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less alone in my mind

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Jet feels frozen, unable to move or even speak, despite Adam waiting patiently on her couch just a few feet away. She's studied enough of the standard, half-bullshit body language literature to know the pathetic picture she paints just now: the upright fetal position, the self-hug, strangely stiff and cold fingers twisting together under her damn sweater paws. A cluster of self-soothing behaviors, and he's almost always seen through her, seen her, so he must see this, too.

It's awful. She wants to say anything at all, but nothing happens.

Finally, it's Adam who speaks. His voice is as quiet as she's heard it, but she still starts a little when he breaks the silence. "Do you want me to leave?"

"I asked you to come over," she reminds him.

"Yeah, but you could still want me to leave."

Fortunately, her voice is working well enough for her to say, "I don't want you to leave." It's as close as she can manage just now to asking him to stay, but it seems to be enough.

He settles more against the cushions, then points to her hands. "You picked up my bad habit."

She stills. "It's a neutral habit." She finds it unbearably endearing when Adam does it, and an unforgivable sign of weakness when she does; that probably averages out to neutral. She remembers her sergeant asking her in front of the entire squad a few days ago whether she was good, and her skin prickles with shame. She's getting really tired of that feeling recently, the way it sometimes pulses and outgrows the box she built for it.

She's exhausted. Bell sent her home to rest and regroup, to come at this in the morning with a fresh set of eyes, not to not chat with a failed fling. She manages, past a nervousness turned physical, to say, "So you got the sneakers."

He grins, glancing again to where he took them off just inside her door, a bright point of color next to her boots. She thinks they're ugly, but she knows he doesn't, and that was the point. He likes shiny things, and attention, and being seen. Except, now his hands are going, and he says, "I know how important it is to you that I be honest, so, a small confession: I heard you at the door–"

"Oh," she interrupts. There's the prickling again, times a hundred. She can barely remember what she said, but that hadn't mattered as much when she was kidding herself that he had been out, that only the cat had been home to hear her do her personal version of pouring her heart out.

"And I don't know why I did that," Adam continues, "it was such a jerk move, I basically left you on read in real life and who the hell does that with someone as incre–" Her eyes open in surprise, and it's his turn to look away. She's pretty sure he's staring at the twisting, curving edges of her unfinished work on the table. "I guess maybe I was scared, thinking that you were coming to tell me to my face that I was dead to you, and by the time I got my courage up to face you again, you were gone."

"Work," she says. "I can't talk about what's happening, but– It's bad, and I don't know how it's going to turn out."

He sits up, leans forward. "I thought you found that little girl–"

"We found her. Something else now." Her gaze darts around the familiar space, landing on nothing of interest except him. She closes her eyes, then adds, "You were the reason we found her."

"Not really," he says. "You would have broken into some sneakerhead message board to find out where the best shops were, you didn't really need me to send you to Daniel's."

She shakes her head. This point, she can press, because it's a fact. "That's not true. Two months ago, I would have just assumed that baby blue was for some reason a normal sneaker color in 2022–"

"Not to colorsplain to the artist, but they're more robin's egg, and it's not a 'normal' sneaker color, it's a great sneaker color."

"And filed them away as being as untraceable as the rest of the suspect's clothing," she continues. "Your talking about them was the only reason I noticed."

She doesn't add that it wasn't just that he talked about those particular sneakers, though he had, at length, but rather the way he talks when he's excited about something, that strange, chaotic charisma he has that draws her to him in a way that scares the hell out of her, that makes her want to run but won't let her.

It's the way she cares that he feels sad about limited edition sneakers. Her life was simpler before Richard Wheatley's final stand, not complicated in this particular way, but then, if she hadn't been open to caring about Adam, then Sara Santos might be dead. It's a lot, it's heady, it's–

She had tried sculpting about it before she caved and texted him. In between, she had re-learned a painful lesson about soldering while dissociating. She has a bandage around her pinky now and it will probably scar, but it could have been a lot worse. She needs to sleep, but first she needs to tell him, to at least try to explain why she freaked out even if it's too late to fix anything.

