Noah wakes up, and he’s cold.
He’s in his room. He’s even in his bed, more or less. Sprawled across the still-made covers, feet on his pillows and head dangling over the side, but closer than he gets most days. Everything is empty, still, quiet. Dead.
Noah looks up at the ceiling, at the smudgy waterstains dappling the once-white plaster. The pink light of dawn is just beginning to shine through the warped glass and everything, including himself, is rosy and beautiful in the light.
He touches his stomach, idly, unthinkingly, curious. The skin there is cool to the touch, of course, but his hands are even colder. He presses, gently but firmly, and while his body is far from solid, there’s enough resistance to stop his fingers from sinking through and brushing the fabric of the quilt rumpled beneath him.
It’s a good day, then.
Noah wakes up, and he’s terrified.
“Whoa! Way to ask first, asshole!” Ronan says, eyes glaring but voice fond. “What was that?”
Noah blinks, and looks down, to where his hand is wrapped tightly around Ronan’s forearm, fingers digging in so hard they’re leaving white marks in Ronan’s sun-brown skin.
“Oh,” he breathes, and blinks again, harder, trying to steady himself. Waking up is always a jolt, like he’s being thrown forcibly back into a body that isn’t technically there and wasn’t expecting to have to exist. But usually he can feel himself fading away before he’s gone, can sometimes even feel himself coalescing back into existence just before he actually does. And when he disappears, it’s a gentle fading away into the surroundings but he’s still there, invisible and barely held-together, but still a person, still mostly real.
This wasn’t like that. This time he had simply ceased to exist.
“… took a personal day,” he hears Ronan say, and he shakes his head like a dog climbing out of water.
“I lost …” Noah tries to explain, not wanting to just say, everything. He pauses, thinks about it, thinks about what’s keeping him tethered to this mortal coil and why he just briefly shuffled off it. “There wasn’t air. It went away. The—the line!”
“The ley line?” Gansey asks, and Noah nods, jerky and still confused. “There was nothing … left for me.” It’s not like it’s ever possible to truly forget that he’s really only still around due to a lot of luck and a constant stream of energy flowing out of the ley line. But usually he keeps that knowledge tucked away deep – there’s not a lot of room in Noah’s mind, anymore, not like when he was alive. Thoughts slip away quicker than they used to, and Noah simply doesn’t have the mental space to dwell.
“You’re welcome, man,” Ronan snaps, genuinely annoyed this time, and Noah suddenly realizes that he’s still gripping Ronan’s arm as tight as he can.
“Thanks,” Noah says sincerely, letting go of Ronan, “I didn’t mean to …. you were there.” He tries to apologize, tries to explain that he only stole Ronan’s energy because he suspected that if he didn’t, he might not exist at all anymore. He doesn’t think he does a very good job, though; there’s still something cottony floating around the edges of his brain, still a gnawing horror and fear of oblivion in the pit of his stomach that’s short-circuiting the connection between his mind and his mouth.
Noah breathes, deeply, even though he doesn’t need to, and steels himself to try another explanation, another apology, trying to convey terror and regret and gratefulness all in one sentence, and then something at the corner of his vision catches his eye. “Oh, the glitter,” he says, the words tumbling out of him, and he feels all the emotions he was trying to explain slipping out of his brain, replaced only by pretty and shiny and oh no, not the glitter.
Noah knows that he was more when he was alive, but he’s not alive anymore and this is all he really can be.
Noah wakes up, and he’s lost.
“You really don’t remember it,” Ronan says, tone mild but wondering as he stares at Noah from his perch on the windowsill of Noah’s room. “You don’t even know you’re doing it, do you.”
It’s a statement, not a question, and Noah blinks, trying to focus his drifting mind on the topic at hand. “Do what?”
Ronan stares at him, mouth slightly open in fascination. “The … the dying thing. You really have no idea.”
“The …. the dying thing?” Noah says, confused at first, and then it all snaps into place and he remembers waking up to Blue’s enormous scared eyes, and her nervous shaking voice telling him that he’d been reenacting his own death like a sick ghostly pantomime, and he feels a tendril of a memory of being, well, bludgeoned before he forces the wisp of thought out of his mind, for now if not forever.
“Yeah,” Noah says softly, looking up at Ronan from where he’d woken up crumpled on his bedroom floor, “yeah, I can’t remember.”
“Do you ever want to?” Ronan asks curiously.
“No,” Noah says, immediately and forcefully, and swallows hard.
Ronan nods. “Okay,” he says, voice uncharacteristically kind, “I’m sorry for asking,” and the way his elegant silhouette is backlit by the warm afternoon sun makes him look like a friendly gargoyle, a stone monster leaning down from his perch on some nameless cathedral drainpipe to offer Noah a hand up and a crooked smirk.
“Don’t be sorry,” Noah says softly, using Ronan’s arm to leverage himself upright. “Just don’t … we just don’t need to talk about this, is all.”
Ronan looks at him, their faces so close that Noah can see the unexpected specks of gold in Ronan’s dark brown eyes. He thinks he sees something strange and soft in Ronan’s eyes that he can’t quite identify, but it’s gone before he fully notices it.
“Do you want to throw things out the window?” Ronan asks.
Noah grins. “Obviously,” he says, and reaches down to pull off his own left shoe before tossing it out the open window.
