Adam hunkered down in his apartment to study for midterms and refused to leave for anything but school, work, and Cabeswater, so the others drifted to him one by one.
First, Noah. Of them all, he was Adam’s favorite study buddy. The dead maintained comfortable silences, and knew how to entertain themselves. Noah kept busy drawing creepy shapes on a discarded piece of scrap paper, and sometimes disappeared to run the thinnest possible trickle of water in Adam’s sink. Also, he had never met a math problem he couldn’t solve.
Next to arrive was Ronan. Adam unfurled from his huddle at the table which served as his desk. He knew who was there just by the thunderous knock. A polite tip-tap at the door was Gansey, and Blue preferred a brisk, cheerful shave-and-a-haircut. Ronan always demanded attention, rather than asking for it, and he was rarely cheerful. That was all right: neither was Adam.
Adam was especially uncheerful following an afternoon of declensions, looking down the barrel of a night of differentiation. He’d started his day early with a trip to the outskirts of Cabeswater, where he repositioned rocks on the line in the cold, wet, miserable half-light of dawn in December. His joints ached the rest of the day, as if he was a thousand years old and had slept on a rock, which felt close to the truth. His stomach throbbed, punishing him for a life lived with too much coffee and not enough food. He wasn’t sure he had the energy for Ronan.
He took a deep breath through his nose and sighed, imagining Cabeswater’s sweet spring air filling his body, driving out Henrietta’s muddy winter.
Then he opened the door and scowled.
“The only people allowed in are serious scholars,” he said, looking Ronan in the eye. “Everyone else, keep out.”
Ronan glanced over Adam’s shoulder, then smirked at him. “You’ll get a 4.0 even if you flake, and he’s a ghost.”
“A scholarly ghost,” Noah corrected, twirling a pen. Or rather, the pen twirled, and he watched it, fascinated; it was roughly in the vicinity of his hand, but his fingers weren’t moving. Once upon a time, it had been less obvious that he was dead.
Adam was careful to keep his expression blank and steady as he stared into Ronan’s eyes. Better that Ronan didn’t see how grateful Adam was for the interruption. It was increasingly difficult to care about school when Cabeswater tugged and whispered at him, but he hadn’t come this far to just give in, give up, and accept life in Henrietta. This was the final semester before college applications went out, and Adam’s transcript was going to gleam. He’d fight an ancient power for the sake of his future – and his pride.
“Studying after you’re dead,” Ronan snorted, and he backed away abruptly, thundering down the stairs like he was trying to leave them splintered in his wake. He didn’t say goodbye. That was rude even for him, but Adam felt mostly disappointment mixed with relief as he closed the door. He’d fight Cabeswater, but he was less and less eager to fight Ronan Lynch.
“He could have helped with your Latin,” Noah said, looking at Adam from under his pale, smudged lashes. It was a mild rebuke, as if Adam had sent Ronan away as opposed to Ronan stomping off of his own volition.
Adam shook his head. “Not in this mood, he couldn’t.”
Noah’s eyes were distant, inscrutable. His face flickered for a moment, then came back stronger than usual, in sharp focused. He smiled, but the pen spinning to a blue-white blur above his hand was unearthly, and Adam looked away. “You’ll need his help, in the end.”
Adam had a feeling that was true. Cabeswater had plans for them, and he could feel a thousand ties to Ronan building up inside him, each humming with subtle power. He would need Ronan’s help to untangle himself from the web, but could he accept it?
Or would Cabeswater’s magic have erased the idea of leaving from his mind?
“We’ll talk about that when the time comes,” Adam said, sitting down beside his dead friend, and holding his hand out for his pen.
Noah watched him, but he was more firmly himself again. “The time is closer than you think,” he advised. “Now, be careful with this, it feels angry.” He dropped the pen into Adam’s palm just as Ronan pounded at the door.
“Serious scholars only!” Adam yelled, not getting up. The pen felt cold in his hand. His old writing calluses protested as he held it tightly, its chill settling into his bones. Noah disappeared, done with being a scholarly ghost.
Ronan let himself in. The room seemed to warm, a combination of Noah leaving and Ronan entering. It amazed Adam sometimes that they were such good pals; it seemed unlikely, but somehow Noah’s quiet deadness and Ronan’s fierce vitality balanced out.
Ronan grinned, sharp as a blade. “Thought about it. Decided you’re not a serious scholar,” he said, dismissive. “Not really. Not like Gansey,” and the blade twisted. “You don’t do this because you love it. You do it because it hurts.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “No, I’m not like you. I do things because they’re good for me. Because they’re the right things to do. Because I want to live up to my potential – not that you care about that.”
Ronan’s smile softened just enough to cross the line from dangerous to charming; it passed through seductive on the way. Adam was abruptly aware of him, not just as Ronan: jerk! but Ronan: full of dreams and nightmares, tenderness and violence, all kinds of potential.
Adam swallowed, and Ronan came closer, leaning against the edge of the table, saying, “I care a lot about your potential, Parrish,” which would have been a nice thing to say, if he hadn’t said potential like he meant something a lot more…filthy.
“Also, you write Latin like I throw bricks through windows.” Ronan leaned closer, casting a careless glance over Adam’s work. “You want my help with this, or you want to keep wrecking the joint?”
With Ronan so close, almost touching him, curled over him to look down at his paper, Adam felt warm for the first time all day.
Adam caved. He’d have held out longer a few months ago, maybe even managed to kick Ronan out, or piss him off badly enough to make him leave. Give it a few more months, and I’ll be asking him to stay, Adam thought, and the idea filled him with a shivering, pleasurable fear.
“Show me how you’d do it,” he said, and slid his paper over. Ronan hooked an ankle around the other chair, dragging it closer, and collapsed into it with a smirk.
“Here,” he said, tapping his finger against a section Adam had struggled with. He had dirt under his nails. His jeans were probably worth more than Adam’s car. He draped his left arm across the back of Adam’s chair. Adam leaned back into it, drawn like a magnet to metal, and felt the connections between them strengthen, pulling ever tighter. Ronan watched him from the corner of his eye. “You’re no poet, Parrish. But you could fake it.”
Adam’s chest felt tight. He took a deep breath but it wasn’t Cabeswater he drew in, it was the smell of Ronan, sweet and dark.
You’ll need his help.
Adam needed something, all right. He tapped the paper, smudging his pencil marks, comparing his knobby knuckles and broad fingertips to the lean elegance of Ronan’s hand. “Do you fake it?”
Ronan’s dark brows arched in a teasing sort of way; his smile was intimate, amused. “Never had to try.”
Adam breathed out through his mouth and watched Ronan’s gaze drop to his lips.
Noah reappeared. He looked between them, knowing, not displeased. Adam still fought the urge to blush and leap away; that would be twice as telling as letting his hand rest so near to Ronan’s, letting his back brush against Ronan’s arm.
Noah pointed outside. “One minute warning. Gansey and Blue are coming.”
“I’ve told you not to leave the water running,” Adam said, and went to get the door.
Gansey had a pizza in a cardboard box. Blue had a backpack which looked like she’d made it out of scraps of other, more ancient backpacks, and she carried an old Coke bottle filled with something that shimmered in the light.
“Ronan ordered this,” Gansey said, thrusting the pizza at Adam. “And he paid for it. And he paid for delivery, which I didn’t know was a feature Nino’s offered.”
“It isn’t a feature Nino’s offers.” Blue held out the bottle. “Health drink. Brain food, I’m told. It’s slimy but I think it helps.”
“Why didn’t you just wait at Nino’s?” Gansey asked Ronan. He took off his black overcoat, tossing it carelessly onto the hook where Adam’s dusty Goodwill jacket hung, swallowing it up.
Ronan’s leaned back into his chair, sneering. He’d left his arm where it was, Adam noted, like he didn’t care if Gansey and Blue saw it. “I didn’t order it at Nino’s.”
Gansey’s eyes widened, delighted and appalled. “Did you dream a pizza delivery guy?”
“That was no dream, that was Donny,” Blue said, before curling up with her backpack on the floor, dragging books out and shoving loose papers back in.
“Donny? But this smells like Nino’s,” Gansey said, plaintive, poking the pizza box. It was hot in Adam’s hands. It smelled amazing. Adam’s stomach growled, and everyone politely pretended not to notice, except for Ronan, who looked pissed. It wasn’t until his lip curled that Adam realized the difference between the Ronan who arranged to have pizza delivered, and the Ronan who answered questions about it.
“Donny manages Nino’s.” Blue pushed her hair out of her face and frowned at Gansey. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by three tall boys with varying degrees of lankiness, she looked tiny and incredibly, ferociously female. “Do you never listen to me when I talk about work?”
Gansey seemed mystified. “You talk about work?”
Ronan rolled his eyes and stood. He took the pizza box from Adam, set it on the counter, and dragged a piece out, trailing cheese. “It’s Nino’s. I called. I asked them to deliver a pizza. Now I’m going to eat the pizza, unless the serious scholars would rather just talk about it all night.”
