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One of These Days

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Henry Cheng had not considered all of the logistics of a road trip when he first suggested it to Gansey and Blue. His first and foremost thought had been this: Gansey and Blue and himself, driving into a new horizon, the sunlight casting a crown of gold over Gansey’s head and Blue’s hand trailing out of the window, sailing through the wind. It was an idyllic image borne of Henry’s idyllic hopes.

Before everything that had happened, Henry did not know if it would have ever been possible to fulfill those hopes. He privately felt that he had always been meant for this, for Gansey’s cheerful smiles and Blue’s careless grins; he was less certain they felt the same way. He could not help but wonder if his place in this strange new world was even more tentative than it already felt. He stood on the outside of Ronan Lynch’s grief, of Adam Parrish’s weariness. He had not been the one to kiss and kill Gansey, and he had not been the one to die and live again with a magical forest taking up residence in his blood and bones. He had spent the first few days after Gansey’s resurrection quietly terrified that he would be shunted aside and ignored, when it finally felt like he had found a place to be seen for who he was.

To his surprise and relief, Gansey had clung to him those first few days as they ventured back into the real world, gripping his shoulder or arm or the back of his neck, keeping him close. Blue was a constant presence on Gansey’s other side, looking like she barely believed she was awake, incandescently happy and solemn all at once. They all felt the weight of what had happened; they all hardly dared to believe they had made it through.

They had driven back to town in silence, as if afraid that if they spoke the spell would be broken. They put Gansey in the seat behind the driver; he seemed alert and unharmed but his eyes were wide and he had spoken only once to say, “It’s me. It’s me, I’m fine,” and then fallen silent. Ronan had sat in the back beside him without saying anything, and looped his arm around Gansey's shoulders to keep a fierce hand on his chest over his heart the entire time, face wet and eyes red, throat bearing a necklace of bruises. Adam had held Ronan’s other hand quietly, examining  and touching the back of his own hands with shaking fingers. Henry had sat in the front seat as Blue drove the BMW. They left Henry’s Fisker abandoned on the side of the road -- none of them wanted to separate and no one really cared about the Fisker. The little hooved girl shuffled her way onto Adam’s lap and he wrapped an arm around her, balancing her on his legs awkwardly.

Halfway through the drive Henry had tentatively reached out and put his fingertips to Blue’s on the gear shift. She had pulled her hand away -- his heart dropped -- only to put it back on top of his so that she could use the stick with his hand under hers, his palm curved around the stick. He had felt the first spark of Everything is going to be alright when she turned the corner into a large factory building with Monmouth Manufacturing written on the side.

They had not pushed him away.

Ronan and Adam fell gently into their own worlds again -- Ronan's childhood home and Adam's studies. They slid into routine as if they could not bear to be without it, as if their only source of solace was the knowledge that these parts of themselves would still be there, would always be there. There was an unspoken current of understanding between them, something Henry felt he would never be able to interpret the way he thought he could Gansey or Blue. These two creatures were from a different world; they did not shun him but neither did they invite him into it. Adam and Ronan spent the first week after Gansey's death together at the Barns, which left Gansey and Blue -- and Henry -- in town.

Litchfield had never held that much appeal to Henry, a temporary and dull home in a town that he knew held secrets that he was privy to and secrets that he was not, but in the wake of seeing Gansey's home, it held even less. Monmouth was the beautiful and absurd combination of everything that made Gansey himself. Henry could not stop himself from picking up books from the dozens of piles, or from touching the leaves of the potted mint plant on Gansey's desk. He could not help but smile at the horrible bathroom/kitchen/laundry room combination -- it was so improbable, it was so ridiculous, it was perfectly Gansey.

Henry did not really want to go home and so he didn't. He spent several days at a time at Monmouth with Gansey, on the couch even though there were two empty beds. Using Ronan's was out of the question, and Blue had given the other room such a miserable look when they first walked in he could not bring himself to ask questions or venture into it. Later, he decided. He preferred to sleep where Gansey was anyway, where he could hear the even or uneven breaths Gansey made as he slept or did not sleep. Once, three days after his death, Gansey had pulled himself out of bed and tiptoed over to the charming model of Henrietta that took up the floor; he had glanced back at Henry and then paused, seeing Henry's eyes open and on him.

"Did I wake you?" Gansey said quietly. Henry shook his head. "Do you want to help?" Gansey asked, and continued walking without waiting for a reply. His feet were bare on the ground, somehow as golden as the rest of him. Henry could barely hear him moving, as if he were a ghost.

He did want to help. Henry wanted to do everything and anything with Gansey, which he felt should be fairly obvious by now. Perhaps Gansey was pretending not to know. Perhaps Gansey really did not know. Which of the two was worse? Henry stood up and joined him in the middle of the town, clumsily folding himself to the floor and trying not to knock over any of the buildings. Gansey collapsed his legs carefully underneath him in one elegant motion, a practiced and perfected gesture.

Together they created a row of office buildings and a strip mall, painstakingly etching out names and signs and roofs. Halfway through a building, Henry cut himself with the box cutter trying to trim a piece of cardboard, and stared at the well of blood on his fingertip. It did not hurt, only a pinprick of pain which had faded after a moment. He glanced at Gansey out of the corner of his eye and wondered if it hurt more or less to die from a kiss. He stuck his finger in his mouth and went back to the antique shop sign he was working on.

The sun was edging over the horizon before they decided to stop. Gansey had held onto his arm when Henry moved to go back to the couch, silent, and then pulled him down into the bed in the middle of the room. Henry had gone to sleep with Gansey's fingers wrapped around him still.

Henry had already talked about taking a gap year before, but with every moment he spent in Gansey and Blue's presence, he felt more and more like he could not live without it. He knew he would suffocate without Gansey smiling at him from across the classroom, without Blue's pink face when he pulled up with Gansey after classes to pick her up from school. She was always furious with them but climbed into the car anyway; Henry knew her love for Gansey, so heavily pressed and pulled over the last few weeks, meant she would put up with any amount of derision from her peers. It did not stop her from complaining.

"Jane," Gansey said after a solid week of this, placating, "It's easier this way. You don't have to worry about bicycling to Monmouth and risking getting run over, and Henry and I get to see you sooner." Henry felt the deliberate use of his own name and swallowed around the smile that threatened. Blue flushed, crossing her arms and still furious; Gansey had recently begun being much more demonstrative about his feelings for her, and she was not used to it yet. Henry found it adorable that she was as annoyed with herself as she was with Gansey.

"It's really tragic that he's saddled you with such a cliche nickname, Blue," Henry told her seriously. "I think he did it on purpose. Dick and Jane. What a poet." Gansey reached over and shoved the side of Henry's head without looking away from the road. "Ow! Richard, please."

"Is Adam at work?" Blue asked, ignoring them both. She leaned forward to rest her hands on the seats next to both of their heads.

"Yes," Gansey said, glancing at her in the rear view mirror. "He'll stop by before he heads out to the Barns, though. Ronan asked for him to pick up a few things." They had not seen Ronan this week so far; he was busy handling the little hooved girl, apparently called Opal, as well the unending work required to maintain the farms where he lived. Henry had only been out there once, and he had been overwhelmed by the vast greenness, by the buildings and their looming history and implied future. Here was a home that came with a purpose -- Ronan fit it perfectly, and Adam's easy presence indicated to Henry that he fit as well. Henry appreciated the house filled with dreams, appreciated the birthplace of creatures like RoboBee and Ronan, but it felt foreign to him. It clearly belonged to Ronan and Adam, as Monmouth belonged to Gansey, as 300 Fox Way belonged to Blue.

When they arrived at Monmouth, Blue spread herself out on the bed while Gansey sat at his desk and pulled out his textbooks. He was applying himself to his studies with a single-mindedness that had once been devoted to the supernatural, all of his manic energy turned to a new cause. Henry thought it was a combination of guilt, because his family had been frantic and furious and worried when they'd returned to town that day, and also a determination to move as quickly past everything that had happened as he could. Gansey had told him once, quiet in the early hours of the morning, "I spent this whole year dreading my death. I don't want to dwell on it any more."

Henry knew firsthand this was easier said than done. He told himself this was what prompted him to say, sitting down next to Blue on the bed, "I’ve had a brilliant idea, as I usually do. Let's all go on a road trip." Blue's calf was pressed against his thigh, and it shifted when she turned to look at him properly. Her eyebrows were raised.

Gansey spun in his chair, flipping his pen through his fingertips. "A road trip?" he asked. His eyebrows were also raised. Henry was tempted to raise his own. "Are you talking about your gap year?"

Henry nodded, trailing a finger along Gansey's pillowcase. "Yes, you know, the true American youthful experience. Disgusting motels, lots of pictures of diner food with terrible filters, etcetera, etcetera."  Blue's eyebrows were still raised but she looked thoughtful, whereas Gansey was frowning. It was not a frown borne of reluctance, but one of consideration. Henry could tell, and felt a bloom of warmth in his chest.

"A road trip," Gansey said again, drawing the word out, and then nodded to himself. Blue smiled brightly, a smile that unfurled from one corner of her mouth to the other. She nudged Henry with her leg.

"When you say 'all', who do you mean?"

"The three of us," Henry said, because they all knew Adam would be at school, and Ronan would never leave the Barns for long. He thought maybe she just wanted him to say it out loud. He was thrilled at the idea. "I can't imagine the grumpy farmer and his studious beau would even consider the idea. We can ask if you like," he added dubiously, but Gansey waved an absent hand in a negative motion.

