At two am a Volvo pulled silently into an empty parking place outside the Aglionby dorm complex. The driver had the headlights off, and they turned the car off and sat quietly for several minutes before pushing the door open and getting out. The driver looked around furtively then ran across the parking lot to the back door of the dorms which was habitually left propped open despite school policy.
The back door lead to a back stairway which had borne witness to hundreds of illicit escapades. The driver climbed the stairs on silent feet, jumping at even the smallest noise. If anyone had come down the staircase at that moment they would have seen a disheveled teenager in ripped and bloodstained clothes, holding his side to brace his ribs with blood on his lips and bruise rising on his cheekbone. The other guy looked worse, though of course a person coming down the stairs at that moment would have had no way to know that.
Thankfully no one came down the stairs, the driver shouldered the doorway to the top floor open and darted down the hall to one closed door among many. Like all the other doors in the whole building it was empty save for a plastic name tag with fake wood grain in an attempt to give it some class. This one announced “Declan Lynch.” The driver fished a key out of his pocket, let himself in and shut the door behind him, locking it tightly. Then and only then did he allow himself to breathe a sigh of relief.
He’d survived another night.
To say that Declan Lynch was having a bad night would have been an understatement.
His shady profession cleaning up his dead father’s messes often lead to him having bad nights, but this one had almost made the leap into completely catastrophic. It was sort of Declan’s own fault. He’d been helping Niall Lynch with his business for years, but he was still getting the hang of doing it all on his own, not to mention that he had to please all the buyers Niall had promised things to but died before he could dream.
Tonight Declan had attempted to back out of a deal and the buyer had tried to make Declan more agreeable by beating him to pulp. The buyer and his goons had been well on their way to succeeding before Declan had pulled out a small, egg-shaped canister full of purple smoke out of a pocket and broke it on the ground. It was one of the weaponized dream objects that Niall had used as insurance against that kind of things. The egg had been unlabeled because Niall had always maintained that knowing what his weapons would do before he used them was “no fun.” This one turned out to take away the memories of everyone who breathed the smoke save the person who had broken the canister. Declan had fled the scene, leaving the buyer and his goons lying senseless and drooling on the concrete. Someone would find them eventually, and then he’d have a police investigation to follow, but at least for the night he was safe.
Declan leaned back against the door of his room and took a few steadying breaths before crossing to the nightstand and setting his phone, keys and gun on it. On nights like these he was glad he and Matthew didn’t live together. When Niall Lynch had died and Aurora Lynch had gone to sleep, Aglionby housing had already been decided. With Ronan moving into Monmouth with Gansey, Declan had been willing to pay for things to be rearranged so he and Matthew could live together, but the director of housing had informed him that Aglionby policy wouldn’t allow a freshman and a senior to live together.
Declan had grovelled and bribed and threatened but nothing would convince them that Matthew was a kid who had just lost both his parents basically simultaneously and needed to stay with his older brother. Matthew was put in a freshman room with George Harrington and Declan was put four floors up with Jason Ainsworth who had been expecting to have a double single dorm room all to himself and was not happy to suddenly have a roommate.
Needless to say that had not gone well. Declan was a well-trained people pleaser and as a result he might have managed to share space with Jason relatively friction-free if not for the obvious fact that he had a fourteen-year-old brother who had just undergone massive trauma. Matthew was constantly waking up in the middle of the night and trekking up the stairs to Declan’s dorm for comfort. Jason had not been understanding and things had gotten more and more tense until around Christmas when Declan had finally snapped and broken Jason’s nose.
In the aftermath of that, the housing director had scraped up a single single room which would be empty because its former occupant had gotten a C average on his end of semester tests. The first day of Christmas break, Declan had carried all his worldly possessions--a laundry basket of clothes, two pairs of shoes, a backpack of books and a cardboard box of weapons and dream things that definitely were against school policy--up to the top floor of the dorm and moved into his new room. It was farther for Matthew to come when he needed comfort, but it gave Declan the privacy he needed to truly start cleaning up Niall Lynch’s myriad messes.
