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Like Storms

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Robert Parrish had an affinity for the phrase Shut up. Adam grew up around the words like a third parent. This parent didn’t stand idly by and watch as Adam was thrown to the ground, though, this parent didn’t whisper its abuse in his ear, no, Shut up was as tangibly complicit in Adam’s scars as the fists of his father. Shut up was ground into Adam’s DNA, an addition he hadn’t wanted, an addition that dogged at him every time he opened his mouth even before the theft of his voice.

It had been hardest when he was in elementary school. When he was six, he’d spent all of first grade mumbling. His teachers tried to work with him, they’d tried to help him. But when a child won’t speak, there’s only so much adults can do. When they called his home, all Robert Parrish could say was that Adam was shy. A quiet kid. And then he’d hung up when they tried to discuss the issue further. They’d decided perhaps it was something he would grow out of. He was held back to try first grade again.

It had helped a little. He stayed with the same teacher. He got to know her better, he got more comfortable with her, and that had made a difference, in the classroom at least. They’d felt good enough to let him move on to the second grade, though his words were still numbered, still guarded as though they would be unsafe if they left his tongue.

The teachers hadn’t known that in the Parrish household, words were armaments long before fists were, and words left bruises that were deeper than skin. Words left bruises that wouldn’t hold water in a court case.

Adam held his words close.

It got easier as he grew up. He started to grow comfortable with the sound of his own voice, thanks to various teachers who took interest in him, friends who filled his silences with sympathetic conversation, extracurriculars that gave Adam aspirations. He found a voice at school, though it was a decidedly different voice than the one he had at home. At home, he answered everything his parents asked, he made conversation when they tried, but he didn’t dawdle. He said what he needed to say, and then he listened.

Middle school had been horror years. No one liked middle school, but Adam Parrish constantly lived in the wake of the first time his father’s fist connected with his cheek. He’d been thirteen, sent sprawling across the dirt around back of the trailer. It was only a few weeks later when Adam realized he had forgotten what he’d said to incite the violence, but it would be an infinity before he forgot the snarled way his father had hissed Shut up before sending him to the ground. He remembered seeing fireflies in the sky above him. He remembered he’d scraped his knee on the way down. He remembered the frantic way his mother told him to keep his mouth shut about it. He didn’t remember what he’d said, and he thought maybe that was for the best.

Adam rode his bike to school, and everyone knew that. So no one seemed to think it weird when the injuries started appearing and Adam brushed it off with a simple, I fell off my bike, exactly what his mother had ordered him to say. Even if they did see through him, it was obvious Adam wasn’t going to say anything. The words that would get his father in trouble were not words that Adam would give.

And everyone knew better than to push Adam when it came to talking.

Perhaps he’d dug this grave for himself.

Robert Parrish would certainly say so.

When Adam was fifteen and finishing up his second semester of ninth grade, he’d walked numbly out of a mandatory meeting with his high school counselor. Ivy Leagues, they’d said. You’re so smart, and they’d said it like it pained them.

The thing about Ivy Leagues, Adam had learned that day, was that they were only affordable for the obscenely rich and the desperately broke. The latter was kept quiet all too often; no one had ever told Adam Parrish about the possibility of the need-based scholarships—full-ride-quality need-based scholarships—and suddenly his world was skewed. He’d always wanted to go to college. School had always been his solace, his haven away from home. But he’d always imagined going to the local public university or community college. He’d never thought he’d have the opportunity to high-tail it out of his hometown before college graduation.

And suddenly here he was: A good student, but not always a very active student. A student who’d gotten a B in geometry last semester. His counselor told him he could get into Harvard. He could get into Yale or Princeton or Brown, he just had to step it up a little. No more B’s. Find a hobby. Volunteer at a church.

He hadn’t told his parents about his plans, not right away. He had to make sure he could do it first. He had to make sure it was a possibility.

Adam turned sixteen the next year and he picked up a job at the local garage, joined the debate team, painted sets for the fall show, went down to the soup kitchen on Sunday mornings. He studied in all his spare time that wasn’t spent sleeping. His bicycle excuse was no longer passing, but no one could say anything without an admission from Adam. And that never came.

Tenth and eleventh grade—he rushed through them. His every second was filled, and he was exhausted most of his waking moments, but his mind buzzed with Princeton, Princeton, Princeton. His straight-A report cards did nothing to soften the blows from his father, but they gave his mind something else to focus on.

Adam’s social life was dismal but enough to keep him from being outcast. He was the kid you invited to things because he was sweet, but the one you always knew would decline on account of being Too busy. Once Adam had had a girlfriend, once he’d had a boyfriend, and once he’d spent an entire month trying to figure out what one girl was to him before he realized it didn’t actually matter.

When Adam was fifteen, he’d realized that public high school could get him where he wanted to go, and he spent his sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth years achieving it. When Adam was fifteen, he took hold of his life. When he was fifteen, he realized he had a way out.

When Adam was eighteen, he cried at his mailbox. It was a December afternoon, and the wind was bitter, but his shaking fingers had managed to pry open the heavy envelope emblazoned with the seal of Princeton University, and when he read the words he sought, he sank down to the dirt and cried of happiness for possibly the first time in his life. He was in. He was in, and it didn’t even matter that he’d gotten a B in geometry in ninth grade, it didn’t even matter. He was going to Princeton. He had sixty-thousand dollars’ worth of scholarships, and he was going to Princeton University. 

When Adam was eighteen, he stumbled into the house to tell his parents. Despite everything they’d done to him, they would have to be excited for him. They would have to be.

“Mom, I’m going to Princeton,” he’d said, voice weak with joy, “I got in, I’m going, and it’s—it’s free, Mom, I’m going to Princeton.” The words tumbled out of his mouth, for once not held back, for once spilling over before he could stop them. They were words he thought would be stuck in his throat forever, never able to be spoken, and here they were. “I’m going.”

His mother glowed in the afternoon light, looking kinder than he'd ever remembered her, and she threw her arms around her son who was too tall for that, her son who had to bend down to hug her properly. Her son who hadn’t received a proper hug from her in years. “Oh, I’m so proud of you, I’m so proud that you’ve found a way. So clever of you, Adam, so resourceful. You’ll do great, you’ll do so well.” She patted his back in a way that he had forgotten, and he kissed her cheek.

His father had offered a gruff handshake. No more, no less. He’d said, “Well done, kid. They still giving you that money?” Adam had nodded silently. His dad clapped him on the shoulder in a way that might have been thoughtful if it had come from anyone else. Adam bit back a shudder, though. His father didn’t notice.

Two days later, when Adam was still eighteen, when Adam was still hardly more than a child, he found himself collapsed in the middle of the living room, floor digging into his knees and his skin bruising. He was a boy, a boy who had just been accepted early decision to Princeton University, a boy who was being beaten by his father for just that.  He couldn’t cry out about how unfair it was, he couldn’t find the words to fight back.

“You think you’re better than us? You think you’ll be better than us if you run off to New Jersey? You think they won’t see right through you? Will they like you better there, boy?” The questions hailed down like bullets, punctuated with blows that Adam couldn’t stop if he’d tried, “Do you enjoy swindling them out of their money? Do you enjoy tricking them into giving you a scholarship you’ve done nothing for?”

Adam choked on his response; he’d had an argument. He’d worked harder than anyone he’d known, he knew he did. He tried to protest, but it’d always been easy to silence Adam even without violence. A blow to his stomach sent him skidding across the carpet floor, and he bit down on his lip in attempt to keep himself from talking, he bit down so hard he drew his own blood. Adam clapped his hands over his mouth to silence his breathing, to stop the sound of his ragged breath from filling his ears.

Robert Parrish’s voice was enough to drown anything out, though. “Run away, boy,” he had sneered, “You can run away whenever and wherever you want. Coming back will be the hard part.”

I’m never coming back, he’d wanted to yell, I’m never coming back. His cheek felt like it was on fire. Stand up for yourself for once in your goddamn life, Adam, he thought. Adam pulled his hands from his mouth, and he choked out a confession from the living room floor: “I thought you would be proud of me.”

Pain. Pain erupting from his face, blooming in his fingertips. “Shut the hell up.”

When Adam Parrish was eighteen, he shut the hell up. He had tried to speak up, he’d tried to say something during one of his darkest moments, and it had amounted to nothing. His words had only wrought more fury. Adam closed his mouth, and his voice refused to cooperate with him from then on. It quivered at his every attempt. Even at school, where he had friends and teachers he trusted, from that point on, when he opened his mouth, anxiety strangled his voice like weeds. After surviving eighteen years, his body was wholly betraying him at last. It had been a long time coming.

And so when Adam was in his second semester of senior year, he stopped speaking. He accepted his place at Princeton. He e-mailed the teachers who had done his recommendations to tell them the news. And he didn’t say one single word.

He avoided his house even more than usual. He still showed up to debate practices, but he sat in stony silence; he still showed up to volunteer on Sunday mornings, but when the women there tried to talk to him, all he could manage was a smile; he worked extra shifts at the garage late into the night with only the radio to accompany him. Robert Parrish seemed disdainful of Adam’s silence, but he never commented on it. A sick feeling twisted in Adam’s stomach; sometimes, he thought, his father looked proud of what he’d done.

Maybe this is what he’d wanted all along.

Senior year finished in an excruciating drag. A blur that was the result of painful passage of time rather than speed. It didn’t take long for teachers to notice that Adam could no longer speak. They asked if there had been an accident. Shrug. Are you okay? Nod. Do you need help? Shake of the head. And soon the counselors started to be called in, much to Adam’s annoyance. Somehow they all suddenly knew of Adam’s silence, somehow they all suddenly thought it their business, even though they didn’t even run in remotely the same circles as him. Their concern grated on his nerves, but soon they had him labeled. Selective mutism. And then that’s what he was: An eighteen-year-old with what everyone considered to be a child’s disorder.

You’re safe here, they’d said.

Your words are important to us, they’d said.

Adam believed them, he really did. He opened his mouth to talk, but his throat felt full of cotton. His body recalled with shocking clarity the pain of a boot to his face. He shivered.

He closed his mouth, and he shook his head.

It hadn’t been on purpose, but it wasn’t an accident either. It was a long-conditioned response that was truly inevitable, now that Adam thought back on it. He’d been striving for quiet his whole life because of the way his father had turned Adam’s own words into weapons to use against him. This had been done to him, inflicted on him over years and years of his life, and he was finally left to live with the consequences.

Staring at the rest of his life, it felt permanent. Adam’s voice felt like it was a million years away.

You just need time, they’d said.

Time. What an abstract concept. No, time wasn’t what Adam needed. But he couldn’t tell them that. What he needed was something he couldn’t imagine from where he was sitting. His new school would be a good start. From there, a kind face would be enough. He’d had lots of friends in his life, tons of friends who could help him in the moment, but maybe that was the problem. They’d never stuck around. Interested one second, gone the next. They were never able to disarm his words.

No, something as unreliable and disinterested as time wasn’t Adam’s solution.

Adam had spent the last four years of his life willing time to pass. He was done with that. Now he was looking for something more substantial. An adventure, perhaps. Solid ground to stand on. A future. For once in his goddamn life, there was a future immediately before him, a future he could feel, and he was already on the verge of living it.

His voice was stolen, but his resolve was not.

Chapter Text

Adam’s summer had lasted an eternity. Living in a small town in the middle of nowhere meant that there were always factory and industrial jobs to be had, jobs that didn’t involve taking orders or helping customers locate items in too-large department stores, so he’d managed to pick up two more jobs even without a voice. His supervisors watched him with a curiosity that felt too much like pity. Adam kept his head down. His workweek was six days long, and the only reason he didn’t make it seven was because the ladies he’d volunteered with down at the church fussed over him. They’d begged him to keep coming in on Sundays. He didn’t always show up to help with the volunteering; sometimes it was just to say Hello, inasmuch as a way that he could. However, only working six out of seven days didn’t stop his workload from extending beyond sixty hours some weeks.

It was what he wanted, though. He didn’t want to be at home, he didn’t want to feel the hours of the day. He didn’t want to ever have to depend on his parents’ money ever again.

August arrived without fanfare. On one of his rare half-days, he found himself done working by lunch time, and so he rode his bike into town and purchased a cell phone. It was a nice one, a smart phone that was light in his hands despite the weight of what it meant. It was the single most expensive thing he’d ever bought—for himself or for anyone. The most expensive thing he’d ever owned at all. And it was a secret he kept from his father. It felt like a terribly big deal.

It was key to at least half a voice.

During the first week of the month, Adam left a note on the calendar in the kitchen.

Mom, Dad.

My flight is next week. I’m leaving the house at noon on Tuesday, and freshman orientation starts Wednesday. Honestly, I don’t know when I’ll be back. I’m sorry. I’ll let you know.

He’d hesitated for a short eternity before scribbling, You’ll be able to call me here if you really need to, along with his new phone number.

He hadn’t signed the note.

He’d gotten hit for this.

But he’d planned on that, and the bruise was hardly more than a shadow by the time he was leaving days later. His mother had been sitting in the living room when the cab pulled up to the driveway. She had looked very small; Adam almost felt guilty. He gave her a hug, more out of obligation than anything else; it was a brittle thing, born of uncertainty. Had she actually been proud of him that day? Or was hers as much a façade as his father's had been? She didn’t help him bring his suitcases outside. Having decided it’d be easiest to buy bedding once he got there, everything he needed to take with him fit easily into one suitcase and a small carry-on. His new backpack was all but empty. While he loaded the trunk, Robert Parrish was nowhere to be seen, and Adam thought he saw his mother give a feeble wave from the porch as he climbed into the back seat.

The flight was simultaneously unending and over in a blink. An upperclassman was waiting to pick him up at the airport, and she fumbled to speak naturally when Adam responded by typing into a word processing app and flashing the screen her direction. She hadn’t asked for an explanation, and he hadn’t offered one. She adjusted on the walk to the parking lot, but the drive lapsed into silence when she slipped behind the wheel. She was happy enough to take him to the store so he could buy blankets and a few other things he’d needed, but as she wished him the best when she dropped him off at the dorm, Adam tried to swallow down the thought that she looked relieved to be rid of him. He wasn’t sure who the anger in his fingertips was directed at.

Now he is staring at his reflection in the mirror on the inside of the door of his new dorm room.

“Adam Parrish,” he says, slowly, to no one. He frowns at the sound of his own voice and casts his eyes to the floor. His roommate hasn’t checked in yet, though the names on the door say his name is Scott. He won’t be able to talk to Scott. He closes one hand to a fist. With great effort, he meets his reflection once again. “Adam Parrish.” Adam taps his fingers against the glass and then he bites his lip. “You can talk.” The words taste wrong. He closes his eyes.

He’s excited. He’s excited to be at college, to be at Princeton (fucking Princeton), but the anxiety in his chest is warring with him like it personally wants to take him out.

It’s not more than an hour later when Scott shows up. He’s an energetic character who shakes Adam’s hand with a grin that could light up a room. He looks confused, rather than judgmental, with Adam’s use of his phone, but not for more than a few seconds. Scott is quick to say that if Adam ever needs help, if he ever needs a voice, he’d be more than happy to come help. Adam says Thank you, but the offer isn’t something he’ll take him up on, he knows. It was well-meaning but not something Adam could ever stomach.

Adam leaves shortly after that to allow Scott to settle into the room without intrusion; he came with his family, and Adam wasn’t interested in seeing any teary goodbyes or dealing with painful conversation with strangers. He leaves the dorm building to explore campus.

Before coming here, Adam hadn’t wanted to admit to himself that he’d hoped being this far from home would somehow magically cure his loss. But now, facing a new roommate, he has to confront his disappointment. His mind knows that no one here would hate his words the way his father had, his mind knows that his father would never hear a word Adam spoke on this campus. It doesn’t matter. And the thought is sobering.

He sends a rock skittering across the sidewalk before him.

The campus is beautiful, though. Truly it’s everything he’d hoped for.

Walking through campus feels like a dream—everything seems slightly distant from Adam, and a few times he has to stop and blink repeatedly before believing what’s before him. He can only imagine what campus will look like with students on it; right now it’s just the freshmen, and most everyone is still busy moving in. It’s beautiful in its current unnatural quietness, but buzzing with activity, it will feel right.

He loses track of time and circles back towards his dorm only once he starts to feel hunger pulling at him.

He is cautiously optimistic. His roommate is nice, even if Adam doesn’t see them becoming terribly close; the campus is brilliant and will only get better; throughout orientation week, the people he meets seem all too accepting of his medium of speech. His voice feels just as dangerous, but it doesn’t feel quite as far away from him here. Just getting here hadn’t been the be-all end-all he’d hoped for, but there was something here. He would find it here, or perhaps it would find him.

Yes, Adam Parrish is hopeful in the most careful way.

For a week, he survives the endless orientation events. He silently introduces himself to more people than he could ever remember. He doesn’t mind these kinds of activities, but it isn’t the way that he makes friends, so he’s more than a little relieved when classes start and things normalize. He doesn’t feel nearly as watched, nearly as under-pressure being in a regular classroom. This is known territory, even at a new school.

Adam has four classes this semester: A 200-level Latin course (having tested out of the first year, to his great relief), a European history course, an introduction to political theory course, and a general math course. Math he’s taking to get it over with, though the other ones seem like they’ll be interesting enough.

The first day of class is a Thursday, and he starts the day with Latin. He arrives early, before the previous class is even finished. He holds a piece of computer paper in his hands and tries not to look at the few lines of printed text thereon. Every time he accidentally reads a few words, his stomach knots uncomfortably.

When the time comes, the door opens and students file out of the classroom, trailed finally by a professor. Adam enters the empty room and claims a spot in the second row of desks. Another student drifts in a few minutes later, to Adam’s dismay—he can’t get to the professor alone, then. But he sinks into a seat in the back row and doesn’t look up when the professor does arrive half a minute later. Adam pulls on a smile—it’s a genuine one, even if he has to force it a little.

The professor, a middle-aged blonde man that Adam knows to be named Dr. Whitlock, seems pleasantly surprised to have a student approaching him. He gives a cheery, “Hello!” He doesn’t seem put-off by the way Adam simply mouths Hello back and hands him the paper.

The paper, which Adam so hates, explains his situation as best he can without giving background information. It explains that he can use his phone to type responses, that he’s really sorry and he’ll gladly do extra work to make up for any in-class participation points he might miss. It’s an outright admission that Adam isn’t what everyone else is. The note is a necessary evil, a necessary embarrassment. He’s printed one for all his professors.

Whitlock’s eyes flick over the paragraph quickly; Adam knots his fingers together in front of him and shifts his weight between his feet. Whitlock’s expression swings from just cheery to something more kind. “I’m happy to have you in class, Adam. This is no problem, I’ll be glad to work around this with you.”

Adam feels like he’s physically restraining his sigh of relief. Thank you, he mouths.

When Adam turns back to go to his seat, he doesn’t look to see if the boy at the back of class has noticed their exchange. He hopes not, God, he hopes not. It’s not like his silence is a secret, it’s not like it’s something he wants to keep hidden—in fact, quite the opposite, for he knows he can only get past it if someone helps him—but to have that be anyone’s first impression of him… Well, he doesn’t like that. Though maybe it’s unavoidable in any circumstance.

He realizes quickly that, yes, it is unavoidable. There are only twelve people in his Latin class, and maybe on the first day no one would notice that one of them hadn’t spoken at all, but it wouldn’t last for long. Maybe it’s better, even, if they figure out quickly.

That’s okay, Adam thinks. It’s okay. People will know. It will help.

He gives an elongated sigh when he makes it outside to walk to his next class. The day he isn’t stressing about this will be a good one. As soon as he isn’t walking into every single class alone—that will be the day.

Before walking inside the building of his next class, he takes a moment to appreciate the movement of the campus. He’d been right about it looking better with students on it. It looks ages better, infinitely more full of opportunity. He hooks his thumbs around the straps of his backpack and turns to head inside.

He goes through the awful process again, handing the letter over and waiting for the professor to read it. The classroom is blessedly empty this time, but Adam had overestimated how much that would help. He still feels unreasonably self-conscious. However, this professor too gives Adam an encouraging smile and assures him that it will be no problem.

Everything will be alright. It’s all alright.

This class, History of European Folklore, turns out to be a lot more history than folklore, but the syllabus looks fascinating enough. After class is over, Adam lingers in his seat to read it over, being in no rush, as he’s done with classes for the day. He doesn’t notice immediately that someone has wandered over towards his desk, not until they’re already speaking to him.

“Did the professor say your name was Adam?”

Adam’s gaze flies upwards; he nearly drops the paper. The boy before him wears a soft expression, hands deep in the pockets of his khaki shorts. Adam blinks before nodding with a weak smile. A second passes, a moment that’s a little too long, before Adam raises his eyebrows in a way that turns the question back at the stranger.

“Oh, and I’m Gansey, sorry.”

Adam smiles.

“I just wanted to ask where you got your backpack?” That’s the last thing Adam expected to come out of his mouth. “I super like it. Mine is so old, and I meant to get a new one before I came to college, but none of them felt right, you know?” Adam nods, even though he’s pretty sure he’s never felt that way about backpacks. “Yeah, but I really like yours, where’d you get it?”

Adam parts his lips and then drops his face before Gansey can see him flush. Adam quickly types on his phone, Nowhere exciting, I’m afraid. Got it at Target

Gansey hardly even misses a beat; he looks baffled by the non-verbal response for less than half a second before he reads what Adam’s written. “Oh man, I can’t say I even looked in Target. Is there one around here?” Adam shrugs. “I have no idea, either. Yours is very nice though, really.” At Adam’s amused look, Gansey laughs airily. “Nice buckles. I noticed you with it when I came in, talking to the professor at the front of the class, and so I listened on the roll call for your name because I literally like it that much.” Adam gives a weak laugh, and Gansey waves an absent-minded hand through the air, “Oh well. The hunt continues, I suppose.” Gansey takes a step backwards, looking thoughtfully about the classroom.

Adam starts to pack his things away. Having expected Gansey to leave after getting his answer, he’s a little surprised to see that he sticks around. When Adam pulls his backpack over his shoulder, Gansey is standing at the front of the class, looking at a map on the wall. He looks at Adam like it’s totally natural that he waited to leave with a boy he’d just met.

“Where are you from, Adam—?”

Parrish.

“Adam Parrish,” and he says it like the name means something to him. “Where are you from?”

Adam keeps his expression neutral. nowhere important

Gansey accepts this answer with more ease than a normal person would. “What state?”

Virginia

“Oh, me too! Well, kind of. My family lives in Washington, D.C., but I went to a high school in Virginia. That’s more my home.”

The look on Adam’s face is only barely quizzical, but it’s enough of an invitation for Gansey to explain that he lived with his friend Ronan in a makeshift apartment for his last two years of high school. He talks easily of the situation—a private boarding school, a busy politician mother, a small town called Henrietta that Gansey described with loving detail. It was his past, and Gansey speaks of it without discomfort, as though it were all terribly unimpressive, which is perhaps the most impressive thing about it. The conversation lasts barely five minutes before Gansey is excusing himself to meet up with the aforementioned Ronan, but it sticks with Adam as he heads back to his room.

Adam had been immediately aware that Gansey was something different from him. They didn’t make boys like Gansey where Adam was from. He exuded a lightness that left Adam a little nervous, feeling like perhaps Gansey couldn’t deal with the troubles that Adam sometimes carried. It wasn’t that Gansey seemed naïve, it was that he seemed like he simply didn’t know certain things existed. There was no way that someone with a smile like Gansey’s could fathom the home Adam had grown up in. Where Gansey was from, they probably didn’t make boys like Adam, either.

But he’d been kind. Light-hearted even when Adam had given such an unsatisfactory answer for his hometown. That counted for something.

Adam doesn’t see Gansey the next day or over the weekend. His other two classes on Friday go fine, and his remaining professors are as accepting of his awful paper as the others had been. It’s only a small relief, in the grand scheme of things.

Adam uses his weekend to look for a work-study job. Between the money he’d saved over the summer and his scholarships, it wasn’t as though he needed an income, but he was used to a certain schedule. Working gave him a sense of security, and Adam implemented Better safe than sorry into his life whenever he could. There were a few different options, all of which required online applications. That was good for him, at least.

He sees Gansey in the dining hall Monday afternoon; he waves at Adam from across the room.

Tuesday, Adam notices a Ronan Lynch on the roll call of his Latin class. He glances over to see a boy who looks every bit the opposite of Gansey, and for a moment, Adam thinks that there must be more than one Ronan at this school because he simply cannot picture it. Adam didn’t know either of them, not at all, but even just the physical characteristics seemed too great to overcome. Ronan slouched where Gansey stood tall; Ronan was sharp, where Gansey was curved; Ronan took up space, where Gansey drifted easily about.

Adam doesn’t try to speak to Ronan. He has no reason to.

Once, he notices Ronan’s eyes on him, though, and Adam wonders if Gansey told Ronan about him.

But no, certainly not.

Adam becomes further interested by Gansey and Ronan during his history class, which is directly after Latin. Gansey raises his hand to speak a few times during class, and every time he sounds more earnest than any student Adam has ever heard. The professor loves him. Gansey knows information, and he is excited about it. During Latin class, Ronan had also raised his hand, but his answers had been lazily given. They were right, always right, but born out of something different than Gansey’s blatant gusto. Ronan was a presence. Gansey was a movement.

Adam wonders at how knowable people can be when they want to be.

And Gansey and Ronan want to be known.

Despite the brevity of their meetings, Gansey meanders over to Adam after class finishes and greets him with a carefree smile. “How was your weekend?”

Uneventful, Adam replies.

Gansey makes a noise of assent. “Yeah, I mostly browsed through my textbooks. There’s so much!” It’s said as though it’s a complaint, but there’s no masking the interest in his voice.

Like last time, they talk for just a few minutes and then Gansey is dashing off with a quick goodbye. Like last time, Adam is left thinking about Gansey even in his absence.

Then Thursday is back again and Gansey is standing by Adam’s desk before the professor has even left the room. Adam is a little unsure about Gansey’s apparent interest in him. Is it that Adam is an oddity? Or is it that he’s a friend? Adam wants to warn him that he would cringe if he knew where Adam was from. He refrains. Gansey smiles when he talks to him. Today Gansey asks about what Adam is studying.

Politics, I think. It could change. I think I want to go to law school after this. He almost erases the end. How stupid would he look, a lawyer who couldn’t talk? Adam had never seen such a thing. Did they exist? But he swallows the concern and flips the phone around.

“Oh, awesome,” Gansey says genuinely. If he thinks this is at odds with Adam’s silence, he doesn’t show it. “I’m majoring in history.”

This makes Adam smile. That makes sense

“How so?” It’s an honest question, which is almost absurd.

You’re very into this class, Adam says simply.

“Oh,” and then Gansey laughs. “Yeah, history and folklore are what I like best in this life.” He stretches his hands over his head as they step outside the building. “Well, folklore is one word for it. Anyway, well, I need to g—well, wait, do you have class after this?”

He shakes his head.

“Why haven’t you been eating lunch with me and Ronan?” he asks, almost sounding like he’s asking himself, admonishing himself for being so mindless. “I mean—are you free?” He puts a hand lightly to Adam’s arm, “Do you want to eat with us?”

Gansey says it like it’s such a big deal that Adam almost forgets that it isn’t, in fact. Sure?

“Yes, please do! You can meet Ronan. He’s—” Gansey stops himself, and he turns a hand over in the air in a thoughtful gesture, “He’s nice. I promise.”

That doesn’t sound encouraging.

“He is!” Gansey sounds like he’s had this conversation before. “I don’t trust him around just anyone, though. That’s all.”

Adam nods, understanding a little bit from his own minimal knowledge of Ronan. 

Gansey talks as they head across campus; Gansey’s talking could best be called babbling. It should feel like an air, like an act he’s putting on, but somehow, this is just the natural way he talks. Adam again has the uncomfortable thought that Gansey wouldn’t be able to handle it if he knew Adam’s background. And Adam wouldn’t want to weigh him down with it. Would it be possible for the conversation to never arise? Adam pushes those thoughts away.

It comes to light that they live in the same dorm building, and Gansey sounds relieved to hear it. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to have to walk back across campus after eating with us,” he says.

It would have been no problem, Adam assures.

“This is better, though, isn’t it?”

I suppose it is. Adam gives a weak smile.

He likes Gansey. He’s wary of Gansey.

Wary turns into decidedly unsure when they meet Ronan Lynch just outside the dining hall.

“Ronan!” Gansey greets while they’re still a few yards off.

Ronan turns his head at the sound of his name, but his eyes are focused on Adam at Gansey’s side. His arms are crossed and something about the angle of his jaw looks like you could cut yourself on it. Adam thinks all of this before even getting a good look at his eyes, which seem to dare you to remain in his presence.

“Adam, Ronan. Ronan,” Gansey says, stopping in front of him, “This is Adam Parrish. He has history with me.”

“Yeah, you’re the quiet kid in Latin.”

Ronan!”

“What?” Ronan exclaims. “He is quiet, and he is in Latin. What’re you doing hanging out with a loser like Gansey?”

Gansey looks like he wants to say something, but Adam just takes a deep breath and drops his gaze to begin typing an answer to Ronan.

“Hey, I asked—”

“Ronan!”

Huh?”

Gansey casts a meaningful look Adam’s direction.

He’s the one who started talking to me! He has a weird thing about backpacks. Adam is holding his phone out in front of him, blinking insertion point at the end of his text. He swallows hard as Ronan’s eyes meet the screen.

Then he cracks a grin. “He does have a weird thing about backpacks.” Ronan scoffs, and apparently this was enough of an explanation for him, because he turns around again, leading the way into the dining hall apparently without further comment on the matter. After a beat, though, he continues, “I thought you were being awfully quiet, but I see. It makes more sense now.” Gansey looks like he wants to admonish Ronan again, but Ronan keeps going, reading his features without issue, “I wasn’t being mean! How was that mean? Was I being mean, Adam?”

Adam’s smile seems to surprise Gansey. No.

“He can’t talk, we all realize he can’t talk now. You can’t talk, can you, Adam?”

He hesitates for the briefest of moments before shaking his head.

“I’m sure he’d rather we didn’t dance around the subject?” Ronan casts a questioning glance Adam’s way. Sure, he’d said, but still asking Adam’s approval.

Adam shrugs. You’re fine

“I wasn’t dancing,” Gansey mumbles.

No, Gansey was fine as well, you’re both fine, and then Adam surprises himself by laughing. Gansey’s expression softens, and Ronan rolls his eyes. Having someone fuss over him is too new for him to be upset with Ronan, even if he had been bothered. And he hadn’t. Ronan’s was honestly the easiest reaction to deal with. Gansey’s had been thoughtful, though. The two together were nice.

With this exchange alone, Adam thinks he sees a little bit better how the two of them could be friends. Not completely. But maybe it wasn’t so bizarre.

Lunch is an interesting affair. Mostly, Ronan and Gansey talk to each other. Every time Gansey tries to talk about something school-related, Ronan turns the topic around to something—anything—else. Gansey seems to know what Ronan is doing, though he keeps on anyway. Gansey slips in to Adam that Ronan is majoring in studio arts, and Adam’s expression must be very telling, because Ronan’s laughter is a bark.

“I know,” is all Ronan says in response.

Ronan’s conversations tend towards cars and art and weird dreams he’s had. Occasionally Ronan gets into long strings of intricate stories, and as he goes, Gansey casts Adam careful, light looks that Adam can’t wholly interpret. And Adam notices that Ronan doesn’t really talk—he raves, he enunciates, he sneers. Nothing he says is half-hearted, and Adam is almost overwhelmed by his muchness. He is aggressively present in a way that Adam has never seen, much less been.

Adam doesn’t feel out of place with them, per se, but he’s all too aware of the shared years that the two of them have—shared secrets, shared experiences, shared lives. It hadn’t been so obvious before, but being with them together, it is abruptly very apparent that Adam is an outsider. They act like brothers, like there’s something between them that can’t and never will be touched. He tries not to let this disappoint him—he hadn’t realized he’d gotten his hopes up in the first place. Gansey draws him into the conversation whenever he can, and Ronan looks at him enough that he should feel included, but Adam notices things like this too easily to feel entirely comfortable.

He’s interested in both of them—they are both terribly interesting for vastly different reasons.

But Adam knows if he wants to be friends with them, they’ll have to be the ones to reach out to him. His fear of intrusion is too great, and he’s riddled with issues he doesn’t want to inflict on them.

He tries not to feel let down.

When they part ways, Gansey touches Adam’s arm again.

Over the weekend, Adam gets a job at the mailroom. They assured him that his voice wouldn’t be a problem, as there were always at least two students working at a time so if someone really needed to speak with someone, they would be able to. Mostly students just came to pick up packages and buy stamps, though. It sounded like a good job. Just enough hours to feel productive, not enough work to exhaust him.

Again, Adam passes the weekend without seeing Gansey or Ronan. They don’t seek him out to ask him to eat with them, and Adam has to convince himself that that isn’t disappointing. He eats with Scott a few times, and a few people who recognize him from class join him once or twice, but mostly he picks up a seat at the corner of the hall by himself. He doesn’t look for Gansey and Ronan. Better if he doesn’t.

Tuesday in Latin, Ronan knocks on Adam’s desk as he walks past, but he doesn’t say anything else. In history, Gansey sits down in front of Adam and asks him about his other courses before class starts. Gansey programs his number into Adam’s phone. If he notices there are only three other names in his contacts list, he doesn’t say anything.

Is Gansey oblivious or just kind?

Which would be worse?

Adam doesn’t have an answer.

They go to lunch together, and Gansey walks with Adam as though it isn’t even a question that he’ll come with. It isn’t.

Every time Adam is with Ronan for more than two minutes, he’s struck by something about him. Ronan’s gaze is demanding, just like everything else about him. Futilely Adam tries to imagine a day that he doesn’t feel like it’s asking more than Adam can give, like it’s begging something off him. Ronan isn’t doing it on purpose, Adam is quite aware of that, but it gives him a weird feeling. Adam had been concerned Gansey couldn’t handle him, but maybe he couldn’t handle Ronan.

Adam wanted to be able to, though. It felt like a horrendously lofty goal, but Ronan’s presence was too much a demand to ignore.

That night, Gansey texts him around five to ask if he’s been to dinner yet.

The next day is Adam’s second day working in the mailroom. He shuffles between the mailboxes and the window, putting letters into boxes and giving people their packages when they show up at the window with blue delivery slips. The girl on shift with him is sweet and almost as quiet as Adam. It works out well.

He’s got an hour left of his shift when someone taps the bell at the window and Adam drifts out to find Ronan Lynch leaned against the counter with a bored expression that quickly transforms when he sees Adam.

“Parrish, I didn’t know you worked here.”

Adam just shrugs lightly as if to say, I didn’t know it was important. He takes the delivery slip from Ronan before he can say anything else and disappears into the back room to locate whatever had come from him. It’s a small cardboard box from an Aurora Lynch, and when he brings it back out, Ronan seems surprised to see who it’s from.

“Didn’t know she was sending me anything.”

Your mother?

“Yep,” he says, tucking the box under his arm. He looks like he’s about to leave, but then he props his other arm against the counter. “What do you do here?” Ronan cranes his neck to look inside, and Adam gives an amused look.

Sort mail, deliver mail, retrieve packages

“Is that all?”

Play games on my phone?

Ronan laughs. “Sounds like a good gig.”

Better than the ones I worked back home, Adam says. It’s a small admission, but a profound one to give away to a boy who reeked of money the same way Gansey did, a boy who had most definitely never worked a job in his life. He wasn’t going to hide from his past, but that didn’t mean it didn’t make him awfully uncomfortable.

“Do what you gotta do, man,” Ronan gives an easy shrug, not realizing what he’d been given.

I do, Adam says with a faint roll of his eyes.

Ronan sticks around, and he talks not as though he and Adam are friends, but it’s almost as though he’s trying to scope Adam out. Adam doesn’t know exactly where he gets this feeling from, because it’s not like Ronan isn’t being sociable, but it’s definitely there. Ronan doesn’t pry, doesn’t push or pull information out of him, but he appears all too assessing. And then Adam is thinking back to all their previous meetings, thinking back to the way Ronan honestly doesn’t say much directly to him. Now here he is, speaking to him more than he’s done in any of their prior encounters combined.

Then Adam is wringing his hands together behind the window, suddenly afraid that this is a test he’s going to fail. He’ll definitely fail. If Ronan decides Adam isn’t worth their time, he knows Gansey will follow suit. He knows it like a fact.

But this conversation feels friendly. How could it feel friendly?

Adam might be imagining all of this. He probably is. Because Ronan keeps talking to him. Even when someone else comes up to the window, he doesn’t use it as an excuse to leave; Ronan just drifts to the side and waits for Adam to be free again.

Ronan has a skill that, in the past eight months, Adam has found to be very rare. He leaves room for Adam to reply without leaving painful, too-long pauses. It’s easy for some people to go on and on, assuming that Adam never wants to insert anything, assuming that it’ll be easier if they do all the conversational work; they don’t understand that it’s infinitely more embarrassing to be spoken to as if lack of voice means lack of opinion. Ronan can go on about things for intervals and come to stops naturally to allow Adam to slide his phone across the counter. Somehow, Ronan, in all his loud existence, doesn’t run Adam over.

Forty-five minutes pass easily like this. When Ronan notices the time, he seems pained by it. “Homework to be done, Parrish.” He raps his knuckles against the counter and pushes off of it. “Have fun playing games on your phone, or whatever it is you said you did here, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

It isn’t a question. Adam nods with the faintest of smiles and raises a hand to say bye.

He’d been ignoring a box of letters that needed placing to talk to Ronan, though when he goes back to the mailboxes, he finds that the girl working with him that evening had already finished it.

I’m so sorry, he says, meaning it. He’d never been one to slack off.

“It’s okay,” she replies, also as though she meant it. “I would have talked to my friend if they came, too.”

Adam tries not to wonder if he and Ronan are friends.

It doesn’t matter. Because the next day, he still accompanies them to lunch after history, and at his afternoon shift in the mailroom, Ronan comes by and talks about nothing without Adam having asked him to. This time feels less like an exam. Ronan isn’t there for more than fifteen minutes today, but he’s back right before his shift is over at five.

“Me and Gansey are going to dinner,” he says in lieu of giving a reason for coming back.

Gansey looks unreasonably elated when he spots Adam walking in with Ronan.

“I brought Parrish,” he says.

“I see that,” Gansey responds warmly. “That’s super convenient, actually, I wanted to ask you if you’d started studying for folklore?”

Adam scoffs. The test isn’t until Tuesday, right?

“I take that as a no?” Gansey grins.

Adam shakes his head. He mouths No for emphasis.

“Well, would you wanna come study with me after this? I at least want to start on the study guide tonight.”

Adam hadn’t been planning on even opening a book for that class until Sunday, at least, but he supposes a head-start wouldn’t hurt. Especially if it was Gansey asking. Adam gives a small shrug with a nod, a sure motion.

“Awesome. I’ve been skipping a lot of the readings, truthfully, so…”

You?? haven’t been reading??

Gansey looks embarrassed. “I get by.”

Adam read every assigned word, and it seemed off that Gansey, who so clearly loved everything about that class, wouldn’t do the same. Get by, he’d said. The difference between them, the one Adam hadn’t been giving much mind, seems stark again. Adam couldn’t just get by. Adam once again bites down the feeling that Gansey is something other from him. He tells himself that he doesn’t have to be able to relate to Adam for them to be friends. If Gansey is someone who could coast, Adam couldn’t begrudge him that. Gansey likes him, and that is perfect enough.

Gansey eats quickly, though Ronan seems unmoved by Gansey’s desire to jump to studying and very pointedly takes his time. Gansey doesn’t complain, but he gives Ronan a knowing sigh. Their conversations are light, and tonight Ronan throws words Adam’s way, a difference that Gansey seems to notice as well.

Even so, Adam is still so obviously separate from them. He doesn’t know why Gansey pursued hanging out with him, he doesn’t know why Ronan came by to talk to him, the two of them are so obviously so far out of Adam’s reach it is almost laughable. They don’t need him. Adam loathes the feeling, despises that even once he’d gotten here, even once he’d found people who apparently cared about him at least a little, there is still something between Adam and them, something that can’t be traversed. He fights to keep this foul emotion off his face, though it tugs fiercely at something in his chest all through dinner and as they walk back to Gansey’s and Ronan’s room and as they spread out their books and notes across the hard floor to study.

As it turns out, Gansey doesn’t need much help with studying, he just likes to speak out loud and bounce ideas off of someone who also knows the subject. They mostly work independently, working through the study guide (which is really more a list of things to be familiar with than anything else), while Gansey throws questions Adam’s way every few minutes.

Ronan, camped out on his bed with a sketch book, ignores them almost completely.

The nasty feeling behind Adam’s ribcage doesn’t leave—not until Gansey opens his mouth an hour later with a different tone of voice.

“Adam…”

He raises his eyebrows in response.

Gansey, lying on his stomach with a book in front of him, props himself up on his elbows and parts his lips thoughtfully as he considers his next words. “What do you think about the supernatural?”

“Oh, God, Gansey, he does not want to hear about all that right now.” Apparently Ronan hadn’t been disregarding them as much as Adam had thought.

Adam narrows his eyes and quirks his head slightly, asking for an elaboration.

“Like, spirits and ghosts and ley lines and seeing the future and—and folklore? What do you think about all that? What do you know about it?”

Adam sets the book he’d been holding to the floor, feeling that the time for studying is drawing to a close. I can’t say I’ve ever looked into it

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Gansey has the most curious smile on his face. Ronan looks slightly annoyed.

Never in his life has Adam set aside time to consider whether or not he believed in ghosts. It doesn’t sound like such an outlandish idea, but truly, he’d never thought about it. I don’t know

Gansey presses a thumb to his lips and hums thoughtfully against it. “Well I do. Among other things. There’s so much in this world with shoddy explanations. So much stuff we can’t explain.” Gansey’s smile is almost amused as he fiddles with the edge of a book’s page. “Tell me to stop if you’re not interested—” He hesitates, glancing Adam’s way, “There’s a ley line in Virginia. Do you know what that is?” Adam shakes his head, pulling a knee to his chest and propping his chin on it. Gansey launches into a description of energy, unexplainable and powerful roads of energy wrapping around the earth and connecting significant places. It’s a myth, Adam thinks, it can’t be more than a myth, but the way he narrates their existence to Adam—they’re as real as anything else. “You should see some of the things that happen on it. You should see Henrietta some days. It’s so obvious that there’s something more there.”

There’s some part of Gansey that is unfolding here. Something new right here in front of Adam.

“Me and Ronan, we… we’ve seen a lot of stuff.”

Ronan is scowling. If Gansey notices, he doesn’t do anything about it.

“There’s a lot of nonsense out there, a lot of haunted places that are just kind of spooky at night, a lot of legends with no historical background, and that’s a lot to sift through, but there’s real stuff, too. Real poltergeists. Real magicians. Real mysteries. There are people out there who can literally read into the future!” Gansey’s voice is so obviously and so shamelessly thrilled that Adam can’t help but smile. “My girlfriend’s whole family, they’re all—they’re psychic. They’re just. So clearly psychic, and it’s such a wonder. I hope you can meet them. It’s something they walk around with like it’s nothing. That’s ordinary for them.” Gansey sits up and crosses his legs, expression thoughtful. “There’s always things to find. Sometimes they’re big and sometimes they’re small, but there’s always something, you know?”

Adam nods, mostly out of marvel for the belief Gansey displays.

“You’re gonna fucking scare him away with all our weird shit, Gansey,” Ronan mutters, and suddenly his irritation seems kind.

Adam makes a gesture with his hand, fingers spread, shaking slightly. No, no, no, this is interesting.

Ronan looks unconvinced.

I think I’m just wondering… why are you telling me this?

“Mostly because—well, I like you, Adam.” He laughs, and Adam smiles and looks away, “And it is something interesting. I keep meaning to look for any… tall tales around campus,” Gansey says, pursing his lips. “I haven’t had much time to really ask people, but in a school this old—there should be something. Someone has to know things, because I just know there’s something here. Like, there’s no way that no one’s ever died on campus, there’s no way that no one’s ever hidden something on these grounds. I’m looking around for anything interesting, and if you want to help…” Gansey’s smile is light.

Adam gives an airy laugh and looks back to Gansey before saying, Well, I can’t promise I’ll actually be any help but…

“I’m sorry,” Gansey says, tone abruptly changing, “I didn’t mean to throw a bunch of supernatural hubbub at you, but like. It’s kind of what I do. What we do.” He gestures between him and Ronan, who looks fractionally less livid now. “It’s important to me.”

hey, if there’s magic on this campus, I want to see it. He is surprised by how much he means it.

“Me too, Adam. Me too.” He idly spins a pen between his fingers and smiles. “Stick with us and you’ll find it.”

Adam had questions for Gansey, questions on questions, and Gansey couldn’t answer them fast enough. He told Adam tales of witches and impossible feats of nature; places where time seemed to get stuck, places where seconds were shorter than back home; people whose bodies didn’t work like theirs; there were shadows light couldn’t touch and voices without owners out there. He talked about his girlfriend, Blue, an impossible-sounding girl who didn’t bat an eye at visions of the future. This is our world, Adam, he’d said. Everything is out there if you know where to look. Gansey’s stories should have been impossible—were impossible. But talking the way Gansey did, he left no room for doubt.

That night, Adam lies in his bed staring at the ceiling. In the darkness of the room, Adam lets himself feel like Gansey’s telling him about—about whatever it is that they do, he lets himself feel like he’s been let in somehow. By telling Adam that, he’s taken down one of the walls between them.

That’s a dangerous thought, a dangerous hope, Adam knows, but it is true: the two of them aren’t so distant anymore.

Their eclectic brand of friendship was born in something unearthly, and didn’t that explain everything?

It’s beginning. The something that Adam needed, the something he couldn’t name before he got here. Without realizing it, Gansey had swooped in and given Adam what he needed.

And what was more—Ronan had seemed afraid that Adam would be scared off. This, too, seems important to Adam. Had he really been scared of frightening him away? He couldn’t know that Adam was slow to judge, he couldn’t have known that Adam was desperate to be part of something bigger, so the worry that Adam would think they were weird was certainly one that could exist. But it seems like a worry that would belong to someone less self-assured than Ronan. Someone like Adam.

It seemed out of place.

And yet, the next day, there’s a knock at Adam’s door, just before the time the three of them normally go to lunch these days, and Ronan is standing there, hands shoved in his jeans pockets, brow knitted together, feet spread. Taking up space.

are you here to walk me to lunch? Adam asks, before Ronan has the opportunity to even say hello.

“Ha,” he says, scuffing his shoe against the ground, eyes resting on Adam with interest. “Sure. Yeah. Making sure you still wanted to come to lunch,” and he doesn’t roll his eyes, but it sounds almost like that’s what he wants to do.

Adam just raises his eyebrows in question.

“We didn’t weird you out with… whatever?”

Ronan hadn’t wanted to scare Adam off.

Has that happened before?

“Hey, you look like you think the answer to that question is no, and it’s not,” Ronan says, forcing a strained laugh. “Yes, it has. He just starts—fucking, talking about his ghost conspiracy theories and shit, and it’s—I mean, it can be weird.”

Adam doesn’t reply for a careful second. They’re not your ghost conspiracy theories, too?

“What?”

You said “histheories

Ronan’s smile is crooked. “He starts it. He’s the one who finds everything. He’s the one who does the research and camps out in the middle of the night. I just tag along. Some of his stuff freaks me out, but.” He shrugs. He sounds like he wants to continue. His thought shifts, though, and so does his tone, “It’s real. Everything Gansey gets involved in is real.”

That sounds like a warning

“Maybe it is.” Ronan knocks his hand into the doorframe thoughtlessly. His lopsided smile has yet to slide from his face. “That doesn’t mean I want you to stay away from it. It’s a fucking ride, let me tell you. It says something about you that you tolerated all his yammering and then didn’t run off afterwards. Believe me when I say I’m impressed, Parrish.”

Chapter Text

It’s Labor Day when Adam receives a text at eight in the morning from Gansey.

Adam, are you awake ???????

He had most definitely not been awake, so his I am now, do you need something? response arrives to Gansey’s phone around ten. And around ten-oh-five, there is rhythmic knocking at Adam’s door. Luckily, Scott lived nearby and had gone home for the long weekend, or else Adam would have had to have been horribly apologetic. He throws his blankets off to the side and runs a hand through his hair before opening the door, an expectant look just barely overcoming his sleepy one.

“Adam, I found something.”

He’d left his phone on the charger, so he just shoots Gansey a confused look.

“A ghost-shaped something,” he says, grinning. “Get dressed and come upstairs, I have much to tell—and Ronan to wake up, so.” He makes a face like the thought is unpleasant and then dashes off down the hall. Adam stares off after him for a moment before blinking and giving a breath of a laugh.

It was a quick thing, Gansey’s drawing Adam into this side of his life. Gansey can’t seem to tell Adam enough; he tells Adam everything he knows like it’s his job, and Adam listens like it’s his. And it isn’t a hard job, certainly, it’s some of the most fascinating stuff Adam’s ever heard. Though every time Gansey gets into a particularly long story or explanation, Ronan looks like he’s just waiting for Adam to snap.

It’s not that weird, Adam had assured Ronan on the Friday before the long weekend.

Ronan, who was again visiting Adam at the mailroom at the time, hadn’t offered a verbal response and merely pursed his lips at that, as though he didn’t believe him.

Lots of people believe in ghosts and shit, Ronan. It’s interesting, I’m interested! Seriously

Ronan had grinned at that, and then cleanly changed the subject.

Adam doesn’t rush with getting ready; he happens to know that Gansey and Ronan were both at a party last night, and though Gansey obviously isn’t suffering from anything this morning, Adam had learned enough about Ronan to guess that he probably wouldn’t be getting out of bed without a fight. Adam had declined their invitation to join them, and they hadn’t pushed the matter.

However, Adam can’t ignore the fact that he’s dreadfully curious about whatever Gansey’s found, and it’s not been more than fifteen minutes when he’s tentatively knocking on their door.

“Coming!” Gansey shouts, even though it only takes him half a second to open the door and gesture Adam inside.

Ronan, sitting in the corner of his bed with his forehead against the wall, looks like he’s still sleeping, spare the fact that he’s sitting up. He opens his eyes just far enough to look at Adam, who raises a hand in greeting. Ronan makes an indiscernible noise.

“He says he doesn’t get hungover, but…”

He closes his eyes again. “Give me two seconds, Dick. We’ll be good.” He sits up and rolls his neck. With a slightly uncomfortable face, he shifts to the edge of the bed and grabs a water bottle from where it’s sitting on the floor. He crosses his legs, unscrews the cap, and then gestures with one hand for Gansey to start talking. “Let’s go, then.”

Gansey and Adam both sit on Gansey’s bed. Gansey stares at Ronan for an extended second, making sure he’s with them, and then he launches into an explanation of the night before.

He and Ronan had gone to a party one of the other dorms was throwing in honor of the Labor Day Monday off, and Gansey hadn’t actually had any intentions of asking after the supernatural, but around midnight he’d lost track of Ronan and gone to sit outside, where he heard some upperclassmen joking about going down to the chapel. It seemed like an odd thing to say, so Gansey, ever a little bit nosey, had waited for an explanation.

”You’ll piss her off, man,” one of them said, laughing. “You know she hates drunk people, fuck.”

“Nah, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna fuckin’ do it—” This one was obviously more far gone than the others, and they had to grab him around the arm to keep him from running off. “I’m gonna get her to come out—maybe you just gotta, fuckin’, really piss her off.”

“She’ll kill you,” another laughed. “She’ll kill your ass. Don’t mess with that kind of stuff.”

“Man… man, I just wanna see her—what’s she gonna do? She’s already fucking dead, what’s she gonna do? What’s she gonna do?” His voiced raised like this was a really profound question, and his friends had to pull him back again.

At this point, Gansey had walked over and exaggerated his own intoxication to ask them what the fuck they were talking about? And they’d all laughed, and after a lot of prodding, a lot of No, seriouslys, they gave him a convoluted, not entirely chronological story about a girl who’d been killed on campus “like forever ago,” a girl who supposedly still haunted the chapel. According to them, no one could ever get close to her, but “people definitely see her, man, she exists.” Gansey asked what they meant when they’d said she hates drunk people, he asked how they knew that, and they offered a fuzzy explanation about times when people had gone into the chapel drunk and the next day, Bibles were pulled off shelves, bulletins were thrown about the floor. Gansey, optimistic though he usually is, hadn’t bothered to say that it was very possible that the drunk people had messed it up and just couldn’t remember it the next day, but it was an interesting tale either way. Does she have a name? Gansey asked them.

“Yeah. Naomi.”

“Surname?”

They’d shrugged. “Who fucking cares?”

He’d left it at that.

When Gansey finishes his account, Ronan has his water bottle propped on his knee, his palms over the top, and his chin on the back of his hands. He’s looking unimpressedly at Gansey. “So you got your big lead from a group of drunk people?”

Gansey isn’t bothered by the barbed remark. “You know drunk people are more honest than anything. But I looked into it, Ronan, there really was a student named Naomi who was murdered here twenty-one years ago, right on campus. And you wanna guess where? Right outside the chapel.”

Something uncomfortable twists in Adam’s stomach. How? Why?

Gansey looks at Adam’s phone for a long moments before shifting uneasily. “Well… see, I found a lot of articles about it. I mean, not a lot, but three or four, old newspaper articles online, and they don’t really say anything about how or why.” Gansey leans over to grab his laptop off his desk, and then he pulls it open on his lap. A few hasty clicks and he passes it over to Adam. “Read those real quick, tell me it isn’t weird.”

Adam scrolls through the four articles Gansey’s pulled up, old photocopied newspapers, all with similar headlines.

PRINCETON STUDENT MURDERED ON GROUNDS

MURDER ON PRINCETON CAMPUS

KILLED ON CAMPUS: PRINCETON STUDENT FOUND DEAD

STUDENT MURDERED ON PRINCETON CAMPUS

The articles all describe Princeton Senior Naomi Czerny, who was majoring in biology and had two other sisters. They described how she was involved in organizations all over campus, how she’d just been accepted to a Master’s program, how she had such a “bright future.” There was minimal description of the actual event, though. She had been found in the dirt outside the chapel the next morning by a fellow classmate, who was a close friend. There was no description of how she’d been killed, no description of motive, just the promise that the police had already apprehended several suspects, all of whom they were almost wholly certain were guilty. All of the articles were the same. No motive, no cause of death.

It was something that could get overlooked if you weren’t searching for it, but sitting here, with Gansey frowning beside him, it seems like a very apparent oversight. In an article like this, written immediately after the fact, perhaps motive would be dismissible—there was no information yet. But there’s always gossip. People want to offer their insights to journalists, but the article is so obviously missing any of that. No speculation, no guesses. Maybe it was in attempt to be tactful—a student being murdered is always a tragedy in the press. But these articles still feel off in the most subtle of ways. Adam taps his fingers against the side of the laptop thoughtfully as he pulls his gaze away. He hands the computer back to Gansey, who holds it up as if to ask Ronan if he wants to read.

Ronan shakes his head. “I’ll trust you guys. There’s nothing about how she died in there? That’s fucking impossible.”

“Just says it was a murder.”

“How does it not say if she was shot or stabbed or thrown off the goddamn roof?” Something flickers across Ronan’s face. He changes his mind and beckons with his fingers for Gansey to hand him the laptop. “That’s not right.”

Gansey gets up to hand it to him, and when he sits back down, Adam flashes his phone towards him. Maybe her parents just wanted it kept quiet?

“Yeah, maybe her parents did want to keep it quiet,” Gansey says, effortlessly including Ronan in what Adam had said, “But it just seems like… It seems like that’s something they wouldn’t have had a choice in. Some things are easier to keep quiet than others, and this seems like an awfully big thing.”

“Man,” Ronan mumbles, eyes still on the screen, “they did her wrong.”

As Ronan finishes reading the articles, the room drifts into silence. Gansey is drumming his fingers against his knees, biting his lower lip with a vacant look in his eyes. He snaps out of it when Ronan brings his computer back to him, and he gives a sharp exhale. “So anyway, I was thinking we should go to the chapel tonight.”

“Is that what you think?” He collapses back onto the edge of his bed, looking unmoved by the suggestion.

Yes, Ronan, it is what I think. We’re gonna go.” His voice is more than a little excited. “Scope out the situation.”

“Did your little friends say anything about when she comes out to play?” Ronan has his wrist raised to his mouth, and he peers over his fingers skeptically.

“No, but… I think it’s worth a shot to just go down there. See what happens, if anything.” He looks cautiously to Adam. “You game?”

Adam just  says, Why not?

“Why indeed not?” He casts a smile at Ronan.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, okay,” Ronan gets up, waving a flippant hand, “I’m going to take a shower.”

With Gansey and Adam left alone, Gansey starts searching the internet for any more articles on the incident. Adam does the same on his phone, and he comes across an article from a few weeks later than the initial reports, which gives names of the other students being charged with the murder. There’s still nothing about how they did it. Adam shows the article to Gansey, who makes a pensive sound.

“How can they not talk about it?” he asks, shaking his head, and he almost laughs. “It’s completely preposterous. These aren’t just high school bullies grown up, they killed someone.”

They show Ronan the article as soon as he gets back and he can only frown at it. “This girl is angry. If she’s still haunting that fucking chapel twenty years later, she is fucking pissed about all of this. Like, forget whatever those guys said, drunk or not, she’s gonna be so mad if you come around irritating her.”

“We can help.”

His voice is so earnest it makes Adam look over at him with curiosity. This is a different Gansey than the one Adam had previously seen—the Gansey who was thrilled just by the adventure of it all. Adam can’t quite put his thumb on it, but the sincerity in his voice is more than noteworthy. Gansey may be one of the most lighthearted people Adam’s ever met, but perhaps there’s something deeper than Adam can see from here. He stows this thought for later.

“Help,” Ronan repeats back dryly. “She’s dead.”

“And apparently very upset.”

“Sure, man. Sure. Okay.”

Ronan crawls into bed and goes back to sleep shortly thereafter, and Adam and Gansey go down to lunch without him.

Once they get seated, Adam starts to say, Is he usually, but then he stops and backspaces. Does Ronan even like doing this kind of stuff? He doesn’t have to specify; Gansey hums thoughtfully at the question.

“I think that Ronan… sometimes doesn’t know how to respond to some of it. He likes it, yes. To answer your question. Yes. He believes in all of it, he’s very interested in it. But Ronan has more…” Gansey chews his lower lip. “At risk of sounding dramatic, Ronan has more demons than I do.” His smile is weak, more sad than happy. “He tries to justify everything against a different, separate set of beliefs. He’d never say it, but I think some things scare him. Just a little bit.” Gansey lets out a sharp exhale, “But I can’t really psychoanalyze Ronan. Too difficult. He does like it. Ronan doesn’t do things he doesn’t like, and if he does, he lets you know loud and clear that he doesn’t like them. I’m sure he’ll tell you anything you want to know, at least in due time. He’s not exactly quiet about his opinions.”

No, certainly not

Gansey smiles.

They go back to Gansey’s and Ronan’s room after lunch with the main goal of doing their homework, the homework they’d been putting off all weekend. Gansey nudges Ronan after a couple hours to ask if he has anything he should be working on, and Ronan mumbles, I already did all my homework. Gansey seems surprised, if not impressed, but only shrugs. Ronan pulls a pillow over his head, but he’s up less than half an hour later. Upon sitting up, he casts Gansey a glare, which Gansey brushes off without concern.

The rest of the day passes unhurriedly, the ever-present drag of a Monday off added to Adam’s curiosity about whatever Gansey has planned for the chapel tonight. He isn’t saying much about it, and Adam can’t make up his mind as to whether this is good or bad for the state of his interest.

Upon Gansey’s insistence, they have to wait until the sun goes down. And then they wait until ten. And then, before they can even head over to the chapel, Gansey runs off to his car with his backpack. He promises to only be a second, and then he leaves Adam and Ronan sitting on the steps to the entryway of their dorm.

“Don’t laugh about anything he has. Or does. Or says.” Ronan is paying an awful lot of attention to his own hands as he says this, very obviously not looking Adam in the face. He looks like he’s smiling a little, though.

Adam nods slowly.

Ronan doesn’t say anything else; Adam tosses his phone between his hands. When Gansey comes back, his backpack doesn’t look fuller than before, but his expression says he’s ready to go. He leads the way across the dark campus, looking much too comfortable, much too happy to be ghost-hunting. Ronan casts Adam a sideways look.

The chapel, which is always open, is a narrow but grand thing. It’s everything you’d expect a chapel to be, complete with gothic arches on either side of the wooden pews, stained glass in every window, and ceilings for miles. Dimmed chandeliers hang and cast soft yellow light through the length of the building. Above the lights, banners are draped from the ceiling. Ronan takes a seat on one of the pews, not giving much attention to the interior, though Adam and Gansey have their heads tilted back to take in everything.

“I should have come in here sooner,” Gansey remarks.

“Told you it was nice.” He sounds like he’s trying to sound disinterested.

Adam throws a glance Ronan’s way, though Gansey is the one to answer Adam’s unspoken question. “Ronan comes to the service every week. Sometimes he tries to make me feel bad for not going with.” Gansey drops his backpack on the pew opposite Ronan. “Do you think we can get those lights all the way off?”

“For maximum spooky effect?” But Ronan is already standing.

“You know as well as I do—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he brushes Gansey off good-naturedly. He quickly finds the light switch at the back of the hall and lowers the lights until they’re barely on. “Good?”

“Yeah, thank you.”

Adam sinks down into a pew as Gansey unzips his backpack (which really is old, he needs a new one) and pulls out a few things. It takes a lot for Adam to keep from raising his eyebrows and craning his neck to try and figure out what they are. Ronan takes his seat once again, the pew in front of Adam, and meets his eyes with a knowing look. Adam lets an amused smile touch his lips as he looks back at Ronan.

Because Gansey does have some weird things—odd doo-dads that Adam cannot name. They’re things that, with anyone else, would have looked silly, like Ghostbusters knock-offs from Walmart or something, but Gansey wields them with an expertise that doesn’t allow him to look foolish. Or at least, that’s what Adam thinks. The face Ronan flashes Adam says that Ronan might think differently, despite his having known Gansey longer. Or perhaps because of that.

Most of the objects look like electronic boxes or handheld items of sorts. Eventually, he just settles on one, which looks like a small but normal handheld radio. Then Gansey pushes his backpack to the side and sits in the newly vacant spot at the end of the pew. Gansey passes the radio-like thing between his hands and looks between Ronan and Adam.

“So…” Gansey starts, eyes resting on Adam. The radio comes to a stop in Gansey’s right hand and he holds it up slightly. “This is a ghost box.”

Adam can’t refrain from smiling. Is it?

“Hey, don’t look like that,” Gansey says, pointing. He laughs, though. “It works. The ghost box works. Ronan and I have seen it work.”

Adam waves a hand through the air, gesturing at it with a questioning sort of look. He doesn’t have to ask But what is it? for Gansey to understand.

“It’s a modified radio. Just a normal one. It phases through stations really quickly and ghosts and spirits and whatever can use it to create speech. Basically. They can answer questions and—hey, Parrish, it works.”

Ronan snickers, leaning back with a hand to his lips.

Adam, who is grinning, nods. No, I believe you, seriously. This is just… new? for me. I’m here to learn, I promise. Let’s go.

Gansey isn’t bothered by Adam’s reactions, though. He sets the ghost box down on the floor between the aisles of pews, though his hand hesitates before he turns it on. He looks upwards, still hunched over, and peers around the room.

“Naomi.”

And it should be silly. It should be as silly as Gansey’s ghost box, speaking a dead girl’s name into the nothingness of the church, but the force in the way he says it isn’t laughable. Even Ronan seems to hear it. Adam certainly doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary in the dark chapel, but the way Gansey is staring, it feels like it can’t be empty.

“Naomi. If you’re here, we want to talk.”

Gansey’s eyes flicker away from the ceiling back to his friends, and Adam thinks he sees something smug in his eyes as he takes in the newly-serious expression on Adam’s face. At this moment, he flicks a switch, and the radio starts making a staticky racket. Adam almost frowns, but Gansey doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with the noise, so Adam holds back his reaction. For a moment, Gansey looks like he’ll return to the pew, but then he sits on the ground beside the ghost box, legs crossed.

The church is very still. It suddenly feels entirely too enormous. The arches could swallow them whole. The noises from the radio reverberate off the stone.

Gansey parts his lips for a long moment, considering. “How are you?”

The question seems out of place. Is that what people normally ask ghosts when they’re trying to contact them? Adam hasn’t the vaguest, but he would wager not. He risks a glance at Ronan, though Ronan is also concentrating on the radio, eyes narrowed.

A few moments pass before Gansey purses his lips and tries a simpler, “Are you here?”

Adam doesn’t know what’s supposed to happen, but Gansey waits longer this time. He is listening awfully intently for something. It’s at least a minute before Ronan knocks his knuckles against the wood of the pew and shakes his head.

Gansey tries again. “Naomi. Were you killed here?”

Part of Adam wishes he knew what they were listening for, but watching the two of them is almost more interesting than the possibility of ghosts among them. Ronan and Gansey look at each other, as though they’re communicating without speaking; Adam begins to think it’s because they both know what to listen for. It’s less like they’re communicating with each other, more like they’re both communicating silently with—whoever or whatever it is they’re trying to talk to. Naomi.

“There,” Gansey says abruptly. “Did that sound like yes—?”

Ronan is shaking his head before he’s even done talking. “Dubious. Coincidental.”

Gansey frowns.

He cycles through a few further, simple questions. Were you a senior? Did you major in biology? Did you have sisters? Things they knew to be true from the articles they’d read. Then he tries a few false things, thinking maybe she’d correct them. Did you kill yourself? Were you a teacher here? They ask open-ended questions they don’t know the answers to. What were your sisters’ names? What was your favorite subject? They seem perplexed by lack of response. Ronan looks more confused than Gansey, though, for Gansey just looks wondering.

He flicks off the ghost box and folds his hands in his lap. He looks to Ronan, as if asking what they should do now.

“Get rid of that thing,” he says with a flick of his wrist. “That’s too much, we should have known it was too much. Get out the beeping thing, whatever that thing’s called.”

Gansey does as Ronan suggests. He puts the radio away and pulls out a small circular gadget. This one doesn’t make any noise when Gansey flips a switch on the bottom. Gansey glances at Adam and then down at the object. “Naomi… We’re gonna hang out here for a little bit. If you have something to say, you can make this beep.” As if to demonstrate, Gansey depresses something at the side and a short beep cuts through the air. “No pressure or anything.”

He sets it back to the floor with a click, and then Gansey looks to Adam.

“So. I think we should just sit here. Wait and see if she does anything. What shall we talk about?” Gansey smiles easily. Ever light, Gansey is.

Adam says, You said you’d used the ghost box successfully before. Tell me about it

“Ooh,” Gansey lights up, like he’d been hoping Adam would ask. “The best time was this place in the Grand Canyon.”

Gansey tells a story of nights spent camped out along the Grand Canyon, some long weekend during their senior year, nights where they crawled down into the depths of it, him and Ronan and the ghost box. Full sentences, Adam, they spoke in complete sentences using just the radio. They never did get names from them—perhaps that was too difficult. They thought they’d encountered many spirits in one spot, because none of the things they said seemed to go together, though Gansey and Ronan (more reluctantly) both swear they heard coherent sentences from the ghost box. Clips of songs and interviews and advertisements, all strung together to make sense.

And Gansey went on to talk about an old church on the ley line back in Virginia, when the box had started phasing sporadically. It hadn’t made any sense, but it stopped on some stations longer than others, completely outside of the normal function of the box. They talked about an incident on a beach in Maine one summer, where they’d heard very clearly Run away, and so they had. They got out of there quick. To this day they didn’t know why, but it made for a good enough story, anyway. Gansey sometimes sets the ghost box up in their apartment, though he had yet to hear anything there. He didn’t know whether this comforted or disappointed him.

Throughout their conversations, which stretch up to midnight, the contraption at Gansey’s knee doesn’t make a noise. Gansey glances at it constantly, Ronan every so often, and Adam almost never takes his eyes off it. It reaches 12:15 before Gansey finally sighs at a lull in the conversation. He picks up the circular electronic and holds it near his face.

“Do you have anything to say?”

They wait.

Gansey looks just about ready to go. Last ditch try, he asks slowly, “Is Naomi Czerny here?”

The words are hardly out of his mouth before the device starts screaming. Gansey almost drops it, head jerking backwards at the long, endless beeping noise. He’s so obviously flustered, Adam can only guess that it isn’t supposed to sound like this. When he collects himself, Gansey taps at the top of it, but the noise keeps going, filling the church with a horrible, high-pitched ring. He pounds at the button on the side, but still it continues, continues, continues. He freezes, apparently studying the noise, waiting for an end, resigning himself that maybe this is what Naomi wants. Finally, though, it goes on for too long. Gansey flips the switch at the bottom and cuts the church into the heaviest silence Adam has ever experienced. He hesitates before turning it back on again, though it remains silent. He turns it back off. For a long minute, Gansey stares at the device in his hands, and then he slowly raises his eyes to Ronan. The biggest smile is painted across his face.

“She’s pissed, man.” But Ronan is smiling too. “She wanted you to shut the fuck up.”