“Serious scholars?” Gansey looked back and forth between Adam and Ronan, then caught sight of the piles of notebooks on Adam’s table. His eyebrows drew together. “Oh, you were studying,” he said, but the emphasis was in the wrong place, and Adam felt his shoulders inch up towards his ears defensively. It was one thing for Noah to assume things; it was something very much else when Gansey did it.
“Were,” Ronan said, and snagged another piece of pizza. He saluted Adam with it, and stepped over Blue, still sitting on the floor. “I’m done. Parrish, remember the poetry.”
He slammed the door behind him.
Adam’s apartment seemed seventeen times larger, as if Ronan had twisted all the space down close around himself and held it tight.
“You notice how he avoided the issue of who paid for the pizza?” Blue held up her hand, imperious, and Adam gave her a slice on a paper towel. She picked off the toppings and ate them, one by one, examining each like she’d never seen pepperoni before, when Adam knew for a fact that she’d worked every night that week.
Gansey flinched. Adam felt a little guilty – he hadn’t meant to give Gansey a complex to match his own – and said hastily, “It’s okay. He owed me five anyway,” which was untrue, and wouldn’t have covered his portion of the pizza after factoring in whatever it cost to have it delivered. Gansey looked relieved, and Adam took a slice of pizza for himself, eating it slowly, savoring the meat and cheese and crunchy bread.
Somehow it was okay to owe Ronan. Gansey was too generous; he’d give a man the shirt off his back, loyal friendship beyond compare, a thousand good wishes, and he’d do it with a smile. Ronan gave only what was necessary, and his snarl made that all right.
“Talk to me about Latin poetry,” Adam said. He sat back down at his table, Blue nearby in a nest of textbooks, Noah playing with the sink, Gansey settling cheerfully into the other chair. He ate his pizza, a gift given with no grace but much care, and tried not to wonder what Ronan might accept in return.
"We'll take your car," Ronan said. Adam bit back the protest that he didn't have a lot of gas, because the end of midterms was a time of celebration, not stinginess. Besides, he was enjoying the way people looked at them: himself tall and skinny, as plain and neat and proper as he could manage; Ronan a swaggering model, with his jacket slung over his shoulder and black sunglasses hiding his eyes. The idea of Ronan unfolding himself from the Hondayota in the middle of classy downtown, by the gelato place and the Talbots, made Adam smile.
"We'll have to make a pit stop," was all he said, and Ronan nodded, uncaring.
They stopped at the gas station/convenience store where most of Aglionby bought their cigarettes, despite the fact that they were underage and overeducated and ought to know better; or perhaps because they knew better. Ronan hoisted himself out of the car and held his hand out expectantly.
"Give me your cash. I'll tell the cashier what you want. I need a snack anyway."
"We're going to snacks," Adam protested. He pulled his wallet out slowly. His mental math told him that if he wanted to eat again this week, he would give Ronan no more than three dollars for gas. His pride told him to casually hand Ronan a twenty, to fill his tank and live off toast. He compromised, and gave Ronan a ten.
"Gelato isn't snacks." Ronan saluted him with his cash, then strode into the store.
Adam watched him. It was kind of hilarious to see Ronan, his shoulders forward like he was walking into a brisk wind, his uniform so mussed that it was pretty much a perversion, walking into a convenience store. Despite the fact that he was a thousand times more earthy than Gansey, he was also more otherworldly. It was funny to see Gansey go to the store because he acted like everything cheap was new and interesting, but it was funny to see Ronan go to the store because chevaliers didn't buy junk food.
Ronan gave him a thumbs up through the window once the gas was paid for, and Adam started pumping. He was fighting a sense of regret as the meter ticked past nine dollars, because every buck over three was a missed meal, when Ronan came back. He carried two bottles of water, an enormous protein bar, and change, which he dumped into Adam's hand.
"Keep pumping, you're going to fifteen," Ronan said. He opened the passenger door of the car and tossed himself in, already unwrapping the bar.
Adam looked at the change in his hand. "Not according to this."
"You've been driving me around all week." Ronan took a huge bite of protein bar, then leaned out of the car and handed it to Adam so expectantly that Adam took a huge bite too, without thinking about it. It was basically a candy bar with whey hidden inside it, but it tasted great. He took another, smaller bite before handing it back, aware of Ronan eyeing him.
When Ronan looked at him like that, with satisfaction and something darker curling the corners of his lips, Adam didn't feel plain and neat and proper. It was a special magic of Ronan's, he thought, that made Adam wild and beautiful in Ronan's eyes.
Cabeswater whispered to him. He ignored it.
"I'll need a ride to school tomorrow since we left my car," Ronan said as he took the protein bar back. Adam put the pump away and his gas cap back on, hurrying around the car. Ronan resettled himself and slammed the door.
Adam put on his seatbelt. Ronan put his on too, but aggressively, as if even safety was a personal challenge from him to the world. "Gansey can drive you."
Ronan snorted, disdainful. "I paid you to drive me," he said. "I expect good customer service. Play my song, chauffeur, or I'll complain to management."
It should have pissed Adam off, to be given both a gift and a command. It should have stung his pride. Ronan sprawled across the passenger seat, though, blatantly and deliberately invading Adam's space. Slapping him back was fun, and dangerous, and distracting. By the time Adam could have worked up a complaint, he didn't feel like he had much to complain about: Ronan was right. Adam had been driving a lot, and Monmouth wasn't that far out of his way in the mornings.
"You better be dressed and ready by the time I get there," he warned instead.
Ronan grinned, sharply pleased with himself as he said, "I'm always ready for you."
“Move this three inches to the left,” Adam told Gansey, who obliged. This was a branch half the size of a telephone pole, which Gansey hefted as if it weighed nothing, but which proved impossibly heavy once it was aligned in the right direction. Adam, piling pebbles one by one into a sort of crescent-shaped pyramid, nodded with approval.
Almost every day, he set something right for Cabeswater; almost every day, he felt power flowing more strongly to its heart. Gansey didn’t feel it the same way, but he followed instructions with agreeable precision, so Adam had begun tapping him for assistance more often. It was difficult work without Persephone.
Gansey came and sat beside him cross-legged, heedless of his dark pants soaking up mud. He rested his elbows on his knees, his chin in his folded hands, and watched Adam work. He loved this so much, so openly – magic! Adam half-wanted to show off for him, but the placement of each pebble demanded careful attention. Gansey didn’t seem to mind. He could be infinitely patient if there was a goal in sight.
Adam set the last pebble and leaned back on his heels, sighing. Once the work was done, the cold set in. Midterms were over, and Christmas break loomed over the weekend. Their classmates were going to Vail, to the south of France, to Greek islands. Adam was going to work extra hours at the factory. Gansey was going to be a Gansey. Ronan was going to church with Declan and Matthew. Blue, the only one of them who actively enjoyed Christmas, despite being kind of iffy on the religious significance, had invited them to the 300 Fox Way party, then washed her hands of them when they all looked scared.
“When do you leave?” he asked Gansey, wondering if they had time to do a little more work before a helicopter came and took Gansey away.
“When Helen gets here,” Gansey said.
“When is Helen coming?”
Gansey shrugged. He studied the pile of pebbles, then reached out to nudge one slightly out of place. “Fascinating,” he murmured, when Adam grimaced against Cabeswater’s complaint and immediately nudged it back. “Helen is coming when she gets here.” He caved under Adam’s glare. “She’ll call.”
“We better get back.” Adam rose and held a hand out for Gansey, who accepted it and stood with the unstudied, casual grace that Adam envied in him. They both brushed mud off their pants, but it was Gansey who looked tidier when they were done. They walked to the Hondayota – Adam refused to get in the Pig when he knew the work would be messy, despite Gansey’s protests – and as they buckled themselves in, Gansey said, casually, “So, about Ronan.”
Adam tensed. “What about him?”
Gansey stretched his legs out under the glove compartment and blew warm air into his palms. “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”
The Hondayota, for all its questionable looks – and parts – did a great job of handling the muddy tracks on the outskirts of town. Adam headed for the main road, navigating more carefully than the car required. “Sorry, I’m all out of inscrutability translators, man.”
“Was I being inscrutable?” Gansey sounded genuinely sorry. “All right. Then I’ll just say it: I didn’t know that Ronan might be a thing you were into. Did something change?”
Everything changed, Adam thought, but he said only, “I suppose.”
Gansey hummed. “I don’t mean to give you the impression that I disapprove, or that I think it would be a bad idea. Neither of those is true. But I do wonder, well. If perhaps these changes are thanks to the influence of magic?”
Adam had wondered the same thing, but somehow, hearing Gansey hint at love magic while sitting regal and muddy in the passenger seat of a patchwork sedan made it ridiculous. He laughed. “The influence of magic, Gansey. Do you hear yourself?”
Gansey smiled. “I know how it sounds. But I’m being sincere!”
“That’s what makes it worse.” Adam nudged the car out onto the slick asphalt of the road into town. The engine grumbled, but they made it up to the speed limit. Gansey’s sincerity was never in question; Adam would walk off a cliff if Gansey asked him sincerely, not doubting it was for the best. He confessed, “I wonder how much that has to do with anything, sure. Not that there’s anything to wonder about. But if there were, I would wonder.”