"What about Venezuela?" Blue asked. She reached out and pressed her hand to his arm, pushing lightly. "We can't road trip there."

"Technically we could," Gansey said, "But it would be a huge hassle." He turned back to his work, tapping his pen against the desk now. Henry knew he was thinking about what would be necessary to convince his parents that a gap year was a good idea, especially after all of the drama. Maybe it would be better for the Ganseys if Richard Campbell the Third was out of the picture for a while. Henry was prepared to put on his best charming faces to convince them. They had seemed to like him the last time they met. (Well, the first time they met. The last time they had pulled Gansey away and held him close and furiously whispered at him for an hour while the rest of them stood wearily to the side. Helen had looked at them, clearly expecting them to leave, but none of them had moved until Gansey was released, everyone exhausted and annoyed and relieved.)

Henry looked at Blue. "Where do you want to go?"

She closed her eyes, laying back and flinging her hands out. One of them reached toward Gansey in an unconscious gesture. The other landed on Henry's knee. He studied her as she thought, the bright clips in her hair and half a dozen bands wrapped around her throat.  

"Everywhere," Blue decided. "Let's just go everywhere."

"We should probably discuss specifics, Jane," Gansey said dryly, but he was clearly smiling. They did not have to see his face to know it. "I'd like to go to Albuquerque," he said suddenly. "There are a lot of museums there," he added, which made Blue snort.

"I want to go up north," she said. "I've never been anywhere but here. I want to go somewhere completely the opposite of this place. Just to see."

Henry had been to a lot of places, and did not particularly have a specific destination in mind. His only goal was to be with the two of them. Still. "Could we go to Disneyland?" he asked, tongue-in-cheek, and was rewarded with a bland look from both of them at once. He smiled back at them, all at once resolved to getting a picture of Blue with Mickey Mouse ears on her tufted head.

"It'll take a lot of planning," Gansey said. Henry felt triumphant. It was as good as guaranteed.


 

Henry had not quite understood how much planning it would actually take, or that he would be planning with two of the most obstinate and opposite people in the world -- how they had fallen in love was at once a mystery and completely obvious, if one believed that opposites attract.

Well, Henry amended to himself, they were alike as well. They had both immediately gone home and pulled out maps and atlases and guides, of differing themes and quality. Blue's family had amassed a collection of pamphlets and brochures from men and women who tried to lure them away from Henrietta, promising golden valleys or sun-bleached beaches if they would only come stay with them. Some of them had been used by the younger children as coloring books, but they were still useful as a starting point. Gansey had solemn old books about Route 66 and famous historical sites, computer printouts with maps and maps and maps of the United States. Blue wanted to see everything and anything, but especially places that were vast and open and filled with nature. Gansey wanted to see everything and anything, but especially places that had history, places where you could see the imprints of the lives that came before, places with a legacy.

Henry wanted to see everything and anything that they wanted to see.

Gansey and Blue complained about his lack of input as they helped move Adam's few possessions into the BMW; it was two days after Valentine's Day, and Adam had agreed to move in with Ronan. Henry did not know if Gansey and Blue had celebrated, but he did not think so -- they had all spent the day together and then dropped Blue off at home. Blue was probably against the idea of Valentine's Day anyway.   

"Henry, it's been months now. You've got to have more you want to see than Disneyland," Gansey said, hauling a box filled with textbooks down the stairs.

"I have been assured by Google that it is the most magical place on earth," Henry responded, which made Ronan snort where he was sitting, carelessly tossing Adam's clothing into a bag. Adam was at work this morning, which meant that Ronan was the unofficial leader of this moving party by default. Theoretically it should have been Gansey, who was their given unofficial leader in everything, but Henry reasoned that it was best to defer to the guy who was actually dating the person who was moving.

"Does your young man want to keep these old school notes?" Henry asked, holding up a dozen carefully maintained notebooks. They were from classes taken last semester, so they should have been obsolete, but Henry did not know what was important to Adam. "My god, he's got terrible handwriting."

"Just pack them," Ronan said, roughly shoving a pair of jeans and two pairs of underwear into the duffel bag at his feet. Henry had learned that every action Ronan made had the same edge of aggression, regardless of how he was actually feeling. Henry had caught glimpses of his gentleness through seeing him with his brother, or with Opal, and especially with Adam. But they were fleeting, and he seemed infinitely more comfortable with being seen as unapproachable and rough. "We'll sort through all his shit at the house. Fuck knows what that weirdo wants to keep."

Gansey was coming back up the stairs, Blue on his heels. "I guess the corporate version of magic would be a distinct change to the magic we've been dealing with lately," he said thoughtfully, as if he'd never left the room, while Blue rolled her eyes behind him.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," she said. "I've never been, it'll be an experience, yadda yadda. Ronan, Adam's back from work. He's checking the car to see how you did packing."

"That asshole," Ronan said affectionately, and hauled the duffel bag over his shoulders, heading downstairs. As one, Henry, Blue, and Gansey moved to Adam's tiny window to cram together and watch. Ronan emerged from the building and headed to where Adam was peering into the BMW, touching boxes and tilting his head to read labels. Henry knew several of them featured Gansey's precise hand -- Dishware -- and more featured Ronan's ambiguous scrawl -- bathroom shit. Adam looked up as Ronan approached and a small smile immediately appeared on his face -- it was an unconsciously given look, startlingly beautiful in its simplicity.

Adam raised his head and turned his body just in time for Ronan to push him back against the car and kiss him. His hands wound up and around the back of Ronan's neck as Ronan shoved his whole body back, arching it over the passenger side door. Blue whistled appreciatively.

"Gross," Gansey said, but he sounded pleased. Blue traded a look with him that Henry could not parse. They had all been surprised to hear that Adam was agreeing to move in with Ronan, but Henry had also caught the hint of an undercurrent of hurt in Gansey's reaction. Blue told Henry later that Adam had refused to move in with Gansey and Ronan while they had been at Monmouth, and that he was probably just upset that Adam hadn't agreed back then. The hurt had been gone when Henry looked again though, swiftly replaced by an uncomplicated joy that his friends were happy and together and happy together.  

"Let's get the rest of this stuff down there so we can go eat. It's Adam's treat," Blue said, and Gansey gave Henry a look over her head. Adam might have bent his principles more than he'd ever planned by agreeing to live with Ronan, but his desire to pay his own way otherwise had remained intact. Adam had told them, "You're all helping me move, I can afford to buy a couple of pizzas as thanks. Shut the fuck up." And that had been that.

Henry shrugged, then stumbled as Blue jerked him towards the last few boxes impatiently. He paused after he lifted it, and both Gansey and Blue looked at him with their hands full of Adam's things. There was a streak of dirt on Gansey's cheek, and Blue's hair had mostly come out of its clips and ties. They looked wonderfully disheveled.

"San Francisco," Henry said decisively. "I'd like to go there. We can bring back all kinds of rainbow memorabilia for the lovebirds."

Both of them smiled brightly at him in unison.

 


 

They decided they would head west first, cutting through Tennessee and winding through Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans. They would be missing out on Georgia/Alabama/Florida, but none of them were overly concerned about it. They planned to cut straight through Texas all the way to the West Coast, traveling up California, and then would make their way through the Midwest back east until they were in New England. It was not a very specific route on purpose, Blue said. They had places they wanted to see but how they would arrive there was superfluous. (She did not use the word superfluous. She said something like "Pshaw, like we need to know that stuff.") They would need only a general idea of where to go to be able to navigate. It would be no fun at all to have every move planned out.

"I suppose," Gansey said uncertainly.

"Gansey. Ganseyman. My one and only. Let's just trust Blue's instincts on this. I have a feeling she has the right idea about it." Henry did not particularly want to keep up with a million pages of directions anyway. He could always use RoboBee to keep them from getting seriously lost. "We all already know you're gonna pack all of these maps and books either way, it's not like we can't use them if it gets to be too much for your delicate constitution."

"Fuck off," Gansey said pleasantly, and softened the words with a smile. Blue smirked up at him from where she lounged on the couch, crossing her legs as she stretched and then spreading them again as she relaxed. They were sitting on the couch in Monmouth, Blue in the middle curled up next to Gansey, while Henry sat sideways on the other end. Blue's feet were touching his.

It was a few days before graduation. Gansey had won his temporary freedom from his family's expectations with the provision that he be prepared for Harvard come next fall, Blue had been fussed over by what seemed like a thousand psychics with a thousand different warnings and suggestions and blessings, and Henry had told his mother, "I'm going to be traveling with Richard Campbell the Third and his girlfriend for a year," to which she had responded, "I see."

"Ronan says he has a surprise for you for graduation," Gansey told Blue, which made her squint suspiciously at him. "I don't know what it is," Gansey said defensively, "I'm just the messenger."

"It's probably some kind of weapon," Henry said confidently. "He's dreamt you a bazooka. Or! Maybe it's a scrapbook filled with pictures of his face, in case you miss him."

"As if I'll be able to miss him with Dad over here calling every day," Blue said, gesturing at Gansey, who did not even blink. He fingered the edge of Blue's sleeve, which was ragged where she'd ripped it on purpose. Henry was caught by the contrast of their skin colors, Blue’s dark and Gansey’s gold.  

"It'll be good practice for him for when Adam leaves," Gansey said seriously. "Ronan hates phones but I'm sure he'll overcome it."