"I'm really glad that my being an unabashed dork last month indirectly helped you find her," he says. He smiles at her, hopeful, encouraging, and she feels her fingers start to tap again. It's kind, the way he's trying not to look down at her hands. He's kept his distance, physically, because she ruined the growing intimacy between them, that closeness. She thinks he would have taken her hands by now, otherwise, would have let them both find a reprieve of stillness and peace in that.

Or maybe she's been assuming a lot and projecting it all onto him, so that when he failed to perfectly align to what she wanted him to be she panicked, a little, because… The part she doesn't want to say, and she knows she doesn't really have to. He hasn't demanded an explanation, and he doesn't seem angry, just confused with the occasional flash of wounded puppy. She did that, even though she didn't mean to. And that's why she doesn't usually do this.

"Interrupt me if I get something wrong," he says. "You asked me to come over here because you want to talk about it, but you don't want to talk about it. It's really hard to hold an uneven conversation over the telephone, though, without a lot of little thoughts of, 'he's just listening to himself talk' or 'I wonder if she's really listening or is she thinking that I'm just listening to myself talk.'" She smiles a little, and he continues, "So you asked me over and I'm here, but you don't really have much to say, so I'm going to go ahead." He takes a deep breath. "First, don't apologize for getting weird. I love that you're weird, and different. That's why you can keep up with me, and that's my favorite thing about you, that you're–" He stops.

"Better than you?" she suggests, teasing. She's not sure it will come across that way, she still can't muster her usual tone, but he must realize it's a joke. He chuckles, and seems to relax a bit, a fraction of the tension draining from his body.

"Cool," he mumbles, "you don't totally hate me."

She doesn't owe him reassurance, necessarily, but she finds she wants to offer it. She wants to alleviate that anxious ache that only validation properly soothes, but she really doesn't know how, and the moment passes again. He says, "I was going to say that you're as good as me."

Wow. She finds she's too exhausted to hold her face perfectly neutral, and she wonders what he sees in the glances he's sneaking.

"I'd like to offer a slightly better apology for not calling, too." He looks uncomfortable now. "I didn't know how soon was too soon to reach out, since you said you needed time about what happened earlier that day. I didn't want to pile on about us. And then every time I didn't call, it got harder to think about what to say the next time, then this gig came through and I thought, 'Do this, and then you'll actually have something to call her about.' Then I got distracted, but maybe that's a cop out, I don't know."

"My understanding of the rules," she says, staring straight ahead at those tangled metal shapes she'd given up on earlier, "is that you didn't owe me a call, and I overreacted to not hearing from you after sex in a way that is both 'unattractive' and 'needy.'"

"That's stupid," he says, and she frowns at him. "I promised to be honest with you, right? So I can tell you that's stupid. That honesty policy also means that you can ask me what I'm thinking about you – or us, whatever – and I'll tell you. And I know you didn't ask, but honestly, I've missed you. We had that really intense ninety-six hours, then we were talking at least a little almost every day. And then suddenly neither of us was reaching out. I thought I was trying to give you space, I didn't want to be overbearing especially after what you went through, but maybe I was just scared you wouldn't want to see me again."

She peers at him. "Why would you be scared?"

"Uh, because you reached out to me for support on a bad day but instead I had sex with you and then never checked in with you again, so first I took advantage–"

"You didn't take advantage," she interrupts. "Sorry," she adds quickly, "but you said to correct you if you got something wrong. And I felt like me, that night. I was fine." I wanted you, too, she thinks, but she could never say it.

She also doesn't add that the night had been overshadowed by the doubts that started in the morning, then intensified through days of radio silence until she made herself half-crazy wondering exactly where she messed up in this complicated sequence. Relationships are something she understands better in the abstract than on the ground; she's known that about herself for much longer than she had a name for it. Yet somehow, just being herself had gotten her so far with Adam, shockingly so – only for everything to stop so abruptly.

"Okay, but still, then you thought I was blowing you off," he continues, "so of course you'd be pissed, and I had no one to blame but myself for dropping one of the more important balls I was juggling. To answer your question. But now, why would you be scared?"