Gansey just laughs.

Adam thinks the banners at the ceiling flutter.

The chapel, however, is still.

This reaction, though, seems plenty to Gansey, who packs up without hesitation and slings his backpack over his shoulder. As though that had been what he’d been waiting for, the smile never falls from his face. “A successful night.”

Adam cocks an eyebrow.

“You wouldn’t believe how often nothing happens. I was afraid your first night out would be one of those. In case you didn’t realize, that thing is not supposed to sound like that. Supposed to be, like, beep once for yes, beep twice for no, you know? Short things.” Gansey looks past Adam through the chapel, eyes searching. “That was awesome.”

Somehow, to Adam it feels anticlimactic as they walk back to their dorms, Gansey thinking out loud about what that could have been. He hates to admit that maybe Ronan is right—she just wanted them to leave. But she’s there! She’s definitely there! Gansey says. They walk Adam to his room, and Gansey sighs and leans against the wall opposite his door.

“I thought I was gonna be able to fall asleep easily tonight,” he sighs, leaning his head back. “Now I’m excited. We should have stayed!” He says it like he’s just realizing.

Adam laughs faintly, and Ronan scoffs. “She wanted you to get the fuck out. That is what that was. She was sick of your big mouth.”

Gansey just looks pensive. Airy. “Whatever it was, it was interesting. That’s really never happened before,” he directs this at Adam, shaking his head. “Fascinating. Really.” He folds his hands in front of him and then sighs longly. “Anyway. I’d love to stay and talk, but you guys have early classes tomorrow. So we should all go to bed.” He hesitates before moving, though. “I want to go back tomorrow. Though I’ve got some studying to do. A paper to write for English. I’d been planning on doing it after dinner, but…” Ronan looks entertained by the amount of thought Gansey is giving this. “Let’s wait until seven or eight, when it’s mostly dark. No need to wait until ten, we’ll just see if anything happens, and then I’ll go finish the essay after that…” Gansey doesn’t look like he likes this idea at all.

We’ve got the whole rest of the school year, Adam points out. And then three years after that.

“Yeah, but.” Gansey shrugs. “Anyway. Yeah, we’ll go back for better sessions when we don’t have essays to write, I guess. But yeah. See you in folklore tomorrow.”

“See you in Latin.”

 


 

So… do y’all actually do this on the regular?

Ronan snaps, pointing a finger to Adam’s grinning face. “You do think we’re weird.”

Adam, chin in his hand, just makes an exaggeratedly thoughtful face.

On the other side of the mailroom window, Ronan just shakes his head, feigning disbelief. It takes him a second before he says, “Yeah. Yeah, we do. Sometimes it’s a little less Ghost Adventures, but what can you do.”

I don’t think you’re weird. Really.

“Uh huh.”

It’s interesting

“It’s always fucking ‘interesting’ with you. Yes, interesting. Sure. I can’t wait to hear what you’ll say about Blue. She’s what people call interesting, and the stuff that we do is what people call goddamn insane.”

Then why do you do it?

“I didn’t say I thought insane was bad.” His grin looks more like a smirk as he continues, “It’s magic, Parrish.”

He doesn’t say anything more on the matter, leaving Adam to silently wonder at how someone like Ronan—seemingly so sharp, all edges—could turn around and suspend disbelief to let in Gansey’s type of magic. Adam struggles to remember what Gansey had said the day before, Ronan’s demons, juxtaposing everything against another set of beliefs, and he tries to find some kind of explanation therein, to little effect.

Perhaps Adam can allow that part of him to remain a mystery. Perhaps just for now.

After Ronan leaves, after Adam’s shift is over, after dinner, Gansey remains steadfast in his desire to return to the chapel, just for a little bit, before getting to his schoolwork. The other two accompany him dutifully. Gansey, backpack slung over one shoulder, looks hopeful as they head down the sidewalk towards the chapel.

However, the moment they step inside the building, something in Gansey’s bag starts wailing, and hopeful turns into elated in half a second. Gansey throws his bag down on the closest pew and digs into his backpack to extract the same device from the night before.

“It’s not turned on,” he whispers, turning it over and over again in his hands. “It’s not turned on.”

Adam is frozen where he stands, just inside the doorway, although Ronan takes a few careful steps forward. The door drifts closed behind them with a bang, and the crying sound of the beeping is once again flooding the chapel. Ronan pries the thing out of Gansey’s hands, apparently checking for himself that it’s not on, and then he gives it a shake.

“Naomi, stop it. He wants to help.”

The noise flickers. It might be Adam’s imagination, but when it comes back, it sounds even louder. Adam, still motionless, looks up towards the vast ceiling. He’d thought last night that the banners were fluttering, but now they’re definitely waving, just enough movement that it couldn’t be a draft. Ronan thrusts the gadget back at Gansey and turns on heel; he catches sight of where Adam is looking and then runs a hand over his head.

“Hey, why don’t you calm the fuck down and talk to us?” Ronan’s voice is harsh but somehow not cruel. Confused.

“Ronan…” Gansey admonishes, taking a few steps farther into the church. “She is.”

“Not in a way that makes sense.”

“She’s trying…”

Adam is still looking to the ceiling. There should be something to be seen, there should be something there. It shouldn’t be darkness, darkness, darkness. His attention is diverted by a clangorous crash, followed by the church being thrown into a hush. Adam’s eyes fall on Gansey, hands before him, fingers spread, the no-longer-beeping object on the ground a few feet in front of him.

Ronan’s voice is slow, “Tell me you dropped that yourself.”

“No.” Gansey doesn’t move for an endless minute, and then he says, “I’m sorry. We’ll leave. Is that what you want? We’ll go.” He looks around, as if waiting for a reaction, and though he gets none, he grabs the fallen object before retreating slowly to the back of the church. He doesn’t say anything as he pulls his backpack on and heads for the door. He walks past Adam without looking at him, and Adam is about to follow, though he notices Ronan still unmoving.

Adam waits just long enough to hear Ronan quietly say, “He wants to help you.” And it sounds like an accusation.

Adam ducks outside.

Ronan follows just a moment later to find Gansey sitting on the steps of the chapel, lips pursed, thumb pressed thereto. Adam is standing behind him, floating between the door and the steps, eyes wandering without resting. Ronan wavers at the door, taking in the sight of the two of them. Then he walks past Adam, gesturing for him to follow.

“Have we done something wrong?” Gansey questions, looking up at Ronan.

“Hell if I know.”

“We must have done.”

Maybe she just doesn’t like people.

“Maybe.”

“Those guys you talked to said she never came close to people, right? Maybe she doesn’t like how we’re all up in her business, being inside and all that.”

“Also maybe.”

Gansey pushes himself to his feet and heads back for the dorm, leaving Ronan and Adam trailing slightly behind him. They’re halfway back when Ronan stops abruptly.

“Fuck, what time is it?” Adam flashes his phone Ronan’s direction. “I’m supposed to meet for a group project in like—five minutes ago. Uh, I’ll let you guys go, I’ll be back whenever, who the fuck knows—it’s bio, so.” Gansey makes a face, sympathetic at the mention of the subject. “Catch you guys later.” And then he’s off.

Gansey drifts back to walk beside Adam. “Maybe we should leave her alone.”

Maybe

“It just seems so weird. She could have used the ghost box to tell us very clearly to leave her alone, but instead she just…? Screams. Makes noise we can’t interpret.”

Gansey muses as they head back; Adam sticks with him, even as they walk up the stairs past Adam’s floor. Gansey is still talking, and he’d hate to interrupt. When they get to Gansey’s room, though, Adam asks, Should I leave you to work or…?

“Oh. No, not unless you want to. I’ll still get it done.” He shrugs and opens the door.

Adam follows him in.

“I can’t believe that happened again,” Gansey mumbles, taking a seat on the floor, back against the edge of his bed. He pulls his laptop over to him, face pensive.

Adam sits slowly, across from him, leaning against Ronan’s bed. He makes a small noise, agreeing.

Gansey doesn’t seem upset by it though, so Adam tries to push down the shaken feeling in his chest. Gansey isn’t bothered by what happened, so there must be no reason to worry. Gansey is working silently on his laptop, so you can sit silently on your phone. He is shaken, though; he is bothered. Adam’s fingers feel slightly separate from his hands as he unlocks his phone.

It’s just a toy. The device Gansey had, it’s just a toy. Right. Certainly. But there’s no way. Everything Gansey gets involved in is real. Ronan’s words sound too loud in Adam’s head.

Adam wishes he’d been watching him when it was taken from his hands.

It all feels terribly non-concrete. It isn’t something he can put his hands on.

It was just some beeping. It was just some noise.

Gansey isn’t troubled. Adam tries not to stare across the room at him.

There’s an awful weight inside of Adam, it’s been building there for years, and yet there’s Gansey, unaffected by even ghosts. Spirits. Adam is staring at his phone’s screen, but he isn’t doing anything. Gansey doesn’t notice.

Does Adam have homework? He doesn’t think so. But maybe he’s forgotten it. Maybe he shouldn’t be here. He puts his phone on the ground and runs his hands through his hair, resting them at the base of his neck. Maybe he should be sleeping. What is he doing here, anyway?

The next thing Adam is aware of is the vibrating of his phone. He moves to grab it without thinking—it must be a text from Ronan. But as his hand goes to grab it, it vibrates again. And he closes his fingers on it, and it’s still going. A phone call. Adam stares at the screen, hardly seeing; the three letters on the screen almost perplex him. They don’t belong here. Not here.

Adam does the only thing he can think of. He shoves the phone towards Gansey, who had raised his eyes at the sound of the phone going off. He jumps slightly as Adam pushes the phone into his hands.

“You want me to answer it?” Gansey asks, blinking.

Adam nods, though even as he does it he’s not sure that’s the correct answer to the question. He knows he should ignore the call. His brain knows he should hit the red button and never look back. It’s something else that makes him nod. Something else that he can’t so easily control.

“Why is he calling if—”

Adam gestures for him to hurry up.

“Hello,” Gansey says carefully, turning the phone on speaker. Adam almost wishes he hadn’t.

“Adam?”

His father’s voice makes Adam shut his eyes.

“No, sir, this is one of Adam’s friends. My name is Gansey.”

“Friends!” The tone of his voice is derisive. Gansey looks alarmed. “He can’t answer his own phone? Put him on.”

Adam forces his eyes open.

“Sir, he…” Gansey replies, eyes on Adam searchingly, “Adam can’t talk.”

“Oh, can’t he now? I thought he’d have given that charade up by now, up there at his fancy school.” The noise he makes sounds like a scoff. “Put him on the phone.”

Gansey hesitates, phone held out before him. Adam can hardly see the scene; everything is blurred at the edges, there’s a feeling in his stomach that he didn’t invite there. Gansey is confused by the situation, but he is rapidly figuring everything out. Despite Adam’s best efforts, it had come out. Everything would come out. He’d been stupid to think he could hide it. He puts a hand over his mouth and shakes his head—a defeated, fragile movement.

A switch in Gansey flicks. His tone goes black. “He doesn’t want to talk.”

“I’m sorry?”

“He won’t be talking to you today.”

“Put him on the goddamn phone.”

“He won’t.”

“Adam, you listen to me. Can he hear me, Gansey? Listen here, Adam: You need to talk to your father. You need to give this up, and remember who brought you into this world. Remember who gave you your life, who brought you up, who made sure you got this far. Stop making friends with boys with stupid names. Stop trying to leave behind—” Silence.

Adam hadn’t realized he’d covered his face until now, as he drops his fingers away.

Gansey had hung up.

A sick feeling is rising in him. No, you can’t do that, Adam thinks, desperation pawing inside. You can’t do that. You don’t know what he’ll do—Adam starts to shake his head and reach for his phone. But he has to stop himself because suddenly he isn’t sure he can hold himself up. The room is skewing sideways. He slams a hand to the ground, just to make sure it’s still there. He stares at his fingers, splayed against the hard floor, the floor that feels like it’s collapsing beneath him.

His breath is caught in his throat, somewhere between his lungs and his mouth, and it won’t move from there. And when it gets to be too much, when he at last gasps for air, it’s a loud noise, a sudden need, and it’s too late, there’s not enough oxygen in the air, there’s simply not enough.

And then Adam catches a good look at the expression on Gansey’s face: eyes wide, lips parted. Startled. All fear and confusion.

Of course he doesn’t know what to do with you, Adam thinks.

Something in him breaks and snaps into anger.

How dare he call you here, Adam thinks, how dare he. You came all this way and he tries to follow you. And worse—you didn’t ignore the call, you let him. You let him do this. And now Gansey knows, Gansey knows you’re just—just a—a what? A freak. A coward.

Time is slipping away from Adam, seconds are passing irregularly, and so he isn’t sure when he got to his feet, or when he decided to clench his hands to fists, and he doesn’t remember at all deciding to turn them towards the cement block wall, but before he can make destructive contact, hands are closing around his wrists. Not tightly. Not painfully. But enough to stop him.

Gansey holds onto Adam’s wrists for a long time before Adam turns to face him.

He doesn’t look scared of Adam. Had he ever? At first it looks like pity, but no—Adam’s seen enough of that to know it. It’s sadness. Just sadness. An empathy that feels too real for the two-dimensional image of Gansey that Adam had had up until this point. He tightens his grip, noticing the searching way Adam is looking at him. Carefully, Gansey drops his hands, and then he sits slowly on Ronan’s bed. He gestures for Adam to join, but Adam hesitates.

The air still feels very thin. He doesn’t trust himself to move that much. Adam’s fingers twitch at his side, and he takes a ragged breath, eyes falling. Gansey seems to realize Adam’s predicament; he stands and takes his wrists again. Then he starts to sit slowly, on the ground this time, and Adam follows. Again, Gansey releases his wrists with care.

“Adam, you’re in Ronan’s and my dorm room. Very far away from him.”

He meets Gansey’s eyes once more.

“You’re quite safe here.”

Gansey gingerly rests his fingers on the back of Adam’s hand. They’re fists again, without Adam’s knowledge of how they got that way.

“He isn’t—” Gansey fumbles, struggling to deduce what’s happened. “He can’t hurt you here.”

Everything is out. Adam didn’t have to tell him, he hadn’t had to say one word about it, and yet the bleak picture is clear as light, on display for all to see.

Except—

It isn’t all. It’s only Gansey.

Adam parts his lips and closes them again. You don’t know that, he would say. But he also wants to tell him, I’m never letting him touch me again. He opens his mouth, because Gansey is so terribly near, because Gansey’s face has understanding written all over it, and it hurts him in a way that he’s not been hurt before, and Adam wishes he could say, Thank you for hanging up on him, but instead, what leaves his mouth is a choked, “Gansey,” and isn’t that much the same thing?

Gansey looks surprised in the most genuine of ways, eyebrows raised but drawn together, eyes wide with something that Adam fumbles to put a name to—compassion. “Adam.”

“I haven’t—” Adam presses two fingers to his mouth, biting down a shudder. He’s all too aware of Gansey’s fingers on his other hand, how they could be hurting him but instead they’re dismantling his anxiety, as though he knows the whole situation already. “I haven’t spoken to anyone in nine months.” Because a fact feels safe.

“Why now?”

Adam can’t say that it’s not now, it’s here—it’s Gansey. He definitely can’t say it’s because he’s been jealous of the light way Gansey carries himself, can’t say he’s been wondering at his apparently ever-untroubled attitude for the last month; he can’t say it’s because—because not only did Gansey not run off at the first sign of Adam’s misery, he’d somehow met him there in it. Because emotions still feel too dangerous in Adam’s hands, he instead says, “I don’t know.”

And Gansey seems to understand that it’s not the truth, but he doesn’t resent it. He nods and stands. Adam wants to ask where he’s going, but then Gansey is sitting once again and pressing Adam’s phone into his palms. Adam curls his fingers around it.

“Thank you.”

They sit quietly for a moment before Adam’s eyes drift to the side.

“I distracted you from your paper.” A fact. The I’m sorry still goes unspoken.

“Jesus, Adam,” Gansey manages to combine his name with a laugh. “Forget the paper, whatever.”

Another silence.

“Are you okay?”

Adam nods.

“You don’t have to speak if you don’t want to.”

“If I’m not speaking, it’s because I can’t.”

“Right, of course. I’m sorry. I know that.”

“Thank you.”

Adam lets the silence back in, and more importantly, Gansey does, too. Time distances itself from the moment, as Adam pulls his breathing back in-line, as Gansey accepts what he’s been given. Adam flips his phone over, eyes catching on the light that reflects off the back of it.

He doesn’t need to answer any phone calls ever again if he doesn’t want to.

He won’t.

What had he been scared of just before that? The ghost? Adam had gotten away from the worst of this world, what did ghosts matter? Gansey could speak to them. And Gansey could speak to Adam.

Adam could speak to Gansey.

Then he says, in the usual way, I think I need to go back to my room.

“Okay.” Gansey pauses, taking a deep breath, “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I’m fine.

“I don’t want to leave you if you’re not okay. Tell me if you’re not.”

I will.

“Please do.”

They walk down to Adam’s room, and because the hallway is empty when Gansey says goodnight, Adam returns it, whispered, only the hard consonants really audible. Gansey’s smile is sadder than anyone else’s might have been in the same situation. Adam trusting his voice to him isn’t some kind of victory on Gansey’s part, it’s the sharing of a load on Adam’s part, and Gansey knows.

“Take care of yourself,” Gansey says as he steps away. Adam’s just opened his door when Gansey turns back around, “And hey. Fuck that guy.”

Adam smiles. He mouths, Yeah.

As Adam is getting into bed, not ten minutes later, he sends Gansey a text.

Don’t tell anyone

His response comes but a moment later. Anything you want.

 


 

Over the next few days, Adam lets explanations slip to Gansey. It’s little things; he never quite says his dad’s name, never quite utters the words selectively mute, but the idea gets across through quiet words and through sentences that trail off without warning. Gansey is endlessly patient.

And it’s a week later after that when Adam once again finds himself in a new situation. This one, however, is much less confounding and doesn’t make his heart race in the same way—albeit, perhaps in a different way.

He’s once again in Ronan’s and Gansey’s dorm, though this time it’s Gansey who is absent. Adam is sitting cross-legged at the foot of Ronan’s bed, while Ronan is hunched over his sketchbook, working quickly.

Ronan glances up. “Quit moving, Parrish.”

Adam makes a face. He resists the urge to stick his tongue out at him, figuring that would only warrant another similar remark.

At dinner, Ronan had asked if Adam was free afterwards to sit still so he could draw him for his intro to drawing class. Gansey had acted offended that Ronan hadn’t asked him, and Ronan brushed it off with, I’m tired of looking at your face all the time. And anyway, you have a phone date in seventeen minutes, so.

Adam had agreed, Gansey had pouted.

Neither Adam nor Gansey had told Ronan anything about whatever had happened. It felt terribly like a secret, which Adam wasn’t keen on, but Adam didn’t know how to explain what had happened with Gansey. Adam could hardly explain his situation before. And he certainly didn’t know how to communicate the fact that he didn’t prefer Gansey over Ronan—it was nothing like that. He didn’t know if Ronan was the jealous type, but he didn’t intend on finding out if he didn’t have to.

Ronan was so loud in a way that Gansey wasn’t.

It was a type of loud that Adam liked, but right now, it was not something Adam could let in like that. And really, the way Adam and Gansey talked now, it was a very fragile thing, still. It was very rarely that the two of them were alone, and more than anything, Adam was just trying to find his footing.

But Gansey made it easier somehow. Gansey wasn’t just some rich kid who didn’t know anything about anything, and Adam had begun to feel ashamed for ever thinking that. Impossibly, Gansey was someone who could soften everything. Impossibly, he understood. Impossibly, Gansey was the one who could defuse Adam’s words, even without realizing what he was doing.

He tries not to analyze it too much, though, because one of the most remarkable things about talking to Gansey is that it feels all but normal. It doesn’t feel profound or weighty. It was just something that happened. For reasons not wholly explainable—try though he might—Gansey was someone he could entrust his voice with.

Adam can’t see Ronan’s work from here, but it doesn’t stop him from trying. Ronan seems to notice Adam’s attention, and he keeps it out of his line of vision with a cocky sort of ease.

Adam doesn’t know how long passes before Ronan waves a hand and says, “Whatever, you can move now.”

are you sure?

“Yeah, I can see you.”

Adam uses the opportunity to try and peek over at the sketchbook once again.

“Nope, not right now.”

Adam sighs, as if to concede Fine and then leans back against the wall behind his bed. Ronan keeps working but looks up when he sees Adam start typing.

so what’s up with Gansey and Blue?

“What’s up with them,” Ronan repeats back, grinning. “God, so much. What do you mean?”

I don’t know. I don’t know Blue.

“Well. Blue is tiny, but don’t get it mixed, she could fuck you up. Not you but—you knew what I meant. She goes to Vassar. She’s… nice, but like I said. She doesn’t take shit. You’ve got to be that way to deal with Gansey the way we do. You know. He’s a handful.”

so are you

“Okay, yeah, and you’ve got a smart mouth sometimes, but you don’t see me complaining. They’ll be on the phone for hours sometimes, though. They’re probably planning for her to come visit right now. It’s hard to describe them. You’ll see. They’re—hell, I don’t know. I don’t care.” He pauses. “They’re the most ridiculous couple I’ve ever met, though. One time, Gansey said something stupid, like he always does, and Blue like—fuck, Blue was so mad about it. She didn’t speak to him for a literal week, except like—she was still hanging out with us. Still hanging out with him. Whoever we were with, she’d talk to me and whoever else, but she just. Looked at Gansey. Just stared him the fuck down. She forgave him, of course, but for a second there he was a wreck.” Ronan laughs, shaking his head, eyes still trained on his paper. “She could kill any one of us, I swear to God. Don’t tell her I said that, though. It would go to her head.” He glances up at Adam just long enough to see him smiling. “Speaking of not talking, Parrish, do you have a sign language name or something?”

Adam blinks. I don’t speak sign language, unfortunately

Ronan is visibly puzzled. “But are you—wait. Did you not—” He stops himself, and finally settles on a question. “Have you not always been this way?”

He falters for the briefest of moments before he shakes his head. This is at least half the secret he can give.

“Did something happen?”

Sort of

Ronan doesn’t seem to know where to go from there, so Adam continues.

I know when it started, but I don’t know if that was the real catalyst. There was a lot. He waits a long moment before adding, I didn’t choose this.

Ronan’s expression as he puts the pieces together is so completely different from Gansey’s. His mouth turns down into a frown, and when he meets Adam’s eyes, they’re all fury. It should make Adam uncomfortable, but the next words out of Ronan’s mouth ensure that he isn’t, “Who did this?”

Adam can only shrug.

“Fuck, Adam.” Ronan drags his eyes back to his paper, shaking his head. He taps his pencil against his paper rapidly, fingers tight. He keeps shaking his head. “Sorry, I—fuck.”

It’s okay. Adam forces a smile.

“No, no, none of that is okay. What did they d—no, sorry, you don’t have to.”

Ronan doesn’t say anything else, although his anger is a palpable thing, and Adam is surprised by how differently it feels from anger directed at him. This feels like kindness. Different, again, from Gansey’s, but the difference isn’t something Adam can pick apart.

It’s only a few minutes before Ronan snaps his sketchbook closed and drops it to the bed beside him. “Fuck art class, honestly. Fuck that noise. Do you want ice cream? I want ice cream.” He gets up in one neat movement, not waiting on a response from Adam. “Text Gansey, tell him to meet us in the caf when he’s done talking to Blue.”

Adam does so. By now, he’s aware that telling Ronan to text him himself won’t yield any results.

Wait for me, I’ll be there!!!

Ronan doesn’t say anything more about Adam’s silence, though he’s obviously still thinking about it. Adam is moved by his care, but he’s glad to abandon the topic. He’d talked about it far too much in the past week. Ronan directs the conversation towards anything else—well, anything else besides classes. It’s upwards of thirty minutes where it’s just him and Ronan, sitting in the caf eating ice cream, talking about anything except what would be obvious, before Gansey shows up and finally wrenches their attention towards something else.

“So sorry I took so long,” he breathes, sitting down beside Adam. “We just—well, you know. She’s going to try to visit us at the end of October!”

“Oh boy,” Ronan says, grin mocking.

“Hush your mouth, Ronan Lynch. How’d the drawing go?”

“Fine.”

Gansey looks to Adam, who shrugs.

“Did he show it to you? No, he never shows me anything, either.” Despite his words, his tone isn’t sounds unaffected.

“So how is Blue?”

“Really wonderful. She’s really good.” Gansey launches into full descriptions of things Blue told him, and somewhere along the way, the conversation veers towards telling Adam vaguely embarrassing stories about the two of them.

“Yeah, so, once Gansey took Blue to one of his weird suit-and-tie political things with his mom and five-hundred of her closest friends. Blue insisted she wanted to go, God knows why.” At this point, Gansey puts his hands over his face, grinning, knowing where the story is going, “And this girl. She was well behaved for—what? What’d you say, like, an hour?”

“Probably more like… fifty-five minutes.”

“For fifty-five minutes, this girl held her tongue talking to all these stuffy politicians. Old white men in expensive suits, right. Then, she just goes off. What set it off, do  you even remember? No? God. I can only imagine the scene. Now, Adam, Blue is like five foot tall, and yet she just puts everyone in their place all at once. Was she shouting? I always imagine that she was shouting.”

“Shouting maybe isn’t the best word, but… yes.” Gansey drags his hands down his face.

“These two were supposed to stay at Gansey’s house for the weekend, but instead they’re back home at midnight the same day they left, Blue still looking furious. Gansey looking, like, half embarrassed off his ass, half proud as fuck.”

“Mom didn’t even argue when I said maybe we should go.” Gansey is still smiling, though he grimaces a little. “Mom loves her, but I think every party involved realized that that was a mistake.”

“Fuck, and don’t forget that time she kicked you out of your own car.”

“No, we do not need to talk about that incident.”

PLEASE tell me about that incident.

“You bet I am. Gansey was letting her drive,” Gansey groans, sliding back in his chair. “Which is, honestly, in itself a miracle, when has he ever let me drive his car?” Gansey ignores the question pointedly, as though there’s another story there. “But whatever. He says something stupid—what’d you say to her, Gansey?”

“Believe me when I say I don’t remember.”

“Doesn’t matter. She pulls over to the side of the road. Tells him to get out of his own fucking car. And Gansey does it. Did you even put up a fight, Dick?”

“I—no.”

“No. No, he didn’t. This girl drives off. Without him. How long did you sit there?”

“At least an hour.”

“An hour. Sitting on the side of a road somewhere. Where the fuck were you?”

“I have no clue.”

“He doesn’t know. He doesn’t fucking know. Where did Blue go?”

“I don’t know, I wasn’t with her.”

“Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I’m telling that story at the wedding. Fuck.”

Adam can’t even laugh, because the situation is just so ridiculous. He stares, lips slightly parted. I don’t even believe this

“Me neither, Parrish.” Ronan is biting the leather bands at his wrists, trying to keep from laughing.

Is she real? Is she actually real?

“I’ve literally been asking myself that question since Gansey brought her home. Who fucking knows?”

“If you guys are going to keep embarrassing me, I’m going to have to leave.”

“You better leave, then, because there was this time at Nino’s, the place she worked, right, and I’m pretty sure—fuck, what was it she said? I’m not a prostitute.”

But Gansey is already leaving, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll see you back in the room!”

“They’re so awful,” Ronan assures. “She’s really not angry all the time, I promise, those are just the best stories. Oh, but anyway, like I was saying, with the prostitute thing…”

Chapter Text

“One more time.”

“Gansey, no.”

“We go back one more time and see if she’ll talk.”

“We’re doing something wrong.”

“I just think we need to go back. Try the ghost box again. We haven’t tried it since the first time.”

No.”

Why not?”

The entire whispered conversation has Adam smiling despite the tortured strain in Gansey’s voice. More than the turning of leaves or sinking New England temperatures, the beginning of October means upcoming midterms, and accordingly Gansey had somehow roped the two of them into studying with him in the library. It had gone well for all of half an hour. However, Ronan had been in the middle of trying to explain one of Gansey’s Latin-100 translations to him when he’d abruptly changed the subject and things got more strained.

“Why are you so worried about her?” Ronan hisses, leaning back in his chair, hands clenched to fists against the tabletop. “Why can’t you let it go?”

Gansey drops his chin to his hand. “She’s part of our school. It seems like we have more of a connection to her than anything else we’ve done. You don’t feel that, too? This is more important.”

Ronan stares at him as though he hadn’t been expecting a real answer. He gestures loosely. “It’s just a school, man…” Ronan mumbles, glancing back down at his open textbook. It sounds dismissive to Adam, but Gansey doesn’t argue further, and their table falls back to silence. Ronan is holding a pen between his fingers, though he isn’t doing anything with it. He’s staring at the same spot in his open book, eyes unwavering. Gansey keeps glancing between his own book and Ronan, until finally he sets the pen down with a hard clack. “Fine. One more time. If nothing happens, we’re not going back until we have a different plan.”

“Absolutely. I agree.”

Ronan gives a sharp shake of his head. “How does he always get his way, Parrish?”

Adam shrugs a shoulder; Gansey’s smile is wide.

“God.” Ronan shakes his head again, this time with less conviction. “Is it lunch time yet? What the fuck are we doing in the library?”

“Studying.”

“No, you’re looking at your textbook, I’m giving you all the answers, and Parrish is studying.”

Gansey looks like he wants to argue, but his eyes flick between Ronan and Adam and then he sinks back into his chair with a resigned grin. “Well, what’s the point of Latin, anyway?” He drags a hand through his hair, eyes getting stuck on a window at the far wall. “What’s it good for?”

“We could start trying to summon demons,” Ronan mumbles, almost inaudible.

“An interesting assertion but probably not a very profitable one.”

“Maybe Naomi doesn’t speak English.”

“Again: Interesting.”

“She might speak Latin, might have been dead since the first century AD.”

“Thought-provoking.”

“She’s never been alive.”

“Truly titillating. How did she ever attend school here?”

She was a ghost then, too.

Ronan’s smirk turns wicked; he claps a hand on the back of Adam’s chair. “Parrish knows. New theory: She only wants to speak Latin. She’s tired of people assuming she speaks English, she hates English, that’s why she’s so pissed off. Her father was Cicero, and her real name is Tullia.”

She lived on as a ghost in Italy until Latin died out.

“Yeah, fuckin’ Tullia. So perseverant. Got sick of sticking around after a while, though.”

She came over on the Mayflower, probably.

“Bet she helped found Princeton in the first place.”

Can’t believe she’s just been sitting around wanting to speak Latin all these years.

“Goddamn shame. We gotta help her out.”

Gansey closes his textbook with a roll of his eyes. “I think it’s time for lunch.”

Ronan doesn’t need to be told twice.

That night, as the three of them step into the threshold of the church, Gansey’s backpack now containing less school stuff and more ghost stuff, Ronan calls out, “Salve!” and Ganseys smacks him in the upper arm. Ronan only cackles and continues in a whisper, “Loquerisne Latine?” Gansey pretends not to hear.

Is it working? Do you see her anywhere?

“Not sure. Quid est teum nomen? Tullia?”

Adam’s eyes flit about the room. I don’t see her.

“Me neither.”

“Would you two be quiet?” They can hear the smile in his voice, though.

Heavily Ronan sits down in one of the pews, Adam falling in behind him.

They’d visited the church a few times since they’d been essentially chased out. The nights had been pleasant but thin things, extending past midnight twice, once getting nixed even before ten. They’d been talking about anything under the sun—hobbies in high school, old pets, siblings, what they would do in the event of becoming ghosts themselves—but there was ever a thread of nervous energy stretched between them: None of them could look away from whatever device Gansey had set up for more than a minute.

The ghost box doesn’t allow for such conversation, not with the way it phases loudly through the radio. For a long moment, Gansey just stares at the thing, unable or unwilling to come up with any questions to ask. It’s just when Ronan looks like he’s about to ask again if she speaks Latin that Gansey opens his mouth and says, “Are we doing something wrong?”

This time, Adam doesn’t have a chance to wonder what he’s supposed to be listening for because a very distinct Yes cuts through the static. It sounds more like Yuz, a distorted, echo of a word, but it’s so plain to hear that even Gansey’s eyebrows quirk. He’s about to continue, to ask what exactly, but then it crackles in again: Yes.

Yes, yes, yes.

Yes, over and over again, sometimes sounding more like jes or yox or yaz, but the stream of affirmatives is impossible to confuse, and when it at last cuts out, when the radio finally returns to meaningless phasing, Gansey looks like he doesn’t know where to go from there. He bites his lip. Taps his fingers against the radio dials. At last, he sighs.

“What can we do?”

But the noise remains senseless, a trilling static that only serves to upset Gansey. They can’t have been sitting there for more than fifteen minutes when Ronan stands and plucks the ghost box from Gansey’s hands. He doesn’t argue. Ronan switches it off.

“Enough.”

“We’re doing something wrong. She said so.”

“Figure it out. We come back when you have.” Ronan nudges Gansey’s leg with the toe of his shoe. “Get up. Let’s leave.”

Gansey stands slowly, pushing himself up with his hands pressed to the floor. He wipes his palms against his pants, stalling. “If Blue were here,” he says slowly, turning, “she would be able to get her to talk more.”

“Maybe,” but Ronan sounds unconvinced.

Ronan and Adam head for the exit, but Gansey still lingers. Adam slows to a stop in the doorway, hand on the jamb, staring back into the church after Gansey. Gansey looks cast of marble, standing there motionless in the shadows, head tipped back. The illusion breaks when he sharply turns his head, eyes landing on his backpack on the floor at his feet. He scoops it up and turns on heel. A look of surprise crosses his face when he notices Adam observing him, but it melts quickly into a good-natured smile. Together they step into the night to meet Ronan on the steps.

Why would Blue be able to get her to talk more? Gansey had mentioned Blue’s psychic family but had said nothing of any skills of Blue’s.

“Oh,” Gansey breathes. “Well Blue’s not—” He stops himself, thinking. “For the longest time…” He bites his lip. “Well.”

“He talks about ghosts all day long and then trips up over a girl.” Ronan rolls his eyes.

“You know very well it’s just that for the longest time no one understood what she was, exactly.” He makes a face. “Was is a bad word. What she did. What she could do.”

And what is that?

Gansey laughs. “I’m afraid it won’t help with your impression of her. You’ll only think her weirder.” As they head back for their dorms, Gansey explains the nature of Blue when she is in the presence of psychics and spirits alike. Though Adam suspects this is nothing new for him, his voice is still wondrous as he describes the way the volume raises around her, the way pictures snap into focus, the way tarot cards seem to pick themselves. And Gansey is right, the tale only makes her even harder to believe. He finishes, “Her family, they’ve never seen someone like her before.”

Well. I’ve never seen anyone like that before either

“No,” Gansey says amusedly, “I imagine not.”

Are you sure she actually exists?

“God, I hope so.”

Ronan makes a disgruntled noise.

By now they’re back at the dorms, hesitating at Adam’s door.

“Anyway, maybe whenever she comes here she’ll visit the church with us,” Gansey says.

“Bad idea,” Ronan mumbles, but Gansey waves him off.

“We’ll see you tomorrow, Adam. Can I look over your history notes? Not now, tomorrow, I mean.”

Adam bites down a hint of a smile. He nods. I’ll try to find them for you.

“I’d like that. Anyway, goodnight!”

Looking over Adam’s history notes had become a bit of a code. It hadn’t been on purpose; Gansey really had needed to look at his notes the first time or two, but then it became a pattern. When the two of them were studying history, Ronan was usually out of the room, which gave Adam the privacy to talk to Gansey.

Adam isn’t always up to it, though. Once, Adam had gone specifically to find Gansey because he’d wanted to speak to him, but it’d been such a compulsive visit that Adam had found himself overwhelmed and speechless once he actually got there, despite his willingness to talk. So Gansey giving him time to prepare via history notes helped a lot. Sometimes it’s just a half an hour in advance, sometimes it’s a full night, like tonight.

It works well, more well than Adam would have imagined for something that hadn’t even been his own idea.

He knocks on Gansey’s door the next day, and he answers it with a grin. “Hey.”

“Hey,” he returns once the door is locked behind them.

“How are you?”

Adam fusses with the hem of his shirt. “Alright.”

“Something wrong?”

“No. Yes. Nothing out of the ordinary.” Adam sits on the edge of Ronan’s bed. Before Gansey can push the point, he asks, “Where’s Ronan off to today?”

“Art project. He showed me the one he drew of you, did you know? It’s really good. You’ll have to ask him to see it.”

“’Really good?’” Adam asks, doubtfully. “It must look nothing like me.”

Gansey scoffs. “Whatever.”

“Did you have something you wanted to ask? You gave me a whole night to prepare.”

“I just wanted to check in. Everything okay?”

Adam hesitates for too long, and Gansey easily picks up on it. Truth be told, Adam had been worrying away at something, a gnawing feeling that bothered him more than it ought to. “I’ve been thinking about Ronan.” Adam sighs, scuffing his foot across the floor. “I wish…” A claw of the feeling tugs at his stomach, twisting into one that feels eerily similar to when he finds himself unable to speak. He swallows it down, “I wish I could talk to Ronan. It feels like I should be able to.”

Gansey, thumb to his lip, carefully asks, “Why can’t you?”

Adam just returns the question with a puzzled gaze.

“I mean, obviously I know why you can’t. But what does it feel like? The idea of speaking to people. Does Ronan feel different? What stops you?”

In that moment Adam finds himself fumbling to put a name to what he goes through every day. It happens often enough, though by now it’s so much a second skin that it takes him a good deal of thinking to gather the words. “It doesn’t feel different with Ronan than with anyone else,” and his voice sounds vexed. “It’s like when you’re driving down the road and very suddenly you realize that if you were to turn the wheel sharply to the left, you’d be launched headfirst into oncoming traffic. You realize you could die just like that. You panic for a second, but then you realize you’re still in control of the wheel so you’re actually fine. You just have to stay in your lane.”

“Ronan—or whoever—is the oncoming traffic.”

Adam shrugs. “I guess.”

“What does that make me?”

A faint smile touches Adam’s lips. “I didn’t think the metaphor through that much.”

Gansey smiles back. “Sure. Okay.”

Adam’s eyes fall to his shirt hem again. After a beat he continues, “You’re like if the road were empty.”

“Pardon?”

“If the opposite lane were empty for miles.”

Gansey hums. “It’s the same for everyone?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t necessarily want to talk to everyone, though.”

“Well, that’s a step in the right direction, then, right? The fact that you want to talk to him?” Gansey looks hopeful, which makes Adam have to glance away.

“I guess. Or it’s just more frustrating.”

Gansey’s face is far more sympathetic than it has any right to be. At another time, the look might irritate Adam but not now, not here. Not from him. He says, “I wish I could be more help.”

Adam almost laughs. He wants to say, You’re a lot of help, but what comes out is, “I’m fine.”

It’s ten minutes and several subject-changes later when Gansey asks, “You wouldn’t happen to actually have your notes with you, would you?”

He does.

The very next day, Adam is back in their room, sitting on the floor, legs stretched in front of him, head leaned back against the wall. “Why can’t I just be a normal person, Gansey?”

Adam hadn’t said anything immediately on arriving, so Gansey is a little surprised to hear his voice. “You are normal.”

“I’m not.”

“You are—”

“Let’s not pretend.”

Gansey sighs. He looks down at Adam from his seat on his bed. “Okay. Sure. You’re not like everyone else. But it’s like… it’s like a cold. Or the flu. It can be healed. It isn’t a defect.”

Adam makes a noise like he doesn’t like that response, but he doesn’t say anything else.

“I don’t know what to tell you, honestly. What do you want me to say to you?” The words might sound exasperated from anyone else, but with Gansey they only sound wanting. Earnest.

Adam, who had been concentrating on a spot on the wall across from him, allows himself at last to meet Gansey’s gaze. Somewhere he knows what he wants Gansey to say; the feeling of it knocks around in his chest, a pang without words. “I don’t know,” he says, because it’s true. He doesn’t know the words he wants to hear, but the fact that Gansey is looking for them is enough for now.

It isn’t a defect, he’d said. Adam had known that. He knew.

It was something different that Gansey knew, too.

 


 

They don’t go back to the chapel. It’s over lunch a few days later that Gansey concedes that Ronan is right. He doesn’t want to anger whatever is left of Naomi any more than they already have. Ronan doesn’t look smug—rather, he looks like he knew all along that Gansey would listen to him, and so it doesn’t surprise him. What does make Ronan raise his eyebrows is when Gansey goes on to say that Blue is, in fact, visiting campus at the end of the month.

“She’s joining us for the Halloween party!” Gansey says happily.

“Of all weekends, you’ve invited her for a Halloween party?”

Adam only laughs.

“Yes, the Halloween party is supposed to be good, and she’s excited. She won’t tell me what she’s dressing up as, though.”

“What a shame. Hope it’s as good as last years.”

Gansey closes his eyes for the briefest of moments.

“Last year she was Gansey,” Ronan says to Adam.

Good lord

“It was really masterful. She was wearing this bomber jacket that looked nothing like anything Gansey actually owned, but it looked just like something he would own. Fucking inspired.”

“I hope she’s you this time,” Gansey returns.

“Not a chance.”

“We’ll see.”

Immediately afterwards, Adam has to work, and though Gansey heads back to the room, Ronan tails Adam across campus.

Don’t you have anything better to do than pester me at work? But he’s grinning.

“Better? Like what?”

Homework?

The noise that leaves Ronan’s lips is derisive. “Sure. Got it with me.” He elbows his backpack, which is slung carelessly over his shoulder. Adam doesn’t really believe that he’s carrying anything scholarly around with him, but he nods graciously.

Sure

But once they get to the mailroom, once Adam is clocked in and behind the window, Ronan really does open his backpack. He pulls out a sketchbook. He’s leaned against the wall just beside the window, and Adam puts his chin in his hand, observing the way Ronan manages to balance the book in the crook of his arm with ease.

I have to go do some work away from the window now

“Come on, no you don’t.”

I don’t want my co-workers to hate me

“I’m coming back, then.”

Adam shoots him an uncertain look. I don’t know if you can…

“Why not?”

Adam doesn’t know what possesses him to give into Ronan Lynch so easily. He guesses there really is no reason why Ronan couldn’t come back with him. What’s he going to do, steal people’s mail?

Well, if anyone would…

But no, Ronan takes up a seat on the back countertop, legs folded, sketchbook resting on his knee, angled just out of Adam’s view. Adam stares at him for a moment, taking in the ridiculous way that he seems to belong right there—sitting somewhere that isn’t meant for sitting, leaned over a sketchbook with a beat-up, black pencil between his fingers. His eyes flick up at that moment, catching Adam looking, a small mystery of blue eyes under dark lashes. He quirks a smile, very pointedly assessing Adam’s features, and then he looks back down. Adam doesn’t move.

“Thought you had work to do, Parrish.”

I do. He pauses, staring down at his phone, fingers hesitating over the screen. Ronan is looking at him again, waiting for him to turn the phone around. Adam continues, I can’t really talk to you from across the room though. Tell me about something.

“Anything?”

Nod.

“Mm. Okay.”

As Adam sorts mail, Ronan tells Adam about his home. He describes the corner of the world known to the Lynches as The Barns with careful clarity. He mentions the grand—cavernous silos reaching for the sky, expanses of grass rolling towards the mountains—and he mentions the small—the stretch of the shadows at dusk, the dew beneath your feet at dawn. He talks about everything in a factual, narrative way, his sentences strung together in a way that might drone if you weren’t listening to the content. Ronan is trying to sound nonchalant, but something softer seeps into his words, despite his evident attempts to hide it. Adam is surprised to realize with abrupt clarity that he can put a name to this feeling: Homesickness.

He can’t believe he’s able to even pick out such an emotion, having never felt it himself.

But sure enough, it colors everything Ronan says, now that Adam’s picked up on it.

He drifts from stories about the landscape to stories about his brothers. Both of them sound to Adam like every bit the opposite of Ronan, but in the narratives Ronan tells, somehow they fit together, unquestionably. It sounded like their relationships with Ronan were different—he wasn’t afraid to fight with the older one, he wasn’t afraid to fight for the younger one. He talks of his mother, a thoughtful, loving woman, every bit as kind as Adam’s mother had pretended to be.

He talks in circles around one thing, though. If Adam weren’t so naturally honed in on the subject, he might not have noticed that Ronan doesn’t mention his father. He might have come up in Ronan’s story about how his mother would cook elaborate breakfasts before church on Sundays. He might have come up when Ronan told Adam about waking up early to feed the animals. He should have come up in Ronan’s narration of his life back home, but he never did.

And when Ronan’s voice drifts off, Adam stops working. He steps over to Ronan.

He knows how loaded a question it is before he even asks it. And your father?

Ronan can only stare back at him, expression on his face as though he’d just sighed.

It’s okay. I don’t want to talk about mine either.

Ronan shifts infinitesimally in a way that looks a lot like a thank you.

When Adam steps back to the mailboxes, his eyes glance off the open page of Ronan’s sketchbook. His hands are splayed over whatever he’d been drawing; he looks at Adam knowingly.

Ronan talks about something else.

Ronan stays Adam’s entire shift; it’s only four hours, but it feels much longer than that simply because of the weight of how it makes Adam feel. Sometimes Ronan follows Adam as he moves about the mailroom; sometimes it’s just his eyes following him; sometimes Ronan leaves Adam and talks to the other girl on shift. He stays, though. He stays. And afterwards he stays.

“Do you want to see your drawing?”

Yes, please.

They go back to Ronan’s room. Gansey isn’t around.

Ronan drags a shallow box out from the top shelf of his closet; in it are at least a dozen different sketchbooks of varying sizes. Adam can’t imagine how he remembers which ones contain what, but he immediately locates the one he wants. The page was already torn out, scribbled notes from the professor on the backside. Ronan hands it to Adam without ceremony.

Adam doesn’t know anything about art—just enough to know that Ronan’s style is something to wonder at. It is poignantly realistic, but the angles are more defined, the edges more severe than in reality. The shading is dramatic, at once both lifelike and implausible. There is no mistaking that this is Adam, but it doesn’t look like a factual representation, either. This paper-Adam looks like he could march into battle or dismantle entire institutions with his naked hands. He is fictional, a character out of a fairytale, and yet—it is him exactly.

A pang of yearning seizes Adam. He wishes his eyes looked so full of—

So full of something he can’t name. This storybook Adam has eyes of something indescribable. On paper, it’s only a catch of the light, a shadow across his eyelids, an effect of precise shading, but he’s seen the look often enough on Ronan’s own face that he could never miss it, even put down in such an inadequate medium as graphite.

Oh, if Ronan could lend some of that to real-life Adam the way he’d lent it to this Adam.

This is fucking great

Ronan shrugs. “You can keep it, if you want.”

I couldn’t

A roll of the eyes. “Whatever, man. I keep too much of my shit, you should really take it off my hands.” He smirks. “And anyway, it was a school assignment. No matter how nice your face, it’s still homework, and I want no part of it.”

Adam’s smile is hesitant. Well, thank you.

“Sure.”

Why are you even in school if you hate it so much?

“Declan,” he replies immediately. “No, Matthew.”

He doesn’t elaborate.

That night Adam finds himself doing his homework on the floor of Gansey’s and Ronan’s room. Ronan doesn’t pay him much attention—or rather, he plays like he isn’t paying him much attention. Adam looks up every so often, catching a flash of his eyes in the process.

It’s been maybe forty minutes when a rapping cuts through the room.

At first, Adam thinks it’s the door, but then it comes again and he realizes it’s coming from the opposite direction—the window? But Adam and Ronan are on the third story. Ronan, however, stands and walks to the window, as though this is perfectly normal, and then he pushes up the glass. Immediately, in flaps a black bird, wings ruffled, feet prancing. A raven.

The bird squawks and Ronan says, “Oh, pipe down.”

Adam stares.

For a moment, Ronan is busy looking the bird over, but then he looks to Adam with a lopsided smile. "Adam, this is Chainsaw, loyal companion of mine.” The raven prods at Ronan’s hand.

Adam can hardly collect his thoughts on this matter. Is it… tame? Where did it come from?

“Fuck if I know, to both of those questions. She just showed up one day.” He puts his hand to her feet, and she jumps onto it. “She’s mine now, anyway.”

When was “one day” ?

“Couple weeks ago.” Ronan strokes a finger over her head.

Apparently Chainsaw started showing up to Gansey’s and Ronan’s window, pecking like mad, and Ronan’s natural reaction was to let her inside and befriend her while Gansey was out of the room one night, and now she comes back every few days, looking for Ronan. He feeds her, tosses her pencils and erasers to play with, and she delights herself with it. Somehow she’d become his pet. He sees her around campus, too, following, watching. How or why she’d acquired the name Chainsaw was not part of the story Ronan told Adam.

She literally just showed up one day?

Ronan nods. “Ravens remember people, you know. I tossed a scrap of bread to a bird on our first day here, and I think it might have been her.”

That’s ridiculous

Ronan shrugs, not caring for Adam’s banal definitions of ridiculous. He lifts the bird to his shoulder and then slams the window back shut before going to sit on his bed. The loud noise seems to end that conversation. “Once,” Ronan begins, “Blue was in a gas station late at night, and—guess how this story goes, honestly. Just guess. The guy said something smartass to her, something about what she was wearing. You know. Usual shit. I don’t know what she said, but the guy got so scared he pressed that button under the cash register that calls the cops.”

That is ALSO ridiculous.

Adam tries to go back to his homework after that, but the image of Ronan playing with a proper, grown raven on his bed is too much. It’s a sight that’s hard to look away from, and eventually Adam has to stand up and walk over to the bed himself. Ronan looks amusedly at him, and the bird does, too.

“She won’t like you unless you make a good impression.”

The look Adam shoots him is unimpressed. Nonetheless, Adam holds out a hand to her. Chainsaw only patters around the bed in a circle, apparently assessing the offer of Adam’s hand.

“Go on, asshole,” Ronan says to her. Then he directs his words to Adam, “Sit down.”

Adam sits down.

This seems to be what she wanted, because the moment he’s down, she jumps onto Adam’s shoulder. He starts, craning his neck to try to get a good look at her, but she shuffles along his shoulders. It’s at this time that they hear a key in the door, and then Gansey steps in.

He throws Ronan a withering look, though he seems unaffected.

“If the RAs find out about our avian roommate…”

“They’ll what?” Ronan rolls his eyes.

“How are you, Adam?”

Adam smiles.

“Good, good.” Gansey drops his backpack to the floor and lies face down on his bed.

“Okay over there?”

“Mm.”

Ronan leans over and plucks Adam’s phone from the ground where he’d left it. He types—rather slowly—He’s going to be upset about Naomi for fucking ever.

Is that what that is? Adam glances over at Gansey, amused.

Definitely

He’ll figure it out eventually.

He always does, Ronan agrees.

Hopefully he isn’t mopey until then

Ronan is in the middle of saying, He might be, when Gansey turns his face and sees them.

“Are you guys talking about me?” he asks, pulling out a wounded tone.

“Absolutely not,” Ronan mumbles, flashing the screen towards Adam.

“This is hurtful.” Gansey turns his face back to his pillow. “What are we gonna do—” His phone starts ringing. He sits up on his elbows and pulls it from his pocket. He announces, “Blue.” Then he’s up in an instant, dismal mood vanishing as he disappears out of the room. He exclaims, “Jane!” which the two of them hear muffled behind the closing door.

Who is Jane?

“Blue.”

Oh is Blue a nickname?

“No, Jane is the nickname.”

I give the fuck up.

Ronan laughs.

I’ve never actually seen him talking to her on the phone. He’s always out of the room.

“Makes you wonder,” Ronan says airily. “What’s he hiding?”

Chainsaw, who is now flapping around on the floor pushing around a rainbow bouncy ball that looks like it came out of a quarter-machine, squawks and then freezes. Ronan stares at her. She makes another loud noise. “Use your words.”

She does not. She flaps up to the window and starts tapping at the glass like mad.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Ronan lets her out, and she perches outside for a moment before flying off.

“Kids,” Ronan breathes, shaking his head, and Adam smiles.

 


 

Midterms week passes. Gansey wonders often and aloud about solutions to their ghost problem. Ronan continues to show up at the mailroom, sometimes with his sketchbook, sometimes without, always with some kind of story to tell while Adam works. The semester feels to Adam as though it’s slipped into something far more normal than the situation should be—or at least, something more normal than Adam could have ever hoped for or thought possible.

When Adam stops thinking about it, he feels like he’s known Ronan and Gansey for longer than he has. Adam is easily familiar with Gansey’s tutting, his ability to roll with situations, his tendency towards the pragmatic. He knows about Ronan—Ronan’s whetted words, his lack of tolerance for that which doesn’t hold his interest, the way he knows just how much effort to put towards school to avoid getting himself into trouble. More than anything, though, Adam notices Ronan’s attention.

It feels like such an unwarranted thing. Adam has done nothing to deserve a visit every shift; nothing to deserve doodle-covered post-it notes in his textbooks; nothing to deserve rides to the store in Ronan’s BMW. And he certainly doesn’t think he deserves Ronan’s patience, which is a limited resource as it is.

There’s loud knocking at Adam’s door, and Adam jumps up before his roommate can—Adam knows Ronan’s knock, as well.

“Do you want to go to the store with me?” Ronan asks without greeting.

Adam shrugs. Sure.

“Let’s go.”

What’re we getting?

“Snacks, I dunno. Something.”

Adam nods.

The day is the thirtieth, the day of the Halloween party for which Blue was supposedly coming and into which Adam had been talked. Someone had decided that it would be better to have the party on a Friday rather than a Saturday, so it was happening a day early. No one seemed to care.

At the current moment, Gansey is somewhere between Vassar and Princeton picking up Blue—supposedly. Supposedly picking up the supposed entity that is Blue. He’d left before lunch, meaning he’d skipped his speech class. Ronan had feigned horror at such an act. But Gansey had done it, and he was aiming to get back around five.

Now it’s four, and Ronan and Adam are headed for the supermarket.

As they pull into the parking lot, Ronan muses, “We’ll probably need—fuck, I don’t know. Blue ate all our cereal last time she spent the night at Monmouth. We should get breakfast food or something?” Adam makes a face that very clearly says he has no idea. He pulls into a parking space with a sharp cut of the steering wheel. “Yogurt, definitely. Milk? Our fridge isn’t very big. We should have brought a bigger one in the first place. Should we buy a new fridge while we’re at it?”

I don’t think you need a new fridge.

Ronan makes a noise of disagreement as they get out of the car.

Ronan does not buy a new fridge. What he does do, however, is push Adam around in the cart. Adam kicks his sneakers up against the front of the cart, arm hanging over the side, putting things inside with him as Ronan says to. He ends up half buried in snacks, but Ronan doesn’t seem concerned. (“Do you think she wants cheddar or pizza flavored? I don’t know, just put them both in.”; “I don’t even know what kind of candy she likes. What if she’s allergic to peanuts? I dunno, grab it all.”)

“You don’t drink, do you, Parrish?”

He shakes his head.

For a moment, the only sound is the squeaky wheels creaking along the linoleum. Then Ronan asks lightly, “Does it have anything to do with the person we don’t talk about?”

Now he nods.

“Okay. Do you mind if we do?”

Another shake of the head. No problem. Someone has to look out for you.

Ronan grins, almost as if in challenge, and loads a heroic amount of beer into the bottom of the cart.

“Blue likes this… cherry shit, I’m almost too embarrassed to be seen with it.” He shakes his head, rearranging the different beers. “She won’t eat real cherries, mind you.”

He has a fake ID, but the man at the checkout doesn’t ask to see it, and Ronan doesn’t offer to show it. He doesn’t even grant Adam a second glance, and he’s left to wonder how often college students come through here sitting in shopping carts. He isn’t sure he’d rather the number be higher or lower.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Gansey is not back at five like he’d planned, rather, it’s well past nine by the time Gansey is bursting into his room carrying a bright purple suitcase followed by a girl who is definitely real wearing a dress in a loud shade of green and white stockings pulled up to her knees. Ronan, already half-drunk and sitting on the floor across from Adam, breaks into a huge grin.

“Sargent, you asshole, don’t you think it’s a little offensive to be dressed as a leprechaun?”

Blue smiles also—wide like Gansey, sharp like Ronan. “Fuck off,” she says, but Ronan is already pushing himself to his feet and she’s rushing forward to catch him in a hug.

“God, you fuck off.” He hugs her back, all the same.

Adam also gets to his feet, though it takes Blue a moment to pull away. When she does, she turns to Adam and says, “And you’re Adam!”

He nods, her enthusiasm taking him back a little.

“Very cool to meet you. I can’t believe Gansey’s already roped you into our nonsense.”

Hey.”

But she’s smiling, and then Adam is too.

Very cool to see that you’re real.

She holds out her arms, as if in example. “In the flesh.” Then she looks to Ronan, “And this is not my costume, by the way. Jerk.”

“I was just trying to defend my heritage. Some of my great-great-grandparents were l—”

“Do not finish that sentence.”

“Do you actually have a costume, though?” Ronan asks.

“Of course?”

“Should have known.”

“Gansey has one, too,” she continues, pulling him closer to her by his shirt. “We look amazing.”

“Don’t tell me you have matching costumes…” Ronan looks like he might be sick. “I thought Blue wasn’t telling you what she was wearing.”

Gansey smiles sheepishly. “We don’t, but it kind of looks like we do…”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

What it means, Adam and Ronan discover an hour later, is that they somehow both elected to dress up as historical figures of the same century, leaving them looking entirely too much like they belong together.

“Joan of Arc,” Blue says.

“Owen Glendower,” Gansey says.

Different countries, different cultures, different motivations for choosing their muse, but somehow they both have swords at their hips, and it’s all too fitting. Ronan can only shake his head in disbelief. Adam tries not to think about how it’s sort of endearing.

Gansey gives Ronan and Adam appropriate grief for not even trying to dress up at all, but he’s over it by the time they find themselves in the middle of the party another hour later. Though Ronan had complained that it was still too early on their trek across campus, the inside of the dorm is already full of students, pulsing lights, and the reek of alcohol. It’s a smell Adam had prepared himself for, but he still chokes a little. It will pass.

Almost immediately, Ronan is pulled away by another group of people. There’s shouts of Heys, slaps on shoulders, pointing fingers. Adam doesn’t recognize them in the least, but Ronan disappears after them without a backwards glance. Adam is about to ask, but Gansey doesn’t look surprised or bothered, so he keeps the question to himself. Anyway, his attention is diverted by Gansey catching him around the wrist in one hand, grabbing Blue’s hand with the other and dragging the two of them towards the center of the room.

Gansey and Blue had consumed exactly the same amount of alcohol sitting in their room beforehand, but Gansey is either much more willing to let himself look foolish or much more of a lightweight, because he is ambitiously trying to dance with both Blue and Adam, and Blue merely looks pleasantly exasperated by the endeavor. Adam really doesn’t dance, but he lets Gansey drag him into a few painful attempts. Blue manages to conduct a conversation with Adam through the pulsing bass, asking after his studies, his real opinion on Gansey and Ronan. She taps her feet along with the beat, smiling freely and often, grabbing Gansey’s hand when he starts to wander off. They go through a few more drinks, though, and eventually Ronan’s absence becomes very noticeable. The conversation pitters out, and Gansey is wrapping an arm around Blue’s waist when Adam decides he needs to go find their missing friend.

Ronan, he mouths, and the two of them nod before Adam drifts backwards into the conglomerate of students.

There are people everywhere—the space really isn’t that big. The party stretches down hallways, where dorm rooms are propped open and a different song is blaring out of every room. Adam is just starting to think he might have his work cut out for him when he catches sight of Ronan leaned against the wall of one of the first rooms he peeks into.

Ronan is holding a cup between his forefinger and thumb, and he notices Adam right away. He lights up. “Parrish! I was wondering where you’d got off to.”

Adam cocks an eyebrow, unimpressed. Where he’d got off to? He takes Ronan by the sleeve and pulls him through the room, though he stumbles badly. Adam manages a peek inside his cup, and it doesn’t look like beer. Adam may not drink himself, but he knows that’s a recipe for disaster. He can’t know how much Ronan’s already had—Ronan was only away from them for maybe an hour, which Gansey assured was normal for him—but just to be safe, he carefully pulls the cup away. Ronan doesn’t protest. Adam abandons it on a table just inside a different dorm room as they make their way down the hall.

“God, fuck,” Ronan breathes. He follows Adam’s lead, even if he’s unable to mimic his steady footsteps. They come to a stop once they make it to the main room. Ronan blinks at the lights, looking confused. He doesn’t say anything, though.

Are you okay?

“Shit, man, I can’t read that,” he mumbles. He reaches up to take the cell phone into his own hands. He blinks some more, using a great deal of effort to focus on the screen. Then he laughs. “Yeah, I’m fine. Can’t read, but I’m fine. Peachy keen. Delightful. But I do think I’m gonna…” He takes a few steps backwards, leaning against the wall. He splays his fingers over the surface behind him, and then he sinks to the floor slowly, comically sluggish. He lands with his knees still up, and he drapes his arms over his kneecaps. Adam crouches down beside him.

“This place is a circus.” He lolls his head to the side to get a good look at Adam. “A goddamn circus. You’re the only good among us, Parrish. The only good one.” Ronan rubs his temples and sighs. “Damn, it’s loud in here.”

We could go outside?

“I literally can’t read that. I’m so sorry, fuck.” He sounds genuinely apologetic, and Adam waves a hand through the air to express that it’s okay. He pockets his phone.

Ronan doesn’t move, so he can only guess that he isn’t too dedicated to getting anywhere quieter. Adam settles in beside him, back to the wall, legs crisscrossed.

“What am I doing here, Parrish? Not the party, I mean, this is good, I’m—” He breaks off, apparently losing his train of thought. He stares into the crowd, lips parted. “God. I think I’ve—” He mumbles whatever he says next; Adam doesn’t catch it. “I’m being shitty. Do you want to dance or something?”

Adam shakes his head.

“Oh good, me neither, me fuckin’ neither. I don’t…” He runs a hand over his head, eyes bouncing around the room. “There are so many assholes here I would fight.”

Adam laughs.

“Starting with Kavinsky. Fuck. And then everyone he knows. Finishing with Dr. Lang—fuck that guy.” Adam doesn’t know who these people are, but Ronan seems all too aware, so Adam nods along. “God, I would fight them all. Where are they?” He moves as if to stand, but Adam puts a hand to his shoulder. “No, you’re right, of course. You’re right. Not now. Maybe another time.”

Adam nods, patting his shoulder before dropping his hand away.

Ronan’s eyes are on him, glued to his face as though he’s studying it. Adam resists the urge to look away. Ronan’s hand twitches from where it had been resting motionlessly on his knee, but then he drops it back down. In a quick motion, Ronan readjusts his gaze towards the crowd.

“I would fight that guy in particular.” Adam can’t see who he’s looking at, but again he nods understandingly. Ronan sinks farther against the wall, letting out a strangled sigh. Then he swallows hard and looks back at Adam. His expression is tangibly different—less baffled, slightly misplaced aggression, more concentrated confusion. “Is your dad the one who hurt you?”

A jolt of something shoots through Adam. He glances around, as though someone might have heard the assertion in the middle of the din. It’s with revulsion that Adam realizes he isn’t ready for this conversation and most certainly not with one party drunk off their ass. But then again—well, maybe that’s okay. The chances of Ronan remembering this conversation tomorrow are low, low, low. He’s taking too long to respond, and he knows it, and with the hope that Ronan will have forgotten all about this the next day, he nods.

Despite his intoxication, the length of time Ronan allows to pass feels significant. Adam almost dares to hope that maybe Ronan hadn’t even noticed that he’d answered, hadn’t even cared for Adam’s reply. Couldn’t even remember having asked him a question. But at last Ronan says, “I’d fight him, too.” He  scrubs a hand over his skull. When he looks back at Adam, his eyes are unfocused. His words come out sounding like a sigh, “My dad is dead.”

And it’s so factual, so colorless a statement, so lacking the vibrant, panged way he’d described The Barns and his brothers that it sounds immediately wrong. It shouldn’t be coming out of his mouth this way, and Adam immediately surges with guilt. He hadn’t asked Ronan to tell him this, but he shouldn’t be receiving this information from an intoxicated Ronan. He should have trusted him with this information while sober.

Yes, Adam would be very lucky if Ronan remembered none of this tomorrow.

He gives Ronan’s wrist a short squeeze.

They can’t have been there more than two hours, but Adam wonders if it’s best that they go ahead and leave. Nothing about Ronan running himself into the ground so quickly was a good sign, and Adam had basically come as a chaperon anyway, so it was just time to do his job. When he starts to stand and tug at Ronan’s sleeve, Ronan gets up without argument. He sways a little, but Adam puts a hand to his back. He scans the room for Blue and Gansey but doesn’t see them. He sends Gansey a quick text telling him that they’re going back to the room.

“God, it’s fucking freezing out here,” Ronan complains. Outside of the raucous music, his words are too loud. “And I feel awful. Someone should—someone should fuckin’… fight me. I deserve it.”

Adam shakes his head.

Ronan mumbles all the way back to the dorm, and Adam has to take the key from his fumbling hands in order to unlock the door for him. Ronan turns the light on but immediately frowns and then turns it back off. Then he shuffles over to his bed, though he doesn’t sit or lie down right away. Adam finds himself sitting at the edge of Ronan Lynch’s bed, tugging him down to sit beside him. Like before, Ronan lowers himself laughably slowly.

Do you need me to get you anything?

Ronan doesn’t seem to notice Adam’s request for an extended moment. Adam hesitates before tapping Ronan’s shoulder. At this, Ronan drags his gaze to the phone, squinting. At last, he mumbles, “No, but thanks.”

He nods in return, letting his hand drop to his leg, screen still on and facing upwards. Its dimmed light still casts stark shadows across Ronan’s face, catching on his lips, his eyelashes. Adam realizes that he’s staring only when he notices Ronan staring back.

“Do you always have…” He tries to make a gesture with his hand, but it doesn’t make it higher than waist level. “So many…?”

Adam furrows his brow, puzzled.

“Your freckles.”

Adam smiles a sideways smile. He nods.

“They don’t… fade in the winter…?”

Adam just shakes his head. He would say, Afraid not if he’d been able to.

“Matthew’s do. He has them in the summer, and then… you know. With the sun going—” Ronan rubs a hand over his face, and he gives a small groan, sounding like he’s wondering himself what he’s going on about. “Parrish, you—”

Then the door opens, and Gansey all but stumbles in, Blue with an arm around his shoulders. “Blue and I had a fantastic idea,” he announces, flipping on the light.

Ronan visibly recoils.

“Jesus, you look horrible. Do you need a trashcan?” A glare answers the question. Gansey moves on, unaffected, “Anyway, we had a great idea. We just—we just call Blue’s mom.”

Adam has no idea what he’s talking about, and he hopes Gansey can read it on his face.

He doesn’t seem to notice Adam’s face, but he continues, “She’ll totally know what to do about Naomi. She’ll know what to do. Blue didn’t know—but, well, Blue knew to call her mom, so Blue did know, I guess.”

Have you done it already?

“No, we’re about to do it right now.”

The two of them curl up on Gansey’s bed, backs against the wall. Adam is about to intervene, to stop them from calling Blue’s mother at one in the morning when they’re so very obviously drunk, but Gansey is already holding the phone to his ear before Adam can wholly make up his mind as to what to do. Gansey clears his throat and then does the remarkable.

“Yes, hello, this is Gansey. Yes, hello, Orla. Could you put Ms. Sargent on the phone? Yes, I am aware of the hour, but it’s an emergency. No, Blue is fine. Yes. Yes. No. Well, I never. Okay. Yes, I’ll hold.” He grins, rolling his eyes at the same time as Blue.

From somewhere, drunk Gansey has pulled out a very sober Gansey, and he very didactically inquires after the nature of hauntings. Blue, sitting beside him, cranes her neck to hear and giggles constantly, but Gansey’s façade doesn’t slip once. Adam is very confused, but he has the good sense to be even more impressed. Gansey asks about how to make ghosts more comfortable, stronger, nicer. He hums agreements and interest into the phone, all the while tapping his fingers along Blue’s shoulder. Halfway through the conversation, Ronan lies down and throws his arm over his eyes. Blue and Adam both look at him and then share a look. Blue shrugs. Adam stands and tugs the blanket out from underneath Ronan to throw it over him, and then he crosses the room to sit on Gansey’s bed, leaving a good distance between him and the couple.

“Thank you so much for the information, Maura. It was very helpful, I don’t know why I didn’t think to contact you earlier! Sorry for the late hour, you know us.” He laughs easily. “We’re having a lovely time. Thank you very much. Yes, you as well. Goodnight.” Gansey hits the End button and then very slowly sets his phone on the bed beside him, “I just got some really insightful information from your mother, Blue, but for now, I am going to go to the bathroom and throw up. If you’ll excuse me.”

Chapter Text

The Saturday after the party, the actual day of Halloween, Adam didn’t see Ronan or Gansey all morning and then most of the afternoon. He assumed they were stuck in bed. Blue, however, had showed up at his door with a smile and a box of Cheerios. They’d gone to sit in one of the common rooms, where they stayed for hours until Adam’s and Blue’s phones buzzed in unison. It was Gansey, of course, asking where they were. In some mutual, unspoken agreement, they waited to reply to him, opting first to finish their conversation.

