if I have to switch the lights off Who: Alex & Adam. What: ALL THE THINGS. Where: 503. When: 31 October, after this. Warnings: None. Notes: Backdated but complete. Damn you, busy months.
Adam looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, sighing as he regarded his reflection. Dark bruises still patterned his pale skin, the shadowed smudges at his nose and temple so large they seemed to converge, marring almost the entirety of the left side of his face. Burst capillaries in his left eye gave him an appearance quite suited to Halloween, but little else; to friends and family he would continue to claim a work-related injury, but his coworkers themselves would know better. So he had taken some rare personal leave, planning to lie low until his wounds had at least faded enough to be easily concealed with the skillful application of minimal makeup. That, at least, was under control.
What troubled him was what had decidedly gotten out of hand, what he still had not even the barest idea of how to fix. He had not seen Alex since she had stormed out of his apartment in a righteous fury. Her reaction - and even her continued avoidance of him - were to him entirely understandable. He had earned this shunning, as much by his inaction over so many years as by the events of that regrettable night. But knowing that did nothing to ease the pain he felt upon seeking her out, calling on her two nights before, and finding no answer to his steady, patient knocking. So he had returned home, licking his proverbial wounds, and had bided his time. Tonight, he thought, the moment had come.
Carefully he covered the bruises as best he could, daubing on a light veil of makeup with a strangely steady hand. There was nothing to be done about his eyes, but dark liner and mascara at least provided some distraction. He chose his wardrobe with equal care: black dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to his forearms, dark jeans, boots. It was a far cry from the meticulous perfection of their last Halloween’s garb, but he hoped it would suffice. Now dressed and as ready as he would ever be, Adam allowed himself one final glance in the mirror. It was certainly not what he had hoped, and he knew the trouble to which he had gone would buy him at best a few minutes’ time; Alexandria could be unsettlingly observant when she chose, and had ever been able to read him like a book. He drew a deep breath, steeling himself for whatever may come, and at last left the comfort of his lonely little flat.
Given the circumstances, Alexandria had rushed home as quickly as possible. Having left Max on the elevator to go to his own floor, her heart was still pounding with the residual adrenaline from the night’s events. She was so focused on getting her keys out with now slightly trembling hands, she literally ran directly into Adam, nearly knocking herself over in the process. Her heart was pounding as she grabbed onto his arm and looked up. For a moment, she couldn’t think of a single word to say aloud.
“Adam,” she finally breathed, trying to get over her immediate embarrassment at what she was wearing -- her Penn hoodie, pyjama pants, not a speck of make-up, and her hair twisted up in a bun that had seen better days -- particularly in comparison to what he was wearing. Though his eye --
“What happened to you?” she asked, her hand moving to tip his face to a better angle.
He opened his mouth to answer, but instantly shut it instead. It was unlike her to be out in such attire, even for just a quick trip out of her apartment. His brow furrowed in concern, all his attention suddenly and decisively removed from his own troubles.
“Are you okay?” he asked, peering behind her. There was no-one in the corridor, nothing from which she had any reason to flee. Somehow this disturbed him all the more. Ordinarily she was hardly prone to overreaction - but then, a month ago he would have been hard pressed to envision her showing up to his apartment as she had, half-naked and quite vocal about getting what she wanted. It seemed there was no end to what he had yet to learn of his best friend.
“Why were you running?”
Slightly out of breath, Alexandria suddenly felt foolish, and a flush of pink rose to her cheeks. It seemed as though she just couldn’t stop making a fool of herself in front of Adam these days. Self-consciously, she tugged at her hoodie, thinking how different she must look from the last time he’d seen her -- and yet somehow, no less foolish. Shaking her head, she said,
“It’s nothing,” she tried to say evenly, though she was out of breath from running and maybe a little from embarrassment. “I -- things are strange tonight.”
But not to be deterred, she turned his face a bit more.
