being loved by someone came with the feeling of realizing that you do deserve them. Not through earning their love, not by impressing them or tricking them, but by simply letting them know you. And Lawrence knew him better now than anyone else ever had.

Lawrence was stirring awake before Adam could fully process that thought, and it occurred to him now that unlike in D.C., there was no scramble to explain himself if Lawrence asked. They hadn’t just ended up curled around each other unconsciously with the motions of sleep– Lawrence had chosen to hold him like this, had chosen to be close. There was nothing to make excuses for; he wouldn’t have to pretend that it hadn’t happened this time. Maybe they wouldn’t talk about it directly, or maybe they would, and Adam didn’t mind either way. It was enough for now just to be close, to fit against him as if their bodies were perfectly made for it.

“I’m crushing you,” Lawrence mumbled, voice hoarse and rumbly.

Adam smiled, moving his hand off his shoulders so that Lawrence could move away if he wanted to. He didn’t. “I don’t mind.”

Lawrence yawned, eyes narrowing to slits. He was soft with sleep, his usually immaculate hair tangled hopelessly, the collar of his shirt rumpled. Adam could feel the heat of his body through both layers of their pajamas, radiating warmth as if he were Adam’s personal space heater.

“How are you feeling?” Lawrence asked, after a few moments of quiet. His breath was a gentle tickle against Adam’s neck.

The answer Adam wanted to give, the answer that he felt with such bright fierceness that he was breathless with it, was that he was happier to wake up than he could ever remember being.

“A lot better,” he said instead, shifting slightly. “I…thank you. For listening, for calming me down, for– for everything.”

Lawrence moved off his body and onto his own side of the bed, to Adam’s slight disappointment, but it was only so he could hold his gaze without straining his neck to look up at him. Adam turned to face him, nearly nose-to-nose with both of their heads on the same pillow. Lawrence’s eyes were as large as the sea from this close, deep and bottomless blue.

“I’m glad you trust me enough to have told me,” the doctor said. One hand raised, as if to touch Adam’s face, and then Lawrence turned the gesture back towards his own body, brushing his tousled blond hair out of his eyes. “It’s not an easy thing, sharing something like that.”

Adam swallowed, the vaguest hint of tears threatening to return. “I haven’t told anyone about it before,” he said quietly. “I just– it doesn’t– it’s too much for most people. I don’t want you to see me differently, like– like someone to be pitied or– not that you would, I mean–“ He sighed and shifted to lie flat on his back, raising his arm to cross the crook of his elbow over his eyes and letting his hand land limply next to his head. “Sorry. I’m babbling.”

“No, you’re making perfect sense.”

They were both silent for a while before Lawrence spoke again.

“I’m not a therapist,” he said, each word layered with caution and the slightest slowness of lingering sleep, “but I want you to know that your life, what you’ve been through– it doesn’t need to be your burden alone. I’ll always be here to listen. And…I don’t pity you. I’m desperately sorry that you’ve gone through so much pain, but it doesn’t change how I feel about you. I could certainly never think less of you for this. If anything, I admire your strength even more now.”

He did touch him, then, taking the hand that Adam had let lay palm-up on the pillow between them, stroking the back of his hand with his thumb as he continued in his low, soft voice.

“You are an irreplaceable person, Adam. In my life, and in the lives of the people around you. Your kindness, your humor, the sense of artistry in your photography– you’re clever, wiser than your years. The way you look at the world and interpret it, both through your art and in the way you speak about it…I’ve never met anyone like you. If the world lost you, Adam, if– if I lost you…”

He trailed off, and Adam didn’t dare breathe, didn’t dare turn to look at him.

“I’m so glad to be your friend,” Lawrence said, finally, and a hurricane opened in Adam’s chest, guilt and gratitude and pathetic adoration swirling in equal, sickening measure.

His friend.

“Me too,” he said hoarsely, because what else could he say?

Lawrence gently squeezed his hand, letting out a slow breath. “And…you aren’t alone in what you went through,” he said, after a long moment. ”I don’t pretend to know exactly how you feel, but when I was younger, I–“

A loud creaking bang shuddered from the wall next to their bed, followed by a muffled curse from the room next to theirs, and Adam flinched instinctively. His hand jerked away from Lawrence’s, entirely unintentionally, but before he could reach for him again, Lawrence’s hand was gone.

The doctor sat up, twisting to look at the wall as if he could figure out what had caused the sound, and the disgruntled look on his face made a laugh bubble up in Adam’s chest.

“Thin walls here,” he said, pleased to hear that his voice sounded almost entirely back to normal.

Lawrence glanced at him, lips flicking up, and whatever had risen between them from his words seemed to settle into a gentle understanding in his eyes. The moment had passed, but the doors were open now– the tightness in Adam’s chest, the nagging feeling that he was keeping some vital, ugly part of him away from Lawrence’s knowledge of him was gone. He had seen it, had known the shape of Adam’s pain, and had accepted it as easily as he’d accepted all the rest of him, with grace and kindness and understanding.

The only thing Adam was hiding from him now– it could wait, he thought, watching Lawrence reach for the cane propped beside their bed, his hand missing the handle at first as he yawned blindly. It could wait as long as Adam needed.

The place they’d ended up didn’t offer breakfast, but there was a Taco Bell that shared its parking lot that Lawrence reluctantly agreed to try, rather than waiting to eat until they got to Chicago. The woman behind the counter called out the occasional name, interrupting the tinny pop music overhead, but other than that it was pleasantly quiet– a relief, since Adam wasn't quite sure he could handle an influx of loud noises at the moment, his senses still a bit heightened from his panic attack the previous night. He ordered his usual double-decker taco, and had the distinct pleasure of getting to watch Lawrence fumble his way around an enormous burrito.

“The human mouth isn’t meant to fit around one of these,” he muttered, taking another go at it from the other side.

“Order for Harry!” the cashier called.

Adam smirked. “Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. The human body probably isn’t built to properly digest it, either.”

“Don’t remind me.” Lawrence took a delicate bite, and Adam couldn’t hide his snort of laughter.

“You asked about Buffalo culture, before,” he said, watching Lawrence’s nose wrinkle adorably at the overload of spices. “There isn’t much to it except sh*tty canalside concerts and hating the smell of Cheerios because of how close the factory is to town. But if you’re looking for Adam culture, you’re experiencing it right now. All seven layers.”

They ate in comfortable silence, Lawrence’s eye catching and fixing on the TV in the corner as Adam glanced around idly at the other early-morning patrons.

“When I spoke to Logan last night,” Lawrence said eventually, dabbing at his lips with one of the heaping stacks of napkins he’d availed himself of, “he mentioned that Christine’s parents are staying over on New Year’s Eve, which means they’ll only have the guest room free for us tonight. If we want to stay in Chicago for longer than one night, we’ll have to find a hotel.”

“Order for Monty!”

Adam shrugged, taking a sip of his soda. “Whatever you want to do. I’d be happy anywhere.”

The smile Lawrence gave him was warm, if a bit distracted. “Unlike in D.C., I don’t have an especially strong pull to any particular landmarks in Chicago. When I lived there, most of my time was spent either at work or at home. And the places I took Alison to when we first started dating, I suppose, but– well. I’m not eager to retrace those particular steps, for obvious reasons.”

“Yeah, of course.” He swallowed his last bite. “Like I said, I’m cool with anything. If you only want to do one night there then move on, that’s fine by me.”

“Order for Shepard!”

“Excuse me,” someone mumbled behind Adam, and he obligingly scooted his chair closer to the table to let him pass. As he did, he glanced back, and a flicker of recognition went through him.

“Hey,” he said to Lawrence in an undertone as the man behind him made his way to the counter to pick up his order, “that’s the novelist.”

“Hm?”

Adam tilted his head towards him, picking his drink back up. “The dude from Cincinnati. Remember that game we were playing, when I decided he was writing the next great American novel? Seems like his research is taking him the same direction we are.”