For someone whose existence seemed impossible, Adam likes Blue a lot. She doesn’t smile easily, doesn’t laugh unless she means it. It’s a sort of self-possession that Adam can only marvel at.  And Blue seems to like him too—or at least, he sure hopes she does.

Gansey radiated regret when Blue and Adam finally came back to the room, and, tortured, he complained about the state he was in. Blue just patted his shoulder and ran a hand through his hair. “You’ll be fine,” she assured. Gansey seemed incredibly sure that she was very wrong about that, but he still managed to sit up and tell the room what Blue’s mother had told him.

She’d said a lot, but it mostly boiled down to trying to figure out more about the ghost in question—in this case, Naomi Czerny. Figure out what they were like when they were alive. Figure out their interests, their skills, their hobbies. Ronan had mumbled something about Latin, though Gansey just shot him a longsuffering look. Maura had insisted there was no foolproof way of summoning things that didn’t want to be found, but her best bet was to try to bring something to the chapel that Naomi would have connected with while she was alive. Gansey was immediately fond of the puzzle of this, if a little vexed. What did they know about her? Gansey remembered she studied biology. Was that the sort of thing that would work? Could they bring her a plant or something? Ronan had a bio textbook?

Gansey wasn’t sure what would work, but he was excited to start looking.

Not that day, though. As much as he hated to wait, he would have to.

And even Sunday, once the headaches were gone, Gansey had to postpone the search. Blue said there was no way she was going into that church to amplify the energy of a spirit they’d been actively annoying for the past two months. Gansey pouted but agreed.

“I promise to come back sometime later,” she says. “And please don’t do anything stupid. Whatever my mom said, do that. Nothing else.”

“Please, like Parrish would let us get into anything?”

Adam scoffs, eying Ronan with something like amusement.

For lunch, Gansey and Blue go off campus, leaving Ronan and Adam to eat by themselves. And when they still aren’t back by the time Ronan and Adam are done, they go back to Ronan’s room. Adam sits down at the foot of Ronan’s bed and immediately pulls the internet browser open on his phone. Across the room, Ronan is shuffling in his closet until he pulls out a sketchbook that Adam recognizes—a leather-bound one that he usually brings to the mailroom. Despite his initial confusion at how Ronan could keep track of so many separate books, Adam is starting to notice the different ones he has. The ones for class are always cheaper, spiral-bounds with worn edges. For other occasions, he has a couple nicer looking ones in leather or hardcover. The black one he’s holding now, though, that’s the one Adam notices the most.

Adam drops his eyes before Ronan can see him looking, and then he navigates to the webpage he’d been seeking. The bed creaks when Ronan sits down on the other end, and a few minutes later it groans again as Ronan scooches Adam’s direction to peer over his shoulder. Adam lets him.

“God, you’re turning into Gansey.”

Adam smiles. He shifts apps. If he can’t be looking right now, I might as well.

“Leave Tullia alone, man.”

It doesn’t really matter, though. There’s not anything we haven’t already seen.

“There must be something.”

Bio major, sisters? Not much else. I suppose we could always try to contact her family, but that seems distasteful.

Ronan makes a disinterested noise. “I don’t know.” He shifts back a little, taking his sketchbook in his hands and flipping to a page out of Adam’s line of vision. “What I do know is this: here is a picture of you and Tullia.” He peels a pink sticky note from off the page and sticks it on Adam’s phone.

Why am I a soldier? Adam asks with a grin.

“Wasn’t everyone in Rome a soldier?”

Adam only gives a breath of a laugh and a shrug. Thank you.

What’s more interesting than Adam’s spear and shield is Ronan’s depiction of “Tullia,” with her long hair, big eyes, and freckles to match Adam’s—because it’s not as though any of the newspaper articles had even one picture of Naomi in them. It seems as though Adam had already realized this fact, but staring at Ronan’s picture, the significance of it becomes something notable. Adam asks Ronan if he’d seen any pictures of her that he had missed.

“Nah, I just guessed what she looked like.” He smirks. “Artistic license or some shit, right?”

Adam nods absentmindedly, thumbing the corner of the paper.

“What are you thinking about?”

A little startled by the question, he raises his gaze in one quick motion. Adam bites his lip. Odd that there are no pictures of her, isn’t it?

“It was like a million years ago, did they even have cameras?”

Adam pulls out his best exhausted expression.

“Jesus, don’t look at me like that, I know when they invented cameras. I don’t know. Haven’t we already established that the parents are private people?”

A half-shrug from Adam.

“Anyway, whatever, we’ve got a picture of her right there.” Ronan points to the sticky note, still stuck between Adam’s forefinger and thumb. Adam smiles weakly. He nods.

When Gansey and Blue get back shortly thereafter, Adam asks if Gansey’s seen any pictures of Naomi—both Blue and Ronan roll their eyes, but Gansey is interested by the question. No, he hadn’t, either. Before Gansey can start worrying about it, though, Blue is suggesting they all watch a movie before she has to leave in a few hours, and Ronan quickly agrees. Adam says something about an essay he has to finish for tomorrow, but Blue asks him to stay, and Ronan looks like he’s glad she did, so Adam does.

The four of them take up places on the floor, bedspreads and pillows piled around, Gansey’s laptop with the volume turned all the way up. Ronan and Adam are leaned against the wall beneath the window, Ronan’s blanket pulled over them.

It’s only a few minutes in when Adam pulls his knees to his chest and glances between the three of them. He feels the tug of something awfully similar to gratitude—or disbelief. And when there’s a rapping at the window, and Ronan says, “Now it’s a real party!” Adam only smiles.

Blue exclaims, “Oh, is that Chainsaw?” and Gansey sighs.

The bird fusses at Adam’s hair, flaps around the room, and avoids Blue trying to pet her. She eventually settles in on Ronan’s shoulder, and Adam finds himself staring just a little. If Ronan notices, he says nothing.

It’s a dream of an afternoon, a quiet day that feels detached from time and place—marked only by the gentle sound of Gansey’s laugh, the weight of Ronan’s gaze. Blue’s voice drifts back and forth, directed at Adam more often than he would have expected. And when it’s time for her to leave, she grabs Adam by the hand and pulls him into a hug after the others. Surprised isn’t quite what he feels, but the proper word is something he doesn’t have a name for.

Ronan and Adam finish off the candy that’s remaining in their room.

Gansey is back three hours later than he said he would be.

Sunday falls into Monday.

 


 

It’s four days later when Adam is sorting mail and comes across something with his name on the front. For a second, he stares at it, but sure enough, the loopy scrawl is addressed to him, and the top corner indicates it as being from one Blue Sargent. Adam smiles.

Ronan notices. “What?”

Adam holds the envelope out for him to see.

His lips quirk. “Well, fuck, if Blue likes you, you’re never getting away.”

(Adam opens the letter when he gets back to his dorm that evening. It’s printed across two pages of notebook paper, double-spaced in a blue ink pen. It reads:

Dear Adam,

I am super glad I got to meet you, you wouldn’t believe the hard time I had trying to imagine a normal boy who would want to hang out with Gansey. (Ronan isn’t normal) I was kind of afraid he had imagined you or something, I don’t know, you know him. a boy who casually runs around with him looking for ghosts? after knowing him for like two seconds? You’re a better man than me. i’m sure they’ve told you what I did the first time I met gansey

But anyway, I’m getting distracted. How are classes? Same as however many days ago? probably. they’re the same here (…probably) (since you’ll be reading this a few days from me writing this, I guess I don’t know. maybe everything has changed. But I’ll wager that it hasn’t) what classes are you taking next semester?

 I would ask you about the ghost search, but I get hourly updates from Gansey, so there’s really no need. Are you still sane? now that’s a good question. I love being part of Gansey’s adventures, but it is interesting to have a break and observe from a far for once. (My mom did call me back yesterday and ask what was up with us calling her in the middle of the night, that was ridiculous, why did you let us do that????? omg) (I mean, not your fault but. omg adam.)

There’s this guy Henry in my bio class, and he lives in my dorm, and everyone knows him as The School Newspaper Guy™. I don’t really talk to him, but he is so loud that you kind of feel like you’re talking to him even when you’re just standing in the same room as him?? This week he was going around asking everyone about their opinions on GMOs only so he could tell them how wrong they were, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t for a newspaper article at all, but Also we’re never sure with him. we’ll see when the next issue comes out. I will keep you posted

Are you doing anything with Ronan? don’t let Gansey make you hang out with him all the time. Ronan is fun too, try though he might to make everyone hate him. you seem to have earned some kind of exception to that torture, though, so Good job

How do you feel about dorm life? I need your honest thoughts because I’m not thrilled about it, but sort of in a way where I like not being thrilled about it? I kind of like to complain about how annoying my roommate is? do you understand? Or am I making this up? I can’t ask Gansey or Ronan because they’re rooming with each other, so they’re no help

Anyway, I hope you have a Rad day. respond posthaste

yrs,

Blue Sargent

Clouds were doodled in the margins.)

And it’s one day later from that when the three of them are in a familiar situation—Gansey and Adam on the floor studying, Ronan on his bed not-studying. It’s a quiet evening, the sound of textbook pages turning and notes being scribbled a soft soundtrack.

Adam has his chin in his hand, and his eyes feel heavy. He’s just wondering if he should call it quits when Gansey drops his pen and it hits his open textbook with a astonishingly loud clattering. At the same time, he exclaims, “Yearbooks, you guys!” And Adam jumps at being pulled from his own thoughts so suddenly, though Gansey seems oblivious to his shock. He glances between Ronan’s and Adam’s confused faces, as though looking for confirmation. He claps a palm to the pages of his open textbook, as though that will help them realize what he’s talking about. “Oh my god, the yearbooks. In the library. The yearbooks. Why hadn’t we thought of that?” Then he’s up, even without their support, and he’s pulling on a coat, tugging on his shoes, asking, “Are you guys coming or what?” Gansey is already at the door, opening the door, halfway out the door, glancing over his shoulder just long enough to see Adam vaguely manage a nod.

Ronan and Adam share a look.

Adam pushes himself to his feet. What is he going on about?

“I guess he’s gonna make us go and see,” Ronan muses.

Gansey is miles ahead of them, so they take their time walking across campus, their shadows stretched long in the setting sun, the evening chill already rolling in—Adam has his hands pressed deep into his coat pockets, curled into fists. Ronan, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to notice the cold; with the air he puts on, Adam thinks, it looks as though he might be scaring off the low temperatures. He’s also doing a pretty good job of looking fatigued by Gansey’s unpredictability, but Adam knows better than that by now.

 “Are you gonna turn into a popsicle over there, Parrish?” Ronan asks, peering at him out of the corner of his eyes.

Adam, teeth chattering, shoulders hiked to his ears, makes a face, an earnest sort of I hope not.

“You know it’s only November, right?”

His nod is feeble; Ronan’s laughter is a bark.

“Fuck.”

Adam nods again, more fervent.

The library is warm, and Adam’s sigh of relief is sharp. He holds his fingers to his lips, breathing lowly while glancing around, trying to figure out where the yearbooks would be kept or at least catch a glimpse of Gansey’s red coat. He drags his lips over his knuckles, exhaling warmth back into his skin. He turns back to Ronan; for an instant, Ronan’s gaze is a little too low to be looking Adam in the eyes. It flicks upwards.

Adam pretends not to notice. He drops his fingers and raises an eyebrow.

“Fuck, like I know where he is?”

They could ask someone, but instead they make a leisurely loop around the lower floor before climbing the stairs to the next level. Almost immediately they see Gansey, cross-legged in front of a shelf filled with black and orange yearbooks. He has a stack of three on the floor beside him and one open in his lap. He doesn’t look up at their approach, not until they’re right beside him. “Guys,” he says, voice strained, “I think I know what’s wrong with our ghost.”

 


 

What better place to figure out Naomi’s hobbies and interests than in the yearbook? It’s such an obvious source of information, he can’t imagine why the thought hadn’t come to him sooner. All the articles had said she was involved in a lot of things across campus, and surely there must be some documentation thereof in the yearbooks. It might not be much, but even knowing what sort of clubs she took part in would be something.

But the search is quickly derailed by a question much larger than that of what Naomi’s hobbies had been.

Upon opening the yearbook from Naomi’s Junior year, Gansey is almost immediately struck by the thought, There’s something not right here. He had flipped to the index first, finger dragging down to the end of the C’s. Czerny. It’s an easy find. Beside Naomi Czerny is listed a 39, but he doesn’t turn to page thirty-nine right away. Instead, his eyes are caught on the name just below hers—Noah Czerny. Beside this name is a longer list: 50, 60, 61, 62, 85.

Gansey’s first thought is that she didn’t have brothers.

His second thought is that she might have had cousins at the school.

His third thought is that this is wrong.

He first turns to thirty-nine. The name Naomi Czerny is at the bottom of the page, and the corresponding picture is in the middle of the row, a black and white portrait—all smiles, bright eyes. Gansey, so used to chasing after unknown spirits and ghosts, hadn’t formed an image of Naomi in his head, but staring down at the picture now, he can’t help but feel as though he’d nonetheless gotten it wrong. Naomi has a toothy grin, pointed chin, and ears that poke out just a bit too far from beneath her fair hair, which is pushed back, just long enough to curl around her earlobes. He wants to keep examining the picture, but his hands have another idea. He’s flipping back to the index—then he thumbs to page sixty.

This is very wrong.

These pages make up the section dedicated to campus clubs. In six separate places, Gansey finds the name Noah Czerny tucked into lists of names beneath group photos.

These are the photos that Gansey gets stuck on.

Because this is the same person as the person on page thirty-nine. Because it’s impossible to mistake that shock of hair, snow white in the yearbook’s greyscale. It’s impossible to mistake the wild, crooked grin—Gansey feels like he’s somehow known it for a very long time. In each photograph, it is undeniably the same person—with arms thrown around friends’ shoulders, with one hand holding someone else’s, or with legs crossed over each other, it’s all still Noah, peeking out from every picture. Gansey struggles with a wanting to understand like he’s never felt before.

He turns to page eighty-five.

Here there are articles, interviews. Blurbs with bolded sans-serif questions for titles and pictures of the featured students beside them.

We ask Freshman Leslie Walker what’s most surprised her about college!

What it’s like to be graduating! Senior Laura Bridgeman talks Masters programs.

We ask French exchange Student Étienne Durand what he’ll take away from—

Seniors Alex Bishop and Logan Peters explain why—

Junior Noah Czerny talks about his—

Gansey stares, stares, stares.

Then he sighs.

With this last piece, the puzzle seems to fall into place right before his eyes, but more than triumphant, the discovery feels nauseating. He flips between the pages, letting the realization untangle everything that had been wrong with his death until now—the lack of pictures, the lack of information in the newspaper articles. The general secrecy.

Soft footsteps approach, coming into the edge of his periphery. He flips back to page thirty-nine, needing to see it again.

“Guys,” he says, eyes wide, voice low. “I think I know what’s wrong with our ghost.”

Ronan starts to say, “What?” but Gansey is already shoving the yearbook into his hands and opening another one. The index is exactly the same pattern—one page number next to Naomi Czerny, multiple for Noah. Gansey hands this second yearbook to Adam, who just barely manages not to drop it, being so surprised by the action. Gansey flips the other two yearbooks open, and they are just the same. Noah, Noah, Noah.

“I don’t understand, Gansey, what the fuck are you trying to show us?”

He exhales heavily and pushes himself to his feet. He wordlessly flips to the index, showing Ronan the two names. Flipping to the respective pages. Pointing to the different names. Ronan’s brows knit together, on the edge of getting what Gansey’s saying but unable to connect what exactly is wrong. Adam is wearing a similar expression until a moment later something washes over his face.

Ronan still asks, “Why the—why are there two names?”

It takes a moment for Gansey to find his voice, a phenomenon rare enough that Adam and Ronan both take note of it. With care he says, “The first ones are the school pictures, right? The name put there would be whatever you’re called in the system, whatever’s on your birth certificate or whatever, yeah?” his voice is low, almost too quiet, and he’s speaking far too quickly, the nervous energy of having figured it out and simultaneously being troubled by the answer getting the best of him, “In our yearbook, next to my picture, it’ll say Richard Gansey, right? They won’t ask for my name. It’ll be on the form or in the computer or whatever. But—you know, if someone interviewed me, if I were in a club, I’d just tell them my name is Gansey. Because that’s what I go by.”

When Ronan remains silent and Adam remains still, Gansey keeps speaking.

“And, you know, if my parents didn’t like that I went by Gansey, you can bet that they would be calling me Dick to all the interviewers.” He swallows. “And this isn’t just a name, it’s—”

“Be quiet,” Ronan whispers, flipping hastily between pages.

“We had it all wrong, no wonder he wouldn’t—”

“Be quiet, Jesus.”

Gansey takes a leaden step backwards, pressing his palms against the end of the bookshelf behind him. He lets his head fall back against the wood with a dull thud. Adam is studying a picture in the yearbook he’s holding, eyes narrowed the way he does when he’s concentrating. Then he closes the book and pulls out his phone—he types something and flashes it to Ronan.

Ronan gives a dry laugh. “No, he doesn’t look anything like my picture,” he mumbles.

His mind is spinning so fast he doesn’t have it in him to wonder what Adam said. Gansey allows a few more moments to pass before saying, “Well?”

“Well,” Ronan responds, handing the book back to Gansey. “You tell me.”

Gansey curls the fingers of one hand into the fabric of his shirt; the other hand tightens around the yearbook’s spine. He has a lot of things he could say here. We have to apologize. We have to put this right. We have to help him. Eventually what he does say is, “We have to go back.”

 


 

Stop freaking out.

“I’m not freaking out.”

You are.

Gansey doesn’t reply this time. He has his backpack on his bed, various electronics spread over the comforter. He’s loaded a number of things into his backpack, only to remove them a second later. He puts one back in; takes another back out. Gansey wants to say, We have to get this right, but he thinks they understand even without his verbalizing it. He takes the ghost box out and then puts it immediately in again.

“Let’s just go, man,” Ronan says, tugging loosely at the back of Gansey’s collar.

Ronan is interested. He’s masking it, but Adam can practically feel the way Ronan’s curiosity has piqued just over the last hour. Adam almost feels inclined to tease him about it, but there’s too much of a risk that he may accidentally sabotage the thoughtful look in his eyes, the careful way he continues glancing at Gansey, the hint of a smile he keeps casting Adam’s way.

Finally, Gansey is declaring himself ready (“Should we call Blue first, why haven’t we told Blue yet? Are we forgetting anything? What if this doesn’t even work?”), and the three of them head for the chapel. The walk feels shorter than usual—they’re all caught somewhere between hopeful and determined, curious and concerned.

Ronan pushes the doors open with fingers spread against the dark wood, the hinges groaning. Tonight, Ronan doesn’t sit down right away, rather he lingers off to the side, eyes searching the shadows that shroud the room. Adam shivers, partially from the cold, partially from the slow way that Gansey walks in, shoulders rigid, jaw set.

Gansey starts to shrug off his backpack, but then he stops. “I’m sorry,” he says in a tone that makes Ronan turn his head. His voice is raised against the darkness, though he doesn’t shout. It’s a voice that begs to be heard, colored by the most genuine of emotions, flooded with a sense of purpose. Gansey continues, “I’m really sorry. We had your name wrong, didn’t we, Noah?”

The smallest of movements tugs at his shoulder, like he’d been about to finish taking off his backpack, like he hadn’t really expected his words to yield a reaction, but something makes him stop. Something makes them all freeze. It’s a flash of something by the alter, and for a second, Adam erroneously thinks it’s a figure—because, no, it’s just a trick of light. The moon through stained glass. Except when he blinks, it’s still there, and when he blinks again, it’s not.

Had the chapel been this cold when they’d come in? Adam takes a step towards Ronan.

The shape reappears. It’s definitely a human form.

It turns its head.

 “Noah?” Gansey asks softly, voicing the impossible question neither of the others could.

Then there’s someone standing in front of Gansey, an inch away, a heartbeat away. Inexistent one moment, there the next. A person who looks like a dream, like a memory, like a flash of déjà vu made corporal. More the suggestion of a person than an actual person, a lingering reflection of something that was once alive. The space before Gansey had been empty a breath ago.

Gansey stumbles backwards. The shadow of their hand reaches out and catches him around the wrist. Gansey freezes underneath the grip; the figure cocks its head to the side.

“Well, this is a first,” it says.

But it’s not an it. Because that’s the voice of a boy, the face of a person. The amused expression of a college student. He rocks from one foot to the other, looking curiously over Gansey’s motionless features and then over to Adam and Ronan. Then he laughs.

“Relax,” he says.

Shaking his head slightly, Gansey pulls himself together. “I—you’re—” Well, mostly together.

It’s Noah. Noah Czerny, the person they’d been looking for this whole time without actually knowing it.

Distantly Adam finds himself wondering if ghosts always look so much like living people. But the more he looks, the more Noah becomes something real: There’s color in his cheeks, waves in his hair, wrinkles in his clothes. Noah drops Gansey’s wrist, as though just realizing he’s still holding it.

But then he goes blurry, as though pulled out of focus. A strangled sort of noise leaves his lips. He presses three fingers to his brow. The already dim lights in the chapel flicker, just barely. “God,” Adam thinks he hears him say. Noah throws a hand out to the side and catches the arm of a pew before sinking down, forehead against the wood. He gives a pathetic laugh. “This is much harder than I—”

The lights go out and so does Noah.

“Goddamn,” Ronan says, voice flat. “Were we expecting—?”

“I’ve never seen—”

Then the lights come back on, only barely brighter than before, and there’s the shape of hunched shoulders a few pews up. No less than a minute passes in silence, the three of them able to do nothing but stare. They all see it, but Gansey is the only one who dares a step towards him again. Adam thinks if he were to move, he might fall over.

“Noah…”

His hand shoots up, palm outward. Stop. His face is covered by his other hand, even though Gansey is still well behind him. It feels like an eternity that Gansey waits there before Noah slowly raises his head and turns back towards the three of them.

This, Adam thinks, is what a ghost should look like. His eyes are gone black; a horrible shadow that’s too dark to be a bruise covers his right cheek. Adam wants to look away, to unsee the impression of skull behind skin, the horrified downturn of his lips when he realizes what he must look like.

Noah whips back around. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles.

Before Gansey can say that it’s okay, he disappears again, looking like he’s pulling his own self from existence, fingers digging into his neck one moment, gone the next.

“Let me try again.” His voice isn’t attached to any presence Adam can see.

Gansey takes a few careful steps backwards, glancing around. “You don’t have to—”

Noah shudders back into existence.

He stands where he’d been standing at first, looking once again more boy than ghost. He runs a hand over the back of his neck and then moves backwards. Only, once the motion is over, Adam can’t seem to remember if he actually took a step or not.

The silence that follows would be comical in any other situation. Four students standing in a semicircle, blinking at each other, each one not talking for reasons entirely their own.

Noah rolls his neck. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, but you guys are being a little creepy.”

It’s the sort of ironic thing that Ronan might say, but he doesn’t laugh.

“I’m sorry,” Gansey says, breathless. “I’m Gansey, and this is Ronan and Adam.” He ends with a slight raise in his voice, as though he’s unsure of whether or not introducing themselves is the correct thing to do.

A smile tugs at Noah’s lips. “I know you guys’ names.”

“God, I’m sorry—”

Noah waves a dismissive hand through the air, but then it cuts back to touch the skin just below his eye, where just a moment ago there’d been the swell of blackness, now no more than a smudge. His eyes close for the briefest of seconds. “Not your fault,” he murmurs. The edges of his hands go hazy. “I’m glad you—” He grimaces.

Adam feels like his mind is spinning in overdrive, struggling to keep up with the situation his body is in, running to process what’s before him. Because what’s happening doesn’t fit into the world Adam has been carefully building for himself. And yet, it is also the most normal thing in the universe. Nothing about what’s happening is scary, nothing about what’s happening feels like a haunting. Nothing about what is happening feels like the restless spirit of someone who was—presumably—violently murdered and denied his identity in death, denied a proper mourning or even—

Noah’s eyes fly to Adam, far more interested than a casual glance, far more intense than a simple look, as though Noah knew what he’d been thinking a moment before. Adam stares back, reconciling his thoughts with the image of the impossible boy before him. A hint of something crosses Noah’s face.

Adam lifts a hand, a feeble attempt at hello. Noah waves back, just as wordless.

Ronan’s voice cuts in, “Yeah, so how the fuck do you look like this?”

When Adam turns in the direction of Ronan’s voice, he becomes suddenly aware of Ronan’s posture—just as reserved, just as stiff as Adam imagines his own must be. He looks braced for something, as if this isn’t territory Ronan knows well. As though this isn’t something Ronan’s been involved in much longer than Adam.

Noah steps towards him (definitely a step now), and Ronan doesn’t recoil, although it definitely looks as though he might have wanted to if he were anyone else. But he holds his ground, eyes fixed resolutely to the boy who should not be able to be there. His hand moves as though to touch Ronan. Here he does withdraw, cleanly evading Noah’s touch.

 “Ronan—”

Ronan doesn’t seem to hear Gansey, though. He narrows his eyes at Noah, who is just as unaffected by Ronan as Ronan is by Gansey. This only seems to raise Ronan’s misgivings further. “How the fuck are you like this?”

It looks like Noah won’t reply. Then he shrugs, sucks his teeth, and says, “Hell if I know.”

Somehow, this is the perfect answer. Equal parts unmoved by Ronan’s hostile tone, equal parts not letting Ronan walk all over him. Ronan doesn’t respond right away, but then he gives a tiny, hint of a smile, which Noah returns. He doesn’t speak, though, and Noah takes this, seemingly as though he’d been expecting it.

Noah jerks backwards, like he’d been rewound.

“God, this is—” He shakes his hand out then covers his face, forefingers pressed to his tear ducts. All of Noah’s movements are human but just outside of natural, like a skipping CD. He shivers. “I’m sorry, I—I’m not used to—I’ve never—” The sentences cut out, not as though he’s losing track of what he’s saying, no, they end abruptly, sentences that did have ends but couldn’t be realized.

The urge to reach over and put a hand to Noah’s shoulder is an unexpected one. Adam can’t remember when the knot in his stomach went from feeling like fear to sympathy. Helplessly he glances between Gansey and Ronan—what do we do? What do we do? Gansey seems to be struggling with the same thing; he takes half a step towards Noah then stops.

“Hey, we don’t want to be trouble…”

The laugh from Noah is strangled, self-pitying. “It’s not you—” He drops his hands, and as he does so, he appears to fade. It looks like he’s letting it happen. He says, “Come back tomorrow.”

“Oka—”

“Please come back,” he whispers.

“Of course we’ll come back.” The earnestness in Gansey’s voice does not leave room for doubt.

 


 

That night, Adam lies in his bed, sleep the farthest thing from him. Every so often, he checks his phone, the dim screen reading back 11:49.

12:38.

1:53.

4:01.

Adam gets up and pulls on a pair of jeans, yanks on a sweater then a coat. When he picks up his keys, he feels a low hum of something in his chest, put there by the action of finally getting up and doing something about the question that’s been knocking around in his skull all night. The dorm is quiet, the campus is quiet, the chapel is quiet.

Only the soft patter of his sneakers against the stone floor disrupts the stillness.

Gansey speaking was enough to get Noah’s attention before. But Adam finds himself still lacking that particular skillset, even among the dead. He opens his mouth but then closes it. Slowly he makes his way up the aisle, knocking his knuckles into the pews thoughtfully.

Noah had been very perceptive to their thoughts. Very much verging on too perceptive.

He reaches out with a loud thought, Noah? Adam knows that he urgently wants to see Noah again, to confirm that he can still see him without Gansey, without Ronan—he wants to know that this involves him, even outside the others. Adam lets the desire be the only thing he’s focusing on.

Once more, he parts his lips. He feels his tongue press against the back of his teeth, forming the N, but then he’s dropping his face, shaking his head. God, he just wants to—

“Well, it is technically tomorrow.”

Adam spins and there he is, knees to his chest, curled in the corner of a pew. It’s impossible to tell if he’d been sitting there a minute ago or not, impossible to tell that he isn’t anything besides a rather pale living being. He knows he’s staring, and Noah lets him.

It’s both logical and impossible that he’s there right now. Both necessary and completely insane.

“You’re very different from them,” he says at last, voice soft but cutting through the quietness.

Adam sighs. He knows he is.

“I don’t mean that in a bad, ooh-you’ll-never-fit-in kind of way,” Noah quickly adds. “I just mean. They’ve kind of got their heads in the clouds, don’t they?” Noah rests his chin on his kneecaps, looking at Adam curiously. “You came here for something, though.”

He did come here for something, yes. It feels like he came here for a number of reasons, but now that he’s being asked for them, he can’t seem to find the words. (But he can never find the words for anything, can he? He could kick himself.) He’d wanted to see Noah again. But now that he’s here, he feels like there’s something more, an awful question with an awful answer. Because it isn’t something he can ask. There’s no way he can ask if Noah was killed for being the way he is, no way he can ask if it was friends or strangers that did it to him. He can’t ask if he’s stuck around because no one is remembering him as he was. Is it a choice? Or is he trapped here?

Adam sits down in the pew in front of Noah, turned halfway around so that he can look at him.

Noah’s curious expression has fallen into something more dejected.

Adam is pretty sure he has picked up on his unspoken questions.

“Something awful’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it, Adam?” He doesn’t ask it like he actually needs an answer. His eyes are glassy, unfocused; he stares off to the side, just past Adam. Then he sighs, drums his fingers against his leg, and turns his eyes back on Adam. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s called me Noah.”

That’s all he says before he’s gone. Adam knows he hadn’t looked away from him, but he doesn’t remember seeing him vanish, either.

He sits there for too long before returning to his room.

 


 

When Ronan goes back by himself, it’s two days later, two AM. He’d left Gansey in their room with his face in a textbook, overhead light still on, half-empty coffee mug just out of reach from his left hand.

They’d gone back to see Noah the day after, like they’d promised, and Gansey had been in full question mode, though Noah had firmly put his hands over his ears and mumbled, “No, no, no,” as soon as Gansey had tried asking how exactly he’d been killed. “That’s all anyone wants to talk about,” he’d complained weakly. And Gansey was quick to ask after easier things.

Ronan, however. Ronan had different questions. Different qualms.

“Noah, where are you?” he calls with none of the reservation of Adam’s visit.

“Here,” he responds, immediately pulling himself into view. “Before you say anything, though, I still don’t know how I’m here.”

Ronan frowns, an angled downturn of his lips that speaks of frustration.

Noah’s expression is apologetic.

“Ghosts are supposed to be orbs of light,” Ronan says, sounding like he’s retorting an argument that no one’s said. “Rifts in radio frequencies. Glitches in shitty-quality videos. Not—” He gestures.

If possible, Noah’s face only grows more sorry. “I don’t know, Ronan.”

Ronan throws his eyes another direction. His jaw tightens.

He likes Noah.

He doesn’t like what Noah represents—a forgotten kid, spurned into the afterlife. Just waiting for someone to remember him. Erased by parents, erased by the school. Somewhere between Heaven and earth. Murdered. Stuck in a half-existence.

“If it helps,” Noah offers, “I don’t like any of that, either.”

Ronan leaves.

 


 

 

Noah was all too willing to comply now that he was Noah to them. He’d remarked that he was genuinely surprised that they’d figured it out; genuinely, hilariously happy that they’d cared that much. He found it harder to stick around some days than others. And the three of them were there a lot in the days immediately following his first appearance.

(Adam tried not to think about how he died. Ronan tried not to think about how he remained.)

Because, truthfully, with their misgivings aside, it was hard to stay away. Noah found Gansey’s interest endearing, Ronan’s abruptness innocuous, Adam’s silence understandable. Everything about him begged to fit into the group, and it seemed all too fitting that one day Gansey would find himself casually hanging out with the dead.

None of them had counted on this project turning into what it had. No one had counted on Noah being something with a solid form, with a real voice, with emotions and thoughts. Gansey had never imagined that Noah would be anything like a friend. He’d been a mystery, a task.

He’d been quick to tell Adam that they hadn’t met anyone like Noah.

Adam had figured.

Gansey doesn’t go to the church by himself; he brings his friends when he does go. Noah doesn’t mention Adam’s or Ronan’s solo visits. They feel very much like personal things.

They talk a lot, though. They visit often, and they don’t talk about the things Noah doesn’t want to talk about, which includes just about everything involving the circumstances of his death. He has an expert way of avoiding such lines of questioning. That is to say, he is a little stubborn and very good at blatant deflection.

He also seems surprised every time they return. “Don’t you guys have real friends to talk to? Homework to do?” he asked once. Ronan had rolled his eyes.

Noah is something to be known. No one says it, but it feels an awful lot like they were meant to find him.

“So, can you leave the chapel?” Gansey asks one day.

It’s half-past noon; the sun is shining brightly through the colored class overhead—an unusual, different backdrop to their visits, but not an unwelcome one. They’re sitting off to the side, Gansey leaned in a corner, with Adam and Ronan sitting against the wall to his left. Noah, sitting cross legged across from them, shrugs.

“Never tried.”

“You’ve never tried?” Ronan asks, incredulous.

“I’m—afraid to try.”

“You’ve been here for how long?”

Noah just shrugs again.

“Surely nothing is stopping you, though?” Gansey asks.

“I don’t know. I don’t know, I’m sorry.”

It’s Gansey’s turn to shrug.

Adam is tired today, and he doesn’t bother trying to add to the conversation that’s mostly happening between Gansey and Noah anyway. Ronan is distracted, staring off away from all of them. Adam himself is caught up thinking about the homework he has to finish, the clutter that’s building up in his room, the call from his father that he’d ignored that morning.

So he’s surprised when suddenly Gansey and Ronan are standing—had he zoned out that much? Ronan holds a hand out to help him to his feet. Adam takes it without thought.

“Oh,” Noah says, turning around to look at the two of them like he’s just realized something. His expression is bemused.

“What?” Ronan asks, dropping Adam’s hand as soon as he’s on his feet.

Noah blinks, raises his eyebrows, and breaks into a huge grin. “Oh. Nothing.”

Ronan narrows his eyes.

With the way Noah is smiling, Adam thinks he’s missing something, but he’s pulled from the thought by the fact that he can still feel the pressure of Ronan’s hand around his.

Chapter Text

Dear Adam,

I’m glad to hear that everything is going well. Being a politics major sounds something of a nightmare to me. not “politics” itself, that’s Cool, but I imagine there are a lot of people in your classes with big mouths and stupid opinions?? Tell me if I’m wrong but. anyway! sounds interesting! You’ll have to tell me more as you take more classes. (also I’m so sorry your Latin class is at 8:00 next semester, r.i.p. you) (and ronan) (esp. you though because you’ve got to be at an 8am and deal with Ronan at that hour) (r.i.p.)

I can’t believe what’s happened with Noah. That entire thing. I won’t believe it until I see it with my own two eyes. I mean, like, I Can believe it because it’s gansey, but also. I can’t believe it. I need to call my mom and tell her about this, although I’m sure she won’t even be surprised. Or better yet, I’ll just wait until Thanksgiving break, I’ll need some exciting stories to tell at dinner

What are you doing for the break?? Going home I guess? Our place is always a huge fiasco on Thanksgiving, I don’t know how we do it. Gansey has asked if he can come every year, and every year I say hell no. he is Too Weak to survive a Fox Way Thanksgiving and those are just the facts. That’s not even considering, like… As if his family would let him not come home??? It’ll be fun to be home, though. Gansey likes to act like a wayward “the globe is my home” traveler but I know he misses his family at least sometimes. I hope your break is great, too!!

See, I agree about all that dorm stuff!! Like, yeah, my roommate, she’s totally nice, but sometimes just looking at her irritates me? for no reason? And suddenly I’ve become an 80-year old grandma who goes to bed at 9 and tidies everything up and gets annoyed at my upstairs neighbors for Walking. It’s part of the thrill, though, I guess!! It’s fun, I’m not complaining and I don’t think you are either

Also, tell me more about Ronan hanging out with you in the mailroom??? what do you even do??

Anyway, I’m currently writing this in the middle of my biology lab because my table is waiting our turn to do Whatever. I think we’re almost up, though so I’ll say goodbye! I’d like to come visit you all again soon. Perhaps at the end of the school year—our breaks are a little different.

‘til then!

Blue

P.S. I almost forgot! Henry/Newspaper Guy: there was totally nothing about GMOs in the newspaper. The other day he followed up by asking everyone about sustainable farming. we had an entire discussion about it over lunch, and as it turns out, he’s not awful, I think you all would like him


 

Adam was most certainly not going home for the Thanksgiving break, and so far he’d been lucky enough that neither Ronan nor Gansey thought to ask about it; every time the subject came up, the topic switched before they could get to Adam or someone interrupted or Adam just pretended not to hear. It was working out. Though with each passing day, he felt his luck in that department dwindling—he didn’t expect that it would stretch so far as to keep them from inquiring after his plans forever.

And indeed, it didn’t.

“They’re all coming to our house this year,” Gansey says, “We haven’t had Thanksgiving at our place in years, I can’t imagine what possessed them.” Ronan makes a vague noise of agreement, and Gansey goes on, “It was probably Helen’s idea.” They’re on the way across campus towards the chapel. The sun is low on the horizon, and Adam can sense the coming question the same way he can feel the bite of the evening air. Gansey looks over at him and, as if realizing for the first time, asks, “Adam. What will you do for break?”

It’s with great hesitation that he pulls out his phone from deep in his coat pockets. I applied to stay on campus.

“No!” Gansey is quick to say. “No, you can’t stay here!”

Well, I’m not going home, he says, forcing a half-smile.

He doesn’t even stop to think before saying, “No, you have to come home with me!”

Adam doesn’t even stop to think before replying, I couldn’t possibly

“Adam, please. I mean, I’ll have to ask my parents, but there’s no way they’d say no.”

He knows Gansey hadn’t been trying to, but Adam feels put on the spot. He can’t accept that kind of offer, he knows he can’t. If he’d been at all expecting Gansey to propose such a thing, he might’ve had an excuse ready, but now he’s just staring, fingers frozen over his screen. It suddenly takes a lot of concentration to keep his footsteps moving.

Gansey sweeps in again when Adam doesn’t say anything. “Please, Adam! It would be fun.” He’s smiling, but it falters. He touches the back of Adam’s hand. Sounding more sad than he has any right to, he continues, “Come on, you can’t stay here.”

I’ll let you know.

Gansey bites his lip and says at last, “Okay. Fair enough. I hope you come, though.”

Adam feels like he needs to reply, but again he finds himself struggling for a response. His eyes dart helplessly between Ronan and Gansey. Something like understanding flashes over Ronan’s features.

He says, “I would invite you over to our place, but I don’t want to subject you to Declan.”

“I don’t think you’re fair to him,” is Gansey’s immediate reply, and Adam is spared from coming up with anything. He throws Ronan a grateful look that he’s not sure the other sees. He shoves his hands back into his pockets.

Noah is waiting for them, perched on the back of a pew, legs swinging. “Is there a break coming up?” he questions.

“Thanksgiving,” Gansey replies. “Why?”

Noah shrugs, the motion seeming to distort his features fractionally. Then his gaze drags between Ronan and Adam, but a pointed look from Ronan makes him turn his attention back to Gansey with a smile. “You can’t really keep track of time like this, and you only hear snatches of conversations. It gets pretty disorienting. I guess it would be Thanksgiving.” He gives an airy sigh, knocking his knuckles against the wood. The noise sounds more hollow than Adam thinks it ought to.

“Okay, now that is curious, are you always here? Always conscious?”

And so goes the familiar pattern: Adam will take a spot at the end of a pew, back to the armrest, spiral notebook against his knees, backpack at his feet. Ronan will sit in the pew in front of Adam’s, half turned towards him; Gansey and Noah will sit beside them, Noah appreciating the attention, Gansey appreciating whatever information Noah can supply. Adam will do his homework, Ronan will draw and throw jokes Noah’s direction. Noah always smiles. He laughs at the things Ronan has to say, even when Gansey thinks they’re a little tasteless, even when Adam thinks they’re too dry.

Noah apologizes a lot—he wasn’t this forgetful when he was alive, he’ll say. It wasn’t so difficult to talk when he was alive. He was more interesting; more funny; more, more, more.

However, Noah is plenty happy to try to explain the technicalities of his existence to Gansey, even though he himself isn’t too invested in them. To Adam, it almost seems like Gansey’s interest puts Noah at ease. Maybe he isn’t what he was before, but Gansey’s attention makes it more bearable—and in that respect, perhaps he and Noah are quite similar.

“Ronan, what are you drawing over there?” Noah asks.

The question, broken away from whatever conversation he’d been having with Gansey, is out-of-place. Not to mention the fact that he doesn’t sound like he really needs an answer. Adam looks up from his own homework, eyes flitting Ronan’s direction. Of course, with the back of the pew between them, Adam can’t see anything, and Ronan doesn’t even look  up.

“Nothing,” he replies easily.

“It must be something.”

“You’ll never get him to tell you,” Gansey says.

“Oh, it’s okay, I don’t need him to.” Noah smiles.

Ronan looks up, “Don’t make me come over there.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Sometimes when they visit Noah, this is all it is. Banter that goes nowhere, banter that exists as though they’d known each other since time began. Off-color jokes. Gansey’s questions supplied with broken answers. It is Adam thinking an especially loud thought and Noah’s attention whipping his direction with a smile. Noah knows things he shouldn’t—about death, about Ronan, and their meetings are oftentimes a curious dance of who knows what. But then again, sometimes there are only jokes.

Yet no matter what, it is always this: Companionship. A ghost boy with a ghost heart, insubstantial body filling the gaps in their strange arrangement, just as though that were where he belonged.


 

That night, Adam catches Gansey’s sleeve before the two of them can leave him at his door. They both look at Adam curiously as Adam fumbles to pull out his phone, but then Gansey says, “Oh, did we have history homework?” And then Adam nods, so Gansey continues, “Ronan, I’ll be up in a second.”

“Sure.”

Gansey follows Adam into his empty room, and he asks, “Something up?”

Adam holds up a finger, a one second gesture. Gansey nods; Adam shuffles to his desk. He straightens a few book, puts away a few papers, busies himself while he pulls himself into the mindset to speak. Meanwhile, Gansey takes a spot at the edge of his bed, waiting patiently. And finally Adam gives a sigh, pulls his chair out, and sits down. He looks over at Gansey and says, “I can’t go to your house.”

“Why not?”

Adam struggles for an answer in a way that has nothing to do with his usual inability to speak. He gives a defeated noise and mutters, “It’s sad, isn’t it? That I haven’t got a family to go home to. That’s all they’ll be thinking about.”

“Sad! It isn’t sad, Adam, it’s—” He waves a hand through the air searchingly, “It’s strong. That’s what they’ll be thinking—that you’re terribly impressive. Putting yourself through college, getting yourself here, getting away from people who put you down. They’ll love you, Adam, they won’t think you’re sad for even a moment.”

Adam closes his eyes.

“They don’t need to know anything about your family if you don’t want them to. I can tell them that your family’s vacationing in the Bahamas or something if you want, but… Adam…”

He opens his eyes but doesn’t raise them to Gansey just yet.

“I’d like it if you could come. If it’s going to make you uncomfortable, you don’t have to. Of course. But let me help.” Then he adds weakly, “It’ll be fun.”

Adam rubs his eyes—thinking, considering, digging up bravery from wherever he’d hidden it. It wouldn’t be a disaster, he thinks. He’s dealt with people’s whispers for a long time by now.

And it’s Gansey. Just Gansey.

It still feels like too much, like the offer is too big, too kind, too unable to be repaid.

It’s only Gansey.

Adam drags a hand over his mouth and then clasps his palms together in his lap. Across the room, Gansey is trying very hard not to look expectant—Adam thinks he appreciates that. “I’d like to come,” he says, the words feeling very heavy on his tongue. “I would. If it’s really okay with your family.”

Gansey lights up. “Of course! Of course it absolutely will be, they’ll—Adam, they’ll love you.”

“Don’t say that,” he responds, returning his smile feebly.

“Fine, it will be a very neutral event, and they won’t feel either way about you. But we’ll have fun. You know, Blue never lets me visit her for Thanksgiving, so we’ll just have to make our break better than whatever it is she’s off doing, right?”

“I think we can do that.” His voice is thin, and he once again drops his gaze to his hands. Just a moment later he looks up again and mouths, Thank you.


 

Adam could back out. He would be lying if he said he didn’t consider it.

But he doesn’t.

It had been less than a week until the break anyway—he only had to deal with the nervousness for a few days.

It won’t be a big deal.

Friends can go over to each other’s houses on Thanksgiving. That’s normal.

He mostly tries not to think about it; Gansey’s home life is a distant sort of mystery, and it wouldn’t do any good to speculate.

They’ve almost made it to the break, which starts on a Wednesday, they’ve almost made it—it’s Monday night, although technically it’s Tuesday, half past midnight. Adam is curled into the corner of his bed in his too-long sweat pants and orange hoodie when his phone starts buzzing. A telephone call always has mixed implications, and so he sets his book down, a prickle of anxiety in his throat as he leans over to grab his phone off the windowsill.

Ronan Lynch.

With a frown (that contrasts with the feeling of relief the name brought with it), Adam accepts the call and holds it to his ear. For a long moment, there’s only emptiness over the line, and then there’s rustling and Ronan mumbles, “Parrish?”

He opens his mouth, but he only has an instant to be frustrated at the silence before Ronan continues.

“Parrish, I’m so fucking—listen, I can’t—Are you there—? Oh God, fucking shit, you can’t talk. I’m—” It sounds like he might have said something, but it comes across as more incoherent mumbling. “Listen, ‘m fucked, I’m…”

Adam pulls the phone from his ear. He doesn’t disconnect the call, but he does send a text and merely hopes that Ronan will notice it. Are you okay? Where are you?

A beat later, a dull sort of thump comes through the line. Ronan gives a low sigh. “I’m fucked, I’m fucked, I fucked up, but he deserved it and I—fuck.” More rustling. “I’m okay. I’m okay, I’m just—fucked.”

Where are you? Adam sends again. Now he’s pushing himself to his feet, already padding across the room to tug on his shoes.

“I’m just—in the goddamn bathroom, I’m just—here.”

In the dorm?

The line disconnects. Adam sighs. He dials again. No answer.

Immediately he heads up to their floor, the memory of the sound of Ronan’s slurred words enough of a motivator for him to take the stairs a little faster than he might’ve done ordinarily. And when he pushes open the door to the bathroom closest to their room, he gives a weak exhale upon seeing the shadow underneath the farthest stall.

The stall door isn’t even locked, so luckily there’s no one else in the room to see Ronan with his back against the cement block wall, sneakers against the stall wall, handle of vodka on the floor beside him. He peers up at Adam when he walks in—his smile isn’t quite welcoming.

Accepting the situation for whatever it is, Adam drops down cross-legged, sitting facing him; the door bumps into his back, and Adam waves his hand as if to ask what’s up. Ronan doesn’t acknowledge the question—rather he looks pointedly away from Adam, an all-too-obvious deflection. He takes a swig from the bottle and then makes a face.

“I hate vodka,” he says, back of his skull dropping back against the wall. His gaze falls on Adam, eyelids heavy.

Adam challenges the statement by taking note of how nearly empty the bottle is, distantly wondering how full it had been whenever this started.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Ronan mumbles, scrubbing a hand across his face.

What’s happened?

Ronan stares at the screen long enough that he must have read it, could have read it eighteen times even under the influence, but he doesn’t answer. He brings the bottle back to his lips. Adam backspaces. He probably should have guessed that that wasn’t the best question to start with, anyway. Then he rearranges himself, scooting forward, facing Ronan with his back against the wall beside his feet. They must look comical, Adam thinks—two fully-grown guys on the floor of the bathroom, sharing the cramped space of an already-tiny stall. One of them simmering, brooding; the other just going along with the ridiculous situation, even not knowing what it’s about.

Adam sighs. He goes back to an earlier question. Are you okay?

Ronan doesn’t seem to notice, eyes fixed on the floor.

Lightly Adam puts a hand to Ronan’s ankle; his eyes flick up.

Once again, he looks at the screen too long. There’s time to have read it five times, then ten, then twenty. Then he says, “Yeah.” And he looks away, lips turned down in a snarl. Without warning, he swings his gaze back towards Adam, one hand raised, “I just think,” he gives a piercing laugh, “Declan needs to mind his own goddamn business. You’re lucky you don’t have an older brother, Parrish, because let me fuckin’ tell you—” He points towards Adam, gesturing loosely, before closing his hand into a fist and bringing it heavily back against the wall. “Fuck.” He takes another sip, takes another hit at the wall. “Answer a phone call from him one time and he thinks he can tell me what to do? Fuck him.”

Adam gives a pained, sympathetic sort of smile, an attempt at I’m sorry.

“You know, ‘cause he wanted so bad for me to go to college, okay? He acted like, like, it would be the end of this entire shitty world if I didn’t, so I said whatever. Fuck. I’ll apply to your stupid college. I’ll go get a fuckin’ bachelor’s degree if that will end the ordeal. Fine. Whatever. Thought that would be enough. But no. Now—fuckin’, now, he’s taking shit with my major? What the actual—like, it’s not enough that I’m here, now he thinks I ought to be studying chemistry or economics or some shit, what the fuck? Why does he think—?” Ronan shakes his head. “No, I don’t know.”

His fist meets the wall again. Then he covers his face with his hands, fingers pressing heavily into his eyelids.

“What a fuckin’—Gansey is going to kill me. I mean—God, no, any normal person would kill me, Gansey’s going to do his quiet, silently disappointed thing, and I’m just—” His voice disintegrates into muttering as the sentence goes on, and then he drops his hands.

Adam doesn’t quite see the relation between an argument with Declan and Gansey killing him, and something on his face must give it away, because then Ronan gives a derisive laugh and continues:

“I definitely cannot go home. There’s no fucken way I’m going home Wednesday. Declan has another thing coming if he thinks he can be a shithead and I’ll still drive all that way just to see him, no way.”

Adam pulls out his phone to tell him that he has to go, that—

“No, no, no, I already know what you’re gonna say, and the answer is No, I do not have to go. Someone has to tell him to fuck off sometimes, and God help me, no one else is gonna do it.”

What about Matthew?

“What about him?”

The abrupt response takes Adam aback, and he fumbles for how to reply.

Then his voice drops significantly, “He’ll be fine.”

Adam wants to insist that he should call Declan back, that he should work it out before Thanksgiving for the sake of his younger brother, for the sake of the holiday itself, something—rather, Adam thinks that’s what he ought to want. Instead, he finds Ronan’s anger more than relatable, more than understandable. He nods and then says, I won’t let Gansey kill you about it.

And that’s how the three of them find themselves in Gansey’s Camaro on the way to D.C. that Wednesday. Adam had helped Ronan back to his room, where Gansey had been anxiously worrying over Ronan’s whereabouts, and he’d been relieved for all of half a second before noticing the state he was in, the way Adam was clutching at his forearm to hold him steady. Before Ronan could go off, though, Adam had already typed out an explanation and a request that Gansey try not to be too angry. So Gansey had merely sighed and said that he’d ask his mom if Ronan could come, too.

Gansey is doing a good job of holding back his irritation with Ronan. He’s used to it, he insists; this isn’t even as bad as it is sometimes, he goes on. He’s fine with it. Having friends over for Thanksgiving is fun, the more the merrier. He hates the way Ronan argues with Declan, but they know that already, and so he refrains from saying it again.

He’s smiling now, though, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, and Ronan is at least not frowning. Truthfully, he hadn’t been overjoyed at the idea of going over to Gansey’s house either, but Gansey insisted that if he couldn’t let Adam stay at school by himself then he couldn’t let Ronan stay. And Adam had been quick to request that he come with them as well, and Ronan had given in pretty quickly after that.

It’s late in the day, not quite afternoon, not quite evening. The landscape is shifting—fewer wide open spaces, more trees, more buildings, more cars on the road. Long stretches of highway turn into twisting drives through hills dotted with houses nicer than anyone would even consider building within ten miles of Adam’s home town. He tries not to look interested as he peers out the window, tries not to feel like this is a city where he is inherently out of place.

The car slows as they make a turn into a residential neighborhood, and then Gansey turns down the radio and says, “My family is a little much. Fair warning.”

“Your family is vanilla as fuck.”

“Ronan, please. Are you going to be agreeable?”

“Yes, Mom.”

Gansey looks unconvinced, but he doesn’t push it. He continues chattering on until they get to his house, but mostly it goes over Adam’s head. There’s an unduly nervousness in his stomach—at one point in his life, he’d been good at meeting new people. He’d always been a kind face, if not a memorable one.

These days it’s harder.

He tries to remain calm in the whirlwind that comes with meeting the Ganseys. For the entirety of one whole minute, everything had been under control—they’d been more interested in their son, their brother; in Ronan, whom they already knew. They’d questioned about the drive, about the traffic, about the last day of school—before turning to Adam.

Adam thinks he handled it well.

The Ganseys are all obviously related in a way that takes a little bit of squinting—they manage to look alike and yet still be entirely their own person, their own air, their own aura. And they are a little much—not in the way that they are overbearing or loud, in the way that they have personalities that are okay to be known, pasts that do not contain dirty secrets or meagre upbringings. The way they live is the way they have always lived, and it reads in their faces, their gestures, their speech. They present their whole selves.

It’s something that’s never been an issue just being around Gansey, but with his family, suddenly, abruptly, for a few hours after a long car ride—

Well. It’s a little much.

And when at last Mrs. Gansey is insisting that they leave the boys alone for the night, Adam tries not to feel too guilty for breathing a silent sigh of relief. His family disappears into their respective parts of the house, and the three of them go upstairs. Ronan and Adam throw their stuff into a guest bedroom, Gansey orders pizza, and they settle down in a room that seems to have no other purpose than just to take up space. 

Adam catches his breath.

It can’t be past nine when Gansey—lying on a couch with his arms wrapped around a pillow—says, “I hope Noah isn’t lonely. I wish we could have brought him, too. It’s sad that he’s alone on Thanksgiving.”

“He didn’t even know it was Thanksgiving.”

“Still.”

In the half-dark room, the television is on, but low enough that they can’t really hear it. No one says anything else, though, and apparently Ronan and Adam were looking at the screen for just long enough for Gansey to close his eyes. When he notices, Adam almost laughs. And he thought he’d been tired. Adam nudges Ronan’s elbow, gesturing to Gansey with his slightly open mouth, arms still hugging the throw-pillow.

“Hey, Dick,” Ronan whispers. No response. Then he looks to Adam, “We could draw on his face?”

Adam grins but shakes his head definitively.

Ronan makes a face then shrugs. “Fine, fine. What to do, then?”

Now it’s Adam’s turn to shrug.

Throughout the evening, Ronan had been periodically changing the channel, seemingly without purpose, and now he picks up the remote to change it to something else. It takes a few minutes of aimless searching before Ronan stops on a movie, which seems to have just begun. He throws Adam a questioning look, which Adam responds to with a gesture just vague enough to mean I don’t care. Ronan gives his own wordless response, a sort of exasperated look. He tosses the remote onto the coffee table, between the discarded pizza boxes and empty glasses, and sinks back into the couch.

The movie catches Adam’s attention for a good while because he realizes it’s a film a lot of his friends had been talking about in high school, one he had never found the opportunity to see. Because he’s trying to pick apart what about it his classmates liked so much, he’s slow to notice that Ronan’s attention isn’t quite as devoted to the screen. Though when out of the corner of his eye he does notice his eyes turned Adam’s direction, he doesn’t immediately react.

Because Ronan’s gaze isn’t exactly unknown territory. Really, it’s hardly anything remarkable with how often Adam does notice it.

But tonight Adam turns his head, meeting it. It must be something about the darkness of the room, the distance from their normal lives at school that makes them not flinch away from the deliberateness of such an action.

Adam tries to imagine that accepting the weight of the way he’s staring at him doesn’t have consequences, tries to imagine that the intensity in Ronan’s eyes doesn’t need an outlet or a resolution. He tries to imagine that he is deserving of the implications of being looked at in such a way.

Adam drops his eyes.


 

The next morning, Adam wakes up later than he’d meant to—it’s only just after nine, but he’d had every intention of seeing if anyone needed any help. When he rolls over and sits up, though, Ronan is still in his bed on the opposite side of the room, so there’s that at least. Adam gets ready as quickly and quietly as he can manage, and muffled noises of cooking reach his ears as he drifts between the bathroom and the guest bedroom. After a bit, he nudges Ronan awake, and rather than the scowl he’d been expecting, Ronan looks blearily up at him, almost dazed. Adam arches an eyebrow.

Flatly Ronan says, “Good morning.”

Adam gives a nod to return it.

It feels almost comical—for a second they’re just looking at each other with none of the significance of the night previous. It’s just sleepiness. Just the murkiness of morning. Just the fact that Adam is standing beside his bed in a button-up, collared shirt, and Ronan is lying there, half-awake and half-dressed. Adam knocks his hand against his elbow, breaking the moment, and then he says, I’ll be downstairs.

Ronan blinks. Nods. “Okay.”

Despite the cautious way Adam moves about the house, the moment he steps around the corner to the kitchen, Gansey cries, “Adam!” He’s sitting on the kitchen counter, looking awfully in the way, and the way he’s grinning almost makes Adam feel self-conscious. He mouths a Hey in return. “Sleep okay?”

Adam nods. Initially, he’d been hesitant to step into the kitchen, not wanting to get in anyone’s way, but truthfully there’s a lot less cooking going on than the first glance would lead one to believe. All four Ganseys are in there—though Mr. Gansey mostly just seems to be compulsively checking the turkey in the oven, Helen is devoting a lot of attention to what appears to be one single pie, and Mrs. Gansey looks to be generally fussing over details most people wouldn’t think to notice. And Gansey is keeping to himself doing nothing, unless you count swinging his feet as doing something.

So Adam takes a spot near Gansey, who goes on to ask if Ronan is up yet.

I woke him up, though there’s no saying if he’s actually out of bed.

“Well, that’s about all that can be done.”

I stopped him from drawing on your face last night.

Gansey laughs. “Oh, there’s something to be thankful for. Thank you.”

If you fall asleep like that again, however

“I’ll know the culprits.”

Adam grins.

While they’re there, Gansey’s idle conversation is enough to keep the rest of his family somewhat separate from them. His parents occasionally try to toss questions Adam’s way, though the art of talking to Adam is a skill that requires some practice to make comfortable, and so mostly they are good-natured but unsuccessful attempts. Helen is a little better at it; she’s content to speak in longer strings and react to mere body language. Mostly, however, they stick to themselves, leaving Adam merely to watch.

This he doesn’t mind one bit, especially once Ronan’s downstairs, as well. And then the aunts and uncles and cousins start showing up, and Adam finds himself even more content to observe.

These are not the family dynamics that Adam is familiar with.

Standing off to the side with Ronan, Adam catches note of every soft touch, every easy compliment, every grin at the mere sight of someone. Gansey likes to make a big deal of being unlike his family (and perhaps he is), but it doesn’t stop him from hugging the cousin he hadn’t seen since last Thanksgiving, letting his grandma hand him her purse to put away, calling his mother to tell her that her brother was here. How easily they fit together. How clean a picture they all are.

Adam doesn’t know what to name the pang in his chest. It’s not jealousy. It’s not even wanting.

It’s just an aching sort of wonder, the sort that comes with visiting churches you don’t belong to, hearing poetry in a language you don’t speak. That is to say, it is the sensation of encountering something you knew existed but, up until that point, had never experienced.

The house doesn’t feel crowded, despite how full everything is. To Adam it feels too much like cliché to say that it feels full of love, but there is certainly an abundance of something. Something that could easily overwhelm Adam if it were in any other form, any other emotion. But it’s only joviality. It’s company. It’s smiling when you pass the carrots.

And what’s more, this same kindness is afforded to Adam. As though he were somehow deserving of it, he’s included along with Ronan. As though they shared blood. As though they had anything in common.

The Parrishes had celebrated Thanksgiving. And it wasn’t like it had been some miserable, grey affair, but certainly Adam hadn’t realized it could be this much more. And certainly he knew he had a skewed perception of family. He always knew. But the degree thereof seems to constantly grow; just how badly it’d been twisted is ever questionable, ever up for debate. Perhaps one day he’ll have a final answer.

One day, this could be his normal.

And all the while that Adam is watching the Ganseys, Ronan is watching Adam. Because the kid is all wide eyes—figuratively, of course. He’s a natural at blending in, schooling his expressions; Ronan doesn’t know that anyone else is picking up on it. In a distant, selfish part of his brain, Ronan wants to imagine that it’s some kind of prowess on Ronan’s end that he even noticed—that perhaps he understands Adam; perhaps he cares about him in a deeper, more inherent way; perhaps he is more attentive towards Adam than the others. Maybe it’s a little of that. But more than anything, it just happens to be that Ronan possesses a better drunk memory than a lot of people, as well as a keenly tuned ability to put pieces together.

Adam hovers close to Ronan, and he watches the Ganseys like he’s viewing an art installation. This, paired with the hazy recollection of Adam nodding in a dark, too-loud room—well, no wonder a family like this is so fascinating.

Ronan himself is begrudgingly fond of the energy in the house.

It feels too similar to something he’d already known.

Not entirely the same, though. Definitely not the same. Ronan has a feeling that the Thanksgivings he grew up with are a definitive, unsalvageable thing of the past. And maybe that was why he’d been so quick to tear into Declan. So willing to fight. Some days Ronan is more willing to face his demons than others.

But Ronan isn’t one for introspection.

He passes the day easily, eyes on Adam more than he has any right, more than the other notices. Every so often, Ronan leans over to quietly make fun of something one of Gansey’s relatives has said. Every so often, Adam passes Ronan his phone beneath the table, a dry comment typed across the screen. Every so often, Gansey notices these exchanges from across the table and throws the two of them a pained sort of smile. They only grin back.

Once, Ronan gets up to get another drink from the kitchen—he knocks Adam’s shoulder in a purposeful way. Adam quickly follows. As it turns out, the impression Ronan wanted to do of Gansey’s grandfather just demanded a volume higher than that of a tableside whisper. Adam’s responding laughter is the quiet sort; he shoves Ronan’s arm, mouthing Stop through a grin. If anything, this only seems to encourage him. Adam returns to the table biting down a smile, Ronan tailing him half a minute later.

Gansey doesn’t get the opportunity to talk to them much—it’s almost ridiculous, since he begged both of them to come, but every time he tries to apologize they wave it off.

The day is over almost too quickly.

“I hope that wasn’t miserable for you,” Gansey says late that evening, once most everyone had left. A few people are still lingering downstairs in the living room, drinking wine and talking about whatever else they deemed unsuitable for the children. (Helen loved to refer to them as children, despite her being only a few years older than them. This amused Adam and bothered Gansey.) The two of them are in Gansey’s room now, sitting on the edge of his bed, while Ronan had gone off to shower.

Adam shakes his head meaningfully. Definitely not. Thank you for inviting me.

“Oh please. If anyone needs to be thanking me for that, it’s Ronan, not you.”

I’m glad Ronan came, though.

“I know, me too. Then I wasn’t completely abandoning you all day.” He makes a face. “Sorry.”

Briefly, Adam parts his lips, though to no effect. It’s really okay! Ronan was plenty of company.

A beat of silence passes, long enough that Adam knows the subject has changed slightly when Gansey asks, “Everything okay?”

Again he opens his mouth. “I think—” For a moment he pauses, touching his fingers to his lips. “It’s not you. I think it’s—it’s because we’re away from school. It’s harder.”

“That’s fine.”

Adam frowns, though, worrying at the cuff of his sleeve. “I just—” He doesn’t need to finish the sentence. The damaged tone conveys well enough what he’s thinking. He sighs. But then he goes on to say, “Ronan,” which confuses the matter.

Gansey quirks his head slightly. “Hm?”

“I mean he’s—” Adam has to close his eyes, squeeze them shut. He drops his elbows to his knees, pushing his fingers back through his hair. “I think I—” He isn’t sure what it is that he thinks, though. “I wish I could… I wish things were different.” He finishes lamely, because it’s not what he meant to say, even if it is true enough.

“No one expects you to talk before you’re ready.”

Adam only hums in response, a neutral answer that doesn’t rebuke or accept what he’s said.

“Or is there something else?”

This makes Adam look quickly to him, surprised. He wrings his hands. “I don’t know. Maybe.” Then he bites his lip. “Yes. Probably.”

Gansey gives him a meaningful look but doesn’t ask him to elaborate, and thank God, because Adam doesn’t know that he could. Yes, there’s something; no, he doesn’t know exactly what it is. It feels like a huge enough step that he’s admitted to its existence. Naming it would have to wait.

Naming it would require a courage that Adam is only just now grasping at.

They talk only a little more after that, and eventually Adam excuses himself on account of being tired. Gansey practically shoos him out as soon as he’s mentioned this, ordering him off to bed. When Adam opens the door to the guest room, he finds Ronan lying on his side on top of the covers, phone to his ear. Adam starts to make a face at him, but Ronan immediately narrows his eyes, a preemptive dismissal of whatever surprise the odd situation could cause Adam.

It sounds like the end of a conversation, though Adam does his best not to eavesdrop. He’s playing on his own phone, though after just a few minutes he hears, “Okay, well, I am sorry, but Declan can go fuck himself,” and he says it in a perfectly pleasant tone. Then he sighs, “No, sorry. My bad. Listen, I gotta go, though. Yeah, sure. Sure. Sure. Yes. Okay. Bye, kid.”

Ronan hangs up and pushes himself half-sitting. Adam looks over. He flashes his phone, Matthew? It’s really just too far to be easily read.

Ronan squints across the room, nods, and then he starts to get up.

Quickly Adam shakes his hand, trying to communicate that Ronan doesn’t need to move just for him, and Ronan just scoffs at the gesture.

“No, I’m coming to talk to you.”

Adam is sitting at the head of his bed, legs crossed, and so Ronan sits across from him, also folding his legs. Though he didn’t want him to have to exert effort on his behalf, he appreciates the gesture. Adam asks, How is he?

“Fine,” Ronan replies, sounding like there’s more to it but not like he’s going to go into it without some prodding.

What did they do for the day?

It almost seems like Ronan won’t answer, but he does. He tells Adam about what Matthew had told him, tells him about how Matthew said they missed him, how Ronan doesn’t really believe that for a minute. Adam tries to say that he’s sure they did, but Ronan just makes a vague noise. He tells Adam the stupid joke that Matthew told him. Tells Adam about the lame story Declan apparently told Matthew.

It seems to Adam like they’re not talking for long at all, but eventually the lengthy day starts to catch up to him. It’s already nearing eleven—they stand and go to brush their teeth, Adam changes into clothes to sleep in. Adam returns to the room first, and as he’s pulling back the blankets, Ronan steps in. He asks if he should turn off the lights. Adam shrugs, nods.

But he’s only just sat down when he shines the screen back into the darkness. Ronan?

“Yeah?” he asks, hesitating at the center of the room.

Are you glad you came here? Adam asks it because he couldn’t pick it out from the things he’d said, because he needed to know. Ronan was so good with fronts that Adam found it hard to parse out what was real sometimes. He hadn’t sounded sad to have not gone home, but it wasn’t like he sounded happy either. They’d talked extensively about his conversation with Matthew, and yet Adam didn’t yet have an answer to that question.

Ronan shifts his weight between his feet and then he sits down on Adam’s bed once again, one knee bent in front of him, the other off the edge of the mattress. Adam had let the hand holding his phone fall back to the bed, and Ronan reaches over now to turn it towards him.

Yes, he types. I am glad.

Adam’s mouth suddenly feels dry. Ronan’s typed words stare back at him, a bright light cutting through the darkness of the room, some kind of unnamable kindness.

Ronan picks up on Adam’s hesitation (it would be hard not to) and quickly adds, Is it okay if we talk like this?

Of course, Adam says, chest full. He swallows and continues, going back to the original conversation, You miss him, though? Matthew?

Of course. Sure.

And Declan?

Maybe occasionally. In the small light of the screen, Ronan gives a resenting hint of a smile.

Why do you fight so much?

He’s an asshole?

Come on, ronan

He shrugs weakly. I don’t know.

Sitting like this, talking like this, spinning the phone back and forth between them on the bedspread, it feels almost natural. Adam had been tired before, but this interaction feels loaded, pulling at his senses in an extremely tangible way. He is very awake. And how could he not be? They talk of the day, of easy memories, of what they’ll do tomorrow. They talk of the ride back; maybe this time they’ll get Gansey to change the radio station? It’s like this that Adam forgets his lost voice.

The question that changes the tone comes abruptly, after a pause, out of place in their light conversation. Can I ask you a question? Ronan asks.

Adam stares at the words for a little too long. But he trusts Ronan. Sure.

You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.

Okay

The room is very quiet, only the dull thud of fingers on a screen breaking it. And with the lights off, everything about their situation feels very close. Ronan is very close to him. Ronan is speaking the way Adam does. And asking permission to ask a question feels like intimate territory, like this is something that has the potential to be very dangerous. Or, perhaps, something that has the potential to bring everything even closer.

Ronan is holding the phone for a long time, and when at last he sets it on the bedspread, turned towards Adam, there’s a lot of words.