“Did you get in a fight?” she asked. Then she looked at her fingers. “Are you -- wearing makeup?”
It seemed his little disguise had bought him no real time at all. His teeth sank into his tongue, biting off the feeble protestation that wanted to come. Suddenly this all seemed like a far more foolish idea than it had mere moments before; had he been a weaker man, he would have turned on his heel and sought the dubious solace of his own empty home. But he had come here for a purpose, and to Adam, at least, that purpose could not be so lightly cast aside.
“I wouldn’t call it a fight,” he said, letting slip a small, self deprecating laugh. “Can we, uh...” He raised a hand to the nape of his neck, rubbing at the tight knot still lingering there. “Can we go inside? Your place or mine, I don’t care. I’ll tell you everything, but...” He gestured to the hallway, blessedly empty for the time being. “Not here.”
Alexandria’s brow furrowed, but she nodded, digging her keys out of her bag and unlocking the door to her apartment, beckoning him to follow her. Once they were safely inside, she wished, briefly, she could change, but knew instantly that if it were possible for her to look more stupid and pathetic, changing now would certainly be the way to get there. So instead, she locked the door and moved closer to Adam again, looking up into his face, the frighteningly red sclera of his eye was like a neon sign announcing something serious had happened.
“So,” she said, folding her arms under her chest as though warding off a chill, “if not a fight, what would you call it?”
As was readily apparent, Adam had no better answer for that question than he had its predecessor. His tongue flicked out over his lips, wetting their thinned, dry line. His mind conjured a dozen possible answers, each one immediately discarded. He took a single step, shifting to better block the door; while he could not entirely predict her reaction to this news particularly in light of her recent uncharacteristic outbursts, he saw fit to at least prepare to delay her dragging James into this as well. Honesty he could give her, but it would be markedly easier if it were just they two.
“Alex...” He trailed off, uncertain of how to progress. It was unlike him to simply dive in, to say what he wanted or even needed to express without deliberating on it to an utter fault, but he was swiftly realizing there was no real alternative now. The time for well crafted phrases had long come and gone. He sighed.
“Alex, there’s a lot I need to say to you. What happened to me is...” He shook his head, pressing pale fingers to one still-bruised temple. “The absolute smallest part of all of it. So first, promise me we’ll talk, about whatever we have to, before... anything else. Okay?”
Her brow furrowed at his response, her lips pressing into a thin line. But she remained silent for long moments as she tried to put aside the suspicion and frustration she was feeling -- longer even than she might have usually, simply because she’d so recently and deeply embarrassed herself by throwing caution to the wind. That he shifted his position was lost on her; her focus was on the hedging, and going over the myriad reasons she could imagine why he would be. When she finally did speak, it was slow, calm, and deliberate.
“Adam, it seems clear that we have quite a lot to talk about on a variety of topics. I know the other night I was...” she took a breath. “I did not handle myself in the best way. But I’m prepared to listen to whatever you have to say and talk about whatever needs discussing. So please, go ahead.”
Unconsciously his expression mirrored hers, his brow knitting together at the coldness he thought he heard in her tone. He hoped he only imagined it; after all, he knew her well enough to feel quite sure that if she had truly not wanted to see him, to speak with him, she would simply not have allowed him in. But even barring that he had his own guilt to deal with, the sharp pangs of which were immediately renewed upon her mention of her behavior. Refusing to dwell - for now - on such things, he pressed on, grasping blindly at the chance she now gave him to at least begin setting things to rights.
“I’m sorry about the other night,” he said, his voice rasping harshly over the words. He sounded monumentally foolish to his own ears. “For so long...” He shook his head and dumbly shrugged, dismissing that particular rabbit trail. “I promised you I’d never rush you into anything, and I meant that. So I never tried to label whatever it is we have, or ask for too much. I didn’t want you to feel pushed into anything. But when the right time did come, apparently, I just didn’t feel right about it. You didn’t act like yourself. I felt like it would’ve been... taking advantage of you. That sounds stupid now, I know.” He fought the urge to stare into the floor, to avoid her eyes and all that they would inevitably see in him. Tamping down his cowardice, he met her steady gaze. “I wish now I’d said something different, done something different...” He raked a hand through his hair, shaking his head.