He grinned, but Lawrence didn’t return it, a small line appearing between his brows. “Huh,” he said, looking curiously over at the man as he collected his order and made his way outside to the white truck parked just next to Lawrence’s BMW. “Small world, I suppose.”

As Adam packed up their bags into the car, he noticed Lawrence sitting very still in the driver’s seat, tongue poking from between his lips as he tapped laboriously away at his Blackberry’s keyboard. It was an endearing sight, nearly enough to distract him from the photo he was trying to send– a string of numbers and letters in blue, with blurry red cursive on top.

“Is that a license plate?” he asked, buckling his seatbelt.

Lawrence glanced up distractedly. “Oh– sorry. I’m just having a friend look something up for me.” He sent the text and slid his phone shut, tucking it into his breast pocket with a short sigh before meeting Adam’s eyes with a grin. “Shall we?”

“Yeah. Do you have Logan’s address?”

“No need, I remember how to get there.” He started the car, turning the heat back up to the temperature Adam had set it to the previous day. “Would you like to put your playlist on?”

He did, thumbing through until he found a relatively upbeat couple of songs to score their drive to the city. Lawrence’s lips twitched as the chirpy opening chords of “Love– Building on Fire” by Talking Heads washed over the car.

They drove in silence for a few miles, basking together in the music. It was a beautiful day, and sunlight spilled over the fields and buildings in golden waves, bright and clear. As lovely as the view was, though, something had been nagging at the back of Adam’s mind. He finally voiced it, just as Lawrence began to speak.

“When you said–”

“About that man–” Lawrence stopped, and laughed. “No, you go ahead.”

Adam cleared his throat. “This morning, when you said that I wasn’t alone…it's something that a lot of people say, but– but I could tell that you meant it...differently. Like you could relate to it. If– if that's too personal for you to tell me, I understand, but…”

“No, I– if you were comfortable telling me about your experience, I’m alright sharing mine with you.” Lawrence turned the music down. “When I was nineteen,” he said, his voice steady, “during my first year of university, I had a...a mental breakdown. The academic pressures, living away from my family for the first time– it was all too much. I made an attempt on my own life. I won’t go into specifics, but I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for a short time during my freshman year of college.”

Adam let out a slow breath. An icy pit formed in his stomach, and he could feel his heart lurching with sympathetic pain– it was one thing for him to go through that kind of empty, hopeless agony, but to think of Lawrence experiencing the same thing…it was almost unimaginable.

“When I was stable enough to resume my studies, I officially de-matriculated from Georgetown,” the doctor continued. “I began all over again at Indiana University, instead. I just couldn’t stay in D.C. any longer. I felt like I had to start my life over– as if I could run away from the person who’d put me through all that pain.” He smiled sardonically. “But of course you can never run away from yourself. Not really.”

“Lawrence, I’m so sorry.”

He met his eyes, briefly, and his smile softened. “I’m alright now. Or– I’m much better, at least. I found some friends at college, and I still had my sister supporting me in those days. I went on antidepressants, as well, and that helped me tremendously– I didn’t know that medication was even a viable option for me until my stay at the psychiatric institute. My parents’ generation treated any and all mental health issues as a source of embarrassment, something to be hidden away, which I’m sure contributed to the length of time I went without seeking help.”

“But after it happened, did they– were they supportive?” He regretted saying it as soon as the words left his mouth.

Lawrence’s lips twisted. “They paid the medical bills, and paid for my schooling, and we never spoke about it. I don’t think they ever really forgave me for the whole thing.”

Forgave you?” He leaned forward, anger curling hot in his gut. “You were in pain, Lawrence.”

“It was an inconvenient pain for them, and one they had the luxury to be able to ignore. I’ve never held it against them.”

“I’ll do it for you, then.” Adam let out a short breath. “Because that really sucks.” He didn’t doubt that his own father would’ve treated him the same way if Adam had ever told him about his struggles, but, again, it struck him with a deeper and sickening chord to think about someone other than himself having those thoughts. Especially someone like Lawrence.

“I don’t want to say that I’m grateful that I went through it,” Lawrence said, peering out at the Chicago skyline through the windshield, drawing ever closer. “But I’m grateful that I’m here. I’m grateful that I got the help I needed, and I’m grateful that I was able to continue my life. I was able to become a doctor, I was able to meet Alison, to have Diana.” His eyes found Adam’s. “I was able to find you. I’ll always be glad for that.”

Adam gave him a small smile, the familiar butterflies stirring in his stomach. “Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”

“‘Come and show me another city with lifted head singing,’” Lawrence recited as they crested a small rise on the overpass, laying Chicago out before them, glass and metal shining through the slight haze over Lake Michigan, “‘so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.’”

Adam lowered his camera, grinning. “Is that Dante again?”

“Carl Sandburg,” Lawrence said. “From his poem ‘Chicago’. ‘Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth, under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs, laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle, bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, laughing!’” He finished his recitation with a grand sweep of his hand, encompassing the city, and Adam lifted his camera again, catching him mid-motion and smiling.

For all he’d said about not wanting to linger in the city, Lawrence was excited to show Adam a few sights before they joined Logan and his wife for dinner– he took Adam to the Sears Tower, remaining on the ground floor but insistently paying for Adam’s ticket to the Skydeck so he could take as many photos as he could.

It was dizzying from this high up. Chicago looked unreal beneath his feet, a grid of toy towers and antlike people, and Adam filled the rest of his fifth roll of film with the view of the city laid out carpetlike before him. He returned to Lawrence with a wide grin and his heart still pounding in his throat from the sheer thrill of the altitude, the exhilaration of soaring above the world.

They ate a quick lunch at Lawrence’s favorite café, a tiny hole in the wall a block away from the hospital he used to work at, laughing over cups of sickeningly sweet coffee and pillowy miniature quiches before Lawrence was dragging him away to the Art Institute.

“We won’t have time for all of it, obviously,” he said, his cane tapping a quick staccato against the polished wood floors, “but I thought you might want to see– this.”

Adam looked up, and his breath caught– based off Lawrence’s fleeting but frequent remarks about Ferris Bueller, he’d expected to be greeted by A Sunday on La Grande Jette, but instead he found himself face-to-face with Nighthawks.

“Holy sh*t,” he said softly, and he saw Lawrence’s smile widen in his periphery. A chord thrummed in his chest, something inside him reaching out to the starkly painted image.

“It’s the loneliest painting in the world, I think,” Lawrence said. “Like they’re the only four people left in the city, but still afraid to be close to each other.”

Adam’s eyes rested on the two figures at the end of the bar, a man and a woman sitting together in clear silence and stillness, solemn despite the vibrancy of the brushstrokes. Their fingers were barely touching on the counter, and he felt himself leaning almost subconsciously closer to the man beside him, brushing Lawrence’s shoulder with his.

It was a long time before he broke his eyes away, and when he did, Lawrence was gazing at him with a curious tenderness.

“May I take your picture?” he asked, and Adam startled slightly. “The look on your face, just now, staring at the painting– I want to remember it.”

Wordlessly, Adam handed him the XPan, and Lawrence raised it inexpertly, unused to its weight. Adam turned back to the painting and let himself be caught up again in its aching pull, the loneliness of being within and without.

He heard the camera shutter click, and Lawrence’s soft exhalation.

“Beautiful,” the doctor said, nearly too quietly for him to hear, and Adam knew somehow, with a deep and impossible surety, that he wasn’t talking about the painting.

Logan’s house was nestled in the quiet suburbs just outside the city, a small but homey one-story with a small yard and a large oak tree spreading a late-afternoon shadow over the front walkway. It was similar to what Adam pictured when he thought about the kind of house he’d be able to own when he was rich enough to afford his own place– more reminiscent of his parents’ house than Lawrence’s immense and silent home back in New Jersey.

The porch light was on, gleaming welcomingly through the dusk, but Lawrence hesitated slightly once he’d parked the car, slow to unbuckle his seatbelt.