My family is kind of fucked. I told you my dad’s dead—Here Adam swallows. This was the conversation he’d hoped Ronan wouldn’t remember, and suddenly he thinks he knows where this is going. Somehow, it doesn’t scare him. And you don’t have to tell me anything, but… Fuck, Gansey’s family is nothing like mine ever was. Certainly not like it ever will be now. The way you were looking at them down there, it looked like you might say the same thing

Adam considers before replying. Yes. I would.

Again, Ronan takes a long time to respond. Something about his body language is off, different from the way Adam’s ever seen him. It’s careful. Fidgety. But not in a nervous sort of way, almost like—Adam doesn’t want to think it. The way he’s biting his lower lip, furling and unfurling his fingers, letting his eyes close… It looks like he’s angry. Angry for Adam. He’s holding his phone tightly, hesitating over the keyboard. With the way Ronan is acting, he’s already half-figured it out. With the way Ronan is acting, Adam knows this is a safe place to trust his past. The unedited, unpretty version of it.

Carefully, Adam pries the phone from his hands and begins writing.

It’s not like it’s a secret.

Though it had never been willingly given information before.

Adam hands it over, wall of text screaming off the screen. But he lets Ronan take it, lets Ronan’s hand brush his as the phone leaves his fingers.

And as they sit there in the silence, nothing changes. Ronan is still but a half a foot away from him, still breathing the same air as him. When Ronan looks up at him, they’re still the same eyes that had been glancing his way yesterday afternoon, yesterday evening, this very morning. Knowing or not knowing, Ronan Lynch is someone who looks at him like no one else up to this point ever had, and that has to mean something. Adam has to believe that that means something.

So he gives him his words, written though they are.

Because if Gansey had been the one to neutralize the self-destructive weapons of Adam’s words, if Gansey had been the one who could stop Adam from hurting himself, Ronan was the one who could rearm them in the opposite direction, the one who could teach Adam to defend himself.

And so, in a way, it’s a bit like a trade. One tragic backstory for one fiery gaze.

Ronan looks at him, and Adam looks back.

Chapter Text

The problem with group studying is that you never actually get any studying done. This is especially true when Ronan Lynch is part of your study group. It isn’t that he even tries to be disruptive, it’s just that certain natures don’t lend themselves to certain situations. And when Ronan is around his friends, you can bet he isn’t going to be reading back through art history Powerpoints. Presently, he and Noah are playing some sort of game involving the chapel aisle and a bouncy ball, some sort of game, the rules to which neither of the other two could follow or fathom. Ronan and Noah seemed to be perfectly aware, though, as they are slinging and catching the ball with a precision that doesn’t seem possible. Ronan keeps arguing that Noah is cheating, as the rules of gravity don’t specifically apply to him, but Noah argues back that it takes him more energy to exist in the first place, so it balances out. This seems to fit into whatever guidelines their bouncy-ball sport has, and Ronan concedes.

Adam really is trying to study there with Gansey. The two of them brought their books and notes, and they were rather comfortable in the back corner of the church, but no matter how much they want to pass their finals, the spectacle going on before them is ever just the slightest bit more interesting. And besides, every time Adam does look back down at his book, there’s a bookmark staring back at him. It’s a piece of heavy, bright yellow construction paper with the words FUCK IT UP, PARRISH lettered onto it in loopy but sharp calligraphy. Somehow, Ronan had managed to make this vaguely vulgar encouragement look more elegant than Adam could have thought possible. It feels too much like a metaphor for Ronan himself, and that’s really rather distracting.

Group studying is really rather distracting in and of itself.

But they keep trying it.

They go different places—the library, the Starbucks down the road, Adam’s dorm room, Gansey’s and Ronan’s dorm room, the caf, back to the chapel. None of them work any better than the others—though at least in the chapel Noah helps then with biology sometimes, and in the library, Ronan is actually forced to be quiet. Other than that, somehow they always end up diverted and finish studying alone in their rooms afterwards, anyway.  

The most unsuccessful times are when it’s just Adam and Ronan. Both of them know going into it that there’s no way they’re going to be looking over Latin 210 adjective declination, but they bring along their backpacks and textbooks, even so. Wherever it is that they meet up, they open their notes and look at them for all of two, maybe four seconds. Then Ronan will say, “Parrish,” with a curious glint in his eye, and that’s the end of the façade.

“You’ll never guess what I’ve discovered,” he says one day after an aborted attempt at studying in the common room of their dorm as they’re walking aimlessly across the campus. Or rather, Adam is blindly following Ronan, who might have a goal in mind, but Adam isn’t aware of it.

What?

Ronan doesn’t answer, only throws him a grin that suggests some sort of trouble.

The smile is only the first sign of this. The second sign of trouble is that Ronan leads them into the library, a place he would never peacefully go of his own volition. He offers no explanation as he climbs up the stairs to the upper floor, not until they’re standing in front of a utility door labeled Roof. There is very clearly a sleek little pin pad beside it, and Adam looks unimpressed.

But then Ronan starts punching in a number, and Adam raises an eyebrow.

“Got it from an upperclassman in bio this morning.” There’s a tri-toned beeping and then Ronan pulls the door open with a triumphant look on his face. “Wasn’t sure it was actually going to work. Good thing, though, that would have been embarrassing.” He gestures extravagantly into the doorway. “After you.”

Adam only hesitates for a split second before entering the dim stairwell. At the top is another door, though this one doesn’t lock. The hinges creak, and the bottom scrapes the ground as he pushes it open. Ronan is behind him in an instant, nudging him in the shoulder.

“Come on then, let’s explore.”

Though there isn’t much to explore. It’s just a flat expanse of concrete, a few old bottles and cigarette butts littering the corners, evidence of the idea that this place is perhaps sometimes more interesting than this. Ronan surveys it appreciatively, nevertheless. After a moment, he tosses his backpack down, along the back of the building, and then he sits on the edge.

It doesn’t take long for Adam to piece together what Ronan has in mind—he pulls out a binder full of heavy paper (probably nicked from the art room), grins Adam’s direction, and then begins carefully folding one of the sheets. Amused, Adam waits while he works. And he doesn’t have to wait long.

“Ta da,” Ronan announces, paper airplane between his fingers.

We broke onto a roof to make paper airplanes?

“Do you have a better plan?” he returns, feigning offense. “What better place?”

I mean… it’s a little chilly. But he smiles thinly and accepts the sheet of paper that Ronan shoves his way.

Then Ronan stands, plane poised to be thrown. “You ready for this, Parrish?”

He nods.

Really, Adam hadn’t been expecting much, but it still feels a little disappointing when it only flies for a few yards, plummeting the whole way, before striking the expanse of brown lawn below. Ronan makes a thoughtful noise and dully announces, “It needs refining.”

And then that’s what they do. Apparently, Ronan had been watching YouTube videos on how to make fancy paper airplanes all afternoon during his art history lecture, and now he is pretty serious about mastering the skill, at least for the foreseeable future.

They take turns launching their tiny airplanes from the edge of the roof, trying to gage progress based on how far they go in comparison to the already-crashed aircraft. Every so often, Ronan runs downstairs to collect them from the ground, bringing them back for modification or disposal. And they keep it up for a spectacularly long time—homework is a distant thing, after all. What’s present are Ronan’s colorful swears when a plane sinks faster than he’d expected; Adam’s laughter when a well-timed gust of wind carries his way farther than it ought to have been able to go; the two of them making absurd bets as to whose will be best and grinning when, Well, Ronan, I guess now you have to do my laundry for a semester.

Diligently they work, devoting more attention to carefully creased edges than they’ve ever given their Latin homework. Ronan watches all of Adam’s work with a keen eye—his hands are steady, even in the cold. Even despite his initial wariness, he’s now just as into the task as Ronan is.

“Hey, is that Dick?” Ronan asks, squinting across the way. “Tell him to get his ass over here.”

Indeed, the smudge of pink seems to match the shirt he’d been in this morning, and Adam extracts his phone from his pocket. Hey, come to the library.

The response is immediate. Why???

Adam debates his answer. We’re studying

No youre not. But they see him moving their direction anyway.

Ronan had been about to throw another, but he waits on Gansey’s approaching form. Once he’s near enough, he crouches, peering over the plane as though there were a periscope mounted on top, and then he launches it cleanly to the ground below. It sails remarkably close to its target, striking the ground just a yard or two from Gansey, who jumps and suddenly seems very aware of the other paper dotting the ground; his eyes fly upwards.

“Ronan?” he calls, voice thick with disbelief.

Then Adam sidles up beside him, arm brushing Ronan’s, and aims his own plane below. Gansey actually has to sidestep this one to avoid being hit. Adam makes a face—so does Ronan.

“That was a good one.”

Gansey is unjustifiably confused by the situation. “Adam? What are you—?”

“Come on up!” Ronan shouts.

Gansey does come on up, after gathering the fallen planes from the ground, though once he’s with them, he’s really no fun.

“Someone could find us! You’re literally throwing things off the roof! Has no one said anything?”

Ronan makes an unconcerned noise, “Everyone else who came by liked it,” and then he tosses a plane that strikes Gansey flat in the temple. He and Adam knock fists; Gansey looks flustered. But eventually it is getting dark, and really, they don’t want to be found out, so they comply and follow Gansey’s lead back down the stairs.

Studying happens, but even when Gansey intervenes to stop them from fucking around, it doesn’t happen easily. And what most definitely doesn’t help is a certain Winter Formal scheduled for the weekend before their exams. Adam hadn’t even given it much thought until just a few days before when Gansey had announced that Blue would be visiting in order to attend. She’d mentioned nothing of the sort in her previous letter; even so, the evening of, there she is, dragging Gansey along across campus by the crook of his elbow.

Once they’re in Gansey’s and Ronan’s dorm room, he first thing out of her mouth is, “Ronan, please tell me you’re not going to wear that to the dance.”

“Nice to have you back, Sargent,” he says, glancing down at his attire as though noticing it for the first time. Truthfully, he sort of had been hoping to not have to change out of the t-shirt and jeans, and if no one had said anything—well. “What’s wrong with this?”

“Winter Formal?”

Ronan had hardly waited for a reply, however, “Are you dressed up?”

Blue gives a flick of a gesture towards a hanger that Gansey is hooking on the closet door.

Begrudgingly, Ronan mumbles, “I guess I’ll change before we leave.” Then his eyes drift in the direction they always seem to be going these days, and he adds, “I don’t see you bugging Parrish.”

Adam, who had been looking at his phone, jerks his head upwards and, lips parted, holds up a hand—a defensive sort of motion. A don’t bring me into this motion. Certainly, Adam is hardly any better dressed in a sweater, but Blue says, “I trust him more than you.”

The lazily triumphant grin Adam casts his way makes Ronan roll his eyes.

Just like at Halloween, Gansey and Blue had taken a few hours longer to get back to Princeton campus than they’d planned (This time they actually had an excuse, though. Blue had introduced Gansey to Henry as soon as he showed up, and from the way it sounded, they were quite taken with each other, which understandably derailed their schedule. Gansey’s attempt to tell Ronan and Adam every detail about the visit doesn’t help), and so now Gansey is under the impression that they need to rush to get ready.

“It’s not prom,” Ronan says, rolling his eyes but hurrying along nevertheless.

Adam ducks out, saying he’ll meet them in the dorm lobby.

Adam owns all of two ties, all of two dress shirts, but that doesn’t stop him from standing there, staring into his closet and debating for just a little too long. But he needn’t have worried—when the other three meet him again, Blue lights up and says, “Much better!”

Though Adam doesn’t know anything about fashion, he’s certain that the dress Blue is wearing was not purchased looking the way it does now. So he doesn’t offer any return comment on her appearance. She probably wouldn’t care much for it if he did, anyway.

And Ronan—well, Adam didn’t have much to say about the black-tie-on-black-shirt look.

Certainly he didn’t.

In nearly every imaginable way, this is a different event than the last one Blue attended. Not just the clothes—everything. When they walk into the venue, Ronan audibly snorts. “What’re we doing here?”

The event is school-sponsored, though it’s off campus in a building, the ordinary use of which Adam is having trouble identifying. All at once it’s every venue and no venue. They’ve stepped into a wide-open room, which looks like a normal enough event-space, but it has odd metal rafters, and the floor is an some unidentifiable material. Indeed, Ronan Lynch looks out of place in the tastefully decorated environment.

They’ve only been there a few minutes, lingering towards the entrance of the room, surveying what’s happening, trying to figure out what to do, when out of nowhere Ronan says, “Parrish, come with me.” He doesn’t wait for a response, which is fair enough, because Adam is just a second behind him.

Navigating the crowd is a bit like a maze, and Adam has to stop himself from reaching out to grab onto the back of Ronan’s shirt. But it only takes a second before Ronan pulls to a stop, having apparently found his destination. He plucks a cupcake from the table—blue frosting, which Adam hopes is only food coloring—and offers it to Adam with a quirked brow. Shrugging, he takes it. Then Ronan takes one for himself, though he doesn’t move to sit down at one of the many tables dotting the edge of the hall. He begins to pull the wrapping off and then lightly asks, “How many of these do you think I could eat?”

Adam looks thoughtful. Is that a dare or?

“No, a question. The first step in the scientific method.” He grins crookedly before taking a bite.

It hardly takes him any time to finish one and then grab another from the table, though this time Ronan does move towards the tables. Adam glances over his shoulder in attempt at catching a glimpse of Gansey and Blue, but when that comes back futile, he’s right behind Ronan once again.

“Another question for you: You think I can get up there?”

Adam follows his pointing finger with his eyes. What, the roof?

“Yeah, up there on those beams where they’ve hung those dollar-store snowflakes.”

Looking again, it does look like there are catwalks of some kind between the rafters up there—what on earth is this room?—and indeed, the more he looks at the decorations hanging from the ceiling, they do look like they might have been on a sale rack somewhere. At least their tuition is apparently going somewhere more important than school dances. But Adam shrugs, despite the fact that if anyone could get up there, it would be Ronan.

He’s working on licking the icing off his second cupcake, eyes far too bright and thoughtful for Adam to imagine that they’ll be getting out of here tonight without Ronan at least attempting to get up there. Adam crumples his cupcake wrapper into a ball and drops it on the table before raising an eyebrow at Ronan. For a moment, Ronan pretends like he isn’t thinking about it. But then he takes the last bite of his food, yanks his tie loose, and says, “You coming?”

There was almost no point in asking.

First they circle the room, trying doors, looking for maintenance stairwells or something similar, but all they find are the bathrooms and a bunch of other locked doors. Adam almost thinks that’s it—he’s pretty sure Ronan’s particular brand of mischief doesn’t include the skill of lock-picking. But he should have known better.

“There has to be a fire escape outside, right?”

They push their way back to the front of the room—it seems like the whole school is here by now—and happen to catch Blue’s eye even through the crowd.

“Where do you two think you’re beetling off to?” she calls.

“Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere.”

Adam throws his best convincing smile.

Blue shakes her head.

It’s gone dark outside, dark enough that they’ll only look like shadows if anyone notices the way Ronan laughs when he turns the corner or their quiet climb up the thin, metal ladder or the groan of the door as Ronan wriggles it open. Ordinarily Adam might feel more worried about how high up they are or about someone getting them into trouble, but they’re around back of the building so no one’s likely to see them anyway, and it’s freezing, so Adam’s main concern is getting back inside.

And then they are. At least a story above everyone else, the whole of the open floor beneath them.

“Fuck yes.”

There’s walking room all along the walls, railing making up the opposite side, and then, yes, between the beams are thin catwalks like the sort that are above a stage. Ronan leans against the railing, looking over at everyone below.

What’s the plan now? Adam asks, looking amusedly unimpressed.

Ronan makes a thoughtful noise and begins walking, fingers dragging against the barrier and tapping along with the beat of the music. He shrugs. The two of them circle the perimeter.

“Thought it would be harder,” Ronan says, drawing to a stop.

If it had been much harder, we wouldn’t have made it.

“You underestimate me.” He gives the smallest smirk and then climbs the railing onto one of the catwalks. Adam hesitates, though. It takes Ronan a second to notice, and when he turns around and sees him still standing there, he says, “Come on, then.” He pauses, waiting. “No one will see us, we’re like fifty feet in the air.”

Adam doesn’t bother pointing out that that’s a gross exaggeration, but he concedes nevertheless.

Ronan is crouched down now, hands over the edge, working away at something. Eyeing him, Adam sits beside him, folding his legs. He doesn’t have to wait long to see what he’s up to, though, because a second later, Ronan makes a soft noise of victory and then he sits back and holds out one of the silly-looking snowflakes to Adam.

“For you.”

Thanks, he mouths, expression dry.

“Hey, if you don’t want a souvenir for this crazy night, I’ll take it.”

But Adam shakes his head and drops it into his lap.

Ronan, though he’s now sitting with his legs practically to his chest, hardly fits between the railings of the narrow walkway. And although it’s definitely comical, Adam is glad for it. Glad for the way he’s looking over at him while he’s inspecting his stolen gift.

Then he sets it aside and glances over the edge of the catwalk. Then he glances back to Ronan Lynch.

“So. What do we do now?”

In response, Adam only gives a short laugh.

“What?”

You’re asking me?

“Hm.”

Adam repositions himself the way Ronan is, back and knees against opposite rails.

“If we had water balloons…”

Adam rolls his eyes.

Ronan drops his head back, fingers still tapping to the music, now against his knees. He sounds disinterested when he breaks their just-too-long silence, “I talked to Declan, by the way. Last night. We’re fine.”

Good, Adam says, smiling genuinely despite the fact that it is about two weeks late on Ronan’s part, but sometimes you take what you can get. In time for Christmas.

“Yeah, that was the idea.” He frowns, though, tugging at the cuff of his sleeve. “I think I’m gonna still stay with Gansey, though. I think.”

It takes a moment for Adam to realize the statement ends with a small question mark. Are you asking for my opinion on that?

“I mean—kind of. Yeah.”

Why?

“I don’t know. Is it shitty of me? To not stay at home?”

I think you need to do what you need to do. If it’s not gonna be pleasant for you to stay at home, don’t stay at home. He gives Ronan a moment to read it, and then he adds with a faint smile, But you knew I’d say that, so.

“Maybe I did,” Ronan mumbles, wearing a smirk of his own.

Because Adam also isn’t heading home for the vacation. Of course. The conversation of where Adam would go for Christmas break was not left nearly so last minute as it had been for Thanksgiving. In fact, it had happened while they were still in D.C., the night before they were set to drive back to school. It had been a whispered exchange between Gansey and Adam, somewhere shortly after one in the morning. Gansey had feared it would be an argument or at least a debate—he hadn’t said that, but Adam could tell by the careful way he brought it up, how judiciously he chose his words. But when at last he got the question out, when at last he asked if Adam wanted to spend the break at Monmouth with him (and now Ronan), Adam had accepted graciously. And that had been that.

It’s a conversation that doesn’t quite fit with the music, which seems louder than earlier, or the bright lights or the curious feeling of being a story above all of that.

Ronan knows. He flicks a smile. “But whatever. Kind of boring up here. Do you need more snacks? Because I do.”

When Adam shrugs, Ronan pops to his feet.

In spite of the fact that they could have hardly been up there for more than fifteen minutes, Ronan is already moving on, his interest a fleeting, difficult to hold thing. He’s still glancing over his shoulder at Adam, though.

Back on the ground, they hang the pilfered snowflake from the rearview mirror of the BMW, grab another cupcake (“Is my tongue blue, Parrish?”), and then go to find Gansey and Blue, who are unfairly suspicious of their quick return.

Ronan maintains that he doesn’t dance (“And definitely not to this noise.” Gansey looks affronted. “This is what you call noise?”), and though Blue tries to drag him into it, it’s mostly futile. Adam suspects the only reason they’re there for so long is because Gansey and Blue keep thinking they’re going to change Ronan’s mind.

He bounces his foot, though, stepping rhythmically when he disappears to the tables at the back of the room. Adam trails along after him every time, if only to hear him ask, “Don’t you have anything better to do than follow me around?” and to be able to shake his head in response.

It’s not like it’s boring, but after a while, even Gansey has to admit there isn’t much happening, and anyway, Blue starts whispering about Noah. The decision between Winter Formal and introducing Blue to a ghost is an easy one. All at once, they agree that it’s time to ditch, and they’re all climbing back into Ronan’s car in the next three minutes.

“Where did you get that?” Gansey asks, leaning into the front seat between Ronan and Adam, eyeing the snowflake on the mirror.

Ronan only grins and knocks his finger against it to make it spin.

Gansey leaves it at that.


 

Noah doesn’t appear right away, and Blue is almost about to start accusing Gansey of making the whole thing up when Gansey says experimentally, “Noah, this is Blue.”

She waits.

They sit down.

Still nothing.

“Richard Gansey, if this is a joke—”

“I’m sorry,” a quiet voice interrupts. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

Seeing Blue react to Noah is an interesting thing—had Adam’s eyes been that wide? Had he jumped like that? It’s unfathomable now to think that someone like Noah, smiling Noah, unthreatening Noah, could be startling. Together they’d gotten used to his hollow face and tendency to flicker in some lights; how unbelievable that this was Adam’s life now.

He sits back, dropping an arm over the back of the pew. Beside him, Ronan says, “Don’t be so creepy, man.”

Noah makes a face at him, folding his arms over the back of the pew in front of Blue and Gansey.

Blue’s surprise and initial fright had been interesting but even more so is the swift way she gets over it. Sure, she had more warning than they had, but not even half an hour later, she’s laughing at the feel of his cold fingers fussing with her hair, apparently completely at ease with whatever he is.

“My mom is psychic,” she says to him at one point.

“What do my palms say?” And then he holds out his hands.

She takes them in hers, scrutinizing them closely, despite the fact that there’s really nothing to see on Noah’s washed-out skin. He laughs when her bangs brush his wrists. And Blue tells him about his palms, spewing terms she’s overheard in readings, some of them more shots in the dark than others. But Noah oohs and ahhs at appropriate times, impressed even with her half made up terms.

The two of them are good for each other. It’s apparent right away; Ronan gestures for Adam to hand him his phone so that he can make a silent comment about it.

she’s Just weird enough for him.

“Stop talking about me, Ronan Lynch,” Noah says, throwing a saccharine smile his way as he reaches up to reposition a clip in Blue’s hair.

Or he’s weird enough for her

“You too, Adam.”

It’s an impossibly long night, somewhere outside time, somehow far from the place where they have finals next week, disconnected from the timeline where it’s almost Christmas, where the school year is already half gone. In the church that night, Ronan’s proximity is deliberate, carefree; and the weight of a maybe feels to Adam more like a hushed yes.

But what to do with that.

Sitting here with Noah laughing and Blue teasing and Gansey smiling and Ronan—Ronan being Ronan, it’s a feeling light and easy enough as that. Easy enough as Adam assigning a simple yes to the thought of reaching over, of returning whatever Ronan had been giving him in the form of a curious gaze for the last few weeks. Months. Adam can’t remember.

But in the world where they’re not sitting here, just so, it sounds much more frightening. Much more loaded.

However, for now, Adam lets it sit. He drags the feeling into the forefront of his chest, holding it there while he and Ronan talk back and forth on Adam’s phone, holding it there when Ronan bumps his knee into Adam’s, when his lips turn up into a wicked grin.

you look distracted tonight, parrish

Just thoughtful

Ronan doesn’t ask what about.


 

By all natural laws, they should not be able to pass their finals with their pattern of not-studying. They spend their dead day with each other, and not a single book is cracked. It feels productive anyway, more full of laughter than their studious classmates’ days. And even despite all of this, they make it out of their semester alive, exams finished, dorms tidied and ready to be left. They tell Noah goodbye, say that they wish they could bring him, too. Noah waves this off.

“I’ll see you when you’re back,” he says.

The drive to Henrietta feels inexplicably like the beginning of something. It’s Ronan and Adam in the BMW, Blue and Gansey in the Camaro. It’s Blue sticking her head out the window on the rare occasions that Gansey picks it up and tries to pass Ronan, and it’s Ronan throwing rude gestures at them as he takes the lead back. It’s Adam turning up the music when they’re at a stoplight in order to drown out whatever Gansey is trying to yell through their open windows; Ronan laughing raucously in response, Gansey feigning hurt. It’s lunch in a McDonald’s with a broken ice cream machine and the AC on way too high for December.

The sun is dripping orange by the time they’re taking the exit marked Henrietta.

Adam’s first impression of the town is that he imagines if he’d lived here, he would have thought it tired. Worn out. The colors are muted in a way that only comes with quiet, forgotten little towns that border mountains, and the trees are just a little too tall to be usual. But looking at it for the first time knowing that Gansey loves it, knowing that this is the place Ronan grew up, well, Adam thinks he kind of gets it. The roads are bumpy in places, freshly paved in others; the houses are of similar styles but in a jigsaw of colors; the sky stretches on forever. The entirety of Henrietta feels like a medley of things that don’t quite fit together.

The most incongruent thing of all is perhaps Monmouth Manufacturing, an impossible place, even more impossible for the fact that it had once been the full-time home of Gansey and Ronan. Adam doesn’t know where to begin with trying to figure it out—the endless windows? The clutter that looks almost purposeful? The fridge beside the toilet? Gansey gives him what he calls The Grand Tour, which feels ironic because somehow the building is massive and yet the living space is rather limited, so the tour is mostly just Gansey pointing to the bathroom and then to Ronan’s room.

Adam thanks him, bemused.

“No problem.”

Blue, standing in the entrance with Gansey’s phone in her hand, checks the time. “Mom’s probably already waiting for us, Gansey,” she says, though the statement doesn’t sound particularly urgent.

“You can tell her it’s all my fault we’re late,” Gansey assures. He looks between Adam and Ronan seriously, “Will you two be okay without us for the night?”

Please.”

“Don’t throw any parties.”

There go our plans, Adam says, only flashing it Ronan’s direction and looking exaggeratedly disappointed.

Gansey eyes the phone but says, “That’s right, keep your sarcasm to yourselves. I’ll see you tomorrow. Or later tonight. I don’t know.”

“And you’re worried about us being responsible?”

“Hush. Bye, then.”

“Yeah, bye,” Ronan replies, and Adam waves.

Blue waves back after blowing a kiss.

As soon as the door is shut, Ronan takes a survey of the room and then heads for the fridge.

“Yeah, we need to go the fuck to the store.”

Adam peeks past him to see nothing but a jar of green olives on the bottom shelf and promptly agrees.

So they trudge back into the cold, though luckily they hadn’t been inside long enough for the car to lose all of its warmth. Ronan laughs at Adam still vigorously rubbing his hands together.

The drive to the store is loud. Ronan’s clamorous techno had felt somewhat appropriate with the stretches of highway on the way down, but pulsing along Henrietta’s soft avenues, it’s something entirely more Ronan. Which is to say, it’s verging on inappropriate, contradictory, absurd—harshness where you’re expecting something soft. Or the other way around.

It’s a quiet town, but it feels like more than that.

What’s on the grocery list? Adam asks once they’re parked.

Ronan thinks about it for half a second. “We’ll figure it out when we get inside.”

Fair enough

And they do, even if it’s interspersed with arguing over who is going to push the cart and Adam making fun of Ronan’s tastes and a full ten minutes trying to remember which flavor of juice Gansey had requested (Ronan had pretended to write it down; he’d actually drawn a stick figure of Gansey whining about aforementioned juice. They had the note with them, but for obvious reasons, it wasn’t much in the way of help). They stand in front of the freezers for too long deciding between cookie dough, which was Blue’s request. Eventually Ronan says fuck it and grabs three different kinds.

They’re there entirely too long because everything with Ronan has the ability to turn into an ordeal.

“Parrish, look alive, what else do we need?”

Goldfish?

“The crackers or the actual fish?”

Adam looks dangerously thoughtful. Ronan gets the crackers.

Eventually, with Ronan pushing the cart down the soda aisle and Adam being pushed along, standing with his feet on the lower rack, Ronan calls it quits. As if the full cart of junk food isn’t enough reason, he cites the time. “It’s pretty damn late.” Even though it’s only eight-thirty. But Adam agrees; he’s seem every aisle of the store by now, more than a few of them twice.

They’re rolling up to the cash register when Adam says, Let me pay for some of it.

“No way, you’re the guest.”

Adam narrows his eyes slightly. Okay, then let me get something else, I’ll be right back. He hardly gives Ronan a chance to read it, much less to protest it, before dashing off. It only takes him a moment to decide what he’s getting, so when he’s meeting Ronan back at the register, he isn’t even finished being rung up yet.

This one or this one? Adam holds up two DVDs, pulled out of those huge ten-dollar-or-less containers full of the movies no one wants. Both of them look like equally horrible choices. Ronan grins, considering. Then he points to one, and Adam nods. He puts their selection on the conveyer belt, along with one of those pre-made chocolate pies that come straight out of the freezer. Dinner, he announces.

Ronan nods agreeably.

And so they return to Monmouth, hands and arms completely full as they convince themselves that they only need one trip to get everything inside.

Tell me why it looks like we’re preparing for the apocalypse

“Never know when the next blizzard will blow in.”

And that night, they might as well have been snowed in—nowhere to go, no one else to see. Superficially everything is half-hearted jokes about poor acting and odd special effects; carefully considered critique of their pie, as though it were part of a competition; flat wonderings of What the fuck do you think Blue and Gansey are up to? Beneath all that, however, it’s something softer, quieter.

 Ronan throws a blanket over Adam, sharply threatening, “Don’t freeze to death. If you die on my watch, Gansey will not be understanding.”

Adam promises to do his best.

The apathy in Ronan’s tone feels ridiculous sitting there the way they are, curled on the couch eating pie from the tin in a room which is completely dark but for the laptop screen. Ronan realizes it just as well as Adam, and then he rolls his eyes at the knowing look Adam tosses his way.

Ronan turns away, jaw tight.

Adam understands this silent language of Ronan’s—malice without malice, more shield than sword. It’s in his crass jokes and too-long looks, all actions born of deflection, avoidance, practiced indifference. Adam’s attention catches on the fold of his arms, the hood of his eyes, the downturn of his lips. It takes a moment before Ronan reacts, glancing out the corner of his eyes.

“What’re you looking at?”

And Adam just shakes his head, turning his concentration back to the movie.

How curious it is that the both of them have such trouble with words.

Chapter Text

It’s snowing. It’s a southern snow, hardly a dusting, just barely sticking, but a Christmas snow is a Christmas snow, and it feels like a purposeful thing. A destined, magical thing. Adam can’t remember the last time it snowed exactly on Christmas day in his hometown—if it ever had.

When it began, just before sundown, Blue had been delighted. She had been the first to notice and the first to dash outside (also the first to dash back inside 300 Fox Way, as soon as she remembered her coat. And her shoes.), and though the psychics in the house hardly looked surprised, it was a pleasant gift for the rest of them. For Ronan too, even if he was slow to crack a smile.

“We deserve this snow,” Gansey says, as the flakes grow ever larger, falling ever quicker. They’re collecting in his hair, getting caught in his eyelashes.

It’s an odd thing to say; those particular words would have never come out of Adam’s mouth, mute or not, but he cannot argue the peculiar truth of them. They do deserve this snow. There’s an odd sort of fantasy that comes with snow, and it’s just a fitting finish to their Christmas, an appropriate conclusion to these last few days in Henrietta.

Every day, perhaps, had been leading to this.

Every day, which included every morning that Adam woke up in Ronan’s room beneath blankets that smelled of him. Though Adam had tried to protest the first night, Ronan could be just as stubborn as Adam and had, naturally, won out.

“I won’t sleep well anywhere,” Ronan had said off-handedly, as though the fact no longer bothered him, “Just take the fucking bed.”

Waking up the way he did, the hint of an odd feeling in his chest at the sight of how very Ronan everything in that room was—well, he couldn’t even be resentful about having lost that argument. And Ronan was the one stuck on the couch, after all.

Every day, which included the day they’d all gone over to Blue’s house for the first time. It had been for lunch, and everyone seemed to know Adam’s name, even though he himself could hardly keep track of everyone in the house. He’d shaken a lot of hands, excluding Calla’s (“She’s nosy,” Blue had warned, and, with a glint in her eye, Calla had complained that Blue ruined all the fun).

That day had been a busy, chaotic affair for which Adam hadn’t been given adequate warning in order to prepare himself. It was one of the loudest places Adam had been in a long time, including the college cafeteria. It hadn’t been all volume, though; it had been the sheer presence of everyone there. It’d been Blue shushing her mother from telling stories about her; Ronan kicking Adam under the table when Gansey said something lame; Calla going back and forth with Ronan as though they were just continuing an old exchange.

That day, Ronan had lingered near Adam in a way that almost didn’t seem conscious. Adam himself hadn’t even noticed it until he caught the gaze of one of Blue’s cousins (Olivia? Oksana?) looking their way for just a moment too long. This made Adam glance Ronan’s direction, made Ronan sharply focus on something else, something at the opposite edge of the room from Adam, and made the cousin grin brazenly.

At lunch, Persephone had seated herself beside Adam without a word. It felt full of intent at the time, although when she didn’t immediately begin speaking to Adam, he’d wondered why exactly. But eventually the inevitable question got asked—a boy, one of the numerous children running about the house, loudly whispered to no one in particular, “Can’t he talk?”

The a’s had been drawn out, all southern, dull echoes of Adam’s own voice. It’d been a reminder that was too harsh in that unfamiliar room.

But before it could affect him, before it could start his heart pounding, Persephone had looked over quite quickly, blinked, and pronounced, “You don’t need words to talk.” It hadn’t been a loud admonishment; in fact, it had been quite gentle. But coming from Persephone, it was as if all the conversations had lulled at exactly the same moment, as though everyone had paused to take a breath between sentences at the same time. Though her voice was soft, it found its way between everything else, even without catching unwanted attention.

The kid had seemed to consider what she’d said for much longer that Adam thought he might have at his age. Then he’d mumbled, “Okay,” and dropped it.

Persephone had passed him a basket of bread and asked, “Biscuits, Adam?”

Now Persephone is standing just inside the house, peering at the snow from behind the window curtains. As if knowing what Adam is thinking, she blinks and catches his gaze precisely. He manages a feeble grin, though her expression doesn’t change. It would be unnerving coming from anyone else.

Their dinner tonight hadn’t been nearly as hectic as that lunch had been. Adam’s palms hadn’t sweated at all the questions directed his way. Blue hadn’t looked embarrassed at every odd thing her family members said. Adam couldn’t say whether this was because it was Christmas or simply because it was the second time he’d been, but either way, it didn’t matter. So long as it wasn’t such a stressful visit as before.

Because, yeah. It had been stressful.

That day, Adam had excused himself to the bathroom the moment the meal seemed to be over. He’d closed the door almost too loudly, sunk to the floor, pressed a hand to his forehead.

You’re okay, he’d had to remind himself.

They weren’t out to get him—he knew that. But it was a very loud house and Adam was very quiet.

And Precisely ideal is not something he would have called the situation.

Even though Adam was good at talking himself through such situations, when his phone had buzzed after a minute or two, he’d given a sigh of relief at the message from Ronan flashing across his screen.

Wanna ditch?

God, did he.

Adam had not replied to the text, but when he left the bathroom at last, he found Ronan already waiting by the front door, spinning his keys around his forefinger. He hadn’t asked how Ronan knew; he hadn’t needed to.

Ronan raised an eyebrow. Adam nodded.

“Good. I already told Gansey we’re leaving.”

And leave they had.

Adam shivers, partly from the snow hitting his neck, partly from the memory of how disjointed that day had felt. Across the backyard, Ronan kicks his boot through the snow. This far away, his blue eyes are dark—shadows beneath his eyelashes, shadows in the fading light. And when Ronan’s eyes catch Adam’s, it is a strikingly familiar expression.

He’d looked at Adam like that as they climbed in the BMW that day. When they’d pulled out and headed off with no destination in mind. At stop signs, Ronan had asked Adam which way he wanted to go, ensuring that there was no possible way Ronan was looking to go any specific place. Nevertheless, he took turns cleanly, swiftly, like he’d driven them a thousand times. And perhaps he had.

When they hit a long stretch of road, Ronan had asked, “Wanna see something?”

Adam had nodded.

An instant later, the speedometer was climbing frantically, throwing them down the unusually straight stretch of drive, canopy of trees overhead blurring into a single mass.

The road was endless.

When Adam closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that they weren’t moving at all.

With them open, the world returned to that controlled chaos, the sort that belongs entirely to Ronan Lynch.

The two-lane, country backroad had shifted abruptly, then, into a four-lane highway, cutting through the empty enormousness of miles of fields. The trees had fallen away, the asphalt had opened wide, and Ronan had stomped on the brakes.

It hadn’t been jerky, just sudden. Adam hardly jolted. Ronan shifted gears rapidly, cleanly, like he was very used to slowing down to a reasonable speed without warning.

But he’d kept on slowing, sinking below the speed limit, drifting to a stop.

Looking back on it, everything about the moment seems like a dream for the simple wrongness of it. In the emptiness of the terrain, the long, late-afternoon shadows had been missing. The two of them had been halted in the center of a four-lane highway. Ronan’s car, silent. Their friends, miles upon miles away. There’d been something humming beneath them. Adam glanced sideways.

Ronan cocked an eyebrow.

The road had been empty; devoid of movement, color, authority.

Adam was looking at Ronan, and then he was looking out the window.

Then back to Ronan.

Adam had grinned.

One second they’d been still, the next Ronan was turning the wheel with a vengeance, full throttle, throwing them into a donut.

It had felt wildly dangerous, despite their seclusion, despite the road’s wide shoulders. Even now, Adam can feel in his fingertips the risk that had come with the moment. Someone could have come thundering down the road at any second, the car could have flown out of control, someone could have called the cops. The drifting of the car had shuddered through Adam. It had been enough to make Adam’s heart pound, enough that he should’ve wanted to grab onto Ronan’s arm and beg for him to stop.

Instead, he’d thrown his head back and laughed.

Ronan jerked the wheel to either side, expertly endangering their lives. He’d clapped a hand onto the back of Adam’s seat. His grin was sideways, teeth bared, eyes alight with something that wasn’t quite congruent with the rest of his expression.

Adam had been—and is—recklessly fond of this look.

His hand tightened around the grab handle.

When the car righted and slowed once again, Ronan’s eyes had been on Adam. That expression—indecipherable.

Adam had raked a hand through his dusty hair, mouth parted in a slightly disbelieving smile.

And when they drove off, the highway was still clear.

Let’s do that again, Adam had said.

Ronan had gladly complied.

When Adam and Roan returned to Monmouth hours later, Gansey and Blue had been unfairly suspicious of their absence. The fact that Ronan didn’t answer any of their questions hadn’t helped anything, but Adam flashed them a quick smile, assuring them that they hadn’t been up to anything too illegal.

They’d made cookies that night.

Blue had declared that they needed to get Noah a Christmas present.

Lights had been hung in the windows.

They’d made a lot of cookies. (There were cookies for breakfast the next morning, cookies at lunch, cookies at midnight. Entirely too many cookies.)

Blue had hung mistletoe in the doorway to the kitchen/bathroom. It was ridiculous how quickly Adam felt like he had to sidestep that particular entryway.

At present, the snow is still ghosting cold kisses to Adam’s skin; he scrunches up his nose, grinning at the sight of everything there: His friends, the funny blue house, the setting sun.

And Ronan. Ronan, who looks like he’s about to launch the loose collection of snow in his hands straight at the back of Gansey’s head.

Because there’s a smile on Ronan’s face now, a specific one that doesn’t get dropped just anywhere. Ronan, it seems, chooses his emotions quite carefully. It felt like an accident that Adam had begun noticing it, but then again, maybe that too was purposeful.

Because Ronan hadn’t looked like this yesterday.

Because Ronan hadn’t looked like this even earlier this morning, when he and Adam had visited the Barns.

It appeared that, despite Ronan’s love for his home, for his family, something about the secrecy of his older brother, the detachedness of his mother, the vastness of the property that he called home—something about all of that weighed heavily on him. And although Adam had gone to midnight mass with the brothers, though he’d eaten breakfast with them that morning, and although he’d had all this time to try and piece together their dynamics, Adam still didn’t quite understand.

He was just going to have to be okay with that.

Because Ronan is smiling now, and Gansey is gasping, knocking slush from his hair. Ronan’s laugh is more of a cackle as he ducks out of the way of Gansey’s poorly aimed retaliation. Ronan is just reaching to scoop up more snow, when Gansey lands a shot to Ronan’s ear.

A string of curses so varied and colorful leaves Ronan’s lips that it’s hard to believe that just the night before, Adam had heard verses from the redeemed Word of the Lord coming out of his mouth. Gansey looks justifiably ready to bolt.

Adam and Blue exchange a look that says they want no part in this muddy snowball fight. Then Blue is intervening, grabbing Gansey around the wrist and tugging him back towards the house. Ronan is rolling his eyes. Ronan’s hands—still with snow in them—twitch slightly, and Adam holds up his own in defense. A laugh leaves Ronan’s lips.

“I’m not gonna throw it at you,” he says, and it almost sounds like a kindness until he adds, “You might freeze completely.”

He wipes his hands off on his jeans.

He follows Adam’s lead inside.

Inside, where it is warm, scents from dinner still in the air, the sound of laughter coming from around the corner. Maura, Calla, and Persephone are taking turns pulling tarot cards—either predicting which card will be drawn or making a game of their futures and pasts or perhaps doing something else entirely. When the four of them enter, immediately Maura is holding a selection of three out to Gansey.

“Test a theory for us, Gansey,” she says, grinning. A mixed drink of some sort is sitting on the coffee table.

Gansey obliges and flicks his fingers over the backs of the cards. He draws a card with THE WORLD printed neatly across it, and the three of them laugh about something they don’t share with the others. Blue asks what they had been doing, but Maura just shakes her head.

Outside, the snow is slowing already.

“Take a card.”

The words are spoken by Calla, to Ronan, who abruptly brushes it off with a mumbled but clear, “No thanks.” However, in return she just shrugs, hint of a crooked smile on her lips. If Adam didn’t know any better, he would say that she never expected him to pick one. He would say she never wanted him to in the first place.

“Fine. Pick for him, Adam.”

For a moment, the words don’t process. She was talking to him? He glances to Ronan, as if asking if that was okay. Ronan shrugs, teeth at his wristbands. Still Adam hesitates.

Calla holds the cards out farther. “Just pick something. Tell me about Ronan.”

Tell her about Ronan. Sure. It’s with that thought that he draws a card and hands it back to her.

Her only response is to laugh—more warm than Adam had heard her earlier, more like she was happy than scheming. Calla tucks the card back into her deck, not showing Adam or even Maura or Persephone. Across the room, Maura looks affronted by the action, although Persephone just seems considering, verging on amused.

Adam is only confused.

“Tell you later,” she says to the other two, taking a sip of her own drink. She directs the next part to Adam, “You don’t need to be told.”

“Stop confusing the children on Christmas,” Persephone says.

“They’re already confused,” Calla replies, shuffling her cards.

 


 

It’s nearing seven when Ronan leaves the room without warning. Blue—tarot card in her hand, her mother in the middle of describing its meaning in relation to her next semester’s journalism class—stares after him with her lips slightly parted. Gansey looks about ready to call after him, but it’s Adam who actually gets up and follows him out.

Ronan seems to notice him, of course, though he doesn’t acknowledge him right away. He gets a drink of water from the sink, and then pulls himself up to sit on the counter. He takes a sip, sets the glass down, and finally looks Adam’s direction.

“Alright, Parrish?”

He nods. Alright, Lynch?

Ronan’s turn to nod.

Pause.

Adam pulls himself onto the countertop beside Ronan.

Pause.

There’s the feeling again. The one from the mornings. The one that comes when Adam opens his eyes first thing to see Ronan’s cluttered room. The one that comes when he climbs into the passenger seat of Ronan’s car. The one that pulls at Adam’s stomach when he turns around and catches Ronan’s eyes. It’s a new, familiar feeling, and Adam realizes, sitting here, that it’s exclusively related to the boy beside him.

Adam rolls his phone between his hands.

“Good Christmas?”

Adam nods. Then, as an afterthought, he says, Better than last year. And the year before. Pause. And the year before that. And he smiles, like it isn’t terribly sad that he could probably repeat the phrase quite a few more times. For you, too?

“Yeah. Even if you didn’t punch Declan last night. Or this morning.”

Adam shakes his head, bemused.

“Even though I told you you were allowed to.”

I’m sorry to disappoint.

“Nah, it’s for the best.” He leans his head back against the cabinets behind him. “It wasn’t terrible, though? Having to be with my brothers, I mean.”

It’s funny; he sounds almost self-conscious. No, it was fine! Thanks for inviting me.

“’Fine,’” Ronan reads, rolling his eyes. “Code for awful.”

Adam scoffs. I liked meeting them, I really did.

Ronan just nods faintly, glancing away.

The kitchen is quiet, distant even from the noise of the other room. Adam keeps turning his phone screen on and off, at a loss for what to say. Because there is something to be said. The words it would take, though, are a bit of a mystery.

Finally, Ronan says, “I think I’m gonna leave here soon.” Pause. “I need to talk to the brothers.”

Adam looks over at him.

“And I think I’ll stay at home tonight.” He tugs at the leather at his wrist, eyes downcast.

A pang of something seizes in Adam’s chest. But no, he thinks, that’s not what’s supposed to— His thoughts derail inexplicably, sent amuck at the idea of Ronan leaving now, why—

Adam’s mouth feels dry for a moment, and then—

Before he can talk himself out of him, Adam asks, Can I come with you?

Those were the words. That was what he meant to ask.

For a second, however, it feels terribly presumptuous, too much, he was overstepping, Ronan wanted to be alone, Ronan didn’t want—

Then Ronan blinks. “Yeah,” he says, voice almost too soft. “Yeah, ‘course. Please.”

And Adam’s heart settles.

Yes. That was right.

And though it was what he meant to say, though he was intrigued by the new expression pulling at Ronan’s features, he still feels a jolt of panic when Ronan eventually wanders back into the other room and tells Gansey that he—“and Parrish”—were heading out.

But it’s not panic.

That’s just the only semi-suitable word.

But it isn’t panic making his throat tight, it isn’t panic knotting his fingers together in front of him.

Is it safe to drive?

Ronan hesitates at the front door, peering into the half-white landscape. Then he shrugs. “Safe enough.”

Truth is, it almost doesn’t even matter with Ronan. Around him, safety is almost subjective.

Adam climbs into the passenger seat.

There is nothing inherently different about this drive with Ronan. Adam had made the same trip with him this very morning. The sun may be down now, and there may be a pathetic collecting of snow on the ground, and maybe they’re leaving from Fox Way instead of Monmouth, but really, it’s just the same.

Except—

Adam made a decision earlier, and everything is skewed in the aftermath thereof.

Somehow.

In the dark car, Adam stares openly, eyebrows pulled low, hands still.

(What are you going to do, Adam? )

He turns the question over and over in his head while they drive, while Ronan pulls up to the Barns and sighs despite himself. (What are you going to do, Adam? he asks himself.) Ronan lets himself in the front door and cuts cleanly through the house to find Declan and Matthew in the living room. He stares in wonder as Ronan ruffles Matthew’s hair and then pulls Declan into a hug that’s as genuine a hug as Adam’s ever seen. He mumbles something and then steps back, reaches into his jacket pocket, and tosses a small box at Declan, who, though he wasn’t expecting it, expertly catches it nonetheless.

“I actually did buy you something,” Ronan announces needlessly, referencing the fact that he’d showed up to the house this morning gift-less, spare a lumpy package for Matthew. “Wasn’t feeling like giving it to you this morning, though.”

“You’re a shithead,” Declan replies easily, tearing at the sloppily taped wrapping.

“And you’re a pretentious prick, which is why I bought you that, so just open it.”

“I’m working on it,” he grumbles.

Declan frees the box from its paper, and when he props the top of the small box open, a sliver of a smile appears at his lips. “Do only pricks wear cufflinks or something?”

“That’s basically a fact, yeah.”

“Well, thank y—” Declan stops, holding one closer to his face for inspection. Ronan smirks. “Do these have curse words engraved on the sides?”

In reply, Ronan’s smile only widens.

“Fuck you,” Declan says, but it sounds more like a thanks that it has any right to.

Adam doesn’t know what’s with the change of heart, but he wouldn’t dare question it.

An unspoken conversation very quickly passes between the three Lynch brothers, made mostly of their different smiles—Matthew’s wide, Ronan’s sharp, Declan’s muted. It’s a momentary thing, though; the second Adam’s noticed it, it’s gone again, and Ronan is stepping backwards.

“Parrish is staying here tonight. We’ll be upstairs.”

“Nice to see you, Adam,” Declan says in way of response.

Adam nods, grateful.

Ronan, head ducked, leads the way to the staircase.

At the top step, Ronan stops, hesitating for just a moment. He glances down at Adam, expression indecipherable. Then he jerks his head to the side and the next time he stops, they’re in Ronan’s room.

“There’s a guest bedroom… I don’t know if you’re tired…”

Adam shakes his head immediately. No, there’s something, something, something. He can’t remember the last time he felt this awake, this aware of his body around him.

Ronan almost looks relieved.

But maybe that’s wishful thinking on Adam’s part.

Factual or not, Ronan doesn’t kick Adam out, and so he turns and picks up an odd knick-knack from a cluttered desk, one clearly never used for schoolwork. Ronan says he got it from his dad. Adam picks up another thing—this one was from his mother. A toy car—his father. A dusty watch—Declan. A plastic toy top—Matthew.

This, of course, can only go on so long. A lot of time must have passed, but it feels like it’s only been a second when Ronan ghosts up behind Adam, who is inspecting the cluttered bookshelf in the corner. His eyes are caught on one particular title, American Ley Lines (This Ronan got from Gansey). It’s tucked right beside what appears to be a comic book with a foul word in the title.

(What are you going to do, Adam?)

He says, I’m glad I know you guys.

Ronan reads the words and shifts between his feet, almost nervously. “Me too.”

(What are you going to do, Adam?)

He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know.

Idly Ronan knocks his knuckles against the wall, clearly not entirely comfortable with the silence between them. “Sometimes…” he starts, but then he hits the wall again and drops his face.

Ronan holds out his hand for the phone.

Adam gives it to him.

Sometimes I want to hear you speak

For a long second, Adam looks at the words and then he looks at the stoop of Ronan’s shoulders, his gaze. It’s such an un-Ronan look that it’s making Adam falter badly. He doesn’t reach for his phone back because he doesn’t know how he would reply.

It’s selfish of me, sorry, Ronan adds.

But Adam doesn’t think it is. Adam doesn’t think that Ronan uses his words selfishly.

He has to lean against the wall behind him, and then he takes his phone back.

It’s not, Adam replies simply.

(He thinks, What are you going to do, Adam? What are you going to do, do, do—)

Adam says, I want to tell you something.

Ok. Ronan types the letters with a single finger, not bothering to take the phone from Adam’s hands.

Sometimes I talk to Gansey.

Visibly, Ronan’s features don’t change. He doesn’t move to respond right away.

Like actually talk, he clarifies, more out of a nervous will to move his fingers than to fill any actual need for clarification.

Ronan is staring at him—how is he so good at looking this unreadable?

Why had Adam said that now? Surely that hadn’t been what he was meant to do—

Ronan’s words give his unclear expression away, though, “That’s so awesome.” He speaks on an exhale, like his own words are taking him by surprise. “Adam, that’s—” He shakes his head. “That’s fucking awesome. Why didn’t you tell m—?”

But his question drifts off, the answer to it being obvious enough.

Of course Ronan isn’t jealous, though. No—not “of course.” Ronan is easily jealous, but apparently it doesn’t extend to this, and that seems to mean something. Something about Ronan’s relationship with Gansey, something about Ronan’s relationship with Adam.

Ronan shakes his head again. “You really talk to him?”

Adam only nods. (Was Ronan always standing so near?)

And then Ronan smiles—the real sort. Though it isn’t to say all his smiles aren’t real, because Ronan doesn’t throw out empty gestures. But this is the sort of smile ordinary people give. The sort that crosses your face in the accidental moments, when something is truly out of the blue, truly a delight without strings attached. The kind that doesn’t expect anything in return.

It’s surprising to Adam not because Ronan is never happy but because, so often, when Ronan seems happy about something to do with Adam, it is bitten down, scoffed off, hidden.

Until now, Adam hadn’t even realized he’d noticed such a thing.

But here, as he marvels at how bright it is to see it here, just for him, just for a second, it seems obvious.

Adam says, I’d like to talk to you, too. Someday.

Quietly Ronan replies, “I’d like that too.”

Then Adam pockets his phone, parts his lips, and pulls Ronan towards him.

It’s an impossible kiss. Impossible for the way it sends Adam’s heart reeling in a way he’d previously only associated with anxiety, with fear. Impossible for the confidence Adam feels doing it. Impossible for the way Ronan responds like he’d been waiting for this.

Ronan’s hand closes around Adam’s.

He tugs him closer.

Impossible.

And when they part, the world is still right side up (Which is hard to believe with the ghost of Ronan’s lips still on his), the room is just the way they left it (Hard to believe with the way Ronan is still pressed against him), and distantly Adam thinks he’d rather like to do it again (Easy to believe with the way Ronan is looking at him now). The stars haven’t realigned, the planets haven’t shifted, but Adam’s heart is full.

Carefully Adam raises a hand from where it had been curled in the front of Ronan’s shirt, and he brushes it along the back of Ronan’s neck.

Adam can hear himself breathing.

Ronan leans in, just a bit, and then pauses, as if asking permission. Adam presses his fingers against Ronan’s skin, infinitesimally tighter; then he gives a nod that’s an even smaller motion.

If Adam didn’t need use of his hands to be able to speak, he thinks there are any number of things he might have said just now. He wonders what Ronan’s name would taste like, murmured against his lips.

But as it is, he does need his hands to talk, and his hands are currently resting at Ronan’s waist, pressed to the back of his skull.

Adam hopes that this makeshift conversation will suffice. He hopes Ronan can tell how much he means it all.

Ronan pulls back, just a fraction of an inch, just enough to pull out of the kiss but remain close, close, close. Breathless and a little weak in the knees, Adam opens his eyes, not remembering when he shut them. However, Ronan’s are still shut. His thumb is running circles across the back of Adam’s palm. An airy laugh leaves Ronan’s lips; his eyes flutter open to see Adam watching him.

Ronan meets his eyes and whispers, “You don’t do that with Gansey, do you?”

The question is so ludicrous it catches Adam by surprise, and when he laughs, his nose bumps with Ronan’s. Then he shakes his head, tightening his grip around him.

(What are you going to do, Adam?)

He kisses Ronan again.

 


 

Something shifts around midnight, when their phones buzz in unison. Adam, half-asleep, inches from Ronan, startles and sits up.

“What are you doing?” Ronan mumbles, reaching out for Adam.

He allows the distraction for a moment—Ronan’s lips to his palm, Ronan’s hand at his waist. But then their phones go off again, and Adam sits all the way up, crossing his legs, and he leans away to snatch his from the nightstand.

The screen is blinding in the dark room, but when his eyes adjust, he reads two messages from Blue, I thought of a present for Noah!!!! The next one says, It’s really Really good. Suddenly Adam isn’t sure why he thought it would be anything more urgent than this.

It’s just Blue, Adam tells Ronan, despite the fact that he doesn’t at all look like he’d been wondering. She thought of a gift for Noah.

“What the fuck do you give a ghost?” he asks, voice muffled.

Ronan had already asked this question, without malice, when Blue first brought it up a few days ago. At the time, no one had had an answer, and Adam still doesn’t. He shrugs back. You could ask her, he replies.

“Nah. She’ll tell us.” Ronan, on his back, is staring up at the ceiling, one arm tucked behind his head.

Adam, just a moment ago so close to falling asleep, suddenly remembers the way Ronan had tugged him onto his bed, the way his lips had found Adam’s neck.

Adam is awake.

Idly he turns his phone over in his hands. Do you ever think about why Noah has stuck around?

“You’re gonna ask me that now?”

As an answer, Adam just shrugs.

Ronan shrugs, too.

Come on, I know you think about it. Indeed, Adam knows faked nonchalance when he sees it.

“You don’t know shit.”

It comes out harsh, but Adam doesn’t bristle. But he does give a small sigh, thoughtful.

“I mean, it sucks. For him.” He gestures loosely, “And it sucks we can’t do anything, but…”

Adam nods. What could be keeping him here?

For just a second, Ronan seems to really consider the answer, but then he says, “Hell if I know.” Again, he says it like he doesn’t care, but the vowels come out weak in the middle, a frailty that betrays him a little. “You ask Gansey?”

Adam takes a little too long to answer. He flips his phone around again, just once. Then he answers, You’re different from Gansey.

“Thanks for that.” He smirks. Adam shoves his arm.

He smiles too, although it falters after a moment. Seriously though.

“’Seriously,’ I have no idea.” Ronan reaches for Adam’s hand, running a fingertip over his knuckles. Half a sigh leaves his lips. Then he says, like it’s a confession, “I’ve asked him.”

Noah?

Ronan doesn’t answer. He’s suddenly very interested in Adam’s hands.

But the lack of a response is as much an affirmative as anything.

And Ronan doesn’t say that he doesn’t like to think about it; he doesn’t say that he’s tired of thinking about it. Even so, Adam is pretty sure that’s the message being sent here.

There’s got to be something. He wouldn’t be here for no reason.

Ronan looks like he desperately wants to give Adam an answer. Or perhaps he merely wants it for himself, but either way, his brows are low, lips pursed.

Adam lies back down, and Ronan’s hand tightens around his, a silent plea to think of something else, anything else.

 


 

The early morning feels more like a dream than anything else. Ronan hadn’t meant to be up before the sun, and yet here he is—the world quiet, Adam still sleeping soundly. Any talk of Noah feels miles away, much farther than the boy at Ronan’s side. The boy in Ronan’s bed.

Adam, who looks better than anyone should with hair so messy, with freckles so chaotic.

Adam, Ronan thinks, is made of dozens of tiny details. He is made of quirks that go unnoticed, carefully considered actions, tiny gestures. The sun, hardly up, is casting shadows across his face.

It’s too damn early in the morning.

Ronan goes back to sleep.

 


 

By some unspoken agreement, neither of them mention this to anyone else.

It isn’t a secret, in the same way Adam’s talking to Gansey hadn’t been a secret, but it doesn’t get mentioned. When they return to Monmouth, the first thing Ronan says is, “Nice sweater, Dick,” which is to say that he loathes it, and Blue snaps back at Adam and Ronan for not answering her texts. Adam has the good sense to look sheepish. He says, I’m so sorry, I forgot, and Ronan just asks, “Since when do I respond to your texts to begin with?” Then Ronan asks them what they have planned for St. Stephan’s Day, they all look confused, and he scoffs at them for not being up-to-date with Irish holidays. When they ask him if he has any plans, he replies, “You don’t actually do shit.” He smirks, grabs a cookie from the kitchen, and throws himself onto the couch.

And everything is terribly normal.

Spare the fact that Ronan now steals into his room at night, once Gansey’s gone to bed, to make out with Adam.

Spare the fact that Ronan will reach for Adam’s hand when they’re alone. Spare the fact that this makes Adam unreasonably excited every time it happens.

But really, everything else is as normal as it comes.

One night, Ronan whispers, “I like you a lot.”

Adam grabs at the front of Ronan’s shirt. He nods earnestly, an attempt to return it, regretting that he can’t speak, regretting that they accidentally knocked his phone to the floor earlier. But Ronan seems to get it—he pulls Adam into a kiss that feels like a lot more than a kiss.

Normal. It’s all quite normal.

It passes like this until New Year’s Eve. Because New Year’s Eve is when they fuck up and give themselves away, when they forget that everything isn’t normal, in fact.

Blue is making popcorn. Gansey is chattering over the television.

Ronan is making faces at Adam from across the room.

It feels like it’s been almost midnight for the past two hours.

That’s not possible, though.

For a moment, the image of Adam disappearing into Ronan’s room flashes across his mind.

No. No, no.

He settles on the couch just as Blue reappears with her finished bowl of popcorn.

“Ten minutes,” she announces, smiling. She holds the bowl out to Adam.

11:50.

Ronan crosses the room in a few long strides and drops between the two of them. Adam smiles.

Because it’s not like Ronan kissing him was something life-changing. Adam is fully aware that Ronan liking him isn’t going to fix all his problems. Sure, Ronan’s attention isn’t always easy to capture; sure, it feels like it means something that Ronan cares for so little—and yet one of those things is Adam Parrish; sure, he definitely likes kissing him. Sticky note doodles in Adam’s composition books aren’t helping Adam find his voice, but they certainly aren’t hurting anything. And Ronan wants to help him. But Ronan himself isn’t the thing that’s gonna change Adam’s life.

It was just a kiss.

He knows it. It’s a miraculously freeing thing.

Adam just likes Ronan. He likes his company. And Ronan likes his.

Adam likes his awful sort of humor, and he likes his friendship, and he likes his face. And Adam is happy.

Isn’t that all there is?

Adam taps his fingers against Ronan’s, out of the others’ sight.

Ronan taps them back.

Certainly, Ronan hadn’t appeared and suddenly fixed Adam’s problems. But he cared about them, despite every reason not to, and that was about enough.

And it’s because of all of this—because their relationship isn’t a dramatic homecoming, isn’t something otherworldly; because they’re just two boys who happen to like each other—that when the ball drops, when the countdown hits zero, Adam reaches up and pulls Ronan into a kiss, which might have been more of a surprise if Ronan hadn’t turned towards Adam at the exact same second that Adam turned towards him.

Adam likes Ronan. It’s a modest enough fact, which is half of what makes it seem like the extraordinary thing it is.

Chapter Text

“When were you going to tell me?” The question is asked the next day in the middle of a laugh, the moment Ronan is out of the room—it is the result of it being held in for too long, shoved down despite how badly it wanted to burst out. Gansey knocks his hand against Adam’s forearm.

Though Gansey is grinning from ear to ear and is therefore clearly not cross, Adam gives a self-conscious shrug, shoulders to his ears, hands shoved deep in his pockets. He scuffs his foot against the floor and shrugs again.

“Seriously, what?” He laughs again. “How? When did this happen? What?”

Adam mumbles, “We kissed on Christmas.”

“Christmas!”

He nods back. His eyes dart around the cluttered Monmouth Manufacturing, pausing on the couch, Gansey’s unmade bed, the front door—anywhere but Gansey. Adam is pretty sure it isn’t shame that keeps his eyes moving, but he cannot settle—

Gansey doesn’t seem to notice the uneasy set of Adam’s shoulders or his eyes’ inability to stay put. Or perhaps he does, and he thinks of it as normal. Is it normal to feel this worried? He kissed Gansey’s best friend, is that—

“Adam! This is—of course, though. Of course.” Gansey shakes his head, thumb pressed to the skin just below his lip. “You tell me if he misbehaves.”

Adam scoffs.

“I’ll defend your honor.”

“You won’t need to,” Adam says, sure of the fact.

“Okay. I’m glad to hear it.” Gansey’s smile hasn’t quite left his face since the conversation started, but suddenly it lights up again, brighter, “Are you two—Jesus Christ, are you—” His voice drops to a stage whisper, “—dating?”

And the question is asked as though it were so scandalous, as though it were the most exciting thing to happen in a long time, and that’s what does it. Adam catches the look on Gansey’s face—all happiness for him, all interest in his friends—and then the apprehension from before dissolves. How easily Gansey is delighted by them. Adam cracks a grin, and then he can’t hold onto it. It falls free and he laughs, running a hand over his head.

“I guess?” he says, breathless.

“Oh my God, are you smiling ‘cause of Ronan? You’re smiling because of Ronan Lynch.” And it’s an accusation, but one that Gansey is all too thrilled about.

And Adam shrugs, a wordless, Yeah, I guess I am, and Gansey is shaking his head some more.

“Well, I’m—” Gansey gestures loosely. “I’m happy. For you.”

“Thanks.” Adam is biting his lower lip now, ears pink from the Gansey’s words. He thinks this might have been why he hadn’t immediately told Gansey or anyone else—this admitting, this sort-of teasing. It’s an unfamiliar lightness. And though Gansey is certainly being tolerable about it, Adam strives to change the subject. “And I—I told him about us. The talking.”

This almost seems to surprise Gansey more than the kiss. “Did you? And was he…?” Though Gansey always seems to know what to say, here he trails off, the words just escaping him. Instead of finishing the question, he makes a small motion of his hand.

“Fine,” Adam assures.

“Fine?”

Adam nods.

A breath leaves Gansey’s lips—not quite relief, not quite a laugh. “Good! Fantastic. I guess that’s why—well—” Here, Gansey laughs, “I’ve never asked Ronan to run to the grocery store by himself and had him do it without complaining, so I guess that explains…” Again, he drops off, eyes drifting towards the front door, considering.

Because, yes, ten or fifteen minutes ago when Gansey asked if Ronan could pick up a few things, he had merely nodded and ducked out. At the moment, Adam hadn’t even considered that he might have been leaving to give the two of them a second to talk, but this suggestion of Gansey’s makes Adam feel a little more weak in the knees than he’d care to admit. Ronan is thoughtful, Adam thinks, but sometimes you do have to catch him in the act.

And Adam smiles, although it’s mostly to himself.

“So—”

At the sound of Gansey’s voice, Adam’s attention flicks outwards again.

But only a moment after he’s spoken, Gansey says, “Oh, never mind.”

“What?”

“No, it’s a bad question.”

Adam gives a flippant movement of his hand. “Go on.”

For a moment, Gansey considers. “I mean, are you going to speak with him?”

Of course that’s what’s expected. Of course that’s what any person with a pulse would expect from Adam now. However, Adam stills at the question, regretting the fact that Gansey asking it has made it so that Adam now needs to deal with it. Because certainly he’d wondered it himself. Certainly he’d turned this problem over and over in his mind since even before Christmas. He’d ignored it, though; the two issues weren’t inherently linked.

“It’s not…” Adam starts.

“It’s not like that, I know,” Gansey says, sighing, his apology written all over his face. “It was a bad question, I said. I know.”

Adam’s features soften. “Someday, I will,” and Adam says it with a certainty that feels new.

Gansey doesn’t miss it; there are few things he misses when it comes to Adam. He says, “I’m glad to hear that.” And then he shoves his hands into his pockets and bites down on his lower lip. Something about the gesture looks embarrassed, like he’s trying to hold it back; it strikes Adam as oddly endearing.

Distantly Adam wonders about how much time has passed since Ronan left; certainly he’ll be back soon, although time is hard for Adam to keep track of occasionally. Especially when he’s alone with Gansey. Especially when talking about Ronan. Especially with this strange assortment of nervousness and relief together inside him. Talk of the future of this new thing is vaguely terrifying.

But that’s silly. It’s only Ronan.

Then Gansey is asking, “Is Lynch a good kisser?” and next Adam is covering his face, and really the whole thing is a little ridiculous, anyway.

 


 

“Did you guys talk about me while I was out?”

The question is asked in a whisper, Ronan’s lips at his ear just an instant after having been pressed to his neck. It was a quick enough transition that Adam has to blink, to think a second in order to bring himself back this moment and remember what he’s talking about. But then he grins, meeting Ronan’s eyes with a nod. With Ronan hovering above him, hands just above either of Adam’s shoulders, Adam links his fingers together behind Ronan’s neck.

Ronan nods back, thoughtfully.

Out the window, the moonlight is feebly trying to break through the half-closed blinds. It’s just enough light to see by, just enough that shadows are catching along Ronan’s collarbone peeking out from under his shirt.

Adam’s fingers shift, just slightly with the thought of asking a question. He stops, however, when he remembers his phone is on the nightstand, behind the bed and out of his reach unless he were to turn around and get it. It’s only an instant before Adam lets the urge go, only an instant that he’s thinking of wanting his phone, but even with just that, Ronan raises an eyebrow.

“Phone?”

Adam feels a laugh in his chest, some kind of gratefulness. He nods.

Ronan reaches over, and Adam drops his hands from Ronan’s neck. There’s the noise of his phone sliding over the top of the nightstand and then Ronan is pressing it into his palm and dropping onto his side. As Adam scoots over some, he opens his phone and says, Is it weird that Gansey knows now? It’s a fair question; for a week, this had been their secret.

But almost immediately Ronan laughs, more of a scoff than anything else. “Fuck, don’t start saying that until we know he isn’t gonna try to give us the sex talk.”

Adam makes a face, grimacing through a smile.

For a second it’s quiet, the two of them dwelling on the thought of Gansey trying to act as their father and being equally horrified by the idea. And then Adam’s saying, He knows we’re in here.

Jesus. Be quiet.” And then Ronan’s leaning across Adam, kissing him in order to silence his laughter.

Gansey may know they’re in there, yes, and Gansey may be live-texting Blue about the whole event, but the thought doesn’t even bother Adam, and it certainly doesn’t get rid of Ronan. The time belongs to them, and Adam thinks the others can’t really touch that.

Minutes are passing sporadically again, landing them in a place where Adam isn’t sure what time it is. Somehow his phone made it back over to the nightstand—or maybe the floor—but the clock isn’t so important. Beside him, Ronan is lying on his side with his back to the wall, eyes looking tired but focused on Adam. It’s an observation remarkable for how very unremarkable it is; Ronan had been looking at him for a long time.

Ronan’s hand catches under the hem of Adam’s shirt, idle fingers faking indifference.

It almost feels like Adam is holding his breath, what with the weight of Ronan’s fingertips at his hip rising goosebumps across his skin. It’s nothing and too much all at once, and Adam thinks that’s a paradox he could live in.