“Hmph.” Gansey fiddled with the radio: static, static, talk, static. “Does wondering make you worry?”
Adam thought about that. A lot of things made him worry. Mail, phone calls from unknown numbers, every swipe of his debit card even when he knew the funds were there. Blue eating nothing but yogurt all week. Gansey sniping with Helen while she flew them home. Wasps. The way Cabeswater whispered into his dreams, and the ley line coiled in his heart.
“I worry some,” he decided. “Less than I did.”
“More than Ronan does,” Gansey said. He shrugged when Adam cast him a curious glance. “Not that he’s said anything to me – well, anything other than ‘fuck off’ or ‘go fuck yourself’ or my particular favorite, ‘go fuck the Pig’ – but I’ve never seen him court someone before. That implies a lack of hesitation, doesn’t it?”
Adam was still stuck on the old-fashioned glory of Gansey’s phrasing. “Courting?” It was a ridiculous word, a silly idea. Modern Aglionby boys didn’t court. They did coke and fucked in cars and went to church so they didn’t bomb their parents’ political campaigns. Adam, who didn’t drink and had never so much as kissed anyone, wouldn’t even refer to what they were doing as courting.
But Gansey was unswayed. “Tokens of his esteem. Extra consideration for your comfort. Coming to visit you whenever he can’t stop himself. Has he tried to go down on you at any point? No? Well then. I’ve seen Ronan seduce people, Adam. It isn’t like what’s happening with you.”
Adam’s brain had shorted out with the thought of Ronan offering to go down on him. Was that what followed buying him pizza? He thought about Ronan’s sulking mouth, his ferocious eyes, the way spikes of tattoo crept up from under his collars. Maybe he was lucky he’d gotten pizza. Or was it luck when what he hadn’t gotten was a blowjob?
“We’re suddenly going very slow,” Gansey said. “I wouldn’t question your driving at any other time, really, but I’m thinking that wasn’t intended?”
Adam put his foot back down on the gas. “If Ronan doesn’t worry about it, why should I?”
He could see Gansey watching him out of the corner of his eye. Gansey looked somber, serious. “Because Ronan takes from Cabeswater, Adam. You give to it.”
Gave everything to it, Adam thought, remembering that feeling. The sound of hoofbeats echoed in his deaf ear. He gave everything to Cabeswater, and it asked him for more.
“He wants you,” Gansey said bluntly. Adam sucked in a breath, feeling the words in his whole body. “I’m not saying Cabeswater can do anything about that. But I think it’s important to wonder if it might.”
“This all sounds an awful lot like you’re thinking terrible things about Ronan,” Adam said, feeling protective – not just of Ronan, but of himself, of his ability to make his own decisions. And yet, was Gansey wrong? Hadn’t Adam wondered the same? Ronan might influence Cabeswater, maybe without knowing it. As much as Adam defended his own independence, he was Cabeswater’s man.
The streets of Henrietta were busy, packed with people heading to and from the highway, to and from the shopping center. Someone had convinced the city to hang wreaths on all the light poles. Dusk was settling down, and houses lit up with bright decorations. Adam would be spending his first Christmas alone. Adam’s best friend thought that his best friend might use the power of an ancient forest to get laid. What a world.
“I love you both,” Gansey said. His sincerity filled the car, a heavy weight, a warmth. “I want what’s best for both of you.”
“I don’t know what’s best.” They pulled into the parking lot at Monmouth. The helicopter perched at the far edge of the lot, a sleek bird on a branch, ready to take off at a moment’s notice. Adam parked as far away from it as possible, and wondered at his life. How had he helped a magical force all afternoon, with the richest boy in the state playing his assistant, then talked about courting and intentions all the way here?
Forget knowing what was best; Adam would settle for knowing how he got this far. He looked at Gansey, who ignored the helicopter, focusing on him intently, and repeated himself. “I truly don’t know, Gansey. But I will be careful finding out.”
Gansey watched him. For a second, Adam felt the world shudder sideways: if he was going to love any boy, shouldn’t it be this one? Gallant Gansey, handsome and kind, royal and sweet. But then Gansey smiled, and the sideways feeling settled. Gansey smiling was a different creature than Ronan. He would never think to buy a courting gift of pizza. He thought of things like courting. He wore salmon-colored shorts and bronzed in the sun.
Adam held his hand out, clenched, and Gansey bumped knuckles with him, then climbed out of the Hondayota. He leaned back in the passenger window and said, “I trust you. Have fun.” His smile turned wicked and knowing, and Adam wondered at it, if there were memories behind it, or just an active imagination. Gansey winked and said, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” then slapped the top of the car and ambled off, his hands in his pockets, his ass muddy, to greet his scowling sister.
Ronan’s BMW hid in the shadows of the building. He was home. Adam could go inside if he wanted, could say hello, could ask if he was being courted. He could say nothing. Gansey was leaving; Adam could close Ronan’s door, take off his pants, and find out what it was like to be kissed by someone who desperately wanted to kiss him.
He chose to test his will instead, and honked a farewell to Gansey and Helen as he headed back into town.
In the light of Gansey's warnings about courtship, a lot of things about Ronan's presence in his life made more sense, although Adam would never have admitted as much to Gansey.
For example, the ties.
Adam sat on the floor at Monmouth, studying Gansey's maps. Ronan sprawled on the floor beside him, a pile of silk ties spilled carelessly at Adam's knee. Ronan held Adam's arm hostage, though he refused to discuss what he wanted for ransom, and he was torturing it by tying the ties around it in various elaborate knots, from Adam's knobby wrist to his elbow.
"No matter what you do to me, I'll never tell," Adam said drily, eyeing the rainbow on his arm with interest. Ronan was working his way from darkest ties to lightest, his focus intense, his fingers brushing Adam's skin, draping silk and tying it.
"You'll be begging to give me what I want," Ronan told him. He looked up through his lashes, and Adam's heart skipped, raced, tumbled. Ronan grinned and tightened a knot, holding Adam's gaze.
"And what is it that you want?" Adam asked, breathless and failing to hide it. Ronan's grin went dark and knowing.
"Information," Ronan said. "As in, where you're going to be tomorrow night."
"Why do you want to know?"
"So I can plan my heist, duh. No, I want to go for a drive." He rolled his eyes, anticipating Adam's protest. "I don't want to go for a drive alone, and I don't want to go now. Tomorrow. Me and you."
The map stretched out before them, nothing but magic from left to right. Ronan let the last of the ties dangle from his hand and watched Adam's eyes. Adam thought about it, about riding around Henrietta at night with Ronan Lynch, street racer, road rager, and generally terrible person. He said, "I guess I'm not busy after work. Okay?"
"Okay," Ronan agreed, and put a brisk Windsor in the final tie, just above Adam's elbow. "Told you that you couldn’t resist," and he leapt up, prowling into the kitchen, banging things around until they yielded up a dinner.
Adam wore the ties on his arm, careful to keep his left hand under the table and eat only with his right, until he went home. Then he hung them in his small, crowded closet, which smelled like cedar and incense. His two good ties nestled in with them - the one he purchased for himself, one given to him by Gansey later - thin strips of a newly-expanded rainbow. Adam ran his hand under all the points, letting them tickle the hard skin of his palm.
He could resist Ronan’s courtship, Adam thought. It would be smart to resist. If this were Cabeswater’s doing, they could wait it out; if this were going to fuck up their friendship, they could avoid it. But he knew, as he shivered against the feel of silk whispering across his skin, that what he could do and what he would do were very, very different things.
The 300 Fox Way Solstice/Christmas/Gifts Yay party was overwhelming. 300 Fox Way was a lot at the best of times, and this was better than best; Adam, covered in lipstick marks and drunk off chocolate cherry cookies, eventually took to a corner and cowered in awe.
Rescue arrived in the calm, cool form of Mr. Gray. He had a bright kiss-mark on his own cheek, and clutched a bundle of mistletoe, which he hid under a tattered cushion on the cats’ chair.
“If you need to make your escape, I will watch your back,” he promised solemnly.
“I don’t know if there’s room to run.” Adam eyed the hallway. Maura and Jimi were entangled in a laughing hug, little kids at their feet. Adam wanted out, but he didn’t want to be responsible for what might happen to the children if he charged them.
“Never run from what you fear,” Mr. Gray said. Adam switched to eyeing him, and he smiled. “Advice from a book about creatures of magic. It transfers well to dogs, bears, and serial killers in the woods. Also the women of this household. Come on, I’ll walk you to the door.”
With Mr. Gray in the lead, a path opened up. Adam almost stepped on his heels out of desperation, but somehow Mr. Gray was always a few inches out of his way, gliding smoothly through the crowds.
Blue met them at the door with a stack of plates that bulged under layers of shiny aluminum foil. “I couldn’t eat all that,” Adam protested, afraid they’d wiped out their buffet table for him, but he could; he really, really could.
“You will,” Maura said, appearing at her daughter’s elbow with yet another plate, this one in plastic wrap: enough desserts to last a week. She added it to the top of the pile, and Adam took them gently, afraid to drop something. She pressed a smacking kiss to his temple, then pulled Mr. Gray away to investigate the new mistletoe that had appeared at the top of the stairs.