Adam glanced at him. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. It’s just– I haven’t seen him in a while.” He let out a breath, and gave Adam an unconvincing smile. “I’m fine,” he said again, and got out of the car.

The front door opened as they made their way across the somewhat shabby front path, bags in hand, and Adam looked up to see a smiling woman’s face.

“You made it,” she said, a hint of a Southern drawl in her voice. “It’s so good to finally meet you, Lawrence. And you’re Adam, right?” She held the door open, beaming. “C’mon in, Logan’s just finishing in the kitchen.”

“Nice to meet you, Christine.” Lawrence’s answering smile was just as warm, and Adam couldn’t help but feel his own awkwardness dissipate in her presence.

Christine Nelson was a short woman with round hips and shoulders, her curly waves of brown hair tumbling down her back as she led them inside. Her round cheeks were permanently dimpled, and despite having known her for a scant few seconds so far, Adam could tell that the bright, cheerful decor in the house seemed to completely reflect the sort of person she was.

“Neither of you are allergic to dogs, right?” she asked, deftly taking Lawrence’s suitcase off his hands and placing it next to the door of what Adam assumed was the guest room they’d be staying in. “Riker won’t jump on you or anything, but he might lean up on your legs during dinner.”

As if on cue, a sweet-looking Australian Shepherd barrelled towards them, eagerly sniffing the palms of Adam’s offered hands. He licked him once, wagged his tail, and immediately headed for Lawrence.

“Oh– honey, Lawrence isn’t really a dog person,” a deep voice called from the other room, just as Lawrence gingerly lowered his hand to pat Riker’s head hesitantly, a look of apprehension on his face. Adam watched as that look gave way to something entirely different as the owner of the voice stepped through the doorway of the kitchen.

Logan was a little taller than Lawrence, broader around the shoulders, with close-cropped sandy blond hair and an easy smile. There was a dishtowel tossed over his shoulder, and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to show forearms the size of Adam’s calves. His eyes were warm, but there was a measure of melancholy in the look he gave Lawrence.

“Logan,” the doctor said, his voice a little strained. “It’s…it’s very good to see you again.”

The man smiled, and Adam saw Lawrence’s grip tighten, ever so slightly, on the handle of his cane.

“You too, Lawrence.” Logan's eyes drifted to his cane, his foot, and back to his face. His expression softened. “It’s been way too long.”

Christine took Adam’s bag from his slack hand and placed it next to Lawrence’s, giving Adam a somewhat pitying look that he didn’t quite understand. “I’ll get the table set,” she said. “You two must be starved.”

Logan had made a beautiful pot roast that had Adam’s mouth watering as he sat at the small dining room table, fingers nervously tracing over the striped tablecloth. Christine poured red wine for everyone but herself, and for a few long minutes the house was filled with nothing but the clink of cutlery on dishes. Logan was an excellent cook, and Adam had to force himself to eat slowly.

“So, Adam, how did the two of you meet?” Logan asked, his tone betraying nothing but friendly curiosity.

Adam swallowed the bite he’d been chewing. “Um– at the store I worked at over the holidays. Lawrence was looking for a Christmas gift for Diana, and he left his gloves behind.”

“Oh, yeah, that sounds like him.” Logan laced his fingers together, giving Lawrence a small, warm smile. “How's Princess Di? God, she must be– what, ten by now?”

“Nine.” Lawrence took a sip of his wine. “She’s doing well. She’s in Florida with Alison at the moment, they spent Christmas there.”

Adam saw Christine give Logan a mildly confused look at that. “The two of them aren’t with you, then?” she asked, and Lawrence shook his head.

“No. No, it’s– it’s just Adam and me.” He cleared his throat, a tinge of red settling over his cheeks. “Alison and I are…well–”

“They’re getting a divorce,” Logan said quietly, and a mix of sympathy and understanding settled over Christine’s face.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I never got the chance to meet her, but she sounded lovely.” Puzzlingly, her gaze drifted to Adam. “But everything has its course, I suppose.”

The room fell silent again, and Adam slowly chewed his food, feeling uneasy. There seemed to be something he was missing in the undercurrent of their conversations, some puzzle piece whose shape he couldn’t quite make out.

“It’s been a good trip so far, then?” Logan asked after a while. His eyes were on Lawrence, but Adam answered first, some impulse in him pushing him not to just be an awkwardly silent, passive listener.

“It’s been amazing,” he said honestly. “We’ve been to Maryland, D.C., Pennsylvania, West Virginia– it’s more of the US than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s– it’s really been incredible. I’ve had a fantastic time.”

Lawrence caught his gaze, and his smile was so fond that Adam found himself unable to speak for a moment, so struck by the warm gleam of his eyes.

“We’re heading to California,” he said, taking over when he seemed to realize that Adam’s words had run out. “But we’re taking our time with it. It’s been lovely just to wander.”

“I’m glad you decided to stop here in Chicago.” Christine set her water down. “It’s been years since you’ve been back here, right? Not since you and–”

“Not since him and Alison moved, yeah.” Logan’s voice was slightly louder than before, and Adam couldn’t help but notice the glance he shot his wife. She raised her eyebrows almost sarcastically in response, and the uneasy feeling in Adam’s gut grew. “Any destinations in mind on the way to California?” Logan asked, deftly steering the conversation away, and Adam shrugged.

“Not really. I know that Lawrence wants me to see– Lawrence? Are you okay?”

The doctor cleared his throat, gaze dropping from Logan’s to rest on his plate. “Fine,” he said quickly. “Yes, we’re– I’d like him to see as much of the United States as I can offer him. At least provide some good photography opportunities.”

“You’re a photographer, then?” Christine prompted.

“I–“ His immediate impulse was, as ever, to dismiss himself, but something stopped him. “Yeah,” Adam said instead, and from the corner of his eye he saw Lawrence smile. “Yeah, I am.”

“He’s got one of the most remarkable eyes for imagery I’ve ever seen,” Lawrence said, sending a flush across Adam’s face. “You should see some of the things he’s shot, it really is incredible.”

“I’d love to.” Logan smiled. “So, this trip– it’s all new to you?”

“Yeah. I haven’t had the time or budget to travel much as an adult, and growing up– well, we weren’t really a vacation household,” Adam said, lips twitching at his own understatement. “I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean, so I’m looking forward to that. I’ve never even been further west than Pennsylvania before.”

“And you’re, what, twenty-two?” Christine’s eyes searched his.

His face burned again. “Twenty-five. Uh, I know I’ve got a bit of baby-face going for me. It's the acne scars, mostly.”

“I see.” She raised her glass of water, her gaze sliding amusedly from Adam, to Lawrence, to Logan, and back to Lawrence. “That’s about how old you were when you met Lawrence, right, babe?”

Logan nodded, his lips flattening slightly. “Twenty-six,” he said quietly.

There was that unsaid presence again, weighing down Logan’s words, heavy in the look Lawrence held him with. Adam’s brow creased, and he was nearly at the point of being frustrated enough to ask what the hell was going on, when Christine got up from the table.

“I’m going to get myself some more water. More wine for anyone?” she asked, and Lawrence shook his head.

“I’m fine, thank you. It’s a lovely red, though.” He hummed. “We should have brought something, I feel rude.”

“Oh, it’s alright. I would’ve felt bad for having to refuse a gift, anyway.”

Lawrence’s brow creased. “Why–”

The couple traded a look, and Christine smiled. “Go on, tell them.”

Logan caught Lawrence’s eye with a look Adam couldn’t quite decipher– there was joy in it, and peace, but there was also the smallest bit of pity. “We’re having a baby,” he said, his voice soft, and Lawrence’s fork fell to the table.

“Oh, wow,” Adam said, leaping in before anyone else could react. “That’s so great, congratulations!”

“When did you find out?” Lawrence’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “That’s– it’s wonderful news.”