"In the name of phone sex, probably," Henry said, just as serious. Gansey sputtered a moment, flushing pink, and Blue snorted out a laugh before she could stop herself. "Come now, Dick, surely you've heard of it. When an angry young man likes another slightly less angry young man very much, and they're separated by a hundred miles--"

"Oh my god," Gansey said, covering his eyes with one hand. Blue was laughing openly now. She reached out and nudged Henry with her foot.

"Gansey already knows all about it," she said to him with faux-solemnity. "He walked in on them at the Barns last Saturday."

"Jane! " Gansey said, scandalized. "I told you that in confidence."

"Trauma shared is trauma halved," Henry said to Gansey, consoling, and then turned to Blue. "Please tell me everything. Spare no details."

"Apparently they didn't even stop," Blue whispered conspiratorially at Henry, as Gansey had lowered his head into his hands with a soft, pained sound. "Adam was on top so Gansey couldn't see his face but Ronan just looked at Gansey and said, 'Do you fucking mind?' and Adam said, 'Ronan,' and Gansey walked into the door trying to get out."

Henry pointed excitedly at Gansey. "That's why you had a bruise on your forehead on Monday! You poor bastard."

"I changed my mind," Gansey told them both. "I don't want to go on a road trip with either of you. I'm going to go spend my gap year in the woods pretending I don't know anyone from this town."

"Pshaw," Blue said, leaning her head on his shoulder.

"Pshaw," Henry agreed, kicking his feet over their laps.

 


 

Blue's gift car was everything they could have wanted in a vehicle. It suited Blue's need to be environmentally friendly, it suited Gansey's need for the Pig, and it suited Henry's needs because he liked it when they were pleased. He also liked the Pig, despite its loud manner and its tendency to break down. It felt like Gansey, which was probably deliberate, and yet also like Blue, which was probably a happy accident.

They left two days after graduation, bidding farewell to everyone at Fox Way first. Maura had fiercely held Blue to her chest for a moment and then pushed her back to arm’s length to look at her for a solid minute, until a smile broke over her face. "You're going to have a wonderful time," she said. Everyone else had crowded around and said their goodbyes, some tearful and some absently, touching them on their shoulders or heads softly.

They drove out to the Barns to bid farewell to Adam and Ronan, who were starting their summer together before Adam left for school by laying outside and watching Opal jump from hay bale to hay bale. The sun was just starting to edge over the tops of the trees, and Ronan had his head pillowed in Adam's lap. It was disgustingly domestic, Henry thought. All that was missing were wedding rings.

Adam nudged Ronan up when they all got out of the Green Pig, kicking up clouds of pollen and dust as they made their way towards the two of them. "Opal," Adam called, "Come say goodbye." She jumped down from the hay, landing solidly on her little hooves. Ronan reached out and brushed straw from the top of her head, rolling his eyes.

She went up to Henry first -- for some reason, she seemed to like him, which amused Henry and pissed off Ronan. "Vale," she said, reaching out to hold one of his hands with both of hers. "Vade in pace."

"English," Ronan and Adam said together, longsuffering.

"I can understand her perfectly," Henry assured them, and used his free hand to smooth more straw off of her head. "I will miss you, strange little dream child." She bared her teeth at him in a grin.

He patted her once and she let go, turning to grab hold of one of Blue's hands and one of Gansey's. "Goodbye," she said, pressing their hands together with hers. "Go in peace."

"Goodbye, Opal," Gansey said, smiling at her.

"We'll be calling a lot," Blue assured her. "I want to know how your garden is coming along. And I guess how Ronan is doing too."

"Bite me, Sargent," Ronan said. "Like I wanna hear about your boring ass trip across this boring ass country." Adam cut his eyes to Gansey and then Henry, amusement clear on his face.

The wind kicked over all of them, ruffling the edges of Blue's skirt and sending Adam's hair skittering across his forehead. They all solemnly understood that this was the last time they would be together for a very long time -- Henry felt himself held far apart from them, same as Opal, although physically he was only a few steps to the right. He would always be a little ways apart from them, he realized. The four of them were a unit, one that had allowed him to join them in their ranks, but he would never have the shared history that came from divining death through true love's kiss, or allowing a magical forest to take up residence in your hands and eyes, or dreaming all of this into being because you were inherently something other. Something more. It was all Henry had ever wanted. He had come into the narrative too late.

"You will pick up, won't you?" Gansey asked Ronan, reaching a hand out to nudge his shoulder with a fist. It was a mimic of the gesture he and Adam often traded, because there were so few ways for others to be physical with Ronan unless they were willing to physically spar with him. Or unless they were Adam or his brothers, Henry supposed.

Ronan huffed out a breath. "Yeah, sure. Whatever."

He must have been very upset about Gansey leaving, Henry thought, to make a promise like that. Henry had known Ronan only a few weeks before he realized that Ronan was always honest, sometimes brutally so. Perhaps he did not share everything, but if your policy was to be completely honest, it made sense that you kept things to yourself. Henry's realization had coincided with a sort of respect for Ronan. He knew Gansey admired honesty, and Henry admired Ronan for inspiring that kind of admiration. It had smoothed out their relationship, which had definitely been fraught beforehand, as Ronan's snarling jealousy and ragged relief over Gansey's resurrection had warred with Henry's simmering jealousy and quiet fear that he would be abandoned.

Ronan glanced at him now, and it wasn't a particularly friendly expression, but neither was it openly hostile. Ronan himself had smoothed out, the past few months. It was easy to understand why, looking at him looking at Adam.

"He'll pick up," Adam said, reaching out to bump fists with Gansey. "Don't forget to send postcards. Anything to replace Ronan's shitty wall of speeding tickets."

"Replace this, Parrish," Ronan said, baring his teeth the way Opal had and making a rude gesture. Even with such a savage expression, he looked much friendlier scowling at Adam than he had looking at Henry. What a weird, fucked up relationship theirs was.

"Well," Henry said after a quiet moment where everyone just fondly looked at each other, tempted to make little shooing motions at Blue and Gansey but manfully resisting, "If we want to make it through the Appalachian Mountains before dark we should probably. You know."

Ronan and Adam shot him looks, one dirty and one cool. They had probably come to like him a little bit over the past few months, but both of them were definitely not keen on him leaving with their best friends for an entire year. He smiled brightly at them. Part of him was viciously looking forward to the chance to build his own relationship with Blue and Gansey apart from them, for the chance to cultivate his own secret smiles and gestures. Henry didn't mind the pettiness of his own thoughts -- he knew he would not interfere with the bond between the four of them, and he didn't want to. He only wanted to create his own thread in the narrative that wound them together.

"Bye," Blue said, wrapping her arms around Adam and then Ronan before they could say anything. Adam ran a hand over her head and Ronan crushed her face into his armpit, smirking when she pounded a fist into his chest. "Try not to be assholes."

"No," Ronan said, truthful as ever.

"We'll call you when we get to wherever we stop for the night," Gansey said, which sent a thrill down Henry's spine. They were leaving. They were headed out with no idea when or where they might stop tonight. They had no rules, no boundaries to hold them back. He would have weeks and months to find out what Gansey and Blue were really, truly like. To find out what he, himself, was like, when he was allowed to actually be himself.

They all walked to the Green Pig, dragging their feet through the grass at the Barns one last time. Opal stepped on Henry's heels the whole way, which would have annoyed him if he didn't think she was trying in her own way to tell him she would miss him.

They climbed in -- Blue at the wheel, Gansey in the passenger seat, Henry in the back. The car, when it started, was deafening, something that never failed to make Blue and Ronan beam. There was still the faint scent of gasoline even though the car had nothing of the sort in it, along with the mint that followed Gansey around and the wildflower smell of Blue. Henry's entire body was vibrating with the force of an engine that didn't exist.

"Have a good time!" Adam shouted over the noise, wrapping an arm around Opal as she leaned against his side and waved a hand at them. "Be careful!"

"Don't die in a ditch," Ronan said, looking straight at Gansey, who suddenly laughed wildly and shook his head and clenched a fist on his knees where only Henry and Blue could see. It was hurting him, Henry realized, to leave these two behind. Only the knowledge that he would always have them, that they would always follow him if he wanted them to, was letting him go.  I want that, Henry thought. I want to make him ache at the thought of me leaving.

Ronan looped a casual arm around Adam's neck as Blue backed out of the drive, linking the three of them together. Gansey spun in his seat to look at them and Blue threw glances at her rearview mirror until they were out of sight. And then, with the wind whistling through the windows and the car growling under them and the warmth of midmorning sun upon them, they were leaving Henrietta.

 


 

There was a raw edge of tension between all of them, an unspoken acknowledgement that this was really truly happening and they had no idea how it would unfold. Blue had been driving for hours and hours already, her fingers tapping along to the radio station while Gansey fiddled with the seat and books and his phone. Henry remarked upon every billboard they passed just because he knew it would make Blue laugh.

"Do you suppose Big Bob really does have the best fried chicken in the world? Because we passed a sign that said Freddie Jr. did about ten miles ago," he said, messing with his digital camera's settings.

Blue snorted up front and Gansey glanced back at Henry, smiling.

"We should have tried both and decided for ourselves. For science," Gansey said, and then laughed when Henry made a face.

"If we were doing a proper experiment do you know how much fried chicken we would have to eat, Dick? We're in Tennessee now, son, everything here is drowning in grease and batter."

"I would pay to see you two trying to eat fried anything," Blue said. "I can't wait til we get to Texas."