Adam, clutching 300 Fox Way’s midwinter gift of food and fondness, his face stamped with kisses and flushed with the heat of the crowd, teared up a little. This wasn’t Christmas at home. He wondered what his mother was doing, when she’d last been offered kindness, when she’d ever treated him as sweetly as Blue’s mother had done. He looked down at Blue, helpless and half-broken, and she laughed at him – an easy, happy laugh.
Blue was wearing a shade of lipstick that hadn’t found its way to Adam’s face yet. She stretched up and he leaned down, and her breath whispered across his cheek as she pressed a gentle kiss there. “Merry Christmas, Adam Parrish,” she said, and Adam swallowed heavily. There was so much love in this household, enough for everyone, even him, even after all he’d said and done.
“Blue – I’m sorry – ” he managed to choke out, and Blue gave him a gentle push out the door even as she said, “I know.”
“Oh holy night,” Adam said, amused, as he opened the door. Ronan must have come up right after midnight Mass with his brothers, because he was still wearing half his suit and looking a little extra wild in the eyes. “Do you want a cookie?”
Ronan did, apparently, want a cookie. He held his hand out, silent, while Adam picked through the dessert plate to find one that was uncrushed by the weight of all the others.
“I think this one has Oreos in it,” he said. “Also maybe mint. And Reese’s Pieces.”
The twist of Ronan’s mouth said he wasn’t all that sure about Oreo-mint-Reese’s cookies, but Adam had tested one – or three – and was ready to vouch for them. He passed it over, and Ronan handed him the stub of a white candle in exchange.
“Light it,” he said, and wandered off with his cookie in hand to poke through Adam’s scant collection of stuff.
Adam felt his heart shudder in his chest. Midnight on Christmas Eve, when he was feeling well-fed and sentimental, seemed like a dangerous time to hang out with Ronan by candlelight.
Of course he was going to do it anyway.
He lit the taper and let a little wax pool onto a plate, then stuck the base of the candle in it. It looked awful, but the flickering light was nice. Festive. He put the plate down a safe distance from the tiny table-top tree Gansey had gotten him as a Christmas present, then stepped back and looked at the tableau. Tree, cookies, candle. Individually, no piece of the puzzle was very grand. Taken all together, they were almost overwhelming.
Ronan came to stand next to him, tall, tattooed, radiating warmth. Adam could imagine that it had gotten hot in the church with all those Christmas candles lit. He wondered if they sang carols; if Ronan sang carols, somberly, his eyes reflecting firelight and his brothers at his side. They’d all had musical training; Adam had the sudden crazy urge to ask for Ronan’s rendition of Jingle Bell Rock.
It would be pornographic, he thought, and it was suddenly as if he could feel the heat of Ronan’s body inside himself, burning him up from the inside out.
“Putting that candle there makes it look like I got you something,” Ronan said, abrupt. “I didn’t.”
“That’s all right,” Adam said. He turned to Ronan, who looked down at him, eyebrows bunched furiously.
“I should have.” Ronan shook his head. “Gansey told me to get you a good phone. He said you’d take it from me.”
Gansey had said a lot more than that, Adam imagined. It was kind of infuriating and also heart-warming to think that Ronan had gotten the same speech as Adam, about influence and desire and courtship. That Gansey cared enough about both of them to warn them off of a bad decision. It also pissed Adam off that Gansey thought he might have found a new way to work the elaborate system that was Adam’s sense of pride and dignity, but since Ronan hadn’t followed through, it was all right. Ronan knew better than to give him more than he could take.
“This is what I want from you,” Adam said. He reached up and put his hand on the back of Ronan’s neck, imagining that his fingers brushed the edges of his tattoo. In slow motion, he pulled Ronan down just a little, just enough. Ronan allowed it, watching him.
Ronan didn’t do any of the things that Adam had been a little afraid of, in the part of his mind that had wondered about this: he didn’t bite, or snarl, or grab, or thrust too hard. It wasn’t that he was a perfect gentleman, because he groaned in an absolutely animal way when Adam slicked his tongue across Ronan’s lower lip, and he swore every time their mouths parted for even a moment. But he seemed to know that Adam needed him to be careful, to hold Adam’s first kiss in his hands as gently as he’d held a baby bird.
His self-control gave Adam the chance to explore, to taste him, to slide into Ronan’s mouth and hear Ronan’s sharp sound of pleasure. His hand on Ronan’s neck felt the muscles tense and give, Ronan’s shoulders softening as he relaxed into the kiss. They were closer without either of them seeming to give ground, chest to chest and hip to hip, Ronan’s belt buckle pressing into Adam’s stomach with only his thin pajama pants and t-shirt to soften the bite.
Both of them were hard. The unexpected way that knowledge lit up Adam’s entire nervous system, made him fist his free hand in Ronan’s crisp white shirt, holding on for all he was worth.
When that first kiss ended, they stayed close, Adam unwilling to relinquish his grip on Ronan’s shirt, Ronan curled into him, breathing heavily in his ear.
“So, that worked,” Adam said, surprised by the rasp of his own voice.
“Did you doubt it would?” Ronan asked. It could have been cocky – it should have been cocky, Ronan was an unrepentant asshole – but there was something vulnerable in his eyes when he leaned back to look at Adam.
“A little,” Adam said. Ronan tried to take a step back. “No, stay, I don’t mean – I only meant, I wondered – I liked being liked, Ronan. I didn’t want that to be a fluke, or because Blue rejected me, or because Cabeswater brought it on.”
Ronan’s eyes were so dark in the candlelight. The corner of his mouth twitched, but Adam couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be derisive or not. “One kiss doesn’t mean much. It could still be all of that.”
Adam had already been half-certain it was none of that, but the softness that came over him when Ronan tried to give him an out made him smile helplessly, amused at himself, at Ronan. “Then we better try again,” he said, and kissed Ronan a second time, and a third, and a fourth.
They celebrated Gansey’s return from the Land of the Ganseys with an impromptu dance party at Monmouth. Even Noah got in on it, though his suggestion of a choreographed murder squash song dance routine was shot down early and often.
“What other news do you bring from the kings of Virginia?” Ronan asked. He had the neck of a beer bottle between his fingers, leaned casually against the wall. Moonlight flowed in and made his eyes shine. Adam wanted to touch the hollow of his neck, collarbone, hips, but maintained a discreet distance.
“Super bangable,” Blue whispered to him, leaning against Adam’s shoulder as he sprawled in Gansey’s chair. She crunched a carrot, her glass of Maura’s brain juice threatening to slosh over at any moment. She wasn’t drunk – “You try it when everyone you live with is psychic and a mom!” – but the enthusiastic dancing had made them all feel drunk. “I mean, I’m not sure I even like him all that much, but I’d climb him like a tree.”
So maybe the distance was discreet, but the way Adam watched his every move wasn’t. Adam could live with that.
“On the evening of the next harvest moon, a candidate will be chosen,” Gansey said seriously, raising his glass in a toast. He was drinking whiskey. He was ageless in the moonlight; even his flushed cheeks and tousled hair didn’t do anything to detract from the idea that he was a kid, an octogenarian, a high school boy who drank fine whiskey because his father did. “That candidate will run for years, subject to every possible test and trial, and, in the end, will live or die by the votes of like, three percent of the American population, it’s really bizarre how that works out.”
“We haven’t slept together, yet,” Adam whispered back to Blue. He wasn’t drunk either – he wasn’t sure he’d ever trust himself enough to get drunk – but he felt as flushed and loose as Gansey. He caught Ronan’s eye and tried to straighten himself up in the chair; Ronan shook his head, and Adam let himself remain draped, aware of the way the light hit him.
Blue hummed. “You gonna?” Her accent came out sometimes, when it was just the two of them, the way Adam’s did when he was tired or emotional. He liked it, liked still having that connection to her, even when everything else had changed.
“Depends.” Adam took a sip of brain juice. It felt slimy going down, but tasted light and fruity. It was one of Maura’s better vintages. “We’re being careful. Or maybe Ronan’s being careful? I don’t know, sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
“Good.” Blue’s voice was fierce. She ran her fingers through Adam’s hair and he leaned his head against her, enjoying the way her nails scratched, enjoying the smell of perfume she’d absorbed from 300 Fox Way, wearing it on all three layers of her tattered shirts. She said, “He should be careful. Careful with you, careful of himself.”
Blue thought it out. “Ronan’s biggest problem is that he’s bleeding out his feelings everywhere,” Blue said. “Like his dad died and it opened him up. But he saved something for you, something good. If you drain that away from him, I don’t know. He might not survive it.”
“I never imagined that if Ronan and I started – started something, everyone would be more worried about him than me,” Adam said, too bemused to be upset at the idea that he, of anyone, could drain Ronan’s endless depths of feeling.
Blue snorted and twisted her fingers in his hair so that Adam would have to look up at her. “I’m not worried about you,” she said, with a smile. “Not anymore. You’re a lot less fragile than you used to be. I think you’re gonna be all right.”
