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To Your Sharp and Glorious Thorn

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Aaron Collins Parrish-Lynch was having the worst week of his life, or the best, and it was all Theo Jiang’s fault.

Someone’s pencil fell off their desk, and Aaron snapped back into reality in the middle of a sentence on the dramatic structure of Cymbeline. He chewed on the pendant that hung around his neck in frustration. Fuck, that was definitely going to be on the test. He’d have to beg notes off a classmate later. Aaron wasn’t sure why the Aglionby curriculum had included Cymbeline instead of one of Shakespeare’s plays that was actually good. Macbeth, or Hamlet, maybe. Even Romeo and Juliet; at least that one had dirty jokes all over the place. Aaron had griped about the curriculum choice with his classmates over the last week, but avoided bringing it up at home. Adam would just remind him gently that it might be more beneficial on an AP test to write an essay on a more obscure play. Aaron was already well-aware of this fact, and wanted to complain in peace. That, and he might not learn very much about Cymbeline given that he was absorbed in replaying the daily entrance of Theo Jiang into Aglionby’s main building like a movie behind his eyes.

He watched Theo turn to look at the clock now, which announced that there were three minutes till the bell. Theo’s shoulders shifted in a tiny sigh as he rested his head on his hand, and his fingers slipped just under the starched edge of his collar. Aaron fidgeted, imagining sitting right behind Theo and skating his own fingers over that same patch of skin. Aaron bet Theo would shiver at that, bet that he would lean backwards into the touch so Aaron’s fingers would slide over his throat where his pulse beat.

As if Aaron’s thoughts had tipped him off, Theo turned his head, slowly, to catch Aaron’s eye across the classroom. Aaron could only watch helplessly as Theo’s mouth quirked up in a smirk, alluring and infuriating, eyes dancing under dark brows. Electricity crackled in the air, and Aaron’s face went suddenly hot. He had known Aaron was watching, because of course he had. He could probably fucking feel it. Like a sixth sense.

The bell rang, and Aaron was off like a shot.

Damn Theo and his fucking beautiful face. He could take his perfectly arched brows and his stupidly twinkling eyes and —

Aaron collided hard with a well-sculpted shoulder and promptly bounced off into the nearest locker. The resounding crash was muffled in the myriad of other crashes filling the hallway as Aglionby students rushed into their three-day weekends without caring how many freshmen they trampled in the process. Raleigh Applewhite appraised Aaron as he realigned his bag on his shoulder. Aaron could smell his cleats even though the bag was zipped and made a face.

“Walk much?” Aglionby’s premiere lacrosse player crossed his arms over his chest, but the smile he wore was wide and too knowing for Aaron’s liking.

“I need to get out of here.”

“Theo Jiang staring at you in English again?” Raleigh leaned the shoulder Aaron had struck against the locker nearest him. Of course the collision hadn’t even hurt him.

“N-no!” Aaron spluttered, rubbing at his smarting collarbone. “I just — I’m going home this weekend and I just want to get out of here.” He risked a glance over his shoulder. Theo was not in the hallway.

“You said that already, dude,” Raleigh sighed.

“It’s fucking weird,” Aaron spat. He wanted to get to his car so he could unpack his own reactions and his theories on how amazing Theo’s ass probably was in the privacy of his own space.

“I don’t know…” Raleigh drawled. “I’m with Nina on this one. I think you just need to bang him. All this tension is killing you.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. Nina had said almost the exact same thing several times. Except she knew better than Raleigh all the reasons why starting up a relationship was a bad idea, reasons he didn’t want to get into right now. He settled for pointing out the obvious: “You don’t even know Nina.”

“I do, too,” Raleigh shot back. “We’ve talked.”

“You’ve stolen my phone to text her.”

“Because she agrees with me about this whole Theo thing and because you won’t give me her number.” Raleigh pointed an accusatory finger at Aaron’s nose. “I can’t slide into her DMs if you don’t let me talk to her alone.”

“No one needs an unsolicited picture of your dick, Raleigh. Especially Nina.” Aaron began to walk down the hallway.

“Excuse you!” Raleigh wrapped an arm around Aaron’s shoulders while keeping the pace. “Who said anything about unsolicited? Consent is hot, Ay-ayron. Remember that. Can I have a ride?”

“To where?” Aaron growled.

“Store. I need junk food.”

Aaron groaned. “Can you ask someone else?”

Raleigh sighed. “Yeah, sure.” He raised an eyebrow then, gifting Aaron with a smug grin. “Maybe I’ll ask Theo. I hear he’s got a nice car.”

Aaron shoved an elbow into Raleigh’s side, prompting a groan disguised as a laugh, or a laugh disguised as a groan. He ducked out from under Raleigh’s shoulder, walking backwards so he could call down the hallway better.

“Please go fuck yourself!”

“Well,” Raleigh allowed with a wide grin, “because you asked so nicely…”

Aaron let the school doors slam shut behind him and. The sun was warm on his face despite the October chill, and he was comforted by the fact that a short detour was all that stood between himself and home.

 

 

300 Fox Way regarded Aaron from behind its picket fence as he stopped the car by the curb. And not just in the sense that he was pretty sure there were at least two small children peering through the windows at him. It was just the way the house was, a presence filled with other presences that pressed itself against the consciousness of passers-by just a little more than another building. Or maybe that was because Aaron knew it personally. 300 Fox Way had been the gateway to his life as he knew it, and he never forgot it.

He raised his arm, fist poised to knock, and the door swung open. Guess the house knew Aaron too.

Jimi’s round face beamed up at him. Her salt-and-pepper hair was swathed in a lot of purple fabric. “Thought that might be you.”

“Hi, Jimi,” Aaron returned her smile as best he could.

“Come on in, sugar.” The bracelets on her arm clinked together as she ushered Aaron into the house. The smell of incense and old house and magic and whatever fruity thing Jimi used in her perfume enveloped Aaron in a familiar cloud.

“Nina here?” he asked.

Jimi nodded, smile still impeccably in place, although she rubbed a hand over Aaron’s upper arm reassuringly. Aaron could never decide if Jimi could sense distress on him, or if he just wasn’t as good at policing his own face as he thought.

“She’s around somewhere.”

There was a sudden small thundering from the stairs as two Fox Way kids cut Aaron off on his way to the kitchen. Overlapping choruses of “Hi, Aaron!” hit him belatedly as they breezed past.

“Hi, guys.”

“Is that a Parrish-Lynch in my house?” Maura Sargent glanced over her shoulder at him before turning her attention back to the steaming concoction of smelly tea she was making. Blue always called it “footy” tea. Nina just said it smelled like ass.

“Snake Junior,” Calla greeted him. “Your dads finally decide to return you?” Aaron couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t asked him that question as soon as she saw him.

“Would you take me in if they did?” Aaron buried his hands in the pockets of his slacks, but he met Calla’s gaze with a challenge of his own. Calla smirked back approvingly.

“Absolutely not,” Maura replied, placing a kiss on Aaron’s cheek. Extra hilarious as a joke, since Aaron had been one of the very few male residents of 300 Fox Way in the several months leading up to his thirteenth birthday. “Nina’s in the back. There’s tea if you want it.”

Calla smirked again as she watched Aaron fight the urge to make a face about the tea. He settled for “thanks” and crossed the kitchen to the back stoop.

As his foot touched the top step, all the air left Aaron’s lungs.

A rush of wind chased all the autumn from the air, leaving it muggy and warm, a true Virginia summer. Cicadas screamed from between the full green leaves of the towering beech tree before him. The smell of barbecue smoke singed his nose, three-hued popsicle lingered on his tongue, and sitting with his chin propped on his hands was Aaron himself. A smaller, younger Aaron, unsure of himself and afraid for the future. A fugitive in some senses, a hostage in others. Hunched over the weight of a decision that felt too big for his shoulders, though it had boiled down to a simple “stay” or “go”.

Nina emerged from somewhere and sat down beside him. Twelve-year-old Nina, also smaller, also gawky, but much more self-assured. In possession of a home where Aaron hadn’t had one. Hair in braids and made more voluminous by the humidity. She picked at the fraying end of her cutoff overalls and watched Aaron out of the corner of her eye. Aaron simply stared back at her, fiddling with the chain around his neck. He ran a finger over the embossed face of St. Anthony. The metal made a soft grinding noise as he dragged the pendant back and forth.

“My cousins think you’re weird,” Nina said.

Aaron’s eyebrows drew together in a frown. “I’m not that weird.”

“I know,” Nina said flippantly. She tossed a braid over her shoulder. “Your aura’s pretty chill.”

“My aura?”

“Yeah,” Nina replied. “You don’t do auras?” As casual as you please.

“Uh…” Aaron shook his head. “No.”

“What do you do then?” Aaron didn’t miss the fact that she seemed to already know there was something less-than-normal about him.

He paused all the same, considering. He knew things about this house, about the people in it. Nina had just admitted she saw auras. But it was still like swimming upstream to bare his soul like that, especially to a stranger.

“If I go to a powerful place, I can…live what happened there. Kind of.”

“Psychometry/retrocognition combination, then.”

He had never seen anyone take that news so casually, but he let that surprise go in favor of “You’re a smart-ass”.

“So are you,” Nina shot back. “Your aura says so.” Her smirk said his that aura didn’t say so. Aaron echoed the smirk down at the space between his ratty sneakers.

“Ever been to Washington, D.C.?” Nina asked, eyes suddenly alight with the question.

She looked disappointed with Aaron’s frown and his flat “Yes”. He had not liked D.C. at all. Every street corner there was powerful, overwhelming, and terrible. He had been on Benadryl practically the whole trip, and it had only served to make him drowsy and anxious.

“What was Eleanor Roosevelt like?”

“It doesn’t work that way.” Aaron had barely been able to make it onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Too bad.”

There was a pause. The two of them breathed in more barbecue smell, and Nina scratched a mosquito bite on her ankle.

“How does yours work?” Aaron ventured after a moment. He pointed at a man in a trucker hat visible over the backyard fence who had leaned down to inspect his lawn mower. “Can you read that guy’s aura?”

“Not from here so well, but that’s Mr. Gable. He’s a little racist but he doesn’t realize it.”

“Uh huh.”

“First part I know from talking to him. Second part I know from the aura thing.”

“Cool.”

They lapsed into silence again, listening to each other carefully and keeping an eye on Mr. Gable as he frowned at his lawn mower again. Aaron chewed on the inside of his lip, worrying the skin between his teeth. Finally, he blew out a breath, and with it, a question:

“What do Adam and Ronan’s auras say?”

Stay or go?

Nina looked back at him openly, reading the importance of the question in his expression. Like she knew how much hinged on her answer. When she spoke, it was with total seriousness.

“They’re good people. They’re good for you.” She cocked her head to one side. “Do you believe me?”

Aaron shrugged. “Why would you lie?”

“Plus, your name is like theirs combined. It’s totally perfect.”

Aaron barked out a shocked laugh. “I didn’t even think of that.”

Then he disappeared.

There was only Nina sitting there. Eighteen-year-old Nina. No longer gawky. Nina of here and now. She looked up at Aaron as he caught his breath and felt October seep back into his skin. He shivered.

“How much time did I lose?”

“Only a few seconds. What’d you see?”

Aaron folded himself down onto the step beside her. “First day we met. I mean, it’s always here. I guess I haven’t come out of the house this way in a while. It caught me off guard.”

Nina smiled. “Good memory, though.”

He huffed out laugh. “Definitely.” He paused. “I’m here to complain.”

“About Theo Jiang?”

Aaron sighed. “You know it.”

Nina stretched her legs out in front of her, crossing her combat-booted feet, and leaned back on her hands. “You know my stance on your stalking, Pynch.”

Aaron rolled his eyes, both at the statement and Nina’s not-very-clever variation on his last names. “It’s not stalking, Nina.”

“You sit on the school steps every morning and watch the kid get out of his car. It’s stalking.”

“Stalking implies hiding in the bushes and being obsessive and weird. I’m just observing.” He also knew that Theo was aware of him with the same deep gut-feeling he got when walking into a powerful place. It was like he could feel a tether tug between them the closer Theo got to him on the steps. Whether Theo physically looked at Aaron or not, they both knew the other was there. That was part of the routine, too, the knowing. Hence the current disaster.

“Potato, po-tah-to,” Nina scoffed.

There ensued a staring contest. Nina broke first, a rarity.

“Fine. What’s the complaint?”

“He’s breaking the rules!” It sounded petulant when he said it out loud, but the indignation underneath the words was real. “He’s fucking up the routine.”

Aaron maintained that he had originally started paying attention to Theo’s patented morning arrivals out of a curiosity to see if he really did do it the same way every day. (Pull off his sunglasses with a minuscule flick of his artfully flopped hair, close the door with a foot, hoist his backpack on a shoulder — never both shoulders, just the one — before locking his car. At the end of the last school year, when Theo had first ridden into Aglionby on a wave of rumor and intrigue, the mashing of a cigarette under one of his shoes had also been part of the process, but he’d stopped doing that at some point.) Aaron himself was a fan of routine. There was something to be said for committing to the bit, to being comfortable in a groove. Aaron therefore told himself that his interest started off as scientific.

This was, of course, complete bullshit. Aaron had started watching Theo Jiang arrive in the mornings because he was unfathomably gorgeous, and watching him get out of his car was like walking around a Bernini statue over and over and over again to see Apollo’s marble hand touch Daphne’s tree-bark side on a reverent loop. Once you started, you never wanted to stop. (Not that Aaron had ever seen a real life Bernini, though Gansey promised he'd take him when he graduated.) Aaron knew the nature of the bullshit intimately, which is why he always dropped his gaze even though he knew that once Theo reached the main steps, his dark eyes flicked up to burn a hole in the side of Aaron’s head. Aaron let Theo take his turn to stare because it was flattering and set his heart pounding to be the object of attention for someone that beautiful. Not a bad way to start one’s day, either.

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Nina told him.

“So I watch, and then he watches,” Aaron explained, as he’d explained several times before. “And then we go back to our normal lives. He’s not allowed to —“ He palmed the back of his neck. “He’s not allowed to watch in other places.”

“What do you mean, other places? Like the locker room?”

Aaron flushed, imagining it. “Mostly English class.”

“So he’s staring at you in class?”

“Yes.”

“Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you want him to stop?”

Aaron didn’t have a good answer for that. On the one hand, it was seriously disrupting his thought process in that class, not to mention all the time he spent picking it apart later. On the other, there was a part of him that hoarded the spark of Theo’s gaze and enjoyed how it sent a shock crackling through his ribs. There was a part of him that wanted Theo to do much more than look.

No, he very much didn’t want Theo to stop. And that was precisely the problem.

To his right, Nina was waiting for an answer.

“No,” he admitted, very quietly.

Nina spread her arms wide to encompass the obvious nature of her response. “Even more reason to bang him, Aaron! He’s clearly into you.”

Aaron blew out a breath through his cheeks. “I can’t. It’s an unnecessary risk.”

“Why not?” Nina folded herself into a compacter, more stubborn position. “You don’t have to introduce him to your dads or anything. Just make out with him. Do it badly, if you only want to do it once. Text him an eggplant emoji and meet him behind a school building. Make a move.”

Aaron wrinkled his nose. “An eggplant emoji? You’re as bad as Raleigh.”

“Maybe so,” Nina agreed, “but I still think this is less about you being calculating and more about you being afraid to put yourself out there even a little bit. You’ve only made one friend since me, Aaron. You’re not really great with new people.”

This was true. Aaron wasn't quite sure how Raleigh had managed to worm his way into his life and stick there so well. Nina…well, Nina was a given. She knew Aaron better than he knew himself. Sometimes, it really grated on his nerves.

“If Theo makes a move,” he bit out. “I’ll make one back.”

Nina narrowed her eyes. “Promise?”

“Want me to spit in my hand and shake on it?” Aaron sneered.

Nina shoved him. “Shut up.”

“And if he doesn’t make one,” Aaron added, “I’m off the hook, okay?”

Nina rolled her eyes and stood up. “Oh, he’ll make one, all right. Loser.”

Aaron grinned up at her. “Asshole.” He looked back out at the beech tree.

“Call me if you need any more great advice!” he heard, right before the screen door slammed shut.

Now it was time to go home.

Chapter Text

Aaron rolled down all the windows of his car on the way home and stepped on the gas pedal as hard as possible. No matter how hard he pushed, the car never went more than ten miles above the speed limit. Aaron didn’t know how the car knew what the speed limit was, or why there was a radio station in the car radio that only played the Murder Squash song, but it had been a car, and he wasn’t about to look that gift horse in the mouth.

Well.

Actually, he knew exactly why his car was the way it was. Ronan’s exact choosing of the details was the part he didn’t understand.

He eased the car around a corner, weaving his way through the hills towards Singer’s Falls. The trees had gotten thicker several miles back, the houses fewer and further between and nestled back from the road. The sun hung lower in the sky, slanting through the trees to slip in through the open windows along with the wind.

“Watch your ass on that turn,” Ronan’s voice echoed in his head. “Nobody ever fucking looks.” Aaron tapped on the brake, but no car appeared to cut him off. Aaron had never actually seen a car cut someone off on that intersection, leading to his theory that Ronan was the only one who routinely careened around the turn without caring who was on the other side. Then again, there were very few cars on this road at any time of day or night. That was part of why Aaron liked it. When he drove to the Barns, it was like the rest of the world fell away piece by piece, leaving only forest and fresh air and home.

Aaron had long ago stopped questioning if the Barns was home.

He pulled up behind Ronan’s car, which meant Adam wasn’t home yet. Shutting the door, he skirted the car to the other side, moving up the driveway on the side closest to the house. Just to weird himself out, he eyed the spot on the gravel just in front of Ronan’s front bumper. The first time he’d gone to the Barns, he even hadn’t been able to come in through the front door. Most of the time, he could ignore the things he could feel reaching out to him from the past, leave them hanging in the background like white noise. But not that spot on the driveway, not with Ronan standing right next to him. Things that strong demanded to be relived, and Aaron didn’t want to relive that.

He remembered how careful they’d been about it, too, the first day he arrived. How Ronan had stopped the car at the turnoff from the main road, and how they had walked, the three of them, slowly up the drive until they reached a place where Aaron felt the noise grow too loud to be ignored. How they’d explored the boundaries and found a safe way to get him inside. The boundaries of that territory had gotten smaller and smaller over the years, dulled and lessened by the layering of good memories over it, and by practice. Aaron had wanted so badly to walk on those front steps, to prove that he could, and he’d stubbornly worked at it day after day. It was what Adam would have done.

The first time he’d successfully set foot on the driveway itself, Ronan had grinned and placed a kiss on Adam’s cheek. “Fucking stubborn,” he’d said. Adam had rolled his eyes, but he had turned the same grin on Aaron once Ronan had gone inside.

“I’m home!” Aaron called, shutting the door behind him. A screech erupted from the other room, followed by a thump, and the clatter of small hooves. Opal hit Aaron mid-stomach.

“Hey, there,” he wheezed. “What’s up?”

Opal emitted a stream of rapid-fire Latin and dream language. The Latin he could mostly understand — something about the shed on the hill and trying to feed a barn owl something it didn’t want to eat — but with everything else he was hopelessly lost. Sometimes, after a day at home with Ronan, Opal would settle into her native hybrid tongue and would need to be reeled back into a common vernacular. As much as Gansey tried to teach her manners, they rarely stuck.

“Try some more English next time, squilla.” Aaron pushed Opal’s beanie down over her face. She retaliated by screeching a loud bird noise at him (not to be confused with the other bird noise she’d made when he’d first walked in the door; they had very different inflections). Chainsaw echoed the noise somewhere further inside the house. Aaron continued down the hall to the kitchen, and Opal stuck out her hands to the sides, giggling and toddling along with all the grace of a drunk as she followed him with the beanie still over her eyes.

Ronan was stirring something in a saucepan that smelled great, nodding his head along to the music floating through the kitchen on a device Aaron could never see, but that he knew listened to verbal commands. The song was by Hozier, because Aaron had snuck “In the Woods Somewhere” onto one of Ronan’s Irish playlists once and when he had come home the next weekend, Ronan had downloaded the entire discography. He knew all the words now. Neither Aaron nor Adam ever questioned it for fear that he would stop playing the music just to be an asshole. It was a welcome respite from some of the other music Ronan liked.

“Hi, Dad. Dinner ready yet?”

“My day was fine, thanks for asking,” Ronan deadpanned. He turned a sharp smile on his son and reached out a hand to pull him in roughly by the back of the neck. He pressed a kiss into the top of Aaron’s head. “Ungrateful little shit.”

“Sorry,” Aaron grumbled, staggering a little when Ronan released him. “Can I help?”

“Yeah, get more beer from the fridge downstairs.”

“Can I have one?”

“No.”

“Can I drink some of yours till Adam gets home?”

Ronan didn’t answer, which meant yes.

Adam entered the kitchen half an hour later. Aaron was, by that time, seated on the counter, absently petting Chainsaw and retelling a particularly vapid and uber-privileged comment one of his classmates had made that day. Ronan was laughing, stirring the risotto intermittently and taking sips from his near-empty beer, and Opal was untying and retying Aaron’s shoelaces. Adam looked tired and happy, which Aaron considered Adam’s default state. He crossed the room to Ronan, who held out a spoon so Adam could taste the risotto.

“Maybe a little salt,” Adam said.

“Fuck you,” Ronan shot back. “It’s perfect.”

“I know.” Adam leaned forward to kiss Ronan and Aaron and Opal made the requisite “yuck” noises. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Ronan said, as brightly as he ever said anything.

Adam turned to Aaron. “How was school?”

“Good.” Aaron made sure his laces weren’t knotted together and hopped off the counter. “Still hate math, but history was good. We’re reading Cymbeline in English.”

Ronan snorted and took the saucepan off the stove. “That’s the play they chose? Out of all thirty-seven of them?”

Adam was smirking. “It’s considered one of his worst. Maybe they thought it would build character.” He settled himself at the table next to Opal.

“This is what I pay for that school for,” Ronan griped, reaching for a serving spoon. “So they can not teach my son how to stab government officials.”

“I promise I’ll poke Declan with something next time I see him,” Aaron laughed.

“Yeah, and tell Child I want a refund.”

 

 

 

Opal shrieked with delight as the flames of the campfire lit up a light green, the flickering light throwing her into stark contrast. Aaron thought she looked more like an adorable gremlin than usual. He held up a hand for a high five. “Nice work.”

Opal head-butted his hand, even though she knew perfectly well how to give a high five. She certainly had her moods, and could get pensive and ancient-seeming sometimes, but today was evidently one of her more juvenile days, and she and Aaron had decided to take advantage of it by throwing objects into a campfire with the aim of making it glow different colors. Adam had refused to steal them chemicals from the hospital, but household Borax had been surprisingly successful, as had a copper pipe and some iron filings they’d found in one of the outbuildings. Opal threw the last of the filings into the fire pit, taking a bow to indicate the finale of their little two-man show as sparks spit out into the night air. She stood back up straight in the middle of a massive yawn.

Aaron looked at his watch. It was nearly ten, and Opal got up at the crack of dawn. The sun was the only acceptable alarm clock to her.

“Time for bed?” he asked.

Opal shrugged, but went to the water bucket and lifted it awkwardly. It would probably be easier if she let Aaron help, but he would definitely get hissed at if he tried, so he concentrated on gathering supplies while Opal doused the fire pit in ungraceful, squelching spurts. Once the flames had all disappeared in puffs of smoke, leaving only embers, Opal clambered onto Aaron’s back, winding her arms around his neck and hooking her chin over his shoulder. After hoisting her into a better position, Aaron set off around the side of the house.

He stopped short just out of range of the back porch light. Adam and Ronan were standing pressed chest-to-back a few yards away from the steps, Ronan’s arms making a protective circle around Adam’s body. Adam’s head was leaned back a little, resting on Ronan’s shoulder, and his thumbs made gentle, repetitive motions along Ronan’s forearms. They were speaking softly, too low for Aaron and Opal to hear them, but both of them were wearing that soft, contented look they got when they thought no one could see them. Aaron’s heart did something complex and melting in his chest.

It was so natural, the way they loved each other, so obvious that it seemed it had never been any other way. Aaron knew it hadn’t always been like that, but he had a hard time making himself believe it. He’d come very late in the game, after all, after they had already been Adam and Ronan for so long, after they’d established whose side of the bed was whose and decided whose toothbrush went in which space in the toothbrush-holder. After they had stopped questioning whether to list each other as emergency contacts and after they’d survived Adam going to college and medical school and residency. The journey had been over, all the pieces fallen into place, before Aaron got there. He hadn’t expected to have the picture shift around him to accommodate his presence. He hadn’t expected to jump in and have the ripples settle like they’d never been there in the first place. He hadn’t expected them to love him back. The first time he’d seen them look at each other like that, he didn’t think they could have any love left over to even offer him. It wasn’t the last time he’d underestimated the two of them, either.

His biological parents had never looked at each other like that, like they were everything missing suddenly found at once. He wished those memories would get fuzzier over time so he could forget that he’d ever lived anywhere that wasn’t the Barns or been anyone who wasn’t Adam and Ronan’s son, but Aaron’s talent was the opposite of being able to forget.

“Take a picture,” Ronan said. “It’ll last longer.” Adam smiled, but neither he nor Ronan moved.

Aaron shuffled forward, feeling Opal hunch guiltily from his back. Only when they reached the top of the steps did Adam lift his head.

“G’night,” he said, the vowel stretching lazily. He tried to move towards them, maybe for a hug, but Ronan held him tight.

“Night, dads,” Aaron said.

“Night,” Opal echoed.

 

 

 

Disaster struck slowly, as disaster sometimes does, beginning the following afternoon.

It was a Saturday, and after they had exhausted Nina’s favorite weird animal facts Youtube channel and taken a quiz to find out what kind of donut Aaron was based on a dream date with a celebrity, he and Nina decided it was time to leave the house. Or rather, Nina kept insisting on calling the celebrity in question “Theo”, and Aaron had rather had enough.

“You guys going to Nino’s?” Ronan called from the couch. He was sitting with his head pillowed on Adam’s lap, and appeared to be doing absolutely nothing while Adam read a book. Such was the nature of Ronan on Saturdays.

Nina glared at Ronan, who grinned meanly at her.

“Never thought you’d be one for Gansey-level Dad Jokes, Ronan,” she sneered. Ronan’s grin dropped immediately, and Adam hid a snicker behind his book.

“We’ll be back later,” Aaron told them, tugging Nina towards the door by the sleeve before she could find another way to compare Ronan to Gansey.

They were, of course, definitely not going to Nino’s. Nina seemed to see the pizzeria’s very existence as an affront to her own, and avoided it as primly and viciously as a priest would a sex shop. She had deemed Rudy’s acceptable, as its pizza was still greasy and its booths still patched with duct tape and its name far enough from her own. It also had the added bonus of not being a traditional Aglionby hangout.

Which is why Theo Jiang had no business being there.

Aaron couldn’t tell whether he registered Theo’s presence before or after he actually saw him. The shiver up his spine and the taste of nerves on the back of his tongue were the same whatever way he would choose to damn himself later. But there he was, between Aaron and what passed for a hostess stand, wearing a t-shirt that oxymoronically proclaimed him “anti-social” and holding a box of pizza in his hands. Theo’s eyebrows raised just a hair in surprise before his face was overtaken by a wide grin, sweet and open and a little wicked. Heart-melting. Aaron almost looked over his shoulder to check that that look wasn’t for someone else. His face was on fucking fire.

“I thought raven boys were supposed to go to Nino’s,” Aaron said. It was a really fucking stupid thing to say and he knew it, but deep down he was proud of himself. Weeks and weeks of attrition, and he was the one to speak first.

Theo’s mouth twisted into a smirk. “Well,” he said. “You know what they say about rules.”

It was so on cue that Aaron had to let a breath of laugh escape. Of course Theo Jiang, of sunglasses-wearing, hair-tousling, brooding-eyebrows, former-smoker fame, would say something like that. It all fit him so well, like his clothes and his cheekbones and his smirk and the way the air around him bent to drive the temperature up. There wasn’t a smidge of color outside the lines of that perfect picture. It was so damn attractive. It made Aaron want to crush the pizza box between them and shove Theo against the nearest wall. He desperately wanted to know what Nina was seeing right now.

“What?” The smirk dropped just a little, and Theo’s brow threatened to furrow.

Aaron shrugged. “That was just…so on brand.”

Theo laughed, delighted. “Ouch!” he said. He sounded impressed. “You wound me, Aaron.”

“You wound him,” Nina pointed out from somewhere by Aaron’s elbow.

“I’m sorry!” Theo took a hand off the pizza box and reached it out towards Nina, who shook it. Aaron briefly reflected that Theo had extremely nice hands, and a bolt of jealousy shot through him at the fact that Nina had touched Theo before him.

