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lesson one

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Adam started working at Nino’s during the summer between his freshman and sophomore year. It was a decision born of desperation, as most of Adam’s decisions were; he’d been accepted into Aglionby for the fall, but his tuition payments loomed on the horizon and grew closer with every passing minute.

He’d left no opportunity unexplored. Three consecutive days were devoted to biking from storefront to storefront, filtering his accent in and out depending on the background of the potential employer, pushing his hair off his damp forehead and checking to make sure he was presentable in the tinted windows of parked cars. He handed in applications at every place with an open door, struck up his bravest conversations with any manager who would speak to him, put on his best smile.

But Henrietta was inundated with high schoolers looking for summer jobs, and Adam was just another young face. The fading bruise on his jaw probably didn’t help matters. Interviews ended with empty promises that they’d get in touch, and employers wished him luck in a way that meant ‘hopefully someone else will have you.’ He had tried and tried and tried, but over and over, he lost the roulette of employment.

If there was one place in the entire world that he didn’t want to work, it was Nino’s Pizza, notorious hangout of his soon-to-be classmates. But he’d exhausted every other option.

He could see his future as he walked into Nino’s to hand in his application, and it was grim. Taking orders from his future classmates. Serving them.

No one would take him seriously with a textbook in his hands when they’d seen him carry a notepad full of beverage orders. No one would find him reputable in an Aglionby sweater when they’d seen him in a waiter’s apron. Even without this terrible job, they were going to think they were better than him because they had money—and, well, maybe they were right. But having known him first as their waiter was going to ruin any chance he had of earning their respect as an equal. They were arrogant and entitled and inconsiderate and judgmental and Adam didn't like them, but they were successful, and he needed their respect to be successful, too.

For the first time in his life, he hoped not to get the job, but Adam had never been lucky. He was hired within the week.

The day of his first shift was desaturated. It was an afternoon of trapped humidity and low clouds, threatening to rain but never following through. His bike creaked as he rode it, and he figured that that was the sound of his heart—rickety, rusty, exhausted.

Nino’s was nearly empty when he arrived. An elderly couple squinted at menus in a corner booth, and a lone man sipped a milkshake at the bar. There was not an employee in sight.

He took a minute to mill around by the hostess station, looking more like a customer than an employee, hoping for someone to appear and guide him. But the longer he waited, the more obvious it became that no one was coming.

With a resigned breath, he decided he’d take the initiative—employers liked that, right—and poke his head into the back.

He found a short girl in a dress made of napkins.

Well, the dress wasn’t made of napkins, but it appeared to be, at first glance. It was just plastered with napkins, bonded to her actual dress by what appeared to be strawberry milkshake. It covered her, and the floor around her, and the cabinet in front of her. Slowly, his eyes followed the catastrophe of pink liquid up to the source: the spout of the milkshake machine was freely dribbling liquid, because the entire front of it had fallen off.

The girl was occupied with trying to clean herself up, and she hadn’t noticed him come in. So he said, “Um.”

Her head shot up, and she looked wholly furious, perhaps at herself, or the milkshake machine, or Adam, or the whole world. “Seat yourself,” she spat. Her voice was young and accented—familiar, in the way everything grown in Henrietta was—but her tone was venomous.

“I’m here for work, actually,” Adam managed. He felt like his eyes were bigger than usual—there was suddenly so much to see. The girl in front of him was quite a lot, even without the backdrop of a messy technical malfunction; bright eyes, square shoulders, and springy hair full of (decorative, or conquered, or failing) colorful clips.

“Oh, you,” the girl said, sounding only marginally more friendly than before, “Lesson one—don’t just stand there and watch your coworker drown in milkshake.” Her chin knocked toward a nearby closet, and Adam hurried back with a bucket of cleaning supplies. He plugged up the machine with a cloth and set to work on mopping up the mess all over the floor, and as soon as he proved that he had that under control, the girl disappeared into the bathroom. In a moment, she reemerged, still damp but now slightly less pink, and she didn’t even glance at him before hurrying out to check on the customers.