For a second, Adam wanted to kiss her again. She patted his shoulder, understanding, then reached down to pull him up out of the chair. “Stop being so serious and go dance with that boy,” she told him, beckoning Gansey and Noah to her. She threw her head back and laughed when Noah demonstrated the murder squash shake, and Adam left her to it.
“May I have this dance?” he asked Ronan, bowing a little, one hand behind his back.
Ronan’s lips curved around the mouth of his beer bottle. “I only tango naked.”
“I think the murder squash shake is a waltz, actually,” Adam said.
“Oh, in that case,” Ronan said, and took his hand.
They went back to school. Adam had secretly sent off an application to Harvard for early action; he was deferred, which was better than he’d expected, but meant he had to send off a flurry of other applications. In the end, he hit up every East Coast, Ivy League school that he thought might give him a chance.
Ronan applied to precisely two schools: the community college closest to Henrietta, and the University of Virginia.
“That’s cool, we can be buds,” Blue said, while Gansey moaned in despair.
“Not all of us can just legacy our ways into Yale,” Adam coldly informed Gansey. Beyond that, he didn’t think Ronan would be happy at an Ivy. He didn’t think Ronan could live with himself if he was that far from Matthew, or the Barns, or Cabeswater. But then again, he also didn’t think Ronan would be happy without them. It was a problem.
“What are you going to do,” Gansey said, his head in his hands. “You can’t live off your inheritance forever, Ronan – it’s not that generous. You’ll have to do some kind of work.”
“I’m going to dream up an alternative to oil,” Ronan said, implacable. It was the first Adam had heard of it. He’d assumed that Ronan would be a farmer, or an artist, or a revolutionary like his Irish ancestors. Ronan rolled his head along the headrest in the Pig’s back seat, smiling lazily at Adam. “I’ll need a good mechanic to help me make sure that any idiot with a blueprint could recreate my work, but I guess having a lawyer around won’t hurt.”
Adam had never intended to come back to Henrietta once the ink on his law degree was dry.
Blue perked up. “Environmental stuff? Cool. Maybe we’ll be in the same program.”
Gansey slumped over the steering wheel. “Idealists,” he said sadly, as if he hadn’t been chasing the dream of a rebel king for half his life. “Oww, Jane, that hurt!”
“I won’t live in town,” Adam warned Ronan, his heart rattling in his chest. It was possible that Ronan wasn’t offering him an invitation. They’d kissed a few times, that was all. Not even Gansey would assume that meant they had a long-term commitment, and Gansey made assumptions about courting because of pizza.
But it was important, so Adam said it: “I won’t live within twenty miles of my parents.”
The smile that washed across Ronan’s mouth was deadly, hard and pale, his lips pressed together. “You won’t,” he agreed. “That would be unacceptable. But I have this property out in Bumfuck. Shitty commute, but lots of garage space.”
“Also it’s full of lifeless cows,” Gansey said. “Seriously, can I just, like, forge your signature and at least apply you to Princeton?”
“Cows won’t be lifeless for long,” Ronan said, eyes steady on Adam’s. “We’re working on that. It may take a while, even a few years, but as soon as it’s done – I’m going home. With my two-year degree. Just to prove to all you Ivy League sons-of-bitches that no motherfucker needs a degree to be a human, so fuck off.”
Adam forgot, sometimes, that Ronan’s roots were closer to his own than to Gansey’s. He meant it; Ronan always meant it when he told someone to fuck off. Gansey, in the front seat, protested that he’d meant no such thing, and Ronan’s aspersions on his character were unappreciated; Blue, ice cold, bitched him out.
In the backseat, Adam smiled, saw Ronan’s dark eyes warm. “I always wanted my own garage,” he said and, greatly daring, reached out for Ronan’s hand.
Ronan showed up with a bag from Dollar City. "Look what me and Noah found," he said, dumping the bag open on Adam's table. His prize was a feathery key chain the size of a baseball. The feathers were black and iridescent, like Chainsaw's in full daylight. The center of it was a thick metal disk with a raven's profile etched across it, with a cheap plastic "gem" glued on for an eye.
Adam poked it, watching light refract off the feathers. The eye glinted, surprisingly knowing. "Seems significant," he said, dry. "I'm surprised you brought it to me, not Gansey."
Ronan grinned at him, pleased with himself. "I'd have brought it to Gansey if I wanted to make out with Gansey," he said, and reached out to pull Adam in close and make out with him, instead.
Later, when Ronan's phone had buzzed a half million times with increasingly urgent summonses from Declan, who needed Ronan for an appointment with their father's accountant, Adam went to find Ronan's shirt. Ronan was in a mood to go to the meeting without it, but Adam thought that Declan probably would not appreciate his bare, flushed, tattooed torso the way Adam did. Ronan stood by the cluttered table and added a key to the feathered keychain.
"The Barns," he said, pulling his shirt over his head when Adam handed it to him; convenient timing, Adam noted, for hiding his eyes. "In case I die there and you need to get in," which was a horrifying thought, but Adam, who was getting to understand some of the more secret sides of Ronan, understood.
He said, "If you die there, I’ll haunt you," and kissed Ronan sweetly.
Ronan dropped his forehead to Adam's. “Not how it works.”
Adam smiled at him. He dug his fingers into the wings of Ronan’s shoulderblades, not to hurt, but to hold on so tight Ronan really felt it, and he let a little of his own ferocity show. If he had learned anything from being both a mechanic and Cabeswater’s agent, it was that many things could be made to work, despite resistance, given a little pressure in the right places. “Are you afraid to find out? You should be.”
“Terrifying,” Ronan said with approval. He ducked his head to bite another kiss onto Adam’s mouth, rough and wet, before shaking off Adam’s grip, grabbing his own keys, and stomping out the door.
The key to the Barns was new and shiny. Ronan had clearly just had it made – there wasn’t a scratch on it. Adam transferred his own keys to the ring, the Hondayota’s faded silver and the apartment’s dull brass. He stood clutching the bundle of feathers, feeling their softness around the keys’ sharp edges, and his bitten lip throbbed when he smiled.
They weren’t supposed to go to Cabeswater alone, or with just Noah. Going with Noah was worse than going alone, really, because he gave them all a false sense of security – faith that another human being was there to check their perceptions. But Noah was a dead boy buried on a ley line; he wasn’t entirely a human being anymore. The last thing he could be trusted with was time, and the last place he could be trusted was Cabeswater.
Adam went with him anyway, because his college acceptance letters had started to come in. The idea that schools wanted him was overwhelming. Adam had the urge to check and make sure that they knew what they were getting, that they hadn’t been faked out by his glowing transcripts or enthusiastic letters of recommendation from contacts met through Gansey. He had been planning all along to fake his way in, but now that he’d done it, it seemed unfair that he’d pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes. He worried that he had taken someone else’s spot, someone more deserving of the opportunity.
“It’s their job to see something in people, and they saw it in you,” Noah pointed out reasonably, although it was unreasonable of him to be eavesdropping on people’s thoughts. He didn’t always know when he was doing it, although they’d pointed it out enough that he’d begun to sheepishly agree that he might have read their minds. “You didn’t lie your way in, Adam.”
Adam knelt by one of Cabeswater’s many clear streams and reached into it for a shimmering stone at the bottom. The bank was sandy and comfortable, the water cool. In Cabeswater, it was summer, although outside, winter dragged miserably on, another reason to ditch everything else.
He rinsed the stone off and held it to the light; it was a gem, set in a worn gold backing. Cabeswater gave them so many little prizes, encouragement to keep looking for Glendower, for Gansey’s Raven King.
Sometimes it seemed like the lies piled up, and it was hard to judge them from the truth. Was Adam a good student who deserved a scholarship to a good school? Or was he a talented fraud? Were they going to find Glendower, or did Cabeswater feed them clues like a video game fed players small rewards, to keep them hooked and grinding away at meaningless work? What was real? What mattered?
Just in case it was important, Adam put the gem in his pocket. Gansey would never forgive him if he left a clue behind, because you never knew what would mean something, down the line.
Of course, Gansey would also be pissed to have been left behind himself, mad about being in school on one of Adam’s rare skip days. Sometimes Gansey was high-maintenance.
“Will you come and stay with us at Monmouth when you’re on breaks from school?” Noah sat cross-legged on the sand beside Adam. He kept forgetting he was cross-legged, though, and sometimes seemed to have three or more legs, as one or two stretched out and one or two crossed.
Adam frowned down into the water. It was very clear, almost invisible, except for the thin silver sheen on its surface. He closed his eyes and imagined rippling rainbow fish decorating the stream with ribbons of color, and felt Cabeswater sigh in his mind. When he opened his eyes again, tiny fish glinted in the stream’s shallow depths.
Why should it bother him to stay at Monmouth after he’d graduated Aglionby and gotten into a good school? Wouldn’t it just be sensible to give up the expense of his apartment? He could probably persuade Gansey to take rent from him for the time he was there – but Gansey would hardly be there himself. Monmouth would belong to Ronan and Noah for most of the year if Ronan got his way about community college; and wasn’t that a great idea, the two of them, alone.