“James showed up, I guess after you’d gone to sleep. He didn’t have a lot of patience for my explanations.”
It was a lot to absorb -- almost too much, Alexandria thought. As much of a relief as it had been to see him -- and despite her embarrassment, despite her discomfort with the memory of what she’d done and how she’d done it, it was a relief to see him, to talk to him, to just be near him again -- the subject of the other night seemed to make her every muscle tense. She didn’t want to talk about it now. She hadn’t had time to prepare, to think of what to say. The mortification over that night flared back up in her cheeks, in the tight set of her jaw, the cross of her arms under her chest, wishing she could just melt into the floor. She had no idea how to respond to his explanation; indeed, she was afraid to try to interpret it. She certainly didn’t understand how it related to the current state of his face.
But when he mentioned her brother, her eyes widened, all becoming clear. Jamie had been with her -- had eventually calmed her down, let her cry it out, gotten her to sleep. Could he have --
“Jamie did this to you?” she asked, her eyes widening.
Just as he had feared, Alex honed hawkishly in on the one confession he had hoped she would ignore. His ill-fated hopefulness now turned to a simpler wish: That she might at least stay in the confines of her apartment, at least until such time as her initial fury had passed. Or barring such a blessing, that she might merely take her frustrations out on him, and not invite further trouble by involving her hot-headed brother. His lips parted, only a brief gust of breath falling free. He shifted closer toward the door, his back solidly to it, putting himself between her and egress.
“He’d warned me, Alex,” he said, as if that would be any consolation. It occurred to him, briefly, that he sounded like nothing so much as the countless victims of abuse he and his partner too often picked up. The thought stoked a new flood of color high along his cheekbones. “The fight at dinner, all that...” He gestured, without meaning. “Stupidity. This is what it was about. You’re what it was about. He told me not to hurt you.”
She looked up at him incredulously.
“Are you kidding me right now? He warned you? I’m surprised you didn’t tell me you ran into a door!”
Shaking her head, she pushed at her sleeve, her forgotten wounds aching as she spoke. She looked down at the sleeve of her hoodie, which she hadn’t bled through yet. She exhaled in a huff. Adam was wrong. While she might have been part of the reason Jamie attacked Adam, whether he knew it or not, Alexandria strongly suspected that her brother’s feelings for her best friend had played no small role in the brutality he’d visited upon him. Just a few days ago, she’d have stormed directly over to Jamie’s without delay. Today, though, she was tired, the adrenaline from the night’s events having drained from her, and now there was just pain and embarrassment and anger.
She pressed her lips together.
“This isn’t OK,” she finally said. “I barged into your apartment and pushed myself on you when you obviously weren’t interested, which is inappropriate enough. Regardless of what happened there, Jamie had no right to touch you.”
His blush had only deepened, but tonight Adam would not be so easily deterred. It had indeed been a strange night - difficult beyond imagining, odd beyond reason - and this clear and continued misunderstanding was not enough to set him back now. He did not gather his courage so much as set aside his fear, too long gestated within him; enough had well and truly become enough.
“Pushed yourself on me? Not interested?” He shook his head, breathing a tired sigh. “I don’t know how else to explain this, Alex. I’ll tell you exactly what I told James: I love you. I want you. I wanted you then, and I told you I did. But you seemed off, or something, and I wasn’t going to use you just because the opportunity was convenient.” His eyes met hers, all he felt clearly written in their black depths. “I did what I thought was right. So did James.”