Slowly, Ronan says, “I think… I should go.”

And it isn’t a question—it’s a statement, albeit a reluctant one. But in return, Adam starts shaking his head, and he curls his fingers into the front of Ronan’s shirt.

“Are you not tired?”

Adam doesn’t immediately reply to this because the truth is, yes, he is tired. He parts his lips, distracted still by Ronan’s skin against his. Carefully, precisely, he mouths, Stay. And Adam feels the word, he feels the longing of it in his chest, he feels it unfurl on his lips without a sound. There’s a sensation of hurting that comes with it, too, because the fact that it isn’t spoken is palpable. Everything about the word—apart from the word itself—is nestled inside Adam, an incomplete expression that he is all too aware of.

Stay, he mouths again, tightening his grip, dropping his eyes.

He wonders if Ronan can feel the request the way Adam can, if he can feel how badly he wants to be able to pull the word free.

Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. Either way, he breathes, “Okay,” and slides his hand to the small of Adam’s back, pulling him closer, impossibly closer.

Ronan stays, and the fact of it is traced against Adam’s skin.

 


 

Leaving Henrietta is sadder than Adam thought it would be. Unlike Gansey, however, it isn’t the city itself that makes Adam regret to leave it at the end of the break. Truth be told, Henrietta looks a lot like Adam’s hometown, and Adam apparently isn’t as in-tune with whatever nonphysical thing it is about the city that makes Gansey love it so much. No, Adam is fond for different reasons, reasons that are a little more to do with the closeness of being in Monmouth, a little more to do with the way his friends have carefully and purposefully brought him into this place.

The atmosphere of the place is nice, but what will remain with Adam will be the exasperated way Gansey dug out the ghost box one night and demonstrated the significant lack of anything ghostly in Monmouth. It will be drives without purpose, meals without regard to conventional eating hours, hearing the front door open without fear. Adam knows it will be a long time before he can dissociate the feeling of fluttering in his chest with the scent of the Barns or the feel of Ronan’s hands against his.

Henrietta will be a speck in the distance soon enough, but it feels as though he’s taking a bit with him.

What’s harder for Adam than leaving, though, is the sadness Ronan obviously feels about returning to school. It’s shoved down, certainly; when Gansey asks Ronan if he’s excited to be going back to campus, Ronan’s answer is all snark. He mutters something about, “Can’t wait for Art History II,” and then scoffs for good measure. But Adam was there when Ronan said goodbye to his brothers, and even though he and Declan were back to their usual, civil-but-still-slightly-prickly relationship, Ronan looked sorry to go. Adam might not have seen it if he hadn’t been looking, but the expression on his face was definitely weighed down by something, and it didn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what.

On the road, though, Ronan is still heavy on the gas pedal. For that, it seems, the destination doesn’t matter.

Adam likes that.

The drive back to school feels different in ways that would be all too obvious if Adam were to sit around analyzing them, so instead of pondering the unnamable anticipation in his chest, he lets himself be awed by the simple fact that he and Ronan are something different now. And that comes with fingers touching beneath diner tables, Ronan returning Adam’s cross-car glances, and sometimes catching Blue grinning at them knowingly.

Even though Adam enjoys the trip up, the return to Princeton isn’t a triumphant one. It’s really just tired. As fast as they may drive, due to a combination of poor planning and too-long meal stops, they get back to campus well after midnight, and by the time they’ve lugged their suitcases back, Adam is about ready to pass out.

However, that would have been too easy, of course. After digging through his suitcase and backpack for a second, he remembers that his phone charger was packed in Ronan’s backpack, and that is all the way upstairs. The only reason it was put there in the first place was because Adam had almost left it, and Ronan had been the one to spot it still in the wall. So altogether, Adam supposes this is better than if he’d left it in Henrietta, but the trek up the stairs is still an unpleasant one. In the stairwell, Adam sends Ronan a text to tell him he’s coming, but even as he does it, he knows the likelihood of Ronan noticing it is low. With any luck, Ronan had been as tired as Adam.

Outside their door, Adam hesitates. They had only been apart for about fifteen minutes, but even so, Adam is worried about disturbing them if they are already in bed. And having no response from Ronan on his phone doesn’t help.

Finally, Adam gives a knock, as soft as he can manage, and then waits a moment.

Abruptly this all seems very stupid. His phone is still at thirteen percent, it could potentially make it through the night. But the thought of waking up with nothing is discomforting, and even though his roommate isn’t back tonight, maybe tomorrow when Adam wakes up, Scott will be there, and then he’d have no way to say anything, and what if the others were out of the room for some reason—

Adam tries the door handle.

When it turns, it’s not even hard to believe. Adam tries not to roll his eyes at their forgetfulness.

(He tries to ignore the flood of relief that comes with the downward drop of the handle.)

He’d been thinking maybe he’d slip in unannounced, maybe he wouldn’t disturb them. However, at the light from the hallway, there’s movement from Ronan’s bed, and the sliver of illumination is just enough that Adam can see him sit up, pulling his headphones from his head.

“Adam—?” his voice is soft.

There’s no motion from Gansey’s bed.

Adam quickly but softly closes the door behind him.

I’m sorry, I needed my charger, it’s in your bag, Adam says once he’s crossed the room.

“Fuck, I should have remembered, I’m…”

But Adam just shakes his head to say it doesn’t matter, and then asks, Where’s your backpack?

There’s some fumbling in the dark, moving about guided only by the dim light of phone screens, bags’ zippers being tugged open and shut, and when Ronan finds the cord, he says, “There it is!” just a little too loudly. Somehow, none of it wakes Blue or Gansey.

“They’re really fucking dead over there,” Ronan mutters, handing the charger over to Adam.

Adam glances over. Then he glances back.

And then he gives Ronan’s shirt a tug towards the door; for a second, Ronan thinks, pretending like this is a question where the answer isn’t—indisputably—yes.

 


 

 The next morning, Adam wakes up to an incessant buzzing beside his bed. It feels like a shame to acknowledge it, but even so, Adam pulls his hand free from beneath the blanket and seizes the offending device.

  • Have you seen Ronan?
  • Since last night I mean?
  • Jane said he might be with you.
  • Are you still sleeping? I’m sorry!
  • But have you seen him?

Adam blinks, reading over the multiple messages a few times before turning to glance at Ronan beside him. It’s hardly 9:30 in the morning, but trust Gansey to be worrying already. To put him out of his misery, Adam takes a quick picture of Ronan (face half-buried beneath the blankets, somehow still asleep) and adds, Yeah, I’ve seen him, and then drops his phone back to where he got it from.

His tired body is more than a little proud of the response.

He probably should have been expecting that his phone would go off again immediately.

When it does, he ignores it.

Adam doesn’t fall all the way back asleep, but eventually the feeling of the morning slipping past him is too much to ignore. With a tired sigh that isn’t quite a yawn, Adam stretches his arms above his head, which jostles Ronan enough that he makes a mumbled noise in response. Adam scoffs.

It would be so easy to whisper good morning.

Adam settles for catching Ronan’s hand in his, gentle fingers pressed to knuckles.

“God, why are we up so early?” Ronan mumbles.

Adam smiles; he flashes his phone screen at Ronan to show the clock, reading 10:24. He quirks a questioning eyebrow for good measure.

Ronan looks unimpressed, although it quickly gives way to something else, something that pulls a crease between his eyebrows.

Adam’s question this time is a hum.

“It’s just—” Ronan stops himself, though, his eyes wavering over Adam, over the bed. “You still want—? Are you sure you want—?”

The question goes incomplete, but it’s clear enough, and immediately Adam’s first thought is that it is inappropriate that Ronan should be questioning Adam about this. Adam should be the one wondering if Ronan actually wants to be with a boy who can’t speak, a boy with more ambition than confidence. A boy like Adam. That Ronan, with all his fire and presence, should be questioning him

Adam thinks there is still something he’s missing from Ronan, something he doesn’t yet understand.

But this thought isn’t frightening.

A dozen things to say pass through Adam’s mind, but instead of any of them, he pulls Ronan into a kiss that hopefully speaks enough. Because all of a sudden, Ronan isn’t the handsome boy whose interest in Adam is flattering—he’s the one who got angry when he realized his muteness had been something done to him, he’s the one who wasn’t jealous when Adam told him that he spoke to Gansey. It’s not like the weight of this hadn’t hit Adam before, but together with the nervous meter in Ronan’s voice—it’s all too much.

Adam thinks he’s in a lot deeper than he originally thought.

But then again, that seems to be the way Ronan does things.

And Adam had been throwing himself into everything all school year: Gansey. Ronan. His Latin homework. Adam has never done anything halfway, and this isn’t going to be one of those things.

So he kisses Ronan, and it’s a decision he’s made, a decision he’s happy with.

Whatever had put the doubt in Ronan’s mind—their friends knowing, being back on campus, whatever it was—it isn’t changing things.

And when he pulls away, heartbeat a little too fast, hands a little shaky, Ronan blinks up at him. Visibly summoning every ounce of casualness in him, he asks, “Is that a yes?”

Adam nods, sarcastic though the question is, because it deserves an answer. And then he rolls off the bed and says, Now let’s go find Gansey so he can stop worrying about you, and tosses his phone on the bed beside Ronan.

 


 

There is a bit of chaos that morning, the four of them shuffling between rooms to get ready, but during one stretch of minutes, Ronan finds himself alone with Gansey in their room, Gansey scanning over his textbook list for the upcoming semester, Ronan getting dressed and (silently) lamenting that he didn’t do his laundry before they left Monmouth.

“So. You and Adam are sleeping together now.”

Jesus, Gansey.” It comes out sounding as bad as a curse word. Ronan pokes at a black sweater before tossing it in his laundry bag. He enunciates, “We slept.”

Gansey makes a thoughtful noise. “Is that not—?”

Ronan interrupts, “Last night he was just getting me away from you and Blue.” He yanks his hangers to the side, soliciting a screech. The irritation in his voice doesn’t sound quite genuine—it’s more of a show than anything else, and they both know it. It’s what happens when you’ve been shutting people out for years. Ronan bites his lip.

“At Monmouth—”

“Gansey. Please. Stop talking.” He pulls a t-shirt on with enough energy that the motion looks threatening.

“I’m just trying to look out for you both.”

Ronan could level Gansey with the look he throws his way, but it only rolls off, the way it always seems to with Gansey. Ronan looks ready to say something, but instead he only sighs and crumbles the shirt he’d been sleeping in before tossing it into his dresser.

“You should probably put that—”

“Are you going to mother me with my dating life and my laundry?”

Gansey parts his lips. Then closes them. Then says, “No, I am not.”

Ronan rolls his eyes, smile slipping out.

A different smile is on Gansey’s face. After a beat, he questions, “Does he make you happy?”

“What kind of lame-ass question is that?” Ronan is already heading for the door.

“That isn’t a no.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

 


 

Noah’s Christmas present is the product of one night at Monmouth. It had been a few days before their return, and though there had been alcohol involved, it was pretty well controlled (There was a notable instance, however, when Ronan might have called Adam pretty, and then he didn’t even blink when Blue gave a loud laugh in response. Adam has a hypothesis that Ronan isn’t as good at holding his alcohol as he is good at pretending like he is). The night had started with Blue giving origami lessons and ended with an odd collection of pieces of paper on sticks.

The idea was that it was some kind of flower bouquet—but Gansey was more partial to making birds, and Ronan was partial to crumpling the paper up when it got to be too difficult. Adam was partial to sticking to the plan. So the result was an eccentric collection of origami things, all in bright colors, bound together with ribbon. And maybe it isn’t exactly cohesive, but perhaps that’s part of the charm of it.

Or at least that’s the idea, Blue insists.

It takes not two seconds for Noah to appear that night. If Adam didn’t know any better, he would say that he’d been waiting for them.

Adam can’t place whether Noah looks different than they’d left him, or if it’s just the result of having not seen him for nearly four weeks. Noah doesn’t give him much time to ponder, though, because it only takes a moment for Noah to notice.

His eyes flicker between Ronan and Adam and he needs no one’s explanation.

Noah makes a weird movement—a roll of his neck, shoulders sinking. Then he says, “Finally,” but a moment after he’s registered the word, Adam isn’t sure he actually heard it out loud.

Noah winks at him, a gesture that definitely actually happens.

“Fuck off.”

Apparently Ronan saw it too.

Noah wants to hear all about their break—Monmouth, Blue’s family, Christmas, New Year’s. Everything. He leans into every detail—details which are notable for how impossibly banal they seem when placed in context with Noah. That Noah cares about the distant world of Henrietta is somehow a bit of a contradiction.

Throughout, Blue looks like she desperately wants to ask Noah what happened to him, but something keeps the question back. Noah is unduly excited to see all of them, and perhaps that is the reason she doesn’t ask.

He’s easily delighted by their gift, though.

“You made these?” he asks, running his thumb over the wing of one Gansey’s swans. “How?”

“Jane taught us,” Gansey says hastily. Noah’s fingers drift over to Ronan’s crumpled mess, and then he adds, “Well, some of us.”

“It’s a rose,” Ronan cuts in.

“A grey rose,” Noah says, nodding. “No, I see it.”

The other three share a look.

Noah handles the gift carefully, tucking it between the chapel’s flowers until it looks like it belongs there.

Uncomfortably, Adam thinks that Noah looks odd tonight. Distinctly different. It took a little bit for him to come to the conclusion, but now, as the night grows later, he’s sure of it. He looks—Adam might say weaker, but that’s not exactly what he means. More suitable would be more tired. Because it isn’t his body or his form, it’s him.

Adam tries not to think of it too hard; Noah’s sad smile is a little too much to handle.

But now he’s laughing at something Ronan’s said and reaching out to touch Blue’s hair.

Maybe he imagined it.

Adam doesn’t think he imagines things like that.

Adam struggles with the idea that maybe it isn’t important. Maybe Noah is tired; maybe he isn’t.

“You need to chill out over there,” Noah says, eyeing Adam meaningfully.

No one asks, but maybe they’re all feeling it, too.

If they are, it doesn’t stop Noah smiling.

The evening in the church seems too short, but eventually Gansey and Blue excuse themselves on the basis of having to be up early the next day because Blue is going back to her own school. Noah makes the appropriate noises of protest, but eventually it gives way to cold hugs and hand-squeezes. As the group is headed towards the door, though, Noah catches Ronan by the back of the shirt.

“Yeah?”

Noah closes his fist more tightly, eyes flicking between everyone. Then he settles on Ronan. “I need to tell you something.”

“Go for it?”

The warp in Noah’s expression is enough for the others to realize that Noah means alone, so they shuffle out, leaving Ronan behind.

He turns towards Noah, question on his lips, but Noah speaks before he can get it out.

“Tell Adam I’m okay.”

“I’m—” Ronan blinks. “Adam? Why can’t you?”

Noah looks like he’s concentrating on something far away. “You tell him.”

“That’s weird, man.”

A forlorn smile tugs at Noah’s lips. He doesn’t dignify that with a response, mostly because he knows Ronan will do it anyway.

Before Ronan even completely realizes that he’s not going to get a verbal reply, Noah is fading.

“Weird-ass,” Ronan mumbles, turning to go.

“I heard that.”

“Good.”

There’s a noise then, as Ronan opens the door, and it’s hard to decipher whether it’s the breeze in the trees outside or the airy breath of a laugh.

No one asks Ronan what Noah said, but it doesn’t take long for it to (inadvertently) come up. Because there was a reason Noah said what he said, and that reason was that Adam Parrish had become really very worried. Adam had seen too much of the tiredness of Noah’s face in his own mirror, he’d seen the way trauma wore you out. And maybe Noah had been dead a long time, but it didn’t change that he’d been murdered, that he was not in a safe place, even now.

That night, Adam thinks about going back to the chapel by himself but quickly nixes the idea; he doesn’t want to risk attracting anyone’s attention.

And Ronan is lingering.

Everything okay?

“Yeah.”

At the question, Ronan looks and then glances away. The two of them are standing just outside Adam’s door, both of them with their thoughts distracting them enough that they don’t exactly notice the odd silence. After a moment, though, Adam gestures him inside his room.

It’s late enough that Adam feels tired, but not so late that he’s thinking of going to bed just yet. They’d already said goodbye to Blue—she and Gansey would be leaving early enough that Adam and Ronan were almost certain to not yet be awake—and the meeting with Noah had left Adam feeling a little lacking.

There was something—

There’s something incomplete.

He scuffs his sneaker against the ground before sitting on the edge of his bed; he unties his shoes slowly, using the opportunity to not have to look Ronan’s way. It would be too easy to read the thoughtfulness on his face. But of course there’s only so long you can work with your shoelaces, and by the time Adam’s looking up again, Ronan is sitting beside him looking like he has a question but isn’t sure of the words to ask it.

Adam knows the feeling.

Finally, what Ronan says is, “Everything okay with you?”

Adam had already been working on what to say. His fingers work quickly to ask, Do you think he’s alright? He doesn’t have to specify that he means Noah. He continues, Don’t you think there’s something we should do for him?

Ronan visibly holds back his usual deflection, his usual tendency to brush things of with an I don’t know. He’s looking away from Adam, eyes focused on the far wall, leather bands drawn to his teeth.

“I think—I think he’s okay.” But there’s a note in his voice that speaks to his uncertainty. He drops his hand to his lap, lips pursed like he’s trying to pick apart the words he himself has just said.

This isn’t what lying looks like, but it’s something close.

Adam wonders if it has anything to do with what Noah said to him back in the chapel.

Ronan’s voice shifts, “Actually—”

He doesn’t finish the statement, though. He leaves it uncompleted, his statement to Noah’s well-being hanging in the air, weighted with how wrong it sounded.

Doesn’t it mean something that we’re the ones who met him? Aren’t we supposed to help?

The question feels desperate and a little helpless; Adam knows the answer he wants.

And Ronan wants to give him that answer, but he doesn’t know where he’d go from there. What comes after the Yes? They’ve got no insight into the how, and that dead end leaves Adam feeling a little raw.

It isn’t right. That’s what he would say if he could.

He would say that there’s a reason that they’re the ones who figured Noah out, there’s a reason he’s still around, and he’d say that those two things somehow go together. And Adam can imagine his voice; he remembers the feeling of anger on his lips, the stuttered way his words run together when he gets overwhelmed. Adam can feel the tightness in his throat that comes with a shout that you hadn’t been aware you’d been holding in, and the memory of all this is making his blood even hotter beneath his skin. To write any of this would only cheapen it; there is no voice-shaking anger in the typed word.

Adam gestures loosely, an attempt to diffuse the tension in his hands, but it only ends with his fingers curled to fists—a familiar expression of anger that feels like a nasty default. He presses his knuckles to his legs. His eyes are shut tight. Ronan feels a hundred miles away.

The whole situation is wildly unfair, and it’s too big a problem to comprehend at this hour.

“Hey,” Ronan whispers.

Everything about Ronan seeing Adam like this is wrong. Adam, paralyzed with fear and hatred of his own rage. Adam, unable to express himself in any sort of rational way. Adam feels unknowable in the worst sort of way. Were it possible, he would hide himself away.

But no: Here he is, a match lit, exposed with his hands in fists like he’d left his ability to reason behind in that trailer.

All because he feels a little too attached to a dead boy.

Because he’s got a sense of purpose and no clue what to do with it.

Like asking for help when you hadn’t wanted to admit it, it is both comforting and embarrassing when Ronan’s hand meets Adam’s furled one.

If his anger were a building, he would take it apart brick by brick.

There is no room for that here. There would be no getting better unless he can dismantle those feelings.

Adam exhales deeply.

“Hey,” he says again. “We’ll figure—something out.”

Adam wants to say I know I know I know, he wants to scrub out the last few minutes with an eraser. He shakes his head a little bit, slowly opening his hand to Ronan’s touch before closing his fingers again, this time around Ronan’s.

Sorry, Adam types with his other hand.

With a resigned sigh, Adam pulls apart his anger, letting it fade with great purpose, forcing it from him, letting it go. No—not letting it go: Sending it off. There is no room for that here. He gives an exhale, hardly noticeable, hardly there.

“What? No, don’t—” Ronan makes a noise that’s mostly air. “No, you’re—” He shrugs. “Are you okay?”

Adam does consider the question, and what he finds is that yes, he is.

He nods.

The space the anger left empty is already filling with something else. Adam resists the urge to think of how close he came to feeling it too much. There is danger there; Adam doesn’t trust himself with that much. Not yet.

Ronan looks like he wants to ask something more, but Adam diffuses it with a hint of a smile, a squeeze of the hand.

He doesn’t know whether Ronan looks convinced or not. It looks like there’s something else, there.

Worry?

No, surely not.

If there is worry, it will have to be put off for another day.

 


 

 

A week later, the semester starts over breakfast. It’s eight in the morning, and though Adam and Gansey managed to make themselves presentable, Ronan is stubbornly still dressed in his pajamas in protest of the early hour. The glower he’s emitting isn’t fooling them, though; his one hand may be tightly wrapped around a cafeteria mug of coffee, but the other is holding Adam’s. In this situation, glaring doesn’t really work.

“Hey, tomorrow you guys have to be up for an 8am,” Gansey points out, smiling a little while poking at a muffin with his fork.

“Don’t remind me,” Ronan mumbles.

If only it weren’t Latin… Adam says.

“I would drop it in an instant if it weren’t,” Ronan agrees. “Jesus fuck.”

The explicative makes Adam laugh, just a little, and Gansey seems equally amused. It isn’t so much the words, really—that exact phrase has left Ronan’s mouth plenty of times before—but it’s the situation. The significance of it is slightly indescribable, verging on something new, something new on all fronts. It’s the beginning of a semester, the end of a school year, and a mix of relationships that are changing, changing, changing. It isn’t just Ronan: It’s Noah and Gansey, too. It’s Blue and the distant but somehow still present Henry.

At Adam’s hand, Ronan’s grip tightens.

That’s something.

 


 

 

Later that day, Adam finds a note in his mailbox, letters scrawled in black ink pen across graph paper:

DEAR ADAM,

I sure hope you don’t check your mail before I’m gone, because I definitely slipped this in campus mail in order to save on postage. You’ll have to forgive me. Stamps these days… $$$$$$$$ …

I wanted to say that I’m so happy you came with us to Henrietta. My mom loved you, Persephone loved you even more, which is weird but also that should be taken as a compliment. I don’t need to tell you how happy Gansey was to have you, and … well, you’d probably be better suited for telling ME how happy Ronan was to have you Ha Ha… ha… Ha

Anyway I loved spending time with you and everyone, and I’m awfully glad things seem to be going well for you. Keep your head up, my dude

Tell Noah hello for me—and that I’m thinking about him. There’s something up with him, and we gotta help, but idk what that is just yet. Do you feel it? But anyway give him love for me.

I’m wishing you a fantastic semester!!!! I’ll be sure to keep the letters coming. bye for now!!

yrs,

Blue

Chapter Text

It quickly became obvious that something needed to be done about Noah. No one had wanted to talk about it, but there comes a moment when it is no longer possible to hide the fact that every member of a friend group has been sneaking around to visit another member, one who is most definitely not okay. All that worry doesn’t stay hidden.

It slips at lunch, amid Gansey complaining about—of all things—his Chem 100 class.

“It isn’t like Dr. Walsh is unqualified to be teaching, I really don’t think that, but sometimes when I’m sitting in that lecture hall the words are just…” He makes a blinking motion with his hand, fingers pressed together and then spreading wide, “Empty.”

Adam nods, really only half-listening. He’s sympathetic towards Gansey’s plight because he knows the feeling, but he’s distant in the fact that he does not have chemistry or Dr. Walsh or the attention span to give more than half an ear. Ronan might not even be managing that much.

“I just think he thinks we’re all science majors? I don’t know. He talks like everything is so obvious. I mean, I still have an A—”

At this point, Ronan looks up from his food, casting Adam a look to ask What the hell is he complaining about, then?, at which Adam just laughs, shaking his head silently.

“—but it isn’t an enjoyable class,” Gansey continues, feigning obliviousness to their exchange except for a slight raise of his voice, “Although really I shouldn’t complain; Noah assures me his Chem 100 professor was much worse.”

Ronan sounds uninterested. “When did he say that?”

“Oh—” The pause is just long enough to give away slight embarrassment, as though it’s some secret, as though it’s something strange, “Well, I went and saw him last night.”

And it doesn’t make sense that Gansey’s ears should be pink, it doesn’t make sense that this should be anything kept secret. It’s not like Gansey never hangs out with just Adam or Adam never hangs out with just Ronan, but it was something about Noah—and of course, they’d all been doing it, somehow all neglecting to mention it.

Gansey babbles on, as means of justification, explaining away something that really doesn’t need explaining away, “I do worry about him sometimes, and he’s good to talk to.”

No, I agree, he’s acting weird isn’t he? Adam says, fingers scrambling to type as fast as his thoughts. I saw him earlier this week, you should have heard some of the things he said to me.

A sort of relief passes over Gansey’s face at this admission, although his expression quickly turns fretful once again. “He told me he doesn’t think he’s supposed to be here.”

The same words play over in Adam’s mind, the cadence of Noah’s voice when he’d said them a perfect memory. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not like you guys. At the time, Adam had wanted to shake his head, but Noah wouldn’t have it. I’m not, he’d insisted, and it was hard to argue that particular point with a ghost.

Adam had longed for a better answer, though. Maybe dead boys weren’t supposed to stick around, but there has to be a reason for it. There has to be something keeping him here, there has to be something that will help him, there has to be some justification.

And if there isn’t… Adam doesn’t think he’s yet ready to deal with the implications of that thought. So there has to be an explanation that the group hasn’t quite put their fingers on yet.

Ronan’s knee bumps Adam’s, drawing him back. He needs help, doesn’t he?

Something in the pull of Gansey’s eyebrows says that he isn’t altogether comfortable with the question. Adam understands this. Then, Gansey looks ready to tentatively agree, but Ronan cuts in in traditional Ronan-fashion:

“How? What would we even do?”

Adam grapples with a response, a useless I don’t know building in his throat. He sits back in his chair, shrugging. He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know; but the thing is, if anyone were going to figure it out, it would be the four of them. Gansey doesn’t let questions go unanswered, Ronan is nothing if not passionate, and Blue is empathetic beyond the need. There are solutions to be found, and it is unacceptable that they’ve been sneaking around to visit Noah, silently worrying about their friend when they could have been doing something.

They can still do something.

“Well…” Gansey starts, hesitant, “How would you feel if you were him?”

It’s a surprisingly easy question to answer: He’d want people to remember him for who he was.

Adam knows that if he were gone and people only remembered him as the boy who came to school with bruises and excuses, he would be anything but peaceful. There is no world where Adam Parrish would allow people to forget how hard he’d worked, how much he’d done. Who he was. Adam Parrish is a lot more than a victim; Noah Czerny is no different.


 

It’s one thing to realize something and an entirely different thing to put any counter-actions into place. No one has figured out any direct line of action, but there’s something in all of their minds. As usual, they talk to Noah some more, visiting him more than usual, but even so, he is an expert at dodging questions of any depth and schedules are tight, to add. So Noah remains a nagging thought, as usual, but now with more urgency. However, the fact is that school remains and college is busy, even for Ronan, try as he might to ignore it.

A surprisingly common sight is Ronan Lynch sitting on the floor of Adam’s dorm room, homework spread in front of him, nasty look on his face. Adam usually does his work in silence, somewhere at the back of the library or tucked in a quiet corner of the dorm lobby, but what Ronan does is just the opposite, and it’s something of a sight to behold. Adam has no idea how he works with that music blaring or with Adam’s eyes on him the whole time, but somehow—somehow—it gets done.

It’s on one such day around the very start of February that Ronan is making a show of doing nothing, despite the spread of papers in front of him.  With the semester having started a few weeks ago, classes are finally all hitting full-throttle all at once, and Ronan is not shy about letting everyone know how that makes him feel.

“Fuck all this bullshit,” he pronounces. “Who the fuck is Dr. Lawrence anyway? Who the fuck does she think she is?”

Adam, lying on his bed, cracks an eye open just in time to see Ronan skid a textbook across the floor with narrowed eyes.

“As if I give one single fuck about a second semester of Art History? Honestly, what kind of…” Ronan drops his head back, resting his skull to the frame of Adam’s bed. Weakly, his gaze falls to the side, softening as it lands on Adam.

For his part, Adam is doing a very good job staying awake because every bit of his demeanor says sleep. It’s only seven in the evening, but his eyes are heavy, and he finished his homework that morning during an early shift at the post office; even Ronan can only keep him up for so long. Returning Ronan’s gaze, Adam props himself up a little bit, just enough to type something for him.

You’re doing fine, aren’t you almost done?

“Yeah,” Ronan says, as though the thought is infuriating.

Despite himself, Adam smiles; it isn’t that he likes seeing Ronan like this, but he sure is dramatic about it, and Adam suspects that he only acts this way because he has an audience. Or at least, that’s part of it. There’s no faking some of this.

Adam drops his head back to the bed, rolling onto his back and closing his eyes once again as a means of telling Ronan to get back to work.

It doesn’t exactly work; Adam feels Ronan’s gaze shift, so his slightly abrupt question isn’t much of a surprise.

“Are you fucking falling asleep over there? I can leave—”

Adam shakes his head without opening his eyes, absent-mindedly running a hand through his hair. He hears Ronan turn back around, humming in slight disapproval; Adam feels him shift away from the bed frame, hears the textbook open again. It’s almost a comforting sound—he hadn’t expected him to turn around and comply so easily to a shake of the head.

Because of this, because of how wildly out of character it was, Adam can’t even be upset when it only lasts forty-five seconds. Roughly, Ronan declares, “I don’t know how you do this.”

Adam opens his eyes and finds Ronan’s already on him. Adam mouths, What?

“Study.”

It only takes a moment of staring to draw a laugh from Adam. He feels himself give way to Ronan, give way to his turned down lips and hard expression. It’s all so absurd, everything is so absurd lately, and the sound of the word Study in Ronan’s mouth in just that manner, as though it were loathsome, as though he didn’t sign up for this—it’s just a little too much. So Adam laughs and leans over, fingers catching easily in the fabric of Ronan’s shirt.

Despite popular belief, Ronan does finish his homework sometimes. Tonight doesn’t have to be one of those times. They should have known from the moment they began, but even though they tried to pretend otherwise for a moment, they still wound up in the same place—tucked together on an XL twin mattress, textbooks abandoned, Ronan looking almost unusually smug.

Their relationship is still new. Hardly more than a month, which is a weird amount of time for something like this. Kissing is easy. Hands wandering up shirts is easy.

But what Adam has found is that it’s harder to be soft. It’s harder to reach out and casually link fingers, harder to hug or drop a head to a lap. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but Adam feels—

He doesn’t know what he feels.

Or rather, he does, but it’s a feelings that’s too big, too soon, too much. And that part of himself is frightening to give up, even to someone he’s grown to trust so much.

So what normally happens when Ronan gets distracted from his homework looks a lot different from what Adam does now. Because he’s tired, because it’s cold outside, because Ronan’s crawled his way into Adam’s bed. It’s with some hesitation, some apprehension that Adam pulls Ronan to him, dropping his head to his shoulder, arm across his chest.

“I told you you were fucking tired,” Ronan mumbles, but then he’s wrapping an arm around him (carefully, so carefully that it seems very un-Ronan to someone who doesn’t actually know Ronan), and Adam lets go of a breath that’d caught in his throat.

Adam can feel Ronan’s breathing against his hair and hear his heart beating in his chest.

It’s been a long time since he was this close to anyone else.

Even longer since he felt this safe this close to anyone else.

Adam lets his eyes close, though he almost wishes he could see Ronan’s face.

Ronan’s hand wraps around Adam’s. “Are you not gonna tell me to go back to work, though?”

Now he’s just being silly. Adam would tell him to shut up in any other circumstance. Instead, he draws closer, hooking fingers tighter, seeking something—something more. He finds his gaze lingering on Ronan’s eyes, on his mouth and jawline; the warmth of Ronan’s skin is beneath his fingertips. Unsupervised thoughts reach for Adam, thoughts he normally wouldn’t dwell on. So often, Adam finds solace in the future, hope in knowing that he can change what’s coming. But these thoughts are caught on right now, and over and over Adam replays the image of Ronan crawling up here, lowering those blue eyes, which then disappear behind dark lashes. Ronan’s arm is wrapped around him, and Adam thinks that if this is his right now, maybe he needn’t worry about the future so terribly much.

Adam shakes his head. No. No, of course he wouldn’t tell him to go back to work now. And so he pulls him closer, regretting the spaces that can’t be closed.

Hardly more than a breath, Ronan laughs.


 

Later that night, Ronan returns to his room, finding it beautifully empty and dark. He doesn’t turn on the light as he changes and readies for bed, but when he is finally under the covers, he pulls his phone into his hands—regretfully but urgently. The screen is on, bright in the dark room, the home screen still set to the default wallpaper; his thumbs are spread wide, hesitant to even tap the icon he needs.

He stares at his phone for an ungodly amount of time, only to merely click on the web browser and then proceed to stare motionless at the Google homepage.

Ronan starts, when do most couples s

He stops. He bites his lip. Backspace.

when should you

No. No, what kind of idiotic shit

He types, when to say

Bullshit. Garbage, complete idiocy. He can decide for himself when to—

“Fuck. Fuck me. Fuck me with an entire rake—” He mumbles, punctuating the words with the darkest noise, caught somewhere between a groan and a growl. “Jesus fucking—” He backspaces once again.

when

He stops. If anyone saw his internet history, he would literally throw himself from a ten-story building. He would cut off his middle fingers. Who is gonna see your internet history, Ronan? The obvious answer is absolutely no one, fucktard, just fucking google the goddamnit’s just research, you aren’t turning into a goddamn poet just because—

Resolutely, he continues, wanting to burrow the stupid cell phone into his skull with every new letter, but he types it, he types the dumb question and even hits the stupid magnifying glass to search. And of course it pulls up pages and pages of results, all the morons in the world asking the same moronic question, throwing it into the void of the internet, just hoping for some helpful statistic, hoping for some help in their stupid love lives—

And of course there’s no consensus. It was a dumb question. Ronan should throw himself from the tenth story just to prove to himself how pointless this was. One website answers six months, which is an impossibly long time. Six? Could they have meant six?

Ronan can’t imagine that.

He hits the back button and continues browsing sites, just to emphasize to himself how utterly stupid this entire thing is. How stupid he is. Six months. Two months. Don’t say it too soon. Don’t say it too late. Don’t say it first. Never say it first. This science project has no conclusion, no consensus, there’s no theory to be postulated.

Again Ronan pulls his thumbs away from the screen; he exhales out through his nostrils, long and exhausted. This is nonsense. But Adam is—

Sometimes Ronan can hardly handle his thoughts about Adam.

How carefully and precisely Adam had drawn to him earlier, how one of the few sounds Adam makes for Ronan is laughter, how he sometimes holds Ronan’s hand like it’s the last one in the world—it’s enough to pull the words from Ronan’s tongue by force.

None of the websites have advice for if your boyfriend happens to be selectively mute.

Ronan doesn’t know what he’s doing. Twice a year he uses his phone and this is the shit he Googles? He closes his phone with a determined sort of resignation. Though a pang of worry is still nagging deep (deep, deep) in his stomach, Ronan can feel the end of it. He isn’t going to mess this up, not with this feeling, anyway.

Though Ronan would never be sappy on purpose, he also doesn’t lie, even to himself—and he has to admit that he feels nearly in over his head.

Yes, he has a lot to say to Adam. But for now he thinks he feels the same words in the palms of his hands and in the curve of that smile. Perhaps words are difficult for them both; so far, it hasn’t turned out to be a problem.

Resolutely, Ronan shuts off his phone.


 

“So. Parrish. You know what day it is?”

With the faintest smile on his lips, Adam shakes his head.

“Oh man, then I’m not gonna be the one to tell you,” Ronan says, leather bands to his teeth. “Wanna go for a drive?”

The fourteenth day of February is a cold one, the wind biting, the sun hidden behind rolling masses of clouds. Ronan had left Gansey chattering away into his phone, too preoccupied to say anything when Ronan slipped out of the room a few minutes earlier. And good thing too, because he would have almost certainly had teasing questions, and if there were anything Ronan hated more than that…

Ronan’s eyes slide over to Adam, who isn’t smiling exactly but looks amused, even so. There’s a brightness in his eyes, an ease in his posture; his hands are tucked deep in his coat pockets. Ronan notes the mess the wind has made of his hair, quickly thinks that he’s glad he doesn’t have that problem—but he likes that Adam does.

Adam catches him looking (he always does). He lights up immediately, smile slipping easily across his face now.

Ronan looks away. Adam laughs. By this time they’re at the car, or else Adam might have given him a shove in the arm.

The inside of the BMW offers no immediate relief to the cold, and Adam lets out a sharp exhale, holding his hands up to the vents, fingers spread wide. Ronan is unimpressed and shakes his head in mock dismay.

In return, Adam rolls his eyes.

It is fucking freezing, but the day Ronan admits that to Adam is a long way off.

Though he’s started the car, Ronan doesn’t immediately back out; instead, he’s staring in a way that’s easier than when they’d been walking. Because now Adam is looking back in a way that feels like it’s giving permission. So often Ronan finds himself in situations just like these, piecing together what’s okay and what isn’t—playing games as though sometimes it’s more permissible for him to stare than others. It’s silly, really. He knows it. Adam probably knows it, too.

Ronan stares.

Slowly the car starts to heat up, and it becomes less and less casual for them to sit here. Ronan’s gaze slips: From Adam’s eyes to his hands, back to his eyes and then up to his hair. Here he lingers, smirk pulling at one corner of his lips. Adam notes the attention, his own gaze instinctively rising, followed by a hand to his head.

“Yeah, you  better fix that. You look like a fucking…”

Adam raises his eyebrows, a dare to finish the sentence.

“A fucking… idiot…”

Surprise strikes his features as Ronan actually completes the sentence the way he’d been threatening to, only to melt away when—

“Like you got lost on your way to the goddamn… beach photo shoot… Jesus Christ.”

Again Adam laughs, now well at work flattening his hair out. Ronan uses the opportunity to shift the car into reverse.

Ronan doesn’t have a destination in mind, not right away, though the possibilities are limited. And because Adam doesn’t ask, he makes no hasty decisions about one. Ronan lets the road fold out before him. He’d only said they were going on a drive, after all; and that, if nothing else, is something he is able to do.

(The moment this through crosses his mind, Ronan internally recoils. No, that’s not right. The thought is too self-deprecating. Too unfair. He can do many things. This is his favorite though, and that is the honest way to put it. Adam is his favorite. His car is his favorite. This is where he wants to be today, as far away from school as possible.)

“Far away” isn’t practical, though. And he doesn’t have to be Gansey to admit this. Destinations come and go, Ronan still undecided. But then he remembers that there’s somewhere in the middle, somewhere that is a little farther than the next town over but closer than the next state over. The moment he remembers it, that’s when he knows where they need to be. It’s a sprawling park, a jungle gym punctuating its center but largely flanked with green space, looped with leafless trees. Snow from the previous week is still spotting the shadowed areas.

Ronan hasn’t been here more than a few times, and during those visits he’d brought something with him—a snack, a coffee, a particularly tedious bit of homework. He hadn’t overly considered his destination, of course, though he had felt pretty confident once he decided on it. But now, as they actually arrive, the car slowing to a stop at last, Ronan looks over the dried grass, the park curiously devoid of children because of the frightful temperature and the odd time of day, Ronan almost shakes his head and turns around. What kind of place is this? Perhaps there’s somewhere else—

But then he notices Adam. He’s smiling, which is usual enough, sure, but then he immediately unbuckles his seat belt, no question in his mind that this is where they’re supposed to be. And for a moment Ronan is struck by this quality in Adam. He doesn’t know what to call it, exactly, but it is something about him specifically.

Adam notices Ronan’s small hesitation, turns, and says, Are we gonna go sit on top of those monkey bars or what?

Of course they are; Ronan scoffs. “Uh, yeah,” he says, like there’d never been any question of it. And really, there hadn’t.

So Ronan gets out, and Adam is behind him.

Then Adam is running, hair even more of a mess than it’d been earlier. His coat is falling open, his feet are clumsy against the sloped ground, and before he’s made it too far, Adam is looking over his shoulder as if to ask why Ronan is lagging behind. That’s all it takes for Ronan to take off.

However, though the park has a lot of grass, it’s not enough for Ronan to make up for those few seconds where he hadn’t realized they’d been racing—Asshole, he thinks—and by the time Ronan’s feet are hitting the rubber mulch surrounding the jungle gym, Adam is already jumping up to clasp the rungs of the monkey bars. He easily swings his legs, catching them on the ladder to help him pull himself up. Ronan strides up, exhaling sharply, and then he gives Adam’s shoe a little tug. Adam proceeds to neatly kick his hand away. Ronan only grins minutely and hoists himself up besides Adam.

Adam feigns yawning, which earns him a roll of the eyes.

Their gazes catch for a moment, bringing a dopey smile to Adam’s face as he leans in to draw Ronan into a kiss. Adam’s hand is furled into the front of Ronan’s shirt; the other is braced, white-knuckled around the yellow bars of the playground equipment. Ronan sees this just before their lips meet, and gently he drops his own hand to Adam’s clenched one.

Ronan isn’t sure if he’s imagining it when he feels Adam’s grip soften beneath his. After all, they’re in a slightly prezeled position, awkward on top of the bars, and Adam was surely only worried about falling, but Ronan wouldn’t let that happen. The kiss is soft, airy even in ways that have nothing to do with the fact that they’re six or seven feet off the ground. Because Adam has a habit of pulling back sometimes, not so much that he can see Ronan’s face, just enough that he can breathe feely. His lips still brush Ronan’s, his hands don’t move from wherever they’d been.

Now, Ronan recognizes it even before it happens. Adam’s kisses linger longer just before this; they’re more fervent, more desperate. Still gentle, though. His hand tightens at Ronan’s chest. And then he pauses, slipping back the smallest amount.

They’re breathing the same air, lips touching on exhales.

These moments are short, but they feel big.

Having Adam this close to him almost always feels like something important.

Because then he’s sitting back, eyes scrunched up in a smile. Adam gives Ronan a multi-fingered prod in the chest before he draws his hand back, to which Ronan gives an unimpressed look that Adam subsequently ignores.

This is a nice place, Adam says.

“Yeah, it’s not terrible.”

Adam nods, those words enough for him to decipher exactly what Ronan thinks about the place. He likes it, sure, but Adam could name a few places he likes more. And less.

Come here a lot? He already knows the answer.

Ronan shrugs.

Yeah, like Adam thought. He swings his legs and gives a small smirk.

Ronan’s eyes are downward cast, fingertips tracing a crack in the paint which disappears beneath Adam’s pointer finger. Here, Ronan trails along the joints in Adam’s finger, up to the back of his palm, and then along the inside of his arm. Finally he comes to a stop at Adam’s collarbone, where he rests a gentle hand at Adam’s neck.

“Hey, Parrish.”

He mouths, Yeah?

Ronan’s stare rests on his lips for a little too long before flicking down to his own hand and then coming back to Adam’s eyes. “I don’t hate you.”

Adam’s lips twitch. He shifts to get a better grip on his phone. I don’t hate you either.

“Good.” The word ends awkwardly with a weird breath like he’d intended to continue but had cut himself off at the last second. Adam looks curious but doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. And Ronan almost laughs, because this raising of the eyebrows is a gesture that he is very familiar with when it comes from Adam and only in this absence of it now does he completely realize how much he knows that look.

He knows so much about Adam. He truly, really knows so fucking much about Adam Parrish.

God, Ronan likes him so much.

Here’s where Adam does raise his brows. And it draws a unique sort of laugh from Ronan immediately; it breaks from him like a dam collapsing. Sudden. Large. Impossible to ignore. Ronan laughs, and it’s overwhelming, intoxicating. And then Adam is laughing too—it’s breathless. Confused but also certain. Knowing. And inquisitive, Adam always looks so inquisitive, like he wants to know everything and like he needs you to tell it to him.

God. God.

Ronan kisses him again—and then once more. He doesn’t give Adam an explanation, but Adam doesn’t ask for one, either. Adam’s fingers trace along Ronan’s skull, down the back of his neck. Ronan feels words caught in his mouth, but he only holds Adam more tightly, only drops the kisses to his jawline, down his neck.

It’s then that Adam laughs again (Jesus, they’re both so happy), but this one is a little different, a little more nervous. He pulls back a few inches, eyes meeting Ronan’s and then glancing fleetingly towards the parking lot.

Ronan scoffs. “What, you expecting a bunch of little kids to roll up on their tricycles, playin’ hooky from third grade?”

Adam shoves him in the shoulder.

“Whoa,” Ronan warns. “Do you see how high off the ground we are? You need to be careful. Shit.”

Now the shove Adam gives him has real force behind it, but Ronan only grins. He laughs.

He can’t remember feeling this happy, so inexplicably happy. Not with Adam, not with Gansey, not with anyone, not in a long time. And the happiness is tangible, burning under his skin and tugging his mouth in a way that won’t let the smile drop. It’s so ridiculous, so wildly ridiculous but he’s just happy. The sky is grey and his fingers are going numb, but Ronan is happy in a way that doesn’t make him feel guilty, a way that doesn’t feel out of place or strange. A back corner of his brain thinks that he wishes he could box this feeling up and carry it around with him.

Fuck, what has he gotten himself into?

Months ago, when these feelings for Adam were unspoken, unnamed, that question might have been frightening. But facing it now… Ronan certainly isn’t afraid, and in fact, it’s quite the opposite feeling that’s creeping through him.

He doesn’t know what to call what he feels now, he doesn’t know what the opposite of frightening is in this situation. But fuck if it’s not a good feeling.


 

Adam can’t say that he’d imagined he’d be hanging upside down from monkey bars on Valentine’s Day. To be completely honest, he hadn’t imagined that the two of them would be doing anything on this day, but somehow this is exactly where they should be. The park is somehow quaint yet desolate, the brown grass and bare trees clashing with the bright playground equipment and shiny black of Ronan’s car. It’s fitting. A good place for the two of them.

Back and forth Adam swings, fingers frustratingly far from the ground. It seems like maybe he should be tall enough to reach the ground but then again maybe not. Ronan can’t do it either, which is a small comfort. He lets his arms swing freely before casting a sideways look to Ronan; Ronan looks back.

Adam extends a hand.

Ronan takes it and draws his fingers to his lips.

“Your hair looks ridiculous,” Ronan mumbles against his skin.

Adam would say Shut up about my hair, but he can’t wrestle his phone out of his pocket, and he thinks Ronan can read the expression on his face, anyway. Slowly Adam draws his fingers away from Ronan’s lips, tracing them along his cheekbones, his jaw. Ronan’s eyes follow the movement of his hands, a dim smile on his lips.

Then his hands drop away, the world turning upside down once again as his focus shifts to the world around them.

Adam isn’t one to make metaphors, but if he were, he thinks there might be something to be said about hanging on a jungle gym upside down with Ronan Lynch.

Finally, though, it gets to be too much, and Adam tugs himself upwards again.

His head swims, not entirely from the re-orientation.

Ronan is right behind him.

Time goes a little too quickly that day. The sun is soon low in the sky; somehow, they’d spent hours here. Not always on the monkey bars, sure, but chilling in the slide, riding on the swings. It’s a silly way to pass the time but not a stupid way. When they find themselves back in the car, it feels like the last few hours have been very full.

Adam knows that has less to do with the park itself, more to do with Ronan.

But even so.

In the car, Ronan clasps Adam’s hands between his. “I can’t believe they didn’t just fall off,” he says, holding both their hands in front of the vent, now blowing warm air.

Adam replies, I think I have frostnip, to which Ronan gives an amused look.

“Frostnip?”

It’s a real thing! Adam promises, grinning, a little incredulous that Ronan would challenge him.

This results in a series of Google searches, followed by a half-ass concession that Adam might be right about frostnip. But he also probably doesn’t have it. So does the fact even matter? Yes, Adam says, it does. And in reply, Ronan puts the BMW into reverse and starts to drive without dignifying Adam with a response.

Adam gives a small cackle.

It’s somehow precisely fitting and an understatement to say that today was a good day, Adam thinks. He still has homework to do when he gets back, still has reading to catch up on, but it isn’t pressing heavily. It’s a fact, the same way Ronan is.

Everything at school is still waiting for them when they get back. Gansey is once again on the phone (Adam doesn’t want to think that he just never hung up), and he waves at Adam when he enters their room, trailed by Ronan.

That evening is a normal evening. They all do homework on the floor of Gansey’s and Ronan’s room. Ronan orders a pizza. Gansey and Adam buy coffees from the shop on campus. Ronan willingly does his Latin homework and then is forced to finish his other shit to Gansey’s satisfaction (There would be no completing it to Adam’s).

Adam drops a head to Ronan’s shoulder while he looks over his Latin. Gansey repeatedly looks up from his textbook to make a comment about whatever’s being discussed, only to chastise himself into going back to reading. Ronan taps his fingers along the edge of his textbook, along the outside of Adam’s leg. For a brief interval, Gansey and Ronan throw paper back and forth across the room, only to cease when one lands in Adam’s half-empty coffee. Adam levels them with a glance for this transgression. And all the while, music is playing in the background; more than once, Ronan has to restart a song because it wasn’t getting the proper amount of attention.

It’s late when the homework is declared finished, when they all finally crawl into bed; Adam takes the wall-side of Ronan’s bed, pressing his back to the cool cement block. This too is normal. When they wake up, they’ll have to go to Latin—probably in a rush, probably with half-brushed teeth and wrinkly clothes—and that will also be the usual.

Besides the calendar date, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about today, Adam thinks. But in the darkness, as his eyes adjust, he finds Ronan’s gaze on him—steadily, softly. It’s tempting to look elsewhere sometimes, tempting to shove Ronan away, passing it off like a joke. That’s the easy thing, the thing Adam knows. The thing he and Ronan have been doing since long before their first kiss.

But these days, Adam feels a twinge of confidence, a hint of something bigger than a romance built on crass jokes and a shared sense of humor.

Ronan’s arm wraps over him. Adam lets himself be drawn closer.

The palm of Adam’s hand finds the curve of Ronan’s jaw; his fingers trace along the skin near his hairline.

Adam remembers his first impressions of Ronan: Dark, sarcastic, directionless. Adam remembers struggling to see how he could be friends with Gansey, struggling to understand their dynamic. At first glance, Adam had thought Ronan was everything Gansey was not. But then—well, it had taken a few weeks, but Adam remembers what came next. His next opinion on Ronan was that actually this was wrong; he’d thought that when he first met Ronan, he hadn’t been seeing the real him. The dark, sarcastic, directionless Ronan was merely a front, a game, a façade.

But that hadn’t been right either.

What Adam thinks of Ronan now is different from both of those—and at the same time, the same.

Adam drops his hand from Ronan’s face, letting it mirror Ronan’s as he wraps his arm around Ronan’s back. His ear is close enough to Ronan’s chest that he can hear it beating.

Slowly, Adam thinks he’s figuring Ronan out, and slowly he’s realizing that Ronan isn’t so much a mystery as he’d thought. He’s intimidating at first, yes. He’s made of sideways glances, curse words, and a foot that’s too heavy on the gas pedal. But he’s also soft. A heavy drinker, maybe, but all full of alcohol he melts, the same way other people do. He trips over his words sometimes. He botches saying nice things, even though he means them. His biting comments are masks for compliments (but only sometimes). And when Adam starts to think about it, it’s not like these things are all terribly unique. They aren’t things Adam’s never seen before, they aren’t things that he likes just because he likes them. But when all these traits are colored like Ronan, framed in the context of everything Ronan’s told Adam about his life, about his interests, about the people who annoy him and the people who are meaningful to him, well… It’s something more special.

Ronan is made of many contradicting things, just like Adam. There’s nothing to figure out, nothing to decipher or understand. There is no “Real Ronan” to uncover. Because Ronan is just a normal boy, extraordinary for the fact that he is known to Adam. Extraordinary for the way he moves in his own skin. Extraordinary because Adam thinks he loves him.

He doesn’t say it out loud. He hardly dares to think it. But it’s there, all the same. His feelings for Ronan have always been dizzying. Always exciting. But now they’re comfortable, too.

Adam could give himself to this boy and trust him all the while.

He is safe with Ronan, and it is like that that he falls asleep.


 

Dear Adam,

Enclosed you will find many Valentine’s cards, and I am trusting you to hand them out to the appropriate addressees. (Read Ronan’s yourself, tho, it’s funny. tell me what he says). (actually probably just read all of them, they’re all hilarious). But yeah happy valentine’s day!!! I hope ronan recited some poetry to you or something because lord knows he better be thankful to have you (I know he is)

but anywho, Gansey filled me in on some of the plight with Noah. You guys think he needs something, you think he’s not at rest? Because I think I agree, and Mom does, too, something is up with him. I’m brainstorming over here, so I’ll be in touch.

But here’s a thought: y’all ever try asking NOAH maybe???? i think that’s step #1. cuz it doesn’t sound like much of that’s happened. he’s still a person, even if he’s a little ghostly (a lot ghostly)

But anyway. All I’ve heard about lately is Gansey’s stupid chemistry professor. I hope your semester is going a little better than that because I’m TIRED of hearing about dr. walsh, jesus. Tell me about your favorite class and your favorite professor, that is the content i want. i’ll start: my favorite class is astronomy right now but hold on because I have to explain. it’s hard as fuck, which I was Not expecting, I thought it was just… stars? But no. No it’s not. but here’s the thing Henry is in there, and he really does just make it better. he wasn’t in there at first, but he needed an extra class because he waited until the last minute to fill a hole in his schedule and I told him to come take astronomy with me even though I could tell it was already gonna be horrible on the first day, I just wanted someone to be in there with me… So anyway! the class is hard but henry is smart so he helps me out and it’s a good time. My favorite professor is my english professor cuz she’s cancelled class three times this semester already, so anyone who takes one for the team like that is good in my books.

But yeah, that’s what’s happening here. I’m fucking ready for spring break. do we have spring break plans? I need to call Gansey. You guys need to discuss that, too, because I need to get out of here and DO something yikes

But anyway, I’ll talk to you soon. I hope everyone’s doing well (besides gansey, though, I know he’s suffering and dying by Chemistry. But Ronan and Noah, I mean. I hope you, Noah, and Ronan are well.) See you!!!!

Yours,

Blue

Chapter Text

“March already!” Gansey says unnecessarily, mostly to himself. Adam can hardly hear him over the noise of papers being rustled, pulled from folders and binders. He’s parsing through them looking for something, but seeing as he’s been looking for whatever it is for the last ten minutes, Adam is starting to doubt its existence.

Gansey shakes his head, and for a moment the noise dies down. Adam uses the silence to hum in vague agreement, but then he amends Gansey’s statement, “Midterms already.”

Gansey makes a face, though he doesn’t look up from his mess of old assignments and notes. “Yeah. That’ll be no problem for you, though.”

Adam starts to reply in the affirmative, but something about the way Gansey says this is wrong, out of place. Slowly Adam says, “Well, they’ll be fine for you, too.” There’s the smallest raise of voice towards the end of the statement, the tiniest question that doesn’t want to be asked.

“Yes, I—they’ll be fine for me, too, yes.” Gansey shuffles a couple papers, laying them off to the side. He pauses, but it’s clear he has plans to go on; and when he does, his nonchalance is forced, “Has Ronan talked to you about his midterms?”

And Adam sighs. There it is. Apparently Adam hadn’t been the only one to notice that even Ronan’s already-weak attempts to study had been trickling out. He replies, “Sort of.”

Gansey isn’t looking Adam in the eye. His thumb is pressed to his lip, the fingers on his other hand working quickly to parse through a new pile of papers in his lap. “I’ve been trying not to nag—” He breaks off, sighing himself. “Maybe you could—?”

For a second, Adam doesn’t realize that he’s done speaking, and it takes his brain an additional second to formulate a broken response, “Could—? What, encourage him to study?” Immediately it becomes apparent why Gansey had been unable to complete the question: Because it’s ludicrous. Adam gives a faint laugh, rubbing the back of his neck. This feels like a problem that both of them have been ignoring for weeks, and the fact that it’s finally being confronted is uncomfortable for the mere fact that it suddenly seems useless. Even so, Adam says slowly,  “I mean—maybe?”

That’s the most Adam can promise, and Gansey realizes that as quickly as Adam had. He gives a sheepish nod, shifting another pile of papers to his bed. “I just worry. Perhaps if you were the one to—oh!” He draws a sheet of paper from the pocket of a bright yellow folder. “Found it!,” he declares, quickly and neatly changing the subject.

Though it’s an abrupt change, it is a welcome one. Because Adam doesn’t much feel like debating with Gansey about how much influence he has over Ronan’s extinct study habits—Adam is pretty certain it’s none. It says something about Gansey’s relentless optimism that he continues to believe otherwise, even after knowing Ronan for years now. Adam doesn’t pretend to know Ronan better than Gansey, it’s just that Adam is a bit more of a realist, and neither of them can remember the last time they’ve actually seen Ronan doing homework that wasn’t Latin.

However, it’s the very next day, without any prompting that Ronan shows up at Adam’s door with a question that even Gansey wouldn’t have expected.

“Can you help me with a midterm project?”

Adam raises his eyebrows.

“I know. I know, don’t look at me like that. But it’s due tomorrow and I need help.”

There’s the bit that sounds like Ronan. Adam gladly agrees, of course, and though Ronan offers no further details, Adam is soon following him across campus, chasing Ronan’s warmer fingers with his colder ones. Ronan is talking pointedly about everything besides the mystery project—“Chainsaw brought me a shiny penny yesterday.”; “Do you think we’ll ever see the goddamn sun again?”; “Quit staring at me.”

Before Ronan can start telling Adam about some dumb shit Kavinsky said in the cafeteria the other day, Adam pulls his hand from Ronan’s and risks asking, Is this your only midterm?

Ronan waves a mindless hand through the air. “The only one I actually have to do shit for.”

For a moment, Adam considers dropping the subject.

He should probably drop it. But Ronan is talking out the side of his mouth, teeth braced to his wrist, looking an awful lot like there’s something Adam doesn’t know. Adam could take a guess at it, though, and he’s not sure he likes it, and so he shouldn’t keep pushing. But—

What’s it for?

Ronan’s eyes almost roll. “Painting,” he mumbles.

Adam could drop it now. But the uncomfortable feeling in the back of his mind surges, egging him on. Not worried about Latin? Or Art History?

“Yeah right.”

Women in African-American Literature?

“I stopped going to that class weeks ago.”

Ronan says this like it’s nothing, and maybe to him it is. Adam can only nod. He doesn’t say, But it’s only March; he doesn’t say, But you’ve missed the deadline to drop classes with a W; he doesn’t say, But you’ll fail. Ronan isn’t stupid. Neither is Adam.

He rolls his phone between his palms, just once. There’s a question to be asked, but Adam lets it go.

So what is this project?

Ronan reaches over, takes Adam’s hand in his, and draws it to his lips with a smile that’s a little too cocky. “You ready to sit for your portrait?” he mumbles against the back of his palm. Adam starts to groan in protest, but Ronan cuts him off with a quick laugh. “No, it won’t be like last time, it wasn’t your fault—you’re hot as fuck—”

Last time, meaning the time Ronan had used Adam to model a pose and Ronan had gotten a B on the assignment. Adam swore up and down that he couldn’t do that to Ronan again, promising it was all his fault. Ronan assured him that it hadn’t been, but even so, to his credit, he hadn’t asked Adam to volunteer for his art projects again. Today, though, Adam got duped. Tricked. Hoodwinked. Adam got got, and he has no one to blame but himself—he had been blindly following Ronan in the direction of the art building for the past two minutes.

Adam can’t even pretend to be mad; his scowl disintegrates into laughter.

So this is how Adam finds himself perched on a stool, eyes trailing Ronan around the room as he carefully selects paints and brushes. Something about the way he moves around the room is contemptuous—his hands move quickly, his eyes are downcast—but the precision with which he flicks paint onto his pallet and runs his fingertips over the paintbrush bristles betrays him. He arranges his workspace in a surprisingly organized way; with a paintbrush between his teeth, Adam can almost imagine that Ronan belongs here.

The image is soured when Adam asks, What is the assignment?, and a frown flicks over Ronan’s face.

“Abstract portrait, a la Picasso. Can you believe we’re studying Picasso in college? Did that in high school,” he mumbles around the paintbrush that’s still propped between his teeth. He places a canvas on the easel with more force than necessary. “Can you turn towards the window a little?” His eyes don’t move from his work station, but when Adam moves, Ronan nods immediately in approval.

It only takes a second more of fidgeting before Ronan picks up his brush.

Adam has had a lot of time to watch Ronan draw over the past semester and a half. He’s grown to recognize what makes Ronan’s art Ronan’s art: Lines of graphite that start light and grow heavy, details  that are precise but fantastical, shading that is deeper than you’d ever imagine monochrome could be. But now, faced with a tube of paint and a brush, Ronan grimaces.

“I fucking hate painting.”

Adam laughs, which earns him a shockingly venomous glare. With some confusion, Adam screws up his face in question.

“It’s fucking hard,” and Ronan says it like the confession pisses him off. The way his grip tightens around the red wood of the paintbrush confirms this.

Adam can’t imagine that Ronan is a bad painter, but his face softens in sympathy. He reaches over to give Ronan’s knee a squeeze. Do you have to take any more painting classes?

Ronan replies in the negative.

Instead of commenting on the hesitation that precedes this answer, Adam gives a smile and mouths, Good.

Ronan nods, and then, without further ado, he drags a heroically long, ultramarine line right down the middle of the canvas. This turns out to be incorporated right into Adam’s face, a border along his nose and between his eyes. The painting comes to life slowly, interrupted by curses and kisses. The curses are sharp, surprising, tumbling from lips. The kisses are slower, inevitable—Ronan spends too long trying to paint Adam’s lips, Adam spends too long with his eyes caught on the colorful pigments staining Ronan’s skin.

“God, Parrish,” Ronan mumbles at one point.

That’s all it takes. Adam pulls away with a yellow smudge in the shape of a fingerprint on his neck. It accompanies the blue on his thumb, the black in the crease of his elbow.

Between the kissing, somehow the painting makes progress. There is none of the carefree confidence that comes with drawing; there are no quick movements from Ronan when it comes to painting. Instead, he spends his time biting his lower lip, gripping the brush heavily, and muttering under his breath. Only occasionally can Adam catch a glance of what’s happening on the canvas, but even that is enough for him to be able to tell that this is a different process entirely. The painting needs layers, it needs patience. And slowly, Adam starts to recognize himself coming to life between the heavy lines of primary colors.

They’re in that room for a couple hours, and outside the windows, the sun is quickly sinking, stretching shadows along Ronan’s skin until it gets so dark that he has to get up in a huff to turn on the overhead lights. The project is easy on Adam’s part—all he has to do it sit. But because he doesn’t want to distract Ronan from his work, he doesn’t find much time to talk. Adam would be the first to admit that they weren’t working the entire time, but the pauses they take are short and intermittent—and usually not used for talking.

Sometimes, most times, silence is comfortable. But sometimes, it allows Adam’s thoughts to wander to places he doesn’t like.

Because there’s been something nagging away at Adam for a few weeks now, something he should have figured out before he ever came to college. Summer plans. Even though the air outside is still far from warm, summer is continues to grow ever-closer, and there’s no way Adam is going to be going back to his parents’ home. Vaguely, he knows that Gansey, Ronan, or even Blue would let him stay with them, but…

But what, Adam? he wonders.

He flips his phone between his hands. He doesn’t think that’s what he wants. Finally, he’s made it out of that house, finally he’s supporting himself on a student-worker’s salary, and if he’s going to start accepting charity now—

He stops and mentally corrects himself. It wouldn’t be charity; it would be friendship. He knows that.

But even so, Adam wants to keep that as a last resort.

To be able to sort this out on his own is what he wants most of all.

Ronan’s eyes flick up, catching sight of Adam’s knitted brows. “Something wrong?”

Without missing a beat, Adam composes his face, making Ronan give half of a knowing smile. Nah, just thinking.

“About?” Ronan sets down his brush.

Adam gives a vague gesture, flicking his hand, shrugging his shoulder.

“Come on,” Ronan prods, scooting closer to Adam. “You were over there looking like you were trying to solve world poverty.”

This earns a weak laugh from Adam, but his face twists again a second later. I was just trying to figure out what to do for the summer. Adam has to exhale sharply through his nose before mustering the ability to flash the screen Ronan’s direction.

“Summer? Do we even have spring break plans?” Ronan laughs, but the expression on Adam’s face brings him to a stop. “Sorry, you were being—fuck, I mean, you can stay with one of us?”

But Adam is typing a reply to that before Ronan can even finish speaking. No, I can’t make you guys look out for me all summer.

Ronan runs his tongue between his lips, thoughtful, and Adam doesn’t let it escape his notice that Ronan is almost certainly forcing himself to pause, forcing himself to mull over Adam’s motivations. “Okay,” he says slowly, now catching his lip between his teeth. “So you—want to find some place to live off campus?”

God, Adam hadn’t thought this through enough. I guess?

Ronan meets Adam’s eyes, giving a short hum. “Yeah, okay. Alright.” He pushes himself back behind his easel, knocking his foot with Adam’s. “That won’t be hard.”

Won’t it? Adam asks, amused expression pulling at his features.

Ronan scoffs. “Easy as pie.”

You ever made a pie, Lynch?

Ronan could level buildings with the deadpan expression he shoots Adam’s way. “Tons.” Then he picks up his brush again, effectively ending the conversation; Adam is still smiling.

The knot in his stomach is still there, his brain is still pulling apart the issue of summer housing, but the way Ronan faces problems—confidently, fiercely—is something Adam wants to have on his side. And knowing he has that settles Adam’s fidgeting hands, if not his anxious mind. That won’t be hard, he’d said.

But he doesn’t want to be a burden. The very idea that he could be a burden to Ronan makes Adam’s stomach bottom out and his mouth dry up. Even if it’s easy, if only there were nothing to be sorted out at all. Adam’s hands curl to fists against his knees—just for an instant—before spreading his fingers wide. Ronan can leave any time he wants, Adam tells himself. If he were truly such a terrible burden, he would just go.

The thought is comforting for exactly half a second before it turns into an imminent danger.

Adam bites his lower lip.

Just then, Ronan makes an especially vicious motion across the canvas. His eyes are focused on the painting before him, as they have been for the past minute, but they narrow when Ronan raises his gaze back to Adam.

Ronan doesn’t hesitate to ask, “Something else up?”

He has gotten very good at reading Adam. Probably too good.

In response, Adam starts to shake his head but cuts himself off at Ronan’s unimpressed expression. Then he makes a weak motion of his hand—half flipping over his palm, waving it feebly, and it’s all he can muster at first. The weight of what he wants to say is heavy in his chest, a tight fear that would keep him from talking even to Gansey, even before everything. Because he is afraid, and finding a place to live over the summer is only the half of it. If Ronan or even Gansey were to grow tired of him—

His hands are steady, but his heart is slowly picking up speed, revving from zero to sixty and back again as Adam tries to work out what exactly frightens him about this whole situation, and ultimately it comes down to Ronan, as it so often does these days.

Ronan puts down his paintbrush. “Are you okay?”

Adam immediately nods. He’s fine, he just—

The thing about texting everything is that conversations with Adam lack many of the finer details of speech. There is no stuttering, no filler ums or uhhs. He doesn’t curse to fill time and he doesn’t hastily mutter God before spitting out sentences that frighten him. So even though Adam is terrified, even though he isn’t entirely sure of what he needs to ask, his final question is short and feebly unassuming:

what if I’m this way forever

And then the question hangs there, black text against a white screen, begging for an answer. It’s all Adam can do to keep his fingers from typing out a thousand more questions. If he had the time and Ronan had the patience, Adam would pound out a wall of text, and every brick of it would be made of question marks. Adam feels small in the shadows his own silence—sometimes, with Ronan, he can forget that he can’t talk. Other times he cannot. Now he cannot. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t cause this mess himself, it doesn’t matter that at this point he knows it isn’t his fault. The only thing that matters is that he can’t go home, this is his problem to sort out, and now he’s dragged Ronan into it, too.

Despite his best effort at self-restraint, Adam continues before Ronan can formulate a response, look at Noah, look what happened to him. that can’t be me, I can’t let that be me. He pauses, a harsh breath forcing itself from Adam’s lungs. His thoughts are running away from him. what if I’m never better, Ronan? what if I’m broken? What if you get sick of this?

Ronan inhales slowly, and he looks Adam over in a way that looks so much like pity it nearly breaks Adam’s heart. It’s the slackened eyebrows, the parted lips, the palms pressed to the knees in a white-knuckled tightness. Adam knows this look all too well. Suddenly, he has the urge to bolt. Not Ronan, too. Ronan could leave him if he grew sick of him, indeed, but Adam would pray for it to be out of anger rather than this.

Adam pulls his phone to his chest, and a quiver tugs at his fingertips.

Finally Ronan exhales, and it’s simply too much to bear.

Adam’s foot clatters off the bottom rung of his stool in unsteady haste. It makes him stumble when his feet hit the floor, but it doesn’t stop him from taking off out the door.

Adam does not run. Running draws attention, and attention draws suspicion. Too abruptly, a memory returns to him, a time when he’d tried to run and his mother had caught him by the hair—she’d whispered something very similar into his ear then. So Adam doesn’t run, but his feet aren’t steady, and, having left his coat in the art studio, his arms are bare against the wind.

