Blue Sargent had never liked Exy. It made her feel sick to her stomach when she tried to play it. She thought it was nasty, and brutish, and ugly to watch. People were always about to get hurt, and while it was nice that girls were allowed to play in the big leagues, it just meant that girls were just as likely to get maimed.
Nobody in her family liked to watch it, so she’d gone to a few games to be obstinate. Her cousin Orla had slept with a few players, here and there, but it was hard to name a subset of the population that Orla hadn’t successfully sampled.
Blue had not intended to go to an Exy school. It had just happened. The financial aid package had been incredible, if contingent on work-study, and she had made it successfully through her first year double-majoring in Environmental and Political Sciences without having to deal with anything that made her want to claw out her own eyes. She ran several clubs, had friends who liked the clothes she made herself, and was probably going to do a summer research project in Venezuela. Things were going great.
That was, until the research project she’d been helping with lost all its funding halfway through Blue’s sophomore year, and she needed to find a new work-study position.
Adam Parrish played like if he didn’t, he would die. He was a striker, though he’d been a backliner in a past life. He was fearless. He didn’t care about what would happen to his body, and it showed - both in his points, and in the damage he took. He was always bruised up and bloody, with an impassioned detachment to that same body; as though it was only worth the points it could generate for him.
They had Ronan Lynch in goal. Ronan was incredible when he gave a shit, which was almost never. But incredible, when he did.
Lynch had a shaved head and a huge raven tattoo on his back and the rumour was that he was saving himself for marriage, or for Parrish; whichever came first. Parrish was a strange bet, because he treated everything like it was fuel for the game; but they were a strange pair, and they seemed, mostly, to get along. (When they weren’t brawling on the court, but that was a different story.)
Together, they had made up two-thirds of the best team that Aglionby Academy had ever put on a court, and they were making a good run at holding that title at Glendower University, too. Obviously a team had six players on a court at any given time, but you really only needed three. When those three were that good, you could put out stuffed scarecrows as their teammates, and they’d still crush you into dust.
The last third, of course, was Gansey.
“I moved here to get away from all of that,” Blue said, picking at her fingernails. She didn’t miss her mother, really, or the little house at 300 Fox Way. She missed strange things: the sound of Orla rattling down the stairs too early in the morning. The colour of the sunrise over the rooftop. She put on a slow Henrietta drawl. “My hometown is Henrietta, VA. We love Exy.”
“Henrietta,” said the harrowed woman whose job it was to help Blue get her work-study. “That’s-”
“Aglionby Academy is there, yes,” Blue said. “No, I didn’t have anything to do with them. Not even Parrish.” She’d probably served them, at one of the part time jobs. They’d all blurred together, even the muscled ones. A mess of blue uniform jacket and arrogance.
Parrish was the scholarship one. He’d made good.
“Well,” Flora said. There was a little raven pin on her collar. Blue wondered if the Aglionby boys had chosen this school just to maintain their hashtag aesthetic; it seemed like an Aglionby boy thing to do. “It’s got odd hours, but they’ll accommodate your class schedule. And I think not caring will help you, there.”
Blue bit her lip. “I’d really prefer-”
The woman sighed. “Blue,” she said. “I’m not trying to make your life harder than it is, but you’re running out of options, here.”
Noah Czerny was a senior. He had an air of permanent exhaustion about him, and it was his job to keep the Raven Boys together. He had played Exy for Glendower University, the forebear for Parrish, Lynch, Gansey to all move forward together, until a terrible accident had ruined his nerve. “Accident” they said, but. Nothing was really accidental in D1 Exy.
“Job’s yours if you want it,” he told Blue. “Nothing fancy, just editing posters, fetching and carrying. Dogsbody stuff, really. The hours are shitty, they’re during Exy games mostly which is why nobody wants the job. And you have to make sure they show up places on time. Mostly I do it, but you’ll have to help.”
His hands trembled as he spoke. He couldn’t hold things steady like he’d used to, anymore.
It seemed like a shitty job, but Blue had worked plenty of shitty jobs. Still, she was getting familiar with Flora in the financial aid office; maybe if she went back again she’d get the work-study in the Environmental Studies department that she really wanted. She was tossing it up, but then Gansey walked in.
Richard Gansey the third. The king.