Color rose to her cheeks as she struggled with the dueling messages she was receiving. One, that Adam loved her, and wanted her, and wanted to be with her -- something that was so difficult to accept, even after all this time, after everything they’d been through. Her hand went unbidden to the tiny silver tree that hung from her neck, and she stroked it through her hoodie as though for comfort. The other, however, was the idea that Jamie had been in any way justified in what he’d done or why he’d done it.
“It’s not, though,” she told him, her cheeks still hot with embarrassment and hope. “That is, it’s not right. For James to hit you. I don’t -- you didn’t do anything wrong.”
She took a breath and looked up at him.
“I --” she wanted so much to tell him, to admit everything, to throw her arms around him and not let go. But there was Jamie, and his feelings -- and as angry as she was at him in those moments, she couldn’t be so callous about such a delicate matter.
“I...” she took a breath, trying not to stammer, but a mild panic over not having had the chance to think things through, over having to respond to all this new information, was overtaking her. “I don’t -- it feels so fast, I know it’s not, but it feels that way. I haven’t -- I haven’t had time to think, and I made such an ass of myself the other night, and... Jesus.”
She looked up at him helplessly. He hoped the faint smile that twitched at his lips would not deter her from further comment; it was a look without malice, without judgment, but with an understanding of her and all her deliberation. This meticulous creature was the woman he loved, after all, and without this almost paralyzing sense of prudence she would not truly be herself. He shook his head, drawing a slow, deep breath as he framed in his mind what needed to be said.
“Take the time you need,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not changing my mind.” His tongue flicked against his labret, a nervous little gesture. “I’m not asking you to... commit to anything. I don’t need you to call me your boyfriend, or to feel like you’re obligated to do anything. I just want a date, Alex. Just one. We’ll see how that goes. And then we’ll go from there.”
That smile didn’t escape her notice, but she knew where it came from, and what it meant. She reached for his hand and threaded her fingers with his, nodding. It wasn’t so much to ask. And Jamie -- this violence was terrible. But even still, she couldn’t bring herself to hurt him. She took a deep breath. She had to at least tell Jamie. After she told him in no uncertain terms what she thought about him beating the hell out of Adam.
Reaching up, she gingerly touched Adam’s face. He gave her hand a small, tight squeeze, and said nothing.
“I -- I just need to sort a few things out first, OK?” she said. “I -- I want to. But I just. Just a little more time.”
Her arm was aching, and she frowned at it. Now wouldn’t be the best time -- but it would. What more could they say? Things had to be sorted first, before they continued talking about relationships or things like that. She looked back at him.
“I know this is important, and I’m not trying to change the subject, I swear, but could you maybe look at my arm?” she said, unzipping her hoodie and slipping it off, revealing four angry red scratches, bleeding just a bit, on her forearm.
His expression immediately shifted into one of deeper and more pressing concern. The wound did not look infected - yet, at least - but it appeared troubling enough to require immediate attention. He frowned, an expression more directed at himself than anyone else. She had been on her way home when she had bumped into him, and this delay in caring for her injury was due to his own selfishness. Though the shift in conversation was stark, and he knew that much had yet gone unspoken, it seemed fitting and proper enough; matters of the heart could be attended to later, once the flesh was healed.
“We need to clean this,” he said, lips thinning as he turned her arm in his hand. “What happened?”
Without waiting for answer he moved toward the hall, guiding her slowly and carefully back toward the bathroom. As with all of his family and closest friends, Adam had long ago ensured her bathroom was well stocked with whatever supplies might prove useful in case of minor injury.
Without hesitation, she followed his lead, moving with him into the bathroom and taking a seat on the closed toilet when they arrived. The bathroom was as simply decorated as the rest of the apartment, with an ice blue shower curtain and midnight blue mats, with a simple assortment of beauty and body products neatly in their proper places. She looked up at him, holding her arm out to him.
“Someone attacked us. A kid -- a guy -- who lives here, too. Max. These women -- they were --” she shook her head. “I don’t know what they were, Adam. They were... something’s happened. Something is happening.”