"You know why," she says, and she's already back to not looking at him. The misery of the moment more than eclipses whatever middle school joy she feels at his deeming her important. She wraps her arms a bit tighter around her knees and tells the wall, "I'm a starfish."

He takes a moment to blink a few times, then asks, "What, does that mean you're prickly or something? Because if so, yeah, I noticed." She shakes her head. "So it's something else? I don't know a lot about starfish, I was never much of a marine sciences kid, I skipped that whole obsessed-with-the-ocean phase."

"No." She glances over at him, then away. "No, it means… Are you making fun of me or do you really not know?"

She sees the moment it dawns on him, the flicker of memory and recognition then surprise, even a quick flash of anger. He shakes his head, takes a breath. "Okay, that's not something I would call a woman, but I do remember what it means now." His voice is a lot softer, his gaze almost too intense at the side of her face. "And anyway, Jet, you're not."

"I was," she murmurs, "I remember." She remembers that evening well, the way he laid her down and made her feel so good, so protected from the world and from herself if only for a brief time. She remembers luxuriating in it, almost, after the day she'd endured. And he'd lavished attention on her until she'd implored him to stop, and he had, of course, then gathered her close and pressed a warm, panting kiss to her forehead before she buried her face against his shoulder, hiding herself away even as he drew the comforter over them. Her skin had already been pebbling as it cooled, and he rubbed his hands over the blanket to warm her, the press of his palms on her skin soothing even through the layers of polyester.

It was probably among the best that straightforward sex had ever felt for her, but she'd been a lousy lay in the process. Cause and effect. Her selfishness has consequences, though that last thought doesn't quite feel like her own.

Adam seems almost annoyed when he asks, "Why? Because you didn't wrestle me onto my back and pin me down like a praying mantis? You were warm and gentle and receptive and also I could add, if I didn't think you'd hate hearing this, really, really sweet." When she doesn't protest, he risks catching her eye and adding, "Reminded me of the girl who smiled so big just from holding my hand after we got back from Staten Island."

She doesn't speak or turn her head, but she offers him her hand, extended halfway across the distance between them. He doesn't bother hiding his grin when he takes it, or his grimace when he feels how cold her fingertips are. She knows that he would know that anxiety constricts the blood vessels and lowers circulation to the extremities. Between Sara Santos, Webb's contract on Stabler, and being sad about a boy, she's kind of surprised her fingers aren't purple.

He turns his body ninety degrees, facing her fully and taking her hand in both of his now. He's mindful of her bandaged pinkie, but otherwise he warms her hand between his own. His thumb brushes over the back of her hand, and she remembers that it's not the first time.

It takes everything in her to say these next words, to risk him staring at her blankly and confirming that the moments that passed between them were a lot more memorable for her than they were for him.

"I feel it," she says. He looks up at her, eyes wide with what is hopefully recognition, and she adds, "But do you still?"

"Yeah," he says immediately, "yes. I have a real issue with object permanence but I can do better on that."

She nods, then says, "And I could text first sometimes. Or even call you. And I can try not to read anything into silence."

He nods, maybe a little too eagerly. "I really want to see where this goes," he says, his intent little heart on his brightly colored sleeve, "but I think you don't like not knowing for sure in advance what's going to happen."

"That… is accurate," she says.

He smiles. "I can't know where we'll end up, but I can tell you that if you ever want to know where you stand with me anywhere between here and there, just ask."

It's the second time he's said that, as if it's some simple suggestion. "I don't know if I can," she says. If anything, she imagines she could learn to bear the uncertainty with grace long before she becomes the kind of person who openly requests reassurance.

He considers a moment, then offers, "I could always go back to incessantly complimenting you at inappropriate times so there's no way you can doubt my continuing interest. For example, despite the bad day and the late night, you're really pretty right now. You have a few wispy flyaways that are creating a kind of halo effect in the lamplight."

She shakes her head but she smiles, she can't help it, and for a few seconds it all feels easy again.