Adam shivered. Maybe he could convince Ronan and Noah to move to his place. Ronan would like the proximity to his church, and Noah liked his sinks. If they stayed in a small, humble, warm space, the idea of the dreamer and the ghost going on without him seemed all right. If he and Gansey left them to rattle around the huge, empty warehouse, neither boy would be fit for human company when they came back.
“Ronan’s not fit for human company now,” Noah muttered. He and Ronan were having a fight. Noah refused to haunt Adam’s dad – although he’d have done it if Adam lifted his no-haunting-my-parents embargo – and Ronan refused to believe that Noah wouldn’t bend the rules for a little bit of poltergeisting.
Still, though. Ronan hadn’t gotten tossed out of a public place in weeks, and had turned in some homework to various teachers at Aglionby, receiving kisses from Adam in exchange for completed assignments. He was trying to teach Chainsaw to say Nevermore. “He’s mellowing.”
“You mellow him,” Noah said, his face flickering out of focus, dark with approval that seemed somehow demanding.
Maybe it was just Adam’s mood, or Cabeswater’s, but unease whispered through him. The warmth of summer lost its appeal; Adam felt the back of his neck burning, sweat in the hollow of his spine. Was it Adam who mellowed Ronan, or was Ronan just pleased to have gotten what he wanted? Nothing seemed certain, even the things that Adam-outside-Cabeswater was sure of. He had to go, before his fears manifested themselves outside Cabeswater’s fluctuating boundaries.
Like Ronan’s dreams did. Like Ronan’s desires -
“Come on,” he said to Noah, standing, squinting across the timeless, rolling forest. “Time for me to get to work. Those fancy colleges cost fancy money, you know.”
“What’s money?” Noah asked, guileless. Adam gratefully accepted his playfulness, encouraging it over his ghostliness, even though it meant he had to hear Noah hum the murder squash song all the way back to the car.
It was Chainsaw who brought Adam the shiny objects he would have associated with a courtship; at least, a courtship from a raven’s point of view. She picked up anything reflective that she found and kept most of it for herself. Ronan’s room had taken on a level of messiness not unlike what would be expected of a small dragon’s hoard, and all their cars had pieces of plastic and small metal bits stashed in them, secreted away.
To be fair, that was pretty normal for the Pig, in which a passenger just had to hope they weren’t important pieces of plastic and small metal bits.
But what she didn’t keep, she began to give to Adam. She had a particular fondness for perfect oval pebbles. Adam accepted them somberly, and kept them in a pile on his windowsill.
Adam never managed to catch Ronan coaching her, but began to suspect Ronan’s interference when the little pile of raven gifts came to include condoms in shiny wrappers.
They hadn’t fucked yet. Adam was enjoying the makeout sessions that had to end too soon, the feel of Ronan biting down on his shoulder and pushing against him, hip to hip with their jeans on, the way Ronan’s abs rippled when Adam tucked a hand into his waistband. But they couldn’t stay in transition forever. Adam’s own impatience was a beast rumbling at his throat; Ronan’s had gone past rumbling and into a silent waiting that sucked all the air out of a room sometimes.
The condoms were a reminder, a promise made so ridiculously that it was hard not to laugh. “We won’t even be able to use these,” he said to Ronan, holding one up so he could see the label: XXL Large!.
Ronan raised a devilish eyebrow. Adam wished, for just a second, that his own weren’t so pale and thin. It would be good to be able to make his face express all the sarcasm in his soul, or all the flirtatiousness in his heart, the way Ronan could with just the flicker of a brow. He had to make due with words, and actions.
“I don’t think so,” he said, tugging at Ronan’s belt before pressing a hand against him, fingers spread like he was taking a measurement.
Ronan sucked in a slow breath, eyes glittering. “Who said they were for me?” he asked, and Adam surged into his kiss, giving back as good as he got.
But the first time Chainsaw brought him something that Ronan had obviously dreamed – the bud of an impossible flower, alive but made of glittering gold – Adam almost turned it away. Not only was it too much, it was. Too much. It felt wrong to take it from her, wrong to have it in his hand, wrong to have it in his apartment. Chainsaw didn’t notice his hesitation, but Ronan clearly did; after that, Chainsaw delivered a lily, still wet with dew.
“Probably took it from a graveyard,” Ronan said, when Adam showed it to him. He shrugged at Adam’s scandalized look. “She’s a raven. They’ll take anything they find intriguing. Can’t fault her for her nature.”
But Chainsaw’s nature was Ronan’s nature was Cabeswater’s nature, wasn’t it?
Adam took the lily, discomfited. He couldn’t help but think of the carnation he’d had delivered to Blue, and how much he’d have preferred one for himself. That wasn’t Ronan’s style, though. Ronan probably ate carnations and grinned around baby’s breath. But it felt like a trade: he took the golden flower off his windowsill, wrapped it in a paper bag and left it in Ronan’s room, never to be seen again.
On a warm evening at the end of March, while they were waiting outside the gelato place for Blue to arrive, Adam borrowed Ronan’s phone.
His hand shook. The final test: Harvard. Responses to applications had supposedly started going out by email hours ago, but Adam had made himself wait as long as he could before he checked for a reply in his inbox.
It had been an excruciating test of patience and self-esteem. Did they want him? Had he fooled them? Had he won them over? It didn’t really matter – he had schools to choose from, if Harvard had seen through the elaborate ruse which was Adam Parrish, Student, and spotted the scared, hungry boy underneath. But it did matter – if he could fool Harvard, he could fool anyone. He’d never have to worry again about what people saw when they looked at him. He’d finally escape Henrietta, on the biggest fuck-you he could ride out of town.
One unread message. If Adam knew how to pray, he’d have done it. He should have asked Ronan to pray for him, but then again, Adam had relatives who believed that God didn’t listen to prayers to or from the citizens of heathen Massachusetts. It might not have helped.
“I’ll read that if you don’t,” Ronan threatened, and so Adam read it.
His breath left him in a noisy whoosh. Adam folded himself down on the curb. It seemed to take forever, as if he was suddenly a hundred feet tall. The curb was damp and when he slumped over, he was looking at gravel and dirt and ground-in gum, and he was going to Harvard.
Ronan knelt in front of him, silent. Gansey, hovering, said, “What does this mean? Are you in or out? Not that you’d ever be – even if they didn’t invite you, you’d always be in to me – I apologize, I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“I’m in,” Adam said. Ronan gripped his forearms, squeezing tight; Adam felt anchored by the touch, and was grateful for it; otherwise he’d have floated off the ground. He tipped his head back and laughed, breathlessly, until Ronan swooped in for a ferocious kiss, part celebration and part possessive claiming.
“Nice,” Blue said, appreciative, as she pedaled up beside them, smelling like sauce. “Is there a reason for this display, or is it just for me, kind of, because you checked my browser history?”
Gansey almost vibrated with joy. “Adam’s going to Harvard!”
Ronan made a small, displeased noise when Adam pulled back. His hands were still wrapped around Adam’s forearms, his fingers long and elegant against the denim of Adam’s grimy work shirt. Adam laughed at him and beamed up at Blue. “I’m going to Harvard!”
Blue’s face did something complicated; joy and jealousy, love and worry. Adam wanted to tell her that she, too, could get out of Henrietta, but by the time he formulated the thought, joy and love had already won out. Blue tugged Adam’s hair until he stood, disentangling himself from a grumbling Ronan, and leaned down to hug her.
“That’s amazing!” she said into his shirt. She might have sniffled, but Adam pretended not to notice. “You’re amazing! Adam! You’re going to Harvard!”
“What the fuck,” Ronan muttered, and for a second Adam was worried that Ronan was jealous, that they’d have to have a fight about whether or not Adam was allowed to hug other people; at least there were no worries about Ronan hugging anyone else. But when he cast Ronan a sidelong glance, Ronan flicked a wry smile at him. “You’re going to Harvard!” Ronan mimicked. “I just wanted to join the club.”
Blue rolled her eyes at him. “’I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.’”
“Too right,” Ronan said agreeably. “But I would eat their gelato.”
“Gelato!” Blue beamed and linked her arm with Adam’s, tugging him towards the door. “Come on, college boy. I’ll let you buy me a cup. It’s a celebration!”
Adam swaggered into their favorite gelato joint with Blue at his side, Ronan warm and looming at his back, and Gansey leading the way. For a brief, shining moment, he was one of the kings of Virginia, confident and happy, flushed with love and triumph, a success.
Of course it couldn’t last.
They were at Monmouth, hanging out in Ronan’s room – which looked like a tornado had hit it, but smelled like cedar and moss – when Ronan stopped kissing Adam while running curious fingers up and down the length of Adam’s spine, finding the spots that made him shiver.
Adam propped his head on his hand, watched with curious eyes while Ronan went off to dig through a pile of paper scraps: Chainsaw went through paper with a sense of professional pride. She was somewhere in the pile, nested down, and complained sleepily when Ronan moved her.