Adam knew well what she meant, though he dared not speak it. It was still too fresh in his mind. More, what had happened in that alleyway belonged where they had left it; those creatures, unnatural and unnnameable, did not deserve to be mentioned here. Someday, perhaps, he would bring it up - someday in the daylight, when they could look back on such things and tell themselves they had faced no real danger. Tonight he had wanted the worst of their problems to be the mundane, the human: James and his anger, Alex and her hurt. These were the issues he had come here prepared to at least try to tackle. He gritted his teeth, looking to her wounds instead of her eyes, driven to focus on what he better understood.
“Max?” he asked, daubing peroxide on a thick pad of gauze. He patted the wound with the gauze, watching as it slowly bubbled up, boiling out the dirt and debris. She inhaled sharply, biting back a hiss of pain. “I’ve seen his forum posts. Why would anyone attack the two of you?”
He bit his tongue immediately after the words had slipped free, knowing there would be no rhyme or reason to their attack, as there had been none to that which he had suffered. “Did you file a police report?” he asked, lamely.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I mean, who would believe me? They were like...”
She looked down at her arm, as though it was suddenly the most fascinating thing in the world. With a little sigh, she reminded herself that it wouldn’t be the first time she’d told Adam about something outlandish that had happened to or around her, and that he’d had his share of experiences himself. Taking a breath, she said,
“They looked... dead. I mean, sunken eyes, pale, chalky skin -- they were almost skeletal. And it wasn’t makeup. If it wasn’t for Max -- he lives on the sixth floor, I think -- I don’t know what they would have done. He actually saved me,” she said with a slight smile, then looked back up at Adam. “I honestly don’t know why they attacked me, but the strangest thing happened. I’d gone to the 7-11 for some snacks, and I hit one of them with it, and it broke. When all the little cakes and candies hit the ground, they completely lost interest in me and ran for the food.”
Adam made no effort to conceal the uncertainty written on his face, though he at least managed to keep his focus - for now - steady on her arm. The wound’s cleaning now complete, he rummaged through her first aid kit, his hand withdrawing moments later with A&D Ointment in hand. The wound appeared to need no more serious treatment than this, and for that he was grateful. Grateful, too, that Max had been there; Adam made a mental note to thank the man, preferably in person, and perhaps glean from him the details of the attack he now had no desire to pry from his already shaken friend. His concern did not come from disbelief; quite the opposite, in fact. But the more he discovered, the more he thought on the night’s strange events, the more he could not shake the idea that this was not the end of it, nor even the worst. And this, more than anything, was what he wanted to keep from the night’s conversation.
“I don’t know, Alex,” he said, shaking his head. He stretched a broad bandage across her wounds, his hand soft as he smoothed it gently over her skin. “I’m just glad this was the worst they did.”
His fingers reluctantly lifted from her arm, and he turned away for a moment to put away their supplies. “We’ll keep an eye out on the news, I guess. See if anything else happened, or if those... people, I guess, were found.”
Nodding, Alexandria moved next to him, and once he’d put the supplies away, reached out to put her hand over his, leaning her head on his shoulder. After everything that had happened tonight, she felt exhausted, and a little at a loss. Even so, she felt grateful to be talking to Adam again, grateful for his understanding and his seemingly infinite patience. Grateful to feel cared for and loved.
“We’ll be OK. We should both be particularly careful, I guess.” She inhaled softly, and exhaled on a sigh, her fingers lacing with his. After a moment, she looked up at him, looking at his face, the bruises and marks that were there, at least in part, because of her. Then delicately, almost hesitantly, she kissed his cheek.
“I’m sorry he hurt you,” she said quietly.
His hand gave hers a squeeze, so tight for one fleeting moment he could hear her slim knuckles crack. Unconsciously mirroring her motion, he drew a deep, lengthy inhalation, exhaling on a measured, calming breath. He shook his head, and gently pulled her closer. Emboldened by her own gesture, small though it was, he leaned down, pressing a kiss to her upturned forehead. “Don’t be,” he said. “It isn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.” He laughed, a sound rife with self-deprecation. “He loves you. He meant well, in his... kind of dysfunctional, unhealthy way.”