Then his phone goes off in his pocket. The ringtone is a midi version of a song, a snippet of something familiar that she can't place.

"You can get that," she says, pulling her hand away.

"It's just an alarm," he explains, retrieving his phone and tapping the screen. "Medication reminder."

"Oh. Do you need to get home?"

He shakes his head. "No, I have it with me, but would you get me some water?"

"Yeah," she says, but she doesn't stand right away.

"Please?" he adds.

"Yeah," she repeats. She rises, then, though that wasn't what she had been waiting for. She half-wonders whether he watches her cross to her little fridge and bend to retrieve a bottle of water. When she turns back to him, it's obvious that he did. He's still into her, and she does her best to duck behind her hair as she returns.

"Here," she says, holding the water out to him.

"Thank you." He swallows the little white tablet in his hand, drinks about half the water, then puts the cap back on as he says, "It's a prescription."

"That's none of my business."

"Hey."

"But I did kind of assume no one sets an alarm for recreational drugs."

He laughs. "A really good point, I guess that's why you're the detective."

For a second, she feels the carefully constructed compartments in her mind rattle. Maybe he sees it happen, because he crosses his legs on the cushion and puts the nearest pillow over them. He pats the surface. "Lie down."

"Why?"

"Because." He sighs. "Because I don't know what's going on at work but I know it's bad, and I know you only have a few hours left to rest and you need to give your body and your eyes a break even if your mind won't shut off." When she doesn't sit, he says, "I'll be on my best behavior, alright? I'm trying to help. You're not the only sometimes sleepless genius in the room, you know."

"I know," she echoes, making a decision. She lies down, closing her eyes rather than contend with his fond smile, but she lets gravity do its work, rests against the pillow and the couch, yes, but also against Adam, his legs solid under the pillow. She barely flinches when he lays his palm on the crown of her head.

"Is this okay?" he asks, smoothing her hair back from her face.

It should feel way too much as if she's an animal he's petting, but if she's honest with herself, and she's too exhausted not to be, then it also feels really, really nice. So she answers, "Yes. Just wasn't expecting it." That's not exactly right – she had assumed he intended to touch her somehow, otherwise he wouldn't have offered himself as a pillow stand – but it's close enough: unexpected kind of describes the entire everything between them.

Including whatever is happening tonight, whatever this is that he's offering and she's allowing. Both his hands are on her head now, tucking any stray strands behind her ears and rubbing tiny circles against her scalp. She's glad she washed her hair this evening, that it's clean for him and maybe even still smells like her shampoo. He did say once that she smelled good, though she hadn't taken it too seriously at the time. He'd been messing with her, still.

"Hey, sit up for just a second," he requests, and she just does, that simple.

It seems strange even to her that she trusts him like this, but then, they'd had little option but to trust each other once, and that turned out okay. For whatever reason, what floats to the top of her thoughts is his skepticism about both of them sharing her little bike, his obvious apprehension. He didn't take advantage – had clung close, perhaps, but out of unacknowledged fear, not just to get his hands on her. But she still remembers the solid heat of him against her back, his arm around her waist, strangely comforting then just as it was when he wrapped himself around her the other night, after.

He reaches under her neck, cups the base of her skull and draws his hands up, freeing the hair trapped under her shoulders and tucked inside the sweater's neckline. He keeps going, gathers her hair in one hand and slides the other between her shoulder blades, then lowers her to the pillow. She imagines her hair fanned dark against the yellow, that contrast, the light and shadow. She can feel his fingers gently untangling a few fine strands from the single chain she put back on after her shower, until he has all of her hair gathered in his hands.

Then, he tugs on it. Not hard – it doesn't exactly hurt, save a few strands pulled more taut than the others within his fist – but it seems to release some tension she's been carrying. She supposes he would know the effects of staring at a bank of monitors for twelve hours at a time, and she lets her head lull as he starts pulling on smaller sections. It's slow, deliberate, and made even more soothing by the intent behind it. Something far beyond her neck and shoulders lets go, and she hears her own rather shaky exhale as she shivers.