If Ronan had followed him out, Adam doesn’t hear him. And Adam certainly isn’t turning around.

His hands are cold. His face is cold. His eyes are stinging with strain.

Still he doesn’t run. He lets his feet take him where they always do.

And Noah is already waiting for him.

Adam feels himself collapse, and if any outsider were to walk into the chapel at that moment, Adam would look repentant, weak in the knees and groveling before a distant god. But Adam isn’t looking for mercy or forgiveness, he’s not looking for anything at all. Everything he’s holding onto is just too much, and he’s tired of not admitting that he’s terrified.

But he’d tried to admit it. He’d started to, anyway.

And here he still is.

Noah’s presence brings a chill with it, but it’s nothing compared to the outdoors. Adam leans into it, taking in the gentle stroke of Noah’s barely-there fingers in his hair, along his neck.

“Adam,” he whispers lightly, as way of greeting.

Pity had been painted all over Ronan’s face. There wasn’t any mistaking it, there wasn’t any denying it; the moment Adam had opened his mouth, all Ronan could do was ooze pity.

Adam shudders; Noah holds him more tightly.

“Adam, deep breaths.”

For an instant, Adam feels chastised until he takes inventory of how shallow his breathing really is. He has to clap a hand over his mouth before he can comply, but soon he pulls himself upwards, resting his back to the side of a pew.

“Adam.”

His fingers are still over his lips, his eyes still unable to focus, though his gaze flicks over to Noah, who is crouched in front of him.

It’s not like they’d never talked about this before, it’s not like Adam had never talked about his affliction or his feelings or his fears. But for Ronan to have been so speechless, for him to have looked at him like that—Adam feels like he’d tricked himself, and he can’t even completely explain why

It’s just when Adam feels his thoughts teetering that Noah begins speaking in a rush, as though he were replying to Adam’s thoughts, “I know you’re scared. You can be scared here.” Noah gives Adam’s hand a squeeze. “But listen—and you have to hear this because I don’t have much else to say—I’ve never met anyone so kickass strong as you.” This makes Adam bite back something—even to Adam it is unclear whether it’s a laugh or a sob. Either way, Adam’s eyes fall, and then instead of seeing Noah, he’s just replaying the look on Ronan’s face just before he ran, all crestfallen and wide-eyed. “Stop it,” Noah cuts in, snapping his fingers. “Listen to me, Adam Parrish. You don’t need to be scared, but I know I am not the one you need to hear that from right now.”

The will to argue is a sharp prod in the back of Adam’s throat, but the look on Noah’s face doesn’t allow for that. A pang breaks through Adam’s chest. But—

“I can’t stay.” Noah puts a hand on either side of Adam’s face. “Talk to your boyfriend.”

And then he disappears with a shudder.

It feels like betrayal. It feels like alienation of the worst kind, and immediately Adam throws up his defenses like thousand-foot walls, shoving himself backwards against the pew, hands clapping to the cold ground. He’d come here, specifically here, and within five minutes, Noah is gone.

Something that feels like anger bubbles inside Adam, but it quickly dissipates into resignation. Talk to his boyfriend? Ronan had let him run off, Ronan had offered to help him find somewhere to live but as soon as it came to something harder, he’d been at a loss. Adam aches as though he’s already suffered a loss. Weakly, he pushes himself upwards and into the seat of the pew.

Adam doesn’t want this forever; he doesn’t want Noah’s fate.

When Adam first accepted his place at Princeton, he’d thought he was looking for an adventure. He’d thought that he’d find his voice hidden behind a new experience, tucked away inside the heart of someone else. Maybe that had been true at first. But sitting here now, heart beating frantically in his chest, Adam begins to wonder if his situation has only grown more complicated. Adam hangs his head, dreading going back to his dorm, dreading facing Ronan, dreading one more day of feeling lost.

It’s then that the chapel door creaks open. Adam turns at the sound, just as he hears a thankful voice breathe his name.

Ronan is hardly able to pull the door shut behind him he’s moving so quickly. Adam’s brain struggles to reconcile what’s before him: Ronan’s relieved voice, his narrowed eyes, a maroon coat draped over his arm. And he can only watch as Ronan approaches him and then falls at his side, throwing the coat over Adam’s shoulders.

“Jesus Christ, Adam,” he says. It should sound harsh, but Adam knows Ronan too well. Ronan’s eyes are frantic as they take him in. “Adam, I—” He shakes his head and starts with what he knows: “Fuck your dad. You’re not broken, and fuck him for making you feel that way. He doesn’t get to say who you are. And—God, Adam, I’ve never met anyone so—so—so you. Jesus fuck, I—” His words come spilling from his mouth like he’d imagined everything he wanted to say before arriving but is now botching the delivery. Ronan’s hands can’t stay still: He runs his fingers down Adam’s face, clasps his hands around Adam’s hands, pulls the coat more tightly around Adam’s shoulders. “God, I’ve been looking at you for so long, Adam, so long,” and he says it like it’s difficult for him to say, but the determination in his voice is impossible to ignore. Here, Ronan seems to falter, his stream of words slowing as he loses the momentum that came with initially finding Adam. He parts his lips and then lets them fall shut again, opting instead to give Adam’s hands another squeeze.

Though Ronan is slowing down, Adam is finally getting a chance to catch back up. He blinks, slowly pulling himself back to the here and now, struggling to take in what Ronan has said. Adam responds by grasping Ronan’s hands in return. But a second later, he has to cast his eyes downwards. He chews at his lower lip, closes his eyes shut.

“What is it?” Ronan asks, voice uncharacteristically weak.

Adam hadn’t expected his day to go like this; he certainly hadn’t left his room feeling this way. He can’t say what exactly went wrong, but carefully he says, you looked at me like I was pitiful.

Ronan’s immediate reaction is asked on a breathless exhale: “You? Adam Parrish? Pitiful?”

Adam sits back, face almost pained in a way that seems to beg, Don’t. He wants to list all the reasons that it wouldn’t be irrational for Adam to think that Ronan thought he was pitiful, but Ronan is already talking again.

“You’re the least—fuck, are you being serious?”

Eyes still closed, Adam nods.

“I—don’t have a response to that. I’ve never met anyone less pitiful.”

And the way he says it—as if that’s truly all he can say, as though it’s the last thing he’ll ever say—pulls the feeblest breath of a laugh from Adam.

“Do you think I’m kidding? You think I’m fucking kidding? Do you know how serious I’m being?”

Adam puts a hand over his eyes, dropping his face again, but Ronan catches a finger under his chin to pull his eyes back to him.

“Adam Parrish. I—I had a shitty response to you saying those things to me, and I’m so fucking sorry because not once did I think you needed my pity. Hell, the only person in this world I pity is Gansey because his parents didn’t teach him enough sense not to wear those goddamn boat shoes everywhere. Those don’t even belong on the S.S. Gansey. Do you hear me, Parrish?”

For a moment, the chapel is silent. Adam drops his hands to his lap and gently Ronan pulls them into his own hands.

“Do you hear me, Adam?” Ronan asks again.

Adam nods; it’s impossible not to hear him when he talks like that. His voice is a near-growl—every bit as confident as it is kind as it is indignant. It’s a fine balance that can only be achieved with much precision, much care, and much passion.

It’s everything Adam wishes his voice sounded like.

i hear you Ronan

Ronan bristles, but Adam knows it isn’t meant for him. This is confirmed when Ronan opens his mouth again after a silence that is just barely too long: “Fuck that guy.”

Surprised, Adam raises his eyes in question.

“I hate your dad,” Ronan whispers, the lowered volume of his voice doing nothing to diminish the lash of his words. “If I saw him, I—” Ronan bites off the end of the sentence as he looks away from Adam. “I hate him.”

Adam has to close his eyes.

He sits back ever so slightly, letting himself feel light. Unbound. Protected. His hands are still in Ronan’s, and his grip is grounding. Adam can feel his breath moving inside him, he can feel his pulse slowing. Adam reels himself back in, slowly, carefully.

And when he opens his eyes again: Ronan.

Ronan, who pulls Adam to himself in an embrace that could move mountains.

“You won’t be this way forever,” Ronan says, “And even if you were, I’d still—I’d still be here for you.”

It’s such a big promise that it makes Adam’s breathing falter. He holds Ronan tighter.

Adam thinks that if he could talk, he would whisper, Will you help me?

But as it happens, he isn’t quite ready for that, and the words don’t come. But as Adam considers the question himself, he comes to realize that it needn’t be asked in the first place. So instead he kisses Ronan on the neck and reminds himself that Ronan Lynch does not lie.


 

That night, Ronan shows Adam the painting. Ronan hadn’t meant for it to be done, but something about leaving it finished at the point when Adam ran out feels right. It’s a portrait, after all, and if there are a few white spaces, it just means Adam himself isn’t finished yet either.

The final result of the painting is beautiful, though, and Adam aches to see it. To see himself.

Because to Ronan Lynch, Adam is a thick, black outline—all carefully placed and precisely angled lines. The colors, though, are not contained to his face; reds, yellows, and blues spill out onto the canvas around him, staining everything in drips and droplets. Ronan didn’t forget the shadows under Adam’s eyes or the scar at the base of his collarbone—but he also didn’t forget the freckles, or the dimples, or the curl of his eyelashes, either. Ronan has painted Adam like a puzzle, and it feels like an awfully big deal.

Because Adam still fears he might be missing a few pieces.

Sorry you couldn’t finish because I ran away, Adam says a little sheepishly, eying the area of the painting just below his lips and along his jaw where the white canvas can still be seen.

“What do you mean? It is finished.”

Adam eyes Ronan knowingly.

And Ronan eyes him back like he doesn’t have a damn clue.

So Adam just rolls his eyes and gives Ronan a shove before he scoots over on Ronan’s bed to lie down. Ronan gives a twitch of a smile and then joins him, resting on his side with his hand propping up his chin.

You’re a really good artist, Adam says, knowing the words are inadequate for how full his heart feels just thinking about that painting.

“Whatever.”

Seriously.

Ronan half rolls his eyes, and Adam makes a face.

I mean it! Although Adam knows Ronan is just playfully brushing him off, it feels important that Ronan knows how much he means it. You’re the most talented person I’ve ever met. Adam bites his lower lip, then props himself on his elbow to mimic Ronan—he wants to see those eyes.

Because this time Ronan does scoff; he meets Adam’s gaze before looking down. “Thanks.”

It’s not bashfulness that makes him do this, though, and Adam knows. Adam knows what it is, and he pulls Ronan into a kiss to avoid asking the question he’d avoided earlier. He pushes Ronan to the mattress, and it takes half a second for it to stop being an act of avoidance and to start being an act of admiration for this talented boy that Adam gets to call his. And so he kisses him, tugs at his shirt and runs his hands over his skin, all the while being thankful—so thankful—for Ronan and the way he has so completely tangled himself up in Adam’s life.

And Adam doesn’t want Ronan to leave.

Too soon, Adam pulls back; he breathes deep and lets his fingers trail down Ronan’s arms as he sits back. The question is back on the tip of his tongue, and Adam could just drop it again, but this time he cannot: You’re dropping out, aren’t you?

Ronan looks ashamed as he lets his hand slide from Adam’s temple. “Yeah.”

Adam nods, barely a movement. Ronan blinks rapidly, unable or unwilling to look Adam in the eye. Hey, don’t look that way, Adam says.

“Huh?”

Adam shuffles his phone between his hands, but when the words don’t come, he settles for pulling Ronan into another kiss—this one more fervent to make up for Adam’s loss for words. Because it’s okay. Something inside Adam feels relieved about the concession; something just clicks as Ronan finally says out loud that this isn’t the place for him.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t the place for Adam.

It doesn’t mean Ronan is going to leave him.

It’s okay, Adam assures after a second. I want you to do what you need to do.

Ronan stares for a belated moment, exhaling slowly, speechless.

Adam continues, I’m not upset. I’m happy.

His stare shifts to disbelieving, “Adam—”

You still like me, right?

“Fuck, I—yeah,” he says like he’d been holding his breath, “Yes. You’re the—” He stops himself, continuing only after he’s looked over Adam once or twice. “I’m done here.” Ronan sounds tired when he says this, but he says it with an air of finality that sounds like relief, which settles Adam’s racing heart just a little. Then Ronan’s hand finds its way to the side of Adam’s face, and Adam thinks he knows what Ronan means.

Then… I’m happy for you.

The words are wrong, because Ronan is the one who looks torn up about it, shoulders stooped, eyes searching.

What is it?

“Aren’t you mad?”

Ronan are you kidding??? His expression says, decidedly, that he is not, and Adam continues, I’m sorry, I understand why you’d think that, but… I feel like I’ve known since I met you. Quickly he adds, No offense?

And Ronan barks laughter before tugging Adam into his arms.

Adam inhales deeply; though the admission felt to him like a long time coming, his mind is already spinning with logistics. Next semester, this summer, God, what is he gonna do about this summer? Before the thoughts can overtake him, though, a curious expression crosses Ronan’s face. It’s short—a slightly creased brow, a thoughtful twitch of the lips—but it’s out of place enough that it causes Adam to cast Ronan a quizzical look.

Ronan starts to shake his head, and Adam almost groans. God, how he wishes he could read Ronan’s mind sometimes. But then Adam gives him a shove, and Ronan concedes.

“You ever wonder if some shit was just meant to happen?”

Adam’s mouth pulls back into a smile, mostly because it’s an unexpected question, partially because Yeah, he does. But he lets himself think for a moment, pulling back to sit up and get a better look at Ronan. He answers, I know it.

“How?”

It could be an innocent question, the start of a conversation about God or angels, but the nasty grin on Ronan’s face is far too sharp to let Adam think that’s where he’d been trying to go. And so Adam laughs, lightly, airily, and then he grins right back.

Why else would you have come to Princeton if not for me?

“The competitive job market?”

How quickly Adam knows he would mutter Shut up, but instead he just kisses that stupid grin off his face, tugging their bodies together even as Ronan’s chest vibrates with laughter.

Adam doesn’t know a single thing about fate or God or destiny, but he does know there’s some reason they’re all here: Ronan, Gansey, Noah, Blue. Adam. The future is a scary place, but Adam knows that this moment was made for them—for all of them. And right now, Adam’s heart feels full to overflowing.

Because Adam feels an awful lot for this boy. And though the future may be frightening, these feelings are not. He presses kisses to Ronan’s neck, his collarbone, his fingertips. Adam isn’t sure if the real reason Ronan came to Princeton in the first place is himself, but it’s easy to believe such an idea as Ronan’s hands start working his shirt up his stomach. Because he does it with such nonchalant precision that it’s enough to drive Adam crazy—Ronan’s hands are on Adam’s skin, fingertips to waist, fabric of his t-shirt sliding up as though it were just a side-effect of the motion. But Ronan is moving so slowly that it couldn’t be anything but deliberate, and his breath is hitching against Adam’s lips, and it’s maddening.

For just a second, Adam allows himself to realize how much he’ll miss Ronan. It isn’t just the kissing or the breaking onto the roof of the library, but it’s everything, everything that would be too much to put into words just this moment. The kissing, though. He will miss the kissing. Now, however, missing Ronan is too far away to fully comprehend. The present is much more pressing, and this unbelievable present is Adam asking, Will you visit me?; Ronan tugging Adam’s shirt over his head; lips sinking lower than they’d dared to before; and Ronan picking up his phone to text Gansey, Don’t come in the room.

 

 

Fate, or whatever it is, apparently isn’t done yet. Because a certain Henry Cheng From The Vassar School Newspaper has been communicating with Gansey all afternoon. Gansey, Adam, and Ronan had all been attempting to do their Latin homework together in the common area, and even though it had been Gansey’s idea initially, he’d been distracted with text messages for about twenty minutes before finally ditching them completely by crossing the room to answer a phone call.

What do you think they’re talking about over there?

“I don’t know,” Ronan mumbles, “But he’s been talking to that guy nonstop since last weekend when he went up to visit Blue.”

Thoughtful, Adam taps his pen against his book, unopened since Gansey stood up.

“Wish we were in my room,” Ronan breathes absentmindedly.  

The tone of his voice makes Adam’s ears go pink, and then he ducks his face, smiling. Then he says, Gross.

Ronan scoffs.

The two of them watch as Gansey paces around the room, occasionally filling the room with laughter at a joke they weren’t privy to. Though Gansey has met Henry a few times now, he had been Newspaper Guy in all of Blue’s letters, and so it’s weird to see Gansey over there, purportedly interacting with him in real life. After nearly a century, they both hear: “Alright. Yes! Well, it was amazing talking to you, and I can’t wait!” Finally, Gansey hangs up the phone as he crosses the room with a brilliant grin on his face. “So… Do you guys happen to have Spring Break plans?”

 

Chapter Text

1.

 As their self-appointed tour guide, Henry Cheng is dynamite in the shape of a boy. Where the five a.m. train ride wore Adam out, it only seemed to energize Henry; and accordingly, their first day of Spring Break is nonstop. If Adam had met Henry previous to this, maybe this would have been expected. However, seeing as Adam had been introduced to the infamous Newspaper Guy five minutes before going to bed the night before, he’d been woefully unprepared for the day, which had been an unplanned mess of an adventure that involved miles of walking, endless window shopping, and many valiant attempts to read what Adam said from a tiny screen.

It’s been a complete, full first day of vacation, and now Adam is tired. He’s exhausted in a way that feels very similar to the beginning of first semester—he’s met someone new, he’s in a new place, he’s struggling to talk. All he can think about is sleep and whether it’s appropriate to get in bed at five-thirty in the evening, and at last, his conclusion is that he doesn’t care if it is or isn’t because he could pass out in the hotel elevator if he had to.

God, what is wrong with him?

“Were we on the third or fourth floor?” Blue mumbles, blanching as her fingers hover over the buttons.

Adam knows it was the fourth, but he can’t muster the will to pull out his phone when he knows someone else is about to tell her—

“Fourth,” Henry and Gansey say in unison.

Adam might as well be asleep. He rubs his eyes and leans back against the rail, resting his head on the wall. If they could just get back to the room, he might live to see the rest of this week.

Because it isn’t like Adam didn’t have a great day. He did, and he wants to have more of them because he isn’t trying to be crabby, but His bed just sounds so comfortable. And if he lets his mind wander to the idea of being in that bed with Ronan, legs intertwined, head on his chest—well, it’s hard to think of anything else. But even though he feels like this now, the day had been nothing but good, and Adam is truly happier than he can say, and he means it.

When they open their hotel room door, though, Adam isn’t thinking about the way they’d laughed as they’d tried to squeeze themselves into a single taxi, or how easily Henry fit into the group, or even the way Ronan had kissed Adam in the bathroom at lunch—all he can see is his bed and its pillows. Because he’s tired. Tired in body and tired in mind, tired of the extra effort it takes for him to get anyone’s attention.

Adam doesn’t dart for his side of the room, though. Firstly, because he doesn’t think his legs would move very quickly at this moment. Secondly, because they haven’t had dinner yet, and he has the worst feeling that everyone is going to want to leave the hotel again, and Adam cannot get his hopes up.

His eyes settle across the room as his friends bustle around the hotel room, doing who knows what. Adam tries to find a place to settle, to not get too comfortable, just to be out of the way, but everywhere he stands feels wrong. He shuffles his weight between his feet, he drifts a few feet this way and a few feet that way. At last he gives up, leaning against the wall outside the bathroom. He lets his eyes wander, though, knowing they might fall shut if he didn’t: Ronan is taking stock of the minibar, Blue is washing her hands, Henry is changing his shirt, and Gansey is looking an awful lot like he’s about to make an announcement.

“Should we get dinner?” Gansey asks, interrupting the side conversations Adam had been missing.

“I don’t know,” Blue says, wiping her hands on her jeans as she steps out of the bathroom, “I might need a shower.”

“Well, we all need showers, Sargent,” Ronan cuts in.

“If I took it before dinner, we could spread them out?”

“I am rather ravenous, though.”

Rather ravenous, Dick?”

From the outside, Adam listens to the conversation that’s mostly going around in circles, waiting, waiting. For a second, he thinks maybe he could just sit down, but that’s when it happens:

“Guys,” Henry says, as though realizing something very important, “I just remembered the most amazing Greek place. I went there on the very last day of Christmas vacation and I’ve been dying to go back. It would be criminal if I didn’t get you guys there on our grand tour of the city.” He raises his eyebrows, “What do you say?”

Adam can all but feel his legs turn to jelly at the mere mention of leaving the room again. Is everyone else that much more awake than him? Is there something wrong with him? But of course he’d been preparing himself for this. He won’t say anything, he’ll follow them anywhere they want to go, and maybe Ronan would let him rest his head on his shoulder or something—

“Oh no,” Gansey says quickly, before any plans can be made, “I think today’s been long enough. I was thinking more like we could order in—”

Because Adam almost can’t believe what he’s hearing, his eyes jump to Gansey in a heartbeat. Gansey isn’t looking back at him, of course, but it’s the way that he is very pointedly not looking Adam’s direction that he knows he must have been noticed. For a wild half-second, Adam thinks about texting Gansey in protest to insist that they shouldn’t let him hold them up just because they feel bad for him; it takes a deep breath for him to let that feeling give way to gratitude.

“Take-out? Please,” Blue says, latching onto the idea with enthusiasm. “I haven’t had Chinese in ages.”

“Are you kidding? I know just the place—”

And just like that, Henry has another suggestion, unbothered.

Adam just barely has the energy to be thankful, but he does make it to his bed before he collapses. He sits and then lets himself drop, stretching his arms over his head. Before anyone can say anything, he has his shoes off and a his face buried in a pillow. And for just a minute, he has to let himself forget about what’s around him, forget about the stares he got at lunch when Ronan ordered for him, forget about how loud everything is beyond the hotel’s thick windows.

New York City wasn’t made for someone as quiet as Adam, but he’s never let that stop him before.

 

What does stop him is a nap.

And when he does wake up, it’s to Ronan’s hand on his shoulder. For a moment, all Adam can focus on is his crooked grin before the details trickle in. Then Adam’s eyes sweep the room, searching for evidence to what time it is, to how long he’s been asleep—

“Dinner’s here,” Ronan says amusedly, answering the unspoken question, “Gansey ordered some kind of chicken for you? We didn’t want to wake you up.”

It takes Adam’s hazy brain too long to remember where he’d put his phone, and by the time he realizes it’s on the nightstand, Ronan is turned away and so the phone doesn’t even matter anymore. He swallows down something that feels curiously like disappointment.

Adam almost wishes he could have skipped dinner.

But he’s awake now, in any case, so he takes his chicken (which is good) and sits on the floor with the rest of his friends.

There’s something strange about this moment, though, and it had been happening all day in flashes, but for the life of him, Adam cannot figure out if it’s just his fading sleepiness or if there’s something else brewing. He’s seen threads of it all day, hence part of his weird mood, but sitting here in a circle with them all makes it more noticeable. And if Adam had to guess, he thinks Ronan is the root of the issue.

Which shouldn’t be as surprising as it is.

Ronan, who is across from Adam and directly next to Gansey, has been acting weird all day, and it’s with a jolt of clarity that Adam realizes what it is. He chews the inside of his lip with a vague sense of discomfort. Because Adam knows what it looks like when Ronan doesn’t like someone—and he knows what he looks like when he’s jealous. And nothing about the angle of Ronan’s posture or the way his eyes slide right past Henry says that he’s comfortable with the addition to their group. All day Ronan has been playing this game. The side-effect is that Adam feels weirdly bad for Henry.

And that he feels weirdly ignored by Ronan.

Adam nibbles at his orange chicken, unsure of the point of his realization. Adam is way too tired to bring up this conversation tonight, but if he doesn’t—

He swallows down a sigh, fighting annoyance. If Henry feels at all the way Adam did when he first met Gansey, he already knows he’s no competition for Ronan, why can’t he just—

“So Adam, have you ever considered a program that would read what you’ve said aloud?”

The question comes from Henry, and it tears Adam out of his own thoughts. Adam blinks, gives as much a smile as he can muster, and says, I’m not Steven Hawking.

Henry gives a good-natured laugh, louder than Adam’s had been. “Hey, what’s wrong with him?”

Oh nothing. But I’m not going to be this way forever.

Henry’s expression softens, fading into something different from amusement, though Adam struggles to put his finger on what it actually is. “Adam Parrish, you are—”

“What are you saying over there, Parrish?”

It’s too much. Ronan is looking at Adam directly, looking at him as though he really expects an answer from him in the middle of his conversation with Henry, and it’s too much. Adam shuts off his screen, pushes his food away from him, and stands up. Without answering Ronan’s question, he goes to his suitcase to grab a change of clothes and quickly types a message on his phone before dropping it in Ronan’s lap:

I’m taking a shower.

Adam wants to be happy, but his brain just keeps spinning reasons why he shouldn’t be. Why did Gansey think bringing Henry and Ronan on week-long trip would be a good idea? Why couldn’t Ronan just be amicable? Why can’t Adam figure out how to turn this damn shower on?

Finally he does something right and the showerhead comes to life, but it does little for his mood.

For Ronan to have started talking to Adam the moment Henry did—

God, he can’t think.

Why was Ronan being so petulant and why was Gansey saying nothing?

Adam’s hair is falling in his face, rivers of water rushing from the ends. Gansey is always the one to notice these things with Ronan, but perhaps he’s too fond of the attention—

No, that’s not Gansey. Adam runs his hand through his hair, pushing it back.

And anyway, it’s not like Gansey is the one responsible for Ronan.

Adam inhales sharply, taking in a little water, as he reaches for a tiny shampoo bottle. Adam has never before dreaded a conversation with Ronan before, not like this, and that scares him in a way he hates to admit even to himself. He doesn’t want to ruin their vacation with an argument, and he doesn’t want to argue with Ronan at all, and then his brain starts reeling because Why is he assuming this will turn into an argument? What is Adam even going to say?

God, Adam just wants to go to bed and deal with this tomorrow. Maybe by then, Ronan will be more willing to play nice, maybe he’ll get over it, maybe he’ll just magically realize that Gansey isn’t going anywhere and—

Adam sighs, his feelings getting tangled up again.

But Ronan is going somewhere.

Adam feels like he needs to sit down; he wants to give an apology and receive an apology all at once. What a mess. He wishes he could turn his brain off and just stand there in the water all night, but after a few minutes pass, he accepts that his brain is going to keep whirring unless he says something to Ronan.

So it’s with a resigned bit of determination that Adam shuts the shower off. Though he doesn’t know exactly what to say, he knows he has to say something, and he can’t sit around waiting to figure it out. He dresses, and when he opens the door to the bathroom, the first thing he notices is how off balance the room is—Blue, Gansey, and Henry are all on one bed, reading something off Henry’s phone. Ronan is on their bed, staring at the ceiling. No one’s eyes move Adam’s way except Ronan’s.

And Ronan is decidedly difficult to read.

So Adam moves slowly, first folding his dirty clothes and then setting them beside his open suitcase. It takes him a moment to stand, but when he does, Ronan hands him his phone.

Can we talk outside?

“It’s a little cold for that,” says Ronan, a little weakly.

In the hallway, asshole. Adam sighs, not unkindly.

Where they actually go is the stairwell, and it’s there, perched on the top step, that Adam kisses Ronan—softly, but with both hands on either side of his face like he means it. Ronan seems a little taken aback, obviously under the impression that Adam had been mad at him, and he kisses like he’s thankful he was wrong.

“Hey, listen—” Ronan starts, pulling back and closing his eyes, “I…” He stops when he sees Adam typing.

You know this isn’t some kind of competition, right?

Ronan’s mouth twists in confusion. “What isn’t?”

Ronan

“Parrish—” Ronan starts, but he quickly bites off the end of whatever he’d been about to say. His voice is softer when he continues, “I don’t understand.”

Adam has to close his eyes to wrap his brain around the idea that Ronan truly doesn’t know what he’s been doing, that he assumed Adam was mad at him for some little thing. Ronan you’ve hardly spoken to me today.

Ronan looks pained when he reads what Adam’s written, and he only has time to murmur, “I’m sorry,” before Adam is continuing.

Adam wants to shout, wants to scream that This isn’t about me! An awful image comes to mind of Adam throwing his hands up in frustration and demanding to know why Ronan won’t acknowledge what the problem really is, why he won’t just talk to him about it. For a sick second, it feels like too much, it feels like more than Adam can handle, because he can’t shout and he couldn’t guilt Ronan like that, anyway.

They’re both bad at this, Adam has to remind himself.

This isn’t just about Adam.

He takes a deep breath and says, Gansey isn’t going to replace you with Henry Cheng.

“I’m not threatened by Henry.”

Then why are you monopolizing Gansey’s attention and ignoring me until Henry tries to say something to me?

Ronan is silent.

Please tell me the truth.

The words visibly hurt Ronan; he drops his eyes and links his fingers behind his neck. For a split second, Ronan looks like he could bury his fist in the wall beside him. Adam doesn’t say anything more. He simply watches Ronan as he picks through his thoughts.

Finally, Ronan holds out his hand.

Adam puts his phone in it.

he’ll be a lot closer to you guys once i leave.

Ronan, you’re gansey’s best friend.

Ronan only shrugs.

Gansey wouldn’t replace you.

Ronan doesn’t reply.

You know that, right?

A moment passes.

Ronannnnnnnn.

And then Adam can’t help but laugh. It isn’t out of malice, it’s just that the idea of Gansey making a mere swap from Ronan to Henry is preposterous. Adam leans over to look Ronan right in the eyes, and what he finds there is the smallest bit of a smile from Ronan.

“He is a fucking nerd.”

Exactly. No match for you. So can you be civil?

“I am—”

But Adam starts shaking his head, grinning. Don’t say you are.

Ronan rolls his eyes and then sighs, running his hand over his skull. Then he facetiously asks, “And how do I know you won’t replace me with Henry?”

The thing about communicating exclusively through writing is that you inherently get longer to think things through. There is no blurting anything out, there is no saying the first thing that pops into your brain. So for a long moment, Adam feels himself staring at Ronan, reveling in his thoughts, dwelling in the fact that he knows exactly why he couldn’t leave Ronan—and it’s a surprisingly simple statement. But the fact is that Adam has too long to consider it, and eventually he settles on saying, Asshole.


  

2.  

Adam wakes up the next morning feeling immeasurably better about the day ahead than he had last night. Over breakfast, Ronan says exactly one not-sarcastic thing to Henry, and under the table, he gives Adam a list of every single piece they have to see when they get to the MoMA. Because, though they’ve scheduled their entire pre-lunchtime towards to the museum, the place is huge and they agreed that they have to have priorities or they’ll never leave.

On the subway, Ronan says one more not-sarcastic thing to Henry.

Followed immediately by a sarcastic one.

He’s trying.

But Henry laughs, and Blue rolls her eyes.

Ronan squeezes Adam’s hand.

I know, Adam says with the other.

He’s trying.

When they get to the museum, they start off together, but eventually Ronan’s list pulls Adam and Ronan away from the rest of the group. It feels to Adam like Ronan might have done this on purpose, but Adam can’t be mad about it because perhaps it’s for the best. In any case, Ronan spends so long staring at certain pieces that the other three would have left them behind eventually.

But even besides all that, there’s no way Adam could be upset with Ronan in here.

Despite all the time Adam has spent with Ronan, despite all the time he’s spent with Ronan while he was creating, this Ronan is still different. He’s quizzical, bright, reverent. And he hardly lets go of Adam’s hand for half a second.

They make their way to the must-sees—The Starry Night, The Persistence of Memory. They see Klimt and O’Keeffe and Kandinsky, but Ronan gets stuck on paintings and artists Adam has never heard of, too. Indeed, they spend a good deal of time standing in front of a large painting called The Menaced Assassin that Adam cannot seem to make heads or tails of.

“What do you think, Adam?”

Then Ronan turns to him, and he can only make a face. It’s nice? I don’t know what’s happening. Adam expects a barbed remark about his lack of understanding, but instead he just laughs lightly.

“That’s how all of Magritte’s stuff is. Fucking fantastic.”

And then he tugs Adam along to the next one.

How did all these people become famous anyway?

“Huh?”

Like… why did we choose these artists to be representative of their respective time periods and places? What’s stopping future civilizations from defining the early 2000s by what’s on deviantart?

Ronan lets out a laugh that is unbecoming for the relative quiet of an art museum. “Jesus. Hell if I know. I’m glad that’s not my job.”

But really. I don’t know any artists who are alive right now if I’m being honest

“None? God, I’ve messed up.”

Besides you.

“Oh shit—not what I meant. I don’t count.”

Well I guess you have to become famous or something

“No way. No thanks.”

If a genie came up to you right now and asked if you wanted to be famous for your art, you wouldn’t say yes?

“I… No, I wouldn’t.”

Why?

“That’s not what—I just do this ‘cause I like it. I’m not looking for shit.”

No fame for you?

Ronan shakes his head too pointedly. “No.” Then he laughs, like he’s realizing something, “I don’t even wanna get grades for my art, much less full-fledged articles from art critics. Jesus, that sounds awful. Oh hey—”

And then Ronan’s eye is caught on something else, another painting across the room. It’s another Magritte, though this one is smaller and depicts an eye full of clouds.

This is pretty, Adam says.

“Pretty, yeah,” Ronan mumbles, leaning in. “God, this guy must have been on something.”

Well, this plaque seems to think this is a little deeper than that.

“Fuck, never read those,” but even as he says it, Ronan’s eyes are sliding to the explanative plaque on the wall a few inches from the painting. He reads aloud, muttering, “Magritte’s single eye functions on multiple enigmatic levels: the viewer both looks through it, as through a window, and is looked at by it, thus seeing and being seen simultaneously.” His voice trails off at the end, and he punctuates the sentence with, “What a crock of shit.”

Adam gives a sputtering laugh.

“Some moron is really coming into this museum and reading these fake deep explanations as if they matter.” Ronan grimaces, taking a step backward. “Tell me that painting isn’t cool as shit and then try to tell me that that isn’t all that matters.”

That painting is cool as shit. Adam grins.

“I mean, it’s a nice sentiment, to be seen by a painting but what does that actually mean?”

Nothing?

“Jack shit, Parrish,” Ronan says in affirmation. “God, I bet Gansey is reading every single one of these dumbass plaques, someone go save the kid—” Ronan looks around, as though he’s really looking for him, and then Adam pulls Ronan’s knuckles to his lips, brushing kisses along them through his laughter. “Now let’s find those soup cans. I’d love to see someone try to put meaning into that—”

Criticism of consumerism? Adam tries, just to be difficult.

Ronan scoffs, loudly, “There’s no criticism. He obviously likes the soup, Adam.”

 

It isn’t until lunchtime that the group manages to get themselves back together. Adam is thankful for the morning—the time alone with Ronan was enough to dull the sour memories from the night before—but when they do get back together, Adam can practically see Ronan tense up again.

Adam needs to know if Gansey can see this, too.

Maybe he’s imagining it, because when Henry suggest the Greek restaurant again, Ronan doesn’t even put up an argument. That seems like something. Or the bare minimum. In any case, for lunch they find themselves in a tiny little restaurant that has a menu typed in some Greco-looking font that looks like it came pre-loaded on someone’s desktop computer.

But it is quaint.

And it is good.

Throughout the meal, though, Ronan is distracted by a project he’s engrossed with involving a blue-ink pen and a napkin. Because Ronan is on the inside of the booth and his work is obstructed by a half-finished gyro and a Styrofoam cup, Adam can’t figure out what it is, though Blue is grinning from across the table.

Adam wishes he could see it, though, because Gansey’s and Henry’s conversation is deathly boring, and Adam doesn’t want Ronan’s opinions on Henry to rub off on him. So for everyone’s good, Adam wants out of their conversation.

(He likes Henry. He really does.)

“Adam, how did you like the museum?”

Adam almost doesn’t hear Gansey addressing him, and he turns sharply away from Ronan. Oh, not as much as I liked Ronan’s reactions to the museum.

“Ronan,” Gansey says, surprised, “We went there for you.”

Ronan looks up for just an instant, just to read what Adam had said. Then he just shrugs and returns to his work.

He just didn’t like the explanative plaques I think

“Oh, really? I found those very enlightening!”

“Mhmm,” Ronan murmurs, which earns an elbow from Adam.

“Some of them were a little far-fetched,” Henry offers, “One tried to say that the shadows represented despair, as though the sun isn’t always in the sky.”

Ronan looks up, the surprise on his face only evident for a fraction of a fraction of a second, and then he points his index finger at Henry in a voiceless agreement. It’s the quickest of gestures, but Adam hopes he isn’t overestimating its significance.

“Do you not think any art has meaning?” Blue asks, propping her chin in her hands.

“I mean—” At this, Ronan looks up again, giving an animated, twisted shrug, “Sure. Yeah, of course.”

“But?” Blue asks teasingly.

Ronan looks like he hates this conversation. “Any art is just what you want it to be. As a viewer.”

Gansey blinks quickly. “You really think? I have never heard you talk about this, Ronan.”

“Well, Dick, maybe it never came up.” With this, he tries to return to whatever important thing he’s doing on his napkin, but that’s when Henry Cheng pipes up.

“Can the intent of the artist really be done away with entirely?”

“Sometimes, sure,” Ronan says, not looking up this time.

Blue doesn’t like this answer. “The cultural and political contexts of a work are important, though.”

Ronan rubs his eyes, making Adam smile. “All I’m saying is,” he starts, setting his pen down with an air of finality, “If it’s ugly, nothing else actually matters. So what’s the most important thing? Whether it looks good? Or whether it has profound meaning?”

When no one says anything, Ronan flips his hand as if to rest his case.

“Anyway, here’s my next piece.”

Finally, he pushes his defaced napkin to the center of the table for them to see.

Adam face scrunches up, and Blue voices exactly what he’s thinking: “Is that George Washington with a stick up his ass?”

“The stick represents slavery,” Ronan says nonchalantly. “It’s a cherry tree branch, to symbolize the lies told by the government since the beginning of time. You’ll notice it’s done in blue pen on a napkin, which speaks to just how nonconformist I, as the artiste, think this piece is.”

In that moment, the urges to both kiss and strangle Ronan Lynch are equally prominent. Despite how much Blue looks like she doesn’t want to smile, she dissolves into laughter as she picks it up for closer inspection.

“The boat shoes are a nice addition,” Blue comments.

“They represent Gansey’s republican mother.”

“Why I—”

Adam has to clap his hands over his mouth.

“Let me see that!” Henry exclaims, taking it from Blue. “Jesus Christ, this is painfully good. Look at that grimace!”

Ronan looks a little too smug, and Adam hates himself for the way his heart lurches. That smartass expression should not be making his heart do that, and yet here he is.

“So I guess you hated the MoMA?” Gansey asks, incredulous.

Ronan laughs easily, and at the same time, his hand finds Adam’s under the table. He shakes his head: “I loved it.”

Adam swallows hard, tightening his grip around Ronan’s fingers. Adam had loved it, too. He’d loved being there with Ronan, and he loves Ronan’s dumbass drawing and the larger-than-life smile plastered across his face, and he loves—

Fuck, Adam thinks.


  

3.

The subway is loud and crowded with early evening traffic, but it isn’t an altogether unpleasant combination. In fact, with his eyes closed and his head on Ronan’s shoulder, it’s almost soothing. Blue and Henry are bubbling away beside them, Ronan’s arm is braced around Adam’s shoulders, and Gansey is looking at them all so fondly that he might as well be their dad. It isn’t a bad place to be.

And the hand warmers Ronan got him earlier are still burning away in his coat pockets, so his list of problems is really very short.

“Oh my god,” Henry says, laughing.

“Ooh, send that one to me!” Blue cries.

“Done and done. Where’s that one of—oh my god.”

Blue’s laughter goes sharp and it sounds like she’s trying to bite it down.

Adam hears Gansey shuffling, and then his voice cuts through the noise: “Delete that! Blue Sargent.” Adam cracks an eye open, though he can’t catch a glimpse of the offending picture before Gansey is breathing, “Thank you. You better clear it from the Recently Deleted folder too—”

“Damn,” Henry whispers.

Up until this point, Henry and Blue had been taking the most pictures of any of them, but today they really claimed the role. It started that morning on the Brooklyn Bridge, seeing as the only thing there is to do is take pictures. They’d begun with regular photos, all smiles, until Blue threw her leg up on the railing and began a whole different kind of photo-taking. It had escalated until the photo shoot was really quite ridiculous; Adam is pretty sure a photo exists of Blue and Ronan with their coats swapped, but he can’t be certain, because at the same time he was posing for a photo with Gansey in his arms. (Gansey, as the group’s second-shortest member, turned out to be a pretty good prop. Which is good, since Blue, the first shortest, would have never allowed that of herself.)

Adam!” Henry says, a bit too loudly.

Abruptly Adam sits up to see what could warrant such a reaction, but the moment he catches a glimpse of Henry’s phone, he grins. On his screen is a completely unamused Ronan, his head cocked and hand half-raised, the Brooklyn Bridge behind him looking wholly insignificant when in the same picture as those unimpressed, blue eyes.

“Right before he told me to fuck off. Incredible,” Henry says, shaking his head with a smile.

I think I love that picture.

“Are you kidding? It’s my new background.” Henry continues scrolling through his photos, and Adam sits back to look at Ronan.

Ronan looks resentfully amused, his lips tight but turned upwards.

Adam squeezes his hand and slides back into his seat once more.

 

It was bound to happen eventually. And the moment it does happen, Adam isn’t sure why his stomach drops so sharply, because it’s exactly what had to happen, and really, Adam doesn’t know how it took this long in the first place. Maybe it’s just because it’s spring break that it’s so surprising. Maybe it’s that they’re in the middle of looking through photos from the zoo, and ghosts are the last thing on Adam’s mind.

But of course Gansey can only be in a new place for so long before his natural curiosity breaks in.

“We’re in New York City, Blue—”

Blue and Gansey had been across the room for a minute or two, but now, with the inclination of volume in Gansey’s voice, Adam’s ears perk up. So far, the other three had been ignoring the couple’s sudden excusal from dinner—because what if they were fighting? No one wanted to be in on that—but as Adam still mindlessly picks at his food from his seat on the hotel room floor, it becomes hard to ignore.

Blue doesn’t have a response to Gansey’s plea, perhaps because she senses the attention they’ve drawn, perhaps because she realizes he’s right about whatever it is he’s saying.

Adam thinks he knows even before they join the group again.

Being on the other side of this conversation is a funny place for Adam. Seeing as “EVP” is now an essential part of Adam’s vocabulary, he’d forgotten how odd it is to see Gansey explaining all of this for the first time. And suddenly Adam understands Ronan’s visceral, irritated response when Gansey had first told Adam about his interest in the supernatural—because it’s nerve-wracking. Adam’s seen Noah; Henry hasn’t. He has no reason not to judge them swiftly and unfavorably, and having had this sprung on him too makes Adam’s stomach twist. Reluctantly Adam lets himself think that maybe it would be a relief if Henry decided he hated them. At least then, Ronan could officially stop acting like a moron about Gansey—

Gansey boy, I knew there was a reason I liked you.

But there’s relief in the opposite response, too.

It’s a magical sort of night, then, listening to his friends talk. Eventually dinner is abandoned in favor of lying across the beds, and suddenly they’re making plans for that night—Henry heard that an old building nearby is haunted, Gansey insists that they should check out their own hotel first, Blue wonders aloud why they can’t do both.

Ronan and Adam, on the other hand, have no plans to leave the building. Not with the way Ronan is lying on his back with a sleepy Adam tucked into his side, not with the way Ronan rolls his eyes at Gansey’s mention of that fucking ghost box. Adam is painfully fond of all this talk, though; maybe in a few years, he’ll be as blasé as Ronan about it, but for now, it still feels like a grand adventure.

He’s glad Henry gets to see some of that tonight.

Adam is fine to stay behind—for now, it’s enough to hear it all again, as if for the first time. Adam recognizes some of the stories Gansey and Blue tell, and he recognizes some of places and the tools and the legends even though he wasn’t part of them. It makes Adam smile, and he feels so silly that he hopes Ronan can’t feel him doing it.

Of course he does, though. Ronan leans his head over, just enough so that he can catch Adam’s eyes with a curious look.

Adam’s phone is within reach, but because he doesn’t want to move, he has to use one hand to type. It’s slow going, but eventually he says, i just love you guys. And then Adam presses his face back into Ronan’s side so he doesn’t have to deal with whatever no-doubt faux-disgusted look Ronan has on his face.

Ronan’s arm, with his hand rested on Adam’s back, tightens minutely.

It feels like a lot.

Across the room, the other three are laughing at something Adam missed due to his heart sputtering for no reason.

“Are you sure you guys aren’t literally insane?”

“No,” Blue says, at the same time as Gansey says, “Yes.”

There’s a small noise of offense from Gansey, to which Blue shrugs and Henry laughs.

“But really, it doesn’t work unless you believe it’s going to,” Gansey clarifies, sounding as earnest as a person can. Then he adds, more joking, “Ghosts have feelings, too.”

Adam idly wonders how long it will take for Noah to come up. Once you’ve opened this rabbit hole, it’s pretty impossible for Noah not to come up, but they sure have been talking about this for a good while now this evening. To Adam, the omission feels obvious, and it’s unsettling in a way that makes his fingers fidget and his stomach turn.

Gansey must feel it, too.

To call this feeling fear doesn’t seem fitting, but Adam recognizes the hollowness of it. There’s something else, though, and it’s something worse than fear. For just a moment, a thought crosses Adam’s mind—he doesn’t want to share Noah. Noah feels like something special, and to give away that secret would feel like giving away something that was part of this group, part of his friendship with Gansey and Ronan.

But now he sounds like Ronan.

And Noah isn’t theirs to keep.

Adam sits up so suddenly that it draws everyone’s attention, and the look on his face must be pained because Gansey’s voice is concerned when he asks, “Adam?”

Noah, he mouths, eyebrows knit.

Gansey is speechless for a moment, his lips just parted, hands knotted in his lap. “Adam—”

An affronted expression tugs on Adam’s features, horror at the idea that Gansey is hesitant to say anything even when Adam has overtly brought their friend up.

“Huh?” Henry pipes up, looking to Adam when Gansey offers no explanation. “What?”

“Noah,” Gansey says finally, slowly. “Noah is a ghost at our school.”

“No way—wait, why does everyone look so sad?”

“We’re not sad—” Gansey starts, “Um…”

The situation feels weirdly distant from Adam in this moment—Gansey stuttering, Blue silent, Ronan just looking on. It’s impossible that they’d all been having the same selfish thoughts, and yet—

It takes a moment for the story to come out, for Gansey to find his words and start from the beginning. Adam listens, because Gansey has such a way of stringing sentences together, but in the back of his mind, his own thoughts are whirring. Even Blue had looked uncomfortable when Adam said Noah’s name. Had they all been trying to keep Noah a secret? What was the point, then? Why would they have found Noah if he was just meant for them, why would they have found Noah if he was just meant to be some novelty for the four of them?

It’s wrong, they’d all very obviously been thinking about the situation all wrong

Gansey is too sheepish in his telling of the story; he glosses over details and speaks in a rush uncharacteristic of him. Is he embarrassed of Noah?

Adam feels like his head is starting to hurt.

Of course they haven’t been able to help Noah so far, they’ve been too caught up in their own minds, they’ve been too worried about themselves. Adam can feel his expression twisting, he can feel the confusion on his face.

They needed to tell Henry.

Whatever they’d been thinking before, they had to tell Henry.

They’d let themselves get too comfortable with not knowing what to do about Noah, and something about having new eyes and ears on the subject feels like a step in the right direction.

Adam sits back.

Gansey’s tale finishes weakly, with the unforgiving emptiness of having not found a resolution to their problems yet. “I wasn’t sure if you’d want to know, since it’s quite a bit… weirder—”

“Oh, you guys are going to have to do a lot better than that if you want to weird me out,” Henry says, leaning forward, chin in hands. “Tell me—”

Adam lies back down beside Ronan and runs a hand through his hair. It’s too late at night for realizing things. He can barely listen to them talk about Noah right now, as though he were some legend, some distant boy who isn’t very, very real. As it is, Adam is the one who is weirded out, and he longs to know if Ronan is feeling the same way.

It’s another half-hour before Gansey, Blue, and Henry are heading out. A bit awkwardly, Gansey asks Adam if he’s okay, to which Adam nods.

Are you okay?” Ronan asks flatly, obviously doubtful, as soon as the door closes behind the other three.

Adam just groans and sits up again.

“Parrish. What the fuck.”

It’s the levity of Ronan’s voice, and it teeters on the borderline between annoying and calming.

Were they keeping Noah a secret?

“Were they?”

It seemed like they were.

“Well, maybe Henry Cheng doesn’t need to know about Noah,” Ronan says, half mumbling.

Adam turns sharply, his face somewhere between accusatory and excited that Ronan has voiced just what Adam had been fearing. But what if he DOES?

“Why would he?”

An exasperated exhale leaves Adam’s lips.

“What good is one more huge nerd gonna do?”

Adam shrugs.

“Are you having premonitions, Parrish?” Ronan laughs, the sound a little forced. “Hey, we—well, he knows now.”

I just think

But for a long moment, the sentence goes without an ending while Adam chews his lower lip. Ultimately, his thoughts collide and roll into one, simple statement: I think we’ve been doing a shit job by Noah. Adam pauses, though he doesn’t look up to see Ronan’s reaction. He’s helped me. And he’s helped all of us. But we’ve been doing shitty in return.

“And Henry Cheng is…?”

Another pair of eyes?

“Okay,” Ronan agrees, albeit reluctantly. It feels as much like an admission that Adam is right as anything else. “Maybe he’ll have some… I dunno, genius plan.”

Don’t sound so sarcastic.

“Shit, sorry.” But Ronan is smiling, his mind already moving somewhere else in a way that Adam can’t even be mad about. The others have all gone, and Adam’s done all he can do about Noah for this moment. Adam’s heart is still beating a little too quickly, but as Ronan leans towards him, it’s now for a different reason.

are you trying to distract me? Adam asks.

“No,” Ronan mumbles, pressing a kiss to Adam’s jaw.

Adam hums thoughtfully, leaning his head to the side as Ronan’s lips find the base of his neck—he exhales longly.

I’m right about Noah and Henry.

“Mhmm,” Ronan agrees, eyes flicking from Adam’s phone back to his face. His hand tugs at the base of Adam’s shirt, fingers slipping underneath fabric and up his back.

Adam tugs him closer and lets himself be distracted.

 

It’s later that night, after a shower and a change of clothes, that Adam finds himself out on the balcony despite his better judgement. He and Ronan pulled their comforter out there though, and underneath that and his coat and a fresh pair of hand warmers, the chill can barely get to him.

There are no stars to be seen in New York City—the beauty of the place is more confusing, more curious than that of stars. Skyscrapers may be monstrous things to a quiet boy from small-town Virginia, but somewhere amongst the sea of lights, there’s some kind of beauty to be found.

“Jesus Christ, it’s loud out here.”

Somewhere.

Stories below them, the City is churning. Their friends are out there somewhere, no doubt turning Henry Cheng into a believer more enthusiastic than either of the two of them.

Ronan leans against the balcony railing, arms crossed. “Should we throw Gansey’s shit over the edge?” he asks blandly, kicking his foot up to the bottom rung of the rail.

Adam gives a breathy laugh and shakes his head, though Ronan doesn’t turn around to see it.

He doesn’t have to. Because he knew what Adam was going to do even before he did it, and he knows now that Adam shook his head, probably he even knows that he smiled. For a moment, Adam considers that maybe it’s him that is too predictable, but before he can venture down that rabbit trail, Ronan turns around and confirms Adam’s previous thoughts.

“What the fuck are you thinking about back there, Parrish?” he asks, grin stretched across his face.

New York City is huge and unpredictable, unsightly in a way that begs you to look a little deeper. It’s messy and chaotic, but so is Ronan, and Adam thinks he’s in love with both.


 

 4.

Something is starting.

Adam feels it the moment he wakes up, having not seen the other three before he and Ronan went to bed the night previous. But there is energy buzzing about the hotel room as Blue pins her hair up in the bathroom, as Gansey nurses a cup of coffee in the kitchenette, as Henry types wildly away on his phone, his attention somewhere else entirely. Adam doesn’t sit up right away; he merely stretches and repositions himself in a way that doesn’t give away the fact that he’s awake. The clock on the bedside table says that it is 9:07. The short clink of Blue dropping a bobby pin into the sink is the only interruption to the silence.

Ronan is between Adam and the rest of the room, as asleep as Adam’s ever seen him.

It should feel weird that everyone else is up before Ronan and Adam, but instead all it does is add to the feeling that something is happening. Adam’s stomach churns. He rolls onto his side, facing Ronan, facing the rest of the room, but the motion goes strangely unnoticed. Gansey’s attention doesn’t move to see if he’s awake, Henry doesn’t look up. Blue is still perched against the bathroom counter.

Adam cannot pinpoint what feels so odd—he woke up too easily, the sun is too bright, the air is too thick with something intangible.

Henry stirs, eyes raising.

Adam wonders if he should get up.

He should probably get up.

Something is starting.

It would seem, however, that no one has noticed what Adam has, and when Adam sits up, Gansey cheerily greets him as though he hadn’t been sitting in stony silence moments before; Blue announces their plans for the day; Ronan grumpily asks why they’re being so loud all of a sudden, his eyes still closed. Adam doesn’t miss the look on Henry Cheng’s face though: All thoughtful, all different.

But then again, Adam could be making it all up.

And indeed, Ronan doesn’t say anything about whatever is going on all morning, either.

Adam is probably imagining the peculiar pensiveness in Gansey’s features over breakfast. Probably Adam is imagining meaning in the way Henry looks constantly on the brink of saying something on their morning subway ride. He’s certainly imagining that Blue is being oddly quiet. It’s not like Blue is loud. Blue can be quiet, Adam thinks.

But God, the tension is palpable.

Why is Adam the only one who notices it?

Central Park is next on the agenda, but all Adam can think about is whether or not he should point out whatever is happening.

“A woman died in this building,” Gansey says easily, pointing.

“Probably someone’s died in most of these buildings,” Blue responds, not unkindly.

“Well, yes, but she’s interesting because…”

Blue and Gansey are leading the way down the sidewalk, and the sheer number of people around them keeps the five of them from being able to stick together completely. Occasionally they zig-zag, weaving in and out of the crowd, which creates an odd formation where Henry is often alone between the two couples.

Adam tries to listen to Gansey babbling on, as though everything is normal, but his eyes are too caught on Henry Cheng, who had been turning on and off his phone screen more than usual. All morning. All morning he has been doing it, and Adam wishes he could just get a good glimpse of the screen, of his search history, of whatever’s running through his mind.

He’s getting paranoid probably.

Adam reaches for Ronan’s hand, which is as good a distraction as any. Immediately Ronan’s eyes fall to the side, meeting Adam’s; he gives his hand a squeeze.

“What do you think normal people talk about when they tour New York?” Ronan mumbles dryly.

Adam’s fingers are stiff as boards thanks to the wind, or else he would have given Ronan some kind of answer. Instead he merely shrugs, face smiling to say that he doesn’t mind Gansey’s chatter.

“When did he have the time to do all this research?”

This makes Adam laugh, because, really, he doesn’t know. Why Gansey would know of some lady who died in a random building on this particular street is something only Gansey could answer, and no one is willing to go down that rabbit trail just now.

Henry opens his phone again.

The smile on Adam’s face twitches.

It’s only a few more minutes before they arrive in Central Park—a place that is truthfully surprisingly dismal in the winter. Rocks are scattered about dead grass that occasionally dips and rises into meagre hills. Leafless trees punctuate the landscape. For a moment, Ronan looks like he’s about to open his mouth, but Adam doesn’t seem to be the only one to notice this—Gansey drags Henry off towards a street vendor a few yards away and Blue quickly follows.

“Looks like a pretty regular park to me,” Ronan says at last, eyeing the others’ departure.

Adam only shrugs, not willing to indulge the thought, but Ronan is quickly distracted anyways. He tugs Adam by the hand towards one of the rocks and drops onto it. Adam follows suit, knees turned in against Ronan’s, and after just a moment he reaches over and buries his hands in Ronan’s coat pockets.

“Do you need iron supplements?”

Adam glares at him through narrowed eyes.

“Cold ass,” but he gives Adam’s hands a squeeze.

Adam could almost be annoyed at the continued jokes at his body temperature’s expense, except that Ronan chooses that moment to duck his head closer to Adam’s, forehead to temple, lips to cheek. It’s almost sweet. Then Ronan bites him on the ear.

Adam staggers back; Ronan only grins, looking too pleased with himself.

Something may be happening, but Ronan is—well, Ronan. And so for a moment Adam lets himself be there, ass on this cold rock in the middle of the cold city with the people he trusts so much. Henry Cheng is newly one of those people. Because Adam knows what he must be thinking, despite his marked silence. The others don’t notice it because they’ve always lived with such magic—at least they have for a long time. Adam doesn’t know what Henry Cheng’s life is like outside of New York—he can only suspect. But what Adam can say is that there’s something about having your life changed at just the moment you needed some magic, whether that’s ghosts or friends or something more.

Somehow that nasty smirk across Ronan’s face tugs at a terrible sort of fondness Adam didn’t realize was inside of him before this boy.

Adam wonders if Henry feels this way about his friends, too.

“Hey. Parrish.” Ronan’s voice pulls his thoughts off this track. His words sound stilted, careful, as though an idea were just occurring to him. “I have a question.”

He raises his eyebrows and tightens his grip slightly on Ronan’s hands in response, small grin on his face that has nothing to do with the familiarity of Ronan’s forced-casual tone.

Ronan is observing Adam in a way that almost makes his smile falter; his eyes are cold, lips neither upturned nor downturned. Adam gives his hands another squeeze, curious, and then Ronan’s expression softens just a little, as though letting go of a feeling. He says, “What do you and Gansey even talk about? When you talk.”

Ronan’s effort to keep his voice level is betrayed by the way his eyes don’t meet Adam’s, by the way his question ends flatly, feebly.

Adam starts at the question, surprised because his thoughts had been so elsewhere—and also because it seems odd the question has never been asked before. Adam rolls his phone between his hands to give himself times to think, and then he says, Normal stuff mostly.

His skepticism is apparent. “Come on—”

But Adam is already talking again, Really! Just homework. Classes. Whether that blip he heard in a tape was a ghostly voice or a sneeze from the next room over. His shitty chem professor.

Ronan bites his lip, just barely enough that Adam can see it. “What’d you last talk about?”

Adam longs to know what is happening in Ronan’s thoughts, what’s actually happening. These are jealous questions, but Ronan isn’t. In any case, he has to sit back to remember the last time he spoke—it must have been so long ago.

Whether we were planning on bringing our textbooks on vacation with us.

Stop,” Ronan says pleadingly.

Adam’s laughter is audible. I’m being serious.

“Fucking—nerds.”

Adam only shrugs.

“You didn’t bring them, though, did you?”

He shakes his head, still smiling.

They sit there a moment, hands still clasped in Ronan’s coat pockets, knees together, the air light between them. Ronan’s eyes are focused across the way, where Gansey and Blue and Henry are standing together eating something that might be a pretzel.

Ronan is not always a hard person to read.

When he turns his attention back to Adam, his eyes are inquisitive, brows low.

“You just talk about regular stuff?”

Briefly Adam asks himself what the “right” answer is, but quickly he dismisses the notion and just nods. Because it’s true. Because there’s nothing he would tell Gansey that he wouldn’t tell Ronan. That he expresses it differently is almost negligible information. Adam has thought a lot about that time, sitting on Gansey’s floor, the way he felt so full to bursting that he just knew he could speak to Gansey, and though he remembers the feeling as strong as he’s ever remembered anything, he doesn’t know what it was about Gansey that made it happen.

And so Adam nods. We talk about the same stuff. I mean, I don’t talk about homework with you but other than that. Adam smiles carefully.

Ronan smiles back; it’s a flicker of a thing, but Adam couldn’t miss it.

“Cool.”

Sometimes Adam thinks that he wishes he did know what it was about that day that made words come easy. He thinks if he just knew, then he could tell Ronan, tell Blue, tell himself—and then he’d be cured. Adam has to patiently remind himself that it isn’t like that. He doesn’t suppose there is a one-size-fits-all solution. And anyway, he isn’t sick.

“’Cause you know—I can talk about anything,” and Ronan says it so casually it sounds like he’s making fun of his own aversion to conversation.

Even so, Adam says, I know, and he does.

Ronan nods idly, teeth to his leather bands. “Cool,” he says again.

Adam has to shove him in the ribs. He sometimes doesn’t know what to do with Ronan Lynch, and that has to be half the problem.

But it isn’t a problem Adam is upset about.

His fingers hover over his phone screen, his chest pounds. He feels full in a different way than the night he spoke with Gansey; it isn’t the stress of a burden struggling to be free, but rather it is an abundance of something else. Ronan’s eyes are kind. Something is starting.

Ronan I

Adam isn’t looking at his phone when he types it, and it’s only a burst of apprehension that keeps him from finishing the sentence, anxiety that makes him delete it before Ronan can see it. The feelings inside him feel too big to say like this, too large to not throw off Ronan—ever steady, ever constant Ronan. Ronan who can talk about anything. Ronan who wants to help Adam speak. Ronan whom Adam loves.

For the first time he lets himself think it, really think it, though he’s felt it now for days. For weeks.

Adam loves him, and he is terrified that it will change everything and nothing.

 


 

 5.

It’s at lunch that same day that Henry finally speaks, curing all of Adam’s suspicions at once.

“Gansey,” he says, like dropping a burden, “You have to let me write about Noah in the paper.”

Gansey and Blue both look visibly surprised by the statement; Ronan’s ears merely seem to perk up. Adam almost breathes a sigh of relief at having been right.

“How do you mean?”

“Look, I’ve just been thinking all morning—” He drops his phone onto the table top and then plants his elbows down, hands spread, “I write an article about him. It would be front page type shit—about his story, about the legends. It’s not like I’d write it as if he were a real ghost, you know, but it would be a story. It could be a real inspirational piece—a struggle to right wrongs and all.”

Gansey starts to say, “I don’t know,” and Blue says at the same time, “It’s up to Noah.”

“Oh, of course—”

“You can’t exploit his experiences,” Blue warns, obviously wary.

“It’s not exploitation—it’s honoring his experiences.”

Something is beginning.

Once the idea is out of the bag, free from Henry’s mouth at last, it’s all he can talk about. Imagine, he keeps saying. Imagine if, imagine how, imagine when. This would help people, he says, This is the shit people care about. The shit people need to know.

Gansey is excited about the idea almost immediately.

Blue is harder to win over.

It’s all Henry can talk about for the next hour, but Blue keeps his feet on the ground.

Are you just doing this to sell papers?

The paper is free, dear Blue.

Are you just trying to get attention for yourself?

I have enough attention already.

It’s up to Noah.

May I meet him, then?

Eventually Henry exclaims, “But people need to know! Don’t you think he needs to be known? Whether they know him as ghost or as long-dead boy, does it matter? He has no peace.”

The statement rests heavy at their lunch table, feeling all too much like a piece in the puzzle they hadn’t realized they’d been missing. Peace. It’s not something you just stumble upon; it has to be made, and here’s Henry Cheng, already typing a draft on his phone, begging to create some kind of peace for their friend.

Slowly, Blue nods.

“Let me meet him. I need to write about him.”

“You’re right,” Blue says, any resignation she might have as result of admitting defeat is absent because it’s about Noah. The rules just don’t ever seem to apply to Noah.

Adam is tentatively, naïvely, dangerously hopeful. He doesn’t know what he hopes for, necessarily, but the idea of setting something right is irresistible. It seems so doable, so simple, yet so meaningful. They’d been being selfish with Noah up until this point, and finally something feels right.

Henry says he’ll put it in the Vassar paper, and he’s sure that with a little help from Gansey or Adam, they could get something in the Princeton paper as well. People love ghost stories, after all, Henry says off-handedly.

“You have to say his name,” Henry states, his mind whirring a mile a minute. “Just get it out there.”

The plan is perfect. Pure. Exciting. They discuss it until there’s nothing left to discuss, and then Adam is left with just the odd feeling that he can’t wait to be back at school.

There isn’t time for that, though. This is their last night to do things in the City, and Cheng has other plans for them that have nothing to do with school newspapers and ghosts. He apparently has friends from school in the City, and they apparently have a large apartment, and apparently they also have no parents because they’re throwing what sounds like a rager. There’s big talk of music and food and drinks and games and general debauchery that sounds almost hard to believe.

Adam doesn’t know these partying friends of Henry’s, and even Blue isn’t sure what friends Henry means, despite that he insists one of them has a class with Blue (He doesn’t say which). Even so, it doesn’t matter, because Henry and his friends have been planning this event since the Spring Break trip was first agreed upon. Even though Adam rarely lets his friends drag him to parties these days, this somehow feels like an exception that’s easy to make (He does, however, have to clarify he won’t be wearing any sheets.)

As the day progresses, talk of Noah, of shots, of the inevitable return to school intermingle. Final photos are taken, last sights are seen, and bags are packed. The evening yawns into the night, but the night is anything but sleepy.

Henry cleanly knocks back a double-shot of tequila.

Adam sees how this night is going to go—and he smiles, teeth to the inside of his lip. His eyes drift about the hotel room, taking in the mess of it all, the sight of Gansey sipping rosé with his legs folded. It’s all so college in a way that Adam never expected to be fond of. Blue is perched next to her boyfriend, her knees up, her chin on his shoulder, a dopey smile on her face; between sips of wine, Gansey glances over to her, lights up in a smile, then goes back to his drink. Across the room, Henry is texting madly away, shot glass still in one hand, hair falling into his face.

And then there’s Ronan.

Adam sits on his and Ronan’s bed, his knees half-way to his chest, socked feet crossed at the ankle. Ronan sits beside him, arm braced behind his back, hand planted firmly on the mattress just past Adam. Ronan’s face is a breath away from his, drawing back only when Ronan raises his drink to his lips—which he does slowly, carefully. Over the course of the year, Adam has played the role of  DD, always looking out for his friends with an amused affection; yet somehow, Ronan is always simultaneously returning the favor to Adam.

For a moment, amidst the laughter and chatter, Adam feels a pang of something that feels an awful lot like loss. Truthfully, Adam hasn’t known this feeling well, but sitting here with Ronan looking like that, he can’t help but think that next spring break will not be like this. With Ronan gone, everything will change, and Adam simply can’t imagine it. He hasn’t known Princeton without Ronan.

His hand drifts over the comforter to find Ronan’s.

Change isn’t always bad, he knows.

But familiarity is comforting.

Knowing what’s going to happen is comforting.

And right now he doesn’t even know what he’s going to do for the summer, much less next semester. The thought feels a lot like fear.

Vaguely Adam wonders if this is a feeling that drives people to drinking.

“Oh, Dick, you did not—” Ronan’s voice cuts through Adam’s thoughts.

Gansey is standing now, pink stain right across the front of his white polo. The fingers of one hand are spread wide, as if in fear; from the fingers of the other his now-empty wine glass dangles. The expression on his face is sheer shock, a warped grin bright as light, confusion drawing his brows down. He begins to laugh, gasping an accusation at Blue, who is keeled over in giggles.

Jane,” he cries, horrified.

“That was not me,” she defends, barely.

“What the fuck are you gonna do? You only packed three spare shirts,” Ronan says, leaning over Adam with a terrible grin.

It’s not a feeling that drives people to this kind of drinking, Adam adjusts. The abundant joy, the laughter in the room has nothing to do with the now-shrinking feeling in Adam’s gut. And he doesn’t want to lose any of it, not this.

“You need to clean yourself off, Dick III, it’s time to go,” Cheng says with raised eyebrows, already taking a step towards the door.

“We’ve been sitting here thirty minutes with no word on when we’re to leave and now you decide—” Gansey yanks the shirt over his head; Ronan gives a low whistle (promptly ignored). “That was the party polo, I don’t know what I’ll show up in now…” Blue and Ronan share a look.

Even so, Gansey manages to find something else with a little added complaining. And despite Cheng’s threat, it’s another 20 minutes before the five of them are finally on the way.

The whole way to the apartment, Adam feels almost in a daze. Thanks to his newly realized, crippling fear of the future, everything feels violently present. Ronan’s arm brushes against his; Gansey’s laughter rings out like a siren; Blue pulls Adam into a hug unexpectedly. Adam tries to remember it all, the feeling of this moment, of this week, of this year.

Because none of it will happen again.

Dimly, Adam thinks how terrible he is at parties.

He holds Ronan’s hand tighter.

Eventually they climb the stairs from the subway, trailing Henry, playing a tipsy game of follow the leader—a line soberly punctuated by Adam.

Adam tries very desperately not to ruin the night thanks to his efforts to savor it.

God, does he know how to party.

This thought, though, turns out to be superfluous; the moment they open the door, it becomes evident that Henry Cheng also doesn’t know what a party is.

The apartment is small, to start with. Big for New York City, perhaps, which is probably why the way he had been describing it made it sound like an eleven-room loft. In reality, there can’t be more than four rooms, the first of which is lit by a strobe light that appears to have been bought at Party City—it spins, casting aqua blue dots across the walls and over the ceiling. To the left is the kitchen, fully lit, crowded with two-liters and plastic bowls of snacks. The light from the fluorescents streams into the dark living room thanks to the enviable open floor plan. Past a sofa and beyond a sliding glass door, there looks to be a balcony. Music streams from a hidden stereo, and it sounds to Adam a lot like Modest Mouse, which is somehow the first and last thing he was expecting.