"Rude, Bluebird," Henry said, and then snapped a picture of her smiling face in the rearview mirror. "Think fast," he told Gansey, and then took a photo as Gansey opened his mouth to respond.

"Thank god RoboBee has a basically unlimited hard drive," Henry said. "I'm going to take a billion pictures of Gansey looking caught off guard."

"It'll be good for him," Blue agreed.

The mountains loomed around them, flushed bright green with the start of summer. They were held suspended in a valley of pure color, trees and hills and cliffs edging up on either side of them. Blue demanded Henry take pictures of everything for her. He obliged, taking pictures of the mountains and the sunset and Gansey, smiling softly first at Blue but then at Henry as he took picture after picture. He took pictures of the back of Blue’s head and the tops her shoulders, edging the camera around the headrest.

The song on the radio sang, Can you trust me, can you trust me, can you trust me?

 


 

The rules for the radio were thus: The person stuck in the back got to pick the music, the person driving was allowed to skip songs, and the person in the passenger seat had to sit down and shut up. Henry had immortalized the rules in a note on his ChengPhone and declared them constitutionally approved. Blue slammed her hand down on the steering wheel like a gavel. Gansey serenely promised not to play too many Beatles songs, which Henry knew was a lie.

They spent their first night in Knoxville, in a motel that sat near the murky river and the university buildings. The next morning, they drove through the university, this self-contained little territory, almost separate from the rest of the city. Students still meandered along the main roadway, trickling out of buildings and aimlessly passing in front of them over crosswalks. They looked exhausted, a far cry from the energy still thrumming through Henry’s veins that said I’m really here, we’re really doing this, I slept in the bed next to theirs and heard them fall asleep. The room had smelled of mint and wildflowers and Henry’s hair gel when they’d checked out.

Gansey, who was driving today while Henry was in the passenger seat and Blue sprawled in the back, peered quietly at the tall buildings, some very old and some very new. He was wearing his glasses this morning, and the sunrise was reflecting off of them. Henry had to physically fight himself to keep from pushing them up his nose where they were sliding. The look on Gansey’s face was contemplative and frustrated and doing a very good job of trying not to be either of those things. Henry flicked his eyes to Blue’s in the rearview mirror and found her already looking at him.

“Ah,” Henry said gaily, “GanseyMan is contemplating his future in hallowed halls such as these and feeling the weight of a thousand years of political Ganseys bearing down on him. Blue, did you know you’re dating a masochist?” Gansey made a noise that could have been a laugh but wasn’t. “You should discuss these things before entering a relationship, Richard.”

“We just started this trip, Gansey,” Blue said, exasperated but fond, “Let’s try not to worry about school or jobs or anything just yet. At least give it a month.” She stroked a hand over the side of his neck, and he quirked his mouth at her, shaking his head and gunning the Green Pig over the last stretch of the university road.

“I suppose it’s time to hit the road,” he said, and the singer on the radio sang Encircle me, I need to be taken down.


 

 They had no concrete plans whatsoever. Henry set RoboBee to scan for attractions that might occur in the general direction of where they were headed, and if they liked the idea of one they would detour and admire it. They saw largest so-and-sos and museums and sculptures and buildings littered through the deep south, still in familiar southern territory. Virginia was not Henry’s true home, but it was where he had found Gansey and Blue, so it felt like it was all the same. Gansey and Blue, with their softly curling vowels (Blue’s more pronounced, Gansey’s elegantly upperclass) and their easy way of walking through the world, fit quietly into whatever landscape they found themselves in. Henry still felt like the outlier; he felt he stuck out like a sore thumb whenever he was with them, and the curious expressions on strangers’ faces as they watched the three of them did not help. Henry found himself being louder and quieter by turns in response.

It was impossible to stay frustrated -- Gansey would offer to teach him how to properly drive the Green Pig (Henry was more afraid of driving this car than he was the Fisker, probably because it meant so much to Blue and Gansey), or Blue would push him until he was sitting down on the ratty bed of whatever motel they were in and play his wonderful guilty pleasure playlist until his body loosened from a tension that had become too familiar.

“How many Madonna shirts can one person have?” Blue asked, sorting through Henry’s laundry with curiously cautious fingertips. She was wearing a huge sweatshirt made into a dress today, and it had a little hole in the shoulder seam that may or may not have been made on purpose. Henry couldn’t tell with Blue, sometimes. The laptop sang out, I just gotta get out of this prison cell, someday I’m gonna be free, Lord.

“As many as they desire, I’m sure,” Henry told her. “They abolished the law limiting a single person to 15 Madonna shirts in 1997, I think.”

“Thank god,” Gansey chimed from the other bed. He was sprawled out with his hands tucked behind his head, lithe and casual against a terrible backdrop of floral patterned comforters and hard pillows. “What would you wear otherwise?”

“Like you have any room to talk, Gansey,” Blue said, casting her eyes over Gansey’s lime green polo and his truly awful boat shoes. Henry was just as mystified as Blue that Gansey managed to be attractive despite them. Blue had confessed to Henry that she was tempted to lose his entire collection of polo shirts on this trip just to make sure he wore T-shirts more often. A solid plan, in Henry’s opinion, if he didn’t know Gansey could just go out and replace them immediately. C’est la vie when you were dealing with a boy worth millions before he was even old enough to drink.

They performed more physical measures of comfort as well -- if someone was eyeing Henry up while they took a thousand pictures of each other next to the the museum where Coca-Cola was first bottled (“Adam will either hate or love this,” Blue said, eyes sparkling) then one of them would cast a cool gaze at the stranger, would wrap their arm around Henry or lean against him, would clearly show that he was a part of them even if someone didn’t understand it. Gansey struck a blow against a particularly homophobic-looking fellow by sticking his hand in Henry’s back pocket and raising his eyebrows defiantly, daring the man to say anything. Henry wondered if Gansey had a normal measure of fear left in him, after dying twice and getting rid of a demon all before he had graduated high school.

“Hm,” Blue said, and stuck her hand in Henry’s other pocket after a moment. He felt very strange, with two different sized hands tugging his jeans in two directions. They considered a moment and then crossed their arms over each other, one hand in the pocket on either side of him. They had become a six legged monstrosity, tucked into each other, bumping hips. The surly gentleman had simmered himself away quietly. Henry felt his face flushing without his permission; it was warm on this late June afternoon in Mississippi.

Gansey and Blue looked pleased with themselves. Henry did not know if he was pleased or annoyed, so he said nothing, and they kept their hands around him until they decided to move on.


 

“So how’s the birthday boy?” Blue asked, leaning her head in front of the computer. Henry could just barely see Adam and Ronan on the screen around her clips, which had a lot more hair to hold than they had at the start of the summer. She hadn’t bothered to have it cut since they’d begun the trip, and it was gently waving at the ends. Gansey and Henry had invited her to come with them to get their hair cut (they found a cheap salon in Houma on Yelp and promised not to tell each other’s families that it only cost them fifteen dollars) but she’d shrugged. Might as well do something different.

“Nineteen already, Parrish,” Gansey said, smiling brightly from Blue’s other side. His hand was on hers over the laptop, and he was pressed all along her side. Henry was on her other side, pressed not quite as closely. “Any words of wisdom?”

“Hm,” Adam said thoughtfully. “Don’t live on a farm? Do you know I haven’t slept past sunrise this entire summer?”

“Fuck off, Parrish,” Ronan said, voice flatly mocking, eyes dancing, “You haven’t slept past sunrise in like two years. Don’t blame the Barns for that.” He and Adam weren’t quite pressed against each other, but they were linked -- Ronan’s leg was thrown over Adam’s, and his hand rested along the back of the couch behind Adam’s head. Henry thought he might be playing with the hair at the back of his neck.

“Of course, that makes it okay then.” Adam’s voice was dry but he was smiling, and there were no more circles under his eyes. He kept touching his wrist. Opal had been onscreen at the start, showing them the balloons she’d blown up for Adam and then accidentally popped, and then making Adam show off the new watch she and Ronan had gotten for him (a dreamt watch that would tell not only time but also the weather, moon cycles, gas prices, and also -- Adam grinned and Ronan turned slightly pink -- provided means of communicating with Ronan in a way neither of them had elaborated on). She still wore his old watch, which had a couple of holes where her teeth had punched through the material; Adam had never asked for it back, and she loved it so much there was no question of making her give it back.

“How is Cabeswater 2.0?” Gansey asked, and both of them brightened in different ways -- Ronan’s body relaxed while Adam’s tensed as he sat up straighter, both of them pleased. “Oh, that good?”

“It’s the same as ever,” Ronan said, at the same time Adam said, “It feels so different.”

They traded a look that was indecipherable to Henry. Ronan spoke up after a moment of silent conversation. “What Parrish means is, because I dreamed it up to be better about protecting itself, it feels less vulnerable. And it knows how to communicate properly now. No more shitty Latin. It’s the same Cabeswater though. Dreamspace made real or whatever.” This was a simplification of whatever the magical forest thing was, but Henry wasn’t sure anyone could explain it, and God knew Gansey had tried before. There had been a moratorium declared on any Cabeswater mentions while they were in the car together, especially since Blue and Henry were both unsure as to what extent Gansey was actually affected by Cabeswater remaking him. Nothing had happened in the 8 months or so since then, but they were still cautious. The rule had been unspokenly decided for his benefit as well as theirs. It had been notarized and sealed in Henry’s phone alongside their growing list of road trip rules.