“I’m Theo.”

“Nina.” She elbowed Aaron’s side. “And this is Aaron.”

“Oh, I know,” Theo said good-naturedly, like Nina hadn’t just acted like a complete and utter moron in front of the sole object of Aaron’s lust. “We go to school together.”

“Oh?” Nina feigned ignorance. Aaron tried to fathom what the fuck she was doing.

“We don’t really talk much.” And then Theo’s eyes caught on Aaron’s again, and he could feel the blush travel all the way down his neck. His brain played him a convenient montage of just that same look finding him across classrooms and hallways and cafeterias. He could feel it affecting him the same way it had all the other times, except here there was no desk to hide behind. There should never be this much sexual tension in a pizza shop, Aaron thought. Someone had to have noticed.

Aaron glanced down at Nina. She had definitely noticed.

“No,” he agreed. “We don’t.”

“It’s really too bad, actually,” Theo said casually. His eyes never left Aaron’s face.

Aaron’s heart thumped hard in his chest. He had never had such a loaded conversation in such a non-sexy location in his life. He could never come back to Rudy’s. He might relive this moment and just get hard on the spot. It was possible. Better to be on the safe side and just switch to Nino’s.

“Don’t you think?” Theo prompted. The smirk was back. Aaron briefly considered that he might be made of cellophane.

But he could also see how hard Theo was clutching the pizza box.

“Yeah, I do.”

Theo’s face broke into that full-blown grin again. His teeth were just a tiny bit crooked, and somehow it make his smile even nicer to look at. Theo bit his lip — a wholly unnecessary action that Aaron felt prickle at his sternum — and shifted his weight a little from one foot to the other.

“There’s a party tomorrow night at the old fairgrounds,” he said finally. “You should come. Both of you!” he added quickly, glancing at Nina, then back at Aaron. “We could talk.”

Jesus Mary Fucking Christ.

“We’ll be there,” Nina piped up. Aaron could just feel that she was beaming like the cat who had snagged a whole cage full of canaries. But he didn’t want to look away from Theo just yet. Now that he was finally staring back, he found he liked it. A lot.

“Yeah,” he said. “We’ll be there.”

“Cool.” Theo gave a small nod. “Well…” He raised his box of pizza slightly. “See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” Aaron stepped to the side to let him pass, and Theo most definitely did not use all of the space provided to him. The sleeve of his expensively branded t-shirt brushed Aaron’s bare arm. Aaron bit back a moan. It was very fucking smooth.

The bell on the door chimed cheerily, and Aaron let out a long breath.

“Now that,” Nina said. “Was a move.”

Chapter Text

“It’s, uh, a left here.” Aaron pointed to a spot on the road ahead of the car. Raleigh put his turn signal on.

Aaron wished he was in his own car. He wished he was driving his own car, if only to have something to do with his hands. He wished he had something to do besides tug dangerously on his necklace and feel his insides tying themselves in knots while the quaint little houses of Henrietta slid by under the artificial glow of sporadic streetlights. He wished they would just get to Fox Way already.

He also wished they would never get to Fox Way. Because if they got to Fox Way, they would leave Fox Way, and then they would go to the fairgrounds, where Theo was going to be and where Aaron almost definitely should not be going.

It wasn’t just that Theo had invited him to a party, to a crowded place with people getting stupidly drunk and everyone’s personal boundaries on temporary leave of absence. It was that many of those people would recognize him there. They might try and socialize with him without the politeness that they usually maintained in school. What’s your family like, Aaron? How come you left wherever you were before you came here, Aaron? Why don’t you ever come to fairgrounds parties, Aaron? Got any special talents, Aaron? These were the questions his nightmares were built on.

Have you got a thing for Theo, Aaron?

Aaron wasn’t even sure he could lie to a complete stranger about that one, let alone someone he actually knew. He’d replayed their conversation at Rudy’s over and over again once he had gotten home. How Theo’s fingers had gripped the sides of the pizza box so the tendons stood out. How the shadow of Theo’s t-shirt played over the dip of his collarbone just at the spot where Aaron wanted lick. The way Theo’s lips had twisted into a smirk and the way they’d moved around the words “We could talk”. The lowered, husky quality of his voice. Aaron wondered what that voice would sound like speaking his name. Then he had begun to wonder what that voice would sound like making noises that weren’t necessarily words. Bitten-off curses, moans and small gasps and gravelly hums of pleasure. The type of things Aaron could do — might actually get to do! — to make those sounds occur.

Then he had had to take a cold shower, which he’d failed at spectacularly. After he had slumped back against the tile wall and shamefully reached for the soap to wash his hand, he had firmly decided to go to church with Ronan in the morning.

In the end, Ronan hadn’t woken him up and he had slept right through it. And jerked off again. There really never had been any hope with him and a Catholic god anyway.

He wished he could be classier about this. He wished he didn’t want Theo so damn much. He wished he was slightly more experienced in the sex department, so, at the very least, he wouldn’t have to worry about fucking it up. He wished he hadn’t let months of sexual tension build up over greasy cheese and concrete into something that was threatening to boil over very dangerously.

He really wished the party was not at the fairgrounds.

If Aaron was being honest with himself, which Aunt Blue told him he had to be, the location of this party was the real problem here. Which is why Aaron had not told Nina about it. Nina, being the sensible, Fox=Way-raised woman that she was, would remind him what a bad idea it was to test these particular waters, even to bang Theo.

There were a few places in Henrietta that Aaron avoided, places where the pull of memory could be strong enough to drag him under. He had been warned off these places, mostly by other Fox-Way-raised women, a few by Gansey, and only one by Ronan.

Guess which.

Aaron didn’t know what had happened there. When he had been able to stop thinking about Theo in the past twenty-four hours, he had given some serious thought to it. It was a field, and this was Virginia. Aaron would bet on Civil War battle, except Nina had had a Virginian history unit every year for all of elementary school, and if there had been a Battle of Henrietta, odds are she would have known. Plus, Ronan wouldn’t have minded telling him about a battle that took place over 150 years ago. That’s what led to Aaron suspect that Ronan and Adam might have had sex at the fairgrounds. Though when he’d considered it, they had had sex in the large barn on the edge of the property, and he could still walk inside just fine. Only normal memories to torment him out there. Maybe it had been the first time. Aaron thought this might be a more terrifying route than a Civil War battle.

But somehow he thought it was something else. Ronan hadn’t offered any more details about it, besides that Aaron shouldn’t go there. The fact that he had seemed absolutely sure the spot contained memory strong enough to give Aaron a major psychic episode made Aaron uneasy the more he thought about it. He had practiced well enough to control his own mind in most situations, or at least defend against it. Alcohol might actually help. But part of the method and work it took to build up those walls involved knowing what he was walking into. That, and keeping his concentration, which he was sure Theo could destroy by simply breathing, much less by doing the things his tone had implied the last time Aaron had seen him.

Aaron stared out the window and contemplated the fact that he was a goddamn nervous wreck.

Raleigh had put the radio on, to some station with soft pop-y indie shit that Nina would hate and make him change as soon as she got in the car. At least it prevented Raleigh from being chatty. Raleigh was Aaron’s best friend besides Nina, but he was really not in the mood for small talk.

Aaron’s hand stilled on his pendant. Come to think of it, Raleigh had been strangely quiet this whole time. He glanced over at his friend across the center console. Raleigh was tapping his fingertip on the steering wheel in a way that didn’t match up with the song. Aaron’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you wearing aftershave or something?”

“What?”

Aaron repeated his question.

“Yeah,” Raleigh said. It was practically a yip. He pointed at the blue house on the end of the block. “That the one?”

“Yeah.”

The front door was open, leaving a bright rectangle of light streaming out onto the lawn through the screen door. Aaron leaned over and tapped the horn. Raleigh looked strangely appalled by this, but dropped his hands into his lap, staring past Aaron at the doorway of 300 Fox Way.

Nina’s shadow briefly darkened the doorway, and she jogged, backlit, across the lawn to slide into the backseat of Raleigh’s car. In the light that had turned on automatically when she’d opened the door, Aaron got a good look at her face in the rearview. His brow wrinkled in confusion.

“Raleigh, I assume,” Nina said, right to the point as ever. She gripped the back of Aaron’s headrest and leaned forward. “I’m Nina.”

“Hi there,” Raleigh smiled at her over his shoulder. “Pleasure to meet you in person!”

“So, we going to this party or what?” Nina asked. She squeezed Aaron’s shoulder, and he tried not to grimace. She could definitely see how nervous he was; auras worked in the dark, too. He just hoped she’d attribute it to Theo and not something else.

As Raleigh pulled off the curb, Aaron slid his phone out of his pocket and pulled up his text thread with Nina.

 

Makeup??

 

Three bubbles appeared underneath Aaron’s message, then vanished again.

 

So what?

 

Nothing you look nice

 

Thanks

 

Aaron put the phone away again and glanced over at Raleigh, who was chewing on his bottom lip. What the hell was he so nervous about?

Then Aaron made the connection. He could have slapped a hand over his own forehead. Were he a good friend, he might have helped this situation along, but he had enough problems right now, and Nina and Raleigh’s now-obvious attraction to each other could certainly wait until after he had determined whether or not he had to be carted off to yet another state before the end of the night. Besides, Raleigh had pulled himself together pretty quickly, and began chatting up a storm with the backseat as soon as they turned off Fox Way, charming and effortless as a Virginia Gansey. And Nina gave answers that contained more than one word!

They’d be fine.

 

 

 

They felt the party before they saw it. The music in Raleigh’s car had been turned off long ago to prevent it from impeding Nina and Raleigh’s passionate discussion about representation in Marvel films, and deep thrums of bass hit them in waves as the wheels bumbled over the uneven road. Aaron’s heart pounded in his chest. He could feel the power of this place like a slow drag on his lungs, and he closed his eyes briefly, breathing slowly in through his nose and out through his mouth. He could do this.

People had parked their cars in a messy sprawl across the grass, headlights turned on and doors open and engines just on enough to let music blare into the night. Raleigh pulled to a stop at the edge of the group and turned the car off.

“Ready?” he asked.

Aaron popped open his door and gripped the roof of the car for leverage as he plunged out into the night before he could convince himself not to.

The air smelled faintly of weed and alcohol and cool Indian summer. Laughter and shouting floated on the wind between notes of something filthy and sensual coming out of someone’s Lexus. A look around at the cars told Aaron the crowd was mostly Aglionby, but with a significant amount of Henrietta locals mixed in. He wondered if this is what these parties were always like, this wild and unconfined by the walls of someone’s house. Here, everyone could scream their youth and pent-up everything out into the night, with no one around for miles to stop them.

It would be freeing if Aaron wasn’t so nervous.

He felt Nina’s hand brush his arm. “You good?”

“Yeah.” He had to speak up to be heard. “Can we find me a drink?”

Nina nodded, and Raleigh’s arm draped itself over Aaron’s shoulders, solid and reassuring, steering him closer to the clump of brightly lit cars. A kind of dance floor had formed in the middle, shadows from headlights painting everyone in a harsh, monochrome glow as they writhed and jumped around, close and crowded despite the space they had to spread out.

Aaron wondered if Theo was here yet. Should he go look for him, or wait to be found? He let his eyes scan the crowd as he let Raleigh pull him along. Would Theo be in the middle of the dancers? Aaron knew he could dance. He had seen him do it at several house parties, shifting uncomfortably in whatever seat he had been occupying at the time as the roll of Theo’s hips set a low flame off in his belly.

His thoughts were interrupted by a few Aglionby lacrosse players who had spotted Raleigh and began to shove red Solo cups at them. Aaron downed a sip immediately, though there wasn’t much in the cup to begin with, prompting an impressed whoop by the boy nearest to him. The drink was sickly-sweet, but still managed to have an alcoholic flavor to it. It was the kind of drink that would fuck you up good, that was for sure.

Nina’s hand touched the small of his back. A warning. Be careful.

Aaron handed the cup to her. I’ll be careful if you will. Nina look a much smaller sip.

Twenty minutes later, the three of them ended up leaning against the cool metal of someone’s car, people-watching and trying to get the correct amount of buzzed. Raleigh had accepted another cup of jungle juice from another teammate, and had given it to Nina. They were continuing their conversation from earlier, and had stopped trying to include Aaron in it. Aaron was busy trying to gauge his own mental state.

It wasn’t as easy as he had hoped. There was a lot of action to distract him at the moment, between looking for Theo as subtly as possible and the game of beer pong that had developed to his right and the couple messily devouring each other against a car door to his left. Whatever was in his cup had placed a pleasant damper over his anxiety, not enough for him to be considered drunk, but enough that he could feel his muscles loosening a bit. The leeching presence calling to him from the ground was a dull background roar, insidious, persistent, like the music around him. Aaron could feel heat from it, but he didn’t know what kind. He chewed on the edges of the empty cup in his hand and shoved the memory down before it breached the surface. He was doing all right so far, he allowed.

“I wanna dance,” Nina announced. Her eyes were bright and determined, mouth quirked up. She turned to Raleigh. “Can you dance, raven boy?”

Raleigh nodded. “Sure can!”

Aaron caught Nina’s eye from around Raleigh’s shoulder and shook his head, mouthing “no” as unsubtly as he could. Raleigh was lying through his teeth, and Nina would find that out very quickly. But that only made Nina’s grin wider, and she grabbed Raleigh’s hand. With one last glance back at Aaron, they were gone.

For a few minutes, he was alone. He watched people some more, considered joining Nina and Raleigh (who looked like they were having a great time despite the fact that Raleigh absolutely could not dance and Nina could move her ass in inhuman ways that were having Raleigh’s eyes bugging out), and chewed more at the edge of the cup. A breeze ruffled his hair, and he felt something tug in his gut.

And Theo was there.

Aaron looked up slowly, catching Theo in his peripheral vision. He had leaned against the car next to Aaron, close enough that the edges of their jacket sleeves brushed. Neither of them moved, letting the electricity crackle a little. Aaron could feel his heart pick up in his chest.

When they finally turned and locked eyes, Aaron refused to look away first. He was a Parrish-Lynch; he was not afraid of Theo. He was not afraid of anyone, or anything, especially of what he wanted, which was to find out if Theo’s mouth tasted as good as it looked.

Theo huffed out a laugh, dropping his gaze to the cup in his hand. Aaron was momentarily taken aback, both by the fact that Theo had lost a staring contest for the first time since Aaron had known him and because it didn’t occur to him that something about what he was doing could be funny. Though he supposed it was, glowering for no reason at an object of affection. After all, it was funny when Ronan did it.

“I’m glad you decided to come,” Theo said. God, Aaron was deeply attracted to that voice.

“Me too,” he replied, feeling his mouth stretch unbidden into a smile. He meant it, too. He was still nervous as all hell, but any thought of leaving was long gone. “Seemed a shame to miss out.”

“I agree.” Theo offered his cup to Aaron, who took it. The contents were straight rum, Aaron could tell before it touched his lips. It was not as shitty as he suspected it would be. Say what you wanted about Aglionby boys, they sometimes had standards when it came to alcohol. Aaron took another swallow. Theo looked impressed.

Aaron permitted himself a small glow of pride. He remembered Ronan telling him one New Years’ Eve that he needed to learn how to drink to avoid embarrassing himself later in life. He also remembered the resulting shouting match once Adam had found out that had dampened the very beginning of that year. In the end, equilibrium reigned again, and Aaron was allowed hard liquor in the house on special occasions. Ronan could still drink him under the table though, and did. In any case, Aaron needed the liquid courage right now. And it was a special fucking occasion.

“Lynches know how to drink,” he said. He did not add “Parrishes do not”.

“I see that.” Aaron wondered suddenly why Theo was drinking straight rum. Clearly the Lynches weren’t the only family who knew how to hold their liquor. Was Theo self-taught or had he also had parental supervision?

There was a moment of oddly companionable silence. In the absence of other things, the thrumming of the dirt beneath Aaron’s feet set his nerves on edge again. He watched someone clamber up on the roof of a car.

He felt a light brush along the outside of his thigh and almost jumped out of his skin. Theo ran his finger along a tiny space on the outer seam of Aaron’s jeans, more purposeful this time. Arousal bloomed low in Aaron’s gut, stealing his breath and dragging him back to the present.

“Are you drunk?” Theo asked, voice pitched low.

“No.”

Theo let his finger run in a messier line, traveling further inward. “Then let’s take a walk.”

Aaron nearly groaned. How did he make such innocuous sentences sound so positively filthy? Not that Aaron was complaining. Goosebumps blanketed his arms and his hair was standing on end, whole body on alert from standing so close to Theo.

“Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

Theo placed the cup on top of the car, gifted Aaron with a wicked grin, and began walking away. He glanced back just once to see if Aaron was following.

With a deep, shaky breath, Aaron did.

 

 

His unease returned again once they reached the woods. The music was quieter here, but the hum under Aaron’s skin was louder. It was spread out into the air somehow, thick like humidity, and oddly familiar, like walking into the Barns. But not like home. Time moved in more layers around him, within him, trying to make themselves known. It was probably the lack of distraction, lack of something else to focus on. Aaron chewed on his lip. Maybe they shouldn’t have left the party. He wasn’t sure anymore that finally making out with Theo Jiang was worth the dread roiling in his stomach. Why was this whole fucking area an Event? It wasn’t fair.

“So, Aaron Parrish-Lynch,” Theo said, rolling the syllables around in his mouth like he was trying to figure out what they were made of. “What’s your deal?”

Focus, Aaron. Focus on Theo, on the sound of his voice.

“My deal?”

“Yeah.” They were walking over leaves that crunched underfoot, a few feet apart. Theo jogged ahead and began to walk backwards. “Your damage. The low-down.”

An instinctive warning bell went off in Aaron’s head.

“Why do you want to know?”

Wasn’t this whole exercise just a pretext for hooking up in the woods? Why did Theo want to know his life story? Aaron had a very strict policy on his life story, which was that no one knew it who didn’t absolutely have to. The whole point of Theo was that he didn’t have to reveal anything to him. That’s what Nina had assured him. That was why he had agreed to come in the first place. Right?

But it couldn’t hurt to do some small talk. He didn’t have to answer anything Theo asked. He could always cut off a particularly bad question with a kiss if he really wanted to.

Right?

“You’re a mystery,” Theo said simply. “I like mysteries.” He stopped walking suddenly, making Aaron stop short with a gasp. Theo tilted his head to the side and raised his eyebrows, waiting.

“I moved here from Maine when I was twelve,” Aaron said. “Ronan and Adam adopted me.” That much was common knowledge. It didn’t damage him to give it away.

Memory itched under his skin.

“Maine, huh?” Theo began walking again. Leisurely, in no hurry to get anywhere. “Big shift.”

Aaron nearly snorted. “You have no idea.”

“Good shift?”

“The best possible.” Aaron said it quickly, without thinking. It was the truth.

“Nice!” Theo’s face broke into a wide, genuine smile. Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. He watched his shoe snap a branch.

“What about you?” he asked, taking a hand out of his jacket pocket to gesture at Theo. “If anyone’s a mystery around here, it’s you.”

“How so? My life’s pretty common knowledge around here.”

That was true. Aglionby as a whole had a wealth of knowledge on Theo Jiang. Salacious tales did wonders for a reputation, and Theo had many attached to him.

“There’s no way all of that shit’s true,” Aaron scoffed.

“Isn’t it?” Theo cleared a small log. “C’mon, what have you heard? Tell me my own dirt.”

Aaron considered it. He could play this game. And he couldn’t deny that there was a part of him that was very, very curious.

“You started high school at Harvard Westlake.”

“True.”

“You got kicked out, and you also went to Exeter before coming to Aglionby last year.”

“Also true. Deerfield was in there, too.”

“Jesus Christ!” That was four schools in three years!

“What else?” Theo prompted. Now that he had gotten Aaron actually talking, he seemed keen on keeping it going.

Aaron hesitated before offering his next maybe-fact. “You got expelled for having sex at school.”

A slow smile crossed Theo’s face. He looked into Aaron’s eyes before answering. “True.”

Aaron dropped his gaze. “You deal coke. Or you dealt coke, at some point.”

“False!” Theo declared. “I did not deal coke. I have done coke, though.” He shrugged. “But who hasn’t done a line or two on a yacht at some point in their lives?” The look on his face was mischievous.

Aaron snorted out a laugh. “I think that’s the most Aglionby sentence I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Theo winked. “Stole that one from the Exeter kids.” He paused, expression going suddenly serious. “I don’t do that shit anymore, by the way.”

Aaron nodded. Not that it was any of his business what Theo did or didn’t do, but he had to admit that he liked Theo better knowing he wasn’t a cokehead.

Before the silence had a chance to get awkward, Aaron asked another. “Is it true you set fire to an administrative building?”

Theo burst out into surprised laughter. “I mean—“ he began, “technically….” He laughed again. “No, that’s not really true. I set a fire in an administrative building. It was a garbage can. I lit up and threw it in while the secretary was out.”

Now Aaron had to laugh too. “Why?”

Theo shrugged. “To get expelled.” Like it was obvious.

And maybe it was. There was no way Theo had gotten kicked out of so many elite schools in such a short period of time without doing the work.

“What was wrong with Exeter?” Aaron asked.

“It was Deerfield,” Theo said. “And it didn’t have what I was looking for.”

Despite himself, Aaron was interested. “And what’s that?”

When Theo looked up, there was no innuendo or guile in his face. “ ‘Let you know when I find it.”

They had reached a break in the trees, an uneven oval of a clearing. Dappled moonlight shone through the gaps in the branches, and Aaron’s throat went suddenly dry. The air was thicker here, heavy with something. Nina would call it sexual tension, but Aaron wasn’t so sure. He reached out a hand to the nearest tree trunk, maybe to hold himself up, maybe to prevent himself from going further into the clearing. Whatever was about to happen, this was the spot for it. Aaron’s nerve endings were lit up like a Christmas tree.

Aaron watched Theo take a few steps forward, the toes of his sneakers getting close and closer to Aaron’s own.

“So.” Theo’s voice was a rough whisper. He reached out a hand and hooked a finger into Aaron’s belt loop. Aaron’s breath shook coming out of his mouth.

“I know it’s not a surprise to you that I brought you out here to try and get in your pants.” Theo’s eyes glittered in the dark. “Thoughts on that?”

Consent is hot. Aaron swallowed hard. His heart was pounding in his ears, blood fizzy in his veins.

With a confidence he didn’t necessarily feel but definitely wanted to feel, he whispered back “Wondering why you haven’t done it yet”.

Slowly and deliberately, Theo leaned forward, brushing his lips slowly over the underside of Aaron’s jaw.

Aaron’s head hit the tree trunk behind him.

“Just waiting for the right moment, I guess.” Theo told him. Aaron could feel the words ghosting against his throat. He bit his lip hard. He hoped his hands weren’t shaking as he brushed them over the soft fabric of Theo’s t-shirt under his jacket. Theo pressed a soft kiss over his pulse. “I mean,” he said, “I’ve wanted to jump you for months now, but you knew that.”

Theo’s hand grazed the bare skin of Aaron’s stomach, making the muscles underneath jump. Everything was going haywire. The air was pressing in all around them, whispers on the wind. Aaron hissed in a sharp breath through his teeth.

“I did know that.” His voice sounded wrecked, even to his own ears.

“Good.” There was a scrape of teeth along Aaron’s carotid. A kiss to his cheek.

“Come on, Aaron,” Theo said, pulling back to look into his face. “I can’t make all the moves, can I?”

No, he couldn’t. And Aaron was tired of having things happen to him anyway. Of reacting.

He leaned forward and kissed Theo hard.

Everything exploded.

It was like a firework had gone off in his head, every Christmas bulb nerve ending popping at once in a burst of light and the shattering of glass. Theo groaned against his mouth and pushed back, crushing Aaron to his chest with firm hands on his back. Aaron’s fingers carded through Theo’s hair — it was absolutely as soft as it looked — pulling him impossibly closer. Theo’s mouth was pliant under Aaron’s, sucking on his bottom lip, licking into his mouth. Feverish. Absolutely fucking perfect. He could feel Theo’s heartbeat through his own shirt, just as wild as his own. Theo’s hips pressed forward, grinding against Aaron’s, and his knees threatened to buckle.

Fuck.” Aaron wanted to claw Theo’s clothes off. And apparently his hands were already doing it because Theo’s jacket was gone, shirt rucked up around his torso so Aaron could drag his fingers down the solid warmth of his back. The pressure on his cock was delicious and all-too-much, and Aaron’s throat let out an unbidden whine when Theo put space between them.

But Theo was only making room to put his hands on Aaron’s belt buckle, pausing just long enough for Aaron to moan a truly embarrassing please before going to work on it. He kissed down Theo’s jaw, along his collarbone, anywhere he could reach. In a matter of seconds and fumbling hands, Aaron’s cock hit the air, hard and aching and probably leaking all over the goddamn place. They crashed back together again so fiercely that Aaron saw sparks behind his eyes, and then Theo’s hand wrapped around them both, and Aaron was sure he was dying. The inside of his head was fuzzy with pleasure and something else, and he couldn’t help himself from thrusting into Theo’s fist, feeling the slide of his dick against Theo’s. This was not going to last very long, and Aaron couldn’t bring himself to regret that at the moment. Especially since time seemed to have stopped going in a straight line.

Theo pressed his mouth to Aaron’s neck again. Aaron felt a hard breath against his skin.

Fuck, Aaron. I’m close.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.” So was Aaron. So fucking close. There was only one barrier preventing him from spilling over the edge. He could feel it trapping him, a gossamer web of something keeping him contained. He didn’t know who put it there, didn’t know what it meant. He felt so present in his own body and so outside it at once, edges melting into Theo and the forest and the air and a persistent something nudging at his brain, frantic, banging down doors and breaking windows one by one. It felt so good. Aaron never wanted it to end. And he also wanted to reach that edge with a desperation that bordered on mania. He needed to reach it, needed to reach Theo, needed to just fucking get there

Theo groaned low in his throat. Aaron felt Theo’s cock pulse against his own, and then he was coming, hard. It rolled through him like a thunderclap, blowing everything wide open. Light bloomed inside his head, searing across the retinas of his mind’s eye.

He was surprised when Theo’s knees gave out first, though not yet lucid enough to properly register it. He slumped back against the tree trunk, bringing Theo with him. For a moment, they just stood there, breathing like they’d run a marathon, Aaron’s arm wrapped around Theo’s back and Theo’s clean hand resting on Aaron’s ribs.

The clearing crackled with static. Or maybe that was the inside of Aaron’s head. He felt bone tired.

“Theo?” he whispered. His voice was hoarse, like he’d been shouting. Maybe he had.

Theo didn’t answer right away. His hand moved to the tree trunk behind Aaron, and he used it to push himself to standing. Shakily, he wiped his hand on his jeans and tucked himself back into his pants. Silent, Aaron did the same.

When Theo looked up, his eyes were wide.

“Did you feel that?” He sounded disbelieving. Actually, that wasn’t right. He sounded completely believing. Awed.

Aaron could only nod.

Theo let out a breathy laugh. “Fuckin’ shit.”

“Are you okay?” Aaron didn’t know what Theo had felt. Or rather, intellectually, he didn’t. Something deeper in a recess of his brain he didn’t like to prod told him that he knew exactly what Theo had felt. And that Theo knew what Aaron had felt.

“I—“ Theo swallowed hard, but he was smiling. “I think so.”

“Cool.” Aaron ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “Cool.”

When Aaron looked back up, Theo was still looking at him. He watched his eyelids flutter and close, and Theo kissed him again, sweetly, slowly, hand gently cupping the side of his face. Aaron felt a flicker of the intensity of before, subdued and quieted now. It was like they had let it out into the world, diffused so they were inhaling it slowly rather than having it hit them all at once. Aaron leaned into the kiss.

Something cracked in the trees.

Theo jumped, and Aaron looked up sharply. The shadows pressed in between the trees as Aaron scanned the clearing behind Theo’s back, but nothing appeared.

And then he saw it, blocking out moonlight on a nearby branch.

It was stark and pale against the dark, angular, fierce, deadly. It was incredible that Aaron hadn’t seen it right away. Moonlight caught on the needle-edges of its claws, pink-veined tatters of its wings, the sharp jut of its beaks. Red eyes glittered in the dark.

Aaron had never seen anything like it. Aaron, who had seen wars, plagues, and death, had never seen anything like it.

There was no air in his lungs. He was frozen. He was prey.

All he could hear was the rushing of his blood in his own ears, and Theo’s ragged breathing beside him.

Then the thing on the branch opened its mouths and shrieked.

They ran.

They ran, feet pounding over damp leaves. Shadowy trees flew by and branches snagged on their clothes, their bare arms, their faces, stinging as they went. Theo tripped and Aaron caught him, propelling him forward as another shriek rained down over their heads. The wind whipped the trees into a frenzy, cutting through the heat. Aaron’s lungs burned with fear and adrenaline. Sweat ran down his back.