Only then did she return to help Adam finish cleaning up the mess. “Lesson two,” she said, sinking down to her knees beside him and immediately setting to work with a wet wipe, “Never trust the milkshake machine.” Her anger had faded into annoyance, but Adam thought there was something playful in her tone, too.

“Noted,” he said.

“Welcome to Nino’s,” she said in a fake-chipper voice that lured a smile out of him.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’m Adam.”

She held out a cute, rounded hand and said, “I’m Blue.”

There was the color that his life had been lacking a few minutes ago. He shook her hand, wishing his palm wasn’t sticky with cleaning products and milkshake residue, and said, “Nice to meet you, Blue.”

Maybe working at Nino’s wouldn’t be all bad after all.

***

On principle, Blue didn’t like boys. It was easiest that way—she didn’t have to worry about wanting to kiss one if she unilaterally decided to dislike them all, and, anyway, they were usually rude and loud and entitled and just generally unpleasant.

Adam wasn’t like that, though. Adam had a quietness to the way he moved and talked and existed. He was polite, almost demure. Blue could appreciate that, especially in a boy. Also, his freckles were cute.

She tried not to think about his cute freckles, though.

Really, she was just happy to have a friend. Like, a real friend—someone she hoped to see each time she went to work, someone she actively wanted to hang out with. The space between her and Adam felt like fresh soil, ready to foster something new and lush.

Working at Nino’s was less of a chore than it used to be. They couldn’t always be on the same shift, especially since Adam worked other jobs too, but when they were, it was kind of fun. She looked forward to trading withering looks at the fickle milkshake machine, and sharing sighs when difficult customers (mostly raven boys) walked in the door, and sneaking jokes that built on jokes that built on jokes until they were incomprehensible to their other coworkers. Sometimes, when Adam didn’t have to get home right away, they’d stay and eat leftover pizza together on the back stoop by the bike rack.

The summer seemed like it could be something more with Adam by her side.

Sometimes, they hung out at Blue’s house. No amount of warning about her eclectic psychic family could fully prepare Adam for the experience of 300 Fox Way for the first time, but he made it out unscathed. In fact, he seemed to fit in there, in a way very few people did. He played along and pulled cards when prompted to. He asked questions of just the right size—not interrogative or doubtful or merely obliging, but with a perfect curiosity. He sipped strange teas that Blue knew tasted like dirt, and he gave honest but kind feedback about them. He smiled more there than at Nino’s, but he also seemed sadder, somehow.

Maura said that she was worried for Adam. Persephone said that she liked him. Calla said that Blue should be careful with raven boys.

Blue didn’t see how that pertained to anything. Adam wasn’t a raven boy. He grew up in public school, wore sneakers with holes in the soles, rode his bike for transportation, and didn’t have a cellphone. He worked at Nino’s. There was nothing Aglionby about Adam, even though that’s where he was going to school in the fall.

At least, she hoped. She hoped he didn’t turn into just another gross raven boy when he put on the sweater. She hoped he didn’t lose the softness that made her so comfortable around him.

More than that, she hoped that he was truly her friend. Not just a boy looking for a girlfriend. Not just a boy who liked her and would lose all interest when he found out they could never kiss.

Blue told Adam about her curse one day in late July, as they sat on her bed and looked up at the plastic glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling. It was daytime, so they weren’t glowing, but the raw heat of the summer sun through the window seemed to make them shimmer anyway. “Adam,” she said. She was holding his hand—his scraped, calloused hand, one of the many rough features that made him up—and she liked it. She’d even offered to paint his nails once, just for the excuse to hold it for a while. “Adam,” she began again, “I’m not in love with you.”

He looked at her, eyebrows pulled in, creating a sharp line between them. “I’m sorry?” he asked, a defense-mechanism politeness that Blue had learned to recognize.