Logan’s eyes didn’t leave Lawrence’s. “We found out two weeks ago. She’s only about a month along.”

“I’m hoping for a boy,” Christine said, sitting back down with a fresh glass of water. She was beaming. “But Logan’s got his heart set on a little girl he can spoil absolutely rotten.”

“That’s not true. I mean, fair, I’ve got more girl names picked out than boy names, but you know I’ll be happy with anything.” Logan finally looked over to his wife, smiling. He took her hand and kissed it, soft adoration in his eyes.

“I’m so happy for you.” Adam knew Lawrence well enough by now to be able to hear the genuine joy in his voice, strained as it was. There was a flush high on his cheeks. “I know you always wanted a family, Logan.”

“You’ll have to bring Diana to visit once the baby’s born,” Logan said, brushing one last kiss to Christine’s knuckles before looking back over to Lawrence. “I’d love for them to grow up as friends.”

To his surprise, Lawrence’s hand found Adam’s under the table. He was shaking slightly, and Adam squeezed his hand reassuringly, knowing there was a pain going through him at the reminder of how little control he might have over who Diana grew up around.

“I’d love that, too,” he said. His voice was remarkably steady, but under the table, he was gripping Adam’s hand like a vise.

The guest room the Nelsons had ready for them contained both a cozy guest bed and a fold-out sofa, and Adam immediately claimed the latter before Lawrence could protest.

“I’ve slept on more couches than you’ve probably sat on,” he said, stretching out with a sigh. “And this is one of the comfier ones, too.”

“If you’re sure.” Lawrence worried his lip. “I’d hate for you to sleep poorly.”

“I’ll be snug as a bug,” Adam said firmly, shooting him an easy grin. “Was it nice to see Logan again?”

Lawrence had turned away to put his clothes neatly into his suitcase, and at that his movements slowed a little.

“Of course,” he said finally, reaching for his slippers. “Yes, it was– it’s wonderful to see the two of them so happy.”

Adam let his gaze linger on the back of Lawrence’s neck, catching the slight blush that disappeared under his pajama shirt collar. “Did something happen between the two of you?” he asked, and Lawrence froze. “I mean, from what you said, it’s been years since you’ve seen each other in person– did you have a fight, or something?”

“Not quite.” Lawrence’s voice was quiet. “My life with Alison took me away from the area, that’s all. I’m going to get a glass of water, would you like one?”

Adam could tell he was hiding something behind the awkward turn of phrase and abrupt change of subject, but he didn’t push. “Nah, I’m okay.” He flopped back onto the sofa bed, staring up at the popcorn ceiling, and hummed. “I like Logan,” Adam decided. “You’re right– he’s very kind. And Christine’s nice, too.”

“I’m glad he ended up with someone that sweet,” Lawrence agreed, easing himself into his wheelchair with a soft grunt. “He deserves an easy love.”

He turned to look at him, curious, but Lawrence had already made his way out of the room, heading towards the kitchen. Adam smiled a little, and picked his phone up, thumbing over to Amanda’s name.

Adam: merry late xmas :) sry 4 not txting

He wasn’t expecting an immediate response, but to his surprise, his phone vibrated in his hand as soon as he went to set it down.

Mandy: & a hpy new yr. ur not ded then?

Adam: not yet

Adam: his mdle name is henry btw

Mandy: f*cked him yet?

His face flared into a blush.

Adam: no!!!

Mandy: wow 3 exclmatin marks

Mandy: fatal case of f*cklessness

Mandy: rip

Adam: shut up

Mandy: r u havin fun n e way?

As his thumbs hovered over the buttons, deciding how to sum up the breadth of his feelings into a simple text, he heard soft voices in the hallway outside the guest room.

“...with Alison? I thought…”

It was Logan’s voice, deep and tinged with the Jersey accent Adam had heard in his tone before. He sounded a bit agitated, but the rest of his sentence was muffled as the heating kicked on with a soft woosh.

Adam leaned slightly closer to the door, not dedicated enough to his eavesdropping to leave the bed; not when he was so tired and content. It wasn’t his business, anyway, he thought– and then he heard his name.

“...to Adam, and you know that.”

“Logan.” Lawrence’s voice was slightly raised. He sounded distressed. “Please, don’t.”

“I’ve seen the way–”

Adam leaned forward slightly, and his bed creaked. Logan’s voice stopped mid-sentence, and Adam heard muffled footsteps, the creaking of Lawrence’s chair. They were moving away from the door of the guest room, out of earshot.

He lay back in his bed, mind swirling.

What was it that they could possibly be arguing about that involved both Adam and Alison? Lawrence had sounded so upset, his voice fragile. Had Adam done something wrong– had Logan noticed his pathetic crush on the man, and told him about it?

Surely Lawrence already knew.

But if he did…why was he still being so kind to him? Why was he careless enough to allow Adam to share his bed, to take his hand, to call him sweetheart as if he–

Adam rolled over, tongue thick in his mouth. Unthinkingly, he picked up his phone.

Adam: i dont think ive evr been happier

It was the truth, and it was a relief to say it, to finally tell someone. Despite the maelstrom inside him at the half-overheard conversation, the joy that welled up inside Adam at Lawrence’s tolerance for him– for his friendship, whatever that looked like for the other man– was warm and filling, spreading through him in tendrils.

Mandy: good. hapy 4 u :)

He was nearly asleep when he heard the voices again. Lawrence’s was low and faltering, his words indistinct as he neared the doorway of the room. Logan’s voice was slightly firmer, but still heavy with sorrow as the door opened.

“Maybe it’ll be worth staying for, this time,” he said quietly, and Adam heard Lawrence let out a trembling sigh. “Night, Lawrence. Sleep well, alright?”

“Goodnight, Logan.”

Adam closed his eyes, not wanting Lawrence to know he was awake as he made his way over to the guest bed. He was breathing shakily, and if Adam didn’t know better, he’d almost guess that he was on the verge of tears.

He heard him get into bed, sigh, and then stillness spread over the two of them like a heavy blanket, pulling Adam into sleep.

Notes:

please drop a comment if you enjoyed! at this point in the story, i'd also like to politely request that if you've read The Price of Salt, have seen Carol, or are familiar with where the story is going, please refrain from explicit spoilers for future events in the comments. i know it's a bit silly of me, but i want everyone to experience the story as it unfolds naturally. thank you!

Chapter 21: strange you never knew

Notes:

this chapter and the next are going to be a little shorter than usual; I would apologize for that but honestly it was so much fun writing them and they're both so dear to my heart that I'm happy I get to stretch it out a little. thank you as always to the outstanding ginny and sarah for proofreading and encouraging me ceaselessly!

no content warnings to speak of this time! title is from Fade Into You by Mazzy Star. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Adam woke before Lawrence again, blinking in the weak sunlight that streamed through the window of the Nelsons’ guest room. He’d slept soundly; judging by the snores emitting from the guest bed, so had Lawrence.

He rolled onto his side so he could catch a glimpse of him. Lawrence was lying on his back, one arm folded over his chest and curled into a loose fist just over his heart, head tilted to the side on his pillow with his lips barely parted. He was facing Adam, separated by the few feet of space between the sofa’s fold-out bed and the guest bed itself, and Adam wanted so badly to reach across and brush the tendrils of his hair off his forehead for him, to touch his warm skin.

Instead, he rose quietly and shuffled into the bathroom with a fresh change of clothes and the towel that had been laid out for him, letting the wanting wash over him just as the water from the shower did, settling deep into his bones, making its home there as he was so used to it doing by now.

Logan was in the kitchen when he emerged, frying eggs as an FM talk show played quietly over the radio perched next to the coffee machine.

“Morning,” he said, glancing up. “Did you sleep alright?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Adam hovered for a moment, uncertain, before Logan gestured for him to have a seat at the small kitchen table just behind him. “The sofa was really comfortable. Thank you for letting us stay the night.”