Ronan had taken his shirt off, and his tattoo gleamed in the evening light. He had fewer cuts and bruises leftover from dreaming, these days. Adam supposed they had to thank Kavinsky for that much at least; he had taught Ronan some degree of control over his gifts, had bared Ronan’s self-loathing to the light so Ronan could burn it out. Blue thought Ronan was still bleeding, but Adam thought that some of his worst wounds had finally been cauterized.
Thinking about that made him feel proud of Ronan, and protective, so he was smiling and receptive when Ronan dropped something in front of him. Adam blinked at it for a long moment, then sat up and took a shuddering breath.
Ronan’s latest courting gift was much like the ones Chainsaw had brought Adam herself. It was shiny, brightly colored, small enough to fit in a pocket.
“What the fuck is this?” Adam asked. He held it between his thumb and forefinger, feeling sick to his stomach. It wasn’t – it wasn’t like Ronan to go so wrong. The effect was almost dizzying.
Sensitive to the change in mood, Ronan drew himself to his full height, cocked his hip and crossed his arms over his chest; suddenly he looked like he’d fight you or he’d fuck you, and you had one second to choose.
Adam chose fight. He got to his feet and shook his fist in Ronan’s face, pissed off.
“Chill,” Ronan advised, incredulous. “It’s just a credit card. It’s not even one of mine – it’s got your name on it.” He frowned, then added, “Your name only,” as if that would make it better.
Adam slapped the card against Ronan’s chest. “It shouldn’t have my name on it, because I didn’t apply for it.”
“No one did.” Ronan folded his hand over Adam’s. Adam could feel Ronan’s heart thumping away under the palm of his hand, and his skin warmed the thin plastic strip. Ronan was just a little taller than Adam and Gansey, but he knew how to work his body so that it seemed like he looked down on them from some great, dangerous height. He said, “I got it for you from Cabeswater.”
Adam felt the blood rush to his face and thumped his free hand against Ronan’s side. “You can’t – Ronan, you can’t just commit fraud for me!”
Ronan gave him a look; of course I can.
“I can’t withdraw money from Cabeswater,” Adam said. “That’s not legal. That’s not right. That’s not – that’s not fucking possible! Here, take it back. I don’t care what you do with it, but get it away from me.”
Ronan refused with a shake of his head and took a step back, dropping Adam’s hand. “It doesn’t withdraw from Cabeswater,” he muttered sullenly. “That would take too much power. It withdraws from the Wal-Mart people’s bank accounts. They’ll never find the leak – if they even notice.”
Adam closed his eyes. “Ronan. That doesn’t make it better.”
“I thought you’d like that!” Ronan said defensively. “Blue would like that. They’ve got more than enough. They’ve made more than enough off people worse-off than you. I should go back and get a thousand more.”
Ronan had such interesting views on ethics.
Adam held the card up and watched light gleam off a microchip embedded on the front side; he could use this card internationally, if he felt like it.
“I want you to have it,” Ronan said, insistent. “I want to know you have it, when you’re far away.”
“What you want isn’t all that matters,” Adam murmured, and fear filled him like a flood. He stared at Ronan, who looked back at him, confused. He was so beautiful, with his low-slung jeans revealing the cut of his hips and the dark line of hair down his stomach, his brown nipples and tattooed arms. Adam knew he wanted to touch all those sleek, hard places on Ronan’s body, and Ronan wanted that too. Ronan wanted Adam to have a limitless dream credit card, and Adam, if he was brutally honest with himself, wanted that too.
But Ronan didn’t want things in a vacuum: he took his dreams, made them, treasured them, hoarded them, with Cabeswater’s eager assistance.
Adam took a step back, stumbling over Ronan’s shoes and sitting down hard on his bed. He braced his elbows on his knees and looked at his hands dangling down, raw-boned but soft-skinned, thanks to another one of Ronan’s impossible gifts.
Ronan stood in front of him, quiet, wound still and tight. Adam didn’t look up, just asked him, “What you want, what you give me, what you take from Cabeswater – is it all connected, Ronan?”
“This is the biggest I took from Cabeswater for you.” Ronan crouched down and tried to look up into Adam’s eyes.
Adam couldn’t meet his gaze. “But what have you taken from me?”
“Nothing,” Ronan said, fierce. “Never, from the beginning. I’ve never taken anything – even when I wanted to, I only ever accepted what you offered.”
Adam’s head hurt. His heart hurt. There was a maelstrom inside of him, churning its way through his emotions. Was this why he hadn’t slept with Ronan yet? Had he always been worried that this fear would rear its ugly head? Cabeswater…fuck, he wished they’d never found it. That it had never called to them. Life would be a lot more straightforward without an ancient forest meddling around in human affairs.
Ronan grasped his chin and tipped his head up. His eyes were wide and liquid, beautifully pissed. Adam didn’t fight it when Ronan kissed him, even though Ronan was more ferocious than ever before, demanding. It was half a kiss and half a blow; it knocked the wind out of Adam, and left him wanting more.
Lips pink and slick, face hard with rage, Ronan pulled away. “That was not Cabeswater,” he hissed, holding Adam’s gaze. “That was me and you.”
Ronan pushed Adam away and grabbed his car keys from on top of his shirt and jacket, tossed carelessly on his desk. He slammed his feet into the sandals that Adam hardly ever saw him wear. He didn’t bother with a shirt, just pointed at him with the hand which held the keys, which rattled, because Ronan’s hand was shaking.
He slammed open the door to his room, then hesitated with his back to Adam, his tattoo dark and sharp and almost pulsing across his tense muscles. Ronan shook his head. He said, “I’ll prove it to you. You may not like how I do it, but I’ll fucking prove it,” and he stormed off into the night.
It took Adam a moment to pull himself together, get shoes on his feet. Gansey was waiting for him, worried and confused. “He blew out of here like a bat out of hell,” Gansey said, and Blue laughed from where she sat curled up in his armchair.
“Jane, now is not the time,” Gansey said, almost snapping. Even though they knew that Ronan hadn’t meant to try and kill himself that night Gansey had found him bleeding in the church, Gansey still worried. He always seemed to expect the worst from Ronan’s more unpleasant moods.
“I’m just saying that if anyone is a bat out of hell,” Blue said, and looked up from her magazine. Her eyes were wide, concerned, despite her tone. “Did you hurt him after all?” she asked, and Adam staggered on his way to the door. He’d been so bemused by everyone thinking he was just as likely to hurt Ronan as Ronan was to hurt him; now he’d gone and done it, really done it.
“I’m going to fix it,” he promised, and Gansey beat him to the front door of Monmouth, slapping his hand down on it to hold it closed, to keep Adam in. Gansey got right into his face. For the first time, Adam was aware of him as a potential threat: Gansey was his height, but well-fed, and he had the heavy shoulders and hard hands that boys got from crew. He knew to keep his thumb outside his fist when he punched.
Adam had mostly gotten punched.
Gansey stared him down. Adam met his gaze, but tugged on the door handle, desperate to get out. “I swear,” he said, and there was a dizzying sense of rightness to promising this to Gansey, noble and cold, deserving of his fealty, protective of their friend.
After a moment, Gansey took a step back. “See that you do,” he said, and went to Blue while Adam, breathing like he’d run a race, scrambled out the door.
Adam had to stop and put his last couple of bucks before pay day into the Hondayota’s gas tank, which was not a thing which happened in the fast-paced movies that he and Ronan loved. He begrudged every second he stood at the pump, whispering, “Come on, come on,” but then he was racing out to Cabeswater with Ronan just a few minutes in the lead.
Of course, Ronan was also reckless, a drag racer, and driving a BMW, but Adam tried not to worry too much about all of that.
The BMW was half in a ditch, driver’s side door hanging open. Adam felt his heart stop, but Ronan hadn’t been thrown out of the car somehow; he’d slid off the road and walked into the woods, judging by the impressions in the soft dirt flanking the road and the feel of Ronan in the air, electricity and mist. Adam pressed his hand to his racing heart, then followed Ronan’s trail into the woods.
It was a cool, dry night in Henrietta, but inside Cabeswater, a storm was raging. Adam stood for a long moment with rain sheeting over him, blinded by its force. It hurt, stinging like hail as it struck his skin. The sky ripped itself apart with lightning, and thunder rumbled almost continuously. It drowned out the sound of Ronan’s voice, but Adam listened to Cabeswater rustling in his deaf ear, the rain almost a white noise that helped focus his attention, and let the magic lead him.
There was a clearing not too far from the boundary. Trees flanked it and reached inward, despite the winds whipping through them. Leaves lashed through the air. The rain came down and the black sky cracked overhead, and Ronan stood screaming at the center of it, tall and lean. His arms spread wide as if to invite the lightning in.
“Take it!” he shouted at the clouds, rain pouring down his face and torso, wet jeans clinging to him. He’d ditched his shoes somewhere and stood barefoot in the flooding grass. “Fucking take it back! Take all the power you gave me!”
Adam’s heart twisted in his chest. “Ronan, no!” He hurried across the wet grass, hearing Cabeswater whisper encouragement, feeling the ley line throb with power. Ronan’s rage and despair were manifesting with so much force that everything Cabeswater had to spare was going into the storm. It would be drained for days afterwards, maybe weeks, if Adam didn’t get Ronan under control.