His hands still, though he continues to cradle her head. He doesn't break that contact. "Checking in," he says softly, surprising her. She blinks her eyes open, and he's of course staring down at her.

She convinces herself to answer, though it takes a swallow and a second start to say, "It feels nice."

"Good," he says. He resumes pulling at pieces of her hair, occasionally twisting gently, and she closes her eyes again. It's nice to focus on his voice. "My hairdresser reminded me about this. He's obsessed with what a few minutes and a little triple-digit proprietary styling serum each day could do for my, quote, natural curl."

"Do you spend your hair appointments with your head in his lap?"

She can feel him laugh. "We're not quite that close. There's a language barrier, first. I tried to use a translation app to talk to him once. He laughed and patted my head and told me in English to 'chill out.'"

She bites the inside of her cheek, knowing it probably doesn't do much to hide her smile. "To be fair, that's almost always appropriate advice for you." After a bit, she asks, "How did you know I would like this?"

"I think 'pay attention to what my partner does because it's often an indicator of what she herself enjoys' isn't a good universal rule but it worked out okay in this case."

"What are you talking about?"

"You pull my hair sometimes when we kiss, but mostly I mean the night we slept together."

"I didn't pull your hair that night."

"You absolutely did."

"I would remember doing that," she insists.

His touches haven't changed, but his voice sounds a little strained. "I am not trying to cause an argument, and I know the nice thing to do would be to just agree with you and let you rest, but I know I'm right."

She shakes her head, and he uses the motion to lightly rock her neck. She really is feeling more relaxed, and she tries to drop it. Being right is important to him, and she knows he even thinks he's telling the truth. She estimates that she makes it between three and five minutes before she finally asks, "When that night did I pull your hair?"

"When I had my mouth between your thighs," he says, so completely matter of fact. She's still processing that when he continues, "I think you were trying to correct the angle of my jaw – loved that, by the way, I appreciate pointers when learning a new skill–"

She tries to cover his mouth, but it's half-hearted at best; she's too comfortable to sit up, and too curious to try too hard to stop him talking. He catches her wrists, laughing. "Hey now," he says, and presses her hands gently to her chest. She interlaces her fingers, and she feels something across her shoulders stretch pleasantly as she tries to go boneless. "After you successfully, ah, calibrated the equipment, I guess it got really good because your fingers curled into a fist. Pretty hard, too, but impressive grip strength is probably a markswoman standard."

"Sorry," she says.

He huffs. "I don't know why you're apologizing, it was hot."

The corners of her mouth twitch up. "Given that we haven't discussed pain," she says primly, "I should have avoided causing you any."

"It was an involuntary reflex, clearly, from your reaction. But it wasn't exactly unwelcome." He draws his fingers through her hair, gentle when he encounters a knot. She can't remember the last time someone did this for her. She didn't get invited to many middle school slumber parties, but braid trains still made up the bulk of her physical touch for a time. Accepting affection is awkward as an adult, unless she's been told in advance how to express her appreciation. But Adam has a way of convincing her, no matter how confused it leaves her feeling. It's why she bought the sneakers and went back, instead of letting it go and returning to the simplicity of apps and the precautions of the clubs. There's none of that here, just complicated, jumbled feelings and no safety net to avoid hurting one another.

He runs his thumbs over her skin, tracing her eyebrows, her cheekbones. When she's apparently relaxed to his satisfaction again, he buries his fingers in her hair. Ten perfect points of perfect pressure travel her skin, soothing a hurt she wasn't even conscious had lingered from the ponytail she wore earlier that day. It's relief where she hadn't known she'd needed any.

She yawns, and she will deny forever that the sound following it was a whimper. Nothing gets past him, though. His voice is low, warm, and despite the words there's no teasing when he says, "See? I told you, you're so responsive, welcoming, you thrive when you're shown affection, when you allow yourself to be taken care of–"

"Adam," she warns.