Declan kicked his oxfords off and studied them for a minute before confirming that they were ruined. He dug a box of black plastic garbage bags out from under his bed, opened a bag and shoved the shoes in. He still hadn’t gotten around to buying a second pair of uniform-suitable shoes so he’d have to get up early tomorrow and buy a new pair of oxfords before classes began. After all, the only other pair of shoes he had was the tennis shoes he wore for gym which would not match the uniform or his own pride.
He opened the door to the bathroom he shared with Tyler Gladstone, the guy who lived in the room next to his. He brought the garbage bag into the bathroom with him and locked Tyler’s bathroom door. Then he stripped out of his bloody clothes and stuffed them into the bag. Tomorrow he’d drive to the Barns and dump the bag down the specially dreamed disposal shaft hidden in one of the back pastures. He’d raid Niall’s stash of dangerous dream objects while he was there too. If the buyers were getting wise to the new nature of their interactions with Declan, he’d need a whole lot more firepower.
The one thing he wouldn’t do was set foot in his own room, or Ronan’s or Matthew’s. He would not take any of their old things. Though he’d long since decided that he had no choice but to break the law and go back to the Barns if he was going to keep his brothers alive, he’d never been able to convince himself to go into his room and take anything. He honestly wasn’t sure if the clause about going back to the Barns at the risk of their inheritance applied to him or not. Even if it didn’t, Ronan knew what measly things Declan had been able to shove into his and Matthew’s backpacks before they’d had to leave, and he’d notice if Declan turned up with something he’d left at the Barns.
Declan tied the bag of clothes closed then turned the shower water on hot. He stepped into the stall and let the water pound down onto him. Blood washed off his body, turning the water around his feet pink. It was something he’d gotten far to used to over the years so it barely registered on him.
He stood under the spray for several minutes before lifting his hands to check his ribs. There were a lot of bruised or cracked ones, but only one that was really broken. It could have been worse; he’d had worse. He’d survive, not comfortably, but he’d survive.
Washing his hair with a chest full of brutalized ribs which kept warning him that lifting his arms was a bad idea wasn’t fun, but he got it done and stepped out of the shower. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he studied himself in the mirror above the sink. His ribs were mottled shades of black and blue which would have terrified someone who wasn’t Declan, but that would all be hidden by his shirt. He could use the concealer he would never admit to owning on the bruised cheekbone, but he could do nothing for the split lip but hope the swelling would go down by tomorrow. At least the tension between him and Ronan meant that he could probably let the bruise on his cheek show and pass both and the lip off as the marks of another altercation between the two of them. Who knew that having a younger brother who hated you could be so helpful?
He headed back into his room, taking the garbage bag with him, and pulled on boxers and a pair of sweatpants, allowing himself to wince when he bent over. Then he pulled the first aid kit out of the top drawer, downed a couple painkillers and proceeded to bind his broken rib. You weren’t technically supposed to do that, but Declan would need to move normally tomorrow morning and that would be easier if that broken rib was immobilized.
By the time he was finished with that, it was around 2:45am. He had been battling insomnia for almost half his life, but in the months since Niall had died Declan had completely lost any ability he’d once had to sleep without the aid of pills. It was too late for him to take the pills and be able to wake up in time to buy new oxfords and stop by the Barns before homeroom, therefore, he wasn’t going to be sleeping tonight. Still he’d rest quietly for a couple hours before getting ready to face the day, most likely with the help of a couple cups of coffee.
He needed to ice his ribs, but he figured there was no harm in lying down for a couple minutes when he wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep anyway. He’d only just managed to ease himself down onto the mattress and pull the comforter--a wildly patterned one he’d let Matthew pick out after they’d left the quilts Aurora had made for them at the Barns--over himself when an ear-splitting sound echoed through the dorm.