At the end of the fairgrounds, Aaron risked a glance over his shoulder at the sky. The pale demon thing was still flying overhead. Aaron considered whether it might be prudent to fucking scream when he was nearly clotheslined by Theo’s arm. The two of them staggered, and Aaron followed Theo’s gaze.

The fairgrounds were on fire.

Smoke hung thick in the air, burning in lines through the grass and out of blown-out cars. Dozens of them, all white and all sleek and all exactly the same. The license plates said “THIEF”. Aaron’s lungs felt singed, and sweat ran in his eyes. Partygoers were scattering, frantic, far away on the other side of the field. The white demon flew past, completely ignoring them. It looked like a war zone. Rap spit out in another language split the air. Floodlights put it all in horrible clarity. It smelled thickly of magic and hunger and fear.

This was what had happened at the fairgrounds.

Aaron felt panic well up in his throat. He tried to call up his defenses, such as they were, and found nothing to hold onto. He simply had to ride this out. But what the fuck was he riding out?

An explosion rocked the ground, and brilliant color turned everything a horrible green hue. A firework. Aaron pulled Theo around the only car that seemed not to be on fire. The metal was warm and slippery where Aaron’s sweaty hands pressed against the passenger door. He was aware of shouting, but he couldn’t make out words through the buzzing in his ears.

Through the windows, Aaron saw someone wrench open the door. Buzzed hair, broad shoulders.

“Ronan?” he whispered.

AARON!” Theo’s voice sounded far away, even screamed in his ear.

There were ratty sneakers in front of Aaron’s nose, standing on top of the car. Orange flame reflected in the glass in front of him. The air smelled like carbon and sulfur. Aaron whirled around.

Flame. Teeth. Blinding light.

Then nothing.

 

 

 

Miles away in Singer’s Falls, Adam Parrish sat bolt upright in bed.

Chapter Text

Someone was saying his name, close by and urgent. Adam, Aaron’s brain supplied right away. That’s Adam.

He was confused, then, when he opened his eyes and saw Ronan. He had the same look on his face as when Aaron had driven his car into a ditch a year previous. Anyone could interpret it as angry — and it was very clear that Ronan was pissed — but only those who knew him well could interpret it correctly, with fear and love and worry mixed in.

Aaron could feel cool ground against his back and grass poking at his bare arms. He was cold, though his body could remember leftover heat.

“Ronan.” Aaron’s voice was wobbly. It came out like a question.

He wiggled himself up into a seated position. Ronan put his hands out as if to stop him or catch him if he fell, but he made it all right. His head spun a little. He hated passing out.

Then it all came back in a flood. The burning cars, the woods, the white terror in the trees, the July heat, the fireworks…

Theo.

Aaron’s head whipped around. Theo was lying spread out on the ground beside him, eyes closed, one arm in a fist over his chest and the other stretched out towards the car looming over him. It was a red car, not white like it had been. Adam knelt beside him, gently checking for injuries and vital signs. Behind them were several partygoers, probably part of a larger crowd mostly blocked by the car, trying to decide whether Theo or Ronan was more interesting to look at.

Ronan’s hand squeezed Aaron’s shoulder. “What the fuck happened?” he demanded. Aaron suddenly realized quite vividly that he was probably in a lot of trouble. Ronan was never supposed to know he’d been here.

Aaron glanced nervously at their spectators. “I, um…” He tried again. “I don’t…”

The truth of the matter was, Aaron had no fucking clue what had happened. He didn’t even know how to begin to explain it to Ronan. He had no idea how much he should tell Ronan even if he knew what to say. Ronan was clearly part of this place, and he clearly didn’t like being back here. Aaron could see now why that might be, but there was definitely still too much information missing. He’d already scared his father half to death. How could he possibly determine the right words to explain that wouldn’t cut Ronan further in the process?

“Is that Jiang’s kid?”

“What?”

Ronan pointed to Theo.

“Yeah.” Aaron nodded absently. “Yeah, it is.” Did Ronan know Theo’s parents? Aaron looked hard at his father.

Adam chose that moment to look up from Theo’s limp form. “He’s definitely breathing and his vitals all look okay as far as I can tell. He just needs some air.”

“You okay?” Ronan asked Aaron, direct and brusque.

“Yeah.” Approaching headache and residual grogginess aside. Nothing to write home about. Not physically, anyway. “I’m fine.”

Ronan gave a small nod and stood up. He advanced on the spectators, who looked more apprehensive by the second. Ronan armed with a glare could be a terrifying thing, especially to those who didn’t know him. Where Adam’s suggestion had been subtle, Ronan’s was blunt force trauma.

“Hey!” His voice cracked out, and several people flinched. “Everyone back the fuck up!”

Everyone backed the fuck up.

“Did someone call 9-1-1?” Adam asked.

A brave Aglionby sophomore who was clearly a designated driver raised his hand. “I did.”

“Good,” Adam said.

Ronan raised his voice again and pitched it over everyone’s heads. “Cops are gonna be here soon, everyone! Make yourselves scarce!” He turned back towards Aaron, then thought better of it. “And someone turn that shit off!”

Aaron realized belatedly that the music was still playing. He really wanted to disappear.

Ronan was kneeling in front of him again. The blue of his eyes shot bright and clear through Aaron’s consciousness, even in the dark, making all his secrets whine and shrink away from the light.

“What the fuck happened?”

Aaron dropped his gaze, feeling his face grow hot. I hooked up with my crush in the woods. Nina twerked, or something. We saw a giant white bat-dragon and ran our asses off. I came my brains out. The field was on fire. I saw you. We passed out.

“I had an episode,” he said finally, studying the patch of grass next to his knee. “A really bad one.”

Ronan gave a rude snort, the one Opal liked to imitate. “You don’t say. Adam felt that shit all the way in Singer’s Falls.”

So that explained what they were doing here, and what had made the memory so fucking loud and obnoxious. The whole of Henrietta was sitting on a magical superhighway of deep inconvenience for Aaron. It was the only thing he missed about Maine.

“What happened to Jiang’s kid?” Ronan asked.

“His name is Theo,” Aaron said, looking over at him again. There was a lock of hair that had fallen into his eyes. Aaron itched to brush it away, and clamped down on the urge. Several reasons why that wasn’t a good idea. “I don’t know what happened to him. It was like…like he was in the episode too.”

Aaron winced. This was not how any of this was supposed to go. “He just passed out, I don’t know…”

Ronan was still staring hard at him. “Has that ever happened before?”

Aaron shook his head. “No. It’s this place. It’s…” He searched for the right word. “Powerful.”

Ronan’s eyebrows drew down in a proper glare. Aaron could tell it wasn’t entirely directed at him, but he had to actively remind himself.

“No shit,” Ronan bit out. Aaron’s stomach twisted with guilt. Ronan’s jaw worked as he glanced off towards the trees to his right. He ran a hand roughly over his face. “What are you even doing here, Aaron?”

“It was mostly fine!” Aaron burst out. His voice sounded petulant, defensive. He hated it. “I had it under control!” And he had, until he hadn’t anymore.

Ronan shared a look with Adam, one of the ones that Aaron could never quite interpret until it was too late.

“Okay,” he said. “We’ll talk about this later.”

Aaron blanched. They definitely should not talk about this later. Especially since it was looking more and more likely that all of this bullshit had gotten out of control because Aaron had decided to fuck in the woods. There were many things he’d like to do — like stick a fork in his eye — before he’d choose to explain that to his fathers.

He didn’t know what made him ask it. Maybe it was the grogginess from a moment ago, or nerves or fear left over from before that. Maybe it was a split-second need to prevent Ronan from getting up and moving further away. Maybe it was because the question had been eating at him for years.

“Ronan, what happened here?”

“What,” Ronan snapped, harsh and acidic. “Your episode didn’t tell you that?”

Aaron blinked, surprise blocking out everything else for an instant. He saw immediate regret flicker over Ronan’s face. Ronan reached out and placed a hand on the back of Aaron’s neck, thumb just brushing the shell of his ear.

“We’ll talk about it later,” he promised. It was a different-sounding phrase this time.

 

 

 

The EMTs arrived within a matter of minutes. Ronan disappeared to go get the car. A tall girl who didn’t look much older than Aaron asked curt, clinical questions, the lights of the ambulance searing Aaron’s eyes as the others checked Theo the same way Adam had earlier.

“Did he hit his head?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Had he been drinking?”

“A little. He wasn’t drunk.”

“Did he take any drugs?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Aaron was kind of stuck on that last one. Theo had assured him he didn’t do cocaine anymore, and he hadn’t seemed high as far as Aaron could tell, but really, he had no way of knowing. Nothing except the sinking feeling in his gut that said whatever knocked Theo unconscious had, in some sense, come from inside Aaron’s own head and the practically-cursed ground.

A soft groan made him turn back towards the ground. Two EMTs were had been in the process of moving Theo onto a stretcher, and now held their hands out to prevent him from moving too fast as he tried to sit up.

Theo rubbed the heel of one hand over his eye and looked skeptically at the EMTs. “What the fuck?” he asked, voice thick like it hadn’t been used in a while.

“We’re taking you to the hospital, Theo,” one of the EMTs explained. “You passed out briefly, and we just want to check you out and make sure everything’s okay.”

Theo seemed to accept this, but didn’t appear to dwell on it for long. The next thing that came out of his mouth was Aaron’s name.

Aaron felt a flush working its way up his neck as he felt Adam turn to look at him. He prayed silently and desperately that Theo wasn’t about to say something about the profound weirdness of what just happened, or imply anything about how his hand had been around Aaron’s dick not at all long ago.

The EMTs were wheeling the stretcher — now containing a pretty alert Theo for how supremely dead-to-the-world he looked before — towards the ambulance, but Theo reached out a hand to Aaron.

“Wait, wait.” The EMTs did not look like they appreciated being stopped. “Here.” Theo’s hand was warm against Aaron’s, and so was the metal he dropped into his palm. A pendant on a chain. Aaron's necklace.

“Thanks,” he said, looking up in surprise. Figures he lost his necklace with the patron saint of lost objects on it.

“Aaron!” He turned to see Nina running across the field, Raleigh on her heels. He stuffed the pendant in his pocket. Nina’s eyes were wide and wild, and she stared momentarily after Theo as he was wheeled away before turning her attention to Aaron.

“Are you okay?” She started checking him for injuries anyway. “Somebody said you passed out.”

“I’m fine, Nina.” But he was studying her. Part of the beauty of Nina was that sometimes, she knew the answers to those questions better than anyone else. He watched her blink at him slowly, then stare back at the doors of the ambulance snapping shut. Did that mean Theo wasn’t?

“Nina?” She shook her head. She wasn’t going to say anything in front of Raleigh.

“I think Adam’s waiting for you,” she said.

“I’ll take you home,” Raleigh offered. He put out a hand like he was going to place it reassuringly on Nina’s shoulder, then reconsidered and stuffed it in his pocket.

“Yeah, that’d be great, thanks.” Nina looked up at Aaron. “I’ll text you tomorrow.” She said it slowly, like she was choosing her words very carefully. She definitely knew something he didn’t.

Aaron nodded. He turned towards Adam, who was standing next to Ronan’s car. Apparently, he’d pulled up while Aaron’s wasn’t paying attention. For the first time, he realized that Adam was wearing flannel pants and a ratty shirt with no jacket. His pajamas. He was also wearing sneakers with no socks. So he and Ronan had been asleep when Aaron had accidentally sent some kind of shock wave down the ley line. Aaron found it hard to hold his gaze as he slid into the backseat.

The ride home was silent. Ronan drove much slower than usual, like he was contemplating each turn instead of going on muscle memory. Adam fiddled with the radio before eventually giving up and turning it off. Aaron leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes. He must have dozed off, because he opened them again in the Barns driveway.

He followed Ronan and Adam in the house, quiet and wary and hanging back, like the first months he’d lived there. Inadequacy sat heavy in the pit of his stomach. He’d fucked up, caused them worry, made them get up in the middle of the night —

“Aaron.”

Adam was leaning against the wall in front of him, one shoe already kicked off in the hallway. He left the other untouched on his foot and closed the distance between them. Aaron found himself breathing in the sleepy scent of Adam’s t-shirt.

“You just scared us, is all.” Aaron felt the vibration of his words against his forehead where it was pressed to Adam’s shoulder. The honeyed edges of his words dripped reassuringly through Aaron’s chest, easing tension wherever it touched.

Adam held him out at arm’s length. “Go get some sleep, all right?” He didn’t need to bend down anymore to look into Aaron’s face. His eyes were a softer blue than Ronan’s, but they saw just as much. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Aaron hesitated. It hadn’t escaped him that he and Adam were alone in the hallway, or that Ronan hadn’t looked at either of them before going into the house.

“Is Ronan —“ he began.

“You let me deal with Ronan,” Adam said. “He’s in his own head right now. It was definitely a time we’d rather not think about. Give us the night to sort through it.”

So Aaron had been right and wrong about the fairgrounds. Adam had been there, too, but the memory wasn’t at all what he’d thought it was. Having seen it with his own eyes, Aaron didn’t need to imagine anymore. But nothing about it made sense. What was that thing they’d seen in the trees? What had Ronan and Adam been doing in a graveyard of dead and dying cars in the first place? Had it been Adam standing on top of the car with Ronan? And how had it truly ended?

“What happened in that field, Adam?” Aaron pressed. Adam clearly knew. He’d just as good as admitted to being there, and he knew everything there was to know about Ronan.

Adam sighed. He scratched at a spot on the back of his neck, suddenly looking very tired. “I’m not sure I’m the right person to tell you that.”

He kicked off his other shoe and gave Aaron one last reassuring glance. Then he was gone.

Back in his room, Aaron shut the door and leaned against it, closing his eyes. He hadn’t bothered to turn on the light since the moonlight streaming through the window was pretty much enough to see anyway. He was drained in a way he didn’t remember being in a long time. Reliving the past took energy, a lot of it, and the ley line sucked up even more than it gave sometimes. The flames danced behind his vision still, Theo’s mouth a phantom presence on his neck. This was the problem with Aaron’s talent, curse, whatever you wanted to call it. He never relived anything as strong as the first time, but he also never relived it just once. The kinds of events that found Aaron were the kind that tended to stick with you, abilities or not.

Aaron blew a breath out through his nose and pulled his t-shirt roughly over his head. His necklace dropped to its familiar place against his sternum.

He hoped Theo was okay. He wished he could contact him and ask how he was, but he didn’t have his number, another byproduct of the stupid dance they’d been doing around each other for months. It all seemed so irrelevant now, when he knew what Theo’s skin felt like under his hands and suspected that what they’d done in the woods had something to do with Theo being carted off in an ambulance.

Aaron peeled off his socks and jeans, leaving them in a pile on the floor on top  of his t-shirt. He’d left his jacket in the woods.

Now that he thought about it, though, Theo looked perfectly fine when he’d woken up, like he'd lost consciousness peacefully instead of violently. He had been confused, but he didn’t look like Aaron had felt. Maybe he hadn’t seen what Aaron had seen. Maybe it hadn’t effected him the same way.

Well, he wasn’t going to get any answers until the morning anyway. He slipped under his blankets in his underwear, letting his eyes fall shut. Pretty disastrous as first hookups went, he decided, though the actual hooking up part was pretty fucking amazing. Or maybe that was just the magic of the place acting up. Either way, they certainly weren’t going to be going back there anytime soon. Aaron’s brain supplied a vivid image of Theo’s hand sliding over him, passing him a red solo cup, reaching out from the stretcher —

Aaron’s eyes shot open, every nerve on alert at once. He whipped the blanket off his legs and dropped to his knees by the pile of clothes. He clawed at his jeans, forcing a hand into one pocket. Empty. He tried another one. Empty. A third…he stopped. His fingers closed around something cool and hard. Hand shaking, he brought it out into the meager light.

His heart began to pound against the inside of his ribs.

The metal glinted on Aaron’s palm. St. Anthony stared serenely up at him, completely unaware of the ice sliding down Aaron’s spine. Aaron’s other hand groped for the chain around his neck. His fingers fumbled with the clasp, but finally, he held them up side by side.

They weren’t completely identical. St. Anthony’s nose wasn’t the same, and the pattern around the edge was slightly different.

But it was close enough.

Theo had handed Aaron an almost perfect forgery.

Chapter Text

As a child, Nina wanted to be Cam Jansen. Nancy Drew was cool, and so was Encyclopedia Brown, but Cam Jansen was the kid detective to end all kid detectives in Nina’s mind. There was an appeal to photographic memory that the others didn’t have. You had to study to be Encyclopedia Brown. You had to have saddle shoes to be Nancy Drew. Cam just looked at something and — bam — mystery solved. It was inherently part of her, like a Fox Way-style talent. A young Nina thought Cam would have done just fine under her family’s roof.

She’d thought about it a lot on the ride home in Raleigh’s car. She’d been in the front seat this time, the seat cool against her bare legs. Raleigh could tell she was lost in thought, or maybe he was lost in thought himself, because he didn’t say much. He looked concernedly at the road. He had such an earnest face, Nina thought. The face of someone who didn’t have very many secrets.

Nina leaned her head against the wall behind her. She could hear two conflicting streams of music from where she sat draped over the top of a staircase in 300 Fox Way. The song coming out from under the door behind her to the left had a pumping bass and a reggaeton cadence, and it elbowed uncomfortably through the twanging notes of a country song leaking out of another part of the hallway on its way down the stairs. It didn’t make for very good listening. But that was just how 300 Fox Way operated: different voices in different languages and planes of existence layering over each other and flowing through the doorways, plucked out of the air by the residents of the house to the tune they recognized best. Nina, of course, didn’t pull things out of the air. She needed people for her particular plane of existence, so right now, she just heard clashing songs. That and her cousins arguing downstairs over the last of the organic yogurt. Aunt Blue had brought a pack of the little cups over the other day, and they’d disappeared very quickly.

Next time, Nina thought, she’d kiss Raleigh. 

But she still wished she were Cam Jansen right now. She wished she could call upon a metaphysical camera to show her the moment under Rudy’s fluorescent lights where she’d first seen Theo Jiang.

She’d studied him then, of course. Anybody with that amount of hype around them, especially from Aaron Parrish-Lynch, deserved to be studied and assessed, especially if you had some kind of gift to assess him with. So, yes, Nina had definitely looked at his aura. Looked hard at it. She saw the pleasure there when he caught sight of Aaron, the way that the wispy presence surrounding her best friend reached for Theo in a way she hadn’t seen Aaron reach for many people. She’d seen Theo reaching back. She’d seen how nervous they’d both been, and sexual tension so thick it seemed to fry the air between them. She also saw the energy it took to try and keep themselves from showing it to each other.

Boys, honestly.

But these things were surface-level, basic shit. If she’d closed her eyes and really looked with her other eyes, the ones that could only see in the dark, there would have been much more. If she’d been able to look harder (if she’d thought it would be useful to look harder) she could have studied them for real. She might have seen if Theo had told a lie anywhere in the discussion, though she doubted it. She might have seen more about the way his aura reacted with Aaron’s, the real push and pull of it.

She might have been able to tell if there was something magical about him.

She could see Aaron’s ability all the time, now that she knew what it looked like. She could see Adam’s if she tried, Orla’s if she didn’t, Aunt Blue’s only with her eyes shut. But she hadn’t thought there might be something…special about Theo. Not in that way special, anyway. All the same, she hadn’t seen anything worth noting that day in the pizza store.

But staring at Theo’s limp body on the stretcher at the fairgrounds, there was definitely something there. Bright and chaotic and powerful.

And it looked familiar.

Nina let her head fall heavily against the wall. If Theo had been harboring magic that powerful at the pizza store, she would have noticed. Maybe it wasn’t there before. Maybe he found it somewhere. Maybe that’s what happened to people’s aura’s when they made out with Aaron Parrish-Lynch. Maybe he’d hid it somehow.

But how could he hide something like that? How could he know he would need to?

Was it under the surface the whole time and Nina just hadn’t been paying attention?

Nina stared at Aaron’s lack of response on her phone and sighed.

If only she were Cam Jansen.

Chapter Text

It was 9am, and Ronan sat at the kitchen table, waiting. He wrapped his hands around the mug in front of him, more interested in the warmth leaching into his fingers than the coffee inside. Adam had a thing about wasting the heating bill (just like he had a thing about wasting the water bill, and the electricity bill, and his time). Aaron complained, and Ronan sided with Adam for the sake of parental continuity, but it left Ronan with the habitual practice of using hot beverages to warm himself rather than turning up the thermostat.

The mug in his hands said “Aglionby Dad” on it. The original had been a gift from Gansey, but it had fallen victim to a game of sock hockey two Christmases prior. Ronan had chosen to dream another one rather than enter Aglionby in order to do something other than yell at PTA parents for heteronormative ads in the school newsletter. He huffed out a small laugh thinking about it. Just one of the many ways he avoided parts of his past that could cut him. At least with the mug it had worked. Gansey hadn’t ever found out it had been broken.

Aaron knew about how Ronan had been broken. It wasn’t clear how much exactly, but Aaron knew something.

Which was why Ronan was sitting with cooling coffee in the kitchen at 9am, a tempest in the middle of his otherwise silent home.

Aaron knew Ronan wasn’t perfect, of this he was already aware. No parents, even Ronan’s, were perfect, and he didn’t delude himself into thinking that Aaron and Opal saw himself and Adam that way. But there was something to be said for keeping a certain amount of ugliness away from your children. Ronan knew that Aaron especially had seen entirely too much of it in his young life already, enough that he didn’t need Ronan’s or Adam’s to pile on top. There was also something to be said for the stubborn protective streak that Ronan had trouble suppressing. It was why Aaron’s car didn’t go more than ten miles over the speed limit. It was why he had told him not to go to the fairgrounds in the first place. Ronan didn’t want Aaron to be hurt ever again for as long as he lived. Of course, that was impossible, but it wasn’t impossible that Ronan could avoid being the one to hurt him.

Apparently it was more difficult than he’d thought.

Sometimes Ronan felt very unequipped to be a parent.

It had been more of a gut feeling than a logical decision when he and Adam had adopted Aaron anyway. It had surprised him at the time that Adam didn’t fight for a lengthier deliberation.

Ultimately, he’d said: “We could give that kid a home, Ronan,” and that had been the end of the discussion. It had been more than enough for Ronan anyway.

Now, he doubted himself. Now, he wasn’t sure which felt worse: that his son had been terrified or that a part of himself he never wanted exposed saw the light of a firework once more. His kid or his privacy. Ronan hated himself a little for the fact that they had still seemed more equivalent than they should when he woke up this morning.

He’d told Adam as much earlier.

“Allen Ginsburg had it wrong,” Adam had said in response.

“What the fuck.” Ronan didn’t get it.

“He said ‘first thought, best thought’,” Adam explained. He pulled a long-sleeved shirt over his head. “It’s not. Your first thought’s often the worst. It’s the rash thought, it’s insensitive, it’s mean, it’s racist, it’s stupid.”

Ronan had watched him sit on the bed and pull on his socks, resisting the urge to touch him.

Adam had looked up and met his eyes then, reaching out a hand to pull Ronan in till the shorn top of his head was nestled under Adam’s chin.

“It’s the second thought that shows who you are,” Adam had told him, running a hand over Ronan’s tattoo. “What you really think, instead of your knee-jerk reaction. What does your second thought say?”

Ronan hadn’t hesitated, because he didn’t lie. “That leaving Aaron in the dark is worse than revealing my fucked-up shit to my kid.” Adam kissed his forehead.

“Who taught you that?” Ronan had asked.

He had felt Adam smile against his skin.

“Aaron.”

There was a noise on the stairs, a steady succession of creaks, and it pulled Ronan back into the present. Ronan felt his fingers tighten on the mug as he watched the door. After a few moments, Aaron appeared in the threshold. He was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt Henry Cheng had gotten him on a business trip to Japan. (Ronan and Adam didn’t know what the sweatshirt said, and didn’t trust Henry to translate it accurately, so they didn’t let Aaron wear it out of the house.) He looked tired, hair sticking up and eyes dark with shadows. He stopped in the doorway and pulled a sweatshirt sleeve over one hand, then the other. 

“Where is everybody?” he asked.

“They went for a ride somewhere,” Ronan told him. It was true; Adam had taken Opal and Aaron’s car and left over an hour before. The message had been clear: you two are going to talk about whatever it is you need to talk about without interference. Clearly, Aaron heard it too, because he flicked his eyes down to his covered hands and said “We don’t have to talk about it”.

When the fuck did that kid get so perceptive? And when did Ronan become so goddamn readable? He growled a little into his mug and took a lukewarm sip.

Ronan knew what he had to do. And he had to start somewhere.

“Come on.”

Aaron said nothing, only followed him out the back door, letting the screen slam behind them. Ronan paused for just a moment, looking out onto the green expanse of the hills that stretched out into rolling fog. The clarity of last night had melted into mist this morning, blanketing the world in the quiet and the deep, humid heaviness that usually burned off after the sun had fully risen. Time seemed to unspool at Ronan’s bare feet.

Ronan sat on the second-to-last step, placing his feet into the wet grass below. The grass was cold, very cold, but it felt grounding. Aaron had put on slippers at some point, and he tucked his feet up on the last step so only his toes hung off, the grass leaving tiny whips of dampness on the fabric.

Ronan thought Aaron had grown taller this year. He’d never be as tall as Ronan, that much was for sure, but he’d passed Cheng — hair included — and was closing in on Adam. He was staring out at the view as Ronan watched him. A stray breeze ruffled his hair, mud-brown strands still shot through with a little gold from the summer. At the touch of wind, Aaron’s shoulders hunched a little more, and he pulled his sleeves further down over his hands. He was biting at his lip, too, a bad habit since it already looked a bit chewed up. Maybe he’d been doing it a while. He looked more like twelve-year-old Aaron than he had in a long time. Ronan didn’t like it.

Aaron looked at him then, giving Ronan full view of the fact that his left eye was much more green around the center than his right. Opal was obsessed with the heterochromia, and so were the ladies of Fox Way, who spent lots of time waxing psychically about Aaron’s eyes. Ronan was only paying attention to the tight wrinkle of tension between them.

“Are you angry with me?” Aaron asked. He was definitely trying to take an Adam approach to dealing with Ronan (infinite patience) but he was Ronan’s son too.

“No, I’m not angry with you.” Jesus fuck, of course he wasn’t. “I just didn’t want to relive that night is all.”

And then he stopped. He didn’t know where to start. What was the beginning of the story?

“What happened there, Ronan?”

Ronan took a breath, thanking whoever was responsible for giving him a kid who saw through him better than most.

“It was the Fourth of July.” Aaron was motionless, listening. “I was…a year younger than you, I guess.”

“I was…” Ronan hesitated. He looked out into the fog again. “Not in a good place. Gansey tried, and Adam and Noah tried, but…”

“Because of your dad?” Aaron interrupted.

That and several other things. Dickhead brother, budding sexuality, Catholic guilt, spent ley line, Adam’s fucking hands, insomnia, too much power for any one person to hold — but mostly that. Ronan simply nodded.

“There was too much in my head,” he said. “I was dreaming crazy shit, dangerous shit. I didn’t sleep much, and I didn’t know what to do with all my…shit so I looked for other things, other places to put it.”

He took another steadying inhale. The words would be easier the longer he kept talking. “There was this guy — Kavinsky. Joseph Kavinsky.”

Shit. It had been a long time since he’d said the name out loud. Ronan didn’t think he’d ever called him Joseph. It felt strange and familiar at once, smooth and grimy on his tongue like one of K’s pills.

“He was like me,” Ronan said.

Aaron sat forward a little at that. “A-a greywaren?” It came out hoarse, either from sleep or nerves. Ronan understood not wanting the power to name things greywaren.

“Yeah. Except he didn’t dream things like Cabeswater and Opal.”

Aaron hadn’t moved a muscle. “What did he dream?”

What didn’t he dream? What hadn’t the two of them dreamt together in that fucking field? How much had Aaron seen?

“Cars,” Ronan decided. “Drugs, fake ID’s. Prokopenko.” He knew Aaron didn’t know who Prokopenko was, or how he’d been lying in the hospital where Adam worked since before Aaron could count to ten. Sleeping. Rotting. Ronan’s stomach twisted.

“And dragons.”

“Dragons?” Aaron’s eyes went wide. “All white and-and pointy…”

The picture was coming together a little. “No. Actually, that one was mine.”

“You dreamt that?” Aaron’s brows drew together in a look Ronan could only describe as disbelieving. Like he couldn’t fathom that something so terrifying, so ugly, had come out of Ronan’s head. Something in Ronan’s chest squeezed tight.

“Like I said, kiddo. Bad place.”

“Oh.” The look was still there. Ronan didn’t know how he’d come to love so many things in his life this much.

“His was made of fire,” he said.