It falls to the dusty ground two stories below with an unsatisfying, nearly inaudible noise, and a huge cloud of red Henrietta dirt whirls up into the air.
They stare down at it together. “That was not a good choice,” Ronan says finally, and then laughs and throws his own shoe out the window. It is, if possible, even more disappointing than Noah’s.
“Chair?” Ronan asks, and they both laugh with delight, and before they can stop to think Noah’s desk chair is lying in two pieces on the ground, followed shortly by a pillow, a clock radio, and Ronan’s shirt.
Noah is incandescently joyful, in a way he can’t explain and doesn’t want to explain, until he reaches around Ronan’s side to grab a stack of textbooks that someone left on his bed.
“Not that one, Noah,” Ronan says exasperatedly, grabbing futilely at what appears to be his Latin textbook on top of the pile, and then it’s too late and the textbooks are already out the window, landing on top of the clock radio with a surprisingly loud crunching noise and Ronan is snorting in amused disgust and shoving him around gently.
And then Noah realizes that their brief scuffle has ended up with Noah backed up against the wall next to the window, Ronan’s arms on either side of his head, caging him in. It’s quiet suddenly, the only sound Ronan’s breathing, and Noah catches the softness in Ronan’s eyes again, but this time he’s looking for it. And he can read minds, and he knows for sure that he’s not imagining it, and Ronan’s eyes are flicking down to stare at his lips, and Noah knows that he’s not imagining that either.
Noah doesn’t think. Noah just does.
“I know,” Noah confesses, hoarsely, “about you. I know your secret.” And then he’s leaning up and taking Ronan’s face in his hands and kissing him once, twice, three times, gently and softly and sweetly. Ronan kisses back, just as gently and softly and sweetly until he isn’t anymore, and then his thumbs are digging into Noah’s collarbones and his teeth are digging into Noah’s bottom lip and Noah isn’t sure how but somehow an elbow has found a way to be digging into his kidney and this is so, so different from when he kissed Blue. Not better or worse, just different, and then Noah’s arms are coming up to wrap around Ronan’s neck and he’s rising onto his tiptoes a little bit, trying to deepen the angle, trying to get as close to Ronan as he possibly can –
And that’s when Ronan throws him out the window.
Noah wakes up, and he’s empty.
He’s sitting on the floor in the kitchenbathroomlaundry and he doesn’t know how he got there, but he feels literally hollow, like all his ghostly insides have been scooped out and now he’s nothing but a hollow ghostly shell, floating around like some sort of teenaged ethereal balloon. He feels exhausted in a way he hasn’t since he was alive, and drained, like he just ran 12 miles in the summer heat the way he used to for conditioning sometimes.
Noah leans his head back against the doorjamb to the kitchenbathroomlaundry and closes his eyes, trying to remember why he feels so tired, and then the memories come flooding back and he wishes that they hadn’t.
He’d been a monster.
He’d been a monster and it was only thanks to the grace of Blue that he hadn’t been a worse one.
At some point Gansey wanders into the tiny room and slides down onto the floor next to Noah, but Noah barely registers his presence and he knows that Gansey doesn’t see him either. All Noah can think about is what he had done, at Blue’s school and then later at Monmouth.
Eventually, he starts thinking about what he hadn’t done but might have gotten around to if nobody had stopped him, and then he feels even emptier than before, and even more icy cold than usual, and he doesn’t want to think about what he almost did anymore.
So he stops.
Gansey is on the phone, saying goodbye to Blue, and the words are innocent but there’s a timbre to his voice where Noah can hear the overwhelming fondness behind the words. There’s love there, the same love he hears when Ronan talks about Adam, when Adam talks about Blue, when Barrington Whelk used to talk about Julie Cheng, and the same love Noah suspects was there when he used to talk about Barrington Whelk.
Sometimes Noah considers feeling sad that nobody will ever love him like that, because he’s dead, but then he realizes that he’s far too empty to fit that kind of human emotion in his ethereal balloon shell. That kind of love is for the living.
“Don’t tell the others,” Gansey says eventually, and his words are an order, but his tone is a request.
“I’m dead,” Noah says, “not stupid.” Gansey smiles gratefully at him, and then the kitchenbathroomlaundry is empty.
Noah wakes up.
He’s in his room, curled neatly beneath the covers, head resting perfectly centered on the pillows as though he had been sleeping and not dead.
It’s dark, nearing midnight by the way the moon is high in the sky and the crickets are chirping loudly in the weeds surrounding Monmouth. Everything in the room fades into invisibility in the shadows, from the walls to the desk to Noah himself.
Noah tries to lick his lips, but there’s nothing but musty air beneath his tongue. He reaches a ghostly hand up and tries to touch his lips, his cheeks, his hair, but there’s nothing there to be touched, and now that he thinks about it, his hand isn’t especially corporeal either.
Noah sighs, the sound tiny and private in the late-night hush, and then he just closes his eyes again, because he barely exists right now, and he certainly doesn’t exist enough to merit being awake.
More and more days are like this, recently, and he feels like he would mind more if he could remember them properly. But he can’t, so he doesn’t, so it’s fine.
Noah melts into his bed, literally and figuratively, and around him and without him the world continues to exist, sweltering and viscerally alive and impossibly beautiful.