Declan first thought was that someone was attacking to try to hurt Matthew and this was their way to get Declan out of commission. He was out of bed and on his feet before he realized that the sound was the fire alarm. Immediately, most of his adrenaline vanished and he doubled over, caught between wanting to clutch his chest in pain and wanting to plug his ears against the noise, Declan wanted to have words with whoever had decided the fire alarms in dorms needed to be will-cause-eventual-deafness-loud.
After a moment, the pain in his chest from the ill-advised fast movement faded and he was able to plug his ears and run to his dresser. He grabbed the first sweatshirt he could find and pulled it on without heed for his ribs. When the pain had settled again, he stood up and turned towards the door.
As he headed for the door, he almost tripped over the plastic bag. His heart rate sped up again as he realized what might happen if it was found. The fire department would have come and check things out, even if the alarm had just gone off because someone was smoking in their room. They’d check every room and if they found a bag of bloody clothes in Declan’s room there would be questions he couldn’t answer. Best case scenario, he’d just get written up, worst case he might get expelled and--if he somehow got tied back to the men he’d abandoned earlier tonight--he might go to prison. Who would protect Ronan and Matthew if that happened?
The bag needed to go. His first thought was to take it and hide it in the Volvo, but with everyone leaving the building someone would see so there still would be questions. He would have to hide the bag here and hope the firefighters wouldn’t check the room too thoroughly.
Wincing from his ribs and noise, he dragged the bag across the room and shoved it under the bed and into the far corner near the wall. He pushed the box of dream things over there too and pulled his laundry basket in front of them. It was a pathetic attempt at hiding them, but he didn’t have time for something better. He made a mental note to buy more stuff to put under his bed incase something like this happened again.
The evidence as hidden as it was going to get, he levered himself back to his feet, moaning in pain, though he could barely hear his own voice over the blaring alarms. How long had they been going off? It felt like an eternity but at the same time no time at all.
His phone, keys and gun were still sitting on the nightstand. He grabbed them and looked around frantically for a place to hide the gun. He didn’t have time. He needed to go. The sweatshirt he had put on was a hoodie with a big pocket in the front, so he just stuffed all three things into that and headed for the door.
The hallway was empty, everyone else having already headed down the stairs. Declan jogged for the stairs, panting painfully around his ribs. The flights of stairs were so painful he almost cried, but within minutes he was pushing out the front doors of the building.
The students of Aglionby Academy had gathered in the parking lot in a confused, sleepy cluster, and Declan hurried towards them. The pavement was cold and he realized belatedly that he was barefoot. He was still in better shape than some of boys who were just in boxers or Kevin Mathers who had a blanket wrapped tightly around his shoulders in a way that made Declan think that he wasn’t wearing anything at all.
Declan had meant to just fade into the crowd, but he’d been one of the last people out of the building which meant that everyone saw him. As he joined the group, people called out to him. “Lynch! You sleep heavy enough to sleep thought that ?” “What happened to your face? You get in a fight?” “Nice sweater, Lynch! Where’d you get it?”
At the last one, Declan looked down at himself and realized which hoodie he was wearing. It was gunmetal silver and night sky blue striped in a pattern that was more blue on the bottom and more silver on the top. It shimmered slightly in the streetlights. It was something not of this world even if you hadn’t seen the pictures of Declan wearing this exact same hoodie many sizes smaller in the second grade.
Every once and a while Niall Lynch had been struck by the urge to dream clothes, and as a result all the Lynches had some dreamed outfits. The problem was that they couldn’t pass as machine-made clothes and therefore could not be worn in public. Declan had only taken this hoodie from the Barns before they’d left because it was his oldest piece of clothing and therefore functioned as something of a comfort object. It was warm without ever getting too hot, it didn’t fray or rip or stain, it changed size so it always fit its wearer perfectly, and the inside never lost that wonderful new-hoodie texture.