Recognition flashed across Aaron’s face. “I saw that.”

Ronan nodded, swallowing hard. “K…” Fucking Christ. “K wanted something from me. Wanted to pull me into his little group, pack of fucking dogs, whatever you want to call it. I would race him and his friends at night.”

It was so mild. It was missing so much it almost felt like a lie. But Ronan didn’t have proper words for what K had wanted, for what he himself had wanted. Something powerful for sure, something violent, something true and gritty and mean and so alive it was painful even to look at, disgusting to feel, and shameful to consider. Ronan didn’t want things like that anymore, but he remembered what it had felt like to want them. Anger bubbled up in a low simmer in his chest.

“Were you guys, like…a thing?”

A thing. Ronan almost laughed. “Not sure if that was something you could be with K.”

He blew out a harsh breath. “To be honest? I don’t know. That night, I ended whatever it was.” He also remembered why that was. He felt his jaw clench. “He kidnapped Matthew.”

Uncle Matthew?”

Ronan nodded. “Threw this gigantic party, dreamt up a drag strip and all these cars…”

“White ones.”

“White ones. He hid Matthew in one of them and stood on the top like the king of the fucking world.” K had been king of a fucking sand castle. “He wouldn’t call any of it off. He just stood on top of the car and… just let his dragon fly right into him. There was barely anything left.” Ronan had left the sunglasses where they had fallen on the grass.

Aaron sucked in a breath. “Holy shit,” he breathed. “He committed suicide?”

“I guess that’s what you could call it.”

Ronan watched his son grow silent for a long moment, brow still furrowed, hands rising of their own accord to fidget with the chain around his neck.

Aaron sat up suddenly, remembering. “You were right there!”

“Yep.” Front and fucking center.

“Was Uncle Matthew okay?”

Ronan shrugged. “You know Matt. He was fine.” He could have been fine sooner, but Declan had had something against therapists at the time. Too many secrets, he’d said, too many things Matthew could talk about that might get him committed to an institution instead of help he really needed. Ronan didn’t know anything about therapists, and he’d been fighting with Declan about so many things at the time that this one thing he simply didn’t have the strength for. He wondered what would have happened if K had had a therapist.

“Do you hate him?” Aaron asked quietly.

For a moment, Ronan thought he meant Declan. “Kavinsky?”

A nod.

“Yes.” That was true. It had probably been true then, too.

“Do you miss him?”

For a long time, Ronan didn’t speak. Words were Adam’s strong suit, not his. He’d told Adam as much this morning, too. It was a skill he’d never been able to cultivate in his thirty-five years.

“Do you miss Maine?” he said finally.

He knew Aaron would understand it for the answer it was. He knew that Aaron would hear “I used to, even though it was bad for me, but I have better things now”. He knew he would hear “Missing it only visits me late at night when the walls feel like they’re closing in”. He would hear “I’m never going to be able to scrub it out completely and that bothers me”.

He would hear “I would trade it for you any day of the fucking week”.

Aaron was silent again, and Ronan watched a flower by his right foot — improbably purple and written in no botany textbook in the world — stretch its petals out, leaning towards Aaron like he was the sun.

“Dad?”

Ronan looked up.

“How did you know who Theo was?”

Ronan felt his mouth twist into a smirk. Because Henrietta is a small fucking town. “He looks just like his dad. And I knew there was a Jiang at Aglionby again.” Declan made it his business to know things like that.

“You know his dad?”

“Yeah. He actually — he ran with K’s crowd when we were all at school.”

Something complicated ran across Aaron’s face and disappeared before Ronan could properly identify it. Another reason why Adam would have been better at this.

“Was he…was he also like you?”

“No,” Ronan said. “Nothing magical about Jiang, as far as I know. He cleared out of Henrietta pretty fast when we graduated, too. I was surprised when…Theo? That’s his name?” Aaron nodded. “When Theo showed up. You friends with him?”

Aaron’s face flushed a brilliant scarlet all the way up to his ears. Ronan felt his eyebrows rise of their own accord. Well, that was interesting.

“I don’t know him that well,” Aaron mumbled.

Maybe not, but by the look of things, Aaron probably knew him in the Biblical sense. Aaron didn’t really talk about boys at home; Ronan supposed he had friends for that. If Ronan were his own son, he’d talk to Adam, who could at least be counted upon to be clinical about it. Ronan would probably say something weird, like use the word “boning”, and Aaron would never stand next to him in public again.

So he said, “Right”, and waited for his next cue. Aaron still wasn’t meeting his eyes, now that it was completely obvious he’d outed himself. Ronan couldn’t keep something like that to himself, which meant Adam would know in an hour, and Blue by tomorrow. Cheng would probably be looped in by Blue next week. At least Aaron could be secure in the knowledge that Gansey would never catch on.

“I don’t have to tell you it’s okay to be gay, do I?” Ronan asked.

Aaron rolled his eyes. A good sign with any teenager, meant they were feeling more like themselves. “You know I’m gay, Dad.”

“Thank fuck. I know nothing about girls.”

Aaron smiled a little at that. “That’s okay,” he said. “Nina does, in case I ever need to know anything.”

There were many things Ronan wanted to say at that moment, about Aaron, about himself, about their family and love and life. He threw out “You know, you should listen to me when I tell you things”. He discarded “Are you okay?” and carefully placed aside “Boys can be dangerous, especially if they’re Jiangs”.

He sighed. “I was going to tackle the south barn door today,” he said. “You wanna help?”

Actions always spoke louder than words to Ronan. The way Aaron would hold a hammer and size up a wood slat and play with a barn cat would tell him more about his mood than sitting on the porch ever would. And it was an offer of support, of shared space, of all the things Ronan was constantly offering Aaron, and had been offering him ever since he and Adam had seen those striking eyes on a kid drowning in a giant couch at Fox Way.

“We’ll need shoes,” Aaron informed him.

Ronan smiled a real smile at that. “How do you and Adam carry your giant brains around all day? Your shoulders must be fucking exhausted.”

Aaron rolled his eyes again. Things would probably be okay.

Chapter Text

The story went like this:

Once upon a time, there was a small town in Virginia. It was so small that some of the roads were dirt, and the dirt of the roads sunk into the buildings and people, so you were always breathing in that dust. People sat on porches and drank sweet tea in the summer, and the mountains sat smoky and blue-grey in the background. The fields had tall grass. The cops were stupid and slow.

But inside this town which wore its mundanity like a favorite sweater, like a badge of honor, like armor, there was a king unlike any other.

The king was made of magic. So deep in his veins you couldn’t trace where it came from, how far back it went. Magic that lived in the fibers of his hair and the edges of his fingernails and the synapses of his brain. Powerful magic that you could hold in your hands so you could feel the realness yourself. It was the most powerful magic in the world. People had studied it, and they knew. They envied it.

You could know it by looking at him, though there were few who did properly. You could hear it in his voice, see it in his eyes, feel it in the gravity that pulled people to him always. He knew what you wanted without your having to ask. He couldn’t read your mind. No, that wasn’t his kind of magic. He could feel it, shape it, tell you what you wanted before you even knew yourself.

And then he would create it out of nothing.

Anything in the world, anything the world had never seen, from nothing. From pure magic.

The king’s name was K.

That was the only name he was ever given in the story. A singular letter, multiple pathways from a solid wall. Options. Possibility. Breaking through a barrier. The limit of how much you could grow before things began to starve.

 

 

“Are you fucking kidding me?!”

Theo’s thoughts were interrupted by Jaxon Shen, who launched a small handful of Lucky Charms at the top-left corner of the television from his seat on the floor. It was the quarter of the screen with the Dallas Cowboys game on it. There were four games playing on the screen at once, with four different sports. Cole Crutchfield looked up from his phone, where he was adding more hashtags to a post caption.

Cole hissed through his teeth. “That’s rough, buddy.”

Jaxon crunched on another handful of sugary cereal. He kept the box under his bed next to his weed like the contraband he believed it to be. He pointed at the top-right-corner NHL game. “I still might be okay this round if the Devils pull through.”

“Shouldn’t have picked the fucking Devils,” Cole scoffed. “Nothing good ever comes from New Jersey. You’re going to lose a boatload of cash.”

Jaxon ignored him. Theo remembered that he was supposed to be hoping the Devils ate shit in this game. His bracket was riding on it, though not as much as Jaxon’s was. But he was distracted currently, by things bigger than the tangled, convoluted web of intrigue that was the Aglionby version of Fantasy Football. Fitting that the game had taken on a complexity as expansive as the school itself.

Theo looked back to the glaringly empty Google Search bar on his laptop, heart in his throat, still trying and failing to work up the courage to populate the blank space with something. Or rather, trying to translate the whirlwind in his head into reasonable search terms. “Reasonable” had lost much of its meaning lately.

 

 

K’s kingdom was small, so said the story, but only because the kingdom inside his head was so vast. And people couldn’t stand to be around him for very long, anyway. Not unless they were special, chosen.

Because the magic was dangerous. And deadly. Anything that powerful is. It could create miraculous things, but it could take them away just as easily. As strong as K was, the magic was stronger.

One night in the dead of summer, it killed him.

Because that was the way of magic. That was what magic did. It destroyed things. In the real world, magic destroyed things. That’s why fairytales were fairytales. The story Theo was told at the age of seven was not a fairytale.

It became one, though, and Theo struggled to remember exactly when. Somewhere in the thick mist of his childhood memories, something had changed. His father, who had told the story with an air of authority less polished and more raw than the one he used in his everyday life, had stopped calling it real. He insisted that magic did not exist at all, that the story of K, King of Virginia, had no truth to it. Theo hadn’t wanted to believe that.

From the first time he heard of it, Theo had wanted to see the magic of the story for himself. If it was out there, he wanted to find it. He had asked his father once why K allowed the magic to kill him. In a rare show of profanity in front of his young son, he had said: “Because he was arrogant, and fucking stupid.”

Theo was neither arrogant nor fucking stupid. He would not let the magic kill him. But he had to find it first.

He’d begun to ask questions, or rather, more questions than he had before. Where did the magic go after it had killed K? How did it kill him? Where was he buried? Did he have any family? How did you know the magic when you saw it? How did his father know about K in the first place? Had he met him? With each question, Theo’s father would close off a little more, until eventually, he shut him out completely.

At twelve, Theo decided that K must have had something to do with Henrietta. After all, where else in the state had his father been? He must have passed through there, or lived there, or died there. At the very least, it was a clue. Theo asked to go to Aglionby, and was sent to a boarding school for the first time. In California, three-thousand miles from where he wanted to be. The questions weren’t the only reason, but they made the short list.

And there, among the modern angular shapes of that particular school’s buildings, a hunger bloomed in Theo’s chest. A ravenous, particular thing that wasn’t satisfied with what it saw or where it was. It was a hunger for something bigger, something more. It was out there; Theo could feel it in the hollow spaces in his bones. And he wanted to find it. To hold it in his hands so he could feel the realness himself.

At fourteen, Theo started Harvard-Westlake, the first of the schools that would make the long list of his transcript. Having entered a period of his life characterized by the kind of buzzing, electric recklessness that would have lit a low flame behind white sunglasses, Theo decided he was going to go to Aglionby, no matter the cost.

 

 

He studied Jaxon and Cole now as they bickered over the simultaneous games and got Lucky Charms dust all over the carpet. Cole was the special kind of grumpy he only got when hungover, though it was wearing off at this point. The two of them had been waiting when Theo had gotten back from the hospital the night before, still drunk, but determined to see if he was okay. Jaxon had said the two of them had been periodically smacking each other to keep awake. Theo had made many acquaintances in the past few years, and even a few real friends. He had high hopes for these two.

He had still told them his Google project was for class, though.

It had not been easy to get here, Theo thought. Here, to this couch in an Aglionby dorm. It had taken work and dedicated planning and not a small amount of sex appeal. There had been screaming matches and cold silences and threats and bribery and a slew of other crimes, including one or two that involved actual police.

But now Theo could say it had paid off. Because he had seen something more. He’d felt it on his skin and in his blood. But the key to it wasn’t in a hidden castle or an underground cave as he had imagined as a child. It hadn’t been an old, stately man or a long-dead skeleton.

It was Aaron Parrish-Lynch.

Somehow, Theo was not at all disappointed at the vessel in which his dreams had arrived.

He hadn’t been lying to Aaron when he said he liked mysteries, and Aaron certainly looked like a mystery. So it was one thing to stare at him and imagine him a mystery; it was quite another to be absolutely sure, in a gut-wrench kind of way, that he was one.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, which did very little, Theo typed “Henrietta fairgrounds fire” into the search bar.

 

*****

 

Aaron crushed a leaf into tinier and tinier pieces and let them fall to the concrete outside Whitman House. AP French met in there, and Theo was in AP French. Aaron was not in AP French, because Adam had said Spanish was more useful, and was right. Aaron pondered the fact that he knew most of Theo’s class schedule, but not his phone number.

“Take that, Nina,” he mumbled to himself. “A real stalker would have the phone number.”

He felt a small prick of guilt, thinking about her. He’d been avoiding her since the fairgrounds party; he knew she’d tell him to bring everything he knew to Ronan and Adam. He knew she’d probably be right, too. But the fewer people knew about Theo’s potential to ruin Aaron’s life, the better.

It was Aaron’s lack of real stalker skills that had landed him outside Whitman House at the tail end of a free period anyway. No phone meant he had to do this in person. Which was probably better, honestly. Texts meant receipts. Phone calls could be overheard. And Aaron needed to know a whole lot more about what he was dealing with before he risked any of that. He began to make a list in his head, the way Adam had taught him. Reviewing what you knew meant less room to panic.

The list went like this:

Fact 1: Theo had seen the same scene in the field that Aaron had.

Fact 2: Theo had passed out for longer.

Fact 3: Theo had woken up and handed Aaron an almost-passable forgery of his necklace.

Aaron gritted his teeth. It was not a promising list, and it didn’t point to anything good. Though, as Adam would remind him, those were the only things he knew for sure. To jump to any more conclusions would be fucking dumb (though that particular terminology was Ronan’s).

Fact 4: Theo was coming out of Whitman House.

“Theo!”

Theo’s eyes flicked up from his phone to Aaron’s, sending a shockwave through his insides. How was it that he was never going to fucking get over meeting Theo’s gaze. Aaron wasn’t sure what kind of reception he was going to get, but Theo’s face lit up when he saw him.

“Hey!” He jogged down the steps and stopped a few feet in front of Aaron. “I was just looking for you. Can we talk?”

Aaron’s gut twisted pleasantly despite his attempts to clamp it down. Theo had been looking for him.

“We’re talking right now.” Aaron could have kicked himself. What a dumb fucking line.

But Theo only huffed out a laugh. “Yeah, I guess so.” He tilted his head to the side a little, his expression growing more serious. He was a smart kid. Of course he knew Aaron would want to talk about the traumatic event they’d both experienced the last time they had seen each other. Aaron followed him around the side of the building to the stairwell outside the fire exit. It was a favorite spot of the marijuana-inclined Aglionby crowd, but now it was empty.

Theo sat down on a top step, looking up at Aaron.

“So,” Aaron began. “Um. How are you feeling?” He mentally grumbled at Gansey for drilling manners into him that Opal seemed to be able to ignore without issue.

“Fine,” Theo said. “I mean, physically, totally normal. Mentally…I don’t know. I don’t really know what to think.” He spoke slowly, as if measuring his words to see how Aaron would react to each one. It was just as well, since Aaron was doing the same thing. This was a fact-finding mission for both of them. Would it be more useful, Aaron wondered, to find his own answers, or to determine what answers Theo wanted instead?

There was something in Aaron that desperately didn’t want to lie to Theo. Despite the fact that he didn’t know him well, despite the fact that he might be a ticking time bomb, Aaron liked him. He liked his wry smile and his casual way of holding himself and his playful sense of humor and the way he asked good questions and especially the way he kissed. There were things more important, but maybe Aaron didn’t have to shut his doors all at once. He had so few open towards other people to begin with.

“Me neither,” he said, grateful for the small opportunity to be honest. “Did they tell you anything at the hospital?”

“Not really,” Theo said. It didn’t look like a lie. Aaron was an experienced liar, and could recognize other experienced liars. Theo was a good liar, that much he could tell, but that made it all the more conspicuous when his face was so open and easy.

“They said I was totally fine,” Theo shrugged, “Didn’t have any drugs or anything in my system. It was like I’d just hallucinated and then took a nap on the fucking grass.”

Aaron’s heart jumped the tracks. “Took a nap?”

“Yeah,” Theo gave that small laugh again. Aaron really liked it. He ground his molars against each other and hoped Theo couldn’t see. “Had a dream and everything. It was really weird.”

A dream. Opal. Cabeswater. ORBMASTER. But also, a dream. Cars. Drugs. Fake IDs. Dragons.

Aaron could practically hear his pulse in his ears.

“What did you dream about?”

Theo flicked a heavy-lidded look up at Aaron. There was a little glint to his mouth now. “Instant replay.”

Oh. That. The knowledge hit Aaron low in his gut. He stuffed his hand into his pocket. He didn’t have time for this.

“Where did you get this?” he demanded. He held the forgery pendant out in his fist in front of Theo’s face.

Theo’s eyebrows drew together. He was clearly surprised that Aaron hadn’t taken that bait. He looked…a little hurt, actually. But he recovered quickly.

“It’s not yours? I figured I must have pulled it off by accident when we were… hooking up.” Theo bit his lip, looking down at where his hands were twisted around the strap of his backpack. “It’s a little fuzzy,” he admitted. “I remember pulling it off at some point, but it’s hard to tell what was the dream and what was the hallucination and what was actually going on.”

“Uh huh.” Aaron felt like something was sitting on his chest. This had been a bad idea. These were answers he didn’t want to have.

“Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah,” Aaron snapped himself back into the present. “I’m fine.”

“Look, Aaron…” Theo raised himself off the step and moved a foot closer. He was looking directly at him now, a heat behind his gaze that Aaron hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t like how he had looked at him in the woods. It was something…oddly childlike. Lighter, and excited, but nervous, like Aaron might shut him down. He wished Nina were there to interpret it for him.

Theo took a breath. “We weren’t on drugs, and we hadn’t drank that much. It wasn’t in our heads, I know it wasn’t. Something happened in those woods. And you felt it, too,” he insisted.

Aaron didn’t know what to say.

“Something happened,” Theo repeated. His eyes were bright with enthusiasm. “Something…not normal, something…more!” He looked at Aaron expectantly. “Are you going to make me say the word?”

Yes, Aaron was definitely going to make him say the word. Because he had legitimately no idea if he could form sound at the moment.

“Something…supernatural,” Theo whispered.

Fact 5: Aaron had not seen this coming.

“Supernatural?”

Theo nodded.

These were clearly all the facts Aaron was going to get before having to come to a decision, and it was crucial that he made the right one. On the one hand, confirming to Theo that the supernatural existed right here in Henrietta might encourage digging, which had to be avoided at all costs. Digging into what happened at the fairgrounds might mean finding Kavinsky, which might mean finding Ronan, depending on who and what Theo already knew. On the other hand,  Theo was dismissed as crazy, he might abandon his efforts to sway Aaron to his opinion and expand his efforts to find someone who would listen, which could be even more dangerous. And Theo seemed oddly fixated on the fairgrounds themselves, on what happened in the woods, as opposed to the pendant and what had happened when he “took a nap” in the grass. There was still a chance, however unlikely, that Aaron’s fears about Theo being…like Ronan were unfounded.

Theo seemed oddly uninformed about the supernatural for someone whose parent had been involved in it at this very school. Maybe if he was…like Ronan, there was a possibility he didn’t actually know. It was something to be picked apart later.

Ultimately, if Aaron accepted Theo’s theory, it would be much easier to steer him in the wrong direction.

“Yeah,” Aaron said slowly. “I think you may be right.”

Theo’s eyebrows shot up towards his hair. “You do?”

“How else do you explain giant flying creatures and fire that no one else can see?”

Theo nodded. Aaron could practically see the wheels turning in his head as he stared into the middle distance. “Right.”

“And Henrietta’s a weird town.” Aaron was fascinated.

“Mhm…” Theo bit his lip, reaching a hand back to scratch at the nape of his neck. As he moved, Aaron caught sight of a dark, blotchy bruise just below where Theo’s collar had shifted away from his skin. Aaron remembered a time, not so long ago, when he had imagined putting his mouth to that very spot from the back of a classroom. Clearly, he had done it.

He was staring, and his face felt hot. It was the most inconvenient time in the universe to be thinking about it, but he remembered how good it had felt to make it. He remembered staring at his own collarbone in the mirror that morning, pressing lightly into the small red marks and feeling the phantom sensation of Theo’s lips on his skin.

Theo had noticed what he was doing. His lips parted in a grin, showing a row of endearing-imperfect teeth. “How’s it look?” he asked, arching his neck so Aaron could have a better view.

“Very pretty.” He didn’t want to smile back, tried so hard not to smile back.

“After school, you want to find me and make another one?”

Fact 6: He wanted very few things more than that.

“Yeah, okay.”

“Cool.” Theo straightened, cleared his throat. “But, anyway….uh.” Aaron looked on in shock as Theo lost his train of thought right before his eyes, watching Aaron watch him. “I want to find out what’s going on.”

“Me too.” Again, not a lie. Small victories.

The bell should have been deafening for how high the two of them jumped in the air.

“I have a quiz,” Aaron remembered distantly.

“Oh.” Theo hoisted his backpack higher on his shoulder. He stepped closer, close enough that Aaron’s breath stuck to the sides of his throat. “Okay. I’ll see you later.” He pressed a soft kiss to Aaron’s cheek, and gifted him with another smile. Honest, just this side of sweet. Maybe Aaron really could have this both ways.

“Let me know if…” Aaron swallowed so he could get the rest out, “…if you remember anything else. Or if anything else weird happens.”

“Yeah, definitely,” Theo agreed. “If you experience any weird phenomena between now and last period, let me know.”

Aaron nodded. He definitely would not be doing that. He turned away towards the rest of campus, wondering for the billionth time what the fuck he had gotten himself into.

Chapter Text

“And that,” Raleigh proclaimed, “is why summer jobs are never, ever a good idea.” He nodded his head once, firm, punctuating the end of his remarks.

Aaron burst out laughing. “I really don’t think you can make that judgment call off a single day’s experiences.”

Raleigh spread out his arms in a gesture of not-even-trying-to-be-contained shock, almost clotheslining a freshman as they walked down the hall. “Did you miss the part where I had to deal with teeth? Literal teeth? From a human being?”

“Maybe a summer camp summer job is never a good idea,” Aaron allowed. Raleigh nodded again, accepting Aaron’s assessment of his trauma at the hands of a group of six-year-olds in swim trunks. Children were undoubtedly gross as a group. Aaron knew this well, having been one himself more recently than he’d care to admit. Even now, the list of children he actually liked was very small and limited to exactly two households, not including his own. It was hard to tell how to classify Opal.

He hadn’t known Raleigh then, but he could imagine he’d been rather gross as well. Despite his obvious squeamishness when faced with bloody, loose teeth, Raleigh still held a healthy appreciation for dirt, an appreciation which was probably going to get him to Yale come December, where he could continue to play lacrosse and write as many run-on sentences as he liked and worship the uncouth American cousin of John Mulaney’s family pet.

Aaron told Raleigh as much. He was in a much better mood than he had been previously. Raleigh Applewhite’s most impressive trait was unquestionably his ability to make any crisis momentarily disappear into the white noise background of Aaron’s mind. He’d asked after Aaron’s mental state after fifth period, accepted his minimal answer, and proceeded to fill the rest of the day with dumb stories and specially curated memes and strangely recognizable stick figure of their history teacher.

It wasn’t that Raleigh wasn’t good at getting into big issues — he’d probably make a fantastic career out of doing it later in life — but his intelligence was in knowing when to let a problem cool off, the subtle art of letting it be. Aaron’s intelligence was in dissecting a problem down to quarks. They made a good team that way. Balanced each other out.

Aaron wished he could tell Raleigh about this particular problem.

Raleigh caught the change in Aaron’s expression and went quiet. He shoulder-checked Aaron — enough to make him swerve just half a step, not three — a silent question. Aaron gave him as much of a smile as he could, answering it.

It was colder now than it had been a few days earlier, a harbinger of real winter, pulling the leaves down and finding its way between the quality threads of Aglionby sweaters. A chill made its crawling way down Aaron’s spine.

Or maybe that was just Theo waiting for him across the parking lot. He was leaning back against the side of his car, hands in his jacket pockets and shoulders hunched a little against the wind. It was odd for Theo to be actually looking at him so brazenly, here, in broad daylight, where anyone could see. It was even more odd that Aaron could look so blatantly back, accepting it. Or maybe Aaron was being melodramatic.

Raleigh was clearing his throat.

“You just going to stand here, or are you actually going to go over there?”

“What?”

Raleigh rolled his eyes. “Dude, you’ve already hooked up in the fucking woods. You can go talk to him now. Your weird mind game has passed its expiration date.”

“I know,” Aaron said.

“Gone to meet its maker,” Raleigh continued. “It’s pushing daisies, that’s how dead it is. It’s passed zombiehood and turned right into dirt.”

“Could you not  —“

“Don’t stop me, I’m on a roll now.” Raleigh’s grin was wide and goofy. “It’s deceased. It is totally kaput.”

“Bye, Raleigh.” Aaron was already three steps down.

“It has given up the ghost!” Raleigh called after him. “Kicked the bucket!”

“Yes, thank you!” Aaron turned to face him, walking backwards on the sidewalk.

“Gone to its eternal home!”

Aaron just raised a middle finger.

Theo was grinning when he reached him. “Hi, there.”

It was easy to return it. So easy to just let the joy of being grinned at by a thoroughly beautiful human being leak out. Theo’s genuine smile changed his whole face, made him look younger and eager for things. Aaron liked it a lot.

Theo looked over Aaron’s shoulder and waved. “Hey, Raleigh!”

Raleigh raised a hand and gave Theo a two-fingered salute.

Aaron fidgeted with the strap of his backpack. The exact protocol of this situation wasn’t totally clear to him. Did he kiss him hello? Did they just go back to Theo’s room or did they have to find an excuse to waste time first? What if Theo had changed his mind about his offer from this morning? How did Aaron ask without seeming like an asshole? Theo, at least, seemed to know better than he did. Maybe he’d done this kind of thing before.

The nebulous relationship thing, that is. Aaron was pretty sure that the rest of this, whatever it was, had never happened before.

Theo bit at his lip and bounced on his heels a little. His eyes were so dark that Aaron could barely tell where his iris ended and his pupil began. He looked up at Aaron through his lashes and asked: “Your room or mine?”

Aaron felt his face grow warm, and the pit of his stomach grow warm along with it.

“I have a roommate,” he said. He knew Raleigh would probably steer clear of their room for a few hours. Actually, he suspected Raleigh might be getting into his car to drive to Fox Way at that moment. (Aaron may have been avoiding Nina for the time being, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know she was texting Raleigh.) But still.

Theo shrugged, but his gaze flittered to the ground. “Mine, then.”

Theo’s room was entitled Probity.

“Like my SAT word?” Theo asked, unlocking the door.

“My uncle Declan lived in Effervescence.” Aaron had no idea where that piece of information had come from. His stomach was prickling with nerves, and apparently his brain had lost veto power over his mouth. Always a great sign.

“Aw, fuck,” Theo said, with feeling. He shoved open the door and held it open for Aaron to go through. “That’s a much better one. I didn’t even know that was a word you could have.”

Theo’s room was neater than Aaron and Raleigh’s. There were no clothes strewn across the floor, fewer papers and school books piled up on the desk. It was a smaller room, which was probably why Theo didn’t have a roommate. The window was open, and there was a singular cactus — one of those furry ones that didn’t look sharp until you were pulling needles out of your hand — on the sill. There were a few posters on the walls, mostly of exotic places very far away, artfully placed. A large cork board loomed over the desk, the only place in the room where there was real chaos. Aaron was immediately drawn to it.

Every inch of the board was crammed full of papers. Post-its with lists of assignments and small reminders, colorful postcards, tickets from concerts and museum exhibits, some from nearby, some from D.C. or New York or Los Angeles. Aaron brushed a fingertip over a sticker from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And then there were drawings. A lot of them, on scraps of paper and the backs of homework assignments and on regular old printer paper. There was a notebook on the desk that probably contained more. Some of them were of normal things, books and trees and a few people — if Aaron squinted, he could see Jaxon Shen — but most of them were of buildings. Aaron saw Whitman House, the leaning tower of Pisa, St. Agnes’ church, the Henrietta town hall, Taipei 101, and others he didn’t recognize. The detailing was perfect, the lines sure and purposeful.

“These are really good,” Aaron said. “You draw these?”

“Yep.” Theo had sat himself on his bed. “You like ‘em?”