“I’m not in love with you, but I like you, kind of a lot,” she continued, and the crease between his eyebrows didn’t fade. She told herself not to be nervous; she told herself that if Adam got mad because she wouldn’t kiss him, then she didn’t need his friendship anyway. But the words were still hard to say. “Enough that maybe I could be in love with you someday, and also enough that I’d be very upset if you died. Which is why I can’t kiss you.”

Wheels spun in his eyes as he tried to figure out how each of these statements were related. He clearly wasn’t sure if he should be offended or not. She hoped very much that he decided not to be.

“If I kiss my true love, I’ll kill him—that’s what all the psychics have always said—and I’m not sure that you’re my true love, but I really do like you, so I’d rather not risk it.”

“Oh,” Adam said. For a moment, he looked relieved to understand, but his expression darkened again as looked at their clasped hands, palms sweaty but pressed comfortably together.

Blue waited, counting her heartbeats.

Then, he asked, “You really believe it?” It wasn’t a condescending question, although it could've been, but his disappointment was apparent.

Blue nodded.

Adam nodded and looked back at the ceiling.

Neither of them spoke for another minute or two, and eventually, Blue asked, “Is that a deal-breaker? Have you decided that I’m not worth your time as a friend if I can’t be your girlfriend?” She was ready to be angry, just in case, and that anger had gotten a head start, tinging her voice although she hadn’t yet meant to unleash it.

“No, I understand,” he said slowly, “I appreciate that you don’t want me to die.”

Blue snorted, relief piling up in her chest and dousing the preemptive anger to ashes. “I like you alive, yeah.”

When he looked back at her, he was sad—he was almost always sad, but he was sadder now than other times. But he gave her a little smile anyway, one that told her it would be alright, and he said, “I like you too, Blue. I’ll take your company however I can get it.”

“Friends, then,” Blue said, giving him a sad smile back.

Adam hesitated for a moment that made her heart skip, but she waited for him, recognizing the thoughtful, careful look in his eyes. Then, very softly, almost shy, he asked, “Best friends?”

Blue’s smile grew wider, happier. She squeezed his hand, and the deal was sealed. “Best friends,” she agreed.

***

Over the years, Adam had compiled dozens of explanations as to why his friends couldn’t come to his place, some of them truer than others.

The air conditioning was broken, making it a thoroughly uncomfortable place to hang out in the middle of summer. (This was sometimes true.) He had a mean dog. (He had a dog, sort of, almost, unofficially—but she was very friendly.) His parents were having people over. (Occasionally, his dad would have neighbors over to loudly, drunkenly enjoy a football game.) He was working late and had some chores he had to catch up on, anyway. (This was almost always true.)

After a while, friends usually stopped asking to come over, but Blue never did. She was persistent, almost relentless. It started with jokes—his house couldn’t be weirder than hers, so she could deal with anything his parents threw her way; he didn’t have to worry, because she was great at sucking up to parents; and all parents loved her anyway, because she was very responsible, and she’d even wear her responsible t-shirt, the one that wasn’t several different thrift-store t-shirts sewn into one .

But he kept making excuses, and, inevitably, the joking became suspicion. Once, she even asked him if he actually had a home. It spawned a three day blowout, the worst fight they’d had—“Jesus, Blue, I know I’m broke but I’m not homeless.” “Then why won’t you ever let me come over?” “Because maybe I just don’t want you to!”

Eventually, Blue stopped pushing, but he wasn’t naïve enough to think she’d dropped it entirely. She could be perceptive when she wanted to be, and he liked that about her, but it made things difficult. She’d be thinking about it, collecting clues until she had enough evidence to solve the mystery of his home life.

So Adam was careful not to leave her clues. He switched his shifts at Nino’s whenever he had bruises he couldn’t explain away. He guarded the house phone to ensure he’d be the only one who picked up when she called. He rarely talked about his parents, and when he did, he was sure the details he provided were innocuous, even if that meant telling little lies.