Wearing the hoodie where people could see it was a very bad idea. Granted, it was unlikely that the Aglionby boys would realize what exactly was so unnatural about the article of clothing, but the news could get back to the wrong people and then the Lynch brothers would have even more enemies.
Cursing himself for not paying more attention to what sweatshirt he was grabbing out of his dresser, Declan wound through the crowd looking for Matthew. Perhaps it was pathetic that the first thing he thought to do was find his little brother instead of going to gossip with friends, but finding Matthew first was a deeply ingrained habit. If Declan had ever had the urge for emotional intimacy that most people seemed to have, he’d lost it at some point during his childhood. That was one of the reasons he couldn’t manage to keep a steady girlfriend, but the single-minded focus it gave him was useful in his mission to protect his brothers.
It took him a couple minutes to find Matthew in the throng. Matthew was standing with George and looking sleepy with his Aurora Lynch-crocheted comfort blanket wrapped around his shoulders, covering his multi-colored train pajamas. His face lit up in a smile when he saw Declan.
“Declan!” he darted forward, his arms thrown wide for a hug. At the last moment, Declan turned so that what would have been a flying, arms-around-the-neck hug into a slightly awkward side hug which jostled Declan’s ribs but was still better than Matthew feeling the gun in his hoodie pocket.
After a moment Matthew pulled away, and his face fell when he saw the mess that was Declan’s face. “What happened to your face?” he asked. He sounded worried, though not exactly frightened. Perhaps knowing that your father’s head had been beaten in with a tire iron was enough to raise your violence tolerance even if you hadn’t actually see it.
“Ronan,” Declan growled, loud enough that the people standing around them would hear it. The rumor would spread and by tomorrow the school would have formulated a story better than any Declan could have come up with.
Matthew cocked his head to the side, expression vaguely untrusting. “When did you see Ronan?” he asked. “I thought you said that he didn’t even come to class today.”
Declan bit his inner lip. This was something that had been happening more and more recently. If Matthew had ever noticed Declan’s lies before Niall’s death, he’d never addressed them, but for some reason that had changed now. “I went over to Monmouth to tell him that he needs to get his act together and go to class,” Declan lied in the perfectly polished way that he’d learned during his many years at Niall Lynch’s side. “Obviously he wasn’t happy.”
Matthew pursed his lips like he had more he wanted to say, but after a moment he evidently decided not to, because he next comment was in a much perkier voice, “But he’s okay, right?”
“As okay as he ever is,” Declan said. Which was about all he could say. Matthew didn’t know about Ronan’s suicide attempt, while Declan spent a not inconsiderable amount of time trying not to think about it. That course of action seemed callous and horrible, but Ronan hated Declan’s guts which severely hampered any course of action he could take that wasn’t sitting back and hoping Gansey and Noah could handle it.
“And are you okay?” Matthew asked.
The idea that Matthew would ask that was even more bizarre than the idea that Matthew might confront Declan’s lies. Before Matthew had never seemed to even notice Declan enough to wonder if he was okay; the youngest Lynch had always been helplessly enamored by Ronan. It was something Declan had always assumed was one of the traits Ronan had dreamed into Matthew, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with the idea that Matthew might be capable of seeing someone other than his creator.
“Of course, I’m okay,” Declan said, painfully aware that it had taken him too long to respond to Matthew’s comment. “When am I ever not?” That was his biggest and oldest lie, and for some reason it was always the one people found the most believable.
Declan never got to know if Matthew had gained the ability to see that lie too, because George piped up, “Do you think the dorm is really on fire?” He hadn’t thought to grab a blanket like Matthew had and was rubbing his hands up and down his arms in an attempt to stay warm. Matthew offered his blanket with an expression of perfect compassion, but George shook his head.
Declan turned around and studied the many windows of the dorm. He didn’t see any smoke. “Probably not,” he said. “Most likely someone was just smoking and forgot to tamper with their smoke detector first or burned the late night snack they were making in their contraband toaster. The fire department will check the building for fires and then we’ll be able to go back inside.”