He was handsome, if you were into that; devastating, if you’d prefer that. He didn’t match the raw talent of Parrish and Lynch on the court but he was certainly their leader in every way. Without Gansey, Parrish would have run himself into the ground years earlier; without Gansey, Lynch would have lain down in his goal and watched balls sail past him, to the corners of the net. It was Gansey who anchored them. Gansey who made them what they were.
Blue didn’t mean to care about Exy, but she couldn’t look away from Gansey, whenever the tv got changed from whatever cartoon they were ironically watching. He would lift his head and look at their opponents, and he would smile, this cautious wolf-smile, and then Glendower would win.
It was the determination, Blue thought. It got to her, like a bassline thumping through your pulse, when you were right next to the speakers. It was infectious. It made you think, if Gansey can do anything, so can I.
“You could do worse,” said Henry Cheng, with three minutes to start in their Ecologies and Revolutions seminar.
Blue looked at him with thinly-veiled disdain. “Really,” she said. “And how would I do that?”
“It’s a fun sport,” Henry said. “I don’t know, I like it.”
“What do you like better?” Blue asked. “The murder, or the maiming? Asking for a friend.”
Henry shrugged. “I’m just saying,” he said. “They’re okay, aren’t they? For jocks, at least.”
“You say that like you aren’t one.”
“I write for the paper,” Henry said. “I cover the jocks.”
“What’s your position, then?”
“Backline,” Henry said, immediately, and then blushed. “Shut up.”
Gansey asked her to the house. It was big and sprawling; nicer accommodation than most NCAA athletes, but Exy made a lot of money, especially out here, and it wasn’t like they could get paid for it.
She shouldn’t have gone but she went anyway. She needed the job, and there was something about the way Gansey spoke, about the way he looked at you. Captain was an honorary position, mostly, but it wasn’t honorary the way Gansey held it. When he spoke, you listened. That was just what happened.
“Have you ever played, Jane?” Gansey asked, pouring her a cup of sweet tea.“I’m not fishing, you’ve just got the right build.”
“I’m short,” Blue said. “And I don’t do that kind of thing.”
“What, win?” He leaned against the fridge and picked up a racquet, plain and white. There were a half-hundred scattered around the house, that she had noticed.
“Play sports,” Blue said. “Or almost die for the pleasure of forty thousand viewers. Take your pick.”
Gansey put the racquet into her hand. It had the shallow scoop of a backline racquet, which was funny, because he was a forward; that was everything about him. “You ought to try,” he said. “I think you would like it a lot.”
She closed her hand around it. She hated the familiarity of its weight, that it felt right, even now.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll take the stupid job.” She paused. “Why do you want me so much, anyway?”
“We’ve had classes together. You make people better,” Gansey said. He shrugged. “I protect them, but you make them better. That’s what I want. That’s what we need.”
It was as shitty a job as Blue had expected. Gansey was irritating, Lynch was silent and Parrish was trying to be nice but also looked at Blue like she was a puzzle. Mostly they got themselves places on time, but it was galling - for both sides, Blue was sure - to know that it was in her job description to babysit them.
Screaming fans were always trying to flirt with them, and Blue and Noah had to ask them politely to leave.
But they were all right in the house, and Gansey and Parrish were helping Blue with her new paper on sea turtles. Gansey had an eye for JSTOR, even if he talked to it like it was a girlfriend, in a soft cooing voice.
(“Fucking weird,” she told Henry.
“He's actually a genius,” Henry replied, softly moon-eyed, but Henry was much better at the specialized databases and blushed when she told him so.)
Even Lynch was okay. Late at night, when Blue really just wanted to be asleep in her off-campus bedroom with her soft glow in the dark dolphins on the ceiling, he would hand her balls to throw at him, and sometimes even let her get one in.
He made her work for it, but that was okay. Blue didn't trust things you didn't work for. She was like Parrish, that way.
Penn State came to town, the third week Blue worked for the Raven Boys. She was starting to like them - not first name basis, but, stay to see what stupid thing Gansey was about to make work instead of fucking right off.
Joseph Kavinsky played for Penn. He was obsessed with Lynch, and everyone knew it, even Blue, who tried to stay as far away from information about the boys as she could.