“Or whatever,” Henry echoed absently, and everyone looked at him -- he realized he hadn’t really spoken since Opal had left to demolish the rest of Adam’s birthday cake. It was a habit, he thought, to let the four of them converse while he lingered in the background. He didn’t miss Adam and Ronan the same way that Blue and Gansey did. He did miss them, of course, he liked them, but it wasn’t like a part of him was gone -- which is the way it felt for Blue and Gansey, it seemed. He waggled his fingers at all of them now, a sarcastic gesture that felt spiteful but probably just looked like he was being funny.

“Hanging in there, Cheng?” Adam asked, relaxing back into the circle of Ronan’s arm. Ronan was definitely playing with his hair, Henry thought. Gansey and Blue were pressed tighter than they had been before, and their free hands were balanced on the bed and nowhere near him.

“Barely,” he said, adopting a serious tone. “Did you know that our dearest Richard unironically enjoys country music, Adam Parrish? It’s actually killing me to be in his presence right now. I can feel my body withering.” Ronan snorted before he could stop himself, which made Adam and Henry both smirk. Gansey made a noise of protest but Henry kept talking. “And Blue, poor sweet Bluebird, almost murdered us the other day driving down a one way street. I don’t know how I’m still alive, to be honest.”

“Maybe if someone was giving me directions from something other than a sentient robotic bee, I wouldn’t have driven down the wrong road,” Blue said heatedly, but she was smiling a little too. The combined screams of all three of them as they barrelled down the road the wrong way had made people stare at them as they passed by, and had left them laughing hysterically when they finally pulled off to the side of the road, cars honking at them furiously, the radio playing She loves you, yeah yeah yeah over and over. Henry had taken dozens of pictures of Gansey sprawled in the backseat with his hands over his face, wheezing, and then of Blue, flushed bright red and trembling slightly but still grinning into the lens.

“I only like the older songs,” Gansey muttered, reaching behind Blue to shove at Henry. His hand lingered, and Henry smiled slowly.


 

 AN ONGOING LIST OF RULES FOR THE SARCHENGSEY ROAD TRIP

(The statements below are established bylaws that will govern this year-long journey and are subject to change only upon unanimous decision. Rules are decided with a majority vote. All rulings are presided over by the Honorable Blue Sargent and are scribed by the less Honorable Henry Cheng or RoboBee. Richard Campbell Gansey the Third can watch.)

 

  • Driving must be done in shifts (Yes, Henry, you have to drive the Green Pig, suck it up.)
  • All living quarters must be motels or campgrounds or the equivalent. No fancy accommodations are allowed during this trip.
  • Food will be bought in shifts or split evenly.
  • Addendum: Weekly grocery runs for snacks are mandatory after the Sixteen Hours Without Food Incident.
  • Music will be decided upon by the person sitting in the backseat. The driver may skip songs if they choose. The person in the passenger seat must accept their fate. Yes, even if it is country music, Henry.
  • Laundry is the owner’s own personal responsibility and Blue Sargent reserves the right to hit anyone who asks her to do his laundry for him.
  • No talking about Magical Shit in the car, Gansey.
  • No more Taco Bell, ever.
  • Addendum: Unless there is a dire emergency or there has been alcohol involved after midnight.
  • Addendum: No. Never.
  • Addendum: Oh fine, emergencies or alcohol.
  • We only move on when a majority decides we’ve seen enough of the area. Two willingly given (Willingly!) votes are required to leave town.
  • Henry is allowed to take as many pictures as he wants.

 


 

Texas was hotter than they expected, and they’d expected it to be really hot. Blue wore shorts and only two layered tank tops in concession to the heat -- it felt like miles and miles of skin compared to what they were used to seeing. Gansey wore his customary polos, but older ones, the material worn thinner, and his khakis become shorts. Henry got to show off his collection of band tank tops, Queen and popular kpop groups and even an old Backstreet Boys shirt he stole from someone at Litchfield. He propped his favorite sneakers up on the dashboard and pointed at Blue in the backseat.

“Bluebird! You wanted to go to Austin, where to first?”

She was scrolling through his phone, where RoboBee had helpfully given them a list of things to do in the city. There were beads of sweat on her brow despite the Green Pig’s air conditioning blasting. Gansey’s cheeks were slightly pink but he still looked immaculate, of course. He was tapping his fingers along to the radio, and Henry was distracted for a moment watching them.

“Let’s go to this bookstore so we can stock up on reading material,” Blue said finally. “I’m tired of grabbing one of Gansey’s history books just to have something to look at.”

“An inspired idea,” Henry declared. “I’ve been resorting to stealing motel brochures just to avoid reading anything that resembles a scholarly text, since Junior here doesn’t know the meaning of light reading.”

Gansey rolled his eyes, barely even reacting as RoboBee flew in front of him on its way to Henry. Henry swallowed a smile. “You two could have packed your own books, you know. I don’t know why it’s up to me to provide entertainment for you.”


“Richard,” Henry drawled, “that’s the only reason you’re even here. I don’t know how to tell you this, but Blue and I were going to go on this trip by ourselves, it was going to be the two of us versus the continental United States, and then we thought, wait, we’re missing something, we need someone who will pack an entire library but neglect to include anything that’s not non-fiction.”

“Be fair,” Blue said, “I think some of them are books about myths, those are kind of like fairy tales.” She kicked her foot up and nudged the side of Henry’s head with it. He grabbed her ankle and held it still, kept his grip light and unassuming. Her skin was warm under his hand, and she didn’t pull away.

“I’m sure the bookstore will have picture books, Henry,” Gansey said, cutting his eyes at Henry and smiling brightly.

“Those are called comic books, dude,” Henry said, and then beamed when Gansey huffed out a laugh despite himself. The radio played I want to know you, I want to see.

 


 

The summer was winding down when it finally happened. Henry had felt it building in him, this kind of subtle understanding -- it was like a secret that he didn’t want to acknowledge, tucked behind his teeth but constantly knocking against them like it wanted out desperately. He’d kept it for months now. He should have known it would break free. He wasn’t that lucky.

Gansey lay on his stomach on the bed in front of the computer, talking to Adam. Henry had finished a shower, steam following him out of the cramped bathroom as he rubbed a towel over his hair. Gansey’s feet were crossed behind him at the ankles, a charming gesture that made him look younger than he was for a moment.

Blue was gone for the moment, had taken the Green Pig and decided to go shopping on her own. Albuquerque appealed to her, its climate such a stark contrast to Texas; everything here was bright and fresh even though it was a desert. She had promised to be back before it was too dark, and she had her pink switchblade, so they were not overly worried. Adam had called Gansey asking to talk, and Henry had tried to give them privacy by showering, but they weren’t done talking yet, so he lingered by the bathroom and tried to decide what to do.

“I want to tell him before I go to school,” he heard Adam say, his voice tinny through the speakers but clearly desperate. “I just don’t know how -- I want it to be something, something special? I want it to be more than just saying it?”

“I get that,” Gansey said, uncrossing and then recrossing his ankles. He flicked a glance at Henry but didn’t say anything to him. His mouth curved slightly.

“I don’t know why I’m asking you,” Adam said, rueful, “You kind of just stumbled into your whole love thing without really having to worry about saying anything out loud.”

“There was kind of an interesting trade off in that deal,” Gansey said dryly, and Henry’s chest seized at Gansey being so casual about his death, about Blue’s curse and what had happened. He looked hard at Gansey, extending all of his understanding about this boy in his direction, trying to discern if he was hiding his trauma again, but there was no lingering sadness in his face. Henry did not think that Gansey could ever truly be over what had happened, but he wasn’t haunted by it either. His body relaxed again. “I don’t think Ronan expects some kind of huge moment, Adam. Just tell him you love him and mean it.”

Oh, Henry thought. He rolled the words around in his head. Just tell him you love him and mean it. Adam was trying to tell Ronan that he loved him. Henry had been under the impression that they’d already told each other this, but he guessed not. It just seemed so obvious --

Oh. He swallowed and leaned against the wall by the bathroom door. It did seem obvious, he thought. All of the casual touches, all of the hopes and dreams and longing stares. All of the smiles and laughter and sarcasm. All of the nights spent falling asleep to steady breathing and dreaming peacefully of nothing but the car on the road, wind whipping through their hair.

He should have known he was in love with Gansey and Blue.

It felt so obvious, he thought again. It was there all along. Maybe it hadn’t been quite so strong at first, but it had still been there. It would not have diminished after getting to live with the reality of them for so long. He should have expected this. He should have known. He slid down the wall and bit his lip hard to keep from laughing or shouting. He could hear Gansey still talking to Adam but he couldn’t understand the words.

He’d thought it was just the fulfilling feeling of being known. He’d wanted to be with them because they knew him, and he knew them. They were the closest to something more that he’d ever found, and he’d ruined it by falling in love with them. Blue and Gansey were made for each other; they fit together in every way, trees that had grown into each other over time and were hopelessly intertwined -- he was a late sprout that had taken root at their feet and could never hope to catch up. His love was suffocating him in with its simplicity and vastness.

“Henry?” Gansey said, leaning over the side of the bed to look at him. The laptop screen was blank; Adam had gone. “Are you okay?” His glasses were slipping down his nose as they constantly were. Gansey didn’t bother to push them back up. Henry felt his fingertips ache to do it for him.

“Richard,” Henry heard himself say, “Never been better. Just wanted to give Parrish some privacy so he could keep up his Dr. Phil session.” He sounded normal, he thought. He sounded bored and a little amused and a lot normal. Probably.