She frowned up at him deeply, worry and displeasure furrowing her brow. The idea that this wasn’t an anomaly, that it hadn’t only been these two incidents where James had become violent with Adam, was deeply troubling, but difficult to shake. As she looked up at his face, she reached up to his cheek, then shook her head, tugging gently at his hand, leading him toward the living room as she considered his words quietly. When they reached her couch, she sat down, tugging again at his hand to join her, then finally spoke.
“I know he loves me,” she said as she settled into the cushion, slipping off her shoes and drawing her legs up onto the couch. “I love him, too. But that’s immaterial, Adam. Is this -- is this a habit of his? Beating the hell out of you?”
“I wouldn’t call it a habit,” he said. He sat down alongside her, shifting closer without a conscious thought. Again he took her hand, threading his fingers with hers. If he had to delve into his uncomfortable past, he would at least have the encouraging comfort of her touch. “When we were kids he had a tendency to rough me up a little. Have a little joke at my expense.” He shrugged. When he looked to her there was no hatred in his eyes, no disgust, or even something so small as regret. It is what it is, he might have said, but wisely held his tongue. And of course there was more to the story; perhaps that would ease the burden he had placed upon her mind.
“You know,” he said, “he never let anyone else hurt me. For all their name calling and threats, he never let them get close.” Another shrug; what he meant by the gesture he could not have said. “It wasn’t such a bad deal. He probably kept me out of a lot of trouble.”
There was another stretch of silence as Alexandria digested what he’d said -- that Jamie had made a habit of bullying him, and yet had been protective of him. So strange how that wouldn’t have made any sense at all just a few days ago, and that now, the reason behind it was so painfully obvious. James had been possessive of Adam, she supposed. Protective, maybe, even. But it certainly wasn’t right. She hated that Adam had had to go through any of that. Alexandria had seen her own share of bullying as a child -- since James was a bit older, he hadn’t been able to protect her from everything, and she’d never seen a reason to tell him of the taunts she’d occasionally suffered. But it sounded like Adam had had the worse of it, and had accepted it as his due. She shook her head.
“Please don’t defend him, Adam,” she said, stroking his hand with her thumb. “It’s not right. He had no right. Don’t you see that?”
He pursed his lips, holding back a sigh. Logic told him she had the right of it; there were other ways James might have proven his friendship, his loyalty, without inflicting pain of his own. But Adam had counted it a blessing in its way that he had only taken that modicum of punishment. James’ cruelty had been far less damaging than that the others lobbied at him, far less personal and emotionally cutting in its nature. Adam had never understood it, but he had at least accepted it. Alex, it seemed, would need time to come around to his way of thinking. If she would come around at all.
“I’m sorry, Alex,” he said at last, shaking his head. “Maybe he didn’t have the right. But I didn’t have any recourse. That’s just how it was.”
Alex looked at him for a long moment, then just shook her head. She put her arms around him with a soft sigh, then closed her eyes, her heart heavy for what he’d suffered at the hands of the person she’d most looked up to in the world. The weight of this knowledge bore down on her, and she wished she could change everything -- every single thing.
Soon enough, she pushed that thought away.
“Will you stay?” she asked, seeing no reason to beat an obviously dead horse. She was quiet for a moment before she confessed, “I really missed you.”
“Of course I will,” he said. “For as long as you want.” He breathed in the scent of her, grateful to have it so near to him again. His shoulders rolled, settling them both deeper back into the cushions. He wanted an answer to his earlier question - to all his questions, truth be told. But he did not want it at the expense of this, a quiet comfort he whose absence he had keenly felt. And so rather than press, he settled for what he could say, for those words that would not drive some new and deeper wedge between them. “I missed you, too.” I love you, he did not add.