Ronan turned to him as he approached. He was enraged, maddened, a bull as the red cape came down, and Adam knew he was too clumsy to fight him. He went to Ronan instead, drew in close, ignoring the way everything about Ronan and the storm threatened violence. Adam had seen violence done before. He’d had his hand in it. He was afraid of being hit, and he was afraid of hitting, but he was not afraid of Ronan, who had courted him as deliberately and gently as he’d tamed a raven.
He gripped Ronan’s slick, wet shoulders. Rain beaded Ronan’s lashes, long and dark, over eyes lost in fury and hurt. Adam had never seen that look on Ronan before. He swallowed hard, feeling small and unspecial; Ronan had trusted him, had made himself vulnerable, in a way Adam hadn’t even noticed until he’d ruined it. Now Ronan looked at him like Adam was a stranger, and Adam curled his fingers in too deep, in case he had to drag Ronan back from somewhere far away.
“Matthew,” he said, desperate, grateful when Ronan’s mad eyes focused sharply on his. “Think of Matthew.” Before you give away your power. Before you stop courting me, and start courting death.
The force of the rain let up, but that wasn’t a relief. It went from lashing and stinging to weeping down, and Ronan dashed a hand across his eyes.
“Fuck you, I’ll think what I want,” he said. There wasn’t a lot of force behind the words, though, and Ronan’s shoulders slumped into Adam’s hands. “And think what you want, but let me just tell you one fucking thing, Adam Parrish, just one thing - ”
Adam nodded. Ronan met his gaze and took a deep breath. “You should never wonder if you’re doing what you want to do, or what I want you to do. If I let you think otherwise – if I made you doubt yourself – I’d rather never dream again. I never want to come here again. Do you understand? I would rather die than let you think I’d manipulated you like that.”
It was the most earnest, heartfelt speech Adam had ever heard Ronan make. Caught by his dark, wild eyes, Adam recognized the Ronan who’d made friends with ever-sincere Dick Gansey; the Ronan who created Matthew; the Ronan who, every step of the way, had let Adam lead.
Adam looked at Ronan and saw why Gansey would want to protect him, why Blue had warned him about Ronan bleeding out. He saw Noah looking into the future and the past all at once, you’ll need his help, and it was true; he needed Ronan, but only as much as Ronan needed him.
Cabeswater whispered around them, the storm dying down as Ronan’s anger wore itself out. The ley lines pulsed. Adam slid his hands down Ronan’s biceps, his forearms, feeling rough, wet hair against his palms, and then took Ronan’s hands in his and held them.
“Ronan,” he said, soft, soothing. “I know. I believe you.”
Ronan shook his head, as skittish as a wild animal. “You can’t just say that because you’re worried what I’ll do. That is the actual opposite of the point.”
“No, I get that.” Adam squeezed Ronan’s hands. The rain let up a little more, falling gently against his face. “I should have talked to you before, instead of denying what I was thinking to everyone else. Even to myself. I’d have felt better about it all along, if I had.”
“Tell me why,” Ronan demanded.
“Because I’d have reminded myself that you never pushed me,” Adam said. “Not beyond where I was ready to go.”
Ronan nodded. “You believe that even though you know I want you?”
“Especially because you want me,” Adam said. “You were always so careful, because you wanted me.”
“If you mean it, you should know that I’m fucking over being careful,” Ronan said. He tipped his chin up, looking down at Adam, his lashes spiked over his furious eyes; a dare, a challenge, a promise.
“Me too,” Adam murmured, and he sighed out a shaky breath, then let himself lean on Ronan, let Ronan wrap him up in an embrace as fierce as the storm that had raged overhead. Their wet clothes ground together uncomfortably, and water trickled from Adam’s hair into his eyes, but he tilted his head back when Ronan put a hand on his cheek, and when Ronan kissed him, Adam kissed back like he would never stop.
“We should get your car out of the ditch,” Adam said; then, “Oh, fuck.”
Ronan held Adam in his mouth, deep and still, for a long moment before sliding back up. “Don’t care.”
“We should tell Gansey and Blue that we’re all right.”
Ronan rubbed his thumb hard behind Adam’s balls. He was finding so many ways that Adam had never been touched before, and exploiting them for what Adam had referred to as Ronan’s own amusement. Ronan had bit Adam’s stomach, just below his navel, and agreed. But the combo of his thumb and his mouth whited out Adam’s brain – it was maybe the most beautiful sensation Adam’s body had ever known.
When he came back to himself, Ronan raised his eyebrows and smirked. “You were being careful. It was time to stop.”
“I’ll always be careful,” Adam panted. His heart pounded at an exhilarating, frightening pace. He fluttered a hand across his own chest, felt mud drying in his sparse chest hairs, his nipples still peaked. He’d been masturbating for half his life, but it had never, ever felt like that. He closed his eyes and let his arms flop to the sides. “I should have chosen my words more wisely and just said I was ready to fuck you.”
Ronan shook his head. “You said what you said and you can’t take it back.”
“In that case,” Adam said, and he shoved at Ronan’s shoulder, his fingers sliding over the inky thorns and beaks and vines of Ronan’s tattoo, until Ronan slouched off him and into the mud. Then Adam, mightily impressed with himself, straddled Ronan’s hips and set to work unbuckling Ronan’s belt.
Ronan’s dick throbbed against the back of Adam’s hand. He shifted easily when Adam directed him, letting his pants be pulled off and tossed aside; they were already so muddy, a little more couldn’t hurt them.
“I have towels in the car,” Adam said. “We’ll get the BMW back on the road and take the Hondayota home. I don’t care if we make a mess in there.”
Ronan scowled at him. “I honest to god do not give a fuck. Just touch me before I decide to do it myself.”
Adam nodded, swallowed, and set his thumbs to the hollows of Ronan’s hips. He dragged them down to where dark hair curled around the base of his flushed dick. It was fascinating to watch and feel Ronan roll his hips into the touch, the power of his body almost lifting Adam off the ground, before he settled down again. Ronan folded his arms behind his head and watched with avid eyes as Adam rolled his own hips, feeling the hair on the outside of Ronan’s thighs scrape against the near-hairless, soft skin on the inside of his. He was hardening again, and the awareness that Ronan could see it, knew every degree of his response, made him flush and show off, dick filling ever faster.
Ronan shifted underneath him, restless. Adam knew from recent experience that Cabeswater mud was gritty and cold, and the way it squelched was not arousing. But it seemed right that they would do this on what was somehow neutral ground: a place where he and Ronan had different kinds of influence, but just as much power.
And, weird as it was, Cabeswater seemed to welcome them. It was a place of ghosts and ancient trees, skeletons and dreams. It could use a little more good, honest life.
“I want you to suck me off,” Ronan said, and Adam looked up from his exploration of Ronan’s nipples with a caught breath. Ronan raised an eyebrow at him, testing, waiting to see if Adam would flinch. “You gonna give me what I want?”
He was such an asshole. Infuriating, as proud as Adam was, as passionate as a fairytale prince, as demanding as a monster. Adam wanted to give him everything. He leaned down to kiss Ronan, their mouths curled in smiles, and then slipped down between his thighs.
“Only because you always ask so nice,” Adam said. Then he took as much of Ronan’s dick as he could handle as deep into his mouth as possible. He shivered with the pleasure of it when Ronan threw his head back and shouted, and the bonds between them tightened ever further, and Cabeswater murmured its approval in their ears.
Ronan hated Harvard. He only tolerated its continued presence in their lives, he said, because Adam was reliable about leaving it.
Adam laughed and started unpacking his bag. He’d kept his old apartment rented for the year and it was nice to come home to it in the warmth of Virginia’s late spring. Ronan had split the cost with him since he spent more than a few nights sleeping in Adam’s bed, when he and Blue had stunk out Monmouth with their experimental dream oils. Chainsaw had made a nest out of scraps of paper and one of Adam’s old t-shirts, which was all right, because Adam had put his food plan to good use. He’d sworn to put on a freshman forty, and Ronan had murmured approval into the hollows of his rib cage. The change wasn’t that dramatic, maybe, but Adam felt filled out; Chainsaw could take what she wanted.
Ronan had made himself at home, too. Headphones, speakers, beer bottles neatly in the sink. Adam’s bed smelled like moss and grease, which made him crazy with the desire to get in it and pull Ronan down with him; or maybe it had always smelled that way, and Adam just hadn’t noticed.
“You bought a pennant,” Ronan said to Adam, snagging it from one of Adam’s bins. His lip curled. The pennant hung limp in his hand. Adam tossed his underwear in a drawer and said, “The Walton family bought a pennant.”
That, at least, pleased Ronan. He dropped the pennant and stalked to the window, then back to the foot of Adam’s bed. Their bed, maybe, Adam thought; that made him smile to himself as he tossed his new shirts in a drawer next to a few of Ronan’s favorites. It seemed right.
“All right, scholar,” Ronan said when the suitcase was empty, and Adam had been given a very studious and pleasurable welcome home. “To Nino’s?”
“I thought they delivered now,” Adam said, and curled himself around Ronan, pleased with himself and the world around him, when Ronan laughed and kissed him.