Blue couldn’t know. She wouldn’t like him anymore if she knew his attentiveness was more fear than consideration; she wouldn’t like him anymore if she knew that every time she held his hand, it was more affection than he’d seen from his family in his whole life; she wouldn’t like him anymore if she knew he was the son of an angry man, destined to become an angry man himself. She wouldn’t understand, not when she had so many people who loved her so much.

It was nice to have a friend who thought he was good. Even though it felt selfish and dishonest, it was really, really nice. He wasn’t willing to risk it just to tell her the truth.

But then, one day in early August, his parents opened his mail and found out he had enrolled in Aglionby.

Before he even walked in the door, he had the receipt of his tuition deposit shoved in his face. The confrontation stung even more than usual—he had been planning to tell them himself that night, but Adam had never been lucky.

He was an idiot for thinking he could ever convince them Aglionby was a good decision. They would never believe it was anything but greedy and wasteful. As his punishment, he had to wear a black eye and a fat lip to orientation day.

If it was just pain, just bruises, he could deal with it. But his first impression was on the line, and he couldn’t let his dad ruin that, too.

He iced his face as much as possible, but ice only went so far. He’d managed to cut the swelling, but nothing could help the discoloration. Purple and red, dark and angry, just like him.

Four hours before he had to be at Aglionby, he was staring down the cosmetics aisle of the grocery store. Everything in him wanted to sweep his arms across the shelves and knock all the bottles on to the floor. He didn't, because he wasn't about to make some underpaid employee clean up his mess, but his anger grew with every passing moment, making it hard to see straight. He didn't recognize any of these products, and he wouldn't know how to use them, and he couldn't waste money just experimenting, and he didn't have enough time to figure it all out.

When he called Blue, it was a decision born of desperation, as most of Adam’s decisions were. He didn’t want Blue to know about his father, about him, but he wanted to start at Aglionby as the poor battered pizza boy even less.

He asked if she was home—she was. He told her that she wasn’t allowed to ask him any questions—she agreed not to, but they both knew she was lying.

His bruises throbbed the whole way to Blue’s house, so he pedaled his bike harder in response, until his whole body burned with his heartbeat. Overhead, the sun was relentless and taunting, illuminating every inch of his injuries.

For one crazed moment, he imagined driving his bike into a ditch—something that could’ve feasibly messed up his face, with the broken bike to prove it. But then he’d have to pay to get his bike fixed, which he knew he couldn’t do, and the world was red again.

Blue’s smile fell away at the sight of him. “Who did this to you?” she asked immediately, her voice full of righteous fury but her hand soft as it came up to brace his unharmed cheek.

He ducked away and didn’t wait to be invited inside. “You sometimes wear makeup. I need you to help me cover it up.”

“Adam,” Blue said, and she grabbed his elbow. He flinched, and he hated himself for it.

“I have orientation at Aglionby in three hours, Blue, please. We can do this later, I just—I can’t show up there looking like this.”

He must’ve sounded desperate enough to convince her to drop it, and he hated himself for that, too. She took his hand and tugged him upstairs, but he could still feel the rage rolling off of her.

She sat him on her bed and tipped his chin toward the window, into the light. He let her this time, skin burning pink under her hand. She left and then returned with an armful of products—certainly borrowed from someone else, because her skin was dramatically darker than his—and immediately set to work on to his face.

It was the heaviest silence he’d ever felt, but he decided to bear it. He knew when it came to patience, he could wait out Blue any day.

He was right. She broke. With his eyes shut, with her hand stilled on the tender skin under his eyebrow, she said, “Your dad.”

It wasn’t a question, so he didn’t respond.

A moment later, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. After a beat, he wrapped his arms around her too, preparing for pity tears.

They didn’t come.