“Of course.” He flipped over one of the eggs. “You’re welcome to pop over anytime you’re in Chicago– Christine and I would be happy to have you.”

“Thanks.” Adam wasn’t sure if it was a plural you that Logan was using; it gave him a little thrill to think that it could be, that he would think of Lawrence and Adam as a package deal. He propped his chin up on his palm, elbow resting on the table’s coffee-ringed surface, and watched as Logan slid the egg onto a plate and covered it with a loose tent of tinfoil to keep it warm.

“How do you like your eggs, Adam?”

“Oh– any way’s fine.”

“Over hard?”

“Sure.” Logan cracked another egg into the pan, one-handed, and deftly cast the two halves of the shell into the trashcan without missing a beat. “Were you a line cook at one point?” Adam guessed, and was rewarded with one of Logan’s warm, easy smiles.

“I was, yeah. I worked part time at Friendly’s while I was pre-med, back in New Jersey. Most stressful four years of my life.”

Adam chuckled. “God, I can’t imagine.” They both fell silent for a while, with the only sounds in the kitchen being the sizzling of the eggs and the muted voices on the radio.

Eventually, Logan glanced over his shoulder at him. “Lawrence’s sleeping in, then?”

“Yeah. Yeah, he must’ve needed the rest. He usually gets up earlier than I do.”

“Six on the dot, right?”

Adam straightened a little in his chair, nearly subconsciously. “I– yeah.” The back of Logan’s neck was slightly pink, and that nagging feeling was back in Adam’s gut, more insistent than before. The different realizations were sliding into place for him now, and his mouth went slightly dry as they fit together to form a picture that had, in retrospect, been staring him right in the face.

The courage to say it was welling up in him, pushing the words out before he could think better of it.

“Logan,” he started, hating the hesitance he could hear in his own voice, “were you– you weren’t just friends, were you?”

His movements remained steady as he pressed down with the spatula to break the yolk, but Adam could see his broad shoulders sink down slightly with a long, quiet exhale.

“Three months,” Logan said softly. “1995. I was his resident at Northwestern Memorial. I began it, he ended it. Alison found out.”

Somehow, the world kept turning after he said it. Somehow the eggs kept sizzling, the radio kept playing, the birds outside the window kept singing. Adam felt that it should all stop, that everything should come to a crashing halt. His heart certainly did, stuttering to a standstill and then kicking into a wild gallop, thumping hard against his ribs as if it were trying to break free from him.

Five sentences, and everything made sense. The glances and awkward words between the two of them the previous night at dinner, the hushed disagreement they’d had afterwards. The way that Alison had looked at Adam when she’d seen him in their home, and Lawrence’s uneasy silence as he’d driven Adam to the station.

Logan glanced back at him. “Are you okay?”

“Y-yeah. I…yeah.” Adam swallowed, forcing himself to breathe. “How…?”

“How did it start?” He flipped the egg over. “I’d passed one of my exams, and he took me for a drink to celebrate. One drink turned into two, two turned into a few more, a few more turned into a lot more. He was too drunk to drive home– we both were– so I offered my apartment for him to stay for the night. We were watching a movie on the couch, waiting to sober up, and he said something that just made me–” Logan wet his lips, and Adam could see him trembling slightly. “We were watching some dime-a-dozen romance movie, and he told me that he thought sometimes that he was broken. That he’d never felt like a real person, had never been able to love his wife the way he thought he ought to. That there was some missing piece in him that he’d been too afraid to search for, and…”

Logan let out another slow breath.

“I kissed him. I’d wanted to for nearly a year. I didn’t think he’d kiss me back, but he did. And– I couldn’t stop. I didn’t, not for the whole night. Not for three months.”

He turned, catching Adam’s eye, and gave him a small, melancholy smile.

“And then–” Adam couldn’t finish the sentence, but Logan seemed to understand what he was asking.

“He left my bed one morning, and that was the day Alison saw the mark I’d left on his neck. The last time I saw him was his back, two weeks later, leaving his office at the hospital. They’d already bought their new place in New Jersey by that point– Lawrence hadn’t told me that. Alison was pregnant with Diana at the time.” He kept his eyes on the pan in front of him. “That part, I did know. It was terrible of me, but–I’d already fallen so hard for him, I couldn’t help it. And it wasn’t even worth it, in the end. He left without even saying goodbye.”

“I’m so sorry.” Adam dug his fingertips into the inside of his palm, the dull blades of his nails pressing knifelike against the corded muscle there. “I…it must’ve been…”

“It was the worst pain I’d ever felt,” Logan said frankly, and effortlessly slid the finished egg onto a plate. “I’m sorry to have put you through that melodrama at dinner last night. I hope you understand a little of it now.”

“Y-yeah.” Adam stared down at the table as the plate landed softly in front of him. His appetite had unsurprisingly vanished, but the delicious smell still sent a silent rumble through his stomach. “It’s– thank you. For telling me, and– and for breakfast.” Logan handed him a fork, and as their fingers brushed, a thought occurred to him. “Did you– did you tell Christine about him before we got here? It seemed– at dinner, it almost seemed like…like she knew.”

“Oh, she’s always known about me and Lawrence. She was my rebound that same summer, and it just…it took. We clicked.” Logan sat across from him with his own plate, a familiarly fond smile on his face. “I was lucky to find someone willing to be that patient with me. It helped that she was a psych major– child psychology, but still.”

Adam took a bite of his egg, savoring it despite the tension still present in his gut. “And you’ve been together ever since?”

“We separated for a while in ‘98, but it didn’t last. We both missed each other too much.” He sipped his coffee, fingers drumming lightly on the side of the mug. “I think I knew from the moment I met her that I wouldn’t be able to let that girl go.”

Adam knew the feeling.

Lawrence woke shortly after, joining them for breakfast along with a yawning Christine. The conversation seemed easier in the morning, but that may have been Adam’s perception of it now that he was able to understand the full scope of what had happened between the two men.

“So, where to next?” Christine asked, setting her orange juice down.

“Kansas City, I think.” Lawrence caught Adam’s eye, smiling. “That’s our next proper destination, anyway, but I think we’ll stay somewhere in Iowa tonight.”

Adam returned his grin, giving Riker a hearty thump on the side– the dog had sidled up to him at some point and stayed there, pleased to soak in his affection. “We’ll have to find a few places to stop in one of your guidebooks. Isn’t the World’s Largest Strawberry out there somewhere?”

“That sounds about right for Iowa.” Lawrence set his empty plate aside. “I would like to see a bit more of Chicago today, though. Just for a few hours. There’s a few bookstores I sorely miss.”

“Myopic moved locations a couple of times while you were away,” Logan said. “They’re back on 1564 North Milwaukee now. Judd’s only working there part time these days, he got sick in 2002 and he’s been spending more time in Arkansas. I’ll tell him you dropped by if you miss him.”

“Please do.” He gave Logan a soft smile, and despite knowing it was long over between them, Adam couldn’t help the small, shameful twinge of jealousy that went through him.

It was funny– a part of him was handling the new revelation of Lawrence’s attraction to men with the delicacy of a bomb, nearly afraid to look at it. It seemed too good to be true, too cosmic of a coincidence that the man he’d had a hopeless crush on ever since first seeing him could ever share Adam’s inclinations. He didn’t dare let himself think about it further with regards to himself, to what he and Lawrence could be if he ever worked up the courage to act on his feelings, but he found it surprisingly easy to picture him and Logan as a couple. They seemed to speak the same language, somehow– there was some intangible link between them.

“And what about New Year’s Eve?” Christine asked, settling back in her chair. “Any big plans?”

Despite his careful safeguarding against the newfound hope lilting through him, Adam couldn’t help but melt under the charmingly mischievous smile Lawrence gave him at that. “I’m sure we’ll think of something. We’re good at improvising.”