“Yeah.” Aaron passed his hand over St. Agnes, not touching it, because he didn’t want it to smudge. “They’re really good. Especially the buildings.”

“I want to be an architect.”

Aaron turned back towards Theo. He was fiddling with his watch band. “Really?”

“Uh huh. The fam would rather I just did the "tech" part but no big deal.” Theo lowered his air quotes and shrugged in a way that told Aaron it was a very big deal. Aaron realized very suddenly that Theo’s room wasn’t going to tell him anything truly useful. He could learn about Theo’s passions, what SAT II’s he had studied for the year before, where he’d been. (He wondered what his own room might tell a stranger in return. Not the one here at Aglionby, the one at home.) But he couldn’t interpret the clues of Theo’s room on his own. As usual, there weren’t any secrets to be discovered here that weren’t on Theo himself. Theo had said he liked mysteries. Aaron wondered if Theo knew he was one himself.

Theo hadn’t moved much from his position on the bed, only leaned backward a little on his hands. The sharp jut of his chin tilted just a little to the side. His mouth lifted to match the sharp angle of a dark brow.

Aaron leaned a hip against Theo’s desk and crossed his arms over his chest.

“You want to be all coy and cute about this like last time?”

Theo’s smile stretched wide.

“What?” Aaron demanded. He gripped his own biceps tight.

“You think I’m cute.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. “I think you’re annoying.”

“And cute.”

“And cocky,” Aaron accused. Theo didn’t deny it.

“But cute,” he said.

“Shut the fuck up, Jiang.”

He realized his mistake, although Theo barely moved a muscle. Aaron could have kicked himself. He had walked right into that one. Theo didn’t even have to say the make me for Aaron to hear it loud and clear.

He blinked, and his feet had brought him to within a few feet of Theo. Theo stood, slowly, like he wanted to avoid startling Aaron. His eyes flicked to Aaron’s, then to his mouth, then down and away, then up to his lips again. Aaron’s gut tightened in anticipation, his hair raising off his scalp. His traitorous tongue, still not on proper orders from his brain, ran over his bottom lip. He saw Theo track the motion and swallow hard.

“Wait.” It came out a whisper.

“What?” Aaron’s voice was just as quiet.

“You don’t think we’ll, like, set off another crazy…thing, do you?”

It was a reasonable question, given last time. Theo had kissed his cheek earlier in the day, but that hadn’t been a real one. It hadn’t been…whatever they were about to do. But the whispers of the woods were quiet. Nothing had ever happened to Aaron in this room. There was a faint buzz from the sheer number of people who had lived here, but only if Aaron really concentrated, and no more than anywhere else on Aglionby’s campus. They wouldn’t set off something like last time.

“We’re okay.”

Theo’s eyes left Aaron’s lips for just a moment, enough that Aaron saw him register the fact that Aaron knew something.

Aaron fisted his hands in Theo’s sweater and cut off the train of thought with a kiss.

Theo only hesitated a split second before surging forward to meet him, sliding his hands around Aaron’s waist. Aaron’s fingers slid through the hair at the back of Theo’s neck, scratching just a little as Theo bit at his lip and pulled at the back of his shirt. The fabric came free of his belt and Theo’s hands reached bare skin. The smallest flicker of electricity coursed up Aaron’s spine, a shadow of the feeling he’d felt in the woods. His lungs seized briefly, and Theo took advantage of the gasp to slide his tongue past Aaron’s lips.

They parted only momentarily so Theo could wrench his sweater off. Aaron’s tried to get his own button-down and sweater off at once and they got caught briefly around his elbows and his head. He froze, struggling a little.

“Little help?”

“Nah,” Theo said, placing a kiss on his sternum. “I’m good.”

“Theo…” Aaron’s view was completely obscured by his clothes. Theo’s mouth was making a slow, agonizing journey down his chest. He was aware that this was not very dignified, and also that it was very arousing. He wriggled, and Theo’s tongue slid across his stomach.

Aaron tore himself free and tossed his clothes aside, breathing hard with his tiny victory. Theo caught his eye and watched his face as he slowly ran his hands up the insides of Aaron’s thighs. Aaron’s knees threatened to buckle.

“Fuck,” he whispered.

Theo smiled. “All good?” He slid a finger underneath the edge of Aaron’s pants, skimming inside against the sensitive skin of his hip. Aaron nodded.

Theo didn’t need telling twice. He made quick work of Aaron’s belt and leaned forward to press a kiss to the straining fabric of Aaron’s underwear. In another moment, Aaron’s dick hit the air and Theo was licking a long stripe up the bottom of it.

Fuck.” Aaron gripped Theo’s shoulder for balance and put his other hand in his hair. He wanted to be careful, to not pull unless Theo told him he could, but Theo swallowed him down and suddenly that was difficult to do.

Aaron had been on the receiving end of a few blowjobs in his life. Not many, but enough to know Theo was damn good at it. Also, that he was, as usual, committed to the aesthetic. He looked up at Aaron through his lashes, locking him in his gaze so Aaron had no choice but to watch closely as Theo’s lips wrapped around his cock.

Eventually he couldn’t do it anymore. It was too much, too intense, too good. He closed his eyes and felt it wash over him, the increasing tightening in his belly and the silky feeling of Theo’s hair in his fingers and the solid curve of Theo’s shoulder under his hand. One of Theo’s hands gripped the base of Aaron’s dick, pumping in tandem with the movements of his mouth. The other gripped Aaron’s thigh tightly, keeping him close.

Aaron was going to come. Real soon.

“Theo,” Aaron warned. The muscles of his legs were shaking. “Theo.”

Theo pulled away, not stopping the movement of his hand. Aaron was teetering on the edge.

“Do you not want to come in my mouth?” Theo asked.

Fuck. It was so fucking filthy. How the hell did Aaron get himself here?

“I—“ he stammered. “Fuck. Up to you.”

Theo put his mouth back on Aaron’s cock by way of answer, and with a groan, Aaron was gone.

He came back to himself as Theo was wiping his mouth on the collar of his shirt. He registered that his fingers had tangled themselves tightly in Theo’s hair.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to pull so hard.”

Theo was still watching closely, which made something squirm in Aaron’s gut.

Theo gifted him with a sharp smile. “It’s okay. I liked it. You okay up there?”

Aaron tilted his head to the side, as dignified as he could manage while putting his softening dick back in his pants.

“Thought I was supposed to make some more of those pretty marks on you,” he said.

Theo stood, slowly. “I think I remember something about that.”

“That still the deal?”

“As far as I’m aware.”

Aaron took a step forward, so that his chest brushed against Theo’s. He could feel Theo was hard against his thigh. He ran his hands over Theo’s shoulders and around to the back of his neck. Slowly, purposefully, with plenty of him to be stopped, he tangled his hand in Theo’s hair again, and tugged it till Theo’s head tilted backward. Theo hissed a breath out between his teeth, but his lips were parted in a smile, his gaze a challenge.

Aaron felt his own face mirror the expression. He leaned forward, placing a soft kiss against Theo’s pulse. Then another, messier, before taking the thin skin of Theo’s throat between his teeth. Theo breathed out heavily and pulled Aaron back towards him, grinding slowly against his thigh.

“Aaron.”

“Hmm?”

“That feels fucking good.”

Aaron started working on another mark, higher up. Where he couldn’t hide it with the collar of his shirt. Theo groaned, and Aaron felt it under his tongue.

He grazed his teeth along Theo’s ear. “Can we get on the bed?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you have—“

“Top drawer.”

Once Aaron got his hand around Theo’s dick, things somehow got a lot less complicated. Theo was laid out all pretty in front of him, the marks Aaron had just made standing stark against his neck and chest, the slim, elegant lines of him shuddering as Aaron twisted his hand, ran it up the shaft and rubbed a thumb along the slit. Theo reached for him and Aaron obliged, kissing him hard.

Theo shivered under him, breath coming faster in time with Aaron’s hand.

“Uh, God, keep going.” Theo panted, and Aaron’s chest twisted with pride and pleasure. “Fuck, so close.”

Aaron kissed his way back up Theo’s neck.

“C’mon, Theo,” he murmured. “Come on.”

“Aaron—“

And then he was shuddering hard, spilling over Aaron’s fist. Aaron kissed his ear, his cheek, finally his mouth.

Theo let out a breathy laugh. “Did you make a lot of damage?”

Aaron assessed it. It looked…dramatic. “It’ll be hard to hide, that’s for sure.”

“Good thing it fits my...what did you call it?” Theo sloppily tossed Aaron a towel. “My brand?”

“That is what I said, isn’t it?” Aaron mused.

He did have to admit though, it was satisfying to look at. There was no hiding it now.

It was like a neon sign. Aaron was here.

 

 

 

It was several hours later that Theo turned to him and asked, with the casual air of someone trying to be casual, if Aaron wanted to stay.

They were spread out over Theo’s bed, textbooks scattered around them. Aaron had gone back to his room briefly for a change of clothes, and to grab his laptop. He was attempting to make headway on an essay about Cymbeline. Theo wasn’t disturbing his progress, per se, except that he was.

So when Theo leaned his head on his hand and asked Aaron if he wanted to stay without looking up from his problem set, Aaron was caught a little off guard.

“Stay?”

“Yeah,” Theo said. “Sleep here.”

Something clicked into place in Aaron’s mind. He had so many questions, all rattling around in his brain, all pointing back to the boy at the other end of the bed. And the first step to all that knowledge that he desperately needed…well, it was genius in its simplicity.

What better way to observe the effects of Theo’s dreams than from the very bed in which he dreamed them?

Immediately, Aaron’s gut squirmed. It was a pretty calculating move, even for him. What the fuck did he think he was doing, seducing Theo for answers like something out of a political thriller? But what else was he supposed to do?

And there was also the fact that he really wanted to know what it felt like to feel Theo’s arms around him with no urgency. He wanted to know what it felt like to wake up next to another person. It was a grown-up kind of prospect, more mature than Aaron felt at the moment, but appealing all the same.

“I’d like that,” he said.

Again, it wasn’t really a lie. But it wasn't the whole truth either.

Chapter Text

The blinds were closed, sending harsh stripes of moonlight across the floor and up the walls at an odd angle. It was the kind of quiet that only came with real winter — the crickets and frogs and cicadas of the summer gone for the season, leaving only emptiness to press in on the windows. Everything was standing sentinel and waiting, for winter or spring or both, no one could be sure. The wind interrupted the silence with the rushing of branches bare or nearly-bare of leaves. Several of them scratched at the window, and Theo turned his head to watch the shadows they made against the glass.

He raised an arm to look at his watch. 3:13 am. He sighed.

Beside him, Aaron’s breaths were slow and even, his face turned towards Theo on the pillow. He’d barely moved from the position he’d fallen asleep in hours ago. The stress of his day — probably the reason he had passed out so completely — had melted off his face. Theo brushed a lock of hair gently off Aaron’s forehead and wondered what he might be dreaming about.

He wondered what he himself might dream about, given the chance.

Theo was not stupid. He knew his dreams had unfolded into kaleidoscopic craziness. Colors were brighter, edges sharper, things surreal in their ultra-reality. In his dreams, things like surreal ultra-reality actually made sense.

He also knew when his dreams had taken on a quality he’d never experienced before. In the timeline of his tenure in Henrietta, it was right around the time Aaron started sleeping in his bed. Theo was too credulous to believe Aaron wasn’t connected to this, to the magic of it, to whatever had happened in the woods.

If this even was magic at all. Who knew the rules, what forces were at play here? For all that Theo’s dreams had multiplied in complexity over the last month, they hadn’t given him any answers.

And he was too chickenshit to tell Aaron about any of it. He’d agreed to Theo’s theory of the supernatural readily enough, but from what Theo could tell, the amount of knowledge he really had about the subject was not very large. Either that, or Aaron was hiding a treasure trove of answers and simply not sharing it. Theo didn’t want to think about why that might be. But then again, wasn’t he hiding things from Aaron as well? The strange things he saw while asleep, the odd objects and injuries that appeared without explanation? The fear that one of these things might add up to a terrifying answer? The even greater fear that they might add up to nothing at all?

Theo sighed again and gingerly swung his legs off the side of his bed. For the time being, he was thirsty, and the complex web of whatever-this-was that surrounded him and Aaron Parrish-Lynch could wait until he got a glass of water.

He padded across the room barefoot, scrubbing a hand over his face. The floor was cold against his feet, the handle cold against his hand as he turned it.

The light from the other side of the door nearly blinded him at first. He squinted into it, stepping through the threshold, where suddenly it wasn’t so cold.

Sunlight slanted down in great wide arcs, dappling the stone floor. Mites of dust swirled in the beams in aimless patterns. There was sound again, birds and the rushing of water and the soft hush of leaves.

Theo craned his neck to follow the lines of the structure around him. Massive pillars of stone, fluted and intricate underneath a healthy tangle of vines, soared up three stories above his head, meeting in graceful buttresses that crisscrossed the ceiling. Enormous windows with colored glass tinted the light red and green and purple. A cathedral. Or at least, something like one.

The vines were not alone. Everything was overflowing with green. Flowers poured over the balconies of the second story, dripping scarlet and blue petals into the air to be pushed around with the sparkling dust. Young, green ferns peeked out from behind the pillars, and fallen leaves carpeted the ground under Theo’s feet. There was a tree, huge and spreading, growing out of the stone floor in front of him. And no part of this interior forest seemed at odds with its surroundings. It grew between and over the stones, but none of them were cracked or crumbling under the weight of the all that green. It was harmony where none should exist. Theo loved it on sight. His dreams were not always beautiful, not always peaceful. But here? Here he wanted to come back to.

The steady flow of petals falling from the ceiling shifted in the air, swirling molasses-slow several feet away, as if they couldn’t bear to fall to the ground just yet. Theo’s steps made a soft hushing sound as he stepped across the floor.

They were fish, he saw, with fins like soft fans and tiny, upturned noses.

Betta fish, Theo’s mind supplied. The fish hung suspended in the air, swimming against an invisible current as they moved around Theo’s head. Theo watched two of them, both a brilliant blue, close to his face.

I thought betta fish couldn’t be in a school, Theo thought. If you put two in the same tank, they’ll fight.

As if on cue, one of the fish rounded on the other. In a flash, it snapped forward. Theo’s heart flew into his throat.

“No!”

All the fish froze in midair. Theo barely breathed. One second passed, then three, and the fish melted back into petals, continuing their meandering path towards the floor. The two in front of Theo transformed last, and he let the petals slip through his fingers on their way down.

When he looked up, the car was there. He didn’t know how he didn’t notice it before.

It was at the other end of the knave, facing Theo grill-first. Shiny and pristinely white and screaming arrogance to the world. It wasn’t the first time Theo had seen it, but it set his hair on end. It had been appearing a lot in his dreams. Some kind of subliminal message to himself in a language he couldn’t read, apparently.

Theo was right in front of it now, without much of an awareness that he had moved at all. The windows were tinted dark; he couldn’t see a driver or any passengers.

Maybe tonight was the night he decided to drive it. Theo felt his mouth twist into a smirk. He was a self-made rebel, after all, had put in the work to be a stereotypical bad boy. Just because it wasn’t who he was in the deepest parts of himself didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the benefits.

Theo rounded the driver’s side door and reached for the handle.

“Don’t.”

Theo looked up. It was his father. He was dressed the way he always was when he came home from work, suit impeccable, but missing his tie, so the tattoo on the side of his neck was partially visible. Theo knew he’d had others, but he’d gotten some removed. Others he’d simply never shown to his son.

“Don’t open the door,” Theo’s father said. He wasn’t speaking in English. Theo didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed that before.

“Why not?” Theo knew the moment the words came out of his mouth what his father’s reaction would probably be. It would be the same one that occurred whenever Theo asked a question he didn’t want to answer. A tightening of the mouth, a clench of the jaw, minuscule but evident if you knew him well.

Theo’s father did none of those things.

“Just look at it,” he said.

Theo did. The car was a blackened husk, windows blown out, parts of the interior still smoldering.

“Was anybody in there?” he asked frantically.

His father was gone.

Theo sat upright with a gasp. The silence was deafening, pressing on his eardrums. The room was dark, the moonlight slanted. The clock read 3:13.

“Theo?” Aaron rubbed an eye, then seemed to wake up in a rush. “What’s going on?”

Theo swallowed. “Nothing. Nothing, I’m fine.”

There was a moment where neither of them spoke. Then Aaron said, very carefully, “Bad dream?”

Theo didn’t answer, only rearranged the blankets around himself and huddled close to Aaron’s chest. After a second or two, Aaron reached out a hand to hold him closer still, running a thumb back and forth across the back of his neck. Neither of them asked any of the questions on their minds.

 

**********************************

 

An Aglionby college fair was not a place Nina Sargent ever really thought she would end up. It was not even a place she aspired to end up. She knew where she wanted to go to college — Johns Hopkins (though Duke was a close second) — her applications were nearly finished even though she only planned to have to send out one, and plus, Sargents didn’t mix with Raven Boys en masse.

Nina glanced at her phone, which showed a text from Raleigh continuing their earlier conversation on planning an aquarium in the Henrietta town square. Alone, she decided, Raven Boys were okay.

“I cannot believe we’re doing this,” Aaron said. He was pacing back and forth in front of a set of lockers, randomly kicking out his foot into one every few seconds.

Nina slid the phone into her pocket. “I cannot believe I’ve been letting you do this shitty “plan” for a whole damn month,” she replied.

“It hasn’t been a whole month!” Aaron shot back.

“Yes, Pynch,” Nina snapped. “Yes, it has.” If Aaron wanted to be difficult, she could be difficult too. It was this sort of rising to the occasion that made them such good friends.

“And what’s up with these?” Aaron echoed Nina’s air quotes.

“You know exactly what’s up with them.”

It had been nearly four weeks since the ill-fated party at the fairgrounds. Strange to think so much time had passed, Nina thought. In some ways, life had gone on as usual; Nina and Aaron had studied for tests, written college applications, watched Netflix at Fox Way, and attended two of Raleigh’s lacrosse games. But some things were changed so dramatically that it made Nina’s head spin.

There was Raleigh, for one thing. Nina was too much a Fox Way woman for proper labels for what they were doing, but they were…something, that much was for sure. She’d let him buy her dinner, they’d seen exactly three movies. They’d driven around most of Henrietta in his ludicrously expensive car and eaten pizza in the backseat. They’d made out in said backseat. The thought of Raleigh now made something buzzy and warm form in the pit of Nina’s stomach. Was three weeks still recent enough to call it a new feeling? It already felt familiar to her. The complications of that, the urge to tell him things — real things — was something she hadn’t wanted to deal with yet. And Aaron was doing such a spectacular job of willfully ignoring the same thing with Theo that at this point she felt it was probably okay just to let it fester a little. So here she found herself, about to sort-of-attend an Aglionby college fair, to try and get Aaron’s feeling to fester a little less.

“Ronan and Adam are going to be wondering where we are,” Aaron said. He bit at a fingernail as he kicked at another locker, shoulders almost hunched to his ears.

Nina reflected that Aaron Parrish-Lynch was a terrible secret-keeper for someone who had so many. It was always blatantly apparent when he had a secret to keep. No wonder Theo was so interested.

“Not my fault your man is late,” she reminded him. She meant it to come out mean and pissy — she could have been getting ice cream with Raleigh at that moment were she not helping Aaron with this fact-finding mission — but it didn’t come out with as much venom as she had hoped. Aaron looked truly stressed. The two of them hadn’t talked about what would happen between Aaron and Theo if this experiment produced actual results. Sometimes Nina felt guilty about it, how her budding relationship made her so much calmer most of the time when Aaron’s was clearly eating him up inside. (He hadn’t told her this, of course, didn’t have to. It was scrawled all over his aura like lightning.) Sometimes Nina thought that if Aaron wasn’t going to be logical about this and just tell Ronan he thought something might be up, he deserved what he got.

It wasn’t a terribly generous part of her. Nina was working on it. And in the end, she loved Aaron like family, and that meant loyalty as long as she could justify it to herself.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Theo, who jogged down the hallway towards them. He made a beeline for Aaron and slid an arm around his back, kissing his cheek softly. As soon as his lips made contact with Aaron’s skin, Aaron’s anxiety took a visible turn. The tension melted out of his shoulders, his forehead, even his hands. He took his first real inhale since he and Nina had set foot on Aglionby’s campus that evening.

This was why Nina mostly kept her opinions to herself. It was always like that, when Theo touched Aaron. Like their relief at finding each other present and whole every time was a miracle made by a god they couldn’t name.

“Hi, sorry I’m late,” Theo said. “Hey, Nina.”

Theo’s aura pulsed around him, inconsistent and powerful and nearly-too-bright in places. It was beautiful, as all auras were. Nina couldn’t decide if it looked dangerous or if she simply wanted to be wrong about it. This was the whole point of the experiment, after all, why she was crashing an Aglionby college fair, of all things. If Theo stood near Ronan and their auras matched, they had a true problem on their hand.

Nina very much wanted to be wrong about it.

“I thought you had already sent in your app,” Theo told her. She had. Early decision to Johns Hopkins. Prospective biochemical engineering major. Jimi had cried and Maura had baked, like, five things. There was no reason for Nina to be here. Even Raleigh was hanging out in his dorm, though he was going to swing by and take her for ice cream soon. In November. Nina loved ice cream and Raleigh was impervious to temperature.

“There are a few schools I want to check out still,” Nina lied smoothly. “Just in case my ED falls through.”

“Being prepared is always good,” Theo agreed. “Though I’m sure your ED will be fine!” He said it so earnestly. Nina tried very hard not to like him for it. At least, not until she could determine whether or not he was a problem.

“Thanks, Theo.”

“You ready to go?” Aaron asked. He looked distinctly uncomfortable. Nina imagined it wouldn’t be very much fun to introduce your very new boyfriend to your parents and pretend it was an accident. Aaron agreed it was a necessary sacrifice in the name of certainty, but that didn’t mean he liked it. Aaron’s parents and Theo were supposed to exist in two different worlds. Whatever Nina saw tonight, Aaron was about to remove that barrier, and it would be hard to get it back up again.

From Nina’s place against the back wall of the Aglionby gym, she could see a lot. She could see the overenthusiastic college reps, handing out pamphlets and answering questions about their respective schools. She could see helicopter parents who had flown out from far distances just to badger the Princeton rep. She could see Princeton had prepared for this by sending five reps. She could see the lack of several good colleges not deemed prestigious enough for the Algionby crowd. She could see Aaron and Theo at the Brown table, poring over a course catalog, could see Aaron pretending not to notice Ronan and Adam come up beside them.

And when she let her eyes flutter shut, she could see even more. It was difficult to parse out at first, with so many auras clashing and shifting and demanding attention all at once. She found Ronan, always easy to spot.

Then Theo.

Nina’s eyes flew open. Aaron was staring at her across the room. The breath in Nina’s ribcage stuttered.

She had not been wrong. And now they were sure.

Chapter Text

Aaron Parrish-Lynch was just about crawling out of his skin, and it was all Theo Jiang’s fault. Well, it was a lot of things’ faults, but Theo was high on the list for sure. Also up there were the uncomfortable shoes on Aaron’s feet that made him feel like a 1950s 5th grader, the hollow knocking of plastic on other plastic that was offensively loud, the sour taste of the rum and coke that he’d drank out of a bottle which claimed it was just coke, and the fact that his finger throbbed where he had let it get jammed between two bowling balls. The last of these had occurred because Theo had bent over to launch his bowling ball down the lane, and Aaron had lost his ability to focus momentarily. So really, back to Theo.

There was also the matter of the cat.

It was tiny, and grey, with a little patch of white under its chin and around its paws that Raleigh insisted made it “fancy”. It had preternaturally green eyes and a slightly surprised look on its face. Theo had named it Fluff and Aaron thought that was a dumb name. Or maybe he was just freaked out by the fact that he was 90% sure “Fluff” had come out of Theo’s head. They had woken up Friday morning to find the cat curled up at the end of the bed. The window had been cracked open, and Theo had suggested that maybe it had snuck in while they were sleeping. But he had been avoiding Aaron’s eyes when he said it.

A necklace was one thing. A few weird leaves and a scratch or two were another. This was a living, breathing thing. No matter how small or cute it was, a cat could be the first step towards dragon.

Aaron bounced his knee up and down while Jaxon Shen stared down his shot. Ronan had accepted Fluff without question when Aaron had brought her to the Barns that morning. It hadn’t been the first time they’d taken in refugees, or even tiny, furry refugees. But it had deeply unsettled Aaron to place the cat in a dream place, surrounded by dream things, and presided over by Ronan. It was too close to exposure, to confession, though Aaron couldn’t be sure what he should confess to, exactly.

Jaxon’s ball went in the gutter, and Cole Crutchfield jeered at him from his place on the curved plastic seats arranged by the scoreboard. He took a swig of his “coke” and handed it to Theo, who took it without bringing it to his lips. Aaron noticed he had stopped drinking when Aaron had, about an hour prior. Theo dangled the bottle between his fingers from its neck and leaned forward to place his elbows on his knees.

The motion pressed his thigh into Aaron’s, sending a slow-building heat crawling up his leg. Aaron took a slow breath and kept his eye on Jaxon taking a comically long time to set up an inevitable gutter ball. He shifted his foot to hook his ankle around the back of Theo’s, anchoring himself as Theo began to stroke Aaron’s shin with a finger.

A hollow crash sounded from the other end of the bowling alley, and Aaron eased a careful hand across Theo’s back, thumbing over the bumps of his spine where it almost met the chair. Theo put the bottle of “coke” on the floor and placed his elbow over Aaron’s leg, wrist soft against the inside of his knee where his hand wrapped around.

This wasn’t particularly new at this point, the casual touches where people could see them. Henrietta was a small town in a red state, but they were still Raven Boys. Any locals who had a problem wouldn’t say anything, at least not to their faces. They hadn’t affixed a label to themselves yet, though Aaron hadn’t slept in his own bed at Aglionby for about a month. Hands on backs and knees and in other hands and around shoulders were not new. But they were significant.

Sometimes the casual touches were just that, free and easy. They caused the two of them to be calm, to breathe, to relax. Sometimes the casualness was code for something else. Sometimes they took everything itching under Aaron’s skin and multiplied it by a thousand.

“Theo,” Aaron said, voice low.

Theo looked up.

“I want to get out of this bowling alley.”

Theo squeezed his knee. He said nothing, only stood up, placing the “coke” on his vacated seat.

“Yo!” he called. Jaxon and Cole were watching Jaxon’s bowling ball make slightly drunken progress across the greased wood. Cole had made a pun about “greased wood” earlier, and Aaron had tried not to laugh and failed. Cole held up a finger, eyes still trained on the ball.

“We’re going,” Theo announced.

Jaxon’s shot knocked down all the pins on the left, leaving two wobbling in the middle. Jaxon and Cole exclaimed in response, though it wasn’t entirely clear whether they were mourning or celebrating. Cole clapped Jaxon on the back; apparently it had been a respectable try.

“See you later, man.” Cole told Theo when they’d turned around.

Theo hesitated.

“Or not,” Jaxon added, immediately seeming to understand. “Or we might not see you.”

“Bye, Aaron.” Cole waved. Aaron waved back. All in all, he liked Theo’s friends.

“Be safe, kids,” Jaxon said brightly. Then an idea seemed to hit him. “I’m taking Aaron’s turn.”

They chatted on the way home, about school, about college applications, about Thanksgiving plans. They’d gotten very good at this over the last month, filling the spaces between all their secrets with things that were safe to talk about. Theo’s math test on Friday was shaping up to make casualties of half the class; Nina and Raleigh had both applied early decision; Aaron was going to Blue and Gansey’s for Thanksgiving and Theo was going back to California.

Aaron pulled into the parking lot nearest to Theo’s dorm and turned off the car. Theo got out immediately, rounding the car to push Aaron against the driver’s side as soon as Aaron’s door clicked shut. Hands on Aaron’s hips, he pressed him against the cold metal, kissing him hard. A familiar bubble of warmth popped in Aaron’s chest.

He huffed out a laugh. “Couldn’t wait till we were inside?” As if he wasn’t gripping Theo’s arms tight enough to bruise through his coat.

“I’m not a patient person,” Theo replied, leaning in to kiss him again. Aaron knew very well how much of a lie this was, but he let it slide in favor of letting his teeth graze Theo’s bottom lip. Theo let out a hard breath and nodded.

Theo only paused long enough to fuck around with the placebo heat control for a few seconds before he was pulling at Aaron’s clothes. Aaron dropped Theo’s coat to the floor and stepped in a puddle of icy water with one sock still on and somehow found it in him not to care. All that mattered at that moment was Theo’s lips warming up against his own and the comforting heat of his sides and the accompanying shiver as Aaron ran cold hands over Theo’s ribs.