She just held him for one minute and then another. Into his shirt, she asked, “Why don’t you tell someone, or leave? You have a hundred jobs—you have money.”

Adam sighed, resisting the urge to drop his head against hers, not wanting to mess up the makeup. “Not enough,” he said, “And… they’re all I have.”

“No,” she said, pulling back. She looked him square in the eye, and her fury had returned, very nearly quaking the ground beneath their feet. “You have me, Adam Parrish.”

His throat tightened up and he had to look away, because her eyes were too honest and her words were too true. “Thanks,” he said, voice barely there.

“Don’t thank me,” Blue said, “We're best friends.”

“I know.” He knew it, but he still couldn’t believe it. Blue, strange and ferocious and brilliant and Blue, had decided he was fit for best-friendship. Even now. He swallowed hard and forced himself to look back at her. “Thanks,” he said again anyway.

***

According to Adam, orientation at Aglionby had gone swimmingly. He reported that raven boys were equally as irritating in school as they were out of school, which Blue was relieved to hear—she relished in Adam’s companionable distaste for them and, as always, she loved being right.

But since school started in earnest, they rarely got to see each other—their schedules had to change to accommodate school hours. Extracurriculars and family kept her busy; other jobs and homework kept Adam busier. Even phone calls became sparse, since Blue wasn’t willing to cut into any of his already-minimal rest time.

It was a full week after the first day that they finally got to catch up. Nino’s closed early for some holiday that apparently only their bosses celebrated, and Adam had two hours to spare.

“So how is Aglionby?” she asked him. Sunlight filtered down through the branches of the beech tree, and Adam, having changed out of his uniform before he came over, was happy to lay in the dirt underneath it. With his eyes closed and his head in her lap, with light playing over his cheeks, he looked as close as he ever got to peaceful. “Everything it’s chalked up to be?”

”It’s okay,” he said. Blue waited for more, but nothing came.

“It’s okay?” she repeated. “For the amount of money you’re paying to be there, it should be more than okay.”

This put a crease in his brow, a ripple in his peace, and Blue tried smoothing it away, but it sprung back into place. “That’s the problem. For me, it’s a luxury. For them, it’s a lifestyle.” He paused, took a breath. “If it was just the academics, maybe I could keep up, but it’s a whole culture. They’re bred for this, raised for this, and I spend my whole day looking like an idiot.”

Blue didn’t think she was imagining that his accent was subtler. “You’re not an idiot.”

Adam cracked an eye open. “Gee, thanks.”

“I mean it,” she said, “You’re the smartest person I know. If they think you’re an idiot, they’re not judging you on your brains. They’re judging you on your skill at being a spoiled jerk.”

“I’m an idiot at being a spoiled jerk, then.”

“I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.”

His face relaxed a little as he let out a sigh. She could tell this was the first of a dozen times they’d have to have this conversation, but she was glad to have it if that meant she could remind him, even if just for a minute, that he didn’t have to be one of them to be smart or good or worthy.

A few moments passed, and peace returned, and Blue thought they should both just nap there—her with her back against the bark, Adam with his cheek pressed into her leg, both of them bathed in the warmth of late summer. Instead, quietly, she asked, “Are you happy there, though?”

He didn’t answer right away, but she watched him chew his cheek, thinking it over. Eventually, he opened his eyes and said, “I don’t know if I’m happy there, but it’s what I want.”

Blue nodded. Happiness wasn’t Adam’s goal, at least, not in the short term. All he wanted was autonomy, and going to Aglionby was a costly and difficult choice, but it was his choice. “I’m proud of you, Adam,” she said, brushing his bangs back.

He smiled. Maybe he wasn’t happy, but for once, he didn’t look so sad.

After that, two more weeks elapsed nearly Adamless. Blue tried to fill the time with new friends from school, but it wasn’t the same. They were nice, kind of, sometimes, but they weren’t best-friend material. There was a girl she kind of liked, so she spent her spare time trying to figure out if her curse—‘If you kiss your true love, he will die’—was being gender-specific because her true love was a boy, thus meaning she was safe to kiss girls, or if it was just heteronormative and could’ve included girls, too.