Gansey looked at him a moment longer and then rolled his eyes. “He’s trying to make sure he says it first, or something. I’m pretty sure the only reason Ronan hasn’t said something is because he thinks it’s implied, so why say it out loud.” Gansey paused again, and Henry could hear the water from the shower head drip drip drip into the tub in the silence. “Come here?”

Gansey stretched a hand toward him, golden fingertips flashing in the dim lights of the motel lamps. His face was half-hidden in the shadows; Henry couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He hoped Gansey was similarly unable to read him. Henry rested his hand in Gansey’s and allowed him to pull him up to his feet. Gansey kept pulling until Henry had to rest a knee on the bed to keep from falling on top of him.

“Sit down?” Gansey asked. He didn’t move over, so Henry was forced to sit down next to him. His skin was rubbed by the coarse bedspread and his legs were pressed along Gansey’s body, which was warm as a sunspot. “What would you have told him?”

“Hmm? Adam?” Henry pretended to think for a moment, hearing Just tell him you love him and mean it echo through his head again. “Probably what you said, I guess. Either that or like, putting it on a blimp at some sporting event or something. That’s romantic, right?”

Gansey’s mouth curved; his smile grew when they heard a clatter at the door that meant Blue was back. She came into the room with a few little bags hanging off her wrists, which she immediately tossed onto the floor. She looked at them on the bed together for just a moment, and then threw herself on Gansey’s other side on the bed, stretching noisily. Her back popped loudly and Gansey winced. She and Henry were both leaned back properly on the bed, while Gansey was still stretched on his stomach with his head at the foot of the bed; Henry was struck by the odd symmetry for a moment, the three of them balanced on a bed together. Stop , he thought to himself.

“Did you have fun? Did you buy me anything?” Henry asked her, glad for the excuse to move on from the conversation about love, terrified his feelings must be written all over his face.

(Had he been obvious to them? Had Gansey and Blue been quietly aware and indulging him? Henry didn’t think he could take it if they smiled kindly at him and dismissed his feelings. He would rather have their disdain than patronizing apologies.)  

“I bought some handmade jewelry for Opal, and I got my mom some ingredients for teas just so she can have some from the other side of the country. You can buy your own stuff, Cheng,” she said, and then rested her hand on the back of Gansey’s leg, wrapping her fingers around his calf. He looked back at her and raised an eyebrow. Henry thought they might be having a silent conversation, but then Blue looked at him.

“Can we hang out here a few more days?” she asked. Her eyes were dark, fathomless pools that he could not read. She was such a strange, wonderful creature, Henry thought. “I think we should explore some more.”

“Okay,” Gansey said, sounding drowsy at their feet. He shifted and his hand brushed Henry’s ankle. Blue was looking at him fondly -- but was she looking at where he was touching Henry? Henry swallowed and resisted the urge to pull away from them and go to the other bed. He didn’t want to attract attention to himself by running away, but his entire body felt poised on the edge of a precipice, trembling on a knife’s point. In truth, he was probably already falling, but he wanted to keep pretending he was safe for as long as possible. He wanted to go on the way he had been before. He could do that. He’d spent most of his life acting; this would be no different.

“Sure,” he said, and stretched himself out enough that his ankle slid neatly away from Gansey’s hand. “Let’s go visit all the places they filmed Breaking Bad. I want to steal something from Jesse’s house.”


 

What a fucking idiot. He’d trapped himself. How were you supposed to distance yourself from people you were living with, and not just living with but traveling with; they were together for solid days at a time without ever being alone. It was only a week after the Realization and Henry knew he was being noticeable, because Blue kept frowning after him, and Gansey rubbed his thumb over his lower lip more than usual, staring at him. He couldn’t seem to help himself -- he was pulled in opposing directions by his instincts to preserve himself and his need to be with them despite those instincts, and his facade of normality was suffering. He’d gone so long without needing that facade with them. It made him itchy and irritable to think of hiding himself away.

He walked into the bathroom to brush his teeth and found Gansey just stepping into the shower, unfazed by his sudden appearance. Gansey was used to people coming in and out of the bathroom for whatever reason, given his last bathroom had been a multipurpose room, and Henry was more or less used to seeing Blue and Gansey in various states of undress after so long, but this was different, now. It was harder to keep his eyes from lingering on the arches of his shoulder blades, or the soft hair at the nape of his neck, or the divots of his spine.

He was an idiot.

He held his breath until Gansey was safely behind the shower curtain and then stared at himself in the slightly foggy mirror irritably. Chill the fuck out, he mouthed at his reflection, and then, of course, Blue shoved into the bathroom behind him.

“Gotta brush too,” she said, gently elbowing him out of the way. Her arm pressed warmly against his side and she bumped her hip against his casually. In the shower Gansey began to hum quietly, a classical song that had played in the car earlier. Henry stuck his toothbrush in his mouth to keep from saying anything stupid.

There was foam at the corner of Blue’s mouth, and he wanted to press his mouth to it to brush it away. “I hope you’re ready to take a million pictures tomorrow. I promised Mom and Orla I’d show them the whole thing,” she said, smiling at him. They were visiting the Grand Canyon tomorrow, and Blue was practically vibrating with excitement. It was unbearably cute.

“RoboBee can fly around and take pictures. We’ll make one of those hundred thousand dollar maps Dick is so fond of for your mother,” Henry told her, smiling when the humming only got louder in response.

“Sounds good to me,” Blue said, and spat in the sink loudly. “Hey Gansey,” she said. Henry looked at her sharply. Her tone was an innocent, considering one -- it was a tone that spoke of secret, deliberate conversations, which was not something Henry wanted to think about. She was very carefully not looking at him. “How did that thing with Adam and Ronan turn out?”

Gansey stopped humming for a moment -- the shower was so loud it covered the sound of Henry’s heart pounding -- and then he laughed. “I forgot you hadn’t talked to them already. Adam basically took him on a romantic walk around the Barns during sunset and gave him a new leather band and then just -- told him, I guess. That he loved him. The leather band was symbolic, I think,” he added.

“Symbolic of...his approval of terrible fashion choices?” Henry asked, because he knew it was expected that he would say something humorous. They all understood the symbolism of Adam leaving a memory of himself for Ronan to carry around while he was gone. They all understood the inherent promise of a return that Adam was offering, to say that he loved Ronan while they walked around Ronan’s family home.

“I guess he didn’t really need your advice after all,” Blue said, to which Gansey made a noise of protest. She ignored him. “Did Ronan cry?”

Henry opened his mouth to ask if Ronan even had functioning tear ducts, but he remembered all too well the last time he’d seen Ronan cry, and he didn’t want to bring it up, not while he could feel his blood clamoring under his skin, not while he was packed into a small, sticky room, stuck between their bodies and the steam rising over the curtain.

“Ronan did not cry,” Gansey said, sounding vaguely chastising. “He said it back and they moved on and went inside. It was kind of lowkey, I think.”

“You mean it wasn’t a confession with like, prophecies and sentient forests and tree parents? Boring,” Blue said. Henry swallowed. Nothing about him was prophecies or sentient forests or tree parents. It was like he stood on the other side of this unbridgeable chasm, like some fundamental part of them was just different, and he couldn’t stop remembering that he was an afterthought to the narrative of their lives. He had tangential connections through his mother, through RoboBee, but though RoboBee was more essentially Henry than most things were, there was no denying that RoboBee was not of Henry. He was outside. He was not enough.

He needed to get out of here.

“Well, I’m glad it worked out, love is a wonderful thing, I hope they don’t fight too much over who gets you as best man, Gansey. I just remembered I -- I need a new toothbrush, I’m gonna go see if they’ve got any at the front desk.”

“Henry--” Blue started, brow furrowing, and Henry pushed past her just as Gansey opened the shower curtain and squinted out at him. He was throwing himself outside the room before he could properly process what he was doing, leaning against the door and breathing in and out once, twice, three times. A frog called out and another answered it over the sounds of traffic driving along the highway they’d been traveling all day. His skin was sweat damp but he didn’t know if it was from the steam of the bathroom or the humidity of Arizona -- his body felt chilled under the warmth.

Blue and Gansey definitely knew about his feelings. They’d talked about his feelings, and then decided to gently remind him that they were fated, were meant to be , they were something more and more and more and he would never be enough to belong. Henry knew that, he was all too aware of it, but he’d hoped that -- he’d hoped. That was all there was to it.

He was so, so stupid.

He stayed outside of the room, leaning against the wall for a very long time, just breathing. He could just make out the faint noises of Blue and Gansey speaking softly inside. He closed his eyes and focused on drawing air in and out of his lungs. Blue and Gansey were a collection of moments in his mind, endlessly repeating on a loop -- he committed them to memory and wished, not for the first time, that he was more than what he was.

After some time, he heard a buzzing sound, felt the gentle pressure of RoboBee landing on his shoulder. I wish you could tell me what to do , he thought. He felt his phone chime with a response in his pocket, but could not bring himself to look.


  

San Francisco was everything he’d imagined.

The drive in took a couple of hours because of the traffic, but it gave them the chance to gawk at the ocean and for Henry to snap pictures of all of the glittering waves that rolled beneath them. He sent RoboBee out ahead to find the best pathways, but there weren’t very many, and once they were into the city there were so many hills and small streets that they were terrified, gripping the seats and window frames and praying the Green Pig, which had only broken down once and had a single flat tire, wouldn’t fail them. The radio played on repeat, Rainbows, sunshine, everywhere we go. Henry twisted in the back seat to take pictures of the traffic, the tired faces of commuters and travelers alike, the children with faces pressed against the glass, the motorcycles heedlessly winding their way through the cars.