“How long do you think it will take?” Matthew asked, then yawned widely. Declan was suddenly aware that it was now at least three am and most people didn’t have chronic insomnia keeping them awake.
“If you’re tired I can take you to Monmouth,” he offered. “I’m sure Gansey can find a place for you to crash and you can ride back to campus with him and Ronan in the morning.”
Matthew thought about it for a minute, lips pulled to one side in concentration. “That’s okay,” he said eventually, “I wouldn’t want you and Ronan to get in another fight.”
Declan internally cursed himself. He’s almost forgotten he’d told Matthew that. A Declan Lynch who’d just gotten in a fistfight with his younger brother would want to stay as far away from Monmouth Manufacturing as possible for a few days. “True,” he said. “But if I call Gansey beforehand and explain what’s going on I can just drop you off; I wouldn’t have to go inside.”
“It’s fine, Declan,” Matthew said solidly. “I can stay awake.”
Declan wanted to keep arguing, but something about Matthew’s tone said that wasn’t a good idea. He sighed and held back a whince as his ribs reminded them that wasn’t a good idea. “Alright,” he said. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
The fire chief and a single fire truck showed up less than five minutes later. The fact that there was only one fire truck confirmed Declan’s suspicions that there was not actually fire. Still, two firefighters had to put on their heavy gear and trek through the building just to make sure. Eventually, Matthew and George got sick of standing and sat cross-legged on the concrete, blinking heavily. Declan would have liked to lie down, which was the only thing he could think of that might ease the pain in his ribs without access to ice or more painkillers, but he was too paranoid and cared too much about his reputation to do something that vulnerable where the whole student body of Aglionby could see. Instead he kept his posture as upright as possible even though his ribs felt a little better if he hunched over and tried to bear it.
He kept his hands inside the hoodie’s pocket, pressing the side of the gun into his stomach in an attempt at keeping people from seeing the outline of it through the hoodie’s fabric. Aglionby was a strictly weapons free campus and Declan didn’t think he’d be able to talk or buy his way out of trouble if he was caught breaking that policy. He wished he’d thought to just stuff the gun into a drawer. It wasn’t like the firefighters were going to dig through his underwear drawer looking for a fire.
It took at least half an hour, perhaps closer to forty-five minutes for the firefighters to finish their sweep of the building and for the hall director to decide to let the students back inside. Based on the tightly controlled look of rage and frustration on the hall director’s face, Declan was pretty sure the students of Aglionby would be getting a lecture about residence hall policies in homeroom in the morning.
He walked Matthew and George to their second-floor room. “Do you want me to stay tonight?” he asked Matthew in a low voice while George opened the door and headed inside.
“That’s okay. I’m fine,” Matthew gave him a little grin. “This was actually sort of cool. A break from the boring grind, am I right?”
“Sure,” Declan agreed, even though he would have much rather spent the last hour in bed icing his ribs. “I’ll see you in the morning, then?”
“Yup,” Matthew threw his arms around Declan’s neck in a tight hug. Declan had to bite his tongue to hold back a grunt of pain, but of course Matthew had no way of knowing that he was hurting his older brother.
“Night, Declan!” Matthew chirped, then slipped into his room and closed the door quietly behind him.
Declan headed down the hallway, dodging hordes of over excited and sleep deprived freshmen. He tried to prepare himself for the agony of climbing all those flights of stairs to his own room. It was nearing four am and unlike all these kids, Declan wasn’t going to be able to just fall asleep and get the whole thing over with. He was so exhausted that he briefly considered taking a sleeping pill when he got back to his room instead of trying to tough out the whole day, but then his better judgment kicked in. He couldn’t just start skipping classes. He had things he needed to do; he couldn’t just ignore his responsibilities just because he was tired and hurting.
He pushed open the door to the stairwell and looked up at the all the stairs he had to go up. After a moment he braced himself and started up.
After all, it wasn’t like he had another choice.