Theo’s mouth roamed over Aaron’s jaw, his neck, his shoulders, his chest, Theo’s body held over him like a barrier against the rest of the world as he sank back into pillows that Theo said now smelled like him.

There was a hollow plastic sound, quieter, less forceful than in the bowling alley, but Aaron heard it clearly. He closed his eyes, pulling Theo into a messy kiss and threading his fingers through hair he’d already messed up several times today. He was definitely warm now, feverishly so, but Theo’s skin against his own felt so fucking good that he couldn’t bring himself to care.

“Fuck, Theo…”

He gripped Theo’s arm tightly, grounding himself as Theo wrapped one hand around his cock and slid the index finger of his other hand into Aaron, gentle but firm, like he did most things. Aaron groaned, back arching off the mattress.

“Oh my god.”

Theo kissed him then, and Aaron kissed him back, desperate, the kiss of someone too drunk on sensation to care how desperate it was. Theo was altruistic in bed, and so was Aaron, but for different reasons. Aaron was selfish about it; in the moments that he was making Theo come his brains out, Theo was more vulnerable than he was. He should have cared more about the power balance of this particular moment, but Theo added another finger and the too-much, too-good feeling of it made everything else unimportant. This is exactly what he’d wanted an hour ago, sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair across town. For Theo to make him feel something so powerful it whited out all the noise.

“Good?”

“Fuck…yeah, good…fuck.”

Now there were three of Theo’s perfect, infuriating fingers in Aaron’s ass, curling and stroking in a way that made his thighs shake and his abs ache and his forehead break out in sweat. He could feel his orgasm building, but Theo had taken his other hand off Aaron’s cock and he was stuck there on the edge.

Why had he taken his other hand off? He’d moved it close to Aaron’s head to lean on as he kissed and bit his way over Aaron’s neck. Aaron’s thoughts began to crowd in through his fog of pleasure, and a cold spike of panic suddenly shot through his chest.

They’d talked about having sex in the traditional Classical sense, in vague terms and mostly in the midst of doing other things, but Aaron knew it was on both of their minds. Theo kissed him again, sweeter this time, and Aaron was all of a sudden very certain that that’s what Theo was preparing to do.

It wasn’t even very different than what Theo was already doing, except that it was. The Fox Way woman who perpetually lived in Aaron’s head told him virginity was a construct and nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. He trusted Theo, he knew him. In some ways, he probably knew Theo better than Theo did. Theo was beautiful and kind and complex and intriguing and there was no good reason why Aaron’s chest should be this tight at the prospect of Theo’s miraculous dick inside his body. Theo’s dick could not reach all the secrets Aaron was holding so tightly. That was ridiculous, and stupid.

“Aaron?”

He couldn’t make words come out.

“Aaron, are you okay? Did I hurt you?”

Aaron shook his head. Theo’s fingers had stopped moving.

“Shit,” Theo whispered. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m pulling out, okay?” Aaron couldn’t stop a groan from escaping between his teeth.

He opened tightly shut eyes to see Theo kneeling beside him, wiping off his hand. Theo’s brow was furrowed, confusion and worry warring on his face.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Aaron wasn’t even totally sure he knew. “Nothing,” he said. He sat up ungracefully, pulling his limbs in towards himself. “Nothing, I’m just being moody.”

Theo wasn’t taking the bait. “All the more reason why something has to be wrong. You’re not a moody person. You don’t just get moody.”

“Like you know what I’m like,” Aaron snapped. It was unfair, he knew that, but he was torn by the desire to flee the room and the desire to bury his face in Theo’s neck and fucking cry and neither of those were doable options. He wanted maddening, impossible, contradictory things, and too many of them added up to Theo, who was himself made of maddening, impossible, contradictory things.

“I probably know more than you think I do,” Theo said gently. Aaron didn’t move.

Theo watched him for a few more seconds, then reached for the edge of the blankets that had been shoved to the end of the bed. He pulled them over himself and Aaron and laid down on his side.

“Okay, then,” he said. “Tell me something. So I know.”

The blanket was only partially covering Aaron’s knees, and he still felt more exposed than he’d like to be. He mimicked Theo’s position, pulling the blankets over his shoulders.

There was a long silence, in which Aaron elected to simply tell the truth.

“You scare me.”

Theo considered this. “Why do I scare you?”

Because Aaron really liked him. Because he hated being vulnerable like that. Because Theo tended to say whatever was on his mind except when magic was involved and one stray comment could destroy Aaron’s family. Because he was afraid he might have turned Theo into a greywaren. Because he was afraid Ronan would find out he might have turned Theo into a greywaren. Because he didn’t know what he was doing. Because being with Theo felt so fucking good and he was sure he didn’t get two good things for free. Because he’d started sleeping in Theo’s bed to spy on him and that might mean he wasn’t entitled to stay. Because he’d considered breaking up with Theo, and the thought of how much it might hurt was as sudden and confusing as it was terrifying.

“Sorry,” Aaron said. “You only get one question.”

Theo gifted him with a small, crooked smile. “Who made up these rules anyway?”

“I did.” He was acting like a child and couldn’t muster up the strength to stop.

Theo bit his lip, then sighed a long, contemplative sigh. His hands fidgeted, like he wanted to reach out and was stopping himself.

“Aaron,” he ventured. “Did it ever occur to you that I don’t know you because you don’t want me to know you?”

Yes, Aaron almost snarled. That was the original point of you and now I’m pissed that it’s not the case anymore.

Instead he said “You can’t know me”, because it was true.

“No one’s unknowable, Aaron. That’s stupid.”

“No, it’s not.”

Theo’s face fell a little, and he fixed his gaze on a spot somewhere around the blanketed bump that was Aaron’s elbow. Then he looked up, eyes glittering in the near-dark.

“Well, if you don’t want me to know you,” he asked softly, “what are you doing here?”

Being desperate and needy and anxious, probably.

Theo finally bridged the gap, sliding a hand across the space between them to rest on Aaron’s cheek, leaving plenty of time to stop him but never pausing in the motion. Aaron closed his eyes and held onto Theo’s wrist, but couldn’t bring himself to pull his hand away.

“It’s okay to want things, Aaron.” Theo brushed his thumb gently under Aaron’s eye. “Even if they’re people. I mean, I’m here, and I’m offering. If that’s what you want.”

“Why?” Aaron rasped.

Theo shrugged and gently nudged his body forward. “You’re cute,” he said simply. Aaron couldn’t see him, but he could hear the smile.

Theo leaned in a little further, so they were sharing breath. He was giving Aaron a choice, an open-ended question.

Stay or go?

Aaron leaned in and kissed him.

“Can I tell you something?” Theo asked. Aaron simply nodded.

“I’ve believed in magic since I was a little kid,” Theo said. “I mean, all kids believe in magic, but I never shook it. I’ve always known it was real. But I also knew people didn’t like to be told that. My dad would get angry when I brought it up, my mom would dismiss it. Friends thought I was weird, and teachers called parents, which brought the whole cycle over again.”

Theo swallowed. “So I kept it to myself. I used to imagine it like a box, one of those steel ones where you keep family jewels in the bank.”

“Safety deposit box.”

“Yeah, one of those. Locked up tight so no one but me could open it. Everything else I didn’t care if people knew. Fuck, the whole of Exeter has seen a picture of my dick, even that didn’t bother me so much. But magic? It was just mine. And I never stopped looking for proof.”

Theo wasn’t looking at him, but Aaron couldn’t take his eyes off his face.

“My dad used to tell me this story,” Theo said. “About a man who lived in Henrietta, who could control magic and had this…just, insane power. And it killed him. He talked about him like some kind of myth, but…he wasn’t a myth. He was real. And he died in that fire at the fairgrounds.”

“My dad knew him,” Theo whispered. “He was a kid, an Aglionby student just like us.” He trailed off, biting on his lip again. Aaron barely breathed.

Theo looked up and stared into what felt like Aaron’s goddamned soul.

“I want to know a lot of things about you, Aaron,” he said. “Favorite ice cream, pet peeves, all that shit. But the only thing I really, really need to know is if you believe me. If you truly believe me.”

Aaron’s heart was pounding in his chest. It would be so easy to tell him. He was so close to the answer anyway.

“Yes,” Aaron said. “I believe you.”

 

 

 

Dawn broke over the horizon as Aaron drove the familiar roads to Singer’s Falls the next morning. He’d left Theo sleeping and judged the risk worth it. It was freezing outside, and Aaron’s hands were covered with gloves to properly hold the steering wheel. He had let Theo’s playlist continue to play on his phone as he drove, and he’d been playing the same song on repeat from the Aglionby parking lot to the Barns driveway. The lyrics told him it was better not to get too close, but it was really too late for that at this point.

Ronan was closing the front door behind him when Aaron pulled up.

“Can I go to church with you?” Aaron asked. He craved quiet and minor keys and the warmth of his family on all sides and the smell of incense and the familiar rafters of St. Agnes over his head. He was not raised Catholic, but he liked the tunes and Latin was practically the language he spoke at home. He’d never thought of church as a safe place until he had gone with Ronan.

“Sure,” Ronan said. He was looking at Aaron with that look where he noticed everything. He must have learned it from Adam.

“I have to change.” Aaron gestured down at himself. He was wearing Theo’s sweatshirt under his coat, sweatpants, and slides with the thickest socks he owned.

“No, you don’t,” Ronan said.

“Declan won’t like it,” Aaron reminded him.

“I’ll make sure he shuts up.”

The wind blew, and Aaron shivered. “Okay.”

Ronan wrapped an arm around his shoulders and planted a kiss on his temple. “C’mon, kid,” he said. “Let’s go to fucking church.”

Chapter Text

Richard Campbell Gansey Sargent pushed back his chair and cleared his throat softly, tapping his fork gently against the side of his glass. Blue didn’t believe in different kinds of forks for different foods and Gansey didn’t care, so he would be using that fork for both his salad and his entree.

“If I could have everyone’s attention please.” Gansey smiled beatifically at the assembled little crowd, who were taking their dear sweet time quieting down.

Blue reached over her younger daughter to grip the older one’s shirt. “Deryn Sargent, butt in seat.” Deryn giggled in six-year-old glee and scrambled back down into her chair beside Matthew, who had been holding his hand up above her head so she had to reach for a high five. Of the two of them, Matthew looked much more chastened by Blue. He held his hand lower down when Blue looked away so Deryn could successfully high-five him. Deryn shifted in turn to bestow the high five on her sister Persephone.

“It’s always a pleasure to have all of you here,” Gansey declared. Aaron turned to his left to mouth “except you” at Nina, who stuck her tongue out at him. “I know I speak for myself and Blue when I say that there’s nothing quite like a holiday for bringing together family from far and wide.”

Gansey brought his glass down onto the table and relaxed his face into a shape that meant he was going to launch into a lecture. Aaron caught Ronan raising one surreptitious finger at the other side of the table, then two.

“In fact,” Gansey began, “in Medieval Europe—“

“SQUASH ONE, SQUASH TWO—“ The table erupted in raucous noise as Ronan, joined by Deryn and Persephone, began to sing at the top of his lungs. The three of them banged on the table, sending mismatched silverware rattling as everyone except Declan and Gansey tried to hide grins.

No one was surprised, of course. It was a tradition of the most sacred kind in their hodgepodge family. Two years previously, a then-four-year-old Deryn accidentally drank a rather impressive amount of Henry’s unattended wine. Well, the drinking had been intentional. The resulting tipsiness had probably not been so intentional. Either way, Deryn had been pretty thoroughly sloshed, and had spent the meal breaking into the Murder Squash Song at random moments without warning. This lasted about an hour until she passed out face first in her food. Ronan, of course, had latched onto this accidental genius and recruited both Deryn and Persephone to join him in interrupting Gansey multiple times a holiday.

Deryn waved her arms like a conductor as they went into the second line. Persephone was laughing too hard to really get out coherent words, and Ronan’s grin was wicked.

Declan rested an elbow on the table and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ronan…”

“Don’t stop us,” Ronan warned, “or we’ll sing the first verse too.”

Aaron, Nina, and Matthew joined in full-force for the rest of the chorus. Aaron caught Henry looking at Ronan appraisingly; apparently he’d forgotten that Ronan had a good voice, even singing the Murder Squash Song. They finished with a flourish, prompting scattered applause from the rest of the table.

Ronan folded his hands on the table and looked at Gansey innocently. “Go on, Dick.”

Deryn bounced in her seat. “Yeah, go on, Daddy!”

Gansey cleared his throat again. “As I was saying, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to have you all here. We’re hardly a conventional family —“

“Hear, hear!” Henry piped up.

Gansey grinned. “But I daresay I like us better that way. So before we dig into the food, we have a little tradition — another tradition — to get out of the way first. Henry, would you like to start?”

“Absolutely, Richardman!” Henry sat up straighter in his chair. “Little would please me more.”

“Obsequious, as always, Cheng,” Adam said from beside him, but there was no heat to it.

“It’s flair, Dr. Parrish,” Henry corrected him. “Don’t confuse them.” He cleared his throat in a poor imitation of Gansey. “I am abundantly thankful that I didn’t have to go to that conference in Copenhagen, since I am able to be here this evening as a result!”

“It’s only the third app you’ve sold to Google, right, Henry?” Jessa drawled sarcastically from the end of the table. “It’s old hat by now.”

Next to Aaron, Ronan’s jaw clenched. Even years later, he hated when Jessa said things he would have said himself. Jessa hated it, too. They were almost infinitely compatible and never got along.

“Actually,” Henry replied, “my presentation was moved to tomorrow, but it does sometimes feel like that, I have to admit.” He sipped daintily from his wine glass.

Jessa rolled her eyes. “I married into a family of pretentious bastards.”

“You say that literally every year, Aunt Jessa,” Aaron reminded her.

“You married the worst of them,” Ronan said, as if she might have forgotten that, too.

“Ronan…” Gansey and Declan’s responses were simultaneous.

Jessa placed her hand over Declan’s on the table and kissed his cheek. “Oh, stuff it, babe,” she said. “You’re my favorite pretentious bastard.”

“Let’s move this along,” Blue suggested. “I’d like to eat this week.”

“I’m thankful for Miss Gottlieb!” Deryn cried, eager to please. “She’s the best teacher in school and she lets me read whatever books I want.”

“Excellent!” Gansey told her. He turned to his younger daughter. “Persephone, do you have something you’re thankful for?”

Persephone was quiet, thinking, brow furrowed like she was fifty instead of four. Several seconds passed. Finally, she looked up, and very seriously proclaimed: “Astronauts.”

“Me too, kid,” Matthew agreed. Persephone beamed at him. “Me next?” he asked. He looked down at the food on the table. “Well, I don’t have anything as good as astronauts, but right now I’m really thankful that Ronan made that cranberry crunch thing because I can’t wait to eat all of it.”

Ronan fucking preened.

Matthew looked to his right and placed a hand on the back of the chair next to him. “Sanj? You want to go next?”

Sanjana blushed, but smiled out at the table. “I’m thankful for all of you for welcoming me into your home and your family for tonight. I’m really honored.”

Sanjana had been dating Matthew for almost two years now, but this was her first Sargent-Parrish-Lynch-Cheng Thanksgiving. Aaron remembered what it was like to be in her seat, literally and figuratively. He wondered what she knew about them, what Matthew had told her, or was even allowed to tell her. As far as he knew, a marriage document with Declan got Jessa the free pass to all things strange about those assembled at the table. Sanjana certainly had to jump through a lot of hoops and levels of clearance to get to even this point, so she must be special. Matthew clearly thought she hung the moon, which had to mean something.

“We’re happy to have you,” Gansey told her. “Declan?” he asked, skipping over the perpetually empty chair beside Sanjana.

Declan was thankful for a piece of legislation that he’d managed to push through with his lobbying firm. The piece of legislation in question had slapped significant carbon footprint restrictions on major corporations, which meant the table agreed it was something to be thankful about. Declan’s job was just moral enough for Blue to let him eat her food. His previous firm had been less so, and there had been one Christmas where he wasn’t allowed to have dessert.

Jessa said she was thankful for her health and her intact eyebrows. The table burst into laughter at that, and Blue raised her hands above her head to applaud. Jessa Lynch was the most weirdly ambitious artist Aaron had ever met, and her latest project had involved setting off controlled explosions of gunpowder on canvas from the roof of her and Declan’s Alexandria home. Cops had been called, but not heeded. Jessa and Declan had both gone to college at Georgetown, but met at a Gansey family Christmas party when a tie-wearing Jessa dodged a tipsy guest and dumped a tray of crab puffs (with accompanying dip) on Declan’s Gucci shoes. It had been on purpose. Somehow, Declan had been charmed. Jessa had not grown up wealthy, and routinely performed dangerous art experiments both in their house and using Declan’s possessions to repeatedly call his attention to the “frivolity of the landed rich” and the “ephemerality of material possessions”. Or something. Aaron had it on good authority from Blue that Jessa simply thought Declan had bad taste and wanted to destroy his shit every once in a while.

Nina, in particular, got along spectacularly well with Jessa, though they all loved her. She was also thankful that her early decision application had been submitted to Hopkins and that her back-up apps were all written. Aaron had not applied early, and his apps were not all written, though Theo had proofread one of his Brown supplements the other day and had made some very good suggestions.

“I’m thankful that none of my kids are old enough to think about college,” Blue called from across the table.

“Is that your answer?” Gansey asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m thankful for being a Parrish-Lynch,” Aaron said. He said it every year and no one ever complained. “And astronauts. Of course.” He winked at Persephone, who gave him a toothy grin. Then he turned to Ronan, who called him a suck-up.

“I’m thankful Henrietta General got another surgical resident,” Ronan announced. “It’s been nice having Parrish home a little more.” He said it around a sneer, so the table might not pick up on the fact that he had just said something mushy about Adam, but Aaron doubted even Persephone was fooled. Sanjana, maybe, because she was really new. Adam blushed a little. Gross.

“Ronan, that’s adorable,” Nina cooed.

“You can walk home, Sargent,” Ronan snapped.

“You can stay here, Nina,” Blue cut in. “Shred him.”

“I was actually also going to say the new surgical resident,” Adam interrupted. Aaron could see him place a careful hand on Ronan’s knee under the table. “It is nice being home more but it’s also been really good for the efficiency of the hospital. We’ve reshuffled some things and restructured and it’s made us better able to do good for more patients.”

“That’s splendid news, Adam!” Gansey tipped his glass in salute.

“Scintillating!” Persephone added. Jessa had taught her the word, but the precise meaning still seemed to be escaping her.

“And I am thankful,” Gansey concluded, “for Persephone and Deryn, who were very helpful in making the food. I’m thankful for everyone’s contributions to tonight’s meal, and I’m thankful to all of you for coming tonight to celebrate this family. Cheers!”

The call was echoed around the table, and Gansey sat back down amidst the clink of glass.

“Lynches?” he asked. “Who’s saying Grace?”

Chapter Text

“This is my favorite room in the house,” Gansey said. “That’s why I saved it for the last stop on the tour. The realtor who sold us the house told us it was the master bedroom, but I couldn’t imagine wasting a space this magnificent on simply a place to sleep.”

Aaron took a step into the room and stared. The floor-to-ceiling shelves were stuffed with books, magazines, portfolios, manuscripts. There was barely an inch of wall space uncovered by them, barring the enormous windows that shot up one wall. There were two levels, too, wrapping around the round curves of the room so whoever entered had to crane their neck and turn in a slow circle to take it all in. The carpet was plush and soft under Aaron’s feet, the furniture overstuffed and made for sinking into, the Ronan-dreamed chandelier hanging suspended overhead. But Aaron hadn’t been told where the chandelier came from, so only knew that it was beautiful in its ever-changing pattern of revolving pieces. Like a solar system orbiting a tight knot of stars, light constant on the spines of the books.

In any case, the chandelier was turned off, made superfluous in the afternoon light streaming in through the windows, though it still moved. Aaron was struck dumb, shaky and gawky as a newborn colt, and transfixed by it. Transfixed by the whole room, really. The sum total of the homes he’d been in were The Barns, Fox Way, and the infinitely shabbier house in the Maine interior. He had never seen anything like this. He wanted to spend a whole year in this room.

“Borges said Paradise would be a library,” Gansey told him. “So I tried to make it as close as possible.”

He sighed happily. “Every kind of knowledge I’ve ever wanted to find, I’ve tried to cram into this room.” Gansey picked a stack of car magazines off the floor and placed them carefully on a nearby desk.

“They’re overflowing from the shelves, but I just keep getting more. Blue indulges me.” Gansey smiled down at one of the books in his hands, a private kind of smile that Aaron looked away from. He’d seen it on Adam’s face before, on Ronan’s, and wasn’t used to it.

“Are there any academic subjects that interest you?” Gansey asked suddenly. Aaron looked away from where he was following the glacial motions of the chandelier.

“Um,” Aaron chewed on his lip. “Literature, I guess? Maybe history?”

“History?” Gansey’s gaze lit up behind his wire-framed glasses. “What do you know about Welsh kings?”

Adam had told him Gansey would ask that. And Ronan. And Blue. They told him he should decline to listen to anything Gansey had to say about Welsh kings, that he would never stop talking if Aaron let him start. But Gansey looked like a TV version of a college professor, worldly and wise and intimidating and very animated. He was effortlessly grander than anyone Aaron had ever known. Aaron did not want to say no to him. If Gansey became disappointed in him, Aaron thought, the only proper response would be to walk east till he ended up in the Atlantic.

But Gansey only raised a finger like a cartoon character getting an idea, and reached for the bookshelf nearest him. It swung away from the wall under his hand, revealing the staircase to the second level. Aaron hesitated, unsure if he was supposed to follow him through this very obvious portal to Narnia. In the end, he climbed the stairs, sidestepping several piles of books and a telescope that really did not fit in the narrow space.

He stopped short at the top of the stars as Gansey returned with a volume in his hands. It was worn and bound in leather, gold edges of the pages flashing in the sunlight. Gansey held it out to Aaron.

The front read “The Raven King: The Life, Death, and Revolt of Owain Glyndŵr”.

“Terribly conceited of me to tell you to read my own book, I know,” Gansey said, a bit bashfully. “But it contains everything I know on the subject, and represents the contents of many books in this library. Not,” he added, “that I couldn’t lend you more if you wanted.” He pushed the book further into Aaron’s space, and Aaron felt his hands close around it slowly, the leather supple against the pads of his fingers.

“It’s a beautiful volume, isn’t it?” Gansey said softly. “Adam and Ronan had it made for me when I published my dissertation last year. A special version worthy of my old man library, they said. You can give it back whenever you’re finished.”

Realization dawned on Aaron like a slap. This was a one-of-a-kind book. This was Gansey’s life’s work bound in paper and made just for him by the people who loved him most.

“I can’t take this!” Aaron protested. It was abundantly clear to him that no one less worthy than himself had ever touched this book. He made an aborted movement to give it back, but Gansey shook his head with a smile.

“I insist.”

“I really can’t,” Aaron tried again. What if he ripped it? What if he dropped it? What if he tried to open it and it burst into flames because he wasn’t fit to read it?

Gansey’s glasses flashed light onto the walls as he shook his head at Aaron’s apparent silliness. Aaron was nearly blinded by several things about him.

“Of course you can, Aaron,” Gansey said easily, a breathy laugh on his lips. “You’re family.”

Aaron was speechless. He had lived at Fox Way for three months, the Barns for a little over a week. Adam and Ronan had signed adoption papers with Aaron’s new name on them. (Or, at least, adoption papers had been produced somehow.) He had been in freefall such a comparatively short time ago, adrift, fucking hopeless. And then he had landed in a tangled web of love and weird tea and strong trees and magic.

And here was Gansey, plucking a golden thread out of the air and tying Aaron to a strand of that web in a way he hadn’t considered yet. Hadn’t let himself consider yet.

Family.

Aaron used to be able to count his family members on one hand. Now he couldn’t even count them on two. Adam and Ronan and the Fox Way ladies and even Opal had been holding that possibility out to him since the first day he had shown up in the back of Dean’s car. Aaron couldn’t fathom what he had done to make them do it. But here, in this sun-drenched room, Gansey was telling him it was a given, that Aaron could hold onto that word and own it, keep it close to himself and never have to let it go. A family that Aaron could choose to accept, and was allowed to accept, if he wanted it.

Aaron really fucking wanted it.

He blinked.

It was after ten. The windows showed Aaron a gentle sprinkling of stars. Nina was sitting in the armchair front of him, looking up at the chandelier. She had her hair tied back with a scrunchie, and the sleeves of Raleigh’s Aglionby lacrosse sweatshirt were pulled down over her hands. At what must have been a noise, she looked over at him.

Aaron’s face was wet.

“Fuck,” Aaron scrubbed at his cheek with the heel of his hand. “Shit, I’m sorry.”

Nina scrambled out of the chair. “You did warn me…”

“Yeah,” Aaron scoffed wetly and rolled his eyes as Nina used her sleeve to halt the path of another tear.

“You lost a few minutes,” Nina told him gently, knowing he’d been about to ask.

“Fuck,” Aaron said again. “I guess I haven’t been here in longer than I thought.”

Nina rubbed a comforting hand over his arm. “Or you’re really stressed and it’s making it worse.”

Aaron nodded. She was probably right. He sighed shakily. Nina gave an exaggerated shrug. She did that sometimes when Aaron was doing something particularly weird that he couldn’t control. It was the patented you’re-a-freak-but-I-love-you-anyway shrug.

Aaron darted his hand out and grabbed Nina’s borrowed sweatshirt sleeve. He vigorously rubbed it over his face, taking Nina’s arm in along for the ride. Then he dropped it unceremoniously, squaring his shoulders. It signaled the end of the moment, whatever it was.

Nina snorted. “Which section are we looking for?”

Aaron didn’t answer, just turned to his left and pulled at the bookcase to reveal the staircase.

“You really just wiped your snot all over my sweatshirt, huh?”

“It’s not snot,” Aaron shot back. “And it’s not your sweatshirt, it’s Raleigh’s.”

“So?”

“So you two are a gross couple now.” Aaron ran a finger along the spines, skimming titles. “Soon you’re going to have a couple name.”

“No, we’re not!” Nina pulled out a book and studied it before putting it back.

Relief flooded through Aaron again at the return of normalcy, despite what they were currently doing in Gansey’s library. “Sure you are. Naleigh. Or Rina.”

“You do not want to go down this road with me, Pynch.”

Aaron scowled. He did not. Because he and Theo were next and he didn’t like his options.

“Oh,” Nina said softly. She was looking at a shelf of books a few feet above her head.

“What?”

Nina pointed. “Those ones. They’ve got auras.”

Aaron went for the sliding ladder. “Books have auras?”

“Ones about magic do.” Nina took the ladder from him and began to climb. She pulled out the books two or three at a time and passed them down to Aaron, who started making piles on the floor. The two of them stood for a moment, looking down at their materials.

“You sure you wanna go down this rabbit hole?” Nina asked. “Most of this might be crap.”

“I thought you said it had an aura!”

“It does,” Nina protested. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to have something about undoing a greywaren that you might have maybe accidentally created through fucking in the woods.”

Aaron winced. “I really wish you wouldn’t say it like that.”

Nina pulled her sleeves over her hands again. “Fine.”

“There’s got to be something useful in here,” Aaron muttered.

“If the Sargent family library doesn’t have what we’re looking for, I don’t know where we’re going to find it,” Nina agreed.

 

 

 

“Aaron.”

Aaron looked up from the armchair to the balcony above.

“I think I found something.”

Nina had several books open around her, spread out in overlapping semi-circles on the carpet. She was studying the one in her lap, which didn’t look particularly inspiring. It was a hardcover with a peeling dust jacket. More like an old library novel than a book of magic. Though Nina was handling it as if it was a precious thing. Then again, all of Gansey’s books inspired that kind of care.

Nina turned the book towards Aaron. The pages were yellowed with age. It was a notebook, written in neat, precise scrawl. From what Aaron could tell, it was a ritual.

“It’s like something from Harry Potter,” Nina said. “Incantations and herbs and symbols and all of that.”

“Do you think it’ll work?” Aaron asked. “It doesn’t say anything about greywarens.”

“No,” Nina agreed, “but it does talk about reversing things, separating elements that have been fused together.” She pointed to another place on the next page. “Closing a door that’s been opened.”

Aaron met Nina’s eyes across the the pages. “This would definitely be the weirdest shit we’ve ever attempted.”

“Without a doubt.”

“What happens if it doesn’t work?”

Nina chewed on her lip and looked down at the page again. “I don’t think we have a better option right now.”

“And what if Theo thinks we’re insane and also worship Satan on the side.”

Nina flipped a page. “Then one out of two ain’t bad, I guess.”

“Nina.” Aaron watched her face grow serious again.

Nina took a deep breath. She reached forward, then, and placed at the junction of Aaron’s neck and shoulder. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “But if you want to try, I’ll help you.”

Aaron nodded silently.