She was thinking about this while waiting tables, running on autopilot and scratching down orders until she saw Avocado Pizza Guy come in. He tipped well, but even that wasn't always worth dealing with him, with his old money accent and casual condescension. Not to mention his friends—he always had a posse, and they'd all sit there for hours, taking up space and ordering refills and asking the waitstaff to weigh in on weird disagreements.

Today, he had brought his whole crew: Tattoo Guy, who slouched and scowled and wore his tie crooked like he was trying to prove something, and Weird Guy, too, who didn’t eat, which Blue found strange and worrying. Did his friends not notice his perpetual lack of appetite, or did they not care? Adam said maybe he just didn’t like pizza, but who didn’t like pizza?

Raven boys. Ugh. She started to turn away, suddenly sure she had other matters to attend to, and then—

She did a double-take.

Standing there, among one of the most obnoxious groups of regulars, was Adam.

She hadn’t seen him in his Aglionby sweater yet, and she almost didn’t recognize him. At first glance, he looked just like the rest of them, well-clothed and wealthy. But even the slightest scrutiny betrayed his outsider status—the fray in his sleeve, the downward tilt of his chin.

He looked nervous, his eyes wide as he came through the door. Immediately, his gaze found hers, and he grew even more alarmed.

She looked over Avocado Pizza Guy, who seemed poised to speak, and then pointedly ignored him, greeting Adam instead. She wanted to say ‘Blink twice if you’re being held hostage,’ but instead she went with, “Hey, man. Table for four?”

Avocado Pizza looked confused to have not been addressed first, and Tattoo elbowed him and said, “I knew it. I told you Parrish was a pizza boy.”

Avocado Pizza looked embarrassed, but Adam looked more so. “Yeah, thanks,” he said to Blue, and then he turned back to his classmates. “Yes, I work here,” he said, sounding adequately shamed.

“No shit?” Tattoo said, and Avocado Pizza scolded him with, “Ronan.”

Adam sighed and Avocado Pizza apologized on Tattoo’s behalf as Blue led them to a table.

They all sat, except Adam, who said, “I’ll be right back,” and slipped away toward the kitchen. Tattoo looked ready to say something offensive and Avocado Pizza looked ready to stop him, and then there was Weird Guy, just kind of smiling. Already, Blue was exhausted by the whole situation, so she tossed menus down on the table and said, “I’ll be back for your orders,” before following Adam into the back room.

“Adam! Really? Avocado Pizza Guy?” Blue asked before the door even finished swinging shut behind her.

Adam continued to look tired. “His name is Gansey. His stupid, beautiful old Camaro was broken down on the side of the road so I taught him how to fix it, and now he’s trying to repay me. I told him I didn’t need anything but he said he was already on his way to meet his friends to study for a history exam, and we have history together, so. They live in the factory, Blue. The big abandoned factory, you know it—it’s called Monmouth Manufacturing and they live there, Gansey and Ronan and Noah.”

Blue wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scowl at the absurdity. She settled for an adequately disbelieving look in between. “Adam, you could’ve befriended any annoying raven boy, but you picked Avocado Pizza Guy.”

“I know,” Adam said, sounding dazed himself.

“I think you need a milkshake,” she decided, slipping by him to grab a cup and filling it up to the top.

But when she pulled the cup away, the whole spout came off in her hand, shooting milkshake all over the front of her. She let out a cry as she jumped out of the way.

Adam stood by the doorway, suddenly grinning.

“Something funny, Adam?” Blue said, scrambling for napkins. “Help me clean this up!”

“Of course,” he said, still smiling as he went to grab the cleaning supplies from the closet. “It's lesson one—don’t just stand there and watch your best friend drown in milkshake.”