He may or may not have taken it to heart, because he doesn't entirely drop the subject. "You're…" He trails off. "I'm sorry I left you thinking that I didn't have an absolute blast when we had sex." An absolute blast, and yet it's as if she lacks the will to muster up adequate annoyance to interrupt him again. It should be a low threshold to reach. Instead, she thinks she may as well let him keep talking as long as he'll keep stroking her hair, lulling her closer to sleep. She can just choose not to fully engage with his compliments. "Oh, and," he says, then pauses, perhaps to make sure she listens. "You are not bad in bed."

She wonders how red her cheeks are. They feel very warm, and he confirms it by pressing the relatively cool backs of his wrists to her flushed skin. It's embarrassing but it's also a relief to have him read her, to realize they're a little closer to back in sync. Somehow tonight feels more like those few days they spent working on top of each other than it does her awkward attempts to be even semi-normal for him in the weeks since. Maybe it's because she once again has a looming crisis to distract her from self-consciousness and push her toward seeking comfort.

Or maybe she just likes him. It could just be that. Only two sessions in with the department's mandated shrink after her OIS, and she's already pathologizing her own behavior.

"By the way," he begins, as if continuing an earlier thread she's forgotten, "I don't think the problem was that we went too fast, just that when it came time to land the trick we kind of ate pavement."

She has nowhere to hide the laugh he just surprised out of her. "Was that a skateboarding reference?"

"Any extreme sport, but I was thinking to myself that night that it was a ten-eighty."

Her first thought is pixels, but that doesn't make any sense. She opens her eyes to look up at him. "Explain."

"Oh," he says in a way that implies it's obvious. He taps her forehead with his index, middle, then ring fingers, and tells her, "because I got you all the way around three times."

She immediately closes her eyes again. She hadn't explicitly told him that, had barely even mustered much sound on the last one, passing everything she was feeling directly from her lips to his instead. The idea that he knew, whether because he accurately read her responses or because he could actually feel it happening from inside her, is embarrassing. It's too much, and she wonders whether she was too much. There's not any correct amount for a young woman to enjoy sex, though; if flipping a coin with easy on one side and prude on the other, she might as well let it land on the side that feels good. Adam doesn't seem to mind.

He continues combing his fingers through her hair as if unaware that she could possibly be self-conscious about his counting her climaxes. He just casually asks, "Do you board?"

It's a very funny question to her, though it wouldn't be any stranger than any of her actual hobbies. "For exactly one summer," she volunteers, "a decade ago." There had been a guy, of course. She had never become good enough to perform fancy tricks, or even not to look like an idiot. Feeling connected enough to her body to develop proper coordination had taken a determined effort, but that didn't come until a couple years later; a brain in a jar can't quite function as a police officer, so deciding on a career forced her to make peace with physical existence.

The silence must be too complete or too long for him, this time, because he says, "I really am sorry."

So is she. "We both contributed to the miscommunication."

"You mean the complete lack of communication."

She doesn't acknowledge the correction. Instead, she asks, "Can you tell me about your freelance assignment, or is it an NDA situation?"

His fingers twist a little harder than she thinks he intends, his turn to have an involuntary reflex, but they quickly turn gentle again. "It's not interesting, just a database rebuild and some security integration. Really basic, it would be like if you sat in your control center all day just to run Google searches." She must make a face, because he laughs quietly. "But the point isn't the boring job or the sad pay. It's that I'm doing it under my real identity, starting to build something legitimate for Adam Mintock."

She opens her eyes to look up at him, and he looks away. It's a miracle they ever make eye contact.

"I'm trying to get my act together," he adds. "Not entirely, I wouldn't want to lose my disaster charm, but… together enough."

He doesn't say for what, exactly. It's a vulnerable enough admission without.

She wants to give him something in return. Reciprocity. So she squeezes her eyes shut and says, "I did it when I was a kid, too."

He must know she can't mean 'getting her act together,' so he asks, "Sorry, did what?"

"The nervous hands." She holds them perfectly still at her sides now; otherwise, she'll unconsciously illustrate as she speaks. "Someone pointed out when I was seven or eight years old that I was doing it in every photo and video of me, starting shortly before my fourth birthday." She doesn't elaborate, doesn't know whether he remembers her date of birth or cares enough to put it all together. "So once I knew I was doing it," she concludes, "I stopped."