If Henry Cheng had been expecting anything except exactly what is here, he does not show it.

Cheng2, you son of a bitch,” he cries, eyes fixating on someone out of Adam’s view from the back of the group. He dashes forward to hug someone; entirely too much slapping goes into the gesture, the sound of which drowns out the laughter. A snippet of conversation gets drowned out, but Adam thinks he hears something like I haven’t seen you in ages.

A few more of Henry’s friends appear from the back rooms, from the balcony.

Blue makes a sound of realization, saying hello to two of them (They’re from her science class, as it turns out). Henry introduces the others. Adam braces to be introduced as the one who doesn’t talk, but the comment never comes. Adam smiles hello; Gansey hugs hello; Ronan glares hello. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Between the introductions and above the music (“Koh, did you add this to the Party Playlist? Fuck you.”), Henry says something about more drinks, he points out where the bathroom is, and someone across the house shouts something about there being a girl in the house.

“Holy shit,” Ronan mutters, enunciating individual syllables as he steps to the side, glancing around. He makes a move for the kitchen. “I am six drinks too sober for this place. What the fuck.”

I don’t know, the Dungeons and Dragons set-up in the corner makes me feel like I should be soberer.

“Oh Jesus.”

The kitchen, swathed in yellow light, lined with beige countertops, accented with mid-toned cabinets, is a weird mirage in the dark house. Ronan bolts for it.

“I feel like we just fell into an alternate reality,” Ronan says. A respectable collage of liquor bottles decorates the counter, and Ronan blindly grabs a blue one, middle-shelf vodka, and pours himself a shot—then another one. “God,” he gasps, shaking his head, “That’s disgusting. Jesus. Fuck.”

Adam laughs to himself, some of the strange energy of the evening dissipating with Ronan’s every curse.

“Are you okay?” Ronan asks, as if realizing something.

The truth being impossible to hide from him, Adam just shrugs.

Ronan looks skeptical, but his eyes drift out towards the living room before finding their way back to Adam. “You should take a shot.”

Adam shakes his head.

Ronan shrugs. “Okay.”

A burst of laughter comes from somewhere down the hall, Gansey’s audible above it all.

Let’s ditch.

Ronan’s features warp from pained to incredulous to delighted. “Did you just suggest that?”

Adam nods, amused.

“So when Gansey gets mad, I can say No wait, it was Parrish’s idea?”

He won’t get mad.

“Whatever, fuck ‘em.” Ronan pours another shot of something else, throws it back without a change of expression and then continues, “Oh my god. Parrish. Can we fucking leave?”

Smiling, Adam nods.

The City is endless outside the dark living room, beyond the front doors of the stuffy apartment building. Ronan walks without any knowledge of a goal, but Adam has enough sense to look up a destination before they get too far.

“Adam,” he says, “How did we get roped into that?”

Information was withheld.

 “Shit.” Ronan shakes his head. “You don’t think—like—he’s a fucking nerd, right?”

Adam smiles, knowing what he’s really asking. Yeah. A nerd. He pauses for a beat. Not as cool as you. For sure.

“Quit making fun, Parrish. I’m being serious.”

Sorry I couldn’t tell

“Jesus,” Ronan says, shaking his head, a pointed laugh interrupting the second syllable. “Asshole.”

In response, Adam just raises their joined hands to his lips, leaving a kiss at the joint of his thumb.

They wander the streets like this. Ronan never once asks Adam where they’re going, following without question. The only sign of drinking from Ronan is his loosened tongue. More than once he calls Adam fucking amazing, though a few times he cuts himself abruptly off mid-sentence as if suddenly aware of how much he’s saying.

Adam never asks after the ends to these sentences.

“Do you think it’ll work?”

Adam only casts him half a glance before he goes on to clarify.

“Noah. Henry’s article.”

I mean, what would it mean for something ‘to work?’

“Hell if I know.”

Adam echoes the sentiment with a weak grimace.

“God, the poor—I mean, that sucks, right?”

Ronan’s thought process is somewhere unidentifiable, but still Adam nods in agreement.

“God.”

I don’t know what will happen if we write about Noah. But I know I’d want people to know the truth. If I were him.

Ronan hums affirmatively. “It’s better than doing nothing, I guess—”

Ronan startles, interrupted by the chattering of an overhead bell as Adam leads them into a late-night café just off the street they’d been on.

“Where the fuck—”

Adam shoves him in the arm before catching his hand and dragging him up to the counter. After ordering a selection of cookies, two bagels, and two coffees, they find a booth in the back corner. Adam cozies against the wall, cup clasped between his cold hands, and Ronan slides in beside him.

Hey, Adam says.

Hey, Ronan types back.

I’m not gonna replace you. And Gansey won’t.

Ronan looks admonished. I know.

Don’t replace us either though, okay?

Ronan makes an audible noise of disbelief. Please.

Adam spins his phone on the tabletop with his finger. Out of the corner of his eyes he looks Ronan over, something welling up in his chest to the point where he hurts. He longs to be back in the empty hotel room, he longs to speak his thoughts. More than anything he just wants to know what Ronan is thinking. He drops his head to Ronan’s shoulder. He reaches for one of their cookies, snapping it in half before bringing it to his lips. After a beat, he picks up his phone.

Then sets it back down.

He picks it up again. Can I be honest, Ronan?

fucking please

Everything is a little scary right now.

“Nah,” Ronan breathes. “I mean. Yeah. Not as scary as it could be, though. Probably.”

Probably, Adam agrees, though his expression doesn’t change.

“Sorry, fuck—I wasn’t supposed to say that,” Ronan mumbles.

This brings half a smile to Adam’s lips. No, you’re right though.

Ronan’s face is still grimacing apologetically, mind still spinning for something better to say. Before it comes, though, Adam is sitting back in the booth, shifting his back against the wall so that he can look Ronan in the face.

Visit me, he says.

Whenever you want.

Adam’s lips pull into a real smile. He replies, And whenever YOU want?

you wouldn’t want me there That often.

When Ronan hands Adam’s phone back to him, this message across the screen, Adam has to close his eyes. His free hand goes to the side of his face, which is slowly dissolving into a grin—then laughter. Because the look on Ronan’s face is as stoic as though he were telling Adam a grim fact of life, and yet it’s the most ridiculous thing ever. Adam would have him by his side every day if he could, and Ronan knows it. He must know it. His glee is verging on giggles, on happiness of the embarrassingly giddy kind. Adam can only shake his head, grab Ronan by the front of his shirt, and pull him closer.

It’s not the kiss he wants to give him. It’s fast, chaste, and in a restaurant booth, but Adam has to give it, because his heart is full. Because he’ll miss him and his shitty sense of humor. Because he loves Ronan. And because he doesn’t know any other way to say any of this.


  

+1

Adam has been incessantly turning the words over in his mind for the last twelve hours. I love him, he thinks. He doesn’t want to be without him. He is happy with him. He is comfortable beyond reason around him. I love Ronan, he thinks again.

At first the thought had scared him, but this feeling was a short one. He hadn’t been sure, he’d only thought maybe he did, and that idea had put everything into a new, dangerous perspective that threatened to throw everything off kilter. But if he’d learned anything during his time away from school, it was that loving things and places and people is a good thing. It was love that had brought them all together in the first place and it was love that made Henry want to help a ghost boy he didn’t even know and it was love that caused Ronan to pick up Adam’s phone to talk to him even while his own collected dust.

Love hadn’t looked like this in the Parrish household, and maybe that was why it had been so startling at first.

But Adam has been painstakingly renaming his feelings since the beginning—swapping “pity” for “compassion,” “sympathy” for “friendship,” “care about” for “absolutely in love with.” It’s an exhausting process, one that Adam is too aware of, but the realization of it is liberating. Yes, his parents had fucked with his understanding of relationships. No, none of it is permanent.

He’d been working on that since he first met Gansey, though.

Now comes a different task.

He loves Ronan.

Specifically. Clearly. Unabashedly.

Definitely.

But he can’t say it.

The feeling is bigger than a phone screen, more important than typed words.

To write it would be insignificant, a hopelessly inadequate expression of everything he feels.

The thought is sickening.

Adam turns his phone screen on to check the time: six, thirty-three. The train is late, but no one comments on the fact. The station is ill-lit, chilly, vacant. In his coat pocket, Adam turns his phone over in his palm, again and again.

He’s never wanted to badly to communicate something to someone, not since he lost his voice. And never before has he felt so trapped inside his own body—not being able to say something out loud has never made him feel so much like a prisoner, so stuffed inside a form he cannot break. Adam’s hand tightens around his phone.

What a worthless thing—what an alienating thing it is. The phone cheapens his words, silences them worse than even the sheer act of not speaking.

He can’t tell Ronan he loves him. Not like this.

And so his phone stays in his pocket.

It’s only a few more minutes before they’re finally inside the train, shuffling down the aisles with their suitcases and backpacks. Adam has the thought that there are far too many people onboard for this early in the morning, but the thought doesn’t stay for long—it’s then that Ronan, who’s leading their line, turns around and says, “I think Parrish and I will move forward, you guys can just take these seats.” His voice is still the rough whisper peculiar to those who are awake unwillingly.

Adam glances around, noticing three open seats to their right—beyond that, the train is spotted with passengers, spread out just enough that they won’t be able to sit together. Gansey mumbles in the affirmative and begins to lift his bag to the overhead compartment. Adam doesn’t comment; he just allows Ronan to take his hand (gently, by the tips of the fingers) and lead them down the aisle.

They pass a few options, and though Ronan doesn’t say anything, Adam guesses it’s because they require climbing past people. However, it quickly becomes apparent that unless they plan to walk through the entire length of the train, they’re not going to find any better options. And so a few rows later, Ronan draws to a stop and asks a man with a boring haircut if the two of them could get past him.

A mistake has been made. The man looks up at them with an expression as though they’d just asked him a most unreasonable favor. It’s a rotten look. In response, Adam almost yanks Ronan backwards to find another seat; however, Ronan’s eyes narrow infinitesimally, determinedly. As the man shuffles his knees to the side in a meager attempt to make more room, Ronan heaves his bag and then Adam’s into the overhead. Ronan moves into the window seat with no hesitation; Adam tries to offer an apologetic smile, mostly because he’s the one who has to occupy the middle between the two. The man ignores it.

Adam sits at the edge of his seat closest to Ronan, not wanting to give the stranger any more reasons to dislike them. It’s early in the morning, and with an almost-two-hour-long train ride ahead of them, Adam would like nothing more than to just go back to sleep. He rests his head on Ronan’s shoulder.

The man beside them visibly turns his head—but just by a hair.

Adam doesn’t need to be looking at Ronan to know that he noticed it, too.

Ronan pointedly glares at the man, who promptly flicks his gaze away from them.

“Can I have your phone?” he asks under his breath.

Adam pulls it from his pocket and then watches Ronan type, what a dick.

Yeah, Adam says back, not caring to waste words about some stuffy guy. it was a good week besides him though.

did you do everything you wanted to? Ronan asks.

And more, Adam says, lifting his other hand to trace shapes against Ronan’s knee. Did you?

Just about.

Adam almost asks what was missing, but before he can, he merely writes it off as Ronan being Ronan. We should do it again sometime, just us.

yeah?

Well. You know. go Somewhere.

no, i’d like that. no gansey to keep us from doing the fun shit

Adam elbows Ronan in the side, but still he smiles. A trip just the two of them might be some sort of disaster, but Adam longs for it. Before now, he’d never been on a vacation like this, and now his mind fills with possibilities. Waking up late under hotel covers, unknown streets to explore, strangers who won’t remember them after ten minutes. And Adam could do it all again. He could do it all with Ronan. God he loves him.

He is lucky beyond belief.

Adam replies, Yeah. I can’t wait.

Ronan has the smallest of smiles on his lips, yet he hesitates before he replies. maybe next semester but he pauses before finishing the sentence. Well, we can do fun shit on the weekend?

Here Adam raises his eyes to Ronan’s face, offering him an earnest nod. That sounds great.

Ronan starts to bite down a smile, but like all big feelings, his smile breaks out before dissolving into relieved laughter. Cool, he says, still grinning. hope you still like me when i’m not such a nihilist.

Adam gives a sputtering laugh. I didn’t realize you were giving that trait up?

once i’m out of school, what will there be to be nihilistic about?

Fair enough, Adam replies, shaking his head and smiling.

A sound to their left pulls them out of the conversation. 

“You know,” comes the voice like a talon, “if you’re going to text each other about me, you could at least be subtle about it.”

Adam only turns slightly towards the man, his first instinct being to apologize, despite the fact that their conversation had nothing to do with their neighbor. His hand then twitches for Ronan’s—he wonders if they should just get up and move seats, it would be one-hundred fold less awkward than the conversation they’re about to have to have. After all, the man must be having a worse day than they are, it would be no problem—

“Who the fuck do you think you are?”

The question is surprisingly genuine: innocent in a way that would be laughable if not for the scalding expression across Ronan’s features.

As it turns out, though, the man has little survival instinct. “Do you think I can’t see you passing a phone back and forth?”

Adam catches his fingers around the cuff of Ronan’s shirt, begging him not to do anything unnecessary. Unsurprisingly, Ronan takes no heed. “How about you don’t talk about things you know nothing about?”

“Look, maybe you guys should just move,” the man says in an unbearable act of arrogance. 

Ronan is one more comment away from blowing a fuse, but what is most terrifying is the way he loiters between control and loss thereof. He scowls at the stranger for an extended moment, just holding it, the knowledge of what they were really talking about heavy in his chest. Finally, though, he sits back, letting his glare unhook itself from the man slowly, carefully, deliberately.

Wearily, Adam turns and meets the man’s eyes before making a motion that ends with his fingers to his lips.

Dick,” Ronan punctuates Adam’s sentence, his voice almost prideful.

The stranger’s face turns stricken for precisely half a second before blanching of all expression. He mumbles something incoherent and monosyllabic before turning to look the opposite direction.

Dick, Adam echoes, mouth turned downwards.

However, Ronan is absolutely delighted, his face a 180-degree change from the scowl he had been wearing just moments before.

i didn’t know you knew ANY sign language FUCK

Well, you have to learn Something in case you run into assholes.

Ronan cackles and kisses Adam on the temple. “Fuck,” he mumbles against Adam’s skin.

The rest of the train ride is awkward, but in a way that’s only uncomfortable for the stranger. Adam and Ronan won that one, and so they just do their best to ignore him. For a little bit, Adam manages to fall asleep, but not for too long. And soon enough, they all find themselves back together, loading their bags into the trunk of the Pig.

“Oh, I did miss you,” Gansey says airily, leaning his head against the open trunk.

They spend the night in Blue’s dorm room, her roommate still out for the break. Henry reluctantly returns to his own dorm, vowing to be back in the morning for breakfast; Adam and Ronan end up on an air mattress that Adam didn’t know Gansey had packed. He’d tried to say it wasn’t necessary, but Ronan had stopped that idea in its tracks: “No way am I sleeping on a cement floor,” he’d said.

So here they are, air mattress pressed against the wall under Blue’s lofted bed. Every too-large movement warrants a squeak from the plastic mattress, but the only response to the noise is a few giggles from Blue. Eventually, though, Adam finds a comfortable position on his side, tucked against Ronan, who lies on his back.

Hey, Adam says after a bit. He can’t seem to fall asleep, despite the fact that Gansey’s and Blue’s whispering died out long ago. He knows Ronan will still be awake, though. He always is.

Hey, Ronan says back.

Thanks for dealing with that guy on the train.

fuck, are you kidding? youre the one who embarrassed him out of his mind, holy shit

lol, Adam says, pausing. he deserved it probably. was he trying to give us a stink eye for me putting my head on your shoulder?

don’t know . he was definitely a dick though

Whatever, i don’t want to talk about him. Thanks in any case

no fucking problem. any day.

Adam curls his hand to a fist against the fabric of Ronan’s shirt, dropping his phone to the wayside. He presses a kiss to Ronan’s lips, deathly silent and all too aware of Blue and Gansey in the room with them. Probably they’re asleep. Hopefully—because Ronan reacts instinctually: His hand slides to the back of Adam’s head, catching in his hair. This, Adam thinks, is what he would do any day.

With no regard to how long it took them to find a comfortable way to lie, Ronan gently forces Adam onto his back, taking a position above him. The resulting noise from the bed could easily be attributable to a shifting sleeping position, and so Adam then has to clap his hands over his mouth as Ronan’s mouth finds his neck in the dark. They don’t stay there though. Adam’s hands sink down Ronan’s back, to his stomach, to his hips. A strong hand is pressed to Adam’s cheek, Ronan’s thumb precariously close to Adam’s parted lips. Adam lets his head turn slightly, meeting his lips with Ronan’s thumb.

In the dim light, Ronan meets Adam’s eyes, half a gasp on his lips. His hands are at the base of Adam’s shirt.

They should probably stop—if they’re quiet, they can hear Gansey’s breathing.

Whatever.

Adam raises his hand to the back of Ronan’s skull, drawing Ronan’s lips back to his. Ronan’s hand falls lower than Adam’s though, pulling a deep exhale from Adam. It breaks the kiss, but Adam’s fingers trace from the back of Ronan’s head, along his jaw, and then to his lips. It’s Ronan’s hand at Adam’s thigh, but now Ronan is the one swallowing his reaction as Adam’s fingertips meet his tongue.

They could have stopped themselves before this moment, but now there’s nothing left to be done about it. It’s embarrassing really, but Adam suddenly can’t feel any emotion except Ronan and how much he fucking loves him.

He’d do anything to be close to him.

He’d do anything to keep him here.

God, he wishes he could tell him

Ronan’s touch has more power than it has any right to; every kiss feels like the beginning and end of something—a yearning, a feeling unspoken. Never before has Adam felt like he needed a touch so badly, and never before has he felt so much like he should stop before anyone wakes up, holy shit, and yet it’s the former feeling that wins out.

Somehow, neither Gansey nor Blue wake up—or at least they don’t say anything. Adam can’t let himself imagine that they’d woken up without saying anything, but he’s pretty sure he’d have noticed. Call it ninety-nine percent sure.

Adam rolls onto his stomach, dropping his chin to Ronan’s chest, which is rising and falling just a touch too heavily. On Ronan’s face is a crooked smile, barely visible in the darkness, but Adam returns it widely.

He wonders if Ronan knows how he loves him. It’s a stupid thought, but he hopes he does. God, he hopes so. The idea that he might not is unbearable—he can’t consider it.

(He wishes he could tell him.)

Ronan’s hand runs through Adam’s hair; Adam leans back into the touch.

Ronan’s other hand starts fumbling for something, and after a moment, he finds Adam’s phone on the floor beside the mattress. Adam.

Yeah?

For a moment, they just lie there looking at each other. Ronan’s thumb hesitates over the screen of the phone, but his mind is elsewhere, clearly. Adam wishes his mind could be where Ronan’s is, but instead his is spinning out of control—he loves Ronan, he loves his hand in his hair, he can’t tell him that, he will miss him, he loves him, his stupid phone isn’t a good enough way to say any of this, Adam isn’t good enough to just fucking say—

He’d give a lot to leave these thoughts for whatever Ronan’s are.

What is it? Adam prompts, when Ronan doesn’t continue.

Ronan gives half a shrug, a resigned motion, and then, as if his words failed him, too, he kisses Adam again.

Allowing yourself silence is sometimes a wonderful thing. To know that you can say nothing, to know that this is all there is—it’s freeing. So Adam kisses him like he loves him, like that’s all there is, like there’s no other way to say it. Words are heavy, after all; and this kiss is anything but.

 Adam lets himself think that he’s never felt like this before.

Oh how he hopes Ronan knows.

Adam’s phone reads 1:18 by the time the two of them are thinking about sleep again. His battery has sunk to 12%, and though his phone charger is nowhere to be found, Adam lets worry slide past him. He traces his fingers across Ronan’s chest as they settle into the bed to sleep.

Adam, Ronan says again, the light of the phone screen tugging Adam’s eyes upwards.

Adam reaches over, typing slowly, deliberately with one finger, Ronan?

Adam watches Ronan type, and though his sleepy eyes watch every letter appear, he still feels his breath catching, his stomach turning over in joy or relief or—maybe gratitude. Until this moment, Adam had never considered that love may feel like burning.

I love you, Ronan says in black and white.

Every reason Adam had used to justify his fear of not telling Ronan—that it wouldn’t be good enough, that it wouldn’t be real, that it would be cheapened—evaporates. The words are flames that can’t be held in, a burning that feels too powerful to be stifled. And of course Ronan would meet him where he is. He always does.

A great sense of belonging settles into Adam’s chest, his hands, his heart, and then he replies, I love you too.

Chapter Text

“Parrish, I found somewhere for you to live!”

Adam nearly jumps out of his skin as Ronan appears at the post office window, voice present before the rest of him is, and breathing like he’d just sprinted here from his last class. A piece of brightly colored paper is clutched in his hand, and Ronan is waving it about triumphantly.

“I found somewhere,” he announces again, dropping his arms to the counter.

Raising his eyebrows, Adam shoots him a look to please continue.

He starts to straighten out the paper, now crumpled, and says, “Well, I was in class today—hey, I go sometimes—and Dr. Whoever has these flyers and tells us about this old lady who needs someone to come live in her house for the summer—”

The look on Adam’s face twists into a dubious grimace.

“No, no, don’t look like—I promise it’s real—anyway, she does this every summer apparently, she’ll just—” Ronan waves a hand, “I don’t fucking know, let kids live in her house for the summer if they feed her cats or something. The point is, it’s free and you could do it. I mean—you have to interview for it, or some shit, but who wouldn’t pick you?”

Maybe Adam’s doubts had subsided for an instant there, but now he has to resist the urge to roll his eyes at Ronan’s blind confidence. Who? How would Adam get through an interview?

Ronan, you know I’d be no good in an interview, he says half-heartedly.

“No, don’t start that. Obviously she’ll want someone quiet who isn’t gonna throw parties or shit in her home. You’re the perfect candidate.”

But, Adam starts, but the end of his objection doesn’t come. He just makes a face, one shoulder slumping thoughtfully. I mean, and again, it goes unfinished.

“What?” Ronan says, half-laughing. “It’s good, isn’t it?”

Adam nods, honestly. It just seems … too good.

Not unkindly, Ronan asks, “Are you fucking kidding me? Good things are allowed to happen sometimes. You can’t just—” He shrugs widely, “You know. Good things can happen to Adam Parrish.”

Adam does roll his eyes now, dropping his chin to his hand, his own stance now mirroring Ronan’s. Of course Adam knows that. It’s just—well, Adam doesn’t want to say it would be presumptuous to apply to something as silly as what is essentially a housesitting gig, and yet

“Look, well, just e-mail the lady and tell her you’re interested.” Ronan taps an e-mail address printed onto his flyer. “It’s not gonna hurt.”

Maybe, Adam allows.

Is he likeable like that, though? his thoughts, momentarily interrupted, continue. He isn’t sure he’s likeable in a way that makes people want to let him watch their cats. He’s never even owned cats before, how is he—

“Parrish,” Ronan’s voice is as near a whine as Adam’s ever heard it, and it brings Adam to a laugh in spite of himself. “If you don’t do it, I’m just gonna do it for you.”

You wouldn’t.

“Try me.”

Adam pulls the flyer—which is a frightful shade of yellow and has a doodle of some unidentifiable creature in the margins, courtesy of Ronan—and reads it through with carefully measured levels of interest and scrutiny.

How many cats?

“I’m betting ten.”

Adam laughs. Five, tops.

“I don’t know, she’s letting somebody live in a free house.”

Six.

“Is that your official bet, Parrish?”

Adam considers. My real bet is 2.

“Oh come on—fine.” Pause. “Is this Price is Right style, where you can’t go over? Or whoever’s closest?”

Closest, Adam starts to type, but then he backspaces. What’s the bet?

“Five bucks.”

Oh please. Then it’s whoever’s closest. I’ll let you have that advantage.

“So gracious. You’re absolutely on.” Ronan starts to stand up straight, but then he adds, “If you don’t e-mail her, you owe me ten.”

WHY

“Because then the bet can’t be resolved,” he answers, flippant, with a shrug. “That’s on you.”

Grinning, Adam nods. Sure.

Though skeptical about the idea, it really is a good one, he has to give Ronan that. If it really is a regular thing, lots of students probably know about it, so maybe it’s unlikely that Adam would get it, but this is the kind of thing Adam cannot afford to ignore. He’d looked up apartments nearby only a couple times, mostly because it was so disheartening. Apartments by yourself are expensive; hundreds of dollars in rent would quickly eat up all the money he’d saved over the year, even if he found a summer job.

I’ll e-mail her right now, Adam tells Ronan.

“Do it.”

I will.

Ronan looks unbearably proud as Adam types a short message, trying not to labor over what information he should include. Probably she wants to know what year he is. Probably she doesn’t need to know he doesn’t talk. Major is likely important, though if he told her his GPA it would just look like bragging. So he writes what he thinks is right and then presses Send before he can think too much. Maybe it will come to nothing.

In any case, he won’t be giving Ronan ten dollars.

Adam returns Ronan’s smug look.

After that, Ronan stays the rest of Adam’s shift, just dicking around and adding more abominable animals to the yellow paper. When he finishes the tenth one, Adam has to assume they’re cats—but he dares not ask. When his shift finally ends, the two of them find themselves with a cloudy Friday afternoon to themselves.

Currently Henry Cheng and Blue are on their way for the weekend, and so Ronan and Adam use the time they have now to leave campus. Since Spring Break, the two of them had been leaving campus whenever possible; it seems Ronan had gotten a glimpse of freedom in New York and now his distaste for the school is only greater. Ronan’s idea of leaving campus never involves a destination, though, and Adam has no intention of giving him one today, either.

And so the drive is a long one, reaching through the evening and into the night.

It’s times like this that Adam loves Ronan most of all—over the white noise of the car, underneath the stars, lit by the dim lights of the dashboard. At one point, Adam pushes his seat back and lies down askew in the seat, his head on the center console, knees raised and pressed against the door. He barely fits, which makes Ronan smile down at him, expression nevertheless unimpressed. And after a moment, Adam sit up a little, just enough to reach the sunroof; he slides back the cover but doesn’t open the glass. Ronan never uses the thing—he’d once called it “Unnecessary fluff,” the only thing about the car that he found superfluous—but Adam likes to let the night in.

They stop only once, and it’s in the parking lot of a public park long after the sun has gone down. Without a word, they climb out of the car, but by some unspoken agreement, they don’t walk towards the park itself. Instead Adam lowers himself onto the concrete parking block, resting his back against the BMW’s front bumper—and Ronan follows suit.

“If we smoked, we’d look right cool right now, huh?” Ronan asks, probably only half-joking.

Adam only shrugs, not in disagreement. Under the flickering lamplight of an abandoned parking lot, they would certainly look better doing something improper. Instead, Adam simply scoots closer to Ronan, slumping against his arm, feet stretched out in front of him. At his back, he can still feel the warmth of the car; his hands warm with Ronan’s.

“You know, Parrish,” Ronan says, “I’ve been thinking.”

You do that?

“Fuck you, I’m being serious.”

Adam grins. Go on.

“Would you… Can you let—not let, fuck…” Ronan makes an indiscernible noise, thinking, “Could me and Gansey help you this summer? If you needed it?”

You’re already helping me, Adam answers without missing a beat.

“I mean—you know what I mean.”

But you ARE helping me, he insists, You told me about that cat lady.

The look Ronan gives him echoes everything Adam had already thought: What if he didn’t get it, what if he couldn’t afford somewhere else, what if he couldn’t find a good enough job, what if he had to go back home?

Ronan finally continues, his voice heavy, “I can’t let you go back to your parents’.”

It wouldn’t be “letting” me.

“I know that, I—” Ronan stops without warning, rubbing a hand against the back of his neck. “I just want to help. Gansey wants to help.”

Adam swallows, turning his phone over in his hands. You can. He breathes in, Help me in my way.

Adam knows either or both of them would let him live with them. They’d pay his rent. They’d buy him anything. He knows already without needing to ask, and he knows that they would do anything for him—Blue or Noah included. But the thing is, they all already have.

It’s Adam’s decision not to go back home.

And so it’s Adam’s solution to solve.

They have to let him.

Ronan looks up from Adam’s phone to his face and then off into the distance. Slowly he nods. “Okay…” He doesn’t ask How?, but his face says it enough.

You’ve already helped me, Adam says again, turning to face Ronan more directly. You already have! It’s easy, sometimes, to forget to look people in the face when you have to type your words, but now Adam meets his eyes unflinchingly. As much as it’s important for Adam to not rely on his friends, he knows it’s important that he doesn’t make Ronan feel useless.

He knows Ronan wants to help.

He’s wanted it since the beginning.

Ronan’s eyes are grey in the dim light, expression complicated and starkly present.

“I can look for other places, too,” he says at last, the ending of the statement raised ever so slightly like a question. “If it doesn’t work out.”

Adam nods, pulling both Ronan’s hands into his, fingers grappling desperately against Ronan’s skin like gratitude, like he couldn’t bear to have him anywhere else. Most of Adam’s fear of speaking is more a fear of occupying space, and so just looking is sometimes so hard, but here, he lets himself stare—Ronan’s eyes are searching, his lips are wanting. Adam longs to be present with him. Here.

Ronan inclines his head to one side. “What?”

Though Adam regretfully has to pull his hands from Ronan’s to say it, he replies easily, I just love you. You’ll help me find someplace?

“That’s what you want?”

Adam nods.

“Then of course. I wouldn’t want to subject you to living with Gansey anyway.”

Lightly Adam shoves him in the arm.

“Bet that old lady wants you to watch her cats, though.”

Ronan says it with a grin and a confidence that could not be faked; and although Adam knows better than to be blindly hopeful, he trusts Ronan. Not just for this one thing, but he trusts Ronan to listen to what Adam wants. He has to.

And though the thought of looking for somewhere to live away from his friends makes his heart pound, Adam has been carefully disarming his worries and his pride. Despite how it scares him, letting Ronan help lets Adam breathe just a little easier, and he is thankful for it.


 

Back at school, Gansey, Blue, and Henry are all in the chapel with Noah, who is looking especially feeble tonight. His strength seems to come and go lately, although when Henry had first met him at the tail end of the break, Noah had looked almost more present than ever. At that point, they had talked about easy things—the break, things Noah used to do in the City, how they met Henry in the first place. Blue had let Noah hold her hands and fix her ponytail, and even Henry had found Noah’s hands in his hair at one point. If Noah had sensed that anything had changed, he hadn’t mentioned it. Noah had said goodbye with a curious look in his eye, though, and he’d whispered something to Henry that no one else heard.

“It’s a secret,” Henry said, when asked.

But tonight Noah is so faint that Adam and Ronan almost don’t notice him at first, as they enter the chapel doors. The others don’t look up as Ronan and Adam approach, even though they are silently seated in a circle near the front podium. This quietness is what clues the other two into the fact that Noah is, in fact, present—it’s his voice that the other three are so patiently listening to.

“I don’t remember much… anymore,” he’s saying, arms wrapped tightly around himself. “I couldn’t say.”

“How about this,” Henry suggests lightly, “You don’t need details. Just tell me what you want.”

“I want—”

It’s now that Adam and Ronan are upon the group; Noah meets their eyes and scoots over to let them into the circle, though it isn’t much room. Adam takes this spot besides Noah, while Ronan squeezes in besides Blue. They’d told the others to not wait on them to talk to Noah, but even so, now Adam feels intrusive somehow, sensing the gravitas of the conversation already.

“I want…” Noah starts again, less confident, if that was possible. “I wanted to meet someone.”

“But they hurt you instead?”

Noah shakes his head violently, an action that seems to blur his features.

Though he and Ronan missed the beginning of the conversation, it pieces itself together quickly. This isn’t the joyful discussion they’d had last week.

“I did meet someone. He was… nice.”

“Did he kill you?”

“Henry!” Blue exclaims under her breath, aghast at his directness.

However, Noah looks unfazed, his eyes landing on Adam for a moment that is just long enough to feel significant. Mindlessly Noah twists his fingers together, face painful.

“He—” Noah starts shaking his head, again, though. His eyes raise thoughtfully, so high that, for a moment, Adam can barely make out anything except the whites of his eyes.

“You don’t have to say what you don’t want to say,” Blue assures, reaching for Noah.

Adam wonders vaguely how long the group has been sitting here, or whether they’d been on this topic the whole evening or if the subject had been abruptly changed only recently. He catches Ronan’s gaze from across the circle, and his thoughts seem to be similar.

“We met. I—I liked him. Too much.”

It’s suddenly that Adam realizes Noah looks like he could go to pieces at any moment; his hands twitch, his eyes shift too easily between wide open and squeezed shut. Adam wonders if they shouldn’t be here like this, but as soon as he does, Noah’s chilly touch meets his knee.

“It’s okay,” Noah says, and after a beat, Adam realizes he’s addressing Adam’s thoughts. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” Without warning, Noah’s hands wrap around Adam’s wrist. “Sometimes… people hurt us. Even though they might love us.”

Adam can’t shake the feeling that Noah is talking to him, and automatically Adam shakes his head. No, he thinks, that isn’t true. Noah had always seemed to understand Adam in a way the others didn’t, and though he’d barely managed to tell even part of a story, Adam finally thinks he fully understands why. They’d been hurt the same way, lied to like they’d been loved.

So Adam just shakes his head, panic rising in his chest. How long had Noah been thinking the person who murdered him loved him, too?

People who love you, don’t hurt you, he says, mostly for the benefit of the others. He knows Noah is deep in his head, and for once it isn’t weird. It is necessary. How many times had Adam’s mother hid what Robert Parrish had done and claimed it was out of love? How often had his father tried to say that hitting him hurt him more than it hurt Adam? That was not love, and it never had been. The things his parents did were done for power—not anything else.

It had taken Adam a long time to realize this, and it pains him to think that Noah never had the same recognition.

It isn’t your fault, Adam tells him, at the same time, telling himself. But that wasn’t love.

“He s—he said.”

Adam’s father had said it, too. And so had Ronan, and yet those two I love yous had nothing in common with each other.

Adam hurts.

What happened?

“I will say,” Noah replies to Adam’s question. His voice is barely a whisper. “You should know.” But Noah’s face falls, shoulders slumped at unnatural angles. “Will it help?”

“Help what?” Gansey asks gently.

“Help you. To know.”

Confidently Adam nods.

“It will help you,” Blue adds.

Noah’s hands knot into his pale hair.

Las time they’d spoken to Noah only briefly about writing about him; the idea had made him giddy, curious. You’ll write about ME? He’d asked delightedly. Perhaps they hadn’t made it clear what they’d needed to know, and Adam feels suddenly guilty—had they misled him somehow?

“Please don’t be angry with me,” Noah says, voice thin.

“No one’s angry,” Henry replies, speaking for everyone. “I’m sorry.”

Noah nods, as if assuring himself of something.

The story comes in pieces—often broken, often stuttered. It feels so much like a wound being aired, bones re-broken so that they might be set. At one point, Noah has to lean over and whisper details into Adam’s ear, while his fingers dig into Adam’s leg, clutching it as if it were for his very life. The story is a fractured one—and not only for the way Noah tells it. It’s violent and tragic and chilling, a hate crime gone unchecked. The boy had gone to jail, of course, but the hate of it hadn’t been considered. No one cared that Noah’s identity had been stolen along with his life, and no one cared that he’d continued to be robbed of it even now.

That Noah manages to whisper the story to them does not feel like triumph.

It feels like witnessing a crime with no weapon except words. In short: It doesn’t feel like enough.

It’s nearly midnight by the time they leave the chapel, a cold wind causing Adam to tuck himself against Ronan, although his shivers are not entirely due to the weather. His silence feels purposeful, heavy, and even Gansey and Blue seem drawn into themselves. Henry Cheng, however, is already drafting something on his phone.

Blue is the first one bold enough to speak: “I wish we’d done something sooner.” With her shoe, she skids a pebble across the sidewalk.

“There’s no use thinking that way,” Gansey says practically.

“We should have apologized, though.”

“He knows,” Ronan says, his tone leaving no room for doubt.

Adam knows he does, too. And knowing Noah, he wouldn’t ask for an apology, anyway.

That doesn’t mean guilt doesn’t nag at them all, though. The walk back to the dorm is longer than usual, thicker, quieter. The five of them all stay in Ronan’s and Gansey’s room, the air mattress once again making an appearance for Henry. Ronan gives the smallest of smiles, breaking the tension for only an instant, and after reaching for Adam’s phone, he says, Should I tell him what happened on there?

Adam exhales longly through his nose. Never.

No one has much energy to talk after that, and it isn’t until everyone is tucked into bed that Adam asks, What do you think?

about? Noah?

About what we’re doing.

Ronan seems hesitant. i’m not sure.

I think it will be good, Adam says.

Ronan doesn’t reply immediately, electing instead to run the side of his hand along Adam’s face, his gaze twisted in thought. Adam can’t say why he thinks it’s good—because of his own experience, because now he knows Noah’s full story—but he suspects Ronan can tell he has his reasons. Truthfully Adam is afraid it might be obvious.

Adam knows he isn’t a product of his abuse, but he also knows his life could have been so different. And he knows at least two things about this kind of pain. One: It doesn’t help to keep it inside. Anger only builds when people misunderstand, when they assume you come from a loving home, when they tell you to respect your elders when you let a hateful word about your parents slip out. People won’t understand and they won’t want to. If you’re not careful, it makes you jaded. Resentful. So you have to find someone to talk to, if you can. They can be that for Noah.

Secondly, being known is the only feeling that helps sometimes. When you find that person, and they take the time to listen, to learn your every facet, to listen to your side of the story—it’s enough to change you. Adam hadn’t had that before Gansey. Before Ronan. Noah. Blue. Even Henry. And maybe all of them had been talking to Noah before this, but somehow it had always been selfish. Now was the time for them to listen to him. To know him as the boy he was, rather than the ghost he is.

So yeah. Adam thinks this is the best idea.

I think we’re doing something good, he says finally.

Without further explanation, Adam buries his face against Ronan’s chest and closes his eyes.

He’s aware of Ronan’s hand at his back until he drifts to sleep.


 

Adam wakes up to an e-mail the next morning, just a few lines long, just long enough to make his heart thump:

Dear Adam,

Thank you so much for your interest! I’d love to meet with you. Are you free next Wednesday afternoon at 4:00 to visit?

Mary

Attached is a Google Maps screenshot with directions on how to get to her house from the college, which is charming. Still in bed, half tucked under Ronan’s arm, Adam replies,

That sounds great. Then he takes a sharp breath and adds, Is it okay if I bring my boyfriend?

Adam’s reasoning is this: If she says no because she merely wants him to be by himself, that’s a no-go. No way is he making an old woman he’s never met read off his phone screen alone. If she says no because she doesn’t like that he has a boyfriend, then it’s not a place he wants to spend his time anyway. So he asks it. And he tries not to worry about it.

Then he signs his name and sends the message.

It’s barely eight o’clock in the morning. That will make him look responsible, right?

He thinks distinctly about burying his head under the covers.

It would be too perfect if this works out—he cannot mess this up.

The rest of the morning, Adam drifts in and out of sleep, intermittently checking his e-mail in a half-asleep daze. No response comes, and eventually Ronan and Adam are shuffling to the cafeteria, having finally pulled themselves out of bed around noon (The other three had gotten up long before). Adam must be wearing his feelings all over his face, because as they pick up their trays, Ronan kicks Adam in the shoe.

“Hey. What are you worrying about?”

Adam sighs exaggeratedly, caught. That lady replied to me earlier and I don’t know if I messed it up.

“What? What’d you say?”

Adam grimaces. Sorry, I invited you along. And then he opens the e-mail to show him.

In an instant, Ronan reads it, then shrugs. “Sound alright to me.”

Adam makes another face. What if she says no?

“Then she says no. We keep looking.” Ronan flashes him a grin. “We’ll find you something even better.”

Still, Adam’s stomach churns, apparently determined to keep him from relaxing for even a moment.

Ronan almost slaps Adams phone out of his hands when he tries to check his e-mail three minutes later.

“Everything’s okay, Parrish.”

Adam nods, slouching into the palm of his hand.

He’s more clandestine about checking his e-mail after that.

Ronan seems to know anyway, but he lets it go.

The day passes in a lull—an anxious, dreary lull. Adam looks at his phone too often. Blue makes an origami fortune teller and starts telling their fortunes (Gansey is going to die alone with one million cats. Ronan is going to move to Alaska. Adam’s merely said Try again later.) Meanwhile, Henry Cheng has begun writing his article about Noah near constantly. The draft is carefully guarded, as Henry insists no one can see it until at least the third draft, but a few times he asks the four of them questions about Noah.

How did you hear about him?

What did he study?

Who were his friends?

What is he actually like?

This last question elicits different responses from everyone.

Gansey says he is charismatic but gentle.

Ronan calls him a sneaky bastard—all fondly, of course.

Blue says he is sweet and a great listener.

Adam hesitates. Then he says that he is understanding, above all else. A good friend.

Henry can only shake his head happily. “You guys. This is some good-ass shit.”


 

Adam has an e-mail. He inhales sharply, audibly enough that Ronan’s eyes jump towards him.

Adam,

Please do! I’ll see you soon.

He has to close his eyes and then read it again.

Oh God, he could cry.

It’s only one hurdle, but it’s a relief bigger than he could even say. He meets Ronan’s gaze with a wide grin, and he nods.

“Told you.”

Adam leans over and kisses Ronan on the cheek, unbothered by their friends in the room. Blue nearly giggles, ever their biggest fan.

Ronan clarifies, “Adam has an interview with that old woman and her ten cats next week.”

Not an interview, Adam admonishes.

“Oh fine, a meeting. Whatever. It’s basically an interview. You better wear a suit.”

Adam first reaction is to scoff, but then he back peddles. What if he should?

Gansey laughs at Adam’s expression. “Don’t wear a suit.”

Frowning, Adam makes a face as if to say, Are we sure?

Blue laughs again at the same time as Ronan says, “Please do not wear a suit. I will not come.”

Adam pouts, soliciting a groan from Ronan.

“Don’t give me that look.”

Though Adam would love to continue giving him that look, Ronan’s begging tone makes him laugh in the middle of it.

Anxiety somehow mixes so easily with laughter, with joy, with looking forward to something. Over the next few hours and days, Adam’s heart speeds up when he remembers the meeting, though he never can quite place what is going on in his brain. His nervousness feels too much like excitement feels too much like optimism feels too much like pessimism. All these feelings leave him with sweaty hands and a dry mouth, so they might as well be the same thing. (Although he would be lying if he said the confusion sat well with him.)

The day of the interview arrives without fanfare; Adam gets out of class at 2:30, so he’s scheduled himself a solid hour to panic silently to himself. He’s prepared for the worst. He’d like to say he’s prepared for the best, but he absolutely is not, not when he cannot afford to be. If it doesn’t work out, well, he has a dozen more things he needs to try, a dozen more problems to sort out, and he can’t just hope for the best. But it’s okay. He’s fine. Ronan said he’d help. Adam’s alright. He tries to shake the tension out of his hands as he walks too-quickly back to his dorm room.

His scheduled panicking plans are momentarily interrupted. Gansey is waiting near his door.

“Adam! I wanted to wish you good luck before you went.”

Adam is already unlocking his door, giving Gansey a gracious but stressed smile—he shows his teeth, but his lips are tight as could be. Mercifully Adam’s roommate isn’t in, although Gansey does tail him inside. When the door closes behind him, Adam takes a ragged breath as though he’d just come from underwater. As if truly on schedule, Adam stumbles slightly when he drops his backpack to the floor and, startled, has to reach behind him to grab onto his bed post.

He blinks, trying to steady himself but coming up wanting.

Too abruptly he can feel his heart in his chest, his blood warm under his skin. The weight of what he has to do in a mere hour is enormous, and suddenly every feeling he’d had the past few days seems foreign, diluted compared to this. If he’d felt this before, he would not have been able to convince himself that he could do this or that any of these feelings were in any way related to excitement. His anxiety is water in his lungs—tangible, toxic.

This will be a waste of time. It will be embarrassing.

 “Adam—”

“I—” Adam struggles to get the single syllable out. His free hand tugs at the collar of his shirt: When did it get so hot in here? He looks to the corner, as far away from Gansey as he can. “I won’t—”

Gansey’s hands close around Adam’s arms, near his shoulders. Carefully he moves him towards the edge of his bed, allowing him to lean against it. Adam can barely appreciate it, though. His eyes are trained on the mirror across the room, his reflection looking less and less like himself the more he stares. His breaths are coming in gasps, and abruptly he knows he can feel his lungs, heavy and full, taking up too much space in his chest. He starts shaking his head, running his tongue over his lower lip. His fingers curl into his bedding, furling and unfurling compulsively, as if to an inaudible beat.

“Adam…”

He clenches his jaw tightly, as though trying to keep something inside.

Gansey’s tone is unshaken: “Adam, listen to me. One.” He squeezes Adam’s shoulder. “Two.” He tugs at Adam’s thumb. “Three.” His hand.

“Gansey—”

“Yes?”

Adam just shakes his head more. “I—”

In the mirror, Adam barely recognizes that it’s Gansey’s head nodding that he sees now.

“I know. Hey, can you hear me?”

Adam nods, telling himself now that he is the one nodding.

That’s him.

Gansey counts again.

Adam nods along, listening to Gansey’s voice and pressing his forefinger and thumb together on One. Then his thumb and middle. Thumb and ring. Thumb and pinkie. Again. The third time he aligns his breaths therewith, deep and long. At some point, Adam had closed his eyes, anything to stop him from staring at his own reflection, and now as he opens them, he’s met with only kindness in Gansey’s face.

God, he thinks. With intent, Adam slips from Gansey’s grip and lowers himself to the floor.

“I’m okay,” he whispers, his voice barely anything. Then he taps the ground beside him.

His body is suddenly terribly heavy, an awful thing to possess.

“G—” He starts to address Gansey again, but he finds his voice failing him.

Gansey sits crisscross at his side.

“Adam.”

Adam hums in a questioning response. His brain is counting his breaths—one in, two out. Three in, four out. Five in, six out. How can he possibly go to an interview like this? Even taking his phone out feels like too much effort. He’s never felt so sure of the uselessness of anything.

“Adam, you know, it really doesn’t matter whether you get it or not. We’re going to help you find someplace.”

Yes, Adam knows.

He’d like this free someplace.

This thought almost frightens him, though, because wanting is so terribly impractical.

So Adam shrugs in response, half nodding.

He tries to say Thank you, but it doesn’t come. Finally he types it instead.

Gansey tugs him into a hug that feels too desperate to be casually for good luck. Tightly, Adam hugs him back.

“You’ll do great, you know. You’re absolutely the most responsible person I know.”

AKA the most boring, Adam replies, attempting a weak joke.

“I would never say boring. All I’m saying is that old ladies love responsible.”

So does Ronan. It’s probably why he likes me so much.

Here Gansey laughs, more loudly than the statement possibly deserved.

“Bet he does,” Gansey replies, pausing. “Try not to sweat it.”

Adam swallows down anything he might have said, opting only for a nod and a feeble smile.

Gansey kindly doesn’t make Adam talk about the upcoming event anymore. He tells him about his classes, about Blue, about Henry’s plans for his newspaper. Adam is grateful for the distraction. The time ticks by, and eventually, about thirty minutes later, Ronan shows up at his door with his keys on his fingers.

“You ready to kick some ass, Parrish?”

In response, he raises his eyebrows as if to question, Is that what we’re doing? Adam makes his way for the door, meeting Ronan in the hall; Gansey is close behind. Ronan takes Adam by the fingertips, turning him so that Ronan can wrap his arms around his stomach from behind, resting his chin on Adam’s shoulder.

“We’ll see you later, Dick. Me and Parrish have an old lady to wow.”

“Yeah,” Gansey replies, smiling at the easy way Ronan has his arms around Adam. “Knock her socks off, Adam.” Gansey and Adam touch knuckles—a calm gesture compared to how knotted Adam’s stomach is. “See you.”

As Gansey disappears around the corner, Adam remains still, struggling to take a deep breath without Ronan realizing it. He’s shaky on the exhale, though, and Ronan turns his head slightly before unwrapping himself from Adam to meet his eyes. Hands on Adam’s wrists, Ronan looks him over, smiling a crooked smile.

For a moment, Adam considers putting on a brave face, but before he can muster the energy, he lets his shoulders drop. There’s a tremendous sigh on his lips, but he muffles it against Ronan’s shirt as he pulls him towards himself. He twists his fingers into the fabric at the back of Ronan’s shirt.

“Hey, we’re gonna have a fun time,” Ronan says softly, rocking between his feet and tightening his arms around him. “Meet a cat or two. Or ten.”

Adam nods minutely, making no motion to pull away.

“And I’ll be there the whole time. Everything will go smooth as fuck. Yeah?”

Adam nods again, more confidently this time.

“I’ll say whatever you need me to.” Pause. “Rude things included.”

Now Adam laughs, pushing away from Ronan with a gentle shove. Then he kisses him, grin never dropping from his face, while Ronan squeezes his hand and runs his other hand over his hair as if to fix it; his hand lingers at the base of Adam’s skull even as he pulls away.

“Ready?”

Again Adam nods. He turns to press a kiss to Ronan’s wrist before grabbing his hand and tugging him down the hallway.

The car-ride feels far too long for a journey that is barely a couple miles. Ronan doesn’t turn on his terrible music, probably sensing the anxious nature of Adam’s thoughts, although Adam almost wonders if the horrible noise would be a good distraction (Almost). The only other sound in the car is Adam’s phone, speaking the sparse directions to the woman’s address.

His expectations are few. Yet somehow he is still surprised.

On first impression, the house is charming. At the end of a long, gravel driveway sits a green house, overlooking a carefully manicured lawn that isn’t quite green again yet. Shrubs line the front of the house, and an enormous evergreen tree casts shadows over the far side of the roof. An old, red Ford truck is parked in a carport, looking well-used and well-loved. Adam puts his hand to Ronan’s at the gear shift before he can advance up the driveway too far.

“Something up?” he asks, easing onto the brake.

Adam runs a finger over his bottom lip before giving half a shrug. I didn’t tell her I don’t talk.

“Oh,” he says, as though it is both surprising and not. Then Ronan just leans over to get a better look at Adam’s half-sunken face. “Hey. No problem.”

Adam doesn’t have to voice his thoughts for Ronan to understand.

“What’s she gonna do? Have a heart attack? Get mad at you?”

Weakly Adam smiles, shrugging. Maybe she’ll be confused, though.

“And?” Ronan prompts. When Adam doesn’t answer, he continues, “And immediately she’ll get over it. She knows how to read.”

Adam laughs, but airily. Facetiously he asks, What if she’s blind?

“Then I just talk for you. She’ll never know.”

Rolling his eyes, Adam shakes his head and leans over to kiss him quickly. He sits back immediately, though, twisting his hands against his knees. He asks himself silently what’s the worst thing that could happen, and as the scenarios flicker through his mind, he thinks that all of them are survivable. Even the worst case scenarios are endurable, and so he exhales longly, trying very thoughtfully to dismantle his worries.

“Hi, my name is Adam Parrish,” Ronan says softly after a moment.

Adam’s exhale is interrupted with laughing; he gives Ronan one final roll of the eyes before reaching for the car door.

“Hold on—”

Adam stops, turning back to face Ronan.

“Hey, I…” Ronan half rolls his eyes at himself, looking upwards painfully as though he has to goad himself into continuing, “I got something for you.”

Adam starts to smile, but Ronan quickly waves a hand dismissively.

“Don’t get excited or—or not excited. It’s—I mean, it’s stupid, for sure, but I thought…” He has one hand shoved deep in his coat pocket, holding it but apparently afraid to bring it out. “Okay, it’s stupid,” he acknowledges quickly, and that’s when he pulls his hand from his coat and drops something into Adam’s lap, “I thought you might like it. Or at least not hate it. But, you know, I always fuck around with mine, and you’re always tossing your phone around like a maniac, I always think you’re gonna drop it one day, but—so I thought maybe—you’d want something else to do. For—with your hands. When you need something to mess with.”

Fondly, Adam carefully turns the leather bracelet over in his hands. Though considerably less worn than Ronan’s, it’s near identical—dark leather in twisted patterns, loose strings at the end for tying it on. Adam wraps his fingers around it and looks up with grin.

“Stupid?” Ronan asks, grimacing.

Adam shakes his head. Thank you, he mouths.

Then he drops his face back to his lap, twisting the band around his forefinger as he inhales. It’s only a second before Adam looks up once more, tight smile on his face.

Ronan’s expression is sympathetic; he reaches across the console to run a thumb through the hair behind Adam’s ear. He then grins, wide and encouraging, “Ready?”

Adam nods and puts the bracelet in his pocket, still knotted around his fingers.

Parked near the bottom of the drive, they have to walk a number of yards before they’re at the house—but Adam thinks he still needs it. He catches Ronan’s hand and looks for any sign of motion behind the curtains or at the door, wondering if Mary had noticed their arrival—and consequent delay.

Please don’t scare her away, Adam says, eying him sharply as they step up to the door.

Ronan’s laughter is short. “I’ll pull out my best Gansey voice for you.”

Please don’t do that either.

Adam knocks before Ronan can say anything else. If Mary had seen them walking up, it isn’t until now that she appears at the door, opening it with all the energy that comes with being excited to see someone.

“Hello!” she exclaims, “Right on time, you two are, how about that. Come in, come in.” She ushers them inside with absolutely no hesitation, smiling brightly. She continues, gesturing towards a worn, brown couch, “Please, please sit down. Now, which of you is Adam?” She peers over her glasses, which are far down the bridge of her nose, and though she asks, her eyes seem to linger on Adam as though she already knows.

Adam points to himself, a finger pressed to the center of his chest. He smiles, trying to convey as much as he can in the gesture: I’m Adam. Pleasure to meet you. I’m very nervous to be here. You have a lovely house. Please understand, he thinks.

“And I’m Ronan. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet the two of you,” she says, giving both their hands a shake in the way that old women do—mostly fingers, more a squeeze than a shake.

All three sit down, Adam and Ronan on the couch, Mary in a rocking chair slightly diagonal to Adam. She rustles her skirt, adjusting it about her and eventually folding her hands into her lap.

“Tell me now,” she says, “Are you shy, Adam?”

Adam had imagined an infinite number of ways she could have asked the question; this is one of the nicer options his brain had supplied, although that doesn’t make the answer any easier. She has some heroically large glasses on, and it seems cruel to hand her his phone to make her read off it.

He imagined it would be easier to do once he was here.

Once he had to.

Ronan’s hand comes to rest at the small of his back.

He’s come this far.

Before coming, Adam had typed up something of an explanation, and now he only tweaks it a little, adding, No, ma’am, I’m not shy, to the front. It’s a burdensome explanation, even without the nasty details of his past. Even so, he has to breathe deep and offer her a slightly apologetic look as he hands her his phone.

Ronan’s hand knots against Adam’s back; he concentrates on the feel of Ronan beside him, rather than the way she adjusts her glasses to look at his phone.

It takes a lot for him to not bury his head.

Why had he thought this was a good idea?

And my god, she’s still reading. Had he made the explanation too long? He could have just said, No ma’am, I can’t talk—but then again, that isn’t all true. And anyway, vulnerability is good, he thinks, people like when you tell them things about yourself, but why had he written so damn much? To keep his fingers from compulsively knocking against his knees, he shoves his hands in his pockets and remembers the bracelet. Ronan, it seems, is more psychic than Blue.

Adam loops the end of the band around his thumb, pulling it tight.

It’s so long before she looks up.

“Well now,” she says at last, looking back up at Adam. “Isn’t that something? You must be a very courageous young man, aren’t you?” She shifts in her chair, smile on her face as she pulls her sweater closer to her. “That’s fascinating. And you talk with your phone?”

Adam nods, a little meekly, a little confusedly. His heart is still racing, yet she seems—

“You are special, aren’t you? Goodness,” she says, handing Adam’s phone back to him.

He takes it back in a daze, wanting to shake his head, No, not special, wanting to correct her, Broken, probably. But instead, she is looking him kindly over, and Adam panics momentarily that this is reaping him pity instead of mere understanding, and maybe he should clarify—

“What did you call it, again? I’m sorry…”

Adam begins to turn to Ronan to answer, but he only needs the slightest of motions.

“Selective mutism,” Ronan answers. Behind Adam’s back, his fingers trace patterns over his shirt.

“Oh yes. That is something, my dear. The cats will love you; you must meet them,” she says, pushing herself from her chair and motioning for them to do the same, the conversation already moving on. “They like small whispers, Adam. Nothing more than that.” She begins pattering about the room, eventually making her way to a back hallway. Adam and Ronan share a look before following her.

Adam’s palms are sweating for a reason different from before. (He thinks.) Fascinating, she’d said. Was that good?

She’s now poking around in a back bedroom, although Adam and Ronan linger near the doorframe. “Oh, I don’t know where they’ve got off to. Hiding, no doubt. Well, they’ll come out in a second,” she says, mostly talking to herself as she turns off a light to a bedroom and appears in the hallway once more.

As a means to soothe his nerves, Adam asks, I’m sorry, but how many cats are there?

“There’s three young men in this house,” Mary says, “Socks, Tux, and Buttons, although you’ll be hard pressed to tell them apart at first, but I promise you, you’ll figure it out.”

Adam only casts Ronan the shortest of smug looks.

“Can I get you boys anything to drink? Tea? Coffee? Water?” she asks as she shuffles past them and leads the way back to the living room.

She gets them waters, and when she returns, she sits next to Adam on the couch.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she says. “But I’d love to talk with you some more.”

And so they do.

She asks about school, mostly. What he studies and what he wants to do and what he does in his free time; she asks Ronan as well, who kindly doesn’t mention his intention of not returning. They talk about Princeton and what’s it’s like now—she had gotten her undergraduate there too, and then returned after twenty years to teach history. Adam asks why she leaves her house to students rather than family or friends.

“I want to help you kids, you see,” she says. “Back when I was in school, I was from Texas and—yes, boys, I know. Texas. Dreadful place. It was too expensive to fly back and forth all the time, and I didn’t want to go back anyway, so I was always looking for some place else to be.” Mary throws her hands up, as though remembering the frustration. “So many kids need a little help. I know it. And so I help when I can now. When I visit the grandbabies—not in Texas, anymore, thank God—I find someone to watch over the house while I’m away. That’s why I do this, you see, because I know it’s hard.”

Adam isn’t willing to betray his own secrets to ask just how much she knows; instead, he just nods, understanding—hoping, just a little bit, that she understands, too.

She asks Adam a lot about himself now, but mostly silly things. Has he ever had pets? What are his favorite foods and movies and books and classes? She asks about his friends, his hopes, his dreams. And never once does she bat an eyelash at reading off his phone.

At one point, she says, “Oh I quite like this, Adam,” as she hands back his phone to him. “Do you ever feel a bit sneaky?”

He nods, smiling.

“Oh, we gossip constantly,” Ronan assures.

She laughs and laughs at this. “Oh my college friends and I would have loved to have been able to text.”

Eventually, the cats make an appearance—or at least two of them do. And Adam realizes Mary was right about him not being able to tell them apart, despite the fact that she greets them by name.

“Now, Mr. Parrish, this is your only real test,” she says, sounding only half teasing. “You need to get the cats’ approval.”

This turns out to be no hard feat. They wander over to him easily, poking their nose against his jeans and his open hand; one of them meows as if asking for something. (They don’t go near, Ronan, though. “It’s a good thing you’re not the one applying,” Mary says to him, chuckling. “You’d be fired!” Ronan mumbles something about animals liking him, but Adam is unconvinced.)

Which one is which?

“Oh, that there by your foot it Socks. This other one here is Buttons. You won’t see Tux for a little while, but I wouldn’t worry about him.”

It feels almost silly, sitting here with the cats and an old lady whose voice sounds more Southern with the knowledge that she has roots in Texas. But it feels like something else, too. Ronan seems to catch every glance, every motion, filling in where Adam can’t and speaking up before Adam has to ask. His hand finds Adam’s right when he needs it, and rests at his back all other times like a reminder. And Ronan does it easily, the most careless yet compassionate thing, all done like it’s the simplest thing in the world. He never speaks over Adam, never rushes in before Adam can speak the best he can, but he’s always there when Adam needs it.

And Mary—this complete stranger somehow has more patience than Adam could have imagined of her. More interest and more kindness than is due of her, and Adam feels oddly grateful for the experience. He wants her to like him enough to let him live in her house, certainly; however, he finds himself wondering if this meeting isn’t a good enough experience on its own.

Because Adam is rarely outside his group of friends, he realizes now. It’s frightening. Even though Mary knows the deal by now, his stomach still lurches when he hands over his phone, just waiting for her to shake her hands and declare herself too tired to talk in such a manner anymore.

It doesn’t come, though.

She talks and laughs at the silly things Adam says. She addresses him straight in the eyes, occasionally reaching out to put a hand on his or to pinch him on the knee. Then she warns him against staying up too late and procrastinating and binge drinking; she tells him to always stand up for himself, even if it’s over something “silly” like a grade (“Your professors are people, too, Adam! They don’t want to give you bad grades, I promise.”). And all the while, the cats poke their noses at him, begging for pets.

 “Adam, I do like you. Do you mind if we talk on the porch? Not that I don’t like you, too, Ronan,” she adds quickly, grinning coyly. “I’d very much like to borrow Adam for a moment, though.”

“Please,” Ronan replies, his hand following Adam as he stands. “Maybe then the cats will pay attention to me.”

“Ha!” She says, shaking her head. “Good luck.”

Adam squeezes Ronan’s hand quickly. Ronan gives him a wink.

Then Adam follows Mary out to the front porch.

She lowers herself carefully onto the steps, shaking her head when Adam offers a hand to help her down. Once she’s situated, Adam sits beside her, flashing a tight, nervous smile.

“I haven’t known you for long, Adam,” she says, shaking a finger at him—Adam laughs—“but I can tell you’re a good kid. And that boy you’ve got in there isn’t bad, either.”

Adam nods, agreeing.

Kindly she mirrors the gesture.

The two of them sit quietly for a minute or two; she looks contemplative, but Adam can’t help but feel like this part isn’t some kind of assessment. So Adam sits easily, quietly, hand in his coat pocket while staring out over the sloping lawn; a few more odd houses dot the landscape, but mostly his gaze ends in trees.

“I know I must seem silly,” she says at last, turning to better face him. “This isn’t really any kind of interview, you know, it’s just that sometimes you need to get to know people. At least if you’re letting them stay in your home.”

Adam smiles and gives a small hum in agreement.

“You’ve been a pleasure. You’re very bright, do you know?” He starts to shrug, but she shakes her head, “Oh no, no. You’re very bright and your Ronan is, too.”

Vaguely Adam can’t help but feel like this is the kind of condolence you say to someone right before you apologize because I’m sorry, but you aren’t the right fit here. The thought is instantaneous, just a slight twist in his gut, but still he feels the urge to be out of here before the hit can come. He wants to assure her that it will be okay if he’s not the right one, that he’ll be alright. He’d hate for her to feel bad about it.

He braces for rejection.

“In any case, I hope you like it here, because I’d like you to stay, Adam.”

For half a second, Adam doesn’t understand—his face twists, looking for some kind of confirmation.

“I’ve spoken to quite a number of people, and well—I have nothing bad to say about them, but I’m going with my gut, you see?”

Adam starts to nod, wanting to smile but trying to hold it in because it can’t be real. Are you sure? he has to ask.

“Dear me,” she says, laughing and clapping a hand onto his knee, “I would not have said it if I wasn’t sure.

Now Adam lets himself smile, more of a laugh than anything else. It means so much, is all he can say. Thank you.

“Absolutely no problem at all,” she replies. “I have a few more meetings, so I thought perhaps I should wait to tell you but—sometimes you just know these things, Adam, and I can tell you’re a trustworthy boy.”

He doesn’t know what exactly she means by these things, but Adam nods, hardly able to contain his gratitude. Adam has to clamp his hands around his phone to keep them from shaking.

She starts to stand, but when Adam makes motion to follow, she shakes her head.

“I’ll go get Ronan. I’m afraid I have somewhere to be soon, but I’ll see you two off.”

Breathless, he nods, standing only once she returns from inside the house with Ronan behind her.

“You two have a good evening,” she says, hugging both of them one by one. “I’ll be e-mailing you again soon, Adam. Thanks so much for stopping by.”

He steps off her front porch in a daze, feet absolutely weightless. As they walk down the drive, Adam catches hold of Ronan’s jacket cuff—and in return, Ronan takes his hand and looks at him curiously. Adam misses the questioning look, though, his mind spinning without goal.

Sometimes you just know, she’d said about him. She had no reason to trust him, no reason to like him—he’d come into her house saying nothing, with Ronan Lynch of all people trailing behind him. He’d said nothing about why he couldn’t go home—hadn’t he? He hadn’t hinted at it, hadn’t even suggested that he couldn’t go home, she’d had no reason to suspect it was anything besides the fact that he didn’t want to. She hadn’t known, couldn’t have known. It was Adam she’d liked, not Adam she’d felt bad for. She’d told him she just knew, as though this was right where he was meant to be, just what he was meant to be doing.

It feels like too much, too easily.

Adam’s thoughts jolt, sputtering to a halt.

But he’s thankful, painfully thankful, so thankful it fills his lungs, his throat—so thankful he can barely breathe. His skin is too tight for everything inside him, all the gratitude he cannot adequately express. His hand falls away from Ronan’s as he stretches his fingers in and out. What had she seen in Adam that he himself can’t identify?

A thought hits him like a punch: Had he tricked her?

The thought nearly brings him to a standstill, his foot dragging against the gravel drive, catching Ronan’s attention once more. As if in question, Ronan’s eyebrows furrow, and Adam can barely stand it. Perhaps he should turn around and ask her to confirm that she did it because she liked him and not because he’d given himself away as someone in need.

His lungs are full of cotton—scratching, bursting, grateful. Guilty.

Like an old pair of shoes, the word hugs every curve of him, filling gaps he’d forgotten were there.

He must have tricked her somehow. Couldn’t she smell where he’d come from?

In the car, he has to get in the car, Adam thinks. If he can get inside maybe he can breathe again.

Ronan is looking at him like that again. He must believe Adam had been rejected, told to look somewhere else, and why shouldn’t he assume that? That’s what should have happened. Adam has to back away from Ronan before he can move towards the passenger’s side door.

This moment feels inevitable: Adam’s chest heaving, his hands stilling on the car door handle, his thoughts losing their footing. Suddenly immobile and heavy, he can’t seem to open the door, his fingers frustratingly useless; he can’t stop running his teeth over his lower lip. Ronan already has his own door open, but he hesitates when he looks over the roof of the car, realizing Adam’s motionlessness.

Adam has too much inside him, and too much of it feels like guilt.

How stupid he had been, thinking he should be anywhere expect under his parents’ roof.

A terrible noise leaves his lips, and finally his hands find their strength—he claps a hand over his mouth, sinking against the side of the car, forehead pressed to the glass, one arm folded against the door above his head.

Mary had been too nice to him. Ronan and Gansey, too patient. Blue, too accommodating. Noah, too understanding.

Oh God, he’s been trying too hard. Adam had been working too hard for all of this.

Adam doesn’t see Ronan move, but he feels him—barely.

“Adam, hey.”

Adam has to work too hard to keep breathing. There isn’t enough room left for oxygen inside of him.

Ronan’s hand rests at the base of Adam’s neck, a steady touch that remains light.

He is so thankful for them all, so dreadfully, ferociously thankful that it feels like a sin.

A sob breaks from Adam’s lips, one that feels an awful lot like he’d been holding it back for longer than he’d care to admit. His body shudders, the task of standing suddenly overwhelming. His knees buckle underneath the iron weight of himself and everything he can’t keep holding onto. Ronan’s hands fumble against Adam as he lowers himself to the ground, twisting so that he can lean back against the car.

“Adam,” Ronan’s voice is a whisper, crouching in front of Adam, his confusion blatant.

Adam’s visceral response is to push Ronan away, his hand to his shoulder, but it’s a feeble effort, eventually crumbling. Knees to his chest, Adam sinks into himself, knotting a hand in his hair against his skull.

Sobs keep coming like waves, painfully spilling out into the open.

This is where Gansey would start counting, but Adam can hardly stomach it.

He tries to tell himself he’d worked hard for this, for all of it.

Adam can barely keep his eyes open, but he feels Ronan shift, moving to sit at his side. His arm wraps around Adams shoulders, nearly making Adam hurt more. He must be such a burden.

He’d worked hard to be here.

Adam runs a hand over his eyes, unable to look anywhere except inwards.

Ronan pulls him towards himself, not understanding, but wanting to help all the same. At Adam’s back, Ronan’s hands are steady, unfazed as Adam’s tears wet his coat.

“Hey, it’s all good,” Ronan says, more calmly than expected.

Adam has a terrible moment of clarity: He can’t forgive all that has been done to him.

He can’t forgive the way he feels like he ought to be guilty in this moment.

It’s as if he knows it isn’t his fault that he feels this way, and yet he has no way of knowing how it would be if he’d never quit speaking to begin with.

“I got you.”

She’d liked him, she’d said.