“But you have time to decide,” Nina reminded him. “You need a solstice. It says it right here.”

So it did. “When’s that?”

After a few seconds, Nina showed him her phone screen.

“December 21st.” Aaron read. “Let’s hope we can wait that long.”

Chapter Text

The sounds of the party faded slowly as Nina got further up the stairs. Not to say that it approached anything resembling quiet, because Fox Way was full to bursting even more than usual today, but the whirling colors of people’s personalities and the constant well-wishing was kind of a dull roar rather than a deafening shout. Nina bet that Raleigh had disappeared to find some peace. She’d left Aaron and Theo arguing about whether golf was a sport (Theo was against, Aaron was for, just to be a little shit) and dodged four cousins to reach the stairs. Opening her own bedroom door, there he was, sitting on her bedspread and studying the photos she had taped up over her headboard.

Raleigh looked up.

“Hey,” Nina said, “lost you for a minute there.”

“Sorry,” Raleigh ducked his head bashfully. “I was just exploring a little.”

Nina leaned on her doorframe and watched him. He looked good in Yale blue, that was for sure. In time, the letters of that brand-new sweatshirt would peel off at the corners, but for now they were sharp and proud over his chest. The glow of victory he’d been sporting since Friday was still all around him — literal in the sense that Nina could see it for real — but there was something else, something oddly shifting about his aura that hadn’t been there when she’d seen him earlier. Raleigh’s aura was usually one of the most constant Nina had ever seen. He was wrestling with something, though Nina was sure that was normal, given the fact that they were both facing down an enormous transition. She fidgeted with the sleeve of her own brand-new sweatshirt — a gift from Dean, grey with “Johns Hopkins” emblazoned in blue on the front. He had a matching one.

“Nina,” Raleigh said suddenly. “Which one is your mom?”

Oh. Nina hadn’t been expecting that one, though she supposed she should have. Everyone asked it at least once; it was the kind of thing people liked to know. Raleigh hadn’t asked it yet, but today made it especially top-of-mind.

“None of them,” Nina said honestly. “Maura’s the one who signs my permission slips for school, if that’s what you’re asking. She and Dean go to my parent-teacher conferences.”

She crossed the room and sat down beside Raleigh. “I am a Sargent, I know that for sure. Maura and Blue are my closest relatives that I know of, and everyone in this house over thirty is pretty much “mom” in one sense or another.”

Raleigh seemed to accept this. “Do you know anything about your birth parents?”

“No.”

“Have you ever been curious?”

“Not really.” This was the part where it tended to get dicey. For some reason, people thought not wanting to know about your birth parents was some kind of callous, cold-hearted, put-a-basilisk-in-your-basement move. But Nina didn’t think so.

“People go to find their birth parents because they don’t know who they are or they don’t know who their family is,” Nina told him. “But I know, so I never felt the need to go looking for another one, or for myself.”

“Wow,” Raleigh sounded a little awed, but not offended. Nina counted it as a good sign. “Really?”

“Yeah, really. I wrote my Common App essay about it.”

Raleigh threw back his head and laughed. “That’s great. I dig that a lot.”

Nina smiled back and leaned her head against Raleigh’s shoulder. “So, did you come up here to escape the chaos?” she asked.

She felt Raleigh’s huff of a laugh against her hair as he reached out to pluck her hand out of her lap. “I actually really like the chaos. I never had true chaos growing up. I would have loved it here. I love it here now.”

“I’m glad. I think they like you.”

Raleigh’s thumb made smooth, soft circles over her palm, but he said nothing.

“What?” Nina pressed. “You don’t think they do?”

It was another several moments before Raleigh said something. When he did, his hand got tighter around hers.

“I’ve been friends with Aaron for a few years now,” Raleigh said. “Things have happened in that time that I couldn’t explain.” He scratched an itch on his knee. “Not with science, anyway. Things he wouldn’t talk about, stories that just didn’t add up to things I thought were true.”

“What are you getting at?” Nina asked, because she liked to know things as quickly as possible.

“What’s going to happen when we go to college, Nina?”

She raised her head off his shoulder at that. “You mean with us?”

Raleigh nodded. His brow was furrowed and Nina didn’t like it.

“You want to have this conversation now?”

Raleigh bobbed his head again. “I think we have to.”

This day had been going so well.

“Why?”

“Orla says we’re going to break up before we leave.”

What?” Nina was suddenly furious. “Why the fuck would she say that?”

Raleigh shrugged minutely. “Possibly because she knows?”

The pieces were coming together now. Raleigh’s weird aura thing, the question about her parents, talking about Aaron. And Orla telling Nina’s boyfriend that they were going to break up before college at the very party where they were celebrating going to college. Raleigh knew there was something more than met the eye in Nina’s house. He knew there was more than met the eye with Aaron, too. He observed a lot, Nina realized. He paid attention. There were probably a lot of things he knew. But he wasn’t running away. He wasn’t accusing or criticizing or judging. He wasn’t even asking for anything besides confirmation of what he already suspected. He was just…sitting there, waiting for an answer. Nina had the feeling that whatever she gave him, he’d accept. Her lack of a response probably already told him several things.

“Can you see our future too?” Raleigh asked.

“No.” It was the truth. She wasn’t quite ready to tell him there were other things she could see, but he didn’t ask.

“I don’t want to break up with you,” she said instead.

“I don’t want to break up with you either.” Raleigh’s gaze flicked down to their joined hands, as if he might find something there. He ran his thumb over Nina’s again, then once more. Then he squeezed tight.

“But if the future says it’s gotta be done, that’s what we have to do.”

Nina was in shock. What the literal, metaphorical, and existential fuck? Was this really happening right now, on the best weekend of her goddamned life? Raleigh looked serious about what he’d said, but there was also something new in his gaze, like he was hiding a joke or a story or a bright piece of excitement in here. It licked iridescent gold that only Nina could see into the edges of his expression. It was one of her all-time favorite Raleigh expressions, and now it was confusing the hell out of her.

“So, I’m breaking up with you,” Raleigh decided. “Right now. We’re officially no longer dating as of this moment.”

Nina couldn’t make any sound come out. Raleigh nodded his head, once, curt and all “that’s that, then”, and let go of her hand. He stood up and faced her.

“Now,” he said, “I’m going to go back downstairs for five minutes. I’m going to put Aaron in a headlock and get a glass of whatever Calla’s been concocting, and then I’m going to come back up here and ask you out.”

He leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on Nina’s cheek. Then, with his face still close to hers, he let his smile expand to its full glory and said: “I hope you say yes.”

“What the fuck,” Nina whispered, but she was smiling too.

Raleigh paused at the door for only a moment.

“Can’t argue with the universe, baby,” Raleigh chided. “I thought you were raised by psychics! Be right back.”

 

 

 

Raleigh was back in four minutes. His hair was a little messed up and he looked a little out of breath, but happy. He placed a glass on Nina’s bedside table before sitting down again.

“Hi there.”

Nina grinned stupidly back at him. What choice did she have?

“Hi.”

“So,” Raleigh began, drawing himself up a little. “I think things have been going pretty well between us. I think you’re ten kinds of wonderful and you tolerate me, and we have a good time.”

Nina really couldn’t argue with that. Well, maybe the tolerating bit, but she’d let it slide.

“Might be a little forward of me,” Raleigh warned her, laying on the Southern Gentleman about as thick as he was capable of doing it, “but I’d like to ask you to be my girlfriend. What do you say?”

Nina laughed. This really was a great weekend. She kissed him purposefully, proving a point, then again just for kicks. Then once more because he was a dumbass and she probably just fell in love with him, like, a little.

“Yeah,” she said. “I think I could live with that.” The accompanying laugh turned into a shriek and then more laughter as Raleigh scooped her sideways and deposited her in his lap. He kissed her again.

“You might have been raised by psychics,” Raleigh said, “but I was raised by lawyers, and there’s always a loophole if you’re creative enough to find one.”

Nina messed up his hair even more. “You’re ridiculous.”

“I don’t want to let you go, Nina.”

Nina sighed. College was going to be difficult. She wanted to pack Raleigh in a suitcase and take him to Baltimore with her. But the drive wasn’t that far, and Raleigh had a car. And he didn’t want to let her go.

“I don’t want to let you go either.”

“Good,” Raleigh grinned at her. “Also, do you want some of this?” He pointed to the glass he’d brought up. “I think it’s a mojito.”

Chapter Text

Theo’s sneakers were obscenely loud but his heartbeat was louder. The rushing of his pulse pounded in his head, in his chest. His lungs burned. But none of that was important. Nothing was important except running.

He had to keep running.

This place had too much open space, too many gaps between the cement pillars holding up the ceiling. He was too exposed.

A deafening crack sounded in the enclosed space. Theo nearly stumbled. He heard glass shatter to his right.

They were getting closer.

He turned the corner and the cement of the pillar next to his ear splintered, spraying his cheek.   Theo gasped at the sting and tripped to the side into a nearby car door.

All the cars in this parking garage were the same. They shone in lurid chrome in the weak fluorescent lighting.

Theo didn’t have time to stop and think about it.

He pushed off the car and ran on, around the curve of the floor and over the railing to the level below. He landed on a car trunk, setting the alarm screaming. The soles of his sneakers skidded as he scrambled over the top of it.

BANG. The back windshield imploded.

Theo kept running.

A glance over his shoulder showed him where his death was coming from. Nondescript black clothing, making no sound save the gun in one gloved hand. Whatever it was, it looked human, except it had no face.

Theo had no time to scream. He had to keep running.

To his right was a door with letters he couldn’t read. They were in a language he couldn’t identify.

BANG. Theo flinched hard against the explosion of more glass and metal.

The door said “STAIR A”.

The metal hinges protested loudly, and the door crashed behind him. Theo cleared the last five steps to the landing, misjudged, and crashed into the wall. His shoulder throbbed.

He had no time. The hinges screeched again. They’d followed him into the stairwell.

Theo’s legs should have collapsed by now, but adrenaline roared through his veins. He had to get out of this alive.

The neon red of an “EXIT” sign deposited Theo out into a hallway. It was dimmer than the parking garage, and smelled bitter and metallic.

There was one more door at the end.

It didn’t open.

Panic gripped Theo’s chest in a white-hot vice.

“No.”

He threw his weight against the push bar. It wouldn’t budge. He did it again.

“Come on.” His voice was weak, hoarse, desperate.

Crash. Nothing.

“Come on!”

There was nothing else in the hallway. No other doorways, no other exits.

FUCK! Come on!”

The other door opened. Theo’s pulse went haywire. He couldn’t hear any sound, but he knew what was coming. He needed a plan. He needed to think. He didn’t want to die. Fuck, he really didn’t want to die. Fuck, fuck, think, damn you! There had to be a way. There had to be something. A latch to the door or a keypad or a button or

Wait.

A dream.

This was a dream.

This was Theo’s dream. He could get out of this. All he had to do was wake up.

He whirled around. His attacker had not moved very far down the hallway, apparently preferring to take its time. Here in the claustrophobic hallway, it emitted a low sound, like something skittering up a wall, constant and eerie. The hair on Theo’s neck stood on end. The figure in black appeared to glitch suddenly. The gun became a knife. A crowbar. Back to a gun. The figure took a step forward.

Theo had to wake up. He tried to find the switch in his own brain, the button to push, the wheel to turn, the rope to pull, the muscle to flex, something. It was like reaching for the surface in a pool of molasses.

Another step closer. Theo couldn’t look away. He stretched his mind as much as he could, reached outward and away from here, wherever here was.

Another step.

Wake up.

Theo reached out desperately, fanning in every direction he could reach.

Another.

Wake up!

There. It was faint, but he could feel it. Consciousness, clear and unmistakable. Theo latched onto it. Held on with everything he could.

The muzzle of the gun was rising.

Theo wrenched his mind outward.

WAKE UP!

BANG.

Theo opened his eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

Raleigh moved his finger down his screen, double-tapping every once in a while. Aglionby posts all looked pretty much the same; Raleigh’s least-important reason for being excited for Yale was that his feed might look a little more diverse. But it was the principle of the thing. The friends that you validated every time, the particular angle that turned something from a picture of a tree to an aesthetic musing on winter, the quid pro quo likes. There was a lot of politics to Instagram, Raleigh thought.

He raised his arms over his head and stretched till his back cracked over the arm of the couch. On the opposite side of the floor lounge, Theo and Aaron were fast asleep, Theo stretched out like Raleigh with his head pillowed on the back of the couch and Aaron curled in a ball on an armchair. It wasn’t even one a.m. yet, but Theo had been out like a light for probably an hour, and Aaron had given up watching Theo sleep and passed out himself about twenty minutes after that.

Raleigh smiled to himself. Some party animals they were. Winter break officially started Monday, and here they were, wearing sweatpants and nodding off in the near-empty Aglionby dorm at 12:35 on a Friday. Well, Saturday, now.

He considered waking them. They wouldn’t be very comfortable if they slept like that all night, especially Aaron. Maybe he could just wake Aaron. Maybe —

Theo’s entire body seized violently, sending a spray of bright red splattering over his t-shirt. The impact sent him sprawling to the floor in what seemed to Raleigh like slow motion. When he hit the ground, he finally began to scream.

Raleigh didn’t register his decision to cross the room. The tendons on Theo’s neck stood out stark with tension. His eyes were shut tight. Raleigh didn’t know what to do.

There was so much blood.

“Theo!” Raleigh didn’t want to touch him, didn’t know what would hurt him.

Theo was gasping like each breath pulled barbed wire through his lungs.

“Theo,” he tried again. “Theo, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get you help.”

He looked up at the armchair. Aaron was awake, staring wide-eyed with terror.

“Aaron.”

Aaron only shook his head. He didn’t move.

Aaron!” Aaron flinched, but looked at him.

“Your dad’s a doctor!” Raleigh cried. “What the fuck do we do?”

His words seemed to jolt Aaron into motion. He scrambled off the chair and knelt on the carpet in the growing pool of Theo’s blood.

“Pressure,” he said. “Pressure. We—we have to apply pressure. And call 9-1-1.”

Aaron whipped his t-shirt over his head and scrunched it into a ball. Raleigh fumbled with his phone, pressing the buttons with shaking fingers.

Aaron pressed his shirt onto Theo’s bleeding shoulder. Theo screamed again.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

“H-hi-I,” Raleigh swallowed. “I need an ambulance. To Aglionby Academy. Bonham Hall, it’s the, uh, the third floor. My friend — my friend’s been — I don’t know, there’s a lot of blood.”

Aaron was whispering low and soothing as he could. His face looked ashen as he knelt over Theo.

“Someone is on the way, sir. Are you in any immediate danger?”

“N-no,” Raleigh replied. His hands were shaking, bad. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Hold on for me, Theo,” Aaron whispered. “Please.”

“Fuck, Aaron, it hurts. Make it fucking stop.”

Raleigh scrubbed a trembling hand over his face.

“Is your friend conscious?”

“Yeah. Yeah, he’s awake. He’s bleeding from his, um, his left shoulder, I think. It’s a lot, like, really a lot of blood. Hurry, please.”

“An ambulance is on the way right now, sir. It will be there very soon. You can hang up now.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

It seemed like mere seconds and three lifetimes had simultaneously passed by the time the EMTs arrived. Aaron tried to go with the EMTs to the ambulance and was stopped by a teacher who’d appeared from seemingly nowhere. For a moment, Aaron looked like he was going to throw a punch, and Raleigh threw an arm around him, hugging him to his chest. Aaron struggled until the ambulance doors slammed shut, then sagged against Raleigh. He was shivering, wearing no shirt outside in December.

The cops ushered them inside and asked questions. Raleigh answered as best he could, but he’d heard nothing, seen nothing, and knew nothing about what had happened to Theo. Aaron sat, utterly silent, beside him. The officers eventually gave up trying to ask him anything. They turned to the teachers who had assembled in the foyer and started talking in low voices about threat levels. Raleigh took the opportunity to let the truth sink in.

Theo had been shot, Raleigh was sure of it. He’d seen enough television to know what it was supposed to look like. But there had been no sound, and no bullet could possibly have come from the blank wall Theo had been facing. There was no logical way this could have happened. It was completely impossible.

And yet, Raleigh had been questioning what was possible for years now. Maybe, after all of this time, he had seen the truth with his own eyes. But could this really be the same mystery that made Nina’s house buzz with energy and compassion, that Aaron guarded so fiercely at home that he would never let anyone see it, that lived in places in Henrietta where your hair stood on end and where time seemed to stop? Could that mystery really do something like this?

Aaron was dead-eyed and pale beside him, his arms smeared with Theo’s blood almost up to the elbows. His pants were streaked with dark smudges below the knees. The EMTs had given him a blanket and he had let it fall off his shoulders. Raleigh pulled it back up.

“It’s going to be okay,” he said softly. “They’re taking him to the hospital. He’s going to be fine.”

Aaron mumbled something, staring at his bloody hands.

“What?” Raleigh leaned closer.

“It’s not okay,” Aaron murmured. His face twisted with the effort to hide the pain on his face. “I wanted to go with him.”

Raleigh glanced up at the officer, who was now speaking with the headmaster. He reached out and placed a hand over Aaron’s bloodstained knee, and squeezed once. He stood up.

“Sir?” Raleigh made himself sound as polite and unassuming as he could, throwing a little Virginia into the spaces around his vowels for good measure.

“Do you think I might be able to take Aaron and clean him up?” Raleigh glanced back at his friend, as if concerned that he might overhear. “He’s a bit shaken up. If you don’t have any further questions for us, Officer, I think he should probably get some rest.”

“Oh!” Headmaster Child seemed to remember Aaron was there. He looked all two-hundred years of his probable age. “Yes, yes, I think that would be wise.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Raleigh managed to guide Aaron into the hall bathroom and closed the door behind them. Questions and worries crowded in against his skull, but he focused on each task as it came. Turn the lock. Turn on the faucet. Check the water. Put Aaron’s hands under it. Hold Aaron up because suddenly he’s sobbing.

Raleigh squeezed Aaron tightly as if that might hold him together better, one hand wrapped around his shoulders and the other held protectively behind his head. Aaron’s chest stuttered and his whole body shook. Raleigh’s heart wrung itself out in his chest. He had never seen him cry like this. He didn’t think he had never seen him cry at all.

But it did confirm that this was bigger than just a freak accident. Something was up, something Big and Unknowable. Unknowable, but Aaron knew it. Because Aaron knew things like that. If it was part of Nina, it was probably part of him, too. And Raleigh knew better than to ask what it was.

Without permission, his brain wondered if Theo was going to die.

But he wasn’t. No, he’d be fine. He was probably at the hospital by now and he’d be fine. He had to be fine, because Raleigh would not stand for seeing Aaron like this a second time.

“We’re going to go see him,” Raleigh whispered in Aaron’s ear. “Okay? We’ve got to get you changed and then we’ll go see him, I promise.”

Aaron exhaled shakily. “How?”

“We’ll take my car.”

“They’re not going to let us leave,” Aaron said miserably. “There’s a curfew.”

“They’re not going to know we left.” Raleigh squeezed Aaron once more and held him out at arm’s length. He looked absolutely terrible. “We’ve just got to keep moving till we get to the car, okay? Can you make it?”

Aaron gulped and nodded, squaring himself a little more.

“You’ve got to clean off first,” Raleigh reminded him. “I’ll go get some stuff from the room and meet you back here.”

Aaron nodded again. “Okay.”

In the end, they climbed out the bathroom window and skirted campus to the back parking lot. Neither of them said a word to each other all the way to the hospital. Aaron only made a short phone call, then stared out the window.

 

 

 

 

 

The call came in around 12:45 am.

“Eighteen-year-old male, gunshot wound to the left shoulder…B.P. 94 over 58…”

Then, a few minutes later:

“Doctor Parrish, please report to the E.D.” Crackle of static. “Doctor Parrish to the E.D.”

Chapter Text

When Adam stepped through the double doors into the waiting room, there were still hours left before dawn. Not terribly difficult to do on the winter solstice, though; it was the shortest day of the year.

There were five people in the waiting room, all in various states of sleep and almost-sleep. Adam’s eyes passed over them all to find Ronan and Aaron in the back corner of the room. Ronan had his eyes closed and his head leaned back against the wall, though Adam could tell even from this distance that he wasn’t actually asleep. Aaron, on the other hand, was definitely asleep, passed out with this head pillowed on Ronan’s thigh.

Adam crossed the room quietly. Ronan looked up at his footfalls, gaze sharp and penetrating, tension evident in his entire posture despite being slumped against the back of the chair. Adam sank into the seat next to him, sighing in relief at finally being off his feat.

“Looks like Theo should make a full recovery,” he said. The muscles of Ronan’s arm relaxed where it pressed against Adam’s. Adam rubbed a knuckle into one eye. “He’s busted a bunch of muscles he’ll wish he hadn’t, but he didn’t hit any organs he really needs. And he’s an eighteen-year-old. They’re practically indestructible.”

“Good,” Ronan said, and meant it. Adam didn’t miss how his thumb made a tiny path across Aaron’s shoulder. They both knew very well how destructible eighteen-year-olds could be. Adam blinked hard against the memories crowding in.

“Calla’s at the house with Opal,” Ronan told him.

Adam nodded. For a moment, neither of them said anything. But there was a reason Ronan still looked as sharp as he did, so Adam put two and two together for the second time that night.

“Aaron called you,” he guessed.

“He and Raleigh were with Theo when it happened,” Ronan said, as dead as he could possibly make his voice. “I sent Raleigh to Fox Way.”

Adam wanted it confirmed. What actually happened. It was clear Ronan knew, and Adam had certainly been forming a theory, but he wasn’t going to push Ronan right now. Especially if he was right. It had been very difficult to explain in the operating room why there had been no exit wound, and also no bullet. Just a hole in an eighteen-year-old who had been shot in his dorm by a blank wall. As his attending had put it, bullets didn’t just disappear. Adam had reminded her that it wasn’t their job to find bullets.

“Aaron’s known about Theo for a while,” Ronan said.

Adam let his head fall back against the wall. “He’s definitely your son.”

Ronan raised an eyebrow.

“Protective streak a mile wide,” Adam explained. “Stubborn streak wider than that. Sound familiar?”

“I don’t know,” Ronan shot back. “He seems to have put the weight of the world on his own shoulders for no fucking reason. He also managed to hide a secret about his boyfriend not only from us, but from the boyfriend, for months, without anyone finding out, which takes logistics. Sound familiar?” he asked, a mocking tone breaking through the stress of the moment.

Adam nearly smiled. Although the traits Ronan had just mentioned weren’t exactly Adam’s best, the idea that Aaron held some part of each of them inside him made something warm curl up in Adam’s chest. For most of his (admittedly still young) life, the idea that he would be proud to have a child like himself was a completely foreign concept. Maybe it helped that he wasn’t Adam’s flesh and blood. There was no Robert Parrish in Aaron except a part of his name, and there never would be. And, Ronan reminded him often, Aaron had Adam’s name, not his father’s.

Theo also had his father’s name.

“I called Jiang.”

A muscle in Ronan’s jaw twitched. “What did you tell him?”

Adam sighed. “What I had to. That his son sustained a bullet injury, but that he’s no longer critical and is very lucky. He’s on his way from Singapore. He’ll be here within twenty-four hours. His wife is coming in from California, so she’ll be here much sooner than that.”

For a long time, Ronan said nothing, staring straight ahead into the middle distance. There was a storm behind Ronan’s eyes, one Adam hadn’t seen in a long time and didn’t think he’d ever have to see again. Adam hated looking at it. Ronan had so many ghosts that haunted him. Too many, despite the fact that the only literal haunting they’d experienced had been oddly positive. Adam should have known better than to think that night in October had been the end of it. Whatever had woken him on the ley line had dragged them back into the past, to a gaunter, wilder, more unstable place. They may have built their new lives over their old ones in Henrietta, but that didn’t mean that the ugly things buried underneath weren’t still there. That they couldn’t resurface. And now they had.

Ronan face-to-face with Kuo Jiang was not a reunion Adam wanted to see.

“I’ll tell him,” Ronan said. “When he comes, I’ll tell him.” His voice was flat and measured, but Adam could hear the emotion under it. He got the feeling that Ronan had made this decision hours ago. “And I’ll teach Theo. Whatever I can.”

Each of Ronan’s words sounded like a fight to get out. Adam’s gut twisted. No matter how many years went by, no matter how many Thanksgivings they spent at Gansey and Blue’s, no matter how many mornings Adam woke up at the Barns, no matter how many times he told Ronan he loved him in all the ways he knew how, Ronan was still alone here.

“I’m the only one who actually understands what he’s going through. If I can help him, I should do it. Because he’s just a kid.”

Ronan had been sitting on that particular guilt for nearly twenty years. Adam had never been more sure that this was the first time Ronan had ever voiced it aloud.

“No one is expecting you to do that,” Adam reminded him. While Ronan’s actions may have played some role in what happened to Kavinsky that summer, Ronan did not have to bear responsibility for it, especially so many years after the fact.

“Doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.”

Adam didn’t have an answer for that one. Instead, he reached over and slid his fingers through Ronan’s, pulling his hand into his own lap. Slowly, he ran his thumb over a scab on the side of Ronan’s thumb. He’d probably gotten it building Opal her bunk beds. Adam still didn’t quite understand why Opal needed bunk beds if there was only one of her, but Ronan said some nights she liked being high up. Ronan was a very capable builder, but there had been a lot of shouted cursing lately.

“Should we wake him?” Ronan asked quietly. He was looking down at Aaron, brushing his fingers ever so lightly over his hair. It was the kind of motion people didn’t usually do around their eighteen-year-old sons, but Ronan had always been exceedingly careful with the things he loved.

“Not yet,” Adam decided. “Theo won’t be up for a few hours. We can wake him then.”

Ronan nodded. His fingers stilled on Aaron’s hair. Aaron had not moved an inch. Adam remembered how deeply he’d slept himself after Gansey had died and then not died. Pain and fear were exhausting.

“What the fuck did we do to deserve this kid, Parrish?”

He’d looked so small standing next to Mr. Gray in the kitchen of Fox Way the first time Adam had seen him. Uncertain and shaky, but undoubtedly strong. All the hallmarks of a kid who’d dragged himself into surroundings better than the ones he used to know. Eyes daring you to call him out on how vulnerable he looked, to tell him he couldn’t have what he’d achieved, that seemed to hold many more than twelve years in them.

Adam remembered the decision to keep him and how much of a decision it wasn’t. He was still terrified of being a father, lost more sleep than he’d admit to over it, but there had never been a single day when he had thought keeping Aaron was anything less than the best thing he and Ronan had ever done.

“If I live to be a thousand,” he told Ronan, “I’ll never figure it out.”

“Sap.”

This was Adam’s family. It wasn’t much in terms of prestige or wealth or size, but Adam had made it with Ronan, and he would never let go of it. He understood why Aaron had gone to such lengths to protect Ronan, why he had waited until he absolutely couldn’t anymore to keep this secret. Adam would do the exact same thing. And so would Ronan. And so would Opal, really. They were all fierce, scrappy creatures that way.

“When does your shift end?” Ronan asked. Adam scrubbed a hand over his face.

“Technically, about ten minutes before Theo Jiang came in the door.” Adam was tired. Really fucking tired. The kind of tired he hadn’t been in a while. Functioning on low sleep was something all Parrish-Lynches apparently did well, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hard to do.

“I might try and get a few hours in a cot somewhere if you’re all right here.”

“Yeah,” Ronan said. “I’ve got it.” Adam believed him. And when Aaron woke up with Ronan still holding him steady, he’d believe it too.

“Have someone page me if you need anything,” Adam told him. The practical was comforting. “I’ll call you when the Jiangs land.”

Ronan nodded. “Okay. I’m going to see if Gansey and Blue can bring us some food. Your vending machines suck.”

“They do,” Adam agreed. They were terrible. He had been trying to get them to carry Clif bars for months.

Still, he didn’t want to move. He wanted to lean his head on Ronan’s shoulder and sleep right here. But he’d sleep better horizontal, and Ronan looked like he needed some more time to think.

“We’ll be okay,” he said to Ronan. Not a question, though he remembered many times when it had been. Ronan looked up from Aaron to lock eyes with Adam. Aaron had tried to do the protecting in their family for the last few months, but that was Ronan and Adam’s job. They’d be taking over from here.

“We’ll be okay,” Ronan echoed. He brought Adam’s hand up to his mouth and kissed his knuckles gently.

It took a lot of willpower for Adam to stand up.

“Parrish?”

Adam turned around to find Ronan looking at him, a hint of a smirk playing on his face.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you in scrubs,” Ronan said, voice carrying across the silent room. “I miss the coveralls, but this does it for me, too.”

One of the other patrons of the waiting room looked like someone had smacked them between the eyes. Adam couldn’t help but smile. Ronan was always willfully terrible at propriety.