"It just stopped on its own once you were conscious of it?" He rests both hands against the crown of her head for a moment. "Brains are wild."

"No. I made myself stop." Because I felt ashamed. That same prickling ache. She doesn't like to be reminded that being normal was never an option for her. She's embraced her weirdness because it was a choice between self-acceptance or utter misery, but that doesn't mean she wouldn't have appreciated being offered a third option.

Maybe she's frowning, because he asks, "Are we good?" He sounds genuinely unsure; he's not asking just for her benefit, to have another pretense to butter her up.

Her fingers start tapping against her leg now. "Yes, if you think we are."

"Yeah," he says softly. She can somehow hear his smile in the word. "And you know those rules you mentioned?"

He can probably feel her jaw tense again under his hands, even if she maintains a neutral expression. "What about them?"

He cups her face again, albeit from a strange angle, and says seriously, "Don't worry about all that. I'm pretty sure this is one time even prodigious doer-of-good Jet Slootmaekers gets to disregard the rules." He lowers his voice to a faux conspiratorial whisper and adds, "They're also not enforceable."

"Are you just saying that because you don't really know them?"

"Oh, I think I probably know them, I'm just a rebel who doesn't follow any rules that don't make sense to him, whether that's the federal criminal code or the social expectation to play it cool like you and I don't already give at least a little of a damn about each other."

An intense ninety-six hours, as he had said earlier, and the weeks of conversation since. Yeah, he's right: she does care about him. She wouldn't have been so disappointed not to hear from him otherwise.

She reaches back and pats his knee. It's meant to be reassuring; it probably comes across more awkward than anything. But he still brings her knuckles to his lips and kisses them before he pulls her sleeve over her palm and presses her arm back down at her side. He pushes on her shoulders, lightly, and she feels them lower a few millimeters.

It's gentle. He's gentle. She's never really been into gentle before, but his fingertips sweeping over her jaw and combing up through her roots make a solid case. She would normally protest eventually at such one-sided attention, lest she be once again labeled selfish, but he seems to be genuinely enjoying just having his hands in her hair. Maybe that makes sense from a sensory perspective: it's soft tonight, washed and conditioned but no product, not brushed back or tied up but just lengths of soft waves. Her hair must be just a spill of dark strands, since he's already combed out every single tangle. His fingers are so thorough, so careful when necessary.

She's reminded of the passports, that delicate, dedicated work. She should tell him, someday, that he's not the only person moved by the other's passion for the work they do. He told her that he wouldn't give it up, and she told him that she wouldn't want him to. The system she's pledged herself to serve fails to provide for a crucial need; she can hardly condemn his network's doing what someone has to.

"Combing the snakes," he says suddenly. She doesn't even have a chance to ask what he means before he adds, "I just remembered, someone told me that's what this is called, the hair thing. Comb out the snakes, maybe?"

"An evocative expression," she says. Her jaw feels strange, almost too loose. She's finally feeling sleepy, and she's being a little greedy but she wonders whether it's not a gift for him, too, when she asks, "Would you stay until I drift off?"

"Yeah." His touches turn even softer. "I'll let myself out later and lock up."

"Thank you," she murmurs. This time when she reaches to pat his knee, he lets her hand stay there and interlaces their fingers. He gently threads his free hand through her hair still, and it's a while yet before she falls asleep but she never senses a pause in his attention or in that steady, soothing movement.

She wakes before dawn to find the comforter from her bed draped over her, an extra pillow under her head where Adam had slipped away at some point. It may or may not be a dream, that he knelt beside the couch and kissed her forehead.

She finds a note wedged into her front door, written in black marker on a takeout menu:

J,

Text me when it's over (or if you need my help!!!)
Be safe

A

She spares the few seconds to hang it on the front of the refrigerator before she leaves. Maybe it's sentimental to do so, but everyone has their moments. A brief smile, then she's out the door.