Adam feels a pain, deep in his chest, somewhere beneath the cotton and the tears. It’s a pain that is neither anxiety nor optimism nor any of the other feelings he’d been struggling to identify all week long. What is inside him is unknowable but painful all the same.

He struggles to count himself off the panic; one and two and three don’t string so nicely together when the world is skewing around you. He thinks something about everything is wrong, and yet for the life of him, it won’t right itself in his mind.

“I love you,” Ronan’s voice is a whisper at Adam’s ear.

With that, Ronan pulls Adam’s legs over his lap; Adam presses his face into the crook of his neck, letting Ronan care, even though he couldn’t possibly understand. He cries until he can’t anymore, until nothing is left except the suggestion of a feeling—a feeling that goes unnamed. Unknown.

Adam curls his fists against Ronan’s chest, still unwilling to look up, but needing to do something. Slowly his hands creep up to the back of Ronan’s head, and more slowly, Adam raises his eyes, but just to Ronan’s lips. He blinks rapidly, sorting out what is before and inside him.

Indulgently, Adam lets himself think that he doesn’t deserve to feel like this. It feels like a lie, it feels like a thought that should get him in trouble, and yet—guilt has made a home in his bones, and he is tired of it. Adam wants. Adam longs to want, and he thinks—he thinks he should be able to.

He wants to stay here in the summer.

He wants Ronan’s hand to never leave his back.

He wants to be thankful and not feel like he’s giving something away.

There is something heavy in his throat.

She’d said she wanted Adam stay. Ronan had promised to come back to visit. Gansey wouldn’t be going anywhere, anyway.

For a moment, Adam sits with his thoughts, his fingers still quaking slightly against Ronan, his eyes trained just over his shoulder. Adam is tired, and he lets himself admit it to himself.

He’s tired, and he is afraid he’s been mixing up gratitude and fear and worry and trust this whole time.

Adam lets out one last shaky breath—it doesn’t, however, catch in his lungs. He breathes in deep, pulling from far within and then letting it free. Ronan’s arms tighten around him, and Adam makes himself aware of how truly remarkable such a gesture is. Ronan isn’t holding him together—no, Adam has that much covered—but he holds him in place, letting him feel his skin, his heartbeat, his breath against his cheek.

And Ronan doesn’t do it because he has to or because he feels bad for Adam, Adam knows.

One. Adam’s chest shakes again, his breathing once more interrupted. However, the nature of this interruption is not malevolent; it isn’t choking. Like storms, Adam’s breathing lurches as he catches his arms around Ronan’s neck, fingers intertwined, pulling himself closer until his lips brush against Ronan’s neck. Adam cannot stop the way his chest heaves, he can barely hold onto Ronan the way he so desperately wants to.

Two. Silently Adam tells himself that he will not drag the memory of his hometown around after him. It will take work, but Adam has a jumpstart already. If he has to do it for the rest of his life, he will cut his chains off with vigilance, because he does not deserve them and now he is in charge of himself. He does not ever have to go back there, and he sure as hell will not bring it with him back to Mary’s house, nor back to Princeton, nor anywhere.

Three. Ronan holds him fiercely, and Adam cannot bear to weigh the two of them down.

One. Adam has more than all this guilt inside of him.

Two. He will not deny himself what he knows he deserves.

Three. Adam deserves to take up space.

A cry escapes Adam one more time, but as Ronan pulls back to finally ask what’s wrong, something is amiss.

Because Adam’s cry was not one of grief, but rather one of laughter—a zealous, breathless smile tugging across his face despite his accelerated breathing. It’s laughter that comes with realization, with relief. He has to put a hand to his mouth, to his chest to try to keep calm, but his laughter is undeniable—desperate, frantic, helpless laughter. His hands grasp for Ronan’s, pulling them to his chest. His grip is hysterical, but his face is alight.

Mary wants Adam to stay in her house this summer.

Ronan is patient beyond belief.

And Adam’s thankfulness for these two things does not make them unearned.

“What’s wrong?” Ronan asks, though his voice trails off, seeing as the question is now unfitting, but needing to ask it all the same.

Adam shakes his head, smile flickering feebly but genuinely. For just a beat too long, he shakes his head, swallowing hard and then dropping his eyes, lips parted on a heavy exhale. Nothing, nothing is wrong, he thinks with clarity. Nothing is wrong at all. With Ronan’s hands still clasped between his, Adam shuts his eyes and shakes his head again. Then he looks up, meets Ronan’s eyes, and says, “I’m happy, Ronan.”


 

DEAR ADAM,

Henry has been working non-stop on this article, and he even let me read a bit of it this morning, so I know it’s coming along! He says he talked to the people on newspaper with him, and they dig the idea of the story. Can you believe that???? we’re coming back this weekend to talk to noah some more, I don’t really know what else Henry is planning but wow! let me just say … I’m excited. It feels sort of silly, but somehow? super important? Don’t you think?

In any case, it’s fun. Henry is excited. He reminds me of you sometimes, just how MUCH he does everything. you guys don't do things shitty, you always do them So Much. I know he’s a weirdo but I’m glad you guys met him. (Noah didn’t seem to hate him, either right???)

Everything else at school is pretty boring here. If I make it through april, that will be a feat in itself, so I’m not working too hard on anything else, haha. OH and I’m sorry I didn’t say anything sooner, but Gansey told me you’re going to be housesitting for that old lady this summer! Congrats! (what a funny thing to say congrats over, but wow. Gansey said that Ronan said that she liked you so much. Well DUH, is what I said. But anyway, I know that’s so great for you. We’ll visit all the time.)

I can’t wait to be finished with this semester, Adam. Doesn’t it feel like everything in the whole wide world has happened? You won’t be able to convince me to do a single thing this summer!

But anywho, I’ll see you soon! Hope life is treating you well.

cheers

Blue

Chapter Text

 

Ronan has always acknowledged his insomnia. He learned quickly that there was no point denying or ignoring it; at this point, it’s just one of those boring facts of life that sometimes sleeping is difficult for him. He isn’t going to complain about it, of course, but the fact is that nighttime’s lack of relief is a pain in the ass. Certainly a pain in the ass—but also a tolerable one.

The past few days, however, Ronan has been downright vampiric.

It’s one thing when sleep is merely unobtainable: A late train. A needle you can’t thread. Sleep is ordinarily absent, but lately it is entirely nonexistent. Not only does sleep not come to Ronan, the very idea of it does not exist—not in this tiny, dark room on this huge, dark campus. Not without Adam.

Not without Adam’s voice.

Fuck, Ronan thinks, turning over to force his face into his pillow.

He hadn’t been waiting for Adam to speak to him. He’d have kept loving Adam exactly the same even if he’d never spoken aloud, but fuck, now that he has, Ronan can barely stand everything inside of him. It’s revolting how difficult it is to keep from kissing him when he speaks. It’s civil war the way Ronan wants desperately to hear every word and yet how urgently he feels the need to kiss each syllable from his lips.

Ronan runs a hand over the back of his skull, as if pressing his face more deeply into his pillowcase will fix anything.

Except his brain can’t stop replaying what it’s had on repeat for the last three days. Ronan had hardly been able to think as they’d sat in Mary’s gravel drive. He’d touched Adam’s face, the curve of his jaw against Ronan’s palm; he’d finally taken Adam by the hands and opened the car door for him; he’d stood, weak, for just a few seconds longer than necessary at the driver’s side of the BMW before climbing in himself. He hadn’t been sure if the moment required ceremony, but when he’d gotten into his seat, Adam had tugged him by the front of the shirt and kissed him with a smile on his lips, and that felt like celebration enough.

“Ronan,” he’d whispered, tangling their hands together before a full pause, “Let’s go.”

Momentarily, Ronan snaps out of the memory, his eyes wandering past Gansey’s empty bed and landing on his alarm clock across the room. His options for this late at night are limited, but lying in bed remembering how Adam had looked in his passenger’s side as he’d driven them home (His chest had been rising and falling grandly, his eyes still red but his shoulders reclined easily. He was tired, he was charged, he was fucking lit up with afternoon light like a goddamn angel—), this was not an option or else Ronan would be in trouble.

He wants to go to Adam now, but the problem with that was that Ronan had just been with Adam a few hours prior but left so that Adam could finish his homework. It had been noble self-sacrifice, but he’d seen the bags under Adam’s eyes and knew he needed to be left to his work before he fell asleep with his head in his textbook. So Ronan has no doubt that he’s finished it by now and is currently fast asleep.

Ronan checks his phone and immediately flips it back out of his palm.

His disappointment at having no messages is not a disappointment he would admit to.

For the shortest of seconds Ronan considers that he could text Adam first, but then again, that isn’t really his style.

And probably he’s asleep.

But he really doesn’t like sleeping in his own bed, and again he remembers how Adam had said his name: His voice catching on the o, elongating it, letting the word fill his mouth for just a moment longer than necessary. Had people always been saying his name that way?

Ronan withers.

If he could just fall  asleep—

Adam hasn’t actually spoken very much, which is most of the problem. See, because now Ronan has it all memorized, etched in his memory, unforgettably vividly, and in quiet moments—like the middle of the godfucking night—his brain remains in a cyclical spiral: “Look,” Adam had whispered yesterday, pointing to a lady bug that had somehow gotten into his dorm room; “Come here,” he’d said early this morning, his voice muffled by the phone speaker; “Ronan. Ronan. Ronan.” Like learning to swim, Adam has been going slowly, testing his voice just a few words at a time, and yet Ronan is still struggling not to drown in it.

Ronan rolls over.

Adam is almost definitely asleep.

He texts him anyways: Parrish.

It’s only a few seconds that Ronan has to feel stupid for texting an asleep person, because he gets a response almost immediately: Lynch.

Ronan blanches at his phone for an instant, restraining a grimace. He just had to reply that way, didn’t he? The fucker. He knew what Ronan wanted, but he’s still going to make him ask, isn’t he—

Another text comes in: Come over.

Ronan throws his legs over the side of his bed and heads downstairs without further delay, taking back what he’d thought just a moment prior.

Adam’s door is unlocked, his roommate gone, and the lights are out save for a bedside lamp. He finds Adam curled into the corner of his bed, blankets gathered around him, half-sitting up with a grin plastered on his face and a hand outstretched to Ronan as he enters.

“What’s got you so happy?” Ronan asks, taking his hand and letting himself be tugged onto his unmade bed. “Algebra?”

Adam merely shrugs, rolling his eyes, the smile unwavering; he leans over to kiss Ronan’s temple before drifting to his lips.

It’s a soft but earnest kiss: All air and fingertips. All pout and rustled sheets. All the gentleness of kissing Ronan Lynch and all the ferocity of the midnight hour. There isn’t enough time left in the night for Ronan to tire of this, which is why when Adam pulls back a minute later, sheepish smile on his lips, Ronan’s mouth twists into an unavoidable sulk.

With a gentle push to the chest, Adam admonishes the look, a grin on his own face. He parts his lips but then closes them, as if thoughtful.

Ronan raises an eyebrow, a gesture all too casual for the way his stomach lurches at the promise of hearing his voice.

It takes Adam another moment, during which he bites his lip—as if having the smallest of internal debates with himself—but then he lets out a tiny breath and says, “Do you wanna order pizza?”

Ronan doesn’t need to be asked twice.

He barely needs to be asked at all, and his agreement comes in the form of another kiss.

After knowing Adam all year, he knows his pizza order by now, but he almost wishes he didn’t, because now there’s no telling when the first time that Ronan will hear Adam say pepperoni will be.

 When the order is placed, Adam tugs Ronan down to lie with him, tossing his blanket sloppily over him. He smiles in a way that says thank you, an expression that Ronan recognizes with ease, and then he lets his eyes close.

“Well don’t fall asleep now,” Ronan says, only half joking.

“Mm,” Adam hums, peeking one blue eye out to look at him. “I won’t.”

The words are more air than actual speech, which is a quality of Adam’s voice that has been consistent up to this point, and Ronan longs to know if it’s his natural state or just a result of the newness of everything. His I’s are more like ah’s, his consonants more like liquids. His voice, unassuming and demure, commands attention in the same way that Adam always has.

He opens his eyes all the way again, rolling onto his side, and Ronan adjusts to give the movement space; however, as Ronan is scooting backwards, Adam closes his hands around the front of Ronan’s shirt, yanking him back gently. A smile is on his face, just a breath from Ronan’s.

“Tell me something,” Adam says.

From how close they are, Ronan’s arm stretched under the crook of Adam’s neck, noses all but touching, Ronan cannot see his lips move. But he can almost feel them and the whisper that comes with them. Adam blinks, and Adam’s eyelashes are butterfly wings against his own.

Ronan blinks back, drawing a smile from Adam that Ronan only recognizes from the effects: The lines appearing around his eyes, his freckled cheeks rising.

Adam squeezes Ronan’s hand, as if reminding him of his request. The problem, though, is that it’s the sort of request that seems to demand something more. Ronan should tell him he loves him. Tell him he’s glad Adam trusts his voice to him now. Ronan should tell him that he can’t stop thinking of the way Adam had kissed him in his car and how he longs to take him back there now and slip that white t-shirt from over his head in the backseat. He should tell Adam he’d do anything for him. That’s the sort of thing Adam’s low voice had wanted.

But Ronan is still Ronan. He should tell him a joke. It should be tasteless. And he should say it in Latin.

“I think—” But Ronan stops because his thoughts are jumbled at best, completely absent at worst, and his idiotic brain can’t decide on the mood of the room. He remembers how he’ll be leaving Adam so soon, he remembers how summer is coming and time is passing as they speak, and then he remembers how brightly the sun had been shining earlier that morning and how it had seemed like the sunshine was meant for Adam and his dusty hair.

Stupid.

Ronan, of course, cannot say any of this. So instead he asks, “How does it feel?”

It isn’t telling him something, but if Adam is interested in splitting hairs, he doesn’t show it. “It?” Adam replies, but he asks it thoughtfully, as if only looking to buy time rather than for clarification. For a moment, he is pensive in a way that only comes with anxiety; it’s too much to pretend like he hasn’t thought about this at all. But then he concedes and says simply, “Why?”

Ronan holds in his gut-response, a retort that would contain a confusing mix of sarcasm and genuine love, and instead he replies, “Just checking.”

It’s a ridiculous response, all pragmatic—a transparent attempt to understate the concern beneath it. But it’s the right one, and Adam rewards this with a smile and a small eye roll. He looks on the verge of saying It’s good or Just fine, but at the last moment, in the moment where the words were on his teeth but not yet past them, Adam appears to change his mind and say, “It feels like learning.”

It’s not an answer that makes sense to Ronan, not at first. He’s never felt like he didn’t know Adam, never felt like he was missing information or at a disadvantage. He knows Adam.

It takes Ronan a moment longer to consider that maybe Adam hadn’t known Adam.

He doesn’t ask though, because then Adam is smiling, even through his tired voice and his tired eyes—he smiles, wrapping his arms around Ronan’s neck.

 “Well,” Ronan says, smirking, and even before he can speak again, Adam is looking like he knows what’s about to leave his mouth, “It’s a good thing you’re a huge fucking nerd, then.”

Adam pushes Ronan from him, laughing but looking thankful.

God, Ronan thinks. If he wasn’t sleeping before, he surely wouldn’t be now.

Then his phone rings, the pizza is there, and the spell is broken.

And yet Adam is still grinning, fingers folded under his chin like a dream.

No, there was no reason left for him to sleep tonight.

Chapter Text

Henry Cheng had been doing his homework. Between end-of-semester exams and final papers, he had been doing what actually mattered. Because Henry doesn’t think he chose to go to college for the degree—the grades, the networking, the monotony. College for Henry is less school and more story, and it somehow took him an entire semester of single-handedly running the school newspaper to find the story he’d really been searching for, even without knowing it.

 

This isn’t collegiate soccer or Winter Formal, this is about human life as it exists beyond the campus greens.

 

Henry is practically vibrating with excitement. His fingers tap and his teeth clench even without telling himself to. No matter where he looks, he can’t stay focused for long. He considers that it might be more nerves than excitement. For him, the two things are practically indistinguishable from each other.

 

He’d written this piece—the piece that matters, the piece that will change something—in secrecy. He’d told his editor for the paper that he had something for the final issue, and as the only competent member of the journalism club, she had left him to his own devices without concern. And that was as much information as he’d told anyone.

 

Blue had been less content, however, to be left out.

 

But Henry couldn’t tell her or the others what exactly he was writing. He couldn’t until he knew that it was right; and the only person who could give him that green flag was a dead boy living 120 miles away. And that was the best motivation for secrecy there was.

 

He still asked his friends questions, of course. After all, Henry was the newest one in the group, the least knowledgeable about Noah, even after the late night talks with him that felt like something greater than the parties and gatherings of dorms and on-campus organizations. Noah was always the basis of Henry’s work, but he couldn’t tell Henry about his own laugh the way Blue could—about his vulnerability the way Adam could, his joy the way Gansey could, or his companionship the way Ronan could.

 

Not all of it could go in the paper, though, naturally not. Henry wasn’t about to start trying to convince the collegiate population of the existence of ghosts, and so there were some gymnastics trying to find ways to write about him that wouldn’t make Henry sound like a lunatic.

 

Because the attention couldn’t be on Henry. It has to be on Noah.

 

So, no, he wouldn’t be writing about ghosts. There was a lot more to Noah than that.

 

It had been a long trek to this, to a final piece. A final piece that Henry felt ready to show to Noah.

 

On the ride down to Princeton, Henry had made Blue drive. He had too much to say and too much to impulsively read over and over and over again on his phone, Just to make sure it’s right, Blue, I just have to make sure it’s right . It took them longer to get to their destination with Blue behind the wheel, but Henry was grateful for it—it let him read through what he’d written just one extra time.

 

He’s never written anything so important .

 

Never before have his hands gone clammy over a piece of writing with his name attached to it.

 

Nervous isn’t even the beginning of it.

 

“You look like shit,” Ronan observes, as soon as Henry steps into the dorm room where the others had been waiting.

 

“You try doing something worthwhile for once and see how you look,” Henry retorts, waving his article—printed on white, 8x11—in Ronan’s face.

 

Ronan sneers, but not unkindly, and Henry folds the sheets in half, then in half again.

 

Despite the way his hands fidget along the creases of the paper, Henry is ready for Noah to read what he’s written, what he’s invested so much time and care into.

 

It’s a tragic task he’d taken on: A twenty-year late obituary to a boy forgotten. And yet, as the group makes their way to the chapel that night, Henry’s heart flits in a way that is unmistakably light. In the warming spring air, there is something like life, like breezy joy. Adam is sans jacket for the first time this year, a hand linked with Ronan’s; Blue leads the group, ponytail bouncing with each step; Gansey knocks fists with Henry as he pulls open the door to the church.

 

Noah is more solid than Henry has ever seen him; he’s already sitting cross-legged on a pew when they walk in, waiting for them. In the muted light, it’s easy to imagine Noah appearing only when they set eyes on him, nothing more than a shadow until they are around to see him. This is one of Henry’s more selfish thoughts. It is tempting to imagine Noah as just theirs—and now it’s time to end that. As long as Noah is a mystery to the world, how could he ever find peace? When his last obituary was in the wrong name, when would he be able to rest?

 

As Noah’s unofficial favorite, Blue receives the first hug. Even only by watching, Henry’s heart strains at the sight of it; it is too impossible a gesture to look so simple.

 

At this exact moment, as Noah is untangling himself from Blue, the motion of his arms difficult to see, Henry can hardly bear the reality of the situation. He wants to confirm that this is what’s happening, that this isn’t an elaborate joke or some kind of strange dream—because Noah is a dream. A collection of movements and memories, all floating somewhere between here and  there. He is a smile, a tremble, a thing undiscovered entirely.

 

Henry feels heavy.

 

Ronan hugs Noah as if it were nothing, mussing his hair with a curled fist.

 

Impossible.

 

Henry has spoken to Noah a half a dozen times before, and yet right now it is the most unfathomable thing. His hands tighten around the papers he’s holding.

 

Noah makes his rounds with his friends; he does this every time, but tonight it seems he is taking extra time. The way they all care for him is a puzzle, a perfect fit of the most unexpectedly shaped pieces.  

 

At last, Noah turns his attention on Henry. His eyes are wide, as if realizing something, and it takes Henry a moment to remember what Gansey once warned him about—Noah’s apparent ability to hear thoughts. And at that, Henry feels a rush of insecurity, worrying that perhaps Noah had been listening to everything he’d ever thought. Before he can try to shut his thoughts down, to silence them for fear of judgement, Noah’s mouth widens into a smile, the sort that is unbothered and reassuring.

 

For just a second, Noah’s expression falters, as though moved. And then it sparks again, and his arms are wide, suddenly and unexplainedly. He all but tugs Henry into a hug, and in the stillness of the gesture, Noah whispers,

 

“Thank you, Henry.”

 


 

“This is for fuckin’— Noah ,” Ronan says, rather valiantly for the loose way he’s holding the glass between his fingers. He looks like he is about to say something else, but before he can, he chases it with tequila.

 

Gansey looks afronted, a lime held between fingers, as Ronan pours another shot and knocks it back without touching his own slice of lime. “No one thinks you’re cool for not doing it the right way,” Gansey says, making a face as unimpressed as Adam’s ever seen. Then Gansey does his own shot, salt and lime and all.

 

“And no one thinks you’re cool for doing that dick-ass shit,” Ronan says back, shrugging and eyeing the citrus.

 

“It’s not Gansey who’s doing dick-ass shit,” Henry says matter-of-factly, taking the bottle of tequila from Gansey.

 

Blue’s mouth goes from a straight line to a perfect o before she dissolves into giggles, shortly followed by Adam covering his face to keep from dignifying the joke with laughter. Ronan’s lips go sideways, a grin on his face that can’t figure out if it’s proud or if it’s been bested.

 

“Goddamn, Henry,” Ronan replies, apparently the only response he can justify.

 

In this moment, caught between his friends’ laughter and their teasing, Adam can almost imagine saying, “ Actually ,” just to quip something back. He can almost picture it—the words, the sounds. And it doesn’t feel awful. It doesn’t make his throat tighten or his chest ache; he can’t put words to how it does feel, though. It isn’t peace or comfort, it’s just—his friends. However, the imagination is but a fleeting feeling, a soft thing in the base of his chest that he’ll save for later.

 

At his side, Ronan eyes Adam, a question there. He isn’t quite sure what it is, but the response is a quick squeeze of Ronan’s fingertips, a twitch of a smile, a smudge of hope tugging at Adam’s features.

 

It is some sort of night, Adam thinks. A night he’ll tuck away and remember someday as—something. They had just finished spending all evening with Noah, a meeting that ended only because Noah had gone smudgy and Blue had let a tear escape at the sight of him. It had been feeling like the end to all of them, but Noah had promised he wasn’t going anywhere, not yet, and Ronan had offered a mild threat on his afterlife if he didn’t hold true to that. But Noah had just laughed and promised again.

 

It hadn’t been easy before that, either.

 

Adam had thought before that he’d seen Noah cry, but it wasn’t anything like this. This had been the sort of crying that can’t be explained away as something else, the sort that was everything but ghostly. Even as Noah whispered that they weren’t all sad tears, Adam could hardly stand to see it.

 

It turned out none of them were ready to see someone read their own obituary; it isn’t the sort of thing you can prepare yourself for.

 

As they had left the church, Gansey had asked with some dry amusement, “Does anyone else need a drink?”

 

The sharp sound of a beer can opening pulls Adam back to the present.

 

It had been sadness motivating Gansey’s remark for sure, but it only took a minute for the grief of the evening to transform into something different. Because they aren’t  doing nothing anymore. Because it feels like finally they’re helping Noah in a way that makes a lasting difference. Henry’s article will appear in his school’s paper, and Gansey has already pulled some strings to assure that it will appear on their school paper’s website in a couple weeks. Finally they have accomplished something, and it’s worth drinking to.

 

“Give me one of those,” Blue says, pointing to Ronan’s hand.

 

He laughs, leaning backwards to reach for the fridge beside his bed. “You won’t like it.”

 

“You don’t know.”

 

Ronan shrugs, unconvinced.

 

Henry, sitting on Gansey’s bed while the rest of them are on the floor, has his laptop open on his crossed legs and is making some changes to his article. Noah had only asked that a few things be changed, mostly wording, and Henry had taken to the task immediately.

 

“Will this help?” Blue had asked in the church, once Noah had read through what Henry had written.

 

He’d just nodded, but his expression had said more—a breathless smile, eyes still red. He’d said he didn’t know what to say or how to thank them; he didn’t know how he could ever thank them enough.

 

Blue coughs at the beverage—Ronan laughs.

 

“How is it going?” Gansey asks after a beat, craning his neck back to look at Henry, tapping the edge of the mattress.

 

“Well.” Henry makes a face, a grimace that pulls up into a hesitant smile. “Just sent it to my editor.”

 

“Are you serious?” Gansey turns around fully now, pulling himself up to look at Henry’s computer screen, as though it will have the answer to his question.

 

“Yup,” Henry confirms, closing the computer.

 

Gansey looks back at the rest of his friends, lips parted as if seeking confirmation of shared feelings, “Damn! You guys—“ He turns back to Henry, “Shit! So it’s done? It’s done ?”

 

Henry nods, Gansey’s realization drawing the same expression on his face.

 

“Man. Henry.” He holds his hand out to Henry, as if to shake his hand or give him a high five, and when Henry’s hand meets his, Gansey tugs him into a hug. “Absolutely incredible.”

 

The hug is nothing on the hug Noah had given Henry earlier, but it’s still in the running. Where Noah’s embrace had been surprised, touched, amazed, Gansey’s is passion, fire. Love. Honor.

 

“I can’t wait,” Gansey says, speaking for everyone.

 

Ronan raises his drink in the air, which Blue meets with her own for a brief moment before they both take another sip.

 

Henry makes an airy noise, a breathlessly happy noise, before sinking down the the floor with the rest of them. Then he runs a hand through his hair and shakes his shoulders out. He says with a faint grin, “I’ll take that drink now.”

 


 

 

Blue is yelling, but Adam can’t understand a word of it over the music. She tries again, but the more her mouth moves the more Adam is beginning to suspect that she’s only laughing and moving her mouth without meaning.

 

Adam doesn’t know what she’s saying, but it can’t be any more funny than the way Ronan is steadily shaking his head at her, the way she’s pointing now and grabbing Gansey by the hand as if he has any part in her miscommunication.

 

Because most of his demons all come in the same shape, Adam still doesn’t drink—but one of the few things Adam has learned about parties this year is that contact drunk is a reality that draws laughter to Adam’s lips and fuels bad ideas as much as any drink. His friends drunk are loud and absurdly kind, all light and playful, and those feelings are only contagious in a way that Adam loves.

 

Which is how they ended up at this party. It hadn’t been any one person’s idea to come, yet when it was decided, everyone somehow seemed to look to Adam for confirmation. He’d simply laughed and gestured for them to lead the way. I’m fun , he’d said defensively, which was especially true when surrounded by his friends easy laughter and loose tongues.

 

In fact, detached from the lawlessness of it, one sober thought in the middle of a dozens of slurred ones, the place is actually kind of beautiful to Adam, and he feels an odd pang knowing that he’s made it to the end of freshman year. An odd pang knowing that he’ll probably never be in this place with Ronan again—it is only the beginning of his time here, and yet it is coming to a roaring close for Ronan.

 

It’s a night of goodbyes, Adam thinks, as Ronan catches Adam by the fingers and starts tugging him down a bustling corridor, away from the rest of their friends, into a crowded place, so full for Adam’s crowded thoughts.

 

The techno filling the air moves in waves against Adam’s skin, feeling like so many nights in the car spent with the same beats on the stereo, the same touch of Ronan’s hands. The same emotions knocking around inside of Adam.

 

He is so terribly fond of it all.

 

Even though Ronan is the one pulling Adam by the hand, it could be the opposite way around just as easily. Adam imagines how he could pull Ronan into any of the corners of these dorm rooms, how he could turn around and pull Ronan into him and be one of those awful couples making out in the middle of it all.

 

He’s glad it’s dark here, because Adam thinks he might be blushing.

 

Luckily, though, Ronan is still not turned around, and he doesn’t until he’s hooking a right turn into one room where the usual fluorescent light of the dorm room has been replaced with a black light. The music here is much the same as the rest of the place, the beat too fast to be CPR, too slow to match the way Adam wants to kiss Ronan.

 

Over his shoulder, Ronan grins sloppily.

 

The room is sweltering, which apparently goes unnoticed to Ronan. Like a snake, he weaves a few feet until they’re both pressed against a free space on the wall. Adam leans his head back, reflecting Ronan’s easy smile back to him.

 

For a moment, Ronan just returns the look to Adam, eyes slightly downcast to meet Adam’s. Their hands find their way together, and Ronan brings the back of Adam’s palm to his lips. He doesn’t kiss it, however; he lets his lips brush Adam’s skin as he asks, “Will you ever come back to one of these things when I’m gone?”

 

He sounds oddly sad, which makes Adam reach for Ronan’s other hand with some surprise. He doesn’t know how to communicate that Gansey will still be here, so it’s inevitable, but he thinks the answer to the question Ronan actually meant to ask would be something more like, I’m here because I like you .

 

So instead of trying to communicate with words, Adam puts a hand at the back of Ronan’s neck and draws him from the wall. Ronan’s eyebrows go up, and in response, Adam just gives him a crooked smile.

 

Adam had never danced before Ronan Lynch; he’d always thought he just didn’t know how, and so he had not tried. But the thing about dancing with the boy you love is that it is less like dancing and more like something else that Adam understands. Because he knows that Ronan likes a kiss on the neck. He knows a hand to any skin beneath Ronan’s shirt will make him pull Adam closer. A thumb to  the edge of Ronan’s lips will make his hands wander.

 

And the way Ronan knits a hand through Adam’s hair to bring him closer means Ronan knows all the same things about Adam.

 

Because dancing with Ronan is less about skill and more about love. A fire lit in your chest and burning on your lips.

 

And it helps that Ronan is trashed.

 

The room is alight, half darkness, half purple light catching the white patterning on Ronan’s shirt. Amid so many other people, no one can see where Adam’s lips linger and Ronan’s fingertips end, no one hears the way Ronan’s breath catches in Adam’s ear. Ronan’s hips roll against Adam’s, and all Adam can think is I love you, I will miss you, I want to do this forever .

 

He likes to be here with Ronan. He will miss it.

 

Ronan tips Adam’s head back, and he breathes a kiss into the space where his jaw meets his neck.

 

Half a second and the song changes into something closer to pop, and for just a moment, Adam feels disappointed because he can almost see the disdain for the lyrics in Ronan’s eyes—then Ronan cracks his neck and leans over slightly. Before Adam’s mind can catch up, Ronan has an arm wrapped around his upper legs, hoisting him upwards.

 

A cry of laughter escapes Adam’s lips as he instinctively wraps an arm around Ronan’s neck and hooks his legs around his torso. “Ronan!” Adam gasps out of surprise, lips grazing Ronan’s ear as he holds tighter to keep his balance. Ronan, nonplussed, grins up at Adam—taller than Ronan for the first time. Easily Ronan steps back towards the edge of the room, and Adam buries his face in Ronan’s neck.

 

Only belatedly does it occur to Adam that he’d spoken out loud. It’s a realization that makes Adam’s heart skip, for once not out of anxiety. Had anyone heard him ? Surely barely even Ronan had.

 

But they could have.

 

Yet this thought is not a bad one.

 

Adam feels his back hit the wall, and he looks down at Ronan with a wide smile. Ronan meets it with a kiss, his grip around Adam never faltering.

 

In this moment, it is outside Adam’s mind that he should feel self-conscious. He’s an extra two feet in the air, completely sober, and making out with his boyfriend, and all he can consider is that he wishes he could stay here in this moment for forever.

 

Adam reconsiders the thought he had earlier: There’s no way Adam could come to a party if it didn’t involve Ronan Lynch and kisses to the beat of the bass. If it didn’t involve soaring. He holds Ronan tighter, and Ronan presses even closer to the wall.

 

It’s a bit later when Ronan sets Adam back on his feet, and Adam loses track of how long they’re in that room. In honesty, Adam can think of little more than Ronan, his body, and the hungry look in his eyes.

 

It’s startling when Blue’s voice interrupts Adam’s thoughts. Adam turns around with a stumble, so flustered he looks nearly as drunk as Ronan—but then he smiles, a question on his lips.

 

“We missed you!” Blue shouts over the music, her voice sounding as though she had meant to say more but never did.

 

“Well, we didn’t miss you,” Ronan says from behind Adam, leaning over to rest his chin on Adam’s shoulder with a nasty smirk, arms around Adam’s torso.

 

Adam waves a hand in Ronan’s face as if to shush him, but Ronan just presses his face into his hand like a cat. Adam chokes out a laugh, pushing Ronan backwards.

 

Somehow the five of them make it out of that room, wandering the halls of the dorm until they make it back to the common area. Henry snags a free couch, and Ronan throws himself down onto it, and then meets Adam’s eyes and taps his lap. Adam only shakes his head with amusement.

 

Ronan fakes a pout, but it slips up into a loose grin after only a moment. Already, Gansey is saying something about moving onto another room, or maybe it was about going back to their own dorm—it’s less noisy in here than where they’d just been, and even so, Adam can’t follow what Gansey is saying, not when Ronan is looking at him like that. Not when Gansey is trying to speak through an enormous smile, made even less intelligible from two or five drinks.

 

Henry is starting to pull Gansey and Blue off, looking at Adam in a way that seems to communicate that he should follow. So Adam seizes Ronan by the hand, and in a train they weave back into the crowd, following the one person who knows the least about campus.

 

Adam doesn’t know how they managed to get out of the building with Henry as their leader, but after a few more dances and at least one more drink, the group is on the lawn, looking without direction.

 

“What do we do now?” Blue asks, pursing her lips and leaning against Gansey.

 

Adam knows contact drunk is real, because when Ronan’s eyes light up and he says, “I have an idea,” Adam does not immediately shut it down. Ronan says, “I have an idea,” and Adam listens to it. And when everyone else agrees with Ronan’s insane plan with excitement and zero hesitation, Adam does too. Adam thinks, We are all drunk and we are all in love with Ronan —it’s the only explanation that would explain the fact that no one stops Ronan from retrieving a can of spray paint from his room, remnant of an art project from last semester. In the cold, drunken night, they go to the library and use the rest of Ronan’s allotted pages at the printer—and then some.

 

Ronan, lip between teeth, furiously and determinedly clicking away at the computer, is in this moment something else. Not often has Adam seen him in the library at all, and never has he seen him like this--his eyes keep wandering with the alcohol, yet they never stay distracted for long.

 

“God,” Ronan mutters, running a hand over his face. “Fuck.”

 

“Look, I’ll print off this--” Blue says, angling her computer Ronan’s way.

 

“Fucking awesome,” Ronan approves.

 

Ronan had said something about a funeral pyre, and Adam had rightfully assumed he’d meant something else. What Ronan is doing now is certainly not a pyre, but even without flames, Adam’s chest feels warm. Blue has her arms wrapped around Adam’s waist from the side, while Ronan shakes his spray paint and Henry and Gansey are furiously stapling pages together. Still tucked in the shadows of the shrubbery outside the chapel, no one has noticed them, even as they have watched a few people meander down the sidewalks.

 

They have to do this fast.

 

It’s better not to get caught committing minor vandalism.

 

“Are you fuckers ready yet?” Ronan whispers.

 

“One, one more second,” Gansey whispers back, holding a piece of paper between his lips.

 

Adam smiles, despite himself. Blue is already half asleep standing up, but her eyes perk up at the promise of being almost done.

 

And in one more second, Gansey is standing up, arm full of papers, and Henry is pulling out a stretch of masking tape, Blue is pulling off Adam, Adam is checking to make sure the coast is clear—and Ronan is wearing a grin like he’s been waiting all damn year for this.

 

On Adam’s signal, the group of them explode out of the bushes like a gunshot had gone off. Gansey almost immediately trips over his own feet, but Blue catches him by the arm with a laugh.

 

Ronan is already spray-painting the newly green grass by the time Gansey and Henry have the first copy of Henry’s article out.

 

As the one with the most to lose if caught, Adam stays a lookout, tucked in the trees and merely watching as everything tumbles into place. On the church wall, Blue and Gansey hold copies of the article to the exterior as Henry stretches out one long piece of tape, and like a puzzle coming together, piece by piece they line the walls with the truth. Row after row of articles appear, just a couple pages long each, yet heavy with something deeper.

 

And in front of it all is Ronan, body hunched as he spells out a word bigger than anything.

 

From his viewpoint, Adam can almost imagine everything as dance: Blue, Gansey, and Henry, moving like a train swiftly along the wall, now rounding the corner to the front of the church; and Ronan, arm swinging, flying along the lawn with a determination that rivals any that Adam’s seen from him. Adam can almost catch the shape of his eyes, squinted, with brows furrowed in concentration, looking more focused than Adam’s ever seen him in on campus.

The scene pulls together like fireworks: One second, the grass is bare, the next second it is full to bursting with letters, stringing together into words, into phrases, into a protest.

NOAH CZERNY , he’s written. Then, REMEMBERED .

The scrawl is huge and monstrous, neat but angled into points.

In the distance, a figure is approaching.

Adam’s heart jumps, and he whistles before it can get any closer. Probably just another drunk freshman, but there’s no point risking it, not when the chapel is already covered in Henry’s words and the grass in Ronan’s.

Their dash back to the dorm is thunderous; Gansey nearly cannot run for how hard he’s breathing, out of adrenaline, out of accomplishment. Blue is laughing, and Ronan discards his can of paint haphazardly (Then Blue says something about littering, and almost turns around to pick it up, but Gansey grabs her by the hand). Adam risks a look back over his shoulder, just to see if they’d been noticed, but the lawn is empty, save for a lone figure on the steps of the chapel.

Adam nearly trips—he has to turn around to right his footing—and when he looks back over his shoulder, the figure is gone.


 

The next day is a Saturday.

It doesn’t feel like a Saturday.

Gansey wakes up with his head pounding, apparent for the fact that he sits up at nine a.m. and declares, “My head is absolutely pounding,” and Ronan breathes a snort of a laugh.

“I’m absolutely still sleeping,” comes a mumbled reply from deep under Gansey’s blankets.

Adam stirs at the noise, eyes opening to Ronan with one arm draped over his eyes.

The events of the night before swell to the forefront of Adam’s mind like a wave crashing to the beach. He sits up. Hands scrambling, he checks his phone for the time with remarkable speed, disappointed to see that it’s only 9:00. Still, he climbs over Ronan—soliciting a groan—and looks out the window. Adam doesn’t know what he hopes to see,  as the chapel isn’t visible from their window, but he looks around outside as if expecting to see mobs.

The campus is quiet. Empty.

Adam turns on heel, expecting the others to be wondering the same thing he is.

Everyone is lying still in their beds again.

Adam’s mind reels. There’s no way they were that drunk. Were they that drunk? Do they remember?

Carefully, he steps around Henry and returns to Ronan’s bedside.

“Ronan,” he whispers, nudging him in the arm. “ Ronan .”

The only response is an exhale slightly louder than usual.

Adam rights himself and, without really meaning or wanting to, heads downstairs, a terrible knot in his chest. He manages to change his clothes in his own room, but only barely—his mind is stuck at the church, already imagining that all their work has been taken down by an early morning janitor, that the school president was called and their mild vandalism was already ordered to be covered up. And so Adam sets out, needing to face the inevitable alone.

Maybe his friends will not remember the ordeal at all. Maybe they’ll have nothing to be disappointed about.

 

Outside, it’s cold, colder than the night previous, and Adam’s anxiety is a weight in his feet. What if they’d been seen ? What if their memorial had not been seen ? Adam can absolutely not afford to have been seen, and yet it’s the latter question that is spinning the most dread in his chest.

After a second, Adam picks up his pace, needing to see the chapel, needing to see the torn up grass, the remnants of tape on the church walls, the absence of a memory that now only belongs to Adam. Behind the upcoming building, the sidewalk hooks left, and then he’ll be there, and then he can try to pretend nothing ever happened.

Instead, he turns and finds a crowd.

Adam skitters to a halt, his breath catching neatly in his throat.

Where he expected to see earth and dirt, he sees small orange cones, placed with care around Ronan’s work, and beyond that, there are students reading the articles taped up to the chapel—not tearing them down or tossing them on the ground. Merely reading. And stepping back. What must be twenty or thirty students are looking at what Adam and his friends had done.

Adam, not one to stand out, steps forward to join them.

He wants to ask who put the cones up. He wants to ask who was the first person to see it. He wants to ask if any school faculty know and when do you think they’ll come tear it down?

Adam’s hands are shaking. He can barely handle how somber everyone looks.

It does not feel like a Saturday morning. A girl has her fingers pressed to her lips as she reads; a guy Adam recognizes from his history class last semester is taking a picture of the spray-painted words; three more people are walking up, seemingly led by one of them who is just a few steps ahead and gesturing towards the church.

Without needing to see anything else, Adam turns and runs back to the dorm.

His heart is beating out of control by the time he’s yanking open the door to Gansey’s and Ronan’s room. Both for how he’d run and for the excitement he’s only just beginning to allow himself to acknowledge. They’d done something for Noah. And people were paying attention.

His hands won’t stop shaking.

“Ronan,” Adam whispers in his ear again, pressing his hands to the mattress to calm them, “Wake up. It’s the chapel.”

Ronan stirs only slightly at first, rolling over to meet Adam’s eyes without clarity.

Noah ,” Adam insists, checking over his shoulder at the others.

Then it clicks. Ronan’s eyes open, heavy but wide. “ Shit .”


 

The ending, as it turns out, is the hardest part. The five of them have to let go in a way, as the rest of the campus takes over.

 

And it does so with more fervor than any of them had imagined.

 

It takes barely a day for Henry’s article to spread across campus, for the late news of Noah’s death to reach every ear and every eye. It’s barely two days before student organizations are drafting petitions for changes in policy, for the college to acknowledge what happened, for Noah to receive a proper memorial service at the school.

 

From here on, they have to let go of control.

 

For Adam, this is a relief; they’ve done what they could, and they’ve done right by Noah. That was all they could ever hope to do. They get to attend the memorial a few days later and just remember . They sit back, and—more than anyone else in the room—they hold Noah’s memory in that place with them. It feels, for a moment, the way he thinks Noah’s memorial service ought to have felt the first time around.

 

There are flowers, there are small gifts and candles, photographs dug up from old school newspapers than even Adam hasn’t seen before. And most importantly of all, it happens in the chapel.

 

Adam doesn’t feel Noah’s presence in any big way during the service, but there is a breeze in the rafters, a flickering at the windows.

 

Noah , Adam thinks, a thought thrown out into the darkness. Though he knows he can’t get a response, his eyes wander, and for just a second, he thinks he catches sight of something behind the pulpit—nothing more than a trick of light, but still a purposeful one. Adam blinks, and then it’s gone.

 

They’ve quoted a lot of Henry’s article so far, anonymous though it was, and the people who organized this event even went as far as to find the sources he’d quoted—yearbooks, old local newspapers. It is a strange sort of déjà vu as Adam revisits these things that have been mere facts for so long. He’d almost forgotten about Noah’s sisters, almost forgotten about Noah’s picture in the chemistry club photo. Small things, once so new and exciting, which had slowly sunk to the back of the mind, now all at once vital again.

 

Adam holds these bits of memory tight. The same thing has happened to all of his friends: When was the last time Adam thought of Gansey’s old ghost stories or Ronan’s brothers? How exciting it had been the first time Ronan had left a drawing in between the pages of Adam’s Latin textbook. How much he’d loved meeting Blue, the confirmation that she was everything Ronan and Gansey had promised. Henry, the way he’d hugged Adam right when they met. When Gansey complimented Adam’s backpack, when Ronan had made fun of him for it. Adam breathes deeply through his nose. Yes, he needs to practice remembering.

 

Everyone is deserving of a bit of it.

 

He won’t forget Noah, and now he knows this school won’t either.

 

It’s later, much later, when the memorial is long over, when all of them should be studying or sleeping, when they make their way back to the chapel. They’d wanted to come earlier, but naturally the church was seeing a little more traffic than usual, so they’d had to be patient (Some of them succeeded in the virtue more than others).

 

Now, however, it is empty except for the weighty feeling that they’re being watched, usually a good indicator than Noah is lurking somewhere. Adam’s eyes drift upwards and along every pew, resting on each bouquet along the aisles.

 

It takes a long time for Noah to appear that night, and when he does, it is with great effort for little reward. His smile is the only thing with any power behind it: Bright, even where his eyes are dark, and solid, even where the rest of him is transparent. Like the cheshire cat, he is all laugh and riddled speech.

 

Adam can remember when he first met Noah, against all odds and all hope. He’d been afraid. He’d been afraid of a lot of things, Noah the least of all, but he’d been afraid nonetheless. Never had Adam imagined that he’d be standing here today feeling everything opposite of fear.

 

He feels his eyes watering.

 

It’s almost too much to bear.

 

After so many nights spent with Noah, quiet and contemplative, it is impossible that this is the end. Adam can hardly remember anything but this, the six of them and a year that changed everything.

 

No one says goodbye, not in so many words. Adam can’t decide whether this makes it harder or easier. Perhaps it’s both. Easier, because they get to sit as they’ve always sat. Because Blue is laughing while Noah pretends to read her palm; because Ronan has his head rested easily in Adam’s lap; because Gansey, Henry, and Noah are lobbing jokes at each other like baseballs. It is easier because they are laughing.

 

It’s harder because Adam has nowhere to put his sadness.

 

Blue teaches Noah to make origami flowers with a bulletin from the back of a pew; Henry tosses a paper airplane at Ronan’s head. Noah laughs until there’s color in his pale face.

 

No one considers sleep until Noah is little more than a slight of hand, a smudge of brightness.

 

Again, it happens without saying. It’s a look from Gansey, Ronan’s gathered brows, and Blue, pressing her lips to her teeth.

 

“Noah—“ Gansey starts, making the unspoken decision first.

 

“I know,” he interrupts, “Thank you for coming.”

 

Adam, who had been leaned back against the wall, sits up straight, eyes flitting between everyone.

 

“I love you, Noah,” Blue says.

 

Somehow, then, they are all getting to their feet, Adam lagging behind.

 

“I love you !” And he throws his arms around her. To Adam, the hug appears to be little more than a gust of wind.

 

His stomach flips as Noah hugs them all.

 

When he comes to Adam, he seems tired. His arms are too heavy for how transparent they are, his hands too cold. And though Adam’s heart is racing, he’s at peace. He hugs Noah long enough to last him even once he’s gone.

 

He hasn’t ever felt like this before. Everything he has ever left, he has left gratefully—and although he feels peaceful, this is not that.

 

His feet are heavy as he steps backward.

 

“Thank you again,” Noah says, “You guys are the best.”

 

The others, already a step closer to the door than Adam, are out of Adam’s line of vision, and all he can see is Noah standing like the saint of this parish at the head of their chapel. He’d been the root of everything, and that is the hardest part.

 

Blue says she will miss him. Gansey tells him to look out for himself, to which Noah makes a small salute.

 

Everyone is moving towards the door, but Adam stays put, long enough that Ronan turns his head over his shoulder to ask, “Adam?”

 

He turns to look, but he doesn’t move. He hadn’t meant to stand here, but even almost without thinking, Adam waves for them to go ahead of him, and it’s not until the chapel door closes behind them that Adam manages to muster something inside him.

 

“Have we done everything we could?” he whispers, his voice caught somewhere between sad and hopeful, a medley native to goodbyes.

 

Noah doesn’t look surprised to see Adam’s stayed, nor does he seem surprised to hear his voice. “For me? Absolutely.”

 

“You’re okay?”

 

“You worry too much about me,” Noah says, avoiding the question with a smile. “Have you done all you could for yourself?”

 

Adam, still already, meets Noah’s eyes with resolution. He parts his lips, head slightly cocked in thought, “Yes, I think so.”

 

Noah nods, smile so big it takes up his whole face, and he says, “I’m proud of you, you know.”

 

“You too,” Adam whispers, “Thanks, man.”

 

“Thank you , man,” Noah says jokingly, voice fake-deep in a way that makes Adam laugh airily. Then Noah hugs him again, and he whispers in his ear, “Don’t throw it away.”

 

Adam will not.

 

The chapel door is heavy and closes behind Adam with a resounding thud as he steps outside. His friends are a few yards from the church, and Ronan looks up and meets Adam’s eyes at the noise. For a second, Adam doesn’t move, content enough to take in the night, the sight of his friends, the memory of Noah Czerny.

 

Then he breaks for it.

 

He throws an arm around Ronan’s waist as he skids to a stop, laughing, the happiness inside him bigger than the sadness. And it’s contagious; Ronan smiles at Adam and then Gansey and Blue and Henry, and Adam is happy .

 

Had he done everything he could for himself? Noah’s voice echoes in his thoughts, but not for long. Adam knows he has.

 

Ronan tosses an arm across Adam’s shoulders as they start to walk, and Blue looks over at him with a questioning look, as if to ask how it went or what he’d spoken to Noah about. Adam returns the look with a soft smile, nodding. Noah is alright.

 

Adam knows it is true, the same way he knows that he himself is alright—because Blue reaches over to squeeze his hand with a bright grin, because Ronan is beside him and his college is ahead of him.

 

Gansey, one step ahead, turns back to face them all, and in a voice thick with complicated happiness, he says, “Excelsior.”

 

Only a beat passes, a fraction of a splintered second where Adam lets the word reach his ears and the feeling of comfort that comes with it reach the tips of his fingers, the nape of his neck and throat. And then in reply, Adam echoes softly, “Excelsior.”

Chapter Text

It’s been two full weeks, and Tux is yet to make an appearance that isn’t at the food dish. Socks and Buttons had been pawing at Adam’s feet from the moment he arrived, but as promised, Tux is skittish, timid, and harder to win over. Once, Adam had walked out to the kitchen late at night and spotted him on the counter for only half a second before he was making a run for it. (The commotion had woken up Buttons from his spot on the couch, and he’d proceeded to make his way over to Adam, purring loudly enough that Adam could hear it even from where he stood). Another time of note, Adam had been leaving for work, and only just after he’d finished locking the front door did he remember that he’d forgotten his wallet. Then when he opened the door again, there was Tux, looking like he’d just been waiting for Adam to leave. Then the cat had taken off again, disappearing down the hallway.

After this rejection, Adam had come home with a bag of tuna-flavored cat treats.

He was going to win this cat over.

It wouldn’t be with those treats, however; he’d tried tossing them under the spare bed that Tux liked to hide under, he’d tried leaving them in his food bowl making a trail from the bedroom to the kitchen. Nothing . Eventually, like sharks, the other cats had swarmed and eaten everything Adam had left out, while Tux just watched with yellow eyes from the shadows of the guest bedroom, unperturbed.

This began a series of new attempts: Cat toys, cat grass, wet food, long strings of yarn. On a number of occasions, Adam tried standing very still in the corner, waiting for him to appear without realizing Adam was there, but it was all to no avail.

Meanwhile, the other cats loved Adam more than ever.

Which was great , but Tux was the elusive prize. The mysterious stranger.

He would like Adam by the end of this, Adam would be sure of it.

Today, however, the task of winning Tux over has momentarily slipped Adam’s mind. Since the start of summer, Adam had been working an easy job at a restaurant cleaning tables, which took up maybe twelve hours of his week, so it didn’t usually get in the way. This weekend, however, Ronan was visiting but Adam also had a short shift that he couldn’t get out of—which was annoying enough. And to boot, he’d gotten off work late, while Ronan had been sitting in the parking lot for nearly forty-five minutes waiting for him—which Adam had already felt bad about, because It’s really okay, Ronan, I have a bike , but he’d insisted because I’m not here everyday, moron . And now he’d been out there waiting for an absurdly long time, and Adam still had to finish bussing tables as though he hadn’t been.

When he finally escapes work, Adam absolutely collapses into Ronan’s car, a string of apologies on his lips. “I’m so s—”

“Don’t,” Ronan cuts him off, waving a hand and leaning across the console. “I don’t care.”

“I know you don’t,” Adam replies, as though the fact pains him. “But still. Sorry.”

Ronan, grinning, kisses him for only a second before he’s reversing the car and pulling out of the parking lot—turning the direction opposite from home with a certainty that says it was not a purposeful mistake. For a moment, Adam stares at Ronan, waiting for him to state his plans or admit he’d messed up, but after a few seconds of Ronan not acknowledging the gaze, Adam gives in.

“Ronan?” Adam starts slowly, but he gets a head shake in response right away.

“This will make you feel better.”

“Oh?”

Adam rests his chin in his palm, elbow on the dashboard so that he can see Ronan’s face better. His eyes are trained on the road, something more of a novelty with Ronan than with most people; his left arm is resting easily out his open window; on his lips, there is the faintest smile. His hair is just a bit longer than usual, in need of a trim, and his tattoo peaks above the collar of his shirt. The setting sun is easy against his skin. What really would have made him feel better, Adam thinks, is if they’d kissed a moment longer.

Ronan’s eyes drift sideways, meeting Adam’s gaze with a small smirk.

“Quit staring.”

Adam hums thoughtfully in reply but continues staring. If he hadn’t been, however, he may have noticed where Ronan was taking them, as it is a place Adam had been frequenting over the past couple weeks. And so when Adam does notice the parking lot and the red and blue sign, he lets out a breathy laugh.

“This?” he asks, “Your idea of making me feel better is having me get rejected yet again?”

“Look,” Ronan says, as he parks the car in front of the pet store, “We’re gonna make that cat like us tonight.”

Adam does not have high hopes for this endeavor, but the determination on Ronan’s face makes him smile. Ronan has absolutely no reason to look so certain—Adam has told him about every last one of his failed endeavors. Yet Ronan walks into the store like he owns the place, walking down every aisle and holding up toys and treats for Adam’s approval or dismissal, which Adam does his best to give.

“He didn’t like the last ball I got him,” Adam says. Or, “I already tried that one,” Or, “That one might not get his attention.” Monotonously, mechanically, they work their way through the store attempting to decipher the puzzle of a cat.

They look at toys with lights. Ones with catnip. Ones with a place for peanut butter to go inside.

“Oh no, that one’s for dogs,” Adam says, going to put the latter back.

“No, we’ll try it anyway,” and Ronan tosses it into the shopping basket.

Somehow, they get stuck in the pet store for nearly an hour, laughing and speaking in hypotheticals about the cats. It would verge on ridiculousness, if not for the sheer dedication of the two. Ronan picks out a new type of treats, a can of the fanciest cat food there, a number of new toys, and finally they end up in the aquarium section, peering into a tank full of feeder goldfish.

“Maybe we need a fishbowl,” Ronan says, glancing sideways at Adam, a spark of a plan in his eyes.

Adam doesn’t say anything back, but he does cast him an interested look.

“We put a goldfish in a round tank, just like in all the movies, right—” Ronan is talking as though he really means it, as though he is actually considering it, which is just too much for Adam. Laughing and shaking his head, he closes his hand around Ronan’s and tugs him away from the fish, towards the cash register.

When they get home, the other cats flock to the door, tails swinging.

“You guys will come say hello,” Adam greets them, bending over to pick up Socks. Looking the animal in the eyes, he asks, “Now where is our other friend?”

Ronan snickers behind him, and Socks offers no answer. Then, ignoring Ronan, Adam carries the cat into the kitchen, plopping him down next to the empty food dish. The sound of Adam pouring more food in calls Buttons into the kitchen, but naturally there is still no sign of Tux.

“The little bastard,” Ronan says between his teeth braced at the packaging of one of the newly purchased cat toys, “He won’t be able to resist this shit.”

Ronan’s morale, however, takes a number of blows over the course of the evening.

First, Tux is dismissive of the can of cat food. Ronan puts it out on a dish and leaves it on the floor just a few inches from the edge of the bed where Tux is hiding, but no amount of fanning or leaving the room to peak around the door jamb will make him come out to take a whiff.

“Here, Kitty, Kitty,” he says in a mock sweet voice, taking a step backward. Then he turns to Adam with a smirk and says with the same tone, “Shitty, Shitty.”

Adam punches him lightly in the arm. “Not funny.”

“Kind of funny.”

“I mean. It rhymed .”

Now it’s Ronan’s turn to shove Adam in the arm.

The canned food does not work, though. Adam puts the food back in the fridge for the other cats to have later, because none of them would ever think to deny it. And meanwhile, Ronan tries to drop a catnip toy between the back of the mattress and the nightstand.

Tux is unaffected.

“What cat doesn’t like catnip?” Ronan asks like he’s some kind of cat expert.

“Tux doesn’t.”

Ronan snarls, without any malice behind it.

Slowly, Ronan goes through everything he’d bought earlier, each item only succeeding in making the cat move around underneath the bed to avoid being hit with things. As the minutes drag into an hour, Ronan’s hope is faltering dramatically. The expression on Ronan’s face is one that Adam understands immensely.

“Hang in there,” Adam offers.

“Trying.”

Lying on his stomach with a hand stretched beneath the bed in that god forsaken extra bedroom, Ronan’s expression is turning pained. A defeated exhale leaves his lips as he snatches back the ball he’d rolled underneath there. The ball that Tux had turned his nose up at. Just like he’d done everything else.

“What does he want ?”

“Maybe we’re trying too hard,” Adam suggests, standing in the doorway with his hands in his pockets. ( He hadn’t been trying too hard; he’d merely been watching the catastrophe). From where he’s standing, he can see the very tip of the cat’s tail behind the bed, and in a last ditch effort, Adam picks up one of the feather-string toys and climbs onto the mattress. He peers behind the bed, down the crack between it and the wall, and Tux looks up at him. And promptly bolts. Dashing neatly over Ronan’s legs and out the door, Tux disappears down the darkened hallway.

The two of them look at each other with resignation.

“Tomorrow,” Ronan states with seemingly newfound clarity as he gets to his feet. “Tomorrow is the day we make that cat like us.”

So they gather up the toys from the floor and dump them into a pile in the living room beside the couch. There, at least, the other cats will play with them. And in the meanwhile, Ronan says something about dinner as he pulls out his phone, and Adam almost expects him to start calling someone, but the mental image shatters as his terrible techno starts pounding from the tiny speakers.

“That isn’t going to make him come out.”

This makes Ronan laugh—brightly, easily, and unconcernedly, already moved on—and then he starts poking around Adam’s cabinets. He’s been here two times before now, but he still dejectedly asks, “Haven’t you bought anything since you’ve been here?”

Adam points to a bag of rice as a joke, and waits just long enough for Ronan to cast him his most disbelieving look before admitting, “I have some pizzas in the freezer?”

They make pizza.

Over the course of the evening, they make two pizzas disappear, and two cats make one bag of cat treats into crumbs. Sprawled out on the couch and tossing treats across the living room, it is a summer different than Adam ever could have imagined (He could not have made up the way Buttons’ claws skitter across the floor or the ragged afghan over the back of the couch; he could not have made up the light in Ronan’s eyes when Socks jumps onto his lap unprovoked). He is, however, unmistakably glad about it, even if they are yet to win over Tux.

On the television, all but muted, a movie plays without an audience. Adam has his back to it, which means one half of his body is on top of Ronan and the other half is nearly falling off the couch, but for the way Ronan’s arm holds him in place and his mouth is pressed closely to his ear, Adam isn’t considering moving.

“You think he’s gonna come out?” Ronan whispers.

Adam, voice heavy from the long day, just shakes his head. A minute passes, though, and then he adds, lifting his face with a smile, “Remember when it was Noah we were trying to get to come out?”

Ronan’s laughter shakes his chest beneath Adam. “Yeah. Our other elusive cat.”

“We’ll need Gansey to bring the ghost box over here.”

“Don’t mention it, or he actually will.”

“You’d be mad if it worked.”

“Fucking livid.”

In the corner of the room, an ancient grandfather clock starts chiming, making Ronan start and Adam laugh. It rings twelve times, and although he hadn’t been feeling awfully tired before, the sheer number of rings seems to draw a yawn from Adam’s lips. He rests his head back down on Ronan’s chest, in the space just under his throat, and Ronan makes a small noise. Thoughtful. Happy.

“Thanks for coming here,” Adam says.

Ronan can’t help himself: He scoffs. “Whatever—“

“I’m serious,” Adam insists, “Thanks.”

“Sure,” Ronan says now, sounding like it’s his best you’re welcome .

Adam traces a thoughtless finger along the edge of Ronan’s arm. So far, the summer had been made of nights like this. Ones where Ronan drove up and they lay on the couch for hours at a time; ones where Adam fell asleep with the phone by his pillow, Ronan on the other end; ones where the night was just the night. Sometimes thoughts slip into Adam’s head, ones that say they should be traveling or doing something remarkable, but in times like this, those thoughts are impossible. He’d spent all year doing the improbable, and now, with his head on Ronan’s chest and a cat at their feet, this is the most exceptional thing.

They’d spent countless hour discussing what they would do once August rolled around, but as of late, the topic is more scarce. They already know that it will look like the closeness of this summer—something paradoxically both near and far, a distance that seems small merely because of moments like this. The moments in between.

And besides, they are both doing exactly what they want to. The light in Ronan’s voice when they talk on the phone and Ronan tells him of the cows, of the fields, of the sun sinking behind the treeline—it makes it all worth it.

“Are you asleep?” Ronan asks a few minutes later, and Adam shakes his head in a small motion. Then Ronan’s chest rises slightly, as though he is about to say something else, but it takes a moment too long for him to speak again. “I’m glad that—shit, you know.” He takes a breath, giving what feels like a shrug.

Adam looks up, resting his chin on a fist. “I don’t know,” he says kindly, although he thinks he has a hint of an idea; Ronan has a very specific pattern of speech when trying to say nice things.

“I’m glad that—I met you before I left that shitty school.”

Adam laughs, a burst of a thing, because Ronan is the only person who could get away with calling it a shitty school —and with a tone of voice that hops the border from endearing to malicious in the span of the same sentence. It isn’t exactly what he’d been expecting him to say, and so it takes Adam a moment to whisper back, “Me too.”

“Fuck,” Ronan says, voice cracking and shifting yet again as he runs a hand through the hair at the back of Adam’s head, “You sound—“

But he doesn’t get a chance to finish, because Adam knows how the sentence ends, and Ronan’s hands are in his hair and his eyes on his lips, and for a brief second, Adam imagines that Ronan had never planned to finish the statement. Adam kisses him as though just remembering that he can, as though he hadn’t been doing it all day. As if he’d never wanted anything else. He kisses him for the days he’d gone without and for all the days apart in the future. Kisses, pressed to hands that will soon only be able to text the other, knuckles against skin, fingers to teeth and tongue.

It isn’t often when Adam feels as though he needs things, not anymore. But in this moment, with one adventure over, he feels as though he needs a new one. One that involves kissing Ronan Lynch. One that involves loving—Ronan, his friends, himself. Not since the beginning of the school year has Adam felt such yearning—and such certainty within that yearning.

A hand slides to the back of Ronan’s neck.

Adam throws a leg over to Ronan’s other side; Ronan wraps an arm around Adam’s back, hand between his shoulder blades.

Adam’s heart hammers. He hadn’t known what they would do for Noah at the beginning of everything. He hadn’t known that the kid in the back row of his Latin class on the first day of school would be making him feel like this. Hadn’t known he would find his voice like this, that he would have friends that would make his fears feel like a distant dream, that he would trust anyone the way he does now.

“Ronan,” he says, running his thumb along Ronan’s jaw, still so close that their noses bump. And he says it because he can, because he likes the way it feels, because Ronan opens his eyes at the sound of it.  “Ronan,” he says again, and it is not a weapon. He says it not in defense or out of necessity, but rather as a way of reaching out.

And that feels like something he hasn’t done in a long time.

“Adam.”

He kisses his own name from Ronan’s lips.

Sleep, like a tide, laps against Adam’s consciousness, there one minute and retreating the next from a kiss to the neck. Again and again, Ronan draws him away from it, but eventually it is unavoidable. Eventually Adam allows himself sleep—hair tousled, cheek against Ronan’s chest, the old afghan tugged over his bare back, and the faint smell of the Barns still on Ronan’s skin—Ronan whispers, barely a breath, “I fucking love you,” with his hand at the small of Adam’s back and his lips to his ear.

But also maybe he’d dreamt it. Because he dreams of more of the same, and so it is hard to tell where real life ends and the dream begins, which is the sort of confusion that one doesn’t mind.

And so when he suddenly wakes up again and Ronan is now asleep, Adam feels a tug of disappointment. The television is still whispering across the room, and a strange feeling is tugging at his hand, which had fallen over the edge of the couch, now brushing against the floor and— something else? His dreams fall away as he drags himself from sleep, straightening his neck, and stretching the fingers of his hand still draped over Ronan. After a second, Adam realizes his other arm is mostly asleep, which must be the source of the tingling at his fingers, but the moment he sits up enough to look down at it, his heart jumps.

He doesn’t move, every joint in his body freezes as though scared, except that a surprised smile is growing on Adam’s face. He mouths a hello to the cat currently licking his fingers, struggling in the darkness to make sure his eyes aren’t deceiving him in the dim light of the living room.

But sure enough, the pattern in the front of his coat cinches in the middle, as if wearing a tuxedo.

Once Adam musters his bravery, hoping the cat won’t run away the moment he moves again, he lifts a single finger to stroke Tux’s head.

Of all the things to send Adam’s excitement reeling, this ridiculous cat was really one of them. With his free hand, he taps Ronan on the chest until he wakes up—which may have been a mistake, because he almost sends the cat running when he asks, a bit too loudly, “What?”

Adam shushes him, and Ronan almost looks confused before he sees what’s happening.

“Shit!”

Adam throws him a Be quiet! look.

Tux crashes his head into Adam’s palm, a single act which is more assertive than any of the entire summer. At his paws sits one of the mouse toys Ronan picked out earlier, and upon seeing this, Ronan gives a small, sleepy smirk, which Adam returns.

It is a much more magical moment than it has any right to be; Adam has never been so enthralled by the feeling of purring against his hand, though, and he doesn’t even have the slightest clue as to what he did to deserve it. The sound of Tux’s paws on the floor is the loudest sound in the house, daringly loud in the quiet living room.

In the darkness, Tux lets them pet him as though he’d never run away, purring and waving his tail around.

Ronan whispers, “Told you we’d do it today.”

Adam rolls his eyes. Ronan’s confidence about things he has know way of knowing that he should be confidence about is unmatched, and even more eye-roll worthy is when he isn’t wrong.

Tux sticks around for no more than ten minutes before he finally remembers who he is and dashes off without warning. The moment had felt like such a victor that Adam doesn’t even feel disappointed when it ends—Adam laughs without thinking about it, the lightest feeling in the world. Before he can turn back to face Ronan, to say Can you believe that?, to confirm that they’re not still dreaming, Ronan is pulling himself to his feet and holding out his hand to Adam.

Adam blinks at this image of Ronan standing in front of him—his eyes are kind shadows, his hand an invitation. Adam wants to take it, but he feels frozen as he suddenly tries to store away every detail of the moment. Ronan, tall and, in the darkness, more of a suggestion of himself than any real detail. Adam, smiling and small, hands smelling of cat and his mind whirring with the delight of it all.

“What?” Ronan asks after Adam doesn’t take his hand right away.

It would be silly to say he’s trying to hold onto this moment, ridiculous to admit how much everything means to him right this instant, and so all Adam can do is shake his head with a smile, letting his back fall into the cushions of the back of the couch.

“What?” Ronan asks again, lighter this time and laughing only slightly, confusedly.

But Adam doesn’t answer, only covers his mouth with a couple fingers, which does nothing to stifle his own building laughter. His eyes don’t waver from Ronan’s, still stuck trying to store away the quirk of his lips, the noise of cat paws coming from the kitchen.

“A picture would last longer, you know,” and finally Ronan drops his hand, choosing instead to lean over and meet Adam back on the couch. Adam still laughing, Ronan climbs on top of him, straddling his lap and pressing their foreheads together.

This , Adam thinks, noting the knot in his throat.

And this , Ronan’s thigh against his.

This , Tux, in the corner of Adam’s eye, toeing back into the room.

“What the fuck,” Ronan says, but he doesn’t sound mad about it. His voice is honey, all soft edges in the way only Ronan can spin a curse word. After all, no one could ever be mad for the joy written across Adam’s face. He runs a thumb over Adam’s jaw, resting his hand at the nape of Adam’s neck. This . He finishes his question with his lips nearly against Adam’s, “ Is so funny?

Adam drapes his arms around Ronan’s neck and asks quietly, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Because the truth is, Adam doesn’t know himself. It is not any one thing bringing the smile to his lips, and Adam just doesn’t know how to say that he wants to be like this forever, that every good feeling he’s ever had seems to be rushing to his mouth and spilling out in laughter; he does not have enough words to express that he would do anything to keep learning these feelings over and over and over again.

In reply, Ronan makes a face, meant to be a sneer, but he can’t hold it. The look dissolves into a kiss, one that feels like everything making Adam laugh: Closeness and small successes and the sound of Adam’s own voice in his ears.

Ronan, Adam thinks, understands.

Adam does not know how else to say it. He is happy, which is perhaps the best word he has right now, and it is with a stroke of clarity that Adam allows himself to think that it is enough . Perhaps no one has the words Adam wants, not yet, but the desire to find them feels like a purpose. An opportunity.

And for now he is happy.

It feels like a good place to start.