Chapter Text

Aaron reached for the door of 210B and it swung open. He jumped back, startled. There was a woman standing on the other side of the door who he had never seen before, but there was no universe where she couldn’t be Theo’s mom. She did not look like someone who had recently gotten off a six-hour flight. She was wearing high heels, a long coat, and an outfit that looked like it cost as much as Raleigh’s car. Her hair was perfectly in place in a knot at the back of her head. Even though he had much more important things on his mind, Aaron’s first thought was that this woman was clearly born to be an Aglionby mom.

“I think you must have the wrong room,” she said coolly.

It took Aaron two tries to speak. “Um, no, I’m here to see Theo?” He realized he had no idea if Theo’s mom knew they were dating, or if she even knew Theo dated boys.

“Is that Aaron?”

Aaron’s heart squeezed in his chest. He craned his neck around Theo’s mom to make eye contact with Theo.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

Theo’s mother looked behind her to watch her son’s reaction, and apparently saw an answer there, because she opened the door a little wider. Some of the coldness had seeped out of her expression, though it still wasn’t a look Aaron would have associated with doting moms.

“I’ll be back soon with some food,” she said to Theo. Then she slipped past Aaron and disappeared without another word.

Aaron shut the door behind himself and leaned against it. Theo was propped up by pillows and covered by a thin blanket in his hospital gown. His left shoulder was swathed in bandages, and there was a sling around his arm to keep him from moving it. There were dark shadows under his eyes and his hair flopped flat and messy over his forehead. Even in the soft glow of the lamp next to Theo’s bed, he looked pale and tired and scared. The usual luster that had made Aaron unable to look away from him as he crossed the parking lot from school was diminished. He looked broken, and so happy to see Aaron. Aaron, who was staring at his personal proof that he hadn’t ever deserved any of this to begin with. He could feel his heart splintering under the crushing pressure of it all. He had done this. He had put Theo here, he had broken him. Through his actions, through his inactions, through his sheer inability to stay the fuck away.

“This is all my fault,” he whispered.

Theo’s brow furrowed. “What the hell are you talking about?” he asked softly.

“This is all my fault,” Aaron repeated.

“Aaron.” Theo held his right hand across his body towards Aaron. “Come here.”

What could he do? He had never been able to stay away from Theo, never been able to do anything but respond when he called, drawing toward him like a plant to the sun. Aaron’s feet pulled his numb brain across the floor and around the bed, which blurred as Aaron sat on the end of it, almost out of Theo’s reach. It was as much self control as he could muster at the moment.

“Aaron,” Theo said again. He grabbed hold of Aaron’s sleeve. “Aaron, please don’t cry.”

He didn’t even realize. Aaron was so fucking sick of crying today.

“I’m sorry.” His voice sounded as stretched out and raw as he felt. “I’m so sorry, Theo.”

Theo had grabbed his hand and was running his thumb over it.

“Shhh,” he hushed. “Shh, it’s okay. I’m going to be okay. We’re both going to be okay.”

Aaron could only apologize again. Theo pulled on his hand, trying to coax him closer. Aaron didn’t deserve to be comforted. He should be comforting Theo, who almost died. Fuck, he almost died.

“Don’t fight me here, babe. I’ve been shot.”

“Fuck.” Aaron needed to pull it together.

“Oh, come on, that was funny.” Aaron stared down at Theo’s hand covering his own. “How could you possibly think this is your fault?”

“I know what you are,” Aaron said.

“What are you talking about?” The tone of Theo’s voice hadn’t changed. He didn’t understand yet.

“I know why this all happened. The bullet wound. My necklace. The fucking cat.” Aaron scrubbed his wrist under his nose and finally looked up at Theo. “I know what you are.”

The air in the room took on a different quality, and Theo went very still. Aaron still couldn’t believe he’d actually managed to get the words out of his mouth. But then, that’s why he’d come in here, wasn’t it?

Theo didn’t say anything for several moments. Then he swallowed hard.

“What am I, then?”

So long, the word had weighed on Aaron, lived in the silences and the things that he and Theo didn’t say to each other. Aaron had locked it up so tight that for a while, he couldn’t even let it properly form in his own mind. It almost cost Theo his life, and here it was, about to escape into the air. Aaron couldn’t manage it above a whisper.

“A greywaren.”

“Greywaren,” Theo tested out the syllables on his tongue. Aaron had done the same when he’d first heard it, years ago in the kitchen at the Barns. “What does that mean?”

“You can take things from your dreams.”

“What things?”

“Anything.”

Theo’s eyes went wide. Not disbelieving, because Theo was a believer before anything else. Awed.

“Anything?” He repeated. Aaron’s silence told him everything he needed to know.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Aaron had no right to pretend he wasn’t anymore.

“Are you…?”

“No.”

“But you’re something.”

Aaron nodded slowly. “I’m something.”

“I knew it,” Theo murmured. Aaron supposed he had. After all this time, he had gotten to the bottom of Aaron’s mystery.

“If it’s what I am,” he said, “it couldn’t be your fault.”

“Yes it could!” Aaron shot back. “Because you weren’t like that before! Before—“ He cut himself off. Before what? There was still no way of knowing when the point of no return had actually been passed. Was it the moment Aaron had shuddered under Theo’s hand? When they had kissed? In Aaron’s opinion, it honestly didn’t matter, because one way or another, it was all about—

“The woods,” Theo guessed.

Aaron nodded. Theo seemed to consider this.

“Takes two to tango,” he reminded Aaron.

That was fucking it.

“But I didn’t tell you, did I?” Aaron exploded. He couldn’t stand how understanding Theo was being. He tore himself away from Theo’s all-too-gentle grasp and pulled himself up. “I didn’t warn you, and I could have. I kept waiting to be sure when I already fucking was!” Theo still didn’t seem to be getting it. “I lied to you for months! You could have died last night!”

Aaron scrubbed a hand over his face, breathing hard and shaky. It felt like he was pulling out his own honesty in oily, pulpy strands and dropping them at Theo’s feet. It left his insides cleaner but it was still horrifying to look at.

“Did you know what happened in the woods would cause this?” Theo asked.

“No!”

“Then you couldn’t have stopped this, Aaron.” Theo’s voice had an edge to it now. It was the tone that meant he wasn’t tolerating any more bullshit. Aaron didn’t think it was bullshit. “It’s in my head. You can’t control that.”

Aaron’s eyes threatened to brim over again, and he couldn’t keep holding Theo’s gaze. The floor was linoleum and had a pattern that resembled a bland checkerboard.

“I could have said something.” Maybe then he could have stopped this. Maybe then he could have had more time. The winter solstice was in two hours. Even if Adam and Ronan both agreed to help, he couldn’t sneak Theo out of the hospital with his mom here and his dad on the way. They would lose their window for another year. If the ritual they’d found in the library was even legitimate and possible in the first place. Everything was slipping through his fingers.

“You could have,” Theo agreed quietly. “But it’s powerful magic. It’s dangerous. People want it, right?”

Aaron’s head snapped up. But he wasn’t really surprised. Theo had known about greywarens before Aaron had, though his stories had had more holes than facts.

Aaron swallowed around the painful lump in his throat. “It’s deadly, Theo. In more ways than one.”

Theo sighed, slowly. When he smiled at Aaron, it was the smile of someone who knew their fate a long time ago.

“I’ve wished for magic my whole life, Aaron Parrish-Lynch. I can’t be upset when it happens exactly the way I imagined.”

Well, Aaron fucking could.

Theo bit his lip. “Are you sorry we…”

“I wish I was sorry.”

“I’m glad you’re not.”

Aaron didn’t want to feel this way anymore. He was tired of being afraid for Theo, of Theo. He wanted Theo to punish him for what he’d done and he desperately didn’t want to be pushed away. Maddening, impossible, contradictory things.

“How can you just…?”

“I’m alive, Aaron,” Theo said, conviction lending strength to his voice. “You’re the reason for that too. Now come here.”

Aaron let himself fall back into orbit, and it was like water flowing downhill to the sun-drenched sea. Very carefully, he curled up on the tiny hospital bed, cheek brushing Theo’s shoulder. Theo’s hand found his again, and this time he let Theo pull it to his bandaged chest. He felt hollowed from the inside out, scraped clean of all the secrets he’d stashed in the dark corners of himself, all the stories he couldn’t tell until it was too late.

All the stories, that is, except one. It wasn’t too late to tell one more tale: his own.

“I was born in this shitty town in Maine,” Aaron began. “It was the kind of place you either got stuck in or left. I think I knew that even as a little kid.

“I lived with my mom and my grandma, mostly. My dad was…around sometimes, I guess. He’d come stay for a while, he and my mom would get in some throw-down fight, and he’d leave again. It would happen once or twice a year until I was, like, eight or so. Then my mom almost shot him in the backyard during one of their fights and he didn’t come back after that.

“That was the first time I realized what I could do. Every time I would go into that spot in the backyard, I would feel it, see it again, like it was happening right that second. Of course, I avoided the backyard after that and wouldn’t say why. My mom already thought I was a weird kid, so I didn’t really care. But she got more religious after that, and whatever was wrong in her head got kind of worse, so she watched me sometimes, like she was trying to catch me slipping up and doing something evil. She did love me, but she had it in her head that maybe I wasn’t her kid, like maybe something had come and replaced me and she was always trying to figure it out. I don’t know.”

Theo squeezed Aaron’s hand tighter.

“I liked my grandma though. She was sweet. But she never told my mom that I wasn’t a fake Aaron or anything so I was angry at her for that. I didn’t really talk to her much. Didn’t really talk to anyone much.”

Aaron dragged his necklace back and forth in a short path across the chain, took a breath, and continued.

“Eventually my whole…ability, I guess, it got worse. The memories didn’t have to be mine, just anything powerful enough to leave a mark. I’d lose more and more time. A kid had drowned in the lake in, like, the eighties, and I couldn’t go anywhere near there. I had a really bad panic attack over it once. I stopped going in my mom’s room, too, because apparently she’d cheated on my dad in there once and it really freaked her out because I would always see it.”

Aaron paused. He couldn’t remember how much of this he had told Ronan and Adam, how much he’d told Nina. Theo was motionless beside him except for the steady rise and fall of his chest. Aaron wanted to place his head there and listen to Theo’s heart beat, but he didn’t know if that would hurt his shoulder.

“There was this woman who lived a few streets over. Joan.” Here Aaron smiled. He couldn’t help it. “She was that kind of lady that all the kids say is a witch, and they dare each other to ring her doorbell on Halloween or something and then run away. I used to mow her lawn for five dollars and fix stuff in her house for her, so kids at school used to ask if I saw her doing witch things. Truth was, I kind of did. Her house was a little like Nina’s house, except it only had her in it. The air felt kind of heavy in there, and there were always herbs and shit drying somewhere. And all her tea smelled fucking weird.” Aaron huffed out a tiny laugh.

“And she knew something was up with me. I don’t remember how she got it out of me, I think she tricked me into it somehow, she’s a very smart lady. But I told her, and she said that if anything ever happened, anything really bad where I needed to get away, I should go to her house and she’d call someone to come get me. Someone like me, she said, someone who knew about the things I could see. She said the phone number would come to her when the time came. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I spent a lot of time over there. She had really good books, and her house was quieter, somehow. I mean, not somehow, she told me it was the herbs.”

Theo hooked his ankle under Aaron’s so their legs got tangled up and placed his hand on Aaron’s thigh. Aaron ran his free index finger in tiny patterns over Theo’s arm. If he closed his eyes, it could be any other night.

“Things were okay for a while. I mean, I was totally miserable, but I didn’t know I was. That was just…the way things went.”

Aaron curled his hand into a fist around the pendant.

“When I was twelve my grandma got sick. Like, really sick. Going-to-die kind of sick. She was really old, which made sense. I think she might have been my mom’s grandma or great-aunt or something, not her mom. I don’t think I ever asked. But I knew she was going to die and I knew she was going to die in the house and I knew I was going to be able to feel it everywhere.”

Aaron’s throat was growing tight again and it came out in his voice. Theo took up his hand again.

“I knew I was going to have to relive it all the time. Every day. And I couldn’t do it, I just — I was so fucking scared. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t live in that house and feel that every day. I knew what death felt like from far away and I knew if I felt it close up all the time I’d fucking lose my mind.”

Aaron scrubbed the heel of his hand under his eye. “I just couldn’t stay there and wait for it to happen. I didn’t want to leave my mom because I knew it wasn’t fair and she’d be alone but I couldn’t stay there.”

Aaron’s breath was harsh in his own ears. “I went to Joan’s house and she was already on the phone when she opened the door. I stayed in her guest room and in the morning Dean and Maura were there and they took me down to Henrietta.”

“I don’t think…” Aaron paused. “I don’t think anyone came looking for me that night. When I was waiting for Dean and Maura, I don’t think anyone tried to find me.”

He’d never considered it before. He supposed that knowledge should hurt, but the part of himself reserved for family he hadn’t found himself was long numb from disuse.

“Anyway. I lived at Fox Way for a bit, and then Ronan and Adam adopted me, and….that’s it. Now you know everything.”

Theo was quiet for a long time.

“Thank you for telling me,” he said finally. Then: “Did you ever see Joan again? Or your mom?”

Aaron shook his head. “No. But I call Joan sometimes. She’s got a business up there now. She sells jewelry on the Internet. She really loves Amazon. She says she’s going to move soon. My mom left town after my grandma died. Joan doesn’t know where she went. Or maybe she does and she doesn’t want to tell me.”

“Would you want to know?”

No. Aaron didn’t want to know, and he didn’t have the confidence Nina had about it. If heaven and hell were a thing, Aaron was definitely going to the latter for the way he thought about his mom. He wished she’d never been there. He wished he’d been born a Parrish-Lynch and never been north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Sometimes, he’d go days, even weeks, without thinking about her. He knew it made him a little rotten inside, but then Ronan would curse like fucking poetry or Adam would tell him that he was destined for great things or Opal would hug him or Chainsaw would find him a particularly cool-looking rock or he’d get a text from Nina or Raleigh would ruffle his hair or Theo would do fucking anything, and Aaron couldn’t bring himself to care. He tried to miss her every once in a while, but the truth was, he’d mostly given up because he couldn’t do it. His heart was so full of the things he had now. He loved his life so fiercely. He couldn’t regret anything he’d done and lost and left behind to get it, even if he wanted to.

Adam said that was okay.

“Aaron?”

“Yeah?”

“This thing I am. Greywaren. It’s going to kill me, right?”

For a moment, Aaron’s mind went blank. He had fallen so deep into his own story that he’d almost forgotten why he was here in the first place. He propped himself up on one hand and looked Theo in the face. Theo looked somber and scared and a little resigned. He truly believed that Aaron might have given him a fatal diagnosis. And why wouldn’t he? All his stories said that magic killed Kavinsky. That that’s what magic did, without exception. In Theo’s mind, he probably thought it was inevitable. He was probably trying to calculate how much time he had left! Aaron was horrified, but he also couldn’t lie anymore.

“It can if you’re not careful. It doesn’t have to.”

Theo still looked uncertain. “How do you know?”

Here was the final piece of the puzzle. Putting it all on the line, everything he’d gained since he rapped on Joan’s door with a backpack on his shoulder. Aaron knew people who were trusted with this secret, but he had never given it anyone himself before.

“Because my dad is one, too.”

“Adam?” Theo guessed.

“Ronan.” The world did not explode. But Aaron didn’t feel much better. “It’s hard to control.”

Theo gestured to his left shoulder. “I can see that.”

“He’s offered to help you,” Aaron said. “Ronan. He can teach you.”

“I think I’ll need it,” Theo agreed. He was giving Aaron that look, like he could see right through him. “That’s why you didn’t tell me. Because of Ronan.”

“He’s my dad, Theo.” It was such an inadequate sentence to explain the situation. Aaron had to protect Ronan, protect Adam. He couldn’t put them at risk. He would throw himself in front of a train or a dreamed bullet to avoid it.

“I know,” Theo said. He reached out and hooked a finger in Aaron’s necklace, tugging gently to pull him close. Aaron could drown in his eyes. “I won’t tell a soul. I promise.”

Aaron leaned forward and kissed him.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Ronan watched the car come around the corner and park in the fire lane. It was a sleek, black Suburban. The Uber of assholes. Ronan was mildly surprised. Not because of the type of car; Jiang had paid $600 for an Uber once. But Ronan would have expected him to want to have the pedal under his own foot at a time like this. Ronan himself wanted a pedal under his own foot, a wheel in his hands. There was a fizzy anxiety thrumming under his skin, and he didn’t like it. He was a fucking adult now. What use was being a fucking adult when he still felt like this?

Ronan crossed his arms tighter over his chest and huffed out a breath. Being a fucking adult meant this was something he had to do.

“Jiang.”

Kuo Jiang had gotten older. Ronan suspected he had, too. Not old, definitely, but older. Jiang’s earrings were gone, the ring in his brow reduced to a simple notch where hair refused to grow back, the tattoo on his neck removed or covered somehow. He was wearing a suit, a tailored, expensive one. Ronan spent enough time around Declan to recognize what one looked like. Jiang’s shoulders were broader, his eyes still keen and piercing as he fixed them on Ronan. His lip curled in a sneer to cover his surprise.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“We need to talk.”

Jiang’s face darkened, and he made to walk around Ronan. “No, we fucking don’t. My son has been goddamn shot —“

Ronan moved to block his path. “I know —“

Jiang scrubbed a quick hand over his face. “I doubt anyone shits in this town without you knowing, and I could not care less. Get out of my way.”

Jiang.” Ronan grit his teeth. “We need to talk.”

Ronan had never gone to much school, but he could do the math. If Theo was eighteen, Jiang had become a father at a year younger than that. If Ronan was a betting man, he would venture that Jiang had not been interested in leaving Kavinsky’s side to fill that role at the time. A small part of him was impressed and surprised at the heat in Jiang’s eyes, at the desperation he saw there. Jiang clearly loved his son, just as Ronan loved his. Hopefully, that would help.

“What do you want?” Jiang asked.

“Aaron was with Theo when he started bleeding.” Ronan phrased it carefully.

Jiang’s face didn’t change.

“Aaron.” Ronan tried again. “My son, Aaron?”

No flicker of recognition. Clearly, Theo hadn’t told his dad that he was dating Ronan’s kid. Definitely a problem for another time.

Jiang’s eyes narrowed suddenly. “Did your son —?”

Ronan was appalled. “Of course he fucking didn’t.”

“Then what?”

Ronan look a breath. He had to do this right. Like a fucking adult. He’d wrestled with the words for the last hour, pacing outside the hospital doors like a trapped animal.

“Fucking speak, Lynch!”

“There was no gunshot,” Ronan blurted. “And no bullet. And no gun.”

Jiang took another two steps directly into Ronan’s space. I am not in the mood today, you piece of shit. What the fuck does that mean?

“It means your kid dreamed a bullet wound out of his goddamn head and woke up in a pool of blood!”

Every muscle in Jiang’s body went utterly still with shock. His dark eyes stared into Ronan’s, wide and unblinking, as he slowly drew back. Ronan could see that he understood, and the abject horror on his face made Ronan’s stomach churn.

“What are you saying?”

Ronan sighed. So much for sticking to his own plan. “I meant to break it gentler then that.”

“What are you saying, Lynch?” Jiang hissed through his teeth. His hands curled into fists at his sides. Ronan wondered absently if Jiang was going to try and hit him. He wondered if the adult thing to do would be to hit him back. But he understood Jiang’s need to hear it again, to have his fear cemented in reality. This was about their kids, and Ronan had to be the one to tell him, because he sure as fuck wasn’t going to make Aaron do it.

“We think it happened a few months ago. That some part of it was always there and something set it off.” He did not say that that something might have been Aaron. With all that he’d learned in the last twenty-four hours, he’d seen no proof solid enough to blame his son.

“That’s not possible.” Jiang ran a hand through his hair and took a few steps back towards the parking lot. The he whirled around, pointing his finger accusingly at Ronan.

“He is not like you. He is not like — That’s not possible,” he repeated, as if that might make it true.

“How the fuck should anyone know what’s possible?” Ronan shot back. “It’s not exactly a science.”

Jiang walked back and placed a hand on the brick wall of the hospital, as if to steady himself.

“This is not happening,” he said.

Jiang could say it as many times as he wanted, but that wouldn’t stop it from being true. Ronan could relate. He couldn’t say afterward what made him reach out his hand towards Jiang, or what he had planned to do. He just simply did it, and Jiang recoiled like Ronan had offered him a snake.

“Don’t fucking touch me.” Jiang turned away, all the composure he’d had stepping out of the Uber completely shattered.

“Jesus fuck,” he breathed. “I knew this would happen. I fucking knew it. I fucking knew that if I let Theo within a hundred miles of this toxic dump of a town that something like this would happen. I knew it in my fucking bones.”

It was like Ronan wasn’t even there.

“I let him back me into a fucking corner!”

“What does that mean?” Ronan demanded.

Suddenly, Jiang seemed to see him again. His eyes were bright and fierce, boring into Ronan with an intensity that bordered on mania. Ronan had the sudden thought that this was Jiang’s worst nightmare.

“It means this is my fault!” he cried. “I filled his head with stupid fairytales and he believed them and went looking for them here!”

He turned, impulse-fast, and Ronan heard the dull, smacking sound of bone connecting with brick.

“FUCK!”

Ronan was absolutely floored. He had known Jiang for years, and never once had he heard him string so many words together at one time. And he had never seen Jiang like this: on edge, frantic, sloppy, even. Jiang’s anger usually simmered, got quiet and mean like a knife sliding silently between ribs. It was never explosive, because that was K’s job, never erratic, because that was Skov’s, never passive, because that was Proko’s, never blunt, because that was Swan’s. It had never looked like this. Today was evidently a special fucking occasion.

Jiang leaned against the wall, holding his bleeding hand by the wrist, and closed his eyes.

“Figures that he can still fuck with my life from beyond the grave,” he said. “He ruined me then and he’s ruining me now.”

Ronan was inclined to agree. Neither of them could bring themselves to say even a single letter of his name. It was easier to talk about with Aaron, who didn’t know, who hadn’t been under the sway of it all and didn’t know the unique euphoria and shame of it.

K’s death had fractured his group, and Jiang had not been able to escape it, which surprised everyone, including — Ronan suspected — Jiang himself. Nothing ruffled Jiang back then, nothing phased him. He was supposed to be the one who survived K without a scratch. But in the end, it was an actual loss, and he wasn’t prepared for it. He certainly hadn’t been as bad as Skov, but it had not been pretty to witness. Ronan knew it had to have been worse behind closed doors. Jiang probably hated it. He was supposed to be a made of stone, and K pulled tears from him anyway.

It was all so fucking tragic.

“Where’s my son, Lynch?” Jiang’s voice was quiet, but the tone under it was dangerous.

“He’s inside with your wife. 210B. He’s okay. Adam says he should make a full recovery.”

Jiang nodded and said nothing.

Ronan hesitated, and mentally kicked himself for hesitating. No matter how much he understood Jiang’s feelings about his son, no matter how much they’d grown and how much distance there was between the two of them now and the two of them at seventeen, Ronan hated Jiang’s fucking guts. But he had told Adam he would do this, and he was going to do it. Besides, he told himself, he was really offering it to Theo, who had done nothing to deserve having his guts hated, except maybe sleep with Ronan’s son. But the shovel talk was also a problem for another day.

“Look,” he said, “I’ll help Theo. I’ll teach him so he doesn’t hurt himself again.”

Jiang’s gaze shot up, white-hot and livid. “No, you fucking won’t.”

Ronan snorted. “Well, let me know if you see any more of us around to teach him.”

“No. He should never have been here in the first place. I’m taking him home.”

Jiang’s voice brooked no argument. Ronan was going to argue it anyway.

“He can’t just wing it!”

“I won’t let him stay here,” Jiang insisted. “I let him get irrevocably fucked up by this place, but I’ll fucking die before I let it sink any more claws in him. I’m getting him out of here. If you had any sense at all, you would have done it too.”

Ronan couldn’t believe this shit. “That’s not how it works!”

Jiang drew himself up to his full height of still shorter than Ronan. Somehow, it was just as intimidating as it had been when they were kids.

“Like you said, Lynch,” Jiang sneered, “it’s not a science.”

He walked past Ronan towards the hospital doors. “I think it’s time I made some new rules.”

“Jiang—“

“If you follow me,” he warned, “I will call the police.”

Ronan couldn’t stand for this. Being a greywaren was not a joke, it was not something that could be played with or negotiated about or fucking shipped off when it became inconvenient. Ronan had been living with it for a long fucking time, and he knew the dangers. Declan and Matthew knew the dangers. Gansey knew the dangers. Aaron knew the dangers. The fucking spot in Ronan’s driveway knew the dangers.

And so did Jiang. Which is why it made no fucking sense for him to put the life of his own kid on the line so he could put distance between himself and his demons. Ronan was living proof that you could live among them and still survive. Jiang could do it too, and he had to, because Theo could bring back something much worse than a bullet hole, or even just another bullet hole, and in the space of an uncountable moment, disaster would strike. Theo was a kid. K had been a kid. They were all fucking kids and being an adult was completely fucking useless unless you could do something about that.

Ronan grabbed onto the expensive sleeve of Jiang’s suit. Jiang shook off his hand, but Ronan wasn’t having it.

“Don’t be such a stubborn shithead, Jiang. Your kid needs help! He could kill himself!”

Then Ronan’s head hit brick and Jiang’s arm was pressing on his windpipe. When he hissed into Ronan’s face, his voice was deadly calm.

“If you go near my son, so help me, I will fuck you up, Lynch.

And not the way you like it, either.”

Jiang’s knowing smile was deadly and more a baring of fangs than anything else. This was the old Jiang, the one that Ronan would have seen properly all those years ago if he had been able to tear his eyes away from K long enough to realize that the rest of them were just as feral. Ronan had watched Jiang stare with glittering interest at all kinds of shit: fights, drugs, explosions, wrecked cars, blood, magic, and all twenty-seven kinds of depravity that had happened in the Kavinsky mansion. Ronan had seen many of these things too, but never managed to stomach them with the dangerous ease Jiang did. The smile he turned on Ronan now told him that he could say things that would tear Ronan to shreds, but that he would prefer to do it with his own teeth.

His left Ronan there outside the hospital, leaning against the wall and wondering what the fuck he was supposed to tell Aaron.

 

 

 

 

Some people were of the opinion that when you had to find a way to remove pain, you had to suck it out somehow, back the way it came in. Jiang knew better. Skov and Swan knew better. They knew the only way to go was to push the pain in so deep that it came out the other side. It was risky, of course, not the kind of thing you should do yourself. Don’t try this at home, and all that. But that was why they had each other.

“Hello?”

Even through the phone, Swan’s voice was smooth and deep and made Jiang’s insides felt coated in the honey of it. It didn’t help as much as he had hoped.

“Swan?”

“I’m here.”

Jiang leaned his head against the drab wall of the hallway and closed his eyes.

“I’m in Henrietta.” The reality of it sat heavy in his chest.

“Why?”

“I fucked up.” His son was currently sitting in a hospital bed with a hole in him. He had fucked up the most it was possible to fuck up, and Jiang knew a lot about the subject.

“Did something happen with Proko?”

“No. I don’t know.” Shit, Jiang hadn’t even made it in the room. He had stood outside the door for a while, and couldn’t muster the courage to go in. Proko was not going to wake up, and was not going to get any older. It was horrible to look at him, and it would have been just as horrible as the last time Jiang had been there, two years previously, when he had dropped Theo off at Aglionby and sealed his fate. Jiang had asked a doctor who wasn’t Parrish for a status update and hadn’t been able to absorb a single word she’d said, because Lynch had come around the corner and saw him there, and the look on his face was so complicated and knew too much that Jiang’s brain and gone blank with fury.

“Fuck.” Jiang hated the cracks in his own voice.

“Jiang.” He imagined Swan’s large hand on the back of his neck, grounding him, holding him together physically. He placed his own hand on the spot and squeezed, forcing himself to concentrate on the sound coming through his phone.

“Yeah.”

“I can be in D.C. in under twelve hours.”

“Not planning on being here that long.” Parrish had said Theo could be moved the next morning. Jiang had already chartered the flight. “Can you— can you meet me in California?”

“Of course.” Jiang’s sigh of relief echoed in the small space between the phone and his mouth. “Do you want me to bring Skov?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

“See you soon,” Swan told him. “Hold on till we get there.” There was no mistaking the fact that it was an order. If Swan was good at anything, it was taking charge when it needed to be done. Jiang had done it before, too. He had been at every other position of their current dynamic so that they’d be there for him now. He was exhausted, weak, and heartsick, but the clear goal gave him strength. Get to California, and Swan and Skov would be waiting. Get to California, and they would take it from there.

Jiang hung up the phone without saying goodbye.