The Nelsons saw them off with warm hugs and a large plastic baggie of cookies, along with a promise to call if either of them were ever in town. Lawrence’s hug with Logan seemed to have lasted a little shorter than the doctor would have liked, judging from the way his hand lingered slightly on Logan’s elbow, but he still gave him a wide, genuine smile as he picked up his suitcase.

“It really was wonderful to see you again,” he said, as Logan stepped back up onto the porch. “And Christine, it was such a pleasure to finally meet you.”

“You too, Larry.” She kissed his cheek, and gave Adam a grin. “You guys got everything?”

Adam patted his pockets perfunctorily, and then paused. “sh*t– I think I left my phone in the guest room.”

“I’ll start the car and get the heating going while you grab it,” Lawrence said, and started down the short walkway to the road as Logan let Adam back inside.

Adam found his phone quickly, but as he was tucking it back into his shirt pocket, Logan cleared his throat, leaning against the wall next to the guest room with his arms folded.

“I hope you don’t mind me saying this,” he said, and Adam’s heart stuttered in its rhythm, his mouth drying slightly at the indecipherable look in the taller man’s eyes, “but…I’ve been in your shoes. And I want to give you some advice, if you’ll let me.”

“What do you–”

“Lawrence,” Logan said simply. “He’s– he’s a very singular person. A good person, when he lets himself be one. It’s easy to fall in love with him, and almost impossible to pull yourself out.”

His breath snagged, and Logan gave him a gentle, knowing smile.

“Let it happen,” he told Adam. “However and whenever it does, whether sooner or later, give yourself permission to fall. Let yourself feel it. This time is a gift, Adam. You’re allowed to treat it as such.”

Logan pushed himself off the wall, heading back towards his home’s front entryway, and Adam followed him automatically, his heart still in his throat.

“But what if–” he said, just as Logan was reaching for the door’s use-burnished handle. “What if he doesn’t…care about me in that way?”

The look Logan gave him spoke volumes, and Adam suddenly knew what he was going to say before he even opened his mouth, had somehow always known it.

“Would he be doing all of this for you if he didn’t?” he said, and opened the door.

It wasn’t any different, sitting by Lawrence’s side in the car as they made their way back into the city. The distance between them was the same one-and-a-half feet, the things they talked about were the same, Lawrence chuckled at his jokes in the exact way he had before.

It wasn’t that anything had changed– it had always been like this between them, ever since the very start. Adam was just more aware of it now, able to take in every look they traded with newfound happiness, able to watch the sweep of Lawrence’s hair over his forehead with fresh, joyful eyes, drinking him in fully.

They stopped at the bookstore Logan had mentioned, and Lawrence bought Adam a book of poetry, slipping it into his hand with the receipt tucked into one of the pages like a bookmark as they left the store.

“It’s by Naomi Shihab Nye,” he said, opening the car door for him as Adam leafed through to where the receipt was shivering in the brisk wind. “Words Under the Words. I think you’ll like her. You seem to have a very similar outlook on life; I think she’ll really speak to you.”

Adam grinned, hopelessly endeared by the way he spoke as if the poet was an old friend of his. “Thank you. I think– I think this is the first actual book of poetry I’ve ever owned.”

“I’ll lend you some of my favorites when we get back home,” Lawrence said, and the casual way he said it made Adam wish, suddenly and fervently, that they were both picturing the same place when he said home.

They went to an Italian restaurant for lunch, pouring over guidebooks and maps as they ate, trading suggestions for places to stop, chuckling about the names of the different towns they’d pass on their way to Kansas City. At one point, Adam drew out the XPan, shushing Lawrence when he half-heartedly protested.

“I’ve got pizza grease on my lips,” the doctor said, adjusting his glasses self-consciously.

“Well, I happen to think that’s a great look. Super handsome.” He caught him mid-laugh, eyes open and warm, and then checked to make sure the aperture had been set correctly before glancing back up.

Lawrence was smiling down at the map, reading glasses glinting, and as Adam lowered his camera, it hit him with the intensity of the sun splitting effortlessly through the clouds, washing over him with brilliant, perfect, achingly obvious clarity.

Adam loved him.

His breath caught in his chest with an audible hitch, and Lawrence briefly glanced up at him, blue eyes distracted but still mildly concerned. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” Adam said, clearing his throat. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

It wasn’t just a crush. It hadn’t been for a long time now, if it ever was to begin with. He loved him, he was in love with him, deep and real and all-encompassing, singing through his body with the same truth and surety as his own heart’s constant rhythm.

He had loved Lawrence since he had first seen him in the toy department, had loved his mouth and his eyes and his soft voice. He loved the way his lips twitched whenever he said something he thought Adam would find funny, the way it blossomed into a full smile when he laughed. He loved the way he looked ten years younger when he spoke about his daughter, the way his hand brushed idly against the wallet in his pocket that held her photos when he mentioned her name. He loved how he mouthed along to songs he liked, and how he hummed when he was thinking. He loved the way he was patient with the people who worked at the hotels they stayed at, the restaurants they ate at, always asking how they were doing and tipping them more than twenty percent.

And he loved the things most people wouldn’t love– the crease in his brow when Lawrence was impatient, the way his sentences grew short and clipped when he was angry. The way he was stubborn about not asking for help when he needed it, and too plentiful when he didn’t but wanted Adam to feel useful. The way his accent came out when he was tired, the way he swore when he shouldn’t.

It was as natural a feeling as waking to sunlight, soft and gentle and inevitable. The discovery of it thrilled him, but it wasn’t a surprise. It had always been there, deep in his heart, nearly from the moment he’d seen him. Adam loved him. Adam adored him.

“What are you smiling at?” Lawrence asked, not looking up, and Adam realized that he had been beaming.

“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. “Just, uh– just thinking about Iowa.”

He peered at him over his glasses, lips twitching wryly, and Adam could feel the bird of his heart burst into furious song. “What’s so great about Iowa?”

“We’ll be there,” Adam answered simply.

Lawrence chucked softly, looking back down at the map. “Not exactly the most exciting place to spend New Year’s Eve, but maybe we can catch some fireworks in Des Moines. We ought to be able to reach it by midnight. Would you like that?”

“Sure.” He didn’t care about fireworks. He didn’t care about New Year’s Eve. He didn’t care about Des Moines. All Adam could think about was how much of an idiot he’d been for not realizing sooner that his feelings for Lawrence had burrowed deeper into his heart than he’d ever intended them to, blossoming up inside him until he was full with it, glowing with it. “Yeah, that sounds– that sounds great.”

Notes:

please leave a comment if you enjoyed! chapter 22 will be up next Wednesday!

Chapter 22: i must've been asleep for days

Notes:

thank you so, so much to ginny and sarah for everything you've done to support me, i owe you guys everything.

no content warnings to speak of this time; title is from Just Like Heaven by The Cure. enjoy!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

They left Chicago just as the sun began to set, driving into the encroaching dusk with full bellies and light hearts.

The hours always passed so easily with him, Adam had learned– he’d never been so happy to have nothing to do. Lawrence told him about Diana’s first birthday party and the mess he’d made of the cake, laughing so hard at the memory that his story was nearly incoherent. They talked about the movies Adam loved, and Lawrence swore up and down that he would give John Carpenter another shot after being sorely disappointed by Christine.

The revelation he’d had at lunch stayed nestled in Adam’s chest like a sleeping animal, a warm and silent presence he carried inside him, gentling it, nearly afraid to wake it. A part of him had always known the depth of his feelings for Lawrence, but it was only now that he allowed himself to truly feel it, to let it spread through his heart, his whole body, in warm and gentle waves. Logan’s advice rang in his ears, a sort of permission he’d been subconsciously waiting to receive, and now he couldn’t stop himself from basking in its glow.

I love you, he thought, watching Lawrence laugh. I love you, as Lawrence reached instinctively for his coat to offer Adam when he saw him shiver slightly. I love you, as Adam picked up his new book of poetry and saw him smile out of the corner of his eye.