Blue and Gansey had been strange all morning, trading glances and pointed looks; Henry pretended not to notice, trying to keep himself separate, trying to refrain from intruding. He'd decided that his goal for the rest of the trip would be to extricate himself from the hole he'd dug himself, to keep everything fun and friendly and remind them and himself that he had lived a life before them (as something less), and he could go on without them (as something less). He would enjoy the rest of the year, fold everything into a memory, and move on.

When they managed to find a spot to park, they decided to just plunge into the city. It was filled with people, tourists like them mostly, but he could spot locals walking to offices or smoking on street corners outside of convenience stores. The ocean blew cold wind over them as they walked around the bay, so that even with the end of July sun beaming down on them, they were shivering a little. Blue had linked her arms through both of theirs and they were meandering down the sidewalk, forcing people to cut around them. They walked the entire length of the piers, not bothering to stop just yet, getting a feel for the scenery. Henry stood by the ocean and took dozens of pictures of boats passing by, Alcatraz in the distance, the fog lifting over the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

He snapped pictures of Blue’s hair, longer than ever, whipping around her face, and of Gansey’s hands wrapped around the railing as they listened to children shouting and seagulls crying out. Gansey and Blue were insistent that they stay outside for as long as possible, so they didn’t bother going into shops until Henry’s stomach protested that he hadn’t eaten all day. They bought desserts on sticks and sat on a bench and basked in the sunlight. Henry felt, with the sounds of the ocean in his ears, that he was at peace for the first time in almost two weeks. There was something about seeing a city that had once shaken apart at the seams look so alive and thriving; Henry felt a kinship with it, and wondered if Gansey or Blue felt the same way.

Blue tensed against his side.

“Oh,” she said in a strange voice, and he looked over at her, but she was looking at the sky, chocolate covered apple melting in her hand. She was smiling, a warm curve of mauve lipstick in the sunlight. Gansey shifted, and Henry turned to look at him. He was looking up too, a slight curl to his mouth that was pleased and slightly arrogant the way Gansey could be, like he was looking forward to something because he felt sure of the outcome.

Henry looked up as well, squinting against the bright glare, raising his free hand up to shield his eyes. At first he thought maybe they were just looking at the seagulls, but none of them were overly impressed with ordinary birds anymore, and there was nothing else--

There. In the sky, a small plane pulling a message through the air high above them. He could just barely hear the sound of the engine over the ocean and the crowds, who were starting to notice it as well. Several people repeated the message out loud, confusion lilting the statement into a question, everyone trading bewildered stares.

“Henry, we’re in love with you?” a young woman said, sounding it out slowly.

Henry’s entire world tilted on an axis; the edges of his vision darkened for a moment and he was worried he might fall over, but he was sitting and they were pressed to either side of him, and so he settled for dropping his frozen banana and wheezing out, “Fuck.” His stomach seized up and he couldn’t look away from the sky.

“I asked you how you would do it and this is what you said,” Gansey said, and then he grabbed Henry’s newly freed hand and squeezed. “None of us like sports and blimps are hard to come by, did you know there’s only thirteen operating advertising blimps in the world--” Blue coughed pointedly and Gansey cut himself off, finishing with, “--anyway, we had to settle for this.”

Henry could hear Gansey but it was like it was through a solid pane of glass -- everything was muffled and distorted. He could feel RoboBee in his pocket, buzzing urgently, responding to his sudden tension. He just -- he didn’t know what he was thinking or feeling, which was a commonality for him, but usually it was just that he couldn’t express himself. This was a ringing in his ears, a flush filling his cheeks. He was overloaded and all he could think was, There’s no way this is really happening. A seagull swooped towards his feet and pecked at the fallen banana, heedless of their proximity. The crowd around them had already pondered and dismissed the message in the sky; Henry was the only one who was running through a thousand questions and answers, desperately wanting and terrified to assume.

“This isn’t a joke, Henry,” Blue said from his other side, taking his other hand gently. He couldn’t look at her directly, and so settled for staring at the rubber bands she’d looped around her wrists. “We’re not teasing or playing around. This is something we’ve felt for a long time and we just -- wanted to tell you. The plane was Gansey’s idea.”

“Of course it was,” Henry heard himself say, “You’d never be so ostentatious.” He wondered how long they’d been talking about this, about him. Since the beginning of summer? Before that? How long had they been together? It felt like years but in reality it had been less than a single one, and yet there was a message in the sky for him. For him. He knew they weren’t cruel, that they wouldn’t hurt him intentionally; the hope he’d tried to bury was cracking its way out of the grave he’d created for it.

“You own a Fisker, Henry,” Gansey said plaintively. “Do you ever get to use the word ostentatious for other people again in your life?” He squeezed Henry’s hand again and leaned in closer to him, bumping his chin against Henry’s shoulder. “Are you okay? With this?”

Am I okay with this? Henry still didn’t quite know how to explain what he was feeling. He felt blindly for his jacket and opened his pocket for RoboBee to fly out, because if he could not communicate with his mouth he would use other means. “Your phone,” he said, and Gansey dutifully pulled out his phone. Henry and Blue pressed against each other to peer at the it, which had a new message from Henry, with a little bee emoji next to it. It read:

Yes.

Which was more simplistic than Henry was really feeling but was apparently enough to convey himself, which was all he had really asked of RoboBee. After a moment, Gansey’s phone flashed with another message: the heart emoji. This, Henry thought, was overkill on RoboBee’s part.

Blue laughed brightly and touched Henry’s chin, startling him. She turned his face to hers and then pressed her lips chastely against his -- it was like kissing a flower, soft petals brushing his mouth and the scent of daisies. His eyes stayed open in shock and hers closed. It was barely even a kiss, but it was vastly more than he had ever hoped for. His hand rose up and tentatively touched her bare shoulder.

He felt a touch on his face from the other side, and Gansey pulled his face around the other way and kissed him, gently -- it was like opening a book, less chaste because Gansey had opened his mouth and Henry felt the wet brush of a tongue before the scent of mint invaded his senses. Gansey kept his eyes open, bright with emotion. Henry sat still in between them when Gansey pulled away. He thought of that moment, months ago, wondering if it hurt to die from a kiss.

“I--” Henry said, still stunned. “I never thought--” He couldn’t get the words out. All of the ways he’d deemed himself less than were still lurking underneath his skin, but he’d didn’t know how to say what he was feeling -- his self-deprecation usually didn’t have the two of them hanging in the balance.

“It’s alright,” Blue said, face flushed pink, beautiful with the wind tugging her hair every which way. Her eyes were dark and gorgeous and sparkling. Henry loved her. “We weren’t sure you’d feel the same way either.”

Gansey stood up, casting a shadow over the two of them with the sun at his back. He put a hand to Blue’s neck, to Henry’s shoulder, and looked at them. He was unfairly bright, golden around the edges and filled to the brim with energy. Henry loved him.

Henry turned his head to the side and Gansey slid his hand up to cup his cheek, doing the same to Blue when she mirrored Henry. “You two,” Gansey said, softly. “Of course.”

Of course, Henry thought.

 


 

They went on in more or less the same fashion, except now they got rooms with a single king-sized bed when they could, and they held hands instead of looped arms. There were more stares from strangers than before but Henry couldn’t bring himself to care. He was in love, love, love, and he was loved.

There were still moments where he doubted himself, where Blue and Gansey would be sitting together talking, heads bent close, and he would think They’re humoring me, they’re too different and I’m not enough and I don’t actually understand anything at all, but then one of them would notice him and smile and beckon and he would be folded between them, tucked against Gansey’s chest and Blue’s arms. It was hard to hold onto his fears when you were the filling of a Blue/Gansey sandwich.

“This is too much,” Adam said, scrunching his face up on the laptop screen. Ronan looked like he was barely paying attention to them, focused on Adam’s face and running absent fingers up and down his arm. Adam was leaving in less than a week for school, and Ronan was -- not upset, exactly, but clearly desperate to spend as much time with Adam as he could, despite the trips back and forth they’d both planned and despite whatever magical connection Adam’s watch afforded them. “You guys are ridiculous.”

“Like we wanna hear that from you two ,” Blue retorted, digging her head into Henry’s chest and wrapping Gansey’s arm around her waist defiantly. It was actually kind of uncomfortable, and judging from Gansey’s grunt he agreed, but neither of them said anything. Gansey was grinning. They all were constantly smiling. Life was so weird, and so wonderful. His laptop was playing music in the background, a low thrum of sound. They’d been reconfiguring playlists all afternoon, trying to make music they’d been listening to for months now seem fresh. Gansey was trying to include a truly embarrassing number of love songs. It was very cute.  

“They’re just jealous,” Henry said. “We’re clearly the more attractive relationship, it’s alright to be sad about it Parrish--”

Ronan interrupted with, “Have you seen Adam?” which made Adam flush bright red and swat at him, and made Gansey and Blue snicker.

“We have,” Gansey said seriously, which made Henry roll his eyes. He traded a glance with Blue, because they’d already decided to surprise Gansey with a trip back to Henrietta before Adam left for school. They’d already talked about stopping by his school when they made it back out east anyway, but Henry knew Gansey would want to see Adam and Ronan together before then, and it was easy enough to get a quick flight out and back. The Green Pig would be waiting for them on the west coast until they resumed their trip.