“Just let him suck you off,” Blue said, delivering a flat of mineral water to the living room, where all the boys were sprawled on couches and Lynch was half-heartedly playing some shoot em up game while Parrish rolled his eyes. “Maybe then he’ll let you go.”
“Fuck that,” Lynch said.
Parrish and Gansey exchanged looks over the top of his head, and then looked at Blue.
“What?” Blue said. “He’s okay looking.”
“He’s an asshole,” Lynch said, voice shivering with tremulous venom. “An asshole with too many drugs.”
“Okay,” Blue said.
“Stay away from the Penn guys,” Gansey said. “I mean it.”
“I can barely stand to be around you,” Blue said. “So I don’t think there’s much risk of that.”
Lynch rolled his eyes. “Feeling’s mutual.”
“Whatever,” Blue said. “As long as you show up to practice, I don’t care. Also, bottled water is a horrifying waste of resources and you should stop buying it.”
"It's sponsored," Parrish said.
Blue was a backliner by trade. Had been, anyway. She’d liked it, because she was small and lithe and people never expected that she would be a brick wall. She’d been pretty good. She hadn’t liked what that said about her, how quickly she became vicious.
Blue was usually pretty good at knowing when to quit. She had pulled herself right out, gone on her own way. She’d had options. Blue always had options.
“You’re from Henrietta,” Parrish said.
She lay on her back in the grass, out front of the big house. Somewhere in the distance Gansey and Lynch were running drills, and she could hear the muted shouting. “We were on a team,” she said. It didn’t seem worth it to keep secrets from Parrish. “You were my d-partner.”
“Oh my god,” Parrish said; it was fun to watch it dawn on him, a spark flickering in those intent eyes. “Sargent."
“That’s me,” Blue said, sketching him a sloppy salute. A strand of grass tickled her nose, smelling of sharp greenness. “You’ve still got that toe-drag, but it’s more effective now that you’re up front.”
“Jesus,” Parrish said.
“We can't all take the easy way out,” she said, lightly.
She didn't mean him. She remembered how he had had black eyes at practice, and bruises peeking out of his shirtsleeves. He had them now, but now everyone knew where they came from.
Relentless, reckless Adam Parrish. She remembered: they had been the smallest two on the court. A matching, miniature pair.
Blue had been able to walk away, and Adam had had only one way out.
Blue still had the racquet Gansey had given her. She had left it sitting against her bedroom window, against a stack of textbooks she'd acquired secondhand or from various professors.
She took it out, now.
She still remembered the drills. Just like riding a bike. Your muscles didn't forget. Your body remembered what it meant to win.
Kavinsky did an interview. He talked about making Gansey pay. He talked about how much he’d like it if Lynch would take the offer Penn wanted to hand him.
“Pretty sure you can’t do that,” Blue said.
“Yeah,” Gansey said, tight-lipped. “That’s a fine. Suspension if we’re lucky, but we won't be.”
“You know we’re gonna make him regret it,” Parrish murmured, low.
“That’s what he said,” Lynch replied. His eyes swept down, along the floor, and then back up.
The game was fast, too fast. Blue tucked her feet up underneath her. Penn hit hard but her boys moved fast. Her boys? When had that happened?
Lynch was on fire. She had never seen him like this. His face was a rictus of concentration; he looked like he was elemental, a thunderstorm barely caged by the boundaries of his flesh. Nothing got past him. Every ball was a personal insult, and Lynch didn’t take insults well.
Parrish’s mouth was set. He took most things on the court with equitable rage: he expected nothing, expected less than nothing. This, he took personally. Parrish bled for anything but for this - for this, Parrish would draw the blood he wanted. He would take Penn State, and make them a sacrifice.
And Gansey - Gansey, in the middle, Gansey with a bloody mouth, right up in Kavinsky’s face. Gansey, taking a yellow card; not fucking common, despite all the buttons he pushed. Gansey, slamming right back out onto the court, pausing to murmur something in Lynch’s ear, followed by a grim, sharp smile, mirrored in Lynch’s own face.
One of the backliners tripped and fell. A hard fall. She needed a hand up, needed to be carried off the court. Fucking Exy.
“We need a sub,” Gansey said. He was dripping with sweat. It fell into his eyes; he shook his head, blinked it away. “Jane, are you in?”
Blue grit her teeth. She’d never been good at giving up. “Yeah,” she said. “You know I am.”