“Will you read me something?” Lawrence asked, flicking the overhead light on for him. “Just– anything. Pick a title that speaks to you.”

Adam leafed to a page halfway through the book, and cleared his throat.

“It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness,” he read, and Lawrence had been right– it spoke to him, humming in perfect harmony with the rush of emotions flooding through him now. “With sadness there is something to rub against, a wound to tend with lotion and cloth. When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up, something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change. But happiness floats. It doesn’t need you to hold it down. It doesn’t need anything.”

Lawrence listened in silence to the rest of the poem, a warm smile on his face. “I told you,” he said. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” A second nagging need, much less risky to voice than the one that had been itching under his skin for weeks, was beginning to rise in him. “Hey, uh, can we stop soon? I need to use the bathroom.”

They pulled over into a gas station, and after Adam had used the frankly disgusting bathroom, washing his hands so thoroughly that they felt chapped and raw, he impulsively grabbed some party poppers and a six-pack of Miller High Lifes from the convenience store attached.

“I got some confetti for us,” he said, once he was back in the BMW, and held them up along with the beer. “And we won’t exactly have champagne, but I got the next best thing– the champagne of beers.”

The doctor snorted and started the car. “You’re awfully susceptible to advertising.”

“Yeah, well, I’m supposed to be. I’m the demographic all beer companies are trying to target.”

“I suppose so. White, male, early twenties, straight.”

It was impulse, maybe, or courage. Maybe it was derived from what Logan had told him. Maybe it was the residual high of such a perfect day, the fizzing in his blood from knowing the full shape of his feelings towards the man next to him. Whatever it was, Adam obeyed his instinct.

“White, male, mid-twenties,” he corrected him, and paused for the barest millisecond before adding, “bisexual.”

The way Lawrence’s fingers flexed around the steering wheel was unmistakable.

“I suppose,” he said, and Adam’s stomach churned in sympathy at his hesitance, the near-shyness of his voice, “that makes my demographic less desirable for them. White, male, mid-forties…gay.”

Adam let it rest in the air between them, let Lawrence process to himself what he’d said. He wondered if it was the first time he’d said it aloud, or if his palpable nervousness came from his own assumption of how Adam would’ve taken it. Either way, it made a rush of red bloom over Lawrence’s face, fervent and delicate. Adam could hear the shake of his breath, imagined he could feel how quickly his pulse was racing, and Adam gave him a smile as he glanced over to Adam’s side while merging.

“I dunno, man,” Adam said, keeping his voice light. “I still think you’re pretty marketable.”

“To who, exactly?”

He shrugged playfully. “Tea companies?”

Lawrence began to laugh helplessly, the sound giddy and effervescent. “God, you won’t– you won’t believe this. Look what I bought while you were in the restroom.” They’d reached a red light, and he reached into the backseat and drew out a box of chamomile tea, holding it up for Adam’s inspection.

He burst into laughter, flushing at the absurdity of it, at the relief palpable between them now that a shining piece of the truth was out. The doctor seemed freer now, his shoulders loose as they shook with laughter.

Lawrence suddenly held up a hand, halting the last ripples of giggles. He cranked the volume up– Adam had chosen The Cure from his CD collection for their drive across the state, and the bassline from “Just Like Heaven” rumbled through the car.

“Oh, this is one of my favorite songs on earth,” Lawrence sighed, drumming his thumbs lightly on the steering wheel as he turned back onto the interstate. “Do you know it?”

“Yeah, of course.” Adam opened his mouth to say something, but to his surprise, Lawrence cut him off.

“‘Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick, that one that makes me scream,’ she said,” he sang, his voice wavering slightly as he found the right key. “‘The one that makes me laugh,’ she said, and threw her arms around my neck.” His accent was coming out in full force on certain words, and his eyes were wrinkled from how widely he was smiling, and Adam’s heart was soaring, far above his body, above the clouds, pierced through by sunlight and blooming with incandescent, perfect warmth.

His eyes met Adam’s, and Adam was never able to sing, had been mocked for it, had always sounded flat, but suddenly he was singing anyway. “‘Show me how you do it, and I promise you, I promise that I’ll run away with you– I’ll run away with you.’”

Lawrence attempted to harmonize with him on the last line, and their voices clashed awkwardly, but Adam couldn’t bring himself to care at all, because it made Lawrence laugh. He had never looked more perfect, had never shone so brightly, and Adam wanted to kiss him so badly it hurt. He was full to bursting with loving him, with the blue of his eyes and the tangles of his hair, tracing his lips with his eyes as Lawrence kept singing.

“Spinning on that dizzy edge, I kissed her face and kissed her head, and dreamed of all the different ways I had to make her glow.” Lawrence’s voice was clear and strong now that he’d found the right pitch, and Adam could hear the smile in his voice.

“‘Why are you so far away?’ she said,” Adam sang, voice cracking horribly on the high note. He knew the lyrics that were coming next, and his pulse picked up, so loud he was sure Lawrence could hear it. f*ck it. He didn’t care. He meant every syllable. “‘Why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?’”

“‘That I’m in love with you.’” This time, when Lawrence sang the harmony, their voices blended perfectly. The doctor’s hand lifted off the steering wheel and landed on Adam’s knee, gently squeezing.

“You, soft and only,” Lawrence sang. Adam found that his own voice had left him, lost somewhere behind the lump in his throat. ”You, lost and lonely. You, strange as angels dancing in the deepest oceans, twisting in the water– you’re just like a dream, you’re just like a dream…”

He had to tell him, Adam realized. Really, properly tell him. He couldn’t stand holding it inside him anymore. Eight days of being so close to him, close enough to touch but unable to cross the barrier and kiss him, had been long enough. Even if Lawrence rejected him, Adam couldn’t live with him not knowing how fiercely he loved him.

“Lawrence,” he said, during the instrumental. “Listen, I–“

“Look at that.” Lawrence squeezed his knee once more, warmly, and then lifted his hand to point to the illuminated sign they were passing. “Waterloo, Iowa. My god, what a name for a city.”

Adam laughed; he couldn’t help it. “f*ck Des Moines,” he decided suddenly. “Let’s do New Year’s here.”

Lawrence caught his eyes. “In Waterloo? Really?”

“Yeah.” Adam grinned. “It’s almost nine, anyway– this way, we’ve got plenty of time before the ball drops to settle into the hotel, to– to really make a night of it. We’ll make it fun.”

The doctor tossed his hair back and laughed, turning on his blinker to take the exit into Waterloo. “That sounds perfect to me.”

The song ended, the quirking guitars of “Lullaby” overtaking the car, but Adam’s heart was still racing, still soaring.

“What were you going to say, before?” Lawrence asked, as they pulled up to a small motel.

Adam shook his head. “I’ll tell you later,” he said. “It can wait.” It had waited his whole life, he thought, his whole life and eight perfect days– it could wait until the morning, until the new year.

Lawrence looked at him, a fond smile tilting at his lips. He didn’t say anything, but Adam could feel his eyes on him, a constant, comforting weight, as steady and gentle as his hand had been on his leg.

The motel they arrived at was somewhat rundown, a modest place painted a shabby, faded red. They requested an ADA-compliant double room from seemingly the only person on staff, a young woman with a perfunctory Happy 2005 party hat perched in her brown curls and a slight gap between her front teeth, and Lawrence called up some Chinese delivery for their dinner as they lugged their bags over.

It was a relatively large room, the only wheelchair-accessible accommodation offered by the motel, and Adam took in the furnishings– an ancient, blocky TV, lurid green wallpaper, a vanity complete with a mirror in place of a desk. The only chair was the one by the vanity, and Lawrence unfolded his wheelchair to have somewhere to sit.

Adam bemoaned the fuzzy signal of the TV as he tuned into the ball drop back in New York, but it was just for the sake of making Lawrence laugh– he couldn’t find it in himself to really be bothered by anything so mundane as a patchy signal when the other man was humming absently under his breath, unpacking his slippers from his suitcase and giving Adam a starry grin when he began to hum along as well.