Henry no longer felt his disquieting jealousy at the thought that Adam and Ronan might be necessary parts of Gansey and Blue’s life. He, for once, felt sure of his place in their lives. He was slotted between them, he was in the passenger seat, and the back seat, and, more and more often now, the driver’s seat, steering them on and on toward the future.

He was starting to look forward to the future.

He pulled himself back to the present. “Enough about Parrish’s beauty,” he said impatiently, “How is Opal? Has she fallen out of that horrifying tree house yet?”

Adam’s eyes lit up and Ronan finally looked away from him and snorted. “She kicked her way through a stall door the other day,” Adam said, looking far too fond about it. “It closed behind her and she kind of panicked. We’ll have to reinforce everything if we ever plan on getting horses.”

“Maybe she’s just really strong,” Ronan protested, but he was smiling. Henry thought it was probably because Adam had grown very used to saying ‘we’ when talking about the Barns. He understood that feeling. Blue had absently said the other day, “When we’re done with school I think we should come visit the west coast again, it’s so pretty out here,” just taking for granted that they’d still be together in four years -- it had knocked the air out of his lungs for a moment, that easy belief.

“She’s more like Ronan every day,” Gansey said, grinning.

“Fuck off, she’s Parrish all over. She’s getting really bossy and she wants to go to school in the fall,” Ronan said, reaching up to brush a hand over the side of Adam’s head, trying to look annoyed but falling incredibly short. He was still smiling crookedly. Adam was trying to hide his own smile behind a hand, but it was too wide. They looked so happy, and Henry wondered if they were mirrored on this side, beaming and pressed close and suddenly excited about things like school and the future and growing up.

How far they’d come from that late October night, from their disastrous first meetings, from their near death experiences.  

He felt Gansey’s hand smooth its way into his hair, and he closed his eyes for a moment and just breathed in time with them. A crash onscreen startled him back into opening his eyes; Opal had thrown herself at Ronan and Adam and they were cursing and laughing at her respectively.

Gansey was looking at them, his smile soft and longing, and Henry didn’t have to look at Blue to know she was thinking the same thing as him. It was still such a pleasure to know that, to be understood by someone else so instinctively. He cleared his throat. The laptop played Forget all the shooting stars and all the silver moons over the sounds of bickering coming from Gansey’s computer.

“Richard,” Henry said, “Bluebird and I have a surprise for you.”

 


 

Their plane let out in D.C., because it was the closest airport to Henrietta, and it gave them a chance to quickly stop off at the Ganseys’ abode so they could be fussed over and approved of (“You look very -- well rested!” Gansey’s mother said, hands hovering over Gansey’s broad shoulders while Blue smothered her snickers and Henry waggled his eyebrows at her where the elder Ganseys couldn’t see). They spent the afternoon catching up with them, and then Gansey borrowed the terrible Suburban to drive them to the Barns.

Blue and Henry had contemplated keeping it a surprise from Adam as well, but they didn’t want to accidentally interrupt any plans Ronan and Adam had already made (Gansey’s virtue, after all, had to be protected), and it seemed unduly dramatic to plan a surprise when the impact of their temporary return would be felt as much even if Ronan and Adam were already aware of their arrival.

Henrietta seemed to flow into the car with them -- Henry was driving so Blue and Gansey could look around at everything and drink their fill. They’d already made plans to spend the night at 300 Fox Way, so they didn’t slow down through the suburbs and Henry deliberately avoided driving past Monmouth, making a beeline for Singer’s Falls. The dusty air kicked up around the Camaro as they sped through, and the air here was thick with humidity where the west coast had been dry -- Henry was sweating through his tank top, and Blue had pulled all of her hair into a messy knot on top of her head, tendril sticking to her neck as they inevitably escaped. Gansey, as usual, looked unruffled. He was nearly incandescent at being back in Henrietta.

Absence had clearly made his heart grow fonder, which had the effect of making Henry feel fonder about Henrietta, when all he’d felt before was a grudging respect and a less grudging exasperation, because it was a town full of crazy assholes and magic and somehow people still managed to live normal lives.

And they were happy about that. Henry couldn’t fathom it, but then, he’d been exposed to something more.

No one was outside when they pulled into the gravel drive, but they hadn’t been sure when they were arriving so that made sense. They went into the farm house without bothering to knock, which felt vaguely illicit to Henry but didn’t stop him from kicking his shoes off as soon as he was inside and collapsing on the couch with a sigh.

“Oh shit,” they heard from the kitchen, and Adam popped a head around the doorframe. “You guys are here! Hey! Sorry, we had an accident and I’m giving some first aid, just a second--”

He vanished back around the corner, and Henry traded glances with Gansey and Blue before they followed Adam into the kitchen.

Ronan was sitting on the counter, rolling his eyes even as Adam quietly admonished him and cleaned out a long scrape on his arm that was sluggishly bleeding. It looked shallow but was also bleeding quite a bit, and Henry didn’t miss the way Adam bit his lip and kept his touch soft even as he said, “I can’t believe you just dove straight onto the fuckin’ ground, you idiot, she would have been fine.”

“I caught her,” Ronan said simply, and grinned unrepentantly when Adam leveled an unimpressed stare at him. He went back to picking bits of gravel out of the cut without saying anything.

“Caught whom?” Gansey said. He picked up an apple out of the bowl on the counter and bit into it absently, then offered it to Blue. She took a bite out of the other side and traded a look with Henry.

“Yo,” Ronan intoned, raising his free hand at them. “Parrish is just getting his mother henning in while he can.”

“The cat had kittens, and one of them fell off a hay bale. Ronan felt the best thing to do would be to throw himself to the ground to catch her.” Adam couldn’t keep the baffled affection out of his voice, and had moved on to spreading disinfectant over the cut.

“Heroic,” Henry said, flashing Ronan a thumbs up. Ronan showed him another finger, teeth bared. Henry laughed, suddenly very glad to be back here with them. It was still so strange to have friends like Ronan and Adam, who were sparing but fierce with their affection, only given to those they trusted. He liked the idea of being someone they trusted, and not just because they were important to Blue and Gansey.

Adam finished wrapping Ronan’s arm and stepped back, sighing. “I think you’ll live.”

“It’s a mirac--” Ronan was cut off by Gansey moving forward to wrap an arm around him and Adam at the same time, pushing them both against the counter. “Gansey,” Ronan said roughly, and Henry thought he probably was trying to sound gruff, but he sounded more like he was fighting back a laugh.

“My hip is gonna be bruised,” Adam complained, but he was gripping Gansey just as tightly at Gansey was holding them. They stood there a moment, the three of them, just breathing. Gansey had a fist around Ronan’s shoulder and around the back of Adam’s neck, just holding them. They were all three incredibly still, like they were adjusting to each other’s presence again and it required all of their energy. Even Ronan, contained electrical storm that he was, had closed his eyes and curved his palm over Gansey’s back.

Henry wrapped an arm around Blue’s shoulders and watched them with her, feeling at peace. She set the apple down on the counter and rested her head on his shoulder. They waited.

For about a minute.

“Okay,” he said, pulling Blue with him, “Our turn, GanseyMan, stop hogging them.” He pulled Gansey out of the way and let Blue bury her face in Ronan’s chest,  Henry reaching out to tap Adam’s outstretched fist and then clap him on the back.

“Sargent, don’t cry on me,” Ronan said, but he stroked a hand through her messy hair and kept it there. Blue deliberately made a noise like she was blowing her nose in his shirt and reached out blindly, grabbing for Adam. He allowed himself to be caught and held her close when she transferred her hug from Ronan to Adam. Henry took the opportunity to move to Ronan’s other side and hip check him. He raised his eyebrows when Ronan looked at him, and Ronan’s mouth quirked on one side.

Henry felt warm inside. Progress.

Outside the kitchen window, the sun was setting in a display of bright pinks and blues and oranges, and he could hear Opal outside making her weird bird cawing noises at something that sounded like it was delighting her. Blue finally pulled away from Adam; she wasn’t crying, but her eyes were wet, lashes stuck together in clumps.

“We missed you,” she said, we we we.

“Us too,” Adam said, knocking Ronan with his elbow before he could say anything. “We missed you.” Ronan elbowed Adam back but didn’t disagree, still giving the three of them that half-smile, lacking its usual sarcastic edge.

“Come on,” Ronan said, pushing away from the counter and absently tugging Adam behind him. “Let’s go get the runt and we can check on the animals before it’s dark.”

Adam allowed himself to be pulled, comfortably changing Ronan’s grip on him so that they were holding hands. They had settled something in themselves, Henry thought, over the last few months. They were so assured of one another, of their space within the other’s life. He knew they still argued (Gansey fielded annoyed texts and phone calls over dumb fights every few weeks) but it was the kind of arguing that came from knowing it wouldn’t change anything about how the other person felt about you. They trusted each other.

He glanced over at Gansey and Blue, who were trading quick bites of the apple to finish it off, and for once his jealousy of Ronan and Adam had nothing to do with their relationship with the people he loved.

One day, he thought.

Blue took the core of the apple from Gansey once he’d had the last bite. “We can give it to the goats,” she said, and then walked over and grabbed Henry’s hand with her free one. The tips of her fingers were cool from the juice, but her palm was warm. Gansey took his other hand and rubbed the arch of his thumb. They were links in a short, messy chain.

“Lead the way,” Gansey said, smiling at him, the sun setting a halo over his head. Blue bumped into him a little, rolling her eyes, and he held them both tightly and followed their friends out into the sunset.