As usual, Lawrence offered him the shower first, and Adam found himself straining to hear the little domestic noises of the doctor moving around the room over the flow of the water as he washed his hair. It made him wonder a little, in an absent, idle sort of way, what he was like when he was alone. Did Lawrence hum when he puttered around his house in New Jersey? Selfishly, Adam hoped not– he himself had only started to do the same when he was around the other man, and he wondered if it was the same for Lawrence.

The food arrived as he was toweling off, and he emerged from the bathroom to find a spread of steaming hot Chinese takeout on the small vanity. He and Lawrence ate quietly while watching Ashelee Simpson perform, her voice crackling with occasional fuzz from the poor signal.

“Do you wish you were back there at all?” Lawrence asked after a while, carefully folding the empty box his dumplings had come in and tossing it into the trash.

Adam looked up, his mouth full of noodles. “Huh?”

“New York. For the ball drop. Or– just in general, I suppose.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to be anywhere else,” Adam said honestly, and Lawrence’s answering smile was slow and brilliant.

“Me, neither,” he said, and stretched, yawning. “I’m going to shower.”

Adam finished his food and set about tidying up; he’d found that he’d been taking better care of their shared space than he ever had with his own apartment. Maybe the doctor’s fastidiousness was rubbing off on him. As he threw away the fortune cookie wrappers, he glanced at his phone, and his heart sank a little.

There was a missed call from Vikki.

She seemed so far from him now, Adam thought. Worlds away, eons in the past. He didn’t hesitate for a second before deleting her voicemail.

When Lawrence emerged from the bathroom, Adam was surprised to see that not only had he not removed his prosthetic– or, at least, he’d put it back on after his shower– but that he’d pulled his tartan robe tightly over his chest, letting the fabric cascade over his pajama bottoms as he made his way back into the room, cane tapping softly against the carpeted floor.

“Are you cold?” he asked, and Lawrence grimaced, embarrassed.

“I forgot my pajama shirt at Logan’s. I hung it up by the shower to get some of the wrinkles out with the steam– I must’ve left it there.”

“You can borrow one of my shirts,” Adam offered, but Lawrence shook his head.

“Thank you, but I don’t think they’d fit me.” He glanced at the TV, and then at the beers next to the flimsy plastic cups that came with the room. “Would you like to get some ice for us? I thought I saw an ice machine by the front desk.”

Adam went obediently, bundling his flannel over his own pajamas.

On his way to the ice machine, he stumbled into a few extremely drunk college-aged guys loudly singing some sh*tty pop song, swaying across the parking lot and nearly making Adam careen into a white truck parked inconveniently close to the sidewalk. It reminded him of the last New Year’s Eve he’d spent in Buffalo– Scott, his buddies, a couple of 40s of Labatt Blue, the poor girl Scott had wheedled into being Adam’s date. It had been the first and worst New Year’s kiss of his life, smelling like drugstore perfume and tasting like cheap beer and lip gloss.

It seemed a lifetime ago, now. He looked back at that Adam with pity– he didn’t know how much worse things would get for him, or how worth it it would all be, someday.

By the time he got back to their room with the ice, the ball had dropped. Lawrence looked up from the cheering crowds on the TV, an apologetic smile on his face. “Happy New Year,” he said. “I saved the party poppers for you, even though it’s passed.”

Adam’s heart sank, but only a tiny bit. He’d had half a plan to kiss him at midnight, but now that the chance had passed him by, he was glad he hadn't– it would’ve cheapened it, in a way. However and whenever it happened, if it happened at all, he wanted it to belong only to them, not to the customs of a holiday.

“Wanna do our own countdown?” he asked, handing Lawrence the ice. “To, uh–“ Adam briefly checked the digital clock by his bed. “To 12:10?”

Lawrence chuckled, and poured their drinks. “Sounds like a plan.” He held up his wrist, counting silently with the second hand of his watch as Adam clicked the TV off. “…and that’s ten, nine, eight, seven–“

Adam grabbed one of the party poppers off the vanity, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he did. He couldn’t remember seeing himself looking this happy in his entire life.

“Five, four, three, two, one!“

Adam let out a whoop, pulling the cord on his popper and letting loose a small, somewhat pathetic burst of confetti. He watched it drift to the floor and then turned, grinning, to Lawrence. “Happy–“

The taller man leaned down and kissed him gently on the cheek, so quickly that Adam was almost sure he’d imagined it. “Happy 12:10,” he said, straightening back up. The only indication that he’d done anything out of the ordinary was a faint blush on his face.

Adam opened his mouth, and closed it. His cheek tingled, as if Lawrence had given him a shock of static electricity. “Happy 12:10,” he said finally, positive that he was bright red, and took a sip of his drink.

“2005,” Lawrence sighed, finishing his own drink and crumpling the cup up to toss into the trash. “Do you have any resolutions? Goals, plans?”

He sank onto the chair in front of the vanity, propping his chin in his hands and gazing idly at his own reflection. “I just want to be happy, I think,” Adam said after a while, and smiled to himself. “I’m off to a good start. This was the best New Year’s Eve I think I’ve ever had. One of the best Christmases, too.”

“I’m glad.” Lawrence moved behind him, reaching forward to take his empty cup and throw it away as well. He paused, catching and holding Adam’s gaze in his reflection. “I…this has been one of the loveliest weeks of my life, Adam. I truly– I can’t thank you enough. It’s been so wonderful spending this time with you.”

"I was just thinking the same exact thing," Adam said, his voice quiet in the stillness of the room. On impulse, he took Lawrence's hand, keeping eye contact with him through the mirror. He let his face relax into a small, honest smile. "I'm so happy I met you."

Lawrence held his gaze, his eyes so impossibly fond that it made Adam’s chest ache.

He took the hand that Adam was holding, and, moving glacially slow, as if Adam might tug his hand from his grasp, brought it up to his lips.

Adam’s breath caught in his throat.

The doctor’s lips were warm, soft from smiling and ever so slightly damp from the last traces of his beer. The barest whisper of his breath ghosted over Adam’s flesh, and he willed himself not to shiver, knowing that the delicacy of the moment hung by a thread. Lawrence kept his eyes fixed on Adam’s through the mirror as he kissed his knuckles, the back of his hand.

And then, even more slowly, as if not to frighten him, he moved to lay Adam’s hand over Lawrence’s heart, on the warm, bare skin beneath his robe.

Adam’s own heart thundered, hard and fast enough that he was sure Lawrence would be able to hear it, to feel it through his hand. He didn't want to speak, didn't want to say anything that could make this real. If it was his fevered mind inventing a dream for him, let him dream.

He turned away from the mirror, keeping his hand pressed to the doctor’s skin as he met his gaze face-to-face. Lawrence let out a trembling breath, his eyes tracing over Adam’s face with a plain adoration that Adam realized, with a faint, distant shock, had always lurked beneath every look the man had given him.

Lawrence leaned down, and then hesitated. His face was near enough now that Adam could see the flecks of gray in his blue eyes, deep as the ocean; he could see the faintest spray of freckles on the bridge of his nose. Beneath his hand, he felt Lawrence’s heartbeat pick up speed, tripping in double-time, at complete odds with how cautiously he moved.

He cupped Adam’s cheek, and Adam let out a shaking breath.

“May I?” Lawrence asked, his voice soft and unsure. “Would you– would you let me, Adam?”

Adam didn’t dare blink. He couldn’t speak. All he could do was nod, once, and the expression that blossomed over Lawrence’s face was one of absolute, effervescent joy.

He kissed him, and every cell in Adam's body awoke.

Notes:

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

–Naomi Shihab Nye, excerpt from "So Much Happiness"

please leave a comment if you enjoyed; chapter 23 will be up next Wednesday :)

Till the Road and Sky Align - helloitsbees (2024)
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